Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Five

After We Fell


chapter

one hundred and thirty-five

 

HARDIN

 

I’ve paced around the entire house over a hundred times, I’ve walked around this shitty neighborhood twice, I even called Landon. Now I’m stir-crazy, and Tessa isn’t answering any of my calls. Where the hell are they?

    I look at my phone; it’s after three. How long could this spa shit take?

    Adrenaline is coursing through me when I hear a car crunching over the gravel driveway. I go to a front window and see that it’s my mum’s. Tessa gets out first and walks to the back, pulling out a massive white bag. Something is different about her.

    “I got it!” she calls to my mum as I open the screen door. I take the steps quickly and grab the stupid dress from her hands.

    Her hair . . . what did she do to her hair?

    “I’m going next door to get Mike!” my mum yells to us.

    “What the hell did you do to your hair?” I repeat my thought out loud. Tessa frowns, and I watch the sparkle in her eyes dim drastically.

    Shit.

    “I’m just asking . . . it looks nice,” I tell her and take another look. It does look nice. She always looks beautiful.

    “I had it dyed . . . you don’t like it?” She follows me into the house. I toss the bag onto the couch. “Be careful! That’s your mother’s wedding gown!” she shrieks, lifting the bottom of the bag from the floor. Her hair looks shinier than usual, too, and her eyebrows are different. Women do too much shit to impress men who can barely tell the difference.

    “I don’t have a problem with your hair, I was just surprised by it,” I tell her, meaning it. It’s not that different from the hair she left the house with—just a little darker toward the top, but it’s basically the same.

    “Good, because it’s my hair and I’ll wear it how I want it.” She crosses her arms over her chest, and a laugh bursts through my lips.

    “What?” She glowers. She’s serious.

    “Nothing. I’m just finding your whole almighty-powerful-woman-thing amusing, that’s all.” I continue to laugh.

    “Well, I’m glad you find it amusing because that’s how it is,” she challenges.

    “Okay.” I grab the sleeve of her sweater and pull her to me, ignoring the cleavage on display beneath it. I get the feeling this wouldn’t be a good time to call her on it.

    “I’m serious, no more caveman shit,” she says, a small smile breaking her scowl as she tugs at my chest.

    “Okay, calm down. What the hell did my mum do to you?” I press my lips against her forehead, and relief floods through me because she hasn’t mentioned Susan or Natalie. I’d much rather hear her cursing me out over her dyed hair than over my past.

    “Nothing; you were rude about my hair and I figured it was a good time to warn you that things are changing around here.” She bites her cheek to conceal a grin. She’s teasing and testing, and it’s fucking adorable.

    “Sure, sure, no more caveman.” I roll my eyes, and she pulls away. “I’m serious, I get it.” I pull her back to me.

    “I missed you today.” She sighs into my chest, and I wrap my arms around her again.

    “You did?” I ask, wanting her to confirm. She hasn’t been reminded of my past after all. Everything is fine. This weekend will be fine.

    “Yeah, especially while I was getting a massage. Eduardo’s hands were even bigger than yours.” Tessa giggles. Her giggles turn into shrieks as I lift her over my shoulder and head toward the stairs. I know for a fact she didn’t get a damn massage by some man; if she had, she sure as hell wouldn’t tell me about it and then start laughing.

    See, I can lighten up on the caveman shit. Unless, of course, there’s a real threat. Never mind that “unless”; this is Tessa we’re talking about, and there’s always someone trying to keep her from me.

    The back door screeches open, and my mum’s voice calls our names through the house just as I reach the halfway point of the staircase. I groan, and Tessa wiggles, begging me to put her down. I do as she wants, only because I’ve missed her all day and my mum will be extra obnoxious if I show Tessa too much affection in front of her and the neighbor.

    “We’re coming!” Tessa responds when I put her back on her feet.

    “Actually, we aren’t.” I kiss the corner of her mouth, and she smiles.

    “You aren’t.” She waggles her new eyebrows, and I smack her ass as she rushes down the stairs.

    Most of the weight on my chest has been lifted. I behaved like a fucking idiot last night for no reason. My mum wouldn’t have purposely taken Tessa around Natalie; why was I so worried?

    “What do you two want to do for dinner? I was thinking we could go to Zara, the four of us.” My mum turns to her soon-to-be husband as soon as we enter the living room. Tessa nods even though she has no idea what Zara is.

    “I hate Zara. It’s too crowded, and Tessa isn’t going to like anything there,” I grumble. Tessa would eat anything to keep the peace, but I know she wouldn’t want to eat liver or pureed lamb for the first time in a situation where she’d feel obligated to smile and pretend that it’s the best thing she’s ever eaten.

    “Blues Kitchen, then?” Mike suggests. Honestly, I don’t want to go any fucking where.

    “Too loud.” I rest my elbows on the counter and pick at the edges where the Formica is chipping.

    “Well, you decide and let us know,” my mum says in exasperation. I know she’s growing impatient with me, but I’m here, aren’t I?

    Glancing at the clock, I nod. It’s only five; we won’t need to leave for another hour. “I’m going upstairs,” I tell them.

    “We need to leave in ten minutes—you know how parking is around here,” my mum says.

    Great. I hurry out of the living room. I hear Tessa following behind me.

    “Hey.” She grabs the sleeve of my shirt as I reach the hallway.

    I turn to face her.

    “What?” I ask, trying to keep my tone as soft as possible despite my irritation.

    “What’s going on with you? If something’s bothering you, just tell me and we can fix it,” she offers with a nervous smile.

    “How was your lunch today?” She hasn’t brought it up, but I can’t help but ask.

    She catches on. “Oh . . .” Her eyes look down to the floor, and I press my thumb under her chin to make her look at me. “It was nice.”

    “What did you talk about?” I ask her. It obviously wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but I can tell she’s hesitant to discuss it.

    “I met her . . . Natalie. I met her.”

    My blood runs cold. I slightly bend my knees to get a better look at her face. “And?”

    “She’s lovely,” Tessa says. I wait for her to frown or for her eyes to give away her anger, but nothing comes.

    “She’s ‘lovely’?” I repeat, completely and utterly confused by her response.

    “Yes, she was so sweet . . . and very pregnant.” Tessa smiles.

    “And Susan?” I hesitantly ask.

    “Susan was very fun and nice as well.”

    But . . . but Susan hated me for what I did to her niece. “It was okay, then?”

    “Yes, Hardin. My day was fine. I missed you, but my day was fine.” She reaches her hand out to grab my shirt and bring me closer to her. She looks so fucking beautiful in the dim lighting of the hallway. “Everything is fine, don’t worry,” she declares.

    My head rests on top of hers, and she wraps her arms tightly around my waist.

    She’s comforting me? Tessa is comforting me, assuring me that everything will be okay, after coming face-to-face with the girl that I nearly destroyed. She says it will be okay . . . Will it?

    “It never is, though,” I whisper, almost hoping she won’t hear the words. If she did hear them, she chooses not to respond.

    “I don’t want to go to dinner with them,” I admit, breaking the silence between us. I really just want to take Tessa upstairs and lose myself in her, forget all the shit that’s been torturing my mind all day, push all the ghosts and memories away and focus on her. I want hers to be the only damn voice in my head, and burying myself in her right now will ensure that it is.

    “We have to—it’s your mother’s wedding weekend. We don’t have to stay long.” She stretches to kiss the top of my cheek, then her lips travel down to my jaw.

    “I couldn’t be more excited,” I mutter sarcastically.

    “Come on.” Tessa leads me back into the living room, her hand in mine, but the moment we join my mum and Mike, I drop her hand.

    I sigh. “Well, let’s go eat.”

 

DINNER IS JUST AS TEDIOUS as I expected. My mum is keeping Tessa busy, chatting her ear off about weddings and the small guest list. She fills her in on the family members that will be there, which isn’t much from my mum’s side; only one distant cousin will be attending since both of my mum’s parents are dead and have been for years. Mike is quiet during the meal, like me, but he doesn’t appear to be as bored as I am. He’s watching my mum with an expression that makes me want to smack him in his head. It’s sickening but somehow comforting. It’s obvious that he loves her, so I guess he’s not so bad.

    “You’re my only shot at grandchildren, Tessa,” my mum teases as Mike pays the bill. Tessa chokes on her water, and I pat her on the back. She coughs a few times before apologizing, but when she recovers, her eyes are wide and she looks embarrassed. She’s overreacting, but I’m sure she was caught off guard by my mum’s crass and out-of-line statement.

    Sensing my anger, my mum says, “I’m only teasing. I know you’re still young,” and childishly sticks her tongue out at me.

    Young? It doesn’t matter how fucking young we are, she doesn’t need to be putting that shit in Tessa’s head. We’ve already agreed: no children. My mum making Tessa feel guilty and obligated won’t help anything—it’ll only cause another fight. The majority of our fights have been over children and marriage. Neither of which I want, or will ever want. I want Tessa, every single day for the rest of forever, but I won’t be marrying her. Richard’s warning from the other night creeps its way into my head, but I push it away.

    After dinner, my mum kisses Mike good night, and he heads to his house next door. She’s following that stupid tradition of the groom not being able to see the bride before their wedding night. I think she’s forgotten that this isn’t her first rodeo; those stupid superstitions don’t apply the second time around.

    As much as I’m dying to take Tessa in my old bed, I can’t do it with my mum in the house. This shitty place has no soundproofing, nothing. I can literally hear my mum each time she rolls over on her creaky mattress in the next room.

    “I should have booked a hotel,” I whine as Tessa undresses. I wish she’d sleep in a parka so I wouldn’t be tormented all night by her half-naked body. She slips my T-shirt over her head, and I can’t help but stare at the curve of her tits underneath the fabric, the slope of her full hips, the way her voluptuous thighs almost fill the bottom of my shirt so it hugs to her skin. I’m glad the shirt isn’t too loose on her; it wouldn’t look nearly as fucking good. It wouldn’t make me this hard, and it sure as hell wouldn’t make this night so damn long.

    “Come here, baby.” I hold my arms open to her, and she lays her head on my chest. I want to tell her how much it means to me that she handled the Natalie situation so well, but I can’t find the right words. I think she knows; she has to know how terrified I was that something would come between us.

    Within minutes she’s asleep, clinging to me, and the words flow freely as I run my fingers over her hair.

    “You’re everything to me,” I say.

 

I WAKE UP SWEATING. Tessa is still latched on to me, and I can barely breathe through the thick air. It’s too hot in this house. My mum must have turned the damn heat on. It’s spring now; there’s no need. I unhook Tessa’s limbs from around my body and wipe her sweat-soaked hair away from her forehead before walking downstairs to check the thermostat.

    I’m half asleep when I turn the corner to the kitchen, but what I see next stops me in my tracks. I rub my eyes and even blink to clear the distorted image that has formed in front of me.

    But it’s still there . . . they are still there no matter how many times I blink.

    My mum is sitting on top of the counter, her thighs parted. A man stands between them, his arms wrapped around her waist. Her hands are buried in his blond hair. His mouth is on hers, or hers on his—I don’t fucking know—what I do know is that the man isn’t Mike.

    It’s fucking Christian Vance.