This is, in a way, a story about love at first sight because the first time I saw Annie I fell in love with her. It was my 21st birthday. It was her first. Annie is my niece. That day is one I will always remember. My fiancée, Laura, had taken me home with her from college to meet her family.
"Family," was a word I wasn't really familiar with. I was an orphan and the only 'families' I had ever been in were the foster kind. Some of them were better than others, but it always felt like I didn't belong, like it wasn't a "real" family. When I met Laura's parents, her sister and her husband, and they told me "welcome to the family" they meant it and I knew it was real. And then there was little Annie; the first of what my new family hoped was a whole flock of grandchildren.
This was a day of celebrations; my engagement to Laura, Annie's first birthday, and of course my birthday. Mom Johnson (as I came to call her) was determined that we celebrate with a feast. She even had three beautiful cakes, one for each event. I felt like I had the family I had been denied. After we had eaten our fill and moved into the living room to relax and talk, Joanna, my sister-in-law-to-be, helped Annie find her "wabby" and a bottle and they came into the room with us. To the surprise of everyone, Annie crawled into my lap.
"I don't believe this," Joanna said. "She doesn't go to strangers. She'll barely go sit in Grandpa's lap!" Annie smiled up at me, and I instinctively kissed her the top of her head. She gave a happy little sigh, settled even deeper into my arms and very quickly went to sleep. Joanna soon took her off to her crib and the rest of us spent the afternoon in conversation. I don't remember the topics, but I'll always remember meeting Annie.
Laura and I didn't get married right away because of our school schedules, so when the wedding finally took place Annie was four and acted as our ring bearer. Through all this time, and the years to come, Annie would be stuck to me like glue. She was terribly upset when Laura and I left on our honeymoon without her. There were later trips we all took together. Practically every summer, Mom and Dad would take us somewhere exotic. Every spring, of course, Annie and I would celebrate our birthdays together.
Life was very good, but there were some clouds in our sunny sky, too. For one thing, no matter how hard we tried, Laura and I weren't able to have children. The doctors ran a lot of tests on us and kept telling us there was nothing wrong with either of us, but we were still childless. I think that just drew us closer to Annie and we lavished her with the attention that we had hoped to display to our own. Joanna and Will had decided to wait a few years between kids, but then Joanna was diagnosed with endometriosis and eventually had a hysterectomy. It turned out that Annie would be the only grandchild. It just made her more precious to us all.
The years flew by and my career took off. By the time I was thirty I was very high up in what became one of the bigger dot-com companies and, thanks to them going public, I was also very wealthy. I decided to take some of that nest egg and form my own information technology company, which I headquartered in Virginia, near Washington, DC. It was only a couple of hours from the rest of the family in Richmond and we saw a lot of them. Annie spent most of her spring breaks and summer vacations with us, and of course, we always celebrated our birthdays together. I watched as she grew from a skinny little kid into a beautiful young lady. Annie turned out to be a very talented young lady, as well, with a voice like an angel and a deep love of music.
The summer after Annie turned 13, she came up to stay with me before we all went to Europe for a two-week trip. Everyone else was traveling there ahead of us because I had a business conference in Florida first. The plan was for Annie to go with me, and then we'd go to Disney World before joining them later. We never got to go. We were just finishing our packing when the news reports came on the TV. A plane had crashed on its landing in Rome. It was their plane. There were no survivors. Annie and I watched in horror as we realized that all the family either of us had was on that airplane. We were now the only family either of us had left.
I'll confess. I was a basket case. I never would have made it through the months that followed without Annie's gentle strength. Annie says the same thing, though. I suppose we leaned on each other. The sad business of dealing with the family estates and inheritances fell to us alone, with only the family's lawyers to help guide us through the process. I took nothing for myself - I'd made my own fortune - but gave strict instructions that Annie be taken care of. She was. All of her parents' and grandparents' estates were placed in trust for her.
Annie moved in permanently with me lives with me, and we worked on recovering from the tragedy together. Annie made a several good friends from school and the neighborhood over the years, which is good since she was never been one to warm up to people very quickly. Probably her best friend is Amy, whose parents Scott and Tammy live a couple of blocks from us. Annie usually stays with them when I have to travel.
I think she liked staying there because Scott is a musician. Well, he's actually the Branch Manager for one of the banks here, but he plays with a Jazz Band on the weekends, so I know Annie liked being around them at least partly because of the music. Annie's music was her retreat - even a therapy - after the tragedy. I paid for her piano and voice lessons and the house was always full of music whenever Annie was around. If she wasn't playing the piano or singing, then she was playing some CD or another. The music seemed to get happier as the years went on. I was grateful for that, and happiest when Annie would call me into the living room to sing to me. "Hey, unks," she'd yell. "Come and listen to this" Always, after she sang to me I'd kiss the top of her head and say "that was beautiful, just like you"
The tradition that Annie and I always celebrate our birthdays together only changed slightly. What had been a party at Mom and Dad Johnson's house became a festive dinner out. I have been telling her since Christmas that I wanted to make her 18th birthday celebration an even more memorable one but she's kept insisting that she's "got it covered" so I finally gave up planning. "OK, little one," I finally said. "You get it your way." Annie smiled and I even think she blushed.
I found out just how much planning she'd done as events unfolded. Annie had told me to dress nice, so I had. That wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Our mutual birthday is such a big occasion for us that we always dress up for it. No, my first clue that this was going to be special was when the limousine driver appeared at the door.
"Annie? Come on," I yelled up the stairs to her. "There's a limousine waiting for us."
"Go ahead and get in, Unks," she answered. "I'll be right there."
I shrugged at the driver and he accompanied me to the car and ushered me inside. Then he stood in front of the door, blocking my view. I didn't see Annie until he opened the limousine door for her. I hardly recognized her; she was so beautifully different from her everyday self. Her long blonde hair was done up, with only wispy curls framing her delicate face. Her black, spaghetti-strap dress, the little string of pearls, the dark hose and high heels made her look both elegant and sexy. It was hard to believe that she was only 18, let alone that she was the same little girl I had met on her first birthday. It seemed like so little time had passed since then. How could it be possible?
Annie smiled at me and did a little model's turn before she got in the car so I could take in her petite 5' 1" frame. "You like?" she asked.
"Very striking" I said. "Where are you taking me?"
"You'll see," she assured me. "You'll see."
Dinner was at an intimate and very fancy eatery in Old Town Alexandria. Annie had set up everything, including the menu. The chef had even come out to greet us and wish us both a happy birthday. I was impressed at Annie's planning so far. I could see people craning their necks and trying to figure out who this happy couple could be. I couldn't help but smile. Over dinner we talked about almost everything. Our day-to-day lives, Annie's school, her college plans and even our past. There were a lot of good times and we learned that it was right to remember them, even if a terrible sadness had ended those days too soon.
"You don't remember the first of these birthday parties, do you?" I asked her. "How you crawled up in my lap and fell asleep with your 'wabby'? How amazed everyone was that you liked me the day I met you?"
"I loved you, Unks," she corrected. "I loved you then, and will love you always." I looked in her eyes. They were full of love, bright with the beginnings of tears but still smiling. I wasn't really surprised to hear her tell me she loved me. After all, we've been telling each other 'I love you' since she could talk. This time though, the look in her eyes was telling me something. Something that suddenly made me feel uncomfortable for some reason.
"Love you more," I joked. It was part of an old routine of ours. Usually it just made her giggle, but tonight she recoiled as if I'd slapped her. I really thought she was going to cry.
"Oh, Unks," she groaned. "Talk about spoiling the mood..."
I didn't understand that response at all, but I didn't push the issue. I think part of me wasn't ready for what it thought this was all leading up to. I moved to change the subject.
"Sorry, sweetie." ... ummm ... so is dinner all you had planned tonight?"
"Oh, no," she grinned. "Not by any stretch of your imagination."
"But you're not going to tell me, are you?" I said, hoping to get a hint.
"Nope," she stated flatly. "You just come along for the ride and you'll find out soon enough."
I shrugged. "Far be it from me to deny such a beautiful lady..." She blushed.
The limo pulled up in front of a well-known nightspot that features live Jazz. Annie said, "You remember that Amy's dad is in a Jazz band?" I nodded and she continued. "Well, he gave me passes so we could get in tonight for our birthday." I thought that was awfully nice of Scott to do that, but really didn't pay much more attention to it until we were being seated and I overheard Annie ask the hostess to "tell Mr. Anderson that the guest of honor is here." Who knows? Maybe he had plans to tell the whole club that it was our birthday. I really cringed at the thought of a whole club singing "Happy Birthday" but I was, as Annie said, "along for the ride."
I really enjoyed the band. I'd never known Scott was this good. After a while the band took a break and Scott came to the table to greet us and wish us both a happy birthday. We made small talk for a little while and then Scott said he had to be getting back to the stage. Just about the time the band was getting back in their places, Annie excused herself, as if to go to the rest room. Then Scott stood up and began talking on the microphone to introduce the next set.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight I'd like to present a special guest. This is a young lady who, I think, has a real instinct for singing Jazz and one of the sweetest purest voices I've ever heard, especially in someone her age. Would you please welcome, in her first public appearance on anything but a High School stage, Miss Annie Johnson!"
I blinked, unbelieving. There was Annie in her little black dress, stepping onto the little stage. She hugged Scott lightly before he sat down at the piano again. Annie took a deep breath and nodded at him. He counted off the band and that old standard "Old Black Magic" started up. Annie started right in.
"That old black magic has me in its spell. That old black magic that you weave so well."
The crowd loved it, and Annie looked very surprised at that. Scott hardly waited for the applause to subside before he started up the second tune, another standard, "Ain't Misbehavin'" the crowd was already clapping for her before she got to the second verse. I was amazed at my niece. I knew she could sing. She sang constantly around the house. Seeing her under the lights with the band and the microphone, I hardly recognized her. She was so adult. Was this the little girl I had raised?
During the bridge, when Annie was singing, "Don't go nowhere, what do I care? Your kisses are worth waiting for (believe me, )" I could swear she was looking right at me. I smiled at her to give her encouragement. She really was doing a beautiful job up there. I wasn't the only one who felt that way, judging by the reception the crowd was giving her. The applause took a long time to die down. This time, instead of Scott counting off the beat for the band, Annie took the microphone off its stand and began to talk.
"Thank you," she said simply. "I'd like to dedicate this next song to a very special man. This man ... well, what can I say? Wait. Let me back up. First of all, I'm here tonight celebrating my 18th birthday..." There was loud applause, but Annie waved them down. "I'm celebrating with my Uncle Henry. It's his birthday, too." There was more applause as people looked around the room trying to find me. "Stand up, Unks," Annie said. I half-raised myself from my chair and did an awkward little wave to the crowd as they applauded me.
"My uncle and I have always celebrated our birthdays together," Annie continued. "And when tragedy struck our family, leaving us..." her voice was cracking. "Well, he's the only family I have now." The crowd was making sympathetic noises now. "Don't feel sorry for me, though," Annie said firmly. "I have a happy life. I have the best family there is... " She cleared her throat slightly. "Anyway, this one is for you, Uncle Henry," she said, then blew me a kiss. "Happy Birthday"
The music began, slow and melancholy. I didn't recognize it until Annie started singing. It was the old Gershwin tune, "Someone to Watch Over Me" and it was the prettiest I'd ever heard it sung. Better even than Ella Fitzgerald ever dreamed of. Annie was pouring such pain and longing into it that people were openly weeping as she sang. I was one of them. Our tear-filled eyes met each other as she sang, "I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood, I know I could, always be good, To one who'll watch over me. Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, To my heart he carries the key Won't you tell him please to put on some speed Follow my lead, oh, how I need Someone to watch over me Someone to watch over me."
The applause for the first two numbers was loud, but this was deafening. It was so loud that I didn't really hear what Annie said, but I could read her lips as she said, "I love you, Uncle Henry." Before the applause had even begun to die down, Annie rushed off the stage toward me and wrapped her arms around me in a big hug. "Beautiful," whispered in her ear. "Beautiful, just like you." Then I kissed the top of her head as I held her tight.
Annie took my hand and pulled me to the dance floor, where we swayed to the slow beat of the music. She was holding me a lot tighter than the usual dancing posture called for. Her head was on my shoulder and I leaned my own head down on her. It was a lovely feeling, swaying to the music, holding Annie, and smelling her wonderful perfume. She lifted her head and looked into my eyes. "I love you, Uncle Henry," she said softly.
"I love you too, sweetie," I answered without missing a beat. I did. I really did love Annie. She's family after all. Though I might have railed against the fates that left us alone in this world, I never questioned the fact that I would take over the job of raising her once the tragedy had occurred. The look on Annie's face, however, told me that this expression of my platonic familial love for her wasn't the right answer.
"No, Henry," she said firmly as she stopped dancing. She was trembling. "I mean I love you." Her eyes were full of passion as she looked up into my eyes. Before I knew what she was doing or could stop her she kissed me on the lips for a tender, brief moment.
"Let's go home, Uncle Henry," Annie said. Her eyes were full of tears. I was completely confused.
"Is something wrong, sweetie?"
"No, it's just that ... that..." She shook her head and pulled herself together. "Get the limo, Uncle Henry."
She didn't speak on the way home. She merely scooted close to me and laid her head on my shoulder. When the limo driver opened the door for us at home, he helped Annie out and she moved quickly to the door. She was waiting for me inside the door. Tears filled her eyes as she leveled her gaze at me. "Is something wrong, Annie?" I asked. "Yes, ... I mean, no ... It's just ... I mean," she stammered. Suddenly she collapsed against my chest in great wracking sobs. All I could do was hold her and try to comfort her as we stood there in the entryway. After what seemed like hours, Annie squeezed me tightly. "I love you, Uncle Henry," she whispered from somewhere in the lapels of my jacket.
I kissed her head softly. "I love you too, Annie." I said softly.
"You don't get it, do you?" she said angrily, pulling herself away from my embrace.
"I love you. Not just love you like a niece loves an uncle. I mean I 'love' love you - Like a woman loves a man."
"Are you aware of what you're saying, Annie?" It was my turn to stammer. I had no idea that my niece, the only family I had left in the whole world, was looking at me as a romantic interest until this very moment. "It's ... It's just not right!"
"No Uncle Henry, you're wrong." Annie said shaking her head. "Nothing could be more right. I have loved you for years now, I've dated some guys but they all pale in comparison to you. You are the perfect man for me. You are always kind and supportive of me, you genuinely care about me and I know you love me for me."
"Annie wait." I tried to interrupt, but she cut me off before I could protest.
"No! You wait!" she instructed. "I have thought a lot about this and I know what I want, I am not a little girl anymore. I know that we would be perfect together why can't you see that?" She paused and sighed looking away briefly before she looked back into mine with as alluring a look as she could manage. "I've been your sweetie for the past seventeen years ... now I want to be ... well ... more."
"But Annie," I protested. "That just wouldn't be right. We're family. That would be incest."
"Would it really be incest? We're not blood relatives. Why is it wrong? Would it be some kind of betrayal to love me? We are both adults and we love each other! Why is that not enough? All my life you have been nothing but kind and loving. You've always been there for me. You taught me what it was to be a lady and what a true gentleman was. How could I not love you? How could any woman not love you? Why won't you let ME love you - as a woman?"
I was shocked. "Annie!" I shouted. "Are you thinking about what you're saying?"
"Yes!" She shouted back at me. "I'm perfectly aware of what I'm saying. I'm perfectly aware of what I want. I have been perfectly, completely, totally aware of these feelings for you since I was nine years old. Don't you remember I told you then that I wanted to marry you? What makes you think I've changed my mind?"
"But, Annie," I protested weakly. "I've raised you. I'm your legal guardian. There are laws against that sort of thing. Have you considered that?"
"Why do you think I waited until now to do anything about it, silly?" She said, a sly grin crossing her face despite her tears. "I'm 18. I'm an adult. Your guardianship is over. I could move out anytime, get me an apartment and live on my own, you know ... not that I want to. I want to stay here. I want to be with you! Can't you see that, unk, er, Henry?"
"No I don't see. Not exactly, but I'm catching on," I said. I reached my arms out to her and she stepped back in. I hugged her close, kissing her on top of her head. "This is new territory, Annie," I murmured. "You need to be absolutely sure. I need to be absolutely sure that what you're asking for is something that we should even consider."
"I know, Henry," she said. "I know, and I am absolutely sure. What can I do to convince you of that?"
"I don't know," I said dully. "I don't know, but standing in the entryway isn't exactly the best place to discuss something that will completely change our lives. I'll make some tea and we'll sit down and talk it over, calmly and rationally. I'm not saying yes to the idea," I warned her. "Not until I'm totally convinced."
"OK" Annie said meekly. " ... And why don't we change into something a bit less formal while we're at it?"
"Suits me fine," I said, giving her a last hug. "Meet you in the den in 15?"
Annie and I find the den to be our favorite place to talk. It's as though the room invites you to have an open mind, which I got the feeling I was going to need this evening. I put on the teakettle and then went upstairs to my bedroom to change. Annie's door was open and I could hear her moving around, changing clothes and putting things away. "Have I been that blind to her feelings?" I asked myself. "Was I so busy raising Annie, being her whole family to her, that I missed something she was trying to tell me for all these years?"
I was mulling this all over in my mind as I threw on some jeans and a denim shirt along with some old deck shoes - my normal weekend getup. I remembered how Annie didn't like these shoes, saying they "look so bad even Goodwill won't take them" and was just cinching up my belt when I heard the teakettle whistle in the kitchen. I hurried down the stairs to get the kettle off the burner. I was struck by a whim. I went into the dining room and got out the old Johnson Family silver tea service. Mom Johnson rarely used it except for special occasions, but if the bombshell that Annie had dropped on me didn't qualify as "special" then nothing would.
I measured out the Earl Grey into the teapot and poured the steaming water over it, filled the sugar bowl and poured milk in the cream pitcher. I was just setting two china cups on their saucers when I heard Annie coming down the stairs and walking into the den. "It's time," she called to me.
"I'm on my way," I called back and carried the tea service through the dining room and into the den.
Annie had seated herself in one of the two big leather wing chairs in the den, the one facing away from me. All I could see of her was her elbow when I came into the room with the tray. She was wearing a sweatshirt. As I came around the chair to set the tea service on the table between the two chairs in the den, I noticed she was an old pair of faded jeans and pink socks. Silently I breathed a sigh of relief. It was going to be hard enough to talk with her about her sexual desires for me, her romantic feelings for me, without the added distraction of sexy clothes.
"Grandmom's tea set," she giggled. "If I'd known you were going to get formal on me I wouldn't have suggested changing clothes." She was grinning at me. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail. She looked a lot more like a little girl now than she had earlier.
As Annie poured the tea for us I thought back to years past when she would "make" me have a tea party with her and a couple of her dolls. A part of me wished for those simpler times when I was merely uncle to an innocent little girl. I took my cup from her dainty hand and sat back in my chair. The silence between us was deafening. I looked over the rim of my cup as I sipped. Annie was staring down at her cup, apparently lost in thought. Full of dread I leaned forward in my seat, elbows on knees, to face her.
Clearing my throat nervously, I looked deep into Annie's clear blue eyes. "Sweetie?" I said gently. "I don't know where to start this conversation ... I mean, well..."
"I know, unk ... I mean, Henry," She murmured. She was nervously toying with the handle of her cup. "I thought you knew how I felt. Guess I didn't make myself as obvious as I thought, huh?"
"Or maybe I'm just oblivious," I said. "But anyway, Annie ... What's on your mind?"
Annie set her cup on the table and nervously twisted her hands together. "Do you remember that time when I was about nine and told you I was going to marry you?" I nodded, remembering how we'd all laughed it off as a little girl fantasy that she'd be sure to grow out of. "Well, I remember it too. Everyone thought I'd grow out of it, but I never did. I just kept it quiet so you and Mom and Dad and Aunt Laura wouldn't make fun of me, but I seriously always wanted you to be the man I married someday ... and then, when they all died I just felt so guilty, like I'd wished for them to die. I knew it wasn't because of me that it happened, but, but..." Annie broke into tears and it was several minutes before she regained her composure. I didn't interrupt. I was only supposed to listen.
"Even before they died, I guess I was only 12, and really becoming aware of the changes in my body ... I uhm..." Annie looked down into her lap, blushing. "I noticed that my panties would get all wet when you were around, especially when you hugged me. I guess it was along in there that I discovered how good touching myself felt. I used to lie in my bed almost every night, toying with my nipples, imagining it was your lips on them; playing with my pu ... self ... and dreaming it was your hand instead of mine."
I was shocked, to say the least. The idea that my innocent niece had such a vivid sexual imagination at such a young age was certainly an eye-opener. On another level, my mind's eye could picture her slim form, just budding into womanhood, her own hands roaming over her body and ... whew! I struggled to keep down the erection that wanted to begin a tent in my jeans.
Annie was still talking. She had moved on to the night we celebrated her sixteenth birthday and I had jokingly said something about "sweet sixteen and never been kissed" and then given her a peck on the lips. I think that's the only time I'd ever kissed her lips and I had thought it was only part of a little joke. Annie apparently put much deeper significance on it. "I wanted you to kiss me again, kiss me deeper, but you didn't," Annie sighed. "My panties were soaking when I went to bed that night. I think I was up half the night, recalling the feel of your lips on mine. Not long after that, Ethan Birdwell kissed me at a party, but it just didn't feel right. I mean, Ethan's a nice kid but he's not you and I just didn't feel anything, you know?"
"My friend Amy, she and I talk about sex and boys and stuff a lot - Relax. I've never mentioned you ... well anyway, she'd found one of her mom's vibrators and she loaned it to me. She said it would 'put me right up on the ceiling' so I brought it home with me, and well, I've had Sex Ed and I knew enough about penises to know this vibrator was the same size as an erection. I closed my eyes and slowly pushed it inside me, dreaming that it was you sliding your, uhm, dick into me, taking my virginity."
"Oh. One more thing. Right after Christmas, I had Amy's mom find me a doctor who would put me on the pill, so we could be safe. I mean, I may want children later on but not yet."
Amy looked at me again hoping for some kind of response but all I could do was stare at her, my mouth open in shock.
"The point is, unk, er, I mean, Henry. First of all, I love you. I love you so much that I know I'd die without you, and I want you to love me. I mean, I know you do love me, but I want it to be something more. I want to be yours, Henry. Forever. I don't want to be just Annie Johnson all my life. I want to be Mrs. Henry Barnett."
I'm sure it seemed like forever before I spoke, and even then I hardly felt eloquent. "I had no idea, Annie. I mean, uhm, wow, this is a shock." It really was a shock to hear her confess that she'd been masturbating and fantasizing about me for years while planning this night for who-knows-how-long. It took me a little while to collect my thoughts.
"First of all, Annie," I said as calmly as I could. "You have to realize how much of a surprise this is for me." She nodded. "And that, in a lot of people's eyes, what you're suggesting is at least chancy ethics even if it's not exactly illegal or immoral - which I'm not so sure it might not be."
"I don't care about what other people think, Henry," Annie stated matter-of-factly. "I love you."
"I love you, too," I reassured her. "That will never change, Annie."
"It better not!"
"It won't," I promised. "No matter what we decide to do. However, since you've had all these years to think about this and I've only had..." I glanced at my watch. " ... forty-three minutes, I'm not going to say yes or no just yet." Annie looked deflated. I'm sure in her star-struck fantasy I would just say yes and we'd skip dreamily off to bed, hand in hand, and live happily ever after.
"Can you give me a day, Annie?" I asked. "This is a big decision, after all."