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After We Collided

Year:
2014
Language:
english
ISBN 13:
9781476792552
File:
EPUB, 4.29 MB
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“The one thing you can count on is to expect the unexpected.”

—Vilma’s Book Blog

“Be prepared to have an emotional explosion!”

—Biblio Belles



This story is amazing! I love it! • Intense • Adorable & perfect • Hessa • I’m addicted • So romantic • I’m crying an ocean • I will always ship Hessa • You don’t have to be a Directioner to read this • Nerve-racking • So cute I’m giggling • Anna is a genius • They fight and piss each other off, but that’s what makes it so realistic • LOL—love this! • I’m more up to date on this story than I am on my actual life

Wattpad readers agree—the After series is a wild, addicting rollercoaster of a romance. #Hessa forever!

He’s moody—but that’s exactly what made me fall for him • I love this way too much! • I just spit my water • This story is going to be the death of me! • OMG *facepalm* • I’m crying and I have goosebumps • I love them so much XOXO • My heart just melted! • Romantic bastard • I’m grinning like an idiot • Fangirling SO HARD! • Just buy her a ring already! • So dark and mysterious • Wow, that was hot. • I want more.



“Anna Todd manages to make you scream, cry, laugh, fall in love, and sit in the fetal position . . . Whether you have read the Wattpad version or not, After is a can’t-miss book–but get ready to feel emotions that you weren’t sure that a book could bring out of you. And if you have read the Wattpad version, the book is 10x better.”

—Fangirlish





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To every single person reading this, with so, so, so much love and gratitude





prologue


HARDIN


I can’t feel the icy concrete under me or the snow settling over me. I can feel only the hole that was ripped through my chest. I’m kneeling helplessly, watching as Zed pulls out of the p; arking lot with Tessa in the passenger seat.

I couldn’t have imagined this—never in my wildest fucking dreams would I have thought that I’d feel this type of pain. The sting of loss, I’ve heard it called. I haven’t had anything or anyone to cherish, never felt the need to have someone, to make them completely mine, I haven’t wanted to hold on to someone so fiercely. The panic—the complete and utter fucking panic of losing her—wasn’t planned. None of this was. It was supposed to be easy: sleep with her, get my money and my bragging rights over Zed. Pretty cut-and-dried. Only it didn’t happen that way. Instead, the blond-haired girl in the long skirts who obsessively makes long to-do lists crept her way inside of me until, slowly, I fell for her so hard that I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t realize just how much I loved her until I was vomiting into a sink after showing my fucked-up friends the proof of her stolen virginity.

I hated it, hated every moment of it . . . but I didn’t stop.

I won the bet, but I lost the only thing that has ever made me happy. And along with that, I lost every ounce of goodness she made me see in myself. As the snow soaks into my clothes, I want to blame my father for passing his addiction on to me; I want to blame my mum for staying with him for too long and helping create such a fucked-up child; I want to blame Tessa for ever speaking to me. Hell, I want to blame everyone.

But I can’t. I did this. I ruined her and everything we had.

But I’ll do whatever it takes to make up for my mistakes.

Where is she going now? Is it someplace where I’ll ever find her?





chapter one


TESSA


It took longer than a month,” I sob as Zed finishes explaining how the bet came to be made. I feel sick to my stomach, and I close my eyes to get some relief.

“I know. He kept coming up with excuses and he kept asking for more time and he’d lower the amount he was supposed to get. It was weird. We all just thought he was obsessed with winning—like to prove a point or something—but now I get it.” Zed stops talking for a second, and his eyes scan my face. “It was all he talked about. Then, that day when I invited you to the movies, he flipped out. After he dropped you back off, he totally flipped shit on me and said I had to stay away from you. But I just laughed it off, because I thought he was drunk.”

“Did he . . . did he tell you about the stream? And the . . . other stuff?” I hold my breath as I ask. The pity in his eyes answers me. “Oh my God.” I put my hands over my face.

“He told us everything . . . I mean everything . . .” he says in a low voice.

I stay quiet and turn off my phone. It hasn’t stopped vibrating since I left the bar. He has no right to be calling me.

“Where’s your new dorm?” Zed asks, and I notice we’re near campus.

“I don’t live in a dorm. Hardin and I . . .” I can barely finish my sentence. “He convinced me to move in with him, just a week ago.”

“He didn’t,” Zed gasps.

“He did. He’s so beyond . . . he’s j-just . . .” I stutter, unable to come up with a fitting word for his cruelty.

“I didn’t know it was going this far. I thought once we saw the . . . you know, the proof . . . he’d be back to normal, seeing a different girl every night. But then he disappeared. He’s barely come around us at all, except the other night he showed up at the docks and was trying to get Jace and me to agree not to tell you. He offered Jace a shitload of money to keep quiet.”

“Money?” I say. Hardin couldn’t be lower. The space inside Zed’s truck grows smaller with each sickening revelation.

“Yeah. Jace laughed it off, of course, and told Hardin he would keep his mouth shut.”

“And you didn’t?” I ask, remembering Hardin’s busted knuckles and Zed’s face.

“Not exactly . . . I told him that if he didn’t tell you soon, I would. He didn’t like that idea, obviously,” he says, and waves at his face. “If it makes you feel any better, I do think he cares about you.”

“He doesn’t. And if he does, it doesn’t matter,” I say, and lay my head against the window.

Every kiss and touch have been shared among Hardin’s friends, every moment on display. My most intimate moments. My only intimate moments aren’t mine at all.

“Do you want to come back to my place? I don’t mean that in a pushy or creepy way. I just have a couch you could stay on until you . . . figure things out,” he offers.

“No. No, thank you. Can I use your phone, though? I need to call Landon.”

Zed nods at the phone resting on the console, and for a moment my mind wanders to thoughts of how things would be different if I hadn’t blown Zed off for Hardin after the bonfire. I would never have made all of these mistakes.

Landon answers on the second ring, and just like I knew he would, he tells me to come right over. Granted, I haven’t told him what’s up, but he’s just so kind. I give Zed Landon’s address, and he stays quiet for most of the drive across town.

“He’s so going to come after me for taking you anywhere but to him,” he finally says.

“I would apologize for being in the middle of this . . . but you guys did this to yourselves,” I say honestly. I do pity Zed slightly, because I believe he had much better intentions than Hardin did, but my wounds are too fresh to even think about that right now.

“I know.”

“If you need anything, call me,” he offers, and I nod before climbing out of the car.

I can see my breath coming out in front of my face in hot spurts through the cold air. I can’t feel the cold, though. I can’t feel anything.

Landon is my only friend, but he lives at Hardin’s father’s house. The irony of this is not lost on me.


“IT’S REALLY COMING DOWN out there,” Landon says as he rushes me inside. “Where’s your coat?” he scolds playfully, then flinches when I step into the light. “What happened? What did he do?”

My eyes scan the room, hoping that Ken and Karen aren’t downstairs. “That obvious, huh?” I wipe under my eyes.

Landon pulls me into his arms, and I wipe my eyes again. I no longer have the strength, physical or emotional, to sob. I’m beyond that, so far beyond it.

Landon gets me a glass of water and says, “Go up to your room.”

I manage to smile, but some perverse instinct leads me to Hardin’s door when I reach the top of the stairs. When I realize it, the pain that is so close to breaking back through stirs even more forcefully, so I quickly turn and go into the room across the hall. Memories of running across the hall to Hardin that night I heard him screaming in his sleep burn within me as I open the door. I sit awkwardly on the bed in “my room,” unsure what to do next.

Landon joins me a few minutes later. Sitting next to me, he’s close enough to show concern, yet far enough to be respectful, as is his way.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asks kindly.

I nod. Even though repeating the whole saga hurts worse than finding out about it in the first place, telling Landon feels almost liberating, and it’s a comfort to know that at least one person didn’t actually know about my humiliation the entire time.

Listening to me, Landon is as still as stone, to the point that I can’t read what he’s thinking. I want to know what this makes him think of his stepbrother. Of me. But when I finish, he immediately jumps up with an angry energy.

“I can’t believe him! What the hell is wrong with him! Here I thought he was becoming almost . . . decent . . . and he does—this! This is so messed up! I can’t believe he would do this to you, of all people. Why would he ruin the only thing he has?”

As soon as Landon finishes speaking, his head snaps to the side.

And then I, too, notice it: footsteps rushing up the staircase. Not just footsteps, but heavy boots slamming against the wooden steps in a frenzy.

“He’s here,” we both say, and for a split second I actually consider hiding in the closet.

Landon looks at me with a very adult seriousness on his face. “Do you want to see him?”

I shake my head frantically, and Landon moves to close the door just as Hardin’s voice slices right through me.

“Tessa!”

Just as Landon reaches out his arm, Hardin bursts through the doorway and blows past him. He stops in the middle of the room, and I stand up off the bed. Not used to this sort of thing, Landon stands there, stunned for a moment.

“Tessa, thank God. Thank God you’re here.” He sighs and runs his hands over his hair.

My chest aches at the sight of him and I look away, focusing on the wall.

“Tessa, baby. I need you to listen to me. Please, just . . .”

I stay silent and walk toward him. His eyes light with hope and he reaches out for me, but when I continue past him, I catch the hope extinguishing in him.

Good.

“Talk to me,” he begs.

But I shake my head and stand next to Landon. “No—I’ll never be talking to you again!” I shout.

“You don’t mean that . . .” Hardin steps closer.

“Get away from me!” I scream as he grabs my arm.

Landon steps between us and puts his arm on his stepbrother’s shoulder. “Hardin, you need to go.”

Hardin’s jaw clenches and he looks back and forth between us. “Landon, you need to get the fuck out of the way,” he warns.

But Landon stands his ground, and I know Hardin well enough to know that he’s weighing his options, whether it’s worth punching Landon right now, in front of me.

Seeming to have decided against it, he takes a deep breath. “Please . . . give us a minute,” he says, trying to keep his calm.

Landon looks at me and my eyes plead with him. He turns back to Hardin. “She doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“Don’t you fucking tell me what she wants!” Hardin screams and his fist connects with the wall, cracking and denting the drywall.

I jump back and begin to cry again. Not now, not now, I silently repeat to try to manage my emotions.

“Go, Hardin!” Landon shouts just as Ken and Karen appear at the doorway.

Oh no. I shouldn’t have come here.

“What the hell is going on?” Ken asks.

No one says anything. Karen looks at me with sympathy, and Ken repeats his question.

Hardin glares at his father. “I’m trying to talk to Tessa, and Landon won’t mind his own damn business!”

Ken looks at Landon, then at me. “What did you do, Hardin?” His tone has changed from worried to . . . angry? I can’t quite put my finger on it.

“Nothing! Fuck!” Hardin throws his hands in the air.

“He messed everything up, is what he did, and now Tessa has nowhere to go,” Landon states.

I want to speak; I just have no idea what to say.

“She has somewhere to go, she can go home. Where she belongs . . . with me,” Hardin says.

“Hardin has been playing Tessa this entire time—he did unspeakable things to her!” Landon blurts out, and Karen lets out a gasp, stepping over to me.

I utterly shrink. I’ve never felt so naked and small. I didn’t want Ken and Karen to know . . . but it may not make much of a difference, since after tonight they surely won’t really want to see me again.

“Do you want to go with him?” Ken asks, interrupting my downward spiral.

I shake my head meekly.

“Well, I’m not leaving here without you,” Hardin snaps. He steps toward me, but I cringe away.

“I think you need to go, Hardin,” Ken surprises me by saying.

“Excuse me?” Hardin’s face is a deep shade of red that expresses what I can only describe as rage. “You’re lucky I even come here to your house—and you dare to kick me out?”

“I’ve been very happy with how our relationship has grown, son, but tonight you have to go.”

Hardin throws his hands into the air. “This is bullshit, who is she to you?”

Ken turns to me, then back to his son. “Whatever you did to her, I hope it was worth losing the only good thing you had going for you,” he says and then drops his head.

I don’t know if it was the shock of Ken’s words, or just that he’d hit a point where all the rage peaked and flowed out of him, but Hardin just stills, looks at me briefly, and marches out of the room. We all remain quiet while we listen to him walk down the stairs at a steady pace.

When the sound of the front door slamming cuts through the now-quiet house, I turn to Ken and sob, “I’m so sorry. I’ll go. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

“No, you stay as long as you need. You’re always welcome here,” Ken says, and both he and Karen hug me.

“I didn’t mean to come between you,” I say, feeling terrible for the way Ken had to kick his son out.

Karen grabs hold of my hand and gives it a squeeze. Ken looks at me with exasperation and weariness. “Tessa, I love Hardin, but I think we both know that without you, there isn’t anything to come between,” he says.





chapter two


TESSA


I stayed in as long as I could, letting the water roll over me. I wanted it to clean me, reassure me somehow. But the hot shower didn’t help me relax like I had hoped. I can’t think of anything that’s going to calm the ache inside of me. It feels infinite. Permanent. Like an organism that’s come to live within me, but also like a hole growing steadily larger.

“I feel terrible about the wall. I offered to pay for it, but Ken refuses to let me,” I tell Landon as I brush out my wet hair.

“Don’t worry about that. You have a lot going on.” Landon frowns and rubs his hand across my back.

“I can’t comprehend how my life came to this, how I ever got to this point.” I stare ahead, not wanting to meet my best friend’s eyes. “Three months ago, everything made sense. I had Noah, who would never do something like this. I was close with my mother and I had this idea of how my life would be. And now I have nothing. Literally nothing. I don’t even know if I should go to my internship anymore because Hardin will either go there, or he’ll convince Christian Vance to fire me just because he can.” I grab the pillow on the bed and grip the material hard in my fist. “He had nothing to lose, but I did. I let him take everything from me. My life before him was so simple and decided. Now . . . after him . . . it’s just . . . after.”

Landon looks at me with wide eyes. “Tessa, you can’t give up your internship; he’s taken enough from you. Don’t let him take that, please,” he practically pleads. “The good thing about this afterlife without him is that you can make it whatever you please, you can start all over.”

I know he’s right, but it isn’t that simple. Everything in my life is tied to Hardin now, even the paint on my damn car. He somehow became the string that held everything in my life together, and in his absence I’m left with the rubble that once was my life.

When I relent and give Landon a halfhearted nod, he smiles a little and says, “I’ll let you get some rest.” He hugs me and starts to leave.

“Do you think this will ever stop?” I ask, and he turns around.

“What?”

My voice almost a whisper: “The pain?”

“I don’t know . . . I’d like to think it will, though. Time heals . . . most wounds,” he answers and gives me his most comforting half smile, half frown.

I don’t know if time will heal me or not. But I do know that if it doesn’t, I won’t survive.


WITH HEAVY-HANDED INTENT, yet enacted with his unfailing politeness, Landon forces me out of bed the next morning to make sure I don’t miss my internship. I take a moment to leave a note of thanks to Ken and Karen, and to apologize again for the hole Hardin put in their wall. Landon is quiet, and keeps looking over at me as he drives, trying to give me encouraging smiles and little slogans to remember. But I still feel terrible.

Memories begin to creep into my mind as we pull into the parking lot. Hardin on his knees in the snow. Zed’s explanation of the bet. I quickly unlock my car, jumping inside to get away from the cold air. When I get into my car, I cringe at my reflection in the rearview. My eyes are still bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles. Bags have swollen up under them, completing the horror-movie look. I will definitely need more makeup than I thought.

Going to Walmart, the only nearby store open at this hour, I buy everything I need to mask my feelings. But I don’t have the strength or the energy to make a real effort on my appearance, so I’m not sure I look much better.

Case in point: I arrive at Vance, and Kimberly gasps when she sees me. I try to muster a smile for her, but she jumps up from her desk.

“Tessa, dear, are you okay?” she asks frantically.

“Do I look that bad?” I shrug weakly.

“No, of course not,” she lies. “You just look . . .”

“Exhausted. Because I am. Finals took a lot out of me,” I tell her.

She nods and smiles warmly, but I can feel her eyes on my back the entire walk down the hall to my office. After that, my day drags on, no end in sight, it seems, until late morning, when Mr. Vance knocks at my door.

“Good afternoon, Tessa,” he says with a smile.

“Good afternoon,” I manage.

“I just wanted to touch base with you and let you know how impressed I am with your work so far.” He chuckles. “You’re doing a better and more detailed job than many of my actual employees.”

“Thank you, that means a lot to me,” I say, and immediately the voice in my head reminds me that I only have this internship because of Hardin.

“That being the case, I would like to invite you to the Seattle conference this coming weekend. Often these things are pretty boring, but it’s all about digital publishing, the ‘wave of the future’ and all that. You’ll meet a lot of people, learn some things. I’m opening a second branch in Seattle in a few months, and I need to meet a few people myself.” He laughs. “So what do you say? All expenses would be paid and we’ll leave Friday afternoon; Hardin is more than welcome to come along. Not to the conference but to Seattle,” he explains with a knowing smile.

If only he really knew what was going on.

“Of course I would love to go. I really appreciate your invitation!” I tell him, unable to contain my enthusiasm and the immediate relief that, finally, something decent is happening to me.

“Great! I’ll have Kimberly give you all the details, and explain how to expense things . . .” He rambles on, but I wander off while he does.

The idea of going to the conference soothes my ache slightly. I will be farther away from Hardin, but on the other hand, Seattle now reminds me of when Hardin wanted to take me there. He has tainted every aspect of my life, including the entire state of Washington. I feel my office getting smaller, the air in the room getting thicker.

“Are you feeling okay?” Mr. Vance asks, his brow lowers in concern.

“Uh, yeah, I just . . . I haven’t eaten today and I didn’t sleep much last night,” I tell him.

“Go ahead and go home, then, you can finish what you’re doing at home,” he says.

“It’s okay—”

“No, go on home. There are no ambulances in publishing. We’ll manage without you,” he assures me with a wave, then strolls off.

I gather my things, check my appearance in the bathroom mirror—yup, still pretty horrible—and am about to step into the elevator when Kimberly calls my name.

“Going home?” she asks and I nod. “Well, Hardin’s in a bad mood, so beware.”

“What? How do you know?”

“Because he just cussed me out for not transferring him to you.” She smiles. “Not even the tenth time he called. I figured if you wanted to talk to him, you would have on your cell.”

“Thank you,” I say, silently grateful she’s as observant as she is. Hearing Hardin’s voice on the line would have made the aching hole in me grow that much more quickly.

I manage to make it to my car before breaking down again. The pain only seems to get worse when there are no distractions, when I’m left alone with my thoughts and memories. And, of course, when I see the fifteen missed calls from Hardin on my phone and a notice that I have ten new messages, which I won’t read.

After pulling myself together enough to drive, I do what I’ve been dreading to do: call my mother.

She answers on the first ring. “Hello?”

“Mom,” I sob. The word feels odd coming out of my mouth, but I need the comfort of my mom right now.

“What did he do?”

That this has been everyone’s reaction shows me just how obvious the danger of Hardin was to everyone, and how oblivious I’ve been.

“I . . . he . . .” I can’t form a sentence. “Can I come home, just for today?” I ask her.

“Of course, Tessa. I’ll see you in two hours,” she says and hangs up.

Better than I thought, but not as warm as I had hoped for. I wish she were more like Karen, loving and accepting of any flaw. I wish she could just soften up, just long enough for me to feel the solace of having a mother, a loving and comforting one.

Pulling onto the highway, I shut my phone off before I do something stupid, like read any of those messages from Hardin.





chapter three


TESSA


The drive to my childhood home is familiar and easy, requiring little thought on my part. I force myself to let out every scream—literally, as in screaming as loud as I possibly can and until my throat is sore—before I arrive in my hometown. I find this is actually much harder to do than I thought it would be, especially since I don’t feel like yelling. I feel like crying and disappearing. I would give anything to rewind my life to my first day of college; I would have taken my mother’s advice and changed rooms. My mother had worried about Steph being a bad influence; if only we’d realized it would be the rude, curly-haired boy that would be the problem. That he would take everything in me and spin it around, tearing me into tiny pieces before blowing on the pile and scattering me across the sky and beneath his friends’ heels.

I have only been two hours away from home this whole time, but with everything that’s happened, it feels so much farther. I haven’t been home since I started school. If I hadn’t broken up with Noah, I would have been back many times. I force my eyes to stay focused on the road as I pass his house.

I pull into our driveway and practically jump out of my car. But when I get to the door, I’m not sure if I should knock. It feels strange to do so, but I don’t feel comfortable just walking inside either. How can so much have changed since I left for college?

I decide to just walk inside, and I find my mother standing by the brown leather couch in full makeup, a dress, and heels. Everything looks the same: clean and perfectly organized. The only difference is that it seems smaller, maybe because of my time at Ken’s house. Well, my mother’s house is definitely small and unappealing from the outside, but the inside is decorated nicely, and my mother always did her best to mask the chaos of her marriage with attractive paint and flowers and attention to cleanliness. A decorating strategy she continued after my dad left, because I guess it had become habit by that point. The house is warm and the familiar smell of cinnamon fills my nostrils. My mother has always obsessed over wax burners and has one in every room. I take my shoes off at the door, knowing that she won’t want snow on her polished hardwood floors.

“Would you like some coffee, Theresa?” she asks before hugging me.

I get my coffee addiction from my mother, and this connection brings a small smile to my lips. “Yes, please.”

I follow her into the kitchen and sit at the small table, unsure how to begin the conversation.

“So are you going to tell me what happened?” she asks bluntly.

I take a deep breath and a sip of my coffee before answering. “Hardin and I broke up.”

Her expression is neutral. “Why?”

“Well, he didn’t turn out to be who I thought he was,” I say. I wrap my hands around the scalding-hot cup of coffee in an attempt to distract myself from the pain and prepare myself for my mother’s response.

“And who did you think he was?”

“Someone who loved me.” I’m not sure who I thought Hardin was other than that, on his own, as a person.

“And now you don’t think he does?”

“No, I know he doesn’t.”

“What makes you so sure?” she asks coolly.

“Because I trusted him and he betrayed me, in a terrible way.” I know I’m leaving out the details, but I still feel the strange need to protect Hardin from my mother’s judgment. I scold myself for being so stupid, for even considering him, when he clearly wouldn’t do the same for me.

“Don’t you think you should have thought about this possibility before deciding to live with him?”

“Yes, I know. Go ahead and tell me how stupid I am, tell me that you told me so,” I say.

“I did tell you, I warned you about guys like him. Men like him and your father are best to stay away from. I’m just glad it’s over with before it really even began. People make mistakes, Tessa.” She takes a drink from her mug, leaving a pink lipstick ring. “I’m sure he’ll forgive you.”

“Who?”

“Noah, of course.”

How does she not get this? I just need to talk to her, to have her comfort me—not push me to be with Noah again. I stand up, looking at her, then around the room. Is she serious? She can’t be. “Just because things didn’t work out with Hardin doesn’t mean I’m going to date Noah again!” I snap.

“Why doesn’t it? Tessa, you should be grateful that he’s willing to give you another chance.”

“What? Why can’t you just stop? I don’t need to be with anyone right now, especially not Noah.” I want to rip my hair out. Or hers.

“What do you mean, especially not Noah? How can you say that about him? He’s been nothing but great to you since you were kids.”

I sigh and sit back down. “I know, Mother, I care about Noah so much. Just not in that way.”

“You don’t even know what you’re talking about.” She stands up and pours her coffee down the drain. “It’s not always about love, Theresa; it’s about stability and security.”

“I’m only eighteen,” I tell her. I don’t want to think that I’d be with someone without loving them just for the stability. I want to be my own stability and security. I want someone to love, and someone to love me.

“Almost nineteen. And if you aren’t careful now, no one will want you. Now go fix your makeup, because Noah will be here any minute,” she announces and walks out of the kitchen.

I should have known better than to come here for comfort. I would have been better off sleeping in my car all day.


AS PROMISED, NOAH ARRIVES five minutes later, not that I’ve bothered to fix my appearance. Seeing him walk into the small kitchen makes me feel even lower than I have so far, which I didn’t think was possible.

He smiles his warm perfect smile. “Hey.”

“Hey, Noah,” I respond.

He walks closer and I stand up to hug him. He feels warm, and his sweatshirt smells so good, just like I remember. “Your mom called me,” he says.

“I know.” I try to smile. “I’m sorry that she keeps bringing you into this. I don’t know what her problem is.”

“I do. She wants you to be happy,” he says, defending her.

“Noah . . .” I warn.

“She just doesn’t know what really makes you happy. She wants it to be me, even though it’s not.” He gives a little shrug.

“I’m sorry.”

“Tess, stop apologizing. I just want to make sure you’re okay,” he assures me and hugs me again.

“I’m not,” I admit.

“I can tell. Do you want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know . . . are you sure that’s okay?” I can’t bear to hurt him again by talking about the guy I left him for.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” he says and pours himself a glass of water before sitting across from me at the table.

“Okay . . .” I say and tell him basically everything. I leave out the sex details, since those are private.

Well, they aren’t. But to me they are. I still can’t believe that Hardin told his friends everything that we did . . . that’s the worst part. Even worse than showing the sheets is the fact that after telling me that he loved me, and making love, he could apparently turn around and make a mockery of what had happened between us in front of everyone.

“I knew he was going to hurt you, I just had no idea how bad,” Noah says. I can tell how angry he is; it’s strange to see this emotion on his face, given how calm and collected he normally is. “You’re too good for him Tessa; he’s scum.”

“I can’t believe how stupid I was—I gave up everything for him. But the worst feeling in the world is loving someone who doesn’t love you.”

Noah grabs his glass and twists it in his hands. “Tell me about it,” he says softly.

I want to smack myself for saying what I just said, saying it to him. I open my mouth, but he cuts me off before I can apologize.

“It’s okay,” he says and reaches out to rub his thumb over my hand.

God, I wish I did love Noah. I would be much happier with him, and he would never do something like Hardin did to me.

Noah catches me up on everything I’ve missed since I left, which isn’t much. He’s going to go San Francisco for college instead of WCU, which I find I’m grateful for. At least one good thing came out of my hurting him: it gave him the push he needed to get out of Washington. He tells me about what he’s researched on California, and by the time he leaves, the sun has fallen, and I realize that my mom has stayed in her room during his whole visit.

Stepping out to the backyard, I wander to the greenhouse where I spent most of my childhood. As I stare through my reflection in the glass and into the little structure, I see that all its plants and flowers are dead, and it’s generally a mess, which feels fitting at the moment.

I have so many things to do, to figure out. I need to find somewhere to live and find a way to get all of my stuff from Hardin’s apartment. I was seriously considering just leaving everything there, but I can’t. I have no clothes except the ones I’ve been keeping there and, most importantly, I need my textbooks.

Reaching into my pocket, I turn my phone on, and within seconds my inbox is full and the voicemail symbol appears. I ignore the voicemails and quickly scan the messages, only looking at the sender. All except one are from Hardin.

Kimberly wrote me: Christian said to tell you to stay home tomorrow, everyone will be leaving at noon anyway since the first floor needs to be repainted, so stay home. Let me know if you need anything. xx.

Having the day off tomorrow is a huge relief. I love my internship, but I’m beginning to think I should transfer out of WCU, maybe even leave Washington. The campus isn’t big enough for me to be able to avoid Hardin and all of his friends, and I don’t want the constant reminder of what I had with Hardin. Well, what I thought I had.

By the time I go back inside the house, my hands and face are numb from the cold. My mother is sitting in a chair reading a magazine.

“Can I stay tonight?” I ask her.

She looks at me briefly. “Yes. And tomorrow we’ll figure out how to get you back into the dorms,” she says and goes back to her magazine.

Figuring I’ll get no more from my mother tonight, I go up to my old room, which is exactly the way that I left it. She hasn’t changed a thing. I don’t bother removing my makeup before bed. It’s hard, but I force myself to sleep, dreaming of when my life was much better. Before I met Hardin.

My phone rings in the middle of the night, waking me. But I ignore it, briefly wondering if Hardin’s able to sleep at all.


THE NEXT MORNING all my mother says to me before leaving for work is that she’ll call the school and force them to let me back into the dorms, in a different building far from my old one. I leave, intending to head to campus, but then decide to go to the apartment, taking the exit to the road that leads there and driving quickly to keep from changing my mind.

At the complex, I scan the parking lot for Hardin’s car, twice. Once I’m sure he isn’t around, I park and hurry across the snowy lot to the door. By the time I get to the lobby, the bottoms of my jeans are soaked and I’m freezing. I try to think of anything except Hardin, but it’s impossible.

Hardin must have really hated me to go to this extreme to ruin my life and then to move me into an apartment far from anyone I know. He must be pretty proud of himself right now for causing me this much pain.

As I fumble with my keys before unlocking the door to our place a tidal wave of panic crashes over me, nearly knocking me the ground.

When will it stop? Or at least decrease?

I go straight to the bedroom and grab my bags from the closet, roughly shoving all my clothes in them without care. My eyes flicker to the bedside table, where a small frame stands, displaying the picture of Hardin and me smiling together before Ken’s wedding.

Too bad it was all fake. Leaning across the bed, I grab it and throw it against the concrete floor. It shatters into pieces and I jump over the bed, grab the photo, and rip it into as many pieces as I can, not realizing that I’m sobbing until I choke on my own breath.

I grab my books, piling them into an empty box, and, instinctively, Hardin’s copy of Wuthering Heights; he won’t miss it, and, honestly, I’m owed it, after what he’s taken from me.

My throat is sore, so I go into the kitchen and grab a glass of water. I sit down at the table and allow myself a few minutes to pretend that none of this has happened. To pretend that instead of my having to face the future days alone, Hardin will be home from class shortly, and will smile at me and tell me he loves me, that he missed me all day. That he will lift me onto the counter and kiss me with longing and love—

The clicking of the door startles me out of my pathetic daydream. I jump to my feet as Hardin walks through the door. He doesn’t see me, since he’s looking over his shoulder.

At a brunette in a black sweater dress.

“So this is it . . .” he begins, and then stops when he notices my bags on the ground.

I’m frozen as his eyes travel around the apartment and then over to the kitchen, where they widen in shock at seeing me.

“Tess?” he says, as if he’s not sure that I actually exist.





chapter four


TESSA


I look like hell. I’m in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, yesterday’s smeared makeup, and tangled hair. I look at the girl standing behind him. Her curly brown hair is silky and cascades in loose waves down her back. Her makeup is light, and perfect, but then, she’s one of those women who doesn’t need it to begin with. Of course she is.

This is humiliating and I wish I could sink into the floor, disappearing out of the beautiful girl’s sight.

When I reach down to pick one of my bags up off the floor, Hardin seems to remember the girl is there and turns around to face her.

“Tessa, what are you doing here?” he asks. As I wipe at the makeup around my eyes, he asks his new girl, “Can you give us a minute?”

She looks at me, then nods and goes back into the building hallway.

“I can’t believe you’re here,” he says and walks into the kitchen. He removes his jacket, which makes his plain white T-shirt ride up and reveal the tanned skin of his torso. The ink there, the twisted, angry branches of the dead tree on his stomach, taunt me. Calling out to be touched. I love that tattoo, it’s my favorite that he has. Only now I see the parallel between him and the tree. Both unfeeling. Both alone. At least the tree has hope to bloom again. Hardin does not.

“I . . . I was just leaving.” I manage to say. He looks so perfect, so beautiful. Such a beautiful disaster.

“Please just let me explain myself,” he begs, and I notice the dark circles under his eyes are even more prominent than mine.

“No.” I reach for my bags again, but he grabs them from me and drops them back onto the floor.

“Two minutes, that’s all I’m asking for, Tess.”

Two minutes is too long to be here with Hardin, but this is the closure I know I need in order to move on with my life. I sigh and sit down, trying to hold back any noise that would betray my neutral expression. Hardin is clearly surprised, but quickly takes the seat across from me.

“You sure moved on fast,” I say quietly, lifting my chin toward the door.

“What?” Hardin says, then seems to remember the brunette. “She works with me; her husband is downstairs with their newborn daughter. They’re looking for a new place, so she wanted to see our . . . the layout.”

“You’re moving?” I ask.

“No, not if you’ll stay, but I don’t see the point in staying here without you. I’m just going over my options here.”

Something in me is slightly relieved, but then immediately a more defensive part of me notes that just because he isn’t sleeping with the brunette doesn’t mean he won’t be sleeping with someone else soon. I ignore the twinge of sorrow that comes along with Hardin talking about moving out, even though I won’t be here when he does.

“You think I would bring someone back here to our apartment? It’s only been two days—is that how you think of me?”

He has some nerve. “Yes! Of course it is—now!”

When I nod viciously at this, pain flashes across his face. But after a moment he just sighs in defeat. “Where did you stay last night? I went to my father’s and you weren’t there.”

“My mother’s.”

“Oh.” He looks down at his hands. “Did you guys work everything out?”

I stare directly into his eyes—I can’t believe he has the nerve to ask me about my family. “That’s no longer any of your business.”

He starts to reach out to me, but stops. “I miss you so much, Tessa.”

I lose my breath again, but remember how good he is at twisting things around. I turn away. “Sure you do.”

Despite the whirlwind of my emotions, I won’t allow myself to come undone any further in front of him.

“I do, Tessa. I know I fucked up big-time—but I love you. I need you.”

“Just stop, Hardin. Save yourself the time and energy. You aren’t fooling me, not anymore. You got what you wanted, so why not just stop?”

“Because I can’t.” He reaches for my hand, but I jerk away. “I love you. I need you to give me a chance to make this up to you. I need you, Tessa. I need you. You need me, too—”

“No, I don’t actually. I was fine before you came into my life.”

“Fine isn’t happy,” he says.

“Happy?” I scoff. “And what, am I happy now?” How dare he try to claim he makes me happy.

But he did make me happy. So happy, once.

“You can’t sit here and tell me that you don’t believe that I love you.”

“I know you don’t, it was all a game to you. While I was falling in love with you, you were using me.”

His eyes well up with tears. “Let me prove to you that I love you, please. I’ll do anything, Tessa. Anything.”

“You’ve already proved enough to me, Hardin. The only reason I’m even sitting here right now is because I owe it to myself to listen to what you have to say so I can move on with my life.”

“I don’t want you to move on,” he says.

I let out a harsh breath. “This isn’t about what you want! This is about how you hurt me.”

His voice sounds small, and cracks. “You said you’d never leave me.”

I don’t trust myself when he’s like this. I hate the way his pain rules me, making me irrational. “I said I wouldn’t leave you if you didn’t give me a reason to. But you did.”

Now it makes perfect sense to me why he was always worried about me leaving. I thought it was his own paranoia about being good for me, but I was wrong. So wrong. He knew once I found out I would run. I should be running right now. I made excuses for him because of the things he went through as a child, but now I’m beginning to wonder if he was lying about that, too. About all of it.

“I can’t do this anymore. I trusted you. Hardin, I trusted you with every fiber of my being—I depended on you, I loved you, and you were using me all along. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? That everyone around me was mocking me and laughing behind my back, including you, the person I trusted the most.”

“I know, Tessa, I know. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am. I don’t know what the fuck was wrong with me when I brought up the bet in the first place. I thought it would be easy . . .” His hands shake as he pleads with me. “I thought you would sleep with me and that would be the end of it. But you were so headstrong and so . . . intriguing that I found myself thinking of you constantly. I would sit in my room and try to plot ways that I could see you, even if it was just to fight with you. I knew it wasn’t just a bet anymore after that day at the stream, but I couldn’t bring myself to admit it. I was battling with myself, and I was worried about my reputation—I know that’s fucked up, but I’m trying to be honest. And when I told everyone about the things we did, I didn’t tell them what we were actually doing . . . I couldn’t do that to you, even in the beginning. I would just make up shit that didn’t actually happen, and they bought it.”

A few tears fall from my eyes and he reaches across to wipe them. I don’t move away fast enough and his touch burns my skin. It takes everything in me to not lean into his palm.

“I hate to see you this way,” he mutters. I close my eyes and reopen them, desperate for the tears to stop. I stay quiet as he continues: “I swear, I started telling Nate and Logan about the stream, but I found myself getting irritated, jealous even, over the idea of them knowing what I did with you . . . how I made you feel, so I told them that you gave me . . . well, I just made shit up.”

I know that him lying about what we did is no better than telling them the truth, not really. But for some reason I feel some relief that Hardin and I are the only people who really know what happened between us, the real details of our moments together.

Which isn’t good enough. And then again, he’s probably lying right now—I can never tell—and here I am already quick to believe him. What the hell is wrong with me?

“Even if I believed you, I can’t forgive you,” I say. I blink away my tears and he puts his head in his hands.

“You don’t love me?” he asks, looking at me between his fingers.

“Yes. I do,” I admit. The truth of my confession weighs heavily between us. He lowers his hands, staring at me in a way that makes me regret my admission. It’s true, though. I love him. I love him too much.

“Then why can’t you forgive me?”

“Because this is unforgivable, you didn’t just lie. You took my virginity to win a bet—and then showed people my blood on the sheets. How could anyone forgive that?”

He drops his hands and his bright green eyes look desperate . “I took your virginity because I love you!” he says, which only makes me shake my head vigorously, so he continues. “I don’t know who I am without you anymore.”

I look away. “This wasn’t going to work anyway, we both know that,” I tell him to make myself feel better. It’s hard to sit across from him and watch him in pain, but at the same time my sense of justice means that seeing him in pain eases mine . . . somewhat.

“Why wouldn’t it work? We were doing great—”

“Everything we had was based on a lie, Hardin.” And because his pain has given me a sudden feeling of confidence, I say, “Besides, look at you and look at me.” I don’t mean it, but the look on his face when I use his biggest insecurity about our relationship against him—though it kills something inside me—also reminds me that he deserves it. He’s always been worried about how we look together, that I’m too good for him. And now I’ve thrown it in his face.

“Is this about Noah? You saw him, didn’t you?” Hardin asks and my mouth falls open at his audacity. His eyes shine with tears and I have to remind myself that he did this. He ruined everything.

“Yes, I did, but that has nothing to do with it. That’s your problem—you go around doing whatever the hell you want to people, not caring about the outcome, and you expect everyone to just be okay with it!” I shout and stand up from the table.

“No, I don’t, Tessa!” he yells, and I roll my eyes. At that, he pauses, then stands and looks out the window, then back at me. “Okay, yes, so maybe I do. But I really do care about you.”

“Well, you should have thought about that when you were bragging about your conquest,” I say steadily.

“My conquest? Are you fucking serious right now? You aren’t some conquest of mine—you’re everything to me! You’re my breath, my pain, my heart, my life!” He takes a step toward me. What’s makes me the saddest is that these are the most touching words that Hardin has ever said to me, but he’s screaming them.

“Well, it’s a little too late for that!” I scream back. “You think you can just—”

He catches me off guard by wrapping his hand around the back of my neck and pulling me to him, crashing his lips to mine. The familiar warmth of his mouth nearly brings me to my knees. My tongue is moving along with his before my mind catches up to what’s happening. He moans in relief and I try to push him away. He grabs my wrists in one hand and holds them on his chest as he continues to kiss me. I keep struggling to get out of his grip, but my mouth continues to move along with his. He backs up and pulls me with him until he’s against the counter, and his other hand reaches out to the side of my neck, holding me still. All of the pain and heartache inside me begin to dissolve and I relax my hands in his. This is wrong but so right.

But wrong.

I pull away and he tries to reconnect our lips, but I turn my head. “No,” I say.

His eyes soften. “Please . . .” he begs.

“No, Hardin. I need to go.”

He lets go of my wrists. “Go where?”

“I . . . I don’t know yet. My mother is trying to get me back into a dorm.”

“No . . . no . . .” He shakes his head, his voice becoming frantic. “You live here, don’t go back into the dorms.” He runs his hands through his hair. “If anyone should, it’s me. Just please stay here so I know where you are.”

“You don’t need to know where I am.”

“Stay,” he repeats.

If I’m being completely honest with myself, I want to stay with him. I want to tell him that I love him more than I want to breathe, but I can’t. I refuse to get pulled back in and be that girl who lets guys do whatever the hell they want to her.

I pick up my bags and say the only thing that will keep him from following. “Noah and my mother are waiting, I have to go,” I lie and walk out of the door.

He doesn’t follow, and I don’t let myself turn around to see the pain he’s in.





chapter five


TESSA


When I get to my car I don’t cry like I had assumed I would. I just sit and stare out the window. The snow sticks to my windshield, blanketing me inside. The wind around the car is chaotic, picking up the snow and swirling it, completely sheltering me. With each flake of snow coating the glass, a barrier between the harsh reality and the car is formed.

I can’t believe that Hardin came to the apartment while I was there. I had hoped to not see him. It did help, though, not the pain but the situation in general. At least now I can try to move on from this disastrous time in my life. I want to believe him and that he does love me, but I got into this situation by believing him. He could just be acting like this because he knows he doesn’t have control over me anymore. Even if he does love me, what would that change? It wouldn’t take back everything he did, it wouldn’t take back all the jokes, the terrible bragging about the things we did, or the lies.

I wish I could afford that apartment on my own, I would stay there and make Hardin leave. I don’t want to go back to the dorms and get a new roommate—I don’t want a community shower. Why did it all have to start with a lie? If we’d met in some different way, we could be inside that apartment right now, laughing on the couch or kissing in the bedroom. Instead, I’m in my car alone with nowhere to go.

When I finally start the car, my hands are frozen. Couldn’t I be homeless in the summer?

I feel like Catherine again, only not my usual Wuthering Heights Catherine. This time Catherine in Northanger Abbey is who I relate to: shocked and forced to make a long journey alone. Granted, I’m not making a seventy-mile journey from Northanger after being dismissed and embarrassed, but still, I feel her pain. I can’t decide who Hardin would be in this version of the book. On one hand, he’s like Henry, smart and witty, with a knowledge of novels as great as mine. However, Henry is much kinder than Hardin, and that’s where Hardin is more like John, arrogant and rude.

As I drive through town with nowhere to go, I realize that Hardin’s words had a bigger impact on me than I would like to admit. Him begging me to stay almost put the pieces back together just to break them again. I’m sure he only wanted me to stay to prove that he could. It’s not like he’s started calling and texting again since I drove away.

I force myself to drive to campus and take my last final before winter break. I feel so detached during the exam and it feels impossible that everyone on campus could be so clueless about what I’m going through. A fake smile and small talk can hide the splitting pain, I suppose.

I call my mother to check on the status of getting into a new dorm, only to have her mumble “no luck” and quickly hang up the phone. After driving aimlessly for a bit, I find myself a block away from Vance and realize it’s already five in the evening. I don’t want to take advantage of Landon by asking him to stay at Ken’s house again. I know he wouldn’t mind, but it’s not fair of me to put Hardin’s family in the middle of this, and honestly that house holds too many memories. I couldn’t stand it. I pass a street lined with motels and pull into the lot of one of the nicer-looking ones. I suddenly realize that I’ve never actually stayed at a motel before, but it’s not like I have anywhere else to go.

The short man behind the counter looks friendly enough as he smiles at me and asks for my driver’s license. A few short minutes later he’s handing me a key card and a slip of paper with a Wi-Fi code. Getting a room is much easier than I thought it would be—a little expensive, but I don’t want to stay someplace cheap and risk my safety.

“Down the sidewalk and make a left,” he informs me with a smile.

I thank him and head back out into the blistering cold and move my car to the spot next to my room so I don’t have to carry my bags.

This is what I’ve come to because of that thoughtless, egotistical boy: I am someone staying in a motel, alone, all my belongings stuffed frantically into bags. I am someone who has no one to lean on instead of someone who always had a plan.

Grabbing some of my bags, I lock my car, which looks like junk compared to the BMW next to me. Just as I think my day could not get any worse, I lose my grip on one of my bags and drop it onto the snowy sidewalk. My clothes and a few books topple out onto the wet snow. I scramble to pick them up with my free hand, but I’m afraid to see which books they are—I don’t think I can take my favorite possessions being ruined alongside me, not today.

“Here let me help you, miss,” a man’s voice says as a hand reaches down to help me. “Tessa?”

Shocked, I look up to see blue eyes and a concerned face. “Trevor?” I say even though I know it’s him. I stand upright and look around. “What are you doing here?”

“I’d ask you the same thing.” He smiles.

“Well . . . I’m . . .” I take my bottom lip between my teeth.

But he saves me from having to explain myself. “My plumbing went haywire, so here I am.” Bending down, he gathers some of my stuff and hands me a soaked copy of Wuthering Heights with a raise of his brow. Then he hands me a couple of wet sweaters and Pride and Prejudice, saying ruefully, “Here . . . this one’s in bad shape.”

And like that, I know the universe is playing a sick joke on me.

“I somehow knew you would be into the classics,” he tells me with a friendly smile. He takes the bags from me and I give him a nod of thanks before sliding in the key card and opening the door. The room is freezing, so I go over to the heater immediately and turn it all the way up.

“You would think for how much they charge here they wouldn’t worry about their electric bill,” Trevor says and sets my bags on the floor.

I smile and nod in agreement. I grab the clothes that fell onto the snow and put them over the shower curtain rod. When I come back into the main room, there’s an awkward silence with this person I barely know in this room that isn’t really mine. “Is your apartment nearby?” I ask, to bring some life into the space.

“House. But yeah, it’s only about a mile away. I like to be close to work, so I know I won’t ever be late.”

“That’s a good idea . . .” It sounds like something I would do.

Trevor looks so different in casual clothes. I have only ever seen him in suits, but here he’s wearing snug blue jeans and a red sweatshirt, with his hair messy where it’s usually perfectly gelled.

“I think so, too. So are you alone?” he asks and looks at the ground, obviously uncomfortable prying.

“Yeah. I’m alone.” I mean that in more ways than he knows.

“I’m not trying to be nosy, I was just asking because your boyfriend doesn’t seem to like me much.” He half laughs and wipes his black hair from his forehead.

“Oh, Hardin doesn’t like anyone—don’t take it personally.” I pick at my nails. “He isn’t my boyfriend, though.”

“Oh, sorry. I just assumed he was.”

“He was . . . sort of.”

Was he? He said he was. But then, Hardin said a lot of things.

“Oh, sorry again. I just keep saying all the wrong things.” He laughs.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind,” I tell him and unpack the rest of my bags.

“Do you want me to go? I don’t mean to intrude.” He half turns toward the door, as if to show his offer is genuine.

“No, no, you can stay. If you want, of course. You don’t have to,” I say too quickly.

What is wrong with me?

“It’s settled, then, I’ll stay,” he says and sits down on the chair next to the desk. I look for a place to sit myself, and eventually decide on the edge of the bed. I’m pretty far away from him, which makes me realize how spacious the room really is.

“So, how are you liking Vance so far?” he asks, his fingers tracing patterns on the wooden desk.

“I love it. It’s so much more than I ever expected. It’s literally my dream job. I hope to get hired on after I graduate.”

“Oh, I think you’ll be offered a position there well before then. Christian is very fond of you—that manuscript you turned in last week was all I heard about at lunch the other day. He says you have a good eye, and from him that’s a huge compliment.”

“Really? He said that?” I can’t help but smile. The action feels odd and unwelcome but also comforting all at once.

“Yeah, why else would he invite you to the conference? Only the four of us are going.”

“Four of us?” I ask.

“Yeah. Me, you, Christian, and Kim.”

“Oh, I didn’t know Kim was going.” I hope desperately that Mr. Vance didn’t only invite me because he feels obligated due to my relationship with Hardin, his best friend’s son.

“He wouldn’t be able to go a weekend without her,” Trevor teases. “Because of her office management skills, of course.”

I give a little smile. “I can see that. So why are you going?” I ask, and then mentally slap myself. “I mean why are you going, since you work in finance, don’t you?” I try to clarify.

“No, I get it, you bookies don’t need the human calculator around.” He rolls his eyes, and I laugh, really laugh. “He’s opening a second office in Seattle shortly and we’re going to a meeting with a potential investor. Also, we’ll be scouting locations, so he needs me to make sure we get a good deal, and Kimberly to make sure whatever building we like functions with our work flow.”

“Are you into real estate, too?” The room is finally warm, so I take my shoes off and tuck my feet underneath me.

“No, not at all, but I’m good with numbers,” he brags. “It’ll be a good time, though. Seattle is a beautiful city. Have you been?”

“Yeah, it’s is my favorite city. Not that I have a lot to choose from . . .”

“Me either; I’m from Ohio, so I haven’t seen much. Compared to Ohio, Seattle is like New York City.”

I find myself genuinely interested in knowing more about Trevor. “What made you come to Washington?”

“Well, my mother passed away my senior year of high school and I just had to go. There’s just so much more to see, you know? So I promised her right before she died that I wouldn’t spend my life in that dreadful town where we lived. The day I got accepted to WCU was the best and worst day of my life.”

“Worst?” I ask.

“She passed away that same day. Ironic, isn’t it?” He gives a wan smile. The way only half of his mouth turns up is lovely.

“I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t be. She was one of those people that didn’t belong here with the rest of us. She was too good, you know? My family got to have more time with her than we deserved, and I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. He gives me full smile and gestures at me. “What about you? Are you going to stay here forever?”

“No, I always wanted to move to Seattle. But lately I’ve been thinking of going even further,” I admit.

“You should. You should travel and see everything you possibly can. A woman like you shouldn’t be kept in a box.” He must notice some odd look on my face, because he quickly says, “Sorry . . . I just mean you could do so much. You have a lot talents, I can tell.”

But I wasn’t bothered by what he said. Something about the way he called me a woman makes me happy; in my life, I’ve always felt like a child because everyone treats me like one. Trevor is only a friend, a new friend, but I’m really glad to have his company on this terrible day.

“Have you had dinner?” I ask.

“Not yet. I was debating whether or not to order a pizza, so I don’t have to go back into that blizzard.” He laughs.

“We could split one?” I offer.

“Deal,” he says, with the kindest look I’ve seen in a long time.





chapter six


HARDIN


My father has the stupidest expression on his face; it always happens when he tries to look authoritative, like now, with his arms crossed as he stands filling his front doorway.

“She isn’t going to come here, Hardin—she knows you’ll find her.”

I fight the urge to knock his teeth down his throat. Instead, I rake my fingers through my hair, flinching slightly when my knuckles twinge. The cuts are deeper than usual this time. Punching the drywall did more damage to my hands than I thought. It’s nothing compared to how I feel inside. I never knew this type of pain existed; it’s so much worse than any physical pain I could cause myself.

“Son, I really think you should give her some space.”

Who the fuck does he think he is?

“Space? She doesn’t need space! She needs to come home!” I yell. The old woman next door turns to look at us, and I raise my arms at her.

“Please don’t be rude to my neighbors,” my dad warns me.

“Then tell your neighbors to mind their own damn business!” I’m sure the old gray-hair heard that.

“Goodbye, Hardin,” my father says with a sigh and closes the door.

“Fuck!” I yell and pace back and forth on the porch a few times before finally going back out to my car.

Where the hell is she? As mad as I am, I’m worried as hell about her. Is she alone, or afraid? Oh course, knowing Tessa, she isn’t afraid at all; she’s probably going over the reasons she hates me. Actually, she’s probably writing them down. Her need to be in control of everything and her stupid lists used to drive me crazy, but now I long to see her scribbling the most irrelevant things. I would give anything to watch her chew on her full bottom lip in concentration, or see that adorable scowl take over her sweet face, even one more time. Now that she’s with Noah and her mother, the small chance I thought I had is gone. Once she’s reminded why he’s better for her than me, she’ll be his again.

I call her again, but her phone goes straight to voicemail for the twentieth time. Goddammit, I’m such a fucking idiot. After driving around for an hour to every library, every bookstore, I decide to go back to the apartment. Maybe she’ll show up, maybe she’ll show up . . . I know she won’t.

But what if she does? I need to clean up the huge mess I made, and buy some new dishes to replace the ones that I smashed against the walls, just in case she comes home.


A MAN’S VOICE BOOMS through the air, and vibrates my bones: “Where are you, Scott?”

“I saw him leave the bar. I know he’s here,” another man says.

The floor is cold when I climb out of bed. At first I thought it was Daddy and his friends, but now I don’t think it is.

“Come out, come out wherever you are!” the deepest voice yells, and there’s a massive crash.

“He isn’t here,” my mummy says as I reach the bottom of the stairs and can see everyone. My mum and four men.

“Ohhh, look what we have here,” the taller man says. “Who knew Scott had such a bangin’ wife.” He grabs my mum by the arm and pulls her off the couch.

She grabs at her shirt desperately. “Please . . . he isn’t here. If he owes you money, I’ll give you all I have. You can take anything in the house, the television maybe . . .”

But the man only sneers at her. “A television? I don’t want a damn television.”

I watch her struggle to shake free of him, almost like a fish I caught once. “I have some jewelry—not much, but please—”

“Shut the fuck up!” another man says and smacks her.

“Mum!” I yell and run into the living room.

“Hardin . . . go upstairs!” she shouts, but I’m not leaving my mummy with these bad men.

“Get out of here, you little shit,” one of them tells me, pushing me so I land hard on my butt. “See, bitch, the problem is that your husband did this,” he snarls, pointing to his head, where I see a massive gash across his bald scalp. “And since he isn’t here, the only thing we want is you.” He smiles, and she kicks her legs at him.

“Hardin, baby, go upstairs . . . Now!” she yells.

Wait, why is she mad at me?

“I think he wants to watch,” the injured man says and pushes her onto the couch.

I jolt awake and sit up.

Fuck.

They keep coming, every night worse than the last. I got so used to them not coming that I could sleep. Because of her, it was all because of her.

But here I am at four in the damn morning with bloody sheets from my busted knuckles and a killer headache from my nightmares.

I close my eyes and try to pretend she’s really here, and hope that sleep will come.





chapter seven


TESSA


Tess, baby, wake up,” Hardin whispers as he touches his lips to the soft skin just under my ear. “You look so beautiful when you’re waking up.”

I smile, pulling him by his hair to meet my eyes. I brush my nose against his, and he chuckles.

“I love you,” he says and presses his lips to mine.

Only I can’t feel them. “Hardin?” I question. “Hardin?”

But he fades from my side—

I snap my eyes open and am thrown back into reality. The strange room is pitch black, and for a second I forget where I am. And then it comes to me: a motel room. Alone. I grab my phone off the bedside table and see it’s only 4 a.m. I wipe the tears from the corners of my eyes and close my eyes to try to get back to Hardin, even if it’s only in a dream.


WHEN I FINALLY wake up again, it’s seven. I step into the shower and try to enjoy the hot water as it relaxes me. I blow-dry my hair and do my makeup; today is the first day I feel like looking decent. I need to get rid of this . . . mess that’s inside of me. Not knowing what else to do, I take a page from my mother’s book and paint a perfect face on in order to bury what’s inside.

When I’m finished, I look well rested somehow and actually really nice. I curl my hair and dig my white dress out of my bag, and cringe. Good thing this room has an iron. It’s cold, too cold for this dress, which doesn’t quite reach my knees, but I won’t be outside long. I choose some plain black flats and set them on the bed with the dress.

Before I get dressed, I repack my bags so they’re more orderly. I hope my mother calls with some good news about the dorms. If not, I’ll have to stay here until she does, which will drain what little money I have, and fast. Maybe I should just look into getting my own place. I might be able to afford something small close to Vance.

I open the door to find the snow mostly melted under the morning sun. Thank goodness. Just as I unlock my car door, Trevor walks out of his room two doors down from mine. He’s wearing a black suit and a green tie; he looks so put together.

“Good morning! I would’ve helped you get those, you know,” he says when he sees I’m carrying my bags.

Last night, after we ate pizza, we watched a little television and shared stories of college. He had a lot more stories than me since he’s already graduated, and while I really enjoyed hearing about what my college experience could have—and should have—been like, it made me a little sad, too. I shouldn’t have been going to parties with people like Hardin. I should have found myself a small but true group of friends. It would’ve been so different, so much better.

“Did you sleep well?” he asks and pulls a set of keys out of his pocket. With a click, the BMW engine starts. Of course, the BMW is his.

“Your car starts itself?” I laugh.

He holds up his key. “Well, this thing starts it.”

“Nice.” I smile a little sarcastically.

“Convenient,” he counters.

“Extravagant?”

“A little.” He laughs. “But still very convenient. You look lovely today, as usual.”

I put my bags in the back of my car. “Thank you, it’s freezing out,” I say and get into the driver’s seat.

“See you at work, Tessa.” he says and climbs into his BMW.

Despite the sun, it’s still cold, so I quickly thrust my key into the ignition and turn it to start up the heater.

Click . . . click . . . click . . . is my car’s only response.

Frowning, I try again, and get the same thing.

“Can I get a freaking break!” I say aloud and hit my palms against the steering wheel.

For a third time I try to start my car, but of course nothing happens, not even the clicking this time. I look over, thankful that Trevor’s still here. His window rolls down, and I can’t help but laugh at my own misfortune.

“Do you think you could give me a ride?” I ask and he nods.

“Of course. I think I know where you’re going . . .” He laughs, and I climb out of my car.

I can’t help but turn my phone on during the short drive to Vance. Surprisingly, I have no new texts from Hardin. I have a few voicemails, but I don’t know if they’re from him or my mother. Choosing not to listen to them just in case, I instead text my mother and ask her about the dorms. Trevor drops me off at the door so I don’t have to walk in the cold, which is really thoughtful of him.

“You look refreshed,” Kimberly says with a smile as I walk in and grab a donut.

“I feel a little better. Sort of,” I say and pour myself a cup of coffee.

“Are you ready for tomorrow? I can’t wait to get out of here for the weekend—Seattle has amazing shopping, and while Mr. Vance and Trevor have their meetings we’ll find some fun stuff to do. Is . . . um . . . have you talked to Hardin?”

It takes me a second, but I decide to tell her. She’ll probably find out anyway. “No. Actually, I moved my stuff out yesterday,” I say and she frowns.

“I’m sorry, girl. It’ll get easier as time goes by.”

God, I hope she’s right.


MY DAY GOES faster than expected, and I finish this week’s manuscript early. I’m excited to go to Seattle, and I hope that I can get my mind off Hardin, even if it’s only for a little bit. Monday is my birthday, which I’m not looking forward to it at all. If things hadn’t gone downhill so quickly, I’d be on my way to England with Hardin on Tuesday. I don’t really want to spend Christmas with my mother either. Hopefully I’ll be back in the dorms by then—even if they’ll basically be empty—and then maybe I can think of a good enough reason to not show at my mother’s. I know it’s Christmas, and that’s terrible of me, but I’m not exactly in a holiday mood.

My mother texts me as my day is winding down, saying that she hasn’t heard back about the dorm. Great. At least I only have one more night until the Seattle trip. Shuffling around from place to place is not fun at all.

As I’m getting ready to leave for the day, I remember I didn’t drive to work myself. I hope Trevor hasn’t already left.

“See you tomorrow, we’ll meet here, and Christian’s driver will take us to Seattle,” Kimberly tells me.

Mr. Vance has a driver?

Of course he does.

When I step off the elevator, Trevor is sitting on one of the black couches in the lobby; the contrast of the black couch, black suit, and his blue eyes is very appealing.

“I wasn’t sure if you needed a ride or not, and I didn’t want to bother you in your office,” he tells me.

“Thank you, I really appreciate it. I’m going to call someone about my car when I get back to the motel.” It’s slightly warmer than it was this morning but still freezing outside.

“I can wait with you if you want. My plumbing is fixed now, so I won’t be staying at the motel again, but I’ll wait with you if you—” He stops talking suddenly and his eyes go wide.

“What?” I ask and follow his eyes to see Hardin standing by his car in the lot and staring angrily at Trevor and me.

The breath has been knocked out of me once again. How does it keep getting worse?

“Hardin, what are you doing here?” I ask, storming toward him.

“Well, you don’t answer my calls, so I didn’t have much of a choice, did I?” he says.

“I didn’t answer for a reason, you can’t just show up to my job!” I yell back.

Trevor looks uncomfortable and intimidated by Hardin’s presence, but he stays next to me. “Are you okay? Let me know if you’re ready.”

“Ready for what?” Hardin’s eyes are wild.

“He’s taking me back to the motel since my car wouldn’t start.”

“Motel!” Hardin raises his voice.

Before I can stop him, Hardin has his hands on Trevor, gripping the collar of his suit as he slams him against a red truck.

“Hardin! Stop! Let him go! We didn’t stay together!” I explain. Why I’m explaining myself to him is beyond me, but I don’t want him to hurt Trevor.

Hardin lets go of Trevor’s clothing but stays in his face.

“Back off of him, now.” I grab Hardin’s shoulder and he relaxes slightly.

“Stay away from her,” he spits, his face only inches from Trevor’s.

Trevor looks pale, and once again I’ve brought someone else into this mess that doesn’t deserve to be.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell Trevor.

“It’s okay, do you still need a ride?” he asks.

“No, she doesn’t,” Hardin answers for me.

“Yes, please,” I say to Trevor. “I just need a minute.”

Like the gentleman that he is, he nods and goes over to his car to give us space.





chapter eight


TESSA


I can’t believe you’re staying at a motel.” He runs his hand over his hair.

“Yeah . . . neither can I.”

“You can stay at the apartment, I’ll stay back at the frat house or something.”

“No.” Not happening.

“Please don’t be difficult.” He rubs his hand across his forehead.

“Difficult? You aren’t serious! I shouldn’t even be talking to you right now!”

“Would you just calm down? Now, what’s wrong with your car? And why was that guy staying at the motel?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my car.” I groan. I’m not answering him about Trevor, it’s none of his business.

“I’ll take a look at it.”

“No, I’ll call someone. Just go.”

“I’ll follow you to the motel.” He nods toward the road.

“Would you just stop?” I growl and Hardin rolls his eyes. “Is this some sort of game to you, to see just how far you can push me?”

He takes a step back as if I pushed him. Trevor’s car is still here, waiting for me.

“No, that’s not what I’m doing. How could you even think that after everything I’ve done?”

“Exactly, I do think that because of everything you’ve done,” I say, almost laughing at his choice of words.

“I just want you to talk to me. I know we can work this out,” he tells me. He’s played so many games with me since the beginning that I can’t tell what’s real.

“I know you miss me, too,” Hardin says, leaning against his car. His words stop me in my tracks. So arrogant.

“Is that what you want to hear? That I miss you? Of course I miss you, but you know what? It’s not actually you that I miss, it’s who I thought you were, and now that I know who you really are, I want nothing to do with you!” I yell.

“You’ve always known who I really am! I’ve been me all along, you know that!” he shouts back. Why can’t we ever just talk without yelling at each other? He makes me crazy, that’s why.

“No, I don’t know that; if I knew that I . . .” I stop myself before I admit that I want to forgive him. What I want to do and what I know I should do are two totally different things.

“You what?” he asks. Of course he would try and coerce me to continue.

“Nothing, you need to go.”

“Tess, you don’t know what it’s been like the last few days for me. I can’t sleep, I can’t even function without you. I need to know there’s a chance we could—”

I interrupt him before he can finish.

“What it’s been like for you?” How can he be so selfish?

“What do you think it’s been like for me, Hardin? Imagine how it feels to have your life completely ripped apart within hours! Imagine how it feels to be so in love with someone that you give them everything, only to find out it was all a game, a bet! How do you think that feels!” I take a step toward him, my hands moving frantically between us. “How do you think it feels to lose my relationship with my mother over someone who could give less of a shit about me! How do you think it feels to be staying in a goddamn motel room? How do you think if it feels to try to move on from this when you keep showing up everywhere! You just don’t know when to stop!”

He doesn’t say anything, so I continue my rant. Part of me feels like I’m being too harsh on him, but he betrayed me in the worst way and he deserves it.

“So don’t you sit here and tell me that it’s been hard for you because you did this! You fucking ruined everything! Just like you always do, so you know what? I don’t feel sorry for you . . . Actually I do. I feel sorry for you because you will never be happy. You will be alone for the rest of your life, and for that I feel sorry for you. I’ll move on, find a nice man who’ll treat me the way you should have, and we’ll get married and have children. I will be happy.”

I’m out of breath after my long speech, and Hardin is looking at me with red eyes and an open mouth.

“You know the worst part of all of this? It’s that you warned me, you said you would ruin me and I didn’t listen.” I try desperately to stop my tears, but I can’t. They fall mercilessly down my face, and my mascara runs, burning my eyes.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry. I’ll go,” he says in a low voice. He looks completely and utterly defeated, the way I wanted him to look, but it doesn’t give me the satisfaction that I thought it would.

I maybe could have forgiven him in the beginning if he’d have told me the truth, even after we slept together, but instead he hid it from me, offered people money for their silence, and tried to trap me by making me sign the lease with him. My first time being intimate with someone is something I will never forget, and he’s ruined that.

I rush over to Trevor’s car and jump inside. The heat is on, blasting at my face, mixing with my hot tears. Trevor stays quiet and I’m thankful yet again for his silence as he drives me to the motel.

By the time the sun goes down, I force myself to take a hot shower, too hot. The look on Hardin’s face as he backed away from me and got into his car is etched in the back of my mind. I see his face every time I close my eyes.

My phone hasn’t rung once since he left. I had this silly, naive idea that we could work. That despite our differences and his temper . . . well, both of our tempers . . . we could make it work somehow. I’m not sure how I manage to fall asleep, but I do.


THE NEXT MORNING I’m a little anxious about going on my first business trip and begin to panic. Plus I forgot to get someone to fix my car. I look up the nearest mechanic and call them. I’ll probably have to pay them extra to keep my car for the weekend, but that’s the least of my worries right now. I don’t mention it to the friendly man who answers in the hopes they just won’t bother charging me for it.

I get myself ready, curling my hair and putting on more makeup than usual. I choose a navy-blue dress that I haven’t worn yet, something I bought because I knew Hardin would love the way the thin material hung on my curves. The dress itself isn’t revealing at all; the hem reaches just below my knees and the sleeves go halfway down my arm. But the way it fits makes it look really good on me.

I hate that everything makes me think of him. As I stand in front of the mirror, I imagine how he would be looking at me in this dress, the way his pupils would dilate and he’d lick his lips before pulling his lip ring between his teeth while he watched me adjust my hair one last time.

A knock on the door brings me back to reality.

“Ms. Young?” A man in a blue mechanic’s uniform asks when I open the door.

“That’s me,” I say and pull open my purse to grab the keys. “Here, it’s the white Corolla,” I say as I hand them to him.

He looks behind him. “White Corolla?” he asks, confused.

I step outside. My car is . . . gone.

“What the . . . Okay, let me call the front desk and see if they had my car towed for leaving it here yesterday.” What a great way to start my day.

“Hello, this is Tessa Young, room thirty-six,” I say when the front desk guy answers. “I think you had my car towed?” I’m trying to be nice, but this is really frustrating.

“No, I didn’t,” he replies.

My head is spinning. “Okay, well then, my car must have been stolen or something . . .” If someone took my car, I am beyond screwed. It’s almost time for me to leave.

“No, your friend came and got it this morning.”

“My friend?”

“Yeah, the one with . . . all the tattoos and stuff.” He says it quietly, as if Hardin could actually hear him.

“What?” I know what he said, but that’s all I can think to say.

“Yeah, he came with a tow truck this morning about two hours ago,” he says. “Sorry, I thought you knew—”

“Thanks.” I groan and hang up. Turning to the man before me, I say, “I am so sorry. Apparently someone has already had my car taken to another mechanic. I didn’t know; I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

He smiles and assures me that it’s okay.

After my fight with Hardin yesterday, it slipped my mind that I needed a ride to work today. I call Trevor to let him know, and he tells me that he already asked Mr. Vance and Kimberly to swing by and pick me up on their way. After thanking him, I hang up and pull back the curtain on the window. A black car pulls into the lot and stops in front of my room. The window rolls down and I see Kimberly’s blond hair.

“Good morning! We’re here to save you!” she announces with a laugh when I open the door. Smart and kind Trevor, always thinking ahead.

The driver gets out and with a tip of his cap grabs my bag and stashes it in the trunk for me. When he opens the back door, I see two seats that face each other. On one, Kimberly pats the leather, inviting me to sit next to her. On the other, Mr. Vance and Trevor look at me with amused expressions.

“Ready for your weekend getaway?” Trevor asks with a wide smile.

“More than you can imagine,” I reply and get into the car.





chapter nine


TESSA


As we pull out onto the highway, Trevor and Mr. Vance return to what appears to be a deep conversation about price per square foot on a new building in Seattle. Kimberly nudges me with her elbow and then mimics their talking with her hand.

“Those boys are so serious,” she says. “So, Trevor said something happened to your car?”

“Yeah. I have no idea what,” I say, trying to keep a light tone, which is easier with Kimberly’s friendly smile. “It wouldn’t start yesterday, so I called someone to fix it. But Hardin already had someone come get it.”

She smirks. “Persistent, isn’t he?”

I sigh. “I guess so. I just wish he would give me a little time to process all of this.”

“Process what?” she asks. I forget that she doesn’t know about the bet, my humiliation, and I certainly don’t want to tell her. She only knows that Hardin and I broke up.

“I don’t know, just everything. I have so much going on right now, and I still don’t have anywhere to live. I feel like he isn’t taking this as seriously as he should. He thinks he can just play puppeteer with me and my life. He thinks he can just show up and say sorry and all will be forgiven, but that’s not how it works. Not anymore at least,” I huff.

“Well, good for you. I’m happy you’re standing up for yourself,” she says.

I’m just glad she isn’t asking for details. “Thank you. Me, too.”

I really am proud of myself for standing up to Hardin and not just giving in, but at the same time I feel terrible for what I said to him yesterday. I know he deserved it, but I can’t help but think, What if he does care as much as he claims? But even if somewhere deep down he does, I just don’t think it’s enough to ensure he doesn’t hurt me again.

Because that’s what he does: he hurts people.

Changing the subject, Kimberly says excitedly, “We should go out tonight right after the last talk. On Sunday those two will be in meetings all morning, so we’ll do some shopping then. We’ll go out tonight, and maybe Saturday night, too. What do you think?”

“Go out where?” I laugh. “I’m only eighteen.”

“Oh, please. Christian knows a lot of people in Seattle. If you’re with him, you can get in anywhere.” I love the way her eyes light up when she speaks of Mr. Vance, even though he’s already right next to her.

“Okay,” I say. I’ve never been “out” before. I’ve been to the few parties at the frat house, but I haven’t ever been to a nightclub or anything even close.

“It’ll be fun, don’t worry,” she assures me. “And you should definitely wear that dress,” she adds with a laugh.





chapter ten


HARDIN


You will be alone for the rest of your life, and for that I feel sorry for you. I’ll move on, find a nice man who’ll treat me the way you should have, and we’ll get married and have children. I will be happy.

Tessa’s words keep playing over and over in my head. I know she’s right, but I so desperately don’t want her to be. I had never minded being alone until now—now I know what I’m missing.

“You in?” Jace’s voice breaks through my muddled thoughts.

“Uh, what?” I ask. I almost forgot that I was driving.

He rolls his eyes and takes a hit from his joint.

“I asked if you were in. We’re going to Zed’s.”

I groan. “I don’t know . . .”

“Why not? You need to stop being such a pussy. You’re moping around like a fucking baby.”

I glare at him. If I had gotten any sleep last night, I’d reach across and choke him. “I am not,” I say slowly.

“You so are, dude. You need to get wasted and laid tonight. I’m sure there’ll be some easy girls there.”

“I don’t need to get laid.” I don’t want anyone but her.

“Well, come on, drive over to Zed’s. If you don’t want to get laid, then at least come have a few beers,” he says.

“Don’t you ever want to do more?” I ask and he looks over at me like I’ve grown horns.

“What?”

“You know, doesn’t it feel like it’s getting old just partying and hooking up with different girls all the time?”

“Whoa, whoa—this is worse than I thought. You got it bad, man!”

“No, I don’t. I’m just saying. Doing the same old shit all the time gets old.”

He doesn’t know how enjoyable it is to lie in bed and make Tessa laugh, he doesn’t know how fun it is to hear her ramble on about her favorite novels, to have her swat at me when I try to grope her. It’s much better than any party that I’ve ever been to or will ever go to.

“She really did a number on you. That’s some shit, isn’t it?” He laughs.

“No, she didn’t,” I lie.

“Sure . . .” He throws the remainder of his joint out of my car window. “She’s single, though, right?” he asks, and when I grip the wheel he laughs even harder. “I’m just fucking around, Scott. Just wanted to see how pissed you would get.”

“Fuck off,” I grumble, and to prove a point, I turn on the back road to Zed’s.





chapter eleven


TESSA


The Four Seasons in Seattle is the nicest hotel I have ever seen. I try to walk slowly to take in all the beautiful details, but Kimberly practically drags me onto the elevator and down the hall, leaving Trevor and Mr. Vance in her wake.

Stopping in front of a door, she says, “Here’s your room. After you unpack, we’ll meet in our suite to go over the itinerary for the weekend, even though I already know you’ve already done this. You should change, because I really think you should save that dress for tonight when we go out.” She winks and strolls off down the hall.

The differences between my hotel from the last two nights and this one are vast. One painting from the lobby here probably costs more than what they spent decorating an entire room at the other place. The view from my window is incredible. Seattle is such a beautiful city. I can easily imagine myself living here, in a high-rise apartment with a job at Seattle Publishing, or even Vance Publishing, now that they’re opening an office here. That would be amazing.

After I hang up my clothes for the weekend, I change into a black pencil skirt and a lilac shirt. I’m excited about the conference, but nervous about going out. I know I need to have some fun, but it’s all new to me and I still feel empty from the damage Hardin has caused.

By the time I get to Kimberly and Mr. Vance’s suite, it’s two thirty. I’m anxious because I know we should be downstairs in the banquet room by three.

Kimberly greets me warmly when she opens the door and leads me inside. Their suite has its own living room and a separate sitting room. It looks bigger than my mother’s entire house.

“This is . . . wow,” I say.

Mr. Vance laughs and pours himself a glass of what looks like water. “It’s okay.”

“We ordered some room service so we can all eat a little something before we head downstairs. It should be here any minute,” Kimberly says, and I smile and thank her. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until she mentioned food. I haven’t eaten at all today.

“You ready to be bored out of your mind?” Trevor asks as he appears from the sitting room.

“It won’t be boring to me.” I smile and he laughs. “I may not want to leave this place,” I add.

“Me either,” he admits.

“Same,” Kim says.

Mr. Vance shakes his head. “That could be arranged, love.” He puts his hand on her back and I look away from the intimate gesture.

“We should just bring the main office here and all move!” Kimberly jokes. At least I think she’s joking.

“Smith would love Seattle.” Mr. Vance says.

“Smith?” I ask, then I remember his son from the wedding and blush. “Sorry, your son, of course.”

“It’s okay—it’s an odd name, I know.” He laughs and leans into Kimberly. It must be so nice to be in a loving, trusting relationship. I envy Kimberly this, a shameful envy, but envy nonetheless. She has a man in her life who obviously cares for her and would do anything to make her happy. She’s so lucky.

I smile. “It’s a lovely name.”

After eating, we head downstairs, and I’m thrown into a large conference room full of people who love books. It’s heaven.

“Network. Network. Network,” Mr. Vance says. “It’s all about networking.” And for the next three hours he introduces me to almost every single person in the room. The best part is that he doesn’t introduce me as his intern and he treats me like an adult. They all do.





chapter twelve


HARDIN


Well well well, look who it is,” Molly says and rolls her eyes when Jace and I walk into Zed’s apartment.

“Drunk and pregnant already?” I say to her.

“So? It’s past five,” she says with an evil grin. I shake my head at her right as she says, “Have a shot with me, Hardin,” and grabs a bottle of brown liquor and two shot glasses off the counter.

“Fine. One,” I say, and she smiles before filling up the small glasses.

Ten minutes later, I find myself looking through the photo gallery on my phone. I wish I’d have let Tessa take more pictures of us together so I would have more to look at now. God, I do have it bad, like Jace said. I feel like I’m slowly losing my mind, and the most fucked up part is, I don’t care how crazy I’m being as long as it helps me get closer to her again.

I will be happy, she said. I know I didn’t make her happy, but I could. At the same time, it isn’t fair for me to keep bothering her. I got her car fixed because I didn’t want her to have to worry about doing it herself. I’m glad that I did, because I wouldn’t have known she was going to Seattle if I hadn’t called Vance to make sure she’d have a ride to work.

Why wouldn’t she tell me? That prick Trevor is with her right now when I should be. I know he likes her, and I could see her falling for him. He’s exactly what she needs, and they’re a lot alike. Unlike her and I. He could make her happy. The thought pisses me off and makes me want to slam his head through a window . . .

But maybe I need to give her space and give her a chance to be happy. She made it clear yesterday that she can’t forgive me.

“Molly!” I call from the couch.

“What?”

“Bring me another shot.” And even without looking at her, I can feel her victorious smile fill the room.





chapter thirteen


TESSA


That was so amazing! Thank you so much for bringing me along.” I’m practically gushing at Mr. Vance as we all step into the elevator.

“It was my pleasure really, you’re one of my best employees. Intern or not, you’re very bright. And please, for the love of God, call me Christian, like I told you already,” he says with a fake gruffness.

“Yes, okay. This was beyond incredible, Mister . . . Christian. It was great hearing everybody talk about their thoughts on digital publishing, especially since it will only continue to grow and is so convenient and easy for readers. This is huge, and the market just keeps expanding . . .” I ramble.

“True, true. And tonight we helped Vance Publishing grow a little more—imagine how many new customers we’ll get when we’ve fully optimized our operations,” he agrees.

“Okay, are you two done?” Kimberly teases and wraps her arm through Christian’s. “Let’s get changed and hit the town! This is the first weekend in months that we’ve had a sitter.” She pouts playfully.

He smiles down at her. “Yes, ma’am.”

I’m glad that after his wife passed away Mr. Vance—I mean Christian—got a second chance at happiness. I look over at Trevor and he gives me a small smile.

“I need a drink,” Kimberly says.

“Me, too,” Christian says. “Okay, so everyone meet in the lobby in thirty minutes, and the driver will pick us up out front. Dinner’s on me!”

When I get back to my room, I plug in my curling iron so I can touch up my hair. I brush dark powder over my eyelids and look in the mirror. The powder looks heavy for me, but not too heavy. I line my eyes with black liner and add some blush to my cheeks before fixing my hair. The navy dress I wore this morning looks even better now, with my darker makeup and fuller hair. I wish Hardin . . .

No, I don’t. I don’t, I repeat to myself and slip on my black heels. I grab my cell phone and purse before leaving the room to meet my friends . . . are they my friends?

I don’t know, but I feel like Kimberly is, and Trevor is very kind. Christian’s my boss, so that’s a little different.

In the elevator, I text Landon to tell him that I’m having a great time in Seattle. I miss him, and I hope we can still remain close even if Hardin and I aren’t together anymore.

When I step out of the elevator, I spot Trevor’s black hair near the entrance. In his black dress pants and cream sweater, he reminds me of Noah a bit. I take a second to admire how handsome he looks before I make my presence known. When his eyes find me, they go wide, and he makes a noise between a cough and a squeak. I can’t help but laugh a little as his cheeks flush.

“You look . . . you look beautiful,” he says.

I smile and say, “Thank you. You don’t look so bad yourself.”

His cheeks redden. “Thanks,” he murmurs. It’s an odd thing to see him off balance like this. He’s usually so calm and collected.

“There they are!” I hear Kimberly call.

“Wow, Kim!” I say and wave my hand over my face, like I’m dispelling some illusion. She looks stunning in a red halter dress that only reaches halfway down her thighs. Her short blond hair is pin straight, making her look sexy, yet classy at the same time.

“I have a feeling we’ll be fighting men off all night,” Christian says to Trevor, and they both laugh as they escort us out to the sidewalk.

At Christian’s instruction, the car takes us to a really nice seafood restaurant, where I have the most delicious salmon and crab cakes, and where Christian tells us all sorts of hilarious stories about his days in publishing in New York. We all have a great time, and Trevor and Kimberly tease him a little, since he has a good sense of humor about everything.

After dinner, the car takes us a short distance to an all-glass three-story building. Through its windows I watch hundreds of flashing lights illuminate swaying bodies, creating a fascinating mix of lights and darks across limbs and bodies. It’s not far off from what I envisioned a club would be like, though much larger and with a lot more people.

As we get out, Kimberly grabs my arm. “We’ll go to a more laid-back place tomorrow—some of the guys from the conference wanted to come here, so here we are!” She laughs.

The very large man guarding the door holds a clipboard in his hands and is clearly controlling access to the inside. A line of expectant partygoers fills the entire sidewalk and reaches around the corner of the street.

“Will we have to wait long?” I ask Trevor.

“Oh no.” He chuckles. “Mr. Vance doesn’t wait.”

I soon see what he means when Christian whispers something to the bouncer and the big man moves the rope to let us through immediately. I’m a little dazed when I walk in, with music pounding and lights dancing across the massive smoke-filled space.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never understand why people like to pay to get a headache and inhale synthetic smoke while grinding on strangers.

A woman in a short dress leads us up some stairs to a small room with thin curtains for walls. Within are two couches and a table.

“This is a VIP section, Tessa,” Kimberly tells me as I look around with curious eyes.

“Oh,” I answer simply and follow their lead by taking a seat on one of the couches.

“What do you usually drink?” Trevor asks me.

“Oh, I don’t usually,” I answer.

“Me either. Well, I like wine, but I’m not much of a drinker.”

“Oh no, you are drinking tonight, Tessa. You need it!” Kimberly says loudly.

“I—” I start to say.

“She’ll have a Sex on the Beach, and so will I,” she tells the woman.

The hostess nods, and Christian orders a drink that I’ve never heard of and Trevor orders a glass of red wine. No one has yet questioned whether I’m of legal age or not. Maybe I look older than I am, or maybe Christian is known well enough here that people don’t want to upset his company by asking.

I have no idea what a Sex on the Beach is, but I prefer not to showcase my ignorance. When the woman returns, she hands me a tall glass with a piece of pineapple and a small pink umbrella sticking out of the top. I thank her and quickly take a sip through the straw. It ‘s really very good, sweet but with a little kick of bitterness as I swallow.

“Good?” Kim asks, and I nod, taking another long drink.





chapter fourteen


HARDIN


Aw, come on, Hardin. One more,” Molly says in my ear.

I haven’t decided yet if I want to get drunk. I’ve already had three shots, and I know if I take another, I will be drunk. On the one hand, getting as plastered as I can and forgetting about everything that’s going on sounds nice. But on the other hand, I need to be able to think clearly.

“Do you want to get out of here?” Molly says, slurring her words.

Molly smells like pot and whiskey. Part of me wants to take her into the bathroom and fuck her, just because I can. Just because Tessa is in Seattle with fucking Trevor and I am three hours away sitting on a couch half fucking drunk.

“Come on, Hardin, you know I can make you forget all about her,” she says and scoots onto my lap.

“What?” I ask her as she wraps her arms around my neck.

“Tessa. Let me make you forget her. You can fuck me until you can’t even remember her name.” Her hot breath touches my neck, and I pull away from her.

“Get off me,” I say.

“What the fuck, Hardin?” she snaps, her ego obviously wounded.

“I don’t want you,” I say harshly.

“Since when? You didn’t have a problem fucking me all those other times.”

“Not since . . .” I start to say.

“Not since what?” She jumps up off the couch, swinging her arms around wildly. “Since you met that stuck-up bitch?”

I have to remind myself that Molly is a female—and not the actual demon she acts like—before I do something stupid. “Don’t talk about her like that.” I stand up.

“It’s true, and now look at you. You’re like a fucking lost puppy over some Virgin Mary–turned–skank who obviously doesn’t even want you!” she yells, laughing or crying. Those things tend to look almost the same on Molly.

I clench my fists as Jace and Zed appear next to her. Molly puts a hand on Jace’s shoulder. “Tell him, guys. Tell him that he’s a fucking snore ever since we outed him to her.”

“Not we. You,” Zed corrects her.

She glares at him. “Same thing,” she says, and he rolls his eyes.

“What’s the problem?” Jace asks.

“Nothing,” I answer for her. “She’s just upset because I won’t fuck her needy ass.”

“No—I’m pissed because you’re an asshole. No one wants you around anyway. That’s why Jace told me to tell her in the first place.”

All I see is red. “He what?” I say through my teeth. I knew Jace was a dick, but I thought for sure it was Molly’s jealousy that drove her to reveal everything to Tessa the way she did.

“Yeah, he told me to tell her. He had it all planned: I was going to tell her right in front of you after she had a couple drinks, then he was going to chase after her and comfort her while you were crying like a fucking baby.” She laughs. “What was it that you said, Jace? You were going to ‘fuck her brains out’?” Molly says, using her claws to make air quotes.

I take a step toward Jace.

“Hey, it was just a joke, man—” he starts to say.

If I’m not mistaken, a smirk plays on Zed’s lips as my fist connects with Jace’s jaw.

I feel nothing on my knuckles from the repeated blows to Jace’s face; my anger overpowers everything as I climb on top of him to continue my assault. Images of him touching Tessa, kissing her, undressing her flash through my mind, making me hit him harder. The blood on his face only pushes me on, making me want to hurt him as much as I possibly can.

Jace’s black-framed glasses lie broken and shattered next to his bloody face as strong hands pull me off him.

“Come on, man! You’re going to kill him if you don’t stop!” Logan yells in my face, snapping me back to reality somewhat.

“If any of you have anything to fucking say to me, say it now!” I yell to the group I had once considered friends, or the closest things I had to such.

Everyone stays silent, even Molly.

“I mean it! If anyone says another fucking word about her, I won’t hesitate to take each and every one of you motherfuckers down!” I take one last look at Jace, who is struggling to get up off the floor, and walk out of Zed’s apartment into the cold night.





chapter fifteen


TESSA


These taste so good!” I practically yell at Kimberly as I suck down the remainder of my fruity drink. I greedily shift the straw around the ice to try to get as much as I can out of the glass.

She beams. “Want another?” Her eyes are a little red, but she’s still composed, whereas I feel funny and light.

Drunk. That’s the word I’m looking for.

I nod eagerly and find myself tapping my fingertips on my knees to the beat of the music.

“Are you feeling okay?” Trevor laughs when he notices.

“Yeah, I feel really good actually!” I yell over the music.

“We should dance!” Kimberly says.

“I don’t dance! Well, by don’t I mean can’t, not to this type of music anyway!” I’ve never danced the way the people inside the club are dancing, and usually I would be terrified of joining them. But then the alcohol buzzing in my veins gives me courage like never before. “Fudge it—let’s dance!” I exclaim.

Kimberly smiles, then turns and gives Christian a kiss on the lips, lingering longer than normal. Then in a flash she stands up and hauls me off of the couch, pulling me out toward the crowded dance floor. As we pass a railing, I look down and see the two stories below us filled with people dancing. Everyone looks so lost in their own world it’s intimidating and intriguing at the same time.

Of course