Page 54 of Before (After 5)


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“Please, just kiss me. I need you.” I try once more, for the last time, to get her to kiss me. My tongue touches her closed lips, and they part. She gives in to me all at once, willingly and wholly. She leans into me, sighing against my breath, and I bring my hands to both of her cheeks, cupping her face, devouring the taste of her.

My tongue traces her bottom lip, and she shivers. I wrap my arms around her, anchoring myself to her steadiness. I hear a noise from the house, and Tessa pulls away. I don’t kiss her again, but I keep my arms wrapped around her.

“Hardin, I really have to go. We can’t keep doing this; it’s not good for either of us,” she says.

She’s lying to herself. We can figure this out.

“Yes, we can keep going,” I assure her. I don’t know where this sudden bloom of hope has come from, but it feels nice here, settled in my chest.

“No, we can’t. You hate me, and I don’t want to be your punching bag anymore. You confuse me. One minute you’re telling me how much you can’t stand me or humiliating me after my most intimate experience . . .”

I did that. I fucked up—I need to explain what happened and that sometimes I fuck things up on purpose. I’ve always been like this. My gran once tried to have a birthday party for me when I was twelve. She sent out invitations and ordered a special cake. On the day of the party, I told everyone it was canceled and sulked in my room the entire day. I didn’t touch that cake. I just fuck things up sometimes . . . but I can find a way to stop doing that. If it means I get to kiss Tessa, to feel her losing herself in me again, I’ll do anything.

I try to interrupt her, but she stops me by pressing her index finger to my lips. If she didn’t have a Band-Aid on it, I would be kissing her cut. “Then the next minute you’re kissing me and telling me you need me. I don’t like who I am when I’m with you, and I hate the way I feel after you say terrible things to me.”

“Who are you when you’re with me?” I ask her. I like who she is. She’s a better person than most.

“Someone I don’t want to be, someone who cheats on her boyfriend and cries constantly.” Her voice cracks. She’s ashamed of the person she becomes when she’s around me. That makes me feel like shit. I want her to be happy about spending time with me. I want her to crave me the same irresistible way that I do her.

“You know who I think you are when you’re with me?” I ask her. My thumb traces the line of her jaw, and her eyes flutter closed under my touch.

“Who?” she whispers, her lips barely moving. The air between us is calm now as she awaits my answer.

I answer truthfully. “Yourself. I think this is the real you and that you’re just too busy caring what everyone else thinks about you to realize it.

“And I know what I did to you after I fingered you . . .” She cringes at my blunt word choice. “Sorry . . . after our experience. I know it was wrong. I felt terrible after you got out of my car.”

“I doubt that.” She rolls her eyes, dismissing me.

“It’s true, I swear it. I know you think I’m a bad person . . . but you make me—” I can’t finish. She’s digging into me, deeper and deeper, and it’s terrifying. “Never mind.”

“Finish that sentence, Hardin, or I’m leaving right now.” I can tell she means it. She waits, her hand on her hip and her eyes stone cold for me.

“You . . . you make me want to be good, for you . . . I want to be good for you, Tess,” I breathe, and she gasps.



twenty

When she started pressuring him for labels and proofs of commitment, he panicked. He felt like a wild animal being cornered and trapped. His cage was honesty, and she threatened to lock him away without a key. He couldn’t lose her, but with each day it grew harder to keep her. She turned the tables on him, questioning things he thought she would never catch on to. When she wanted more, she demanded it, taking nothing but yes for an answer, but when he wanted more, she pushed against it¸ excuse after excuse.

This could never work, Hardin—we’re so different. First off, you don’t date, remember?” she fires at me. She steps away from me, and I hope she doesn’t try to leave my father’s house. It feels like all we talk about anymore is the future. Marriage, living together, breaking up, not breaking up. Tessa feels pressure to plan her whole life, but I don’t. At this point I think it’s common knowledge that I don’t handle this type of pressure well. Regardless, she keeps pushing for me to be better and better for her.

“We aren’t that different—we like the same things; we both love books, for example,” I tell her.

I always have to defend myself to her. “You don’t date,” she mocks me.

“I know, but we could . . . be friends?”

Friends? Really, Hardin?

Frustration glows in her eyes. “I thought you said we couldn’t be friends? And I won’t be friends with you—I know what you mean by that. You want all the benefits of being a boyfriend without actually having to commit.”

I let go of her body and lose my footing. I quickly balance myself. “Why is that so bad? Why do you need the label?” I’m thankful for the space between us and the fresh, scotch-free air.

“Because, Hardin, even though I haven’t really had a lot of restraint lately, I do have self-respect. I will not be your plaything, especially when it involves being treated like dirt.” Exasperated, she throws her hands into the air. “And besides, I’m already taken, Hardin.”

She’s using that bloke as an excuse? Oh, come on! Who is she trying to kid here?

“And yet look where you are right now,” I say dryly.

She’s dangling her boyfriend over my head, taunting me with him and complaining when I do the same with Molly. She sees no double standard here, and the liquor is making it seem even worse tonight. I’m smart enough to know this, but dumb enough to stop myself from being a dick. I’m also liquored up enough to not give a fuck about much of anything. I shattered my father’s dining room into tiny pieces.

Her mouth twists into a menacing frown, teeth bared and all. “I love him and he loves me.”

Her words slice at my chest. The last ones hit the bone. I move away from her and knock into the chair. Fuck my lack of balance.

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