After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  “Hardin?” a man’s voice says.

  Hardin’s head snaps up and his eyes narrow. Was that an accent I heard? The stranger is holding a bag and a drink carrier full of yogurt cups.

  “Um . . . hey,” Hardin says, and I know instinctively that this is his father. The man is tall and lean, like Hardin, and has the same-shaped eyes, only his are a deep brown instead of green. Other than that, they are polar opposites. His father is wearing gray dress pants and a sweater vest. His brown hair has some gray scattered on its sides and his demeanor is coldly professional. Until he smiles, that is, and shows a warmth similar to Hardin’s, when he isn’t putting so much effort into being a jerk.

  “Hi, I’m Tessa,” I politely say and reach my hand out. Hardin glares at me but I ignore him. It’s not like he was going to introduce me.

  “Hello, Tessa. I am Ken, Hardin’s father,” he says and shakes my hand.

  “Hardin, you never told me you had a girlfriend—you two should come over for dinner tonight. Karen will make a nice meal for everyone. She’s an excellent cook.”

  I want to keep Hardin’s anger in check and tell his father that I’m not his girlfriend, but Hardin speaks first.

  “We can’t tonight. I have a party to go to and she doesn’t want to come,” he snaps. A gasp escapes my lips at the way Hardin speaks to his father. Ken’s face drops and I feel terrible for him.

  “Actually, I would love to. I’m also a friend of Landon; we have classes together,” I interject, and Ken’s friendly smile reappears.

  “You are? Well, that is great. Landon is a nice kid. I would be happy to have you over tonight,” Ken says and I smile.

  I feel Hardin’s eyes blazing at me as I ask, “What time should we be there?”

  “ ‘We’?” his father asks and I nod. “Okay . . . let’s do seven. I need to give Karen a bit of a warning or she will have my head,” he jokes and I smile. Hardin stares angrily out the glass wall.

  “Sounds great! We’ll see you tonight!”

  He says goodbye to Hardin, who rudely ignores him despite me kicking his foot under the table. A minute after his dad leaves the store, Hardin stands abruptly and slams his chair into the table. It topples over and he kicks it partway across the room before rushing out the door and leaving me alone to deal with everyone’s stares. Not sure what to do, I leave my yogurt where it is, stammer an apology under my breath, and clumsily upright the chair before running out after him.

  chapter forty-five

  I call out Hardin’s name, but he ignores me. When he gets halfway to the car, he spins around so quickly that I almost crash into him.

  “What the hell, Tessa! What the fuck was that?” he screams at me. People walking by start to stare, but he continues. “What kind of game are you trying to play here?” He moves toward me. He is angry—beyond angry.

  “There’s no game here, Hardin—didn’t you see how much he wanted you to come over? He was trying to reach out to you, and you were so disrespectful!” I’m really not sure why I’m yelling, but I’m not going to just let him shout at me.

  “Reach out to me? Are you fucking kidding me? Maybe he should have reached out to me back when he was abandoning his family!” The veins in his neck strain under his skin.

  “Stop swearing at me! Maybe he is trying to make up for lost time! People make mistakes, Hardin, and he obviously cares about you. He has that room for you at his house, full of clothes just in case—”

  “You don’t know shit about him, Tessa!” he screams and shudders with anger. “He lives in a fucking mansion with his new family while my mum works her ass off, fifty hours a week to pay her bills! So don’t try to lecture me—mind your own damn business!”

  He gets in the car, slamming his door closed. I scramble in, afraid that he might leave me here, he’s so mad. So much for our argument-free day.

  He’s fuming mad but thankfully silent as we pull onto the main road. If I could keep it this quiet the rest of the ride, I’d be happy. But part of me insists that Hardin needs to understand that I will not be yelled at; that is one redeeming quality I give my mother credit for. She showed me exactly how not to be treated by a man.

  “Fine,” I say, feigning calm. “I will mind my own business, but I’m accepting the invitation to dinner tonight whether you go or not.”

  Like a wild animal who’s been riled up, he turns in my direction. “Oh no you’re not!”

  Retaining my fake calm, I say, “You have no say in what I do, Hardin, and in case you didn’t notice, I was invited. Maybe I should see if Zed wants to join me?”

  “What did you just say!?” The dirt and dust start flying all over as Hardin jerks the steering wheel and pulls onto the shoulder of the busy road.

  I know I pushed him too far, but I really am just as angry as he is by this point and yell, “What the hell is wrong with you? Pulling off the road like this!”

  “What the hell is wrong with you is the question! You tell my dad I will go to his house for dinner, then you have the audacity to mention bringing Zed?”

  “Oh, yeah, sorry, your cool friends don’t know that Landon is your stepbrother and you’re afraid they will find out?” I say and laugh at how ridiculous he is.

  “He is not my stepbrother, for one. And two, you know that isn’t why I don’t want Zed there.” His voice is much lower now, yet still thick with anger.

  But through the chaos in the car, that bubble of hope grows again at Hardin’s jealousy. I know his feelings are more of a competition thing than actual concern over my being with him, but it still makes my stomach flutter.

  “Well, if you won’t go with me, I will have to invite him.” I would never actually do it, but Hardin doesn’t know that.

  Hardin stares straight out onto the street for a few seconds and then sighs, deflating some of the tension. “Tessa, I really don’t want to go. I don’t want to sit around with my dad’s perfect family. I avoid them for a reason.”

  I lighten my tone as well. “Well, I don’t want to force you to go if it will hurt you, but I would really like if you could come with me. I am going either way.”

  We went from eating yogurt to screaming at each other and now we are calm again. My head is spinning at least as much as my heart.

  “Hurt me?” He sounds incredulous.

  “Yeah, if it will bother you that much to be there, I won’t try to make you come,” I answer. I know that I could never make Hardin do anything he doesn’t want to do; he has no history of ever being cooperative.

  “Why would you care if it hurt me?” His eyes meet mine and I try to look away, but once again I am under his spell.

  “Of course I would care; why wouldn’t I?”

  “Why would you is the question.”

  The look in his eyes is a pleading one, like he wants me to say the words, but I can’t. He will use them against me and then probably never want to hang out with me again. I will become the annoying girl who likes him, the kind of girls Steph told me about.

  “I care about how you feel,” I say and I hope this answer can be good enough for him.

  Interrupting our moment in the car, my phone rings. I pull it out of my purse and see it’s Noah. Without thinking, I hit ignore before I realize what I’m doing.

  “Who is it?” Hardin is so nosy.


  “You’re not going to answer?” He looks surprised.

  “No, we’re talking.” And I would rather talk to you, my subconscious adds.

  “Oh” is all he says, but his smile is evident.

  “So are you going to come with me? It’s been a while since I’ve had a home-cooked meal, so I am not passing it up.” I smile; the mood in the car is lighter but tense all the same.

  “No. I have plans, anyway,” he mutters. I don’t want to know if those plans involve Molly.

  “Oh, okay. Are you going to be mad at me if I go?” It’s sort of strange for me to just go to Hardin’s father’s house, but Landon is my friend, too, and I
was invited.

  “I’m always mad at you, Tess,” he says, amusement in his eyes when he looks over at me.

  I laugh. “I’m always mad at you, too,” I tell him and he chuckles.

  “Can we go back now? If a cop comes along, we’ll get a ticket.”

  He nods, putting the car into drive and pulling back onto the road. The fight with Hardin blew over more quickly than I expected. I suppose he’s much more used to constant conflict than I am; I would much rather spend time with him without fighting.

  I promised myself that I wouldn’t ask but I have to know . . . “So, what are your . . . um . . . plans today?”

  “Why are you asking?” I can feel his eyes on me but I stare out the window.

  “I’m just wondering, you said you had plans anyway so I was just wondering.”

  “We have a party again. That is basically what I do every Friday and Saturday, except last night and last Saturday . . .”

  I trace a circle on the window with one finger. “Doesn’t it get old? Just doing the same thing every weekend with the same drunk people?” I hope that doesn’t offend him.

  “Yeah . . . I guess it does. But we’re in college, and I’m in a fraternity; what else is there to do?”

  “I don’t know . . . it just seems tedious, to clean up everyone’s mess, every weekend especially when you don’t even drink.”

  “It is, but I haven’t found anything better to do with my time so—” He stops. I know he is still looking at me, but I keep my eyes away from him.

  The rest of the drive is quiet. Not awkward, just quiet.

  WALKING ALONE from the lot to my dorm, I’m flustered. My emotions are in overdrive. I just spent the night and most of the afternoon with Hardin and we got along, mostly. It was actually fun, a lot of fun. Why can’t I have a great time like that with someone who actually likes me? Like Noah. I know I should call him back, but I want to revel in the way I feel right now.

  When I get back to my room, I’m surprised to see Steph there; she usually stays gone all weekend.

  “Where have you been, young lady?” she teases and shoves a handful of cheese popcorn into her mouth.

  I laugh and take my shoes off before plopping onto the bed. “I was looking for a car.”

  “Find one?” she asks, and I dive into telling her about the run-down lots I visited, leaving out Hardin’s involvement in the afternoon. After a few minutes, there’s a knock at the door and Steph gets up to answer.

  “What are you doing here, Hardin?” she growls.

  Hardin. I glance up nervously and he walks over to my bed. He has his hands in his pockets and he rocks back on his heels.

  “Did I forget something in your car?” I ask, and hear Steph gasp. I will have to explain to her later, though I’m not sure how we ended up hanging out, either.

  “Ermm . . . no. Um, well, I thought maybe I could drive you to my dad’s house tonight. You know, since you didn’t find a car,” he spits out, not seeming to notice or care that Steph is standing in the room with her jaw practically on the floor. “If not . . . that’s okay, too. I just thought I would offer.”

  I sit up and he pulls his lip ring between his teeth. I love when he does that. I am so surprised by his offer, I almost forget to actually answer him. “Yeah . . . that would be great. Thank you.”

  I smile and he smiles back, warm and seemingly relieved. He pulls one hand out of his pocket and sweeps it through his hair before stuffing it back in.

  “Okay . . . I’ll come by about six thirty, so you can get there on time.”

  “Thank you, Hardin.”

  “Tessa,” he says calmly and walks out the door, pulling it shut behind him.

  “What the hell was that?!” Steph squeals.

  “I don’t know, actually,” I admit. As soon as I think Hardin could not get more confusing, he does something like this.

  “I cannot believe that just happened! I mean, Hardin . . . the way he came in here, like he was nervous or something! Oh my God! And he offered to drive you to his dad’s . . . Wait, why are you going to his dad’s house? And you thought you left something in his car? How do I miss so much! I need details!” She practically shouts and bounds onto the foot of my bed.

  So I go through the whole thing, explaining to her how he showed up here last night and we watched a movie and he fell asleep, how we went to look at cars today—and how I didn’t mention him being there before because I figured that if I insisted she help me keep him away, it would feel odd to admit I’d hung out with him. I don’t say much about his dad except that I am going there for dinner, but she seems more interested in last night anyway.

  “I can’t believe he stayed here—that is a huge deal. Like Hardin doesn’t just stay places, ever. And he never lets anyone stay with him. I heard he has nightmares or something, I don’t know. But seriously—what have you done to him? I wish I would have recorded the way he looked when he just came here!” she yells and laughs. “I still don’t think this is a good idea, but you do seem to handle him better than most. Just be careful,” she warns again.

  What have I done to him? Nothing, surely. He just isn’t used to being nice, but for some reason he’s being nice to me. Maybe it’s a way to beat me at some game, or prove a point that he can fake manners? I am not sure and it hurts my head to try to figure it out.

  I bring up Tristan, and Steph takes the conversation from there. I try to pay attention to her stories from last night’s party: how Molly ended up shirtless (go figure) and Logan beat Nate in a drunken arm-wrestling match (she swears it was one of those things that are much funnier when you’re there). My thoughts drift back to Hardin, of course, and I check the clock to make sure I have enough time to get ready for tonight. It is four o’clock now, so I should start getting ready at five.

  Steph talks until five thirty and is ecstatic when I ask her to do my hair and makeup. I am not sure why I am putting such effort into looking okay for a family dinner that I really shouldn’t be going to, but I do anyway. She applies the makeup lightly so you can barely tell it’s there, but it looks great. Natural but pretty. Then she curls my hair the way she did before. I decide to wear my favorite maroon dress, despite Steph’s attempts to have me wear something from her closet. My maroon dress is nice and conservative, perfect for a family dinner.

  “At least wear the lace tights underneath, or let me cut the sleeves off it,” she says with a groan.

  “Fine, give me the lace tights, I guess. This isn’t that bad, though—it’s formfitting,” I rebut.

  “I know, it’s just . . . boring.” She crinkles her nose. She looks more pleased when I put on the tights and agree to high heels. I still have a pair of Toms tucked in my purse from yesterday, just in case.

  As six thirty approaches, I realize I am more nervous about the ride to dinner than the actual dinner. I fidget with the tights and practice walking around the room a few times before Hardin finally knocks on the door. Steph gives me a strange smile and I pull the door open.

  “Wow, Tessa, you . . . um . . . look nice,” he mumbles and I smile. Since when does he say “um” in every sentence?

  Steph escorts us out the door, winks, and exclaims like a proud parent, “You two have fun!”

  Hardin flips her off, and she returns the vulgar gesture as he closes the door in her face.

  chapter forty-six

  The drive to Hardin’s father’s house is nice. The low music in the background of his car feels like a distraction, and I notice the way his hands are gripping the steering wheel a little too hard. He seems on edge during the drive, but I know if he wants to talk about something, he would have no problem calling it out.

  I climb out of the car and walk up the steps from the sidewalk. With the sun still in the sky, I can see some old vines creeping up the sides of the house and the small white flowers that join them. Unexpectedly, I hear Hardin’s door open and close, and then his boots on the sidewalk. I turn around to see him a few steps behind me.

  “What are you doing?” I ask him.

  “Coming with you, obviously.” He rolls his eyes and takes one long stride to join me at the top of the steps.

  “Really? It seemed like you weren’t—”

  “Yeah. Now let’s go inside and have the worst night of our lives.”

  His face twists into the fakest smile I have ever seen. I elbow him and ring the doorbell. “I don’t ring doorbells,” he tells me and turns the knob. I suppose it’s okay because it’s his father’s house, but I still feel a little uncomfortable.

  We walk inside and through the foyer before his father appears. The surprise is evident on his face, but he smiles his charming smile and goes to hug his son. Hardin, however, dodges his gesture and walks right past him. The embarrassment flashes on Mr. Scott’s handsome features, but I look away before he realizes that I saw his subtle gesture.

  “Thank you so much for having us, Mr. Scott,” I say as we pass through the doorway.

  “Thank you so much for coming, Tessa. Landon has told me some about you. He seems very fond of you. And please, call me Ken.” He smiles and I follow him into the living room.

  Landon is sitting on the couch with his Literature book on his lap as I enter. His face lights up and he closes the book as I walk over and sit down next to him. I’m not sure where Hardin went to, but he’ll appear sooner or later.

  “So you and Hardin are giving your friendship another try?” Landon asks with a slight frown. I want to explain what is going on between Hardin and me, but I honestly have no idea myself.

  “It’s complicated.” I try to smile but I feel it falter.

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