The youngest girl, Bessie, a petite redhead was the first with the news. She came scampering into the shared room where the girls would freshen up between clients. Late, as usual, she had a wild look in her eyes.
“Tha’s Thomas Shelby in the lobby.” She gasped out and clutched at her coat. Stray snowflakes melted in her fiery hair. “He’s back.”
The rest of the girls were stirred up into a frenzy at the news.
“He’s already had me ‘fore, might be comin’ back for me.”
“Fuckin’ pays well don’t he?”
Bea, the eldest and most experienced out of the bunch blew out a drag of smoke. “’Course he does. The Shelbys own Birmingham and that means they’re fuckin’ dangerous.’ She glared at the hopeful eyed girls. “None of you should be makin’ ties with that lot. Best to stay unseen.”
“Still, he’ll be wantin’ a fuck.” Teresa shrugged and eyed herself in the mirror as she applied lipstick. "I ain't gonna turn him or his money down."
“Don’t you worry,” Bea turned to the young woman on her left. “He doesn’t pick blonde girls.”
Leah chewed on her lower lip and glanced at the vanity mirror next to her. Indeed, she had honey-colored hair, which usually did her well in her line of business.
Leah was twenty-five, a prime age for a London prostitute. Not too green but not worn out either. She found herself prostituting after a long drawn out mess of increasingly worse luck. Since 1918, she had been stuck in a downward spiral.
It could always be worse, that’s what she reminded herself every time she woke up. She wasn’t starving on the streets but she did feel like a piece of her died every single time she closed her eyes.
“Leah?” Billy stuck his head into the room. He was a good man, a hotel employee who was paid extra to introduce clients to the girls. The madam handled the rest of the transactions. But it was a classier transaction up front. The hotel provided a luxurious setting for the wealthy clientele who sought out the harem of girls. Women who were touted as much more than those of seedy whorehouses, although that’s where they all originated. The illusion that the ten women were hand-picked goddesses, submissive in nature (unless a man preferred the roles reversed).
Respectful. Discreet. Beautiful. Expensive.
For Leah, the titillating façade wore off fast. She was still a whore. Men faked their love and affection or they didn’t even bother. Despite the money, Leah always felt used. Yet she blamed herself. The naïve daughter of a chemist. Now just a whore.
“Mr. Shelby’s requested someone new,” Billy informed her.
The other girls went quiet for a moment. Teresa looked irked. “She’s the only one he hasn’t fucked yet?”
Billy, a gentle man, who looked out for the girls well being, nodded in confirmation.
“He doesn’t like blondes.” Bea retorted protectively. “He hardly even looked at Rose. Send Teresa out.”
Leah’s face went ashen. The Shelbys were not people she wanted to be involved with.
She swallowed and stood. “S’okay, Bea.” She faked a smile and touched the older woman’s arm. “How’d I look?”
“Perfect.” Bea nodded but looked visibly worried.
The other girls watched as Leah stood, tightening the ties around her peach-colored dressing gown. She followed Billy down the hall to one of the nicer suites.
She nodded. “Thank you, Billy.” Her voice was quiet as she stepped inside, shutting the door behind her. Nerves rattled her bones. The Shelby name was not one to be taken lightly. Leah remembered hearing about them when she worked in a brothel a couple of years back.
Crazy gypsy bastards.
Harsh words that she’d never heard when describing an entire family. But perhaps they weren’t wrong because the Shelbys only became more and more powerful. They were a force to be reckoned with, especially if you resided in Britain’s underworld. Leah did and had for some time. But she had her limits.
“Right, f’ya got heels on, you can take ‘em off.” Tommy was standing by the window, his back to Leah. A half-finished cigarette clenched between his lips. A thin haze of smoke already hung over the room.
Swallowing, Leah reached down to remove the heels from her feet. She was so focused on the straps she didn’t notice he’d turned around. When she set the shoes aside, she straightened up and came face-to-face with the most dangerous man in Birmingham.
His eyes were like the coldest winter, much worse than the blustery December evening outside the hotel. He was thin, average height, and sculpted with sharp edges. Everything from his dark hair to his clean-shaven face was pristine. His three-piece-suit wasn’t an uncommon sight for clients but he just seemed more refined. It masked his deeds but intimidation remained.
He was beautiful there was no denying that. But he had several, if not dozens, of ghosts haunting him. Hanging over his shoulder. Never letting him forget. His hardened stare was hypnotizing but fear-inducing all the while.
“You’re blonde.” His voice was quiet, deep, like thunder in the far distance.
Leah didn’t know how to respond. She only nodded. “Yes, Mr. Shelby.”
He stared at her for a moment. It was nearly unbearable being under the scrutiny of the calculating man. He drew the cigarette from his mouth and parted his lips slightly to release thin wisps of smoke. “Right,” It appeared he’d made up his mind. He shrugged his coat off and tossed it to the side. He averted his gaze from her and began removing the small bits and trappings of a wealthy man. Cufflinks, arm garter, pocket-watch, and finally his glasses.
Leah was frozen in her spot. Typically, she was outgoing when it came to clients. The more special she made them feel, the more they would pay. But Tommy’s presence was terrifying.
His eyes flicked up to her in slight annoyance when she didn’t move a muscle. He cleared his throat and made a curt gesture towards the bed, prompting her to move.
As if a spell had been lifted, Leah began to untie the dressing gown and let it slip off her shoulders to the floor. The reaction she got confirmed what Tommy was there for. A good prostitute could get a sense of why the man was there. Despite his cold manner, he was easy to read. He hardly even glanced up when she cast her robe to the side and walked to the bed clad in lingerie. His indifference said a lot. Tommy was there to deal with an itch, perhaps to further drown out some sorrows. What he was grieving was unknown.
He put out his cigarette and removed his waistcoat and shirt, still avoiding looking at the woman he was paying for.
Leah reclined back against the plush pillows. Her eyes kept catching glances of him as he undressed. She knew she needed to keep her head down, not attract any attention from him. But he had such a presence it was hard to look away.
Tommy handled the situation like anything else in his life. It was a business transaction, nothing more. He moved with such grace and certainty. His thin frame was a far cry from the brutal gangster that people labeled him as. But Leah could see the muscles flexing in his arms and chest when he got on top of her.
“You’re a quiet one, eh?” He broke the silence again. One hand braced himself against the bed, the other slipped between them. His long fingers grazed down her stomach, catching the bits of lace of her lingerie.
Leah looked up at him, studying his face once he was closer. He certainly looked years younger without his glasses, but there was exhaustion to his features. It seemed like he’d gone days without more than a few hours of sleep. A small nick of a scar marked his cheek. His eyes were, even more, alarming the closer he was. But his touch was surprisingly gentle at the onset.
“Do you like having conversations with girls like me?” Leah asked quietly, wondering if she should speak more to him. She’d been a little too busy taking in his form.
He shook his head and a hint of amusement crossed his eyes. “Try to have some decency, don’t I? M’not a monster.”
She was quick to correct herself. “'Course not, Mr. Shelby.”
“Call me Tommy.”
Something struck Leah like a brick to the head. Tommy. Tommy Shelby. She could see the name written in her husband’s handwriting.
Tommy Shelby, and his brothers, they act as though death is an old friend of theirs. None of them are scared to go to hell. Nice blokes but there’s something about them.
Leah’s sudden realization was cut short when she felt Tommy’s finger brush over her sex. Startled out of her thoughts, she let out a hitched moan and let her eyes slide closed. He was no stranger to a woman’s body that was clear just after half a second of him touching her. It wasn’t often she was really turned on by a client. Most were inexperienced, too worried about their own pleasure, or downright awful at pleasure.
But not Tommy Shelby. He had her breathless before he even entered her. When he did, Leah had to ground herself before she became too intoxicated off him. Her arms looped around his neck, her fingers clutching for purchase in his hair.
He grunted softly when she knotted her fingers in his dark locks. His head dipped down as his hips snapped forward. He moved with ferocity, chasing something beyond release. There was something he needed but it was something a whore could give him. Yet he pressed on.
Leah was unraveling at the seam. His vigor was pushing away the thoughts that had clouded her brain before. He brought her somewhere she’d long missed. An electric and primal connection.
“Tommy…” She breathed out.
And when he opened his eyes, Tommy felt the spark too. He didn’t see Grace, despite Leah’s blonde hair and vague likeness. There was something about the woman beneath him that rendered him breathless and devoid of all other thoughts. His grief. His anxiety. His anger. It was numbed. He could only feel her body and the warmth of her figure.
Overwhelmed with the sensation, his thrusts stuttered and he stared at her. Disbelief and lust made his pupils blow, thinning out the icy blue.
Leah let her hand slip to his cheek. Her lips parted like she wanted to say something but had lost all ability of speech. To solve the problem, he ducked down and kissed her. He pressed so hard into it that her lips were certain to bruise.
Seldom did she allow a client to kiss her. And if she did, it was for more money or to maybe make a young eighteen-year-old feel special on his birthday. But Tommy wiped her brain, made her forget who she truly was, and made her long for the days she had a man to kiss her. Grateful and drunk on the feeling, she kissed him back.
Nothing at that moment could pull them apart. Tommy only released her lips to hear her as she climaxed. Hearing her gasp out his name pushed him over the edge.
He groaned and let the feeling wash over him like a deadly cocktail of drugs and alcohol. He felt alive but cured of all the aches and pain held in his bones. He shuddered out a breath and the ringing in his ears faded. Awareness of the room returned.
Leah was clinging to him, still riding the waves of a release she had yet to find in years. Tommy let her hold onto him until her arms relaxed and her body unlocked.
Her hazel eyes met his face but both were too stunned to speak. Finally, Tommy sat up and reached for a cigarette. He offered one to Leah who took one out of courtesy.
They sat in silence for a moment. Smoke rising to the ceiling. Neither expected to find such a strong emotion in that room. It was scary for both of them and they didn’t know what to make of it.
“Should I leave you?” Leah finally spoke.
He swallowed hard and shook his head. “No. Not yet.” He replied quietly. There was a danger lurking. The danger of blindly falling for lust. Doing anything to fill the hole where his heart used to be. But he wasn’t about to release the feeling quite yet. He had a meeting in two hours. He was going to make use of that time. Fuck it, he’d be late.
Tommy flicked his cigarette into the ashtray on the nightstand. He reached over and Leah let him take hers as well. Replacing the cigarette with his hand. His slender fingers lacing in with hers as he kissed her deeply. His eyes closed and he welcomed the feeling. Taking the drug and following the high blindly.
Tommy had her for three hours. Leah returned to the room in quite a state. Her hair was undone and tangled. Her lipstick was smudged to hell and Tommy had ripped her lingerie in the passion.
When she returned, the girls all stared at her like she’d been gone for weeks.
Bea stood and hurried over to her.
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” She asked in a hushed voice.
Still in a daze, Leah shook her head. “No.” She sat down and started to freshen up. Her movements were slow and delayed. She was still too caught up in the overwhelming sensations. Three hours was not enough, she craved more.
“Leah?” Bea sat next to her.
“I asked if you were okay.” The older woman looked concerned. “You seem…off.”
“I’m fine, Bea.” Leah smiled. “Perfectly fine.”
That night, Tommy and Leah coped with the chance interaction. Leah returned to her rented room early in the morning and knelt by her bed. Beneath, in an old shoebox, she kept her husband’s letters. His shirt and those letters were the only things she had left of him. Losing him to the war sparked her downward spiral. She lost her best friend and the love of her life.
It was always difficult to read his letters. She intentionally tried to put it from her mind. When she read his words and saw his name signed, she was reminded of what she once had.
She thumbed through the parchment and finally found one of the several mentions of the Shelbys.
Tommy Shelby, he and his family live in Birmingham. If anything were to happen to me, I think they would be able to take care of you. They’re rough around the edges but they care for their own. I’m just afraid of leaving you alone.
Leah sat on the hardwood floor for a long while. She held the paper tightly. Her husband had known Tommy. The man she had just slept with. Overrun with guilt and confusion, the young woman curled up on the floor. She held the letter close to her chest and let herself cry. What kind of person was she? When had the world become too much to bear? Would she ever find the happiness she once had?
Tommy stood in the foyer long past midnight. Drunk on gin and then whiskey, he’d stumbled out of his office. Arrow House was silent in the dead of night. The large rooms offered no comfort.
Moonlight filtered in through the large windows and settled on the portrait of himself, Grace, and Charlie.
“Fuck…” He cursed under his breath as he singed the tips of his fingers on his cigarette. He dropped it and clumsily stubbed it out with his heel into the carpet.
His eyes looked up to Grace’s painted face. His heart wrenched and he found himself back where he’d begun that morning. Hindsight told him he was a fool for thinking something with a whore would be real. The only real thing he had was gone. He didn’t have her anymore and he never would again.
Tommy’s face scrunched up, the pain still seeping in despite the copious amounts of alcohol. He’d have to poison himself with gin to be fully numb. It was times like that night when he wondered if he should embrace the devil.
Probably the only reason he ignored the demons telling him to give up, called out to him.
Tommy raised his head and saw Charlie on the stairs landing. He clutched a teddy, concern on his small face. “Charlie, s’late.” He walked up the steps to his son.
“Bad dreams.” The little boy pouted and reached up.
“Alright, dad’s gotcha.” Tommy picked him up and did his best to walk a straight line back to Charlie’s bedroom. “Everything’s okay, yeah?” He tucked Charlie back into bed but the boy wouldn’t let go of him.
“Daddy, stay.” He begged.
Tommy sighed but gave in. “Okay.” He lay down next to his son, letting him cuddle close. “Dad’s not going anywhere. M’right here. You can go back to sleep, eh?” He murmured.
Charlie obliged and soon fell asleep in the crook of his father’s arm. But Tommy stayed awake, staring up at the ceiling. A hollow feeling settled into him. It wasn’t unfamiliar but it wasn’t exactly welcome either. He tried to fill it with anything he possibly could. So he decided to go back to her. If Leah could fill that space even for a few hours, he’d have it. An addict through and through, Tommy just wanted to feel something other than hurt.