After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  “You’re still with Noah, right? Because Ken seems to think you and Hardin are dating.” He laughs. I hope my laugh doesn’t sound as fake as it feels. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise, but I am sure Hardin will,” he says.

  I shift uncomfortably, unsure what to say. “Yeah, I’m still with Noah, it’s just—”

  “You must be Tessa!” A woman’s voice rings through the room. Landon’s mom walks toward me and I stand up to shake her hand. Her eyes are bright and her smile is lovely. She is wearing a turquoise dress, similar to my maroon dress, with an apron printed with small strawberries and bananas over the top of it.

  “It’s so nice to meet you; thank you for having me. Your home is beautiful,” I tell her. Her smile covers her face and she squeezes my hand.

  “You are so welcome, dear, it’s my pleasure,” she says, beaming. A timer goes off from the kitchen and she jumps a little. “Well, I’m going to finish up in the kitchen, but I’ll see you all in the dining room in a few minutes.”

  “What are you working on?” I ask Landon and he pulls out a folder.

  “Next week’s assignments. That essay on Tolstoy is going to kill me.”

  I laugh and nod; that essay took me hours to write. “Yeah, it was a killer. I just finished it a few days ago.”

  “Well, if you two nerds are done comparing notes, I would love to eat dinner sometime in the next year,” Hardin says. I glare at him, but Landon just laughs and puts his book down before walking to the dining room. It seems their fight was good for them after all.

  I follow them both to the large dining room. There, a long table is decorated beautifully with full place settings and multiple platters of food in the center. Karen really went all out for this; Hardin had better behave or I will kill him.

  “Tessa, you and Hardin will sit on this side,” Karen instructs us and gestures to the left of the table. Landon sits across from Hardin. Ken and Karen take their seats on the other side of Landon.

  I thank her and sit down next to Hardin, who is quiet and seems uncomfortable. I watch as Karen makes Ken’s plate for him and he thanks her with a brief kiss on her cheek. It is such a sweet gesture, I have to look away. I fill my plate with roast beef, potatoes, and squash, then pile a roll on top of it. Hardin chuckles quietly at the mound of food.

  “What? I’m hungry,” I whisper.

  “Nothing. Hungry girls are the best.” He laughs again and piles his plate even higher than mine.

  “So, Tessa, how are you liking Washington Central so far?” Ken asks.

  I chew my food quickly so I can answer. “I really enjoy it. It’s only my first semester, though, so ask me again in a few months,” I joke and everyone laughs, except Hardin.

  “Well, that’s great. Are you in any clubs on campus?” Karen asks and wipes her mouth with her napkin.

  “Not yet, I plan on joining the Literary Club next semester.”

  “Really? Hardin used to be a member,” Ken adds and I look at Hardin. His eyes are narrowed and he looks annoyed.

  “So how do you like living near WCU?” I ask to divert attention from Hardin. His eyes soften and I imagine that’s his way of thanking me.

  “We enjoy it. When Ken first became chancellor, we lived in a much smaller place until we found this house and we fell in love with it immediately.”

  My fork drops against the glass plate. “Chancellor? Of WCU?” I gasp.

  “Yes. Hardin never mentioned it?” Ken asks, looking over at his son.

  “No . . . I didn’t.”

  Karen and Landon follow Ken’s eyes to Hardin and he shifts nervously.

  For his part, Hardin looks back at his father with a glaring hatred. He launches to his feet, shouting, “No! Okay, no, I didn’t tell her—I don’t know why it fucking matters. I don’t need to use your name or position!” As he storms away from the table, Karen looks like she might cry, and Ken’s face is red.

  “I am so sorry, I didn’t know he . . .” I start.

  “No, don’t apologize for his poor behavior,” Ken tells me.

  I hear the back door slam. “Excuse me,” I say, and stand up from the table to go find Hardin.

  chapter forty-seven

  I rush out the back door and see Hardin pacing back and forth on the deck. I’m not sure what I can do to help the situation, but I know I would rather be out here with Hardin than face his family in the dining room after that outburst. I feel responsible for this whole thing anyway, since I agreed to come here when Hardin didn’t want to. If he started suddenly hanging out with my mother, I know I would feel weird about it.

  Ha, like she would ever let that happen, my subconscious points out.

  As if he heard my thoughts, Hardin shoots me an annoyed look. When I approach him he turns away from me.

  “Hardin . . .”

  “No, Tessa, don’t,” he says sharply. “I know you’re going to say that I need to go back in there and apologize to them. But there is no way in hell that is happening, so don’t waste your breath! Why don’t you just go back in there and enjoy your dinner and leave me the hell alone.”

  I take a step closer, but all I can manage to say is “I don’t want to go back in there.”

  “Why not? You fit in perfectly with their prudish and boring personalities.”

  Ouch! Why am I here again? Oh, yeah, that’s right: to be Hardin’s punching bag.

  “You know what? Fine! I will leave—I don’t know why I just can’t stop trying with you!” I shout, but hope they can’t hear me inside.

  “Because you just can’t take a hint, I guess.” As the words leave his mouth, I feel the lump growing in my throat.

  “The hint is well-taken.” I stare at the stone patio and try to swallow the sting from his words, but it’s impossible. When I look up at Hardin, his cold eyes meet mine.

  “That’s it? That’s your defense?” He laughs and rakes his hands through his hair.

  “You don’t deserve any more of my time. You don’t deserve for me to even speak to you, or those nice people in there to spend their time setting up this dinner to have you ruin it! That’s what you do: ruin things, everything! And I am done being one of those things.” My tears soak my face as Hardin steps toward me. I back away, my feet tripping on something. Hardin reaches out to steady me, but I grab hold of a patio chair instead. I don’t want or need his help.

  Looking up, I see that his expression is one of exhaustion. His voice is, too, when he says softly, “You’re right.”

  “I know I am.” I turn away from him.

  Faster than I could have imagined, he snakes his fingers around my wrist and pulls me to his chest. I lean into him without hesitation, wanting to touch him so badly. But I know better: I can hear the warning in the thump of my heart, rapid beneath my chest. I wonder if Hardin can hear it, too, or feel the pounding of my pulse under his grip. His eyes are full of anger and I know mine mirror his.

  I have no warning before he crashes his lips down on mine, the force of his mouth almost painful. His action is so full of desperation and hunger that I am lost. Lost in Hardin. Lost in the salty taste of my tears on both our lips, lost in his fingers threaded through my hair. His hands move from my head to my waist and he lifts me onto the railing. My legs part for him and he moves between them, never losing contact with my mouth. We are all heat and gasps, tangled in each other. My teeth graze over his bottom lip, causing him to groan and pull me even closer.

  The back door creaks open, breaking the spell. Turning to look, I am horrified as Landon’s soft eyes meet mine. His face is red, and his eyes wide. I push Hardin away from me and jump down from the rail, adjusting my dress as my feet hit the deck.

  “Landon, I . . .” I begin.

  He holds up his hand to silence me and steps toward us. Hardin’s breathing is so loud that I swear it echoes between the house and the trees. His cheeks are flamed, his eyes wild.

  “I don’t understand. I thought you guys hated each other, and here you are . .
. You have a boyfriend, Tessa, I didn’t think you were like that.” Landon’s words are harsh but his tone is soft.

  “I’m not . . . I don’t know what this is.” I motion between me and Hardin. Hardin stays silent, for which I am glad. “Noah knows, well, about before. I was going to tell you, I just don’t want you to think differently of me,” I say, almost apologetically.

  “I don’t know what to think . . .” Landon says and walks back toward the door.

  Then, like something out of a movie, a clash of thunder rolls through the air.

  “It looks like it might storm,” Hardin says, his eyes scanning the darkening sky. Despite his flushed appearance, his voice is calm.

  “A storm? Landon just caught us . . . kissing,” I say, feeling the fire slowly burning out between us.

  “He’ll be okay.”

  I look up at him, expecting to see a smug expression, but it’s not there. He puts his hand on my back and rubs gently.

  “Do you want to go back inside or do you want me to take you home?” he asks.

  It’s astounding how abruptly his mood can change from angry to lustful to calm.

  “I would like to go back inside and finish dinner. What do you want to do?”

  “I suppose we can go back in; the food is pretty good,” he says, smiling, and I giggle. “That’s a lovely sound,” he tells me and I meet his gaze.

  “You’re in a much better mood,” I say and he smiles again.

  He rubs the back of his neck like he always does. “I don’t understand it, either.”

  So he is just as confused as I am? I wish my feelings for him weren’t so strong; then I could deal with him much better. When he says things like this it makes me care for him that much more. I only wish he could feel the same, but I have been warned by Steph and Hardin himself that it will never happen.

  Thunder rolls again and Hardin takes my hand. “Let’s go inside before it rains.”

  I nod and he leads me inside. He doesn’t remove his hand from mine as we walk back into the dining room. Landon’s eyes dart down to note this, but he says nothing. As much as I don’t want Landon to see it, I love the way Hardin’s hand feels over mine. I love it too much to pull away. Landon focuses back on his plate as we retake our seats. Letting go of my hand, Hardin looks up at his father and Karen.

  “I am sorry for yelling at you that way,” he mutters.

  The surprise on everyone’s face is evident and Hardin looks down at the table. “I hope I didn’t ruin the dinner that you put so much effort into,” he continues.

  I can’t help myself. I reach under the table and put my hand over Hardin’s, giving it a light squeeze.

  “It’s okay, Hardin, we understand. Let’s not let the night be ruined; we can still enjoy the dinner.” Karen smiles and Hardin looks at her. He gives her a small smile, which I know takes a lot of effort from him. Ken doesn’t say anything, but he nods in agreement with the sentiment.

  I slowly pull my hand away, but Hardin laces his fingers through mine and looks sideways at me. I hope I don’t wear the giddy expression I feel inside. For what seems like the first time in my life, I don’t overthink things, like why I am holding his hand when I’m dating Noah.

  Dinner continues well, but I find myself a little intimidated by Ken now that I know he’s the chancellor. That is a huge deal. He tells us about when he moved from England, and how he loves America, and the state of Washington in particular. Hardin is still holding my hand as we both struggle to eat using one hand, but neither of us seems to mind.

  “The weather could be better, but it’s beautiful here,” Ken muses, and I nod in agreement.

  “What are your plans after college?” Karen asks me as everyone finishes eating.

  “I’m going to move to Seattle, and hopefully work in publishing while I work on my first book,” I say with confidence.

  “Publishing? Do you have any houses in mind?” Ken asks.

  “Not exactly. I will take any opportunity I can get to get my foot in the door.”

  “That’s great. I happen to have some pretty good connections at Vance. Have you heard of it?” he asks and I look at Hardin. He had mentioned knowing someone there before.

  “Yes, I’ve heard great things about it.” I smile.

  “I can make a call for you if you would like, to see about an internship. It would be a great opportunity for you. You seem like a very bright young woman, and I’d love to help out.”

  I take my hand out of Hardin’s and clasp it with my other just under my chin. “Really? That would be so nice of you! I really appreciate it!”

  Ken tells me that he will call whoever it is that he knows on Monday, and I thank him repeatedly. He assures me it’s nothing and that he loves to help anytime he can. I put my hand back under the table, but Hardin has moved his hand away, and when Karen stands and begins to clear the table, he excuses himself and walks off upstairs.

  chapter forty-eight

  Karen smiled appreciatively when I offered to help with the cleanup, and seemed a little surprised I would. I load the dishwasher while she washes the large serving plates. I realize the plates all look really new, and remember how much damage Hardin caused that night. He can be so cruel.

  “If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you and Hardin been seeing each other?” She blushes at her own question, but I give her a warm smile.

  Figuring it best just to dodge the dating question, I say, “Well, we have only known each other about a month; he is friends with my roommate, Steph.”

  “We have only met a few of Hardin’s friends. You are . . . well, you are different from the ones that I have come across.”

  “Yeah, we’re very different.”

  Lightning flashes and the rain begins to pound against the windows. “Wow, it’s really coming down out there,” she says and pushes the small window in front of the sink closed.

  “Hardin isn’t as bad as he seems,” she tells me, though really it feels sort of like she’s reminding herself. “He’s just hurt. I would love to believe that he won’t always be this way. I must say I was very surprised that he came tonight, and I can only believe that’s your influence on him.”

  Taking me by surprise, she wraps her arms around me and pulls me into a hug. Unsure what to say, I hug her back. She pulls away but keeps her well-manicured hands on my shoulders.

  “Really, thank you,” she says, then blots her eyes with a tissue from her apron before returning to the dishes.

  She is too kind for me to tell her that I don’t have any influence on Hardin. He came tonight only because he wanted to annoy me. After I finish loading the dishwasher, I stare out the window watching the raindrops trickle down the glass. It is remarkable that Hardin, who hates everyone except himself, and maybe his mother, has all these people who care about him yet refuses to let himself care for them. He is lucky to have them, us. I know I am one of those people. I would do anything for Hardin; even though I would deny it, I know it to be true. I have no one, except Noah and my mother, and both of them together don’t care about me the way Hardin’s soon-to-be stepmother does him.

  “I’m going to go check on Ken. Make yourself at home, dear,” Karen says to me. I nod and decide to go find Hardin, or Landon, whichever one of them appears first.

  Landon is nowhere to be found downstairs, so I make my way up to Hardin’s room. If he’s not up here, I figure, I’ll just go sit downstairs alone. I turn the handle, but the door is locked.

  “Hardin?” I try to speak quietly so no one hears me. I tap my knuckles against the door but hear nothing. Just as I start to turn away, the door clicks and he opens it.

  “Can I come in?” I ask him and he nods once and pulls the door open just enough for me. There is a breeze in the room and I can smell the cool scent of the rain coming through the bay window. He walks over and sits down on the built-in bench surrounding the window and raises his knees up. He stares out the window but doesn’t say a word to me. I sit across from him and
wait as the constant drumming of the rain creates a calming rhythm.

  “What happened?” I finally ask. When he looks at me with a confused expression, I explain: “I mean downstairs. You were holding my hand and then . . . why did you pull away?” I am embarrassed by the desperation in my voice. I sound too needy, but the words have already been delivered.

  “Was it the internship—do you not want me to take it for some reason? You offered to help me before?”

  “That’s just it, Tessa,” he says, and looks out the window again. “I want to be the one to help you, not him.”

  “Why? It’s not a competition, and you were the one who offered first, so thank you.” I want to ease his mind on this, even though I don’t understand why it matters.

  He lets out an exasperated sigh and hugs his knees. Silence hangs between us as we both stare out the window. The wind has picked up, swaying the trees back and forth, and the lightning is more frequent now.

  “Do you want me to leave now? I can call Steph and see if Tristan can pick me up,” I whisper. I don’t want to leave but sitting in silence with Hardin is driving me insane.

  “Leave? How do you get that I want you to leave from me saying I want to help you?” He raises his voice.

  “I-I don’t know. You aren’t speaking to me and the storm is getting worse . . .” I stutter.

  “You are maddening, absolutely maddening, Theresa.”

  “How?” I squeak.

  “I try to tell you that I . . . that I want to help you and I hold your hand but that doesn’t do anything . . . you still don’t get it. I don’t know what else to do.” He puts his face in his hands. He can’t possibly mean what I think he does?

  “Get what? I don’t get what, Hardin?”

  “That I want you. More than I have ever wanted anyone or anything in my entire life.” He looks away from me.

  My stomach flips over and over and my head starts to spin. The air between us has once again shifted. Hardin’s unguarded admission hits me hard. Because I want him, too. More than anything.

  “I know you don’t . . . you don’t feel that way, but I . . .” he begins and this time I am the one to cut him off.

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