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Matthew is determined to find his run-away sweetheart.
And then he’s going to marry her. Well, that is, if he can get her to hear him out before rival gangster, Tommy Kennedy, woos her into believing that Chicago power and prestige are better than quiet towns and true love.
And if she won’t listen, then he’ll just have to tie her up and drag her home.
This is book two in A Trick of the Light Duet and may be best enjoyed if read in order.
Publisher’s Note: This romance set in the 1920’s has elements of action, adventure, and power exchange. If any of these offend you, please do not purchase.
Alice lowered her coffee cup, a little moon of crimson lipstick lingering on the rim. Shifting in her seat, she answered the frowning man across from her. “No, Matthew. I already told you. I haven’t seen the blonde you were with before.”
He’d shaved again, put on his new suit, almost looked like he fit in, yet lacked all Chicago swagger. “What about Radcliffe?”
“He comes and goes.” She was openly uncomfortable when Matthew’s glare grew jarring, sputtering as she rushed to say, “You don’t want to get mixed up with that man. He’d shoot you just as soon as look at you.”
Matthew tried to keep his voice smooth, but to the point. “Listen, Alice, I need to find Charlotte right quick.”
While Nathaniel and Eli scouted the Drake’s lobby, Matthew had combed the city, going to every place he could remember Charlie showing him. Even so, since coming to Chicago, not one of the Emerson boys had caught a glimpse of her. Sheer desperation led him to seek his old flame, to press Alice into coffee when she’d turned up her nose at his initial approach and forthright questions.
“I can’t help you.” Alice sat back, frowning at her cup. “She’s family to Radcliffe. That man won’t allow a soul to muss a hair on her pretty, spoiled head.”
Matthew snorted, would have laughed if capable of enjoying the irony. “Can you find out if she’s even staying at the Drake?”
Alice put a cigarette between her lips and struck a match. “No.”
“I’m not risking my neck asking questions about a mobster’s kin.”
Impatient, Matthew pressed. “I ain’t asking you to risk your neck. I’ll give you money if that’s what you need.”
Her sulky voice turned sharp. “Don’t insult me, Matthew.”
Feeling the entire awkward conversation had been a waste of time, Matthew stood from his seat. “She saved your life once, Alice. Doubt you knew that.”
“What do you mean?” For a split second, Alice lost a bit of her haughtiness. After chewing her lip at his stony silence, she offered an aggravated sigh. “Fine… sit. I’ll check and see if she’s on the register—but no more.”
Thirty minutes and two cups of coffee later, Matthew was starting to think she’d stood him up, but the door chimed and a disgruntled Alice shimmied out of the cold. “Suite 2334.” Sullen, she offered her hand in a final goodbye. “If what you say is true, then thank her for me… But I don’t want to see her, or you, again.”
There had been a time the raven-haired woman had not been so cold. Once he even tried to convince himself he cared for her. “This place ain’t any good for you, Alice. Go back to your kin in Jackson.”
Sneering, Alice walked away.
A few days had passed since coming to the city, most of the time spent locked up tight in her fancy suite, sleeping and ordering room service. Charlie was moping, she knew that, but everyone was entitled to a good sulk now and then. Eventually she pulled it together and called on Martha, the woman overjoyed to hear she’d stay past Christmas.
Beaumont, when he’d arrived home in the evening, looked entirely unsurprised at the news. He said no word about it, just pulled out a cigarette and took a seat while Martha prepared his drink.
Handing a dram of whiskey to her man, Martha smiled at her girl. “Charlotte will join us for New Year’s. Make sure the mayor knows we’ll have another guest for the Gala.”
Beau’s answer was the smallest of winks and a long slow pull of his cigarette. “Tommy will escort you.”
There was no point in arguing. Charlie nodded, willing to at least try on the life and see if it fit. Besides, it wasn’t like she had anywhere else to go.
Uncustomarily quiet, she just listened while Martha began outlining what would need to be done. “We’ll go shopping tomorrow and get you something appropriate for the party.” Martha’s dark eyes skimmed Charlie’s simple cotton dress, her nose wrinkled at the country fashion.
“Whatever you say, Martha.”
Those seemed to be the magic words.
Christmas came and went, spent at the Radcliffe’s table just like when she’d been a girl. Every day after was a whir, Charlie’s room and unacceptable wardrobe ignored at the Drake in favor of the family home and comfort of friends.
She didn’t mind any of it, not really. Being lavished with attention from a woman she loved helped ease the melancholy, and the distraction of preparing for the New Year’s party gave Charlie something to do—beyond pine for a life she would never have. Finding a dress had been easy enough, there were only three or four shops in town Martha Radcliffe would even consider walking inside. The day of grooming was not. Charlie had been poked, prodded, plucked, waxed and painted. By the time she was dressed in her velvet gown, she wasn’t Charlie anymore. She was Miss Elliot, Martha’s fashionable niece and Beaumont Radcliffe’s re-hatched Blackbird.
The New Year’s Gala was lively, raucous—the music loud, the dancing wild, and liquor decadent. Charlie smiled through it; she laughed, a bit overwhelmed by the self-indulgent excess, a bit underwhelmed by the life laid out on a platter before her.
Everyone who was anyone was there—movie stars, politicians—all plying Charlie with champagne and conversation, thinking she was somehow access to the powerful Beaumont Radcliffe. Through it all, Tommy remained fast at her side, attentive and charming, a showstopper and the life of the party.
The company was tolerable, Tommy made her laugh and even though she knew it had to be a challenge for the rake, she didn’t once see him look at another woman.
Beaumont noticed as well.
When the kingpin cut between them on the dance floor, Radcliffe, suave in his tuxedo and slicked hair, nodded for Tommy to run off.
It seemed a bit odd to dance with a man she’d chopped up bodies with in the past… and oddly sweet. Yet, he wasn’t going to let her off easy. “So you gonna tell me what’s going on, Lottie? It ain’t like you to be so… compliant.”
A flash of humiliation crossed her face. “I’m sure this won’t surprise you, but apparently I’m single handedly ruining the women of Monroe.”
The infamous mobster burst out laughing. “Small town hicks can’t handle your fire? You don’t belong there. Marry Tommy, be his Martha, and the world would be at your feet.”
Charlie grimaced. “I don’t like Tommy.”
“You don’t have to.” Beau took her chin so she might pay attention, making it clear he was serious. “Have a piece on the side. He will. Your skills are wasted lazing about in the redneck foothills. You belong in Chicago. Help guide him in the business and you would have access to money, power…”
Her grin was glorious though her tone cautionary. “As charming as leading a criminal empire from the shadows sounds, I’m going to pass. Though I am honored you find me worthy, Uncle Beau.”
Beaumont’s blue eyes glittered, the man admonishing, “I just want what’s best for you, Blackbird.”
Jutting out a stubborn chin, she disagreed, “Oh no… you want what’s best for you.”
“Course I do.” Throwing her a warning glare, Beau led her off the floor and handed her back to Tommy right in time for the midnight countdown.
The handsome gangster took her, Tommy wrapping an arm around her middle just as glittered confetti began to rain down. Looking at the man Beau wanted for her, the man Martha wanted for her, she wondered if she could live that kind of life.
Tommy gave her a knowing smirk and used the moment to his advantage.
He gave her a kiss.
“Happy New Year, Lottie.”
She was a vision right off the silver screen walking through the Drake’s lobby, the long clingy skirt of her velvet gown swaying around her feet. The smile on her face was genuine, as was the matching pleasure of her escort’s smirk.
Under the soft chandelier light, Charlie offered her hand in a final goodbye. “Thank you for seeing me back.”
Tommy Kennedy took her fingers and kissed them. “Now you see. I’m not so bad once you get to know me.”
Incredulously, she pointed to the scar on her lower lip. “I have known you since I was eight.”
He pouted, looking at her mouth like he might take another kiss. “Come on now… that’s not fair.”
The man flirted so flawlessly Charlie couldn’t help but chuckle. “Good night, Tommy. I’d tell you to stay out of trouble, but I doubt you have the capacity.”
“I don’t.” Laughing, wicked, he swept forward and gathered her in his arms.
Before the man could steal a second kiss, fury roared behind him. “Get your goddamn hands off her!”
Tommy’s lips brushed Charlie’s ear when she turned her wide-eyed attention over her shoulder to find a bristled Matthew Emerson. “Your guard dog is barking at me, Lottie.”
A fist connected with the gangster’s jaw and Tommy fell flat on his ass.
“What the hell?” Charlie demanded, her hands flaring against Matthew’s chest in an attempt to stop the stamping bull. “Knock it off!”
Matthew, murderous, stood over the gangster scrambling to his feet. “I see you touch this woman again and I will break every bone in your body.”
Nostrils flared, Tommy smoothed back his hair. “You may be a hick of some influence in the hills you crawled out of, Mr. Emerson. But here in Chicago, you threaten a man like me and I guarantee it will not bode well for you.”
Matthew lowered his chin to his chest, irate eyes unimpressed. “A man like you?”
Charlie grit her teeth and interceded before the two idiots got blood on her dress. Her first words were for Matthew. “I’m gonna deal with you in a second.”
Her golden hair caught the light, as Charlie looked back to Tommy. “And, Tommy, do you know what kind of trouble you could stir up tossing threats at the men who keep you in business? Even Radcliffe knows which snakes not to tread on.” She took the hiss out of her voice, trying to make peace. “For your sake, I would not mention this to your boss.”
When Tommy narrowed his eyes and looked ready to argue, Charlie offered her hand. “I had a good time tonight. Thank you for escorting me.”
With a cocky smile, Tommy brought her fingers to his lips. Pressing an extended kiss to her knuckles, he made a derisive point to the man grinding his teeth at Charlie’s side. “Good night, Lottie. I enjoyed our evening as well.” He turned on his heels, announcing over his shoulder, “Best New Year’s kiss I’ve had.”
Pinching the bridge of her nose, Charlie screwed her eyes shut and tried to get a hold of her anger. She wasn’t very successful. Three seconds later, a sapphire gaze flared, darting back and forth to find she had more than just Matthew to contend with. Nathaniel stood by, wearing his outdated Sunday suit, and clearly itching to take the damn thing off. At his side, Eli stared at the floor.
Nathaniel tried to break the tension, “Ummm, you, ahh, look awful purdy in your fancy dress, Charlie.”
She didn’t care if the whole damn hotel heard her swear up a storm, she didn’t care if a crowd of drunken revelers stood gawking, she just wanted answers. “I’m going to give you to the count of three to explain just what the fuck you are doing here.”
Matthew spoke. “We came to bring you home, Charlotte.”
“Bring me home?” She didn’t even know where to begin. “By threatening Radcliffe’s closest kiss ass? By causing an uproar?”
“He had his hands all over you,” Matthew growled, sounding more animal than man. “Someone touches what’s mine and I ain’t gonna stand by.” He took another step closer and grit out, “You love Monroe.”
Charlotte waved him off. “I have ties here. Beaumont—”
“Beaumont Radcliffe?” Matthew spoke the name with spite. “That man’s the reason you shouldn’t be here. Just associatin’ with him and his wife draws attention you don’t need. How long before someone else comes bangin’ on your door?”
Charlie stood her ground. “You think I’m mistaken for caring for the Radcliffes? They’re the only real family I have—share a history with me you know nothing about. And though you may not like Beau’s methods, I am alive today because of him. And I’m capable of caring for myself because of what he taught me.”
“But you’re lonely, Charlotte,” Matthew said it with such conviction, his tone imploring her to meet his eyes. “It’s time you understood more than the familiar slice of bad you been livin’ in. You’ll find that peace in Monroe, where you can sit all you like and look at things. Not going to fancy parties, rubbing elbows with gangsters. It ain’t pleasin’ to you. I can see it plain as day on your face.”
That shut her up right quick.
After a moment’s consideration, she took a breath and spoke, “No, it’s not pleasing to me. But being near Martha and Beau is. I’m included, cared for—them knowing me for exactly who I am, and wanting me anyway.”
Eli spoke up, “I’m awful sorry for the way I hollered at’cha, Miss Charlie. I didn’t mean it. I want-”
Charlie cut him off, “Eli, it’s what I needed to hear.”
“No,” Eli clutched his hat to the point of ruining the fine felt, and took a cautious step nearer. “Everything I said was wrong. You coming to Devil’s Hollow, it’s God’s hand. Don’t you see that? Monroe is where you belong.”
“Eli’s right for once, Charlie,” Nathaniel added, tugging on her arm a little. “Come on home now.”
Torn, she looked to Matthew and softly confessed why she couldn’t go. “I can’t be like Alice. I won’t ever be like her.”
Matthew scowled deeply, pushing his kin aside so he might have her all to himself. “I don’t want Alice any more than you want Tommy.” Tucking a small wisp of hair behind her ear, he repeated with more conviction, “You don’t want Tommy and he would never make you happy.”
He had her quiet again, and used the moment to his advantage.
Leaving his kin, Matthew steered her towards the elevators and away from the growing crowd. “Come on now.”
Charlie barked at the man that she didn’t need a goddamn sentry keeping watch. Matthew hushed her, fixed an arm at her waist and didn’t ease up once during the journey to her floor. When they got to her door, he snatched her purse and dug the key out, glaring at her to silently demand she better get inside when she looked just about ready to argue again.
The door slammed shut. He locked it. And Matthew backed her into the suite.
“Stop treating me like…” What began as a snarl turned to a whimper when the man gripped her hips and pulled her close.
“Like what?” Matthew pressed a kiss on her open mouth. Shrugging out of his jacket, he made sure she couldn’t slip away. And when he got her right where he wanted her, he skimmed fingers over every bit of milky skin exposed by the gown—tracing a line down her back, across the tops of her breasts, the curve of her neck.
Stupefied, Charlie swallowed thickly, struggling to find her voice. “What are you doing?”
“I think you know what I’m doin’.”
Deft fingers began to search her dress for hooks, buttons, anything so he might slowly peel it from her soft, glowing skin. Work roughened hands slipped inside to knead the weight of her breasts. She did not see it, but felt a smile on the mouth nipping her neck when she sighed his name. He knelt before her, tasting a path between her breasts, the remainder of her dress tugged to pool at her feet.