Tonight was the night. New York City twinkled, skyscrapers gleamed, and Eliza Stark sat in a cab with her brother on their way to a real New York speakeasy.
She had tagged along to the East Coast with Tony, who was keen on making her an advantageous match with a business partner of his. While not eager to settle down just yet, she still dressed to impress. Nothing less would be expected of an heiress like her.
Shrugging further into the sable fur coat Tony had bought her for the trip - coats weren't really a necessity in Los Angeles, but the were in New York - Eliza followed behind her elder brother as they headed toward Gianetti's Funeral Parlor, attempting to look as inconspicuous as possible.
Even though she knew it was just a front, Eliza couldn't help but think the funeral home was real. The bell above the door dinged as Tony opened it for her, and it sure smelled like a funeral home. Dry carpet mixed with salt from people's tears and embalming fluid. She shuddered, thinking of their parents' funeral when she was much younger.
A dour-looking man approached them as Tony was helping her out of her coat. He had a bald head and pointed nose and reminded her of the strange night creature in the picture show Tony had taken her to a few years ago.
"Welcome," he said, hands behind his back, "may I assist you?"
"Yes, we're here for Aunt Rosie's funeral," Tony said without missing a beat.
The man eyed them, narrow eyes scanning Eliza a bit too closely for her liking. "I see. Were you close to the deceased?"
"As close as we could be," Tony said, patting his breast pocket. The gesture didn't go unnoticed, and the man nodded deeply.
"Coffee and cake are this way," the man said, leading them through a viewing hall with a closed casket, a few scattered people dabbing their eyes, and flowers that Eliza suspected were fake. They ducked behind the podium and came to a door. The man knocked four times, paused, then knocked twice more. A lock twisted free, and the man ushered them into a dim hallway that looked like it housed offices. One of the five doors opened and a brick wall-shaped man in a dark green suit stepped out.
Eliza could hear laughter and uptempo music coming from behind the guard, and she wanted - craved - to be part of that crowd. Part of the reason she didn't want to settle down was that she didn't think a husband would approve of her going to speakeasies and god forbid, drinking. She didn't think there was a man in the world who could handle her modern ideas and independent spirit. Eliza Stark was a modern woman through and through.
Tony, who had been careful to stay a step or two in front of Eliza, glanced back at her. She stepped forward, flashing the guard her most dazzling smile.
"Coffee and cake?" She asked, angling her chin toward the floor and blinking her blue eyes at him. With the mascara drawing focus to her eyes, it was quite an effect. She'd talked millionaires into giving her diamonds with little more than that look.
"Fifty cent cover," the guard said, clearly resistant to her charms.
She looked over her shoulder at Tony, who already had his cash out. He paid the cover and the guard stepped aside.
Down a narrow staircase, and the music got louder, the laughter clearer. Eliza could hear clinking glasses as her fingers traced the plaster wall. Once she got low enough the space opened up on a cavernous room. It seemed impossible that a room this size could be underneath a funeral parlor. Maybe they had bought the buildings next door and expanded? It didn't matter. The stage was off to the left where girls in lingerie and ostrich feathers danced to the live band. The bar was to the right.
A large chandelier cast the most light, with individual candles on the tables and lights behind the bar. The room was lit in a warm glow and smelled of champagne and musty basement. Eliza felt right at home.
Tony put a hand on Eliza's elbow, guiding her toward a table near the stage. She twisted out of his grasp and motioned toward the bar. "I'll go grab us some drinks."
"Gin Rickey," Tony ordered, eyes fixed on the dancing girls. She rolled her eyes at her brother and palmed her velvet coin purse, dancing her way around the tables to the bar.
Thick, dark mahogany gleamed under her looked brand new. It likely was. Eighteen inches deep and at least twenty feet long with no visible seams, like it came from the tallest tree in the Amazon.
"What can I get you?"
Eliza looked up into a pair of cerulean eyes and her breath caught in her throat. Blonde hair, blue eyes, and broad shoulders greeted her along with a near-perfect smile. She was suddenly self-conscious, a hand going to her pearl headband. She hoped the winter wind hadn't mussed her hair too bad on the walk in.
"Gin Rickey and a Bee's Knees," she ordered. God, he was even more handsome on second glance. His shirt was buttoned down underneath a slim-fitting vest, and he had rolled the sleeves up. That only accentuated how well muscled his arms were. Indeed, how well his whole body was built. Something in his eyes sparked as he took her in.
"Coming up," he said, starting to mix the drinks. Eliza forced herself to direct her attention toward the stage in order to prevent her ogling him.
"These for you and your fella?" He asked, some kind of local accent tinting his words. Eliza didn't know which one - Queens, Midatlantic, Brooklyn, maybe?
Eliza looked back at him, running her gaze over his body, "My fella?"
"The guy you came in with?" He inclined his head toward where Tony was sitting. Eliza let out a laugh.
"That's my brother," she explained, "he's much older than I am. He's a bit of a dirtbag when it comes to women. I would warn your dancers before it's too late."
The bartender chuckled in response, "I'll let them know."
They lapsed into silence as he continued working on the drinks, and Eliza's gaze drifted around the room.
"Gotta say," the bartender said, pouring the first drink into lowball glass. "I'm a little relieved that you're not with that guy."
"Why?" Eliza asked, "because he's my brother or because he's a dirtbag?"
"Because you are the prettiest dame to walk in here in a long time. And my mother taught me to never covet another man's gal," he said with a wink as he poured the second drink into a coupe glass.
Eliza was dumbfounded. She hadn't been so blatantly flirted with in a while. The only men she'd been in contact with recently were Tony's business partners that he was hoping would try and court her, but once they heard her ideas on modernity and feminism they went running for the hills.
He presented her drinks to her, and she paid him more than what was owed. When she reached for the drinks, their hands touched and she felt an electric spark between them. She reluctantly left the bar with hers and Tony's drinks.
Tony wasn't alone at the table, however. A man in a grey suit and horn-rimmed glasses sat across from her brother, a drink already in his hand. A glance at Tony's face told Eliza that he was less than thrilled at the other man's presence, but that he was tolerating it. He smiled at Eliza's approach.
"Ah, here she is! Eliza, this is Justin Hammer of Hammer Industries," Tony motioned to the blonde man, who nearly tripped over himself pulling out Eliza's chair. "We were just talking about the new Defense contracts Justin got himself."
Eliza sat and passed Tony his drink. She was surprised he didn't down it instantly. Justin sat back down uncomfortably close to Eliza, which she chalked up to the small size of the table. She tucked her feet under her chair, hoping to put some space between her knees and Hammer's.
This wasn't the first time this had happened. Tony was adamant that Eliza make a match and settle down. Surprise guests at dinner had become more common in the last few months. He would invite her to a party and introduce her to every single man there - even a few non-single ones.
"Surely Eliza doesn't want to listen to our shop talk," Justin said, flashing her a congenial smile. He wasn't not handsome, but there was something slimy about him that reeked of desperation. New money, she figured, clawing his way up the social ladder.
Eliza interrupted him, "Actually, I was just reading about the new radio wave detection technology. Seems promising, I wonder why Hammer Industries hasn't gotten into that field."
Justin blinked and Tony smirked. For as much as she didn't want to engage for fear of giving Justin the wrong impression, she couldn't stand when the men in the room assumed she didn't know what they were talking about. That she was a poor little woman, meant to keep quiet until the topic of conversation turned to fashion or society gossip.
"Well that's what the government contracts are for," Justin sputtered.
"Pardon me for saying, Tony," she put a hand on her brother's in a false display of coyness, "but at Stark Industries we don't wait for the government to give us permission. Our late father, rest his soul, taught us that it's better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. But then again, we've been the largest supplier of cutting-edge weapons for what now, twenty years?"
"Twenty-three," Tony corrected as Eliza paused and took a sip of her drink.
"Right, almost as long as I've been alive."
Justin opened his mouth to retort, but the band struck up a new tune and the dancers started again. It was too loud to continue conversation, and Eliza didn't want to insult the dancers by talking through their act.
Steve couldn't take his eyes off of her. He wiped down the bar and watched her watching the dancers.
The pearl headband she wore looked like a crown in her brown hair. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed pink, but it was her smile that caught him off guard.
It had been a long time since he'd felt anything like this. Not since Peggy.
His left leg twinged in pain and stiffened, the old scar acting up.
"Hey, Steve, you okay?" Bucky asked from his position at the other end of the bar.
Steve gritted his teeth as the pain passed, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"You wanna go sit in the back for a second?"
"Nah, I'm fine."
Beside him, Steve felt Bucky follow his eyeline. His sharpshooter's gaze caught on the beautiful woman and he smirked. "Ahh, I get it."
"Why you don't want to sit. She's gorgeous." Bucky nodded to the woman, who laughed at something her brother said. "Rich, too."
"What makes you say that?" Steve asked.
"That guy sitting next to her is Tony Stark. Millionaire war profiteer and womanizer extraordinaire," Bucky said bitterly.
"How do you know that?"
Bucky walked back toward his spot at the bar and pulled out a folded newspaper, handing it to his friend. Below the fold on the front page had a picture of the man, Tony Stark, shaking hands with the city commissioner. Apparently he was planning on building a skyscraper downtown and was in town to finalize the deal.
"She told me he's her brother," he said, handing the paper back to Bucky and taking the order of a woman approaching middle age. As he was pouring her the champagne, he glanced back to the table by the stage. While his eyes weren't as sharp as Bucky's, he noticed now that she looked like she came from money. Most of the women who came in tried to look like she did, all of them falling short. The green dress she wore was the latest fashion, probably came straight out of a shop in Paris. A bangle bracelet glittered at her wrist - real diamonds, not rhinestones. The pearls of her headband were probably real as well, he couldn't tell from here.
Steve felt whatever small hope he had evaporate with the foam of the champagne he was pouring. No way a girl from the moneyed class would even glance twice at a bartender from Brooklyn.
He passed the woman her champagne and she paid. When he glanced up again, he caught the Stark girl staring at him while the two men at her table talked. As soon as he caught her, she looked back toward the stage. Steve thought he saw a light flush rise along her neck and a small private smile cross her lips. Hope flickered to life again.
Eliza swallowed the last of her drink and rose to her feet. Since the dancing started she hadn't had to speak to Justin Hammer any further, but she could sense a stage break coming soon and needed another drink before having to continue.
She made her way back to the bar, the Adonis-like bartender in her sight. His eyes caught hers and he half-smiled. Eliza felt her knees go weak at the sight, but somehow managed to make it all the way to the bar.
"You know we have servers for a reason," he said as she sat on a barstool and passed him her glass.
"But if I used them I wouldn't get to come back and see you."
The half-smile grew and her heart picked up speed. He was gorgeous, all broad shoulders and blonde hair. He looked like he belonged in a film rather than a dingy basement bar.
"That's mighty sweet of you," he said, pouring a shot of whiskey for himself and one for her. "Join me?"
She gladly picked up the drink and shot it. The burn felt good on the way down, warming her from the inside out. Although that could be the company she found herself in.
"Thanks, I needed that," she said.
Before he could respond, a shout rose above the noise of the music.
"Raid! Raid! Raid!"
The man who had escorted them in appeared at the bottom of the stairs, his face paler than it had been.
"RAID! Everybody out!"
The last word hadn't left his mouth before the speakeasy burst into chaos. The dancers screamed shrilly, chairs toppled over as people rushed to gather their things. Through the throngs of people, she couldn't see Tony.
A hand on her arm brought her focus back and she looked at the bartender.
"There's a back way out of here, come on!" He urged.
Eliza hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder to see if she could spot Tony. From the top of the stairs, where most people were headed, she could hear shouts of police and high-pitched whistles. As if reading her mind, the bartender gripped her arm and said, "You can find your brother outside, but we gotta go!"
Concern etched his features, and in a split second she chose to trust him. He helped her over the mahogany bar and took her hand as the crowd was forced down the stairs by the police.
Through a dark hallway and up a set of wooden steps and they were outside in the chilly March night. The back door spit them out into an alleyway and Eliza braced herself against the cold. Her breath came in short clouds of air, the only source of warmth was the bartender's hand in hers.
"This way," he said, leading her to the mouth of the alley. He slowed as they reached the sidewalk and guided her back against the brick wall, into the shadows so they were hidden. Looking around the corner, he swore lightly.
"Damn, the cops are all over."
"Do you know another way out?" Eliza asked.
A muscle in his jaw flexed, "Not really. Other side of the alley is blocked off."
"Shit," Eliza said, peeking past her noble rescuer. This put their chests within inches of touching, and she could smell his cologne. He radiated heat, and it almost distracted her from her own small reconnaissance.
Nevertheless, she noticed two officers headed their way. Not wanting them to notice her, she ducked back against the brick.
"Two headed this way," she whispered, looking around the alley for a better place to hide. But where better to hide than in plain sight? Without thinking, she grabbed the collar of the bartender's shirt and planted his lips on hers. At first his body tensed, but then he must've heard the sound of the police boots on concrete and put his hands on her waist, pulling her closer and kissing her back with hunger.
The boots paused briefly, but Eliza didn't pay them much mind. She felt like her blood was on fire, and it wasn't just from the drinks. He had her pinned between his solid chest and the wall and it was quickly becoming her favorite place in New York. His hands roamed her back, careful to stay above her waist and away from her front. Her hands had dove into his hair. Beautiful, blonde, and silky. She relished the way it felt between her fingers.
A few seconds passed, and the boots made a hasty retreat. Much to her dismay, the bartender pulled away, but he stayed close.
"That was," he paused, his voice husky, "unexpected."
Eliza;s face flushed more, "Sorry, I-I heard the cops coming and...I didn't think. I'm so sorry."
He put a finger under her chin and made her look into his eyes. "No need to be sorry. And, hey, it worked. They're gone."
"Think there are any more around here?" She asked. A cruiser whizzed past the alleyway a second later, and the bartender nodded. He moved her back into the shadows.
"Why, wanna try that again?" He teased. She opened her mouth to reply, but was caught in a vicious bout of shivers. In a bold move, he reached out and rubbed her arms for a second, the heat welcome. "Wait here," he said, dipping back into the dark stairwell they'd emerged from. She was about to call out to him when he emerged again, with two men's coats. He tossed one to her and she caught it, feeling the rough dark wool. Not at all like the sable, which was undoubtedly lost in the fray.
"Put that on, and take your headband off," the bartender directed as he slid the other coat - this one made of well-worn flannel that had been patched a few times. "We're gonna walk a few blocks and get you a cab, but we gotta be inconspicuous about it, yeah?"
Eliza nodded and carefully disentangled her headband from her hair before sliding her arms into the much-too-large coat. The warmth it offered made her instantly thankful, as her skin had started to freeze.
The bartender looked out onto the sidewalk again and grabbed her hand again, leading her onto the sidewalk at an easy pace. Eliza could hear the noise of people being shoved into paddy wagons headed for downtown. They shouted and cursed the police, and Eliza realized had it not been for the man at her side she'd be among them.
Tony was probably among them. They were almost to the opposite end of the block when she paused, not wanting to glance back lest she give her and her rescuer away, but anxious as to where her brother was. Without a doubt, Tony could talk himself out of this pickle - or at least throw enough money at the cops to get himself out of it. Still, guilt gnawed at her stomach.
"Hey, what's wrong? We've got two blocks before we find a cab," the bartender said, tugging on her arm a bit to rouse her into movement. Eliza obliged, having quashed the guilt and solved her inner moral quandary.
She shoved her hands into the pockets of her borrowed coat. "Nothing."
"That's not the face of nothing," the bartender said. "Worried about your brother?"
She looked at him sideways, "Yes, but he's a grown man. He'll figure it out. I just felt a little guilty for a minute, that's all."
"I used to feel the same guilt about my friend Bucky, but after the first few raids I got over it."
"Bucky?" She asked, quirking an eyebrow at him.
"The other bartender tonight, on the other end of the bar," the bartender explained, his tone nonchalant.
Eliza felt her cheeks flush. She hadn't even noticed another bartender working; she'd been too busy ogling the man walking next to her. "To be honest, I didn't even notice he was there."
"Truly. Guess I was too busy admiring you." She couldn't stop the words as they came out of her mouth. This man had saved her from arrest, she felt like the least she could do was be honest with him. For all she knew, they'd never cross paths again after tonight.
That thought hit her like a ton of bricks, and in that instant she resolved to not let that happen. A plan took shape in her head as they approached the busier street
"Funny you say that," he said, "women usually notice Buck first."
"He's got the dark, brooding, mysterious thing going on. The mystery draws women in like flies to honey," he said, a sardonic smile twisting the corners of his lips upward. There was a hint of bitterness to his words, otherwise she wouldn't have believed him. While she had found the tortured soul type attractive, had dated a few of those types, she couldn't ignore the sparkling wholesome-looking man to her right.
"I bet," she said. The sounds of traffic got louder the closer they got to the cross street. Their goodbye was lingering between them and neither of them wanted to comment on it. They came to the corner sooner than she expected. He hailed a cab for her with a loud, sharp whistle and one of the ubiquitous yellow cars stopped at the curb.
He opened the door for her and she stepped off the curb, then turned to look him in the eye.
"I...I really appreciate what you did for me tonight," she said, "the least I could do is treat you to lunch tomorrow."
This caught him by surprise. His eyes widened and he took a step back, "Oh, I, I couldn't-"
"I insist. Eleven-thirty at the Plaza Hotel. I'll meet you in the lobby!" She declared. In her experience, it was better to give men zero chance to say no. To that effect, she ducked into the cab and sat down. The cab driver asked where she wanted to go, but before she could answer the bartender knocked on the window. She cranked it down.
"I'd love to meet you tomorrow," he clarified, "but I don't know your name."
"Eliza Stark. And yours?"
"Steve. Steve Rogers."
"Nice to meet, you Steve. I'll see you tomorrow." She rolled up the window and the cab pulled away from the curb. Always leave them wanting more, that was her motto when it came to men. For the first time, however, she found herself wanting more. She wanted him to show up tomorrow and had no doubt that he would.
Just before the cab turned the corner, Eliza looked out the back window and caught the eye of Steve, who waved adorably from the sidewalk. She waved back and settled back into the seat.
Oh yeah, she thought, he wanted more.