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Mending Wall

Chapter Text

Thomas Shelby never really considered himself the neighborly sort. Growing up, Small Heath was more an exercise in shared misery than a convivial network of friends and family. When you were toiling 15 hours a day in a factory, there wasn’t much time left over for making nice with the family next door. The same went for toiling in the mud and dark of a French tunnel. And more of the same for dragging your own family kicking and screaming from Small Heath all the way to a grand house in the country. Simply no time for neighbors.

            In his first years at Arrow House, Tommy didn’t spare a single thought for his neighbors, few as they were in the unfamiliar surrounding countryside. A dead wife, an infant son, a family in and out of prison, and any number of murderous Italians, duplicitous Russian nobles, and belligerent Camden Town Jews didn’t leave him in the mood for pleasantries with the locals. He didn’t think he had once even spared a wave on the rare occasions a car passed down the tree-lined lane in front of his house.

            He knew there was another home—a sprawling pile of bricks similar to his own—perhaps a mile past the stables. Beyond what he could judge from a cursory glance when he rode one of his horses out through the long grass of the fields, he knew nothing of the house or its inhabitants. In any case, the place always seemed buttoned up tight, shutters closed and windows dark, season after season.

            So, nearly three years passed before Tommy spoke a single word to his neighbors. In the end, it turned out that Arthur got the first word—or shout, as it were.

 

            One mid-morning in early May, Tommy was elbow-deep in a pile of ledgers at his desk in Arrow House, eyes already strained from alternating between Lizzie’s tidy hand and Polly’s rushed scrawl, when he heard Arthur yelling somewhere outside. His brother had been down from Birmingham for a few days, eager to hunt in the first of spring’s warm mornings. Arthur had been mad for hunting since John died. Tommy supposed it was a better distraction than booze, or snow, or beating in the face of every man who looked at him wrong in The Garrison, but the population of pheasants and deer around Arrow House was dwindling. Peering out the window, he couldn’t see anyone on the lawn, so he trotted down the stairs and out the back door. Knowing Arthur’s moods, the man was likely cursing a hare that had evaded his shotgun, but enough years in a business like the Blinders had given Tommy more than his fair share of prudence.

            Cresting a rise, Tommy was surprised to see Arthur standing on one side of the tumbledown stone wall that marked the end of the close-cropped lawn and the start of the rough fields beyond. (Those walls, piled carefully by crofters in generations past, were a common feature here. Something else unfamiliar about country life.) A rider on a tall horse stood on the other side of the wall, and Arthur was braying across—something moderately incoherent about trespass and property laws—with his hunting gun slung menacingly on his shoulder. As Tommy got closer, two things caught him by surprise: the rider was a woman, and she looked more bemused than afraid in the face of Arthur’s tirade.

            “Arthur!” Tommy quickened his strides across the lawn until he had reached the unlikely duo. “May I ask what”—he refrained from adding ‘the fuck’ in the presence of the woman—“is going on here.”

            “She’s fuckin’ trespassing on your property, Tommy, and I’m telling her to pack it off, is what’s going on here,” Arthur barked.

            He waved the shotgun on his shoulder in the general direction of the woman and the field beyond. Tommy frowned at his brother and turned his eyes upward to the woman on the horse. Her face was shaded by the brim of her velvet cap, so only a few stray strands of shiny, dark brown hair showed her gender. She was wearing an oversized tweed jacket with sprung elbows, but he surmised its shabbiness was more out of affectation than need. The expensive leather of her tack and boots gave that away—never mind the horse itself, a big-boned bay that would easily fetch a few thousand pounds at auction. Just what they needed at a time when the Shelby family was finally becoming truly legitimate, the daughter of some toff riding home to tell her father about how the pair of Brummie men at Arrow House had threatened her with guns. Before he could think of what to say, the woman spoke.

            “If I’ve trespassed, you have my sincerest apologies. But I’d rather appreciate it if your man would put down the gun. He sprang up from behind the wall like a flushed grouse and started waving it around like a lunatic.”

            She looked from Tommy to Arthur then back again.

            “Arthur,” Tommy said softly.

            He pressed his lips together and nodded at the gun. Arthur’s mouth quirked as though he was about to speak, but a second, more pointed nod from Tommy saw that the shotgun made its way to the grass. His brother stuffed his hands into his pockets in annoyance.        

            “I’m sorry for the rough welcome. And he’s my brother, unfortunately for me. I’m Thomas Shelby, and this is Arthur.”

            Tommy considered offering his hand, but the woman was over the wall and high up on the horse so he settled for a nod. She pushed back her cap and he could see her face clearly for the first time. Young, with fair skin and a long nose that gave her a solemn air.

            “Edith Hughes. I prefer Edie, though, if you don’t mind.” A smile brightened the seriousness of her face. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Shelby. I’m terribly sorry if I’ve caused any trouble. My family owns Langely House, just over the hill.” She shifted in her saddle and gestured back across the field. “I used to ride on this land when Lord Ainsworth owned the property and didn’t think a thing of it this morning. Our house has been closed for quite some time, and I was so pleased to be here again that I forgot Arrow House had changed hands.”           

            “We’re a cautious family, you might say.” Arthur’s voice was gruff and displeased.   

            What my brother means to say is that we’re not accustomed to unnanounced visitors,” Tommy cut in. Veiled threats were little better than waved guns, in his experience with the upper classes. “But I’m a horseman myself and a beast like that deserves to stretch his legs on open land.” 

            Edie glanced down at the horse, patting his muscled shoulder with one gloved hand.

            “He’s called Pilot,” she said, punctuating her words with another pat. “Grand, isn’t he?”

            Arthur, perhaps regretful of his outburst or perhaps to appease Tommy, stepped forward and rubbed the horse’s nose with his fingertips, murmuring, “There’s a good lad.”

            “He’s very fine,” Tommy said. “The two of you are welcome to ride as you like here. Anywhere in the fields beyond this wall.”

            He wanted to step forward and appraise the horse more closely, run his hands down its legs and examine its teeth, but he kept his place on the lawn. From the sound of her accent, Edith Hughes was a London lady, born and bred. No sense in giving her anything to gossip about with her family back in Langely House. It was in the interest of all the Shelbys to keep a low profile out here in the country. A place they could retreat if things got too hot in Birmingham or down south.

            “Thank you, Mr. Shelby.” Edie turned her smile from the horse to him. “Beyond the wall only—you can have my word that I won’t trample your lawn.”

            “Good morning to you, Miss Hughes.”

            If Tommy had been wearing a hat he would have tipped it. Arthur was, so he touched his brim and started back across the lawn with shotgun in hand. Tommy could tell he was still bristling a bit. He started to turn and follow his brother, but Edith’s voice called out behind him.

            “Mr. Shelby!”

            He turned back, hands folded across his waistcoat in anticipation.

            “You said you were a horseman—would you care to ride with me tomorrow? I’ve come up early for the summer and no one else has joined me at the house yet. I’d be glad for a companion, and so would Pilot.”

            Tommy looked at her, wondering if he’d managed at all to mask his surprise. Was it possible that this woman—this girl, really, if he was judging by the smooth skin of her face—truly had no idea who he was? If she did, was she foolish enough to invite a known gangster for a trot around the countryside? Or was she another May Carleton, looking for a fuck to dull the boredom of her big, empty house? No matter the answer to those questions, the best thing he could do was dismiss her as quickly as possible. If she didn’t know who he was, she didn’t need to find out. And if she did, he didn’t need some posh bitch nosing into his business when he had one foot in Parliament and one on the steps to the gallows at any given moment.

            “I’m afraid my work keeps me busy, Miss Hughes. Good morning.”

            He turned away again, more quickly this time, but heard her voice once more.

            “Nonsense, a morning ride does everyone good. I’ll call tomorrow at eight, all right?” The brusqueness of her voice, the assuredness of getting her way, reminded him jarringly of May once again. “Bring a fast horse if you have one, Pilot loves a race.”

           Before he could say no, she had reined her horse around, urging him into a trot toward Langely House. Tommy looked back toward his own house and found Arthur standing in the middle of the lawn, quirking an eyebrow at him.

            “What’ll you do if she turns up on that horse tomorrow, eh?”   

            Tommy gave his brother a sour look.

            “Send her back to fucking Langely House. I’ve got work to do, Arthur.”

Chapter Text

Edie rode up the driveway of Arrow House at promptly eight o’clock the next morning, Pilot’s hooves crunching across the gravel. Truth be told, she had been ready to ride since sunrise. After so long away, her room at Langely House didn’t feel like home yet and she’d tossed and turned through the night. Finally, she’d given up on sleep and rung for tea, drinking two cups as she watched the mist lift off the fields. The housekeeper, Mary Chilton, had been with her family since childhood, and she could see the faint lines of a frown on Mary’s face as she carried in another cup of tea and toast on a tray. She’d tucked a slim volume under the plate.

            “Saw you brought some new books. Thought it might settle your mind to read a bit.”

            “Thank you, Mary.”

            Edie slid the book out. Fitzgerald. She hadn’t been much for This Side of Paradise, but had promised herself she’d try another before giving up on him. This one was short stories, and she thumbed through until a title caught her eye. She had made it through a few pages of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” when Mary reappeared.

            “Miss? The maids are asking which rooms to make up today. When can we expect your lot from London?”          

            “Three weeks at least, I’m afraid. They’ve all stayed in the city until the weather gets warmer.”

            “Not to be forward, Miss, but why didn’t you stay with your friends? Not much for company up here.”

            “I needed a change. This winter in the city, without my grandfather—” Edie rubbed a hand over her eyes. “I wanted a little time to myself.”

            “I understand.” Mary put a hand softly on her shoulder. “We miss him terribly here, too.”  

            Edie kept her eyes focused on the fields outside the window. If she looked up at the older woman, her composure would waver. She swallowed sharply as the clock in the downstairs hall chimed. 7:30.

            “Have you unpacked all my bags? I’m going out to ride this morning and I can’t find my grey jodhpurs anywhere.”       

            “I’ll have a look for them straight away. Be careful riding alone, I’ve heard quite a few hunters out since the weather’s broken.”         

            Abandoning her book and half-finished tea, Edie pushed back from the table and followed Mary toward the stairs.

            “I’m not going alone, I’m going with the neighbor.”                    

            “The neighbor?”

            Mary turned back and looked at her askance.

            “Mr. Shelby. I met him yesterday morning.”

            “Mr. Shelby?” Now Mary looked like she was about to pitch over backward and tumble down the stairs. “I know it’s not my place to say, and your grandfather always gave you free run of this place, but those people at Arrow House are no sort for a girl of your station to be mixing with. They come from Small Heath.”          

            She said the last words as though she was describing a little-known outer circle of hell, all but crossing herself as her voice dropped to a disapproving whisper. This was, Edie reflected, the downside of one’s housekeeper having remained the same since childhood. She still treated Edie like a child. Forever “Miss” here in Langely House.

            “I don’t know where Small Heath is, but Mr. Shelby was perfectly polite yesterday. And if I’m not mistaken, he’s a member of Parliament. It’s not as though I’m going out on a jaunt with the town drunk. Anyhow, he admired Pilot quite a lot, and I think Pilot is as lonely up here as I am. It’s just a ride, I’ll be home in an hour.”

            “Parliament or not, it’s how he got there that matters. They’re not a proper sort, Miss.”       

            “Never mind about the jodhpurs, I’ll just wear the tan again. Don’t look so flustered.”         

            Edie climbed the steps quickly, passing the older woman with a skeptical glance.     

            “He’s only a man, Mary. You have my permission to call the constabulary if I don’t return by eleven.”      

 

            As she approached Arrow House, Edie thought again about her housekeeper’s scandalized expression. Mary was an old-fashioned type to be sure, but not one to be easily ruffled. Maybe she just felt more protective now that William Hughes was gone. Or maybe she’d had a run-in with the other Shelby—Arthur, was it? He seemed like less of the “proper sort” than his buttoned-up brother.

            At the door, she slid down from the saddle and kept Pilot on a long lead as she knocked. There was a long silence and she rapped again, a bit more sharply this time. Finally, she heard the click of footsteps inside. She expected a maid to answer the door, but it opened to reveal Thomas Shelby himself.

            He certainly didn’t look ready to ride, in a dark grey suit and a starched shirt fastened tight against his throat. From the cold flick of his glance over her and Pilot, he hadn’t taken her invitation seriously.

            “Good morning, Miss Hughes.” He had on a flat cap, like the one his brother had been wearing yesterday, and he took it off as he spoke.

            “And to you, Mr. Shelby.” At the sound of her voice, Pilot took a step forward, ears perking. “A good morning for a ride, perhaps? It looks like the sun might peek out soon.”

            Shelby’s eyes turned up toward the sky, resolutely grey. Edie tried to look optimistic.

            “It’ll have to be another time, I’m afraid. I have business this morning in—”

            Before he could say where, a rush of small footsteps sounded from the dark hall and a tow-headed little boy burst into the doorway. Shelby looked down, bemusement softening his face as the boy wrapped an arm around his leg.

            “Daddy!”

            Shelby’s hand dropped down to rest on the boy’s head, ruffling the fine hair. Edie looked on in surprise. Nothing about Arrow House suggested the presence of children, its Gothic windows and unadorned lawn giving off the feeling that it was barely lived-in at all, never mind a family home. She wondered suddenly if Thomas Shelby was concealing a wife in there as well, and if propriety was why he had turned down her invitation to ride. If that was the case, she wasn’t off to a good start with the new neighbors. She would have the wife to tea—

            “Daddy,” the boy said again, looking up at Shelby seriously. Edie noted that father and son shared the same shocking blue eyes. “Nanny says that Aunt Ada is coming today for tea. And she said if I finish my lessons early I can show Aunt Ada my train set. And she said you might take me for a drive in your new car after breakfast, if I—”

            Another set of footsteps, sharper, approached in the hall. Edie began to wonder how many more residents of Arrow House she’d encounter this morning. This one turned out to be the aforementioned nanny, judging by her crisply starched uniform. She had the frizzled gray hair and downturned lips that Edie associated with her own childhood governesses. Poor boy.

            “Charlie, what are you doing out here? Your eggs are getting cold.”     

            “I wanted to see who Daddy was talking to.” The little boy—Charlie—pointed out at her. “She’s brought a horse.”         

            “Don’t point dear, that’s not polite,” the nanny admonished. She grasped his free hand, but he kept his other arm around Shelby’s leg.

            “Is that a new horse for me?”

            Shelby bent over and picked the boy up, turning to meet his eyes and furrowing his brow in mock seriousness. “He’s a bit tall for you, don’t you think?”

            Charlie shook his head firmly.                    

            “Go finish your breakfast and we’ll see about that drive later, eh?”

            He handed the boy over to the nanny, who was immediately subjected to a barrage of rambling dialogue that heavily featured the aforementioned new car. Shelby turned back and straightened his cuffs.

            “Someone thinks you don’t have business this morning.” Edie raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure I can’t change your mind? Half an hour, no more.”

            Shelby breathed in slowly, eyes shifting between her and Pilot. He took a step from the doorway and walked past her toward the horse, murmuring to him softly. Pilot’s nostrils flared as he reached out, but he let Shelby run a hand from shoulder to hoof, then push back his lips around the bit to expose square, blunt teeth. He finally turned back to her, absently scratching the horse’s withers with one hand.

            “Half an hour. If you’ll trade horses with me.” He nodded toward Pilot. “I’d like to see how this one moves.”

Chapter Text

Once they’d reached the stable, Tommy realized what a stupid decision this was. Even if he didn’t have business away from the house today, he was busy. He was a member of Parliament, for fuck’s sake. He had better things to do than go on a ride with the posh girl from the house over the field.

            And she really was a girl, he had been able to see that more clearly close-up on the doorstep. Couldn’t be more than twenty. She’d appeared this morning without the cap and tweed coat, buttoned up all properly in a dark green riding jacket with her hair pinned back in a bun. Clearly had a maid at home to do that. Likely a whole flock of them, as he did now, flitting around the house, nameless and interchangeable. When had he gotten so many fucking maids?

            Only half an hour, so he didn’t bother to change out of his suit before walking her to the stables. She held her horse while he chose another from its stall and saddled it up. His new black filly, a slight and flighty thing that Curly swore could run like a deer if she’d ever settle under the saddle. The mare snorted, dancing down the aisle of the barn, energized by the cool morning air. If nothing else this would get her some exercise. The stable boy was laid up with a broken wrist from a fight at the pub, and Tommy didn’t have time to ride every day. He ought to send the mare off to May, really, but he just hadn’t gotten around to it.

            “She’s lovely,” Edith said when he passed the reins over. Narrow hands in leather gloves with little buttons up the cuff, as proper as the rest of her. He didn’t ride in gloves, liked to feel the ticks and pulls of the horse’s mouth against his fingers.

            “My man in Birmingham says she’s fast. I’d like to run her in the Derby, but she’s fucking greener than grass at Easter.”         

            He shouldn’t say things like that. Not to a girl like this, when he was supposed to be Thomas Shelby, OBE, MP. He’d done a lot of things to get to Parliament—pulled a trigger more times than he could count, buried a wife and a brother, almost died himself—but learning to be posh was shaping up to be a challenge of its own sort.

            “We’ll find out. Pilot ran in the Derby, a few years before I bought him. Seventh place.” She glanced back at her horse, now trailing behind Tommy. “Nothing to be ashamed of, right boy?”

            In the stable yard she ignored the old stone mounting block and swung up easily into the saddle. The mare danced, turning small circles on the soft grass, but she kept her seat and a firm grasp on the reins. When he settled onto Pilot he was surprised at how solid the horse felt, still and patient. In the past few years he’d chosen them barely tame. Fractious colts that needed to be broken for the track, hotheaded Cobs he found at the Lee camp that all but kicked the sides of the truck down on their way home. He liked the challenge of them, the way they held his mind fully with no room for a thought of Grace in his arms, Lizzie in the shadows at the edge of the canal, Alfie Solomons on the windy beach, John six feet under the mud and drowning in it—

            Edie was watching him, her face still and serious. The mare skittered across the yard, kicking up stones, and he could see her shoulders and legs tense with the work of holding the horse back.

            “We should go before she pulls your arms off, eh?” He nodded toward the field behind the stable. “That goes on for a good distance, should get her started.”

            He watched as she turned the mare, wishing she’d brought along the velvet riding cap today. His plans for the afternoon were more sparse than he’d let on, but he didn’t want them to include telling whoever lived at Langely House that their daughter had been pitched headfirst into a fence by his horse. Her heels barely touched the mare’s flanks before it leapt forward, crow hopping then setting its ears back and accelerating. When he realized how quickly she was retreating, he spurred Pilot into a gallop.

            Curly hadn’t lied, the mare was fast. Fast but headstrong, weaving drunkenly through the tufted grass. He could see Edith had a white-knuckled grip on the reins, crouched tight and low in the saddle like a jockey. His own horse was no nag, but no match either; in spite of his insistent urging, they stayed a few lengths behind. He let himself settle into the saddle, let himself enjoy Pilot’s smooth strides and the solid pressure he put on the bit. No tosses of the head, no deviation from the course Tommy set—someone had trained him flawlessly. Nothing wild in this one, as well-mannered as his owner seemed to be.

            With a sudden shock of alarm, Tommy realized that they’d crossed the entire field. One of those tumbledown stone walls was coming up fast. Edith saw it too, turning in the saddle precariously and shouting back to him. He couldn’t hear over Pilot’s pounding hooves. She shouted again, out of breath.

            “Can she jump?”

            Fuck.

            “I don’t know!”

            For a heart-stopping moment it seemed like they were going to find out. The mare showed no signs of slowing, barreling toward the fence. He could see the dark green wool of Edith’s jacket stretch taut over her shoulders with effort, strands of her hair whipping free from the tidy bun. At the last possible second the mare pulled up, wheeling away from the fence and back toward him. As she sped by in the other direction she had time to call out.

            “I’ll take her round again!”

            In the end, it took three more laps of the long field. Tommy followed through the first two on Pilot, but after the second he could feel sweat creeping into the legs of his trousers from the horse’s heaving sides. He stopped at the wall and watched her approach on the mare. The horse was running straighter, her strides less wild, but when they got close he could see that the tendons in Edith’s neck standing out from the work of holding her steady. At the turn he leaned from the saddle and snatched at the reins, pulling the mare up short. Edith let out a long breath.

            “I think she would have run three more.”

            “By the look of her she’d run straight to London if you gave her the rein.”     

            A smile cracked the serious cast of Edith’s face. “Your man was right, she’s fast. But she’s too wild for the Derby.”

            “I know. She’ll lose too much ground weaving that way. I’ve been busy in London. Should’ve sent her to the trainer four months ago.”

            “There’s time yet. She has the instinct for it.”      

            “My boy out here has a broken wrist. Couldn’t ask for worse timing.”

            The mare tossed her head, pulling the reins loose from his hand. Edith waved him off.

            “I’ve got her. I think she’ll walk back with Pilot along to babysit.”         

            They started across the field, listening to the sharp huffs of the mare’s breath.

            “Your son is very sweet. Have you any other children?”

            Tommy looked at her from under the brim of his cap. Her face made the question seem innocent enough, eyes focused softly on the ground ahead and cheeks whipped pink by the wind.

            “A daughter. Lives in London, with her mother.”

            He’d bought Lizzie a flat in London, down the street from Ada, shortly after Ruby was born. She had asked him to. There had been no illusion of playing house between the two of them. Lizzie was too practical for that, something for which Tommy was very thankful. Besides, he needed someone he trusted to mind the business down south. Things had been unstable in London, everyone jostling to fill the space left by Alfie Solomons, and Lizzie served as his eyes and ears when he or Arthur couldn’t be there. Which was more often than not, these days. Between Parliament sessions and the daily running of the company in Birmingham, he was stretched thin. He looked over at the woman next to him, wondering if he should have kept Lizzie and Ruby to himself. If the implications of what he’d said offended her, her face didn’t reveal a thing.

            “Just Charlie and me, men of the house, eh? And what about you? No one over in that grand place to ride with?”

            Edith shook her head. “Not yet. My mother was too ill for the journey this summer, and my friends won’t come up until June. They couldn’t believe I’d leave the city so early, but I couldn’t wait to get out of London.”

            “You came up here all alone?”

            Tommy gave her a skeptical glance. What kind of young woman left London to shut herself up in a gloomy house in Warwickshire? Not that he had much room to talk about shutting himself up, or gloomy houses, he supposed. But Edith Hughes didn’t seem like the type who spent her nights with an opium pipe to drown out the sound of shovels against the walls. He could imagine her out drinking and dancing, a smile shaking off the somber set of her nose and mouth.

            “I love it. Spent every summer as a child here, riding from sunrise to sunset. It was my grandfather’s house. He kept all his horses on this land.”

            “Where are they now?” In three years, Tommy hadn’t seen hoof nor hide of horse in the neighboring pastures, aside from a pair of shaggy ponies that occasionally poked their heads over the fence as he drove down the lane.

            “He moved them closer to London, as he got older and couldn’t make the trip so often. I had Pilot trucked up for the summer, and my friends will bring their horses in a few weeks.” She gave him a sardonic half-grin. “Then I won’t need to bother the neighbors anymore. By the way, I’m sorry if I caught your brother off guard yesterday.”

            “Arthur’s always on guard, that’s half the problem.”

            They had almost reached the barn, and rode the rest of the way in companionable silence. In the doorway of the stable they traded horses. Edith paused when he handed over the reins.

            “Mr. Shelby, not to be forward, but I would be happy to exercise her.” She nodded at the mare. “I don’t have much else to do for the next few weeks—a person can only read so many books. No promises, but there might be time to get her in racing shape.”

            Tommy looked from Edith to the mare and back again, ready to say no. He would have Charlie Strong take the horse to May if he wanted a chance at the Derby. This girl was no trainer, even if she was a strong rider. Never mind the fact that he didn’t know a thing about her connections in London. Her family had money, that was clear enough if they’d set her up with a country house and a racehorse well beyond the needs of a young woman. It seemed likely they’d be the type of family to start asking questions if Edith went home with stories about her new neighbor. Even though she seemed blithely unaware of Shelby business, there had to be someone in who’d heard a rumor or two—there always was.

            “Don’t bother, I’ll send her off to the trainer first thing tomorrow. Should have done it three months ago.”

            “I really wouldn’t mind. It’ll take her a week to settle at a new stable, and by then you’ll be too close to the Derby for any real chance.”

            There it was again, the fucking effortless self-assurance that came part and parcel with money you didn’t have to make yourself. Tommy unhooked his watch from his waistcoat. They’d been out nearly an hour and a half, Ada would be here soon.

            “I know, I know. You’ve got business.” He ruffled under the teasing tone of her voice. “I’ll tack her up myself, won’t be a bother to you at all.”

            “Miss Hughes—” He sighed. Fine. If she wanted to spend her mornings getting run around by that headstrong mare, it was nothing to him. “All right, I’ll tell the stable boy to look out for you. Wear a cap please, don’t want to find you tossed against a fucking fence.”

            She gave him a nod as she swung up into the saddle.

            “Thank you for the ride, and the company, Mr. Shelby.”

            He watched her urge the horse into a trot, then a gentle canter, turning toward the fence that ran beyond the stable, separating his fields from hers. Pilot overtook it with an easy, bounding jump and as they landed she put up one hand in a wave without looking back. When he turned away, the tires of Ada’s car were crunching on the drive.

Chapter Text

Edie stayed in bed later the next morning, listening to the tap of light rain on her windowpane. She rang for tea and drank it under the covers. Ever thoughtful, Mary had left her old, battered copy of Jane Eyre on the bedside table. She settled in to read, hoping the weather would break, but found her mind drifting away from the familiar pages.

            Langely House had been so different in the years before her grandfather’s illness. Bright and alive, filled to bursting with family friends—and as she grew older, hers too. Weekend hunting parties, grand meals with guests practically spilling out from the dining room, drinks and cards around the fireplaces late into the night. After the war, even as his health declined, the parties had grown bigger and brighter, as though he could somehow plaster over the cracks of those years with food and drinks and music to make them whole again.

            Then, three summers ago, he had been too frail to make the drive north. She had stayed on with him in London, sweltering through the summer months at the house in Eaton Square. The following year, her debut had chained her to the city for another season—she could still picture her grandfather, leaning heavily on his cane in the balcony at court, catching her eye proudly as she walked among all the girls in their white gowns. And then, last June, she had lost him. She had shut herself up in Eaton Square again after that, turning away the flood of invitations that still arrived in the wake of her debut. The seasons slipped by until one day she’d woken up and it was spring. When she’d opened the window to the green, damp air, she’d started packing.

            She had a long road to making the house alive as her grandfather once had. One girl and a horse didn’t make for much of a party. One-and-a-half horses if she counted her charge over the hill at Arrow House. Maybe she’d wire home and try to talk a few friends into coming up early; the weather—not counting today’s drizzle—had been warm if not especially sunny. The first of her childhood playmates had started to marry off. They could bring their new husbands, the husbands could invite their friends—soon the house would be as full as the old days.

            In the meantime, she’d promised (perhaps foolishly) to train a horse for the Derby. The rain had slowed enough that she could take the mare out safely. Maybe, she thought as she rang for the maid to arrange her hair, she’d invite Thomas Shelby and his family to a dinner party. He had at least a brother and a sister, based on their conversation the day before; it wasn’t much of a party, but better than nothing. Mary would be scandalized, but she couldn’t very well rattle around here for three more weeks on her own.

           

            Once she’d dressed and driven herself to Arrow House, however, she had second thoughts about extending an invitation. Shelby hadn’t been the most forthcoming sort during their two brief encounters. Unlike his temperamental brother, there was something taciturn—indifferent almost—about Thomas. Even when the topic of conversation interested him, as horses so clearly did, his mood remained impenetrable. Maybe it was those otherworldly eyes, or the chilly angles of his cheekbones, or the dark suits tailored sharp as a blade, or some combination of them all that settled around him like armor.

            She parked her car off to the side of the long drive in front of Arrow House, turning up the collar of her old tweed jacket against the mist that persisted. Mary had given her a barely concealed scowl when she spotted the jacket this morning. It was a dowdy thing, too big and worn at the elbows and cuffs, but it had belonged to Edie’s father and she wouldn’t give it up until every stitch had fallen apart. She thought about knocking on the door to say good morning, but remembered Shelby’s gruff admonishments about work and went directly to the stables instead.

            The foul weather, it seemed, had made the mare even more ill-behaved. She bit Edie’s arm through the thick tweed sleeve of her jacket as she tightened the girth, hopped and bucked her way through half a length of the field, and made every possible attempt to avoid running in a straight line. It took four turns around the long straightaway before they’d accomplished anything Edie considered even remotely passable. By then it had started to rain again, droplets dripping off the brim of her cap and spattering her damp jodhpurs. Her legs were sore from the effort of staying on the bloody horse, never mind getting her to follow any logical route. As the rain began to fall more steadily, she slid down from the saddle and led the mare back to the barn, passing her off to the stable boy and pulling off her cap on the way to the car.

            Crossing the drive, she glanced up at the sight of motion inside Arrow House. In one of the tall windows, Charlie Shelby was peering down at her. She waved, smiling, and was rewarded with a flurry of waves in return as she settled into her car.

 

            Even though the weather cleared in the following days, Edie had little success finding friends to join her early. So she settled into a quiet routine. A morning ride on the mare, each day just a bit less headstrong, followed by lunch at home with a book, then a more relaxed ride on Pilot. They spent a lot of time wandering through the nearby woods, enjoying the plush silence conferred by the canopy of newly-unfurled spring leaves. Finally, a hot bath to soak her sore muscles and a quiet dinner.

            She saw nothing of Thomas Shelby during her morning rides. Occasionally she’d pull up to Arrow House and find a line of expensive cars trailing down the drive. Other days she’d spot Charlie peeking from the same upstairs window, always ready with a wave and a smile. The owner of the house, however, remained resolutely absent, underscoring the sense of resigned annoyance with which he’d permitted her to train the mare at all.

            One morning, nearly two weeks later, the mare ran three flawless lengths of the field, feet light and smooth on the soft grass, and Edie realized that they had come as far as they could together. The horse needed experience on a real track, with a real jockey, if she was going to have any chance at the Derby. Once she’d turned the mare over to the stable boy, she’d climbed the stairs to the front door and knocked. A maid answered this time.

            “Good morning.” She gave a polite nod, starched cap bobbing.

            “Is Mr. Shelby home? I’d like to speak to him about his horse.”

            “He is, ma’am. If you’ll wait here, I’ll see if he’s free.”

            The maid stepped aside in the doorway, ushering Edie into the hall. It was dim and quiet, much the same as the day of her first visit. The floors gleamed as though newly polished, and she suddenly felt self-conscious about her boots, flecked with mud from the soft ground of the field. Should she leave them here in the hall? No, that was strange—too forward. She was considering a quick duck outside to try and clean them up a bit when the maid returned.

            “Mr. Shelby will see you, ma’am.”

            Edie followed the maid through a maze of halls, finally ushered into what she assumed was Shelby’s office. The door clicked quietly behind her. He was behind the desk, looking strangely studious in a pair of round glasses, sleeves pushed up by garters. A cigarette dangled between two fingers, smoke curling up lazily in the wan morning light.

            “Good morning, Miss Hughes.”

            “Good morning, Mr. Shelby.” Edie stood awkwardly on the boards at the far side of the room, reluctant to track dirt across the plush carpet under his desk.

            “Come in, then.” Shelby beckoned her with a twitch of his fingers, the other hand bringing the cigarette to his lips.

            “Oh, I’m afraid my boots—”

            He glanced down at her feet then beckoned again, this time with an impatient jerk of his head. “What’ve I got so many bloody maids for, eh? Come sit down.”

            She shrugged, stepping delicately onto the dense pile of the carpet, and took a seat across from him.

            “Come to tell me about that mare?”

            As he spoke, his hand dipped into his pocket and produced a silver cigarette case, flipping it open toward her in one graceful motion. Edie started to demur—she didn’t smoke as a rule, especially not so early in the day—but any offering beyond the absolute bare minimum of politeness from Thomas Shelby was more than she could pass up. She placed a cigarette between her lips and leaned forward over the desk so he could light it, his palm cupped gracefully over the flame. Her eyes trained downward, catching on his hands. Unremarkable at first glance, with slender fingers and tidy, blunt nails. Then she noticed the faint scars that crisscrossed his knuckles, bone white and thin as silk threads, before he pulled back. Not the hands of a man who lived in a house like this, and she thought of Mary’s words—not the proper sort—once again.

            But she was being ridiculous. She was a poor judge of age, as a rule, but he was certainly several years older than her. Old enough to have been in the war, and many men had come back with much worse than a few scarred knuckles to show for it, if they were lucky enough to come back at all. She gathered her thoughts.

            “No.” His eyes, magnified slightly behind the glasses, looked up at her in question. “I’ve come to tell you about your racehorse.”

Chapter Text

Tommy shrugged on his jacket and followed her to the stables, a fresh cigarette perched between his lips. She was wearing that too-big tweed coat again, and the oversized sleeves made her look more slight and young than ever. He’d caught a few glimpses of her from his office window over the past two weeks, little more than a blur as she tore across the fields on the mare. Her declaration this morning left him skeptical. Did she really know a racehorse from a carthorse, or was she just another girl infatuated with anything of the equine persuasion? Even Ada had gone through her horse phase—all the Shelby children had, sneaking off to the riverside camps with some distant relatives of their grandmother, galloping around on half-wild ponies—though only Tommy had carried that into adulthood.

            The mare was still saddled when the reached the stable, overseen by the boy, who was sitting on an upturned bucket as he polished a bridle. He shuffled to his feet as they entered.

            “Miss Hughes asked me to leave her be, Mr. Shelby. Said you’d be along presently.”

            Tommy nodded, watching Edith unhook the mare from the cross ties.

            “I’ve run her already,” she said. “But she’ll go another few lengths if you’d like to take her out.”

            He shook his head, gesturing down at his dark suit and polished shoes. The last few weeks had been nothing short of chaos for the London operations, and he was going into Birmingham soon for an emergency meeting with Arthur and Pol. Shipments were getting held up—something to do with a dockworker’s strike—and they needed a solution before the day was out.

            “Contrary to what my son might say, I do have business today. Why don’t you take her for a turn for me?”

            She smiled and swung onto the mare without a word, trotting her down the aisle and into the daylight. He quickened his stride to follow, and stood at one end of the long field with his hands in in pockets. When she saw him she looped the mare around, bringing the horse to a stop beside him and posturing like a jockey at the gate.

            “At your mark, starter.”       

            If Arthur had been there, he would have drawn his pistol and fired it into the air in place the starter’s gun—Tommy could all but picture him doing it. In the interest of keeping the mare from jumping out of her own skin, he raised one hand in the parody of a pistol, two fingers and thumb pointed skyward, earning a grin from Edith.

            “Ready?”

            She nodded. When he dropped his hand, the mare took off like a bullet.

            Whatever doubts he’d had about her training regime faded as Edith and the mare retreated across the field. The filly’s strides were smooth and even now, none of the white-eyed wildness she’d shown two weeks ago. At the turn she came around gracefully, and from the front she seemed to float back toward him. Not quite racing form yet—the way she held her head was too stiff, and it was difficult to predict how she’d react with a real jockey, never mind a full field of other horses on the track. But the change in her was unmistakable.

            As she approached, Edith slowed the mare to a trot and stopped beside him, dropping out of the saddle in one easy motion.

            “Well, what do you think?”

            Tommy ran an incredulous hand over his face. “I think you’ve performed a miracle.”

            “I wouldn’t go that far. She won’t stand a chance in the Derby without time on a real track.”

            “I’ll have my man come for her today.” He'd stop in at the stables on his way into Birmingham. Charlie wasn’t going to believe this. “How’d you learn to train a horse like that?”

            “I told you, I spent every summer up here with my grandfather and his horses. I would have apprenticed myself to the trainer if he’d allowed it. All I wanted to do was ride. These days it’s more hunters, but I’ve never been able to pass up a fast horse.” 

            Tommy took the mare’s reins and started back to the stables. He had ten thousand more questions, but Arthur and Pol were waiting. And now there was the matter of betting to think about. With his own horse in the race, the odds for the Derby would need some adjustment, so he’d have to telephone the office…the day was already shaping up to be longer than he’d expected.

            “Thank you.” Edith’s voice pulled him back from his thoughts. “For letting me train her, I mean. It was just the diversion I needed.”

            “I should be thanking you. She’d still be in the barn biting the hell out of my stable boy if you hadn’t come along, eh?”

            Edith laughed, the sound free and bright as a bell in the quiet morning air, and he was reminded again how young she was.

            “Oh, she still bites.” She rolled up her sleeve and held her forearm out for his inspection. It was dappled with bruises, some deep purple and some faded to yellow. “You might want to warn your man in Birmingham about that.”

            Full of surprises, this one. Tommy suspected that most women like her would be less nonchalant about a string of bruises like that. Most, in fact, would have given up on the mare after the first bite and gone back to hosting charitable functions and high teas, or whatever posh women did with their days.

            They’d dropped off the mare in the stable by now, and he walked her down the drive to her car, a sporty little thing with a glossy, racing green paint job and an open top.

            “You’ll tell me how she goes at the Derby, won’t you?” Edith asked as she settled into the driver’s seat.

            Tommy looked down at her. “What to do you mean? You’re going, aren’t you?”

            “I hadn’t given it any thought at all, quite honestly.”

            “You’ll come as my guest, then.”

            The invitation had slipped out unbidden, and Tommy felt stopped short by his own impulsiveness. He got this way, didn’t he, when he stopped sleeping? Pol had told him that any number of times. You don’t think when you’re like this, Tommy, she had said to him during those dark weeks after Grace’s death when he’d rampaged through office and house alike, railing at anyone in his path, drinking too much, picking petty fights with Arthur. He’d worn himself down in the past few weeks and now it was coming out this way, in an ill-advised invitation to this girl he still knew almost nothing about.

            But—but. There was something about her that put him at ease. That breezy demeanor that let her roll up her sleeve and show off her bruises with a sideways grin. The graceful looseness of her posture in the saddle. The surprising boyishness of her car, clearly chosen for speed as much as her horse. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt him to have a little fun at the Derby.

            “I’d be so pleased to.” She gave him a nod. “Safe drive to Birmingham today.”

            “I’ll pick you up on Derby day, all right? Good morning, Miss Hughes.”

            She turned the engine of the car over and shouted above the sound as she backed out of the drive.

            “Really, you ought to call me Edie!”

 

 

            In the days leading up to Epsom, Tommy had quite a few doubts. Not about the mare, who was getting glowing reports (propensity for biting aside) from Curly. But about taking Edith along on race day. In the moment the invitation had seemed the right thing to do—she had trained the horse, after all—but there were matters that troubled him.

            First and foremost, his new position in Parliament didn’t preclude the ever-present possibility of a target on his back. Things were still off balance in London, small time players nosing around the gap that Alfie’s death had left in various chains of distribution. There was always a chance that someone would see potential in eliminating another kingpin, really destabilize things and open up a space for themselves. But he couldn’t lock himself away in his house forever out of precaution, could he? And it would be a cold day in hell before Arthur let him go to an event like the Derby without twenty Blinders positioned subtly throughout the crowd with pistols in their pockets. In spite of all that, Tommy found himself feeling for the subtle, comforting weight of his gun under his jacket as he drove the short distance to Langely House the morning of the race, which dawned bright and fair.

            Then there was Edith herself. She’d been so close-mouthed about her conspicuously absent family. Aside from glancing mentions of an apparently departed grandfather and ill mother, she could have materialized from thin air. Tommy resolved to find out more about her on their drive today.   

            He thought of tapping the Bentley’s horn when he pulled up in front of the house—going to the doorstep seemed too formal, somehow—but Edith opened the door at the sound of his tires on the drive. She was dressed all in white, silk skirt fluttering in the morning breeze and glossy waves of dark hair peeking from below a matching hat. As she settled into the car, it occurred to Tommy that he’d never seen her in anything except mud-spattered boots and jodhpurs. In the lightweight dress he could tell more clearly that she was a little slip of a thing, thin in the loose-limbed way that London girls favored these days. He noticed that her sleeves were edged with narrow bands of lace, a delicate contrast to the faded bruises along one arm.

            “What a beautiful car,” she said without preamble.

            “Faster than a horse, and better tempered too.”

            “Only half the fun, though.” She paused, rifling through her handbag. “How do you think she’ll run today?”

            “Curly, my man at the stable, says she looks faster than ever. She’s still green, though. They’ve been exercising her on a track, but how she’ll run with the crowd and everything is anyone’s guess.”

            He glanced over to see her pulling on a pair of crocheted gloves, the contents of her bag scattered on her knees. A shiny tube of lipstick, a mirror, and a slim book. He’d left his glasses at home, but managed to pick out The Waste Land along the spine. Something to ask Ada about it; she was the only one in the family to keep up with books. Arthur and Pol regarded them as hopelessly posh, Michael strictly read the newspaper these days, and Tommy simply didn’t have the time to care about made-up stories. Grace had bought what had seemed like a truckload of books to stock the library when they moved into Arrow House, but he had never so much as cracked the spine of a single volume. As she picked up the book to tuck it back into her bag, he raised his eyebrows in her direction.

            “Planning a bit of light reading between races, eh?”

            She ducked her head, clicking the clasp of the bag shut. “Some people don’t like to chat in the car, and it’s rather a long way to Epsom.”

            Rather a long way echoed back in Tommy’s head. The drawn-out ahhh of the a’s, the clipped turn of phrase—all so painfully upper class that she might as well have materialized directly from the Queen’s drawing room.

            “I’ll endeavor to be better company than that.”

            “It was lovely of you to invite me. I haven’t been to the Derby since I was a little girl.”

            The road was straight and familiar, so Tommy hazarded another glance over at her. That bright white dress emphasized the dark shine of her hair, the rosy good health of her cheeks, and a thousand other subtle markers of youth. He had to know.

            “That can’t have been so long ago.”

            She clicked her tongue against her teeth, chiding him even as she smiled.

            “I’m nineteen, hardly a little girl anymore.”

            Tommy, who sometimes found himself staring dizzily toward forty and wondering how he’d gotten there, could only blow out a breath. Nineteen. Well, this confirmed that he was a total fool, drawn in by a pretty face and a propensity for horses. He should have driven back down the lane and dropped her off at Langely House as soon as he heard nineteen. Fucking nineteen. But she had trained the horse, and if he packed her off unceremoniously she’d certainly have something to say to her people in London about Thomas Shelby, MP, wouldn’t she?

            “Do you run a horse every year?”

            Tommy knew that he’d been silent for too long after her last answer. He flexed his fingers on the wheel, realized he was fidgeting, and fished through his pockets for a cigarette and lighter.

            “No, no. I don’t always find one that I want my name attached to.”

            “Well, I certainly hope the mare won’t sully the Shelby reputation, then.”

            If he and his siblings hadn’t sullied the family name by now, a fucking horse wasn’t going to make the difference. He took a long drag of his cigarette. With it firmly in place, he felt more himself.

            “If my man is right, she’ll give us a good show.” He cleared his throat. “Can I ask you something, Miss Hughes?”

            “I’m afraid not.” He looked over at her, surprised by the sternness of her tone. “But if you’ll finally agree to call me Edie, I might reconsider.”

            “Well then, Edie. What’re you really doing, rattling around in that big old house? Shouldn’t you be in London with your friends? Doesn’t a girl like you have an overprotective father who should be warning her not to hang about with neighbors she doesn’t know?”

            Though Tommy wanted an answer, he’d really meant it as a gentle joke. A way to fill up the hour they still had in the car. But there was a long silence, then a soft rustle of fabric as Edie smoothed her skirt and tugged on her silk stockings, settling herself into place. She ran a hand over the waves of hair visible under her hat, eyes fixed out the window.

            “Most girls do.” There was a waver in her voice. “My father died in the war—at Ypres, and my mother—it was very difficult for her. For all of us, of course, but her especially. After that it was my grandfather and me, mostly, which probably explains why I was allowed to run wild with horses instead of going to dancing lessons. He died last summer and I’ve been rather on my own since then. London is good fun, and I do love my friends there, but I had get out of the city. I needed a change for a little while.”

            She trailed off, tugging at her stockings again to line up the seams even though they were perfectly straight already. This wasn’t off to the most auspicious beginning. Tommy had realized the day was a fool’s errand from the start, but he hadn’t thought a simple question would lead them here. Edie sighed, leaning back into her seat, and when she spoke again there was a false brightness in her voice.

            “Could I have a cigarette?”

            “I’m sorry.”

            Tommy wasn’t entirely sure what he was apologizing for. His tactless question? The fact that her father was dead and buried in some mud-bound field in France? That he’d lacked the manners to offer her a cigarette? He held the case out to her and she produced a little silver lighter from her bag.

            “It’s quite all right.”

            Quite all right. Oh, we’ve barely spoken twenty sentences to each other and you’re asking about my dead father, but it’s quite all right, isn’t it? Once again, Tommy couldn’t see past the airy polish in her voice. He was jarringly reminded of Grace’s relatives at their ill-fated wedding, stiff in uniform, their disapproval masked under meaningless, understated phrases like quite all right. The same again with so many of the men he’d met in Parliament, with their lock-jawed proclamations that the latest club in Mayfair was smashing, the gloomy smog of London bracing, the red-faced debates in the House a proper row. He had a hard time reconciling the parts of Edith Hughes—the unflappable, patrician veneer that frayed through in funny little ways, like when she showed up to his house in muddy boots and a ratty old jacket, hairs from the mare’s black hide stuck to the legs of her jodhpurs.

            “Anyhow, it’s race day Mr. Shelby. No need to be so serious. Tell me, have you taught that little boy of yours to ride yet?”

 

            By the end of the drive, Tommy found himself thankful for Edie’s good manners. She’d kept up a patter of conversation all the way to Epsom, telling him about the horses she’d had before Pilot, the latest books she’d read, how she’d gotten her little green car stuck in a ditch on the way up from London and had to enlist three surprised sheep farmers from Banbury to help her push it out. (That one had earned a laugh from him, which seemed to please her enormously.)

            At the track she took his arm on their way to his box, weaving through the excitable crush of the crowd without dropping a beat in their conversation. His eyes scanned the nearby seats, picking out at least three familiar faces under flat caps. Arthur had taken security measures seriously, it seemed. He knew he’d get a bit of ribbing from the men later for showing up to Epsom with a woman like this, almost twenty years his junior, squiring her around with her elegantly gloved hand tucked into the crook of his elbow. He could almost hear them now. Too good for the Small Heath birds now, eh Tommy? Making use of that OBE down in London? Get a peek under that pretty dress, did you? The man closest—some distant Lee relative that Tommy couldn’t name at the moment—caught his eye and tipped his cap. Tommy touched his brim in response then turned back to Edie as they arrived at their seats.

            “Drink? We’ve got half an hour before the first race.”

            “Champagne, I think. We ought to toast that mare of yours.”

            Tommy beckoned the man in the cap and sent him off to the bar. He returned a few minutes later with a glass of champagne and a tumbler of whiskey. Edie tipped the brim of her flute toward Tommy.

            “To—” She paused and looked over the glass at him. For the first time he noticed the color of her eyes, an indecisive grey-green like the sea in winter. “You know, I never thought to ask—did you name her?”

            Tommy searched his pockets until he found the racing form. He’d chosen at the last moment, when Esme had pointed out peevishly that they couldn’t very well take bets on a horse without a name. He handed the form over and watched her unfold it, gloved fingertip running down the rows until she found their race, then sliding across the column to land on Lady Langely.

Chapter Text

Edie had slept badly the night before the Derby. No surprise there, she’d always been an annoyingly light sleeper and even the slightest hint of excitement in the coming day was sure to waken her just after dawn. Mary, in spite of the disapproving glares she’d been tossing Edie’s way ever since she’d announced her intention to attend the races with Mr. Shelby, had the saintly kindness to bring her a cup of tea before summoning the maid to curl her hair. The housekeeper was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs when she descended.

            “Do I look all right, Mary?”

            “Like a summer’s day, Miss. You get more lovely every year.”

            “You’re too sweet, thank you.”       

            “You can thank me by not gadding about with that Shelby man. You should be thinking about a marriage soon, if you don’t mind me saying. A girl’s reputation has been destroyed by less. What would your grandfather say?”

            “He’d let me do as I please, and you know it.”

            That was the truth of the matter. William Hughes had never been able to say no to his headstrong granddaughter, a circumstance that had escalated once he took over the role of both parents after her father’s death. Whatever she’d asked for was given—a new horse, the deep green Aston Martin parked outside, a curfew that went well beyond what other girls her age were permitted. Anything that might bring a little light to them during those dark times had been hers without a second thought.

            What Mary didn’t know was how wild Edie had run with her London crowd once her grandfather’s health began declining. She’d stayed with him dutifully every day during his illness, but once he’d gone to bed she left him with the nurse and stayed out until the small hours of the morning. She had a fashionable set of friends who were always ready to drink and dance, ready to help her tamp down any sorrows with champagne and cigarettes and music once it became all too clear that William was fading quickly. Her reputation had emerged unscathed, as far as she could judge from the hints toward proposals that she’d received after her debut. Or maybe all the money that came with the Hughes family name paid the debt of any bad behavior in the eyes of London’s eligible bachelors. Mary, who still took a decidedly Victorian view of things, wouldn’t understand that side of Edie’s life, so she kept it resolutely to herself at Langely House. At any rate, she’d gone out little enough since her grandfather’s death.

            Which was, perhaps, why she was so eager to get to the races today. She’d felt a silly, childish thrill of excitement when she heard tires on the drive, opening the door a bit too quickly, though Shelby didn’t comment on that fact.

            Their conversation had stumbled in the car when he asked about her father. Edie never knew how to answer people’s questions about her situation. She was hardly the only girl to lose her father in the war, but talking about it never really became easier. In the first years following his death, she’d clammed up at any mention of him. When she was around 14, after the war had ended, after Georgie, too—her grandfather had taken her on a long ride in the woods near Langely House, where they could talk among the quiet trees.

            “Edith, I want to tell you something,” he’d said softly. “You ought to be more frank about your father, and your brother, too. I know it will take time, but it’s all right to remember them. Your father was a straightforward man, and I hope I’ve raised you to be the same. You’re allowed to talk about him—to be proud of him. I worry that if you shy away from it, like your mother has—”

            Though the thought remained unfinished, she’d understood him immediately. From that point she’d resolved to answer anyone who asked about her father directly, and that included Thomas Shelby. The downside was that it sometimes made people uncomfortable, and so she’d developed a coping mechanism—an endless barrage of the lighthearted banter that had carried her through the endless cocktail parties and teas of her debut season and continued to serve her well. By the time they’d reached the race she felt proud of herself for righting the mood of the day.

 

            As they made their way to Shelby’s seats, Edie found herself curious about the amount of attention they garnered as a pair. She knew he was an MP for this part of the country, but the sheer number of people who recognized Thomas Shelby seemed remarkable. As did the respect he garnered from each and every one. An almost endless string of greetings followed them through the crowd. Good morning, Mr. Shelby. Fine day, sir. Good to see you again, Tommy. Fingertips to brims, caps doffed, brisk nods, a few questioning glances in her direction, and sometimes a strange air of nervousness as he passed by. The man certainly cut a sharp figure in his dark suits, but he wasn’t that imposing—or friendly, for that matter; the crackle of energy in the crowd around him surprised her.

            When he handed over the racing form, it became clear that Thomas Shelby was full of surprises. She scanned the row three times, finger lingering on the type, before she really comprehended it. Race 5 | Entry 18 | Lady Langely | Owner: Shelby Company Ltd. | Filly | 3 y.o. Eventually, she realized that she still had her glass lifted for a toast.

            “You give me entirely too much credit, Mr. Shelby. I’ve never even seen her run on a track.”

            Shelby gave her a dismissive wave. He had another cigarette tucked between the fingers of his free hand. Was the man ever without one?

            “That’s no way to start a toast, is it?”

            “Perhaps you’ll do a better job.”

            He raised his whiskey and clinked it against the rim of her glass.

            “To fast horses and good neighbors then, eh?”

            A flicker of warmth brightened the ice blue of his eyes as she watched him over the edge of her glass, taking a sip and letting the bubbles linger on her tongue. There was a charm to him, somewhere under the businesslike brusqueness and the rough burr of his accent. While getting ready for the day, Edie had worried that she’d overstepped with him, too cheerful and eager for her own good. Now she thought he was coming around, and maybe a good run from the mare would help him turn the corner.

           

            After the first two races, Edie suggested a stroll around the grounds to stretch their legs and perhaps pick up another glass of champagne. It seemed they weren’t the only ones with the idea, since the bar was packed six deep and buzzing with conversation. They parted ways—her to touch up her lipstick in the powder room and he to refill their drinks. On her way back through the room, she heard a familiar voice over the din of the crowd.

            “Edie! Edie Hughes!”

            At first she couldn’t pick out a face to go with the voice, standing on tiptoe in hopes of a better view. Eventually, she spotted a waving hand off to her left, connected to a head of bright blonde hair that was slicked into the season’s latest style. She cut through the crowd, and when a face finally emerged she skipped forward the last few steps.

            “Harry! What on earth are you doing here?”

            Harry Langham had been one of her earliest friends, the son of a Minister who lived down the street from her grandfather in Eaton Square. They’d grown up together, and Edie herself had engineered a match between him and another childhood friend—Fiona Walker—that had ended in marriage just this spring. He was known in their circle as the most incorrigible fop to ever terrorize a Savile Row tailor, and looked the part more than ever today in a linen summer suit and a crimson silk tie. When she was close enough, he stooped from his considerable height for a firm hug.

            “I could ask you the same thing, Edie. You barely poked your head out of your house all winter then darted off to the country right after my wedding. Fi and I miss you terribly, where have you been hiding?”

            “It’s hardly hiding, I’ve been asking the pair of you to come up for a weekend since May Day.”

            “We’ll be there in two weeks. You know how Fiona and her sisters insist on that blighted trip to Margate every June. They left yesterday, as a matter of fact. What they see in a bloody miserable strip of beach and frigid ocean is beyond me.”

            They shared a laugh over that. Edie herself had been invited on the fabled Margate trip one summer and shared Harry’s dubious opinions of the town and its limited charms.

            “Well I’m counting down the days—and stocking up on gin just for you.”

            “What’ve you been doing up here all by yourself?”

            “You won’t believe it, but I’ve been training a racehorse.”         

            “You?! Where did you get a racehorse? Pilot’s a bit old for the track these days, isn’t he?”   

            “Not mine—a rather promising mare my neighbor was neglecting dreadfully.” She pulled the racing form from her bag and tapped the appropriate entry. “We’ll see how she runs this afternoon.”

            Harry plucked the paper from her fingers for closer examination, eyebrows darting upward as he read.

            “Shelby Company Limited? Tommy Shelby?”

            “He lives at Arrow House—you know, that place across the field where my grandfather used to set up the gymkhana when we were kids.” Edie noticed that her friend’s eyebrows remained raised. “Don’t give me that face, you look like Mary.”

            “How the bloody hell did you end up training Tommy Shelby’s horse for the Derby?”

            “I was riding by one day and we struck up a little conversation. Once I saw the mare, it seemed like the perfect way to pass the time until my very negligent friends saw fit to come to the country. Why are you so surprised?”

            “My father brings back a fair number of stories from Parliament, as you know. Shelby came into office with a reputation for being a hard man with a lot of connections, is how my father put it. He was a sapper in the war—got a medal or two for it, if I recall—and the rumor is that he runs his businesses like he’s still in the trenches.” Harry shuffled up one sleeve to glance at his watch. “I’ve got to dash, Edie. I told my brother I’d bring him a drink half an hour ago, and he’s going to pitch a fit if I don’t show up with it before the next race. All I meant is that you make a funny friend for some Brummie chap from a factory town, yeah? But maybe I’ll meet him in a couple of weeks and change my mind.”

            “Give my best to Fi, won’t you?”

            “Always. We’ll be up before you know it.” He bent again to kiss her cheek quickly. “I’ll be looking for that mare of yours.”

            Edie watched Harry’s impeccably-clad form retreat, then stood on tiptoe again in hopes of spotting her host. She finally picked out a glimpse of close-cropped dark hair and starched collar near one end of the bar, and squeezed her way through the crush of people, tapping him on the arm when she arrived. Her slow progress through the crowd had given her a few minutes to mull over Harry’s comments, but her thoughts remained in disarray. A sapper in the war—connections—a hard man—she didn’t know what all those little pieces of London gossip added up to yet. Maybe she’d ring Harry tomorrow, in the afternoon once he’d had a chance to sleep off his race day hangover. For now, she put her smile back into place as Shelby turned with their drinks in hand. The man next to him crowded over, jostling his elbow and splashing her champagne over his hand.

            “Let’s get out of this fucking mess,” he said, nodding abruptly toward the door. 

            A hard man, her mind reminded her once again. That, at least, was abundantly clear.

           

            Looking back later, Edie found herself thrown off kilter by the dramatic highs and lows of the day. They’d enjoyed themselves so much during the third and fourth races. The man who’d brought their drinks earlier appeared with a hamper of food at some point in the afternoon, and they progressed through enough drinks that Edie made an ill-conceived trifecta bet (hinging on a grey dapple gelding that tripped out of the gate and came in dead last—a source of gentle yet persistent teasing from her companion). Even the turning weather couldn’t dampen their mood, clouds gathering as the final race approached. A really fine day at the Derby, until—

            They’d stood at the edge of their box when the horses were led out for the fifth race, a brisk wind snapping Edie’s skirt against her legs as she spotted the mare, hooves dancing on the grass. Edie had to put a hand on her head to keep her hat in place; she hoped the rain would hold off until the race ended. When she glanced over, Shelby was trying to light another in his endless chain of cigarettes, hands cupped around the flame in the stiff wind. He tucked the case away just as the starter raised his pistol, a resounding shot sounding over the murmur of the crowd.

            The mare came out of the gate clean and held a place in the middle of the pack down the first stretch, but Edie could see she was restless, tossing her head and tugging against the bit. At the turn, the jockey shifted in his saddle; he was going to try and get her out in front, let her lead the pack through the back stretch if she could. As they rounded the turn he brought her out wide, passing one horse, two, three—and then the mare stumbled and fell.

            There was a low gasp from the crowd as the jockey flew from the saddle, the riders behind narrowly avoiding his prone form as they thundered by. When the pack cleared, Edie’s breath caught in her throat.

            The mare was on the grass, thrashing wildly, unable to get her feet under her, and the reason soon became clear. One leg was bent at a strange angle, not following as she tossed her body. Oh no, no. The rest of the horses were on the back stretch now, moving fast toward the finish line, and the mare remained an inky blur at the opening turn. Edie was stunned, hands clutching the rail so hard her fingers started to go numb, until she heard Tommy shouting beside her.

            “Fuck. Fuck!”

            Her head snapped sideways just in time to see him break away from the rail and dash toward the stairs that led down to the track. She wheeled to follow him and he turned back toward her, eyes wild.

            “Stay here!”

            The command galvanized Edie back to life. “No!”

            She trailed him stubbornly through the crowd and down onto the racecourse, the din of the crowd dull in her ears as the other horses crossed the finish line. Later she would remember that she never even found out the winner. It was hard to keep up with Tommy once they reached the soft grass of the track, and she noticed that men had been peeling out of the crowd and following them, leaping the rail to catch up as Tommy started to jog toward the horse. Blurrily, she saw they all had the same flat, tweed caps on—who were they? There was no time to look back at them as she tried to run, her heels catching in the churned up turf.

            She didn’t catch Tommy until they were beside the mare. A small clutch of race officials had surrounded the horse, one trying to keep a grip on her bridle and still her as she kicked, tearing up chunks of mud and grass. Two others were helping the jockey off the track. An older man rushed toward them, shouldering his way between her and Shelby. She saw a crop tucked into his pocket, a scuffed pair of stable boots with worn pants bunched over the tops, a stubby cigar clenched between his teeth. The trainer, maybe? She didn’t have a chance to find out.

            “It’s the left foreleg, Tommy.”

            “Can you see the bone?” Shelby’s voice was low and emotionless.

            “It’s a bad break, comin’ through the skin. Could be a second place, too, we can’t get her still enough to see.”

            “Fucking hell.”

            Tommy scrubbed his hands over his face, then shifted around the horse to peer at the leg. Edie followed cautiously, the wind now tearing at her skirt and hat. She could see blood spreading in the grass below the mare’s foreleg and closed her eyes briefly. When she opened them again, she heard the trainer.

            “I’ll get a shotgun, then?”

            No, not yet—

            “Tommy, let me call a vet I know in London. He might be able to set the leg.” She had her hand on his wrist, gripping hard, and she could hear her own voice echoing in her ears, fast and frantic. “Just get her into the stable—”     

            When he turned to look at her, his face was a taut mask. No good humor in those eyes now; they were flat and cold as a winter sky. He shook her hand free, reaching into his jacket.

            “Look at that leg, really fucking look at it. She’ll never so much as walk again. All any vet will do is a put a fucking bullet into her head, and it'll be a mercy.”

            He was rounding the mare, approaching her head, and Edie realized in shock that he’d been reaching into his jacket for a pistol, now held loosely in his hand. She darted after him, dodging the mare’s hind legs as she kicked out in agony.

            “Tommy—”   

            He’d squatted down next to the horse, a hand on her nose, murmuring to her in a mix of English and a language Edie didn’t recognize. The mare’s eyes rolled wildly, white around the rims as he placed the muzzle against her forehead.

            “It’s all right girl, eh? It’s all right, look at me.” He took a deep breath before looking up at Edie over his shoulder, eyes still impenetrable. The men surrounding them were quiet, shifting from foot to foot. Tommy clicked the hammer of the pistol with his thumb. “You ought to stand back.”

            Edie felt frozen to the ground, unable to even breathe, never mind move. At the flat crack of the pistol on the silent track, the rain began to fall, cold and heavy.

Chapter Text

The first raindrops hitting his neck brought Tommy back from a hazy blur, which had overtaken him since watching the mare fall. Later he’d realize that he could barely remember any details of situation, almost unaware that he’d run across the track, spoken the horse, pulled the trigger. His mind did this sometimes, and he suspected it was his brain’s way of protecting itself, pushing him through situations in which overthinking wouldn’t help. In France, he’d sometimes snap back to himself after untold hours in the tunnels, fingers cramped around the handle of a shovel with no sense of how he’d gotten there, how long he’d been digging, if the blood on his palms was from his own raw knuckles or another man’s throat. In the aftermath of these episodes the world seemed to speed up with unnatural clarity, as it did now.

            He stood, staring down at the immobile body of the mare, then turned to the silent group surrounding him. In the background he could hear the crowd in the stands, their collective voices a nervous buzz mingled with the rain, which was quickly becoming a deluge. What a fucking scene this had turned out to be. The last thing he needed—rumors that the new MP from Small Heath had pulled a fucking gun at Epsom. They had to clear out of this place.          

            “Charlie.” He glanced to his left and found the man. “Call a knacker and get this horse off the track.”

            He rifled through his pockets until he came up with the keys to the Bentley and tossed them at a young man near the edge of the group.

            “Billy, find my car and bring it to the back gate. Hurry up.”

            With that he turned to find Edie, still just over his shoulder. Her face was completely drained of color, blending into the white dress that had begun to stick to her collarbones in the rain. She stood out like a flag against the lush green of the track, the mare’s inky coat, the steel grey sky. He started to speak, but his voice caught when he spotted a spray of blood across her skirt. She’d stood too close to the mare when he—fucking hell, what a disaster. He started to take off his jacket, hoping it could cover up that damning stain somehow, but he noticed he was still holding the pistol. Jamming it into his waistband, he pulled his arms from his sleeves and settled the jacket roughly over Edie’s shoulders, then put a hand between her shoulder blades and pushed her forward.

            “Come on, we’re getting out of here.”

            They cut across the track, the gaze of the crowd heavy on them, and Tommy kept his eyes low under the brim of his hat. He caught fleeting glimpses of Edie’s legs and feet as she struggled across the wet, uneven ground. Her prim white shoes were smeared with mud and grass, and there was a rip running up the calf of her stocking. She didn’t say a word as they ducked below the rail and made their way to the gate, shoulders stiff under his open palm. Billy was waiting with the car, its engine rumbling.

            “You all right, Tommy? Should I ring Arthur?”

            “No, we’re fine. Go help Charlie, and don’t answer any fucking questions about me or that goddamn horse.”

            The Bentley bounced across the uneven ground of the field that led out to the road. Tommy kept his foot on the gas, going faster than was probably prudent given the rain and his own foul mood. They drove the first few miles in uncomfortable silence before he finally cleared his throat.

            “About the mare—there was no other way.”

            Edie didn’t say anything at first. The brim of her hat had started to droop from the rain and she lifted the sodden fabric from her head, resting the hat on the floorboards beside her feet. She spent a moment smoothing out the damp waves of hair that framed her face, and then spoke without looking at him.

            “I know. I’ve been around enough horses to understand what a break like that means, I just wasn’t ready to admit it to myself yet.”

            “I’m sorry you had to see it. I’m sorry about your dress.”

            Tommy regretted the words immediately. He wasn’t even sure she’d seen the stain, or how she’d react now if she hadn’t. Shelby women might’ve been able to stomach a bit of blood as par for the course at Epsom, but a girl like Edie was unlikely to encounter worse than spilled champagne during a day at the races.

            “No matter about the dress. Just some old thing.”

            There was something brittle behind the careless turn of phrase. Her face was still bone white when he glanced over at her, the contrast even more stark against the dark wool of his jacket.

            They didn’t speak again for a long time. Tommy kept his hands tight on the wheel, eyes straining to guide the car as the rain lashed across the windshield. After a painful silence, he heard her rifling through her bag. She was holding the book in her hands, shuffling through the pages to where he could see a marker sticking out. When she felt his eyes on her, she looked up.

            “Shall I read aloud? Sometimes it helps me when I…when I don’t want to think about things.”

            Read aloud? If the mood in the car hadn’t been so overwhelmingly gloomy, Tommy would have laughed. In his entire life, no one had ever read aloud to him. He didn’t think the idea had crossed his parents’ minds for even a moment during his childhood. Tommy himself had tried once with Charlie, but that had been Grace’s wheelhouse, not his. She was suited to those sorts of gentle scenes—the pretty lilt of her voice, the way her hair had formed a golden halo when illuminated by the bedside lamp of their son’s room. He was a poor substitute; no aptitude for playful voices, no patience for the silly stories Charlie requested, no time to finish even a few pages before the phone in his office started to ring.

            “I’m sorry,” Edie said, her voice bright and false again. “That’s ridiculous isn’t it?”

            Nothing, Tommy decided, could be worse than driving the rest of the way to Warwickshire in miserable silence.

            “No, go ahead. Start at the beginning, I don’t know it.”

            Edie dutifully turned back to the first page. When she began to read her voice had changed. Quiet and even, measuring out the words in an unfamiliar rhythm.         

            “April is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…”

            Tommy didn’t listen, really, to most of what she said. He wasn’t one for poetry at the best of times, and at first his mind was crowded with doubts about the day. But the patient sound of her voice, dipping with the cadence of the words, tripping easily over languages he didn’t know, calmed him in a way he hadn’t expected. She read for a long time, eventually tipping the book toward the window to catch the fading light of the day as they got closer to home.

            “Elizabeth and Leicester/Beating oars/The stern was formed/A gilded shell/Red and gold/The brisk swell/Rippled both shores/Southwest wind/Carried down stream/The peal of bells/White towers…” Edie tapered off, folding the book shut, just as they turned onto the lane that led to Langely House. “The light’s gone. Another time, maybe.”

            Her house soon came into view, warm lamps glowing in the lower windows as Tommy pulled the car up to the wide sandstone steps. Edie bent to retrieve her hat from the floor, but made no move to shrug off his jacket.

            “Won’t you come in for a drink, Tommy? I think we could both use one.”

            There were a lot of things that Tommy should have said. Another time. I’m too tired. I’ve got business. Charlie is waiting. You’re nineteen and I’m a fucking idiot who just shot a horse in front of you. But he wasn’t ready to go back to the tomb-like silence of Arrow House yet, so he turned the key, let the engine die, and followed her up the stairs.

 

            After their long, damp drive, the house felt luxuriously warm. There was a lived-in quality to the place that spoke to generations of quiet, comfortable money. Age-darkened portraits lined the front hall, with a haphazard assortment of boots and umbrellas resting against the wainscoting below. An elaborately carved table stood at the center of the entryway bearing a grand bouquet of summer flowers, but a hodgepodge of objects surrounded the vase—dog-eared books, a riding crop with a braided handle, an unspooling length of velvet ribbon. It was nothing like Arrow House and everything like Edith Hughes, a delicate balance of grandeur and informality.

            Edith left her hat and shoes in the hall as they passed into a snug room with worn leather chairs facing an unlit fireplace, a single lamp aglow in one corner. Edie pulled a small lever near the doorway and an older woman quickly appeared. She had greying hair pulled back in a severe bun, and her expression soured as she took in the bedraggled pair. When she spotted the stain on Edie’s dress, she all but elbowed Tommy aside to examine it more closely.

            “Edith! What happened to you, dearie, are you hurt? Is that blood—” She stooped and began to pluck at Edie’s damp skirt.

            “Stop, stop. Let it alone.” Edie took a step back. “I’m quite all right. There was an accident with the horse, that’s all. I’m going up to change. Will you send Agnes after me to soak this dress? After that, she can try to salvage the hat and shoes in the hall.”

            Mary continued to regard her mistress skeptically, as though she was perhaps concealing a mortal wound.

            “Mary.” Edie’s voice softened. “I promise I’m fine, really. Could you light a fire in here, please?”

            The older woman turned toward the fireplace, pointedly refusing to give Tommy a second look, and reached for the kindling bucket. Edie spread his jacket out over the back of a chair and stopped beside him, nodding toward a liquor cabinet on the far side of the room.

            “Help yourself to whatever you like. Mary will fetch you ice, if you want it. I’ll be right back.”

            It was abundantly clear that the housekeeper would rather stare into the fireplace for the rest of the night than carry on a conversation with the stranger who’d returned her employer in such a state, so Tommy made a show of diligently examining every bottle in the cabinet. Once Mary had left the room (not without an acidic parting glance), he poured a generous glass of scotch and took it to the hearth, hoping the flames would dry out his clothes. He drank the scotch too fast, letting it burn down his throat and through his sinuses, but it didn’t blot out the flashes of Edith’s stunned eyes below the brim of her bright white hat, the blood on her skirt.

            He did this, didn’t he? Poisoned the women around him in little measures. May left waiting in her lonely house. Polly and her pills and the wary way she’d regarded him for so long after her neck had been in the noose. Lizzie’s dark, unreadable eyes when business was bad and he’d bent her over his desk for the fifth time in a month. Jessie Eden and the hard-given trust that he’d twisted into something cruel. Esme alone with her children on a cold Christmas morning. And Grace, always Grace, Grace more than anyone—

            He wanted to throw the tumbler into the fireplace and leave. Make a fucking good decision for once when it came to a woman and let Edith Hughes alone. She was too young, too rich, to flippantly unaware of the things he’d done to reach where he was. One hand was on his jacket, the other about to put the glass down, when she reappeared in the doorway.

            “You can sit, you know. These chairs have seen worse than a sharp suit and a bit of rainwater.”

            She’d changed into a dark green dress with a matching sweater, her damp hair combed out smooth. As she padded toward the liquor cabinet and poured herself a drink, he noticed that her feet were bare. Drink in hand, she settled into one of the chairs closest to the fire, tucking her legs up onto the cushion so they were covered by her skirt. He was still hovering behind the opposite chair, and she looked at him expectantly.

            Tommy thought again of all the things he ought to say. It’s been a long day. I have an early morning in Birmingham tomorrow. Your housekeeper looks like she’ll murder me if I stay here five more minutes. In the end, though, he topped off his drink and sat down across from Edie.

            “You don’t have to be polite,” he said. “I’m sure that wasn’t the kind of day at the races you were hoping for.”

            “I meant what I said in the car. I’ve been around enough horses to know that can happen. When you run them so young, it’s a risk. I’m sorry you had to do it, and I’m sorry for the mare, but it’s not your fault.” She puffed her cheeks and let out a breath.

            Tommy wondered if anything could crack that polished veneer. When he was a child, they’d had to put down the old piebald pony Ada kept out at their grandmother’s caravan. His tough as nails sister had cried her eyes out for days. He’d shot a fucking horse two feet away from Edith Hughes and she’d barely blinked.

            “May I ask you something bluntly?” Edie had sat down her glass on the arm of her chair and was peering at him in the dim firelight.

            “You’ve earned it, I think.”

            “Why did you have a gun today? And who were those men that followed us onto the track?”

            Tommy took another long swallow of scotch. What could he say to that? That he’d killed more men than he could count to afford the racehorse and the country house and the Bentley? That his entire life was balanced on the precarious falsehood of his business being a legitimate enterprise? That the Mafia was two steps behind him and gaining fast?

            “I’ll ask you a question, too. What do you know about me?”

            “Almost nothing. I’m not from this part of the country, I don’t know the people here. I know that you’re an MP, but not how you became one.” Edie regarded him frankly. “I ran into a friend today, while you were getting our drinks. His father’s a Minister, and he said you have a reputation in London. That you’re a hard man, and the war made you that way. He said that you’d won medals—”

            Tommy cut her off. Maybe he’d been drinking too fast, the second glass of scotch was nearly empty, but her words made something crimson and furious boil up inside him.

            “And I threw them into the fucking Cut the day I got home from France. I don’t want to hear that war hero shit.”

            That at least seemed to stop Edie short, in a way nothing else had the entire day. She’d been ready to speak and stopped, lips parted, staring at him. A log popped in the fire and she glanced away, and then back to him with her eyebrows drawn together.         

            “Then the two of us can agree. I was only a little girl when my father died, and everyone at his funeral—with no body to bury, mind you—told me what a hero he was.” She paused, swallowed, and Tommy thought he saw a sheen of tears in her eyes. When she blinked it was gone. “If being a hero means choking to death on mustard gas in a trench, then I suppose I’d rather he’d been a coward. But that’s not what I’m supposed to say, is it? I’m supposed to say, ‘How brave of you to fight for England, Mr. Shelby,’ aren’t I?”

            “I don’t care if you or anyone else says a word to me about France until the day I die.”

            “Then I won’t. But I’ll still ask why you had the gun.”

            Everything felt, quite suddenly, as though it was too sharply in focus. Tommy watched Edie raise her drink to her lips, saw the flash of the fire on the cut crystal tumbler and on the dark stone of a ring that circled her forefinger, the fragile bob of her throat as she swallowed, the shift of her knees under the smooth fabric of her skirt. In France, he’d been known among his men for his coolness under pressure; it was easy to stay calm and act, harder sometimes to stay calm and speak.

            “I don’t know what else your friend heard about me, but if something made me a ‘hard man’ it was growing up with nothing. We don’t all start out with a grand house and more money than God himself.” He cast a glance around the room, pausing to finish the scotch. “My family built a business from nothing, and that’s a guaranteed way to make a few enemies, eh? That’s what the gun is for, though I suppose I ought to learn my manners now that I’ve got men like your friend to talk about me. As for the men in the crowd, that’s Arthur’s doing. He’s of the mind that one gun isn’t always enough.”        

            “What kind of business makes enemies like that?”

            “Imports, manufacturing, betting—it’s not the businesses, it’s the people.”

            “They’re not good people, then?”  

            “I’ve found that most aren’t, as a rule.”

            Edie raised her drink again, looking at him for a long time over the rim of the glass. It was difficult to read her face in the uneven light.

            “Rather black way to look at things, don’t you think? Though I suppose if I had to carry a gun everywhere, I might share your perspective.” She balanced her empty glass back on the arm of her chair. “At any rate, I didn’t invite you in to cast more of a dark cloud over today. Shall we try again?”

            Tommy supposed that by now he should be less surprised by Edie’s ability to deftly turn a conversation, but it still caught him wrong footed. She didn’t wait for him to respond.

            “I meant to ask you this in the car earlier. I’d say it will seem forward, but you must be used to that by now from me. Would Charlie like to ride one of the ponies I keep up here? They were mine when I was young, but I’m a bit tall for them these days and they’re terribly lazy as a result. Not that I doubt quality of the thoroughbred you got him, but a Shetland might be a better match for a boy his age.”

            Charlie would be over the moon if Edie turned up with a pony, of course. Tommy had caught his son peering out the window on several occasions, watching her as she worked with the mare. Never mind the fact that the boy dragged his harried nanny to the stables every day to see “his” horse (a thoroughbred he wouldn’t be able to ride for five more years at best—perhaps not Tommy’s most considered purchase). Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to have someone start Charlie out on an animal his size. Plus it would give the nanny a break; Tommy had little time to spend with his son these days, and the woman seemed increasingly frazzled by her constant charge.

            “I must be a terrible riding companion, if you’d prefer Charlie.” Tommy allowed himself a smile. “He’d be thrilled. Ring ‘round the house tomorrow and ask for Miss Johnson—that’s his nanny. Not sure what sort of ‘school’ there is for a boy his age, but she’s particular about his routine. She’ll tell you a time.”

            “I will. But don’t think that lets you off the hook. I’ll still be expecting you for a bit of a hack when my friends finally make it from town. Or sooner, if your business doesn’t keep you too busy.”

            “Speaking of—I have a long day of it tomorrow.”

            That wasn’t strictly true, but Tommy’s head was starting to pound from the strain of the day and a few too many drinks. Plus he realized that he’d said far too much already, and his current state wasn’t likely to encourage prudence. He stood, waving Edie back into her seat.

            “I can show myself out. Thank you for keeping your head today.”

            He was on the last step in front of the house when he heard the door open, followed by the muffled sound of Edie's bare feet on the wet stone. He turned to see her trotting toward him, something in her hand. She stopped one step above him, shifting from foot to foot on the cold pavers.

            “You forgot your jacket.”

            Instead of handing it over, she fanned out the jacket and draped the soft wool over his shoulders. Her hands lingered on the lapels a beat too long, then she tugged forward gently and pressed her lips against his.

            It took Tommy a moment to register what was happening—white blankness followed by a rush of sensation. Edie’s hand, cool and dry, sliding up from his jacket to the side of his neck, her thumb over his pulse. The pressure of her mouth, waxing and waning against his as she leaned forward, the tickle of her loose hair against his cheeks. The faintest smell of her perfume, jasmine and citrus. The slick silk of her dress when his hand found the small of her back and bunched up the fabric between his fingers. They held there—seconds? minutes? he couldn't say—until she took a measured step back. His hand lingered at her side, just above the shallow curve of her hip.

            “Goodnight, Tommy.”           

            “Goodnight.”

 

            Though he’d been exhausted during the short drive home, Tommy didn't sleep until nearly dawn. Sounds kept him awake, none of them coming from the still, sleeping house. The scrape of shovels, of course, though distant tonight. The dull crack of a pistol. The ambient murmur of a crowd. A polished voice in even rhythm. The peal of bells/White towers…

Chapter Text

If she’d been a character in one of her beloved books (preferably something melancholy, maybe Russian and prone to long descriptive passages featuring bleak, snowy fields), Edie would have lingered on the steps and watched Tommy’s car depart. But the rain had begun to fall hard again, bringing with it an unseasonably cold wind that bit at her bare legs. She also knew that Mary was likely watching her from one of the windows upstairs, and every moment outside would give the older woman more things to scold her about. As though the sight of her kissing Tommy Shelby wouldn’t be enough ammunition to keep Mary going for weeks.

            Pulling her sweater more tightly around her shoulders, she retreated into the house and found her chair beside the fire again. She wasn’t ready to sleep yet, didn’t want another drink, and felt unusually restless at the thought of reading. What she really wanted was someone to talk to. She would have given anything to see Harry in the opposite chair, or one of her school friends. Anyone who would know what to say about Tommy and the supremely strange day they had just passed together.

            In spite of her best efforts, she couldn’t put a pin on his personality. Edie was usually good with people, an easy conversationalist who prided herself on putting others at ease, too. But she’d kissed Tommy (maybe that had been a bit rash, in retrospect) and she still had no sense of what he was thinking—what he’d thought about the entire ordeal of the day. The fact that he hadn’t pulled away was a mark in her favor. She could still feel the warmth of his hand sliding from her hip to her back, his rough fingertips catching the silk of her dress. She didn’t regret it, necessarily—who could really regret kissing a man as handsome as Tommy Shelby?—but she did wonder if she’d set herself back with such a bold approach.

            No sense in thinking about it tonight. It wasn’t as though she could take anything back, or discern whatever emotions Tommy hid behind those startling eyes. She resolved to speak with him when she took the pony over for Charlie this week. Standing slowly, she made her way up the stairs and lay awake for a long time, troubled by little scraps of things. Tommy’s hand firm between her shoulder blades, guiding her across the track. The whip-crack sharpness of his voice over hard consonants—I threw them into the fucking Cut. The drape of his impeccable jacket over her shoulders, carrying the scents of leather and smoke. They added up to nothing at all.

 

            Tommy had painted a picture of Charlie’s nanny as a strict old banshee, but Edie found her to be nothing more than your everyday spinster governess. The sort she’d run rings around from ages three to sixteen. In the end, the woman seemed thrilled by a break from minding an energetic little boy. Two days after the Derby, she saddled up one of the ponies—a little silver dapple her grandfather had named Merrylegs—and trotted him down the lane to Arrow House. She knew she looked an utter fool, her feet dangling almost to the ground, but she wanted to tire the pony out a bit before Charlie had a chance to ride.

            Her new pupil was already at the stable when she arrived, talking off the nanny’s ear as she helped him feed a fistful of grass to a massive black Cob who was arching his neck over the stall door. Charlie already had on a helmet and a miniature pair of riding boots. Edie was amused to find the boots were made as finely as her own; the Shelby family certainly spared no expense when it came to clothing, even for little boys who would outgrow a pair of boots in six months. She dropped the short distance off the pony.

            “Hello, Charlie! Good morning, Miss Johnson.”      

            “Ma’am.” The nanny put a gentle hand on her charge’s shoulder and urged him forward. “Say hello, Charlie.”

            Suddenly shy, Charlie regarded her with enormous eyes. No questioning who he took after. Edie squatted down to meet his gaze, the pony’s reins loose in one hand.

            “Good morning, Miss Hughes.” His voice was so sweetly serious that Edie struggled not to laugh.

            “It’s quite all right to call me Edie. And this is Merrylegs.”

            “Daddy said your name was Miss Hughes.” Charlie leaned toward her as though he was sharing a great secret, and then pointed to the Cob proudly. “That’s his horse.”

            “Is it? He’s very grand, would you introduce us?”

            The utter joy of having someone new to talk to about horses made quick work of any lingering shyness. The younger Shelby clearly took after his father in interests as well as looks. Edie learned a great deal about the Cob as well as every other animal in the stable, from a bright-eyed thoroughbred that Charlie proudly identified as “my horse” all the way to the tabby barn cat. Eventually it became clear that the nanny had slipped back to the house, and Edie caught a break in the boy’s breathless patter.

            “Did your father tell you that you and I having a riding lesson today?”

            Charlie nodded seriously.

            “Are you ready?”

            A series of fervent nods.

            “Come on then, let’s go out into the yard.”

            Charlie proved to be a good pupil, if slightly too excited to sit perfectly still in the saddle. Merrylegs had been a bit wild when Edie was a child, somewhat disposed to darting off course (and occasionally into a hedge or fence) at any provocation. He was nearly twenty now, and age had mellowed him into the perfect first pony for a child; Charlie’s eager, nonstop conversation and occasional tugs of mane instead of rein prompted little more than patient blinking. At the end of the lesson, Edie managed to maneuver both herself and Charlie into the saddle, holding him carefully in front of her for a gentle trot around the yard. Charlie clearly considered this the adventure of a lifetime. As soon as she handed him back over to Miss Johnson, he picked up an energetic narrative that Edie predicted would last well into the afternoon.

            She’d thought—hoped, really—that Tommy might make an appearance, but the house and yard were silent as she led the pony to the water trough before starting their walk home. Maybe she really had gone too far the other night. Or maybe Tommy was preoccupied with business, as he constantly reminded her. Being an MP was work enough, never mind what he’d told her about the Shelby Company Limited. It’s not the businesses, it’s the people. Whatever else that meant, she knew for a fact that it meant carrying a gun as a matter of course. Perhaps, she thought as she started down the lane, Harry and Mary had been right in their appraisals of Tommy, and she was foolish to pursue any kind of connection with a man like him.

            At the same time, she wasn’t ready to give up yet. Hard man or not, there was something more than a bit beguiling about Thomas Shelby. Maybe it was the fact that he was nothing like the men who had courted her in London; he clearly had no patience for pleasantries, which was rather refreshing. Maybe it was the way he’d handled things on the racecourse, taking control without a moment’s hesitation. Or, maybe it was a bit shallower than that and she should just admit her attraction to sharp cheekbones and sharp suits to match.

 

            Though she kept an eye out, there was no sign of Tommy over the following week when Edie visited Arrow House for Charlie’s lessons. She wondered if he was avoiding her, but the house was quiet in general—no cars came and went, and she caught sight of the several servants lounging and smoking near the kitchen door, looking less than busy.

            A weekend soon slipped by, and she found herself wrapped up in plans for the first house party of the summer. Fiona and Harry would arrive Friday night, along with Harry’s brother Albert, her school friends Claire and Pippa, and a flock of additional London regulars (plus their attendant horses and hounds). Mary spent a day in Birmingham recruiting additional maids and kitchen boys, there were groceries to be ordered, menus to be planned, rooms to be aired...the house was thrown into such chaos that Edie almost forgot to issue one very important invitation. Before her Monday lesson with Charlie, she finally found a few minutes to sit down at her desk and dash off a note.

            Tommy—

            If the weekend finds you free, you’re cordially invited to a hunting party at Langely House this Saturday. Riding commences at 10AM sharp, dinner and drinks to follow. (Black tie optional, though highly encouraged.) Perhaps a short ride Sunday morning, dependent on the quantity of drinks had by all.

            Yours,

            Edie

            She sealed up the note and took it along to Charlie’s lesson the next day. Before sending him back to the house, she pressed the envelope into his hand.

            “Would you deliver this to your Dad for me, Charlie?”

            “He’s been in London, but nanny says he’ll be home tonight. He promised to have dinner with me.”

            “That’s wonderful. So you’ll give it to him then?”

            Charlie nodded, taking the task quite seriously.

            “Splendid. I’ll see you Wednesday, all right?”

 

            Wednesday morning arrived with no reply from Tommy, and Edie all but resigned herself to feeling like an idiot. She’d made a mistake, and it was fairly clear that Tommy was avoiding her, London trip or not. It would let Charlie down terribly, but she’d make an excuse to cut off their lessons after today. No need to look sillier than she already did by gadding around Arrow House when she wasn't wanted. Anyhow, her friends would arrive soon enough and provide ample distraction.

            She was riding up the lane when the rumble of a car sounded behind her. Slowing the pony, she spotted the Bentley with Tommy at the wheel. He stopped beside her, leaning with one elbow out the window.

            “Bit tall for that pony, aren’t you?”

            He flashed her a grin, more genuine than she’d seen before, but the rest of his face looked worn. A little thin and shadowy around the eyes. Maybe he’d been working harder in London than she thought. She shrugged, glancing down at her dangling feet.

            “You might say that. Has Charlie told you about his lessons? He’s doing wonderfully—rather takes after you.”    

            “He doesn’t talk about anything else. Rung up my hotel every night this week to tell me what he’d learned. I have a call to make right now, but I’ll stop out at the stable after and see you two, eh? Come on.”

            Tommy let the car roll forward very slowly, waving her alongside. She nudged the pony into a walk, took a deep breath, and spoke over the sound of the engine.

            “Tommy, about the other night—I made a bit of a fool of myself, didn’t I? We can forget about it, if that’s all right with you.”

            He slowed the car again to look at her, head tilted slightly, and she was surprised to see his lips quirk up into a smile. In spite of herself, she felt her own expression mirror his as he spoke.

            “What are you talking about? I’m coming to your party, aren’t I?”

Chapter Text

Tommy had certainly had what could only be described as a week. It had started the morning after Epsom, when he’d woken from a fitful half-doze to one of the maids knocking cautiously. Mrs. Gray is on the phone, wouldn’t take no for an answer, sir. Pol had been altogether too shrill for so early on a Sunday, and she’d had a lot to say about the Derby for someone who hadn’t been in attendance. You can’t be pulling a fucking gun in public anymore, Thomas. Call Arthur or one of the Lee boys if that kind of business needs doing. Where was Arthur, anyhow? Why wasn’t he with you? Aberama Gold was in The Garrison last night, saying how you’d shown up to Epsom with some posh little piece of skirt on your arm. You’ve got bigger things to worry about than women right now—have you talked to Lizzie about what’s going on in Camden?

            He had not, but Polly’s tone of voice made it clear that she expected him to call Lizzie before the morning was out. That call didn’t exactly cast a ray of sunshine over the day, either. Lizzie had gone to drop off some invoices at Solomons’ bakery—still no sense of order there, by the way—and she’d noticed Ollie in a back room with three men. She’d thought their accents were American, though it was hard to tell because Ollie had closed the door rapidly at the sight of her.

            Luckily (luckily?), Tommy had business in London anyway. He’d been invited to join the Select Committee on Veterans’ Pensions by some MP from Cornwall with a misbegotten perspective on his military service. The meetings for that had been, astoundingly, even less interesting than he might have imagined. More productive than his nonexistent meetings with Ollie, who had managed to dodge him during three separate visits to Camden throughout the week. Even if the boy had learned nothing else from Alfie, he’d certainly learned how to be annoying.

            He finally called in Arthur for assistance, remembering Polly’s admonishments about what was appropriate for Thomas Shelby, MP to do these days. His brother had really provided the pièce de résistance for a fucking miserable week. Arthur had shown up late at night and well on his way to drunk, wheedled Tommy into going to one of their clubs, then immediately picked a fight with a man who didn’t clear space for them at the bar fast enough. That had somehow ended up with Tommy getting punched in the ribs by the offending party. He’d laid the man flat, dragged Arthur out by the collar, and told his brother not to show his face in Birmingham until he’d sobered up and dealt with Ollie and whatever fucking Americans he was hiding in Camden.

            By that point, Tommy thought he’d shoot someone—Pol be damned—if he had to spend one more fucking minute in London. He’d driven back to Arrow House in a foul mood, feeling every bump in the bruises blooming over his left side.

 

            When Charlie had proudly presented the note from Edie, Tommy was in no mood for a party. He was stiff, sleep deprived, and troubled by his inability to get a grasp on the situation in London. Most of all, he was troubled by the fact that he had to leave more to Arthur and Polly and Lizzie these days. Trusting people, even his own family, wasn’t one of his specialties.

            He’d planned to tell Edie no, but then he’d gotten two more calls, both from London. The first was from Arthur, who had managed to track down Ollie and learn that the mysterious American men were his cousins, visiting from New York. Ollie had closed the door on Lizzie and dodged Tommy because he was three weeks late on some payments and wouldn’t have the money until Friday. (Arthur assured Tommy that he’d handled this news “professionally,” a concept that Tommy had previously thought unfamiliar to his brother.) The second call had been from the Cornwall MP, asking if Tommy was available for another two days of meetings next week. At that point, a weekend filled with heavy drinking began to take on a certain appeal. Maybe he could do with a day or two to forget about things.

            If he’d been fully honest with himself, he would have admitted that his continuing curiosity about Edie also influenced his decision. Now that her friends had finally arrived, what did she need his company for? What would a bunch of bright young things from London even think about her inviting the neighbor along for the weekend? Was this her form of an apology for that unexpected kiss after the Derby, or a way to see if he’d take the gesture further next time? (He was honest enough with himself to admit that possibility was intriguing.)

            In spite of his lingering doubts, he found himself packing an overnight bag, tuxedo and bow tie included, on Saturday morning. When he’d come out to see Charlie ride this week, Edie had made it clear that he was to be a guest at Langely House for the full weekend, neighbor or not. When people start going home early it spoils the party altogether, she’d said sternly. Though he’d climbed fairly far from Small Heath, he still found it funny how much rich people loved a weekend party—wasn’t one day enough, even with people you liked?

            The stable boy had ridden his horse over earlier that morning, so Tommy drove the short distance to Langely House and parked among a fleet of gleaming cars, including one or two that made the Bentley look run-of-the-mill in comparison. The house itself had been fully transformed since the night after Epsom. At the door, a butler in a stiff jacket took his bag, passing it off to one of the maids buzzing around the entry hall with luggage, newly polished boots, pots of tea. The hall itself had been cleared of its homey clutter, the floors buffed to a mirror shine, a fresh bouquet of flowers dominating the central table.

            “If you’ll come this way sir, the ladies and gentlemen are in the breakfast room.”

            Tommy followed him down a long corridor, dodging more maids bearing trays and plates. There was a growing sound of lively conversation as they approached a door on the left, and the butler opened it to reveal Edie at the head of a long table that was burdened with every imaginable type of breakfast food. The hostess herself put down a piece of toast when she saw him enter, popping up from her chair.

            “Right on time! Bernard had the maids take your bag up, didn’t he? And I saw your boy drop the horse off this morning.”

            She ushered him around to an empty chair beside her own then looked expectantly down the table.

            “Everyone, this is Tommy Shelby. He lives over the hill at Arrow House and has been a very good neighbor while you’ve all left me to languish up here. I suppose he’d rather hoped I’d leave him alone now that you lot have turned up, but I’ve invited him along for the weekend instead so we can all bother him as a group.”

            There was a gentle swell of laughter, and then Edie introduced each person in turn. Tommy considered himself a quick study, but doubted he’d retain the list of cheerful nicknames—Harry, Bertie, Pippa—that went with a dozen bright-eyed faces around the table. He demurred when Edie offered him breakfast from the overstuffed table (he’d had his customary morning cigarette at home). Soon, she raised her voice over the din of conversation and cutlery.

            “Right, everyone. We’re setting out in fifteen minutes, no mercy for stragglers. Bertie get those hounds in order, they’ve been barking since four this morning.”

            There was a final flurry of toast-grabbing and tea-sipping as everyone left the table. Edie watched her guests depart, then hung back a moment with Tommy.

            “I’m so pleased you could come, really. Is there anything you need from upstairs? I’ll just send one of the girls—”

            He waved her off.

            “You’ll find I’m an easy guest.”

            “You don’t have to be. Mary hired enough girls to staff Buckingham Palace for the weekend. I’ve got to find my jacket, so I’ll meet you at the stables.” She tapped him on the arm before heading for the stairs. “And here I was thinking you only wore grey suits.”

            Tommy had in fact thought quite a lot about what to wear for a hunting party with Edie and her flock of posh friends. In the end he’d managed to find a pair of barely-worn riding boots (a gift from May) in the hall closet at Arrow House, but he’d had to go into Birmingham and harass his tailor to get a tweed jacket made in two days’ time. Tweed had seemed the right thing, and he’d spotted enough of it around the breakfast table to feel comfortable in his decision. Whether he felt comfortable about anything else was another matter.

 

            In the days before the party, Tommy had expected the worst from Edie’s friends. What else could he have expected from a pack of twenty-year-old London socialites? At twenty, he’d been working himself half to death in a factory and considered it a good day when his father didn’t gamble away his wages or come home drunk and bellow at Ada and Finn until they cried. At twenty, he had also been just a few years away from France, which would make the factory look like a seaside holiday. He wasn’t likely to find much common ground with this lot.

            He’d brought the big black Cob, and thought he knew what would be said when one of Edie’s friends approached as they all waited at the stable. May had spotted the Cob once and teased him: “That’s a gypsy horse Tommy, you’ll give yourself away.” But the man—Alexander? Edward? Fuck if Tommy could remember—gave the Cob an appraising look, then an approving one.

            “Beautiful horse. Where’d you dig up an old-fashioned Cob like that? My grandfather raised Welsh Cobs, grand things, strong as oxen, but they’re hard to come by these days. Does he hunt?”

            Tommy shrugged, lighting a cigarette then offering the case to the man.

            “We’ll find out, eh? I’ve been all over for business, no time to ride unless someone very persistent drags me out of my house.”

            The man barked out a laugh.

            “Edie would ride ten miles backward through a snowstorm just for the hell of it. Never seen a girl so mad for horses.” He leaned in to take a cigarette, then continued earnestly. “I will say though, it’s so good to see her having fun again, isn’t it?”

            Tommy didn’t know what to say to that, didn’t know what it meant, so he just nodded, pretending to focus on finding his lighter. The other man seemed to share Edie’s effortless ability to buoy up a conversation, and continued.

            “Anyhow, where did you get this horse? I’ve a mind to take one like him back to London with me, if there are any others hiding around here.”

            Their conversation continued, gradually transitioning from horses to cars, as the other riders trickled out of the house. To his surprise, Tommy found that he was enjoying himself. He’d forgotten that a conversation could be pleasant when it wasn’t A: about business; B: part of a Parliamentary debate; C: conducted with Alfie Solomons; or D: a one-sided scolding from Polly.     

            Edie was the last to appear, dashing across the yard when the rest of them were in their saddles.

            “If it isn’t Miss ‘No Mercy for Stragglers’ herself!”

            The tall blond man—Harry? Tommy thought so—called out, followed by a smattering of applause from the assembled. Edie gave a little mock bow then collected her horse from the groom. No Pilot today; he’d been replaced by a lanky grey whose ears flicked back and forth nervously in the scrum of horses. His rider did her usual, graceful vault into the saddle.

            “I was telling Mary to pack extra champagne for the picnic later, so the whole lot of you can bugger off—especially you, Harry!”

            That earned a greater round of applause, which cut off when the hounds were released in a flurry of excited howls. Tommy learned that the Cob could hunt, taking on felled logs and fences in energetic leaps, but he himself felt fairly out of practice when it came to this kind of riding. He was relieved when, after almost an hour galloping through woods and fields, it became clear that whatever fox the hounds had scented was long gone. One of the men peeled off from the pack and shepherded the dogs home, while Edie led the rest of them on a more leisurely ride.

            The ride ended at the crest of a hill, where two of the grooms had driven out a little pony cart and set up a picnic that put the morning’s breakfast spread to shame. Even from a distance, Tommy could see two enormous tables, Edie’s promised champagne perched in the center inside buckets of ice. He was near the back of the pack as they climbed, and she doubled back to meet him.

            “Having an all right time? That horse of yours can jump!”

            “Higher than I knew.”

            “Charlie told me he’s your favorite.”

            “That’s because he’s Charlie’s favorite. I’m not that sentimental.”

            “Hold this a moment, would you?”

            She held out her riding cap to him. The day had turned surprisingly hot and she was smoothing back her hair where tendrils stuck, dark and damp, against her forehead. Once he accepted the hat, she used her free hands to shrug out of her dark blue jacket and unfasten the high, starched collar of her shirt.

           “Thanks, that’s better. It’s like the Sahara out here, who would’ve expected in Warwickshire?”     

            She was a few steps ahead of him, and Tommy could see a faint darkness on the back of her bright white shirt, where sweat had soaked through near the base of her spine. At the place where he’d held the thin silk of her dress the other night, wrinkling it between his fingers. If he could have, he would have done the same again now, bunched the stiff cotton of her shirt up in his palm, maybe slid his other hand below the open collar of her shirt. It stopped him short, this sudden, breathless wanting for her. He hadn’t—

            “Bertie, if you waste a bottle of champagne trying that stupid sabre trick again, you’ll be riding home in the pony cart!”

            Edie’s voice, loud and playful, cut through his thoughts. She was shouting up the hill at her friends, who had already dismounted to mill around the tables. She kicked her horse into a canter and gestured to Tommy to follow. He did, a bit dazed, her hat still dangling from one hand.

 

            All pleasantly tipsy on the champagne—which had survived any sabre-related incidents—they rode back to the house at a slower pace. Edie and two women she introduced as her childhood schoolmates caught up to Tommy early on, chatting all the way to the house in the easy way that seemed universal to her friends. Once inside, everyone dispersed quickly; the task of dressing for dinner had far more significance than Tommy would have predicted.

            “Come on,” Edie said to him as she watched her guests retreat. “I’ll show you where Bernard put your bag.”

            He followed her through several rambling corridors until they came to a room where his clothes for the night had been carefully ironed and spread out on the bed. He expected some platitude that fit her role as hostess, maybe a question about the room being all right or an explanation of how to find the dining room, but didn’t expect the click of the door shutting behind her. He turned to find her grinning at him.

            “I’ve figured out why you favor those hats so much. Can’t hide a thing with eyes like those, can you?”

            “What are you on about?”

            He’d actually stuffed his hat into his pocket early in the ride; the day had been too hot.

            “I saw how you looked at me earlier.”

            “And how was that?”

            Edie stepped forward, still smiling.

            “Like you are right now.”

            Tommy let himself forget that she was nineteen, that she was too naïve and too rich, that he didn’t know a fucking thing about her. Let himself forget that this was still a terrible idea and he shouldn’t even be at this posh weekend party to begin with. Let himself do what he’d wanted to do earlier and reached around to the small of her back to push her forward, fingers crumpling up the starched cotton of her shirt. Let himself kiss her.

            Edie didn’t freeze as he had the other night, didn’t even seem surprised. He could feel the smile relax from her lips as she leaned forward into the kiss, one hand coming to rest on the back of his neck and the other sliding under his jacket, palm hot through the cloth of his shirt. When he nipped at her lower lip, urging her mouth open, she laughed low in her throat. The sound sent an unexpected jolt of pleasure down his spine. His free hand wove into her hair, tilting her head sideways so he could run his lips down her neck, faintly salty from the day’s exertions, and across the sliver of skin exposed by her open collar, where the bone rested close below the surface. She laughed again, the sound breathless this time, when he bit down gently at the angle of neck and shoulder.

            “Tommy.”

            He stepped back and caught a rueful twist of her mouth.

            “As much as I’d like to stay here, I can’t be last to dinner. I’m the host.” She leaned in and pressed her lips against his cheek, close to his ear. “But I’ve put your seat across from mine, so you can look at me like that all evening.”

 

            The evening proved to be an unexpected exercise in self-control. As a rule, Tommy didn’t have to wait around for the women he wanted; some combination of money, power, and looks generally cleared the way for him. The only thing that saved him from following Edie down the hall and pulling her back into his room was a lingering sense of doubt. Should he actually be doing this? Would it get back around to Edie’s London friends, who—winning conversationalists or not—were already confirmed to be gossiping about him? Did he need one of them letting it slip that the new MP from Birmingham was fucking his way through the society pages, starting with Edith Hughes?

            Pol had accused him on more than one occasion, crassly but not inaccurately, of thinking with his cock. Maybe this wasn’t the time to prove her right.

            Once he’d changed into the tuxedo, Tommy wandered downstairs to find a few of the men gathered in the room where he’d talked with Edie the other night. Harry approached as he poured a drink.

            “Make it a double, the girls will be curling their hair for another hour.”

            Most of the men were a drink or two deep already, and Tommy found it easy to fall into their conversations. They were all debating the merits of various London clubs—including a Shelby Company holding, though he didn’t mention that fact—when Edie’s voice cut across the chatter.

            “Would one of you gentlemen be kind enough to make a lady a drink?”

            Tommy looked up to see her slip through the doorway, slim and lively in a narrowly cut dress of silver silk. The dress was unadorned, nothing like the heavily beaded styles Lizzie and Ada seemed to favor, but it didn’t need a single rhinestone; the neckline was cut low to showcase an immense diamond pendant, with matching earrings that peeked out from her dark hair. The stones were near-blinding as she stepped into the lamplight, making a round with a little greeting, a shared joke, a flash of a smile framed in bright red lips, for each of the guests.

            In that moment, and a thousand little others throughout the night, Tommy finally understood what was so intriguing about Edith Hughes. What made him so unable to see that she was a bad idea. Of course he’d realized early on that she was pretty, he’d have been blind to miss that. But now, illuminated by the glow of a party like this, she was dazzling.

            It was, Tommy realized as they left the dinner table and filtered into a tall-ceilinged billiards room, a role she’d been learning to play her entire life. The good manners that he tried to manufacture with a new house and a charitable foundation and a closet of tailor-made suits had belonged to Edie since birth. He could see it in her practiced grace when she served a drink, in her effortless skips between conversations, in her well-timed laughter at the dinner table, in the graceful bend of her back, framed by that perfectly-cut dress, when she leaned close to giggle over something with Fiona, the pair of them all glossy hair and sparkling gemstones.

            They’d gone through a staggering amount of alcohol at the dinner table—Tommy judged that this crowd might be able to hold its own at The Garrison on a Saturday night—and showed no signs of slowing down as they spread out across the billiards room. Someone produced an etched silver case of snow and passed it around alongside a bottle of champagne still dripping from the ice bucket. Tommy, thinking back on his week, accepted both, then held the case in his palm for Edie and Fiona, their cheeks identically flushed with laughter over some secret joke.

            After the cocaine, the room took on a crystalline brightness, everyone’s voices louder, their laughter clearer. Tommy let himself lounge into a deep leather chair, head tilted back lazily, his view of the room slightly clouded by his own eyelashes. Pippa put a record on the gramophone and Harry asked Edie to dance with an exaggerated chivalry that was somewhat undermined by a gin and tonic artlessly balanced in one hand. They twirled around the carpet in a ragtag foxtrot, both giggling, until Fiona cut in, then Bertie. Finally, the record ran out and Edie collapsed into a chair. When she did, Claire took the drink from Harry’s hand and raised it in a toast.

            “To Edie, our intrepid hostess. Don’t leave us again, darling, we’re positively lost without you.”

            Edie ducked her head in a false show of modesty, then raised her own glass back toward them her friends.

            “You all drink me out of house and home, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Put on another record, won’t you Pips?”

            The night dissolved into bright effervescence after that. There were bursts of dancing, the gramophone turned up loud enough to shake the windowpanes, card games with rules that became increasingly absurd and bets to match, at one point a ladies’ footrace down the central hall, all of them barefoot and holding the hems of their shimmering silk gowns, buoyed up by endless champagne and snow. Edie beat Tommy handily at billiards, and then claimed a dance with him as the price of defeat. She’d lost her shoes in the hall and kept tripping on the hem of her dress, laughing against his neck in a way that made him want to pull her out of the room, up the stairs…

            It was nearly three in the morning when people began to wander off to bed, their voices ringing down the long hall. Tommy couldn’t remember the last time he’d been awake at three for an enjoyable reason. The pair of them hung back, pretending to be engrossed in another billiards game as Edie called out goodnights. When the last voices had faded, she looked at him from across the table.

            “Shall I show you to your room, Mr. Shelby? Wouldn’t want you to get lost.”

            There was something warm and playful in her eyes that made a reply unnecessary. He nodded and followed her up the stairs, aware, drunk as he was, that they weren’t going the way they had earlier. Her dress dipped low across her back and he was entranced by the subtle shift of muscles under her skin in the dim hall. Edie opened a door, took a step inside, and then turned around with her eyebrows up in mock surprise, one hand reaching out to rest on the silk lapel of his jacket.

            “I’m so sorry, I’ve gotten terribly turned around and shown you to my room instead.”

            Tommy laughed softly, the sound little more than a breath. Maybe this was a bad idea, but he’d survived far worse ideas before.

            “Could be a long way to my room. I wouldn’t want to get lost.”

            Edie’s fingers tightened, tugging him forward.

            “Well, if you’re going to look at me like that, I suppose you ought to come in.”

 

Chapter Text

When Tommy closed the door behind them, Edie felt a gentle swell of triumph. The quiet warmth of that faded, replaced by a thrill of desire that burned up through her throat, when he caught the hand on his jacket and pulled her forward, her bare feet brushing the polished toes of his shoes, bare arms against the expensive wool of his jacket. The fingers of his free hand twisted impatiently into her hair, tilting her face up toward his. They were so close, lips almost touching, and she could only catch little flashes of him: a tiny, pale scar below one cheekbone, the faintest ghosts of freckles scattered carelessly across his nose, the sweep of his eyelashes—extravagant, somehow, on a face that was all angles and shadows—as he looked down at her.

            “Got exactly what you planned, haven’t you?”

            The sound of his voice, low in his throat, struck Edie uncharacteristically speechless. There was a tension in the words that made her wonder again about the rumors, about the gun at Epsom, about all of the things she didn’t know about Thomas Shelby. Now, however, was no time for those doubts. She'd gotten herself into this, gotten what she'd planned, if Tommy was right. 

            “Not exactly. Not yet, anyway.”

            “A proper girl like you shouldn’t say things like that.”

            She took half a step back, finally able to see him fully. Still all buttoned up, bow tie crisp, not a hair out of place in spite of the long night. She reached up and pulled one loop of the bow tie, unraveling it to fall loose in his collar.

            “I didn’t bring you up here to be proper. Thought that would be clear by now.”

            Tommy stared her down, the corners of his eyes crinkling halfway between mirth and disbelief, then pulled the tie free and let it drop to the floor.

            “Oh, it is.”

            When he kissed her, palms splayed across her back where the dress dipped low, any more clever quips vanished from Edie’s mind. There had been something guarded, tentative almost, in their kiss earlier, but urgency replaced that now, his mouth rough against hers until she parted her lips for his tongue. She could feel his fingers on the silk-wrapped buttons at the back of her dress, quick and graceful even though he was undoing them blind. When they were all unfastened he brought his hands to her shoulders and pushed the straps free. The dress fell easily and he stepped back as it slid down her body.

            Edie watched him watching her, a blush creeping into her cheeks at the weight of those incredible eyes, dressed in just a half slip and stockings, the dress pooled like mercury at her feet. Tommy had one hand in his pocket, the other running through his hair, but her eyes caught on the curve of his lips, red and a little damp. She was struck again by those moments of incongruous softness in a face so seemingly carved from stone. When he spoke, his voice was rough.

            “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you stepped out of a fuckin’ dream.”

            “Could just be the snow.”

            Edie stepped closer to him again, kicking her feet free from the dress, hoping she didn’t look as suddenly self-conscious as she felt under his scrutiny. She raised a hand to his chest, red nail lacquer bright against the pure white of his shirt, and loosened the stud holding his collar closed, holding it carefully in one cupped palm. She looked at him expectantly.

            “Is there even a moment of the day when you’re not wearing a suit?”

            Tommy plucked the stud from her hand, slipped it into his pocket, and then shrugged off his jacket, tossing it onto a chair in one easy motion.

            “At least one today.”

            Even as her fingers worked on the buttons of his vest, even as her nails clicked against the remaining studs on his shirt, Edie chided herself for feeling so strangely shy. She’d had a few flings with the eligible bachelors of her London set (enough to give poor Mary Chilton a heart attack, if she ever found out) and she’d never experienced the flare of nerves that was filling her stomach now. They were coming out in her jittery little jokes, in her unwillingness to look up and meet his eyes, even as she slid the vest off his shoulders and tossed it to join his jacket.

            She couldn’t say why, exactly. Because he was older than her, and she might come off as foolishly inexperienced? Because every time she looked at him she noticed some impossibly handsome little detail she hadn’t before? Because there was, somewhere below her undeniable attraction to him, an icy vein of fear? The gun, the men around him that day at the track—

            Distracted, she dropped the studs, and their clatter across the floor broke the dreamy slowness of the moment. Tommy’s hands were all over her bare skin suddenly, his mouth hot on hers as he edged them backward toward the bed. Edie fumbled with his suspenders, shoving them aside so she could push the open shirt off his shoulders, dropping it to fan out onto the carpet just as the backs of her knees hit the edge of the bed. He stayed standing, undressing impatiently—she could hear the thud of his shoes as he toed them off, the metallic click of the cigarette case in his pocket as his trousers hit the floor. When she started to shimmy out of her slip he leaned forward, catching her hand and pinning it against her hip.

            “Leave it.” His other hand closed over the diamond pendant, then brushed sideways to cup her breast. “Leave everything.”    

            He shifted onto the bed, kneeling over her with one leg between hers, lips sliding over her neck then trailing down to trace the shape of the pendant. Edie could hardly stand the feeling of it, his breath raising goosebumps when he exhaled against her skin. She tangled her fingers into his hair, pulling his face upward to kiss him frantically. Her hand, still pinned against her hip, wriggled free to push him down. She had to feel the weight of him on her, couldn’t bear anything less. He hesitated, keeping one arm tense until she pressed her nails into the small of his back, and then let himself collapse down onto her.

            The breathtaking pressure of his body on hers, combined with the hazy remnants of the evening's indulgences, gave the ensuing minutes a dreamlike quality that stretched them out in Edie’s mind. She might have been touching him for hours, palms ghosting over the muscles of his back and shoulders, might have mumbled anything against his mouth, now smudged with the crimson remnants of her lipstick. She came back to herself when he rolled sideways, pulling her against him, one hand sliding up her thigh to slip a finger inside her. Her hips bucked and she could feel the hard length of him through the silk of her slip, now bunched up between them.

            “Please—” She hardly recognized her own voice, muffled against his neck.

            “This?”

            A second finger joined the first then curled, slid, found a rhythm. Edie opened her eyes to find him watching her, lips slightly parted.

            “Exactly that. Tommy—”

            She couldn’t finish the sentence, couldn’t even think anymore, when he twisted a hand into her hair, tilting her head back to graze her throat with his teeth. When his mouth found her breast, tongue flicking across the nipple, she was so close—too close—already. She slipped a hand between them, tracing down the line of muscle at his hipbone, to wrap her fingers around his cock, thumb brushing over the head. Gratifying as it was to hear his breath catch, to feel fluttering tautness of his stomach, it did nothing to slow down the rush of her own arousal. His fingers sped up, other hand still caught in her hair, and Edie could feel herself tumbling over the edge, his name on her lips, hips rising up to meet the pressure of his hand. She was still for a long time, breath coming in bursts, and then raised both hands to push her hair back from her face. Finally, she managed a half smile.

            “You’re the best guest I’ve ever invited to a weekend party.”

            “Bit early to judge that, eh?”

            “Oh, and do you have other ideas?”

            Tommy pulled away from her, looking impossibly lean and graceful, and sat back against the headboard. It was the first time since he’d undressed that she’d had the presence of mind to really look at him, and she took a moment, still feeling loose-limbed and warm, before she moved up the bed. Even in the dim light of a single lamp she could see the play of muscles close under the skin; the surprisingly vulnerable ripple of his stomach when he slouched against the pillows; a scattering of tattoos and puckered scars that were hardly visible against his fair skin; flecks of silver where his hair was cropped close, mirrored in the metallic glint of a signet ring on his right hand. He raised that hand now and beckoned her forward with a lazy curl of his fingers, eyes so sharply focused that they could have cut through her like a blade.

            “C’mere.”

            There was no chance of denying him when he sounded like that—even less when he looked the way he did. She crawled up the bed, shyness gone finally, knowing that the diamond between her breasts would catch the faint light. When she reached him she rucked the slip up so she could straddle his lap, fingers making a loose circle around his cock. He let his head fall back, eyes closed for a long moment as she stroked, and spoke without opening them.

            “Like a fuckin’ dream.”

            Edie studied the largest tattoo on his chest, a faded semicircle of rays with nothing at the center, and splayed her fingers over the shape as she guided him inside her. Tommy’s eyes came open slowly then, his hands sliding down to grasp her hips and rock her forward, setting a lazy pace.

            Thinking of her own throwaway joke, Edie wondered if it was the snow or if Tommy Shelby in her bed, lounging back like a king, really was the most incredible thing she’d ever seen. At this particular moment, she couldn’t come up with anything that compared. She let her head tip back, lost in the sensation of his fingers hot against her skin, the delicious pressure of him inside her as her hips rose and fell.

            They stayed in the easy rhythm for a long time, until she felt his thumbs digging in more firmly, the subtle arch of his back as his body came up to meet her, to find a deeper place inside her. Slipping one finger through the chain of the pendant, he tugged her down to him, her hair falling like a curtain around their faces as he worried his teeth over her bottom lip.

            “Ah, fuck.” His voice grated on the words as she put a hand on the headboard for leverage, grinding down against him. When she looked down something had changed in his face, softening the angles, as though he'd forgotten, just for a moment, whatever made them so sharp. “Fuck, I—”

            He was close; she could feel the tension in every muscle of his body and caught his eyes with a warning look.

            “You shouldn’t—”

            “I know, just—”

            He sat up, turning them over easily in a way that reminded Edie again of the subtle, dangerous strength of him. The motion of his hips was rough now, mouth pressed against hers so hard she could feel the shape of his teeth behind his lips, and Edie wanted to say never mind, more, please never stop—but she knew better, and even if she didn’t, Tommy did. He pulled out at the last moment, balancing on one tense forearm as he spilled across her stomach and the white silk of the slip. They were still a moment, both breathing rapidly, until he dropped to the side to lie flat on his back.

            “I’m sorry about that.” He reached out a hand to pluck at the edge of the fabric.

            “A small price to pay.”

            Edie slid off the bed and shimmied out of the slip, letting her stockings and garters follow it to the floor on her way to the bathroom. She felt a bit of a mess, knew she looked one, and spent a few minutes before the basin and mirror with a damp cloth. She also unhooked the necklace, finally, and left it on the marble countertop. When she went back into the bedroom Tommy was smoking, slouched against the headboard again with the covers pooled around his waist. He offered her the case and his lighter but she waved it away, plucking the cigarette from his lips for a drag instead. The clock in the downstairs hall chimed a distant four, and they both winced.

            “Goodnight, Mr. Shelby.” She turned and clicked off the lamp. This wasn't the time to spoil things with some romantic platitude—she knew Tommy well enough for that, at least. “I’m vetoing a morning ride tomorrow, so enjoy a lie-in.”

            Tommy inhaled, the glowing tip of the cigarette illumining his face for just a flash.

            “Goodnight, Miss Hughes.”

 

 

            Even though she was exhausted, Edie couldn’t sleep. The busy day, playing host for the first time after so long, tonight with Tommy—she had entirely too much on her mind. This happened to her more often than she liked to admit, and when it did there was no point to lying in bed. She’d stay there with her eyes open until dawn. Once she heard Tommy’s breath even out, she slid from the covers and found her way to a nook near her window. Her writing desk was there with a tiny lamp perched in one corner, and she turned it on carefully. The desk was scattered with papers, mostly letters from her grandfather’s team of solicitors about the Hughes family business, filled with questions that she didn’t know how to answer. Those certainly wouldn’t help her sleep.

            Her robe was slung over the back of the desk chair and she shrugged it on just as she spotted the forgotten Fitzgerald book. Mary must have brought it back up. The marker was still halfway through The Diamond as Big as the Ritz and she thought maybe she could just read a few pages until she was tired enough to drop off. She’d barely read three sentences, though, when she heard the covers rustle behind her, then footsteps crossing the floor.

            “The diamond as big as the Ritz?” Tommy’s voice was quiet, just over her shoulder. “Someone wrote a book about that necklace of yours, did they?”

            “Did I wake you up? I’m sorry.”

            “Couldn’t sleep?” She nodded. “I couldn’t either. Suppose I’m better at faking it.”

            Edie turned toward him, the book still in her hands. There were dusky shadows under his eyes, but otherwise his face was unreadable. Whatever softness she'd seen in it before was carefully put away again.

            “Shall I read it out loud, then?”

            “If you like. Come to bed, though, and start from the beginning.”

 

 

            Edie didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke up to sunshine and a timid knock at the door, the book still open on the bed beside her. Before she could call out, there was a volley of voices outside and the door cracked open enough for a maid to squeeze through.

            “Oh!”

            The maid pointedly did not look at the bed. Tommy jolted awake, eyes snapping between Edie and the maid in confusion.

            “Oh, Miss, I’m terribly sorry—”

            “You can’t just barge in—”

            “I know Miss, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Mr. Shelby, it’s just that there’s a woman here for you, sir, and she insisted that you see her.”

            “Tell her to wait in the breakfast room and Mr. Shelby will be down presently.” Edie’s head hurt. She’d have words with Mary over hiring these green girls from Birmingham. The maid looked like she was about to shake out of her own shoes.

            “I tried to, Miss, but I mean that she’s here—”

            Before Edie or Tommy could say a word, the door burst open. Now it was Edie’s turn to jolt upright, pulling the robe tight around her shoulders. She had half a second to take in a woman—middle-aged, smart hat, expensive jacket over a matching dress—before a voice cut through the room.

            “Where the fuck have you been, Thomas?” 

Chapter Text

Fucking hell.

            Of all the ways Tommy had been woken up in his life, this had to rank among the worst. Perhaps second only to being actively shot at by German soldiers. His temples were pounding and his mouth was so dry that his tongue felt cemented to his teeth when he tried to swallow. Pol’s voice, ringing in his ears, had all the subtlety of a cracking whip.

            “Solomons’ bakery was burned down yesterday morning, and where were you all day? Couldn’t get you on the phone anywhere in London, Michael and Arthur turned every corner of Small Heath inside out looking for you, your useless housekeeper acted like she didn’t even know you lived in that fucking mansion of yours. I had to come out here and interrogate your goddamn stable boy to track you down. A fucking hunting party, Tommy? We don’t have time for this kind of shit with the Americans—”

            “Pol!” He couldn’t take any more. Two jarring wakeups from her in as many weeks, and this one far more painful than the last. His throat felt too raw to shout again so he dropped his voice. “Polly. That’s enough, eh?”

            He scraped a hand through his hair, surveying the room. The maid huddled in a corner, looking like she might be sick. Edie was staring at Polly, eyes wide and fingers clenched into the coverlet as though a pack of wild dogs had invaded her bedroom and she wasn’t sure how to escape. All right, the first thing was to get rid of Polly. He could get dressed, have a cigarette. Maybe two cigarettes. He pointed a finger at the maid.

            “Take Mrs. Gray downstairs. Pol, I’ll be there in five minutes. No more fucking shouting, there are other people in this house.” She looked ready to snap back at him and he pressed his lips together. “Five. Minutes.”

            The maid, eyes darting between Tommy and Polly, shuffled toward the doorway and squeaked out, “This way, ma’am.”

            When the door closed, Tommy fumbled on the nightstand for a cigarette before turning to Edie. Her face was frozen in startled disbelief, magnified by the smudged remnants of makeup around her eyes. She let out an exasperated breath.

            “I think you can guess my questions.”

            “She’s my aunt. No, I don’t know what’s going on. Yes, you can have a cigarette.” He held the lighter for her. “Now I’m definitely worst weekend guest you’ve ever had.”

            He rubbed his hands over his face before scanning the floor for his clothes. His trousers were hopelessly crumpled and he suspected that tracking down the lost studs would take more than five minutes. Edie leaned over and peered at the carpet with him.

            “I’ll ask more questions later, seems like you’re on a deadline at the moment. You’ve got another suit in your room, haven’t you?” She hopped down from the bed, shuffling her robe into place. “I’ll get it. There’s a pitcher of water in the bathroom.”

            Tommy would have preferred gin, but he’d take anything that had a chance of making his head feel better. If nothing else, he was thankful for Edie’s practicality right now. Not many people took an early morning dressing-down from Polly with such good grace. He drank two glasses of water and splashed some on his face before Edie returned with his bag. She had the tact (of course she did) to pretend that she was busy—combing her hair, brushing her teeth, shuffling some papers on the desk—while he dressed. When he reached for the shirt on the floor, she waved him off.

            “I’ll have everything pressed and sent with the stable boy when he takes your horse home. It’s been five minutes—don’t want that aunt of yours strangling my maid to get back up here.”

            Tommy wasn’t sure of the protocol for goodbyes when you’d been the worst guest in the history of parties.

            “Sorry about this.”

            “No need to apologize. I hope things are all right.” Edie’s voice was soft, serious. She studied his face for a moment then kissed him quickly on the cheek, hair brushing against his jaw as she pulled away. The brittle brightness returned to her tone. “Come watch Charlie ride again this week, won’t you?”

            Tommy nodded, knowing full well that he wouldn’t have half a minute to do anything this week based on Polly’s dramatic entrance. Now that he was fully awake, he couldn’t stop thinking about her words—the Americans. Just what he fucking needed. Just what Edith Hughes didn’t need to overhear. He lit another cigarette as he trotted down the stairs, his own footsteps thudding painfully in his head. Polly was prowling around the hall, the clicks of her heels an unspoken disapproval.

            “That was more than five minutes.”

            “Let’s go Pol, you can tell me everything in the car.”

 

            He certainly heard everything in the car. Not about the Americans at first. Polly had other things on her mind from the moment she sat down in the passenger seat.

            “Who the fuck do you think you are, Thomas? Did you forget you’re a Shelby? Do you think that becoming an MP clears you of any obligations to this family?”

            “Polly—”

            “Shut the fuck up and listen to me. Was that the girl from Epsom? What is she, sixteen?”

            “Nineteen.”

            Tommy regretted it as soon as he said it. He held the wheel steady with one elbow, lighting another cigarette, thinking he’d gladly shoot someone for a glass of whiskey.

            “Oh, excuse me, nineteen. You’re busy fucking a nineteen-year-old in your country house when the American Mafia is literally burning down our business in London. You’ve got to get yourself together, Tommy. I can see that you haven’t been sleeping again, you’ve done fuck all to deal with anything in Camden, left everything to Arthur and Lizzie, who’s busy enough raising the child you don’t bother to see—”

            “I’ve fucking got myself together!”

            Tommy wanted to slam his fists into the wheel, wanted to take Polly by the shoulders and shake her, just wanted to shut her up. Exhaustion tightened like a vice around his skull, Polly’s unrelenting tirade, the fucking Mafia—everything was too much right now.

            “I all but sold my soul to Winston Churchill to get that miserable seat in Parliament, so I could protect our fucking business. Which pays for everyone else’s houses in the country, too. I don’t see you and Arthur spending a lot of time in Watery Lane these days.” Polly looked ready to cut in and he held up a hand, ash shaking free of the cigarette and raining over the steering wheel. “In case you forgot, you’re the one who told me to bloody well ‘leave things to Arthur,’ but as soon as there’s a real problem you come in shouting at me about the Mafia. If you want me to handle something, then I’ll go to London today. But I’m going to handle it how I see fit, and I won’t hear a fucking word from you about it.”

            “You’ll hear what I have to say to you. When I said let Arthur handle things, I meant that you can’t be seen waving a fucking gun around at Epsom, if you want to keep that Parliament seat for more than one term. The men who burned the bakery are major Mafia players from Chicago. Luca Changretta was a nobody in comparison. Solomons was cutting into their business, smuggling into America somehow, and they want to close the gap now that he’s gone. They’ve put a target on anyone who so much as breathed the same air as him, starting with Ollie and his lot in Camden.”

            “And you think the bakery is a message to us, too.”

            “Loud and clear, I’m afraid. Arthur can’t handle this, I can’t handle this. It has to be you.”

            Tommy knew she was right, as little as he wanted to admit it. From what he’d heard about Chicago, their methods of conflict resolution would make a vendetta look like a tea party.

            “I’ll go to London this afternoon. See what Ollie knows, how bad the bakery is. If they want a meeting I’ll arrange it. If they don’t—”

            He didn’t have an answer yet for that “if.”

            “When I say handle it, I don’t mean be stupid.”

            “I know, Pol.”

            “And have Michael drive you, so you can get some sleep in the car. You look like hell.”

 

            Michael was waiting for them at the office, looking suspiciously red-eyed and red-nosed for so early in the morning. Polly gave them both an acid stare.

            “Don’t you two make a fine pair. Ring when you get to London.”

            They didn’t speak for the first few miles. Tommy’s head pounded, his bruised ribs ached, his eyelids felt gritty when he blinked. When they’d left the smoke of the city behind, he turned to Michael.

            “Long night for you too?”

            “I thought she was going to fucking murder someone when we couldn’t find you. Where were you, anyway?”

            “Weekend party. Hardly a mile from my own house, shouldn’t have been that hard to find me.”

            “A weekend party? You’re getting posh on us, Tommy.” Michael tapped two jittery fingers on the wheel, then turned sharply. “That bird from Epsom was there, wasn’t she?”

            “I’ve heard enough of that from Pol.”

            “You didn’t hear the half of it. The Lee boys had a lot to say about Epsom. Mostly about the girl.” The combination of raised eyebrows and a rather crude gesture from Michael made it clear what the Lee boys had to say. “What’s her name?”

            Tommy let his head fall back against the seat, cigarette dangling loosely from the corner of his mouth.

            “Edith Hughes. Doesn’t matter. If the fucking Mafia is in town, I’m off the weekend party circuit, aren’t I?”

            “Lizzie called the office while I was waiting for you. Ollie came to her flat to say he found a letter pinned to his door—at his house, not the bakery—with a knife. Calling a meeting tomorrow night for ‘representatives of the late Alfred Solomons and the Peaky Blinders.’”

            “Fucking hell, a meeting with who?”

            “No names, but I think it’s clear.”

            “Where?”

            “Back room of the bar at Claridge’s.”

            “Well, not a very private place to shoot someone, at least.”

            Michael was quiet for a long time after that. Tommy closed his eyes, trying to take Polly’s advice, but of course he couldn’t fall asleep. He couldn’t fall asleep in his own fucking bed most nights, never mind in a rattling car with a temple-piercing hangover. The last time he’d gotten any rest was—

            He realized that it had been the night before. Just those few brief hours before Polly burst in, shattering through the brittle glass of his sleep, but he’d slept. He tried to pinpoint why—the long ride, the heat of the day, the alcohol, the late night. Could have been any of those, or none of them. He'd long since given up trying to understand when and why he could sleep. The last thing he remembered was Edie’s even voice, so different from her naturally animated tone, floating softly from the other side of the bed. John T. Unger came from a family that had been well known in Hadesa small town on the Mississippi Riverfor several generations…

            He tried to dredge up the plot of the story again now, hoping it might help him drift off for the rest of the drive, but he couldn’t recall anything about it beyond hazy memories of a boy’s school. Anything else was crowded out by the more pressing worries of the day. What kind of deal could he broker with men he didn’t know anything about? Men whose idea of a first impression was lighting a few buildings on fire? Did they set the meeting for tomorrow as a trap, to hold him in London while they tracked him down somewhere more secluded than Claridge's? Had someone tailed Ollie to Lizzie’s flat?

            As they slogged through London traffic, he determined that the final thought was the only problem he could solve immediately.

            “Drop me off at The Savoy, then go pick up Lizzie and the baby and take them back to Birmingham. Tell her to stay at Pol’s and don’t go out until I have this meeting tomorrow night.”

            “I’m supposed to go with you.”

            “You were supposed to drive me, and now you have. I don’t need a babysitter, no matter what Polly thinks.”

            “Going in there alone is a bad idea.”

            “If they were planning to kill me, they wouldn’t schedule a fucking meeting to do it. And they wouldn’t have gone to Ollie’s house just to leave a note. The meeting, the fire—all of it’s a power play. They want to negotiate, but they need the advantage.”

            “And if they show up with guns?”

            “Then only one of us will be getting shot at. Take Lizzie home. After what happened to Charlie I won’t take chances with the children again.”

            “Tommy, this business is only getting bigger. You can’t control everything.”   

            They’d pulled up to the hotel. Tommy stepped out of the car, leaning on the open door.

            “I can. I just need some fucking sleep.”

           

            Once he’d checked in, Tommy sent his suit down to be pressed and drew a bath as hot as he could stand. He stayed in the tub for a long time, ears below the surface to muffle the clatter of London outside the windows. When the water turned cold he wrapped a towel around his hips, pausing to lean against the counter and look at himself in the mirror. Not a pleasant sight. His face looked grey and drawn, the skin dry and stretched thin under his eyes. The bruises on his side were still a livid purple; he wondered briefly if Edie had noticed them the night before.        

            It was hard to believe that he’d spent last night drinking champagne in a country house with London’s most eligible heiresses. Now he was preparing to face down a Chicago gangster he knew nothing about with no backup beyond Alfie Solomons’ assistant, a man so profoundly nonthreatening that Tommy had forgotten his name the first three times they met. How Ollie was holding anything together—flimsy as the operation was these days—was a mystery to Tommy. He didn’t even know that the man had carried on the exports without Alfie; clearly, he’d lacked the ability to do it successfully. He should have been watching more carefully, should have made a move to take over the distillery, should have done a lot of things instead of playing at MP and racehorse owner. Maybe Pol and Michael were right about more than he wanted to admit.

            Or maybe he deserved to get some scrap of enjoyment out of life. When was the last time he’d fucking enjoyed something as much as he had the previous day with Edie and her carefree friends? His short-lived and poorly conceived ‘retirement’ from the business? With Grace? Before the war? He couldn’t recall, wasn’t sure he’d ever had a day without some immense weight of worry dogging him. He also recognized the very real possibility that exhaustion was making him maudlin, and he needed to forget about anything except the pressing matter of the fucking Mafia in London.

            The bed in the room was immense, densely made with crisp, white linens. Tommy finally managed a few blissful hours of sleep, maybe the best he’d had in months. When he woke the sky had faded to pale orange outside. He called downstairs for a bottle of whiskey and a pot of tea, drank both, and tried to make some sense of the thousand questions he had for Ollie. First and foremost was why the fuck he thought he could import liquor to America under the noses of the Mafia when the Camden outfit was still floundering.

            Dozing through the afternoon made him restless that night, but the whiskey helped him catch at least a few hours of sleep before he went to Camden the next morning. Ollie had little to say for himself. In Alfie’s absence, he’d been approached by some outfit from Shoreditch who claimed they could get the rum into America. He’d asked almost no questions about the particulars of the plan, just eager to push one piece of the business off his plate as he scrambled to manage the rest of it. The men left in Camden were dangerously over their heads without Solomons, and now they were pulling their connections under the water with them.

            After a few exasperating hours, he’d left Ollie and walked along the canals to gather his thoughts. They’d have to cut ties between Camden and the Peaky Blinders, or find some way to take them over. If any of them were allowed to live long enough to come up with a plan. As evening fell, he made his way back to the center of the city, hand tucked inside his jacket to rest on the reassuring weight of his gun.

            He met Ollie in the lobby of Claridge’s, the younger man looking jumpy and pale. Tommy wished he could have come alone. As they entered, a man in a dark hat and coat folded his newspaper, stood from a chair on the far side of the lobby, and approached them. Tommy kept his eyes forward and his voice low, just loud enough for Ollie to hear.

            “Remember. Let me talk. No guns unless they show them first.”

            The man in the hat led them wordlessly beyond the chatter and crystal clink of the bar, through a nondescript door, and into a room paneled in dark wood. The space was dominated by a large table, a man sitting behind it. Tommy’s eyes flicked around the room as the latch clicked shut. Two more men in opposite corners, and the one who’d ushered them in guarding the door.

            “Mr. Weiss. Mr. Shelby.” The man at the table didn’t stand, just surveyed them from across the perfectly polished surface. “I’m Paul Ricca. I’m here on behalf of Mr. Capone.”

Chapter Text

Edie stood at her dressing table, running a brush absently through her already-smooth hair, as she listened to Tommy’s footsteps retreat down the stairs. Shortly after, she heard the rumble of a car’s engine and the crunch of the gravel drive. Even though she knew there was absolutely no chance of falling asleep again—who could possibly after a strange woman burst into the room and shouted for ten minutes?—she got back into bed. The book was still splayed open on the covers and she tried to read a few pages, but her thoughts kept drifting and her head hurt too much to concentrate. In desperate need of tea and toast, she finally rang downstairs even though she knew Mary would come up personally. She steeled herself for the second dressing down of the day.

            True to form, Mary arrived a few minutes later with crossed arms and a cross expression.

            “I just had an interesting report from one of the maids about Mr. Shelby’s sleeping arrangements. You should be more cautious, you know how they gossip.”

            “Honestly, Mary.” Edie clicked her tongue against her teeth. “I don’t care one whit if some girl from Birmingham goes home and gossips about me to her friends.”

            “And your own friends?”

            “If I thought they’d gossip about me, they wouldn’t be my friends.”

            “I’ve said it before, Miss. This kind of thing gets around, and you should have an eye toward marriage these days.”

            “Who says I don’t?”

            “If you do, you shouldn’t be carrying on with a man like that. I know you’re not from here, and you don’t know about him—”

            “Know what about him?” Edie was tired, impatient, and her voice came out more sharply than she intended. “I’m sorry. I haven’t been able to get a clear answer out of anyone about exactly what I ought to know.”          

            “The maids and the kitchen girls talk about that family—they started out in the worst slum of Birmingham and now every business in the city is under Thomas Shelby’s thumb. No matter how he looks with those fine suits and that flashy car, he didn’t make his money honestly.”

            “And? Do you really think half the men in London made their money honestly?” And what about my own family? Edie didn’t say it, couldn’t say it. “All I rang for was tea and toast, not a lecture about the moral failings of every man I meet.”

            “You’ll make up your own mind, Miss, you always have. But you might look out for a man who’s better suited to your station and your age, that’s all. Not to sound like—”

            Mary stopped, a flicker of regret crossing her face.

            “Like my mother?” Edie asked softly.

            Mary was silent for a moment, eyes on the carpet. She spotted one of the missing studs from Tommy’s shirt, bent to pick it up, and placed it on the nightstand with a faint click.

            “I’ll have the tea sent up right away. I’m sorry if I’ve spoken out of turn.”

            “Thank you, Mary. Are Claire and Pippa awake?”

            “They are.”    

            “Would you ask them to come here? And bring tea for all of us?”

            Mary nodded, closing the door gently on her way out.

 

            Edie folded the book carefully shut and laid it on the nightstand as she waited for her friends to arrive. Claire and Pippa had been her closest friends at boarding school, and they’d spent many mornings huddled together in bed, giggling and gossiping. During their school days, the topic had usually been a boy, and Edie allowed herself a wry smile when she realized little had changed.

            Her friends soon burst through the door, already smiling from some shared joke. The maid from earlier that morning, bearing a tray of tea and looking beyond relieved to find Edie alone, trailed behind them. She poured three cups as Claire and Pippa settled onto the bed and then disappeared without a word.

            Pippa regarded Edie over the rim of her teacup, eyebrows raised in amusement.

            “It’s only half nine, did you kick him out already?”

            Edie resisted the urge to mirror the smile that curved the corners of her friend’s mouth, instead creasing her brow in false affront.

            “Pips, I resent the implication of that question.” She let the expression drop. “I’d never kick a man that handsome out of bed.”

            “Then what are you doing here with us?”

            “He was called away early—urgent business in London.”

            “What does he do, anyway?"

            “Imports, manufacturing,” Edie shrugged, thinking back to Tommy’s vague description. “Dabbles in horses, though I can attest that isn’t a money-making endeavor.”

            “That’s how you caught him, then? The horses?” Pippa asked.

            “He’s hardly the kind of man who can be caught.”

            “I’d argue differently. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you last night.”     

            Claire had been listening silently to their exchange, sipping her tea slowly. She’d always been the most serious of the trio, a thoughtful foil to Pippa’s boisterous humor and Edie’s gregarious charm. When she did chime into a conversation, however, she always cut to the heart of the matter.

            “Do you care for him, Edie? Or have you just been bored up here without us?”

            The question made Edie pause. What could she say to her friends about her feelings for Tommy, when she hadn’t really thought them through herself? Why was she so bent on catching the eye of a man twenty years her senior who had barely given her the time of day when they first met?

            “I—he intrigues me. He’s not like the men we meet in London, you can see that. More direct, perhaps? I don’t know. Maybe I just need something different after the past year. I feel like men in London look at me and see a proper little wife with a big bank account. It’s hard to see myself that way.”

            “How do you think he sees you?” Claire again, serious as ever.

            “After the way he rushed out this morning, maybe as nothing at all.”

            “I agree with Pippa—after seeing you two together last night, that’s hardly the case.”

            “Honestly, I go away for a little while and you two turn into hopeless romantics. You’re acting like Tommy and I are two steps from the altar.”

            “It’s sweet that you call him Tommy.” Pippa couldn’t suppress her smile. “You do make a lovely pair.”

            “You girls are intolerable.” Edie didn’t know exactly why she felt the need to protest so much. The three of them had spent their school years—and well beyond—gossiping about their latest infatuations, but she clammed up when it came to Tommy. “How about some gossip from London? Anyone you’d make a lovely pair with?”

            “I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Pippa leaned forward conspiratorially, “but Bertie Langham is making himself a reputation as the most eligible bachelor in town these days.”

            “Bertie?” Harry’s older brother had always seemed so content in his bachelorhood. Edie would have placed her bets on him being the last to settle down.

            “He inherited a house from that batty old uncle of theirs—you know, the one in the War Cabinet who never got married. Lived in that big old place in Sloane Square? Anyway, he died this spring—keeled right over in a Cabinet meeting, can you believe it?—and he left the house to Bertie. Now that he has a grand place like that, seems his perspective on things has changed.” Pippa reached out and tapped Edie playfully on the wrist. “See what you miss when you abandon us all?”

            “One of you girls could do worse than Bertie,” Edie replied.

            “So could you, Edie. He’s a catch, though maybe not as easy on the eyes as Tommy Shelby. After seeing him, I can understand why you were hiding away up here.”

            Edie rolled her own eyes at that.

            “You lot all act like you’re incapable of throwing a party without me.”

            “It’s not that we couldn’t,” Claire said. “It’s that you throw the best ones. And all teasing aside, we missed you terribly. Promise you won’t keep yourself up here all summer, Tommy or not.”        

            “I wouldn’t dream of it. And even if I wanted to, my grandfather’s solicitors would drag me kicking and screaming into the city to talk to them about the business.” Edie sighed and let herself sag back onto the pillows. “As though I have some grand opinions about the price of steel to share with them.”

            “And that, my girl, is why you need a husband,” Pippa declared.

            Edie rolled her eyes but couldn’t help a laugh. “You sound like Mary Chilton, going on that way.”

            Pippa’s lips were parted, ready to parry back, when Harry’s voice echoed in from the hallway.

            “Are you girls coming down to breakfast, or are you going to stay in there and giggle all day?”

            “Coming!” Edie called out.

            Pippa looked at her sternly. “You won’t get off that easily, Miss Hughes. We’ll quiz you more about Tommy later, and make you mark a date for London on your calendar before the week is out."

 

            Her friends stayed for a few more days and they did quiz her somewhat mercilessly about Tommy. But the questions, perhaps in response to her initial reticence, became more lighthearted. What did she and Tommy talk about? How did they meet? Who made those suits of his? Could they go along when Edie resumed her riding lessons with Charlie? (They did, delighting the little boy with an enthusiastic audience.) Edie kept up the morning lessons partly because they made Charlie so happy, and partly because she hoped to see Tommy again after their abrupt parting. But Arrow House had fallen largely silent again. No cars in the drive, very few lights in the windows when Edie and her guests drove by one evening on their way to a pub in the nearby village, no sign of anyone except Charlie and his nanny day after day.

            One morning she ran into the stable boy, longeing Tommy’s black horse in a grassy paddock. When he raised a hand in greeting, she waved him over to the fence.

            “Has Mr. Shelby been home this week?”

            “No ma’am, he’s been down to London. That’s why I’ve got his horse out. Won’t let nobody but Mr. Shelby ride ‘im, but he gets riled up in the stall.”

            The horse came to the fence, poking his head over in hopes of a treat. Edie turned her empty palms up to him.

            “Sorry, fresh out.” She turned back to the boy. “What’s his name?”

            “Powder Trick.” He caught the puzzled look on Edie’s face. “Strange one, innit?”

            “Did Mr. Shelby name him?”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “I’ll let you get back to it, then. Thank you.”

 

            After that morning the weather turned foul, hard rain keeping Edie and her friends indoors. They slept late, played endless hands of cards, dawdled at the dinner table before settling in to hear Bertie and Claire play piano duets. It should have been the laziest, most pleasant sort of week—and Edie did enjoy herself—but her thoughts drifted back to Tommy whenever she was alone.

            That wasn’t always a bad thing. She was in no hurry to forget the press of his thumbs into her hips, or the imperious way he’d beckoned her across the bed with a flick of the eyes and a lazily curled hand. Sometimes she’d catch herself drifting off into little details she hadn’t even know she’d noticed—the elegant curve of his neck when he’d leaned back against her pillows, or how he ran his cigarettes absently along the curve of his bottom lip before lighting them.

            Other times, though, her mind turned again to what Harry and Mary had said. To what she’d seen at Epsom. To the little snippets she remembered from the conversation between Tommy and his aunt—burned down, the Americans. None of it made any sense when lined up against the house, the horses, the Parliament seat, the OBE. There was some gap between the two that Edie couldn’t bridge.

            Or maybe she just didn’t want to bridge it, she admitted to herself. Her conversation with Pippa and Claire—her reticence, her own doubts about her answers—had made it clear to her that she was more than a little infatuated with Tommy. She had been truthful with her friends when she said he was different, only she hadn’t said why. She felt at ease around him in a way she hadn’t with anyone since her grandfather died. Like her old self, able to have fun and forget her other litany of worries: William Hughes’ business, her mother, the fact that maybe everyone wasn’t so wrong when they said she should get married… If her friends were right, would she cut Tommy out? She thought the answer was no, but that troubled her too. Why set her sights on a man so clearly out of reach?

            As days went by with no sign of Tommy, Edie also found herself worrying if all her other concerns were a moot point. Maybe their night together had been all he was looking for. A bit of fun, and now he’d had it. That thought bruised her ego more than a little, but it was a distant second when compared to all the others, and she refused to let herself dwell on it.

            Luckily her friends provided ample distraction from her worries, which generally only surfaced when she’d settled into bed for the night. Once she’d turned off her lamp, the thoughts would flood in. What if Harry was right about Tommy? What about the gun at Epsom? What would she do if she drove her grandfather’s business into the ground? Should she just ask Tommy for the truth? Would he give it to her? Eventually, she’d light a cigarette, switch on her lamp, and pick up a book—admit defeat, as it were, until exhaustion finally overtook her.

 

            Though it didn’t dampen their moods, the rain continued until the day finally came for her friends to depart. As they gathered on the doorstep under their umbrellas to say goodbye, Edie found herself genuinely sorry to see them all go. She’d thought that perhaps, after nearly a year of self-imposed solitude, their company would wear thin, but she wished they could stay all summer. Fiona, Harry, and Bertie were first to depart, the brothers rushing back to London for an afternoon meeting.

            “Fiona, you’ll be back in two weekends with your sisters, right?”

            “We wouldn’t miss it.” Fiona leaned in and kissed Edie on the cheek. “This was the loveliest week. Don’t go hiding on us again.”          

            “I couldn’t bear to.”

            More goodbyes followed, all accompanied by plans for further summer visits. Claire and Pippa were the last to depart.    

            “Don’t forget that you promised to come to London,” Pippa said as she climbed into the car.

            “I’ll be there next weekend. I have a meeting with the dreaded solicitors on Friday, so I’ll be in desperate need of a drink after.”                                

            “Brilliant, we’ll go to Harrods for dresses, and there’s a new place in Mayfair with a band you’ll go mad for.”

            “It’s a date.”

            Edie stood on the step until all the cars were out of sight and then retreated in from the rain. The house felt huge and silent, dark even at midday thanks to the gloomy weather. Mary’s platoon of maids was in full force, polishing silver, stowing away china, rushing through the halls with armfuls of linen. Edie felt sleepy and distinctly in the way, so she retreated upstairs and sat at her desk for a while, trying to look over the papers for her upcoming meeting. That, of course, did nothing to help her stay awake.

            Eventually, she curled herself into a comfortable chair with Fitzgerald, determined to finish the damn story this time. Instead, she drifted off, waking as the grey day faded to twilight. She had Mary bring a light supper to her room, managed to finally make her way through a few pages, and was about to turn in for an early night when she heard the sound of tires on the drive. Curious, she padded down the stairs. The house was quiet, the servants all gone to bed early as well after the long and busy week, but she could hear Mary’s distinctive footsteps coming from her quarters.

            “It’s all right Mary, I’ll answer!”

            She scrounged up an umbrella and a pair of Wellington boots from the jumble in the hall, then opened the door and stepped out to peer into the gloom. The lights of the car blinded her for a moment, reflected in the rain, then switched off with the motor. Edie blinked away the afterimage as she called out.

            “Hello? Who’s there?”

            The figure of a man stepped out of the car, and Edie wondered if she’d been stupid to come out here alone instead of letting Mary or Bernard answer the door. She’d read one or two Agatha Christie novels during a short-lived mystery kick, and this seemed to be the exact sort of foolish thing a murder victim might do at the beginning of the story. The man was still approaching and she squinted into the darkness.

            “Hello?”

            “It’s me.”

            She knew the voice, but still said, “Tommy?”

            A moment later, he stepped into the pool of light spilling from the open door. Raindrops glistened on his hat and the shoulders of his jacket.

            “Come in, come in.”

            She quickly folded up the umbrella and ushered him through the door. There was a downbeat of silence, broken only by the soft patter of water dripping from the umbrella. Edie took the moment as she stepped out of her boots to look at him. Lines of exhaustion were etched into his face, underscored by bruise-dark circles under his eyes. His shoulders, usually set so confidently, were slumped and his suit had lost its sharp creases in the rain.

            “I’m sorry to turn up like this.”                  

            Even his voice sounded tired, quiet and rougher than usual.

            “Are you all right? Did something—is Charlie?”

            Edie’s mind started to race with a thousand possibilities, each one worse than the last.

            “He’s all right. Nothing happened.” Tommy paused, taking off his wet hat and raising a hand to smooth his hair. “I know this will sound fucking mad, but I thought if I came here I might be able to sleep.”

Chapter Text

The best thing Tommy could say about the meeting with Paul Ricca was that no one had been maimed or killed. Once they’d entered the room, Ricca had gestured for them to sit and started speaking with no further preamble.

            “Gentlemen, it has come to the attention of my employer that Mr. Weiss has been smuggling alcohol into America via New York in partnership with one Hackney Freight and Export, Ltd. Is that correct?”         

            Ollie, in spite of all his other failings, remembered Tommy’s stern orders about talking. There was a heavy pause and Ricca continued, his oddly formal phrasing reminding Tommy uncomfortably of Luca Changretta.

            “I’ll interpret your silence as agreement. Do you also agree, Mr. Weiss, that this was a foolish endeavor given my employer’s oversight of alcohol distribution throughout our fine United States?”

            Tommy didn’t look at the other man, but he heard Ollie inhale deeply, then the sound of him shifting in his chair. Ricca’s eyes flicked between them.

            “It seems you agree. That should make matters simple. Mr. Capone sent me here to inform you that any further cargo found on American soil from Hackney Freight and Export will be destroyed upon discovery, along with the men carrying it. And the men manufacturing it. Consider your ‘bakery’ our first and only warning in this regard.”

            “Considering you already burned down my distillery, don’t this all seem like a moot point? What the fuck would I send to America now?”

            Tommy stiffened, trying to remain expressionless when he heard Ollie’s voice waver with barely concealed rage. Fuck. This was precisely why he’d told him not to talk. He could feel nervous energy building in the room, see it in the narrowed eyes of the men stationed in the corners.

            “An astute observation. My visit to London is what you might call a precautionary measure. Solving a small problem before it becomes a large one, and discouraging it from becoming a problem again. After I go back to Chicago, there will be men who watch your bakery. If you rebuild it—and I’m sure you will, you seem like an industrious man—we’ll be watching to see if anything more than a loaf of bread makes its way to the docks. And if we see that—”

            Ricca reached into his jacket and Tommy tensed, ready to move for his own pistol. Instead of a gun, the other man produced a book of matches and shook one free.

            “If we see that, Mr. Weiss—“ He lit the match and held it out toward them. “The bakery. Your home. Your family’s homes. To start. Is that clear?”

            With a quick shake of his fingers, Ricca extinguished the match and dropped it into an ashtray on the table. Ollie was silent, but Tommy could see his white-knuckled grip on the sides of the chair. He forced himself to relax his own hands, which had started to clench where they rested on his thighs, swallowed, and spoke his first words since entering the room.

            “It’s clear for Mr. Weiss, but why am I here?”

            Ricca’s eyes, dark and clever, snapped toward him.

            “A logical question, Mr. Shelby, which deserves a logical answer. It’s our understanding that you own a distillery as well—gin, correct? Your own recipe? You were known to be a close associate of the departed Mr. Solomons. A man with a distillery, a man with connections to confirmed smugglers…you see the kind of connection I might draw.”

            “I wasn’t involved in that side of Alfie’s business.”

            “Knowing what I know about you, Mr. Shelby, there’s not a business in London you wouldn’t like to be involved in. Consider this a cautionary tale. I’d imagine a gin distillery is highly flammable, and Birmingham isn’t too far away.”

            Tommy let out a breath and moved to push back his chair, but Ricca put up a hand in protest.

            “We’re not finished here, gentlemen. Mr. Capone authorized me to offer you a truce of sorts. Your word to end the export business in exchange for our word to leave your business alone on this side of the pond.”

            “That seems like a simple agreement. Why come three thousand miles to make it?”

            “Some business is better done in person. There is also the matter of Mr. Weiss’ little transgression. Not so easily forgotten, but it may be forgiven with the right repayment.”          

            “And that price?”

            “Three bodies. To help us complete our precautionary measures here. And as a gesture of good faith that you understand the seriousness of this matter. One: Danny McEwan, the foreman at Hackney Freight—we know he was your contact. And two other men from his crew. Those two,” here Ricca made a magnanimous gesture across the table at them, “you may choose. I sail for New York in ten days, and I’ll expect repayment before I go.”

            “If we refuse?”

            “There are a lot of matches in a box, Mr. Shelby. And even more bullets in a gun.”

            Ricca stood, and the men around the room shifted, straightened. Tommy’s fingers twitched, wishing for the chance to pull his gun. If he’d been here with Arthur—or even Alfie, for God’s sake—he would have thought it possible to take them all out. Fuck causing a scene at Claridge’s. But Ollie couldn’t be trusted to make the right move.

            “That’s all, gentlemen.”

            Tommy finally looked over at Ollie; the other man’s face was locked in a mask of mingled anger and fear. He pushed his chair back quickly and muttered “Come on” under his breath, hoping Ollie would have the sense to just fucking follow him. Thank Christ he did.

            On the street outside Claridge’s, Ollie exploded.

            “If he thinks he can fucking tell me how to run my business, to fucking kill someone—”

            Tommy regarded him flatly.

            “Keep your voice down. He can and he did, just like you could and did make some idiot export deal without one goddamn thought about the repercussions for your own business and mine.”

            The street outside the hotel was bustling with people, laughing, talking, brushing by them to get to the doors. Tommy grabbed Ollie by the elbow and all but dragged him down a side street, stopping in a patch of shadow.

            “They can’t expect me to kill those men in Hackney—”

            “Shut the fuck up.” Tommy’s patience was threadbare at this point. “I wouldn’t trust you to kill a fucking elephant if it was inside a paper bag and you had a machine gun. I’ll handle Hackney. Just stay in your house this week. Don’t go to the bakery, don't go to Hackney, don’t contact that goddamn Italian. Stay in your fucking house until I tell you it’s done.”      

            “Tommy—”

            “There’s nothing else to talk about. You’re not Alfie, and it's time to stop playing gangster. Go out to the street, get in a cab, and stay in your fucking house until you hear otherwise from me. Is that understood?”

            Tommy didn’t wait for a response, highly aware that he was likely to throw a punch at Ollie if the man spoke another word. He turned away, lit a cigarette, and started the walk back to The Savoy, hoping it would help him cool off. It was late when he arrived, but he immediately picked up his appointment book—when had he become the sort of man who kept an appointment book?—and dialed the number of a man he knew in Mile End, hoping he’d have some details about the outfit in Hackney. The man’s voice had been blurred with sleep, but he described the McEwan and told Tommy the address of the warehouse. When he flipped over a fresh page to note it down, he saw another hastily scribbled line—Committee—plus the next day’s date. Today’s date, really. Fuck. Just what he needed now, an interminable meeting with that geriatric Cornwall MP and his cronies. He didn’t even have a second suit with him. He hung up the phone, closed the appointment book, sent his suit and shirt down to the laundry again, and got into bed. Sleep didn’t come until the sky was already grey with the dawn.

 

            The meeting the next day was mind-numbing as ever, and Tommy couldn’t shake the feeling that he was out of place, that someone would eventually remember he was Tommy Shelby from Small Heath, not Thomas Shelby MP, and the gig would be up. On his way back to the hotel he bought three fresh shirts and a tie from a shop he passed on the high street; his suit would have to make it through the week, no time to track down a tailor.

            That night, he found the address in Hackney and sat in a seedy pub with a view of the warehouse doors, drinking whiskey and smoking an endless chain of cigarettes to keep himself awake. He watched for patterns, men coming and going, any sign of McEwan. From what he could judge, a new shift of workers came on around 11. He spotted a man he thought was McEwan, but the street was poorly lit and he couldn’t be sure. An hour after the shift change there had been no activity at the warehouse door, so he stubbed out his cigarette and walked a fair distance to catch a cab; few to be found in a neighborhood like this. Same routine as the night before—suit to the laundry, long hours awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about what he needed to do tomorrow. The scratch of shovels, echoing louder as the hours passed.

 

            The following day of meetings was an exercise in misery. Tommy struggled to focus on the topics at hand, which he didn’t give a fuck about at the best of times. His mind tore through the events of the past few days, shuffling things together in a way that made his lack of sleep painfully obvious. Paul Ricca’s glittering eyes with the lit match reflected in them. The hot, drowsy feeling of riding home after the champagne lunch on the sunny hill behind Langely House. Ollie’s clenched jaw and furious voice outside Claridge’s. Edie’s breathy laughter against his neck when they danced. The taste of cheap whiskey and smoke in a run down East End pub.

            He finally managed to pull together a plan, though it felt like his mind was moving at half speed. He’d go to the warehouse again tonight, posing as a man looking for work, and scout the place. He’d call someone for backup—Arthur? One of the Lee boys? Aberama Gold?—and go back tomorrow night to dispatch the three men. Then he’d get the fuck out of London for a good long while, and deal with Ollie when he could look at the man without wanting to strangle him.

            He bought a few more items of clothing on his way to the hotel that night—a pair of boots, rough workman’s pants, a simple cotton shirt, a canvas jacket. When he got to the lobby, the man at the desk looked up at him.

            “There’s a man here to see you, Mr. Shelby. He said he'd wait in the bar.”

            Fucking hell. With his luck this week it would be Paul Ricca and his goons, back for round two of threats since no bodies had turned up in Hackney last night. He felt something between relief and irritation when he rounded the corner and it was only Ollie. Could the man not follow one simple fucking instruction? Tommy took the chair across from him, dropping the bag of clothes unceremoniously.

            “Make it fast, I have to go to Hackney tonight to clean up your fucking mess.”

            “Tommy, there’s a problem.”

            “You bring the Mafia to my doorstep and you think I don’t know there’s a problem?”         

            “There’s another problem.” Ollie fidgeted, shifting his glass from hand to hand. The sound of clinking ice split right through Tommy’s tired mind.

            “Well?”

            “Alfie had debts. A lot of debts. That’s why I started running the exports—everyone he owed came out of the woodwork when he died, demanding I pay them back, and I couldn’t think of another way. There’s some rum left in another warehouse that didn’t get hit this weekend, but if you take out those men in Hackney—”

            “If I don’t take out those men in Hackney, we won’t have to worry about Alfie’s debts because we’ll both be dead. Are you ignoring how serious this is, or are you just fucking stupid?”

            “What if we just ran one more shipment?”

            “No one is running any more fucking shipments until this is dealt with. No one. I cannot make myself more clear on that matter. I’m going back to Hackney tonight, my men will take care of things, and then we can talk about the matter of Alfie’s debts. And your debt to me, after this nightmare of a week.”

            Ollie didn’t reply and Tommy pushed back his chair.

            “You’re not cut out for this business. Think seriously about that, eh? And stay in your fucking house this time.”

           

            Even though he hated the taste, Tommy drank two cups of coffee before he went to Hackney that night. For the first time in days, he felt sharp, on edge, as though everything was back in focus. Felt like himself. He changed into the unfamiliar clothes and tucked a fresh razor blade into the brim of his cap—something he hadn’t done in a long time—then made his way east. The pants were loose enough that he could simply slip a pistol into his pocket, and he felt strange without the familiar weight of it at his side.

            At the warehouse, he kept his cap pulled low over his eyes and his collar turned up even though the evening was warm. He waited until the men on the late night shift gathered near the door, then struck up a conversation with one who looked friendly. New to London, out of work...he told a vague story that ended in asking if he could speak to the foreman. He’d make a mental map of the route to McEwan’s office, then send back one of the boys to finish the job.

            McEwan proved to be a hulking man in his fifties, with gray hair cropped close to his skull and big, scarred hands that showed he’d worked his way through the docks to this position. He hardly looked up when Tommy told his lies again, busy jotting numbers in a ledger.

            “Ain’t got no jobs right now. Times is tight. Besides, you look like a stiff breeze would knock yer over and this is a hard job, innit? Sorry, lad.”

            Tommy mumbled something inconsequential—he’d gotten what he came for, best to make as little of an impression as possible—and was about to turn for the door when McEwan raised his eyes. They were intelligent eyes, an incongruously bright blue against his weathered skin, and they locked onto Tommy’s face.

            “Boy, don’t I know you?”

            Fuck.

            McEwan stood and came around the desk, quicker than Tommy would have suspected given his bulk. He started to protest, repeat his story about being new to London, even as he took a step back toward the door.

            “Ain’t I seen you ‘round with Alfie Solomons and 'is boys?”

            No no no— Tommy took one more step back, hand hovering near the pocket that contained his pistol. McEwan’s eyes drilled into him.

            “Bloke at t’pub across the way said there was a man watchin’ this place last night. It was you, innit? What the fuck you watchin’ my warehouse for?”

            Tommy made a grab for the pistol but McEwan was faster than he could have predicted, catching his forearm in one of those enormous, work-scarred hands. He brought a foot down simultaneously on Tommy’s instep, sending white-hot needles of pain up his calf. He twisted away, trying to shake McEwan’s grip, but the man’s fingers were clamped tight. His back slammed up against the door.

            “Who sent you, boy?”

            McEwan made a grab for Tommy’s other arm and he dodged it, thoughts jumbled. Could he go for the pistol with his free hand? Even if he succeeded, could he get a decent shot off at close quarters? What other options did he have? McEwan had a hundred pounds on him easily and a warehouse full of men just beyond the door. He’d hardly eaten or slept in days, no chance he could simply overpower him.

            “Who sent you?”

            McEwan’s voice was louder this time, echoing in the tiny office. Tommy’s view was partially obscured by the cap he’d pulled low—the cap. The fucking cap. Christ, he was an idiot. Before he could give himself time to think about whether this was a good idea or not, he feinted with his free arm as though he was going for the gun. When McEwan’s hand followed he made a grab for the cap, fingers fumbling along the brim to find the hidden blade. His thumb hit a corner; he could feel it slice clean through the pad, the pain bright and sharp and clarifying. McEwan’s grip tightened in frustration.

            “Who fuckin’ sent you?!”

            Tommy curled his fingers into the cap and brought it in a wide arc across McEwan’s throat. He felt the blood pour over his hand before he saw it, before he heard the surprised gurgle from the other man’s mouth. McEwan released his wrist, both hands coming up to his neck, gouts of blood streaming between his fingers. He stumbled back against the desk, his weight making the legs squeal across the floorboards, and the sound jarred Tommy into motion.

            He fumbled with the doorknob, hands slick with blood, mind racing. He’d fucking killed the man. He’d come to scout things out and he’d killed him instead. Fuck, fuck. Polly’s words echoed in his head. I don’t mean be stupid. This place would be on fucking lockdown now, he’d never get men back in here. Ten days

            There was no other solution. He closed the door as quietly as he could, wiping his hands hurriedly on the front of the cheap canvas jacket as he drew the pistol from his pocket, cocked the hammer back. He kept his pace calm as he walked through the dim warehouse, wrapping the cap around the barrel of the gun as a makeshift silencer. Mercifully the place was loud, filled with the sounds of moving equipment, men’s shouts, crates and palettes slamming to the floor. He rounded a corner to find two men alone in a long aisle of shelves, each carrying one end of a large wooden crate, and raised his free hand at the closest of the pair.

            “Mate, you got a minute?”   

            As soon as the man stopped he fired, the crate dropping to the ground with an unholy clatter of breaking glass. Even through the tweed cap, the barrel of the pistol flared up hot against his fingers. He shot the second man before the echoes subsided.

            There wasn’t time after the second shot to check if the men were dead; he’d have to trust his own aim. He shoved the hat and pistol in his pocket and started to run, one foot still half numb. Even in the din of the warehouse, the muffled sound of the gun would have attracted attention. He sprinted through the narrow gaps between stacks of crates, his own breath loud in his ears, hoping he’d remembered the location of the door correctly. His own footsteps sounded enormously loud, sure to be heard.

            Finally, he skidded around the corner and spotted the door—no one in sight—and burst through it onto the shadowy street. Two men walking nearby turned at his sudden exit but he didn’t slow down, taking the first corner he could find into a dark alley, then another, then a third. After that, he jogged a few more blocks until he was sure no one had followed him. He’d ended up near a canal, and he wiped the pistol clean with the hem of the jacket before pitching it into the water along with the ruined cap. The jacket was spattered with blood, and he could only hope the men on the street hadn't gotten a good look at him. He used the rough canvas to scrub his face and hands as well as he could before balling it up and shoving it into a bin.

            The walk to The Savoy was long, but he needed the time to settle his mind. He kept to shadowy side streets, unsure what he looked like, if there was still blood. By the time he made it back sweat had soaked through his shirt, the night air humid and still. Thankfully the hotel was quiet this late. He avoided the lobby and took the back stairs up to his room, scrubbed his face and hands in cold water, then made two phone calls in rapid succession as he changed back into his suit and shoved his things into a bag.

            The first call was to Ollie.

            “Have your men drop a car for me at The Savoy. You have an hour.”

            The second was to Claridge’s. A chipper female voice picked up at the desk and Tommy cut off her greeting.

            “Is a Mr. Paul Ricca staying there?”

            A pause, a shuffle of pages.

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Can I leave a message?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Tell him it’s done.”

 

            The drive north felt endless, the road unspooling in the dim headlights of whatever shit car Ollie had managed to produce on short notice. Tommy only hoped it would get him all the way to Arrow House. As he left London, the stuffy heat gave way to hard, unrelenting rain.

            He couldn’t recall ever feeling so tired. Even in France. It had to be a trick of his memory; he knew, objectively, that there had been weeks that stretched on like months in the trenches, every sleepless night punctuated by the distant firecracker pops of mortars. But this kind of exhaustion, which weighed down his eyelids and crept into his bones as he drove through the rain from London to Warwickshire, was different than anything he’d felt before. Or maybe he was different. Maybe he was just getting old.

            Sometimes the flecks of grey in his hair still surprised him when he happened upon a mirror; after this week, he suspected there would be a few more the next time he looked. As he drove, he tried to gather his thoughts about the last few days. He’d have to tell Polly and Arthur what had happened. At least if he had the details in order, he could get it over with quickly.

            As he finally approached Arrow House, he wondered why so many lights were on. Why so many cars were in the drive. He didn’t have to wonder long. Polly, Arthur and Lizzie filed out from the front room while he was still closing the door behind him. He looked from Polly to Lizzie in disbelief.

            “Did I not tell you to stay at home until I came back from London?”

            “I decided it was safer here,” Polly said firmly. “Farther from the city, better for Lizzie and the baby, and we couldn’t just leave Charlie alone with the nanny.”        

            A piercing headache started to form in Tommy’s temples. He reached for a cigarette, then remembered that he’d run out on the drive.

            “When you were deciding, did you consider that the Mafia would come to my fucking house first, if things didn’t go well in London?”

            “What things?” Lizzie now, her mouth an impatient line. "We haven’t heard a word from you about things in London since Michael showed up at my flat, Tommy. You might have been dead for all any of us knew.”   

            “Here’s a few words for you, eh?. I just killed three men in Hackney so the fucking Mafia wouldn’t come up here and burn down all of your houses. Not that any of you will stay in them like I fucking asked.”

            There was a long pause. Tommy’s voice rang in the high-ceilinged hall; he didn’t even realize he’d been shouting. Arthur was the first to speak.
            “Why didn’t you have me bring down the Lee boys? You shouldn’t be—”

            “I know. ‘You shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing, Tommy.’ I can’t fucking listen to that right now. I handled it, like you asked me to Pol, and that’s the last word on the subject.”

            “Thomas—” Polly’s voice was stern, disapproving.

            Tommy couldn’t be here anymore. Couldn’t get five minutes’ peace in his own house. Couldn’t stand the sight of his family’s faces. Couldn’t fucking sleep.

            “We’ll talk tomorrow. All of you go to bed. I’m going for a drive.”

            “Tommy, you shouldn’t,” Lizzie said, stepping forward and putting a hand on his forearm. “You look terrible, you just drove from London—”

            He shook her hand off and turned for the door.

            “Go to fucking bed, Lizzie.”

           

            The sharp slap of raindrops on his face woke him up as he walked toward his car. When he settled into the driver’s seat, he had no idea where to go. To Watery Lane? He’d never slept in that bed without the help of an opium pipe. To Pol’s? No one would be there, but it was distant and he worried he'd nod off behind the wheel. He was about to admit defeat, just let himself close his eyes and sleep right here, when he thought of Edie. The floating sensation of drifting off in her bed, the lived-in quiet of Langely House late at night, the measured sound of her voice, the unflinching way she’d handled Polly the other morning. The unflinching way she handled everything, even and quiet. Calm. No tears, no shouting. He turned the key and started down the lane.

 

            Like everything else, Edie took his strange and sudden appearance in stride. She’d led him wordlessly up the stairs, lit him a cigarette, folded his rumpled suit tidily over a chair. There was a sprawling bookcase on the far side of the room and she paused beside it.

            “Shall I read?”

            “Something short. I won’t make it long. I hope.”

            “A poem?” She reached for a slim book and walked toward the bed.

            “Anything you like.”

            She settled back against her pillow, book held in her lap where a dim pool of lamplight fell. She had on a white nightgown edged with lace, and Tommy recalled her dress at Epsom, the sleeve sliding up her slender arm to reveal the string of bruises. Her head dipped as she thumbed the pages, hair falling forward to obscure all but the tip of her nose from view.

            “Do you know Kubla Khan?”

            “I’m not one for poetry. What’s it about?”

            “An opium dream, some people say.”

            Tommy stubbed out his cigarette and closed his eyes at the sound of her voice, even and quiet.

            “In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man…”

            He dropped off before the second stanza.

 

            He stirred only once in the night, surprised momentarily when his hand brushed against Edie’s side, fingertips rough against the cool, crisp cotton of her nightgown. She was turned away from him, just a dark blur on the pillow, and he let his hand rest where it had landed, lulled back to sleep by the even tempo of her breathing.

            The rain had cleared when he woke the next morning. He found himself alone in bed and saw Edie at her desk, her hair shining in the morning sun as she bent over some papers. She turned when she heard him stir, her face serious.

            “Tommy—” She took a deep breath. “If we’re—if you’re going to come here like this, you have to tell me the truth.”

           

Chapter Text

Edie had fallen asleep easily enough listening to the patter of the rain and the even sound of Tommy’s breathing, but she woke when dawn had hardly broken, the light washing pale and silver over the bed. Tommy’s hand on her waist, hot and still, startled her at first, setting her heart to rapid thuds that sounded loudly in her ears. She turned over, careful to not disturb him.

            This was, she realized, a very rare chance to catch Tommy unaware. In his waking hours, he would never have allowed such unguarded observation; he always seemed on edge, supremely aware of any eyes that fell on him. She recalled his reaction to the scrutiny of the crowd at Epsom, their rapid and perfectly executed escape. Now, dozing flat on his back with one hand flung out to brush her side, he’d given her the opportunity to look without reservation—and to think.

            Sleep had smoothed away some of the lines that creased his face last night, softening the shadows under his eyes and the ripples of worry at the corners of his mouth. He’d pushed the light summertime covers halfway down his chest in his sleep and she could see the sunburst tattoo again, plus others—curling script, initials with significance she couldn’t deduce—on the underside of one arm. The scars she’d glimpsed in the half-light the other night were clearer now, scattered and vexingly unclear in provenance. He shifted, huffing out half a breath, hands rustling across the coverlet, and she noticed a vivid welt around one wrist, clearly fresh given the angry red cast of the skin. She thought again of the other night, dredging up a nagging half-memory of similar marks along the ridges of his ribs, then her eyes flicked back to the scattered scars once more.

            These physical markers troubled her even more than Tommy’s poorly explained arrival the night before, perhaps even more than the rumors that seemed to follow him like shadows. The scars and bruises hinted toward an unfamiliar life, not just old war wounds but violent things happening right now, carefully concealed under those impeccable suits and the eerie calm of his eyes. As she lay watching him, Edie knew the time had come—she had to ask the questions she’d been avoiding.          

            At the same time, the magnetic draw of him hadn’t lessened. In spite of everything, she felt relaxed next to him. Studying the inky sweep of his eyelashes, the surprisingly soft curve of his nose in profile, it would have been easy to lean down and kiss him—an unspoken invitation to replay the night of the party. Mary’s admonishments, the day at Epsom, the dark bruises and bone-white scars; Edie knew that there were things about Tommy that should have made her afraid, but she couldn’t summon the feeling.

            Eventually she slipped from the bed, leaving Tommy’s outstretched hand atop the covers, so she could tend to her other worries. Namely the upcoming meeting with her grandfather’s solicitors. She’d put them off as long as she could, stomach sinking whenever she received another phone call or letter laden with questions about the business, but she couldn’t avoid them much longer.

            She went to her desk and tried to make her way through a few more pages of the documents they’d sent her; she should have had Harry help her decode them while he was here. These infrequent meetings always left her feeling like a little girl again. In name, she was the owner of every Hughes business now, but she was hopelessly out of her depth when it came to the real questions—inventory, new investments, the strikes that had been blazing across the country. Between her father, her uncle and Georgie, there had never been a thought that the business would fall to Edie; consequently, she’d been sent to the sort of finishing school that considered piano lessons and party planning more important skills than finance. But here she was, bent over her desk on sleepless mornings, trying to understand pages of numbers and wondering how long she could trust the solicitors’ advice before they began to look out for their own interests.

            She was buried in a hopelessly complex spreadsheet when she heard Tommy sit up in bed, and her mind was wound so tightly that the words just tumbled out. In retrospect, she should have given him a chance to wake up before springing her question on him. That had been an unkind trick, but it did have the advantage of prompting an honest reaction. His face had flickered through half-formed emotions—confusion, annoyance, alarm(?)—before settling on resignation.

            “You’ve every right to ask.” Tommy’s voice was enticingly rough with sleep, and she thought again how easy it would be to forget the question, go back over to the bed. “My coming here like that—”

            “That’s not it.” Edie felt unprepared now, too. “People talk about you, I’m sure you know it. And when you turn up like this—” she gestured at the damp suit on the chair, the crimson welt around his wrist— “I’m tired of trying to sort through the rumors. What do you do? Where were you before you came here last night?”

            Tommy was silent for a long time, still in a cold and thoughtful way that made nerves flutter under Edie’s ribs. Maybe she didn’t want to know, really. It wasn’t too late to change her mind.

            “The things you’re asking aren’t simple.” He studied her face. “There will be things you don’t want to hear.”

            “I do know that.”      

            “What else do you think you know?”

            The softness had gone from his features again, replaced with coiled, quiet tension. A fast current below the surface of dark water, a knife in a velvet sheath. Edie forced herself to swallow, to keep her hands still where they rested on her lap.

            “I know your business isn’t as honest as you’d like it to seem. I know you come from a place called Small Heath and it’s nothing like Arrow House. I know half the men in the crowd at Epsom were afraid to look at you, and the other half couldn’t tip their caps fast enough.” Her eyes flicked to his wrist again. “I know something happened last night that made you end up here, and the last time I checked they weren’t fistfighting in Parliament.”

            “Sounds like you know enough.”

            “Not enough to let you turn up and sleep in my bed whenever you like.”

            “And what if I just go, then?”          

            Edie had considered that possibility. She knew she might be asking too much. More than Tommy, guarded and cool, could offer her. She was gambling on the other side of him that glimmered through in their easy conversations on horseback, the light touch of his hand on her waist when they’d danced, the slow downward drift of his eyelids as she read.

            “I’d be very sorry if you did. That’s all I can say.”

            Tommy leaned back against the headboard in the same imperious slouch that had so thoroughly beguiled her the other night, and gave an almost imperceptible nod.

            “If I’m going to tell you the truth, I’ll need a cigarette.”

 

            It turned out that he needed more than one cigarette, and so did Edie before the conversation was over. His story started with details that wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of Edie’s novels—a bildungsroman sort of thing, boy from a poor family makes good in life, etc, etc. Gaggle of siblings, ne’er-do-well parents, lack of food on the table. Coming home from the war—a narrative both familiar and painfully foreign to her—with few opportunities. Glancing encounters with petty crimes to start. Little shipments of illegal goods, a fixed race or two, then a little more, and a little more…

            It was when things escalated that she began to have a difficult time putting the narrative in order. The sheer scope of what he told her—the idea that the Shelby Company Limited was essentially a cloak of tenuous legality to hide any number of sins, that there were betting shops, clubs, factories, distilleries, all sprawling out in a tangled web of deals, that even the seat in Parliament had been bought and paid for—was more than she could take in at once. Combined with the obvious fact that he wasn’t telling her everything (because she sincerely doubted all of this had been achieved with calm, rational conversations), she had a fair number of questions that would likely be hard to answer.

            Eventually, the story reached its conclusion, with Tommy in Parliament and a business that teetered on a knife's edge between commerce and crime. Edie was quiet for a long time before she managed to dredge up the first of the countless questions clamoring for attention in her mind.

            “Why all this? What do you want? What did you want when you started?”

            He looked at her incredulously, as though the answer was painfully obvious.

            “A decent life for my family. Enough money that they didn’t have to live in fucking Small Heath anymore. That’s how it started.”

            “And now?”

            This time he didn’t look at her at all, eyes drifting out the window, where the landscape was now illuminated brilliantly in midmorning sun. He lit a fresh cigarette, shoulders curving forward as he bent over the lighter.

            “Everything I’ve told you can’t be told to anyone else. Do you understand that? It’s not fucking gossip for your London friends.”

            Edie nodded. “Of course.”   

            “When I came home from France, I put a gun to my head one night. Pressed it against my temple, put my finger on the trigger.” He took a long drag of the cigarette, exhaled smoke in lazy curls around the headboard. “I didn’t pull it, but I had nothing to lose after that. Wasn’t afraid. Whatever I did, nothing could be worse than those fucking tunnels. Somehow that got me here.”

            “Isn’t this enough? Why not stop?”

            “It’s not the kind of business you get to stop.”

            “What do you mean? Your company’s real now, isn’t it?”

            “Just because you call something a limited company doesn’t mean it’s suddenly legitimate. If it was as simple as putting my fucking name on an office door, I wouldn’t have been in London meeting with the fucking Mafia.”

            Edie felt her mouth drop open. “Pardon me?”

            “A man I deal with crossed them, and now it’s my problem, too. That’s the kind of business this is.”

            “What happened?”

            “He made a bad decision—shipped liquor to their territory in America and got caught. Now both of us have warehouses full of bottles just collecting dust and Al Capone's men at our doorsteps. Can’t risk going into America again, hard to get so much as a fucking shot of whiskey into Canada without legal export papers…” He trailed off. “That doesn’t matter. The point of all this is that every bet needs a bribe, every club needs protection, every factory is five minutes from a strike and sometimes civil negotiation doesn’t work. Just because the company is real doesn’t mean I get to stop working in other ways.”

            “Don’t you think someone will find out? Now that you’re an MP?”

            “I’ve considered that people suspect. Most have more manners than to ask flat out like you.”

            “Most of them don’t have you knocking on their doors at one in the morning, I hope.”

            “They don’t. Lucky you, eh?”

            Edie had one more question. One that had been twisting below her ribcage since the conversation began, becoming more urgent with every sentence he spoke. Now or never.

            “Tommy, have you killed people in this business?”

            His expression didn’t change, lips pursed around a cigarette that had all but burned out.

            “Do you remember what I told you? You can’t fucking talk to people about this.” She nodded, knowing the answer already but still afraid to hear the words when he said, “I have.”

            There was no response to that. She rose from her desk and busied herself with gathering her riding clothes, then dressed quickly in the bathroom. When she returned, he was smoking yet another cigarette, eyes focused again on the landscape outside the window.

            “I need time to think.”

            He nodded wordlessly.

            “I promised Charlie a riding lesson this morning, and I’m late already. I’ll find you when I’m ready.”

            At the moment, she wasn’t even sure what that meant.

            “If you see anyone at the house—I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell them I was here.”

            “Whatever else I decide, I’ll keep your secrets.”

 

 

            Edie walked instead of riding on the way to Charlie’s lesson. It was a fair distance to Arrow House but she needed the time to clear her head; in the end, the walk wasn’t long enough at all. Her thoughts were still tangled as she arrived at the stable and let the pony drink from the old stone trough in the dooryard. She was staring down at her own reflection in the rippled water when she heard Charlie’s voice.

            “Miss Edie!” This had been a great compromise with Charlie, who—taking Tommy’s instructions as nothing short of gospel—had been reluctant to call her anything but the far too formal ‘Miss Hughes.’ “Hello!”

            She turned and saw him crossing the yard with an unfamiliar woman, taller and slimmer than the nanny. Younger, too, with wavy dark hair cropped modishly short. Charlie was tugging her forward and Edie brought the pony along to meet them. The woman, tastefully dressed in all black, glanced curiously at her scuffed boots and rolled-up shirtsleeves. Edie tried to place her with little success. Tommy’s sister, the aunt Charlie had mentioned? If so, she didn’t take much after the rest of the family.

            “Hi, Charlie.” He had a handful of half-wilted carrot tops from the kitchen and paid her no mind, darting immediately toward the pony with the greens outstretched. “Hello, I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Edith Hughes.”

            The woman didn’t answer right away, eyes following Charlie toward the pony. She had an elegant face, rather solemn around the eyes.

            “I’m Lizzie Stark.”

            “Giving that poor nanny a morning off?” Edie offered a smile, not sure what else to say. The name didn’t mean anything to her.

            “Well, we were all here for a meeting—” the ambiguous ‘we’ was no help to Edie’s attempts at deduction—“and Charlie insisted I come out and see the pony with him.”

            “He’s a natural rider.” Edie smiled again, though the first had been largely unsuccessful. “Shelby family trait, I suppose.”

            “You’re Tommy’s new horse trainer, then.” Lizzie’s gaze followed Charlie as he wandered off to chatter at the stable boy. “The two of you were the talk of Small Heath after Epsom.”

            Edie, feeling herself blush, scrambled to reply.

            “As a tried and true London girl, that’s certainly a first for me.”                       

            The joke was flat, maybe even unintentionally snobbish, and she regretted it immediately. There was no reply, rather a stretched out silence broken only by the call of sparrows in the stable rafters. Edie fidgeted with the lead in her hands, painfully aware that the other woman was now looking at her with curious intensity.

            “He went to you last night, didn’t he? Just drove off like—”

            Lizzie snapped her fingers softly. Edie didn’t know what to say; she couldn’t very well break the promise she’d just made to Tommy. Should she lie? Protest that it was a private matter? What was it to this woman, anyhow?

            “I see, then.” Lizzie’s expression didn’t change. “It’s all right. It was always a secret when he came to me, too.”

            Charlie reappeared, running ahead of the stable boy, and Edie was beyond relieved for the distraction. They both turned to look down at him, and Lizzie put a hand on his head briefly before turning toward the house.

            “Enjoy your lesson, Charlie.”

           

            If she’d imagined that the morning with Charlie would clear her head, Edie was sorely disappointed. After the confusing conversation with Lizzie she was more out of sorts than ever. It was hard enough to take in that she’d been carrying on with a known criminal (though hadn’t she suspected, really?). Even harder to fathom that she might not care. For some reason the implication of other women—that Tommy could be as duplicitous toward her as he was in business—troubled her more than anything else.

            She lingered in the stable to let the pony cool down, absentmindedly combing out his mane, until she was startled by the sound of footsteps. She turned, expecting the stable boy, but it was Tommy. He was wearing last night’s suit, looking tired again and uncharacteristically rumpled, and the knot of confused emotions tightened in her throat. He held up a hand before she could say anything.

            “I know you probably haven’t had time to think. But I had to come and say I’m sorry for showing up like that last night.”

            “There was a woman here—Lizzie? She asked if you were there. I didn’t say, but I think she knew anyway.”

            Tommy sighed. The lines of worry were creeping into his face already.

            “It’s all right.” He tucked his hands into his pockets and took a step back toward the stable door, then nodded out at the house beyond. “When you’re ready.”

 

            For the rest of the afternoon, Edie tried everything that usually helped her think. Saddled Pilot and went for a long ride through the fields. Took a book into the garden and stared at the same page for half an hour. Had Mary draw a bath and stayed in the water until it grew tepid. Reviewed a few more of the documents from the solicitors.

            She knew the right thing to do, of course: recognize that Tommy had admitted to being a criminal—had admitted to killing people—and never speak to him again. Maybe pack up and leave Langely House until she got her head together. Because this was mad, wasn’t it? The fact that she was even questioning what to do at all was mad.

            But.

            But then there was that strange affinity between them. The easiness she hadn’t felt with anyone, even her friends, for so long. The fact that something he’d said to her today—I had nothing to lose after that. Wasn’t afraid.—echoed back something she hadn’t been able to express after her father, Georgie, her grandfather, her mother—

            Did all that matter more than the cold truth? More than the fact that he was wildly unsuitable for her in ways she was determined to ignore?

            She skipped dinner, much to Mary’s annoyance (thinly masked with concern), then stayed up half-reading that same stupid Fitzgerald collection, making no real progress through the pages. Everyone else had gone to bed when she finally went downstairs and picked up the phone in the study, dialing the number Charlie’s nanny had given her to arrange the lessons. A sleepy-sounding maid picked up.

            “Is Mr. Shelby available?”

            “Mr. Thomas or Mr. Arthur, ma’am?”

            “Thomas, please.”

            “Just a moment, ma’am.”

            After a pause and a crackle of static, Tommy picked up.

            “Yes?”

            “It’s Edie.” There was silence on the other end of the line. “Could we talk, if it’s not too late?”

            Another pause, stretching on for what felt like hours, then a clipped answer.

            “I’ll come there, all right?”

           

            He looked more himself when she met him at the door, a fresh suit and starched collar standing out bright white in the moonlight. Edie still wasn’t sure she was making the right decision, but she led the way to the study and closed the door behind them, hoping Mary hadn’t heard their footsteps.

            How to begin? Maybe she should have sorted that out in advance.

            “I—”

            I forgive you? That wasn’t right. What was it her place to forgive him for?

            I don’t care? That wasn’t strictly true either.

            It doesn’t matter? More true, that, but too flippant.

            “The exports.” Tommy’s eyes narrowed. Clearly not the response he’d been anticipating. “Canada, I mean. I think I can help.”

Chapter Text

In the rare moments throughout the day when he wasn’t being bombarded with questions from every member of his family (because of course Ada, Michael, and Finn had materialized by the time he returned to the house), Tommy considered Edie’s potential reactions to what he’d told her. The possibilities ranged from complete silence to the arrival of police at his doorstep before the day was out. Combined with the concerning news that she’d run into Lizzie at some point during the morning, he’d largely given up on any positive conclusion to the situation.

            The situation at hand wasn’t going much better. No one seemed at all relieved that he’d single-handedly prevented the Mafia from torching their businesses and homes. Instead, they’d come prepared with a long list of grievances to air, starting with the tried-and-true “Tommy you’re an MP now” before branching out into various new avenues including “You should think about getting a bodyguard” and “What are we going to do about Ollie?” That last one had been on his mind as well, but he couldn’t bring himself to address it until they hashed out why everyone thought he was suddenly incapable of doing anything on his own.

            “No one ever said that,” Polly cut in when he posed the question. “And you don’t need to go about gunning down more men in Hackney to prove your point.”

            “Well, I don’t need a fucking bodyguard.”

            “You make me have one,” Ada snapped. “Can’t go to the bloody grocer without two men following me about. Just because you don’t think it’s manly—”

            “Ada, when you are ready to cut a man’s throat with a razor in your bare hands, I’ll stop paying your bodyguards and you can spend every waking hour at the fucking grocer all by yourself. And before you start, I don’t have time right now for a fucking lecture about women’s equality, all right?”

            “Tom,” Arthur, his voice low and cautious. “All we’re sayin’ is that the business might be more than one person can handle now. You show up looking like a fuckin’ ghost half the time, disappear like you did last night—”

            “Another thing I don’t need is a fucking inquistion about where I go at night. It’s my fucking house, I can leave it if I want. Don’t any of you have the sense to see we have bigger problems, like the fact that Ollie is dragging Solomons’ outfit straight to hell, and we’re going along if we don’t do something about it?”

            “So what should we do about it?” Polly again, the ice in her drink clinking as she raised the glass to her lips.

            He’d had some time to think that through on last night’s drive, at least.

            “Solomons left debts. Substantial ones, if what Ollie told me is true, and he’s in over his head. I’m going to propose we take over the business in exchange for paying off whatever he owes. Get a foothold in London that’s bigger than we’ve ever had before.”

            “What are we going to do with a burned-out warehouse, a pile of liquor we can’t sell, and debts to fuck knows who?” Polly regarded him skeptically over the rim of her glass.

            “There’s plenty of money for the debts. The liquor is a problem we need to solve for ourselves anyway. We can’t get it into America through the usual channels for a long while, Capone and his men’ll be watching too closely for that.” Tommy pushed back his chair abruptly. “I’m going to get out of this fucking suit. If anyone has an idea for the liquor, I’ll be glad to listen.”

           

            He stayed upstairs for a few hours. Made some calls he’d been putting off, shaved, scrubbed his face until the skin almost burned, put on a fresh suit, poured a glass of gin. When he finally felt ready to go down for what was sure to be a tense dinner, Lizzie intercepted him at the top of the steps. Her lips were drawn into thin lines around a cigarette.

            “I met your ‘horse trainer’ this morning. That how you find girls to fuck these days? Show off with a box at Epsom and a thoroughbred?”

            “Lizzie—” He didn’t want to snap at her, wanted to have a civil meal and a quiet night in his own home.

            “What is she anyway, seventeen? Did you think about seeing your daughter last night instead of running out the fucking door?”

            He could see tension in the muscles of her jaw, drawn taut by something halfway between bitterness and disappointment. A better man would have known what to say. Wouldn’t have packed Lizzie off to an expensive flat in London and called it good enough. Would have told Edie about Lizzie and the baby and Grace and John and a thousand other things he’d omitted. Suddenly he didn’t feel angry anymore, just heavy.

            “I will tonight. After dinner, I’ll come up.” One foot on the first step, he turned back toward her. “You kept that baby knowing the kind of man I am. I’ll always take care of you both, but you shouldn’t wait for me to change.”

 

            Dinner was a prickly affair, almost silent except for the scrape of cutlery and the footsteps of the maids. Lizzie hardly ate, pairing several glasses of wine with an endless chain of cigarettes. No one had any solution for the matter of the liquor tied up in their warehouses. Finn, Arthur, and Michael went into the game room after dinner and Tommy could hear the desultory click of billiard balls. Lizzie and Pol took their glasses into the library, voices low with disapproval. It was clear that the conversation on the stairs wouldn’t remain a secret—then again, did anything in this family? Only Ada was left at the table when he pushed back his chair.

            “Are you going up to see the baby?”

            He nodded, and she fell into step beside him. Ruby was already asleep—he supposed he should have expected that—and they spent a few minutes watching her in companionable silence before Ada spoke, her voice hushed.

            “So, what’s she like?”

            “You too?”

            “Not me too.” Ada rolled her eyes. “Pol and Lizzie have made their opinions known, but I noticed that you looked like you’d actually slept when you showed up this morning. That’s why I’m asking. What’s she like?”

            “Posh.”

            Tommy said it because didn’t know what to really say. How to describe Edie when it felt like his family didn’t understand anything he did these days.

            “The Lee boys made that clear enough after they saw you two at Epsom.”

            Ruby stirred, tiny hands coming up to rub her face. Ada put a finger to her lips and nodded toward the door, silent until they were in the hall.

            “I’m asking what she’s like. There has to be a reason you went there last night.”

            “I don’t fucking know.” This was too sentimental. “She’s calm, all right? When was the last time I could say that about anything in my life?”

            “And? There has to be more than calm.”

            “She’s easy to be around. Good with the horses.”

            “Good with the horses.” Ada shook her head and took a half step in the direction of the hall that led to the guest rooms. “You could tell me more. Of all people, I know what it’s like to love someone this family doesn’t approve of.”

            “No one’s in love, Ada.”

            Tommy realized he was speaking to his sister’s retreating back.

            “G’night, Tommy.”

 

            The house was surprisingly quiet until Edie’s phone call, everyone tucked away silently in their rooms. As Tommy drove the short distance to Langely House, he wondered again what she might have summoned him for. Curt goodbye? Tearful disbelief? A warning that some family acquaintance from Scotland Yard had been informed about the MP from Birmingham? Of all the things she might have focused on, exports to Canada were the last thing he’d expected to hear about. He asked as much once they’d settled into the study. Edie was at the bar cabinet, mixing drinks, and glanced over her shoulder at him.

            “You said they were a problem, didn’t you?”

            “That’s what you want to talk about?”

            Tommy didn’t know what to make of this start to the conversation. Was it some sort of trick? A way to make him admit something he’d glossed over earlier? Outright denial of what he’d told her? She’d asked if he had killed people. Even Edie, even-keeled as she’d proven herself to be, couldn’t take that in stride.

            “You want to talk about this morning?” Edie handed him a glass and took her seat, tucking up her feet in a familiar gesture. “We can, of course, but—the heart of the matter is I’ve been happy up here this summer. What you do doesn’t change that. I just had to know.”

            “And now that you know?”

            “I can live with it. I’ve lived with more than you think.”

            The way she said it was final—no invitation of further questions. Tommy knew what it felt like to say something like that and hope the other person understood. He sat back, balancing one ankle on the opposite knee and taking a sip of his drink.

            “So, how do you propose I fix my problem with Canada?”

            “Well,” Edie sat forward, tumbler cradled in both palms. “I’m no expert on the matter of smuggling, but if the papers in London are to be believed, lots of liquor crosses the border from Canada into the United States.”

            Tommy nodded.

            “So if you could get it into Canada, could you get it into America?”

            He nodded again, surprised by the glimmer of excitement in her eyes.

            “But you can’t get the export license because?”

            “Because I’m not the only person who’s thought of this plan. The number of licenses is limited, and they’re granted to the same people every year. One of the few things money can’t buy. At least not my money.”

            This was something unexpected that had frustrated Tommy about the world of politics. He’d never come across so many problems that couldn’t be solved with guns or cash. The people he met traded in a kind of social capital that he’d never have: private clubs where membership hinged entirely on the public school one had attended; Savile Row tailors so exclusive that their clients were recommended to them; invitations to a sprawling season of events that included absolutely no one who’d ever set foot in a place like Small Heath.

            “You need to ask the right man.” Edie leaned forward even more, a smile curving the corners of her lips. “And it just so happens I can. Or rather you can, with my help.”

            “What do you know about the export business, eh?”

            Edie laughed; the tone felt rare and bell-bright at the end of a long day.

            “I don’t know anything about it. But I do know a terrible lot of people. Including Sir Walter Morrison, Deputy Minister of Trade for the Commonwealth.”

            Tommy had a hard time imagining that Edie’s glittering set of friends could contain anyone with a name and title that stodgy. The confusion must have shown on his face because she carried on.

            “He’s an awful old curmudgeon who goes right from his offices to the same chair at his club every day, and he hardly sets foot outside Holland Park if he can avoid it. Won’t take a meeting with anyone he doesn’t know.”

            “That’s a promising start.”

            Edie held up a finger in utterly charming mock protest. “Patience, Mr. Shelby. He was a great friend of my grandfather—they were down at Eton together a thousand years ago. And I happen to be friends with his niece, Eleanor. So, if I were to host a little dinner when I go down to London and invite my dear old friend, her beloved uncle, and a few other acquaintances, perhaps my neighbor from the country house who happens to be in town…”

            “Won’t he sort it out, when I show up with all sorts of questions about Canada?”

            Edie shook her head. “That’s my job. I was playing hostess at my grandfather’s business dinners when I was fourteen years old. I can bring a conversation ‘round to anything. We’ll play it subtly. All you need to do at the dinner is get a meeting. Can you be free Saturday night?”

            She settled back into her chair as though the whole thing had been decided. Tommy was less certain. Even though he trusted Edie enough to tell her the truth about what he did, he wasn’t sure it was a smart idea for her to actually be involved in anything. And why was she so eager to be? Maybe he’d been in his line of business too long, but he got paranoid when an easy solution presented itself. Never mind the fact that everyone else currently sleeping at Arrow House would be ecstatic that he was going to solve their latest problem with help from that Epsom girl.

            He stood and walked over to the window with his drink in one hand. Nothing to see this time of night, but he needed to think and couldn’t do it with the distraction of Edie’s charmingly eager expression. He hadn’t seen her look this pleased about something since she’d brought him out to the field that day to see the mare run. When he finally turned back, she was watching him closely.

            “Why would you go through all that trouble? My bottles of gin are nothing to you.”

            Edie unfolded herself from the chair and padded across the plush carpet toward him, eyes creased softly at the corners as though she was enjoying some private joke.

            “Can’t I like you?” She reached one hand up—flash of red nails, metallic glint of a single ring, prickle of her fingertips below his ear and in his hair where it was cropped short. “Don’t you allow anyone to do that?”

            This close (close enough that he could smell the sharp citrus of her perfume, close enough to see the golden hint of a tan at the base of her throat where she wore her riding shirts unbuttoned, close enough to rest his hand atop that place at the base of her spine, if he wanted to), it was easy to forget his reservations. Easy to forget that Grace had played this kind of game with him, once upon a time. Easy to think that he could sit beside her at a dinner in London, watching her smile and laugh and charm the table. Easy to think how easy she made things feel.

            “I could allow you to invite me to a dinner party on Saturday. That’s a start, eh?”

            “It’s a start.”

            Edie brushed her fingers down his neck, tracing along the edge of his collar, the touch light enough that he could have been imagining it. In bare feet she seemed so small and slight, her face tilted up toward his. When he leaned down to kiss her, the taste of gin from her forgotten drink sharp on their tongues, he was caught again by the dizzy rush of wanting her. Wanting to wrap his fingers through the glossy curtain of her hair and pull, to push up the skirt of her perfectly tasteful summer dress, to leave the mark of his mouth at the vulnerable place where her neck and collarbone met. But after this morning he wondered if it would be a mistake to handle her so roughly, and pulled back instead.

            “Is that a start?”

            She smiled at the question and turned away from him, crossing the room to fasten the lock on the doorknob.

            “It’s a start.”

            Tommy remembered himself at nineteen, alternately fumbling and aloof with girls, and wondered where Edie had gotten her composure. Where she’d learned to shimmy out of her dress in one graceful motion—a flick of her foot to kick it free without missing a step back toward him—and press up against him with only the silk of her camisole between their bodies. At that point he stopped thinking until they were on the deep leather sofa at the far side of the room, hands brushing as they both worked at buttons—waistcoat, shirt, trousers—until his clothes were left in an impatient drift on the floor.

            He pulled her into his lap, their legs tangled and her slip maddeningly cool and slick against his cock, then reached up both hands to frame the sharp angles of her jaw and draw her in for a kiss. He could happily have spent all night like this, listening to the catch of her breath when he ran a thumb over one silk-cloaked nipple, letting her press her fingers hard into his biceps when he sucked on the skin below her ear.

            Edie, it seemed, had other ideas. She slid out of his lap as gracefully as she’d crossed the room minutes before and knelt between his legs, knees folded on the carpet and hands running up his thighs. Her eyes caught his—changeable, gray-green, playfully wicked—as she closed one hand around his cock. Hot palm, soft pressure, the cool contrast of the single gold band she wore on her right ring finger. Fuck. Her eyes held his as she brushed her lips up the length of him, the tip of her tongue darting out across the head.

            Tommy couldn’t quite shake the feeling that maybe he was dreaming. He’d be jolted awake by a clamoring phone or a knocking maid at any moment, wouldn’t he?

            Edie reached forward and brought one of his hands up, guiding it into the thick, soft strands of her hair.

            “Show me what you like.”

            He closed his fingers and gave her hair a playful tug.

            “Right now, there’s nothing you could do that I wouldn’t like.”

            She laughed low in her throat, breath hot against his skin.

            “You strike me as the kind of man who’s used to demanding what he wants.”

            Definitely a fucking dream. It was the only coherent thought Tommy could manage when her head dipped forward, mouth slick and insistent on his cock. The flushed, frustrating kind of dream he’d had when he was younger, made up only of little flashes more feeling than thought—the demure sweep of lashes framing her closed eyelids, the faint blush of her skin, the play of shadow when she hollowed her cheeks. Fuck, fuck. He tipped his head back against the cool leather of the couch, sweat prickling on his neck in the warm summer air, drifting for a few minutes until his hips shifted up thoughtlessly to meet her mouth.

            Edie made a sound low in her throat when he moved, one he felt rather than heard. Jesus Christ, that put him closer to the edge than he realized. He rocked up again, unable to stop himself, trying to slow his breathing. She gave a little hum when his fingers tensed in her hair, another when he applied tentative pressure to the back of her head. Should he be doing this? Treating her like one of the nameless working girls he met in featureless hotel rooms, even if she’d asked him to? Did he even fucking care anymore, when everything felt this good and he was on the edge already—

            Control was slipping away from him, spiraling out into pleasure, making him forget that he shouldn’t wrap his fingers tighter and set the rhythm of her movements. He was so close—too close—to coming and stilled his hand, a warning. She gave her head an incremental shake, eyes fluttering, and took him deeper into her mouth. His entire body tensed, bowing off the cushions, nothing but white behind his closed eyelids as he came. Distantly he could hear himself speaking, an incoherent string of curses that faded as he collapsed back bonelessly, hand falling from her hair.

            When he opened his eyes, Edie was sitting on her heels in front of him. She stood up slowly, hand fluttering in a self-conscious gesture to brush the corner of her mouth. He pulled her forward, sliding a hand up her thigh, but she caught his fingers with a little shake of her head before settling onto the sofa with her legs resting atop his.

            “Return the favor Saturday night.” She reached across him and picked up his half-finished glass, taking a sip of whiskey. “You looked like you needed this.”

            Saturday night. The dinner. Tommy still wasn’t sure there was any validity to the plan, and was certainly sure that his family would lose their fucking minds when he proposed it, but none of those things seemed to matter too much at the present moment. They passed the glass back and forth companionably until the whiskey was gone. Edie sat it down on an end table and glanced between him and the door.

            “Are you coming up with me?”

            Tommy shook his head regretfully, hoping he wouldn’t offend her after all she’d done for him in the past two days. He was incredibly tempted to stay, but knew he’d hear of nothing else if he turned up again in last night’s wrinkled suit.

            “Can’t, busy day again tomorrow. I’m behind on things up here.”

            She seemed to take it in stride, sliding off the sofa with a sleepy stretch and a tilt of her head in the general direction of Arrow House.

            “Full house over there still?”

            He nodded, already wondering how he’d manage to pack everyone off before the trip to London. He couldn't decide if he should say something in advance or just hope for a successful outcome at the dinner first. Would they be less upset if he came home with an export deal in hand?

            “Saturday, then?” Edie asked, shrugging on her dress. “Pick me up when you’re ready?”

            “Saturday.”

            She straightened the cushions as he dressed, then came over and folded his collar into place with a precise little flick of her fingers.

            “Wear that grey suit from the Derby. No one could say no to you in it.” She stood up on tiptoe, lips pressing below his ear with a playful scrape of teeth. “Least of all me.”

Chapter Text

Edie spent the subsequent days in a flurry of activity. The London house had to be aired and readied for guests, a menu had to be planned, food ordered, guests invited. She convinced Eleanor Morrison to pry her cantankerous uncle out of the house for an evening, begged Harry and Fiona to cancel a reservation and turn up on Saturday, and rounded out the guest list with a chatty friend of her grandfather’s who owned a horse farm in Devonshire. A final call went to the solicitors, who grumpily agreed to push the dreaded meeting out to Monday. She spent the remainder of the day rifling through her closet and feeling dissatisfied by ninety percent of her summer dresses. Maybe she could pop out on Saturday afternoon for a bit of shopping.

            If nothing else, all the planning managed to distract her from the fact that she was diving into the deep end when it came to Tommy Shelby. It was one thing to spend a few afternoons riding and a few nights in bed with him up here, entirely another to parade him around as the guest of honor at a London dinner party. Was she a complete fool to get involved in his business, especially now that she knew without any doubt that it wasn’t above board?

            And that was the real problem, wasn’t it? Her indifference to everything she’d learned about him, dark and strange and incomplete as those facts were. One explanation was simple lust. Maybe she was just lonely and Tommy had shown up as the perfect diversion after a year of self-imposed exile. There was no denying the growing attraction between them, but she suspected something more than that. A quiet sense that they understood one another and each might have something to offer the other.

            As Saturday morning approached, she dodged Mary’s questions about her trip to London, giving vague answers about the meeting and a nebulous set of plans with Claire and Pippa. In the end, it was easiest to meet Tommy at Arrow House and stow her car in the garage there to avoid any further inquiry. She glanced around the dooryard as he helped her transfer her bags into the Bentley.

            “House to yourself again?”

            “Packed the last of them off last night.” He closed the trunk and came around to open the door for her. “Silence never sounded so good.”

            Edie saw an opening to find out about the mysterious woman she’d met at the stable.

            “Who was here, if you don’t mind the question?”

            Tommy started the car and turned them toward the lane. He was wearing the glasses that she’d seen a few weeks ago in his office, incongruously studious now that she knew him better. No hat today, and she could see that his hair had been freshly cut.

            “Arthur and Polly, who you’ve had the misfortune of meeting. My sister Ada, brother Finn. Polly’s son Michael and Lizzie Stark, our company secretary in London.”

            Given her comments the other morning, Edie suspected there was much more to Lizzie Stark than company secretary. She tried to play things casually first, see if he’d offer anything up, though that seemed unlikely.

            “You’ve quite a family.”

            “No shortage of Shelbys about, eh?”

            There was a pause, and she knew they were thinking the same thing.

            “Tommy, I have to ask—”

            “She’s my daughter’s mother. Lizzie. Things aren’t that way between us now.”

            Oh. The other woman’s responses made perfect sense now. She worked for the company, lived in London…it seemed like a complicated situation all around. Edie kept her eyes on the blurry landscape outside her window, a little startled when Tommy spoke again.

            “I’m sorry you met her that way.”

            Edie was silent, pondering when she’d developed the unhelpful skill of stopping a conversation dead in its tracks with the stupidest possible questions. Tommy cleared his throat.

            “Listen, everything I’ve told you in the last few days. It’s too fucking much, isn’t it? You don’t have to go along with this. Forget about the dinner party. I can take you home.”

            “No—no.” Edie didn’t know what she wanted, but it certainly wasn’t to forget about Tommy. She tried to collect her thoughts. “You told me you had a daughter in London, I’m not upset, I just—I’ve had a lot to take in. I’m not changing my mind.”

            She caught Tommy’s habitual gesture as he reached toward his pocket for his cigarette case. His eyes were trained on the road and slightly obscured by the glasses, and she had a hard time reading his face. The motion she'd seen so often—running the end of the cigarette across his lips—suddenly became clear to her. A way to pause and put his mind in order. He spoke quietly around a puff of smoke.

            “So you don’t have to ask, Charlie’s mother—my wife, Grace—died.”

            “Oh.” All the breath seemed to go out of her lungs, all the air out of the car. “Tommy, you didn’t need to say. I’m sorry.”

            His mouth twisted ruefully, cheeks taut and slightly chapped in a way men's skin got after a fresh shave.

            “Didn’t want you wondering if you’d meet anyone else at Charlie’s lessons.” He glanced over at her. “He’ll be a better rider than me before the summer’s over.”

            Edie was surprised that Tommy was the one to turn the conversation when things got uncomfortable. She’d been a bit nervous about how he’d do at the dinner party tonight, but maybe that had been unfair. She took the bait gladly.

            “Good to know I’ll always have the lucrative career of children’s riding instructor to fall back on if things go topsy-turvy in the old steel industry.”

            If she somehow managed to drive things into the ground. She thought of the sheaf of papers carefully tucked into the pocket of her weekend bag, ready for the meeting on Monday afternoon, and her heart sank a little. That was two days away though; in the meantime, she got to spend those days with Tommy (hopefully) free from injured horses or angry Shelby relatives.

            The long drive to London went by quickly after the bumpy beginning. She briefed Tommy on the evening’s guests, outlining the foibles of the two older men in the party and offering a few tactics she’d seen work successfully on Sir Walter in the past. The key points were: A. speak loudly, as he was rather deaf; B. humor him when he held forth on his favorite subject, the Cambridge University Boat Club; and C. bring up the possibility of a meeting in the most roundabout way possible, with the hope that he’d think he’d proposed the idea. She thought the last might prove something of a challenge for Tommy’s to-the-point personality, but he shook his head at the suggestion.

            “I’ve made a few deals with Churchill, remember? I know how to handle old men from Whitehall.”

            She’d forgotten about that little piece of information in the cascade of things she’d learned about Tommy over the past few days.

            “You’re a man of many gifts, Tommy Shelby.”     

            He grinned at her, eyes flashing sideways to catch hers for a moment. After the way he’d looked when he’d shown up the other night, she was surprised by this rare mood.

            “You don’t know the half.”

 

            It felt strange to come into the house on Eaton Square with him. She’d spent so much time there alone in recent years, most of the rooms closed off once the last mourners had come to give their regards for her grandfather. After his death she’d had much of the house redecorated, the dark wood and heavy fabrics of her grandparents’ day replaced with sharp angles, metallic flashes, and crisp colors. Art Deco had become all the rage after the war and she’d been eager for a change. Consequently, the house still felt a bit new and strange to her. The staff, however, was familiar, many of them unchanged since her childhood and thrilled to welcome her home.

            She let the housekeeper lead Tommy up to his room. Unlike distant Warwickshire, where she hardly knew a soul, servants’ gossip in London could be trouble if they were friendly with workers in the houses of friends and acquaintances. She’d been cautious about her nightly outings in years past and knew the same kind of discretion was important here. On her own way upstairs, she made sure to chat with the maid about the reason for Tommy’s visit—a country neighbor with business concerns that overlapped with her friends', nothing more than a neighborly gesture when she had an empty house at her disposal…

            The day slipped by with alarming speed. There were last-minute questions about flowers, seating arrangements, which bottles of wine to pull from the cellar. Tommy, in need of a quiet room with a telephone for what seemed like an endless series of calls, spent much of the day in her grandfather’s old study. Edie used to the opportunity to duck out to Harrods, returning with a pair of tidily wrapped packages. After much debate, she’d settled on a pale green dress for dinner—conservative enough to suit the company, embellished enough to suit her festive role as hostess—but none of her shoes had fit the bill. And when she’d seen something else just right, she couldn’t pass it up.

            Tommy was still at the desk when she returned, looking over a sheaf of papers with his glasses perched on his nose. She rapped her knuckles gently on the half-open door.

            “I’m going up to get dressed. Dinner is at half seven, will you come to my room a few minutes early?”

            Tommy glanced at his watch and gave her a nod, still half-absorbed in the papers. No wonder he looked tired all the time, if he was working this hard on a Saturday evening.

           

            Edie sent her maid away after her hair was curled, preferring to do her own makeup. She’d always used this quiet time to think. Tonight her thoughts were dominated by Tommy, but they took an unexpected turn. Something about the two of them, here in the London house, pointed her mind in a new direction, drawing up little scenes of domestic life in striking detail. Popping in with her shopping to find Tommy at his desk. Going downstairs to dinner together, arm in arm. Hurrying from the car to the door on cold winter nights, flushed and happy after a party. Waking up together in her bedroom, which overlooked the peaceful back garden. Foolish things, really. She was sitting at the vanity in her robe, thoughts drifting, when there was a knock.

            “Come in,” she said softly, rousing herself from the daydream.

            It was Tommy, of course, perfectly dressed as ever. Pristine white shirt, glittering watch chain, shoes polished to a mirror shine. She thought again about how it would feel to walk into a room on his arm.

            “I saw something today and I couldn’t resist.”

            She pushed back her chair and went over to the bed, where a small box laid next to the unwrapped one containing her new shoes. Plucking it up, she opened the lid on her way back across the room.

            “May I?”

            She reached up to the lapel of his jacket, where a navy pocket square was carefully folded, and pulled the little slip of fabric loose. The box held its replacement in feather-light silk, dyed an icy blue. She folded it quickly and tucked it into place as he watched.

            “Suits your eyes. You’re terribly handsome, you know.”

            Tommy gave a little shake of his head, then brought his hands to her waist and brushed his lips against hers. The touch was barely there, but enough to send a shiver down her spine.

            “You’re already hosting a dinner party for me. Shouldn’t I be giving the gifts and compliments?”

            “None needed.” She put her hands over his. “I ought to get dressed, everyone will be here soon.”

            “No, not yet.”

            Tommy’s voice was stern suddenly, his hands tightening on her waist.

            “What are you—”

            Before she could finish, he’d picked her up effortlessly and deposited her on the vanity. She could hear the click of lipstick tubes and perfume bottles scattering on the surface around her. Tommy was pressed up close, trailing kisses across her neck as his thumbs hooked the sides of her underwear and pulled them down her thighs, over her feet. The soft texture of his jacket prickled against her bare legs when he knelt between her knees, hands sliding upward, eyes beguilingly dark. He bent his head to press a kiss against the inside of her knee, rays of late evening sun catching in his dark hair as he moved upward.

            “I’m repaying a favor.”

           

            They did go down the stairs arm in arm, Edie hoping she didn’t look as flushed and drowsy as she felt after the preceding interlude. In the front hall, Tommy slid a hand softly over the point of her hip, where he’d left the mark of his mouth, sharp and stinging, just minutes before. As the maid went to open the door for the first guests, he leaned down and pushed back her hair to whisper in her ear.

            “Later.”

Chapter Text

The London house felt like Edie. Walking her down the curved front staircase, listening to her heels click softly on the marble of the foyer, Tommy was struck by the way she and the house seemed completely of a piece, fresh and bright and refined. He’d watched her dress upstairs, lounging back on her perfectly made bed, fascinated by the little ballet of gestures as she set herself into place. A palm smoothed over the soft waves of her hair, an effortless swipe of bright red lipstick, quick fingers fastening buttons and garters. She was a relaxed counterpoint to his unexpected nerves. Fucking ridiculous, wasn’t it, to be nervous about some posh dinner? Ridiculous for a man who’d once stood in his own fucking grave without flinching, but that didn’t stop him from feeling out of place more than he ever had.

            Edie’s easy polish continued once she started greeting the evening’s guests. Harry and Fiona were the first to arrive, bursting through the door with a bottle of champagne and giddy exclamations about Edie’s return to London society. Edie shuffled them all into a drawing room for cocktails, leading in the remaining guests as they arrived. She introduced Edmund Fell—a thin, grandfatherly man who walked with an elegant silver cane—as a fellow horse enthusiast, offering a topic that propped up the conversation effectively as she dashed out to greet the last of the party.

            Eleanor Morrison proved a perfect match for the rest of Edie’s friends—young, stylish, tasteful jewels at her ears and wrists. Her uncle—barrel-chested, red-faced, expensively dressed—could be heard from the moment he entered the foyer.

            “Edith, you’ve been quiet as a mouse for months. Glad to see you back in London, girl.”

            “Just for the weekend, I’m afraid,” Edie said as they came through the doorway.

            Sir Walter, puffing on a cigar, surveyed the room before barking out greetings to Fell, Harry, and Fiona. His eyes finally landed on Tommy.

            “And you are?”

            Edie was there, of course, ready at their elbows with an introduction.

            “Sir Walter, may I introduce Mr. Thomas Shelby. He’s been a splendid neighbor to me this summer at Langely House, and has business in town this weekend. He’s also a new member of Parliament. Mr. Shelby, Sir Walter Morrison.”

            Tommy tried not to smile at the formal phrasing, accepting Morrison’s handshake as the older man scrutinized him from below bushy grey eyebrows.

            “Very pleased to meet you, sir. I understand you were a great friend of Edith’s grandfather.”

            “What party?” Sir Walter was watching him sharply, as though he hadn’t heard the comment.

            “Pardon?”

            “Parliament. What party?”

            “Labor.”

            Tommy had a suspicion the answer wasn’t a good one. Sir Walter let out a puff of smoke that could only be construed as derisive.

            “We all have our flaws, I suppose. Now Edith, dear girl, what are we eating tonight?”

            Not an especially auspicious start. Edie must have caught the lingering dismay in his expression as he chatted with Fell, a far more pleasant character, about prospects for the Grand National. As they filed into the dining room, she slipped in beside him.

            “Don’t worry,” she said softly. “He’s always that way. I’ll get you around to the meeting, I promise. Remember to shout a bit.”

            Edie had arranged them at the table three to a side with herself at the head, Tommy at one elbow and Fiona at the other. She’d placed Sir Walter on his other side, likely so she could keep a close eye on their conversation. In spite of her promise, there wasn’t a single mention of business or Canada during the first courses. (On the drive down, Edie had described the meal as a “casual sort of evening,” a phrase severely undermined by the profusion of food that appeared from the kitchen—oysters nestled in deep drifts of ice, sculptural artichokes glistening with butter, a cold summer soup served in tiny, fragile china bowls.) The discussion floated through acquaintances Tommy didn’t know, Eleanor Morrison’s recent engagement, and the much-dreaded Cambridge University Boat Club. By the time the main dish arrived, Tommy was beginning to miss the inevitable shouting and knife-brandishing of a typical Shelby meal.

            “Sir Walter,” Edie’s voice cut through the clatter of cutlery as everyone tucked into their Dover sole. “I understand this is a busy season at the Ministry.”

          “Eh?”

            “I understand it’s quite a busy time for you! You might tell Mr. Shelby about your work, he has some trade interests himself!”

            “Do you, boy?” Tommy couldn’t remember the last time someone had called him ‘boy.’ Morrison regarded him sternly. “What sort of business have you got in–”

            “Birmingham,” Tommy supplied, though he thought his accent would have given him away already. Everyone else at the table shared Edie’s patrician patterns of clipped consonants and long, lazy vowels. “Motorcars, mostly. I make a bit of gin, but it’s more a hobby than anything else.”

            “Riley cars, aren’t they?” Tommy nodded, surprised. “Had one of those a few years ago. You send them overseas?”

            “To India, Russia, Canada.” The last word said cautiously. He felt the toe of Edie’s shoe tap his gently under the table. “Still have that Riley?”

            Edie cut in before Sir Walter could answer. “Do you have a light, Mr. Shelby?”

            He turned to find her holding her cigarette case in one hand. As he reached for his lighter she fumbled it, letting a few tumble out onto the carpet. Her eyes caught his and they both bent to pick them up.

            “That was perfect,” she said, quick and soft, while their heads were below the table. “Don’t push, just keep asking him questions. I’ll set you up.” She slipped the last cigarette back into the case. “By the way, switch forks. You’ve got dessert—fish is one more to the right.”

            Tommy sat up, using the second it took to light her cigarette to gather his thoughts and bristle at that final comment. A fish fork could fuck right off, in his personal opinion, but he supposed he’d have to get used to this kind of dinner if he was ever going to get off the Committee for Veterans' Pensions and into any groups with real political influence. Another tap—bare toes softly against his ankle this time—brought him to meet Edie’s eyes, friendly and faintly apologetic, before they shifted to the man at his side.

            Keep asking him questions. He scrambled briefly for a safe topic, came up with cars, and was rewarded with the first enthusiasm he’d gotten all evening from Sir Walter. That—plus the discovery of a shared love for Bentleys—carried them through the remainder of the fish, and over plates of lamb with a little help from Edie, who chimed in with the story of her mishap with the Aston Martin in Banbury.

            More and more food appeared—cheese, fruit, tiny tarts with a mirror-bright glaze, chocolates, coffee, bottles of port—with Edie presiding over the table, fluttering from conversation to conversation like a rare bird, glossy and glittering, the silk of her dress and diamonds in her ears catching the light. Whatever annoyance he’d felt at his own discomfort faded in watching her, listening to the subtle way she curved the conversation back around, a slow progression through Parliamentary committees, Hughes family businesses overseas, mutual connections, an old friend of William Hughes who’d once done a lot of trade with Nova Scotia, if she was remembering correctly, and didn’t you mention you’d like to test out more possibilities in Canada during our drive down, Mr. Shelby? By the time she reached that point, she’d gracefully ushered everyone into the front hall to say their goodnights.

            “I have considered it,” Tommy replied carefully.

            “You’d do well to join the Committee on Colonial Trade,” Sir Walter said. He’d lit a post-dinner cigar and brandished it to emphasize his point. “If your interests lean in that direction. It’s how I started as a young man.”     

            “Your car is here, Sir Walter.” Edie and Eleanor had appeared beside them, exchanging airy kisses and promises for luncheons. “I’m so pleased you and Mr. Shelby have found so much in common. Shall I give him your Whitehall address? You’re in town until Tuesday, aren’t you Mr. Shelby?”

            Tommy nodded in agreement.

            “Yes, yes. I keep office hours Monday afternoons. Bring some of your gin if you have it, boy.” He kissed Edie briefly on the cheek and put out an arm for his niece. “As fine a dinner as I’ve had in this house, Edith. William would be proud of you.”

            Edie gave a little wave as they settled into the car, waiting until they’d turned the corner before leading the way back indoors. They stood in the foyer a moment, listening to the clatter of dishes being gathered in the dining room beyond. Edie grinned at him; she looked so bright, lively, brilliantly lovely. So perfectly suited for a beautiful dinner in a beautiful house. So perfect at playing the role he'd needed with these people, a graceful woman at his side.        

            The realization twisted, tight and hot underneath Tommy’s sternum, that he couldn’t keep her. A woman like this—he tried with Grace, and everything had fallen apart. She’d slip out of his grasp eventually, or be pulled from it. But he could have her now.

            “Where did you get so good at that, eh? I should bring you every meeting I have.”   

            He kissed her before she could answer, feeling the curve of her smile against his lips, surprised when she pulled away and whispered, nodding at the dining room door.

            “London maids are terrible gossips. Come upstairs with me.”

            Their progress up the staircase was all quiet sounds and buttons carelessly unfastened, Edie slipping off her shoes so they wouldn’t click on the floor. A kiss against the wall halfway down the hall, her quick, hot hands in his hair and under his jacket, reminded Tommy of being young, sneaking around with girls, meeting in the back of his father’s beat-up Model T or by the riverbank at the gypsy camp on humid summer nights. Hushed voices and rucked up clothes. Flashes of streetlights, moonlight, the single lamp left burning in Edie’s bedroom by whatever maid had turned down the bed, crisp sheets perfectly folded over.

                 Edie let herself fall back onto the bed as he closed the door, leaning up on her elbows. They’d have all night, Tommy realized. No blur of champagne and snow to make it hazy, no chance of a ringing phone or knocking maid to rush them through. He approached the bed slowly, taking one delicately arched foot when Edie offered it and slowly rolling her stocking down, pressing his lips to the paper-thin skin of her ankle, watching her face. In spite of everything, he couldn’t shake his own doubts. She’d put herself on the line for him with this dinner, endorsed him in front of her friends, risked herself.

                 “Why did you do all this for me tonight?”

                 He bent her bare leg at the knee, setting her foot flat on the edge of the bed, and picked up the other. Ran his hand over the silk-clad curve of her calf before rolling the stocking down and dropping it on the floor with its partner.

                 “I told you. Because I like you.”

                 “I’m too old for you.” He said it smiling, a joke with a little vein of truth to suss out her response.

                 “Certainly not.”    

                 He’d undone the buttons holding her dress on the way up the stairs and slid it off now, cock stirring at the arch of her back when he pulled it over her hips.

                 “Not one of your London gentlemen.”

                 “Good.”

                 “Too rough.”

                 “Couldn’t be.”

                 (That one, and the lazy grin that accompanied it, went straight to his cock, too.)

                 “Don’t even know what a fish knife is.”

                 She laughed at that one, standing up and guiding his hands to finish undressing her—slip, garters, underwear piling up at their feet. There was a tall mirror on the far side of the room and he caught a glimpse of them, the perfect plane of her bare skin against the darkness of his suit. He kept his eyes on the reflection as he ran his hands down her back, sharp shoulder blades to the welcoming curve of her ass, bringing her flush against him.

                 “Tommy.” She’d slipped a hand between them, palming him through the frustratingly constrictive wool of his trousers. “I don’t give a fuck about fish knives, or Bentleys, or Edmund Fell’s horses, or any other thing from dinner. All I thought about all night was this.”

                 “Got a mouth on you, eh?” He ran one thumb over her bottom lip, smearing crimson sideways.

                 “Get out of that suit and shut me up.”

 

                 In the end, he wasn’t rough with her. Not this time, when he had a whole night to draw things out. The luxury of unrushed hours wasn’t lost on him—endless time to find out what made her gasp and twist below him, what made her curse against his lips. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spent a night like this with a woman; not drunk or angry or blotting something out. With Grace. It had to have been with Grace.

                 Edie dropped off quickly, her head tilted onto his shoulder, but when he woke up with a jolt in the middle of the night other side the bed was empty. He quickly spotted her at the vanity, bent over papers in the pool of light from a tiny lamp, as she’d been that morning at Langely House. He stood and crossed the room slowly, bending to kiss her shoulder where her robe had fallen away. She looked up at him in the mirror and he was surprised by telltale streaks from last night’s makeup. She’d been crying.

                 “Edie? All right?”

                 Maybe she’d woken up and realized all his earlier questions weren’t jokes at all. Woken up in bed with a criminal—a fucking gangster—and realized it was a mistake.

                 “I’m fine.” She wiped her eyes quickly, shuffling the papers into a pile. “Sorry I woke you. It’s all right. Just—worrying about everything.”

                 “About me?”

                 “What? No—about the business. Everything but you.”

                 He looked over her shoulder at the papers on the desk. Official-looking letters, long columns of figures, all under a letterhead with HUGHES prominently featured. What the fuck was she doing looking at spreadsheets at three in the morning?

                 “Come back to bed and tell me. Can’t promise I’ll read you a poem, but I’m fucking world class at worrying about things in the middle of the night.”

Chapter Text

How had she managed to spoil it? Edie caught a glimpse of her face in the mirror, streaked with yesterday’s mascara, and disappointment choked in her throat. She’d done so well through everything, through all the years, at keeping her tears a secret, first from her mother and brother, then from her grandfather, and finally from her friends. Now she’d ruined the evening—and could there have been a better one, wrapped up as she’d been in the private fantasy of Tommy always beside her at the dinner table, always walking her up the stairs at the end of the night, always maddeningly patient and beguiling within the cool, cloudlike cocoon of her sheets? Could she have spoiled anything more perfect?

            She’d gathered the papers and brought them to bed, feeling foolish once they were resting on her knees. As though a handful of legal documents could begin to explain why she was weeping at her desk in the middle of the night. Tommy watched silently as she shuffled the pages into a pile and shoved them toward the end of the bed. He’d somehow found his abandoned pocket square from earlier in the evening and offered it to her, the silk cool and smooth against her puffy eyes.

            “Was I that embarrassing at dinner?”

            She put the pocket square down in time to catch his half smile.

            “You were perfect. Tommy, really, this isn’t anything you did. It happens to me all the time, as stupid as that sounds. Sometimes I just wake up thinking about things and I can’t sleep…”

            She trailed off, feeling the weight of his eyes acutely as he studied her face. He didn’t make a move toward her, hands folded neatly atop the covers, and she was strangely grateful for that.

            “It’s not stupid at all. I didn’t sleep through one fucking night for years after France. Sometimes I still don’t and I turn up on your doorstep.”

            “That’s different.”

            “I’m saying it’s nothing to be ashamed of, eh? Though I’ve run a business enough years to know spreadsheets aren’t worth crying over.”

            That earned the smallest hint of a smile, though Edie could still feel tears threatening at the corners of her eyes.

            “It’s not just spreadsheets—it’s a lot of things.”

            A lot of things she hadn’t discussed with anyone since her grandfather’s death. When it came to the business, she could have gone to Harry, or Bertie, or one of William Hughes’ friends, but she’d felt like that was admitting defeat. Showing that she’d never be able to carry on by herself so she ought to just take Mary Chilton’s advice and find a nice husband who would do all the dirty work of business for her. When it came to the rest, there was no one she'd ever wanted to talk with about it.

            Tommy held up his empty hands, fingers splayed, his signet ring glinting in the dim lamplight.

            “I’m not busy.”

            Could she tell him? Maybe she owed him that, after he’d been so honest with her—and it was more dangerous for him, wasn’t it, to be that way. The fear lingered, though, that he’d think her nothing more than a foolish girl. What she feared everyone would think, though Tommy’s opinion mattered more than most.

            “I suppose I ought to start at the beginning, shouldn’t I?” She swallowed, refusing to let herself cry again. “I’m sure it’s obvious to you by now, but I don’t have any family at all. My grandfather died last year, you know about my father, but I had an uncle, too—my father’s brother, Andrew—who died at the Somme. He was a good deal younger, a mathematician at Oxford, everyone said he had such a brilliant mind and that he shouldn’t have gone, but—”

            “But everyone did.” The weariness in Tommy’s voice made her look up. “I’m sorry, go ahead.”

            “But he went. After the war, it was my grandfather, my brother George, and my mother, and me. Hardly my mother at all, though. She’d always been a bit emotional, a little bit—brittle, I suppose, but losing my father…she shut herself away. Kept to her rooms, didn’t really speak to us at all. And then Georgie—”

            Edie had never told anyone all of this, not in this way. The friends she’d grown up with knew, of course, but saying it all at once left her feeling exposed, shy, afraid of the pity that was sure to follow. She rushed through, the tempo of her voice forced and uneven in her own ears.

            “Georgie died at school. At Eton. Spanish flu, so sudden that they couldn’t even send him home, not that it would have been safe to, anyway.” She stared down at her hands, noticing that one nail was chipped along the edge, a white half-moon stark against the crimson lacquer. “All this is to say that with my father, my uncle, Georgie—there was never a single thought that the business would come to me. So I was taught to host dinner parties and read novels and play the piano and tell the maids what rooms to make up and when to serve tea. But now here I am with these—” she gestured at the pile of papers—“and not one bloody clue what to do.”

            She wouldn’t cry again. She wouldn’t. Even though her eyes burned and her throat felt tight and Tommy was certainly going to leave, wasn’t he? Because he had enough problems of his own without her litany of sorrows.

            “Edie.”

            He’d make an excuse now. Another of his early mornings or urgent meetings or family matters. She forced herself to take a deep breath, waiting for the shift of the mattress, but he brushed a stray hair back from her face instead. She kept her eyes down, watching the muscles tense under the faded tattoo on his chest, afraid she’d lose her composure if she looked up.

            “Fuck, I’m sorry. All that in one family.”

            His fingers left her hair and rested, rough and warm, on the crest of her cheek, tracing under her eye where the skin was still damp. Edie’s mind was racing with every thought that had hounded her during every sleepless night of the past few years, clamoring louder than before, and suddenly they all spilled out.

            “Sometimes I feel like—I worry—that we deserved this. My grandfather—our business is steel, you know that, and he had so many connections. We’d always done well, but when the war started there were all these new contracts, they were making so many things, and the money just started coming like it never had before.”

            Edie couldn’t stand to be in the bed anymore. Couldn’t stand to have Tommy touch her, couldn’t be still and bear the weight of her own words. She slipped out of the covers, bare feet pacing the carpet, the robe flapping out behind her like a lustrous sail. She hardly noticed that she was crying again.

            “After my father died, all I could think about was where all that money came from. Steel that made ships to take men like him to France, trucks to carry them to the field, guns to kill them. I thought maybe losing him, losing everyone, was the price of that.” She brought her hands up, scrubbing at her sodden cheeks. “And now I might lose what’s left if I drive all my grandfather’s work into the ground—”     

            She hadn’t even seen Tommy move, but suddenly he was in front of her, catching her mid-stride with both arms tight around her. At first she struggled to get free, hands pinned between them, but then she caught the sound of his voice over the uneven hiccups of her own breath. He was saying her name, soft and low, the way, she realized, he’d spoken to the horse that day on the field. She could feel his breath ruffling her hair, the subtle tension of the muscles in his arms and chest as he held her—firm but not too hard. He let her go only when she stopped trying to push away, hands on her chin to tilt her face up.

            “You’re fine.” His lips barely moved as he spoke. “It’s all right.”

            Those words, combined with the knife-sharp focus of his eyes, wrenched another sob from Edie’s chest. She knew now that she’d lose it all. There was a good reason she’d never said these things to anyone.

            “I seem totally mad, don’t I?” She whirled away from him, pacing again, as though somehow she could outrun her own misery. “And that would really be the thing, wouldn’t it, because that’s what happened to my mother. After Georgie she just lost it, and sometimes I think, what if there’s something like that in me? What if I don’t, what if I can’t—”

            Tommy’s hands found her again, less gentle on her shoulders this time, forcing her to face him.

            “Edie.” His voice was harsher, too. “Look at me.”

            She couldn’t, keeping her eyes down as she shook her head.

            “Fucking look at me.” He brought her face up with two fingers under her chin. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not mad. You think I don’t know how people dying fucks you up? How the war fucked everyone up? You’d be crazy if you didn’t feel anything about it.”

            Edie could hear her own breath loud in her ears, shallow and shaky, and then her own voice as though it was coming from outside her.

            “I think about how ashamed my grandfather would be if I was like her, shutting myself up, crying all the time, letting everything fall apart—”

            Tommy gave her a look so sharp and stern that it stopped her short, the ice in his eyes reminding her anew of the glances he’d gotten at Epsom, the rumors about him. As quickly as it arrived it faded, softened.

            “All that—it’s you, talking to yourself about yourself. None of it’s true. Took me a long time to learn that. Still am learning it, most of the time.” He let her shoulders go and nodded toward the bed. “Why don't you come lay down?”

            Edie shook her head. She felt dizzy and wound up. The room, usually so comfortable, was too stuffy.

            “Not yet. I know I won’t sleep. Would you go down to the garden with me?”

            Tommy looked surprised by the question, but he nodded, then glanced down at his own naked body and back up at her.

            “Hang on, can’t have those maids of yours gossiping.”

            Once he’d dressed—last night’s trousers and shirt, rolled up sleeves and bare feet—they walked cautiously down the stairs and through the darkened rooms of the house to the garden. In the silence, Edie’s mind replayed the conversation over and over, catching on the quiet, knowing kindness of his words. It’s you, talking to yourself about yourself. None of it’s true. Took me a long time to learn that. The garden was washed in grey moonlight, heavy with the scent of summer flowers. She led the way to a bench tucked away in a back corner, out of sight from the house.

            “I’ve never said any of that to anyone.” Why had she said it to Tommy, then? She still didn’t know the answer entirely. “I never thought my friends would understand, and it sounded so stupid out loud. But what if I really can’t do this? The business? I don’t have a head for numbers, don’t know anything about it. I have my grandfather’s solicitors right now, but how long can I trust them? You must think I’m just a silly little girl, crying over maths that I didn’t learn in school.”

            “D’you know who does my books for me?” She shook her head. “Polly. She didn’t go to school for fucking maths, either. You can learn it. Tonight at dinner you showed me you understand the hardest part of any business.”

            “What’s that?”

            “People like you. They’ll do what you want because you know how to ask them. That’s harder than a fucking spreadsheet.”

            “People like you, too, and they liked my grandfather, but there’s a lot more to business.”

            “People are afraid of me. That’s a very different thing. Your way’s easier sometimes.”

            Edie took a deep breath. With the solid presence of Tommy beside her on the bench, she felt braver than she had since her grandfather’s death. Like it was the first time she wasn’t hiding away or pretending at happiness. There were so many things she’d been thinking about, had even tried to say to her friends once or twice, that she'd been afraid no one would understand.

            “I know I could hire someone to do all this, or take Mary’s advice and ‘find myself a husband to worry about the finances,’ but I don’t want to. This is my grandfather’s legacy, and my father’s and my uncle’s and Georgie’s. I feel like I owe them more than that.”

            Tommy studied her face, let out a long breath, and stood. He held out a hand to her and she accepted it. She was grateful, after all her tears, for the stoicism that came so easily to him. She guessed that most people likely thought him cold because of it, but to her it was calming Her mind went again to those moments on the track at Epsom, his silent decisiveness, the way the men around them had snapped to attention at his words.

            “Come on,” he said. “Come to bed and I’ll look at every number on those sheets with you tomorrow. You’ll be able to run circles around those fucking solicitors of yours.”

            “Not much of a Sunday morning.”

            “The company won’t be so bad.”

            She let him lead the way upstairs, switch off the lamp, and gather the papers from the coverlet. He stacked them on the nightstand on his side of the bed, and the sight of his glasses folded tidily atop the pile made her smile. She tucked that away alongside the memory of Tommy offering his arm as they walked down the stairs to greet their guests, the memory of folding the pale blue pocket square into place, the memory of his eyes catching hers across the dining room in a private joke—then fell asleep, easily and into complete darkness.

Chapter Text

Tommy woke again to an empty bed the next morning, blinking away the confusion of his unfamiliar surroundings. Edie had clearly been awake for some time; the curtains had been drawn back to reveal an uncharacteristically blue London sky, and the makeup she’d left scattered on her vanity the night before was tidily arranged on its tray. He was wide awake and, based on Edie’s comments, couldn’t very well wander around the house under the watchful gaze of her gossipy maids. When his eyes fell on the stack of papers beside the bed, they seemed like the perfect distraction.

            After three pages or so, it became clear that Edie hadn’t been exaggerating about the post-war profits of Hughes Steel. He’d thought the Shelby Company Limited was making a lot of money, but there was money and then there was fucking rich. After a few more pages, it also became clear that Edith Hughes could be dramatically richer if she were to use that money a little more daringly. While the solicitors she’d mentioned weren’t actively cheating her, they were playing things safe. Maybe even being a little lazy. Not their business, not their problem, Tommy supposed. Then again, he had never been the kind of man who could leave so much as a shilling on the table.

            Would Edie want that, though? He thought back to the previous night and the sorrow in her voice when she’d talked about her family business. In some regards, it was hard to understand the depth of her sadness. From the outside, she seemed to have everything; a glittering circle of friends, more money than she could spend in a lifetime, the kind of freedom most girls of her age and class could only dream of. But then Tommy thought about how hard it had been to lose one brother. He couldn’t imagine, especially at nineteen, having no family at all.

            He was lost in thought, the papers held in slack hands, when Edie opened the door. She looked fresh and bright in a pale blue dressing gown, her hair combed out smooth and all traces of last night’s tears vanished. Tommy wondered if the quiet erasure of any untoward emotions was something you learned at a ladies’ boarding school.

            “Good morning. I just popped down the hall to make the guest bed look slept in.” She glanced down at the papers in his lap. “You didn’t really have to look at those first thing, you know. Can I get you something first? Coffee? Tea? Toast?”

            Tommy shook his head, waving her off. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten breakfast.

            “You’ve played hostess more than enough for me this weekend. Come and have a look.”

            Edie settled herself next to him on the bed, her silk sleeve pressed against his bare shoulder and her ankles crossed primly atop the covers. She seemed in such good spirits that Tommy thought it best to avoid any mention of last night’s conversation for the moment. He flipped back to the first page in the stack.

            “Ready for the most boring conversation you’ve ever had in bed?”

           

            As he’d predicted, Edie was a quick study. She asked good questions and scribbled little notes with a silver pencil she produced from somewhere beneath the overflowing pile of books on her nightstand. By the time they reached the last page, Tommy concluded that he’d never spent a more pleasant hour looking at spreadsheets.

            “Thank you, really,” she said once they’d put the stack of papers aside. “You didn’t have to do all this.”

            “Compared to the fact that you may have solved my biggest export problems in a single dinner, tallying up a few numbers doesn’t seem so substantial.”

            “I mean it. And anyway, you ought to prepare yourself for approximately five hundred more questions after my meeting.” She stretched, sleeves falling back to reveal slender wrists. “What are your plans for today? It’s Sunday morning, but I don’t take you as a churchgoer.”

            “Not my kind of Sunday.” He paused, unsure how to frame the next admission. “Afraid I have some business this afternoon.” 

            Edie flicked her eyebrows up in question. “Going to see a man about a horse?”

            Tommy stood, gathering up last night’s clothes and starting to dress. “Going to see a man about a warehouse full of rum.”

            He hoped she wouldn’t read his exit the wrong way—that he was ducking out after their conversation the night before. In truth, he’d spent the better part of the previous afternoon on the phone with Arthur and Polly, talking through a plan. With the export license in the works (he didn’t let himself go too far into the mechanics of that with the pair of them, not yet), he wanted to make a move on the Camden operation as soon as possible. Take advantage of the chaos surrounding Ollie and the lack of direction that Alfie’s unfilled space left behind. Who knew how long they would have until someone else saw the opportunity for a takeover? Ricca had said the Mafia would stay out of London business, but only an idiot would actually trust that promise.

            The sooner they could solidify things, the better. That had been his argument to Arthur and Pol. His brother, never one to shy away from a bit of action, had suggested coming to London with a truck full of Blinders and threatening Ollie into submission. Polly, infinitely more cautious, had forced him to call back three times while she ran numbers and weighed the potential of taking on Solomons’ debts. In the end, they’d reached a middle ground. Arthur would come to London with Johnny Dogs and two other men as backup, and they’d call a meeting with Ollie to lay the groundwork for, as Polly tactfully phrased it, “a transition.”

            “I take it you’re feeling a lot more confident about that export license after dinner last night,” Edie said.

            Exactly what he should have expected: a diplomatic joke that prevented him from understanding anything about how she actually felt.

            “I’m being a fucking terrible guest, eh?”

            “Quite the opposite. You’ve spared me the embarrassment of being a terrible host. Claire and Pippa would pitch a fit if I came to town and didn’t see them, so I’ve promised them lunch and shopping today. But I did take one small liberty.”

            “Other than the ones you took yesterday evening?”

            “Mr. Shelby, that’s no way for a Member of Parliament to talk to a lady.”

            “I told you I was too rough.”

            “Prove it later. After dinner. Eight-thirty at Kettner’s. I rang up and booked us a table, if you’ll join me.”

            He’d heard that name bandied around by the young men who worked in the offices at Parliament. Generally the sons of other MPs, who spent more time slouching louchely through the corridors and conducting lazy conversations than doing any actual work. He wondered if the whole place would be a replay of the hunting party, with him as the obvious odd man out in a room full of socialites. Edie was watching him closely, clearly trying to read his hesitation.

            “If you’re going to start playing the politics game, you’ve got to be seen out in the city. No more hiding away in Warwickshire.”

            Fast as a whip, wasn’t she? As soon as she said it—as little as he liked to hear it—he knew she was right. He was already stretched thin, but was there a time when he hadn’t been since coming home from France? If anything, his brief “retirement” had taught him that, perversely, he enjoyed things that way.

            “Eight-thirty, then,” he said, shrugging on his shirt.

            Edie hopped off the bed and crossed the room rapidly. As she poked her head into the hallway, Tommy wondered again if her excitable energy this morning was calculated to balance out the night before.

            “Coast is clear, no maids in sight.” She waved him out the door. “See you tonight.”

 

            Arthur showed up miraculously on time with Johnny Dogs and two other men crammed into the back of his car. He leaned out the window as Tommy climbed into the passenger seat, taking in the imposing marble façade of Edie’s townhouse and the neighboring homes.

            “You planning to explain why I’m picking you up here and not at The Savoy?” Arthur asked, lips clamped around a cigarette. “Who the fuck lives here?”

            Tommy was silent a moment, lighting his own cigarette. Of course, Arthur would ask; he’d expected that. He’d weighed his options carefully when it came to the matter of the export license, and thought it might be best to ease his brother into the plan first. Polly would be the toughest sell on allowing any outsider even a hint of involvement in the family business, but if he could get Arthur on his side, he might have a chance.

            “Edith Hughes.”

            “That posh girl from over the hill?” His brother looked up at the grand exterior of the house again and whistled between his teeth. “I knew she was fuckin’ rich, but you might’ve mentioned that she’s the Queen of fuckin’ England.”

            “I have a plan.”

            “There’s a fuckin’ famous Tommy Shelby phrase, boys.” Arthur craned his head back to catch the eyes of the men behind them.

            “She has government connections—legitimate ones—that we’ll need if this Camden shit is going to come to anything.”

            “And getting under her skirt is just a fringe benefit, eh?”

            “There won’t be any benefits if we don’t get to this meeting with Ollie,” Tommy pulled out his watch and checked the time. “Let’s go. We’ll stop at the club for a drink after and I’ll tell you the rest.”

            “Here’s what you can tell me,” Arthur said, grinning as they pulled away from the house. “How is it that a miserable bastard like yourself manages to fuck every rich, beautiful bird who crosses your path?”

            “Fuck off, Arthur.”

            “There’s your answer,” Johnny called from the backseat. “It’s his winning personality, ain’t it?”

            Tommy leaned back against his seat, a plume of smoke escaping slowly from his lips. It was going to be a long ride to Camden.

 

            Another day in London, another tense and unproductive meeting with Oliver Weiss. About halfway through their conversation, Tommy started to wonder if it might be easier to just shoot Ollie and toss his body into Camden Lock. If nothing else, that would be a definitive statement about who was running this operation from now on. Judging from Arthur’s increasingly tense posture in the chair beside him, he suspected his brother was having similar thoughts.

            “Look,” he said, taking a measured breath. “The deal we’re offering you is exceptionally fair, and it won’t stay that way. We’ll take on all of Alfie’s debts and buy out your share of the operation. All you have to do is get the fuck out of London.”

            “I’m not interested in being bought out. What the fuck is wrong with the partnership we’ve had for years?”

            “What’s fuckin’ wrong is that within a year of Solomons dying, the goddamn Mafia shows up beatin’ down our doors,” Arthur cut in, voice rising. “We’ve already lost one Shelby to those fuckin’ Italians without your help, Weiss.”

            His brother leaned forward, preparing to stand, and Tommy could hear the low rustle of movement from Johnny and the men stationed behind them. He put a hand out.

            “Arthur, boys. What Ollie needs to understand—” He leveled his eyes across the desk at the other man. “What you need to understand is that I’m not talking about an ‘if’ proposition, I’m talking about a ‘when.’ When we take over this operation, you can either take the money I’m offering and fuck off to New York, or Paris, or fucking Hong Kong for all I care. Or you can get acquainted with a bullet and the bottom of the canal out back. Me, I’d take the money, especially if I was as shit at being a gangster as you are.”

            Ollie’s jaw tensed, but he stayed in his seat. “Big words from a man who spends more time faffing around in Whitehall than anything else these days.”

            The weight of Tommy’s gun felt more apparent than ever against his side, the temptation to pull it rising by the second. He stood instead, slipping his hands into his pockets as he pushed his chair back. Arthur followed suit. There was no point in letting himself get drawn into another argument with Ollie. Sometimes fewer words made a bigger impact.

            “Think about which one of us has a seat in Parliament and which one of us has a burned down warehouse and debts up to his fucking eyes. Think about my offer. You have until Friday to give me your decision, then Arthur and the lads here will be back with an alternative solution.”

           

            “You know it’s half three, right?” Arthur said when Tommy directed the car to the Eden Club from Camden.

            “I think they’ll open up the bar for us.”    

            They did, of course. The club was a surprising flurry of activity inside; men unloading crates of liquor, waiters polishing tables, a little clutch of dancing girls practicing the night’s routine on the unlit stage. Arthur and Tommy pulled two of the upside-down stools off the bar while Johnny and his boys made largely thwarted attempts to catch the girls’ attention.

            “Am I going to have to come back down here and shoot Oliver Weiss this weekend?” Arthur said, rifling behind the bar for a bottle of whiskey.

            “He’ll come around. Even if he doesn't want to be bought out, he’s still a fucking coward who wants to live past Friday.”

            “More importantly,” Arthur added as he came around the bar and settled onto a stool. “Are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on with that Hughes girl?”

            “You can’t bring this up to Pol yet, all right?” Tommy paused until his brother nodded. “I told you she’s got government connections—old family friends—that could set us up for the liquor export license we need to get our shipments into Canada legally.”

            Arthur perked up. “The license we’ve been trying to get for fuckin’ years?”

            Tommy nodded. “I was at a dinner last night at the Hughes house with the Deputy Minister of Trade, and I have another meeting with him tomorrow.”

            “Ain’t you posh these days. And why would you not tell Pol this fuckin’ fantastic news?”

            “Because you know how she feels about family business going outside the family. Without that license in my hand or even an agreement from Ollie, you know how she’s going to react. Especially if she hears Edie is involved.”

            “It’s Edie now, is it?”

            Tommy sighed and tossed back the last of his drink. “The point is, she’s gotten us further toward a legitimate license than we’ve ever been. Keep it under wraps a few more days.”

            Arthur was quiet a moment, topping off their glasses. When he spoke again, he was more serious.

            “You could do worse than a girl like that, Tom. Export license or no.”

            “Arthur—”

            “All I’m saying is, you ain’t exactly been a ray of sunshine since you became an MP and all that. You know how marryin’ Linda made a change for me—”

            “You’re as bad as Ada. No one is getting fucking married, and how would you know if I could do worse, anyway? The only time you met her was when you waved a fucking shotgun in her face.”

            Tommy stood, flipping his stool back into place on the bar. He pulled out his wallet and dropped a thick bundle of notes in front of his brother.

            “Anyway, I tried that with Grace and I don’t make the same mistake twice. Take the boys out on me tonight and stay in the city. I’ll ring when I hear from Ollie.”

           

           

            The house on Eaton Square was quiet when he returned. Miss Edith is still out with her friends, sir, was the report from a mousy maid who met him at the door. He wiled away some time in putting on a new suit—all his clothes had been freshly pressed and hung in his bedroom, no detail too small in a house run by Edith Hughes—and slicking back his hair where it had been flattened by his cap. He hesitated briefly before sliding his pistol into the holster under his jacket. Ollie’s unreceptive response to their meeting made him wary of going out in London, even in a place like Kettner’s. 

            Back downstairs, he wandered into the office for a brief call with Michael; no surprises at the weekend’s races, thankfully. Afterward, he stayed at the desk, smoking absently and looking at a small collection of tarnished silver frames displayed along the back edge. Most of the photographs inside contained unfamiliar faces, but he picked out a few younger versions of Edie from the crowd. A formal portrait with a boy and a woman who both shared the long, solemn line of her nose—clearly her mother and brother. Edie as a little girl perched atop a shaggy pony, her hair long and curled in a style that felt impossibly old-fashioned compared to her sleek bob. One of her in all white, arm in arm with a beaming old man who leaned heavily on a cane. Her grandfather?

            He was leaning in for a closer look when Edie herself burst through the office door. Both of her arms were laden with an eye-popping quantity of shopping bags.

            “Did you leave anything in Harrods?”

            “First off, we went to Liberty,” Edie shook the bags in one hand to emphasize her point. “And second, I can’t very well show up to Kettner’s in one of last year’s dresses. Speaking of, I look an awful mess and it’s so late already—”

            With that, she darted up the stairs in a rustle of bags. Her buoyant good mood carried through to their arrival at the restaurant, where it became abundantly clear that Edie knew every person in London. It took them fifteen minutes to get from the door to their table as she stopped to chat with everyone from the maitre d’ to a cluster of opulently-dressed young men and women at the bar. Tommy was as amused as ever by her prim and proper introductions—Mr. Thomas Shelby, my neighbor in Warwickshire—but he couldn’t put aside the question that had been nagging him since dinner the night before. Once they’d settled into their seats, he had to ask it.

            “Don’t you worry about going around town with me?”

            Edie looked at him thoughtfully, a coupe of champagne held loosely in one graceful hand. Even in the bustle and glamor of the room, she stood out, crackling with energy and alive with rich colors—deep brown hair, vermilion lipstick, a slinky dress in vivid sapphire.

            “What do you mean?”

            “A known criminal who’s old enough to be your father, is what I mean.”

            “You’re asking if I’m worried that people will talk.”

            He nodded.

            “People will talk no matter what I do. When my grandfather was ill, I went out every night and people talked. After he died, I shut myself up in my house and people talked. People talk.”

            “You might find out they don’t have good things to say about me.”

            “What I told you last night—do you want to know the only good thing about being alone like I am? I don’t have to be afraid to do what I want. If I want to spend my whole summer in the country, I can. If I want to show up for dinner at Kettner’s with a ‘known criminal,’ the worst thing people can do is talk about me. And—” she leaned in, lips close to his ear— “if I want to ask you to take me home and fuck me after dinner, there’s no one to tell me no.”

            That, Tommy had to admit, was a hard argument to counter. Edie sat back in her seat, a sly grin turning up the corners of her mouth.

            “We both have big, serious meetings tomorrow—have a little fun with me tonight, Tommy.”

 

            They did have a little fun, more than a little if Tommy was being honest with himself. The Kettner’s staff was nothing if not diligent when to came to keeping their glasses full, and Edie convinced him to dance with her as the hour grew late and a band came on. But weaving their way through the crush of dinner jackets and bright silk summer dresses, he couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder and through the crowd. Couldn’t help looking for trouble, scanning for men who looked like Luca Changretta or Ollie Weiss at the edges of the room. Couldn’t help reaching into his jacket when Edie wasn’t watching to check that his pistol was still in place. Couldn’t help thinking of a time he’d danced with Grace like this and seen everything shatter, like one of Edie’s delicate champagne coupes dashed against a stone floor.

Chapter Text

Edie had left every previous meeting with her grandfather’s solicitors feeling like an utter fool—young, unprepared, glaringly inexperienced. Some of those feelings lingered when she left their offices Monday afternoon; a couple of hours looking at finances with Tommy certainly hadn’t turned her into an expert. But she’d also felt pleased, and even a bit clever, when she was able to offer something more to the conversation than her usual poorly informed questions.

            The business was making money—even she had been able to see that without Tommy’s help—but the news wasn’t all good. The solicitors warned her that more strikes were likely to start across the whole of England in the months ahead. They come in waves, one of the men had observed, and workers up north are getting notions. May not be long before the Home Counties follow suit. They had all parted ways with a promise to think of solutions and reconvene in the coming weeks. Not that Edie had any brilliant ideas when it came to preventing strikes. Maybe she could ask Tommy.

            That, in itself, was another problem that she had to sort out. The afternoon was pleasant and the meeting had ended early, so she decided to take the long walk home through St. James’s Park and give herself time to think. Not just about the business and the strikes, but about what she was doing with Tommy, really. What he was doing with her.

            There was absolutely no denying the attraction between them. More than that, there was no ignoring the fact that it went beyond the superficial. He’d trusted her enough to tell her the truth about who he was, and she’d said things to him about her family that she’d never said to anyone. The easiness between them felt more apparent than ever after this weekend in London, and that was something she yearned for after the isolation of her recent years.

            But there were other matters, too. What she’d said the night before was true—people would talk. People were, already. Fiona had rung the house after lunch with the chipper greeting: “I heard from Harry’s cousin that you were dancing with a handsome stranger at Kettner’s last night.” She didn’t care about that; as she’d told Tommy, she had no one to answer to. At the moment, however, she didn’t have a good reply to any questions about herself and Thomas Shelby. He took her to dinner, gave her business advice, slept in her bed, came to her parties, named a bloody racehorse after her, but if pressed to put a title on their relationship, she couldn’t have answered.

            In spite of how much she enjoyed Tommy’s company—and thought he enjoyed hers—there was a tension beneath the surface of him that she couldn’t gloss over. His half-joking comments about their difference in age, the stiff way he held his shoulders when she caught him behind his desk or on the telephone, the obvious weight and shape of a pistol that she’d felt against his side when she tucked her arm through his as they left Kettner’s. Even as they’d danced the night before, she’d looked up and found his eyes distant, a hard set to his jaw as he scanned the packed room for something she couldn’t see.

            None of that tension was apparent, however, when she arrived at Eaton Square. Tommy sauntered into the entryway as she closed the door, hands in his pockets and a grin plucking up lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth.

            “Three guesses who you’re looking at.”

            Where had this good mood come from? She smiled as she unpinned her hat and slipped off her gloves.

            “Mr. Thomas Shelby, OBE, MP?”

            A slightly wider grin; a subtle flash of teeth. “Try again.”

            Edie pursed her lips together in mock concentration. “The most handsome member of Parliament?”

            “I didn’t say you should lie.”

            “A man who’s utterly incapable of accepting compliments?”

            “Beside the point.”

            “Well?” Edie asked, finding herself hopelessly charmed by this previously unseen playful version of Tommy.

            “The newest member of the Committee on Colonial Trade. And, in a few days, the owner of one Canadian liquor export license.”

            Edie spun, delighted, from the rack where she’d been hanging her hat. “No! That quickly? How did you talk old Morrison into it?”

            “To start, he asked for a bottle of gin and I brought him a case. I also let him rattle on for a fucking hour about cars, and didn’t bring up the fact that I have a Labour seat. But, he made it very clear in the end that he was only agreeing to any of this as a favor to you—” he caught Edie around the waist with one arm, the toes of her shoes slipping across the polished marble as he pulled her toward him—“which means I’m taking you out to celebrate.”

            “Are you now? And what if I had plans tonight?”

            She could still feel the stretch of the smile on Tommy’s lips when he leaned down to kiss her. “Cancel them.”

           

            Edie made herself push down her worries as she dressed for the evening. At any rate, they paled in comparison to Tommy’s rare sunny mood. She’d left him in the downstairs sitting room, looking content with a tumbler of gin, as she rushed her maid through styling her hair and ironing the dress she’d chosen for the night. Too impatient to sit at the mirror a moment longer, she fastened her earrings (delicate confections of platinum and sapphires that had been her grandmother’s) as she trotted down the stairs.

            She hadn’t felt the giddy thrill that came at the start of a night out, its conclusion unknown, in a long time. The look Tommy gave her when she rounded the corner into the sitting room—a languid, shameless climb from the slender straps of her shoes all the way to the waves of her hair—did nothing to calm the flutter under her ribs. She could have stayed like that all night, watching him watch her, charting the shifting blue of his eyes under heavy lashes. Tommy, it seemed, had other ideas, pushing up from his chair and stubbing out his cigarette.

            “Where are we going tonight, anyhow?” she asked as he crossed the carpet.

            “First, we’re going to my club to drink the best bottle of champagne in the place. Then you’re going to have to suffer through another evening of dancing with me. And then I’m taking you to The Savoy, where none of your fucking maids will be able to hear us.”

            Edie reached up and smoothed a ripple in his tie, hand lingering just below the knot.

            “I do like a man with a good plan.”

           

            As they got out of the car a little later, Edie realized she still didn’t know where they were going—and she’d overlooked the phrase ‘my club’ in their previous conversation. She paused in surprise when she saw the marquee over the door of their destination.

            “You own the Eden Club?”

            Tommy nodded. “The Shelby Company Limited does, if you want to be official about it.”

            “How is it that I never saw you here?”

            “You’ve been here?” Tommy said, eyebrows flicking up skeptically.

            “Once or twice.” His eyebrows inched upward a bit more. “I led a wilder life in my youth, you know.”   

            That comment earned her an eye roll as they entered the club, weaving through the crush of well-dressed patrons toward the bar. The deferential looks and nods they got as they passed through the crowd reminded Edie of Epsom once again; apparently, Tommy’s reputation extended farther beyond Birmingham than she’d imagined. A young bartender with slicked-back dark hair cut away from another group of customers as soon as they reached the bar.

            “Evening, Mr. Shelby. Your usual, and something for the lady?”

            “Champagne tonight. We’re celebrating.”

            “What’s the occasion, sir?”

            “Good business. Good enough to toast with the best bottle in the house.”

            The bartender nodded smartly. “Be right back with it, Mr. Shelby.”

            Tommy inclined his head away from the bar. “Bring it to my table, eh?”

            “Yes, sir.”       

            Tommy offered his arm as they snaked through the crowd once again, leading her to a rounded booth that commanded a view of the room. Her eyes flicked across the dance floor as she slid over the plush velvet of the seat. Tommy was following suit when a bellowing voice cut over the sound of the band.

            “Oi, Tommy!”

            Based on the reactions of the people they’d encountered here so far, Edie wasn’t sure who would have the courage (or lack the common sense) to greet Tommy like that. She quickly got her answer when his brother squeezed through two women in heavily embellished evening dresses and flung himself into the seat beside Tommy.

            “Hullo, Arthur.” Tommy looked equal parts annoyed and bemused by his brother’s sudden appearance. “You remember Edith Hughes.”

            “The Queen ‘erself.”

            Edie blinked in confusion at the unorthodox greeting. Tommy’s jaw tightened as he turned toward his brother, and she only half heard him mutter a few phrases in another language, something she didn't recognize filled with hard consonants. Whatever he’d said made Arthur straighten up and nod her way, brushing a few stray pieces of hair off his forehead.

            “Good to see you again, Miss Hughes.”

            “Edie, please,” she replied, eyes flicking between the brothers in amusement. “And I promise I haven’t been trespassing in your absence.”

            Arthur barked out a raspy laugh and Edie couldn’t help but catalog the befuddling differences between Tommy and his brother. They were such a mismatched pair; Arthur demonstrative where Tommy was tightly coiled, his voice brash where Tommy’s was hushed, his features craggy where Tommy’s were elegantly angled. She found one similarity in the gunmetal flash of a pistol below Arthur’s well-cut jacket as he settled into the booth and turned to his brother.

            “Didn’t know you were coming out tonight, Tom. Would’ve made sure Johnny’s boys were here.” He slouched back, lighting a cigarette and offering one to Edie. She waved it away with a murmur of thanks.

            “No need,” Tommy said. “I won’t be here long.”

            Below the table, Tommy’s fingers found the hem of her skirt and brushed under it, catching against the slick surface of her stocking. A hot little thrill raced up from his fingertips to her core and she kept her eyes carefully focused on middle distance in the crowd. The arrival of the bartender with a champagne bucket, two glasses, and a respectful nod for Arthur proved a welcome distraction.

            “Another glass, Mr. Shelby?”

            Tommy shook his head. “My brother’s not staying.”

            There was a quick exchange of pointed glances between the two Shelbys as the barman opened the bottle with a graceful flourish and tucked it neatly into the bucket of glistening ice. Arthur spoke when they were alone again.

            “Not stayin’, am I now?”

            “Not tonight. You ought to be keeping an eye on Johnny’s lot—where are they?”

            “Boxing match out in Hoxton.”

            “You’re not one to miss a fight.”     

            Arthur huffed out a breath. “Told Linda I’d behave myself this week, didn’t I?”

            Tommy’s eyes flicked around the club then settled back on his brother. His hand hadn’t moved from Edie’s knee, fingers tracing tiny, maddening circles there.

            “This doesn’t seem like a better place for behaving yourself.” He glanced at his watch. “No chance that match has started yet. Get the fuck out of here and go to Hoxton. I won’t tell Linda, eh?”

            “All right, all right, I know when I’m bein’ shoved off.” Arthur stubbed out his cigarette and glanced across the table at Edie. “No manners, my brother.” He stood, lingering to lean on the top of the booth with a gesture at the champagne bucket. “What’s all this for, anyway?”

            “Toasting good business. Family meeting Thursday night—I’ll tell you and Pol all about it.”

            “And Weiss?”

            “Nothing yet, but keep Johnny and the boys ready.”

            “Always do.” Arthur gave Edie a little nod and a grin. “Good seein’ you again, apologies for that shotgun business, yeah? Enjoy the evenin’ as much as you can with this miserable fucker.”

            A surprised laugh slipped past Edie’s lips before she could stop it. Below Tommy’s disapproving frown, she was sure she spotted a hint of amusement at the corners of his mouth, too.

            “Thursday night, Arthur!” he called toward his brother’s retreating back before picking up the bottle to top off their glasses. “Sorry about that.”

            “He could have stayed for a drink, I wouldn’t mind.”

            Tommy turned toward her and she caught the darkness of his eyes as his voice dropped, the hand on her leg straying upward to find the bare skin between stocking and garter.

            “I mind.” He faced back out toward the crowd, his expression a relaxed counterpoint to his next words. “Haven’t got the time for Arthur right now. With you looking like you do tonight, I’m trying to finish this champagne and get the fuck out of here sooner rather than later.”

            Edie put her glass to her lips, the cool beads of condensation a pleasant contrast to the flush rising on her skin.

            “Let’s get started, then.”

 

            After a few glasses of champagne and one abbreviated dance, Tommy holding her closer than was strictly appropriate, Edie found herself in the back seat of a black Rolls Royce driven by a man in a flat cap—clearly another of Tommy and Arthur’s “boys.” The late-night streets were quiet, almost hushed in the still, humid summer air, and they made it to The Savoy in record time.

            Tommy led the way upstairs, shucking his coat and loosening his tie in the elevator, and kissed her as soon as they’d closed the door to the suite, tongue snaking hot and quick between her lips. She could feel his cock, fully hard already, pressed against her through the filmy fabric of her dress. When she reached downward he caught her wrists, holding one tight in each hand as his mouth left hers and trailed down her neck.

            “Thought about nothing but fucking you since the minute we walked out the door tonight.”

            Her breath hitched as he caught one slender strap of her dress in his teeth and pulled it over the point of her shoulder. The neckline was heavily beaded and slid easily downward, exposing her breast to the warm night air. His mouth found her nipple, teeth grazing over the sensitive skin, and she let her eyes fall shut. She tugged against his hands, wanting to shed the dress entirely, but his fingers stayed tight around her wrists.

            “Would’ve bent you over the bar and had you right there if I could.” His voice was rough, breath like a ghostly touch on her skin.

            “It’s your club, why didn’t—” Her smart remark was cut short when he finally dropped her wrists, slipping a free hand up her skirt and under the lace of her panties, tracing a finger at her entrance. “Jesus, Tommy, please—”

            They hadn’t bothered to turn any lights on and his eyes looked near-black in the moonlight when he raised his face to hers and kissed her, biting at her bottom lip.

            “Please what?” His hands slid upward, molded against the curves of her thighs, her hips, her ribs. She’d never felt more hopelessly inarticulate, more desperate for his touch. “Want me to be rough with you, eh?”

            She couldn’t even get the words out, barely managed a dreamy nod, as intoxicated by this version of Tommy as she had been by his jovial mood earlier. He caught her wrists again, both in one hand at the base of her spine, and walked her backward across the room. His tongue darted across his bottom lip when he let her hands go and spun her around to face the bed.

            “Bend over.”

            She did, leaning her elbows on the coverlet and listening to the impatient rustle of his pants being undone, his shirt falling to the floor. The catch of his breath when she arched her back and shimmied her skirt up was gratifying, quickly followed by the brush of his palms on her hips as he tugged her underwear down to her knees. His fingers traced across her skin, dipped between her legs, slid tantalizingly inside her for all too short a moment before disappearing. One of her heels was pushed sideways by the toe of his shoe, spreading her legs apart, and then he was slipping inside her, the sudden sensation of his cock so intense that she stifled a curse into the mattress.

            There was no preamble to the sharp thrusts of his hips, none of the seemingly endless, almost infuriating patience he’d displayed the other night. And that, Edie found to her own surprise, was what she’d been waiting for. What she expected—what she wanted. To see some private permutation of the Tommy Shelby who held control of things, the side of him that so clearly commanded respect. To feel the strength of the tightly wound muscles hidden below those sharp suits as she did now, when his hands found the bend of her waist and pulled her back toward him. She let herself get lost in the feeling, hardly noticing that she’d slid a hand between her own legs until Tommy caught it and pinned it down beside her.

            “Is this what you want?”

            His fingers replaced hers, finding the center of her, the pressure intensified by the weight of her body trapping his hand between her and the bed. She rolled her hips down, seeking out more, teetering on the edge of climax. It was the feel of his other hand, tightening around her wrist hard to toe the line between pleasure and pain, that pushed her over, her body stiffening and rocking back against him.

           As she blinked away the pink afterglow behind closed eyelids, his hands fell back to her hips, fingers digging in where the bone lay close to the surface. Tommy's skin was slick with sweat when it brushed hers, bringing with it the smell of leather and smoke and the spicy tang of his cologne. His voice, low and gravelly, cut across the hush of the room

            “Fuck, you feel so fucking good—Jesus fucking Christ, Edie—”

            She turned her head at the sound of her name being said like that and caught a glimpse of his forearm, corded with muscle, as he leaned forward, bending over her toward the mattress. He pulled out with a strangled catch of breath, the yearning sensation of emptiness followed by sudden heat as he came, spilling across the bare skin of her back. She was still, listening to his uneven breathing, as he leaned down and swept her hair off her face.

            “Don’t move, eh?”

            She followed the sound of his footsteps across the carpet and onto the tile in the bathroom. There was the rush of a tap being turned on, then his footsteps returning. He brushed a cool cloth across her skin before helping her shrug carefully out of the dress and lay it across the bed. She could still hear running water and tilted her head curiously.

            “Drew a cold bath,” Tommy explained, brushing his hair back where it had fallen across his sweaty forehead. “Wouldn’t say no to a bit of company.”

            Edie, suddenly realizing how hot the room had gotten in the heavy summer air, followed him happily into the bathroom. They lounged for a time in the cool water, backs against opposite ends of the tub and knees bumping together, then threw the windows open and folded back all but a thin sheet on the bed. The clean cotton felt deliciously fresh as Edie slid below it, turning to look at Tommy. The faint glow of the streetlights outside filtered through the billowing curtains, catching the strands of silver in his dark hair. He reached out and traced the angle of her jaw with two fingers, eyelids dipping sleepily toward the crests of his cheekbones.

            “How about you read me something, eh?”

            She laughed softly. “I don’t always have a book on hand.”

            “Do you know any by heart, then?”

            “Maybe one or two, let me think.”

            She shifted onto her back and closed her eyes momentarily, casting back to her school days. What had they learned by rote? Shakespeare, too impenetrable. Wordsworth, too trite. Her mind drifted again to the dark, changeable blue of Tommy’s eyes in the dim room and a line materialized.

            “The sea is calm tonight,” she began, trying to organize the words in her mind. “The tide is full, the moon lies fair upon the straits…” 

            Tommy’s eyes drifted shut halfway through the second stanza, chest rising evenly in the dappled shadows of the shifting curtains. Edie continued almost to the end, though, until she remembered the final lines of the poem and found she didn’t want to speak them out loud. Not here, with her own eyes heavy and Tommy so peaceful beside her.

            “For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new…”

            Best to stop there, and dream, wasn’t it?

Chapter Text

            After another soporific gathering of the Committee for Veteran’s Pensions, Tommy drove them out of the city and north, Edie’s airy patter of conversation passing the time easily all the way to Warwickshire. He’d spent most of the committee meeting thinking about what he’d do if Ollie didn’t agree to his proposition. Actually shoot him, he supposed. Have Arthur shoot him. The business of shooting people had been significantly less complicated in the old days, when none of the parties involved were quite as important.

            As he carried Edie's bags up the wide steps of the house, Tommy thought about just continuing forward, through the doorway, across the front hall scattered with her boots and jackets and hats, up the stairs to the bedroom that smelled like dusty books and fresh laundry and her perfume. Only a few steps and he could spend one more night forgetting about his desk stacked with neglected papers at Arrow House, his ringing phone, the sound of the picks and shovels that he could always feel poised just behind his walls, even when the sound didn’t come.

            He put her bags down gently outside the door. That train of thought was foolish, childish, unproductive. London had been a diverting opportunity to play at being a gentleman, but now he had to face what was real. Edie paused with one hand on the doorknob, squinting past him at the sun dropping over the horizon where the stone wall divided their fields.

            “I’ll see you. Charlie’s lesson on Friday? Or whenever, you certainly know where to find me.” She paused. “Thank you for everything, Tommy.”

            She leaned forward and kissed him, a chaste brush of lips, her fingertips in prim white driving gloves coming up to rest on his cheek. Her skin glowed faintly gold in the light of sunset when she pulled away.

            “Friday,” Tommy said in agreement. He felt strangely lost for words. A thank you seemed too formal, anything else too sentimental. “Good night, then.”

            He noticed that she waited and watched him drive away, skirt rippling in the soft breeze that kicked up across the open pastures behind the house, and raised a white gloved hand just as he turned the corner down the lane.

 

            He called the family meeting for Thursday at the Birmingham offices. Ada and Lizzie grumbled about the trip up from London, but he held firm. Official business called for an official meeting. They’d been too lax lately, all of them scattered; he was as much to blame as anyone for that. With this new endeavor on the horizon they’d need to present a united front.

            He sat alone behind his desk late that afternoon, listening to the distant whistles of the factories—his factories—and wondering what to do about Ollie. Technically the man had a day left to make his decision, but Tommy’s patience was running out quickly. Finally, he’d called in his secretary; she was young, with hair so blonde it was almost white, and he hadn’t bothered to learn her name yet. You snapped at the last girl too much and she quit, Polly had told him sourly when she’d brought this one around a few weeks ago. He tried to keep that in mind as the new girl poked her head in the door.

            “Yes, Mr. Shelby?”

            “Get Oliver Weiss on the phone for me—Camden Town.”

            “Right away, sir.”

            She patched the call through while it was still ringing—four, five, six times. He was about to hang up when a voice crackled onto the line.

            “Weiss.”

            “Have you come to a decision?”

            “Who is this?” Ollie’s voice had an edgy, uneven quality, but Tommy couldn’t tell if it was just the connection.

            “You know who it is.” He paused to light a cigarette. “Have you come to a decision, or should I send my brother to discuss it with you further?”

            “We agreed to Friday.”

            “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not a particularly patient man. Something you might be accustomed to given your former employer.”

            “Well, I haven’t made up my mind.” Ollie sounded petulant now.

            “Why not think about it now? It’s a simple proposition. Sign over the business, make a little money, get the fuck out of London before Capone’s boys set their sights on you. Or I can send Arthur and a few other men to speak with you tomorrow. How many of Alfie’s men would you say are loyal to you now, considering that you’re likely not paying them either?”

            Silence on the other end of the line, then Ollie’s voice wound up tight, making the receiver crack at the consonants.

            “Fuck off. You don’t know the first thing about my men or loyalty, you fucking gypsy.”        

            “How many would take a bullet for you, Ollie?” Tommy let out a slow breath. “How many could I pay to put a bullet in you, eh?”

            “You fucking son of a bitch. Fuck you and your whole fucking family.” The other man’s voice was rising now; Tommy held the receiver back from his ear.

            “Is that an agreement?” Silence again. “You know you can’t hold on to that operation. I’ll take it from you or someone else will. What I’m giving you is the chance to leave it alive.”

            “I sign over the business and you buy me out?” Ollie’s voice had settled, affectless now. “That it?”

            “And I don’t see your face in London again.”

            “And that.”

            “That’s all.”

            A heavy sigh on the other end of the line. “I’ll sign. I’ll need some time to leave.”

            “Two weeks. I’m being generous. Arthur and the boys will be watching.”

            “How will we do it?”

            “Draw up a bill of sale. Official, no fucking back room shit. I’ll send my lawyer if you don’t have one. Arthur will pick it up. He’ll call you tomorrow night with a location.”

            “Anything else?”

            “He’ll have men with him. Don’t get any fucking ideas about being a gangster.”

            Tommy hung up and leaned back in his chair. He could see figures passing outside the frosted glass of his door—Arthur’s lanky silhouette, Polly’s round-brimmed hat, Michael’s fast-moving walk. There was a rap on the frame and the new secretary ducked in.

            “Meeting in te—”

            “I know.”

            Her eyes went wide and she disappeared in a whirl of white-blonde hair. Maybe he still had some work to do on the snapping.

 

            A few minutes later he stood at the head of the polished boardroom table, looking out at his family. Polly in her place at his right hand; Finn in his new seat; Esme in John’s old chair; Michael at the far end; Arthur, Ada, and Lizzie all freshly arrived from London. When was the last time they’d all been together like this? He shouldn’t have let it go so long.

            “Right.” He took his seat, folding his hands on the cool mahogany. “I’ve called you all here with several announcements. First—” he flicked a finger at Arthur—“you don’t have to shoot Oliver Weiss.”

            His brother barked out a laugh. “Well, there’s a fuckin’ relief. Not that I would have minded so much, he’s always been a right little shit.”

            “As of tomorrow, the Shelby Company Limited will take official ownership of Alfie Solomons’ operation, debts and assets alike. Ada, Arthur will retrieve the bill of sale and bring the acquisition to you for review.”

            Ada rolled her eyes. “Taking over my job now, Tommy? You not busy enough or something?”

            “It was an unorthodox situation, eh? You might remember my trip to Hackney?” He raised his eyebrows at her. “At any rate, a fast move was to our advantage since we’ll want to put our new export license to good use as soon as we can.”

            He paused, watching their faces.

            “All right, I’ll bite,” Ada said. “What export license, Tommy?”

            He told them the full story, starting with Ricca and his men just in case, by some unlikely event, that hadn’t made it through the chain of family gossip. The idea of using Camden as a new base for shipment, the license for Canada, the Committee on Colonial Trade. When he finished, Esme stubbed out her cigarette and stared him down across the table.

            “Am I missing something fucking obvious here? Saw you not two weeks ago and you didn’t breathe a word about colonial trade or Canada or Alfie Solomons’ fucking warehouse full of rum.”

            Polly’s voice cut in beside him. “Exactly how did you go to London for what—four days?—and come back with a license this company hasn’t been able to get in six years of trying?”

            Arthur’s barking laugh sounded again. “With a little help from the Queen of England ‘erself.”

            Oh fuck off, Arthur. Before Tommy could get a word in, Esme and Polly let out a sharp “What?” in unison. Two sets of eyes snapped back from Arthur to Tommy. Polly shot him a withering look.

            “Churchill I can believe, Thomas, but if you’re going to fucking lie then at least—”

            “He’s talking about Edith Hughes.”

            “Edith Hughes?” Polly repeated. Tommy could feel Lizzie’s eyes boring into him along with his aunt’s. If looks were bullets, he thought, he’d be dead ten times over. Maybe twenty. “Little miss hunting party?”

            “You going to hire her on around the office, too?” Lizzie said coolly.

            “What hunting party?” Finn called from the far end of the table

            “What the fuck does she have to do with this?” Polly said, waving Finn’s question away impatiently.

            “All right, everyone.” Tommy tried to keep his voice even. “That’s enough fucking questions, eh? Edith arranged a meeting with a family friend in the Trade Office. Got me in the door for the license and the committee.”

            “And what does she think you’re going to do with the license?” Polly asked.

            “She knows what I do.”

            “She knows what you do?” Polly's voice rose incredulously. “She knows what you fucking do? What the fuck are you talking about?”

            Tommy lit another cigarette, gathering his thoughts. He’d expected this from Polly—deserved it, he knew. Didn’t make it any easier to bear the brunt of her anger, though.

            “She knows about the business, about the liquor, about Ollie. And she agreed to help. I’m saying this to all of you here, officially. She can be trusted.”

            “And you decide that for all of us?” Polly snapped. “What if she fucks off and tells one of her bloody posh friends at her next hunting party? What if she tells her fucking maid, or her sister, or the girl who makes her dresses or—”

            “She hasn’t got anyone to tell, Polly. We’ll speak in my office, all right? The rest of you, we’ve got fucking work to do. Arthur, Ada, Lizzie, back to London tomorrow. Michael, you’ll join them Saturday and start taking stock in the warehouse that’s still standing. Find out the damage to the other one, too. Finn, Esme, not a word about this until it’s finalized. Understood?” He didn’t wait for replies, just turned on his heel toward the office door. “Pol, come on.”

           

            Polly slammed the door behind them so hard that it rattled in its frame. Tommy suspected that if this secretary quit, it might not be entirely his doing.

            “I know you’re angry at me.”

            “Well that’s the fucking understatement of the century, isn’t it?” She paced the floor, shoving chairs aside to clear a path. “I've trusted you. I trusted you when you left me with this whole fucking business and went off to play soldier. Trusted you when you spent every night high as a fucking kite for years. Trusted you with my neck in a fucking noose. But if you want to throw this away for a woman—for a girl, actually—then I’ve reached my limit.”

            “Remember when I told you that people will never forget who we are? I can walk into Parliament every day, I could dig my medals out of the cut and pin them on my suit and remind everyone of what I did in France—but in the end I’m still a fucking gypsy boy from Birmingham, aren’t I? Unless a woman like Edith Hughes says I’m not.”

            Polly stopped pacing and turned to him. He leaned back against his desk, heels of his hands balanced on the edge as he continued.

            “A woman like her knows people that wouldn’t take the time to spit on my shoes.”

            “And why would she bother with you, exactly? Why do you trust her?”

            “She’s a good deal smarter than you think. Tougher than she should be, growing up like that. And she doesn’t need anything from me.”

            “I’ve seen you make stupid decisions for a woman before, Thomas. You’re putting every person in this family on the line with this fucking nonsense.”

            Tommy let his head fall back, let his eyes close for a moment.

            “Meet her. How about that, eh? Meet her and see for yourself—all of you. Come to the house next week for a family dinner. If you don’t trust her, I’ll take it into consideration.”

            “A fucking dinner party? Who do you think you are these days?”

            “Who I need to be for this business now.”

            Polly adjusted her hat and turned toward the door. “Have the dinner Wednesday night. I’ll tell the rest of them.”

            “Pol—no Lizzie, all right?”

            “That’s cruel.”

            He sighed. “Either way it would be.”

 

            On Friday morning, he watched Edie and Charlie from the window of his study as the riding lesson came to a close. As much as Edie dazzled him in her pretty day dresses and spangled gowns, he found that he liked her worn-out riding clothes best. She had an easy, youthful athleticism that showed in the plain jodphurs and boots—swinging Charlie down from the saddle, vaulting up gracefully onto the pony herself to demonstrate a lead change. He waited to walk out until they’d put the pony away and were crossing the lawn together, Charlie’s hand tucked into hers as he babbled about something, pointing out at a cluster of horses in the pasture.

            “Hi Daddy!” Charlie shouted, too impatient to wait until they were close enough to talk. “Miss Edie taught me to post today!”

            “Well that’s grand, eh?” he said as Edie shot him an amused look over his son’s head. “I’ve come out to ask Miss Edie a question, all right? Then you can tell me all about it.”

            He fell into step with the pair of them.

            “You remember Polly, right?” Edie's expression indicated that she couldn’t possibly forget. “She’s asked if you’ll have dinner with us. The family.”

            “Your family?”

            “All of them. Wednesday night, if you’re free.”

            Her face shifted to mild surprise, then the smile returned.        

            “I am, and I’d be delighted to come.”

            Tommy looked out across the fields as he took Charlie’s other hand and continued toward the house.

            “Not sure that’s the word I’d choose for it.”

Chapter Text

After the seventh discarded dress and third rejected hairstyle, Edie knew she was driving Mary and Agnes absolutely mad. She realized that she was being excessively choosy to distract herself from her own nerves about dinner with Tommy’s family, but if she didn’t think about her dress then she’d have to think about the fact that she’d be sitting down with a table full of Shelbys in less than an hour. And if the rest of them were anything like the ones she’d met already, she was about to go through the wringer.

            Tommy, clearly harboring similar concerns, had invited her out for a ride on Monday afternoon to give her a sort of debriefing. His big black horse seemed like an ill omen, which Edie tried to not think about that too deeply as they rode through the cool shade of the woods beyond her fields.

            Perhaps the most alarming thing Tommy revealed was how many Shelbys would be at the dinner. He’d listed a mind-boggling number of names, along with a few pertinent facts about each person.

            Arthur is all right, really. Just a lot of fucking talk. Finn and Michael will mind their manners with me there. Esme is fucking loud but she doesn’t mean any harm. Ada’s slow to warm up but she’s a London girl now herself, you two might have a bit in common. Don’t let her get going on worker’s rights though, God help you then. Polly—Tommy had paused here, face inscrutable under the brim of his cap—Polly is the one to handle carefully. She thinks family business is family business, no exceptions. I’ve told her I trust you, but she needs to decide for herself.

            In light of her brief yet forceful interaction with Polly, Edie didn’t find any of that particularly comforting. When she said as much, Tommy stopped his horse and turned to face her.

            “Listen, I’m not telling you all this about Polly to scare you. I’m telling you so you go in with your eyes open. She’s a tough woman, her patience with me is short most of the time, and she doesn’t like people who put on airs. Just be honest with her and don’t let her make you nervous.”

            That, Edie thought, was easier said than done. They’d spent the rest of the ride talking about a pair of thoroughbred yearlings Tommy was going to look at the following week—a much-needed distraction for both of them, given the prior conversation. He’d bid her farewell at the stone wall with a final reassurance.

            “I’ve seen you at enough dinner parties to know you could charm the stripes off a fucking tiger. You’re going to do fine with this lot, eh?”

            That had seemed flattering at the time, but the tiger metaphor wasn’t especially comforting after further contemplation. Tommy’s words were replaying in her mind as Edie stood in front of her mirror, letting Mary button up the eighth dress of the evening.

            “Miss?” Mary’s voice was sharp. “Did you hear me?”

            She snapped back from her reverie. “I’m sorry Mary, I was worlds away.”

            “I asked how you like this one.” Mary finished buttoning and stepped back, leaving her alone in the mirror. “I’ve always thought green was a lovely color for you, dear.”

            She studied her reflection. The dress was forest green crepe, largely unadorned but gracefully draped. Should she wear something more formal and risk coming off as posh? (Arthur’s glancing comment about the queen came to mind there.) Or would dressing too casually imply that she didn’t take the dinner seriously? She’d try to press Tommy for suggestions on their ride, but he’d dismissed her concerns as ‘women’s business,’ arguing that he knew nothing about dresses and the like—a claim that amused her considering the attention to detail his suits clearly required.

            “I do like it, but did I bring that lilac silk up from London—” Mary’s face, reflected in the mirror as she stepped forward again, made it clear that she’d toss a lit match into the closet if Edie requested one more wardrobe change. “I’ll wear this one.”

            “Good. Now let’s pick out a necklace for you. Don’t know why you’re in such a fuss about a dinner with those Shelby people, anyway.”

            Edie paused to peer into her jewelry box, rifling through necklaces that all felt too gaudy for the occasion. She turned her attention to earrings instead, holding up a pair in the mirror as she spoke.

            “Mary, I’ve talked to Mr. Shelby regarding the rumors you’re so concerned about, and I think they’ve been exaggerated substantially.” That wasn’t strictly true, but she had to start somewhere if she wanted to improve Mary’s opinion of Tommy at all. “More to the point, he’s certainly made me feel far less lonely this summer than I have in a long time. You of all people might be able to appreciate how important that is to me after the last few years.”

            Mary frowned at her in the mirror, and then shook her head when Edie held up another pair of earrings. “Not those old things, Miss. The color’s no good with the dress. And I can appreciate that, but you might find someone more suitable for company.”      

            “There’s nothing unsuitable about an intelligent, successful gentleman who has been nothing but exceedingly kind to me.” She held up one more pair of earrings—simple diamond drops—then tossed them back into the jewelry box. “Not those either, right?”

 

            In the end, they settled on a comb that swept back one side of her hair with a delicate tracery of emeralds and silver scrollwork. Edie pushed it more firmly into place before ringing the bell at Arrow House, wondering if she ought to have brought something along. She should have, really. Flowers, a bottle of champagne—she closed both hands over the clasp of her purse to diminish their emptiness.

            One of Tommy’s perpetually startled-looking maids opened the door and ushered her inside. Before she’d made it even ten steps, Charlie barreled into the entryway with a bewilderingly large gaggle of children, all clearly in the midst of an elaborate and competitive game of tag. He stopped short when he saw her, a broad grin splitting his face.

            “Miss Edie!”

            “Charlie!” The smile she gave him in return was genuine. He was the sweetest child imaginable, and his good-natured greeting was just the remedy for her anxious mind. “Isn’t it a little after your bedtime?”

            “Daddy said I could stay up with my cousins until dinner.”       

            He proceeded to point out those cousins while the game of tag swirled around them, gesturing rather haphazardly as he reeled off a list of names. If Edie had thought there were a lot of Shelbys before, now she was utterly overwhelmed. Charlie’s nanny rounded the corner about halfway through the ‘introductions,’ looking even more harried than usual. She was rocking a dark-haired baby swaddled in pale pink cloth.

            “Charles, it’s time—”

            “And that’s my sister, Ruby!” Charlie proclaimed proudly, cutting off the nanny’s admonishment.

            Edie was struck silent. His sister. That had to mean—the woman from that day in the stable yard was here. Lizzie. Her chest felt suddenly tight.

            “Charlie, Karl—” She turned at the sound of Tommy’s voice and found him entering the hallway. His face was tense above the perfectly pressed collar of his shirt. “That’s enough, it’s time to go upstairs.”

            Edie stayed quiet, trying to push down the nerves currently filling her throat. Charlie looked up at his father in disappointment.

            “But Miss Edie just got here, I want to stay.”

            “You’ll see her at your lesson on Friday. Go up with your cousins, eh?” Tommy’s addressed the nanny and the maid who had answered the door, his words clipped. “Take them up, we’re ready to eat in the other room.”

            “I’ll see you Friday morning Charlie, promise.” Edie tried to keep her voice bright.

            “Say goodnight,” Tommy added.

            “Goodnight, Miss Edie!”

            Charlie let the maid take his hand as she herded the other children up the stairs and out of sight, their high-pitched laughter lingering in the hall once Tommy and Edie were alone. Edie realized she was still gripping the top of her purse tightly. Tommy cleared his throat.

            “Before we go in, I have to tell you—”

            “She’s here. Lizzie. I know.” She couldn’t think of what else to say.

            “Jesus, I’m sorry. I told Pol, but she doesn’t fucking listen to me.”

            “I’ll be all right.” Edie didn’t feel that way, but what was she going to say? What was she going to do, walk out? She forced herself to take a deep breath and think of Tommy’s advice. Don’t let her make you nervous. “Come on, you have a lot of introductions to make.”

            Her heart sank further when they entered the dining room. Everyone else was already seated, drinking and chatting around a long table. Two seats were open; one clearly belonging to Tommy at the head, and another near the opposite end, between a young, dark-haired woman she didn’t recognize and Polly at the foot of the table. Tommy followed her to her chair and stood beside her. In spite of all her nerves, some tiny part of Edie’s mind also cringed at the breach of protocol—seating a guest surrounded by strangers. She should have expected that this family wouldn’t stand on much ceremony.

            “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Edith Hughes.” Tommy glanced at her. “You remember Arthur, of course.” The elder Shelby brother was seated across from her. Tommy continued, pointing around the table. “Esme, my late brother John’s wife. Our youngest brother Finn. Lizzie Stark.” His voice stayed admirably even. “Michael Gray, my cousin. My sister Ada, and my aunt, Polly Gray.”

            “I’m so pleased to meet you all,” Edie said as Tommy pulled out her chair. “Or pleased to meet you again, as the case may be. It’s really lovely of you to invite me.”

            She felt terribly alone when Tommy took his seat at the far end of the table. She’d never been even remotely shy, but this was a social challenge of an altogether different caliber. Her eyes flicked around the table, trying to gauge whether or not she’d worn the right thing. The men were in suits but no evening dress, no gowns for the women. As a footman leaned over her shoulder to pour a glass of wine, Ada had the infinite kindness to start a conversation.

            “I understand you’re giving our Charlie riding lessons.”

            Edie nodded, incredibly relieved to fall upon a safe topic of discussion. “Every Wednesday and Friday. He’s my star pupil, by virtue of being my only pupil.”

            “He riding that Thoroughbred yet, Tommy?” Finn called out sarcastically.

            She was relieved to see Tommy crack a smile when he replied. “There’s a joke no one in this family has made before. Maybe with a few more months of lessons from Edie.”                       

            “I’ll have him racing you by Christmas,” Edie replied. “Michael, Finn, would you take bets? The inaugural Shelby Derby?”

            The laughter that followed, Tommy’s casual use of her nickname and the warmth of his smile across the table at her, all let Edie relax a little more. Perhaps she relaxed prematurely, because Lizzie was next to speak, her question abrupt.

            “Will you stay here that long?”

            “I’m not sure yet.” She forced herself to meet the other woman’s eyes. “I used to spend all my summers up here, but we generally went back home when the weather started to turn. This year I haven’t decided.”

            “Nothing for you to do London?” The question was simple enough, but Edie felt apprehensive in responding.

            “I go down quite a lot for business, but I’d like to spend more time up here, I think. It’s more pleasant away from the city.”

            “Must be nice,” Lizzie said quietly, “to not work. Be a lady of leisure.”

            There was a sarcastic tone in the last words that didn’t invite a reply. Edie desperately wanted to look over at Tommy, hoping he’d rescue her from this train of conversation, but she worried it would seem weak. Arthur, mercifully, cut in.

            “How is it we’ve never seen you around? Tommy’s had this place going on four years, ain’t that right?” He glanced at his brother and received a nod.

            “Before this summer I hadn’t been to Langely House in a few years. My grandfather was quite ill—he owned the house before it came to me—and couldn’t make the journey anymore. Then I had to stay in town for my debut season—” She regretted that comment as soon as she made it and rushed on—“time just slipped by.”

            “And how’d you meet Tommy?” Michael now. “He’s not exactly known out here in the country for his neighborly ways.”

            Edie smiled. Finally, a story she hoped would get a warm reception.

            “I rode right onto his lawn, embarrassingly enough. Luckily Arthur was on hand with a shotgun to welcome me.” That earned a rather unladylike guffaw from Esme, who had thus far been watching Edie warily from below an unruly topknot. “I’d forgotten Lord Ainsworth sold the place. Did you ever meet him, Tommy?”

            Tommy shook his head. “Bought this place through his solicitor. Never saw the man.”

            “Can’t say I was altogether surprised he’d had to sell,” Edie added. “He was a good enough man, but could never resist a bit of a flutter. Would have bet a paper airplane race if someone gave him odds.”      

            Lord Ainsworth had been the sort of benevolently hopeless second son of the peerage who loved gin, questionable women, and even more questionable wagers. A few anecdotes about the former owner of Arrow House carried Edie through the soup course with burgeoning confidence, deflated somewhat by Lizzie’s stony face and Polly’s disquieting silence. She could feel a shift in the room when the main course was served and Polly turned to her, fork and knife poised above her plate.

            “Edith, where are you from?”

            “The Home Counties,” Edie answered cautiously. “London, really. My mother grew up in Berkshire, but I was raised in the city. Eaton Square, if you’re familiar with that neighborhood.”

            “And they’re in London still?”

            “Sadly not.” Edie paused, ostensibly to take a sip of wine but really to collect her wits. “Tommy may have mentioned that my father and only uncle died in France. We unfortunately lost my brother shortly after the war.”

            She hoped that would put an end to the topic. Anyone with manners would let it drop after a reply like that, which had been a small mercy whenever she’d had to answer similar questions in the past. Polly, though, took a thoughtful bite of food and studied her sharply.      

            “Eaton Square is lovely,” Ada said brightly, throwing her aunt a look. “Those grand white houses. Remember when we were over there last spring, Esme? We got turned around taking the children to see the palace guards.”

            Esme opened her mouth to answer, but Polly was too quick.

            “Ada, I’m asking our guest about her people.” Her voice was low and smooth as smoke. “How else will I know who Thomas is bringing to our table? Now, Edith. Any other family? And I may have missed it—what sort of business do they do?”

            “Steel—Hughes Steel, not the most inventive name I’m afraid. My grandfather ran the business for many years, but I’m sorry to say he’s passed as well. It’s my great hope that I can carry on as he would have liked. Tommy’s been a marvelous help in deciphering the dullest imaginable ledgers.”

            “Isn’t that lovely, when you’ve got your own business to run Thomas?”

            “Pol, come on now—” Arthur’s voice was unexpectedly loud, and Edie caught one of the footmen flinching as he reached down to clear plates. Arthur apparently caught it too, barking out, “Well, take the fucking thing if you’re going to, eh?”

            There was a brief and flustered silence, broken only by the sound of clinking china as the rest of the plates were cleared. Edie hoped the disruption would change the course of the conversation, but Polly picked up once again. The corners of her mouth were drawn tight underneath her dark red lipstick.

            “So you’re all alone running a steel business, then? At nineteen? What about your mother, she lets you run wild like this?”

            Edie looked down, wishing she still had the distraction of food to buy her time. Should she lie? She hadn’t even told Tommy about this—most of her friends didn’t even know the full truth of it. She tried to remember Tommy’s words again. Don’t let her make you nervous. It was no help now. She swallowed, feeling the weight of everyone’s eyes on her.

            “She’s not here with me. She’s in California, at a place called Rockhaven. They say the climate there is calming and the doctors are very progressive.” She paused, feeling her thoughts scatter. Exactly why she never talked about any of this; she never knew what to say. “After the war, and after my brother died, she became quite ill. Her mind was very troubled and—”

            “Polly I think that’s enough, eh?” Tommy said quietly.

            “I think it’s not nearly enough,” Polly snapped back. “You were the one who told me I should meet her and I’ll ask the questions I like. I know you’re easily fooled by anything with a pretty face and a posh accent, but someone in our family has to know who’s coming into this business.”  

            Tommy’s voice was sharper now. “I said that’s the end of it. I won’t have you talk like this at my table.”

            “At your table. Like you’ve been hosting fucking dinner parties your whole life and didn’t sit around my table on Watery Lane every night until you got too grand for it. Or did you leave that part out with her?”

            “He didn’t leave anything out,” Edie said, breaking in before she’d come up with the next words. “I know about what came before—” she gestured at the grand dining room, the crystal, the heavy drapes, the paintings, the chandeliers—“all of this. Just because you think I’m—”

            “Trust me girl, he left things out.” Polly’s eyes shifted from Edie to Tommy. “I know you, Thomas. There are things you wouldn’t tell anyone.”

            Tommy’s chair scraped back across the floor and suddenly he was standing, hands braced on the edge of the table. She had never seen his face this way, a rictus of anger that seemed utterly at odds with the elegant sweep of his hair and the polished knot of his tie. He was shouting down the table at Polly in the language she recognized from the other night—his admonishment to Arthur. From the day at the racetrack, whispering to the horse.

            Polly was just as quick to stand, shouting back in the same unfamiliar tongue, the bracelets on her wrist jingling as her hands emphasized the words. Everyone else at the table was frozen in place, looking as wild-eyed as Edie knew she certainly was. Finally, Tommy pointed at the door and stalked over, continuing a tirade at Polly as she passed by him haughtily and exited the room. Their voices echoed, increasingly distant, after the sharp report of the slamming door faded.

          A long, tense silence filled the room. Edie could hardly breathe, feeling as though the collar of her dress was choking her. A footman appeared from the swinging door at the far end of the room with a tea service, took one look at the scene, and wheeled back around.           

            “Well,” Lizzie said, so abruptly that Edie almost jumped. “I ought to go up and see to the baby, if we’re done here.”

            She pushed back her chair without waiting for a reply, heels clicking nonchalantly as she left the room. Everyone else stayed silent, eyes resting on the empty chairs at each end of the table. Edie swallowed and rose from her own seat. She’d thought she had the manners to handle any situation, but at this moment all her words felt wrong.

            “It’s terribly late, and I have an early morning I’m afraid. After hearing so much from Tommy, it was really—”

            Ada stood quickly. “I’ll walk you out.”     

            They filed silently into the hall, pausing uncomfortably in the center of the floor as the dining room door swung shut. Edie glanced up and her eyes fell on a looming portrait on the far wall. Tommy, a much younger Charlie, and a woman with blonde hair, all posed rather stiffly against a dark background.

            “Is that her?” She turned to Ada with the question, desperate for anything at all to say. “Grace?”

            The other woman nodded. “It is.”

            “What was she like? I’ve never had the heart to ask Tommy.”

            Ada looked up at the portrait thoughtfully. “Determined. Maybe a little more high and mighty than she should have been, but she calmed Tommy down. I think she really did love him. Certainly loved Charlie.”

            “She was really beautiful.”

            Edie studied the portrait more closely; the painter had daubed a hazy halo of golden light around Grace’s blonde waves. A saintly iconography that suited her solemn gaze outward from the canvas, inscrutable eyes above a Joconde smile.

            “Sun to his shadow, wasn’t she?” Ada said quietly. “Listen, if it’s any consolation, Polly never warmed up to her either. How she was tonight—that’s just her way. She’s had a hard life, done more than anyone to hold this family together, and it’s difficult for her to trust anybody new.”

            Edie tried for a smile, but something twisted hard in her chest at the thought of Polly’s questions and her own fumbling responses. She felt a little sick, quite honestly. She’d failed the test, hadn’t she? How much had this dinner meant to Tommy? After the mess she’d made of things that night in London, would this be too much? Would she see him again?

            “I ought to be going.”

            Ada walked her to the door, then dug through her pockets and produced a small rectangle of paper. A surprisingly professional business card with the Shelby Company name letterpressed into one side and her own name on the reverse with a phone number.

            “Here—have lunch with me next time you’re in London. We hardly got to speak at all with Pol going on like she does. And don’t worry about those two fighting, they’ve been at each other’s throats since I was a child. Never changes.”

            Edie slipped the card into her bag, genuinely grateful for Ada’s kindness. Tommy’s sister had surprised her more than anyone else. Certainly, she had been the only pleasant surprise of the evening.

            “Thank you.” She opened the door and stepped out into the mild summer night. “Tell Tommy I said goodnight.”

           

            She was about to slide into the driver’s seat of her car when she heard the front door of the house open again, followed by rapid footsteps. Looking up, she saw Tommy’s familiar silhouette before she heard his voice.

            “Edie!”

            He crossed the gravel of the drive, catching the car’s open door before she could get inside.

            “I thought I should go home. You and Polly—”

            “Never mind Polly, eh? Never mind any of them.” He picked up her hand carefully, leading her a step back and clicking the car door shut. “This is my house and I want you to stay.”

            Edie hesitated. On one hand, Tommy had never asked her to stay at Arrow House before. She understood the significance of that invitation, from a man who didn’t share much about his private life. On the other—

            “I’d love to, but I’m not sure I’m ready to face everyone again just yet.”

            “Don’t worry about that. Arthur’s driving the boys back to Birmingham, Esme and Ada have the children to occupy them, and if I know the other two they’ll be upstairs all night stewing about this dinner.” Tommy put an arm around her shoulders, starting them on a path away from the house and toward the stable. “It’s a fine night, we’ll wait them out.”

            There was a bright moon to light their way across the stable yard, and they spent a quiet hour among the sounds of the horses breathing and shuffling in the stalls. Tommy paused periodically to point out particular features of a few animals, his voice low and comments brief. They heard the rumbling departure of Arthur’s car, and then peered out to see almost all the lights in the house dark. They hadn’t talked about the obvious matter at hand, and Edie had begun to wonder if they would. Or if it would be one of the things Polly had alluded to—I know you, Thomas. There are things you wouldn’t tell anyone. What had Tommy said to her after that? Another question she thought might never be answered.

            “I’m sorry,” Tommy said as they approached the quiet house. “I know it probably doesn’t mean much, but you did as well as anyone could with that lot. They’re fucking tough. Polly—she’ll come around or she won’t. And frankly, I don’t fucking care anymore. I trust you, all right? That’s the opinion that matters.”

            While she wasn’t entirely convinced of that fact, Edie had realized, about halfway through their slow tour of the stable, that the Shelby family’s standoffishness, their protectiveness, their aggressive insularity, was rooted somewhere in love for each other. Even if they only showed that by railing at one another. She would have given anything to bicker with Georgie across the dinner table one more time.

            “Tommy,” she said as they mounted the steps toward the door. “They’re a beautiful family. You don’t even know how lucky you are to have them.”

Chapter Text

Edie left early the next morning, when the light in Tommy’s bedroom was still a pale grey as it peeked through the curtains. Lying on his side, he felt the apologetic brush of her lips on his shoulder, followed by the quiet shuffle of her dressing and then her cautious footsteps. He kept his eyes closed; after last night, he’d give her the dignity of sneaking out before the rest of the family was awake.

            Once she’d gone, he found that he was restless. When it became clear he wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again, he dressed and went downstairs. He’d intended to go into his office, but a rustle of paper from the library made him alter his path.

            Ada was sitting on one of the tufted leather couches—another of Grace’s affectations, based on what she thought the library of a grand house should be like—with a cup of tea and a book balanced on her knee. She looked up when he entered, unsurprised. They had always been the early risers of the family. Even before the war, Tommy had come down many mornings to the cramped kitchen at Watery Lane and found his sister already awake at the table, drinking tea and absent-mindedly crumbling up a piece of toast.

            “Morning.” She nodded in the general direction of the front door and driveway. “I heard her go.”

            Tommy sat down loosely at the opposite end of the couch. “Can’t believe she even stayed. Thanks for being the only civilized person in this fucking family last night.”

            “You had to know Polly would be like that.”

            “Didn’t think she’d bring Lizzie. I could have wrung her fucking neck when they walked in the door.”

            “Your first mistake was asking her not to bring Lizzie.”

            “What else was I going to do, eh?”

            Ada shrugged. “Pol was going to bring her no matter what you said. Lizzie made it clear that she wanted the two of you to go your own ways after Ruby was born. She’ll have to get used to this.”

            “Get used to what?”

            “Whatever you’re doing with Edith. Don’t give me that look—it’s something, since you’ve gone to the trouble of hiding it from us so carefully. If you’re involving her in the business—and getting involved with hers—she’s a bit more than those girls you get at the Midland.” She rolled her eyes at his surprised expression. “Of course I know about them. Everyone knows about them.”

            Tommy wouldn’t dignify that unwelcome revelation with a response. “She’s done me some favors and I’ve returned them, that’s all.”

            “If Arthur’s telling the truth, you squired her around the whole fucking city for a weekend, too. And Charlie thinks she hung the bloody moon, so clearly she’s no stranger around here.”

            “And?” Tommy held his palms up. “The rest of this family is allowed to have their own lives. Should I lock myself in my office until the end of my fucking days so Lizzie and Pol don’t get offended?”

            “I didn’t say that.”

            “What are you trying to say? You going over to their side, too?”

            “Listen—do you have a cigarette?” Ada paused until he’d offered her one, along with his lighter, and then frowned thoughtfully. “D’you remember when I was about eight, everyone in the fucking family forgot my birthday? Finn was just little, Dad was fucking drunk I’m sure, you and John and Arthur didn’t have the time of day for me. I went to Pol’s—crying my eyes out—and she took me downtown for tea at one of those grand department stores they had before the war.”

            She paused, letting out a puff of smoke, and Tommy waited curiously for her to continue. He couldn’t see where this story was going.

            “God knows what they thought of the pair of us, probably that we were fucking trash, but nothing like that ever stopped Pol. She bought me a big slice of cake in the tearoom, and then walked me all around afterward. And I remember there was this salon full of porcelain dolls in little dresses—all the designers from Paris would make these miniature gowns, and the fine ladies would come look at the dolls and pick out what they wanted to order. I thought they were just the most perfect things, and couldn’t imagine being so fucking grand that someone would make something like that just for me to pick out a dress.” She paused again. "What I’m getting at is—she’s like one of those dolls come to life, isn’t she? I’ve never seen anyone as fucking proper as her.”

            “And so this is a bad idea, then? Me bringing ‘round someone like that. Like Pol clearly thinks.”

            “No.” Ada waggled her cigarette, held loosely between two fingers, in his direction. “I actually think she could be good for you. I know what you want for this family, and the kind of people you need to get there. You’re not meeting them through us, or Lizzie, or those girls at the Midland. Polly might come to see that, too.”

            “I’m not using Edie, if that’s what you’re trying to say.”

            “That’s not what I’m saying either. I can see it in your face—” She gave him a wry smile. “You don’t look as fucking gloomy as you usually do when you talk about her.”

            “Ada—”

            He wanted to protest the sudden sentimentality, but his sister was already standing, looking at her watch.

            “I’ve got to get Karl up. I have a meeting this afternoon about the deed transfer for Solomons’ dock in Camden.” She paused beside the open door. “Tommy, she’s smart, she’s beautiful, and she didn’t let Polly scare her off. Most importantly, you actually seem happy to be around her. For you, that’s essentially a fucking miracle. So don’t fuck it up, will you?”

           

 

            Anyone who had led a more ordinary sort of life would have recognized the waning weeks of the summer for what they were: a courtship. Tommy, who had departed from anything approaching the ordinary long ago, didn’t realize it until too long after the fact. With Greta, he’d simply been too young to take things so seriously, and the shadow of her illness had hung over their future long before the war. And his marriage to Grace had come strangely, haltingly, through a series of trials by fire. He’d never experienced the slow upward curve of learning about someone, seeing them and knowing them through thousands of words and gestures, days and nights.

 

            That summer, he learned that Edie was uncannily athletic, in ways concealed by her ladylike demeanor. He discovered that she was a graceful runner when she raced Charlie across the lawn; a crack shot at clays when Arthur and Finn came out for a hunting weekend; a deviously precise server at tennis, which she played incessantly with Fiona on a pristine grass court tucked into the Langely House gardens.            

           

            He learned that she was an appallingly bad singer but a splendid pianist. He learned that she could speak French like a native Parisian and Italian ‘enough to order at a restaurant in Rome,’ as she described it. He learned that she had a penchant for silly nicknames—‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ for his son and countless variations for the horses in her stable (and the horses in his, after a time).

           

            He learned that she was a hopelessly extravagant gift-giver. She’d turn up after a trip to London with boxes from Selfridges and Liberty, which opened to reveal pocket squares made of pearlescent Japanese silk, onyx tiepins framed in silver, perfectly tailored shirts with his initials embroidered inside the cuff. ‘I just thought it suited you,’ she’d say breezily, tossing the package onto his desk. Once he’d opened a curiously blank box to find a froth of lace and ribbon that, upon further inspection, turned out to be lingerie from a famously expensive and discreet salon. ‘Well,’ she’d said that time, ‘it’s not exactly for you, but it’s for your benefit.’

            She was even less able to resist a gift when it came to Charlie. They’d let him come along to London once, so he could go with Edie, Ada, and Karl to the zoo (along with Ada’s bodyguards at a discreet distance, of course). The pair of them had returned laden with a wild and amusing assortment of items: punnets of glossy blackberries and pastel macarons from the food hall at Harrods, an entire bundle of colorful helium balloons, a stuffed lion so enormous that they struggled to jam it into the car for the drive home. When he’d glanced in disapproval at the thing poking comically over her seat, she’d reminded him that he was still reigning king of impractical presents thanks to the Christmas racehorse.

           

            He learned that she was becoming friends with Ada. She’d mention ladies’ lunches they had together in the city, or when his sister came to Birmingham on business. There were heavy implications that these meetings included embarrassing stories of Tommy’s childhood, but Edie held onto her secrets there.

           

            He learned to become a fixture at the weekend parties that were held with some regularity at Langely House throughout the summer. He learned the faces of Edie’s friends, learned the card games they played and where they’d gone to school and their sunny, youthful nicknames. Learned that maybe they weren’t as painfully posh as he’d thought, and that this might beat a night sticking to the floor at The Garrison, now and then.

           

            He learned that Edie was wild—not just in her propensity for a party, but when they were alone. She had a wicked, wanton streak that came out when they were in bed together, not put-on in the way that behavior always was with the girls at the Midland, but playful and frank. He learned that he could make her beg and curse in entirely unladylike ways, but nothing he did could make her blush. He learned that she’d ask him to pull the car over on deserted country lanes when they drove at night, then slide out of her seat and straddle his lap, knees wedged up against his legs and hands hot under his shirt. He learned that he was completely unable to resist her when he went back to work in the middle of the night and she trailed into his office at Arrow House, wearing one of his starchy, oversized shirts and nothing else.

           

            He learned that, like him, she rarely slept through a night. Once, after late rounds of cards and gimlets at the latest weekend party, he was drifting off in her bed at Langely House when he heard the sound of the picks scraping on the walls, jolting upright with the crawl of cold sweat on his chest. The feeling had become so rare, and that made it even worse, jarring in its unfamiliarity. Edie’s eyes snapped open when the bed shifted, and she looked around the room nervously.

            “Tommy? What’s wrong?”

            “Nothing.” He forced himself to relax against the pillows even though his head felt cloudy. How long had it been since he’d heard that sound? “Go back to sleep, everything’s fine.”

            “You’re white as a sheet.”   

            “It’s nothing. Sometimes I dream about France, that’s all. Wake up thinking I’m in those fucking tunnels.”

            He didn’t say that he wasn’t necessarily dreaming. Knew from experience how fucking mental that sounded. It was too dark to see Edie’s face clearly, but he could feel her watching him.

            “I can read, if you can’t sleep.”

            “Don’t stay up for me. I just need a fucking cigarette.”

            Or a drink. Or a hit of the pipe, like the old days. He didn’t say those things either. She was already turning on the light.

            “Nonsense, I wasn’t sleeping either.”

            She read him Blake that night, rambling poems about visions and prophecies. And when he still couldn’t fall asleep, she told him that she’d started reading so much because she was restless, too. She’d sit up with a lamp burning at all hours, turning the pages to drown out her own thoughts about her family, her mother, her business.

            After that, she read to him most nights they were together—some weeks it was none, other weeks long, consecutive stretches. The things she chose seemed completely at random, shifting with the whims of her mood; Tommy didn’t care as long as they precluded any echoes from behind the walls. Airy Jeeves and Wooster one night, baroque verses from John Donne the next, a few pages of Jane Eyre after that. Her perennial favorite seemed to be a poet named Robert Frost, whose words conjured up hazy images of New England apple orchards, hay harvests, clapboard barns among autumn leaves—sights Tommy had never seen that drifted through his mind as he dozed off, coloring his dreams gold and crimson and russet.

 

            He learned that these days, the business kept her awake more than anything. She often seemed as busy as he felt during his endless drives from Birmingham to Warwickshire to London—a tiring triangulation punctuated by little triumphs, like the first successful shipment to Canada under the new license. Many evenings they’d sit side-by-side until late in his library, each with their own stack of ledgers and correspondence; Edie would ask him questions about numbers, and he’d ask her about the foibles of MPs from distant districts.

            Even as money started to come in from Canada, even as Michael sent glowing reports of construction in Camden, the new threat of strikes in the factories loomed over them both. He’d catch her with a newspaper instead of a book some nights, her mouth a tight line as she read about walkouts in Leeds, Sheffield, Glasgow. ‘Let me think about it, eh?’ he’d said when she asked what she should do. So far he didn’t have the right answers.

 

            He learned that she had harbored a long-standing curiosity about his scars. One night, as he was getting dressed for dinner, she’d come up behind him in the mirror and run her hands through his still-wet hair, her fingers pausing when they found the long, jagged scar hidden on his scalp. She caught his eyes in the mirror as her hand dropped to cover the pale circle left behind by a bullet below his collarbone, then rose again to touch the raised dash on his cheek.

            “Tell me about them,” she said quietly, and he had. She listened unflinchingly.

            Later that night he said, “Tell me about your brother and father.”

            She had, unflinchingly.

 

            He learned, slowly, how to be the kind of man who could actually hold sway in Parliament. When they both had meetings in London, he became Edie’s constant companion at a never-ending slate of society evenings. More dinners in glittering restaurants, opening nights, charitable galas. If people were talking about the unlikely pair of them, at least they knew who he was. He started to get a smattering of friendly nods on the way to his office in Whitehall, found himself with a standing invitation to join Walter Morrison at his club for a drink, and fielded propositions for a few more committee memberships (all rejected until he could find his way out of the nightmare that was Veterans’ Pensions).

            On one of their trips to town, Edie ushered him into a hushed shop on Savile Row for a white tie and a tailcoat—to be worn as her date to a ball at the Royal Society. The day after the ball, she came in from an afternoon of meetings with a grin on her face.

            “I’ve got a gift for you.” Instead of the usual box from Harrods, she presented him with an open newspaper. “Your very first society page feature.”

            He looked down, surprised when he was met by his own eyes staring back from the newsprint, his face looking stern above a wing collar. Edie was beaming next to him, a white-gloved hand on his arm, diamonds circling her wrist and glittering from an elaborate band nestled in her hair. He’d forgotten about the photo—a reporter’s blinding flash on their way up the marble steps of the ballroom—and certainly hadn’t expected to see it here, mingled with others of the same ilk, on a page headlined SOCIETY HAPPENINGS. The caption read: Miss Edith Hughes and Mr. Thomas Shelby, MP, OBE, join revelers at the Royal Society Summer Ball. Miss Hughes is all smiles as she carries on her family’s long-standing patronage of the Society.

            When he looked up from the page, Edie was still smiling. “Shall I have it framed? Might be nice in your office, you look terribly dashing.”

 

            He’d learned, one drowsily hot day, that she didn’t care if everyone in Birmingham—and beyond—called the Shelby family gypsies. When Tommy wasn’t cooped up at the office (and he usually was—that was unlikely to change), he and Edie would meet early in the morning, dew still silver on the grass, at the wall that divided their fields. She’d lead the way on long, rambling rides through the countryside, pointing out landmarks familiar from her childhood—a jewel-like pond where she’d ice skated with her brother, an immense, rotting log she’d once cleared on the little pony now reserved for Charlie’s lessons, a gnarled oak tree that had been her grandfather’s favorite.

            Not long after the ill-fated dinner at Arrow House, she’d taken them down a winding path through the woods to the banks of a stream, where a tumbled formation of rocks created a deep pool. They’d let the horses drink, then taken off their shoes and dangled their feet in the water, a welcome respite from the sticky July heat. They listened for a time to the water, to the sounds of the horses cropping at grass behind them, then Edie broke the silence.

            “What do you speak to your family in? That other language?”

            Tommy hesitated. Of all the reasons people had to condemn his family, their blood was the most difficult one of all. At least the other reasons were all things they’d done. When he answered, he watched her reaction closely.

            “Romani. All those rumors about me never included the fact that the Shelbys are gypsies?”

            A curious furrow formed between Edie’s eyes. “Gypsies?”

            “You know—caravans, ponies, tea leaves—the whole fucking lot.” He pressed his lips together. “Bet you wish you’d heard that rumor before you showed me off at Kettner’s, eh?”

            “Tommy, really." Her voice was surprisingly breezy. "I can’t say clearly enough how little I care about anyone’s opinion but my own.” Her mouth curved in a smile and she held out her hand, palm up. “Can you read fortunes, then?”

            He cradled her offered hand in one of his own and ran a finger over the lines webbing her palm. “Of course. We all can, eh? Says here you’ll meet a blue-eyed man.”

            Edie leaned closer, hovering over their hands in mock concentration. “Light hair or dark?”

            “Dark.”

            “Tall or short?”         

            “In the middle.”

            “Kind or wicked?”

            “The wickedest sort.”

            She laughed then, and looked from his face down to the clear water at their feet. “Last question—would this mystery man go for a swim with me?”

            Tommy pretended to study her hand closely. “Hard to say. Maybe you ought to jump in and see.”

 

            He learned that, in spite of the dinner, she wasn’t afraid of Polly. On rare occasions, Tommy would be caught up with business until the last possible moment before a trip to London, and Edie would come to meet him at the Birmingham offices. The first time, he assumed she’d just wait in her car to avoid conflict, but she’d traipsed in like she’d been there a thousand times before, standing out starkly against the dark wood and leaded glass in pale blue chiffon. Polly was in his office, going over the week’s accounts from Camden, when she knocked.

            “Hello, Mrs. Gray.” Edie was all smiles, no sign she even remembered the disastrous dinner.

            “Hello.” Polly hardly looked up from the papers on the desk. 

            “Tommy and I have a dinner with his Colonial Trade colleagues and their wives tonight in London. Time was getting on, so I thought I ought to come up.”

            Edie approached his desk, shaking a cigarette from the case in her hand, and leaned over when he offered her his lighter. If she felt Polly’s acid gaze, she didn’t show it in the slightest. A wonder of good manners, as always.

            “We have at least twenty minutes yet, more with frivolous distractions,” Polly said with a disapproving glance at Edie’s expensive summer dress. “Why don’t you go out and wait with the secretaries?”   

            Edie kept her eyes on him, her face neutral. “I’ll have the car running, Tommy.”

            “Thought you’d have had enough of dinner parties,” Polly added as Edie reached the door.

            Tommy watched her turn back, bright red lips rounded with surprise around the cigarette.

            “Oh, I could never!” The flash of a brilliant smile, which only made Polly’s face harden further. “Goodnight, Mrs. Gray.”

            Once the door clicked shut, Polly sighed heavily and turned back toward him.      

            “Thomas, that accent of hers drives me around the fucking bend.”

            She said that every time Edie stopped by the office, which became more often as the months passed by.

 

            He learned that his family had divided into two distinct factions in regards to Edith Hughes. On one side, led by Ada, were Arthur, Michael and Finn, who’d been won over by Edie’s easy laughter, her good nature with the children of the younger Shelby generation, her guileless generosity. Polly was at the helm of the opposition, joined by Lizzie and Esme, who, in spite of her own comfortable circumstances these days, retained a deeply-held suspicion of the wealthier classes and anyone who preferred a house not on wheels (always a Lee girl, at heart). The two sides seemed largely intractable, Polly’s face going lemon-sour whenever Arthur or Ada brought up a London lunch or weekend excursion in the country with Edie.

 

            As summer ended, he learned that even Polly might be able to change. They’d been back in his office in late August, reviewing the first reports of profits from Canada this time. Even Pol couldn’t find fault there—the money was fucking rolling in. Michael had in fact stopped by earlier to point out that they ought to consider some new investments to find a place for all the cash.

            “It was a good plan,” Polly said begrudgingly when they’d finished with the last sheet. “I was skeptical, but it’s working.”

            “You know who made it happen, Pol.” Tommy looked at her over his glasses.

            Polly lit a cigarette and grimaced. “Still, her accent drives me fucking mad.”

 

            All of these things he’d learned about Edie, and a thousand other little hallmarks of her—the ghost of her perfume in his car, shiny strands of her hair left behind on his sleeve, the scent of the rosewater she splashed on her face at night lingering on his pillowcase—should have added up to something bigger. And they would have, maybe, if he’d put them together at the right time. If he hadn’t been distracted by Polly and Lizzie and the strikes and the stacks of crates going to Canada and the money coming back and the timbers of the new warehouse rising toward the smoggy sky in Camden.         

            By the end of that summer, she’d become a fixture in his life, in such a quiet, content way that he’d hardly realized it. Maybe he’d been about to realize it. Maybe things would have diverged down a different road then, as they did in one of her autumn-hued poems.

            But that didn’t happen, because Edie burst into his office one day in early September, the air turning crisp and cool already, with her face pale and tear-stained and a question that signified a change.

Chapter Text

“You should talk to them. Go there and show your face. Show them you’re a real person.”

            Tommy had given this advice while squinting into the fireplace at Langely House on one of the first cool evenings of September. The strikes were coming closer to Hughes Steel, and Edie had decided she needed to press him again for a decision—what should she do? She felt bad about asking; it was clear from the weary lines around his eyes most nights that he was working too hard already. His own businesses weren’t immune to the labor struggles, his obligations in Parliament were mounting, and whatever was happening with his new acquisitions in Camden seemed to be running him ragged. But who else could she trust to ask?

            She’d called the foreman at the largest of the Hughes mills the next morning and arranged an all-hands meeting for the following afternoon, between two shifts so she could speak to the largest number of men. When the time came to drive down from Warwickshire, she had been so nervous that her hands shook as she buttoned up her blouse—a simple white one, paired with a demure black skirt, jacket, and hat. No jewelry, no unnecessary adornments. A few notes that she’d try not to use, tucked into a plain black handbag.

            At the mill, the foreman led her up the stairs to a steel grate catwalk that looked over the factory floor. The men were gathered below, some gritty from a long shift and some newly arrived, their dinner pails still in hand, their faces turned up toward her impassively. She’d closed her fingers tightly over the handle of her bag, unsure of what to say.

            “Go ahead if you’re ready, Miss,” the foreman said from beside her shoulder. “The men’ll be wanting to clock in or go home, you understand.”

            “I understand.”

            But the truth was, she didn’t understand anything about the men gathered in front of her. And that was the whole problem, wasn’t it?

 

            Maybe she should have taken out her notes, but the page had been filled with little more than platitudes. Phrases outlining her gratitude for their hard work and dedication to her family’s business, how important they were to the running of the mill, the efforts of the board and the union representatives to reach an agreement that suited all parties.

            Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered what she said, because she’d barely gotten beyond ‘Good afternoon’ when there was a tense, impatient murmur from the crowd. Someone wolf whistled, the shrill sound echoing off the cavernous ceiling, and there was a smattering of laughter and shouting. She tried to start over.

            “I appreciate you all taking this time to be here. I understand—”

            “Missus, you don’t understand a damn thing!”

            The shouted admonishment came from somewhere in the middle of the crowd, and Edie’s eyes flicked over the gathered faces as the murmur of conversation became louder. She could feel the foreman shifting uncomfortably beside her.

            “They got anybody in the head offices besides a little girl?”

            “At least she ain’t hard on the eyes, aye?”

            “Couldn’t find anyone who’d actually worked a day in their lives to negotiate with us?”

            “I’ll tell ya how you can show some appreciation, love!”     

            “Boys, she ain’t paying us to listen to this fuckin’ speech.” 

            “She’s hardly fuckin’ paying us at all! That’s the problem, innit?”

            There had been swelling calls of agreement at that, the men shifting in ripples and waves through the crowd.

            “I’m going home to my fuckin’ kids. Any of you bleedin’ idiots from first shift should do the same, all right?”

            “Ain’t getting paid to listen to some posh bitch, lads.”

            And they had started filing out, some toward the factory floor and some toward the doors, shouting and jostling as they went. Edie stood silently, her stomach twisting and roiling. Her eyes burned, but she could not cry here. Not in front of these men. She couldn’t prove them right.

            “—ma’am.”

            She had no idea how long the foreman had been speaking and wheeled around at the sound of his voice.

            “Ma’am, I’m sorry. They’re upset about the negotiations, but that language—”

            “No need for apologies. I think it’s best if I go home, don’t you? I’ll send a more suitable representative to continue the discussions.” She swallowed, blinked, swallowed again. “If you’ll show me out, please.”

           

            The long drive to Birmingham was conducted with blurry eyes and clenched fingers at a speed that was likely unsafe given her current state of mind. Edie should have gone to London, it was much closer, but Tommy was at his offices and she had to see him. She used the dreary stretches of road, dusted with the first of autumn’s damp fallen leaves, to try and put her thoughts in order. Easier said than done when she found herself crying. Found herself thinking about her father and her grandfather and her uncle, who all would have known what to say in the mill.

            They were gone, though, and so was everyone else who could have helped her—except Tommy. She’d thought a lot over the course of the summer about what their relationship meant, what it was. Today, in a way she hadn’t expected, she’d ask him to answer those questions.

 

            Tommy’s nervy secretary greeted her when she got to the Shelby Company offices, glancing uncomfortably at Edie’s puffy eyes.

            “Mr. Shelby is on a phone call, ma’am. I can knock, if you like.”

            “No I’ll wait, thank you.”

            Edie sat down stiffly in a straight-backed chair against the wall opposite Tommy’s door, her bag on her knees. She’d been there perhaps five minutes, wondering if she ought to break the uncomfortable silence with the jumpy secretary, when another door opened and Polly appeared. Their eyes met and the older woman paused, lighting a cigarette before crossing the carpet to stand in front of her chair. The imperious angle did nothing to make Edie feel less wretched.

            “And to what do we owe this surprise?”

            “I needed to see Tommy and it couldn’t wait.” If that wasn’t the most stupidly obvious thing Edie had ever said, it had to be a close second.

            Polly looked at her thoughtfully, the cigarette seemingly forgotten between her fingers. She had her hat and purse in her other hand—going home for the day. Edie hadn’t realized how late it was.

            “So you’re pregnant then, are you?”

            Edie blinked, stunned. She’d fully expected some sort of acid comment from Polly, but nothing like this. “Pardon me?”

            “Don’t give me that act, girlie. Come in here fucking crying your eyes out, looking for Thomas. Doesn’t exactly take a genius to add things up, does it?”

            “I’m—”

            Polly puffed out an impatient breath. “No one’s ever accused him of being especially cautious, but I might’ve hoped—”

            “I’m not—“ Edie started out loudly and dropped her voice to just above a whisper, but she could tell the secretary still heard her. The girl looked like she wanted to melt into her chair and disappear. “—pregnant. I came to talk to Tommy about business.”

            “Yours or his?”

            “Mine.” Ours, she hoped.

            “Ma’am?” The secretary’s voice was tremulous. Both Polly and Edie turned. “Mr. Shelby is finished with his phone call, Miss Hughes.”  

            Polly pinned on her hat. “You ought to get to it, then.”

            Edie stood before she could second guess herself and opened the door to Tommy’s office. Relief washed over her at the familiar sight of him—sleeves bunched up, jacket slung over his chair, cigarette at the corner of his mouth. His eyes looked tired again, creased at the corners when he glanced up from his papers.

            “Did something happen?”

            He stood and came around the desk before the door had even shut behind her, tilting up the brim of her hat to see her face more clearly. She hadn’t realized she looked that terrible.

            “No. Yes, but—I’m all right. I just need to sit down and take a breath, I think.”

            He hung up her bag and hat as she settled into the chair across from his, then went to the sideboard below the window to pour her a drink. He turned back toward her with the tumbler in hand, looking suddenly stricken, then placed the drink hesitantly on the far corner of the desk before taking his own seat.

            “Tommy.” She leaned forward and picked up the glass, taking a sip before she continued. “I’m not pregnant.”

            He tried to keep a straight face, but she still noticed the minute shift as his shoulders relaxed.

            “Polly already asked, by the way.”

            “She fucking didn’t.” His own half-empty drink was at his elbow and he picked it up, draining the glass. “Fuck.”

            “Sometimes it scares me how alike the two of you are.”

            Tommy twisted the signet ring on his right hand, fidgeted with his cuffs, and finally stood to pour himself another drink. When he sat back down, he folded his glasses and set them aside.

            “Scares me too, and that’s fucking saying something.” A smile flickered across his face, and then faded just as quickly. “You don’t cry much, Edie. What happened?”

            She took a deep breath, cradling the cool glass in both palms. No more crying. She’d promised herself that.

            “The men today—they walked out on me. I barely got through ten words and they just…”

            She trailed off, struggling with how to continue. Wondering if all this was a bad idea. If she should just leave these things to the solicitors, let Tommy run his business, and let herself escape to Warwickshire and her books and her horses and the golden-hued summer they’d had together.

            “They called me a posh bitch. And the worst part of it is, they’re right. I had no business going down there and talking to them. My grandfather could have, because he knew the business and the men respected him for it. To them, I’m just the same little girl who used to come with the family to give out hampers and checks on Boxing Day. Hair bows and pinafores. They know I don’t know the first thing about what they do.”    

            He shifted in his chair, tilting his head back and letting out a slow breath.

            “I’m sorry. My advice was fucking terrible, wasn’t it?”

            Edie shook her head. “It was good advice for a man like you. For me—you always say I’m too young, and this is the one time I’ll agree with you on the subject. Even if I could learn this business inside and out, it would take me years to earn the respect of those men. And that’s time I don’t have if they’re going to walk out in the next week.”

            “Can you send one of your solicitors to negotiate?”

            “I’m not sure how long I can rely on them. There’s nothing in this for them beyond what I pay them, and I don’t know if that’s enough to make them actually care about the business.” She took a deep breath. “I rushed up here because I’ve known all this for a while, and there’s something I want to ask you.”

            Tommy leaned forward, elbows on his desk and eyebrows slightly raised. Edie took a rather graceless gulp of her drink, an ice cube clicking against her teeth. She’d rehearsed this conversation ten times in the car, countless more on nights when she couldn’t sleep, but it still felt impossible to get the words out here, with him across from her, watching her with those startlingly beautiful eyes. She put down her glass, folding and refolding her hands on her knees.

            “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate as it is. But I’ve been thinking about what I can do to make sure the business doesn’t go under, and it’s abundantly clear that I can’t do it myself. I need someone else, and there aren’t a lot of people I can trust who would be able to do the job.” She paused. This was the jumping off point. “And I thought maybe it could be you. If you’d join in some official capacity—President, or Chief Financial Officer, or whatever, you can choose that, it doesn’t matter, I just—”

            She made the mistake of looking up and catching his face, his expression unreadable. This was completely idiotic, wasn’t it? She rushed on to keep herself from just bolting out of the chair and downstairs to her car.

            “I just thought that if there was someone who understood a business like this…and a lot of those men were in France, so you’d be someone they respect. That’ll never be me; it’s hopeless, they think I’m some posh bitch.”

            “People have called me a lot of things, but I will admit that’s never been one of them.”

            The humor in Tommy’s voice cut Edie short, and she looked up from her twisted fingers to see him smiling gently. He reached out across the desk, one palm up, and she put her hand into his.

            “Take a breath, all right? Finish that drink and we’ll talk this through.”

            She did as he requested, then waited as he came around the desk and took the seat next to hers.

            “Let’s start again, eh?”

            His quiet, even tone helped Edie relax for the first time since she’d gotten dressed that morning. She could do this. Maybe.

            “I know I came here wildly out of sorts, but this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I need someone who I can trust to run the business, but who I can also trust to not push me out of what my grandfather built. I need someone who can be my partner.”

            “And you think it could be me?”

            “I can’t think of anyone else.” She caught his eyes and held them. “I know it would be asking a lot on top of everything else you do, but if what you’ve told me is true—this could be good for you, too. It could be the thing you need to be really legitimate. A totally above-board business, no ties to anything else. When people ask what you do, you can say it without worrying about it.”

            “It's obvious what's in it for me. Just showing up on your arm to a few galas has made that clear enough. Do you worry about the opposite, though? My reputation—my business—comes with its own problems. And I can’t step down here.”

            “I’d never ask you to. Over time I can learn, I can do more. And I know you’d let me, when the time comes. But right now—”

            “Right now you need someone those men are a little bit afraid of, eh? But my other question still stands. What if I’m bad for your business?”

            That had kept Edie up at night, too. Knowing what she knew about him, she understood the risk. On the other hand, there was the risk of the entire thing going under if she did nothing or chose someone she didn’t trust.

            “I have to hope my reputation is strong enough to balance it out. Hughes Steel hasn’t been immune to scandal—people talk about how we made money during the war and it’s not always flattering.”

            “There’s a lot fucking worse than not flattering.”

            “I could stay on as the face of the business, if you’d prefer it that way. I know there are a lot of details that don’t make sense yet, but—” she paused, desperate to choose the right words. “This summer is the first time in years I haven’t felt utterly alone. Maybe I’ve misread everything, and if I have I’m a total fool, but I can’t imagine doing this without you.”

            Tommy was silent for a long time after that, and Edie’s heart sank. She’d gone too far. Now she looked like an ignorant, lovesick little girl. She felt ill, a little unstable from the whiskey on an empty stomach, and—more than anything else—heartbroken.

            “Tommy, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here like this.”

            “Nothing to be sorry about. I’m just thinking, eh? That’s a lot of questions for a man at the end of the day.”

            “Oh, I—”

            He stood before she could finish, collected his jacket and hat, and then extended an elbow to her.

            “Why don’t you let me drive you home while I get my thoughts in order?”

 

            They drove with the top down in her car, the rapidly cooling fall air whipping their cheeks pink. Tommy didn’t speak much, but his hand stayed warm on her knee the whole way. He slowed when they passed the driveway to Langely House, glancing her way.

            “Want to look in on Charlie? He’ll be asleep.”

            She nodded and they continued onward. The stable boy jogged out to put up the top of the car when they arrived at Arrow House, giving a familiar tip of his cap. Edie thought about how often they’d gone through this routine during the course of the summer, and hoped this wouldn’t be the last time.

            The house was quiet as they climbed the stairs to Charlie’s room and opened the door carefully, letting a beam of light from the hall fall over the bed. She could just see a glimpse of tawny hair peeking from the covers. What if she could do this every night? That, of course, was ten steps ahead. Tommy hadn’t even answered on the matter of the business yet.

            They lingered a moment longer, then closed the door gently and continued down the dim hallways to Tommy’s bedroom. Inside, he put his hands on her shoulders and slipped her jacket off.

            “Enough of this, eh? You look like you’re going to a funeral.”

            Edie let him take the jacket and then stepped forward, waiting for his arms to settle around her. She closed her eyes and inhaled the familiar scent of him—starch, smoke, whiskey, ink. His breath ruffled her hair when he spoke.

            “Come get in bed with me.”

            She was relieved for a sense of direction, for something to do with her hands. After she finished undressing, she dug through the wardrobe for another of his crisp cotton shirts, buttoning it up as she tucked her legs under the covers. Tommy disappeared into the hall for a moment; she heard a murmur of conversation with a maid, and he returned with a tray of tea and toast. The odd domesticity of the scene cheered her up as he shed his suit and climbed in beside her.

            “There it is. Only takes a cup of tea to make an English girl smile.”

            They ate in companionable silence—or rather, Edie ate two pieces of toast with jam while Tommy smoked and drained a cup of black tea. When they’d put the tray aside, he leaned back against the pillows. She studied the topography of scars and tattoos on his chest; she knew them so well now that she could have traced them in the dark. Would tonight be the last time she saw him this way?

            His first words caught her utterly off guard.

            “You’re really asking me about more than just the business, aren’t you? That’s why you’re so nervous.”      

            “I didn’t mean—” She hadn’t come prepared for this.

            “Edie. Look at me, eh? After the last few months, if you imagine I didn’t know this conversation would come one day, you must think I’m a fucking idiot.”

            “I knew it would come.” Her voice felt small in the lush, half-dark expanse of the room. “But I still don’t know what you’ll say.”

            Tommy shrugged. “Makes two of us, doesn't it? I’ve asked you how you’d feel about having me for a business partner and you said you’d run the risk. Having me as a husband is a different fucking thing altogether.”

            As a husband. In spite of herself, Edie felt a flutter of joy at the base of her throat. Her mind offered up an unbidden cascade of little scenes—coming home to Tommy, eating dinner with him, settling into bed like this. Looking in on Charlie at night. Looking in on their own children. Having a family again. She didn’t hesitate.

            “My answer doesn’t change. I’d run the risk. That has to be clear by now.”

            “Don’t say that before you consider what it really means.”

            Tommy lit a cigarette and offered her one—a familiar ballet of gestures, the thoughtless slip of the cigarette over his lips, the click of the lighter, the slow inhale. She focused on the dry rasp of the paper between her fingers as he continued.

            “You know what my business entails, but you might not have thought about how dangerous it is to be connected to me. Your life would change. You’d have men with you, like Ada does, everywhere you go. There will be times when I do things you don’t agree with or things I can’t tell you about at all. And there’s no guarantee what people will think of you, choosing a man like me.”

            He was trying to talk her out of it. She’d considered this possibility from the start, but had never really been able to imagine what she’d do if it became real.

            “If you don’t want this, it can just be about the business. Or nothing at all. It can be just the same as it has been all summer. You can say no to everything if that’s how you feel—I didn’t come here to press you, but I had to ask.”

            She hated herself for that weak answer. When had she become one to back down, hedge and dissemble? Outrightly lie about what she wanted? Because she did want to be with Tommy, now that he’d put the possibility out there. In spite of everything.

            “You’re two steps ahead down the wrong path,” he replied. “I never said I didn’t want any of this. I’ve trusted you with my family, with things I don’t tell anyone about my business, with my son. Of course I want you here now, tomorrow—” he gestured outward, across the expanse of the comforter—“for as long as you’ll stay with me. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about that. But you have to go into it with your eyes open.”

            “What I said before about the business, I meant it about everything. I'd take the risk, and in some ways I have already. I just can’t imagine anything without you.”

            Tommy ran his free hand over his face, eyes sliding shut for a moment before finding hers.

            “That’s what you need to consider. What I do, who I am—there aren’t a lot of guarantees. Something could happen to me tomorrow, or a year from now, or ten. Or I could live to be eighty and have the fucking misfortune of listening to Arthur for another forty years.” He gave her a half smile, teeth a quick, bright flash in the shadows of the bed. “I have to know you can live with any of those things.”

            He twisted toward the nightstand, clicked off the lamp, and settled back down with an arm around her. Edie knew him well enough by now to recognize when he had more to say, and waited quietly.

            “Give this a night, more if you need, and really think about it. You have a good life now, one that’s better than most people could ever ask for. Decide if you want it to change. And we’ll talk again in the morning, eh?”

            She knew her answer already, but she nodded silently with her cheek against the warm skin of his shoulder. She’d choose him in spite of every possible argument against the decision, in spite of every possible risk, in spite of what her friends might think. A good life lived alone wasn’t half of what a life with Tommy could be. As a husband echoed back in her head. She’d say yes the second he asked. If he did.

            For the present, though, she’d let him think. And she’d pretend that she was weighing her options, even if that meant lying awake for most of the night.

            Which it did, in the end, though she must have dropped off eventually because the sound of the bedroom door opening woke her with a start. Disoriented, she glanced with blurry eyes at the bedside clock to see a surprisingly late time, then looked up to find Tommy crossing the room, already dressed as though he’d been up for hours. He sat down on the edge of the bed as she untangled the oversized shirt from her arms, leaning across to kiss the angle of her jaw. She expected ‘Good morning’ or ‘How did you sleep?’ or even 'I've made a decision,' but got something entirely different.

            “Come on,” he said quietly. “Let me drive you home for a fresh dress. Polly is on her way to see you.”

Chapter Text

It was too early to drink. Too early to smoke, even for Tommy. Too early for the maids to be up, so no tea. (When had he started needing a maid to make his tea? Around the same time he’d bought a house with a kitchen big enough to cook a king’s banquet, he supposed.) He stared out the window of his office, watching the sun start to rise, and finally picked up the phone.

            Ada didn’t answer the first time he rang her number in London. Maybe it was too early for her, too. He tried again, giving the receiver an irritated shake.

            “Hello?” Her sister’s voice was raspy on the other end of the line.

            “Hello, Ada.”

            “Tommy? Is something wrong?”

            “No, nothing’s wrong.”

            “You just called for a chat at quarter past five in the morning?” She cleared her throat, sounding a little testy. More than a little, really.

            “I need your opinion.”

            “You usually tell me to fuck off when I have an opinion about something.”

            No matter how old they got, his sister still knew just how to get under his skin.

            “I need your opinion about Edie.”

            Ada’s voice shot up an octave. “Is she—”

            “No. Fucking hell. Have you and Polly been talking?”

            “No, why?” Her tone leveled out again. “What is it, then?”

            He laid out the situation as well as he could, detailing Edie’s sudden appearance at the office the previous afternoon, her business proposal, and their later discussion. There was a long pause when he finished.

            “Still there?”

            “Yes,” Ada said quickly. “Give me a fucking second, will you? You just told me you’re going to marry an heiress and become president of a bloody massive steel company. Which, by the way, all sounds like brilliant news to me.”

            “I haven’t decided on any of that. It’s why I called you.”

            “Can I ask you something?” She didn’t wait for a response. “Why are you so fucking determined to be unhappy?”

            “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

            Tension and lack of sleep had coiled deep in Tommy’s shoulders. He wasn’t in a mood for Ada’s backtalk. Maybe it has been a mistake to call her.

            “Sorry, I’m just tired, all right? I’m asking you why you wouldn’t take the opportunity to marry her.” The way Ada asked the question made her stance on the matter fairly clear, but Tommy thought she was taking it too lightly. She continued before he could say so. “You’ve spent every second that you weren’t working this summer with her. Why did you do it if you didn’t want something like this?”

            “It just fucking happened, didn’t it? She showed up on that horse of hers one day and that was it.”

            Tommy couldn’t tell her the exact moment when he’d realized Edie was something more than a pleasant diversion in the country. Certainly sometime before last night, though it had been so gradual that he struggled to pinpoint anything more. It had just been so easy to be with her.

            “I know you’re not one for grand displays of affection, but you’ll have to say something a bit more dramatic than ‘that was it’ if you do want to propose to her.”

            “Very funny, Ada. You’re quite the comedian at quarter past five.”

            “If you want me to tell you whether or not you should marry her, you know what I'll say. I’ve only known her a little while, but she’s charming, intelligent, beautiful, and, as difficult as it is to judge with you, you seem happy to be with her.”

            “That’s—” Tommy didn’t know exactly why he was arguing the point. He thought about the summer with Edie—her lively parties, their long peaceful rides through the fields together, rare mornings they got to lounge late in bed, days in London—and Ada was right. He was happy with her.

            “Hold on,” Ada interrupted. “You asked for my fucking opinion and I’m not finished. This’ll sound mercenary, but she’s also the right kind of wife for a man who wants to make a reputation in Whitehall. Her connections have done wonders for you already, and she’s not wrong about you and her business. Most importantly, she adores you—and Charlie, too. Think about how good it would be for him.”

            “She’s not even old enough to be his mother. That’s one fucking problem, isn’t it?”     

            “You’re not that fucking old.”

            “I’m not that young, either.”

            “You’re making excuses now. What’s the real reason you wouldn’t do this?”

            Ada had to know, but she was going to make him say it. Likely so she could argue a counterpoint. But that was why Tommy had called her, wasn’t it? Because he’d been arguing with himself all night on the same subject and couldn’t make up his mind.

            “Because of what happened to Grace. And John. And nearly Charlie. All those things happened because of me, eh? The people close to me are my biggest weakness. Even now, walking into fucking Parliament, I look over my shoulder every day. How can I ask a woman like her to live like that?”

            “Have you asked her?”

            “She said she’d take the risk.”

            “So listen to her.” Ada sounded impatient now. “You always try to decide things for everyone, but you rarely consider what they want. I know that’s your way of running this family, and I can’t deny you’ve made a fucking success of it in spite of our best attempts to fuck it up. But she’s smart—if she says she’ll take the risk, she understands what it means.”

            He sighed heavily. “She doesn’t know about Grace.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “How she died. Edie doesn’t know, I haven’t found a way to tell her.”

            “Then you have to.” The edge in Ada’s voice sharpened. “You’ve got to tell her, and let her make the choice. And fucking listen to her. I suspect her answer will stay the same.”

            “What if it does?”       

            “Then—do you want to marry her, Tommy?”

            And that was the real question. The one deep down at the heart of all this that he was struggling with. Hearing Ada ask it out loud, not just turning it over in his own head, made the answer abundantly clear.

            “I do." Saying it still surprised him. "How about that, eh?”

            “That was pretty clear when you rang me up at the crack of dawn to ask about her, but I’m glad you’ve admitted it to yourself.”

            “And what if it’s still a bad idea?”

            “You’ve survived plenty of your own bad ideas before. Hang on—” There was a scuffling sound as Ada sat the phone down and called out, muffled, Karl, go back to sleep, I’m fine. Just talking to your Uncle Tommy, followed by a crackle as she came back onto the line. “You ought to talk to Polly, you know that right?”

            Tommy tipped back his desk chair then let the legs fall heavily forward onto the carpet. With startling accuracy, Ada had pinpointed what he was dreading most.

            “Oh, I know.”

            “Good luck.” Ada let out a sarcastic little laugh. “It’ll be in all the papers, you know. A Society Happening—by the way, I saw your picture again in the Gazette last week. My guess for the headline is ‘Wedding of the Year.’”

            “Fuck off, Ada.”

            “You’re welcome for the opinion. Any time.”

            The line clicked into silence and he replaced the phone, leaning back in his chair. The sun was fully up—officially late enough for a cigarette. He’d need one before his next call.

 

            In the end, he had two and roused a maid for a cup of tea before picking up the phone again and calling Polly’s number at the office. Even though she could have hired someone on and let herself relax a bit these days, she still kept her punishingly early hours. Keeps those girls in the front office in check, she’d told him. Otherwise, they’d swan in at 9:30 every day and Arthur wouldn’t say a fucking word.

            “Polly Gray.” She picked up quickly, her voice brusque and businesslike.

            “It’s me, Pol.”

            “Hello, Thomas.”

            Her tone remained terse. Things had been strained between them since the disastrous dinner, their conversations kept to the bare minimum to function at the office. Unless, that was, Polly found a way to get in a little dig at Edie. She’d never miss an opportunity there, whether it was the younger woman’s propensity for cherry red nail polish, her breezy London slang, her brightly-colored dresses that stood out against Birmingham’s sooty backdrop. The worst had been the week that Lizzie had sent up the fucking Society Happenings column from London with a packet of office mail—Polly and Esme had taken truly spiteful glee in picking that one apart.

            “There’s something I need to speak with you about. You there alone?" He wasn't ready for the whole family to weigh in on this particular matter.

            “God knows your brother hasn’t turned up this early, and that secretary of yours hardly counts.” He heard the porcelain clink of her teacup settling back into its saucer. “What is it?”

            “It’s about Edie. She’s made me a business proposal.”

            Best to start with the easier news first. He quickly sketched out the details as he had for Ada.

            “Well,” Polly said when he was through. “It seems like an offer that’s too good to refuse. You’d be stretched a bit thin if you go ahead with it, but it’s time Michael and Finn took on more responsibility anyhow. Though I don’t understand why she wouldn’t just hire someone—”

            “There’s more to it than that.”

            The sigh from the other end of the phone was so clear that Tommy could picture her frustrated expression. The business news might have been too easy; Polly didn’t like to feel as though she’d been tricked.

            “Always is with you. Get on with it, then.”

            “I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

            The second sigh was even more exasperated than the first.

            “What is it with you and posh women, Thomas? You draw them like flies to fucking honey.”        

            “Johnny Dogs said it was my winning personality.”

            “There’s a fucking laugh. And how did you come to this brilliant decision?”

            “Edie and I spoke about it last night. It was clear that there was more than business underneath that offer. Spoke to Ada this morning, too.”

            “You’ve certainly been busy. Is this your way of asking for my blessing, then?”

            “It’s my way of telling you about something that could change the company. Based on what a couple of fucking dinners have done, this could put me in a place to do a lot more.”

            “I understand that, but it’s not a reason to marry someone. It’s not just a business deal, especially with a girl like that. She'll have her head in the clouds the minute you show up with a ring.”

            “Even I’m not that fucking heartless, Pol.”

            The protest was somewhat empty; he was suddenly distracted by the realization that he'd have to do this properly with Edie. A ring, a question, the whole fucking thing. Fuck.

            “Is it more than a business deal to you?" Polly's voice snapped him back to attention. "Do you actually love her?”

            “I’m going to ask her to fucking marry me, aren’t I?”

            “Well, that's a romantic approach. Anyhow, you’re not going to ask her before I talk to her.”

            Tommy jerked forward in his seat. “Talk to her about what?”

            “What it means to be a fucking Shelby, among other things she needs to know. Is she at the house with you?”

            “Yes.”

            “Then tell her I’ll see her before lunch.”

            The line went dead before he could answer. He looked at his watch and hurried up the stairs.

 

            For a split second when he opened the bedroom door Edie was still asleep, her spill of dark hair a sharp contrast to the pillowcase and upturned collar of his shirt. He wanted to pause and watch her sleep, just for a minute, but she startled awake at the sound of his footsteps, the lingering effects of last night’s tears making her eyes unnaturally bright. Her expression was a bit bleary as she slid out of bed, but became increasingly alarmed as she dressed in yesterday’s gloomy clothes.

            “What do you mean Polly is on her way?” 

            “I spoke to her this morning about what we discussed.”

            “Tommy, I feel like I barely know what we discussed.” Edie slipped on her shoes and followed him down the stairs, smoothing her hair into place. “What does she want to talk to me about? She never wants to talk to me.”

            “I gave up a long time ago trying to predict what Polly might say about anything, eh?” Tommy opened the car door for her and then settled into his own seat. He chose his words carefully. “She wants to talk to you about what an agreement between you and I would mean.”

            “She wants to tell me it’s a bad idea.” Edie’s voice had been a little hesitant up to this point, but now it took on a humorous note of exaggerated drama. “That I’m frivolous and spoiled and I entrapped you with my youthful wiles.”        

            “Polly? She would never say that.” Tommy was surprised by her ability to make a joke, and grateful for it right now. “She’d just call you fucking posh.”

            “Well, she wouldn’t be the first this week.”

            “Shelbys aren’t very good at keeping family and business separate, eh? I know it doesn’t make her less difficult, but Pol does things like this because she really fucking cares about both.”

 

            He waited in the car while Edie went inside to change. (You certainly don’t want to see Mary’s reaction when I turn up like this, she’d said, gesturing at her rumpled skirt.) She’d reemerged from the house with surprising speed, freshly dressed and hair returned to its usual state of glossy perfection. They were quiet on the drive back to Arrow House and sat down stiffly in the library when they arrived, side-by-side like schoolchildren waiting for a dressing-down outside the headmaster’s office. Edie only broke the silence to ask him for a cigarette, which she smoked with uncharacteristic speed.

            The click of the front door opening made her flinch, and Tommy put a hand on her knee, squeezing gently.

            “Don’t let her scare you.” He stood, then leaned down to kiss her. “Whatever happens won’t change what I decide. It might just make things easier.”

            Edie caught his eyes and allowed herself a small smile. “I accepted a long time ago that you’re a difficult man.”

 

            The maid was taking Polly’s jacket and hat when he came into the front hall. She seemed surprised to find him alone, looking past his shoulder expectantly.          

            “Lovely to see you too, Pol. Edie’s waiting for you in the library.”

            “All right. Why don’t you go out and ride one of those ridiculous racehorses of yours? This is a women’s matter.”

            There was no real way to reply; that kind of suggestion was never really a suggestion when it came from Polly. He could use the time to clear his head, anyway. Hardly twelve hours had passed since Edie’s arrival in his office yesterday, but it felt far longer. He had the stable boy tack up the cob, ignoring the boy’s curious glance at his neatly pressed suit, and rode out aimlessly into the fields.

            Was he really going to get married again? The ease with which he’d answered Ada had surprised him this morning. It had felt right to say it, that he wanted to marry Edie. And sometimes he could imagine what a life with her would look like, days and months and years buoyed up by her elegance and effortless charm, her easy beauty.

            Other times, though, his thoughts turned to Grace. How Edie would react when she found out the truth. Whether or not he could hold himself together if something like that happened again. He was most troubled by the lingering knowledge that Edie could have another kind of life without him. She could marry the right kind of man, live in her beautiful house, have her parties—never have to worry.

            His thoughts drifted, the questions losing structure as they turned in his mind. Eventually, he found himself imagining the familiar sound of her voice, reading to him in velvet darkness of his bedroom. Imagined himself asking the question, Will you marry me? Could he ask it? Could he stand not to?

            He slowed the horse from a lazy canter to a walk as he approached the dividing wall between the fields, reining out and away from the houses toward the open land. The first leaves were turning color, distant flecks of gold and auburn that reminded him of Edie’s worn little book of poetry.

Chapter Text

Alone in the library, Edie realized she was hunched over on the sofa with her shoulders drawn up toward her ears. Sitting taller, she called to mind the voice of a long-forgotten teacher from finishing school: Chin up, back straight, shoulders down, ankles crossed—like the ladies you are, right girls? She took a deep breath as she rearranged herself, wishing she had something to do with her hands when she heard the click of footsteps approaching the door. A cigarette would have been just the thing, but she wouldn’t give Polly the satisfaction of seeing her act out her nerves.

            During the painfully short time she’d had to dress at Langely House, she’d tried to imagine what Polly might want to talk about. Based on their previous interactions, Polly ranked conversations with Edie somewhere between profound inconvenience and actual torture. Clearly, a lot had happened in the short hours she’d been asleep, perhaps including some version of Tommy’s oft-mentioned Shelby family meetings. Her best guess was related to her proposal about Hughes Steel, and she fully expected an array of acid-tongued comments from Polly for daring to nose into family business.

            She’d hoped Tommy might come back in with his aunt, just for one last reassuring glance, but Polly entered the room alone. Edie tried to keep her face neutral; her mind was still reeling from last night’s conversation with Tommy, never mind this morning’s abrupt wake-up call, but she couldn’t show it. She’d learned quickly what it meant to show any sign of weakness in front of Polly Gray.

            “Good morning, Polly.”

            She’d been deferential all summer long—nothing but a painfully polite ‘Mrs. Gray’ whenever she had to address the older woman. Maybe a change of tactics could catch her wrong-footed, give Edie whatever tiny advantage she could muster in the conversation.

            “Hello, Edith.”

            Polly sat down in a nearby club chair, conducting her usual, slightly disdainful scan of Edie’s attire. She’d had little time to think about what to wear this morning, snatching a muted, moss green dress from her closet along with her favorite diamond earrings. The dress was quiet, the earrings were not. A little way to show her station; a boost of confidence whether or not Polly noticed them.

            “Thomas called me quite early this morning with some unusual news,” Polly began. Edie noticed the same worn lines under her eyes that were so common under Tommy’s—apparently the family business took its toll on all of them. “He told me you’ve made him an offer regarding your business.”

            Edie opened her mouth but Polly was too quick. The older woman continued.

            “Wait a moment, I wasn’t finished. He also mentioned that he’s planning to marry you.”

            Edie's mouth was still open, this time in surprise. She pressed her lips together, aware that she was blinking rapidly. Planning to marry you. The words sounded particularly unreal in Polly’s acerbic tone. Happiness, apprehension, and utter shock all fought for dominance, catching her voice in her throat.

            “He—” She finally managed to eke out a word. “He hadn’t said as much to me, yet.”

            Polly’s eyebrows flicked upward. Amusement or disbelief—Edie couldn’t tell in her current, bewildered state.

            “You’ll find that’s typical of him, once you’ve known him more than a few months.” Such a knack for subtle jibes, no matter the situation. “He’s not one to share his plans.”

            “Except with you, apparently.”

            “I ran the company alone for years while my nephews were in France. He knows better than to make a business decision like this without me, even now.”

            Edie ruffled a bit at that. “It seems like rather a personal matter to me.”

            “That’s the first thing you don’t understand about this family. Matters aren’t personal or business, they’re always both. What Thomas does—who he associates with, who he supports in Parliament, who he fucks—affects this business for better or worse.”

            If Polly thought being vulgar would shock her, Edie wouldn’t let it. She held the other woman’s gaze firmly, thinking again to her old teacher’s words—like the ladies you are.

            “Wouldn’t it be for the better, in this case? It’s not hard to see the monetary value I bring to the table, but Tommy always talks about being legitimate. What better way to do that than with a business—and a wife—above reproach?”

            Polly paused, scrutinizing her in a way that made Edie want to squirm in her seat. She kept still as Polly slowly lit a cigarette, the smoke coiling up in the close, dusty air of the library.

            “And what’s in it for you? That’s what I can’t figure out about you, Edith. I know what it is that draws your type of woman to Thomas—the house, the horses, the cars, all that flash. His fucking silent, brooding act.” The last bit was emphasized with a flippant wave of her hand. “But if you’re looking for above reproach, you couldn’t be farther off the fucking mark.”

            “I never said that’s what I was looking for. I know you think I’m nothing but a spoiled little rich girl who’s never had a real problem in her life. Who can have anything she wants. But the problem with being a little rich girl, especially one with no family, is that you have one option: you get married and become someone’s little rich wife, instead. And then you never get to choose anything for yourself again.”

            Edie paused, gathering up her courage. She thought Polly might cut her off now, but the other woman seemed to be listening to her intently—perhaps for the first time ever.

            “I think Tommy will let me choose. I don’t want to marry someone and have my family’s business taken away from me—it’s all I have left of them. I need someone to help me, but I want to make my own choices and run my business how I see fit. And honestly, Polly, I don’t think we’re so unalike in that.”

            Now it was Polly’s turn to look surprised. Triumph swelled up in Edie’s chest. For the first time since meeting Tommy’s aunt, she was holding her own in a real conversation. That didn’t make her any less nervous for what Polly would say next.

            “So you’re ambitious. And you think Thomas can help you.”

            “I think he’s ambitious, too, but you know that already. I think we can help each other. He needs someone who knows London—who knows society—if he’s going to make anything of that Parliament seat. I know that my reputation, and my family’s, can make a difference if they’re connected to him.”

            “And you think that’s a good idea, being connected to him more publicly than you already are?” Polly turned to stub her cigarette out. “Do you really know who he is? I’ve seen him slit a man’s throat without fucking flinching. He’s done things that can’t come up in polite conversation in your posh little London drawing room.”

            “I know who he is. I know what he does.” Edie kept her voice level. This, at least, she’d thought through a thousand times before. Good or bad, her answer had never wavered. “I also know who he is to me. He’s someone I can trust, and tell the truth to, and—and love.”

            How strange, to say that for the first time to someone other than Tommy. Not that she hadn’t thought it before. Her feelings for him had become clear a long time ago, but she’d never found the right moment to say it out loud to Tommy—he was so reserved, so practical. She’d worried that he would think she was glossing over things too quickly, ignoring the difficulties that Polly was so eager to point out. But no amount of time or thought had changed her mind.

            “Have you told him that?” Polly seemed to read her thoughts. Edie felt herself blushing.

            “Not yet.”       

            “What a pair the two of you make.”

            “I know it seems sudden, all of this. But I think Tommy and I make a good team. And maybe I could make a good mother to Charlie, not that I could replace—”

            Polly waved her off dismissively. “You don’t have to worry about preserving Grace’s sainted memory with me. But if you think you’re going to come in and play house with Thomas and have a perfect little family, you’ll be in for a disappointment.”

            “Don’t you see that’s the point, Polly?” Edie was surprised by how sharp her voice sounded now. “I haven’t had any family at all for a long time. That’s why I won’t be scared off. The worst things in the world have happened to me already, so what do I have to be afraid of?”

            “You could lose him, too.”

            Edie felt frustration building up, spreading through her limbs and making her stiffen in her seat. People underestimated her for so many reasons—her age, the way she’d been brought up, the money she’d been born into—but Polly seemed to find new reasons to discount her all the time. She could be good for Tommy, and she knew it, but that was no good if his family shut her out forever.

            “It’s obvious you don’t want him to marry me, and you can say these things a thousand ways, but I won’t change my mind. I know you don’t think much of me at all, but I could do things for your business in London, if you let me try. And I do know that you’re as ambitious as Tommy.”

            “You don’t know the first thing about this business. But it’s clear that the pair of you have one thing in common—you’re fucking stubborn.” Polly sighed and stood, adjusting her hat. “Marry him if you want to. But don’t come crying to me when you don’t like the man you find in a year or two.”

            Edie remained in her place on the sofa as Polly started toward the door.

            “Well?” Polly looked back at her impatiently. “Are you going to go and tell him? He’s out on one of those ridiculous racehorses of his.”

            They walked out to the doorstep in silence. Polly’s driver was waiting in the car and she started toward it without a goodbye, but Edie couldn’t leave her the last word.

            “Polly—give me a chance, all right? I’m more than a posh accent.”

            The older woman turned back, eyes narrowed. Edie had finally succeeded in catching her off guard.

            “It was hard to avoid overhearing those comments.” She took the first step toward the stables. “Have a safe drive.”

           

            Since she wasn’t at all dressed to ride, Edie was forced to remain at the stables until Tommy came back. The wait wasn’t really that long, but it dragged on endlessly with Polly’s words in her mind. Planning to marry you. She didn’t even know how they’d begin their conversation when he returned. Her heart flipped in her chest when he finally appeared over the crest of the hill behind the house.

            “Made it out of the dragon’s den?” he asked as he handed his horse off to the stable boy and smoothed the wrinkles from his suit.

            “By some miracle.”

            It was so easy to fall into step beside him. Tommy turned back toward the front door, but she put a hand on his arm and nodded toward the perfectly groomed garden that spread out beyond the house, where summer’s last flowers still lingered. Funny, thinking of a man like Tommy having a garden like this. She wondered if he’d ever paid it a moment of attention.

            “Tommy—”

            He misread her hesitation. “Whatever Pol said to you, I’m sorry.”

            She took a breath, glancing down at a patch of drooping asters. “It’s not that at all. She was just Polly. It’s—I don’t mean to be so terribly forward, but she said you were planning to marry me.”

            Tommy stopped short, hands in his pockets and shoes whispering in the grass of the pathway. This was the most nervous Edie had ever been in her life. The whole thing could fall apart right now, she realized. Her plans for her business, her feelings for him, it could all be meaningless.

            “Couldn’t let me say it first, could she?” He caught the tension in her face and reached out to take both of her hands. “Are you that surprised, after last night?”

            If he’d made the decision then, he certainly hadn't shown it.

            “I honestly had no idea what you’d say to me today. Especially when Polly turned up.”

            “I didn’t either, until this morning.”

            “What happened?”

            “I talked to Ada, and she told me I was being a fucking idiot.” Edie tried and failed to stifle a laugh. “Shelby women,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “You’re in for it with the lot of them.”       

            “You’ve seen me with the horses—I like a challenge.”    

            She looked up to find Tommy studying her intently. Even after so many months, there was something so disconcerting about the weight of those eyes of his when he was really focused. They were warm now, though, his face softened by a spill of hair that had come loose in the breeze.

            “C’mere.”

            He pulled her in to kiss her—gently at first, though soon his hands found her hips and held her close against him. It was easy to lose herself in the press of his mouth, waxing and waning against hers, but she was still aware of the wide windows in the house behind them.

            “Tommy,” she said against his lips. “Anyone could see us.”

            “And? It’s my fucking house.”

            “The maids, the nanny—”

            “So?”

            “Charlie—”

            He finally stepped back with a sigh, hands still resting on her sides. “Come upstairs with me then, eh?”

            Getting upstairs proved a difficult thing with Tommy plucking loose the line of buttons at the back of her dress and sliding a hand under her skirt to ghost over the bare skin of her thighs. In his bedroom, he pushed her up against the door as soon as it swung shut.

            “What’s gotten into you?” she asked when she caught her breath.

            He rocked back on his heels, eyes dancing, ducking his head to run a hand through his hair. Their long rides on warm summer days had scattered freckles across the bridge of his nose and planes of his cheekbones. She was stunned into stillness by the realization of how much she did love him, after keeping it to herself for so long.

            “Well.” She loved that too—the upward lilt in his voice when he was in a playful mood. “Seems that I’m about to marry a woman who’s far too beautiful for me. And too clever, and too funny, and too good all around, now that I think of it. That’s enough to put a man in fine spirits, eh?”

            He finished undoing her buttons, leaving a slow, distracting line of kisses down her neck and across her shoulders as he pushed the fabric away. She felt the stretch of a smile on his lips as the dress fell to the floor. When she kicked off her shoes he took it as a sign to lift her up, waiting until she’d wrapped her legs around him before carrying her toward the bed.

            He put her down gently on the coverlet and she leaned up on her elbows as he undressed. By now she could predict the exact order in which his hands would move—watch chain, vest buttons, suspenders, collar, tie, cuffs—but she never tired of watching him. She loved knowing the precise little details of him in that way.

            Once she started—now that she’d allowed herself to—it seemed she could go on and on cataloging the things she loved about him. At this moment, she loved the way he caught his lower lip in his teeth when he looked down at her. Loved watching the ridges of muscle across his ribs and stomach go taut as he stretched out on the bed beside her. Loved the quick graze of his palms up her sides as he slipped her chemise over her head. Loved twining her fingers through his hair, dark and cool and soft, as he settled between her legs. Loved his clever tongue and patient fingers, coaxing her toward a climax that made her toes curl down into the mattress. Loved the firm grip of his hands on her hips when he slid inside her, and the sleepily contented way his eyes drifted shut when her hands found the muscular curve of his ass to bring him deeper. Loved the way his forehead fell against her shoulder, with a barely-heard hitch of breath and a muttered curse, when he was about to lose control.

           Whatever plans Tommy had started the day with were apparently pushed aside. They lingered in bed for hours, dozing and making aimless conversation. He eventually ducked away for a moment to find a bottle and two glasses; the afternoon took on a hazy, celebratory quality after that, the whiskey smoky and heavy on their tongues when they kissed.

            As the day waned they lay side by side in contented silence, the sun slicing through the curtains to catch in Tommy’s hair when she looked over at him. He was flat on his back, eyes unfocused and one arm crooked behind his head. She loved seeing him like this most of all, softened by repose, not hiding behind the dark suits and the rigid way he held himself out in the world. Hard to believe she might get to see him like this every day. Someday.

            “Feel like shopping for a new dress tomorrow?” he asked, turning on his side to face her.

            She didn’t know what to make of the question. “Always, but you’ve never taken an interest in my clothes before. What for?”

            “I’m calling a family meeting in London to announce our business deal. And then we’re going to celebrate.”

            She raised an eyebrow. “Only the business deal?”

            “Well, I haven’t asked you yet, have I?”

            “Are you worried about my answer?”

            He shook his head. “No, but I’ve got to do it right with a proper lady like you.”

            Edie smiled, gesturing at their present situation. “You must know I’m not so proper by now.”        

            “Even so.” He leaned up on one elbow. “Anyway, I need something before I can ask.”

            “What’s that?”

            His grin was sly, curiously boyish, a glimpse of a younger Tommy she hadn't had a chance to know.

            “A diamond as big as the Ritz.”

            “So you have been listening when I read at night. I thought I was just boring you to sleep.” She shuffled toward him under the sheets, his arms closing easily around her. “Half as big will do just fine, Mr. Shelby.”

 

            He called the meeting for two days later. Dinner at the Eden Club, so it was certainly a more festive affair than the typical Shelby Company gathering. Edie went to Liberty that morning and found a sleek gown in cinnamon-colored satin, twirling for Tommy’s approval in her bedroom at Eaton Square as she got dressed. She paired it with a diamond necklace that had been her mother’s and a mink wrap tucked around her shoulders against the early autumn chill.

            Walking into the club on his arm, she was relived to see a friendly contingent of Shelby faces at the owner’s table. Tommy had told her he’d speak to Lizzie privately out of respect for both of them, and Esme had stayed behind at home with two sick children. Edie secretly suspected at least one of those things was an excuse to stack the deck in her favor tonight, but if it was, she was grateful for the kindness.

            She slid into the booth beside Ada, who greeted her with a kiss on the cheek and a knowing look. Tommy’s hand came to rest on her knee as he settled beside her. Bottles of gin and champagne were already on the table and Arthur was offering up heavy-handed pours, bubbles spilling over the edges of their coupes as he bantered with Michael and Finn. Even Polly seemed in surprisingly good spirits, chatting with Ada about Karl and his schoolmates.

            They’d polished off two rounds of drinks before Tommy raised his glass, tapping his signet ring against the rim to call the table to attention.

            “All right, everyone. I’m bringing the meeting to order.”

            “You’re no fucking fun, Tom,” Arthur called out as he wedged a bottle back into the ice bucket.

            “I’ll keep it short if you shut the fuck up,” Tommy shot back.

            He was smiling, but Edie caught a funny look on his face before he continued. His gaze was distant, scanning the crowd beyond their table, and a furrow began to form between his eyebrows. She felt his fingers tense briefly on her knee, then relax as he started again.

            “A few days ago, Edie made me a business proposal and, after speaking with Polly on the matter, I’ve decided to accept. That means in a few weeks—”

            His voice dropped off abruptly, eyes casting across the room again. Glancing sideways, Edie noticed Arthur shifting in his seat, watching his brother. Soon Polly and Ada were watching him, too.

            “Tommy, are you—”

            “Quiet.”

            She’d never heard his voice like that before. Never seen his face like this before either, rigid and stony, nostrils flaring slightly with his breath. His hand left her knee and she realized he was reaching into his jacket. The side where he kept his gun. There was a shift around the table as Arthur, Michael, and Finn did the same.

            “Finn, Michael,” Tommy’s voice was low and even; his focus stayed on the crowd. “Take the girls out the side door where they do the bar deliveries. The car’s in the alley. Go to Lizzie’s. Watch for anyone following you.”

            Edie tore her eyes away from his face and looked frantically around the room. Nothing seemed amiss—the usual, well-dressed crowd was drinking and dancing, shouting to each other over the din of the band. A cold sweat broke out below the heavy necklace at her throat.

            “Arthur, are Johnny’s men here?” Tommy was still speaking in that same eerily even tone, but she heard the click of the pistol cocking below his jacket. His brother nodded. “Signal them and follow me through the kitchen. There are four. Two by the front door, Weiss and another at the bar. Ready?”

            Everything was happening too fast. Edie was hardly aware of Polly and Ada’s raised voices, or the rush of movement as the men started to react. She reached out for Tommy’s arm and his fingers clamped over her hand hard enough to hurt as he dragged her out of the booth behind him.

            “Go with Michael now, all right? You have to go right fucking now.”

            He still didn’t raise his voice, but there was a flare of panic in his eyes that she’d never seen there. It terrified her. If he was afraid, something was terribly wrong. She tried to speak but couldn’t find the right question, and then Tommy was talking over her shoulder, pressing her back until she stumbled into someone.

            “Take her, fucking go.”

            Michael’s arm was suddenly tight around her waist, urging her forward. Rushing her away from Tommy. She twisted back, the mink slipping off her shoulders and onto the sticky floor before she could grab for it, and saw him cutting rapidly through the crowd with Arthur. A few men in flat caps were coming toward them, the sight familiar to her from the day at Epsom. But there were other men too, shouldering quickly through the crowd, and she didn’t recognize them. She stumbled on the hem of her dress and Michael caught her arm, pulling her along until she lost sight of Tommy. They ducked into a dim, narrow hallway and she could see Finn ahead with Polly and Ada.

            “Edie," Michael's voice was edgy and uneven. "We’ve got to hurry.”

            As much as she wanted to pull away from him—to go back in and find Tommy—the muted gleam of a gun in his free hand silenced any further argument. They rushed through a heavy door and into the alley, where the others were clambering into a car with the engine running. She felt like her mind was ten steps behind. How had the car been waiting here? How had they all known what to do? What was happening inside?

            Michael was hurrying her across the seat, already pulling the door shut behind them, when she heard a gunshot ring out from the club.

Chapter Text

“I want to see him, Arthur!”        

            Tommy jerked awake, head spinning, in an unfamiliar room. For a few bleary seconds, he thought he was back at the field hospital in France where they’d taken him after digging him out of the collapsed tunnel. No, no—he was alone here, for a start. No other men shouting and groaning and praying. Striped wallpaper instead of stained canvas. The smell of perfume and powder instead of antiseptic and blood. His eyes were blurry and a white-hot knife of pain raced up his side when he raised a hand to rub at them. A woman’s bedroom, he realized, glancing around. A flowery bedspread, a bureau cluttered with curlers and tubes of lipstick.

            “He’s not even awake, the doctor said—”

            “I don’t care what the fucking doctor said, it’s been all day! You can’t just keep me out here!”

            The voices coming from outside the room belonged to Edie and Arthur. He’d know the two of them anywhere, even in his hazy state. His head felt cloudy, and a glance at his arm revealed a pinprick mark at the crux of his elbow. Morphine, or something like it. Confirmed by the sickly stick of his tongue against the roof of his mouth when he parted his lips. Looking down, he saw that the lower half of his abdomen was wrapped tightly in clean, white bandages. What the fuck had happened to him?

            “You don’t fucking want to see him like this, all right?” Arthur again, sounding equal parts exasperated and anxious.

            “Arthur.” Tommy’s voice came out as a dry, half-silent croak. He coughed, cleared his throat, tried again. “Arthur, let her in.”

            The conversation on the far side of the door came to an abrupt halt, followed by the shuffling sound of the pair jostling for position.

            “Fucking hell,” he could hear Arthur muttering as the doorknob turned and Edie burst into the room.

            She looked as though she’d come from a party, even though the light streaming into the room suggested it was midday. Diamonds and a deep red dress in a fabric that shimmered and flashed. His eyes had followed that color through the crowd last night—

            Now he remembered.

  

            The club had been packed out with a boisterous Saturday crowd, everyone flooding back into the city after their summer holidays. That made it difficult to get through the room quickly, never mind keeping track of Arthur and the Blinders men moving in his direction, Edie and his family struggling through the crush of people the opposite way, and—most importantly—Ollie and his men, wherever they were. Divergent lines of thinking clamored for Tommy’s attention as he shouldered through clutches of women in spangled evening dresses, men in dark jackets, waiters in matching bow ties.

            First of all, they needed a plan. Getting to the kitchen would at least put them out of sight of the crowd, put the customers out of harm’s way, but beyond that, he hadn’t gotten far. He didn’t want to just start shooting wildly, but if Ollie had more men somewhere he hadn’t seen—

            Second, there was the question of how the fuck Ollie had gotten here. Spotting the man in the crowd had felt like a plunge into icy water. He’d had it on good authority from his men in London that Solomons’ former second sailed for France weeks ago. Either someone had fucked up royally (and they’d pay the price once he’d gotten out of this fucking mess, if that was the case), or Ollie had the nerve to come back to London before his burnt-down warehouse was even rebuilt. Tommy knew he was an idiot, but it was hard to believe he was that stupid.

            Finally, there was the matter of Edie, Pol, and Ada. He’d lost sight of them in the crowd almost immediately. Not that he didn’t trust Michael and Finn, but—all right, he didn’t fucking trust Michael and Finn this much. There had been no other choice, though. Once, he would have split up Arthur and John in this kind of situation, but he needed Arthur by his side now.

            At the moment, his brother was about twenty feet ahead of him. Glancing around, he saw a few familiar flat caps angling toward them, and ripples of movement among the crowd as Ollie and his men shoved through to catch up. He picked up his pace when Arthur and their men disappeared through the swinging kitchen door, bringing his gun out of his jacket as he shouldered it open and turning back to see where Ollie was. They’d only have a moment to regroup before he got inside.

            The kitchen was a fucking nightmare. Cooks carrying steaming pans, waiters whirling with heavily laden trays, cigarette girls clustered together, laughing on their break, barely an inch to move. There was a table near the entrance stacked high with plates; he dragged it across the doorway—anything to buy them a few more seconds—then shouted over the clang of the room.

            “Arthur, lads, spread out!”

            A doorway at the far end of the kitchen led to a warren of storage rooms and finally out to the grimy alley behind the club. They’d have a better chance back there. Places to take cover, a way out. Fuck, they had to keep this quiet somehow, too. Everyone in the club had seen his face tonight—he’d lose the Parliament seat, the license, fuck knew what else if he got caught in a gunfight. He scanned the room and pointed at a block of knives on the far countertop.

            “Guns only if you need them, you fucking hear me? Everyone else—” he wheeled around to face the stunned kitchen staff, raising his voice even more—“get the fuck out of here!”

            There was no time for the warning to be effective. He’d known that. There wasn’t even time for him to take his own advice and pull a knife from the block before he heard the door bang up against the table. The legs squealed and it shifted with a crash of china as Ollie and his men poured through, half vaulting over the table and into the kitchen.

            They spotted Arthur and the other men first, plowing through the crowd as his brother disappeared through the far door. Ollie must have assumed Tommy was with them; he ran straight on, leaving one of the other men to break off into the kitchen. Tommy recognized him from Solomons’ bakery—a rough-skinned redhead with a nose that had clearly been broken more than once. After a few seconds scanning the crowded space, he recognized Tommy, too.

            “Oi boss, he’s in ‘ere!” he called out, but Ollie was already gone into the hallway.

            Tommy scrambled to get behind the long steel table at the center of the kitchen, where the cooks stacked plates waiting to be served. One of the cigarette girls screamed as he pushed her aside, the boxes in her tray flying as she tripped out of the way.

            “I said get the fuck out!” he shouted, furious at the distraction.

            The kitchen was still packed, some people trying to shove through the half-blocked door and slipping on shards of broken china, others just frozen in shock. He had his pistol raised but couldn’t get off a clean shot like this. Keeping the table between himself and Ollie’s man, he edged closer to the knife block. The man had a gun of his own, plus a flick knife open in his other hand, the blade gleaming under the harsh kitchen lights.

            He had to buy himself time. Even a few seconds. Anything.

            Keeping one eye on the man, he scanned the room for another weapon. If he didn’t find anything he’d have to shoot.

            There was a steaming tureen of soup on the table between them. He lunged for it, stifling a shout when his palms made contact with the hot handles, and flung it into the man’s face. It probably wasn’t hot enough to blind him, but at least he’d created enough of a distraction to get to the other side of the kitchen and grab the first handle that he saw. 

            The handle was attached to a cleaver. A clumsy, heavy thing that felt off balance in his hand. Not what he’d wanted, but no time to draw again—the man was already rounding the table, smearing soup out of his eyes with his sleeves. His fists were still closed around the pistol and the knife.

            Tommy took a cautious step sideways, trying to get at an angle where he could head for the back door, but the man was fast. He lunged out with the knife, which narrowly missed Tommy’s left arm. Soup was flinging off his clothes as he moved, turning the floor slick. Tommy made an awkward parry with the cleaver, soles of his dress shoes scrabbling on the tiles. There were still so many fucking people in here. He had to get out before one of them tripped him up, got in the way, got themselves killed.

            He thought about abandoning the cleaver, hoping for the best with the pistol and his fists, but the malignant gleam of the flick knife made him second guess that choice. Would give anything for a razor blade right now, wouldn’t he? Instead, he hefted the cleaver and took another swing at the man.

            He’d been closer that time, but the weight of the cleaver set him off balance for just a second too long. The man stepped up into the gap between them, his stance low like a boxer just coming into the ring. Tommy saw the gleam of the knife before he felt his skin break, heard the rip of the blade shearing through suit and shirt and skin before he felt the wash of warm blood start down his side.

            Fuck. Fuck.

            The pain that shot through his abdomen was intense, searing, clarifying. Time moved slower now. He had time to see the burst blood vessels in the whites of the man’s eyes, the greasy gleam of soup clinging to his hair, the broken tooth at the front of his mouth. He had time to weigh his options while the man was still recoiling from the slash—pistol or cleaver? Had time to look around the room at the terrified faces of the remaining staff and choose the cleaver. Had time to wind up his arm and bring the blade down hard where the man’s neck met his shoulder.

            The crunch of cartilage and bone sped time up again. The soldier’s minute was gone, and with it went his ability to block out the agony of the wound in his side. He let go of the cleaver’s handle as the man sank to the floor, then clamped his free hand over the sticky patch forming on his jacket as he scrambled around the floor for the knife. When he reached out to pluck it from the man’s slack hand, he saw that his fingers were red with blood from whatever was happening underneath his shirt.

            Judging from the pain it was nothing good, but there was no time to think about that now. Arthur, Ollie—he had to get out of the kitchen. Had to find them, get to Lizzie’s—

            Straightening up with the knife and his pistol, he started for the back door. On the way, he grabbed at the jacket of one of the cooks who was still in the room. The man’s face was a sickly milk-white, his eyes perfect circles of shock.

            “Keep that fucking door shut. No one in or out, you hear me?”

            He released the man’s lapel, trying to ignore the fact that his hand left a smear of blood on the white cotton, and ran toward the door to the back hallway.

            The space on the other side of the door was dark and silent, eerily empty. No sign of anyone. He wheeled around, shouting, trying not to think about how shallow his breath felt.

            “Arthur! Johnny! You in here!?”

            No reply. He didn’t know where to begin. Get toward the alley, he supposed. It was a maze back here, too many places to be ambushed if you were alone. The pain in his side started to shoot down his leg and up into his lungs as he sprinted for the door.

            He was halfway there when a figure emerged from one of the doorways, slamming him into the far wall with breathtaking force. Not that he had much breath in him anymore. They grappled against the wall for a moment, Tommy trying to keep his grip on the pistol and the knife with blood-slick fingers, before smashing through another door.

            He stumbled into the room backward, back slapping against something soft and cold. A slab of meat, raw and clammy—they were in the meat locker behind the kitchen. He dodged around the hanging hulks of beef, suckling pigs, legs of lamb. The man followed him, leering.

            “There y’are, Tommy boy! Where you been hidin’ tonight?”

            Another one he recognized from the bakery; this one shared Solomons’ Cockney accent, his scraggly beard, his hulking form. Tommy’s vision blurred for a moment as he tried to follow the man’s movements through the dim space and he shook his head. The man barked out a raspy laugh.

            “Looks like somebody got you one good, didn' they?”

            His eyes flashed toward the growing red splotch on Tommy’s shirt. As though he needed the reminder. He felt lightheaded, and now the leg of his trousers was plastered to his thigh with blood. He was running out of time. The meat creaked on its hooks around them as they moved through the room. As the man moved him backward. He was getting pushed into a corner. There were no windows in here, no ways out. His breath puffed in pale clouds and his fingers stiffened in the cold air. He could feel hot blood oozing out of the cut in his side.

            Fuck the knife. Fuck it, he’d have to shoot or die. He got a good grip on the handle of the knife and threw it as hard as he could at Ollie’s man, watching it flash as it turned end over end. When the man flinched, he raised the pistol and fired three times in rapid succession, catching him in the chest, the shoulder, finally in the cheek. The sound in the room was deafening; he could only hope it wasn’t as loud outside. Hoped at the same time it was loud enough for Arthur to hear, to find him, because his head was spinning now.

            He crumpled to the floor as the other man fell, kneecaps hitting the tile with a crack. The pistol came loose from his hands as he grabbed for his shirt, trying to undo the buttons, survey the damage, but his fingers were too clumsy now. Eventually, he gave up, listening to the man’s breath gurgle then stop as he tried to summon the strength to shout for Arthur. He couldn’t catch his breath.

            He didn’t know how long he was alone in the dim locker, the man’s body splayed out nearby with his lifeless eyes pointed up at the hanging sides of beef, the trays of eggs and silver milk cans stacked against the walls. The distant, muffled pop of a gun sounded as he lay there. Either it was distant or his hearing was fading, he wasn’t sure. He tried to stand then, but the soles of his shoes scrabbled for purchase on the slick floor and his arms didn’t have the strength to help. Eventually, he slumped sideways against the wall. There was a dark stain spreading around him, gleaming sluggishly on the white tiles.   

            Fuck, oh fuck, it was blood. He reached out and dragged his fingers through the sticky pool, thoughts fragmenting. There was blood on the floor—where was Grace? They’d been dancing, hadn’t they? There had been music, and diamonds in her hair, and they’d been dancing. No, no, that was wrong. Grace was dead, buried in the tunnels with him. It wasn’t blood, it was silk. Crimson shimmering against Edie’s skin, diamonds at her throat, her dark hair and white teeth and silk as red as blood. Was this her blood? Was she here? Was she safe? And Polly, and Ada…no, they were all gone. He was alone in the dark under the ground and the blood was his, it was Grace’s, it was Charlie’s, it was John’s, it was Edie’s. Edie. Edie. He was going to marry her, if he ever got home from France. Ever got out of this fucking mud. He’d tell her then, he’d tell her—

            Later, he’d only half remember Arthur and Johnny bursting through the door, their own clothes splattered in blood. Would only remember Arthur’s hoarse, shouted orders—Get the fucking car! Jesus fucking Christ look at this fucking blood. Can you hear me, Tommy?—because they’d been punctuated by searing pain as his brother dragged him off the floor and down the hallway. He wouldn’t remember anything after that until the sound of Edie’s voice through the door.

 

            In the sunlit bedroom, he scrubbed his hands over his face again. When he tried to drag himself into a sitting position Edie took a step forward, reaching toward him nervously. Arthur appeared in the doorway behind her.

            “Tom, you’ve had thirty fucking stitches at least. Just lay down. I told you this was a fucking bad idea.”

            That last bit was directed toward Edie, and she paid as little attention to Arthur as Tommy did. He shifted up against the pillows with a groaning breath, trying to ignore the painful tug of skin underneath the bandages.

            “How the fuck did I get here?”

            His voice was raspy, crackling in his throat. He needed water. There was a pitcher on the side table and he tried to reach for it, but the motion made something low in his abdomen twist nauseatingly.

            “Here—”

            Edie rushed forward to pour a glass. Up close, he saw that her dress was wrinkled and splashed with stains across the skirt. She put the glass in his hand, cool and smooth.

            “You’re at Ada’s,” she said softly as he gulped down the water. The ice cold feeling of it soothed his throat and sharpened his thoughts instantly. “Arthur brought you here last night.”

            Last night. What a fucking disaster. He studied her silently, taking in the sooty smudges of makeup around her eyes, the washed-out cast of her skin from lack of sleep, the dress with its unidentifiable stains and a gaping tear in the hem, the bruise darkening on her bare upper arm. He thought of her that day at Epsom, her shoes stained with mud and a spray of blood across her white dress. This wasn’t how a woman like her should look. Not how a woman like her should live. When she reached out for the empty glass he caught her wrist, tightening his fingers until he could feel the rapid flutter of her pulse.

            “Listen to me, Edie. This has to end. You have to go.”

Chapter Text

Tommy looked small. That was what scared her the most when she stepped into the room. Usually, his presence filled a space, pushing everyone else to the fringes. Now he seemed pale and diminished, like a poorly-made replica of himself propped up below Ada’s floral duvet, its pattern of white roses giving the whole scene an unnervingly funereal aspect.

After the long night of waiting, Edie had thought it would be a relief to see him. They’d spent the first few hours at Lizzie’s flat sitting in tense silence; whatever questions Lizzie must have had after their breathless arrival were stifled by Polly’s terse explanation of the situation, which invited no further conversation. Edie had perched herself on a small sofa in the corner of the room, periodically peeling her skirt away from her legs where a sticky patch of spilled champagne was drying. She waited for Polly or Lizzie to snap at her, tell her she had no business in this, the most personal of family matters, but both women remained silent.

When the phone rang with news from Arthur—they’d gotten out of the club but Tommy was hurt, they were meeting a doctor at Ada’s—Michael tried to convince them to stay put for the time being. Stay safe in case anyone had trailed them, let the doctors work. That suggestion had been roundly shouted down, though the waiting had been no different once they moved locations.

The doctor had been behind a locked door with Tommy and Arthur when they arrived, leaving some time later with alarming blood stains on his cuffs and a bundle of sheets that he stuffed into the trash can on his way out. Ada, Polly, and Edie had all tried to argue with Arthur then, force their way into the bedroom, but he’d stood his ground. The doctor knocked him out with morphine, it’ll be hours before he comes around, Arthur had said. He woke up halfway through the fuckin’ stitches swinging at us, totally off his head. Had to do it so he wouldn’t hurt himself more. Just fuckin’ wait, all right?

Edie had tried to be patient as morning light flooded the house, as her back and legs grew stiff from sitting in one of Ada’s kitchen chairs. Eventually, though, she’d lost her cool and gone upstairs to shout at Arthur, both of them immensely surprised when Tommy’s voice came through the door.

And now she was here, with his hand around her wrist and his words ringing in her ears and his face parchment white, wishing she hadn’t come in at all.

“You don’t mean that. You just woke up.” She scrambled for words, a nervous flush rising across her chest and in her cheeks. His grip hurt, surprisingly tight considering how weak and washed out he looked. “The doctor gave you morphine—”

“For fucking stitches?” Tommy’s eyes, brighter and more startling than ever in his drawn face, shifted over her shoulder to Arthur. “What the fuck kind of doctor did you have in here?”

“You were fighting us,” Arthur said, his voice scratchy from a night of no sleep. “Losing too much blood and he couldn’t see if you’d nicked anything important with you thrashing around.”

“And did I?” Tommy sounded testy, as though being sewn up and held together with bandages was nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

“No. Close fuckin’ call on your lung though.”

“And what about Weiss?”

“Took a dive out the back door as soon as he saw the odds in the hallway. Came back to London but he’s still a fuckin’ coward.”

“The other man with him?”

“Johnny Dogs shot him in the head. Boys dumped all three bodies in the Fenlands before dawn. Separate locations to be safe.”

Edie’s eyes followed the back and forth between the brothers like she was watching a tennis match. She could hardly believe Tommy’s calm, businesslike tone. He could easily have been sitting in his office with a cigarette and a cup of tea, looking over the day’s accounts.

“Anything in the papers?” he asked flatly.

“I’ll send Finn for them now.”

“Good. Now get the fuck out.”

“You should try to get some rest, Tom—”

“I said get the fuck out.”

Tommy finally dropped her wrist when the door clicked shut behind Arthur. Edie took a wary step back.

“Arthur’s right, you should rest. There’s plenty of time to talk when you’re feeling better. Right now you’re not even thinking clearly.”

She tried to keep her voice even, but she’d never seen Tommy this way. There was a deep, glacial coldness in his eyes that made her hands shake; she clasped them together to hide it.

“There’s nothing wrong with my thinking. It’s you and Arthur who’ve lost your minds, treating me like a fucking child.”

“That’s not—you’re hurt. We’re worried about you.”

“You being worried about this,” he gestured disdainfully at the bandages, “just proves my point. This is no kind of life for you. Can’t even have a fucking dinner without pulling a gun. You deserve something better than that, eh?”

“I know what you do. You and Polly and everyone have made it clear and I’ve made how I feel clear, too.” She took a few steps forward and sat down on the end of the bed so they could be eye to eye. “I said I’d take the risk. If it means this, I haven’t changed my mind. I won’t change it.”

Tommy shook his head, bringing his hands up to drag his palms across his eyes and cheeks. She could see the wince of pain at the corners of his mouth just from raising his arms a few inches. When she glanced down, she noticed a fresh spot of blood blooming on the bandages below his ribs.

“You should lie—”

She had no chance to finish. When he dropped his hands, his mouth was set in a hard line.

“Get up, and get out. Have Michael or Arthur drive you. Go home, go to Warwickshire, go to the fucking moon if you have to, but get the fuck away from me before something happens to you.”

Edie rose, though her legs were shaking so badly that she hardly trusted them to hold her up. She stood in the center of the room, arms hugged across her chest, but made no move for the door. Her mind reeled, trying to make sense of what he’d just said to her. She knew, of course she knew, that there was a hardness at the heart of him, but she’d never expected this kind of cruelty.

“Why are you acting like this?” Her voice had taken on a shrill pitch; she knew everyone outside could hear her, but she didn’t care. “What's wrong with you?”

“I fucking lied to you, all right? That’s what’s fucking wrong.”

His voice was eerily flat, no change in emotion to match her own. Tommy twisted sideways, scrabbled at the bedside table for a half-empty packet of Ada’s cigarettes and a book of matches. She heard his raspy catch of breath at the motion, saw the tremor in his hands as he lit one and brought it to his lips without any of his usual grace. The crimson spot on the bandages was growing.

“What do you mean?”

“I didn’t tell you things I should have told you. That’s what Polly and I argued about that night at dinner. She said I needed to tell you about Grace.” He took a long drag on the cigarette, followed by a shaky exhale. “She was shot by a man with a grudge against me. At a party. In front of everyone in Birmingham, and I couldn’t do a fucking thing but watch her die. Just like I couldn’t do a fucking thing when those same men killed John. Or when someone else I’d crossed kidnapped Charlie. People know that I don’t give a fuck if I die, so they get to me through the people I love instead.”

Edie was frozen, utterly unable to speak or move. She could feel her shoulders shaking, hot tears trailing down her cheeks, the muscles in her throat contracting. Grace, John, Charlie—Charlie. He’d almost lost Charlie and never said a word. I fucking lied to you. She was ashamed when an ugly, hiccupping sob escaped from her lips. Her arms tightened, fingers digging into her ribs until the pain made her focus. Everything was falling apart. I fucking lied to you. The people I love.

“The people you love?” She scrubbed her hands across her blurry eyes; they came away smeared with tears and mascara. “Do you love me, then? At all? If you can tell me to get out this way?”

Tommy’s eyes widened with the first emotion she’d seen in them since entering the room, and his hands dropped to the bedspread in an open-palmed gesture of defeat that brought the glowing stub of the cigarette dangerously close to the sheets. “Of course I fucking love you.” The strain in his voice almost concealed the disbelieving, despairing tone below. “Loved you since the minute you turned up with that ugly coat and fancy horse of yours, giving Arthur a dressing down in my back garden. Thought I was going to marry you until I realized that was the stupidest fucking idea I ever had.”

“It’s not.”

She wasn’t sure of that now, though. She thought of the portrait in Tommy’s front hall—Grace, with her angelic blonde hair above that strangely reserved smile. A woman who’d had to hold all of her husband’s secrets, who’d paid the price for them as Edie had promised she would, too. Before she knew what the promise even meant. I couldn’t do a fucking thing but watch her die. I lied to you.

“This isn’t one of your fucking books. There’s no turning me around, no happy ending. There’s you putting me in a grave, or me putting you in one.”

“That could be fifty years from now.”

Edie didn’t even know why she was arguing. She didn’t know what she wanted anymore. Tears had started dripping off her chin, adding new stains across the bodice of her dress.

“It could have been last night. When I saw those men I thought about holding you, just like Grace. Feeling your blood on my hands. Taking Charlie to put flowers on your fucking grave.” Tommy twisted again to put out the cigarette; the spot of blood on the bandages was now a wide stain with ragged edges, alarmingly dark at the center. “This is over, Edie. Marry a man who can give you the kind of life you should have. Posh house, pack of kids on ponies, no worries about your business or anything else.”

“We could have that.”

The words sounded hollow, and Tommy shook his head as soon as she’d said them. His breath was coming unevenly and he looked paler than before, the skin below his eyes almost translucent.

“I can’t. And you know it, now that you know the truth.”

In spite of how awful he looked, Tommy’s voice hardly wavered. When their eyes met she could see the resolve in them, mingled with a sadness that hadn’t been there before. He hadn’t gotten to where he was by being a man who easily changed his mind. Whatever she could say now wouldn’t matter, she realized. It was over if he said it was. She wiped her face again, drawing her shoulders back. His last sight of her wouldn’t be her crying.

“I won’t beg you. But—I love you. I still do. I still will, if you change your mind."

She turned away and started for the door, unable to bear looking at him anymore. Terrible enough that the last time she’d see him would be like this. She’d made it halfway across the room when his voice stopped her.

“Edie. I’m sorry.”

She didn’t turn back. If she did now, she’d lose her composure.

“Me too.”

The stunned, brittle atmosphere in the kitchen made it clear that the family had heard at least part of their conversation. Edie could feel everyone’s eyes on her tear-stained face. She spoke to Polly first.

“He told me about Grace.”

Tommy’s aunt didn’t reply, just nodded quietly. The silence was unbearable. She took a deep breath and turned to Ada, Arthur, and Michael, who were clustered together at the table.

“This is our goodbye, I’m afraid. Arthur, you should call the doctor back, he’s ripped his stitches out already.”

She started for the door, hoping to get away before she started crying again, but Ada and Michael followed her down the front hall with a rapid scrape of chair legs and clatter of shoes.

“Edie, don’t. Tommy just gets this way. He’ll come around—”

“Let us talk to him. At least let me drive you, it’s not—”

“No. Thank you.” She paused with a hand on the doorknob. “You know he won’t come around, and I need the fresh air right now. I just need to be alone.”

She ducked out before they could protest again, hoping fervently that they wouldn’t follow her into the street. After a few minutes of anxious glances behind her, she was relieved to find they hadn’t—and then she was shattered by the realization of what had just happened.

Tommy had sent her away. He’d loved her, he'd lied to her all along, and how did those two things go together at all? She’d lost him. The exact thing he’d warned her could happen—and he’d caused it in a way that was just as fast and painful as a bullet would have been. She was alone again. Just as she had been again and again and again. Only this was a different kind of loneliness because the person wasn’t gone. Everyone else was irretrievably lost; her grandfather and brother in the family plot in London, her father and uncle somewhere in the fields of France, her mother inside a mind that had frayed apart. But Tommy was right there, still. Just a breath beyond the reach of her hands.

The walk from Ada’s flat to Eaton Square was much too far for her high heels, which quickly raised angry red welts on her toes and heels. The air was too cold for her bare arms. And the streets were too public for her stained and torn dress, which felt rank and sweaty from her sleepless night. God knew what she would have said if she'd come across someone who recognized her, if anyone had seen her stringy hair and smudged face and the quickly darkening bruises on her arms from last night's crush in the crowd.

By some miracle she didn’t see anyone, though the maids gave her a look of utter horror when she burst into the door at Eaton Square. She snapped at them to leave her alone, a gesture so out of character that they retreated in terrified  silence. Upstairs, she changed into a fresh dress, scrubbed her face, and jammed a hat over her dirty hair. She should have tried to sleep, or even just taken a few minutes to collect her thoughts, but she got into her car and drove north instead.

She cried most of the way to Warwickshire, but the tears brought no kind of catharsis, only an empty and aching pain in her chest. Later she realized that she hardly remembered the drive. Could have steered the car straight into a tree or fence without even noticing until it was too late. By the time she reached the house, her muscles had gone tight from the long night and ill-conceived walk through the streets of London. Mary opened the door as she climbed the front stairs stiffly, trying to take a few deep breaths and wipe her eyes with her sleeves.

“Edith?” The older woman’s eyes widened in alarm as she got a closer look at Edie’s face. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in London with Mr. Shelby all week.”

“I—I need to sit down, Mary.”

Edie’s legs felt boneless with exhaustion. She’d collapse right here on the carpet in a moment, and then Mary would really have a fit. The housekeeper rushed her into the study, sitting down beside her on the sofa.

“Are you sick? Did something happen? Where’s Mr. Shelby?”

“Mr. Shelby and I—” Edie took a shuddering breath. Her voice was starting to fail, but she tried to keep it even. No more crying. “Our, our arrangement has come to an end. I came up to say—” She was losing whatever weak grasp she had on composure. “I came up to say you can close the house. Indefinitely. I’ll be going back to London. I can’t be here alone.”

That word. Alone. As she had been when she started the summer here. A word she’d thought she could finally put behind her for good. She turned to Mary, shoulders sagging, and the older woman opened her arms. Edie buried her face in the housekeeper’s dress, just as she had when she was a child with scraped knees or hurt feelings, breathing in the familiar mix of starch, furniture polish, the lavender-scented powder Mary kept in a tin on her dressing table.

“Oh, Edie.”

Mary tightened her arms gently, another echo of childhood that wrenched something loose inside Edie’s chest. She knew her words were unintelligible between the sobs, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t the kind of question that had an answer anyway.

“How can I end up alone again?”

Chapter Text

It took Arthur and the boys almost two weeks to find Ollie. By the time they dragged him out of the rat-infested tenement in Digbeth where he’d be hiding, Tommy’s stitches were halfway healed. Every bump in the road still made him clench the steering wheel in pain during the drive to London. Arthur had offered to bring Ollie up to Birmingham, but Tommy preferred to finish things where they’d started.

            The Camden warehouse was still empty, silent and smelling of fresh sawdust, when Arthur opened the door. The cautious way his brother’s eyes scanned him up and down, as though he’d be able to see the state of his injuries through his suit and coat, did nothing to improve Tommy’s mood. He brushed by without a greeting, drawing out his pistol as he crossed the floor with echoing footsteps. They’d tied Weiss up in a chair near the center of the warehouse, bathed in a pool of sickly yellow light from one of the overhead lamps. Johnny Dogs was posted nearby, a stubby shotgun resting on his shoulder.

            “Leave us alone.” Tommy jerked his head toward the door.

            “That a good idea, Tom?”

            Arthur’s solicitous demeanor was quickly wearing away at the last of Tommy’s nerves, already strained by a fortnight of forced convalescence. Ada hadn’t even let him out of her flat for nearly three days after the disastrous night at the Eden Club, and the scolding he’d gotten from Polly for ripping his stitches had made him wish for another knockout dose of morphine. When this was all over, he needed to have a serious talk with his whole fucking family about their collective opinion that he was suddenly incompetent.

            “He’s tied up and I’ve got a fucking gun.” Half of Ollie’s face was obscured by a dirty gag, but both eyes were puffy and blackened. “And it looks like you’ve gotten in a few already. Wait outside, eh?”

            His brother let out an irritated huff before nodding at Johnny and starting for the door. Tommy cocked back the hammer of his pistol and used the muzzle to push the gag down, rewarded by the brief flash of fear in Ollie’s eyes. The other man spat, revealing bloody teeth.

            “Rumor around town is my man almost gutted you like a fish.”

            Tommy took a half step back, clicking the hammer off. He paused contemplatively, then flipped the gun in his hand, brought his arm back in a wide arc, and cracked the butt of the pistol across Ollie’s cheek. The solid crunch of contact was satisfying enough to outweigh the pain of the movement; he was careful to keep his face neutral.

            “Should dispel that rumor. Heard any more, or would you prefer to die with a few teeth in your mouth?”

            Ollie spat blood again. “Go ahead and shoot me then, you fucking gypsy.”

            Tommy let the hand holding the pistol drop to his side. “What the fuck did you come back here for? My men followed you to Paris. You could have been a good enough small timer there, or New York, or anywhere else. You just think to yourself, ‘Fuck all that, I want to be shot in the head by a fucking gypsy?’ Or did you actually believe you had a chance?”

            Ollie grinned—a horrible, lopsided display. “Well, here’s the thing Tommy. You’re only little. Alfie had you pegged from the start. London’s a big man’s game, and taking you out—little as you are—would have gotten me back into it.”

            Tommy had to admit, Weiss had some balls. He was a piss poor gangster and a delusional idiot who’d signed his own death certificate by coming back to London, but he had some fucking balls, saying a thing like that to a man with a gun in his hand.

            “Alfie had me pegged, eh? Then how is it that he’s rotting with a bullet in his head and I’m here, about to help you along toward the same sorry state of affairs?”

            “And how’s your state of affairs these days? I saw the look on your face that night in the club. You were scared. Lord of the fucking manor in there, with your whole fucking gypsy family and that posh little cunt you been in the papers with, and you were fucking scared.”

            An unexpected sense of calm had come over Tommy on the drive down from London, strange but welcome. It vanished now—your whole fucking gypsy family and that posh little cunt—replaced by a bright red flare of rage. He brought the gun up so fast that Ollie flinched, pressing the muzzle against the other man’s forehead.

            “You liked seeing me scared? Close your eyes and picture it. Picture that look on my fucking face.” Ollie held his gaze and Tommy pulled the hammer back once more. “Close your fucking eyes.”

            “Fuck y—”

            The recoil of the first shot sent a fresh bolt of pain down Tommy’s side, but he couldn’t stop. He emptied the entire magazine, ears ringing so loudly that it took him a few seconds to hear the hollow clicks of the trigger when the bullets were all spent. It took even longer to realize that Arthur and Johnny had burst back into the warehouse, clearly alarmed by the rapid gunfire. Their faces slackened simultaneously when they saw what was left of Weiss.

            “Jesus fuck, Tommy.” Johnny’s voice was uncharacteristically hushed.

            Tommy slid his empty gun back into its holster and turned away from the slumped body in the chair.

            “Take care of it. I have meetings in Birmingham this afternoon.”

            He was halfway to the door when Arthur called out. “What do you want us to do with him?”

            Tommy turned back and shrugged. “He couldn’t stay away from Camden, so put his body in the fucking canal.”

            He was most of the way to Birmingham before he realized he’d pulled his stitches out again. Worth it to break Ollie’s cheekbone though, wasn’t it?

 

            Shooting Oliver Weiss in the head proved to be the highlight of Tommy’s autumn that year. Not that there were many other moments in contention. By the time he’d been well enough to make it back to Warwickshire, Langely House had been dark and buttoned up tight, just as it had been for all the years before Edie’s arrival. As he got back into the routine of going to the office, he also took up the unfortunate habit of slowing down as he drove past the house, eyes straining for the glow of light at the end of the long, tree-lined lane. But the windows stayed dark as the autumn days grew shorter.

            Maybe, he told himself, that was a good thing. What he’d said to Edie was true. She’d be all right without him. Marry the right kind of man and have a family. Be able to get her mind off that bloody steel business. She’d be happy, cared for, safe. He couldn’t live with the burden of losing her as he’d lost Grace, and the only way he could prevent that was to live without her.

            The only problem was, he didn’t know how to live without her.

                      

            After he’d come back to stitch Tommy up for the third time (a bit less gently than before, and rather exasperated), the doctor had left behind a fresh supply of morphine tablets in a little glass jar, placed discreetly on Tommy’s bedside table. Its rattling contents had tempted him at first with the promise of easy sleep, the darkness of his old opium dreams just a dry swallow away. He took two that first night, and then washed the rest down the sink the next morning before he could second-guess himself. He’d traveled that road enough times to know where it ended, and couldn’t follow it again.

            For the first few weeks, Ada and the contingent who’d been in support of his relationship with Edie had tried to convince him to change his mind. At least talk to her, Ada had said when she pulled him aside after a company meeting. You owe it to her, Tommy. After the fifth attempt at reasoning with him—which consisted of Arthur and Michael cornering him in the car and berating him all the way from Small Heath to Camden—he’d made an announcement to the entire family, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn’t hear another word about it. His siblings let the subject rest, but they also stopped speaking to him on anything but the most essential business matters. In his current mood, he was grateful for the silence.

            Alfie Solomons, who seemed to have an unsurpassed capacity to plague him from beyond the grave, provided the next possible solution. Gin, right, it leads to melancholy…rum’s for fun and fucking, innit? So whiskey, now that is for business. No fun and fucking came his way that autumn, but there was plenty of business and plenty of melancholy.

            The incident at the Eden Club had blown over without much notice in the papers, and no mention of his name in any case. He accepted the new responsibilities that came his way in Parliament, grinding through dreary days of meetings and committee dinners and engagements at the stuffy clubs of old men with the power to pull a nobody from Small Heath up through the political ranks. Then he went back to the Savoy and called down for a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of gin, depending on whether business or melancholy had won out that day. Enough of either promised the same darkness as morphine.

            He could have called down for a girl just as easily as he had for a bottle, like he had at the Midland in the months after Grace. He’d even gotten as far as picking up the phone a few times, fingers ready to dial the number of a man he knew with the right connections, but he’d hung up every time. Girls like that wouldn’t laugh softly against his lips when he kissed them. They wouldn’t smell like blooming jasmine and fresh citrus. They wouldn’t have grey-green eyes and a straight, solemn nose and a body that made his hands ache with the desire to touch every secret curve and angle. They wouldn’t know a book with the right words to carry him off to sleep. They wouldn’t be who he wanted.

            Eventually, he’d gotten into the bad habit of having a drink or two in his Whitehall office at the end of the day, reading over the paper that his secretary left on his desk every morning. (He burned through secretaries that fall, berating a series of bright-eyed young women for faults so minor that he struggled to even remember them the next day. Polly, who vetted the girls for discretion, had finally turned up with a grey-haired battle-axe of a woman and a warning that he could find his own secretaries if this one quit.)

            He meant to read the financial news, the political pages, anything except the fucking Society Happenings column, but somehow—especially after a drink or two—his eyes would stumble over the quippy headlines and bustling photos and breathless gossip. And she’d be there, of course.

            While Tommy had become something of a recluse in the months after the incident at the Eden Club, Edie had apparently transformed herself into the centerpiece of London society. He’d open the paper to find her draped in diamonds at charity galas, cheering on Harry Langham at the annual Cambridge Alumni Regatta, on the arm of Edmund Fell at the opening of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. At Halloween, she was captured as a slyly smiling Cleopatra at the Clover Club party, kohl-rimmed eyes and slickly oiled hair and a slinky gown. An unknown man, his face obscured in comical mummy’s bandages, had an arm slung around her shoulders.

            One night in early November, he’d poured a double measure of whiskey and opened the paper to see a snap of Edie at the final event of racing season, a steeplechase somewhere out near Exeter. A horse she owned—a dark bay he didn’t recognize—had won the day and she was standing beside the jockey with a proud hand on its bridle. The caption read: Miss Edith Hughes shows off the star of her stable, a three-year-old thoroughbred named Bonnie Prince Charlie.

            That, now that more than anything else, had been too fucking much. Bonnie Prince Charlie. He could hear that in her fucking voice, the airy tone she’d use to call out to his son across the lawn at Arrow House. The softness that silly, sweet nickname revealed was the sort of thing she could have given Charlie, what Grace had given him, what he couldn’t, being who he was. Something twisted in his chest and he crumpled up the paper, stuffing it into the trash can before finishing off his drink and pouring another to follow it.

            The bottle had been half empty before he started, and soon enough he’d drained it. There was nothing else in the office; he’d have to send the secretary out to restock the bar tomorrow. The secretary—she’d left something else for him today, hadn’t she? His eyes roamed the space until they fell upon a tidily wrapped package left next to his briefcase. Tomorrow was Ruby’s birthday and he’d sent her out to buy a gift. He’d meant to drop it off tonight, even though he didn’t know what the fuck it was.

            Lizzie, at least, had made no attempts to push for reconciliation with Edie. Maybe seeing her and the baby wouldn’t be such a bad thing tonight. It would get him out of that gloomy room at the Savoy for an hour or so at least. He crossed the room a bit unsteadily, picked up the box, shrugged on his coat, and climbed into his car.

           

            “What are you doing here?” Lizzie looked perturbed rather than pleased when she opened the door of her flat.

            “Came to see my daughter. It’s her birthday tomorrow, isn’t it?”

            Lizzie gave him a withering look, but stepped aside to let him in. “Lovely of you to remember. You might also recall that it’s half past nine and she’s turning one, so she’s been asleep for about three hours.”

            Tommy sat down the gift on a bench in the front hall and fumbled with his hat and coat. His fingers felt clumsy on the buttons and he missed the hook the first time. When he turned, he could sense Lizzie’s annoyance even though he found it difficult to focus on her face. Had he left his glasses at the office again?        

            “Are you fucking drunk?” Her voice was sharp.

            “Had a couple of whiskeys at the office. I’m fine, Lizzie.” He picked up the package and nearly dropped it immediately.

            “You smell like you had a case of whiskey. Give me that before you break it.”

            She took the box from his hands and led the way toward the sitting room, but he branched off down the hall where Ruby’s nursery was.

            “Let me just look in on her, eh?”

            There was an irritable huff of breath from behind him. “What’s all this sudden interest?”

            “She’s my fucking daughter, Lizzie, and it’s her fucking birthday.”

            “Wonderful sentiments for a baby. Why don’t you just poke in there and say, ‘Happy fucking birthday, Ruby.’”

            “I’ll just look in for a minute, all right?”

            “Why don’t you come back tomorrow? Ada and Karl are coming ‘round for cake after dinner. She’ll be up then.”

            “For a minute, eh?”

            He opened the door quietly, immediately annoyed when he realized the room was pitch black. There had to be a fucking lamp in here. Wasn’t it on the table beside the door? He leaned down, groping for it, made contact with something—

            There was a godawful crash as the base of the lamp shattered on the floor, followed immediately by Ruby’s squalling screams.

            “Shit, fuck—” He took a hesitant step forward, shoes crunching on the glass, before Lizzie caught his shoulder and dragged him back into the hall. Her voice was low but vibrating with rage.

            “What the fuck is wrong with you? Coming here like this, so fucking drunk you can’t even walk, wrecking my fucking house, waking up my fucking baby. Did you fucking drive here?”

            “Of course I did.”

            Who cared if he drove here? Ruby’s crying got louder and louder, reverberating in his temples.

            “Wait in the kitchen. If you get in your fucking car like this, I’ll call Arthur to come slash your tires.”          

            His head was starting to hurt. Lizzie disappeared into the nursery and he obediently made his way down the hall to the kitchen, one hand dragging along the wallpaper to steady himself. A long stretch of time seemed to pass once he’d settled into a chair, punctuated by Ruby’s cries and Lizzie’s hushed tones. He thought about getting a glass of water, but didn’t trust himself after the lamp. Finally, he heard the click of Lizzie’s footsteps coming down the hall.

            “She’s asleep again, no thanks to you.”

            “I’m sorry.” He held up a hand. There was a cigarette between his fingers that he didn’t remember lighting.

            “You sorry for coming here drunk, or for being the most miserable piece of shit in England for the last two months?”

            “Lizzie—”

            “Don’t ‘Lizzie’ me right now. We’re all fucking sick of it, Tommy. You’re going to kill yourself this way. Bad enough that you’re drinking half a distillery every night, now you’re driving around drunk out of your mind too. Is that what you want? You made it to Parliament from fucking Small Heath and you’re going to throw it all away driving your fucking Bentley into a ditch, or lighting your own bed on fire one night when you pass out with a cigarette? Wouldn’t that be some end for the King of Birmingham?”

            “And who cares if it is?”

            “That is the most fucking ridiculous, self-pitying thing I’ve ever heard—especially from you.” She leaned against the counter on the far side of the room, arms crossed over her chest. “Of all people, I had the least patience for Edith Hughes, but if the alternative is you drinking yourself to death while the rest of us watch, then admit you were wrong. Just fucking marry her like you wanted to.”

            “I can’t do that, and you know it. Can’t take the fucking chance again.”

            “Well if you can’t, then you’d better do something else.”

            What else could he do, though? Nothing had worked so far. Distantly, he heard Ruby start to cry again. Lizzie sighed, and he noticed the deep circles under her eyes for the first time.

            “She won’t sleep all night now.”

            “I’ll get you a nanny. No reason for you to be up all hours—”

            “That’s not the point, is it? Go home. Walk home. Get some sleep. And stop fucking drinking. I’ll have one of the boys bring your car to the Savoy in the morning.”

            “I’ll walk home, I promise.”

            “I’ll have Arthur call in an hour,” she said, starting for the nursery. “You’d better be there, and sober enough to answer the fucking phone.”

            When he stepped out into the sharp night air, he’d almost turned toward Eaton Square. Lizzie was right, he was in no state to drive, but the walk wasn’t too far. Maybe she’d be home, sitting with a book and her bare feet curled up on the cushion of her chair. Maybe he’d catch her dressed up, getting ready to go out to dinner. Maybe she’d already be in bed and he could push aside the coverlet and climb in beside her.

            Maybe he could do those things for a year or two, or even five or ten, before what had happened at the Eden Club happened again. Before he had another grave to visit beside John and Grace.

            He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of cold air, then turned in the direction of the Savoy instead.

 

            After the night at Lizzie’s, he’d put away the whiskey and gin and found a new pastime—spending money. Cash had been rolling in at eye-popping rates from Canada, especially once the Camden operation got fully underway; the Company was struggling with methods to turn its less legal funds into above-board assets.

            With Michael’s encouragement, Tommy bought a new place for his racehorses—a proper stud farm in Devon, packed out with thoroughbreds that had longer pedigrees than some minor members of the royal family. He bought a silver Bugatti and a black Aston Martin, a hunting lodge in Scotland for Arthur, a closet full of fresh suits from the Savile Row tailor he now favored. He bought watches and horses and cases of wine from France, paintings he didn’t look at, jewelry that Ada and Polly and Esme didn’t need, and eventually a townhouse in London.

            The townhouse was newly built, situated in a quiet neighborhood equidistant from Ada and Lizzie and his office in Whitehall. It was also as far away from Eaton Square as he could reasonably try to be. Once it was furnished, he spent nearly all his time there, leaving more and more of the business in Birmingham to Arthur and Polly. Some weeks he even had a driver bring Charlie and the nanny down from the country; the sound of his son’s voice filled the place up. He didn’t admit it to anyone, but it was easier to be there, far away from Arrow House and its empty neighbor. Instead, he made up excuses about keeping a closer eye on Camden and needing to be available for more meetings at Whitehall. Ada and Polly’s skeptical glances made it clear the excuses weren’t always believed, but they’d stopped saying anything months before.

 

            One winter afternoon, just before Parliament dispersed for the holiday break, he left his office early with the intention of stopping at Liberty before going back to the townhouse. He needed Christmas gifts for Pol and Ada, and his secretary had been ill all week. It was the most miserable sort of day in London, grey and frigid with a wind that whipped icy snowflakes across the exposed skin of his cheeks. He was pulling his hat lower and contemplating whether he really had the patience for shopping when he thought he heard his name over the sound of traffic. A woman’s voice—Ada or Lizzie? He’d hardly spent time making any other female acquaintances in the city. He turned—        

            —and it was her.      

            Edie was a few yards behind him on the sidewalk, cutting through the dense Christmas crowds with an armful of shopping bags. Most of her face was obscured by a cardinal red cloche, but he’d know her—her light-footed gait, her slender form, the graceful way she held herself in public—anywhere.

            She didn’t say anything else as she got closer, just nodded to her left where the doorway of a restaurant, not yet open for the night, created a space out of the crowd and the wind. They stood silently inside the cramped alcove, Edie’s profusion of bags rustling against their legs. Each one was stuffed full of gaily-wrapped packages, strands of ribbon and tinsel peeking out and fluttering like pennants in the wind.

            What could he say, after all this time? After spending months looking at her empty house over the hill, the empty chair across from his in the library at Arrow House, the empty pillow on the far side of his bed. She was as perfectly put together as ever, so beautiful that it stopped him short. In the close quarters of the alcove she had to tilt her chin up to look at him, tipping back the brim of her bright hat. There were tiny snowflakes caught in her eyelashes, in the fur collar of her coat, on the back of one gloved hand when she raised it to brush away a stray strand of hair.

            “I wasn’t sure it was you at first.” The sound of her voice made something tighten in his throat. “But I’m so pleased it was.”    

            That funny, formal turn of phrase reminded him of their early encounters, all the stiffness of not knowing one another coming back in a bitter rush. He still hadn’t said a word. All he wanted was to touch her. He could imagine what it would feel like to sink his fingers into the cool softness of her hair, to press his palm against the curve of her back, to kiss the corner of her mouth and feel her lips open against his, to touch her as he’d been able to when she was his. He kept his hands in his pockets, fingers tightly clenched inside his gloves.

           “How’s Charlie?”

            Edie’s eyes searched his face, a crease forming between her eyebrows. Winter had faded the warmth of her summertime tan, turning her cheeks a pale porcelain that made her eyes look brighter, her hair darker.

            “Getting big.” He cleared his throat. “Learning to read. All books about horses.”

            “Of course.” A smile flickered across her lips and faded. “Tommy, I—”

            Their conversations had always come so easily. Now it felt impossible to say anything. A million words were on Tommy’s tongue—I’m sorry. I was wrong. I haven’t changed my mind. You should go. I should go. I fucking miss you.—but none of them felt right.

            “Are you staying in the city?”

           She changed tactics, asking the question breezily like they were old friends who’d run into one another at a cocktail party. He nodded.

            “I bought a house here. Ada said it was time, could’ve bought ten houses with the money I was spending at the Savoy.”           

            “That’s—” It seemed like she was about to offer another cocktail party platitude, but she reached out a hand and rested it on his arm instead. He caught a rigid twang of tension in her jaw as her words started tumbling out shakily. “Meet me tonight, somewhere. I have to go, I’m late already, but—please, I’ve got to see you. Anywhere.”

            He hesitated. This was a bad idea, just like it had been a bad idea to pretend that they could have a life together. Like it had been a bad idea to know her at all. He should say no, say again all the things he’d told her that day in Ada’s flat. That he was still a liar, a gangster, a murderer—no kind of man for a woman like her. Her fingers pressed down just above his wrist.  

            “Tommy, please.”

            He fumbled through his pockets until he came up with a card case and a pen. The cards had been Ada’s idea, too. Heavy stock printed with Thomas M. Shelby, MP, OBE and his phone number at the Whitehall office. No mention of Birmingham or the limited company. Cards for a man only interested in moving upward. He flipped one over and scrawled his London address on the back, then slipped it into Edie’s hand. She had on red leather gloves that matched her hat, with prim little buttons at the cuffs. For a moment he let his fingers close around hers.

            “I’ll be home all night.”

            She nodded wordlessly, then leaned forward and kissed his cheek. A dry brush of her lips, feather light and over too quickly. Her fingers slid from his and she stepped out onto the sidewalk. He stayed in the alcove, watching her hat bob through the crowd until she vanished from view.

Chapter Text

In a lifetime on horseback, Edie had only suffered one serious fall. She could still remember it clearly—sometimes she even dreamed about it. She’d been in the back fields at Langely House on a January morning, coming over a fence she’d jumped hundreds of times, when her horse took a bad landing, stumbling as one foreleg buckled. The momentum of the jump had hurled her over the mare’s shoulder into the frozen earth. She could still remember the exact feeling of plummeting downward at blurry speed, followed by the thumping, breath-snatching impact with the ground.

            That moment—sudden, breathless, painful—had been what it felt like to see Tommy again.

            It wasn’t that she hadn’t considered the possibility of running into him eventually. London wasn’t so large a city, and their circles overlapped more than she cared to admit these days. But considering the possibility and actually seeing him were two alarmingly different things.

            Even in the sea of dark coats on the busy sidewalk, she’d recognized him right away. The way he walked, the set of his shoulders, the precise cut of his suit and the hair at the nape of his neck—she’d have known him anywhere. She’d called his name without thinking, betraying all the time she’d spent in the past few months trying to forget she’d ever met Thomas Shelby.

            And she had tried, even though that moment proved it was all a failure. She’d stayed away from Warwickshire, filled up her calendar with social events, dug deeper into the business, read more books. Early on, Ada had written to her a few times, pleading with her to be the bigger person and just talk to Tommy. When the letters went unanswered she’d even come to the house on Eaton Square, but Edie had asked the maid to turn her away at the door. She’d also done her best to not even mention Tommy to her friends, staying tight-lipped beyond the simple statement that they’d broken things off. If she hadn’t been happy, at least she hadn’t let it show. She was good at that, anyway.

            But once Tommy was there, real, right in front of her, she’d started to lose her composure. She hadn’t been late for anything—in fact, she had nowhere to go after her shopping trip. She’d simply had to lie to give herself a chance to think. All this time and she’d never sorted out what she’d say if she saw him again. Especially now that there was something she had to say, before time ran out.

 

            Back home at Eaton Square, she’d handed her shopping off to the housekeeper and gone up to her bedroom, where she remained, sitting upright at her vanity, as the early darkness of winter descended over the house. She’d turned the business card over and over in her hands, flipping between Tommy’s name printed officially on one side and the unfamiliar address in his sloping script on the other. He’d bought a house in the city. She tried to imagine what it would look like, what it would feel like to walk through the door tonight. She remembered how nervous she’d felt entering Arrow House for the first time, thrown off kilter by Tommy’s cool demeanor and her mud-spattered boots. That moment felt simultaneously distant and still all too close.

            By the time she stood and made her way to the closet, rifling aimlessly through dresses that all felt wrong, her stomach was in a nervous knot. What would she even say to Tommy? Why was she going to see him at all? Should she change her mind? She could ring Pippa or Claire or Fiona and go out for the night instead. Have too much gin and a little snow and blot Tommy away. But she wouldn’t, of course. She’d put on her coat and her hat and walk through the snow to the address on the back of the card.     

            Which she did. It was well after the dinner hour by the time she left the house; the city felt still and muffled by snow, half-lit by the twinkling holiday lights that glimmered inside every front window. Tommy’s house was on a quiet, unfamiliar street, set apart from the neighboring homes by its fresh masonry. A cheerful Christmas wreath of holly boughs was hung on the door; like the tidy garden at Arrow House, it felt incongruous for a man like Tommy. She hesitated on the top step, brushing snow from her sleeves, and then rang the bell.

            Tommy opened the door still dressed in his suit, as though he’d come from his office minutes rather than hours ago. He’d been bundled up in a coat and hat on the high street earlier, his face hardly visible. Seeing him clearly—the oceanic blue of his eyes, that pale dash of a scar on one cheek—snatched any words from her mouth. She was keenly aware that she was standing on the step like a total idiot, too dumbstruck to say anything, until Tommy took a step sideways and backward.

            “Come in, eh? It’s freezing out there.”

            He hung her coat and hat in the hall closet, the two of them moving stiffly and silently like a pair of well-mannered marionettes, then led the way into a snug sitting room that smelled like new furniture—sawdust and beeswax and leather. A fire was built up high against the December cold. Tommy paused next to a bar cart on the far side of the hearth.

            “Will you have a drink?”

            Edie spotted his own half-empty glass on a side table, accompanied by a still-smoldering cigarette in a crystal ashtray.

            “Gin, please. A splash of tonic if you’ve got it.”

            She stood uncertainly in the center of the carpet (plush and new like everything else she’d seen so far) as he poured her drink. The silence between them lingered heavily when he handed her the glass.

            “Why don’t you show me the house?”

            At least that might give them something easy to talk about, since she was finding it so difficult to string together even the simplest sentences. Tommy nodded, picking up his own glass before starting for the door.

            He led her through room after room, dark and masculine, expensively decorated, somehow stark in spite of all the luxury on display. It felt like no one really lived here, she realized as they trailed through the ground floor. A study with stiff-backed wing chairs; a formal parlor with a Christmas tree in the corner, packages nestled below its unlit branches; a dining room where a portrait of Tommy astride his black horse loomed over the table; an office that mirrored the one at Arrow House, with an imposing desk stacked in Shelby Company stationery. At the base of the curving staircase that led to the floors above, Edie paused.

            “Where is everyone?” She couldn’t think of the last time she’d been in one of her own houses without at least one maid rattling around someplace.           

            “I sent them out for the night.” Tommy took a sip of his drink, ice clinking against the glass. “Wanted to be alone with you.”

            He started up the stairs before she could parse any meaning from that, his footsteps hushed on the deeply piled runner. On the silent second floor, they wound through a series of darkened bedrooms. She paused at one near the end of the hallway when she spotted a familiar, furry form in the corner. The enormous stuffed lion she’d bought for Charlie at the zoo in Regent’s Park. That day felt like a hundred years ago. Tommy followed her gaze.

            “He insisted we bring him back. Said the lion was from London and he’d miss all his friends up north.”

            Edie swallowed twice in rapid succession, unsure if she was stifling a laugh or a sob. She wanted to ask so much about Charlie. What he was reading? Who was teaching him to ride now? If he missed her or hadn't even noticed she was gone.

            “Is he here with you often?”                        

            Tommy nodded. “Now that I have a real place. Might send him to school here when he’s old enough.”

            “If you need an introduction at Eton—”

            That was silly. Charlie was still years away. Edie stepped back into the hall, pulling the bedroom door shut behind her with a soft click. There was another flight of stairs leading upward and she finished her drink as they climbed.

            Had she wanted this? Of course she had. She knew it even before Tommy opened the door to his bedroom. Deep down, she’d come here hoping for this.

            This was the first room in the house that felt lived in. One of the maids must have lit the fire before going out; it burned low in the grate, casting shadows over a bed with the wine-colored duvet folded back over itself, a dressing table holding cufflinks and combs, a night table with Tommy’s glasses resting tidily next to a packet of cigarettes. The memory of his glasses on her night table at Eaton Square surfaced painfully in her racing mind. Her eyes had come to rest on her own feet, tracing the almond-shaped toes of her shoes. When she looked up again, Tommy had come close, looking down at her through his eyelashes.

            “That night after your party, I felt like you came out of a dream. Feels that way now, too.”

            She took a step forward. “It’s not, though.”

            He took her glass and put it down with his on the mantel, then extended a hand to her. “C’mere.” 

            There was a dreamlike quality, after all this time, to his closeness. A sense of unreality at catching the scent of his cologne, at feeling the calluses on the pads of his thumbs when he slid her dress off her shoulders, at hearing his measured breath when she put her hands up to frame his jaw and kissed him, smoke and whiskey on his parted lips.

            She’d wanted this. Had dressed for it—a feather-light set of lace lingerie that had always been his favorite concealed under the somber darkness of her winter clothes. It fastened with silk ribbons at her shoulders and hips, looped in delicate bows that Tommy pulled loose as he walked them back toward the bed.

            She hesitated when half the buttons on his shirt were undone, suddenly remembering the last time she’d seen him, wrapped up in blood-spotted bandages. He sensed her uncertainty and took a step back to finish undressing on his own, crisp clothes falling in a careless drift.

            Apart from the scar, nothing had changed about him. The same easy shift of muscle across his shoulders and chest, the same scattered collection of gray-blue tattoos, the same sharp line where his clavicle crested close to the skin. All so familiar to her eyes and lips and hands except for that new mark, still an angry crimson line flanked by the smaller pinprick scars of stitches. Tommy reached out and tilted her chin up with one finger.

            “It’s all right, eh? Doesn’t hurt me at all anymore.”

            “Are you sure?”

            “Come over here and I’ll prove it.”

            He settled them onto the bed with Edie in his lap, her legs wrapped around his waist and ankles crossed behind him, his hands splayed on her back to press her close against his chest. For a long time, he simply held her like that, kissing her with the crackle of the fire filling the room. She’d forgotten he could be this way, so infinitely patient, methodical, tranquil.

            Eventually, though there was no change to the languid pressure of his mouth on hers, she could feel the hard length of him brush against the inside of her thigh, and the hot slickness of her own body in response. She pulled away, just a breath separating their lips.

            “Tommy, please.”

            He tipped his head back, exhaling deeply and snaking a hand between their close-pressed bodies to slip himself inside her. For a moment she kept her thighs taut, raised up just slightly from his body, then let herself settle slowly, deliberately, to take the full length of him. She could feel the tension in the muscles of his back under her palms, resisting the urge to move, as she let her forehead drop to rest against his shoulder.

            “I missed this. I miss you.”

            Maybe it was a foolish thing to say. Maybe he’d pull away. If he did, she didn’t know if she could bear it, suddenly afraid that she’d simply shatter apart. The relief when she felt his hands on her—running up her sides, cupping her breasts, sinking into her hair—was an intense, rushing heat. She caught his lips again and he spoke against them, voice a low rumble that she could feel in his chest.

            “Fucking missed you. Ah, fuck—” His fingers pressed hard into her skin as she rocked her hips experimentally. “Fuck, Edie, slow, slow—”

            He settled them into a maddeningly deliberate rhythm, barely shifting, keeping his cock deep inside her. The fire made the air in the room close, sweat dotting the small of Edie’s back. They were hardly moving but she felt like she couldn’t catch her breath. Already, she could feel the coiling tension of an orgasm deep down between her hipbones but Tommy held her fast, not allowing her the friction to tip over the edge. He caught her eyes, his own pupils wide and dreamy in the firelight.

            “Not yet, eh? Wait for me.”

            So, she waited. She would have done anything he asked in that moment—always would have. Just as she’d done what he’d asked that day in Ada’s flat, even though she hadn’t been able to stay away forever.

            She could feel him getting close, subtle changes in the way he moved. He slid a teasing hand between them, but she caught it and twisted their fingers together. She didn’t need it, wound up so tightly that the first pulse of his release inside her was enough to rock her over the edge. Tommy held her upright, tightly enough that she could feel the rapid, thudding beat of his heart echoed back in the bones of her chest.

            They didn’t separate for a long time, sweat cooling slowly until it raised prickled goosebumps on Edie’s skin. Tommy finally shifted, leaning over the side of the bed to find his discarded shirt before shuffling back toward the headboard. He held the shirt out to her and she shrugged it on gratefully, cocooned in the scents of starch and his cologne.

            “Tommy?” She drew her knees up toward her chin under the covers, wrapping her arms around her legs. What could she say? “What happened to the man from the club?”

            There was a long silence as Tommy reached for his cigarettes and lit one for each of them. He answered once he’d returned to his place against the headboard, gaze carefully at middle distance.

            “I killed him. Should have done it a long time before that.”         

            Edie took a drag of her cigarette, letting the bluntness of his statement settle in.

            “Aren’t you worried it’ll come out in the papers?”

            He shook his head firmly. “Nothing will come out in the papers. We made sure of it.”  

            “And you’re all right?”

            He gestured down at the healing scar, a wry smile twisting his lips. “Almost good as new. Not much of a sight with my shirt off, eh?”

            “You’re still a sight, trust me.”

            It felt good to laugh with him for a moment, even if she knew it couldn’t last. Maybe she could draw it out for a little bit longer, before she had to force the issue.

            “And the business? Canada? Charlie? Parliament? I follow the papers but—”

            But she was babbling, stalling. Tommy’s smile faded, and he turned sideways to face her.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “I—” She bunched her fingers into the too-long sleeves of his shirt. If she said it now, they could never go back. But it might be the only way they could go forward, too. “I might be getting married, Tommy.”

            She let the words hang in the air like a blade ready to fall. Tommy was silent, his face still and lit devilishly by the glowing end of his cigarette.

            “To who?” he asked finally. There was no feeling in his voice, only a flat kind of disbelief.

            “To Bertie Langham. He and Harry have been advising me on the business—they kept the strikes from happening this fall, really. They’ve been helping, and Bertie has been hinting at it. There’s nothing official, I’ve been dodging the question, but I think in the new year…” She trailed off, feeling sick at her own words. “I think he’ll ask formally. And unless—”

            “Unless?” Tommy’s voice was still frighteningly flat.

            “Unless you change your mind. If that man from the Eden Club is dead now, you can, can’t you? That’s why I came here. To ask you to change your mind.”

            Tommy shook his head again, one hand coming up to pinch the bridge of his nose before dragging outward across the angle of his cheek.

            “It’s not that fucking simple. You think he was the only one who has it out for me? That there won’t be more, every fucking year, until one of them gets just close enough?”

            Edie could feel the burn of tears, blinking them back furiously. He was so fucking stubborn. Her words came faster now, the consonants snapping sharp off her tongue. “Do you understand that I’ve lost everyone—everyone—who’s ever mattered to me? I’d give anything for an hour, even a minute more, with my father or my grandfather or my brother. However long I have with you is worth any risk to me. I want to be with you and Charlie, I just want—”

            A family. That’s what she’d imagined with Tommy. A husband, a son, maybe their own children someday. A lively house. Someone to shepherd her grandfather’s business alongside her. She was crying now, the tears falling heavy on Tommy’s white shirt.

            “Edie, look at me.” Tommy’s voice was brittle. She looked up, vision blurred. “I know what you want, but there’s no changing my mind. You’ve found a man who can take care of you, a good enough man from what I can tell. The right fucking kind of man for you. Fucking say yes. Marry him, have a good life with him.”

            She could have a good life with Bertie Langham. He was outgoing, even-keeled, popular in their circle of friends, handsome enough in a bland way, poised for success in politics someday. But she felt empty when she was with him, like there was some fundamental divide they couldn’t cross. She could have a good life with him, but she’d still be, in some way she couldn’t even describe to Tommy, alone.

            “I said before that I wouldn’t beg you.” She swiped at her face with the damp sleeve of the shirt. “But I am now. I’m begging you to change your mind, Tommy.”

            “I can’t.” She could hear the frustration boiling up under his voice now. “I know what it’s like to lose someone who matters, too. I can’t fucking do it again.”

            “You take chances in everything else. Why not this?”

            “Because you don’t need to take the fucking chance. Find someone young, someone easier than me. Someone who’s not going to get carted off to jail or fucking shot someday.”

            “And if I want you?”

            “You’ll learn not to. I’m old enough to know that comes with time.”    

            Edie felt hollowed out and raw, drained even of tears now. She turned and held Tommy’s eyes.

            “Do you love me, still?”

            “Haven’t changed my mind about that, either.”

            “And that doesn’t mean anything?”

            “Of course it does.”

            “Not enough, though.”

            Tommy didn't answer. In that moment, looking down at his own hands with the palms turned up helplessly, he seemed old. Edie could see the furrows of worry on his forehead, tracing down his cheeks to the tight line of his mouth, at the corners of his half-closed eyes. She’d never seen him look so worn. Hesitantly, she shifted toward him. She couldn’t go like this.

            “A last time? Please.”

            He looked up, expression shifting as he realized her meaning, and then pulled her into his arms. The familiarity of the gesture was wrenchingly painful, made even more so by the tentative way he held her. When he turned them, settling on top of her and ghosting his lips over her neck, she caught his chin in her hand.    

            “Not like this. Leave a mark—I want to feel you a little while longer.”

            Something hard flashed across Tommy’s face. “What if your new husband sees?”        

            “It’s not like—there hasn’t been anyone since you.”

            She’d played coy with Bertie in the previous months, making excuses to avoid being alone with him, turning down his progressively less subtle invitations for after dinner cocktails at his house. She wasn’t sure exactly why he’d been so patient, but she didn’t really care. All that mattered was that no one else would cloud the memory of Tommy’s touch. That she could hold it like a precious, perfect artifact for as long as she could.

            He did leave a mark. A few, each one an exquisite mix of pleasure and pain and sorrow. One with his lips just below her ear, one with his teeth at the point of her shoulder, one with his fingers where they gripped at the crest of her hip.

            Afterward, she shed the crumpled white shirt and covered up the marks with her somber winter dress, her dark stockings, her hat and upturned collar. Tommy walked her out and they stood on either side of the doorframe.

            “If you change your mind.” The words were bitter in her mouth.

            “I know.”

            “It’s a beautiful house, Tommy.”                 

           

            She walked the long way home to Eaton Square, hunched up against the knife-like wind. A few days later she spent Christmas alone, curled up in front of the fireplace with her battered copy of Robert Frost. She could still remember where she’d read some of the poems to Tommy—in the velvety summer darkness of his bedroom, under a canopy of green leaves on the day they’d gone swimming in the river, in his car over the rumble of the engine on a late night drive to London.

            She went out with her friends on New Year’s Eve, drank just enough champagne to not really care when Bertie kissed her under the mistletoe, then called a car as the midnight bells were still ringing and went home, tears mingling with the spangles on her evening gown. A few days later she said yes, the word feeling like a betrayal.

Chapter Text

If he ever became really rich, just fuck everyone rich, Tommy was going to buy every single newspaper in London and have the fucking Society Happenings pages removed. It might have been more economical to just stop reading them, but because he seemed utterly unable to do that, he’d started to formulate increasingly drastic courses of action.

            Edie’s wedding announcement had appeared in the Society Happenings column of the Times a few weeks into the new year. Miss Edith Hughes, daughter of Mr. Jonathan and Mrs. Alexandra Hughes (née Fitzwilliam) is pleased to announce her engagement to Mr. Albert Langham, son of the Hon. Andrew Langham and Mrs. Margaret Langham (née Atkins). The happy couple will wed on 25th May at the bride’s home in Warwickshire. He’d read it three times then jammed the entire paper viciously into the trash can and stalked out of his office, snapping at the secretary that she’d be fired if he ever saw another page of the Times on his desk.

            That night, like so many others in the months after their last meeting, he was plagued by thoughts of Edie. In many ways, they were as bad as the sound of the picks—just as gut-wrenching, just as impossible to block out. Most often they manifested as a quiet yearning to hear her voice, to follow its even rhythm as it descended over unfamiliar words, leading him down the darkened stairs of sleep. Sometimes he’d wake up thinking he’d heard her laughter or the even sound of her breathing beside him. Other times he’d imagine that he could touch her—could actually feel her skin under his palms, hot and restless as she’d been on their final night together. She’d always been a slight thing, graceful and feather-light in his arms, but that night he’d sensed a birdlike fragility in the bones of her back and shoulders that had never been there before, as though she’d been somehow worn away in their time apart. That memory troubled him more than any other, accompanied by the foolish but persistent notion that she was slowly vanishing. That one day she’d simply be gone, not just from his life but all together.

            He suspected that Ada and Arthur had seen the wedding announcement, too. Neither of them said a word about it, the only indication a cautious false cheerfulness when they spoke to him as May 25th got closer. For her part, Polly simply seemed annoyed by his ongoing foul mood and avoidance of the Birmingham office.

            For a brief span of time, as the first spring leaves unfurled, he’d almost changed his mind. He passed a jewelry store each day on his walk from the office to the townhouse, and he’d allow himself to entertain the notion of ducking inside, choosing a ring, changing his course to Eaton Square. Until, one gray April morning, he’d gotten a phone call from Ada.

            “Do you want me to go with you tomorrow?”

            “To what?” It was early and his mind still felt cloudy from yet another night of interrupted sleep. Was there a meeting he’d missed? He dug through the drifts of papers on his desk for his calendar.

            “Tomorrow’s the fifteenth. Aren’t you taking Charlie?”

           April fifteenth. Grace’s birthday. He took Charlie every year to lay flowers on her grave. Hothouse peonies, her favorite; the house in Warwickshire had once been full of them.

            “No. No, it’s all right. I think he and I ought to go alone.”

            He’d laid the flowers with his son during a torrential spring downpour, their tender ivory petals quickly bruised by the cold raindrops. On April sixteenth, he started taking a new route home.

 

            Though he hadn’t marked Edie’s wedding date on any calendar, it stayed burned in his memory through the months, time ticking by quickly in spite of his attempts to slow it with too much work and too little sleep. As the day itself approached, he planned to be anywhere but the country house. He’d go down to London, or drink himself into a stupor at The Garrison like old times. But as it drew nearer he found himself irritated by everyone and everything. The rattle and crash of London’s streets flayed his nerves raw, Arthur and Michael’s attempts at good cheer provoked snapping rebukes, even Charlie’s smiles couldn’t lighten his stormy mood. Finally, he had packed the children off with Lizzie for a weekend at the Brighton seashore and retreated alone to Arrow House. At least there no one would fucking talk to him.

            The afternoon before the wedding, he closed himself in his office, shades drawn and shirtsleeves bunched up and a bottle of gin on the desk. He tried not to think too much about Alfie Solomons’ advice regarding gin and melancholy. The man was long-dead and so were his rambling opinions. All day, he could hear cars racing down the lane that led to Langely House, guests streaming in from London for the celebration. As dusk fell the traffic slowed, and it was nearly silent when there was a rap on the door.

            “What?”         

            A maid poked her head in cautiously, looking for all the world like she was entering a pit of vipers.

            “Letter for you, Mr. Shelby.”

            “Leave it on the desk.”

            She did as he asked and retreated quickly, glancing over her shoulder as though Tommy’s taciturn moods were anything new or noteworthy these days. Once the door clicked shut, he tore the envelope open.

            Tomorrow at dawn, where we first met. Please come.

            No postmark, no signature, but it was from Edie. Her perfectly looped handwriting on expensive, cream-colored stationery that smelled like her perfume. He could picture her writing it at the dressing table in her bedroom, facing the big window that looked out over the horses in her fields. She must have snuck away sometime during the wedding preparations and dropped it at the house. Why hadn’t she just asked to see him then? Would he have agreed? He let the paper fall aside and put his head in his hands.

 

            At two in the morning, with the bottle of gin mostly empty, he decided he wouldn’t go. There wasn’t a fucking thing to say to her. She’d start the life she was supposed to have, forget about Thomas fucking Shelby, go back to London with her new husband as though they’d never met. They should have never met.

            At four in the morning, he couldn’t sleep.

            At five-thirty, the sky began to turn from black to grey. He was still at the desk and rose stiffly from his chair to stand before the dying fire in the grate. The letter was in his hand and he considered dropping it into the coals, letting it rise up in smoke and float out into the dark sky.

            Instead, he crumpled it into his pocket and started for the door.

 

            She didn’t come over the crest of the hill until nearly six. By then, he was almost shivering in his shirtsleeves, the May morning cold and damp. She was riding Pilot bareback with her legs dangling loose and that old tweed jacket flapping around her. A rope lead was looped through the horse’s halter in place of reins.

            “The groom sleeps above the stable, so I had to just catch him in the field.”

            The first words she’d spoken to him since December, and she acted as though they’d been together only yesterday. That offhand comment, however, said so much. She’d snuck away from her guests, her friends, her servants, her soon-to-be husband, to meet him on her wedding day.

            “Hello, Edie.”

            She slid down smoothly as she reached the stone wall that separated their fields, letting Pilot loose to wander and drag his lead through the dewy grass.

            “Hello, Tommy.”

            They faced each other in silence. No velvet cap this morning—just her worn-in boots, jodhpurs flecked with horsehair, the ill-fitting jacket over a white shirt with the collar undone. The way he’d always loved her most. She reached into the pocket of her jacket to pull out a familiar book, bound in plain black cloth, and turned to a page that was marked with a fraying scrap of ribbon.

            “Have you read any more Robert Frost?”

            He looked at her flatly, suddenly angry at himself for agreeing to this charade. For opening himself up to her again when he should have turned away. When he had no business with a woman like her, who would be out of his reach no matter how high he climbed on a mountain of Parliament seats and Limited Companies.

            “Of course I haven’t. If you asked me here hoping I’d changed, you’re in for a fucking disappointment. You know who I am.”  

            If he thought harsh words would turn her away, he was sorely mistaken. Maybe she saw through the vitriol to the sadness below. She swallowed, her face impassive as she continued.

            “He published this book in 1914, the year before my father died in France. My grandfather got two things in the post on the same day—this book from a friend in America, and a letter from the War Office telling him that his son was dead. He said the book felt like a gift from my father, as though the words were meant to comfort us somehow. I never had a chance to finish reading it to you, and we hadn’t gotten to my favorite one—”

            Edie didn’t go on, just looked down at the worn pages spread open under her fingers. He noticed her hands were bare. No riding gloves, no ring.

            “Will you listen?”

            Tommy nodded and she took a deep breath. Her voice was even, melodious, exactly as it had been in his dreams.

 

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

"Why  do they make good neighbours? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,

But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father's saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

 

                Tommy watched her face while she read, the way her eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she glanced across the page, the upward turn of her lips when she reached the dialogue halfway through. When she was finished, neither of them spoke for a time. Finally, he ran a hand through his hair and took off his glasses.

                “Will you read it again?”

                And so she did, her voice rising and falling smoothly over the words until nearly the end.

            “Before I built a wall I’d ask to knowwhat I was walling in—”

            She trailed off, and he saw a tear poised at the corner of her eye. She swiped it away with the cuff of the old jacket, made it a few more lines, and faltered again.

            “And I’d rather hehe said it for himself. I see him there—”

            She stopped, lips pressed together until all the color drained out of them. When she looked up, he took his hands from his pockets, came forward to the weather-worn stones between them, and reached out to her.

            “Step over.”

            Edie remained still for a moment, and he wondered if she’d just come to say goodbye. Maybe she finally knew the truth, at just the moment when he’d forgotten it. That he was too old, too dangerous, too callous for her. That he could never really leave the smoke and darkness of Small Heath behind, and someday he might drag her down into it like quicksand. Maybe she just wanted their goodbye to be less bitter, this strange moment—this poem about a place a world away—her parting gift.   

          He was almost ready to turn back toward Arrow House when she tucked the book into her pocket, put her hand in his, and swung her legs over the wall. Tommy opened his arms to her and she came to them like she had so many times—under a green canopy of summer leaves, blanketed by the dim stillness of his bedroom, in the hazy corners of his dreams.

            “What will you tell them over there?”

            He spoke into her hair, looking across the field to where Langely House was tucked behind the hill. She lifted her head, her lips brushing against the corner of his mouth.

            “That I’ve loved you all along. Let them talk, there’s nothing else to say.”