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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 30

I watched Chris leave, thinking about what he’d said. He really wasn’t pushing me. So why did I feel like I was under pressure?

That was all on me. It was classic Alexis; the weight of the world balanced precariously on every decision I made. Logically, I knew that very little hinged on what job I took, where I went on vacation, what I had for dinner. But somehow my anxiety had convinced me that if I chose poorly the repercussions could be catastrophic.

Being around Chris felt good. He was kind and considerate and probably the sweetest man on the planet. Could I see myself with him? Easily. We would wake up and make breakfast, then spend the time before we had to work drinking coffee and discussing the latest news. On the weekends we could stay in bed and binge tv or get up to wander around the Farmers’ Market, holding hands and meeting up with friends for brunch. Our life together stretched out in front of me, calm, peaceful, and full of love. We could get married and buy a house, get a dog and have a baby. He’d be the best dad.

With a shock, I realized I had forgotten a very important piece of information regarding Chris: He was already a dad!

I frowned. That tidbit brought with it an entire host of things I hadn’t taken into consideration. His ex-wife would always be a part of his life. It’s not that I didn’t like Angie or that I thought she’d try to come between us, but that reminder that he’d loved someone else would always be present. I liked kids. At least, I was sure I would, if I spent any time around them. Chewing my lip, it dawned on me that life with Chris might cause as much anxiety as it quelled.

When I walked into my apartment, Jamie was standing at the window, hands in his pockets and his shoulders down. He didn’t turn when I came in. He didn’t say anything, either.

“Hey,” I said. “It’s time we had a talk.”

He cleared his throat. “I’ve already lost you, haven’t I?”

I froze, guilt settling like a weight in my stomach. “What do you mean? Of course not. But I think we both have questions that deserve answers.”

Jamie nodded, shuffled his foot on the carpet, then crossed the room and sat in the chair he’d been in earlier.

He didn’t look up at me once.

As soon as I was settled across from him, hands clenched in my lap, I tried to order my thoughts. I had no idea what to start with. Should I tell him things I think he wants to know? Ask him my questions? Keep my mouth shut and wait for him to start?

I watched him and it became obvious he wasn’t about to take the initiative. He was slouched forward in the chair, elbows resting on his thighs. Staring at the floor, his hands hung limp between his knees. Everything about him felt dejected and heartbroken. And, once again, it was because of me.

“Are you in love with him, Lex?” he asked the floor.

Was I? That was the million-dollar question. How did I feel about Chris? There was a part of me that wanted to spend all my time with him, to kiss him again, to just lie in his arms. But the rational part of me was able to look at the situation and see it the way he had described our kiss: ‘It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.’

Looking at Jamie in my living room and seeing what my behavior was doing to him broke my heart. I wanted to gather him to me and kiss him, soothe him, and take away all the hurt.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m so confused. I don’t know if these are real feelings or something left over from high school or just a reaction to the way he thinks he feels about me.”

Jamie sat up and finally met my gaze. His lips curved into the ghost of a smile, but his eyes were still filled with pain. “That’s better news than I was expecting,” he said. “Watching how comfortable you two are with each other, I was sure this was the end for me.” His face darkened and he turned away. “But the fact that you kissed him is going to hang over us for a long time.”

“I know.” I stared at my hands as I picked at my nails. Oh, I was aware that I had hurt him in a moment of stupidity and the guilt weighed heavily on me. “It sounds like a broken record, but I never meant for that to happen. It was nothing but a moment of weakness.”

I was going to say more, try to apologize again, to get him to understand what I had been feeling in that moment with Chris. But as I looked at Jamie’s sad, distraught face, something occurred to me.

“Wait a minute. I’ve already explained this, I’ve already apologized. It’s your turn to start talking.”

His brow furrowed, he cocked his head and asked, “What do you mean? About what?”

I crossed my arms and narrowed my eyes, giving him the best glare I could muster as I uttered one word.

Kelly.”

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 29

I placed a hand on Chris’s chest to hold him at the door and then turned so I could also see Jamie in the living room behind me.

How had my life gotten so complicated?

“Now, hold on a second,” I began. Before I could launch into a speech about all of us being adults and how we should take a deep breath and just talk, both Jamie and Chris pointed an accusing finger at each other.

“What’s HE doing here?” they both shouted.

I pushed Chris out into the hallway. “You: go outside! We need to talk.” He tried to protest, but the look on my face must have promised danger because he went without another word.

I spun around and pointed at a smug-looking Jamie. “And you,” I snarled. “Are not off the hook. I expect you to be exactly in that spot when I get back!”

At least he had the common sense to look ashamed of himself as I left, slamming the door behind me. I stomped outside to deal with the first crisis.

Chris was pacing on the sidewalk, chewing his lip with his hands deep in his pockets. He seemed to relax as soon as he saw me and stepped up wearing an enormous smile. “Lexi!”

“What are you doing here, Chris?”

He frowned for a second. “I told you – I was worried. You sounded like you might be in trouble.” Dipping his head to get a better look at my face, he asked, “Are you in trouble?”

Suddenly all my anger drained away and I was exhausted. “No. Maybe. I don’t know, Chris.” I sighed and closed my eyes, trying to regain control of my whirling emotions.

“Are you and Jamie fighting?”

I nodded.

“Is it bad?”

I shrugged. “It’s all gotten completely out of hand. None of this was supposed to happen!” Running my hands through my hair, I paced along the sidewalk. “I mean, I know I cheated first, but god, this is all wrong!”

Chris grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face him. “Whoa, whoa. There are a couple things I need you to clarify in that last sentence. You cheated on Jamie? When? And with who?”

I gaped at him. “Chris, it was with you. We kissed? You were there.”

He rolled his eyes and laughed. “Oh my god, I thought you actually slept with someone.”

“It shouldn’t have happened.” I felt the tears coming and closed my eyes again to keep them at bay. “If it wasn’t cheating, then what was it?”

“Lexi, it was a moment, that’s all.” Cupping my cheek, Chris wiped an escaped tear with his thumb. “It was a moment of powerful emotions. Of nostalgia and confusion, loneliness and affection. It was two people with a shared past needing to feel something good, if only for a little while.”

I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Stop doing that!”

“Doing what?”

“Saying the right thing! Saying the exactly perfect thing that I need to hear that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside! I need you to be an asshole and you are failing abysmally.”

Laughing, Chris opened his arms. I only hesitated a second before wrapping my arms around his waist and laying my cheek on his chest. He rubbed my back and kissed the top of my head and it was nicer than I wanted to admit.

Maybe I could just stay out here for the rest of the day – or forever – letting Chris take care of me while he said sweet things to me. Jamie could have my apartment if I didn’t have to go back in there and face him.

His hand stopped moving and he froze.

“What?” I asked.

Holding me at arm’s length, his eyes narrowed, he said, “Hold on. You said you cheated ‘first’. For you to be first there had to be someone second. What did he do, Lexi?”

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” I backed out of Chris’s reach. “I’m not sure if he did anything, we didn’t have a chance to get into it before you showed up. But…” I bit my lip and stared at my feet.

“That bastard,” he snarled. “Who is she? That tramp he brought to the art show?”

Without looking up, I shook my head. How could I explain my suspicions to him when I couldn’t wrap my own head around it? Gravity seemed to be pulling my tears from my eyes against my will. Chris saw the first one plop on the ground, and I could hear him grumbling under his breath.

“Alexis, was it someone you know?”

I nodded and swiped at my eyes. “I­…I think it was Kelly.”

“WHAT?!”

Chris yelled so loud he rousted some birds from a tree near the parking lot and definitely got my attention. His hands clenched and unclenched, his face turning red.

“He’s lying,” he said. “There’s no way Kelly would do that to you. He’s trying to make you feel bad – feel worse than you already do – by saying you drove him to cheat because he thinks YOU cheated! What a rat.”

Standing with my arms limp at my sides, I waited for Chris to stop his tirade. I didn’t have the energy to argue with him. Hell, I didn’t think I had the energy to go back upstairs and deal with Jamie, either. My eyes followed the path of the sidewalk, wondering where it would take me, how far away it went, and if I could outrun Chris if I got a jump on him.

He noticed that I wasn’t seething with him, and he slowed his frantic pacing until he was directly in front of me.

“Lexi? Are you okay?” He stroked my arm and took my hand, stepping close and lacing his fingers with mine. “I’m an asshole. You’ve got so much on your shoulders you don’t need me freaking out, too. I shouldn’t have yelled. Sorry.”

I wanted to be mad. I wanted to shove him or punch him in the stomach or yell at him. But I looked up at his sweet eyes and his sad smile and I just couldn’t. Instead, I kissed his cheek and grinned.

“You’re pretty wonderful, you know that? But Chris, this,” I held up our joined hands. “This has to stop.” My heart broke at the expression on his face as he disentangled our hands. His shoulders hunched and he stared at his shuffling feet, burying his fists deep in his pockets. “For now. I need it to slow down for now, while I figure out what the hell I’m doing. And what I want.”

He nodded. “You know I don’t want to push you. I want you to be happy, whatever that looks like. Even if it’s not with me.”

Before I could say anything else, he turned with a small wave and walked away.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 27

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

The convertible top stayed up this time.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

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

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

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

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where did that leave me?

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

I groaned.

Hey! What’re you up to?

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

What do you say to mini golf and pizza?

“Damn it, Chris,” I cursed him.

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

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

Instead, he called me.

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

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

“Gee thanks.”

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

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

Jamie was in the hallway.

“Shit.”

Both Chris and Jamie heard my expletive.

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

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

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

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

And I was the reason.

“Hey. Can I come in?”

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

“What the hell are you watching?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 26

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

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

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

“Seriously, we need to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think that was terrifying to him.

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

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

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

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

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

“You told me not to call you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh shit.

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

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

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

“Don’t be an asshole.”

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

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

“Postponed,” I whispered.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamie wasn’t alone.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Has that changed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lexi,” he sighed.

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

What the hell was I doing?

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.

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