It’s the roaring 20’s and the Black Renaissance has exploded in Harlem. From Marcus Garvey, to Ethel Waters, Sugar Hill is the place to be. That’s also true for The Cotton Club’s jazz singer Harmony Jones. Her soulful voice and unique beauty draws the attention of the most ruthless Sicilian mob boss Vincenzo ‘Vinnie’ Romano. And when her brother—a small time bootlegger—goes missing, Harmony is his only hope.
Harmony is a story of obsession and perseverance. A tangled tale of passion, lust, love and hate when two unlikely hearts collide.
Read an Excerpt
1923 Harlem, New York
Milo’s horn blew sultry and seductive through the swing beat. This was their music, their time, and no instrument other than the smoky wail of his saxophone could say it better. Harmony closed her eyes and let the rhythm flow through her. The melody calmed, and emboldened her in sinful ways she refused to put a name to.
“One, two, three, four,” she mumbled without parting her lips, swaying a bit behind the cover of the stage curtain—slipping into her zone. Milo’s horn demanded patience, selective timing—now she was ready.
Harmony emerged from stage left. Her stride became grace in motion. Each step set the sequined strands that dangled from her curvy hips to dazzle under the hot chorus spotlights. Milo blew sweet melodies from his sax that trailed her as she crossed in front of the all-Negro orchestra to the microphone. The lights of the club dimmed in every corner and pale faces lifted from their dinners or turned from their jovial conversations transfixed.
Ladies and gentlemen The Cotton Club presents to you, Miss Harmony Jones.
Harmony’s lips, plump as fresh plucked strawberries, drew near the magnified chrome bulb. She offered her audience a taste by joining the brass section through their warm up, her bee-bop-skat-shubbie-dee-bop riding along effortlessly. Fletcher Henderson, the bandleader, gave her the cue. Harmony extended her arms, parted her lips and her voice sailed to unattainable heights. So did her hopes. Tonight she’d send both soaring. For Harmony, fate left her little choice when it came to her chosen profession and the personal demands in her life. And thanks to The Cotton, life had improved considerably. She now lived well in the northern part of Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood referred to as Sugar Hill. Nonetheless, it never escaped her that this stage, with Milo on his horn and Stickman thrumming a bass, was where her stardom exceeded a colored girl’s dream. That’s why tonight she intended to use what she’s got to get all that she needs, namely an alliance with notorious mob boss, Vincenzio Romano.
Harmony’s delivery got the band rocking before Fletch ended the jam session with Milo blowing through her intro. Her song eased in on a sexy escape of breath, sweet and low. She watched the audience through a thin veil of her lowered lashes. Inch by inch her hand eased down the microphone’s stem, her nails glistening like rubies. She was often told her beauty, whether real or perceived, under the glamour of the stage lights, was nothing compared to her voice. Even the racist gangster who’d bought Club Deluxe and renamed it The Cotton Club said the same. The man known as Owney ‘The Killer’ Madden, gave her top billing to sing what he, and those now staring at her in anticipation, called ‘jungle music’. Harmony knew different. The music of her people, jazz and all its tangled roots, came straight from the soul. Absolute, commanding, and enchanting, her voice often inspired white men to send her gifts of chocolates, perfume and dozens of her favorite roses after a single performance.
Harmony’s gaze focused past the burn of the lights. Through the pearly wave of smoke and shifting shadows, ladies all dolled up with long-stem cigarettes between gloved fingers, glared. Often this was the case. Harmony had grown used to it. The men however, were a different story. In dark crisp tuxedos, tailored, with perfectly groomed mustaches and hair neatly oiled back from their faces, she held them captive through her song.
Willie’s out there. Willie needs me to see this through. He’s all I’ve got. And Vinnie Romano is gonna help me dammit.
With surreptitious glances, she searched the crowd for her guy. It happened. A current of excitement rippled through the atmosphere sparking hurried movement from the doorman to the waiters, each of them looking pointedly at the other. Killer Madden dashed past the stage, breaking for the club’s entrance. Someone of importance had entered.
He’s here. It’s him. Has to be.
Harmony believed tonight of all nights he’d show. Not because he was expected, but because she needed him. See Romano and she shared something. It was unspoken but each time she sang and he sat in his favorite booth and watch, she felt it. She wasn’t one to normally hang her hopes on a white man, in fact she wanted nothing to do with the lustful glares often shot her way by these mobsters. But this man was no ordinary fellow. Willie’s life depended on his affinity for her songs. Harmony’s gaze followed Romano as she eased into the whimsical allure of the lyrics with her voice. Dropping a little sway to her hips she ran both hands, palms flat and fingers spread, down her curves, stirring up a couple of wolf whistles from the crowd. Romano hadn’t noticed. Not yet.
Tonight would be like all others. Always the same booth, the coal-black velvet drapes parted just enough to reveal his omniscient-like presence. Romano would sit, watch, and she’d sing. Under the glare of the stage lights she’d see little. The shadows covered his face, yet she felt his eyes—a woman always does. Often from the distance his hand appeared as he gestured to someone at the table.
At The Cotton, Harmony soon became familiar with the faces of the notorious as they came and went, each vying for a moment of this most powerful gangster’s time. Mickey Collins and Madden were close. Collins imported the bootlegged liquor filling the club patron’s glasses. She even believed he had something to do with how Owen Madden managed to purchase and muscle Jack Johnson out of the Deluxe. But if Collins, a reported ex-member of the Five Points Gang, was to be feared and respected for his connections to the mob, Romano’s ruthless reputation made him the god they all bowed in respect to.
Her friend, a cigarette girl by the name of Paulette, told her just days ago he had asked for her schedule one night when she was absent. It was the first time she knew her suspicions were true. Romano had eyes for her. She was sure of it. Tonight, Harmony hoped that attention would pay off.
For Willie’s sake.
Vincenzio ‘Vinnie’ Romano eased back into the soft leather of his booth seat. This club had become a habit. She was becoming his habit. Otherwise he’d stick to his own territory.
Romano wasn’t unfamiliar with the nightlife along Lenox Avenue. He grew up cracking skulls and breaking the law with his best friend Lucky around the gambling dens and brothels in Five Points. Lucky went on to become a part of the Five Points Gang. Vinnie had no intention of trying to belong. In fact he created the Black Hand, a gang that helped him earn his respect, elbows to fist all the way. His reputation was rumored to have reached his powerful father in Sicily. No one questioned his authority, at least not to his face. His Sicilian blood and being the son of Don Giuseppe Romano had sealed his destiny.
Signaling for another whiskey, Romano ignored the prattle of his kid brother and focused on the vision of beauty before him. Lately he couldn’t get Antonio to shut the fuck up about the money flowing in and out of Harlem. It was Antonio who originally brought him to the club after he had refused several invitations from Madden. The Cotton was a whites only establishment, no race mixing in or near its doors. Still Romano thought the club beneath him. That was until he saw her. He wouldn’t have paid her any mind if it weren’t for her voice, it took him by surprise when he first heard her. He wasn’t a man often surprised. After witnessing the songbird’s talents he ordered one of his men to go out and buy the best jazz records in the city.
Romano licked the bitter taste of his half smoked cigar from his lips and she drew him in. They called her Harmony. He chuckled when he first heard her stage name and discovered it was indeed her Christian name. The doll had class. He had to give her that.
Harmony’s hips swayed, her hands eased up and down her curvaceous sides as her voice went from smoky to wickedly sexy and low. Romano leaned forward, Harmony was in rare form tonight—and something was different. Sweetheart was singing to him. He was sure of it. Songbird was looking him directly in the eye. He liked that.
What a dame.
Medium in height with skin sepia brown as if brushed with ginger, Harmony Jones had full succulent red lips that made him lick his own. Her cheekbones were high on her heart shaped face. A distinct feature that made her almond shaped eyes slant and disappear under dark lashes when she flashed a coy smile through her performance. And her trademark was always present in her dark wavy hair. A white rose, pinned behind her right ear. She sang of desire. How she burned for more. And she dressed the part. Demure from the front but unashamedly provocative when she turned to the orchestra and revealed the low cut back. Tonight her clingy garment was the deepest shade of purple and seemed to sparkle with violet lights as if the most precious stones were woven into the thin fabric. A sweetheart-shaped bodice separated and lifted her ample breasts upward. What a rack! Romano was a breast man; she was full in the hips and chest, as he liked his women.
Harmony’s shifting loose sequined hem flattered her legs. When Harmony moved, and her hips often did in time with the melody, it provoked every man in the place to wonder about the softness between those thighs. Romano held back. Taboo barriers between coloreds and whites didn’t mean shit to him. If he wanted anything or any woman, the rules never applied. No. Romano held back for his own reasons. Boredom would set in when a conquest became too easy, especially after a dame’s submission made her think his prominence meant something profitable for her. He’d rather worship this beauty, untouched, from afar. Still he wasn’t a man to be teased, and his songbird was tempting the beast in him tonight.
“So as I was saying,” Antonio’s nasal drone mowed down his wandering thoughts.
Romano dropped his gaze over to his second in command. “What? What were you saying?”
Antonio Romano was short, and thin, with a scar that ran from his left brow down to the middle of his cheek thanks to a nasty childhood knife fight. Antonio wasn’t a thinker. He was a doer, and without the strong hand of his older brother he would have wound up on the same path as any stick-up man with a trigger-happy temper.
“Out with it.” Romano said.
Antonio cleared his throat. “Collins’s on the level. He’s square. This I know for sure. Take a look around Vinnie. This joint is tops. Cops don’t bother Madden, and the booze is constantly flowing. Give me the okay and we can own this scene. All of it Vinnie, the numbers banks, I’m talking top to bottom… it’s prime for picking, Harlem and all.”
“You feeding me a line?” asked Romano.
“No. I’m just weighing in is all. I got the right to speak my mind. This isn’t Sicily. Papa has no say in the men we become or the way you do things. Still we’re blood, and we’re in this together. Hey, forget about it. What do we need with Harlem? Bronx’s doing alright.” Antonio took a quick sip of his drink, his gaze bounced from his brother’s ashtray to his watchful stare. Romano could smell a setup. His brother stunk of it.
“You’re restless little brother. I see it. Doesn’t mean I have to act on it. You got rights? You have the rights and privileges I say. Capice?” Romano asked.
Antonio’s jaw tensed. Romano eyed him, waiting. His brother didn’t respond. He threw back the last of his whiskey then slammed the glass on the table. “Hey toots!” he barked at the cigarette girl. “Get a wiggle on over here. Will ya?”
The leggy toffee brown skinned brunette walked over in fishnet stockings and a corset with her tits packed tight in the front like cantaloupes. Around her neck hung a cigarette case. Romano’s eyes cut past them both to Mickey Collins off at the bar. Mickey lifted his glass to him. So now Collins had Antonio making his case? Romano smirked. There was something to it.
The foxy brunette flicked her lighter, sparking a flame that burned down the tip of Antonio’s ciggy. She cut her hazel brown oval eyes over to the mob boss. “Mr. Romano, what can I do you for—cigar, cigarette?” She dipped so he could get a full view of her wares accentuated by her breasts.
Antonio leaned out of the booth. His eyes did a slow climb up her legs and under the ruffled hem of her chorus-girl skirt. He exhaled a wave of smoke from his nostrils and smiled in approval. Paulette ignored Antonio. She flicked her golden lighter open and leaned in to ignite Romano’s cigar. Standing upright, the brunette struggled to hide her disappointment.
“You new?” asked Antonio.
She blinked her reply, turned her boobs to his line of view. “No sir. They call me Paulette, I’m tall, tan and terrific!” she said. It was a canned response that the girls must all say in greeting.
“Yea well beat it, Paulie. Can’t ya see we discussing business here?”
Paulette made a quick exit. Antonio chuckled. “Check out the gams on that dame,” he said with a sly grin. “Always been a leg man. Not into dark meat though.”
“Tell me, exactly when did you become the man to sing and dance for Mickey Collins?” Romano asked.
“Aww Vinnie, I was just flapping my gums. Pay it no mind,” Antonio gave a double shoulder shrug. Romano remained unconvinced, but he let it go.
Fletch waved his hand in front of the orchestra and ended the set. Harmony took her cue and gave a curt nod of thanks to the applause. She didn’t look over at Romano. She didn’t have to. The pull of his stare rained heat through her bones.
I should walk over there and lay it all out for Romano. Tell him about Willie and ask for his help. Isn’t that the way of the Sicilians? The powerful men are lord and master over the weak and needy. I heard Milo call this one the boss of all bosses. That’s how Lewis would address him too, Boss Romano. He’d say you give a man like Romano your burden, and for a price the boss will relieve you of it? Funny he didn’t look old enough to be so powerful. He definitely had a liking for my singing. Harmony laughed bitterly to herself. That may be but this is Harlem, girl, and you’re a jazz singer that can’t even enter through the front door of the club everyone comes to hear you sing at. Since when did the desires or needs of a colored woman mean a damn thing to a dangerous Sicilian like him? And if Madden gets wind of my plans I’ll be on my hands and knees scrubbing floors again.
Blowing a final kiss to the audience in gratitude for the applause, she bowed to Henderson then quickly switched off the stage, but stopped short of the arriving tap-dancing girls to catch her breath. From her concealed position she stole another look to the Sicilian, he continued to watch with the same blank expression he wore when he arrived. Without the glare of the stage lights she could see him clearly. Romano had dark olive skin for a white man, with hair smoothed from his face in a golden brown wave, tapered low at the nape and with extended long sideburns. His serious features were chiseled into a strong jaw line and squared, dimpled chin. Deep-set eyes under a straight silken brow were intense, profound. Romano had no facial hair. He didn’t smile but she did notice a brief reaction. The corner of his mouth tipped upward to something Mr. Madden said, when he arrived at his table to offer a welcoming. She wondered what color his eyes truly were?
“Did you hear me Mony?”
Harmony stole a glance back over her shoulder at Milo, and then returned it to the mob boss across the room. Milo followed her stare.
“Oh no, Miss Mony, no,” Milo said, taking her hand. He walked her further away behind the curtain. Beyond earshot, he took hold of both of her arms tightly.
“What’s eating you?” Harmony struggled, trying to break free.
“Mony, what’chu think you’re doing? Do you know who that there man is?”
“Let go, Milo.”
“It’s Vinnie Romano. Yes! I know who he is.”
“No. Wrong. Vincenzio Romano and next to Collins, he’s the guy. Dangerous. Very dangerous Mony, do you understand? He’s not someone you want to tease. And if Madden sees you giving him the eye, lord Mony, have you lost your senses? I’ve been trying hard to keep them white boys off you, and you giving that man eyes? I seen ya, during the act. You was singing to him. Christ, I think he knows you were singing to him.”
“Willie’s missing, Milo. He ain’t been home. I don’t know where he went or how long he’s been gone for. Just that he is.”
“That ain’t a Romano problem. That’s a Willie problem,” Milo hissed, lowering his voice under the soft patter of more girls in sailor shirts and miniskirts running by in their tap shoes.
“But Willie’s my problem, and Romano may be the only way to fix this. Mickey Collins sure as hell won’t.”
“Why Romano?” Milo asked.
“Paulette say that Antonio Romano was seen with Collins men and Willie out back during an unload. Mr. Madden was angry. Yelling. He struck Willie and then Willie run off. Paulette say Antonio Romano went after him. That’s the last anybody seen of my brother. Now folks saying that Collins think Willie stole from him. None of it make no sense. I’m hoping I can get to the bottom of this mess.”
“Paulette? That girl would sell wolf tickets to her own mama’s funeral. I heard the rumors and they mostly lies. What the hell would Antonio Romano care if Madden gets rough with Willie?”
“Dammit, he missing, you hear anything I said?”
Milo stepped back. He looked at her as if her head had rolled off her shoulders. What she said deserved the response, but she was the only help her brother had if these gangsters were after him. Harmony trusted Milo. She trusted him with her life, and Milo was right. He had kept the advances at bay from men that thought they were entitled to cross the line. But his perceived power was as far as Madden and his band of thugs would let it be. If he stepped out there and into this mess, Milo would be swatted back like a fly.
“He’s missing. I gots to find him. He could be in all kinds of trouble.”
“What’s your plan? Boss Romano won’t help you if Willie’s on the lam, or worse if he got mixed up with that crazy brother of his. I hear all kinds of tales about Antonio Romano. And if Willie stole Collins’ money, he’s a dead Negro.”
“Maybe, maybe not. If what you say is right… but what if’n it ain’t? What if I can change that?”
Milo threw his hands up. “You one confused girl if’n you think you can.” He mumbled then walked off. Harmony stopped herself from going after him. Turning, she leaned out and looked across the club. Romano was still there. Dangerous or not, she had to try. Besides, they had a connection. It wasn’t her imagination. And not since Lewis had she ever felt so drawn to a man. That would be her secret though. Nothing she did or said from this moment would make her secret desires a reality. For now Willie would be her reason. Harmony was all her little brother had.
After the beauty left the stage Romano checked his timepiece again. Mickey Collins had requested a meeting. His gaze lifted to see the gangster at the bar. Collins raised his glass to him in a mock toast. Romano dismissed him. Antonio was in his element in Harlem. Tonight however he noticed his brother kept checking the faces of the men and women serving. He seemed a bit surly as well. Which meant Antonio was holding back.
“Any word on when we can move my shipment? The boys are ready to do it tonight?”
“Huh? No. We need a few more days.”
Romano’s gaze narrowed. “Days?”
Antonio pulled on his collar as if it were choking him. His face flushed as he downed the shot of whiskey on the table.
“What the hell do you mean days?” Romano said his voice steely and low.
“Thing is Vinnie, the cops are all over the shipyard because of some mess with the Germans. I think it best we cool it for now. Just to be sure there’s no hassle.”
“I want it moved tonight. Chief O’Brien will make sure it’s no problem.”
“Something else on your mind?”
“Wondering if you should talk to Collins. I hear he’ll be dry soon. Might be wanting to do some business.”
“Can it.” Romano ordered. “I know you’ve met with these men. I also hear you’ve offered protection for the Forty Thieves from their trouble with the same cops you claim are holding up my booze. I’m giving you a pass, a chance to come clean, something I need to know?”
A deep shade of pink stained his brother’s cheeks. Romano may not care to do business in Harlem but it didn’t mean he didn’t know the players. Right now there were hustles run by a black woman named Madame St. Clair or as most called her, Queenie. She had big designs to open her own numbers bank and force the Sicilians out, but no funding. Add to her lofty goals was her influence and control over a white gang of men. The bitch had balls.
However crafty Queenie’s Forty Thieves were they continued to have a persistent problem with the authorities and Antonio was generously helping by using his name. His brother’s pet projects were of no concern to him on this turf, with these Negroes. Except when it came to his booze. He’d put Antonio in charge of a twenty thousand dollar stash that was to be sent down to Atlantic City. A week of it being locked up in a warehouse had him on edge. He wanted that business done.
“I can explain.”
“You will explain. And you’ll tell Collins there’s no room at the table for any meeting. If that changes, it’s when I say. Not a day before. Understood?”
Antonio narrowed his eyes but held his sharp tongue. He forked his pasta and slurped up his dinner with an obedient grunt. Romano had almost decided to leave when suddenly, she appeared. His Songbird was brought to his table by the maître d’.
“Excuse me, Mr. Romano,” said Charlie with a polite nod.
Antonio stopped chewing. Sauce dripped from his chin. He frowned, getting a better look at the jazz singer who shyly stood behind Charlie. He glanced over at his brother a bit curious.
“What is it?” asked Antonio, wiping at his chin.
“Miss Harmony. She wants to speak with you, sir.” Charlie looked pointedly at Romano, ignoring Antonio altogether.
Romano set his glass on the table. He leaned forward and saw her clearly through heavily lidded eyes. Harmony met his gaze dead on and a hint of a smile touched the corner of his mouth. “By all means,” he said.
He watched her straighten her back and step forward to the edge of the curtained booth. She seemed confident he would grant her wish. This intrigued him. “Mr. Romano, sir, my name is Harmony Jones.”
“Take a walk, Antonio.”
Antonio’s pout clouded his judgment. “I wasn’t done Vinnie.”
Romano cut down his brother’s objection with a silencing yet commanding look. Wiping sauce from his face Antonio slammed the napkin on the table. He eased out of the booth. Charlie bowed deeply and backed away, signaling the waiter to bring Antonio a complimentary whiskey to ease his mood.
Romano nodded once and she accepted his offer to sit.
“Harmony. Interesting name doll.”
“My Grams named me. She said I was born feet first, screaming. She knew with my lungs I was destined to sing. Guess she was right.”
“Ah, well she must be proud of the songbird you turned into.”
Romano nodded. He tapped his finger on the table and stared at her. She looked away, but it was evident she didn’t approach him to fish for a compliment. She wanted something, as most dames did. That was fine with him. Her being able to get it was a different matter.
“Call me Vinnie.”
Harmony looked him in the eye. He liked that. “Vinnie. I asked to speak to you because of my brother.” She pulled her hands down into her lap and cleared her throat in an attempt to steady her shaky voice. She was nervous, he liked that too. “His name is Willie, Willie Jones. On the streets they call him Little Will. He works here at The Cotton, drink waiter to the tables. He also um, runs errands for Mr. Collins. Mickey Collins.”
“I don’t know your brother,” he grumbled. Maybe it woulda been better if she’d kept her mouth shut. His interest in her tale was ebbing away by the minute.
“Yes, I know,” she said quickly. “I mean to say, I know who you are. My brother’s missing. I haven’t seen him in nearly a week. Word is Mr. Collins is blaming him for something. Not sure what. There must be some misunderstanding. Willie would never do anything wrong. Never. I was wondering if you could possibly help me a turn.” She hurried through the rest, to out pace his impatience. “Help me find him.”
“Why not go to Mickey? He works for him.”
Harmony stiffened at the question. “Not to be disrespectful, but surely you of all people know that Mickey Collins would snap my neck for asking about his business. And there is another reason.”
Romano’s brow arched curiously.
“I hear tale that your brother might have seen him last. He might know why Willie run off. Maybe he can help clear up the matter. I, uh, I couldn’t approach him either. For obvious reasons.”
Romano settled on the answer. This one here was smart. Harmony continued to maintain his stare, he knew men who weren’t as bold. “I thought I’d have better chances with you, since I’ve noticed you watching me.”
“Enjoying my show.”
The tension in his jaw made it feel tight, and his gaze leveled on her pretty face under drawn brows. To say he was surprised was an understatement. The Negress was trying to turn him. How could she possibly know his lustful desires when she sang across the dining hall to a crowd of unappreciative bastards and never gave him a second glance? She couldn’t know. Could she?
What chance did she think she could have for him to care about some hooch runner in Mickey’s crew? And what’s this with Antonio and Harlem? The more he heard about his brother’s interest in the people here the more his suspicions rose. Especially considering his and Antonio’s history with people of color. He dropped his cigar to the ashtray and blew a long stream of smoke through his nose. “Interesting. I’ll need more information on your brother.”
Harmony nodded quickly.
Antonio reappeared; a few of Romano’s best men were in tow. His brother had a cold congested look of disapproval settled over his face, which seemed to disconcert Harmony because she lowered her gaze to her hands until Romano’s words brought her focus back to him.
“Let’s discuss this later, in private.”
“Private?” Harmony glanced from his stare to their audience. It appeared she quickly understood what private meant. Crestfallen, she averted her gaze, if she had been a shade or two paler he was sure he’d see humiliation rising pink on her cheeks.
The band was warming up. Harmony glanced over and Romano noticed the saxophonist’s beckoning stare. “I’ll meet you at the front of the club, if that’s okay.”
Romano nodded. She was dismissed.
Harmony’s gaze lifted to Antonio who made no effort to move. She glanced once more to the ruthless Sicilian that could possibly save her brother’s life. He flicked his fingers for his brother to back off. Antonio did, with a snort of distaste.
“Thank you.” said Harmony meekly, and she eased out of the booth. She straightened her dress with a tug at the sides. Her breasts heaved, drawing the stares of the others. Quickly, she stepped around Antonio. She could feel eyes on her backside as she sashayed to her safety zone, to the wings of the stage. She didn’t dare look back. If she did she’d lose her nerve.
The orchestra played the vamp as Harmony returned to the microphone. Fletch shot her a worried look. Milo slipped her a warning nod that Mr. Madden was indeed watching her now. She closed her eyes to block the disappointment she’d read on the rest of her bandmates’ faces, and began to sing. When she opened her eyes, Romano’s table was again crowded with Sicilians. But only one pair of eyes was fixed on her. His.
* * * * *
“If you think Boss Romano is going to save Willie over some Negro in a skirt, you’re crazy!”
“Oh pipe-down Milo, I know the man isn’t the least bit concerned about Willie,” Harmony said in a gentle but firm tone. She changed behind the dressing screen where only her silhouette could be seen.
“Mony, Lil Will isn’t worth the trouble. If he’s double-crossing these men, he’s a dead boy either way!”
“Don’t you dare say that, Milo! Say it again and I want you out.”
“It’s true. Willie has to be either suicidal or dumb to think he could get away with stealing. He hiding for that reason. Either way you won’t be able to save him. You have to know this. Boss Romano wants one thing and if you leave with him, you won’t have any choice but to give it to him.”
Harmony came from around the screen wearing only her slip and a tight lip scowl. She opened her mouth to counter his prediction but dismissed the effort. Instead she picked up her peach and white floral dress drawing it down over her head. “Do me?” She turned to give him her back.
Milo rose and zipped her up, his hand lingered for a moment on her hip then dropped away. “Mony, listen to me. What would Lewis think?”
Harmony closed her eyes at the mention of her sweet dearly departed Lewis. The pain over his death was beyond her tears. She waited a beat for the anger and longing to shift to a bearable degree in her heart.
“Lewis is dead. He went out there and got himself killed working for men like Romano. I won’t lose my brother too. He’s all I have.” She turned to face her friend. “What Lewis would think don’t matter. What you think don’t matter a damn either sugar. All that matters is the promise I made to Grams. Willie’s seventeen and right or wrong he’s my kid brother. I got to try to save him, even from himself. Vinnie Romano sits out there every night I sing and burns a hole in me from across the room. If there is a small chance that gangster will help deal with another, especially the likes of his rattlesnake brother Antonio and that racist pig Mickey Collins, then I’m gonna take it. That’s the end of this discussion, Milo.”
Harmony stalked over to the vanity. She dropped down in front of the mirror. Picking up pins, she captured her loose unruly curls and pinned them back, flat to her head. If she thought about what could happen, she wouldn’t be able to pull it off. Willie’s fate would be sealed then. If it isn’t already.
From the mirror’s reflection Harmony saw Milo drop in the chair behind her. She knew his fear. A colored girl in Harlem had few options and fewer choices. If your skin was medium brown to fair you might get a chance. At The Cotton they called mulattos ‘tans’ and gave them top billing. She barely passed that test. So for her, singing jazz for rich white folks by night liberated her from doing laundry for the same white folks by day. She was lucky. Milo had gotten her a brownstone in Sugar Hill, where all the other musicians, painters, authors, poets and Negro elite lived. It belonged to a friend of his. The person, whom she never met, allowed a reasonable sublease once she became a headline attraction at The Cotton Club. This is why Willie’s fool hearted ways hurt her so. Here she was breaking her back to give him more, and he was running those streets.
Milo had been Lewis’s best friend and an associate of Fletcher Henderson. Behind her back he hustled an audition for her at the newly opened Cotton Club when her washboard could no longer put food on the table without Lewis’s earnings. His reasoning made little sense then, but now it did. Singing was all she had left. It was all she was.
“Singing jazz ain’t the sin Mony, though, what them boys do out the back door with the bootlegging and gambling is. I’ll give you that. What I’m asking really ain’t no worse than singing in your church.”
“That’s baloney. I see them girls coming from 125th street. I’m tellin’ you I ain’t no jazz singer. Singing hymns is far from it.” She spit on her heated iron and pressed back down on the linen for Mrs. Ward, running the steam over to flatten the wrinkles.
“Hear me out. Fletch is forming his band. You know Jack Johnson done sold Club Deluxe to those gangsters. The place is called The Cotton Club now and it’s big time, bigger than the Apollo. Gonna make us all famous.”
“What that mean to me?” Harmony grunted. She set down the iron to shake out the sheet she washed clean of stains for the Wards until her fingers cramped and the skin on her hands wrinkled.
“It mean a new start. You grieving for Lewis and I understand it, but he gone. I swore to take care of you. Best I can. That’s what this deal means. And if you do it, I can get you out of here, to a better place.”
“You talking crazy!” Harmony laughed.
“I’m talking opportunity.”
Harmony folded the sheet to a sensible square and set it atop of the rest of the laundry. Sweat beaded over her brow and the bridge of her nose. It was hot as Hades with both windows open. Leaving the one room flat she shared with Willie and Lewis was a dream when he was alive. She had no hope that after losing him it would be any part of her reality. Milo was feeding her a line. She wiped at her face with the back of her hand. “I can’t tap or dance, I ain’t been no further than the church pew. This here is all I knows. So this here is where I stay.”
“Can’t or won’t? Don’t be dense girl. What options you got? Lil Will is in them streets more and more daily. Is he doing anything to keep you in this place? I didn’t think so. You gone make it on pennies now that Lewis gone?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Mony, that’s what I’m saying. Take care of yourself. Besides Lewis used to say you got the pipes. He worked this deal for you girl.”
“Lewis did not.”
“That’s why I’m here. He knew there was a chance, that uh, you may need looking after. So he spoke to Henderson about you. Think on it. What harm can come of it? Sugar Hill, no more white folks’ laundry, doing what you love, how is that not your dream? I’ll watch out for you, you got my word.”
“Milo you kept your promise. You’ve done a lot.”
He had tried to protect her. Kept the paying clientele off her, and even withstood Mr. Madden’s wrath. There were times she saw more in his intentions. His lingering touches and lust filled looks when she sang. But they never crossed that line and right now she felt ashamed that she knew he understood the lines she would cross for her brother.
“I love you for wanting to protect me. I’ll be just fine. I can handle myself.”
Milo rose and without a word walked out of her dressing closet. He slammed the door. Harmony jumped at the final message. Her eyes lifted to her reflection in the mirror. She allowed herself no illusions about what the night would bring. “I’ll be just fine. Just fine.” She picked up her lipstick to dab the ruby gloss across her lips. Her shaking fingers belied her confident words.