Before by Anna Todd


  “Oh, you shouldn’t.” I can’t stop thinking about her naked body. I need to see what she’s hiding under those baggy clothes. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself if I got my hands on her. “They enjoy it, trust me.”

  “Okay, okay. I get it. Can we please just change the subject?” Tessa closes her eyes again and tilts her head back. She groans before she says, “So, will you try to be nicer to me?”

  “Sure. Will you try not to be so uptight and bitchy all the time?” I tease.

  “I’m not bitchy; you’re just obnoxious.”

  We both laugh as she finishes her statement. Her laugh is soft, floating around me. I feel fluffy, in a weird but nice way.

  Fluffy? Really, Hardin?

  I need to get my shit together and put this Friendship Train on the right track.

  I lean a little closer to my new friend. “Look at us, two friends.”

  Tessa shrinks back and stands up. Her hands wipe at her skirt, and I backtrack, thinking about taking that skirt off. “That skirt really is dreadful, Tess. If we’re going to be friends, you need to not wear it anymore.” It’s not that bad, but it’s certainly not good.

  Tessa’s eyes flash with embarrassment, and I smile to ease it. I didn’t mean it as an insult. I was only teasing her. Really, if she wants to wear unflattering clothing, more power to her. I wear the same few pairs of black jeans and stained T-shirts.

  Tessa’s phone begins to vibrate, and she pulls it out of her bag. “I need to get back and study,” she announces.

  I glance at the ancient clunk of plastic in her hand. Is that a Nokia?

  “You set an alarm to study?” I ask her, pondering the fact that she must have the last flip phone in existence. It’s like she’s trying to be outdated or something.

  She shrugs. “I set an alarm for a lot of things; it’s just something I do.”

  This behavior makes her shy, as if she should be embarrassed that she does such a thing. Why would she think that? Someone in her life must make her feel like she needs to justify her strange behavior. Her mum, I’m sure. Well, I’m sort of doing it now, too, but that woman seems anal as hell. Tessa’s mum probably had an alarm set for Tessa to piss, as controlling as the woman seems.

  “Well, set an alarm for us to do something fun tomorrow after class,” I say.

  I want to spend time with her. I need to.

  She looks at me, her eyebrows pushing together in confusion. “I don’t think my idea of fun is the same as yours.”

  She’s not wrong. My idea of fun is definitely different from hers. Her idea of fun would be to study together, piles of notes and heavy textbooks spread out on the bed between us. An academic cock blocking.

  My idea of fun is much different. My idea of fun is sitting on the bed, my back against a headboard while Tessa wraps her mouth around my cock. I would love to add a cold glass of whiskey, one ice cube floating in the dark liquid, clicking against the glass as she draws me deeper into her mouth.

  I’m not supposed to be drinking, though, so I suppose I’ll take the blow job sans the whiskey.

  Instead of telling her all this, I say, “Well, we’ll only sacrifice a few cats, burn down a few buildings . . .”

  Tessa giggles, and I can’t help but smile back at her. But I’m distracted a little when this couple walks by us, holding hands as they laugh at some lame joke the guy’s made. I didn’t exactly catch what they were saying, but I know it’s lame because they’re wearing matching striped socks. Subtly shoving their relationship into innocent passerbys’ faces. It’s bullshit, really. Tessa doesn’t even seem to notice them; she’s staring down at the concrete.

  “Really, though, you could use some fun, and since we are new friends, we should do something fun.”

  Before Tessa can refuse me, I turn my back to her and start off. “Good, I’m glad you’re aboard. See you tomorrow.”

  When I cross the street, I look back to see her sitting on the curb. She didn’t try to refuse me, she agreed to see me tomorrow, and now I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do, because I had planned on her denying me a few times before I had to actually plan a date thing with her.

  When I get to my car, I try to think of what to do with Tessa. I don’t go out, ever, aside from parties at other people’s places. Other than that, I’m on campus or in my room, alone.

  I start the car and keep trying to think of something to do. A movie? What type of movie does Tessa like? Something from a Nicholas Sparks novel, I’m sure. I could sneak my arm around her. I could buy her popcorn or overpriced chocolate to impress her. The problem with seeing a movie is that we can’t talk during it. Someone would complain, and I would end up getting into some trouble.

  Dating rituals were so much less complicated in the past. If we lived in an Austen novel, I would court her and take her on chaperoned dates where we would walk through the woods, and if I felt brave, I would brush her gloved hand with mine. She would blush and put a finger to her full lips, looking to our chaperone with a warning in her gray eyes.

  Modern dating is much different, and now, if I felt brave, I would reach down and tease her nipples through her top and she would move my hand to the warmth between her thighs. No chaperone, no rules.

  I’m interrupted in my planning by my phone ringing.

  Does Tessa have my number? Speaking of that, I need to get her number from Steph.

  When it’s Ken’s name that flashes on my phone screen, I cringe but I answer this time. I suppose I should reward his persistence.

  “Yeah?” I say, turning onto the highway. I tuck my phone between my cheek and shoulder. The only problem with my beautiful 1970 Ford Capri is that it doesn’t connect to Bluetooth.

  “Um, Hardin, hey,” he stutters.

  He’s confused by me answering. He calls me sometimes, and I’m convinced that he sees it as a good deed on his part. He calls to “check in on me” because he knows I won’t answer, and it makes him look good to make an effort with his insubordinate son. His new girlfriend probably praises him, hugging him tightly as she reassures him. “He’ll come around one day,” she probably promises him. “He’s just angry right now.”

  She would be angry if she had him for an excuse of a dad, too.

  “Hey.” I press the speaker button and rest my phone in the cup holder.

  “How are you, son?” he asks, immediately pressing on my nerves.

  “Fine.”

  He clears his throat. “That’s good to hear. I wanted to invite you over to dinner tomorrow night. Karen’s making a chicken, and we would really love to have you over.”

  He wants me to come over for dinner? Why on earth would he think I would come to his house to eat chicken with his new family and talk about how much we all just love each other’s company. No fucking thanks.

  “I have plans tomorrow,” I tell him. I’m not lying this time.

  “Oh. Well, you could come by after your plans. Karen’s making dessert, too.”

  “My commitment is for all night,” I tell him. I wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow. The clouds are gray, as always in this shitty state. The sun must hate it so much here—that’s why it’s always raining and dreary.

  “Is it supposed to rain tomorrow?” I ask Ken. It’s easier than looking up the weather forecast myself.

  “No, it’s supposed to warm up overnight and the rain’s gone until next week,” he says.

  If I had a normal relationship with the man who helped create me, I could ask him for suggestions about what to do on my date. I don’t, though. I can’t.

  All I know to ask this man about are what forms the university needs filled out when. We have nothing in common and are as far as can be from a place where I would ever ask him for dating advice.

  Maybe Vance has some ideas? I’d rather ask him than anyone else, I guess.

  “I have to go,” I say into the phone, then hang up on Ken and look up Vance in my phone.

  He answers after one ring. “Hardin, what??
?s up?”

  “Do you have any recommendations on where to take someone?” I ask him. My voice sounds odd as I rush the words.

  “As in a dead body?” He laughs into the phone. I smile. He’s a jackass.

  “No, not this time.” I reach for a way to ask for his help without mentioning Tessa. “Like to hang out with someone.”

  “A date, then?” he assumes.

  “No, not exactly. But something like that.”

  I don’t know what to call this meeting with Tessa. It’s not a date. We’re friends.

  Friends until I fuck her, I remind myself.

  She’s just so prudish. She wears ill-fitting clothing and barely curses. Where could I take her to get her to lighten up? I try to think of my favorite memory since I moved to Washington.

  The stream off of Highway 75 is fun. If the weather’s nice, this could work. The water is pretty shallow, and you can see the rocks under the water. Would Tessa swim in semi-clean stream water? Probably not, but I can try.

  “Well, I’ve always found nature walks a surefire bet,” Vance says.

  And just like that, I’m reminded of the Bet for the first time in a few hours.

  fourteen

  The first time he was alone with her, he knew something was stirring inside of him. He thought he could fight it, that maybe he was softening a little, and not only for her, but everyone in his life . . . he was sure. He had spent his whole life alone, and he had mastered the craft of avoiding any form of intimacy beyond sex. He didn’t need friends, and he didn’t have a functional family to teach him how to interact with people. He liked that hard part of himself—it kept his life simple. He felt suffocated during his first encounter with her, but as time passed and he began to feel something more, something that could change everything, he vowed to keep the status quo.

  He was used to structured solitude, and she was wreaking havoc on that.

  The morning is here, and I barely fucking slept last night. It wasn’t even the shitty nightmares that kept me awake; it was Tessa.

  She was there when I closed my eyes, and not in the way I’d have liked her to be. Instead of being naked, making soft noises as I thrust into her, she was furious and bored during the trip to the stream I’ve decided we’re taking. In one creepy movielike scene that my sleepless, stalkerish mind made up, she stubbed her toe and complained the entire afternoon. In another, she was bored out of her mind and wanted her lame boyfriend to drive all the way to campus to get her. When he arrived, it was like he was all cardigan. A giant cardigan monster that was both scary and lame.

  It’s frustrating the amount of time I’ve wasted thinking about this girl. None of this is going to matter in a month or so. If this “date” goes well, I’m hoping to win the Bet in less than two weeks . . . Hell, if I can charm her enough, maybe at the stream . . .

  My phone alarm rings from across the room, and I climb out of bed to shut it off.

  Today’s the day. My head is already throbbing, and I’m annoyed by the pressure I feel to make the time I spend with her work in my favor. I should probably take a shower. As I’m getting dressed, I briefly wonder what she’s doing right now . . . is she as stressed as I am? I can imagine so; she’s so uptight all the time, and she’s probably had me literally penciled into her planner-binder since the moment I offered to attempt this friendship thing.

  After my shower, I rummage through my drawer to find a clean black T-shirt. The one I find is wrinkly, but it’ll do. Outside, as I start my car, I hear a crush beneath my foot and find an empty water bottle under my gas pedal. In my half-sleep state, the sound is so irritating that I get back out and find a place to throw it away.

  I really wish I could sleep better.

  Getting to campus a little early, I accidentally leave my textbooks, some notes, and my black jumper in the backseat. I don’t realize it until I’m halfway to class, but there’s no way I’m going all the way back.

  In Literature, Tessa’s and Landon’s seats are empty when I take mine, and a little part of me feels pretty damn smug about it. She’s later than I am, and I somehow know that will irritate her. Well, you have to find joy in the simple things.

  I spend my time looking back and forth between the door and the list of my missed calls and texts from Molly, Jace, and this one weird girl whose name I forget. When Tessa and Landon finally do walk through the door, they’re gabbing away, and she looks happy and well rested. No purple shadows under her eyes, no sign of a restless night on her end.

  “Are you ready for our date today?” I ask as Tessa’s hip grazes my desk. The curve of that hip is very appealing. The curve on the front of women’s thighs, on the side of the hips, is one of my favorite parts of a female body—it’s just so sexy.

  “It’s not a date,” Tessa says to me, then turns to Landon and adds, “we’re hanging out as friends.”

  “Same thing.” I look at her and take note of her choice of outfit. She’s wearing jeans, tight enough for me to make out the shape of her thighs and ass. Damn.

  Tessa effectively avoids me for the entirety of the class. I don’t look her way either.

  After class, I don’t catch what Landon says to her—the fucker talks too low—but I hear her reply to him, “Oh, we’re just trying to get along, since my roommate is his good friend.”

  Just trying to get along, huh?

  I take a few steps closer to the Nerdacula and his nerdy-hot girlfriend. Landon’s fucking polo shirt is tucked into his gray dress slacks. Does this man even know he’s supposed to be a broke college student? Oh, wait—he’s not broke. He lives in a nice big house a short drive from here with the man who is technically my father, while my mum lives back in England in a craphole. And what I call home is an old fraternity house full of sloppy wannabe cool guys who do nothing related to helping this wonderful community the way their charter purports that they do. Tessa’s boyfriend would probably be in a frat. Blond hair, blue eyes, loafers, cardigans. It would be a match made in heaven, really.

  Well, if he learned to drink way, way too much . . .

  Landon makes eye contact with me and doesn’t try to muffle his words. “I know, you’re really a great friend. I’m just not sure Hardin deserves your kindness.”

  Really? And what do I deserve, Landon? A nice new daddy who doesn’t love liquor more than his only biological son?

  “Don’t you have something else to do besides bad-mouth me? Get lost, man,” I say, as kindly as I can manage. If I said what I was really thinking, Tessa would cancel our hangout for sure.

  Landon doesn’t respond to me; he only frowns at Tessa, again saying something too low for me to hear. As he walks away, she turns to me.

  “Hey, you don’t have to be cruel to him—you guys are practically brothers.” She all but spits out fire.

  Practically brothers? What kind of fucked-up world does this chick live in where Landon and I are anything close to brothers? We are two strangers who happen to have a third stranger in common.

  “What did you just say?” I ask her through bared teeth.

  Just because my piss-poor father moved Landon and his mummy into a mansion filled with chocolate-chip cookies—wait . . . how does Tessa know that?

  I push my fingers through my hair.

  “You know, your dad and his mom?” she answers, looking very confused. She nods to herself and frowns as if she just let out a secret.

  I look to where Landon disappeared to see if I can chase his ass down. “That is none of your business.”

  Why does he think he has the right to discuss my family’s business? “I don’t know why the asshole even told you that. I’m going to have to shut him up, it seems.”

  I crack my knuckles and ignore the stinging of tearing skin on my eternally busted fingers.

  She glares at me. “You leave him alone, Hardin.” A real convincing Warrior Queen, this one. “He didn’t even want to tell me, but I got it out of him.”

  So she knows about my family now? Why is that fair
? She doesn’t need to know anything about me. This is going too far. The whole thing is.

  “So where are we going today?” she asks.

  She’s getting too close to me now; her nosiness has gone to a personal level, and I’m not fucking okay with that. She probably probed him for answers to other questions about me, too. Why I don’t live with Ken and his new family, why I never talk to my dad—she probably even asked what I was like as a child, and Landon probably spilled all that he’d heard about me. She’s already judging me, I can tell.

  “We aren’t going anywhere; this was a bad idea,” I tell her, and just leave her ass standing there.

  She doesn’t need to get any closer than she already is. She’s too intrusive, too judgmental. I don’t want anything to do with this shit anymore. I need to stay the fuck away from this girl.

  By the time I get to my car, my head is pounding and my palms are sweaty. Why did he do that? Why would Landon tell her about my family? That must mean she knows everything. Or at least the positive things that Landon would tell her: that my father’s the chancellor of the college, that he was third in his class at university, that he loves sports.

  What she doesn’t know is that he was a drunk—the worst fucking kind—because precious Landon doesn’t really know that side of him.

  I wonder if he does in fact know anything at all about the man, anything real? Has he been totally conned by my dear old dad?

  I would love to be the one to break the news to him over his mum’s coconut cake.

  Suddenly I feel claustrophobic and roll the car window down to get some air. The handle sticks, and I yank on the metal rod, annoyed that this beautiful car is so fucking ancient. I catch my breath after about thirty seconds and finally pull out of my parking space. If Tessa had followed me, I don’t know what I would have done.

  I’m in my room for less than ten minutes when I get a text from Molly: Zeds w/ Virgin Barbie in dorm. Better hurry loverboy.

  What? How do you know? I reply, wondering why I’m getting Tessa tips from Molly, of all people . . .

  Is she fucking with me?

  I don’t kiss and tell.

 
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