Chapter 70 – After

Chapter 70 – After

I remove my clothes and take a quick shower, even though I’m going to get dirty gardening with Karen. Hardin waits patiently, fiddling through my underwear drawer to keep himself busy. When I’m done, he tells me to pack enough clothes to spend another night with him, which makes me smile. I would spend every night with him if I could.

As we drive back, I ask him, “Do you want to get your car and take it to your dad’s?”

“No, I’m okay. As long as you stop swerving all over the road.” “Excuse me? I am an excellent driver,” I say defensively.

He snorts but keeps his mouth shut. “So what made you decide to get a car, anyway?”

“Well, I got the internship, and I didn’t want to keep taking the bus or depending on other people to take me places.”

He looks out the window. “Oh . . . did you go alone?” “Yeah . . . why?”

“Just wondering,” he lies.

“I was alone; that was a bad day for me,” I say and he flinches. “How many times did you and Zed hang out?” he asks.

Why is he bringing this up now? “Twice: we went to dinner and a movie, then the bonfire. It wasn’t anything for you to worry about.”

“He only kissed you once?”

Ugh. “Yes, only once. Well, besides the time that . . . you saw. Now can we

move on from this? You don’t see me asking about Molly, do you?” I snap. “Okay . . . okay. Let’s not fight. This is the longest we have ever gotten along,

so let’s not ruin it,” he says and reaches for my hand. His thumb rubs small circles on my skin.

“Okay,” I say, still slightly annoyed. The image of Molly on his lap makes my vision blur.

“Aww, come on, Tess. Don’t pout.” He laughs and pokes my side. I can’t help but let out a giggle. “Don’t distract me! I’m driving!”

“This is probably the only time you’ll ever tell me not to touch you.” “Not likely—don’t be so full of yourself.”

Our laughter blends together and it’s a lovely sound. He brings his hand to my thigh and rubs his long fingers up and down.

“You sure?” his raspy voice whispers and my skin tingles. My body responds to him so quickly, my pulse drumming heavily. I gulp and nod, causing him to sigh and pull his hand away. “I know that’s not true . . . but I’d rather not have you driving off the road, so I’ll just have to finger you later.”

I swat at him, blushing. “Hardin!”

“Sorry, baby.” He smiles, raising his hands in mock innocence and looking out the window. I love when he calls me baby; no one has called me that before. Noah and I had always thought that the ridiculous pet names people called each other were too juvenile for us, but when Hardin calls me something, my blood sings in my veins.

When we get back to his father’s house, Ken and Karen are in the backyard waiting for us. Ken looks out of his element in jeans and a WCU T-shirt. I’ve never seen him dressed so casually, and in fact he looks a little like Hardin this way. They greet us with a smile that Hardin tries to return, but he looks uncomfortable as he shifts on his heels and buries his hands in his pockets.

“Ready when you are,” Ken says to Hardin. He looks just as uncomfortable as Hardin, though he’s more nervous, whereas Hardin seems apprehensive.

Hardin looks at me and I give him an encouraging nod, surprised that I have suddenly become someone he looks at for reassurance. It seems that our dynamic has changed dramatically, making me happy in a way I hadn’t expected.

“We will be in the greenhouse, so just bring the soil in there,” Karen says and gives Ken a small kiss on the cheek. Hardin looks away from them, and for a second I think he may give me a kiss, too, but he doesn’t. I follow Karen to the greenhouse and when we walk inside I gasp. It’s huge, bigger than it looks from outside, and she wasn’t joking when she said it needs a lot of work. It is practically empty.

Dramatically, she puts her hands on her hips with chipper glee. “It is quite the project, but I think we can do it.”

“I think so, too,” I say.

Hardin and Ken come in, carrying two bags of soil each. They are both silent as they drop them where Karen directs before walking back out. Twenty bags of soil and hundreds of seeds and dozens of flowers and vegetable plants later, we have a pretty good start.

BEFORE I REALIZE IT, the sunlight has started to fade and I haven’t seen Hardin in a few hours. I hope he and Ken are both still alive.

“I think we’ve done enough for today,” Karen says and wipes her face. We are both covered in dirt.

“Yeah, I better check on Hardin,” I tell her and she laughs.

“It means a lot to us, Ken especially, that Hardin has been coming around more, and I know we have you to thank for that. I take it that you two worked out your differences?”

“Sort of . . . I guess we did.” I let out a little laugh. “We are still very different.” If only she knew.

She gives me a knowing smile. “Well, different is sometimes what we need.

It’s good to be challenged.”

“Well, he is definitely challenging.”

We both laugh and she pulls me in for a hug. “You sweet girl, you have done more for us than you know.” I feel my eyes tearing up and I nod.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been staying overnight. Hardin has asked me to stay again,” I tell her and try not to make eye contact.

“No, of course not. You both are adults, and I trust you’re being safe.”

Oh God. I know my cheeks are a deeper shade of red than the bulbs we just planted. “We . . . uh . . . we don’t,” I stammer. Why am I talking about this with Hardin’s soon-to-be stepmother? I am mortified.

“Oh,” she says, equally embarrassed. “Let’s go inside.”

I follow her into the house, where we both take our dirty shoes off at the door. I can see into the living room, where Hardin is sitting on the edge of the couch and Ken is in the easy chair. Hardin’s eyes immediately find mine and relief flushes through them.

“I’ll make some late dinner while you get cleaned up,” Karen says.

Hardin stands up and walks over to me. He seems glad to be out of the room with his father.

“We’ll be back down soon,” I say and follow Hardin up the stairs.

“How was it?” I ask as we enter his room.

Instead of answering me, he wraps his fingers around my ponytail and brings his lips to mine. We stagger back against the door and he presses his body against me. “I missed you.”

My insides liquefy. “You did?”

“Yes, I did. I just spent the last few hours with my father in awkward silence, and then sharing a few even more awkward comments here and there. I need a distraction.” He runs his tongue along my bottom lip and my breath catches in my throat. This is different. Welcome, and very hot, but different.

His hands travel down my stomach and stop at the button on my jeans. “Hardin, I need a shower. I am covered in dirt,” I say, laughing.

His tongue runs along my neck. “I like you this way, nice and dirty.” He gives me that smile with those dimples.

But I gently push him back and grab my bag before heading to the bathroom. My breathing is ragged and I’m a little disoriented, so when I try to close the bathroom door only to have it stop midway, I’m confused. Until I look down and I see Hardin’s boot.

“Can I join you?” He smiles and pushes his way into the bathroom before I can answer.

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