Page 68 of Before (After 5)

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“What are you guys doing here?” I ask, checking on Tessa out of the corner of my eye.

“Where? At the public mall?” Jace asks.

I take a breath, silently threatening him. If he fucks this up today, I’ll have no problem hurting him.

“We were just in the area,” Logan explains. He shrugs his shoulders and looks at me with some sort of understanding. He knows what I’m worried about, and somehow he’s telling me that’s not why they’re here. “Really.” He pushes this, and I slightly relax.

“Where’s your little pet?” Jace flicks his tongue out in a disgusting way. Zed cringes, and Logan ignores all of us and stares at the cracked screen of his iPhone.

“Oh, she’s over there!” Jace’s voice rises, and I nearly jump him. He’s the nastiest type of guy, much like my old friend Mark, who played with people like toys and had no remorse about his shitty actions. I guess I’m the same way, though, I think, regarding the Bet, and at the end of the game the group of us played, I was the one who held the winning piece.

“Cut the shit,” I say, stepping forward, and Jace smiles a wicked smile. He loves how agitated he can make me. He’s pressing buttons on me as we speak. He knows it, I know it, and soon Tessa will know it, too.

“She’s coming over here.” Logan is still staring at his phone, but he’s warning us of Tessa’s arrival. My palms are soaking, and the skin on my knuckles is straining each time my nails dig into my palm. They’re going to ruin my life right now, here in this mall in some shitty town in America.

“Hey, Tessa, how are you?” Zed moves toward Tessa, and I take a step forward. He wraps his arms around her, and I could easily rip them from his body at the sight.

“Hardin, aren’t you going to introduce your friend?” Jace stares at me, humor dancing in his bloodshot eyes.

“Um, yeah.” I wave my hand between the two of them, counting the seconds we’ve been letting this drag on. “This is my friend Tessa; Tessa, this is Jace.”

Tessa’s brows bunch together in anger, and I look around, confused. Why is she mad? I study her face and wait for her to look at me. She doesn’t.

“Do you go to WCU?” she asks Jace. Why does she always have to make polite small talk with people? It’s obvious that she hasn’t had a lot of social experience; she seems to have zero sense of etiquette.

“Hell, no. I don’t do the college thing.” He laughs, and Tessa relaxes a bit. “But if all the girls there looked like you, I would be happy to reconsider.”

Tessa looks a little frightened, and I’m mentally counting the shades of blue I can turn Jace’s face via strangulation.

“We’re going to the docks tonight; you two should make an appearance,” Zed says.

An appearance? Fuck you, Zed.

“We can’t. Maybe next time,” I say, ending the conversation.

“Why not?” Jace asks, clearly challenging me in front of Tessa and Zed.

“Tessa has to work tomorrow. I suppose I can drop by later. Alone.” I make it clear to all of them. They won’t be in the place, ever again. It’s going to be hard, but I’m foolish enough to think I can possibly pull this off. I won the Bet, she’s mine, and Zed can fucking rot, for all I care.

“That’s too bad.” Jace smiles at Tessa, and I struggle to keep my shit together. He’s taunting me. He’s dangling this devil’s game I agreed to play over my head like I’m a little rat and he’s got a nice piece of cheese for me.

“Yeah, I’ll hit you up later when I’m on my way,” I lie to him.

I have to think of what the fuck I’m going to do about him. He’s itching to find a time to tell Tessa about the Bet . . . he’s a fucker like that. But I know if I bring it up to him, it will only encourage him to open his big mouth or plant the idea of telling if he hadn’t thought of it yet on his own.

The three of them walk away, and Tessa stares daggers into their backs. I stay silent and follow Tessa’s temper tantrum through Macy’s. She walks faster in a childish, petulant way to prove a point and throw a fit.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. Something always seems to be wrong with her. I’m saying something, doing something, someone’s cat looked at her the wrong way . . . it’s always something.

“Oh, I don’t know, Hardin!”

“Me either! You’re the one who just hugged Zed!” I yell at her. Her arms around Zed is the only thing I can think of right now, and she’s starting shit with me?

“Are you embarrassed to be with me or something? I mean, I get it, I’m not exactly the cool girl, but I thought—”

I don’t understand what she’s getting at here. She thinks I’m embarrassed about being with her? Why does she always go to this?

“What? No! Of course I’m not embarrassed about you. Are you crazy?”

She is crazy, though. We both are.

“Why did you introduce me as your friend? You keep talking about living together, and then you tell them we’re friends?” Tessa’s voice is growing louder with each word. “What are you going to do, hide me? I won’t be anyone’s secret. If I’m not good enough for your friends to know that we’re together, then I don’t want to live with you.”

How can I call her more than a friend? She’s going to hate me more than an enemy when my time runs out with her. She’s so much more than a secret to me. I’m not trying to hide her. I don’t want to keep her hidden any fucking more. I want to show her off proudly and let every motherfucker know that she’s mine. Only mine. But I’m too stupid to be able to make things work between us, which is why I have to hide the most beautiful thing, the only treasure, in my entire life. I have to hide her instead of letting her bloom in the sunshine, and it’s eating me alive from the inside out.

“Tessa! Damn it . . .” I trail off, and she glances toward the dressing room in the women’s clothing section of the store. “I’ll follow you,” I warn her. I mean it, too. I’d like to follow her inside that dressing room and fuck her against the full-length mirror.

She raises her eyebrows and purses her lips. She knows damn well I will follow her. I’d follow her to the deepest pits of hell if she merely asked me to. “Take me home. Now,” she demands of me. Take her home? All because of a stupid fight? Tessa makes her point by walking way ahead of me out of the store and back to my car. Once outside, I try to open the door for her, but she won’t have it.