The Lees and the Shelbys had known each other for some time. After all, they were related on the Gray side, if not very closely. That and sheer proximity meant that when Esme was a child, she and her brothers sometimes found themselves playing with Arthur and Tommy and John and Ada, and the rest of their little group—Freddie Thorne and Johnny Dogs and Danny Owen and a number of others. Sometimes, when their families weren’t getting along very well, they wouldn’t see each other for months or years. Then they would meet at another gathering or by chance on the street, and always offer each other the proper courtesy.
Then the war came and everything changed for good. A lot of people died, for one thing. And the boundaries of the families, and the families’ relationships, were altered as well.
Still, the Lees and the Shelbys had a standing friendship, of sorts, even if it could be tense. Which made it all the worse that Tom Shelby decided to take serious offense at a casual remark and start some serious shit.
Of course, Tom Shelby had always been a stupid man; some level of stupidity was, therefore, expected from him. But gouging eyes, cutting faces with the blades of the damn Shelby hats, vicious violence inflicted with so little cause… it was too much. Esme sat and watched as her mother wrote the name “Thomas Shelby” on a bullet, and although she felt it was unfortunate, it was still just. She’d seen her brothers’ faces and heard their story. Friendship, even neutrality, had already been cast aside, and now Tom Shelby would simply have to face the consequences of his actions.
Apparently, though, he thought he didn't have to at all.
Apparently he thought he could just walk into the Lee camp with a white flag and somehow talk his way out of this.
Esme and her brothers stood clustered outside the wagon where Tom and their mother were talking things over, and made some guesses as to how, exactly, the man was trying to save his ass.
“Money. He’s going to try to buy us off,” Esme’s older brother guessed. “As if we don’t know he’s scrambling to cover his expenses already.”
“Since he’s taken up with Billy Kimber now, it would have to be better than that,” Esme said. “He’s going to be trying to stop us from taking Kimber’s money too, now. He’d have a hard time buying us off, unless he has a lot to offer. He’s not that rich.” She spit on the ground, and her brothers laughed. They were still kind of pissed off that the white flag meant they weren’t supposed to kill Tom right now, but they’d settle for jeering him when he came out, and finding him at the next opportunity.
Their mother’s head peeked out of the wagon. “Esme, come here.”
Esme glanced at her brothers, and went in.
It was not a very big wagon, but they’d squeezed far more than three people into the small room before. Esme sat next to her mother. Tom was on the other side of the table, and he offered Esme a smile. It wasn’t a pleased smile, particularly, but the kind of smile you offered someone when you wanted them to know that you had good intentions, that you were pleased with them, that you wanted to be friends. Similar to the white flag that his man outside was still pointedly holding.
“Does Mr. Shelby’s business have to do with me?” Esme asked.
Her mother said, “Mr. Shelby would like us to be friends again. He wants to form an alliance and take down Billy Kimber.”
“He changes sides fast, then.”
“He does,” her mother said. “He’s said that as surety, our alliance should be sealed with a marriage. He knows we’re looking to marry off one of our girls, he said.” She looked at Esme. “I told him our girls decide these things for themselves.”
Esme, truthfully, hadn’t much been looking for a marriage. In a sense she’d wanted one—one wanted to marry eventually, to carry on the family line. She liked children, she liked men. She hadn’t been actively searching though—always figured someone would show up at her door eventually, if she waited. And here, at her door, someone was.
“I have a brother with kids,” Tom said. It was the first time he’d spoken since Esme had entered the room. His voice was quiet but steady, as sincere as his glinting blue eyes, and in its very sincerity unreadable. “John. He needs a wife. I want him to marry someone good, someone strong and reliable. The kind of person we want in our family.” He leaned back. “I know the Lees are strong and reliable. This alliance will be good, and so will the marriage.”
“For you,” Esme said.
“For both of us,” Tom said, “I hope.”
Glint, glint. They were tricky eyes, and very attractive, fringed by long, careful eyelashes.
Esme asked, “Why didn’t your brother come here, if he wants a wife?”
“I thought I would arrange things better. I am the head of the family. And he doesn’t know his own mind about marriage yet. He doesn’t know what he wants.”
“And you’re going to tell him, and then he’ll just want what you want him to want.”
Tom cocked his head.
“Because in your family, that’s how it works.”
“That’s how it works,” Tom agreed.
“And I have to trust that he’ll want me, and won’t hate me for your managing him.”
“John’s a good man. And he wants someone to love. He’ll love you.”
Esme could remember John, vaguely. From when they were kids. Strong, sure, but a soft face. He could be kind, sometimes. Or vicious, if he let Tom drive him to it, though usually not on his own.
He would be a reliable husband, and Esme would be shuffled off to a corner of the family, to be managed, to have Tom tell her and her husband what was what forevermore.
She shook her head. “You may be able to tell your brother what to do, but you do not dictate to the Lee family. I choose my own husband.” She got up, and sat back down next to Tom. He smelled of smoky things, tobacco and incense and city dirt. He did not move in his seat. She touched his arm. “I won’t marry your brother, Mr. Shelby. But if you really want, I’ll marry you.”
This startled him, though he didn’t show it too much. He moved away from her slightly, and looked down with his eyebrows raised. And paused a little before speaking. “My brother’s looking for a wife. I’m not.”
“But you’re not married.”
“I don’t think I’d be a good husband.” Dry. “I have a temper. I’m a hard man. I don’t talk much. I run a tight household. I’m constantly busy. And I visit too many girls.”
“When you’re married to me, you’ll stop seeing the other girls,” Esme said. “If you fight me, I’ll fight back. We will discuss decisions for the family together; my family may be able to offer help in some situations. Isn’t that why you want us? Otherwise, I don’t care how much you talk.”
“When, not if?” Tom smiled. His eyebrows were arched again. “You’ll regret marrying me, if you do. I wouldn’t advise it.”
“You can marry me,” Esme said, “or you can die. My family will kill you.”
Tom let out a breath. He picked up a bullet from the table, similar to the bullet Esme’s family had sent him so recently. Fiddled with it. At last he said, “I’ll marry you then.”
Esme smiled. “I don’t think I’ll regret it, Mr. Shelby. I don’t think you will either.”
“If we’re going to be married,” Tom said, “you can call me Tom.”
Esme’s mother had a long laugh after Tom had left. “Well, Esme, that’s you taken care of. He’s not a spouse I would have chosen for you, but he’s up and coming. An ambitious man. That’s your type.”
The brothers were caught between grousing over Esme’s choice and laughing at the arrogant Tom Shelby having to marry Esme—that was how they put it, as if he was being forced to marry at her at gunpoint. They weren’t completely wrong. Esme found it a little amusing as well.
He really was her type, though. Physically, with the glinting eyes and the dark hair and the delicate lashes. And his personality—well, usually she would like a man to be less reserved, but you could tell that with him it wasn’t shyness. And underneath it, an odd mixture of calculation and audacity that Esme couldn’t help but find intriguing.
All that, and she’d be the new queen of the Peaky Blinders. Not a bad position, even if the Peaky Blinders weren’t much yet. After all, if this scheme against Billy Kimber went well, they’d become something soon enough.
They were married days later. The party was quite something; mostly everyone seemed pretty happy though a few people did some muttering.
She couldn’t help but catch the whispers, darting into her ears from the periphery.
Whispers of other loves:
“Could have sworn he was going for that barmaid, what was her name?”
“Oh, Grace? Of course he wasn’t serious about her. Tom isn’t the sort to fall in love, not with a pretty face. Now, business…”
Discussions of business to come:
“Shelbys and Lees together—by God, man, we could take on anyone. That fucking…”
“…and if you want to try it out, well, just come by the tavern and we’ll talk it over… of course, for a friend…”
And of course, her brothers’ darting looks. They’d made a to-do all yesterday about how she’d put Tom Shelby in his place when she was his wife, growing cruder and cruder in their excitement, and now at the barest glance she could tell they were holding back giggles. Men.
As for Tom, he behaved himself decently. For a while he and Esme sat with Esme’s mother, making conversation. And Esme sat next to him, smiling sweetly and holding his arm, aware that when people looked over at them—him in his best suit but still wearing his typical weaponized hat, and her a dark-eyed vision in white—they saw not only a new-married couple, but an alliance actualized.
She couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
Of course the rest of the party wouldn’t let them hover there forever, but eventually pulled first Esme and then Tom into the swirl of the dancing. Esme was a good dancer. She found Tom was not so much, but he could follow her well enough, and as they danced she got a sense of his muscles: in his hand, his arms, his back, in how he moved to offer her support or to pull her in close or push her back…
The only person in all of this who seemed compelled to make a racket was Tom’s sister Ada. At first it was just her dancing, sloppy and drunken despite her heavy pregnancy. Then, when Tom told her she perhaps ought to sit off to the side for a bit, she began to yell.
“Welcome to the Shelby family, Esme!” she called out. Though she wasn’t really looking at Esme, but rather glaring at Tom. “Come and look at me! Come and look at the family you’ve joined!”
She flailed at Tom’s chest. Her blows were all weak, but Esme still felt the impulse to pull her off. She resisted; Tom wouldn’t thank her for getting into a catfight with his pregnant sister.
Ada was almost laughing. “I hope you like your husband! You know he only decided to marry you so he can get your brothers and cousins killed in his fight, but I’m sure he’s a catch!”
The Shelbys’ Aunt Polly was at her side in a minute, telling her to calm down, all the things Esme didn’t yet have the authority to say. Ada didn’t stop—kept on ranting about Tom having her husband hunted down like a rat, how he was controlling and wouldn’t even let her dance—and then staggered back with a sharp cry. Aunt Polly glanced at her legs. “Bloody hell. Her water.”
With that, the evening devolved into chaos.
Esme helped Aunt Polly (now her aunt, so she supposed she would get used to it) to help Ada give birth. She was experienced enough to offer good help, she thought, after helping her three sisters, some of them more than once.
The baby seemed to be healthy enough. Esme wouldn’t exactly call it good looking—that word, when applied to babies, never made much sense to her—but it cried as well as any other. And calmed down when rocked, and when its father showed up, having heard of Tom’s declaration of truce for the night. And started crying all over again, along with its mother, when the police showed up at the door and dragged its father away.
Yes, it was a very eventful night.
Not the typical wedding night at all. Esme was left alone in the house, Polly having gone on the war march against Tom. She found his room upstairs and lay down in his bed.
The room smelled like Tom did, only more so. The scent of cigarettes baked into Tom’s clothing was equally prevalent in the walls, and the incense and opium smell was much stronger. There was a small bowl next to the bed that appeared to be the source of it. It was littered with ash.
She wondered if he would have set it burning if they’d gone to bed like a normal married couple tonight, in lieu of romantic candles. Little about the room was romantic at all, except for a vase of flowers on the bureau. It looked out of place, and she was abruptly certain it had been put there recently to welcome her. She supposed it was nice, and wasn’t sure whether it made her feel more or less at home in the bed. She was a new bride. This was her home, and yet she was a stranger here.
She was only half asleep when Tom got back. He entered quietly, but she still woke up. She always did sleep lightly.
“Tom?” she said, sitting up.
“You can sleep if you like,” he said. His voice was a bit flatter than his usual. Maybe he didn’t have the control required to deliberately inflect it, fake the emotions which in their very sincerity often seemed, to Esme at least, insincere.
“No one sleeps on their wedding night,” she said, sliding out of bed. “Let me help you out of your coat.”
He let her. She’d helped him out of both coat and vest, and could see the muscles of his back through his shirt, when he spoke again. “I’m sorry I left you alone for so long, Esme. Thank you for helping my sister give birth.”
“Her baby is healthy,” she said.
“So I’ve heard.” He took off his belt, but undressed no further. “You’ve spent the evening with Ada and Pol. I’m sure they’ve said some things about me.”
“I don’t listen when people say foolish things.”
“So you’re saying Ada and Pol are stupid?”
Esme perched on the bed. “No, but some of the things they said are. Ada said earlier you married me to get Lee men killed. I don’t think you want that. I think you want us to win, to raise ourselves up. You’re not the kind of man who likes to lose.”
He laughed tiredly. “No.”
“Besides, we Lees decided to join you of our own will. My brothers and cousins know what it means when they join a fight.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “this alliance will be good for the Lees. So I hope.” He sighed. “And what about Freddie Thorne?”
“What about him?”
He just looked at her.
“I don’t know Freddie Thorne,” Esme said. “I barely know you.” She patted the bed beside her, and was glad when he sat down. Better. “Did you set him up to be arrested?”
“No,” Tom said. “I didn’t. I wanted him to get out of town. I tried to shield him from the police, if you’ll believe that.”
So what was wearing on him was not guilt but failure. Esme could see why Polly would not have assumed such a thing: it did not seem possible that Tom Shelby would fail at something he set out to do. Still, all men were human, and dealing with the police could be the trickiest thing in the world—especially for a Romani.
“Do I what?” Esme asked.
“Do you believe me?”
“Of course I believe you,” she said. “I don’t think you’d be stupid enough to lie to your wife. That would be a poor way to start a marriage.”
“Yes,” he said, “it would, wouldn’t it?” He closed his eyes. “I don’t lie to my family either, but they don’t believe me on this. You may find that for the next few weeks we will not be very popular.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I don’t care. I’m on your side.” She touched his arm. “That’s what a wife is for.”
He laughed again, quietly. “Well, I wasn’t looking for a wife, but maybe I needed one. If that’s what one is for.”
She helped him get the rest of the way undressed. Even though he’d just been out drinking and she’d been working, he seemed more exhausted than she was. He gained energy when she kissed him, though, and so they had a proper wedding night after all.
She did feel a little melancholy in the morning. Part of her, despite herself, hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her brothers’ teasing about the wedding night. But her brothers weren’t here, and no one in the Shelby household seemed to be in the mood to tease. Still mad about Freddie Thorne’s arrest, an event so dramatic that to Esme it almost felt like a dream now. A half-formed nightmare.
Well, she thought, they would get over it eventually. In the meantime she would acquaint herself with Tom’s work and his home and his people, and settle herself in.
Over the next few weeks, Esme got to know the business of the Peaky Blinders a little better. Tom took her around to the gambling house and she got a sense of how they managed things. Sometimes she took over for one of the boys when they needed an extra hand. She couldn’t do his secretarial work, of course—that was left to Grace Burgess, a former barmaid of whom Tom seemed to be fond. Esme kept a close eye on that one. But Tom did nothing untoward except the occasional wistful glance, and in the end, a wife did need to be able to trust her husband.
She also got to know the rest of the Shelby family, as they were now. Ada was as hot-tempered as she had seemed to Esme at first, though she had good reason; the situation with Thorne was enough to shred any woman’s nerves. Aunt Polly was the matriarch of the family, and her acceptance of Esme, her kindness, made Esme feel more at home than any vase of flowers could. Arthur was something of a drunk and he occasionally made unfortunate comments about howmuch it must suck to be Tom’s husband, but otherwise he was harmless.
Then there was John, who should have been her husband if Tom had had his way. The man did not appeal to Esme. Physically, he wasn’t her type. And he clearly saw Tom not only as an older brother but as a boss. And he was clearly hung up over a prostitute named Lizzie Stark.
“I can’t believe you tried to sell your brother to me,” she told Tom one evening, after they had been with the rest of the Shelbys at dinner.
“Don’t say I tried to sell him to you. You make me sound so cold,” Tom said. A smile played at his lips. He had slowly begun to smile more at her, especially when they were alone. Yes, she was getting to him.
“I don’t care about that, but I don’t think we would have suited very well, do you?”
“I did at the time.”
“Well,” she said, pushing him onto the bed, “he does seem to satisfy Lizzie Stark pretty well, and she does have experience. Maybe he has hidden talents. Maybe I really would be better off…”
He ran a hand through her hair. “Let’s not talk about my brother right now.”
She smiled. “Am I making you jealous?”
He kissed her. “Of course not.” He kissed her again. “I know you like to tease.” He kissed her again, now slowly and thoughtfully. “But you’re mine.”
“You’re mine, you mean.”
He seemed a bit irritated at that, but it only led him to kiss her harder. She straddled his hips and began to unbutton his shirt. The point was left undecided, the conversation abandoned.
Her brothers were still under the impression that she was the new queen of the Shelby family and kept Tom like a pet dog. This, of course, made them more fond of Tom than they would have been otherwise, so Esme didn’t disillusion them. In fact, she found that she and Tom were mostly an equal match, and she was glad of it. Yes, he suited her much better than John would have.
The alliance was successful in other ways, too. The war with Billy Kimber did not go as badly as Ada had grimly predicted. In fact, it went very well. Even Thorne returned that day, leading to much rejoicing. And despite the near-disaster of Kimber finding out about the Peaky Blinders’ plans and showing up with a practical army on their doorstep, in the end, casualties were few and the victory was great.
Except for the fact that one of the casualties was Esme’s husband.
He’d been shot in the chest, but the bullet hadn’t gone far. It had been slowed by his thick coat and vest, and also appeared to have been stopped by a rib bone. Esme stood back, quietly worried, while a man probed around in the wound, making Tom hiss. When the bullet was removed, though, he grinned—a bigger smile than she usually ever saw on him—and said that it was nothing.
“It’s not nothing,” Esme objected. She pushed through, now, to help with cleaning the wound and putting on a bandage. Digging out bullets she had no experience in, but patching people up she could do well enough.
“No,” Tom said, “but it’s less than I might have expected.” With a huff of amusement, he added, “Less than Kimber would have liked to give me, too.”
“He’s lost pretty badly,” Esme said with satisfaction.
“So he has.”
The group in the room all looked over at the other casualty, Danny Whizz-bang, whose body was lying prone on the table, face covered. Tom sighed and got to his feet. “We’ll bury Danny tomorrow. He’s a hero. But tonight is a night of celebration of this victory!”
They all drank and made merry. Esme, of course, at a slight distance from Tom and the men, who were in a raucous mood. She drank with Polly, who was feeling similarly smug and relieved, and similarly tired.
After a couple drinks, she showed Esme a letter. “A boy brought this over just a bit ago.”
“A letter for Tommy?”
“It’s from Grace,” Polly said. “She can’t leave well enough alone.”
The traitor. “Have you read it?”
“No. Tommy’d know if I opened it. I thought I’d ask you whether I should give it to him or burn it.”
Because Tom had liked Grace once, and Esme was his wife—and also his protector from bad influences. Esme took the letter. “I’ll give it to him.”
She handed it to him later, when the evening’s carousing was done. He read through it, sighed, and tucked it into a drawer.
“She asked me to come to her in London,” he said to Esme’s questioning gaze. “She’s going to go to America. She said I could come and get away from ‘all this’.” He gestured at the room.
Esme’s family and his family both have their nomadic roots, and for a moment she sees the longing in his face, to leave this place of violence and manipulation and fighting for every inch. She can understand the desire, though if it were her she’d want to go to France, not America. But she pushed the urge to sympathy aside and said, “Forget her. She betrayed you. Your family is here.”
He smiled at her. “Yes,” he agreed. “Yes, they are.”
“Yes, I am,” Esme argued.
She never saw him burn or throw out the letter, but she never saw him take it out again either. It remained tucked away, mostly forgotten.
After all, what need had Tom Shelby to chase phantoms when he had a perfectly real wife? So Esme thought. And if it made her a little anxious, thinking of the things Tom had given up, and things she had given up too (living with her family, the possibility of another romance, the possibility of running away), it only pushed her harder to make this family succeed, to make this choice worthwhile.