Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 14


The first time he was alone with her, he knew something was stirring inside of him. He thought he could fight it, that maybe he was softening a little, and not only for her, but everyone in his life… he was sure. He had spent his whole life alone, and he had mastered the craft of avoiding any form of intimacy beyond sex. He didn’t need friends, and he didn’t have a functional family to teach him how to interact with people. He liked that hard part of himself—it kept his life simple. He felt suffocated during his first encounter with her, but as time passed and he began to feel something more, something that could change everything, he vowed to keep the status quo.

He was used to structured solitude, and she was wreaking havoc on that.

The morning is here, and I barely fucking slept last night. It wasn’t even the shitty nightmares that kept me awake; it was Tessa.

She was there when I closed my eyes, and not in the way I’d have liked her to be. Instead of being naked, making soft noises as I thrust into her, she was furious and bored during the trip to the stream I’ve decided we’re taking. In one creepy movielike scene that my sleepless, stalkerish mind made up, she stubbed her toe and complained the entire afternoon. In another, she was bored out of her mind and wanted her lame boyfriend to drive all the way to campus to get her. When he arrived, it was like he was all cardigan. A giant cardigan monster that was both scary and lame.

It’s frustrating the amount of time I’ve wasted thinking about this girl. None of this is going to matter in a month or so. If this “date” goes well, I’m hoping to win the Bet in less than two weeks… Hell, if I can charm her enough, maybe at the stream…

My phone alarm rings from across the room, and I climb out of bed to shut it off.

Today’s the day. My head is already throbbing, and I’m annoyed by the pressure I feel to make the time I spend with her work in my favor. I should probably take a shower. As I’m getting dressed, I briefly wonder what she’s doing right now… is she as stressed as I am? I can imagine so; she’s so uptight all the time, and she’s probably had me literally penciled into her planner-binder since the moment I offered to attempt this friendship thing.

After my shower, I rummage through my drawer to find a clean black T-shirt. The one I find is wrinkly, but it’ll do. Outside, as I start my car, I hear a crush beneath my foot and find an empty water bottle under my gas pedal. In my half-sleep state, the sound is so irritating that I get back out and find a place to throw it away.

I really wish I could sleep better.

Getting to campus a little early, I accidentally leave my textbooks, some notes, and my black jumper in the backseat. I don’t realize it until I’m halfway to class, but there’s no way I’m going all the way back.

In Literature, Tessa’s and Landon’s seats are empty when I take mine, and a little part of me feels pretty damn smug about it. She’s later than I am, and I somehow know that will irritate her. Well, you have to find joy in the simple things.

I spend my time looking back and forth between the door and the list of my missed calls and texts from Molly, Jace, and this one weird girl whose name I forget. When Tessa and Landon finally do walk through the door, they’re gabbing away, and she looks happy and well rested. No purple shadows under her eyes, no sign of a restless night on her end.

“Are you ready for our date today?” I ask as Tessa’s hip grazes my desk. The curve of that hip is very appealing. The curve on the front of women’s thighs, on the side of the hips, is one of my favorite parts of a female body—it’s just so sexy.

“It’s not a date,” Tessa says to me, then turns to Landon and adds, “we’re hanging out as friends.”

“Same thing.” I look at her and take note of her choice of outfit. She’s wearing jeans, tight enough for me to make out the shape of her thighs and ass. Damn.

Tessa effectively avoids me for the entirety of the class. I don’t look her way either.

After class, I don’t catch what Landon says to her—the fucker talks too low—but I hear her reply to him, “Oh, we’re just trying to get along, since my roommate is his good friend.”

Just trying to get along, huh?

I take a few steps closer to the Nerdacula and his nerdy-hot girlfriend. Landon’s fucking polo shirt is tucked into his gray dress slacks. Does this man even know he’s supposed to be a broke college student? Oh, wait—he’s not broke. He lives in a nice big house a short drive from here with the man who is technically my father, while my mum lives back in England in a craphole. And what I call home is an old fraternity house full of sloppy wannabe cool guys who do nothing related to helping this wonderful community the way their charter purports that they do. Tessa’s boyfriend would probably be in a frat. Blond hair, blue eyes, loafers, cardigans. It would be a match made in heaven, really.

Well, if he learned to drink way, way too much…

Landon makes eye contact with me and doesn’t try to muffle his words. “I know, you’re really a great friend. I’m just not sure Hardin deserves your kindness.”

Really? And what do I deserve, Landon? A nice new daddy who doesn’t love liquor more than his only biological son?

“Don’t you have something else to do besides bad-mouth me? Get lost, man,” I say, as kindly as I can manage. If I said what I was really thinking, Tessa would cancel our hangout for sure.

Landon doesn’t respond to me; he only frowns at Tessa, again saying something too low for me to hear. As he walks away, she turns to me.

“Hey, you don’t have to be cruel to him—you guys are practically brothers.” She all but spits out fire.

Practically brothers? What kind of fucked-up world does this chick live in where Landon and I are anything close to brothers? We are two strangers who happen to have a third stranger in common.

“What did you just say?” I ask her through bared teeth.

Just because my piss-poor father moved Landon and his mummy into a mansion filled with chocolate-chip cookies—wait… how does Tessa know that?

I push my fingers through my hair.

“You know, your dad and his mom?” she answers, looking very confused. She nods to herself and frowns as if she just let out a secret.

I look to where Landon disappeared to see if I can chase his ass down. “That is none of your business.”

Why does he think he has the right to discuss my family’s business? “I don’t know why the asshole even told you that. I’m going to have to shut him up, it seems.”

I crack my knuckles and ignore the stinging of tearing skin on my eternally busted fingers.

She glares at me. “You leave him alone, Hardin.” A real convincing Warrior Queen, this one. “He didn’t even want to tell me, but I got it out of him.”

So she knows about my family now? Why is that fair? She doesn’t need to know anything about me. This is going too far. The whole thing is.

“So where are we going today?” she asks.

She’s getting too close to me now; her nosiness has gone to a personal level, and I’m not fucking okay with that. She probably probed him for answers to other questions about me, too. Why I don’t live with Ken and his new family, why I never talk to my dad—she probably even asked what I was like as a child, and Landon probably spilled all that he’d heard about me. She’s already judging me, I can tell.

“We aren’t going anywhere; this was a bad idea,” I tell her, and just leave her ass standing there.

She doesn’t need to get any closer than she already is. She’s too intrusive, too judgmental. I don’t want anything to do with this shit anymore. I need to stay the fuck away from this girl.

By the time I get to my car, my head is pounding and my palms are sweaty. Why did he do that? Why would Landon tell her about my family? That must mean she knows everything. Or at least the positive things that Landon would tell her: that my father’s the chancellor of the college, that he was third in his class at university, that he loves sports.

What she doesn’t know is that he was a drunk—the worst fucking kind—because precious Landon doesn’t really know that side of him.

I wonder if he does in fact know anything at all about the man, anything real? Has he been totally conned by my dear old dad?

I would love to be the one to break the news to him over his mum’s coconut cake.

Suddenly I feel claustrophobic and roll the car window down to get some air. The handle sticks, and I yank on the metal rod, annoyed that this beautiful car is so fucking ancient. I catch my breath after about thirty seconds and finally pull out of my parking space. If Tessa had followed me, I don’t know what I would have done.

I’m in my room for less than ten minutes when I get a text from Molly: Zeds w/ Virgin Barbie in dorm. Better hurry loverboy.

What? How do you know? I reply, wondering why I’m getting Tessa tips from Molly, of all people…

Is she fucking with me?

I don’t kiss and tell.

I can practically hear her mocking tone through the screen as I push my feet back into my black boots. The insides are so worn out that I’m waiting to bust through to the street when I walk around in them, but I’ve had them for years and can’t seem to find anything else as comfortable.

I know that I’ve gotten everything I’m going to get out of Molly, so before I pull onto the street, I text Steph, Is Tessa with Zed?

Her reply is instantaneous. *Nope not here  *

I immediately know she’s lying, and press my foot harder on the gas.


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