After (The After Series) by Anna Todd


  Hardin surprises me by laughing. “I’m not afraid of him. I just don’t want to provoke him. He likes games, and if I provoked him with you he would turn you into a game.” His knuckles turn white from his grip on the steering wheel.

  “Well, good thing we’re just friends, then,” I say and look out the window at the beautiful view of the city passing by. I’m not perfect; I know I’m acting childish but I can’t help it. Knowing how big a creep Jace is, I get why Hardin did what he did, but that doesn’t make it hurt less.

  chapter eighty-two

  When we get to the room, I plop down on the bed. I am still angry with Hardin but not as angry as I was. I don’t want any more attention from Jace than necessary, but meeting him has only raised more questions that I know Hardin doesn’t want me to ask.

  “I really am sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” he says. I don’t look at him because I know I will turn to mush. He needs to know that I won’t put up with him doing things like this. “Do . . . you . . . do you still want me?” he asks, his voice shaky.

  When I look over at him, I can see his vulnerability. I sigh, knowing I am not able to hold on to my anger when his eyes are so full of worry.

  “Yeah, of course I do. Come here,” I tell him and pat the bed next to me. I have no willpower when it comes to this man.

  “Do you consider me your girlfriend?” I ask as he sits down.

  “Yeah. I mean, it just seems a little silly to call you that,” he says.

  “Silly?” I pick at my fingernails, a bad habit I have yet to kick.

  “You are more to me than some adolescent title.” He puts his large hands on both sides of my face. His answer makes my stomach flip in the best way. I can’t help the grin that is plastered on my face. His shoulders immediately relax.

  “I don’t like that you don’t want people to know about us—how would we live together if you won’t even tell your friends about us?”

  “It’s not like that. Do you want me to call Zed right now and tell him? If anything, you should be embarrassed to be with me. I see the way people look at us when we are together,” he says. So he does notice the way people look at the two of us.

  “They only stare at us because we look different, and that’s their problem. I would never be embarrassed to be seen with you. Ever, Hardin.”

  “You had me worried that you were going to give up on me,” he says.

  “Give up on you?”

  “You’re the only constant in my life; you know that, don’t you? I don’t know what I would do if you left me,” he says.

  “I won’t leave you if you don’t give me a reason to,” I assure him, but I can’t think of a single thing he could do to make me leave him. I’m in too deep. Thinking of leaving him sends a pain through my body that I can’t bear. It would break me. Even if we fight every single day, I love him.

  “I won’t,” he says. He looks away for a second, then meets my eyes again. “I like who I am with you.”

  I turn my cheek into his hand farther. “I do, too.”

  I love him, every part of him. All versions of him. Mostly, I like who I have become with him; we have both been changed for the better by each other. I have somehow gotten him to open up and have brought happiness to him, and he has taught me how to live and not worry about every detail.

  “I know I piss you off sometimes . . . well, a lot of the time, and God knows you drive me fucking insane,” he says.

  “Thanks?”

  “I’m just saying, just because we fight doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be together. Everyone fights.” He smiles. “We just fight more than normal people. You and I are very different people, so we’ll just have to figure out how to navigate one another. It will get easier,” he assures me.

  I return his smile and run my fingers through his dark hair.

  “We still didn’t get anything to wear to the wedding,” I point out.

  “Oh darn, looks like we can’t go.” He turns his face into the most insincere frown I have ever seen and kisses my nose.

  “You wish. It’s only Tuesday. We have all week.”

  “Or we could skip it and I could take you to Seattle for the weekend?” He lifts an eyebrow.

  “What?” I sit up. “I mean, no! We are going to the wedding,” I correct myself. “But you could take me to Seattle next weekend.”

  “Nope, offer’s only good for a limited time,” he teases and pulls me onto his lap.

  “Fine, I guess I’ll have to find someone else to take me to Seattle.” His jaw tenses and I trace my fingertips over the stubble on his chin and jaw.

  “You wouldn’t dare.” His lips twitch to hold his smile.

  “Oh, I most certainly would. Seattle is my favorite place, after all.”

  “Your favorite place?”

  “Yeah, I haven’t really been anywhere else.”

  “Where is the farthest place you’ve gone?” he asks.

  I lay my head on his chest and he lies back against the headboard, wrapping his arms around me. “Seattle. I haven’t left Washington.”

  “Ever?” he exclaims.

  “Nope, never.”

  “Why not?”

  “I don’t know, we just couldn’t afford to after my dad left. My mother worked all the time and I was too focused on school and getting out of that town that I didn’t really think of much else, except working.”

  “Where would you want to go?” he asks, his fingers rubbing up and down my arm.

  “Chawton. I want to see Jane Austen’s farmhouse. Or Paris. I would love to see where Hemingway stayed while he was there.”

  “I knew you would say those places. I could take you there.” His tone is serious.

  “Let’s just start with Seattle.” I giggle.

  “I mean it, Tessa. I could take you anywhere you want to go. Especially England. I did grow up there, after all. You could meet my mum and the rest of my family.”

  “Um . . .” I actually have nothing to say. He is so strange, he introduces me as his “friend” an hour ago, and now he’s taking me to England to meet his mother.

  “Let’s just start with Seattle?” I laugh.

  “Fine, but I know you would love to drive through the English countryside, see the house Austen grew up in . . .”

  I can’t imagine how my mother would react to me leaving the country with Hardin. She would probably lock me in her attic and never let me out. I still haven’t spoken to her since she stormed out of my dorm after threatening me in an attempt to get me to stop seeing Hardin. I want to avoid that inevitable argument for as long as I can.

  “What’s wrong?” he asks and dips his head down in front of my face.

  “Nothing, sorry, I was just thinking of my mother.”

  “Oh . . . she’ll come around, babe.” He sounds so sure, but I know her better than that.

  “I don’t think so, but let’s talk about something else.”

  We start talking about the wedding, but Hardin’s phone vibrates in his pocket after a moment. I shift off him so he can get it out, but he makes no move to do so.

  “Whoever it is can wait,” he says, which makes me happy.

  “Will we be staying at your dad’s house Saturday after the wedding?” I ask. I need to get my mind off my mother.

  “Is that what you want to do?” he asks.

  “Yeah, I like it there. This bed is tiny.” I crinkle my nose and he laughs.

  “We could stay at my place more often. What about tonight?”

  “I have my internship in the morning.”

  “So? You can bring your stuff with you and get ready in an actual bathroom. I haven’t been to my room in a while; they are probably already trying to rent it out,” he jokes. “Don’t you want to take a shower without thirty other people in the same room?”

  “Sold.” I smile and climb off the bed.

  Hardin helps me pack my things for tomorrow and I grow more and more excited to go to the frat house. I hated that house, and stil
l pretty much do, but the thought of a shower in an actual bathroom and Hardin’s large bed is too appealing to pass up. He grabs the red set of lingerie out of my dresser and hands it to me with a series of eager nods, and I flush before shoving it in my bag. I pack one of my old black skirts and a white blouse, wanting to space out my new dresses.

  “Red bra with white shirt?” Hardin points out. I pull the white shirt out and grab a blue one instead.

  “You could bring extra clothes with you so you won’t have to bring so much next time,” he suggests. He wants me to keep clothes at his place. I love how it’s a given that we will stay the night together every night.

  “I guess I could,” I say and grab my new white dress and a few other random things.

  “You know what would make it much easier?” he asks, and pulls my bag over his shoulder as we head outside.

  “What?” I already know what he is going to say.

  “If we both lived at the same place.” He smiles. “We wouldn’t have to decide which place to stay at and you wouldn’t have to pack a bag. You would have a private shower every day—well, not totally private.” He winks playfully. And just when I think he’s done, when we get to his car and he opens the door for me, he adds, “You could wake up and make your own coffee in our kitchen and get ready for the day and we could meet up at our place at the end of every day. None of this roommate or frat house shit.”

  Every time he says “our” my stomach flutters. The more I think about it, the better it sounds. I am just terrified of moving too fast with Hardin. I don’t want it to blow up in my face.

  As we drive to the house, he puts his hand on my thigh and again says, “Stop overthinking it.” I hear his phone vibrating again, but he ignores it. This time I can’t help but be a little suspicious of why he isn’t picking up the phone, but I push the thought from my head.

  “What are you afraid of?” he asks when I don’t respond.

  “I don’t know. What if something happens with my internship and I can’t afford it? Or if something happens with us?”

  He frowns but recovers quickly. “Babe, I already told you I would pay for the place. It was my idea, and I make more, so let me do this.”

  “I don’t care how much you make. I don’t like the idea of you paying for everything.”

  “You can pay cable, then?” He smirks.

  “Cable and groceries?” I offer. I can’t decide if I am speaking hypothetically anymore or not.

  “Deal. Groceries . . . that sounds nice, doesn’t it? You could have my dinner ready every night when I get home.”

  “Excuse me? It would be the other way around.” I laugh.

  “We could rotate days?”

  “Deal.”

  “So you’re moving in with me then?” I don’t think I have ever seen a deeper grin on his perfect face.

  “I didn’t say that, I was just . . .”

  “You know I will take care of you, right? Always,” he promises.

  I want to tell him that I don’t want to be taken care of, that I want to earn things and pay for my own share of things, but I get the feeling he isn’t talking just financially.

  “I am afraid this is too good to be true,” I finally admit to Hardin and myself.

  He surprises me by saying, “Me, too.”

  “Really?” I am relieved that he feels the same way.

  “Yeah, the thought crosses my mind all the time. You are too good for me and I am just waiting on you to realize it, and hoping that you don’t,” he says, his eyes focused on the road.

  “That’s not going to happen.” And I mean it.

  He doesn’t say anything.

  “Okay.” I break the silence.

  “Okay what?”

  “Okay. I will move in with you.” I smile.

  He lets out a breath that sounds like he has been holding it for hours. “Really?” His dimples pop as he shakes his head and flashes a smile.

  “Yeah.”

  “You have no idea what this means to me, Theresa.” He puts his hand over mine and squeezes. Hardin turns onto his street and my mind races. We are really doing this, we are moving in together. Me and Hardin. Alone. All the time. In our own place. Our own bed. Our everything. I am scared as hell, but my excitement is stronger than my nervousness, for the moment at least.

  “Don’t call me Theresa or I will change my mind,” I tease.

  “You said only friends and family can call you that. I think I’ve earned it.”

  He remembers that? I think I said that right after I met him. I grin. “Point well made. Call me whatever you want.”

  “Oh, babe, I wouldn’t say that if I were you. I have a whole list of perverted things I would love to call you.” His smile is wicked, and I find myself wanting to hear his dirty words, but I stop myself from asking and squeeze my legs together. He must notice, because his smile grows.

  Just as I’m coming up with a line about how perverted he is, the words are lost in my throat. Pulling up to the house, we see that the yard is littered with people and the street is full of cars.

  “Damn it, I didn’t know they were having a party tonight. It’s fucking Tuesday. See, this is the shit—”

  “It’s fine. We can just go straight to your room,” I interrupt, trying to defuse his irritation.

  “Fine,” he sighs.

  When we walk into the crowded house, Hardin and I head straight for the stairs. Just as I begin to think I made it without running into anyone I know, I spot a mound of greasy, sandy blond hair at the top of the stairs. Jace.

  chapter eighty-three

  Hardin notices Jace the same time that I do and turns to look at me, then back at Jace, tensing immediately. For a second it seems like Hardin might turn us around, but then Jace definitely spots us, and I know Hardin won’t risk antagonizing him by backing away now. All around us, the party rages, but all I can focus on is Jace’s mischievous smile, which flat-out gives me the creeps.

  As we reach the top of the stairs, Jace gives an exaggerated look of surprise and says, “Didn’t think I’d see you two here, you know, since you couldn’t make it to the docks and all.”

  “Yeah, we were just coming here—” Hardin begins.

  “Oh, I get why you were coming here.” Jace smiles and pats Hardin on his shoulder. I cringe as his brown eyes move to me. “It’s definitely a pleasure to see you again, Tessa,” he says coolly.

  I glance at Hardin, but he is too focused on Jace to notice. “Yeah, you, too,” I manage.

  “Well, good thing you didn’t come to the docks anyway. Cops came and broke up our party, so we moved it here.”

  Meaning that Jace’s slimy friends are here somewhere—more people Hardin doesn’t like. I wish we had just stayed at my dorm. By the look in Hardin’s eyes I can tell he wishes the same.

  “That sucks, man,” Hardin says and then tries to continue on down the hall.

  Jace grabs Hardin’s arm and says, “You two should come down and have a drink with us.”

  “She doesn’t drink,” Hardin huffs, annoyance clear in his voice. Unfortunately, that annoyance seems to encourage Jace even more.

  “Oh well. You should still come have some fun. I insist,” he says.

  Hardin looks at me, and my eyes widen as I try to silently say, No! But then he nods at Jace. What the hell?

  “I’ll come down in a minute; let me get her . . . settled in,” Hardin mumbles, then pulls me by my wrist to his room before Jace can say anything. Unlocking the door to his room, he hurries me inside and quickly closes the door.

  “I don’t want to go down there,” I tell him as he sets my bag down.

  “You’re not.”

  “And you are?” I ask him.

  “Yeah, just for a minute. I won’t be long.” He rubs the back of his neck with his hand.

  “Why didn’t you just tell him no?” I ask. For someone who claims he isn’t afraid of him, Hardin seems to be very intimidated by Jace.

  “I already told you,
he is hard to say no to,” he says.

  “Does he have something over you or something?”

  “What?” Hardin’s face flushes. “No . . . he’s just a dick. And I don’t want any trouble. Especially not around you,” he says and steps forward to me. “I won’t be down there long, but I know him, and if I don’t go have a drink with him he will come back up here—and I don’t want him anywhere near you,” he says and kisses me on the cheek.

  “Okay,” I sigh.

  “I need you to stay in here, though. I know it’s not ideal, with the music bumping downstairs, but I can’t really think of a way out at this point.”

  “Okay,” I repeat. I don’t want to go down there anyway. I hate these parties, and I definitely don’t want to see Molly if she is here.

  “I mean it. Okay?” he demands in a soft voice.

  “I said okay. Just don’t leave me up here alone for long,” I plead.

  “I won’t. We should go sign that paperwork tomorrow for the apartment. Right after you get done at Vance. I don’t want to worry about this kind of shit again.”

  I don’t want to have to deal with these parties and my small dorm anymore. I want to eat my meals in a kitchen instead of a dining hall, and I want the freedom of being an adult. Spending time on campus and living there only reminds me how young we actually are.

  “All right, I will be back soon. Lock the door when I go out and don’t open it again—I have a key.” He swiftly kisses my lips and turns for the door.

  “Geez, you act like someone is going to murder me,” I joke, to break the tension, not that he returns the laugh before walking out of the room. I roll my eyes but lock the door anyway; the last thing I want to deal with is drunk people wandering in here looking for a place to fool around.

  I turn on his television, hoping to drown out some of the noise from downstairs, but my mind keeps wandering to what’s going on down there. Why is Hardin so intimidated by Jace, and why is Jace such a creep? Are they playing their usual immature game of Truth or Dare again? What if Hardin is dared to kiss Molly? What if she is sitting on his lap like before? I hate the jealousy that I feel toward her—it drives me insane. I know Hardin has slept with and fooled around with many different girls, Steph included, but Molly just gets under my skin. Maybe it’s because I know she doesn’t like me and she tries to shove her fling with Hardin down my throat.

 
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