RJ counted his receipts with a smile on his face. The pretty, little crooner brought in the crowds like nothing he'd ever seen. Evangeline Williamson was a goldmine. A beautiful woman with a sweet voice. Her mama either sold her soul to the devil to have such a gifted child or the girl was just blessed from birth. Either way, RJ was damn glad she found her way to Black Bottom.
"Is there anything else you need?" Marcus appeared at RJ's office door with a mop in his hand. "Once the floor dries, I can put the chairs down."
RJ shook his head. "You've done enough. I've never seen anyone bust his ass the way you do. What are you after, Taggert?"
The bald headed man shrugged. "Just trying to make it, Mr. Gannon."
RJ leaned back against his chair and regarded the other man behind a blank expression. There was something about Taggert that he couldn't quite put his finger on. His newest employee was so eager. If RJ snapped, Taggert would be right there to jump. RJ would have to keep an eye on him.
"We all are." RJ flipped his accounting book open. "I don't need anything else. See you tomorrow."
RJ heard Taggert stride off into the night. He planned to ask around about Taggert. The man could be just another hard worker, but RJ doubted it. There was always more to any situation than met the eye.
That thought led to Evangeline Williamson. She was more than a pretty face. The woman had guts. No musician had ever demanded their own pay or even asked for a percentage of the profits. She had goals. Normally, he liked his women beautiful and docile. Evangeline made him reconsider his previous preference. Ambition and beauty looked good on her.
He finished dividing the money. A portion was set aside for the daily maintenance of his club. The rest hid inside a vault under his desk. The remainder belonged to Evangeline. He slid those bills into an envelope, which he tucked inside his jacket pocket. The hour was on the other side of midnight, but he doubted the songstress would object to his late night visit, especially considering the wad of dough he had for her.
He locked up and headed toward the hidden staircase that led to apartment where he'd given Evangeline and her friend refuge. A noise in the storeroom halted his movements. He checked the firearm he wore on a self-created shoulder holster and edged toward the back room. A tall figure stood in the doorway.
RJ pulled his gun out and aimed. "Say your prayers."
"Wait!" The person raised his arms. "RJ, it's me. Woody. Don't shoot!"
"Woody?" RJ lowered his gun. "What the hell are you doing?"
"I was looking for you."
"I know," Woody said. "I couldn't come inside. Your place was being watched. I gotta be careful now. If he sees me, I'm up shit creek."
"Come in and close the door." RJ pulled a lantern down from a hook. He struck a match on the wall and lit the wick. A low, glowing beam of light revealed Woody leaning against the closed door and looking shaken. "If who sees you?"
"That's Corinthos' boy," RJ said. "Why's he in Maywood? He can't be looking for Keesha. I heard he's into a young brown canary now."
"He's not here for Keesha or that Jensen girl. He's looking at Black Bottom."
RJ released a short laugh. "My Black Bottom? I don't think so."
"It's true, man. I heard some things. Corinthos heard how you're packing the house. He sent Morgan to see why."
RJ frowned, remembering. "Morgan didn't come inside tonight."
"He stayed in his auto and watched from across the street," Woody said.
"How do you know all this?"
"I hear things," Woody said. "Besides, I supply the Paradise Lounge with a few necessities—"
Woody grinned. "You could call it that."
"Where's my shipment? My stock is running low."
Woody's grin faded. He shook his head. "I can't deliver here until Corinthos pulls the heat off. As long as he's interested, I have to stay away. It's just business, RJ. You understand."
RJ nodded. "Yeah, I do. Don't worry about it."
"If you and Corinthos cross paths, you can't let him know you heard it from me."
"I'll play it right. Your name won't come up. Thanks."
Woody shrugged. "We gotta stick together."
- - -
Keesha smiled as Evangeline leaned against the closed door and grinned like the cat who ate the canary. Their late night visitor left them with an envelope filled with money and dreams about the future dancing in their heads. Keesha glanced at the clock. This was the latest she'd been awake in a very long time. She rubbed her tired eyes and released a powerful yawn.
"I don't know how you do it," she said, wrapping a blanket around her.
"It's just a part of the fun," Evangeline said. She joined Keesha on the couch. "We can sleep late. Stay up a little while longer and count our money."
"Girl, that's your money. I'll have to find a way to make my own."
Evangeline frowned. "No, this is ours. We're in this together. Ever forever, remember?"
They made that pledge when they were little girls. Keesha was surprised that Evangeline remembered. So much had happened since their early years in Philadelphia. They'd both gone in different directions. Somehow, their paths crossed again. Was that their promise fulfilling itself?
"But you're working your butt off downstairs on that stage," Keesha argued. "I lived off Jason. When I left him, I promised to pay my own way and never take anyone's handout."
Evangeline's brown eyes flashed with fire. "This ain't no handout!" She slapped the bills on the coffee table. "This is our future. You gave me a place to stay when I had nowhere else to turn. You helped me remember who I am and what I can be. We can do this together. We have to. I don't have anyone else."
"Don't say that," Keesha said softly. "You're not alone."
"Neither are you." Evangeline gave Keesha a quick embrace. "Let's count our money so that we can have sweet dreams about the future."
Keesha stifled a yawn. "That's what I need. A night of very sweet dreams. I'll get the rest of our loot." She stood and headed toward the bookshelf where they hid their money within a hollowed section of the Holy Bible. "We should probably think of a better hiding place."
"We can't put it in the bank. Our money wouldn't last the night."
"It's funny how colored folks' money always just disappears at the First Savings and Loan."
Evangeline laughed. "Isn't it, though? You know what? Maybe we should start our own bank. Just for colored people."
"I never thought of that."
A knock sounded at the back door. Keesha handed Evangeline the Bible as she moved toward the back room. She glanced out the window, but the limited view revealed nothing more than the shadowy figure of a man.
"Who is it?" Evangeline appeared at her shoulder.
"I don't know," Keesha whispered. "No one knows we're here. Go back and I'll see. Hide that stuff somewhere."
Evangeline hurried back to the other room. While Keesha waited for her friend to hide their money, another knock came.
"Keesha! It's Stone. Please..." His voice cracked. "I'm not drunk. Please open the door."
She turned the key in the lock and pushed back the bolt. Annoyance at his uninvited arrival made her movements jerky. She was all set to call him on his inappropriate behavior when she opened the door. But then she took one look in his eyes and the words of reproach died in her throat.
"What's wrong?" Without hesitating, she reached out and wiped the tears from his cheek. "What's happened?"
"Gina's dead," he said in a harsh, raw whisper. "My baby sister is gone."
She shook her head. "No. I just saw her."
"She died in my arms, Keesha. I was too late to save her."
Evangeline touched her shoulder. "Who died?"
"My sister Gina," Stone said. "It's late. I shouldn't have come—"
"No." Keesha caught his hand as he turned away. "Don't go. Come in."
He shook his head. "I can't. I can't come inside."
"I'll come out with you. We'll go for a walk and talk," Keesha suggested. "Would you like that?"
"Yes. I'll wait for you out here." He released her hand and moved away to sit on the top step.
Keesha quickly dressed. Evangeline watched from the doorway. "Are you sure about this?"
"It's just a walk. His sister is dead. He shouldn't be alone right now."
"He's vulnerable and maybe so are you," Evangeline warned.
Keesha checked her pocket for gloves and keys. "I'm okay."
"I see how he looks at you—"
"I'm a grown woman. It doesn't matter how he looks at me. Right now he needs a friend." Keesha headed to the back door. "I probably won't be gone long."
Keesha ignored Evangeline's final warning and joined Stone outside. She paused a moment to look at him. He appeared so lost and alone. Deep in her heart, she ached for a way to soothe him. He'd always been so kind and gentle with her. Even when she was with Jason. Stone never once disrespected her. He made her feel like a lady.
She gently patted his shoulder. "Stone. I'm here. Are you ready?"
He stood and took her hand. Without a word spoken, they descended the stairs. When they reached the sidewalk, they turned right, toward Maywood's business district. Slushy piles of snow bordered the curbs. The cold, night air smelled sweet and crisp. The few lit street lamps created a warm glow on the quiet street. Keesha loved this time of night. The hours before dawn were always so full of promise of a brighter day. Stone squeezed her hand and her thoughts returned to his loss.
"What happened to Gina?"
"Jason Morgan." The bitterness in his voice cut like a sharp blade. "That worthless bastard used her up and threw her away. He treated her like she didn't matter and she believed him."
Tears stung the back of Keesha's eyes. "I tried to tell her he wasn't worth it."
"I know you did. She wouldn't listen. She never does...did. She never did." His voice broke. "I have to call Jagger and tell him. He'll never forgive me."
"It's not your fault."
He shook his head. "She died in my arms with an overdose of morphine burning inside her. I should never have let her stay."
"You couldn't have stopped her."
"What's so fascinating about Jason Morgan?" he asked harshly. "Why does he cause women to lose all reason?"
"It's the challenge," Keesha said quietly. "Women are fascinated by the challenge of getting under his skin."
"But you walked away. Why couldn't Gina?"
"I don't know."
Sobs overtook him. She drew him inside the circle of her arms. He clutched her to him, holding her so close that their hearts beat in unison.
"He didn't have to hurt her like that, Keesha," Stone cried against her ear. "I'll make him pay. If it's the last thing I do, I swear he'll pay. For what he did to my sister and for what he tried to do to you."
- - -
Two hundred and twenty-three dollars. Evangeline counted the bills several times before the reality sunk in. She couldn't remember ever holding that much money in her hands at one time. Her family weren't dirt poor, but they worked hard for what they had.
She returned the cash to its hiding place. It wasn't a lot, but it was a start. She placed the Bible back on the bookshelf. RJ was letting them use the apartment rent-free. She didn't care for that type of arrangement. Eventually, he'd want something in return. She half expected him to make good on that tonight when he dropped off the envelope. To her surprise, he seemed distracted and to her relief, he left as suddenly as he came.
A heavy thud sounded at the back. The noise startled her. Was it RJ coming back to collect? Or maybe Keesha forgot her key? Evangeline hoped it was the latter.
She went to the window and peeked outside. The person stood too close to the door for her to see. Damn.
Finally, there was a knock. She grabbed the butcher knife she kept under her pillow and returned to the door. "Who is it?"
The raspy, husky voice was unmistakable. Her body reacted with an electric sizzle rippling down her spine. She clutched the handle of the knife. The war between impulse and common sense raged inside her. For the first time in her life, she didn't know what to do.
"Evangeline, please," he said. "Open the door. I just want to talk. Please."
The need in his voice got to her. She couldn't ignore it. She dropped the knife into a nearby drawer before unlocking and opening the door.
The first sight of him took her breath away. Glossy, dark hair framed a uniquely handsome face. And his eyes... She had forgotten how blue his eyes were and how much they revealed. Dear God, he had truly missed her.
"You shouldn't have come here," she said, calling on her last ounce of willpower. "You're wasting your time."
"It's mine to waste." He pointed inside. "May I come in?"
"Only if you promise to leave when I tell you to."
He gave her a faint smile. "I'd never overstay my welcome. I'll leave when you want me to. I promise."
She stood aside. He hesitated a millisecond at the threshold. Their gazes locked again. The past flowed between them. The promises made and the passion shared. If they had met in a different place and time, just maybe it could have worked. But Evangeline wasn't a woman who dwelled in the land of what if. She turned away and didn't turn around again until she heard him come inside and close the door.
"Are we alone?" he asked.
"We are for now. My friend should return soon."
Evangeline stiffened. A flash of anger sparked inside her. "Ever the detective. You had me followed."
"No. I did it myself."
"Well, you found me. You can go back to Llanview."
He shook his head. "I don't live there anymore."
"Go back to wherever."
"Port Charles is my home now," he said quietly. "Commissioner Scorpio hired me to head a task force."
"Damn you, John. You couldn't just leave me alone." She wrapped her arms around herself and moved to the window. "Why couldn't you just stay in Llanview?"
His footsteps followed. "Because Llanview didn't matter to me after you left." His breath fanned her cheek, but only his air touched her. "I know you think we can't make it work, but I believe we can."
"Yeah," he said, "crazy in love with you."
Warm, strong hands grasped her shoulders. His fingers kneaded her flesh, burning through the silk of her dressing gown. His touch brought the promise of ecstasy. She longed to surrender and lose herself in a rapturous haze of passion. But that would have been futile. She had to maintain control.
Stepping free of his hold, she moved to the door and opened it. "Goodbye."
"I'll keep my promise," he said as he walked past her. "But it's not goodbye. Sooner or later you'll realize we're much better together than we could ever be apart."