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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 27

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

The convertible top stayed up this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where did that leave me?

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

I groaned.

Hey! What’re you up to?

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

What do you say to mini golf and pizza?

“Damn it, Chris,” I cursed him.

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

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

Instead, he called me.

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

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

“Gee thanks.”

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

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

Jamie was in the hallway.

“Shit.”

Both Chris and Jamie heard my expletive.

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

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

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

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

And I was the reason.

“Hey. Can I come in?”

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

“What the hell are you watching?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chewed my lip. “But –“

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 18

While I had seen and heard of the karaoke club, I was not in the least prepared for the experience of being inside. Generally, a bar has a rough clientele base: it’s a classy sit-down pub for the middle aged; it’s a bass-thumping dance club for the newly legal and almost legal to grind and shimmy; it’s a dark, seedy joint for ancient, lost souls to drown their despair.

This was a mixture of all of the above.

Currently, a 40-something brassy blonde with false eyelashes was belting out Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive like it was a church hymn. There was a scraggly eighty-year-old sitting at the bar, using his hands to conduct the music with enthusiasm. Men and women of all ages stood and sat and drank and talked and sang along. I’d never seen anything like it.

The club wasn’t very big, but I still had trouble finding the face that had lured me inside. As I was scanning the crowd Kelly elbowed me.

“Go get us some drinks.”

“What? Why should I buy? It’s your turn, Kell.”

“I’ll pay you back. And for god’s sake, do me a favor and just talk to him.”

My cheeks burned red and I scoffed. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

She grabbed my shoulders and forced me to look into her eyes.

“Don’t insult me. I’m not stupid. He’s standing at the bar, watching you, and has been since we walked in.”

That information made my stomach start doing flips. Still, I tried to lie to my best friend and hide the fact that I was already smitten.

“Maybe he’s a creep or a psychopath.”

She rolled her eyes and turned me around, pushing me toward the bar.

“I don’t for a second think that you believe that. Please put us all out of our misery.”

Sure enough, he was standing at the bar, trying to be sly about watching me. When our eyes met, he blushed a little but didn’t look away. To the contrary, he stood up taller and grinned a little wider.

Damn. I guess I was buying this round.

Not wanting to be too obvious, I didn’t try to squeeze into the space right next to him. I figured that if he was truly interested, he’d travel that extra three feet to me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.

“I was hoping I’d get a chance to meet you.”

Goosebumps. Immediately. Keep it together, Alexis.

I looked up at him with a half-smile. “You were?”

“Absolutely.” He held out his hand, even though we were basically pressed against each other in the crowd. “I’m Jamie.”

“Alexis.” When I shook his hand, the contact lasted longer than it should have. It seemed neither one of us wanted to be the first to let go.

“I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this moment, Alexis.”

My eyebrows shot up. “Wow. What a line.”

“Don’t you believe in love at first sight?”

“Is that what you think this is?”

He leaned in close so I could hear him over the noise. He smelled amazing. “I’m struggling to come up with a more feasible explanation for the way I’m feeling.”

“And how is that?”

He wasn’t touching me at all, but his breath on my ear and the side of my neck was oddly intimate.

“My heart is racing, I feel like I’m on fire, I can hardly catch my breath…”

“Maybe you have malaria.”

He cocked his head to the side and gave me a full smile. “Cute.”

“So…you’re telling me you DO believe in such fairy tales as love at first sight.”

Looking down at me, his smile softened. There was so much tenderness in his eyes my knees nearly buckled.

“I never used to.”

Kelly and I did not make it to the final stop that night.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 17

By the time I got home, I had declined 12 phone calls and nearly 20 text messages. I switched the cell off.

The rest of the night was spent curled up on my bed, bawling like a child. I knew I had brought all of this on myself, but I had never felt so alone in my life.

Any time I felt this bad, my first impulse was to call Jamie. He was my rock and had been for over two years. Jamie always knew how to comfort me, how to help me work through my problems without making me feel worse. But somehow, I didn’t think he would be super sympathetic to my self-pity.

I held my hand in front of me, where I could admire the ring Jamie had picked out for me. He had spent more than a month shopping for the perfect style for me and, of course, he knocked it out of the park. Somehow, Jamie knew me so well he picked out the ring I never knew I had always wanted. He’d been doing things like that since the day we met.

Kelly and I were downtown that night to blow off steam after a long work week. The days of binge drinking and wild girl behavior were long past, so we were nursing drinks and hopping between bars on the square. We had challenged ourselves to have one drink at every bar before we called it quits. We’d been to the country/western bar, the martini bar, the Irish pub, and the sports bar. The only ones left were the video game arcade and the karaoke club. We were standing on the sidewalk debating which one would be the last stop for the night. That’s when I first saw Jamie.

He was at the back of a crowd of young men walking toward us, smiling at something the guys around him were talking about. He was wearing a Red Sox baseball cap, a white buttondown shirt with the sleeves rolled up to just below his elbows, and a pair of slim, dark jeans. I think his smile was the first thing that got my heart racing. Kelly was still talking, probably asking me questions, but her words barely registered.

As the group got closer, Jamie finally looked up and saw us. It sounds so cliché, but I was lost in that moment. A cartoon princess movie would show a montage of birds singing, and rainbows arching across the sky, and flowers blooming just so the butterflies would have somewhere to land. The neon lights and traffic and noisy music spilling from every doorway was, to me, just as sweet and just as romantic.

Jamie fell farther to the back, his steps slowing and stuttering, like he was torn about which direction to go, with his group or a few steps farther – to me. Our eyes stayed locked on each other even as his friends turned into the karaoke bar and he followed them with some reluctance.

“Kell, let’s go do some karaoke.”

“Really? Can you sing?”

I shrugged. “I sound great with the radio. Come on!”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 16

Sunday dinner devolved quickly. Dad and I returned to my mom and sisters silently carrying on with food prep. None of them looked up when we came in, they all just kept on viciously chopping, peeling, and sautéing like those veggies had done something wrong, instead of us.

I attempted to apologize, as did Dad. Our pleas fell on deaf ears, however. My presence wasn’t so much as acknowledged, let alone forgiven. Since it appeared that we would, eventually, have a dinner to eat, I decided to sit in the living room with my dad.

Turns out that was the wrong decision. I could feel the piercing stares and waves of disgust washing over me the entire time it took for dinner to be served. Even then, not one of them invited us to join them. We simply saw that the food was done and decided to take our chances.

We were seated around the table, the only sound the clinking and scraping of silverware on plates. It was hard to enjoy the gourmet meal I was putting in my mouth because I felt so miserable. The air felt thick and heavy with judgment of what was seen as my horrible and selfish behavior. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I set my fork down nicely next to my plate and folded my hands in my lap.

“Can we please talk about this?”

There was an immediate lack of movement from anyone in that dining room. After an unusually uncomfortable pause, my mom was the only one to speak.

“No.”

“Judy…” My dad tried to smooth things out with her, placing a hand on her arm and speaking in a quiet voice. She was having none of that, though.

“Don’t you start with me, Jim! Don’t you dare. You’re as bad as she is! Sneaking out without a word to anyone!”

“There was no way to get a word IN, mom! You all were screaming at each other so loud a bomb could have gone off and you wouldn’t have noticed!” My resolve to be calm and contrite was beginning to unravel.

Lisa snorted. “Oh, right. This whole situation is OUR fault?”

“I didn’t say that. But may I point out that its nobody’s decision but MINE when or even whether I marry Jamie?!”

“Alexis, you wouldn’t!” Maggie gasped and stared at me with wide eyes.

I looked around the table at these people I loved – my mom, fuming at everyone around her; Maggie on the verge of tears at the idea that I might not get married; my dad looking like he was trying to figure out how to avoid sleeping on the couch that night; and Lisa showing zero emotion with her eyes glued to some imaginary spot on the wall – and I couldn’t be there one second longer.

I scraped my plate into the trash, thanked them all for a wonderful dinner, and slammed out the door without looking back.

Huh. Seemed I had developed a ‘modus operandi’ of running away from my problems. I made a mental note to see someone about that.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 15

After my dad joined the conversation it got exceptionally loud in that little kitchen. Not because of him – my father was probably the calmest, most thoughtful human being I had ever encountered. Jamie was a close second.

No, my mom and my sisters decided that they each knew what my problem was. And they each knew exactly how to fix it.

My mother said I was being silly and overreacting to a case of cold feet.

“Everyone gets them! But that’s no reason to go traipsing around with ex-boyfriends!”

She felt that I should just quit messing around, put on my big-girl panties, and do what I was supposed to do. Judy then launched into a tirade about whiny millennials.

The fix suggested by Lisa was to just call off the wedding. It was glaringly apparent to her that I just didn’t want to get married. I was too young and shouldn’t rush into anything. She also felt I was being tremendously unfair to Jamie, stringing him along.

“The only decent thing to do is to cut him loose and stay single for a year or longer. Marriage isn’t for everyone.

Maggie, with her imagined wealth of experience in all things, said that Jamie and I had been together too long and that I was simply feeling restless. She thought that I needed to get away to Las Vegas for a wild and crazy weekend.

“What happens in Vegas, and all that! Imagine blowing off some steam with an anonymous stranger. Sow some wild oats before settling down – you’ll feel like a whole new woman!”

Not surprisingly, my mother lost her damn mind at Maggie’s suggestion, Maggie thought Lisa was bonkers to think that being alone was the best course of action, and Lisa couldn’t believe that our mother would blindly overlook my feelings and push me into some sexist expectation from the Dark Ages.

Each one was shouting louder than the next and ignoring me, completely. I watched silently from the far side of the kitchen until tears blurred my vision. While Mom, Lisa, and Maggie were distracted, my dad nudged me with his elbow and waggled his eyebrows.

The cavalry had arrived.

It was simple to escape the house. None of them heard anything but their own voices at this point. My dad and I kept quiet until we had turned the corner a few houses down.

“You know they’re going to think I just ran away. Again. Mom’s going to shit herself.”

Thankfully, Jim was not as shocked by foul language as Judy was, and he chuckled under his breath.

“I have a feeling you’re right about that. But don’t worry – I’ll tell them that this time you were kidnapped.” He slung an arm around my shoulders and grinned down at me.

I had so much on my mind, and I had no idea how to express any of it.

“Dad, do you think I should just call off the wedding?”

He squeezed my shoulder. My dad would take his time to answer, carefully measuring each word before it was uttered.

“Kiddo, it doesn’t matter what I think – or what your mom or your sisters think, either. The only people this wedding should really matter to are you and Jamie.”

I sighed and laid my head on his shoulder.

“I know, Dad. In my heart I know you’re right. But I can’t help thinking that Lisa has a point. Jamie deserves better. Maybe the fact that I’m hesitating is – is proof that this isn’t what I want. That I’m just going along with it because it’s what’s expected.”

“Is that how you feel?”

Was it? Everything was such a mess I couldn’t tell what I felt.

“Did I tell you I ran into Doug last week?”

Judging by the sudden tension in his body, I had not. It was no secret my dad had zero love for Doug. And that was even without knowing the whole story. Losing your virginity on a bathroom counter was NOT something you discussed with your father.

“Don’t worry, it was purely an accident. I know what went wrong there. And he’s still an asshole. Hopefully he was drunk enough that he won’t remember he knows me, much less that he saw me.”

Dad shook his head and grunted.

“That kid was a dickhead.” I couldn’t help laughing. “Sorry, Alexis, but he was!”

“Still is, Dad.” I frowned at the sidewalk. “But running into him made me even more worried about the future. I thought I was in love with Doug.”

My dad stopped cold in the middle of the sidewalk and turned me so he could see my face.

“Jamie is NOT Doug.”

“I know. But – ”

“It sounds to me like you’re trying to talk yourself out of getting married. Like you don’t trust your own feelings.”

I groaned. “At this point, I don’t, Dad.”

He tucked my hand in the crook of his arm and started steering us back home.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 14

Every Sunday, my sisters and I descended on our childhood home to cook dinner for our parents. It became a tradition after my older sister, Lisa, moved to the other side of town for college. Maggie and I had missed her so much, and she came home every weekend to do laundry anyway, that we just decided it should be a thing. That was almost ten years ago.

This particular Sunday was about three weeks after the bridal shop ‘incident’. Once they all knew I was safe, they hadn’t pushed for more information. The last two weekends had slipped by in pleasant conversation and homemade pie without a scene.

But my mother had reached her limit.

My sisters and I were dancing around the kitchen, working together like a clunky, rusty machine, but still getting the job done. Dad was in the living room watching one of the news channels, giving them back his commentary. My mom was sitting on a stool at the kitchen island, trying to stay out of our way for fear of being trampled.

We were singing along to the radio as we worked, laughing at each other and lost in the music. Then Judy switched off the sound and slapped her hands on the marble counter.

“Okay, that’s about enough!”

Maggie nibbled at the celery she’d been chopping.

“We weren’t THAT bad, were we? I mean, Alexis was a little flat, but otherwise – “

“That’s not what I was referring to, and you know it.”

Tugging at her sleeve, Lisa steered Maggie to the far side of the kitchen. It seemed I was the only one not quite grasping the situation and I continued to root around in the fridge.

“Alexis Marie! I have been patient. I have tried to be understanding. But, by god, I deserve an explanation!”

There was complete silence following her outburst. I even heard my dad lower the volume on the television. That was kind of his thing; listening without obviously listening. Maggie and Lisa were huddled in the corner, well out of reach of our enraged mother – and me.

“Well?”

Well, indeed. Once again, I was faced with the task of trying to explain something I wasn’t sure I understood, myself.

“I am sorry for sneaking out on you like that. I don’t have an excuse. It was rude and selfish – ”

“And childish.” Mom gave me a glare that dared me to contradict her.

“And childish. I should have apologized a long time ago.”

That seemed to soften Judy’s resolve a bit. She raised her eyebrows, crossed her arms, and nodded.

“Thank you. We sat out there for a good hour before anyone realized you weren’t there. Poor Janice thought you had been kidnapped, or something.”

Shoving my hands in my pockets, I leaned back against the refrigerator. All I could do was stare at the floor and hope the words to make things better would materialize before me. Thankfully, my mom couldn’t stand the silence and the tension.

“Oh, sweetie. What on earth made you run away? Was it all just overwhelming?”

I shrugged. “A little. It’s just…I was looking at myself in that mirror and it was all so real all of a sudden. I guess I panicked.”

“Don’t you want to marry Jamie anymore?”

“Oh god Lisa, yes! I do want to marry him! Just not…yet.”

Maggie took the stool next to Mom and slung an arm over her shoulders.

“Can you believe this shit, Judy?”

We all snorted – all except Judy.

“Margaret! Watch your mouth! And since when don’t you call me Mom?”

“Since I am a grown, independent woman.”

“…who raids mom’s kitchen rather than go shopping for herself.” Lisa dodged her sister’s playful swat and wrapped me in a hug.

“I heard you were with Chris a couple weeks ago.”

Everyone perked up at Lisa’s statement, mouths round in shock.

I rolled my eyes.

“Oh my god, you guys! I wasn’t ‘with’ him in the Biblical sense! Is that what you think of me? We went to dinner. That is ALL.”

My dad, showing he was following along with the conversation just fine, thank you very much, piped up without turning around.

“How is old Chris, anyway? I always liked that kid.”

Turning on her stool, my mom was the one to reply.

“Jim, I’ve told you all this before. He’s divorced and lives with his little boy in the guest house on his parents’ farm. You’ve seen them.”

He waved his hand, lazily in the air. “Oh sure, sure. I remember that now.”

After a short silence, Dad hoisted himself from his armchair and wandered into the kitchen.

“Lex, what were you doing going out with Chris? Are things okay with you and Jamie?”

Well now. That WAS a question, wasn’t it?

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 13

Doug and I only dated for a few weeks, all told. He had wooed me, bringing me flowers, giving me compliments. After being rejected by Chris, it was a nice change to feel wanted and adored.

Our relationship turned physical pretty quickly. Looking back, that was my error; I had assumed that because he was younger than I was, he was more innocent, too. But I learned Doug was very skilled in the art of manipulation.

Chris and I had never had sex. We loved each other, but we just never got to that point – it never seemed necessary. Sure, there was a lot of making out (top of my list of favorite things, remember?) and a fair amount of heavy petting, but we were both still virgins when we broke up.

Knowing what I know now, Doug’s behavior was classic sociopath. He zeroed in on me, sensing my vulnerability and my need to see the good in others. He turned every situation to his advantage, making other people think that when he got in trouble, it wasn’t his fault. I caught him in a couple of lies but he gaslighted me into believing I was paranoid or overreacting.

I liked kissing Doug. I liked the way he made me feel, the things he whispered in my ear. He wanted to have sex, be the first for each other, but I wasn’t quite ready. He was disappointed but ultimately understanding each time I put on the brakes. But that didn’t stop him from trying to push things just a little farther every time we were together.

We had gotten a hotel room to ring in New Year’s Eve with our friends – well, the parent of one of our friends got the room. None of us was old enough. There was plenty of alcohol, the really horrible stuff that got you drunk quickly and made you sick the next day. The whole night, Doug and I hadn’t been actually fighting, but he had been distant and quiet. When I pressed him about it, he shrugged it off. He finally told me that he was so crazy about me and couldn’t stop thinking about touching me, and that I was making him miserable by saying no. Didn’t I love him?

Damn, he was good.

I had been drinking plenty of orange Mad Dog and was feeling pretty amorous. As the night wore on and I thought about it more and more, that addled, drunk teen brain was convinced that Doug really loved me, that I really wanted to have sex – and to have sex with him – and that I was finally  READY.

So, when I whispered coyly into his ear that I wanted him, he unceremoniously pulled me into the bathroom and we proceeded to fuck quickly and uncomfortably on the hotel bathroom counter, with everyone in the other room knowing exactly what was going on behind that door.

Not my proudest moment.

After that night, he became even more and more distant. There was always something else he had to do rather than take me out, or he couldn’t stay on the phone with me for more than a few minutes. There were no more flowers, no more sweet nothings in my ear. In their place arose hurtful criticisms disguised as backhanded compliments. He resorted to name-calling – nothing really hurtful, but instead of calling me sweetie or babe he started calling me dork and loser. All under the cloak of quirky terms of endearment.

I got off work early one weekend and decided to surprise him with dinner. Well, he had a surprise for me, too.

A coworker named Dawn, naked in his bed.

I screamed and yelled and cried and he blamed me for showing up unannounced, for not being more willing and available. He had needs that I wasn’t fulfilling.

What a jackass.

That had been a hard lesson for me to learn. After Doug, I didn’t date for almost a year. When I did, the summer before college, there was very little physical contact. One boy – so sweet and shy and kind – only got hugs on my front porch after our dates. For three months.

The last I had heard of Doug was that he had joined the Navy, following in his old man’s footsteps. I had convinced myself that I’d never have to see him again and had taken great comfort in that thought.

And yet, here he was. Leaning in too close, telling me sexist and dirty jokes. He never realized that I had been giving him the death glare for a solid five minutes.

He stumbled forward, pushing himself up against me and breathing heavily.

“Come on, Alexis, let’s get out of here. Relive some old times? Give me a chance to remind you what it’s like to be with a REAL man.”

Kelly materialized out of nowhere, throwing her arm around me and squeezing herself between me and Doug.

“Lex! Where’s the freaking wine? I’m dying over here!”

She paid the bartender, handed me the two glasses, and steered me toward our table with a high-pitched, “Byeeee!” thrown over her shoulder at a drunk and confused Doug.

His ball sack had been saved by Kelly that night, and he never even knew it.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 12

This couldn’t be happening.

Doug had crawled out from under his slimy rock somewhere. I thought I had scraped him off many years ago and had clung to the idea that I’d never have to see his smug face again.

After Chris and I had broken up, I was feeling pretty bad about myself. I turned to my work friends more often – Doug being one of them – and he fit in with everyone pretty well. We had worked together for nearly a year, but it wasn’t until my breakup that we became good friends. We hung out with our work crowd and talked on the phone almost every night. He was a lot of fun and very attentive and, after my devastating heartbreak, was a willing shoulder for me to cry on.

Then things started to change. It was subtle at first; suggesting we go see a movie or that I should come over to hang out. I would always offer to call the rest of our friends to join us, at which point he’d suddenly remember something else he had to do.

One night he confessed that he was in love with me. I laughed it off – he was younger than me, and kind of goofy, even if he was cute and charming. He tried multiple times to convince me we’d make a great couple; we were already close friends, we got along so well, we had fun together – why shouldn’t we take it to the next level? I turned him down over and over. I explained that I valued him as a friend and didn’t want to ruin that. That’s not what he wanted to hear, so he started to withdraw. He wouldn’t take my calls or was monosyllabic when he did.

Soon, he laid down an ultimatum. He wanted to be a couple. If I couldn’t do that, he couldn’t be friends with me. It was too painful for him. At that point, I had been leaning on him a lot for distraction from the sadness of my breakup with Chris, and I didn’t want to lose him. I hemmed and hawed for the weekend and finally agreed to go out on a date.

I cringe every time I think about it. What an idiot I was.

“Alexis, babe, you look pretty good! You’ve definitely aged well…” He sneered at me. “Are you surprised to see me?”

Trying to pass off a grimace as a smile, I hoped the lighting was dim enough he couldn’t tell.

“Doug, if I had a list of the people I least expected to see here tonight, you would be at the top of that list.”

He puffed out his chest and smirked. “Damn straight, I would!”

He would take that as a compliment.

“What have you been up to while I’ve been gone? Hanging around, missing me?” He leaned back and let his eyes wander all over me. I immediately wanted to vomit. “I don’t see a wedding ring…”

“Nope. But I see you have one. Congratulations.”

Like he had just remembered that he was married, he frowned at his hand.

“Oh yeah, that. No big deal. I hung out with Jill for a few months and then she got knocked up when I was home on leave. There was no way I was going to let her raise my kid without me. Marrying her seemed the best way to keep control of the situation and make sure she wasn’t out whoring around.”

My jaw dropped. There was absolutely nothing I could think of to say to that.

The bartender set two shots down in front of Doug and he slid one over to me.

“Come on, let’s celebrate!”

“Celebrate what, exactly?”

He leaned in close so I could smell his cheap cologne and the waves of alcohol on his breath.

“Us running into each other like this, baby. It’s great to see you, but I’d love to see even more of you, if you catch my drift.” He pulled away and winked.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

“Thanks Doug, but my shot days are well behind me. Please, help yourself.”

With that, he shrugged and downed them both, shaking his arms with a loud, “Whoo!”

“You’re married, huh? And with a baby. Is your wife here?”

He smirked and shook his head slowly.

“Nope. I am free as a bird tonight. When I go out, I don’t want the old ball and chain hanging on me. Jill takes care of the kid and I send her money while I’m out on deployment. When I’m home, she does whatever I want, whenever I want it. Other than that, she doesn’t get into my business.”

I didn’t think it was possible, but Doug had become an even bigger misogynist douche.

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