“Night, Miss Tillie!” Annabelle called as she paused by the front door.
“ ‘Night, Annie. You be careful drivin’ home now, ya hear?” Tillie’s voice rang out from the kitchen.
Annie rolled her eyes and grinned at Richie. “She’s been sayin’ that every night since I learned to drive when I was fourteen.” She raised her voice to reply. “Yes, Ma’am. I’ll see you in the mornin’, bright and early.”
Otis’ surprised face appeared in the window. “Girl, you workin’ all day tomorrow?”
Annie nodded. “I told you I was working for Sadie. She’s still in Savannah until tomorrow night. I’m working a double shift tomorrow.”
Otis tsk-tsked as he shook his head. “You gonna be dead on your feet come tomorrow night, Child.” Then he grinned and gave Annabelle a wink. “No night-owlin’ for you tomorrow night, huh? Besides, you got your Gentleman Friend there to entertain. Can’t just leave him sittin’ home all alone while you go out gallavantin’ around on a Saturday night.”
Annie laughed. “Sure, Otis,” she answered, nodding her head toward Richie. “What makes you think Richie wouldn’t want to do some gallavantin’?”
“Ohhhh, he looks like too fine a young man. He’ll probably wanna stay home and read the Bible.” Otis winked at Richie. “Don’t let that Little Girl corrupt you now, hear?”
Richie arched an eyebrow at Annie, giving her a little smirk. “Corrupt me? This nice little Southern girl? I doubt it.”
“Ohhhhh, Sonny,” Otis shook his head as he laughed. “You just don’t even know what you’re in for. Just don’t know.” He swept a hand toward the door. “Now both of ya, get on outta here. Shoo. Go Home.”
Annie giggled and blew him a kiss. “Night, Otis. See you in the mornin’.”
“Sleep well, Child. You too, Son.”
“Goodnight, Sir. Ma’am!” Richie called out his farewell to Tillie, who was still banging around the kitchen out of sight. Then he followed Annabelle through the glass door and across the sidewalk to her pickup truck. Before he could remember his manners and dash around to open her door, she had already climbed into the driver’s seat. With a sheepish shrug Richie pulled open the passenger door and slid onto the seat.
“What time do you have to be back in the morning?” Richie asked as the engine roared to life.
“Seven. Tillie and Otis will handle the early crowd.” Annie slid her arm along the back of the seat as she turned to look over her shoulder before backing the truck out of its parking space. With the movement her fingers nudged against Richie’s shoulder.
Richie’s skin tingled at the brush of her fingers against his t-shirt. He smiled and looked at her, catching her profile as Annie craned her neck to look out the back window. “There’s an earlier crowd than seven?” Richie couldn’t fathom anyone being up and about at that hour. He certainly wasn’t used to it.
Annie chuckled as she turned forward, shifting the truck into drive and letting it roll forward. “Shrimpers, fishermen. They’re out on the water at first light. And they eat breakfast before then.”
“Oh.” Richie looked out his window at Eddie’s Texaco as they rolled past. He felt a knot tighten in his stomach as he remembered tomorrow he would have to figure out some way to pay for the Impala’s repair. “Will Eddie’s place be open?”
“Yep. Seven to five on Saturdays.” Annie glanced sideways at Richie and saw his thoughtful expression. “You gonna come in with me? Or, if you want you can drive me to work then use my truck. That way you don’t have to sit around bored all day.”
Richie shook his head in wonder at her offer. He still couldn’t get over her generosity. Not only had Annabelle invited him into her home, given him a place to sleep, and vowed to entertain him all weekend, now she was offering him her only means of transportation. “Thanks, but I need to see what’s going on with my car in the morning. I’ll just hang out at the garage with Eddie. Maybe help him work on it, if he don’t mind.”
Annie chuckled softly. “I’m sure he won’t mind a bit. He’ll be happy to have somebody around.”
Richie nodded silently and turned away, looking out the window at the little town as they rolled past. In a short minute Main Street had disappeared, replaced by tidy little houses glowing with warm light in the velvety Southern night. The sweet, heavy scent of magnolias wafted in on the breeze that caressed Richie’s face and ruffled his hair. This is nothing like back home, Richie mused silently. This is a different world.
He turned his head to look at Annabelle and saw her smiling, her hands on the wheel and her eyes on the road, her honeyed hair swirling about her face. Richie felt a little flutter in his heart at how pretty she looked in the dusky moonlight. His eyes remained on her for a long minute before turning to the road.
They made the rest of the short drive in silence, listening to the radio. Richie watched the scenery as the old pickup truck rumbled down the paved road, then turned off the asphalt onto a dusty country lane. Gravel crunched under the tires as Annie guided the truck slowly down the winding path toward a tall stand of pine trees.
As they approached the trees Richie saw several small dwellings set back from the road. A worn-looking trailer home was closest, rickety steps leading up to its dingy door and a faint light burning in the window at one end. Further back, down a dirt driveway a pair of dilapidated shacks sat facing each other. An assortment of rusty, dented vehicles surrounded the ramshackle structures.
These homes bore the look of hard times; Richie wondered what the people who inhabited them were like. In his travels through the South he had seen true poverty, entire families living on faith in barely-inhabitable structures like these. Richie unconsciously shook his head at his musings. He had grown up in a working-class neighborhood and times had been tough for his folks, but their home had always been comfortable. He couldn’t imagine living in a house like one of these, that looked as if a strong wind would send it tumbling down. Suddenly his own money worries didn’t seem quite so dire.
As they drove into the shadow of the pine grove Richie looked again at Annabelle. His expression softened as his eyes traced over her profile, her face illuminated by the glow of the dashboard lights. His gaze lingered on her lips. They were plump and moist, and they looked so soft. Richie felt a tingle run down his spine as he wondered what they felt like, how they tasted. Somehow he just knew they were as sweet as the cherries in the pie she had served him back at the diner.
Richie blushed and looked away from Annabelle at the thought of kissing her. It somehow seemed improper of him to have such a romantic notion. But she was so pretty, so kind, so friendly… Richie couldn’t help but feel affection for her. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he felt a stirring in his groin that was most definitely more than affectionate.
Stop it, he told himself. She’s saving my ass. What the Hell am I doing, thinking about her like some piece of tail? She’s an angel. Richie again glanced at Annabelle. She’s way too good for me, for damned sure.
Annabelle stole a sideways glance at Richie as he fidgeted on the seat beside her. She could sense his unease. Truth be told she was just a little anxious too, to be bringing him to her home. Annie wasn’t afraid of Richie or worried he may try to take advantage of her; she felt completely safe with him. But she felt a little charge of nervous excitement at the thought of being alone with him.
Moonlight flooded the cab of the truck as it emerged from the pine grove into an open meadow. Richie saw the road snaking ahead, skirting along the edge of a grassy marsh. Ahead on the right, nestled back against the trees, was a small white house. A light glowed warmly on the tidy porch, welcoming them home as Annie pulled the pickup into the drive and turned off the engine.
“This is your house?” Richie’s surprise was evident in his voice as he turned his head to look at Annie. “Wow – It’s nice.”
She chuckled at his wide-eyed stare. “Yep. And it’s got indoor plumbing and everything.” She immediately regretted her joke as Richie dropped his eyes to his lap and mumbled an awkward apology.
“I.. I didn’t mean… Sorry…”
Annie silently cursed her smartassedness. “Richie, I’m sorry. I’m teasing. I know what you meant.” Annie reached across the seat to gently squeeze his arm. “Thank You. It’s my Mama’s house.”
Again surprise lifted Richie’s brow as he looked back up at her. “You live here with your Ma?”
Annie shook her head, her thick blonde waves shining in the moonlight. “No. My Mama’s gone.” Her voice was soft, tinged with sadness.
“Oh.” Richie felt a stab of guilt. “I… I’m sorry.” He didn’t know what else to say.
“S’okay. There’s nothing for you to be sorry about, Richie. She’s in a better place.” Annie gave him a gentle smile before turning to push open the door at her side.
Richie followed her lead, climbing out of the truck. He reached into the bed and hauled out his ruck, slinging it over his shoulder before more carefully lifting his guitar case. Taking a deep breath, he followed Annie up the walk to the house and onto the porch.
They paused in silence while Annie pulled open the screen door and turned her key in the lock. Then she turned and gave him a wide smile, her blue eyes sparkling in the moonlight. “C’mon in.”
Richie realized his palms were sweating and his mouth had gone dry. Licking his lips and taking another deep breath, Richie followed Annie through the door. He stopped just across the threshold, blinking as his eyes tried to adjust to the dusky greyness of the room, then squinting as a sudden burst of light illuminated the space with Annie’s flick of a lamp switch.
“It ain’t fancy, but it’s home.” Annabelle’s soft drawl made Richie’s involuntary grimace soften to a smile. As his eyes adjusted to the light he swiveled his head to look around the tidy little living room. It looked like her; warm and feminine but not fussy. Richie felt his nervousness subside a little in the comfort of the cozy room.
A worn braided rug blanketed a scuffed pinewood floor and the walls were covered with light brown wood paneling. Against one wall sat a beige and rose floral-upholstered couch flanked by simple wooden end tables bearing small lamps. Across the room, on either side of a picture window looking out over the front yard sat matching rose-colored wing-backed chairs. Lacy beige curtains framed the window.
A television rested on an old trunk on the adjoining wall, its rabbit-ear antennae askew. In the corner Richie noticed an ornate oak console. Its fabric-covered front provided a clue to its contents; the turntable, radio, and eight-track tape player hidden inside. A small adjacent bookshelf was stacked with record albums, books, and eight-track tapes.
Richie turned his gaze to Annie, who was quietly watching him survey the room. “It’s really nice.” He smiled with his heartfelt complement. “It fits you.”
“Thanks.” Annie held Richie’s gaze for a moment, feeling her pulse quicken as she stared into those deep chocolate pools. His eyes were beautiful, expressive, and very much the window to his gentle soul. She again felt a little flutter in her stomach as she returned his smile. “Um, you can drop your stuff anywhere.”
Richie nodded and stepped over to set his guitar case on the floor in front of the stereo. He carefully slid the ruck from his shoulder and dropped it lightly on the floor beside his guitar. Richie hastily gave the bag a nudge with his foot when it tilted sideways. Somehow it seemed his rumpled, musty meager belongings would make a mess in Annie’s pretty, tidy little house. He took another deep breath before straightening and turning to look at her.
“Well, as you can see, your bed is there.” Annabelle swept a hand toward the couch. “I’ll get you a pillow and blanket. And the bathroom’s just down the hall, on your left.” She turned and pointed in the opposite direction, toward an arched doorway on the other side of the room. “Kitchen’s in there – help yourself to whatever you can find. Probably ain’t much in the fridge, I haven’t gone to the market in a week. Sorry.”
Richie chuckled. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry. You fed me pretty good at the diner.”
Annie grinned. “Well, I do have somethin’ in the fridge. Why don’t you go grab us a couple beers while I change outta these work clothes? I’ll just be a minute.”
“Okay.” Richie nodded and paused for a moment before moving hesitantly toward the doorway to the kitchen. He grinned sheepishly as he heard Annie’s chuckle. He glanced back over his shoulder to see her retreating down the short hallway toward her bedroom.
Pull it together, Dude, Richie thought with a little shake of his dark head. He had actually felt very comfortable and relaxed with Annie earlier at the restaurant. But that was in a public place, with other people around. Not alone in her house. But now that he was here, there was no going back. He just needed to chill out and try not to make an ass of himself.