Chapter 92 – After

Chapter 92 – After

This woman I’ve lived with values her sense of control so much that there are few times I’ve managed to surprise her, let alone stun her. But here, I have really, truly stunned my mother. Her posture is erect and her face has fallen.

“What did you just say?” she asks slowly.

“You heard me. This is our apartment—as in, we both live here.” I put my hands on my hips for dramatic effect.

“There is no way that you live here. You can’t afford a place like this!” she scoffs.

“Would you like to see our lease? Because I have a copy.”

“This whole situation is even worse than I thought . . .” she says, then shifts her eyes to stare behind me, as if I’m not even worth looking at while she calculates her formula for my life. “I knew you were being foolish by messing around with that . . . that boy. But you are just plain stupid for moving in with him! You don’t even know him! You haven’t met his parents—aren’t you embarrassed to be seen in public with him?”

My anger boils over. I glance at the wall, trying to gather some composure, but it’s too much and before I can stop myself, I am in her face. “How dare you come into my home and insult him! I know him better than anyone, and he knows me better than you ever could! And I have actually met his family, his father at least. You want to know who his father is? He’s the goddamn chancellor of WCU!” I scream. “That should satisfy your sad little judgmental streak.”

I hate throwing Hardin’s father’s title around, but this is the type of thing that would jolt her.

Probably because he heard the break in my voice, Hardin comes out of the bedroom with a worried expression. He comes over and stands beside me and tries to pull me back from my mother, just like last time.

“Oh, great! And here’s the man of the hour,” my mother mocks, and gestures wildly at him. “His father is not the chancellor.” She half-laughs.

My face is red and soaked with tears, but I couldn’t care less. “Yes, he is. Shocked? If you weren’t so busy being a judgmental bitch, you could have talked to him and found that out. You know what? You don’t even deserve to know him. He has been there for me in ways you never were, and there is nothing—and I mean nothing—you can do to keep me away from him!”

“You do not speak to me that way!” she screams and steps closer. “You think just because you got yourself a fancy little apartment and put some eyeliner on that you are suddenly a woman? Honey, I hate to break it to you, but you look like a whore, living with someone at eighteen!”

Hardin’s eyes narrow at her in warning, but she ignores him.

“You better end this before you lose your virtue, Tessa. Just take a look in the mirror, then look at him! You two look ridiculous together; you had Noah, who was great for you, and you threw him out for . . . this!” She gestures to Hardin.

“Noah has nothing to do with this,” I say.

Hardin’s jaw clenches and I silently beg him not to say anything.

“Noah loves you, and I know you love him. Now stop this rebellious charade and come with me. I will get you back into your dorm, and Noah will certainly forgive you.” She reaches a hand out authoritatively, as if I’ll take it and stroll out of here with her.

I grab the bottom of my shirt with my fists. “You are so insane. Honestly, Mother, listen to yourself! I don’t want to come with you. I live here with Hardin and I love him. Not Noah. I care for Noah, but it was only your influence that made me think I loved him because I felt like I should. I am sorry, but I love Hardin and he loves me.”

“Tessa! He doesn’t love you—he is only going to stay around until he gets into your pants. Open your eyes, little girl!”

Something about the way she just called me “little girl” sends me over the edge.

“He has already gotten into my pants, and guess what! He’s still around!” I shout. Hardin and my mother share the same shocked expression, but my mother’s turns to disgust while Hardin’s turns to a sympathetic frown.

“I’ll tell you one thing, Theresa. When he breaks your heart and you have

nowhere to go . . . you better not come to me.”

“Oh, trust me, I wouldn’t. This is why you’ll always be alone. You have no control over me anymore—I am an adult. Just because you couldn’t control my father doesn’t give you the right to try to control me!” As soon as the words leave my mouth I regret them. I know bringing my father into this is low, too low. Before I can apologize, I feel her hand connect with my cheek. The shock is more painful than the assault.

Hardin steps between us and puts his hand on her shoulder. My face stings and I bite my lip to keep from crying harder.

“If you don’t get the fuck out of our apartment, I will call the police,” he warns her. The calm tone of his voice sends chills down my spine, and I notice my mother shiver, his tone clearly unnerving her, too.

“You wouldn’t.”

“You just put your hands on her, right in front of me, and you think I wouldn’t call the police on you? If you weren’t her mum, I would do much worse than that. Now you have five seconds to get out,” he says, and I stare at my mother with wide eyes and bring my hand to my burning skin.

I don’t like the way he threatened her, but I want her to leave. After a challenging staring match between the two of them, Hardin growls, “Two seconds.”

She huffs and heads toward the door, the loud clamor of her heels echoing off the concrete floor.

“I hope you’re happy with your decision, Theresa,” she says and slams the door.

Hardin’s arms wrap around me in the most comforting and reassuring embrace, and it’s exactly what I need right now.

“I’m so sorry, baby,” he says into my hair.

“I’m sorry that she said those terrible things about you.” My need to defend him is stronger than any concern for myself or my mother.

“Shh. Don’t worry about me. People say shit about me all the time,” he reminds me.

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

“Tessa, please don’t worry about me right now. What do you need? Can I do anything for you?” he asks.

“Maybe some ice?” I choke.

“Sure, baby.” He kisses my forehead and walks over to the fridge.

I knew her coming here wouldn’t end well, but I hadn’t expected it to be as bad as it was. On one hand I am beyond proud of myself for standing up to her, but at the same time I feel terribly guilty for what I said about my father. I know

it wasn’t her fault that he left, and it’s never been lost on me that she’s been terribly lonely for the last eight years. She has never even gone on a date since him; she’s dedicated all of her time to me, grooming me into the woman she wanted me to be. She wants me to be just like her, and that just isn’t going to work for me. I respect her and how hard she worked, but I need to carve my own path and she has to see that she can’t make up for her mistakes through me. I make too many of my own mistakes for that to work, anyway. I wish she could be happy for me and see how much I love Hardin. I know his appearance shocks her, but if she would just take the time to try to get to know him, I’m sure she would love him as much I do.

As long as he could contain his rudeness . . . which isn’t likely, but I have noticed the small changes in him. Like the way he holds my hand in public and the way he leans down to kiss me nearly every time I pass him in the hallway of our apartment. Maybe I am the only person he will ever let inside, the only one who he reveals secrets to, and the only one he loves, but that’s fine with me. To be honest, the selfish part of me kind of enjoys it.

Hardin pulls the chair out next to me and puts the makeshift ice pack against my cheek. The soft kitchen towel wrapped around it feels great against my sensitive skin.

“I can’t believe she smacked me,” I say slowly. The towel drops onto the tile floor and he reaches down to pick it up.

“Me either. I thought I was going to lose it,” he says and looks into my eyes. “I thought you were too,” I admit and give him a weak smile.

I feel like today has been dragging on for too long; it has been the longest and most draining day of my life. I’m exhausted and I just want to be carried away. Preferably into bed with Hardin, to forget about the downfall of my relationship with my mother.

“I love you too much, or trust me, I would have.” He smiles back and kisses both of my closed eyelids.

I choose to believe that he wouldn’t actually do anything to her, that he is just speaking metaphorically. Somehow I know that even through all his rage he wouldn’t do something terrible, and that makes me love him more. I have come to learn that when it comes to me, Hardin is more bark than bite.

“I really want to go to bed,” I tell him and he nods. “Of course.”

I pull the blanket back before lying on my side of the bed. “Do you think she will always be this way?” I ask Hardin.

He shrugs, tossing a spare pillow onto the floor. “I would say no, that people change and mature. But I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

I lie down on my stomach, burying my face in my pillow.

“Hey,” Hardin says softly against my neck, trailing a finger down the curve of my back. I roll over, sighing as I take in the concern in his eyes.

“I’m fine,” I lie. I need a distraction. I lift my hand to his face, brushing my thumb over the curve of his full lips. I tilt the metal ring to the side and he smiles.

“Having fun staring at me like I’m some science experiment?” he teases.

I nod, wiggling the metal between my fingers and using my other hand to touch the ring in his brow.

“Good to know.” He rolls his eyes and takes my thumb between his teeth before I can pull away. I jerk back, hitting my hand against the headboard.

I move to swat at him, the way I often do, and he grabs my sore hand between both of his and brings it to his mouth. I pout playfully until his tongue swirls around the tip of my index finger in the most provocative way. He continues this across each fingertip until I’m a panting, needy mess—How does he do this? Such odd acts of affection from him affect me so intensely.

“Feel good?” he asks, dropping my hand onto my lap. I nod again, at a loss for words. “Want more?” He swipes his tongue across his lips, wetting them. I nod again.

“Words, baby,” he insists.

“Yes. More, please.” My brain clearly doesn’t work. I lean into him, needing his touch, needing him to continue the distraction. He shifts on the bed, tugging at the strings of my pajama pants with one hand and pushing his hair back from his forehead with the other. My panties are pulled down and left at my ankles as my pants hit the floor. He leans in, settling between my spread thighs.

“Did you know that the clitoris on the female body was made strictly for pleasure? It has no purpose beyond that,” he informs me, pressing his thumb against the bud. I groan, pushing my head into the pillow. “It’s true; I read it somewhere.”

Playboy?” I tease, struggling to form a thought, let alone words.

He seems to find that amusing and he smirks while lowering his head. The moment his tongue finds my sex, I grip at the sheets and he works quickly, combining his fingers with his perfect mouth. I push my hands into his hair, silently thanking whoever it was who discovered this knowledge as Hardin brings me to orgasm, twice.

Hardin holds me tight all night long and whispers how much he loves me. As I start to drift off, I think about the day we just had: my relationship with my mother is damaged, possibly beyond repair, and Hardin shared more information about his childhood with me.

My dreams are clouded by a scared curly haired boy crying out for his mother.

THE NEXT MORNING I am pleased to see that my mother’s assault has not left any visible marks. My chest still hurts from the collapse of our already crumbling relationship, but I refuse to dwell on that today.

I take a shower and curl my hair, pinning it up so it isn’t in my way as I apply my makeup and pull Hardin’s shirt from yesterday over my head. I put little kisses all over Hardin’s shoulders and ears to wake him up, and when my stomach grumbles I pad into the kitchen to make us some breakfast. I want to start the day in the best way I can so we can both remain happy and calm before the wedding. By the time I finish my self-imposed kitchen therapy, I am pretty proud of the meal I have prepared. The counter is filled with bacon, eggs, toast, pancakes, and even hash browns. I made way too much food for the two of us, but Hardin usually eats an enormous amount anyway, so there shouldn’t be too much left.

I feel strong arms wrap around my waist. “Whoa . . . what is all this?” he asks in a raspy, sleep-filled voice. “This is exactly why I wanted to live together,” he says into my neck.

“Why? So I could make you breakfast?” I laugh.

“No . . . well, yes. That and waking up to seeing you half dressed in the kitchen.” He nips at my neck. He attempts to lift up the hem of the T-shirt and squeeze the top of my thighs.

I spin and wave a spatula in his face. “Hands to yourself until after breakfast, Scott.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He chuckles and grabs a plate, piling it with food.

After breakfast, I force Hardin to take a shower despite his efforts to drag me back to the bed. His dark confession and the fight with my mother seem to be forgotten in the morning light. My breath is lost in my chest when Hardin walks out of the bedroom in his outfit for the wedding. The black dress pants are snug but hang off his hips in the most delicious way, and his tie is hanging around his neck while his white button-down shirt is undone, revealing his gorgeous, toned torso.

“I . . . uhh . . . I actually have no idea how to tie a tie.” He shrugs.

My mouth is dry and I can’t stop staring at him, so I choke out, “I can help you.” Thankfully, Hardin doesn’t ask where I learned to tie a tie, since his mood would turn sour quickly at the mention of Noah. “You look so handsome,” I tell him when I finish. He shrugs and puts the black jacket on, completing the look.

His cheeks flame and I can’t help but laugh at the unexpected emotion. I can

tell he feels completely out of his element being dressed this way—and it’s adorable.

“Why aren’t you dressed?” he asks.

“I was waiting until the last minute, since my dress is all white,” I tell him and he mocks me playfully.

Finally, after another check of my makeup and grabbing my shoes, I do put the dress on. It’s even shorter than I remember, but Hardin seems to approve. His eyes never leave my chest after catching sight of my strapless bra. He always makes me feel so beautiful and wanted.

“As long as all the men there are my father’s age, we shouldn’t have a problem.” He smirks and zips me up. I roll my eyes and he kisses my bare shoulder before I unclip my hair, letting my long curls fall down my shoulders. The pale fabric of the dress is tight against my body, and I smile at the reflection of Hardin and me in the mirror.

“You are absolutely stunning,” he tells me, kissing me again.

We scramble around and make sure we have everything we need for the wedding, including the invitation and a congratulations card I bought. As I put my phone into a small clutch bag, Hardin grabs me by the waist.

“Smile,” he says and pulls out his phone. “I thought you didn’t take pictures.”

“I told you I would take one, so let’s take one.” His smile is goofy and youthful and it makes my heart swell.

I smile and lean into Hardin as he snaps our picture. “One more,” he instructs and I stick my tongue out at the last moment. He captured it at the right moment, my tongue on his cheek and his eyes wide and full of humor.

“That’s my favorite,” I tell him. “There are only two.”

“Yeah, but still.” I kiss him and he snaps another.

“Accident,” he lies, and I hear him take another as I give him a look.

NEAR HIS FATHER’S HOUSE, Hardin stops to get gas so we don’t have to on the way home. As he is filling up, a familiar car pulls into the parking lot, with Nate in the front seat. Zed parks his car two pumps over from Hardin’s and gets out to go inside.

I gasp when I get a good look at him: his lip is swollen, and both his eyes are black and blue. His cheek has a deep purple bruise, and when he notices Hardin’s car a furious scowl takes over his handsome, damaged face. What the hell? He doesn’t say anything at all, or even acknowledge Hardin and me.

Within seconds, Hardin climbs back into the car and takes my hand. I look down at our intertwined fingers and gasp, my eyes trailing over his busted knuckles.

“You!” I say and he raises his brow. “You beat him up, didn’t you? That’s who you fought and that’s why he just ignored us!”

“Would you calm down?” Hardin barks and rolls up my window before pulling out of the lot.

“Hardin . . .” I look over to where Zed has disappeared inside, then back at Hardin.

“Can we please talk about it after the wedding? I’m already on edge. Please?” he begs and I nod.

“Fine. After the wedding,” I agree and gently squeeze the hand of his that did so much damage to my friend.

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