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.”