After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  But Noah just shakes his head. “Talk about what? What the hell is going on, Tessa?”

  Oh God.

  “Tell him; go on and tell him,” Hardin says.

  I can’t believe he is doing this. I know how cruel he can be, but this takes it to a whole other level.

  “Tell me what, Tessa?” Noah asks, and I can see his stance is an aggressive one, because of Hardin, but it’s softening as he wonders about me.

  “Nothing, just what you know, that I stayed at Hardin and Landon’s last night,” I lie. I try to match my gray eyes to Hardin’s in hopes that he will stop this now, but he looks away immediately.

  “Tell him, Tessa, or I will,” Hardin growls.

  I know it’s all lost. I know there’s no hiding anything anymore, and I begin to cry. But I want Noah to hear it from me, not the smirking asshole who’s brought us to this point. I’m humiliated—not for myself, but for Noah. He doesn’t deserve any of this, and I’m ashamed of the way I’ve treated him and the confessions I’m going to be forced to make in front of Hardin. “Noah . . . I . . . me and Hardin have been . . .” I start.

  “Oh my God,” Noah stutters, and his eyes begin to water.

  How could I do this to him? What the hell was I thinking? Noah is so kind, and Hardin’s cruel enough to break Noah’s heart in front of him.

  Noah’s hands go to his forehead and he shakes his head. “How could you, Tessa? After everything we have been through? When did this start?” Tears stream down his face from his bright blue eyes. I have never felt this terrible—I caused those tears. I look over at Hardin and my hatred for him consumes me so that I shove him instead of answering Noah. Hardin is caught off guard and stumbles backward, but he steadies himself before he falls.

  “Noah, I am so sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.” I rush over to my boyfriend and try to hug him, but he refuses to let me touch him. And he’s probably right to. If I’m being honest, I’ve not been good to Noah for a while. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I suppose something crazy like Hardin becoming decent and me breaking up with Noah so I could date him—how stupid can I be? Or that I could just stay away from Hardin and Noah would never know about what happened between us? The problem is that I can’t stay away from Hardin. I am a moth to his flame, and he never hesitates to burn me. Both were stupid and naïve ideas, but I haven’t made one good choice since I’ve met Hardin.

  “I don’t know what you were thinking, either,” Noah says, with a look of regret and hurt in his eyes. “I don’t even know you anymore.”

  And with that, he walks out the door. Out of my life.

  “Noah, please! Wait!” I rush after him, but Hardin grabs my arm and tries to pull me back.

  “Don’t touch me! I can’t believe you! This is low, Hardin, even for you.” I scream and jerk my arm out of his grasp. I push him again, hard. I have never pushed anyone in my life before today, and I hate him so much.

  “If you go after him, I’m done,” he says, and my mouth falls open.

  “Done? Done with what? Fucking with my emotions? I hate you!” But not wanting him to feed off my rage, I slow down and speak more calmly. “You can’t end something that never began.”

  His hands fall to his sides and his mouth opens but no words come out.

  “Noah!” I call and rush out the door. I run down the hall and out across the great lawn, finally catching up to him in the parking lot. He starts walking faster.

  “Noah, please listen. I am sorry, so sorry. I was drinking. I know that isn’t an excuse, but I . . .” I wipe my eyes and his face softens.

  “I can’t listen to you anymore . . .” he says. His eyes are red. I reach for his hand, but he pulls away.

  “Noah, please, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. Please.” I can’t lose him. I just can’t.

  Reaching his car, he runs a hand over his perfectly gelled hair, then turns to face me. “I just need some time, Tessa. I don’t know what to think right now.”

  I sigh in defeat, not knowing what to say to that. He just needs time to get over this and we can go back to normal. He just needs time, I tell myself.

  “I love you, Tessa,” Noah says, then catches me by surprise when he kisses my forehead before climbing into his car and driving away.

  chapter thirty-seven

  Being the disgusting person that he is, Hardin is sitting on my bed when I return. Visions of me grabbing the lamp and bashing him in the head flash through my mind, but I don’t have the energy to fight with him.

  “I’m not going to apologize,” Hardin tells me as I walk past him toward Steph’s bed. I will not sit on my bed while he’s on it.

  “I know you aren’t,” I say and lie back.

  I won’t let him bait me into this fight, and I don’t expect him to apologize. I know him better by now. Well, recent history would say that I don’t know him at all. Last night I thought he was just an angry boy whose father left him, and that he held on to that hurt, using the only emotion he could to keep people out. This morning, I see that he is just a terrible, hateful person. There is nothing good about Hardin. At any moment I believed there was, it was only because that is what he tricked me into believing.

  “He needed to know,” he says.

  I bite down on my lip to prevent the tears from returning. I stay quiet until I hear Hardin get up and move toward me. “Just go, Hardin,” I say, but when I look up he is standing over me. When he sits down on the bed, I jump up.

  “He needed to know,” he repeats, and anger boils inside me. I know he just wants to get a rise out of me.

  “Why, Hardin? Why did he need to know? How could hurting him possibly be a good thing? You weren’t affected one bit by him not knowing—you could have gone on with your day without telling him. You had no right to do that to him, or me.” I feel the tears coming again but this time I can’t stop them.

  “I would want to know if I was him,” he says, his voice steady and cold.

  “You aren’t him, though, and you never will be. I was stupid to think you could possibly be anything even close to him. And since when do you care about what is right?”

  “Don’t you dare compare me to him,” he snaps. I hate the way he chooses only one of my statements to respond to, and that he usually warps what I’m saying to better provoke himself. He stands up and moves toward me, but I back away to the other side of the bed.

  “There is no comparison. Don’t you get that by now? You are a cruel and disgusting jerk who doesn’t give a shit about anyone but yourself. And he—he loves me. He is willing to try to forgive me for my mistakes.” I stare into his eyes. “My terrible mistakes,” I add.

  Hardin takes a step back as if I’d pushed him. “Forgive you?”

  “Yeah, he will forgive me for this. I know he will. Because he loves me, so your pathetic plan to get him to break up with me so you can sit back and laugh didn’t work. Now get out of my room.”

  “That wasn’t . . . I—” he starts to say, but I cut him off. I’ve wasted enough time on him already.

  “Get out! I know you’re probably already plotting your next move against me, but guess what, Hardin? It isn’t going to work anymore. Now get the fuck out of my room!” I am surprised at my harsh words, but I don’t feel bad for using them against Hardin.

  “That isn’t what I’m doing, Tess. I thought after last night . . . I don’t know, I thought you and I . . .” He seems to be at a loss for words, which is a first. Part of me, a huge part of me, is dying to know what he is going to say, but this is how I got so tangled in his web in the first place. He uses my curiosity against me, like it’s all a game to him. I furiously wipe my eyes, thankful I didn’t wear makeup yesterday.

  “You aren’t really expecting me to buy that, are you? That you feel something about me?”

  I need to stop and he needs to leave before his claws sink deeper into me.

  “Of course I do, Tessa. You make me feel so—”

  “No! I don’t want to hear i
t, Hardin. I know you’re lying, and this is your sick way of getting off. To make me believe that you could possibly feel the same way about me as I do about you, and then will flip the switch. I know how this goes by now, and I won’t keep it going.”

  “Feel the same way you do? Are you saying that you . . . you have feelings for me?” His eyes flash with what appears to be hope. He is a much better actor than I thought.

  He knows I do, he has to know that. What other reason could there be for me to keep this unhealthy cycle between us going? With a fear I’ve never felt before, I realize that though I had barely admitted my feelings for Hardin to myself, I now have put them out there in front of him, giving him easy access to smash them. Worse than he already has.

  I feel my walls slowly being torn down by the way Hardin is looking at me and I can’t let it happen. “Leave, Hardin. I won’t ask again. If you don’t leave I will call campus security.”

  “Tess, please answer me,” he begs.

  “Don’t call me Tess; that name is reserved for family, friends, for people who actually care about me—now leave!” I yell, much louder than I had planned. I need him to get out and get away from me. I hate when he calls me Theresa, but I hate when he calls me Tess even more. Something about the way his lips move when he says it makes it sound so intimate, so lovely. Damn it, Tessa. Just stop.

  “Please, I need to know if you—”

  “What a long weekend, boys and girls—I am exhausted!” Steph says as she bursts into the room, playful exhaustion coloring her words. But when she notices my tearstained cheeks, she stops and her eyes narrow at Hardin.

  “What is going on? What did you do?!” she yells at him. “Where is Noah?” she asks and looks at me.

  “He left, just like Hardin is about to,” I tell her.

  “Tessa . . .” Hardin begins.

  “Steph, please make him leave,” I beg and she nods. Hardin’s mouth falls open with annoyance at my use of Steph against him. He thought he had me trapped again.

  “Let’s go, Boy Wonder,” she says and grabs his arm, dragging him toward the door.

  I stare at the wall until I hear the door shut but immediately hear their voices in the hall.

  “What the hell, Hardin? I told you to stay away from her; she is my roommate and she’s not like the other girls you mess with. She’s nice, innocent, and, honestly, too good for you.”

  I am pleased and surprised by the way she is sticking up for me. But it still doesn’t soothe the pain in my chest. My heart literally hurts. I thought I had experienced heartbreak after my day with Hardin at the stream, but that was nothing compared to how I feel right now. I hate to admit it to myself, but I know that spending the night with Hardin last night made my feelings for him so much stronger than they already were. Hearing him laugh while he tickled me, the way he gently kissed my lips, his tattooed arms wrapping around me, the way his eyes fluttered and closed when I traced my fingers over his bare skin—all of it made me fall deeper for him. Those intimate moments between us that made me care for him more also make this hurt so much more. On top of that, I have hurt Noah in a way that I can only pray he forgives me for.

  “It’s not like that.” In his anger his accent has become thick and his words clipped.

  “Bullshit, Hardin, I know you. Find someone else to mess around with; there are plenty of other girls. She isn’t the type of girl you need to be doing this with; she has a boyfriend and she can’t handle this shit.”

  I don’t like hearing her say that I’m too sensitive, like I’m weak or something, but I guess she is right. I have done nothing but cry since I met Hardin, and now he has tried to ruin my relationship with Noah. I don’t have what it takes to be something like friends with benefits, regardless of how he makes me feel. I have more respect for myself than that and I’m too emotional.

  “Fine. I will stay away from her. But don’t bring her to any more parties at my house,” he snaps, and I hear him stomping off. As he goes down the hall, his voice recedes, too, as he yells, “I mean it, I don’t want to see her again! And if I do, I will ruin her!”

  chapter thirty-eight

  Steph walks in and right away wraps her tiny arms around me. It’s odd that her frail arms can feel so comforting.

  “Thank you for making him leave,” I say, sobbing, and she hugs me tighter. My tears really are flowing now and I don’t see an end in sight.

  “Hardin may be my friend, but so are you, and I don’t want him upsetting you. I’m sorry, this is all my fault. I knew I should have given my key to Nate, and I shouldn’t have let him come around you all the time. He can be a real dick.”

  “No, it’s not your fault at all. I am sorry, I don’t want to come in between your friendship.”

  “Oh please,” she says.

  I pull out of her embrace and see the look of concern on her face. I appreciate her being here with me more than she will ever know. I feel completely alone: Noah’s taking time to decide whether to break up with me or not, Hardin is an asshole, my mother would lose it if I talked to her about this, and Landon would be disappointed in me if he knew the depth of my situation with Hardin. I literally have no one except this flame-haired, tattooed girl who I never expected would become my friend. But I’m really glad she did.

  “Do you want to talk about it?”

  I do, actually, I want to get it all off my chest. I tell her everything, from the first time I kissed Hardin, to our day at the stream, to the orgasm I gave him and how he called my name in his sleep, to the way he destroyed every ounce of respect I had for him when he made me tell Noah. Her face goes from concerned to shocked to sad during my story. My shirt is soaked with tears by the time I finish and she is holding my hand.

  “Wow, I had no idea that so much happened. You could have told me after the first time. I knew something was up when Hardin showed up here the night we were going to the movies. I had literally just got off the phone with him, then he shows up, so I’d suspected he came here to see you. Listen, Hardin is a good guy, sometimes. I mean, deep down he just doesn’t know how to really care for someone the way that you—well, most girls—need to be cared for. If I was you, I would try to make things work with Noah because Hardin isn’t capable of being anyone’s boyfriend,” she says and squeezes my hand.

  I know everything she is saying is true and she is right. So why does it hurt so bad?

  ON MONDAY MORNING, Landon is leaning against the brick outside the coffeehouse, waiting for me. I wave when I see him, but then I notice he has a blue-purple ring around his left eye. And when I look closer, I see another bruise on his cheek.

  “What happened to your eye?!” I exclaim, running up to him.

  Realization hits me like a truck. “Landon! Did Hardin do this?” My voice is shaky.

  “Yeah . . .” he admits and I am horrified.

  “Why? What happened?” I want to kill Hardin for hurting Landon.

  “He stormed out of the house after you left and then came back about an hour later. He was so pissed. He started looking around for more stuff to break, so I stopped him. Well, I fought with him. It wasn’t so bad, actually. I think both of us got a lot of our anger toward each other out. I got quite a few good hits on him, too,” he boasts.

  I don’t know what to say. I’m surprised at Landon’s light tone while talking about fighting with Hardin.

  “Are you sure you’re okay? Is there anything I can do?” I ask him. I feel like this is my fault. Hardin was mad because of me, but assaulting Landon?

  “No, really, I’m okay.” He smiles.

  While we walk to class he tells me how Hardin’s father broke up their fight, luckily arriving home before they killed each other, and how his mother cried when she realized Hardin had broken all her dishes. Though they didn’t have any sentimental value, she was hurt that Hardin would do that nonetheless.

  “But in other news, much better news, Dakota is coming to visit next weekend. She is coming to the bonfire!” He smiles.

>   “Bonfire?”

  “Yeah, haven’t you seen the signs all over campus? It’s an annual thing, to start the new year. Everyone goes. I am not usually into stuff like that, but it’s actually a pretty good time. Noah should come up again. We can make a double date out of it.”

  I smile and nod. Maybe inviting Noah would show him I do have some good friends, like Landon. I know Hardin and Landon—I mean, Noah and Landon would get along great, and I really want to meet Dakota.

  Now that Landon has mentioned the bonfire, I notice signs littering almost every wall. I guess I was just too distracted all week to notice.

  Before I know it, I’m in Literature and begin scanning the room for Hardin, despite my subconscious shouting at me not to. When I don’t see him his voice plays in my head: I will ruin her.

  What could he possibly do that’s worse than outing me in front of Noah? I don’t know, but I start imagining things until Landon breaks me out of my zone.

  “I don’t think he’s here. I heard him talking to that Zed guy about switching his classes around. Darn, I do wish you could see his black eye.” Landon smiles at me and my eyes snap to the front of the room.

  I want to deny that I was looking for Hardin, but I know I can’t. Hardin has a black eye? I hope he is okay; no, I don’t, actually. I hope it hurts like hell.

  “Oh, okay,” I mumble and pick at my skirt.

  Landon doesn’t mention Hardin for the rest of the class.

  THE REST OF THE WEEK is exactly the same way: I don’t talk about Hardin to anyone and no one mentions him to me. Tristan has been hanging out in our room all week, but I don’t mind. I actually really like him and he makes Steph laugh, and even me, too, sometimes, despite what seems to be the worst week of my life. I’ve just been wearing whatever is clean and handy and pulling my hair into a bun every day. My short-lived affair with eyeliner has ended and I am back to my normal routine.

  Sleep, class, study, eat, sleep, class, study, eat.

  By Friday, Steph’s clearly making an effort to get this spinster out and about.

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