Chapter 12: Empty Bed Blues

"Your kid sister was jumpy like a cat on a hot tin roof." Sonny blew softly on Dara's neck. Her skin prickled and he counted each little bump. They belonged to him. Just like she did. He finished clasping the pearl necklace and moved around to face her. "I know what she wants."

The mahogany beauty avoided his eyes. She busied herself with styling her hair. "She wants me to come home with her."

"I know. You stayed." The comb slipped from her hand. He caught it effortlessly. "Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did you stay?" He trailed a finger down her bare arm. Again, another reaction. How would the first stroke inside feel? Would she gasp in surprise or moan with pleasure? Her eyes flashed with fire. Did her passion equal the heat in her eyes?

She withstood his caress. Her chin jutted only slightly. "Because we made a deal."

"Are you sure that's your only reason? Or is it the only one you're willing to admit to?"

"My word is my bond. Without my word I don't have anything. At least nothing worth having."

He released a short laugh. "Do you really believe that?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Don't you?"

The look in her eyes intrigued him. Integrity meant something to her. He didn't give a damn what people thought about him. He hadn't since his mother died. No one cared about the hell his stepfather put them through. Neighbors heard the screams and the fights. They turned their heads whenever he and his mother passed in the hallway and then whispered behind their backs. He owed no one anything, not even his word.

A slow smile came to his face. He tenderly cupped her face between his palms. "I will enjoy you finding out. Come. Paradise is waiting."

~*~
Dawn returned home, a mass of restless energy. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. Singing came naturally to her just as words came easily to Dara. Music set Dawn's soul on fire. Lost in melodies and chords, she felt safe and protected. Nothing mattered except the notes and the rhythm. Lyrics revealed her deepest emotions far better than she ever could. Even as a little girl, singing brought her solace and maybe a little fame, too. She loved the attention her talent provided, but never once did she want to forfeit her sister's soul for it.

Dear Lord, how can I stop this?

A single knock sounded at the door. Then, the knob twisted and the door opened. She left it unlocked for Jamal. She saw him on the corner. He said he'd be right up. But one thing for sure was he never knocked. He always called out his name.

She edged toward the iron standing upright on the ironing board. A moment later, Jason Morgan stood in the doorway.

"You shouldn't leave your door unlocked."

"You shouldn't be here," she said. Silently, she prayed that Jamal wouldn't come anytime soon. She feared what her cousin would do and how Jason would react.

"I can go wherever I want whenever I want."

"You're fortunate."

"With me, you can do the same thing." He moved swiftly like a panther. The heat from his body seared her. "I can give you the world. Anything you want and anywhere you want to go. I can make your dreams come true."

"At what cost?" she asked.

His hands shot out before she could move and gripped her hips. The length of his sex pressed into her lower belly. Upon contact, she felt him harden and lengthen. She jerked, trying to pull free. His hold tightened. She opened her mouth to protest and he inhaled her words.

Hard, masculine lips molded to hers, possessive yet seductive. His tongue coaxed hers into submission. A low moan rose in her throat. Her palms flattened against his chest. His heartbeat pounded steady and sure. As the kiss grew, she became lightheaded. Never had she experienced anything like it. She lost the ability to think.

In a sudden move, he released her. She stumbled yet managed to catch herself without help.

He ran his thumb across her swollen lips. His sharp blue eyes locked with hers. "The decision is yours, but you should know, I always get what I want."

After he left, Dawn locked the door.

~*~

Several nights a week, Stone crossed town after playing at the Paradise Lounge to jam with his friends at Black Bottom. He suspected Sonny knew, but because business wasn't affected, the older man hadn't protested. Maybe Sonny understood that was a line he couldn't cross.

Stone discovered the place soon after he ended things with Robin Scorpio and she moved away. At first, he lingered in the back. Refusing drink and companionship, he kept to himself and simply enjoyed the music, losing himself to the atmosphere. Pretty soon, the regulars accepted him. Nods from the men and smiles from the women. They understood he wanted nothing more than music.

For weeks, he came. The musicians recognized him. Word spread that Stone played at the Paradise Lounge. Soon after, RJ Gannon and the band leader, Solly Hayes, invited Stone to play. He didn't need a second invitation.

Even though he arrived in the wee hours, Black Bottom was still jumping when he got there. Many nights he scanned the crowd. The women were beautiful. They danced with spirit as if that was their only release and they were powerless to stop it. Since Robin, his love life was non-existent. It wasn't that he still pined for the young girl. Quite the opposite. He realized that he wanted more and whenever he chanced a gaze into Keesha Ward's eyes, he knew he'd found it. But pursuing her…he wasn't sure if either of them was ready for that.

He arrived as usual with his sax in hand and just joined in. The atmosphere felt different. He noticed his bandmates kept looking offstage. Then, a raven-haired beauty moved toward the microphone center stage and began to sing.

'I woke up this morning with a awful aching head
I woke up this morning with a awful aching head
My new man had left me, just a room and a empty bed'

Stone heard Bessie Smith's recording of 'Empty Bed Blues' last year, but this canary's rendition was nothing like the famed Miss Smith's. Both versions were outstanding, but the woman singing now had a haunting quality to her voice. As if her pain ran soul deep and nothing in the world could ease it. He poured out his empathy via his saxophone.

As usual, his eyes scanned the crowd. He never expected to see Keesha there but he couldn't give up hope. His breath lodged in his throat when he spotted her at the bar. She sat alone although many males' eyes were on her. She seemed oblivious to it all as she watched the band. He wondered how she'd react when their eyes locked. A moment later, he didn't have to wonder any more.

Her eyes widened. Surprise and acceptance came rolled into one. She smiled and he winked. She pressed a hand to her cheek and looked away. He didn't. Pretty soon, her gaze returned to him and remained there throughout the night.

After the set, he quickly packed his horn and found Keesha outside. She lingered near the entrance as if she was waiting for someone. Could it be she was waiting for him?

"Hi," he said, his voice husky with excitement.

"Good evening," she murmured. "I didn't know you played here."

"That's because you never come." He shifted the case from one hand to the other. "How are you getting home?"

"Same as I got here. Walking. I'm waiting for Evangeline. Tonight was her first night. I think RJ's gonna offer a job."

"He'd be a fool if he didn't," Stone said.

He spoke casually, but he was anything but. Seeing Keesha there put his senses on overload. The smell of liquor and perfume came strongly to his nose. He tasted the saltiness of the night air on the tip of his tongue. The moonlit sky and kerosene street lamps provided more than enough light to see the brightness in Keesha's coffee brown eyes. His fingers twitched. He ached to touch her. If only to feel her palm against his. Uncertainty held him in check. After the hell she went through with Jason, he had to play this slowly. She deserved that much.

"I'll walk you both home."

She frowned. "You don't have to. We'll be fine."

"It's late. No lady should go unescorted at this hour." His tone rang with finality.

"Well, since you put it that way…I don't want you feel obligated," she said.

"It's not obligation that I feel, Keesha." The words came before he could stop them. "I want this more than you know and I'm not asking for more."

"I know."

Evangeline came, the introductions were made, and he walked them home.

[Author's note: "Empty Bed Blue" written by J. C. Johnson was recorded by Bessie Smith in March 1928.]

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