After (The After Series) by Anna Todd


  “Yeah, have you been to one of these before?” I ask Zed, who shakes his head.

  “No, this isn’t my typical scene,” he says with a laugh before adding, “But I’m glad to be here tonight.”

  I smile at his compliment and right then someone walks up to the central bandstand and gives us all a warm welcome on behalf of the school and the band. After a couple of minutes of rambling on, they finally count down to the lighting of the fire, and three, two, one . . . the fire ignites and swallows the mound of wood fiercely. It’s actually quite beautiful being this close to the flames, and I can tell I’ll be warm enough after all.

  “So how long are you here?” Zed asks Dakota.

  She frowns. “Only the weekend. I wish I could come back for the wedding next weekend.”

  “What wedding?” Zed asks.

  I look at Landon, who answers, “My mother’s.”

  “Oh . . .” He pauses and looks down, as if thinking about something.

  “What?” I ask him.

  “Nothing. I’m just trying to remember who else said something about a wedding next weekend . . . Oh yeah—Hardin, I think. He was asking us what he should wear to a wedding.”

  My heart stops. I hope I don’t show it on my face. So Hardin definitely still hasn’t told any of his friends that his father is the chancellor, or that he’s marrying Landon’s mother.

  “Bit of a coincidence, right?” he asks.

  “No, they are—” Dakota begins, but I interrupt: “Quite a coincidence, but, then, in a town this size, there are probably a few every weekend.”

  Zed nods in agreement, and Landon whispers something in Dakota’s ear.

  Hardin is actually considering going to the wedding?

  Zed chuckles. “I can’t imagine Hardin at a wedding anyway.”

  “Why not?” My tone is a little harsher than I meant it to be.

  “I don’t know, because he’s Hardin. The only way to get him to go to a wedding would be if he knew he could have sex with the bridesmaids. All of them,” he says and rolls his eyes.

  “I thought you and Hardin are friends?” I say.

  “We are. I’m not saying anything bad about him—that’s just how Hardin is. He has sex with a different girl every weekend, sometimes more than one.”

  My ears are buzzing and the fire feels too hot on my skin. I stand up before I realize what I am doing.

  “Where are you going? What’s wrong?” Zed asks.

  “Nothing, I just . . . I need some air. Some fresh air,” I mumble. I know how stupid that sounds but I don’t care. “Be right back, I just need a second.” I march away quickly before any of them can follow me.

  What is wrong with me? Zed is sweet and he actually likes me, he enjoys my company, and yet all it takes is a mention of Hardin and I can’t stop thinking about him. I take a quick stroll around the stands and few deep breaths before walking back over to them.

  “Sorry, the fire was just . . . too hot,” I lie and sit back down.

  Zed has his phone out and turns the screen away from me as he slides it back into his pocket. He tells me it’s fine and we make small talk with Landon and Dakota for the next hour.

  “I’m getting sort of tired, I had an early flight,” Dakota finally tells Landon, who nods.

  “Yeah, I’m tired, too. We’re going to get going.” Landon stands up and helps Dakota to her feet.

  “Do you want to go, too?” Zed asks me.

  “No, I’m okay. Unless you want to?”

  He shakes his head. “I’m cool.” We say goodbye to Landon and Dakota and watch as they disappear into the crowd.

  “So what’s the reason behind the bonfire?” I ask Zed, unsure that he really knows.

  “I think it’s like to celebrate the end of the football season,” he tells me. “Or the middle of it, or something . . .?” I look around and notice for the first time that a lot of people are wearing jerseys.

  “Oh.” I look over at Zed. “I see it now,” I say and laugh.

  “Yeah,” he says and then squints. “Is that Hardin?”

  I snap my head in the direction he’s looking. Sure enough, Hardin is walking toward us with a short brunette wearing a skirt.

  I scoot closer to Zed. This is exactly why I didn’t listen to Hardin on the porch—he’s already found some girl to bring here just to spite me.

  “Hey, Zed,” the girl says in a high-pitched voice.

  “Hey, Emma.” Zed hooks his arm around my shoulder. Hardin glares at him but takes a seat with us.

  I know I am being rude by not introducing myself to this girl, but I can’t help but dislike her already.

  “How’s the bonfire so far?” Hardin asks.

  “Warm. And almost over, I think,” Zed replies.

  There is tension between the two of them. I can feel it. I don’t know why there would be—Hardin made it clear to his friends that he doesn’t give a shit about me.

  “Do they have food here?” the girl says in her annoying voice.

  “Yeah, they have a concession stand,” I tell her.

  “Hardin, come with me to get some food,” she demands. He rolls his eyes but stands up.

  “Bring me back a pretzel, yeah?” Zed yells, smiling, and Hardin clenches his jaw.

  What is up with them?

  As soon as Hardin and Emma disappear I turn to Zed. “Hey, can we go? I don’t really want to hang out with Hardin; we sort of hate each other, in case you forgot.” I try to force out a playful laugh, but it doesn’t happen.

  “Yeah, sure, sure,” he says. We both stand up and he reaches for my hand. We hold hands as we walk, and I find myself looking around for Hardin and hoping he won’t see.

  “Do you want to go to the party?” Zed asks as we reach the parking lot.

  “No, I don’t really want to go there, either.” That is the last place I want to go.

  “Okay, well, we can just hang out another . . .” he begins.

  “No, I still want to hang out. I just don’t want to be here or at that frat house,” I say quickly.

  He looks surprised as his eyes meet mine. “Okay . . . well, we can go to my place? If you want; if not, we can go somewhere else? I actually don’t really know where else to go in this town.” He laughs and I join him.

  “Your place is fine. I’ll follow you there,” I tell him.

  During the drive, I can’t help but picture Hardin’s face when he returns to find us gone. He brought a girl there with him, so he has no right to be upset, but it doesn’t really ease the pang in my stomach to justify it like that.

  Zed’s apartment is right off campus and is small but clean. He offers me a drink, but I decline since I plan on driving back to my room tonight.

  I plop down on the couch, and he hands me the remote before going back to the kitchen to make himself a drink. “You can be in control; I don’t know what you like to watch.”

  “Do you live alone?” I ask him and he nods. I feel a little awkward as he sits next to me and puts his arm around my waist, but I hide my nervousness with a smile. Zed’s phone buzzes in his pocket and he stands up to answer it. Holding a finger up to tell me he will be back, he wanders into his small kitchen area.

  “We left,” I hear him say. “So . . .” “Fair.” “Too bad.” The few snippets of conversation that I catch make no sense to me . . . except the “we left.”

  Is that Hardin on the phone? I stand up and walk toward the kitchen as Zed hangs up.

  “Who was that?” I ask.

  “No one important,” he assures me and leads me back to the couch. “I am really glad we are getting to know each other; you’re different from the rest of the girls here,” he says sweetly.

  “Me, too,” I tell him. “Do you know Emma?” I can’t help but ask.

  “Yeah, her girlfriend is Nate’s cousin.”

  “Girlfriend?”

  “Yeah, they have been together awhile. Emma’s pretty cool.”

  So Hardin wasn’t there with her, not in that
way at least. Maybe he actually came there to try to talk to me again, instead of trying to hurt me with another girl.

  I look over to Zed just as he leans in to kiss me. His lips are cool from his drink and taste like vodka. His hands are careful and smooth against my arms, then my waist. Hardin’s heartbroken face from earlier pops into my mind, the way he begged for one more chance and I didn’t believe him, the way he watched me drive away, the outburst in class about Catherine and Heathcliff, the way he always shows up when I don’t want him to, the way he never tells his mother that he loves her, the way he said he loved me in front of everyone, the hurtful way he took it back, the way he breaks things when he’s angry, the way he came to his father’s house tonight even though he hates it there, and the way he asked his friends what to wear to the wedding—it all makes perfect sense, but no sense, at the same time.

  Hardin loves me. In his own damaged way, he does love me. The realization of this hits me like a truck.

  “What?” Zed says and pulls away from our kiss.

  “What?” I repeat his word.

  “You just said Hardin.”

  “No, I didn’t,” I defend.

  “Yes, yes, you did.” He stands up and steps away from the couch.

  “I have to go . . . I am sorry,” I say and grab my purse and rush out of the door before he can say anything else.

  chapter sixty-six

  I take a second to think about what I am doing. I left Zed to go find Hardin, but I really need to think about what will happen next. Hardin will either say terrible things to me, curse at me, and make me leave, or he will admit that he has feelings for me and that all these games he has been playing are just his way of not being able to deal with and express his feelings in a normal way. If the first scenario happens, and I mostly expect it to, I will be in no worse a state than I am in now. But, if it’s the second, am I ready to forgive him for all the terrible things he has said and done to me? If we both admit the way we feel about each other, will everything change? Will he change? Is he capable of caring for me the way I need him to, and, if so, am I capable of putting up with his mood swings?

  The problem is, I can’t answer any of these questions on my own, not a single one. I hate the way he clouds my thoughts and makes me feel unsure about myself. I hate not knowing what he will do or say.

  I pull up to the damned fraternity house that I have spent way too much time in. I hate this house. I hate a lot of things right now, and my anger toward Hardin is almost to its boiling point. I park at the curb and rush up the steps and into the crowded house. I head straight for the old couch Hardin is usually perched on, but, not spotting his mop of hair, I duck behind a heavyset guy before Steph or anyone else can spot me.

  Rushing up the stairs to his room, I bang my fist against the door, annoyed that once again he has it locked.

  “Hardin! It’s me, open the door!” I yell desperately and continue to pound, but there’s no answer. Where the hell is he? I don’t want to call him to find out, even though that is obviously easier, but I’m angry and I feel like I need to stay angry so I can say what I mean—what I need to say—and not feel bad about it.

  I call Landon to see if Hardin is at his father’s, but he isn’t. The only other place that I know to look is the bonfire, but I doubt he would still be there. Still, I don’t have any other options right now.

  So I drive back to the stadium and park my car, repeating the angry words I have saved for Hardin over and over to make sure I don’t forget anything in case he actually is here. Approaching the field, I can see that almost everyone has left already and the fire is almost out. I walk around and squint in the dying light and stare at couples to see if they are Hardin and Emma, without luck.

  Just as I decide to stop looking, I finally do see Hardin leaning against the fence by the goalpost. He is alone, and doesn’t seem to notice me walking toward him as he takes a seat on the grass, wiping his mouth. When he removes his hand, it looks red. Is he bleeding?

  Suddenly Hardin’s head snaps up as if he can sense my presence, and, yes, the corner of his mouth is bleeding and the shadow of a bruise is already forming on his cheek.

  “What the hell—” I say and kneel down in front of him. “What happened to you?” I ask.

  He looks up at me and his eyes are so haunted, my anger dissolves like sugar on my tongue.

  “Why do you care? Where’s your date?” he growls.

  I click my tongue gently and move his hand away from his mouth, examining his busted lip. He jerks away from me but I bite my tongue. “Tell me what happened,” I demand.

  He sighs and runs his hand over his hair. His knuckles are busted and bloody. The cut on his index finger looks deep and very painful.

  “Did you get in a fight?”

  “What gave you that idea?” he snaps.

  “With who? Are you okay?”

  “Yeah, I am fine, now leave me alone.”

  “I came here to find you,” I tell him and stand up, wiping the dead grass off my jeans.

  “Okay. And you found me, so go.”

  “You don’t have to be such an asshole,” I say. “I think you should go home and get cleaned up. You might need stitches on that knuckle.”

  Hardin doesn’t respond but stands up and walks past me. I came here to yell at him for being such an idiot and tell him how I feel, and he’s making it very hard—I knew he would.

  “Where are you going?” I ask, following him like a lost puppy.

  “Home. Well, I’m going to call Emma and see if she will come back and pick me up.”

  “She left you here?” I don’t like her at all.

  “No. Well, technically, but I told her to.”

  “Let me take you,” I say and grab his jacket. He shrugs me off, and I want to slap him. My anger is returning and I am more pissed-off than before. The tables have turned; our . . . whatever this is has shifted. I am usually the one running from him.

  “Stop walking away from me!” I yell and he turns around, eyes blazing. “I said let me take you home!” I scream.

  He almost smiles but frowns instead and sighs. “Fine. Where’s your car?”

  HARDIN’S SCENT IMMEDIATELY fills the car, only now there is a hint of metal mixed in; it’s still my favorite smell in the entire world. I turn the heat on and rub my arms to warm up.

  “Why did you come here?” he asks as I pull out of the parking lot.

  “To find you.” I try to remember everything I had planned to say, but my mind is blank and all I can think about is kissing his busted mouth.

  “For what reason?” he asks quietly.

  “To talk to you, we have so much to talk about.” I feel like crying and laughing at the same time and I have no idea why.

  “I thought you said we didn’t have anything to talk about,” he says and turns to look out the window with a coolness I suddenly find beyond irritating.

  “Do you love me?” The words come out rushed and strangled. I had not planned on saying them.

  His head snaps to the side to look at me. “What?” His tone is one of shock.

  “Do you?” I repeat, worrying that my heart might pop right out of my chest.

  He focuses forward. “You are not seriously asking me this while we are driving down the street.”

  “What does it matter where or when I am asking, just tell me,” I practically beg.

  “I . . . I don’t know . . . No, I don’t.” He looks around, almost like he needs to escape. “And you can’t just ask someone if they love you when they are trapped in a car with you—what the hell is wrong with you?” he says loudly.

  Ouch. “Okay,” is all I can manage to say.

  “Why do you even want to know?”

  “It doesn’t matter.” I’m confused now, so confused, and my plan to talk out our problems has crashed and burned in front of me, along with any dignity I still held.

  “Tell me why you asked me that, now,” he demands.

  “Don’t tell me what t
o do!” I shout back.

  I pull up to his house and he looks out at the crowded lawn. “Take me to my dad’s,” he says.

  “What? I am not a damn taxi.”

  “Just take me there, I will get my car in the morning.”

  If his car is here, why doesn’t he just drive himself? I don’t want our conversation to end yet, though, so I roll my eyes, and head off toward his father’s house.

  “I thought you hated it there,” I say.

  “I do. But I don’t feel like being around a lot of people right now,” he says quietly. Then, louder, he goes on: “Are you going to tell me why you asked that? Does this have something to do with Zed? Did he say something to you?”

  He seems really nervous. Why does he always ask if Zed said something to me?

  “No . . . It has nothing to do with Zed. I just wanted to know.” It doesn’t really have to do with Zed; it has to do with the fact that I love him and thought for a second, he might love me, too. The longer I am around him, the more ridiculous that possibility seems.

  “Where did you and Zed go when you left the bonfire?” he asks as I pull into his father’s driveway.

  “Back to his apartment,” I say.

  Hardin’s body tenses and his bloody fists clench, tearing the skin on his knuckles further. “Did you sleep with him?” he asks and my mouth falls open.

  “What? Why the hell would you assume that? You should know me better than that by now! And who do you think you are to even ask such a personal question? You made it clear that you don’t care about me so, what if I did?” I shout.

  “So you didn’t?” he asks again, his eyes like stone.

  “God, Hardin! No! He kissed me, but I wouldn’t have sex with someone I barely know!”

  He leans over and turns my car off, clenching his bloody hand over the keys and pulling them out of the ignition.

  “You kissed him back?” His eyes are hooded as he seems to look straight past me.

  “Yeah . . . well, I don’t know, I think I did.” I don’t remember anything except Hardin’s face in my mind.

 
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