Page 60 of Before (After 5)

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“I’m not here to start shit,” I whisper. He’s an asshole for assuming that I was.

I can tell he doesn’t believe me—not one fucking bit.

“Then what is it that you want?” he questions in a dubious-sounding way.

I wave my hand in the air. “May I?” I ask him, gesturing toward the room. I look inside his dark room and notice the size of the TV on his wall. It has to be at least sixty inches. Of course it is. There’s also a wall of signed jerseys hanging in shiny frames, probably handmade by some sweet lady at the craft store. She likely glued them together with her sweat, just for Landon. He seems to get whatever he wants. He stands only about two inches shorter than me and he’s got a lot of muscle on me. Where my body is tall and lean, his is shorter and more fit. He almost looks like a younger, nerdy version of David Beckham. He’s dressed in a WCU T-shirt and flannel trousers. There’s no hope for him.

He looks me up and down and raises his eyebrow at my boxers.

“Fuck off—your mum is the one who bought them,” I snap at him.

He raises his hand to cover his mouth so he can pretend he’s not laughing. “I know, that’s why it’s funny.” He laughs to himself at my expense, and I’m reminded how annoying he is.

“Never mind.” I push past him and head toward the bathroom. I should have known better than to try to talk to him.

He raises his hands. “Wait, I’m sorry. I just thought it was funny because my mom still buys me those, even though I keep telling her they’re terrible.”

I don’t laugh along with him, but the idea is a little funny. “I wanted to talk to you about Tessa.”

He gets defensive. I watch as he stands a little taller and his lips press together. “What about her?”

I push my hair back from my face. “I wanted to make sure you know she’s . . .”

He raises his hands again, this time to shut me up. “Tessa knows what she’s doing; she doesn’t need me acting like she can’t take care of herself,” he says. His tone is stern, but there’s no malice in it.

I have no idea what to say to that. I figured he would be the douchebag, protective friend who would tell her to run as far as she can from me.

“Well . . .” I hesitate in the hallway. “I’m gonna go to bed now.” I look back at him as he’s closing his door and see a smile on his face. Well, that was awkward—but went better than I expected.

After showering, I go back to my room and find Tessa in the bed, curled up like a kitten. Her eyes dart straight to the boxers I’m wearing. Ugly things.

“I like them,” she lies.

These things are fucking horrendous. You can’t even see how big my cock is. I shoot a dirty look at her before I tug on the lamp chain and grab the remote. I’m surprised the fancy Mr. Scott didn’t install a fucking holographic television in here. I turn it to a random channel for background noise and lower the volume close to silent. I climb into the bed and lie next to Tessa, facing her.

“So, what were you going to tell me?” I ask her. She pulls her lip between her teeth. “Don’t be shy now—you’ve just made me come in my boxers.” I laugh at the irony of her embarrassment. I wrap my arms around her and pull her close to me.

I wait for Tessa’s dramatic performance to end. I love how carefree she is sometimes. I seem to pull that from her, and I’m proud of it. When my dramatic friend returns to normalcy, her hair is a mess. Loose waves fall down around her face. Without thinking, I touch her hair and push it behind her ear. She has the tiniest little earrings on. They remind me of when I went through a phase of wanting to gauge my ears until my friend Mark’s got infected. They were disgusting, and the most horrid odor came from them.

I need to think about something else.

I kiss her softly on the lips, and she takes over my entire mind.

“Are you still drunk?” Her question is yet another example of her being nosy and pushy.

“No, I think our little screaming match in the yard sobered me up.”

“Oh, well, at least something good came out of it.”

I don’t know what to do with my arm. I should put it on her back? I’m not sure. I face her and touch it to her back. “Yeah, I guess so.” I rest my arm now, focusing on the way her head is lying on my chest. She moves with each of my breaths like she’s already gotten used to the position. I like that.

She’s smiling, a bright smile, for me. “I think I actually like drunk Hardin better,” she says.

Drunk Hardin . . .

I can almost hear my mum’s voice shouting through our small house. “You’re nothing but a drunk, Ken!”

I distract myself from the memories threatening to break through and ruin this time with her.

She was probably teasing, anyway. I need to try to learn how to think before I speak. Being around Tessa is very good practice. “Is that so?”

“Maybe.” She pouts. If she thinks this foolishness is going to make me forget that I want an answer from her, she’s dead wrong.

Bringing the conversation back to the subject at hand, I say, “You’re terrible at distractions; now tell me.”

“Well, I was just thinking of all the girls you’ve . . . you know, done things with . . .” The moment she finishes, she digs her head into my chest to hide.

That’s what she’s thinking about right now? All I can think about is how I love the way her fluffy hair keeps tickling my nose and that she smells like she rolled in vanilla perfume before she came over. “Why were you thinking about that?”

She sighs as if I should catch on to what she’s talking about. I have no idea. “I don’t know . . . because I have literally no experience and you have a lot. Steph included.” The bitterness in her voice is beyond evident. I imagine I would be the same if she were to fuck Zed. The thought is brief, but it comes with a sharpness that I didn’t expect.

I throw that out of my mind for now. Zed has no place in this bed with her. I do wish he could see the way she’s looking up at me, though, eager for my attention.

I can’t tell if she’s upset or jealous or curious. Sometimes I can read her like a book, and other times the book is shut.

So, since I can’t figure it out, I decide to just ask her. “Are you jealous, Tess?”

I hope like hell she is.