After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  “You wouldn’t.”

  “You just put your hands on her, right in front of me, and you think I wouldn’t call the police on you? If you weren’t her mum, I would do much worse than that. Now you have five seconds to get out,” he says, and I stare at my mother with wide eyes and bring my hand to my burning skin.

  I don’t like the way he threatened her, but I want her to leave. After a challenging staring match between the two of them, Hardin growls, “Two seconds.”

  She huffs and heads toward the door, the loud clamor of her heels echoing off the concrete floor.

  “I hope you’re happy with your decision, Theresa,” she says and slams the door.

  Hardin’s arms wrap around me in the most comforting and reassuring embrace, and it’s exactly what I need right now.

  “I’m so sorry, baby,” he says into my hair.

  “I’m sorry that she said those terrible things about you.” My need to defend him is stronger than any concern for myself or my mother.

  “Shh. Don’t worry about me. People say shit about me all the time,” he reminds me.

  “That doesn’t make it okay.”

  “Tessa, please don’t worry about me right now. What do you need? Can I do anything for you?” he asks.

  “Maybe some ice?” I choke.

  “Sure, baby.” He kisses my forehead and walks over to the fridge.

  I knew her coming here wouldn’t end well, but I hadn’t expected it to be as bad as it was. On one hand I am beyond proud of myself for standing up to her, but at the same time I feel terribly guilty for what I said about my father. I know it wasn’t her fault that he left, and it’s never been lost on me that she’s been terribly lonely for the last eight years. She has never even gone on a date since him; she’s dedicated all of her time to me, grooming me into the woman she wanted me to be. She wants me to be just like her, and that just isn’t going to work for me. I respect her and how hard she worked, but I need to carve my own path and she has to see that she can’t make up for her mistakes through me. I make too many of my own mistakes for that to work, anyway. I wish she could be happy for me and see how much I love Hardin. I know his appearance shocks her, but if she would just take the time to try to get to know him, I’m sure she would love him as much I do.

  As long as he could contain his rudeness . . . which isn’t likely, but I have noticed the small changes in him. Like the way he holds my hand in public and the way he leans down to kiss me nearly every time I pass him in the hallway of our apartment. Maybe I am the only person he will ever let inside, the only one who he reveals secrets to, and the only one he loves, but that’s fine with me. To be honest, the selfish part of me kind of enjoys it.

  Hardin pulls the chair out next to me and puts the makeshift ice pack against my cheek. The soft kitchen towel wrapped around it feels great against my sensitive skin.

  “I can’t believe she smacked me,” I say slowly. The towel drops onto the tile floor and he reaches down to pick it up.

  “Me either. I thought I was going to lose it,” he says and looks into my eyes.

  “I thought you were too,” I admit and give him a weak smile.

  I feel like today has been dragging on for too long; it has been the longest and most draining day of my life. I’m exhausted and I just want to be carried away. Preferably into bed with Hardin, to forget about the downfall of my relationship with my mother.

  “I love you too much, or trust me, I would have.” He smiles back and kisses both of my closed eyelids.

  I choose to believe that he wouldn’t actually do anything to her, that he is just speaking metaphorically. Somehow I know that even through all his rage he wouldn’t do something terrible, and that makes me love him more. I have come to learn that when it comes to me, Hardin is more bark than bite.

  “I really want to go to bed,” I tell him and he nods.

  “Of course.”

  I pull the blanket back before lying on my side of the bed. “Do you think she will always be this way?” I ask Hardin.

  He shrugs, tossing a spare pillow onto the floor. “I would say no, that people change and mature. But I don’t want to get your hopes up.”

  I lie down on my stomach, burying my face in my pillow.

  “Hey,” Hardin says softly against my neck, trailing a finger down the curve of my back. I roll over, sighing as I take in the concern in his eyes.

  “I’m fine,” I lie. I need a distraction. I lift my hand to his face, brushing my thumb over the curve of his full lips. I tilt the metal ring to the side and he smiles.

  “Having fun staring at me like I’m some science experiment?” he teases.

  I nod, wiggling the metal between my fingers and using my other hand to touch the ring in his brow.

  “Good to know.” He rolls his eyes and takes my thumb between his teeth before I can pull away. I jerk back, hitting my hand against the headboard.

  I move to swat at him, the way I often do, and he grabs my sore hand between both of his and brings it to his mouth. I pout playfully until his tongue swirls around the tip of my index finger in the most provocative way. He continues this across each fingertip until I’m a panting, needy mess—How does he do this? Such odd acts of affection from him affect me so intensely.

  “Feel good?” he asks, dropping my hand onto my lap. I nod again, at a loss for words. “Want more?” He swipes his tongue across his lips, wetting them. I nod again.

  “Words, baby,” he insists.

  “Yes. More, please.” My brain clearly doesn’t work. I lean into him, needing his touch, needing him to continue the distraction. He shifts on the bed, tugging at the strings of my pajama pants with one hand and pushing his hair back from his forehead with the other. My panties are pulled down and left at my ankles as my pants hit the floor. He leans in, settling between my spread thighs.

  “Did you know that the clitoris on the female body was made strictly for pleasure? It has no purpose beyond that,” he informs me, pressing his thumb against the bud. I groan, pushing my head into the pillow. “It’s true; I read it somewhere.”

  “Playboy?” I tease, struggling to form a thought, let alone words.

  He seems to find that amusing and he smirks while lowering his head. The moment his tongue finds my sex, I grip at the sheets and he works quickly, combining his fingers with his perfect mouth. I push my hands into his hair, silently thanking whoever it was who discovered this knowledge as Hardin brings me to orgasm, twice.

  Hardin holds me tight all night long and whispers how much he loves me. As I start to drift off, I think about the day we just had: my relationship with my mother is damaged, possibly beyond repair, and Hardin shared more information about his childhood with me.

  My dreams are clouded by a scared curly haired boy crying out for his mother.

  THE NEXT MORNING I am pleased to see that my mother’s assault has not left any visible marks. My chest still hurts from the collapse of our already crumbling relationship, but I refuse to dwell on that today.

  I take a shower and curl my hair, pinning it up so it isn’t in my way as I apply my makeup and pull Hardin’s shirt from yesterday over my head. I put little kisses all over Hardin’s shoulders and ears to wake him up, and when my stomach grumbles I pad into the kitchen to make us some breakfast. I want to start the day in the best way I can so we can both remain happy and calm before the wedding. By the time I finish my self-imposed kitchen therapy, I am pretty proud of the meal I have prepared. The counter is filled with bacon, eggs, toast, pancakes, and even hash browns. I made way too much food for the two of us, but Hardin usually eats an enormous amount anyway, so there shouldn’t be too much left.

  I feel strong arms wrap around my waist. “Whoa . . . what is all this?” he asks in a raspy, sleep-filled voice. “This is exactly why I wanted to live together,” he says into my neck.

  “Why? So I could make you breakfast?” I laugh.

  “No . . . well, yes. That and waking up to seeing you half dresse
d in the kitchen.” He nips at my neck. He attempts to lift up the hem of the T-shirt and squeeze the top of my thighs.

  I spin and wave a spatula in his face. “Hands to yourself until after breakfast, Scott.”

  “Yes, ma’am.” He chuckles and grabs a plate, piling it with food.

  After breakfast, I force Hardin to take a shower despite his efforts to drag me back to the bed. His dark confession and the fight with my mother seem to be forgotten in the morning light. My breath is lost in my chest when Hardin walks out of the bedroom in his outfit for the wedding. The black dress pants are snug but hang off his hips in the most delicious way, and his tie is hanging around his neck while his white button-down shirt is undone, revealing his gorgeous, toned torso.

  “I . . . uhh . . . I actually have no idea how to tie a tie.” He shrugs.

  My mouth is dry and I can’t stop staring at him, so I choke out, “I can help you.” Thankfully, Hardin doesn’t ask where I learned to tie a tie, since his mood would turn sour quickly at the mention of Noah. “You look so handsome,” I tell him when I finish. He shrugs and puts the black jacket on, completing the look.

  His cheeks flame and I can’t help but laugh at the unexpected emotion. I can tell he feels completely out of his element being dressed this way—and it’s adorable.

  “Why aren’t you dressed?” he asks.

  “I was waiting until the last minute, since my dress is all white,” I tell him and he mocks me playfully.

  Finally, after another check of my makeup and grabbing my shoes, I do put the dress on. It’s even shorter than I remember, but Hardin seems to approve. His eyes never leave my chest after catching sight of my strapless bra. He always makes me feel so beautiful and wanted.

  “As long as all the men there are my father’s age, we shouldn’t have a problem.” He smirks and zips me up. I roll my eyes and he kisses my bare shoulder before I unclip my hair, letting my long curls fall down my shoulders. The pale fabric of the dress is tight against my body, and I smile at the reflection of Hardin and me in the mirror.

  “You are absolutely stunning,” he tells me, kissing me again.

  We scramble around and make sure we have everything we need for the wedding, including the invitation and a congratulations card I bought. As I put my phone into a small clutch bag, Hardin grabs me by the waist.

  “Smile,” he says and pulls out his phone.

  “I thought you didn’t take pictures.”

  “I told you I would take one, so let’s take one.” His smile is goofy and youthful and it makes my heart swell.

  I smile and lean into Hardin as he snaps our picture. “One more,” he instructs and I stick my tongue out at the last moment. He captured it at the right moment, my tongue on his cheek and his eyes wide and full of humor.

  “That’s my favorite,” I tell him.

  “There are only two.”

  “Yeah, but still.” I kiss him and he snaps another.

  “Accident,” he lies, and I hear him take another as I give him a look.

  NEAR HIS FATHER’S HOUSE, Hardin stops to get gas so we don’t have to on the way home. As he is filling up, a familiar car pulls into the parking lot, with Nate in the front seat. Zed parks his car two pumps over from Hardin’s and gets out to go inside.

  I gasp when I get a good look at him: his lip is swollen, and both his eyes are black and blue. His cheek has a deep purple bruise, and when he notices Hardin’s car a furious scowl takes over his handsome, damaged face. What the hell? He doesn’t say anything at all, or even acknowledge Hardin and me. Within seconds, Hardin climbs back into the car and takes my hand. I look down at our intertwined fingers and gasp, my eyes trailing over his busted knuckles.

  “You!” I say and he raises his brow. “You beat him up, didn’t you? That’s who you fought and that’s why he just ignored us!”

  “Would you calm down?” Hardin barks and rolls up my window before pulling out of the lot.

  “Hardin . . .” I look over to where Zed has disappeared inside, then back at Hardin.

  “Can we please talk about it after the wedding? I’m already on edge. Please?” he begs and I nod.

  “Fine. After the wedding,” I agree and gently squeeze the hand of his that did so much damage to my friend.

  chapter ninety-three

  Clearly trying to change the subject, Hardin asks, “So now that we have our own place, I assume you don’t want to stay at my father’s house tonight still?”

  I force Zed’s beaten face to the back of my mind. “You’d assume correctly.” I smile. “Unless Karen asks us to; you know I won’t say no,” I tell him.

  I am nervous to see Ken after what Hardin told me last night. I am trying to clear it from my mind, but it’s harder to accomplish than I thought.

  “Oh, I almost forgot,” he says and reaches for the radio.

  I look over at him and he holds his finger up to tell me to wait. “I decided to give the Fray another try,” he informs me.

  “Really? And when did you decide this?” I question.

  “Well, after our first date at the stream, but I didn’t open the CD until last week,” he admits.

  “That was not a date,” I tease and he chuckles.

  “You let me finger you. I would say that’s a date.”

  He grabs my hand as I try to swat him and kisses my palm. I giggle and wrap my fingers around his slender ones. Images of me lying on the wet T-shirt while Hardin gave me my first orgasm flood my thoughts and Hardin smirks.

  “That was fun, huh?” he boasts and I laugh.

  “Anyway, tell me your evolved opinion on the Fray,” I request.

  “Well, they are not so bad, actually. There is one song that really sticks with me.”

  Now I am even more curious. “Really?”

  “Yeah . . .” he says and his eyes flicker to the road before he presses the button on his radio. Music floods through the small space and I immediately smile.

  “It’s called ‘Never Say Never,’ ” Hardin says, as if it’s new information to me and not already one of my favorites.

  We listen to the lyrics silently and I can’t fight the silly grin on my face. I know he is slightly embarrassed by playing this song for me, so I don’t discuss it. I simply enjoy this tender moment with Hardin.

  The rest of the drive is filled with Hardin flipping through songs on the album, telling me what he thinks of each one. This small but meaningful gesture means more to me than he will ever know. I love these moments when he shows me a new side of himself. This side is one of my new favorites.

  When we arrive at his father’s house, the street is full of cars. Stepping out, I feel the crisp wind blow through me, and I shiver. The thin jacket I wore over my dress doesn’t offer me and my small dress much protection, really. Hardin shrugs out of his jacket and lays it over my shoulders. It’s surprisingly warm and smells like him, my favorite scent.

  “Well . . . look at you being such a gentleman. Who would have thought?” I tease.

  “Don’t make me take you back to the car and fuck you,” he says, and I make a noise between a gasp and squeak, which he finds very amusing. “Do you think you have room in that . . . purse thing . . . to hold my phone?” he asks.

  “It’s a clutch, and yes.” I smile and hold my hand out. He places the phone in my palm, and as I push it into the small purse, I notice his background is no longer plain gray. The small screen holds the picture of me that he snapped while I was talking to him in the room. My lips are slightly parted and my eyes are full of life. My cheeks have a warm glow; it’s strange to see myself that way. This is what he does to me—he makes me come alive.

  “I love you,” I tell him and close the bag without putting him on the spot about his new background.

  Inside, Ken and Karen’s large house is full of people, and Hardin grips my hand tightly after retrieving his jacket and putting it back on.

  “Let’s try to find Landon,” I suggest.

  Hardin gives me a n
od and leads the way. We end up finding his stepbrother in the living room next to the china cabinet that replaced the one Hardin broke the first night I came here. Which seems so long ago. Landon is surrounded by a group of men who all look to be at least sixty, and one of them has his hand on Landon’s shoulder. A smile appears on his face when he spots us, and he excuses himself from their conversation. He looks very handsome in a suit similar to Hardin’s.

  “Whoa, I never thought I’d live to see you in a suit and tie.” Landon laughs.

  “If you keep talking about it, you won’t live much longer,” Hardin threatens, but there’s humor behind his words as he smiles. I can tell he is warming up to Landon, and that makes me happy. Landon is one of my closest friends, and I really care for him.

  “My mother will be thrilled. And Tessa, you look beautiful,” he says and pulls me in for a hug. Hardin doesn’t let go of my hand while I try to hug Landon back, so I do my best with one arm.

  “Who are all these people?” I ask. I know Ken and Karen have been here only a little over a year, so it’s astounding that there are at least two hundred people here.

  “Most of them are Ken’s friends from the university, and the rest are friends and family. I only know about half of them.” He laughs. “Would you guys like a drink? Everyone will be going outside in about ten minutes.”

  “Whose bright idea was it to have an outdoor wedding in December?” Hardin complains.

  “My mother’s,” Landon says. “Besides, the tents are heated, obviously.” He looks around at the crowd, then back at Hardin. “You should go let your father know that you are here. He’s upstairs. My mother is hiding somewhere with my aunt.”

  “Um . . . I think I’ll just stay down here,” Hardin replies.

  I caress his hand with my thumb; he gives me an appreciative squeeze, and Landon nods. “Well, I have to go for now, but I will see you after,” he says and leaves us with a smile.

  “Do you want to go outside now?” I ask Hardin and he nods. “I love you,” I tell him.

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