After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  As we walk back to my room, he looks at me for a moment and asks, “Are you wearing makeup?”

  “Yeah, a little. It’s just something I have been experimenting with,” I explain.

  He smiles. “It looks nice,” he says, and kisses my forehead.

  IN MY ROOM, we end up browsing through the romantic comedies section on Netflix to pick a movie. Steph texts me and says she is with Tristan and won’t be back tonight, so I turn the lights off and we sit back against my headboard, Noah’s arm around my shoulder and my head on his chest.

  This is me, I think, not some wild girl swimming in a punk boy’s T-shirt.

  We start up a movie that I’ve never heard of before, and not five minutes into it the door bursts opens. I immediately figure that maybe Steph has forgotten something she needs.

  But of course it’s Hardin. His eyes go straight to where Noah and I are cuddled on the bed, illuminated by the TV light. I flush; he has come here to tell Noah, I know it. Panic takes over my body, and I scoot away from my boyfriend, making it seem like I just made a surprised little jump.

  “What are you doing here?” I snap. “You can’t just barge in here!”

  Hardin smiles. “I’m meeting Steph,” he answers and sits down. “Hey, Noah, nice to see you again.” He smirks and Noah looks uncomfortable. He is probably wondering why Hardin has a key to the room and doesn’t bother to knock.

  “She’s with Tristan, probably already at your house,” I tell him slowly, silently pleading for him to leave. If he tells Noah now, I have no idea how I could recover.

  “Oh?” he says. I can tell by his smirk that he came here just to torment me. He will probably stay until I come clean to Noah myself. “Are you two coming to the party?”

  “No . . . we aren’t. We’re trying to watch a movie,” I tell him, and Noah reaches over and takes my hand. Even in the dark, I can see Hardin’s eyes focus on where Noah’s hand touches mine.

  “That’s too bad. I better go . . .” He turns toward the door, and I feel some relief. But then he twists back. “Oh, and, Noah,” he begins, making my heart drop. “That’s a nice cardigan you’re wearing.”

  I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

  “Thanks. It’s from the Gap,” Noah says. He is clueless and unaware that Hardin is making fun of him.

  “I can see that. You two have fun,” Hardin says and leaves the room.

  chapter twenty-eight

  He’s not so bad, I guess,” Noah says when the door closes.

  I laugh nervously. “What?” And when he raises his eyebrow at me, I continue: “Nothing, I am just surprised to hear you say that.” I lie back onto his chest. The electricity that filled the room moments ago has dissolved.

  “I’m not saying I would want to hang out with the guy, but he was friendly enough.”

  “Hardin is nothing even close to friendly,” I say, and Noah chuckles and wraps his arm around me. If he only knew the things that happened between Hardin and me, the way we kissed, the way I moaned his name while he—God, Tessa, just stop. I lean my head up and kiss Noah’s jaw, making him smile. I want Noah to make me feel the way Hardin does. I sit up and turn to face him. I take his face between my hands and press my lips against his. His mouth opens and he kisses me back. His lips are soft . . . just like his kiss. It’s not enough. I need the fire, I need the passion. I wrap my hands around his neck and pull myself onto his lap.

  “Whoa, Tessa, what are you doing?” he asks and tries to push me off gently.

  “What? Nothing, I just . . . I want to make out, I guess,” I say and look down. I am usually not embarrassed in front of Noah, but this isn’t something we usually talk about.

  “Okay?” he says, and I kiss him again. I feel warmth from him, but not the fire. I start to rock my hips, hoping to light it somehow. His hands go down to my waist but he pushes them against me, stopping my movements. I know we agreed to wait until marriage, but we’re just kissing here. I grab his hands and pull them away and continue to rock against him. No matter how many times I try to kiss him harder, his mouth stays soft and timid. I can feel him getting turned on, but he won’t act on it.

  I know I am doing this for all the wrong reasons, but I don’t care at the moment—I just need to know that Noah can do to me what Hardin does. It isn’t actually Hardin that I want, it’s the feeling . . . isn’t it?

  I stop kissing Noah and slide off his lap.

  “That was nice, Tessa.” He smiles and I give him one back. It was “nice.” He is so careful, too careful, but I love him. I press play on the movie and within minutes I feel myself drifting off.

  “I should go,” Hardin says. His green eyes looking down at me. “Go where?” I don’t want him to go. “I am going to stay at a hotel close by; I’ll come back in the morning,” he says, and after I stare at him a moment, his face fades into Noah’s.

  I jolt up and wipe my eyes. Noah, it is Noah. It was never Hardin.

  “You’re obviously really sleepy, and I can’t stay the night here,” Noah says gently and brushes my cheek.

  I want him to stay, but now I’m afraid of what I will see or say in my sleepy state. Noah clearly doesn’t think it’s decent for him to stay in my room anyway. Hardin and Noah are polar opposites. In every way.

  “Okay, thank you again for coming,” I mumble and he kisses me lightly on the cheek before sliding out from under me.

  “I love you,” he says. I nod, bury my head back into my pillow, and descend into dreams I don’t remember.

  THE NEXT MORNING, I wake up to Noah calling on the phone. He tells me he is on his way, so I roll out of bed and rush to the showers, wondering what Noah and I should do today. There isn’t much to do around here unless we go into town; maybe I should text Landon and ask what there is to do around here besides party at a frat house. He seems to be my only friend who would know.

  Having decided to wear my gray pleated skirt and a plain blue shirt, I ignore Hardin’s voice in the back of my head telling me that it’s ugly, and dress in the stall.

  Noah is in the hall waiting by my door as I return with the towel still in my hair. “You look lovely,” he says with a smile, and puts his arm over my shoulder as I open the door.

  “I just need to do my hair and put a little makeup on,” I tell him and grab Steph’s makeup bag, which I’m glad she didn’t take with her. I will need to get some of my own now that I know I like the way it looks.

  Noah sits patiently on my bed as I dry my hair and curl the ends. I stop and give him a kiss on the cheek before I apply my makeup. “What do you want to do today?” I finish with mascara and fluff my hair.

  “College really suits you, Tessa. You have never looked better,” Noah says. “I don’t know, maybe we can go to a park or something, then dinner?”

  I look at the clock. How is it already 1 p.m.? I text Steph and tell her I will be out most of the day and she responds saying she will be gone until tomorrow. She basically lives at Hardin’s fraternity house on the weekends.

  Noah opens the passenger door of his Toyota. His parents made sure he had the safest car, the newest model. The interior is spotless, no stacks of books, no dirty clothing. We drive around to find a park, which only takes a little bit. It’s a small, quiet space with half-green, half-yellowing grass and a few trees.

  As we pull into a spot, Noah asks, “Hey, when are you going to start looking for a car?”

  “I think this week, actually. I am going to apply for jobs this week, too.” I don’t mention the internship at Vance Publishing that Hardin dangled in front of me. I don’t know if I can still get it, or how I’d tell Noah if I did.

  “That is great news. Let me know if you need any help with either of those,” he says.

  We walk around the park once and then sit at a picnic table. Noah talks most of the time and I nod along. I find myself zoning in and out of the conversation but he doesn’t seem to notice. We end up walking a little more and come to a small stream. I snort at the iro
ny and Noah looks at me quizzically.

  “Do you want to swim?” I ask, not quite sure why I push this moment further.

  “In there? No way,” he says, laughing, and as I deflate a little, I mentally smack myself. I need to stop comparing Noah to Hardin.

  “I was just joking,” I lie, and drag him along down the trail.

  IT IS SEVEN before we leave the park, so we decide to order pizza when we get back to my room and watch a classic: Meg Ryan falling in love with Tom Hanks through a radio show. I am starving by the time the pizza comes so I eat almost half of it myself. In my defense, I haven’t eaten all day.

  Halfway through the movie my phone rings and Noah reaches over to grab it for me. “Who’s Landon?” he asks. There is no suspicion in his voice, only curiosity. He has never been the jealous type; he never needed to be.

  Until now, my subconscious reminds me.

  “He’s a friend from school,” I say and answer. Why would Landon be calling me so late? He’s never called me for anything other than to compare notes.

  “Tessa?” Landon says loudly.

  “Yeah, is everything okay?”

  “Um, well, no, actually. I know Noah is there but . . .” He hesitates.

  “What’s wrong, Landon?” My heart starts to race. “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah, it’s not me. It’s Hardin.”

  Panic overtakes me. “H-Hardin?” I stutter.

  “Yeah, if I give you an address can you come here, please?” I hear something crash in the background. I jump off my bed and I have my shoes on before my mind catches up. Noah stands up, too, almost as if in sympathy.

  “Landon, is Hardin trying to hurt you?” My mind can’t make sense of what else could be going on.

  “No, no,” he says.

  “Text me the address,” I tell him and then hear another crash.

  I turn to Noah. “Noah, I need your car.”

  His head turns sideways. “What is going on?”

  “I don’t know . . . it’s Hardin. Give me your keys,” I demand.

  He reaches into his pocket and pulls them out, but says insistently, “I’m coming with you.”

  But I snatch the keys from his hands and shake my head. “No, you . . . I need to go alone.”

  My words hurt him. He looks hurt. And I know it’s wrong to leave him here, but right now the only thing I can think about is getting to Hardin.

  chapter twenty-nine

  Landon’s text reads 2875 Cornell Rd, which I copy and paste into my maps program, which says the drive is fifteen minutes. What could be going on there that Landon could possibly need me?

  I’m just as confused when I arrive at the address as I was when I left my room. Noah has called twice, both of which I’ve ignored; I need the navigation to stay on the screen and, honestly, the confused look on his face when I left him there is haunting me.

  The houses on the street are all large and look like mansions. This house in particular is at least three times larger than my mother’s. It’s an old-fashioned brick house with a sloped yard that makes it appear to be sitting on a hill. Even under the streetlights, it’s beautiful. I’m guessing this must be Hardin’s father’s house, since this doesn’t belong to a college kid and it’s the only reason why Landon would be here as well. I take a deep breath, get out, and walk up the steps from the sidewalk. I knock hard on the dark mahogany door, and it opens within seconds.

  “Tessa, thank you for coming. I’m sorry, I know you have company. Is Noah with you?” Landon asks and looks out to the car while gesturing me inside.

  “No, he’s back at the dorms. What’s going on? Where’s Hardin?”

  “The backyard. He is out of control.” He sighs.

  “And I am here because . . .?” I ask as nicely as I can. What does Hardin being out of control have to do with me?

  “I don’t know, I know you hate him, but you do talk to him. He’s really drunk, completely belligerent. He showed up here and opened a bottle of his father’s scotch. He drank over half the bottle! And then he started breaking things: all my mother’s dishes, a glass cabinet, basically everything he could get his hands on.”

  “What? Why?” Hardin told me he doesn’t drink—was that a lie, too?

  “His dad just told him that he and my mother are getting married . . .”

  “Okay?” I’m still confused. “So Hardin doesn’t want them to get married?” I ask as Landon leads me through the large kitchen, where I gasp as I take in the huge mess Hardin has made. Broken dishes are scattered across the floor, and a large wooden cabinet has been knocked over, its glass panels shattered.

  “No, but it’s a long story. Right after his dad called and told him, they left town for the weekend to celebrate. I think that’s why Hardin came here, to confront his dad. He never comes here,” he explains and opens the back door.

  I see a shadow sitting at a small table on the patio. Hardin.

  “I don’t know what you think I can do, but I’ll try.”

  Landon nods. He leans down and puts his hand on my shoulder. “He was calling out for you,” he tells me quietly, and my heart stops.

  I walk toward Hardin and he looks up at me. His eyes are bloodshot, and his hair is hidden under a gray beanie. His eyes go wide, then darken, and I want to step back. He looks almost scary under the dim patio light.

  “How did you get here—” Hardin says loudly and stands up.

  “Landon . . . he . . .” I answer, then wish I hadn’t.

  “You fucking called her?” he yells toward Landon, who for his part walks back inside.

  “You leave him alone, Hardin—he is worried about you,” I scold.

  He sits back down, gesturing for me to take a seat, too. I sit across from him and watch as he grabs the mostly empty bottle of dark liquor and puts it to his mouth. I watch his Adam’s apple move as he gulps it down. When he’s finished, he slams the bottle down onto the glass of the patio table and it makes me jump, thinking either the bottle or the table or both might break.

  “Aww, aren’t you two something. You both are so predictable. Poor Hardin is upset, so you gang up on me and try to make me feel bad for breaking some shitty china,” he drawls with a sick smirk.

  “I thought you don’t drink?” I ask him and cross my arms.

  “I don’t. Until now, I guess. Don’t try to patronize me; you’re no better than me.” He points a finger at me, then grabs the bottle for another swig.

  And it’s scary, but I can’t deny that being near him, even in his drunken state, breathes life into me. I have missed the feeling Hardin gives me.

  “I never said I was better than you. I just want to know what made you drink now?”

  “What does it matter to you? Where’s your boyfriend?” His eyes blaze into mine and the emotion behind them is so strong that I am forced to look away. If only I knew what that emotion was; hatred, I suppose.

  “He’s back in my room. I just want to help you, Hardin.” I lean a little over the table to reach for his hand, but he recoils from my touch.

  “Help me?” he cackles. I want to ask him why he was calling out for me if he is going to continue to be hateful, but I don’t want to throw Landon under the bus again. “If you want to help me, then leave.”

  “Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?” I look down at my hands and pick at my fingernails.

  He sighs and pulls his beanie off and runs his hand through his hair before pulling it back on. “My father decided to tell me just now that he is marrying Karen—and the wedding’s next month. He should have told me long ago, and not over the phone. I’m sure perfect little Landon’s known for a while.”

  Oh. I hadn’t actually expected him to tell me, so I am not sure what to say. “I am sure he had his reasons not to tell you.”

  “You don’t know him; he doesn’t give a shit about me. You know how many times I have talked to him in the last year? Maybe ten! All he cares about is his big house, his new soon-to-be wife, and his new, perfect so
n.” Hardin slurs and takes another drink. I stay quiet while he continues. “You should see the dump that my mum lives in in England. She says she likes it there, but I know she doesn’t. It’s smaller than my dad’s bedroom here! My mum practically forced me to come here for university, to be closer to him—and we see how that worked out!”

  With this little bit of information he has given me I feel like I can understand him so much better. Hardin’s hurt; that’s why he is the way he is.

  “How old were you when he left?” I ask him.

  He eyes me warily but answers. “Ten. But even before he left, he was never around. He was at a different bar every night. Now he’s Mr. Perfect and he has all this shit,” Hardin says and waves his hand toward the house.

  Hardin’s dad left when he was ten, just like mine, and they were both drunks. We have more in common than I thought. This wounded and drunk Hardin seems so much younger, so much more fragile than the powerful person I’ve known so far.

  “I’m sorry that he left you guys, but—”

  “No, I don’t need your pity,” he interrupts.

  “It’s not pity. I’m just trying to—”

  “Trying to what?”

  “Help you. Be here for you,” I say softly.

  And he smiles. It’s a beautifully haunting smile, and makes me hopeful that I can help him through this, but I know what is really about to happen.

  “You are so pathetic. Don’t you see that I don’t want you here? I don’t want you to be here for me. Just because I messed around with you doesn’t mean I want anything to do with you. Yet here you are, leaving your nice boyfriend—who can actually stand to be around you—to come here and try to ‘help’ me. That, Theresa, is the definition of pathetic,” he says, punctuating it with air quotes.

  His voice is full of venom, just like I knew it would be, but I ignore the pain in my chest and look at him. “You don’t mean that.” I think back to a week ago when he was laughing and tossing me into the water. I can’t decide if he is a great actor, or a great liar.

  “I do, though; go home,” he tells me and raises the bottle to take another drink. Reaching across the table, I snatch it from him and toss it into the yard.

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