Annabelle wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and dropped it on the counter next to the drainer full of freshly-washed dishes. A stray lock of honey-blonde hair tickled her cheek as she turned toward the stove. She reached up to tuck it behind her ear before reaching for the aluminum-foil-covered plate resting on the back burner.
With the plate in one hand, Annabelle used her free hand to pull open a drawer and extract a fork and knife. Sliding the drawer closed with a firm bump of her hip, she glanced toward the kitchen window. The sky outside was the soft aubergine of twilight.
Annie moved through the quiet little house, to the front door. Again using her hip to push open the screen door, she stepped out onto the porch. She paused, looking out across the yard. Richie was still where she had left him nearly two hours ago, sitting in the weathered old chair, his guitar cradled in his lap.
His form was silhouetted in the dusky evening light, against the soft silvery backdrop of the marsh. Across the yard fireflies winked like twinkling little stars, dancing just above the ground. Annie watched Richie’s slight movements as his soft bluesy croon drifted through the heavy night air, mingled with the gentle melody from his guitar strings.
The scene melted Annie’s heart. A tender smile curving her lips, she stepped down off the porch and crossed the lawn.
“Hey there. You hungry yet?”
The quiet inquiry startled Richie, even as he felt her presence. “Huh?” He turned in his seat, looking back over his shoulder at the source of his interruption.
With the movement he bumped the small spiral-bound notebook that was resting on the chair’s wooden arm, sending it fluttering to the grass at his feet. Richie muttered a swear as he leaned down to pick up the pad and toss it into his guitar case, then turned his attention to Annie.
A sheepish grin spread across Richie’s face as he saw Annie smiling at him, holding a foil-covered plate. He realized he had forgotten all about Annie’s dinner call. The one she had made while it was still light out, at least an hour ago.
“Oh. Umm… Yeah. I’m starving, actually.” Richie chuckled softly. “Sorry. I was supposed to help you cook, wasn’t I?”
“Uh huh.” Annie smirked gently and moved forward, circling around Richie’s open guitar case to the empty chair at his side. She lowered herself onto the seat, resting the warm plate on her knee. “And you were supposed to eat with me, too.”
“Sorry.” Richie felt his cheeks flush at her gentle chastisement. “I heard you call me. I just… well, I was working on this riff and I thought it would only take a minute…”
“Richie, it’s okay.” Annie cut off his apology with a warm smile and a shake of her blonde head. “I coulda called you again. But I didn’t wanna interrupt. I could tell you were on to somethin’.” She held out the plate in a silent offering.
Richie ducked his head and pulled his guitar from his lap, propping it against the side of his chair before reaching for the plate. He sat forward on the edge of his chair, balancing the dish on his knees as he tugged at the edges of the tinfoil.
“So… Umm… What is it?”
“Nothin’ fancy.” Annie smiled gently as she watched Richie pick at the foil. “Ham steak, some fried taters an’ onions. Green beans from the garden.”
Richie succeeded in lifting the foil wrapper, crinkling it into a ball and tossing it into his guitar case beside the notebook. He chortled softly as he found himself confronted with a good-sized mound of food. “Damn, Annie. You keep feedin’ me like this I’m gonna get fat.”
“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.” Annie giggled softly. “You ain’t got an ounce of fat on ya. Miss Tillie thinks you’re too skinny.” She handed Richie the fork and knife she had carried out from the kitchen.
“Yeah, well… spendin’ all the little money you have on beer and gas and guitar strings will keep ya skinny,” Richie replied wryly. He scooped a big forkful of crispy brown potatoes into his mouth. “Mmmm… fuck, these are good.” Richie mumbled.
Annie grinned and sat back in her chair, pulling her legs up beneath her on the wide seat. She watched Richie eat for a minute before letting her gaze wander to the guitar at his side. Her smile softened as she evaluated the simple instrument, until now a source of mystery to her. Since Richie’s arrival it had been locked up in its case, a prisoner of his sadness.
But for some reason Richie had taken out his guitar and began to play; not for her, but for himself. For the past several hours he had been consumed by the task, seemingly in his own little world out here at the far end of her yard. Annie had been able to hear snippets of the music he was making, but she didn’t recognize any of the words or melodies. Her eyes dropped to the notebook resting inside Richie’s guitar case. She could see faint lines of messy handwriting in the dim light.
“So…” Annie hesitated, not sure if she should ask. Richie had been so sensitive about the topic of music in the short time they had known each other. But he seemed so relaxed and unguarded right now.
Richie looked up from his almost-empty plate, waiting for her question. He arched a brow when she didn’t immediately continue. “So?” he prodded.
Annie felt an inexplicable little nervous flutter in her stomach. She shrugged and wrapped her arms around her bare legs, pulling her knees in closer to her chest. “So… what have you been out here playin’?”
Richie swallowed the mouthful of ham he had been chewing, then looked back down at his plate. A secretive little smile curved the corner of his mouth before he answered. “Just some… stuff. Something that just kinda came to me, earlier.”
Annie tilted her head, his response piquing her curiosity. “Came to you?”
Richie nodded, then turned his head to give Annie a full view of his little smile. “Yeah.”
“You mean…. Like… Like you had an idea for a song?”
Richie shrugged, returning his gaze to his food. He speared the last piece of fried ham on his fork and popped it into his mouth, his smile broadening as he chewed. He could feel Annie’s expectant gaze on him, but he needed a minute to figure out how to explain what had happened, how he had suddenly been hit with the lightning bolt of musical inspiration.
Annie realized she was holding her breath as she watched Richie eat. She didn’t know what to think, what to say. It was obvious from his little smirk that he wasn’t upset or unhappy with her question. There was no trace of the melancholy that had cloaked his handsome features every time she had asked him about music before. It was almost like he was puzzled with her question, unsure how to answer.
A quiet sigh escaped Annabelle’s lips as she remembered to exhale. The gentle rush of breath made Richie turn his attention back to her. He swallowed, then set his knife and fork across his plate and moved it from his lap to the wide wooden arm of the Adirondack chair. Richie shifted in his seat, turning to more fully face Annie. When he spoke his voice was calm and even.
“I was watching you from the porch. You were hanging up a sheet on the clothesline.” He chuckled softly. “You had to stand on your tiptoes to pin it up, and I was checking out your legs.”
Annie giggled softly but didn’t speak, not wanting to interrupt.
Richie’s smile gentled. “I was thinking how it nice it is here. Peaceful. I mean, today it was like I was in some place where I didn’t have any worries or cares. Someplace I could just hang out and relax.” He chortled quietly. “Don’t get me wrong, I worked my ass off in your garden and your yard. That wasn’t exactly relaxing. But it felt good.”
“Thank you for that,” Annie responded quietly, her eyes sparkling in the dusky light as she smiled back at Richie.
Richie brushed her thanks away with a wave of one of his big hands. “Naw, I was happy to do it. Anyway…” He paused for a moment, gazing at Annabelle. When he continued his voice carried a note of huskiness.
“I was watching you hang out the clothes, and you looked so damned pretty, Annie. Those long, tan legs and that shiny blonde hair and that sweet smile... With the sun, and the grass, and the sky… I just could hardly believe my eyes. Or my luck. That such a beautiful, smart, kind, generous, fantastic woman could fall for some doofus like me.”
Annie’s eyes moistened as her heart squeezed. “Richie…” she breathed. But the rest her words caught in her throat.
“Annie, I don’t know what happened, but somehow… I was watching you, and all of a sudden I just… I heard music. In my head, in my heart…” Richie blushed slightly and shrugged. Now that he had said it out loud it sounded kind of silly. But it was the truth. “I could hear my guitar, hear myself singing the words, in my head. I had to write it down.”
Annie’s gaze flicked back to the notebook in Richie’s guitar case. “So you grabbed your guitar and came out here… and started writin’.”
Richie nodded and reached for the object of her attention. He pulled the notebook onto his lap and leafed through it, smiling sheepishly. “I got some ideas, mostly riffs and melodies. But I got some lyrics too.”
He chuckled and shook his head at himself before looking up at Annabelle. “It’s been a long damned time since I’ve been able to write, Annie. Not a note or a word, for almost a year. I was…” Richie’s voice cracked slightly, and he paused to clear his throat. “I was sure… I’d lost it. That I couldn’t write anymore. And a musician who can’t write his own stuff ain’t never gonna make it out of the bars.”
Richie dropped his gaze again to the book in his hands, his long fingers tracing over the words he had written as he swallowed the lump in his throat.
“Maybe you just needed to take some time off,” Annie observed gently, her own voice husky with emotion. “A change of scenery, somethin’ different…”
“Inspiration.” Richie supplied the word for her. “I needed something to make me want to write again.”
Annie’s heart fluttered as she heard the subtext of his words. “And me hangin’ out the wash is what made you wanna write a song?”
Richie smiled at her husky chuckle, turning his eyes to meet hers. “You inspire me, Annie. Just you.”
“Oh.” It was the only word Annie could utter, a soft whisper that escaped past the rising lump in her throat. Her sapphire eyes glittered with moisture in the twilight, the little tears on her lashes catching the light of the rising full moon. She had never had a man say such a romantic thing to her before. It was almost overwhelming.
But even as her heart squeezed with emotion Annie knew what she had to do. She had to be honest with Richie, that he didn’t belong here. That he had to go back home, share his music, and reach for his dream. He had a gift, a special talent he couldn’t let wither away here in this little town, just so he could be with her.
But she didn’t have to tell him right now.
Annie and Richie stared at each other for a long moment, sharing a gentle smile. Annie felt herself falling into the chocolate depths of Richie’s beautiful, expressive eyes. His gaze was different now, full of warmth and contentment where before there had been guarded melancholy.
“Can… can I hear it?” Annie’s soft voice broke the spell, delivering her meek question. “What you’ve been working on?”
“Well…” Richie paused before answering carefully. He didn’t want to hurt Annie’s feelings, but he wasn’t sure he was quite ready to share the words he had written. “I don’t exactly have a song yet. Kinda just pieces of one. Of a couple, actually.”
“Oh.” The quiet word was tinged with disappointment. “Oh… okay.”
“But I can play you some of it,” Richie continued hastily, his heart clenching at her sad tone. “The guitar parts, I mean. I just… I don’t quite know what to do with the lyrics yet.” He let out a little breath of relief when he saw Annie’s lips curve upward in response to his offer. “They.. uh… they don’t really make sense.”
Annie nodded, reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear. “Oh. Okay.” She shifted in her chair, turning a little more toward Richie. “Just the music, then.”
“Okay.” Richie reached for his guitar, careful to avoid toppling the dinner plate resting on the chair arm. He pulled the instrument onto his lap and scooted to the edge of the seat, his long legs folding awkwardly under him. Annie giggled softly as she watched Richie shift around until he was comfortable.
“This is kinda rough, so bear with me.” Richie apologized. “I think I got the melody down, but I’m not so sure about some of the chords.”
Annabelle smiled and shook her head at Richie’s nervous explanation. “Richie, it don’t bother me if it ain’t perfect. I just wanna hear you play.”
Richie gave her a little shrug in reply. “Okay. Here goes.” He took a deep breath and looked down at his hands on the strings, then began to play.
Delicate notes flowed from the strings, seeming to float on the night air. The melody was soft and gentle, almost like a lullaby, yet it carried a subtly mournful note. When Richie added the chords, the piece took on an almost haunted quality, rich and vibrant yet somehow comforting.
Annie couldn’t hold back a little gasp of awe as she watched Richie’s fingers dance over the strings. She had always been amazed that such beautiful sounds could come from such a simple instrument, in the right hands. And Richie’s hands were wondrous.
After a scant few minutes Richie stopped playing. “Uh… that’s kinda all I have,” he shrugged sheepishly. “I was about to work on the bridge when you came out with supper.”
“It’s beautiful,” Annie breathed. “And you… you wrote that… because of… of me?”
Richie smiled at Annie, his heart squeezing at the wonder in her wide blue eyes. “Yeah. All I had to do was close my eyes and picture you… and the music just came out, through my hands.” He shrugged and felt a light blush warm his cheeks as he modestly dropped his gaze to the guitar on his lap. “It happens like that… when it’s good.”
“Richie… it’s amazin’. You’re amazin’. You have such incredible talent…” Annie realized she was gushing and stopped herself. She didn’t want to embarrass Richie, after what he had shared with her. But he was just so good…
Richie shrugged again and chuckled softly. “Thanks. But I think you’re a little biased.”
“Maybe so.” Annie smiled gently. “But I do know what I like. And I love that, Richie. It’s just gorgeous.” She reached out to give Richie’s arm a gentle squeeze. “An’ I can’t wait to hear the words you put with it. I love the way you sing.”
Richie returned Annie’s smile, his hand moving from his guitar to cover hers. “You asked me last night if I’d play something for you. Before we went out, remember?”
“You still want me to? I mean, I can play something you know. I know lots of covers.”
Annabelle grinned eagerly. “You bet.” Gently pulling her hand from under Richie’s she turned in her seat to fully face him, folding her legs under her.
“What do you wanna hear?”
“Whatever you wanna play. I’m easy.”
Richie chuckled at her eagerness, his hand automatically dropping back to its place over the strings. He absent-mindedly strummed a few soft chords as he looked out over the marsh, trying to think of an appropriate song with which to serenade his lovely Muse.
When Richie glanced over at Annie and saw her golden hair shining in the rising moonlight it came to him. The perfect song for this moment. Richie smiled and began to rock gently in his seat as he picked out the introductory notes to Joe Cocker’s ballad.
Annie’s eyes widened as she recognized the gentle melody. It was even more beautiful on the delicate strings of Richie’s guitar than it sounded on quiet piano keys. Her hand moved to her chest, resting over her heart as it fluttered with happiness.
Then he sang. Softly, earnestly, honestly… the lyrics giving voice to the emotion swelling in his heart as Richie gazed at the beautiful angel before him.
You are so beautiful
You are so beautiful
Can’t you see
You’re everything I hoped for
You’re everything I need
You are so beautiful
Richie’s velvety, whiskey-blues voice was nearly Annabelle’s undoing. It nourished her soul, ignited her body. It made her want him more than she had ever wanted anything before.
She watched Richie with passion-veiled eyes, taking in the strong line of his jaw, the soft curve of his lips, the dark fringe of his lashes against his moonlit skin. His long shag falling over his strong shoulders, his trim torso rocking in time with the silent cadence of his song. And those hands… those lovely, gifted hands… dancing across the strings of his instrument.
He was beautiful.
You are so beautiful
You are so beautiful
Can’t you see
You’re everything I hoped for
You’re everything I need
You are so beautiful
After he plucked the last note, Richie opened his eyes and turned his face to Annabelle’s. He almost gasped at the raptured expression on her lovely face. Then he chuckled softly.
“That was… perfect.” Annie’s voice was breathy, full of desire. “Richie… thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Richie slipped the guitar from his lap and carefully laid it in its case, then pushed himself up from his seat. He held out his hand, a silent invitation for Annabelle to join him.
The look she gave him as she placed her hand in his nearly made Richie’s knees buckle. He swallowed hard as he watched Annie gracefully unfold her legs and slowly rise from her seat. She stepped close to Richie, her arms sliding around his waist as she tilted her face up to his. Her moist, plump lips glistened in the moonlight, enticing him for a taste.
Richie’s hands automatically went to Annie’s hips as he ducked his head to press his mouth to hers. A soft groan escaped him as he savored the kiss. A warm flush swept through his body as Annie moved closer, molding her body against his.
When their lips parted, Richie and Annie gazed at each other for a long moment before Annie spoke softly.
“It’s gettin’ late.”
Richie nodded. “Yeah. You gotta work tomorrow, right?”
“Mmm Hmm. At eight. An’ you’re gonna go work on your car with Eddie, right?”
“Yeah.” Richie sighed and slipped his arms around Annie’s waist, pulling her closer. He smiled as she turned her cheek against his chest. “So, no gallivantin’ tonight, huh?” He felt Annie’s giggle in response.
“Nope.” Annie could hear Richie’s heart racing under her, and she could feel the swelling lump in the front of his jeans. “Besides, there’s nowhere to go out gallivantin’ to. It’s Sunday.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot.” Richie chortled quietly, then sighed as the fresh scent of her hair filled his senses. “Well then… um… what do you wanna do? I can play some more, or we can watch TV, or… or play a game or something….” Even as he spoke Richie fervently hoped Annie wouldn’t want to undertake any of the activities he mentioned.
Richie felt Annie chuckle against his chest, then she raised her head. She pulled back enough to look up at him, her eyes meeting his.
“Richie, I think we’re past playin’ games, don’t you?” Her voice was soft and husky.
“Uh huh,” Richie breathed. Unconsciously his tongue slid across his lower lip as he drew in a slow, deep breath. He could see in Annabelle’s eyes what she wanted, before the words slipped from her soft, shiny lips.
“I want you to make love to me, Richie.”
Richie exhaled softly as he silently nodded. He and Annabelle gazed at each other for another long moment, then she gently disengaged herself from his embrace. Taking his hand, she turned toward the house. Richie silently followed her across the night-dampened lawn and up the steps to the porch.
A pair of lightning bugs winked at each other as they hovered over Richie’s guitar, abandoned under the summer moon.