Page 53 of Before (After 5)


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I grab another chair and drag it across the concrete side of the patio. When I sit down across from her, my knees almost touch hers.

“What could you possibly want to talk about, Hardin?” Tessa asks, sounding completely uninterested.

I pull the hat from my head and toss it onto the table between us. My fingers find my hair. I feel like a complete bastard for being such an asshole a few minutes ago. I want her to know that I’m not her charity case, her broken little doll, but now that I’m coming down from my adrenaline high, I’m starting to see what a complete dick I am.

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly. The words settle in the static between us, and she stays silent. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you!” she barks at me. Her chin is lifted in the most defiant way. She’s pissed.

She’s pissed? I’m fucking pissed. She came here, meddled in my family drama, and then doesn’t accept my apology?

I reach down for the bottle and open the top. She glares at me as the liquor slides down my throat. “You’re so damned difficult to deal with.”

“I’m difficult? You have to be kidding me! What do you expect me to do, Hardin? You’re cruel to me—so cruel.” Her lips tremble and her eyes begin to water. She tries to square her shoulders, but they slump; she’s more than upset over this.

I whisper my response. “I don’t mean to be.”

“Yes, you do, and you know it. You do it purposefully. I’ve never been treated this poorly by anyone in my entire life.” That can’t be true. I’m not even that mean to her; she hasn’t dealt with shit in her life if this is the worst she’s been treated.

“Then why do you keep coming around? Why not just give up?” I ask her. If I’m that bad, why doesn’t she just quit trying to be with me?

I ignore the part of my brain that’s questioning how I would feel if she stopped trying.

“If I . . . I don’t know. But I can assure you that after tonight, I’m not going to try anymore. I’m going to drop Literature and just take it next semester,” she tells me. Her arms are crossed in her lap, and the wind is blowing her hair behind her shoulders. I wonder if she’s cold.

I don’t want her to drop the class; it’s the only regularly scheduled time I have with her. “Don’t, please don’t do that.”

“Why would you care? You don’t want to be forced to be around someone as pathetic as me, right?” I hear pain behind her words, but I don’t know her well enough to judge if it’s authentic. I wish I did. I wonder how many people actually know her, the real her. I’m talking about the one whose brows crinkle before she smiles, the one who maybe doesn’t have her shit figured out the way her mum thinks she does.

“I didn’t mean that . . . I’m the pathetic one.” I sigh and lean back in my chair.

Her eyes pierce mine. “Well, I won’t argue with that,” she says, her lips pressed into a hard line. She reaches for the bottle, but I’m faster than her this time.

“So you’re the only one who can get drunk?” She looks at me, her eyes focusing on the ring in my brow.

“I thought you were going to toss it again.” I hand it to her. I don’t like her drinking, but she’s ready for a fight over it and I’m not. I just want her to stay here. I like how quiet it is when she’s around.

She gags the moment she tastes the scotch. “How often do you drink? You implied before that it was never.” She’s grilling me.

“Before tonight it’s been about six months.” Six months down the drain. Way to fucking go, Hardin.

“Well, you shouldn’t drink at all. It makes you an even worse person than usual,” she says in a joking way, but I know she’s serious.

“You think I’m a bad person?” I don’t look up from the ground while I wait for her answer. She’s going to say yes, just like everyone else would.

“Yes.”

I’m not surprised by her answer, but I couldn’t help but hope for her to say no.

“I’m not. Well, maybe I am. I want you to . . .” I begin. I’m not that bad of a person, am I? I could be better, for her, if she asked me to. I look at her, taking in the way her lips are trembling, waiting for me to finish my jumbled thought. I want to be good, I want her to think I’m good.

“You want me to what?” she asks impatiently. She pushes the bottle into my hands, and I sit it down on the table without taking a drink.

How do I answer that without sounding pathetic? I can stop drinking, I can be nicer to people, or just her.

“Nothing.” I can’t find the right words for her.

“I should go.” She stands to her feet and rushes away from me. She’s moving so fast, and I don’t want her to leave. I’ll try harder.

“Don’t go.” I follow her. When she stops, her face is so close to mine that I can taste the faint trace of scotch on her breath.

“Why not? Do you have more insults to throw in my face?” she shouts, her words hitting me harder than usual. She turns away from me again, and I reach for her. I wrap my hand around her arm and pull her back.

“Don’t turn your back on me!” I yell at her. She doesn’t get to come here and stir shit up and walk away. I’m fucking sick of people doing that shit to me.

“I should have turned my back on you a long time ago!” Tessa’s hands push against my chest. “I don’t know why I’m even here! I came all the way here the second Landon called me!” She’s screaming at me now. Her face is red and her lips are moving so fast. Her tongue darts out to wet them so she can finish her angry rant. “I left my boyfriend—who, like you said, is the only one who can stand to be around me—to come here for you!”

Her words sink into me, one by one. She did leave her boyfriend to come here. She has no other reason to be here aside from me. Maybe I’m not as bad as I thought, and maybe she sees that in me.

“You know what? You’re right, Hardin, I am pathetic. I’m pathetic for coming here, I’m pathetic for even trying—”

I close the space between us without another thought and press my mouth to hers. She pushes at my chest, fighting me, but I can feel her body relaxing in my arms.

“Kiss me, Tessa,” I beg her. I need her.

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