After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  I call my mother and tell her about my internship, and of course she is beyond pleased by my amazing opportunity. I leave Hardin out of the explanation, but I do mention Ken, though I say he is Landon’s soon-to-be stepfather, which is true. She asks about Noah and me, but I dodge her questions. I’m surprised and grateful to find that Noah hasn’t told my mother everything. He doesn’t owe me anything, but I’m thankful for his omission. After listening to her talk for far too long about her new coworker, who she believes is having an affair with her boss, I finally tell her I really need to study and I get off the phone. Immediately, my mind goes back to Hardin, as always. My life was much more simple before I met Hardin, and now after . . . it is complicated and stressful, and I am either extremely happy or there is this burning in my chest when I think of him with Molly.

  I will go insane if I just sit here, and it’s only six o’clock by the time I give up trying to study. Maybe I should go for a walk? I really need some more friends. I grab my phone and call Landon.

  “Hey, Tessa!” His voice is friendly and soothes some of my anxiety.

  “Hey, Landon, are you busy?” I ask him.

  “No, just watching the game. Why, is something wrong?”

  “No, I was just wondering if maybe I could come over and hang out . . . or maybe if your mom doesn’t mind I could take her up on those baking lessons.” I let out a weak laugh.

  “Yeah, of course. She would love that—I’ll let her know you’re coming.”

  “Okay, the next bus isn’t for thirty minutes, but I will be there as soon as I can,” I tell him.

  “Bus? Oh yeah, I forgot you haven’t found a car. I will come get you.”

  “No, really, it’s okay. I don’t mind, I don’t want you to go out of your way.”

  “Tessa, it’s less than ten miles. I’ll leave now,” he says and I finally agree.

  I grab my purse and check my phone one last time. Of course Hardin hasn’t texted or called me. I hate the way I feel dependent on him, especially when I obviously can’t depend on him.

  Determined to be independent, I turn my phone off. If I leave it on, I will go crazy checking it every few minutes. Figuring that I really should just leave it here, I put it in the top drawer of my dresser before I go out to wait for Landon to pick me up.

  Minutes later he pulls up and honks lightly. I jump off the curb in surprise and we both laugh as I climb into the car.

  “My mother is going insane in the kitchen right now, so be prepared for a very detailed baking lesson,” he says.

  “Really? I love the details!”

  “I know you do—we’re alike that way,” he says and turns on the radio.

  I hear the familiar sound of one of my favorite songs. “Can I turn this up?” I ask and he nods.

  “You like the Fray?” he asks in a surprised tone.

  “Yes! They’re my favorite band—I love them. Do you like them?”

  “Yes! Who doesn’t?” He laughs. I almost tell him Hardin doesn’t, but then decide against it.

  When we arrive at the house, Ken greets us at the door with a friendly smile. I hope he wasn’t expecting Hardin to be with me, but seeing no disappointment on his face, I smile back.

  “Karen is in the kitchen; enter at your own risk,” he says mischievously.

  He wasn’t joking. Karen has the entire large island covered in pans, mixing bowls, and a lot of other things I don’t recognize.

  “Tessa! I’m just getting everything ready!” She’s beaming as she makes a hand gesture to highlight all the strange equipment.

  “Is there anything I can help you with?”

  “No, not at the moment. I am almost finished. . . . There, I’m done.”

  “I hope it wasn’t too late notice for me to come by,” I say.

  “Oh no, dear, you are always welcome here,” she assures me and I can tell she means it.

  She hands me an apron to wear and I tie my hair up into a bun. Landon sits on the bench and talks to us for a few minutes while Karen shows me all the ingredients used to make cupcakes from scratch. I pour them into the mixer and turn it on low speed.

  “I already feel like a professional baker.” I laugh and Landon leans across, wiping his hand across my cheek.

  “Sorry, you have some flour on your face.” His cheeks flush and I smile.

  I start pouring my cupcake batter into the baking pan. When we put them in the oven and start talking about school and home, Landon leaves the “girl talk” and goes to the other room to finish watching a football game he’s recorded.

  We get lost in conversation while our creations bake and cool, and when she says it’s time to ice the cupcakes, I look at them and am really pleased with the way mine turned out. Karen shows me how to use the piping bag to make an L on the top of one of them, and I set it aside for Landon. Karen expertly pipes flowers and green blades of grass onto her cupcakes while I do the best I can with mine.

  “I think it’s cookies next time.” She smiles and places the cupcakes in a serving case.

  “Sounds good to me,” I tell her and take a bite of one of my cupcakes.

  As Karen adjusts the case of sweets, she asks, “And where’s Hardin tonight?”

  I chew my cake slowly, trying to discern a motive behind her asking. “He’s at his house,” I answer simply. She frowns slightly but doesn’t push it.

  Landon wanders back into the kitchen and Karen leaves the room to take a few cupcakes to Ken.

  “Is this cupcake for me?” Landon asks and holds up the cupcake with the squiggly L written in icing.

  “Yeah, I have to work on my piping skills.”

  He takes a big bite. “The important part is it tastes good,” he says with a full mouth. I giggle and he wipes his mouth.

  I eat another cupcake and Landon talks about the game, which I don’t really care about, but he’s nice, so I pretend to listen. My mind travels to Hardin again and I stare out the window.

  “Are you okay?” Landon pulls me out of my thoughts.

  “Yeah, I’m sorry. I was paying attention . . . at first.” I smile apologetically.

  “It’s all right. Is it Hardin?”

  “Yeah . . . how’d you know?” I ask.

  “Where is he?”

  “The frat house. There’s some party tonight . . .” I start, and then decide to confide in him. “And he didn’t tell me about it. He had his friends meet him and he just said, ‘See you around, Tessa.’ I feel like an idiot even repeating this, I know how stupid I sound, but it’s driving me crazy. That girl Molly, he used to mess around with her all the time and she’s with him now, and he didn’t tell them we are . . . whatever we are.” I let out a heavy sigh.

  “Aren’t you two supposed to be dating?” Landon asks.

  “Yeah . . . well, I thought so but I don’t know now.”

  “Why don’t you try to talk to him? Or go to the party?”

  I just look at him. “I can’t just go to the party.”

  “Why not? You’ve been to their parties before, and you and Hardin are sort of dating, or whatever this is, and your roommate will be there. I would go if I was you.”

  “Really? Steph did invite me . . . I don’t know.”

  I want to go just to see if Hardin is with Molly but I feel stupid just showing up there.

  “I think you should.”

  “Will you come with me?” I ask.

  “Oh no, no. Sorry, Tessa. We are friends but no-ho-ho.”

  I knew he wouldn’t but it was worth asking. “I think I will go. At least to talk to him.”

  “Good. Just wipe the flour off your face first.”

  He laughs and I gently push his arm. I stay a little while longer to hang out with Landon; I don’t want him to think I was just using him for a roundabout ride to the party, even though I know he doesn’t think that.

  “GOOD LUCK; CALL ME if you need me,” he says as I get out of the car in front of the frat house. After he drives away I think of the irony of my leavi
ng my phone in my room to avoid worrying about Hardin, and yet here I am showing up at his house.

  A group of scantily clad girls are standing in the yard, causing me to look down at my outfit: jeans and a cardigan. I barely have any makeup on and my hair is in a bun on top of my head. What the hell was I thinking coming here?

  I swallow my anxiety and walk inside. I don’t see any familiar faces except Logan, who’s doing a body shot off a girl wearing only a bra and panties. I walk through the kitchen and someone hands me a red cup full of alcohol, which I put to my lips. If I am going to confront Hardin, I need alcohol. I push my way through the crowded living room to the couch that their group usually hangs out on. Between bodies and over shoulders, Molly’s pink hair comes into view . . .

  And I feel sick as I notice she isn’t sitting on the couch, but on Hardin’s lap. His hand is on her thigh and she leans back against him, laughing among her friends like this is the most normal thing in the world.

  How did I get myself in this situation with Hardin? I should have stayed away from him. I knew it then and I am slapped in the face with it now. I should just leave. I don’t belong here, and I don’t want to cry in front of these people again. I am sick of crying over Hardin, and I am done trying to make him something he isn’t. Every time I think I feel as low as I can, he does something else that makes me realize I previously had no idea of the real pain that unrequited feelings can cause. I watch as Molly puts her hand over Hardin’s; he moves his away, only to put it on her hip, giving her a playful squeeze and she giggles. I try to force myself to move, to back up, to run, to crawl, to do anything to get me out of here, but my eyes are locked on the boy I was falling for while his eyes are locked on her.

  “Tessa!” someone calls. Hardin’s head snaps up and his green eyes meet mine. They are wide with shock, and Molly looks my way, then leans farther onto Hardin. His lips part as if he is going to say something, but he doesn’t.

  Zed appears at my side and I finally force my eyes from Hardin’s. I try to muster a smile for him, but all of my energy is being used to prevent myself from bursting into tears.

  “Do you want a drink?” Zed asks and I look down. I was holding a cup of beer, wasn’t I?

  At my feet is my cup, the beer spilled across the carpet. I take a step away from it; I normally would clean it up and apologize, but right now I would rather just pretend it wasn’t mine. It’s so crowded in here, nobody will know.

  I have two options: I can run out of here in tears and let Hardin know he got the best of me, or I can put on a brave face and act like I don’t care about him and the way he is still holding Molly on his lap.

  I decide to go with option two.

  “Yes, please. I’d love a drink,” I say, my voice strained.

  chapter fifty-nine

  I follow Zed to the kitchen, mentally psyching myself up so I can get through this party. I wanted to go over and curse Hardin out, tell him to never speak to me again, slap him and rip Molly’s pink hair out of her head. However, he would probably just smirk the whole time, so instead I decide to gulp down the entire cherry vodka sour that Zed makes me and ask for another. Hardin has ruined too many of my nights, and I refuse to be that girl.

  Zed makes me another sour, but when I hold my cup out again a couple of minutes later, he laughs and holds up his hands. “Whoa, slow down, killer. You already drank two!”

  “It just tastes really good.” I laugh and lick the remaining cherry flavor off my lips.

  “Well, let’s just take it slow on this one, yeah?”

  When I agree, he mixes me up another one and then says, “I think we are about to play another round of Truth or Dare.”

  What is with these guys and their annoying games of Truth or Dare? I thought people stopped playing those ridiculous games when they were in high school. The pain in my chest returns as my mind goes over all the things Hardin and Molly may have already been dared to do tonight.

  “What did I miss during the last round?” I ask him with the best flirty smile I can manage. I probably look insane, but he smiles back, so it seems to work.

  “Just some drunk people sucking face, the usual.” He shrugs. The lump in my throat rises but I swallow it back down with my drink. I give a fake laugh and continue to drink out of my cup as we make our way back to the others. Zed takes a seat on the floor diagonally from Hardin and Molly’s spot on the couch, and I sit down next to him, closer than I usually would, but that’s the point. Part of me had assumed Hardin would have gotten Molly off his lap by now, but he hasn’t. So I lean in a little closer yet to Zed.

  Hardin’s eyes draw to slits, but I ignore him. Molly is still perched on his lap like the whore she is, and Steph gives me a sympathetic smile and glances toward Hardin. The vodka is beginning to take its effect as Nate’s turn comes around.

  “Truth or dare?” Steph asks.

  “Truth,” he answers, and she rolls her eyes.

  “Pussy.” Her colorful language never ceases to surprise me. “Okay . . . Is it true that you pissed in Tristan’s closet last weekend?” she asks and they all start laughing except me. I have no clue what they are talking about.

  “No! I already told you guys that wasn’t me!” he groans, making everyone laugh harder. Zed looks over and winks at me in the middle of the uproar.

  I hadn’t really noticed before, but, Geez, he is hot. Really hot.

  “Tessa, you playing?” Steph asks and I nod. I look up at Hardin, who is staring at me. I smile at him, then look back at Zed. The frown on Hardin’s face takes a little pressure off my chest. He should feel as terrible as I do.

  “Okay, truth or dare?” Molly asks.

  Of course she would be the one to ask me.

  “Dare,” I bravely say. God knows what she will have me do.

  “I dare you to kiss Zed.” A few gasps and chuckles are heard.

  “We already know how she feels about kissing people; pick something else,” Hardin says through his teeth.

  “Actually, it’s fine.” He wants to play, we can play.

  “I don’t think—” Hardin starts to say.

  “Shut up, Hardin,” Steph says and gives me an encouraging smile.

  I can’t believe I agreed to kiss Zed, even if he’s one of the most attractive people I have ever seen. I have only really kissed Noah and Hardin; I figure Johnny from elementary school doesn’t count, especially since he tasted like glue.

  “You sure?” Zed asks. He’s trying to act concerned but I can see the excitement in his perfect features.

  “Yeah, I am sure.” I take another drink, forcing myself not to look up at Hardin, lest I change my mind. Everyone’s eyes are on us as Zed licks his lips and leans in to kiss me. His lips are cold from his drink and I can taste the sweetness of the cherry juice on his tongue. His lips are soft, yet hard against mine, and his tongue moves expertly with mine. I feel the heat rising in my stomach, not nearly as hot as with Hardin, but it feels so good that when Zed’s hands move to my waist, we both move up to our knees—

  “Okay . . . damn. She said kiss, not fuck in front of everyone,” Hardin says and Molly tells him to shut up.

  I let my eyes go over to Hardin, and he looks mad, beyond mad. But he brought this upon himself.

  I pull away from Zed and feel my cheeks flush as everyone stares at us. Steph gives me a thumbs-up, but I look at the ground. Zed looks very pleased and I feel embarrassed but thrilled with Hardin’s reaction.

  “Tessa, your turn to ask Tristan,” Zed says. Tristan chooses dare, so I give him the least creative dare and have him take a shot.

  “Zed, truth or dare?” Tristan asks as he chases his shot.

  I down the rest of my drink, and the more I drink, the more numb my emotions become.

  “Dare,” Zed answers, and Steph whispers something in Tristan’s ear that makes him grin.

  “I dare you to take Tessa upstairs for ten minutes,” Tristan says, and I choke on my breath. This is too much.

a good one!” Molly says and laughs at my expense.

  Zed looks at me as if asking me if I’m okay with it. Without thinking, I stand up and grab Zed’s hand. He looks as surprised as everyone else, but he stands up, too.

  “This isn’t part of Truth or Dare, this is . . . um . . . well, it’s fucking dumb,” Hardin says.

  “Why does it matter? They are both single and it’s all in good fun, so why do you care?” Molly asks him.

  “I . . . I don’t care. I just think it’s stupid,” Hardin answers and my chest hurts again. He obviously had no plan to tell any of his friends that we are . . . were . . . whatever we were. He has been using me this entire time, I am just another girl to him and I was foolish, beyond foolish, to think otherwise.

  “Well, good thing it’s none of your business, Hardin,” I snap and pull Zed by the hand.

  “Burn!” “Damn!” I hear a few voices say, and Hardin swears at them as Zed and I walk away. We find a random bedroom at the top of the stairs and Zed pulls the door open and turns the light on.

  Now that I am away from Hardin, I begin to feel much more nervous being alone with Zed. No matter how angry I am, I don’t want to mess around with Zed. Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t want to, but I know I shouldn’t. I’m not that type of girl.

  “So what do you want to do?” I squeak.

  He chuckles a little and leads me to the bed. Oh Lord.

  “Let’s just talk, yeah?” he says and I nod and look down at the floor. “Not that I wouldn’t love to do many other things with you, but you’re intoxicated and I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

  I gasp.

  “Surprised?” He beams and I laugh.

  “A little,” I admit.

  “Why? I’m not a jerk, like Hardin,” he says and I look away again. “You know, I thought you and Hardin had something going on for a little bit.”

  “No . . . we are just . . . well, we were friends, but not anymore.” I don’t want to admit how stupid I was for believing Hardin’s lies.

  “So are you still seeing your boyfriend from high school?” he asks.

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