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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 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 28

“You – you what?” I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard. This was Jamie, MY Jamie, who had never wished harm to anyone.

He ground his fist into the palm of his other hand and frowned at the floor. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and dark.

“I wanted to hurt you, to make you feel as bad as I did. I brought Brenda to make you think that I had moved on, that every minute of every day wasn’t spent thinking about you and missing you.” He glanced up. “Wondering who you were with.”

I couldn’t hold his gaze for long, as guilt settled in my chest like a lead weight. My hands twisted in my lap, knotting my fingers, clenching into fists. There was not one word I could think of to say. Nothing was going to make this better. An apology would sound weak and wouldn’t assuage my guilt or his anger, and would probably only serve to make things worse.

He stood suddenly and paced across the living room, sweeping his hands over his hair repeatedly, shaking his head.

“You were everything to me,” he began. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do for you, Alexis. Nothing. If I could give you the moon and stars, you know you’d already have them. Since the day we met, the only thing I wanted to do was make you happy. And what did you do with that?”

Coming to a stop with his back to me, he hung his head. His sadness was radiating off him and I knew I needed to make things better, to try to explain again why I was doing what I was.

“Oh, Jamie. I –“

Before I could even start, he had spun around and was looming over me, his finger pointing menacingly in my face.

“Don’t!” he bellowed. “You don’t get to talk right now, Alexis!”

I shrank back into the couch, my eyes wide. I had never seen him like this. Jamie didn’t raise his voice. He had never tried to intimidate me or threaten me. This was a stranger in front of me, not the Jamie I knew.

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and blew out a deep breath. Keeping my eyes on him, I waited.

“Shit. This is not what I wanted. Things weren’t supposed to go down like this.” Turning to face me, he looked down, his brow furrowed. “Yes. I wanted to hurt you. That was my whole plan in coming to the art show. I wanted to make you feel as small, unloved, and insignificant as you made me feel.”

I kept my eyes down, watching the floor as he started pacing again. This had become a surreal situation and one that I didn’t know how to handle. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hurt me, not really. He didn’t deserve the way I’d treated him, not for one second. Coming to the art show to confront me only made sense.

I frowned. He came to the art show to confront me? But…how did he even know I would be there?

Rising from the couch inch by inch, anger bubbled up inside me. “Jamie,” I murmured.

He whirled around surprised to find me so close behind him. His eyes flew wide for a second then narrowed and he crossed his arms in defiance. I continued to advance on him.

“Jamie…how did you know I was going to be there? I didn’t tell anyone. It was a last-minute decision. It’s not the sort of thing that I generally attend, so I know you didn’t guess.” I jabbed a finger into his chest, my anger overshadowing any fear he had caused a moment before. “How did you know? Do you have my phone tapped or something?”

Rolling his eyes, he stepped around me, hiding his face and putting some distance between us.

“Have your phone tapped?” he scoffed. “Don’t be rididculous! Who do you think I am – James Bond? How would I even do that?”

I followed him and stepped in his path. “Then how? You’re not a damn psychic.”

There was no way I was letting him get away without an explanation and I could tell by his face that he knew it.

“Jesus, you’re stubborn.” Sighing, he relented. “It was Kelly. She told me you were going to be there and suggested that I come talk to you.”

“Bullshit,” I spat. “Kelly wouldn’t do that. She was getting me away from everything, including thinking about you.”

He shrugged. “Look, she knew that neither of us would be the first to reach out and she was tired of getting caught in the middle. So…she orchestrated an ‘accidental’ meeting where we could hash things out.” Looking smug, he added, “She wasn’t expecting me to have my own plan.”

None of this was making sense. I pushed my hands against my temples to keep my head from exploding.

“I don’t understand! There are so many things you just said that are crazy I don’t even know where to start.” I fell back into the couch and stared at the ceiling. Without looking at him, I knew Jamie had sat down and was watching me closely.

I thought again about what he said, and something wasn’t sitting right.

“Wait – when did Kelly tell you where we were going?”

I felt him shrug. “I don’t know. On the phone the night before, I guess. She let it slip and we set it up from there.”

“You were…already talking to her when she ‘let it slip’? Why were you on the phone with her?”

He moved from the couch to the chair across from me without saying anything. I sat up and stared at him.

“How often do you two talk, Jamie?”

Now he was the one who couldn’t look me in the eye. His knee was bouncing and he was suddenly very interested in the floor. “Come on, Alexis. There’s no law that says I can’t talk to Kelly without you. We’re friends, too, you know.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” My chest started to hurt. “I would never hang out with one of your friends without you.”

He launched out of the chair and started toward the door. “Jesus, Alexis, can you hear yourself? This isn’t on me, you know. You’re the one who decided to call off the wedding and-“

“Postpone.”

He froze, but he still wouldn’t look at me.

“I didn’t call off the wedding, Jamie. I postponed it.”

A heavy silence hung in the air and the pain in my chest grew. “What did you mean about Kelly getting caught in the middle? She’s my best friend. There is no ‘middle’.”

He didn’t speak or move, but deflated a little with a long, drawn-out sigh.

Turning toward me with his hands in his pockets, he chewed his lip and tried to explain. “Alexis, none of this was supposed to happen. Like I said, it was never my intention to hurt you. It was only when you backed out – sorry, put off the wedding that things got out of hand.“

“What the hell are you telling me, Jamie?” My stomach clenched and wanted to eject its contents.

Jamie moved toward me, holding out a hand. I took an involuntary step back, the idea of him touching me pissing me off. Just as the bile in my stomach was rising, so was my anger. I could feel it like the mercury in a thermometer, climbing higher and higher.

“Alexis, please, just listen to me –“

He was interrupted by a sudden, frantic knocking at my door that made both of us jump. I wasn’t expecting anyone else – hell, I wasn’t expecting Jamie, and yet here he was. I pointed a finger at him, giving him my most severe scowl, and said, “We are not even close to being done here.”

It was satisfying to see a flash of fear in his eyes.

The knocking continued without stopping, setting my already frazzled nerves on edge. Moving faster, I yanked the door open just to make the noise stop.

“Hey Lexi, you okay?”

My mouth dropped open and I groaned. “What are you doing here?”

Chris stepped over the threshold and grasped my shoulders, looking me over before leaning in and kissing my cheek.

“The way you sounded on the phone had me worried, thought maybe you were in some kind of trouble. I was already in my car and decided to swing by and make sure you were all right.”

His hands tightened on my shoulders and even before I saw the shift of his gaze behind me, I knew things were just about to get really awkward.

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!”

writing motivation

Strength in Numbers

You would think that writing is a fairly solitary endeavor. One person, sitting at a computer – or typewriter, or notebook – creating a new world and new characters. Authors don’t need people around to distract them – do they?

On a whim, I participated in National Novel Writing Month back in 2017, just to see if I could reach that 50,000 word goal in thirty days. It was fun and challenging and I loved every minute of it. By the end of November I had surpassed the word count goal and “won” NaNoWriMo – but that wasn’t the best thing I gained from the experience.

During that time, I attended a number of write-ins where NaNoWriMo participants in the area gathered at a specified location. The municipal liaison, Mary, set timers and challenged each writer to put down as many words as possible. She was encouraging and funny, teasing those she knew and cheering every single writer who showed up.

I needed that.

It was immediately obvious that there was something motivating about being in a room with other creatives. Is there an aura about writers that wafts into the air and encircles everyone nearby, merging with and energizing the other writers in the room? I don’t have any idea, but I sure dig that visual.

What I do know, however, is that this camaraderie between authors is an essential component to my own creativity. I was heartbroken when November ended and I no longer had a reason to meet up with these people – or to write. I hadn’t finished my story but I couldn’t make myself sit down and get to the end.

That is, until I found out about Camp NaNoWriMo.

I gathered my own group, organizing meet-ups throughout the month of April and again in July. We shared our story ideas, asked each other for advice or how to get out of a sticky scene. Over the spring and summer, I not only finished my story but added more than another 90,000 words! Unfortunately, now I am faced with editing that story down to a manageable length.

It’s harder than it sounds…

Now I meet with a group to write every week and I consider these people my good friends, even outside of writing. I continue to plan and organize writing groups for Camps and I find great joy in encouraging others to believe in themselves and in their writing – to an obnoxious extent. When I go more than a week without a writing group, my creativity and my mood suffer. Writing with other creatives helps to keep me motivated and boosts my creativity.

There is definitely strength in numbers.

What creative boost have you discovered that surprised you? Do you prefer to write alone or with other people? Comment below and let me know what keeps you on your creative path!

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 7

I lied to my mom.

The first lie was when I told her I had to leave so I wouldn’t be late. What I really meant was that if I didn’t leave right then I wouldn’t be half an hour early.

She was so worried about this, I went out of my way to make this dinner sound very casual and not any big deal – just food with another person in a public restaurant.

That was the second lie.

I recognized Chris’s old pickup as soon as it pulled into the parking lot. How was that thing still on the road? It was ancient when we were dating! But Chris was pretty handy, learning from his dad how to fix nearly everything, so that truck would end up outliving us all.

We hadn’t seen each other in more than five years. A lot had happened in that time. I wasn’t sure what to expect – or what he was expecting. I smoothed my crazy curls and straightened my blouse. Why were my palms so sweaty? I scrubbed them on my pants and waited.

I hated to admit that my heart skipped a beat – or two – when Chris finally climbed out of the truck. That face held so many good memories for me. The blond curls were still there, although cropped a little shorter. I watched him lick his lips once. Twice. Three times -before he had even locked the door. A nervous tick of his that I was honestly glad to see he hadn’t lost. He was wearing jeans and cowboy boots with a button-down pink shirt, the sleeves rolled up just above his wrists. Everything about him looked the same and a wave of old feelings washed over me.

This was going to be harder than I thought.

Leaning back in my chair, I watched in amusement as Chris stopped outside the restaurant, checking his reflection in the window. He tweaked a couple of curls, straightened his shirt, and checked his teeth. In the window directly opposite me.

God, he was adorable.

His eyes found me as soon as he stepped through the door and a big grin split his face. I stood when he started toward the table, clenching my hands in front of me to keep them from shaking. When he reached the table, he stopped abruptly.

“Hi, Lexi.”

He was the only one I let call me that name.

“Hi, Chris.”

We stood there drowning in awkwardness. I could sense the tension in him, and it matched mine. We were holding our breath, unsure whether we should hug or shake hands or just sit down. He finally chuckled and pulled me into his arms, kissing my cheek. He wasn’t much taller than I was, but my nose landed in the crook of his neck and I instinctively took a deep breath. Amazing. Just soap, a tiny splash of some nondescript cologne, mixed with his natural scent. And it was intoxicating.

Pulling back, he slid his hands down my arms until he had grasped my hands, giving them a quick squeeze. His green eyes searched my face and his smile grew even wider.

“You look fantastic. Even better than I remembered.”

He held my chair for me before sitting, himself. Head tilted to the side, a smile playing around his soft lips.

“I’m so glad you reached out, Lexi. It’s been too long.”

Our eyes locked and those damn butterflies in my stomach started their enthusiastic romping.

That was the exact moment I knew I was in trouble.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 6

My phone dinged with a text message and I made the mistake of glancing at it.

Call me!!!

Damn my eyes. Just lost any semblance of plausible deniability.

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi sweetie!”

I waited, expecting her to launch into some tirade or another, but she said nothing.

“Three exclamation marks, mom. Is there something going on?”

A beat. “You tell me, Alexis. IS there something going on?”

Jesus. I was in the middle of getting ready to leave the house and I knew better than to let her bait me. But she was my mom, after all. She is a next-level pro at this and I didn’t stand a chance.

“What are you talking about, mom?”

There was an exasperated sigh on the other end, and I almost heard her rolling her eyes at me.

“Patty called me today.”

While this wasn’t shocking news, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Chris’s mom and my mom had become fast friends when we were dating. They lived in the same town and ran into each other periodically, so it only stood to reason that they’d stay on friendly terms.

What did surprise me was that Chris had apparently told his mom he was meeting me for dinner.

“She did, huh?”

“Don’t play dumb, young lady.” She was silent for a moment. When she spoke again, her voice was low and quiet. “What are you doing, Alexis?”

Well, wasn’t that just the question of the day? I didn’t have the first clue how to explain it to my mom when I didn’t quite know, myself.

“Have you talked to Jamie recently?”

This question that seemingly came out of nowhere, was just a set up for what would morph into a long and entertaining guilt trip.

“I talked to him last week, mom. He’s fine. He and I are fine. I still love him, we’re still getting married. Just not quite…yet.”

“But why are you going out to dinner with other men if you’re still marrying Jamie? How could you do that to him?”

I held the phone away from me for a moment, pressed against my chest, so I didn’t scream in her ear. Deep breaths, Lex. Think calming thoughts…

“Mom. I’m not going out with ‘other men’. I’m having dinner with an old friend.”

She scoffed. “You and Chris have never been just friends.”

“Mom…”

She wasn’t wrong.

After nine months of dating, we called it quits. It wasn’t ugly, it wasn’t messy, it just…ended. We didn’t see each other at all over the summer, but once school started, we kind of gravitated together. He took someone else to Homecoming, but by Halloween we were thick as thieves again, like no time had passed.

When we broke up the next time, it was harder.

“Lexi. This isn’t working.”

“I know.”

“We’re trying to get back to what we used to be, but it can’t be like that again. We’re not the same people.”

I had wiped the tears off my cheeks, nodding.

“God, I wish we were. I still care about you – I’ll always care about you – but…”

My mom’s voice was droning in my ear. I wiped the tears off my cheeks, nodding.

“I know, mom. I know this seems like a bad idea. But Jamie and I are fine. Chris and I are…just friends.”

She stopped talking. So did I.

“I have to go, mom. If I don’t leave now, I’ll be late.”

“Alexis.” She took a deep breath. “Be careful.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 5

The list was mocking me.

Smoothing the creases out of the paper, I stared at the names written there. And they stared back.

There were five names. I had dated others over the years, but these five were the ones I remembered the best. These were the ones who had the biggest impact on my personality – on my life – and the ones I needed some level of clarity from.

Should I start at the beginning with Chris, my first love? Or should I start at the end and reach out to Joey from college first?

I was still in social media contact with Chris. We were an item off and on through high school, staying close friends into college. I couldn’t help grinning whenever I thought about him. There was an old saying about how you never forgot your first love. That certainly held true for me. Chris would always fill a special place in my heart.

We were barely teenagers when we first became friends. To be honest, middle school – and genetics – hadn’t been kind to me. But there came a point when I was 14 that I decided to make a change.

I had been the quiet, nerdy girl with wild hair and glasses, afraid of her own shadow, ignored in the back of the room. But after a particularly harsh rejection from a boy I had liked, I made a conscious decision to be different. I started participating in class, only raising my hand if no one else would – I mean, boys didn’t like smart girls, after all. I made jokes under my breath that only the people close by heard, but I made them laugh. I talked to the people I was most intimidated by and pretty soon I didn’t have to work so hard.

While Chris was my first love, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. That was Jerry.

Jerry was two years older than I was, cute in a rough kind of way. I saw Jerry at a basketball game and we spent most of the night sharing surreptitious flirty smiles. Until Kelly had had enough. She simply marched over to Jerry, grabbed his elbow, and dragged him over to introduce us. She didn’t know him, she just was tired of my bullshit.

I loved that woman.

Jerry was shy and sweet. He was pretty decent at small talk and was always a gentleman. He’d walk me to class and walk me home after school. He called me every night and gave me daily compliments. Not bad for a first boyfriend! Jerry was not, on the other hand, a very good kisser. He was my first kiss, too, but even I could tell something wasn’t quite right.

Nice guy, Jerry. But it didn’t take long for me to realize there was nothing substantial in our conversations. I was 15! I had read Wuthering Heights, Emma, and Somewhere in Time more than once – I wanted romance. I wanted to be swept off my feet by a boy who could get my heart racing with his personality. Jerry was not that boy. So, I broke up with him after about six weeks.

There’s very little that will boost a teen girl’s confidence like having – and breaking up with – an older boyfriend. From this new self-assurance, I found myself talking to Chris.

He sat behind me in our history class. He was funny and adorable, crushed on by many, but with zero ego about it. He played football and basketball – good at both, but not a star in either. Chris got good grades, he was well-liked by everyone, and didn’t seem to get pulled into high school popularity politics. Chris lived on a farm and belonged to 4-H. He was respectful, got up to some harmless shenanigans with a handful of good friends, and loved his mom.

One day in history class, I turned around and just started talking to him – I must have been feeling a little flirty and full of myself. I don’t remember that first conversation being anything earth-shattering, but I know I turned around the next day, and the next. Then he started tapping my shoulder to get me to turn around. I do have a vague recollection of painting his fingernails one day in class. Why I had nail polish with me, I don’t know. But that adorable, blond, curly-haired boy sat there, listening to me ramble on about what I can only imagine was drivel, and let me paint his nails a fetching shade of pink.

The weeks we spent getting to know each other was exactly what I had always dreamed of. It was so effortless to talk to Chris. I never felt self-conscious around him. We talked about everything and anything. He was smart and funny, challenging me when I needed it but supporting me always. My mom would have to threaten me to make me get off the phone when he and I got going.

He quickly became my favorite person. We sat next to each other on the shuttle bus, finding little ways to touch each other: on the shoulder, or the arm, sitting close enough for our legs to touch. It was obvious to everyone around us what was going on, but neither of us had the gumption to pull the trigger. Until a girl from our class forced his hand.

She turned around in her seat on the bus, sitting up on her knees, watching Chris and me goof around.

“Chris!”

We both looked up and she waved me off.

“Not you, Alexis! Just Chris!”

I rolled my eyes and covered my ears. She pulled a fake whisper – we were on a bus full of high schoolers, she couldn’t have whispered to the person in the seat next to her, much less to Chris five seats back.

“You two are so cute together. Why don’t you ask her out?”

Even years later, that memory made my cheeks burn and my heart race. But that darling young man didn’t miss a beat. He turned to me with a smile.

“How about it? Want to be my girlfriend?”

It was a little blunt – he had been put on the spot – but it had worked on me. I smiled for days. And the girl made sure to take credit for getting us together.

After graduation, Chris’s life took a different path than mine. While we were flirting through emails in college, he and his girlfriend – still in high school – had gotten pregnant and they got married right after she graduated.  They weren’t together anymore, but from what I heard, he was a devoted and loving father and never had a bad word to say about his ex.

I traced my fingers over the letters of his name and frowned.

As Kelly and I were leaving the park the other day, she asked a question that had been scratching at the back of my mind ever since.

“Is there maybe another reason you want to talk to these guys?”

Brushing the dirt and grass off my pants I frowned at her.

“What do you mean? What other reason?”

She shoved her hands in her pockets and started walking. It took her almost a block before she answered me.

“You say you want to talk to them to make sure you don’t screw up your relationship with Jamie. But…” Kelly peeked at me from the corner of her eye. “But could it be that you’re scared you still have unresolved feelings for the names on that list? You’re afraid that you missed something with one of them and you want to just…” She waved a hand in the air. “Check?”

“No!”

My denial was loud and immediate. I had no doubt that I loved Jamie. I could see myself with him for the rest of our lives, raising a family, growing old.

Happy.

But ever since she brought it up, the idea had been burrowing deeper into my brain. Was that my ulterior motive? I mean, my recent behavior was crazy enough as it was. But to think that I was looking to rekindle something with one of these guys from my past instead of being ecstatic to marry Jamie…?

I laid my head on the table, groaning.

What the hell was I doing?

romance, romantic, Valentine's Day

Sappy Stuff for Valentine’s Day

I have had a love-hate relationship with Valentine’s Day for most of my life. It never seemed to live up to the earth-shattering romantic reputation I was sold as a young girl.

Instead, I lived vicariously through the books and movies I cherished so much –  until I found my very own true love.

To this day, I don’t put much emphasis on the holiday. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate romance. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are some movies, books, and television moments that really mean Love to me.

  • Somewhere In Time

    This movie was released in 1980 – I was nine – and I was immediately swept away by it. The music, the clothing, the charm and beauty of the whole thing still makes my heart swell. I particularly adore the scene where Richard and Elise share their first kiss, full of anticipation and longing and…well, you can watch it for yourselves here.

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

    This is, most definitely, NOT what love should be. Heathcliff is wicked and cruel, Catherine is haughty and vain. Together, they are the epitome of a toxic relationship and everyone around them suffers for it. When I saw the 1939 movie, it drew me in and has kept this tragic story in my heart. The romance of this book might be summed up in this quote: “…so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.”

  • Love Actually

    Anyone who knows me at all knows this is one of my most cherished movies. It is rife with romantic gestures. While I see many people citing the “To me, you are perfect” scene as the most romantic, I think it’s a bit creepy. Instead, my favorite is the Portuguese restaurant scene in which Jamie butchers the language he has struggled to learn just to profess his love for Aurelia. It is an awkward scene – but also incredibly heartfelt. “…but it’s Christmas so I just wanted to…check.”

  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

    I enjoy the television portrayal of this story, but I LOVE the book. Why does a historical novel that is more than 600 pages rank so high on my list of romance? James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Diana Gabaldon has written, in my opinion, the best fictional male character ever. And it’s not just Jamie that speaks to the nature of true love, but the relationship between him and Claire. Their love slowly builds from necessity, through mutual respect, into implicit trust. They support and challenge each other throughout the story and they are, to me, the embodiment of real love.

  • New Girl: “Pilot”

    Yes, the very first episode. This show is one of my favorites and, having been perusing clips for this post, I will now binge the whole series from the beginning. Again. This scene sets the tone for the entire show and is probably one of the sweetest things ever on television. It is bumbling and embarrassing and hilarious. And I hope everyone, everywhere, gets to feel this special at least once in their lives.

  • Notting Hill

    I don’t know that this movie would have worked as well without this particular cast. The chemistry is phenomenal. There are many adorable, tender moments: the “surreal but nice” scene; the “stay forever” scene; and this one where Anna bears her heart and soul. I will watch this anytime, anywhere.

There are, undoubtedly, many other romantic songs, books, movies, and television moments that should have made this list, but these are near and dear to me. Remember that you don’t need a holiday to fall in love or to tell people how you feel. If you tell them – and show them – every day, then every day will feel like Valentine’s Day.

What are some of your go-to romantic moments? Do you agree with my choices or think there are better examples? Comment below!

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 4

Lying on our backs in the grass, my best friend and I contemplated the clouds, letting the sun and the breeze bathe us in warmth.

“Tell me the plan again?”

I rolled onto my side and propped my head on my hand. “Kelly, it’s really not that complicated. I need to talk to the other men I was in love with –“

“Boys.”

“What?”

Kelly flipped onto her side so she could face me. “Boys, Lex. They were all boys. Don’t kid yourself.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Well, they’re men now. I have a list. It’s not long, but it’s significant. Each name on this list was an important part of my love life, of my growth. I only know my side of things. I want to know theirs. The idea is to find each of them and talk about what went wrong, like John Cusak did in Hi Fidelity. But without the massive ego and the obliviousness to other people’s feelings.”

Laughing, Kelly rolled to her back again.

“Am I the Jack Black character in this scenario, or the Joan Cusak one?”

We both laughed and I told her, “Definitely Joan! It is your duty to be my sounding board and to tell me when I’m being an asshole.”

She paused for just a beat. “Alexis?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re being an asshole.”

I swatted at her, but she rolled out of my reach and splayed out on her stomach while we laughed. She was my best friend for exactly that reason. She saw through my bullshit and wasn’t afraid to call me on it.

She had been around for every name on that list. Starting in 6th grade, when we shared a locker and sat by each other in the flute section of the band. Kelly had shared my joy and dried my tears – and I had done the same for her. When her mom died our junior year and she couldn’t stand being in their empty house all alone, she lived with me until her dad moved back to town just to take care of her. While we weren’t at the same college, we stayed in constant contact and no one ever took her place. She was the one who encouraged me to talk to Jamie one night at a karaoke bar and for that, I would be forever in her debt.

“Do you think this is honestly the best way to go about things?”

I started pulling blades of grass out of the ground, one by one.

“Kell, I don’t know. That’s the worst part – I don’t know! I love Jamie. So much. The idea of not being with him is terrifying to me. But the idea of marrying him, of thinking I’ll be with him for the rest of our lives, only to watch things fall apart is eating me alive. I have to do this.”

Kelly didn’t say anything for a minute, her brow wrinkled as she mulled over my words.

“What did Jamie say about all this?”

I shrugged.

“You know. The same amazing Jamie things he always says: he’d be here when I was ready, that he’d give me all the time I needed to be sure. That he didn’t have any doubts about marrying me. God, he made me so mad!”

She sat straight up and turned an annoyed look on me.

“You need to be medicated, you know that? You need drugs and therapy. LOTS of therapy.”

I grinned up at her.

“That’s why I keep you around.”

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