After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  He smiles, full dimples. “I love you, Tess,” he says and plants a kiss on my cheek.

  Hardin opens the back door and gives me his jacket once again. Stepping out, I see that the backyard has been wonderfully transformed. Two large tents take up most of the yard, and hanging from the trees and the patio are hundreds of small glowing lanterns. Even in the daylight, they are beautiful, and it’s all quite a sight to behold.

  “I think it’s this one,” Hardin says and gestures to the smaller of the two tents.

  We squeeze through the part in the flaps, and indeed he is right. Rows of wooden chairs face a simple altar, with beautiful white flowers hung on some walls and all the guests in black-and-white attire. About half the seats are full, so we take a seat in the second-to-last row, because I know Hardin doesn’t want to be up close.

  “I never thought I would be attending my father’s wedding,” he says to me.

  “I know. I am incredibly proud of you for coming. It will mean so much to them. It maybe sounds like you think it will be good for you, too.” I lean my head on his shoulder, and he snakes his arm around me.

  We begin to talk about the beautiful way this tent has been decorated, in all black and white. Simple and elegant. Its simplicity makes me feel even more like I’ve been invited to an intimate, personal moment in his family, despite the large number of guests.

  “I guess the reception is in the other tent?” he says and twirls a piece of my hair between his thumb and index finger.

  “I think so. I bet it’s even more beautiful than—”

  “Hardin? Is that you?” a woman’s voice says. We both turn our heads to the left. An elderly woman in a black-and-white floral dress and flat shoes stares at us with wide eyes. “Oh my heavens, it is you!” she gasps. Her gray hair is swept back into a simple bun, and her minimal makeup makes her look healthy, radiant.

  For his part, all the color has drained from Hardin’s face as he stands up and greets her. “Gammy.”

  She pulls him in for a tight hug. “I can’t believe you’re here. I haven’t seen you in years. Look at you, you handsome boy. Well, man, now. I can’t believe how tall you are! And what are these?” She scowls and points at his facial piercings.

  He flushes and gives out an uncomfortable laugh. “How have you been?” he asks her and shifts back and forth on the balls of his feet.

  “I am good, dear—I’ve missed you so much,” she says and pats the corners of her eyes. After a beat, she dramatically looks around him at me and asks with notable interest, “And who is this lovely young woman?”

  “Oh . . . sorry. This is Tess . . . Tessa. My . . . girlfriend,” he answers. “Tessa, this is my gammy . . . my grandma.”

  I smile and stand up. The thought of meeting Hardin’s grandparents had never crossed my mind. I had assumed they were dead, like mine. He has never brought them up, but that isn’t surprising. I suppose I haven’t, either.

  “It’s so nice to meet you,” I say to her and reach to shake her hand, but she has other plans and pulls me in for a hug and kisses my cheek.

  “The pleasure is all mine. What a beautiful girl you are!” she says in an accent even thicker than Hardin’s. “My name is Adele, but you will call me Gammy.”

  “Thank you,” I say, blushing.

  She claps her hands in glee. “I just can’t believe you are here. Have you seen your father recently? Does he know you are here?” she asks, looking back at Hardin.

  Hardin bashfully puts his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, he knows. I have sort of been coming here lately.”

  “Well, that is so great to hear. I had no idea,” she says and I can tell she is on the brink of tears again.

  “Okay, everyone, if you could all take a seat, the ceremony will begin shortly,” a man with a microphone says from the raised platform up front.

  Gammy pulls Hardin by the arm before he can protest. “Come sit with the family—you two shouldn’t be all the way back here.” He looks back at me and gives me a look that says “help me,” but I just smile and follow them to the front. We take a seat next to someone who looks a lot like Karen and I assume is her sister. Hardin takes my hand in his, and his grandmother looks down and smiles at our affection before putting her hand on his other one. He stiffens a little but doesn’t remove it.

  Ken walks to his place, and the look on his face when he spots his son sitting in the front row is indescribable: heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Hardin even gives him a small smile, which Ken happily returns. Landon stands next to Ken on the stage, but Hardin doesn’t seem to mind; he would never have agreed to be up there anyway.

  When Karen enters, a collective sigh sounds through the room. She looks so beautiful as she walks down the aisle. Her face when she spots her groom makes me lean into Hardin’s shoulder. Happiness is radiating off of her, and her smile lights up the tent. Her dress is brushing against the floor, and her cheeks are glowing, adding to the ambience.

  The ceremony is beautiful and I find myself with wet cheeks when Ken’s voice cracks into a small sob as he recites his vows to his bride. Hardin looks over at me and smiles, removing his hand from mine and wiping my cheeks. Karen makes a beautiful bride and their first kiss as husband and wife earns cheers and applause from the crowd.

  “Sap,” Hardin teases as I lay my head on his shoulder while the crowd files out.

  After a bit, we accompany Hardin’s grandma to the other tent, and I was right—it’s even more beautiful than the first one. Up near the walls of this tent are tables draped with white cloth and topped with black napkins and centerpieces of black and white flowers. The ceiling is covered in lanterns just like the yard, and they cast a subtle glow throughout the room, reflecting nicely off the glassware and glossy white plates. The middle of the tent is cleared for what appears to be a dance floor with black and white tiles, and waiters are standing at the ready, waiting for everyone to get their seats.

  “Now, don’t you disappear. I want to see you again tonight,” Hardin’s grandmother says and leaves us.

  “This is the fanciest wedding I have been to,” he says and looks at the white cloth draped across the ceiling.

  “I haven’t been to a wedding since I was a child,” I tell him and he smiles.

  “I like that,” he says and kisses my cheek.

  I am not used to his public displays of affection, but I could get used to them quickly.

  “Like what?” I ask as he sits down at one of the tables.

  “That you haven’t been to a wedding with Noah,” he says and I laugh to avoid frowning.

  “Me, too,” I assure him and he smiles.

  THE FOOD IS DELICIOUS. I go for the chicken, and Hardin chooses the steak. They set things up in a buffet line to keep it casual, but the food is anything but. I drag a piece of chicken through the creamy sauce and bring the fork to my mouth—but Hardin snatches it from me, smiling as he chews the bite. He coughs a little, trying to master chewing and laughing at once.

  “That’s what you get for stealing my food,” I tease him, popping a new piece into my mouth before he can grab it.

  He laughs, leaning into my shoulder, and I catch the woman across from us staring. Her expression isn’t amused as she watches Hardin press his lips against my shoulder. I stare back at her equally harshly and she looks away.

  “Do you want me to get you another plate?” I ask Hardin, loud enough for the rude woman to hear my offer. She looks over at the man next to her and raises a brow. He doesn’t seem to be paying attention to her, which annoys her further. I smile and place my hand over Hardin’s. He’s as oblivious as the man across the table, and I’m glad.

  “Uh, yeah, sure. Thank you.”

  I lean down to kiss his cheek and make my way back to the line for food.

  “Tessa?” a familiar voice calls. I look over to see Mr. Vance and Trevor standing a few feet away.

  “Hello.” I smile.

  “You look breathtaking,” Trevor says, and I thank h
im quietly.

  “How are you enjoying your weekend?” Mr. Vance asks me.

  “It’s great. I’ve been enjoying my weeks of late as well,” I assure him.

  “Oh, sure.” He laughs and grabs himself a plate.

  “No red meat!” Kimberly says from behind him. He pretends to shoot himself in the temple, and she blows him a kiss. Kimberly and Mr. Vance? Who would have thought? I will have to press her for details on Monday.

  “Women,” he teases and fills her plate as I do Hardin’s.

  “I’ll see you in a few.” He smiles and walks back to his date. She waves at me and gets the young boy on her lap to do the same. I wave back, wondering suddenly if she has a child.

  Trevor leans in and answers my thoughts. “It’s his son.”

  “Oh,” I say and look away from Kimberly.

  Trevor keeps his eyes on Mr. Vance. “His wife passed away five years ago, right after he was born. He hasn’t dated anyone until Kim, and they’ve only been seeing each other for a few months, but he is head over heels for her.” He turns to me and smiles.

  “Well, now I know who to hit up for all the office gossip,” I joke and we both laugh.

  “Babe . . .” Hardin says and wraps his arm around my waist, clearly in an attempt to claim his territory.

  “Nice to see you. Hardin, is it?” Trevor asks.

  “Yeah,” Hardin answers shortly. “We better get back to our seats; Landon is looking for you.” He pulls me closer to him, silently dismissing Trevor.

  “I’ll see you later, Trevor!” I smile politely and hand Hardin his plate of food as we walk back to the table.

  chapter ninety-four

  Where’s Landon?” I ask Hardin when we take our seats.

  He takes a bite of a croissant. “I don’t know.”

  “Um, you said he was looking for me?”

  “He was, but I don’t know where he is now.”

  “Hardin, you shouldn’t talk with your mouth full.” His grandmother appears behind him.

  I notice him take a deep breath before he turns to her. “Sorry,” he mumbles.

  “I wanted to see you before I go—God knows when I will see you again. Can you save a dance for your gammy?” she asks oh so adorably, but he shakes his head. “Why not?” she asks him with a smile.

  I realize now that it wasn’t just shock that had Hardin rattled before. There’s a tension between them that I can’t quite put my finger on.

  “I am on my way to get Tessa a drink,” he lies and leaves the table.

  His grandmother laughs uncomfortably. “Well, he’s something, isn’t he?” I am not sure what to say; my first instinct is to defend him, but it seems she is joking.

  She turns to me sharply. “Is he still drinking?”

  “What? N-no,” I stutter, completely caught off guard. “Well, he only drinks every once in a while,” I clarify as I see him walking toward us with two flutes full of pink liquid.

  He hands me one and I smile and lift it to my lips. It smells sweet when I tip the glass back to take a drink, and the bubbles spritz lightly, tickling my nose. It tastes just as sweet as it smells.

  “Champagne,” he informs me and I thank him.

  “Tessa!” Karen practically shouts right before she wraps her arms around me. She has changed out of her wedding dress and into a white knee-length wrap dress, not that she looks any less stunning. “I am so thrilled that you two came! How was it?” she asks. Karen is the only person who would ask how her own wedding was; she is too kind.

  “It was so lovely; it was beautiful.” I smile.

  Hardin puts his hand on the small of my back and I lean into him. I can sense how uncomfortable he is between his grandmother and Karen, and now Ken is making his way over to us.

  “Thank you for coming,” Ken says to Hardin and holds out his hand to shake.

  Hardin obliges and quickly shakes his father’s hand. I notice Ken start to lift his arm up to hug Hardin, but he lowers it before following through. Still, Ken’s face is full of excitement and joy.

  “Tessa, you look beautiful, dear.” He hugs me and then eagerly asks, “Are you enjoying yourselves?”

  I can’t help but feel a little awkward around him now that I have a deeper insight into who he was all those years ago.“Yeah. It’s a nice setup you’ve got out here.” Hardin does his best to praise his father. I put my hand on his back and rub small circles to ease him.

  Hardin’s grandmother coughs and looks at his father. “I didn’t know that you two were speaking.”

  Ken rubs the back of his neck, a habit that I suspect Hardin got from him.

  “Yeah. Let’s talk about this another time, Mother,” Ken says and she nods in agreement.

  I take another drink out of my glass and try not to dwell on the fact that I am drinking underage in front of adults. In front of the chancellor of my school.

  A waiter in a black vest walks by with a tray of champagne, and when Ken grabs a flute I cringe. But he hands the glass to his new bride and I relax, extremely glad to see that he isn’t drinking.

  “Want another?” Hardin asks me and I look at Karen.

  “Go ahead, it’s a wedding,” she tells me and I smile.

  “Sure,” I say and Hardin leaves to get me another glass.

  We talk about the wedding and the flowers for a minute, and when Hardin comes back with only one flute, Karen gets concerned and asks him, “You don’t like the champagne?”

  “Oh yeah, it’s good, but I already had a glass and I’m driving,” he replies, and Karen looks at him with adoration clear in her brown eyes.

  She turns to me. “Do you have time to come by this week? I ordered some seeds for the greenhouse.”

  “Yes, of course. I am free anytime after four all week,” I say.

  The pleased yet astonished look on Gammy’s face is obvious as she looks back and forth between Karen and me. “So how long have you two been seeing one another?” she asks Hardin and me.

  “A few months,” Hardin tells her quietly.

  Sometimes I forget that no one outside of our—well, Hardin’s—group of friends knows that we despised each other up until two months ago.

  “Oh, so no great-grandchildren for me anytime soon?” She laughs and Hardin’s face flushes.

  “No, no. We’ve only just moved in together,” Hardin says, and Karen and I both spit champagne back into our glasses at the same time.

  “You two moved in together?” Ken asks.

  I had not expected Hardin to tell them today. Heck, I hadn’t even been sure he would tell them at all, given how he is. I am shocked and a little embarrassed at my reaction, but mostly pleased that he has no problem admitting it.

  “Yeah, we moved into Artisan a few days ago,” he explains.

  “Wow, that’s a nice place, and closer to Tessa’s internship,” Ken remarks.

  “Yeah,” Hardin says, clearly trying to measure how everyone feels about our bombshell.

  “Well, I am very happy for you, son.” He places his hand on his son’s shoulder and I watch with a neutral expression. “I never imagined you would be this happy and so . . . at peace.”

  “Thank you,” Hardin says and actually smiles.

  “Maybe we could come by sometime and see it?” Ken asks, and Karen’s eyes lower.

  “Ken . . .” she warns, clearly remembering the time Ken pushed Hardin too far, as am I.

  “Uh, yeah, I guess you could,” Hardin says, surprising us all.

  “Really?” Ken asks and Hardin nods. “Okay, just let us know when is good for the two of you.” His eyes are slightly glossy.

  Music begins to play through the tent and Karen grabs Ken’s arm. “That’s our cue—thank you both so much for coming,” she says and leans in to kiss my cheek.

  “You have done so much for this family, you have no idea,” she whispers in my ear before pulling away, tears shining in her eyes.

  “Time for the bride and groom’s first dance!” a voice announces through th
e speakers. Hardin’s grandmother walks away as well, following the crowd to watch.

  “You just made their day,” I tell Hardin and kiss his cheek.

  “Let’s go upstairs,” he says.

  “What?” My head is a little fuzzy from the two glasses of champagne I just finished.

  “Upstairs,” he repeats, sending that familiar electricity through me.

  “Now?” I laugh.


  “But all these people . . .”

  He doesn’t respond; instead he takes my hand and leads me through the crowd and out of the tent. When we get inside the house, he grabs me another glass of champagne, and I try not to let it spill as I rush up the stairs to keep up with him.

  “Is something wrong?” I ask him as he shuts the bedroom door and locks it.

  “I need you,” he says darkly and pulls his jacket off.

  “Are you okay, though?” I ask, my heart already beating out of my chest.

  “Yes, I just need a distraction,” he groans and steps toward me, grabbing the glass and setting it on the dresser. He takes another step, encircling my wrists in his hands and then lifting them over my head.

  I will gladly be his distraction from the overload of everything downstairs—seeing his grandmother for the first time in years, watching his father get remarried, agreeing to let them come to our apartment. That is a lot for Hardin in such a short period of time.

  Instead of asking him any questions or pushing him further, I grab him by the collar of his shirt and push my hips out to meet his. He’s already hard. Groaning, he lets go of my wrists, allowing me to comb my fingers through his hair. When his mouth moves over mine, his tongue is hot and sweet with the lingering taste of champagne. Within seconds he is reaching into his pocket and pulling out a foil packet.

  “We’ve got to get you on birth control so I can stop using these. I want to really be able to feel you.” His voice is husky and he pulls my lower lip between his, sucking lightly and seductively, making my body crave him even more.

  I hear him unzip and he hisses as my hands reach down and push his pants and boxers down to his knees. Hardin’s hands go up the front of my dress and he hooks his long fingers around my panties and pulls them down. I clumsily step out of them, using his arms to steady myself. He chuckles lightly before connecting his lips with my neck. His hands squeeze my hips before he lifts me up and I whimper a little, wrapping my legs around his waist.

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