The tall caramel colored man with the baldhead was hard to miss. Everywhere Evangeline turned, he seemed to magically appear. Once or twice, he managed to become one with the shadows. Then the skin on the back of Evangeline's neck prickled. She'd turned and there she'd find him, watching.
During a break between sets, she stepped from the stage and walked straight into him. Curiosity got the better of her. She seized the opportunity to quiet her anxiety.
"You're new," she said, craning her neck to meet his eyes.
"So are you."
"Yeah, I'm new in town," she admitted.
He cocked his head to the side. "Staying or passing through?"
"Does it matter?" She shrugged. "In the end, aren't we all?"
"When you put it that way, I guess we are." He jutted his head toward the bar. "RJ gave me a minute to wet my tongue. Can I get you something?"
Evangeline wasn't sure if he was interested in her or not. Actually, that didn't matter. The brief conversation did little to put her mind at ease. She sensed he was hiding something. Working at the Black Bottom was a game to him and not a necessity. To protect her interest, she thought it better to know for sure than to lose out later.
"Nothing heavy," she said, falling into step beside him. "Shine messes with my voice. I can't take any chances."
They reached the bar. He ordered a Mason jar glass of hooch for himself and a glass of tea for her. As she settled on the stool, she blurted the first thing that came to mind.
"I don't even know your name."
"Marcus." He leaned casually against the corner, propping his elbows behind him. "You're Evangeline, the singing sensation of Black Bottom. A rare find in Maywood. You must be lost to wind up here."
"Well, Marcus, I'm neither rare nor lost. What brings you to Black Bottom? You always live in Maywood?"
"Born and raised in Harlem. When my mother died, I moved here."
"How does Port Charles compare to New York City?"
He laughed. "It doesn't."
"What about family?" she asked, enjoying the cadence of their conversation.
His mouth thinned into a grim line. A faraway look darkened his eyes. "None that I know of."
"You sound unsure." She sipped the lukewarm tea as she waited for his response.
He gave her a tight smile. "I am." He swallowed half the glass of hooch. The remainder spilled onto the counter as he slammed the jar onto the counter. "I better get back to work. So had you."
Preparing the late supper took longer than expected. Keesha never made it to Black Bottom. She worried over Evangeline being alone, but then realized that her best friend was not a child. Both women endured plenty and were capable of handling themselves. Still, Keesha wouldn't rest easy until Evangeline walked through the back door.
She busied herself cleaning the kitchen and planning the next day's meal. All tedious chores. Although she managed as a cook, it wasn't something she enjoyed. Evangeline's passing comment about having a beauty shop resonated deep within Keesha. She dreamed of the chance of having her own business. Then, she could return to Philadelphia with her head held high and know that her family was proud of her.
Voices sounded on the other side of the back door. Keesha slipped her grocery list into her apron pocket and edged to the side window. Soon after, Evangeline entered the kitchen with Stone fast on her heels. They seemed comfortable. Seeing them together brought an odd twinge to her heart. She swallowed it down and gave them a bright smile.
"How was it tonight?"
Stone held Keesha's gaze as he smiled. "She's bringing them in like crazy. I've never seen Black Bottom so packed. I may start asking for pay."
Keesha looked to Evangeline for confirmation. Her friend merely shrugged. "Well?" Keesha asked. "Was it really that good?"
"It was great," Evangeline finally admitted. "Almost double what was there last night. I wish you were there. Why didn't you come?"
"I was busy." Keesha didn't want to go into detail with Stone present. Against her better judgment, his opinion was beginning to matter. "Why didn't you call a cab? It's close to freezing tonight."
"I didn't want to be cooped up." Evangeline stifled a yawn. "Besides, the walk helped me wind down. I am ready for bed now. Thanks, Stone. See you tomorrow night."
"Goodnight," he said. He followed her to the door and quickly closed it upon her exit. Then, he turned to Keesha. Hunger and concern created an exciting combination in his brown eyes. "Evangeline told me that Dawn Jensen stopped by."
His dislike of Jason was no secret. Yet, Keesha hesitated in revealing the reason for the younger woman's visit. "She did."
"I see you're still standing, without bruises and looking as beautiful as ever." He slowly crossed the room to stand inches from her. "I won't ask what she wanted. We both know that Jason is no good for her or any woman."
His understanding softened her heart. Jason always made demands. At first, his possessiveness made her feel wanted. Later, she simply found it suffocating. Stone's openness was refreshing.
"No, he isn't."
"I wish my sister knew that," he said, quietly. "She's destroying herself to get back at him. Nothing I say or do makes her see reason. I thought about sending her to Jagger, but what good will that do?"
Keesha took his hand. His fingers squeezed around hers. Longing stretched between them. She wasn't ready to go beyond the connection of their hands. Men had a way of breaking a woman's heart. Hers had been ripped to shreds. The pieces mended slowly, but they were still only mending. She wasn't whole, yet. There was only so much she could stand right now.
"She'd probably just come back," Keesha said. "I try to help her. She doesn't listen, though. I think she resents me."
"You had Jason."
The clock rang with the coming of a new hour. Stone sighed. "It's late."
Still holding hands, they walked to the door. He seemed reluctant to let go. Deep inside, Keesha felt the same. This growing bond was developing a life of its own. The realization that she was powerless to stop it hit her hard.
She opened the door. He moved onto the steps. The cold February night blew a chilling wind into the warm kitchen. She shivered. In a sudden move, Stone held her close. Before she could protest, he brushed his lips across her temple. Then, he was gone.
Long after Stone's saxophone wailed its last tune. Hours after the last patron scattered from the Paradise Lounge. Sonny held Dara close within the circle of his arms. He closed his eyes and listened to the rhythm of her heart. The methodical thud relaxed him. After she succumbed to slumber, he rolled onto his side. Moonlight filtering through the curtains fell across her beautiful face. Soft, full lips parted slightly. He traced the outline of her mouth with his forefinger. A dizzying sensation rippled through him. He couldn't remember waking her to go upstairs to his suite of rooms, but he vowed never to forget the night he surrendered his body and soul to her.
Morning arrived far too soon. A night like the one they shared was never supposed to end. Uncontrollable passion flared between them. He said things to her no other woman ever imagined he'd say. Regret failed to enter his thoughts. But how would she respond in the light of day with the sun's glare on them, reminding them that a new day had come? A day where they had to face each other and what happened between them?
She shifted onto her back and pulled free of his embrace. At first, he lay still, pretending not to notice. Then, a knock sounded at his door. She bolted upright and snatched the covers close to her chest. A panic-stricken look froze on her face. Anger flared inside him. It soon died a quick death. Dara wasn't like the girls he usually bedded. Her husband had been her only lover. Waking in the bed with another man wasn't as simple as breathing air for her. His cold-hearted bastard routine wouldn't do.
He grabbed his robe and padded to the door. His hand rested on the knob, but he didn't turn it. "Yeah?"
"G'morning, Sonny," Rinaldo said. "Where do you want your coffee?"
"Leave it on a tray outside. Make sure there are two cups. Sugar and cream. Some bacon, scrambled eggs and toast, too."
"Will do. Say in about twenty minutes?"
Sonny waited until he heard Rinaldo's footsteps drift away. He turned around and discovered Dara still in the middle of his bed. Her features were soft from sleep. Her eyes were bright. He wondered where her thoughts took her and if she regretted what happened. Lust overtook them both and reversed their roles. Did she accept the transformation as inevitable in the heat of passion? Or would her poet's heart interpret things differently?
She returned the greeting with a nod. A trembling hand reached up to smooth her hair. He found the gesture titillating. Their gazes locked. Renewed awareness charged the air. She slowly returned her hand to her lap.
"Good morning," she said, her voice husky and soft.
He dropped his robe at the foot of the bed. Nude, he crawled into bed. Her soft gasp was her only response. He expected more of a reaction, but was glad to be disappointed.
"How did you sleep?"
Continuing to hold the sheet in a tight grasp, she fell back against the pillows. "I don't even remember coming upstairs."
"I carried you."
Her eyebrows arched in surprise. "Did you?"
With that look on her face, he couldn't possibly admit he didn't remember either. "You sleep like an angel. I kept expecting you to snore. You never did."
"You watched me sleep?"
He nodded once. "I had to be sure you wouldn't stab me in the heart."
She stiffened. The wonder left her eyes. "We have an arrangement."
"But last night exceeded the simple lay I had in mind," he stated. "It did for you, too."
"I don't want to talk about last night." Her gaze boldly accessed his naked body from head to toe. She missed nothing. When she finished, her eyes were glassy and her mouth was slack.
Understanding hit him like a ton of bricks. "We don't have to." He grabbed the phone and called the kitchen. "Serve breakfast in an hour."