Chapter 56 – After

Chapter 56 – After

I stare out the passenger window, not wanting to speak first. After a couple of blocks, Hardin turns the radio on and then turns it up too loud. I roll my eyes but try to ignore it—until I can’t. I hate his taste in music and it gives me an instant headache. Without asking, I turn the knob down and Hardin looks over at me.

“What?” I snap.

“Whoa, someone is in a pissy mood,” he says.

“No, I just didn’t want to listen to that, and if anyone is in a bad mood, it is you. You were being rude earlier, then you text me and ask me to stay; I don’t get it.”

“I was pissed because you brought up the wedding. Now that it’s settled that we aren’t going there is no need for me to be pissed.” His tone is calm and sure.

“It is not settled—we didn’t even talk about it.”

“Yes, we did. I told you I’m not going, so drop it, Theresa.”

“Well, you may not be going but I am. And I am going over to your dad’s house to learn to bake with Karen this week,” I tell him.

He clenches his jaw and glares at me. “You’re not going to the wedding, and what—are you and Karen like best friends now? You barely even know her.”

“So what if I barely know her? I barely know you,” I tell him. His face falls, and I feel bad, but it is true.

“Why are you being so difficult?” he says through gritted teeth.

“Because you aren’t going to tell me what to do, Hardin. It’s not happening. If I want to go to the wedding, I will, and I really would like you to come with me.

It could be fun—you may even have a nice time. It would mean a lot to your father and Karen, not that you care about that.”

He doesn’t say anything. He lets out a large breath and I stare back out the window. The rest of the ride is spent in silence, both of us too angry to speak. When we pull up to the fraternity house, Hardin grabs my bag out of the backseat and puts it over his shoulder.

“Why are you part of a frat, anyway?” I ask him. I have been wanting to know the answer since I discovered his room the first time.

He takes a deep breath as we walk up the steps. “Because, by the time I agreed to come here, the dorms were full—and I sure as hell wasn’t going to live with my father—so this was one of the few options I had.”

“But why stay in it?”

“Because I don’t want to live with my father, Tessa. Besides, look at this house; it’s nice, and I did get the biggest room.” He smirks a little, and I’m glad to see his anger is dying down.

“I mean, why don’t you live off campus?” I ask him and he shrugs. Maybe he doesn’t want to have to get a job.

I follow him quietly up to his room and wait as he unlocks the door. What is it with him and his obsession over no one going into his room?

“Why won’t you let anyone in your room?” I ask and he rolls his eyes. He puts my bag down on the floor.

“Why do you always ask so many questions?” he groans and sits on the chair. “I don’t know, why won’t you answer them?” I ask, but of course he ignores

me. “Can I hang up my outfit for tomorrow? I don’t want it to get too wrinkled from being in my bag.”

He seems to think about it for a second before he nods and stands to retrieve a hanger from his closet. I grab the skirt and blouse out and put them on the hanger, ignoring his sour expression at my clothing.

“I have to get up earlier than usual tomorrow so I can be at the bus station by eight forty-five; the stop three streets over is on the route that gets me two blocks away from Vance,” I inform him.

“What? You’re going there tomorrow? Why didn’t you tell me?” “I did . . . you were too busy sulking to pay attention,” I fire back.

“I will drive you there; you don’t need to take, what’s it, like an hour-long bus ride.”

I want to decline his offer just to annoy him but I decide against it. Hardin’s car is a much better way to get there than a crowded bus.

“I am going to get a car soon; I can’t last any longer without one. If I get the internship, I would have to take the bus there three days a week.”

“I would drive you,” he says, his voice almost a whisper.

“I’ll just get my own car,” I tell him. “The last thing I need is for you to be mad at me and not pick me up.”

“I would never do that.” His tone is serious.

“Yeah, you would. Then I would be stuck trying to find a bus route. No, thanks,” I half-joke. I honestly feel like I could depend on him, but I don’t want to take any chances. He is just too moody.

Hardin turns on the television and stands up to change his clothes, so I home in on what he’s doing. No matter how annoyed with him I am, I would never turn down a chance to watch him undress. His shirt is pulled over his head first, then I watch his muscles contract under his skin as he unbuttons and pulls down his tight black jeans. Just as I think he is going to wear only boxers, he pulls a pair of thin cotton pants out of his dresser and puts them on. He stays shirtless, lucky for me.

“Here,” he mumbles and hands me the shirt he just removed. I can’t help the smile on my face as I take it in my hands. This must be our thing now; he must like me wearing his shirt to bed as much as I love the smell of him on the fabric. Hardin focuses on the television as I follow his lead and change into his shirt and a pair of yoga pants. The pants are more like spandex leggings, but they are comfortable. After I fold up my bra and clothes Hardin finally looks at me again. He clears his throat and his eyes rake my body.

“Those . . . um . . . are really sexy.” I flush. “Thanks.”

“Much better than your fuzzy cloud pants,” he teases, and I laugh while taking a seat on the floor. I feel oddly comfortable in his room. Maybe it’s the books, or Hardin, I am not sure.

“Did you mean it in the car when you said you barely know me?” he asks quietly. His question is very unexpected.

“Sort of. You aren’t the easiest person to get to know.”

“I feel like I know you,” he says, his eyes locked onto mine. “Yeah, because I let you. I tell you things about myself.”

“I tell you things, too. It may not seem that way, but you know me better than anyone else does.” He looks down at the floor, then back into my eyes. He looks sad and vulnerable, such a difference from his usual angry intensity, but equally as captivating.

I am not sure what to say to his confession; I feel like I do know Hardin on a very personal level, like somehow we connect much deeper than just knowing minuscule bits of information about each other, but it doesn’t feel like nearly enough. I need to know more.

“You know me better than anyone, too,” I tell him. He knows me, the real Tessa. Not the Tessa that I have to pretend to be around my mother, or even Noah. I have told Hardin things about my father leaving, my mother’s criticism, and my fears that I never told anyone else. Hardin seems very pleased with this information; a smile covers his beautiful face as he stands from the chair and moves over to me. He takes my hands into his and pulls me up.

“What do you want to know, Tessa?” he asks, and my heart warms. Hardin is finally willing to tell me more about himself. I am this much closer to figuring out this complicated and angry, yet sometimes lovely, man.

Hardin and I both lie back on the bed, eyes on the ceiling as I ask him at least a hundred questions. He talks about the place he grew up, Hampstead, and how nice it was living there. He talks about the scar on his knee from the first time he learned to ride a bike with no training wheels, and how his mother passed out from the blood. His father was at the bar that day—all day long—so his mother was the one who taught him. He tells me about grade school and how he spent most of his time reading. He was never very social, and as he got older, his dad drank more and more and his parents fought more and more. He tells me about how he got kicked out of secondary school for fighting but his mother begged them to let him back. He began getting tattoos at sixteen; his friend would do them in his basement. His first tattoo was a star, and once he got one he wanted more and more. He tells me he doesn’t have a specific reason why he hasn’t tattooed his back; he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet. He hates birds, despite the two inked above his collarbones, and loves classic cars. The best day of his life was when he learned to drive, and the worst was when his parents divorced. His father stopped drinking when he was fourteen and has been trying to make up for all the terrible years, but Hardin isn’t having it.

My head is swimming with all of this new information and I feel like I finally understand him. There are still many more things I would love to know about him, but he falls asleep while telling me about the playhouse made from cardboard boxes that he and his mother and her friend made when he was eight. As I watch him sleep, he appears so much younger now that I know about his childhood, which seems like it was mostly happy until his father’s alcoholism poisoned it, creating the angry Hardin of today. I lean over and give the proud rebel a kiss on his cheek before crawling into bed to sleep, too.

I don’t want to wake him, so I pull the comforter sideways to cover myself up. That night, my dreams are clouded by a curly-haired little boy falling off a bicycle.


I jolt awake at the pained sound of Hardin’s voice. I look around for him, then peer over the bed to see his body jerking on the floor. I hurry out of the bed to get down to him and gently shake his shoulders to try to wake him. I remember how difficult it was the last time, so I lean down on him and wrap my small arms around his shoulders as he tries to thrash away from me. A whimper escapes his perfect lips and then his eyes shoot open.

“Tess,” he gasps and wraps his arms around me. He is panting, sweating. I should have asked him about the nightmares, but I didn’t want to be greedy; he told me much, much more than I had expected him to.

“I’m here, I’m here,” I say to comfort him. I pull his arm, gesturing for him to get up and come to bed. When his eyes meet mine, the confusion and fear slowly fade out of them.

“I thought you left,” he whispers. We lie down and he pulls me as close to him as possible. I run my fingers through his damp and unruly hair, and his eyes flutter closed.

I don’t say anything. I just continue to rub his scalp to calm him.

“Don’t ever leave me, Tess,” he whispers and falls back into sleep. My heart nearly explodes at his plea, and I know that as long as he wants me here, I’m here.

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