Chapter 26 – After

Chapter 26 – After

Hardin’s hand is still on my thigh and I hope he never removes it. I take a quick opportunity to study some of the tattoos covering his arms. The infinity symbol above his wrist catches my eye again, and I can’t help but wonder if it means something to him. It feels personal, inked there, just above the bare skin on his hand. I check his other wrist for a matching symbol but there isn’t one. The infinity symbol is common enough, mostly among women, but the way the two loops on the ends are hearts makes me even more curious.

“So what type of food do you like?” he asks.

What a refreshingly normal question for him to ask me. I pull my matted, almost dry hair into a bun and think for a second about what I want to eat. “Well, I like anything, really, as long as I know what it is—and it doesn’t involve ketchup.”

He laughs. “You don’t like ketchup? Aren’t all Americans supposed to be wild for the stuff?” he teases.

“I have no idea, but it’s disgusting.”

We both laugh and I look over at Hardin, who says, “Let’s just stick with a plain diner then?”

I nod and he reaches to turn the music up but stops and puts his hand back on me. “So what do you plan on doing after college?” he asks; it’s something he’s already asked me before, in his room.

“I’m going to move to Seattle immediately, and I hope to work at a publishing house or be a writer. I know it’s silly,” I say, suddenly embarrassed by my high

ambitions. “But you already asked me that before, remember?”

“No, it’s not. I know someone over at Vance Publishing House; it’s a bit of a drive, but maybe you should apply there for an internship. I could talk to him.”

“What? You would do that for me?” My voice goes high because I’m pretty surprised; even if he has been nice for the last hour, this isn’t quite what I expected.

“Yeah, it’s not a big deal.” He seems a little embarrassed. I am sure he isn’t used to doing nice things.

“Wow, thank you. Really. I need to get a job or internship soon anyway, and that would literally be a dream come true!” I clap my hands.

He chuckles and shakes his head. “You’re welcome.”

We pull into a small parking lot next to an old brick building.

“The food here is amazing,” he says and climbs out of the car. Walking around to the trunk, he opens it . . . and pulls out another plain-black T-shirt. He really must have an endless supply. I was enjoying him being shirtless so much that I forgot he would eventually have to put one back on.

When we get inside we seat ourselves in the fairly deserted place. An old woman walks to the table and goes to hand us our menus, but he waves them off, ordering a hamburger and fries, gesturing like I should do the same. I trust him on this one and order it—minus ketchup, of course.

While we wait, I tell Hardin about growing up in Richland, which, being from England, he’s never heard of. He isn’t missing out on much; the town is small and everyone does the same things and no one ever leaves. Everyone except me: I will never move back there. He doesn’t offer me much information about his past, but I’m hopeful and patient. He seems very curious about my life as a child and he frowns when I tell him about my dad’s drinking. I had mentioned it to him before, while we were fighting, but this time I went into a little more detail.

During a pause in the conversation, the waitress reappears with our food, which looks delicious.

“Good, huh?” Hardin asks as I take my first bite. I nod and wipe my mouth off. The food is amazing and we both clear our plates, me being more hungry than I’ve ever been before.

THE DRIVE BACK TO THE DORMS is relaxed. His long fingers rub circles on my leg, and I’m disappointed to see the WCU sign when we finally hit campus and the student parking lot.

“Did you have a nice time?” I ask him. I feel so much closer to him now than I did a few hours ago. He can be really good when he tries to be.

“Yeah, I did, actually.” He seems surprised. “Listen, I would walk you to your room, but I don’t want to play twenty questions with Steph . . .” He smiles and turns his body sideways to face me.

“It’s fine. I’ll just see you tomorrow,” I tell him. I’m not sure if I should try to kiss him goodbye or not, so I’m relieved when his fingers tug on a few loose strands of my hair and tuck them behind my ear. I rest my face in his palm and he leans over and touches his lips to mine. It starts as a simple and gentle kiss, but I feel it warm my entire body and I need more. Hardin grabs my arm and pulls it to gesture for me to climb over the middle divider. I quickly oblige and straddle his lap, my back hitting the steering wheel. I feel the seat recline slightly, giving us more room as I lift his shirt a little to slide my hands under it. His stomach is hard and his skin is hot. I trace my fingers along the ink there.

His tongue massages mine and he wraps his arms around me tightly. The feeling is almost painful, but it’s a pain I will gladly endure to be this close to him. He moans into my mouth as I put my hands farther up his shirt. I love that I can make him moan, too, that I have this effect on him. I’m really about to get lost in the sensation again when we are interrupted by my phone ringing.

“Another alarm?” he teases as I pull back and reach into my purse.

Smiling, I open my mouth to say something smart back at him, but when I look at the screen and see it’s Noah, I stop. Looking at Hardin, I can tell he’s figured it out. His expression changes, and fearing that I’m losing him, this mood, I hit the ignore button and toss my phone back onto the passenger seat. I am not thinking about Noah right now. I push him to the back corner of my mind and lock that door.

I lean back in to continue kissing Hardin, but he stops me.

“I think I better go.” His tone is clipped, and sends worry through me. When I draw back to look at him, his gaze is distant and ice immediately replaces the fire in my body.

“Hardin, I ignored it. I am going to talk to him about all this. I just don’t know how or when—but it will be soon, though, I promise.” I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I would have to break up with Noah the moment I kissed Hardin that first time. I can’t date him if I’ve already betrayed him. It would always hang over my head like a dark cloud of guilt, and neither of us wants that. The way I feel about Hardin is another reason I can’t be with Noah anymore. I love Noah, but if I really loved him the way he deserves to be loved, I wouldn’t be having these feelings for Hardin. I don’t want to hurt Noah, but there is no turning back now.

“Talk to him about what?” he snaps.

“All of this.” I wave my hands around. “Us.”

Us? You’re not trying to tell me you’re going to break up with him . . . for

me, are you?”

My head starts to spin. I know I should climb off his lap but I am frozen. “You don’t . . . want me to?” My voice comes out as a whisper.

“No, why would you? I mean, yeah, if you want to dump him, go for it, but don’t do it on my behalf.”

“I just . . . I thought . . .” I start to fumble my words. “I already told you that I don’t date, Theresa,” he says.

My body wants to freeze like a deer in headlights; the only thing that makes it possible for me to climb off him is the fact that I refuse to let him see me cry, again.

“You’re disgusting,” I say bitterly and grab my stuff from the floorboards and my phone from the seat. Hardin looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t. “Stay away from me from now on—I mean it!” I shout, and he closes his eyes.

I walk as fast as I can to my building, to my room, somehow managing to hold in my tears until I get inside and shut the door. I am so grateful Steph’s gone as I slide down the door and break into sobs. How could I be so stupid? I knew how he was when I agreed to be alone with him, yet I practically jumped at the opportunity. Just because he was nice to me today, I got it into my head that what —that he would be my boyfriend? I laugh through my sobs at how stupid and naïve I am. I really can’t even be angry with Hardin. He told me he doesn’t date, but today we had such a nice time. He was actually pleasant and playful, and I thought we were really building a relationship of some kind.

But it was all an act, just so he could get into my pants. And I let him.

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