Before by Anna Todd

Landon ignores me, walks through the doorway, and closes the screen door behind him.

  Tessa points a finger at me. “You leave him alone, Hardin. He’s worried about you,” she says, defending her friend.

  The perfect brother has the perfect friend.

  She’s generally soft-spoken, but not when she’s mad. Her eyes are so pretty, too perfect for such a soft face. I can’t keep staring at her; she’s giving me a headache. I have to guess what she’s thinking, and I’ve had a long enough night already. I sit down at the patio table and gesture for her to take a seat across from me.

  When she sits down, I take another drink and she stares, pure judgment in her eyes. I slam the heavy bottle down on the glass table and she jumps out of her seat. She should leave; she shouldn’t be here. Landon should never have called her and told her to come here. Why would she come, anyway? Her boyfriend is in town this weekend, and I’m sure he’s penciled in for cuddle time.

  The thought makes me cringe. Landon had no fucking right calling her to come here.

  “Aww, aren’t you two something. You’re both so predictable. Poor Hardin is upset, so you gang up on me and try to make me feel bad for breaking some shitty china.” I smile at her, letting her know I’m playing the villain tonight.

  “I thought you didn’t drink,” she says,

  It’s more a question than a statement. She’s trying to figure out just who I am. I confuse her, and she hates it.

  “I don’t. Until now, I guess. Don’t try to patronize me; you’re no better than me.” I point a finger at her, using her old scolding technique.

  She doesn’t look fazed by my move. I take another drink.

  “I never said I was better than you. I just want to know what made you start drinking now?”

  I’ll never understand what makes this girl think she can ask people whatever the hell she wants. Boundaries? She has none.

  “What does it matter to you? Where’s your boyfriend?” I burn the question into her. She looks away, unable to keep up with my stare.

  “He’s back in my room. I just want to help you, Hardin.” Tessa’s hand reaches for mine, and I flinch away before she can touch me.

  What is she doing? This must be some sick joke. Landon must have told her to come here and be all gentle, tame-the-lion bullshit. She wouldn’t touch me for no reason.

  “Help me.” I laugh. “If you want to help me, then leave.” I wave the bottle and my hand toward the door.

  “Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?” she pushes. I knew she would. Her hair is down, resting over her shoulders in waves. She’s wearing casual clothes, looking younger than ever. Her eyes release mine, and she looks down at her hands on her lap.

  Out of habit, I pull the hat off of my head and run my hand through my hair. I can smell the scotch seeping from my pores, and I can hear Tessa’s heavy breaths coming out in long draws. I match my breathing to hers and then wonder what the fuck I’m doing.

  I would rather get her talking than sit here in tense silence. “My father decided to tell me just now that he is marrying Karen—and the wedding’s next month. He should have told me long ago, and not over the phone. I’m sure perfect little Landon’s known for a while.”

  Tessa’s eyes dart to me, and she looks a little surprised that I just spoke to her so candidly.

  I hadn’t planned to go into that much detail.

  I blame the scotch.

  “I’m sure he had his reasons not to tell you,” she says, defending him. Of course she does. Ken Scott is like her: polished and pretty and always the good guy.

  “You don’t know him; he doesn’t give a shit about me. You know how many times I’ve talked to him in the last year? Maybe ten! All he cares about is his big house, his new soon-to-be wife, and his new, perfect son.” I take a drink from the bottle and wipe my lips with the back of my hand. “You should see the dump that my mum lives in in England. She says she likes it there, but I know she doesn’t. It’s smaller than my dad’s bedroom here! My mum practically forced me to come here for university, to be closer to him—and we see how that worked out!”

  “How old were you when he left?” Tessa asks. I can’t tell if she’s being nosy, pitying me, or just wondering.

  I hesitate before answering. “Ten. But even before he left, he was never around. He was at a different bar every night. Now he’s Mr. Perfect and he has all this shit . . .” I gesture toward the house. Pots of bright flowers line the ledge of the deck, adding to the scenery.

  “I’m sorry that he left you guys, but—”

  “No, I don’t need your pity.” I stop her there. She’s always making excuse after excuse for everyone around her. It’s fucking frustrating. She doesn’t know my father, she didn’t have to put up with his shit until she didn’t anymore, but then missed it when he was gone.

  “It’s not pity. I’m just trying to . . .”

  Judge me?

  “Trying to what?” I push her to respond.

  “Help you. Be here for you.”

  It sounds nice when she says it. Too bad she doesn’t know anything about me. She doesn’t know who she’s trying to help. She needs to understand that I’m not fixable and she’s wasting her time here. She needs to leave and never speak to me again.

  “You are so pathetic. Don’t you see that I don’t want you here? I don’t want you to be here for me. Just because I messed around with you doesn’t mean I want anything to do with you. Yet here you are, leaving your nice boyfriend—who can actually stand to be around you—to come here and try to ‘help’ me. That, Theresa, is the definition of pathetic,” I say, watching her gray eyes turn to stone.

  “You don’t mean that.” She doesn’t know me, though she can read me well.

  I deliver the final blow. “I do, though. Go home.” I lift the bottle in victory and open my mouth. Suddenly the bottle is snatched from my grip and tossed across the yard.

  “What the hell?” I shout at her. Is she mad? Tossing a valuable bottle of scotch across a lawn like that? I look back and forth between her figure striding to the patio door and the bottle, then follow her after grabbing the bottle and leaving it on the side of the deck, near the table. I have to catch my balance, but I manage to step in front of her.

  “Where are you going?” I look down at her, stopping her from entering the house. The porch light catches her eyelashes in a way that makes it look like they’re brushing her cheekbones. I stare at her as she stares at her feet.

  “I’m going to help Landon clean up the mess you made, and then I’m going home.” Her voice is full of conviction and leaves no room for arguing. Except that I’m a master of the art of finding a small space, a crevice, no matter how tiny, to argue my way into.

  “Why would you help him?” He betrayed me by calling her in the first place, and now she’s leaving me to help him?

  “Because he, unlike you”—her voice is low, steady, and strong—“deserves someone to help him,” she says.

  I feel the impact of her words sinking into my chest as she stares into my eyes, challenging me.

  She’s right. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. He doesn’t break shit and throw a fit when he gets bad news. He deserves her time and attention, just like he deserves to walk into that big house and be welcomed warmly and go into his own room. He deserves a home-cooked meal; he shouldn’t have to eat takeout in an empty room inside a house full of strangers who all secretly hate him.

  She’s right about that, and that’s why I let her walk past me and back into the house without another word.

  The way she looked at me as she walked by is burning through my mind, playing on repeat over and over. I pull out my phone and scroll through a few pictures I’ve taken of her. One while walking to the stream . . . her hair was so blond under the sun and her skin was glowing. She was quiet—nervous, maybe—but she looks peaceful in the photo. She really is beautiful. Why would she want to help me? What all did Landon tell her about my drinking?

 
I pull my beanie back on, and after a few minutes I can’t help but go inside. My eyes are burning and my head is pounding as I open the door.

  “Tessa, can I talk to you, please?” I immediately ask. Landon is crouched over, dropping broken pieces of china into a plastic bin. Tessa nods, and I stare at her face. Then my eyes move farther down her body, stopping at her bloody finger, which she’s holding under the sink faucet.

  I cross the kitchen in only a few steps. “Are you okay? What happened?”

  “It’s nothing, just a little glass,” she says. The cut looks small, but I can’t get a good look at it. I reach for her hand and pull it from the water. The cut is about half an inch long and a quarter inch deep. She’ll be okay; she just needs a bandage. Her hand feels so light in mine, so warm, and I feel my breathing slow as I hold her. I drop her hand and she lets out a deep breath.

  “Where are the Band-Aids?” I ask Landon.

  “Bathroom.” He’s annoyed with me. I can tell by his tone. I find the small box of bandages easily in the cabinet. I grab the antibacterial cream from the bottom shelf and return to the kitchen.

  I take Tessa’s hand in mine for the second time and squeeze the cream onto the tip of her finger. She’s watching me carefully . . . unsure what to think, maybe? Band-Aids remind me of my mum and that fucked-up night a long time ago, and I blink away the memory as I wrap the bandage around Tessa’s finger.

  “Can I talk to you, please?” I ask Tessa for the second time. She nods, and I wrap my fingers around her wrist, leading her to the back patio again. We have more privacy there; Landon won’t be listening in.

  When we reach the table, I let go of Tessa’s wrist and pull the chair out for her. It’s the least I can do, I suppose. My hand feels cold, and the blood is no longer pumping behind my ears. I feel calm and cool.

  I grab another chair and drag it across the concrete side of the patio. When I sit down across from her, my knees almost touch hers.

  “What could you possibly want to talk about, Hardin?” Tessa asks, sounding completely uninterested.

  I pull the hat from my head and toss it onto the table between us. My fingers find my hair. I feel like a complete bastard for being such an asshole a few minutes ago. I want her to know that I’m not her charity case, her broken little doll, but now that I’m coming down from my adrenaline high, I’m starting to see what a complete dick I am.

  “I’m sorry,” I say quietly. The words settle in the static between us, and she stays silent. “Did you hear me?”

  “Yeah, I heard you!” she barks at me. Her chin is lifted in the most defiant way. She’s pissed.

  She’s pissed? I’m fucking pissed. She came here, meddled in my family drama, and then doesn’t accept my apology?

  I reach down for the bottle and open the top. She glares at me as the liquor slides down my throat. “You’re so damned difficult to deal with.”

  “I’m difficult? You have to be kidding me! What do you expect me to do, Hardin? You’re cruel to me—so cruel.” Her lips tremble and her eyes begin to water. She tries to square her shoulders, but they slump; she’s more than upset over this.

  I whisper my response. “I don’t mean to be.”

  “Yes, you do, and you know it. You do it purposefully. I’ve never been treated this poorly by anyone in my entire life.” That can’t be true. I’m not even that mean to her; she hasn’t dealt with shit in her life if this is the worst she’s been treated.

  “Then why do you keep coming around? Why not just give up?” I ask her. If I’m that bad, why doesn’t she just quit trying to be with me?

  I ignore the part of my brain that’s questioning how I would feel if she stopped trying.

  “If I . . . I don’t know. But I can assure you that after tonight, I’m not going to try anymore. I’m going to drop Literature and just take it next semester,” she tells me. Her arms are crossed in her lap, and the wind is blowing her hair behind her shoulders. I wonder if she’s cold.

  I don’t want her to drop the class; it’s the only regularly scheduled time I have with her. “Don’t, please don’t do that.”

  “Why would you care? You don’t want to be forced to be around someone as pathetic as me, right?” I hear pain behind her words, but I don’t know her well enough to judge if it’s authentic. I wish I did. I wonder how many people actually know her, the real her. I’m talking about the one whose brows crinkle before she smiles, the one who maybe doesn’t have her shit figured out the way her mum thinks she does.

  “I didn’t mean that . . . I’m the pathetic one.” I sigh and lean back in my chair.

  Her eyes pierce mine. “Well, I won’t argue with that,” she says, her lips pressed into a hard line. She reaches for the bottle, but I’m faster than her this time.

  “So you’re the only one who can get drunk?” She looks at me, her eyes focusing on the ring in my brow.

  “I thought you were going to toss it again.” I hand it to her. I don’t like her drinking, but she’s ready for a fight over it and I’m not. I just want her to stay here. I like how quiet it is when she’s around.

  She gags the moment she tastes the scotch. “How often do you drink? You implied before that it was never.” She’s grilling me.

  “Before tonight it’s been about six months.” Six months down the drain. Way to fucking go, Hardin.

  “Well, you shouldn’t drink at all. It makes you an even worse person than usual,” she says in a joking way, but I know she’s serious.

  “You think I’m a bad person?” I don’t look up from the ground while I wait for her answer. She’s going to say yes, just like everyone else would.

  “Yes.”

  I’m not surprised by her answer, but I couldn’t help but hope for her to say no.

  “I’m not. Well, maybe I am. I want you to . . .” I begin. I’m not that bad of a person, am I? I could be better, for her, if she asked me to. I look at her, taking in the way her lips are trembling, waiting for me to finish my jumbled thought. I want to be good, I want her to think I’m good.

  “You want me to what?” she asks impatiently. She pushes the bottle into my hands, and I sit it down on the table without taking a drink.

  How do I answer that without sounding pathetic? I can stop drinking, I can be nicer to people, or just her.

  “Nothing.” I can’t find the right words for her.

  “I should go.” She stands to her feet and rushes away from me. She’s moving so fast, and I don’t want her to leave. I’ll try harder.

  “Don’t go.” I follow her. When she stops, her face is so close to mine that I can taste the faint trace of scotch on her breath.

  “Why not? Do you have more insults to throw in my face?” she shouts, her words hitting me harder than usual. She turns away from me again, and I reach for her. I wrap my hand around her arm and pull her back.

  “Don’t turn your back on me!” I yell at her. She doesn’t get to come here and stir shit up and walk away. I’m fucking sick of people doing that shit to me.

  “I should have turned my back on you a long time ago!” Tessa’s hands push against my chest. “I don’t know why I’m even here! I came all the way here the second Landon called me!” She’s screaming at me now. Her face is red and her lips are moving so fast. Her tongue darts out to wet them so she can finish her angry rant. “I left my boyfriend—who, like you said, is the only one who can stand to be around me—to come here for you!”

  Her words sink into me, one by one. She did leave her boyfriend to come here. She has no other reason to be here aside from me. Maybe I’m not as bad as I thought, and maybe she sees that in me.

  “You know what? You’re right, Hardin, I am pathetic. I’m pathetic for coming here, I’m pathetic for even trying—”

  I close the space between us without another thought and press my mouth to hers. She pushes at my chest, fighting me, but I can feel her body relaxing in my arms.

  “Kiss me, Tessa,” I beg her. I need her.

 
“Please, just kiss me. I need you.” I try once more, for the last time, to get her to kiss me. My tongue touches her closed lips, and they part. She gives in to me all at once, willingly and wholly. She leans into me, sighing against my breath, and I bring my hands to both of her cheeks, cupping her face, devouring the taste of her.

  My tongue traces her bottom lip, and she shivers. I wrap my arms around her, anchoring myself to her steadiness. I hear a noise from the house, and Tessa pulls away. I don’t kiss her again, but I keep my arms wrapped around her.

  “Hardin, I really have to go. We can’t keep doing this; it’s not good for either of us,” she says.

  She’s lying to herself. We can figure this out.

  “Yes, we can keep going,” I assure her. I don’t know where this sudden bloom of hope has come from, but it feels nice here, settled in my chest.

  “No, we can’t. You hate me, and I don’t want to be your punching bag anymore. You confuse me. One minute you’re telling me how much you can’t stand me or humiliating me after my most intimate experience . . .”

  I did that. I fucked up—I need to explain what happened and that sometimes I fuck things up on purpose. I’ve always been like this. My gran once tried to have a birthday party for me when I was twelve. She sent out invitations and ordered a special cake. On the day of the party, I told everyone it was canceled and sulked in my room the entire day. I didn’t touch that cake. I just fuck things up sometimes . . . but I can find a way to stop doing that. If it means I get to kiss Tessa, to feel her losing herself in me again, I’ll do anything.

  I try to interrupt her, but she stops me by pressing her index finger to my lips. If she didn’t have a Band-Aid on it, I would be kissing her cut. “Then the next minute you’re kissing me and telling me you need me. I don’t like who I am when I’m with you, and I hate the way I feel after you say terrible things to me.”

  “Who are you when you’re with me?” I ask her. I like who she is. She’s a better person than most.

  “Someone I don’t want to be, someone who cheats on her boyfriend and cries constantly.” Her voice cracks. She’s ashamed of the person she becomes when she’s around me. That makes me feel like shit. I want her to be happy about spending time with me. I want her to crave me the same irresistible way that I do her.

 
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