Chapter 51 – After

Chapter 51 – After

The car ride is awkward. I hold my clothes on my lap and stare out the window, waiting to see if Hardin is going to break the silence that hangs between us. He makes no move to speak so I pull my phone out of my purse. It’s off; it must have died last night. I try to turn it on anyway and the screen comes to life. I am relieved to find that I have no new voicemails or texts. The only noise in the car is the light rain and the slow screech of the windshield wipers.

“Are you still mad?” he finally asks as he pulls onto campus. “No,” I lie. I am not exactly mad, just hurt.

“It sure seems like you are. Don’t act like a child.”

“Well, I am not. I couldn’t care less if you want to drop me off so you can go hook up with Molly.” The words tumble from my mouth before I can stop them. I hate the way I feel about him and Molly. It makes me sick to my stomach to think of them together. What is it about her, anyway? Her pink hair? Her tattoos?

“That’s not what I am doing. Not that it’s your business,” he scoffs.

“Yeah, well, you jumped to answer your phone when I was about to . . . well, you know,” I mutter. I should have just stayed quiet. I don’t want to fight with Hardin right now. Especially when I don’t know when I will see him again. I really wish he hadn’t dropped Literature. He just pushes my buttons, every single one.

“It isn’t like that, Theresa,” he says.

So we are back to Theresa?

“Really, Hardin? It seems like it is to me. I don’t really give a crap anyway. I

knew it wouldn’t last,” I finally admit to him and myself. The reason I didn’t want to leave his father’s house is that I knew once it was just Hardin and me, it would go back to this. It always does.

“What wouldn’t last?”

“This . . . us. You being decent to me.” I don’t dare to look at him; that’s how he gets me to turn to putty every time.

“So what then? You’re going to avoid me for another week? We both know that by this weekend you’ll be back in my bed,” he snaps.

He surely did not just say that.

“Ex-cuse me?!” I shout. I am at a loss for words. No one has ever talked to me the way he has—no one has ever been so disrespectful. Tears brim over my eyes as the car slows to park.

Before he can respond, I open the door, grab my things, and bolt toward my room. I cut across the soaking grass and curse at myself for not taking the sidewalk, but I just need to get as far away from Hardin as possible. When he said he wants me, he meant sexually. I knew this but it hurts to let it soak in.

“Tessa!” I hear him call. One of Steph’s heels drops and falls to the ground but I keep running. I will get her a new pair.

“Damn it, Tessa! Stop!” he yells again. I hadn’t expected him to follow me. I push myself to run faster, and finally I reach my building and run down the hall. By the time I reach my dorm room, I am full-on sobbing. I yank the door open, then slam it shut behind me. My tears mix with the rain and I turn to look for my bath towel to clean off with—

And am frozen in place when I see Noah sitting on my bed.

Oh God, not now. Hardin will be crashing through the door any second.

Noah gets up and rushes toward me. “Tessa, what is wrong? Where have you been?” His hand tries to cup my cheek, but I turn my head. Pain flashes in his eyes as I turn away from his touch.

“It’s . . . I am so sorry, Noah,” I cry as Hardin yanks the door open, the hinges squeaking and cracking from his might.

Noah’s eyes widen and narrow as his gaze meets Hardin’s. He backs away from me with a horrified expression. Hardin tosses the high heel that I left behind and walks farther into the room without acknowledging Noah’s presence at all.

“I didn’t mean that, what I just said,” he says.

Noah looks at me, hatred laced through his voice as he exclaims, “That’s where you were? You were with him all night? Are those his clothes? I tried to call you and text you all night and all morning—I left you countless voicemails and you were with him?”

“What? I—” I start, but then turn to Hardin. “You went through my phone, didn’t you? You deleted the messages!” I shout at him. My head tells me to answer Noah, but my heart is focused only on Hardin.

“Yeah . . . I did,” he admits.

“Why the hell would you do that? You can answer Molly’s calls, but you delete my messages from my boyfriend?!”

He winces as I call Noah my boyfriend.

“How dare you play these games with me, Hardin!” I scream, sobbing again.

Noah grabs my wrist and turns me to face him, which only prompts Hardin to shove Noah back by his shoulders.

“Do not touch her,” he growls.

This is not happening. I watch as the daytime soap opera that has become my life unfolds in front of me.

“You don’t tell me what to do with my girlfriend, you prick,” Noah says angrily, and shoves Hardin.

Hardin advances toward Noah once more, but I grab his shirt and pull him back. Maybe I should let them fight each other. Hardin deserves a good punch in the jaw.

“Stop it! Hardin, just go!” I wipe my tears.

Hardin glares at Noah again and moves to stand in front of me. I reach over and gently place my palm against Hardin’s back, hoping it may help calm him.

“No, I’m not leaving this time, Tessa. I have already done that too many times.” He sighs and runs his fingers through his hair.

“Tessa, make him leave!” Noah begs, but I ignore him. I have to know what Hardin will say.

“I didn’t mean what I said in the car, and I don’t know why I took Molly’s phone call. It’s a habit, I guess—please just give me another chance. I know you have already given me too many chances, but I just need one more. Please, Tess.” He lets out a big breath. He sounds exhausted.

“Why should I, Hardin? I have continued to give you chances to be my friend over and over,” I tell him. “I don’t think I have it in me to try again.” I am faintly aware of Noah gaping at us, but at the moment I don’t care. I know this is wrong

—I’m wrong—but I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life.

“I don’t just want to be friends . . . I want more.” His words knock the wind right out of me.

“No, you don’t.” Hardin doesn’t date, my subconscious warns. “Yes, I do. I do.”

“You said you don’t date and that I wasn’t your type,” I remind him. My mind still can’t wrap itself around the fact that I am having this conversation with

Hardin, in front of Noah, at that.

“You aren’t my type, just the way that I am not yours. But that’s why we are good for each other—we are so different, yet we’re the same. You told me once that I bring out the worst in you. Well, you bring out the best in me. I know you feel it, too, Tessa. And yes, I didn’t date, until you. You make me want to date, you make me want to be better. I want you to think I am worthy of you; I want you to want me the way I do you. I want to fight with you, even scream at each other until one of us admits we are wrong. I want to make you laugh, and listen to you ramble about classic novels. I just . . . I need you. I know I am cruel at times . . . well, all the time, but that’s only because I don’t know how else to be.” His voice becomes a half whisper, his eyes wild. “This has been me for so long, I have never wanted to be any other way. Until now, until you.”

I am dumbfounded. He’s said everything I wanted him to say but never imagined that he actually would. This is not the Hardin I know, but the way his words came out in a rushed string, and the heavy breathing that accompanied them, somehow make it all the more true and natural.

I am not sure how I am still standing after his declaration. “What the hell? Tessa?” Noah says frantically.

“You should go,” I whisper, not breaking eye contact with Hardin.

Noah steps forward and crows with victory. “Thank you! I thought that was never going to end.”

Hardin looks heartbroken, absolutely crushed. “Noah, I said you should go,” I repeat.

Both men suck in a sharp breath. Relief washes over Hardin and I reach for his hands, threading my small fingers through his trembling ones.

“What?” Noah shouts. “You can’t be serious, Tessa! We have known each other so long—this guy is just using you. He will toss you aside as soon as he is done with you, and I love you! Don’t make this mistake, Tessa,” he begs.

I feel for him, and it hurts me to do this to him, but I know I can’t be with Noah. I want Hardin. More than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life.

And Hardin wants me. More with me.

My heart flutters again and I look at Noah, who opens his mouth to say something.

“I would stop talking. Now,” Hardin warns him.

“I am so sorry that it happened this way, I really am,” I say.

He doesn’t say anything else. He looks broken as he picks up the backpack he brought and leaves my room.

“Tessa . . . I . . . You really do feel the same way?” Hardin gasps and I nod.

How could he not know this by now?

“No nodding, please say it.” Desperation fuels his words.

“Yeah, Hardin I do,” I say. I don’t have a beautiful or meaningful speech like he did, but those simple words seem to be enough for him.

The smile I receive heals some of the pain I feel from breaking Noah’s heart. “So what do we do now?” he asks. “I’m new at this.” He flushes.

“Kiss me,” I say and he pulls me to his chest, his hand fisting the loose fabric of his shirt on my back. His lips are cool and his tongue is warm as it slips into my mouth. Despite the chaos that just occurred in my small room, I feel calm. This feels like a dream. I somehow know it is the calm before the storm, but right now Hardin is my anchor. I just pray that he doesn’t pull me under.

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