Ever have something happen to you that was so awful you wish you could go back and erase the memory? I did. But in a strange way I’m glad it happened. Not because I enjoyed the nightmares or the pain, but because it changed me and made me a stronger person.
On the inside.
I always thought life was about me. That behaving and being a good person were all I needed to do to be happy. But now I realize all I did was try to please other people, to make them happy. I’m not sure why I felt compelled never to let anyone down. What happened to me that horrible night forced everything into perspective. I learned something about myself that wasn’t so pretty.
It’s not about me.
Annie Myers offered a shy grin to the congregation of First Christian as they applauded for her solo, “How Great Thou Art.” She dipped her head until her long hair covered her face as she returned to her seat. She hated it when her cheeks burned.
She slipped into the pew and adjusted her black skirt as she settled beside her boyfriend, Tony. He slid closer until he eliminated the space between them. Draping his arm over her shoulder, he warmed her ear with his breath. Though she stared straight ahead, she could hear the smile in his voice. “You sounded great.”
As he lingered with his lips against her hair, the light scent of his musk aftershave invaded her senses, making her grin despite her effort to appear aloof.
“Not so close.” She stifled a giggle with her fingers and tried to scoot away.
He clutched her waist and inched closer. She stopped struggling, but sighed. While she didn’t mind him displaying a little affection, she didn’t appreciate him grabbing her in church. Not when her nosy neighbor Nancy, an elderly widow who rarely left her house, perched in the row across the aisle and scrutinized them with raised eyebrows.
She tried to pay attention to the service, but her mind couldn’t focus. Between her neighbor staring and Tony’s ever-increasing proximity, she struggled to keep her breathing normal.
Nosy Nancy had made it clear she didn’t like their pastor’s youngest son and shared her disparaging opinion of him with anyone who would listen. The old woman worked hard to collect evidence against him. For what purpose, Annie didn’t know, nor did she want to.
On occasion, she and Tony performed special music together. He was the one who had given her the courage to sing in public. And she loved it when he harmonized with her. His voice was smooth and enticing, just like his personality. And though every girl in church wanted to date him, Tony had chosen her to be his girlfriend.
Shuddering as he tickled her open palm, she tried to discreetly pull away from him, but he refused to let go. Nosy Nancy probably sensed Annie’s not-so-pure thoughts and would scorn her like she scorned herself for allowing Tony such liberties. Rather than confronting him, however, she stared at the wooden cross behind the pulpit and ignored his sensual teasing.
During the closing hymn, he repeatedly traced I love you into her palm. She leaned close and whispered, “Stop.”
He shook his head. Wearing a mischievous grin, he dragged his fingers over her palm, and then trailed one up her arm. She shivered from the tickling sensation on her skin and glanced across the aisle. Nosy Nancy’s eyebrows had climbed halfway up her prune-like forehead. Something in Annie’s gut told her Nancy had seen Tony pawing her.
The moment the hymn concluded, Tony tugged her—feet dragging—across the carpet. He urged her toward the stairs that led to the Sunday school rooms below the sanctuary.
She dug her heels in and tried to pull away. “Tony, what are you doing?”
He pulled harder, refusing to let go. “Come on.”
Sensing she shouldn’t put up a fight in front of church members, she tried to not trip on the steps as she descended the stairs behind him, his hand still clutching hers. “We shouldn’t be down here alone.”
“I know. But I’ve got something awesome to tell you.”
Not sure she believed him, she allowed him to drag her along the narrow hallway. “Why so private?”
Tony laughed. “Come on. Loosen up. We’re adults now.”
Her spine stiffened at the way he emphasized the word adult, and she halted. “Wait a sec. Just because we’re going to college in a few months doesn’t mean we should start breaking all the rules. Your dad will have a fit.”
“Naw. My dad’s cool. Really.” He winked.
She laughed at his obvious lie. His dad had a reputation for being overly strict with his sons. “You’re deluded. He’ll have your hide if he finds us down here alone.”
Tony smiled and pulled her toward the door at the end of the isolated hallway. He yanked it open, propelled her inside, and slammed the door behind him.
The smoldering, sexy look on his face made her let out a high-pitched giggle. “Someone might hear and come looking for us. What will people think?”
He tipped his head, inspecting her with intense eyes, yet wearing a disarming smile. “You believe I care what anyone thinks?”
“You know I do.”
He touched her chin, then tilted it up. “You’re really gorgeous.”
The way his eyelids lowered as his gaze lingered on her lips caused her heart to do little flips. “You’re just saying that.”
“Yeah, right. Like you were voted Prom Queen ’cause you’re so ugly.”
Annie forced herself to relax. They were in church. How much could he do? She fingered the collar of his tan dress shirt. “You’re pretty hot yourself, Mr. Prom King.”
Growling playfully, he backed her into the chalkboard. “Ooh, I like it when you say that.”
One of the erasers hit the floor. Chalk dust exploded in a cloud, and she coughed. As she bent to pick it up, she wished their church would join the twenty-first century and invest in a dry erase board and markers.
“Grab it later.” He pressed her against the wall, not allowing her to reach down, his arms blocking her in. Gazing into her eyes, he tipped his head until their lips almost touched. Their breath mingled. “Oh, Queen Anne, grant me one request?”
Her pulse hammered at his sensual tone, but she didn’t hesitate. She needed to get back upstairs before anyone noticed them missing. “Sure.”
He kissed the tip of her nose. “Anything?”
She nodded and swallowed hard.
“You mean even this?” Closing his mouth over hers, Tony deepened his kiss until her knees turned to rubber. Yet the minty taste of his breath and the silky warmth from his lips made her crave more. Nobody looked or tasted as good. Not that she had anyone to compare him to. She’d never kissed anyone else.
Stopping suddenly, he gazed into her eyes and searched, as if peering into her soul.
The smell of chalk dust reminded her where they were. “I thought you wanted to talk.” She found her hands had crept up to his shoulders, and she lowered them, pushing gently on his chest. “I don’t like kissing down here. It’s disrespectful.”
He stepped back and shrugged. “God invented sex. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“Not if you’re married. But . . .” Why does kissing always make him think of sex?
“Mmm . . . But nothing.” His soft lips moved rhythmically over hers in an intimate dance until she thought she’d faint. She had to escape.
Lately he wanted to make out every chance they got and let his hands roam further and further, and though she knew it was wrong, she didn’t hate it. In fact she enjoyed it. Too much.
“Let me show you how much I love you,” he whispered against her lips and melded his body to hers.
Panic forced the air from her lungs. She shoved him away. “Are you crazy?”
“Not here.” He laughed. Relief whooshed through her. Then he lightly brushed his index finger down her nose. “Later. Tonight.”
She frowned. He had to know how she felt; so why did he keep pushing the issue? “We’ve talked about this before.”
“I want you, Annie. I love you. I’ll be careful.”
She crossed her arms and stepped back. “And I love you. You know I’m fine with kissing, but I’m waiting until I’m married for the rest.”
He huffed and raked his fingers through his hair. “That won’t happen for four more years! Not if we graduate from college first. I can’t wait that long.”
What happened to the old Tony I knew? The sweet, patient one?
“If you love me you’ll wait.” Her voice wavered despite her resolve to remain firm.
“But your parents won’t be home until tomorrow night. Don’t you see? It’s so perfect.” He tried to cup her face, but she swatted his hands away.
So that was why her nosy neighbor had been giving her such rapt attention. She must be spying for her parents. They’ve never been out of town overnight before. The thought gave her the shivers. What would Nancy tell them? What would they think?
“No way. My parents would find out.” Her first time home alone, and she had her boyfriend over—yeah, that would go over well. She shrugged. “They trust me.”
“They don’t have to know. You’re the perfect daughter. No one would suspect a thing.” He touched her hair and tucked a lock behind her ear. “Come on, babe. I’ll leave early so no one will know I was there. I promise.”
His manipulation caused a tumult of confusion to swell within her breast, slightly weakening her resolve. Then logic assured her that Nosy Nancy would certainly be aware of his presence, which would earn them serious consequences for the rest of the summer.
“I said no. If that’s all you wanted to tell me, then I’m out of here before someone sees us and starts talking.” She tried to push past him, but he stepped in front of her.
“Is that all you care about? What people think?”
She stared into his eyes, where hurt danced with annoyance, and a lump clogged her throat. “No.”
He moved closer and whispered, his voice desperate, “Don’t you care what I think?”
When he looked at her like that, she wanted to throw caution to the wind and succumb, but she had to be strong. “Of course I do. But why is this so important to you all of a sudden? You haven’t been yourself lately.”
She hesitated at the soft, yet passionate gaze in his eyes, wanting him to love her, but not push her so hard. How could she keep him in her life and keep her reputation at the same time? It seemed impossible, and it frustrated her.
Tony closed his eyes and puckered his lips, teasing her like he always did when she got mad at him. “Plant one right here, baby.” He pointed at his mouth.
Annie sighed, then leaned toward him and offered a quick peck. “There. No more.”
“That’s more like it.” He opened his eyes and grinned. “Now add a little warmth.”
She scowled. “Tony . . .”
“I was joking.” The corner of his mouth rose. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”
She stared into mischievous brown eyes. “Think I’ll change my mind if you keep this up?”
“No, but I hope you will.” His eyebrows zipped up and down in a suggestive manner. The gleam in his eyes and his lopsided grin dissipated her anger.
“You kiss nice, but not enough to persuade me.”
With his eyes thinned into slits, he observed her for a second. “Um, yeah. Hey. Listen. That’s not why I brought you here. My news is . . . guess.”
“You know I hate guessing games. Just tell me.”
He embraced her hands and smiled. “If you give me another kiss, I’ll tell you.”
“Just spit it out.”
“Come on, hot stuff. One little kiss?”
She rolled her eyes and imparted another innocent peck.
He mimicked as he rolled his eyes back at her. “That the best you can do?”
“You said one little kiss.” She giggled. “You didn’t say make it sloppy.”
The look on his face was priceless. He wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. “Are you saying I’m a sloppy kisser?”
She laughed. “Maybe.”
His now-wide grin assured her he understood her teasing. “All right, you kept your end of the bargain, though it was pretty lame. . .”
“My bad.” She covered her mouth with her hand.
“All right, I’ll just tell you. I got my acceptance letter from Northern Christian. I’m in!” He rubbed his hands. “Now we can go to the same college. Isn’t that great?”
Her heart pounded and she stiffened. Fear and joy merged as she considered their recent struggles over sex—or the lack of it. She groaned inwardly at the daunting task of having to put him off for four more years. “Sure,” she answered, her smile weak.
He stepped back. “You don’t sound excited. Aren’t you happy? If we’re at the same college, we can be together every day.”
If they attended separate schools, it would be easier for her to deal with his burgeoning desire. Especially since it now mixed with the newly heightened awareness of her own. “Yeah, I’m glad.”
Tony squinted. “You’re not happy. You’re scared.”
She shook off her doubts and brightened her smile. “Of course I’m glad. You know I’d love to spend every day with you.” She touched his smooth chin, following the line of his jaw. “Why wouldn’t I be happy? I was just a bit stunned at first.”
“Good.” Touching her hair, he whispered, “You’re so beautiful.”
Her body warmed as he inched closer.
Pressing her against the wall, he kissed her hungrily. His fingers combed through her hair and his lips found the nape of her neck. Though she intended to behave, if he up kept up the passionate kissing, she didn’t know how much longer she could keep her resolve.
Just as he slid his other hand under her shirt, something creaked behind her. Someone walked in on us!
She shoved Tony away as she wiped her mouth with the top of her hand. Smoothing her hair, she noticed Dan lurking in the doorway. Tony’s nearly six-foot-tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed older brother stared at them, his mouth gaping in shock.
After blinking several times, Dan stepped inside and announced in his deep bass voice, “Dad’s looking for you.”
Tony stuffed his hands in his pockets. “So?”
“You better find out what he wants. He’s not happy you disappeared after service.”
Dan glanced at Annie and her neck flushed red-hot.
Despite her embarrassment at the interruption, relief washed over her because Tony had to stop. She obviously wasn’t persuasive enough to convince him on her own.
Tony touched her cheek. “Talk to you later, sweet stuff.”
He sprinted up the stairs, leaving Annie out of breath and staring at his older brother. Dan shifted his feet as he fixed his gaze on her.
His frank stare evoked a shiver. What had he seen? What did he think about her?
She glanced away, running her fingers through her long hair. Dan appeared more handsome than usual today, and more like a man than a teenager. She hated that she noticed that about him.
Why wouldn’t he go away? He’d delivered his message.
Dan’s intensity puzzled her. He’d always been nice, yet extremely attentive, which made her anxious. Several times this past month, she’d caught him staring at her in church.
Tony had mentioned that Dan had graduated from college last month and returned to Boise to find a job. For now he lived with their parents. But that didn’t explain his obvious interest.
“You sounded great today.” Dan’s voice dipped lower.
She peered at him while nibbling her lower lip. His sincere-sounding compliment caused unfamiliar warmth to fill her chest. “Um, thanks.”
He scanned the length of her and he pointed at her skirt.
Annie followed his gaze. “What?”
“You’re covered in chalk dust.”
Her mouth curved in a wry smile, though her pulse hammered. “I, um, was looking for my . . . Bible and I . . . I guess I bumped into the chalkboard.”
She slapped at the dust and fumbled through a stack of books on a table. Straightening a few moments later, she glanced at Dan from the corner of her eye.
He remained in the same spot, his broad chest puffing out as he stuffed his hands in his back pockets and shrugged. “Need help dusting off?”
Was he serious? She frowned. “No thanks.”
Dan’s neck reddened and the color spread to the tips of his ears. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like . . . Ah, never mind. I better go.” He disappeared down the hall.
Seconds later, her friend Susie popped her head into the room. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you, girlfriend.”
“Here I am.” She tried not to appear flustered as she cleared her throat and tugged at the sides of her skirt. “Just looking for my… Bible. Can’t find it.” And you’re lying. Nice, Annie.
“That’s ’cause you left it upstairs, you nut.”
Annie laughed and lightly slapped her forehead. “Oh, yeah. Duh!” She sure would miss Susie when she left for an upcoming missions trip that would take her away for several weeks. At least she had Tony to hang out with. If she could keep him and his persistence at bay.
Susie leaned close, her dark hair hanging in her face. “Why were you alone with Dan?”
Susie's question caught her by surprise. Annie shrugged and swallowed hard. “I wasn’t alone. Not like—”
“Yeah, right.” Susie chuckled. “I just saw him looking all red-faced and running up the stairs like the building was on fire.”
Glancing at her skirt, Annie smacked at the chalk dust. “He came to get Tony.”
Susie touched Annie’s skirt. “Boy, what a mess. You want some help?”
Susie smirked. “I won’t ask how you managed to get so much on you.”
Annie raised her brows. “I didn’t plan it, you know. It just happened.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But what I want to know is why the good stuff always happens to you. Why not to the rest of us average people?”
“Come on, Susie.” Annie stifled a laugh. “There’s nothing average about you.”
Susie rolled her eyes. “Whatever. But you know I’m right. It’s so unfair.” Susie tapped her chin. “Do you think if I prayed and asked God to have Dan notice me, He’d answer my prayer?”
“It can’t hurt to try, right?”
“I suppose. Come on. Let’s get out of here before people start talking.”
Annie followed her friend up the stairs, thankful for the continual interruptions despite how uncomfortable they made her feel. She didn’t know how much longer she could hold Tony at bay, and that scared her even more than her parents’ finding out about their rendezvous in the church basement. She didn’t want to disappoint them, but more than that, she didn’t want to betray her own plans for her future.
But something in her gut told her things were slowly unraveling in their relationship, and she had no clue how to make them right again.