Page 35 of Before (After 5)

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Does Tessa throw herself at me? No, again, the exact opposite.

But I couldn’t let her win like that.

“She did not throw herself at him! He manipulated her into thinking he was kind and took advantage of her weakness!”

“He ‘manipulated’ her? Try again, she is . . .” I pause, my jumbled thoughts messing up my speech. “I mean, she was so bored with her boring life that she had to find excitement somewhere—so she certainly was throwing herself at him!”

I pause, kind of shocked that I shouted these words at her, that my bruised hands are gripping the corner of the old desk.

“Well, maybe if he wasn’t such a manwhore, he could have stopped it after the first time instead of showing up in her room!”

By the time she’s finished, the snickers, gapes, and laughter indicate that everyone in the room has definitely caught on to our little show. LIVE READING should have been written on a sign and hung in the hall outside the room.


I may have slept my way across this campus, made more mistakes than she has, and forgotten half of them, but at least I’m not a prissy, judgmental snob. Imagine if I called her the female version of what she called me?

“Okay, lively discussion,” the professor says, looking panicked, likely worried that human emotion has spoiled his perfectly planned lesson. “I think that’s probably enough on that topic for today . . .”

Tessa grabs her bag, clutches it to her chest, and rushes toward the exit. Landon stays in his seat, always unsure what to do in any type of stressful situation. Maybe because his life has been so perfect. His mum probably made him freshly baked muffins sprinkled with love every morning before school.

I fed myself stale Cheerios and had to smell the inside of the carton to check if the milk was expired or not. There’s no syllabus or menu for what Tessa and I seem to be doing.

I bolt out of the room myself. Tessa doesn’t get to flee from every conflict she creates. I can tell she’s used to that, always having her way.

“You don’t get to run this time, Theresa!” I call to her.

Everyone in the hallway looks in my direction, but she keeps moving and I have to run to catch up to her. Just as she turns to go outside, I grab hold of her arm to stop her. She jerks away and my light grip relaxes.

“Why do you always touch me like that? Grab my arm again, and I will slap you!” Her tone is furious and her voice is so loud.

I reach for her arm again. She doesn’t flinch.

“What do you want, Hardin? To tell me how desperate I am? To laugh at me for letting you get to me again? I am so sick of this game with you—” She’s stomping her foot along with her words, and her hands are swirling in the air like always. It amuses me the way she talks with her hands.

She’s still going on and on. I honestly couldn’t tell you what she’s saying. She’s just so mad, so infuriated with me, that she’s lost her damn mind. When she’s around Landon, she’s all smiles and comfort. With me, she’s rage and electricity. Her eyes are shining—with anger or sadness, I’m not sure, but at least I know that I still elicit an emotional response from her.

“I really do bring out the worst in you, don’t I?” My fingers fidget with a small burn hole along the bottom hem of my black T-shirt. “I’m not trying to play games with you.”

Seeing the crowd gathering, I run my hands over my head. Why does everything always get so dramatic with her?

Tessa rubs her temples with her fingertips. “Then what are you doing? Because your mood swings give me a headache.”

I reach for her arms, grasping them gently to get her attention. She doesn’t resist, so I lead her into a small alleyway between two buildings, scowling at the people nearby to back off. I don’t want anyone to hear our conversation, anyone to pressure her to put on her “perfect girl” face.

I look down at her, admiring her stillness. She appears so calm, so neutral, even given the proximity of our bodies. I see a chink in her armor when her eyes meet mine, and she gulps, her lips shaking.

“Tess, I . . . I don’t know what I’m doing. You kissed me first, remember?” I say. It doesn’t matter if I’ve thought about the way her lips tasted on mine every day since. She made the first move, and that will always be a winning argument for me.

“Yeah . . . I was drunk, remember?” Her eyes stare down, ashamed. “And you kissed me first yesterday.” She’s never going to admit that she wanted me. There will always be an excuse for her. I’m growing more and more annoyed by her denial. I felt the way she blossomed underneath my kiss.

She may hate me, but her body doesn’t.

“Yeah . . . you didn’t stop me.” I pause for a beat, watching the curiosity build in her eyes. “It must be exhausting,”

“What must be exhausting?” she asks, her chin tilted up in the most defiant way.

“Acting like you don’t want me when I know you do.” I purposely step closer, making her back touch the wall behind her.

She’s so still, like her body’s come to the realization of what she wants already.

But then her mind overtakes her again and she blurts out, “What? I do not want you. I have a boyfriend.” She’s reaching far to pretend to speak with a calm voice.

I smile a little. “A boyfriend that you’re bored with. Admit it, Tess. Not to me, but to yourself. You’re bored with him.” I draw each word out as slowly as possible, my face moving closer and closer to hers. Her eyes are drawn to my mouth; of course they are. She’s weighing her options. She must be remembering the way I kiss her, because she touches her lips gently. She’s caught here, with me. Her desire and burning sexual curiosity for me won’t let her walk away, not this time.

“Has he ever made you feel the way I do?” I lay this last line on thick, genuinely curious if he has.

“W-what? Of course he has,” she tries to insist.

I’m not buying it. She sounded more sincere talking about a classic novel than about her lovely boyfriend’s ability to please her.

“No . . . He hasn’t. I can tell that you’ve never been touched . . . really touched.”

Her lips are parted now, I can practically hear her heart thumping out of her chest. I wonder how I look through her eyes. Can she see that her shaky breaths and plump lips are making me crazy? Is there something in my eyes that tells her I really want to wrap her hair around my fist, turn her head to me, and kiss her?