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“Well, obviously you two shouldn’t have been married, then.” I close the lid on the trash can, where I’ve just dropped the bag of popcorn, and lean my elbows on the counter. I’m frustrated with Richard and his stupid fucking habits, which are upsetting to Tessa. I want to kick his ass out and send him right back onto the streets, but he’s almost become like a piece of furniture in this apartment. He’s like an old couch that smells like shit and always creaks when you sit down on it, and it’s uncomfortable as shit, but for some reason you can’t throw it away. That’s Richard.

His face falls, and he says softly, “We weren’t married.”

I tilt my head slightly out of confusion. What? I know Tessa told me that they were . . .

“Tessa doesn’t know. No one does. We were never married legally. We had a wedding to please her parents, but we never filed the paperwork. I didn’t want it.”

“Why?” But maybe a more important question is, why am I so interested in this shit? Minutes ago I was imagining slamming Richard’s head through the drywall; now I’m participating in gossip like a fucking teenage girl. I should be listening at the door of my bedroom, making sure Tessa’s mum isn’t filling her head with bullshit to try to take her away from me.

“Because marriage wasn’t for me”—he scratches his head—“or so I thought. We did everything as a married couple; she took my last name. I’m not quite sure how she pulled that off—I think it was like she thought that by doing it, I’d finally consent or something, but no one knew the sacrifices she made for my selfishness.”

I wonder how Tessa would feel about this information . . . she’s so obsessed with the idea of marriage. Would this diminish her obsession, or fuel it?

“Over the years, she grew tired of my behavior. We fought like cats and dogs, and let me tell you, that woman was relentless, but I took it from her. Once she stopped fighting me, that’s when I knew it was over. I watched the fire slowly die out in her over the years.” Looking at his eyes, I can see he’s removed himself from this room and launched himself into the past. “Every single night she would be waiting at the dinner table, her and Tessie both in dresses and hairpins, only for me to stumble in and complain about the burned edges of lasagna. Half the time I’d pass out before the fork hit my mouth, and every night ended with a fight . . . I can’t remember the half of it.” A visible shudder passes over him.

A vision of a very young Tessa, all dressed up at the table, waiting excitedly to see her father after a long day, only to have him crush her, makes me want to reach out and strangle the man.

“I don’t want to hear another word,” I warn him, meaning it.

“I’ll stop now.” I can see the embarrassment plastered on his face. “I just wanted you to know that Carol wasn’t always like this. I did it to her. I made her the bitter, angry woman she is today. You don’t want history to repeat itself, do you?”

Chapter one hundred and twenty-four

TESSA

My mother and I sit in silence. My mind is reeling, and my heart is pounding as I watch her tuck a lock of thick blond hair behind her ear. She’s calm and collected—not overwhelmed the way I am.

“Why would you let your father come here? After all this time. I can understand you wanting to see him more after running into him on the street, but not allowing him to move in,” she finally says.

“I didn’t allow him to move in; I don’t live here anymore. Hardin let him stay out of kindness, kindness that you misinterpreted and threw in his face.” I don’t hide my disgust about the way she treated him.

My mother—everyone—will always misunderstand Hardin, and why I love him. It doesn’t matter, though, because I don’t need them to.

“He called you because he thought you would be there for me.” I sigh, mentally deciding which way I want to steer the conversation before she bulldozes me into acquiescence in her typical Carol Young fashion.

My mother’s blue eyes are somber, cast to the ground. “Why do you turn against everyone to defend that boy, after all he has done to you? He’s put you through so much, Theresa.”

“He’s worth the defending, Mother. That’s why.”

“But—”

“He is. I won’t keep having this discussion with you. I told you before, if you can’t accept him, then I can’t have a relationship with you. Hardin and I are a package deal, whether you like it or not.”

“I once thought that about your father.” I do my best not to flinch when she lifts her hand to smooth the front of my hair.

“Hardin is nothing like my father.”

A light laugh sounds from her painted lips. “Yes, oh yes, he is. He is like him in so many ways.”

“You can leave if you’re going to say those things.”

“Calm down.” She repeats the smoothing action on my hair. I’m torn between being irritated by the patronizing gesture and being comforted by the decent memories it brings. “I want to tell you a story.”

I’ll admit I’m intrigued by her words, though I’m skeptical of her motives. She never told me stories about my father while I was growing up, so this ought to be interesting. “Nothing you say will change my mind about Hardin,” I tell her.

The corners of her mouth turn up slightly as she declares, “Your father and I never married.”

“What?” I sit up straight on the bed, crossing my legs beneath me. What does she mean, they never married? Yes, they did, I’ve seen the pictures. My mother’s lace gown was exquisite, despite the fact that her belly was slightly swollen, and my father’s suit wasn’t tailored properly, it hung off him like a potato sack. I used to love to look through those albums and admire the way my mother’s cheeks glowed as my father looked down at her as if she were the only person in his world. I remember the awful scene that ensued one day when my mother found me looking through them; after that, she hid them away, and I never saw them again.

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