Category: Stories & Excerpts Page 2 of 7

Return To Me: Part 6

The rest of the day was spent poring over the summoning book, looking for just the right words and symbols necessary for what she was about to attempt. Many variations of the incantation were written and discarded. Eventually, she ended up with a chant that she felt was powerful and to-the-point. She practiced drawing the sigil Justin had told her to use, finding it in the book. She drew it over and over until it was perfect. She cleared off the dining room table, placing a dark purple cloth at the head and smoothing the sigil drawing on top of it. She traced the shape on the paper with the powdered elderberry, her hands surprisingly steady. Settling the candle at the top of the cloth, she stood back and surveyed her work. Perfect.

Once the table was ready, Emma poured herself a glass of wine before turning off the lights throughout the house. She perched on the edge of Justin’s favorite armchair and gazed out the large bay window into the quiet night. All the trick-or-treaters had come and gone, leaving the street empty.

Next to the chair stood the end table that held the reframed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. Justin’s warm brown eyes smiled out at her, sparkling with mischief. She picked up the photo and gazed at her husband’s face. He looked so alive in this picture, so vibrant and warm it was disorienting. How could he be dead?  Justin had been larger than life and brought light into every room he entered. You could feel the kindness and joy radiating off him any time you were within ten feet. Emma wasn’t the only one who felt it. But she was sure she was the only one who experienced the absence of that sunshine so acutely. His recent nighttime visitations had only served to dig that emptiness bigger and deeper and more painful. It didn’t matter if they were real or merely wishful dreaming. Justin was still gone.

Trailing her finger along the shape of his cheek, she kissed the glass and set the frame back on the table. She finished her wine, rinsed the glass and took her place at the end of the table in front of the makeshift altar.

It was time.

Pulling a small folded piece of paper out of her pocket, Emma lit the candle. She smoothed the paper on the table, so she could read the words, and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath.

“You who lived yesterday, I call you from my mind to yours. Come back from the shadows into the light.” She glanced at the paper before cupping her hands and wafting the candle smoke over her face. “I feel the warmth of your body, the warmth of your spirit. This sigil of summoning calls you to me and I hold you in my arms, my heart, and my soul. I bid you return to me.”

She choked back a sob, overcome with the desperation she felt for this to work. “Please,” she whispered, dropping her hands, clenching and unclenching them at her sides. “Oh god, please return to me, Justin. Please.”

Repeating the incantation three times – for good measure – Emma let the candle burn and stood perfectly still. She closed her eyes and tried to relax her body and mind, listening to every creak and sigh the house made around her. How would she know if it had worked? Would the air in the room feel different? Would he appear in front of her, fully formed, flesh and bone, like in her dreams?

She stood quietly for what felt like an eternity, waiting. Hoping. One silent tear after another fell from her closed eyes. It was foolish of her to have believed this would work. The dreams were just that – dreams. Wishful thinking, a manifestation of her broken heart. Justin was dead. Period.

Tonight, All Hallows Eve with the house silent and dark, she understood how people believed in things like this. If they felt even a fraction of the pain Emma felt right now – had felt for the better part of the last year – they would be nothing short of desperate to believe their late loves were somehow still with them.

Swallowing the sob that bubbled up in her throat, Emma pictured Justin’s face in her mind, heard his laugh in the deep quiet of the room. Ten years. Ten short years of the purest happiness Emma had ever known. He had been her rock and her guiding light. Without that beacon of love in her life she had been floundering in the world and didn’t know if she’d ever find her way again. That’s why she’d been so lost without him. Why she’d let her dream self be convinced this absurdity could bring him back.

Disappointed tears now dry on her face, Emma let her shoulders slump in defeat. Nothing had happened. She didn’t know if she honestly thought something would, but if this nonsense was ever going to work then it would take the one night when the veil to the spirit world was thinnest to breathe it to life.

Opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the near-darkness in the house, she smoothed out the incantation on the table, over and over again. A passing car cast shadows that danced and bounced off the walls. It was silent and still and empty in the house, just as it had been every night since the end of her world. Justin was gone. That was the reality Emma had to live with now. Heaving a defeated sigh, Emma snuffed out the candle and trudged to her bedroom. Perhaps she would dream of him again. Perhaps not, now that she knew it had all been in her head.

Emma drifted in and out of a restless sleep. She was too hot, she was too cold, it was too quiet, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was beyond exhausted and she should have fallen into a deep sleep, but it eluded her, keeping her always just outside the circle of peacefulness. She even had taken 3 full sleeping pills, for good measure, but she still tossed and turned.

With a jolt, Emma sat straight up in bed, suddenly wide awake, any hint of fatigue long gone. Her breathing was ragged and shallow and she was covered with a sheen of sweat, as though she had been running. Sitting motionless, she tried to recall what had woken her. She glanced around the bedroom looking for an explanation, but nothing stood out to her.

The one thing clear in her mind was that she needed to go out to the dining room. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. In the pit of her stomach she felt a knot, the pull of a thread drawing her out of her bed and toward the door.

Her feet hit the cold floor and she paused. Through the crack of the partially-opened door Emma saw only darkness. Something was calling to her. Nothing audible, nothing she could hear, but a call that she could feel in the middle of her chest. She rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her pajamas and licked her lips, trying to get the courage to move.

On shaky legs, she rose and took a few tentative steps across the room. Cloaked in a sensation of unreality, everything around her seemed to glow and pulsate. Was she dreaming again? This was nothing like the lucid dreams of Justin she had been experiencing. Instead, there was a menacing nightmare quality in the air. Only the rough boards beneath her feet and the manic pounding in her chest grounded her in the certainty of wakefulness.

She watched her hand tremble reaching for the door. The ominous squeaking of the hinges made goosebumps break out over every inch of her and she came close to turning back. The urge to slam the door and dive under her covers until the sun came up nearly overtook her and she hesitated in the open doorway. But the invisible thread drawing her out was stronger than her apprehension and she leaned into the hallway.

All the air in her lungs turned to sludge and she was unable to take a breath. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, the remnant of whatever nightmare had woken her so forcefully a moment ago. She blinked over and over, trying to clear her vision but nothing changed. Stepping fully into the hall, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as the realization of what she was seeing fully formed.

A silhouette was visible at the dining room table, backlit by the street lights through the window.

Return To Me: Part 5

There had been other dreams about Justin, especially right after his death. But this one…this one was different. Real. So real, in fact, that Emma woke up expecting to find him waiting in the kitchen for her, holding out a steaming cup of fresh coffee.

In the dream, she had rolled over to see him sleeping next to her. She shot upright, had nearly fallen out of bed, and startled him awake. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and smiled at her.

“Expecting someone else?”

When she only managed to clap a hand over her mouth, failing to stifle a sob, he had gathered her to his chest and smoothed her hair.

“I’m here, Em. Shh, shh. I’m really and truly here.”

Emma had clung to him, a thousand questions in her mind, but unable to make her voice work. After several minutes, she pulled back just enough to look at him, and nearly fell apart again at the bright smile on his face.

“Justin…” she murmured. He leaned into her and feathered his lips against hers. “Oh my god, Justin…I thought – how are you here? You can’t be here.” Tentatively, Emma stroked his cheek. “I thought I would never get to see you again. How is this possible?”

Laying back in the bed and propping himself on his elbow, the smile never left Justin’s face as he patted the space next to him.

“I don’t know,” he answered cheerfully. “I just am. God, you’re so beautiful, Em. I could stare at you for the rest of eternity and see something new every day.”

When he ran his fingertips along her cheek, wiping away the tears, Emma melted into his touch. “Can you stay? Are you here for good?” A thought suddenly occurred to her and she sat up, her eyes wide. “Am I dead?!”

Justin threw his head back and laughed. “No, babe, you’re still very much alive. You are, however, asleep, and I won’t be here when you wake up. Come here.” He pulled her to him, laying her head on his chest.

Lulled by the impossible sound of his heart beating, Emma closed her eyes and snuggled tighter against him. It felt so good to hold him again, even if it was just a dream. He was warm, and comfortable and here. That was all that mattered.

The next time she opened her eyes the sun was streaming through her curtains and she was alone. Even though it had been a year since he passed away, Emma could never bring herself to take up the whole bed. Every night, she left his side tucked in and neat. And this morning it looked no different than it had for the last 365 mornings.

He visited her in similar dreams every night for the next week. Sometimes the two of them got up and went into the living room, sitting across from each other like they used to do, telling stories and laughing. Other nights they only laid in bed and gazed at each other, not needing words to communicate what they were feeling. But morning always came, and Justin wasn’t there.

On the tenth night after these dream dates started, Emma eagerly climbed into bed, nestling down under the covers. This had become her favorite time of the day. Her excitement was making it harder and harder for her to fall asleep, however, so she had started taking sleeping pills. It was a half a pill for the first couple of nights, then a whole one. But it was taking longer and longer for her to drift off, so she was up to two and a half pills at this point. She knew she was pushing the threshold of safety, but to her it was worth it.

Once sleep overtook her, Emma rolled over in bed and opened her eyes with a smile, expecting to see her husband grinning back at her. But on this night, the pillow next to her was empty. Sitting up abruptly, Emma scanned the dark room.

“Justin?” When there was no response, she slid out of bed and started looking for him. “Justin? Are you here?”

As she reached the dining table at the end of the hallway, movement from the living room made her jump. Justin was sitting in his favorite armchair by the window, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him. Relief coursed through Emma and she skipped toward him.

“There you are! You had me worried.” The nervous tightening in her stomach only worsened when Justin didn’t look up as she approached. “Babe? Is everything okay?”

When he finally looked up at her, Emma was shocked at the sadness on his face. His sunny smile was turned down and his bright eyes were dim and full of distress. She rushed to him, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers.

Shaking his head, Justin sighed. “I can’t stay, Em. This will be my last visit to you.”

Emma’s stomach dropped and a cold wave washed over her. She stroked his cheek and said, “No. No, it can’t be. I just got you back! You can’t go away again. You can’t!”

Justin grasped her shoulders and pushed her back from him before standing and pacing to the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle, refusing to look at Emma.

“It’s not my decision, Em. It’s out of my hands.”

Standing defiantly in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips, Emma asked, “Well, whose decision is it then? If there’s someone to make the decision, there must be someone to talk to, some way to change their mind. I’m not letting you go. I won’t.” She chewed her lip to keep it from trembling. “I can’t.”

Justin whirled around and was suddenly in front of Emma, her hands gripped in his. “There is something you can do, Emma. There is a way I can stay with you…if you want me to.”

“Anything!” Emma’s heart began beating so fast she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. “You know I will do anything to bring you back to me. Tell me what to do.”

Brushing her hair back off her forehead, Justin flashed Emma his most charming smile. He kissed her tenderly then pulled her close and whispered his instructions in her ear.

When Emma opened her eyes to the bright sun once again, she felt lighter and more hopeful than she had in more than a year. She had a plan. She had a goal. Something to do, to work for.

Something that meant everything to her.

She showered and made some breakfast, taking her coffee in a travel mug as she bounded out the door. There was research to be done, a couple of items to buy, certain arrangements to make and there was no time to waste. It was Halloween and Justin had been adamant everything had to be done tonight, or it wouldn’t work.

And it had to work.

After driving an hour outside of town, Emma pulled up outside a ramshackle shop. The sign read Wayward Cosmos and the website said she could find everything from books and candles to talismans and crystals. She had never been in a shop like this before and something about walking through the door set her nerves on edge.

It was dark and a little musty, the shelves close and full of odds and ends. The space had looked much larger from the outside and claustrophobia began to set in for Emma. She had to turn sideways to walk between tables. One wall was full of bookshelves overflowing with tomes of varying size. The opposite wall’s shelves were covered in crystal balls, statues of dragons and fairies, and lots of charms and totems that Emma had never seen before. The tables scattered throughout the shop held makeshift Wiccan altars, vials of different substances with names like mugwort and poke root. There was a giant pentagram painted on the floor and a large glass case full of animal skulls in different sizes.

The store was hushed, no sounds of an air conditioner, a fan, a radio. The lights were on and the door was unlocked, so Emma felt fairly confident that the shop was open, but the stillness around her was eerie and had her checking over her shoulder frequently.

She made her way to the bookshelf, looking for something that might help with the task at hand. Justin had told her what kind of book to look for, but no exact title. All he could tell her was that she’d know it when she found it. She perused such titles as The Green Witch, Wicca Book of Spells, The Complete Book of Witchcraft, The Crystal Bible. Letting her fingers trail over the spines, Emma felt a quickening in her stomach. There had to be a book to help her. If not here, where?

Her eyes fell on a title that caught her attention: The Magical Art of Summoning Spirits. Pulling it off the shelf, she knew immediately this was what she had been looking for. Her hand smoothed over the words etched on the cover and she felt an electric tingle run up her arm. Clutching it to her chest she turned and was shocked to find an old woman standing directly behind her.

“Oh!” She was so surprised, she stepped back and stumbled against the bookshelf. “I – I didn’t hear you! Jesus, you scared me!”

The figure stood perfectly still, saying nothing. Emma took in the old woman’s long, flowing gown and bare feet, noting the sound of the sparkling bracelets piled on both of her wrists. Her hair was pure white, curling almost to her waist, framing a wrinkled face with bright green eyes. Brow furrowed, she stared at Emma long and hard, freezing her in place. The eyes…there was something about her eyes that made goosebumps rise on Emma’s skin. Intelligent, calculating, and regarding Emma as though she was reading every thought in her mind – and didn’t like what she saw there.

After what felt like several minutes of being scrutinized, Emma cleared her throat and tried on a feeble smile.

“Uh…is this your shop? I – I was looking for a couple of items. Maybe you could help me?”

The old woman leaned closer as though to say something, but instead drew in a sharp breath. Then her eyes fell on the book clasped in Emma’s hands and her eyes darkened.

“Your intentions are good, but your methods are dangerous,” the woman croaked. “That book should not be read lightly.”

Emma swallowed and tried to smile. “Oh, uh, thank you. It’s actually for a friend. He does this stuff all the time and knows what he’s doing.” She slid sideways, trying to extract herself from the closeness of this encounter. “Do you sell candles, too? There was a specific one he wanted.”

With a grunt, the old woman spun away toward the back of the store, making Emma rush to catch up to her. Her speed and agility didn’t match her appearance at all.

“Do you also have some powdered elderberry?”

At this question, the old woman pulled up short and cast a suspicious look over her shoulder. “Elderberry, eh? And what candle did your…friend…ask for specifically?”

“Uh…purple? Dark purple, to be exact.”

The woman snorted and shook her head. “Your friend is meddling in things…he…shouldn’t. This is powerful magic and can have very unexpected repercussions.”

Chewing on her lip, Emma held the book closer against her chest. “You do have the items, though, right? I mean, you have them here, today, that you can sell to me?”

A shiny black cat that Emma hadn’t noticed before leapt onto the counter and sat protectively in front of the crone. Absently stroking the cat, she watched Emma closely. Without looking away, she reached under the countertop and produced a fat amethyst-colored candle, setting it down with a thud. Emma could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of her neck and she had to wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans over and over while the shopkeeper glared at her.

Finally breaking away from the uncomfortable eye contact, the old woman turned to a drawer set in the shelving behind her and pulled out an old apothecary bottle. She removed the cork stopper and shook a measure of dark powder into a small baggie. When she returned her attention to Emma, the look on her face was kinder, her forehead wrinkled not in anger but concern. She rang up Emma’s items on an ornate old cash register and captured Emma’s hand between both of her gnarled ones when handing back the change.

“Use caution, my dear. This is unpredictable magic you’re meddling with here. You may get far more than you bargained for if you follow through with this rash plan.”

Emma grimaced, startled by the strength of the old woman’s grip. She pulled her hand away and picked up her items.

“Um, okay, I will – I’ll be careful. I, uh, I know what I’m doing – I mean my friend knows what he’s doing – but I thank you for your concern. Have a nice day!” She turned and made a hasty retreat to the door.

Return To Me: Part 4

Fear clutched at her chest and froze her muscles in place. Slowly, carefully, she rose from the mattress. She had no idea what she might find but she wasn’t about to wait for it to come find her. She padded silently on bare feet to the bedroom door, straining to hear any further movement. There was no sound, so she ventured further into the hallway, inching along with her back pressed up against the wall.

When she reached the entrance to the living room she peeked around the corner in an attempt to assess the situation from a safe distance. She could only see a sliver of the room, and she couldn’t be sure it was empty. No shuffling or other signs of movement carried to her through the quiet. Cautiously, she stepped through the doorway.

No one was there. Nothing looked disturbed. The front door was still locked as was the sliding back door. So…what had made that noise? No windows were open. It was definitely inside the house and it hadn’t been the wind blowing something over. She passed her gaze over every part of the room; over Justin’s favorite armchair, the couch Emma slept on more often than not, the end tables, the coffee table, the fireplace and the mantle.

As she turned to search the kitchen, something caught her eye. She froze.

On the hearth, shattered and broken, was the 8×10 photo of Emma and Justin’s wedding day. Their faces smiled up at her with so much hope and joy that she would have crumpled to the ground if it hadn’t been for the fact that the photo had been, just a few minutes ago, sitting peacefully on the end table.

On the opposite side of the room.

She had spun around, making sure she wasn’t imagining things. Maybe this was a different photo that had simply fallen off the mantle. Emma had been a little singularly focused recently and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to have moved something and forgotten. But no, there were no empty spots above the fireplace. She knew where the photo had come from. How it got here, on the other hand…

“Justin,” she’d whispered again, this time in wonder. “Justin!” She called his name louder and stood still, holding her breath. Was it possible? Was he here? Her heart raced in anticipation. Eyes wide, searching the shadows in the corners of the room, she had expected to see him standing there with his arms open, his signature bright grin splitting his face. He had stopped her. He had saved her. He was still here, watching and protecting her.

That realization had washed over Emma with a tidal wave of tears. Justin wouldn’t have wanted this for her, she knew that now. No matter how much she missed him there was no way he would have condoned taking this kind of permanent action. He had always accused Emma of being too reactionary, of jumping to a major solution for a minor problem. While the despair that had taken over her life wasn’t necessarily minor to her, she realized her resolution wasn’t going to fix anything.

She had picked up the crumpled frame carefully and carried it to the kitchen. Removing the broken glass piece by piece, her eyes stayed locked on the picture, on the face she loved more than anything. Contradictory emotions flooded through her: she felt the joy and the promise of that day shining out of their faces, the anguish of being forever separated, the rage of him being taken from her. She stood in the kitchen, memorizing every line and curve of his face, letting the tears flow. When exhaustion finally overtook her, she left the photo on the counter and made her way to bed.

Walking into the bedroom, she started undressing but stopped dead in her tracks.

Lying forgotten on the floor, dull and cold, the gun suddenly filled Emma with dread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.

What had she been about to do?

Slowly coming out of her reverie, Emma found herself still in the kitchen, holding the finished casserole. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there, lost in her thoughts, but at least she’d had the presence of mind to put on the oven mitts first. With a sigh, she reluctantly continued preparations for her dinner guests.

“Sweetheart, everything was simply delicious!” Lois smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I know it was hard, but you did a great job. And I know the Bakers were thankful to have this chance to talk about their son with others who knew and loved him.”

Emma squeezed her mother tight. “You’re right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’ll never be easy, but it was…oddly comforting.” The Bakers and the few neighbors who had been able to come had already left, leaving just Lois and David May with their daughter.

“Proud of you, kiddo,” David said. “You did great. Justin would have loved this.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Emma laughed. “You’re right. He loved telling his old stories and liked nothing better than to be the center of attention.” Her heart ached. “God, I miss him.”

Looking around, Lois started picking up glasses. “Let me help you clean all this up…”

Emma stopped her with a firm, “No. Mom, no. It’s okay. I like cleaning up. It lets me unwind from the stress of trying to be interesting all night. You guys go home. I’m fine.”

David raised an eyebrow at his daughter.

Kissing him on the cheek, Emma amended, “I’ll be fine.”

Once the door shut behind her parents, Emma set to the task of cleaning. She turned the radio on to fill the silence. After so much laughter and conversation, the house seemed empty all of a sudden. Singing along with the radio, Emma tried to keep her mind from wandering into the sadness that was left behind with the mess. A nice mindless activity like washing dishes coupled with the nonsense of current pop songs should do the trick.

When everything was washed and put away, she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned against the counter. Talking with everyone about Justin had brought him a little bit closer tonight. With only the light from the candles still burning on the table, Emma sat in what had been Justin’s favorite armchair.

“I miss you, baby,” she whispered. “You would have had a blast tonight. There was so much love in this room…and it was all for you.” Emma let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It sounds like such a long time when I say it out loud, but it feels like yesterday.”

Tucking her hair behind one ear, she sipped her wine and settled back into the chair. “Our neighbor Lisa was here – without James.” She quirked an eyebrow in the dark. “So much drama, babe. I have to say, I’m glad he’s gone. It was nice to see Lisa, though.”

She shot up out of the chair and started pacing the room, suddenly agitated. “Oh, I know, I know. I need to get out more, I need to be around people again. God, you sound like my mother.” Emma stopped and stared out the window. “You were the only way I tolerated people, you know that. Nothing is any fun without you, Justin.”

Draining the last of the wine in her glass, Emma set it in the sink and blew out the candles. She stood in the middle of the dark living room and smiled sadly as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “I will never not miss you.”

Emma got ready for bed and found herself looking through Justin’s jewelry box. She hadn’t touched it since his effects were given to her after the funeral.

She picked up the watch she had given to him for their last Christmas together. He had been a watch fiend, having a different one for every day of the week. But after Emma gave him this one, it was the only one he wore. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. It wasn’t even particularly attractive, to be honest. But on the back, Emma had added an engraving: You and me, forever. Love, E.

After sifting through his old chains and the pile of business cards he had somehow accumulated in the jewelry box, her fingers brushed against his wedding band. Shiny gray tungsten, it was still perfectly round and smooth as though she had just taken it out of the box. Emma was a little sad that the tungsten didn’t show any signs of wear. Made it seem like it hadn’t been worn in love for ten years. The little infinity symbol engraved on the inside was still pristine. And was as true that day as it had been the day she exchanged rings with him. Needing to feel close to Justin, she slipped the ring on her middle finger and pressed it to her lips. She returned all the other trinkets to the box and turned out the light. The emotional night had taken its toll on her, and Emma drifted off to sleep, clutching Justin’s ring tight.

That was the first night he visited her.

Return To Me: Part 3

One year later, the pain was no less. The loneliness had only grown exponentially. And the isolation had become far more pronounced. Identifying Justin’s body had been the single worst experience Emma had ever lived through. She tried to erase that image with alcohol for the first couple of months afterwards, crying until she threw up then washing down all the pain and guilt and solitude with another bottle of wine.

There had been some even darker days that she had somehow made it through. She had a vague recollection of getting out of bed and showering every day, of leaving the house and nodding woodenly to friends and family as they offered their condolences but ultimately didn’t know what to say. Emma knew she must have eaten at some point. The only memory that stood out in stark relief was the night, six months into her life as a widow, that she had stared down the barrel of a loaded pistol.

Literally.

Emma lit the candles on the dining room table and looked over the settings once more. She had never told anyone about that night. It was the darkest moment she had ever experienced. The only thought in her mind had been that she needed to be with Justin. Without him, there was nothing in this world for her. Until the moment she realized he was really gone, Emma had considered herself an independent woman. She didn’t need a man to make her happy, to take care of her. She loved Justin and they had an amazing partnership in which they were happiest together, but she could survive alone if necessary.

At least that’s what she thought until being alone became her reality.

Thinking back as she checked the oven, she was surprised at how easy it had been to make that deadly decision. There was no weighing the pros and cons, no contemplating the ramifications to those she’d leave behind. It had been as simple as thinking there was nothing left in this world for her and she didn’t want to stay in it anymore.

She had been at lunch with her mom when it presented itself as the only solution for her, but she said nothing. Her mother had been relaying how Emma’s friends were always inquiring about her, sending their well-wishes and love. She had tried not to roll her eyes at that. Her closest friends had come to the funeral to show their support. They made donations to the local homeless shelter in Justin’s name. They brought beautiful cards with flowery poetry scripted on the inside. Some brought her casseroles – really, what was a now-single woman going to do with six pans of lasagna? – while others sent flowers or cookie bouquets. Her best friends even made a few tentative phone calls with half-assed invitations to get together when Emma knew that was the last thing they actually wanted.

Sadness and loneliness that couldn’t be alleviated hung like a lead weight around Emma’s neck every day, every night, every waking moment. Her mother encouraged her to get out, to do something, even if it was just taking a walk. Lois meant well, but Emma had been sunk so far in her grief there was nothing her mom could say or do to pull her out. Emma had let her mind wander over the last few months. The awkward lunch dates with her mother, her father’s clumsy hugs and stilted conversation because he simply didn’t know what to say. The long days and even longer nights that left her wishing for a gas leak or some other disaster to kill her in her sleep.

In that moment, at that thought, it all became so clear. Emma’s eyes were wide and clear for the first time in a long time. She felt a little guilty when her mom perked up, too, thinking her daughter was taking her well-meant advice to heart. In reality, Lois was witnessing the beginning of a plan that would ultimately end her daughter’s life. It was simple, really. Her parents were going out of town for the next week, a trip that had been planned even before Justin’s accident. If she used her time wisely, Emma could start the wheels in motion and be free of this nightmare before they returned.

Sure, her parents would be devastated for a while. She felt some remorse for that. But they would be so much better off without worrying about Emma every day. She would be at peace and that would bring them peace.

After a three-day waiting period, Emma picked up the small 9mm pistol she had selected. It wasn’t fancy. It was used and cheap, but she was assured by the salesman that it was reliable and easy to handle. She had lied to him, saying that she had just moved to town and, living alone, she wanted something to keep in the house, just in case. She had turned it over and over in her hands, admiring the compact size of the solution to her misery.

A concise note explaining her actions had been left propped up on the kitchen counter. She owed her parents that, at the very least. The house was clean and neat. The food from the refrigerator had been thrown out two days before. Emma wasn’t eating much these days anyway. All of her bills were paid, all of her services had been canceled.

She was ready.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she had once shared with Justin, Emma took a deep breath. This was the moment. Six months of missing the piece that had made her whole, made her who she was and gave her the strength to face anything, was long enough. Soon she’d be reunited with Justin and they would be together forever.

With a sense of calm she hadn’t known in what felt like eons, Emma contemplated the weapon, deciding what would be the most efficient way to take her life. She’d heard about some who shot themselves in the chest, right into the heart, but she wasn’t confident that would do the trick. Head, it was. Should she press the muzzle against her temple or place it firmly between her teeth? She frowned. There were stories of both methods going horribly wrong and only maiming the shooter. While she had never contemplated suicide before and certainly wasn’t an expert, she knew that if you were going to do the deed you’d better make sure it took.

She held the gun up and pointed it squarely between her eyes. The muzzle stared back at her, the black void promising her peace at last. This was it. She pressed the gun against her forehead, positioning it so there was no way to miss, and closed her eyes.

“Justin…” His name came out in a reverent whisper and she pictured him in her mind’s eye.

Soon.

Suddenly a crash sounded from the living room making Emma jump. She hadn’t put her finger on the trigger yet and the gun fell from her hands, clattering to the hardwood floor. Emma sprang up from her bed, her heart pounding loud and frantic in her chest.

Someone was in the house.

Return To Me: Part 2

“Uh, can I get you something to drink?” Emma was aware that she was stalling but she smiled at the officers and pointed toward the kitchen. “I can get some coffee going pretty quickly or I have iced tea or some different sodas…”

The officers glanced at each other and the male cleared his throat. “No, thank you. That won’t be necessary. Please, have a seat.”

Her head felt unexpectedly light, and Emma perched awkwardly on the edge of the armchair, facing the officers who were sitting side-by-side on the couch. A muffled voice could be heard somewhere close by and Emma cast her eyes around the room, trying to find the source. She was surprised to see a cell phone in her hand and stared at it for a moment, unsure what to do with it.

Stalling.

Stalling.

She lifted the phone to her ear and croaked out, “Mom? Mom, I have, ah, company. Can I call you right back?” She nodded at whatever her mother had said and disconnected the call without another word, finally turning her attention to the figures before her.

“Mrs. Baker, we have some very bad news to tell you,” the female officer started, and Emma began shaking her head involuntarily. She didn’t need to hear what the woman was about to say. She already knew. Somehow, she already knew it deep in her soul.

Emma wanted to run, to make them leave. Her stomach clenched, on the verge of expelling its contents and she needed to leave. But her body was frozen in place, unable to escape the nightmare that was about to begin.

The officers exchanged another glance and the female officer continued. “Your husband, Justin Baker, was in a car accident this afternoon and was killed.”

Emma blinked.

“I am very sorry this happened.” The male officer had kind eyes, Emma thought randomly as she stared at him, waiting for him to deliver the punchline she knew had to be coming. “Is there anyone I can call for you?”

Her head still wagging back and forth in denial, she locked eyes with the man then the woman, back and forth, trying to understand the words she had just heard.

“I’m sorry – what? What are you telling me? No one died. You’re wrong. My husband is on his way home from work and we’re going to a costume party. You have the wrong house, the wrong Bakers. Justin is about to walk through the door any second…” Emma floundered with her phone, trying to check the time.

He should have been home more than an hour ago.

She felt like all the blood was evacuating her body, starting at her scalp and moving through her face, her chest, her stomach, to her toes. Her feet were suddenly freezing cold and stars began to form in the edge of her vision.

Her phone resumed its insistent vibrating, message after message filling her screen but Emma barely noticed. Her mind was simultaneously racing and immobile. She couldn’t move past the loop that was playing over and over in her head. Justin is dead. He isn’t coming home. You’ll never see him again, never kiss him again. Justin is dead. Dead.

 Justin. Is. Dead.

Lifting her head slowly, Emma realized the officers were still sitting on her couch. The woman was talking. She saw her lips moving, but Emma couldn’t hear anything over the buzzing in her ears. It was the strangest sensation. Her head was filled with static, her fingers and toes felt like they were encased in ice, her cheeks and lips were tingling with pins and needles.

“Ma’am?” The male officer’s voice cut through the other noise. “Mrs. Baker, are you okay? Do we need to call anyone for you?”

Emma shook her head. “I…What – what do I do now?” All the fight had drained out of her and her words came out in a whisper. “What am I supposed to do now?”

Return To Me: Part 1

What was supposed to be a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale last year somehow morphed into a darker Halloween-time ghost story. This is the first installment (it’s a long short story…) and I’ll spread the rest out over the next week or so. I haven’t looked at it in over a year so please forgive any rough edges and I hope you enjoy it!


RETURN TO ME

“Fly me to the moon…”

Her wedding song sung in the sultry voice of Frank Sinatra filled the room as Emma Baker set the dining room table. She tucked a strand of pale blond hair behind her ear, ignoring the tear that made its way down her cheek. Folding the red cloth napkin for the tenth time, she finally laid it on the table, smoothing it into a flawless rectangle before arranging the silverware neatly on top.

Emma turned the salad plate into a different position, trying to find the perfect angle. She turned it. Then turned it again, and again, faster each time, her frustration mounting with every movement. In a sudden swift motion, she snatched the plate off the table and hurled it against the wall. It shattered with a loud and satisfying CRASH and Emma crumbled to the floor, sobbing.

Everything was wrong. She was preparing for a dinner she didn’t want to have with well-meaning people she didn’t feel prepared to deal with. Her husband, Justin, was the one who was good at entertaining. He had a crazy charm about him that instantly put people at ease. Without him here, Emma didn’t think she could face this group. But on the anniversary of his death, Emma was expected to gather his family and friends together to remember him. Her mother and his sister Julie insisted it would be good for her.

But they couldn’t see the gaping, aching chasm in Emma’s chest that had consumed her the moment she learned he was gone.

Emma sniffled and drew in a shuddering breath. When were these crying jags going to stop? It had been a year and she still couldn’t get through a day without crying at least once. Staring at the mess on the floor across the room, Emma sighed. Slowly, she pulled herself up and retrieved the broom and dustpan. She couldn’t leave that mess there. Company would be arriving any minute. Justin would have shaken his head and teased her good-naturedly about her temper.

“Jesus, Emma, what did that plate ever do to you?”

She could hear his deep-throated laugh inside her head and it brought a slight smile to her face. That was one of the things she missed the most. Her husband had an uncanny way of sensing when she was upset or sad and never failed to make her laugh. Sometimes it was through belting out a song in a ridiculous exaggerated voice, pretending to be a horrible opera singer. Other times he would listen to her complaint and then come up with fantastical solutions to her problem that were impossible or impractical – or illegal – but it had always made her feel better.

Emma didn’t think ‘better’ was ever going to be reality for her.

One year before, she had been getting ready for a costume party being held at their neighbor’s house. Justin was on his way home and Emma had laid out his costume before starting on hers. The trickiest part for her was making sure the Bride of Frankenstein wig would stay put. It was so much taller and heavier than she had expected. With a grin, she picked up the giant brick-like shoes Justin would be wearing with his Frankenstein’s Monster costume. She definitely had the better part of this deal.

Using the bright light of the bathroom, Emma started to apply her face makeup. Justin was late getting home, but he didn’t have as much to do to get ready. She started spreading the white base over her face, applying it first to her forehead then spreading down her nose, out to her cheeks and down to her chin. Staring at her reflection, contemplating whether she needed to spread it all the way down her neck, she was startled by a quick succession of text messages on her cell phone. Scrolling through, she saw that they were from several of her neighbors.

Emma, is everything okay?

Is Justin there?

What kind of car does Justin drive?

Emma was about to start replying to the random questions and asking a barrage of her own when her mother’s face popped up on the screen, calling her.

“Hey mom, what’s up?” Emma leaned closer to the mirror to examine her handiwork, trying not to get makeup on the phone.

“Oh, not much,” she replied. “Are you busy? Can you do me a favor really quick?”

Emma smiled. “Sure mom. What do you need?”

“Oh sweetheart, thank you. I am looking for a copy of my dip recipe. Your father and I are going to a Halloween potluck down the street. Can you imagine? We haven’t been out to a costume party in ages.”

Laughing, Emma made her way to the kitchen. “I’ll see if I can find it. What exactly am I looking for?”

“It should be titled ‘Lois May’s Famous Texas Caviar’ or something equally as ridiculous.”

“Good grief,” Emma laughed into the phone. “When have you ever been famous? Especially for some kind of dip?”

“Oh well, you know,” Lois started. “I’m not one to brag, but did I ever tell you about the time…”

Emma sifted through the recipes she kept in a binder while her mom launched into an involved tale of raucous parties and neighborhood housewife rivalries. All the while her phone kept vibrating with incoming text messages. She frowned. Where was that damn recipe? Her mom droned on in her ear, the continual buzzing of the phone started grating on Emma’s nerves, and just as she found the recipe she was searching for, her doorbell rang.

“Now what?” Emma grumbled. “Jesus. Mom? Mom!”

Lois was so caught up in her story she couldn’t hear her daughter trying to get her attention. Everything seemed to be happening at once and Emma was immobilized by indecision for a moment. Shaking her head to clear it, she tucked the recipe under her arm, holding the phone away from her ear, and paced to the front door.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she muttered. It had to be one of her neighbors, overzealous and overexcited about the costume party. Probably Lisa, from next door. She hadn’t gotten a reply to her text yet, so she probably just marched right over. Emma rolled her eyes.

When she reached the door, she threw it wide open. “Lisa, good lord! Can you just give me five – “

The admonition died in her throat as she took in the sight of two uniformed officers standing on her porch. They held their hats in their hands and had considerable trouble maintaining eye contact.

“Mrs. Emma Baker?”

Her mouth was surprisingly dry, so she nodded.

“May we come in?”

The voice in her head screamed NO! but she stepped back and held the door a little wider for them to enter. They stood awkwardly in the entryway until Emma invited them to the living room. Her entire body was suddenly tingling, her nerves alive and ready for a fight. She wasn’t sure why the police were here, but she knew they were about to tell her.

And she knew she absolutely didn’t want to hear it.

Have You Met…Jo McMillen

In a previous post, I asked for advice on deciding which project to focus on for NaNoWriMo and I’m thrilled with my decision. Finishing my work on Bradford Mansion has been a lot of fun so I’d like to introduce you to my heroine!

Have you met…Jo McMillen?

Hilarie Burton is exactly how I picture Jo!

Growing up, Jo found her calling in woodworking and home renovation, but struggled to fit in. None of her girlfriends were interested in getting dirty in wood shop and none of the boys knew how to talk to her, much less date her. Now thirty years old and independent, she’s grown to be a level-headed and stubborn woman who’s fought her way to the top of her industry. So when she comes across a dream opportunity to purchase and restore a local mansion, she doesn’t think twice.

It doesn’t take long for her to realize her rash decision may have been a huge mistake.

Strange things happen on her first night in Bradford Mansion, but she refuses to be scared away. In fact, the bizarre occurrences only make her more determined to stay put. She is forced to confront the mischievous ghost of the estate’s long-dead heir, Nathan Bradford, and the two immediately clash. He can’t reconcile his old-fashioned ideas in her, and she’s done trying to fit anyone’s mold. Both want solitude, both claim ownership of the mansion, but neither will give an inch. Instead, they fall into a rocky friendship that gives them strength to face challenges that could destroy them.

I adore writing this character and putting her in some pretty strange situations. While it sounds insane, I’m always surprised to find out how Jo reacts to the things I throw at her!

Bradford Mansion has been so entertaining to write. I can’t wait to finish this novel so I can share Jo, Nathan, and all the other players with you!

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about this story, feel free to comment below or send me an email.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 35

Showing up at Jamie’s apartment unannounced was maybe not the best plan, but I didn’t want to give him a chance to wiggle out of the plans I had made for us. To my delight, when he opened the door he was wearing his customary Saturday morning attire of a pair of pajamas pants. Only pajama pants.

“Alexis!” His eyes were wide and I don’t think he realized his mouth was hanging open. “Uh, it’s nine o’clock in the morning. Is everything okay?”

I tipped his jaw closed and pressed a kiss to his lips. “Everything is great. Are you in the middle of something?”

He stepped back and waved me into his place. “Nope. Just catching up on the news and downing my third mug of coffee.” Shutting the door, he trailed after me into his kitchen. He kept taking a breath and opening his mouth but shutting it again without saying anything. I figured I’d better put him out of his misery.

“So, I know things have been weird between us since, you know…” I waved a hand in the air. “…everything.”

“It’s not weird, things are fine –“ he tried to interrupt me, but I raised an eyebrow at him and his mouth snapped shut.

“I don’t want things to be weird. I want us to move forward with our life together and to get back to being comfortable and happy and in love.” This was the part that made me a little nervous. I cleared my throat and stared at the counter. “I would like to try to make things good again and I need you to trust me and just come with me, no questions asked. Deal?”

Tilting his head and narrowing his eyes, he crossed his arms. “No questions? Not even one?”

I let out a breath and grinned. “Fine. But just one.”

With a smirk, he asked, “Can I get dressed first?”

#####

I was having a hard time keeping it together as I drove us to our first destination. Jamie kept glancing at me from the corner of his eye, his brow furrowed. I opted to keep my mouth shut on the way because I didn’t want to let anything slip. My plan for the day would, hopefully, melt the ice that remained between us and get us back on track as Jamie and Lex, two people in love.

“Seriously. Where are we going?” Jamie’s curiosity got the better of him as he peered out the window, watching the buildings give way to green fields as I drove us out of the city. “Are you taking me out in the middle of nowhere to bump me off?”

I snorted. I couldn’t help it. “Bump you off? Who are you, Al Capone?”

For the first time in a long time, he leaned back, relaxed, and gave me a true smile. A Jamie smile. And even after all this time it still stirred butterflies in my stomach.

As we pulled into the lot of the vineyard, his eyes lit up. “A wine tasting?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. Once we were standing in the entryway of the villa, I turned to him and took his hands in mine. “I’ve been terrible to you. I pushed you aside and behaved selfishly, I treated you like a second thought, and, worst of all, I made you doubt my love for you.”

I could feel some of the tension drain out of him and he took a step closer to me. That was a good sign.

“To prove to you not only that I love you beyond measure but that I’m ready to start forever with you, I thought we could spend the day looking at possible venues for our wedding.” I hesitated then added, “I mean, if you still want to marry me.”

Jamie stared at me without speaking for so long that my heart sank. I really had ruined everything. My indecisiveness had pushed him away. Jamie was not only questioning my love for him but his for me. There would be no coming back from this. I was too late. With a deep breath, I nodded and turned away to hide the tears that had started to fill my eyes.

In one fluid movement Jamie spun me back around, crushed me to him and pressed his lips to mine. He lifted me off the ground still kissing me and spun me around.

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted from the moment I met you! There’s nothing you could do, Alexis Marie Murray, to make me not want to spend the rest of my life with you.” He rained kisses over my face and hair.

When I caught my breath I gasped, “I love you Jamie Graham, and I never stopped loving you, I hope you know that. I’m so sorry for everything I put you through. Let’s get married. I’m not scared anymore. I want you, for however long you’ll have me.”

We were laughing and kissing and were so lost in our own little world that the events manager of the vineyard had to clear his throat to get our attention. Knowing that he’d been standing there for who knew how long only made us laugh harder and the poor man had to wait for us to compose ourselves. Hand in hand we followed him through the villa and over the grounds to see all the options the vineyard held for us as a wedding venue.

From there, we drove back into the city and visited a gorgeous church with elaborately carved wooden pews and stained-glass windows; an events hall with high ceilings and ornate crystal chandeliers; a country club on the edge of town with a vaulted foyer in a stately manor for the ceremony and a classy banquet hall for the reception. It wasn’t until the final location that I saw Jamie’s eyes light up.

We were standing on the roof of the Envoy Hotel in the center of the city. The sun was setting by the time we got there, and the lights were coming on all around us. We had a breath-taking 360° view all the way to the waving green hills beyond the city limits one way and the towering mountains the other. I strolled up next to him and slid my hand into his.

“So?”

He let out a low whistle and grinned at me. “It’s outstanding, Lex.”

“I can see an evening wedding right here, with the sunset behind us,” I said. “We’ll have the city lights around us and the stars twinkling above us. I can’t imagine a more magical moment.”

Looking at our joined hands, Jamie was quiet. Then a slow grin spread over his features and he pulled me close to press a kiss to my forehead.

“Here’s the thing, Alexis,” he murmured. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this wedding, about marrying you. So many different ideas have run through my head and I’ve envisioned the moment we become husband and wife at each of the venues we’ve seen today. And you know what?”

I wrapped my arms around his waist and tipped my head back to look in his eyes. “Tell me.”

A light breeze blew over us and Jamie smoothed my wayward curls behind my ear. “It doesn’t matter if we get married on this rooftop, or in a cathedral, or on the side of a dirt road. The wedding ceremony is one day in what I know is going to be a long and deliriously happy life. Together. The moment you say ‘I do’ is going to hold all the magic I need to know that wishes really do come true.”

If it was physically possible for my body to melt into the cobblestones of that roof his words in that moment would have sealed my fate. And I would have been fine with it.

“Do you have a dirt road in mind or will any one do?”

I could feel the chuckle in his chest before I heard it. “Smart ass. What I’m saying is why do we need a big, fancy, expensive wedding?”

Pushing off his chest I raised my eyebrows. “Uh, have you met our mothers? They would simultaneously collapse and die if we decided not to go through with a big fancy ceremony. Their very existence hinges on this wedding.”

“I know,” he sighed. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he shrugged and scuffed his shoe on the floor. “It’s just…all I care about is marrying you.” Then his head whipped up and our eyes locked. I could see the wheels turning behind that gaze and a tickle of excitement built in my stomach.

“There’s some trouble brewing in that head of yours and I have never been more turned on,” I told him.

He winked then leaned close until his lips were touching my ear and whispered, “Alexis Murray, run away with me. Tonight.”

“To…?”

His hands spread out in front of him, he smirked. “Vegas? Let’s elope.”

My jaw dropped. “What? We just agreed not having a wedding would literally kill our mothers!”

Jamie waved a hand in the air to dismiss my comment. “They’ll still get their big affair. But we’ll have that moment to ourselves, the moment we truly belong to each other. We won’t have to worry about making every second perfect and can just have fun. What do you think?”

It didn’t take long for me to make a decision. Jamie was my world. Without him, nothing was worth anything. My happily ever after was standing right in front of me and I couldn’t wait to start the rest of my life with him. The corners of my mouth began to curl and we both pulled out our phones as we dashed for the elevator.

“You pick the hotel, I’ll buy our flights,” I said, trying to catch my breath. As the doors closed behind us I grinned up at Jamie. “By this time tomorrow, Elvis will be pronouncing us husband and wife and then you’re stuck with me.”

His face softened and he pressed a sweet, lingering kiss to my lips. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 34

I had no idea how much I’d disrupted my life until the pieces started to fall  back into place.

Putting it all together again wasn’t easy. It wasn’t as though I walked away from my dinner with Chris and back into the life I lived before I crawled out that boutique window. I had a lot of bridges to rebuild with Jamie and his family, not to mention with my own.

His brother was just relieved that Kelly and I had reconnected and that Jamie wasn’t moping around anymore. But our mothers were another story. Mine had a few choice words for me and lots of finger-wagging.

“Finally!” She threw her hands in the air. “You’re damn lucky Jamie waited for you to get over yourself and come to your senses. Most men would have washed their hands of that ridiculousness.”

We were making dinner at my parents’ house again and, unfortunately, the air wasn’t any less charged than it had been the last time I’d been there.

“You’re right. Jamie is extraordinary and I’m very lucky to have him,” I said, popping a slice of green pepper into my mouth. “I am a horrible human and barely deserve to breathe the same air he does.”

Rolling her eyes, my mom turned to me with her hand on her hip. “Very funny, Miss Smartypants.” My sisters and I smirked at each other over her head.

“Seriously, mom, he loves her. He wouldn’t just walk away at the first little hiccup, would he?” Maggie walked by and squeezed my shoulder. “What kind of marriage would that be if he wasn’t able to handle just one of the Murray sisters?”

Lisa and I snorted but my mom yelled to the living room, “Jim! Will you come in here and control your daughters?”

Her request was met with a loud guffaw over the sound of the television. “Judy, Judy, Judy. I know a fool’s errand when I hear one.”

Lisa put an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. “How are you holding up, Lex? I know this has been hard on you, too,” she whispered. Mom had moved out of the kitchen to berate dad for a little bit, but Lisa sure didn’t want to get that wrath directed toward her.

“I’m okay,” I sighed. “It’s all been a series of awkward moments between us for the last couple weeks. Nothing has gone right. There have been far too many times that I tried to hug him or he tried to kiss me and the other person wasn’t ready or expecting it and things have just been…bad.”

Bad was an understatement.

I had talked to Chris and things between us were good. I wasn’t feeling the pull toward him like I had before. Temporary insanity and all that. Jamie and I had made plans to spend a romantic night together. I was looking forward to it, actually feeling nervous and excited, and I was up as soon as the sun peeked through the curtains.

Spending a little extra time to wash and shave and moisturize and whatnot, I imagined how perfect things were going to be now. In my mind, Jamie would come pick me up in a limousine, carrying a dozen red roses, and he’d whisk me away for a romantic rooftop dinner with a string quartet to serenade us all night. We would dance and drink champagne and whisper sweet nothings to each other before spending a wild. passionate night together and all would be right with the world again.

Instead, I shaved off the front of my shin, stabbed myself in the eye with my mascara wand, Jamie was late picking me up and had to move work papers from the front seat to the back to make room for me. We drove through nightmare traffic to a popular restaurant on the other side of town where our reservation had been lost and we sat for over an hour while they found a spot for us. I burned my mouth on the hot lasagna, Jamie dribbled soup down the front of himself, there was a screaming baby at the table next to us, and conversation was stilted and awkward. I nearly ran for the exit when dinner was over.

Trying to find a calm little bar where we could sit and unwind proved to be a bit more difficult than either of us had imagined. Everywhere we tried was standing room only, it was trivia night, the music was too loud, or it was wall-to-wall people and neither of us was up for the crowds. He finally drove me home and walked me up to my door.  The butterflies started in my stomach in anticipation of him coming in and kissing me until I was dizzy. But under the lights of the front door that were swarming with moths and other insects, he kissed my cheek and told me he’d call me then he drove away.

Maggie had joined me and Lisa, huddled around the kitchen island, and she grimaced. “Yikes.”

“Yikes is right,” I said. “That was two nights ago and we’ve barely spoken. He’s sending single-word replies to my texts and he doesn’t laugh at my jokes and I have to pull conversation out of him. Things are so weird right now. I think I screwed up everything.”

“You probably did,” Judy snapped, walking around us with her nose in the air. “After the way you treated him, he’s probably rethinking his proposal.”

Maggie and Lisa gasped.

“Jesus, Mom,” Lisa chided. “Harsh, much?”

I must have looked pretty damn forlorn because my mom took one glance at me and her whole demeanor changed. She walked over and wrapped her arms around me, patting my back.

“I’m sorry, sweetheart. That was uncalled for.” She gave me a quick squeeze and a peck on the cheek. “What are you going to do to fix things?”

Dropping my elbows to the counter and burying my face in my hands, I groaned. “I have no idea.”

“You need some kind of big, romantic gesture to show that you are still completely in for this wedding.” Maggie began to pace the kitchen, tapping a finger against her chin. “What can you do to prove that your feelings haven’t changed? A barbershop quartet? Sky writing? A tattoo?”

We all glared at Maggie like she had suggested wearing carp on our heads, but she was oblivious that her suggestions were a tad extreme. But watching her brainstorm, a slow smile spread across my face.

It was in that moment that I knew exactly how I was going to win back my fiancé.

romance story, romantic serial, short story chapters, sharon clark, Sharon L. Clark Author

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

Same restaurant, same table, very different nerves. I was waiting for Chris, the same as I had what felt like forever ago. Last time, however, I was nervous with excitement and anticipation. I had been so looking forward to talking to him and getting to know him again.

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

I wasn’t sure if Chris knew what was coming. I didn’t know how he was going to react. Or how I was going to react, for that matter. Jamie was my future, I was absolutely certain about that, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to break my own heart.

My stomach was in knots and the number of times I contemplated checking the size of the window in the bathroom – just in case – was astronomical. With a snort I realized I hadn’t tried to run away for quite a while. A little personal growth, perhaps?

Yeah, doubtful.

Chris’s pickup pulled in and I seriously thought I was going to throw up. Watching him get out of the truck and stand there, still holding the handle, told me all I needed to know. It seemed he had a pretty good idea why we were here. He stared at his feet, spinning his keys around the middle finger of one hand, gripping the car door like it was his bathroom escape route. After an eternity, he pocketed his keys, scrubbed a hand over his hair and walked into the restaurant.

I stood and tried to smile as he approached. It must have been a frightening expression that was less inviting than it was horror story because his feet stuttered and I thought he was going to turn around. Instead, he grinned at me without the smile reaching his eyes. He pulled me in for a hug and kissed my cheek, exactly the way he had at our first meeting and my stomach dropped. This was going to suck.

“You look great, Lexi,” he said, holding my chair out for me before taking his own seat. He fiddled with his silverware and only glanced up now and then without making any kind of eye contact. “Do you want to actually order food, or just rip the bandage off?”

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

He shrugged and locked eyes with me. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this at some point. Even when we were together you weren’t really with me.”

The tears started to well up and I shook my head. “Chris, you don’t deserve this. I am a horrible human being and I am so, so sorry.”

Grabbing my hand across the table, he leaned forward. “I’m not. Not for one second.” He twined his fingers through mine and lifted our hands to kiss my knuckles. “Lexi, this time with you has been amazing. It’s nothing I was looking for, but something I see now that I really needed. Did you know that I hadn’t been on a date in a year before you called me?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that. But it’s got to be hard to meet people, much less go on dates, when you’ve got a kid.”

Before I had even finished my thought, Chris was shaking his head. “It wasn’t that at all. I’m not sure I know what it truly was, but I kind of think it was fear.” Rubbing his thumb over my knuckles, he stared at our joined hands. As though he’d been burned, though, he released my hand and sat back, crossing his arms. It felt terrible, like the closeness between us had been a dream.

“What could you possibly be afraid of that would keep you from dating? I don’t know why the ladies aren’t falling all over themselves to get to you! You’re sweet. You’re funny, and adorable. You’re an amazing father and a devoted and protective friend. What are you afraid of?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I can explain it. After since Angie and I split up, I’ve done nothing but work, sleep, and spend time with my son. Period. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I know all the people in my life and they know everything about me and love me anyway. The idea of getting to know someone again – of putting myself out there to be accepted or rejected – makes me want to barf.”

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and Chris was about to wave him away when I cleared my throat. “Actually, can we get some chips and queso and a couple of menus, please?” Chris raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned. “What? I’m hungry.”

He laughed at me and sat back in his seat, looking relaxed for the first time that night. “Yeah, okay, so am I. I’ve been too nervous all day to eat anything. I knew why you asked me here but I was still hoping I was wrong.”

“Chris…” But he held up a hand and leaned in.

“No, it’s fine. On the drive here I really thought about it. I said I was scared to let anyone else in, to open myself up again. But this time with you…well, it’s given me some faith in myself again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, chewing his lip. “How do I explain it? I guess that spending time with you made me realize how much I miss having someone in my life who looks at me the way you did. I want to have someone I can be number one for, a best friend and partner in crime. It’s not you, unfortunately, but I know that I’m ready to look for her. So I suppose I should be thanking you.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“For dragging you into my psychotic break? For leading you to believe that we had a future?” I could feel the tears threatening again. “Don’t you think I was unfair to you, maybe even using you?”

“Were you?”

“No! I don’t know, maybe.” I sniffled and stared at my hands in my lap.

“Can you use the willing? No one got hurt here.” He leaned forward and lifted my chin. “Besides, Lexi, I was happy to be your tool.”

We burst into laughter and when our eyes met, I knew we would be okay.

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