After (The After Series) by Anna Todd

  Hardin absorbs the blow mutely and just remains standing and staring at her.

  “Mother,” I say through my teeth.

  I’m not sure why I’m defending Hardin, but I am. Maybe part of it is that she sounds a bit too much like how I treated Hardin when I first met him myself. Noah looks at me, then at Hardin and back to me again. Can he tell that I just kissed Hardin? The memory is fresh in my mind and makes my skin tingle just thinking about it.

  “Tessa, you are out of control. I can smell the liquor on you from here, and I can only assume that this is the influence of your lovely roommate and him,” she says, punctuating it with an accusing finger.

  “I am eighteen, Mother. I have never drank before and I didn’t do anything wrong. I am just doing what every other college student is doing. I’m sorry that my cell phone battery died, and that you drove all the way here, but I’m fine.” Suddenly exhausted from the last few hours, I sit down at my desk chair after my speech and she sighs.

  Seeing my resignation gives my mother a calmer demeanor somehow; she’s not a monster, after all. Turning to Hardin, she says, “Young man, could you leave us for a minute?”

  Hardin looks at me as if asking if I will be okay. I nod and he nods back and walks out of the room. Noah swiftly closes the door behind him, his eyes trailing Hardin all the while. It’s a strange sensation, Hardin and I together against my mother and my boyfriend. Somehow I know he’ll be waiting somewhere just outside the door until they leave.

  For the next twenty minutes, my mother sits on my bed and explains that she is just worried about me ruining my chance at an amazing education and doesn’t want me to drink again. She also tells me that she doesn’t approve of my friendship with Steph, Hardin, or anyone else in their group. She makes me promise that I will stop hanging around with them, and I agree. After tonight, I don’t want to be around Hardin anyway, and I won’t be going to any more parties with Steph, so there’s no way my mother will know if I am friendly with her or not.

  Finally, she stands up and claps her hands together. “Since we are already here, let’s go get some breakfast and maybe do some shopping.”

  I nod in agreement, and Noah smiles from where he’s leaning on my door. It does sound like a good idea and I am starving. My thoughts are still a little stifled by alcohol and tiredness, but my walk home, the coffee, and my mother’s lecture have sobered me. I head for the door, but stop when my mother coughs.

  “You’ll need to clean up a little and change, of course.” She smiles her condescending smile. I go get some clean clothes out of my dresser and change in the closet. I touch up last night’s makeup and am ready to go. Noah opens the door for us, and we all three look at where Hardin is sitting on the floor, leaning against the door across the hall. When he looks up, Noah grasps my hand, tightly, protectively.

  Still, I find myself wanting to pull my hand away from him. What is wrong with me?

  “We are going to go into town,” I tell Hardin.

  In response, Hardin nods several times, like he’s answered some question deep within himself. And for the first time he looks vulnerable, and maybe a little hurt.

  He humiliated you, my subconscious reminds me. Which is true, but I can’t help feeling guilty as Noah pulls me along past Hardin and my mother gives Hardin a victory smile, causing him to look away.

  “I really don’t like that guy,” Noah says, and I nod.

  “Me, either,” I whisper.

  But I know I’m lying.

  chapter twenty-one

  Breakfast with Noah and my mother is agonizingly slow. My mother continues to bring up my “wild night” and finds every opportunity to ask me if I am tired or hungover. Granted, last night was very out of character for me, but I don’t really need to hear about it over and over. Has she always been this way? I know she just wants the best for me, but she seems to be worse now that I’m in college; or maybe being away from her for a week has given me a newfound outlook on her.

  “Where should we shop?” Noah asks between mouthfuls of pancake, and I shrug. I wish he had just come alone. I would love to spend time with him. I do need to have a talk with him about not telling my mother every detail of my life, especially the bad, and if we were just alone that would be easier, too.

  “Maybe we should go to the mall around the block. I’m not really familiar with the area yet,” I tell them, cutting the last few bites of my French toast into pieces.

  “Have you thought about where you want to work yet?” Noah asks.

  “I’m not sure yet. A bookstore maybe? I wish I could find an internship or something related to publishing or writing,” I tell them, which elicits from my mother an award-winning proud smile.

  “That would be great, somewhere you could work until you finish college and that could then hire you full-time,” she says, smiling again.

  I try to hide my sarcasm with “Yeah, that would be ideal,” but Noah catches it and grabs my hand to give it a little conspiratorial squeeze under the table.

  As I put my fork into my mouth, the metal reminds me of Hardin’s lip ring. And I pause for a moment. Noah catches this, too, and looks at me with questioning eyes.

  I need to stop thinking about Hardin. Now. I smile at Noah and pull his hand up to kiss it.

  After breakfast my mother drives us to the Benton Mall, which is huge and crowded. “I am going to go into Nordstrom’s, so I’ll call you when I am ready,” she tells us, to my relief. Noah takes my hand again and we browse through a bunch of stores. He tells me about his soccer game on Friday, and how he shot the winning goal. I listen intently and tell him how great it all sounds.

  “You look nice today,” I tell him and he smiles. His perfect white smile is adorable. He is wearing a maroon cardigan, khakis, and dress shoes. Yes, he really does wear loafers, but they are cute and somehow fit his personality.

  “You do, too, Tessa,” he says and I cringe. I know I look like hell, but he is too unfalteringly kind to tell me so. Unlike Hardin, who would tell me in a heartbeat. Ugh, Hardin. Desperately wanting to get my mind off Mr. Rude, I pull Noah into me by the neck of his cardigan. When I go to kiss him, he smiles but pulls away.

  “What are you doing, Tessa? Everyone’s staring at us.” He gestures toward a group of adults trying on sunglasses at a kiosk.

  I shrug playfully. “No, they aren’t. And so what?” I really don’t care; usually I would, but I need him to kiss me. “Just kiss me, please,” I practically beg.

  He must see the desperation in my eyes because he tilts my chin up and kisses me. It’s gentle and slow, no urgency behind it. His tongue barely touches mine but it’s nice. Familiar and warm. I wait for a fire to ignite within me, but it doesn’t.

  I can’t compare Noah to Hardin. Noah is my boyfriend, whom I love, and Hardin is a jerk who has a roster of girls he hooks up with.

  “What’s gotten into you?” Noah teases as I try to pull his body against mine.

  I flush and shake my head. “Nothing, I just missed you, that’s all,” I tell him. Oh . . . and I cheated on you last night, my subconscious adds. Ignoring that, I say, “But, Noah, could you please stop telling my mother when I do things? It makes me really uncomfortable. I love that you are close to her but I feel like a child when you basically tell on me.” It feels good to get that off my chest.

  “Tessa, I am so sorry. I was just worried about you. I promise I won’t do it again. Honestly.” He wraps his arm around my shoulder and kisses my forehead, and I believe him.

  The rest of the day is better than the morning, mostly because my mother takes me to a salon and I get my hair trimmed and some layers added into it. It still hangs down my back but with my new cut it has more volume and looks much better. Noah showers me with compliments the entire drive back to my dorm, and everything just feels right. I say goodbye to them at the front door, once again promising to stay away from anyone with a tattoo and within a hundred-mile radius. When I walk into my dorm room, I feel a tinge of disappointment to
find it empty, but I’m not sure if I was hoping to see Steph or someone else.

  I don’t even bother taking my shoes off before I lie in my bed. I’m too exhausted and in need of sleep. I sleep the night away and don’t wake up until noon. When I wake up, Steph’s asleep in her bed. I go study for the rest of Sunday, and when I return she’s gone. Monday morning she’s still not back, and I start feeling a strong urge to catch up on what she was doing all weekend.

  chapter twenty-two

  Before heading to my first class, I stop to grab my usual at the coffeehouse, where Landon is waiting for me with a smile. After our hellos, we’re interrupted by a girl asking for intricate directions, and so we don’t get the chance to catch up until we’re walking to our last class of the day. The class that all day I have been dreading, but anticipating.

  “How was your weekend?” Landon asks and I groan.

  “Terrible, actually. I went to another party with Steph,” I tell him and he makes a sour face and laughs. “I’m sure yours was much better. How is Dakota?”

  His smile grows at the mention of her name and I realize that I didn’t mention seeing Noah on Saturday. Landon tells me about Dakota applying to a ballet company in New York and how happy he is for her. All the while, I wonder if Noah’s eyes light up like that when he talks about me.

  As we walk into class, he’s telling me how his father and stepmother were thrilled to see him, but I find myself searching the room and not listening very closely to him; Hardin’s seat is empty.

  “Won’t it be hard if Dakota is gone so far?” I manage to ask as we take our seats.

  “Well, we are already far from each other now, but it works. I really just want the best for her, and if New York is it, that’s where I want her to be.”

  The professor walks in, silencing us. Where’s Hardin? He wouldn’t skip class just to avoid me, would he?

  We dive into Pride and Prejudice—a magical book that I wish everyone would read—and before I realize it the class is over.

  “You’ve cut your hair, Theresa.” I turn around to see Hardin smiling behind me. He and Landon exchange awkward stares and I try to think of what to say. He wouldn’t mention the kiss in front of Landon, would he? Those dimples, deep as ever, tell me that yes, yes he would.

  “Hey, Hardin,” I say.

  “How was your weekend?” His expression is so smug.

  I pull Landon by the arm. “Good. Well, see you around!” I yell nervously and Hardin laughs.

  When we’re outside, Landon asks, “What was that about?” obviously catching on to my strange behavior.

  “Nothing, I just don’t like Hardin.”

  “At least you don’t have to see him often.”

  But there is something behind his voice, and why would he say that? Does he know about the kiss?

  “Um . . . yeah. Thank God,” is all I can muster.

  He pauses. “I wasn’t going to say anything, because I don’t want you to associate me with him, but”—he smiles nervously—“Hardin’s dad is sort of dating my mom.”

  What? “What?”

  “Hardin’s dad—”

  “Yes, yes, I got that, but Hardin’s dad lives here? Why is Hardin here—I thought he was British? If his dad lives here, why doesn’t he live with him?” I flood Landon with questions before I can stop myself. He looks confused, but less nervous than a moment ago.

  “He’s from London; his dad and my mom live close to the campus, but Hardin and his dad don’t have a good relationship. So please don’t mention any of this to him. We already don’t like each other.”

  I nod. “Sure, okay.” A thousand more questions come to my mind, but I stay quiet as my friend goes back to talking about Dakota, his eyes brightening with each word about her.

  WHEN I GET BACK TO MY ROOM, Steph isn’t back yet since her classes run two hours past mine. I start to lay out my books and notes to get ready to study, but decide to call Noah instead. He doesn’t pick up, and it really makes me wish he was here with me at college. It would make things so much easier and comfortable. We could be studying or watching a movie together right now.

  Still, I know that I’m thinking about this because of my guilt about kissing Hardin is consuming me—Noah is so sweet and he doesn’t deserve to be cheated on. I am so lucky to have him in my life. He’s always there for me, and he knows me better than anyone. We have known each other basically our whole lives. When his parents moved in down the street, I was ecstatic to have someone my age to hang out with, and the feeling only grew as I got to know him and learned he was an old soul like me. We spent our time reading, watching movies, and bringing life into the greenhouse behind my mother’s place. The greenhouse has always been my safe haven; when my dad drank I would hide in there and no one except Noah knew where to find me. The night my dad left was a terrible night for me, and my mother refuses to speak of it, ever. Doing so would shatter the perfect façade she has created for herself, but I still want to talk about it sometimes. Even though I hated him for drinking so much, and for pushing my mother around, I still felt the deep need to have a father. That night, stowed away in the greenhouse while my dad screamed and went wild, I kept hearing glasses shattering in the kitchen, and then, when it stopped, footsteps. I was terrified my father was coming for me, but it was Noah. And I had never been so relieved in all my life to see someone safe. From that day on we were inseparable. Over the years, our friendship turned into more, and neither of us has ever dated anyone else.

  I text Noah that I love him and decide to take a catnap before I begin my studies. I pull out my planner and check my work one more time, I can surely fit in a twenty-minute nap.

  Not even ten minutes into my nap, there’s a knock at the door. Figuring Steph must have forgotten her key, I groggily pull the door open.

  Of course it isn’t her. It’s Hardin.

  “Steph isn’t back yet,” I say and walk back to my bed, leaving the door open for him. I’m a little surprised he even bothered to knock, since I know Steph gave him an extra key as backup for herself. I will have to talk to her about that.

  “I can wait,” he says and plops down on Steph’s bed.

  “Suit yourself.” I groan, ignoring his chuckle as I pull the blanket over my body and close my eyes. Or rather, trying to ignore it. There is no way I am going to be able to sleep knowing that Hardin is in my room, but I would rather pretend-sleep than face the awkward, rude talk we are bound to have. I try to ignore the sound of him gently tapping the headboard of her bed until my alarm goes off.

  “Going somewhere?” he asks and I roll my eyes even though he can’t see me.

  “No, I was taking a twenty-minute nap,” I tell him and sit up.

  “You set an alarm to make sure your nap is only twenty minutes?” he says, amused.

  “Yeah, I do. So what’s it to you, anyway?” I grab my books and lay them out neatly, in order of my class schedule, and stack the notes for each class on top of them.

  “Are you OCD or something?”

  “No, Hardin. Not everyone’s crazy because they just like things a certain way. There’s nothing wrong with being organized,” I snap.

  And he laughs, of course. I refuse to look at him, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see him pushing up off the bed.

  Please don’t come over here. Please don’t come . . .

  And then he’s standing over me, looking down at where I sit on my bed. He grabs my Literature notes and turns them over a couple of times exaggeratedly like he’s staring at a rare artifact. I reach up for them but—like the annoying jerk he is—he lifts them higher, so I stand and swipe at them. But he tosses them in the air and they fall to the ground in a scattered mess.

  “Pick those up!” I demand.

  He smirks and says, “Okay, okay,” but just grabs my Sociology notes and does the same thing to them. I scramble to pick them up before he steps on them, but that’s only funny to him.

  “Hardin, stop!” I yell, just as he does the same with
the next stack. Infuriated, I stand up and shove him away from my bed.

  “You mean, someone doesn’t like their stuff being messed with?” he asks, still laughing. Why must he always laugh at me?

  “No! I don’t!” I yell and go to shove him again. He steps toward me and grabs my wrists, pushing me back against the wall. His face is inches from mine, and suddenly I’m aware I’m breathing way too hard. I want to scream at him to get off me, to let me go, and demand that he put my work back. I want to slap him, to make him leave. But I can’t. I’m frozen against the wall and mesmerized by his green eyes burning into mine. “Hardin, please,” are the only words I finally find. But they are soft. And I’m not sure if I am begging him to let me go, or kiss me. My breathing still hasn’t slowed; I can feel his increasing, the way his chest rises powerfully. Seconds feel like hours, and finally he removes one hand from my wrists, but the other is large enough to hold both.

  For a second, I think he might slap me. But his hand moves up to my cheekbone and then he gently tucks my hair behind my ear. I swear I can hear his pulse as he brings his lips to mine—and the fire crackles under my skin.

  This is what I have been longing for since Saturday night. If I could only feel one thing for the rest of my life, this would be it.

  I don’t let myself think about why I am kissing him again or what terrible thing he will say afterward. All I want to focus on is the way he presses his body against mine when he lets go of my wrists, pinning me to the wall, and the way his mouth tastes like mint again. The way my tongue somehow follows his, and the way my hands slide over his broad shoulders. His hands grip the backs of my thighs and he lifts me up, my legs instinctively wrapping around his waist, and I’m amazed at the way my body somehow knows how to respond to him. I bury my fingers in his hair, gently tugging at it while he walks back toward my bed, his lips still molded to mine.

  The responsible voice inside my head finds her way in, reminding me that this is a terrible idea—but I push her back. I am not stopping this time. I pull Hardin’s hair harder, earning a moan from him. The sound elicits one of my own, the two mixing in the most heavenly way. It is the hottest sound I have ever heard and I want to do anything I can to hear it again. He sits back on my bed, pulling me so I’m on his lap. His long fingers dig into my skin, but the pain is wonderful. My body begins gently rocking back and forth on his lap, and his grip tightens.

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