Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Six

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and twenty-six

 

HARDIN

 

Fortunately for both of us, Landon’s not rubbing one out when I push his bedroom door open. Predictably, he’s seated in the recliner against the wall with a textbook on his lap.

    “What are you doing in here?” he asks, his voice hoarse.

    “You knew we were coming.” I take the liberty of sitting on the edge of his bed.

    “I meant in my room,” he clarifies.

    I choose not to answer that; actually, I don’t know why I’m in his room. I sure as hell didn’t want to stay downstairs with three women obsessing over one another.

    “You look like shit,” I tell him.

    “Thanks.” He looks back down at the textbook.

    “What’s wrong with you? Why are you up here moping around?” I look around his normally tidy room to find it sort of messy—clean by my standards, but not by his and Tessa’s.

    “I’m not moping.”

    “If something’s wrong, tell me. I’m really good at, like, caring,” I say, hoping humor might help somehow.

    He slams the book shut and stares at me. “Why would I tell you anything? So you can laugh at me?”

    “No. I wouldn’t,” I say. I probably would. I had actually been planning on him telling me some stupid shit about getting a bad grade so I could take my frustrations out on him, but now that he’s here, in front of me, looking all pitiful, making him miserable doesn’t appeal to me as much as it did before.

    “Just tell me, maybe I can help,” I offer. I have no fucking idea why I just said that. We both know I’m shit at helping anyone. Look at what a fucking disaster last night turned out to be. Richard’s words have been eating away at me all morning.

    “Help me?” Landon gapes, obviously wary of my offer.

    “Oh, come on, don’t make me beat it out of you.” I lie back on his bed and examine the blades of the ceiling fan, willing it to be summer already so I could enjoy the sensation of it cooling me down.

    I hear his light chuckle and the sound of the book being placed on the desk beside him. “Dakota and I have ended things,” he admits meekly.

    I sit up quickly. “What?” That was the last thing I imagined would come from his mouth.

    “Yeah, we’ve been trying to make it work . . .” He frowns, his eyes glossing over.

    If he fucking cries, I’m out of here.

    “Oh . . .” I say and look away.

    “I think she’s been wanting to end it for a while.”

    I glance at him again, not wanting to put too much focus on his sad features. He really is like a puppy, especially right now. I don’t like puppies, though, except this one, maybe . . . My sudden animosity toward the curly-haired girl is strong.

    “Why do you think that?” I ask.

    He shrugs. “I don’t know. She didn’t come right out and say that she wanted to end it . . . It’s just . . . she’s been so busy lately, and she never returns my calls. It’s like the closer it got to me coming to New York, the more distant she became.”

    “She’s probably fucking someone else,” I blurt out, and he flinches.

    “No! She isn’t like that,” he says, defending her.

    I probably shouldn’t have said that. “Sorry.” I shrug.

    “She’s not that type of girl at all,” he tells me.

    Neither was Tessa, but I had her shaking and moaning my name while she was still seeing Noah . . . though I keep that fact to myself for everyone’s sake.

    “Okay,” I say agreeably.

    “I’ve been dating her so long that I can’t even remember what life was like before her.” His voice is quiet and so full of sadness that it makes my chest tight. It’s an odd feeling.

    “I know what you mean,” I say. Life before Tessa was nothing, only sloshed memories and darkness, and that’s exactly what it would be like after her, too.

    “Yeah, but at least you won’t have to find out what it would be like after.”

    “What makes you so sure?” I ask, noting that I’m taking away from his breakup announcement, but I must know the answer.

    “I can’t imagine anything would tear you two apart . . . nothing has so far.” Landon says it like it’s the most obvious answer in the world. Maybe it is to him; I wish it were that obvious to me.

    “So what now? Are you still going to New York? You’re supposed to be leaving in what . . . two weeks?”

    “Yeah, and I don’t know. I’ve worked so hard to get into NYU, and I’ve already enrolled in my summer classes and everything. It just seems like a waste not to go, but it seems pointless to go at the same time.” His fingers rub circles over his temples. “I don’t know what to do.”

    “You shouldn’t go,” I say. “It would be really awkward.”

    “It’s a big city: we’ll never run into each other. And besides, we’ll still be friends.”

    “Sure, the whole ‘friends’ thing.” I can’t help but roll my eyes. “Why didn’t you tell Tessa what was going on?” I ask him. She’s going to be heartbroken for him.

    “Tess has—” he begins.

    I correct him.

    “—has enough on her plate. I don’t want her worrying for me.”

    “You want me to keep this from her, don’t you?” I point out. I can tell by his guilty expression that he does.

    “Only for now, until she catches a break. She’s too stressed lately, and I’m afraid one of these days something will tip her over the edge.” His concern for my girl is strong, and slightly irritating, but I decide against my better judgment and keep my mouth closed.

    I groan. “She’ll kill me for this, you know that.” But I don’t want to tell her either. He’s right: she has enough going on, and I’m to blame for ninety percent of it.

    “There’s more . . .” he begins.

    Of course there is.

    “It’s my mom, she—” But a light knock at the door silences him.

    “Landon? Hardin?” Tessa’s voice sounds through the wood.

    “Come in,” Landon calls, all the while looking at me with pleading eyes to reaffirm my promise of keeping his breakup from Tessa.

    “I know,” I assure him as the door opens and Tessa steps inside carrying a plate and the thick smell of syrup with her.

    “Karen wanted you two to try these.” She rests the plate on the desk and looks at me, then quickly turns to Landon with a smile. “Try the maple squares first. Sophia taught us how to properly ice them . . . See the little flowers.” Her small finger points to the clots of icing piled onto the brown crust. “She taught us how to make those; she’s so lovely.”

    “Who?” Landon asks, his brow raised.

    “Sophia; she just left to go back to her parents’ house down the road. Your mother really went crazy getting tons of baking secrets from her.” Tessa smiles and brings a square to her mouth. I knew she’d like that girl. I could tell instantly that the three of them would squeal over one another in the kitchen—it’s why I had to bolt.

    “Oh.” Landon shrugs and reaches for a square. Tessa apprehensively holds the plate out to me and I shake my head, declining. Her shoulders slump but she doesn’t say anything.

    “I’ll have a square,” I mumble, wanting her frown to go away. I’ve been an asshole all morning. She perks up and hands me one. The so-called flowers on the top look like globs of yellow snot. “You must have iced this one,” I tease her, pulling her by the wrist to sit on my lap.

    “That was a practice one!” She defends herself with her defiant lift of the chin. I can tell she’s confused by my sudden shift in mood. Actually, so am I.

    “Sure, baby.” I grin and she flicks a piece of the yellow icing onto my shirt.

    She pouts. “I’m no chef, okay?”

    I look at Landon, who has his mouth full of cupcake while he stares at the ground. I dip my finger onto my shirt to remove the icing, and before Tessa can stop me, I wipe my finger across her nose, smearing the hideous yellow across it.

    “Hardin!” She tries to wipe it off, but I gather her hands in mine, the pastries falling to the floor.

    “Oh, come on, guys!” Landon shakes his head at us. “My room’s already a mess!”

    Ignoring him, I resume licking the icing from Tessa’s scrunched-up nose.

    “I’ll help you clean up!” She laughs as my tongue runs along her cheek.

    “You know, I miss the days when you wouldn’t even hold her hand in front of me,” Landon complains. He bends down to collect the broken squares and smashed cupcakes from his floor.

    I sure as hell don’t miss those days, and I hope Tessa doesn’t either.

 

“DID YOU LIKE the maple squares, Hardin?” Karen asks while pulling a ham from the oven and sliding it onto a cutting board.

    “They were okay.” I shrug my shoulders and take a seat at the table. When Tessa shoots me a glare from the seat next to me, and I backtrack. “They were good,” I say, earning a smile from my girl. I’ve finally begun to realize that the tiniest things make her smile. It’s weird as hell, but it works, so I’m going with it.

    My father turns to me. “How is your graduation packet coming along?” He lifts his glass of water and takes a sip, looking much better than he did when I saw him in his office last week.

    “Good, it’s completed. I’m not going to walk, remember?” I know he remembers; he’s just hoping that I’ve changed my mind.

    “What do you mean, you’re not going to walk?” Tessa interrupts, which causes Karen to look up and stop carving the ham.

    Fucking hell. “I’m not walking in that graduation, I’m having my diploma mailed,” I reply sternly. This isn’t going to turn into a trample-Hardin-and-change-his-mind thing.

    “Why not?” Tessa asks, which makes my father look pleased. That asshole planned this, I know he did.

    “I don’t want to.” I look at Landon for backup, but he’s avoiding my gaze. So much for our bonding shit earlier; it’s clear that he’s back on Team Tessa. “Don’t push it right now, I’m not walking, and I won’t be changing my mind,” I say to her, loud enough that everyone will hear me so there won’t be any mistaking the finality of my decision.

    “We’ll talk about it later,” she threatens with flushed cheeks.

    Sure, Tess, sure.

    Karen comes over with the ham on a serving platter, looking pretty proud of her creation. I suppose she should; admittedly it smells pretty good. I wonder if she found a way to use maple syrup on it, too.

    “Your mum said you’ve decided to go to England,” my father says. He doesn’t seem uncomfortable speaking on the topic in front of Karen. I suppose they’ve been together long enough that him talking about my mum isn’t awkward.

    “Yes.” I give him a one-word answer and take a bite of ham to signal that I’m done with the table chat.

    “You’re going, too, right, Tessa?” he asks her.

    “Yes, I have to finalize my passport, but I’m going.”

    The smile on her face knocks my irritation down a notch.

    “It will be an amazing experience for you; I know you told me how much you love England. I hate to ruin it for you, though, but modern London isn’t quite like the London in your novels.” He grins at her, and she laughs.

    “Thank you for the warning, I’m aware that Dickens’s London fog was actually smog.”

    Tessa fits in so well with my father and his new family, much better than I do. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be speaking to any of them.

    “Have Hardin take you down to Chawton, it’s less than two hours from Hampstead, where Trish lives,” my father suggests.

    I had planned on taking her there anyway, thanks.

    “That would be lovely.” Tessa turns to me; her hand moves under the table, and she squeezes my thigh. I know she wants me to be a good sport throughout this dinner, but my father is making it difficult. “I’ve heard a lot about Hampstead,” she adds.

    “It’s changed a lot over the years. It’s not the small, quiet village it was when I lived there. Real estate prices have skyrocketed,” he tells her. Like she gives a fuck about the real estate in my hometown.

    “There are plenty of places to see—how long will you be staying?” he asks.

    “Three days.” Tessa answers for both of us. I don’t plan on taking her anywhere except Chawton. I thoroughly plan to keep her locked away so her weekend won’t be ruined by any of my ghosts.

    “I was thinking . . .” My father presses a cloth napkin to his mouth. “I called around to a few places this morning and I found a really nice facility for your father.”

    Tessa’s fork drops from her hand and clatters onto her plate. Landon, Karen, and my father are all staring at her, waiting for her to speak.

    “What?” I break the silence so she doesn’t have to.

    “I found a really nice treatment facility; they offer a three-month program for recovering . . .”

    Tessa whimpers next to me. It’s such a low sound that no one else hears it, but it resonates throughout my entire body. How dare he bring this shit up to her in front of an audience at the dinner table!

    “. . . the best in Washington, though we could look elsewhere, too, if you’d like.” His voice is soft, and I don’t hear a hint of judgment in it, but her cheeks are flushed in embarrassment, and I want to rip my father’s fucking head clear off.

    “This isn’t the time to bring this shit up to her,” I warn him.

    Tessa jerks slightly at my harsh tone. “It’s okay, Hardin.” Her eyes plead with mine. “I’m just a little caught off guard,” she politely says.

    “No, Tessa, it’s not okay.” I turn to Ken. “How did you even know that her father is a junkie anyway?”

    Tessa flinches again; I could break all the plates in this house for his bringing this up.

    “Landon and I talked about it last night, and we both thought that discussing a rehabilitation plan with Tessa would be a good idea. It’s very hard for addicts to get clean on their own,” he says.

    “You would know, wouldn’t you?” The words are out before I can think them through.

    My words didn’t have the intended effect on my father, who just brushes the statement off with a smooth pause. When I look over to his wife, sadness is clear in her eyes. “Yes, as a recovering alcoholic, I would know,” he replies.

    “How much does it cost?” I ask him. I make enough money to fully support myself, and Tessa, but rehab? That shit’s expensive.

    “I would cover it,” my father calmly answers.

    “Hell, no.” I try to stand from the table, but Tessa’s grip on my arm is strong. I sit back down. “You aren’t paying for it.”

    “Hardin, I’m more than willing to.”

    “Maybe the two of you should talk about this in the other room,” Landon suggests.

    What he’s really saying is, Don’t talk about it in front of Tessa. Her grip on my arm lets up, and my father gets to his feet at the same time that I do. Tessa doesn’t look up from her plate as we go into the living room.

    “I’m sorry,” I hear Landon say just before I pin my father against the wall. I’m getting mad, enraged—I can feel the anger taking over.

    My father pushes me off with more force than I’d expect.

    “Why couldn’t you bring this up to me before throwing it in her face at the fucking dinner table—in front of everyone!” I shout at him, squeezing my fists tight to my sides.

    “I think Tessa should have some say in it, and I knew you’d refuse my offer to pay.” His voice is calm, unlike mine. I’m pissed the hell off and my blood is boiling. I’m reminded of the many times I stormed out of family dinners at the Scott residence. It might as well be a damn tradition.

    “You’re damn right, I refuse. You don’t need to be throwing your fucking money around to us—we don’t need it.”

    “That’s not my intention here. I just want to help you in any way that I can.”

    “How is sending her fuckup of a father to rehab going to help me?” I ask, even though I know the answer.

    He sighs. “Because if he’s well, then she’s well. And she’s the only way to help you. I know that, and so do you.”

    I let out a deep breath, not even arguing back, because he’s right this time. I just need a few minutes to calm down, to bring myself back to reason.