Chapter 65 – After

Chapter 65 – After

Pulling into the spot next to Landon, I text Zed to tell him that I have arrived. He writes back immediately with a note to meet him at the far left corner of the field.

I tell Landon where he’ll be as he and Dakota walk up. “Sounds good,” he says, but he seems less than thrilled. “Who’s Zed?” Dakota asks.

“He’s my . . . friend.” He is just my friend. “Hardin’s your boyfriend, right?” she asks.

I look over at her. She doesn’t seem to be implying anything, she just seems confused. Welcome to the club.

“No, babe.” Landon laughs. “Neither of them are.” I laugh, too. “It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

Right as we get to where everyone is, the school band begins to play and the field becomes more and more crowded. I’m relieved when I spot Zed leaning against the fence. I point him out, and we head over there.

“Oh,” Dakota squeals as we get close. I can’t tell if she’s surprised by his tattoos and piercings, or his good looks. Maybe both.

“Hey, beautiful,” Zed says, beaming, and hugs me. I smile at him, returning the hug.

“Hi, I’m Zed. It’s nice to meet you both.” He nods toward Landon and Dakota. I know he’s met Landon before, so maybe he’s just trying to be polite.

“Have you been here long?” I ask.

“Only about ten minutes. A lot more people here than I expected.”

Landon leads the way to a less crowded area near the enormous mound of wood, and we all sit on the grass. Dakota sits between Landon’s legs and leans back against his chest. The sun is going down and the breeze is picking up. I should have worn long sleeves.

“Yeah, have you been to one of these before?” I ask Zed, who shakes his head. “No, this isn’t my typical scene,” he says with a laugh before adding, “But I’m

glad to be here tonight.”

I smile at his compliment and right then someone walks up to the central bandstand and gives us all a warm welcome on behalf of the school and the band. After a couple of minutes of rambling on, they finally count down to the lighting of the fire, and three, two, one . . . the fire ignites and swallows the mound of wood fiercely. It’s actually quite beautiful being this close to the flames, and I can tell I’ll be warm enough after all.

“So how long are you here?” Zed asks Dakota.

She frowns. “Only the weekend. I wish I could come back for the wedding next weekend.”

“What wedding?” Zed asks.

I look at Landon, who answers, “My mother’s.”

“Oh . . .” He pauses and looks down, as if thinking about something. “What?” I ask him.

“Nothing. I’m just trying to remember who else said something about a wedding next weekend . . . Oh yeah—Hardin, I think. He was asking us what he should wear to a wedding.”

My heart stops. I hope I don’t show it on my face. So Hardin definitely still hasn’t told any of his friends that his father is the chancellor, or that he’s marrying Landon’s mother.

“Bit of a coincidence, right?” he asks.

“No, they are—” Dakota begins, but I interrupt: “Quite a coincidence, but, then, in a town this size, there are probably a few every weekend.”

Zed nods in agreement, and Landon whispers something in Dakota’s ear.

Hardin is actually considering going to the wedding?

Zed chuckles. “I can’t imagine Hardin at a wedding anyway.” “Why not?” My tone is a little harsher than I meant it to be.

“I don’t know, because he’s Hardin. The only way to get him to go to a wedding would be if he knew he could have sex with the bridesmaids. All of them,” he says and rolls his eyes.

“I thought you and Hardin are friends?” I say.

“We are. I’m not saying anything bad about him—that’s just how Hardin is.

He has sex with a different girl every weekend, sometimes more than one.”

My ears are buzzing and the fire feels too hot on my skin. I stand up before I realize what I am doing.

“Where are you going? What’s wrong?” Zed asks.

“Nothing, I just . . . I need some air. Some fresh air,” I mumble. I know how stupid that sounds but I don’t care. “Be right back, I just need a second.” I march away quickly before any of them can follow me.

What is wrong with me? Zed is sweet and he actually likes me, he enjoys my company, and yet all it takes is a mention of Hardin and I can’t stop thinking about him. I take a quick stroll around the stands and few deep breaths before walking back over to them.

“Sorry, the fire was just . . . too hot,” I lie and sit back down.

Zed has his phone out and turns the screen away from me as he slides it back into his pocket. He tells me it’s fine and we make small talk with Landon and Dakota for the next hour.

“I’m getting sort of tired, I had an early flight,” Dakota finally tells Landon, who nods.

“Yeah, I’m tired, too. We’re going to get going.” Landon stands up and helps Dakota to her feet.

“Do you want to go, too?” Zed asks me. “No, I’m okay. Unless you want to?”

He shakes his head. “I’m cool.” We say goodbye to Landon and Dakota and watch as they disappear into the crowd.

“So what’s the reason behind the bonfire?” I ask Zed, unsure that he really knows.

“I think it’s like to celebrate the end of the football season,” he tells me. “Or the middle of it, or something . . .?” I look around and notice for the first time that a lot of people are wearing jerseys.

“Oh.” I look over at Zed. “I see it now,” I say and laugh. “Yeah,” he says and then squints. “Is that Hardin?”

I snap my head in the direction he’s looking. Sure enough, Hardin is walking toward us with a short brunette wearing a skirt.

I scoot closer to Zed. This is exactly why I didn’t listen to Hardin on the porch

—he’s already found some girl to bring here just to spite me. “Hey, Zed,” the girl says in a high-pitched voice.

“Hey, Emma.” Zed hooks his arm around my shoulder. Hardin glares at him but takes a seat with us.

I know I am being rude by not introducing myself to this girl, but I can’t help but dislike her already.

“How’s the bonfire so far?” Hardin asks. “Warm. And almost over, I think,” Zed replies.

There is tension between the two of them. I can feel it. I don’t know why there would be—Hardin made it clear to his friends that he doesn’t give a shit about me.

“Do they have food here?” the girl says in her annoying voice. “Yeah, they have a concession stand,” I tell her.

“Hardin, come with me to get some food,” she demands. He rolls his eyes but stands up.

“Bring me back a pretzel, yeah?” Zed yells, smiling, and Hardin clenches his jaw.

What is up with them?

As soon as Hardin and Emma disappear I turn to Zed. “Hey, can we go? I don’t really want to hang out with Hardin; we sort of hate each other, in case you forgot.” I try to force out a playful laugh, but it doesn’t happen.

“Yeah, sure, sure,” he says. We both stand up and he reaches for my hand. We hold hands as we walk, and I find myself looking around for Hardin and hoping he won’t see.

“Do you want to go to the party?” Zed asks as we reach the parking lot.

“No, I don’t really want to go there, either.” That is the last place I want to go. “Okay, well, we can just hang out another . . .” he begins.

“No, I still want to hang out. I just don’t want to be here or at that frat house,” I say quickly.

He looks surprised as his eyes meet mine. “Okay . . . well, we can go to my place? If you want; if not, we can go somewhere else? I actually don’t really know where else to go in this town.” He laughs and I join him.

“Your place is fine. I’ll follow you there,” I tell him.

During the drive, I can’t help but picture Hardin’s face when he returns to find us gone. He brought a girl there with him, so he has no right to be upset, but it doesn’t really ease the pang in my stomach to justify it like that.

Zed’s apartment is right off campus and is small but clean. He offers me a drink, but I decline since I plan on driving back to my room tonight.

I plop down on the couch, and he hands me the remote before going back to the kitchen to make himself a drink. “You can be in control; I don’t know what you like to watch.”

“Do you live alone?” I ask him and he nods. I feel a little awkward as he sits next to me and puts his arm around my waist, but I hide my nervousness with a smile. Zed’s phone buzzes in his pocket and he stands up to answer it. Holding a finger up to tell me he will be back, he wanders into his small kitchen area.

“We left,” I hear him say. “So . . .” “Fair.” “Too bad.” The few snippets of conversation that I catch make no sense to me . . . except the “we left.”

Is that Hardin on the phone? I stand up and walk toward the kitchen as Zed hangs up.

“Who was that?” I ask.

“No one important,” he assures me and leads me back to the couch. “I am really glad we are getting to know each other; you’re different from the rest of the girls here,” he says sweetly.

“Me, too,” I tell him. “Do you know Emma?” I can’t help but ask. “Yeah, her girlfriend is Nate’s cousin.”


“Yeah, they have been together awhile. Emma’s pretty cool.”

So Hardin wasn’t there with her, not in that way at least. Maybe he actually came there to try to talk to me again, instead of trying to hurt me with another girl.

I look over to Zed just as he leans in to kiss me. His lips are cool from his drink and taste like vodka. His hands are careful and smooth against my arms, then my waist. Hardin’s heartbroken face from earlier pops into my mind, the way he begged for one more chance and I didn’t believe him, the way he watched me drive away, the outburst in class about Catherine and Heathcliff, the way he always shows up when I don’t want him to, the way he never tells his mother that he loves her, the way he said he loved me in front of everyone, the hurtful way he took it back, the way he breaks things when he’s angry, the way he came to his father’s house tonight even though he hates it there, and the way he asked his friends what to wear to the wedding—it all makes perfect sense, but no sense, at the same time.

Hardin loves me. In his own damaged way, he does love me. The realization of this hits me like a truck.

“What?” Zed says and pulls away from our kiss. “What?” I repeat his word.

“You just said Hardin.” “No, I didn’t,” I defend.

“Yes, yes, you did.” He stands up and steps away from the couch.

“I have to go . . . I am sorry,” I say and grab my purse and rush out of the door before he can say anything else.

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