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A Pair in the Hand

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Lily knew exactly where she'd seen that face before. So did Rosemary – and neither woman was like to forget.

Lily met him when she was just a young thing learning what she had to do to get what she wanted from the world. He couldn't have been much older than her – he was looking to figure out the same thing, but the answers he came up with were different. Still, they had each other for a time. They talked plans, talked on how to make those answers come together. Talked a lot of nothing more than wishes, and then both their lives moved on. She didn't think what he had to offer then was enough to keep her – he figured the same, but knew he could change that with time. When Lily heard the rumours floating into town during the festival, those were the memories she held close to her heart.

What Rosemary remembered was a life of regrets, and things that couldn't be undone. She'd never wanted Big Jim, but rough and powerful as he was, she'd thought she'd be safe with him. Old bad deeds could stay in the past. Fresh ones could be overlooked unless he was their target. She wasn't bad, but it was hard for a woman to take care of herself. And the worst things – Big Jim couldn't save either of them when the worst they'd done came back around.

The Jack of Hearts was the worst she'd done. She remembered holding him in her arms, a tiny wet thing. He'd always had her looks, right from the start. She'd kept him for a time, but when she'd come to this town, she'd had a hard choice. Big Jim wasn't the type to care for another man's brat, and he'd had so much to offer back when she was still young and beauty came more easily. She'd never forgiven herself, but once he'd had her, Big Jim wouldn't let her slip out of his grasp one way or another, and it hadn't mattered. She was his whether or not it was what either of them wanted.

Lily always kept an ear to the ground, and she knew what was going on beneath the cabaret. She kept her mouth shut, thinking about the rewards she would reap if she played her cards right. The vibrations in the floor carried up through her legs, and they felt like freedom. Being close to Jim was never about protection or money – those she could have had without putting up with a gross and petty old man's sad fumblings. It put her in a position to know things, to make plans for the long term. This town, she thought, would never know what hit it: they'd be eating out of her hand instead of Jim's soon enough. It would make her daddy proud. She'd been the one to sell the plans to the vault to the gang, and she knew exactly what their payday would be: all that festival money, holed up and waiting to trickle back into Jim's pockets. Well, not this year. This year the show was going to play out a little differently.

The name Lily'd heard whispered in her back room meetings had made her curious too. She'd been the one to suggest a showy stranger as a distraction. If he came, she didn't know what she'd do. That single unpredictable element introduced an excitement all its own. When he did come, when she caught his eye across the room, she shivered.

Rosemary slipped in late to the show, muttering meaningless excuses. She was a prop, but not essential, especially not when Lily was on stage. She'd never liked Lily or any of his other girls on the side, but it was hard to resent her – Rosemary could see the other woman's future every time she looked in a mirror. Except Big Jim wasn't watching Lily, not this time. Rosemary followed his gaze across the room, and her heart skipped. She could see everything all laid out then, like it was written in the cards. She didn't need a mirror to see the future, it was foretold in the secret smile on her boy's face when he watched the stage, in Lily's lingering glances, in Big Jim's focus on the stranger across the room, cold and hard as a diamond. The stage lights reflected red across them all.

There were so many things in her life that Rosemary knew she shouldn't have done.

She shouldn't have run off with the first man who'd told her she was pretty. She shouldn't have been too proud to go home and take a beating when he left her on her own in Kansas City. She shouldn't have taken that job at that saloon, shouldn't have let that first man up in her rooms, nor the next, or the next. Maybe she should have taken up with that farmer who'd asked her to marry him – she wouldn't have been rich, but she might have been happy. She shouldn't have sent away her boy, and she shouldn't have said yes to Big Jim.

Now Rosemary was torn, briefly. Lily had taken Jim, what little of him she'd had left. And she'd take her boy too, if she could, and that hurt. Lily was of all her mistakes – but maybe she was all her hopes as well. Rosemary couldn’t make anything right, but she could do one good thing, and give them a chance. The knife in her pocket was sharp, its blade a mirror reflecting eyes tired of trying and failing, lately, to capture any attention. Maybe, in the future she saw, she'd claim the stage, but there might not be anyone left to notice.

Rosemary put her hand on Jim's arm. He glanced over and frowned, but he didn't shake her off. In the time it took for him to turn his attention back from her, then from Lily on the stage, the boy who wore her face was gone. Lily's show was ending – another girl came on the stage, her hair bright and blonde, glimpses of a dress short and long legs teased out from behind two large feathered fans. Her name was Daisy, and she might have been the one if it hadn't been Lily, but she didn't have that same flair. Pretty, but no spark. She reminded Rosemary of a girl she'd known when she was younger, when there was another man's attention to vie for. Rosemary had slashed here across the face with her penknife – so vicious. Maybe that man had been her boy's father, but she wasn't sure anymore. He hadn't been worth it either.

Jim stood. Rosemary stood with him. His bodyguards stood as well, but Rosemary shook her head at them, and Jim ignored them all. They would remember later, she knew, but for now they returned their attentions to their drinks; to Daisy and her fans. Jim stalked off towards the back rooms of the little cabaret, and Rosemary trailed along: eyes, intentions, knife – all sharp.

When Lily met the Jack of her heart backstage, they both had bigger plans in their eyes that the other had figured on. She told him that she'd missed him, and he let her show it.

He asked what she was doing there, what she was planning. "This town should be mine," he said, "it's my birthright. I'm going to take him for all he's got."

Lily smiled and kissed him again, plotting. "Big Jim ain't your daddy," she told him. "He ain't got the juice. But I know who your momma is." It filled in so much in his story that a part of her heart broke for him – the rest wasn't so fragile, but she still held him close. It filled in some of Rosemary's too, but Lily wasn't thinking much about her until the door swung open and there she was, standing in Jim's shadow. Like something trying to grow in the shade, the queen of spades – swords, Lily thought, in the old deck. Something silver flashed in Jim's hand – in Jack's – in Rosemary's, and Lily stood outside it, untouched, made of harder stuff: the queen of diamonds after all, and all in red now.

Her first thought was that this hadn't been the plan, but she could work with it.

The second was that two men had fallen at her feet, and neither was dead yet. Rosemary was working on one, that slim little knife she'd pulled from who knows where shoved deeper into the big man's back, right into the heart. Lily pulled the other away from the thrashing. Jim's aim had been thrown off, and he'd just clipped his target in the shoulder. She'd seen worse, and did what she could for him, closing off her heart when it told her this had to be the end for them. Rosemary wouldn't meet her eyes, she just came and held her boy's hand until Jim's thugs arrived. Lily told them what to do, and no one questioned. Not even Rosemary.

Lily set the staff on putting the scene to rights. She let him get away too, and she didn't want to know where. She tried to tell herself this was good – better than she'd planned. No one would stand in her way. She tried to focus on that, but other thoughts interrupted. Rosemary would hang for what she'd done, no question. She knew it – had known it before she even showed up at Lily's door, and she'd done it anyway. That was hard to imagine. With all the things her daddy'd taught her – all the cons and grifting and big plans, how a girl had to look out for herself, she couldn't imagine him taking any kind of fall for her. But Rosemary had been a bad mother, a washed up woman, a hanger on of no account... So she'd thought. Lily didn’t know what to make of her now, and she tried to wash away her thoughts like the blood from her hair.

But it wasn't all said and done just yet. He found her – told her he'd stay if she'd have him, let the rest of his gang take the bank cut, and bet all his chips on her. It wasn't what she'd planned on, but that didn't mean she couldn't work a new hand. Whether that was what she wanted was something she'd need to think about, but she could keep her cards close for now.