Chapter 1: Birmingham
“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.”
Chapter 2: The Invitation
Tommy makes Lia an offer she can't refuse.
The library turned out to be a majestic escape from the ash and smoke of the city. The powdery soft smell of the books and the cool dense air that seems to compose the atmosphere of all libraries cast a spell on her the moment that she stepped inside. Lia jumped right into shelving books and assisting patrons. The work suited her; she liked helping people, and during her downtime, she could browse the stacks like a kid in a candy shop. So far, the new life she’d started in Birmingham suited her. Especially the part that included meeting parliamentary gangsters at swish parties.
She smiled to herself as she recalled the passing flirtation she had enjoyed with Tommy Shelby. Of course, she would probably never see him again except in the newspaper. Still, the buzz of the party hadn’t quite worn off; it seemed indicative of all the possibilities she could realize in the city.
She’d always felt hemmed in by her little town. She had lived her whole life being told that she was too ambitious, too free with her opinions, and lacked the humble attitude most becoming of a young lady. Whereas other girls her age were learning how to cook, sew, and run a home, Lia wanted to learn about art, poetry, and classical philosophy. Thankfully, her mum and dad realized that Lia deserved to see a bit more of the world before settling down. She wanted more than what her village could offer, and now she could reach out and grab it.
“Miss Montrose, you have a phone call.”
Lia was pulled away from her thoughts by her supervisor, who stood before her with a face like she’d been chewing on a wasp.
“You may take it in my office. It is Tommy Shelby’s secretary.”
As her boss’s severe expression and sensible shoes squeaked away, Lia swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and bolted for the office. Once there she shut the door behind her and eyed the shiny black phone receiver that was lying on the neatly arranged desk.
The metal was cold against her cheek as she spoke into the mouthpiece, “Lia Montrose speaking.”
“How did you get this number?” She didn’t mean to sound rude and cringed at the bluntness of her question, but they hadn’t discussed her work…how did he know where to find her? Why did he want to find her?
From down the line, a quiet raspy voice answered, “Miss Montrose, I hope I haven’t pulled you away from anything important.”
The sound of his words made her shiver, and she couldn’t help but smile as she replied, “No, not at all. I was just shelving books. They will still be there when I return.”
“I’ve called to invite you to dinner because I’d like to continue our conversation. It was cut short when you had to leave. Are you available this Wednesday?”
Lia’s heart pounded so loudly that she worried that Tommy could hear it at the other end of the line. Jenny had warned her about his reputation and what being seen with him could do to hers. Be that as it may, she came to the city for adventure and there was no way in hell she would turn down a dinner invitation from the most intriguing man she’d ever met.
“Yes. That would be lovely, Tommy.”
“I’ll come for you at eight.”
“I look forward to it. I live at 22 Cannon…”
“I know the address. Until then.”
He hung up without a word more. Lia was in a trance as she placed the receiver on the hook. Tommy Shelby wanted to take her to dinner. He wanted her company…wanted to continue their conversation.
“If you have applied for another position, Miss Montrose, I would certainly like to know.”
The head librarian’s voice startled Lia back to her senses, and she turned in its direction.
“No, Ma’am. Of course not. The call pertained to a different matter altogether.” Lia forced a shaky smile and slipped past the matron before she could question her further.
“Surely you are not going with him!” Jenny gasped.
“Yes, actually I am. What harm could it do?”
Lia braced herself for her cousin’s reply. She had already warned her off of entertaining any thoughts of seeing Tommy again. As a matter of fact, she had lectured her endlessly on the subject on the night of the art auction. She stressed to Lia that she should be friendly if she were thrown into his orbit, but not too friendly. “For God’s sake don’t flirt and carry on with him! He is a very powerful man, but a dalliance with him would ruin your reputation and your chances with any ordinary, good man,” she had cautioned.
“Where is your fucking head? What harm could it do? Oh, I don’t know, Lia. You could get mixed up in his shady business dealings. You could get shot running around with his crowd. At the very least, it would ruin your chances at happiness with any normal man in Birmingham. And…”
Jenny stopped herself from talking and stood with her arms crossed, seething as her black eyes bored a hole into Lia.
“Go on, Jenny. Say it. You are afraid that you would be guilty by association. If I step out with a Shelby, it will reflect negatively on you. Right?” Lia barely raised her voice above a whisper.
“He is an MP now. Things are different now for them. People don’t look at them in the same way as they used to. You saw all those toffs at the art auction. They tipped their hats to him. Ladies offered their hands to him,” Lia reasoned.
“To his face they are friendly, but they all still whisper behind his back. None of them, and I mean none of them, would let their daughter date him.”
“Who cares what a bunch of toffs gossip about. I’ve already accepted his invitation, and it’s just one date. I will be careful; I promise.”
Thanks for the kudos and the comments. It is always nice to know what you think, so leave a comment if you'd like.
Chapter 3: Anticipation
Tommy takes Lia out to dinner at a surprising location.
Tommy hung up the phone and sighed. Her voice was different; she sounded nervous, and that could mean that some of the more unsavory parts of his reputation had caught up with him. One reason he wanted to spend some time with Lia is that she seemed unbothered by his legend. Sure, she checked up a bit when she realized that he was Tommy Shelby, but she was hardly trembling in awe of his status. She still told him that his art was “pretentious”, and he still remembered the shape of her dark red lips as she said it.
“Fuck,” he whispered and leaned back in his chair.
“It was her cousin,” he thought. He recalled the look on Jenny’s face as she approached the pair of them. Lia had leaned closer to him to share her amateur critique of that ghastly Picasso, and Tommy was having a not so subtle look down her dress. “She couldn’t get Lia out of there fast enough.”
He opened a drawer and took out a directory of Birmingham city offices. He turned a few pages and trailed his finger down to the spot where Jenny’s department was listed “Arts and Leisure.” He thought of calling to personally thank her department for their support of the auction but hesitated as he reached for the phone. Ada had been the principal contact, and he imagined that a call from him would seem heavy-handed—exactly the image he was seeking to avoid.
Women who were jaded by way of their privileged upbringing were all Tommy saw anymore. He looked forward to seeing Lia because she seemed different, more modern. Tommy craved the company of someone like her, someone who could be a diversion. If she was going to be worth his time, she wouldn’t let the opinions of others get inside her head.
Jenny had resigned herself to the fact that Lia was hell-bent on seeing Tommy’s invitation through, and she might as well get used to it. She had discreetly asked around about Tommy’s recent business dealings and charitable contributions and had come away with satisfactory answers. He made his money from the import and export of car parts, had a legal gin distillery, and five homes for orphans— all with exemplary records. Maybe she had overreacted, she thought. This was, after all, just a date.
She would feel better, though, if Lia would take her warnings a bit more seriously. Lia had always been a bit of a dreamer. As a kid, she never did very well at school despite being highly intelligent. She was always lost in a book or daydreaming instead of paying attention to her studies. She was not scatterbrained and could hold forth on serious intellectual topics, but she was not very practical. Jenny feared that her cousin viewed Tommy Shelby as an adventure rather than the flesh and blood leader of the Shelby Family. It was a feeling that Jenny couldn’t shake.
On Wednesday night Lia stood in the middle of her room in her bra and drawers, surrounded by dresses that she had tried on and promptly discarded. She had spent the last few days consumed with anticipation for her night with Tommy, and now things seemed to be falling apart.
“He’s already seen me in my good dress!” Lia squinted at the pile of fabric at her feet and rubbed her temples, “I guess I’ll just go naked!”
Jenny found the scene comically tragic and offered to help. “I’ll find something of mine that will do.”
Lia cupped her breasts and sighed in exasperation, “What will I do with these?”
“I’ll find something,” Jenny laughed as she walked down the hall to search her wardrobe. “Besides, Mr. Shelby would think that you were gorgeous dressed in a coal sack. I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
The purring sound of Tommy’s Bugatti was a sound foreign to the ears of Jenny and Lia’s neighbors, and the sight of Tommy Shelby was truly remarkable. Nosey housewives peeked from behind curtains and barely cracked doors as he approached the Montrose girls’ house. Before he could knock, Jenny opened the door to welcome him in. The less time the neighbors had to gawp at their esteemed visitor, the better. She ushered him into their warm sitting room and offered to take his coat and hat.
“Please, sit down. Lia will be ready in a moment.”
They took their seats, and Jenny watched as Tommy took in their modest sitting room. He noticed that it was not unlike the parlor that Polly had fixed up for them on Watery Lane, although the room he currently sat in had far fewer examples of religious iconography. They sat in two light blue chairs that were draped in lace doilies. A sturdy looking couch sat against a far wall. There was a fire in the grate of a small fireplace, and Tommy noted that the worn rug before it was scarred with tiny burn marks from embers that had popped out through the years. His eyes followed the brickwork up to where there was a portrait of Lia’s grandparents above the mantle, and they sternly looked down their noses in judgement of the gangster as he sat waiting to defile their granddaughter.
Jenny cleared her throat and spoke, “It’s not much, but it’s enough for us. The house used to belong to my parents.”
Tommy nodded and reached into his pocket for his cigarette case, “It is very nice.” His eyes searched the tabletops for an ashtray. “May I smoke?”
“Of course.” Jenny motioned toward a smoking stand tucked just behind his chair. Although Tommy’s manners were impeccable, she felt odd in his presence and struggled to keep from fidgeting with her bracelets. She told herself that he was just a man, but he owned this town, and that was hard to get around. She had decided to ask him if he would like some tea, but Tommy spoke first.
“Jenny, may I call you Jenny?”
She nodded and Tommy continued, “You’ve lived in Birmingham your whole life, and you’ve no doubt heard some things about my family… things that may be of concern to you since I want to spend time with Lia.”
Jenny sat up straighter and she glanced at the stairs before returning her focus to Tommy. “Go on, Mr. Shelby.”
“Please, call me Tommy.” He looked at her earnestly and his lips curved into the faintest smile.
“Alright, then. Tommy.”
He leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice. “I want you to know that Lia is safe in my presence. We’ve all had to make certain decisions, make certain sacrifices, do things to advance in our chosen careers. However, in recent years my past work has paid off. I no longer need to do those things that you may have heard about.”
Jenny’s face couldn’t hide the apprehension she felt, but she softly replied, “Thank you for your assurances.”
Just then, Lia came down the narrow steps that led into the room.
She wore a simple dark green, dropped waist dress that she had paired with her grandmother’s opal broach. Her hair was held in place with a velvet band that came across her forehead, and she had borrowed Jenny’s “good” beaded shawl. Though she didn’t have money, the girl had style. Somehow, with the help of her cousin, she had pulled together an outfit that could pass for the latest fashion. She would fit in perfectly wherever Tommy took her.
Tommy stood, and the spark behind his eyes lit up when she walked into the light. He had thought about her often in the last few days, his mind always returning to the way that she bit her bottom lip when he asked her if she would have been so honest with him if she had known who he was. She was doing it again. She was biting her lip as he stared at her and smoked.
The sun’s glow had nearly disappeared below the horizon by the time Lia climbed into Tommy’s car. He usually used a driver, but not tonight. He offered her a cigarette, and when she declined he lit his own. As he drove through the narrow streets of Small Heath he stole a glance at her. She was looking his way and ventured a small smile.
“I gather that you have learned more about me since we last met… Like where I work, where I live…”
“Does that bother you?” Tommy asked.
“Not particularly. I was happy that you called.” She smoothed her skirt over her knees.
“Mmmmm,” he hummed.
They drove in silence for a few moments with him looking her way at intervals. Finally, he spoke again. “And what about you? Do you know who I am now?”
She licked her lips and replied, “Yes.”
She shifted in her seat until she was facing him. Her shawl softly sparkled in the gathering dark, and her red lips stood in contrast to her pale skin. Tommy considered her answer. It really didn’t tell him much. She knew that he was a businessman and an MP, but did how much did she know about the Peaky Blinders?
“I don’t care about all that, Tommy.”
They didn’t speak again until Tommy pulled the car down a narrow, dark lane. It was then that he suddenly asked, “Do you like boats?”
“Sure. Although I can’t say that I’ve been on too many of them.”
Lia turned toward Tommy, and in the fading twilight, she could barely detect a smile playing around his lips.
“Good. Because we are having dinner on a boat.”
Tommy maneuvered the car through the gates of Charlie Strong’s yard, and Lia could see a faint glow in the distance. When they neared the canal, she could see what it was. Tommy coolly watched as Lia brought her hand up to her mouth and gasped.
Earlier that day, Tommy had instructed Charlie and Curly to ready their best longboat for the night. Lights were strung along the fore end leading up to the cabin and they twinkled and reflected light off the black water. The smell of roasting meat and the faint sound of music drifted on the breeze.
They walked toward the spectacle as Tommy guided her with a gentle hand on the small of her back. Cobbles crunched beneath their feet and the sky was pitch. Lia felt like they were the only two people on Earth.
“What’s all of this?” Lia softly asked. She felt like Alice down the rabbit hole; it was all so surreal.
“This is me Uncle Charlie’s scrapyard, and this —he gestured toward the boat — is where we are going to have dinner.” Tommy wanted her all to himself, and so he had brought her to a place where he could be sure that they would suffer no interruptions.
Tommy boarded first, then steadied her by holding on to her waist as she climbed aboard. She was distinctly aware of the pressure of his thumbs just above her hip bones as she stepped down onto the deck. She stumbled a bit and tottered into Tommy.
She took in Tommy’s laughing eyes. “I told you, I’ve not been on many boats.”
“You’ll be fine now. You’ve already done the hardest part.” As he spoke the laughter faded from his eyes only to be replaced by something softer.
She was close enough to see the curve of his glossy black lashes, the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes, and the scars on his cheek and the bridge of his nose. She had promised herself that she wouldn’t get carried away, but she could feel her neck relaxing as her face turned up to his. His lips were inches away from hers and her eyes were sliding closed when she stopped herself. She forced herself to pull away. “I’m glad you were there to catch me.”
He still had his hands on her waist when she turned to see faint candlelight flickering inside the cabin. The table was laid with fine china and crystal glasses stood next to a bottle of champagne. A covered roasting pan and a vase of flowers were in the center.
Completely dazzled, she smiled up at him, “Tommy, I have never seen anything like this before.”
“Well it’s time you have then, isn’t it.”
Thank you all for reading! Things have been pretty light thus far, but don't fret...the angst is a'comin'. If you like my story, please don't hesitate to leave a comment.
Chapter 4: Stardust
Lia throws caution to the wind where Tommy is concerned.
Tommy Shelby was used to getting what he wanted, and on that particular Wednesday night, he wanted Lia Montrose to spend the night on a longboat with him. It was a novel idea, one he hoped she would find irresistible. Was it wrong for him to assume that after a night of champagne and soft music he would be able to seduce her? It would seem so.
At first, everything seemed to be going to plan. Tommy could tell that Lia was impressed by his efforts as they approached the canal. The light from the electric bulbs (rigged up at some expense) made her eyes shine in wonderment. When they boarded the boat, she seemed enchanted by his hands around her waist and the way their lips very nearly brushed as he helped her get her footing. He could read the signs; between the grand gesture of a decorated longboat and his natural Shelby charm, he should have had no trouble steering her to the cozy sleeping quarters by the end of the evening. But as they sat down to dinner, he realized that he had misjudged the situation.
At the fundraiser, Lia seemed to have no qualms about drinking to the point of being tipsy in the loveliest way. On the boat with Tommy, however, she kept a close watch on the amount of champagne she drank. It was obvious to him that she was keen on remaining sober and keeping her guard up. She still batted her eyelashes at him while she answered his questions about her life in the country and the opportunities that awaited her in the city, but she seemed a little apprehensive to ask him about his life. She kept a bit of distance in her conversation.
Honestly, Tommy couldn’t blame her. If anything, it made him like her that much more. She was new in town and younger than him by a decade at least. Those circumstances alone would have a smart girl on her guard, and Lia seemed to be a smart girl. Add in the fact that she was alone in a secluded area with the head of the local crime family, well…he couldn’t fault her for being a bit more reserved than when they first met. Still, he had hoped to enjoy a little more of the easy banter they had engaged in at the party. He had found her attitude toward him very sexy. He seemed to be on a date with the watered-down version of Lia.
After a while, in an effort to loosen her up, he asked her to dance to the phonograph player that Curly had so thoughtfully provided.
“Lia,” he thought he saw her shiver as he spoke her name, “will you do me the honor of dancing with me?”
As she stood, the shawl she’d worn all night slipped from her shoulders and slid into the chair that she had risen from. The night air was cool, but her skin had flushed from excitement and she didn’t seem to feel the chill. What he didn’t know was that she’d been dying for Tommy to touch her since his hands had left her waist an hour earlier. He took her hands and drew her near, and his lips curved into a half-smile when she lay her head on his shoulder. It was the closest they’d ever been, and he could feel her start to relax.
Tommy’s strong arms held her close as they swayed along with the tune. Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you. When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago, and now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.
His breath was soft on her forehead as she melted into his embrace. Through the thick wool of his waistcoat, he could feel the rapid beating of Lia’s heart. He tightened his grip on her waist and nuzzled her hair, “Lia, do you know why I asked you here?”
He felt her tense up, and she whispered, “I have an idea.”
Tommy leaned back and looked into her face. Her eyes were downcast, so he lifted her chin. “Lia. Lia, look at me. I know that you’ve heard things about me. That I am a bad man. That I do bad things.”
She winced, “Tommy, you don’t have to say…”
He licked his lips and sighed. “The night we met, you spoke your mind. You weren’t intimidated by me. What has changed now, eh?”
He needed to know the reason for her hesitancy. Why one minute she seemed to be lost in the abyss of his gaze and the next she was rowing for shore. He wanted the gorgeous, smart, opinionated woman that he met at the fundraiser. Was that night just a fluke? If she was not who he thought, then he was just wasting his time.
She thought for a moment, then answered, “Tommy, I have heard whispers about the Peaky Blinders since I was a bairn. Then I met you, and you were so clever and funny, and handsome…the person I met didn’t fit with all the nightmare tales I’ve been told. Yes, I’ve been warned to keep my distance so that I won’t get hurt. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what we are doing.”
Tommy exhaled through his nose and shook his head. He shifted his eyes away from Lia, and she could see that the charming, soft way he had looked at her all night was fading away. Something hard and distant was taking him over. She couldn’t lose this chance to know him.
“Tommy,” she breathed. She had to see where this could go, so she pressed her lips to his. Just for a moment. Just long enough to stop him from closing that door on her.
“The thing is,” she brought her hand up to his face and traced from his temple to his jawline, “I have always thought for myself, so why should I stop now?”
“Are you sure? Because the things that you have heard are true.”
Tommy could see a flicker of uncertainty cross her face, but she held his stare. The music had stopped and the bumping static at the end of the record filled the cabin with a noisy tension to which they continued to sway along. He shifted his hips into hers, determined to drive any apprehension from her mind. She softly gasped and lifted her mouth to his. He more devoured her than kissed her. Every warning, every fear, every common sense thought that she ever had about Tommy Shelby had fallen through her weak knees and was oozing out of the tips of her toes.
When he finally pulled away to see her blissed-out reaction, she cocked an eyebrow and smiled up at him. “I’m sure I want to see more of you even though you’re a bad, bad man. But let’s take it slow.”
Ada sat across from Tommy and slid a file across his desk. “The proceeds from the auction. As predicted, it was a resounding success.”
Tommy reached for his glasses and hummed as he quickly assessed the report. He was in the process of setting the papers aside when a detail caught his attention.
“One of the Muchas didn’t sell?”
“Right.” Ada raised her eyebrows and devilishly grinned at her brother, “The one of the lady and the stars. The one Miss Montrose was so fond of.”
Tommy kept a straight face in light of his sister’s teasing. Word of his spectacular gesture had obviously reached Ada. Charlie Strong was a hard man, but he gossiped like a housewife. When he saw Tommy escorting Miss Montrose back to his Bugatti just after midnight he was surprised. Proud of the little lady, but surprised.
“I’ve had it wrapped for storage, but I haven’t sent it back to London yet.”
Ada watched Tommy with a sort of wistful affection as he avoided her insinuation by lighting a cigarette. She loved her brother, even though he could be selfish and exacting. She knew the Tommy underneath it all, and she, perhaps more than anyone but Polly, knew that he did what he did to keep them safe. By his reckoning, money and power could place them above harm’s reach. Unfortunately, all of his hard work came at the cost of his happiness. She wanted more than anything to see him happy. Just one of Tommy’s smiles could light up the whole city. Not a snarling grin, not an ironic laugh, but a real heartfelt smile. They were so rare. She almost saw one on the night of the auction.
Tommy stared at Ada through rising wisps of smoke. The thought occurred to him that Lia, in many ways, reminded him of Ada. She was book smart like Ada, she had an appreciation for the arts, hell, she worked in a bloody library like Ada had. She even looked a bit like Ada.
“Right, then.” Tommy cleared his throat and reached for a pen. “Send the Mucha to this address. No card.” He slid the paper across to Ada.
The slick red nails at the tips of her fingers stood in stark contrast to the ecru paper in her hand. The stunned disbelief on her face stood in stark contrast to the smirk behind Tommy’s whiskey glass.
“Tom. Sweetheart, it’s worth more than their flat.”
Thank you for the comments and the kudos. I write because I like it. I have stories in my head that I need to get out. I post because I think you might like it too, and when you do it feels really nice.
Chapter 5: A Work Of Art
Tommy gives Lia a painting and some afternoon delight.
“Tommy! It’s too much!”
Lia stood with her hands on her hips, scowling at the man. For a woman unused to rubbing elbows with Small Heath royalty, she sure didn’t have a problem with storming their castles, or maybe it was her naiveté that made her so forward. Either way, she had walked into Shelby Company Limited like she owned the place, and now stood before Tommy’s desk with a determined set to her red lips. They had only been on one date, and he had definitely crossed the line with his extravagance. Propriety forced her to at least try to refuse his gift: a Mucha, which currently sat leaning against the wall of her bedroom.
Tommy looked up from the file he’d been working on and feigned innocence. With raised brows, he peered over the tops of his gold-rimmed glasses and said, “I am afraid I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Yes, you bloody well do!”
Then the glasses came off and he leaned back in his chair, still avoiding the reason that she was there. He liked the way she looked in his office— standing in her little wine colored heels and matching cardigan. She had obviously found the painting when she came home from work and trotted right over to see him. She was proper vexed. She reminded him of a teacher he’d had a crush on when he was a boy. He had always managed to make his teacher glower at him, too.
The hint of a smile played around the corners of his lips as he reined in his amusement. “Are you not a fan? I thought that you held an appreciation for the organic way in which he depicts nature. Is that not how you phrased it?”
“I also like classical portraiture. Are you going to buy out the National Portrait Gallery and have it sent to Cannon Lane?”
He pursed his lips and nodded. “It just so happens that I have several examples of classical portraiture at my house. Perhaps you could come to visit me this weekend.”
She crossed her arms in exasperation and shifted her weight from one leg to the other. Damn heels. She watched his eyes follow the curve of her hip down her legs and back up. When he cleared his throat and reached for the tumbler of whiskey that sat to the left of his paperwork, Lia was suddenly aware of how quiet the office was, and how alone they were behind the door she had closed when she walked in. Apparently, the few employees who were there when she came in had left for the day.
“You have to take it back, Tommy,” she implored. “It’s too much. Do you know how long I would have to work to earn enough money to pay for that painting?”
As she spoke she could feel her resolve beginning to weaken. There was really no use arguing with him. He wanted her to have it, and so she would have it. She couldn’t very well chuck it into the street. This would be the trouble with seeing him. They were clearly on two different planes of existence. He wielded the kind of power that made men famous, and she was a country girl working in a library.
Tommy poured a second glass of whiskey and nodded in her direction. He walked around to where she stood and held the drink out as a peace offering. She uncrossed her arms and rolled her eyes before accepting his gesture.
“Come to my house this weekend.”
She cradled the liquor in the palm of her hand and sipped. “To appreciate your art collection?”
“Among other things. I am sure we could find no end of diversions.” His voice was low and sensual.
On the walk to his office, she had told herself to politely refuse his gift and leave. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t be taken in by his charm, but in the late afternoon silence of his plush office, the distance between them suddenly seemed unbearable. Despite the promises that she’d made to herself, and regardless of the reassurances she’d made to her cousin about not rushing into anything with Tommy, she was falling for him. She knew better. She knew that there was no way a relationship with him could work, but damn it, he was tempting. From the moment she’d laid eyes on him she was attracted to him, but now something deeper and more reckless was pulling at her. She was almost gone.
Tommy held out his hand, and Lia stepped toward him to take it. He pulled her into his arms and his hands glided over her hips. The now-empty whiskey glass she held tumbled to the rug as the room around them dissolved. His touch roamed over her ass and up her back as he pulled her deeper into his embrace.
“Say you will come,” he hoarsely whispered.
He looked into her eyes, so close that their noses were touching. His fingers were wound up in her hair and his soft lips murmured against hers.
“Lia, say you’ll come and stay the weekend.”
Jenny sat on Lia’s bed with her head in her hands. “Please tell me you’re joking. You’re not really going to spend the weekend at his home.”
Slips, dresses, brassieres, and skirts were draped and piled all over the sparse furniture, and Lia was stood in the middle of her room surveying the chaos. Packing for a weekend in the country was, ironically, a nightmare for her. His version of the country was different. Tommy lived in a mansion. On an estate. With horses.
She scrunched up her nose. “Fuck! I don’t have any riding breeches. What will I do if he wants to ride?”
Jenny snorted, “Oh, he’ll want to ride alright.”
Lia shot her a look that told her to back off, and Jenny held her hands up in mock surrender. Lia understood why she was being so protective; Tommy was a gangster. Even with the respectable veneer of his position as MP, he was known best as the leader of the Peaky Blinders. Lia knew that seeing him could have dangerous consequences, but she had weighed the risks against the way Tommy made her feel, and she was willing to tempt fate. Her cousin was fighting a losing battle; especially after the afternoon that Lia had spent with him.
After Tommy had convinced Lia to come out to his place for the weekend, he had very nearly convinced her to screw him on the couch in his office. It had taken every bit of self-control the girl possessed to tell him no. Tommy was sexually frustrated, but he thought it was hot. After years of women throwing themselves at him, he was getting off on the anticipation of what was to come. When Tommy drove her home she still had smudged lipstick and wet panties, but the consummation of their relationship would have to wait.
Lia dug through her purse counting coins. “I might have enough for something to wear for riding.”
Jenny heaved an exaggerated sigh and said, “I will loan you the money if you take me with you.”
“I don’t need a chaperone. I can pay you back next Friday.”
Lia’s eyes settled on the painting, which still leaned against her bedroom wall. It was the warmest and most beautiful image she had ever seen, but she found it hard to enjoy. If anything, it served to illustrate the chasm between her life and Tommy’s. It just wasn’t fair. She had to borrow clothes to go on a date with him. Now, she was borrowing money to buy riding breeches for this weekend. At her current pace, she would have to sell her grandmother’s jewelry if he wanted to take her out next weekend. But then she remembered the way his lips felt on her neck and the way his hands felt in her hair, and she smiled. It will be heavenly while it lasts.
Chapter 6: Think Of The Devil
Lia and Ada go on a shopping trip and everything is half price (not on the house— Ada is not as heavy handed as Tommy). Tommy goes to see Lia at work in the library. Poor Jenny is still kind of a buzzkill in the background.
“What are you playing at, Tommy?”
Ada stared down at him, her hands planted on either side of his desk blotter, her face trying desperately trying to look stern but rather failing. Ada had learned that Lia was coming for the weekend and was none too pleased. Not because she didn’t like the girl. She liked her very much. The problem was that she was torn between being happy that her brother was interested in an intelligent, seemingly normal woman, and being worried about how his affections were going to change her seemingly normal life.
He resisted the urge to look up at her, refused to give in to her amateur (though admittedly admirable) attempt to scold him. He owed no explanation to Ada or anybody else for that matter. His actions were singularly his own business. He continued reading or at least pretending to read, the reports before him.
“Tommy, I’m not budging until you talk to me about this. I think you fail to understand the major ramifications your actions will have on this girl’s life. She’s not your usual…” Ada struggled for a word that would relate her meaning without putting Tommy on his guard. Failing to find one, she finished her sentence rather bluntly, “whore.”
That did it. He flicked his eyes up at Ada so quickly that she was caught off guard and jumped. He smirked at his sister’s reaction and rolled his eyes before leaning back in his chair and picking up the smoldering remnants of his cigarette, finding it unsatisfactory, and snuffing it out. His face said that he was annoyed and a little bit puzzled at Ada’s intrusion into his plans with Miss Montrose, and he gestured toward Ada to continue.
“Oh, so I have to explain myself and not the other way around.” She shook her head and straightened up. “Fine. I humored your little date on the narrow boat, I held my tongue when you sent her a gift that cost more than her annual salary but summoning her out here to serve as your concubine…”
Tommy scoffed and suppressed a smile. Ada slumped into the chair opposite him and massaged her temples. Dealing with her brother could be migraine-inducing when discussing business, but when discussing personal matters the headaches were guaranteed.
She doggedly continued, “…Do you care at all what this will do to her reputation? She’s not like us. She is a regular person working for peanuts in a library! I’m sure people are talking as is; what will you do when she loses her job?”
He lit up another cigarette and as he exhaled said, “If the library wants to continue to receive funding it will continue to employ Miss Montrose for as long as she wants to continue to work there.”
“Oh, I see.” Ada snapped, “She will work there as the barely tolerated Shelby whore. Charming. You know that’s how they will see her.”
Tommy shrugged and took a sip of his whiskey. As someone for whom other people’s opinions hadn’t mattered for a long time, he couldn’t understand what Ada was getting so worked up about. But her next words hit him in a place that wasn’t quite dead yet, at least not where Lia was concerned.
“What will you do when she loses her heart?”
He blinked and Ada could see his jaw clench as he stared into her soft blue eyes. He had been so wrapped up in his own plans for Lia that he hadn’t stopped to consider how his attention would affect her life. He hadn’t thought about the very real possibility that Lia would see their dalliance as the beginning of something more. Now that Ada had forced him to see beyond his own desires he had a moment of pause.
“That’s what I thought,” she sighed. “Tommy, I know you like her. She seems to make you happy.” She leaned toward her brother and plaintive searched his face. “You deserve to be happy. Just have a care for what will happen to her when you grow tired of her company.”
Ada pulled the fur collar of her overcoat closed with a gloved hand. The wind whipped down Birmingham’s high street with a vengeance, especially considering it was midday. The promise of an early winter was on the air, hence Ada’s trip to the shops.
She and Karl had been staying with Tommy at Arrow house while she worked on Shelby company business. There was very little going on in London for the time being. Parliament was at recess, and Tommy had shifted his focus back to Birmingham. Ada had agreed to be close at hand, however, her cold-weather wardrobe was packed away in London. As much as she banged on about the unnecessary excesses of the wealthy, she enjoyed an excuse to shop as much as the bluebloods that she criticized. She wanted a few new dresses and perhaps a cashmere wrap for evenings in Arrow House’s drafty halls, and Karl could do with a new jumper and some wooly socks. She was near to her first destination when she saw Lia crossing the street toward the equestrian shop.
Ada was every bit as savvy as Tommy when it came to intuition, and there was only one reason that Lia would be going to an equestrian outfitter. Ada reckoned that Lia would spend a week’s wages, at least, on an outfit that she would only wear once or twice. Obviously Lia wanted to make sure that she was dressed appropriately for whatever Tommy had planned, and she was willing to make sacrifices to save face. With winter coming on, she would be better off spending it on a warm coat or some woolen dresses. There was only one thing for Ada to do; she changed her course and crossed the street.
The smell of rich, oiled leather washed over Lia as she walked through the door. It reminded her of the smell of Tommy’s car and made a shiver run down her spine. She spent only a few seconds gazing wide-eyed at the wall to wall khaki, leather, and tweed before a pinch-faced shop keeper approached her.
“May I help…?”
The word “you” was lost underneath the sound of the door as Ada strolled in. The shop keeper’s eyes widened, and he shifted his attention to the well-heeled princess of Small Heath. He mumbled a hasty, “Excuse me,” to Lia and sailed toward Ada.
“Welcome Miss Shelby…er…Thorne…”
Ada smiled sarcastically and quipped, “It’s Shelby,” as she walked straight past him to get to Lia.
Ada greeted Lia with open arms and air-kissed both of her cheeks. “Fancy meeting you here! Tommy told me that you were coming to visit us this weekend. I hope you didn’t have your heart set on riding. Tommy has sent his favorite mount out to stud and his filly is getting ready for the derby.” Lies.
Lia was at a loss as her mind tried to process what Ada had said. She was both caught off guard by the familiar way in which Ada had greeted her, and wholly relieved that she wouldn’t have to go into debt on riding gear.
She finally pulled it together enough to reply, “Well I’m glad that I ran into you. I was, in fact, looking forward to a chance to ride.”
“We must have you to come back when we have a full stable, then. Listen, I was just about to go to the dress shop ‘round the corner. Would you like to come with me?”
Without waiting for an answer, Ada ushered her out of the equestrian shop and steered her toward the dress shop where everything was miraculously fifty percent off.
Lia carefully climbed the ladder that led to the shelf that she needed. She cradled several books in one arm while she ran a finger over the spines of the ancient volumes on the top shelf. Finding the correct spot, she began wedging the returns into their rightful places. Tommy stood a safe distance away, partly concealed by a cabinet of maps. After speaking to Ada about the shopping trip she’d had with Lia a few days ago, he felt the need to spend some more time with her. He wanted to put her mind at ease about his expectations and to let her know that even though he was in the halls of Parliament now, it wasn’t so long ago that he was just another kid from Watery Lane. She didn’t have to pretend to be something she wasn’t with him. He liked her just as she was.
He relished the opportunity to see her at ease. She was absorbed in her work, tucking her hair behind her ear and pointing her toes like a ballerina as she stretched to place the last book without having to move the ladder again. He watched her careful descent and smiled at the demure way she smoothed her skirt when she reached the ground, lest it had hitched up during the climb. The midday sun streamed through the stained glass windows, bathing her in red and orange light. She glowed. The effect made it impossible for Tommy to look away. Even as she stepped out of the illumination she still radiated. He barely knew her, and yet he was fascinated with her. Something that he could not explain was unraveling the knots he kept tied around his heart.
As she worked her way through the shelves a feeling of warmth had wrapped itself around her; it was the feeling she got whenever she was with Tommy. She smiled to herself and chalked it up to wishful thinking. That little smile on her deep red lips was what finally pulled Tommy out of his hiding spot. He crossed the floor on catlike feet and slipped down between the stacks where Lia stood. She looked up, blinked rapidly for a moment, and then rewarded his patience with a flash of white teeth as she grinned up at him. He seemed to have materialized out of thin air.
“Think of the devil and he will appear.”
“Were you thinking of me just now?”
“As a matter of fact, I have thought of little else since I started on this shelf. I should probably double-check my work.” She bit her bottom lip and leaned back on the book cart. “What brings you downtown in the middle of the day?”
“As Member of Parliament for this area, I find that it is advantageous to take an interest in the public institutions and services within my purview.”
“Is that so?” No matter how much she tried to appear sophisticated in front of Tommy, she couldn’t help grinning like a fool. “It is time for my break. I know of a little place nearby. We could have a drink. I could…um…answer any questions you may have about this fine public institution.”
The hint of a sly smile lingered around Tommy’s lips, “Do I really need an excuse to come to see you?” Something about the way he posed the question sounded like a seduction.
“No, Tommy. A visit from you is always welcome,” Lia spoke, and the smile she wore faded into something more serious.
Tommy nodded and offered her his arm. Several patrons stopped their research to steal glances at the pair as they walked together down the stairs. Lia felt a little thrill knowing that she walked with the most powerful man in Birmingham, knowing that people would wonder who she was to him. She released her hold on his arm so she could pop into the offices to get her coat and purse. Before she got two steps away from Tommy, his hand was gently pulling her back. He leaned toward her, and his mouth grazed her ear as he whispered, “Tell your boss that your assistance is required by a representative of the British Government. You will be needed for the remainder of the afternoon.”
When he pulled back from her, his face was a mask of neutrality, but she could feel the lust rolling off of him in waves. She slipped into the office to deliver Tommy’s message and grab her things. She couldn’t wait to be alone with him.
Chapter 7: Loaded
Lia comes to terms with Tommy's gangster identity.
Tommy’s car was parked on a side street, just around the block from the library. The chill of the hard, cold leather seats numbed the backs of Lia’s thighs as Tommy pressed his lips to hers. She leaned into his kiss, and even though she shivered from the cold a simmering heat moved through her. His tongue was in her mouth and his hands were in her hair and she didn’t give a fuck who saw them. She slid her hands inside his jacket, but they stilled for a moment when they met the leather and steel of his gun holster. She shifted her attention to the buttons of his waistcoat, and she groaned slightly when she pulled at the tail of his shirt. She needed to feel his warm skin under her hands, wanted to get as close to him as she possibly could in the front seat of a Bugatti. He moved his lips to her ear and whispered, “Not here. We can go to the Midland.”
Lia’s heart raced at his suggestion. If she agreed to accompany him to the Midland, he would surely expect that she would be willing to sleep with him. She paused for a moment, contemplating the choice that lay before her. If she followed her heart, she would have the night of her life. What worried her was what Tommy would think of her after the fact. Tommy seemed to be a rather progressive man, but a small part of her feared that things would change between them. She had always approached her relationship with Tommy as an opportunity to have fun, be adventurous, and ignore the possible consequences, but now that things had taken a serious turn she was having second thoughts
He felt the hesitation in her body before he saw it in her face. “Lia,” he gently lifted her chin with a finger and kissed her lips. “We don’t have to rush anything, eh? I just thought some privacy would be nice.”
Tommy’s eyes were mesmerizing as they gazed into her own. The perpetual gray of the city made them an even more striking shade of blue, and the cold dim light played upon his cheekbones, hollowing them and honing them to a sharp edge. There was nothing left to consider. She wanted him badly, and he was offering her an afternoon in the most beautiful hotel suite in Birmingham.
“That’s a lovely idea. Let’s go.”
There it was. Lia decided to go along with Tommy’s suggestion that they continue their afternoon at the Midland; she knew what was on the cards, and she was ready for it.
Tommy was more than ready. He was unaccustomed to waiting for anything, and it was a testament to how much he liked Lia that he hadn’t lost interest and found a more accommodating companion. As he sped toward their destination, one black leather gloved hand was on the wheel and the other was on her. Between shifting gears he caressed her arm and her thigh. He squeezed her hand and cut his eyes toward her; he clearly couldn’t wait to get her alone. When they pulled up to the entrance of the hotel, he pulled the brake and casually handed the keys off to the valet.
He wordlessly took Lia’s hand and led her through the opulent lobby. The clicking of her heels echoed across the marble tile as she tried to inconspicuously take in her surroundings. It was hard not to gawk at the rich wood paneling and lush oriental rugs that adorned the alcoves where finely dressed ladies and gentlemen sipped at drinks. She ventured a glance upward and at the massive crystal chandelier and a flicker of amazement sparkled in her eyes. Tommy gave her a cheeky half-smile as he led her into the waiting elevator.
The attendant recognized Tommy immediately, tipped his hat, and sent the lift up to the penthouse. Tommy stood a respectable distance from Lia while they took the silent ride to the top floor, but all the while he devoured her with his eyes. Each time she glanced toward him she could feel heat rise to her face and she involuntarily squeezed her thighs together. He knew exactly what he was doing to her and he reveled in it.
“Will that be all, Mr. Shelby?” the lift operator cordially asked.
“Yes. I shall call if we require anything,” Tommy replied, his voice measured and calm.
Lia walked in a slow circle, taking in her surroundings while Tommy took care of the door. She heard it click shut behind her as if the sound was traveling through a dense haze. Tommy’s cologne, the rosy light that emanated from the lamps, the silk of her underthings— they were all soft and lovely. The whole scene was perfect. She closed her eyes and slowly inhaled savoring the warm druggy feeling that was washing over her.
“Would you like something to drink?”
Her head turned toward the sound of Tommy’s voice, and she crossed the room to where he stood. He handed her a whiskey and gestured toward a sofa.
Once they were seated, he drained his glass and leaned toward her. His gaze was heavy with lust, his voice quiet. “Do you know why I brought you here?”
It was the same question he had asked on the boat. Only then she was hesitant. They had just met and he was an enigma to her. Now, although she knew precious little more about this man, she felt inexplicably more at ease in his presence. Her answer was the same, but her intent was different.
“Yes,” she whispered. Her eyes were enormous, her pupils ready to swallow him whole.
“Finish your whiskey, Lia.” He casually ran a hand up her thigh.
She did as she was told, and he put her glass to the side. “Now, since you know why I brought you here…”
He kissed her in slow motion, gently at first, then more deeply and urgently. She grasped at his lapels and peeled his coat down while he pulled his arms free. His skin was burning to be touched underneath the thin fabric of his shirt. She slid her hands up his arms, down his back, and around to his sides until her right hand made contact with his holster. She hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to do, then drew back. She was both wary of the weapon and fascinated by it. She knew Tommy was a dangerous man, but she hadn’t really thought about the fact that he constantly carried a gun. According to the gossip she’d heard about his past, he would just as soon beat a man to death with his fists than use a pistol. If she was honest with herself, part of what attracted her to Tommy was the knowledge that he was, in his heart, a gangster.
Something flashed in her eyes that was not lost on Tommy. She had the same reaction a few days ago in his office when he removed it in front of her. Her cousin Jenny might have protested about his chequered past, but as far as he could tell, Lia liked a bit of danger. That was good, he supposed. If he was going to keep her around for any time at all she would need to have the stomach for both sides of his business.
Tommy took her hand and guided it to the strap on his shoulder. Her delicate fingers skimmed over the rich dark leather and came to rest at the fastenings. Tommy ran his tongue along his bottom lip and eyed her reaction. She was riveted. Her mouth was slightly parted and her breath came faster than before.
“Take it off,” he quietly directed her.
She looked into his eyes for affirmation and he nodded. Carefully, she unbuckled the holster and pulled the straps from around his torso. For a moment she held it, testing the weight of it in her hands. She then gingerly laid it on the sofa table and turned her attention to Tommy.
He smirked and pulled her close, “You like that, eh?”
“I don’t know... It terrifies me.” She glanced back at the gun, then to Tommy. “You though, it’s just a part of you, isn’t it?”
“I suppose it is. I don’t go anywhere without it.” He took her face in his hands and in a low raspy voice, he tried to reassure her. “This is who I am, and there are times, even now that I am in Parliament, when I have to show people that I am still Tommy Shelby from Small Heath.”
“Do people still come after you?”
“Not for a long while, they haven’t.”
He continued stroking her cheeks and she relaxed into his touch. Her eyes slid closed and once again his mouth was on hers. Whiskey lingered on his tongue. Since their very first kiss, the smell of whiskey made her dizzy with want. It was Tommy himself. Now she drank him in for all that she was worth. There was no sense in putting up false pretenses; she was going to give herself to him today. While the rest of the world buzzed from one place to the next in the fading light of the late afternoon, she was going to spread her legs for this gangster, this thief, this Watery Lane Gypsy turned MP.
Her hands wandered under his shirt and across the broad expanse of his back while she sucked at his bottom lip. “Tommy,”
He lifted her onto his lap and lay back against the cushions. “Hmmmmm?” he mumbled, pushing her skirt up higher on her thighs and fingering the satin straps on her garters.
“Go ahead and do what you brought me here for.”
Chapter 8: Down Home
Can Tommy accept that Lia won't babysit his ego? In this chapter, they head to the country to find out.
Lia opened her eyes and stretched, catlike, on the crisp white sheets where she and Tommy had spent all afternoon. It was dark outside now, and the clock in the square rang eight. She was limp as a dishrag and deliciously sore. Although her back was to him, she could hear his slow steady breaths which were punctuated at intervals by the drawing in and the exhalation of smoke. She arched her back and her toes found his sinewy, hairy calf. Tommy’s paper rustled as he turned a page, and he peeked over the newsprint. “Keep doing that and you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Lia smiled and rolled to her stomach, her hair covered all of her face except one sleepy eye. “Doing what?” she teased and extended her other leg to wrap around his.
Tommy narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips at her. “Can’t you see I’m reading the evening news, girl. I have to keep up, or I’ll be left behind.”
He lifted an arm, inviting her to snuggle in closer and lay her head on his chest. She took his cigarette from his fingers and shallowly inhaled. He arched an eyebrow art her pitiful attempt at smoking but said nothing. They lay in silence for a few moments while Tommy finished up an article about a possible rail expansion. When he folded the paper down and discarded it, Lia exhaled in a way that was almost a laugh and nodded toward the evening post.
“You already know everything that happens before it happens.”
“Yeah, but I still need to know what is being said. I have to keep up with what the public thinks.”
He took his cigarette back and took a long drag. With her ear pressed to his chest, she could hear the air and smoke rushing into his lungs. This made her strangely aware that she was lying naked against Tommy Shelby, not just Tommy her boyfriend, but Tommy Fucking Shelby. The surreal quality of it all was breathtaking. He really did know what was going to happen before it happened. Her eyes darted to a scar on his shoulder— an obvious bullet hole. Was it from the war or something else? In the dim rosy glow of the bedside lamp, she could see scars along his jawline, a massive scar under his chin, and the knuckles on the hand that lay gently on her arm were gnarled with silvery lines. He squeezed her arm and then reached for his whiskey, and as he did he left behind faint smudges of newsprint. Lia stared at the marks for a long while, contemplating what she was doing with such a man.
Eventually, Tommy spoke, pulling her out of her thoughts. “Would you like to get something for tea?”
Lia leaned up and kissed his neck, “God, yes, I’m fucking famished…Oh, shit.” She fully sat up, dropping the sheet to her waist. “I need to let Jenny know where I am.”
Tommy let his eyes wander over her exposed skin. God, she is beautiful, he thought.
“Is she your keeper?” Tommy teased.
“No, but I don’t typically just go missing without an explanation. She will worry if I’m not home for tea.”
Tommy crushed out his cigarette in a crystal ashtray and picked up the phone. “I’ll call the pub on Cannon Lane and send word. Go ahead and get dressed.”
Lia hopped off of the bed and grabbed her slip. As it slid down over her head, she turned back to Tommy. “I think I should be the one to make the call.”
Tommy replaced the receiver but didn’t move his hand. “Because?”
Lia sighed and studied his face. It was apparent that he knew why he just wanted her to say it. It made Lia feel odd that he was making a power move over a phone call to Jenny. Almost like, in a small way, he was making her choose.
“I know the barkeep. If he says that the message came from me Jenny will be more at ease.” She looked back up at him with a matter of fact expression. She was not going to play games with him.
“Because she won’t trust a message coming from me.”
Lia padded across the short distance to where Tommy held the phone and took it from him. He let it go without hesitation but gave her an incredulous look. She unwaveringly held his stare.
“Yes, Tommy. You or any man. She is very protective of me, and I of her. I will not make her needlessly worry just to massage your ego.”
His eyes broke away first and he drained the contents of his whiskey. Tommy Shelby stood there in his boxer shorts and realized that he was behaving like a controlling ass. He simultaneously realized that Lia wasn’t having it. Not a bit.
He wandered into the bathroom while Lia made the call. As he splashed water on his face and combed his hair he could hear her soft voice relating her message for Jenny. Let her know I’ll be late and there’s no need to worry… yeah…cheers.
He saw that Lia was different from other girls on the night that they met, but he chalked much of her behavior up to naiveté. If it were just that, though, just her youth and inexperience with the way his life worked that made her so straightforward, she would have adjusted her behavior toward him by now. She would have caught on to the way people were expected to defer to Tommy Shelby, MP, OBE, and Leader of the Peaky Blinders extraordinaire. But, she had remained constant. She approached him as his equal. He liked that about her, but he also liked his own way.
Lia and Jenny stood next to Lia’s suitcases and stared at the contraption on the wall.
Jenny tried her best to scowl, but then broke out laughing when she said, “When it rings it sounds like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
Lia cracked up, too, then picked up the card that the Telephone man had left behind. In Tommy’s unmistakable script, the message read “So Jenny will always know that you are safe.”
She wiped at the corners of her eyes as her laughter dies down and sighed, “He really does care. I wish you could see that part of him. He is so much more than what you’ve heard, and these grand gestures…they are just second nature to him.”
Jenny eyed the card and warned, “Just remember, he doesn’t do a single thing without planning three steps ahead.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
The purring sound of a car engine could be heard on the street outside. Jenny’s furrowed her brow and hugged her cousin goodbye. “I wrote our number down and stuck it in your purse. Have fun, Lia-bug, but be careful,” she said with a squeeze.
“Always,” Lia replied and kissed Jenny’s cheek.
Lia looked amazing as she opened the door to Tommy. Her shopping trip with Ada had really afforded her some good pieces. She wore a new pair of navy blue oxfords, cream tights and a navy blue fitted dress with cream-colored piping at the hem. A chic cloche hat and a strand of faux pearls with a tassel pendant topped off her look. Her overcoat was a bit worn, so she kept it folded over her arm. She wanted Tommy to see her outfit, and he looked duly impressed, though his favorite part of Lia would always be her dark red lips no matter what she was wearing. He cut a dapper figure, as always, in a grey suit with a navy pinstripe. His watch fob was set with a pearl inlay that perfectly matched Lia’s necklace. Jenny rolled her eyes and thought that they surely planned to dress alike, although they hadn’t.
He stepped over the threshold to take Lia’s bags and saw Jenny leaning against the sideboard with her arms crossed. He smiled and approached her while reaching into his pocket.
“I hoped to see you this morning,” he said with a cordial expression. He pulled out a business card and winked at her. “You can reach me anytime. If you need anything at all you have all my numbers: home, Shelby Company Limited office, The Midland, and the betting shop. These are all my private exchanges, direct lines to me so you won’t be routed through a secretary.”
He stepped back with a pleased look on his face while Jenny fingered the card and studied him skeptically. Finally, she smiled and nodded. “Have a pleasant weekend, Tommy.”
The drive out to Arrow House didn’t take as long as Lia thought it would have. Once the stacks of Small Heath were behind them the air cleared and the drive became lovely. The gentle hills and green pastures reminded her of home, and she and Tommy chatted about her family’s place.
“It is small.”
“Yeah? How small?” Tommy asked.
“Just fifty acres. Most of it in pasture, but we do grow a bit of wheat and barley.”
“So do you go out in your dungarees and tend the crops?” he asked, throwing a sidelong glance and a smirk at her.
“As a matter of fact, I do! I help shear the sheep and tend the garden…I can drive the cart just as well as my father,” she flung back. “What? You don’t believe me?”
Tommy chuckled low in his chest and took her hand, bringing it to his mouth for a kiss. “I believe that you can do anything you put your mind to.”
It seemed like in no time at all they were coasting into the circle drive of Tommy’s massive estate. She had to stoop down and bend her neck upwards to see it all from the front seat of the car.
“Wow…” she quietly let slip.
Tommy watched the look of sheer amazement take over her features and replied, “It took some getting used to, but it is home to me now.”
Lia straightened up and cleared her throat. “You mentioned that you grew up on Watery Lane, right?”
“Yeah,” Tommy answered.
He scratched the back of his head and felt around in his pocket until he found his cigarette case. He lit one up and put his arm around Lia. With the hand that held his cigarette, he pointed at the house. “This came at a price. Everything I have comes at a price. My time, my sweat and blood, sometimes even my sanity. But I pay it.”
She studied his face as he spoke. It was guileless and full of conviction, and she understood that he was sending her a message. He wanted her to know that the effortless cool that he usually approached her with was only part of who he was. People are different at home. This weekend, in his home, he was going to draw the curtain back and show her the real Tommy Shelby.
Chapter 9: Show and Tell
Lia finds out that Tommy is a man of many secrets. Some will be revealed, and some will be kept for another day.
As soon as Lia and Tommy entered the house, they were greeted by a bull mastiff named Cyril and a maid named Frances. Cyril said hello by wagging his nubby tail and gently nudging their legs with his mammoth head. Frances was a bit more reserved. She promptly took their coats and informed Tommy that he had a phone call waiting in his study. Tommy squeezed Lia’s hand and said, “Get settled in. I’ll find you later.” And with that, Lia was left standing in the foyer, her bags at her feet.
Frances gave her a stiff approximation of a smile and said, “Follow me, Miss. I’ll show you to your room.”
The grounds that she could see as they pulled into the drive were impressive, but the house itself was overwhelming. Rich, dark paneling covered the walls, and the sounds of her footfalls echoed on the marble tile. She glanced up at the chandeliers overhead while she walked and felt dwarfed by the majesty all around her. His home was certainly a reflection of his ambition. She wished Tommy was there to walk upstairs with her but understood that she had to share him with the other demands on his time. Besides, she would have all weekend to enjoy his company.
Thoughts of her weekend with Tommy in this beautiful place danced in Lia’s head, and she smiled as she was led around the corner to a sweeping staircase. But before she set foot on the first step her smile faded and her eyes grew wide. Looming before her was an enormous portrait of Tommy and a regal-looking blond woman with a small child on her lap. Frances turned to see what was keeping Lia and saw her face fall. Rapidly her eyes darted from Tommy’s face to the child’s and back again as she tried to make sense of what she was seeing.
Frances softly spoke, “The late Mrs. Shelby.”
“The child…is that…” Lia fumbled for the right way to ask if the boy was Tommy’s child. But, of course, it was Tommy’s child. Frances, seeing the barely hidden confusion in Lia’s eyes helped her save face.
“That’s little Master Charlie. He’s almost eight now.” She graciously looked away so Lia could compose herself.
She walked in a daze down the winding corridor that led to her room. Any other time she would have been enthralled by the art on the walls, the tasteful hall tables, the vases, and rugs, but as it was, Frances had to call her name twice to get her attention.
“Miss Montrose, Miss Montrose,” Frances opened the door to a room draped in blue silks and velvet and beckoned Lia inside. “This is your room. I hope you find it to liking.”
Lia couldn’t shake the image of the loving family she had seen in the hall. Feelings of melancholy, angst, and worry fluttered in her stomach like butterflies. She willed her feet to move and her face to smile.
Frances went on, “Mr. Shelby’s room is just next door. Would you care to have me unpack your things?”
Lia felt like someone else was speaking as she told Frances, “No, that’s all. Thank you.”
She closed the door to her room and Lia stood for a moment with her head resting against the richly polished wood. Her eyes squeezed shut. A son. He has a son that he never mentioned.
She turned around to face the room and noticed several small boxes and a large case on the bed—packages from the most expensive shops in Birmingham—gifts from Tommy. Lia felt a little thrill, despite the fact that she had just made a bombshell of a discovery and was feeling rather adrift about just how to take Tommy’s omission.
She sat on the edge of the bed and fingered the ribbons on one of the smaller packages while her thoughts went around in circles. Why should it matter that he has a son? It doesn’t change things between us. But still, he should have told me. How could he leave me to find out in such an abrupt manner?
After a few minutes of chasing her thoughts, she decided that she was reading too much into his not mentioning Charlie. After all, he had invited her to his home, maybe his aim (aside from having her all to himself) was to share the details of his life. He obviously couldn’t have hoped to keep his child a secret with the evidence of his existence so prominently displayed.
Tommy found Lia sat in the middle of the bed with her feet tucked under her like a little girl. She seemed dwarfed by the by opened boxes, tissue paper, and ribbons that surrounded her. A bit of gossamer silk lingerie lay in her lap. At the foot of the bed lay a riding habit and a shiny black pair of boots. She was already overwhelmed by the grandeur of Tommy’s estate, but this surprise had affected her even more.
Her earlier troubles forgotten, she beamed when she looked up at him. He leaned against the doorframe with a smile playing around his lips. Wispy curls of smoke trailed after the cigarette he held as he gestured toward the packages.
“I thought you might need some clothes for riding.”
“…and the other things? What about them?” Lia asked, her voice denoting a playful sarcasm as she twirled a blush pink garter on her finger.
Tommy cleared his throat and answered, “I confess, those are for me.”
Tommy and Lia spent the afternoon riding— Lia surmised that Ada had told a little white lie about the horses being gone to keep her from spending money on a riding habit and made a mental note to thank her. Seeing Tommy so in his element made her warm inside. He was a natural horseman and seemed like he belonged more in the stable than in the boardroom. He joked about their fancy riding costumes and confessed that he would rather ride in work pants and shirtsleeves like in the old days. He put her through her paces as they galloped over the fields and then down to the creek to rest and water the horses.
They walked along the stream together in the waning sunlight, Lia catching her breath while Tommy talked about their plans for the evening. “I’ve asked my cook to put together something for tea that we can have in front of the fire in my room. Charlie has gone to stay with his cousins, so I thought something small would be nice.”
“Charlie.” Lia paused and turned to face him, crossing her arms and staring earnestly into Tommy’s face.
Tommy stopped walking and lit a cigarette, “Yes. I’ve sent my son to Arthur’s for the weekend. Ada and Karl are in London, so it’s just us. ”
“Tommy,” Lia worked to keep the exasperation out of her voice, “Do you realize that you have never told me about your son?”
His face didn’t change, though he read the tension coming from Lia’s body and voice. “I assumed that you knew about my son.”
“Well, I didn’t. Not until I saw him in the portrait. The one on the stairs.”
“It is common knowledge that I had a wife, and that before her untimely passing she gave me a son.” His voice remained even, but Lia saw a subtle change in his eyes. “I assure you there was no subterfuge on my part.”
“Of course I knew about Grace…” she paused; the name felt odd in her mouth.
“…but no one ever mentioned Charlie? Not even Jenny?”
Lia shook her head and hugged herself tighter against the chill. “No. People don’t talk to me about you, and Jenny has learned to stay out of my business where you are concerned.”
Tommy exhaled a puff of smoke and turned his head to the side. “Does it make a difference?”
“No, of course not.” She relaxed her arms and took a step toward him. “I just found it odd that you haven’t mentioned him. It made me think. There’s so much about you that I don’t know.”
He turned to face her again and took a lungful of smoke. The end of his cigarette glowed orange and hot in the dim of the afternoon. “There are a lot of things about me that you don’t know,” smoke curled around his lips as he spoke, “and there are things about me that you will never know.”
The night that followed their ride was full of revelations. As they nibbled from a tray that had been sent up to Tommy’s room, he told her about how he and his family built their business from a small bookmaker’s shop to Shelby Company Limited. She learned about how Aunt Polly took over for the boys during the war and was impressed by the role that Polly and Ada had played in the company. Lia’s politics were shaped by her working-class roots, so it pleased her to learn that Tommy had come up from nothing. It relieved her to find that their origins weren’t so far apart, though hers were rural and his were urban, they had both known hard work.
Tommy had given her an overview of his life without going into the details of his time in France and the horrific aftermath that followed. He kept back the details of his wars with Kimber, the Sabinis, the Changrettas, and his long and awful friendship with Alfie Solomons. The kidnapping of Charlie and the killing of the priest were not mentioned. She would learn more of his darkness as time went on, and Tommy saw no need to burden her with it so soon into their courtship. No, Tommy thought only of enjoying the night that they had together, for he knew that the morning would likely bring another phone call and more trouble for him to sort.
By the time he called her to his bed, she was satisfied with the bits of himself he had seen fit to offer. She was not so naïve to think that he had shared everything with her. He was a well-known gangster, and his reputation for violence was not well hidden. But she had time. She was sure that as he trusted her more those details would come out. In the meantime, she would have to subsist on the crumbs he gave her.
His voice, low and raspy, called her out of her reverie. She was sitting beside the fire, nursing her third whiskey and considering all he had revealed. His voice called to her, and she walked across the soft carpet of his room to his bed. Tommy reclined against the headboard, stripped to the waist. He drained the glass that he held and sat it on the bedside table. Lia shrugged off the peignoir she was wearing, knelt beside him, and slowly blinked up at him. Then she bit her bottom lip, wetting it as she reached for the button of his trousers.
Chapter 10: The Waiting
Lia gets a great big dose of reality when Tommy leaves her stranded at Arrow House in a rainstorm while he flounces off to do business. All's well that ends well, though, and they end up lounging in the bathtub and coming to an understanding about Lia's career aspirations.
“Have you left the poor girl stranded alone in your house?”
Tommy glanced up from the papers he was signing. “No. Cyril and Frances are there too.”
Polly scoffed and narrowed her eyes. She smiled in that knowing way. The way that showed that she knew him better than he knew himself. “Ada says that you really like her.”
“But you leave her on her own all day while you come here to do a deal.”
Tommy slid the contracts across the table to Polly and handed her the pen. He gave her no reply, only shrugged his shoulders.
Through a haze of smoke, he watched her smile broaden. “Ada says she’s young. Pretty.”
“Just sign the contracts, Pol. The sooner we finish the sooner I can get home to my young, pretty houseguest.”
Polly picked up the pen and signed each copy in her elegant script. “When do I get to meet her?”
Tommy shook his head and grumbled, “For fuck’s sake.”
Silver lightning split the darkened sky, illuminating the wet granite steps of Arrow House. He had met with Polly and a client late into the evening and stayed later still on his own. Tommy, if anything, was pragmatic. The family business came first—above sleep, above safety, above his own mental health, even above time with his son. He would make no exception for a woman. So why had Polly’s words stayed in his head? Now that he was back home, he felt a little twinge of regret that he had missed spending the day with her.
He crossed the short distance to the door. It was locked. He cursed and fumbled for the key while rain trickled down his neck, soaking his collar. Once inside, he pulled a silk handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the rain from his glasses and his brow. It had been a long while since Tommy had to deal with the inconvenience of unlocking his own front door— Frances, who was usually in the front hall to let him in and take his coat, was notably absent. Also, he hadn’t expected Lia to be waiting at the door, but he had assumed that she would come to see him when she heard him come in.
He walked along the dimly lit corridor that led to his study, peeling his coat off as he went. It wasn’t like Frances to be out of pocket no matter what time he came in, and in the quiet, he began to think that something was wrong. He strained to listen for any sound, but all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing. What had started as excitement at finally being home was pushed to the side; the switch inside his head that turned on his soldier brain had been flipped. His hand went to his revolver as the door to his study opened, slowly spreading a wedge of muted light into the hall. “Who’s there?” he called, fingers curling around the weapon, ready to draw.
Tommy blew out a rushed breath and quickly pulled his suit jacket back into place when Frances emerged with a silver tray in her hands. She must have caught the split second of light bouncing off the metal of the gun, or maybe she just recognized the look in his eyes, but the woman stiffened and froze for a moment before she carefully approached him.
“Sorry, Mr. Shelby; I didn’t hear you arrive.”
He rubbed his hand over his eyes and glanced at the tray. On it was the remnants of tea for one: a few strawberries, a half-eaten sandwich, an empty cup, and a napkin, both marked with a smudge of red lipstick.
Frances pulled the door closed and straightened her back. “She waited in your study most of the day. What with the rain she couldn’t go outside and explore the grounds.” In her voice, he detected a hint of judgment that he was starting to think he deserved.
“She is sleeping, Sir. On the couch.” She gestured toward the study with a flick of her eyes.
Silence hung in the air between them for a moment, then Tommy cleared his throat and went in. The warm glow from an opalescent lamp led Tommy to where Lia lay sleeping. An open book, a volume of William Blake’s poems, was still in her hand, and she was covered with the coat that he had left on the back of his chair the day before. He smiled to think of her curling up beneath it, bathed in the scent of his skin. It was such an intimate gesture, the desire to be wrapped in the smell of the one you long to be with.
Rather than wake her, he settled down on the opposite end of the couch and watched her sleep. Mesmerized by the faint movements behind her eyelids and the subtle bend of her smile, He idly wondered what she was dreaming about. The heat that radiated from the glowing fire and the quiet sounds of the falling rain blanketed the room. Before long, he closed his eyes and the tightly wound spring inside of him began to unwind. He matched his breathing with hers. Slow and steady. In and out.
Without thinking, he let his hand come to rest on Lia’s foot, which had found itself way against his leg. His touch pulled her out of her dream, and when Lia’s eyes fluttered open, he was the first thing she saw. He looked like a god in repose, head languidly tilted back, the curve of his lips silhouetted against the low fire. It was almost enough to make up for the fact that he had fucked off and left her alone all day.
She was sure that he had fallen asleep until he turned toward her and spoke, “Good evening.”
“Don’t you mean ‘Good Morning’?” she mumbled, less than enthusiastically.
Tommy’s brow furrowed for a moment. He was caught off guard by her attitude. From the looks of it, she had whiled away the night reading poetry while snuggled under his jacket like a lovesick schoolgirl. He had expected her usual warm greeting.
Lia nudged him with a barefoot and stretched. “Don’t look so affronted, Tommy. I’m just disappointed. You invited me all the way out here, remember? And I came all the way out here only for you to go back to the city.”
When she woke up alone in Tommy’s wrecked sheets, he had already dressed and gone. Whether he did so to let her sleep or to avoid having to tell her that he was choosing work over her had yet to be determined. He left word that he would probably be detained for most of the day and that she was to have the run of the house. A fat lot of good that had done her. It poured rain all day so she couldn’t go riding or even stick her nose outside. Her day was spent sitting alone in Tommy’s study reading books and napping. As much as she tried to justify his actions and make excuses for him in her own mind, it was no good.
He stared at her for a moment, waiting for the challenge in her eyes to soften. It didn’t. He stood and headed for the whiskey. With his back to her, he spoke as he fixed two glasses. “My absence couldn’t be helped. You’ll find that I am often called away for business of one kind or another. Everybody needs me.” He turned to walk back toward her, eyebrows raised, and asked, “Is that going to be a problem?”
In her newly woken state, Lia couldn’t tell if he was really admonishing her or just stating a fact. But, God, he looked good. The muscles in his back were visible beneath his still damp shirt, and his braces and gun holster pulled the material taut at his shoulders. She really did not want to stay miffed and ruin the rest of the night…a night that she could spend climbing this gorgeous man like a tree. She sat up straight and answered with a sigh, “No. Of course not.”
Though she made an effort to hide it, he could see the disappointment in the set of her mouth, the slight pout in the downturned corners. Even though she told him it wasn’t a problem, her mouth betrayed her true feelings. As red and lush as it was, Tommy fought the urge to devour it then and there.
He instead held the glass of whiskey in front of her. As she took it, her fingers brushed against his sending warmth through his body. He remembered how young and unused to his way of life Lia truly was. Of course, she felt neglected. His eyes softened as he looked down at her and took her free hand in his. His thumb rubbed circles on her skin for a moment then he pulled her to her feet. She arched her back and leaned into him, sipping her drink and eying him over her glass.
“Look at me.”
“I am,” Lia mumbled from behind her glass.
Tommy stared her down until she lowered her drink and he could see her whole face. He ran his thumb along her bottom lip and tried to explain, “I have in my employ hundreds of men. Their livelihoods, and the livelihoods of their families, depend on the decisions that I make and the contracts that I procure.” Tommy pulled his thumb away and kissed her slowly and deeply before he went on, breathing words against her lips. “Now, sometimes I have to forgo my own pleasure to ensure that Shelby Company Limited’s interests are looked after. Like what happened today. I need you to understand that.”
His nose was nearly touching hers and his bright blue eyes burned with intensity as he waited for her to speak. She nodded, just barely, and answered, “I understand, but I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t bother me.”
Tommy drained his glass and wrapped her in his arms. His chin rested on the top of her head and they swayed like they were dancing to music that only they could hear.
“It’s been a long day,” he sighed, “and I just want to get you upstairs.”
Her mother always told her that people will treat you the way that you let them, but it was hard to hold a grudge when his voice sent shivers down her spine and his touch made her forget why she was cross in the first place. She reached up to caress his velvety hair and smiled into his neck. “Then take me upstairs, Tommy. I’ve missed you.”
“What did you dream of when you were a little girl?”
“Mmmmm, lots of things.”
The cold northern rain had soaked into Tommy’s bones, so he and Lia ended up in the enormous marble bath just off of Tommy’s room. A silver flask of whiskey was balanced on the ledge of the tub between them, and truth be told, Lia had consumed most of it. Steam rose from their skin as they whispered secrets to each other in the flickering candlelight. Lia stretched her legs sending ripples through the water. He guided her feet up to his chest and lazily rubbed her calves. Their soft patter blended with the tinkling of the water.
“Like what? Come on.”
“Well, I wanted to travel to a big city. I never quite belonged in a small town. I guess I’ve done that.”
“Well done you,” Tommy smiled. “What did you see yourself doing in this big city?”
“I wanted to be a writer or an artist…something terribly bohemian,” she laughed, rolling her eyes.
“Is that so?” he pursed his lips thoughtfully, “Do you paint or write?”
Lia crinkled her nose, “See that’s where the plan falls apart; I don’t have any talent to speak of.”
Tommy began pulling Lia toward him along the slippery bottom to the tub and growled, “That’s where you’re wrong.”
“Tommy!” she squealed while scrambling to keep her head above water.
After splashing a good deal of water onto the floor, she came to rest between his legs, giggling with her head on his chest. He ran his fingers through the damp tendrils of hair that curled around her ears and pressed kisses to her forehead.
“What about now, Lia?” he whispered, “What do you want now?”
She grinned devilishly and slid her hand beneath the water. “What I want now is pressing into my side…”
“Shhhh, really…I’m trying my best to be serious,” he murmured.
The warmth of his breath against her wet skin made her shiver and press herself more tightly to him as she answered, “Oh, all right. I want to do something with research…maybe art. There is some opportunity for that at the library; they have an archive, but I’d really like to go to work for a museum.”
Tommy bent to face her and said, “I sit on the board of the Birmingham City Museum. I can speak to someone…”
“Oh, Tommy. You are so good to me, but I’d rather get there on my own. I’ve been working on a few projects that have gained recognition.”
She was so earnest, so determined to make her own way. The look in her eyes reminded him of Ada. She had the same independent streak, the same idealism. Unlike Ada, though, she wasn’t raised to be tough. Birmingham was a rough place to live and work. She was naïve about so many things, and Tommy wanted to smooth her way. He couldn’t stand the thought of her working long hours with some smarmy professor who had ulterior motives.
“Let me make a few calls…”
She sat up to face him, “It might take a while, but I want to succeed on my own merits.” Shivering, she pressed a kiss to his warm mouth. “I want to earn this.”
He settled her back down against his chest and decided to let it go. He understood her need for autonomy and a sense of accomplishment, so he would back off. There would be plenty of time and plenty of occasions for him to do things for her behind the scenes… and he loved to do things for her. For now, he would just enjoy the way she made him feel and make the most of the time they had together before he was called back to London.
Chapter 11: Discovery and Dissolution
Lia learns about the making of Thomas Shelby and meets more of the family. She and Jenny hit an impasse, but she and Tommy may be embarking on a new phase of their relationship.
Thank you for being so patient and not giving up on this fic even though I have been egregiously late with updates. At best, my life is erratically populated with periods of leisure time and periods of hectic, soul-crushing work. I, like many of you, am in the midst of a forced period of leisure time, so you will probably see more frequent updates. I appreciate those of you who are willing to stick around to see what happens next, and I hope you are in good health. Tell me what you think! x
Polly Gray sat in her Bentley, wrapped in fur. Through her dark glasses, she watched the scene on the street where Lia worked. The bitter north wind cut straight down the sidewalk in front of the library and sent patrons scurrying for shelter within. A cluster of people shuffled through the arched brass doors, and Lia stepped out. She was a vision in a blue cashmere long coat, a mink collar clutched around her neck. The wind caused her coat to flap and play peek-a-boo with leather boots that stretched up to her knees. Both items were gifts from Tommy, Polly surmised. She noticed that Lia still wore an older pair of wool gloves. Guess he couldn’t think of everything.
Despite the cold, Lia wore a little smile as she walked along. She’d been hard at work referencing and cross-referencing research with a professor of Art History at the University of Birmingham, and he was pleased with the help she’d given him. He had mentioned working with her again in the near future. Lia had come a long way from shelving books. She was beginning to realize the kind of life she had only dreamed was possible when she first came to Birmingham. As she neared the corner, though, she was pulled out of her thoughts when she noticed a familiar-looking woman in a posh car was watching her.
Polly lowered her window and called out, “Lia, Lia Montrose!”
Lia slowed down and warily approached the car. Polly extended a sumptuously gloved hand, looked over her sunglasses at Lia, and introduced herself, “Polly Gray…Tommy’s Aunt Polly.”
Lia visibly relaxed and took her hand at those words, “Mrs. Gray…I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Get in, it’s time we got acquainted.”
In a matter of minutes, Lia found herself sitting in the kitchen at No. 6 Watery Lane while Polly found two cups and put the kettle on. She then reached into the cupboard where she found a tin of tea. Upon opening it and sniffing the contents, she decided that it would do. Decked head to toe in Parisian tailor-made garments, she looked odd moving around the kitchen with such familiarity.
While they waited for the kettle to boil, she offered Lia a cigarette and lit one of her own. They’d spoken hardly a word since they entered the house. Lia was loathe to break the silence with small talk, so she waited for Polly to say what was on her mind. They sat, smoking and soaking in the dusty quiet of the dimly lit room.
Only when Polly poured the tea did she finally speak. “I brought you here so that you could see where Tommy lived...where we all lived before the money came.”
Lia looked all around the room and smiled, “So this is where Tommy began.”
Polly waved her hand with a flourish and laughed, “Who knows where Tommy began. If I hadn’t witnessed his birth I’d swear that he was flung out of heaven and barred from hell.”
Lia smiled knowingly, “Well, Lucifer was a fallen angel.”
“Exactly.” Polly raised an eyebrow and leaned back in the rickety chair. “I want you to understand why Tommy is,” she searched for the right words and finding none she continued, “the way he is.”
Memories flooded Polly’s mind as she looked all around herself, gesturing here and there with the hand that held her cigarette. “Look around you, Lia. This is where we moved when things got better. You don’t want to know where we lived before when things were worse.”
Lia swallowed hard and held her cup with both hands as if to draw every bit of heat out of it.
She was suddenly cold. She had not grown up with much, but she was certainly comfortable. Her home had a lightness about it. The room where she sat with Polly was cozy, homey even, but the air was laced with soot and traces of despair.
“Does that explain why he is so driven?” Lia wondered aloud.
“Partly,” Polly mused. Then she looked at Lia with soft brown eyes, almost like she sympathized with her. She felt sorry for anyone who loved Tommy, even herself. “He has always been different. Clever and driven since the night he was born.” Then she looked away, “But he did have a big heart.”
It wasn’t Polly’s intention to make Lia uncomfortable or uncertain of her place in Tommy’s life, but Lia couldn’t help but feel a little intimidated. Lia’s chair creaked as she shifted her weight and sat her teacup on the table, and Polly saw in her eyes a vulnerability that hadn’t been there before.
“We all had to make sacrifices to get where we are today, but Tommy has sacrificed the most. Business comes first. Always. Ada says that Tommy likes you, he may even grow to care for you, but there are certain things you will have to accept if you want to be with him...”
“So he has said,” Lia broke in. She immediately regretted cutting Tommy’s aunt off, though Polly showed no sign of being offended. She just sipped her tea and smiled.
“Has he said what he plans on doing with you when he returns to London, Dear?”
Lia winced a bit at the question. “No.”
There was silence between them again. A clock ticked out the seconds from the next room and the sounds of people shouting to each other in the street filtered through the walls. Having finished her tea, Polly lit another cigarette and let the quiet grow around them. She believed that you could learn a lot about a person by how they chose to deal with spaces in conversation, so she waited and watched.
Lia ruminated on Polly’s last question as long as she could, then stood and looked toward the parlor, silently asking permission to go in. Polly rose and accompanied her. Dusty furniture and photographs sat frozen in time as if they were waiting for Polly to run the sweeper or Ada to polish the tabletops. The fireplace sat waiting to be lit. But she couldn’t see Tommy until she looked up the shadowy stairwell. It was narrow, and she could barely see the top stair in the darkness, but something in the woodsy smell that drifted down reminded her of him. Polly caught the wistful expression on Lia’s face and placed her hand on Lia’s back.
“His room was up there,” Polly nodded.
Polly peered into the darkness and flipped a switch, then nodded in the direction of the stairs, inviting Lia to climb them.
The sleek grey Bentley rolled along Cannon Lane and splashed slush in its wake. Lia sat in back with a heavy woolen blanket wrapped around her legs. She made small talk with Rodney, the Blinder up front. Already, she knew that he had a fiancé and that they were to be married in June. His mum and dad were from Coventry, and they were both deceased. Also, Tommy had taken him under his wing as a boy of thirteen. Tommy kept him from starving and from, as Rodney put it, “…falling in with the worst sort of criminal element.” It seemed like everywhere she turned there was another person with a story about what Tommy had done to help them.
Rodney delivered her to her door, and eager to get out of the cold, Lia darted inside.
“Jenny, are you here?”
A few snowflakes floated to the floor while she hung up her coat and unbuttoned her mink lined gloves. She noticed that the kettle was on, and so she called out again.
Her cousin bounded down the stairs, pulling her arms through the sleeves of a cardigan as she came.
“Jesus, Lia!” she laughed. “Is the bloody house on fire?”
“I have news,” Lia beamed.
Jenny nodded her head and set about fixing tea, “Go on then. Tell me your news.”
“WE have the use of a car.”
Jenny froze and her heart sank. “Come again…”
“A car, Jenny! Tommy doesn’t like the idea of my riding the bus and walking to work, so he is sending a car 'round for us every morning and afternoon. One of his men will drive us to and from work,” she enthused.
Jenny stood blinking at her for a moment then responded in a monotone voice. “A Blinder, Lia. ‘One of his men’ means a Blinder. I’d rather walk in the rain and snow.”
She turned her back to Lia and got out the plates, careful not to take her simmering mood out on the crockery. She tried her best to keep her distrust of Tommy out of her relationship with her cousin, but it was hard to keep things light when every other word out of Lia’s mouth was “Tommy”.
Jenny had taken quite a bit of flack at work because of Lia’s connection with Tommy Shelby. She’d had her fill with entering rooms full of chatter only to have them go silent, and she had dodged several sideways comments about her recent promotion. She hated to kill the mood, but someone had to be the voice of reason. Rolling up to work chauffeured by a flat cap wearing thug was more than she could tolerate.
Lia balled her fists and tried to modulate her voice as she asked, “Why do you hate him so much? Hmm? He is good to me and he wants to help you too.”
“Help? Is that what he calls it?” Jenny turned back around and eyed Lia’s obviously new and obviously bought by Tommy clothes. “If you want to play house with him and let him dress you up like his little doll that’s your business, but I won’t be ferried around town in a car that was paid for with blood money.”
“That’s not fair, and you know it. Our family weren’t always saints. Granddad was the first one in the queue to spunk away his wages on the horses and the last one out of the pub at night.”
“Right, and it was people like the Shelbys who were more than happy to take his wages off of him while Nan and our dads went shoeless.”
She had a point. Lia hated the fact that she had a point. Damn Jenny for always knowing how to snatch the stars from her eyes. Lia sat down and put her head in her hands to hide her tears. It was so easy to let Tommy do little things for her, to buy a scarf here and some gloves there, to make life easier for her in a thousand little ways. He never made her feel like it was payment for services rendered. How could Jenny take all of Tommy’s kindness and turn it into something dirty, something tainted and wrong? The gifts and the thoughtful things he did for her were not part of a transaction, they were just part of the way he liked to take care of her. She wished that for once Jenny could see the goodness in Tommy.
Since Aunt Polly had shown her the house and the betting shop where Tommy had launched his empire, she had a deeper understanding of him. Since she’d stood in his tiny bedroom where he had wrestled with the echoes of the tunnels and sweated through nightmares of poverty and war, she saw him through different eyes. She had grown to tolerate his last-minute cancellations and welcome him without pouting when he’d kept her waiting half the night.
Polly had opened her eyes to the man behind the façade in a way that he could never do himself. With that understanding, she opened herself up to the possibility of a life with Tommy. No, nothing about what happened between them was mercenary. Tommy just took care of people in his life. She was used to Jenny acting like an older sister and alerting her to pitfalls she had overlooked, but this was too much. The tears of frustration and despair that she had hidden behind her hands were becoming tears of rage. Over and over Jenny had proven that she wouldn’t ever approve of her relationship with Tommy, and Lia was finished with seeking her cousin’s approval.
She wiped her eyes and spoke through gritted teeth, “You know, Tommy has offered to let me stay in one of his properties near the library. Maybe it’s time to take him up on that offer. I’d hate for my reputation as the Shelby whore to rub off on you.”
Jenny put down the knife she’d been using to slice the bread. “Calm down. I didn’t say that…”
“But that is what you meant.” Her words came out clipped and cold. “I don’t want my reputation for sleeping with the Gangster of Parliament to ruin your chances with some nice mid-level clerk, so I’ll just move out.”
“No…don’t! I’m just worried about you. You are like my little sister and I’m afraid you’re riding for a fall. What happens when this is over?”
Lia abruptly stood and lashed out at Jenny, “Over?” Lia growled.
The word struck a chord of fear in Lia that made her dizzy. In an instant, all of her nights with Tommy, the taste of his sweat, the feel of his mouth, the smell of his sheets, flashed through her mind. She turned that fear into rage and took a step toward Jenny as she shouted, “I love him! That’s enough for me! Why can’t it enough for you?”
It was true. She loved him so much that it hurt. Her face was red and blotchy and her chest heaved with every breath. She was tired of fighting Jenny at every turn, and at that moment all she wanted was Tommy’s arms around her. She needed him so badly that she felt like she would fly into a million pieces without him holding her together.
Jenny took a step backward and bumped into the kitchen counter. Lia looked truly deranged. A realization came over Jenny like a wave. Lia was a different person now— a person who turned a blind eye to the ugly side of her man and made excuses for his shortcomings. It had been happening gradually over the last few months; the absent-minded dreamer that she had grown up with had disappeared. Back then, no matter how far out Lia got Jenny was always the voice of reason who could reel her back in, but Lia wasn’t listening to her anymore. This was different.
There seemed to be no turning back. Jenny knew that she had already said too much, but couldn’t resist a parting shot as she headed for the stairs. “Love? How can you love him when the only things you have in common are each other?”
Even as Jenny said it, she wondered if it was true.
Tommy and Arthur were sitting opposite each other at Tommy’s desk in their shirtsleeves talking about horses. Arthur had put too many logs on the fire and the room was like an oven. It was past the close of business and they should have been heading home, but they had lately taken to staying for drinks a couple of nights a week. Arthur would tell stories about Billy and the chickens, and Tommy had even opened up a bit about Lia. Arthur was cursing the heat and rolling up his sleeves when they heard someone pounding at the door.
“You expecting company?” Arthur asked in his rough, whiskey-soaked Brum.
Tommy ran the tip of his tongue along his teeth and shook his head, “No.”
They stood and Arthur made his way toward the door, his hand on his pistol.
“Who’s there?” he boomed.
A muffled voice called, “Lia Montrose. I need to see Tom…Mr. Shelby.”
Arthur turned in his brother’s direction and feigned seriousness. ”Shall we let her in, Tommy?”
Tommy rolled his eyes and huffed, “Open the fookin’ door; it’s freezing out there.”
Lia entered the building shaking snow from her disheveled hair and stamping the slush from her boots. Her cheeks were pink from the cold and her eyes were a bit watery from the wind. She imagined that she looked a fright, but Arthur thought she looked like an angel.
Arthur stood there looking her up and down while she tried not to gawp at the pistol hanging loosely under his arm until Tommy cleared his throat and began to make introductions.
“Lia, this is my brother Arthur. Arthur, Lia Montrose.”
Arthur straightened up and offered to take her coat. As he hung it on the rack, he smiled a bit too broadly and said, “Tommy has told me a lot of nice things about you.”
Tommy knew that something was wrong because he and Lia hadn’t planned on seeing each other until the weekend. After a few pleasantries, Tommy stared at Arthur until he made his excuses and left.
Chills shook her body; she was shaking like a leaf, so Tommy took her by the hand and led her into his office where a fire roared and two glasses of whiskey were already waiting. He sat her down on his desk and took a seat in front of her, all the while rubbing the warmth back into her arms and hands. She looked down into his crystalline eyes and tried to find the words to say what she’d come for. At that moment, she was ever so grateful that Tommy knew how to take his time with her. He would wait until she was ready to talk.
She finished her first glass of whiskey and leaned into him. She breathed deeply and sighed, feeling better already simply for having him there to hold her.
“I don’t know what to do,” she mumbled into his collar.
“About…” he prompted her while stroking her head.
She sat back up and his hands went to her thighs rubbing slow, soothing circles over her skirt. She watched his hands and thought about what Jenny had said. She didn’t know very much about him, other than what they did together. Hell, she only just met his brother. His business dealings were a mystery and she had learned more about him from the papers than from his own words. So what if she became breathless around him? So what if her tummy fluttered every time he entered the room? Surely there was more to love than the helpless infatuation she felt for him.
Tommy lay his head in her lap and wrapped his arms around her hips thinking that maybe she would be able to tell him what was wrong if his eyes weren’t watching her. She ran her fingers through his hair and took a deep breath.
“I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
“Is that right?” Tommy whispered.
Lulled by the sensation of her fingernails on his scalp, he could feel the knots in his shoulders loosen. He was trying his best to be attentive to her needs, but his mind drifted to what he’d like to do with her on his desk.
“Jenny and I had an awful row… the worst one we’ve ever had,” she swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat and went on, “I can’t live with her anymore.”
That got his full attention.