Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 22

Everything began to unravel for him, and the flimsy little house of cards he built was becoming shakier and shakier with each passing day. At each mention of his lies, he would panic, scrambling to come up with a plan. He was convinced he had been cursed as a child… there was no other explanation for the suffering he had been dealt. He was beginning to question whether Tessa was his saving grace or his biggest curse. He had her, every part of her, yet she was slipping away with every passing second.

Tessa is at her internship when I go by her room a few days later. Molly has been telling me Steph is going off the deep end. She’s dropping hints that Steph may be losing her fucking mind, and I need to talk to her before she does.

When I get to the room, Steph is lying across the bed, her red hair a thick mess. Chunks of curls are stuck with pins on her head. Her makeup is dark; smoky gray shadows her lids, making her look like a haunted version of a Valley girl. Her skin is white and her lips are a dark red.

“She’s not here,” Steph announces, and shuts the screen on Tessa’s laptop. What’s that doing here? “I’m only watching movies. Relax, psycho.”

I grab the laptop from her bed and slip it under my arm. “I know she isn’t. I wanted to talk to you,” I tell her. She raises herself up on her elbow, and her boobs push against her tight dress, revealing more than an eyeful.

“Talk to me about what?” Her eyes are cold as she waits for my answer. I’ve always known something is loose inside her mind, but I can never tell just how dangerous it is. Everyone has a screw or two loose, but in Steph’s case, it feels like something more sometimes. I used to think she was a cool girl, but she ended up more like the redheaded version of Amy Dunne’s crazy ass.

“You know what.” I sit down on Tessa’s bed and turn my body to face Steph.

“Molly called you,” she answers, connecting the dots. “She’s becoming such an annoying little cunt. Isn’t she?” Steph rolls her head back and sits up. “I’m not going to say anything to Tessa. I know that the only reason you’re here is to beg me not to say shit to her. I’m not going to.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?” I question her, and she rolls her tongue against her teeth.

“Believe me or not. I got my fun from it. I’m bored with it now, and I’m starting to feel a little bad for her.” To be honest, this completely surprises me.

“You are?” I scoot to the edge of Tessa’s mattress and rest my elbows on my knees.

She begins to laugh—a feral, high-pitched laugh—and I sigh. I should have known. “No, of course not. I am bored with it, though.” I watch as she tugs at her dress to show me more of her chest. I look away.

This is for Tessa. I need to not make a scene.

“You’re almost done with her by now anyway, I’m sure.”

Almost done with her? Has she lost her fucking mind?

“Aren’t you? You fucked her—now you’re done with her. That’s how it goes with you.”

The weirdest thing about this is that Steph isn’t giving me shit, she’s just making a statement. Given my history, her assessment would be accurate, except I’ve spent much longer working on Tessa than I did on any of the others.

Tessa made me fight for her because she was fucking worth it. Too bad I ruined everything.

“No…” I clear my throat. “I’m not done with her.”

Steph’s eyes roll and she licks her lips. “I knew you weren’t. How many times have you fucked her now? Is she actually still tight? I mean, with the way you ruin things.”

My eyes must be ready to pop out of my head when she looks at me, because she moves farther away from me.

“Is she?” Steph repeats. “I’m sure she’s nice and used up for you. Now you can move on, and she can go away. I see her enough as it is.”

“You really don’t like her.” I rub the back of my neck. Tessa thinks Steph is her friend, and I don’t want to get in the middle of that unless I have to. If Steph ever tries to pull anything on Tessa, though, I would take care of it.

“No, I don’t really like her. Let’s move on. Just dump her and go back to getting BJs from Molly every other day.”

“I’m going to still be seeing Tessa.” I don’t know how to say this to her. I don’t want her to have more power over me than she does, but I also don’t want her to be under the impression that Tessa isn’t a permanent fixture in my life.

She isn’t a permanent fixture, but I’m still praying to find a way for this to work.

But that’s not Steph’s business. Fuck, this is a mess. A huge fucking mess.

“Why did you come here, Hardin? I know it wasn’t just to check on my big mouth.” She licks her lips again and pushes her elbows against the sides of her chest in the least subtle way possible.

My temper flares momentarily, and I stand to my feet. “You’ve lost your fucking mind if you think I would touch you!”

“Tessa’s nothing special. I don’t know why you and Zed are both so fucking obsessed with her.”

“Zed is not relevant in this conversation.” My hands are shaking, and I can see that Steph’s growing more and more pleased with herself and the reaction her mention of Zed is getting out of me.

Don’t let her get to you, Hardin.

She’s antagonizing me purposely, and I’m letting her. What is that thing my gran used to say?

Shit, I don’t remember.

“Zed is a pretty relevant—”

“Enough.” I press my hands together and bring them to my face. I pinch the bridge of my nose and breathe in, breathe out.

I came here to talk to her about Molly’s worries, to make sure that Tessa wouldn’t be torn from me by any crazy or vicious action on Steph’s part, but now I’m here and Steph is being an exceptionally terrible human being, and honestly, I just feel like being a dick. Steph acting like Queen of the Assholes makes me feel like I’m not any different than I was before Tessa. I thought I was better than her and the others somehow, but here I am. I’m going to be sitting right next to her in hell.

I can’t help but push her. I thrive on making her feel as shitty as I do. I look at Steph and put my biggest grin on my face. “Maybe you should worry about your own boyfriend and the way he always stares at Molly. I’ve seen them alone a few times…” I say some other things about them—I don’t even know what, really—and by the time I finish my lie, her eyes are watering, shining red in my triumph.

“You’re lying.” She’s trying to hold in her tears. Gotcha.

“Nope, too bad for you,” I tell her. I put Tessa’s laptop in the top drawer of her dresser. I need to get her out of this dorm, and soon.

Before Steph can get another word in, I leave the room. When I get into my car and common sense starts kicking in, I realize that I made another dumb fucking move. Steph isn’t like most girls. She won’t sit on her anger and wait for the right moment to strike. She’s irrational, and I can see her spilling every detail of the Bet to Tessa, exaggerations included. I should just tell her—I should tell Tessa every disgusting truth before she finds out. This is eating me alive.

I climb back out of the car and walk back to the dorm room to try another route with Steph.

But I hear Tessa’s voice as soon as I reach the door. Fuck.

I lean against it, listening to the girls’ conversation. “I don’t think Tristan would go for her; I see the way he looks at you. He really cares about you. I think you should call him and talk it out,” I hear Tessa say. I press my ear harder against the door and hope that no one walks by.

“What if he’s with her?” Steph asks.

She actually believed that shit?

“He’s not,” Tessa comforts her roommate.

“How do you know? Sometimes you think you know people, but you don’t,” Steph begins.

Fuck this. Steph’s going to tell her. She’s going to tell her right fucking now.

“H—”

I open the door.

“Hey…” I say when I step into the room. They seem to be bonding; an outsider would be fooled. “Um… should I come back?”

“No, I’m going to go find Tristan and try to apologize.” Steph stands up. “Thank you, Tessa.” She hugs Tessa and stares at me, letting me know that she’s not done here.

Distraction—I need a distraction. “You hungry?” I ask Tess as Steph gets ready to leave.

“Yeah, actually I am,” she says, rubbing her hand over her stomach. She’s distracted now and doesn’t seem to notice the awkward hate stare Steph is firing at me.

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