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like gun metal, cold and unsure

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Naturally, Esme meets the brother who styles himself head of the Shelby family days before she meets the brother she’s to marry—though Thomas looks a picture. She’ll give him that. The man’s got eyes as bright blue as any prince’s in any storybook, but his eyes are hard, icy-cold in their brightness, and as they look her over same as, Esme suspects, they’d look over a horse led up to the auction block, she thinks: Thank God. Small mercies and all; at least Thomas Shelby isn’t looking to warm his own bed.

“You’ll be my brother, then.” A promise is a promise, a truce a truce. Esme hears a firmness in her voice that she doesn’t feel. “If I’m to your liking.” And tries for a smile, even, a hard one, resolved, but it wilts before reaching her lips. Biting the lower one, she shifts her weight from one foot to another on the hard-packed ground outside the caravan. Crosses her arms over her chest. She doesn’t want to be married.

Thomas cocks his head like he’s heard that last bit somehow, and it’s caused him to take proper notice of her. Plucking a cigarette from the corner of his mouth, he puffs out a breath of smoke gray as the overcast sky with each word. “You’re good with kids.”

It’s not a question. Esme knows how she’s to answer. “I am.”

“Your mother tells me you attended all three of your sisters.”

“I did.” Mum is desperate, then, if she’s telling a Shelby man—of all people—about their women’s business. Mum, who used to smack them for so much as thinking the word knickers ; for her sake Esme tries for another smile. “I love babies.”

“Our John’s not got babies.” Thomas doesn’t sound impressed with her, but then Esme expects he’s the sort who’s rarely impressed with anyone. “There’s four of them, running wild,” he says, lifting the cigarette to his lips again. “You’ll have to set that to rights.”

Don’t have a choice, do I. “I love kids,” Esme says stubbornly. The flatness of him, like he’s weighed up the whole world and found it wanting, goads her. I can stand toe-to-toe with you Shelbys. Me or any other of the Lees, we can. I can. “Been running a bit wild myself,” she says, finally managing that smile. It’s a hard one, as hard as Thomas’s eyes, she hopes. “Give them over to me and I’ll have them sorted.” Poor kids, if their father’s anything like their uncle. He won’t be the cuddling, consoling type. Not at all. 

And the uncle’s still staring her down, still breathing smoke. Esme lets her eyes stray to the dark hair swooped over his wide, pale forehead, then the razored sides of his skull, grayish in the milky light. Does his brother look like him? She doesn’t remember the Shelbys from the rest of the boys who sometimes wrestled her brothers and Johnny Dogs down by the Cut, ages ago now. Ages before the war—she was of no concern to them then.

“Our John’s a good man. He’ll treat you like a good woman, Esme.”

“Will he?” It bursts from the pit of her, the part of herself Esme’s kept locked up since hearing the news this morning: Chin up. You’re to be married, my girl. She doesn’t want to be married. Not like this. Leaving the road, leaving her family, for a man she’s never met and doesn’t love. “Can you promise me that, Thomas?”

His name feels wrong in her mouth. He eyes her as if he knows it does. “Like you said, you’ve run a bit wild,” he says, and Esme wonders if Thomas knows how much, exactly, she got up to and prays he doesn’t, smoothing her face out like she would a wrinkled sheet. “But my brother needs a wife, eh? Our families need an alliance that won’t break.” You’ll do, his expression says, for what I have planned. “Think about it, Esme. You won’t get a better deal than this.”

Odds are he’s right. “Doesn’t much matter what I think, does it?” she asks, staring straight ahead. “Like you said. We need an alliance.”

The cigarette’s finally burnt down. Thomas grinds it out underneath his boot. “Like I said,” he agrees, mild in his own way. 

Esme’s gut shivers, sickly-unsure though there’s nothing, really, to be unsure about. Marrying into the Shelby’ll be more or less the same as marrying this man, won’t it? Whether or not she’s in his bed, she’ll have to pay Thomas the full price in loyalty, she knows she will, and Esme has no idea if she has that in her, if she has it in her for him.   

But. She thinks of Mum, as frantic to see that none of the boys will be cut down anymore as she is to see Esme decently married. John’s little kids, too, motherless, running wild. If she’s to be a piece of all of this, shuffled around in Thomas’s pale hands, she might as well be the piece that brings an alliance. Peace. Connections of her own, and power, even. Esme sighs. She sets her jaw. “All right.”

“All right,” he agrees, a twitch of a smile hovering at the corner of his mouth, right where the cigarette dangled hardly a minute ago—at least Esme thinks it’s a smile. It could be anything on a face like Thomas’s. Still, she does believe his eyes are as close to warm as they’ve been yet.

They seal her engagement with a handshake.