Page 23 of Before (After 5)

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“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.


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?”