Before by Anna Todd


  “Fuck!” I shout into the thick air. I need air. My throat feels like it’s closing as I throw open the door. The cool fall air tunnels through, calming my breathing.

  Natalie’s face is fresh in my mind. Tessa joins her, and the girls are laughing at me, snorting and teasing me. They’re mocking the way they have this power over me. Tessa’s knowing smile brightens, and Natalie fades out. What the fuck is happening to me? I need to stay away from Tessa, no matter what stupid bet I made or how stupid I’ll look when Zed wins.

  Zed.

  He’s always a factor. I can’t stand the thought of him having her. His body, beads of sweat on his skin as he presses his body against hers.

  I close my eyes and rest my burning cheek against the cool steering wheel. What a goddamn mess I got myself into.

  WHEN I NEXT GO TO class, Tessa isn’t sitting in her seat. It’s empty, along with Landon’s. I sit down and pull out my phone. One text from Logan inviting me to a drink during lunch hour. I decline and push my phone back into the pocket of my black jeans. They’re a little snug, but it works. My legs are too long to wear loose-fitting pants without looking like a clown. I do have a pen stain—or perhaps it’s some sort of makeup that won’t wash out—on the sleeve of my white T-shirt. I didn’t want to do laundry, and some of the shit women put on their faces has to be biohazardous at best.

  I’m distracted from the disgusting truth about my hygiene when Tessa comes through the door. I stare straight at her, willing her eyes to meet mine as she walks toward the front row. I’m surprised that she didn’t pick a new seat. I do believe her hatred toward me is that strong right now.

  “Tess?” I whisper across the small space between our seats. She ignores me, but I noticed her shoulders flinch when I said her name.

  “Tess?” She swallows, and her chest is moving at an unnaturally slow pace. The tension is clear between us; I can feel it buzzing, radiating from us.

  “Do not speak to me, Hardin.” She squares her shoulders to let me know she means business.

  “Oh, come on.” I try to cajole her with a smile, but she’s not having it.

  She licks her lips and says, “I mean it, Hardin, leave me alone.”

  “Fine, have it your way.” If she wants to be difficult, I can be difficult, too. Oh, I’m the fucking king of difficult.

  Landon comes into the conversation looking like an anxious little puppy. “You okay?” he asks Tessa.

  “Yeah, I’m fine.” She nods and shifts so more of her back is facing me.

  THE WEEK PASSES with sleepless nights and irresistible calls from dusty bottles under the sink. It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore their siren song. By Friday I’m fucking exhausted. I look and feel like shit. When I get to Literature, Landon is sitting at his desk, and his eyes meet mine immediately.

  “I need to talk to you,” he insists. I glance around to see who else he could possibly be talking to. No way it’s me, but Tessa only now walks through the door, so maybe?

  “Yes, you,” he says, looking more annoyed than before.

  I sit down in my seat, ignoring him. I cross my legs under the desk and lean my back against the hard plastic chair.

  “I wanted to extend an invite for dinner in a few days. Our parents have something to tell you.” He must pick up on his own stupidity, because he corrects himself: “My mom and your dad.”

  Our parents? Is he fucking demented?

  “Don’t ever say some shit like that again, you prick.”

  In a move to stand up, Landon pushes his hands against the top of his desk. I fucking dare him.

  “Leave him alone, Hardin!” Tessa yells, and grabs hold of my arms to keep me from hurling myself at Landon. She really doesn’t know how to mind her own damn business. I drop my arms. Fuck this. Why did she have to walk up and join us?

  “You need to mind your own business, Theresa.”

  Tessa leans into her bestie and whispers something to him. Bestie is such a stupid word, but I bet these two dweebs use it.

  “He’s just an asshole. That pretty much sums it up,” Landon announces with his most charming grin.

  Tessa’s giggling peeves me in the deepest way.

  She turns to Landon. “I have some good news!” Ugh. She’s putting on a show for me, probably thinking I’m too oblivious to catch on to her juvenile antics.

  “Really? What’s that?”

  “Noah’s coming to visit today, and he’ll be here all weekend!”

  The slow burn of jealousy is making its way through me, stopping to fray each edge of me on its way. With every clap of Tessa’s hands, I can feel my smoldering gaze heating her skin, and each watt of brightness that grows in her smile makes my hands twitch on my desk more and more vehemently.

  “Really? That’s great news!” Landon sucks up to Tessa, and neither of them pays any attention to me when I pretend to gag.

  eighteen

  As he got to know the girl, his fears began to grow. He had never had much competition when it came to affections of women. His short-lived rendezvous were never challenged by other men.

  That was, until the perfect boy with golden hair came waltzing in, with a book full of her secrets. He knew the boy had watched the girl grow up, been alongside her most of the way and probably knew her better than anyone else. He was easy to hate, but in the end he realized he wasn’t the competition after all.

  While I walk down the hallway of Tessa’s dorm building, I try to shake the thoughts out of my head. I can’t help but picture Tessa naked, underneath her boy toy’s body. His cardigan tied around his shoulders as he fucks her.

  If the thought didn’t make me nauseous, I would find this image hilarious.

  I knock at Tessa’s door once before I turn the handle and walk in. It’s not locked, which makes it obvious that she and her boyfriend aren’t planning anything too wild. She and Noah are sitting on the bed in the dark, and Tessa jumps a little when she sees me, making a space between them.

  “What are you doing here?” Tessa raises her voice the moment she realizes who it is that has just arrived. “You can’t just barge in here!”

  I give the adorable couple a smile.

  “I’m meeting Steph.” I sit down on the edge of Steph’s bed, knowing that I’m lying. Through my teeth. I turn to Noah, wanting to gauge his annoyance level. Is he easygoing, or uptight like Tessa? Tessa’s probably going to piss herself the moment I say his name. “Hey, Noah, nice to see you again.” I think about shaking his hand. I’m sure he’s used to it at the country club he’s a member of.

  “She’s with Tristan, probably already at your house.” She really pushes those words as if she’s trying to tell me to leave.

  Not yet, Blondie.

  “Oh?” I play with Tessa’s nerves. “Are you two coming to the party?” That would make it much more fun. I can imagine the boy fitting in well at the frat house—bro-dudes with matching blond hair would have him doing a keg stand within minutes of his arrival. His pure soul would be tainted, and Theresa would have to find herself another blond Abercrombie model. Tough life.

  “No . . . we aren’t. We’re trying to watch a movie,” Tessa answers me. Noah moves his hand in the dark, and I cringe as he rests it on Tessa’s. I can see her discomfort even in the darkness.

  “That’s too bad. I better go . . .” I turn on my boot, and some of the pressure disappears from my chest. “Oh, and . . . Noah.” I put a pause between my words and watch Tessa squirm. “That’s a nice cardigan you’re wearing.”

  Tessa looks relieved when she realizes that I’m not going to cause a scene.

  “Thanks. It’s from the Gap,” he answers me, oblivious that I’m making fun of him.

  “I can see that. You two have fun,” I say as I leave the room. My chest burns as I close the door. He’s a tool.

  nineteen

  Just as his life was beginning to make a little sense, it was shaken again. He thought he was in complete control of himself, of her, of everything. He was r
esisting the sweet temptation of the bitter liquor. He didn’t crave it the way he had until he found himself on the phone with his father, getting a play-by-play of the man’s new—and better—life.

  When he hung up the phone, he had no other option.

  He was completely alone with his only friend. The bottle of scotch was nearly empty; it mirored him in that way.

  When I get to the Scott house, I park right in the middle of the driveway. I hate this fucking beautiful house. It sits high on a perfectly green lawn. Ken and Karen pay a pretty penny to have their yard groomed; no doubt they pay a pretty penny to have themselves groomed as well. Ken’s new soon-to-be wife loves living here, I’m sure. She probably loves spending his money on grooming herself, too.

  I’m fucking livid.

  I’m pissed off and not drunk enough to deal with this kind of bullshit. What fucking piece-of-shit father tells his only son he’s getting married to another woman when you’re just now getting to know his ass? This is exactly why I didn’t want anything to fucking do with him. I’m pissed that I only had a quarter of a bottle of liquor in my cabinet. My head is pounding, my throat is dry, and I’m craving the burn of scotch. Ken Scott has fine bottles of scotch gifted to him from colleagues in sweater vests who have just returned from their vacations in Scotland. My shitty father is getting remarried, and he says it like this: “Karen and I are to be wed. Soon, very soon.”

  To be wed? What the fuck kind of stilted-ass expression is that? And during a fucking telephone conversation?

  “We are to be wed,” I repeat as I take his porch stairs in two long strides. The man has so much fucking topiary it makes me feel like I’m lost in the fucking Wonka Jungle, or Wonka Factory thing. Hell, whatever it is, it’s hideous.

  First and foremost, I need more scotch.

  “I’m all out!” I exclaim, my voice leaping out into the darkness.

  I’m in a pickle here. I’m drunk, but not as drunk as I want to be. I need more liquor. Ken has more liquor. He always has.

  I knock on the door, and no one answers. The man’s house is too damn big. Stupid brick showy model home.

  “Hello?” I shout into the abyss of a dark yard, with loud crickets shouting back at me. The neighbors all have their porch lights on, and every house has an SUV parked in front, the bumpers littered with WCU bumper stickers. All of the overpaid, highbrow scholars live on this street. I pull my gray beanie down over my hair, hoping it makes me look even more dangerous to the neighbors than usual.

  Landon opens the door before I even realize that I’m pounding my fist against the wood. My knuckles are barely healed; the skin never really has a chance to heal before I rip it open time after time.

  “Hardin?” His voice is low, like I’ve woken him up.

  “No,” I say, passing him in the foyer. I walk straight to the kitchen and raise my voice so he can hear me as he follows. My eyes stop for a beat on their couch; its frilly, floral-vomit-covered mass bothers me. “It’s someone else who looks identical to him, only this model thinks you’re an even bigger prick than the other one does.”

  I open a cabinet in the kitchen to begin my search. My sperm donor—that is to say, Ken—since becoming sober has thrown out most of his liquor, but I know he kept at least one rare bottle of scotch. Maybe it’s a reminder, maybe it’s a temptation, but he cherishes it—fucking treasures it, even. I’ve heard him talk more about that stupid bottle, and with more pleasure, than he talks about his own son since I’ve been here. He always keeps it in a different spot; I don’t know if he hides it from himself or if he uses it as a constant marker of his sobriety. Either way, it’s mine now.

  “They aren’t here. My mom and Ken went out of town for the weekend.” Landon explains what I already know.

  I stay quiet, not wanting to converse with my soon-to-be stepbrother. The thought makes me gag. I’m not meant to have family, no siblings looking out for me or vice versa. I’m meant to be alone and take care of myself.

  I keep searching, now moving into Ken and Karen’s bedroom. The room is enormous, big enough for three king-size beds like the four-poster they have in the center of the room. Their dresser, nightstands, and bed are all a dark cherrywood, the same as Ken’s desk in his office.

  Anal-compulsive asshat.

  The room is hideous and it looks like shit, so I hope Ken and Karen are happy in here with their matching furniture and pristine life. I pull the string in the closet to turn on the light and brush my hand across the shelves. After feeling around some dust and a box, my fingers hit glass. Jackpot.

  I carefully bring the bottle down and wipe the thin layer of dust that’s gathered since Ken’s last public showing. Immediately I twist the top off, feeling deep satisfaction as the plastic tears, ruining the perfect seal.

  The scotch is hot on my tongue, and it tingles a small cut on the inside of my cheek. I savor the thick, slow burn of the smooth liquor. Ken Scott has always loved his scotch, and he’s a true aficionado of the beverage. The taste is incredible—so smooth, yet with such a rich flavor. I personally think scotch is just a tad pretentious and was disappointed to find out that it’s the only whiskey that comes from Scotland. Showy bastards. Still, I love the taste—one trait I got from Ken’s short list of actual contributions to my existence.

  Half of the bottle is gone now, my head is spinning, and I think I should finish it off. Why not? My dad doesn’t deserve it; he doesn’t even drink anymore. When he chose to stop holding hands with the devil, he lost the right to possess such an exquisite bottle.

  Besides, he already has enough precious, perfect things. Like his new son, for example, who right now seems to think he can stop me from my mission to make his new daddy feel as shitty as I feel. Ken has a perfect soon-to-be wife who keeps his pantry and stomach full. She doesn’t have to work an eight-hour shift, then turn around and run off to another job. She doesn’t have to line up the bills on their kitchen table that’s missing a leg, and choose the one she’s not going to have the money to pay this month. The times I talk to him he seems to think we were fine back in Hampstead, and I blame a fraction of that illusion on my mum, whose pride was bigger than her brain.

  His house is clean, and even his fridge is clean—no fingerprints are visible on the stainless steel. I lick my fingers and drag them down the metal.

  Landon scoffs, cursing from behind me. “Did you drink that entire bottle?” he asks. His eyes are wide as he stares at the bottle swinging in my hand.

  “No, there’s still half left. Want some?” I ask him.

  He backs away into the dining room, his hands raised, and I follow him. “No.”

  Perfect son who doesn’t drink. How sweet.

  “I thought you weren’t drinking anymore?” he says. I turn to him, holding on to a big cabinet filled with expensive, shiny sets of dishes in order to keep myself from falling down. What the fuck does he know about my drinking?

  My fingers dig into the wood. “Why would you say that?”

  He realizes that he wasn’t supposed to say anything like that in front of the poor damaged child, and his eyes widen. “I just meant . . .” He attempts to bullshit me.

  “Stop.” I hold up the hand with the bottle, and he steps backward into the living room from the dining room. He’s not going to stop fucking talking. He’s going to push and push—I don’t have any control over him, over anything that’s happening right now. My shitty dad is getting fucking married, I’m drunk and pissed off, and this motherfucker doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.

  My fingers wrap around the corners of the china cabinet next to me.

  He doesn’t know when to stop. “Your dad said—”

  And now it’s my turn to push: before he can finish his sentence, I push the cabinet over. I use extra force, dropping the bottle in the process. Landon yells something, but I can’t hear him over the sound of shattering china.

  “Get out! You need to leave!” Landon shouts. I bend down and grab the bottle from the mess of bro
ken glass, splintered wood, and slices and fragments of white-and-blue dishes. I cut the tip of my finger and lick away the blood while making sure the scotch bottle is properly closed.

  “Tessa would be so impressed by this!” I hear his voice as I pull open the back door.

  Tessa? I want to ask him what the fuck Tessa has to do with any of this, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he can use her as leverage over me. For whatever reason, he thinks tossing her name out there will make me come down and give a fuck, and I won’t let him think he’s right. I ignore him even though I don’t want to, and walk out onto the back deck.

  The air is warm but calm; the beginning of fall is here and the summer nights will soon start to turn chilly, and then chilly will turn into freezing. The next time I fuck up, I’m moving somewhere warm.

  “Tessa would be so impressed,” I say aloud, mocking Landon’s voice. He was trying to be a smartass, letting me know that she wouldn’t approve of my mess-making and temper tantrum.

  “Tessa, Tessa, Tessa!” I shout into the darkness.

  Even this yard is perfect. It’s nearly as big as an American football field and lined with tall trees, keeping the property in perfect shade during the day and a black sheet of darkness at night.

  MY HEAD IS SPINNING and the silence isn’t helping. I take another swig.

  A few minutes later, the creak of the screen door has me leaping to my feet. Tessa is standing in the doorway in front of Landon. She walks toward me, and with every step, the bottle in my hand feels heavier. Her light eyes are pinned on mine.

  Is she real? Her blond hair is so shiny under the patio lights. She’s glowing. Frowning, but radiant.

  Is she really there? I think so . . . unless this bottle is laced with some hallucinogen, she must be.

  “How did you get here?” I ask her. I follow her eyes to Landon and freeze. That fucker.

  “Landon, he . . .” she begins.

  “You fucking called her?”

 
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