Friday, January 28, 2011

Chapter 9

"All done, Boss."

Eddie peered up over the top of his bifocals to see Richie standing in the office door, wiping his hands on a dingy shop rag.  His young assistant had grease smeared down the side of one cheek and his shaggy hair was a nest of sweaty disarray.  Eddie chuckled at the sight.  The Boy may look like some kind of lazy California hippie, but he sure as heck was a hard worker.

"That didn't take long."  Eddie pulled the glasses from his nose and tossed them on top of the auto parts catalog spread open on his desk.  "You do know your way around an engine pretty good, don't ya?"

Richie just shrugged and grinned, then swiped a hand through his damp bangs.  The movement left his mop of hair even more disheveled.

Eddie tipped his head toward the chair against the office wall.  "Grab a seat.  You been on your feet all day."

Silently Richie did as he was told, taking three steps across the small room to lower himself on the chair.  He groaned quietly as he stretched out his long legs, the worn soles of his boots bumping against the desk in the cramped space.

Eddie's chair squeaked as he swiveled it to face Richie, then leaned back to prop his feet up on the open bottom drawer of the oversized metal desk.  "Chick called a few minutes ago.  He's on his way down from Jesup.  Got held up there a little longer than he thought, but he's comin' now, with your thermostat."

Richie nodded.  "Okay.  I'll be sure I'm here first thing Monday morning to help you open the shop."  Again he swiped a hand through his hair, then blew a puff of breath up over his matted bangs.

Eddie grinned.  "You been a big help to me today, Richie.  I woulda never got those repairs and oil changes done if you didn't take care of the customers.  I thank you for that."  His tone turned fatherly.  "You're a good worker, Son.  Your parents raised you right."

With a sheepish shrug Richie looked down at his scuffed boots.  "Thanks."  A sad little smile ghosted his lips.  "My Dad always told me to try my hardest at whatever I did and things would turn out right."  Richie couldn't keep the irony from his voice.

Eddie cocked his head to the side.  "I heard you sayin' today you came down South for a job, but things didn't work out.  What's that about?"

Again Richie shrugged, not able to bring himself to meet Eddie's gaze.  "Thought I could make it as a musician.  I guess I was just chasing a pipe dream."  He paused, surprised at himself for the candid answer.  He hadn't disclosed to anyone in Darien the real reason for his travels, not even Annie.  But for some reason Richie felt compelled to tell Eddie the truth.  Maybe it was because Eddie reminded him of his Dad, the one person in the world he always knew he could be straight with.

"Music, eh?"  Eddie waited until Richie slowly raised his head, then gave him a smile.  "That explains all that hair, then."  A warm chuckle rumbled from the big man's chest.

The tease made Richie grin in spite of himself.  "Yeah, guess so."

"Let me guess... you're a guitar player."  Eddie chuckled again while Richie nodded.  "You go to Nashville?"

"Memphis."  Richie shifted in his chair, pulling his feet back and leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees.  He looked down at his hands as he twirled the greasy rag around his two index fingers.  "Thought maybe I could catch on with a record label there, or maybe get some of my songs to somebody recording at one of the studios."

"No luck?"

Richie sighed heavily.  "Not really.  I hung around the studios some, doing gofer stuff.  Got to do a little session work."

"Well, that's somethin', ain't it?"  Eddie smiled encouragingly.  "Your playin' was on somebody's record somewhere, right?"

Richie shook his head, his hair sliding over his shoulders with the movement.  "Nah.  It was just on some demos.  A real guitar player will cut the actual record."  He snorted ironically at his choice of words.

"You meet anybody?  Who could help you out, I mean?  Introduce you to big people in the music business?"

Richie chuckled at Eddie's well-intentioned question.  "Nah.  A couple guys came up and talked to me when I was playing the clubs on Beale Street, but when I got in touch with them later they didn't seem interested in my own songs. As long as I was playing Elvis and Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry I was fine, but nobody wanted to talk to some kid from Jersey who wrote songs about girls and cars and the Shore."

Richie took a breath, feeling again the stab of disappointment at his rejection.  "After awhile I realized I wasn't gonna get anywhere in Memphis so I moved on.  I kinda wandered around for awhile, trying to figure out where to go next.  Then I was in Florida a couple days ago, sitting on the beach with nothin' to do and nowhere left to go."

"Mmm..."  Eddie was quiet for a minute, watching Richie fiddle with the rag.  "So you're goin' back home now.  What're you gonna do there?"

Richie's shoulders slumped as his hands stopped their motion.  "My Dad's Union.  He'll get me a job at the Mill."

Eddie almost winced at the resignation in Richie's mumbled reply.  He could tell from Richie's posture the depth of his disappointment.  "Well... that sounds like a good job.  Steady work, good money."

Richie nodded silently, his dark hair curtaining his face as he blinked rapidly.

There was an awkward pause, then Eddie cleared his throat.  When he spoke again his voice was gentle.  "Richie, maybe it ain't none of my business, but I'm gonna say it anyway.  There ain't nothin' wrong with taking an honest job.  It may not be what you always dreamed about doing when you were a kid, but it ain't nothin' to be ashamed of.  You gotta do what you can to take care of yourself and your future.  You can still play your guitar, but you gotta put food on the table too."

Richie's shoulders slumped a little more, but he remained silent as Eddie continued.

"You're a good kid, Richie.  A fine young man.  You work hard, you're polite and respectful and good with people."  Eddie paused to grin.  "And apparently you're a pretty good-lookin' guy, judging from the way the ladies were smilin' at you today."

That comment elicited a husky chuckle of response from Richie.  Eddie saw a sheepish smile curve the corners of his mouth.

"Sooner or later some nice girl is gonna get her hands on you and you're gonna want to settle down, buy a house, start a family.  And you'll be set."  Eddie waited as Richie raised his head to meet his gaze, then winked.  "Son, if you can play the guitar, I bet you got girls linin' up, don'tcha?"

Richie snorted and shook his head, then straightened in his chair.  He pulled a hand through his hair again before slouching against the chair back.  "Naw.  I mean, I've dated some girls... but nobody special."

"Mmmm. Well, you're young.  Some little Honey will catch you one of these days."  Eddie chuckled and leaned back a little further in his chair, eliciting a loud metallic creak from the piece of furniture.  "So... what you gonna do tomorrow?"

Richie shrugged.  "Don't know.  Annie said there ain't much to do in town.  Probably just hang around, maybe read a book or something."

"Pretty much everything will be closed up tomorrow, except the churches."  Eddie raised an eyebrow.  "You Baptist?"

"No Sir.  Catholic."

"Oh.  Well, we got a Catholic church too.  Saint Agnes, over on Sycamore Street.  Don't know what time their service is but I'm sure it's on the sign out front."

Richie squirmed a bit at Eddie's assumption that he would be in attendance at Saint Agnes' in the morning. He hadn't been to Mass in months.  "Um.... okay."

Eddie noticed Richie's discomfort and chuckled inwardly.  He liked the kid, but now he was going to put him on the spot, to get to the conversation he had been meaning all day to have.  "Where are you staying tonight?"

"Uh, Annie said I could sleep on her couch again."  Richie's cheeks colored slightly as again Eddie's brow arched at his words.

"That so?"  Eddie drew out the two syllables, giving Richie time to get the message.  He paused for a moment, watching Richie shift again in his seat.  "You know, Annie's a special Gal.  She never met somebody she don't call a friend."

Richie cleared his throat nervously as he nodded.  "She's sure been nice to me.  I don't know what I would have done if she hadn't come along and picked me up yesterday."

"You woulda found your way here eventually."  Eddie chuckled quietly.  "There ain't no other service station for twenty miles.  You just woulda had to walk the whole way, is all."  His expression turned more serious as he gave Richie a direct look.

"But you're right.  Annie is a good girl.  She's been through a lot in her life, but every day she gets up and smiles and thanks the Lord for another beautiful day.  She's special, our Annabelle.  She's family.  To everybody in this town.  You get what I'm sayin'?"

Richie swallowed hard, flinching at Eddie's stare.  "Yes Sir.  I hear you," he replied hoarsely.

"Do you, Son?"  Eddie's chair creaked again as he leaned forward, dropping his feet from the desk drawer to the floor and leaning forward to give Richie an earnest look.

"Look, Richie... this ain't nothin' personal.  Annabelle's a grown woman, and she can make her own decisions.  And you're a young man, I ain't got no say over what you do.  But Annie..."  It was Eddie's turn to swallow hard as his voice turned husky.  "She's like my own daughter, has been ever since she was a little girl goin' to school with my Betsy.  I just don't want to see her get disappointed, ya know?"

"Wha... disappointed?"  Richie was caught off-guard by Eddie's comment.  His eyes widened as his brain wrapped around the meaning of the big man's words.

Eddie chuckled raspily at Richie's surprise.  The kid didn't even realize how obvious his interest in Annie was.  "Richie, I seen the two of you together.  You can't tell me you ain't attracted to her.  And let me tell you, Son... I ain't seen her so sweet on a boy for a long damned time.  Not since she was in high school."

Eddie gave Richie another long look, his expression gentling.  "Look, I'm not tellin' you your business.  But I'm just askin' you... whatever happens tonight, or tomorrow, or before you roll outa town here come Monday... just think twice before you break her heart, okay?"

Richie nodded slightly, sucking in a long breath as he tried to figure out how to answer Eddie's request.  Just as his lips parted with some semblance of a response, he was cut off.

"Hey y'all.... it quittin' time yet?"

Annie's musical drawl lilted through the door.  An automatic smile curved Richie's lips as he looked toward the office door.

Eddie leaned back in his chair, chuckling softly to himself at Richie's reaction.  He shook his head slightly as he realized that his warning might have been received, but it may not be remembered.  He could only hope his assessment of Annie's visitor was correct, that he was a good kid who would do right by her.

Annie's blonde head peeked around the door frame.  "Sheesh.  Hard at work I see."  She grinned saucily.

"Girl, this is the first time Richie's sat down all day.  Except when you drug him off to the park."  Eddie grinned at Annabelle.  "At least you brought him back with no bite marks.  'Least none I could see."

Annabelle moved fully into the doorway and gave Richie a sweet smile.  "I was careful," she teased.  She giggled when Richie's cheeks colored, and her heart fluttered a little when he didn't look away, his gaze holding hers.  "So... You done with him?"  Her question was directed at Eddie even as she continued to smile at Richie.  "We got plans."

Eddie laughed.  "Plans?  Oh Lordy.  I know what that means."  He gave Richie a grin when the young man swiveled his head in his direction.  "Watch out, Son.  She'll get you in a heap of mischief tonight if you ain't careful."

"Really?"  Richie couldn't stop his eager grin.  "She did mention something about 'mischief' earlier.  What the Hell... er...heck... is this place she's taking me?"

"Oh, you'll see."  Eddie and Annabelle exchanged a smile before Eddie's expression sobered a bit.  "Seriously though, Annie.  You be careful, 'kay?  You know things can get kinda rough out there.  And take care of Young Richie here."

"You know I will."  Annie smiled and stepped into the office, moving close to Richie.  She reached for his hand, delighting in the tingle of excitement she felt when her fingers curled over his. "C'mon Richie.  I'm ready."

"Uh... Eddie?  You need any help closing up?"  Richie's pulse raced as Annie tugged gently at his hand, urging him to join her.  But he didn't want to just run out on Eddie, especially after the serious conversation they had just not-quite-finished.

"Naw.  I'm just waitin' on Chick.  You already done everything else that needs doin'.  You two go on."  Eddie gave Annabelle a little wink and an affectionate grin.  "Think you're both ready to have a little fun."

"Damn straight," Annie shot back with her own sweet grin.

Eddie laughed and shook his head, then turned his gaze to Richie.  "Thanks for the help today Richie.  Now go have a good time tonight.  See ya Monday mornin'."  He watched a shy grin spread across Richie's face and he awkwardly raised himself from his chair.  Eddie noticed Richie didn't let his hand slip from Annie's as he stood and followed her to the door.

"Oh, Richie?"  Eddie smirked when Richie turned in the doorway in response to his name.

"Yes, Sir?"

"Good Luck, Son."

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 8

The morning passed quickly with Richie and Annie both busy at work.  Richie soon came to understand what Eddie had said about having a steady flow of Saturday customers.  He hardly had a break to help Eddie work on the cars in the shop, he was so busy pumping gas and cleaning windshields and checking oil levels and airing up tires. 

Richie also soon learned that working in a small-town service station required conversation skills.  Every patron asked him at least ten questions about his identity and his background.  By lunchtime Richie was convinced people were stopping by the Texaco just to satisfy their curiosity about the Town Stranger.

But he didn’t mind.  It felt good to be busy, to in some small way repay the debt of kindness Eddie had shown him.  He found himself enjoying the customers’ gentle interrogations, smiling as he patiently repeated his story over and over.

After a morning of honest work Richie felt almost as if he belonged in the little Georgia town.  It's citizens had certainly done their part to make him feel welcome.

Annabelle sighed out a long breath and leaned back against the counter, taking a gulp of Coca-Cola from the frosty bottle.  This was the first break she’d had all day.  

Tillie’s Restaurant had a line out the door when she arrived this morning, and every seat had been full from breakfast through lunch.  Though the little diner usually did steady business on Saturdays, today there had been a lot of folks out and about thanks to a bass-fishing derby and a Rotary Club community yard sale.  It seemed as if everyone in the county decided to eat at Tillie’s today.

Annie watched Otis flip the hamburgers sizzling on the grill, then adorn each patty with a yellow square of cheese.  “You got extra there,” she commented.  Now that the lunch rush had settled there was only one occupied table in the little restaurant.

“Well, you gotta eat sometime, Girl.”  Otis chuckled.  “Can’t live on soda-pop.”

Annie grinned.  Otis was always teasing her about her affinity for Coca-Cola.  “But I ain’t gonna eat three burgers,” she objected, nodding at the grill.  “You got six on there, and my table only ordered three.”

“Guess I can’t count.”  Otis winked and turned to pull a basket of onion rings from the fryer.

Annie chuckled and moved over the counter next to the grill, setting out three paper-lined plastic burger baskets.  When he was ready she passed the baskets to Otis, who dumped a generous helping of rings in each.  She waited while he added cheeseburgers to each basket, then picked up the three meals.  Annie gave Otis a sweet smile as she backed through the swinging kitchen doors.

She paused for a moment, chuckling as she listened to the giggles and comments coming from her customers at the front table.  The three teenage girls were captivated by what was going on across the street.  

With a glance out the window Annie confirmed her suspicion.  Her young customers were engrossed in watching Eddie’s handsome new Helper.  Annie grinned and shook her head when a giddy little squeal emitted from one of the girls as Richie bent over to check the tire pressure on the sedan at the pump.

“Now Sarah, Hannah, Emma-Claire…”  Annie’s tone was warm but firm.  “What do you think your Mamas would say if they heard you giggling over that boy over there?”

Emma-Claire gave Annie a cheeky grin.  “I think she’d say I have good taste.”  She giggled at her smart response.

Tsking softly but unable to contain a smile, Annie set a burger basket in front of each of the girls.  “Y’all need more Cokes?”

“Yes, Please!” the trio chimed together.  Annie gathered up the girls’ plastic cups and carried them behind the counter for a refill from the soda fountain.  When she returned to the table the girls were still tittering over Richie.

“Gawd, look at his hair!”  Hannah sighed.  “He don’t look like none of the boys ‘round here.”

“Yeah, he’s… like, exotic, or somethin’,” Sarah agreed.

Annie bit back a laugh at the girls’ dreamy appraisal.  “He doesn’t look like the boys from ‘round here because he’s not from ‘round here.”  She chuckled softly as three sets of wide eyes turned toward her.

“Annie, what do you know about him?”

“Yeah, what have you heard?”

Annie laughed and smiled coyly.  “Sorry to disappoint you, Girls, but he’s just passin’ through.  Eddie’s fixing his car.  I guess he’s just helping out at the station while he’s waiting.”

“How do you know?”  Emma-Claire’s eager challenge made Annie arch a brow.

“I hear things.”  Annie winked at the girl and gave her a smug grin.

“Annie!  Order up!”  Otis’ voice boomed out, interrupting her playful taunt.

“What?”  Surprised, Annie turned to look toward the kitchen.  She saw two brown paper bags sitting on the pickup counter, and Otis’ grinning face in the window.

“To Go.”  Otis tipped his head toward the service station across the street.  “Special Delivery.”

Annie smiled as she realized what he was telling her.  “Miss Tillie back?”  She tugged at the strings of her apron as she slowly wandered around the end of the counter, toward the pickup window.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout that.  I got things covered here.”  Otis reached up to nudge the bags of food toward Annie.  “Go on, now.  Hippie Boy’s been workin’ up an appetite over there.  Got a bag for Eddie, too.”

Annie laughed softly and took the bags from the window.  She paused beside the cooler to pull out three bottles of Coca-Cola, popping their caps off before twining her fingers around their necks.  “Thanks, Otis.  I won’t be long.”

“Take your time, Girl.  And be sure you eat somethin’.”  Otis gave Annabelle a warm smile.  “It’s a pretty day.  Enjoy it.”

Annie nodded and gave him a grateful smile before heading for the door.  “Bye girls.  Y’all behave.”  Annie chortled softly at the wide-eyed stares from her speechless customers.  She knew Sarah, Hannah, and Emma-Claire would be watching her every move with Richie, and their embellished observations would rapidly travel the town grapevine.  Not much stayed quiet for long in a small town.

Richie wiped his forearm across his sweaty brow, then dragged a hand through his hair.  Relieved to have a break, he wandered into the cool shade of the service bay.  Not seeing Eddie, he moved over to the office door and peeked around the frame.  The station proprietor was just dropping the telephone receiver into its cradle.

“Good news,” Eddie announced, spying Richie at his door.  “Chick found you a thermostat.  He’ll bring it by after he finishes up.”

Richie nodded.  “Great.”  His stomach tightened as he wondered how much the part would cost.  “Can I help you put it in when it gets here?”

“Sure, but don’t think we’re gonna get ‘er done today.”  Eddie smiled apologetically.  “Chick’s gotta come down from Jesup.  He ain’t gonna get here ‘til close to five.”

“Oh.”  Richie paused then shrugged.  “S’Okay.  I ain’t in no hurry to go nowhere.”  He heard the hint of irony creep into his voice. 

“I ain’t open on Sunday, so it’ll be Monday before we can get to work on your car.  But I’ll put it at the top of the list.  First thing Monday morning.”  Eddie tipped his head toward the door.  “Should be able to get you back on the road by noontime.”

“Okay.”  Richie ran his hand through his hair again, sweeping it away from his forehead.  Monday.  That meant he had to spend two more nights here in Darien.  It also gave him a little more time to figure out how to pay Eddie for the repair.  Richie frowned slightly as he wondered if Annie would extend her invitation to sleep on her couch.

“Well, my goodness.  Y’all have been busy today.” 

Richie’s frown immediately gentled at Annie’s sweet drawl.  He turned to find her standing outside the office door, holding two brown paper bags.  The delicious aroma seeping from the parcels made Richie’s stomach rumble.  “Hey,” he greeted her softly.

Annie smiled at Richie and held out her hand, the three bottles of soda laced between her fingers.  Richie quickly took two of the bottles, careful not to make her drop the third.  Annie stepped past him into Eddie’s office, setting the third Coke on his desk.  “Here ya go.  Otis said you boys looked like you needed to be fed.”  She placed one of the bags beside the bottle. 

Eddie barked out a laugh and wiped his greasy hands on his shirt.  “He was right.  We been so danged busy this morning we ain’t had time to spit, let alone eat.  Right Richie?”  Eddie reached for the soda bottle and took a long drink, then leaned back in his chair.  He propped his feet up on the edge of the desk and pulled the bag onto his lap.

“Yeah, it’s been like that at Tillie’s too.  I've been hoppin’ all morning.   Lots of folks in town for that fishing tournament.”  Annie chuckled as she heard Richie’s stomach growl.  She turned to smile at him.  “Sounds like you’re hungry too.”

“Yes ma’… Yeah.” Richie grinned guiltily as he recalled the scolding Annabelle had given him yesterday when he had called her “ma’am.”  “I didn’t realize until just now.”

Annie looked over her shoulder at Eddie, who was grinning as he peeled the tinfoil wrapper away from his cheeseburger.  “Can you spare your Pump Boy for awhile?  Thought maybe we’d go down to the park for a quick bite.”

Eddie gave Annie a mischievous grin.  “Sure, I can spare him awhile.  Don’t bite him too hard, though.  The Boy already don’t know what to make of you.”  He laughed when Annie stuck out her tongue in response to his tease.  Eddie also noticed a slight blush creep to Richie’s cheeks at his joke.  “Yeah, you two go on.  And you tell Otis thanks, ‘kay Honey?”

“You got it.”  Annie turned back to Richie and tipped her head toward the garage bay.  “Feel like takin’ a walk?”

“Sure.”  Richie nodded, breaking into a smile.  “Uh… Eddie, when I come back I can help out with that last oil change.”

“Yep.”  Eddie’s reply was muffled by his mouthful of cheeseburger.  He waved a hand at the door.  “Go.”

Annie chuckled and took one of the soda bottles from Richie’s hand, taking a sip before she turned for the door.  Richie followed her, taking his own long drink of the cold beverage as they strolled out into the sunlight.  “Park’s a block over,” Annie announced quietly.  “There’s picnic tables.  I thought since it’s a nice day you might want to go there instead of eating out back of the garage.”

“Sounds good.”  Richie agreed.  Together they crossed the street and kept walking down the alley that ran beside Tillie’s Restaurant. 

In just a few short minutes Annie and Richie reached the edge of the park.  Richie’s smile broadened as he looked around the big space, taking in the playground equipment, picnic tables, fountain, and big white gazebo, all of which were surrounded by huge pine trees draped with Spanish moss.  The park was empty except for two women and three small children who were gathered around the jungle gym at the far end.

Annie led Richie to the closest table and laid the bag of food on its top.  Together they settled onto the bench seat, Richie folding his long legs under the table and Annie straddling the bench so she sat facing him.  “Go ahead.”  Annie nodded at the bag when Richie gave her an inquiring look.

Richie grinned as the heavenly scent of deep-fried onions hit him in the face when he opened the bag.  “Damn, those smell good,” he mumbled.  He couldn’t resist popping an onion ring into his mouth as he reached in to extract two foil-wrapped sandwiches.  He laid one on the table in front of Annie before tearing open the grease-spotted bag to free the huge heap of onion rings.  He picked up his burger, slowly pulling at the foil.

Annie laughed softly at Richie’s hesitation.  She could see he was torn between trying to be mannerly and giving in to what must be ravenous hunger.  She had heard his stomach grumbling the entire walk to the park.  “Richie, go ahead.  Eat. I know you’re starving.”

Richie smiled sheepishly and quickly unwrapped his burger.  Raising it to his lips, he took a big bite then groaned happily as he chewed.  “Oh, Mannnn…..” he mumbled.

Annie smiled and took another drink of her Coke, then reached for an onion ring.  She took a small bite and chewed slowly as she watched Richie wolf down his burger.  “So, from the looks of things you met most of Darien this morning.”  Annie chuckled softly when Richie nodded.  She waited as he chewed and swallowed.

“Umm… Yeah.  Friendly people down here.  They want to know your life story in five minutes.”  Richie turned his head to give Annie a grin.  “Nice folks, though.”

“So what did you tell ‘em?  What’s your life story?”

Richie shrugged and stuffed an onion ring into his mouth.  “Nothin’ much.”  Again Annie waited while he chewed and swallowed.  “Just pretty much what I told you.  I came South for a job, it didn’t work out, heading back home and my car broke down.”  He paused and smiled at Annie.  “But I didn’t have to tell ‘em you picked me up and brought me to town.  Everybody already seemed to know that.”

Annie grinned and chortled softly.  “Oh, I’m sure they did.  News travels fast in a small town.”

“Who told ‘em?”  Good table manners forgotten, Richie shoved another onion ring into his mouth.

Annie shrugged.  “Coulda been anyone.  Somebody coulda seen me walk you over to Eddie’s last night, maybe a customer of Tillie’s.  Or maybe Eddie told his wife or his neighbor or his buddies at the Tavern.  Or maybe Miss Tillie told someone.”

“Why would anybody care?  I mean, it ain’t like I’m somebody famous.  You must have people come through here all the time.”

“Not exactly.”  Annie smiled when Richie turned his head back to look at her.  “There ain’t much exciting about life in a small town, Richie.  And when there’s a good-lookin’ young guy pumping gas at the local Texaco, it makes people nosy.”  She chuckled.  “Hell, wait ‘til they find out you slept on my couch last night.  We’ll have ourselves a regular ol’ scandal.  I’m gonna have to answer lots of questions at church on Sunday.”

Richie blushed at Annie’s compliment.  She thinks I’m good looking?  He felt a little flutter of excitement in his groin at the thought.  His eyes dropped to the table, avoiding her gaze.  “Umm… you gonna eat that?”  He nodded at Annabelle’s untouched hamburger.

Annie shook her head.  “Naw.  You go ahead.  I’m not that hungry.”  She watched Richie as he unwrapped the sandwich and raised it to his lips, this time taking a smaller bite and chewing more slowly.  Her eyes traced over his profile, along his nose, over his softly-stubbled cheeks, and along his jaw to his lips.  She smiled as his hair ruffled gently with a puff of magnolia-scented breeze.

Annie chortled quietly as she remembered the view that had greeted her this morning.  Richie had looked so sweet and relaxed, lying there half-naked on her couch.  Well, most of him had been relaxed, anyway.  Hell, if I’m gonna cause a scandal, there are definitely worse-looking guys do it with.

“So, Eddie have any luck fixing your car?”  

Richie shook his head and took a drink of Coke to wash down his bite of burger.  “He found the part, but his buddy is bringing it from… somewhere.  He won’t get it until late this afternoon.”  He hesitated, wondering if he should ask Annie if he could extend his stay on her sofa.  “Umm…I’m gonna help him put it in, but we can’t do it until Monday.”

Annie felt a little surge of excitement at Richie’s news.  He was staying the weekend.  All morning as she had watched him through the restaurant window she had secretly hoped Richie’s auto repair wouldn’t be completed by closing time.  She wanted to spend more time with Richie, get to know him better.  To solve the mystery of the sadness behind his smile.

“So I guess I’m stuck with you for a few more days, then?”  The sparkle in Annie’s blue eyes betrayed her excitement through her tease.  She immediately cursed her choice of words when Richie froze.

“Uh…. Annie, you don’t have to… I mean, I can find somewhere to stay…”

“No!”  Unconsciously Annie reached out to squeeze Richie’s thigh.  “Richie, I didn’t mean… I want you to stay with me this weekend.  I...”  She took a deep breath and smiled sheepishly.  “I like having you around.  You’re good company.”

Richie sucked in a breath at Annie's words and at the feel of her hand on his leg.  She wanted him to stay with her… not just out of some old-fashioned notion of Southern hospitality, but because she liked him.  He felt his pulse kick up as a warm flush crept across his body.  

Richie turned his head to look at Annie, his rich chocolate eyes meeting her summer-sky blue.  “I don’t want to impose.  You’ve already been so kind to me.”  His voice was soft, almost hoarse.  He needed to hear her say the words again.

“You’re not imposing.  I want you… to stay.”  Annie’s smile gentled as she saw the hopeful flicker in Richie’s deep brown eyes.  “I insist.”  Her hand moved from Richie’s thigh to his face, gently wiping away a dot of ketchup from the corner of his mouth with her thumb.  She almost sighed at the softness of his skin under her touch.

“Okay.”  Richie stared at Annie for a moment, then smiled.  “Annie, thank you.  I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t come along.”

It was Annie’s turn to blush as she pulled her hand back to reach for her Coke.  She looked down at the picnic table’s wooden plank seat.  “You would have been fine, Richie.”  Her eyes sparkled as she looked back up at him.  “But I’m glad I came along, too.”

They gazed at each other for a moment until Richie fidgeted nervously and turned back to his meal.  A little smile still curved the corners of his mouth as he took another bite of cheeseburger.  “Umm…  So.  What’s there to do in Darien on a Saturday night?”  Richie winced as he asked the question, hoping he didn’t sound too awkwardly cheery.

“Not much.  If you want night life you have to go to Savannah.  This town rolls up the sidewalks at sundown on Saturday night.”

“That what you usually do?  Go to Savannah?”

“No.  I don’t go there much at all.  If I’m not working I usually either stay at home and watch TV, or…”  Annie chuckled softly.  “Well, there are a couple places around here to get into a little mischief.”

Richie chuckled, recalling Otis’ comment of the previous evening.  He popped the remaining bite of cheeseburger into his mouth and swiped the back of his hand across his lips.  “Ah.  Would that be where you go ‘gallivanting’?”

Annie laughed, then gave Richie a coy smirk.  “Perhaps.”  She paused, her eyes twinkling merrily.  “Well, one place is Bud’s Tavern, out on Route 99.  That’s where most of the locals go to play pool and have a beer or two.  But the other place… Well, not a lot of people go there.  It’s kinda… well, unofficial, I guess you’d say.”

“Unofficial?”  Richie’s curiosity was piqued.  He gave Annie a mischievous grin.  “Is that another word for ‘illegal’?”

“Well…. not exactly.”  Annie smirked.  “It’s hard to explain.  But if you want… well, I like to go there on Saturday nights.  It’s someplace where I can just let my hair down and be whoever I wanna be.”

Richie smiled and rubbed his palms together.  “Sounds like my kinda place.”

Annie laughed softly.  “Yeah, Richie, I think it just might be.”  Her eyes sparkled with excitement.  “So, whaddya say?  Wanna go out tonight and see what kinda mischief we can make in the moonlight?”

Richie’s heart flipped at her words.  His dick jumped eagerly at the thought of him and Annie sitting close together under the big silver moon, like they had last night.  He grinned and nodded. 

“Yeah.  Hell Yeah.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chapter 7

Richie smiled and purred throatily.  He buried his nose in her hair, inhaling her intoxicating scent.  He growled again as he felt Annie’s hand on him, wrapped around his hard, pulsing need.  The things she was doing to him, how she was making him feel… it was like a dream. 

“Richie?”  Annie’s gentle drawl floated through his consciousness, accompanied by the rich aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. 

“Mmmm…..” he responded, reaching a hand up to cover hers on his bare chest.  He heard her melodious chuckle.  It made him surge again with want.

“Hey, Sleepyhead.  Rise and shine.”

“Nuh uh.” Richie mumbled the argument.  He didn’t want to get up, to leave her bed.  He wanted to stay right here with her, smelling her hair, hearing her soft voice in his ear, pressing his cock into her hand…

“Richie.”  He felt her hand on his shoulder, shaking gently.  “I have to leave for work pretty soon.  You can stay here if you want…”

Richie’s sleepy brown eyes fluttered open as her words registered in his groggy brain.  “Huh?”  

Annie’s smiling face swam into focus, above his.  Wait… she was standing?  Beside the bed?  Just a second ago she had been snuggled next to him, her hand wrapped around his….

Richie’s eyes widened as he realized what was happening.  He made a panicked glance downward, hoping like hell he was covered.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the quilt draped over his waist, then blushed as he yanked his hand away from his groin.  Oh Christ….

“Well Good Mornin', Sunshine.  You want some coffee?”  Seeing Richie’s flush, Annie considerately kept her eyes above his waist.  She had a pretty good idea what was going on beneath that quilt, judging from his sleepy mumblings.

“Uh huh.”  Richie avoided her gaze.  “Um… I mean… Please.”

“Comin' right up.”  Annie gave him another sweet smile before retreating to the kitchen. 

When she was safely through the door Annie glanced back to see Richie sitting up on the couch, the quilt still draped over his lap.  The muscles of his lean back flexed as he scrubbed his hands over his face.  Annie let out an appreciative little sigh as she watched his movements.

When she had crept into the living room this morning she had fully expected to find Richie still asleep.  What Annie hadn’t expected was her reaction to seeing him slumbering on her couch, bare-chested and tousled with a peaceful smile curving his lips.  She had melted at the sight, stopping beside the couch to stare down at his sleeping form.

In his sleep Richie had kicked free of the quilt; it was lumped on the floor beside the couch.  He lay on his back, one arm thrown above his head on the pillow and the other hanging off the side of the sofa, his long fingers dragging the rug.  His jeans were unsnapped at the waist and half-unzipped, revealing the stripe of dark fuzz that trailed downward from his navel.  Annie felt a flush of heat as her eyes widened at the ample bulge barely concealed by his zipper. 

As if he felt her eyes on him, Richie had stirred groggily and pulled his hand up from the floor to rest on his abdomen.  Annie blushed and quickly averted her eyes from his crotch, picking up the quilt and draping it over Richie’s waist and legs.  Then with another glance at his angelic smile she had headed for the kitchen to make coffee.

Now Annie felt her heart beat a little faster as she stared at Richie, watching his muscles ripple as he stretched his arms forward.  She hastily looked away when he stood and half-turned toward her.  “Sugar and cream, right?” she called out casually.

“Huh?  Oh, yeah.”  Richie’s erection throbbed in response to her sweet voice.  Feeling the heat return to his cheeks Richie quickly turned his back to the kitchen and to Annie.  He yanked at the waistband of his jeans as he bolted for the bathroom.

Annie chuckled quietly at the light slam of the bathroom door.  She could feel Richie’s embarrassment from across the room and she didn’t want to magnify it.  After all, her own instinctive reaction to the sight of his morning hard-on had been in kind.  She was going to have to change her panties before work.

She sipped from her own cup as she carried the coffee she had prepared for Richie to the kitchen table.  Setting it next to the mason jar holding the fragrant lilac blossom, Annie quietly sat in one of the wooden chairs. She gazed out the window at the lightening sky, waiting for him.

A full five minutes later Richie emerged from the bathroom.  Annie heard him unzip and rummage around in his rucksack.  Then he appeared in the kitchen doorway, wearing a faded red t-shirt atop his jeans.

“Mornin’.”  He moved over to the table and paused by the empty chair.  “Thanks.”  Richie reached for the cup and took a sip of the sweetened coffee.

“Welcome.  Mornin’ to you too.”  Annie gestured to the seat.  “Go on, sit.  We got time to enjoy a cup before I gotta get goin’.”

Richie nodded and lowered his lanky frame into the chair, sipping again at his coffee before speaking.  “Umm…. How did you sleep?”

“Good.  You?”  Annie tipped her head toward the living room.  “Couch okay?”

“Yeah.  Great, actually.”  Richie smiled, finally meeting her gaze.  “Much better than the back seat of my piece of crap car.  Thank you.”

Annie reached across the table to squeeze Richie’s hand.  “Welcome.”  She let her hand linger on his for a moment before pulling it away.

Her touch warmed his entire body as they shared a look.  His cheeks coloring slightly, Richie again silently raised the cup to his lips.

“So, you sure you want to hang out in town?  You can come back here if you want, get some more sleep.”  Annie cocked her head to the side.  “Or if you want you can drive down to Brunswick, or up to Savannah.  There ain’t much to do in Darien.”

Richie shook his head.  “Naw, thanks. I want to help Eddie with my car, if he’ll let me.  Maybe I can help him out around the garage too, clean up or something.”  He felt a little lump form in his throat as he realized today he would have to figure out how to pay for his car repair.  He dreaded the thought of calling his parents to ask for money, but it seemed inevitable. 

“I’m sure Eddie will be glad to have some help.  He gets pretty busy on Saturdays.”  Annie sipped again from her coffee cup.  “But if you change your mind, the keys will be in the truck.  Take it wherever you want.”

Richie chuckled.  “Back in Jersey you’d never hear that – ‘the keys are in the truck.’  Somebody would take it wherever they wanted… and keep it.”

Annie grinned at his bemusement.  “Well, we all trust each other around here.  Besides, if somebody saw fit to steal that ol’ truck, they’d probably need it worse than me anyway.”

Richie chortled again, shaking his head slowly.  “You don’t get worked up about much, do you?”

“What’s there to get worked up about?”  Annie shrugged and gave Richie a gentle smile.  “Life is a precious gift, Richie.  It’s too short to worry about things that don’t matter.  Time wasted worrying could be better spent caring.”

“Caring about what?”

“About people.  About helping someone in need, being a friend, giving someone comfort.”  Annie looked away from Richie, gazing out the window at the pink morning sky.  “Sometimes all anybody really needs is a kind word and someone to listen.”

Richie watched as Annabelle’s long sandy lashes fluttered slightly, blinking back the moisture that sparkled in her blue eyes.  His heart squeezed at the flash of sadness that crossed her delicate features.  He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, not knowing what to say or do.

Annie stared out the window for a long moment, then turned her gaze to Richie.  When she spoke again her voice was soft and even.  “You ready?”

With a nod Richie set down his coffee cup.  He gave Annie a gentle smile, his heart warming when she responded in kind.  “Yeah.  Let’s go.”


“Hello?” Richie took a deep breath and stepped into the service station’s big open bay.  “Anybody here?”

He immediately felt like an idiot.  Of course there was somebody here.  The “Open” sign was on the unlocked door, the lights were on and there was country music playing on the radio.  Obviously Eddie’s Texaco was open for business.

“Yeah!”  Eddie’s voice boomed out from the back of the bay.  Richie swiveled his dark head toward the source of the sound and saw a door standing open, beyond it a strip of asphalt and a patch of weedy grass.  A second later a beefy frame filled the doorway as Eddie stepped back into the garage.

“Oh, hey there Richie!”  Eddie’s ruddy face split into a welcoming grin.  “You’re early.  I didn’t expect you ‘til ‘round noon.”  He wiped his hands on a greasy rag as he wandered over to where Richie stood near the roll-up doors.  “Sorry, I just opened.  Ain’t had time to track down that part for your Impala yet.”

Richie shrugged and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets.  “S’Okay.  I just thought I’d come in with Annie this morning, see if I could maybe hang around, help you work on it.”

Eddie raised an eyebrow at Richie’s comment.  Yesterday he’d had little doubt Annabelle would look after their young visitor, but he was a little surprised at Richie’s candor about starting the morning with her.  “Come in with Annie this morning, huh?” he repeated, his gaze flicking past Richie and lingering on Annie’s pickup truck parked across the street.

“Yes, Sir.”  Richie shifted uncomfortably at the mechanic’s reaction, reading his expression.  “She was nice enough to let me sleep on her couch last night.  She had to work this morning, so I asked her if I could catch a ride into town.”  He swallowed hard, realizing Eddie was watching him closely as he spoke.  “Thought maybe there was something I could do here around the garage, to help you out.  Sweep up, help with customers... something." His voice trailed off as he fidgeted again, suddenly nervous under the big man’s gaze.

Eddie chuckled at Richie’s obvious discomfort.  It had been clear yesterday that the young man was flustered by Annie’s brashness.  Apparently nothing had changed during his overnight stay.  That was fine, as far as he was concerned.  Annabelle may be a grown woman now but Eddie still felt as protective of her as a Papa Bear.  He wasn’t about to stand by and let some horny young punk take advantage of her generous nature.

“Well, since you’re here, I could use a hand.  Got a couple oil changes to do, and I always have lots of traffic on Saturday.”  Eddie nodded toward the twin gas pumps outside the bay doors.  “You can pump gas, can’t you?”

Richie nodded, grinning in response to Eddie’s query.  “Yes, Sir.  I used to help out in my buddy’s Dad’s gas station back in Jersey.  I can help you with those oil changes too, or anything else you need.”

Eddie laughed at the eagerness in Richie’s tone.  “Alright, Son.  One thing at a time.  We’ll see how you do wipin’ bugs off-a windshields first, then maybe I’ll let you tinker around some.”  He winked, the weathered lines around his eyes crinkling merrily.

“Okay.”  Richie looked around.  “Until you get a customer, what do you want me to do?”

With another chuckle Eddie turned and reached for a pegboard-covered wall.  Plucking a paper-tagged key from a hook, he held it out to Richie.  “Well, for starters you can pull that yellow Oldsmobile in here and pop the hood.  While you do that I’m gonna go call my buddy Chick about your thermostat.”

Richie nodded, taking the key from Eddie’s hand.  “You got it, Boss.”  With an eager grin he headed out the roll-up door to the strip of asphalt where the yellow Olds sat next to his wounded Impala.  As he strode across the concrete Richie’s dark head turned in the direction of Tillie’s restaurant. 

Eddie noticed Richie’s glance and his gaze traveled to the plate-glass window fronting the little diner, showcasing the bustling business inside.  Through the window Eddie could see Annie delivering breakfast to patrons at the front table.  He watched as she looked up and smiled, casting a little wave toward her young houseguest.

Eddie grinned to himself as he turned for the door to the service shop’s cluttered office.  He liked this kid.  Even though he was a little shy Richie was polite, respectful, and not afraid of work.  But Eddie still intended to keep an eye on him with regard to Annabelle.  She was family, and he was just passing through.  It wouldn’t do for Richie to leave her with a broken heart. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Chapter 6

Richie wandered into the little kitchen and found it warm and tidy, like the living room.  He stood in the center of the room for a minute, looking around.  His gaze swept over the sink, stove, and counters, past the refrigerator in the corner, and across the blue gingham curtain hiding what he assumed was the pantry. 

His eyes settled on the small table nestled under a window, two facing chairs tucked under opposite sides.  On the tabletop was a mason jar overflowing with a huge lilac blossom.   Its sweet scent filled the little room and tugged at Richie’s heart.  It reminded him of the lilac bush just outside the back door at his Ma’s house in Jersey.

In a couple days that would be his home again too, and he’d come home to the scent of lilacs every summer day after his shift at the factory.  Just like his old man.

Richie shook his head to clear away the depressing thought.  He didn’t want to dwell on that now. 

Richie turned away from the table and pulled open the fridge.  He stooped to look inside, then chuckled when he saw the remnants of a pie and a cake next to several plastic-wrap-covered dishes.  On the shelf under the desserts sat a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.  Richie pulled two cans from the plastic loops and swung the refrigerator door shut before heading back into the living room.

He stood alone in the center of the living room for a minute, a beer in each hand, looking around.  He wasn’t sure what to do; Annie was still absent.  He didn’t want to be impolite by turning on the television or stereo, and he felt a little strange about sitting on one of the pink chairs without invitation. 

A flutter of lace on the breeze drew his eye to the window and to the moonlight-illuminated tableau beyond the porch railing.  With a little smile Richie pushed open the screen door and stepped out onto the porch.

He settled on the top of the two steps, then set one beer on the porch floor beside him before pulling the tab on the other.  He took a long drink of the cold beverage, sighing gratefully as it slid down his dry throat.  It tasted damned good after the day he had endured.

Leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees Richie gazed out over the marsh, watching the grass wave hypnotically in the gentle breeze.  He could see little glints of silver in between the rushes, where the moonlight caught the water.   Far beyond the edge of the marsh swelled a dark mass of dunes, breaking Richie’s view of the shimmering expanse of silver that was the Atlantic Ocean. 

As he savored another swallow of cold beer Richie’s eyes remained on the horizon, watching the light dance on the waves of the sea.  He realized this was the same body of water he had grown up swimming and surfing in, on the Jersey shore.  But somehow this ocean seemed to exist a whole world away from the world he knew. 

Pondering that thought, Richie became aware of the sounds of the night; the chirps of crickets and frogs in the marsh and the rustling of the grasses and the branches of the trees behind the house.  It was peaceful, soothing. Richie felt himself relax as he sipped at his beer and watched the water.

Several minutes later another sound drifted through the night air – music.  Richie heard Annie lower the lid on the console stereo seconds before she pushed open the screen door and stepped out on the porch.  “Hey there,” she said softly as she crouched to settle beside him on the step.  “How’s that beer taste?”

Great.” Richie grinned and reached for the unopened can.  “Here.”  Remembering his manners in the nick of time, he hastily set his can on the porch and pulled the tab on Annie’s beverage before offering it to her.

“Thanks.  Cheers.”  Annie raised the can in salute before taking a long swallow.  “Ahhhh.  Now that’s the way to unwind after a long day at work.  I’ve been craving a cold one all day.”  She mimicked his pose, leaning forward to rest her forearms on her elbows as she looked out over the marsh with a contented sigh.

Richie nodded and took another drink, turning his gaze back to the horizon.  The corner of his mouth twitched upward as he slyly glanced sideways at Annie.  She had pulled her hair back into a loose ponytail at the nape of her neck, and soft wisps of honey-colored hair floated over her cheeks, stirring gently in the night breeze.  Her lips shone in the moonlight, full and moist and curved into a relaxed smile.

Richie’s glance dropped lower and he felt his pulse accelerate.  As promised, Annie had changed from her work clothes into more comfortable attire.  She was now wearing short green terrycloth shorts and a baggy light-gray tank top that bared her shoulders, arms, and an expanse of sunkissed chest.  Richie swallowed hard as he glimpsed the side of her round breast in the gaping underarm opening of the tank.  Feeling himself blush, he quickly redirected his gaze toward the marshes.

“It’s quiet out here,” he observed awkwardly, not knowing what else to say.

“Mmm hmm.  Peaceful.”  Annie drew in and blew out a slow breath.  “Relaxing.”  She shifted on the step, turning her body more toward Richie’s, bending her knees and tucking one leg under the other.  “Probably a lot different than what you’re used to up North.”

Richie nodded and took another drink of beer, trying desperately to keep his eyes from dropping to her chest.  “Yeah.  Jersey’s not quiet.  At least not the part I’m from.”

“You live in the city?”  Annie sipped at her beer, silently reminding herself to converse, not pry.

“Kinda.  I guess it’s more of a suburb.”  Richie chuckled.  “Blocks and blocks of houses, lots of kids.  Families.  It’s a good neighborhood.  Everybody knows everybody, takes care of each other.”

Annie smiled at the warmth in Richie’s voice.  “Sounds nice.  Not so different from here.  We all look after each other too.  We just don’t live side-by-side.”

Richie laughed.  “Yeah, you can say that again.  I wasn’t quite sure where you were taking me when we drove out into the woods.”

“Worried?”  Annie’s tease was playful.  “What, you were afraid I was gonna drag you out to some swamp and you’d never be heard from again?”

“Naw, I can take care of myself.”  Richie grinned, his voice softening with the irony of his statement, given the fact that she had rescued him from the roadside earlier in the day.  “Well, sorta, anyway.”

Annie laughed and took another drink of beer.  “Well, you don’t have to worry.  I’m not quite ready to feed you to the gators yet.  But we’ll see how the weekend goes.”  She smiled at Richie’s obvious glance toward the water.  “So, what are you gonna do when you get back up to New Jersey?”

Richie shrugged.  “Get a job.”  He dropped his gaze to the beer can in his hands.  “Can’t just hang around, sponging off my folks forever.  My Dad’s in the Union; he’ll probably be able to get me a job at the factory.”

“What kind of work do you do?  Did you do, before you came down South?”

Richie snorted ironically.  “Well, I didn’t do much.  I worked a few jobs here and there, nothin’ exciting.   Went to college for awhile, but it wasn’t really for me.”

Annie cocked her head to the side.  “Really?  What did you study?”

“Psychology.”  Richie smirked.  “And girls.”  He chuckled at his admission.  “Mostly girls, definitely more than the classes I signed up for.”

Annie tossed her head back as she laughed, her chest bobbing with the movement.  Richie’s eyes immediately dropped to her bouncing breasts.  He felt a surge of heat in his groin before hauling his gaze back up to Annie’s face.  He hastily took another gulp of beer, draining his can.

“Well, somehow I can picture that.  Bet the psychology classes came in handy for the… extracurricular activities.”  Annie smiled at Richie for a moment.  In the moonlight she could see the rosy flush on his cheeks.  Realizing she was making him uncomfortable, Annie decided not to tease him too much.  She didn’t want to embarrass or fluster him now that he had started to open up a bit to her. 

“Actually, I’m planning to go to college soon.  As soon as I can save up enough money for tuition.”

Richie arched a brow at Annie’s disclosure.  “Really?  Cool.  What do you want to study?”


Richie smiled at that.  It didn’t surprise him at all that Annabelle would want to pursue a career in which she could help people.  “That’s great.  A lot of school, though.  Hard classes.”

Annie nodded.  “Yeah.  But I really feel it’s what I’m meant to do.  After seeing all those wonderful women who helped my Mama when she was dying of cancer… Well, I want to be able to take care of people like that.  Especially kids.”

Richie sucked in a breath at Annie’s words.  Her mom had died of cancer.  She had made the revelation so simply, so calmly, without sadness or emotion.  He didn’t know what to say.

“Ummm… that’s great. About wanting to help people, I mean. Not about… uh…”

Annie smiled and reached for Richie, resting a gentle hand on his bicep.  “Richie, it’s okay.  And thank you.”  She patted his arm before pulling her hand away, her fingertips trailing lightly over his skin.  “So, no more college for you?”

Richie shook his head, his shaggy dark locks swinging with the movement.  “Nah.  I can’t go back and screw off, wasting my folks’ money.  Hell, I couldn’t make it to most of my morning classes anyway.  I was out all night most nights, gigging.”

“Gigging? That some kind of Jersey dirty-talk?” 

Richie laughed.  “No.  Gigging.  Playing music gigs.  At the clubs down the Shore.  I was in a couple bands, and when we didn’t have something lined up I’d just go sit in with whoever was playing.”

Annabelle smiled at Richie’s explanation.  She was hoping he’d open up about his music and satisfy her curiosity about the battered old guitar case sitting in front of her stereo.  “So you were a working musician, huh?  What kind of music did you play?”

“Mostly covers.  Beatles, Stones, Doors… stuff like that.  But we did some original music too.  I wrote a few songs, some I thought were pretty good.”  He hesitated, then his voice softened as he continued.  “But I guess they weren’t as good as I thought.”

Annie’s heart squeezed at the melancholy in Richie’s tone.  She hated to hear it; he seemed to finally be relaxing as he talked about music and his home.  “Richie, I’m sure they were great.  In fact, why don’t you let me be the judge?”  She waved a hand toward the door.  “Play something for me and I’ll give you my honest opinion.”

Richie couldn’t help but chuckle at her enthusiasm, even as he shook his head.  “Naw… Not tonight, anyway.   I’m kinda tired.”  He attempted to soften his refusal with the lie.  In reality he couldn’t bring himself to even look at his guitar right now.  It was too painful, now that he had resolved to turn his back on his dreams.

Annie watched Richie closely as he declined her request.  She could tell there was something more to Richie’s story, something having to do with music.  It was obviously a source of joy to him, but also of heartache.  If she could just get him to open up, maybe she could help him.  

She couldn’t explain why, but Annie hated to see the flicker of pain in Richie’s beautiful brown eyes.  She was determined to find a way to soothe his soul, to help him smile.

But that would have to wait until morning.  She was tired and had a long day ahead of her tomorrow. 

“Well, shucks.  Can’t blame a girl for trying to get a little moonlight serenade, can ya?”  Annie gave Richie a warm smile, her heart squeezing again when he returned the expression. 

“Naw, guess not.”  Richie chuckled softly.

“I’m gonna call it a night.”  Annie gracefully rose from her seat on the step.  “Gotta be up with the chickens come morning.”

Richie’ eyes slid up Annie’s tanned, bare leg as she stood beside him on the porch.  His gaze reached her hip and he realized just how short those green terrycloth shorts were.  He felt another surge of heat in his groin as he stared at the bottom curve of her buttock, barely concealed by the skimpy garment.

Realizing Annie was watching him, Richie blushed and quickly looked away.  Awkwardly he jumped to his feet, mumbling something about being tired as he turned his back to her and stooped to pick up his empty beer can from the step.

Annie chuckled softly at Richie’s embarrassment.  She had seen his reaction when she sat beside him on the step, and she had caught his furtive glances at her chest as they talked.  She wasn’t trying to tease him with her revealing attire; when she went to her bedroom she had just thrown on her most comfortable sleep shirt, as was her habit.  Annie hadn’t thought twice about the baggy tank being a bit less than modest. 

At least she remembered to slip on a pair of shorts before joining her guest; she usually paraded around her house in her panties.  Annie giggled softly at the thought of Richie’s reaction to that sight.  As if the poor guy wasn’t already flustered enough. 

Besides, he wasn’t the only one who was looking.  As Richie bent to retrieve his empty beer can Annie found herself presented with a perfect view of his back pockets.  She smirked as she evaluated the taut globes of muscle beneath the snug denim.  His tush was as attractive as the rest of him. 

Richie straightened and paused, his back still to Annie, as he pulled in a deep breath.  Annie again chuckled inwardly at his shyness; it was quite sweet.  His hesitation also gave her a second to continue her scan of his form. 

Though she had immediately noticed Richie was tall and lanky, bordering on skinny, Annie could now see that his t-shirt covered a wiry, muscular torso and broad shoulders.  His body was long and lean, like his legs.  Even Richie’s shaggy hair seemed in perfect proportion to the rest of him; its thick, dark locks curling down between his shoulder blades.

Richie slowly turned around to find Annie smiling at him.  His heart skipped a beat as he saw the moonlight reflected in her sparkling blue eyes.  The kindness in her smile warmed him, instantly calming his hormone-driven discomfort.    

When he was able to speak his voice was soft and even, bearing no hint of awkwardness.  “Yeah, I probably should get some sleep too.”

“There’s a pillow and linens on the couch.  If you need anything else, just holler.”  Annie paused for another moment, gazing at Richie’s face, illuminated by the moon’s silver light.  She felt another little flutter in her stomach as she again realized just how handsome he was.   

Without thinking Annie stepped forward, leaning up to brush her lips across his stubbly cheek.  “Good night, Richie.  Sweet dreams.”   Then she pulled open the screen door and retreated into the house, leaving Richie standing alone on the porch.

Richie’s entire body buzzed with electricity from the brief kiss.  He stood rooted to the spot, unable to move as his brain struggled to comprehend what had just happened.  Annie had kissed him.  Not in a particularly romantic way, but he had no doubt about the affection behind the gesture.

He gulped in a deep breath, trying to clear his head. Unconsciously he grinned, the euphoria of the moment making him a little giddy.  She kissed me.  Richie swiveled his head to look at the door leading into the house, then turned around to face the marsh.  He inhaled deeply again, trying to calm his racing pulse. 

Richie watched the rippling grass and shimmering water as the he slowly regained control of his faculties.  As the rush subsided his mind began to work again.  She kissed you goodnight, you fool, his brain clarified.  That’s all.  She doesn’t wanna jump in the sack with you.  She was being nice.  She’s the nicest girl you’ve ever met.   She’s WAY too nice for an asshole like you.

Richie’s lips pulled into a soft pout at the realization.  Of course.  Annabelle had been nothing but sweet and kind since the minute she picked him up on the side of the road.  She had taken him to town, fed him dinner, given him a place to sleep… why wouldn’t she give him a good night kiss?  It was nothing more than a chaste little peck on the cheek, a gesture fully in keeping with her warm Southern manner.  Hell, she probably didn’t even realize what she was doing.  Surely it was nothing more than a habit.


Richie turned back around to face the house.  He gazed through the window for a long moment, at the hallway that led to Annie’s bedroom.  She was probably already in bed, her golden hair fanned out over the pillow, her eyes closed, those soft lips curved into a peaceful smile.

With a deep sigh and a shake of his head Richie pulled open the screen door.  He closed it quietly behind him, flicking the lock on the handle.  Pausing as he glanced again at the hallway, he then moved over to the stereo.  He raised the lid on the sturdy cabinet, found the power button, and stabbed at it with a long finger, silencing the music.  

Looking around the living room, Richie located the light switch on the wall.  Three long strides and another flick of his finger extinguished the light in the little room.

Waiting a second for his eyes to adjust, Richie moved back over to the corner where his ruck and guitar sat on the floor next to the stereo.  He quietly toed off his boots, then stripped off his socks and t-shirt and stuffed them into the canvas duffel. 

Barefoot and bare-chested, Richie stepped over to the sofa.  He smiled as he saw the pile of linens Annie had left for him:  a pink-cased pillow with a matching sheet and a homemade patchwork quilt.  Dropping the pillow and quilt on the floor Richie shook out the sheet, draping it over the couch.   He sat and reached for the other linens, unfolding the quilt and spreading it over his legs before swinging his feet up onto the couch and stretching out on his side.

With a soft sigh Richie pulled the pillow under his head and closed his eyes.  Willing himself to relax, he drew in a deep breath.  The faint aroma of lilacs and sunshine filled his senses, making his lips curl into a smile.  It was Annabelle’s sweet scent, on her pillow.

His mind was filled with thoughts of her as he drifted off to sleep.