Before by Anna Todd

“Hardin, truth or dare?” Molly asks.

  “Dare.” Did she have to ask? Maybe I should have done what Tessa did, just to prove a point.

  “I dare you to kiss Tessa.” Molly’s painted lips turn into a smile, and I hear Tessa gasp.

  She speaks before I can get a word in. “No, I have a boyfriend.”

  “So? It’s just a dare. Just do it,” Molly says, picking at her nails.

  “No.” Tessa’s voice rises. “I’m not kissing anyone.” She stands and walks to the other side of the room. I take a drink of my water and watch her disappear out the front door. She was looking at me all night, staring at my shirtless chest, yet she was so disgusted by the thought of kissing me that she would throw a fit and run away?

  Or is it possible that a kiss could mean more to her than just conceding to a dare?

  “There she goes, ladies and gentlemen!” Nate laughs, leaning into me. The beer in his cup tips over the top and splashes onto the carpet in front of him. He doesn’t bother to clean it up. These floors have seen worse.

  “You better run after her or you’ll lose,” Steph says in a mocking voice as I slip my shirt back on.

  Man, she’s always so pissy lately, I wonder what her problem is.

  “Which of you fuckers is gonna chase her?” Nate asks. I look around the crowded room. She’s nowhere in sight. Zed is watching me, gauging my reaction to her little tantrum. I keep my face neutral, not expressing the slightest bit of interest as I scan the room again. There’s no way I’m letting him be the one to get to her first. She’s pissed because they dared her to kiss me. This stupid-ass game wasn’t my idea anyway, and now it’s already backfired. I fucking told them it was a bad idea. When Logan distracts Zed, I lean up to check the kitchen. I spot Tessa and move to get up off the floor.

  “Where are you going?” Molly wraps her hand around my arm as I stand.

  “Erm, to get some more water.” I look down into my nearly full cup, not giving a shit if she notices my ruse.

  I glance around the room, passing through the crowd while searching for Tessa’s blond hair. When I enter the kitchen, she’s standing at the counter, a bottle of Jack in her hands. She lifts the bottle, and I can feel the familiar ache of need in the back of my throat.

  I’m appalled that this girl would fall into such a dangerous pattern so immediately. The way her eyes are clamped shut and the gagging sounds she makes when she finishes . . . It burns and makes her half sick, yet she still takes another swig. Will she crave it? Will it make her forget things, numbing her mind to memories, like it used to do for me? Does the girl even have memories that she would need to be numb to? By the looks of it, she might.

  I watch her still, as she turns the faucet on, searching for a glass. She opens the cabinet and glances toward the doorway. I step back, out of view.

  What am I doing in here? Following her around and watching her sudden attachment to the amnesia of liquor?

  I quickly turn away and go back to my group. Molly is taunting Logan about his date last night and Nate is lighting a cigarette when I sit back down on the dirty floor.

  “Let’s get out of here. I’m bored and I can tell you are too.” Molly’s breath is hot on my neck as she wraps her arms around my shoulders. I shrug her off and shake my head. She latches on again.

  “I’m going upstairs,” I tell her. Her arms feel like steel, pulling me down.

  “Good idea.” She presses her lips against my neck.

  From the combination of her overdrinking and my quick movement, she falls back onto the carpet when she tries to wrap her arms around me, and I get to my feet.

  “Yikes. That was tough to watch,” Logan teases her. She flips him off and turns to me.

  “Seriously, Hardin?” she growls.

  “Seriously, Molly.” I turn away from her and head up the stairs.

  As I reach the top of the staircase, my phone rings in my front pocket. Ken’s name flashes on the screen, and I press ignore. I’m not in the mood to deal with him. I’m usually not. I just want to be alone, away from all this music and all these voices. I want my shitty excuse for a father to stop trying to “connect” with me. I want to be lost in the world of a novel where the characters have much worse problems than me and make me feel slightly more normal than I am.

  But when I near my room, I see the door is open, cracked just enough for me to know something is off. I always lock that damn door; did I forget?

  Inside, Tessa is sitting on my bed, one of my books in her hand. My phone buzzes again. My anger passes from Ken to her. She thinks she can just do whatever the fuck she wants? She can come into my room, more than once, without my permission?

  Why is she in here? I warned her before. What’s her problem?

  I walk toward her. “What part of ‘No One Comes into My Room’ did you not understand?”

  She squares her shoulders out of surprise. “S-sorry. I . . .” Her voice falters and her eyes grow wide, not with fear . . . with anger. She’s trying that thing again, the one where she’s really patient with me.

  I gesture toward the door. “Get out.”

  “You don’t have to be such a jerk!” she yells at me.

  “You’re in my room.” The volume of my voice matches hers as I remind her, “Again, after I told you not to be. So get out!”

  “Why don’t you like me?” she says. I can see she’s trying to be tough, but her tone has deflated, and her big eyes have made my pulse quicken.

  eight

  The question, so bold and raw, surprised him, and made him realize he was standing at the edge of a cliff. With one blow of the wind, he would tumble over.

  Why would she ask this? Isn’t it obvious why I don’t like her? She’s annoying as hell. She . . .

  Well . . .

  She’s judgmental. She’s constantly judging me and giving me shit about my attitude when I start shit with her. And she . . .

  She’s not that bad, I guess.

  “Why are you asking me this?” I ask, trying to keep my voice calm.

  She’s glaring at me. I return the favor and glare just as hard. She thinks she can intimidate me? She’s in my room, asking me stupid questions, looking at me like that . . .

  “I don’t know . . . because I’ve been nothing but nice to you and you’ve been nothing but rude to me. And here I actually thought at one point we could be friends.”

  Her bloodshot eyes are strong, holding so much that I don’t know about her. Or care about.

  Friends? Is she actually fucking serious? I don’t have friends. I don’t need friends.

  “Us? Friends?” I force a laugh. “Isn’t it obvious why we can’t be friends?”

  “Not to me,” she says plainly, and at first I almost think it’s a joke. But the conviction in her voice tells me that she’s actually serious. This girl is absolutely mad. She thinks someone like me could be friends with someone like her? Doesn’t she know that I can barely stand people in general, let alone my own group of “friends”?

  How shall I begin the list of reasons why this would never work?

  “Well, for starters, you’re too uptight—you probably grew up in some perfect little model home that looks like every other house on the block,” I begin, thinking of the black mold covering the ceiling in my childhood bedroom. “Your parents probably bought you everything you ever asked for, and you never had to want for anything. With your stupid pleated skirts . . .” I look at the outfit she’s wearing now, ignoring the way the material rests on her full hips. “I mean, honestly, who dresses like that at eighteen?”

  Her mouth falls open and she steps toward me. I back away without thinking. I can tell by the stormy gray of her eyes that I’m in for it.

  “You know nothing about me, you condescending jerk! My life is nothing like that! My alcoholic dad left us when I was ten, and my mother worked her ass off to make sure I could go to college. I got my own job as soon as I turned sixteen to help with bills, and I happen to like my clothes—” She waves her h
ands toward her outfit, shouting now, so frustrated that her small hands are shaking. “Sorry if I don’t dress like a slut like all the girls around you! For someone who tries too hard to stand out and be different, you sure are judgmental about people who are different from you!”

  And with that, she turns away from me to face the door.

  Is she telling the truth? Is this perfect girl actually caught up in the unfortunate cycle of kids having to grow up too fast? If so, why is she smiling every time I see her?

  Judgmental? She’s calling me judgmental after labeling girls who dress a certain way sluts? She’s staring at me now, waiting for my reaction, but I don’t have one. I’m rendered speechless by this fiery, judgmental, intriguing woman.

  “You know what? I don’t want to be friends with you anyway,” she says before my brain pulls out of its stupor.

  Tessa reaches for the door handle, and I think back to Seth, my first friend in my life. His family had no money either, but when one of his rich grandparents he didn’t know died, he got a pretty penny. His ratty shoes were traded in for white ones with lights on the bottom. I thought they were so cool. I asked my mum for a pair once for my birthday. She gave me a sad smile, and on the morning of my birthday, she handed me a shoe box. I was so excited to tear the thing open, expecting those damn light-up shoes. Inside the box was a pair of shoes, all right, but with none of those pretty lights on the bottom. I could tell the gift made her sad, but I didn’t quite understand why until the months went by and I started to see Seth less and less, until one day, the only time I got to see him was when he walked past my house with his new friends, all wearing light-up shoes.

  He was my first and last friend, and my life has been much more simple without friendship.

  “Where are you going?” I ask Tessa, a girl who thought we could be friends. She pauses, confused. Just like I am.

  “To the bus stop so I can go back to my room and never, ever come back here again. I am done trying to be friends with any of you.”

  I feel like a complete shit. On the one hand, having her hate me will be better in the long run, but on the other . . . well, I want her to like me enough to fuck me.

  She can hate me after I win the Bet.

  “It’s too late to take the bus alone,” I say. Looking the way she does and the fact that she’s been drinking liquor all night, it would be a really fucking bad idea for her to go to the bus stop by herself.

  She spins around to face me, and I realize for the first time there are tears in her eyes. “You’re not seriously trying to act like you care if something happened to me?” Tessa laughs, shaking her head.

  “I’m not saying I do . . . I’m just warning you. It’s a bad idea,” I tell her. I glance at my bookshelf, comparing her to Catherine, the main female character in the book she was reading when I walked in. She’s a lot like her: moody and with too much to prove. Elizabeth Bennet is the same, always opening her mouth with some emphatic point to make. I like it. College girls these days just seem to have lost the spunk. They only want to please men, not themselves—and where’s the fun in that?

  “Well, Hardin, I don’t have any other options. Everyone is drunk—including myself.” She starts to cry all over again.

  I soften a little. Why is she crying? She’s always crying, it seems.

  I try to cheer her up the only way I know how . . . with sarcasm. “Do you always cry at parties?”

  “Apparently, whenever you’re at them. And since these are the only ones I’ve ever been to . . .”

  Tessa opens my door, but as she goes to leave, she stumbles and grips the edge of my dresser.

  “Theresa . . .” My voice is soft, softer than I knew it could be. “You okay?” I ask.

  She nods. She looks confused, pissed, and stunning; mostly pissed, though.

  Do I care if she’s okay? She’s sick and drunk, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to try and score points against Zed tonight. I don’t want to, and that would be cheating, anyway; she’s far too drunk.

  “Why don’t you just sit down for a few minutes, then you can go to the bus stop,” I suggest. Maybe I’ll win some points for being the nice guy.

  “I thought no one was allowed in your room.” Her voice is soft and full of curiosity as she sits on my floor. If she knew all the shit that has been on that floor, she wouldn’t be sitting there, I’m sure.

  I find myself smiling, and the moment I realize what I’m doing, I stop immediately. I make myself clear. She nods and hiccups, looking as if she’s going to puke any second. “If you throw up in my room . . .” I warn.

  She’ll be cleaning that shit up, that’s for sure.

  “I think I just need some water,” Tessa tells me.

  I hand her my cup. “Here.”

  Her hand pushes against the cup as she rolls her eyes in annoyance. “I said water, not beer.”

  “It is water. I don’t drink.”

  She snorts. “Hilarious. You’re not going to sit here and babysit, are you?”

  Hell yes, I am. I’m not going to leave her alone in here to fuck with my shit or throw up all over my books.

  “You bring out the worst in me.” Her comment surprises me out of my silence.

  “That’s harsh,” I snap at her. I bring out the worst in her? She doesn’t even know me. I continue: “And yes, I am going to sit here and babysit you. You’re drunk for the first time in your life, and you have a habit of touching my things when I’m not around.”

  I sit down on my bed as she cautiously takes a drink of my water. Thought so. The room is probably beginning to spin for her. Poor girl. I watch her carefully as she gulps down the water. The way her eyes close and she licks her lips when she’s finished, the way she breathes too heavily. I stare at her without her noticing and try my damnedest not to overthink why I’m staring at her in the first place.

  There’s just so damn much that I don’t know about her, so many things I want to know.

  She seems so readable from the outside. She’s blond, beautiful in a simple way, and I can tell by the old-fashioned way she speaks that she spends hours and hours with her face buried in a book. Yet her temper and the giant chip on her shoulder make me wonder what’s underneath all that.

  “Can I ask you a question?” I speak without thinking. I try and smile at her, but I get the feeling that I look like a fucking creep.

  Her brows push together. “S-s-s-s-sure,” she says, drawing out her answer.

  What the hell am I going to ask her? I had kind of assumed she would tell me to go to hell.

  I go for the easiest question I can think of. “What do you want to do after college?” I know that I should’ve asked something more personal, something to help me win this game with Zed.

  Tessa seems to ponder the question, tapping her finger against her chin before she answers. “Well, I want to be an author or a publisher, whichever comes first.”

  I could see that, easily.

  I don’t tell her that I plan to do the exact same thing. Instead, I stare blankly ahead after rolling my eyes.

  “Are those your books?” Tessa waves toward my bookshelves.

  “They are,” I mumble.

  “Which is your favorite?”

  Fucking Christ, she’s nosy.

  “I don’t play favorites,” I lie. She’s getting too personal, and she’s been in here awhile. Her knowing my favorite books won’t help me get what I want.

  I need to turn this around, make it less personal. I need to annoy her. “Does Mr. Rogers know you’re at a party again?”

  My smirk complements her scowl. Mission accomplished.

  “Mr. Rogers?”

  “Your boyfriend,” I explain. “He’s the biggest tool I have ever seen.”

  “Don’t talk about him like that. He is . . . he is . . . nice.”

  I can’t help but laugh at the way she fumbles for a compliment about her loafer-wearing boyfriend.

  She waves a finger at me. “You could only dream of bei
ng as nice as he is.”

  “Nice? That’s the first word that comes to your mind when talking about your boyfriend? Nice is your ‘nice’ way of calling him boring.” I laugh.

  “You don’t know him,” she insists with admittedly impressive fearlessness.

  “Well, I know that he’s boring. I could tell by his cardigan and loafers.” I’m laughing now, really laughing, and my stomach tightens. I can’t help it. When I look up at her pissed-off expression, I laugh harder, imagining the human Ken doll whining over a hole in his cashmere sweater.

  “He doesn’t wear loafers.” Tessa covers her mouth to hide her need to laugh. I get it. I would laugh, too. She takes another drink of my water and I keep going.

  “Well, he’s been dating you for two years and hasn’t fucked you yet. I would say he’s a square.”

  As my words hit the air, Tessa spits water back into the cup.

  “What the hell did you just say?”

  “You heard me, Theresa.” I smile at her, fueling her anger.

  “You’re an asshole, Hardin.”

  Man, I love how fiery she gets when—

  Cold water splashes against my face.

  I gasp, surprised by her audacity. I thought we were having fun, throwing rude comments back and forth. I was purposely aggravating her, and it seemed that she was enjoying getting riled up just as much as I enjoyed riling her.

  By the disgusted expression on her face, it occurs to me that maybe she doesn’t.

  Why the hell did I even bring up her boyfriend in the first place? I’m a damn idiot. She was fine, sitting in my room, laughing with me, and I had to ruin it.

  Tessa leaves my room quickly as I wipe the water from my face and step into my doorway, watching as she takes the staircase two steps at a time.

  Back in my room, the quiet hum of my ceiling fan is my only company. I sit down on my bed, and for the first time since I moved into the house, I wish I wasn’t alone in this room.

  nine

  The moment her lips touched his for the first time, he felt it. He felt a shift somewhere deep inside, somewhere hidden and covered in dust. It was completely untouched since he could remember, likely forever. She awakened him, brought him light and laughter and longing and he knew from the moment her mouth found his, he would never be the same.

 
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