Despite his career as a performer, pretending didn’t come easy for Linc. Last night, holding Dawn close in his arms while she slept was a balm to his soul, but when she questioned him, he’d lied to her. Yes, what little sleep he had was filled with dreams of her, but that wasn’t all the night held. Thoughts of Jason Morgan kept him from falling into the deeper slumber his body craved.
The bruiser was a menace. Morgan tried to hide the truth underneath fancy clothes and expensive shoes, but Linc knew a heavy when he met one. The fear in Dawn’s eyes couldn’t deny her true feelings about the mob lieutenant and the idea that she hadn’t told him the full truth nagged Linc.
Men like Morgan believed nothing was beyond their reach, especially not a beautiful young colored woman. Morgan reminded him of Spencer Cooper who owned the theater where Linc first performed vaudeville. Cooper ran the stage show like a cowboy herding cattle. Diplomacy and compassion were foreign concepts to the little bald man who saw the performers as nothing more than indentured servants who would be nobodies without him. Linc couldn’t leave the troupe fast enough and was fortunate to be "discovered" by Tom Mix’s agent. Some of the other performers hadn’t been so lucky.
Linc easily imagined Morgan ruining Dawn the only way men like him knew how—thoroughly. For a split second, Linc considered canceling his meeting with Corinthos. Linc wanted Dawn more than he’d ever wanted anything including fame and glory. In the short while they’d known each other, a bond had formed. He’d played many roles as the avenging lover, but hadn’t understood the depth of the emotions that drove those characters until now. Until he’d fallen in love.
"Love?" The word rumbled under his breath as climbed into the driver seat of his shiny black Model-A. Well, it sure as hell wasn’t lust. Lust craved only a roll in the hay. What he craved was a lot more than that.
As he started the engine and drove toward the Paradise Lounge, his thoughts moved in a whirlwind. In all honesty, he wanted everything. Marriage. Children. A stable home with the white picket fence.
Was it possible?
"With money, anything’s possible," he muttered.
He didn’t know any mixed marriages, but he wasn’t so close-minded to think that none existed. Definitely not where he grew up in New Jersey, but maybe on the West Coast. Rumor had it that some of the streets in the City of Angels were paved in gold. Would it be so foolish to hope that he and Dawn could have a real future there?
He parked outside the Paradise Lounge. Hesitation held him still. Corinthos and Morgan were tight, and Linc wanted a woman that Morgan had claimed as his own. Going into business with Corinthos with plans of deception could be dicey.
Hell, dicey was an understatement! He’d have to play his cards very carefully. Neither man could get wind of Linc’s ultimate goal—eliminating both and ensuring a safe future for him and for Dawn.
Linc exited the auto and entered the speak easy. One of Sonny’s men ushered Linc upstairs to the boss’s opulent suite.
Before, the sight of so much finery would have hit Linc with a huge surge of jealousy and bitterness. But not today. His mind held visions of something better than expensive furnishings.
Before Linc’s thoughts could take him further, Sonny entered the room. "Would you like a drink?"
"No, I’m fine." Linc held himself still as he openly assessed the other man. Corinthos carried himself as if he owned the world. Linc couldn’t show an ounce of hesitation. He could be as ruthless as Corinthos in obtaining his goals. Guns didn’t scare him. He wouldn’t back down. "I’d rather discuss your offer."
Sonny chuckled as he filled his glass with a clear liquid. "No finessing on your part. You get straight to the heart of the matter."
"It’s the only way to do business," Linc said. "I’ve spent years pretending on stage. In real life, I prefer to be straightforward. That way everyone knows where he stands."
Sonny nodded. "I like that. I often use the same approach." He shrugged. "Sometimes, finessing is good, too."
Sonny sat and invited Linc to do the same. "What are your thoughts?"
"Talkies are the future. The heavy hitters in the city can’t see that. California is brimming with opportunity. No bad weather to halt productions. No red tape from city officials. There is no time like the present."
"What role do you want to take in this? You’re a popular actor. Is that what you want to pursue?"
Linc shrugged. "I won’t look like this forever, but I’ll use it for as long as I can."
"But that’s’ not all you want," Sonny accurately surmised.
"No," Linc agreed. "Producing, directing, writing...those are my ultimate goals."
"You want it all."
Linc nodded. "All and then some."
"Let’s talk terms," Sonny said. He placed his drink on a coaster and moved to his desk. When he returned, he had a stack of papers in his hand. "I spoke with my attorney—"
"Is that a contract?" Linc pointed at the papers. He'd heard that Corinthos was a thorough man. With that being the case, Linc would definitely read the fine print.
"Something my attorney put together."
Linc didn't let Sonny's nonchalant tone sway him. He took the papers and flipped through them. "I'll read over them and get back with you."
The other man fixed him with a hard look. "We shouldn't delay. Every day, companies are eyeing the possibilities on the West Coast, too. Waiting won't serve our purpose."
"I agree," Linc said as he stood. "I'll tell you my decision tomorrow if not sooner."
- - -
Waiting for day to give way to night was a slow torture. John hated being unable to walk into Black Bottom and carry Evangeline out of there. But he knew better. Strong-arm tactics would only put her at risk. He'd die before he let anything happen to her and he'd risk her wrath to confront her again. Making her see reason wasn't an easy task. Regardless the outcome, he had to try.
As the sun made its slow descent into the west, John eased into the alley behind Black Bottom. So far, nothing and no one stirred outside the warehouse cum juke joint. John took this as a good sign that just maybe something in his life would go right.
Keeping his right hand on his piece, he took the steps two at a time to reach the upstairs apartment. He knocked and waited. Please, Evangeline, be there, he thought. He didn't want to conduct a massive search in Maywood, but if she didn't answer the door—
The door suddenly swung open. "Look, Gannon—"
John cocked an eyebrow. "Gannon? You're expecting him at your door."
"That doesn't concern you," she said with a jut of her chin. "You shouldn't be here."
"I don't have a choice." Without bothering to wait for an invitation that would never come, John shouldered his way past her and closed the door. She looked so beautiful standing there with her brown eyes blazing and her jaw tightening. "We have to talk. Whether you like it or not, you will listen."
"You don't get to boss me around. Your badge doesn't mean a damn thing to me. Get out!"
He shook his head. "Not until you hear me out."
"We're through. Why can't you get that through your head?"
John never expected this to be easy. Making demands was the worst approach, but what else could he do? With her breasts heaving and her eyes aflame, reason wouldn't reach her. Despite the connection they still shared, she viewed him as the enemy. That much was obvious. He blew out a low breath. He never imagined a chasm coming between them. That was the result of believing his fantasies could come true. She never harbored such illusions and that difference between them changed everything.
"You have to leave," she said quietly. "You don't fit in here and I'm done with dancing in the dark with you and hiding in shadows. Leave before the wrong person sees you here and all hell breaks loose."
"Don't you get it?" He moved quickly across the room to grasp her shoulders. "That's why I'm here! Hell is about to break loose and I'll be damned if I let you get caught in the middle of it."
"This is just a trick to get me back—"
"Believe me, I've thought of a million tricks to get you back, but this is the truth. Black Bottom is making a lot of money and Sonny Corinthos wants a cut."
Shaking her head, Evangeline slowly pulled herself free of John's hold. "RJ would never go for it."
"I know and that means war."
She frowned. "I can't just up and leave. Not right now. Keesha and I are so close…"
"It won't matter how close you are if you're dead."
"How do you know this?" Accusation weighed heavy in her voice. "You'd say or do anything to have me back in your bed."
"I want you as more than just a bed mate, Evangeline, and you know it," he said quietly. "I'm not lying. Ask Keesha about Corinthos. Maybe you'll believe her. Maybe then you'll listen."
He stormed to the door. Just as his hand closed around the doorknob, she called out.
"John, what are you planning to do?"
"Whatever I have to." With that said, he left.
- - -
"Gee, but it's hard to love someone
When that someone don't love you
I'm so disgusted, heartbroken, too
I've got these down hearted blues"
Stone had heard the whispers, but he had to see it for himself. He stood in shadow near the back entrance to the Paradise Lounge and watched in wonder as the songbird belted out "Down Hearted Blues" as if she lived it.
So, this was Dara's baby sister.
Dawn Jensen stood center stage. Her right hand clutched the microphone stand as her back arched with emotion. The age-old tale of lost love ripped from her soul as her earthy voice carried the lyrics.
She was good. Damn good. Not as polished as Evangeline Williamson but with proper training and time, the younger canary would give the more seasoned one a run for the money. Stone hitched a deep breath. Damn it to hell, he silently cursed. Right now, innocence still radiated from her. But for how long? How many women had to lose themselves to paradise before Jason Morgan was satisfied?
Stone had half a mind to drag her from the stage and take her home. Sonny's wrath be damned. Stone was days from burying his own sister. He couldn't sit back and watch history repeat itself.
He was just about to step from the shadows when Dara stormed into the room.
"Get down from there right now!"
Dawn sidestepped Dara's reach as if it was a move she practiced a thousand times. The piano player bolted from the stage. Stone watched the man's rapid exit and considered replacing him in case things got ugly. But first, he had to see this play out. Perhaps, Dara could get her young sister out of there before the girl got sucked in too deep.
"No!" Dawn planted the microphone stand down and placed her hands on her hips. "Do you see what you did? He ran away. We're still working on the songs."
"You're not working on a damn thing!" Dara stepped onto the stage. "You're leaving. You're not supposed to be here!"
"Things have changed. I was hired to sing," Dawn said, "and that's what I'm going to do."
"Who hired you?"
"He can't," Dara cut in. "Sonny won't let him."
Dawn's voice dropped so low that Stone strained to hear her. "Sonny changed his mind."
"No," Dara said, shaking her head. "He and I have an…arrangement. Jason lied—"
"I spoke with Mr. Corinthos not ten minutes ago. He wants me to sing here. He says I'll draw the crowds in. He has confidence in me."
The slap came suddenly. The sound bounced off the walls of the great hall. Stone touched his own jaw in sympathy. Emotions tugged at him as he watched Dawn's eyes well with tears. Admiration swelled in his chest as she squared her shoulders and foolishly refused to back down.
"I suppose that made you feel better."
"Dawn, I-I'm sorry—"
"Don't. Don't apologize. All this is my fault," she said, "and I had that coming."
Dara pulled her sister into her arms. "I don't care what they told you, you must leave. You can't sing here."
"It's too late." Dawn wrapped her arms around Dara and held on tight. Then just as quickly, she let released Dara and moved to the piano. "I don't have much time before my debut. So I'd better practice now. We'll talk later."
"Dara, no! It has to be this way."
The hell it does, Stone thought. The hell it does.