Chapter One Hundred and Ten

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and ten

 

HARDIN

 

It feels like ages since I’ve been at this place. I’d been driving around for the last hour, going over the possible outcomes of my coming here. After formulating a mental list of pros and cons—something I never, ever do—I shut my car off and step into the cold afternoon air.

    I’m assuming he’s home; if not, I just wasted my entire afternoon, and I’ll be even more irritated than I already am. I glance around the parking lot and find his truck near the front. The brown apartment building is set just off of the street, and a rusty staircase leads up to the second floor, where his place is. With each stomp of my boot against the metal staircase, I run through the reasons why I’m here in the first place.

    Just as I reach apartment C, my phone vibrates in my back pocket. It’s either Tessa or my mum, neither of whom I want to speak with right now. If I talk to Tessa, I’ll be thrown off my plan. And my mum will just annoy me with her wedding talk.

    I knock on the door. Within seconds Zed answers, wearing only drawstring pants. His feet are bare, and I notice the intricate clockwork-and-gear tattoo that he showed me before has spread further across his stomach. He must have gotten more of it done after he tried to get with my fucking girl.

    Zed doesn’t greet me. Instead, he just stares at me from the doorway, a look of obvious shock and suspicion on his face.

    “We need to talk,” I finally say and push past him to enter his apartment.

    “Should I call the cops?” he asks in that dry tone he gets.

    I take a seat on his worn leather couch and stare up at him. “That depends on whether you cooperate or not.”

    Dark hair covers his jawline and frames his mouth. It feels like months have passed since I saw him outside Tessa’s mum’s house instead of only ten or so days.

    He sighs and leans his back against the wall on the opposite side of his small living room. “Well, get to it, then.”

    “You know this is about Tessa.”

    “I figured as much.” He frowns and crosses his tattooed arms.

    “You aren’t going to Seattle.”

    He raises a thick brow before he smiles. “I am, though. I’ve already made the plans.”

    What the fuck? Why would he be going to Seattle? He’s making this much harder than it needs to be, and I’m beginning to kick myself in the ass for thinking this conversation would end in any way except him leaving on a stretcher.

    “The thing is . . .” I breathe in a deep breath to keep myself calm and stick to the plan. “You aren’t going to Seattle.”

    “I’m visiting my friends there,” he answers, challenging me.

    “Bullshit. I know exactly what you’re doing,” I bite back.

    “I’m staying with some friends in Seattle, but in case you were wondering, she did invite me to visit her.”

    The moment the words leave his mouth, I’m on my feet. “Don’t push me—I’m trying to do this the right way. You have no reason to visit her. She’s mine.”

    He raises one brow. “Do you realize how that sounds? Saying she’s yours like she’s your property?”

    “I don’t give a fuck how it sounds; it’s true.” I take another step toward him. The air between us has shifted from tense to downright primal. Both of us are trying to stake a claim here, and I’m not backing down.

    “If she’s yours, then why aren’t you in Seattle with he presses.

    “I’m graduating after this semester, that’s why.” Why am I even answering his questions? I came here to talk, not to listen and “engage in dialogue,” as a professor of mine used to say. I’ll be damned if he tries to turn this shit on me. “Me not being there is irrelevant. You won’t be seeing her while you’re there.”

    “That’s for her to decide, don’t you think?”

    “If I thought that, I wouldn’t be here, would I?” My fists tighten at my sides, and I look away from him to stare at the stack of science textbooks on his coffee table. “Why won’t you just leave her alone? Is this because of what I did to—”

    “No,” he interrupts smoothly. “It has nothing to do with that. I care about Tessa, just like you. But unlike you, I treat her the way she deserves to be treated.”

    “You know nothing about how I treat her,” I growl.

    “Yeah, man, I actually do. How many times has she run to me crying because of something you did or said? Too many.” He points a finger at me. “All you do is hurt her, and you know it.”

    “You don’t even know her, first of all, and secondly, don’t you think it’s a little pathetic of you to keep pining after someone you’ll never have? How many times have we had this conversation, about how many girls?”

    He eyes me carefully, taking in my anger, but not really biting on my pointing out his history with girls. “No”—his tongue darts out to wet his lips—“it’s not pathetic. It’s genius, actually. With Tessa, I’ll be waiting in the background for the day when you fuck up again—which is inevitable—and when you do, I’ll be there for her.”

    “You are a fucking—” I step back across the room to put as much space between his body and mine before his head ends up going through his wall. “What will it take, then? Do you want her to tell you herself that she doesn’t want you around? I thought she already did that, yet here you are . . .”

    “You’re the one in my apartment.”

    “Goddammit, Zed!” I shout. “Why can’t you just fucking stop? You know what she means to me, and you’re always trying to get in the way. Find someone else to toy with. There are plenty of whores around campus.”

    “ ‘Whores’?” He repeats the word, mocking me.

    “You know I didn’t mean Tessa,” I growl, struggling to keep my fists at my sides.

    “If she meant so much to you, you wouldn’t have done half the shit you did. Does she know that you fucked Molly while you were chasing her around?”

    “Yes, she knows that. I told her.”

    “And she didn’t mind?” His voice is the complete opposite of mine. He’s so collected and calm, while I’m struggling mightily to keep the lid on my boiling anger.

    “She knows that it meant nothing to me, and that it was before everything.” I glare at him, trying to focus again. “But I didn’t come here to discuss my relationship.”

    “Okay, why, exactly, did you come, then?”

    He’s such a smug bastard.

    “To let you know that you aren’t going to see her in Seattle. I thought we could discuss it in a more . . .”—I search for the right words—“civilized manner.”

    “Civilized? Sorry, but I find it hard to believe that you came here with ‘enlightened’ intentions,” he scoffs, pointing to the bump on the bridge of his nose.

    I close my eyes momentarily and envision his nose busted and bleeding, snapping under the metal casing when I slammed his head against it. The memory of the sound heightens my already buzzing adrenaline. “This is civilized for me! I came here to talk, not to fight—however, if you won’t stay away from her, I don’t have any other options.” I widen my stance a little.

    “Than what?” Zed asks.

    “What?”

    “Than We’ve been down this road before. There are only so many times that you can assault me before you get yourself arrested. And this time I will follow through on pressing charges.”

    He makes a valid point. Which only makes me madder. I hate the fact that I can’t do a fucking thing about it, except literally murder him, which isn’t an option . . . at this point at least.

    I take a couple of breaths and try to relax my muscles. I have to offer my last option. One that I didn’t want to have to rely on, but he’s not giving me much room here. “I came here thinking we could come to some sort of agreement,” I say.

    He tilts his head to the side in the cockiest way possible. “What type of agreement? Is it another bet?”

    “You’re really pushing me . . .” I say through my teeth. “Tell me what it’ll take for you to leave her alone. What can I give you to make you go away? Name it, and it’s yours.”

    Zed stares at me, blinking rapidly, as if I’ve grown another head.

    “Well, come on, now. Every man has a price,” I murmur drily. It infuriates me that I have to negotiate with someone like him, but there’s nothing else I can do to make him go away.

    “Let her see me again, one more time,” he suggests. “I’ll be in Seattle on Thursday.”

    “No. Absolutely not.” Is he fucking stupid?

    “I’m not asking your permission here. I’m trying to make you feel more comfortable with it.”

    “It’s not happening. You two have no reason to spend time together; she isn’t available to you—or any other man—and she never will be.”

    “There you go, getting all possessive.” He rolls his eyes, and I wonder what Tessa would say if she could see this side of him, the only side I’ve ever known. What would I be as her man if I weren’t possessive, if I was okay sharing her with someone?

    I bite my tongue while Zed stares at the ceiling as if he’s deliberating his next words. This is such fucking bullshit, pure and utter fucking bullshit. My head is spinning, and I’m honestly beginning to wonder just how much longer I can keep my cool.

    Finally, Zed looks at me, a smirk slowly overtaking his features. Then he says simply, “Your car.”

    My mouth falls open at his audacity, and I can’t help but laugh. “No fucking way!” I take two steps toward him. “I’m not giving you my fucking car. Are you out of your fucking mind?” My hands fly into the air.

    “Sorry, then; looks like we can’t come to an agreement after all.” His eyes glitter through their thick lashes, and he rubs his fingers over his beard.

    Images from my nightmare float through my head, him thrusting into her, making her come . . .

    I shake my head to get rid of them.

    Then I dig my keys out of my pocket and toss them onto the coffee table between us.

    He gapes, bending down to retrieve the key chain. “You’re serious?” He studies the keys, turning them over in his palm a few times before looking back up at me. “I was fucking with you!”

    He tosses me the keys, but I don’t catch them in time; they land only inches from the toe of my boot.

    “I’ll back off . . . fuck. I didn’t expect you to actually give me your keys.” He laughs, mocking me. “I’m not as big an asshole

    I glower at him. “You weren’t giving me many options.”

    “We were friends once, remember?” Zed remarks.

    I stay silent as we both remember how everything used to be, before all of this shit, before I actually gave a fuck about anything . . . before her. His eyes have shifted, his shoulders have tensed along with the air after his question.

    It’s hard to recall those supposed days. “I was too shit-faced to remember.”

    “You know that isn’t true!” he exclaims, raising his voice. “You stopped drinking after—”

    “I didn’t come here to take a walk down memory lane with you. Are you going to back off or not?” I look at him. He’s different somehow, harder.

    He shrugs. “Sure, yeah.”

    But that was too easy . . . “I’m serious.”

    “So am I,” he says with a wave of his hand at me.

    “This means absolutely no contact with her. None,” I remind him again.

    “She’s going to wonder why. I texted her earlier today.”

    I choose to ignore this. “Tell her you don’t want to be friends with her anymore.”

    “I don’t want to hurt her feelings like that,” he says.

    “I don’t give a fuck about hurting her feelings. You need to make it clear that you aren’t going to be pining after her anymore.” The momentary calm I felt has ceased, and my temper is rising again. The possibility that Tessa’s feelings would somehow be hurt by Zed not wanting to be friends with her drives me fucking crazy.

    I walk toward the door, knowing myself well enough that I won’t make it another five minutes in this musty apartment. I’m pretty damn proud of myself for remaining peaceful this long in a room with Zed after all the shit he’s done to interfere with my relationship.

    As my hand touches the rusted doorknob, he says, “I’ll do what I have to do for now, but it still isn’t going to change the outcome of all this.”

    “You’re right. It won’t.” I agree with him, knowing that he means the exact opposite of what I do.

    Before his fucking mouth can utter another word, I get out of his apartment and walk down the staircase as quickly as possible.

 

BY THE TIME I pull into my father’s driveway, the sun is setting, and I still haven’t been able to reach Tessa, each call going straight to voicemail. I’ve even called Christian twice, but he’s yet to answer or return my calls.

    Tessa’s going to be mad that I went to Zed’s apartment; she feels something for him that I’m never going to understand or tolerate. After today, I pray that I won’t have to worry about him any longer. Unless she clings to him . . .

    No. I stop myself from doubting her. I know Steph was feeding me bullshit, and it seeped into every insecure crack in my stone facade. If Zed had actually fucked Tessa, he’d have used this afternoon as the perfect opportunity to throw it in my face.

    I walk into my father’s house without knocking and search the downstairs for Karen or Landon. Karen is in the kitchen, standing over the stove with a wire whisk in her hand. She turns and greets me with a warm smile but also with troubled, tired eyes. An unfamiliar feeling of guilt spreads through me as I remember the planter I accidentally broke in her greenhouse.

    “Hi, Hardin. Are you looking for Landon?” she asks, placing the whisk on a plate and wiping her hands on the bottom of her strawberry-print apron.

    “I . . . I don’t know, really,” I admit. What am I doing here?

    How pathetic is my life right now, that I find comfort in coming to this house, of all places? I know it’s because of the memories that were created when I was here with Tessa.

    “He’s upstairs, on the phone with Dakota.”

    Something about Karen’s tone throws me off.

    “Is . . .” I’m not very good at interacting with people besides Tessa, and I’m particularly bad at dealing with other people’s emotions. “Is he having a bad day or something?” I ask, sounding like a dumb-ass.

    “I think so. He’s having a hard time, I think. He hasn’t spoken to me about anything, but he seems upset lately.”

    “Yeah . . .” I say, but I haven’t noticed anything different about my stepbrother’s mood. Then again, I’ve been too busy forcing him to babysit Richard to notice.

    “When does he leave for New York again?”

    “Three weeks.” She tries to hide the pain in her voice that comes along with the words but fails miserably.

    “Oh.” I’m growing more and more uncomfortable by the minute. “Well, I’m going to go . . .”

    “Don’t you want to stay for dinner?” she asks eagerly.

    “Uh, no. I’m okay.”

    Between the talk with my father this morning, the time I spent with Zed, and now this awkward shit with Karen, I’m on overload. I can’t take the chance that something is actually wrong with Landon. I won’t be able to deal with him being all emotional and shit, not today. I already have to go home to a recovering drug addict and an empty fucking bed.