Chapter 90 – After

Chapter 90 – After

I put down my book and check the time on my phone. It’s a little after midnight, so I should try to force myself to go to sleep. He already tried to get me to come to bed earlier, saying he couldn’t sleep without me, but I stuck to my guns and ignored him until he left.

I’m just about to drift into sleep when I hear Hardin scream, “No!!” I jump off the couch without thinking and rush to our bedroom. He is thrashing in the thick blanket and covered in sweat.

“Hardin, wake up,” I say gently and shake his shoulder, moving a soaked curl from his forehead with my other hand.

His eyes snap open—they are full of terror.

“It’s okay . . . shh . . . it was just a nightmare.” I do my best to soothe him. My fingers play in his hair and then brush over his cheek. He is shaking as I climb into bed behind him and wrap my arms around his waist. I feel him relax as I press my face against his clammy skin.

“Please. Stay with me,” he begs. I sigh and stay quiet, tightening my grip around him. “Thank you,” he whispers, and within minutes he is asleep again.

THE WATER DOESN’T SEEM to get hot enough to relax my tense muscles no matter how high I turn it up. I am exhausted from the lack of sleep last night and the frustration that comes from dealing with Hardin. He was asleep when I got into the shower, and I pray he stays that way until I leave for my internship.

Unfortunately, my prayers go unanswered, and he is standing by the kitchen

counter when I get out of the bathroom.

“You look beautiful today,” he says calmly.

I roll my eyes and walk past him to grab a cup of coffee before I have to leave. “So you aren’t speaking to me, then?”

“Not right now, no. I have to go to work and I don’t have the energy to do this with you,” I snap.

“But you . . . you came to bed with me,” he pouts.

“Yeah, only because you were screaming and shaking. That doesn’t mean you are forgiven. I need an explanation for everything, all the secrets, all the fights— even the nightmares—or I’m done,” I surprise him and myself by saying.

He groans and runs his hands through his hair. “Tessa . . . it’s not that simple.” “Yeah, it is, actually. I trusted you enough to give up my relationship with my mother and move in with you so soon; you should trust me enough to tell me

what is going on.”

“You won’t understand. I know you won’t,” he says. “Try me.”

“I . . . I can’t,” he stutters.

“Then I can’t be with you. I’m sorry, but I have given you a lot of chances and you keep—” I begin.

“Don’t say that. Don’t you dare try and leave me.” His tone is angry, but his eyes are hurt.

“Then give me some answers. What is it that you think I wouldn’t understand?

About your nightmares?” I ask.

“Tell me you aren’t going to leave me,” he pleads.

Standing my ground with Hardin is proving to be much harder than I imagined, especially when he looks so broken.

“I have to go. I am already running late,” I tell him and go to the bedroom to get dressed as quickly as I can. Part of me is happy that he doesn’t follow me, but part of me wishes he would.

He is still standing in the kitchen, shirtless, and gripping his coffee mug with white and busted knuckles when I leave.

I mull over everything Hardin said this morning. What could I possibly not understand? I would never judge him for something that causes him to have nightmares. I hope that is what he was talking about, but I can’t ignore the feeling that I am missing something very obvious here.

I feel guilty and tense almost all day, but Kimberly emails me the links to one too many funny YouTube videos for my sour mood to last. By lunch, I almost forget the problem at home.

I’m sorry for everything, please come home after work, Hardin texts while Kimberly and I

eat from a muffin basket someone sent Mr. Vance. “Is that him?” she asks.

“Yeah . . .” I tell her. “I stood up to him, but I feel terrible, for some reason. I know I am right, but you should have seen him this morning.”

“Good. Hopefully he learns his lesson. Did he tell you where he was?” she asks.

“Nope. That’s the problem.” I groan and eat another muffin.

Please answer me, Tessa. I love you, he sends minutes later. “Just answer the poor guy.” Kimberly smiles and I nod. I will be home, I respond.

Why is it so hard for me to hold my ground with him? Mr. Vance lets everyone go a little after three, so I decide to stop by a salon and get my hair trimmed and a manicure for the wedding tomorrow. I hope Hardin and I can work this out before the wedding, because the last thing I want to do is take an already angry Hardin to his father’s wedding.

By the time I get home it’s almost six o’clock and I have multiple texts from Hardin, which I have ignored. When I get to our door I take a deep breath to mentally prepare for what is to come. Either we will end up screaming at each other, which will lead to one of us leaving, or we will actually talk through it and work it out. Hardin is pacing back and forth across the cement floor when I enter. His eyes shoot up to my figure in the doorway, and he looks relieved.

“I thought you weren’t coming,” he says and steps toward me.

“Where else would I go?” I say in response and walk past him into the bedroom.

“I . . . well, I made dinner for you,” he says.

He is totally unrecognizable right now. His hair is down across his forehead instead of pushed up and back like it normally is. He is wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and black sweats and he seems nervous, worried, and almost . . . afraid?

“Oh . . . why?” I can’t help but ask. I change into sweats of my own, and Hardin’s face falls farther when I don’t put on the shirt of his that he has clearly laid on the dresser for me.

“Because I am an asshole,” he answers.

“Yeah . . . you are,” I say and walk back into the kitchen. The meal looks much more appetizing than I thought it would, even though I’m not sure what it is; some sort of chicken pasta, I think.

“It’s chicken Florentine.” He answers my thoughts. “Hmm.”

“You don’t have to . . .” His voice is small. This is such a different scene than

usual, and for the first time since I met him I feel like I have the upper hand. “No, it looks good. I’m just surprised,” I tell him and take a bite. It tastes even

better than it looks.

“Your hair looks nice,” he says. My thoughts travel back to the last time I had a haircut and Hardin was the only one to notice.

“I need answers,” I remind him.

He lets out a hard breath. “I know, and I am going to give them to you.”

I take another bite to hide my satisfaction with myself for holding my ground with him.

“First, I want you to know that no one—I mean no one, except my mother and father—knows this,” he says and picks at the scabs on his knuckles.

I nod and take another bite.

“Okay . . . well, here goes,” he says nervously before continuing. “One night, when I was around seven, my father was out at the bar across the street from our home. He went there almost every night and everyone knew him there, which is why it was a terrible idea for him to piss anyone off there. This night, he did just that. He started a fight with some soldiers who were just as plastered as him and he ended up smashing a beer bottle over one of their heads.”

I have no idea where this is going, but I know it won’t be pleasant.

“Keep eating, please . . .” he begs and I nod and try not to stare at him as he continues.

“He left the bar, and they came across the road to our house, to pay him back for smashing the guy’s face, I guess. The problem was that he didn’t come home

—they just thought he did, and my mum was asleep on the couch, waiting up for my dad.” His green eyes meet mine. “Sort of how you were last night.”

“Hardin . . .” I whisper and grab his hand across the table.

“So when they found my mum first . . .” He trails off and stares at the wall for what feels like forever. “When I heard her screaming, I came downstairs and tried to get them off her. Her nightgown was ripped open and she just kept screaming for me to go . . . she was trying to keep me from seeing what they were doing to her, but I couldn’t just leave, you know?”

When he blinks back a tear, my heart breaks for the seven-year-old boy who had to watch those horrendous things happen to his mother. I climb onto his lap on the chair and put my face against his neck.

“Long story short, I tried to fight them off, but it didn’t do any good. By the time my father stumbled through the door, I had put an entire box of Band-Aids all over her body to try to . . . I don’t know . . . fix her or something. How stupid is that?” he asks into my hair.

I look up at him and he frowns. “Don’t cry . . .” he whispers, but I can’t help

it. I never imagined his nightmares were from something so terrible. “I’m sorry I made you tell me,” I sob.

“No . . . baby, it’s okay. It actually felt good to tell someone,” he assures me. “As good as it can feel.”

He pets my hair and winds part of it around his finger, lost in thought. “After that, I would only sleep downstairs on the couch, so if someone came in . . . they would get to me first. Then the nightmares came . . . and they just kind of stuck. I went to a few therapists once my father left, but nothing seemed to help, until you.” He gives me a weak smile. “I’m sorry I was out all night. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be him,” he says and hugs me tighter.

Now that I have a few more pieces of the puzzle that is Hardin, I can understand him more. And just as suddenly as my mood has shifted about him, my opinion of Ken has changed just as drastically. I know people change, and he obviously has improved himself from the kind of man he used to be, but I can’t help the anger bubbling inside me. Hardin is the way he is because of his father, because of the drinking, the negligence, and the terrible night that his father provoked an attack against his wife and son, and then wasn’t there to protect them. I didn’t get all the answers I wanted, but I got much more than I ever expected.

“I won’t do it again . . . I swear . . . Just please tell me you won’t leave me . . .” he mutters.

Every ounce of anger and entitlement I felt has evaporated. “I won’t leave you, Hardin. I won’t leave you.” And because he looks at me like he needs to hear it, I say it a few more times.

“I love you, Tessa, more than anything,” he says and wipes my tears.

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