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Return To Me: Part 4

Fear clutched at her chest and froze her muscles in place. Slowly, carefully, she rose from the mattress. She had no idea what she might find but she wasn’t about to wait for it to come find her. She padded silently on bare feet to the bedroom door, straining to hear any further movement. There was no sound, so she ventured further into the hallway, inching along with her back pressed up against the wall.

When she reached the entrance to the living room she peeked around the corner in an attempt to assess the situation from a safe distance. She could only see a sliver of the room, and she couldn’t be sure it was empty. No shuffling or other signs of movement carried to her through the quiet. Cautiously, she stepped through the doorway.

No one was there. Nothing looked disturbed. The front door was still locked as was the sliding back door. So…what had made that noise? No windows were open. It was definitely inside the house and it hadn’t been the wind blowing something over. She passed her gaze over every part of the room; over Justin’s favorite armchair, the couch Emma slept on more often than not, the end tables, the coffee table, the fireplace and the mantle.

As she turned to search the kitchen, something caught her eye. She froze.

On the hearth, shattered and broken, was the 8×10 photo of Emma and Justin’s wedding day. Their faces smiled up at her with so much hope and joy that she would have crumpled to the ground if it hadn’t been for the fact that the photo had been, just a few minutes ago, sitting peacefully on the end table.

On the opposite side of the room.

She had spun around, making sure she wasn’t imagining things. Maybe this was a different photo that had simply fallen off the mantle. Emma had been a little singularly focused recently and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for her to have moved something and forgotten. But no, there were no empty spots above the fireplace. She knew where the photo had come from. How it got here, on the other hand…

“Justin,” she’d whispered again, this time in wonder. “Justin!” She called his name louder and stood still, holding her breath. Was it possible? Was he here? Her heart raced in anticipation. Eyes wide, searching the shadows in the corners of the room, she had expected to see him standing there with his arms open, his signature bright grin splitting his face. He had stopped her. He had saved her. He was still here, watching and protecting her.

That realization had washed over Emma with a tidal wave of tears. Justin wouldn’t have wanted this for her, she knew that now. No matter how much she missed him there was no way he would have condoned taking this kind of permanent action. He had always accused Emma of being too reactionary, of jumping to a major solution for a minor problem. While the despair that had taken over her life wasn’t necessarily minor to her, she realized her resolution wasn’t going to fix anything.

She had picked up the crumpled frame carefully and carried it to the kitchen. Removing the broken glass piece by piece, her eyes stayed locked on the picture, on the face she loved more than anything. Contradictory emotions flooded through her: she felt the joy and the promise of that day shining out of their faces, the anguish of being forever separated, the rage of him being taken from her. She stood in the kitchen, memorizing every line and curve of his face, letting the tears flow. When exhaustion finally overtook her, she left the photo on the counter and made her way to bed.

Walking into the bedroom, she started undressing but stopped dead in her tracks.

Lying forgotten on the floor, dull and cold, the gun suddenly filled Emma with dread. Her hands flew to cover her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified.

What had she been about to do?

Slowly coming out of her reverie, Emma found herself still in the kitchen, holding the finished casserole. She had no idea how long she’d been standing there, lost in her thoughts, but at least she’d had the presence of mind to put on the oven mitts first. With a sigh, she reluctantly continued preparations for her dinner guests.

“Sweetheart, everything was simply delicious!” Lois smoothed her daughter’s hair back from her face and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “I know it was hard, but you did a great job. And I know the Bakers were thankful to have this chance to talk about their son with others who knew and loved him.”

Emma squeezed her mother tight. “You’re right. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’ll never be easy, but it was…oddly comforting.” The Bakers and the few neighbors who had been able to come had already left, leaving just Lois and David May with their daughter.

“Proud of you, kiddo,” David said. “You did great. Justin would have loved this.”

They were all silent for a moment, then Emma laughed. “You’re right. He loved telling his old stories and liked nothing better than to be the center of attention.” Her heart ached. “God, I miss him.”

Looking around, Lois started picking up glasses. “Let me help you clean all this up…”

Emma stopped her with a firm, “No. Mom, no. It’s okay. I like cleaning up. It lets me unwind from the stress of trying to be interesting all night. You guys go home. I’m fine.”

David raised an eyebrow at his daughter.

Kissing him on the cheek, Emma amended, “I’ll be fine.”

Once the door shut behind her parents, Emma set to the task of cleaning. She turned the radio on to fill the silence. After so much laughter and conversation, the house seemed empty all of a sudden. Singing along with the radio, Emma tried to keep her mind from wandering into the sadness that was left behind with the mess. A nice mindless activity like washing dishes coupled with the nonsense of current pop songs should do the trick.

When everything was washed and put away, she poured herself a glass of wine and leaned against the counter. Talking with everyone about Justin had brought him a little bit closer tonight. With only the light from the candles still burning on the table, Emma sat in what had been Justin’s favorite armchair.

“I miss you, baby,” she whispered. “You would have had a blast tonight. There was so much love in this room…and it was all for you.” Emma let out a deep sigh and leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It sounds like such a long time when I say it out loud, but it feels like yesterday.”

Tucking her hair behind one ear, she sipped her wine and settled back into the chair. “Our neighbor Lisa was here – without James.” She quirked an eyebrow in the dark. “So much drama, babe. I have to say, I’m glad he’s gone. It was nice to see Lisa, though.”

She shot up out of the chair and started pacing the room, suddenly agitated. “Oh, I know, I know. I need to get out more, I need to be around people again. God, you sound like my mother.” Emma stopped and stared out the window. “You were the only way I tolerated people, you know that. Nothing is any fun without you, Justin.”

Draining the last of the wine in her glass, Emma set it in the sink and blew out the candles. She stood in the middle of the dark living room and smiled sadly as she wiped a tear from her cheek. “I will never not miss you.”

Emma got ready for bed and found herself looking through Justin’s jewelry box. She hadn’t touched it since his effects were given to her after the funeral.

She picked up the watch she had given to him for their last Christmas together. He had been a watch fiend, having a different one for every day of the week. But after Emma gave him this one, it was the only one he wore. It wasn’t fancy or expensive. It wasn’t even particularly attractive, to be honest. But on the back, Emma had added an engraving: You and me, forever. Love, E.

After sifting through his old chains and the pile of business cards he had somehow accumulated in the jewelry box, her fingers brushed against his wedding band. Shiny gray tungsten, it was still perfectly round and smooth as though she had just taken it out of the box. Emma was a little sad that the tungsten didn’t show any signs of wear. Made it seem like it hadn’t been worn in love for ten years. The little infinity symbol engraved on the inside was still pristine. And was as true that day as it had been the day she exchanged rings with him. Needing to feel close to Justin, she slipped the ring on her middle finger and pressed it to her lips. She returned all the other trinkets to the box and turned out the light. The emotional night had taken its toll on her, and Emma drifted off to sleep, clutching Justin’s ring tight.

That was the first night he visited her.

Join the ‘Christmas Book Flood’ with Indie Authors

In Iceland, there is a holiday tradition called Jolabokaflod (Christmas Book Flood) in which books are given as gifts on Christmas Eve and the family spends the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate or a non-alcoholic Christmas ale.

I love this idea!

Not only does it expand the reader’s horizons and support authors, but it also gives everyone a moment to just relax. The holiday season is so fast and wild, filled with shopping and parties and traveling that you need to allow your family – and yourself – time to just slow down and enjoy the moment.

In encouraging all of you to try this tradition on for size, I’d also like to make a few suggestions on books to gift. Through the local and online writing community, I have met some talented authors from all over the world: Australia, Central Iowa, Chicago, England, California, Florida, Pennsylvania. Their genres span everything from saucy romance to horror to dystopian sci-fi to women’s fiction to inspiration and more. And I’d love to share them with you.

Here is a list of some of my favorite indie authors:

Taylor Hohulin: “Your Best Apocalypse Now”

Sarah Latchaw: “Hydraulic Level 5”

Laura A. Barnes: “Rescued By The Captain”

Michael Stoneburner: “He Was A Boy Who Smiled, Book One: Phoenix Rising”

Jeanine Lunsford: “Remembering First Love”

Kelly Fumiko Weiss: “The Cube”

Rev. Rebecca Holland: “Through My Good Eye”

Jethro Weyman: “Two Halves of the Candle: Volume One”

Ben Monroe: “Dying of the Light: A Short Story of Survival Horror”

Adam Wing: “Matriarch”

Some of these authors have series, some write poetry and novels, some write more than one genre, so be sure to check out each author to see their other work. Keep in mind that by purchasing one or more of these books, you’re giving two gifts: one to the recipient and one to the independent author through supporting their dream.

What is a favorite book you received or gave as a gift? Leave a comment below or send me an email!

Return To Me: Part 3

One year later, the pain was no less. The loneliness had only grown exponentially. And the isolation had become far more pronounced. Identifying Justin’s body had been the single worst experience Emma had ever lived through. She tried to erase that image with alcohol for the first couple of months afterwards, crying until she threw up then washing down all the pain and guilt and solitude with another bottle of wine.

There had been some even darker days that she had somehow made it through. She had a vague recollection of getting out of bed and showering every day, of leaving the house and nodding woodenly to friends and family as they offered their condolences but ultimately didn’t know what to say. Emma knew she must have eaten at some point. The only memory that stood out in stark relief was the night, six months into her life as a widow, that she had stared down the barrel of a loaded pistol.

Literally.

Emma lit the candles on the dining room table and looked over the settings once more. She had never told anyone about that night. It was the darkest moment she had ever experienced. The only thought in her mind had been that she needed to be with Justin. Without him, there was nothing in this world for her. Until the moment she realized he was really gone, Emma had considered herself an independent woman. She didn’t need a man to make her happy, to take care of her. She loved Justin and they had an amazing partnership in which they were happiest together, but she could survive alone if necessary.

At least that’s what she thought until being alone became her reality.

Thinking back as she checked the oven, she was surprised at how easy it had been to make that deadly decision. There was no weighing the pros and cons, no contemplating the ramifications to those she’d leave behind. It had been as simple as thinking there was nothing left in this world for her and she didn’t want to stay in it anymore.

She had been at lunch with her mom when it presented itself as the only solution for her, but she said nothing. Her mother had been relaying how Emma’s friends were always inquiring about her, sending their well-wishes and love. She had tried not to roll her eyes at that. Her closest friends had come to the funeral to show their support. They made donations to the local homeless shelter in Justin’s name. They brought beautiful cards with flowery poetry scripted on the inside. Some brought her casseroles – really, what was a now-single woman going to do with six pans of lasagna? – while others sent flowers or cookie bouquets. Her best friends even made a few tentative phone calls with half-assed invitations to get together when Emma knew that was the last thing they actually wanted.

Sadness and loneliness that couldn’t be alleviated hung like a lead weight around Emma’s neck every day, every night, every waking moment. Her mother encouraged her to get out, to do something, even if it was just taking a walk. Lois meant well, but Emma had been sunk so far in her grief there was nothing her mom could say or do to pull her out. Emma had let her mind wander over the last few months. The awkward lunch dates with her mother, her father’s clumsy hugs and stilted conversation because he simply didn’t know what to say. The long days and even longer nights that left her wishing for a gas leak or some other disaster to kill her in her sleep.

In that moment, at that thought, it all became so clear. Emma’s eyes were wide and clear for the first time in a long time. She felt a little guilty when her mom perked up, too, thinking her daughter was taking her well-meant advice to heart. In reality, Lois was witnessing the beginning of a plan that would ultimately end her daughter’s life. It was simple, really. Her parents were going out of town for the next week, a trip that had been planned even before Justin’s accident. If she used her time wisely, Emma could start the wheels in motion and be free of this nightmare before they returned.

Sure, her parents would be devastated for a while. She felt some remorse for that. But they would be so much better off without worrying about Emma every day. She would be at peace and that would bring them peace.

After a three-day waiting period, Emma picked up the small 9mm pistol she had selected. It wasn’t fancy. It was used and cheap, but she was assured by the salesman that it was reliable and easy to handle. She had lied to him, saying that she had just moved to town and, living alone, she wanted something to keep in the house, just in case. She had turned it over and over in her hands, admiring the compact size of the solution to her misery.

A concise note explaining her actions had been left propped up on the kitchen counter. She owed her parents that, at the very least. The house was clean and neat. The food from the refrigerator had been thrown out two days before. Emma wasn’t eating much these days anyway. All of her bills were paid, all of her services had been canceled.

She was ready.

Sitting on the edge of the bed she had once shared with Justin, Emma took a deep breath. This was the moment. Six months of missing the piece that had made her whole, made her who she was and gave her the strength to face anything, was long enough. Soon she’d be reunited with Justin and they would be together forever.

With a sense of calm she hadn’t known in what felt like eons, Emma contemplated the weapon, deciding what would be the most efficient way to take her life. She’d heard about some who shot themselves in the chest, right into the heart, but she wasn’t confident that would do the trick. Head, it was. Should she press the muzzle against her temple or place it firmly between her teeth? She frowned. There were stories of both methods going horribly wrong and only maiming the shooter. While she had never contemplated suicide before and certainly wasn’t an expert, she knew that if you were going to do the deed you’d better make sure it took.

She held the gun up and pointed it squarely between her eyes. The muzzle stared back at her, the black void promising her peace at last. This was it. She pressed the gun against her forehead, positioning it so there was no way to miss, and closed her eyes.

“Justin…” His name came out in a reverent whisper and she pictured him in her mind’s eye.

Soon.

Suddenly a crash sounded from the living room making Emma jump. She hadn’t put her finger on the trigger yet and the gun fell from her hands, clattering to the hardwood floor. Emma sprang up from her bed, her heart pounding loud and frantic in her chest.

Someone was in the house.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 33

Same restaurant, same table, very different nerves. I was waiting for Chris, the same as I had what felt like forever ago. Last time, however, I was nervous with excitement and anticipation. I had been so looking forward to talking to him and getting to know him again.

This particular meeting would be a very different situation.

I wasn’t sure if Chris knew what was coming. I didn’t know how he was going to react. Or how I was going to react, for that matter. Jamie was my future, I was absolutely certain about that, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t going to break my own heart.

My stomach was in knots and the number of times I contemplated checking the size of the window in the bathroom – just in case – was astronomical. With a snort I realized I hadn’t tried to run away for quite a while. A little personal growth, perhaps?

Yeah, doubtful.

Chris’s pickup pulled in and I seriously thought I was going to throw up. Watching him get out of the truck and stand there, still holding the handle, told me all I needed to know. It seemed he had a pretty good idea why we were here. He stared at his feet, spinning his keys around the middle finger of one hand, gripping the car door like it was his bathroom escape route. After an eternity, he pocketed his keys, scrubbed a hand over his hair and walked into the restaurant.

I stood and tried to smile as he approached. It must have been a frightening expression that was less inviting than it was horror story because his feet stuttered and I thought he was going to turn around. Instead, he grinned at me without the smile reaching his eyes. He pulled me in for a hug and kissed my cheek, exactly the way he had at our first meeting and my stomach dropped. This was going to suck.

“You look great, Lexi,” he said, holding my chair out for me before taking his own seat. He fiddled with his silverware and only glanced up now and then without making any kind of eye contact. “Do you want to actually order food, or just rip the bandage off?”

I grimaced. “Ouch.”

He shrugged and locked eyes with me. “I can’t say I wasn’t expecting this at some point. Even when we were together you weren’t really with me.”

The tears started to well up and I shook my head. “Chris, you don’t deserve this. I am a horrible human being and I am so, so sorry.”

Grabbing my hand across the table, he leaned forward. “I’m not. Not for one second.” He twined his fingers through mine and lifted our hands to kiss my knuckles. “Lexi, this time with you has been amazing. It’s nothing I was looking for, but something I see now that I really needed. Did you know that I hadn’t been on a date in a year before you called me?”

I raised my eyebrows. “I didn’t know that. But it’s got to be hard to meet people, much less go on dates, when you’ve got a kid.”

Before I had even finished my thought, Chris was shaking his head. “It wasn’t that at all. I’m not sure I know what it truly was, but I kind of think it was fear.” Rubbing his thumb over my knuckles, he stared at our joined hands. As though he’d been burned, though, he released my hand and sat back, crossing his arms. It felt terrible, like the closeness between us had been a dream.

“What could you possibly be afraid of that would keep you from dating? I don’t know why the ladies aren’t falling all over themselves to get to you! You’re sweet. You’re funny, and adorable. You’re an amazing father and a devoted and protective friend. What are you afraid of?”

He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “I’m not sure if I can explain it. After since Angie and I split up, I’ve done nothing but work, sleep, and spend time with my son. Period. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. I know all the people in my life and they know everything about me and love me anyway. The idea of getting to know someone again – of putting myself out there to be accepted or rejected – makes me want to barf.”

The waiter appeared out of nowhere and Chris was about to wave him away when I cleared my throat. “Actually, can we get some chips and queso and a couple of menus, please?” Chris raised his eyebrows at me and I grinned. “What? I’m hungry.”

He laughed at me and sat back in his seat, looking relaxed for the first time that night. “Yeah, okay, so am I. I’ve been too nervous all day to eat anything. I knew why you asked me here but I was still hoping I was wrong.”

“Chris…” But he held up a hand and leaned in.

“No, it’s fine. On the drive here I really thought about it. I said I was scared to let anyone else in, to open myself up again. But this time with you…well, it’s given me some faith in myself again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, but I’m not entirely sure what I did.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, chewing his lip. “How do I explain it? I guess that spending time with you made me realize how much I miss having someone in my life who looks at me the way you did. I want to have someone I can be number one for, a best friend and partner in crime. It’s not you, unfortunately, but I know that I’m ready to look for her. So I suppose I should be thanking you.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “You mean you’re not mad?”

“Why would I be mad?”

“For dragging you into my psychotic break? For leading you to believe that we had a future?” I could feel the tears threatening again. “Don’t you think I was unfair to you, maybe even using you?”

“Were you?”

“No! I don’t know, maybe.” I sniffled and stared at my hands in my lap.

“Can you use the willing? No one got hurt here.” He leaned forward and lifted my chin. “Besides, Lexi, I was happy to be your tool.”

We burst into laughter and when our eyes met, I knew we would be okay.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 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 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie wasn’t alone.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 24

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

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

“Alexis, wait!”

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

“Chris…What are you saying?”

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

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

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

“You’re not joking, are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

“I kissed Chris.”

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

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

“Oh, Alexis…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wouldn’t be pretty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid to ask…”

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 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.”

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