Chapter Thirty-Eight

After We Fell

chapter thirty-eight




Panic courses through me at the sight of Hardin sitting next to this girl—he doesn’t even acknowledge my presence as I take the seat next to Landon, on the other side of the table from him.

    “Hello, and who might you be?” Ken’s friend asks with a smile. I can tell by his tone that he’s one of those men that think they are better than everyone else in the room.

    “Hi, I’m Tessa,” I say, then smile curtly and nod. “Landon’s friend.”

    My eyes dart to Hardin, whose lips press into a thin line. Well, he’s clearly entertaining the man’s daughter, so why ruin their fun?

    “It’s great to meet you, Tessa. I’m Max, and this is Denise.” He gestures to the woman beside him.

    “It’s nice to meet you,” Denise says. “The two of you are an adorable couple.”

    Hardin starts coughing. Or choking. I don’t want to look at him and see which . . . but I can’t help it. When I do, his eyes are narrow, glaring at me.

    Landon laughs. “Oh, we aren’t together.” He looks at Hardin, like he expects him to say something.

    Of course he doesn’t. The girl looks slightly lost and a little uncomfortable. Good. Hardin leans into her and says something into her ear, and she smiles at him before shaking her head. What the hell is happening?

    “I’m Lillian; it’s nice to meet you,” she introduces herself with a friendly smile.


    “You, too,” I manage to say in return. My heart is hammering in my chest, and I can barely see straight. If we weren’t at the table with Hardin’s family and Ken’s friends, I would throw a drink in Hardin’s face, and with his eyes stinging, he wouldn’t have a chance to stop me from slapping him this time. A menu is placed in front of each of us, and I wait as one of the empty glasses in front of me is filled with water. Ken and Max begin to talk about the oddness of having to choose between tap and bottled water.

    “Do you know what you want?” Landon asks quietly a few moments later. I know he’s trying to distract me from Hardin and his new friend.

    “I . . . I don’t know,” I whisper and look over the fancy handwritten menu. I can’t imagine eating right now; my stomach won’t stop turning, and I can’t seem to control my breathing.

    “Do you want to go?” he says into my ear. I glance across the table at Hardin, whose eyes meet mine before he turns back to Lillian.

    Yes. I want to get the hell out of here and tell Hardin to never speak to me again.

    “No. I’m not going anywhere,” I say and sit up higher, straightening my back against the chair.

    “Good.” Landon praises me as a handsome server arrives at our table.

    “We’ll have a bottle of your best white wine,” Ken’s friend tells him, and he nods. Just as he begins to walk away, Max calls after him.

    “We weren’t finished yet,” he says. Max orders a list of appetizers. I’ve never heard of any of the dishes he’s chosen, but I don’t suspect I’ll be eating much of them anyway.

    I try desperately not to look across the table at Hardin, but it’s hard, so damn hard. Why would he come here with her? He’s dressed up, too; if he doesn’t have jeans on under the table, I think what’s left of my heart will shatter. It takes me an hour of begging to get Hardin dressed in anything other than black jeans and a T-shirt, yet here he is next to this girl in a white button-down.

    “I’ll give you a few minutes to look over the menu, and if you have any questions about the dishes, my name is Robert,” the server says. His eyes meet mine, and his mouth opens slightly before he looks away quickly, only to look back at me. It’s this dress and the damn cleavage. I offer a small, awkward smile, and he returns it, red creeping up his neck and spreading to his cheeks.

    I expect him to look at Hardin, but then I remember that due to the way we’re seated, it’s Landon and I that look like a couple, and Hardin’s with Lillian. My stomach flips again.

    “Hey, man. Take our order, or go,” Hardin says, interrupting my thoughts.

    “S-sorry,” Robert stammers and leaves the table in haste.

    All eyes move to Hardin, mostly showing disapproval of his behavior. Karen looks embarrassed; Ken, too.

    “Don’t worry, he’ll be back. It’s his job,” Max says with a shrug. He would think Hardin’s behavior was acceptable.

    I scowl at Hardin, but he doesn’t seem to care, he’s too infatuated by those damn blue eyes. As I watch him with her I feel like he’s a stranger to me, as if I’m intruding on some private moment shared between a loving couple. The thought causes bile to rise in my throat. I swallow it down, and I’m thankful when the server, Robert, returns with the wine and ice buckets, this time bringing another server along, likely for moral support. Or protection.

    Hardin watches him the entire time, and I roll my eyes at his audacity: glaring at the poor guy when here he is, acting as if he doesn’t know me at all.

    Nervously, Robert fills my glass to the brim, and I quietly thank him. He smiles less shyly this time and moves to fill Landon’s. I’ve never seen Landon drink except at Ken and Karen’s wedding, and even then he only had one glass of champagne. If I wasn’t so distraught over Hardin’s behavior, I’d turn down the wine and not drink in front of Ken and Karen, but I’ve had a long day, and without the wine I don’t think I be able to make it through this dinner.

    Ken covers the top of his glass and says, “No, thank you,” when Robert comes his way.

    I look up at Hardin to make sure he isn’t readying a snide remark about his father, but once again he’s talking quietly to Lillian.

    I’m so confused right now—why is he doing this? Yes, we were fighting, but this is too much.

    Taking a big sip, I find that the wine is cool and crisp and deliciously sweet on my tongue. I’m tempted to just gulp it all down, but I have to pace myself. The last thing I need is to get drunk and emotional in front of everyone. Hardin doesn’t decline the wine, but Lillian does. He rolls his eyes at her, teasing her, and I force my eyes away from them before I turn into a puddle of tears on the beautifully stained hardwood floor.


“. . . MAX WAS scaling the wall—he was so drunk that he had to be pulled down by campus security!” Ken says, and everyone at our table laughs.

    Everyone except Hardin, of course.

    I twirl my fork around my pasta and take another bite. I focus on how delicious the freshly made noodles are, and how they look wound around the tines of the fork. Otherwise I’d have to focus on Hardin.

    “I think you have an admirer,” Denise says to me. I look up and follow her eyes to Robert, who is clearing the dishes from the table beside us, his eyes on me.

    “Don’t pay him too much attention; just a waiter wanting what he can’t have,” Max states with a sly smile, surprising me with his callousness.

    “Dad.” Lillian glares at her father.

    But he just gives her a smile before cutting into his steak. “Sorry, sweetie, I’m only stating the truth . . . A girl as beautiful as Tessa here shouldn’t be looking at anyone working in hospitality.”

    If only he’d stopped there, but oblivious—or immune to—our discomfort, Max continues his degrading remarks until I finally drop my fork onto my plate with a clatter.

    “Don’t,” Hardin says to me, speaking to me for the first time since I arrived.

    Shocked, I look at him, then back to Max, weighing my options. He’s being a jerk, and I’ve had almost an entire glass of wine. I should probably keep my mouth shut, like Hardin said.

    “You can’t talk about people like that.” Lillian looks at her father and he shrugs.

    “Fine, fine,” he grumbles, waving his knife a little and chewing on his steak. “Far be it from me to upset anyone.”

    Beside him, his wife looks embarrassed as she wipes the corners of her mouth with a cloth napkin.

    “I’m going to need more wine,” I tell Landon, and he smiles, sliding his half-empty glass over to me. I smile at the gesture. “I’ll wait for Robert to come back to the table. Thank you, though.”

    I can feel Hardin’s eyes on me as I search the restaurant. I don’t see the server’s blond hair, so I reach over, grab the bottle myself, and fill my glass. I half expect Max to make a comment about my manners, but he refrains. Hardin is staring coolly across the room, and Lillian is talking to her mother. I’m in my own world, a hallucination in which Hardin is sitting next to me, his hand on my thigh, and he leans in to make some cheeky comment that makes me laugh and blush feverishly.

    My head is a little fuzzy as I clear all of the food off my plate and finish off my second glass of wine. Landon is in conversation with Max and Ken about sports, of course. I stare at the printed tablecloth, trying to find faces or pictures inside the black and white swirls. I find a cluster that resembles an and my finger traces the pattern repeatedly. Suddenly I stop and look up quickly, paranoid that he may have seen me tracing the letter.

    But Hardin isn’t paying attention to me; his eyes are only for her.

    “I need some air,” I tell Landon and stand. My chair screeches against the wooden floor, and Hardin looks up from his conversation momentarily, but then he catches himself and pretends to have only been looking for his water before he returns to talking to this new girl of his.