Friday, June 24, 2011

Chapter 24

Richie barely heard the rest of the service.  He stayed tuned-in enough to stand with the congregation and exchange fellowship greetings with the family in front of him, but his mind was preoccupied with his revelation that maybe his future lay here, in this little Georgia town.

He felt a little guilty at the thought of not going back home to Jersey.  But Richie also felt a flush of warm excitement at the idea of staying in Darien with Annie.  He could hardly wait to talk to her after church, to tell her of his epiphany and to see the happy sparkle in her blue eyes.

Richie’s mind raced as he considered what the future may bring.  They’d figure out the details soon enough, he and Annabelle.  He obviously had to find a job and a place to live.  But Richie was fairly certain Annie would put up with him sleeping on her couch for at least a few more nights, until he could make his own arrangements. 

If the couch was where she wanted him to sleep, anyway.  The idea of waking up in Annie’s bed again made Richie smile.

Finally, after a long sermon, a few more hymns, the offering, and another performance by the choir, the worship service came to a close.  Richie practically jumped out of the pew, eager to find Annabelle. 

When he realized it would take her a few minutes to return her choir robe to the closet and make her way out to him, Richie retreated to the back corner of the sanctuary.  He stood against the wall, watching the congregation members socialize and file out through the front doors, shaking hands with the Reverend and his wife as they departed.  

Richie wondered if Reverend Purdy would remember his name when he approached.  Then he chuckled softly as he answered his own question.  Probably everybody in this little church would know his name, considering how many curious questions he had answered while he serviced cars at Eddie’s yesterday.

“So you didn’t run out on me, huh?”  Annie’s sweet voice in his ear sent a tingle down Richie’s spine.  He turned to give her a broad smile, wondering how she had snuck up on him. 

“Nope.   Made it through the whole service.  And lightning didn’t strike or nothin’.”

Annie giggled.  “Well, imagine that.  Considerin’ you haven’t been a very church-goin’ man lately, maybe God was cuttin’ you a break.”  Annie’s blue eyes twinkled merrily.  “But you still owe him some Hail Marys, I’m guessin’.”

Richie chortled and dropped his voice.  “Yeah, just for the robe closet alone.  You should be confessing for that.  You started it.”

“Mmmm.”  Annie didn’t argue, she just gave Richie a conspiratorial smirk.  “So, you hungry?”

As if on cue Richie’s stomach emitted a low rumble.  He grinned.  “Yeah.  Starving.”

“Well come on, then.  Plenty of good food out in the Fellowship Hall.”  Annie slipped her hand into the crook of Richie’s arm.  She gently guided him toward the front door, strolling slowly at his side.   “How ‘bout we go fill our plates and go outside, sit on the grass?  Have a little picnic?” 

“Sounds good,”  Richie nodded.  Actually, it sounded perfect.  He could hardly wait to get Annie alone so he could tell her about his plan.

But first he had to get past the Preacher at the front door.

“Reverend Purdy, this is my friend I was tellin’ you about.”  Annie gave Richie’s arm a little squeeze with her introduction.  “Richie.”

“Ah, yes.  Our visitor from up North.”  The gray-haired, bespectacled man in the white robe gave Richie a warm smile as he extended his hand in greeting.  “Welcome.”

Richie accepted the Pastor’s handshake with a shy grin.  “Thanks.”  He gave Annie a sideways glance, trying to think of something to say to the Reverend.  “Umm… that was a nice service.”

“Why thank you, Son.”  Reverend Purdy’s smile broadened.  “I always enjoy deliverin’ that message, and I certainly like seein’ new faces out in the congregation.  Was there anything special ‘bout the service you enjoyed?”

Richie shifted uncomfortably, realizing he was on the spot.  Shit.  He hadn’t paid attention to a single word of the sermon.  “Uh… actually…”  Another little squeeze from Annie’s soft hand gave him the answer.  “I liked the music.  Nice songs… uh, hymns.  And the choir is really good.”

The Reverend beamed at the compliment.  “Yes, they sure are.  Beautiful voices of praise.”  He tipped his head toward Annie.  “Especially you, Annabelle.  Your solo today was perfect.”

“Why thank you, Reverend.”  Annie replied primly.

“Annie, you look lovely, my Dear.”  The plump, sandy-haired woman standing next to Reverend Purdy spoke, having finished her conversation with an elderly lady who was now shuffling toward the Fellowship Hall.  “That green dress is quite fetching.  Of course, you look beautiful in everything.”

Annie giggled softly, a light blush painting her pretty cheeks.  “Why thank you, Miss Adeline.”

“Honey, this is Annie’s friend, Richie.  He’s visiting from… New York, is it?”  Reverend Purdy’s attempted introduction made Annie giggle again.

“New Jersey,” Richie corrected him before giving the pastor’s wife a little smile and nod of his dark head.  “Ma’am.”

“Yes, of course.  I remember you from yesterday.”  Adeline Purdy reached out to give Richie’s forearm a familiar little pat.  “You filled up my tank over at the Texaco.  And checked my oil and cleaned my windshield.”  She smiled sweetly.  “And did a fine job of it, too.”

“Uh… thanks.”  Richie’s cheeks tinted slightly at the compliment.

The pastor’s wife turned her inquisitive gaze from Richie to Annie, then back again.  “So how long will you be staying with us in Darien, Richie?”

“Oh, he’s just passin’ through, Miss Adeline.”  Annie was quick to answer, cutting off Richie’s reply before he could draw in a breath.  “Eddie’s fixin’ his car, then Richie’s headed back North.”

“Oh, well that’s just too bad,” Adeline tutted.  “He’s gonna miss the Blessing of the Fleet next weekend, then.”

“Uh… yeah.  Sorry.”  Again Richie fidgeted, eager for this conversation to end so he could tell Annie that actually he would be here for next weekend’s church event.  The corners of his mouth curved upward at the thought.

“Well, I’m sure he’ll be happy to get back home to his folks in New Jersey.”  Annie turned her sweet smile to Richie, then giggled as she heard his stomach grumble again.  “But first I think we better get some food in him.”

The Reverend and Mrs. Purdy laughed warmly along with Annie as Richie’s blush deepened.  But he didn’t mind being the butt of the joke when he felt Annie’s hand slide along his arm until her palm pressed against his.  His smile broadened as she laced her fingers with his and gave his hand a little squeeze.

“Enjoy the potluck, Richie.  We got some fine cooks in this little church.”  Reverend Purdy chuckled as he watched the two young people exchange a look.  It always warmed his heart to see new love blossoming in his parish.

“Thank you, Sir.” Richie replied over his shoulder as Annie tugged him toward the little hallway to the Fellowship Hall.  “Ma’am.”

“Bye, Richie, Annabelle.  Y’all have a Blessed day.”  Adeline Purdy gave the couple a little wave before exchanging a smile with her husband.  “Nice young man.”

“Seems to be,” Reverend Purdy agreed.  “Guess he’s got a little bit of a wild streak in him, though.”  He chuckled quietly.  “He and Annabelle were out at Ruby Mae’s last night, I hear.  And he was singin’ and playin’ guitar.”

Adeline Purdy’s brows lifted with surprise.  “Oh, my.”  Her lips pursed as she turned her gaze back to the lanky, long-haired young man who stood quietly by Annabelle’s side in the doorway to the Fellowship Hall, his hand still twined with hers.

Reverend Purdy shook his head and tsked quietly at his wife’s reaction.  “Addie, she’s happy.  And we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”  He grinned and lowered his voice.  “Besides, he’s leavin’ town tomorrow.”

“Well Praise the Lord for that,” Adeline replied, giving her husband a meaningful look.

Annie guided Richie into the Fellowship Hall, which was buzzing with enthusiastic conversation.  Richie felt dozens of pairs of eyes on him as he carefully filled a paper plate with fried chicken, potato salad, and portions other home-cooked dishes.  He smiled and exchanged greetings with a handful of church ladies at Annie’s introduction, though he wanted nothing more than to flee the room and find a quiet spot to wolf down his delicious-looking lunch.

Richie breathed a sigh of relief when Annie led him back through the Hall doors and down the front steps of the church.  Finally he would have a few minutes alone with Annie, where he could tell her of his plan.  But his relief was short-lived;  as soon as they dismounted the steps friendly greetings claimed Annabelle’s attention.

Annie glanced at Richie as he was met with this new assault of friendly curiosity by the parishoners.  She could read his discomfort in his slouched posture and his tight little smile.  Realizing Richie had reached his limit of socializing, Annie led him toward a quiet corner of the yard, politely declining several invitations to join friends and neighbors in their picnics.

Richie nodded gratefully when Annie directed him to sit in the shade of a big weeping willow tree.  Remembering his manners, he waited for her to settle onto the cool grass before dropping to the lawn beside her.  He couldn’t stop a relieved little groan as he balanced his plate on his lap and leaned back against the smooth tree trunk.

Annie giggled softly.  “Sorry ‘bout all that.  I reckon you’ve had enough Fellowship for awhile.”

“S’Okay.”  Richie shrugged, then gave her a half-hearted smile.  “They’re just being nice.”

“They’re bein’ nosy, is what they’re bein’,” Annie chortled, pulling off her high-heeled shoes.  She tucked her legs up underneath her, carefully balancing her plate on her lap.   She smiled back at Richie.  “Go on, eat.  I know you’re starvin’.”

Richie nodded and picked up the fried chicken drumstick from his plate, taking a big bite.  He hummed in appreciation; it was delicious.  In a matter of a few bites he had cleaned the meat from the bone.

Annie watched him eat with gusto, then chuckled again as she turned her attention to her own plate.  “So, what did you think of the service?  A lot different from your church?”

Richie nodded as he swallowed a mouthful of potato salad.  He swiped a napkin across his lips before responding.  “Yeah.  I kept waiting for everybody to kneel.  But nobody did.” 

Annie giggled.  “We Baptists kneel sometimes.  Just not today.”  She sipped from her Styrofoam cup of sweet tea.  “What else?”

“No altar boys.  And the whole service was in English.”  Richie shoveled another forkful of potato salad into his mouth.  “God, this is great,” he mumbled in approval.

“Your church does services in Latin?”  Annie smiled at Richie’s nod.  “Wow.  That must be really confusin’.  Do you understand it?”

“It is.  And no.”  Richie grinned.  “I can repeat the words but I have no damned idea what I’m saying.”  He took a drink from his own cup.  “At least you can understand what your Priest is saying.”

“Pastor,” Annie corrected him, then smirked.  “Not that I was listenin’.”

“Me either.”  Richie smiled sheepishly.  “I was…”  He paused for a moment, looking up at Annie.  Seeing her blue eyes sparkling back at him, Richie took a deep breath.  “Actually, I was thinking, about… stuff.”

Annie felt a little flutter in her tummy at Richie’s quiet statement.  “What kinda stuff?”  she inquired softly.

“About… well…”  Richie paused again, his brow furrowing as he tried to figure out how to explain his epiphany.  “I guess it kinda happened, what you said earlier.  Before we went in the church, remember?”

“What did I say?”

“About God showing me the Light.”  Richie looked down at his plate, suddenly a little embarrassed by his impending admission.  “I... um… I guess I just kind of… got it.”

Annie’s eyes widened slightly.  “You got it?  Got what, Richie?”  She grinned.  “Are you saying you had a Holy Vision?”

Richie shook his head, his cheeks coloring lightly.  It really sounded silly, now that Annie said it.  “No.  Not a vision, exactly.”  He took a deep breath, puffing his exhalation upward to ruffle his bangs.  “I just realized something.  About the future.”

Annie’s smile gentled.  “What about the future?”  Her tone was softer, encouraging.

Richie set his fork down on his plate and raised his gaze to meet Annie’s.  “I was watching this little girl.  You know, the one in front of me, with her parents?”

Annie nodded.  “Sure.  Scott and Lisa’s little girl, Lindsay.  She’s a cutie, ain’t she?”

“Yeah.  She’s adorable.  Anyway…”  Richie felt his pulse kick up.  He didn’t know why, but he was suddenly nervous.   “I was watching her and her parents, and I realized…”  He swallowed hard and looked down at the plate on his lap, then back up to Annabelle’s beautiful face.  “I realized I don’t want to go back to Jersey.”

Annie’s heart skipped a beat.  “You… you don’t wanna go home?  But Richie… then where will you go?”  Her voice had taken on a husky note, laced with both hope and dread.

Richie’s lips curved into a wistful smile.  “Annie, I think I’m meant to stay here.  In Darien.  With you.” 

Nervous butterfly wings beat in Richie’s stomach as he heard Annabelle’s little gasp.  She gazed at him for a long moment before clearing her throat softly.

“You mean… you think… God brought you here to Darien, to be… to be with me?” 

Annie’s eyes widened in stunned disbelief.  Her heart danced for a moment, then sank like a stone.  The words Richie was saying to her were beautiful, almost too beautiful to bear.  He wanted to stay here with her.  They wouldn’t have to say goodbye after this weekend.

But how could he really mean it?  Despite their intimacy, Richie hardly knew her.  When he had told her he loved her last night it was in the afterglow of sex.  She knew he believed the words when he uttered them, but things surely looked different in the light of day.

But here he was again, telling her he wanted to be with her.  Annie's lips curved in a slight frown.  If he did stay here, what would he be giving up for her?  His family?  His home?  His music?  His dream?   Annie swallowed hard at that thought.  How could she keep Richie from everything that made him who he is?

Richie nodded slowly, a little wave of dread forming in the pit of his stomach at Annie’s reaction.  Oh shit.  What if she doesn’t want me here?  Suddenly he felt the need to explain.  The words tumbled from his lips.

“I was thinking maybe I can get a job somewhere around here, maybe at the Paper Mill.  And find a place to live.  I’d probably have to rent a room at first, until I can save up some money, but…”

“Richie.”  Annie interrupted his pitch with a quiet word.  “I’d love nothin’ more than for you to stay here in Darien.”  She swallowed hard, then smiled in spite of herself.  “With me.”

The rest of her reply died on her lips at Richie’s beaming smile.  But you can’t stay here.  This isn’t where you belong,  she continued silently.  

But she couldn't say the words out loud.  She couldn't bear to extinguish his joy.

Annie knew it was wrong, allowing her own needs and desires to keep her from being honest with Richie.  His future wasn’t here, in a dead-end job in this backwater little town.  He had so much promise, so much potential.  Richie was destined for great things.  She just knew it.  And she couldn’t selfishly hold him back.

Even if he had told her he loved her.

Richie’s grin was brighter than the sun.  “I… Oh, Annie… I just knew you’d be excited too!”  He set his plate aside on the grass and reached for her hand.  “I can start workin’ on it today, maybe go to some of the places around town, see if anybody’s hiring.  Maybe pick up some applications…”

Annie’s gentle laugh cut him off.  “Slow down, Richie.  It’s Sunday.  Ain’t nothin’ open today.”

“Uh…. Oh.”  Richie grinned sheepishly.  “Yeah, I guess you’re right.  I’m just not used to that.  Back home in Jersey lots of stuff is open on Sunday.”

“Well this ain’t New Jersey,” Annie chided him gently.  “Down here Sunday’s for God and family.”  She smiled.  “You’ll have plenty of time to figure out what you’re gonna do come tomorrow.”

Richie brushed his thumb gently over the back of Annie’s soft hand.  “Yeah, guess you’re right,” he shrugged, then grinned.  “Guess I’m just excited.”

Annie’s smile softened.  “I know.”  She gently tugged her hand from Richie’s, then set her half-empty plate aside .  “You wanna get some dessert, then we’ll head for home?  There’s pie.”

“I could eat some pie.”

Annie laughed, her eyes sparkling.  “I thought so.  Well come on, let’s go get you a piece before Eddie and the Reverend eat it all.”

Richie stood and helped Annabelle to her feet, then they carried their lunch plates and cups to the trash before returning to the Fellowship Hall.  Once inside they socialized with the church ladies while they each finished a piece of fresh blueberry pie with homemade ice cream.  Then Annie and Richie said their farewells and escaped to Annie’s old truck, Richie carrying the now-empty deviled egg platter.

Annie smiled quietly and listened to Richie’s excited chatter during the short drive back to her home.  He seemed so happy; she didn’t have the heart to tell him of her misgivings about his plan to stay in Darien.  She didn’t want to see the shadow of sadness return to his handsome face.  So she stayed mute, letting him enjoy his euphoria.

Once home, Richie followed Annie up the short walk to the porch steps.  He chuckled quietly when she stopped short in front of the door, making him bump into her. 

“Whoops.  Sorry.”  Richie’s hands slipped to Annie’s waist, steadying her as she wobbled on her high heels.

Annie giggled and turned to face Richie, feeling his big hands slide across her waist and back as she moved.  “S’Okay.”  Her hands raised to rest on his chest, toying with the loosened knot of Richie’s tie which was now askew under his unbuttoned collar.  She smiled up at him.  “So, whatcha gonna do this afternoon?  Watch TV?”

Richie’s brow furrowed slightly.  He figured he and Annie would spend some time together, maybe go somewhere or do something.   “Umm… I dunno.  What are you gonna do?”

“Me?” Annie chuckled throatily.  “I gotta do my Sunday chores.  If I don’t get ‘em done today I won’t have time durin' the week.”  She stepped closer to Richie, her hands sliding around his waist.

“Chores?  Like what?”

With a sideways glance Richie spied the porch swing at the end of the little veranda.   A happy vision of Annie curled against his side as they rocked slowly on the swing flashed in his mind.   With a secretive little smile Richie slowly turned, guiding Annie with him, and shuffled backwards toward the swing. 

Annie giggled softly, realizing what Richie was trying to do.  “Oh, all kindsa stuff.  I gotta tend to the garden, do the wash, clean the bathroom, bake some bread…”

“Wow.  That sounds like a lotta stuff,” Richie observed.  He stopped moving when the back of his legs bumped against the swing.  He smiled down at Annie, ready to coax her into forgetting about her chores for awhile.  He really wanted to just sit and relax with Annabelle, and make plans for their future together.

“Well, it ain’t easy livin’ on your own, you know.  Nobody’s gonna do all that stuff for me.”

“I can help you.”

Annie arched a quizzical brow at Richie’s offer.  “Oh yeah?  You know how to wash clothes?  You don’t know how to iron 'em.”

Richie shrugged, grinning gently.  “Okay, maybe not that.  But I can help with the garden.  But first I think we should just take a break.  Relax a little.  Ain’t Sunday supposed to be a day of rest or somethin’?”

“Yes, it is,”  Annie agreed, her blue eyes sparkling as she smiled up at Richie.  “So a little break, huh?”


“Hmmm.  I don’t know.  I got an awful lot to do.”  Her protest was coy as her hands slipped forward to his belt buckle.  Her fingers tugged gently, pushing the leather strap against the metal square as she worked to unfasten the belt.

Richie sucked in a sharp breath as his dick jumped at the attention of her hands.  “Annie… uh… c’mon.  You can.. can relax a little… first.  Right?”  Her actions were making it difficult for him to form a cogent argument.

Annie chuckled as she succeeded in unfastening Richie’s belt and deftly popped open the snap under his buckle.  She felt the heat of his groin as she nudged the zipper downward, the metal teeth parting with a soft, slow grate. 

“I really need to get goin’ on the wash.  It’s gonna take all afternoon to dry on the line.”   Though her voice was calm and silky, Annie’s pulse was racing.  She had spent the whole church service watching Richie, remembering how glorious he looked naked in the moonlight.  And daydreaming about a little afternoon interlude, once she got him alone.

Now there was nobody here but the two of them.  And they had nothing but time.

OH!   Annie!”  Richie gasped with delighted surprise when Annie’s hand slipped into the fly of his jeans, cupping his already-fully-formed erection over his briefs.  He silently cursed the Catholic guilt-based modesty that had inspired him to wear underwear to church this morning.

“Thought maybe I’d do a load of your things too.  Since a lot of ‘em seem to be a little… musty.”  Annie chuckled as she remembered the wadded-up garments Richie had produced from his ruck this morning.  “But first…”  She gave Richie a wicked smirk, then gracefully sank down until she knelt in front of him.  Her hand slipped from his crotch to grasp his hip as she regarded from eye-level the ample bulge in his open fly.

Richie’s eyes widened as he watched Annie’s tongue slide slowly across her plump bottom lip before she continued her declaration.

“We need to get you out of these clothes…”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Chapter 23

Richie swiped a hand across the vanity mirror, rubbing away the condensation that obscured his reflection.  His deep brown eyes stared back at him from the glass.  Only today they looked different.  Brighter.  Happier.

His lips curved upward as he regarded himself.  The young man in the mirror wasn’t the got-the-world-by-the-balls kid of just months ago, but he looked a damn sight better than the sad visage of even the day before.  Yesterday he had looked tired and worried.  Today he looked hopeful.

The reason for this happy change was singing in the next room.

Turning his face from side to side, Richie decided he didn’t need to shave.  He could hardly see the light stubble on his smooth cheeks.  Skipping to the end of his routine, Richie splashed a modest amount of aftershave into his palms and patted it onto his face.   He straightened, pulling his fingers through his damp brown locks one last time, then tugged open the bathroom door.

Richie rounded the corner into the living room and tossed his shaving kit into the open mouth of his ruck before turning toward the sound of Annie’s singing.  Following her sweet voice, Richie wandered down the little hall to her bedroom.  He paused in the doorway. 

Annie stood smiling back at him across an ironing board still warm with steam, the softly-hissing iron sitting upright next to her hand.  She was still wearing just her silky slip and lacy undergarments.  Her now-dry hair shone a soft gold in the dim natural light that filtered through the sheer curtains.  Richie’s white dress shirt lay neatly smoothed across the board’s surface, all evidence of its previous wadded state erased.

“Well don’t you clean up nice?” Annie chortled teasingly, noting the careful part in Richie’s combed-straight hair.  She felt her pulse flutter at the delicious aroma of his aftershave as her eyes dropped to the little silver cross gleaming against Richie’s neck.

Richie ducked his head with a self-conscious little shrug.  “Hope I’ll look okay for church,” he mumbled.

“You’ll look just fine.”  Annabelle picked up the freshly-pressed shirt and gracefully slipped around the ironing board.   She held up the crisp garment in invitation.  “Here ya go.”

Richie stepped forward and turned, slipping one arm into a long sleeve, then the other.  He smiled at the gentle brush of Annie’s fingers as she smoothed the warm fabric across his broad shoulders.  His fingers fumbling with a button, Richie turned to face her.

“Thanks.  I’ve never been good at ironing.”

Annie chuckled.  “Have you ever even tried to iron a shirt?”  She suspected she already knew the answer to that question.

“Uhhh… well….”  Richie smiled sheepishly.  “No.  My Ma used to iron my clothes.”  He shrugged.  “I don’t usually wear nothin’ but t-shirts and jeans, so I don’t really need to iron.”

Annie reached for Richie’s chest, stilling his clumsy fingers with a gentle touch.  Nudging his hands aside, she deftly pushed the little button through the hole in the placket.  Her nimble fingers traveled downward, buttoning the white shirt over Richie’s trim torso.  When the task was done she rested her palms lightly against his chest and raised her eyes to his with a warm smile. 

“You need a woman takin’ care of you, huh?”  Her tease was gentle.

Richie shrugged and smiled back.  “Guess so.”  He raised a hand to brush his fingers across her pretty cheek.  “I like having somebody to take care of me.”

Annie’s heart melted at the tenderness in Richie’s voice.  She gazed into his warm brown eyes for a long moment before lowering her hands with a happy little sigh.   She brushed past him, moving over to the small closet in the corner of the tidy bedroom. 

As he tucked the bottom of his neatly-ironed dress shirt into the waist of his jeans Richie turned to watch Annabelle.  She pulled a long strip of dark material from a peg on the closet wall and held it up for inspection, running her fingers lightly over the fabric before turning back to Richie and giving him another warm smile.  It took Richie a few seconds to recognize that the item in Annie’s hands was a necktie.

“Here. ”  Annie stepped close to Richie, handing him the thin, plain black tie.  Her hands slipped around his neck as she gently flipped up the starched collar of his shirt. 

“Where… Who… Is this yours?”  Richie frowned slightly as he looked down at the item in his hands.  Why the hell did Annabelle have a man’s tie in her closet if she lived here alone?

Annie chortled at the tinge of poorly-veiled jealousy in Richie’s question.   She gently took the tie from his hands and looped it around his neck, sliding it against his upturned collar until it was properly positioned.

“No.”  She smirked a little as she purposely held a long pause while she fastened the button on the band of Richie’s collar.  Her eyes sparkled as they met his.  “It was my Pappy’s.  He used to like to dress up on Sundays.  A real proper Southern Gentleman.”

“Oh.”  Richie felt a little wave of shame at his assumption.   “Sorry.  You were close? You and your… um… Pappy?”  He squirmed a little at using the pet term for Annie’s Grandfather.

Annie’s smile gentled, her eyes following her hands as she crossed the two ends of the tie, looping them into a loose knot over Richie’s chest.  “Yeah.  I loved him dearly.  When I was little he used to take me to the A & W for root beer every Saturday.”  She chuckled at the happy memory, then sighed quietly.  “He took good care of Mama and me, as long as he could.” 

“He’s… gone?”

Annie nodded as her fingers worked the knot.  “ ‘Bout a year before Mama.  Heart attack.”  She tightened the knot and slid it up close against Richie’s throat, then gently turned down his collar.  She smoothed her fingers down the tails of the thin tie and smiled.   “There.”

“Annie…”  Richie reached up to capture her delicate hand, pulling it gently against his chest.  He gave her a long, sincere look.  “I’m sorry.  About your Ma, and your Pappy.”

Annie gazed back at Richie, her heart squeezing at the earnestness in his expression.  Her smile turned bittersweet.  “Thank you, Richie.  But it’s okay, really.  Time heals.”

Not knowing what to say to that, Richie just nodded.  They stood together in silence for a long moment, then Annie gently tugged her hand from under Richie’s.  “We really do need to get goin’.”

“Okay.”  Richie stepped back as Annie turned again to the little closet, where a light green dress hung from a hook on the closet door.  “Uh… I’ll wait out on the porch.”

“Alright.  I’ll just be a minute.”

Richie shoved his hands into his jeans pockets as he wandered through the little house and out onto the porch.  He leaned against a white-painted column and gazed out at the marsh, not seeing its early-day splendor as he reflected on what he had learned about Annie just this morning. 

She was alone.  Annie had suffered such sadness in her young life, losses that Richie couldn’t begin to comprehend.  Yet here she was, smiling and gentle and open-hearted.  Her life now obviously wasn’t easy by any means, yet she didn’t complain.  And she had extended her kindness and affection to a complete stranger who was down and out, lost in more ways than one.

Richie felt a wave of guilt wash over him as he recognized his selfishness.  Here he was brooding over his future, sulking because his life wasn’t going as he hoped, his dreams weren’t materializing before his very eyes.  Pouting about having to face up to the reality that his future didn’t hold fame and fortune.  Instead his fate would be a simple, honest life, surrounded by friends and family. 

He shouldn’t be depressed, he should be thankful.  Thankful that he had a home to return to and a family to welcome him back with open arms.  It was so much more than many people had, and yet they didn’t sulk or complain.  They didn’t give up.  They just accepted the truth and made peace with themselves and their fate.

Richie sighed as his heart twinged with self-loathing.  Maybe he was just too spoiled or selfish to find that peace.  Or maybe he didn’t deserve it.  He just knew that, as much as he loved and admired his parents, he dreaded walking back in the door of their cozy little home and admitting he had failed.   

“Ready?”  Annie’s soft voice made Richie start.  Quietly clearing his throat, he forced a smile to his lips before turning to face her.  His expression was less of an effort when he saw her, dressed in her summery green dress and white high-heeled shoes.    

“Yeah.”  Richie’s smile gentled.  “You look really pretty.”

Annie’s eyes sparkled as a light blush tinged her cheeks.  “Thank you,” she breathed modestly.  She and Richie gazed at each other for a long minute, then she held out the plastic wrap-covered plate in her hand.  “Could you take these?  Kinda hard to hold ‘em while I drive.”

Richie jumped to accept the platter of deviled eggs.  “Sure.”  He grinned sheepishly.  “Sorry.  Guess I’m not much of a gentleman.”

Annie smiled at his self-deprecating apology.  “Nonsense.  Your manners are lovely, Mr. Sambora.”  She leaned up to brush a light kiss across Richie’s lips before moving past him, down the porch steps and toward the driveway.

Richie sighed softly as the sweet strawberry flavor of Annabelle’s lip gloss slickened his lips.  His tongue slipped across his lower lip, tasting the residue of her kiss.  Then, with a grin and a little shake of his dark head, Richie turned to follow her.


Richie took a deep breath and followed Annabelle up the sidewalk toward the big white church.  He could feel curious eyes on him as he carefully carried the platter of eggs.  He remained quiet while Annie exchanged Sunday morning greetings with families lingering in the shade of moss-draped cypress trees on the church’s front lawn.

Richie tried to keep his eyes up, away from the tantalizing sway of Annie’s hips as she preceded him toward the church steps.  But he couldn’t stop himself from stealing a glance.  His lips curved upward as his eyes slid over her shapely derriere and down the backs of her thighs.  Richie’s groin tightened appreciatively at the sexy click of her high heels against the concrete.

“Mornin’, Sweetheart.”  A familiar voice made Richie turn his attention away from Annabelle.  He grinned when he recognized the ruddy face of the big man approaching them.

“Good Mornin’ Mr. and Mrs. Duvall,” Annie replied formally, then giggled as she accepted a kiss on the cheek from Eddie.  “How are you this fine Sunday mornin’?”

“Happy to be here, Praise the Lord.”  The big man turned his grin to the lanky young man at Annabelle’s side.  “And lookie who you got in tow!”  Eddie Duvall extended a beefy hand to Richie.  “Mornin’, Son.”

“Mornin,’ Sir.”  Richie quickly shifted the plate of eggs to his left hand, then accepted Eddie’s handshake.

“Richie, my wife Marlene.”  Eddie introduced the petite blonde woman at his side.  “Marlene, this is the boy I told you ‘bout, who helped me out at the station yesterday.”

“Of course.  Hello, Richie.”  Mrs. Duvall gave him a warm smile.

“Ma’am.”  Richie nodded his head, blushing slightly at the recognition.

Eddie gave Richie a questioning look.  “Thought you said you was Catholic?  Or did Annie here talk you into convertin’?”  He winked and chuckled as Richie’s flush deepened.

“I invited Richie to come to church with me this mornin’,” Annie explained firmly, slipping her arm around Richie’s.  “He said he’d like to hear our choir.”

Richie just nodded mutely, going along with her explanation.

“Oh, Richie, they’re just wonderful.”  Marlene smiled even more broadly at Annie’s fib.  “And our Annabelle, she sings like an angel.  You won’t be disappointed, I’m sure.”

Richie smiled at the kind woman’s enthusiasm.  “No ma’am, I’m sure I won’t.”  His pulse jumped at the little squeeze Annie gave his arm in response.

“Say, Richie.  Chick got your thermostat over to me late yesterday.”  Eddie’s eyes dropped briefly to Annie’s hand on Richie’s arm, catching the silent gesture of affection between the two.  He returned his gaze to Richie’s face, his brow creasing with as he carefully watched the young man’s expression.  “I’ll get to work on it first thing in the mornin’.  Should be able to get you back on the road by afternoon, if that works for you.”

“Umm…” Richie shifted uncomfortably at the questioning note in Eddie’s last statement.  “That’s cool.  I mean… I’m not in any hurry... to get on the road, that is.  Whenever you can get to it is fine.”  He shuffled his feet, suddenly feeling like Eddie had put him on the spot.   “I can come by and help you again, if it’s okay.”

“Fine by me.  Can always use an extra pair of hands around the shop.”   Eddie glanced at Annabelle and saw in her quiet smile that she wasn’t eager for Richie to leave, either.  In fact, Eddie was willing to bet Annie would be perfectly content if he delayed Richie’s engine repair by another month or so.

Eddie chortled quietly, then responded to his wife’s gentle tug at his arm.  “Alright, we’d best get inside.  I’m on the Collection this week.”  Eddie gave the young couple another broad grin.  “We’ll see ya after the service.  Annie, you know I’ve been lookin’ forward to your deviled eggs all week.”

Annie laughed.  “I’ll see to it that we save one for ya, Eddie.”  She stood smiling next to Richie as the Duvalls turned and headed for the church’s open front doors.

“Nice lady,” Richie observed.  “Eddie’s wife.”

“Yeah.  She’s a sweetie.”  Annie sighed softly and turned her smile to Richie.  “She’s always taken care of me, even when I was a little girl.  I used to sleep over at their house all the time.”

Richie nodded silently, only half-hearing Annie’s words.  Instead he felt his gut tighten as he realized that tomorrow he would be on his way back home to Jersey.  Away from Annie, toward his unremarkable future.

Annie saw the little flicker of sadness flash across Richie’s handsome features.  She chose to ignore it, instead giving his arm another little squeeze.  “Come on, now.  Let’s get these eggs in to the Fellowship Hall with the rest of the food.  Then I gotta get my choir robe on and get up with the rest of the singers.  Service is gonna start in about fifteen minutes.”

“Okay.”  Richie nodded and gave her a little smile.  “So, I guess I don’t get to sit with you, huh?”

“No.  Sorry.  Unless you wanna put on a choir robe and join us up in the front.”  Annie giggled softly, he blue eyes gleaming.  “You could certainly pull it off, from what I heard last night.”

Richie chuckled as he felt his cheeks warm with a little blush.  “Nah.  I wouldn’t know any of the words.  I don’t really pay attention in church, even when I go with my folks.”

“Too busy checkin’ out cute girls, huh?”  Annie teased.  “Dreamin’ of Sin in the House of the Lord?  How many Hail Marys you gotta say for that?”

Richie’s smile broadened.  “A bunch, I guess.  Not that I ever get around to it.  Confession ain’t my strong suit.”

Annie leaned in close, her eyes sparkling.  “But sinnin’ sure is.”  Her low, husky voice made Richie’s heart skip a beat.  She gave him a conspiratorial smirk, then stepped back.  “Now come on.  Don’t wanna be late.”

“Yes ma’am,” Richie answered contritely, with a hint of sarcasm. He grinned as he anticipated her response.

“Richie, what did I tell you ‘bout calling me ‘ma’am’?”

“Sorry…. Ma’am.”

Annie gave Richie a faux-glare, then clasped her hands and rolled her eyes to the Heavens.  “Lord, this one needs some extra attention,” she prayed playfully.  “Touch him today, show him the Light.”

“Amen,” Richie laughed.

“C’mon, Hippy-Boy.  Let’s get you inside so God can get to work.”

Without further argument Richie followed Annabelle up the stone steps and into the church.  Once inside Annie led him through a small corridor off the entry, to a large room where a group of ladies bustled about setting out plates of food on long folding tables. 

After smiling through introductions, Richie surrendered the platter of deviled eggs to a plump woman in a pink dress and flowery hat.  With hasty apologies and a promise to chat more after the service, Annie hustled Richie out of the Fellowship Hall and down another small wood-paneled corridor.  They emerged into another tiny room, no bigger than a large walk-through closet, that was lined on both sides with hanging racks of white choir robes.

The robe-room was occupied by two middle-aged women donning their robes.  Again Annie introduced Richie with a sweet smile, then she tugged a robe from a wire hanger.  Trying to be gentlemanly, Richie quickly stepped forward to take the garment from Annie’s hands.  He held it up by the shoulders as she slipped quickly into the snowy white gown, covering her pretty green dress.

Richie blushed again when the watching women voiced their approval of his chivalry before making their departure, leaving Richie and Annie alone in the little room.

Annie fastened the last hook on the front of her choir robe and smoothed it with her hands.  “Okay, now I gotta leave you on your own for awhile.”  She gave Richie a little grin.  “You ain’t gonna bolt outta here on me, are ya?”

“Not a chance.”  Richie returned Annie’s smile.  “I want to hear you sing.”  Glancing quickly over his shoulder to ensure they were alone, Richie stepped in close to Annie, his hands moving to her waist.  “You look beautiful.”

Annie chortled softly and circled her arms around Richie’s waist, her eyes gleaming with mischief.  “You look pretty darned good yourself,” she replied.  “I’m the envy of all the ladies here, you know.  Got myself a tall, dark and handsome date for church this week.” 

Annie pressed her body against Richie’s, raising her face to his.  “You’re gonna be the object of a whole lotta sinful thoughts out there in that congregation, you know.”

Richie chuckled.  “Oh yeah.  Right.”

“Trust me.”  Annie’s voice dropped to a sultry purr.  “Them girls are gonna be out there undressin’ you in their minds while Reverend Purdy is preachin.’  Daydreamin’ about how pretty your eyes are, how soft your hair is, how hard your… muscles… are….”  She leaned up to brush her mouth against Richie’s.  “How sweet your lips taste…”

Richie groaned softly as he submitted to her kiss.  He felt his cock jump at the press of her hips against his and in reaction to her naughty tease.  Richie gasped breathlessly when their lips parted. 

“Annie… We’re in… in church.

Annie giggled softly.  “Yeah.  I was overcome by the Spirit.”

Richie snorted softly.  “Sure you were.  Jeez… Fuck, Annie.”  Richie caught his blasphemous swear just in time, instead replacing it with a non-Commandment-breaking word.  “How am I supposed to go out there now?  I can’t walk into a strange church with a boner.  Especially not when everybody here knows I’m with You.”

Annie giggled again and pressed another kiss against Richie’s soft lips.  “Just wait ‘til you hear the organ music, then slip in from the back.  Sit in one of the last pews.  Nobody'll bother you.”  She gently disengaged herself from Richie’s embrace, then stepped back.  Annie smiled and again smoothed her hands over her white choir robe.

Richie blew out a long breath, willing the throbbing in his crotch to diminish.  “Okay.”  He chuckled and shook his head, smiling back at Annabelle.  “You’re naughty.”

“But the Lord loves me anyway,” Annie chuckled flippantly.  She gave Richie another, more gentle smile.  “I’m in the second row of the choir loft, not quite in the middle.  I’ll look for you.”  She took a step back, then turned to exit the open doorway at the opposite side of the robe closet.  Annie paused, smirking back at Richie over her shoulder.

“Oh, and Richie… I’ll be daydreamin’ about you during the sermon too.  But my daydreams will real memories, not fantasies.”  With that, Annie turned and disappeared around the corner.

“Fuuuuuck….” Richie groaned quietly as his body reacted to Annabelle’s words.  Automatically his hand went to his crotch, covering his erection with a firm palm.  He sucked in and blew out a couple long breaths, desperately willing his arousal to subside, at least enough for him to slip into the church and sit somewhat comfortably for the duration of the service.

After a couple minutes Richie was calmed enough to move.  He retraced his path through the little corridor from the Fellowship Hall, then back around to the front foyer of the church.  Just as he reached the entrance he heard the first grand notes of the pipe organ, followed by the rustling movement of the congregation standing.

Richie peeked around the door frame before slipping through the entrance and into the back of the church.  Quietly he moved along the back wall to the far corner and into the last pew.  He stood silent through the unfamiliar hymn, then lowered himself onto the wooden bench when the rest of the congregation sat.  Richie pulled a hymnal from the rack on the pew back and settled it on his lap, trying to cover what was still an obvious bulge under his fly.

Thankfully there were no other occupants of the back row, so he didn’t have to fidget through the service in close quarters.  His nearest neighbor was a young couple with a little girl seated two pews in front of him.  The child, about two years old in Richie’s estimation, watched him curiously as she stood between her parents, facing the back of the room.  At Richie’s smile and little wave she bashfully turned away, sliding down to her seat.

With another deep breath Richie raised his eyes to the front of the church.  He immediately found Annie in the middle of the small choir loft, her honey-blonde hair shining in the soft light let in through the stained-glass windows flanking the sanctuary.  She saw his gaze and responded with a sparkling smile.  Again Richie’s groin tightened.

Jesus, get it together.  Richie immediately winced at his silent swear.  He really needed to remember he was in church.  It’s not like the idea was foreign to him; having been raised on Catholic Mass he knew the rules.  And obviously the guilt had taken root, since he felt a little ashamed at being turned on by a girl while he sat in a Holy House.

But this wasn’t just any girl.  This was Annie.  Beautiful, kind, sexy Annie.  The woman who had soothed his soul and captured his heart.

Richie smiled again as he watched Annabelle sit primly in the choir loft, holding a hymnal on her lap and turning her eyes to the preacher, who was now leading the morning greeting from his place at the pulpit.  She really did look beautiful, in her snowy white robe with her golden hair falling gently against her shoulders.  Radiant.  Like an angel.

Like she had looked last night, the moonlight glistening on her bare skin as she smiled down at him from under her cowboy hat.

Richie shifted uncomfortably on the wooden bench.  This was gonna be a long service if he couldn’t focus on something other than Annabelle.  Maybe coming to church with her wasn’t such a good idea after all.

He took a deep breath and turned his head toward the tall stained glass windows.  Richie let his eyes wander over the vibrantly-colored glass, trying to identify the scenes depicted in the long panes.  He recognized a few of the Biblical figures, but others he couldn’t place.  The windows weren’t ornate like the ones back home at St. Anthony's, but they were elegant in their simplicity, matching the design of this small-town church.

Richie’s eyes wandered from the windows to the pews beneath them.  The church was almost full, all but the back few pews lined with worshippers.  Richie regarded the backs of bald and behatted heads, and long and short locks of hair in every color.  He noticed there were many children in the congregation, from babies to teenagers. 

Sunday was always for family in Richie’s house.  Even when his Dad was working two jobs, he always insisted on spending time with his wife and son on the Holy Day.  Church in the morning, Sunday dinner with aunts and uncles and cousins, then football or baseball on TV.  In the summer, maybe a drive down the Shore for Italian ices.

Richie smiled gently at the happy memories of watching the New York Football Giants on Sunday afternoon, the men drinking beer on the couch and the kids crowded around the TV on the floor while the women cleared up the remains of Sunday dinner.   Even as a teen he had looked forward to Sunday with his Old Man, despite his self-declared independence.

That was one of the things he missed, being away from home.  Sundays with his Dad.

Richie blinked away the mistiness from his eyes.  Soon he would have more Sunday afternoons in his parents’ house.  Many more.   The realization made his heart heavy.  As much as he loved his parents, Richie just couldn’t bring himself to be happy about going home.  It meant the start of another life, and the end of one for which he had such high hopes.

The sound of movement from the front of the church drew Richie’s attention back to the service.  The choir had stood from their seats and raised their hymnals in preparation for song.  Richie’s gaze settled on Annie as the piano notes floated quietly through the air, introducing the hymn.   

There’s within my heart a melody
Jesus whispers sweet and low
Fear not, I am with thee, peace, be still
In all life’s ebb and flow

Richie returned the little smile Annie gave him, his heart skipping a beat at her beauty.  His doubts about the wisdom of accompanying her here faded away as he watched her pretty pink lips circle in song.  Richie could think of no place he’d rather be right now, than here with Annabelle.

Jesus, Jesus
Sweetest name I know
Fills my every longing
Keeps me singing as I go

Richie’s lips parted in a little gasp of surprise when the choir went silent for the second verse, except for Annabelle.  Her sweet solitary voice floated out across the sanctuary, straight to Richie’s heart.

All my life was wrecked by sin and strife
Discord filled my heart with pain
Jesus swept across the broken strings
Stirred the slumbering chords again

Jesus, Jesus
Sweetest name I know
Fills my every longing
Keeps me singing as I go

Richie and Annie’s eyes met across the big, airy room.  His heart squeezed at her silent message of comfort and encouragement.  A gentle smile curved his lips as again his eyes moistened.

The choir joined again for the next verse, then the final stanza was sung by an older man.  Once the hymn was completed the choir quietly took their seats and Reverend Purdy again addressed his flock.  Richie watched Annabelle return her attention to the preacher, and he tried to follow her example.

He only lasted a few minutes.  Again first Richie’s mind wandered, then his eyes.  He saw several other restless parishioners stealing curious glances at him, including a few faces he recognized from his stint at Eddie’s service station yesterday.  Realizing he was under scrutiny, Richie tried again to concentrate on Reverend Purdy’s sermon.

But soon Richie found his gaze again on the little family in front of him.  The little girl was peering over the back of the pew at him, innocently flirting with his attention.  Again Richie gave her a little wave, but this time she didn’t turn away.  She smiled back at him before burying her face in her mother’s sleeve, then peeking back out at Richie.  Her bright blue eyes sparkled happily.

Seeing that her daughter was distracting the quiet young man behind them, the young mother pulled the child onto her lap.  She gave Richie a smile and a mouthed “Sorry” before exchanging a warm look with her husband.  The man scooted closer to the woman and slipped his arm along the back of the pew, encircling his family in his loose embrace.

The realization hit Richie like a lightning bolt.  Someday soon he would be like that young father, dressed up in his Sunday clothes, sitting in a church pew next to a pretty wife holding a beautiful child on her lap.  He was looking at his future life, seeing it all around him as he sat in this little church in this town full of kind and generous and simple people.  Happy people.

Richie’s gaze went back to Annabelle.  She smiled at him, her blues eyes sparkling bright in the soft sanctuary light.  As bright and beautiful as the blue eyes of the little girl on her mother’s lap.

Maybe this was where he belonged.  Maybe Karma had acted in the form of a blown engine thermostat.  Maybe Fate had brought him to Darien, and to Annie.

Maybe his future was here.