Chapter Thirty-Nine

After We Fell

chapter thirty-nine




My heels clacking loudly on the hardwood, I concentrate on making it to the back door of the restaurant through my alcohol haze. If we were closer to home, I’d leave right now, pack my bags for Seattle, and stay in a hotel until I found an apartment.

    I am so sick of Hardin doing this kind of shit to me—it’s painful and embarrassing, and it’s breaking me down. He’s breaking me down, and he knows it. That’s exactly why he’s doing it. He’s said as much before: he does these things because he knows they’ll get to me.

    When I push through the door—briefly hoping it won’t set off an alarm or something—the chill night air envelops me. It’s calming, blanketing me in something other than the stale air and awkward tension of dull dinner companions.

    I rest my elbows on a rock ledge and look out into the woods. It’s dark, nearly pitch-black out there. The restaurant is nestled right in the middle of a wooded area, creating a secluded atmosphere. It works, and would be wonderful, but it’s not ideal for me right now, when I already feel trapped.

    “Are you all right?” a voice sounds from behind me.

    When I turn, Robert is standing in the doorway, a stack of plates in one hand.

    “Um, yeah, I just needed to breathe,” I say.

    “Oh, it’s a little cold out here.” He smiles. His smile is polite and actually very endearing.

    I give a smile back. “Yeah, a little.”

    Both of us stand in silence. It’s slightly awkward, but I don’t mind. Nothing is as awkward as sitting at that table.

    A few seconds later he speaks up. “I haven’t seen you around here before.” He gently places the plates on an empty table and walks closer to me. He leans his elbows on the ledge only a few feet away.

    “I’m visiting. I’ve never been here before.”

    “You should visit in the summer. February is the worst time to come. Well, except for November and December . . . maybe even January.” His cheeks flush as he stammers, “Y-you get what I mean.” Then he lets out a little chucklelike sound.

    Trying not to giggle at him and his red cheeks, I say, “I bet it’s beautiful in the summer.”

    “Yeah, you are.” His eyes widen. “I mean it is. It is beautiful,” he corrects himself, and runs his hand over his face.

    I force my lips together in an attempt not to laugh at him, but I can’t help it. A small giggle escapes, causing him to look even more horrified than before.

    “Do you live here?” I ask, trying to sidestep his embarrassment. His company is refreshing; it’s nice to be around someone who’s not so intimidating. Hardin owns every room he’s in, and his presence is overwhelming half the time.

    That calms him a tiny bit. “Yeah, born and raised. And you?”

    “I go to WCU. I’ll be starting at the Seattle campus next week.” I feel like I’ve been waiting so long to say those words.

    “Wow, Seattle. Impressive!”

    He smiles and I laugh again. “Sorry, wine makes me laugh a lot,” I blurt, and he looks over at me with a grin.

    “Well, I’m glad it’s not me that you’re laughing at.” His eyes roam my face, and I turn away. He looks back to the restaurant. “You should get back inside before your boyfriend comes looking for you.”

    I turn around to look in through the windows into the elegant space. Hardin’s head is still turned toward Lillian.

    “Trust me, no one is coming to look for me,” I say with a sigh, and my bottom lip quivers as my heart betrays me, sinking lower and lower.

    “He looks pretty lost without you,” Robert tries to reassure me.

    I spy Landon looking around the room, with nobody to talk to. “Oh! That’s not my boyfriend. Mine is the one across the table—the one with the tattoos.” I watch as Robert looks at Hardin and Lillian and confusion sweeps over his soft features. Swirls of black ink peek out from the top of Hardin’s collared dress shirt. I love the way white looks on him; I love being able to see the hint of ink under the light-colored fabric.

    “Um, does he know he’s your boyfriend?” Robert asks, raising his eyebrow.

    I tear my eyes away from Hardin as he smirks, a deep smirk, the kind of smirk that shows his dimples, the kind of smirk that is usually given only to me. “I’m beginning to wonder the same thing.”

    I bring my hands to my face and shake my head. “It’s complicated,” I groan.

    Hold yourself together, don’t fall into his game. Not this time.

    Robert shrugs. “Well, who better to talk about your problems with than a stranger?”

    We both gaze at the table that I’m missing from. No one except Landon seems to even notice.

    “Don’t you have to work?” I ask, hoping that he doesn’t. Robert is young, older than me, but he can’t be any older than twenty-three at the most.

    He seems fully confident as he smiles and says, “Yeah, but I have it in good with the owner,” seeming to be telling himself a joke that I’m not included in.


    “So, if that’s your boyfriend, who’s the girl with him?”

    “Her name is Lillian.” I can hear the venom in my own voice. “I don’t know her, neither does he . . . well, he didn’t, but apparently now he does.”

    Robert’s eyes meet mine. “So he brought her here to make you jealous?”

    “I don’t know; it’s not working. Well, I am jealous—I mean, look at her. She’s wearing the same dress as I am, and she looks way better in it.”

    “No; no, she doesn’t,” he says quietly, and I smile, thanking him.

    “We were getting along fine until yesterday. Well, fine for us. And then we got in a fight this morning—but we always fight. I mean, we fight all the time, so I don’t know what it is about this fight that’s so different, but it is. It’s different; it doesn’t feel like the rest of our fights, and now he’s ignoring me the way he used to when we first met.” I realize that I’ve been speaking more to myself than to this stranger with curious blue eyes. “I sound insane, I know I do. It’s the wine.”

    The corners of his lips turn into a smile, and he shakes his head. “No, not insane at all.” Robert smiles, which brings a little laugh out of me. With a nod at my table, he says, “He’s looking at you.”

    My head snaps up to look. Sure enough, Hardin’s eyes are on me and my new shrink, eyes that burn into me and make me literally flinch at their intensity.

    “You should probably go inside,” I warn him. I’m expecting Hardin to get up from the table at any time, to rush out here and throw Robert over the deck and into the woods.

    He doesn’t, though. He remains still, his fingers wrapped around the stem of a wineglass as he looks at me one last time before lifting his free hand and resting it across the back of Lillian’s chair. Oh My chest tightens at his callous action.

    “I’m sorry,” Robert says.

    I’d almost forgotten he was next to me.

    “It’s fine, really. I should be used to it. I’ve been playing these games with him for six months now.” I cringe at the truth, cursing myself for not learning my lesson after one month, or two, or three—yet here I am outside with a stranger watching as Hardin shamelessly flirts with another girl. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I’m sorry.”

    “Hey, I’m the one who asked,” he kindly reminds me. “And we’ve got plenty more wine, if you want some.” His smile is kind and playful.

    “I certainly will need more.” I nod and turn away from the window. “Do you get this a lot? Half-drunk girls whining about their boyfriends?”

    He chuckles. “No, actually, it’s usually rich old men complaining that their steak isn’t medium rare.”

    “Like the guy at my table, the one in the red tie.” I gesture to Max. “God, he’s a jerk.”

    Robert nods in agreement. “Yeah, he is. No offense, but anyone who sends a salad back because it has ‘too many olives’ is a jerk by definition.”

    We both laugh, and I cover my mouth with the back of my hand, then worry that the laughter will bring some of my tears out.

    “Right! He’s so serious, too, like he gave us this massive speech on his well-considered reasoning about olives after that.” I deepen my voice to try to mimic the annoying girl’s annoying father. “ ‘Too many olives overpowers the delicate yet earthy taste of the arugula.’ ”

    Robert bursts out laughing, doubling over. Hands on his knees, he looks up, and asks in a voice much closer to Max’s than mine was, “ ‘Could I have four? Three just will not do, and five is far too many—it simply does not balance the flavor palate!’ ”

    I lose myself in laughter to the point that my stomach is aching. I don’t know how long it lasts, but I hear a door open suddenly, and Robert and I both instinctively stop and look up . . . to see Hardin standing in the doorway.

    I stand up straight, smoothing my dress. I can’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong, even though I know that I wasn’t.

    “Am I interrupting something?” Hardin barks, commanding all attention.

    “Yes,” I respond, my voice coming out as clear as I was hoping. My breath is still staccato from laughing so hard, my head is swimming from the wine, and my heart is aching over Hardin.

    Hardin looks to Robert. “Apparently.”

    Robert’s face still holds a smile, his eyes alight with humor as Hardin tries his best to intimidate him. But he doesn’t falter, he doesn’t even blink. Even he has had enough of Hardin’s shit—and he’s trained to always be nice. But here, out of earshot of the rest of the diners, he doesn’t seem to have a problem showing his amusement at Hardin’s absurd attitude.

    “What do you want?” I ask Hardin. When he turns to me, his mouth is pressed in a hard line.

    “Get inside,” he demands, but I shake my head. “Tessa, don’t play these games with me. Let’s go.”

    He reaches for my arm, but I yank it away and stand my ground. “I said no. You go back inside—I’m sure your friend misses you,” I hiss.

    “You . . .” Hardin looks back to Robert. “You should really be the one to go inside. Our drinks are in need of refilling,” he says, then snaps his fingers in the most insulting way possible.

    “I’m off, actually. But I’m sure you can charm someone else into taking care of your drinks,” Robert says with a shrug.

    Hardin’s stance falters momentarily; he’s not used to anyone talking back to him, especially not strangers.

    “Okay, let me rephrase this . . .” He steps toward Robert. “Get the fuck away from her. Get inside and find something fucking else to do before I grab you by that fucking ridiculous collar and bash your head against that ledge.”

    “Hardin!” I reproach him, stepping between the two of them.

    But Robert seems unfazed. “Go ahead,” he says slowly, confidently. “But you should know that this is a very small town. My dad’s the sheriff, Grandpa’s the judge, and Uncle’s the one they locked up for assault and battery. So if you want to take your chances bashing my head in”—he shrugs—“go for it.”

    My mouth is wide open, and I can’t seem to close it. Hardin’s glare is murderous, and he seems to be weighing his options as he looks back and forth between Robert, me, and the inside of the restaurant.

    “Let’s go,” he says again to me at last.

    “I’m not going,” I tell him, backing away. But I do turn to Robert and say, “Can you give us a minute, please?”

    He nods slowly, giving Hardin one last glare before walking back inside.

    “So what, you’re going to fuck the waiter now?” Hardin grimaces, and I step back even farther, willing myself not to break under his stare.

    “Would you just stop, already? We both know how this will go. You’ll keep insulting me. I’ll walk away. You’ll come after me and tell me you won’t be rude anymore. We’ll go back to the cabin and sleep together.” I roll my eyes, and he looks absolutely lost.

    In his usual Hardin way, he collects himself rapidly. Throwing his head back in laughter, he simply says, “Wrong,” and steps back toward the door. “I won’t be doing that. It seems you’ve forgotten how it really goes: you throw a fit over something I say, you walk away, and I only come after you so I can fuck you. And you . . .” he adds with a sinister glare, “you always let me.”

    My mouth falls open in horror, and my hands move to my stomach to hold my body together after his splintering words. “Why?” I gasp, the cold air nowhere to be found as I try to catch my breath.

    “I don’t know. Because you can’t stay away. Probably because I fuck you better than anyone else ever would.” His tone is clipped and cruel.

    “Why . . . now?” I correct my earlier question. “What I meant was, why are you doing this now? Is it because I won’t go to England with you?”

    “Yes and no.”

    “I won’t give up Seattle for you, so you turn on me?” My eyes are burning, but I will not cry. “You show up with gesture toward Lillian at the table—“and say all these hateful things to me? I thought we were past this. What happened to you not being able to live without me? What happened to you trying your best to treat me the way you should?”

    He looks away from me, and for a moment, a barely recognizable moment, I see a deeper emotion behind his hateful glare.

    “There is a big difference between not being able to live without someone and loving them,” he says.

    And like that, he walks away, whatever was left of my respect for him following in his wake.