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Claiming Annie's Heart

By Judythe Morgan

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Annie Foster glanced toward the flash of light when the door into Murphy’s Pub in Belfast, Northern Ireland, opened and the dark shadow of a man moved to a stool at the bar. She shivered at the rush of cold air from the unusually chilly July night, but her attention remained focused between the dark oak bar and the seisiún table. Seated with the musicians, four-year-old Emma lip-synced along with her. Behind the bar, her fiancé Pearce Murphy pulled the Guinness tap to build a pint.
Her fingers glided over the upright piano keys. Her voice echoed through the still, quiet pub with the final chorus of the ancient ballad, “For she lived to hope and pray, For her love in Botany Bay, It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry.”
Annie rose slowly. Her body weighted by emotions stirred from the words she sang. She’d been lonely once - waiting, hoping, praying. Not anymore. With a smile at Pearce, she headed to Emma.
She’d only taken two steps when the man who had entered swept her off her feet. She struggled against his arms, pinning her loosely but firmly to a body hard as a slab at Stonehenge. His lips sealed over her startled scream. As the kiss softened, a mist of familiarity fogged her brain.
Before she could sort through the haziness, a familiar Irish brogue called out, “Get your hands off me lass.”
Pearce yanked her from the man’s arms. The unmistakable crack of fist meeting flesh shot through the air, and the stranger tumbled backward, knocking over a chair as he fell. Blood spurted down his chin and splattered onto his shirt.
Pearce reached down to haul the man to his feet for another go. Annie clutched at his forearm. “Pearce, stop it! I’m fine.”
Emma appeared beside her father. Her hazel eyes saucer-like on her pudgy face. She tugged on his other arm. “Da, you broke his nose.”
Pearce twisted from their joint restraint, showing no remorse. “He’s touching you again, I’ll kill him.”
The stranger pulled himself up and swiped at the blood running down his chin. “She’s my fiancée. Annie, it’s me. Tell him.”
The deep baritone voice saying her name carried a familiar cadence. Its resonance danced a jig in her ear, and her heart skipped a beat. Annie swayed. “Chad?”
Pearce reached to steady her, but she braced herself against Chad’s chest.
Chad lifted her hand to his lips, kissing her fingers. “I’d given up on finding you, my Annie.”
“Too late, you are,” Pearce said.
Annie shot her friend Molly a frantic help me glance.
Nodding, Molly linked her arm through Pearce’s. “We’ll be needing you. Liam wants another of your special Murphy’s.”
Pearce jerked from Molly’s grip and motioned the crowd away. “Enough already. Everyone back to your places,” he said and stomped to the bar.
Emma scooted closer, hugging Annie’s waist. Her eyes glistened with tears. Her lips puckered in a pout. “She’s not yours. She’s mine and Da’s.”
Annie slipped her hand from Chad’s, gave Molly a grateful nod and crouched to hug Emma. “That’s right, sweetie. I’ll always be yours.”
Chad’s gaze flickered from Annie to Emma. “She yours?”
Aware of every eye in the pub watching them, she tipped Emma’s chin upward. “Sweetie, you go help Molly and your Da.”
Emma’s shoulders straightened as though she might protest, then dropped with a weighty sigh. Her posture and stride mimicked her father’s as she walked away.
Annie motioned to Chad. “Come with me. Let’s put some ice on your nose.” Pearce’s hazel eyes, shadowed by angry disbelief, tracked them as Annie led the way behind the floor-to-ceiling, age-darkened, oak bar. She kept her back stiff, her pace steady down the narrow hallway to an iron spiral staircase and up the steps to her apartment above the bar. Inside, her body shivered, trembled, quaked with questions. How had Chad found her and where had he been?
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, opened the door and pointed to her kitchen table. “Sit down. I’ll get some ice.”
He flinched when she placed an ice-filled washcloth against his nose a few moments later. “Hold it there,” she said.
She sat across from him, analyzing the man, looking for the college student she’d known and loved. The years had left their mark on him. Gone was the sun-lightened, blond hair she had run her fingers through, replaced by a dark, burnished-gold color. A few lines etched across his forehead and around his eyes. A shadow of sadness darkened those clear, sparkling blues that so often plagued her dreams. A faint, narrow, pink scar line extended up his whisker-stubbled cheek. From what, she wondered.
“Annie.”
“Chad.” They spoke at once.
“You first,” he said.
Mountains of memories rose in her head. Times spent sharing their deepest wants and desires. Times he’d been her comfort and hope. How she had missed him and longed for him to return for her.
Finally, she’d accepted he was gone. She’d never expected to see him again.
She lifted her chin to project more confidence than she felt. “I was going to ask if you wanted something to drink. I could use some tea.”
“Annie, I don’t want a drink. I want to know about the little girl downstairs. Is she ours?”
His question reminded her how she’d let her heart and emotion override what she’d been taught, what she knew was right. She’d paid a heavy price for that recklessness.
Annie drew back. Her chair scraped the floor. “No.” At the sink, she filled the teapot and braced against the gust of self-recrimination sweeping her body.
“The bartender’s?”
She whipped around to face him. “Pearce is not the bartender. He owns the pub. We’re going to be married.”
“You can’t marry him. You’re still engaged to me.” He raised his left hand. His thumb turned the promise ring they’d exchanged on her sixteenth birthday still on his third finger. His eyes traveled to her left hand.
Annie knotted her fingers into a fist. She’d removed her matching promise ring when she’d left St. Brigid Abbey Girls’ School. She and Pearce hadn’t found time to shop for an engagement ring yet.
“I can and I am. We’re planning an August wedding.”
Chad wadded the washcloth in his hand. The clatter of ice dropping on the floor echoed in the small room, followed by the shrill whistle of the teapot.
Annie lifted the kettle from the stove. A sudden wave of dizziness made her head reel. Who was he to question her? He’d been the one who’d disappeared. Hadn’t called, written or contacted her for five long years. Her hand shook as she poured water into her cup and went back to the table.
She flipped red curls over her shoulder. “What difference does it make? You never bothered to come for me.” She wanted to understand, to find an answer to wash away the sense of abandonment that lived in the depth of her stomach.
“I couldn’t.” He swiped his hand through his hair.
“Did you even try?” Annie heard the bitterness bubbling through her words. She couldn’t stop what streamed through her lips any more than she could stop breathing. “I waited, Chad. And waited. And waited. For a call, a letter, a knock at my dorm door. Anything. You never came, you never wrote, you never called. Nothing. I was alone with an aunt I’d never met before. I had no one.”
He walked to the sink. His back to her, he gripped the edge, releasing a long breath through his nose. “The same night R.J.’s goons whisked you away his cousin, Sheriff Marx, hauled me to jail.”
“Johnny arrested you? For what?”
“Rape. You were a minor. I was an adult. By law, that’s statutory rape in Texas.”
Annie gasped. “You didn’t rape me.”
Chad turned to face her. “Not according to the law or your father. Your parents sicced their personal friend the District Attorney on me with a list of charges that would have meant years in prison.”
He crossed the room and stood with his hands on the chair he’d just left. His gaze locked with hers. “I knew I’d never be able to get you from a jail cell. Your daddy offered me a deal. If I agreed to join the Army, he wouldn’t press charges. He tricked me. His friend at the Pentagon manipulated my assignments and leave. By the time I got to the school in Ireland you were gone.”
She closed her eyes. Consequences haunted them both.

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