Chapter Ninety-Four

After We Fell

chapter ninety-four




I can’t sleep. I’ve tried to close my eyes and block out the world, leave the chaos and stress of the mess that is my love life, but I can’t. It’s impossible. It’s impossible to fight the irresistible power that draws me to Hardin’s room, that begs me to be near him. He’s being so distant, and I have to know why. I have to know if he’s behaving this way because of something I did, or because of something I didn’t do. I have to know that it had nothing to do with Sasha and her tiny gold dress, or Hardin losing interest in me.

    I have to know.

    Hesitantly, I climb out of the bed and tug on the small cord to bring the lamp to life. I pull the thin band from around my wrist and gather my hair into my hands, pulling it into a ponytail. As quietly as possible, I tiptoe across the hall and slowly turn the handle on the guest room door. It opens with a low creak, and I’m surprised to find the lamp on and the bed empty. A pile of black sheets and blankets are pushed against the edge of the bed, but Hardin isn’t in the room.

    My heart sinks at the thought that he’s left Seattle and gone back home—to his home. I know things were awkward between us, but we should be able to talk about whatever it happens to be that is weighing on Hardin’s mind. Scanning the room, I’m relieved to see his bag still on the floor, the piles of clean and folded clothes knocked over, but at least still there.

    I’ve loved seeing the changes in Hardin since his arrival only hours ago. He’s been sweeter, calmer, and he actually apologized to me without me having to pull the words from him. Regardless of the fact that he’s being cold and distant right now, I can’t ignore the changes that a week apart seems to have made and the positive impact that the distance between us has had on him.

    I quietly pad down the hallway in search of him. The house is dark, the only light coming from small night-lights lined along the floor of the halls. The bathrooms, living room, and kitchen are empty, and I don’t hear a single noise coming from upstairs. He has to be upstairs, though . . . maybe he’s in the library?

    I keep my fingers crossed that I don’t wake anyone during my search, and just as I close the door to the dark and empty library, I see a thin line of light creeping from the door at the end of the long corridor. During my brief stay here, I haven’t made it to this part of the house, though I think Kimberly had vaguely indicated that this is where the theater and the gym are. Apparently, Christian spends hours in the gym.

    The door is unlocked, and I push it open with ease. I feel a momentary spark of worry as I entertain the idea that it’s Christian, not Hardin, who’s in the room. That would be incredibly awkward, and I pray it isn’t the case.

    All four walls of the room are mirrored from floor to ceiling and lined with large, intimidating machines, a treadmill being the only recognizable one. Weights and more weights cover the far wall, and most of the floor is padded. My eyes move to the mirrored walls, and my insides liquefy at the sight of them. Hardin—four Hardins, actually—are reflected in the mirrors. He’s shirtless, and his movements are aggressively quick. His hands are wrapped in the same black tape that I’ve seen on Christian’s each day this week.

    Hardin’s back is to me, his hard muscles straining under pale skin as he lifts his foot to kick the large black bag hanging from the ceiling. His fist strikes out next; a loud thud follows his movement, and he repeats it with the other fist. I watch as he continues to punch and kick the bag; he looks so angry, and hot, and sweaty, and I can barely think straight as I watch him.

    With swift movements, he hits with his left leg, then his right, and then both fists smash into the bag with such fluidity, it’s incredible to watch. His skin is shining and covered in sweat, and his chest and stomach look slightly different than before, more defined. He simply looks . . . larger. The metal chain attached to the ceiling looks like it’s going to snap from the force of Hardin’s aggression. My mouth is dry, and my thoughts are sluggish as I watch him and listen to the angry groans that escape as he begins using only his fists against the bag.

    I don’t know if it’s the soft moan that falls from my lips at watching him, or if he somehow felt my presence, but he suddenly stops. The bag continues to sway on its chain, and while keeping his eyes on me, Hardin reaches out one hand to stop it.

    I don’t want to be the first to speak, but he gives me no choice as he continues to stare at me with wide and angry eyes.

    “Hey,” I say, my voice hoarse and tiny.

    His chest rises and falls rapidly. “Hi,” he says, panting.

    “What, um”—I try to contain myself—“what are you doing?”

    “Couldn’t sleep,” he breathes heavily. “What’re you doing up?” He gathers his black T-shirt from the floor and wipes the moisture from his face. I gulp. I can’t seem to find the strength to look away from his sweat-soaked body.

    “Um, same as you. Couldn’t sleep.” I smile weakly, and my eyes flicker to his toned torso, the muscles moving in sync with his hard breaths.

    He nods; his eyes don’t meet mine, and I can’t help but ask, “Did I do something? If I did, we could just talk about it and work it out.”

    “No, you didn’t do anything.”

    “Then tell me what’s wrong, please, Hardin. I need to know what’s going on.” I gather as much confidence as I can manage. “Do you . . . never mind.” The ounce of confidence I had slips away under his stare.

    “Do I what?” He sits down on a long black cushion, which I think is some sort of weight bench. After wiping the T-shirt over his face again, he wraps it around his head, restraining his dampened mess of hair.

    The impromptu headband is oddly endearing and very attractive, so much so that I find myself fumbling for words. “I’m just beginning to wonder if maybe, possibly, you . . . you’re starting to not like me as much as you did.” The question sounded much better inside of my head. When said out loud, it sounds pathetic and needy.

    “What?” He drops his hands onto his knees. “What are you talking about?”

    “Are you still as attracted to me . . . physically?” I ask. I wouldn’t feel so ashamed or insecure if he hadn’t rejected me earlier tonight. That, and if Ms. Long Legs Short Dress hadn’t been fawning over him right in front of me. Not to mention the way his eyes lingered as they slowly took in her body . . .

    “What . . . where is this coming from?” As his chest rises and falls, the sparrows inked just under his collarbone appear to be fluttering along with his breathing.

    “Well . . .” Although I take a few steps farther into the room, I make sure to leave a few feet between Hardin and me. “Earlier . . . when we were kissing . . . you stopped, and you’ve barely touched me since, and then you just up and went to bed.”

    “You actually think that I’m not attracted to you anymore?” He opens his mouth to continue but suddenly closes it again and sits silently.

    “It has crossed my mind,” I admit. The padded flooring has suddenly become fascinating as I stare down at it.

    “That is fucking insane,” he begins. “Look at me.” My eyes meet his, and he sighs deeply before continuing. “I can’t begin to fathom why you would ever consider the notion that I’m not attracted to you, Tessa.” He seems to think over his response and adds, “Well, I guess I can see why you would think that because of how I acted earlier, but it’s not true; that literally could not be further from the fucking truth.”

    The ache in my chest slowly begins to dissolve. “Then what is it?”

    “You’re going to think I’m fucking morbid.”

    Oh no.

    “Why? Tell me, please,” I beg him. I watch as frustrated fingers run over the slight stubble on his chin; it’s barely there, probably only a day’s worth of not shaving.

    “Just hear me out before you get mad, okay?”

    I nod slowly, an action that completely contradicts the paranoid thoughts that are beginning to flutter through me.

    “I had this dream, well, nightmare, actually . . .”

    My chest tightens, and I pray that it’s not as bad as he’s making it out to be. Half of me is relieved that he’s upset over a nightmare, not an actual event, but the other half aches for him. He’s been alone all week, and it hurts to know that his nightmares have returned.

    “Go on,” I gently encourage him.

    “About you . . . and Zed.”

    Oh boy. “What do you mean?” I ask.

    “He was at and I came home to find him in between your legs. You were moaning his name and—”

    “Okay, okay, I get it,” I say, raising a hand to stop him.

    The pained expression on his face compels me to keep my hand up for a few seconds to keep him silent, but then he says, “No, let me tell you.”

    I’m extremely uncomfortable about having to listen to Hardin talk about Zed and me in bed, but if he feels like he needs to tell me—if telling me will help him work it out—I’ll bite my tongue and listen.

    “He was on top of you, fucking you, in our bed. You said that you loved him.” He grimaces.

    All of this tension and all of Hardin’s strange and awkward behavior since he came to Seattle stemmed from a dream he had about me and Zed? At least this helps explain his middle-of-the-night demand last night that I call Zed and take back the invitation to visit me in Seattle that I agreed to.

    As I stare across the room at the green-eyed, grief-stricken man with his face resting on his hands, my earlier paranoia and frustration dissolve like sugar on my tongue.