Category: Stories & Excerpts Page 2 of 6

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.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 32

My palms were sweaty and my heart was racing as I approached Kelly’s door. I had been a terrible friend. Jamie was right; I’d been so self-absorbed that I didn’t know anything about what was going on in Kelly’s life, even as she was working behind the scenes to help fix mine. Throw in the fact that I’d jumped to the conclusion that she was sleeping with Jamie and there was no mistaking it: I was the worst.

Before I could knock on the door it flew open and I was nearly knocked down by Jamie’s brother, Chad.

“Alexis!” He grabbed my shoulders to steady me, his eyes wide and his mouth open. Once we had both recovered from the shock, he pulled me in for a quick hug. “It’s good to see you. I, uh, better get going so you two can talk.”

He skipped down the stairs, calling over his shoulder, “Go on in. Kel’s in the kitchen.”

Feeling like I was headed to my executioner, I trudged into the house, closing the door behind me. When I reached the kitchen, Kelly was leaning against the counter, a mug of coffee in her hands and another sitting next to her. She looked up when I came in and flashed me a big smile.

“Hey,” I said as I fidgeted in the doorway. It was kind of hard for me to look her in the eye. I didn’t think she knew what I had thought about her and Jamie, but I did and that was bad enough.

She set her mug on the counter and flew across the floor to me, hugging me tight. “Lex! It’s so good to see you! I missed you.”

Returning her hug, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t deserve her. “I missed you, too, Kel. And I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” She let go of me and brought me the other cup of coffee, indicating for me to take a stool at the counter. “I can’t think of anything for you to be sorry about.”

I sipped my coffee and watched her. She was smiling, she seemed genuinely happy to see me, but there was something…else. Something hidden just below the surface. Her smile was a little too big, the lilt in her voice a little too peppy. I felt like I was talking to a Stepford Wife.

“Come on, Kelly, I know that’s not true. I’ve been a rotten friend. I haven’t been around. I didn’t even know about you and Chad until Jamie told me – today! Trust me, there’s plenty for you to be mad about.”

Her smile faltered a bit, but she shrugged and waved me off. “Don’t be silly. Why would you know about Chad when I didn’t tell you about him? I’m the one who should be apologizing.”

Yeah, this was all wrong. I didn’t know who this was in front of me, but it sure wasn’t my best friend. Kelly had never been one to be too accommodating. If she thought you were being an asshole she’d tell you she thought you were being an asshole. The way she was taking the blame for this was making my skin crawl. I set the mug down harder than I intended and stared at her.

“What the hell, Kelly? Knock it off. I know you’re pissed at me – hell, I’m pissed at me! But we can’t get past this is you won’t talk to me.”

She held my gaze for another minute, keeping very still, then her shoulders slumped and the pleasant expression dropped from her face. “You’re right. I’m pissed. I’m pissed at you, at Jamie, at Chris – hell at this whole screwed up mess!”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching across the counter to grab her hand. But Kelly yanked her hand out of reach and jumped up from the stool.

Rubbing her hands over her face, she started pacing the white tile of the kitchen. “I have seen you do some stupid things, Lex. You are my best friend and I love you, but this latest bullshit has really been a challenge for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I have tried really hard to be supportive and understanding and to just let you figure your shit out on your own. But Jesus Christ, Alexis! You are being a complete and utter moron!” Kelly stopped suddenly and covered her face with her hands.

The tears started to build and I blinked fast to try to keep them away. “Kelly, I-“

She turned and pointed a finger at me, scowling. “No. Lex, no. I am talking right now. Just-just let me say what I need to say.”

Clamping my lips shut and folding my hands in my lap, I nodded and waited. She deflated a bit and sighed.

“Sorry. That was uncalled for. But please, let me explain why I think you’re a moron.” Our eyes locked and we both tried to suppress a smirk. Kelly snorted and sat down across from me again. “Okay. I’ve gone over this conversation in my head a million times and, now that I have the chance to let you have it, I can’t think of a single word of what I wanted to say.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Kelly took my hand and started fiddling with the engagement ring I still wore every day. “Jamie is amazing. Can we agree on that?” When I nodded, she continued. “Lex, everyone – and I mean everyone – dreams about finding the perfect partner. Someone who knows all their flaws and neuroses and doesn’t love that person in spite of them, but because of them. You and I both know that is Jamie, inside and out.”

Chuckling, she shrugged. “I mean, he’s not my type, of course. He’s far too sweet and I need a little spice and fire, ya know? With Chad, it’s like he knows exactly how to get me mad and push me just far enough to make things hot, and then-”

She stopped abruptly, her cheeks red. “Sorry. Different conversation. But seriously…it’s like Jamie was custom-made for you. He’s kind and patient. Jamie is funny and smart and just dorky enough to be adorable.”

We both laughed at that. He was a movie nerd and was part of a few fandoms. I had been dragged along to a few ComiCons and, even if they hadn’t been a blast for me, too, his enthusiasm alone would have made it fun.

She cocked her head and frowned. “What are you doing, Lex? I don’t understand what would have ever made you think this marriage wouldn’t last. If anyone in the entire world had ‘happily-ever-after’ written all over them, it’s you and Jamie. This trip down Memory Lane is pointless. Your future is not with Brian or any of the other exes. And, I’m sorry, but it is not with Chris, either.”

I pulled my hand out of hers and stared at my lap. My feelings for Chris were so complicated it made my stomach hurt just to think about him. He deserved to be happy and the way I was dragging him around behind me was unfair and, to be honest, cruel.

Kelly seemed to sense that I was still conflicted about Chris and she sucked in a deep breath. “Look. I totally get that Chris is fantastic. He is a great guy, a good dad, seems to still care about you after all this time. But-“ she held up a finger and raised her eyebrows. “But he is your past, kiddo. He can’t be your future.”

Nodding, I couldn’t stop the tears this time. I knew she was right.

She pulled me up off the stool and into a hug. “Chris is a great guy. But you’re trying to recapture something that you used to have, that isn’t right for you. Not anymore. The two of you are very different people now. I’m sure there will always be an affection between you, but it isn’t anything more than that.” She grasped my shoulders and pushed me away to look me in the eye. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” I sniffled. Kelly handed me a box of tissues and squeezed my shoulder.

“Do you still love Jamie?”

I gaped at the question. “Yes! I love him and I miss him and I’ve been such a bitch and a crazy person and I don’t deserve him.”

Shrugging, Kelly sipped her coffee. “You’re not wrong.” But she winked at me over the top of her mug.

Taking my cup out of my hands, she pulled me to my feet and guided me toward the front door. “Look, I’m sure you two have a lot of things to talk about and a lot of amazing make-up sex to get to, so get out of here and un-postpone your damn wedding.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 31

The color drained from Jamie’s face which was not a good sign. He launched out of his seat and started pacing, rubbing his chin, one hand on his hip. I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to like what I was about to hear.

He finally stopped and faced me. “Okay, you’re right. You definitely deserve an explanation.”

“The truth, Jamie. I deserve the truth,” I corrected. “Please don’t try to spare my feelings. I need to know what’s happening between you two, how things started, and what it all means for the future – for our future.”

My stomach was knotted and my throat was tight. Anxiety wrapped itself around me as I imagined all the things he might say: He and Kelly had been sleeping together for years, or he was really in love with her and didn’t know how to call it off, or that it was Kelly and always Kelly that he’d wanted to be with and only had the opportunity once I’d postponed the wedding.

I was ready for anything he had to say.

“Kelly’s dating my brother.”

Except for that.

“What? Chad? Kelly’s dating Chad?” When he nodded, I rubbed my forehead. “How did I not know that?”

He threw his hands in the air. “You’ve been a little self-absorbed recently, Lex. They’ve been seeing each other for a couple months now. I probably see Kelly more often than you do, these days.”

I felt sick. While hearing that Jamie and Kelly were romantically involved would have been painful, knowing that I had failed my best friend was like a knife to the gut. Throw in the fact that I had suspected the two people I loved most were sneaking around behind my back and I would have been happy to be swallowed by the earth at that exact moment.

“With everything that’s been going on in your life, she’s been missing you, just like I have. She and Chad started inviting me over for dinners or along to baseball games or farmers markets.” He raked his fingers through his hair then spread both hands out in front of him. “We felt like we had both lost you and no one but the two of us could understand how we were feeling. She and Chad are crazy about each other but she and I have a connection they never will: you.”

Jamie knelt in front of me and took my hands in his. “Alexis, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be an asshole here. But you haven’t really been present. Kelly has been trying to support you, to be there for you. She doesn’t feel right talking about her relationship with Chad when you’re confused and hurting.”

There was no way I could look at Jamie so I stared at our hands in my lap. When the first tear plopped into my lap, he cupped my cheek and swiped the next one away with his thumb. That small gesture of kindness pushed my guilt over the edge and I buried my face in my hands and sobbed. He tried to wrap his arms around me but I stood and pushed roughly past him.

“How can you try to comfort me? I deserve to feel every ounce of guilt and pain. I’m so ashamed. How could I be so selfish?” I finally looked up at Jamie to find concern lining his face as he watched me. “And you…” I gulped. “I don’t understand how you’re still here, how you haven’t washed your hands of this whole nightmare!”

He frowned and flew across the room to me, grasping my upper arms and pulling me close. “How can you even say that? For being so smart, you really can be stupid sometimes, Alexis!”

Releasing his grip, he pulled me into his arms, the rough stubble of his chin pressed against my cheek. His voice was soft and full of pain when he said, “I am here – and I will always be here – because I love you, Alexis. My world was dark and cold before I met you. I had no direction, no joy in my life before you.”

I clung to him, bunching his shirt in my fists and trying to press myself closer to him. But he pulled back and smoothed my curls from my forehead, framing my face in both hands. A small smile curved his lips.

“I’ve never told you this…I’ve never told anyone this, not even Chad. But I was in a very dark place the night we met. I felt helpless, hopeless, floundering in an ocean of despair and going under quickly.”

My eyes wide, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Oh, Jamie.” He waved me off.

“I hadn’t made a plan, I wasn’t committed to doing anything, but I sure didn’t see any future for myself. Until you. I saw that smile, got a glimpsse of your enormous humor and heart, and for the first time in a long time I saw beauty in the world. That night I met you, at the karaoke bar, was the night my life truly started.”

Searching his face, it was like I was seeing him – really seeing him – for the first time. “I had no idea. Jamie, I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugged. “It wasn’t important. That wasn’t me anymore. Everything had changed and I didn’t want my past to be part of our future.”

“I can’t believe what I’ve put you through,” I murmured, pressing my face into his shoulder to hide the fresh wave of shame trying to drown me. “If I had known…”

Extracting himself from my embrace, he held me at arms’ length and cocked his head. “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel bad or obligated. That’s the last thing I want! I’d never want you to be with me because you felt like you had to be.” He dropped his hands and took a step backwards. “Please don’t think I’m going to backslide or fall apart if you decide not to be with me. It will hurt, a lot, but that’s kind of what I’m trying to tell you. The world is a different place to me now. Knowing you, loving you, has shown me there is endless possibility and hope all around us. You saved my life, even if you choose not to be in it anymore.”

Words wouldn’t come to me. I had never heard anything so heartfelt and honest in my life. In the years we’d been together we’d shared nearly everything and I had always felt closer to Jamie than to anyone else. But the raw emotion in his words made me realize there was still so much more to learn, so much I wanted to discover about him and my heart swelled with affection. I stepped closer, reaching for him, wanting to feel his arms around me and to press my lips to his.

He held out his hands and moved out of reach. “Hold on, Lex,” he said. I blinked. “Don’t you think there’s someone else you need to make things right with, first?”

My cheeks flushed and I nodded.

Jamie kissed my forehead and whispered in my ear, “Call me when you’re done.” Then he handed me my phone, the call already ringing into Kelly’s line.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 29

I placed a hand on Chris’s chest to hold him at the door and then turned so I could also see Jamie in the living room behind me.

How had my life gotten so complicated?

“Now, hold on a second,” I began. Before I could launch into a speech about all of us being adults and how we should take a deep breath and just talk, both Jamie and Chris pointed an accusing finger at each other.

“What’s HE doing here?” they both shouted.

I pushed Chris out into the hallway. “You: go outside! We need to talk.” He tried to protest, but the look on my face must have promised danger because he went without another word.

I spun around and pointed at a smug-looking Jamie. “And you,” I snarled. “Are not off the hook. I expect you to be exactly in that spot when I get back!”

At least he had the common sense to look ashamed of himself as I left, slamming the door behind me. I stomped outside to deal with the first crisis.

Chris was pacing on the sidewalk, chewing his lip with his hands deep in his pockets. He seemed to relax as soon as he saw me and stepped up wearing an enormous smile. “Lexi!”

“What are you doing here, Chris?”

He frowned for a second. “I told you – I was worried. You sounded like you might be in trouble.” Dipping his head to get a better look at my face, he asked, “Are you in trouble?”

Suddenly all my anger drained away and I was exhausted. “No. Maybe. I don’t know, Chris.” I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to regain control of my whirling emotions.

“Are you and Jamie fighting?”

I nodded.

“Is it bad?”

I shrugged. “It’s all gotten completely out of hand. None of this was supposed to happen!” Running my hands through my hair, I paced along the sidewalk. “I mean, I know I cheated first, but god, this is all wrong!”

Chris grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. “Whoa, whoa. There are a couple things I need you to clarify in that last sentence. You cheated on Jamie? When? And with who?”

I gaped at him. “Chris, it was with you. We kissed? You were there.”

He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh my god, I thought you actually slept with someone.”

“It shouldn’t have happened.” I felt the tears coming and closed my eyes again to keep them at bay. “If it wasn’t cheating, then what was it?”

“Lexi, it was a moment, that’s all.” Cupping my cheek, Chris wiped an escaped tear with his thumb. “It was a moment of powerful emotions. Of nostalgia and confusion, loneliness and affection. It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

“Saying the right thing! Saying the exactly perfect thing that I need to hear that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! I need you to be an asshole and you are failing abysmally.”

Laughing, Chris opened his arms. I only hesitated a second before wrapping my arms around his waist and laying my cheek on his chest. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head and it was nicer than I wanted to admit.

Maybe I could just stay out here for the rest of the day – or forever – letting Chris take care of me while he said sweet things to me. Jamie could have my apartment if I didn’t have to go back in there and face him.

His hand stopped moving and he froze.

“What?” I asked.

Holding me at arm’s length, his eyes narrowed, he said, “Hold on. You said you cheated ‘first’. For you to be first there had to be someone second. What did he do, Lexi?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” I backed out of Chris’s reach. “I’m not sure if he did anything, we didn’t have a chance to get into it before you showed up. But…” I bit my lip and stared at my feet.

“That bastard,” he snarled. “Who is she? That tramp he brought to the art show?”

Without looking up, I shook my head. How could I explain my suspicions to him when I couldn’t wrap my own head around it? Gravity seemed to be pulling my tears from my eyes against my will. Chris saw the first one plop on the ground, and I could hear him grumbling under his breath.

“Alexis, was it someone you know?”

I nodded and swiped at my eyes. “I­…I think it was Kelly.”

“WHAT?!”

Chris yelled so loud he rousted some birds from a tree near the parking lot and definitely got my attention. His hands clenched and unclenched, his face turning red.

“He’s lying,” he said. “There’s no way Kelly would do that to you. He’s trying to make you feel bad – feel worse than you already do – by saying you drove him to cheat because he thinks YOU cheated! What a rat.”

Standing with my arms limp at my sides, I waited for Chris to stop his tirade. I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. Hell, I didn’t think I had the energy to go back upstairs and deal with Jamie, either. My eyes followed the path of the sidewalk, wondering where it would take me, how far away it went, and if I could outrun Chris if I got a jump on him.

He noticed that I wasn’t seething with him, and he slowed his frantic pacing until he was directly in front of me.

“Lexi? Are you okay?” He stroked my arm and took my hand, stepping close and lacing his fingers with mine. “I’m an asshole. You’ve got so much on your shoulders you don’t need me freaking out, too. I shouldn’t have yelled. Sorry.”

I wanted to be mad. I wanted to shove him or punch him in the stomach or yell at him. But I looked up at his sweet eyes and his sad smile and I just couldn’t. Instead, I kissed his cheek and grinned.

“You’re pretty wonderful, you know that? But Chris, this,” I held up our joined hands. “This has to stop.” My heart broke at the expression on his face as he disentangled our hands. His shoulders hunched and he stared at his shuffling feet, burying his fists deep in his pockets. “For now. I need it to slow down for now, while I figure out what the hell I’m doing. And what I want.”

He nodded. “You know I don’t want to push you. I want you to be happy, whatever that looks like. Even if it’s not with me.”

Before I could say anything else, he turned with a small wave and walked away.

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