After (The After Series) by Anna Todd


  I smile back at him, relieved by his words. I wipe away the tear that escaped prematurely and with it goes my worry.

  I don’t know what it is about Hardin that makes me so emotional, in every way possible. The idea of him using me makes me more upset than it should. My feelings for Hardin are so confusing. I hate him one minute and want to kiss him the next. He makes me feel things I never knew I could, and not just sexually. He makes me laugh and cry, yell and scream, but most of all he makes me feel alive.

  chapter twenty-six

  Hardin’s hand is still on my thigh and I hope he never removes it. I take a quick opportunity to study some of the tattoos covering his arms. The infinity symbol above his wrist catches my eye again, and I can’t help but wonder if it means something to him. It feels personal, inked there, just above the bare skin on his hand. I check his other wrist for a matching symbol but there isn’t one. The infinity symbol is common enough, mostly among women, but the way the two loops on the ends are hearts makes me even more curious.

  “So what type of food do you like?” he asks.

  What a refreshingly normal question for him to ask me. I pull my matted, almost dry hair into a bun and think for a second about what I want to eat. “Well, I like anything, really, as long as I know what it is—and it doesn’t involve ketchup.”

  He laughs. “You don’t like ketchup? Aren’t all Americans supposed to be wild for the stuff?” he teases.

  “I have no idea, but it’s disgusting.”

  We both laugh and I look over at Hardin, who says, “Let’s just stick with a plain diner then?”

  I nod and he reaches to turn the music up but stops and puts his hand back on me. “So what do you plan on doing after college?” he asks; it’s something he’s already asked me before, in his room.

  “I’m going to move to Seattle immediately, and I hope to work at a publishing house or be a writer. I know it’s silly,” I say, suddenly embarrassed by my high ambitions. “But you already asked me that before, remember?”

  “No, it’s not. I know someone over at Vance Publishing House; it’s a bit of a drive, but maybe you should apply there for an internship. I could talk to him.”

  “What? You would do that for me?” My voice goes high because I’m pretty surprised; even if he has been nice for the last hour, this isn’t quite what I expected.

  “Yeah, it’s not a big deal.” He seems a little embarrassed. I am sure he isn’t used to doing nice things.

  “Wow, thank you. Really. I need to get a job or internship soon anyway, and that would literally be a dream come true!” I clap my hands.

  He chuckles and shakes his head. “You’re welcome.”

  We pull into a small parking lot next to an old brick building.

  “The food here is amazing,” he says and climbs out of the car. Walking around to the trunk, he opens it . . . and pulls out another plain-black T-shirt. He really must have an endless supply. I was enjoying him being shirtless so much that I forgot he would eventually have to put one back on.

  When we get inside we seat ourselves in the fairly deserted place. An old woman walks to the table and goes to hand us our menus, but he waves them off, ordering a hamburger and fries, gesturing like I should do the same. I trust him on this one and order it—minus ketchup, of course.

  While we wait, I tell Hardin about growing up in Richland, which, being from England, he’s never heard of. He isn’t missing out on much; the town is small and everyone does the same things and no one ever leaves. Everyone except me: I will never move back there. He doesn’t offer me much information about his past, but I’m hopeful and patient. He seems very curious about my life as a child and he frowns when I tell him about my dad’s drinking. I had mentioned it to him before, while we were fighting, but this time I went into a little more detail.

  During a pause in the conversation, the waitress reappears with our food, which looks delicious.

  “Good, huh?” Hardin asks as I take my first bite. I nod and wipe my mouth off. The food is amazing and we both clear our plates, me being more hungry than I’ve ever been before.

  THE DRIVE BACK TO THE DORMS is relaxed. His long fingers rub circles on my leg, and I’m disappointed to see the WCU sign when we finally hit campus and the student parking lot.

  “Did you have a nice time?” I ask him. I feel so much closer to him now than I did a few hours ago. He can be really good when he tries to be.

  “Yeah, I did, actually.” He seems surprised. “Listen, I would walk you to your room, but I don’t want to play twenty questions with Steph . . .” He smiles and turns his body sideways to face me.

  “It’s fine. I’ll just see you tomorrow,” I tell him. I’m not sure if I should try to kiss him goodbye or not, so I’m relieved when his fingers tug on a few loose strands of my hair and tuck them behind my ear. I rest my face in his palm and he leans over and touches his lips to mine. It starts as a simple and gentle kiss, but I feel it warm my entire body and I need more. Hardin grabs my arm and pulls it to gesture for me to climb over the middle divider. I quickly oblige and straddle his lap, my back hitting the steering wheel. I feel the seat recline slightly, giving us more room as I lift his shirt a little to slide my hands under it. His stomach is hard and his skin is hot. I trace my fingers along the ink there.

  His tongue massages mine and he wraps his arms around me tightly. The feeling is almost painful, but it’s a pain I will gladly endure to be this close to him. He moans into my mouth as I put my hands farther up his shirt. I love that I can make him moan, too, that I have this effect on him. I’m really about to get lost in the sensation again when we are interrupted by my phone ringing.

  “Another alarm?” he teases as I pull back and reach into my purse.

  Smiling, I open my mouth to say something smart back at him, but when I look at the screen and see it’s Noah, I stop. Looking at Hardin, I can tell he’s figured it out. His expression changes, and fearing that I’m losing him, this mood, I hit the ignore button and toss my phone back onto the passenger seat. I am not thinking about Noah right now. I push him to the back corner of my mind and lock that door.

  I lean back in to continue kissing Hardin, but he stops me.

  “I think I better go.” His tone is clipped, and sends worry through me. When I draw back to look at him, his gaze is distant and ice immediately replaces the fire in my body.

  “Hardin, I ignored it. I am going to talk to him about all this. I just don’t know how or when—but it will be soon, though, I promise.” I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that I would have to break up with Noah the moment I kissed Hardin that first time. I can’t date him if I’ve already betrayed him. It would always hang over my head like a dark cloud of guilt, and neither of us wants that. The way I feel about Hardin is another reason I can’t be with Noah anymore. I love Noah, but if I really loved him the way he deserves to be loved, I wouldn’t be having these feelings for Hardin. I don’t want to hurt Noah, but there is no turning back now.

  “Talk to him about what?” he snaps.

  “All of this.” I wave my hands around. “Us.”

  “Us? You’re not trying to tell me you’re going to break up with him . . . for me, are you?”

  My head starts to spin. I know I should climb off his lap but I am frozen.

  “You don’t . . . want me to?” My voice comes out as a whisper.

  “No, why would you? I mean, yeah, if you want to dump him, go for it, but don’t do it on my behalf.”

  “I just . . . I thought . . .” I start to fumble my words.

  “I already told you that I don’t date, Theresa,” he says.

  My body wants to freeze like a deer in headlights; the only thing that makes it possible for me to climb off him is the fact that I refuse to let him see me cry, again.

  “You’re disgusting,” I say bitterly and grab my stuff from the floorboards and my phone from the seat. Hardin looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t. “Stay away from me f
rom now on—I mean it!” I shout, and he closes his eyes.

  I walk as fast as I can to my building, to my room, somehow managing to hold in my tears until I get inside and shut the door. I am so grateful Steph’s gone as I slide down the door and break into sobs. How could I be so stupid? I knew how he was when I agreed to be alone with him, yet I practically jumped at the opportunity. Just because he was nice to me today, I got it into my head that what—that he would be my boyfriend? I laugh through my sobs at how stupid and naïve I am. I really can’t even be angry with Hardin. He told me he doesn’t date, but today we had such a nice time. He was actually pleasant and playful, and I thought we were really building a relationship of some kind.

  But it was all an act, just so he could get into my pants. And I let him.

  chapter twenty-seven

  My tears dry, and I am showered and somewhat mentally stable by the time Steph returns from the movies.

  “So, how was your . . . hangout with Hardin?” she asks and grabs her pajamas out of her dresser.

  “It was okay, he was his normal . . . charming self,” I tell her and manage a laugh. I want to tell her about what we did, but I’m too ashamed. I know she wouldn’t judge me, and despite wanting to be able to tell someone, I also really don’t want anyone to know.

  Steph looks at me with concern evident in her eyes, and I have to look away. “Just be careful, okay; you’re too nice for someone like Hardin.”

  I want to hug her and cry into her shoulder but instead ask, “How was the movie?” to change the subject. She tells me how Tristan kept feeding her popcorn and that she is really starting to like him. I want to gag, but I know I am just jealous because Tristan actually likes her in a way Hardin doesn’t like me. But I remind myself that I do have someone who loves me and that I need to start treating him better and stay away from Hardin—for real this time.

  THE NEXT MORNING I’m drained. I have no energy and feel like I could cry at any moment. My eyes are red and puffy from crying last night, so I walk over to Steph’s dresser and grab her makeup bag. I pull out brown eyeliner and draw a thin line under my eyes and on my eyelid. It makes my eyes look much better. I put a little powder under my eyes to give my skin a little color. A few swipes of mascara and I look like a new person. Pleased with the way I look, I put on my tight jeans and a tank top. Still feeling naked, I grab a white cardigan out of my closet. This is the most effort I have made in my appearance for a regular school day since picture day my senior year of high school.

  Landon texts me that we’ll have to meet in class, so when I stop by the coffeehouse I grab him a drink, too. I’m still pretty early to class, so I walk slower than usual.

  “Hey, Tessa, right?” I hear a guy’s voice say. I look over and see a preppy boy coming my way.

  “Yeah, Logan, right?” I ask him, and he nods.

  “You coming over again this weekend?” he asks. He must be part of the frat; of course he is, he’s preppy and gorgeous.

  “Oh, no, not this weekend.” I laugh and he joins in.

  “Bummer, you were fun. Well, if you change your mind, you know where it is. I gotta go, but I’ll see you around.” Giving me a fake little tip of the hat, he walks away.

  In class, Landon is already seated and thanks me repeatedly for bringing him coffee. “You look different today,” he says as I sit down.

  “I put makeup on,” I joke and he smiles. He doesn’t ask about my night with Hardin and I am grateful. I’m not sure what I would say to him.

  Just as the day gets pleasant, and I begin to stop thinking about Hardin, it’s time for Literature.

  HARDIN SITS IN HIS NORMAL SEAT in the front. He’s wearing a white T-shirt for once and it’s thin enough that his tattoos are visible underneath it. It amazes me how attractive I find his tattoos and piercings when I’ve never cared for either before. I look away quickly, sit down in my usual seat next to him, and pull out my notes. I’m not giving up my great seat because of one rude boy. Still, I hope Landon arrives soon so I won’t feel so alone with Hardin.

  “Tess?” Hardin whispers as the class begins to fill up.

  No. Don’t answer him. Ignore him, I repeat to myself.

  “Tess?” he says again, this time louder.

  “Do not speak to me, Hardin,” I say through my teeth. I avoid looking at him. I will not fall back into his trap.

  “Oh come on,” he says, and I can tell he thinks this is all funny.

  My tone is harsh but I don’t care: “I mean it, Hardin, leave me alone.”

  “Fine, have it your way,” he says equally harshly, and I sigh.

  Landon walks in and I am so grateful. Seeing the tension between Hardin and me, he asks in his kind tone, “You okay?”

  “Yeah, I’m fine,” I lie, and class begins.

  HARDIN AND I continue ignoring each other all week, and each day that passes without talking to him makes it a little easier to not think about him so much. Steph and Tristan have been hanging out all week, so I’ve had our room mostly to myself, which has been both good and bad. Good because I get a lot of studying done, but bad because I am left alone with my thoughts about Hardin. All week I have been wearing a little bit more makeup, but still my baggy and conservative clothes. By Friday morning, I feel like I am really over this whole mess with Hardin. That is, until everyone keeps talking about partying at the frat house. Seriously, there is a party there every Friday—and usually Saturday, too—so why they feel the need to get excited about it every weekend blows my mind.

  After being asked by at least ten people if I will be at the party, I decide to do the only thing that I know will keep me from going. I call Noah.

  “Hey, Tessa!” he chirps into the phone. It has been a few days since we’ve actually talked, and I’ve missed his voice.

  “Hey, do you think you could come visit me?” I ask.

  “Sure, yeah. Maybe I can come next weekend?”

  I groan. “No, I mean like today. Like now, could you leave right now?” I know he likes to plan things just like I do, but I need him to come now.

  “Tessa, I have practice after school. I am still at school now, just at lunch,” he explains.

  “Please, Noah, I really miss you. Can’t you just leave now and come here for the weekend? Please?” I know I’m begging, but I don’t care.

  “Um . . . yeah, sure, Tessa. I’ll come now. Is everything okay?”

  Happiness floods me—I’m really surprised that squeaky-clean Noah is agreeing to this, but I am so glad he is. “Yeah, I just really miss you. I haven’t seen you in almost two weeks,” I remind him.

  He laughs. “I miss you, too. I am going to get a slip and leave in a few minutes, so I will see you in about three hours. I love you, Tessa.”

  “I love you, too,” I say and hang up. Well, that settles that. Any chance that I might have ended up at that party is now gone.

  A NEWFOUND SENSE OF RELIEF fills me as I walk to Literature, and into the gorgeous old brick building the class is in. That sense of relief vanishes when I walk into the classroom and see Hardin hovering over Landon’s desk.

  What the hell?

  I rush over just as Hardin slams his hand on the desk and growls, “Don’t ever say some shit like that again, you prick.”

  Landon moves to stand up, but he would be insane to try to fight Hardin. Landon is muscular and all, but he’s so kind I can’t imagine him hitting anyone.

  I grab hold of Hardin’s arm and pull him back away from Landon. His other hand rises into the air and I flinch, but once he realizes it’s me, he drops his hand and curses under his breath.

  “Leave him alone, Hardin!” I yell and turn to Landon. He looks just as mad as Hardin does but he sits down.

  “You need to mind your own business, Theresa,” Hardin snidely says and moves to his seat. He really should sit in the back somewhere.

  Sitting between them, I lean over and whisper to Landon, “Are you okay? What was that about?”

  He looks toward Hardin
and sighs. “He is just an asshole. That pretty much sums it up,” he says loudly and puts on a chipper grin.

  I giggle a little and straighten up. I can hear Hardin’s ragged breathing next to me and I get an idea. A childish idea, but I do it anyway.

  “I have some good news!” I tell Landon in my best mock-cheery voice.

  “Really? What’s that?”

  “Noah’s coming to visit today, and he’ll be here all weekend!” I say and smile while clapping my hands together. I know I am overdoing it, but I feel Hardin’s eyes on me and I know he heard me.

  “Really? That is great news!” Landon says earnestly.

  Class begins and ends without Hardin saying a word to me. This is how it will be from now on and it’s fine with me. I wish Landon a nice weekend and walk back to my room to touch up my makeup and grab something to eat before Noah gets here. I laugh at myself a little while doing my makeup. Since when am I the type of girl who has to “touch up her makeup” before her boyfriend comes? I sense that it’s since that day at the stream with Hardin, an experience that changed me, though the way he hurt me after changed me even more. The makeup is only a slight change, but I know it is there.

  I eat and straighten my room up a little, folding Steph’s clothes and putting them away; I hope she won’t mind. Noah finally texts that he’s here, and I jump off the bed where I was resting and rush outside to greet him. He looks better than ever in navy blue pants, a cream cardigan, and a white shirt underneath. He really does wear a lot of cardigans, but I love them. His welcoming smile warms my heart and he wraps his arms around me and tells me how nice it is to see me.

 
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