Before by Anna Todd

  “You know who I think you are when you’re with me?” I ask her. My thumb traces the line of her jaw, and her eyes flutter closed under my touch.

  “Who?” she whispers, her lips barely moving. The air between us is calm now as she awaits my answer.

  I answer truthfully. “Yourself. I think this is the real you and that you’re just too busy caring what everyone else thinks about you to realize it.

  “And I know what I did to you after I fingered you . . .” She cringes at my blunt word choice. “Sorry . . . after our experience. I know it was wrong. I felt terrible after you got out of my car.”

  “I doubt that.” She rolls her eyes, dismissing me.

  “It’s true, I swear it. I know you think I’m a bad person . . . but you make me—” I can’t finish. She’s digging into me, deeper and deeper, and it’s terrifying. “Never mind.”

  “Finish that sentence, Hardin, or I’m leaving right now.” I can tell she means it. She waits, her hand on her hip and her eyes stone cold for me.

  “You . . . you make me want to be good, for you . . . I want to be good for you, Tess,” I breathe, and she gasps.


  When she started pressuring him for labels and proofs of commitment, he panicked. He felt like a wild animal being cornered and trapped. His cage was honesty, and she threatened to lock him away without a key. He couldn’t lose her, but with each day it grew harder to keep her. She turned the tables on him, questioning things he thought she would never catch on to. When she wanted more, she demanded it, taking nothing but yes for an answer, but when he wanted more, she pushed against it, excuse after excuse.

  This could never work, Hardin—we’re so different. First off, you don’t date, remember?” she fires at me. She steps away from me, and I hope she doesn’t try to leave my father’s house. It feels like all we talk about anymore is the future. Marriage, living together, breaking up, not breaking up. Tessa feels pressure to plan her whole life, but I don’t. At this point I think it’s common knowledge that I don’t handle this type of pressure well. Regardless, she keeps pushing for me to be better and better for her.

  “We aren’t that different—we like the same things; we both love books, for example,” I tell her.

  I always have to defend myself to her. “You don’t date,” she mocks me.

  “I know, but we could . . . be friends?”

  Friends? Really, Hardin?

  Frustration glows in her eyes. “I thought you said we couldn’t be friends? And I won’t be friends with you—I know what you mean by that. You want all the benefits of being a boyfriend without actually having to commit.”

  I let go of her body and lose my footing. I quickly balance myself. “Why is that so bad? Why do you need the label?” I’m thankful for the space between us and the fresh, scotch-free air.

  “Because, Hardin, even though I haven’t really had a lot of restraint lately, I do have self-respect. I will not be your plaything, especially when it involves being treated like dirt.” Exasperated, she throws her hands into the air. “And besides, I’m already taken, Hardin.”

  She’s using that bloke as an excuse? Oh, come on! Who is she trying to kid here?

  “And yet look where you are right now,” I say dryly.

  She’s dangling her boyfriend over my head, taunting me with him and complaining when I do the same with Molly. She sees no double standard here, and the liquor is making it seem even worse tonight. I’m smart enough to know this, but dumb enough to stop myself from being a dick. I’m also liquored up enough to not give a fuck about much of anything. I shattered my father’s dining room into tiny pieces.

  Her mouth twists into a menacing frown, teeth bared and all. “I love him and he loves me.”

  Her words slice at my chest. The last ones hit the bone. I move away from her and knock into the chair. Fuck my lack of balance.

  “Don’t say that to me.” I raise a hand as if it could guard me from her words.

  She doesn’t back down; she’s full-fledged pissed the fuck off and fully intending to go straight for the throat here. “You’re only saying this because you’re drunk; tomorrow you’ll go back to hating me.”

  Hating her? Hating her? As if I could possibly hate her?

  I back away in frustration and try to focus on how green the trees are here because of all the rain. “I don’t hate you,” I finally say. “If you can look me in the eyes and tell me that you want me to leave you alone and never speak to you again, I will listen.” I don’t want to hear her say these words—they would kill me—but if she felt that way, if she wanted me to back off, I’d back off. “I swear, from this point on I will never come near you again. Just say the words.”

  I try to imagine my life if she left. She would take with her all the color I’ve worked on painting into my life.

  Before she can answer, I continue: “Tell me, Tessa, tell me that you never want to see me again.” I can’t imagine it. I step even closer and reach out to run my fingers over her bare arms. Gooseflesh rises on her skin, and her lips part.

  I lean closer and whisper, “Tell me you never want to feel my touch again.” I press my fingers to her neck and gently drag the tips down the length of it, then along her collarbone. She’s practically heaving now, unable to speak. I lean even closer, my face barely an inch away from hers. I can feel the electricity under her skin; the faint hum distracts us both. “That you never want me to kiss you again . . .” I lower my voice, and she trembles.

  “Tell me, Theresa.” I push for the words that I don’t want to come from her lips.

  I barely hear her when she says my name, but I feel her breath puff against my lips.

  “You can’t resist me, Tessa, just as I can’t resist you.” She looks hesitant but not appalled by this statement. “Stay with me tonight?” I ask her against her lips.

  Tessa’s eyes dart from mine to the house, and she pulls away. I turn to see what caused her to freak out. I don’t see anything. She says she has to go.

  No, she can’t go. I’m not ready to be in this house alone yet. I can’t believe I’m going to stay here.

  “Fuck,” I mumble, running my fingers over my hair. “Please, please stay. Just stay with me tonight, and if you decide in the morning to tell me you don’t want to see me anymore . . .” I don’t want this to be an option, but sadly it is. “Just please stay. I am begging you, and I don’t beg, Theresa.”

  I’ve never begged in my life. Is it the liquor or is it her that makes me so crazy? I can’t tell.

  Tessa nods, her eyes shining under the light. “And what will I tell Noah?” His name throws a wrench into my side, reminding me that she’s only temporarily mine. I need more time with her. “He’s waiting for me, and I have his car,” she explains.

  She left him back at her room? For me?

  I don’t know what to make of this. Did they break up? Does he know that she’s here with me? I wonder if the boy even knows my name. It drives me fucking insane that I don’t know how involved she is with me emotionally. Steph won’t tell me shit, and Tessa gives even less away.

  Does she really care so much about what her boyfriend thinks? I stare at the back of the house. The green vines are taking over the brick wall. The lights are so bright. I suspect that the reality of what she’s been doing must be hitting her. “Just tell him that you have to stay because . . . I don’t know. Don’t tell him anything. What’s the worst thing he can do?”

  I’m curious as to why Noah seems to have so much control over her. She sighs; her bottom lip puffs out and she looks genuinely worried. What could be so bad . . . he would tell her mummy on her? She’s eighteen now—doesn’t she know that?

  “He’s probably asleep, anyway,” I say. It’s true; he’s still on high school curfew.

  Tessa shakes her head. I lean back against the ledge of the deck. “No, he has no way to get back to his hotel.”

  Hotel? This kid is staying at a fucking hotel? Is he even old enough to rent a room o
n his own? “Hotel? Wait—he doesn’t stay with you?” I’m baffled.

  “No, he has a hotel room close by.” Tessa’s eyes drop to the wooden deck floor and she shuffles her feet. She’s uncomfortable.

  “And you stay there with him?”

  “No, he stays there,” she quietly responds, looking embarrassed. She keeps her eyes on the ground and continues, “And I stay in my room.”

  No fucking way. Does he even like her? Does he like women at all? I mean, come on, look at her! “Is he straight?” I can’t help but ask. There’s no way he is. Unless he’s cheating on her, which would be fucked up—but would help my case tremendously.

  Not that she’s not doing the same thing to him.

  Tessa’s mouth pops open in horror. “Of course he is!”

  It’s insane to me that she doesn’t see anything weird about her boyfriend not wanting to stay with her. “Sorry, but something is not right there. If you were mine, I wouldn’t be able to stay away from you. I would fuck you every chance I had.” It’s true. I would wake her up every morning with my face buried between her thighs. I would put her to bed every night by blowing her mind and making her scream my name.

  A blanket of redness flushes down Tessa’s face, and she looks away from my eyes. I love the way my words affect her. The darkness is giving me a headache. The trees are moving too much, their trunks twisting in unnatural ways. Also, I want to be inside, alone with her. Especially after the night I’ve had.

  I turn to Tessa and can’t keep my eyes off her parted lips. “Let’s go inside. The trees are swaying back and forth. I think that’s my cue that I’ve had way too much to drink.”

  Tessa looks at the house and back to me. “You’re staying here?”

  I nod and reach for her hand. She’s staying here, too. I still can’t believe I’m staying in Ken’s house after the shit that man pulled. “Yeah, and so are you. Let’s go.” I take her hand before she can fight me again.

  We walk into the house, and she tries to move her hand from mine by walking faster than me. I take a longer step as we pass through the kitchen.

  Some of the mess is still there on the floor. Many of the shattered pieces of porcelain are now overflowing the bin, and most of the glass has been swept off the floor. Good, Landon can clean up this mess. He’s getting my fucking dad, after all. Truth is, he already has him. Someone or something other than me has always had Ken Scott. The scotch, the bars, Karen, Landon, this big house. He spreads himself so thin, yet had no room for me in his life until the last year, and he thinks I’m just going to be okay with that shit? No fucking way.

  I tighten my hold on Tessa’s hand as we walk through the house and up the stairs. If I remember correctly, the room we’re going to is the last one in the hallway upstairs. There are so many fucking doors up here. We wouldn’t want to walk into Landon’s room and find him wanking.

  We finally reach the door at the end. Tessa has been quiet during the walk, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to push her too much, and I’m still trying to stop thinking about my sperm donor being a fuckup.

  The room behind the door is dark. I struggle for the light switch.

  “Hardin?” Tessa whispers in the darkness.

  The curtain is open slightly, allowing a little bit of moonlight to come through. I let go of Tessa’s hand and step farther inside. This damn light switch is impossible to find. I continue to run my hand over the smooth wall but find nothing.

  What the fuck?

  I can see the outline of a table, possibly a lamp, on the other side of the room, so I blindly move toward it. The toe of my boot catches on something solid, and I nearly fall to the ground. “Fuck!” I curse at the object. This room probably doesn’t even have a goddamn light; Ken and Karen likely just wanted to fuck with me.

  When I get to the table, my fingers feel for a lampshade. Bingo! “I’m right here,” I tell Tessa as I pull on the chain. The bulb clicks on, and the startlingly strong light from such a small lamp blinds me. I blink a few times and look around the room. My room.

  My room that I’ve never used. Ever.

  The bedroom reminds me of some gaudy-ass hotel. The walls are painted a light gray, with crisp white trim along the ceiling and floorboard. The carpet even has those lines vacuumed into it. The bed against the back wall is disgustingly big, with a mountain of decorative pillows piled at the expansive cherrywood headboard. The only reason a bed this big would ever be necessary is if Tessa was lying naked in the center of the dark gray duvet. Unfortunately for me, she’s not. She’s standing next to a desk that matches the bed and holds a brand-new Mac desktop. Showy motherfuckers.

  I rub my hand over the back of my neck. “This is my . . . room.” I don’t know what else to say about it.

  Tessa pulls her bottom lip between her teeth and asks, “You have a room here?”

  It doesn’t feel like my room, not in the least bit, but technically it is. Ken has told me multiple times about the room here that’s only for me. Like I’m supposed to be impressed by the four-poster bed or the giant computer monitor. “Yeah . . . I haven’t ever actually slept in it . . . until tonight,” I uncomfortably explain. I hope she doesn’t ask any more questions, but I know she will.

  There’s a bulky storage bin at the end of the bed that I’m assuming has a single purpose: to hold the overabundance of pillows. I make it more useful by sitting down on it and taking my boots off. Tessa watches me, probably compiling a list of questions to ask, like the nosy little thing she is. I pull my socks off and tuck them into my boots. I have a few small cuts on my ankle. Some of the shards apparently got into my shoe. Fucking great.

  Tessa must have finished her list. She takes a step closer and opens her mouth. “Oh. Why is that?”

  I take a breath and decide to answer her instead of giving her shit about it. “Because I don’t want to. I hate it here,” I reply with honesty. I do hate it here. I hate that my bed at my mum’s house in England had a stained mattress and the same sheet and duvet since I was a kid.

  While Tessa processes my truthful answer and formulates her next question, I unbutton my pants and pull them down. Tessa’s eyes go from distant to wide and alert within two seconds of me standing in my boxers in front of her.

  “What are you doing?” she asks.

  “Getting undressed?” I say, raising my pierced brow to her. I know she likes to ask questions, but why do so many of them have to be so unnecessary?

  “I mean, why?” She stares at the crotch of my boxers. If she’s trying to be subtle and pretend she isn’t thinking about my cock right now, she’s failing miserably.

  My eyes meet hers. “Well, I’m not sleeping in skinny jeans and boots.” My hair falls down my forehead and I push it back.

  “Oh,” Tessa quietly says.

  I wait for her to say something further, but she doesn’t. I watch her eyes as I pull my shirt over my head. Her stare moves from my neck down to my stomach, taking in every line of black ink. She focuses the longest on the tree tattooed there. I wonder if she likes it or if this part of me is unattractive to her. Her focus on me makes me uneasy. I don’t know what to do while she’s inspecting me for damage. Each inch of my skin that her eyes touch rises with gooseflesh. Instead of the burning I always read about, I feel the slow blowing of an icy breath.

  Tessa is still staring, still focused only on my body. I surprise her by tossing my shirt at her. She’s too entranced by me to catch it quick enough. I wonder what it would take to get her naked so I can inspect her body, with my eyes steady on her, taking in every inch, every blemish that she’s insecure about but I won’t see.

  I wish I knew what she was thinking. I wish I knew her better. I find myself wishing that I could have known her in a different way. She could have been my neighbor who stops by and borrows things, and I could ask her as many questions as I want. I would ask her why she asks so many questions, why she always scrunches her eyebrows up when she’s confused, or mad. I would ask her what she wants t
o do with her life. I would ask her how she’d feel if she didn’t get to see me again. I would ask her if she could possibly find forgiveness and grant it to me.

  But this is reality, and in reality, I’m still a stranger to her. She barely knows anything about me, and if she knew half of the fucked-up shit I’ve done, she wouldn’t be so intrigued. My tattoos, or her reaction to them, would fade, and her response to my attitude would turn from sarcastic to venomous. I have to be careful with this, because if my mystery disappears, she will, too.

  Fuck, all of this makes my head spin. My buzz is fading, and my head is starting to fuck me up. I need to lighten this shit up really quickly. “You can sleep in that.” I smile at her. “I assume you won’t want to sleep in just your underwear. But of course, I’m perfectly fine with it if you do.”

  “I’m fine sleeping in this,” she says in the most unconvincing tone I’ve ever heard. She doesn’t want to sleep in her bulky skirt and baggy shirt. I quite like her shirt; the light blue color goes well with her eyes. I’ve never had a thought like that before . . . It goes well with her eyes? What does that even mean?

  She’s messing me up more than the scotch tonight.

  “Fine. Suit yourself; if you want to be uncomfortable, go ahead.” I step closer to the bed and grab the first pillow I touch and throw it onto the floor.

  Tessa looks offended by this. Or maybe she’s offended that I’m half naked. I don’t know. She walks to the foot of the bed and opens the ugly chest. “Oh, don’t throw those on the floor. They go in here,” she tells me, as if I didn’t know that. Does she think I’ve never seen these types of pillows before? Does she think because I had a single mum that I don’t know how to put overpriced bundles of cotton into a box?

  No, Hardin, she’s only trying to help . . . I try to talk myself down. My mind always goes straight for the worst possible interpretation, and I fucking hate it. My insecurities are eating me alive. I grab another, even frillier pillow and throw it onto the carpet. She groans, complaining while she bends down to pick it up.

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