Page 52 of Before (After 5)

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“You don’t know him; he doesn’t give a shit about me. You know how many times I’ve talked to him in the last year? Maybe ten! All he cares about is his big house, his new soon-to-be wife, and his new, perfect son.” I take a drink from the bottle and wipe my lips with the back of my hand. “You should see the dump that my mum lives in in England. She says she likes it there, but I know she doesn’t. It’s smaller than my dad’s bedroom here! My mum practically forced me to come here for university, to be closer to him—and we see how that worked out!”

“How old were you when he left?” Tessa asks. I can’t tell if she’s being nosy, pitying me, or just wondering.

I hesitate before answering. “Ten. But even before he left, he was never around. He was at a different bar every night. Now he’s Mr. Perfect and he has all this shit . . .” I gesture toward the house. Pots of bright flowers line the ledge of the deck, adding to the scenery.

“I’m sorry that he left you guys, but—”

“No, I don’t need your pity.” I stop her there. She’s always making excuse after excuse for everyone around her. It’s fucking frustrating. She doesn’t know my father, she didn’t have to put up with his shit until she didn’t anymore, but then missed it when he was gone.

“It’s not pity. I’m just trying to . . .”

Judge me?

“Trying to what?” I push her to respond.

“Help you. Be here for you.”

It sounds nice when she says it. Too bad she doesn’t know anything about me. She doesn’t know who she’s trying to help. She needs to understand that I’m not fixable and she’s wasting her time here. She needs to leave and never speak to me again.

“You are so pathetic. Don’t you see that I don’t want you here? I don’t want you to be here for me. Just because I messed around with you doesn’t mean I want anything to do with you. Yet here you are, leaving your nice boyfriend—who can actually stand to be around you—to come here and try to ‘help’ me. That, Theresa, is the definition of pathetic,” I say, watching her gray eyes turn to stone.

“You don’t mean that.” She doesn’t know me, though she can read me well.

I deliver the final blow. “I do, though. Go home.” I lift the bottle in victory and open my mouth. Suddenly the bottle is snatched from my grip and tossed across the yard.

“What the hell?” I shout at her. Is she mad? Tossing a valuable bottle of scotch across a lawn like that? I look back and forth between her figure striding to the patio door and the bottle, then follow her after grabbing the bottle and leaving it on the side of the deck, near the table. I have to catch my balance, but I manage to step in front of her.

“Where are you going?” I look down at her, stopping her from entering the house. The porch light catches her eyelashes in a way that makes it look like they’re brushing her cheekbones. I stare at her as she stares at her feet.

“I’m going to help Landon clean up the mess you made, and then I’m going home.” Her voice is full of conviction and leaves no room for arguing. Except that I’m a master of the art of finding a small space, a crevice, no matter how tiny, to argue my way into.

“Why would you help him?” He betrayed me by calling her in the first place, and now she’s leaving me to help him?

“Because he, unlike you”—her voice is low, steady, and strong—“deserves someone to help him,” she says.

I feel the impact of her words sinking into my chest as she stares into my eyes, challenging me.

She’s right. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. He doesn’t break shit and throw a fit when he gets bad news. He deserves her time and attention, just like he deserves to walk into that big house and be welcomed warmly and go into his own room. He deserves a home-cooked meal; he shouldn’t have to eat takeout in an empty room inside a house full of strangers who all secretly hate him.

She’s right about that, and that’s why I let her walk past me and back into the house without another word.

The way she looked at me as she walked by is burning through my mind, playing on repeat over and over. I pull out my phone and scroll through a few pictures I’ve taken of her. One while walking to the stream . . . her hair was so blond under the sun and her skin was glowing. She was quiet—nervous, maybe—but she looks peaceful in the photo. She really is beautiful. Why would she want to help me? What all did Landon tell her about my drinking?

I pull my beanie back on, and after a few minutes I can’t help but go inside. My eyes are burning and my head is pounding as I open the door.

“Tessa, can I talk to you, please?” I immediately ask. Landon is crouched over, dropping broken pieces of china into a plastic bin. Tessa nods, and I stare at her face. Then my eyes move farther down her body, stopping at her bloody finger, which she’s holding under the sink faucet.

I cross the kitchen in only a few steps. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“It’s nothing, just a little glass,” she says. The cut looks small, but I can’t get a good look at it. I reach for her hand and pull it from the water. The cut is about half an inch long and a quarter inch deep. She’ll be okay; she just needs a bandage. Her hand feels so light in mine, so warm, and I feel my breathing slow as I hold her. I drop her hand and she lets out a deep breath.

“Where are the Band-Aids?” I ask Landon.

“Bathroom.” He’s annoyed with me. I can tell by his tone. I find the small box of bandages easily in the cabinet. I grab the antibacterial cream from the bottom shelf and return to the kitchen.

I take Tessa’s hand in mine for the second time and squeeze the cream onto the tip of her finger. She’s watching me carefully . . . unsure what to think, maybe? Band-Aids remind me of my mum and that fucked-up night a long time ago, and I blink away the memory as I wrap the bandage around Tessa’s finger.

“Can I talk to you, please?” I ask Tessa for the second time. She nods, and I wrap my fingers around her wrist, leading her to the back patio again. We have more privacy there; Landon won’t be listening in.

When we reach the table, I let go of Tessa’s wrist and pull the chair out for her. It’s the least I can do, I suppose. My hand feels cold, and the blood is no longer pumping behind my ears. I feel calm and cool.