Before by Anna Todd

  Tessa just threw water in my face and left my room in a storm of huffs and puffs and eye rolls. Yet here I am, following her down the stairs after only a few minutes of sitting in my room, whining to myself like a little child throwing a fit over his favorite toy breaking.

  Only Tessa isn’t my favorite toy; she’s too shiny, too new for my dirty hands to play with.

  I was only trying to lighten her mood, to cheer her up, but I obviously failed. I should have known that bringing up the subject of her lame-ass boyfriend would be a trigger for her temper.

  She’s so annoying. She feels entitled and she’s moody. Overly sensitive, she is, and she pisses me the fuck off. Who throws a drink, water . . . but still . . . into someone’s face like that? For someone who thinks so highly of themselves, she sure does behave like a petulant child.

  When I get to the bottom of the stairs, Tessa’s in the kitchen, taking a drink from a bottle of liquor. She’s looking around the room for someone, and as I watch her my phone goes off in my pocket, another text from Ken: Karen’s making dinner tonight if you want to stop by. There’s something I want to talk to you about. You haven’t responded to my other texts, so I figured one at 3:00 am would at least get to you when you were awake.

  Something he wants to talk to me about? I have better things to do, like show Zed who’s really the king here. I look back to where Tessa’s standing, and notice that Zed’s joined her.

  Of course that creep is by her side the moment I’m not around.

  Tessa’s still drinking; she shouldn’t be drinking this much. She’s going to feel like absolute shit tomorrow. Of course, this is how Zed plans to get her.

  “Look how cute they are.” I hear a voice, and glancing over, I find Steph next to me, a wine cooler in her hand. Her red hair is messy, falling down around her face.

  I look back to Zed and Tessa, this time paying more attention to the way she sighs while staring directly into his eyes. She seems comfortable; her shoulders are relaxed and her eyes are soft. Nothing like how she is around me. She doesn’t know Zed any better than she knows me, so why the difference? Is it because, unlike me, he leans against the countertop with his eyes focused only on her eyes? He doesn’t let her chest distract him. He leans into her as she smiles at him. He’s going the good-cop-to-my-bad-cop route, it would seem.

  Damn, he’s better than I’d imagined.

  Tessa looks toward the door, and Steph jumps back, pulling my arm. I nudge her off.

  Steph’s eyes are bloodshot, her pupils tiny black dots in a sea of red. “Don’t tell her I’m here. I’m sick of babysitting her,” she says, and rolls her eyes. Steph doesn’t even try to place nice when Tessa’s not around. Grade-A bitch.

  A drunk blonde in a skintight dress passes by, winking at me. I remember her . . . I think?

  “You brought her here,” I remind Steph, keeping my voice light. I’m not interested in this at all. Not even sure why I brought it up, really.

  “So? I’m bored with her for tonight, and she’s for you two to play with, remember?” She shrugs and walks away from me.

  Well . . .

  “You’re going to lose if you just stand around like a creep!” Steph shouts as reaches the front door and takes the hand of that weird dude she was complaining about just last week.

  I’m going to lose?

  Please. No chance.

  But I’m also not going to stand here in this doorway like a damn creep.

  I walk back into the living room and find a seat on the couch. I’ll wait for her to come to me. She’s going to get bored with Zed and his stupid conversation about science and plants, saving the world one flower at a time, all that bullshit. I suppose he believes it, maybe, but with that guy you can never really tell either way. More likely he knows on some subconscious level that only plants can stand to be around him.

  In due course, Tessa finds her way into the living room, Zed latched on to her side like a damn lost puppy. She doesn’t even notice that I’m in the same room as she sits down on the floor with my crew, only a few feet away.

  I feel a squeeze on my bicep and turn just as the blonde from a moment ago wraps her arms around my stomach, holding me tight.

  “Hardinnnn . . .” she says with such a drunk lilt that I suddenly can’t tell if she’s trying to molest me or just keep the room from spinning. “It’s good to see you again. Be even better to feel you . . .”

  I push her back a little, trying to disengage. But alcohol has made her a persistent octopus, and she grabs me again. Finally, I shift over near one of the frat “brothers” whose name I can never remember, and wrap one of her arms around his shoulder. Sure enough, the rest of her follows suit and she slurs “S-Steeeve, long time no see . . .” as I sneak off, my annoyance with the night rising with each step my boots make across the stained carpet.

  “Do the buses run all night?” I hear Tessa ask, clearly gone past buzzed and straight into drunk now. Her voice is thicker. I watch her lips, the bottom one popping out more than the top. She’s speaking slowly, teetering on the line of slurring her words.

  I force myself to stop listening to her and walk back into the kitchen. She’s not my problem—I have no reason to care if she’s drunk or not. Less than ten seconds later, I turn the corner and go back into the living room, my feet stopping in front of where Tessa sits on the floor.

  When she sees me, this snotty girl rolls her eyes. She seems to do this a hell of a lot.

  Not to Zed, though. Never to Zed.

  “You and Zed, then?” I raise a brow at her, and she stumbles as she gets to her feet. How much did she drink? Her eyes are clear as they meet mine; I can’t tell.

  I reach out for her arm as she pushes past. “Let go of me, Hardin!” Her arms fly into the air, and I try not to laugh at her dramatics. Her eyes move around the room like she’s looking for something to throw at me. “I’m just trying to find out about the bus.”

  She pushes past me, her shoulder bumping into mine, and I gently grab hold of her arm to steady her.

  “Chill out . . . it’s three a.m. There is no bus.” I let go of her arm and watch realization hit her. “Your newfound alcoholic lifestyle has you stuck here again.”

  The humor in this is undeniable. She’s so adamant about hating this scene—yet here she is again, staying the night.

  She stares blankly at me, all big eyes and pouty lips, and I take a moment to pour salt onto her wounded ego.

  “Unless you want to go home with Zed . . .” I nod toward the living room, and she scowls.

  Without a word, she walks off.

  What’s the point of this? Me following her around, trying to get a rise out of her? There’s no point, and really it’s a waste of my time. She seems to play the game just as well as I do.

  When I get back to my room, I grab a book from the shelf and pull my shirt up and over my head, tossing it onto the floor and then adding my jeans to the mess. I open the novel to a random page and begin to read:

  What use were anger and protestations against her silly credulity? We parted that night—hostile; but next day beheld me on the road to Wuthering Heights, by the side of my wilful young mistress’s pony. I couldn’t bear to witness her sorrow: to see her pale, dejected countenance, and heavy eyes: and I yielded, in the faint hope that Linton himself might prove, by his reception of us, how little of the tale was founded on fact.

  A blond Catherine sat there, at the edge of the moors, with her hair tied back in a bow as red as the blood running through his veins. She wasn’t thinking; she was lost. She turned to him, her voice ringing through the air between them. “Hardin?”

  Catherine’s voice is loud, so loud it’s breaking through my sleep. Am I dreaming?

  “Hardin! Hardin, please open the door!”

  I jump up out of my bed, confused and panicked as the knob on my door jingles. Fists pound against the door.

  “Hardin!” the voice screams again.

  Is that . . . ?

  I unlock th
e door and yank it open. Tessa’s standing there, her face flushed in horror and her eyes wild with fear. The hair on my neck stands, and I go into instant defense mode.

  “Tess?” I wipe my eyes to gain some clarity, trying to dispel the dream, get a focus on what’s going on.

  “Hardin, please can I come in? This guy . . .” Tessa looks back down the hallway, so I step out to see what’s she’s so scared of.

  Neil is walking toward us, his eyes bloodshot and his shirt stained. He’s disgusting. And when he stumbles into the wall, I see just how drunk he is.

  Why is she running from him? Did he . . .

  Neil’s eyes meet mine, and he stops immediately. If he knows what’s good for him, he will turn the fuck around and walk away. If not, Tessa and all these people in the hallway—people who didn’t seem to want to help her—might be in for a show.

  I look back at her quickly, to make sure he didn’t do anything to cause me to have to hide his body when the police come.

  “Do you know him?” she asks, her voice cracking.

  I feel my hands shaking at my sides.

  “Yeah, get inside.” I lead her into my room and I sit down on my bed. Her gray eyes watch me intensely, and I rub my eyes again. “Are you okay?” I ask.

  She looks okay—nervous, maybe, but she’s not crying. This is a good sign . . . I think?

  “Yeah,” she says softly. “Yes. I’m sorry for coming here and waking you up. I just didn’t know what—” Tessa’s words come out fast and shaky.

  She’s saying sorry for waking me up?

  I run my hand over my hair, pushing it back from my forehead. “Don’t worry about it.” I notice the way her hands, like mine, are shaking, and I ask the question that’s been raking at my mind since I opened the door. “Did he touch you?”

  Murderous ideas float through my mind. No one would miss Neil, that’s for sure.

  “No,” she starts, then hesitates. “He tried, though. I was stupid enough to lock myself in a room with a drunk stranger, so I suppose it’s my fault.”

  Her fault? What the fuck?

  “It’s not your fault that he did that. You aren’t used to this type of . . . situation.” I try to keep my voice calm and not frighten her further. I’ve seen this happen to a lot of girls in my life. From my own mum, to drunk girls at parties. I had to save Molly’s drunk ass from Neil just last year. I thought he would have learned his lesson when I broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder, but I guess not. He obviously needs a refresher course. Logan will help, just like last time.

  Tessa walks toward me, and I pat the empty spot next to me on the bed. She sits down and places her hands in her lap. Her vulnerable expression suddenly makes me realize that I’m wearing nothing but black boxers. I want to put something else on, but I don’t want to draw her attention to the fact, and I don’t want her to feel more uncomfortable since she came in here for escape, for peace.

  “I have no plans on getting used to it. This really is the last time I’m coming here—or to any parties, for that matter. I don’t know why I even tried. And that guy . . . he was just so . . .”

  She shivers, and tears start falling down her cheeks.

  “Don’t cry, Tess,” I whisper, and bring my hand to her cheek. My thumb catches the wet tears as they fall, and she sniffles. It’s such an innocent, vulnerable sound that I try to look away from her, but can’t.

  “I hadn’t noticed how gray your eyes are,” I confess.

  I haven’t paid much attention to details beyond her breasts and her susceptibility to my games until now. I was too busy, too shallow.

  But then I stop myself. No, I’m a liar. I’ve been paying attention to the tiniest things about this girl since the moment I saw her.

  My hand still rests on her cheek, and she’s still staring at me, full lips parted. I bring my metal lip ring between my teeth and tug on it the way I always do. Her eyes are glued to my mouth, and just as I pull my hand away, she leans closer, pressing her mouth against mine.

  I take a sharp breath, caught completely off guard. What is she doing? What the fuck am I doing?

  But I don’t stop. Can’t stop. I’m running my tongue along her soft lips; I’m swallowing her small gasps as I cup her cheeks between my hands. She’s sighing into my mouth, as if she’s relieved to be kissing me. Her skin is hot, her mouth is gentle and nervous, and I move my hands to her hips.

  When I taste the vodka on her tongue, I pull back.

  “Tess . . .” I breathe into her mouth. She sighs, and I swipe my tongue across her lips, parting them again. I gasp, trying to clear my mind. How did we get to this?

  I feel cool, the opposite of the fire inside of me. It feels good. It’s a relief from the constant burn. I’ve never felt this sense of calm before; it’s threatening.

  My mind is no longer in charge; the feel of her mouth on mine has taken over all sense. I pull her closer, tightening my grip on her hips, and lie back on the mattress. She climbs up onto my torso and rests her hands on my chest. Her tongue teases mine, never leaving my mouth. She’s so good at this. Fuck, is she good at this.

  Her hair falls down onto my skin, and I pull my mouth away from hers. The whimper that leaves her lips when I do this makes me instantly hard. She wants me. Her hands are moving up and down my chest now, testing her limits, I can tell.

  I won’t let this go too far. Not tonight. She’s been drinking, and that’s not my thing. I want her—hell, I want to fuck her over and over again. I will feel her, all of her. But not tonight. She’s a virgin, but how far has she gone with her boyfriend? Has he had her like this, on top of him when he’s wearing only boxers, rocking her hips over his, teasing him like this? Is this how she really is with him, only to seem all prim and prude to the outside world?

  Has his tongue traced along the soft skin of her neck? By the way she’s gasping under the touch of my tongue against her skin, I would say no. She moans, and I hold her hair as I kiss her neck. I move my mouth lower, gently nipping at her collarbones, and she moans again, saying my name under her breath.

  I bring her mouth to mine, and she continues to rock against me. I know she can feel how hard I am, how badly I want her.

  “Hardin . . . stop,” she moans, her tongue still running gently over mine. “Hardin!” she repeats. I pull back and look at her. Her lips are swollen, sinfully pink, and her eyes are wild.

  “We can’t,” she says. Her fingers leave my skin, and the dull burn turns to ice.

  I knew it wouldn’t last; it was just a . . . a heat-of-the-moment type thing. It was a moment I wanted to keep going, but everything must end, in the end. I pull myself up onto my elbows, and she rolls off of me, to the other side of the bed.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Her voice is low, raspy, and she sure as hell doesn’t sound sorry by the heavy breaths falling from her lips and the way her eyes can’t seem to look away from my mouth.

  Looking at her, I think about this book I read where the women in the town vow to stop saying sorry in their everyday lives. It was quite interesting the way they realized 90 percent of the sorrys they were giving were for things they weren’t responsible for. If Tessa lived in that town, she would fit right in.

  “Sorry for what?” I say as calmly as possible, and stand up to dig through the messy drawer full of black T-shirts. As I pull one on, I see her looking at me, down to my boxers. And she blushes.

  “For kissing you . . .”

  Why would she apologize for kissing me? If she doesn’t want to do anything with me, I don’t want her to, but I didn’t give her any signals that I didn’t want the same thing.

  “It was just a kiss—I kiss people all the time.” I purposely keep my voice neutral, since I don’t want to make her feel worse. She already regrets this and is ready to run for the hills any second. I know it, and if she does, I have to chase her. I can’t strike out this early in the game when I’ve already made progress. I’ve had her hands on me, I’ve tasted her tongue. I’ve already had h
er panting, wanting more. I have the upper hand over Zed now, and I can’t let that slip. She’s going to make a way bigger deal out of this than need be. If I comfort her now, she’s much more likely to trust me, and that trust will lead to me having another chance to get even further next time.

  She stares at the floor. Again. She’s already so full of regret that she can’t even look at me? I don’t like how this feels.

  She can’t regret it already; if she doesn’t get past this, I’m fucked and Zed is going to win.

  “Can we not make a big deal of it, then?” Tessa asks.

  “Trust me, I don’t want anyone to know about this either. Now stop talking about it.”

  She winces at my words, and I wish I could take them back. I’m terrible at this shit.

  “So you’re back to your old self, I see?” Her eyes are sharpening now, preparing for a battle. I want to snap at her, but I keep my mouth shut.

  She doesn’t know a damn thing about me. It pisses me off that she thinks after a few encounters with me she’s some sort of Hardin Scott fucking expert. She thinks she’s so much better than me, and she’s terrified that people might find out she kissed me because . . . well, I’m me and she’s Little Miss Perfect. I can’t keep my mouth shut.

  “I was never anyone else,” I tell her. “Don’t think because you kissed me, basically against my will, we have some sort of bond now.”

  I can feel my words slam into her like a goddamn battering ram, and she gets to her feet. Her fury is clear in her wide eyes. A modern-day Joan of Arc, getting ready to burn me at the stake.

  “You could have stopped me,” she seethes. Her hands ball into tights fists that she must think are made of fire.

  My mouth reacts before I can think of anything to say: “Hardly.”

  Tessa sighs and brings her hands to cover her face. I look away. She’s so emotional, and that’s not even the strange part. The act of being emotional is normal, I suppose, but she’s just so open to it. I’m not her friend or her family, and here she is throwing her emotions around like I’ve known her my whole life. She’s not afraid to show me how she feels; she doesn’t seem to mind being exposed like this.

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