Friday, March 25, 2011

Chapter 15

Richie's pulse raced at Annie's quiet request.  He nodded slowly.  "Um... okay."

"Just... just gimme a minute, 'kay?"  Annie gently patted Richie's chest before stepping back from the circle of his arms.  "Meet me up in front."

"Okay."  Richie's heart skipped at the sweet smile Annie gave him before she turned and hurried toward the door to the back room.

Richie stood staring after Annie for a minute, then realized he should probably move away from the dance floor.  He was just standing there, being lightly jostled by the couples moving around him.  He glanced back at the table he and Annie had shared earlier and saw it had been taken over by another couple.  There was no sign of the whiskey bottle.

With a little shrug Richie began to weave through the crowd toward the front door.  It was slow going; it seemed as if there were now twice as many people crowded into the joint as there had been just a half-hour ago.  Richie remembered Annie's comment about the paper mill shift ending.  He wondered if the new arrivals were those shift workers she had mentioned.

"Hey!"  Richie was startled by a deep growl to his right.  Thinking he had inadvertently pushed someone a little too hard as he attempted to navigate through the crowd, Richie stopped.

"Sorry, Man..."  Richie blinked at the huge black man staring back at him.  He swallowed hard and wondered what he had done wrong to draw attention to himself.

The big man's sweaty ebony face split into a wide grin.  Richie's gaze was immediately drawn to the gold front tooth revealed by the parting of his dark lips.  Somehow that tooth made the guy look ominous despite his smile.

"That some hot gee-tar playin' you done up there, Boy."  The compliment was delivered in a baritone growl, and a beefy hand clapped down on Richie's shoulder.

Richie let out a silent breath of relief.  He smiled and nodded humbly.  "Thanks, Man."

"Welcome."  The big man nodded back, then turned his attention back to the woman at his side.

Realizing his mouth was dry, Richie swung his gaze toward the bar.  He saw an open space at its end, vacated by the older man he had spoken with earlier.  Craving a cold drink, Richie pushed forward through the crowd again.

This time the bodies parted a little more easily to allow him to pass.  Richie smiled as he felt a couple more slaps on the back and heard a few more compliments on his performance.  He nodded back and mumbled a humble "thanks" to each.

Finally Richie reached his destination, relieved to have a little breathing room in the small empty space.  He stepped up to the bar and puffed out a breath, ruffling his sweaty bangs.  Reaching into his jeans pocket, Richie fished out a handful of crumpled bills as the bartender caught his nod and turned to pull a beer from one of the battered old iceboxes in the corner.

"On the house."  The bartender muttered gruffly as he set the longneck on the bar in front of Richie.  "Good set, Son."

Richie smiled gratefully.  "Thanks, Man,"  He shoved the bills back into his pocket before picking up the bottle.  He tipped the neck toward the bartender in salute before taking a long drink.  Richie groaned softly as the cold liquid soothed his parched throat.

"Where's Annie?"

Richie started slightly at the husky growl.  He felt the space around him close as Rex stepped up to the bar next to him.  Immediately the bartender pulled another beer from the icebox and set it in front of the stocky man.

"Dunno."  Richie stiffened as he gave Rex a wary once-over.  "Bathroom, I guess."

Rex took a swig from his bottle before answering, a little smirk in his tone.  "Sure she didn't run on outta here, out the back door?"  He turned his cold blue eyes to stare at Richie.

Richie could see Rex was baiting him.  He forced himself to remain cool though he felt his temper rising.  He shrugged again.  "She wouldn't do that."

Rex chuckled ominously.  "Yeah, sure she wouldn't."  He turned around to look toward the stage, obviously dismissing Richie's comment.  He raised the beer bottle to his mouth again.

Richie mirrored Rex's action, himself looking back toward the musicians across the room.  He took a big gulp of his beer and silently fumed as he watched Sammy play the gold Gibson.  What the fuck was Rex up to?  His calm, inhospitable countenance was starting to get a little unnerving.

"You boys playin' nice?"  Richie breathed a silent sigh of relief at Annie's lilting drawl.  A smile turned his lips as he watched her emerge from the crowd.  Annie gave Richie a meaningful look before stepping up to the bar, her hip bumping against his as she slid into the small space between him and Rex.

Rex chuckled darkly and gave Annie a little smirk.  "I'm always nice."

Annie snorted softly at his sarcastic comment but she didn't reply.  Instead she addressed the bartender.  "Hey Grover, can I get a package to go?"

Richie's brow lifted at Annie's request.  He wondered if "a package" meant the same thing here as it did in Jersey.  His question was almost immediately answered when Rex turned to give Annie a long look.

"What you need a package for?"

Annie raised a hand to brush a thick lock of honey-gold hair back from her face, tucking the errant strand behind her ear.  "None o' your beeswax, Rexy."  She stared back at him, a defiant smirk curving her lips.

"It's my business as a Lawman of this county," he replied with a touch of sarcasm.  "This not bein' a State store, and all.  You're purchasin' alcoholic beverages from an unlicensed retailer, in violation of the ordinances of McIntosh county and the laws of the State of Georgia."

Richie bit back the urge to make a smart-ass comment about Rex using lots of big words in one sentence.  Annie was doing fine on her own, dealing with this smug Jackass.  He figured he was better off to keep his mouth shut.  But if Rex tried to pull any crap, Richie sure as hell was going to stand up for her.

Annie snorted out a little laugh at Rex's parroted legalese.  "Yeah right, Deputy Farrell.  Go on and arrest me for buyin' beer from an unlicensed joint.  As you sit there and drink at the unlicensed bar."

"I didn't pay for mine.  No law against drinkin' a free beer."

"Well, when I drink my beer, it won't be here.  So you don't have to worry your pretty little head about it, Darlin'."  Annie smiled sweetly.  "You aren't duty-bound to act upon somethin' you don't witness."

Richie smirked as he watched the exchange between Rex and Annie.  It was obvious Rex wanted to know where Annie was headed; the second she had ordered her "package" he knew she was ready to leave Ruby Mae's.  But she was standing her ground.

Annie grinned and handed Grover a five-dollar bill as he set a brown paper bag in front of her on the bar.  "Thank you, Sir.  You have a good night now, hear?"

"You too, Girlie."  Grover smiled back at Annie, his gaze flicking momentarily to Richie, then back to her.  "You leavin' early tonight, huh?"

Annie's eyes sparkled as she smiled slyly at the bartender.  "Yeah, I got a houseguest to entertain."  She picked up the bag and stepped back from the bar.  " 'Night, Grover.  Come on, Richie."

With a nod Richie raised his beer bottle to his mouth.  He drained its contents, then set the bottle on the bar.  "Night," he said to Grover, then turned and nodded at Rex.  He couldn't resist.  "Nice to meetcha."

Rex fixed Richie with an icy stare but didn't reply.

Smirking inwardly, Richie turned away.  Placing his hand gently at the small of Annabelle's back, he followed her away from the bar and toward the door.  He could feel Rex's glare on him as he retreated.  Richie chuckled smugly.

Annie heard Richie's little snicker near her ear.  She grinned, recalling Rex's expression at Richie's parting comment.  She hadn't missed the hint of sarcasm in his tone, the little "Yeah, I'm leaving with her" jab.  Men, she thought with a little shake of her head.  Just like dogs, pissin' to mark their territory.

The idea of Richie considering her to be "his" made Annie's smile soften.  She had certainly felt safe and comfortable in the circle of his arms as they danced.  The recall of how strong and warm his chest felt against her cheek made her heart flutter.

Annie wondered if she could convince Richie to dance with her at home, maybe out on the porch, under the silvery light of the full moon.  They could put on a record and hold each other and sway to the music on the breeze....

The feel of the night air on her face brought Annie back from her momentary daydream.  She felt Richie's hand slip from her back as she took the step down off the Juke Joint's porch.  Annie hesitated, waiting for Richie to step down beside her.   Their eyes met and Richie and Annie gazed silently at each other for a moment.  Annie could see the question in Richie's deep chocolate pools:  "What now?"

Annie felt her cheeks flush and she dropped her gaze.  She pushed her hand into her jeans pocket for her truck key.  What now?  Well, she had an idea...

"Here, let me..."  Richie quickly reached for the brown paper bag tucked into the crook of Annie's arm as she fished in her pocket.  He grinned as he felt the six-pack of cans inside.  Judging from the look he and Annie had just shared, he was pretty sure they would be empty before sun-up.


Richie waited until Annie retrieved her key, then he followed her silently through the parking lot to her truck. He chivalrously stepped ahead of her to pull open the driver's side door.  Annie giggled softly at his manners and climbed inside, then waited for Richie to round the truck and find his seat before starting the engine.  She turned her head to give him an inquiring look.

"So.... where you wanna go?"

Richie's brow arched as her question caught him off-guard.  "Huh?"

"It's still early.  Where you wanna go?"  Annie's eyes sparkled in the silvery moonlight as she smiled at Richie.

"Umm..." Richie shifted in his seat, reaching to set the brown-wrapped six-pack on the floorboard.  "I dunno. What's around here?"

Annie giggled softly.  "Not much.  There's that other bar I told you about, Bud's.  That's where most of the other Darien folks will be.  The ones who don't want to hear good Southern Music."

Richie nodded, understanding the unspoken subtext of Annie's comment.  Bud's Tavern would be where Darien's white folks drank on Saturday night.

During his short time in the South Richie had quickly learned the reality of Southern race relations.  The Civil Rights movement may have created laws to treat everyone equal, but racial segregation was still very much the way of life.  It was informal and social, but still blacks and whites had their own communities, led their separate lives.  Even in small towns like Darien, where everybody knew everybody else.

"They don't have music there?"  Richie smiled as Annie shook her head, her honey-blonde waves shimmering in the moonlight.

"Just the jukebox."  Annie grinned.  "No stage for you to get up on and show off for me."

Richie chuckled at her tease, feeling a little surge of pride.  Unconsciously his fingers curved as if moving over guitar strings, the muscle memory a ghost of his earlier activity.  "Hey, you wanted me to show off for you.  Hell, you begged me to play."  His eyes glowed with modest pride as he gazed back at her.

Annie nodded slowly.  "Yeah, I did.  And I'm damned glad."  She paused, smiling back at him.  When she spoke again her voice was softer, full of admiration.  "Richie, you were amazing.  The way you played... the way you sang... You were like a rock star up there on that stage."

Richie blushed.  Unable to look at Annabelle, he dropped his eyes to the seat between them.  "Yeah, well... it was fun.  But I'm anything but a rock star, Annie.  I'm just a guy who can play a few cover songs, that's all."

Annie's heart melted as she smiled at Richie.  It was apparent from his performance tonight that he had talent. And showmanship.  And stage presence.  The way he had taken charge of the band for those two songs... Wow.  And now he seemed almost embarrassed by her praise.

"Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree 'bout that."  Annie chuckled softly.  "So, I'm not really in the mood for Bud's, and I don't think you are either..."  She paused while Richie raised his eyes to meet hers again.  He smiled sheepishly and shook his head.

"Nah, I'm not.  Think I've had enough of meeting people today."  Richie chortled quietly.  "But then again, I think I met 'em ALL today."

Annie giggled.  "Naw, you didn't meet 'em all.  You'd have to go to Church to do that.  But you made a pretty good dent in the list."

Richie nodded, laughing softly with her.  With a little sigh he turned his face toward the window, looking out at the bright, full moon.  Suddenly he knew where he wanted to go.

"Can we go to the beach?"  Richie looked back to Annie with the suggestion.

Annie grinned.  That sounded perfect.  The waves, the moon, a six-pack and the radio... and maybe a little something else to share.  Just her and Richie.  She felt a little tingle of anticipation shoot through her body.

"Yes, Richie, we surely can."  Annie reached forward to slide the transmission out of Park.  "The beach it is."

A little smile relaxed on Richie's lips as he gazed out the window at the moon while the truck bumped along the rough gravel road leading away from Ruby Mae's.  He stole a sideways glance at Annie and saw she was smiling too, her eyes on the road.

Richie rolled down his window, sighing softly as the breeze swept through the pickup's cab, streaming through his damp hair and brushing away the perspiration that still lingered on his neck and chest.

He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, inhaling deeply.  He could smell the ocean, the light salty tang mingling with the scent of the pines and the marsh grasses in the heavy summer air.  Richie felt a surge in his groin as a vision flashed in his mind, of him and Annie locked in a passionate embrace as the gentle surf flowed in around them.

Annie looked sideways at Richie as she turned the truck onto another dirt road.  His head was tipped back against the seat, his beautiful face painted with dappled moonlight as his dark hair fluttered gently in the breeze.  The relaxed smile on his soft lips made her melt.  There was no trace of the sadness that had haunted him earlier.

They made the rest of the short drive in silence, lost in their own thoughts.  Richie opened his eyes and turned to give Annie a little smile, content with the quiet rumble of the truck's motor and the rush of the breeze.

When he saw the glimmer of the ocean ahead of them Richie pulled his head forward to look out the windshield.  He was surprised to see not a wide, sandy beach, but a narrow strip of rocky breakers backed by a swath of dark, coarse, weedy sand.  Richie frowned.  This wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he had pictured a romantic moonlit evening on the beach with Annabelle.

Annie pulled the truck off the dirt road and skirted along the edge of the sand, between the shore and a deep stand of moss-draped pines.  The rough terrain made for a bumpy ride, and Richie reached forward to brace a hand on the dashboard to help steady himself in his seat.  "Where are we?" he asked, trying not to sound apprehensive.

Annie grinned.  She could tell from Richie's expression that this coastline wasn't what he had expected.  But she had purposely taken this route to ensure they would be able to enjoy their privacy.  She wanted to continue her evening with Richie completely alone.  As in away from the main and secondary roads that she knew Rex and his fellow Deputies often prowled in the wee hours of a Sunday morning, looking for illicit activity.

She knew a place where they wouldn't be bothered.  It just took a little bit to get there.

"We're in Georgia," she teased.  "McIntosh County."

"Ha ha.  I mean..."  Richie stopped.  He didn't really know what he meant.

Annie giggled as a large dip in the ground bounced Richie on his seat, almost making him hit his head on the roof.  "Hang on, we're almost there."

"Jesus, I hope so!"  Richie reached up with his left hand to clutch at the back of the seat while his right remained braced against the dash.  His hand slid behind Annie's shoulder, his thumb rubbing against her soft  bare skin.

The contact sent another shiver through Annie as she guided the truck up and over a couple small sandy dunes and around a large log.  She swerved quickly to avoid a stump and silently cursed, tapping the brake to slow the truck's progress.  She was eager to get to their destination so she and Richie could continue their evening together.  But they sure as hell wouldn't have any fun tonight if she got her truck hung up on some tree trunk or dune out here.  It would be a long walk home.

Finally the truck turned west, skirting the edge of the forest.  The terrain leveled out and the pickup's wheels rolled more evenly.  Moonlight flooded into the cab as the shadows of the trees receded from their path.

Richie blinked at the scene before them, then he smiled.  Their off-road track had taken him and Annie to a small clearing, a break in the forest where the ocean flowed further inland.

The rocky breakers were gone and an expanse of flat, shimmering sand stretched from the water to a series of small dunes that separated a grassy field from the water.  Small tidal pools dotted the little beach, their shallow puddles glimmering in the moonlight.  The surf rushed gently against the flat sand, small waves foaming lightly as they rolled in.

Annie pointed the truck's nose away from the water, then threw the transmission into Reverse.  As she turned to look over her shoulder so she could back the truck toward the beach her arm automatically lifted to rest along the back of the seat.  She let out a little gasp of surprise when she felt Richie's arm already occupying the space.

With little grin Annie rested her arm on top of his, her fingers closing gently around his firm bicep instead of the seat back.  A wave of heat flushed over her.  She glanced at Richie and saw him smiling at her, clearly welcoming the contact.

Carefully Annie backed the pickup into a dip between two small dunes, as close to them as she dared without getting stuck in deep dry sand.  Turning again to face forward, she slipped her arm from atop Richie's and put the truck into Park before killing the engine.  She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath before speaking.

"Here we are."  Annie turned her head toward Richie.  "This what you had in mind?  It ain't the public beach."

Richie nodded.  "This is perfect."  He grinned shyly.  "I didn't really wanna go someplace public.  Just somewhere we could see the water."

"Well then, that would be here."  Annie chortled softly and tugged at the latch on her door.  "Grab the beer.  I got a blanket in the back."

Richie's pulse raced at Annie's comment.  Again he flashed on a vision of himself and Annie locked together in a passionate embrace, this time reclining on a blanket spread over the sand.  His dick surged against his zipper at the idea.

"Okay...." Richie mumbled hoarsely, then took a deep breath.  He realized his reply was uneccessary; Annie was already out of the truck, leaving the key in the ignition and the driver's-side door standing open.  He heard the creak of hinges and a metallic clang as Annie lowered the old truck's tailgate.

Reaching down to pull the crinkled brown paper bag from the floorboard, Richie climbed out of the truck.  He turned around and saw Annie kneeling in the pickup's bed, flipping open the latch on an old army surplus footlocker that sat against the back of the cab.

Not sure what to do, Richie stood silent and watched as she pushed up the lid and pulled out a rolled sleeping bag.  She dropped the bag onto the bed beside her knees, then reached again into the box.  This time she extracted a small portable radio, followed by a ragged patchwork quilt.  Both items joined the sleeping bag on the truck bed's floor.

"Uh... can I help with anything?"  Richie fidgeted, feeling a little guilty for just standing and staring.

Annie pushed herself up from her kneel, grinning down at Richie as she stood in the truck bed.  "Naw, I got it."  Nudging the sleeping bag aside with her foot, she leaned down to pick up the radio before stepping down to the tailgate.  "But if you want you can pop me open one-a those beers."

"Sure."  Richie walked to the back of the truck, setting the paper bag on the tailgate and unrolling its crumpled top.  He pulled out the six-pack of Budweiser cans and tugged one from its plastic ring.  As he worked at the task Annie settled down to sit on the tailgate, her tan legs swinging enticingly as they dangled over its edge.

"What kinda music you wanna hear?"  Annie switched on the radio and twisted the dial.  The little plastic box complained with a loud staticky crackle until Annie extended its antenna.  "There's only a couple stations we can get out here-- country, oldies, and one rock station, outta Jacksonville."

"Rock and roll sounds good to me."  Richie grinned and nudged his fingertip under the metal ring atop of the beer can in his hand.  He worked his finger inside it, then pulled the tab.  He yelped out a curse as a loud POP was immediately followed by a hissing gush of foamy malt beverage, showering his head and chest.

Annie burst out laughing at Richie's surprise beer-shower.  He had obviously forgotten that their bumpy ride may have placed the contents of the six-pack under pressure.  In truth she hadn't really thought about it either, but she wasn't the one to pull the tab.

"Mother Fu...."  Richie bit his tongue mid-curse, not sure if Annie would be offended by such coarse language.  He raised a hand to swipe the beer away from his face, blinking it from his eyes.  He looked at the can still in his hand, foam seeping out of its opening.  "Well, here's your beer... what's left of it anyway."

Annie giggled again.  "That's okay.  I like a nice head, but that's a bit much."  Her eyes twinkled merrily as she gave Richie a sly grin, emphasizing the dirty double-meaning of her comment.

Richie's cock twitched again at her tease.  Had he really heard her right?  Annie had hinted that she liked to get a little wild, but she hadn't made such an overtly sexual comment to him yet.  Richie blushed slightly as he smirked.  Maybe his buzz and his dick were making him hear things, turning innocent comments into something more.

"Uh, well... I'd open you another one but it's just gonna explode too.  Probably need to let the rest of those brews settle down a little."

Annie nodded, giggling again as she turned her attention back to the radio.  She twisted the dial a little more, guiding the tuner past varying pitches of squeals and static until she found a clear transmission.  She grinned.  "That work?"

Richie nodded at the familiar tune, Journey's Wheel in the Sky.  He smiled back at her.   "Yeah, that's good."

"Okay then.  This is a pretty good station.  Think you'll like it."  Annie reached behind her to set the radio on the curved metal wheel well.  As she stretched and twisted her pink tank top raised to expose her flat, tanned belly.

Richie's eyes went immediately to Annie's navel then slid downward, along the frayed edge of the denim hiding her zipper.  Annie's cutoffs were low-rise and almost impossibly short, revealing the full length of her firm thighs.

Richie's dick jumped against his fly at the thought of just what that soft denim covered.  He would really like to get her out of those cutoffs.

As quickly as the naughty thought flashed through his mind, Richie's cheeks colored.  He felt guilty for thinking of Annabelle like that, like some piece of tail.  She was way better than the other Southern girls he had sweet-talked out of their panties.

Besides, he could barely form a coherent thought around Annie, let alone sweet-talk her into anything.

No, he was gonna have to somehow keep his dick under control tonight, while they sat out here together under the big moon, sharing beer and music and the sounds of the night.  He would have to be content just to be with her.  Annie was way too nice a girl for him to try to corrupt.

But that didn't mean he couldn't drink a beer with her, hold her hand, maybe dance to the music on the radio, if she was willing.  Richie sighed softly with frustration as his cock protested that thought.  That was what he'd have to be satisfied with tonight.  Just holding her and smelling her hair and feeling her cheek against his chest.


"Hey Richie?"

He turned his head toward the sweet sound of his name in her gentle Southern drawl.  "Yeah?"

Annie gave Richie an impish grin.  "You know that mischief I mentioned earlier?"

Richie's brow arched at the coy lilt in her voice.  "Uh... yeah?"

Annie held his gaze for a moment, then gave him a wicked little smirk.  Richie's eyes widened as her hands moved to her chest, the fingers of her right hand slipping into the deep scoop-neck of her tank top and disappearing into her cleavage.

His lips parted in a little gasp of surprise when he saw the object she extracted from her bra.  Richie stared slack-jawed at the slim, lumpy little twist of paper Annie held delicately between her pink-tipped finger and thumb.

Annie giggled at Richie's expression.  She could see he was shocked by her revelation, but she was pretty sure he wouldn't be adverse to joining in her fun.

"Wanna get high?"

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Chapter 14

Annie's radiant smile warmed Richie's heart, softening the dread that still lurked there.  He was afraid of the heartache he knew would follow when he played the last note, when he put down Sammy's gold Gibson and stepped down from the stage.  But Annie would be there to ease the ache of his private disappointment when he walked away from his dream again.

It would be worth it.  This was the one thing Richie could give to Annie to thank her for her kindness, the only thing she'd asked of him.  He owed it to her.

But he wanted it for himself.

Richie took a deep breath as Annie again pressed her body to his, giving him a little hug as she nestled her cheek against his shoulder.  The perfume of her hair filled his senses, blocking out the musty odor of stale beer and cigarette smoke that hung in the air.  He closed his eyes, shuttering his view of the stage as he guided Annie again into a slow revolution.

When the closing notes of the song sounded Annie stepped back from Richie and smiled.  Capturing his hand in hers, she turned and waved excitedly at Sammy, catching the guitarist’s attention as he reached for his beer bottle.  

Sammy raised a brow and nodded at Richie, silently renewing his earlier invitation.  Richie gave a little nod back then stumbled forward as Annie practically dragged him toward the stage, pushing between the closely-packed bodies on the dance floor.

"Changed your mind, Man?"  Sammy grinned broadly when Richie was standing at the edge of the platform that was their rudimentary stage.

"Well...." Richie smiled sheepishly and looked at Annie. "She's pretty convincing."

"Cool.  Come on up."  As Richie stepped up onto the stage Sammy lifted the Gibson away from his body, pulling the strap over his head.  Holding the guitar by the neck, he offered it to Richie.

"Uh... thanks."  Richie hesitated before reaching for the instrument.  "Man, you sure?  I mean..."

"Richie, just take her already."  Sammy's remark was scolding but his tone was merry.  His cheeks crinkled with his wide smile.

Richie felt a tingle of excitement course down his arm and through his body the second his hand closed around the guitar's sleek neck.  Immediately he felt a flush of heat.  It was as if he was rediscovering a former lover, stealing an illicit rendezvous.  Richie winced at the almost sexual intensity of his reaction.

He wasn't supposed to be doing this.  He had made the decision to quit.  But already it felt too damned good.

Richie was unable to stop the smile that curved his lips.  He drew the strap over his head and settled the guitar against his pelvis, groaning softly at the contact.  Automatically his calloused fingertips slid along the frets while his other hand caressed the sleek curved wood at his hip.

"She's nice," he remarked huskily, looking up at Sammy.  "Real nice."

"Thanks." Sammy smirked.  "She's a lady, but you don't gotta be gentle.  She likes it hard."

Richie grinned at the innuendo, his eyes gleaming as they locked with Sammy's.  They exchanged a look, understanding each other perfectly.  Richie realized he and Sammy were two of a kind, bonded in the brotherhood of music.  

"I'll see if I can give her what she wants."  Richie chuckled throatily with his own sly remark.

Sammy nodded and turned to look at his band-mates, who were watching the exchange between their young guitar player and their apparent guest musician.  "Gentlemen, this is Richie.  He's from up North, here visitin' Annabelle.  He's gonna sit in on a few, if that's fine by y'all."

Sammy's introduction was met by a chorus of "uh huhs" and "oh yeahs" from the older men.  Sammy quickly named off the band members for Richie:  Ralph the piano player, Smokes the drummer, Elvin the trumpeter, and Big Moe on the bass violin.

The grizzled bass player's dark eyes twinkled as he grinned at Richie.  "Think you can keep up with us, Son?"

Richie nodded and drew a hand through his sweaty hair.  "I'm sure gonna try, Sir."

His polite response brought a chorus of snorts and guffaws from the men.  Richie smiled bewilderedly at their reaction, not understanding what was so funny about his reply.

"Son, thanks for the fancy manners, but tonight we just some Down and Dirty Dawgs, ya hear?  We just here to play some rock and soul, give these hard-workin’ people somethin' to dance to."  Big Moe paused, giving Richie a deliberate once-over.  "Now, you know some blues chords?"

"Yes Si... I mean, Yeah."  Richie quickly corrected himself as he nodded.

"Richie was playin' in Memphis for awhile."  Annie's voice betrayed her excitement as she spoke up on his behalf.  "He even played on some records."

Richie tried to ignore the little stab in his gut at her eager words.  He turned to look at Annie and found her beaming, her cheeks flushed a rosy pink and her blue eyes sparkling.  He really wished she'd stop telling everybody about his ill-fated visit to Memphis.  He knew she was excited and trying to help, but Jesus.  She just didn't understand.  He had nothing to brag about.

"That so?"  Ralph's gravely voice rumbled across the little stage.  "You play down on Beale Street, Boy?"

Richie nodded, humbly dropping his gaze to the floor as he smiled.  "Yeah.  Did some club gigs and stuff."

"Well Shee-it."  A grin split Ralph's heavy ebony face.  "Then you fo' damned sure can keep up with us folk.  How 'bouts a little Big Mama Thornton to get it started?”  He arched a bushy brow, waiting to see if the shaggy White Boy really knew the Blues.

Richie couldn’t stop his smirk as he recognized the piano player’s challenge.   He struck a chord on the Gibson, his heart flipping at the sweet tone.  “You got it.”

“Awl-raght then.”  Ralph nodded and turned to face his piano.  Crashing his fingers down on to the keys and throwing his head back, he belted out a hoarse wail.

YOU AIN’T NOTHIN’ but a Hound-Dog…

At precisely the right second Richie hit the first phrase of the song, pleasure surging through him as the Gibson’s body vibrated against his pelvis.  The rest of the band jumped in on cue, Smokes and Big Moe laying down the beat to the old Blues lament about a no-good man. 

Automatically Richie began tapping his foot and bobbing his head as he played, picking out the understated accompaniment to Ralph’s screaming vocals.  He grinned when Ralph turned to give him a wink, an unspoken “attaboy” to the Yankee who knew this song in its original arrangement, the way it sounded before it was made famous by Elvis Presley.  Richie nodded back at the Piano Man, acknowledging his praise.

He glanced to his left, to the side of the stage where Annie had moved as the crowd on the dance floor began to shimmy and sway.  He saw her watching him with rapt attention, her eyes and lips shining in the violet light cast from the stage.  The corner of Richie’s mouth twitched upward as his eyes met hers for a moment, then he turned back to the band.  He didn’t want to be distracted by her now, while he was proving himself to these seasoned musicians. 

At the end of the second verse Richie felt himself grin.  Adrenaline coursed through him as he closed his eyes and let his heart take over.  Effortlessly his fingers slid over the strings, picking out an expressive solo.  In a mere twelve measures he felt his soul take flight.

It felt damned good.

Ahhhh… you made me feel so blue….
You made me weep and moan
You made me feel so blue
You made me weep and moan
‘Cause I’m lookin’ for a woman
All you’re lookin’ for is a home….

You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog
Snoopin’ round my door
You ain’t nothin’ but a Hound Dog
Snoopin’ round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more.

Richie’s eyes opened and he turned to look at the musicians with whom he stared the little stage.  He flushed slightly when he saw them all grinning broadly at him as they played along, creating an extended outro to the song.  There was no doubt he had passed their test. 

With a flourish Richie hit a solid end note, then grinned as he bent it a little longer than necessary.  He relished the feel of the Gibson in his hands.  As the song died he craved more.

The crowd clapped and whooped as Ralph took a little bow.  He settled back on his bench and turned to shout over his shoulder at his young guitarist.  “How ‘bout some Fats!”  Then he pounded out a staccato phrase of piano chords, introducing the next song.

I found my thrill
On Blueberry Hill....

Richie tossed his head back as he laughed, immediately settling into the wandering swing melody to back up Ralph’s piano and vocals.  This song was an old friend; he had learned it on the piano years ago.  Richie felt a little twinge of homesickness as the vision of his parents dancing together in their living room flashed again in his mind.  Automatically his gaze turned to Annie.

This time Richie didn’t glance away.  As always before, the guitar in his hands somehow gave him confidence and cool.  He gave Annie a little wink, then boldly let his eyes slide over her body.   She was swaying gently back and forth, rocking her hips in time to the rollicking beat.  Richie felt himself respond to the mesmerizing movement, his dick pushing gleefully against his zipper .

Richie sucked in a deep breath at the flush of desire that raced over him.   Tearing his eyes away from the hypnotic roll of her hips, Richie raised his gaze to meet Annie’s.   His heart warmed at the enraptured smile on Annabelle’s pretty face and at the sparkle in her clear blue eyes. 

Jesus, she was beautiful.  And she was smiling at him.

It took Richie a moment to realize his lips were moving.  Surprised, he grinned as he continued to sing along, backing up Ralph’s vocals.

Though we’re apart
You follow me still
For you were my thrill
 On Blueberry Hill

Richie struck the harmonious chord to end the song, giving Annie another little grin before turning back to face his bandmates.

“Not bad , Son… not bad!”  Big Moe nodded his approval at Richie as he reached for his drink.  “Think you got a few more in ya?”

Richie nodded eagerly.  “Yeah, Man.  Whatever… I’ll jump right in.”

“You jumpin’ in with both feet now!”  Ralph laughed, mopping his sweaty brow with a dingy bar rag.  “Shee-it, a few more and Sammy’s goin’ think we done replaced him with a long-haired Yankee.”

Richie laughed at the big man’s prediction.  “Naw, I don’t think so.  One night only.”  His smile gentled as he shot another glance in Annie’s direction.

Ralph noticed.  “Ohhhh Lawdy!  Yankee-Boy’s tryin’ to impress a Woman.” He grinned.  “It workin’?”

Feeling his cheeks color, Richie was suddenly grateful for the dim lighting.  He shrugged.  “Don’t know.  She just wanted to hear me play, is all.”

“Well, Son… from the looks of things you’re doin’ just fine.”  Elvin the trumpet player tipped his head toward Annabelle, giving Richie a little smirk.  “I been knowin’ Annie since she was a little girl.  That’s a real smile you got there.”

“Uhhh….”  Richie shifted uneasily, adjusting the Gibson’s strap across his shoulder .

Ralph let out a chortle at Richie’s sudden discomfort.  “Well c’mon, Son… let’s give her somethin’ more to smile about.  What you wanna play?”

“Huh?  Me?”  The Piano Man’s question caught Richie off guard.  He figured he would just jam, go along with whatever music the band wanted to play.  After all, it was their set, not his.

“Do you see any other Gee-tar totin’ Yankee Boy on this stage?”  Ralph’s good-natured tease made Richie chuckle, then shake his head.

“No, Sir.”

“There he goes again with that mannerly shit!”  Amused by Richie’s reaction to their teasing, Big Moe added his poke.   “Come on, Yankee.  Surely you got somethin’ you wanna play, to show off for Miss Annabelle over there.  She got eyes for you, Boy.  You do it right you maybe gonna get a goodnight kiss tonight.”  Moe chortled gleefully as Richie fidgeted again.

“C’mon, Son.  These folks is waitin’ to dance.”  Ralph prodded Richie again.  “Give us somethin’.”

Richie thought for a second, then grinned.  He knew what to play.  “Alright… ready?”

“You just go on, Boy.  We’ll pick it up.”

With a deep breath Richie stepped up to the front of the stage, under the beam of a blue stage light.   He felt a rush of excitement as he fingered the first electric notes, launching into the immediately-recognizable lick introducing “Johnny B. Goode.”  

Richie heard a whoop and a laugh behind him and he knew he had chosen well.  His eyes squinted closed and his grin broadened as he let the music move him again.  He felt his hips and shoulders rocking to the beat as Ralph picked up the vocals.

Down in Lou-si-anna near to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens…

Annie clasped her hands together and held them to her chest as she laughed.   The pure joy in Richie’s expression made her heart swell with happiness.   He looked so handsome, so confident and cool as his hands flew over the strings.  Now there was no sign of the quiet sadness that had seemed to surround Richie during his brief time in her company.

“Day-um!”  Annie giggled when she heard Sammy’s voice near her ear.  She gave her friend an enthusiastic grin as he stepped up beside her.  Sammy handed Annie a cold beer and nodded toward the stage.  “Look at him go!  Boy can flat-out play!”

“Yeah!”  Annie couldn’t stand still in her excitement.  “He’s great, ain’t he?”  As she raised the bottle to her lips her hips swayed in a little twisting rhythm.

“Well come on, Girl!  You ain’t standin’ still!”  Sammy reached for Annie’s hand, joining her in her twist.  Annie tossed her hair back as she laughed merrily, turning to face Sammy as they danced together to the rollicking tune. 

The movement caught Richie’s attention and he glanced over at Annie.  He was momentarily startled to see her dancing with some guy, a little twinge of jealousy shooting through him.  Then he recognized her partner as the owner of the guitar strapped across his body.  

He grinned.  Richie had no problem with Sammy sharing a dance with Annie.  At least she wasn’t dancing with that asshole Rex.

“Take it, Richie!”  Ralph’s shout of his name snapped Richie’s attention back to his performance.  Automatically he stepped up to the microphone positioned next to Big Moe’s bass.

He used to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
Go sit beneath a tree near the railroad track
Oh, the engineers would see him sittin’ in the shade
Strummin’ with the rhythm that the drivers made
People passin’ by they would stop and say
My oh my that little country boy could play…

Annie froze in mid-twist at Richie’s voice belting out the lyrics in a bluesy growl.  Her jaw dropped as she stared at him up on the stage, watching him sing into the microphone as he continued to riff furiously on the Gibson.  Richie had said he could sing, but not that he could sing like this.

Sammy laughed at Annie’s reaction to Richie’s vocals.  He could tell she was sweet on the guy; tonight he had watched her smile and giggle like a high-schooler around Richie.  From what he could tell she had picked a nice guy on which to focus her attention.  And one hell of a musician.

Annie’s expression turned to a gentle smile as she watched Richie launch into to the mid-song guitar solo.  The passion in his playing was obvious; the melody that sang from the guitar seemed to come from his whole body rather than the instrument.  

She chortled softly as she saw Richie squint his eyes shut, his face contorting into a raptured grimace and his lips first puckering then drawing back to reveal tightly clenched teeth.  Richie’s body was as expressive as his face, bending forward at the waist then arching backward as he aimed the Gibson’s neck skyward as the rapid notes flew from his fingertips.  His sweat-streaked skin glowed in the reddish-blue  stage lights and his hair curled in damp strands across his forehead and against his neck.

He was breathtaking.

Annabelle wasn’t the only one who appreciated Richie’s impassioned guitar work.  As Ralph and Big Moe launched back into the chorus of Go! Go, Johnny Go!  the juke joint erupted with applause, whoops, and hollers.  Richie grinned broadly at the crowd and touched his fingers to his forehead in a little salute, then continued to play.  He stepped up to the mic beside Big Moe and added his voice to the chorus.

The song continued on for another five minutes, Ralph renewing the chorus three more times as the crowded dance floor pulsed with energy and Richie continued to burn up his guitar strings.  Finally the big man called the end of the song, standing up at the piano and pounding his hands down on the keys with a loud disharmonious  plunk.   A final crashing riff from Richie was met with renewed applause.

Wiping a hand across his sweaty face, Richie turned to grin at Annabelle.  The look of pure awe on her beautiful face made his heart leap in his chest.  He could hardly believe that look was for him.  But he knew it was.  He had made her happy, had given her what she asked for.  His music.

Richie’s gaze slipped to Sammy, who was standing beside Annie, clapping and hollering with the rest of the crowd.  Their eyes met and Richie gave the young man a grateful smile.  His heart twinged with disappointment as he realized it was time to step down, to let Sammy return to his place on the stage.

But first he wanted to do just one more song.  For Annie.

Turning around to face the musicians, Richie called out over the din.  “Follow me!”  He ignored the surprise on Big Moe’s face at his command.  He prayed the men would overlook his audacity at taking the lead, that they would cut the “Yankee Boy” a little slack in his one and only jam session in this backwoods joint.

Richie took a deep breath and shot another glance in Annie’s direction.  Her smile buoyed his confidence as he stepped up to the mic and struck the moody, rambling riff that preceded the lyrics.  His eyes drifted closed as his lips moved in close to the microphone head.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
It’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God, I know I’m one

Richie felt his body relax, a euphoric flush sweeping through his synapses.  He heard the rest of the band kick in:  the bass, the drums, the piano.  The noisy juke-joint din in his ears quieted to a hum as the high carried him away.  

It was better than any drug, sweeter and more powerful than any substance he had ever tried.  

Richie's soul came pouring out in his whiskey-roughened croon.

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
My father was a gamblin’ man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk

Richie’s chin dropped to his chest and he took a half-step back from the microphone.  His eyes remained closed and his soft lips pressed together as he fingered out a mournful solo on the magic gold Gibson.  He heard Elvin’s muted trumpet cry out a pained melody, an improvised solo that melded with the rambling of Ralph’s piano and the deep thumping twang of Big Moe’s bass.  The quiet snick of the drums ticked away like a watch.

Annie stood stock-still, her eyes gleaming bright blue as she stared at Richie.  She could hardly breathe.  She had always loved this musical lament of a life gone wrong; she had the Animals’ record in her stereo cabinet at home.  But she had never heard such a soul-wrenching rendition of this song.  Richie’s performance was almost heartbreaking.  It was as if he was living and breathing the lyrics that slid from his soft lips.

Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well I got one foot on the platform
The foot other on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

And God I know I’m one

Richie stood motionless at the microphone as he felt the last notes vibrate from the Gibson that rested against his body.  Then it was silent and still.  His heart sank and his chin dropped to his chest.

It was over.

Suddenly the roar of the crowd rushed all around him, pulling him from his trance.  He slowly raised his head and opened his eyes to find a sea of grinning faces.  With a humble nod and a little wave he acknowledged the crowd’s appreciation, then he turned his back to them.  

He heard Ralph calling out his name, urging the crowd to continue their applause for his performance.  But he couldn’t turn back around.  He couldn't face them.  It would make him want more.

Richie’s heart gave a dull throb of protest as he as he lifted Sammy’s guitar away from his body, slowly drawing the strap over his head.  He winced.

“Shit, Man – that was fantastic!” 

Richie turned to give the young guitarist a little smile.  He shrugged.  “Thanks, Man.”  His heart clenched again as he handed the Gibson back to Sammy.  “I mean it, Man.  Thanks for letting me use her.  It… it was great.”  Richie swallowed hard, trying to stuff the emotion back down into his gut.

“Oh, Richie…”

The sound of her voice made Richie’s smile turn genuine.  He looked past Sammy to where Annie had stepped up onto the corner of the stage.  Her blue eyes glittered like sapphires as she gazed back at him.

“That was… that was…” Annie stammered, overwhelmed.  “Uh… Oh my.”  She took a deep breath, then smiled gently.  “Beautiful.”

Richie chuckled and shrugged humbly.  “Thanks.  I’ve always liked that song.”

“Well shit, how am I gonna top that?”  Sammy’s tease turned Richie’s attention back to him.  Richie watched the young man sling the Gibson around his neck and settle it at his waist.

“I’m sure you’ll have no problem, Man.  No problem.”  Richie reached out his hand to Sammy for a grateful shake.  “Thanks again.  It felt good.”

“Any time.”  With a grin and a wink Sammy turned toward the band, ready for Ralph’s cue.

Richie quickly stepped off the front of the stage, moving out of Sammy’s way.  He automatically reached out for Annie’s hand as he saw her move to dismount the platform as well.  Her soft, warm hand slid into his and Richie felt his heart throb again. 

Annie tugged Richie toward her, leading him a few steps away from the stage as the band launched into an old Ray Charles ballad.  Thinking she wanted to dance again, Richie stopped and pulled his hand from hers, slipping his arms around her waist when she turned to look at him.  He smiled down at her, waiting for her to loop her arms around his neck and turn her cheek to his shoulder.  

Instead she placed her palms against his sweaty chest and gazed at her hands for a long moment before raising her face to his.  The gleam in her blue eyes made Richie’s knees go weak.  Her soft, sultry voice filled his head and made his heart leap.

“Richie… let’s get outta here.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Chapter 13

Richie took a deep breath and dropped his gaze from Annie's.  He couldn't bear to see her misplaced admiration.  He was nobody to be impressed by.

"Naw, Man.  Thanks, but I... uh..."  Richie frowned slightly as he struggled to graciously decline Sammy's invitation.  "I mean, it's your gig.  I don't wanna horn in on it."

Sammy shook his head, disagreeing with Richie's refusal.  "Naw, Man!  It's cool.  This ain't a gig, anyway."  He grinned.  "It ain't like we're gettin' paid for this or nothin.'  This is just practice, a jam session, Man.  It's just what we do on Saturday night 'round here."

That brought a little smile to Richie's lips.  He remembered what it was like back in Jersey, just wandering from club to club with his guitar on a Saturday night and sitting down to play with whoever would have him.  He had loved those impromptu jams.  Few things had made him happier.

So why was he afraid to do that here?  Richie's smile faded.  Because those days were gone, that life a thing of the past.  And he couldn't look back now.

Annie's hand squeezing in his made him turn his eyes back to her.  He winced as he saw the disappointment on her pretty face.

"Richie, are you sure?"  She was smiling but her voice was soft, almost pleading.

He nodded, blinking as he looked down at their hands on his lap and mumbled his response.  "Yeah.  Sorry, Annie.  Not tonight."

She sighed softly.  "Well... okay."

Richie looked back at Sammy, attempting to cover his melancholy with a half-hearted grin.  "It's cool watching you guys, though.  You're good, Man.  Some great tunes, too."

Sammy grinned back. "Thanks.  We have our fun."  He slapped his hands against this thighs and turned his smile to Annie before pushing back his chair.  "Well, I'm gonna get a cold one before we start in again."  He stood, then looked back at Richie.  "If you change your mind just say the word.  You can come on up with us anytime, Man."

Richie nodded gratefully.  "Thanks."

With a nod and a farewell to Annie Sammy turned and started to make his way toward the bar, grinning and slapping hands with friends as he passed by them.

"Richie... why?"

Annie's gentle question stabbed through Richie's heart.  He could hear the disappointment she was trying to mask.  He sighed.

"I just... I just don't feel like it."

"That's what you said last night."

Richie's lips pressed together in a firm line.  She wasn't wrong; that was the excuse he had used last night when Annie had asked him to play for her.  And it was true, mostly.  It just wasn't the whole truth.

"I know.  I'm just..."  Richie's voice trailed off as he searched for another explanation, one that wouldn't hurt Annie's feelings or betray the truth behind his reluctance.

"Just what?"

Richie let out an exasperated sigh at her prodding.  He tugged his hand from Annie's and raised it to rake through his hair.  "I just..."  He turned his face to hers.  "I'm just not that good.  Okay, Annie?  Get it?"  Richie's frustration came bursting out in his response.

Annie's eyes widened at Richie's retort.  She knew the source of Richie's sadness had something to do with music and his guitar, but she hadn't expected such an outburst.


Richie's heart sank as he saw hurt flicker in Annie's pretty blue eyes.  "Annie... I... I'm sorry."

She gave Richie a small smile then looked away, reaching for her beer bottle.  Richie saw a tear glittering in the corner of her eye as she took a sip.  Silently cursing himself, Richie reached for his own bottle and gulped down a drink.

Annie swallowed her beer then turned to face Richie again, a faux-cheery smile curving her mouth even as her eyes sparkled with moisture.  She fluttered a hand dismissively.  "It's fine, Richie.  It's none of my business.  I'm sorry I pushed."  She scooted her chair backward so she could stand.  "Now, I'm going to brave a trip to that Ladies' room."

Annie turned away from the table, then hesitated for a moment.  She looked back over her shoulder at Richie.  When she spoke her voice was calmer, more natural.   "Maybe you'll feel like dancin' with me when I get back?"

Richie smiled sheepishly back at her.  "Yeah, I'd like that," he answered honestly.

"Great.  Be back in a minute."  Annie turned away and headed across the dance floor toward the door to the back room.

Richie's eyes followed Annie until she disappeared through the doorway.  He felt awful about disappointing this woman who had been so sweet and kind to him.  But she had asked him to do the one thing he just couldn't bear right now.  And he couldn't even explain to her why.  She must think he was some kind of lying asshole who probably couldn't even play the guitar.

"You dumb fucking bastard," Richie mumbled to himself, slouching back in his chair and sighing deeply.  He took a long pull at his beer before staring moodily across the room.

As he cursed himself in his mind Richie's gaze wandered to the stage and settled on Sammy's Gibson.  He wondered if Sammy was like him, someone for whom music was an addiction, a drug.  Something his heart and mind and soul and even his body craved.

So far kicking that habit sucked.

Ever since he was a kid listening to Beatles records on his parents' hi-fi Richie had been in love with music.  Adam and Joan Sambora had encouraged his interest, signing him up for piano and accordion lessons and letting him choose the records they listened to during family dinner.  They had never belittled his musical taste, even when it turned darker and louder and harder than what they preferred.

A wistful smile crept to Richie's lips as he pictured his mother and father floating gracefully around their small living room to big-band music and classical waltzes, practicing for their ballroom dancing competitions.  When he was little it seemed like they danced all the time, their faces glowing with happiness and contentment. As he grew up they danced less and less, as times grew tough and his Dad had to work double shifts and extra jobs to provide for the family.

Richie's parents had set aside their dream for reality, to raise him and provide him with everything a growing boy needed and many of the things he wanted.  But through it all their music had endured, always present and comforting.  When his Ma had kissed him on the cheek and his father shook his hand before he set off for Memphis, Richie knew they were proud of him.  And now he knew they would welcome him back without judgment or shame when he returned to face his reality.

Feeling disappointed tears moisten his eyes, Richie blinked rapidly and angrily brushed a hand across his face.  Goddammit, he didn't want to think about this now.  He just wanted to escape his gloomy mood, if only for awhile.  Annie had brought him here to do just that, and he was determined not to disappoint her further.

Raising his beer bottle to his lips, Richie downed the remainder of the beverage in a long draught.  He wasn't kidding earlier when he told Annie he could stand to get drunk tonight.  Suddenly the idea seemed even more appealing.

Richie pushed his chair back in preparation to head for the bar for another round, but hesitated when he realized leaving their table unclaimed probably wasn't a good idea.  A line of newly-arrived patrons were clustered near the front door, peering around the club in an obvious search for seating.  Richie frowned as he realized he'd have to wait for Annie to return from the bathroom before fetching fresh drinks.

As if on cue Richie saw a flash of blonde in the far corner of the club.  His eyes followed Annie as she emerged from the back room and wandered toward the bar, stopping to chat with several men and women along the way.  It was apparent that Annie was well-known and well-liked in this joint; aside from the smiles and hugs she shared, the men crowded around the bar chivalrously stood aside and let her step up to place her order.

Richie's unconscious smile as he watched Annie turned to a quizzical smirk as she stepped away from the bar and headed for their table.  In one hand she held two longnecks laced between her fingers.  In the other she held a brown bottle capped with two plastic cups.

"Think it's time for a little somethin' different," she announced with a grin, setting the bottles on the table.  Richie snorted as he recognized the label on the brown one.  It read "Old Grand-Dad."

"Bourbon?"  Richie observed as Annie pulled the plastic cups apart, setting them upright on the table before uncapping the quarter-empty bottle.

Annabelle gave Richie a smirk.  "You said you were stickin' to stuff with labels."

Richie nodded, chuckling quietly.  "Yeah.  Seems like a good idea.  Still."  He watched her pour a healthy shot of whiskey into each of the cups, then accepted the one she held out to him.  "What are we drinking to?"

Annie tipped her head, regarding him thoughtfully.  "How about to better days?"  Her voice was gentle, relaying her apology for putting him on the spot with her earlier plea for him to play.

"Works for me."  Richie raised his cup and touched its plastic rim against Annie's.  "Better days."  He hesitated for a moment, watching Annie toss back the shot, her honeyed waves shimmering in the dim light with the brisk movement of her head.  Richie gulped down his own beverage, wincing as it burned down his throat and filled his belly with warmth.

As he reached for his beer to chase the shot Richie heard the random clink of piano keys and a couple bass drum beats.  He glanced toward the stage and saw Sammy and the other musicians preparing their instruments for another set.  Feeling Annie's gaze on him, Richie looked back to her and smiled.

"Guess I owe you a dance, huh?"

Annie shrugged but smiled back.  "If you wanna."

With a grin and a little nod Richie took one more gulp of his beer then stood.  He reached for Annie's hand as the first notes of the song started.  Silently he cursed; it was a uptempo Blues number and he wasn't a great fast-dancer.  Thanks to his parents' teaching and his natural rhythm he could slow dance better than most guys, but his gyrations to fast songs were those of a gangly White Guy.  But there was no turning back now.

Annie giggled softly at the look on Richie's face as he turned to lead her to the dance floor.  He hadn't been successful in hiding his grimace at the commencement of the song.  She'd have to take it easy on him.

In just two short steps they reached the edge of the dance floor, crowding into the group that had instantaneously clustered there with the first harmonious note.  With not much room to maneuver Richie and Annie faced each other and shared a smile, then began to move to the music, swiveling their hips in a slow twist.

In spite of his awkwardness Richie grinned as he watched Annabelle, his eyes drawn to her trim hips as they rhythmically rolled and gyrated.  He felt the warm whiskey flush in his belly extend lower to his groin when he noticed Annie's breasts were also bobbing tantalizingly as she danced.

Glancing back toward their table Richie realized his beer was within arm's length.  Pausing his awkward twist, Richie reached over and grabbed the bottle by the neck, pulling it to his lips for a long drink.  If he was gonna have to dance like this more times tonight he could use a little more liquid courage.

Annabelle giggled at Richie's relieved expression as he lowered the bottle from his mouth.  Playfully arching a brow at him she captured his hand in hers, sliding the bottle from his grip and raising it for a sip of her own.  Richie gave her a slightly-dazed smile as she handed the bottle back to him.  With a laugh Annie twisted a little closer to Richie, causing their hips to bump against each other.

"There ya go, Richie," she half-shouted in his ear to be heard over the music.  "Let your hair down and let's have some fun tonight."

Richie nodded and grinned.  That sounded like a damned good idea to him.

By the end of the song Richie had finished his beer.  As the band segued into the next number he stepped over to their table to pour another pair of shots, then with a toast he tossed back his second round of whiskey.  Its warm glow immediately relaxed him.  Suddenly he didn't care what he looked like on the dance floor, moving awkwardly almost-in-time with the fast-paced groove.

He just let he music take over, like he always had before.

Annie grinned as she watched Richie's eyes close and a smile curve his lips, his dark hair curling against his sweaty brow.  He kept moving, his body rocking as he felt the beat.  Her heart warmed as she recognized her own musical euphoria mirrored in Richie's movements.

He didn't want to play.  But at least they could dance.

By the end of the third song both the band and the dancers were ready for a break.  Richie smiled down at Annie as he slipped his arms around her waist.  Annie stepped in close, molding her body against Richie's and causing another surge in his groin.  He blew a little puff of breath up to ruffle his sweaty bangs as he and Annie began to revolve in a slow circle.

"Nice to see that smile."  Annie's cheek brushed against Richie's as she spoke into his ear.

Richie tightened his arms around Annie's waist.  She responded by pressing her hips suggestively against his as she leaned back to grin up at him.

"Yeah, well... you're making me smile."  Richie's words surprised him.  Apparently the Old Grand-Dad was some kind of truth serum.  And his buzz was loosening his tongue.

Annie chuckled and moved her lips back to Richie's ear.  "You're making me smile too."  She slipped her hands up Richie's chest to circle around his neck, then turned her head to rest her cheek against his shoulder.  Her eyes fluttered closed as she smiled blissfully, enjoying the feel of Richie holding her and swaying in time with the slow Sam Cooke song being played by the Juke Joint band.

Richie's pulse kicked up as he felt another wave of affection for Annie.  She was so perfect, so pretty and sweet and kind and smart and she smelled so damned good.... And she was in his arms.

He wanted her to stay there.  He wanted more from her than just a slow dance.  He wanted her to kiss him and hold him and murmur sweet nothings in his ear.  He wanted to let her do what she wanted to do.  Comfort him.

As they circled slowly on the floor Richie turned to face the band.  His eyes immediately found the gold Gibson strapped across Sammy's body.  A bittersweet little smile ghosted Richie's lips as he watched the guitarist finger out a mournful solo on the beautiful instrument.  Unable to look away, he stopped his and Annie's revolution, swaying with her in place as he watched the young man play.

Annie smiled to herself as she realized what Richie was doing.  In that moment she knew she would get her wish.  Richie was letting his guard down, admitting to himself what he wanted, what he needed.  Whether it was because of the alcohol or the music or her or all three didn't matter.

Annie raised her head, again moving her lips next to Richie's ear.  "Play," she whispered.

Richie pulled back and gave her a long, searching look.  Annie almost melted as she gazed into the deep chocolate pools, shining in the dim light.  His lips curved, then he tipped his head forward in an almost-imperceptible nod.