Chapter 97 – After

Chapter 97 – After

Everything is happening too fast for me to comprehend. I’m confused, and when I look around the room, I see that I’m surrounded by people who have taunted me no matter hard I tried to fit in with them, and I know that I can’t trust a single one of them.

What’s going on? Why is Hardin just standing there? What’s happening?

“I second that,” Jace chimes in and lifts his beer in salute. “Go on, Hardin, tell her.”

“I . . . I will tell you outside,” Hardin says, his voice low.

I look into his brilliant eyes, which seem wild with desperation and confusion. I don’t know what is going on, but I do know I don’t want to go anywhere with him.

“No, you tell me here. In front of them so you can’t lie.” My heart is already aching and I know that I am not prepared for whatever he is getting ready to tell me.

He pauses, fidgeting with his fingers before he speaks. “I’m sorry.” He holds his hands out in front of him. “Tessa, you have to remember that this was way before I even knew you.” His eyes are begging for mercy.

I don’t trust my voice, and I barely open my mouth when I speak. “Tell me.” “That night . . . that second night . . . the second party you came to, when we

played Truth or Dare . . . and Nate asked if you were a virgin . . .” He closes his eyes as if to gather his thoughts.

Oh no. If it was possible for my heart to sink even lower, it would have. This

isn’t happening. This can’t be happening. Not right now. Not to me.

“Go on . . .” Jace says and leans forward like this is the best thing he’s ever seen. Hardin shoots him daggers, and I know that if Hardin weren’t in the middle of single-handedly destroying our relationship, he would kill that vile man on the spot.

“You said you were . . . and that gave someone an idea—” “Gave who the idea?” Molly interrupts.

“Me . . . gave me the idea,” he admits. His eyes never leave mine. Which doesn’t make this any easier. “That . . . it could be fun to make . . . to make a bet.” His head falls, and tears pour from my eyes.

“No,” I choke and take a step backward.

Confusion rams into my already-jumbled thoughts, disrupting any attempt to make sense of them, to make sense of what I’m hearing. Confusion is quickly replaced by a burning mixture of pain and anger. All of the memories flooding through me pile and piece together . . .

“Stay away from him.” “Be careful.” “Sometimes you think you know people, but you don’t.” “But Tessa, I need to tell you something.”

All of the small remarks that were made by Molly, Jace, and even Hardin himself play over and over. There was always something in the back of my mind, a feeling that I was missing something. All of the air seems to be sucked out of the small room, and I find myself almost gasping as the reality of all this sets in. There were so many clues; I just was too blinded by Hardin to see them.

Why would he take it this far? To have me live with him?

“You knew?” I turn to Steph. I can’t look at Hardin any longer.

“I . . . I was going to tell you so many times, Tess,” she says, her eyes brimming with guilty tears.

“I didn’t believe it when he claimed he won, even with the condom,” Jace snickers, enjoying the show.

“Right? Me, either! The sheets, though. I mean, how can you deny blood on the sheets!” Molly laughs.

The sheets. That’s why they were still in his car . . .

I know I should be saying something, anything, but I can’t find my voice. Everything is still moving around me; people in the bar are eating and drinking, not noticing the naïve girl ten feet away from them having her heart shattered. How is it possible that time still moves as I stand here watching Tristan bow his head, watching Steph cry, and, most of all, watching Hardin watch me.

“Tessa, I am so sorry.” He takes a step toward me, but I can’t even move my feet to run away like I need to.

Molly’s harpy voice breaks through the air. “You know, there is a sort of

drama here that everyone has to appreciate. I mean, remember last time we were all here and Steph gave Tessa that ridiculous makeover, and Hardin and Zed were trying to battle over who took her back to her room?” She laughs, then continues: “Then Hardin showed up to your room, right? With that vodka! You thought he was drunk! Do you remember when I called him when he was there?” For a moment she looks at me like she actually expects I’ll answer her. “But really he was supposed to win the bet that night. He was pretty cocky about it, but Zed kept saying you wouldn’t give it up that quick. I guess Zed was right, but you still gave it up quicker than I thought you would, so I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t bet any money . . .”

Molly’s terrible sounds and Hardin’s eyes are the only thing in the bar.

I have never felt this way before. This level of humiliation and loss is worse than I could ever have imagined. Hardin has been playing me this entire time; this was all a game to him. All the hugs, the kisses, the smiles, the laughs, the “I love you’s,” the sex, the plans—and fuck if this doesn’t burn like nothing else in the world. He had every move planned, every night, every single detail, and everyone knew except me. Even Steph, who I thought was becoming a friend. I glance at him, allowing myself a moment of weakness during the shock, and I wish I hadn’t. He’s just standing there—standing there like my entire world isn’t crashing around me and he hasn’t completely humiliated me in front of everyone.

“You’d be happy to know that you were worth a pretty penny, though, even though Zed tried to bitch out a few times. But with Jace, Logan, and Zed’s money, I hope he at least bought you dinner!” Molly says, laughing.

Jace finishes his beer and howls. “I’m only disappointed that I missed the infamous I Love You! announcement in front of everyone. I heard that was a killer.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Tristan surprises everyone by yelling. If I wasn’t numb, he may have surprised me, too. “Fuck you guys. She has already had enough!”

Hardin takes another step. “Baby, please say something.”

And with his little “baby” plea, my brain finally connects with my mouth. “Don’t you fucking dare call me that! How could you do this to me? You . . . you . . . I can’t . . .” I have so many things in my head to say, but they just won’t come out. “And I won’t say anything, because that’s what you want.” I sound much more confident than I feel inside. Inside I am burning, and my heart is on the floor, underneath Hardin’s boot.

“I know I messed up—” he begins.

“You messed up? You messed up?” I scream. “Why? Just tell me why. Why me?”

“Because you were there,” he says. And his honesty only breaks me further. “And a challenge. I didn’t know you, Tessa. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with you.”

His mention of love carries with it the opposite feeling than it has the past few weeks, and I can taste the bile in the back of my throat. “You’re sick. You’re fucking sick!” I scream and rush to the door.

This is too much for me. Hardin’s hand wraps around my arm and I jerk away, turning and slapping him. Hard.

The pain in his expression gives me the most painful satisfaction.

“You ruined everything!” I scream. “You took something from me that wasn’t yours, Hardin. That was meant for someone who loved me, loved me truthfully. It was his, whoever he is, and you took that—for money? I ruined my relationship with my mother for you. I gave up everything! I had someone who loved me, someone who wouldn’t hurt me the way you did. You are disgusting.”

“I do love you, Tessa. I love you more than anything. I was going to tell you. I tried to get them not to tell you. I never wanted you to find out. That’s why I was out all night, getting them to agree not to say anything. I was going to tell you soon, now that we live together, because then it wouldn’t matter.”

I have no control over the words tumbling from my lips. “Are you . . . you . . . oh my God, Hardin! What the hell is wrong with you? You think going around convincing people to not tell me is okay? The fact that I wouldn’t know would make it all okay? You thought that if we lived together, I would let this go? That’s why you were so determined for my name to be on the lease! Oh my God. You are sick!”

Every small detail that made me think twice since I met Hardin all points to this. It was so obvious. “That’s why you went and got my stuff for me from my room, because you were afraid Steph would tell me!”

Everyone in the bar is staring and I feel so small, so broken and small. “What did you do with the money, Hardin?”

“I—” he begins, then stops. “Tell me,” I demand.

“Your car . . . the paint . . . and the deposit for the apartment. I thought if I . . . I was going to tell you so many times, once I knew it wasn’t just a bet anymore. I love you—I loved you the entire time, I swear it,” he says.

“You kept the condom to show them, Hardin! You showed them the sheets, the bloody fucking sheets!” I wrap my hands in my hair and tug at it. “Oh my God! I’m such an idiot. While I was reliving every detail of the best night of my life, you were showing your friends the sheets.”

“I know . . . I don’t have any excuse . . . but you have to forgive me. We can

figure this out,” he says.

And I laugh. A real laugh. Despite my tears, I find myself laughing; I’m losing my mind. This scene isn’t playing out like in the movies. I’m not holding myself together. I’m not handling the news elegantly with a simple gasp or a single tear trailing down my cheek. I am crying, pulling at my own hair, and am barely able to control my emotions and form a full sentence.

“Forgive you?” I laugh madly. “You have ruined my entire life—you know that, don’t you? Oh, of course you do. That was your plan the entire time, remember? You promised you would ‘ruin me.’ So congratulations, Hardin, you have. What should I give you, money? Or should I find another virgin for you?”

He shifts a little, as if to block out my view of the others at the table. “Tessa, please. You know I love you, I know you do. Let’s go home, please, and I will tell you everything.”

“Home? That isn’t my home. It never has been; we both know that.” I try for the door again. I am so close.

“What can I do? I’ll do anything,” he begs. With his eyes still focused on mine, he bends down. I’m confused for a second before I realize he is getting on his knees in front of me.

“You? Nothing. There is nothing you can do for me anymore, Hardin.”

If I knew what to say to hurt him as badly as he has hurt me, I would. And I would repeat it a thousand times, just so he would know how it feels to be so completely blindsided and ripped apart.

I take off for the door, taking advantage of Hardin’s position on his knees. As soon as I reach the door, I crash into someone. I look up to find Zed, his battered face still recovering from the injuries that Hardin caused.

“What’s wrong?” he asks and grabs my elbows. Then his gaze travels behind me to Hardin and realization fills his eyes.

“I’m sorry . . .” he says, but I ignore him. Hardin is coming, and I have to get the hell away from this bar, from him.

The freezing air whips my hair in front of my face as soon as I get outside. I welcome the feeling, hoping it will cool the burning inside me. Snow has blanketed my car and the streets.

Zed’s voice calls from behind me, “You can’t drive, Tessa.” I keep trudging through the snow, across the parking lot.

“Leave me alone! I know you were in on it! You all were!” I scream and dig for my keys.

“Let me take you home—you are in no condition to drive in this storm,” he says. As I open my mouth to scream at him, Hardin walks outside.

I look at the person I once thought was the love of my life, who I thought

would make every day after we met special, and wild, and free. And then I look at Zed.

“Okay,” I say.

The click of Zed’s car being unlocked is my cue to get in as fast as I can. The second Hardin realizes that I’m leaving with Zed, he runs toward the car. His face twists in anger, and I hope for Zed’s sake he gets into the car before Hardin reaches us.

Zed jumps in and takes off. I look over and watch Hardin fall to his knees for the second time tonight.

“I am so sorry, Tessa. I had no idea it would get that out of hand—” he starts, but I cut him off.

“Don’t talk to me.”

I can’t stand to hear any more. I can’t take it. I’m sick to my stomach, and the pain of Hardin’s betrayal is cutting at me, making me weaker and weaker by the moment. I’m convinced that if Zed speaks, there will be nothing left of me. I need to know why Hardin did what he did, but I’m honestly terrified what will happen if I hear it, all of it. I haven’t felt pain like this before and I’m not sure how to handle it, or if I can at all. Zed nods, and we drive in silence for a few minutes. I think of Hardin, of Molly, of Jace and the rest, and something in me shifts. Something makes me braver. “You know what?” I turn to him. “Do talk to me. Tell me everything. Every single detail.”

With worried eyes he searches my face for a moment, and then, realizing he has no choice, says a quiet “Okay” as we turn onto the freeway.

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