Page 56 of Before (After 5)

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Some of the mess is still there on the floor. Many of the shattered pieces of porcelain are now overflowing the bin, and most of the glass has been swept off the floor. Good, Landon can clean up this mess. He’s getting my fucking dad, after all. Truth is, he already has him. Someone or something other than me has always had Ken Scott. The scotch, the bars, Karen, Landon, this big house. He spreads himself so thin, yet had no room for me in his life until the last year, and he thinks I’m just going to be okay with that shit? No fucking way.

I tighten my hold on Tessa’s hand as we walk through the house and up the stairs. If I remember correctly, the room we’re going to is the last one in the hallway upstairs. There are so many fucking doors up here. We wouldn’t want to walk into Landon’s room and find him wanking.

We finally reach the door at the end. Tessa has been quiet during the walk, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to push her too much, and I’m still trying to stop thinking about my sperm donor being a fuckup.

The room behind the door is dark. I struggle for the light switch.

“Hardin?” Tessa whispers in the darkness.

The curtain is open slightly, allowing a little bit of moonlight to come through. I let go of Tessa’s hand and step farther inside. This damn light switch is impossible to find. I continue to run my hand over the smooth wall but find nothing.

What the fuck?

I can see the outline of a table, possibly a lamp, on the other side of the room, so I blindly move toward it. The toe of my boot catches on something solid, and I nearly fall to the ground. “Fuck!” I curse at the object. This room probably doesn’t even have a goddamn light; Ken and Karen likely just wanted to fuck with me.

When I get to the table, my fingers feel for a lampshade. Bingo! “I’m right here,” I tell Tessa as I pull on the chain. The bulb clicks on, and the startlingly strong light from such a small lamp blinds me. I blink a few times and look around the room. My room.

My room that I’ve never used. Ever.

The bedroom reminds me of some gaudy-ass hotel. The walls are painted a light gray, with crisp white trim along the ceiling and floorboard. The carpet even has those lines vacuumed into it. The bed against the back wall is disgustingly big, with a mountain of decorative pillows piled at the expansive cherrywood headboard. The only reason a bed this big would ever be necessary is if Tessa was lying naked in the center of the dark gray duvet. Unfortunately for me, she’s not. She’s standing next to a desk that matches the bed and holds a brand-new Mac desktop. Showy motherfuckers.

I rub my hand over the back of my neck. “This is my . . . room.” I don’t know what else to say about it.

Tessa pulls her bottom lip between her teeth and asks, “You have a room here?”

It doesn’t feel like my room, not in the least bit, but technically it is. Ken has told me multiple times about the room here that’s only for me. Like I’m supposed to be impressed by the four-poster bed or the giant computer monitor. “Yeah . . . I haven’t ever actually slept in it . . . until tonight,” I uncomfortably explain. I hope she doesn’t ask any more questions, but I know she will.

There’s a bulky storage bin at the end of the bed that I’m assuming has a single purpose: to hold the overabundance of pillows. I make it more useful by sitting down on it and taking my boots off. Tessa watches me, probably compiling a list of questions to ask, like the nosy little thing she is. I pull my socks off and tuck them into my boots. I have a few small cuts on my ankle. Some of the shards apparently got into my shoe. Fucking great.

Tessa must have finished her list. She takes a step closer and opens her mouth. “Oh. Why is that?”

I take a breath and decide to answer her instead of giving her shit about it. “Because I don’t want to. I hate it here,” I reply with honesty. I do hate it here. I hate that my bed at my mum’s house in England had a stained mattress and the same sheet and duvet since I was a kid.

While Tessa processes my truthful answer and formulates her next question, I unbutton my pants and pull them down. Tessa’s eyes go from distant to wide and alert within two seconds of me standing in my boxers in front of her.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“Getting undressed?” I say, raising my pierced brow to her. I know she likes to ask questions, but why do so many of them have to be so unnecessary?

“I mean, why?” She stares at the crotch of my boxers. If she’s trying to be subtle and pretend she isn’t thinking about my cock right now, she’s failing miserably.

My eyes meet hers. “Well, I’m not sleeping in skinny jeans and boots.” My hair falls down my forehead and I push it back.

“Oh,” Tessa quietly says.

I wait for her to say something further, but she doesn’t. I watch her eyes as I pull my shirt over my head. Her stare moves from my neck down to my stomach, taking in every line of black ink. She focuses the longest on the tree tattooed there. I wonder if she likes it or if this part of me is unattractive to her. Her focus on me makes me uneasy. I don’t know what to do while she’s inspecting me for damage. Each inch of my skin that her eyes touch rises with gooseflesh. Instead of the burning I always read about, I feel the slow blowing of an icy breath.

Tessa is still staring, still focused only on my body. I surprise her by tossing my shirt at her. She’s too entranced by me to catch it quick enough. I wonder what it would take to get her naked so I can inspect her body, with my eyes steady on her, taking in every inch, every blemish that she’s insecure about but I won’t see.

I wish I knew what she was thinking. I wish I knew her better. I find myself wishing that I could have known her in a different way. She could have been my neighbor who stops by and borrows things, and I could ask her as many questions as I want. I would ask her why she asks so many questions, why she always scrunches her eyebrows up when she’s confused, or mad. I would ask her what she wants to do with her life. I would ask her how she’d feel if she didn’t get to see me again. I would ask her if she could possibly find forgiveness and grant it to me.

But this is reality, and in reality, I’m still a stranger to her. She barely knows anything about me, and if she knew half of the fucked-up shit I’ve done, she wouldn’t be so intrigued. My tattoos, or her reaction to them, would fade, and her response to my attitude would turn from sarcastic to venomous. I have to be careful with this, because if my mystery disappears, she will, too.