Richie woke to the sound of singing. It was soft and sweet and accompanied by the quiet patter of falling water.
Slowly his eyes eased open, first a crack, then more fully when they were not assaulted by brightness. He blinked sleepily as his groggy brain struggled to comprehend the sensory inputs it received from his eyes and ears.
Richie’s gaze focused on an object in the dusky greyness of the room. After peering at it for a long minute he realized what it was and why it was in his line of vision. He smiled at the little brown teddy bear nestled on the oak rocking chair next to the bed. Next to Annie’s bed.
Richie’s eyes drifted back shut as his smile widened. Images of the night before floated through his mind like flashes of a movie. Annie smiling up at him as they danced, grinning mischievously as she offered him a joint, her eyes sparkling as she dared him to kiss her… and her face aflush with passion as they made love under the night sky.
His fingers curled over the cotton sheet draped across his body, as if looking for tactile confirmation that it had all really happened. That he was really here, in Annie’s bed.
Bunching the sheet into his palm Richie let out a little sigh of contentment, remembering how she had wordlessly invited him into her bed when they returned home after their romantic, erotic encounter on the beach. Annie had simply taken his hand and led him past the couch where he had slept the night before, down the little hallway to her room. Then they had slowly and tenderly undressed each other before easing down onto the soft linens and into each other’s arms.
Richie couldn’t remember the last time he had slept so peacefully.
Hearing the steady rush of water, Richie’s gaze drifted from the rocking chair to the small window behind it. Realizing the roll-up shade was illuminated from behind with bright sunlight, Richie squinted slightly. It took him a minute to realize the gentle patter he heard was coming from the other side of the bedroom wall, not from outside.
Annie was in the shower.
That thought fully awakened Richie, a little jolt of awareness firing through his groin. He smirked slightly before stretching, then craned his neck to look at the alarm clock on the bedside table. His smirk turned to a grimace as he evaluated the positions of the hands on the clock’s face. Why the Hell was Annie up and showering at 8:15 on a Sunday morning?
The obvious answer eluded Richie for a moment as his mind was filled with delicious thoughts. When he again heard Annie’s voice in song he realized the answer to his own question.
Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand…
“Oh,” Richie murmured to himself. Of course. It was Sunday. Annie was getting ready to go to church. That’s why she was up and about so early, after falling into bed just a few hours before.
Richie chuckled quietly as he realized that’s what most normal people did on Sunday morning, got up and went to church. It certainly wasn’t his habit anymore, much to his mother’s chagrin. But 9:00 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony’s wasn’t exactly compatible with the nocturnal schedule of a Jersey Shore musician. And since he had been in the South Richie hadn’t bothered to find a church. His worship had taken place in dingy barrooms and musty studios, with his guitar on his knee.
A little stab of pain in his heart reminded Richie of his reality. He wouldn’t have that excuse to avoid church services any longer, once he returned home. It would delight his Ma to have him sitting in the pew next to her every Sunday, kneeling and bowing and going through the motions.
Next Sunday he would be at St. Anthony’s, in body if not in spirit. The Wayward Son returned to the flock. Richie was sure Father Francis would welcome him back with open arms and absolve him of his sins.
Of which there were many.
Richie shook his head to clear the depressing thought from his brain. For a long minute he lay still, listening to Annie’s melodic hymn. She had told him she wasn’t particularly religious, but she obviously still observed the Sunday ritual.
With another sigh Richie rolled onto his back. He stared up at the ceiling, watching the fan revolve lazily above him. A gentle smile played over his lips as he pictured Annabelle under the running water, massaging shampoo into her hair and stroking the pink bar of soap he had noticed yesterday over her dewy skin.
With a big yawn and another long stretch Richie contemplated his options; to stay in bed and wait for Annie to return or to get up and greet her with a morning kiss and maybe a cup of coffee. The first sounded more appealing; the second required effort.
It wasn’t long before Richie’s body made his decision for him. The pressure in his bladder finally forced him to squirm with discomfort. He really needed to take a leak. But the water was still running in Annie’s shower and she was still singing.
Despite their intimacy last night Richie wasn’t quite sure Annabelle would appreciate him just barging into her bathroom and taking a piss in her toilet while she was naked just a foot or two away. Annie had certainly surprised him with her brashness last night, but sharing bodily functions in a cramped bathroom was a level of familiarity Richie was reasonably certain he and Annie had not yet reached.
After another minute Richie realized he could no longer ignore Nature’s Call. Kicking free of the tangled sheet, he swung his legs over the side of the bed and heaved himself off the mattress. Absently scratching at his left buttock, Richie trudged naked down the little hallway, through the living room, and out onto the porch.
With a hurried glance around the yard to be sure there were no unexpected onlookers, Richie quickly dismounted the porch steps and moved to the side of the house. He groaned with relief as he emptied his bladder, directing a long and steady stream of urine onto the earth next to a blooming rose bush.
His most urgent business done, Richie retreated back into the house, dragging a hand through his long tangle of dark hair as he went. Once inside he rummaged around in his rucksack until he found a pair of grey knit basketball shorts, which he quickly donned. Minimally clothed, Richie yawned again and scratched at his chest. Then he turned for the kitchen.
As he wandered through the arched doorway Richie heard first Annie’s singing, then the shower, stop. He smirked again as he pictured Annie drying herself with one of her fluffy pink towels. Less than a minute later he heard the muffled click and a dull crack as Annie inched open the bathroom’s wooden door just enough to allow the shower steam to escape. Inside his skimpy gym shorts Richie’s dick twitched in agreement with his smirk.
When he turned to the stove Richie found a coffee pot warming on the back burner and a cup, spoon, sugar bowl, and a little pitcher of creamer on the adjoining counter. Annie’s thoughtfulness made Richie smile as he fixed himself a mug of the fresh brew.
Richie took a sip of the hot beverage, then swore as it seared his tongue. Grumbling as he moved to the refrigerator, he pulled open the freezer compartment and pried an ice cube from the bin inside. He dropped the cube in the cup and watched it shrink as he swirled the coffee around it. A couple seconds later he again sipped from the cup. This time he was satisfied.
Swallowing a mouthful of the now-lukewarm beverage, Richie moved over to the little kitchen table under the window. The lilac bloom was still in the Mason jar, its light scent perfuming the room. Next to the jar sat two items that made Richie’s eyebrows arch with curiosity. One was a large plastic-wrap-covered platter of deviled eggs, their creamy yellow yolks freckled with rusty paprika. The other was a worn, leather-bound Bible.
Setting his coffee mug down on the table, Richie reached for the Bible. He brushed his fingertips over the embossed cover, slowly tracing the letters as he read them: W-H-I-T-T-A-C-R-E. Whittacre. His lips pursed lightly as he wondered if that was Annabelle’s family name.
Carefully Richie picked up the heavy volume, cradling it in his left hand as the fingers of his right hand ruffled the thin, gilt-edged pages. The tissue-thin paper made a faint crackling noise as the pages parted. Richie noticed a red ribbon marked the spot to which the book fell open. The marked page was different from its neighbor, made of thicker paper and colorfully decorated. Neat cursive writing in faded ink filled the lines with names and dates.
Gently Richie turned the page to find another pair like it, then another and another. He saw that this was clearly a family Bible that had been passed down through generations. The center plate was filled with the record of births, deaths, and marriages of the Whittacre family.
Richie’s lips curved into a tender smile as he read the last name listed on the last page: Annabelle Emmeline Foster, born 24th December, 1957. Her birthday was on Christmas Eve. Somehow that seemed fitting.
His eyes were drawn to the line above Annabelle’s name, to the common surname. Richie scanned the line, then re-read it. Lucy Katherine Whittacre Foster, born 27th August, 1934. Died 24th December, 1973. His heart squeezed with sympathy as he comprehended the significance of the entry.
The last sentence was recorded in different handwriting, in fresher ink. Instinctively Richie knew the handwriting was Annie’s, documenting the date of her mother’s death. Richie’s eyes moistened as he realized Annabelle’s mother had died on her birthday. On Christmas Eve. On a night when most of the world was rejoicing , sixteen-year-old Annabelle had been mourning.
Richie cleared the little lump from his throat and blinked rapidly. He couldn’t imagine the pain Annie must have endured, losing her mother in such a tragic and painful way. And as a teenager, when her own life must have been so tumultuous. It made her kindness and generosity seem all that much more remarkable.
And it made his own problems seem petty in comparison.
Richie gently closed the Bible, careful not to crease or wrinkle the pages, then returned it to its spot on the table next to the lilac blossom. His gaze lingered on its cover as he picked up his coffee mug and took a long drink. Then his eyes raised to the window. Richie stared out at the bright morning sky as his thoughts turned to his home.
He really was fortunate to have parents who were healthy and happy and who loved him unconditionally. Who would welcome him home and tell him they missed him. Who would help get him through the disappointment of leaving behind a dream for reality. Who wouldn’t leave him in such an incomprehensibly tragic way.
The Lord works in mysterious ways, Richie. He heard Annabelle’s words from last night in his ears, as clearly as if she was standing there beside him.
Maybe she was right. Maybe he was meant to find her, to learn her story, to let her help him come to terms with his fate. Maybe God had stranded him here in Darien because of Annabelle. And maybe he needed to just give in and go with it, let the Hand of Fate guide him. What was the saying? “Let Go and Let God?”
“Well good morning, Handsome.”
Her greeting made Richie smile. He turned around to find Annabelle standing in the arched doorway, smiling back at him. Richie couldn’t conceal a soft gasp of surprise.
She was morning-beautiful, clad only in her dressy undergarments, a creamy silk slip covering a lacy bra and what Richie assumed were matching panties. Her eyes sparkled bright blue, enhanced by the lightest touch of shadow and mascara, and her glossed lips shone in the morning light. Her hair was still damp from her shower, and curled in soft tawny tendrils around her glowing face.
“Morning,” Richie breathed. He stared for another second, then snapped to. “Um… thanks for making the coffee.”
“Welcome.” Annie chuckled quietly and stepped forward. She moved over to Richie and slipped her arms around his waist.
Quickly setting his coffee mug back on the table, Richie enfolded Annie in his arms. He exhaled softly as he reveled again in the feel of her flesh. Richie smiled as Annie raised her face to his, then he sipped gently from her full lips.
“You get enough sleep?” he asked quietly after the kiss.
Annie chortled and dropped her cheek against his chest. “No. You?”
“I’m okay.” Richie fought back the yawn that seemed to immediately materialize with his fib. He smiled and gave Annie a little squeeze. “What’s with the eggs?”
“They’re for the potluck.”
“Potluck?” Richie’s brows raised in surprise, along with his voice. “What potluck?”
“Every Sunday we have a potluck lunch in the church basement. Everybody brings a dish to share.”
“Oh.” Richie considered that for a moment, then his brow creased again in puzzlement. “When did you have time to make eggs?” He was pretty sure he hadn’t seen a tray of deviled eggs in Annie’s refrigerator last night.
“This mornin’.” Annie chuckled softly, feeling Richie’s surprised reaction in his breath. “I got up early and made ‘em, like I always do.” She grinned. “Even after a late night of mischief-makin’ and gallavantin’.”
Richie laughed softly at her explanation, marveling in her dedication. “Wow. You’re not gonna nod off during the sermon, are you?”
“No.” Annie giggled softly. “I can’t. I’ll be up in the front, with the choir. How the heck would that look, me snoozin' through Reverend Purdy’s preachin’?”
“Not good.” Richie grinned and gave Annie a little squeeze. “But I have a feeling you’d be forgiven. Just say a few Hail Marys.”
Annie laughed at Richie’s solution. “That’s for Catholics. We Baptists don’t do that Hail Mary stuff. Except on a football field.”
“See? Goes to show ya what I know about religion.” Richie pressed a kiss against the crown of Annie’s head. He closed his eyes and smiled as he inhaled the sweet scent of her shampoo. “So, you gonna sing today?”
“Mmm Hmm. We sing every Sunday.” Annie’s eyes had drifted shut as she snuggled against Richie’s firm chest. She sighed softly, listening to the muffled beat of his heart. She heard it accelerate just slightly as Richie drew in a deep breath.
The question in Richie’s tone made her raise her head to look at him. Silently she arched her brows.
“Could I… Do you think… it would be okay if… if I came to church with you?”
The question surprised Richie, even as it slipped from his lips. The idea had just occurred to him, in the scarce minute he had thought about Annie singing in her church choir. He had no burning desire to worship Jesus or hear the sermon or be Saved on this Sunday morning, or even to try one of her deviled eggs at the potluck lunch. He just knew he wanted to be with Annabelle, wherever she may go.
A warm smile curved Annie’s shiny lips. “I think that would be lovely,” she replied softly. “I’m quite sure Reverend Purdy will be happy to have you join us today.”
“Uh… I don’t really have anything to wear.” Richie grimaced slightly, realizing his faux pas. He may not have been in the South for long but he knew folks down here took the phrase “Sunday Best” quite literally. And all his clothes were dirty, wrinkled, or worn.
Annie chuckled softly, her heart warming at his sheepish expression. “Well, as Otis says, 'God don't care what you wear. He just wants you to show up'." She giggled again and gave Richie a little squeeze. "Besides, I’m sure you got somethin’ in that bag over there that'll work just fine.” She tipped her head toward the living room where Richie’s ruck sat unzipped on the floor, a wad of rumpled fabric sticking out of the opening.
“All I have are jeans.” Richie felt a little blush creep to his cheeks. “Not exactly church clothes.”
“You got a shirt with buttons? One that’s a plain color?”
The little sparkle in her blue eyes made Richie smile. “Yeah. I got a white one.” Reluctantly he released Annie and stepped back. He gave her another gentle brush across the lips before moving for the living room.
Annie followed Richie into the room and stood watching as he rummaged around in the canvas bag, shoving his arm deep into its recesses. She giggled quietly and covered her grin as he muttered a curse, yanking t-shirts and socks and underwear from the bag and dropping them on the floor. Finally he drew out a white garment by one long sleeve.
“Umm… it ain’t exactly church-ready.” Richie’s nose scrunched in distaste as he regarded the heavily-wrinkled shirt. “Shit. Maybe I should just stay home.”
“No, no...” Annie laughed and reached for the shirt. She tugged it gently from his grasp and gave him a sweet smile. “I’ll take care of it. You go get yourself in the shower, make yourself look like a fine, God-fearin’ Young Man.” She grinned mischievously. “Instead of a wild-ass long-haired guitar-playin’ Hippie Boy.”
Richie laughed at her tease. “You mean try to look respectable, since I’m not.”
“Exactly.” Annie gave Richie a sly wink. “But of course, when all them folks at church are admirin’ how nice and proper you look, I’ll know better.”
Richie snorted, then grinned playfully. “Yeah, I know you will, Annie Oakley.”
Her musical laughter warmed his heart. Richie jumped as Annie playfully swatted at him, the wrinkled white shirt smacking against his thigh. “Hey!” he protested.
“Alright, you. Go get yourself cleaned up. We ain’t got long ‘til it’s time to leave.”
Annie’s smile softened as she watched Richie stoop to pick a pair of white briefs, a dingy undershirt, and a pair of rumpled jeans from the pile on the floor. Straightening with the clothing in his hand, Richie leaned over and gave Annie a light peck on the cheek before turning to head for the bathroom door.
With a little sigh Annie pressed Richie’s shirt to her chest, over her heart as it squeezed with happiness. She watched Richie pause to give her a sweet smile before stepping inside the little bathroom and closing the door behind him.
“Yes, Mama,” she murmured softly, again hearing the gentle voice in her head. “Mysterious ways.”