Title: Romancing the Rumrunner
Author: Michelle McLean
Genre: Historical Romance
Length: 253 pages
Release Date: June 9, 2014
Prohibition Era Chicago
She’s worked too hard to be run out of town…
Jessica Harlan spends her nights as The Phoenix, the owner of the most popular speakeasy in town. Her days are spent running her respectable butcher shop and dodging prohibition agents and rival club owners who all want to put her out of business.
He’s worked too hard to let his heart get in the way…
When the opportunity arises to go undercover for the Feds to catch The Phoenix, Gumshoe Anthony Solomon jumps on it. But he never suspected the notorious rumrunner would be a dame – or that he’d be so drawn to the feisty little minx.
They play a dangerous game of cat and mouse, knowing they can’t trust the other, but unable to walk away. While their hearts dodge the crossfire, the mobsters raise the stakes, and even The Phoenix may not rise again.
Romancing the Rumrunner
by Michelle McLean Copyright © 2014 by Michelle McLean. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Jessica Harlan brought the cleaver down with enough force to sever the bone and then wiped her bloody hand on her apron. A small crowd gathered at her counter, a sight that would have warmed her heart if it wasn’t for the presence of Jameson lurking in the corner.
“Agent Jameson,” she called. “What can I help you with today?”
Jameson’s eyebrow rose a notch as he cast a glance around her busy shop. “I can wait a moment. Go ahead and take care of your customers.”
He smiled, though Jessie didn’t buy it for a second. He tried to be charming but never quite pulled it off.
“Suit yourself.” She turned back to the woman at the counter, trying to ignore the loathsome man.
Earl Jameson was particularly troublesome, even for a prohibition agent. He was the first prohi agent who seemed immune to bribes. The last one had left her alone, as long as he was allowed to confiscate a few bottles of her father’s best gin every month. Bottles Jessie was fairly sure went straight down the man’s gullet rather than into the sewer where they were supposed to go. But at least it had kept him out of her business.
She hadn’t been so lucky with Jameson. His wardrobe was far too nice for him to be totally clean, but if he was taking bribes it wasn’t from her. Maybe his family was wealthy, and the little weasel just liked to ruin people’s lives. The man was determined to bring down the Phoenix, the mythical man Jessie had fabricated to run her speakeasy, The Red Phoenix. Having the Phoenix as her “boss” let her put a little distance between the speakeasy’s owner and herself, and her employees did better thinking their boss was male.
Only Joe and her best friend—and best act—Maude, knew that she and the Phoenix were one and the same. The Feds, and most everyone else, assumed she was the Phoenix’s moll. A girlfriend with a little more power than normal, sure. But nothing more than his public face. And that’s the way Jessie liked to keep it.
Jameson made it a point to stop by once a week or so. He never bought anything. Just came in to chitchat. As if his presence alone would make her break down and confess everything. Jessie snorted. Jameson was a real potato and wasn’t nearly as suave as he believed himself to be. And he’d never outsmart Jessie.
That didn’t stop him from trying, though. The man was a nuisance, and one she wanted gone from her shop. His eyes on her made her skin crawl.
When another customer walked through the door to get in line behind the three already at the counter, Jameson tipped his hat at her. “Perhaps I’ll return when you aren’t so occupied.”
“If you prefer,” she said, bringing the cleaver down again, taking her frustration out on the poor chops beneath her blade.
He nodded and moved toward the door.
The tension in Jessie’s shoulders ebbed and she quickly wrapped the two chops in butcher paper and handed them to the young woman who was waiting.
“There you are. That’ll be eighty-two cents.”
The young woman gave her a dollar and when Jessica handed her the change, the woman dropped a penny in the little dish on the counter and asked, “Is the cod fresh tonight?”
Jessica looked up, her full attention focused on her customer. She looked like she squared up all right. Jessie had a nose for people, whether or not they were good or bad, or a tattler or not. The woman in front of her looked a bit nervous, but in an, oh my goodness I can’t believe I’m doing this, way. Not an, I’m an undercover officer here to catch you, way. Plus, the woman had known the correct pass phrase and gesture.
“No,” Jessie answered. “But it’ll be fresh tomorrow. Getting a new shipment in around midnight.”
The woman gave her a shy smile and nodded. Then she clasped her meat to her chest and ran out of the store as fast as she politely could. Through the door held open by Jameson.
Jessie tensed. Had he heard? She forced her muscles to loosen. Even if he had, he couldn’t know what it meant. Jameson nodded and finally took his sorry carcass out the door. Jessie tried to put him from her mind and took care of her remaining customers.
Joe came up behind her once the crowd had cleared out. “I don’t like these kids coming in here. There’s got to be a better way to get the word out about when the joint will be open for business. The Feds are going to get wise to this scheme one of these days. Surprised they haven’t already.”
“Well, even if they do, that’s why we have the raid alarm. It’s not like the Feds will be quiet when they show up. If we ever get raided, we should have plenty of time to get everyone out. The fact that we’ve never had to test it means our system is working. It’s kept us safe so far, and there really isn’t a better way of spreading the word. We can hardly tack up a flyer in the lobby.
“Besides, making them come inside to find out when The Red Phoenix will be open means more sales for us. They always buy something, and they spread the word themselves just enough that we aren’t overrun. It’s a good system. Don’t be such a wet blanket,” she said, shoving him playfully.
Joe shook his head and walked away, muttering under his breath. The old man was a dear, and had been helping out in her father’s butcher shop for more years than Jessie had been alive. She hated to worry him, but really, she’d been over and over the safest way to keep her speakeasy up and running and the procedures she had in place had worked pretty well, so far. The Red Phoenix was the only speakeasy in Chicago she knew of that hadn’t been raided. Aside from a few straggling drunks nipped on the streets near the speakeasy (which the coppers had still been unable to find), none of her patrons had been arrested on her watch. She was pretty proud of that.
The Feds had been trying to raid her club for months now, but not only could they not find the club itself, but Jessie’s clever “fresh catch of the day” system of never being open on the same days, or at the same time any night, had paid off. This week, the joint was running on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.
Those who wanted to know when the speakeasy would be open for business could come in, ask if the cod was fresh that day, and if it was a day when the speakeasy would be open, Jessie answered yes. If not, she’d answer no.
She did, of course, have customers who really wanted to buy the cod and had no idea that their asking after it might mean something else. But Jessie relied on her instincts and the penny in the bowl, to tell her if the person was after fish or a good time. For instance, Jessie had been fairly sure the harried mother with the two children clinging to her skirts had only been after something for supper. Though she had looked like she could have used a night on the town.
Jessie laughed silently, hoping she’d given the woman what she’d really wanted. But she hadn’t dropped a penny in the bowl. That extra “payment” went a long way to weeding out whom to give the information to. No penny, no tip about The Red Phoenix.
Jessie tidied up the counter and then grabbed a broom, trying to stifle a yawn. Between running the shop by day and the speakeasy by night, she was past due on a few months worth of sleep. But without the profits from the speakeasy, she’d never have been able to keep the butcher shop running after her father had died. That not only meant keeping the shop open, but it also meant she could keep Joe and his grandson Charlie on the payroll. Selling some illegal liquor was worth it to keep them employed and the shop that she’d practically grown up in, open.
The little bell over the shop door tinkled and Jessie looked up to greet her new customer. She froze, struck momentarily goofy at the sight of the man in her doorway. She’d heard the expression “tall, dark, and handsome” before but had never seen a man who embodied it so completely.
She leaned on her broom mid-sweep to look up at the man through her lashes.
His broad shoulders nearly filled the narrow doorway, his suit jacket fitting a little too tightly across his biceps. The suit itself was good quality but had obviously seen better days. He took off his hat and the sunlight gleaming through the glass highlighted the slight shades of brown in his black hair. And those deep, chocolate brown eyes…well, if he wasn’t just the bee’s knees, she didn’t know who was.
His full lips twitched into a smile and he cleared his throat. “Excuse me, are you open?”
“Oh!” Jessie said, startled back into awareness. Unfortunately, she’d forgotten about the broom and when she straightened, taking her weight off the handle, the bristles flung tiny bits of dust and debris straight into the man’s face.
He gasped and stumbled back, brushing at his face.
“Oh, horsefeathers!” All the blood rushed to Jessie’s cheeks and she slapped her hand over her mouth, mortified she’d let that slip. “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?”
The man blinked frantically, his eyes watering. “I think I’ve gotten a bit of something in my eye.”
“Here.” Jessie grabbed his arm and led him to a stool behind the counter. “Let me see.”
The man straddled the stool and tilted his face up for Jessie to see. There wasn’t much space behind the counter and in order for her to get close enough to look in his eye she had to stand between his legs. A position that made her cursed cheeks flame even hotter. Her father had always teased her about her penchant for blushing. Could read her emotions in her cheeks, he’d said. He’d affectionately called her “Rosie” from the first moment he’d seen her blush. He’d thought it was sweet. Jessie despised it.
She gave herself a mental slap and tried to pull it together. She’d probably blinded the poor man and all she could think about was how the muscled leg encased in his smart pinstriped suit was brushing against her thighs. It had been a while since she’d been this close to any man, let alone one handsome enough to make her sigh at the very sight of him.
She forced her attention to his eye, tilting his head farther up to the light. She pried his lid open and stared straight into his deep brown iris. The color reminded her of a bar of dark chocolate she’d once seen melted on the pavement outside…all silky smooth and utterly decadent.
“Do you see anything?” he asked.
Oh. Right. “Hang on. Yep, I think there is a little bit of something here…” She carefully swiped at the corner of his eye and removed the speck of dirt that clung there.
The man rubbed at his eye and smiled. “Thank you.”
“I’m so sorry about that. I feel terrible. You must let me make it up to you. The chops are divine today. How about one on the house? It’s the least I can do.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said, standing and coming around to the front of the counter. “I would like the chops. Two of them, actually. But I’m more than happy to pay for them.”
“No, really, I insist,” Jessie said, quickly wrapping up the best cuts she had available. “I won’t take a dime.”
“Well, then.” He took the meat and his smile had the heat flaming in Jessie’s face again. “If you won’t let me pay for these, at least tell me your name.”
“Jessica. Jessica Harlan.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Harlan. I’m Tony Solomon.”
“It’s Miss Harlan. The shop belonged to my father before he died.”
His brows rose faintly. “I’m sorry for his passing. You run it on your own now?”
Jessie nodded, more warily this time. She didn’t like to impart too much personal information.
“Well, I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things. A friend recommended I come and I couldn’t resist.”
Jessie flushed with pleasure. She took great pride in the shop and was pleased that her customers were happy enough that they spread the word. “Thank you, Mr. Solomon.”
“Please, call me Tony.”
She smiled. “Well, Tony, is there anything else I can get for you?”
“Yes, actually,” he said, leaning casually against the counter, his eyes quickly glancing about the shop before coming back to rest on her. “I was wondering if the trout was fresh tonight.”
Jessie stiffened and looked Tony over again. He had the question mostly right, but he’d gotten the fish wrong. And no penny. Only one other person had ever come into her shop obviously seeking information without knowing about the penny. And that person had turned out to be working for the Feds. Which meant someone may have put Mr. Solomon up to asking. It was a cryin’ shame. He was one tall drink of water, and then some, and it disappointed Jessie to no end to discover he might be nothing more than a cop, or worse, some stool pigeon who worked for them.
Then again, she had no proof he was up to something. Maybe he was just inept and had forgotten. Better to be safe than sorry, though.
She smiled brightly and walked to the fish counter. “Our fish is always fresh, brought in first thing every morning. I’ve got a lovely fillet here, if it’s trout that you’re wanting. Shall I wrap it up for you?”
Tony’s brow furrowed in a slight frown but he quickly covered it with a smile. “That sounds great, thanks.”
Jessie weighed it, wrapped it and handed it across to him. “That’ll be thirty-two cents.”
Tony looked a bit surprised. Maybe he’d assumed she wouldn’t charge him for the fish since she hadn’t charged him for the chops. But since the most likely reason he’d asked about the fish was to find out when The Red Phoenix would be running, and since his reasons for that, being that he didn’t have the right pass code, were probably contrary to her business interests, well, he could pay for that big old fillet and be happy about it.
He slipped the money across to her with a smile that would have made a rabid dog roll over and purr like a kitten. “Your parents should have named you Rosie,” he said with a wink, gently running a finger down her flaming cheek. She jerked back, her mouth dropping open. He grinned again. “It was very nice to meet you, doll. Keep the change.”
“Likewise,” she managed to say, her unease at his bungled attempt to get information fading in the light of his unmitigated cheekiness and intoxicating smile.
She watched him walk out the door, leaning over the counter until she could no longer see him through the window. Staring at him was definitely better than a stick in the eye, but then her ex had been a looker too and all that had gotten her was brokenhearted and betrayed. No, if it was one thing her time with Mario had taught her, it was that the wrapping didn’t always match the package. She would never be so foolish again. Still, the handsome Mr. Solomon was up to something. So…she’d keep an eye on him, just in case. A dirty job, to be sure, but someone had to do it.
Tony left the butcher shop, irritation speeding his steps. Jameson waited impatiently for him in a small alleyway around the corner.
“Well, what did you find out?”
Tony tossed the wrapped fillet at him. “I found out that a fillet of trout will cost you thirty-two cents.”
Jameson tossed the fish to the ground. “Then you must have asked wrong.”
“I said exactly what you told me to say. It’s not my fault your information was incorrect.”
Jameson scowled and Tony turned to leave, his patience with his old colleague at an end.
“Solomon, wait. I might have another job for you.”
“I did what you asked me to, Jameson, and only as a professional courtesy. A one-time deal. We’re done here.”
He spun on his heel and rounded the corner. Jameson followed.
“Mr. Solomon!” Miss Harlan called out, hurrying toward him with his hat in her hand. Tony pulled up short and Jameson ducked back around the building. Jessica’s eyes flicked to the corner but came back to rest on him with no suspicion in her gaze as far as he could discern.
“Miss Harlan, what can I do for you?” he asked, taking her elbow and leading her away from the alleyway.
“You left your hat in my shop,” she said, holding it out for him.
“Ah, thank you.” He took it from her and placed it back on his head. “That was kind of you.”
She shrugged. “It will do more good on your head than on my countertop.”
He chuckled. They’d reached her shop door and he took her hand, kissing the back. “It was a pleasure to see you again, Miss Harlan.”
“Thank you, Mr. Solomon. Have a pleasant afternoon.”
He watched her disappear back into her shop and resisted the urge to follow her. If Jameson was interested in her, she was nothing but trouble. He should walk away and put her from his mind. But then, he’d never been able to resist trouble. He glanced back to see Jameson leaning against the building by the alleyway, watching him with a calculating smile. A hard knot of unease settled in Tony’s gut.
Jameson tipped his hat and disappeared back around the corner