Page 51 of Before (After 5)

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“Stop.” I hold up the hand with the bottle, and he steps backward into the living room from the dining room. He’s not going to stop fucking talking. He’s going to push and push—I don’t have any control over him, over anything that’s happening right now. My shitty dad is getting fucking married, I’m drunk and pissed off, and this motherfucker doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.

My fingers wrap around the corners of the china cabinet next to me.

He doesn’t know when to stop. “Your dad said—”

And now it’s my turn to push: before he can finish his sentence, I push the cabinet over. I use extra force, dropping the bottle in the process. Landon yells something, but I can’t hear him over the sound of shattering china.

“Get out! You need to leave!” Landon shouts. I bend down and grab the bottle from the mess of broken glass, splintered wood, and slices and fragments of white-and-blue dishes. I cut the tip of my finger and lick away the blood while making sure the scotch bottle is properly closed.

“Tessa would be so impressed by this!” I hear his voice as I pull open the back door.

Tessa? I want to ask him what the fuck Tessa has to do with any of this, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he can use her as leverage over me. For whatever reason, he thinks tossing her name out there will make me come down and give a fuck, and I won’t let him think he’s right. I ignore him even though I don’t want to, and walk out onto the back deck.

The air is warm but calm; the beginning of fall is here and the summer nights will soon start to turn chilly, and then chilly will turn into freezing. The next time I fuck up, I’m moving somewhere warm.

“Tessa would be so impressed,” I say aloud, mocking Landon’s voice. He was trying to be a smartass, letting me know that she wouldn’t approve of my mess-making and temper tantrum.

“Tessa, Tessa, Tessa!” I shout into the darkness.

Even this yard is perfect. It’s nearly as big as an American football field and lined with tall trees, keeping the property in perfect shade during the day and a black sheet of darkness at night.

MY HEAD IS SPINNING and the silence isn’t helping. I take another swig.

A few minutes later, the creak of the screen door has me leaping to my feet. Tessa is standing in the doorway in front of Landon. She walks toward me, and with every step, the bottle in my hand feels heavier. Her light eyes are pinned on mine.

Is she real? Her blond hair is so shiny under the patio lights. She’s glowing. Frowning, but radiant.

Is she really there? I think so . . . unless this bottle is laced with some hallucinogen, she must be.

“How did you get here?” I ask her. I follow her eyes to Landon and freeze. That fucker.

“Landon, he . . .” she begins.

“You fucking called her?”

Landon ignores me, walks through the doorway, and closes the screen door behind him.

Tessa points a finger at me. “You leave him alone, Hardin. He’s worried about you,” she says, defending her friend.

The perfect brother has the perfect friend.

She’s generally soft-spoken, but not when she’s mad. Her eyes are so pretty, too perfect for such a soft face. I can’t keep staring at her; she’s giving me a headache. I have to guess what she’s thinking, and I’ve had a long enough night already. I sit down at the patio table and gesture for her to take a seat across from me.

When she sits down, I take another drink and she stares, pure judgment in her eyes. I slam the heavy bottle down on the glass table and she jumps out of her seat. She should leave; she shouldn’t be here. Landon should never have called her and told her to come here. Why would she come, anyway? Her boyfriend is in town this weekend, and I’m sure he’s penciled in for cuddle time.

The thought makes me cringe. Landon had no fucking right calling her to come here.

“Aww, aren’t you two something. You’re both so predictable. Poor Hardin is upset, so you gang up on me and try to make me feel bad for breaking some shitty china.” I smile at her, letting her know I’m playing the villain tonight.

“I thought you didn’t drink,” she says,

It’s more a question than a statement. She’s trying to figure out just who I am. I confuse her, and she hates it.

“I don’t. Until now, I guess. Don’t try to patronize me; you’re no better than me.” I point a finger at her, using her old scolding technique.

She doesn’t look fazed by my move. I take another drink.

“I never said I was better than you. I just want to know what made you start drinking now?”

I’ll never understand what makes this girl think she can ask people whatever the hell she wants. Boundaries? She has none.

“What does it matter to you? Where’s your boyfriend?” I burn the question into her. She looks away, unable to keep up with my stare.

“He’s back in my room. I just want to help you, Hardin.” Tessa’s hand reaches for mine, and I flinch away before she can touch me.

What is she doing? This must be some sick joke. Landon must have told her to come here and be all gentle, tame-the-lion bullshit. She wouldn’t touch me for no reason.

“Help me.” I laugh. “If you want to help me, then leave.” I wave the bottle and my hand toward the door.

“Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?” she pushes. I knew she would. Her hair is down, resting over her shoulders in waves. She’s wearing casual clothes, looking younger than ever. Her eyes release mine, and she looks down at her hands on her lap.

Out of habit, I pull the hat off of my head and run my hand through my hair. I can smell the scotch seeping from my pores, and I can hear Tessa’s heavy breaths coming out in long draws. I match my breathing to hers and then wonder what the fuck I’m doing.

I would rather get her talking than sit here in tense silence. “My father decided to tell me just now that he is marrying Karen—and the wedding’s next month. He should have told me long ago, and not over the phone. I’m sure perfect little Landon’s known for a while.”

Tessa’s eyes dart to me, and she looks a little surprised that I just spoke to her so candidly.

I hadn’t planned to go into that much detail.

I blame the scotch.

“I’m sure he had his reasons not to tell you,” she says, defending him. Of course she does. Ken Scott is like her: polished and pretty and always the good guy.