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Return To Me: Part 6

The rest of the day was spent poring over the summoning book, looking for just the right words and symbols necessary for what she was about to attempt. Many variations of the incantation were written and discarded. Eventually, she ended up with a chant that she felt was powerful and to-the-point. She practiced drawing the sigil Justin had told her to use, finding it in the book. She drew it over and over until it was perfect. She cleared off the dining room table, placing a dark purple cloth at the head and smoothing the sigil drawing on top of it. She traced the shape on the paper with the powdered elderberry, her hands surprisingly steady. Settling the candle at the top of the cloth, she stood back and surveyed her work. Perfect.

Once the table was ready, Emma poured herself a glass of wine before turning off the lights throughout the house. She perched on the edge of Justin’s favorite armchair and gazed out the large bay window into the quiet night. All the trick-or-treaters had come and gone, leaving the street empty.

Next to the chair stood the end table that held the reframed photo of the two of them on their wedding day. Justin’s warm brown eyes smiled out at her, sparkling with mischief. She picked up the photo and gazed at her husband’s face. He looked so alive in this picture, so vibrant and warm it was disorienting. How could he be dead?  Justin had been larger than life and brought light into every room he entered. You could feel the kindness and joy radiating off him any time you were within ten feet. Emma wasn’t the only one who felt it. But she was sure she was the only one who experienced the absence of that sunshine so acutely. His recent nighttime visitations had only served to dig that emptiness bigger and deeper and more painful. It didn’t matter if they were real or merely wishful dreaming. Justin was still gone.

Trailing her finger along the shape of his cheek, she kissed the glass and set the frame back on the table. She finished her wine, rinsed the glass and took her place at the end of the table in front of the makeshift altar.

It was time.

Pulling a small folded piece of paper out of her pocket, Emma lit the candle. She smoothed the paper on the table, so she could read the words, and held her hands out, palms up, in front of her. She cleared her throat and closed her eyes, taking a bracing breath.

“You who lived yesterday, I call you from my mind to yours. Come back from the shadows into the light.” She glanced at the paper before cupping her hands and wafting the candle smoke over her face. “I feel the warmth of your body, the warmth of your spirit. This sigil of summoning calls you to me and I hold you in my arms, my heart, and my soul. I bid you return to me.”

She choked back a sob, overcome with the desperation she felt for this to work. “Please,” she whispered, dropping her hands, clenching and unclenching them at her sides. “Oh god, please return to me, Justin. Please.”

Repeating the incantation three times – for good measure – Emma let the candle burn and stood perfectly still. She closed her eyes and tried to relax her body and mind, listening to every creak and sigh the house made around her. How would she know if it had worked? Would the air in the room feel different? Would he appear in front of her, fully formed, flesh and bone, like in her dreams?

She stood quietly for what felt like an eternity, waiting. Hoping. One silent tear after another fell from her closed eyes. It was foolish of her to have believed this would work. The dreams were just that – dreams. Wishful thinking, a manifestation of her broken heart. Justin was dead. Period.

Tonight, All Hallows Eve with the house silent and dark, she understood how people believed in things like this. If they felt even a fraction of the pain Emma felt right now – had felt for the better part of the last year – they would be nothing short of desperate to believe their late loves were somehow still with them.

Swallowing the sob that bubbled up in her throat, Emma pictured Justin’s face in her mind, heard his laugh in the deep quiet of the room. Ten years. Ten short years of the purest happiness Emma had ever known. He had been her rock and her guiding light. Without that beacon of love in her life she had been floundering in the world and didn’t know if she’d ever find her way again. That’s why she’d been so lost without him. Why she’d let her dream self be convinced this absurdity could bring him back.

Disappointed tears now dry on her face, Emma let her shoulders slump in defeat. Nothing had happened. She didn’t know if she honestly thought something would, but if this nonsense was ever going to work then it would take the one night when the veil to the spirit world was thinnest to breathe it to life.

Opening her eyes and letting them adjust to the near-darkness in the house, she smoothed out the incantation on the table, over and over again. A passing car cast shadows that danced and bounced off the walls. It was silent and still and empty in the house, just as it had been every night since the end of her world. Justin was gone. That was the reality Emma had to live with now. Heaving a defeated sigh, Emma snuffed out the candle and trudged to her bedroom. Perhaps she would dream of him again. Perhaps not, now that she knew it had all been in her head.

Emma drifted in and out of a restless sleep. She was too hot, she was too cold, it was too quiet, she couldn’t get comfortable. She was beyond exhausted and she should have fallen into a deep sleep, but it eluded her, keeping her always just outside the circle of peacefulness. She even had taken 3 full sleeping pills, for good measure, but she still tossed and turned.

With a jolt, Emma sat straight up in bed, suddenly wide awake, any hint of fatigue long gone. Her breathing was ragged and shallow and she was covered with a sheen of sweat, as though she had been running. Sitting motionless, she tried to recall what had woken her. She glanced around the bedroom looking for an explanation, but nothing stood out to her.

The one thing clear in her mind was that she needed to go out to the dining room. She knew it as surely as she knew her own name. In the pit of her stomach she felt a knot, the pull of a thread drawing her out of her bed and toward the door.

Her feet hit the cold floor and she paused. Through the crack of the partially-opened door Emma saw only darkness. Something was calling to her. Nothing audible, nothing she could hear, but a call that she could feel in the middle of her chest. She rubbed her wet palms on the legs of her pajamas and licked her lips, trying to get the courage to move.

On shaky legs, she rose and took a few tentative steps across the room. Cloaked in a sensation of unreality, everything around her seemed to glow and pulsate. Was she dreaming again? This was nothing like the lucid dreams of Justin she had been experiencing. Instead, there was a menacing nightmare quality in the air. Only the rough boards beneath her feet and the manic pounding in her chest grounded her in the certainty of wakefulness.

She watched her hand tremble reaching for the door. The ominous squeaking of the hinges made goosebumps break out over every inch of her and she came close to turning back. The urge to slam the door and dive under her covers until the sun came up nearly overtook her and she hesitated in the open doorway. But the invisible thread drawing her out was stronger than her apprehension and she leaned into the hallway.

All the air in her lungs turned to sludge and she was unable to take a breath. Her eyes had to be playing tricks on her, the remnant of whatever nightmare had woken her so forcefully a moment ago. She blinked over and over, trying to clear her vision but nothing changed. Stepping fully into the hall, the hair on the back of her neck stood on end as the realization of what she was seeing fully formed.

A silhouette was visible at the dining room table, backlit by the street lights through the window.

Return To Me: Part 5

There had been other dreams about Justin, especially right after his death. But this one…this one was different. Real. So real, in fact, that Emma woke up expecting to find him waiting in the kitchen for her, holding out a steaming cup of fresh coffee.

In the dream, she had rolled over to see him sleeping next to her. She shot upright, had nearly fallen out of bed, and startled him awake. He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and smiled at her.

“Expecting someone else?”

When she only managed to clap a hand over her mouth, failing to stifle a sob, he had gathered her to his chest and smoothed her hair.

“I’m here, Em. Shh, shh. I’m really and truly here.”

Emma had clung to him, a thousand questions in her mind, but unable to make her voice work. After several minutes, she pulled back just enough to look at him, and nearly fell apart again at the bright smile on his face.

“Justin…” she murmured. He leaned into her and feathered his lips against hers. “Oh my god, Justin…I thought – how are you here? You can’t be here.” Tentatively, Emma stroked his cheek. “I thought I would never get to see you again. How is this possible?”

Laying back in the bed and propping himself on his elbow, the smile never left Justin’s face as he patted the space next to him.

“I don’t know,” he answered cheerfully. “I just am. God, you’re so beautiful, Em. I could stare at you for the rest of eternity and see something new every day.”

When he ran his fingertips along her cheek, wiping away the tears, Emma melted into his touch. “Can you stay? Are you here for good?” A thought suddenly occurred to her and she sat up, her eyes wide. “Am I dead?!”

Justin threw his head back and laughed. “No, babe, you’re still very much alive. You are, however, asleep, and I won’t be here when you wake up. Come here.” He pulled her to him, laying her head on his chest.

Lulled by the impossible sound of his heart beating, Emma closed her eyes and snuggled tighter against him. It felt so good to hold him again, even if it was just a dream. He was warm, and comfortable and here. That was all that mattered.

The next time she opened her eyes the sun was streaming through her curtains and she was alone. Even though it had been a year since he passed away, Emma could never bring herself to take up the whole bed. Every night, she left his side tucked in and neat. And this morning it looked no different than it had for the last 365 mornings.

He visited her in similar dreams every night for the next week. Sometimes the two of them got up and went into the living room, sitting across from each other like they used to do, telling stories and laughing. Other nights they only laid in bed and gazed at each other, not needing words to communicate what they were feeling. But morning always came, and Justin wasn’t there.

On the tenth night after these dream dates started, Emma eagerly climbed into bed, nestling down under the covers. This had become her favorite time of the day. Her excitement was making it harder and harder for her to fall asleep, however, so she had started taking sleeping pills. It was a half a pill for the first couple of nights, then a whole one. But it was taking longer and longer for her to drift off, so she was up to two and a half pills at this point. She knew she was pushing the threshold of safety, but to her it was worth it.

Once sleep overtook her, Emma rolled over in bed and opened her eyes with a smile, expecting to see her husband grinning back at her. But on this night, the pillow next to her was empty. Sitting up abruptly, Emma scanned the dark room.

“Justin?” When there was no response, she slid out of bed and started looking for him. “Justin? Are you here?”

As she reached the dining table at the end of the hallway, movement from the living room made her jump. Justin was sitting in his favorite armchair by the window, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him. Relief coursed through Emma and she skipped toward him.

“There you are! You had me worried.” The nervous tightening in her stomach only worsened when Justin didn’t look up as she approached. “Babe? Is everything okay?”

When he finally looked up at her, Emma was shocked at the sadness on his face. His sunny smile was turned down and his bright eyes were dim and full of distress. She rushed to him, dropping to her knees and taking his hands in hers.

Shaking his head, Justin sighed. “I can’t stay, Em. This will be my last visit to you.”

Emma’s stomach dropped and a cold wave washed over her. She stroked his cheek and said, “No. No, it can’t be. I just got you back! You can’t go away again. You can’t!”

Justin grasped her shoulders and pushed her back from him before standing and pacing to the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle, refusing to look at Emma.

“It’s not my decision, Em. It’s out of my hands.”

Standing defiantly in the middle of the room, her hands on her hips, Emma asked, “Well, whose decision is it then? If there’s someone to make the decision, there must be someone to talk to, some way to change their mind. I’m not letting you go. I won’t.” She chewed her lip to keep it from trembling. “I can’t.”

Justin whirled around and was suddenly in front of Emma, her hands gripped in his. “There is something you can do, Emma. There is a way I can stay with you…if you want me to.”

“Anything!” Emma’s heart began beating so fast she was sure it was going to burst out of her chest. “You know I will do anything to bring you back to me. Tell me what to do.”

Brushing her hair back off her forehead, Justin flashed Emma his most charming smile. He kissed her tenderly then pulled her close and whispered his instructions in her ear.

When Emma opened her eyes to the bright sun once again, she felt lighter and more hopeful than she had in more than a year. She had a plan. She had a goal. Something to do, to work for.

Something that meant everything to her.

She showered and made some breakfast, taking her coffee in a travel mug as she bounded out the door. There was research to be done, a couple of items to buy, certain arrangements to make and there was no time to waste. It was Halloween and Justin had been adamant everything had to be done tonight, or it wouldn’t work.

And it had to work.

After driving an hour outside of town, Emma pulled up outside a ramshackle shop. The sign read Wayward Cosmos and the website said she could find everything from books and candles to talismans and crystals. She had never been in a shop like this before and something about walking through the door set her nerves on edge.

It was dark and a little musty, the shelves close and full of odds and ends. The space had looked much larger from the outside and claustrophobia began to set in for Emma. She had to turn sideways to walk between tables. One wall was full of bookshelves overflowing with tomes of varying size. The opposite wall’s shelves were covered in crystal balls, statues of dragons and fairies, and lots of charms and totems that Emma had never seen before. The tables scattered throughout the shop held makeshift Wiccan altars, vials of different substances with names like mugwort and poke root. There was a giant pentagram painted on the floor and a large glass case full of animal skulls in different sizes.

The store was hushed, no sounds of an air conditioner, a fan, a radio. The lights were on and the door was unlocked, so Emma felt fairly confident that the shop was open, but the stillness around her was eerie and had her checking over her shoulder frequently.

She made her way to the bookshelf, looking for something that might help with the task at hand. Justin had told her what kind of book to look for, but no exact title. All he could tell her was that she’d know it when she found it. She perused such titles as The Green Witch, Wicca Book of Spells, The Complete Book of Witchcraft, The Crystal Bible. Letting her fingers trail over the spines, Emma felt a quickening in her stomach. There had to be a book to help her. If not here, where?

Her eyes fell on a title that caught her attention: The Magical Art of Summoning Spirits. Pulling it off the shelf, she knew immediately this was what she had been looking for. Her hand smoothed over the words etched on the cover and she felt an electric tingle run up her arm. Clutching it to her chest she turned and was shocked to find an old woman standing directly behind her.

“Oh!” She was so surprised, she stepped back and stumbled against the bookshelf. “I – I didn’t hear you! Jesus, you scared me!”

The figure stood perfectly still, saying nothing. Emma took in the old woman’s long, flowing gown and bare feet, noting the sound of the sparkling bracelets piled on both of her wrists. Her hair was pure white, curling almost to her waist, framing a wrinkled face with bright green eyes. Brow furrowed, she stared at Emma long and hard, freezing her in place. The eyes…there was something about her eyes that made goosebumps rise on Emma’s skin. Intelligent, calculating, and regarding Emma as though she was reading every thought in her mind – and didn’t like what she saw there.

After what felt like several minutes of being scrutinized, Emma cleared her throat and tried on a feeble smile.

“Uh…is this your shop? I – I was looking for a couple of items. Maybe you could help me?”

The old woman leaned closer as though to say something, but instead drew in a sharp breath. Then her eyes fell on the book clasped in Emma’s hands and her eyes darkened.

“Your intentions are good, but your methods are dangerous,” the woman croaked. “That book should not be read lightly.”

Emma swallowed and tried to smile. “Oh, uh, thank you. It’s actually for a friend. He does this stuff all the time and knows what he’s doing.” She slid sideways, trying to extract herself from the closeness of this encounter. “Do you sell candles, too? There was a specific one he wanted.”

With a grunt, the old woman spun away toward the back of the store, making Emma rush to catch up to her. Her speed and agility didn’t match her appearance at all.

“Do you also have some powdered elderberry?”

At this question, the old woman pulled up short and cast a suspicious look over her shoulder. “Elderberry, eh? And what candle did your…friend…ask for specifically?”

“Uh…purple? Dark purple, to be exact.”

The woman snorted and shook her head. “Your friend is meddling in things…he…shouldn’t. This is powerful magic and can have very unexpected repercussions.”

Chewing on her lip, Emma held the book closer against her chest. “You do have the items, though, right? I mean, you have them here, today, that you can sell to me?”

A shiny black cat that Emma hadn’t noticed before leapt onto the counter and sat protectively in front of the crone. Absently stroking the cat, she watched Emma closely. Without looking away, she reached under the countertop and produced a fat amethyst-colored candle, setting it down with a thud. Emma could feel a bead of sweat trickling down the back of her neck and she had to wipe her sweaty palms on her jeans over and over while the shopkeeper glared at her.

Finally breaking away from the uncomfortable eye contact, the old woman turned to a drawer set in the shelving behind her and pulled out an old apothecary bottle. She removed the cork stopper and shook a measure of dark powder into a small baggie. When she returned her attention to Emma, the look on her face was kinder, her forehead wrinkled not in anger but concern. She rang up Emma’s items on an ornate old cash register and captured Emma’s hand between both of her gnarled ones when handing back the change.

“Use caution, my dear. This is unpredictable magic you’re meddling with here. You may get far more than you bargained for if you follow through with this rash plan.”

Emma grimaced, startled by the strength of the old woman’s grip. She pulled her hand away and picked up her items.

“Um, okay, I will – I’ll be careful. I, uh, I know what I’m doing – I mean my friend knows what he’s doing – but I thank you for your concern. Have a nice day!” She turned and made a hasty retreat to the door.

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 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.”

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