After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  And you caught her straddling him with her tongue down his throat the first time you met her, my subconscious reminds me.

  And eventually all these thoughts get to me; I know I should stay put and keep the door locked, but my feet have other plans and before I know it, I am taking the steps two at a time to find Hardin.

  When I reach the bottom of the stairs I spot Molly’s hideous pink hair and barely there outfit. Much to my relief, Hardin isn’t anywhere to be found.

  “Well, well, well,” a voice from behind me says. I turn to see Jace standing less than a foot away.

  “Hardin said you weren’t feeling well. He’s always lying, that one.” He smiles and pulls a lighter out of his pocket. He flicks the top with his thumb, igniting the flame, and brings it to the hem of his jean vest to burn off some of the fringe.

  I decide to keep Hardin’s lie going. “I wasn’t, but I’m feeling a bit better now.”

  “So quickly?” He laughs, obviously amused.

  The room feels much smaller now and the party crowd seems larger. I nod and survey the room, desperate to find Hardin.

  “Come, I want you to meet some of my friends,” Jace says. His voice never fails to send a shiver down my spine.

  “Um . . . I think I sh-should find Hardin,” I stutter.

  “Aww, come on. Hardin is over there with them anyway,” he says and moves to put his arm over my shoulder.

  I take a step aside to pretend that I didn’t notice his gesture. I consider going back upstairs so Hardin doesn’t know I came down in the first place, but I get the feeling Jace will follow me or tell Hardin. Most likely both.

  “Okay,” I say, giving in. I follow Jace through the crowd, and he leads me outside to the backyard. It’s dark but for a few porch lights. I start to feel nervous about following Jace out into the dark yard until my eyes meet Hardin’s. His widen with surprise, then anger, and he moves to stand up but then sits back down.

  “Look who I found wandering around all by herself,” Jace says and gestures to me.

  “I see that,” Hardin mumbles. He is pissed.

  I stand in front of the small circle of unrecognizable faces sitting around what looks like a fire pit made from large rocks, not that there’s any fire going. There are some girls there, but mostly it’s pretty tough-looking guys.

  “Come here,” Hardin says and scoots over so there is room for me on the rock that he is sitting on.

  I take a seat and Hardin gives me a look that says if all these people weren’t around he would be absolutely screaming at me. Jace leans over and says something into the ear of a guy with a ripped-up white shirt and black hair.

  “Why aren’t you in my room?” Hardin says quietly but forcefully.

  “I . . . I don’t know. I thought maybe Molly . . .” I begin to say but realize how stupid it sounds.

  “You’re not serious,” he says with a hint of exasperation and runs his hand over his hair. The attention is put back on us when the black-haired guy hands me a bottle of vodka. “She doesn’t drink,” Hardin says and grabs it out of my hands.

  “Damn, Scott, she can speak for herself,” another guy says. He has a nice smile and doesn’t seem as creepy as Jace or the guy with the black hair.

  Hardin laughs lightly, though I can tell it’s a fake laugh. “Mind your own business, Ronnie,” Hardin says in a light tone.

  “So who’s up for a game?” Jace asks and I look at Hardin.

  “Please tell me you guys don’t play Truth or Dare at parties too. Honestly, what is up with playing games, anyway?” I groan.

  “Ooh, I like her. Nice and feisty,” Ronnie says and I laugh.

  “Who says there is anything wrong with playing a few games now and then?” Jace slurs and Hardin tenses next to me.

  “No, actually we were thinking of strip poker,” another guy says.

  “Oh, no way,” I tell them.

  “What about suck and blow?” Jace says and I cringe and blush. I am not sure what that is, but it doesn’t sound like something I want to play with this group.

  “Never heard of it. But no, thanks,” I say. I see Hardin smile out of the corner of my eye.

  “It’s a fun game, more fun when you have had a drink or two,” a male voice says from somewhere.

  I think about grabbing the bottle from Hardin and taking a drink, but I have to get up early and I don’t want to have a hangover.

  “We don’t have enough girls to play suck and blow, anyway,” Ronnie says.

  “I can get some,” Jace says and disappears into the house before anyone can protest.

  “Go back upstairs, please,” Hardin says quietly so only I can hear.

  “If you come with me,” I respond.

  “Okay, let’s go.”

  But as we stand up, a groan goes up from the circle. “Where you going, Scott?” one of the guys asks.

  “Upstairs,” he answers.

  “Come on, we haven’t seen you in months. Hang out for a little while longer.”

  Hardin looks at me and I shrug. “All right, fine,” Hardin says and guides me back to the large stone. “I’ll be right back. Stay here this time. I mean it,” he tells me and I roll my eyes, finding it pretty ironic that he’s leaving me alone with what is supposedly the worst group of people here.

  “Where are you going?” I ask him before he walks away.

  “To get a drink. You may need one, too.” He smiles and goes inside.

  I stare at the sky and the fire pit alternately to avoid any awkward conversation. It doesn’t work.

  “So how long have you and Hardin known each other?” Ronnie asks and takes a swig of liquor.

  “A few months,” I answer politely. Something about Ronnie is comforting; my senses aren’t on high alert with him like they are with Jace.

  “Oh, so not long, then?” he says.

  “Um, yeah, I guess. Not long. How long have you known him?” I ask, realizing I might as well use this opportunity to get as much information about Hardin as possible.

  “Since last year.”

  “Where did you meet him?” I try to sound casual.

  “Party. Well, a lot of parties.” He laughs.

  “Oh, you’re his friend, then?”

  “Nosey little thing, aren’t you?” the guy with the black hair chimes in.

  “Sure am,” I reply and he laughs. They aren’t so bad, not as bad as Hardin made them out to be. Where is he, anyway?

  A few moments later Hardin appears with Jace and three girls behind them. What the hell? Jace and Hardin seem to be in conversation and Jace pats Hardin on the back and they both laugh.

  Hardin’s hands are full with two red cups. I’m just relieved that Molly isn’t among the group of girls trailing them. He sits back down on the rock with me and gives me a playful little look. At least he seems to be more relaxed than he was before he walked away.

  “Here,” he says and hands me one of the cups.

  I stare at it for a second before grabbing it from him. One drink won’t hurt. I recognize the taste instantly; the night that Zed and I kissed we had been drinking these. Hardin stares at me and I lick my lips to collect the taste of the drink.

  “Now we have enough girls,” Jace says and gestures to the newcomers.

  I look over to them and fight the instinct to judge. They are scantily clad in skirts, and their shirts are identical except the colors. The one in the pink shirt smiles at me, so I decide that I like her the best.

  “You aren’t playing,” Hardin says in my ear. I want to tell him that I will do whatever the hell I please, but he leans into me and puts his arm around my waist. I look up at him, obviously surprised, but he just smiles.

  “I love you,” he whispers. His lips are cold against my ear and I shiver.

  “Okay, so everyone knows how this works,” Jace says loudly. “We all need to get in a smaller circle. But first, let’s really get the party going.” He smirks and pulls something out of his pocket. His lighter appears again and lig
hts the small white object.

  “It’s pot,” Hardin tells me quietly. I figured that it was, even if I haven’t actually seen marijuana before.

  I nod and watch as Jace brings the joint to his lips and lets out a large puff of smoke before holding it out in front of Hardin. Hardin shakes his head and declines. Ronnie grabs it and inhales deeply, coughing loudly.

  “Tessa?” Ronnie says and holds it out.

  “No. No, thanks,” I say and lean farther into Hardin.

  “All right, then, let’s play,” one of the girls says and pulls something from her purse as everyone moves from their rocks and forms a smaller circle on the grass.

  “Come on, Hardin!” Jace groans, but Hardin shakes his head.

  “I’m good, man,” he says.

  “We need one more girl then, unless you want to take the chance of having Dan’s tongue down your throat.” Ronnie laughs. Dan must be the guy with the black hair. A quiet redhead with a lot of facial hair takes a hit from the joint and passes it back to Jace. I finish the last sip of my drink and reach for Hardin’s. He lifts a brow at me but lets me take it.

  “I’ll grab Molly. God knows she’ll be down,” the girl in the pink shirt says.

  When I hear her name, my hatred for Molly takes over my common sense and I blurt out, “I’ll play.”

  “Really?” Jace questions.

  “Is she allowed?” Dan asks with a smirk and looks at Hardin.

  “I can do what I please, thank you,” I say and give him an innocent smile despite my bitchy tone.

  I know better than to look at Hardin; he already told me not to play, but I just couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. I down the rest of his drink, then take a seat next to the girl in the pink shirt.

  “You have to sit in between two guys,” the girl tells me.

  “Oh, okay,” I say and get up.

  “I’m playing, too,” Hardin grumbles and sits down. I sit next to him instinctively, but still avoid eye contact. Jace sits on my other side.

  “I think Hardin should sit over here to make things more interesting,” Dan says, and the redhead nods in agreement.

  Hardin rolls his eyes and moves across from me. I don’t get the point of this seating arrangement—why does it matter who sits by whom? When Dan moves to sit next to me, I begin to feel nervous. Sitting between him and Jace is more than uncomfortable.

  “Can we start?” the girl in green whines. She is sitting between Hardin and the redhead. Jace grabs what looks like a piece of paper from one of the girls and puts it to his mouth.


  “Ready?” he asks me.

  “I don’t know how to play,” I confess and hear one of the girls snicker.

  “You put your mouth on the other side of the paper and suck in; the point is to not let the paper fall. If it falls, you kiss,” he explains.

  Oh no. I look over at Hardin, but he is focused on Jace.

  “Start this way so she can see,” the girl on the other side of Jace says.

  I don’t like this game at all. I hope it somehow ends before it’s my turn. Or Hardin’s. Besides, they seem a little old to be playing these ridiculous games. What is it with college kids wanting to kiss random people every chance they get? I watch as the paper is passed between Jace’s and the girl’s mouth; it doesn’t drop. I hold my breath as Hardin retrieves the paper from the one girl, then passes it to the other. If he kisses one of them . . . I let out my breath when it doesn’t fall. The paper falls between the redhead and the girl in the yellow shirt and their lips meet. Her mouth opens and they kiss with tongue, making me look away and cringe. I want to get up and leave the circle, but my body stays still. I am next.

  Oh God, I am next. I gulp as Dan turns to me with the paper on his lips. I’m still not entirely sure what I am supposed to do, so I just close my eyes and go to put my mouth on the other side and suck in. I feel hot air through the paper as Dan blows onto it, but I can tell it’s too hard and there’s no way the paper won’t fall. Right as I feel the paper hit my leg, I feel Dan’s hot breath as his mouth moves closer to mine. The second his lips brush mine he is pulled away.

  I open my eyes, but by the time my mind can catch up to what is happening, Hardin is on top of Dan and has his hands latched around the guy’s neck.

  chapter eighty-four

  I scramble backward with my hands as Hardin lifts Dan’s head, his hands still wrapped around his neck, and slams it down into the grass. For a second I wonder if Hardin would have done the same were we on the concrete porch or near the fire pit stones, and I feel like my answer comes in the form of Hardin raising one fist high and slamming it into Dan’s jaw.

  “Hardin!” I scream and climb to my feet. Everyone else just stares, Jace seeming amused and even Ronnie entertained.

  “Stop him!” I beg, but Jace shakes his head as Hardin’s fist connects again to Dan’s already bloody face.

  “This has been coming for a while; let them hash it out.” He smirks at me. “Want a drink?”

  “What? No, I don’t want a drink! What the hell is wrong with you!” I yell.

  A crowd has now gathered around and people are cheering on the fight. I have yet to see Dan hit Hardin, for which I’m glad, but I definitely want Hardin to stop hurting Dan. I’m too afraid to try to stop him myself, so when Zed appears in the yard, I yell for him. His eyes find me immediately and he jogs over.

  “Stop him, please!” I yell. Everyone seems excited about this except me. If Hardin keeps hitting him, he will kill him. I know it.

  Zed gives me a quick nod and takes a few steps over to Hardin. He wraps his fist into Hardin’s shirt and pulls him backward. Hardin is caught off guard, so he’s easily separated from Dan’s prone body. Enraged, Hardin takes a swing at Zed, but Zed dodges his fist and puts both of his hands on Hardin’s shoulders. He says something to Hardin that I can’t make out and then nods his head toward me. Hardin’s eyes are blazing, his knuckles bloody and his shirt ripped from Zed’s grip. His chest is pumping up and down rapidly, like he’s a wild animal after a kill. I don’t make a move to walk toward him; I know how angry he is at me. I can tell. I am not afraid of Hardin the way I probably should be. Even though I just witnessed him completely losing his temper in the worst way possible, I know that he would never physically hurt me.

  With the excitement winding down, almost everyone begins to move back inside the house. Dan’s crumpled body lies on the ground and Jace leans down to help him up. He stumbles to his feet and lifts his shirt up to wipe his bloody face off, spitting out a mixture of blood and saliva that makes me look away.

  Hardin’s head turns to look where Dan is and he tries to take a step toward him. Zed holds Hardin tight to stop him.

  “Fuck you, Scott!” Dan yells. Jace steps between them. Oh, now he wants to do something. “Just wait until your little—” Dan shouts.

  “Shut the fuck up,” Jace snaps and Dan’s mouth closes.

  Dan looks at me and I take a step back. I wonder what Jace meant by “this has been coming for a while.” Hardin and Dan seemed fine together a few minutes ago.

  “Go inside!” Hardin yells, and I immediately know that he is talking to me.

  I decide to listen to him, for once, and turn around and run into the house. I know that everyone is staring at me but I don’t care. I push my way through the crowded house and rush up to Hardin’s room. I must have forgotten to lock it when I left, and, to add to my horror, there is a big red spot on the carpet. Someone must have stumbled in here and spilled a drink on the tan carpet. Great. I hurry to the bathroom and grab a towel and turn the sink on. I lock Hardin’s door once I step inside and furiously wipe the stain, but the water only spreads the spot and makes it much worse. The door clicks and I try to stand before he enters.

  “What the hell are you doing?” His eyes move to the towel in my hand then to the spot on the floor.

  “Someone . . . I forgot to lock the door when I went downstairs,” I say and look at him. His nostrils flare
and he takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” I say.

  The anger is radiating off him and I can’t even be angry with him because all of this is my fault. If I would have just listened to him and stayed in the room, none of this would have happened.

  He runs his hands over his face in frustration and I take a step toward him. His fingers are busted and bloody, reminding me of his fight at the stadium. He surprises me by grabbing the towel from my hands and I reflexively jump back a little. His eyes flash with confusion and he tilts his head slightly as he uses the nonstained portion of the towel to wipe his knuckles off.

  I expected him to barge through the door and break things while screaming at me; instead I am granted with his silence, which turns out to be much worse.

  “Could you please say something?” I beg.

  His words come even slower than usual. “Trust me, Tessa, you don’t want me to speak right now.”

  “Yes, I do,” I tell him. I can’t stand his angry silence.

  “No, you don’t,” he growls.

  “Yes, I do! I need you to talk to me, tell me what the hell happened down there!” I wave my hands toward the window and he clenches his fists by his sides.

  “Goddamn it, Tessa! You always have to push and push! I told you to stay in my fucking room—multiple times—and what the fuck did you do? You didn’t listen, as usual! Why is it so damn hard for you to listen to what I say?” he yells and slams his fist against the side of his dresser, cracking the wood.

  “Because, Hardin, you don’t just get to tell me what to do all the time!” I yell back.

  “That isn’t what I am doing. I was trying to keep you away from shit like what just happened. I already warned you that they aren’t a good group of people, yet you prance out there with Jace and then volunteer yourself to play that fucking game! What the fuck was that?” The deep veins in his neck are straining against his skin so tightly that I fear they may break through.

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