Before by Anna Todd


  She takes a few breaths before answering. “Yeah,” she agrees. I go slow, not wanting to hurt her. I can feel her easing up her grip on my arms with each kiss I give her. Her neck, her pretty mouth, her nose. I love every inch of her body. Every inch of my body.

  I repeat to her how much I love her as I slowly draw in and out of her. Her eyes are still closed, but she’s not showing any unusual signs of discomfort. When twenty seconds pass and she hasn’t responded, I stop. “Do you . . . fuck . . . do you want me to stop?”

  She shakes her head and I close my eyes again. I can picture every inch of her under me. Her smooth skin, her body molding to mine. She’s mine now and forever, even after we leave this bed. I maintain my pace, and she keeps her arms wrapped around me. I can feel my heart in my chest, pumping and coming alive as I climb closer to the edge. I’ve never felt anything during sex.

  I feel alive and brilliant, and when I look down at my love, she’s looking back at me with radiant admiration, and I know now that somehow, everything will be okay.

  Tessa’s strength surprises me again as a silent tear rolls down her cheek. I kiss it away and give her the praise she deserves. “Fuck, Tess, you’re doing so good, baby. I love you so much.” I push my fingers into her hair and suck at the sweat-coated skin of her neck.

  “I love you, Hardin,” Tessa declares. That’s all it takes and I’m there.

  I kiss at her mouth, licking at her lips and tongue with a feverish hunger. “Oh, baby, I’m going to come. Okay?” My spine is on fire, her skin is shining with sweat, we are wild.

  Tessa nods, encouraging me to spill into her. In this moment, I have a hatred for the barrier between us. I want to fill her—I want to make her mine in every way. Her lips suck at my neck and I tense, my body giving in to the pleasure, and I spit her name through clenched teeth as I reach my climax. I lie on her chest, catching my breath, and she lazily caresses my skin.

  Everything has changed now. I’ve changed everything between us. I comfort her and ignore the pushing and pushing of the truth, which is threatening to burn me alive. As I comfort her, I pray to whoever is listening that my world doesn’t turn to ashes.

  twenty-two

  Everything began to unravel for him, and the flimsy little house of cards he built was becoming shakier and shakier with each passing day. At each mention of his lies, he would panic, scrambling to come up with a plan. He was convinced he had been cursed as a child . . . there was no other explanation for the suffering he had been dealt. He was beginning to question whether Tessa was his saving grace or his biggest curse. He had her, every part of her, yet she was slipping away with every passing second.

  Tessa is at her internship when I go by her room a few days later. Molly has been telling me Steph is going off the deep end. She’s dropping hints that Steph may be losing her fucking mind, and I need to talk to her before she does.

  When I get to the room, Steph is lying across the bed, her red hair a thick mess. Chunks of curls are stuck with pins on her head. Her makeup is dark; smoky gray shadows her lids, making her look like a haunted version of a Valley girl. Her skin is white and her lips are a dark red.

  “She’s not here,” Steph announces, and shuts the screen on Tessa’s laptop. What’s that doing here? “I’m only watching movies. Relax, psycho.”

  I grab the laptop from her bed and slip it under my arm. “I know she isn’t. I wanted to talk to you,” I tell her. She raises herself up on her elbow, and her boobs push against her tight dress, revealing more than an eyeful.

  “Talk to me about what?” Her eyes are cold as she waits for my answer. I’ve always known something is loose inside her mind, but I can never tell just how dangerous it is. Everyone has a screw or two loose, but in Steph’s case, it feels like something more sometimes. I used to think she was a cool girl, but she ended up more like the redheaded version of Amy Dunne’s crazy ass.

  “You know what.” I sit down on Tessa’s bed and turn my body to face Steph.

  “Molly called you,” she answers, connecting the dots. “She’s becoming such an annoying little cunt. Isn’t she?” Steph rolls her head back and sits up. “I’m not going to say anything to Tessa. I know that the only reason you’re here is to beg me not to say shit to her. I’m not going to.”

  “And I’m supposed to believe that?” I question her, and she rolls her tongue against her teeth.

  “Believe me or not. I got my fun from it. I’m bored with it now, and I’m starting to feel a little bad for her.” To be honest, this completely surprises me.

  “You are?” I scoot to the edge of Tessa’s mattress and rest my elbows on my knees.

  She begins to laugh—a feral, high-pitched laugh—and I sigh. I should have known. “No, of course not. I am bored with it, though.” I watch as she tugs at her dress to show me more of her chest. I look away.

  This is for Tessa. I need to not make a scene.

  “You’re almost done with her by now anyway, I’m sure.”

  Almost done with her? Has she lost her fucking mind?

  “Aren’t you? You fucked her—now you’re done with her. That’s how it goes with you.”

  The weirdest thing about this is that Steph isn’t giving me shit, she’s just making a statement. Given my history, her assessment would be accurate, except I’ve spent much longer working on Tessa than I did on any of the others.

  Tessa made me fight for her because she was fucking worth it. Too bad I ruined everything.

  “No . . .” I clear my throat. “I’m not done with her.”

  Steph’s eyes roll and she licks her lips. “I knew you weren’t. How many times have you fucked her now? Is she actually still tight? I mean, with the way you ruin things.”

  My eyes must be ready to pop out of my head when she looks at me, because she moves farther away from me.

  “Is she?” Steph repeats. “I’m sure she’s nice and used up for you. Now you can move on, and she can go away. I see her enough as it is.”

  “You really don’t like her.” I rub the back of my neck. Tessa thinks Steph is her friend, and I don’t want to get in the middle of that unless I have to. If Steph ever tries to pull anything on Tessa, though, I would take care of it.

  “No, I don’t really like her. Let’s move on. Just dump her and go back to getting BJs from Molly every other day.”

  “I’m going to still be seeing Tessa.” I don’t know how to say this to her. I don’t want her to have more power over me than she does, but I also don’t want her to be under the impression that Tessa isn’t a permanent fixture in my life.

  She isn’t a permanent fixture, but I’m still praying to find a way for this to work.

  But that’s not Steph’s business. Fuck, this is a mess. A huge fucking mess.

  “Why did you come here, Hardin? I know it wasn’t just to check on my big mouth.” She licks her lips again and pushes her elbows against the sides of her chest in the least subtle way possible.

  My temper flares momentarily, and I stand to my feet. “You’ve lost your fucking mind if you think I would touch you!”

  “Tessa’s nothing special. I don’t know why you and Zed are both so fucking obsessed with her.”

  “Zed is not relevant in this conversation.” My hands are shaking, and I can see that Steph’s growing more and more pleased with herself and the reaction her mention of Zed is getting out of me.

  Don’t let her get to you, Hardin.

  She’s antagonizing me purposely, and I’m letting her. What is that thing my gran used to say?

  Shit, I don’t remember.

  “Zed is a pretty relevant—”

  “Enough.” I press my hands together and bring them to my face. I pinch the bridge of my nose and breathe in, breathe out.

  I came here to talk to her about Molly’s worries, to make sure that Tessa wouldn’t be torn from me by any crazy or vicious action on Steph’s part, but now I’m here and Steph is being an exceptionally terrible human being, and honestly, I just
feel like being a dick. Steph acting like Queen of the Assholes makes me feel like I’m not any different than I was before Tessa. I thought I was better than her and the others somehow, but here I am. I’m going to be sitting right next to her in hell.

  I can’t help but push her. I thrive on making her feel as shitty as I do. I look at Steph and put my biggest grin on my face. “Maybe you should worry about your own boyfriend and the way he always stares at Molly. I’ve seen them alone a few times . . .” I say some other things about them—I don’t even know what, really—and by the time I finish my lie, her eyes are watering, shining red in my triumph.

  “You’re lying.” She’s trying to hold in her tears. Gotcha.

  “Nope, too bad for you,” I tell her. I put Tessa’s laptop in the top drawer of her dresser. I need to get her out of this dorm, and soon.

  Before Steph can get another word in, I leave the room. When I get into my car and common sense starts kicking in, I realize that I made another dumb fucking move. Steph isn’t like most girls. She won’t sit on her anger and wait for the right moment to strike. She’s irrational, and I can see her spilling every detail of the Bet to Tessa, exaggerations included. I should just tell her—I should tell Tessa every disgusting truth before she finds out. This is eating me alive.

  I climb back out of the car and walk back to the dorm room to try another route with Steph.

  But I hear Tessa’s voice as soon as I reach the door. Fuck.

  I lean against it, listening to the girls’ conversation. “I don’t think Tristan would go for her; I see the way he looks at you. He really cares about you. I think you should call him and talk it out,” I hear Tessa say. I press my ear harder against the door and hope that no one walks by.

  “What if he’s with her?” Steph asks.

  She actually believed that shit?

  “He’s not,” Tessa comforts her roommate.

  “How do you know? Sometimes you think you know people, but you don’t,” Steph begins.

  Fuck this. Steph’s going to tell her. She’s going to tell her right fucking now.

  “H—”

  I open the door.

  “Hey . . .” I say when I step into the room. They seem to be bonding; an outsider would be fooled. “Um . . . should I come back?”

  “No, I’m going to go find Tristan and try to apologize.” Steph stands up. “Thank you, Tessa.” She hugs Tessa and stares at me, letting me know that she’s not done here.

  Distraction—I need a distraction. “You hungry?” I ask Tess as Steph gets ready to leave.

  “Yeah, actually I am,” she says, rubbing her hand over her stomach. She’s distracted now and doesn’t seem to notice the awkward hate stare Steph is firing at me.

  twenty-three

  His paranoia took hold of him, dragging him further and further away from her. He tried to grasp on to the tiny sliver of hope that he could have the life he wanted to have with her. He tried to come up with plan after plan to save the only good thing that had ever happened to him. He begged his enemies, pleaded with his friends, for their silence. None of his plans would work, none of them could hide what he did to her, and he knew it was all going to blow up in his face.

  I take Tessa to the mall, where my shitty luck continues as we sit in the food court before deciding which stores to go to. Paranoia seems to be haunting me, stalking me wherever I go. I can’t stop thinking about everything Steph could have told her. Does she know everything I’ve been hiding from her? Will she finally see me as I am, not worthy of her?

  I pick at my meal, lost in my head, while Tessa eats slowly, watching me the entire time. What is she looking for? Signs of my lies coming to the surface?

  “We can find your outfit first, I guess?” I say. I still can’t believe I agreed to go to the wedding. It’s going to be so fucking awkward for me, and my only plan at this point is to focus on Tessa and not remember a damn thing that happened earlier than three months ago.

  “Well, you have the luxury of looking beautiful regardless of what you wear.”

  Her cheeks light up at my flattery. “That’s not true; you’re the one who definitely pulls off that ‘I don’t give a crap how I look but I look flawless’ look.” She’s laughing, and my chest aches a little less at the sight.

  “I do, don’t I?” I smile at her. But she carries that look off, too. Much more than I do, and she doesn’t even try.

  Tessa’s phone vibrates on the table. She’s acting pretty normal for someone who knows they are being toyed with this way. Maybe she’s acting normal on purpose to distract me until she can play me and get her revenge.

  Or maybe she really doesn’t know?

  “It’s Landon,” she says as I read his name on the screen. My chest stops pounding out of control. She answers the phone and I watch her mouth as she speaks. She sucks on her lower lip for a few seconds and looks me up and down.

  I have to come up with a way to prevent her from ever being alone with Steph. I need to keep her closer from now on. I’ve been too casual about this whole thing. I should have her by my side at all times.

  “Okay, well, I’ll do my best to get him in a tie,” she says into the phone, and it’s obvious who she means by “him.”

  She presses her hand to her cheek and rests her elbow on the table. She looks adorably pushy. But a tie? Good luck with that.

  Tessa starts saying something else to Landon, but my attention goes to the middle of the food court, where Zed, Jace, and Logan are standing. They’re all dressed in different ways, each trying to make a statement about who they are by means of their wardrobe. Logan is the preppy, kind of punk kid with a baby face, and is less badass than the other two. Zed, the tall and dark one, looks like he’s modeling leather even though he’s in a middle-class mall. He looks out of place. Jace looks like the delinquent, the one all the teenage girls should stay away from.

  “I’ll be right back.” I stand up from the table, leaving my food. Thank God she’s on the phone, so she won’t follow. Not immediately.

  Logan’s rubbing a small tube of ChapStick over his lips when I reach them. Jace is looking awfully fucking smug, and Zed’s looking pretty stressed out. “Nice to see you, too,” Logan says, and taps his foot against the linoleum while Jace laughs a breathy, stoner-y laugh. The three of them have dilated pupils and thin red veins mapping their eyes. They smell of pot and stale cigarettes. If Zed and Tessa kissed, would she like the taste of tobacco on his tongue?

  “What are you guys doing here?” I ask, checking on Tessa out of the corner of my eye.

  “Where? At the public mall?” Jace asks.

  I take a breath, silently threatening him. If he fucks this up today, I’ll have no problem hurting him.

  “We were just in the area,” Logan explains. He shrugs his shoulders and looks at me with some sort of understanding. He knows what I’m worried about, and somehow he’s telling me that’s not why they’re here. “Really.” He pushes this, and I slightly relax.

  “Where’s your little pet?” Jace flicks his tongue out in a disgusting way. Zed cringes, and Logan ignores all of us and stares at the cracked screen of his iPhone.

  “Oh, she’s over there!” Jace’s voice rises, and I nearly jump him. He’s the nastiest type of guy, much like my old friend Mark, who played with people like toys and had no remorse about his shitty actions. I guess I’m the same way, though, I think, regarding the Bet, and at the end of the game the group of us played, I was the one who held the winning piece.

  “Cut the shit,” I say, stepping forward, and Jace smiles a wicked smile. He loves how agitated he can make me. He’s pressing buttons on me as we speak. He knows it, I know it, and soon Tessa will know it, too.

  “She’s coming over here.” Logan is still staring at his phone, but he’s warning us of Tessa’s arrival. My palms are soaking, and the skin on my knuckles is straining each time my nails dig into my palm. They’re going to ruin my life right now, here in this mall in some shitty town in America.
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  “Hey, Tessa, how are you?” Zed moves toward Tessa, and I take a step forward. He wraps his arms around her, and I could easily rip them from his body at the sight.

  “Hardin, aren’t you going to introduce your friend?” Jace stares at me, humor dancing in his bloodshot eyes.

  “Um, yeah.” I wave my hand between the two of them, counting the seconds we’ve been letting this drag on. “This is my friend Tessa; Tessa, this is Jace.”

  Tessa’s brows bunch together in anger, and I look around, confused. Why is she mad? I study her face and wait for her to look at me. She doesn’t.

  “Do you go to WCU?” she asks Jace. Why does she always have to make polite small talk with people? It’s obvious that she hasn’t had a lot of social experience; she seems to have zero sense of etiquette.

  “Hell, no. I don’t do the college thing.” He laughs, and Tessa relaxes a bit. “But if all the girls there looked like you, I would be happy to reconsider.”

  Tessa looks a little frightened, and I’m mentally counting the shades of blue I can turn Jace’s face via strangulation.

  “We’re going to the docks tonight; you two should make an appearance,” Zed says.

  An appearance? Fuck you, Zed.

  “We can’t. Maybe next time,” I say, ending the conversation.

  “Why not?” Jace asks, clearly challenging me in front of Tessa and Zed.

  “Tessa has to work tomorrow. I suppose I can drop by later. Alone.” I make it clear to all of them. They won’t be in the place, ever again. It’s going to be hard, but I’m foolish enough to think I can possibly pull this off. I won the Bet, she’s mine, and Zed can fucking rot, for all I care.

  “That’s too bad.” Jace smiles at Tessa, and I struggle to keep my shit together. He’s taunting me. He’s dangling this devil’s game I agreed to play over my head like I’m a little rat and he’s got a nice piece of cheese for me.

  “Yeah, I’ll hit you up later when I’m on my way,” I lie to him.

  I have to think of what the fuck I’m going to do about him. He’s itching to find a time to tell Tessa about the Bet . . . he’s a fucker like that. But I know if I bring it up to him, it will only encourage him to open his big mouth or plant the idea of telling if he hadn’t thought of it yet on his own.

 
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