Before by Anna Todd


  “I do,” Hardin says. “I’m hungry,”

  “I didn’t ask you, I asked Smith,” she says, and wipes her hands on her blue dress.

  Hardin laughs, a loud noise. Shaking his head, he looks at me. “Do you see how she treats me? She’s terrible.”

  I laugh, too. Kim says Hardin picks on her. They’re both too funny.

  Kim opens the fridge and takes out a pitcher of juice. “You’re one to talk.”

  Hardin laughs again and sits down on the chair next to me. In his hands are two small packages wrapped in white paper. No bows, no writing on the outside. I know they’re mine, but I don’t want to be impolite.

  I stare at them and try to read the title of the books through the paper, but it’s no use. I turn to the window and pretend to be looking outside so I don’t seem too rude.

  Hardin sets the packages down on the counter, and Kim hands me a cup of juice, then goes to the cabinet for some chips. My dad always tells Kim not to let me eat a lot of them, but she doesn’t listen. My dad says she never does.

  I grab for the bag, but Hardin swipes it and holds it over my head for a minute.

  He smiles down at me. “Thought you weren’t hungry.”

  The hole under his lip looks like someone drew a dot on his face. He used to have a piercing, I remember. I always tell him to put it back. He tells me to stop listening to Tessa.

  “I am now.” I jump up and grab the bag back from him, and it makes a loud crinkling sound in my hands. Hardin shrugs, and he looks happy. He thinks I’m funny. He tells me all the time.

  Once I’ve unclipped the bag, he takes a handful of chips and shoves them into his big mouth. “Are you going to open your gifts before you shove your face full of crisps?” Crumbs of food fly out while he talks, and Kim makes a grossed-out face.

  “Christian!” she yells for my dad.

  I laugh, and Hardin pretends to be scared.

  I scoot the bag of chips away. “Well, since you asked, I want to open the books first.”

  Hardin picks up both packages and holds them to his chest. “Books, huh? What makes you think I brought you books?”

  “Because you always do.” I reach for the thickest one, and he slides it across the counter.

  “Touché,” he says—whatever that means.

  Forgetting my manners a little bit, I tear at the paper until a colorful cover is revealed. It shows a boy with a wizard hat.

  “The Chamber of Secrets,” I read the title out loud. I’m happy about this book. I just finished the one before it.

  When I look up at Hardin, he pushes his hair away from his face. I agree with my dad—he should get a haircut. His hair is as long as Kim’s now.

  He points to the book. “It’s from Landon again. He likes that tiny wizard.”

  My dad comes into the kitchen and cusses at Hardin. Hardin slaps him on the shoulder, and Kim calls them children. I act more like a grown-up than they do, she says.

  “Well, that’s nice of him,” my dad says. “Smith, make sure you say thank you to Tessa’s friend.”

  Hardin scoffs. “Tessa’s friend? He’s my brother.” He smiles and scratches the tattoos on his arms. I want tattoos like him when I’m older. My dad says no, but Kim told me that once I’m out of the house he really can’t stop me.

  I can get whatever I want when I’m a grown-up.

  “He’s not your real brother,” I tell him. My dad explained that Landon isn’t his real brother.

  Hardin’s smile goes away, and he nods. “Sure. But he’s my brother, still.”

  While I ponder what he means by this, Kim asks my dad if he’s hungry, and Hardin looks around the kitchen. He seems a little sad for some reason all of a sudden.

  “Your dad is my dad. So is Landon’s mom your mom?” I ask.

  Hardin shakes his head no, and my dad kisses Kim on her shoulder, which, of course, makes her smile. He always seems to make her smile.

  “Sometimes people can be family without sharing parents.”

  Hardin stares at my face like I’m supposed to say something back. Really, I don’t know what he means, but if he wants Landon to be his brother, too, that’s okay with me. Landon is really nice. He lives in New York, so I don’t see him very much. Tessa is out there, too. My dad has an office there; it’s shiny and smells like a hospital.

  Hardin touches my hand, and I look at him. “Just because Landon is my brother doesn’t mean you aren’t, too. You know that, don’t ya?”

  I’m embarrassed a little because Kim is making a face like she’s going to cry and my dad looks scared.

  “I know,” I tell him, and look at the Harry Potter book. “Landon can be my brother, too.”

  Hardin looks happy when he smiles, and I look up to see Kim is making that face again.

  “Yeah, he sure can.” He looks at Kim and says, “Stop it already, lady! You would think someone died, with the way she’s acting.”

  My dad calls Hardin a bad name, and Kim jumps out of the way when Hardin throws an apple at his chest. He looks like a baseball player, the way he snags it out of the air . . . and takes a bite, which makes us all laugh.

  Hardin slides the other book across the counter, and I grab it. The paper is harder to tear on this one, and I get a small cut from one of the corners. I wince a little but hope nobody else notices. If I tell anyone, Kim will make me wash it right now and put a bandage on, but I really just want to see what this one is.

  As the last piece is torn away, I see a big cross on the cover of the book.

  “Dra-cula?” I sound out the word. I’ve heard of this before. It’s a vampire book.

  My dad moves away from Kim and walks around the counter. “Dracula? You’ve got to be kidding me. He’s not even ten!” He holds his hand out for the book.

  I look at Kim for help. She pushes her lips together and gives Hardin a mean look.

  “Usually I’ll take your side,” she says. Hardin calls her a liar, but she keeps talking. “But Dracula? Out of all things? Harry Potter and Dracula—what a mix.”

  My dad nods and stands still like he’s some big statue, the way he always does when he wants to show he’s right.

  After a moment, Hardin rolls his eyes and tugs at the collar of his black T-shirt. “Sorry, man, your dad’s being a tool. You can read the Chamber book now, and when I come next time, I’ll bring you another—”

  “One with no violence,” my dad interrupts.

  Hardin sighs. “Sure, sure. No violence,” he says in a funny voice.

  I laugh again. My dad smiles, and Kim is hugging him.

  I wonder how long it will be until I see Hardin again.

  “When will you be back?” I ask.

  Hardin scratches his chin. “Hmm, I’m not sure. A month, maybe?”

  A month feels really long, but I suppose the Harry Potter book is pretty long . . .

  Hardin leans a little closer to me. “I will come back, though, and bring a book every time,” he whispers.

  “Like my dad did for you?” I ask him, and his eyes look at my dad. Our dad. Hardin doesn’t call him dad, though. He calls him Vance, which is our last name. Not Hardin’s; his is Scott. He got it from his fake dad.

  When I tried to call my dad Vance, he told me I would be grounded until I turned thirty if I said it again. I don’t want to be grounded that long, so I call him Dad.

  Hardin shifts his body in the chair. “Yeah, like he did for me.”

  He seems sad again, but I can’t tell for sure. Hardin is sad, then mad, then laughing, all the time.

  He’s really weird.

  “How did you know about that, Smith?” my dad asks.

  Hardin’s face turns red, and he mouths, Don’t tell him.

  I lift my hands up and reach for more chips. “Hardin says not to tell.”

  Hardin slaps his forehead, then mine, and Kim smiles at us both. She smiles so much, all the time. I like when she laughs, too; it sounds nice.

  My dad walks closer to us.

 
“Well, Hardin doesn’t make the rules, remember?” My dad puts his hands on my shoulders and rubs. It feels good when he does that. “Tell me what Hardin said, and I’ll take you for ice cream and buy you a new track for your train.”

  My train is my favorite toy. My dad always buys me new tracks to add, and last month Kim helped me move the whole thing to an empty room, so now I have a whole room just for my trains.

  Hardin looks like he’s sweating. But he doesn’t look mad, so I decide I can tell my dad.

  Plus, there’s the new train stuff I’ll get.

  “He said you brought him books like this.” I hold up the heavy books. “And that it made him happy when he was a little boy like me.”

  Hardin turns his head, and my dad looks surprised by what I said. His eyes are shiny now, and he’s staring at me.

  “Did he, now?” My dad’s voice is weird.

  “Yeah, he did,” I say, nodding.

  Hardin stays quiet, but he looks back at me. His face is red, and his eyes are shiny like my dad’s. I look at Kim, and she has her hand over her mouth.

  “Did I say something bad?” I ask them.

  My dad and Hardin say “No, no” at the same time.

  “You didn’t say anything wrong, little man.” My dad puts one of his hands on my back and one on Hardin’s.

  Usually when he tries this, Hardin moves away.

  Today he doesn’t.

  Hessa

  New York is having one of its hottest summers when Tessa has Auden. It’s Tuesday, release day for my newest novel, and Tessa and I are lying on the carpet, staring up at the ceiling fan we installed just last week.

  We keep redecorating our small apartment, for some insane reason. We know we won’t end up staying here, yet we keep putting money into this place. Our very impulsive decision to completely redo our son’s nursery when he was only eight weeks old has ended up being much more of a task than we expected. The renovation has Auden’s crib in our room, centered at the end of our bed. I find it stuffy and cramped, like we’re refugees in a tiny boat, ones who decided to give their five-year-old, our daughter, Emery, the main cabin while we took the escape raft.

  Tess loves it.

  Some nights she falls asleep with her feet facing the headboard and holds his hand while they both sleep. Half of the time I wake her to right her position by nibbling at her ear, rubbing her tense shoulders. The other half, I wrap my arms around her legs and just sleep that way. I have to touch her in some way. She always ends up next to me by the morning, nibbling on my ear or rubbing my lower back.

  I already feel like an old man; my back aches from my shitty excuse for a writing posture: sitting slouched on the couch or cross-legged on the floor with my laptop on my actual lap.

  Tessa points up to the fan. “It’s crooked. We should repaint.”

  Currently, the nursery is painted a soft, Easter yellow to go along with a gender-neutral room. We wanted to keep the space light, having learned firsthand what a mistake—and subsequent pain—it was to assume one’s daughter wanted cotton-candy-pink walls. Those we painted before she was born. But as soon as Emery learned that she didn’t really like pink, it took us three afternoons and three coats of green to cover that damn color. We learned our lesson from that, and Tessa learned a few new swear words from me. So, insisting that a muted pastel yellow was all the rage, we went with that; we all know how I just have to keep up with the Joneses and please my lady. That, or the fact that it’ll be a really easy color to paint over when Auden starts expressing preferences.

  The nursery contains several different shades of yellow. I didn’t realize there were shades of yellow, or that they could clash so much. Each has come from Tessa’s stops at IKEA and Pottery Barn, which I swear occur at least three times a week. She finds all sorts of things she loves and hugs them to her chest, exclaiming things like “This decorative pillow will look soooo good!” and “This toy is so cute I could eat it up!” And then she tucks said item under a sofa cushion or into a random cubbyhole in the nursery that she hadn’t filled yet.

  The room has ended up being a big ball of undulating sunshine that Tessa can’t be in for longer than ten minutes without getting nauseous. She made me promise her that I would never again let her decorate a room—especially not a nursery. And now she wants me to repaint it all again.

  The things I do for this woman.

  And I’d do more. I do all I can.

  One thing I could do for her is, by some magical means, make it so she can leave more of her work at her office. She’s been so tired lately, and it’s driving me fucking mad. She won’t slow down, but I know how much she loves her job. Her career is her third baby. She works so incredibly hard to produce the most beautiful weddings imaginable. She’s new, brand-new in the industry, but she’s fucking amazing at this.

  Tessa was terrified when she’d brought up her potential career change with me. She was pacing back and forth in our small kitchen. I had just loaded the dishwasher and “finished” painting Emery’s nails. I thought I was doing fine with the role reversal, but Emery made Tess fire me when I claimed that the mess I was making on her tiny hands was okay, that the red polish just looked like she had killed something.

  I hadn’t realized any child of mine could have such a weak stomach and sour sense of humor.

  “So, I want to turn down the promotion at Vance and go back to school,” Tessa said casually from the kitchen table. Or what I took as casually. Emery sat quietly, having no idea of the impact such adult choices have on people’s lives.

  “Really?” I rubbed a towel over a wet plate to dry it.

  Tessa tucked her bottom lip between her teeth, and her eyes went wide. “I’ve been thinking about it so much lately, and if I don’t do it, I’ll go insane.”

  She didn’t have to explain that to me. Everyone needs a change sometimes. Even I got bored between books, and Tessa came up with the idea of me substitute teaching two or three days a month at Valsar, Emery’s elementary school, where Landon happens to work. Granted, I quit after three days, but it was an entertaining experiment and earned me brownie points with my girl.

  As always, I encouraged Tessa to do what she wanted. I wanted her to be happy, and it’s not like we needed the money. I’d just signed my next contract with Vance, my third in the last two years. The money from After went straight into an account for the kids. Well, after I bought Tessa a “please forgive me for being a fucking idiot repeatedly” gift. It was simple: a charm bracelet made of metal to replace her old one, which was made of yarn. Over the years, the yarn tore apart, but Tessa kept the charms and she was overly excited that the new bracelet had the option of adding, changing the charms as often as you like. It seems like a pretty stupid concept to me, but she loved it.

  The next morning, Tessa sat down with Vance and politely declined the promotion, then cried for an hour when she got home. I knew she would feel guilty for leaving her job, but she won’t be upset long. I knew Kim and Vance would reassure her every day until her two weeks’ notice was over.

  When she got her first wedding-planning client, she squealed and I watched her come alive in a way I hadn’t seen before. I still didn’t know why this insane woman stayed with me after all the stupid shit I did when I was young, but I was pretty fucking happy that she did, if only to see her as excited as she now was.

  Of course, Tessa nailed that first wedding and got recommendation after recommendation, enabling her to hire two employees after a only a few short months. I was proud of her, and she was proud of herself. Looking back, it seemed silly that she had ever worried about failing. Tessa’s one of those annoying people who touch a pile of shit and it turns to gold.

  That’s pretty much what happened with me.

  She worked and worked, and she was overworking herself again after we had Auden.

  I nudge her. “You need a night off. You’re practically falling asleep on the floor while staring at the ceiling fan.”

  A playful elbow is pre
ssed into my hip. “I’m fine. You’re the one who barely sleeps at night,” she whispers into my neck.

  I know she’s right, but I have deadlines and no time to award myself with sleep. Besides, when I’m stuck on a passage I’m writing, it stays glued to me and I can’t sleep. Still, I hate the idea of her noticing my lack of sleep, since she’ll always worry about me much more than I will myself.

  “I mean it. You need to take a break. You’re still recovering from that little monster tearing you open,” I say, and slide my hand up her shirt and rub her stomach.

  She flinches. “Don’t,” she groans, trying to push my hands off her soft skin. I hate how insecure she’s become since having our son. Auden’s birth did more damage to her body than Emery’s, but to me she’s sexier than ever. I hate that the touch of my hand makes her uncomfortable like this.

  “Baby . . .” I move my hand away, but only so I can lean up on my elbow. Looking down at her, I shake my head.

  Pressing two warm fingers to my lips, she smiles. “I know this part of the novel. This is where you give me the heroic husbandly speech about how I earned my scars and I’m much more beautiful for having done so,” Tessa says, giving the words at the end a dramatic flare.

  She’s always been such a smartass.

  “No, Tess, this is where I show you how I feel when I look at you.”

  I move my hand to her breast and squeeze just hard enough to ignite her, letting her body warm up to me. I catch her moan before she does, and she whimpers when I find her hard nipple and pinch it beneath her clothing.

  She’s done for. I know it; she knows it. She accepts it openly, and I react as fast as I can.

  My hands quickly find the leg of her shorts and slide under the fabric there. Sure enough, there’s a damp spot at the front of her panties. I love the feel of her wetness and crave the taste of it on my tongue. I take my fingers away and lift them to my lips. Tessa moans and pulls my index and middle fingers to her mouth and sucks their tips.

 
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