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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 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 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 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 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.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 3

Up. Down. Twist, twist. Up. Down. Twist, twist.

I watched the rhythmic motion of the coffee sleeve as Jamie fiddled with it. He still hadn’t looked at me.

“Are you sure this is what you want?”

“No.” His gaze flicked to my face for a millisecond as I answered. “But I think it’s what I need.”

He nodded absently.

Up. Down. Twist, twist.

“I can’t say I understand why you want to postpone the wedding. I thought you wanted to get married. I thought you wanted to marry me.”

His voice was so quiet I could barely make out the words over the sound of the patrons around us. God, I was hurting him, and it was shattering my heart in my chest.

I really was a monster.

“I do want to marry you! I really do! It’s just…You know I love you, right? More than anything?” His hands stopped moving as I paused, then resumed their steady, distracted activity. “I can’t explain it. I just want to see…I need to make sure…it’s not that…”

I raked my hands through my hair and slammed against the back of the seat. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. I clasped my hands in my lap, pulling every muscle in tight and I held very still. I was losing control of the situation.

“Shit! This is coming out all wrong. I practiced what I was going to say a hundred times and it came out so much better than this!”

The corner of his mouth twitched into a smirk, the closest thing to a smile I’d seen since we sat down here thirty minutes ago. Maybe since he heard I climbed out that window.

“Only a hundred?” He flicked his eyes up to me then back at the table. I released my hands and relaxed  just a little.

“Well, maybe not a hundred times – but that’s not far off!”

How could I make him understand? I wanted to marry him. I loved him. But over the course of the last month, since he proposed and I accepted, I started worrying. It’s a thing I did, all the time, over everything. I had been in love before – at least I thought I had been. Why hadn’t those other relationships worked out? I had fallen out of love with other men, or they with me. Who was to say that this relationship, this love, wouldn’t fall to the wayside, just like the rest? In line with my regular prep work and checking and double-checking, I needed to find out why my previous loves had fizzled out – and how to ensure this one wouldn’t. Jamie was the best thing in my life and I couldn’t stand the thought of  finding out too late I wasn’t the best thing in his.

I watched him for a few minutes, neither of us speaking. I didn’t know what else to say. Finally, he sighed and shrugged.

“I mean, I can’t make you marry me. If you need some time to figure things out, to make absolutely sure this is what you want, then time is what you’ll have. And you know I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.”

He was so accepting, so matter-of-fact, that I was immediately angry. One of the traits I had always adored about him was, at this moment, pissing me off. I wanted him to yell at me, to tell me not to go. I wanted to hear that he was scared, too, that his feelings weren’t so indisputable – and that we’d be okay anyway.

Leaning forward with both palms flat on the table I hissed, “Aren’t you at least a little bit afraid?”

At that, his head snapped up, his expression placid, his eyes like steel.

“No. Not at all.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 2

This is a new series I’m working on that I want to share with all of you. Each week, I will post another chapter. I hope you enjoy it!

I am not known for wild behavior. I don’t think anyone has ever described me as “unreliable,” “reckless,” or “flakey.” When I say I’m going to be somewhere, you can count on me. I am ten minutes early to all appointments. I prepare a “just-in-case” bag when I meet up with people, filled with things someone might need based on the situation. I plan meals for two weeks ahead of time and have Christmas presents purchased and wrapped before Thanksgiving.

Responsible. I have no doubt that will be etched into my gravestone.

So when I climbed out the window at the bridal boutique and disappeared, my family was frantic. I refused to answer my phone. I checked into a nondescript motel on the opposite side of town with nothing but the clothes on my back and whatever was in my purse. The only contact I accepted was from Jamie. My fiancé.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“People are worried about you. Your mom is about to call the police.”

I groaned. Of course she was. Overdramatic, as per usual.

“God, I’m sorry to have put you in this position, Jamie. It’s not fair. But could you…”

He chuckled.

“I’ll tell her I talked to you and that you are definitely NOT dead in a ditch.” There was a slight pause. “Do I get to know where you are?”

I slid from the bed to the floor, the phone pressed against my ear. “Jamie…”

He immediately backpedaled. “No, right. I understand. You need some space. That’s cool. I’m cool. Take whatever time you need.”

“Thanks,” I sighed. Good old Jamie. He was my rock and my favorite person. I knew he’d never push me. He would let me have my nervous breakdown and would cover for me for as long as I asked him to. If I needed clothes or money or even my passport, he’d find a way to get them to me, no questions asked. There had never been a better man on the planet than my Jamie. He was my ride-or-die.

And I was a monster for treating him like this.

“Just promise you’ll talk to me about this when you’re ready, okay?”

After a few more assurances, a few more apologies, and a plethora of thank yous, I told Jamie I loved him and hung up the phone.

I stared at the cell in my hand for several minutes. He didn’t deserve this. Everything about him was perfect for me: He was funny and kind. He loved to cook and was excellent at it. He loved animals and kids and old people. We’d been together for two years and when he asked me to move in with him – and I declined – he didn’t bat a lash. It wasn’t a major crisis and he didn’t automatically assume I didn’t love him. Where I was tightly wound and had to have a color-coded list or schedule for everything, Jamie was content to go with the flow. He even talked me down from the ledge whenever my intricate plans went off-course and I was convinced my whole life was ruined. Like I said, he was my rock. But he was also my soft place to land when things went off the rails.

So why was I afraid to marry him?

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 1

This is a new series I’m working on that I want to share with all of you. Each week, I will post another chapter. I hope you enjoy it!

I can’t do this.

Alone in the dressing room, my heart was racing and my palms were sweating. What made me think I was ready for this? I was 25 years old – barely an adult – and yet here I was. Trying on dresses for a wedding.

For MY wedding.

I stared at the woman in the mirror, knowing she looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place her. Dark curls stifled in a French knot, lacy veil cascading over her shoulders, a sleek white dress hugging her curves. She was frozen in space and time, unable to move forward but unable to go back. Trapped in this room, trapped in planning a wedding, trapped in a life she wasn’t ready for and wasn’t sure she wanted.

Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe.

Squeals of delight filtered through the door, snapping me out of my trance. I had to get out of here. This was all wrong, this was the personification of my nightmares. I tore the veil off my head, painfully pulling some bobby pins out in the process. I continued to yank at the rest until my hair was free and wild down my back. Then I twisted and contorted myself to reach the clamps holding the too-big dress on my frame so I could shimmy out of the lace and satin straightjacket. I left it pooled on the floor as I tugged my jeans up over my hips and zipped my hoodie.

Slipping into my shoes, I tiptoed to the door. God, I hoped the saleswoman wasn’t on her way back with more dresses. I didn’t want to knock her down like a linebacker, but by god, if she got in my way that’s exactly what was going to happen! Opening the door barely a crack, I peeked into the hallway. Another party of excited young women were gathered around a mirror, oohing and aahing over the teary-eyed bride-to-be in her enormous white flounces. My stomach clenched, trying to suffocate the terrified butterflies trying to burst free.

When I felt the coast was clear, I slid out of the room, pulling the door closed behind me. I strolled down the hall, my hood pulled close over my head. The exit sign was right in front of me, just at the end of the hallway – I was almost out! I was in such a panicked state that I hadn’t stopped to think about my mom, my sisters, my best friend, waiting in the lounge for me. They’d be so freaked out when they realized I was gone.

Eh, they had champagne to entertain them – they wouldn’t miss me for at least another hour.

Three feet from the exit, I heard Janice, the sales attendant, calling my name.

“Alexis! What are you doing out here? Can I help you find something?”

Shit. I was SO CLOSE. I spun around with what I hoped was a pleasant expression.

“I was looking for the bathroom…?”

Janice forced a smile and inclined her head to my left. “Right there.” The smile didn’t reach her eyes and her voice was falsely upbeat. I didn’t blame her. She was nearly buried in a pile of new dresses for me to try on after putting up with my shenanigans all morning. I had been pretty difficult: One dress was too big, another was too slutty, the next accentuated my many lumps and bumps. I had shown my entourage one dress in more than an hour.

Janice probably hated me, and with good reason.

I shrugged an apology and ducked into the bathroom. Leaning against the door with eyes shut, I waited, counting to ten. That should be enough time for Janice to get back to the room so I could escape without her seeing me.

A sudden rapping on the door made me jump.

“Oh, Alexis? I brought five more dresses to the room – I know THE ONE is in this batch! I’m not sure if you remember the room number so I’ll just wait here for you!”

Great.

Opening my eyes, I glanced around, deciding to make myself comfortable until I could come up with an excuse to cut this torture short. Diarrhea? For sure. She’d probably shove me out the door herself. I just needed to give it a few more minutes to make it believable. Then my eyes landed on the window and another idea started to form.

It didn’t take much effort to pry it open – I just hoped it wasn’t hooked up to some security system that would give away my hasty retreat. There wasn’t a whole lot of room to squeeze all my parts through, but at least the window opened into a deserted alley. Over a closed and fairly clean dumpster, no less. With a little effort, I was able to shimmy through the opening onto the lid. Once on the ground, I straightened my sweatshirt, fluffed my hair, and slipped my purse over my shoulder.

Then I ran like hell.

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