Hi Friends and Happy Holidays once again. I’m so thankful to my RWA Chaptermates Alyssa Cole and Julia Kelly for inviting me to join this fun 12 Days of Christmakwanzakah Blog Hop where a bunch of us authors share original short holiday themed stories.
Today I’m doing something a little out of the norm for me and going back in time a bit to Christmas in the Roaring 20’s. I hope you enjoy …
She could do this. She could and she would because she had to, Rosemary, thought as she stepped shakily onto the nightclub’s raised stage.
Rose swallowed, then winced a bit as the harsh glare from the bright stage light pivoted and hit her eyes. In an instant, the deceptive, almost reserved class of the place disappeared and Rose chided herself for being momentarily sucked in by the superficial opulence of the underground club. The snowy white tablecloths, the glittering crystal chandeliers, even the surprising touches of the holiday season, the sprigs of holly, the pretty wreaths that lined the back mirror of the bar, they were all a façade. A rouse, designed to suck her and more importantly, those with money in, their pockets full until those pockets were good and empty.
But no, this was no homey Christmas wonderland. And as the bright light hit her eyes and brought an unwelcome chill down her spine, Rose was indeed reminded of just where she was and what type of place she was standing in. Paradise 57 was an underground speakeasy, albeit one with a better address than some, and above ground no less, out in the open for all to see, but a speakeasy all the same. In its official capacity it was a nightclub and a restaurant, but all in the know in New York knew it was run by the latest up and comer on the New York crime scene, Stone Donnelly. And those in the know also knew that Stone made his fortune taking over the illegal liquor trade for his late uncle, the notorious Shawn Donnelly.
At the thought of Stone, Rose felt the knot in her stomach tighten just a little more. She couldn’t believe she was actually standing in his club, coming to him for help, but life and the circumstances of the day would bring many to bend so why should she be an exception?
The spiral downward spiral started a month ago and seemed to pick up speed from there. But unlike the never ending flow of liquor, Rosemary’s money had come to an end officially three days ago and she didn’t know how much longer she could hold, Mrs. Davis, her land lady off. The woman was all walking Christian kindness when there was a crowd gathered but as soon as she got her chance and caught Rose alone, coming back from her volunteering over at the mission, she quick as she could, pulled her aside and got in her face with that hot whiskey breath of hers going on about the rent being past due.
God fearing her ass. Rose inwardly winced once again, this time at the unkind thought. Her mother would be so ashamed of her. Her father, the late reverend, even more so. Be it a saint or a sinner, we were all were God’s children in the late Reverend and Mrs. Longings eyes. But Lord help her, in that moment, in that cold hallway, Rose had to step back from the stench and pray for her strength as she tried as politely as she could to pull her arm away from her landlady’s tight grasp and not haul off and give Mrs. Davis a what for right across her lip as she leered at Rose’s open collar and suggested she give up her time down at the mission for more lucrative time spent on her back.
“God does for those, that do for themselves dearie,” Mrs. Davis had said by way of a thinly veiled threat with a bit of scripture sprinkled on top to make the stench and the leering at Rose’s undone collar just that much more unseemly.
After finally pulling away and closing the door behind her to the now hollow feeling fifth floor walkup apartment, Rose let herself slide to the floor as the tears fell and the loneliness took over her. Frustrated, she wiped at her face. Maybe it wasn’t loneliness. Maybe she it was just hunger. She hadn’t had dinner at the mission that night as there was hardly enough to go around to the children. “Hell!” She clapped a hand over her mouth at the improper language then dropped it. “Dammit to hell!” She yelled. The old lush was probably right. It was time she stepped out and did for herself. Both mother and father were now gone. Taken by the illness that had stricken so many, them plus eight children at the mission this past month alone. And if truth be told, at times Rose wished the sickness had taken her too. But she couldn’t let that happen. She wouldn’t that that happen. That would be the worst sin of all. If she let herself slip off and die where would that leave the other children left behind?
“You ready miss?”
The kindly voice of the piano player brought Rosemary back to the here and now. It was time to pull it together. She had to put the past behind her and live in the reality of the moment. And in this moment she was on stage, in a secondhand dress, showing too much below and way too much on top, but it was all part of the act. And act she would do. The time for sweet Rosemary Longings was no more. Today she had a role to play. One that Mama and Daddy may not be too proud of, but if they were looking down on her, it was one she would hope they would at least understand. It may not feel like Christmas, but still she prayed for a miracle all the same. If she could get a job here in his club maybe she could make enough money to continue to stay in her home and maybe, just maybe she could keep up the work at the mission that her father had started.
Reverend Clancy, who’d taken over, was all well and good, but sadly he didn’t seem to have the same passion for the children’s well being her parents did. She could already see where his efforts were being directed elsewhere and she feared the children would soon be phased out. Besides, she’d sung on street corners plenty of times before, asking for donations and such. How was singing here so very different? Rosemary blinked against the glare of the light and let out a breath. This may be a far cry from a Harlem street corner and these would not be hymns she’d be singing, but still she’d sing them all the same and in the end she’d sing them for the Lord. She bit at her lip. Well, in a way.
Rosemary looked down at the sparkling black and white checkered dance floor as the piano player begin to tune. Her heart skipping with every odd note. It was probably for the best that Stone wasn’t there for her audition. On the one hand with him she’d get the humiliation over with quick and easy. And with him there would be no hiding who and what she was as a mulatto. She knew this club was whites only and only hired Negroes as servers and kitchen help. Sure she was stepping way over the line auditioning to be a performer, but the fact was the performers here made more than a server could ever dream of and her desperation had her dreaming big right now. Besides, it wasn’t her fault that the big beefy guy at the back door took only a quick glance at her pale skin, mostly the parts below her face, and assumed she was white. Normally she would correct him but right now she was hungry. Hungry and desperate. Now if she could only make it past the manager, Mr. Bonner maybe by the time she got to running into Stone, if she ever did, she be fully hired and working and he wouldn’t kick her out on her ear for breaking his club’s rules.
The piano player coughed at the same time as the club’s manager, Mr. Bonner spoke up sharply, bringing her out of her thoughts. “You going to blow or not, girlie cause I ain’t got all day and there are plenty of other chippies just waiting their turn?”
Rose’s chin came up at his tone and she felt her nostrils flare. But she paused at the unnerving sight of his leering gaze, the slight narrowing of his eyes. Something in that hard stare made her skin go all prickly. Rose knew that look. This would not go well.
A tall dark skinned waiter came and whispered something in Bonner’s ear and he nodded then laughed while still giving Rose that glare. His eyes narrowing further, he leaned back and licked his thin lips. Though she was fully clothed, Rose suddenly felt naked and exposed and her stomach churned disgustingly. He saw through her and she knew it. If this was just a waste of time and she should head uptown. She’d heard about a new club up there that was looking for girls like her. The pay wasn’t as good but she could give it a try.
Just when she was considering grabbing her coat, the piano player again this time with the first strains of the popular standard that she told him she could audition to but suddenly the words escaped her. That was it. It was a sign that she had no business being here in this den of inequity and needed to turn tail and run. Apologizing and running off the stage was on the tip of her tongue when the manager shook his head beating her to it.
“Just stop. It doesn’t matter anyway, Girlie. I can’t believe you’re wasting my time. Where the hell is Tony at?” He yelled now pushing up from his chair. “It’s not like we’re gonna start hiring ne—,” suddenly he was quieted when a hand came to rest easily on his shoulder.
“Let her sing.”
“But Stone,” the manager started.
“I said let her sing.”
Rose was paralyzed by the deep voice that was soft, but so strong that it traveled clear and easy across the room. It was dark and commanding and had a slight Irish lilt that she had come to know from her time spent working with her father when he would do his once weekly missionary afternoons down by the docks. But there was more. This voice was one she knew all too well. This was the voice from her past whisperings and her never ending late night dreams. But it had changed. Oh my, how it had changed. Gone was any hint of the playful mischievousness that would coax a laugh out of her at the most inappropriate times, causing her father to send a stern glance their way and her mother to take on a worried expression. No, this voice was all shadows and smoke and if she imagined its taste she’d think it tasted of the illegal liquor he was rumored to be the king of smuggling into the New York underworld.
When Bonner didn’t protest any further, but instead took his seat, the hand smoothly lifted from the manager’s shoulder and the rest of him moved into the light.
Stone stepped from the shadows like the beacon of the hope she had been longing for, but despite it something made Rose take a take a step back at the same time her body seemed to tensed up and lock tight.
She knew in that moment that she had indeed made a huge mistake. This wasn’t the boy she knew. This was a man who could break her with the slightest touch.
His eyes held her transfixed as he started to glide forward. And a voice in her head told her to run while her heart thudded in her chest stealing her breath making the task impossible.
Run. That’s what they were supposed to do. At least that’s what he’d told her on that snowy afternoon so many years ago when he’d kissed her goodbye and stolen her heart along with her grandmother’s gold cross after he’d been nursed back to health at the mission run by her father and taken care of by her and her mother. Nothing had been said of his mysterious appearance at the back door far after closing time. Nothing said of the police who came looking for him, but where not told of the young man still passed out from the apparent bullet to the shoulder in the storeroom behind the Reverend’s office.
When he was healed and back to his sly talking, slow charming self, he said he’d take her, his Sweet Rose as he called her. Take her and run away with her to a place where they could be together and not be judged as her parents were for their mixed love. He left with her gold cross and promises to return for her, but once he was gone he was just gone.
And now here she was standing before him literally ready sing for her supper.
Well, she couldn’t do it. Her pride wouldn’t let her.
Rose took another step back and hit the edge of the piano just as he made it to the stage and with his long legs took a wide step up to stand in front of her. His blue almost grey gaze hitting her like an iceberg and freezing her heart.
Breaking away from her gaze for a moment he gave the piano player a curt nod and a now haunting melody swept over Rose as he looked into her eyes once again.
“You going to sing me a tune like you used to my Sweet Rose?”
“My name is Rosemary Longings and I was never yours.”
He smiled at that and Rose sucked in a breath as the swift memory of first love and stolen kisses never forgotten rushed to her mind.
“If you say so Miss Longings but in my heart I know the truth.”
Her eyes narrowed as a surge of hot anger happily replaced the chill running through her body. “Your heart can burn in hell, sir.”
His laugh was loud and surprising. “No doubt it will, my dear, but that doesn’t change the moment at hand. Will you sing or have you lost your voice?”
He raised a brow and Rose wanted nothing more than to tell him where he could take his audition. But something in his eyes wouldn’t let her. She looked around and saw Bonner looking so smug, half expecting Rose to do just want she wanted, turn tail and run. No way, she wouldn’t do it.
She looked back up at Stone. His eyes so icy and clear that she felt for a moment as if she could walk through them and enter into forever. She shook her head and saw the corner of his lip quirk up. Knew in then and there that forever was long gone and all they had was this moment.
With that thought, Rose tilted her chin, opened her mouth and filled the room with a melody of lost loves, times forgotten and memories that can never be relived again.
When the song ended she was spent and Stone was silent. Yes, Stone was silent. Bonner was silent. The whole room was hushed.
Unnerved, Rosemary finally turned away and went to reach for her coat on the piano when Stone reached out, his hand touching her elbow with a gentle caress. She looked up at him. It was warmer than she expected giving the chill of his eyes. He then took her hand and placed something in her palm. She opened it and looked down shocked to see her grandmother’s old cross now cradled in her palm.
“Welcome to Paradise, Sweet Rose. Merry Christmas.”
All the best,