Chapter 93 – After

Chapter 93 – After

Clearly trying to change the subject, Hardin asks, “So now that we have our own place, I assume you don’t want to stay at my father’s house tonight still?”

I force Zed’s beaten face to the back of my mind. “You’d assume correctly.” I smile. “Unless Karen asks us to; you know I won’t say no,” I tell him.

I am nervous to see Ken after what Hardin told me last night. I am trying to clear it from my mind, but it’s harder to accomplish than I thought.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” he says and reaches for the radio.

I look over at him and he holds his finger up to tell me to wait. “I decided to give the Fray another try,” he informs me.

“Really? And when did you decide this?” I question.

“Well, after our first date at the stream, but I didn’t open the CD until last week,” he admits.

“That was not a date,” I tease and he chuckles. “You let me finger you. I would say that’s a date.”

He grabs my hand as I try to swat him and kisses my palm. I giggle and wrap my fingers around his slender ones. Images of me lying on the wet T-shirt while Hardin gave me my first orgasm flood my thoughts and Hardin smirks.

“That was fun, huh?” he boasts and I laugh.

“Anyway, tell me your evolved opinion on the Fray,” I request.

“Well, they are not so bad, actually. There is one song that really sticks with me.”

Now I am even more curious. “Really?”

“Yeah . . .” he says and his eyes flicker to the road before he presses the button on his radio. Music floods through the small space and I immediately smile.

“It’s called ‘Never Say Never,’” Hardin says, as if it’s new information to me and not already one of my favorites.

We listen to the lyrics silently and I can’t fight the silly grin on my face. I know he is slightly embarrassed by playing this song for me, so I don’t discuss it. I simply enjoy this tender moment with Hardin.

The rest of the drive is filled with Hardin flipping through songs on the album, telling me what he thinks of each one. This small but meaningful gesture means more to me than he will ever know. I love these moments when he shows me a new side of himself. This side is one of my new favorites.

When we arrive at his father’s house, the street is full of cars. Stepping out, I feel the crisp wind blow through me, and I shiver. The thin jacket I wore over my dress doesn’t offer me and my small dress much protection, really. Hardin shrugs out of his jacket and lays it over my shoulders. It’s surprisingly warm and smells like him, my favorite scent.

“Well . . . look at you being such a gentleman. Who would have thought?” I tease.

“Don’t make me take you back to the car and fuck you,” he says, and I make a noise between a gasp and squeak, which he finds very amusing. “Do you think you have room in that . . . purse thing . . . to hold my phone?” he asks.

“It’s a clutch, and yes.” I smile and hold my hand out. He places the phone in my palm, and as I push it into the small purse, I notice his background is no longer plain gray. The small screen holds the picture of me that he snapped while I was talking to him in the room. My lips are slightly parted and my eyes are full of life. My cheeks have a warm glow; it’s strange to see myself that way. This is what he does to me—he makes me come alive.

“I love you,” I tell him and close the bag without putting him on the spot about his new background.

Inside, Ken and Karen’s large house is full of people, and Hardin grips my hand tightly after retrieving his jacket and putting it back on.

“Let’s try to find Landon,” I suggest.

Hardin gives me a nod and leads the way. We end up finding his stepbrother in the living room next to the china cabinet that replaced the one Hardin broke the first night I came here. Which seems so long ago. Landon is surrounded by a group of men who all look to be at least sixty, and one of them has his hand on Landon’s shoulder. A smile appears on his face when he spots us, and he excuses himself from their conversation. He looks very handsome in a suit similar to Hardin’s.

“Whoa, I never thought I’d live to see you in a suit and tie.” Landon laughs. “If you keep talking about it, you won’t live much longer,” Hardin threatens,

but there’s humor behind his words as he smiles. I can tell he is warming up to Landon, and that makes me happy. Landon is one of my closest friends, and I really care for him.

“My mother will be thrilled. And Tessa, you look beautiful,” he says and pulls me in for a hug. Hardin doesn’t let go of my hand while I try to hug Landon back, so I do my best with one arm.

“Who are all these people?” I ask. I know Ken and Karen have been here only a little over a year, so it’s astounding that there are at least two hundred people here.

“Most of them are Ken’s friends from the university, and the rest are friends and family. I only know about half of them.” He laughs. “Would you guys like a drink? Everyone will be going outside in about ten minutes.”

“Whose bright idea was it to have an outdoor wedding in December?” Hardin complains.

“My mother’s,” Landon says. “Besides, the tents are heated, obviously.” He looks around at the crowd, then back at Hardin. “You should go let your father know that you are here. He’s upstairs. My mother is hiding somewhere with my aunt.”

“Um . . . I think I’ll just stay down here,” Hardin replies.

I caress his hand with my thumb; he gives me an appreciative squeeze, and Landon nods. “Well, I have to go for now, but I will see you after,” he says and leaves us with a smile.

“Do you want to go outside now?” I ask Hardin and he nods. “I love you,” I tell him.

He smiles, full dimples. “I love you, Tess,” he says and plants a kiss on my cheek.

Hardin opens the back door and gives me his jacket once again. Stepping out, I see that the backyard has been wonderfully transformed. Two large tents take up most of the yard, and hanging from the trees and the patio are hundreds of small glowing lanterns. Even in the daylight, they are beautiful, and it’s all quite a sight to behold.

“I think it’s this one,” Hardin says and gestures to the smaller of the two tents. We squeeze through the part in the flaps, and indeed he is right. Rows of wooden chairs face a simple altar, with beautiful white flowers hung on some walls and all the guests in black-and-white attire. About half the seats are full, so we take a seat in the second-to-last row, because I know Hardin doesn’t want to

be up close.

“I never thought I would be attending my father’s wedding,” he says to me.

“I know. I am incredibly proud of you for coming. It will mean so much to them. It maybe sounds like you think it will be good for you, too.” I lean my head on his shoulder, and he snakes his arm around me.

We begin to talk about the beautiful way this tent has been decorated, in all black and white. Simple and elegant. Its simplicity makes me feel even more like I’ve been invited to an intimate, personal moment in his family, despite the large number of guests.

“I guess the reception is in the other tent?” he says and twirls a piece of my hair between his thumb and index finger.

“I think so. I bet it’s even more beautiful than—”

“Hardin? Is that you?” a woman’s voice says. We both turn our heads to the left. An elderly woman in a black-and-white floral dress and flat shoes stares at us with wide eyes. “Oh my heavens, it is you!” she gasps. Her gray hair is swept back into a simple bun, and her minimal makeup makes her look healthy, radiant.

For his part, all the color has drained from Hardin’s face as he stands up and greets her. “Gammy.”

She pulls him in for a tight hug. “I can’t believe you’re here. I haven’t seen you in years. Look at you, you handsome boy. Well, man, now. I can’t believe how tall you are! And what are these?” She scowls and points at his facial piercings.

He flushes and gives out an uncomfortable laugh. “How have you been?” he asks her and shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet.

“I am good, dear—I’ve missed you so much,” she says and pats the corners of her eyes. After a beat, she dramatically looks around him at me and asks with notable interest, “And who is this lovely young woman?”

“Oh . . . sorry. This is Tess . . . Tessa. My . . . girlfriend,” he answers. “Tessa, this is my gammy . . . my grandma.”

I smile and stand up. The thought of meeting Hardin’s grandparents had never crossed my mind. I had assumed they were dead, like mine. He has never brought them up, but that isn’t surprising. I suppose I haven’t, either.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” I say to her and reach to shake her hand, but she has other plans and pulls me in for a hug and kisses my cheek.

“The pleasure is all mine. What a beautiful girl you are!” she says in an accent even thicker than Hardin’s. “My name is Adele, but you will call me Gammy.”

“Thank you,” I say, blushing.

She claps her hands in glee. “I just can’t believe you are here. Have you seen your father recently? Does he know you are here?” she asks, looking back at


Hardin bashfully puts his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, he knows. I have sort of been coming here lately.”

“Well, that is so great to hear. I had no idea,” she says and I can tell she is on the brink of tears again.

“Okay, everyone, if you could all take a seat, the ceremony will begin shortly,” a man with a microphone says from the raised platform up front.

Gammy pulls Hardin by the arm before he can protest. “Come sit with the family—you two shouldn’t be all the way back here.” He looks back at me and gives me a look that says “help me,” but I just smile and follow them to the front. We take a seat next to someone who looks a lot like Karen and I assume is her sister. Hardin takes my hand in his, and his grandmother looks down and smiles at our affection before putting her hand on his other one. He stiffens a little but doesn’t remove it.

Ken walks to his place, and the look on his face when he spots his son sitting in the front row is indescribable: heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Hardin even gives him a small smile, which Ken happily returns. Landon stands next to Ken on the stage, but Hardin doesn’t seem to mind; he would never have agreed to be up there anyway.

When Karen enters, a collective sigh sounds through the room. She looks so beautiful as she walks down the aisle. Her face when she spots her groom makes me lean into Hardin’s shoulder. Happiness is radiating off of her, and her smile lights up the tent. Her dress is brushing against the floor, and her cheeks are glowing, adding to the ambience.

The ceremony is beautiful and I find myself with wet cheeks when Ken’s voice cracks into a small sob as he recites his vows to his bride. Hardin looks over at me and smiles, removing his hand from mine and wiping my cheeks. Karen makes a beautiful bride and their first kiss as husband and wife earns cheers and applause from the crowd.

“Sap,” Hardin teases as I lay my head on his shoulder while the crowd files out.

After a bit, we accompany Hardin’s grandma to the other tent, and I was right

—it’s even more beautiful than the first one. Up near the walls of this tent are tables draped with white cloth and topped with black napkins and centerpieces of black and white flowers. The ceiling is covered in lanterns just like the yard, and they cast a subtle glow throughout the room, reflecting nicely off the glassware and glossy white plates. The middle of the tent is cleared for what appears to be a dance floor with black and white tiles, and waiters are standing at the ready, waiting for everyone to get their seats.

“Now, don’t you disappear. I want to see you again tonight,” Hardin’s grandmother says and leaves us.

“This is the fanciest wedding I have been to,” he says and looks at the white cloth draped across the ceiling.

“I haven’t been to a wedding since I was a child,” I tell him and he smiles. “I like that,” he says and kisses my cheek.

I am not used to his public displays of affection, but I could get used to them quickly.

“Like what?” I ask as he sits down at one of the tables.

“That you haven’t been to a wedding with Noah,” he says and I laugh to avoid frowning.

“Me, too,” I assure him and he smiles.

THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS. I go for the chicken, and Hardin chooses the steak. They set things up in a buffet line to keep it casual, but the food is anything but. I drag a piece of chicken through the creamy sauce and bring the fork to my mouth—but Hardin snatches it from me, smiling as he chews the bite. He coughs a little, trying to master chewing and laughing at once.

“That’s what you get for stealing my food,” I tease him, popping a new piece into my mouth before he can grab it.

He laughs, leaning into my shoulder, and I catch the woman across from us staring. Her expression isn’t amused as she watches Hardin press his lips against my shoulder. I stare back at her equally harshly and she looks away.

“Do you want me to get you another plate?” I ask Hardin, loud enough for the rude woman to hear my offer. She looks over at the man next to her and raises a brow. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention to her, which annoys her further. I smile and place my hand over Hardin’s. He’s as oblivious as the man across the table, and I’m glad.

“Uh, yeah, sure. Thank you.”

I lean down to kiss his cheek and make my way back to the line for food. “Tessa?” a familiar voice calls. I look over to see Mr. Vance and Trevor

standing a few feet away. “Hello.” I smile.

“You look breathtaking,” Trevor says, and I thank him quietly. “How are you enjoying your weekend?” Mr. Vance asks me.

“It’s great. I’ve been enjoying my weeks of late as well,” I assure him. “Oh, sure.” He laughs and grabs himself a plate.

“No red meat!” Kimberly says from behind him. He pretends to shoot himself

in the temple, and she blows him a kiss. Kimberly and Mr. Vance? Who would have thought? I will have to press her for details on Monday.

“Women,” he teases and fills her plate as I do Hardin’s.

“I’ll see you in a few.” He smiles and walks back to his date. She waves at me and gets the young boy on her lap to do the same. I wave back, wondering suddenly if she has a child.

Trevor leans in and answers my thoughts. “It’s his son.” “Oh,” I say and look away from Kimberly.

Trevor keeps his eyes on Mr. Vance. “His wife passed away five years ago, right after he was born. He hasn’t dated anyone until Kim, and they’ve only been seeing each other for a few months, but he is head over heels for her.” He turns to me and smiles.

“Well, now I know who to hit up for all the office gossip,” I joke and we both laugh.

“Babe . . .” Hardin says and wraps his arm around my waist, clearly in an attempt to claim his territory.

“Nice to see you. Hardin, is it?” Trevor asks.

“Yeah,” Hardin answers shortly. “We better get back to our seats; Landon is looking for you.” He pulls me closer to him, silently dismissing Trevor.

“I’ll see you later, Trevor!” I smile politely and hand Hardin his plate of food as we walk back to the table.

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