Chapter 67 – After

Chapter 67 – After

Karen and Ken are sitting on the couch in the living room and both look up when we walk in.

“Hardin! What happened?” his father asks, panicked. He jumps up and comes over to us, but Hardin brushes him off.

“I’m fine,” Hardin grumbles.

“What happened to him?” Ken turns to me.

“He got in a fight, but he hasn’t told me with who or why.”

“I am standing right here—and I just said I am fucking fine,” Hardin says angrily.

“Don’t talk to your father like that!” I scold him and his eyes widen. Instead of screaming at me, he takes my wrist in his busted hand and pulls me out of the room. Ken and Karen discuss Hardin’s bloody appearance as he drags me upstairs, and I hear his dad openly wonder why Hardin keeps coming here when he never used to before.

Once we reach his room, he turns me around, pinning both of my wrists to the wall and steps up close, leaving only a few inches between us.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he says through his teeth. “Do what? Let go of me, right now,” I tell him.

He rolls his eyes but does let me go and walks over to his bed. I stay close to the door.

“Don’t tell me how to talk to my father. Worry about your own relationship with your own father before trying to meddle with mine.”

As soon as the words come out of his mouth, Hardin registers what he says, and he immediately looks apologetic. “I’m sorry . . . I didn’t mean it like that . . . It just came out.” He takes a step toward me with outstretched arms, but I take a step backward into the doorway.

“Yeah—it always just ‘comes out,’ doesn’t it?” I can’t help the tears pricking my eyes. Bringing my father into this is just way too much, even for Hardin.

“Tess, I . . .” he begins but stops himself when I hold up one hand.

What am I doing here? Why do I keep thinking he will stop the endless string of insults long enough to have an actual conversation with me? Because I am an idiot, that’s why.

“It’s fine, really. That’s who you are; that’s what you do. You find people’s weakness and you exploit it. You use it to your advantage. How long have you been waiting to say something about my father? You’ve probably been waiting for an opening since you met me!” I shout.

“Damn it! No I haven’t! I wasn’t thinking when I said that! You are not innocent here—you provoke me on purpose!” he yells, even louder than I did.

“Provoke you? I provoke you! Please, do enlighten me!” I know everyone in the house can hear. But, for once, I don’t care.

“You always push my buttons! You constantly fight with me! You go on dates with Zed—I mean, fuck! You think I like being this way? Do you think I like you having this control over me? I hate the way you get under my skin. I loathe the way I can’t seem to stop thinking about you! I hate you . . . I really do! You’re such a pretentious little . . .” He stops and looks at me. I force myself to look back at him, putting on the charade that he didn’t just tear me apart with every syllable.

“This is what I am talking about!” He runs his hands over his hair as he paces back and forth across the room. “You . . . you make me crazy, literally fucking mental! And then you have the nerve to ask if I love you? Why would you even ask that? Because I said that one time, by accident? I told you already that I didn’t mean it, so why would you ask again? You like rejection—don’t you? That’s why you keep coming around me, isn’t it?”

All I want to do is run, run out of this room and never, ever look back. I need to run, I need to flee.

I try to stop it, but he has me in such a rage, I yell the thing I know will get to him, break his control: “No, I keep coming around because I love you!”

I cover my mouth immediately, wishing I could push the words back in. He couldn’t possibly hurt me worse than he has, and I don’t want to be left wondering years from now what he would have said if I told him. I am okay with him not loving me. I got myself into this knowing how he was all along.

He looks astonished. “You what?” He blinks rapidly as if trying to process the words.

“Go on, tell me how much you hate me again. Go ahead and tell me how stupid I am for loving someone who can’t stand me,” I say, my voice coming out foreign and almost in a whine. I wipe my eyes and look at him again, feeling as if I’ve been gravely defeated and need to leave the scene to bandage my wounds. “I’ll be going now.”

As I go to turn, he takes one long stride to close the gap between us. I refuse to look at him as he puts his hand on my shoulder. “Damn it, don’t go,” he says, his voice full of emotion.

Which emotion is the question.

“You love me?” he whispers and puts his busted hand under my chin to tilt my head to him. I dart my eyes away from his and nod slowly, waiting for him to laugh in my face.

“Why?” His breath comes in a hot burst against my face.

I finally bring my eyes to his and he looks . . . afraid? “What?” I ask softly. “Why do you love . . . how could you possibly love me?” His voice cracks

and he stares at me, and I feel like the words I say next will determine my fate more than anything I’ve ever done before.

“How could you not know that I love you?” I ask instead of answering him.

He doesn’t think I could love him? I have no explanation except that I just do. He drives me crazy, makes me angrier than I have ever been, but somehow I fell for him, hard.

“You told me you didn’t. And you went out with Zed. You always leave me; you left me on the porch earlier when I begged you for another chance. I told you I loved you, and you rejected me. Do you know how hard that was for me?” he says.

I must be imagining the tears welling in the corners of his eyes, though I am too aware of his callused fingers under my chin.

“You took it back before I could even process what you said. You’ve done a lot of things to hurt me, Hardin,” I tell him and he nods.

“I know . . . I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you? I know I don’t deserve you. I don’t have the right to even be asking this . . . but please, just one chance. I am not promising not to fight with you, or get mad at you, but I am promising to give myself to you, completely. Please, just let me try to be what you need.” He sounds so unsure of himself, it turns my insides to liquid.

“I want to think this can work, but I just don’t know how it could, so much damage has already been done.”

But my eyes betray me as the tears fall. Hardin brings his fingers up from my

chin and captures them, even as a single tear escapes down his own cheek.

“Do you remember when you asked me who I love the most in the world?” he asks, his lips inches from mine.

I nod, though it seems so long ago, and I didn’t think he was even paying attention.

“It’s you. You’re the person that I love most in the world.”

His words surprise me and dissolve the ache and the anger in my chest.

Before I will let myself believe him and turn me to putty in his arms, I ask, “This isn’t part of your sick game, is it?”

“No, Tessa. I’m done with the games. I just want you. I want to be with you, in a real relationship. You’ll have to teach me what in the hell that even means, of course.” He laughs nervously and I join him with earnest laughter of my own. “I have missed your laugh. I haven’t heard it enough. I want to be the one to

make you laugh, not cry. I know I am a lot to handle—”

I cut him off by pressing my lips against his. His kisses are rushed and I can taste blood from his cut. My knees want to buckle from the electricity shooting through me, it seems so long ago that I last felt his mouth on mine. I love this damaged, self-loathing asshole so much that I’m afraid it will crush me. He lifts me up and I wrap my thighs around him, tangling my fingers into his hair. He moans into my mouth and I gasp, pulling harder. My tongue runs over his bottom lip and when he winces, I pull away.

“Who did you get in a fight with?” I ask and he laughs. “You’re asking that now?”

“Yeah, I want to know.” I smile.

“You always have so many questions. Can’t I answer them later?” He pouts. “No, tell me.”

“Only if you’ll stay.” He holds me against him tighter. “Please?” he begs. “Okay,” I say and kiss him again, completely forgetting about my question.

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