After (The After Series) by Anna Todd


  I go back to the living room and snatch my phone off the back of the couch. Still no messages from him—and it’s seven in the morning. I call, but get his voicemail and hang up. I storm around the kitchen and turn on the coffeepot before heading to the bathroom to take a shower. I’m lucky I woke up on time, because I didn’t actually set my alarm. I never forget to set an alarm.

  “Where are you?” I say aloud and step into the shower.

  As I blow-dry my hair, I go over the possible explanations for his absence. Last night I thought he just got caught up with his work, since he has a lot to make up for or maybe he ran into someone he knew and the time slipped away from him. But at the library? Those things close fairly early, and even bars close eventually. The most likely explanation is that he went to a party. I somehow know this is what happened. A small part of me still worries that maybe he was in an accident; the thought alone hurts too bad to even entertain. But no matter what excuse or story I conjure up in my mind, I know he is doing something he isn’t supposed to. Everything was good between us last night and then he goes and stays out all night?

  In no mood to wear a dress, I put on one of my old black pencil skirts and a soft pink button-up shirt. Clouds cover the sky my entire drive, and by the time I get to Vance my mood has darkened to match them and I’m infuriated. Who the hell does he think he is to stay out all night without even telling me?

  Kimberly raises a brow at me when I walk past the donut table without grabbing one, but I give her my best fake smile and walk to my office. My morning passes in a daze. I read and reread the same pages over and over without comprehending any of the words.

  There is a knock on my door, and my heart stops. I desperately hope it’s Hardin, regardless of how pissed I am at him. Instead it’s Kimberly.

  “Do you want to go get lunch with me?” she asks sweetly.

  I almost decline her offer, but sitting here obsessing over my boyfriend’s whereabouts is not helping me one bit.

  I smile. “Sure.”

  We walk around the corner to a small cantina-style Mexican restaurant. By the time we get inside we’re both shivering, and she asks to be seated close to a heater. The small table we are given is directly underneath a heater, and we both raise our hands in the air to warm up.

  “This weather is unforgiving,” she says and prattles on about being cold and already missing summer.

  “I almost forgot how cold the winter is,” I tell her plainly. The seasons have blended together, and I barely noticed fall slipping away.

  “So . . . how are things with Mr. Bad Ass?” she asks with a laugh.

  The server brings us chips and salsa, and my stomach growls. I am not skipping my morning donut anymore.

  “Well . . .” I debate whether to share my personal life with her. I don’t have many friends. None, really, excluding Steph, whom I never see anymore. Kimberly is at least ten years older than me and maybe she has some good insight into the minds of men, something I certainly lack in. I stare at the ceiling covered in strings of beer-bottle-shaped lights and take a deep breath.

  “Well, I am actually not sure how things are at the moment. Yesterday things were fine but then he stayed out last night. All night. It was our second night in the apartment and he just never came home,” I explain.

  “Wait . . . wait . . . back up. Okay, so you two live together?” She gapes.

  “Yeah . . . as of Tuesday.” I try to smile.

  “Okay, so then he just didn’t come home last night?”

  “Nope. He said he had to do some work and go by the library, but then he didn’t come home.”

  “And you don’t think he’s hurt or anything, right?”

  “No, I really don’t.” I feel as if I would somehow know if he wasn’t okay, like we are tied together in some way that would immediately let me know if he was hurt.

  “He hasn’t called?”

  “Nope. Or texted.” I frown.

  “I would have his balls if I were you. This is unacceptable,” she proclaims.

  The server stops by to say, “Your food will be out shortly,” and fills up my water. I’m a little thankful for the small interruption, to give me a chance to catch my breath after Kimberly’s harsh words.

  And then she goes on, and when I realize she’s not judging me but sticking up for me, I feel better. “I mean it—you have to make it clear that he can’t behave this way; otherwise he will keep doing it. The problem with men is that they are creatures of habit, and if you let this be his habit, you’ll never be able to break it. He needs to know from the start that you won’t put up with this shit. He is lucky to have you and he needs to get his shit together.”

  Something about her pep talk gives me more confidence in my anger. I should be pissed. I should “have his balls,” as Kimberly so subtly put it.

  “How do I do that?” I ask and she laughs.

  “Let him have it. Unless he has a damned good excuse, which I am sure he is plotting right now, you let him have it the second he walks through that door. You deserve to be respected, and if he isn’t respecting you, then you need to either make him or kick him to the curb.”

  “You make it sound so easy.” I laugh.

  “Oh, it’s far from easy.” She laughs, then grows serious. “But it has to be done.”

  The rest of our lunch is filled with stories of her college life and how she has had her fair share of terrible relationships. Her blond bob sways back and forth as she shakes her head during almost every story. I find myself laughing so hard I have to dab the corners of my eyes. The food is delicious and I am glad I came out to lunch with her instead of sulking alone in my office.

  On the way back to my office, Trevor spots me from near the restrooms and comes over, smiling. “Hello, Tessa.”

  “Hey, how are you?” I ask politely.

  “I’m okay. It’s awfully cold out there,” he says and I nod. “You look lovely today,” he adds and looks away. I get the feeling he didn’t mean to say that aloud. I smile and thank him before he heads into the bathroom, obviously embarrassed.

  By the time I leave, I have gotten literally no work done so I take the manuscript home with me in hopes of making up for my lack of motivation today.

  When I arrive back at the apartment, Hardin’s car still isn’t in the lot. My anger returns, and I call him and cuss him out on his voicemail, which surprisingly makes me feel a little better. I make myself a quick dinner and get my things ready for tomorrow.

  I can’t believe it’s only two days until the wedding. What if he doesn’t come back before then? He will. Won’t he? I look around the apartment. As charming as it is, it seems to have lost some of its glow in Hardin’s absence.

  Somehow I manage to get a good amount of work done and am just putting everything away when the door opens. Hardin stumbles through the living room and into the bedroom without saying a word. I hear him toss his boots onto the floor and curse at himself, most likely for falling over. I go over what Kimberly said at lunch today and gather all my thoughts, pushing my anger to its head.

  “Where the hell were you?” I yell as I enter the room. Hardin has his shirt off and is removing his pants.

  “Good to see you, too,” he slurs.

  “Are you drunk?” I gape.

  “Maybe,” he answers, and tosses his pants onto the floor.

  I huff and pick them up, throwing them at him. “We have a hamper for a reason.” I glare and he laughs.

  He is laughing. Laughing at me.

  “You have some nerve, Hardin! You stay out all night and most of the day today without even calling me, and then you stumble in here drunk and make fun of me?” I scream.

  “Stop yelling. I have a killer headache,” he groans and lies on the bed.

  “Do you think this is funny? Is this some sort of game to you? If you aren’t going to take our relationship seriously, then why did you ask me to move in with you?”

  “I don’t want to talk about this right now. You’re overre
acting; now, come over here and let me make you happy.” His eyes are bloodshot from the amount of alcohol he consumed. He holds his arms out for me with a stupid drunken grin on his perfect face.

  “No, Hardin,” I say sternly. “I’m serious. You can’t just stay out all night and not even offer me an explanation.”

  “Jesus. Would you chill the fuck out? You’re not my mother. Stop fighting with me and come here,” he repeats.

  “Get out,” I snap.

  “Excuse me?” He sits up. Now I have his attention.

  “You heard me, get out. I will not be that girl who sits at home all night waiting on her boyfriend to come home. I expected you to at least come up with a good excuse—but you haven’t even tried! I’m not going to give in this time, Hardin. I always forgive you way too easily. Not this time. So either explain yourself or get the hell out.” I cross my arms, proud of myself for not giving in to him.

  “In case you forgot, I am the one paying the bills here, so if anyone is going to leave, it will be you,” he says with a blank stare.

  I glance down at his hands on his knees; his knuckles are yet again busted and covered in dried blood.

  My mind is still trying to come up with a response when I ask, “Did you get in a fight again?”

  “Does it matter?”

  “Yes, Hardin! It does matter. Is that what you were doing all night? Fighting people? You didn’t even have to work, did you? Or is that your job, beating up people?”

  “What? No, that’s not my job. You know what my job is. I did work, then I got distracted,” he says and swipes his hand over his face.

  “By?”

  “Nothing. Jesus,” he groans. “You are always on my case.”

  “I’m always on your case? What did you expect to happen when you stumbled in here after being gone all night and day! I need answers, Hardin—I am sick of you not giving me them.” He ignores me and pulls a shirt over his head. “I was worried all day; you could have at least called me. I was a mess today while you were out drinking and doing God knows what. You are messing with my internship, and that is not okay.”

  “Your internship? You mean the one that my father got you?” he says with his foul mouth.

  “You’re unbelievable.”

  “Just saying.” He shrugs.

  How is this the same person who just two nights go was whispering how much he loves me into my ear while he thought I was asleep?

  “I’m not even going to respond to that, because I know that’s what you want. You want a fight and I won’t give you one.” I grab one of my T-shirts and stalk out of the room. Before I exit, I turn back to him. “But let me make this clear: if you don’t get your shit together—like now—I’m gone.”

  I head to the couch and lie down, grateful for another space to be where he isn’t. I allow a few tears to fall before wiping my face and picking up Hardin’s old copy of Wuthering Heights. No matter how bad I want to go back in there and make him explain everything to me—where he was, who he was with, why he got into a fight, and with whom—I force myself to stay on the couch because that will bother him much more.

  Though probably not half as much as the level of control he has over parts of my life is bothering me.

  chapter ninety

  I put down my book and check the time on my phone. It’s a little after midnight, so I should try to force myself to go to sleep. He already tried to get me to come to bed earlier, saying he couldn’t sleep without me, but I stuck to my guns and ignored him until he left.

  I’m just about to drift into sleep when I hear Hardin scream, “No!!” I jump off the couch without thinking and rush to our bedroom. He is thrashing in the thick blanket and covered in sweat.

  “Hardin, wake up,” I say gently and shake his shoulder, moving a soaked curl from his forehead with my other hand.

  His eyes snap open—they are full of terror.

  “It’s okay . . . shh . . . it was just a nightmare.” I do my best to soothe him. My fingers play in his hair and then brush over his cheek. He is shaking as I climb into bed behind him and wrap my arms around his waist. I feel him relax as I press my face against his clammy skin.

  “Please. Stay with me,” he begs. I sigh and stay quiet, tightening my grip around him. “Thank you,” he whispers, and within minutes he is asleep again.

  THE WATER DOESN’T SEEM to get hot enough to relax my tense muscles no matter how high I turn it up. I am exhausted from the lack of sleep last night and the frustration that comes from dealing with Hardin. He was asleep when I got into the shower, and I pray he stays that way until I leave for my internship.

  Unfortunately, my prayers go unanswered, and he is standing by the kitchen counter when I get out of the bathroom.

  “You look beautiful today,” he says calmly.

  I roll my eyes and walk past him to grab a cup of coffee before I have to leave.

  “So you aren’t speaking to me, then?”

  “Not right now, no. I have to go to work and I don’t have the energy to do this with you,” I snap.

  “But you . . . you came to bed with me,” he pouts.

  “Yeah, only because you were screaming and shaking. That doesn’t mean you are forgiven. I need an explanation for everything, all the secrets, all the fights—even the nightmares—or I’m done,” I surprise him and myself by saying.

  He groans and runs his hands through his hair. “Tessa . . . it’s not that simple.”

  “Yeah, it is, actually. I trusted you enough to give up my relationship with my mother and move in with you so soon; you should trust me enough to tell me what is going on.”

  “You won’t understand. I know you won’t,” he says.

  “Try me.”

  “I . . . I can’t,” he stutters.

  “Then I can’t be with you. I’m sorry, but I have given you a lot of chances and you keep—” I begin.

  “Don’t say that. Don’t you dare try and leave me.” His tone is angry, but his eyes are hurt.

  “Then give me some answers. What is it that you think I wouldn’t understand? About your nightmares?” I ask.

  “Tell me you aren’t going to leave me,” he pleads.

  Standing my ground with Hardin is proving to be much harder than I imagined, especially when he looks so broken.

  “I have to go. I am already running late,” I tell him and go to the bedroom to get dressed as quickly as I can. Part of me is happy that he doesn’t follow me, but part of me wishes he would.

  He is still standing in the kitchen, shirtless, and gripping his coffee mug with white and busted knuckles when I leave.

  I mull over everything Hardin said this morning. What could I possibly not understand? I would never judge him for something that causes him to have nightmares. I hope that is what he was talking about, but I can’t ignore the feeling that I am missing something very obvious here.

  I feel guilty and tense almost all day, but Kimberly emails me the links to one too many funny YouTube videos for my sour mood to last. By lunch, I almost forget the problem at home.

  I’m sorry for everything, please come home after work, Hardin texts while Kimberly and I eat from a muffin basket someone sent Mr. Vance.

  “Is that him?” she asks.

  “Yeah . . .” I tell her. “I stood up to him, but I feel terrible, for some reason. I know I am right, but you should have seen him this morning.”

  “Good. Hopefully he learns his lesson. Did he tell you where he was?” she asks.

  “Nope. That’s the problem.” I groan and eat another muffin.

  Please answer me, Tessa. I love you, he sends minutes later.

  “Just answer the poor guy.” Kimberly smiles and I nod.

  I will be home, I respond.

  Why is it so hard for me to hold my ground with him? Mr. Vance lets everyone go a little after three, so I decide to stop by a salon and get my hair trimmed and a manicure for the wedding tomorrow. I hope Hardin and I can work this out before the wedding, because the
last thing I want to do is take an already angry Hardin to his father’s wedding.

  By the time I get home it’s almost six o’clock and I have multiple texts from Hardin, which I have ignored. When I get to our door I take a deep breath to mentally prepare for what is to come. Either we will end up screaming at each other, which will lead to one of us leaving, or we will actually talk through it and work it out. Hardin is pacing back and forth across the cement floor when I enter. His eyes shoot up to my figure in the doorway, and he looks relieved.

  “I thought you weren’t coming,” he says and steps toward me.

  “Where else would I go?” I say in response and walk past him into the bedroom.

  “I . . . well, I made dinner for you,” he says.

  He is totally unrecognizable right now. His hair is down across his forehead instead of pushed up and back like it normally is. He is wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and black sweats and he seems nervous, worried, and almost . . . afraid?

  “Oh . . . why?” I can’t help but ask. I change into sweats of my own, and Hardin’s face falls farther when I don’t put on the shirt of his that he has clearly laid on the dresser for me.

  “Because I am an asshole,” he answers.

  “Yeah . . . you are,” I say and walk back into the kitchen. The meal looks much more appetizing than I thought it would, even though I’m not sure what it is; some sort of chicken pasta, I think.

  “It’s chicken Florentine.” He answers my thoughts.

  “Hmm.”

  “You don’t have to . . .” His voice is small. This is such a different scene than usual, and for the first time since I met him I feel like I have the upper hand.

  “No, it looks good. I’m just surprised,” I tell him and take a bite. It tastes even better than it looks.

  “Your hair looks nice,” he says. My thoughts travel back to the last time I had a haircut and Hardin was the only one to notice.

  “I need answers,” I remind him.

  He lets out a hard breath. “I know, and I am going to give them to you.”

  I take another bite to hide my satisfaction with myself for holding my ground with him.

 
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