“I’ve lined up Picassos, Muchas, a couple of Lalique glass figures — lots of up and coming artists.” Ada paced back and forth before Tommy, counting on her fingers the artists whose work would be shown at the charity auction she’d helped to organize for the Grace Shelby Institute. “I snapped them up for a song, but with the crowd I’ve invited all trying to outdo one another they will bring in thousands…” Ada stopped mid-step and stared at her brother. He had insisted on meeting her before the start of business, and after summoning her at such an ungodly hour he didn’t seem to be listening to a single word she said.
“Tommy. Oi, Tommy! Are you listening to me?”
Tommy had been listening. He absorbed every word spoken in his presence, even while he seemed a million miles away. Smoke from a dwindling cigarette curled in a graceful column before his eyes. He was mentally weighing how much money the auction would bring against the amount in his charity reserve account. Of course, he could singlehandedly fund the Institute with the stroke of a pen and skip this whole event, but that wasn’t the point. Publicity was important, and Ada had arranged for all the right people to be seen at his party. That was the point. He knew the rules of the game, but it weighed heavily on him. He was bored with pretending to care about the issues and opinions of the upper-middle class. He craved the gritty realism of Small Heath; the honest observations of the working class meant more to him than the relentless droning of his new peers.
“Yep, Ada, got it,” he sighed as he stood up from his desk and pulled on his jacket. He crossed the room to where she stood and lit another cigarette, seemingly forgetting the one he left burning in the ashtray on his desk. “It should be a resounding success. Thank you for all of your hard work.”
In the clear light of day, Ada could see the strain of the last few years playing out on her brother’s face. His pale blue eyes used to snap with electricity, but now they were slower, deeper, and more contemplative. Not quite sad, but worn and weary.
“I know it’s hard for you to go to these things, Tommy, but I’ve invited some bright young people who will make it a bit more bearable. Who knows? You might have fun,” she shrugged and smiled hopefully.
The energy that it took to keep up the façade of a legitimate businessman and Member of Parliament had sapped every ounce of fun from his life. “That wouldn’t be fair, now would it?” he mumbled as he stepped out into the hall and out the door.
“Lia, wake up!”
Sunlight streamed in through the window, painting the backs of Lia’s eyelids pink and warming her face. She had stayed up late talking with her cousin the night before, catching up on family gossip and getting the lowdown on her new job.
“Five more minutes,” she mumbled and pulled the sheet over her face. Her mind lazily drifted to thoughts of the upcoming day. She was to train as an assistant librarian; a position made possible by her cousin’s connections at City Hall. Even though she was grateful for the job, the temptation of a few more minutes’ sleep was tough to resist.
“Now! It takes a while to get across town. I stuck my neck out to get you this job, and I won’t have you being late on your first day.”
The rapidly approaching clacking of high heels on hardwood let Lia know that her cousin Jenny meant business, so she threw back the covers and groaned. “I’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”
“You’d better be,” Jenny called. “I’ve got fresh scones and tea.”
Jenny’s two up two down in Small Heath, Birmingham was like all the others in her street, except where the other houses were filled to capacity with large families, hers was all but empty. Her mom and dad had moved back to the country, and her brothers were off with their own families, so in order to stave off loneliness, she wrote to invite her favorite cousin to come live with her in Birmingham. “It will be great fun, and there’s a position coming open at the library. They promised to hold it for you." After receiving the letter, Lia and her family decided that the change would do her good. The country was stifling Lia. If she stayed, she had no prospects for anything other than marriage to a local farmer and a brood of children. Birmingham meant freedom and adventure for the restless young woman, so she went.
The pale yellow frock Lia wore stood in sharp contrast to the sooty dark patterned wallpaper in the kitchen. At one time it must’ve been green with pink flowers, Lia mused as she sipped her tea which was the approximate color of the flowers on the wall. Jenny laid a plate of scones down on the table and eyed her cousin. “You’ll need to get darker dresses, Lia. The mud and soot of Small Heath will make a hash of that.”
Lia rolled her eyes and smiled, “I plan on doing just that with my first paycheck. In the meantime, maybe I should help myself to your closet.”
“Not with those knockers you won’t,” Jenny teased. It felt good to have her cousin in the house, and despite the early hour, they were both in the mood to laugh.
Jenny sipped at her tea and flipped through the morning post until one envelope, in particular, caught her attention. Her lips moved as she whispered under her breath, and her eyes read and reread the writing on the heavily embossed card.
“My boss has forwarded an invitation to me. It’s for an art auction at the Grace Shelby Institute.” Jenny’s eyes were wide. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’ve been invited!”
“That’s great! Wait, do you have to go with your boss?”
“No, it’s my own invitation, and I get to bring a guest.”
The name Shelby rang a bell with Lia. Jenny read the look on her face and lowered her voice as if Arthur Shelby himself were lurking just outside her door. “Yeah, those Shelbys. But they’ve gone legit. The leader is even an MP now.”
Lia arched an eyebrow, “Legit? How exactly does a razor gang go legit?”
“The Shelbys can bloody well do whatever they want, and we are going to this event. It means a lot to get invited to these things, and I need to show that I can fit in.”
The pale blue dress that Lia wore had a low cut back and fringe at the knee, not at all the stuff of a librarian’s wardrobe. She had worn it to a formal engagement party the year before and had been pining away for a reason to wear it again. In a room full of tweeds and sensible shoes, she was a flash of blue sky on a stormy day. Her cousin dressed to blend in with the crowd—perfect for a work event, and Jenny was certainly all business tonight.
While Jenny circulated around the room, Lia availed herself of several glasses of champagne and studied the paintings on offer. As the daughter of a farmer, she had not had many chances to go to museums and galleries, but she loved art and soaked up everything she could read about it. There was an amazing selection of work at the Institute including a cubist piece by Picasso, but what really caught her eye was a group of Art Nouveau paintings by Alphonse Mucha. She stood, sipping her champagne and smiling at a depiction of a woman in a gracefully flowing gown on a backdrop of stars.
“Spectacular, isn’t it?” A sweet feminine voice with a Brummie lilt drew her out of her reverie. Lia turned around to see a woman with porcelain skin, dark bobbed hair, and piercing blue eyes extend a hand toward her. “Ada Thorne, and you are…”
“Lia Montrose,” she managed to answer in a relatively confident manner. Jenny had mentioned the Shelby’s sister on the way there, but Lia never thought she’d end up in a conversation with her.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance. You know, at most of these things people only glance at the paintings and then try to make business deals for the rest of the night. It’s nice to see someone actually appreciate the art for a change.”
She held up a perfectly manicured finger in the direction of a waiter who immediately brought over a tray of drinks. “Champagne?” She handed Lia a fresh glass without waiting for an answer and then took one for herself. She smiled conspiratorially and raised an eyebrow. “Have you seen the Max Ernst yet?”
“You have an Ernst?” Lia asked, her mouth hanging open for a moment before she realized and closed it.
“Yeah, it’s in the next room. Come on.” She hooked her arm in Lia’s and led her to the next room where, indeed, the promised painting hung.
“It’s bloody amazing,” Lia whispered.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m sure you could have it for a song. None of the tossers here will recognize its significance.” Ada gently shook her head, and the rubies around her neck caught the light. Lia blushed and looked down. She had not near enough to even make a starting bid on any of the artwork.
Ada led Lia around talking about the various works up for auction. She was genuine and warm. Not at all what Lia imagined a Shelby would be like. When Lia explained that she couldn’t actually buy any of the art because she had just started a job as a librarian, Ada commiserated with her about the low pay. “I was a librarian myself for a time. If it weren’t for my brother Tommy… well, let’s just say I know what it’s like to live on a librarian’s pay...and much, much less”
Ada didn’t expand on her role at Shelby Company Limited, except to say she dealt in imports and exports, and Lia didn’t pry. Even though Ada spoke with a candid ebullience, it seemed safer not to ask questions. As they were discussing the merits of public reading rooms a man entered by a side door and motioned for Ada to come over.
“Oh, dear. If you’ll excuse me, I should go to make sure that everything is running smoothly. It was so nice meeting you, Lia.”
“Likewise Mrs. Thorne.”
“Call me Ada,” she warmly smiled and was on her way.
Lia was positively buzzing. She had lost track of time and of how much champagne she had quaffed while talking to Ada. She squinted across the hall into the main room and scanned the crowd for Jenny, who was nowhere to be found. Unbeknownst to her, someone had been watching in admiration as she strolled along.
Another Picasso caught her eye, and she stood squinting and biting her bottom lip as she looked at it. She was so astonished by the colors and lines that she hardly noticed the gentleman who had come to stand beside her and ask her what she thought of it.
“Vastly overrated. I much prefer his blue period...”
As she spoke, she turned to find herself under the gaze of the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. He took her in with an intensity that was slightly lessened when he raised one corner of his mouth and tilted his head a bit. His voice was a low, raspy rumble and Lia felt it in her gut when he tutted and spoke again.
“If our Ada were here, she’d tell you all about how it represents the chaos of war and the destruction wrought by the powerful…how mechanization renders people obsolete…turns us into interchangeable parts.”
Lia stared at him as her mind lurched toward the realization that maybe she shouldn’t have been so candid. Our Ada? “Are you…”
He turned his whole body to face her. “Thomas Shelby. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs…”
As he kissed her hand her breath caught in her throat. She was toe to toe with the most powerful man in Birmingham, and his warm soft lips were currently on her skin. Tommy did not fail to notice the little shiver of electricity that passed between them.
“Miss… Miss Lia Montrose and the pleasure is all mine.” The heat from his lips on her hand made its way up to her cheeks. She cleared her throat and swirled the champagne in her glass. “Great party.”
“Party, event, fundraiser, no matter what you call it it’s all about separating this lot from their money. Since my Picasso is shite, tell me, which ones do you like?” There was a hint of mischief in his voice as he spoke.
Tommy liked that there was something different about her. She was younger than the usual patrons of local charities, but the difference seemed to do more with the light in her eyes as she surveyed the room. Bright. The word Ada had used to describe their special guests sprang to his mind. She was one of those bright young things who Ada invited to try to make him have fun. There was a distinct lack of pretense in the way she carried herself. She had spent the evening looking at and chatting about art instead of business, and her honest reaction to his question did not surprise him in the least.
Lia giggled a little and apologized. “I didn’t mean to insult your taste in art, Mr. Shelby…”
“Call me Tommy.” He lazily caressed her body with his eyes.
“…I didn’t know who you were when you asked me.” Lia’s voice quivered, betraying her surprise at the bold way he was looking at her. After all, he was Tommy Shelby, and she was taken aback by the open way in which he was flirting with her.
He took a step closer and raised his eyebrows. “Had you known, would it have changed your answer?”
Lia bit her lip and fought back a smile before answering, “Well, no, but I would have used a bit more tact.” She looked up through her lashes at him.
Tommy held her gaze and waited for her to answer what he had asked previously. She seemed a bit dazed, so he repeated the question. “Which ones do you like?”
She glanced around the room, gathering her thoughts and began, “I really like the Mucha paintings. They are much more organic in how they reflect the beauty found in nature and…” As she trailed off, she realized that Mr. Shelby was still looking directly at her. His unwavering attention coupled with the champagne made it very hard for her to concentrate.
Tommy could see that she was having some difficulty in expressing herself, and he was having quite a lot of fun teasing her. He narrowed his eyes and ran his tongue along his lips. “What makes you think the Picasso is shite?” he asked in an exaggeratingly sincere voice.
She drained her champagne. Liquid courage could only help her current situation. “Personal preference, I suppose. It’s ridiculous,” She leaned closer to him in a conspiratorial manner. “It’s overwrought and pretentious.” As soon as the words left her mouth Jenny came into view. Her eyes were huge as she gingerly approached Lia and Mr. Shelby.
“Oh, Jenny, let me introduce you to Tommy. We’ve been discussing his art collection.”
Tommy offered a warm greeting to Jenny, who hid her surprise as best she could. “Mr. Shelby, thank you for extending an invitation to my cousin and me.”
“My pleasure. The fine work you’re doing for our city has not gone unnoticed, and I’m happy to show my appreciation. Do you have opinions on art, Miss Montrose? Your cousin is partial to Mucha.”
Lia giggled and smiled up at Tommy, “Well, yeah, of course, I prefer him to Picasso.”
Jenny’s eyes shifted from Lia to Tommy and back again, as she could hardly believe what she was seeing. There was an obvious attraction between them. Lia was fresh from the country and had no way of knowing the gravity of the situation she’d stumbled into. But Jenny did.
She took the empty champagne glass from her cousin’s hand and placed it on a passing tray, “Thank you so much for your hospitality, Mr. Shelby, but we must be going.”
Lia frowned, and Tommy’s demeanor cooled as he turned to face Jenny. “Won’t you stay for the auction?”
“We would love to, but…” Jenny’s excuse was mercifully cut short by an announcement that the auction was beginning.
Tommy shifted his attention back to Lia and slowly shook his head, “It’s a shame, you know. I could use your expertise to run up the bids.”
Lia looked over her shoulder as she walked toward the door and smiled sweetly, “That wouldn’t be fair, now would it, Mr. Shelby.”