Chapter One Hundred and Two

After We Fell


one hundred and two




Looks like I’ll be filling out these thank-you cards to the guests who made last night’s club opening such a big success,” Kimberly says with a wry grin and a wave of an envelope when I enter the kitchen. “What are the two of you planning for today?”

    A look at the stack of cards she’s already addressed, and the pile she’s still working on, makes me wonder just how many businesses Christian has invested in, if all those people she’s writing to were “partners” of some sort. The size of this house alone has to mean he has more enterprises going on than just Vance Publishing and a single jazz club.

    “I’m not sure. We’ll figure it out when Hardin gets out of the shower,” I tell her, and slide a fresh stack of small envelopes across the granite countertop.

    I had to force Hardin into the bathroom to take a shower alone; he was still irritated with me for locking him out of the bathroom while I took mine. No matter how many times I tried to explain to him how awkward I’d feel if the Vances knew we were showering together in their home, he’d give me a weird little look and argue that we’d done much worse in their house than shower together over the past twelve hours.

    I stood my ground despite his pleading. The events in the gym were motivated by pure lust and were entirely unplanned. The love we made in my bedroom isn’t an issue, because it’s my bedroom for now, and I’m an adult having consensual sex with my . . . whatever it is that Hardin is to me right now. The shower thing, however, makes me feel differently.

    Being the stubborn man he is, Hardin still didn’t agree, which led to me asking him to get me a glass of water from the kitchen. I pouted, and he fell for it. The moment he left the room, I jetted down the hall to the bathroom, locking the door behind me and ignoring his annoyed demands for me to let him in.

    “You should make him take you sightseeing,” Kimberly tells me. “Maybe throwing yourselves into the culture of the city will help him with his decision to move here with you.”

    This kind of weighty conversation is not something that I want to deal with right now. “So . . . Sasha seemed nice,” I say, to not-so-covertly move the conversation away from my relationship issues.

    Kimberly snorts. “Sasha? Nice? Not so much.”

    “She knows that Max is married, doesn’t she?”

    “Of course she does.” She licks her lips. “But does she care? No, not at all. She likes his money and the expensive jewelry that comes along with seeing him. She couldn’t care less about his wife and daughter.” The disapproval in Kim’s voice is heavy, and I’m relieved to find that we’re in agreement on this subject.

    “Max is a jerk, but I’m still surprised that he’d have the nerve to bring her around other people. I mean, doesn’t he care if Denise or Lillian find out about her?”

    “I suspect that Denise already knows. With a guy like Max, there have been plenty of other Sashas over the years, and poor Lillian already despises her father, so it wouldn’t make any difference if she knew.”

    “That’s so sad; they’ve been married since college, right?” I don’t know how much Kimberly knows about Max and his family, but given her gossiping ways, I’m sure it’s not nothing.

    “They married right out of college—it was quite the scandal.” Kimberly’s eyes light up with the thrill of spilling such a juicy story to my unknowing ears. “Apparently, Max was set to marry someone else, some woman whose family was close with his. It was basically a business deal. Max’s father came from old money; I think that’s at least part of why Max is such an asshole. Denise was heartbroken when he told her of his plan to marry another woman.” Kimberly speaks as if she was actually present at the time all this was happening, instead of just passing along gossip. Maybe, though, that’s what gossips always feel like?

    She takes a sip of water before continuing. “Anyway, after graduation, Max rebelled against his father and literally left the woman waiting at the altar. On the very day of the wedding, he showed up at Trish and Ken’s place in his tuxedo and waited outside the door until Denise came out. That same night, the five of them bribed a pastor, using a fancy bottle of scotch and the little bit of cash in their pockets. Denise and Max were married just before midnight, and she was pregnant with Lillian a few weeks later.”

    My brain has a hard time picturing Max as a lovesick young man, rushing through the streets of London in a tuxedo, tracking down the woman he loved. The same woman that he now repeatedly betrays by hopping into bed with the likes of Sasha.

    “I don’t mean to intrude, but was Christian’s . . .” I’m unsure what to call her. “I mean, Smith’s mother, was she . . .”

    With an understanding smile, Kimberly ends my awkward fumbling. “Rose came along many years later. Christian was always the fifth wheel with the two couples. Once he and Ken stopped speaking and Christian came to America . . . that’s when Christian met Rose.”

    “How long were they married?” I search Kimberly’s face for signs of discomfort. I don’t want to intrude, but I can’t help being fascinated by the history of this group of friends. I hope that Kimberly knows me well enough by now not to be surprised by how many questions I’m prone to ask.

    “Only two years. They’d only been dating a few months before she got sick.” Her voice cracks, and she swallows, tears brimming in her eyes. “He married her anyway . . . She was taken down the aisle . . . in a wheelchair . . . by her father, who insisted on doing it. Halfway to the altar, Christian stepped down and pushed her the rest of the way.” Kimberly breaks into sobs, and I brush away the tears that are falling from my eyes.

    “I’m sorry,” she says with a wan smile. “I haven’t told this story in a long time, and it just makes me so emotional.” She reaches across the countertop to pull a wad of tissues from a box and passes one to me. “Just thinking about it always shows me that behind his smart mouth and brilliant mind, there is an incredible loving man.”

    She looks at me, then down at the stacks of envelopes. “Shit, I got tears on the cards!” she exclaims, recovering quickly.

    I want to ask her more questions about Rose and Smith, Ken and Trish in their college days, but I don’t want to push her.

    “He loved Rose, and she healed him, even in her dying days. He only loved one woman his entire life, and she finally broke him of that.”

    The story, as lovely as it is, only confuses me further. Who was this woman that Christian loved, and why did he need healing after this?

    Kimberly blows her nose and looks up. I turn to the doorway, where Hardin awkwardly glances back and forth between Kimberly and me, taking in the scene unfolding in the kitchen.

    “Well, I obviously showed up at the wrong time,” he says.

    I can’t help but smile at how we must look, crying for no apparent reason, two massive stacks of cards and envelopes sitting in front of us on the countertop.

    Hardin’s hair is wet from his shower, and his face is freshly shaven. He looks incredible in a plain black T-shirt and jeans. He’s wearing nothing on his feet except socks, and his expression is wary as he silently beckons me to him.

    “Should I expect you two for dinner tonight?” Kimberly asks as I cross the room to stand at Hardin’s side.

    “Yes,” I respond at the same time that Hardin says “No.”

    Kim laughs and shakes her head. “Well, text me when you two come to an agreement.”


A FEW MINUTES LATER, as Hardin and I reach the front door, Christian suddenly pops out from a side room, sporting a huge grin. “It’s freezing outside. Where’s your coat, boy?”

    “First off, I don’t need a coat. Second, don’t call me boy.” Hardin rolls his eyes.

    Christian pulls a heavy navy-blue pea coat from the rack next to the door. “Here, wear this. It’s like a damn heater in and of itself.”

    “Hell no,” Hardin scoffs, and I can’t help but laugh.

    “Don’t be an idiot; it’s twenty degrees outside. Your lady may need you to keep her warm,” Christian teases, and Hardin’s eyes assess my thick purple sweater, purple coat, and purple beanie, which he hasn’t stopped teasing me about since I pushed it onto my head. I wore this same outfit the night that he took me ice skating, and he teased me then, too. Some things never change.

    “Fine,” Hardin grumbles and pushes his long arms into the coat. I’m not surprised to find that he pulls off the look; even the large bronze buttons that line the front of the jacket somehow assume a masculine edge when mixed with Hardin’s simple style. His new jeans, which I have grown really fond of, and his plain black T-shirt, black boots, and now this coat, make him look like he was plucked straight from the pages of a magazine. It’s simply not fair the way he looks so effortlessly perfect.

    “Stare much?”

    I jump slightly at Hardin’s words. In turn, I’m granted a smirk and a warm hand wrapped around mine.

    Just then, Kimberly rushes through the living room and into the foyer, followed by Smith, calling, “Wait! Smith wants to ask you something.” She looks down at her soon-to-be stepson with a loving smile. “Go ahead, sweetie.”

    The blond boy looks directly at Hardin. “Can you take a picture for my school thing?”

    “What?” Hardin’s face slightly pales, and he looks at me. I know how he feels about being photographed.

    “It’s sort of a collage he’s doing. He said he wants your picture, too,” Kimberly tells Hardin, and I look over to him, pleading with him not to deny the boy who clearly idolizes him.

    “Um, sure?” Hardin shifts on his heels and looks at Smith. “Can Tessa be in the picture, too?”

    Smith shrugs. “I guess so.”

    I smile at him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. Hardin shoots me a he-likes-me-more-than-you-and-I don’t-even-have-to-try look, and I discreetly elbow him as we walk into the living room. I pull the beanie from my head and use the band on my wrist to pull my hair back for the picture. Hardin’s beauty is so unforced and natural; all he has to do is stand there with his uncomfortable frown on his face, and he looks perfect.

    “I’ll take it quickly,” Kimberly says.

    Hardin moves closer to me and lazily hooks his arm around my waist. I give my best smile while he attempts to smile without showing his teeth. I nudge him, and his smile brightens just in time for Kimberly to take the shot.

    “Thank you.” I can see that she’s genuinely pleased.

    “Let’s go,” Hardin says, and I nod, giving Smith a small wave before following Hardin through the foyer to the front door.

    “That was so nice of you,” I tell him.

    “Whatever.” He smiles and covers my mouth with his. I hear the small click of a camera and pull away from him to find Kimberly with the camera again held to her face. Hardin turns his head to hide in my hair, and she takes another shot.

    “Enough, shit.” He groans and drags me out the door. “What is with this family and their videos and pictures,” he rambles on, and I close the heavy door behind me.

    “Videos?” I ask.

    “Never mind.”

    The cold air whips around us, and I quickly put my hair down and pull my hat back over my head.

    “We’ll take your car and get an oil change first,” Hardin says over the howling wind. I dig into the front pockets of my coat to retrieve my keys to give to him, but he shakes his head and dangles his key chain in front of my face. It’s now furnished with one key bearing a familiar green band.

    “You didn’t take your key back when you left all your gifts,” he says.

    “Oh . . .” My mind fills with the memory of leaving my most precious possessions in a pile on the bed we once shared. “I’d like those things back soon, if that’s okay.”

    Hardin climbs into the car without another glance my way, mumbling over his shoulder, “Um, yeah. Sure.”

    Once we’re inside the car, Hardin turns the heat all the way up and reaches across to grab my hand. He rests both of our hands on my thigh, and his fingers trace a thoughtful pattern over my wrist, where the bracelet would normally rest.

    “I hate that you left it there . . . It should be here.” He presses against the base of my wrist.

    “I know.” My voice is barely a whisper. I miss that bracelet every day; my e-reader, too. I want the letter he wrote me back as well. I want to be able to read it over and over.

    “Maybe you can bring them when you come back next weekend?” I ask, hopeful.

    “Yeah, sure,” he says, but his eyes stay focused on the road.

    “Why are we getting an oil change, anyway?” I ask him. We finally make it out of the long driveway and turn onto the residential road.

    “You need one.” He gestures toward the small sticker on the windshield.

    “Okay . . .”

    “What?” He glowers at me.

    “Nothing. It’s just an odd thing to do, to take someone’s car to get an oil change.”

    “I’ve been the only one taking your car for an oil change for months; why would it surprise you now?”

    He’s right; he’s always the one to take my car for any type of maintenance it may need, and sometimes I suspect he’s being paranoid and has things fixed or replaced that don’t need to be.

    “I don’t know. I guess I forget that we were a normal couple sometimes,” I admit, fidgeting in my seat.


    “It’s hard to remember the small, normal things like oil changes or the time you let me braid your hair.” I smile at the memory. “When we always seem to be going through some sort of crisis.”

    “First of all . . .”—he smirks—“don’t ever mention that hair-braiding fiasco again. You know damned well that the only reason I let that happen was because you bribed me with head and cookies.” He gently squeezes my thigh, and a rush of heat flares under my skin. “Second, I guess you’re right in a way. It would be nice if your memories of me weren’t tainted by my constant habit of fucking everything up.”

    “It’s not only you; we both made mistakes,” I correct him. Hardin’s mistakes usually caused much more damage than mine, but I’m not innocent either. We need to stop blaming ourselves or each other and try to reach some sort of middle ground—together. That can’t happen if Hardin continues to beat himself up over every mistake he’s made in the past. He has to find a way to forgive himself . . . so he can move on and be the person I know he really wants to be.

    “You didn’t,” he retorts, fighting back.

    “Instead of the two of us going back and forth over who made mistakes and who didn’t, let’s decide what we’re going to do with our day after the oil change.”

    “You’ll get an iPhone,” he says.

    “How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t want an iPhone . . . ?” I grumble. My phone is slow, yes, but iPhones are expensive and complicated—two things I can’t afford to add to my life right now.

    “Everyone wants an iPhone. You’re just one of those people who don’t want to give in to the trend.” He looks over at me, and I see his dimples pucker evilly. “That’s why you were still wearing floor-length skirts in college.” Finding himself absolutely hilarious, he fills the car with his laughter.

    I playfully scowl at his overused dig. “I can’t afford one right now anyway. I have to save my money for an apartment and groceries. You know, the necessities.” I roll my eyes, but smile back at him to soften the blow.

    “Imagine the things we could do if you had an iPhone, too. There’d be even more ways for us to communicate, and you know I’d get it for you, so don’t mention the money again.”

    “What I can imagine is doing things like tracking my phone so you could see where I go,” I tease, ignoring his overpowering need to buy me things.

    “No, like we could video-chat.”

    “Why would we do that?”

    He looks at me as if I’ve grown another set of eyes and shakes his head. “Because, imagine being able to see me each day on your shiny new iPhone screen.”

    Images of phone sex and video chats immediately spring into mind, and I shamelessly run through shots of Hardin touching himself on the screen. What is wrong with me?

    My cheeks heat, and I can’t help but glance at his lap.

    With one finger under my chin, Hardin tilts my face up to look at him. “You’re thinking about it . . . going over all the dirty shit I could do to you via iPhone.”

    “No, I’m not.” Holding tight to my stubborn refusal to get a new cell phone, I change the subject. “My new office is nice . . . the view is incredible.”

    “Is it?” Hardin’s tone immediately turns somber.

    “Yes, and the view from the lunchroom is even better. Trevor’s office has—” I stop myself from finishing the sentence, but it’s too late. Hardin is already glaring at me, expecting me to finish.

    “No, no. Continue.”

    “Trevor’s office has the best view,” I tell him, my voice coming out much more clear and steady than I’m feeling on the inside.

    “Just how often are you in his office, Tessa?” Hardin’s eyes flicker to me and then back to the road.

    “I’ve been there twice this week. We have lunch together.”

    “You Hardin snaps. I knew I should have waited until after dinner to bring up Trevor. Or not brought him up at all. I shouldn’t even have mentioned his name.

    “I have lunch with him, usually,” I admit. Unfortunately for me, at that moment my car is stopped at a red light, leaving me no choice but to be at the receiving end of Hardin’s glare.

    “Every day?”

    “Yes . . .”

    “Is there a reason behind it?”

    “He’s the only person I know that has the same lunch hour as me. Kimberly’s so busy helping Christian that she hasn’t even been taking a lunch hour.” Both of my hands move in front of my face to aid in my explanation.

    “So have your lunch hour changed.” The light turns green, but Hardin doesn’t step on the gas pedal until an angry horn sounds from behind us in the line of traffic.

    “I’m not having my lunch hour changed. Trevor is my coworker, end of story.”

    “Well,” Hardin breathes, “I would prefer you not to eat lunch with fucking Trevor. I can’t stand him.”

    Laughing, I reach down onto my lap and place my hand on top of Hardin’s. “You’re being irrationally jealous, and it happens that there’s no one else for me to have lunch with, especially when the other two women that share the same lunch hour have been mean to me all week.”

    He glances sideways at me while switching lanes smoothly. “What do you mean, they’ve been mean to you?”

    “They haven’t been mean exactly. I don’t know, maybe I’m just paranoid.”

    “What happened? Tell me,” he urges.

    “It’s nothing serious, I just get the feeling that they don’t like me for some reason. I always catch the two of them laughing or whispering while staring at me. Trevor said they like to gossip, and I swear I heard them say something about how I got the job.”

    “They said Hardin sneers. His knuckles are white as he grips the steering wheel.

    “They made a comment, something like ‘we know how she got the job anyway.’ ”

    “Did you say something to them? Or to Christian?”

    “No, I don’t want to cause any problems. I’ve only been there a week, and I don’t want to run and tattle on them like a schoolgirl.”

    “Fuck that. You need to tell those women to fuck off, or I’ll tell Christian myself. What are their names? I may know them.”

    “It’s not that big of a deal,” I say, trying to deactivate the bomb I’ve clearly assembled myself. “Every office has a set of catty women. The ones in mine just happen to have targeted me. I don’t want this to be a thing; I just want to blend in there and maybe even make some friends.”

    “Not likely to happen if you continue to let them act like bitches and hang out with fucking Trevor all day.” He licks his lips and takes a deep breath.

    I take an equally deep breath and look at him, debating whether or not to defend Trevor.

    Fuck it.

    “Trevor is the only person there that makes any type of effort to be kind to me, and I already know him. That’s why I spend my lunch hour with him.” I stare out the window and watch my favorite city in the world pass by as I wait for the bomb to explode.

    When Hardin doesn’t respond, I look over at him and his laser stare at the road ahead, then add, “I really miss Landon.”

    “He misses you, too. So does your dad.”

    I sigh. “I want to know how he is, but if I ask one question, it’ll lead to thirty. You know how I am.” Worry blooms inside my chest, and I do my best to push it back down and lock it away.

    “I do know, that’s why I won’t answer them.”

    “How’s Karen? And your father? Is it sad that I miss those two more than I miss my own parents?” I ask.

    “No, considering who your parents are.” He scrunches his nose. “To answer your question, they’re good, I guess. I don’t really pay attention.”

    “I hope this place starts to feel like home soon,” I say without thinking and sink back into the leather seat.

    “You don’t seem to like Seattle so far, so what the hell are you doing here?” Hardin pulls my car into the lot of a small building. Plastered on the front is a massive yellow sign promising fifteen-minute oil changes and friendly service.

    I don’t know how to answer him. I’m afraid to share my fears and doubts about my recent move with Hardin. Not because I don’t trust him, but because I don’t want him to use them as an opening to push me to leave Seattle. I could really use a big pep talk right now, but, frankly, would settle for silence over the “I told you so” I’m most likely to hear from Hardin.

    “It’s not that I don’t like it here, I’m just not used to it yet. It’s only been one week, and I’m used to my routine and Landon, and you,” I explain.

    “I’ll pull into the line and meet you inside,” Hardin tells me without a word regarding my response.

    With a nod, I climb out of the car and hurry out of the cold and into the small mechanic shop. The scent of burned rubber and stale coffee fills the waiting room. I’m staring at a framed photograph of an old-fashioned car when I feel Hardin’s hand come to rest on the small of my back.

    “It shouldn’t be too long.” He takes my hand in his and leads me to the dusty leather couch in the center of the room.

    Twenty minutes later, he’s on his feet, pacing back and forth across the black-and-white-tiled flooring. A bell chimes through the room, signaling that someone has joined us.

    “The sign outside says fifteen-minute oil change,” Hardin snaps at the young man wearing oil-stained coveralls.

    “Yeah, it does.” The man shrugs. The cigarette tucked behind his ear falls down onto the counter, and he quickly retrieves it with a gloved hand.

    “Are you shitting me?” Hardin growls, his patience clearly grown thin.

    “It’s almost done,” the mechanic assures him before exiting the waiting room just as abruptly as he entered. I don’t blame him.

    I turn to Hardin and rise to my feet. “It’s fine; we aren’t in a hurry.”

    “He’s wasting my time with you. I have less than twenty-four hours with you, and he’s fucking wasting it.”

    “It’s fine.” I walk across the tile floor to stand in front of him. “We’re here together.” I push my hands into the pockets of Christian’s coat, and he presses his lips into a tight line to keep his frown from turning into a smile.

    “If they aren’t done within ten minutes, I’m not paying for this shit,” he threatens, and I shake my head at him and bury my head in his chest.

    “Don’t apologize to that guy for me either.” He reaches under my chin with his thumb and lifts my head to look into my eyes. “I know you’re planning to.” He places a soft kiss against my lips, and I find myself hungry and anxious for more.

    The topics of discussion in the car have proven to be sore spots for us in the past, yet we made the entire drive here without a major blowup. I’m surprisingly giddy over that, or maybe it’s Hardin’s warm arms wrapping around my waist, or his usual minty scent laced with Christian’s cologne that he borrowed.

    Whatever it is, I’m aware of the fact that we’re the only people waiting in the small shop, and I’m surprised by Hardin’s affectionateness as he kisses me again; this time his lips press much harder and his tongue swipes out to meet mine. My hands find their way into his hair, and I tug gently at the ends, making him groan and tighten his grip on my waist. He brings my body flush to his, his mouth still claiming mine, until the shrill sound of a bell goes off, making me jump away from him and smooth my hand over my beanie out of nervousness alone.

    “Aaaaaall done,” the cigarette-toting man from minutes ago announces.

    “About time,” Hardin rudely remarks and pulls his wallet from his back pocket, shooting me a warning glare when I do the same.