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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 27

Needless to say, Kelly and I didn’t stick around for the whole weekend. I was incapable of carrying on conversation and I wasn’t about to subject Kel to that kind of crap for 48 hours. So she drove us home.

The convertible top stayed up this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” I snapped. I realized how shitty I sounded as soon as it came out of my mouth. Kelly didn’t deserve that. “Sorry.”

Staring out the window, I had never felt so low. Normal people didn’t behave like this. Nothing made any sense to me anymore and I didn’t know what to do to make it better.

“God, I’ve made such a mess out of everything. This isn’t what I wanted.”

She didn’t look at me, but I caught a little side-eye before Kelly responded. “Isn’t it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. Forget I said anything.”

Under no circumstance was I going to let that go. “Nope. Talk.”

There was a long pause before she answered. “Maybe deep down you wanted to break things off with Jamie but were too afraid to.” She shrugged.

“Are you suggesting that there’s some subconscious ulterior motive behind all of this?”

Kelly rolled her eyes. “Maybe. What do I know? I’m no head-shrinker. I just think…I don’t know.”

Wondering if she could feel the anger rolling off me, I faced her. “No, please, continue. Why would I do something like that?”

We pulled up to a red light and Kelly finally looked at me. “Jamie is a great guy. Maybe you don’t think you deserve him. Or you’re so afraid he’s going to leave that you’re making him leave.”

The light changed and her attention returned to the street. “Or maybe you really want to be with Chris.”

There wasn’t a quick response to that. I started gnawing on a fingernail, a nervous habit I’d fallen back into recently. My anger drained away, but it was replaced with a burst of panic. Could she be right?

I stared out the window at the passing scenery, not seeing any of it. Partially because I was preoccupied with the ideas Kelly had presented – and partially because of the tears in my eyes.

What was supposed to be a relaxing, four-day weekend ended up being a very uncomfortable Friday night crying in a B&B. Kelly dropped me off after the deep-dive conversation on the drive home Saturday morning and I promptly went back to bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, not quite sleeping but not fully conscious, either.

There was a lot of emotional self-flagellation. I was a horrible human being. Nothing would ever be good again. Everything was ruined and everyone hated me. The hole I had buried myself in was so deep I couldn’t think of how to dig myself out. There was no universe in which Jamie would still want to marry me.

So where did that leave me?

Late in the afternoon I hauled my sorry carcass from the bedroom to the couch so I could gorge myself on trashy television. It was imperative that I find others whose live were worse than mine, if they existed. I was only two episodes into some show where were into fake online relationships when I got a text from Chris.

I groaned.

Hey! What’re you up to?

Staring at the phone, I wondered if he’d notice if I simply didn’t respond.

What do you say to mini golf and pizza?

“Damn it, Chris,” I cursed him.

I finally typed out a reply: I don’t think that’s a good idea.

He didn’t answer right away, and I thought maybe he got the hint. Or that I hurt his feelings.

Instead, he called me.

“Chris, what are you doing? This can’t happen.” I didn’t even say hello, just launched into rebuffing him. My tone must have come across as bad as I felt.

“Hey, are you okay? You don’t sound so good.”

“Gee thanks.”

He chuckled and I heard him shift the phone. “Listen, I know I said I wouldn’t push, but I’d really like to get together. It doesn’t have to be anything – we can go grocery shopping if that’s all you can do. I just…” He took a deep breath and continued, “Can I see you?”

Tremendously bad idea. In my state of mind, lost and guilty and vulnerable, I felt like I had nothing to lose at this point. That meant I was capable of making some appalling decisions that would only send me spiraling deeper into a hole of self-loathing. I had been there once in the past and I didn’t know if I could claw my way out of there again. But before I could answer, there was a knock at my door. I told Chris to hold on and checked the peep hole.

Jamie was in the hallway.

“Shit.”

Both Chris and Jamie heard my expletive.

“Alexis? Can we talk?” Jamie called from the other side of the door.

I heard Chris through the phone asking, “Lexi? What’s wrong?”

Making a quick decision, I hissed into the phone, “Everything’s fine, I have to go!” I ended the call and ran my fingers through my hair the best I could, knowing my curls were likely twisted and terrifying. There was no point in looking in the mirror first – I could imagine how gross I looked. Jamie already knew I was home so hiding was no longer an option. Best to just get the official break-up over so I could mourn it and return to hating myself in solitude.

Taking a deep breath, I opened the door a little and was surprised by how disheveled Jamie looked. Normally so very put-together with perfectly coiffed hair and a close shave, he looked like he hadn’t slept or seen a mirror recently, either. His hands were jammed deep in his pockets and he looked miserable.

And I was the reason.

“Hey. Can I come in?”

My throat closed up, threatening to unleash an ocean of tears, so I just nodded and pulled the door open farther. Once inside, he looked around and I caught a slight grin.

“What the hell are you watching?”

I snatched up the remote and clicked the tv off, blushing. “Shut up.”

He chuckled and turned to face me. There was so much pain and sadness in his eyes I wanted to gather him in my arms and make it all go away. But I was the reason it was there so how, exactly, would that work? We stood awkwardly glancing at each other and fidgeting. I finally pointed to one of the chairs.

“Can I make you some coffee or something?” He shook his head and sat, clasping his hands in front of him. I lowered myself to the edge of the couch and waited.

Jamie cleared his throat and said to the floor, “Alexis, you know I’d never want to hurt you.”

My stomach clenched and I seriously thought I was going to vomit. This was it.

“Normally, that is. In our normal life together, I would never want to hurt you.” He looked up then with fire in his eyes. “But yesterday, that was exactly what I wanted more than anything.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 26

Kelly pulled on my arm, trying to move me from the sidewalk. “Lex, don’t do this. We should go sit and calm down before either of you does something you can’t take back.”

Without looking at her, I yanked my arm free. The woman with him – well, I say ‘woman’ but she looked about 18 – was slender and tall. She had a neat, bright red pixie cut and a cute upturned nose. As they walked, she gazed at him with shining eyes and a wide smile. One he was returning with just as much adoration.

I wanted to get closer so I could examine them more thoroughly, but Kelly stepped in front of me, trying to break my line of sight.

“Seriously, we need to go.”

I pushed her out of my way and watched Jamie and this girl walk from stall to stall. He had an arm slung around her shoulders, their fingers intertwined. They looked very comfortable. Very cozy. Enamored of each other.

No one else noticed the sudden thickening of the air around us, but my chest felt heavy and it was hard to draw a full breath. My eyes were locked on them with laser focus and I didn’t think I could look away now, even if I wanted to. The girl glanced up and saw me. There must have been something alarming about the way I looked because she nudged Jamie and pointed at me.

When our eyes met, I could see the blood drain from his face. He’d been caught. He knew it. I knew it. He untangled himself from his companion and walked toward me without a second glance at her. As he drew closer, Kelly blocked him.

“You better turn around and walk the other way, jack,” she snarled. “This is some kind of bullshit, you know that?”

Jamie didn’t even acknowledge Kelly’s existence. “Alexis. Let me explain.”

Behind him, Red hadn’t moved. The look on her face was one of absolute confusion, like she was questioning the validity of the universe in general. I stared at Jamie. Everything inside me had turned to ice and I felt…honestly, I felt nothing.

“It’s okay, Kel. I’ll talk to him.” Without checking to see if he was following, I turned and marched to the last coffee shop we had passed. The little bell over the door jingled when I entered, and I ordered two coffees. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard the bell again and knew it was him, I didn’t even have to look. I chose a table in the corner where I could see the door. He sat across from me and I sipped my coffee, strangely still and calm.

Jamie started playing with the coffee sleeve. Up. Down. Twist, twist.

I didn’t say anything, waiting for him to explain. It was bizarre that I wasn’t freaking out. That was my thing. I freaked out about inconsequential stuff all the time and this situation was a real doozy. I should have been a quivering mess, sobbing and snotty, barely functioning. Instead, I was relaxed.

I think that was terrifying to him.

“Lex, this isn’t anything,” he began. “I’m here as a favor. Brenda and I work together, and she wanted to come to this but didn’t want to come alone. Her boyfriend just broke up with her and all of her friends were busy. It’s perfectly innocent.”

Over his shoulder I saw Kelly peering in the window at us. She was scowling, her hands cupped around her eyes, and completely ignoring Brenda chattering away next to her. I smirked at the ridiculous sight and Jamie took that as a sign of my forgiveness or understanding or something. His shoulders released and his whole posture radiated relief. I snapped my eyes back to him, the smile gone.

“I don’t know that I care why you’re here with her. She looks like a child, by the way.”

His cheeks turned pink and he resumed the dance of the coffee sleeve. Up. Down. Twist, twist.

“She’s twenty,” he offered. As though that made things better. “Look, you walked away, Alexis. Not me. It’s been weeks without a word, and-“

“You told me not to call you.”

He gaped at me. “Yeah, not until you were ready to get married!” Jamie ran his hands through his hair and stared at the ceiling. “I don’t want to be your plaything, Lex. I love you and I want to marry you. But I won’t be your booty call.”

That made me snort. I was fairly certain those words had never come out of his mouth. Ever. But my laughter didn’t go over well with him. He crossed his arms and glared at me while I tried to figure out what to say.

“I didn’t walk away, Jamie. I asked for time – and I thought you said you’d give it to me.” I pointed at Brenda, chewing her fingernails just inside the door. “Has that changed?”

His glare turned into a sneer and he leaned across the table, keeping his voice low. “What about you, Lex? Has it changed for you? Spending time with every guy you’ve ever loved – except me. What am I supposed to think?”

Now I was getting angry. The cold calm inside me started to smolder and I matched his posture. “You’re supposed to think that I need some time, Jamie! You’re supposed to think that I’m confused and scared and a little lost, that’s what! Instead, you’re weekending with Tinkerbell over there. I may have kissed Chris but at least I’m not slipping away to bang him in a B&B!”

Jamie reeled back like I’d slapped him. At first I thought he was just shocked at my rage, and then the words replayed in my head.

Oh shit.

Now it was his turn to play out the iceberg routine. All emotion slid off his face and his eyes glazed over. He was done with this conversation.

“God, Jamie – it was just a kiss. We got together for a few drinks. I was feeling sad and it just…happened. There was nothing to it.”

His hands were in his lap and he was looking right through me. “You met with him more than once, huh? How many times, Lex? Are you dating him now?”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

“Oh, I’m the asshole, huh? You lose your shit, accusing me of sleeping with Brenda, then tell me you kissed another man and I’M the asshole?” He shook his head and got up from the table. Halfway to Brenda at the door, he spun around and stared at me. “I don’t think you’re ready to get married. Not to me, anyway. Maybe it’s a good thing you called off the wedding.”

He grabbed Brenda’s hand and dragged her behind him up the sidewalk. Kelly rushed to the table and put her hand on my shoulder. It wasn’t until Jamie was completely out of sight that the tears started.

“Postponed,” I whispered.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 25

Kelly had a sleek red convertible because, well, of course she did. She bought it for herself as a high school graduation present and this little baby had seen most of our shenanigans through the years. My curls were being whipped into a knotted mess which was the opposite of what I was normally okay with. But that day, flying down the highway with my best friend, it was freeing.

We were singing along to our favorite nostalgic songs, loud and off-key and rarely with the right lyrics. It wouldn’t solve all my problems, but Kelly was whisking me away for a long weekend at an art festival a few hours out of town. She’d used this approach in the past and it usually worked. It became her mission to keep my mind off the issue at hand until I was able to look at it rationally. Knowing my propensity for overthinking everything until I became frozen by indecision, I was beyond grateful that she had my back.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t working quite yet. There was just too much I needed to figure out. I didn’t mean to open that door with Chris, honest to God, I didn’t. Over the years I had convinced myself that our relationship had been a necessary lesson on giving and receiving love, on caring about another person fully. I kept my feelings for him close to my heart, knowing he’d always hold a special place there. But now…

I ran my fingertips over my lips, the memory of kissing Chris still vivid and exciting. A thrill ran through me as I thought back to how his mouth had felt on mine. For just a second, I was able to revel in the heat of that moment, about the way he had looked at me and what he had said.

“You can’t deny there’s something strong between us, even all these years later! Maybe that’s why you can’t go through with the wedding.”

Oh god, the wedding. Jamie’s face filled my vision and my guilt tried to drown me. It had been weeks since I’d even talked to him, and that last time had been strained and horrible. Every day, I picked up my phone and dialed his number, just to hear his voice. And every day, I chickened out and couldn’t make myself press send.

I mean, what could I even say to him? This whole situation had gotten completely out of hand. Jamie was everything I wanted – wasn’t he? He was kind and funny, he was supportive of my career, accepting of my crazy, he loved my family and my friends and made me feel like I was actually worthy of his love.

Well done, Alexis. You went out of your way to prove him wrong.

What had started out as an attempt to convince myself that we would be together forever had only served to make things more complicated. I didn’t know what was real anymore! Was I stalling the wedding because I was afraid or because I just didn’t want to get married? Were my feelings for Chris real and unresolved or was I just feeling the residual affection from years ago?

“Alexis, stop it right now,” Kelly called over the wind.

I looked at her with wide eyes. “What? What am I doing?”

She rolled her eyes as she took the exit off the highway. “Who do you think you’re talking to? Your angst is billowing off you in waves.”

Groaning, I covered my face with my hands. “What am I supposed to do? I love Jamie. I do. But Chris…” I trailed off, my mind wandering again.

Kelly parked and turned to me with raised eyebrows. “Damn. That must have been some kiss.”

“Am I a horrible person if I say that it really, really was?”

“Not at all,” Kelly reassured me. “But this weekend is not about Chris’s breathtaking lips or Jamie the Saint. This is about you, me, deep and meaningful art, and far too many bottles of wine.”

We checked into our hotel room and had a phenomenal dinner and at least one bottle of wine. Kelly was right to bring me here. It was exactly what I needed – an escape from the realities of the giant mess I’d made of my life. And I still had one more ex to talk to before I could feel the journey was complete. There was no way that conversation would make any of this less complicated.

But for now I was happy to forget everything but my pleasant buzz, the warm weather, and the up-and-coming artists all around us. We got to watch a glass-blowing demonstration, heard some danceable music, and were awed by the depth of talent.

We were laughing as we devoured a little bag of local macaroons, talking about the favorite pieces we’d seen so far. In the middle of a sentence, Kelly’s eyes flew open wide and the words seemed to catch in her throat. I started pounding her on the back, thinking she had been wolfing down the cookies too fast and was choking. She swatted my hands away and grabbed my arm.

“Come on. There was an antique shop over this way that I wanted to check out.”

She started dragging me down the sidewalk, my hands full of cookies and an empty coffee cup. “Hold on! Let me throw this trash away first!” Laughing, I wrenched my arm out of her grasp and turned around to find the trash can I knew we had just seen.

“Alexis! No! Just come on!” Kelly tried to grab me but I danced out of her reach.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shook my head and headed in the opposite direction. The garbage was maybe ten feet behind us. What was she being so weird about? Kelly had never been an antiques gal, and who was I to stifle her adventurous spirit, but there was no urgency when it came to antiques.

I tossed the empty cup in the bin and looked up as I turned to follow my friend. My feet wouldn’t move, though. Circling back around, I had to double-check that I saw what I thought I saw.

Between the stands, on the other side of the street, was Jamie. He was smiling as he walked, looking over the paintings and sculptures he passed. I crept along sideways on my side of the street, peering through the gaps where I could. What was he doing here? Did he follow us? Maybe he wanted to talk, wanted to see if I had changed my mind or at least make sure I was okay. I wanted to talk to him, too. I missed him and thought about him every day. I wanted to make sure he knew that.

Kelly bounded up behind me. “Come on, lets get out of here.”

“Did you know he was coming to this?” I glanced at her over my shoulder and she grimaced. “Is this a plan to get us to talk to each other?”

She shook her head slowly and nodded toward Jamie. When I turned, ready to sprint across the street and throw myself in his arms, what I saw froze me in my place.

Jamie wasn’t alone.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 24

It hadn’t been my goal to end up in Chris’s arms. There really wasn’t an explanation for it, either. Oh, I had plenty of excuses for what happened, and I had been playing them over and over in my head, trying to get one to stick: We were caught up in the moment, we were both feeling lonely, old emotions bubbled to the surface, I had a number of weak reasons.

The truth was, I had thrown myself at him and he, in true Chris fashion, had simply rolled with it.

“Alexis, wait!”

Once I had released my death-grip on him, I climbed out of the fountain and ran. It wasn’t really clear to me what had upset me the most: the fact that I had kissed another man while I was, effectively, engaged to Jamie? Or was it that the way he said my name indicated that he regretted it immediately – and long before I did?

He caught up with me quickly, his shoes and socks clutched in one hand, the 6-pack in the other. “Stop! Why are you running? Talk to me, Lexi!”

It was hard to meet his eyes. I was so ashamed and I couldn’t imagine what he must be thinking. I finally pushed my shoulders back and faced him. “Chris, I’m so sorry. That should have never happened – I shouldn’t have done that – it was totally uncalled for and inappropriate. Let’s just get you back to your car, we’ll both go home, and let’s forget this ever happened.”

His shoulders slumped and he stared at his shuffling feet. “I don’t want to forget it, Lex,” he mumbled.

“What?”

When he met my gaze, his eyes were blazing with hope. “I don’t want to forget it! I want – I don’t regret that it happened. Not at all. And I don’t want to make your life any more complicated, honest to God! But…”

His voice trailed off as he set down what he was holding and put his hands on my shoulders.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you since we had dinner that night, Lexi. You’re different in some ways, but still the same girl deep down. The girl with the infectious laugh, the smart sense of humor, the Texas-sized heart.” He trailed his fingers along my cheek. “The girl I fell for so many years ago.”

I wasn’t sure if it was, but I felt like my jaw was laying on the ground. There was no way I was hearing what I thought I was hearing.

“Chris…What are you saying?”

He stepped closer, his hands resting on my waist while I gaped at him. “I’m saying…Shit. I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, a lot weighing on you. I know you’re confused and the last thing I want is to add to all the noise. But I don’t think our story is over yet.”

Frowning, I pushed against his chest. “This is a joke, right? You’re messing with me.”

I sat on the bench to put my shoes back on and Chris sat next to me to do the same. Neither of us said anything until we were done and stood facing each other again.

“You’re not joking, are you?”

With one corner of his lips lifted into a grin, he shrugged. “I’m not. I can’t tell you what you should do, I would never presume to try to make your choice for you. But I would love to see you a little. Or a lot, actually, if you’d let me. You can’t deny there’s something strong between us, even all these years later! Maybe that’s why you can’t go through with the wedding.”

“You think I postponed the wedding because I still have feelings for you? That’s a little conceited, isn’t it?”

We pulled into the parking lot of Rudy’s and I killed the engine. I turned to face Chris and even in the shadows, I could see his dimples. He was smirking at me! As though my whole life wasn’t just flipped over! Like he thought it was all a colossal joke. I must have been scowling because he cleared his throat and switched to a neutral expression.

“It’s not conceited. When you called off the wedding, I-“

“Postponed,” I snapped. He looked confused so I explained it further. “The wedding wasn’t called off. It was postponed.”

His lips twitched. “Right. Of course. Sorry.” He cleared his throat and continued. “I was the first one you called, the first one you wanted to see after. We had such a great time together at dinner, it was like no time had passed at all! And, judging by what just happened in the fountain, the attraction between us is still very strong. I mean, I’ve been having dreams about you, for god’s sake!”

Could that really be the underlying reason? Was I afraid that things wouldn’t last forever with Jamie because I didn’t want them to last forever? I closed my eyes to stop my mind from chasing itself with this impossible question. But I had to admit that what passed between Chris and me couldn’t be ignored.

Staring out the windshield and gripping the steering wheel, I didn’t know what to say. So many thoughts and feelings were fighting each other inside me I couldn’t pull one in focus long enough to express it.We sat in silence for several minutes until Chris sighed.

“I’m not going to try to force your hand here, Lexi. The last thing I want to do is add to your stress.” He tucked my hair behind my ear and whispered, “I just want you to know that I care. That I’m here for you if – when you need me. When you’re ready.”

I swallowed hard as he got out of the car, refusing to look at him. My hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel and my gaze was locked on a spot far off in the distance. Through the blurry veil of my tears I watched his truck pull away.

~~~

“I kissed Chris.”

Kelly choked on her coffee, her eyes wide as she tried to catch her breath.

I kept my head down, examining my coffee cup and drowning in my own guilt. I deserved every ounce of judgment Kelly was about to lay on me. There wasn’t anything she could say that I hadn’t already been beating myself up with since that night.

“Oh, Alexis…”

I buried my face in my hands. “I know…I’m the worst.”

She didn’t say anything, so I risked a glance at her face. I fully expected fire to be shooting from her nostrils or something similar, but instead she looked worried. Her eyebrows were drawn together, and her mouth was twisted sideways. Her pensive face.

“Come on,” I urged her. “Let me have it! I’m a horrible human being and Jamie deserves so much better and I should just hide in a hole for eternity. You can say it – we both know it’s the truth.”

Her head wagged from side to side, the same expression on her face.

“I don’t think you’re horrible. I think you’re confused.” She reached across the table and squeezed my hand. “Does Jamie know?”

“Nooo,” I groaned. I stared at the ceiling and tried to imagine how that conversation might go.

It wouldn’t be pretty.

Explaining the whole night to my best friend was therapeutic, to an extent. When I got to the part where I actually put my lips on Chris’s I was surprised at my racing heart and the butterflies in my stomach. Damn.

I told her about his parting offer and when I was finished my throat was starting to close up, trying to hold back the tears that threatened once again.

“Kell, I don’t know what to do! I’m such a mess. Why did I do that? Why would I do that to Jamie?”

She smirked over the top of her cup. “Well, you didn’t do it to Jamie. You did it to Chris.”

I scowled. “I don’t need you to be a smart ass right now, thanks.”

“You’re right, I’m sorry.” Kelly leaned back in her chair and regarded me silently for a moment. Then her eyes lit up and her face split in a huge smile. “But I know what you do need, my dear friend.”

The look on her face made me wary and exhausted before she said anything more. That look was usually the precursor to something wild and, sometimes, dangerous.

“I’m afraid to ask…”

Kelly pulled out her cell phone and began typing away, winking at me with a grin.

“No fear, Lex. We’re going on a road trip!”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 23

Spontaneity was not my thing. I was a plotter, a planner, always needing to know what was next so there were no surprises. It was a running joke among my friends and family. Just one of my many charming neuroses.

Chris knew this about me. So, when I dragged him to my car with no plan of where we were going or what we would do, he reluctantly went along.

“Are you okay?” He frowned at me as he buckled his seatbelt.

I could feel a bit of mania taking over but I smiled and patted his arm. “I’m fine, Chris, really. I just need to blow off some steam.”

He settled back and let me navigate around the city. We chatted as I drove, laughing and singing along to the radio. It was so easy to be with Chris. There wasn’t any pressure to be or do anything. We stopped and picked up a six-pack of beer and I wound my way around the park to the big, ornate fountain in the center.

“What should we toast to?” I asked. The night was warm, a fresh breeze floating around us, and I felt a million miles away from my own life.

Sitting on the edge of the fountain, we were gazing at the stars as we drank. He didn’t say anything for a minute, then stood and faced me with a wide grin.

“Not sure where I heard this one, but I’ve been dying to use it.” He cleared his throat while I stood and we held our bottles up. “May we get what we want, get what we need, and never get what we deserve!”

We burst into laughter and tapped our bottles together. I put my empty in the case and turned to look up at the fountain’s statue. It was a man and woman wound around each other in a passionate embrace, their faces close together, her hair cascading over his hands.

“I always loved coming here to look at them,” I said. “They were so romantic, the lovers frozen for eternity in that breathless moment right before their lips meet.”

Chris stood next to me, close enough that I could feel the warmth radiating from him. “Wow. That’s unexpectedly…hot.”

I nudged him and rolled my eyes. Staring up at their faces, my smile faded. There must have been a noticeable change in my demeanor because I could see Chris from the corner of my eye, leaning in to see my face better.

“Has that changed?”

“A little,” I admitted. “I mean, look at her face. Does it look like she’s in the throes of rapture or does it look like she’s scared shitless?”

We gazed at them in silence for a moment then Chris slipped his arm around my shoulders, pulling me against his side. I snuggled into him, laying my head on his shoulder.

“It’s interesting, the way art changes based on who’s looking at it.” He rubbed his hand absently up and down my arm. “The state of mind of the observer shaping the meaning of the piece. It’s a great way to gain insight into someone’s mental state and, knowing what I know, I can see how it’s somewhat sinister to you now.”

I felt the tears starting to wet my eyes and swore silently again. How did he do that? How was he able to just reach inside me and know exactly what I was feeling?

Dammit, I wasn’t having this right now. I didn’t come here for a therapy session.

I pushed him away and kicked off my shoes, rolling up my pantlegs. “You coming?”

Crossing his arms, Chris asked, “What are you up to, Lexi?”

Keeping my eyes locked on his, I grinned and stepped over the lip of the fountain. The water was cool on my feet and the knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to be in it made it all the more exciting.

“Who even are you right now? You’re going to get us in trouble, you know.”

“That’s the point!” I shouted in a sudden burst of frustration. “I’m so tired of being cautious, of being afraid, of planning and always knowing what’s next! I want to do something unexpected. I want to feel free and excited, I want butterflies in my stomach, knowing I could be caught any second! Everyone knows I’m the one who will always do what she’s supposed to. I don’t want to be that person anymore. At least not tonight.”

He hesitated only a second then stripped off his own shoes and socks. I laughed at him when he peered around in the dark, looking for the park police or something, before gingerly testing out the water. “It’s freezing!”

“Don’t be such a baby.” I splashed him.

Fully in the fountain, he rounded on me. “Oh, that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” The corners of his mouth twisted up in a villainous grin before he flung water back at me.

I squealed and tried to duck behind the statue. We slogged around in the water, yelling, laughing, splashing, dodging. I couldn’t move quickly enough, and pretty soon Chris grabbed me, holding me tight and pinning my arms to my sides.

“You’re in trouble, now! I should just hold you under the fountain and drench you completely. That would teach you to mess with me!”

Through my uncontrolled giggles, I wiggled in his arms trying halfheartedly to get away. But the laughter died away when our eyes met and we simply looked at each other, trying to catch our breath.

Chris smoothed my dripping hair out of my eyes and off my forehead, cradling my cheek in the palm of his hand. The smart thing for me to do would have been to laugh and push him away, telling him to get us each another beer. A sane Alexis would have taken him back to his car at Rudy’s and gone home.

But sane Alexis had left the building quite a while ago.

In an impulsive flash, I pushed up on my toes and brushed my lips against his. He froze. For an extended beat, it seemed neither of us was breathing, each waiting to see what the other would do. My heart sank when I realized kissing him had been the wrong move. This was exactly why I didn’t do spontaneous.

Suddenly, his mouth was on mine, a strangled groan sounding from deep in his throat. Pressed against his chest, I snaked my arms around his neck and melted into his embrace, deepening the kiss. God, his lips were exactly as I remembered; soft and full, coaxing without demanding, setting every inch of me on fire.

One of his hands tangled in my hair, the other pressing into the small of my back, so not even air could pass between us. I was fully lost in the taste of his mouth and the heat of his body against mine. There was no thought, only the sensation of being in his arms and reveling in his touch on my skin.

Coming up for air, he pressed his lips against my forehead and wrapped his arms tighter around me. I leaned into him, clutching his shirt in my hands. I couldn’t get close enough to him and was already hungry for more.

“Lexi,” he sighed.

The sadness of his voice jolted me out of myself and back to reality.

What the hell was I doing?

Summer Writing Shenanigans

There is a lot to love about the start of summer: the warmer temps, the longer days, vacations. And this year, it seems that spring is going to stretch at least to the first official day! For me, that means there are days that I can take my trusty laptop outside on the back patio to write without fear of drowning the keyboard in sweat.

Summer also brings with it Camp NaNoWriMo in July. Where NaNoWriMo takes place in November and challenges authors to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, Camp NaNo is a little more flexible. Taking place in April and July, Camp lets you build or join a ‘cabin’ of other writers to support and encourage each other. You also can set your own goal, whether that is editing pages, writing lines of poetry, or writing another novel and setting your own word count objective.

I love Camp.

After my first NaNo year, I decided I needed the camaraderie and accountability of a writing group so I’ve created my own Cabin for each Camp for the last two years. It’s so fun to annoy my friends with daily encouragement quotes, to hold virtual meetups, to gather other local authors for donuts and writing on Saturday mornings. I look forward to Camp every spring and summer and kind of can’t wait for July to roll around!

This summer is also a big step for me in my writing journey. I am in the final round of edits for my novel, I’ll Call You Mine, incorporating notes and suggestions from my beta readers. Then, in the middle of July, I will send my baby off to a professional editor to see how I can fully polish it up and get it ready to shop out to agents.

This is a thing that is going to happen and it terrifies me.

It’s one thing to sit down and write for fun, maybe sharing with a friend or two, but with no real plans beyond that. But I have found that I want more than that. I’m realistic, I know it’s not easy to get an agent and even more difficult for that agent to sell an unknown author’s novel to a publisher. Putting myself out there will probably mean hundreds of rejections and stabs at my notoriously thin skin and fragile ego.

But what if…?

My summer is jam-packed with exciting writing, editing, and reading challenges. What are you planning to do this summer to push yourself and reach for your dreams? Comment below and thanks for reading!

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 22

The days dragged by and I was lonely. And bored. Restless, antsy, sad – any and all of those descriptors applied. I began isolating myself. Kelly had her own life and was dating a new guy who seemed pretty promising, so I didn’t want to dump my depression on her. My family…well, suffice it to say that was a tenuous situation that was still working itself out.

Who was I kidding – It was a festering wound, that’s what it was.

My mom was still furious and took my postponing the wedding as a personal affront. My sisters, of course, all had their own opinions on what I was doing and what I should do. And none of them understand why I needed to put the ceremony off for just a little bit longer.

What had I learned so far? I sprawled on my couch in the late afternoon sun and stared at the ceiling. What had I gained to make this endeavor worthwhile? Had I learned anything?

Well…I guess I learned that Brian had created his perfect little world by finally believing he deserved the love Janie gave him. Maybe that’s where my wedding troubles lay. Could it be that I didn’t think I was worthy of Jamie’s love and that’s why I was doubting it was real?

I learned that Doug was even more of a nightmare than I had remembered. Was there a lesson there? I frowned. If there was, it was drowned out by my disgust. Maybe it had something to do with trial and error being essential on the path to happiness? Or that you had to kiss some frogs before you found your prince?

Either way, if I never saw Doug again, it would be too soon.

My musings were interrupted by a ping from my phone. I assumed it was my dad checking in and, to be honest, I didn’t even want to talk to him right now. He was the only one who had been supportive, and he was a wonderful human being, but…Well, he loved my mom, too, and she was with him 24/7 and was able to put some serious pressure on him. I was fairly certain the contact was a reconnaissance mission assigned by my mother.

You know, to see if I had come to my senses.

The phone pinged again and I picked it up with the intention of muting it. But I glanced at the screen and was shocked to see the message was not from my father.

It was from Chris.

Hey – just checking in. How are you doing?

A warmth spread through my chest and I scootched into a sitting position. I had not been expecting to hear from him. Like, ever again. But it wasn’t unwelcome.

Hi! I’m okay. What are you up to?

I watched as the little typing bubble appeared and disappeared several times. Well, that wasn’t good. That was a sign of someone self-editing a text multiple times because he didn’t know what to say. That sent my neurotic brain spiraling: Was my text too vague? Did he think I was boring? Was he contacting me to tell me some bad news? Had he talked to Jamie? The suspense was NOT good for me.

Finally, an actual text came through.

Want to get a drink? Or food? Or go for a walk or whatever?

What.

I didn’t know what to make of that. I could definitely use some of his positive energy, but the indecisiveness of the request gave me a bad feeling. Like he was going to give me some devastating news. But I found that I really wanted to see him.

YES. Please. Where and when?

His reply was immediate, no hesitant bubble this time.

How’s now at Rudy’s? My treat.

I looked down at my yoga pants and grungy sweatshirt. Uh…

You’re on! Give me 30 minutes?

Already dashing to the bathroom for a quick shower, I had to double back to see his response.

Perfect. See you soon!

On a Wednesday night, Rudy’s was pretty empty. It wasn’t ever too crowded or rowdy even at the busiest times, but I could count the other patrons on one hand. A jukebox was playing a romantic country tune just loud enough to hear without having to battle it for conversation.

Chris was already standing at the bar, a frosty mug in each hand. His face lit up when I walked in and, I had to admit, my heart palpitated a bit. He led me to a table in a corner, away from the bar, where we could have a little privacy.

“Thanks for coming, Lexi,” he said, kissing me on the cheek. “I just needed to get out for a bit.”

I blushed at the affectionate gesture. “I’m glad you suggested it. I’ve basically been languishing in my apartment for days. I was about to start breaking shit just for something to do!”

He laughed and his dimples came out in full force. We sat quietly for a minute or two, just sipping our drinks and looking around. He commented on the jukebox song and I asked him about his son and then we fell silent again.

Finally, Chris leaned back and asked me, “What’s up with you and Jamie? Your wedding? Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” I shrugged. “There’s nothing new, I guess. Still in a holding pattern.”

“Have you and Jamie talked about it?”

I trailed my finger around the rim of the mug and avoided eye contact.

“I haven’t talked to him since…well, since the night you and I had dinner.”

Had it been that long? After Jamie and I met, I hadn’t gone more than twenty-four hours without talking to him at least once. He told me not to call, so I hadn’t called.

He hadn’t, either.

Chris nudged my foot under the table to get my attention, since my mind had wandered far away. “And…?’ he prompted.

“And nothing. He came over. When he left in the morning he told me not to call him until we could start planning the wedding again. So…we haven’t talked since.” Saying it out loud made it feel exponentially more pathetic.

He cocked his head and frowned. “That has to be hard on you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Yes, this was my doing. I started this, I postponed the wedding, I hurt Jamie and everyone else. Most likely, no one had any sympathy for me – and I couldn’t blame them. But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel like trash about it, or that I wasn’t devastated by my own indecision.

But Chris looking at me with such concern and worrying about how I was feeling brought tears to my eyes. I shrugged. He reached out and covered my hand with his and – god damnit – that opened the floodgates.

“Oh, Lexi, I’m so sorry.”

Shaking my head, I waved him off and swiped at my cheeks.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, Chris,” I scoffed. “I brought this on myself and have no one but myself to blame.”

He leaned across the table, keeping his voice low. “If you weren’t ready – for whatever reason – you had every right to call it off. You shouldn’t marry someone out of a sense of obligation.”

I stopped mid-sniffle and just stared at Chris. Damnit. God damnit, why wasn’t he a jerk? I needed him to be a jerk at that moment and he was not meeting my expectations.

I drained my beer, slamming it on the table a little harder than I meant to, dragging the back of my hand across my mouth. I was suddenly feeling antsy and, truth be told, like I wanted to do something a little wild. Leaning forward, my hand on Chris’s arm, I gave him a wicked grin.

“Wanna get out of here?”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 21

I saw Brian approaching before he saw me. He was with his wife and two small boys, pushing the stroller with one hand and waving the other in the air as he told a story.

Brian hadn’t changed much. He was still tall and gangly, but a little less so as he’d filled out over the years. It changed the shape of his face and made his big engaging smile even more charming. His wife was pretty with long, straight blond hair and an athletic build on a petite frame. She looked kind and sweet and I was so happy she had found Brian.

When his eyes zeroed in on me across the park, his grin grew even bigger. He pointed me out to his wife, and I was immediately apprehensive. She had to think I was crazy. What kind of weirdo meets up with ex-boyfriends? Married ex-boyfriends? I hadn’t explained to Brian what I was doing, or why I wanted to see him. He never asked why, just accepted with enthusiasm. To my surprise, his wife flashed a genuine smile and waved at me before pressing a kiss to Brian’s cheek and steering the two little ones to the playground.

He jogged my way grinning from ear to ear and my stomach flipped as he drew closer. Did I know what I was going to say? Good lord, no. But I stood up and offered a shaky smile anyway.

“Brian. I’m so glad you were able to come.”

Stopping a few feet from me, he stared at my hand like I was offering him a snake before closing the distance and enveloping me in a hug. This was no awkward, uncomfortable hug – he pulled me close and held me tight and all of my nerves melted away.

This was Brian. I had nothing to be afraid of here.

He kept an arm around my shoulders as we began to walk. It was easy and friendly. Brian asked about Kelly and about my family. I asked him about his work at the high school and was thrilled to learn he’d been composing his own jazz music.

“It’s amazing,” he gushed. “Anything and everything inspires me: the sound of the rain, my kids laughing, the wind in the leaves. And the freedom of creating something that is all my own is intoxicating! I’ve never been happier.”

Arm in arm we kept moving through the park. I talked about Jamie. A lot. I told Brian about how we met, how he proposed, how he dealt with my neuroses always with a smile.

We continued swapping stories until my stomach growled loud enough for Brian and everyone within ten feet to hear.

“Oh my god,” I groaned, burying my face in my hands.

He simply looped his arm through mine and steered me to a nearby soft pretzel vendor. We sat in companionable silence while we ate. It was refreshing to just be still in the sunshine and the light breeze, not feeling compelled to do or say or think about anything.

Of course, that feeling was short-lived. Brian cleared his throat and crumpled up his pretzel paper.

“So. Alexis. I’m not complaining – I’ve had a terrific time catching up and just hanging out with you – but I’m fairly certain you had an ulterior motive for seeing me.”

I stared at him, chewing the last bite of my pretzel very slowly. I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to say and we’d been walking and talking for an hour.

“You’re right. There was something else I wanted to talk about. So.” I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders. “So. I don’t know if you heard – probably not, I mean why would you? – but I got engaged recently.”

The smile exploded across his face and I could tell that he was genuinely ecstatic for me. “I DID hear! When is the wedding?”

I grimaced. “Well, that’s the thing. It’s kind of…postponed indefinitely.”

He grabbed my hands and his smile faded as quickly as it had bloomed. “Oh my god! What happened? Are you okay?”

“Yes…and no. I mean, it’s not like anything actually happened, the wedding isn’t called off. Jamie is amazing and perfect for me and my favorite person in the world. But I just…I don’t know, I’m not ready, I guess.”

Brian pulled me up from the bench and started strolling around the fountain in the middle of the park, obviously trying to think of something to say besides ‘you’re a crazy person’.

“Brian, how did you know things would last? Was there some kind of clue? Was there something she did or said that told you that, no matter what, she would love you forever?”

His roar of laughter startled me enough to make me jump a foot out of my skin. I wasn’t trying to be funny, so I was pretty peeved that his response to my honest question was laughter. He must have felt me tense up next to him because he squeezed my shoulder and let the chuckle die in his throat.

“I’m so sorry, Lex, I don’t mean to laugh. But what makes you think there is ever anything that can give you that kind of definitive proof? No one knows they’re going to be together forever – or that they’ll divorce after seven years. It’s all based on your faith in the other person.”

I groaned. “I know, I know. But – and I don’t mean to be rude or anything – but you had such low self-esteem when I knew you, how were you so convinced that getting married was the right thing?”

In the distance I could see his wife, Janie, returning from the playground. During our conversation Brian and I had giggled at the similarity in the names of the people we loved best. The children were already dozing in the stroller, dirty, exhausted, and happy. I glanced up at Brian and the look on his face when he saw his little family was ridiculously sweet and sappy. I loved it.

“You’re not rude, Lex. I didn’t think much of myself back then, you’re right. I needed constant approval from the people around me, you included – maybe especially. Let’s not pretend – I was gangly and goofy and nerdy and my mouth was too big – the fact that I had a girlfriend ever was a miracle in itself. But Janie…” He sighed. “I don’t know if I can explain it, but just her loving me gave me a confidence I had never felt before. And not just because she’s smokin’ hot.”

I bumped him with my hip and rolled my eyes.

“Seriously! She helped me see myself through her eyes and it was…amazing. I didn’t know if we would last forever – I still don’t know. But what I do know is that I want to spend all the time I can with her, no matter if it’s an eternity or two years.”

We stopped in front of the bench where I’d been perched when he arrived and turned to face each other. When he smiled down at me this time, there was nothing but kindness and affection in his eyes. He took my hands in his and gave them a squeeze.

“I don’t know exactly what you were looking for here, Lex, but I hope I was helpful. Listening to you talk about Jamie, I can hear how much you love him in every word.” Brian pulled me in for one last hug and shook his head. “Kind of strange that the tables have turned, huh? I’ve never seen you so hesitant before.”

I pressed my cheek against his shoulder and my words came out as barely a whisper.

“I’ve never had so much to lose.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 20

I had always loved this park. Full of gentle hills, lots of open green space, little clusters of trees shading picnic tables. There was something for everyone. Waiting on the bench, the warm sun on my shoulders failed to ease my nerves.

My leg bounced up and down and I twisted my fingers in my lap. I watched the families and couples as they passed me, examining each and every face. There was only one I was looking for. I hadn’t seen him in years and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The shoebox of memories that I had dragged off the shelf when all of this started had contained more than the sweet postcards and photos from Chris. I also had kept a large collection of notes and stories from Brian.

Tall and thin with thick black hair, Brian was my first boyfriend at college. Chris and I were officially over, I had sent Doug packing, and I was ready for a fresh start. Brian was it.

I lived in a co-ed dorm that first year, the floors alternating between genders. Brian was on the fifth floor and I lived on eighth. We didn’t have any classes together, but we saw each other in the cafeteria and the lobby, in the elevators and the common room. One of my eighth-floor neighbors had grown up with one of his fifth-floor neighbors and she brought me to his party one weekend.

Brian was perched in the corner, surrounded by a group of his music department friends, and I was immediately drawn to him. He was telling stories and making the people around him laugh. Snippets of songs or joke punchlines floated to me across the room. Eventually I drifted over to join the crowd near him and got drawn into the conversation. I wasn’t much for singing, but Brian was engaging and goofy, with an innocence about him that I sorely needed after the nightmare that was Doug.

By the end of the night, we were huddled together on the couch, talking and laughing until nearly everyone else had either gone home or fallen asleep. I gave him my phone number, but several days passed and I hadn’t heard from him. I shrugged it off as a great encounter, a fun night, and figured he must not have been as interested as I had thought.

The following Friday, I came home from class and found a tightly folded collection of papers shoved under my door. It was a note. An honest-to-god note like you’d pass in a middle school classroom. But this one was full of drawings and rambling thoughts about me, from Brian. The things he said were sweet and funny. He talked about how happy he was that he got to meet me, that he had actually lost my number and had to track me down through our mutual friends. They wouldn’t give him my room number so he had resorted to this outdated means of communication and they had agreed to deliver it.

His drawings were cute and simple but very well done. One showed the two of us sitting on the couch at the party, smiling at each other. Another one was him at a desk scribbling furiously. I had never had anyone draw anything for me and I was immediately charmed. I wrote back, with nowhere near the comedy, but gave him my number once again and stressed that I’d love to see him.

Thinking back, I probably should have seen that as a sign. He had written all these lovely words but hadn’t asked to see me, hadn’t offered up his phone number. I wasn’t opposed to being assertive and asking him out, but this became a pattern for our relationship down the road.

It turned out that Brian was a Music major, with his sights set on becoming a high school band instructor. He sang and played a multitude of instruments, but the trumpet was his first love. And he was an exceptional player. We didn’t jump into a romantic relationship immediately, but we did spend an awful lot of time together for the next few weeks. I would keep him company while he practiced, doing my own homework while he ran scales or worked on his improvisation. He would make sure I had a ticket front and center to any performance he was part of, giving me a wink and a smile in between songs. We would meet for dinner or walk to the coffee shop on the hill to support his friends doing open mic shows.

Even after we were seeing each other almost daily, I still found letters and notes and drawings under my door. He wrote me stories, self-deprecating humorous tales where I was a princess and he the lowly jester, painting himself as unworthy of my attention. There were little jabs at himself, almost always coming from the fictional me. Of course, I would laugh at these and reassure him that I liked him. He was cute and funny, his stories and notes full of compliments. I didn’t see this behavior as problematic until months later.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 19

I knew I was wallowing: in self-pity, in nostalgia, in doubt. Maybe I should have just kept my mouth shut and gone forward with the wedding. After all, I loved Jamie and being with him made me happy. He gave me strength when I was my own worst enemy.

It was no secret that I was neurotic. My family knew it, my friends knew it, I knew it. Overthinking was my super power. I could ‘what-if’ anyone out of anything, if given a chance. I talked myself out of many opportunities using this method.

I could have gone to a prestigious college on the other side of the country. It was a big city full of diversity and culture and was the opposite of where I had grown up. But the what-ifs won out: What if something happened to someone I loved and I was a 24-hour drive away? What if I didn’t fit in anywhere and was completely alone? What if I couldn’t keep up with the classes and I was proven to be a fraud, as I fully expected? No, it was easier to stay within a two-hour radius of my hometown, just in case. If I failed, when I failed, I wouldn’t have far to fall.

My fears prompted me to settle into a ‘good enough’ job, and allowed me to wave off anything daring under the guise of safety. But with Jamie…he saw me in a way I never could.

He had a way of listening to what I said and finding my fear behind the words. He saw through all my nonsense and had a very diplomatic way of calling me out on it. Jamie would tilt his head and purse his lips and then lay out the truth for me.

A promotion opportunity presented itself. It was a perfect position for me, full of research and data gathering and analysis. I gushed about it to Jamie, so excited about the chance to do something I could love doing. But the more I talked, the more I talked myself out of it. I presented my own counter arguments, predicting the future five or six steps down the road to where the position was obsolete, or where I realized I wasn’t equipped to handle the responsibilities, or where I was simply burned out and resented the job – and myself. I managed to rave about and dismiss the promotion all in the same breath.

“Are you done?” He looked at me calmly, waiting. I nodded.

“This job was made for you. It is built for a person with your unique skills and personality. They won’t fire you if you don’t get the promotion. You lose nothing. But think of everything you could gain! Do you know how rare it is for someone to find a career that they love? I can’t think of anyone who would say they were passionate about what they do. But you? You were born to do this.”

I chewed my lip. “But –“

“Alexis, take the chance. I have faith in you, even if you don’t. Enough for the both of us.”

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