Before: Part 2: During – Chapter: 23

His paranoia took hold of him, dragging him further and further away from her. He tried to grasp on to the tiny sliver of hope that he could have the life he wanted to have with her. He tried to come up with plan after plan to save the only good thing that had ever happened to him. He begged his enemies, pleaded with his friends, for their silence. None of his plans would work, none of them could hide what he did to her, and he knew it was all going to blow up in his face.

I take Tessa to the mall, where my shitty luck continues as we sit in the food court before deciding which stores to go to. Paranoia seems to be haunting me, stalking me wherever I go. I can’t stop thinking about everything Steph could have told her. Does she know everything I’ve been hiding from her? Will she finally see me as I am, not worthy of her?

I pick at my meal, lost in my head, while Tessa eats slowly, watching me the entire time. What is she looking for? Signs of my lies coming to the surface?

“We can find your outfit first, I guess?” I say. I still can’t believe I agreed to go to the wedding. It’s going to be so fucking awkward for me, and my only plan at this point is to focus on Tessa and not remember a damn thing that happened earlier than three months ago.

“Well, you have the luxury of looking beautiful regardless of what you wear.”

Her cheeks light up at my flattery. “That’s not true; you’re the one who definitely pulls off that ‘I don’t give a crap how I look but I look flawless’ look.” She’s laughing, and my chest aches a little less at the sight.

“I do, don’t I?” I smile at her. But she carries that look off, too. Much more than I do, and she doesn’t even try.

Tessa’s phone vibrates on the table. She’s acting pretty normal for someone who knows they are being toyed with this way. Maybe she’s acting normal on purpose to distract me until she can play me and get her revenge.

Or maybe she really doesn’t know?

“It’s Landon,” she says as I read his name on the screen. My chest stops pounding out of control. She answers the phone and I watch her mouth as she speaks. She sucks on her lower lip for a few seconds and looks me up and down.

I have to come up with a way to prevent her from ever being alone with Steph. I need to keep her closer from now on. I’ve been too casual about this whole thing. I should have her by my side at all times.

“Okay, well, I’ll do my best to get him in a tie,” she says into the phone, and it’s obvious who she means by “him.”

She presses her hand to her cheek and rests her elbow on the table. She looks adorably pushy. But a tie? Good luck with that.

Tessa starts saying something else to Landon, but my attention goes to the middle of the food court, where Zed, Jace, and Logan are standing. They’re all dressed in different ways, each trying to make a statement about who they are by means of their wardrobe. Logan is the preppy, kind of punk kid with a baby face, and is less badass than the other two. Zed, the tall and dark one, looks like he’s modeling leather even though he’s in a middle-class mall. He looks out of place. Jace looks like the delinquent, the one all the teenage girls should stay away from.

“I’ll be right back.” I stand up from the table, leaving my food. Thank God she’s on the phone, so she won’t follow. Not immediately.

Logan’s rubbing a small tube of ChapStick over his lips when I reach them. Jace is looking awfully fucking smug, and Zed’s looking pretty stressed out. “Nice to see you, too,” Logan says, and taps his foot against the linoleum while Jace laughs a breathy, stoner-y laugh. The three of them have dilated pupils and thin red veins mapping their eyes. They smell of pot and stale cigarettes. If Zed and Tessa kissed, would she like the taste of tobacco on his tongue?

“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.

“Are you done throwing a fit?”

“A fit? You aren’t serious!” She’s gone to shrieking now.

“I don’t know why it’s such a big deal to you that I called you my friend; that’s not what I meant. I was just caught off-guard.” A half-truth.

“If you’re embarrassed about being seen with me, then I don’t want to see you anymore.” Her voice is shaky. She’s trying to stop herself from crying. I’m familiar enough with her ways by now to know that she’s digging her fingernails into her thighs and her gray eyes are filling with tears. More tears that I caused her to shed.

“Don’t say that to me.” I run my hand over my oily hair, wanting to yank it out piece by piece. “Tessa, why do you assume I’m embarrassed about you? That’s just fucking ridiculous.” I don’t have any reason to be embarrassed about her; if anything, it’s the other way around. To my friends, she’s now a joke; every fucking moment I’ve shared with this girl has now been diminished to nothing. I turned everything into nothing and she’s going to find out soon and there’s nothing I can do to stop this freight train from tearing into my life once again. I had just begun to build it up, and now I’ve gone and fucked everything up.

“Have fun at your party tonight,” she says with a pout from the passenger seat.

“Please, I’m not going to the docks with them. I just said that so Jace would lay off.” Which is true. I don’t want to go to a stupid party. I want to be buried between Tessa’s thighs all night.

“If you aren’t embarrassed of me, then take me to the party.”

I should have known she would throw in this one. Everything is always a game to her, everything.

I’m one to fucking talk.

“Absolutely fucking not,” I say.

OF COURSE WE WENT to that fucking party, because, once again, Theresa Young got her way.

As the days go by, I’m more comfortable in my own lie than I care to admit. I pretend that everything isn’t slowly crumbling, that tiny pieces of everything that holds us together aren’t chipping away with each minute that passes that I don’t tell her. I can’t tell her. I can’t open that can of worms and let them destroy us. The truth will drown us; there’s no way around that. It’s inevitable, the same way my love for Tessa is inevitable.

“Well… welcome home?” I call through the apartment when the real-estate agent leaves us alone, finally. I thought he would never fucking leave. Tessa laughs, covering her mouth with the back of her hand, and steps toward me. I wrap my arms around her, thanking whoever gave her to me for letting her stay a little while longer before she’s ripped from my life. I deserve a shred of happiness while it lasts, don’t I?

“I can’t believe we live here now. It still doesn’t seem real.” Her wild eyes are curious, excited and alive in a way they haven’t been since I met her. I’ve given her freedom in such a large gesture. I’ve given her a beautiful apartment where she can be herself, the version of her that no one can judge or demand things from. Her mum isn’t here to tell her to brush her hair, and Steph isn’t here to think of manipulative ways to hurt us.

“If someone had told me I would be dating you—let alone living with you—two months ago, I’d have either laughed in their face or punched them… either one.” I laugh and bring her face between my hands. She’s so warm, her cheeks alight with excitement.

“Well, aren’t you sweet?” She rests her hands on my hips and leans into me. Her head is heavy on my chest, my anchor. My life is perfect for the first time since I can remember. I’m completely ignoring the catastrophe that’s coming my way, but for now my life is perfect. “It’s a relief, though, to have our own space. No more parties, no more roommates and community showers,” Tessa adds. My chest pounds against her cheek, and I wonder if she can sense my growing paranoia.

“Our own bed.” I mask the feeling with humor. “We’ll need to get a few things—dishes and such.” The more things she has here, the harder it will be when it’s time to leave. Fuck, I’m trapped in this lie and tying the ropes around her as we speak. This beautiful girl will never forgive me, she won’t.

I’ll think about it later. I’ll figure something out.

She brings her hand to my forehead and lightly applies pressure. “Are you feeling okay?” She grins. “You’re being awfully cooperative today.” Her sarcastic humor makes me care for her even more.

I bring her hand to my lips, peppering the back of it with kisses. “I just want to make sure you’re pleased with everything here. I want you to feel at home… with me.” And I do. I’ve never felt like I had a home until Tessa signed along those dotted lines to move in with me. Waking up to her annoying alarm clock every day has grown into something I need, something I was missing and didn’t know it.

“And what about you? Do you feel at home here?” Her voice is full of hope. It’s tenuous hope, though… she’s waiting and expecting me to deliver a ruthless opinion about our living situation. I can see it in her eyes; she’s hopeful, but she expects the worst from me because that’s what she always gets.

“Surprisingly enough, yes.” I answer her honestly while trying to make my voice sound as convincing as possible. I really do love it here, with her.

“We should go get my stuff,” she suggests, then tells me about the books and clothing I’ve already taken care of.

“Already done.” I smile.

She tilts her head in confusion. “What?”

“I brought all of your belongings from your room; they’re in your trunk.” I just couldn’t wait. I wanted her to see the place and never leave. I need her to never leave here, so I needed to make her as comfortable as I could.

“How did you know I’d sign the lease? What if I hated the apartment?” She turns her cheeks up at me, curiosity and a challenge filling them.

“Because if you hadn’t liked this one, I’d have found one that you did like,” I tell her.

She nods, acknowledging that I’m completely serious. “Okay… Well, what about your stuff?” she asks me.

“We can get it tomorrow. I have clothes in my trunk.”

“What is with that, anyway?”

“I don’t know, really. I guess you just never know when you’ll need clothes.” She’s nosy, so nosy. I keep clothes in the trunk of my car for many reasons; most of them she surely wouldn’t like to know. “Let’s go to the store and get all the shit we need for the kitchen and some food,” I suggest.

Tessa turns to me when we step into the lobby. “Okay. Can I drive your car again?”

“I don’t know…” I tease her. But of course she can drive it.


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