Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Four

After We Fell


one hundred and thirty-four




Your hair looks so beautiful.” Trish reaches a newly manicured hand across the table to touch my head.

    “Thank you. I’m getting used to it.” I smile, looking into the mirror directly behind our table. The woman at the spa was appalled that I had never dyed my hair before. After a few minutes of persuading, I agreed to darken it slightly, but only at the roots. The final color is a very light brown fading into my natural blond toward the ends. The difference is barely noticeable and looks much more natural than I expected. The color isn’t permanent; it’ll only last a month. I wasn’t ready for a longer-term change, but the more I look at myself in the mirror, the more I like what I see.

    The woman did wonders on my eyebrows, too, plucking them into a perfect arch, and my nails and toes are painted a deep red. I declined Trish’s offer to get a Brazilian wax; as much as I’ve considered getting one, it would be awkward to do it with Hardin’s mother, and I’m fine with shaving for now. During the walk to the car, Trish teases me about my flimsy shoes, the same way her son does, and I hold back from making a dig at her daily tracksuit-wearing.

    I stare out the window the entire drive, taking in every single home, building, store, and person on the street.

    “This is the place,” Trish says minutes later as she pulls her car into a covered parking lot nestled between two small buildings. I follow her to the entrance of the smaller of the two.

    I notice that there’s moss covering the entirety of the brick building, and the sight of it calls forth my inner Landon, as references to The Hobbit pass through my mind. Landon would think the exact same thing if he were here, and we’d share a laugh while Hardin griped about how terrible the movies are and how they destroyed J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision. Landon would argue back, as always, claiming that Hardin secretly loves the movies, and Hardin would flip him off. Selfishly, I imagine a place where Hardin, Landon, and I could live close to one another, a place where Landon and Dakota could live in Seattle, maybe in the same building as Hardin and me. A place where one of the few people who actually care about me won’t be moving across the country in a few weeks.

    “It’s pretty warm today; do you want to eat outside?” Trish asks, gesturing to the metal tables lined along the terrace.

    “That would be fine.” I smile, following her to a table at the end of the row.

    The waitress brings a pitcher of water to our table and places two glasses in front of us. Even the water looks better in England; the pitcher is filled with ice and perfectly shaped lemon circles.

    Trish’s eyes search the sidewalks. “We have one more joining us . . . she should be here any—There she is!”

    I turn to see a tall brunette bustling across the street, her hands waving in the air. Her floor-length skirt and high heels are making it difficult for her to move as quickly as she appears to be trying to do.

    “Susan!” Trish’s face lights up at the woman’s clumsy entrance.

    “Trish, darling, how are you?” Susan leans down to kiss both of Trish’s cheeks before turning to me and doing the same. I feel awkward as I smile uncomfortably, unsure whether or not I should return the unfamiliar greeting.

    The woman’s eyes are a deep blue, making for the most beautiful contrast with her pale skin and dark hair. She pulls away before I can decide what to do. “You must be Theresa; I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.” She smiles and surprises me by taking both of my hands into hers. She gently squeezes them and gives me a bright smile before pulling out the chair next to me and taking a seat.

    “It’s nice to meet you.” I smile at her. I have no idea what to make of the woman. I know that I don’t like the way that hearing her name affected Hardin last night, but she seems so lovely, it’s confusing.

    “Have you been waiting long?” she asks and turns around to hang her purse over the back of her chair.

    “No, we just arrived. We had a full morning at the spa.” Trish flips her glossy brown hair over her shoulder.

    “I can see that; the two of you smell like a bundle of flowers.” Susan laughs, filling her glass with water. Her accent is elegant and much thicker than Hardin’s and Trish’s.

    Despite Hardin’s mood change last night, I’m in love with England, especially this village. I did my research before we arrived, but the photographs on the internet don’t do justice to the old-fashioned beauty of the area. I’m in awe as I gaze around, and wonder how something as simple as a cobblestone street lined with small cafés and shops could be so enchanting, so intriguing.

    “Are you ready for your last fitting today?” Susan asks Trish. I continue to take in the surroundings, only vaguely listening to the women talk. My attention is drawn across the street to the quaint old building that houses the library. I can only imagine the collection of books it holds.

    “Yes, I am, and if it doesn’t fit this time, I think I’ll have to sue the shop owner.” Trish laughs. I turn my gaze to them and force myself to keep from gawking at the architecture until I can get Hardin to take me sightseeing properly.

    “Well, seeing as how I am the owner, I may have a problem with that.” Susan’s laugh is low and very charming. I have to keep reminding myself to be cautious of her.

    My imagination begins to wander as I stare at the beautiful woman. Has Hardin been with her intimately? He’s mentioned having sexual encounters with older women—quite a few of them—but I’ve never allowed him to elaborate. Is Susan, with her wide blue eyes and long brown hair, one of them? I shudder at the thought. I sure hope not.

    I ignore the pang of jealousy that comes with the thought and force myself to enjoy the mouthwatering sandwich that the waitress has just placed in front of me.

    “So, Theresa, tell me about yourself.” Susan stabs a piece of lettuce with her fork and brings it to her painted lips.

    “You can call me Tessa,” I nervously begin. “I’m finishing my freshman year at Washington Central, and I just moved to Seattle.” I glance at Trish, who, for some reason, is frowning. Hardin must not have told her about my move, or maybe he did, and she’s upset that he didn’t move with me?

    “I’ve heard that Seattle is a lovely city. I’ve never been to America”—Susan scrunches her nose—“but my husband has promised to take me this summer.”

    “You should definitely visit . . . it’s nice,” I remark stupidly. I’m sitting in a village right out of a storybook, and I’m saying that America is nice. Susan would probably hate the place. I’m nervous now, and my hands are slightly shaky as I pull my cell phone out of my bag to send a text message to Hardin. Just a simple I miss you.

    The rest of lunch is filled with wedding talk, and I find that I can’t help but like Susan. She just married her second husband last summer; she planned the wedding herself, and she has no children, only a niece and a nephew. She owns the bridal shop where Trish purchased her gown; it’s one of five in North Central London. Her husband owns and operates three of the most popular pubs in the area, all within three miles of one another.

    Susan’s bridal shop is only a few blocks away from the restaurant, so we decide to walk. It’s warm today, and the sun is bright; even the air seems more refreshing than it was in Washington. Hardin still hasn’t responded to my text message, but somehow I knew he wouldn’t.

    “Champagne?” Susan offers the moment we step through the door of the small shop. The space is minimal, but it’s decorated perfectly, old-fashioned and charming, black and white covering every inch.

    “Oh no, thank you.” I smile.

    Trish takes her up on her offer and promises me that she’ll only have one glass. I almost tell her to have as many as she wants, to enjoy herself, but I don’t trust myself to drive in England; it feels odd enough in the passenger seat. As I watch Trish laugh and joke with Susan, I can’t help but think about how different Trish and Hardin really are. She’s so bubbly and lively, and Hardin is so . . . well, Hardin. I know they don’t have much of a relationship, but I’d like to think that this visit could change that. Not completely—that’s too much to ask—but hopefully Hardin will at least warm up to his mother on her wedding day.

    “I’ll be out in a minute; you can make yourself at home,” Trish says to me before pulling the dressing room curtain closed. I take a seat on the plush white couch and laugh when I hear her cursing at Susan for pinching her with the zipper. Maybe she and Hardin are more alike than I thought.

    “Excuse me.” A female voice interrupts my thoughts, and I look up to meet the blue eyes of a very pregnant young woman.

    “I’m sorry, have you seen Susan?” she asks, her eyes scanning the space.

    “She’s in there.” I point to the curtain of the dressing room that Trish disappeared into with her wedding dress only minutes ago.

    “Thank you.” She smiles, sighing with what sounds like relief. “If she asks, I arrived right at two,” the girl instructs me and smiles. She must work here. My eyes travel down to the name tag fastened to her white long-sleeve shirt.

    it says.

    I glance at the clock. It’s five minutes past two. “Your secret is safe with me,” I assure her.

    The curtain pulls back, and Trish is revealed in her wedding gown. It’s absolutely beautiful in the simple, capped-sleeve gown.

    “Wow,” Natalie and I say at once.

    Trish steps out, taking a look at herself in the full-length mirror, and wipes tears from her eyes.

    “She does this at every fitting; this is the third,” Natalie observes with a smile. I notice the tears welling up in her eyes and know that mine look the same. Her hand is pressed on her belly.

    “She’s beautiful. Mike is a lucky man.” I smile toward Hardin’s mum. Her focus is still on her reflection in the mirror, and I don’t blame her.

    “You know Trish?” the young woman politely asks.

    “Yes.” I turn to face her. “I’m . . .” Hardin and I are really going to have to discuss how introductions should go around here. “I’m with her son,” I tell her, and her eyes widen.

    “Natalie.” Susan’s voice resonates in the small shop. Trish has paled, her eyes moving back and forth between Natalie and me. I feel like I’m missing something. When I look back at Natalie, I take in the deep blue of her eyes, her brown hair, her pale skin.

    I think. Is Susan this Natalie woman’s mother?

    Holy shit. Natalie. The Natalie. The Natalie that haunted Hardin’s conscience, the small bit of one that he has. Natalie that Hardin chewed up and spit back out.

    “You’re Natalie,” I say with realization.

    She nods, keeping eye contact with me as Trish approaches us.

    “Yes, I am.” I can tell by her expression that she isn’t sure how much I know about her, and she’s even more unsure what to say about it. “You’re her . . . you’re . . . Tessa,” she says. I can see her thoughts coming together.

    “I’m . . .” I choke. I don’t have the slightest idea what to say. Hardin told me that she was happy now, that she’s forgiven him and made a new life for herself. The empathy that I feel for her is deep. “I’m sorry . . .” I end up saying.

    “I’m going to get some more champagne. Trish, come along.” Susan grabs Trish by the arm and gently leads her away. Trish turns her head, watching Natalie and me until she disappears through a door, gown and all.

    “Sorry for what?” Natalie’s eyes shine under the bright lights. I can’t imagine this girl, the one in front of me, with my Hardin. She’s so simple and beautiful, so unlike any of the girls from his past that I’ve encountered.

    Nervous laughter falls from my lips. “I don’t know . . .” What exactly am I apologizing for? I ask myself. “F-for what he did . . . to you.”

    “You I hear the surprise in her voice as she continues to stare at me, trying to figure me out.

    “I do,” I say, suddenly embarrassed and feeling the need to explain. “And Hardin . . . he’s different now. He deeply regrets what he did to you,” I tell her. It won’t make up for the past, but she has to know that the Hardin I know isn’t the Hardin that she once knew.

    “I ran into him recently,” she reminds me. “He was . . . I don’t know . . . empty when I saw him on the street. Is he doing better now?” I watch for judgment in her cloudy blue eyes, but there isn’t a trace of it to be found.

    “Yes, he really is,” I say, trying not to look down at her stomach. She lifts her hand, and I see a gold band on her ring finger. I’m so happy that she’s been able to turn her life around.

    “He’s done a lot of terrible things, and I know I’m way out of line here”—I swallow, trying not to lose my confidence—“but it was so important to him to know that you forgave him. It meant so much . . . thank you for finding the strength to do that.”

    To tell the truth, I don’t think that Hardin regretted what he did to her as much as he should have, but her forgiveness did chip away at some of the bricks he’s spent years building between himself and the rest of the world, and I know it gave him a little peace.

    “You must really love him,” she says softly after a long silence passes between us.

    “I do, so very much.” My eyes meet hers. We’re connected, this woman whom Hardin hurt in such a terrible manner and I, in some strange way, and I feel the power of that connection. I can’t begin to imagine how she felt, how deep the humiliation and pain he caused her actually was. She was abandoned not only by Hardin, but by her family. At the beginning, I was just like her, a game to him, until he fell in love with me. That’s the difference between me and this sweet pregnant woman. He loves me, and he wasn’t capable of loving her.

    I can’t help the disgusting thought that passes through my mind, the thought that if he had loved her, I wouldn’t have him now, and I’m selfishly grateful that he didn’t care for her the way he cares for me.

    “Does he treat you well?” she surprises me by asking.

    “Most of the time . . .” I can’t help but smile at this terrible answer. “He’s figuring it out.” I finish on a note of certainty.

    “Well, that’s all I can hope for.” She returns my smile.

    “What do you mean?”

    “I’ve prayed and prayed that Hardin would find his salvation, and I think it’s finally happened.” Her smile grows, and she touches her belly again. “Everyone deserves a second chance, even the worst sinners of all, don’t you think?”

    I am in awe of her. I can’t say that if Hardin had done to me what he did to her, without so much as an apology, I’d be sending positive thoughts out for him the way that she is. I’d probably be wishing for his imminent demise, yet here she is, this compassionate woman, only wanting the best for him.

    “I do.” I agree with her despite my failure to understand how she could be so forgiving.

    “I know you think I’m nuts”—Natalie lightly laughs—“but if it wasn’t for Hardin, I wouldn’t have met my Elijah, and I wouldn’t be only days away from giving birth to our first son.”

    A shiver creeps up my spine at the thought that comes to my mind. Hardin was a stepping-stone in Natalie’s life—actually, more like a massive bump in the road on her way to the life she deserves. I don’t want Hardin to be a stepping-stone in my life, a painful memory, someone I’d be forced to forgive and come to terms with. I want Hardin to be my Elijah, my happy ending.

    Sadness overtakes my fear as she brings my hand to her stomach, swollen in a way that mine most likely will never be, and I notice the gold band on her finger, something I most likely will never wear. I jump back at the movement against my hand, and Natalie laughs.

    “The little guy’s busy in there. I wish he’d come out already.” She laughs again, and I can’t help but put my hand back to feel the movement again. The baby in her belly kicks at my hand once more, and I join in her happiness. I can’t help it—it’s contagious.

    “When are you due?” I ask, still mesmerized by the flutter against my palm.

    “Two days ago. He’s a stubborn one, this boy. I came back to work to stay on my feet in hopes that he’ll decide to join us.”

    She speaks so tenderly of the unborn child. Will I ever have this? Will I have the glow in my cheeks and the tenderness in my voice? Will I ever feel the flutter of my baby kicking inside of my belly? I force myself to blink away my self-pity. Nothing is certain yet.

    Nothing is certain as far as your diagnosis from Dr. West is concerned, but you can be sure that Hardin will never agree to father your children, a voice inside me mocks.

    “Are you okay?” Natalie’s voice pulls me from my thoughts.

    “Yes, sorry. I was just daydreaming,” I lie and pull my hand away from her belly.

    “I’m really glad that I got to meet you while you’re in town,” she says just as Trish and Susan appear from the back room, a bouquet of flowers and a veil in Susan’s hands. I glance at the clock; it’s two thirty. I’ve been talking to Natalie long enough for Trish’s cheeks to become slightly flushed and her glass empty.

    “Give me five and I’ll be ready; you may need to drive!” Trish laughs. I cringe at the thought, but when I consider the other option—calling Hardin—driving doesn’t seem too bad.

    “Take care, and congratulations again,” I tell Natalie on my way out of the shop. Trish’s dress is in my arms, and she’s a few feet behind me.

    “You, too, Tessa.” Natalie smiles as the door closes.

    “I can carry it, if it’s too heavy,” Trish says once we’re on the sidewalk. “I can go get the car. I only had one glass, so I can drive just fine.”

    “It’s okay, really,” I say, even though I’m terrified to drive her car.

    “No, really,” she counters and takes her keys out of the front pocket of her jacket. “I can drive.”