Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 19


Just as his life was beginning to make a little sense, it was shaken again. He thought he was in complete control of himself, of her, of everything. He was resisting the sweet temptation of the bitter liquor. He didn’t crave it the way he had until he found himself on the phone with his father, getting a play-by-play of the man’s new—and better—life.

When he hung up the phone, he had no other option.

He was completely alone with his only friend. The bottle of scotch was nearly empty; it mirored him in that way.

When I get to the Scott house, I park right in the middle of the driveway. I hate this fucking beautiful house. It sits high on a perfectly green lawn. Ken and Karen pay a pretty penny to have their yard groomed; no doubt they pay a pretty penny to have themselves groomed as well. Ken’s new soon-to-be wife loves living here, I’m sure. She probably loves spending his money on grooming herself, too.

I’m fucking livid.

I’m pissed off and not drunk enough to deal with this kind of bullshit. What fucking piece-of-shit father tells his only son he’s getting married to another woman when you’re just now getting to know his ass? This is exactly why I didn’t want anything to fucking do with him. I’m pissed that I only had a quarter of a bottle of liquor in my cabinet. My head is pounding, my throat is dry, and I’m craving the burn of scotch. Ken Scott has fine bottles of scotch gifted to him from colleagues in sweater vests who have just returned from their vacations in Scotland. My shitty father is getting remarried, and he says it like this: “Karen and I are to be wed. Soon, very soon.”

To be wed? What the fuck kind of stilted-ass expression is that? And during a fucking telephone conversation?

“We are to be wed,” I repeat as I take his porch stairs in two long strides. The man has so much fucking topiary it makes me feel like I’m lost in the fucking Wonka Jungle, or Wonka Factory thing. Hell, whatever it is, it’s hideous.

First and foremost, I need more scotch.

“I’m all out!” I exclaim, my voice leaping out into the darkness.

I’m in a pickle here. I’m drunk, but not as drunk as I want to be. I need more liquor. Ken has more liquor. He always has.

I knock on the door, and no one answers. The man’s house is too damn big. Stupid brick showy model home.

“Hello?” I shout into the abyss of a dark yard, with loud crickets shouting back at me. The neighbors all have their porch lights on, and every house has an SUV parked in front, the bumpers littered with WCU bumper stickers. All of the overpaid, highbrow scholars live on this street. I pull my gray beanie down over my hair, hoping it makes me look even more dangerous to the neighbors than usual.

Landon opens the door before I even realize that I’m pounding my fist against the wood. My knuckles are barely healed; the skin never really has a chance to heal before I rip it open time after time.

“Hardin?” His voice is low, like I’ve woken him up.

“No,” I say, passing him in the foyer. I walk straight to the kitchen and raise my voice so he can hear me as he follows. My eyes stop for a beat on their couch; its frilly, floral-vomit-covered mass bothers me. “It’s someone else who looks identical to him, only this model thinks you’re an even bigger prick than the other one does.”

I open a cabinet in the kitchen to begin my search. My sperm donor—that is to say, Ken—since becoming sober has thrown out most of his liquor, but I know he kept at least one rare bottle of scotch. Maybe it’s a reminder, maybe it’s a temptation, but he cherishes it—fucking treasures it, even. I’ve heard him talk more about that stupid bottle, and with more pleasure, than he talks about his own son since I’ve been here. He always keeps it in a different spot; I don’t know if he hides it from himself or if he uses it as a constant marker of his sobriety. Either way, it’s mine now.

“They aren’t here. My mom and Ken went out of town for the weekend.” Landon explains what I already know.

I stay quiet, not wanting to converse with my soon-to-be stepbrother. The thought makes me gag. I’m not meant to have family, no siblings looking out for me or vice versa. I’m meant to be alone and take care of myself.

I keep searching, now moving into Ken and Karen’s bedroom. The room is enormous, big enough for three king-size beds like the four-poster they have in the center of the room. Their dresser, nightstands, and bed are all a dark cherrywood, the same as Ken’s desk in his office.

Anal-compulsive asshat.

The room is hideous and it looks like shit, so I hope Ken and Karen are happy in here with their matching furniture and pristine life. I pull the string in the closet to turn on the light and brush my hand across the shelves. After feeling around some dust and a box, my fingers hit glass. Jackpot.

I carefully bring the bottle down and wipe the thin layer of dust that’s gathered since Ken’s last public showing. Immediately I twist the top off, feeling deep satisfaction as the plastic tears, ruining the perfect seal.

The scotch is hot on my tongue, and it tingles a small cut on the inside of my cheek. I savor the thick, slow burn of the smooth liquor. Ken Scott has always loved his scotch, and he’s a true aficionado of the beverage. The taste is incredible—so smooth, yet with such a rich flavor. I personally think scotch is just a tad pretentious and was disappointed to find out that it’s the only whiskey that comes from Scotland. Showy bastards. Still, I love the taste—one trait I got from Ken’s short list of actual contributions to my existence.

Half of the bottle is gone now, my head is spinning, and I think I should finish it off. Why not? My dad doesn’t deserve it; he doesn’t even drink anymore. When he chose to stop holding hands with the devil, he lost the right to possess such an exquisite bottle.

Besides, he already has enough precious, perfect things. Like his new son, for example, who right now seems to think he can stop me from my mission to make his new daddy feel as shitty as I feel. Ken has a perfect soon-to-be wife who keeps his pantry and stomach full. She doesn’t have to work an eight-hour shift, then turn around and run off to another job. She doesn’t have to line up the bills on their kitchen table that’s missing a leg, and choose the one she’s not going to have the money to pay this month. The times I talk to him he seems to think we were fine back in Hampstead, and I blame a fraction of that illusion on my mum, whose pride was bigger than her brain.

His house is clean, and even his fridge is clean—no fingerprints are visible on the stainless steel. I lick my fingers and drag them down the metal.

Landon scoffs, cursing from behind me. “Did you drink that entire bottle?” he asks. His eyes are wide as he stares at the bottle swinging in my hand.

“No, there’s still half left. Want some?” I ask him.

He backs away into the dining room, his hands raised, and I follow him. “No.”

Perfect son who doesn’t drink. How sweet.

“I thought you weren’t drinking anymore?” he says. I turn to him, holding on to a big cabinet filled with expensive, shiny sets of dishes in order to keep myself from falling down. What the fuck does he know about my drinking?

My fingers dig into the wood. “Why would you say that?”

He realizes that he wasn’t supposed to say anything like that in front of the poor damaged child, and his eyes widen. “I just meant…” He attempts to bullshit me.

“Stop.” I hold up the hand with the bottle, and he steps backward into the living room from the dining room. He’s not going to stop fucking talking. He’s going to push and push—I don’t have any control over him, over anything that’s happening right now. My shitty dad is getting fucking married, I’m drunk and pissed off, and this motherfucker doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.

My fingers wrap around the corners of the china cabinet next to me.

He doesn’t know when to stop. “Your dad said—”

And now it’s my turn to push: before he can finish his sentence, I push the cabinet over. I use extra force, dropping the bottle in the process. Landon yells something, but I can’t hear him over the sound of shattering china.

“Get out! You need to leave!” Landon shouts. I bend down and grab the bottle from the mess of broken glass, splintered wood, and slices and fragments of white-and-blue dishes. I cut the tip of my finger and lick away the blood while making sure the scotch bottle is properly closed.

“Tessa would be so impressed by this!” I hear his voice as I pull open the back door.

Tessa? I want to ask him what the fuck Tessa has to do with any of this, but I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he can use her as leverage over me. For whatever reason, he thinks tossing her name out there will make me come down and give a fuck, and I won’t let him think he’s right. I ignore him even though I don’t want to, and walk out onto the back deck.

The air is warm but calm; the beginning of fall is here and the summer nights will soon start to turn chilly, and then chilly will turn into freezing. The next time I fuck up, I’m moving somewhere warm.

“Tessa would be so impressed,” I say aloud, mocking Landon’s voice. He was trying to be a smartass, letting me know that she wouldn’t approve of my mess-making and temper tantrum.

“Tessa, Tessa, Tessa!” I shout into the darkness.

Even this yard is perfect. It’s nearly as big as an American football field and lined with tall trees, keeping the property in perfect shade during the day and a black sheet of darkness at night.

MY HEAD IS SPINNING and the silence isn’t helping. I take another swig.

A few minutes later, the creak of the screen door has me leaping to my feet. Tessa is standing in the doorway in front of Landon. She walks toward me, and with every step, the bottle in my hand feels heavier. Her light eyes are pinned on mine.

Is she real? Her blond hair is so shiny under the patio lights. She’s glowing. Frowning, but radiant.

Is she really there? I think so… unless this bottle is laced with some hallucinogen, she must be.

“How did you get here?” I ask her. I follow her eyes to Landon and freeze. That fucker.

“Landon, he…” she begins.

“You fucking called her?”

Landon ignores me, walks through the doorway, and closes the screen door behind him.

Tessa points a finger at me. “You leave him alone, Hardin. He’s worried about you,” she says, defending her friend.

The perfect brother has the perfect friend.

She’s generally soft-spoken, but not when she’s mad. Her eyes are so pretty, too perfect for such a soft face. I can’t keep staring at her; she’s giving me a headache. I have to guess what she’s thinking, and I’ve had a long enough night already. I sit down at the patio table and gesture for her to take a seat across from me.

When she sits down, I take another drink and she stares, pure judgment in her eyes. I slam the heavy bottle down on the glass table and she jumps out of her seat. She should leave; she shouldn’t be here. Landon should never have called her and told her to come here. Why would she come, anyway? Her boyfriend is in town this weekend, and I’m sure he’s penciled in for cuddle time.

The thought makes me cringe. Landon had no fucking right calling her to come here.

“Aww, aren’t you two something. You’re both so predictable. Poor Hardin is upset, so you gang up on me and try to make me feel bad for breaking some shitty china.” I smile at her, letting her know I’m playing the villain tonight.

“I thought you didn’t drink,” she says,

It’s more a question than a statement. She’s trying to figure out just who I am. I confuse her, and she hates it.

“I don’t. Until now, I guess. Don’t try to patronize me; you’re no better than me.” I point a finger at her, using her old scolding technique.

She doesn’t look fazed by my move. I take another drink.

“I never said I was better than you. I just want to know what made you start drinking now?”

I’ll never understand what makes this girl think she can ask people whatever the hell she wants. Boundaries? She has none.

“What does it matter to you? Where’s your boyfriend?” I burn the question into her. She looks away, unable to keep up with my stare.

“He’s back in my room. I just want to help you, Hardin.” Tessa’s hand reaches for mine, and I flinch away before she can touch me.

What is she doing? This must be some sick joke. Landon must have told her to come here and be all gentle, tame-the-lion bullshit. She wouldn’t touch me for no reason.

“Help me.” I laugh. “If you want to help me, then leave.” I wave the bottle and my hand toward the door.

“Why won’t you just tell me what’s going on?” she pushes. I knew she would. Her hair is down, resting over her shoulders in waves. She’s wearing casual clothes, looking younger than ever. Her eyes release mine, and she looks down at her hands on her lap.

Out of habit, I pull the hat off of my head and run my hand through my hair. I can smell the scotch seeping from my pores, and I can hear Tessa’s heavy breaths coming out in long draws. I match my breathing to hers and then wonder what the fuck I’m doing.

I would rather get her talking than sit here in tense silence. “My father decided to tell me just now that he is marrying Karen—and the wedding’s next month. He should have told me long ago, and not over the phone. I’m sure perfect little Landon’s known for a while.”

Tessa’s eyes dart to me, and she looks a little surprised that I just spoke to her so candidly.

I hadn’t planned to go into that much detail.

I blame the scotch.

“I’m sure he had his reasons not to tell you,” she says, defending him. Of course she does. Ken Scott is like her: polished and pretty and always the good guy.

“You don’t know him; he doesn’t give a shit about me. You know how many times I’ve talked to him in the last year? Maybe ten! All he cares about is his big house, his new soon-to-be wife, and his new, perfect son.” I take a drink from the bottle and wipe my lips with the back of my hand. “You should see the dump that my mum lives in in England. She says she likes it there, but I know she doesn’t. It’s smaller than my dad’s bedroom here! My mum practically forced me to come here for university, to be closer to him—and we see how that worked out!”

“How old were you when he left?” Tessa asks. I can’t tell if she’s being nosy, pitying me, or just wondering.

I hesitate before answering. “Ten. But even before he left, he was never around. He was at a different bar every night. Now he’s Mr. Perfect and he has all this shit…” I gesture toward the house. Pots of bright flowers line the ledge of the deck, adding to the scenery.

“I’m sorry that he left you guys, but—”

“No, I don’t need your pity.” I stop her there. She’s always making excuse after excuse for everyone around her. It’s fucking frustrating. She doesn’t know my father, she didn’t have to put up with his shit until she didn’t anymore, but then missed it when he was gone.

“It’s not pity. I’m just trying to…”

Judge me?

“Trying to what?” I push her to respond.

“Help you. Be here for you.”

It sounds nice when she says it. Too bad she doesn’t know anything about me. She doesn’t know who she’s trying to help. She needs to understand that I’m not fixable and she’s wasting her time here. She needs to leave and never speak to me again.

“You are so pathetic. Don’t you see that I don’t want you here? I don’t want you to be here for me. Just because I messed around with you doesn’t mean I want anything to do with you. Yet here you are, leaving your nice boyfriend—who can actually stand to be around you—to come here and try to ‘help’ me. That, Theresa, is the definition of pathetic,” I say, watching her gray eyes turn to stone.

“You don’t mean that.” She doesn’t know me, though she can read me well.

I deliver the final blow. “I do, though. Go home.” I lift the bottle in victory and open my mouth. Suddenly the bottle is snatched from my grip and tossed across the yard.

“What the hell?” I shout at her. Is she mad? Tossing a valuable bottle of scotch across a lawn like that? I look back and forth between her figure striding to the patio door and the bottle, then follow her after grabbing the bottle and leaving it on the side of the deck, near the table. I have to catch my balance, but I manage to step in front of her.

“Where are you going?” I look down at her, stopping her from entering the house. The porch light catches her eyelashes in a way that makes it look like they’re brushing her cheekbones. I stare at her as she stares at her feet.

“I’m going to help Landon clean up the mess you made, and then I’m going home.” Her voice is full of conviction and leaves no room for arguing. Except that I’m a master of the art of finding a small space, a crevice, no matter how tiny, to argue my way into.

“Why would you help him?” He betrayed me by calling her in the first place, and now she’s leaving me to help him?

“Because he, unlike you”—her voice is low, steady, and strong—“deserves someone to help him,” she says.

I feel the impact of her words sinking into my chest as she stares into my eyes, challenging me.

She’s right. He’s the guy everyone wants to be around. He doesn’t break shit and throw a fit when he gets bad news. He deserves her time and attention, just like he deserves to walk into that big house and be welcomed warmly and go into his own room. He deserves a home-cooked meal; he shouldn’t have to eat takeout in an empty room inside a house full of strangers who all secretly hate him.

She’s right about that, and that’s why I let her walk past me and back into the house without another word.

The way she looked at me as she walked by is burning through my mind, playing on repeat over and over. I pull out my phone and scroll through a few pictures I’ve taken of her. One while walking to the stream… her hair was so blond under the sun and her skin was glowing. She was quiet—nervous, maybe—but she looks peaceful in the photo. She really is beautiful. Why would she want to help me? What all did Landon tell her about my drinking?

I pull my beanie back on, and after a few minutes I can’t help but go inside. My eyes are burning and my head is pounding as I open the door.

“Tessa, can I talk to you, please?” I immediately ask. Landon is crouched over, dropping broken pieces of china into a plastic bin. Tessa nods, and I stare at her face. Then my eyes move farther down her body, stopping at her bloody finger, which she’s holding under the sink faucet.

I cross the kitchen in only a few steps. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“It’s nothing, just a little glass,” she says. The cut looks small, but I can’t get a good look at it. I reach for her hand and pull it from the water. The cut is about half an inch long and a quarter inch deep. She’ll be okay; she just needs a bandage. Her hand feels so light in mine, so warm, and I feel my breathing slow as I hold her. I drop her hand and she lets out a deep breath.

“Where are the Band-Aids?” I ask Landon.

“Bathroom.” He’s annoyed with me. I can tell by his tone. I find the small box of bandages easily in the cabinet. I grab the antibacterial cream from the bottom shelf and return to the kitchen.

I take Tessa’s hand in mine for the second time and squeeze the cream onto the tip of her finger. She’s watching me carefully… unsure what to think, maybe? Band-Aids remind me of my mum and that fucked-up night a long time ago, and I blink away the memory as I wrap the bandage around Tessa’s finger.

“Can I talk to you, please?” I ask Tessa for the second time. She nods, and I wrap my fingers around her wrist, leading her to the back patio again. We have more privacy there; Landon won’t be listening in.

When we reach the table, I let go of Tessa’s wrist and pull the chair out for her. It’s the least I can do, I suppose. My hand feels cold, and the blood is no longer pumping behind my ears. I feel calm and cool.

I grab another chair and drag it across the concrete side of the patio. When I sit down across from her, my knees almost touch hers.

“What could you possibly want to talk about, Hardin?” Tessa asks, sounding completely uninterested.

I pull the hat from my head and toss it onto the table between us. My fingers find my hair. I feel like a complete bastard for being such an asshole a few minutes ago. I want her to know that I’m not her charity case, her broken little doll, but now that I’m coming down from my adrenaline high, I’m starting to see what a complete dick I am.

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly. The words settle in the static between us, and she stays silent. “Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, I heard you!” she barks at me. Her chin is lifted in the most defiant way. She’s pissed.

She’s pissed? I’m fucking pissed. She came here, meddled in my family drama, and then doesn’t accept my apology?

I reach down for the bottle and open the top. She glares at me as the liquor slides down my throat. “You’re so damned difficult to deal with.”

“I’m difficult? You have to be kidding me! What do you expect me to do, Hardin? You’re cruel to me—so cruel.” Her lips tremble and her eyes begin to water. She tries to square her shoulders, but they slump; she’s more than upset over this.

I whisper my response. “I don’t mean to be.”

“Yes, you do, and you know it. You do it purposefully. I’ve never been treated this poorly by anyone in my entire life.” That can’t be true. I’m not even that mean to her; she hasn’t dealt with shit in her life if this is the worst she’s been treated.

“Then why do you keep coming around? Why not just give up?” I ask her. If I’m that bad, why doesn’t she just quit trying to be with me?

I ignore the part of my brain that’s questioning how I would feel if she stopped trying.

“If I… I don’t know. But I can assure you that after tonight, I’m not going to try anymore. I’m going to drop Literature and just take it next semester,” she tells me. Her arms are crossed in her lap, and the wind is blowing her hair behind her shoulders. I wonder if she’s cold.

I don’t want her to drop the class; it’s the only regularly scheduled time I have with her. “Don’t, please don’t do that.”

“Why would you care? You don’t want to be forced to be around someone as pathetic as me, right?” I hear pain behind her words, but I don’t know her well enough to judge if it’s authentic. I wish I did. I wonder how many people actually know her, the real her. I’m talking about the one whose brows crinkle before she smiles, the one who maybe doesn’t have her shit figured out the way her mum thinks she does.

“I didn’t mean that… I’m the pathetic one.” I sigh and lean back in my chair.

Her eyes pierce mine. “Well, I won’t argue with that,” she says, her lips pressed into a hard line. She reaches for the bottle, but I’m faster than her this time.

“So you’re the only one who can get drunk?” She looks at me, her eyes focusing on the ring in my brow.

“I thought you were going to toss it again.” I hand it to her. I don’t like her drinking, but she’s ready for a fight over it and I’m not. I just want her to stay here. I like how quiet it is when she’s around.

She gags the moment she tastes the scotch. “How often do you drink? You implied before that it was never.” She’s grilling me.

“Before tonight it’s been about six months.” Six months down the drain. Way to fucking go, Hardin.

“Well, you shouldn’t drink at all. It makes you an even worse person than usual,” she says in a joking way, but I know she’s serious.

“You think I’m a bad person?” I don’t look up from the ground while I wait for her answer. She’s going to say yes, just like everyone else would.

“Yes.”

I’m not surprised by her answer, but I couldn’t help but hope for her to say no.

“I’m not. Well, maybe I am. I want you to…” I begin. I’m not that bad of a person, am I? I could be better, for her, if she asked me to. I look at her, taking in the way her lips are trembling, waiting for me to finish my jumbled thought. I want to be good, I want her to think I’m good.

“You want me to what?” she asks impatiently. She pushes the bottle into my hands, and I sit it down on the table without taking a drink.

How do I answer that without sounding pathetic? I can stop drinking, I can be nicer to people, or just her.

“Nothing.” I can’t find the right words for her.

“I should go.” She stands to her feet and rushes away from me. She’s moving so fast, and I don’t want her to leave. I’ll try harder.

“Don’t go.” I follow her. When she stops, her face is so close to mine that I can taste the faint trace of scotch on her breath.

“Why not? Do you have more insults to throw in my face?” she shouts, her words hitting me harder than usual. She turns away from me again, and I reach for her. I wrap my hand around her arm and pull her back.

“Don’t turn your back on me!” I yell at her. She doesn’t get to come here and stir shit up and walk away. I’m fucking sick of people doing that shit to me.

“I should have turned my back on you a long time ago!” Tessa’s hands push against my chest. “I don’t know why I’m even here! I came all the way here the second Landon called me!” She’s screaming at me now. Her face is red and her lips are moving so fast. Her tongue darts out to wet them so she can finish her angry rant. “I left my boyfriend—who, like you said, is the only one who can stand to be around me—to come here for you!”

Her words sink into me, one by one. She did leave her boyfriend to come here. She has no other reason to be here aside from me. Maybe I’m not as bad as I thought, and maybe she sees that in me.

“You know what? You’re right, Hardin, I am pathetic. I’m pathetic for coming here, I’m pathetic for even trying—”

I close the space between us without another thought and press my mouth to hers. She pushes at my chest, fighting me, but I can feel her body relaxing in my arms.

“Kiss me, Tessa,” I beg her. I need her.

“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.


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