Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Seven

After We Fell


one hundred and thirty-seven




Am I dreaming? Please let this be a nightmare . . . what’s happening surely can’t be real.

    Christian is on top of Hardin. When his fist connects with Hardin’s nose, it makes the most awful sound. The sound burns my ears, and my heart plummets. Hardin’s fist reaches up between them, delivering a blow of equal force to Christian’s jaw, causing Christian’s hold on him to slip.

    Within seconds, Hardin rolls from under him and shoves his shoulders, pushing him back to the floor. I can’t keep track of how many punches they exchange, and I can’t tell who has the upper hand.

    “Stop them!” I scream to Trish. Every part of me wants to step between them, knowing that if Hardin sees me he’ll immediately stop, but the slight fear is there that he may be too angry, too out of control, and accidently do something that would later drive him mad with guilt.

    “Hardin!” Trish grabs Hardin’s bare shoulder in an attempt to pull him from the violence, but she goes unnoticed by the both of them.

    Adding to the chaos, the back door is yanked open, revealing a panicked Mike. Oh God. “Trish? What is—” He blinks his eyes under his thick glasses as he registers what’s happening.

    Less than a second later, he joins the rumble, stepping behind Hardin and grabbing him by both of his arms. Large man that he is, Mike lifts him effortlessly and pushes him toward the wall. Christian scrambles to his feet, and Trish pushes him against the opposite wall. Hardin is shaking, fuming, breathing so heavily that I’m afraid he’ll somehow damage his lungs. I rush to him, unsure what to do but needing to be close to him.

    “What the hell is going on?” Mike’s voice commands attention, demands it.

    Everything is happening so quickly: the terror in Trish’s brown eyes, the angry bruises covering Christian’s face, the deep red trail of blood running from Hardin’s nose to his mouth . . . it’s all too much.

    “Ask Hardin shouts, tiny drops of red splattering onto his chest. He gestures to a frightened Trish and an angry Christian.

    “Hardin,” I gently say. “Let’s go upstairs,” I reach for his hand, trying to keep my own emotions at bay. I’m trembling and I feel the hot tears on my cheeks, but this isn’t about me.

    “No!” He jerks away from me. “Tell him! Tell him what you were fucking doing!” Hardin tries to lunge toward Christian again, but Mike quickly steps between them. I close my eyes for a moment, praying that Hardin won’t assault him, too.

    I’m in my old dorm room again, Hardin and Noah on either side of me, as Hardin forces me to confess my infidelity to the boy who I spent half of my life with. The look on Noah’s face wasn’t nearly as heartbreaking as the one I’m looking at right now. Mike’s expression is a mixture of realization, confusion, and pain.

    “Hardin, please don’t do this,” I beg.

    “Hardin,” I repeat, pleading with him not to embarrass this man. Trish needs to tell him in her own way, not in front of an audience. This isn’t right.

    “Fuck that! Fuck all of you!” Hardin screams, and his fist drives down against the cheap countertop, snapping it in two.

    “I’m sure Mike won’t mind if you two use the premises tomorrow.” Hardin’s voice lowers; each word is deliberately measured and cruel. “I’m sure he’d let you, seeing as he probably wasted a shitload of his money on this joke of a wedding.” He half laughs.

    A chill sets deep in my spine and I stare at the ground. There’s no stopping him when he’s like this; no one tries. Everyone is silent as Hardin continues.

    “What a nice couple the two of you make. The engaged ex-wife of a drunk and his loyal best friend,” he scoffs. “I’m sorry, Mike, but you’re about five minutes late to the show. You missed the part where your bride had her tongue down his throat.”

    Christian tries to grab hold of Hardin again, but Trish leaps in front of him. Hardin and Christian eye each other like panthers.

    I’m seeing an entirely new side to Christian. He’s not playful or witty; anger is radiating from him in thick waves. The Christian that holds Kimberly by the waist and whispers how beautiful she is is nowhere to be found.

    “You disrespectful little—” Christian says through his teeth.

    “I’m disrespectful? You’re the one going on and on to me about the glories of marriage, yet you’ve been having an affair with my mum!”

    My mind can’t wrap itself around this. Christian and Trish? Trish and Christian? It doesn’t make sense. I know they’ve been friends for many years, and Hardin told me that Christian had taken Trish and him in, taken care of them, after Ken left. But an affair?

    I never thought of Trish as the type who’d do such a thing, and Christian has always seemed so deeply in love with Kimberly. Kimberly . . . My heart aches for her; she loves him so much. She’s in the middle of planning her dream wedding with her dream man, and now it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t know him at all. She’ll be devastated. She has built a life with Christian and his son. No matter what I have to do, I will not let Hardin be the one to tell her. I will not let him humiliate and mock her the way he just did Mike.

    “It’s not like that!” Christian’s temper is just as hot as Hardin’s. His green eyes are glowing, burning with rage, and I know he wants nothing more than to wrap his hands around Hardin’s neck.

    Mike is silent, his eyes focused on his fiancée and her tearstained cheeks.

    “I’m so sorry, this wasn’t supposed to happen. I don’t know—” Trish’s voice breaks into a heartbreaking sob, and I look away.

    Mike shakes his head, clearly rejecting her apology, and he stays silent as he strides across the small kitchen and walks out, slamming the back door behind him. Trish falls to her knees, her hands covering her face to muffle her cries.

    Christian’s shoulders slump, his anger momentarily replaced by concern as he kneels next to her, drawing her into his arms. Next to me, Hardin’s breathing picks up again, his fists tighten at his sides, and I step in front of him, bringing my hands to his cheeks. My stomach turns at the sight of the blood, which has now reached his chin. His lips are stained crimson . . . so much blood.

    “Don’t,” he warns me, pushing my hands away. He’s staring behind me at his mother, wrapped in Christian’s arms. The two of them seem to have forgotten that we’re here—either that or they just don’t care. I’m so confused.

    “Hardin, please,” I cry and raise my trembling hands to his face once more.

    He finally looks at me, and I see the guilt rising behind his eyes.

    “Please, let’s go upstairs,” I plead with him. His gaze stays on my face, and I force myself not to look away from his eyes as his anger slowly passes.

    “Get me away from them,” he stammers. “Get me out of here.”

    I drop my hands and wrap one around his arm, gently leading him from the kitchen. When we reach the staircase, Hardin halts.

    “No . . . I want to leave this house,” he says.

    “Okay,” I quickly agree. I want to leave the house, too. “I’ll grab our bags; you go out to the car,” I suggest.

    “No, if I go out there . . .” He doesn’t have to finish his sentence. I know exactly what will happen if he’s left alone with his mother and Christian.

    “Come upstairs—it won’t take long,” I promise him. I’m trying my best to keep calm, to be strong for him, and so far, it’s working.

    He lets me take the lead and follows me up the staircase and down the hall to the small bedroom. I hastily shove our things into our bags, not taking the time to pack them properly. I jump and stifle a scream when Hardin knocks over the dresser, and the heavy piece of furniture lands with a loud thud against the floor. Hardin kneels down and pulls out the first empty drawer. He tosses it to the side before grabbing the next. He’s going to destroy everything in this room if I don’t get him out of here.

    Just as he flings the last drawer against the wall, I wrap my arms around his torso. “Come to the bathroom with me.” I lead him down the hallway and close the door behind us. Grabbing a towel from the rack, I turn the faucet on and instruct him to sit on the toilet seat. His silence is chilling and I don’t want to push him.

    He doesn’t speak or even flinch when I bring the hot towel to his cheek, dragging it across the blood pooled under his nose, across his lips, and down his chin.

    “It’s not broken,” I quietly note after briefly examining his nose. His busted bottom lip is already swollen but no longer bleeding. My mind is still racing, flashing angry images of the two men assaulting each other.

    He doesn’t respond.

    When most of the blood is removed, I rinse the stained towel and leave it in the sink. “I’m going to grab our bags. Stay here,” I say, hoping he’ll listen.

    I hurry to the room to gather both of our bags and unzip the suitcase. Hardin is shirtless and barefoot, wearing only athletic shorts, and I’m dressed in just his T-shirt. I didn’t have time to think about getting dressed, or even to be embarrassed about running downstairs half naked when I heard the shouting. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find as I raced down the steps, but Christian and Trish having sex wasn’t one of the scenarios that I ever could have anticipated.

    Hardin remains quiet as I pull a clean T-shirt over his head and pull socks onto his bare feet. I dress myself in a sweatshirt and jeans, not giving a thought to my appearance. I rinse my hands again in the bathroom, trying to scrub the blood from under my fingernails.

    Silence stretches between us as we reach the stairs, and Hardin takes both bags from me. He hisses in pain when he lifts the strap of my bag onto his shoulder, and I cringe as I picture the bruise beneath by his shirt.

    I hear Trish’s sobs and Christian’s low voice comforting her as we exit the house. When we reach the rental car, Hardin turns around to face the house again, and I watch as a shudder passes through his shoulders.

    “I can drive.” I take the keys, but he quickly pulls them away from me.

    “No, I’m driving,” he finally says. I don’t argue with him.

    I want to ask where we’re going, but I choose not to question him right now; he’s barely coherent and I need to tread lightly. I place my hand on his, and I’m relieved that he doesn’t jerk away from my touch.

    Minutes feel like hours as we drive through the village in silence, each mile adding another layer of tension. I stare out the window and recognize the familiar street from this afternoon as we pass Susan’s bridal shop. The memory of Trish wiping away tears, staring at herself in the mirror while dressed in her gown, brings tears to my own eyes. How could she do this? She’s supposed to be getting married tomorrow; why would she do such a thing?

    Hardin’s voice snaps me back to the present. “This is so fucked up.”

    “I don’t understand it,” I say, gently squeezing his hand.

    “Everything and everyone in my life is so fucked up,” he says, his voice emotionless.

    “I know,” I agree with him; even though I couldn’t disagree more, now is not the time to correct him.

    Hardin slows the car as he pulls into the parking lot of a small motel. “We’ll stay here tonight and leave in the morning,” he says, staring out the windshield. “I don’t know what to say about your job and where you’ll live when we get back to the States,” he continues, and climbs out of the car.

    I was so busy worrying about Hardin and the violent scene in the kitchen that I momentarily forgot that the man rolling around on the floor with Hardin was not only my boss, but the man whose home I’m living in.

    “Are you coming?” Hardin asks.

    Instead of answering, I step out of the car and follow him into the motel in silence.