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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 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.

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cavalry had arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed and laid my head on his shoulder.

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

“Is that how you feel?”

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

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

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

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

Dad shook his head and grunted.

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

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

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

“Jamie is NOT Doug.”

“I know. But – ”

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 14

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

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

But my mother had reached her limit.

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

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

“Okay, that’s about enough!”

Maggie nibbled at the celery she’d been chopping.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you believe this shit, Judy?”

We all snorted – all except Judy.

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

“Since I am a grown, independent woman.”

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

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

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

I rolled my eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Path of Least Dysfunction, A Series: Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, he was good.

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

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

Not my proudest moment.

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

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

A coworker named Dawn, naked in his bed.

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

What a jackass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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