Chapter 10 - The Roxy

The Roxy - The showplace of New York City and of the nation. Construction began in March 1926 and it opened in 1927.


Fire Island, July 2020

Nights end early during pandemic summer vacations. When I was Emma's age, we stayed out late and had bonfires on the beach. These days, Emma's alone in her room with her air pods in by nine.

I tap on the door. Of course she doesn't hear.

I open it a crack. "Emma?"

She glares at me from the bed. "Could you please knock next time?"

"I did." I nod to the phone in her hands."Should I text if I want to talk?"

She sits up and crosses her legs, ready to endure whatever I'm about to say.

"You dropped this." I hand her the drawing that fell out of her book this morning.

It's bold, in a comic book pop art style - all black and white except for the man's blood-stained shirt and the woman's pink cat ears. They stand in a doorway staring into one another's eyes as she ices his hand.

Em reaches for her nightstand to hide it away but realizes I've already seen it. Instead, she turns it over and lays it on the bed in front of her.

"It's really good. I didn't know you brought your supplies."

She shrugs.

"Anthony and Marie?" I ask.

Her brow knits.

"Cullen and Kitten?" I clarify.

She shrugs again.

"I brought you something for inspiration."

I hold out the scrapbook I've had tucked underneath my arm. It's cracked and peeling at the corners. The edges are worn and yellowed. The spine creaks when Emma opens it.

On the first page is a faded newspaper clipping.

New York City's Newest Movie Palace Opens to Fanfare

I take a seat on the edge of the bed. "See him?" I ask, pointing to a dark smudge of a man in the bottom corner of the picture.

"That's Cullen?"

I nod, tracing my grandfather's outline with my fingertip. I'd know him anywhere.

"And is that…" Emma points to the woman in his arms. Her back is to the photographer, so it's impossible to say for sure. He has his arm around her. It looks like he's going in for a kiss.

"I don't think he would have been there with anyone else."


Izz

"You really punched the guy?" Cullen seems impressed as he inspects my knuckles. It's hard to see anything parked around the corner from the streetlamps on Fifth Avenue.

"Had him on the ground," I brag.

"We need to get you in the ring with Dempsey if you're taking lugs out with one blow." He balls my hand into a fist like he's thinking about it for real. He licks his lips.

"Well, one to the jaw." With a kiss, I show him where I landed the hit. "And one to the gut," I add, bringin' our bodies flush.

Cullen's eyes smolder.

"From there it only took a knee to the privates and a tiny little shove. Piece a' cake."

His hips move beneath me. His jaw tightens. "Poor schmuck didn't know who he was dealing with."

When he kisses me, his lips are like fire, burning everywhere they touch. Straddling his lap, I feel him half hard against me even though there are too many clothes between us. I tilt my hips and settle so I have him pressed where his fingers were the other night. Cullen groans, but he don't go for my garters. He holds me tight, but his hands don't stray.

It ain't enough. Not by a longshot. So I stop and rest my forehead on his shoulder, panting and desperate.

He don't want to do this in a car. I gotta respect his wishes.

"Meet me in my bedroom?"

In my mind I'll undress by the time he makes it up the fire escape. Then I'll take him outta his clothes too. I shiver just thinking of his bare skin against mine. I want to see him, touch him, kiss him all over. I got no idea what I'm doin' but practice makes perfect. The way I want this man, I'm gonna practice over and over, and over again.

His arms tighten around me.

"Your father's home, Kitten. We gotta be careful now, more than ever."

I cling a little harder. He's right, of course. Daddy didn't sound so convinced about my reason for missing dinner. I'll have to think up believable excuses for all the stuff we got planned. I'm gonna need to make another list… or three.

One for pulling the wool over Daddy's eyes.

One for the lies I'm gonna feed Mr. Black.

There's another list of things I'm not sure I should even be thinking about. I'll decide on that list after I find out more about the man.

Cullen pushes some hair from my eyes. "Tell me what's on your mind?"

I swallow. This don't seem the time or place to get into it. "We got a lot of work ahead of us."

"Listen, if you're having second thoughts -"

"Are you kidding? My whole life was getting me prepared for this."

Cullen clenches his jaw and fists the fabric of my skirt, cinching me in place. "You're meant for bigger and better things than dealing with mobsters, Kitten."

I pry his hands free and try to massage out the tension. "I had those things. I went from double entry accounting to double crossing dirty thugs." I scoot backward on his lap. I miss the feel of him against me, but I need him to understand. "I get to do all of this with you. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, mister."

Looking past me out the window, Cullen slowly shakes his head. When he finally peers into my eyes, he seems equal parts scared and determined. He clutches my hands like my life depends on it. Like maybe his does too.

"Then you gotta know a thing or two about Jake. He ain't the smartest guy, but he's paranoid. His first thought's always gonna be you're lying to him."

"I told you, Cullen. I can be very persuasive."

He closes his eyes and takes a steadying breath. "I don't wanna think about that. And I don't want to think about what he'll do to ya if you can't convince him."

"We'll make certain then." Trying to act confident, I fix Cullen's collar and straighten his tie. "I know we can't be out in the open as far as Daddy and Marcus are concerned, but we should find a way to let Jake know I'm seeing you like I told him I would."

Cullen tucks some hair behind my ear. "See me sweepin' you off your feet, ya mean?"

I wiggle my pinky. "See you wrapped around my little finger, ready to spill all your deep, dark, Volturi secrets."

He takes my hand and presses it to his chest where I feel his heart thumping. He looks deep into my eyes like the world's a desert and I'm the only water left on earth. "Ya got me wrapped around more than just a finger, Kitten."

As revolted as I am by Mr. Black, as sad as I am about Daddy, what Cullen's tryin' to tell me eclipses it all. I think he's telling me I have his heart.

"He's just gotta see us together to know you're dead gone for me," I murmur. "The hard part's gonna be hiding how I feel for you."

Cullen's eyes sparkle with mischief. "That ain't the hardest thing." He bucks his hips.

My eyes dart to his lap. "What number is this?"

He hisses as I shift over him. He grabs hold of my backside, pulls me close, then pushes back. His eyelids flutter closed.

"Start counting and I'll tell you when you're close."

I follow his lead, moving forward and back like he just showed me. "One," my voice trembles.

"Keep goin'," he groans, meeting me with his hips. With his….

"Two," I hum, rocking again.

"Three," he says, moving himself against me right where I need him.

With my hands on his shoulders, I think I got the hang of it. I roll my hips as I look him in the eye. "Four?"

He wets his lips and nods.

"Five?"

"Christ, Kitten. Don't stop."

A thrill runs through my body. I'm makin' him feel good. I wrap my arms around the man's neck and go for it. I kiss from his mouth to his jaw, then pull his earlobe between my lips as I rock my hips. "Six... seven." I count with each stroke.

"Eight, ni-" I falter as his hand slides up my thigh, underneath my skirt.

"This still okay?"

I nod. It's more than okay, but I can't seem to make my voice work.

"I ain't ever gonna get enough of you." He sounds desperate as I feel as he grips my thigh.

"It ain't fair." I grapple with his shirt. "I wanna feel you too."

"You saying you can't feel this?" He grabs my bottom and holds me in place as he presses himself against me.

I gasp. "Ten?"

"Keep counting, Kitten."

We kiss as numbers slip from my lips. As his hand finds its way under my skirt. As it gets harder to keep track, harder in so many ways. "Fifteen."

Unsnapping my garters. "Sixteen."

Underneath my sweater. "Seventeen."

Over my brassiere. "Eighteen." He pinches. He pulls. "Ni-, nine… nineteen," I pant.

He tugs, slipping the lace lower, and finally he's holding my breast in his hand.

Cullen practically jumps in his seat. His eyes fly open. "I've got it."

Still holding my breath, I look at his hand underneath my sweater. I giggle. "Yeah, you do."

I rock my hips. Cullen makes a sound halfway between a chuckle and a groan.

He tries to hold me still. His chest stutters. He grins as he shakes his head. "Go to the movies with me?"

It's hard to think beyond our two bodies and that feelin' we're headed for. That falling off the edge of the cliff and shattering place he took me to the other night.

Cullen seems to understand. He pulls my brassiere back in place, takes his hand off my backside and sits up a little straighter.

"If Jake wants a show, we can give it to him at the Roxy."

"The Roxy?" I ask breathlessly.

It's the city's newest movie palace. Rumors have been flying about it for years. They say there are actual diamonds in the chandeliers and the seats are inlaid with real gold. I don't know about any of that, but I do know it's opening this weekend. The Jazz Singer's playing, and it's supposed to have the music and spoken words attached to the picture. It's all anyone can talk about.

"Jake's company built it," Cullen explains. "His ego won't let him stay away. He'll be dyin' to see who shows."

"Me and you at the movie pictures? The Roxy, of all places?" I fall back against the steering column and wriggle my hips with glee. "It'd almost be like a proper date."

Cullen glances between us. I'm straddling his lap, my skirt up around my hips. His eyes travel over my rumpled clothing to where my nipples are pushing up against my sweater like they're begging for his hands. Finally he's lookin' into my eyes. "This ain't close to proper, Kitten."

I laugh. I can't help it. Half dressed in a bootlegger's automobile, around the corner from my home. Aunt Siobhan would faint dead away like those ladies in her novels. Daddy's head would explode.

But when I look into Cullen's eyes, he's not laughing. He's not even smiling anymore. He's certain about the two of us. And I'm in trouble, 'cause I am too.

"A real date?"

He tips my chin. "A real date with a beautiful girl."

"Maybe this date won't end with you covered in blood."

Cullen can't quite look me in the eye. "How would I get you back to my place then?"

As if he could keep me away. I've been dying to get back there for days.

"I saw the extra shirt you're keeping in the backseat, Cullen. You wouldn't need to go home to change."

It's hard to tell in the dark, but it looks like the tops of his cheeks go pink.

I rest my forehead against his. "Keep listening to my advice and I'll come anywhere you take me."

Cullen grins. "Don't worry, Kitten, I'll make sure you come everywhere with me."

"That's what I just said." I don't know why he's looking at me like he told the world's funniest joke, but I love his smile. "You got someplace special in mind you want me to come?"

His eyes crinkle at the edges as he chuckles. "Wherever it is, I'm gonna make sure you ain't able to count, that's for sure." He slides his hand along my inner thigh, right to the spot. "Got half a mind to make it happen right now."

My cheeks blaze as I catch his meaning. I don't know about everywhere, but I'll take it now.

"Oh God, yes," I beg. I'm shameless.

An automobile turns down the street and the headlamps flash, lighting up the inside of the car. We keep this up and the neighbors are gonna have something to say. He's right, his car's no place for this, at least not when it's parked two blocks from home.

I sigh. "I should probably go."

Cullen's eyes practically glow as he rakes them over me. He slides his hands to my shoulders. "Saturday then?"

"I'll have to take Ali along. Goin' to a picture show alone ain't gonna fly."

"I'll bring Seth so she' ain't lonely."

"Gosh, it is a proper date. Chaperones and everything." I climb off Cullen, shimmy my skirt over my hips and smooth it out. Pat my hair into place as I look in the rearview mirror.

"Shit, almost forgot." Cullen grabs a book from the back seat. "It's one of Carl's favorites. Pass this to Ali for me? Tell her I said thanks?"

"Whatever for?" I turn the book over in my hand. It's a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"I owe her for given' me a chance to make things right with you."

I slip the book into my purse then bite my bottom lip, wondering if I should come clean. One glance at the tender look in his eyes and I know I got no choice.

"Can I tell you a secret?" I run a finger across his chest and hook it under his suspenders.

"You can tell me any fuckin' thing you want."

"I woulda given in," I admit, holding tight, pulling him closer. "There's nothin' could keep me away from you, Cullen. Nothin' I wouldn't do."

"I know the feelin'," he murmurs.

And the two of us forget about me goin' for a little while longer.

xXxXx"

I gotta force myself not to look over my shoulder as I leave Cullen behind. Truth is, his Chrysler feels more like home than the brownstone where I lived most of my life.

Up until last night, I was sure Daddy was as straight as they come, but somewhere along the line he's gotten mixed up with the mob. Somewhere along the way, I guess I did too.

I don't wanna think what would happen if all of this came out in the open. Best case scenario, he'd throw me out. But I know Daddy. He wouldn't stop there.

My hand shakes as I turn the key in the lock. I take a deep breath to steady myself, but my heart still tries to knock a hole through my chest. With another breath, I remember how casual Cullen acted in Delmonico's after he beat a man within an inch of his life. I remember his easy swagger as he chatted with Jackie after learning his life was in danger.

If I want into his world, I gotta get better at this.

I close the door as quiet as I can, then slip off my shoes and carry them with me so they don't make any noise on the marble. As I turn around, I find my father standing in the parlor doorway, his arms folded over his chest.

"Jesus Christ, Daddy."

I look him over trying to find any indication he's gone bad, but he still looks the same: strict, by the book, ready to hand out punishment. Maybe a little tired around the eyes.

"Charity work, huh?" he asks.

I swallow. I nod. It wasn't strictly a lie. Cullen and Es need all the help they can get. "Seems like a good thing helping those in need."

"What about school?"

As if he cares about my studies.

"I went to all my classes. Handed in a couple of papers. Got a good feeling about one but I trashed a famous German psychoanalyst in the other. I'm not sure how that grade's gonna turn out."

My father's eyes glaze over. Details about my education do the trick every time. I keep my voice low, like a lullaby. "You wouldn't believe some of the trash Freud has to say. I don't know how someone with such a narrow, one-sided perspective became so famous for it. I can show you my paper if you want."

Daddy stares off into space.

My work here is done.

"On second thought, it would probably put you right to sleep, which is where I should be headed." I yawn like I'm trying to swallow all the air in the room. "'Night, Daddy."

I pad across the floor and kiss his cheek, hoping not to startle him out of his daze. I got one foot on the stairs when he clears his throat.

"Isabella."

I ain't getting out of this so easy. I hang my head as I grip the bannister. "Yes, Daddy?"

"Mr. Black says you invited him back for tea this Sunday."

Anger flares. "I invited him?"

When I turn around Daddy looks more like the father I knew before Mama died. I wouldn't quite call him happy, but his mouth's threatening a smile. He approves of the situation.

I bite back my temper. "Like I was sayin', I invited him... but only if you approve."

Daddy lets out a breath as he walks over to me. He tips my chin so I'm lookin' into his big, brown eyes; mirrors of my own. "I want the best for you."

"And you think Jake Black's the best?"

"I wanna know the kinda trouble you're getting yourself into. I want you to have a man who'll indulge you like I have. A man who'll give you the excitement you're lookin' for but make a point of keepin' you safe."

He's describing Cullen. Every single word of it. My Daddy may have gotten the fella's identity wrong, but he knows what I'm after in a man. And he wants it for me. "It sounds kinda perfect, Daddy."

My father sighs with relief. "Mr. Black can come for tea. I want the parlor door open. No shenanigans."

My stomach turns at the thought. "Definitely not. You taught me how to handle myself if he tries anything."

I ball my hand into a fist and give him my best shot in the arm. He ducks just in time. I toss my shoes on the ground and try an uppercut. Daddy fakes then spins, grabbing me around the waist like a vice. Only thing is I've hooked my leg behind his. With one swipe, I'd have him on his backside.

I'll never know if he lets me win, but it keeps me on my toes either way.

Daddy laughs. His death grip around my waist becomes a hug. He holds me close and ruffles my hair like I'm a kid again. Back when I thought he was a good man.

Eventually he holds me at arm's length and looks me over.

"It's been a while since we've had at it with a punching bag, huh, Isabella? Maybe we make some time to brush up."

"I was thinking it might be high time for some target practice," I suggest.

"Don't even think of shooting Mr. Black in our parlor." Daddy chuckles as he wags a finger. "He's an important man. There would be repercussions. Some things even I can't fix for ya'."

"I got no immediate plans." I kiss Daddy on the cheek again. "Not in the parlor, anyway," I mumble as I head up the stairs.

"Sleep tight," Daddy calls.

I don't think that's happening.

xXxXx

I spend the next five days ignoring my professors while I write up a business plan in the margins of my notebooks.

Afterwards, Ali and I walk home debating wrong and right, Daddy and Jake, Cullen and Esme. It always comes down the same. There's one man I can trust in all this, and it ain't my father.

Each night starts with me revising my lists by lamplight - dreaming up excuses and options. Then I sneak a cigarette and scour the alley, hoping against hope Cullen will surprise me.

When I can't keep my eyes open, I head to bed and toss and turn until I give up and pretend my fingers are his. Each night ends with the same nightmare - Cullen in a pool of blood with Jake Black and Marcus Volturi standing over his body.

By Saturday, there are circles underneath my eyes that all the powder in Manhattan can't cover.

"You look like a million bucks," Ali bravely lies as we walk the last few blocks to the theater. I don't believe her for a second. If I could, I'd have used a fancy dress as a distraction from my face, but Daddy woulda suspected something more than a picture show if I got myself gussied up.

I'm stuck looking slightly ill and hopelessly underdressed, not to mention a ball of nerves. I fall back on old habits and silently tick through my lists to try to keep myself calm.

After I get through each of the excuses I made up for Daddy, I can breathe a little easier.

When I've remembered all the things I gotta tell Jake, I can think clearer.

I'm just about to start on the third list when I see him. A couple weeks ago, he coulda been any other handsome fella leaning against a lamppost with his hat pulled low. Now I know the breadth of his shoulders, the angle of his jaw, the way he sinks his hands into his pockets as he waits.

"Who's that?" Ali asks.

After a week of worry, I actually giggle. I give her a playful shove. "Don't be dense. You let the guy into my bedroom."

Ali shoves me right back. "The fella at his side, you ninny."

I didn't even notice the man standing next to Cullen - a tall, dark, and handsome type also dressed to the nines. "That's gotta be Seth."

I gotta make a good impression on Cullen's friend, so I try to act refined as I pick up the pace. With each step my heart beats a little faster.

When Cullen sees me, his lips turn up in a lopsided smile. My heart flutters.

"Hey, Kitten."

My pet name on his lips is the sweetest sound I ever heard. I missed this man more than I knew, which is sayin' something. "Sorry I'm late," I tell him as he wraps an arm around my waist.

The way he looks at me, it's like he can see right through my clothing. I'm sure I'm blushing all over. "Didn't think you could get any more beautiful."

"Beautiful? In this old thing?" I ask. I swivel my hips so my skirt swishes and flares.

"You kiddin' me?" Cullen nods to Al Jolson and May McAvoy's names lit up on the marquee. "You're gonna make the leadin' lady look bad."

New York City seems to sparkle. News cameras flash. Either that or it's the stars in my eyes.

Seth coughs, shakin' his head like he's tryin' not to laugh.

Cullen don't pay his friend any mind. His hands wrap tighter, meeting at the small of my back, pulling me closer in the process. "Seth, meet Kitten," he says, staring into my eyes. He nods toward his friend. "Kitten, this is Seth."

"The pleasure's all mine," I murmur before kissing Cullen full on the lips. "Seth, this is my cousin Ali. She's -"

I forget what I'm saying as Cullen's hands slip lower. His lips trail along my jaw.

"Ali, meet Seth," I eventually mumble.

Automobiles pass, horns honk, the crowd outside the theater swells, but none of it's worth a dime. For the first time in days, my heart's set right.

Until Seth sounds like he's coming down with consumption.

"The fuck is wrong with you?" Cullen asks, finally payin' his friend some attention.

"Paulie just walked by. Headed inside."

Cullen's arm turns into a vice as he holds me. "He see us?"

"Don't think he coulda missed the two of you." Seth laughs. "Not sure he knew who he was lookin' at though."

"Who's Paulie?" I ask.

"Jake's guard dog." Cullen takes a deep breath and grits his teeth. "You ready for this, Kitten?"

I shrug. "All I hafta do is watch a picture. You're the one who's gotta act besotted."

"Is that right?" Cullen tucks some hair behind my ear and stares deep into my eyes. He wraps one hand around my waist while he drags the other up my arm, stoppin' just at my shoulder like he's thinkin' about taking this old dress off me right here and now.

Yeah. He's got besotted down to a science.

"I gotcha somethin'." He pulls a black velvet box from his coat pocket.

Taking it from his hands, I gasp as I open the box. Midnight blue gemstones are arranged like a bouquet of flowers. It's the prettiest hairpin I ever laid eyes on.

"Oh, Cullen! It's beautiful," I tell him, breathless.

Cullen plucks it from the box, then pins a lock of hair behind my ear. "It pales next to you."

"Yeah, besotted. That ain't gonna be a stretch," Seth mutters.

"That's for certain." Ali laughs.

Cullen tips his hat to my cousin. "Glad you're here, Ali. Seems like I owe you another book."

"Keep her nose outta trouble and you don't owe me anything." She shrugs, smiling at him bashful.

He smirks. "Another book it is, then."

I playfully punch his arm. Cullen grabs me by the hand and pulls me in for another kiss.

"They're both in trouble," Seth says.

"This is trouble, I'll take it." I look my man over head to toe. I'll take it alright, and never give it back.

Cullen offers me his arm. "Focus, Kitten. All eyes are on you tonight."

It's hard to believe anybody gives a fig about little old me when everyone around us is dressed in feathers and furs and looks like a picture star. When the lobby looks like a New York version of the Taj Mahal.

People pay attention to Cullen though. Whether it's 'cause he's known or 'cause he's so damn handsome, I couldn't say. I link my arm through his and stare down his admirers. Whatever their reason for lookin', he ain't available.

"You gonna be okay?" Ali asks when Cullen hands Seth their tickets and it's clear we're not sittin' together.

"It's a picture show, Ali. I think I can handle it."

"One with mobsters," she whispers in my ear. She peeks at our dates and shivers.

"Don't worry, cuz. We ain't about to let anything happen to either of you." Seth says as he takes her by the elbow. Ali looks faint.

He's kind, though, and pretends not to notice. Instead, he scans the crowd.

"We're in good hands," I assure Ali with a quick hug. "It's a talkie for cryin' out loud. Have fun."

Seth leads her up the stairs to the balcony, chatting her ear off so she don't have time to worry. He don't seem like a bootlegger at all. He smiles too easy, almost like one of Emmett's friends.

Meanwhile, the usher who takes our ticket leads me and Cullen right up to the front row of red velvet chairs. I take a seat and crane my neck up, up, up. Gold and red curtains tower overhead.

"Dontcha think we're too close?" I wonder out loud.

"These are the best seats in the house."

I try to inconspicuously look around. "You spot him yet?"

Cullen's discrete, glancing up toward the balcony, then folding his jacket as he looks behind us. "No. But he's here."

"How can you be so certain?" I crane my neck and spot Seth and Ali. He's laughing at something Ali said like he don't have a care in the world but catches my eye all the same.

Jake Black is nowhere in sight.

"Jake don't go anywhere without Paulie," Cullen tells me.

I scan the audience on either side of us. Unfortunately, Paulie's not wearing a name tag. "You're gonna have to tell me what this goon looks like."

"Believe me, you'll know him when you see him," Cullen says as the lights go down.

Just when I think the picture's gonna start up, a long line of showgirls strut onto the stage. They're right in front of our faces 'cause we're so close.

They're wearing tall feathers in their hair and not much else. Each one's tall and thin, with sequins falling like raindrops from their trembling tits. Fifty identical waterfalls flow from shimmying hips.

Gasps escape women around me, deep groans from the guys.

I glance over at Cullen. His eyes are on me, a wry grin on his face. I'm hot all over.

"This why you wanted to sit up front?"

His brow knits. "Is that really what you think, Kitten?"

I shrug and fold my arms across my chest.

"I wanted to sit up front so Jake sees us and thinks his bullshit scheme is working."

Fifty girls trail a hand from knee to thigh. Fifty hips shimmy. One girl looks right at the fella by my side and winks.

Cullen turns my way and tips my chin so I'm lookin' him straight in the eyes.

"I wanted to sit up front so all those girls up there -" He nods toward the stage. "Can see what real beauty looks like."

I huff and roll my eyes, remembering the way I looked in the mirror before we left home.

Cullen untucks my hands and holds them in his. "But mostly?"

He leans in closer so his lips are at my ear.

"I wanted to sit up front so every fuckin' guy in here can see I'm the lucky bastard that gets to sit next to you." I feel his breath on my neck. Somehow it warms me all over. I recross my legs.

"That I'm the one taking you home later." His hand slips from mine and brushes my thigh at the edge of my skirt.

"I'm the one who gets to touch you." He tugs at my skirt, uncovers my knee, and presses his fingers against my inner thigh. "Feel how soft and warm you are underneath all this."

Cullen glances either way before slipping his hand to the edge of my stocking. His lips caress my cheek. "Feel your mouth against mine." He stares into my eyes. "'Cause as far as I'm concerned, the two of us ain't ever close enough."

The heat from my cheeks bleeds all over. I feel damp, stuck to the velvet underneath me.

"You're missin' the show," I whisper in his ear. My voice sounds ragged.

"No I ain't," he says. I watch him watching me. From my ankles to the edge of my skirt, his gaze moves up my body. His eyes on me and my nipples react the same as they did the other night in his automobile, the same as every night this week when I thought a' him in bed. I try not to shiver as his eyes finally meet mine. "This is all the show I need."

I nod toward the stage. "Unlike them, I got clothes on."

"And I know how to get 'em off ya."

"Yeah, well…" I'm flustered and don't know how to answer. I'm not anything like the skyscraper ladies in front of us, glittering and swinging their hips like they know how to use them, kicking their legs up over their heads. Legs as tall as the Chrysler building.

I look back at Cullen and he hasn't taken his eyes off me. "Marry me," he says.

"What in the world?"

I musta heard wrong.

His head dips and his lips are at my ear. "Marry me, Kitten," he whispers.

Ladies swivel synchronized and shake their backsides in front of us. My laughter's nervous.

"Cullen, you don't got to take the act this far. It's not like Jake can hear you."

"Good, 'cause it's none of his business. And it ain't no act."

My mind reels.

"You can't be serious."

"You don't want me to be?" His voice is smooth as satin, but there's a hint of worry in the way he clutches my hand. He's dead serious.

Instead of leaving the stage the old-fashioned way, the showgirls make their way up the aisles to hoots, hollers, and grabbing hands.

"Kitten?" Cullen asks.

I jump to my feet.

"I… I gotta powder my nose," I tell him as I rush outta the theater.

xXxXx

In the powder room, I try to catch my breath. It's all out of order. I don't even know the man's birthday or his favorite song. At the same time, I'm putting my life on the line for him, goin' against my own father for him. And I know he'd do the same for me.

"How's this supposed to work?" I ask the overtired girl in the mirror. She's got no earthly idea, but her new hairpin sparkles in the light from the chandelier.

Suddenly the little black velvet box holds new meaning. It was a promise, only I didn't know it 'til now.

Maybe I can make a promise right back.

I don't know if I'm ready for marriage, but I can let him know how I feel. I can tell him something I ain't said to another man. The words scare me enough, I know they gotta be true.

I'll tell him I love him, but...

But

But nobody wants to hear "but" after "I love you".

I'm certain nobody wants their girl disappearing after they propose either. I don't want to hide from the man. I'm scared of marriage, not Cullen. Afraid I made a mess of everything, I throw open the door to the lobby and practically bump right into a broad chest in an expensive suit.

"Geez, I'm sor-"

Jake Black leers down at me, half worried and half angry. My stomach turns. I got a long list of items I'm supposed to remember when it comes to him, but all I can think is how I got to get back to Cullen.

"That lowlife say somethin' to upset you, sweetheart?"

"Mr. Black! I mean, I… yes. No, I just..."

This is my first test in all of this and I'm failin' miserably. A mountain of a man leans against the far wall. Cullen was right, no nametag is necessary. There's no doubt Paulie could break my neck without breaking a sweat.

Jake rocks on his heels, brimming with pride. He throws out his arms. "Like what I built?"

"Well, it's, uh…" Jake holds his breath, hanging on my every word. There's no way I'm giving him the satisfaction. I shrug. "Kinda over the top, if you ask me. Now if you'll excuse -"

"Not so fast, Kitten."

Jake grabs my hand, but I turn and twist, wrenching his arm so he's gotta let go.

"There's my wildcat." He grins as he rubs his arm and flexes his fingers. Paulie takes a casual step in our direction.

I inch backward and come flush with the wall. "You don't got a right to touch me. I ain't your anything."

"You're my one-way ticket to bigger and better things, dollface."

"Bigger and better?" With my back pressed against crushed velvet, I glance at the crystal light fixtures hanging overhead. "I don't get why you care about Marcus Volturi when you got all this."

"Keep your voice down," he says with a glance over his shoulder.

"You scared a' Marcus when he ain't even in the building?"

"I ain't scared of nobody, doll." He keeps his voice low all the same. "Just don't need his attention the way that criminal you're seein' does."

"You leave Cullen outta this."

Jake studies himself in the beveled glass behind me and straightens his tie. "I got no idea why you're wasting your time with that scum. Sure, he got you a front row seat. But me? I'd give you a private screening." He brushes some lint from his shoulder. "He got you a table at Delmonico's, but I'd rent out the Russian Tea Room."

"You think I… Wait, how do you know about Delmonico's?"

"I'd know how to treat a woman so she ain't running away before the show even starts." He manages to tear his attention from his own reflection and leans in close enough for me to smell whiskey on his breath. "Gotta give a little to get a little."

He runs his hand up my arm to my shoulder like Cullen did earlier. But when Jake does it, it leaves me feeling sick.

I shake him off. I don't want anything he has to give. Nothing. And it ain't just this creep. There have been nicer guys, fellas on the up and up with fancy cars and big bank accounts. There have been businessmen and politicians Daddy brought around. Guys who wouldn't even look me in the eye, let alone look at me like a piece of meat like Jake Black's doin'.

No one's ever meant as much to me as Cullen. Without him, my life would go back to feeling incomplete. I want to be his in every sense of the word. I need to get back and tell him as much.

I practically spit at Jake. "There ain't no me and you. You want information, I'm gettin' your information. Leave me the hell alone." I push past him.

"That what you're doin' while you're swappin' spit?" he calls across the lobby. "Getting information never looked so fun. Hope you give it to me just as good tomorrow."

I spin around and face him. "You're disgusting."

"And you're just out havin' a good time. Don't get too carried away. You know what I'll do if you don't come through with the goods."

I glance around the lobby, but it's empty. Paulie's suddenly nowhere to be seen. Still, I step closer. No need for anyone else to overhear the lies I'm about to tell.

I take a deep breath as I come toe to toe with Jake. I hate being this close to the man, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. "Listen, the Volturis are moving inta Jersey."

He rubs his jaw. "Those greedy sons of bitches."

I smile' cause he's buyin' it hook, line, and sinker. "I don't know about all that, but they got an in with a fella' pretty high and mighty in state government."

"Who?"

I poke him in the chest with my finger. "Keep me out here while the film's playin' and I ain't never gonna find out for ya."

Jake looks down at my finger and smiles, smug. I snatch it away, but he takes my hand in his and kisses the back of it. "Fair enough. Have a good night, Isabella."

"Go back to whatever hole you crawled out of," I hiss as I pull my hand from his.

Jake's brings his lips to my ear and I wanna wretch. "That goon in there tries anything, just shout," he whispers. "Paulie's lookin' for a reason to let loose."

"Go to hell, you lowlife," I tell him sweetly. "Amazing how you make my skin crawl every time we meet."

"Didn't know you cared," he calls out, his hands over his heart.

I breathe a sigh of relief and can't help but smile. I did what we came to do. Our plan's in motion. Better than that, it's working. I practically run toward the theater. As I round the corner near the staircase, I spot Seth leanin' against the wall.

He ain't smilin'.

"You've been gone a while."

"Yeah, uh… You and Ali having a good time?"

"Good enough I almost missed the show." He nods toward where I was standing with Jake.

"You believe that guy?" I ask with a shudder.

He shrugs. "Hard to know what to believe these days."

Seth pushes off the wall and heads for the stairs.

"Wait!"

He stops in his tracks but don't turn my way.

"You think I knew he'd be out here?" I ask.

"It don't matter what I think, does it?"

"Listen, I'd never double cross anybody."

He shakes his head. "That right?"

"I'm on your side."

"Sure you are," he says with a halfhearted smile.

I'm about to rush up the stairs after Seth, but for what? To make another mobster believe I'm bein' honest? I got a man to get back to. A man I love. If Seth don't believe me, he'll know soon enough.

By the time I'm walking down the aisle to my seat, Al Jolson's not only on the screen, he's already met his leading lady. Cullen's so focused on the show, he hardly notices as I take my seat.

I fidget.

I think I see him glance my way. I could just as easily be imagining it.

My shoe bumps against his calf as I cross my legs.

He shifts in his seat, giving me more leg room.

I try to concentrate on the picture. Even though they're talkin' out loud I can't follow the story for the life of me. There's too much chatter goin' on in my head.

I clear my throat. Someone in the row behind shushes.

I whip my head around and glare.

Cullen puts his hand over mine on the armrest. The world's set right.

We lock eyes. His Adam apple bobs.

"Look, Kitten. I didn't mean to -"

"Yes."

His brow knits. "What?"

Butterflies flutter inside my chest. His hair tickles the tip of my nose as I bring my lips to his ear. I resist the urge to kiss his neck. His jaw. To take his hand and lead him outta the theater. I got a lifetime, after all.

"I'm yours, Cullen. Of course I'll marry you."


Fire Island, July 2020

"I asked your great grandma about The Jazz Singer once," I tell Emma.

"Really? What did she say?"

I chuckle to myself remembering the way Grandma Marie smiled. She was kind, even when she was determined to keep a secret. "Said she never saw it."

"But she was there!" Emma' points to the smudge on the newsprint.

"She may have been in the audience, but I don't think she saw a single scene."


A/N: We know it's been a while but we're back, baby. We ain't giving up on these two, not when they're... engaged!? What do you think? Too soon? Too young? Or is this perfect for Kitten and Cullen? Let us know in your review.

Thanks to our own Belladonna and TheFictionFreak crime syndicate: SueBee for her patience with our comma crimes, and Kate and Chrisann for keepin' a lookout for updates and watchin' our backs. Until next time... Marie & Jo