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Down We Lay Again

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CHAPTER 1

Finn Shelby ran through the darkening streets as fast as his little legs would carry him. Freezing rain was mixing with two inch deep mud in the narrow alleys, making footing especially treacherous. He had slipped and fallen twice, and the two burly youths following him had managed to close the distance between them. But the boy still had a significant advantage. He knew the streets of Small Heath like the back of his hand, and his pursuers did not.

Several streets over from Watery Lane, there were two buildings undergoing renovation. If he could just get there, he was sure he could find a hiding place. Accelerating as he rounded the corner of Bridge Street, he looked back over his shoulder. An instant later, his head slammed into something hard. Then everything went black.

-xxx-

"Hello there." A young woman smiled down at him. Finn blinked, then winced.

"My head hurts something awful," he croaked.

"Hardly surprising, considering you ran straight into my metal filing cabinet." She held up two fingers. "How many fingers do you see?"

He squinted up at her. "Four..no,..three?"

"Close, but not quite." She laid a cool hand on his forehead, and Finn relaxed at her gentle touch.

"Who-who are you?" he asked.

"I'm Dr. Alexandra Ross, but you can call me Alex."

Finn stared at her. He had no memory of being cared for by any woman other than Aunt Polly. His aunt was kind, but stern-and she was usually preoccupied with what his brother Tommy called "family business." Finn wasn't quite sure what that family business was, but he knew it involved guns and money—in very large quantities.

"I've never heard of a lady doctor," he said doubtfully.

She laughed. "Well, I've never heard of a boy named Finn, but here you are. May I take a look at your head?"

He hesitated, then said, "Okay. But I think I'll be alright. Tommy says all the boys in our family have heads as hard as bricks."

"And who is Tommy?" Her dark hair brushed against the side of his face, and Finn caught the scent of roses. He tensed as her fingers gently probed the back of his head.

"He's my brother. He's tough as nails."

"Really?" She raised an eyebrow. "Well, I'd better stay away from him then."

"You probably won't be able to. All the girls like Tommy." He winced as Alex put a wet cloth to the back of his head.

"It'll just sting for a moment," she said soothingly. True to her word, she removed the cloth a few seconds later, and the discomfort immediately resolved. Picking up a roll of gauze, she started to wind a bandage around his head. "So tell me, why is Tommy such a favorite with the girls? Is he taller or faster than the other boys?"

Finn chuckled. "He's definitely not the tallest. And John's always been the fastest."

"Hmm. Then he must like to make people laugh."

"Not Tom. He's quieter than most." Finn thought for a moment, then shrugged. "To be honest, miss, I don't know what they like about him. Girls are just strange."

She laughed again, and helped him to sit up. As he did so, the room spun around him, and his stomach began to churn.

Alex took one look at him and promptly laid him back down. Covering him with a blanket, she said, "I think you'd better just rest here for a bit. Give me your address, and I'll send word to your parents. It's getting dark, and they'll be worried sick."

Finn hated it when people asked him about his parents. Fortunately, those occasions were rare, as nearly everyone in Small Heath knew the history of the Shelby family. "My mum's dead, and my dad left years ago. Aunt Pol says good riddance, because he's a lazy fucking drunk."

He braced himself for one of the usual reactions. But Alex surprised him. She did not fuss over him, or give him a long speech about how he should be glad that his mum was safe and happy in heaven. She merely took his hand in hers, and said, "Your Aunt Pol then. How do I find her?"

Finn shook his head."Aunt Pol's not at the house. She's gone to Bristol for a few days to see her cousin. Tommy'll be home, though. 6 Watery Lane."

Alex was silent for a moment. "Is Tommy old enough and responsible enough to keep an eye on you?" she finally asked, tucking the blanket around his shoulders.

"Yes," he said stoutly. "He doesn't drink like Arthur."

Although she finally nodded, Finn thought her eyes looked sad. "Alright. Tommy it is then."

-xxx-

It was after dark when Tommy got home. The house was eerily quiet, but a single light could be seen in the kitchen. "Arthur! John!" he called. When there was no response, he took off his coat and hat, and went to the stairs. "Finn? Ada? Where is everyone?"

Shaking his head, he went into the kitchen, and found Arthur passed out with his head on the table. One hand was wrapped tightly around an empty bottle of whiskey. Tommy sighed, and pried the bottle from his brother's fingers.

A loud groan came from the table. "Fuck off, Tom."

"Come on, Arthur."

Hauling his brother to his feet, Tommy dragged him into the living room and deposited him on the couch.

"Now, where's Finn?"

"Hell if I know. He went out with some of his friends this afternoon. Ain't seen him since."

Tommy leaned over Arthur, grasping his shirt with one strong hand. "You were supposed to be keeping an eye on him."

"What am I, a fucking nursemaid?"

Tommy was silent for a moment, then spoke, his voice and slow and deliberate. "He's our brother, Arthur. He's ten years old. It's well after dark, and the truce with the Italians is shot to hell. If anything happens to him, you're going to answer to me."

"Okay, Tom. I'll answer to you." Arthur's head lolled to the side, and a loud snore was heard a moment later.

"Fucking hell." Tommy stood up, and rubbed his eyes. He sighed, and reached for his coat. As he shrugged it on, a knock came at the door.

He opened it to find a lad of about thirteen, nervously twisting his cap in his hand. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Shelby, but I was asked to deliver a message to you about your brother."

"What about him?" Tommy asked, his eyes boring into the boy.

"He fell and hit his head-but he's okay, just a little banged up. He's with the new doctor over on Bridge Street-Dr. Ross. That's all I know, sir-honest."

The boy's voice was rising in panic, and Tommy instinctively knew he was telling the truth.

"Right, lad. What's your name?"

"Harry Evans, sir."

"Dottie Evans' boy, aye?"

"Yes, sir."

Tommy put on his cap and shut the door behind him. Putting his hand on the boy's shoulder, he murmured, "Well, Harry, you are going to take me to the good Dr. Ross' office."

After five minutes' walk, they came to a street on the edge of Small Heath. Narrow brick row houses stood shoulder to shoulder, shutters closed against prying eyes.

"There's the surgery, Mr. Shelby." Harry pointed to a two-story building on the corner. A freshly painted white sign hung over the door.

Dr. Alex M. Ross, Physician & Surgeon.

"The doctor said it would be unlocked—you're to go on in. They'll be in the exam room."

Tommy slipped a few coins into the boy's hand. "Be sure you give your mum and granny my best regards."

Harry nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Shelby."

"Good lad. Off with you now." The boy dashed off.

Tommy tried the door, and found that it was indeed unlocked. Stepping into the house, he closed the door softly behind him. A stone fireplace stood directly in front of him, the embers of a dying fire casting a warm glow over the polished wood floor. A dozen chairs lined the walls of the room, and a box of toys sat in the corner.

There was a murmur of voices, and Tommy noted a corridor to the left that led to several rooms. The door to the first room was ajar, and light streamed into the hall. As he headed towards the exam room, a small spaniel darted out into the hall and began barking furiously.

"Calm down, Charles." A slim young woman stepped out into the light, and the spaniel trotted over to her, his tail wagging. She picked the dog up, then noticed Tommy. "I'm sorry, sir, but the surgery is closed for the day. I'm just finishing up with a young patient at the moment. You are in luck, though, as there is an available appointment first thing in the morning. Do you mind leaving your name and the nature of your ailment in the appointment book?"

Touching the brim of his cap, he said, "You must be the nurse. I'm looking for Dr. Ross."

The dog wriggled out of her arms and jumped to the floor, then disappeared into the exam room.

Her frank hazel eyes met his gaze equably. "I'm Dr. Ross. Dr. Alexandra--Alex--Ross."

He shoved his hands into his pockets, then gave her an apologetic smile. "Well, it seems as if I've put my foot in it."

"Tommy? Is that you?" Finn called.

"Yes. I'm here to take you off the good doctor's hands."

"You're Tommy?" She began to laugh, then clapped her hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry, that was terribly rude of me. It's just that I was expecting a gangly thirteen year old boy, not a full grown man. But Finn did say that you were old enough and responsible enough to care for him."

Her smile was infectious, and Tommy found himself chuckling. "Well, my aunt does say I'm nothing but an overgrown boy at times. But that's usually when I've gotten Finn into some sort of mischief."

"Like the time when we ate all the strawberry jam while Aunt Pol was at church!" Finn yelled.

"Charming." Alex's eyes danced with amusement.

Tommy grinned. "What can I say? Guilty as charged."

"Well, let me reunite you with your erstwhile accomplice."

He stepped into the light to follow her, and took off his cap. Her pupils dilated almost imperceptibly when she saw the flash of the razor blade, but her expression betrayed nothing.

"He's right in here." She led the way into the exam room.

Tommy stepped inside. Although his throat tightened when he saw his Finn's bandaged head, he schooled his face into a severe expression. Pointing at his brother, he said, "You and I are going to have a conversation when we get home." Finn nodded, then yawned, his eyelids growing heavy.

Alex lowered her voice, and drew Tommy off to the side. "I'd advise you to wait until the morning, Mr.-" she stopped. "I'm sorry, I don't know your last name."

"Shelby." Tommy waited for her to show some reaction to the name that was feared all over Birmingham, but she merely nodded.

"Mr. Shelby, Finn has sustained a concussion, and recalls nothing of the actual event-or what preceded it. But I can fill in a bit of the details. He came tearing around the corner in front of the surgery whilst I was moving a metal filing cabinet into the office, and slammed into it head first. He was out cold for several minutes."

"Lucky he ran into you. Not everyone would have been so gracious," Tommy observed, watching his younger brother closely. Finn was not always forthcoming with the details of his misdeeds, and he suspected there was much more to the story.

Alex glanced up at him. "You'd be surprised. My faith in humanity was restored when two young Italian men helped me carry him into the office."

Tommy's mouth went dry. "Italian men?"

"Yes. They came around the corner just after your brother hit the ground, and were such a help. They even insisted on taking the file cabinet into my office for me. It was lovely to see such kindness-especially in young men." As she turned to check on Finn, her words echoed in Tommy's head. He seized her arm, and spun her around, his hands closing around her wrists.

"I need you to tell me exactly what they said."

She took a step back, her eyes widening. "Mr. Shelby, I—"

Her next words were drowned out by the sound of shattering glass. An instant later, all hell broke loose.
_

Next time...the threat to the Shelbys intensifies, and Alex finds herself drawn into the vortex.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 2

Alex felt the air rush from her lungs when she hit the floor. The lone lamp in the room went out, and they were plunged into darkness. As the sound of gunfire filled the room, she was able to make out Tommy's silhouette next to her.

"Fuck! Get down, Finn!" he called out over his shoulder. Then without a backwards glance, he reached inside his jacket, and began to crawl towards the window.

Looking up, Alex saw Finn still lying on the exam table. His hands were clamped over his ears, and he had a look of pure terror on his face. Outside the window, the moon drifted from behind the clouds, sending a shaft of light into the room.

Alex felt her heart slow with the terrible certainty of what was about to happen "Finn, love! You have to-"

The bullet pierced the boy's arm before she could finish the sentence, his small body jerking as blood blossomed across his shirt. The world seemed to slow as she scrabbled across the floor, memories flooding her brain. She dimly heard Tommy returning fire at the attackers outside, but her only focus was on Finn.

Reaching his side, she saw he was crying. "I don't want to die, Alex," he choked. "I haven't even had a chance to play with the new puppy John got me."

Alex took him in her arms and slid him carefully to the ground. "Well, then there's only one thing to do," she said soothingly. "I've got to fix you up as good as new, so you can have a go with that little dog." Ripping his shirt open, she saw the entry side of the bullet. It was just above the elbow, and was bleeding heavily. She tore a piece of his shirttail off, and used it to form a makeshift compress. "What's your puppy called?"

"Elliott." He winced as she applied pressure to the wound. "That hurts. Can you not push so hard?"

"Sorry, Finn, but I've got to show this wound I'm in charge. If I don't, it will never mind me."

A flaming bottle suddenly flew through the window. It hit the floor, and rolled over to the wall. The flames licked at the long curtain that stood ready to shield the exam table. The material was a column of fire in a matter of seconds.

Tommy, who was intent on reloading his gun, did not even spare the flames a glance. "Mr. Shelby!" Alex shouted.

"Get out, Dr. Ross. Take Finn, and go out through the back. I'll be right behind you." His voice was firm, but calm.

She shook her head. "They're going to be back there too. Anyone who has no compunction about pipping a small child is intent upon killing all of us."

He met her gaze, and gave her a slight nod. "Right then. Do you know how to handle a firearm?"

Alex hesitated for an instant. Then, still holding pressure on Finn's arm with one hand, she reached for a drawer on a nearby cabinet, and pulled out a revolver.

"I'm a Webly-Fosbury girl. Hope you've no objections."

The corner of his mouth quirked up ever so slightly. "None at all. Here, let me take Finn."

"Give me a moment to tie a pressure bandage." She reached under her skirt and tore a long piece of her slip. The burning curtain had heated up the room considerably, and she found herself sweating. Working quickly but efficiently, she fashioned a bandage snugly around his arm. "This is going to hurt a bit, Finn, but I can tell you're a strong boy."

He nodded, his blue eyes round with fear. Tommy squeezed his shoulder. "Good lad. Now you're going to go for a bit of a ride. Hold on tight."

As they left the room, Alex whistled for Charles, who was frantically pacing the room. The dog trotted at her heels as she followed Tommy down the narrow hallway. "Have you a walled garden?" he called out.

"A small one."

"Anywhere they could be hiding?"

"There's a small shed in the right hand corner, and a raised bed to the left of the door."

As they reached the back door, Tommy put Finn down, leaning him against the wall with the blanket tucked around him. Charles pressed his furry body against the boy, and whined. Finn, his eyes closed, patted the dog listlessly. Moonlight streamed through the glass pane in the top third of the door. Finn's face was whiter than ever, and he seemed to be losing his grip on consciousness. Alex instinctively moved forward to check on him, but Tommy held up his hand, motioning for her to flatten herself against the wall.

She chafed at his instructions, but knew he was right. Neither of them would be any good to Finn if they were shot-or killed. Tommy eased his hand onto the door knob. Meeting Alex's eyes, he gestured for her to move to the small window to the right of the door. "Cover me," he mouthed.

Still standing inside, he shoved the door open with one hand. A bullet came from the left and landed squarely in the wood. As the door swung back, Tommy stuck his head around the door frame, and fired to the left. A grunt was heard, followed by a loud thump.

As the door slammed shut, a head popped over the wall of the garden. A shot rang out, shattering the window and missing Alex by inches. As the cold air spilled into the corridor, Tommy swore. "I've got to flush them out," he hissed. "I'm going out there."

Her heart pounding in her chest, she looked at him with disbelief."Are you insane?" she whispered. You'll be like a fish in a barrel."

"The raised bed gives me some cover, as does the dead Italian. Now when I open the door, I want you to distract them by firing from the window. Careful, now-don't give them a target."

She nodded, her fingers closing around the trigger. Her hand began to shake, just as it always did. Taking in a deep breath, she began to pray.

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son.

As she slowly exhaled, her hand steadied, and she raised the pistol. As Toommy's hand closed in on the knob, her eyes scanned the garden. When he pushed the door open, a slight movement to the side of the shed drew her attention. She took in a half breath, and squeezed the trigger. As Tommy vaulted into the empty flower bed and flattened himself against the ground, a cry of pain rang out from across the garden. A man fell heavily to the ground, and lay still.

Blood roaring in her ears, Alex began to feel lightheaded. A draft of hot air billowed down the hall, bringing a cloud of smoke with it. Her eyes watered as she strained to focus her vision. As her gaze wandered over the outline of the shed, she frowned. Something was not quite right about the roof. Then a silver flash of metal caught her eye. She sighted a dark form, exhaled, and fired. A grunt and a loud thump followed.

A bullet whizzed through the air, burying itself in the wall next to her. She ducked, and saw with alarm that the carpet in the hallway was ablaze. Finn had slumped to the side, and the bandage on his arm was soaked with blood.

"No!" She dropped her revolver, and dove across the hall, Taking the boy in her arms, she said urgently, "Finn, can you hear me?" He moaned, burrowing his face against her thick sweater.

"I'm so cold, Alex. I can't feel my fingers anymore."

There were more gunshots from outside, and a stab of fear pierced her heart.

Save and deliver us, we humbly beseech Thee.

She draped the blanket around both of them, hugging him to her chest. One hand slipped to his arm, finding the wound and applying pressure once again. "I'll warm you up, sweetheart. And as soon as we get you back home, I'll make you some hot chocolate, with lots of whipped cream. You like whipped cream, don't you?" Tears were running down her cheeks now. Alex wanted to believe that it was from the smoke that was filling the corridor, but in her heart, she knew that hope was slipping away for them now.

Then the door swung open, and Tommy was kneeling next to her. "It's over." He took Finn from her arms, then extended his hand. Pulling her to her feet, he gave her the briefest of nods. "Well done. Now let's get my brother patched up."

Xxx

Two hours later, Alex sat by Finn's bedside. He slept peacefully, his breathing even. He was still much too pale for her liking, but she knew from experience that his youth and vigor would speed his recovery. She patted a sleeping Charles and smiled. The spaniel was snuggled next to the boy. In turn, a small brown puppy was pressed up against the larger dog.

The door scraped open, and Tommy entered the room. He held a bottle of whisky and two glasses. Closing the door with his foot, he set the glasses down on the nightstand, and poured a generous portion into both.

Drawing a chair next to Alex, he sat down, and handed her a glass.

"Thanks, but I don't drink on duty," she murmured.

Tommy pressed the glass into her hands, and returned her gaze steadily. "You're not on duty. If Finn was in hospital, you'd be in bed asleep."

"But he's not in hospital. He's here, and there's no one else qualified."

"Arthur's sobered up, and he was a field medic. A damn good one, actually. So you can have a drink. You need a drink. " He paused, then spoke, his voice a bit lighter. "Come on, I even went to the trouble of getting Scottish whisky. I usually don't let the fucking stuff in the house-it's only Irish for the Shelbys. But I figured with the name Ross-and your accent-that you'd prefer the Scottish."

Alex glanced at him. "Then I suppose I must accept your hospitality. Thank you." She took a sip, then turned her attention back to Finn. Smoothing the blanket, she said quietly, "It doesn't help, you know. The whiskey."

Tommy drained half his glass, and shook his head. "With all due respect, Doctor, I have to disagree."

Swirling the amber liquid in her glass, she stared down at it. "It just drives the demons deeper...and then they become more clever, and come after you in darker, more unexpected ways."

"You talk as though you have experience in the matter."

"If you're referring to darkness and demons-yes, I have experience in such things, Mr. Shelby. Much more experience than I'd like."

A bell from a nearby church tolled the hour of midnight. They sat in companionable silence until Tommy nodded off. A few minutes later, Alex put her head down on the bed, and fell into a deep sleep.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 3

"So let me get this straight." John leaned back in his chair, tipping it back against the wall. "This lady doctor helped you fight off a pack of Sabini's men?"

Tommy nodded, and poured another measure of whisky into his tea. "Shot two of 'em dead."

Arthur whistled. "Not bad...not bad at all. But it's fucking unnatural, that's what it is, Tom. How the hell does she know how to handle a revolver that well? And what's she doing in Small Heath, anyway?"

"Two very good questions, Arthur." Tommy lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. "But the fact of the matter is that she saved Finn's life, and probably mine as well. And in the process, her office—and home—burnt to the ground."

"She was living there?" John asked.

"Had a little apartment over the office. Just moved in two weeks ago."

"Well, her name's on the Sabini's hit list now, same as ours," growled Arthur. "She's got to be put under Peaky protection."

John shook his head. "Fucking Italians. She needs to be compensated."

Tommy nodded, his eyes growing hard. "Oh, I'll make sure of that. The Peaky Blinders will front Alex Ross the money to re establish herself, but Darby Sabini will be paying us back—with interest."

XxxXxx

Alex woke up to find sunlight streaming across her face. Rubbing her eyes, she groaned.

"Oh no! I overslept..and I've got to see the Masters twins at 7:30–then Mrs. Penworth for her postop at 7:45." Jumping up, she knocked her chair over, and was momentarily disoriented. The wallpaper, the furnishings-none of it was familiar. Then she saw Finn sleeping in the bed, and it all came back to her.

It's all gone. My medical equipment...clothes…keepsakes.

Her heart sank as she realized that the fire had no doubt claimed her most precious possession. She'd lost the only photograph she had of him. Tears sprang to her eyes, and she put her hand to her mouth, stifling a sob. Closing her eyes, she recalled how safe she had felt when he had put his arms around her. Even in the midst of unrelenting hell, he'd always known just what to say to buoy her courage-and her spirits.

You're the strongest person I know, Alex.

"I'm not," she whispered, shaking her head. "I know I'm not."

A knock came at the door, and it opened slightly. A thin middle aged woman peered into the room.

Alex hastily wiped her eyes, but the sympathetic expression on her visitor's face caused her to start to cry in earnest. The woman closed the door behind her, and folded Alex in her arms

"You must be Alex," she said, her voice breaking. "I'm Polly, and I owe you a very great debt for rescuing my Finn. My sister gave birth to him, but since she's passed on, I've been his mother. The thought of anything happening to him—"

"Don't worry," Alex whispered, her heart going out to the woman. "He'll be good as new, I promise."

Polly pulled back, and took Alex's face in her hands, giving her a searching look. "But you've paid a very great price for your actions, haven't you? Not just last night, but in the past as well."

She spoke with such certainty that a chill ran down Alex's spine.

Polly must have seen her unease, for she smiled and said, "I've got the second sight, love. I know these things. But you're with the Shelbys now, and we're going to look after you. First things first, though. We've got to draw you a bath and get you out of those smoky clothes." She took a step back, and gave Alex an appraising look. "You're just about Ada's size-that's Finn and Tommy's sister-so I'm sure we can get you something nice to wear. Come along now."

She propelled Alex out of the room and down the hall before she had a chance to respond.

Looking back at the door, Alex protested, "But Finn—I can't—" She yelped as her progress was arrested by something very solid.

"Dr. Ross, I presume?" A tall man with a bushy mustache and a deep, rough voice looked down at her. "I'm Arthur Shelby, Finn's brother. Pleased to meet you, ma'am." He shook her hand warmly. "You've done the Shelbys a great service, love-you're one of us now.. Be assured that by order of the Peaky Blinders, no one is gonna touch as much as a hair of your head...fucking dirty Italians included."

Alex gulped. "Thank you, Mr. Shelby."

"It's nothing. Now let Pol get you fixed up. I'll look after young Finn."

"And I'll look after Arthur." Another man shoved Arthur to the side, and stepped forward. He was thinner than his brother, and had sleepy eyes that Alex suspected belied a keen mind. Rolling a toothpick in the corner of mouth, he bowed, and said, "You've saved the best Shelby for last. John Shelby, at your service."

"Aww, fuck off, John." Arthur cuffed him, then pushed him down the hall. "Let Pol take care of this fine lady. Besides, Esme will have your balls if she catches you flirting."

John bristled. "Esme ain't got me on a leash."

"No, she's got you by the cock," Arthur responded, breaking into a peal of laughter.

Polly rolled her eyes. "Don't mind them."

Ten minutes later, Alex was alone in Polly's bedroom. The faint scent of incense hung in the air as she sank into a tub of hot water. Sighing, she closed her eyes, letting the heat penetrate into her stiff muscles. Once some of the tension had left her body, she reached for the bar of lavender-scented soap that sat on the edge of the tub. She scrubbed every inch of her body, hoping to finally rid her skin of the smell of smoke.

After washing her hair, and relaxed for a few moments before the water began to cool. Then she reluctantly climbed out of the tub and dried off. Reaching for the bundle of clothes that had been left, she unwrapped it. The first item that met her eyes was a peach silk chemise. The delicate garment was brand new, still wrapped in scented tissue paper that bore the name of Birmingham's finest department store.

Alex ran her fingers over the material with wonder. She'd never had something so fine next to her skin. Putting it on, she looked in the mirror, and decided that Tommy's sister had exquisite taste. The whisper soft folds of the chemise highlighted her small waist, while camouflaging how thin her frame had become.

Promise me you'll eat. You're so consumed with caring for the wounded that you're wasting away. When I get finally you to Birmingham, my mother's going to think you're some waif I found along the road.

Wrapping her arms around her chest, she closed her eyes, recalling how the very sound of his deep, rich voice had made her heart pound.

There are impoverished people all over the city in need of good medical care. You're going to change lives, Alex—and no one will be prouder than me.

"I won't give up, I promise." Alex opened her eyes, suddenly realizing that she'd spoken out loud. Coming out of her reverie, she picked up the dark green dress. It was made of warm merino wool, and was cut in the latest fashion.

Slipping it over her head, she adjusted the lace cuffs. Next came the silk stockings and the black T strap heels. Polly had even provided her with a slender silver bracelet. Surveying her reflection, she smoothed the folds of her dress, then took a deep breath and headed downstairs.

She heard voices from the kitchen, and pushed the door open, walking into a scene of chaos. Four children were racing around the kitchen, one holding Elliott high above his head. The puppy wore a bright pink dress, and was barking furiously at Charles. The spaniel, for his part, sat serenely on one of the chairs at the kitchen table, eating a piece of toast that had been liberally smeared with jam.

"Oi, that's my toast!" shouted John, shooing the dog off the chair. With a heavy sigh, he picked up the remnants of the toast and deposited them in the bin.

"For God's sake, stop worrying about your fucking toast, John!" Dark eyes flashing, a woman standing on a chair shot him an aggrieved glance. She reached up, trying to retrieve a ball from the top shelf of the china cabinet. "Do you think of nothing but your belly?"

He smirked. "Every once in a while. Especially when your lovely plump arse is on display." Smacking her on the bottom, he stepped to the side, nimbly ducking the slap that aimed at him. Picking up the smallest child, he stuffed the boy under his arm and headed towards the door. "Right, you lot! Outside, now!"

The whirlwind of activity followed him, leaving Alex alone with the woman whom she surmised was John's wife.

"Hello, I'm Esme." The young woman gave her a polite smile, but her eyes were wary. "Are you the doctor?"

"Yes, I'm Alex. It's a pleasure to meet you."

Esme crossed her arms. "Pol said I'm to take you to the Garrison. Tommy wants to see you."

"Perhaps this afternoon. I've got to go to my office and see if there's anything I can salvage. And I've got to notify my patients that—-"

Esme stepped closer, and spoke in a slow, deliberate voice. "A bit of advice. When the leader of the Peaky Blinders requests your company, you don't put him off. Ever."

The hostility emanating from the young woman was almost palpable, but Alex was careful to keep her expression neutral. "I am very grateful to your family for the kindness you've shown me. If this meeting is important to Mr. Shelby, I will certainly make it a priority."

"Wise decision." Esme held her gaze for a few seconds, then reached for her coat. "Come on, then. I haven't got all fucking day."

 

 

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 4

After two minutes' walk, they came to a pub. Esme halted outside the door. "Here we are."

Alex hesitated, and Esme scoffed. "Too working class for you? You won't find any doctors in the Garrison—or any fancy cocktails. The Shelbys are hardworking men with simple tastes."

"Then we have something in common," Alex said with a smile. "Thank you for walking me over, Esme. It was very kind of you."

"I didn't do it for you. I did it for John—and Tommy." Turning on her heel, the young woman walked away without a backwards glance.

Alex shook her head. Taking in a deep breath, she pushed the door open, and stepped inside the pub. The large common room was empty except for the barkeep, who appeared to be busy with inventory. The man looked up, and called out, "Mr. Shelby's in the snug. Just to the left there—-he's expecting you."

"Thank you," Alex said. The man, having returned to his task, merely raised a hand in acknowledgment.

When the door to the snug opened, she saw Tommy going through a sheaf of papers. He looked up, and she got her first proper look at him in the full light. His eyes were a startlingly clear blue, and stood out in stark contrast to his chiseled features. He cleared his throat, and stood up.

"Have a seat, Alex."

"Thank you, Mr. Shelby." She sat down, and he did likewise, arranging his papers into a neat stack and setting them off to the side. Folding his hands, he fixed his gaze on her.

"I think we're beyond that, aren't we?"

"Beyond what?"

"Whether you meant to or not, you've chosen a side. You're now part of the Peaky Blinders' extended family, and your safety is my responsibility. So we're beyond Mr. Shelby. You can call me Tommy."

She felt a flash of annoyance at his paternalistic tone, but quickly tamped it down. "I'm very grateful for your concern, but I hardly think I need protection."

"What do you know about the gangs in Birmingham?" he asked abruptly.

"What does that have to do with me?"

He took out a cigarette, then offered her one.

"No thank you. I don't smoke."

He raised an eyebrow. "An educated woman who doesn't raise the torch of freedom?"

"I have never been one for symbols, Mr.— Tommy."

"Fair enough." He lit his cigarette. "You still haven't answered my question."

She was silent for a moment. "I knew enough to recognize you as a Peaky Blinder when you took your cap off. The razor and the haircut were not exactly subtle."

He took a drag. "But you didn't hesitate to help me."

"My patient's safety was at stake. As was my own."

Tommy considered her words for a moment, then asked, "And how did you come to know how to handle a revolver so expertly?"

She met his gaze. "A friend taught me."

"A friend taught you," he repeated, his voice betraying his scepticism.

"Yes."

"This friend taught you well."

"He did."

"And by now, every foot soldier of Darby Sabini knows who you are and how good you are with a firearm."

Alex suddenly felt a chill run down her spine. Such a thought had never occurred to her. "What would they possibly want with me?" she asked, hating the note of uncertainty in her voice.

"You killed two men. Don't think for a second that those deaths will not go unavenged."

She'd pushed that thought out of her mind, focusing on Finn in order to forget that she had taken lives. Lives of men who were undeniably criminals, but who had wives and children waiting for them at home.

"I'm not proud of the killing," she said softly, twisting the thin silver band on her right hand. "When I recited the Hippocratic Oath at my medical school graduation, i swore I would abstain from inflicting intentional wrong-doing or harm on another human being." She met his eyes. "But I did what I had to do."

Tommy pointed a finger at her. "And that's exactly what Sabini's men will say when they bury a bullet in your head."

She felt the blood drain from her face, and looked down at her hands.

When Tommy spoke again, his voice was more gentle. "Let me help you, Alex."

"I just want to get back to practicing medicine—and to put all this behind me."

"I can help get you back to work. I've already a place in mind for your office."

She considered his words for a few moments, then lifted her chin."Until this all blows over, I will accept your help—but with several stipulations."

Tommy stood up. "Well, if we've reached the negotiation phase, we need something to drink." Opening the window to the snug, he called, "Harry, a bottle of the Irish for me, and a bottle of Glenlivet—"

"Glenfiddich," she said firmly.

The corner of his mouth quirked up for just an instant. "I stand corrected. Make that Glenfiddich for the lady."

A moment later, he was pouring them each a drink.

As Alex watched him, she had to repress the urge to laugh. "You do realize that it's 9 o'clock in the morning? Isn't it a bit early for whisky?"

Just for an instant, his eyes lost some of their coolness. "It's never too early for whisky." Raising his glass, he saluted her. "To brave women."

"And the kindness of strangers," she replied, downing half her glass.

Tommy drained his drink, then sat back down. "Now, you said you have terms. I have a few of my own, but ladies first."

The whisky warmed her body and cleared her thoughts, and the gravity of her situation finally hit her. She'd heard whispers about the Peaky Blinders ever since she had first set foot in Small Heath, but never in her wildest dreams had she imagined that she would cross paths with their leader...let alone kill for him.

Now here I am sitting in a back room in a Birmingham pub with nothing but the clothes on my back, negotiating a compact with a notorious gangster.

She took another sip of whisky to calm her nerves. "I'll be completely honest, and I'll ask the same of you. I came to Birmingham to try to make a difference. I purposely chose to set up my practice in an underserved area. I'm not in this for the money. In fact, I used up the great majority of a small inheritance in order to buy medical equipment and put down two months' rent."

"You've no need to worry about money. Everything will be taken care of."

"But it's important for me to maintain my independence—to do things my way. I don't want to be obligated to anyone."

Tommy exhaled, and a cloud of smoke curled from his mouth.

"My mother was Romani, Alex. The blood that flows through my veins carries the weight of hundreds of years of tradition. There is nothing more important to us than family and baxt— honour. You treated Finn without demanding payment, and saved his life in the process. Am I obligated to you?"

"Of course not."

"But by Romani code, I owe you a debt of honour. To outsiders, that might be seen as an obligation—but you are not to see it as such. To our people, it is a sacred vow."

"Very well. But I will pay you—"

Tommy made an impatient gesture, and his voice rose as he spoke over her. "In return, you are to defer to me regarding any matter concerning your personal security."

"Of course—after I have been consulted, and been allowed to participate in crafting said plan."

Tommy stubbed his cigarette out, and leaned across the table. "Did you consult with me when you extracted the bullet from Finn's arm?"

Alex flushed, but decided it would be unwise to risk provoking him further. Instead, she elected to make a tactical retreat by changing the subject.

"I am eager to re-establish my practice as soon as possible. In fact, if I may use the telephone, I'd like to place a call to my receptionist."

"There's no need," Tommy said, his voice matter-of-fact. "Anna Oliveri doesn't work for you anymore."

With difficulty, Alex curbed her rising temper. "And why is that?"

"Because she was found dead at dawn this morning. She had a bullet to the head—and a note in her hand."

Alex felt physically ill. Anna had been a warm, gentle presence in her office. In fact, in just two short weeks, the middle aged grandmother had proved to be a great favorite with patients of all ages. "What did it say?" she asked, her voice hoarse with emotion.

"It was addressed to you—and it read 'Cui mali accumensa, peju finisci'."

"Which means?" she whispered.

"'A bad beginning makes a bad ending."

Alex felt as if she could not breathe. Tommy reached for her glass, filled it, then slid it back to her. She took a gulp, then lifted her eyes to his. "You're right, Tommy. I'm

In above my head, and I'm not ready to die. I'll be grateful for whatever assistance you can provide. But promise me that you won't keep anything from me. I've seen darkness before, and the devil's boots don't creak. I need to know everything."

"That, I can do. Provided you do the same with me."

"Of course."

"Good. Then we can start now." He pulled out another cigarette, then lit it. "Who is Jonathan, and why are you going to meet him today? Because if you're a police informer, our brief association is headed for a very unhappy ending."

 

Chapter Text

Tommy had his answer the instant he saw her expression. Before this moment, he had been impressed by the degree of composure she had shown—so much so that he had begun to question her story.

 

Posing as a recruiter for a local hospital, he’d placed a few quick calls to medical schools in Scotland that morning. On the third call, he’d struck gold. A chatty female clerk told him that an Alexandra Ross had indeed graduated from the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine in 1914 with high honors.

 

“High honors?” he mused. “Sounds as if she’s quite clever. We don’t want any shrinking violets, though. Any idea how she dealt with hostility from her male classmates? I doubt all of them were thrilled with having an intelligent women show them up.”

 

“Oh, no one messed Alex Ross about,” replied the woman cheerfully. “For one thing, she was smart as a whip, and the kindest woman you’ll ever meet...and having a father who is known as the toughest police chief in the history of Leith didn’t hurt. No one dared harass her openly. In any event, she usually won over the naysayers within a few months. Anything else I can help you with, Mr. Garrison?”

 

“No, thank you. You’ve been very helpful. Very helpful indeed.”

 

But the look of unguarded anguish on her face had left no doubt in his mind. She was no professional.

 

Alex, her face unnaturally pale, took in a shaky breath, then said, “Considering that Jonathan has been dead for 11 months, 2 days, and 6 hours, it’s very unlikely I’ll be meeting with him today...unless you plan to hand me over to Sabini’s men within the hour.”

 

The grief in her voice was unmistakable. Tommy was very rarely nonplussed, but on this occasion, he felt like a grand champion bastard.

 

“I’m...I’m sorry,” he muttered.

 

Her hands tightened around her glass. “I must have been talking in my sleep last night. I’ve done it since I was a child—but now it’s usually only when I’m terribly tired.”

 

He was at a loss for words, and decided to just let her talk.

 

“You know, it’s an awful thing for a very private person to talk in her sleep. And even worse for someone to use what he hears in order to feed his own paranoid delusions. Why on earth would I want to go undercover in order to infiltrate the most dangerous gang in Birmingham? Especially given that I had no idea who Finn—or you—were?”

 

Tommy’s chagrin rapidly flared into anger. “Oh I don’t know...perhaps because your father is chief of police in Leith?”’

 

“Was chief of police. If you’d done your research properly, you’d know that he died of an apoplexy two months ago.”

 

“You could have told me,” he said defensively, willing himself not to lose his temper.

 

“Of course. While we were crouching by the back door in my office, waiting to be shot dead or consumed by a raging inferno, I should have said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Shelby, but I need to let you know that my deceased father was once chief of police in a city 300 miles from here.’ “

 

“It was hardly a raging inferno,” he muttered, and immediately felt ridiculous.

 

Alex stood up abruptly. “I believe I would benefit from a good, brisk walk. I haven’t yet had a chance to explore the cut.”

 

“You can’t.” Tommy rubbed his eyes, suddenly feeling very weary.

 

She stared at him, the color in her cheeks returning. “Sorry, did you just tell me I’m forbidden to take a walk?”

 

“No. I just told you that you can’t take a walk by yourself. Especially not by the cut.”

 

“Because I’d be putting my life at risk.” Her words hung in the air, heightening the tension.

 

Tommy stood up, and put his hands in his pockets, hoping to defuse the situation. “Look, how about I take you to see the place I thought you might use as an office, aye? If you like it, I’ll have it ready for you within 24 hours.”

 

She lowered her eyes, her long lashes fluttering as she blinked away what he suspected were tears.

 

“I’d—I’d like that very much.”

 

Tommy helped her on with her coat. It was one of Ada’s favorites—a rich chocolate brown wool with fur trim. As her dark hair brushed against the collar of the coat, he caught the faintest scent of lavender, and had to turn away in order to keep his mind on the task at hand.

 

“Follow me,” he said gruffly, turning his own collar up as they headed out into the cold.

 

It was a short walk. They had gone about a half a block when he stopped. Caught by surprise, she stumbled, and would have fallen if he hadn’t reached for her hand.

 

Her slim fingers fit perfectly in his. In truth when he thought about it later, the whole sequence of the events was puzzling. It seemed as if he had barely touched her. But there she was, snug against his chest, her full lips just a breath away.

 

An instant later, the spell was broken. Pushing against his chest, she took two steps back, and hastily put on her gloves. “I apologize for my clumsiness—it must be the sleep deprivation.”

 

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat, focusing his attention on a plume of smoke rising from a nearby foundry. “I’ll have Pol put you up in John’s old room. It’s quieter there. Arthur can sit up with Finn.”

 

“I thought I might find a—“

 

Tommy ignored her, and reached for the door. “Straight ahead, then take the first left.”

 

As they walked into the large office, the tension in Tommy’s body lessened as he inhaled the scent of fresh paint. Curly had promised to have the peeling walls good as new by 10 am, but Uncle Charlie’s erstwhile sidekick did not always perform well under the pressure of a deadline that did not involve horses.

 

“Tommy!” Curry’s bald head popped around the corner, an eager expression on his face. “Is this the doctor?”

 

Tommy could not help but mirror the older man’s broad smile.

 

“It is. Alex, this is Curly—he’s good with race horses. Curly, this is Dr. Alex Ross. She’s good with sick people.”

 

“Hello, Dr. Alex.” Curly shook her hand, his enthusiasm almost contagious. “Tommy said I’m to work with you some mornings, cause Esme’ll get on your nerves if she’s around all the time.”

 

“That’ll do, Curly,” Tommy murmured. “Why don’t you go and see if the furniture man’s out front?”

 

“Okay, Tommy.” Curly raced down the stairs, humming to himself as the door banged behind him.

 

Alex gave him a reproachful look. “You know very well that the furniture hasn’t come yet. We were just outside less than a minute ago.”

 

Tommy shrugged. “Once he gets outside, he’ll get distracted by all the noises and sights, and will keep himself well entertained until the delivery actually arrives. No harm done. Now, I was thinking it would be best to have your reception desk against the far wall. The patients will have already come through security, so the receptionist—“

 

“Meaning Esme? Or Curly, depending on how annoying Esme’s been?”

 

“Esme’s not a bad girl,” said Tommy placatingly. “In fact, she could benefit a great deal from your positive influence.”

 

“Oh my God, Tommy! The girl hated me on sight, and not more than five minutes ago, you were accusing me of being a police informer!”

 

Tommy suddenly felt an uncontrollable urge to laugh, and restrained himself with a good deal of effort, “Curly likes you,” he said solemnly.

 

Alex gave him an incredulous look, then dissolved into helpless laughter. Before long, Tommy was chuckling along with her.

 

“This is exactly what comes from drinking whiskey at 9

am,” Alex gasped. “If I don’t get something to eat, I swear I’m going to lose my mind.”

 

Tommy put on his cap. “Then we’d best be off.”

 

As they emerged from the building and headed back towards the Garrison, the delivery van pulled up. The driver jumped out, and Curly hurried to help him unload the furniture. An elderly man shuffling along the street stopped a few feet away to watch, wheezing as he tried to catch his breath.

 

“Hello, Jim!” called out Curly, setting down the chair he was carrying.

 

“Mornin’ Curly. That’s a lot of chairs. Is Mr. Shelby openin’ up an annex to the Garrison?”

 

Curly chuckled. “No, these are for Dr. Alex’s office. She’s the new doctor here in Small Heath. Tommy’s helping her set up her new office.”

 

“She the one the Italians burnt out?”

 

“That’s her. Tommy says she’s smart...and she’s prettier than old Doc Hunter, that’s for sure.”

 

“Well, I’m in need of a new doc myself. My lungs are gettin’ worse every day..I can barely take a piss without stoppin’ to catch my breath.”

 

“Then you definitely need to see Dr. Alex,” Curly said earnestly. “I’m going to work for her when I’m not busy with the horses.”

 

Jim grinned, and slapped him on the arm. “Then I’ve got an in, haven’t I? You’re a good man, Curly. I’ll be sure to make an appointment.” Making his way around the van, he headed down the street. Ten minutes later, he finally made his way into his kitchen, and collapsed into a chair.

 

“Ten fuckin’ minutes to walk a block and a half,” he muttered, casting a dark look at the cluttered table. He’d meant to clean the place up a bit, but didn’t have the energy. Fortunately, picking up a telephone and making a call was more than within his capabilities—and would earn him a tidy sum.

 

“Birmingham 5-4-4.” There was a pause, and then a heavily accented voice came on the line.

 

“What do you have for me?”

 

“A way into the bitch’s office—and no one will be the wiser.”

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 6

Late that afternoon, Tommy sat in his office, reviewing the accounts from the week. Betting was done for the day, and the usual whirlwind of activity had receded from Shelby Company Limited. As he closed the last ledger, he looked up to see John walk in.

"So, did you manage to salvage anything from the fire?"

"A few things." John dropped into one of the chairs, and stretched out his long legs. "How'd you manage to keep Alex away?"

Tommy leaned back in his chair. "I kept her busy. Ada's got her off shopping right now."

"You let them go off by themselves?"

"Fuck, no. I had Charlie and Scudboat follow them."

John snickered. "I expect those two stuck out in the lingerie section."

"So what did you find? Any of her personal things?"

"Well, it just so happens—" John reached into his jacket—"that we did." He tossed his brother an envelope. Tommy opened it up, and dumped the contents onto the desk. He first picked up a delicate silver signet ring.

"MMC." He looked at John. "Not Alex's inItials."

His brother shrugged. "Maybe it was her mum's...or her nan's. That's not the interesting bit."

Tommy had already focused on the military badge lying next to the ring. "17th London."

"Poplar Rifles. Fuck's she got that for?"

"Who knows? Maybe it was a cousin's—or maybe a patient gave it to her as a thank you."

John scoffed. "Who gives away their regimental badge?"

Tommy turned the pin over in his hands, running his fingers over the laurel wreath. "Someone who wants to forget," he murmured.

"Well, here's something else." John pulled out a smaller envelope from his coat and handed it to his brother.

Tommy opened the envelope and drew out a small photograph. It was damaged by smoke and water stains, but the image was still visible. A tall, broad shouldered soldier sat straightbacked in a chair. His grave expression was belied by the crinkles around his eyes, hinting at a keen sense of humor. The regimental insignia caught Tommy's eye.

"5th Royal Warwickshire. A Brummie." He glanced up at John. "And a man of the cloth—looks like Church of England by the collar."

"Read the inscription on the back."

Flipping the photo over, Tommy read, "To Alex—All joys are due to thee. As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth'd must be. With all my love, J." With an impatient gesture, he tossed the photo back on the desk. "What the fuck does that mean?"

John smirked. "Sounds like the vicar was seeking inspiration in something other than the Holy Scripture—namely, the naked body of Alex Ross."

Without saying a word, Tommy put the photo back in the envelope. Then he stowed the envelope, badge, and ring in the top drawer of his desk, and closed it.

"That's it?" John looked at him in disbelief. "You're not gonna try to find out who he is?"

"No- because It doesn't matter." Tommy calmly reached for the ledger he'd been working on, then took up his pen.

His brother narrowed his eyes, then whooped with laughter. "Fucking hell. You're already on the hunt, aren't you?"

"Go home, John."

"You know what this means, don't you? Sweet Alex Ross is no blushing virgin. She's been around the block."

Without looking up, Tommy said tonelessly, "Fuck off, John."

Disappointed by his brother's refusal to rise to the bait, John hauled himself out of his chair, and headed for the door.

"Oh, by the way," called out Tommy, "Alex will be staying in your old room until things are resolved with the Italians."

"And how long will that take?"

Tommy sighed. "If we're lucky, hopefully a week or two. If it drags on, who knows."

John groaned. "And where am I supposed to go when I'm three sheets to the wind? After last weekend, Esme told me she'd have my balls if I came home like that again."

"I suggest you go home to your wife. You'd probably benefit from a good bollocking."

Ignoring him, John chewed on his toothpick. "Have you thought about bringing in some outside help?"

Tommy returned his attention to the ledger. "I have."

"And?"

"If comes to that, I'll make the call."

John shook his head, and left.

Tommy put down his pen. Pulling out a cigarette, he lit it, then opened the drawer and took out the photograph.

Picking up the phone, he made a call. "London 9-8-2." After a few moments, a voice came on the other end of the line.

"Evening, Mick. Thomas Shelby here. I need a favor."

Xxx

As the clock struck midnight, Alex made her way down the stairs. Sleep had never come to her easily, and her problems with insomnia had only intensified over the past few years. Despite being physically exhausted, she could not slow down the thoughts streaming through her brain.

A log was still burning in the fireplace in the sitting room, and served to keep the chill October air at bay. Alex wrapped herself in a soft woolen blanket, and curled up in a chair by the fireplace. Closing her eyes, she tried to work through her predicament in a logical fashion.

She had dreamed of establishing a clinic for the sick, regardless of ability to pay. Her plan had been to solicit contributions from charitable organizations, and perhaps even secure government funding for health classes for young mothers. But everything she had hoped for was now slipping away. Who would offer financial support to a physician who had had her surgery burnt to the ground by a criminal gang? And who now had a rival gang providing security for her current office?

She didn't even want to think about the fact that she was now living under the protection of said gang—sleeping just down the hall from one of the most feared men in Birmingham.

"It's all such a mess," she murmured. All of a sudden, a furry weight landed in her lap. She shrieked, and opened her eyes to find her beloved spaniel balancing precariously on her knees .

She hugged him to her chest, burrowing her face against his silky ears. "Charles Edward Stuart, you scared the daylights out of me, you imp!"

"My apologies, but His Majesty was quite keen on joining you, and wouldn't take no for an answer."

Tommy stood in the doorway, his lean frame silhouetted against the light from the kitchen. Although he was in his shirt sleeves, the starched material was still pristine, with nary a wrinkle in sight.

She could not help but laugh. "So the toughest man in Birmingham can't say no to a dog?"

The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Apparently not."

"Any other weaknesses?"

He sat down in the chair opposite her. "Fast horses, good whisky, and beautiful women. Not necessarily in that order, of course." Reaching for the carafe on the table next to him, he poured them each a drink.

There was something in the man's cool, measured manner that made feel her the exact opposite of calm. Trying to ignore her pounding heart, she said lightly, "I'm guessing the whisky comes first."

In response, he handed her a glass. His warm fingers brushed against hers for just an instant, and she suppressed a shiver.

"Then you'd be wrong," he said, fixing his clear blue eyes on her. She stopped breathing for an instant, and saw with dismay that he'd noticed. A grin spread across his face. "I find a good racehorse irresistible."

Alex gave him a reproachful look. "You're teasing me."

A flicker of amusement showed in his eyes. "I am." He drained his whisky, then filled his glass again.

Alex took a cautious sip. "It's Irish."

"It is."

"And surprisingly good."

"It never hurts to push the boundaries of your comfort zone."

"Well, I'm certainly getting a lot of practice with that."

He was silent for a moment, then stretched out his legs, his expression completely composed. "Do I make you uncomfortable, Alex?"

She felt her cheeks flush, and swallowed. "To be honest, yes. Yes, you do."

"Then we have a problem. Because if I can see it, so can anyone who's watching you. And believe me, Sabini has men tracking your every move. They will sense that gap in trust, and they will turn it to their advantage."

"Did you have men following us in the department store today?"

"I did." He put down his glass, and stood up. Going to the mantel, he stared into the flames for a minute, then turned to face her. "Look, this is no game. If you can't trust me completely, I need to know right now. Because a lot of men—good men—are putting their lives on the line for you."

For a few moments, the only sound in the room was the snapping of the burning log. Charles, seeming to sense the tension in the air, jumped off her lap, and disappeared into the kitchen.

She stood up, tightening her hold on the blanket. "I—I understand. But you need to understand that that level of trust does not come easily to me."

Tommy shook his head. "I won't be gentle with you, Alex—first, because it's not in my nature...and second, because we at war right now, and this is the way it has to be. So when we open up your office for business tomorrow at noon, you're going to do things my way—-without resistance, and without debate."

"Yes, sir." She had intended to defuse the tension with a lighthearted reply, but saw at once that she'd made a grave miscalculation.

In what seemed like an instant, he had closed the space between them. "You find this amusing?" His eyes were cold as ice, and for the first time since she had been alone with him, she felt truly afraid.

Returning his gaze, she willed herself not to show her fear. "A man I knew once told me that one can find humor and lightness in even the darkest of hours."

Without breaking eye contact, Tommy reached for his glass and downed the rest. "That man-" he said with a bitter laugh, "-did not live in Small Heath." Heading for the stairs, he called over his shoulder, "Be ready to leave by at 7 am sharp. I won't be kept waiting."

For Danille, Meena, and Thea-I now think I have to write Esme kicking ass at some point-I have to agree that I definitely wouldn't want to make her mad.

Chapter Text

CHAPTER 7

Alex slept little that night. When she found herself wide awake at five o'clock, she knew it would be futile to stay in bed. Getting up, she decided to get dressed and check on Finn.

When she slipped into his bedroom, she found Ada dozing in a chair next to his bed. Elliott was cuddled up next to his young master, and boy and puppy were sleeping peacefully.

Finn stirred, and opened his eyes. "Alex!" he whispered, his face lighting up. "Look, my arm is almost good as new!" He roused Elliott with a gentle nudge, then dug through the covers to find a red rubber ball.

Just as he drew back his arm to throw the ball, Alex caught his hand. "Finn! You'll wake your sister up," she whispered.

"It's okay. Ada can play too."

Alex could not help but chuckle. "How about you wait to play with Elliott under later? In return, I will make you a full English breakfast, any way you like it."

Finn eyed her speculatively. "Can I have poached eggs? Aunt Pol always makes scrambled, and I get tired of them."

"You may. Anything else?"

"Fried tomatoes? And toast with marmalade?" The boy was practically bouncing on his bed with excitement.

Alex bowed. "Your wish is my command."

"Thank you, Alex! Oh, PLEASE don't put any mushrooms on my plate. They're Tommy's favorite, but they make me want to upchuck. They're so slimy." He clutched his throat and made a rather dramatic choking sound, then collapsed back on his pillow.

"I shall ensure than no mushroom comes within six feet of your plate," she promised solemnly, then headed downstairs. She turned on the light in the kitchen, set the table, and then went about gathering everything she would need. Fifteen minutes later, she was poaching eyes and frying bacon, humming to herself as she worked.

For Alex, cooking was a kind of therapy—and today, it was a most welcome distraction. The idea of spending a tense morning with Tommy had her stomach in knots. She knew that he wanted to go over the plan for the security arrangements for the clinic in detail. She also knew that she was most likely not going to be happy with multiple aspects of said plan. However, if she wanted to get back to work—and remain safe—she had no choice but to go along with it. Then there would be the challenge of interacting with a sullen Esme, who was to work the reception desk for her today.

Instead of focusing on the negative, think of the positives. Somehow, Tommy had managed to secure state of the art equipment for the clinic in less than twenty four hours. Alex could now run basic blood tests and sterilize her equipment in house, which was a huge plus.

In addition, Tommy had recruited an able medical assistant for her-the wife of Jeremiah Jesus. Esther Jesus had been part of a Voluntary Aid Detachment for the Red Cross during the war. During her time in service, she had learned first aid and home health care. Esther was a lively, energetic woman, and Alex had taken to her at once.

Alex had to admit that despite his reputation as a notorious gangster, Tommy Shelby had proved to be both generous and thoughtful. He had even had a section of the waiting area walled off so that Alex had a small room of her own to use for writing notes. The thought of having a private nook all to herself made her almost giddy with happiness.

Reaching for the tomatoes, she spied a basket of mushrooms. She hesitated for a moment, then pulled out a second frying pan. Within a few minutes, she had finished frying up Finn's tomatoes, and set to work on sautéing the mushrooms. First she melted some butter, then added some of the fresh herbs that Polly had growing in a window box in the kitchen. By the time she had finished, it was almost 6:30. Hurrying up the stairs, she brought a large tray to Finn and Ada, then rushed back down to prepare for the others.

Arthur and John came in ten minutes later, stopping short when they saw the platters on the table.

Arthur sat down, a grin spreading across his face as he reached for the eggs and bacon. "I think I've died and gone to fucking breakfast heaven. Alex, love, you are wasted on the medical profession. What you need to do is marry me and let me take care of you."

"Somehow I think it would be the other way round, Arthur," Alex said with a smile.

John burst out laughing. "She's got the measure of you, brother!"

They had nearly finished eating when Tommy walked in with the morning newspaper under his arm. He gave Alex a nod, then sat down and opened up the paper. She brought a basket of toast and the platter of mushrooms to the table. "I'll bring you a plate, Tommy."

"No need. I don't eat breakfast. Besides, I told you to be ready at seven. It's 6:55."

He didn't even look at her, and Alex could not help but feel like a small child who had just been scolded. It was in equal measures embarrassing and infuriating to have been spoken to like that in front of John and Arthur. "I'm well aware of what time it is," she said coolly. "I still have five minutes."

Tommy looked up at her. "Then you'd best use them wisely."

She was sorely tempted to give him a sharp reply, but decided it would be best to hold her tongue. Without saying a word, she left the kitchen to retrieve her coat.

"That was rude as fuck." Ada had slipped into the kitchen without anyone noticing. She stood with her hands on her hips and glared at Tommy. "Alex made those mushrooms especially for you."

"Didn't ask her to." Tommy set down one section of the paper, and picked up another.

Ada marched over and snatched the newspaper out of his hands. "Finn told her they were your favorite, and she was trying to be nice. For fuck's sake Tommy, she's not one of your whores! You could at least be polite."

"Did you give back the the things I found?" John asked. "It ain't fucking right to hang on to them, Tommy."

"What things?" Arthur and Ada asked in unison. At that moment, three of John's children barreled into the kitchen. One of them was carrying Charles, who was sporting a paper crown and a small plaid tablecloth around his belly.

"Hang on!" John scooped the spaniel out of John Jr.'s arms. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Mum said that Alex's dog was named after Bonnie Prince Charlie," piped up five year old Alice. "So we kitted him up just like a Scottish prince. Doesn't he look lovely?"

"He looks like a fucking disaster." John held out an arm to Alice. "What say we head down to the park and feed the ducks?"

"Yes!" She threw her arms around his neck. "Can Uncle Arthur and Aunt Ada come too?"

"Of course!" John smirked at his siblings. "They wouldn't miss it for the world."

Once the room had emptied, Tommy eyed the mushrooms. Picking up a fork, he speared one, then popped it in his mouth. The taste was a revelation-the earthy flavor of the mushroom combined with fresh herbs and butter was like nothing he'd ever experienced.

"Fucking amazing," he murmured. He pulled the plate over, and ate half of it before he realized that the clock had just struck seven. Shrugging his coat on, he headed for the front door. Upon reaching the living room, he saw that Alex's coat and hat were already gone. Cursing under his breath, he shoved the front door open, and spied her a block down the street.

Walking quickly,, he caught up to her in less than a minute. Taking her arm, he fell into step next to her. "What do you think you're doing?" he growled. "You know better than to be out on the streets alone."

"It was seven o'clock, and you weren't ready. I won't be kept waiting, Thomas Shelby."

"I would put you over my fucking knee right now if we weren't out in public," he muttered, giving a pleasant smile to an elderly couple that nodded as they passed.

Alex gave him a sideways glance. "You tried the mushrooms, didn't you? And you liked them."

"Do not try to change the subject."

"The bit of basil on your lower lip gave you away."

He brushed his hand against his mouth with an impatient gesture.

"You missed it. Here, since you've been so careful to make me feel comfortable around you this morning—" Alex reached up and touched her thumb to his lips.

The feel of his mouth against her finger was not at all what she had anticipated. She had expected the skin to be rough and hard, but his lips were warm and pliant. As she swept the trace of herb from his mouth, he closed his hand around hers.

She bit her lip, expecting him to give her a blistering retort. But when Alex looked up, she saw there had been an almost imperceptible shift in his eyes. Tiny flecks of green and grey were now visible, softening the remote, icy blue she'd seen minutes before.

"I deserved that, didn't I? I was a bit of a prick this morning."

"A bit?" She raised an eyebrow.

He cleared his throat. "It was kind of you to cook for the family. Thank you."

"It was my pleasure."

Tommy abruptly released her hand. "We'd best be off." Alex had to quicken her pace to keep up with him, but did not fail to note that each person they came across was careful to show Tommy some sign of respect. Men tipped their caps without fail, and women nodded. One buxom young blonde added a breathy, "Good morning, Mr. Shelby" and a wink as she passed.

"Who was that?" Alex asked.

"That would be Mabel. She's one of the whores that often comes round the Garrison."

"I see." Alex could not help but wonder how well he was acquainted with the prostitute. Tommy was the most powerful man in Small Heath, probably in all of Birmingham. He was not the most handsome man she had ever met, but he was attractive-and undeniably charismatic. He was not the sort of man who would need to pay for sex-unless he preferred to keep it that way.

Tommy took her elbow in his hand, interrupting her train of thought. "I had a sign put up—thought it might help your patients find you."

As they turned the corner, she stopped short. A black sign edged in red hung above the door of her office. In gilt lettering, it read

Alexandra Ross, M.D.

University of Edinburgh Medical School

Physician

Surgeon

Healer

"I made sure it spelled out your first name. You've no need to hide who you are, Alex. If people are too fucking ignorant to appreciate your expertise, that's their problem."

"Thank you," she said, her throat tightening. "That was very thoughtful-and is much appreciated."

He grinned. "Not bad for a prick, aye?"

"I think there's hope for you yet." Alex frowned as she saw a tall, burly man stop outside the door and light a cigarette. She instinctively moved closer to Tommy, and placed her hand on his arm.

"Tommy, who's that?"

"That's Bobby Crow. He's your head of security." As they approached, the man called out, "Mornin', Tommy. This the lady doc?"

"It is indeed. Alex, meet Bobby Arrington—better known as Bobby Crow."

Alex smiled and looked up at the man, who towered over Tommy by a good nine inches. "Hello, I'm Alex. Dare I ask the origin of your nickname?"

"No mystery there." Bobby grinned, revealing a missing front tooth. "Combat Recruit of War. I was the last man to join the regiment before we shipped out to France. They slapped the uniform in my hands and told me to get on the boat."

"We trained him up soon enough," Tommy said. "Best hand with grenades I've ever seen. Never missed a target."

"And you can count on me to make sure the doc, Esther, and Esme stay safe and sound, Tommy."

"Good man." Tommy scanned the street, eyes ever watchful. "All clear so far?"

Bobby nodded. "I searched the place top to bottom and walked the perimeter. Everything's secure."

"Then let's get ready for the first day of business." He reached for the door, and held it open for Alex. "Lady doctors first."

Alex's heart swelled when they walked into the waiting room. It was bright and airy, and the walls were painted soothing shades of cream and blue. "It's lovely," she breathed. Her eyes were burning with tears that threatened to spill over. "I'm very grateful."

Tommy shrugged. "It's nothing compared to what you did for Finn."

Bobby called down the hall, "First delivery for Dr. Alex!" A few moments later, he walked in with a long white box that bore the seal of Birmingham's largest florist.

Alex gasped, touched by his thoughtfulness. "Oh Tommy! You shouldn't have."

"I didn't," he muttered, a wary expression on his face. "Has it been vetted?" he asked Bobby.

"Inspected every inch of it—didn't open the card, but it's clean, boss."

Opening the box, Alex saw a bouquet of white, daisy-like flowers with finely textured petals. "They're beautiful!" she exclaimed. She looked up at Tommy, and saw the color had drained out of his face. He motioned for her to stop, and took a step back.

"Put them down."

"But they're—"

His jaw tensed. "Put them down, Alex. Now."

She put the box on a table. "You're scaring me. What's so dangerous about a bouquet of flowers?"

"Those are anemones. They're an ill omen, meant to represent death and bad luck. White ones are used at funerals in some cultures—including parts of Italy."

Alex felt goosebumps ripple down her arm, and she shivered. Bobby picked up the card from the box, and handed it to Tommy. He opened it, cleared his throat, then read,

"We have a prescription to die when Death is our physician."

Alex swallowed. "It's from Shakespeare. Othello."

Tommy's face was white with anger. "I don't give a fuck where it's from. This needs to end, and it needs to end now." He strode to the telephone, and picked it up. "Get me Camden Town, 7-1-8."

 

Chapter Text

 

Alfie Solomons was not pleased. It was five minutes past seven o’clock in the morning. and he already had a pounding headache and a missing shipment of rum.

“Let me get this straight--I sent 50 cases of rum to Birmingham—50 fuckin’ cases of the highest quality rum that’s ever been produced in this fine fuckin’ establishment—and they’ve just vanished off the fuckin’ earth?”

Ollie stood in front of him, sweat running down his neck. He shifted uneasily. “I wouldn’t exactly say vanished--we’ve just lost track of them.”

“Oh, is that all?” Alfie looked at him over his glasses, his voice escalating into a shout. “Well, last time I looked in the dictionary, it’s the same fuckin’ thing!”

Ollie winced. “There’s something else. Asher took Ophelia with him.”

Alfie’s temples were pounding, and he could practically feel his blood pressure skyrocketing. “You are not. Fuckin’. Serious. Since when did I give him permission to take that dog with him? Especially with her carryin’ Cyril’s puppies?”

“Alfie, you know how fond he is of her, and--”

“I’m fond of that little brunette with the great ass who’s workin’ up front in the bakery, but I don’t take her to fuckin’ Birmingham to deliver rum!” Alfie roared. The phone rang, and he picked it up immediately.

“Asher, if you know what’s fuckin’ good for you, you better be tellin’ me that my rum has been delivered and that my bitch has those babies safe in her belly.”

There was a moment of silence, and then he heard a strangled cough, followed by the familiar tones of Tommy Shelby’s Brummie accent. “It appears that congratulations are in order. Twins, I presume?” Alfie pinched the bridge of his nose, his mind racing. Had the Shelbys somehow gotten their hands on his rum?

“Fuckin’ hell! If I had a wife—a good, observant Jewish woman—would I call her a bitch? I’m talkin’ about a dog, Tommy! Now what do you want? I got some big fuckin’ problems here, yeah?”

“I’ve got some problems of my own, Alfie. A pest control problem, in fact--one I thought you might take an interest in.”

Alfie was instantly alert. He sat back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk, sliding easily into negotiation mode.

“Aww, I don’t know, mate. The bakery business is takin’ all my attention right now, and it’s a right nasty problem you got there, innit?”

“I believe that taking care of this problem would benefit us both. These pests--brown European rats to be exact--have a insidious way of getting in your business. They’ve even been known to destroy bakeries.”

Alfie stroked his beard, his mind already weighing the risks and benefits of siding with the Shelbys against a foe that he guessed was Darby Sabini.

“Tommy, did you know that there’s this temple in India, yeah, where there are 25,000 fuckin’ rats? And these rats, the people consider ‘em holy. In fact, if you eat food that the fuckin’ rats have nibbled on, it’s a big fuckin’ honor. People fight for that right, Tommy. And if one of those holy rats is killed, it has to be replaced with one made of solid silver. Can you imagine that? A solid silver for one fuckin’ dead rat. Now, how much silver do you think one dead Italian rat is worth, hmm?”

“I don’t know about silver, but maybe--oh, fifty casks of very good rum? And a very fine brindle Boxer who just so happens to be carrying some highly pedigreed pups?”

Alfie’s feet came off the desk and hit the floor. “So, you have ‘em?” he growled.

“No. But I know who does.” There was a pause, the Tommy said,“You were careless, Alfie...and Sabini’s men were ready.”

“Show a rat a finger, and he’ll want the whole fuckin’ hand,” Alfie muttered. “Alright, mate. Open season on vermin it is. I’ll be in Birmingham by nightfall.”

******

While Tommy made his phone call, Alex went into her small consultation room and shut the door. Closing her eyes, she leaned against the door for a moment, then went over to the desk. The surface was bare except for a pen and a brand new notebook. She ran her fingers over the smooth wood, wishing that she still had the framed photos that had been lost in the fire.

She walked over to the window, and parted the curtain to look at the street below. How had everything gone so horribly wrong? Two weeks ago, her biggest worry had been having adequate seating in her waiting room. Now she found herself wondering if she would live to see the end of the week.

She heard the door open, then close again softly. Turning, she saw Tommy.

“You alright?”

Alex paused for a moment, then said, “To be honest, not really. I’ve never had someone send me a letter basically telling me that they can’t wait to kill me.”

Tommy shook his head. “Don’t let them get inside your head.”

“Easier said than done.” She met his eyes. “ I just want my life back, Tommy.”

“You’ll get it back. I have a plan.”

“I don’t think I want to know the details--at least, not right now.”

“You don’t need to.” He put his cap on. “Some business has come up. If I can’t make it back to walk you home, I’ll send John or Arthur. Just focus on your work, and let me worry about the rest.”
Xxxxx

The day went by quicker than Alex ever thought it would. Within an hour of the clinic opening, all of her appointments for the day were filled. Esther was efficient and cheerful, and calm with even the fussiest of sick infants.

Esme, on the other hand, had been a bit more challenging. She had managed to get into a verbal altercation with one patient (“I told him to wipe his muddy shoes at the door. This isn’t a fucking stable.”), then had booked two patients for the same appointment (“What’s the problem? They both have sore throats, don’t they?”). Alex made a mental note to sit down with her receptionist and work on her people skills.

Arthur arrived promptly at five, and escorted Alex and Esme back to Watery Lane. Tommy did not return for dinner, so Alex took a tray up to Finn and kept him company while he ate. The boy was recovering more rapidly than she had anticipated. However, by the time he had finished his apple tart, he was yawning, and did not protest when she suggested he turn off the light.

She was reading in the sitting room when Tommy came home an hour later. She looked up to see him with a large boxer on a leash. The dog wagged her tail furiously, looking at Tommy with soft, adoring eyes. Then she dashed in a circle around him, winding the leash around his legs. Muttering under his breath, he extracted himself with not a small amount of effort.

“A new friend?” Alex asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

He sighed. “It’s a long story. The short version is that she belongs to a business associate of mine. He’ll be coming by to pick her up in a bit.” The dog sniffed at the carpet, then barked and pulled at the leash, straining to get into the kitchen. Tommy tightened his grip and backed up, jostling a small table in the process. A vase tumbled off and hit the floor, sending shards of bone china skittering across the floor. This unfortunately served only to increase the decibel level of the barking.

Tommy ran a hand through his hair. “This dog is going to drive me out of my fucking mind. I need a drink. Leave the fucking vase--I’ll clean it up before Pol gets back. Come on through to my office, and we’ll see if we can contain this beast until her owner gets here.”

“Here, let me.” Alex took the leash, following him through the doors that led into the center of Shelby Company Ltd. As they walked back to the office, she spoke to the dog in soft, soothing tones, stroking her head gently. The boxer quieted, and trotted along at her ankles obediently.

“It’s just in through here.” Tommy led her into a large, spacious room, and switched on a lamp. The highly polished mahogany desk shone in the soft light. Reaching for the crystal carafe of whisky that sat on a small table next to the desk, he poured a measure into two glasses, then handed her one.

Raising his glass, he said, “To a successful first day. May it be the first of many.”

Alex touched her glass to his, then took a sip. The whisky warmed her throat, and she sat down in one of the leather chairs across from Tommy’s desk. The dog curled up at her feet.

“You seem to have the right touch,” he said, leaning back in his chair and nodding at the dog. “Did it go as well at the clinic?”

“It did--for the most part. Esme is--a challenge, shall I say?”

Tommy chuckled. “I think John would say that doesn’t even begin to describe her.”

“How in the world did he ever end up with her?”

“It was an arranged marriage.”

Alex gave him an incredulous look. “Arranged? By who? And why would anyone do such a thing in this day and age?”

“The marriage was arranged by myself--for the Shelbys--and Johnny Dogs, representing the Lee clan. There had been bad blood between our two families for some time, and there were two possible outcomes--a bloodbath, or a peace brokered by a marriage.”

“And John was fine with this?”

Tommy shrugged. “We didn’t give him a choice---brought him to where the Lee caravans were set up, and told him he was there to get married.”

Alex laughed. “I would have liked to have seen that.”

“It was quite a party.”

At that moment, a loud knock was heard at the door.

“That must be your colleague.” Alex stood up. “I’ll leave you to it. Thank you for the drink.” She gave the dog a last pat, then left.

“Good night, Alex.” As he went to the door, the dog got up, and silently followed Alex out of the room.

Opening the door, Tommy greeted Solomons. “Good evening, Alfie.”

“Might be. The jury’s still out, yeah?” Alfie Solomons limped into the office, leaning heavily on his walking stick. The gangster was not in the best of moods. The drive from Camden Town had come at the end of a long day, and a back spasm had tormented him during the last thirty minutes of the drive. “I hope you got some good news for me, Tommy.”

“I do. Your rum is safe and sound in one of my warehouses, and your driver is on his way back to London.”

“What about the dog?” growled Alfie.

“She’s right over here.” Tommy turned. “Well, she was here just a minute ago.”

“Fuckin’ hell! You lost her in your own fuckin’ house?”

A bark was heard, followed by a woman’s laugh.

Alfie narrowed his eyes. “Who’s that? I asked you to keep this private like, didn’t I? I don’t need some fuckin’ woman flappin’ her trap about how I been up in Birmingham, cosyin’ up to the Shelbys.”

At that moment, Alex walked back into the room, Ophelia at her heels. “I knew you wouldn’t--” Seeing Alfie, she stopped, and cocked her head to the side. A smile spread across her face.

“Captain Alfred Solomons, is that you?”

The bearded gangster stared at her, his fierce expression instantly softening.

“Shalom, Alex.”


 

 

Chapter Text

 

He gave her an warm hug, his beard tickling her cheek when he leaned down to her ear. “Love, you’re a sight for sore eyes, but what the fuck are you doin’ with a disreputable character like Tommy Shelby?”

Alex looked up at him with a wry smile. “I might ask the same thing of you.” She straightened his collar with an affectionate tug, then patted his chest and stepped back.

“So you two know each other.” Tommy’s tone was casual, but Alex saw that his eyes had narrowed. Without waiting for an answer, he poured himself another drink, and took a swallow.

“Fuck, yeah,” said Alfie, his eyes twinkling. “Ask Alex about the time she had my balls in one hand and a knife in the other.”

Tommy spluttered, and began to cough.

“Tommy, you need to stop drinkin’ that cheap Irish shit,” Alfie said jovially, giving him a few slaps on the back. “There you go, get that shit outta your lungs. That stuff’ll fuckin’ kill you.”

Alex crossed her arms, giving her old friend a stern look. “Alfie neglected to mention that the intimate scene he just described happened in an operating room.”

Alfie shrugged, giving Tommy a sly glance. “What can I say? You gotta watch out for this one, Tommy--she’s a bit of dominatrix. Had me all tied up.”

“As I recall, you had just tried to slug the nurse that was helping me prepare you for surgery.”

“And I had good reason to! Maud Mackenzie was a fuckin’ sadist. No matter how many times I told her to get her fuckin’ hands off me, the old crone just kept jerkin’ my bad leg.”

Tommy sat down at his desk and leaned back in his chair, fixing his gaze on Alex. “You were in France.”

“Yes.” Alex raised her chin. “And Belgium. 18 months with the Scottish Women’s Hospital.”

Tommy gave her a slight nod. “You did good work.”

“I think so. But did I ever get a commission from the British Army? Or any recognition from my country? No. But I risked my life, the same as you and Alfie did.”

“And I for damn sure wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” said Alfie. “The fuckin’ Royal Army surgeon told the corpsmen that I was dyin’... said there was no point in wastin’ time and effort tryin’ to save me.” He looked at Alex. “That’s when Jonny showed up. He loaded me into an ambulance, and took me straight to you.”

Hearing Jonathan’s name spoken took the breath out of her lungs for an instant. She swallowed, and said, “He really was the one who saved your life, Alfie.”

“Well, I didn’t have much use for devil dodgers, especially the ones who wanted to convert me every fuckin’ time I turned around. But Jonny—he was a mate, yeah?”

Alex saw the question in his eyes, and she shook her head, her throat tightening.

“Where?” he asked softly.

“Passchendaele. A week after you were sent home.” The pain washed over her all over again. She averted her gaze, unable to stand the sympathy in Alfie’s eyes.

“I’m sorry, Alex.”

There was an awkward silence. Tommy cleared his throat. “I think I speak for Alex when I say that we’re glad to have your help, Alfie. The pest control issue directly relates to her. Sabini’s men have put a fucking price on her head.”

“Fuckin’ hell.” Alfie ran a hand over his face. “Right, you two need to fill me in on how sweet Dr. Alex ended up gettin’ the attention of Darby Sabini.”

Fifteen minutes later, Alfie shifted in his chair, and stretched out his legs. Ophelia nuzzled his hand, then relaxed as he stroked her soft fur. “Alright, first things first. We need to get close the clinic for now, and get her out of Birmingham. Let this shit die down. London would be the perfect---”

“Fuck that.” Tommy gave him a cold stare. “Alex is my responsibility, and she’s not going anywhere.”

Tired of their paternalistic tone, Alex stood up. “ “She’ is sitting in this room, and does not appreciate being treated as if she were a child.”

“Listen, sweetie,” said Alfie, his tone coaxing. “You have----”

She shot him a dark look. “Do not talk down to me, Alfie Solomons.” She saw Tommy’s mouth twitch, and pointed an accusing finger at him. “The same goes for you, Tommy Shelby. I have made a commitment to the people of Small Heath to provide good medical care at an affordable price, and I intend to honor that commitment. Besides, I want to be busy--I need--” her voice wavered for an instant, and she crossed her arms, hugging herself. “I need to be busy, because when I’m not--it’s just--difficult.” She bit her lip, and turned her attention to Ophelia, bending down to pet her.

Tommy and Alfie exchanged a look. Alfie shook his head slightly, then heaved himself out of his chair, wincing as his leg stiffened.

“Yeah, I’d best be gettin’ back to Camden Town. Cyril gets antsy when Ophelia ain’t sleepin’ next to him...stays awake all night barkin’ his fuckin’ head off. I’ll check into a few things on my end, and be in touch in a day or two.”

Tommy cleared his throat. “I appreciate it, Alfie.”

Taking up the dog’s leash, Alfie turned to Tommy. “Tommy, a word of advice, if I may. As you know, my people have been persecuted by one fucker or another throughout history. The Russians--they were some of the worst. And when it got real bad, my parents wised up and got the fuck out. But they had some sort of twisted nostalgia for the old country, and had this habit of pullin’ out some of the old Russian proverbs to make a point. There’s one I have in mind right now.

Byez kota mweesham razdolye.

Which quite simply means--when there is no fuckin’ cat, the mice--and the rats---they go fuckin’ wild.” He took a step closer, his face now inches away from Tommy’s. “Bottom line is, when you’re a proper cat--when you stalk those little vermin day and night and don’t give ‘em a moment’s peace--the fuckin’ rats stay in their little fuckin’ holes. Think about that, Tommy. Now, I’d like a word with Alex before I leave—in private.”

Tommy’s eyes strayed to her, and he shrugged. “Fine by me—if it’s okay with Alex.”

“I’ll just be a few minutes,” said Alex, giving him a reassuring smile. She went to the carafe and poured herself a generous whisky.

When the door closed, Alfie leaned against the desk. “Have a seat, love.”

She sat down, and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, giving him a rueful look. “This is all very surreal. I came to Birmingham to start afresh--start a new life, as it were--but in two weeks I’ve provoked death threats from one organized crime syndicate, and come under the protection of another. And now, I find out that an old friend is the kingpin of yet another gang.”

“Yeah, well looks like you run in some fuckin’ exclusive circles, sweetie.” He stroked his beard, and gave her an appraising look. “You’re not eatin’, are you?”

Alex stiffened, “I am. Just had dinner, in fact, and—“

“Don’t pull that defensive shit with me, love. Even in the middle of a war, you didn’t look like you do now--all skin and bones, those big hazel eyes makin’ you look like some waif off the streets.”

“You sure know how to make a girl feel special,” she said lightly.

He raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? And how does Tommy Shelby make you feel?”

She flushed. “Grateful. Because without his protection, I’d be dead in a gutter somewhere.”

“Hmm. You sure that’s all?”

“You think I’ve forgotten Jonathan already?” she asked, her voice breaking. “Let me tell you something, Alfie--there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think him...and I haven’t known a decent night’s sleep since I had to listen to him cry out in agony as he lay dying in the middle of no man’s land for 9 hours—9 hours, Alfie! And not one man was allowed to go out to rescue him. Too dangerous… too far… too muddy. That bastard Captain Mansfield had every excuse under the sun for why no one could go after him. But I suspect It was because Jonathan knew why the Captain had sent two men to their deaths that day—the very men Jonathan had been trying to pull to safety when he was shot.”

“Fuckin’ hell.” Alfie took off his hat and wiped his brow. “There’s no doubt the war fucked us all up in some way, but there are no words for that.”

“I shouldn’t have even been there, but I’d come through the trenches to get to a man with a bad chest wound...and then the men told me Jonathan was wounded, and trapped in no man’s land. I tried to go to him, Alfie.” Despite her best efforts, her composure started to unravel. “I almost made it over the top....but then Mansfield forced them to restrain me.” She was sobbing now, and Alfie took her in his arms. “The Royal Army surgeon shot me up with something, and I could hear Jonny hallucinating and calling for me, but I couldn’t move. All I wanted to do was to get to him...it was hell, Alfie, absolute hell.”

”Shh,” he whispered, rocking her gently. “You got dealt a fuckin’ horrible set of cards, love. But I swear that no one is ever gonna hurt you again..and that includes Tommy Shelby. He’s a good friend, understand...but he’s got problems, Alex. You need to promise me you’ll be careful, even if you think you’ll never love again. Look at my sister Leah--her husband was killed at Verdun, and she swore she’d wear black until her dyin’ day..but now she’s seven months pregnant by her second husband.”

He drew back, and brushed a tear from her face with the pad of his thumb. “I don’t know what they taught you about the heart in medical school sweetie, but it’s a fuckin’ treacherous organ. It heals on its own fuckin’ timeline, whether we’re ready or not.”

A few minutes later, Alfie took his leave. Alex could hear him speaking with Tommy in the hall. Their voices were hushed, with only an occasional sharp word rising above the quiet hum. She filled her glass full to the brim with whisky, downed it, then repeated the process. Ten minutes went by, then twenty. Growing impatient, she decided to go upstairs to bed. She stood up, and immediately became dizzy. Grabbing on to the edge of the desk, Alex steadied herself for a few seconds. Then she took in a deep breath, turned, and promptly ran into something solid. She stumbled, and a strong pair of arms reached out and caught her. An instant later, she found herself pressed against Tommy Shelby’s broad chest.

“You’re in no condition to be walking,” he murmured, his breath stirring the small curls at the nape of her neck.

“I can walk just fine,” she said, struggling to keep her speech from slurring. Pushing him away, she staggered, and would have fallen if he hadn’t scooped her into his arms.

“You’re drunk, Alex,” he said, shifting her so that her head was cradled against his chest. Carrying her out of the office, he headed up the stairs.

“I don’t think so. I know when I’m drunk, and you know when you’re drunk, but you don’t know when I’m drunk. Thus, by deductive reasoning, I am not drunk...well, at least I’m fairly sure I’m not.” They reached her bedroom and he leaned over to switch on a lamp. She clung to him, hanging on for dear life as the room began to spin. “But if I am drunk, I have a damn good reason to be. I loved a good, brave man, Tommy, and he died like a dog in that fucking war...and there was nothing I could do to help him.”

“Those memories are hard to bear, aye?” he murmured. She closed her eyes, feeling the steady beat of his heart against her ribs.

“They're not so bad during the day, but at night--”

Tommy laid her down on the bed, and Alex felt fatigue beginning to overwhelm her.

“You lie awake for hours,” he said softly, tucking a blanket around her. “And when you do finally fall asleep, you’re back there--knee deep in the fuckin’ mud, with men dying all around you.”

His face was a blur now. She reached for his arm and missed, then tried again, finally succeeding in seizing his shirt. “You understand,” she said, her voice slurring again.

“All too well.” He gazed down at her, his clear blue eyes providing a stark contrast to the dark circles below them.

“Will you--” she hesitated, then said, “Will you stay with me? Just until I fall asleep?”

Tommy nodded, and closed his hand over hers. “I can do that.” As she began to relax, he gently detached her fingers from his shirt, but did not let go of her hand.

“You drank your fair share of whisky tonight,” he murmured, his thumb tracing small circles across her palm. “Are you sure you are going to be able to work tomorrow? Given the chance, I think you might be able to drink Esme under the table.”

“If I do that, can we just leave Esme under the table?” Alex murmured. “‘Because I will lose my mind if I have to deal with her every day.”

He laughed quietly. “Maybe you need to give it right back to her.”

“No, because you said I needed to be a good role model. So that’s what I’m doing. Look how responsible I am. I’ll set my alarm--” she reached for the alarm clock and fiddled with the settings, then went to place it back on the nightstand. She missed by several inches, and only Tommy’s quick reflexes saved the clock from hitting the floor. He glanced at the face, then gave her a look of amusement.

“I can see. Very responsible, you are. When you get up at 6 pm, you’ll be well rested and ready to start your clinic.”

“A small mistake.” Her eyelids were very heavy now, and she stifled a yawn. “I trust you to make it right.”

As she drifted off to sleep, Tommy sat by the bed. Once he was sure Alex was sleeping soundly, he made his way back to the office. Sitting down at the desk, he slid open the drawer and took out the water-stained photograph. After a moment of deliberation, he went back up the stairs, and carefully leaned the photo against the alarm clock. Then he headed back down to the sitting room, put on his cap and coat, and stepped out into the cold night air.

 

Chapter Text

 

As Alex finished dressing, the pale morning light filtered through the curtains. She glanced at the clock, then sat down on the bed and reached for the photograph one more time. Her finger traced Jonathan's strong jaw, then followed the slope of his neck down to his broad shoulders.

"I miss you," she whispered. Closing her eyes, she recalled the first time he'd kissed her, allowing her mind to drift back to a happier time.

The sound of running feet in the hall accompanied by squeals of laughter brought her back to the present with a start. She carefully placed the photo in the nightstand drawer, then stepped out into the corridor.

"Hi Alex!" John Jr. darted around her, carrying Elliott under his arm. The puppy had one of Polly's silk scarves wrapped around his furry head, and was wriggling with excitement. A giggling Alice followed close behind, carrying three large sticky buns wrapped in a napkin. They disappeared down the stairs just as John came down the hall.

"Mornin', Alex. You wouldn't have happened to have-"

"Seen John Jr. and Alice?" she smiled. "They went that way."

He sighed. "Once you're outnumbered, it's all over." He started off down the hall, but Alex touched his sleeve. "John, have you seen Tommy this morning?"

"He's long gone-went to check on the new horse he's going to bring along to the Lees tomorrow."

"What's happening tomorrow?"

"You don't know? Tommy said you'd be coming along, but maybe he hasn't mentioned it yet. Esme's sister is getting married, and the Lees are throwing a big party at their camp to celebrate."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "And the horse?"

"They'll be races-and betting."

"Sounds like it'll be quite the occasion. If the invitation is open, I'd love to come."

"Good. It's all settled then." He gave her a bright smile.

"One more thing-do you know anything about a photograph that I found in my room this morning? It was of someone who was very dear to me, and I thought it had been lost in the fire."

John shifted his cap from one hand to the other. "The one of the soldier?"

"That's the one."

He cleared his throat. "Actually, I found it. Tommy asked me to search the ruins to see if there was anything salvageable. It was about the only thing I found."

"So you put it there." Alex felt a rush of gratitude.

"Erm, actually, I gave it to Tommy. He must have put it there."

Alex gave him a puzzled look. "But why didn't you just give it to me?"

"You weren't around, and I didn't want to just leave it lying about. It looked—personal."

She realized he must have read the inscription, and felt her face flushing. "That was very considerate of you. Thank you."

"It was nothing," he muttered, twisting his cap in his hand. "When you're ready to leave, I'll be downstairs. I'm to walk you and Esme to work."

The clinic opened at 7:30, and a steady stream of patients left Alex with no time to think about Tommy. By the time she arrived home with John, it seemed as if the day had flown by. Tommy did not show up for dinner, and she spent a pleasant evening playing checkers with Finn. The boy was getting around the house now, and was already chafing against the strict instructions he had to keep his arm in a sling for another week.

After Finn had gone to bed, Alex sat down in her room to read one of her medical journals, but soon found her attention wandering. It seemed strange to have gone the entire day without seeing Tommy. She recalled how patient he had been with her last night. Not only had he carried her upstairs, but he had sat by the bed and held her hand. She cringed as she remembered how she had begged him to stay with her until she fell asleep. Alex is my responsibility, he had told Alfie. Perhaps he was finding her to be too much of a burden.

She stood up and paced the floor, worrying that he had found her drunken neediness off-putting. It was had been a rare display of vulnerability, and she sorely regretted it. After a few minutes, she decided that the best thing to do would be to address the issue head on by speaking to Tommy. By now, he would have surely returned to the house.

Making her way downstairs, Alex went through the double doors that led to Shelby Company Limited. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness in the outer rooms, she saw a light on in Tommy's office. She was nearly to the doorway when her courage failed her. The idea of having to look into those cool blue eyes and apologize for her behavior the night before was almost more than she could bear.

Then she caught a glimpse of him sitting at his desk in his shirt sleeves, and her heart filled with compassion. His head was in his hands, and his shoulders were heavy with fatigue. A still glowing cigarette sat in the ashtray next to him, a thin ribbon of smoke curling up into the air. He scrubbed his face with his hands, then reached for the half full glass that sat next to him.

"Burning the midnight oil?" she asked, taking a step inside the room.

He looked up, and she saw that he looked exhausted. Despite the dark smudges under his eyes, he gestured for her to come in, and summoned up a pleasant expression. "Alex. How was your second day? Did Esme behave herself?"

"Other than telling me I'm destined to fail in a month if I don't start charging higher fees for urgent visits, she was fairly well behaved."

A weary smile tugged at his lips, but vanished as he grimaced.

"What's wrong?"

"Worst fucking headache I've had in months," he murmured. Closing his eyes, he leaned back in his chair.

She came over to the desk, concerned by the pain on his face. "What does it feel like?"

He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Like my head's going to fucking explode."

"Fair enough. That wasn't a good question. Is it pulsating, or dull? Just on one side of the head, both?"

"It feels like someone's tightening a vise around my entire head." He blinked, then reached for his cigarettes.

She stayed his hand with hers, giving it a gentle squeeze. "That's probably not the best idea right now. You probably have a tension headache, and a cigarette at this point will only make it worse."

Tommy made an impatient gesture. "I've got to do something. Look at all this." He waved a hand at the stack of papers on his desk. "You think Arthur or John is going to take care of it?"

She placed a hand on his shoulder. "Maybe there's something I can do to help. There's a new technique for treating this type of headache that I heard about at a conference some months back. I've tried it on several patients, and so far it's been successful. Are you willing to let me try?"

"I'll try just about anything right now."

She glanced at the leather couch on the opposite wall. "It would best for you to be lying down."

Walking over to the couch, he obediently laid down, folding his hands across his chest. "I place myself in your capable hands. But before you get started, what exactly does this involve?"

"Well, the first step involves using massage to find your trigger points."

Tommy raised an eyebrow, a spark of amusement flickering in his eyes. "I'm fairly sure I know where those are already."

She blushed, and added hastily, "On your head and neck. In order to alleviate your headache." Surveying the couch, she hesitated, then said, "When I've done this before, the patient was on an exam table where I could stand behind them. It might be best if you put your head in my lap."

He sat up, wincing as his hand went to his temple. She eased him, cradling his head in her lap. "Now close your eyes, and clear your mind."

He frowned, squinting up at her irritably. "Is this some kind of mumbo-jumbo? Because I've already gotten my fill of that today from Pol. I could feel a headache brewing this morning when she insisted on smashing a glass in the kitchen...said it'd break the streak of bad luck we've been having, but that was obviously a fucking failure. All it did was make my head start pounding."

She laughed softly. "I promise that you are not a guinea pig. This is a proven medical technique. Now close your eyes and relax." He shifted restlessly, finally stilling when she placed her hands on his eyelids.

After a few moments, he let out a sigh. "Your fingers are so cool. That feels fucking amazing."

Alex slowly slid her hands down his face, her fingertips skimming over the rough stubble. Then she turned her attention to his temples, tracing small circles with her fingers. No matter how hard she tried to keep her mind from wandering from the task at hand, she found that her gaze kept straying to his perfectly chiseled features. In the end, she had to close her own eyes in order to focus. After a few minutes, his body relaxed under her hands, and she felt the tension beginning to drain away.

'Think of a place where you feel completely at peace."

He gave a bitter laugh. "I doubt such a place exists."

"Then create it in your mind. Where are you?"

He shrugged, his shoulders pushing against her. "I suppose riding a horse-maybe on the beach." He was silent for a moment, then said quietly, "There's a beach in Wales at Barafundle Bay-I went there one time when I was just a lad. We were down in Hereford for my great-uncle's funeral. There was a big Romani to-do afterwards to celebrate his life, and my dad got rip-roaring drunk. He somehow got it into his head that his kids were going to see the finest beach in Wales. John, Arthur, Ada, and I were fast asleep round the campfire with our cousins, but he woke us up at midnight and loaded us into the caravan. My mum tried to talk him out of it, but he silenced her with a split lip, and off we went. In the end, we only spent a couple hours at the beach-my dad wasn't one for family time, even when he was sober-but it was the most fucking beautiful place I've ever seen."

"Barafundle Bay it is," she murmured, her throat tightening at the thought of a small Tommy living with a brutal, alcoholic father. "Is it sunny? Or overcast?"

"It's a fine day, with blue sky. There's a long stretch of golden sand in front of me, and the water is all silvery, with the waves sparkling like diamonds."

"That sounds lovely. Is it just you and the horse, or is someone with you?"

He shifted restlessly, settling down only when she placed her hands back on his eyes. "I'm alone. Despite Pol and her tea leaves, I don't see my destiny involving a tidy little house with a wife and two children."

"I wouldn't be so sure."

"And why is that?"

"Because despite having a fearsome reputation as the head of the Peaky Blinders, family is everything to you-and you can be very kind. You have no idea how much it meant to me to wake up this morning and see that picture of Jonathan. And you did that despite my inebriated, clingy state last night-for which I apologize."

He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Everyone has a rough time now and then, and there's no doubt that those of us who were in France have them all too often. I still have nightmares, and I didn't lose someone I loved. So you have nothing to apologize for."

Her fingers moved to the back of his skull, lingering for just an instant at the point where his hair transitioned to barely an eighth of an inch. She began to knead the tense muscles at the base of his neck, her eyes straying to his mouth as he sighed once again.

"That feels fucking amazing. Whatever you're doing, don't stop."

She laughed. "If someone were to overhear this conversation, they would think that something very inappropriate was going on."

"Ah, but they'd know that you would never take advantage of a vulnerable person."

"Especially not one as good with weapons as you are."

His mouth curved into the slightest of smiles, and she felt a surge of satisfaction, sure that the headache was beginning to recede.

A few moments later, the muscular knot under her fingers suddenly dissolved, and he groaned. "That's it. God, you're a fucking miracle worker, Alex."

"We're not done yet. We've got to make sure all the tension is gone from your body, or the headache will come back. Sit up, and let me work on your shoulders."

He sat up, and she got on her knees behind him, resting her hands lightly on his shoulders before sliding them down his upper back. "Relax your shoulder blades."

"Has anyone ever told you that you're a bit bossy?" he inquired dryly.

Alex put her hands on her hips. "You're feeling better, aren't you?"

"There's no arguing that. Order away, doctor. I'm at your disposal."

She worked on his shoulders for a good ten minutes. At the end of that time, the muscles in his shoulders and upper back had loosened. He leaned back against her, and reached for her hand. "I can't believe it. The headache is completely gone. Usually when I get one of the bad ones, I'm fucking miserable for days."

"You just needed the right treatment." She squeezed his hand, then patted his shoulder. "No whisky or cigarettes for the next twelve hours."

He heaved a sigh, and turned to look at her. "Yes, ma'am."

She noticed that the dark smudges under his eyes were already less prominent, and gave him an approving smile. "You look much better."

"I feel much better. Now it's your turn."

She laughed. His mouth set in a stubborn line, and took her face in his hands. "Don't laugh. Despite the show you put on for the outside world, I know you're still hurting. You need to give yourself time to heal, Alex."

"I'm fine, Tommy, really."

He shook his head, his thumbs caressing her cheeks. "Don't tell me you're fine. That's what I told people when I came back, and it was a fucking lie."

His words hit a nerve, and she swallowed. "If I admit I'm broken, I may never heal," she whispered. "It's just easier to soldier on and try to forget."

"Not a good idea," he murmured.

"Why not? It's what you do."

His eyes held hers for a long moment. "Maybe because I haven't found anyone or anything that's worth the risk of letting the whole fucking nightmare resurface."

"I wish you would. You deserve to be happy, Tommy."

"And you don't?"

"I don't know." Confused by her conflicting emotions, she tried to turn away, but he drew her closer, touching his forehead to hers. He smelled like a heady blend of whisky, leather, and smoke, and her heart began to pound in her chest.

"If you want me to confront my demons, you're damn well going to walk the path with me."

His mouth was a breath away now, and she fought the sudden urge to close the gap. "Why can't you let well enough alone, Tommy?"

"I think you know the answer to that." His lips brushed against hers once, then twice. Then his mouth drifted to her cheek, his breath warming her skin and sending a shiver down her spine. The sensation was intoxicating, and she suddenly could not help herself. Her mouth sought his, tentatively skimming across his lower lip. He placed one hand at the curve of her waist, the gentle pressure of his fingers coaxing her into deepening the kiss. Alex felt her head begin to spin, and she was barely able to stifle the moan that threatened to rise to her throat.

A crash came from the outside office, and they both jumped. Arthur's voice boomed out. "TOMMY! Why is there a fuckin' desk right in the middle of the room?"

Tommy sighed heavily, burying his head against Alex's shoulder. "Go to bed, Arthur," he called out. She bit back a laugh as she gently massaged his neck with one hand, anxious to keep the stress from returning to his muscles.

"Fuck that!" Arthur shouted. Something heavy fell to the floor, a bit closer to Tommy's office this time. "Do you know why, Tommy?"

"No, Arthur," Tommy answered tonelessly.

"Because-" Arthur's voice slurred before it rose to a triumphant roar. "Because you may have fucked Mabel Wright senseless half a dozen times in the last month, but I just showed her who's the real man in the Shelby family!"

 

Chapter Text

Alex felt her heart drop at the same instant that Tommy’s body stiffened against her. She pulled away from him just as Arthur staggered into the room, stopping short when he saw the two of them sitting on the couch. “Oh--sorry, Alex,” he muttered. “I didn’t know you were in here.”

She stood up hastily. “That’s okay. I was just leaving.”

“Alex, wait--” Tommy tried to catch her eye, but she averted her gaze.

“It’s fine, Tommy.” She winced at the unnaturally high pitch of her voice. “I’ll leave you and Arthur to it.” Before he could say anything, she left.

Tommy gave Arthur a cold stare. “You have some timing, brother.”

Arthur stumbled over to the desk. He sat down heavily, and gave Tommy a defensive look. “How the fuck was I to know you had Alex in your office at this hour? What were you two doing, anyway?”

Tommy’s jaw tensed as he stood up. “That is none of your fucking business.”

Arthur fumbled around in his coat, then pulled out a flask and took a swig. “Hitting a nerve there, Tom? John told me you had your eye on Alex, but I didn’t think you’d be making a move this soon. Good thing I walked in before you had her flat on her back and---”

Before he had a chance to finish, Tommy seized the lapels of his brother’s coat, hauling him to his feet. “Shut your fucking mouth right now--before you say something that you’ll regret. Do you understand?”

Arthur eyed him for a moment, then slowly nodded.

Holding back his temper with difficulty, Tommy released him. “Then get the fuck out of here--and sober up before you come near me again.”

As his brother’s footsteps receded, Tommy sat down at the desk and leaned back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling. He had never spoken of the journey to Barafundle to anyone--not even his siblings. Yet somehow, Alex had gotten him to open up about an incident that had been profoundly disturbing to him as a child.

You deserve to be happy, Tommy.

His eyes flicked to his cigarettes.

No cigarettes for the next twelve hours.

“Fuck it,” he muttered, and lit one, almost hoping that the pain would return. It would be a welcome distraction from the train wreck that was his life.


Xxxx


A half a dozen times in the last month...

That would be Mabel. She’s one of the whores that often comes round the Garrison.

You’ve fucked Mabel Wright senseless….

Alex tossed and turned for most of the night, finally falling into a deep sleep around 4:30 in the morning. When she awoke four hours later, she sat bolt upright in bed and groaned. She had promised Finn that she would bake him some scones for breakfast, but it was too late now.

“It’s your fault, Tommy Shelby,” she said under her breath, pulling on her stockings, then reaching for her dress.

Ten minutes later, she walked into the kitchen.

“Morning, Alex.”

Startled, she gasped, then immediately felt foolish. She turned around to see Tommy sitting calmly at the table, newspaper in hand.

“Tommy, you nearly scared the life out of me!”

He folded the paper, then laid it on the table. “I apologize--I didn’t mean frighten you. I just wanted to have a quiet word.”
“Where is everyone else?” she asked, her eyes scanning the room for something--anything--to occupy her hands. She saw several teacups on the counter, and took them over to the sink.

"They’ve already gone to the Lees.” Tommy stood up, and leaned against the wall. “It’s just you and me.”

Turning around, she began to wash the delicate porcelain. “Then we should get ready, shouldn’t we? Won’t they be waiting for us?”

"There’s plenty of time. The wedding’s not until three, and it’s only a thirty minute drive.” He was silent for a moment, then said, “About last night. You should know that a drunk Arthur is hardly the most reliable source of information.”

Sliding her fingers over the scalloped edge of a saucer, she said, “Tommy, you don’t have to explain anything. Your personal life is just that--personal.”

“Nevertheless, what you heard bothered you.”

His voice was closer now, and she began to feel her heart rate pick up. “Arthur just startled me.”

“Alex, put the teacup down and look at me.”

She dried her hands and turned to face him. The kitchen window was open, and the distant metallic clang of a church bell could be heard in the distance.

“I was a sapper in the war,” he said slowly, his blue eyes now distant. “To be sure, no one who fought in France had an easy time of it, but spending days and nights underground was like traveling through the nine circles of hell. You crawl on your belly through the mud in these fucking narrow spaces, hoping that the whole fucking thing doesn't come down on your head and bury you alive. And when you start to hear the shovels of the Germans only inches away--” he swallowed, and shook his head. “It's like the sand in the hourglass of your life is just about ready to run out.”

He averted his gaze then, fixing his eyes on something outside the window for a long moment. When he turned to her again, she saw that the color had drained out of his face. “At night, when I lay down and close my eyes, I can hear those shovels on the other side of the wall. Sometimes whisky calms my nerves enough that I can doze off for a couple of hours. Other nights, I crave another kind of release. Have I ever fucked Mabel? Yes. Has it been a half a dozen times in the past month? I can’t really tell you. I don’t keep track, and I doubt she does either. We grew up together, and she knows what I like. I give her money for the rent, and she gives me what I need.”

Alex gave him a searching look. “Are you sure about that?”

He shrugged. “It feels damn good, and it gives me some relief for the rest of the night. What more could I want?”

She said quietly, “I’m not judging you, Tommy. I just think you may be fooling yourself. When I was in France, I didn’t put my life on the line doing the awful work that you did, but I saw some harrowing things--things I wasn’t prepared for, because you can’t possibly know what it will be like to see eighteen year old soldiers with their bodies covered with mustard-coloured blisters, crying because their eyelids have melted together. Boys barely old enough to shave, gasping for breath as the after effects of the gas slowly choke them to death.” She could feel the memories starting to overwhelm her, and she dug her nails into her palm. “Since I’ve been home, I’ve worked 12-18 hour days, thinking that if I save enough lives, I’ll find some relief. But I don’t. It just buries the pain in the shallowest of graves, ready to resurface at the first moment I sit still.”

A cool gust of wind blew in through the window, and the curtains fluttered in the breeze. Tommy reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

“I’m the first man you’ve kissed since he died.” He spoke as though he already knew it to be a fact.

She swallowed, and nodded.

His fingers slid down to cup her face in his hand. “I told you it’s not in my nature to be gentle—but I promise not to break you.”

An instant later, the shrill ring of a telephone cut through the air. He dropped his hand, then cleared his throat. “I’d best go see who that is.”

When he left the room, Alex felt the chill of the morning air for the first time. She closed the window, then decided to make some tea. She had just filled the kettle when Tommy strode back into the kitchen. “We’ve got to go over to my Uncle Charlie’s yard. Curly’s thrown out his back, and Charlie’s already left for the wedding. We’ve got to load up the new horse in the van and take him up to the Lees.”

"I don’t mind waiting here.”

He shook his head. “Out of the question. Odds are you’d be safe here in Small Heath, but I’m not about to bet your life on it. Besides, you can give me a hand, but you’ll need some clothes appropriate for a stable. Ada’s got some jodhpurs and a pair of wellies. Go upstairs and look in her closet--she won’t mind. There’s also a box on her that’s for you. Ada said you didn’t have a suitable dress or shoes for the wedding, so I took the liberty of having her shop for you. Bring the box along, because we’ll have to dress at Charlie's and head off from there.”

Ten minutes later, Alex surveyed herself in the mirror. Paired with a simple tan jumper, the dark brown jodhpurs and boots almost looked stylish. Grabbing the box, she hurried downstairs. Tommy was waiting by the door. As he ushered her outside, he gave her an approving nod. “That’ll do.”

When they arrived at Charlie’s yard and went into the stable, her stomach began to churn. Tommy went directly to the third stall, passing by two white horses that snorted and tossed their heads as he walked by. Opening the door of the last stall, he spoke softly to the magnificent chestnut. As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Alex hung back, fiddling with the silver ring on her finger.

Tommy glanced at her. “Something wrong?”

"I’m a bit nervous around horses. When I was six, I saw my twelve year old cousin get thrown from a horse. He broke both of his legs, but luckily made a full recovery. Ever since then, I’ve just never been able to feel easy around horses.”
“So you’ve never ridden?”

She shuddered. “God, no.”

He bent over, and picked up a coil of rope. “Good. Then you won’t have any bad habits from the get-go.”

"You’re not seriously suggesting that I get on a horse?” she asked, feeling her palms starting to sweat.

“If I’m going to teach you to ride, that would be the first step,” he said dryly. “But first you can get a feel for it by riding with me for a bit. The horse needs to stretch his legs before we load him into the van.”

She shook her head. “I’m sorry Tommy, but I’m not ready to risk life and limb by doing that.”

He walked over to her, a spark of amusement in his eyes. “So you trust me enough to protect you from Sabini’s gang of killers, but not enough to get on a horse with me?”

“I know it’s completely illogical, but--yes.”

She saw his mouth quirk into a smile as he went back to the stall. “I’ll have you riding within the month,” he called out over his shoulder.

“You underestimate my will, Mr. Shelby,” she responded lightly.

“Not at all. In fact, I enjoy a challenge--and I don’t give up easily.” He opened the stall, and went in to the horse. Alex watched as he stroked the animal’s head, speaking softly in a foreign language. The horse nuzzled him, then eagerly accepted the apple that Tommy offered.

“Are you speaking Romani?” she asked, drawing closer, but still giving the horse a wide berth.

“Aye. The horses like it. It seems to settle them in a way that English doesn’t.” He gave her a sly glance. “Perhaps I should try it on you. It might calm your nerves enough to ease your fear of horses.”

She lifted her chin. “I think the chance of that happening is slim to none.”

As he led the horse out of the stall, she stepped back, surprised by how docile and obedient the animal seemed to be.
“He seems so calm. Is he like that with everyone?”

“No,” he said bluntly. “But most people don’t understand that handling horses is not about physical strength or intimidation. The horse will always be stronger than you. The key is to gain the horse’s respect without being abusive. He has to know without question that you are in charge--so your focus must remain on him at all times. And above all, you have to be fair and logical. You have to show him what you want him to do before you ask him to do it. A horse gets uneasy and skittish when he doesn’t understand what is expected of him.”

“It's not unlike dealing with human beings, then.”

“To some extent. But in my world, violence often becomes necessary, because most people are fucking illogical.”

With that, he mounted the horse, and rode out into the cobblestone yard.

Alex was impressed by his ability to control the horse almost effortlessly. They circled the yard a dozen times before Tommy urged the animal into a trot. After fifteen minutes, he guided the horse back into the stable, and dismounted.

“Still sure you don’t want to give it a go?” he asked.

She took a step back. “Maybe another time.”

“Not a flat out no this time, though.” He grinned. “That’s progress.”

She gave him a sweet smile. “Perhaps I was just being polite.”

“I don’t think you’re the kind of woman who says things she doesn’t mean.”

She rolled her eyes. “Now you’re trying to guilt me into riding with you.”

“Not at all.” But as he turned away, she saw a hint of a smirk on his face.

The next forty five minutes were occupied with loading the horse and the required gear into the van. Once that was done, Tommy looked at his pocket watch. “Right, we should leave in thirty minutes. Let’s get your box of clothes. You can change in the office—I’ll take the washroom.” He wrinkled his nose in disgust. “I wouldn’t subject a woman to that. The office is bad enough, but the washroom is a fucking disaster zone.”

When the office door closed behind her, Alex looked around the room, overwhelmed by the chaos. Sheafs of paper were scattered across the desk. Several particularly thick stacks were weighted down with rusty horseshoes. An empty whisky bottle lay on the floor, surrounded by a thick layer of peanut shells. Bits of scrap metal were piled up against the wall in heaps that nearly were nearly as high as her knee.

She gingerly made her way over to the desk. Moving a stack of papers out of the way, she placed the box on the desk. As she eased the lid off, she gasped.

An emerald green sleeveless dress lay nestled in a cloud of cream-colored tissue paper. Even in the dim light of the office, she could see how exquisite the craftsmanship was. Tiny silver beads were sewn all across the bodice, which featured a low cut, softly draped scoop neck. The back was equally dramatic, and she suspected that it would expose the skin half way down her back.

Underneath the dress lay an opalescent pair of stockings, and beside them sat a pair of black T strap heels with delicate silver beading that matched the dress. The beauty of the items was almost overwhelming. Alex had never owned anything so expensive--or so well made.

“Tommy?” she called out, suddenly feeling uncertain.

His muffled voice came through the door. “Everything alright? Or did Ada make a mistake with the sizing?”

“It’s lovely—-and I’m sure it will fit. It’s just so—elegant. Are you sure it’s not too formal?”

“Romani weddings tend to be a bit over the top. Anything less than the best money can buy will be out of place. Just go ahead and get dressed.”

Alex hesitated for a moment, then pulled on the stockings and put on the shoes. After that, she took in a deep breath and slipped the dress over her shoulder. It fit her like a glove. The deep scoop in the neck accentuated the swell of her breasts, making them appear bigger than they actually were. The dress then skimmed over her ribcage, highlighting her small waist before flowing over her hips.

She ran a hand through her dark hair, desperately wishing that there was a mirror in the room. There had been no time this morning for her to go through the usual routine of curling her hair and pinning it up in the short style that was all the rage. Instead, she had carefully secured in a knot at the nape of her neck. In the course of the morning, she had somehow lost one bobby pin, and then another when the dress had slipped over her head. At this point, she had no choice--her hair would have to remain loose. It flowed over her shoulders in an unruly mass, and she winced as she imagined herself standing out in a crowd of women with sleek bobs.

“It’s time to go.” Tommy’s voice came the door, betraying his impatience. “Are you ready?”

“I'm almost done,” Alex called out. Smoothing the folds of her dress, she took in a deep breath and went to the door. She opened it to find Tommy pacing the room, his eyes intent on his watch. He had donned a crisp white shirt, and was dressed in a grey wool suit that was impeccably tailored.

He looked up, and stopped in his tracks.

“It’s too much, isn’t it?” Alex blurted out. “I appreciate Ada’s thoughtfulness in picking out these things, but I just don’t think it suits me.”

Tommy cocked his head, then took a step forward, placing his warm hands on her waist. “Aye, I wouldn't say that it suits you...I'd say that you look fucking gorgeous.”

Next time-events at the wedding celebration take an unexpected turn.

Chapter Text

You don’t look so bad yourself,” Alex responded, trying to ignore just how blue Tommy’s eyes were at that moment. “No one would guess that you were mucking out a horse stable a half an hour ago.” Placing her hands on his chest, she gave him a rueful look. “We should probably head out now. All I need is for Esme to start telling my patients that I have a bad habit of running late.”

Five minutes later, they were driving through the streets of Birmingham. As Tommy turned a corner, Alex slid halfway across the seat. Placing a hand on the dashboard to steady herself, she laughed. “This is a day of firsts. I have to say that I’ve never ridden in a horse van before.”

Tommy grinned. “Well, if you want to get the full experience, I could put you in back with the horse.”

“I think I’ll pass,” she said wryly.

He glanced over at her. “You’ve taken everything that’s happened in stride. I doubt many women would have.”

“Most women have not had the experiences I have.”

“True. But as the daughter of a police chief, it must be strange to be spending time in close quarters with the Peaky Blinders.”

She shrugged. “People are people. They’re rarely angels or devils. Most of us are somewhere in between. Take my father, for instance. He may have been on the police force for twenty years, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t above taking a bribe...or intimidating witnesses to get them to change their stories. Yet he was a good husband and father--even if he couldn’t for the life of him understand why a woman would want to become a doctor.”

“Well, I’m glad you did--and I know Finn is too.”

At the mention of Finn, her mind went back to the night that they had first met.
Suddenly feeling uneasy, she peered out of the window, then turned to Tommy. “You don’t think we have anything to worry about tonight, do you? It’s not very likely that Sabini’s men would follow us all the way to the Lees.”

“It isn’t likely. But that doesn't mean it can’t happen.” His eyes flicked to the rear view mirror, then back to the road. “That’s why I’m taking every precaution. We’ll double back several times, and take the most circuitous route possible.”

Forty five minutes later, they pulled up to the campsite. Children were playing hide and seek around the caravans, shrieking with laughter each time someone was found. John sat on a stump off to the side, drinking from a small silver flask. Esme, already attired in her pink matron of honor dress, came up to him. He patted his knee, and she sat down, carefully arranging her skirts around her. Looping her arms around his neck, she gave him a lingering kiss.

“Watching Georgina get ready put me in mind of the day we got married,” she murmured. “I remember praying that you wouldn’t be ugly as sin--or a lazy good for nothing.”

John grinned as his hand slid to her bottom.“You did pretty good for yourself, didn’t you?”

She wrested the flask out of his hand and gave him a cheeky look, then took a drink. “I don’t have too many complaints--at least not right now.” Just then, she noticed that Tommy and Alex had arrived. As she watched her brother-in-law help Alex down from the van, she frowned.

“I really hoped he wouldn’t bring her.”

John scoffed. “What the fuck was he supposed to do with her?”

“Lock her up in the office until we got home?”

He put his chin on her shoulder. “Why do you dislike her so much? She ain’t half bad.”

“There’s just something about her that don’t seem right….and I think Tommy’s been too quick to accept her.” She scowled as her brother-in-law put a hand on Alex’s back, guiding her over to meet Johnny Dogs. “See, he can’t keep his hands off her.”

John narrowed his eyes. “What do you care? Tommy ain’t your husband. I am.”

She tossed her head. “Don’t be stupid, John. I just don’t want Tommy getting hurt.”

“‘Tommy can take care of himself.” He snatched the flask back from her, took a swig, then murmured, “How about a quick fuck?”

Esme raised an eyebrow. “Quick? If we’re going to fuck, I want to get off too.”

John smirked in response. “I can make that happen.” The only question is--where?”

“Well, mum and dad are off with Georgina--their caravan is free.”

He made a face. “You want to fuck in your dad’s caravan?”

Esme rolled her eyes. “Do you want it or not?”

“Fuck yeah.” He pushed her off his lap, then grabbed her hand. “Let’s go.”


Xxx

The wedding ceremony took place in a small stone church. Alex sat quietly beside Tommy as the smell of incense floated over the congregation. She was grateful that the Latin words of the Catholic Mass were foreign, as it allowed her to detach herself somewhat from the event. The loss of Jonathan was still fresh enough that watching a happy young couple brought back painful memories.

An hour later, they were back at the camp. It was well after dusk, and a large white tent had been set up in the center of a clearing. Flaming torches cast a mellow glow on the two long tables that were groaning with all types of delicacies. Alcohol was flowing freely, and an even patch of ground was being prepared as an ersatz dance floor. Tommy and Alex stood watching as Johnny Dogs tuned his fiddle. Several other men took out instruments and prepared to play.

A wizened old woman hobbled up to Tommy and seized his arm. She glanced at Alex, then looked back at Tommy, a wide smile on her tanned face. He greeted her in Romani, and kissed both her cheeks affectionately. Then she took his face in her hands, and spoke rapidly, her words tumbling over one another.

He kept his face carefully solemn, but Alex saw a hint of suppressed amusement in his eyes. After a full minute, the old woman stepped back, and gazed at Alex expectantly.

“This is Baba Theodosia,” Tommy said. “She was midwife to my mother when she delivered me, and is one of my godmothers.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Alex said, giving the woman a warm smile.

Theodosia asked a question, her lively eyes remaining on Alex. When Tommy answered, she clapped her hands, and responded with a few words.

“What did she ask?” Alex inquired, her curiosity getting the better of her.

“If you were from the north. I told her you were from Scotland.”

Another question followed, and Tommy once again responded with an answer that seemed to delight the old woman.

“She wanted to know if you’re good with a needle. Since you’re a surgeon, I told her yes.”

Baba Theodosia blurted out a quick sentence, then reached for Alex’s hand, giving her an inquiring look.

“She asks if she can read your palm,” Tommy translated.

“I don’t see why not.” Alex nodded her assent as the woman took her hand. “But why all the interest in me?”

Tommy cleared his throat. “She, erm, seems to think that you will fulfill a prophecy she made at my birth.”

Baba Theodosia was poring over Alex’s palm now, muttering to herself in Romani.

“And just what did this prophecy involve?” inquired Alex.

“She told my mother I would one day marry a dark-haired seamstress from the North.”

“I see,” she murmured. “And what is she saying now?” The old woman had let go of Alex’s hand, and was gesticulating animatedly as she spoke to Tommy.

Tommy’s mouth twitched a time or two as he listened. Then Baba Theodosia took his hand and Alex’s, and made a short speech that ended with her kissing both of them, then scurrying away.

“Well, what did she say?” Alex demanded.

He grinned. “She said your hips are a bit narrow, but she thinks the birthing will be easy enough--oh, and she’s fairly sure you will bear me six sons and four daughters.”

Alex flushed, and swatted him lightly on the arm. “She did not!”

Tommy could no longer contain his laughter, but put up his hand in order to swear an oath. “I swear by all that is holy, she did indeed say that.”

Just then, John called out to Tommy. He and Arthur were standing together in a far corner of the tent. Tommy went to join them, and they were soon deep in conversation. The faces were serious, and Alex caught Arthur glancing over at her with a worried expression.

She began to feel uneasy, and was glad to see Ada approaching her with two drinks in hand. As the music began, Ada handed her a glass, then raised her own. “To happy days ahead--for all of us.”

Grateful for her new friend’s thoughtfulness, Alex touched her glass to Ada’s. As she raised it to her lips, her nose caught the scents of vanilla and spices. She took a sip, tasting a hint of butterscotch as the liquid slipped down her throat. A few seconds later, she felt her warmth spread over her entire body.

“That is magical,” she managed to say. “I’ve never in my life tasted a rum like that. Where on earth did it come from?”

Ada gave her a conspiratorial look. “It was Tommy’s finder’s fee for locating Alfie Solomons’ lost rum shipment.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Really? Well, it appears that Alfie has done well for himself. It’s a bit surprising, though. I’d imagined him as more of a whisky man.

“Tommy says Alfie once said that rum’s for fun and fucking.” Ada surveyed the crowd. “I expect there will be a good deal of both before the night is through.”

Just then, the small band struck up a lively tune, and several men whooped. A group of the younger men and women formed a circle, which gradually became larger as more guests joined in. Arthur came up and grabbed Ada by the hand, dragging her off to join John and Esme in the dancing.

Alex hung back, feeling somewhat awkward. She suspected she was the only gadji in attendance. Although the Lees had been kind and welcoming, she was not sure that it would be appropriate for a non-Romani woman to participate in what seemed like a traditional dance. Then Tommy came up to her, and held out his hand.

“Is it proper for me to join in?” she asked uncertainly.

“I wouldn’t ask you if it wasn’t. As a matter of fact, it could be interpreted as wishing ill luck upon the marriage if you don’t take part.”

She quickly took his hand. “I definitely don’t want to give that impression. But be forewarned--I’m not the quickest at picking up dance steps.”

Tommy led her over to the circle. “This one’s easy.” As they started to move, he prompted her by murmuring, “Right foot to the side. Step behind with the left--then step to the side with the right--that’s it--now place the right foot next to the left and repeat.”

Alex kept her eyes on his feet, following his movements with such intense concentration that she was oblivious to everything else going on around them. When the pace picked up, she tripped over her own feet, but Tommy caught her around the waist and set her upright in an instant, urging her forward with an encouraging smile.

By the time it was over, she was half-dizzy, and had to grab Tommy’s arms to steady herself. As the music flowed into an effortless slow dance number, he slid his hand to her back and drew her close to him.

The feel of his touch on her exposed skin was more unsettling than she could have imagined. Seeking to distract herself, she gave him a bright smile. “You made that transition so smoothly that it seems you barely recall that we were just dancing to an upbeat folk song.”

“Perhaps that’s because I find this a much more appealing way to spend the evening.” He spoke in a low, intimate register that was pitched in such a way that only she could hear him.

“And why is that?” she inquired, very aware that he was flirting with her.

“Because you feel the same way.” Suddenly feeling self-conscious, she said nothing. Averting her eyes, she chose to focus on the far edge of the tent that was flapping in the breeze.

“Am I wrong?” he said softly. The space between them had vanished, and the music seemed to have receded into the distance. The only sound Alex was really aware of now was Tommy’s voice.

“I-I don’t know,” she whispered, touching her cheek to his. The sensual scrape of his stubble against her skin was enough to cause her to almost melt against his muscular body.

He chuckled. “You’re a terrible liar, Alex.” With a deft turn, he led her out of the tent and into the shadows that surrounded it. Once they were safely cloaked in darkness, his mouth met hers. As he did so, one hand moved to the base of her spine, guiding her body against his.

She took in a shuddering breath when she felt his hard length press against her. The instant her lips parted, he began to explore her mouth in a slow, sensual kiss. Alex dimly realized that Tommy was coaxing an equally passionate response from her. Her hands moved to the back of his head. She ran her fingers through his dark hair until they met the transition zone that led to his closely shaven skull. There was something about his haircut that she found incredibly sexy, and it was difficult to keep her fingertips from sliding across the demarcation line again and again.

Tommy’s hands had wandered lower now, and he tilted her pelvis up ever so slightly. A moment later, he shifted. Her dress was thin enough that the sensation was not lost on her. A jolt of pleasure shot between her legs, and she gasped.

“Tommy, I--”

He stilled, and placed his forehead against hers, struggling to slow his breathing. “I promised myself I wouldn’t get carried away, but if we’re to have ten children--”

Alex began to laugh, and shook him lightly. “Just for that, I should forbid you from coming within five feet of me for the next month.”

He shook his head with a smirk. “It wouldn’t work. You wouldn’t last a day.”

“You think you’re that irresistible, do you?” she retorted, trying without success to keep a smile from her face.

He raised an eyebrow. “Women like confidence in a man, don’t they?”

Suddenly shouts were heard from the far end of the camp, and a group of men broke into a loud, rollicking song. Arthur shouted from the tent, “Tommy, where the fuck are you? It’s time for the fucking race! Let's show these people what the Shelbys are made of!”

Tommy sighed. “Duty calls.” He gave her one last kiss, then led her back to the tent.

When they emerged back into the torchlight, Alex saw John poke Arthur in the ribs, then point at them while muttering under his breath. Then the two of them broke into laughter, and Tommy shot them a look of annoyance.

“I’ll go see what Ada is up to,” Alex murmured.

“Good idea,” he muttered. “I’ll take care of these two.” As she left his side, he strode over to his brothers, and gave them a cold stare. “You two should have been getting the fucking horse ready, not standing around like two fucking idiots.”

“We noticed you and Alex had vanished, and we thought you might have already mounted up,” said John innocently.

“Yeah, we know how testy you get when you haven’t ridden in a few days,” added Arthur with a smirk.

“Fucking comedians, that’s what you are. Now go get the fucking horse. There’s a lot of money riding on this race.”

Ten minutes later, the riders and their horses were milling along the starting line, which had been set at the top of a ridge about two miles from the camp. As the horses danced with impatience, good-natured insults were bantered back and forth. Suddenly, one of the men jabbed a finger in the direction of the camp. “Hey, why is there a campfire to the east of the camp? Johnny Dogs specifically said to stay away from the tree line.”

Tommy was instantly alert, focusing his eyes on the horizon. The man next to him exclaimed, “That’s no campfire! One of the caravans is on fire!” A second later, Tommy kicked his horse, spurring the animal forward. As he rode, his heart hammered in his chest. He instinctively knew that Sabini’s men had infiltrated the camp, and cursed himself for leaving Alex--and the rest of his extended family--vulnerable.

As he urged his horse to pick up speed, the sound he had been dreading came to his ears. A shot was heard, followed by two more in rapid sequence. Then there was only the sound of the wind rushing past him.

 

 

Chapter Text

Within seconds, the fire had spread to a second caravan, and the camp was in chaos. One man had already sustained burns to his hands while fighting the fire, and Alex feared there would be more injuries to come. She rushed to the van, thankful that she had never abandoned her wartime habit of bringing a medical bag along whenever she traveled.

The heel of her shoe caught in a small divet in the ground, and she fell, skinning her hands and tearing the hem of her dress. Stifling a curse, she got back on her feet, and soon reached the door of the van. Wrenching it open, she reached for her battered black doctor’s satchel. As she bent over, she felt the cold press of metal against the back of her neck, and froze.

“You make a sound--any sound--and you die right here--leaving Tommy Shelby to find your pretty little body floating in a pool of blood. You understand? Nod to show me that you understand.”

She nodded, her heart in the throat.

“Now turn around--slowly--and keep your hands to your side.”

As she turned, the man moved behind her. Pressing his pistol against her spine, he growled, “Start walking, and take the path straight ahead. There’s an injured man that needs tending.”

Without further prompting, Alex headed towards the path.“You do know that coercion isn’t necessary, don’t you? During the war, I treated German POWs right alongside British soldiers.”

“I didn't ask for you to start shooting your mouth off, did I? Shut the fuck up and keep on moving.”

She bit her lip, desperately wishing that she had listened to Tommy instead of going off by herself. She had felt comfortable at the campsite, and had made the mistake of letting down her guard. Now she might very well pay for that mistake with her life.

Two minutes later, they were well into the trees when the voice behind her muttered, “Hurry up. We ain’t got all fucking day.”

She picked up the pace, glancing around her. “Aren’t we heading back towards the church?”

There was no answer other than the gun jabbing against her back once again. Alex was nearly running at this point, and a stitch was beginning in develop in her side. When they emerged into a small clearing, she saw that her hunch had been correct. The small stone church of St. Michael the Archangel stood in front of her.

Her captor seized her arm, causing her to nearly trip over her feet as she stopped short. He pulled her roughly back against his chest, and placed his gun to her temple. His arm was tight around her ribs now, squeezing so hard that she found it difficult to breathe.

Lowering his mouth to her ear, he spoke, his voice harsh and gravelly. “Just so we understand each other--the boss said to bring you back to him alive, but it’s his own nephew who’s been shot. Now, I’ve heard you were a damn fine surgeon in the war, and saved a lot of lives. if you don’t save him, I’ll know you didn’t give a fuck. And then I’ll have no other alternative than to haul your pretty ass out to the graveyard and put a fucking bullet in your brain. Got it?”

“Understood,” she whispered. She had still not gotten a look at the man, but guessed that he stood a good eight inches taller than her.

He released her then, prodding her forward once again. When they reached the weathered wooden door, she could hear the moans of a man in pain. Taking in a deep breath, she pulled the door open, and stepped inside the church. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a young man lying on a low table in a small side chapel. A marble statue of the Blessed Virgin towered above him, stretching out her arms as if to bestow mercy on the suffering. A rack of votive candles in front of the statue had been lit, the flickering flames sending dancing shadows across the face of the wounded man.

A stocky man crouched next to the table. He looked up as they entered, then murmured a few words to the injured man and stood up.

“You the doc?” he asked, his voice gruff.

Alex nodded, and knelt down next to the table. She forced herself to put her fear aside, focusing on the familiarity of treating a wounded man who was terrified of dying.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Alex Ross, and I’m here to help you. What’s your name?”

“Dominic.” The young man turned his face towards her. His skin was deathly pale against his thick black hair. He looked to be no more than eighteen, but had a carefully trimmed mustache that partially hid a scarred upper lip. He was shivering, and sweat was streaming down his face. His suit coat was unbuttoned, revealing a bullet wound in the right upper chest that had torn his shirt.

“I tried to keep him warm by putting my coat over him, but he won’t stop shaking,” said the stocky man, pulling out a cigarette.

“If you really must smoke, you’ll have to go outside,” Alex said sharply. “If he starts coughing, we’ll have a real problem on our hands.”

He shoved the cigarette back in his case. “Well, can you fix it? He’s my brother--the only one I’ve got left. I ain’t going back to my mum and telling her he’s dead.”

“I’ll need your help. What’s your name?”

“Marco.” He shifted uneasily, rocking back and forth on his heels.

“Slip your arm around his shoulders.” She took Dominic’s hand, and said gently, “This is going to hurt. I’ve got some morphine with me, so I’ll give you an injection that will help, but it won’t deaden the pain completely. I’m sorry for that, but I’ll do everything I can to keep you comfortable.”

He nodded, and took in a shaky breath. Opening her bag, she took out a syringe and rolled up his sleeve. Giving his arm a quick swab of alcohol, she deftly slipped the needle into his arm and gave him the injection.

“That’ll take effect in just a bit. Now Marco, lift him up--slowly, and let’s get his shirt off so I can look at the wound properly.”

The taller man paced back and forth in front of them. “This is taking too long. Quit stalling and get the fuck on with it!”

“I’m working as quickly as I can,” Alex said, struggling to keep her voice measured.

Marco looked up, giving him a cold stare. “Shut the fuck up, Gioele. You’re the reason he’s in this fix. She don’t need you breaking her concentration.”

“I told your uncle he was way too soft for this operation!” Gioele burst out. “He wouldn’t even be part of this gang if it weren’t for the fact that---”

Fottiti!” Marco snapped. “Fai una passeggiata, prima che io ti abbia battuto me stesso!

Gioele straightened his shoulders defensively, then stalked off, muttering to himself in Italian.

“Okay, Dom, here we go,” Marco lifted his brother up, stopping midway when Dominic cried out in pain. “Halfway there, fratello. Puoi farlo.”

After a moment, Alex nodded at Marco, and he eased Dominic up to a sitting position.

“Good. Hold him there.”

She placed her right middle finger on his back just above his right shoulder blade, then thumped against it with her left middle finger. She carefully percussed down his back, frowning as the sound quickly became duller.

Dominic coughed, then groaned. “Fuck, that hurts.” He drew in a raspy breath, then choked, “Am I---am I gonna die?”

“No one ever dies in a church on Saturday,” Alex said lightly. “It’s a well known fact. Now, you’ve got a collection of blood around your right lung that’s preventing it from expanding. If we don’t drain it now, it will collapse the lung completely. I’ve done this many times before, in conditions worse than this--but you must do exactly as I say. Can you do that for me?”

He nodded, his lower lip quivering.

“Good. You’re quite brave. I’ve seen seasoned soldiers scream like banshees with this sort of wound.” She put on a pair of gloves, then turned to Marco. “Now I’m going to get out my scalpel, and I’m going to cut his shirt, then lay the knife back down. If you like, I’ll put it down by your hand out of my reach, but it has to stay on a piece of sterile gauze. If it doesn’t, we’ll risk infection.”

Marco eyed her warily. “You move the whole bag over here before you start. I’ll hand you whatever you need.”

She passed it over. “The scalpel is in the pocket to the left, with the handle up. Drop it out of the sleeve into my hand.

He fished it out, and placed it in her gloved palm. With a quick flick of her wrist, she slit his shirt from the collar to the waist, then cut it off completely. Handing the scalpel back to Marco, she quickly cleaned the area over his seventh rib with more alcohol.

“Now the hollow needle in the center pocket. Drop it into my hand carefully--if it falls and gets dirty, I don’t have another one. Then the syringe.”

“I--I can’t breathe!” Dominic said suddenly. “I’ve got to get up!” Panicking, he twisted under her hand.

“Dominic, it is absolutely critical that you stay still. I’ll have most of this fluid drained in less than a minute if you do, and you’ll be able to breathe again. But you cannot move.” She shot Marco an urgent look, and he nodded. Grasping his brother’s shoulders, he murmured, “Hang on, Dom. You’re almost there.”

From experience, she knew that she had less than thirty seconds to act. Feeling along his rib, she chose a spot, then plunged the needle into his skin. He cried out, but Marco held him still. As she pulled back on the syringe, she felt him quivering under her hands. Then she saw the welcome rush of bloody fluid into the syringe, and let out the breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding. “Got it,” she murmured. “The hard part’s over. The fluid’s already coming out, so you’ll feel the pressure release in just a moment.”

“Oh God--I feel like I’m gonna throw up,” Dominic muttered, squirming under Marco’s hands. “I can’t see--I can’t breathe, Marco. I can’t--” He slumped forward, and Marco’s face turned white.

“You stupid bitch! You’ve gone and fucking killed him!”

Xxxxx

As Tommy rode into the camp, he was met with a scene of utter chaos. Children were crying, dogs were barking, and a human chain was frantically passing buckets of water from a nearby stream in an attempt to keep the flames from spreading.

Sliding off his horse, he caught sight of Ada herding a group of children towards the tent. “Ada!” he shouted. “Where’s Alex?”

“I haven’t seen her since we went down to watch the race. Once the fire started, everyone began to scatter. Then some drunk idiot shot off a gun, and all hell broke loose.”

“Fuck,” Tommy muttered. “Where are Arthur and John?”

“You know Arthur and his conspiracy theories. He’s convinced someone was firing on us from the woods. He and John went to scout along the tree line to the north.”

He took off running, his hand instinctively reaching for the gun inside his holster. Once he had his fingers curled around the smooth metal, his nervous energy began to channel itself into a heightened focus. His eyes scanned the terrain, alert for any shadow that seemed out of place. As an owl hooted, he broke into a cold sweat, recalling the old superstition about the bird being a harbinger of death.

If anything happened to Alex, he knew he’d never be able to forgive himself. She had trusted him to keep her safe, and he’d failed.

A sudden movement from behind a tree to his left caught his eye. He swung around, pistol at the ready.

“Put the fucking gun down!” hissed Arthur. “It’s me, Tom!”

Tommy dropped his arm, but his eyes remained wary. “Any sign of Alex?”

Arthur shook his head and wiped his brow. “It was fucking unnatural, Tom. One minute she was there, and the next---she was gone.”

“Where’s John?”

At that moment, John came running down the path that wound through the woods to the church. “Found her,” he panted, gesturing for the two of them to follow him. “They’ve got her in the church, and she’s working on the one Arthur shot.”

They took off running. “How many?” Tommy asked, his mind already recalling the details of the church’s design.

“There’s one outside patrolling around the church. I managed to slip up to a window when he stopped to take a piss, and got a look inside. There's two inside with her, but one is the injured man she’s working on. Looks like he’s been shot in the chest.”

As they reached the edge of the woods, Tommy slowed down, and motioned for John and Arthur to follow suit. They watched as a figure paced back and forth in front of the entrance to the church, then started to make a circuit.

“You two go around to the east. Take him out, then come through the door to sacristy.”

“And where are you going?” asked John, pulling out his gun.

“The window by the back left pew doesn’t latch properly. I saw the priest struggling with it before the wedding. I’ll be in before they know what hit them.”

Xxxx

For an instant, Alex was afraid that Marco was correct about his brother. Then she felt for Dominic’s pulse, and found it to be strong and regular.

“He’s not dead,” she said, forcing herself to sound calm. “He’s just passed out, probably from his body and mind being overwhelmed. Look, he’s breathing-you can see his rib cage expanding and contracting.”

Marco’s eyes narrowed as he placed a hand on his brother’s back. When he saw she was speaking the truth, he relaxed slightly.

“Dom! Hey, Dom! Open your eyes!” He patted his brother’s face, and got a low moan in response.

Alex kept a steady suction on the syringe, intermittently dumping the fluid in a small bowl that was usually used to collect alms. After approximately a half a liter, Dominic took in a shuddering breath. “It hurts, but I can take in a deep breath now,” he said, a look of relief on his face. “I don’t feel like I’m being smothered.”

“Good.” She gave him a smile. “That means you’re turning the corner.”

Suddenly Marco cocked his head. “What was that?”

Alex glanced over her shoulder, then shrugged. “I didn’t hear anything,” she lied. For a split second, she had heard the softest of scraping noises from the back of the church.

Please, Lord, let it be Tommy--and please keep him safe from harm.

Marco got up, and slowly began to make his way along the side aisle, keeping to the shadows. A faint scuffling was heard, and then the deafening sound of a gunshot reverberated throughout the church.

Dominic began to squirm, twisting his neck in an attempt to get a view of the main aisle. “Marco! What’s going on?”

“Don’t move!” blurted out Alex. “If you do, the needle will move as well, and you risk puncturing an artery---or your lung.”

He turned suddenly, shoving her to the ground. Her head hit the stone floor, and she lay dazed, watching Dominic’s outline blur into the darkness.

“You’re just like the rest of them, aren’t you?” he shouted. “You think I’m fucking stupid!” Scrabbling for his coat, he pulled out a gun, his hands trembling.

“Marco!” he shouted, his voice shaking. “Marco, call Gioele!”

The sound of footsteps echoed through the church, and Dominic pivoted towards the sound, firing blindly into the darkness. The bullet ricocheted off a pillar and shattered a stained glass window. Then another shot was fired, and he jerked, falling across Alex. As his warm blood flowed onto her dress, she felt his body still, and dimly heard Tommy calling her name. Then a heavy weight was lifted off her, and she was in his arms.

“You’re safe now,” he murmured.

Alex closed her eyes, content just to be held.

“I knew you’d come.”

Xxx

It was nearly midnight by the time they returned to Small Heath. As Ada and Polly took Alex upstairs, Tommy motioned for John and Arthur to follow him into his office. Taking out a bottle of whisky and three glasses, he filled each glass to the brim.

Raising his own glass, he looked at his brothers. “Sabini wants a war? Well, he’s going to get one, and it starts tonight.” Downing the amber liquid, he slammed the glass to the table.

“Arthur, you take Scudboat and go down to Sabini’s new restaurant--the one he opened last week, Sapori d’ Italia. I don’t care how you do it, but burn the fucking place it to the ground. John, you and Bobby Crow will do the same to the Golden Lion. He’s been making a mint off that fucking pub. Be quick and keep to the shadows. I want you back here in an hour.”

“I think we can handle that, eh?” John looked at Arthur. In response, Arthur tossed back his drink and nodded. “Damn straight we can. We’re the Peaky fucking Blinders.”

Once they left, Tommy refilled his glass once, then twice. He lit a cigarette, trying to calm the fury that was coursing through his body. Thirty minutes and two more whiskys later, he could finally feel the alcohol starting to take the edge off. He thought of the opium pipe in his drawer upstairs. The nightmares had been especially bad two nights ago, and he’d had to resort to it for the first time in several weeks. He’d wait for that until he was sure that Alex was settled.

Climbing the stairs, he saw that all the lights were already off. Grateful for a few moments of quiet, he headed for the clawfoot tub in the bath. After fifteen minutes in the hot water and several more cigarettes, his racing mind has slowed considerately. Once he had donned a pair of pajama bottoms, he walked down the hall to Alex’s room.

He hesitated for an instant, then gave a soft tap and opened the door. It was the first truly cold night of the fall, and the temperature had dropped to below freezing. As the dull light from the gas streetlight filtered through the curtain, Tommy could see his breath in the chilly air. He turned his gaze to the bed, and saw that Alex was curled up in a ball under a thin blanket. The warm down duvet had slid off the bed, and lay on the floor in a heap.

As he went to pick up the duvet, Alex tossed restlessly, flinging the blanket off her body. His face softened when he saw that she was clad in his blue flannel pajamas. Polly had given him them for Christmas, but he couldn't stand how they felt against his skin. The pajamas practically swallowed up Alex’s petite frame. Her fingers barely peeked out of the sleeves, and the V neck plunged deep enough that the first button was below her breasts. As she turned to the side, the fabric slid down, exposing a tempting expanse of creamy skin.

Tommy could not help but stare. Her breast was larger than he’d imagined, but still small enough that he judged it would fit perfectly in one of his hands. His body began to respond to the thought, and he shook his head, forcing his gaze to the duvet. Picking it up, he draped it across the end of the bed, then reached for the blanket. It was then that he saw she was shivering.

It wouldn’t hurt to slip into bed with her for a few minutes--just long enough to get her properly warm, then he’d return to his room. He sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, then reached for a pillow. Sliding back against it, he swung his feet onto the bed. Gathering her against his bare chest, he pulled the duvet over them.

Her eyes remained closed as she settled against him with a sigh. He held her for a few minutes, surprised at how natural it felt. He had never been with a woman in bed for anything other than sex. Once that was over, he dressed and left. Despite old habits, he instinctively knew that he’d not be returning to his own room that night.

“Those blue eyes,” she murmured, her lashes fluttering slightly against his skin. “They see right through me...and your mouth…”

He held his breath, and she moved against him, arching her back. “Please,” she whispered. “Please make love to me.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Tommy swallowed, and looked down at her. He willed her to open her eyes, but she ceased moving, and began to breathe evenly once again.

Frustrated and restless, he got up. He paced the room, trying to walk off the wave of desire that had spread through his body. Finding little success, he paused at the window, bracing himself against the frame for a few moments. Then he opened up the casement, allowing the cold air to flow over him. After a full minute, he closed it once again, scraping the window against the sill.

He heard a gasp from the bed, followed by Alex’s trembling voice. “Who's there?”

He turned around to find her sitting up in bed, her eyes wide with fear. She held a pistol aimed straight at his head.

Heart thudding in his chest, he slowly raised his hands. “Alex, it’s me--put the gun down.”

She blinked, then lowered the firearm, her hands shaking. She opened the drawer of the nightstand and put the pistol inside, then stood up and put her hands to her mouth. “I could have killed you,” she whispered, choking back a sob.

In three steps, Tommy had her in his arms. It was then that she began to cry in earnest, clinging to him tightly as he stroked her dark hair.

“I tried so hard to defuse the tension. Dominic was just a boy, Tommy. He didn’t belong with them, but he wanted to be accepted. If he had just had someone in his life to turn him on the right path--”

He took his face in her hands. “Listen to me. He made a choice. Don’t think for a second that he wouldn’t have killed you if he’d had the chance.”

“But I was so sure that if I treated him humanely, they would see me as a person, not a target.”

He shook his head. “You can’t reason with those kind of men. They’re cold blooded killers.”

Tears streaming down her face, she looked up at him. “The last thing I wanted was to put your life at risk. Both of us would have never been in that situation if I had listened to you and not gone off by myself.

He leaned his forehead against hers. “Hey, it’s all over now. You’re with me, and you’re safe, aye?”

She balled her hands into fists, pressing them against his chest. “What’s happening to me, Tommy? This is not who I am. In the war I worked from one battle to the next. I treated legions of wounded and dying men, and never lost control—not once did I ever cry in front of other people.”

His hands slid down her back to settle at her waist.

“You’re a strong woman, but you’ve had a narrow brush with death twice in the last few days. That may be routine in my postwar world, but it’s not in yours. To be honest, I’d be worried as hell if you weren’t emotional. This is your mind’s way of sorting it all.”

Kissing the top of her head, he buried his face in her hair. She smelled of roses tonight, and the scent was intoxicating. With a slight movement, he nudged the hem of her pajama top over one hand, then the other. As his fingers made contact with her bare skin, he felt his cock stiffening once again. He consciously slowed his breathing, and as he did so, Alex finally began to calm.

“I--it’s just so strange.” She pulled back a few inches, her hazel eyes clouding with confusion. “I had the oddest dream. I was back in France, in a trench ankle deep with mud. It was just me and a badly wounded soldier. He was bleeding from a chest wound, and I couldn’t stop it. Then two German soldiers appeared in front of me. I looked down, and my patient was dead. The Germans raised their rifles, and I grabbed my pistol--but it jammed. So I started to run--and then I fell into a tunnel. It was pitch black, and I just kept falling until someone caught me. It was pitch black, and I was terrified. Then I heard your voice, and realized it was you--and I finally felt safe. Then I woke up, and saw someone standing by the window. All I could think of was that one of Sabini’s men had gotten in.”

“I came in to check on you, and you had thrown all the covers off. You were curled up in a ball, and were so cold you were practically shivering. I put the covers back on you--even got into bed with you for a bit. Then you started moving against me, and talking in your sleep, and I had to get up.”

Flushing, she lowered her eyes, and he saw her gaze slide over his chest. Tracing a finger around the perimeter of the large tattoo on his upper left chest, she murmured, “I can’t stop thinking about you--even though my brain is telling me that there are so many reasons why we should never even try...so many reasons why it will never work.”

Tommy could feel the slightest hint of her nipples through the layer of fabric that separated them, and had to fight the urge to tear the garment off her body. He wanted her badly, but knew that he would have to think with his brain rather than his cock. The concept of having to use finesse in order to get a woman into bed was completely foreign to him. This was uncharted territory, and he found it confusing and frustrating...but arousing in a way that he hadn’t expected.

With a whore, thinking wasn’t necessary. He got what he wanted, when he wanted it. It was sex tailored exactly to what Tommy Shelby required on that particular night. It was a business transaction, unencumbered by emotional ties. On other occasions, women pursued him, and he was happy to oblige them. But Alex was different. Watching her moan in her sleep for him had been more erotic than anything he’d seen in quite some time. The idea of seeing her do that while awake was proving to be very motivating, especially now that she was making her own feelings known.

Alex looked up at him. “In all the months I’ve been home, you’re the only person I’ve spoken to about the war on more than the most superficial of levels. And that’s because you understand why I chose to serve. And you know what it was like over there. You have no idea what an incredible gift that is.”

Leaning forward, she touched her lips to his tattoo, and he took in a ragged breath. Pausing, she murmured, “Then tonight, you made me realize that a part of myself that I thought was gone forever was still alive.”

“What part of you is that?” he murmured, his hands sliding up her rib cage to rest just below her breasts.

She traced the outline of his tattoo with the softest of kisses, and he closed his eyes, thinking that he’d never had a woman’s touch stir his body in quite such a way.

“The part that feels that risks are sometimes worth taking.”

He held her gaze for a moment, then lowered his mouth to hers, taking the time to thoroughly explore her lips. He sensed that he had nearly won her over, and was determined to savor every moment. As he began to stroke the underside of her breasts with the pads of his thumbs, she tentatively touched her tongue to his lips, and he instantly deepened the kiss. Within moments, Tommy could tell that she was having difficulty fighting her desire for him.

“I was dreaming about you,” she whispered. “And I wanted--”

“Wanted what?” he said hoarsely.

“Wanted you--very badly.”

In response, Tommy lifted her up. As she wrapped her legs around his waist, his hard length pressed into her belly. She gave the softest of moans, and he dipped his mouth to hers once again.

As he eased her back onto the bed, her eyes closed. She gave a little sigh, then began to move her pelvis against him. As he watched her, he felt an overwhelming urge to do whatever it would take to make her climax.

He slid his palm up her chest, taking her right breast in his hand. In response, her fingers flew to the buttons on her top. As he began to massage the soft, sensitive tissue, she took in a sharp breath, and began to work faster. Within seconds, the entire length of her top was unbuttoned.

Tommy sat up, then held her gaze as he slid the fabric off her chest. The dim light did nothing to diminish the beauty of the two shapely breasts that lay in front of him.

“Fucking perfect,” he muttered. Her hands went to his waist, and he felt his balls tightening. “Tell me what you want, Alex.”

“I—“ she stopped, and he sensed that she was blushing. “I’m not good at this. I’ve only ever been with one man.”

“Then I’ll just have to keep experimenting until you tell me what you like.” He grinned. “I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.”

A moment later, he captured her right nipple with his thumb and forefinger, and she gasped as he rolled it between his fingers.

“Tommy--” she breathed. Unable to keep his eyes off her, he moved his hand to her other breast, and did the same. She moved her hips against his, and he leaned down to her, kissing the hollow between her breasts.

“I’ve wanted you ever since that morning you walked into the Garrison,” he muttered.

He trailed his lips across her soft skin until he reached the pale pink shadow around her nipple. Then he swirled his tongue around the hard nub, and she arched under him, thrusting her nipple into his mouth.

“Please, Tommy--you’re going to drive me mad if you don’t--”

He flicked his tongue against the firm peak, once, then twice. She moved under him, and moaned.

“Please---your mouth--” She was begging now, and he thought he might lose control if she started to move again.

He sucked her nipple ever so gently, and her body began to writhe underneath him. The instant he sucked harder, she bucked against him, and cried out his name. As her hands reached for the headboard, another spasm of pleasure tore through her body, and she jerked, knocking over a ceramic pitcher on the nightstand. It hit the floor and shattered, but neither of them paid it any mind. Alex thrust her hips against his once more, and he knew he was seconds away from finding his own release.

Then the door flew open, hitting the wall with a bang. Arthur and John charged into the room, their pistols drawn.

“Hands up! Get the fuck off her!” Arthur shouted.

“Fucking hell!” Tommy seized the blanket and dragged it across Alex, covering her breasts. “What the fuck is wrong with you two?”

His brothers looked at each other, then lowered their weapons.

“Look, we heard Alex calling for you, and then something crashed to the floor,” John said defensively. “What the fuck were we supposed to think?”

Arthur nodded. “Yeah, for all we knew, Sabini’s men were in here trying to finish her off.”

“Get. The. Fuck. Out,” Tommy growled.

“Okay, but we need to talk Tommy, now,” John said urgently. “There’s been some trouble.”

“My office. Five minutes. Now get out.”

They quickly retreated, John mumbling, “Sorry, Alex,” as he closed the door behind him.

“I’m going to fucking kill them,” Tommy muttered, collapsing onto the pillow next to her.

Alex began to laugh, and he stared at her.

“You look so forlorn,” she said, rolling on to her side.

“Yeah, well, there’s a reason for that,” he said gruffly, closing his eyes and shifting uncomfortably.

“There may be something I can do to help. After all, I am a doctor, and I’ve some working knowledge of male anatomy.” He felt her hand brush against the fly of his pajamas, and then her fingers closed around him. As her index finger stroked the sensitive spot just below his tip, he groaned.

“I’m all yours.”

From that moment on, he lost track of time, focused only on the exquisite sensation of her slim fingers alternately pumping and stroking his length. Within a minute, he felt himself on the brink, and covered her hand with his own, urging her into a faster rhythm. Then a soft finger circled his tip, and he shuddered, experiencing the most powerful release he’d had in years. Once his breathing had evened out, he pulled himself up on the pillow and reached for her.

“You were right about not being very good,” he gasped. “You’re fucking amazing.”

She nestled against him, and was silent for a few moments. Then she said, “Have you ever heard of the poet Rumi?”

“Can’t say as I have. I was never one for reading.”

“He lived in the 13th century, in Persia. There's a line from one of his poems where he says, ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’ ”

He furrowed his brow, trying to guess what she was getting at. “Yeah? What’s that all about, then?”

“It means that although the world may look at each of us and judge us in a certain way, there is more to a human being than labels.”

He kissed her, then got up and reached for his trousers. “Don’t be so sure about that. There’s plenty of people who would be happy to send me straight to hell---and they’d have good reason to.”

“I know who you are, Tommy,” she said quietly. “But I also know that there is more to you than what the world sees.”

Shrugging on his shirt and jacket, he turned to her. “Just don’t let the world know, eh? I have a reputation to keep up.” Bending over, he gave her one last kiss, then left, closing the door behind him and refocusing his mind on business.

As he entered his office, he saw John and Arthur waiting for him. “For that interruption, there had better be fucking Armageddon right around the corner.”

Arthur glanced at John, then spoke up. “Close enough. Shelby Company Limited as we know it no longer exists.”

Chapter Text

The bedroom seemed markedly colder the instant the door closed. Alex buttoned up her pajamas and hugged her arms to her chest, then made her way around the bed. She sighed when she saw the pieces of the broken pitcher strewn across the wood floor. As she bent over to pick up a large shard, she saw the photograph of Jonathan lying in a puddle of water.

“No, please no!” Snatching it up, she frantically tried to dry it off. The photo was badly faded now, with the left half of the image completely blurred. Alex sank to the floor, her eyes once more swimming with tears.

I loved him. And now less than a year later, he’s lying in a cemetery in France, and I’m in bed with another man.

Staring at the damaged photograph, she thought about the all plans she had made before she had come to Birmingham.

And what have I done to honor his memory? I haven’t visited the church where he served. I haven’t tried to contact his family. I haven’t taken any concrete steps towards setting up the foundation I planned to name after him.

Memories of Jonathan flooded her mind, juxtaposed with images from the time she had spent with Tommy over the past few days. Had she been so desperate to recapture what she had had with Jonathan that she had mistaken an intense physical attraction to Tommy for something deeper?

She replayed the conversation she had had with him minutes earlier, and realized that she had done most of the talking. She had told him how much she valued having his support...and that she was attracted to him...and couldn’t stop thinking about him.

What had he said?

You’re with me, and you’re safe.
Tell me what you want, Alex.
I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening.

Now that she thought over his words, there had really been nothing to indicate that she was more than a passing fancy. She had been so caught up in the moment that she hadn’t stopped to consider that perhaps she merely represented a slightly more memorable dalliance than the neighborhood whore.

I told you I won’t be gentle--but I promise not to break you.

Was that his way of telling her that he would be honest with her? That when he finally tired of her, he would break the news to her in a such a way that she wouldn’t fall apart?

Climbing back into the bed, she curled up into a ball under the duvet, folding the pillow around her head. Closing her eyes, she tried to will herself to sleep, but the same thought kept running through her head.

I never should have said anything.


Xxxxx

 

Arthur took in a deep breath. “Our factory on Barton Close? Bombed at the same time that we were setting fire to Sabini’s restaurant. Machinery’s ruined.”

Tommy leaned back in his chair. “We can work around that. If we call in the right men and line up enough workers for two shifts, we can be up and running in six weeks. We’ll lose some money, but it won’t be devastating.”

“That’s not the worst of it,” John said. “We have it on good authority that Sabini’s formed an alliance with Billy Kimber’s gang--and with Wag McDonald and his Elephant and Castle Mob. That will effectively cut us out of bookmaking at Epsom and at Sandown Park.”

“A setback, but not an insurmountable one,” Tommy mused.

“You’re fucking optimistic,” said Arthur, narrowing his eyes. “I’m guessing the lovely Dr. Ross has something to do with that?”

Tommy steepled his fingers. “I’m just choosing to focus on the opportunities that lie ahead of us--not the obstacles.”

“Spoken like a man who’s well satisfied--with life, of course,” added John dryly.

Ignoring them, Tommy picked up the phone and spoke to the operator. “Camden Town 7-1-8.”

A red flush crept up Arthur’s neck. “No. Not that fuckin’ idiot Solomons. I swear to God, Tommy, if you involve---”

“Alfie!” Tommy’s voice was full of good humor. He was met with loud squawking from the receiver. Grimacing, he held it several inches from his head until the volume had lessened.

“Sorry about that, Alf. I honestly had no idea. Listen, I’m coming down to London tomorrow to take care of some business. I’d like for us to meet. I’ve got a business proposition for you.” He listened for a moment, then nodded. “Of course I plan on bringing Alex.”

John exchanged a look with Arthur, who merely shook his head.

“The bakery at noon? We’ll be there. See you then.”

Xxxxx

“Alex. Wake up.”

Alex pulled the duvet over her head. “Not yet. The clinic isn’t open until 7:30.”

“It’s Sunday. The clinic is closed, but Tommy asked me to wake you up before 8 o’clock. He’s going to London to see Alfie, and he wants you to go with him.”

The words finally sank in. She sat up and stared at Ada. “London? This morning?”

“That’s what he said.”

“And it’s important?”

Ada nodded. “I assure you, Tommy is not the sort of man who jaunts off to London just for the hell of it.”

Alex reached for her pillow, and lay back on it, closing her eyes. “Okay. I’ll be ready by 9.”

“He left instructions for you to be ready by 8:30.”

She sighed. “He’s going to owe me for this. 8:30 it is.”

An hour later, she was curled up in a comfortable chair in the sitting room, waiting for Tommy to arrive. Charles lay in her lap, content to be with his mistress. As she ran her fingers over his silky ears, her mind began to go over the events of the previous night once again. Trying to break her train of thought, she sighed and shook her head, knowing more thinking would only serve to increase her doubts about her relationship with Tommy.

“Why can’t I just let it go?” she murmured. The spaniel looked up at her, his dark brown eyes seeming to sense her unease. He thumped his tail against her leg, then nudged her hand with his cold nose.

She picked him up and walked over to the window, cradling him against her chest. “I’ve sorely neglected you of late. You just want some affection, don’t you?”

A pair of arms slid around her waist. “Now that you mention it, I couldn’t think of a better way to start the day.” A thrill went up her spine as she felt Tommy’s lips brush against the nape of her neck.

“You do know that I was talking to my dog?” she murmured.

“Yes, but I have an advantage over the poor mutt. He can’t show his affection in quite the same way that I can, can he?”

“About last night--” Alex turned around to look at him. She held Charles against her, intending to use him as a buffer. However, the dog had spied a cat outside the window, and began to struggle to get down, barking furiously. She had no choice but to release him.

“What about it?” Tommy put his hands in his pockets, but kept his blue eyes on her.

Alex’s courage failed her. “You didn’t tell me we were going to see Alfie.”

He shrugged. “Didn’t know myself until I made a call to him after I left you.”

“Things sounded serious when John and Arthur came in. What happened last night?”

He thought for a moment, his lips twitching slightly as he attempted to keep a straight face. “I believe you used massage to find one of my trigger points.”

She put her hands on her hips. “You’re impossible, Tommy Shelby! I ought to--”

“Ought to what?” he said, his voice dropping as he put his hands on her waist and pulled her close.

Her hands instinctively slipped around his neck. She swallowed. “Get my coat and purse. Alfie will be expecting us, and we shouldn't keep him waiting.”

Tommy’s lips skimmed along her cheek. “We could just tell him we had an unanticipated delay.”

“He’d know you were twisting the truth. Alfie has a sixth sense for that sort of thing.”

Tommy sighed. “Alright, you win. But promise me you’ll give me an hour of your time on the way back.”

Alex cocked her head. “What do you have planned?”

“All you need to know it that it will just be just the two of us in a beautiful place--with none of my brothers within 60 miles.”

The idea of being with alone with him was enticing, but also disquieting. After a moment, she managed to summon up a smile. “How can I say no to that?”


The drive to London was uneventful. Still exhausted from the night before, Alex slept most of the way. Before she knew it, Tommy was gently shaking her arm. “Wake up. We’re here.”

She blinked at the sound of the rain drumming against the windscreen. “Already?”

He chuckled. “You’ve been asleep for over two and a half hours. I think you nodded off by before we were even two miles out of Birmingham.”

Tommy held an umbrella over them as they made their way over to the old brick building, which stood on a nondescript street in the heart of Camden Town. The lettering painted on the side of the factory was faded. A sign over the small display window read BREAD in English, with Hebrew lettering underneath it. A weathered three tiered wooden rack stood in the window. It was empty except for the one loaf of bread that languished on the top shelf.

Opening the front door, Tommy motioned for her to step inside. As she did so, Alex was met with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Loaves of different shapes and sizes were lined up in neat rows in the case behind the counter. The pretty young woman at the register greeted them warmly, her lively brown eyes focusing on Tommy.

“May I help you, sir?” she inquired, bending over to pick up a receipt that lay on the counter in front of him. In doing so, she gave him a brief glimpse of her cleavage before straightening up. Alex suspected this was not unintentional.

Tommy kept his expression carefully neutral, but gave her a polite nod. “We’re here to see Mr. Solomons.”

“Whom may I say is calling?”

“Mr. Shelby and Dr. Ross.”

“Just a moment, Mr. Shelby.” She walked away, a subtle sway to her hips noticeable as vanished through the door behind the counter.

Alex glanced at Tommy. “Did she even notice I was in the room?”

He chuckled in response, and she arched an eyebrow at him. “Just remember who knows exactly where your trigger points are.”

Before he could answer, the young woman was back. “This way, please.”

She led them through a large kitchen. Several elderly women were kneading dough, chatting companionably in Russian as they worked. However, as Tommy and Alex entered the area, the room fell silent. A few moments later, they passed through the rear door into a narrow corridor, which led to another door marked “SUPPLY ROOM.” Their guide then produced a key, opened the door, and directed them around sacks of flour to a double-bolted door.

Once the bolts slid open, they emerged into a world that was humming with activity. Men called back and forth to each other with instructions for the latest deliveries. Several workers hurried by, each carrying a small barrel marked “AMS Private Reserve.” At the center of the vast warehouse stood three large copper stills. They were surrounded by a maze of barrels, as well as several clusters of metal drums. Each drum was tightly covered, and sported a vent that led to a bucket of water. A strong yeasty smell hung in the area, indicating that fermentation was well under way.

“Mr. Solomons’ office is just---”

“THE NEXT TIME THIS FUCKING HAPPENS, SOMEONE IS GONNA FUCKING PAY! NOW FUCK OFF!”

“I think we can find our way,” Tommy said, suppressing a smile as he glanced at the frosted glass of a door off to the left. A worker dashed out of the office in an attempt to escape the continued barrage of verbal abuse, which finally ended once the door had swung shut behind him.

He started to go forward, but Alex placed a hand on his arm. “Here, let me.”

She tapped on the door gently, then opened it a crack, and said, “Droog eto tot, to znayet vas ee lyubit vas tak zhe.”

“Yeah, ain't that the truth?” Alfie’s voice was now a loud grumble. He sighed, then grinned and said, “Not too many people who know me can say that they also love me. Come on in, sweetie. I’m in a fairly good mood, so I’ll even let you bring in that bastard Shelby with you.”

Tommy stayed her hand, and asked in an undertone. “You speak Russian?”

She smiled. “Just enough to be dangerous.” Stepping inside, she saw Alfie seated at his desk, a small puppy in his lap. Ophelia lay atop a small mattress that had been shoved against the wall to the left of his desk. She was stretched out on her side, comfortably dozing as five puppies squirmed against her. They were busy nursing, making small contented noises that Alex found enchanting.

“Ophelia had her puppies!” she exclaimed. “They’re adorable!”

Alfie’s face softened. “They are cute little fuckers, aren’t they?” He proudly held up the pup in his lap, then kissed her head before setting her on the floor. The puppy promptly scampered over to Ophelia, burrowing through the pile to get to a vacant teat.

“Congratulations, Alfie.” Tommy grinned. “I would have brought a box of cigars if I’d known the blessed event had already taken place.”

Alfie gave him a speculative look. “Maybe by the end of this meeting we’ll have another reason to celebrate.” He put his feet up on his desk, then pulled out a thin sheet of colored paper and began to fold it. “I’m all ears. Tell me what you have in mind.”

“Well, I’m well aware that you have an enviable intelligence network, so I suspect you’ve already heard that Sabini’s formed an alliance with both Billy Kimber’s gang and Wag McDonald’s Elephant and Castle Mob. That will effectively cut us out of bookmaking both at Epsom and at Sandown Park. Needless to say, that represent quite a financial hit for Shelby Company Limited.”

“Kimber.” Alfie made a dismissive gesture. “He never would have gotten a foothold in London if he hadn’t deserted during the war. He’s a fucking coward.” He placed a small origami rabbit on the desk, then picked up another sheet of paper and began to fold it.

“He may be a coward, but he’s a damn smart one. He’s chosen well to make a deal with McDonald and his mob. You must have heard that their female auxiliary has made a them a mint in the last year by shoplifting in the high-end stores. Combine that with the healthy numbers of policemen and politicians who are on Sabini’s payroll, and you’ve got a recipe for success.”

“And your proposal?” Alfie put a folded paper duck next to the rabbit. Alex watched as he began another creation, knowing that there was a purpose to everything he did.

“That we join together to take out Sabini, Kimber, and McDonald. Once they are out of the way, the threat to Alex is eliminated...and we would own both London and Birmingham.”

A paper egg took its place next to the duck and rabbit, and Alfie cocked his head, regarding his handiwork thoughtfully.

Tommy shifted in his chair, and gave him an irritable look. “Are you even listening to me? Or are you too busy making fucking paper animals?”

Alfie put on his glasses and sat forward, peering at Tommy over his half rims. “For your information, that last one is an fucking egg, not an animal. Guess we know now who fucking can’t pay attention.”

With a scowl, he reached for the bottle of whisky and three glasses that sat on the table behind him. He poured them each a generous portion, then handed Alex and Tommy their drinks.

“You both are most likely not acquainted with the Russian folk tale called The Legend of Koschei and Prince Ivan. It’s a weird fucking story. Starts off with these three princesses whose parents have died. Their brother---Prince Ivan--is a stupid fuck who decides to marry them to the first suitors they meet. Then there’s some bizarre shit where each of the girls ends up having to marry a bird. The birds are really wizards, but that’s beside the point. Then the Prince is all fucking lonely, so he finds this warrior woman Marya and decides to marry her.”

“Sounds like a fairy tale romance,” Alex commented. She took a sip of the whisky, nearly choking as it burned a path down her esophagus. Alfie picked up a last sheet of paper, and folded it deftly into a box.

“Then Marya leaves to go to war--guess Ivan did a Kimber and decided to hide his coward ass at home--after giving him full reign over her house. Except for the dungeon, which he is not to open under any circumstances. And what does the stupid bastard do as soon as she leaves?” He threw up his hands in disgust. “Opens the fucking dungeon.”

“Bad decision?” Tommy asked tonelessly, trying to reign in his impatience.

“The worst fucking decision he could possibly make. He finds this wasted old man who just will not stop fucking begging him for water. So the prince gives him twelve barrels of water. The old man guzzles them down, and reveals himself to really be the evil wizard Koschei the Deathless. Cuts Ivan up into tiny fucking pieces and throws him in the ocean, then kidnaps Marya. Now this is where the wizard bird brothers-in-law come in handy, because somehow they fucking manage to put Ivan back together--personally I’d be tempted to let the stupid fuck be eaten by the fish--and off he goes to find Koschei. Only problem is, you can’t kill Koschei by the usual methods--stabbing, shooting arrows--none of it’s gonna fucking work. You know why?”

“I’m assuming you’re going to tell me,” Tommy said, taking a large swig of whisky.

“His soul is hidden separate from his body inside an needle.” He lifted up the origami egg. “Which is in a fucking egg.” Putting the egg down, he picked up the duck. “Which is in a duck.”

“Let me guess,” Tommy said dryly. “The duck is inside the fucking rabbit.”

“Exactly!” Alfie banged the desk with his fist. “And the rabbit is in a iron chest buried under a fucking oak tree on an island in the middle of the fucking ocean.”

Tommy rubbed his face wearily. “And your point is?”

“Ivan has to get to the egg to get Koschei in his power. Because if he digs up the chest, the fucking rabbit jumps out and escapes. If he shoots the rabbit with an arrow and kills it, and the duck pops out and flies away. Only if the egg is in Ivan’s hand will Koschei start to weaken. And if he is able to break the needle inside the egg--BOOM!” He banged the desk again for emphasis.”It’s curtains for Koschei.”

Alfie picked up the whisky bottle, and topped off Tommy’s glass. “What I’m saying is that Sabini’s our Koschei. Wag McDonald and Kimber are nothing without him--And to get to Sabini, we’ll have to get through all the llayers that he’s used to build up his power. And it’s got to be done with cunning.”

He picked up the paper box and crushed it with his fist. “First we get his politicians over to our side. We’ll need a dossier on each one so we know what it’ll take to get them on our side. Sometimes it’s blackmail, sometimes whores--sometimes something just fucking weird. One time a pair of tickets to the opera did it. Can you imagine that shit?”

Tossing the paper on the desk, he reached for the origami rabbit. “Next, the police. By similar means. Might require a bit more cash, though. They’re always more greedy than you expect.” Reducing the rabbit to a wad of paper with another squeeze of his hand, he threw it into the bin next to his desk.

Picking up the duck, he glanced at it, then compressed it into a small square and tossed it at Tommy, who deftly caught it. “Imported Sicilian gunmen. Probably will need some fucking animals to take care of them.” He paused an instant, then grinned and said, “I nominate Arthur Shelby to head up that particular task.”

Finally, he reached for the paper egg with his thumb and forefinger and held it up. “Once we get to this point, all Sabini has left is his family--the great majority of whom couldn't find their way out of a fucking paper bag. Then--and only then--do we go in for the kill.”

Striking a match, he lit the egg and let the ashes fall to the desk.

Tommy saluted him with his glass. “I’m buying what you’re selling. To the Shelby-Solomons partnership.”
He glanced at Alex, who followed suit.

She took in a breath, then said, “To two men who are very dear to me. God keep you safe and grant you success, so that I can return to a quiet life.”

“Quiet?” Alfie’s sharp eyes met her gaze. “Don’t count on it.”

 

Chapter Text

As if to prove Alfie’s point, there was a knock on the door, and Ollie stuck his head in the room. “Boss, I know you’re busy, but there’s been an accident. Natan was trying to fix a barrel and got clumsy with his hammer. Busted up two fingers pretty good.”

Alex glanced at Alfie. “I’ll go take a look. Hand injuries can cause permanent damage if they’re not tended to properly.”

“Aww, if it ain’t too much trouble, that’d be much appreciated,” Alfie said brightly. “I know Natan will be in good hands. Tommy and I will just sit here and enjoy a companionable chat while we finish our drinks.”

Once the door had closed behind her, Alfie leaned back in his chair. He gave Tommy a speculative look, then narrowed his eyes and said, “So, are you gonna tell me what’s going on with Alex? Or do I have to embarrass her by asking a lot of nosy questions?”

“Until such time as the threat to her life is removed, Alex is under my protection,” Tommy said calmly. “She has been staying at our house--in John’s old room, to be specific--and has a Blinder escort to and from work, with security provided at her office at all times.”

“And you expect me to believe that’s all there is to it?”

Tommy met his gaze, and shook his head. “Sorry to disappoint you, but there’s no salacious tale to tell.”

Alfie snorted. “I’m sure it ain't from lack of trying.” He sat up and folded his hands on the desk. “Just so you know--if you break her heart, I will personally hunt you down and fuck you up.”

“You have nothing to worry about,” Tommy said. “I have all the respect in the world for Alex.” He saluted Alfie with his glass, then downed it.

Alfie leaned forward, his expression darkening. “I ain’t worried about respect. I”m worried about you fucking her and then kicking her to the curb. Alex saved my life, and I love her like a sister. I won’t stand for her being messed about.”

Tommy’s cool blue eyes met his gaze. “Then she’s in the right hands--because I don’t intend to let anyone--or anything--hurt her.”

At that moment, the door opened. Alex came in, a look of relief on her face. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Natan should be good as new after a few days at home.”

Alfie scowled. “He can make himself useful here. I’m running a distillery, not a fucking charity. He’s still got his other hand, ain’t he?”

“You know, you’re right.” Alex said sweetly. “Come to think of it, there’s no reason you can’t be doing some of the deliveries yourself. You’ve still got two legs, right?”

A smirk spread across his face. “Nice try, but you should know by now that guilt is not part of my emotional range. I’ve got no soul, sweetie.”

“Liar.” Alex went to him and kissed his cheek, then perched on the edge of his desk. “Be nice to him, Alfie. He seems like a good kid. He felt awful about what happened.”

“Alright.” Alfie heaved a sigh and picked up a puppy that was chewing on his shoe. “I’ll give him 24 hours off, then light duty for the rest of the week. Now will you get off my back?”

Alex smiled. “That’s the man that I know. You’re going to make some lucky woman very happy some day.”

Alfie bristled. “No. We are not having this conversation.” He looked down at the puppy. “Take my advice. Don’t let some dame tie you down.”

She crossed her arms. “You’re keeping company with that girl at the bakery counter, aren’t you?”

“Maybe.” Alfie put the puppy on his desk, watching with amusement as the small animal sniffed at his papers, then began to chew on a pencil.

“She was openly flirting with Tommy just a little while ago.”

“Well, maybe she ain’t as discerning as I thought she was.” Alfie grinned. “But she’s got a great ass—I mean, been a great asset—to this company.”

Alex sighed. “I’m not giving up on you yet. The right woman would smooth out those rough edges, and give you a bit of peace.”

“I have news for you, love—even if I were to marry, I’m unlikely to ever have a peaceful life.” He gave Tommy a sly glance.. “Same for Tommy boy here. In fact, any degree of peace is probably more unlikely for him, because he’s got his family to deal with. I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that they’re all fucking insane.”

“Alfie, you really shouldn’t joke like that,’’ Alex said reproachfully. She stood up and gave him a pointed glare before turning. She went over to Tommy, who was scowling at the affront to his family. She laid her hand on his shoulder and gave him a sweet smile. “He didn’t mean it.”

“Like hell he didn’t.” Tommy growled. He stood up, and took Alex’s hand in his. “With that, I think we’ll take our leave.”

Alfie gave him a calculating look, then stroked his beard. “Well, seeing as how we’re partners and all, you may be seeing me in Birmingham before too long. I’ve been thinking that I might open up a branch of the bakery up there with my cut from the bookmaking operation.”

Tommy glared at him. “Where the fuck did you get that idea from? No one said anything about you getting a cut.”

Alfie put the puppy in his lap, then picked up his walking stick and began to tap it on the desk. “Ah, but you need me, don’t you, Tommy boy? And loyalty, like intelligence, is a very valuable thing. You just can’t put a price on it--so to make it easy for you, I will. 40% of the take.”

“Are you fucking insane?” Tommy’s jaw tensed as he took a step towards Alfie. “That’s highway robbery!”

Alex put her hand on Tommy’s arm, then turned to Alfie and gave him a pleading look. “Alfie, please.”

“This is between me and Tommy, Alex,” he said gruffly.

“Tommy has risked his life to protect me, so I’m involved by extension--and both of you are very important to me. So please--can’t you find a way to work together?” She had not meant for her voice to crack, but her emotions had gotten the best of her.

Alfie shifted uneasily in his chair. Tommy remained stubbornly silent, and Alex squeezed his hand gently.

Please, she mouthed.

He cleared his throat, then said, “How about I give you one of my warehouses to use for your Birmingham distillery? That kind of building on land in the city proper would cost you a pretty penny.”

“Hmm. How big of a warehouse?”

“As big as you need.”

Alfie’s eyebrows drew together as he tapped his fingers on his desk. Finally, he sighed, then stuck out his hand. “You got yourself a deal.”

Tommy shook his hand, his face impassive. “Fair enough.”

“Wait--before you leave, I got something for Alex.” Alfie turned back to his desk, rummaging around in the bottom left drawer. “Here it is.” He pulled out a bottle and held it out to Alex.

She took it, and gasped as she examined the label. “ A 1915 Bordeaux! Alfie, this must have cost a fortune.”

He shrugged. “Nah, I got connections. Just make sure you enjoy every drop.”

“I will.” She leaned over gave him a hug. “Thank you so much.”

Five minutes later, they were on the road back to Birmingham. Alex glanced at Tommy. “I’m so glad you and Alfie worked things out.”

Tommy’s eyes flicked to the rear view mirror, then fixed on the road ahead.
“Yeah, well--I’m not sure there would have been a compromise if you hadn’t been there. Alfie is very fond of you.”

“Underneath the intimidating demeanor and profanity-laced language lurks a good heart. You just have to know how to get to it.” She was silent for a moment, then said, “Not unlike someone else I know.”

He nodded in agreement. “Polly does have a lot in common with Alfie.”

She rolled her eyes, then glanced over and saw him trying to suppress a grin.

“So, are you going to tell me where we’re going?”

“No.” His grin broadened.

“And I thought Alfie was difficult.” She sighed, and closed her eyes. “Then I’m going to take a nap.”

“If you’re going to do that, at least lean against my shoulder. Your head must have banged against the window fifty times on the way up.”

She opened one eye and gave him an irritable look.“That’s all down to your driving, not to my sleep position.”

He put his arm around her and drew her to him. “You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you?”

She yawned, and laid her head against him. “No. I’m the calm, competent physician who is too focused on her work to be charmingly saucy.” Ten seconds later, she was asleep.

She did not see Tommy lean over and kiss her hair.

“Liar,” he murmured.

Xxx

An hour later, the car came to a sudden stop, and Alex jolted awake.

“How many are there?” she mumbled, reaching for the door.

“What are you talking about?” The voice was vaguely familiar, but she knew it wasn’t any of her usual ambulance drivers.

Completely disoriented, she rubbed her eyes. A kaleidoscope of images of men she had treated spun through her brain. “Wounded, gassed, or both?” she replied, her voice taut with tension.

A hand touched hers. “Alex, it’s Tommy. the war’s over. We’re both home, in England--and we’re both safe.”

She blinked, then took in a shaky breath and turned to him, burying her face against his chest. “God, the gas victims--they were the worst, poor lads.”

A sob tore through her body, and she dimly felt his arms close around her. “There was this one soldier---he must have been barely eighteen. He’d been gassed, and in the panic of suffocating to death, he clawed at his throat and--” she grasped the lapels of his jacket, her throat working to get the words out.

“Tell me,” he murmured. “You need to get it out.”

“Tore his windpipe out,” she choked. She thought tears would follow, but her whole body had gone numb, and the simple act of crying seemed impossible at this point.

She felt his chest rise against her as he took in a deep breath. “That’s a fucking terrible thing to have seen,” he said, his voice hoarse with an emotion she’d never heard from him. “I honestly don’t know how you function--how you get up day after day and put in the hours you do, taking care of people who are sick--even the ones who are fucking bastards.”

“What other choice do I have?” She looked up at him. “If I stopped, I honestly think I would fall apart. I can’t allow myself the time to think.”

An instant later, sun came out from behind the clouds, and light flooded the car. Alex reached up and caressed his face.

“Thank you--for listening, and for understanding.”

“Anytime.” He kissed her forehead. “Does this mean you trust me enough to go along with whatever I have planned?”

She gave him a doubtful look. “Does it involve anything illegal?”

A flicker of amusement appeared in his eyes. “I can promise you that I will not be luring you into a life of crime--at least not today.”

“Then the answer is yes.”

“Good.” Seconds later, he was out of the car and opening up her door. “Let me show you where we’re going.”

The car was parked at the side of a road on top of a hill that gave them an expansive view of the green valley below. The landscape was dotted with small groves of trees and rambling stone walls. A herd of blackface sheep grazed in a large field to the left of a stream that wound through the valley. To the right of the stream, nestled among a small copse of trees, was a rambling house that looked as if it dated back several centuries. A small stone cottage stood on a hillside overlooking the larger house.

“It’s lovely.” Alex breathed, her pounding heart starting to calm as her eyes drank in the view. “I’ve never seen a prettier little farm. Who lives there?”

“A good friend of mine, an elderly widow by the name of Olive Davies. I often swing by for a visit when I’m in the area. Come on, let’s head down there. You need to see it up close to get the full effect.”

Five minutes later, they turned into a long drive that was lined with a mixture of aspen, birch, and elm trees. Reaching the end, they pulled up in front of the large house and parked. As they got out, a tiny scrap of a woman appeared on the doorstep.

“Tommy Shelby! Right on time, as usual.” She hurried to Tommy, and gave him a hug. Her white hair was tied up in a blue scarf that matched her eyes, which lit up when she turned to Alex. “And you must be Alexandra Ross-I’m so pleased to meet you, Dr. Ross.”

Alex shook her hand, warming to the woman’s friendly manner at once. “Please, call me Alex.”

The woman patted her hand. “Then you must call me Olive.” She looked up at Tommy. “Now, everything is ready--so off with the two of you, and have a lovely time of it. Stop in for a cup of tea when you get back.” In an instant, she had disappeared back into the house, closing the wooden door behind her.

“Right then.” Tommy took her hand, and began to walk purposefully towards a long, low building that she hadn’t notice.

“Wait, I’m confused,” Alex had to nearly trot to keep up with him. “What are we doing? I thought we were going to visit with Olive.”

“We are. But we have something to do first.”

As they reached the door of the building, Alex heard a whinny, and her head snapped up.

“Oh, no. I’m not--”

Before she could finish her sentence, Tommy opened the door and propelled her inside.

The stable was large and airy, and the pleasant smells of hay and well-oiled leather hung in the air. Three large stalls stood off to the left, their equine inhabitants peering at them inquisitively.

“No, not today,” she said decidedly. “I don’t have the proper clothes.”

Tommy put his hands on her shoulders. “Already taken care of.” He nodded at a bundle of clothes that sat on a small wooden crate. A pair of polished leather riding boots sat next to them.

“But--the weather--it’s been raining all morning.”

“It’s not any more. You saw for yourself that the sun is out.” He began to gently massage her shoulders. “Listen, I know that you’re afraid, and I know that this is new for you--so you have to believe that any man who cared enough to take on the task of teaching you would damn well make sure that your first time is the best experience possible.” Turning her around, he looked down at her, his blue eyes so earnest that it nearly took her breath away.

“Trust me, Alex. I won’t let anything happen to you that isn’t good.”

“Okay.” She swallowed, and forced herself to smile. “But can we open up the Bordeaux before this day is over?”

He laughed. “I’m not much for wine, but I can definitely make that happen. Now go change. The tack room over to the right will give you plenty of room.”

Five minutes later, Alex emerged from the tack room. “What kind of witchcraft do you employ to summon up clothes for me that are so lovely? These boots and jodhpurs fir perfectly.”

He smiled. “It’s all down to the good witch Ada. Now, the first step is for you to select a horse.”

“Me? I don’t know the first thing about how to pick the right one to ride.”

“It’s easy. You just go up to the horse and talk to them. Ask them how they’re doing, and get a feel for whether your personalities match.”

Alex stared at him. “Are you joking?”

“I’m completely serious. The relationship between a horse and a rider is all about chemistry. It’s either there or it isn’t. You can’t force it.”

“So I’m going to go up to each horse, say hello, and have a chat?”

“It’s best if you give them a snack also-helps the both of you to relax.”

He reached into a small crate that stood on the floor, and produced a small apple. Handing it to her, he nodded. “Off you go.”

Feeling foolish, she cautiously approached the first horse, then glanced back at him.
“It feels awkward to speak out loud.”

“Then whisper to them,” he said, leaning against the wall and watching her.

“What if it bites me?”

“Olive’s horses are as gentle as they come. She’s the only one that handles them from the moment they are born. They won’t bite unless you do something aggressive that hurts them--which you’re not going to do.”

The horse, a chocolate brown mare, gave a soft whinny and turned to her.

“Look at her ears,” Tommy said. “They’re pitched forward, so she’s interested and attentive. Relaxed ears are okay also. Ears flat back is what you want to avoid--that means the animal is nervous or upset. Now hold out your hand--the one without the apple--and let her smell you.”

Alex slowly extended her hand, and the horse sniffed her, then nudged at her fingers.

“She’s accepted you. Her name is Briallen, and she likes to have her neck scratched, so go ahead and give her a good scratch.”

She edged closer, and gingerly touched the horse. The mare swung her neck around, and Alex jumped back.

“It’s okay,” Tommy said. He came over to her and stood behind her, settling his hands on her waist. He spoke softly, keeping his voice soothing. “She just wants to see what you’re doing. If you step out of her sight line, it’ll make her nervous. Go ahead and try again. I’ll stay with you this time.” He nudged her forward.

Alex stretched out her hand, careful to stay where the horse could see her. Her fingers skimmed against the horse’s neck.

“You’re doing fine. Now a bit of a scratch.”

Alex followed his instructions, and found herself relaxing against Tommy as the horse nuzzled her.

“You’re a good girl, aren’t you?” she said softly. “I bet you’re tired of being cooped up here in this stable. Would you like to see the sun for a bit?”

The animal’s intelligent brown eyes seemed to meet hers for a moment, and then the mare tossed her head.

Tommy chuckled, his chest vibrating pleasantly against Alex’s back. “See, she’s listening. Now give her the apple, and you’ll have a friend for life. Hold out your palm flat, with the apple in the center, and she’ll take it.”

Alex craned her neck to look back at him. “What about her teeth?”

“Believe me, she’d much rather have a bite of the apple. Here, let me take your hand.” He placed his hand under hers, then guided the apple up to the horse’s mouth. The mare carefully took the apple between her teeth, then happily began to munch on it.

“I did it!” Alex turned and threw her arms around Tommy’s neck, a mixture of relief and delight flooding through her. “I’m sure it seems silly to you to be so thrilled about handing an apple to a horse, but I’m ridiculously excited right now.”

“Good. Now go get the bottle off wine.”

“Already? I thought we might wait until later.”

“There’s no time like the present. Off with you.”

With a smile on her face, she went to the car and retrieved the bottle. Returning to the stables, she saw Tommy leading Briallen out of her stall. Her eyes zeroed in on the saddle on the mare’s back, and she stopped short.

“No, Tommy. I’m not ready.”

“There will never be a time when you think you’re ready. That’s why it has to be now. Give me the wine, and I’ll tuck it into the saddlebag. It’ll be your reward at the halfway point.”

She edged closer, handed him the wine, then turned to make a dash for the car. She’d made it ten steps before he caught her around the waist. Deftly spinning her around, he drew her against him and gave her a kiss that left her breathless.

“I can also arrange for another sort of reward,” he murmured, trailing his lips down her neck. “But to claim it, you’ve got to let go of your fears and trust me. Can you do that?”

“I---I think so,” she gasped. Closing her eyes, she prayed that she hadn’t made a very grave mistake.

 

Chapter Text

"Alright then," he murmured, his fingers tracing a lazy path down her spine. "The first thing I need for you to do is to relax. When you're sitting on that horse, she needs to feel grounded. If you're anxious and fidgety, she will feel the same."

"That's easier said than done," Alex said, her voice shaking slightly.

"Hey, a promise is a promise, aye? I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

She nodded, and took in a deep breath. "Okay. The quicker the better."

He took her by the hand and led her over to Briallen. Going up to the horse, he spoke to her softly in Romani, rubbing her neck. She tilted her head towards him and whickered, then gently nosed Alex as Tommy checked the girth on the saddle.

"What are you doing?" Alex asked, tentatively stroking the horses' neck.

"We're going to ride together for a bit. I wouldn't do it for a long stretch-it'd tire the horse out-but it will give you a bit of security, and get you used to the rhythm." He led the horse over to a crate, then stepped up on the box and swung onto her back in one smooth motion.

"Now you."

Alex gave him a doubtful look. "I'm not very graceful."

He sighed. "We're not dancing, Alex. Just get on the fucking horse."

She raised an eyebrow. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not one of your Blinders. So please don't address me like one."

He held her gaze for an instant, then gave her a curt nod. "Fair enough. Let's get on with it then. One foot in the stirrup, then use the other to give yourself a boost up."

Placing one boot gingerly into the stirrup, she pushed off with the other foot, but could not quite get her leg over the saddle. Losing momentum, she shifted her body, and somehow managed to end up draped across Tommy's lap.

"That's a rather unique method," he said dryly. "I don't think I've ever seen someone mount a horse quite like that."

She flushed, and began to try to pull herself up to a sitting position.

"However, your acrobatics do give me a new appreciation for jodhpurs. Not every woman can fill them as well as you do." The smirk in his voice was unmistakable.

"Tommy Shelby, I ought to-" She twisted her neck, trying to catch a glimpse of his face. As a result, she nearly fell off..

He caught her, and hauled her back up to his lap. "Enough with the wriggling," he said firmly. "You're making this much more difficult than it needs to be."

She suddenly became aware of the hand caressing the gentle curve of her bottom, and gave him an accusing look.

A cocky grin spread across his face. "I didn't say I wasn't enjoying it."

"God, you are aggravating!" Alex burst out.

"Would you like some help sitting up?" he inquired.

She gritted her teeth, struggling to keep her voice even. "If it's not too much trouble."

In an instant, his arm looped around her waist. With a strength that seemed almost effortless, Tommy pulled her up into a sitting position on his knee.

"Hello." The teasing glint in his eye rankled her.

"If you weren't so-" she said hotly.

"So what?"

She found herself staring at his lips. "If you'd just be a proper gangster, this would be a whole lot easier."

He slipped a hand behind her neck, his thumb resting lightly on her throbbing pulse. Pivoting her body, he adjusted her position so that she was straddling him. Then he brushed a lock of hair from her face, and gave her the sort of cold stare that made her acutely aware of just why he was so feared. "Most people seem to think I make a very convincing gangster. Care to tell me why you disagree?"

She swallowed. "You don't follow the rules."

"That's because I'm a leader, not a follower," he said evenly. "Anything else?"

"Well, mostly it's your mouth."

"My mouth?" A slight crinkle appeared around his eyes.

Alex reached up and tentatively touched her index finger to the fullest part of his smooth bottom lip.

"Your lips are just-perfect." She traced the curve of his lower lip. "Warm, soft, sensual-they're very distracting."

He cocked his head. "Hmm. Too bad Alfie doesn't have a thing for me. Distracting lips would be very helpful during business negotiations."

She frowned as her finger strayed to his top lip. "Do you ever stop thinking about business?"

"Every once in a while," he murmured. "Especially if I have a gorgeous woman in my arms." He kissed the tip of her finger, then moved to her lips. Although a marked contrast to his hard, demanding kiss a few minutes earlier, the gentle pressure of his mouth this time did nothing but heighten the already intense attraction she was feeling for him.

Winding his fingers through her hair, he took the time to leisurely explore her mouth. Alex had spent fifteen laborious minutes trying to tame her hair that morning. Despite the vague knowledge that her careful work would turn into a wild mess, she couldn't have cared less. She inhaled his scent, an intoxicating blend of cedarwood and spices. As reason began to slip away, she closed her eyes. Her hands slipped to the back of his head of their own accord, desperately seeking the erotic sensation of his closely shaven hair sliding under her fingers.

He captured her lower lip in his, sucking gently before releasing it and slipping his tongue into her mouth. Abandoning her inhibitions, she followed suit. Tommy groaned, pulling her so close that her breasts pressed against his muscular chest.

The horse shifted restlessly, and Alex gasped, clinging to Tommy for dear life.

"See, this is dangerous," she said, her voice trembling. "We should just stay here and drink the wine."

He laughed, and kissed the curve of her neck. "Very tempting, but the whole reason I brought you here was to teach you to ride. I can kiss you anywhere I Iike, anytime I like."

"I think that might just be the definition of overconfidence," she said, giving him a sweet smile. "What makes you think I'm such an easy mark?"

He smirked. "Because I know for a fact that you find me irresistible."

"That is a lie!"

"So you'd just as soon kiss your friend Alfie?"

She paused, considering his question. "Well, I'd be lying if I said I've never thought about what it would be like. He's got that incredible charisma, you know-and I imagine that the feel of his whiskers brushing against my skin would be quite nice."

His face became impassive. "Very well then. You've made your choice. From now on, my involvement with you is strictly limited to providing security."

She returned his gaze boldly. "I don't believe you for a second."

"You doubt my word? That's a very serious accusation, Dr. Ross. Some might say you'd be taking your life in your hands to say such a thing to Tommy Shelby."

"But they don't know the Tommy Shelby that I do. He's the man who moved heaven and earth to get a new office for me up and running-the man who was generous enough to invite me, a stranger living under a death sentence, into his house-and the man who was able to stir a kind of passion in me that I didn't think was possible-not after what I lost."

His expression softened, and he leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers. "Do you believe in fate?"

"A few years ago, I would have given you a categorical no. But now? Yes."

"Aye," he said softly. "Some things are just meant to be." Then he took in a deep breath. "We should get going. The clouds are gathering again, and it may rain before too long."

Ten minutes later, they rode along the bank of the stream. Tommy kept the horse at a slow walk, and Alex finally began to relax. The trees all around them were a riot of vivid color, with scarlet, orange, and yellow blending together to create a fall landscape the likes of which Alex had not seen except in paintings.

"It's beautiful," she said, relishing the feeling of having Tommy's arm securely wrapped around her waist.

"It is. A stark contrast to Small Heath, that's for sure."

"Do you ever wish you could live somewhere like this?"

She felt him shrug. "Never thought about it. I've only ever lived in Birmingham-except for the three years I spent in France. And while I was there, all I ever thought about was getting back home."

"It must have been a very lonely time for you."

"Most of the time I was too busy trying to stay alive to think about it. But sometimes-aye, there were times I would have given my right arm to have been walking the streets of Small Heath-maybe after dark on a crisp autumn evening...with a pretty, clever woman on my arm and a soft bed waiting at home."

"It's always the simple things, isn't it? I used to lay in my cot at night and fantasize about being able to soak in a lovely hot bubble bath for as long as I wanted."

"And when you finally got home?"

"When I came back to Leith, I was a grieving widow, with a sick father who needed my care. I didn't have much time for self-indulgence."

"You were married then." Tommy's voice had subtly changed.

"Yes. Jonathan and I were married by one of his fellow chaplains. There had been a lull in the fighting due to the heavy rain. We took advantage of the down time, knowing that we were unlikely to have another chance anytime soon. I was his wife for six weeks, but we were only able to spend three nights together. It was hard, but we told each other we'd have the rest of our lives." Her voice caught for an instant, and she cleared her throat. "But sometimes life has other plans for us."

Alex was silent for a moment, then spoke up again. "You're probably wondering why I didn't tell you earlier. It's hard to explain, and I'm not sure you'll understand. But when I tell people I'm a widow, people assume I was married for several years-and then they ask me how long we were together. When I say six weeks, they look at me like it wasn't even a real marriage. But it was very real to me."

She craned her neck to look back at him. "Does knowing that I'm a widow change how you think of me?"

"No more than it changed your opinion of me to find out that I was the leader of the Blinders." He looked up at the sky and frowned. "I think we'd better head back. I just felt some rain drops."

As he turned the horse around, a light rain did indeed begin to fall, and the soft breeze turned into a strong wind. "At least we have the Bordeaux to look forward to," Alex said, trying to keep her voice cheerful.

A few minutes later, the rain began to pick up. "I'm going to pick up the pace," Tommy said. "Nothing faster than a jog, but the sooner we get back, the better."

Alex instinctively reached for his arm, and he drew her against his chest. He spoke, his low voice close to her ear now. "Trust me. I won't let you fall."

As they left the stream and headed out into an open meadow, the heavens opened up. The temperature had dropped a good 15 degrees, and Alex began to worry about Tommy.

"I'm got a bit of shelter from your body, but you'll catch your death of cold if we're out here much longer. Influenza cases have already been reported in London."

"Trust me, I've lived through much worse before. During the war, I spent weeks at a time crawling through tunnels four inches deep in water." Nevertheless, he urged the horse into a faster jog that approached a trot.

As Alex began to jostle against him, she clutched the horn of the saddle, her body tensing.

"No, don't stiffen up," he said tersely. "Relax your legs and lean back against me."

"I can't," she said, her voice rising in panic.

Tommy began to sing then, his voice a clear, soothing baritone. As she listened to the song that he must have learned in the trenches, she felt her anxiety begin to recede.

"Raining, raining, raining,

Always bloody well raining,

Raining all the morning,

And raining all the night.

Grousing, grousing, grousing,

Always bloody well grousing,

Grousing at the rations,

And grousing at the pay."

She breathed a sigh of release when they finally rode into the barn. Tommy pulled on the reins, and the horse came to a halt, softly blowing through her nose. He dismounted, then reached up for Alex.

She slid off and hit the ground, nearly losing her balance. His grip on her waist tightened as he steadied her. As their breath mingled in the cold air, her heart skipped a beat for an instant. He was soaked to the skin, his white shirt plastered to his back. Water trickled down his face, curving over his prominent cheekbones. Despite his bedraggled appearance, he had never looked more handsome.

"We-we should put the horse away," she murmured.

"Right." He removed his hands from her waist, and stepped back. Leading Briallen to her stall, he removed the saddle and rubbed her down.

Alex spied a piece of paper pinned to the door of the tack room, and walked over to it, taking it down. "Tommy, there's a note here addressed to us."

"Must be from Olive," he called. "What's it say?"

She read it out loud.

My elderly aunt has been taken to hospital, and may not survive the night. Headed for Coventry-hoping to beat the weather. Nasty storm headed this way. The cottage is open if you need to take refuge. Olive x

As she fell silent, the rain pounded against the roof. Tommy carefully shut the stall behind him, then glanced outside.

"No doubt the roads are only going to get worse. It's a good job that I had Esme block your clinic until 1 pm tomorrow."

Alex was taken aback. "Why would you do such a thing without consulting with me?"

"Because you would have told me not to." He retrieved the bottle of wine from the saddlebag, then turned and faced her. "Look, you haven't had a chance to stop and breathe since this whole mess started with Sabini. You'll benefit from a good twenty four hours away from work."

Alex folded her arms. "Says the man who lives and breathes his work."

"We're talking about you, not me. Why are you fighting me on this?"

"Because I don't like feeling like you're trying to manage me."

His jaw set. "Even if that's what you need?

"I need Tommy Shelby to manage my life?"

Tommy shook his head in disbelief. "Now you're putting words in my mouth." He rubbed his neck and sighed. "Is it so wrong for me to want to see you relaxed and happy for 24 hours?"

The sincerity in his eyes melted away the anger and frustration that she had felt seconds ago. "Of course not." She took a step forward. "I'm sorry. The fact that I'm so on edge shows that you're probably right." She glanced down at the bottle of wine. "Can we call a truce and finally open up that bottle?"

Tommy grinned. "I thought you'd never ask." Taking her hand, he led her to the door of the stables. They stood for a moment, watching the driving rain, which now resembled a monsoon. He glanced down at her. "We'll have to make a run for it. The cottage is a good 200 yards away."

"Does it really matter at this point? We're both completely drenched."

He shrugged. "It'll make for a better story. We should have a good explanation for why we didn't make it back to Birmingham tonight."

Her mouth went dry. "We're-we're staying the night?"

"Alex, I know these roads. The stream's probably already flooded the road leading to the house."

"Alright then. It'll be an adventure." She looked up at him. "Ready?"

He nodded, and they dashed across the courtyard and up the steep hill that led to the cottage. By the time they managed to get inside the little stone house, water was streaming down their bodies.

"I have never been so cold in my entire life," Alex gasped, her teeth chattering.

Tommy knelt down. "Let's get your boots off." He eased them off her feet, then stood up and said, "Give me a moment to start a fire, and then I'll run you a bath."

"Thank heavens for indoor plumbing."

Two minutes later, a log had caught fire. Tommy took of his own shoes, then stood up and jerked his head towards the bedroom.

"Come on, the bath's through here."

Alex followed him into an inviting bedroom that was decorated in soothing shades of blue and cream. A rambling stone fireplace stood opposite a large brass bed. She caught a glimpse of a white clawfoot tub through an open door next to the bed.

As Tommy walked into the bath and turned on the tap, she hung behind, suddenly feeling shy.

"Alex!" Tommy called.

"Coming!" She took a step, and nearly stumbled. Her feet and hands were numb, and she could not stop shivering.

Tommy was at her side in an instant. "You don't look so good," he said, his voice full of concern.

"I'm fine."

"No you're not." He picked her up and carried her to the bath, where the tub was nearly full. He shut the tap off, then turned to her. "I think you might need some help."

She laughed weakly. "I'm not so weak that I can't still work a button."

"Show me then." He took a step closer. "You can take my shirt off for me."

Raising her shaking hands to his collar, she fumbled with the top button. Despite several attempts, she could not get her fingers to cooperate, and leaned against him wearily before stepping back.

"I thought so." He was quiet for a moment, then said. "Let me help you."

"Okay," she whispered.

He closed the distance between them, then held her gaze as he eased open the top button of her blouse. "We've done this part before, remember? This is familiar territory."

His calloused fingers slid over her skin to the second button, then the third. She swallowed as he slipped the blouse off her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor. Circling behind her, he unhooked her brassiere, his breath stirring the damp curls at the nape of her neck. His hands moved to her waist, resting for a moment before he went to work on the buttons that secured her jodhpurs. Alex closed her eyes and held her breath, trying not to think about the large brass bed that stood twenty feet away.

"I would never take advantage of you. You know that, right?" he murmured.

"I know," she whispered. A second later, the cool air hit her legs. Now only a thin pair of satin knickers stood between Tommy Shelby and her naked body. "But what if -" she paused, torn between desire and propriety, then plunged ahead. "What if I wanted you to?"

Chapter Text

He picked her up, and she dimly realized that he had shed his shirt. “I’d tell you that we should first restore some feeling to to your hands and feet.”

“I don’t want to,” she mumbled.

“That’s exactly my point,” he said, his voice low and husky. “You're not thinking clearly.”

“Yes I am. Also, my knickers are still on.”

He lowered her into the water. “We’ll leave that last bit on, okay?”

“No, Tommy.” She squirmed against him. He released his grip on her, then reached for her shoulders and gave her a slight shake.

“Look at me.”

She lifted her eyes to his.

“Tommy bathing a completely naked, vulnerable Alex is not a good idea, period. I’m sure you can guess why.” The intensity of his gaze drained away any thought she had of opposing him. She gave him a small nod, and dropped her eyes.

“Now, you’re going to lean back and let me you get washed up. Once that’s done, I’m going to dry you off, wrap you in a blanket, and put you in front of the fire with a glass of wine while I clean up. Then we’ll see.”

Without waiting for a reply, he moved behind her. A few moments later, she heard him light a cigarette. As the familiar smell of tobacco wafted over her, he began to rummage in the small basket she’d seen beside the tub. Humming under his breath, he placed his hands on the sides of her head. As his fingers began to massage her scalp in a soothing, circular motion, he applied gentle pressure to the base of her skull with the pads of his thumbs. The sensation was incredibly relaxing. She found herself arching her back as the faint scent of coconut floated through the air, mingling with the tobacco.

He chuckled. “Liking that, are you?”

She sighed. “It’s absolute bliss. My hair’s always a bit difficult to manage, so having someone else take care of that for me is lovely.”

“I like your hair.”

“The length’s not very fashionable.”

Tommy scoffed. “Fuck fashion. There’s something to be said for a woman having hair long enough that you can properly run your fingers through it.”

A few minutes later, she ducked under the water to rinse her hair. Upon resurfacing, she saw him staring at her. He took a long drag on his cigarette, then averted his eyes and stood up.

“Give me a minute.”

As she watched him leave the room, a memory flashed through her mind. She was walking down the street on Tommy’s arm when a voluptuous blonde sauntered past them, a perfectly tailored sky blue dress highlighting her enviable figure.

Retreating against the far wall of the tub, Alex drew her arms against her chest. As a young teen, she had been one of the last girls in her peer group to develop. She had always been self-conscious about her breasts, and now Tommy had seen them in the full light. She could not help but wonder if he had abruptly left the room because he had been disappointed. There was no way she could hold a candle to a curvaceous woman like Mabel.

Straightening out her legs, she looked down at them. Although she had lost a good fifteen pounds since she had left France, the dimpled skin of her outer thighs had stubbornly refused to smooth. She drew her knees against her chest, heartily wishing that cellulite had not been part of her genetic heritage.

By the time Tommy returned with a bottle of whisky and two glasses, her confidence in her body had ebbed to an all time low.

Placing the glasses on a small table, he poured two generous measures, then handed her a glass. “Drink this. It’ll warm you up faster than the water will.”

Accepting the glass, she dutifully sipped at the amber liquid, watching as he downed his own, then filled it again. He paced the length of the small room once, then twice, raking his hand through his hair. Stubbing out his cigarette, he drained the last of his whisky, then slammed the glass on the table.

“Right then. Let’s finish up.”

The rest of her bath had been a pleasant blur. As she sat in front of the fire with a thick woolen blanket draped around her, Alex closed her eyes, trying to recall what had actually happened. There had been the soap gliding over her arms and legs, with notes of cedarwood and citrus hanging in the air. Then there had been a pause, and she had shifted restlessly, sending the water surging against the edges of the rub.

“Hang on.” After a few muttered curses, he had reappeared at her side, holding a white towel that looked large enough to envelope two of her.

“Step out carefully now--take your time.” Once she had clambered over the edge, he had wrapped the towel around her. “I’m going to reach up and shimmy off those wet knickers. Once I’ve got them off, stand still while I dry off your legs and feet.”

Taking a fluffy white hand towel, he had briskly rubbed her lower legs and feet. A moment later, the lights flickered, then went off.

Tommy sighed. “Fucking hell. Don’t move.” He made his way out into the bedroom. She heard him toss several logs into the fireplace. After a minute or so, a soft hiss and crack heralded the beginnings of a fire.

Before she had had a chance to become cold, he had returned to her side, a white shirt in his hands.

“Our clothing options are unfortunately limited, so you’re going to be modeling one of my shirts. Drop the towel, and I’ll slip it on your shoulders.” She hesitated, and he said softly, “Look, if you’re self conscious, I’ll close my eyes. Just tell me when.”

Her stomach churning, she let the towel slip to the floor. “I’m ready.”

He draped the crisp starched shirt over her shoulders, and she threaded her arms through the sleeves.

Resting his hands on her waist, he asked, “Do you need any help?”

Alex reached for the hem, the finest of tremors still visible in her hands. After one attempt, she was able to easily thread the bottom button.

“You’re off the hook. It appears that my fine motor skills have been restored.”

“Good girl.” He gave her a gentle squeeze, then released her.

As she finished buttoning the shirt, she turned, and gave him a shy smile. “I’m not sure it’s quite my look, but thank you.”

Her heart began to pound as his gaze traveled over her body, settling on her exposed legs for several seconds before returning to meet her eyes. He gave her an approving nod, then reached for a blanket and draped it around her. “You’re welcome. I just wish we had been better prepared.”

“Well, it’s difficult to cover every possible contingency. How many times have you been caught in the rain and---” Her voice died away as a thought struck her.

“Been what?” he asked, bending over to pick up a washcloth that had fallen to the floor.

She bit her lip. “Nothing. Erm, I just remembered something---I left my medical bag in the car.”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re off duty tonight, so it can stay in the car. I promise not to break an arm or come down with appendicitis.”

“I’d really prefer to have it with me. I have several medications in it that are quite costly--including morphine. In some cities, an ounce of morphine on the black market can fetch 30 pounds.”

“Alex, who the fuck is going to break into a car on an isolated farm--during the storm of the century, no less--in order to steal your medical kit?”

“Please, Tommy--it’ll give me peace of mind.”

He glanced up at the ceiling, then heaved a sigh. “Alright. On one condition though...you sit by the fire with your glass of wine.”

“I promise.”

Twenty minutes later, he placed the bottle of whisky on the table and dropped onto the couch next to her. Having fetched her bag, he had bathed and put on a clean pair of trousers. Alex was starting on her second glass of wine, and already could feel a warm glow spreading through her body. Laying his head back on one of the large cushions, he turned to look at her.

“It’s been a hell of a day.”

“Nothing a glass of wine can’t fix.”

He shook his head. “I’m not much for wine.”

“You’ve never tried a good Bordeaux then. Here, have a sip.” She offered him the glass, but he put up a hand.

“I don’t think so.”

“You won’t even try?”

“No. I'm a simple man with simple tastes.”

She laughed. “You are anything but simple, Tommy Shelby. No man with simple tastes wears bespoke suits that fit him like a glove.”

He shrugged. “I like to dress well. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“I didn’t say there was. In fact, I think you look pretty damn good in said suits. Not every man has the confidence or style to carry them off. You have both in spades.”

A smile tugged at his lips. “Wine apparently enhances your skill at flirting.”

“Is that a compliment, or an insult?”

“Since you are already quite accomplished at baseline, I’d say it’s a compliment.”

She took a sip if wine, then said, “You don’t have a shirt on.”

“That’s because you’re wearing it.”

“Oh. How is it that you had a spare set of clothes here anyway?”

“I often go back and forth to London, and Olive’s farm is a convenient halfway point. It makes sense to keep a spare set here in case I’m traveling late and decide to spend the night.”

“How did you two meet?”

“I did some business with her late husband.”

“So she’s a widow.” Alex ran a finger along the edge of her glass. “How did he die?”

“Fell out of the hayloft and broke his neck. I saw it happen, actually. It was a most unfortunate accident.”

A thread of uneasiness began to wind through her body. She shifted, tucking one leg under her. “It must have been horrible to have seen such a thing. You must have felt so helpless.”

“Not really. I was the one who pushed him.”

Alex felt her heart stop for a moment. The log in the fireplace hissed, throwing up a shower of sparks. She took in a small breath. “I’m--I’m sure you had a good reason, but---”

“Wasn’t Olive bereft? Fuck, no. She cried, but they were tears of relief. He had beaten her to a pulp a day earlier--the same day he had embezzled a tidy sum of money from a joint business venture we had together.” He set his jaw, his eyes becoming cold. “He’d planned to move to Spain with his mistress, and thought he’d be long gone before I ever caught up with him. But he was wrong.”

The wind picked up outside, rattling the wooden door. Alex drew the blanket around her shoulders, then glanced back at Tommy.

“When you have to do things like that, what keeps you going from day to day?”

He stared up at the ceiling. “I don’t really think about it, but I suppose it’s the business--and my family.”

“I know how important the business is to you, and it’s obvious you’re fond of your family. But what soothes you on a bad day?”

“That’d be where the whiskey comes in.” He leaned forward, and filled his glass once again.

“That’s not what I mean.” She put down her own glass as he settled back next to her. Taking his hand, she said softly, “Who do you talk to when you’ve had a day that makes you want to chuck it all and go to Barafundle?”

As rain pounded the window, he stared into the fire. “Sometimes I talk to myself.”

At that moment, she understood the depth of his emotional isolation. Her heart constricted at the thought of Tommy sitting alone in his office, his head in his hands. She pictured him with a cigarette in one hand and a whisky in the other, trying to work through the aftermath of a particularly violent or stressful day. Reacting with the compassion that was so instinctive for her, she slid into his lap, and sat facing him.

“Tommy.” Her voice caught when she said his name, and she paused in order to gain control over her emotions. A lock of his hair had fallen on to his forehead, and she smoothed it back with a gentle sweep of her fingers. “Please, let me take the place of the whisky--even if it’s just for tonight.” Leaning forward, she kissed him, giving in to the undeniable draw of their mutual attraction.

The kiss was slow and sweet, and she could feel his body responding to her within seconds. When she finally pulled away, he looked up at her, his breathing ragged.

“Alex, if we go any further, we’re going to end up fucking.”

“No we’re not,” she murmured, her lips tracing the curve of his jaw and sliding to his neck. “We have all night, and there’s no business waiting, no Arthur and John to interrupt, no patients to see. There’s a time and a place for fucking, but tonight we’re going to make love.”

In one smooth motion, Tommy laid her on her back. He gazed down at her, his eyes dark with desire. “I’m not sure I’ve got the self-control to take it slow. Not when you’re lying in front of me looking like you look right now.”

“And how do I look?” she whispered.

“Your mouth is swollen from me kissing you, and your nipples are already so hard that they’re straining at my shirt.”

“Then maybe you should take pity on them.”

His hands went to work on the buttons, and within seconds, her breasts were bare. He took them in his hands and began to slowly knead them. His fingers strayed to the nipples, giving them a teasing tug that made her gasp with pleasure. “Who says I lack compassion?” he muttered with a smirk.

“That’s very good, but I’m not giving you full marks yet. You’re still holding out on me.”

“Is that a fact?” Although she could feel his arousal through his trousers, he was still perfectly composed--and that only amplified her desire for him.

“Yes. And I know from experience that you can do better.”

“How did my sweet Alex turn into a demanding temptress?” he murmured, leaning over and sweeping his tongue over one nipple, then the other. The rough surface of his tongue combined with the sensitivity of her own tissue created a sensual friction that left her almost writhing under him.

“It’s all down to you,” she said, a thrill running down her spine as one of his hands slid to her thigh. His fingers began to caress the soft skin, gradually inching upwards. Alex shifted under him, struggling to hold back a moan.

“Please don’t tease me, Tommy.”

He bent over and brushed his lips against hers. “You said we had all the time in the world, didn’t you?” A few seconds later, the tip of a finger brushed against the soft curls at the apex of her thighs before retreating.

Determined to make him suffer the same sweet torture, she went to work on his trousers. In a matter of seconds, she had loosened the buttons and slipped her hand inside. Her fingers slid slowly down his shaft before closing around it. He groaned, and thrust against her hand. An instant later, she withdrew her hand, giving him a sweet smile.

“I did say that, didn’t it?”

A smirk played about his lips for a just an instant. Then shook his head gravely. Standing up, he took off his trousers, tossing them to the ground.

“You’re playing with fire, Dr. Ross.” Leaning over, he picked her up. She squeaked in surprise as he threw her over his shoulder and headed towards the bedroom.

Once they reached the room, he lowered her to the bed. An instant later, his mouth was on hers. She melted against him, her hands gliding across the his muscular back. Sliding his hand under her shirt, he trailed one finger along her folds.

“How are you so wet already?” he rasped, nudging her legs apart with his knee.

“I love you, Tommy.” The words slipped out of her mouth before she even realized what she was saying. Her admission shook her to her core, and she averted her gaze, fighting to hold back the tears that pricked at her eyes. “I’m sorry...I didn’t mean to...I don’t—“

He drew back, and tilted her chin up with his finger. “Look at me, Alex.”

She raised her eyes. The firelight played across his chest, highlighting his muscular frame.

“I want you to be sure that you’re ready. The last thing I want is for you to be caught up in the moment and then regret it tomorrow morning..or the next day.”

She reached for his chest, her fingers splaying to cover the center of his tattoo with her palm.

“I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

In an instant, she felt the tension in his body drain away.

“Good—because that’s exactly how I feel.” He looked down at her and grinned. “I am going to have very happy memories every time I put that shirt on. But right now, it’s getting to be a bit of a nuisance. Don’t you agree?”

“The same could be said of your boxers.” With a swift motion, she grasped the waistband and slid them down, exposing his erection.

He raised an eyebrow. “You’re a cheeky one, aren’t you?”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“Well, it’s my turn now.” He glanced down at the last few buttons on the shirt, then muttered, “Fuck it.” Seizing the fabric, he tore it open, sending the buttons flying. This degree of passion was something she had not experienced with Jonathan, and she found it incredibly erotic, although somewhat intimidating as well. She lay perfectly still as his gaze raked over her body. Then he shed his boxers with an impatient gesture, tossing them to the floor.

Lying down next to her, he pulled the shirt off her shoulders, then gathered her to him. The feel of his bare skin next to hers was intoxicating, and when she felt his hard length between her legs, Alex instinctively began to grind against him. The first movement sent a wave of pleasure through her core, and she gasped.

Then his mouth crashed against hers, and he rolled her onto her back. His hands roamed over her body, with one finally settling between her thighs.

“God, your skin is like velvet—especially this part.” His fingers slid up to caress the soft folds, then inched closer to her aching clitoris.

“Tommy, I don’t want to get pregnant.” She was having a hard time controlling her breathing, and knew that if she didn’t say something now, it would soon be too late.

“Okay,” he mumbled. His finger was so close now, and she sensed that she would orgasm the moment he touched her nub.

“No really—I don’t.”

“Alright. I’ll pull out—or something.”

“Tommy!” She took his face in her hands, and forced him to look at her. “I need to talk to you, not to your cock.”

“I don’t think my cock is much of a conversationalist,” he said, staring down at her lips.

“My point exactly. There’s a new diaphragm in my medical bag, and I need it now.”

“Oh.” His expression cleared as the message finally seemed to get through to him. “You want me to get it.”
He was gone and back in less than thirty seconds. Placing the bag on the bed, he began to rummage through it, tossing various instruments and bottles onto the sheets.

“For heaven’s sake, be careful! I’ve got scalpels in there!”

“Where the fuck it is?” He rattled the bag in frustration. “This is ridiculous, Alex. You’ve got an entire medical supply company in here.” Finally giving up, he upended the bag, shaking the contents onto the bed.

Alex finally spied the diaphragm and small tube of spermicide. Scooping them up, she swiftly prepared the small device and slipped it under the covers, discreetly inserting it. Then she collapsed against the pillows, dissolving into helpless laughter. He glared at her. “What’s so funny?”

“You,” she gasped. “Tommy Shelby, in all his naked masculine glory, kneeling on a bed and wrestling with a medical bag.”

“Now you’re in trouble.” Sweeping her equipment to the side with one arm, he crawled towards her. When she curled into a ball and turned to the side, he gave her a gentle swat on the bottom. She squeaked, and turned to look at him.

He smirked. “Ah, so I’ve found another one of your weaknesses.” He slapped the other cheek, a bit harder this time. “Perhaps at some point I’ll need to introduce you to Sergeant Major Shelby. He’s quite a disciplinarian.”

“Really?” She had never imagined herself to be the kind of woman who would enjoy being spanked, but the concept of Tommy dominating her in the bedroom was...well, one she thought would be worth exploring in the future.

“We can save that for next time,” he murmured, flipping her onto her back once again.

“You think there’s going to be a next time, hmm?” She looked up at him through her lashes.

“I know there will be,” he said, his hand taking up its former position.

“And why is that?” she breathed.

In response, his index finger began to trace lazy circles around her clitoris.

“Tommy, please—you can’t do that and not—“

An instant later, an exquisite spasm of pleasure sent her over the edge. She she cried out his name, then came again. The sensation was so intense that she tried to squirm away. He held her in place, pinning her trembling thighs to the bed.

“I want to hear you scream my name again,” he rasped. Rubbing her clitoris gently between his fingers, he sent her into an orgasm so powerful that she thought her entire body had exploded into tiny fragments of pure ecstasy. When she could finally breathe again, she pulled him down to her and kissed him. His cock was poised at her entrance, and she began to push against him, willing him to enter her.

“Tell me what you want,” he said hoarsely, forcing her hips to still. “I want to hear you say it out loud.”

“I want you to come inside me. Please, Tommy.” She was pleading now, and he covered her mouth with a bruising kiss before easing inside her. He filled every inch of her, sliding deep inside. Eager for more, she began to move her hips against him.

He groaned, and stilled for a moment, his breathing uneven. “Alex, if you keep moving like that, there’s no way I’ll last very long.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, I do. It feels too fucking good to be over in thirty seconds.” Almost pulling out, he took in a breath, then slowly thrust forward. Establishing a steady rhythm, he gazed into her eyes. “When we get back home, you’re moving out of John’s room—and into mine.”

“Tommy, but what—“

Picking up the pace a bit, he put his hand lightly over her mouth. “I’ll make it simple for you. Do you want this every night, or not?”

Her eyes widened, and she nodded slowly.

He smirked. “I thought so.” Releasing his hand, he turned his attention to her breast, teasing her nipple with his tongue as he began to thrust faster and harder.

“God, you’re beautiful,” he muttered.

In response, she wrapped her legs around him, and whispered, “Fuck me, Tommy.”

He drew her nipple into his mouth and buried himself inside her once, then twice. Then he jerked against her and moaned her name, shuddering as he found his release.

Rolling off her, he collapsed on the bed, breathing heavily. She shifted against him, and he put his arm around her. Laying her head on his chest, she listened as his heartbeat gradually slowed.

He sighed, then kissed her hair. “How is it that Finn hitting his head led to this?”

“I don’t know, but you’re one of a kind, Tommy Shelby, and I’m not going to let you go.”

As they fell asleep in each other’s arms, the storm raged on outside.

Unbeknownst to them, back in Small Heath, a different sort of storm was brewing.

 

Chapter Text

Back in Small Heath, the rain had scarcely abated when the first wave of warnings were delivered. Almost simultaneously, the display windows of a dozen shops and businesses were smashed. With a few quick strokes, a black cross was painted on each door. Seconds later, the perpetrators melted into the night.

Xxxx

The boom of thunder rattled the windows, jerking Alex awake. She sat bolt upright, and nearly fell off the bed. Steadying herself, she realized that she was perched right on the edge. She looked down to see Tommy lying sprawled across the bed, one arm flung out to the side.

She sighed, her transient annoyance softening when she took a closer look at him. He looked truly at peace for the first time since she'd met him. The forehead that was usually taut with strain was smooth and relaxed, and even his cheekbones seemed less angular.

The bedsheets were tangled around his waist, exposing his muscular torso. Her eyes traced the outlines of his pectoral muscles, moving on to the sculpted latissimus dorsi and internal and external obliques. For a man who never seemed to eat and was rarely without a cigarette in his hand, he was in excellent physical condition—and a made for a much more engrossing study of anatomy than her dry medical school textbooks.

Stirring, he turned on his side, then mumbled, "The lamb does not need a fucking massage."

She watched with a smile as he made a dismissive gesture with his hand, then stilled and began to snore softly. Sliding into place next to him, she looped her arm around his waist and snuggled against his warm body. An instant later, he shifted, pushing her away with his elbow before rolling onto his stomach.

Although she knew that he had not consciously pushed her away, his gesture caused the first wisp of doubt to thread its way into her mind. She had never intended to tell Tommy that she was in love with him. In the heat of the moment, the words had just slipped out. In retrospect, his response had been telling. Rather than responding in kind, he had quickly deflected the conversation to focus on whether she was ready to be intimate with him.

As she thought over the day, she realized that the one confidence he had shared with her had had nothing to do with romance. Instead, he'd very clinically described how he had murdered the husband of their hostess.

She swallowed, and her gaze fell on a jagged scar a few inches above his right hip. It appeared to be a healed stab wound, and she wondered how he had sustained it. Had it been in the war, or during a fight in Birmingham? Examining it with a critical eye, she concluded that whomever had been responsible for the suturing had done a clumsy job of it.

It suddenly hit home that from here on in, she would be the one who would care for his wounds. In her mind's eye, she saw John and Arthur carrying an unconscious Tommy into her office, his white shirt soaked with blood. Shivering at the thought, she reached for the shirt she had worn earlier.

Standing up, she slipped the garment over her shoulders, then leaned down to pull the duvet over Tommy. Gazing down at him, she found it impossible to resist the impulse to brush a kiss against his forehead. His eyelashes fluttered for an instant, and then he sighed and frowned. "I'm not dancing with a fucking penguin," he mumbled. "Arthur can have a go at her."

She covered her mouth with her hand, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Leaving the room, she made her way to the snug little kitchen. She was now wide awake, and knew it would be useless to try to get back to sleep. Seeing a copper kettle on the stove, she decided to make a cup of tea. She might even leave a cup out for Tommy in case he wanted some when he woke up. There was only one problem. She had no idea how took his tea.

Sinking into a chair, Alex began to realize how little she really knew about the man. She didn't know his birthday, his middle name, or his age—and if asked, wouldn't have been able to name his favorite color, pet peeve, or shoe size.

She thought of Jonathan, and her mind reeled off the answers.

Tea? Milk, with one lump of sugar.

Birthday? April 1st-he hated being teased about being born on April Fool's.

Middle name? Henry

Age? 29, 7 months, and 5 days when he died.

Favorite color? Green.

Pet peeve? People who talk over other people.

Shoe size? 12.

How can I possibly be in love with a man whom I don't even know?

She was sure it wasn't lust. Her attraction to Tommy was more than just physical. She couldn't shake the feeling that he understood her in a way that no one else had since she had returned from the war.. But the urgency and intensity of her emotions troubled her. A year ago, she had thought that her love for Jonathan was reckless. But tonight, she had taken things to a whole new level.

Alex had always been a level-headed, responsible woman. What would her father think if he'd known she had allowed—nay, actively encouraged—a gang leader to bed her just days after meeting him? Moreover, she was taking a huge risk by associating with a known criminal, especially given that she had just started her medical career in Birmingham. Was her rash behavior risking both her reputation and her livelihood?

Now a bundle of nerves, she went to the sitting room and found the bottle of Bordeaux. Pouring herself a generous portion, she gulped down most of the glass, then refilled it. Draping a blanket over her, she sat in front of the dying fire and closed her eyes, desperately wishing that she had someone to talk to...someone who would understand.

Alfie.

He'd given her his phone number, and told her to call at any time, day or night.

Looking at the clock on the mantel, she saw that it was after midnight—but Alfie was a night owl, and there was a good chance he'd still be awake.

The telephone sat on a small side table next to the couch. She picked up the receiver, put it down, then picked it up again.

"Camden Town 7-1-8 please."

As the ringing began, Alex clutched the receiver, half praying that Alfie would not pick up. After five rings, she was about to hang up when she heard a click at the other end.

"Who the fuck is this?" Alfie barked.

She jumped, and almost dropped the receiver. "It's me—Alex."

"What's wrong?" His voice was raspy, and she wondered if he had developed a cold in the hours since they had left London.

"Nothing. I just wanted to talk."

There was a pause, and she could almost see Alfie glaring at her with suspicion.

"Yeah, well, when most people want to talk to a friend they don't call in the middle of the fuckin' night. Either you're deep into the bottle of wine that I gave you or that bastard Tommy's done you wrong."

"Alfie...maybe I just wanted to talk to you."

He let out a sigh. "It's worse than I thought. It's both, isn't it?"

"This has nothing to do with Tommy." She tried to make her tone sound convincing, but when her voice faltered at the mention of his name, she knew she was lost.

"Fucking hell." She heard him mutter another curse in Russian. Then there was silence, and she heard a distinctively feminine laugh.

"Alfie, are you still there?"

"Yeah, I'm still fucking here," he said irritably. "Where the fuck would I go?"

"You have a lady friend with you, don't you?"

"Come on, now—I don't—"

His voice suddenly cut off. A moment later, she heard a hoarse "Fuck me!" followed by the sound of heavy breathing. Several different scenarios of what might be going on ran through her mind, all of which made her feel like a voyeur.

"Erm, maybe I should call back," she said hastily.

"Yeah, maybe—no! You stay on the fuckin' line! I told you I'd be here for you, sweetie—so you tell old Alfie what's weighing on your-" —Alex heard him suppress a groan—-"—mind!" he blurted out.

"Alfie, you sound like you're busy."

"Listen, love, unlike folk up Birmingham way, I can do two things at once—and do both quite well, if I do say so myself."

He truly seemed focused on her now, so she plunged ahead. "I really loved Jonathan." Alex struggled to keep her voice from quavering, and succeeded this time. "You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know." His voice softened just a touch. "But I don't think that's what you called me to talk about."

"Actually, I was reading this book last week, and there are a lot of animals that mate for life. Did you know that? Swans do, and penguins, and barn owls—barn owls, Alfie! Their little heart-shaped faces just make me want to hug them."

"Listen sweetie, I've had a long, hard day, and I was just—-"

"You know what you need? You need a good woman by your side—someone who will take care of you. I'm going to find you a wife, and you're going to be happy for the rest of your life—just like the penguins. I swear, as God is my witness, that I'll have you married before the end of next year. She's going to be a tall, gorgeous redhead—an observant Jewish woman of course. She'll be brilliant, and will have you wrapped around her finger before you know it. Then you'll buy a big house with lots of light.. there'll be this fantastic library with rows of leather books and comfy chairs. And parakeets! Two in a gilded cage—your youngest daughter will love them….your sons, not so much—they'll be more into dogs, just like you are."

"I am not having any fuckin' parakeets," he growled. "They make a fuckin' mess...and all that squawking would drive me out of my fuckin' mind."

"Alfie...don't tell me you're going to look your little daughter in the eye and tell her that she can't have sweet little birds?"

"Listen, I don't even have a steady girl right now—"

There was a coo of protest in the background, and Alfie muttered, "Hang on." Alex heard him cover the receiver, then say placatingly, "Aww, love, you know you're my special girl. You're in a whole different category than steady, right?" After his companion made a noise that Alex could only compare to a purring cat, he chuckled, then came back on the line, his voice now deadly serious.

"Alright, enough with the parakeets. Why the fuck are we even having this conversation?"

"Because I want you to be happy. And I want me to be happy. I want all of us to be happy."

"Tommy fucked you, didn't he?"

She stopped breathing for a second, desperately trying to think of what to say.

Seeming to sense her discomfort, he growled, "Don't even think about lying to me, love."

Swallowing, she wrapped the cord around her fingers, and said nothing.

He cleared his throat. "Okay. I'm not gonna make you say it. The question is—what happens now?"

"I don't know." She twisted the thin silver band on her finger. "I can't say that I regret it, because I truly care for Tommy. But I feel so—guilty. Because of Jonathan."

"Because you're alive, and with another man?"

"Yes," she whispered.

He sighed. "It was gonna happen sooner or later...unless you intend to become a nun. And we both know you sure as hell aren't cut out for convent life."

"I know...but this. just makes everything so much more complicated."

"Yeah, it's a hell of a situation, innit sweetie? But it doesn't mean you didn't love Jonathan."

"Do you really believe that? Or are you just saying it?"

"Look, he'd never want you to be alone—not if you could find someone who would respect you—as a woman and as a doctor. Someone who would treat you like a queen. Mind you—" his voice became menacingly low, "I'm not sayin' that Tommy Shelby fits that bill. Not by a long shot."

"Alfie, he's—-"

"Yeah, I know." He made a disparaging noise. "Every fuckin' woman that sees him is like 'Oooh, that gorgeous bone structure—and those baby blue eyes, I could just get lost in them.' What Tommy Shelby is, is a fuckin' drama queen—and for some reason, women just eat that shit up with a spoon. But you know what they say—when love whispers, reason shuts up. Just promise me you'll remember that, Alex."

"I will. I promise I'll keep my eyes open."

"Yeah, and I'll be keeping my eye on Tommy. If he steps out of line in any way—any way at all—you tell me, and I'll fuckin'—"

"Please don't say anything to him! I'll die of embarrassment if you do."

"Calm down, love. I ain't gonna say anything inappropriate. You know me."

"That's what I'm worried about." She smiled, then said softly, "Good night, Alfie—and thank you."

By the time she hung up, she was wide awake—and full of nervous energy. Although Alfie's voice had been a steadying influence, once it was gone, she felt the need for a task that would occupy her mind.

Going through the cupboards, she found fresh butter, sugar, and flour, and decided to make Scottish shortbread. The scent of the biscuits baking in the oven was the most homey and comforting smell that she could imagine. It could not help but do her some good to whip up a quick batch.

She sipped on her wine as she worked, and was feeling much more relaxed by the time that the last sheet came out of the oven.

"May I ask what you're doing?" The lazy, deep voice came from behind her.

Startled by the sound, she whirled around, and nearly dropped the tray. "My God, Tommy! You shouldn't sneak up on me like that."

"I'm standing in the doorway. That does not qualify as sneaking." He stood wrapped in a blanket, his eyes hazy with sleep.

"I couldn't sleep. So I decided I'd bake some shortbread."

He gave her a sceptical look. "You decided to bake. At one o'clock in the morning."

"I thought I might as well do something productive." She rummaged through a drawer, finally finding a spatula. "Actually, I was going to make some tea—and then I realized that I didn't know how you took yours."

He leaned against the wall and rubbed his eyes wearily. "Maybe I'm still half-asleep, but how does how I take my tea have anything to do with you making yourself some?"

She began to slide the biscuits onto a cooling rack. "You should know that I'm not someone given to impulsive actions."

"So this midnight baking session was planned?"

Alex set the tray on the counter, and turned to face him. "I was a virgin when I married Jonathan." She felt her face flush, but she doggedly continued. "When I went to our marriage bed, I knew everything there was to know about him. What kind of dog had been his first pet, who had been his first kiss, the last lie he had told. I don't even know your birthday, or how old you are...or what kind of pudding you fancy."

He was silent for a moment, then said, "You're not a whore, Alex."

"That's not what I meant."

"Isn't it?" He held her gaze for a moment, then jerked his head towards the sitting room. "Come on."

She followed him, and sat down on the couch. Wrapping a blanket around her shoulders, she watched as he rekindled the fire.

He sat down next to her, then took her by the shoulders, gently turning her to face him.

"Look, we share a common bond..one that someone who's never been to war will never understand. How many times did you look death in the face when you were in France? Maybe not personally, but through your patients?"

"I don't know...too many to count."

"In the tunnels, it was an everyday occurrence. If it wasn't the fucking Germans setting off an explosive to try to get a tunnel to cave in on us, it was the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Then there were the times we actually had to fight hand to hand...in a 4 by 3 foot muddy hole, often in the pitch dark."

Alex felt a chill run down her spine. "That must have been awful. How did you know you weren't attacking your own men?"

Tommy shook his head. "It wasn't easy. The only way you could tell for sure that you had a German was to feel for the epaulettes. All the Germans had them. And once I knew had my hands on the enemy, well, that's when I was damn glad to have my knuckle knife.

"A knuckle knife? What's that?"

"John came up with it. A very clever idea, actually. He took a knife with a blade about five inches long and fitted it to a brass frame that was strapped to the wrist. When you closed your fist, the knife projected out at a right angle. Very handy in combat at close quarters."

She looked down at her hands. "I never wanted to have anything to do with using a weapon...but after one of the other doctors was caught in a firefight while trying to get to a wounded patient, Alfie convinced me that I needed to learn."

Tommy's eyes narrowed. "Alfie taught you how to shoot? I assumed it was Jonathan."

"Jonathan knew how to handle a firearm, but he wasn't an expert by any means. Alfie, on the other hand, was a sharpshooter who had gone from adrenaline-fueled firefights to confinement in a wheelchair due to his leg wound. He was grumpy and irritable, and nearly drove even the most patient nurses insane. It was a balm to his spirit to be outside with a firearm in his hand once again. And I benefited from his tutelage, as you saw."

"You have quite a history with him."

"He's a good man. As are you."

"Do you really believe that, or are you just trying to convince yourself? Because I about as far away from a vicar as you could possibly get." He gave a hollow laugh. "I'm no one's fairy tale prince, that's for sure."

"I'm not sure that's for you to decide." Alex had poured herself another glass of wine, and the alcohol was beginning to talk for her. "But since we've been intimate, I probably should know how you take your tea."

"Black...or with whisky." The corner of his mouth quirked up. "Depends on how much fucking nonsense I've had to put up with from John and Arthur. And you, Dr. Ross?"

She set down her glass. "Actually, some days I do like it black. Especially if I'm tired—somehow the aroma just seems especially reviving on those mornings. But on a lazy afternoon, a bit of milk, no sugar."

"A Scotswoman who doesn't take her tea with sugar?"

She smiled. "I know—it's quite scandalous."

With one smooth movement, he drew her into his lap, and began to kiss her neck. "As scandalous as spending the night with me?"

"Possibly. It depends on what you have in mind."

The telephone rang, the shrill jangle cutting through the cosy room.

Alex shifted, glancing in the direction of the phone.

"Ignore it," Tommy muttered, his hands already sliding up her bare back.

"What if it's—" He cut her off with a searing kiss. For an instant, the telephone fell silent, then immediately began to ring again.

The only thing that gave Alex the strength to pull away from him was the thought that someone might be in danger. "Tommy, there could be an emergency. What if Finn—or John—"

He leaned his forehead against hers. "Fucking hell. Alright, but it better be something important."

Leaning over, he grabbed the receiver.

"Shelby here."

"Where the fuck have you been? You were supposed to be back hours ago!" Polly's voice was full of fury, but there was an undercurrent of anxiety that was almost palpable. Alex could hear her from a foot away. She felt Tommy tense underneath her.

"Pol, what's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" She laughed, a note of hysteria in her voice. "It's all gone to hell, Tommy."

 

Chapter Text

“They’ve bombed the Garrison,” she continued, her words tumbling over one another. “And nearly business in Small Heath that pays us for protection has been smashed up and threatened. I don’t care what the fuck you need to do to get back home, but we need you here now.”

Tommy exhaled, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the receiver. “Okay, let’s start with the Garrison. How badly is it damaged?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Polly was nearly screaming now. “I haven’t exactly had a chance to go out and canvas the neighborhood for damages. I know that there’s a fucking fire, and Arthur and John went to help. The butcher shop, Small Heath Bakery, Delaney’s Grocery-they’re all a mess.”

“Alright. I’ll be there as soon as I can, but the weather’s shit here—we won’t be able to leave until the water level goes down on the road. Give me a few hours, but I’ll do whatever it takes.”

As soon as he hung up, he lit a cigarette. Alex forced herself to meet his eyes. “It’s Sabini’s men, isn’t it?”

“Fucking looks that way.” His expression darkened. “We’re well into a major battle.”

Tommy was on the telephone for much of the next two hours, making a number of calls to various contacts. Alex wandered into the kitchen and tidied up, then went into the bedroom and laid out their damp clothes to dry in front of the fire. Laying down on the bed, she pulled the duvet over her, and finally was lulled to sleep by the distant hum of Tommy’s voice.

Before she knew it, he was shaking her awake.

“Alex. The water’s gone down. We need to get going. Go ahead and get dressed—quickly now.”

She stumbled out of bed, automatically reaching for her clothes. It was not yet daylight, but months spent on the warfront had taught her how to dress quickly in the dark—sometimes in less than two minutes when under fire from enemy artillery. She ran a comb through her dark hair, then pulled it into a loose chignon. After brushing her teeth and applying a quick swipe of lipstick, she retrieved her parcel of biscuits from the kitchen and hurried outside.

Tommy was sitting in the car with the engine running. The second she slid in beside him and closed the door, he pressed on the accelerator. Alex was thrown forward, and barely managed to avoid hitting the dashboard.

He gave her an apologetic glance. “Sorry.”

“We won’t be of any help to anyone unless we get there in one piece.”

“You said we.” He turned his eyes back to the road.

“I did.”

“Alex, from what Pol said—“

“It’s a mess—and there are sure to be people who have been injured, either from the initial strike or from the aftermath. I’m not about to stand by idly when I can be of use.”

His jaw tensed. “”I’m don’t want you putting yourself in danger.”

She placed a gentle hand on his thigh. “I worked in a war zone for well on two years, Tommy. I’ll be careful.”

“Careful may be enough. Sabini’s men have a bullet with your name on it.”

As they drove on, dawn beckoned, and the slightest hint of pink could be seen on the horizon. There were few cars on the road, and countryside seemed to fly by. As they neared the outskirts of Birmingham, the calm pastoral landscape gave way to the belching smoke of the factories. Alex’s mind seemed to sense the change. Despite her attempts to focus on the weather, her office schedule, the novel she was reading—anything other than Tommy Shelby—she could not stop thinking about him.

She understood that he was under immense strain, but he had said little during the drive, and had made no reference at all to last night. Although she instinctively knew that nothing could be gained from comparing her first time with Tommy to her wedding night with Jonathan, she could not help but do so. Both nights had been fueled by passion, but the similarities had ended there.

As a new bride, she had been content for Jonathan to take the lead in their lovemaking. He had been tender and considerate—in fact, he had been everything a woman would want in a first lover. The next morning, as rain lashed their tent, he had held her in his arms and told her how beautiful she was. That day, they had first begun to plan their future together in Birmingham. They had discussed everything from hopes for children (a boy and a girl) to what sort of flowers to plant in their garden (primroses, lilies of the valley, and sweet william).

With Tommy, she had been the one to make the first move—and before they were through, she had literally begged him to fuck her. Sex with Tommy had been intense and explosive, and it had left her craving more. However, once the afterglow had faded, he had merely held her for a few minutes before falling asleep. There had been no whispered words of affection, no declaration of feelings. In fact, he had said nothing except to express amusement at the fact that Finn’s mishap had led to their coupling. This morning, he had behaved as if it had never happened.

Yet all she could think about was him.

When she had told Alfie that she had no regrets, that had not been an honest statement. Although she had not attended church services regularly over the past few months, her faith was important to her. If someone had told her a month ago—no, a week ago—that she would sleep with a man outside the bonds of marriage, she would have told them they were insane.

But that was before Tommy. She had fallen fast, and she had fallen hard—and the fact that she had thrown her beliefs to the wind after meeting him made her question her judgement. He was the first man since Jonathan’s death that she had thought of in anything approaching a romantic way. What made him different?

Perhaps it was the circumstances in which they had met—their lives had been at risk, and they had had to depend on each other to survive. Yet she was sure if it had been Bobby Crow or Arthur that had been with her that night, she would not have felt the same way.

Perhaps it was his striking eyes, or the face that looked as if it had been carved by a Renaissance sculptor—-or maybe his muscular body. But she had had seen men who were equally as handsome, and been so lost in her grief that she had not given them a second glance.

Then there was Tommy himself—a enigmatic, complex human being who had aroused her curiosity from the night he had first walked out of the shadows and into her life.

She had seen enough to know that he was the heartbeat of the Shelby family, and the driving force behind the success of the Peaky Blinders in endeavors both legal and otherwise. He was a highly decorated war veteran who had risen to the rank of Sergeant Major, and it was obvious that he had earned the loyalty of his men and the grudging admiration of other crime bosses—Alfie included. He had no compunction about killing ruthlessly when necessary.

Yet he was clearly haunted by the the war. He had spoken of sleepless nights—of hearing the sound of German shovels at night about to come through the wall of his bedroom. For a man who endeavors thrived due to unquestioning discipline, his personal habits were characterized by excess. There was the bottle of whisky that was never far from his side. She didn’t even want to think about how many cigarettes he smoked on daily basis. Then there were the women. She doubted that Mabel Wright was the only one. She was merely a safe, readily available option—a known quantity who could be relied upon to provide whatever services his libido required that evening.

So why in the world did she desperately want a chain-smoking, hard-drinking criminal who patronized prostitutes and killed without a second thought?

Because she had seen been glimpses of the other Tommy.

She had been enchanted as she had watched him speak softly to horses in Romani, bending large, powerful animals to his will by way of his affectionate, gentle manner. Moreover, he had taken upon himself the task of teaching her to ride, remaining patient with her despite her phobia regarding all things equine.

When she had asked him to describe his ideal day, he had not mentioned an elegant meal, a night at a posh hotel, or a show at the theater. Instead, he had described a summer day spent at the most beautiful, remote beach in Wales, riding a horse on a stretch of golden sand.

In caring for her the night before, he had shown a tenderness that she had not expected. He had bathed and dressed her without taking advantage of her vulnerable state, even though it had been obvious that he was struggling with his attraction to her. In fact, he had waited for her to make her desire for him abundantly clear.

Then there was his dry sense of humor, which she found very appealing. He had lost no time in teasing her about Baba Theodosia’s prediction that they would have a houseful of children—and the respect and love he had shown the elderly woman had touched her heart.

He was a gloriously flawed man.
Brutal, yet kind.
Demanding, yet patient.
Dissolute, yet disciplined.
Broken, yet powerful.

In sum, Tommy Shelby was a potent mix of all the qualities that she desired in a man, and all the faults that found most disquieting—and that, quite simply, was why she had lost her heart to him. Underneath the strong, competent exterior, she saw another person—the small, sensitive boy who wanted nothing more than to play on the beach with an affectionate father who was not an abusive alcoholic. She was quite sure that she was one of the few people that he had ever allowed a glimpse of that side of him—and now that she had understood his personal demons, she wanted nothing more than to heal him.

You can’t fix them all, Alex. It’s just not possible.

Jonathan had told her that one night when he had found her holding vigil over the body of a shell-shocked soldier. The twenty year old man’s broken arm had healed, but as the time had neared for his return to his unit, he had been wracked by nightmares. He had complained palpitations, dizziness, and incessant headaches. She had lobbied unsuccessfully to have him removed to a hospital in England for a mental evaluation. He had hung himself rather than return to the front. The young man’s suicide had weighed upon her heavily. The strain that she had seen on Tommy’s face when he had spoken of his nightmares had been a stark reminder of what veterans faced once they returned home.

Glancing over at him, she saw the tension in his face once again—and as they turned on to Watery Lane, she gasped. Delaney’s Grocery, a small, neat shop at the end of the street, had been ransacked. The large front window had been shattered. Smashed display shelves lay on their sides, canned goods spilling out into the street. Martin Delaney, an elderly man with a spare frame and a shock of white hair, stood on the sidewalk, his thin shoulders sagging with despair.

Braking the car, Tommy jumped out and went over to him. Putting a hand on the man’s shoulder, he spoke for several minutes, giving him an encouraging nod at the end. Martin glanced up, making eye contact with Alex for an instant before looking away. Mumbling a few words of thanks, he shuffled away. Tommy got back in the car, shaking his head.

“What did you say?” Alex asked.

Putting the vehicle into gear, he replied, “I told him that starting this morning, the Peaky Blinders would personally see to the restoration of his shop.”

“That must have been a relief to him.”

Maneuvering the car to park in front of 6 Watery Lane, Tommy made no comment. As he helped Alex out of the car, Polly emerged from the house.

“Where are Arthur and John?” he asked tersely.

“They’re down at the Garrison.” Her eyes roved over them, sharpening at the sight of his hand around Alex’s waist. “Tommy, we need to talk.”

“Later.” Squaring his shoulders, he turned to Alex, who clutched her parcel of shortbread to her chest. “Stay in the house with Polly. No going outside unless I’m with you. Am I understood?”

This was the first time she had seen him deploy the authoritarian manner that he must used with his men in the tunnels. “Yes, Sergeant Major,” she replied, barely restraining the urge to give him a cheeky salute.

Eyes darkening, he leaned over and whispered, “Only strict obedience will earn you a visit from Sergeant Major Shelby—-so see that you mind me.”

“Yes, sir.”

He was so close now that she could feel his breath on her cheek.

“Good girl.”

Straightening up, he touched his cap. Then, with a swirl of his dark coat, he was gone.

Polly’s gaze settled on her then, and Alex felt as if she was being inspected for the first time. The older woman jerked her head towards the door. “I’ve a kettle on. Let’s go in and have a cup of tea.”

Polly methodically set the table, arranging teacups and napkins with the same precision that an artilleryman might use in preparing a cannon. Indeed, Alex sensed that even as Tommy’s aunt hummed a tune under her breath, she was carefully mounting a plan of engagement. Hoping to defuse the tension, she untied her parcel of biscuits, thanking God that the aging stove in the cottage had baked them to perfection.

Finally sitting down, Polly poured the tea.

“These cups are gorgeous,” Alex remarked. The delicate bone china displayed red, pink, and yellow roses in full bloom, with a rim of gold edging the saucer. “Are they a family heirloom?”

“Of a sort.” She sipped her tea, and gave Alex a thin smile. “I believe Tommy’s father stole them during a drunken binge in Bristol.”

“I see.” Alex paused, desperately trying to think of a way to smooth over the awkward moment. “Would you like some shortbread? I made them last night.”

“I’ve never cared for shortbread. It’s a bit too simple for my taste.”

As Polly’s eyes bored into her, Alex tamped down her uneasiness, attempting to keep the conversation light. “We hadn’t anticipated staying the night, so it was a good job there were baking ingredients readily available. Being cooped up in small quarters can be trying under the best of circumstances—especially for people who are newly acquainted.”

The older woman set down her teacup, then casually rested a hand under her chin. “I can only imagine. How did you and Tommy pass the evening?”

Alex’s heart was hammering in her chest, but she kept her voice even. “We talked a bit, then went to bed.”

“You went to bed.” Polly gave her a look that made Alex feel as if God himself was judging her for her actions.

“Yes. It was late, and we were tired.”

Polly set her elbows on the table, and leaned forward. “Make no mistake, I am grateful for what you did for Finn. You saved his life, and for that, I thank you. But the last thing Tommy needs right now is a distraction.”

The blood rushed to Alex’s head, and she had to force herself to stay calm.

“I can assure you that I have no intention of disrupting Tommy’s life. Quite the contrary, in fact.”

Polly lit a cigarette, and blew a perfect smoke ring into the air. “Meaning what?”

Alex steadied her hands as she picked up her cup. “Meaning I owe him a great debt, and I will do whatever I can to support him and make his life easier.”

“I can guarantee you that fucking with his head will not make his life easier.”

“Sorry, but I have no idea where this is coming from.”

Polly’s words were cutting, her tongue as sharp as a whip. “Tommy should have been back here last night. When he left, he had every intention of doing so. Instead, he somehow ended up holed up in a cottage on Olive Davies’ farm, with only you for company. I can put two and two together, love.”

“I’m very fond of Tommy, and you have done a beautiful job of serving as both mother and father to him and his brothers. But were our relationship ever to be anything deeper than mutual respect, that would be no one’s business but our own.”

Polly locked eyes with her. “You don’t get it, do you? This is not about who Tommy fucks. This is about him becoming emotionally involved with the woman he is meant to be protecting. Once that happens, he will lose all objectivity—and if you are in danger, everything else in the world will cease to matter—including his own life.”

Alex set down her cup, and stood up. “Thank you very much for the tea, Polly, but I really should go upstairs and check on Finn.”

As she walked to the door, Polly’s voice followed her. “If you really care for him, you’ll think on what I’ve said.”

After the unsettling visit with Polly, a day with Finn proved to be just the thing to lift her spirits. His arm was healing well, and they spent hours reading and playing checkers. As night fell, Alex began to worry. After she glanced out the window for the fifth time, Finn tossed a checker at her.

“There’s no point in looking for my brothers. They won’t be back til later.”

“Why is that?” Alex asked carefully.

Finn laid down on his stomach, carefully mulling over his next move. “Because they’re going to storm Sabini’s main club tonight. I heard John and Arthur talking about it this morning.” He chuckled. “They don’t know that when I have my ear to the door, I can hear everything they say in the hall.”

Alex raised an eyebrow. “Duly noted. Well, since they won’t be back for dinner, I suggest we get something to eat, then put you to bed.” Despite Finn’s protests, she succeeded in getting him to bed before ten o’clock, which she considered a major accomplishment.

Then came the waiting. The clock struck eleven, then twelve. By one o’ clock, she had changed into Tommy’s blue flannel pajamas. Taking up a book, she tried to read, but found it impossible to focus. Closing her eyes, she imagined that she was walking on the beach at Barafundle with Tommy, the sun warming their faces. The next thing she knew, she had fallen asleep.

When she woke up with a start two hours later, the house was silent. Polly’s words seemed to ring in her head. Everything else in the world will cease to matter—including his own life.

Getting out of bed, she walked into the hall, her heart leaping when she saw a thin ribbon of light under Tommy’s door. She knocked softly. After she received no response, she cracked the door open.

Tommy lay horizontally across the bed, his feet still flat on the floor. He looked as if he had collapsed from exhaustion as soon as he had sat down. His cap was in his hand, but he still wore his coat. The glow from the bedside lamp illuminated his face, which was splattered with blood. Several cuts were scattered across his forehead.

Alex touched his cheek, relieved to feel the warmth that met her fingers. Padding down the hall to the bathroom, she ran warm water over a washcloth, then grabbed a small bottle of rubbing alcohol. Returning to Tommy’s room, she knelt on the bed next to him. Gliding the cloth over his cheekbones, she smiled as his classical features began to emerge. He was deeply asleep, and did not move a muscle as she worked. Applying a dash of alcohol to the cloth, she delicately swabbed the first cut.

A hand shot out, and an instant later, she was flipped onto her back. She cried out in pain as something sharp sliced her palm. Looking up, found herself staring into Tommy’s blue eyes. They were glazed with confusion, and was breathing heavily.

“I—I saw you in my dream. Sabini had a gun to your head. I tried to stop him, but I was too late.” He swallowed, averting his eyes. She took his face in her hands. “I’m right here, Tommy—-and I’m fine.” Kissing his forehand, she moved her fingers to his collar, then frowned.

“Something’s wrong. There’s fresh blood on your left cheek. “

Tommy seized her right hand, then swore violently, his face draining of all color.

“Arthur!!” he shouted.

 

Chapter Text

Snatching up a freshly ironed shirt that was draped across the end of his bed, Tommy held pressure to Alex’s right hand.

The adrenaline had worn off now, and she could feel a burning pain in her palm. She stared up at him, careful to keep her expression calm.

“It was the razor in your cap, wasn’t it?”

“How could I be so fucking stupid?” he muttered. He shouted for Arthur again, and Alex put her hand on his.

“Let me take a look at it.”

He shook his head. “I’m not letting off on the pressure until Arthur gets here.”

“Lacerations of the hand often look much worse than they actually are.”

Tommy kept his eyes fixed on the red stain that was spreading through the snowy white material in front of him. “I’m not a doctor, but this one looks pretty damn bad.”

The door slammed open, and Arthur charged inside. A white undershirt was stretched across his broad chest, and his suspenders swung from his trousers.

“What the fuck is going on?” he rasped, his voice heavy with sleep.

“Alex cut her hand on the razor on my cap.”

“What? How?”

“It doesn’t fucking matter. I need you to take a look at it.”

The pain was becoming more intense. Alex closed her eyes, her left hand clutching at the duvet. She heard Arthur take in a deep breath. “I’m not a doctor, Tom. We should wait—“

“Someone has to do something! Alex is bleeding through my fucking shirt!” Tommy snapped.

“Okay, okay.” Arthur shuffled closer, and she opened her eyes to find him looking down at her. His forehead was creased with deep lines, and she could see the pulse in his neck jumping in time to his heartbeat. Gingerly sitting on the bed, he asked quietly, “Can you wiggle your fingers, love?”

“I—I haven’t tried.”

“See if you can bend them,” he said, giving her an encouraging smile.

Alex tried to curl her fingers into a fist. Three of her fingers responded normally, but her third and fourth fingers remained immobile. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes as panic flooded through her body.

“It may just be sprained. It looks like the bleeding has slowed, so let’s have a look.” Arthur nudged Tommy’s hand aside, and lifted the bloodstained shirt.

When his face turned pale, Alex knew it was not just a simple cut. Glancing down, she saw a deep, two inch wide gash. Two glistening white bands that she recognized as tendons were exposed. Both had been sliced in half.

Alex had seen many horrific injuries over the past few years, and had always managed to remain stoic. However, seeing her own hand slashed nearly to the bone caused her to break into a cold sweat.

Turning her head to the side, she closed her eyes as she felt bile rise up into her throat. “I’m going to be sick.”

Arthur and Tommy swore simultaneously. Then she heard the scuffle of feet, followed by some rattling. Just as she began to choke on her saliva, she felt a hand on her shoulder. Sitting up and opening her eyes, she saw Arthur holding a small bin in front of her.

“Fire away, love.”

Alex promptly vomited once, then a second time. She blinked back tears as Arthur lowered her back onto the pillow. He patted her shoulder awkwardly.

“You’ve got a hell of a better aim than a dead drunk John, that’s for sure.”

Tommy reached for a small silver flask sitting on his nightstand. He took a generous swig, then passed it to Arthur. “Can you fix it?”

Arthur took two gulps, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and shook his head. “This is a job for a specialist. I doubt even our Alex would tackle this, eh?”

“Definitely not,” she said, her voice hoarse. “The surgical repair of flexor tendon injuries can be tricky in the best of hands—no pun intended.”

Tommy’s gaze became steely. “So—who do we need to wake up?”

Alex spoke up. “There’s a surgeon at the Royal Orthopaedic and Spinal Hospital—-Dr. Stephen Harbottle. He’s ex-Royal Army, and specializes in hand surgery. I’ve never met him, but I’ve heard plenty of stories. I hear he’s quite talented, but he drives his staff and residents into the ground. Apparently he’s at his office by 0430 every morning, and starts hospital rounds at 0500 sharp.”

“Sounds like he’s our man.” Tommy gave Arthur a nod. “If we hurry, we can be at his office when he arrives.”

“We can’t go anywhere until the wound is cleansed properly.” Alex looked at Tommy. “I assume the razor that cut me has been used on other people—possibly even tonight?”

Tommy’s gaze remained unblinking. His stoicism was maddening. Alex supposed that this was how he got through a crisis at Shelby Company Limited, but she longed for him to put his arms around her and tell her that everything was going to be fine—even if it wasn’t.

“It has,” he replied curtly.

“Then it’s all the more crucial that it be treated as soon as possible. Arthur, please go to my room and get my medical kit. It’s on the dresser.”

Once Arthur had gone, Tommy stared down at her hand, then said softly, “I’m sorry. I never meant for this to happen.”

“I know you didn’t. I suppose that’s why God gives us two hands, isn’t it? Pity I never learned to write with my left.”

“I’ll make sure you’re taken care of financially—even if your clinic has to be closed for a few months while you recuperate.”

Tears stung her eyes. “Tommy, is that all you can say?” She turned her eyes to the wall just as Arthur rushed in with her medical bag. Sensing the tension in the air, he frowned, and glared at his brother. Jerking his head, he motioned for Tommy to go to Alex.

Tommy slowly circled around the bed. Sitting down next to Alex, he tilted her chin so she was looking up at him, then took her left hand in his.

“I could say a lot more, but Arthur’s here now, and I don’t want to embarrass him.” He lowered his voice. “He’s still so innocent.”

“Fuck off, Tom,” Arthur replied, his brow furrowing as he pulled out a bottle of carbolic lotion and some gauze. He glanced at Tommy. “If you want to be useful, I suggest you keep holding her hand just like you’re doing. Alex, do you want me to give you a shot of morphine? Done it plenty of times in the war—I’m a good hand with a needle.”

“I’d love to say yes, but for the doctor to get an accurate exam, I really shouldn’t.”

“Alright then.” Arthur sat down, and guided her hand onto his lap. She winced, instinctively pulling Tommy closer. He bent over and put his arm around her.

“Just hang on. I won’t let you go.” Giving Arthur a nod, he held her close.

An instant later, liquid splashed onto her hand, and Alex felt as if acid had been poured onto her open flesh. She screamed, and felt Tommy’s arm tighten around her. He was talking to her now, his mouth at her ear. His voice sounded so different—it was soft, almost pleading. Then everything went black.

***

As rain drummed against the window of the car, Tommy looked down at Alex, his heart hammering in his chest. Her head lay on his lap, and her body was completely still. However, even in the dim light, he could see that her pale face was etched with pain.

Jerking his head up, he snapped, “Can’t you drive any faster?”

Arthur glanced in the rear view mirror, his expression stony. “Not unless you want to end up in a fucking ditch.”

“How much longer?”

Her voice floated up to him. “Tommy.”

When she said his name with her soft Scottish burr, he felt the urge to become a better person—to banish his darker urges, even if just for a short period of time, in order to be the version of himself that he wished he could be.

“We can’t be too far now,” he murmured. He focused on her eyes, careful to avoid looking at the gauze bandage wrapped around her right hand. Every time he saw it, he hated himself even more. She had shown his family nothing but warmth and compassion, and what had she received in return? A hand injury that threatened her livelihood—to say nothing of the death sentence that had been handed down by Sabini.

She reached for his arm with her good hand. “Arthur’s doing the best he can.”

Tommy gave her a brief nod. He cupped her cheek in his hand, his fingers relaxing as they came into contact with the reassuring warmth that they sought.

“You’re going to be fine,” he said his words coming out in a rush. “I swear that I’ll turn the world upside down if need be in order to make sure that your hand heals up and is as good as new.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she said, giving him a wan smile. “We were always told in medical school that when a patient’s outcome is uncertain, it is far better to underpromise and overdeliver. Best not to raise false hope.”

He closed his eyes for a moment, then exhaled and opened them. “I won’t accept anything less than a complete recovery—and you can’t either.”

“I’m hoping for the best, but it’s a fact that the majority of patients with this type of injury never regain normal function of their fingers.”

He caressed her cheek with his thumb, using the motion to soothe himself as much as Alex. When he spoke, he had to struggle to keep his voice from catching. “You’re going to have the best care possible. It’s going to be different for you.”

The car jolted as they hit an uneven patch of road, and she winced. “Your optimism is almost contagious.”

He smiled. “That’s the plan. And since I’m not going to leave your side, fighting me is hopeless.”

“That’s exactly what I wanted you to say earlier.” The slender fingers of her left hand laced into his rough, calloused digits.

“That fighting me is hopeless?”

“You know exactly what I mean.” In her pale, heart-shaped face, her eyes seemed enormous. “I don’t have much family left, so I suppose the Shelbys are now my surrogate family.”

Tommy was taken aback. He had never thought to ask about siblings. “You don’t have any brothers or sisters?”

“I had a brother. He died when he was a day old.” She paused, and bit her lip. “My mother died two hours later. I was eight when it happened, but I can still see the sunlight flooding the room. My father didn’t want me to see her, but I slipped into her chamber when he went to telephone my grandparents.” Her voice broke as tears began to stream down her cheeks. “She still looked so alive. I was so sure that if I just kissed her, she’d wake up.”

She took a long, shuddering breath, then continued. “Then the doctor came in and saw me with her. I timidly asked him if he was quite sure that she was dead. That man—he had not an ounce of compassion. He looked at me like I was the the most repulsive child he’d ever seen, and told me not to be stupid. She was dead, and so was my baby brother. The sooner I got used to it, the better. After all, my father was likely to remarry soon, and then I’d have a new mother.”

Seeing this strong, serene woman cry affected Tommy more than he would have ever thought possible. He felt a surge of anger at the thought of the physician’s insensitivity.

“Fucking bastard, to speak that way to a small slip of a child who’s just lost her mother,” he growled. “I wish I had been there. I’d have—-“

Alex gave a small laugh. “You’d have been—what? Eight years old yourself in 1900?”

“I was all of nine years old that year. At that age, Arthur and I were already running with a group of bigger lads. I was definitely old enough to make him regret what he’d said. Then I would have taken you home to Polly, and we would have had bread and butter pudding.”

Her eyes warmed, but she said slowly, “I don’t think my father would have allowed that.”

“Why not? I was a likely enough lad. Scrubbed up well enough when I had to.”

She raised an eyebrow. “An English boy? From an unsavory part of Birmingham, no less? You would have been persona non grata in our house.”

A moment later, the car glided to a stop. Arthur put the parking brake on, then turned to face them. “This is it. 15 Newhall Street.” He peered out the window. “I see a light on.”

“Then we’d best go meet the good doctor.” Tommy gently raised Alex up to a sitting position. “Will you be able to walk?”

“I’ll be fine.”

When he helped her out of the car, she swayed against him for an instant. Looking down at her, he saw the determination in her eyes, and refrained from saying anything. Instead, he put his arm around her waist, and guided her up the steps, careful to clear of her injured hand.

The rain had slowed to a steady drizzle. After two nights with virtually no sleep, Tommy could feel fatigue creeping through his body. He was grateful for the cold drops that splashed against his face, as they helped to sharpen his focus. Once they reached the door, he motioned for Alex to step off to the side. Exchanging one last look with Arthur, he rang the bell.

After thirty seconds, there had been no response. Becoming impatient, he pushed the bell twice in quick succession. A measured tread was heard from the other side of the door, and then there was silence. After a count of three, the door opened slightly. A bespectacled young man with a trim mustache gave them a disapproving look.

“Dr. Harbottle’s office hours do not start until 7:30 am. If you’d be so kind as to return then—“ he made a move to shut the door, but Tommy shoved his foot in the gap. With a powerful thrust, he pushed the wooden panel out of the way and stepped into the foyer.

“This is highly irregular!” the young man snapped, backpedaling as Tommy and Arthur advanced towards him, Alex trailing in their wake. “You haven’t an appointment.”

Tommy drew back his coat, revealing his holster. “We do now. Tell Dr. Harbottle that the Peaky Blinders require his assistance.”

The young man’s eyes darted to the telephone on the hall table. Arthur stepped forward and seized him by the collar, growling, “Don’t even think of calling the fucking police. We know where your family lives.” He abruptly released the young man, who nearly lost his balance.

“I’ll-I’ll announce you to the doctor.” He turned and fled down the hall.

Arthur turned and winked at Alex. “Don’t have a clue who his family is, but it doesn’t fucking matter, doesn’t it?”

Alex gave Arthur a small smile, then leaned against the wall, her left hand gripping her right forearm.

Tommy caught her eye. “Okay?”

She nodded, but he could tell that she was in pain. Glancing down the hall, he muttered, “Fuck this.”

Striding down the hall, he easily identified Dr. Harbottle’s office from the murmur of voices behind a door to the left. Seizing the knob, he gave it a savage twist, then shoved the door open.

A tall, thin man with a neat ginger beard sat behind a mahogany desk. He was reviewing a paper, making careful notes in the margin with a fountain pen. His erstwhile clerk stood off to the side. The young man shifted nervously when he saw Tommy enter.

“Is this one of the men, John?” he asked. Dipping his pen in the ink well, he continued to peruse the manuscript in front of him, not even bothering to give Tommy a glance.

“It is, sir.”

“Leave us.”

“Yes, sir.” John went to the door just as Arthur and Alex came in. He stepped back, giving them a wide berth. Once they had passed, he vanished, closing the door behind him.

The room was quiet now except for the scratching of the pen and the loud ticking of the large grandfather clock that stood behind the desk. Tommy felt his small reserve of patience waning with each second that went by.

Harbottle crossed out a sentence with a flourish, then turned a page, still keeping his eyes on his paper. “So, what manner of man has the temerity to come to my personal office at 4:40 in the morning and demand to speak with me?”

Tommy stared at him. “Put the fucking pen down.”

“Sorry, that’s not possible. I’m revising this paper for the Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery, and the deadline is this afternoon.”

Tommy drew out his pistol and pulled back the hammer, aiming it at the surgeon. “I said put the fucking pen down.”

Sighing, the physician laid down his pen. Folding his hands, he raised his eyes and fixed them on Tommy.

“You’ve got my undivided attention, Mr—“

“Shelby. Thomas Shelby.”

“Mr. Shelby.” He drew out the syllables, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Tommy had to fight the urge to knock the man unconscious. He put the safety on his pistol. Not breaking eye contact with the man sitting across from him, he slid the firearm back into his holster.

“I’ve an injured woman—a physician—that needs an expert hand surgeon. I’ve been told you are one of the best.”

“I am the best.” Harbottle leaned back in his chair, his gaze straying to Alex. “This is the patient?”

She stepped forward, her voice as melodious as if she were greeting a colleague at afternoon tea. “Doctor Harbottle, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Doctor Alexandra Ross.”

He sniffed. “A lady Doctor—and Scottish, by your accent. How novel.”

She flushed. “I trained at the University of Edinburgh, and served with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in France and Belgium during the war.”

His eyes traveled over her body. “Every war has its camp followers. They do serve a useful purpose, though, don’t they? After a long day in the trenches, men need some way to let off their steam.”

An instant later, Tommy launched himself at the man. He felt a surge of satisfaction when his fist met the man’s nose with a resounding crack. The next thing he knew, he was struggling with Arthur. His brother dragged him off Harbottle, pinning his arms behind his back.

“Let me go!” he shouted.

“He won’t do Alex any good if he’s unconscious,” hissed Arthur, giving Tommy a good shake. “Now calm the fuck down.”

“Understood. Now get your fucking hands off me.”

Arthur reluctantly released him. Breathing heavily, Tommy picked up his cap, which had fallen to the floor. He stared at Harbottle, who was clenching his nose with a handkerchief.

“Now, you will examine this woman—“ he pointed at Alex—“with the courtesy and respect of a proper physician rather than the fucking animal that you are. If you step out of line—or breathe a word of this to the authorities—you will lose your eyes.” He held up his cap, the razor blades flashing in the light. “Do we have an understanding?”

Harbottle swallowed. “Yes—yes, I understand.” Getting to his feet, he gestured to a small room off the study, his hand shaking slightly. “I have a small exam room in through there. Please follow me.”

Once the surgeon had settled Alex on the exam table, he carefully unwrapped the gauze bandage. His expression remained neutral as he inspected the open wound.

“The mechanism of the injury?” He kept his eyes trained on the gash as he awaited an answer.

“Accidental,” Alex replied softly. “I was using a small knife to pare an apple, and it slipped.”

He glanced up at her, and raised an eyebrow. “You were paring an apple in the middle of the night?”

“I often battle with insomnia. When I can’t sleep, I tend to gravitate to the kitchen. I should have made shortbread instead.”

Her full lips curved up in a soft smile as she caught Tommy’s eye, and he could not help but answer her with a grin. He knew that many women would have been hysterical by this point, and could not help but admire her poise. The fact that she could still display her disarming sense of humor was even more impressive—-especially given the circumstances.

With that glance from her, he felt his fury evaporating. A curious sensation replaced it—one that he was not at all familiar with. If asked to describe it, he would have found it difficult to put a name to it. The best he could come up with was to compare it to the warmth that had suffused his chest when he had sat on the dunes at Barafundle, watching the sunlight shimmer on the waves.

Lost in his own thoughts, he caught snatches of conversation. “Serious injury...lumbrical muscles….repair possible...flexor digitalis...odds not in favor…recovery might…”

He suddenly realized that Harbottle was speaking to Alex in the fluent, incomprehensible language that physicians use when conversing with each other.

“Can you fix it or not?” he blurted out.

Harbottle turned to him. “Possibly. But the odds of a full recovery are not good.”

Turning his attention back to Alex’s hand, he peered at the tendons once again, and mused, “I haven’t seen a case this complex since the war. Two severed tendons...and in the small hand of a woman, the repair is even more technically challenging. But if the procedure is a success, it would be a guaranteed publication in the British Medical Journal. It might even get me an OBE.”

He looked up at Alex, his enthusiasm—and lust for fame—almost palpable. “I’d like to operate as soon as possible—-within the hour, if we can. I’ll need to arrange for a photography team to document each step of the process—with your permission, of course.”

“Absolutely.” She winced as Harbottle moved her hand. Arthur spoke up, his voice gruff.

“She’s refused any pain medicine up until now. What can you give her?”

Harbottle went over to a cabinet, and opened it up. “A shot of morphine should do the trick.”

Thirty minutes later, a sleepy Alex relaxed against Tommy. They lay on a hospital stretcher in a curtained alcove at the far end of the pre-anesthesia ward. Although she was clad in a drab grey hospital gown, he thought she looked beautiful. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, relishing how smooth her skin felt against his lips. Burying his face in her hair, he inhaled the faint scent of roses and lilies of the valley. If he closed his eyes, he could almost make himself believe they were back in the snug stone cottage on Olive’s farm.

“Are you in pain?” he murmured.

“I feel like I’m floating on air.”

He smiled. “That’s a no then.”

“Whoever invented morphine should be canonized. It’s amazing.” She gave a small, contented sigh, then was silent for a few moments.

“If anything happens,” she murmured, her speech already slurring from the additional pain medication she had received, “Know that you—-“

“Nothing is going to happen,” he said firmly.

Shifting slightly, she turned to look at him. The index finger of her left hand touched his cheek, then came to rest on his lips. Her eyelids were heavy now, giving her hazel eyes a seductive look.

“Have I told you how much I love your lower lip?”

He chuckled. “You may have mentioned something about it.”

She sighed. “It’s perfect...like one of those divine chocolate truffles that’s been rolled in cocoa powder. It looks so lovely before you even taste it—but then once you have, it’s utter bliss—and you want more before you’ve even finished the first one.” Gazing up at him through her eyelashes, she whispered loudly, “I bet no one has ever said that to you before.”

“I can safely say that no one has ever compared me to a chocolate truffle.” He looked down at her, and saw that her lips were slightly parted. The curve of her breasts was visible under the thin fabric, and he felt his body starting to respond to the thought that only a whisper of material separated her naked body from his hands.

“I want you,” he murmured.

“You have me,” she said, tracing her finger across his lips.

“That’s not what I mean.” Her pupils, which had been reduced to a pinpoint by the morphine, dilated slightly, and he knew that she understood.

“Here?” She glanced at the starched white curtain that separated them from the rest of the ward. “They’re about to take me back to the operating room. But say we had fifteen minutes—and no one was within ten feet. What would you do?”

He slid a hand under her gown, his fingers seeking the warmth between her legs.

She gasped. “You don’t waste time, do you?”

“I’m a man who claims what he wants.” He stroked her folds gently, and felt a tremor pass through her body when he slid a finger inside her. “But for you to get what you want, you will have to be as quiet as a mouse. No sound can escape those lovely lips. Do you think you can do that?”

He slipped a second finger inside her, and her left hand gripped his leg. His cock twitched as he felt her nails digging through his trousers and into his skin. In the background, he could hear the shuffle of feet and the snap of a clipboard. Their moments together were numbered.

It took all his resolve to keep himself focused on his task now. He put his mouth to her ear, his breath stirring the delicious little curl that lay at her temple.“Nod if you want more.”

He felt her nod against him. In response, his thumb began to rub small circles around the exquisitely sensitive nub of tissue. It was swollen to nearly twice its size already, and he was sure it wouldn’t take long for her to climax under his skilled touch.

When she stiffened against him, a few well-placed, rhythmic flicks of his finger were all it took to send her over the edge. He smirked in satisfaction as he watched her left hand fly to her mouth, stifling her cries. As pulses of pleasure continued to wash through her body, she arched against his chest. Tommy held her tightly, secure in the knowledge that he had been able to give her something that that no one else could.

A hand fumbled at the curtain as a bright voice chirped, “It’s time, Miss Ross!”

As it slid open, Tommy stood up, and snapped, “It’s Dr. Ross.”

“I see. My apologies, Dr. Ross.” The stout, middle aged nurse narrowed her eyes at Tommy. “It’s time for the operating room, so family and friends need to say goodbye.”

Tommy gave her a cold stare. “You mean good luck. It’s ill luck to bid someone farewell before surgery.”

The woman’s eyes slid from his, and she murmured, “Of course. So silly of me.” Picking up a clipboard on the table, she flipped through the papers Alex had signed earlier. “Everything’s in order except for your next of kin.” She picked up a pen, and gave Alex an expectant look. “I need a family member that we can notify in case of an emergency. Who would that be?”

Tommy saw Alex glance up at him. The sorrow in her eyes caused his heart to constrict in his chest.

After a few moments’ silence, she asked, “Will a friend suffice?”

“I’m afraid not, Dr. Ross,” the nurse said briskly, her starched cap bobbing along with her head. “It must be family.”

“Well, I think a fiancé is about as close as you can come to family,” Tommy said smoothly. “So put my name down. Thomas Shelby. S-h-e-l-b-y.”

 

Chapter Text

The stout nurse beamed at them, her heretofore no-nonsense expression transforming into that of an overjoyed aunt. “Well, it seems as If congratulations are in order! I must say that you make a lovely pair—her dark hair and hazel eyes, all warmth and softness, contrasting with those ice blue eyes and that chiseled jaw. Like something out of the pictures, you are.”

Tommy gave her his most charming smile. “You’re too kind, Nurse—“

“Morton. Alice Morton.”

He leaned closer, assuming a confidential air. “Well, Nurse Alice, if truth be told, Dr. Ross took a bit of convincing, but I finally wore her down.”

The woman clasped her clipboard to her ample chest, her enthusiasm almost contagious. “I so adore a good love story. How did the two of you meet?”

“Well, I have a thing for chocolate truffles,” Alex murmured, looking up at Tommy with a sweet smile.

“So do I!” the nurse exclaimed. She circled around the bed, her sensibly shod feet tapping on the linoleum floor. “Let me guess—Mr. Shelby saw you gazing into the window of a sweets shop.” She spoke with a dramatic intensity that rivaled that of a veteran stage actress, waving her clipboard with a flourish as she described the scene.

“It was a rainy day, and the street was cloaked in mist. He thought you were the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He knew he couldn’t let you get away. The moment you walked off, he ran in and bought a box of chocolates. Within a minute, he had caught up with you—and the rest is history.”

Tommy shook his head, a look of mock astonishment on his face. “You must be clairvoyant. How could you have possibly known that—-“

Alex piped up, her speech slurring. “No, you’ve got it wrong. You need to look at Tommy. Look very closely. Ignore the eyes—believe me, I know it’s hard—and focus on the lower part of his face. He is—“

“Going to tell you the story,” he interrupted smoothly. “If my darling fiancée will let me get in a word edgewise.” Giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze, he turned to Nurse Alice. “You are right in one respect. We met in a confectioner’s shop—it was my cousin’s, actually.”

“How lovely! I’d very much like to go round there. I’m new to Birmingham, and just getting to know the city. Where is it located?”

Tommy slid his hands into his pockets. He leaned against the edge of the bed, wondering why the woman had to ask so many fucking questions. He thought rapidly. “Actually, It’s not in Birmingham. It’s in Edinburgh.”

“Oh, so you met in Scotland!” Nurse Alice sighed. “How romantic!” She leaned over to Alex, and spoke conspiratorially. “My first husband was a Scot. A fine man, was Angus. He would still be alive if it hadn’t been for the bad bacon butty that he ate.”

Alex gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m so sorry. I know how painful the death of a loved one can be.”

“Ah, that was ten years—and another husband—ago. Now I’m looking for a new man to warm my bed.” She winked at Alex. “But I feel like your man’s leaving the best bit out, love. Just how did he get your attention?” She gave Tommy a sideways glance, her lips curving into a sly grin. “It must have been those blue eyes. They remind me of the garter I wore at my last wedding.”

Alex laughed. “Now he’s going to blush. Tommy is very shy, but he’s a real romantic. He even got down on one knee when he proposed.”

Nurse Alice gasped. “I didn’t think anyone did that any more. Where did he propose?”

Tommy looked down at Alex. Her eyes were slightly unfocused from the sedative, and her skin lacked its usual bloom. He felt a pang of unease, relaxing only when she returned his gaze. She reached for his hand, her lashes fluttering against her cheek as her eyelids began to droop

He sat down next to the bed and laced her fingers through his, giving her a wink as he began to spin the tale. “Well, I told this lovely woman that we were going to Wales because I had a bit of business—but instead brought her to the most beautiful beach on the Welsh coast.”

Alex’s eyes took on a faraway look. “It was late in the afternoon, and the water was shimmering in the sunlight. There were some gulls flying over us, silhouetted against the blue sky.”

He slid his thumb across her palm, moving back and forth in a soothing rhythm. “And the water was warm enough for you to dip your toes in.”

“I tried to get you to take your shoes off, and you wouldn’t.” She wrinkled her nose, her lips curving into a pout.

“But after you begged me to, I finally gave in. I never could say no to you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she murmured, her eyes warming. “The best part, though, was when the sun began to set. We’d been walking on the beach for over two hours at that point.”

He chuckled. “And you thought I was stalling because I wanted to go to the races at Swansea instead of going home. You weren’t happy with me, were you, love?”

“No, I wasn’t. But that was your fault, Thomas Shelby. If you’d just taken out the ring instead of letting me think that your mind was on the horses, I would have—“ she yawned, then said, “I would have—what were we talking about?”

“The beach.” Tommy murmured.

“That’s right. Then you got down on one knee and I started to cry. I knew you had to be completely serious if you were allowing those impeccably tailored trousers to touch the sand.” Her breath hitched slightly, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “But at the same time, I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. After Jonathan died, I honestly thought I’d be alone for the rest of my life.”

“Yeah well— you were wrong about that, weren’t you?” Tommy said softly, wiping away the tear on her cheek with the pad of his thumb.

“Most men don’t want have anything to do with a female physician—or any educated woman for that matter—especially when they are looking for a romantic partner.” She struggled to keep her eyes open, and gave him a searching look. “What makes you different, Tommy? What do you see in me?”

“Kindness. Independence. Intelligence. A very appealing sense of humor.” He put her hand to his mouth, brushing his lips against her knuckles. “If push comes to shove, you can handle a firearm like a professional, even though you don’t especially care to do so. Then there’s your skill at banishing headaches —and your gorgeous body.” He grinned. “You’re the complete package, Alex Ross.”

A loud sigh came from behind them, and Tommy glanced over his shoulder to see a starry-eyed nurse Alice looking at him.

“Do you have any older brothers?” she asked hopefully.

Tommy smirked. “As a matter of fact, I do. His name is Arthur. He should be along before too long. I’ll have to introduce you.”

A tall orderly came up. “Time to take you to the operating room, ma’am. Dr. Harbottle’s ready for you.”

Alex blinked, fighting the sleep that threatened to carry her away. “Tommy, will I see you later?” The wistful expression on her face made his throat tighten.

“Absolutely. In fact, I’m going to be the first person you see when you wake up.” Standing up, he leaned over and covered her mouth with his. Her lips were soft and pliant, and it was all he could do to keep the kiss relatively chaste.

When he finally pulled away, she looked up at him, her eyes dreamy. “I’d like that. But promise me you’ll get some sleep. I’m worried about you.”

Tommy was stunned. The function of her dominant hand was in jeopardy, and she was worried about him. A burning sensation hit the back of his eyes, and he had to look away for a moment to collect himself. Marshaling his most reassuring smile, he met her gaze once again, and said, “Don’t worry about me. Just focus on getting better. I can take care of myself.”

“I know you can.” She squeezed his hand, then released it. As they wheeled her away, Tommy felt a lump in his throat.

“It’s always hard to send off the ones we love, isn’t it? Nurse Alice put a hand on his shoulder, and gave him a sympathetic look. “But I can tell she’s a tough one. She’ll be just fine.”

Tommy cleared his throat. “Yes—Yes she will.”

“Like I said, the two of you make a gorgeous couple.” She hesitated for a moment, then said, “May I give you a piece of advice, Mr. Shelby?”

He frowned. “Advice?”

“It’s just—your hair.” She leaned forward, and whispered, “You’d do best to get a proper haircut. Going around like that will lead people to think that you’re a gangster—and that would be such a shame.”

He suppressed a smile. “That’s good advice. Very good advice indeed.”

Just as she left his side, Arthur walked up. “Is Alex already off to the operating theater?”

Tommy nodded, his eyes still fixed on the door that led to the surgical suite.

“What if she never regains use of her hand?” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

He felt Arthur’s hand come to rest on his shoulder.

“She’ll be alright,” his brother said firmly.

“It’s my fault, Arthur. I was so fucking careless.”

“Alex doesn’t blame you, Tom.”

“I know,” he said, and shook his head. “That’s what makes it even worse.” He turned and met his brother’s eyes.”If she’d just scream at me—tell me that I’ve fucking gone and ruined her life—I think I could cope a bit better. Right now, I don’t know how I’m going to live with myself if she doesn’t heal.”

Arthur squeezed his shoulder. “I think we could both do with a cigarette and a drink. The Boar’s Head is just across the street. We can nip over there and be back well before she’s out of the operating room. How long did Harbottle say she’d be in there?”

“At least two hours.” The idea of a good stiff drink—or two—to calm his nerves was more than Tommy could resist.

“Alright. But I want to be back well before she comes out.”

Twenty minutes later, Tommy was on his third whiskey and his fourth cigarette.

Arthur gave him the I’m-your-elder-brother-and-I know-what’s-best-for-you look that Tommy found particularly irritating. “Maybe you should slow down a bit.”

“Says the man who never met a bottle of alcohol he didn’t like.” Tommy took a drag, then stared into his glass, hoping that the alcohol would numb the self-hatred that was threatening to drown him.

Arthur shifted in his seat, and gave him a hard look. “Alex needs you to be clear-headed.” His eyes scanned the room for a moment before settling back on his brother. Then he spoke, his voice low and deliberate. “This may not have crossed your mind, but a hospital is not exactly a secure location.”

A chill ran down Tommy’s spine. “You don’t think that Sabini would try to get to her there? He couldn’t possibly know she is in hospital. We left Small Heath in the dead of night.”

His brother shook his head. “They say his intelligence network is unrivaled. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

“Fuck.” Tommy drained his glass, then slammed it on the table. “I shouldn’t have left.” He ground his cigarette into the ashtray, and reached for his cap.

Arthur seized his arm. “Hey, you needed a break. All I’m saying is don’t get completely pissed before you go back.”

Tommy shook off his brother’s grip. “I won’t—because I’m heading back now.”

They were back in the waiting room five minutes later. The following hour seemed to drag on forever. The next thing he knew, Arthur was shaking him.

“Tom—wake up. The surgery’s over. Dr. Harbottle wants a word with you.”

Tommy blinked. The room was empty except for the three of them. The fog in his brain began to clear, and he spoke up, his voice hoarse. “How is she?”

The surgeon cleared his throat. He took off his surgical cap, and ran his hand through his hair. Squaring his shoulders, he said, “It was a very difficult operation—harder than I had anticipated. Dr. Ross was quite fortunate to be under the care of the best hand surgeon in England. Had another physician been in that operating room, she would have undoubtedly lost all function of the hand.”

Tommy felt a surge of irritation. “Enough with the self-congratulation. Were you able to fix it or not?”

Harbottle sniffed, and gave him a patronizing look. “Mr. Shelby, unlike your line of work, medicine is an art. Outcomes are sometimes unpredictable—even with the best care possible.”

Tommy stepped closer. “It sounds to me as if you’re already making excuses,” he said, his tight, clipped speech betraying his barely controlled fury. “Now tell me what the fuck is going on.”

“I was able to reattach the tendons, but I had to use a somewhat unorthodox method. It’s impossible to say what her chance of a full recovery is, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say less than 30%. A more accurate prognosis will be possible after 24-48 hours have elapsed. I’ll be in touch.” He turned and walked away.

Tommy’s shoulders sagged as he fight drained out of him. “What a fucking nightmare,” he muttered.

The door to the surgical suite opened, and two orderlies pushed out a gurney. Tommy’s heart dropped when he saw Alex. She lay motionless, her head lolling to the side. Her usually healthy complexion was almost grey.

He moved forward, anxious to get to her.

The attendant at the front of the stretcher smoothly intercepted him. The man was at least six foot two inches, and had the body of a wrestler. “I’m sorry, sir. We’re taking her to the post-anesthesia unit. No family is allowed in there.”

The rhythm of the man’s speech was unmistakably Italian. Tommy stared at him, his hands reflexively curling into fists.

“You’re Italian, eh?”

The attendant’s gaze hardened.

“Sicilian. What of it? I’m an honest man. I do good work here.”

“Get the fuck away from her.” Tommy’s voice was almost a snarl.

The other man spoke up. “Ignore him, Sal.” He was bald and stocky, and his voice was also unmistakably Italian. His beady eyes shifted to Tommy. “He’s just another fucking drunk. I can smell the alcohol from here.”

Tommy narrowed his eyes. “You one of Sabini’s dogs, too?”

The bald man laughed bitterly, and gave Tommy a dismissive glance. “You fucking people will never stop believing that all Italians are criminals.” He pushed the gurney forward. “Vaffanculo!”

That phrase happened to be one of the dozen Italian obscenities that Tommy was familiar with. Before the man had taken two steps, Tommy’s fist connected with his jaw.

As the taller orderly moved to aid his colleague, Arthur gave him a vicious kick in the balls. The man howled in pain, then leapt for the eldest Shelby brother, knocking him onto his back. His hands were around Arthur’s throat in an instant, and soon Arthur was struggling for breath, his face turning purple.

Meanwhile, Tommy’s opponent had quickly recovered from the blow he had been dealt. He assumed the stance of a practiced boxer, and landed a blow to Tommy’s ribs that took the breath out of him for an instant. Pressing his advantage, the orderly drove his body into Tommy, knocking him over a table.

As the floor rushed up to meet him, Tommy caught a glimpse of John. His brother’s pistol was raised, his arm accelerating through a graceful arc. A second later, the butt of his gun connected with the skull of Arthur’s assailant, and the man lost his grip on Arthur’s neck. Stunned, he dropped to the floor, but got to his feet in a surprisingly short period of time. He charged John, driving him into a group of chairs.

Pandemonium erupted then, and the noise drew other staff out of the operating theater. Tommy was pulled to his feet, then thrown against a wall. As his vision began to blur, he heard the imperious voice of Stephen Harbottle rise above the din.

“Enough!”

The room fell silent. As Tommy’s sight cleared, the surgeon’s tall frame came into focus. The doctor gave a curt order for all staff—save the two orderlies—to leave the room. Then he fixed his disapproving gaze on the two men, who sullenly stared at the floor

“Sal and Luca, you are a disgrace to this hospital. Your conduct today has been unprofessional and boorish. You will take the rest of the day off—without pay—to examine your consciences, and will return tomorrow morning with a better attitude. But before you leave, you will apologize to Mr. Shelby and his—” he looked at John, who was now standing next to Arthur and Tommy. “Brothers.”

“Mistakes were made,” Sal muttered.

“Sorry if our coarse manners offended you fine gentlemen,” Luca added, shooting a hostile look at Tommy.

Harbottle dismissed them. As the pair exited the room, Tommy gave them a cold stare, while Arthur openly scoffed at their lack of sincerity. Not to be outdone, John spat out a few choice curses in Romani.

The surgeon turned to Tommy, his face hardening. “You, Mr. Shelby, would do well to focus your attention on Dr. Ross rather than on my staff. She has a hard road ahead of her, and will need your support. I’ll send someone back in to take her to the postanesthesia area.” He went back into the operating suite, leaving Tommy, John, and Arthur alone.

John went to his eldest brother, and put his hand on his shoulder. “We’ll wait outside,’ he said softly. “Give you a minute alone with her.” He jerked his head at Arthur, who followed him out the door.

As the door scraped shut, Tommy took in a deep breath, then walked over to the gurney. Had he not seen the gentle rise and fall of her breasts through the thin gown, he might have thought Alex dead. Her right hand was swathed in a bulky dressing, a plaster splint extending up her forearm.

The reality of her situation hit him when he saw the cast. He put his head in his hands, leaning on the rails the surrounded the stretcher. He had somehow pictured her coming out of the operating room with just a neat little bandage on her hand. The large cast was a monstrosity, its bulk grotesque in comparison to her petite frame. A wide swath of orange marked the trail of iodine that streaked upwards from the top of the plaster, disappearing under her gown as it headed towards her shoulder.

When Tommy reached down and took her left hand in his, he was shocked to find her fingers as cold as marble. Desperately wanting to warm them, he put her hand to his lips, and nearly gagged at the odor the operating room had left on her skin. The pungent, sickly sweet smell of ether hovered in his nostrils, mixing with the sharp, caustic stench of iodine. The combination was nauseating. Unable to tolerate the smell, he laid her hand back on the gurney and settled for wrapping his fingers around it.

He could not quite believe that this immobile, unresponsive woman was Alex. The same Alex who could stiffen his cock merely by giving him a teasing look or brushing her fingers against his bare skin. He thought of the night they had danced at the Romani wedding. As he had held her in his arms on the periphery of the dance floor, her soft body had molded to his perfectly, the silver beading on her emerald dress reflecting the glow of the torches. When he had rolled his eyes at John’s loud, off-key rendition of a romantic Romani ballad, she had laughed, then laid her head on his shoulder. The peace he had felt at that moment had caught him by surprise. Those moments had been few and far between since he had returned from the war.

Bringing his thoughts back to the present, Tommy looked down at her, trying to remember what life had been like before Alex Ross had come into his life. Against his will, his eyes stayed to the cast on her hand. In the brief period of time since she had taken up residence in Small Heath, she had made a positive impact on so many lives—including his own. If she did not heal, her life would be irrevocably changed.

His vision blurred for an instant, and he whispered, “What have I done to you?”


***

It was too damn early. Alfie was normally a morning person, but his back was acting up today. Granted, it was probably from the extended period of time he’d spent in the sack with the luscious Celia the night before. Unfortunately, the memory of an extended session of some of the most mind-blowing sex he’d ever had didn’t prevent his back from hurting like fucking hell. But the pain had been well worth it. A grin spread across his face as he recalled the glorious vision of Celia’s lithe body in various acrobatic positions. He was an experienced man, but he had had no fucking idea that the human body was capable of the moves she’d shown him. The one where she had bent over backwards, then—

The car jerked to a halt. “We’re here, boss. 6 Watery Lane.”

Alfie peered out of the window. The houses that lined the street were uniformly drab, one dwelling seamlessly blending into the next. It was like an endless stretch of the most bland, depressing buildings that he’d ever seen.

“All I can say is if I had to get up to this every day, I’d be as fucking mad as Arthur Shelby. How the fuck do these people live with this shit? They must need a drink as soon as they get up. No wonder they’re all still asleep. Not one fucking person on the street, and it’s half past seven o’clock.” He sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. He could sense a dull throbbing at the back of his head already. “You know what Maimondes says about the High Holy Days, Tzvi, right?”

The young man sat up, his body straight as an arrow. “It is important to recall that the shofar is a means of awakening the slumbering soul,” he recited. “It says to us, ‘Sleeping ones! Awaken from your slumber! Examine your deeds.’”

“That’s excellent.” Alfie opened the door, and shuffled over to the driver’s window, leaning over to look in at the young man. “You know your Torah scholars. Your mum should be fucking proud. Do you make your mum proud?”

Tzvi nodded vigorously. “Yes, Mr. Solomons.”

“Right then. You know what to do.” Alfie stepped back, leaning on his walking stick as the sound of the car’s horn blared into the clear morning air. After fifteen seconds of the sort of cacophony that would wake the dead, there was still no sign of life. At thirty seconds, his keen eye caught the slight flutter of curtains in one of the second story windows.

That’s probably Alex. He smiled, anticipating the moment when the front door would open and she would come running out to give him a hug.

Soon thereafter, the door did indeed fly open. However, the woman standing on the front step was not Alex.

“You’ve got some fucking nerve, Alfie Solomons.”

 

Chapter Text

Alfie straightened up, his keen eyes assessing the young woman who stood in front of him. A rumpled cotton nightdress peeked out from under an oversized brown bathrobe. Her feet were bare, and her dark hair was bound in two loose braids. Lines left by a pillowcase zigzagged across her left cheek. Three small children peered out from behind her. The youngest, a boy who could not have been more than 18 months old, took two unsteady steps forward. He seized her bathrobe in his pudgy fists, and held on for dear life. Swaying slightly, he looked up at Alfie, his eyes bright with curiosity.

“Hmm.” Alfie stroked his beard, and gave the woman a thoughtful look. “You’re too young to be Polly. You must be the gypsy hellcat that John married. Let me see...what did Tommy say your name was? Emme? Ezi?”

Her dark eyes flashed. “It’s Esme. E-S-M-E. And a hellcat is what you’re going to get when you have the gall to blast a fucking car horn outside my house at the crack of dawn. Thanks to you, these little darlings are wide awake.” She reached down and picked up the toddler, bouncing him on her arm. “John usually watches them for an hour in the morning so I can have a bit of a lie-in, because once he leaves, all hell breaks loose. But he had to go off early this morning—something dangerous Tommy’s dragged him into, more than likely—-so I prayed for safety for him and some quiet for myself. And what do I get?” Her voice rose to a shout. “Alfie bloody Solomons waking up the fucking dead!”

Clearly Esme’s shrieking was a common occurrence. The placid toddler played with the buttons on her nightdress, oblivious to the rather one-sided conversation going on around him. The girl and boy hovering on the doorstep were giggling, their heads close together as they whispered back and forth.

Alfie sighed. “Fuckin’ hell. I’ve only just stepped into pikey paradise, and I’ve already been cast as Lucifer.” He put his hand on his heart and gave her a mock bow. “My apologies for havin’ intruded upon your oh-so-sacred nap time. If you’ll just show me to Tommy’s office, I’ll get the fuck out of your way, and we’ll both be happy.”

“Oh, no you don’t.” Esme eyed Alfie with suspicion, and hugged her child to her chest. “Tommy ain’t home, and I know better than to leave you alone in his office. It’d be like letting the fox guard the henhouse.”

Alfie sighed. “Alright. Well, if you can point me in the direction of The Garrison, I’ll head over there and have a drink. Tommy’s always yammerin’ about how his fine fuckin’ establishment outshines anything London has to offer. I bet you a pound to a pinch of shit that the place don’t have any quality rum to hand—-and that’s what makes a fine fuckin’ pub, not the shit Irish whiskey that Tommy and his brothers drink.”

“Sorry, but that’s not possible. The Garrison’s closed for repairs. The Italians bombed it two nights ago.”

A low whistle escaped Alfie’s lips. “Damn. Sabini ain’t playin’ around.”

“Not since Alex Ross shot and killed two of his men.” Esme tossed her head. “It’s been one fucking thing after another ever since that woman came to Small Heath.”

Alfie squinted up at her, his eyes narrowing. “Where is my friend Alex?”

Esme shrugged. “Don’t know. I just passed by her room. The door was open, and she was gone. John said something about her having to go to the hospital.”

“She must be workin’ on getting her privileges.” He shook his head. “No doubt she’ll have a hell of a fight ahead of her. Those bastards will think up every possible excuse to prevent her from gettin’ her foot in the door.”

“Well, you might as well come in. There’s not many places to go at this time of the morning.” She gave him a pointed look. “And why is that? Because it’s too fucking early.” Gesturing for Alfie to follow her, she stepped inside the house.

Once inside, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior. The wallpaper may have been tasteful once upon a time, but the pattern was faded beyond recognition now. A framed photograph of Tommy and his brothers in uniform graced the fireplace mantel, which was otherwise bare. The furniture was sturdy and functional, but far from elegant.

Esme led him into the kitchen, and motioned for him to sit at the table. “Here, hold Jimmy for a moment.” She thrust the toddler into his lap, then turned to the other children. “Alice, John—please mind Mr. Solomons. He’s a friend of Uncle Tommy’s.” Before he could blink, she had vanished from the room.

“Thank you for watching the children,” she called, her laughter floating into the kitchen just before the door slammed shut.

Alfie took stock of the children. Little Jimmy was already pulling on his beard, while John Jr. was trying to hit the light bulb in the ceiling with a small rubber ball.

Alice sat on a chair across from him. She swung one thin leg back and forth, kicking the leg of the table in a steady rhythm. “I’m hungry,” she announced. Tilting her head like a small bird, she gave him an appraising look. “Are you a good cook, Mr. Solomons?”

“That hat kind of looks like magician’s hat. Except it’s not tall enough.” John Jr. put his ball in his pocket, then gave Alfie a speculative look. “Can you do any magic tricks? Johnny Dogs knows some really good ones.”

“Like the one with the hedgehog!” Eyes wide with excitement, Alice sat on the edge of her chair. “Johnny pulled a hedgehog out of his hat—twice in one day!”

Alfie raised an eyebrow. “A hedgehog? How big was it?”

“About as big as my hand,” John Jr. said. “He was a nice fat one.” He rummaged through a drawer and fished out a toothpick, then planted it in the corner of his mouth.

“Dad said he’d likely end up in the stew that night.” Alice made a face. “I’m never eating hedgehog stew. I don’t care if Esme says it’s lovely. I don’t want to swallow one of the spikes.”

John Jr. rolled his eyes. “They take the spikes off before they cook it, you dummy!”

“I know that!” Alice retorted hotly. “But I’ve watched Johnny when he’s cooking, and sometimes he drinks a lot of whisky. He might not always be careful.”

Her brother smirked. “Well, if there was a spike in the stew, you’d have to eat it. Dad says when you’re a guest, you have to eat what you’re given, and not complain.”

“He doesn’t mean I should eat a spike!” Alice said indignantly.

“Does too!” John Jr. stuck out his tongue at her.

“Hey, hey! Enough of that!” Alfie said sternly. “We ain’t eatin’ any fuckin’ hedgehogs while I’m here.”

“I don’t think hedgehogs fuck,” John Jr said, a serious expression on his face.

Alfie sighed. “Of course they fuck. Where do you think baby hedgehogs come from?”

“What about the prickles?” Alice asked. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

Alfie thought for a moment. “Well, they don’t have prickles on their bellies. I suppose they just snuggle up next to each other, belly to belly, and let nature take its course.”

“Maybe.” John Jr. looked doubtful. “Now I’m hungry. What are you gonna make us for breakfast?”


Xxxx

It was another three hours before Tommy was allowed to see Alex. insisted on sitting outside the post anesthesia unit, determined to keep vigil until the moment her gurney rolled out of the doors. John and Arthur finally convinced him to close his eyes for a few minutes. The next thing he knew, John was tapping him on the shoulder.

“Wake up. She’s coming out.”

Tommy bolted upright just as the doors swung open. As he rushed to the stretcher, the orderlies slowed their pace, allowing him to walk alongside.

Alex’s eyes were closed, but her head tossed restlessly on the pillow. “Where is he?” she asked, her soft voice trembling. “Please—I want to see him.”

“Hey, everything’s fine. I’m right here,” he said, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She quieted, and seemed to become drowsy once agin.

They walked down a short corridor, and turned into room 103.

“Where am I? It’s so cold, and my hand feels like it’s on fire. Please, I just want to be with him!” She was pleading now, and Tommy’s chest tightened when he noticed she was shivering. The nervous orderlies locked the stretcher’s brakes, and edged towards the door.

“We need two more fucking blankets—now!” Tommy snapped.

“Yes, sir,” replied one of the attendants. He disappeared briefly, then returned with two thick woolen blankets.

Tommy gave him a curt nod, and the orderly quickly retreated. He tucked the blankets around Alex, making sure her feet were well covered. Then he placed his hands on the rails, and leaned down. “I’m here, just like I promised. Open your eyes, love.”

Her eyelashes fluttered. “I want my husband,” she said brokenly. “I want Jonathan.”

The air suddenly left Tommy’s lungs. He bent over, resting his head on his hands. He had had little sleep over the past forty-eight hours, and fatigue was starting to chip away at the impassive mask that he habitually wore.

“Describe him to me,” he said hoarsely.

“He’ll be in a chaplain, so look for the clerical collar. He really hates wearing that—-thinks it separates him from the soldiers, but the bishop persuaded him it was important. It makes it easy for the men to spot him when they need to talk.” She smiled. “He’s tall, with dark hair, and brown eyes—and he’s got broad shoulders. He rowed at Cambridge.”

Hearing her talk about another man—much less a dead one—was more painful than he would have thought possible. He lifted his head, and saw that her eyes were still closed. Perhaps she was experiencing side effects from the anesthesia. But why didn’t she recognize his voice?

He took in a deep breath, then said, “What’s his last name?”

“Britton. Jonathan Britton.” She hesitated, then murmured, “You’re from Birmingham. I can tell by your accent. You sound like my husband.”

“Aye.” He gave a bitter laugh. “There’s no mistaking a Brummie, is there?”

“Thank you,” she murmured. “Thank you—Mr—I’m sorry, you must be a soldier, and I don’t know your rank, much less your name.”

He cleared his throat. “Thomas Shelby. Sergeant Major Thomas Shelby.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Major. You’ve put my mind at ease.” She sighed, and laid her cheek on the pillow.

As soon as the door closed behind him, Tommy took a few steps forward. He stumbled, and a pair of arms caught him.

“Steady there, Tom.” John’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle.

“She doesn’t know me,” he said blankly. “She has no fucking idea who I am.”

“It’s the drugs.” His brother gave him a knowing nod. “You know that they fuck your brain up. Remember when Ada got her appendix out seven years ago? She thought that a group of squirrels was playing cricket on her bed.”

“Yeah, she’d been reading The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin to Finn.” Arthur frowned. “I hate that fucking book. Nutkin’s a fucking idiot, spouting off riddles about red herring and bonny swine. And Twinkleberry— what kind of a fucking name is that for a male squirrel anyway?—-and the other squirrels are just useless. All they worry about is keeping on the good side of the old owl.”

“She keeps asking for him.” A wave of dizziness passed over Tommy, disappearing as quickly as it had come. He idly wondered when he had last eaten.

“Who?” John asked.

“Jonathan. Her husband.” Tommy saw his brothers exchange a glance.

“Right, I’m going to take you home,” John said briskly. “You need to sleep and eat, because right now you’re in a fucking state. You’ll be of no help whatsoever to Alex in this condition.”

With a burst of energy, Tommy shoved his brother away from him. “I’m not leaving.” From out of the corner of his eye, he saw another figure come at him, and rushed forward.

But Arthur was ready for him. He used the weight of his body to force Tommy against the wall, his calloused palms gripping his brother’s face in his hands. “Look at me, Tom.”

Tommy fixed his gaze on his brother, thinking that Arthur looked more serious that he had in a quite some time.

“You’ve had no sleep, and you can barely stand up. You’re about to snap. John’s going to take you home. I’ll stay here with Alex, and I swear that I’ll keep her safe. Anyone who tries to get to her is a fucking dead man.”

He badly wanted to tell the both of them to fuck off and leave him alone, but knew he didn’t have the strength left to fight them. After a moment of hesitation, he nodded. “Okay. I’ll go with John, but on one condition. It’s almost eleven now. I want to be back here by 6 pm.”

“Done.” His brothers spoke in unison. Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulder before turning him over to John. “Don’t worry about Alex. By the time you get back, she’ll know exactly who you are, and she won’t even recall the conversation you just had.”

“Yeah,” Tommy said, his voice sounding hollow to his own ears. “You’re probably right. Everything will be back to normal.”

But as he walked to the car with John, he felt anything but normal. He seemed to have gotten a second wind, and with that burst of wakefulness, found that his nerves were on edge. Everything irritated him. John’s non-stop humming. The cars in front of them that were moving with the speed of fucking snails. The blinding sunlight that insisted on invading his eyes no matter where he looked.

When they rounded the corner to Watery Lane, the sight that met his eyes was the last straw—Alfie Solomons’ shiny black Crossley parked outside their house.

“Stop.”

John glanced at him. “Tommy, you—“

“I told you to fucking stop.”

Pulling to the curb, John put on the brake.

“You can’t avoid him,” he muttered, his hands still gripping the steering wheel.

“The hell I can’t.” Tommy got out of the car, slamming the door behind him.

“Wait, where are you going?” John hung out of the window, the ever-present toothpick jutting from the corner of his mouth.

“To get some sleep. I’ll be back by 5:45.” He pointed a finger at John. “Make sure you’re ready.” As he turned and walked away, John called after him, “The Garrison’s not fit for anything yet.”

“I know that,” he replied irritably. “I’m going to Alex’s office. Now leave me the fuck alone.”

Disappearing around the corner, he looked over his shoulder and heaved a sigh of relief. He had thought John might follow him and nag at him to go home. The truth of the matter was that the last person he wanted to see right now was Alfie fucking Solomons.

Because if he did, Alfie would ask where Alex was. Tommy was too tired to make up some cock and bull story. He was definitely too tired to tell Alfie the truth. Were he to do so, there was no doubt that he would be subjected to a profanity laden tirade from Alfie detailing all the reasons why he didn’t deserve Alex, especially now that he had ruined her life. It would be a waste of breath on the part of the man from Camden Town After all, Tommy had had an internal monologue going for the past 24 hours that had already covered all of Alfie’s material—and more.

He cursed himself for not having the self control to refrain from bedding her. Why was he so fucking undisciplined when it came to women? Perhaps because he had never thought about it. Perhaps because it had never fucking mattered. He had never had any inclination to form a lasting attachment to any of the women he fucked, and he made it a rule to make that abundantly clear. But having that discussion often grated on his nerves. It took time and energy away from the main event.

On the whole, he preferred to seek the services of a carefully chosen prostitute. Sex for cash was a business transaction. Business, he understood.

He’d fucked up with Alex, plain and simple. He hadn’t laid down the customary ground rules at the beginning—hadn’t even thought about it. Even more odd was the fact that when he’d spun the tale of his proposal for Nurse Alice, he’d actually caught himself imagining what a life with Alex might be like. That train of thought was fucking confusing—-because he had always craved variety and novelty when it came to women.

Why was he even allowing himself to think about being tied down? Maybe he was getting old—opting for safe, familiar territory. There had to be a middle ground. Sex with a pretty woman who was willing to do whatever he asked, but without the finality of a marriage certificate. A known quantity, but one unable to impose upon him a quota of 1.3 fucks a week in the missionary position.

Perhaps that was why he found himself standing on the doorstep of Mabel Wright’s modest brick home. But when he raised his hand to knock, an image of the Alex of two nights ago popped into his mind. She lay half-naked under him on the bed, clad only in his spare shirt. She was telling him that she loved him.

At that moment, his cock had been thinking for him. He had failed to grasp the depth of the trust she had shown in him. She had bared her soul as well as her body, but he done nothing to show that he deserved her honesty.

XXx

Mabel brushed her mother’s silver hair, counting the strokes as she went. “25–26–27–“

“That feels lovely,” Frances Wright sighed, gazing into the mirror. “You are always so gentle, Clara.”

Mabel’s throat tightened. She had thought that with time, it would hurt less to have her mother not recognize her. But somehow, the pain seemed to grow with each passing month.

Frances’ memory had begun to decline 18 months ago, just as the war was careening towards the last great battles. The first sign that something was wrong had been in the baking. Frances Wright was famed throughout Small Heath for her bread. She took pride in baking, and had kept up the rhythm of churning out perfect loaves every other day for nigh on twenty years. One day, the bread had emerged from the oven flat as a pancake. Two days later, it had burnt.

Then she had begun to misplace things. First it was small items—hairpins or receipts from the shop. Then rolling pins had gone into the refrigerator, and milk had been put into the cupboard, left to spoil until Mabel discovered it five hours later.

She thanked God that her father had died before any of the signs had been there. Sometimes she wondered if grief from the sudden loss of his steady, cheerful presence had spurred her mother’s descent into senility. But Mabel knew that if John Wright’s heart would have been shattered if his darling Frances had one day failed to recognize him.

“Your sister Clara’s moved to America, Mum. Remember? She left twenty years ago after she married Uncle Rex. Maybe we’ll go and visit her some day. I’m your daughter Mabel.”

“That’s right.” Frances gave her a bright smile, but her eyes showed her confusion. “You have a husband too, don’t you?”

“No, Mum. It’s just you and me.” Mabel bent down and put her arms around her mother, resting her blonde head on Frances’ shoulder. She looked in the mirror and smiled. “When I was little, everyone always said how much we looked alike. Like two peas in a pod. It’s still true today.”

Her mother patted her face. “Your skin is beautiful, dear—but you look like you work too hard. You need to treat yourself to something nice. Better yet—“ She stopped, and looked up with a mischievous smile. “You should find yourself a young man—someone nice, who will take care of you.”

“Well, I’m going to have a nice hot bath while you take a nap.” She helped her mother up and guided her to the sturdy walnut bed. Frances settled back on the pillows, her eyes begin to droop even as Mabel drew the comforter up to her chin.

“Sweet dreams, Mummy.” Closing the door behind her, she padded into the kitchen. Opening the cupboard, she reached for the red tin of Typhoo tea. Her fingers brushed against the small packet of Earl Grey that Tommy had given her. He had brought it the last time he’d been by for more than the quickest of fucks against the sitting room wall. That had been—how long? She bit her lip. Two weeks—maybe three?

Since he had returned from the war, Tommy Shelby’s twice weekly visits had been the one constant in her life. Before he had left for France, he’d been as carefree as he was handsome. They’d been schoolmates since they were children. When they had both matured, Tommy had made his interest known. Flirtatious banter at the Garrison had occasionally ended in a sexual encounter after hours—most commonly in the privacy of the snug.

Tommy had been her first crush. Even though she knew he was not the kind of man who would ever be husband material, she could not resist him. As the time for him to ship out had come closer, he’d sought her out several times a week. Then he had boarded a ship to France, and her father had died. Her wages at the shoe factory had no longer been enough to support herself and her mother. So she had done what was necessary.

When Tommy had come back to Small Health, she had been ashamed for him to find out that she had become a part-time prostitute. But to her surprise, he had seemed relieved.

“You’ve done me a service time and time again, when I most needed it,” he’d said quietly. “Those weeks before I left for France, I’d have paid you for it, and gladly, if you’d have let me. I don’t want you fucking some drunken bastard who’s going to beat the shit out of you. From now on, you only take on customers of your own choosing.”

“Tommy, I can’t afford to be choosy at this point. I need to cover the rent.”

“I’ll take care of the rent.” When she had started to protest, he had cut her off. “Love, I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart. In return, I will require your services twice weekly—at a time that is mutually agreeable, of course.”

“Of course,” she had murmured, stung by his businesslike manner. However, that day had marked a turning point for her. No longer did she have to subject herself to the degradation of acquiescing to the sadistic whims of any man who had cash on hand. In her darkest hour, Tommy had served as a lifeline. And for that, she was forever grateful.

As she filled the kettle, a sharp knock on the door caused her to start. She put down the copper kettle and went to the front door. Carefully concealing herself behind the door, she stole a glance out of the yellowed lace curtains that hung in the hallway window.

When she saw a haggard Tommy standing outside, her fingers flew to the lock.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s all gone to hell,” he rasped, a blank expression on his face. “She doesn’t even recognize me.”

Mabel felt a pang of unease. She ushered him inside, her practiced gaze noting his rumpled shirt and vacant eyes. Taking him by the hand, she guided him to her bedroom and closed the door behind him. An instant later, her skillful fingers went to his collar, divesting him of his shirt in a matter of seconds.

“You’re safe with me, Tommy.” Her hands settled on his trousers, freeing his boxers from the heavy woolen material. She knelt on the floor and slipped off his shoes and socks. “Step out of your trousers,” she said, careful to use her most honeyed voice. She held her breath as she trailed her fingers along the inseam of his boxers, and was relieved to see his cock harden almost immediately, straining against the cotton fabric.

“I need sleep,” he groaned.

She sensed that he was vulnerable, and determined to press her advantage. Alex Ross presented a looming threat to the security she had enjoyed since the end of the way. Mabel knew that it was crucial that she strengthen Tommy’s trust in her. Luckily, she had considerable experience in handling his wildly varying moods. When tormented by doubt or guilt, he ached for her to take charge.

Putting her hands on his shoulders, she exerted a gentle pressure, forcing him to sit down on the edge of the bed. Untying her dressing gown, she let it fall to her shoulders, revealing her full, shapely breasts.

“I know what you need, Tommy—-and it doesn’t involve sleep.” Her fingers stroked his hair, caressing the base of his skull.

“I can’t,” he said hoarsely. But as he said it, he leaned forward, resting his head between her breasts.

Pushing him back on the bed, she straddled his lean body, and said gently, “You don’t need to do anything. You’ve taken care of me since you came back. Now it’s my turn. Just relax, and let me do the rest.”

 

 

  

Chapter Text

“I need her, Mabe.”

 

Mabel looked down at him. This was a version of Tommy she had never seen before. He was staring at the ceiling, and hadn’t even tried to touch her.  

 

It’s the damn doctor. He’s fallen for her.

 

Her emotions were mixed. She was fond of Tommy. Echos of the romantic she had once been lingered in her brain. She liked the thought of the right woman steering him towards a brighter future that carried the hope of a longer lifespan. But more than anything, she dreaded losing his patronage. The thought of having to widen the circle of her customers beyond a few carefully chosen men terrified her.

 

She touched his chest one last time, her fingers tracing the outline of his tattoo as her mind committed it to memory. Then she slipped her dressing gown back on, and rose from the bed.

 

“I’ll let you get some sleep then.” She paused, determined not to cry in front of him. “I thank you for all you’ve done for me and mum.”

 

He turned to look at her, his eyes vacant. He nodded, then turned on his side to face the wall.

 

Xxxx

 

It was almost noon. Alfie sat in the Shelby sitting room, bored out of his fucking mind. John and Alice had left for school at 8:30 with Tommy’s little brother.  A few moments later, Esme had sailed down the stairs and collected Jimmy from him, giving him a wink as she went into the kitchen.

 

The ensuing hours had been mind numbing. After Esme put Jimmy down for a nap and stepped out to go to the shop, he stretched out his long legs, groaning as his back cracked.  He tilted his hat down over his face and closed his eyes, hoping for a bit of a nap himself. A few minutes later, he was jolted out of a solid sleep by the phone that sat on the small table.

 

He opened one eye, irritated at the loud ringing. It was a fucking unnecessary intrusion into the first bit of decent rest he’d had in 48 hours. Determined to give the caller a piece of his mind, he picked up the phone. With any luck, it would be Tommy.

 

“Shelby residence,” he said gruffly.

 

“Good afternoon. This is Veronica, Dr. Harbottle’s nurse, calling from the Royal Orthopaedic and Spinal Hospital. The doctor has asked me to call and give Mr. Thomas Shelby an update on the condition of his fiancée. Is Mr Shelby available?”

 

Alfie’s mind was spinning with the information that had just been imparted in the past thirty seconds.

 

Tommy Shelby has a fiancée. Who is in hospital.

 

He cleared his throat, lowering his voice to attempt to mask his accent, and rasped, “Speaking.”

 

“Sir, I know you just left, so I’m sorry to trouble you. Dr. Ross’ condition is relatively stable physiologically, but her mental status has deteriorated due to untoward effects from the anesthetic.”

 

“Fucking hell! Speak English!” he barked.

 

The melodious voice on the other end of the line stiffened. “Her blood pressure and heart rate are stable, but she is confused, most likely due to the anesthetic. Your brother is attempting to keep her calm, but is not meeting with much success. Your presence at bedside would be much appreciated.”

 

“Done,” he growled. He slammed down the receiver, seething with anger.

 

Alex is engaged. To fuckin’ Tommy Shelby. Who has left her in hospital. With one of his numbskull brothers. After God knows what kind of fuckin’ surgery. I’m going to fuckin’ kill him.

 

Xxx

 

The pungent smell of antiseptic assaulted Alfie’s nostrils as he limped down the hall, leaning heavily on his walking stick. The pain in his back was radiating down his right leg. Likely due to sittin’ on my ass all mornin’...on cheap Shelby furniture, no less . He attempted to distract himself from his pain by plotting as to how he’d make Tommy’s life hell—preferably as soon as possible.

 

But when he pushed the door of room 103 open, all thoughts of Tommy disappeared.

 

“I need to get up!” Alex’ usually calm voice was strident, her words punctuated by her right arm banging against the metal rail of her bed. “You have no call to be holding me hostage here when there are wounded men to be tended!”

 

“Just lie down and rest a bit.” Arthur Shelby put his hand on her shoulder, trying to coax her into settling back on the pillows.

 

“I can’t!” Her face drained of all color, and she swayed slightly before steadying herself with the rails.

 

Alfie took in a deep breath, then began to sing,

 

I love a lassie, a bonnie bonnie lassie,
She's as pure as a lily in the dell,
She's sweet as the heather, the bonnie bloomin' heather,
Alex, my Scots bluebell.

 

Alex stared at him as if he were a ghost. “Alfie?”

 

“That’s right, love. All the way from Camden Town.” Turning around, he rapped on the door with his walking stick. Tzvi pushed the door open, carefully balancing a gigantic crystal vase with two dozen roses of assorted colors.

 

“Oh my goodness!” She exclaimed. Tzvi brought them to her, and she buried her nose in one of the fragrant flower.

 

Arthur advanced towards Alfie, his neck veins bulging. “Solomons, I got this—“

 

“Fuck off, Arthur,” Alfie murmured.

 

The man’s left eye twitched, and he drew his heavy brows into a scowl. “Look here, Tommy told me—“

 

“I don’t give a fuck what Tommy said,” Alfie said in an undertone, pasting a smile on his face as Alex called out her thanks.  “What she needs right now, mate, is a friendly face, and you ain’t it. Why don’t you trot on down the hall to the canteen and find yourself a cute little nurse?”

 

Arthur glared at him, then looked back at Alex. “I’m only doing this for her,” he growled, slamming the door behind him. Tzvi shook his head, then followed to take up a post outside the door per his boss’ instructions.

 

Alfie took off his hat and coat, then went to the bedside.

 

“How ya doing, sweetie?”

 

Alex sank back against the pillows. “I’m so confused.”  Her hazel eyes rested on his face. “How is your leg already healed? And what happened to my hand?”  She gave him a pleading look. “No one will tell me anything. Are we still in France? And where’s Jonathan?”

 

Although Alfie Solomons’ heart was popularly believed to be as hard as stone, he had a huge soft spot for his family. Alex was the warm, compassionate woman who had saved his life. In his mind, she was the sister he had never had.

 

“About that—“ He pulled a chair up to the bed and turned it backwards. Sitting down, he crossed his arms on the top of the chair, then spent a moment gathering his thoughts before he spoke.

 

“We’re home in England. The war’s over, and we’re safe now. Do you remember Passchendaele?”

 

He could see her mind working as she sorted through her memories. Then the realization dawned on her, and she put her hand to her mouth. Tears welled in her eyes as she took in a deep, shuddering breath. “Dear God, how could I have forgotten? What kind of wife forgets her husband is dead?”

 

“You haven’t forgotten,” he said softly, squeezing her hand. “In fact, you’ve been honoring his memory ever since the war. The clinic you’ve set up in Small Heath is going to change lives— is changing lives.”

 

Once she had calmed down, he asked, “Do you recall the incident with Finn Shelby?”

 

“Finn.” She bit her lip as she thought, then blurted out, “Of course! The sweet boy who was shot the night my office was set on fire! He’s—he’s Tommy’s brother.”

 

Alfie heard the change in her voice as she spoke Tommy’s name, and his heart sank.

 

“You remember that fuckin’ bastard, eh?”

 

A bit of color crept into her cheeks. “He’s hard to forget.”

 

“So, do you have any idea what happened to your hand?” Alfie inquired, careful to keep his voice casual.

 

She frowned, and looked down at the bandage on her hand. “I’m not sure. But I remember a searing pain...and Tommy holding me...then us talking to the nurse about how he had proposed—“

 

“So it’s true. You’re his fiancée.”  Alfie rested his chin on his arms, his eyes searching hers.

 

“I—I’m not sure.” She returned his gaze. “You don’t think he’s right for me, do you?”

 

He shook his head. “Didn’t say that, did I?”

 

“You don’t need to.” She gave him a wan smile.

Taking her hand, he said gently, “All I’m sayin’ is, puttin’ aside the fireworks between the sheets, what do you have in common with Tommy Shelby?”

 

“He saved my life.”

 

“Your life would have never been in danger if it wasn’t for him.”

 

She lifted her chin. “We both served in the war.”

 

“Meanin’ you both carry demons. That’s not the sort of thing I’m lookin’ for.”

 

“He makes me laugh. We enjoy the same things.”

 

“Bookmakin’? Protection rackets? Murder?”

 

She arched an eyebrow at him. “By that same logic, I shouldn’t be in an empty room with you.”

 

Alfie sighed. “You want to know what I think?”

 

She closed her eyes. “I might as well say yes, because you’re going to tell me anyway.”

 

“I think you see the man he could be, and you want to save him.”

 

He saw her shoulders tense, but she said nothing.

 

“I get why you feel that way. It’s part of who you are, it’s what you do every day as a doctor. But you’re playing with fire, sweetie. You know the old sayin’ about why it’s a bad fuckin’ idea to save a drownin’ man, right?”

 

“What?” Alex’s eyes flew open.”Why on earth would you not save a man who is about to die? Who believes such nonsense?”

 

“I’ve been told it’s a common enough belief among sailors. The basis for it is the idea that it a man is fuckin’ drownin’, it is the intention of whatever higher power you believe in that he should be fuckin’ drowned. If you alter the outcome by rescuing him, Fate will be fuckin’ furious. It will not be cheated out of a life—-and yours will be claimed instead.”

 

She bit her lip, and turned away from him. “I don’t put much stock in superstition.”

 

“It ain’t superstition to take a long hard look at a man before you pledge your soul to him. Promise me you’ll do that.”

 

Eyelids drooping, she yawned. “I promise.” Two minutes later, she was asleep.

 

Xxx

 

As the late afternoon light slanted against the bedstead, Tommy shifted, then opened his eyes. Momentarily confused, he sat up straight in bed. Once he glanced at the bedside clock, his mind cleared.

 

5:55 pm.

 

“Fuck!” Getting up, he reached for his clothes, which were neatly draped over a chair. He dressed in under five minutes, then left, tossing a ten pound bill on the kitchen table for Mabel.  

 

When he came out of the small brick house, he saw John heading towards him. Squaring his shoulders, Tommy began to walk in his direction. As the distance between them closed, his brother stopped and crossed his arms, giving him a hard stare. In response, Tommy kept his gaze straight ahead, and strode past him.

 

A second later, John seized his arm and jerked him around, nearly knocking him off balance.

 

“What the fuck, Tom?” he snapped. “Alex is lying in a hospital bed, and you decide to spend the afternoon fucking Mabel Wright?”

 

An old woman sweeping her front step glanced up, then scuttled inside her house and shut the door.

 

“What I do is none of your fucking business, John,” he said, keeping his voice low.

 

“It is when there’s no one to take up for Alex, because you’re too busy putting your cock in—“

 

“That’s enough!” Tommy snapped, jabbing a finger at his brother. “I went to Mabel’s because I needed some fucking peace. I slept—-by myself. That’s it. Now leave me the fuck alone. I can get to the hospital by myself.” Turning, he headed for the car.

 

Xxxx

 

By the time he reached the Royal Orthopaedic and Spinal Hospital, the sky had darkened, and a steady rain had started. Stepping inside the small lobby, he took off his cap, slipping it into his pocket. Then he headed down the hall, his footsteps echoing in the empty corridor.

 

When he reached the door to Alex’s room, he leaned his forehead against the smooth wood, trying to tamp down the wave of guilt that threatened to roll over him once again.

 

Then he heard the tap of a walking stick from the other side of the door, and his body stiffened. Tommy stepped back just as the door opened to reveal none other than Alfie Solomons.  He managed to catch of glimpse of Alex asleep on the bed just before the Jewish gangster closed the door behind him, his large frame blocking access to the room.

 

“Tommy! I thought you’d maybe gone to the fuckin’ races.” He clapped his hand on Tommy’s shoulder, following with a hard squeeze. “ You’ve been gone a long time, mate. In fact, Alex and I have already had dinner. Sorry there weren’t any leftovers—unless you want the shit hospital food they brought round. I had my man Tzvi bring us some steak and ale pies from the pub down the street.”

 

Forcing himself to remain calm, Tommy merely asked, “So, Alex knew who you were? She didn’t recognize me earlier.”

 

“Funny, that,” said Alfie, crossing his arms and giving him a sardonic grin. “She knew who I was straightaway.”

 

Tommy was well aware that Alfie was deliberately baiting him. “You never fail to make an impression, do you?” he murmured. “Now, get out of my fucking way. I’ve got someone to see.”

 

An instant later, Solomons’ large hand had closed around his arm. Alfie leaned over to Tommy’s ear, and murmured, “Last warning. Don’t mess her about. She doesn’t know what the fuck is going on inside your head. If you really care about her, you’d better fuckin’ let her know. But if she’s just a way for you to pass the time, leave her the fuck alone. Let her find some nice bloke who’ll treat her the way she deserves to be treated.”

 

He gave the Jewish gangster a cold stare. “Good night, Alfie.”  

 

As Alfie’s shuffling steps receded into the distance, Tommy stepped inside the room. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it. The sky outside the far window had darkened, and a single pendant light cast a warm glow over the room.  He shed his coat and jacket, draping them over a chair near the door.

 

Alex lay on her back, an olive drab hospital blanket spread over her body. Her dark hair spilled across the pillow, providing a stark contrast to her pale skin.  Tommy approached the bed and stood for a moment, relieved to see the steady rise and fall of her chest under the blanket.

 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he took her left hand in his, reassured by the warmth of her fingers.

 

Her eyelashes fluttered for an instant, and then she gazed up at him and gave a contented little sigh. “I missed you.”

 

At her words, his throat tightened. “I meant it when I said that I’m going to do whatever it takes to get you well. Just tell me what you need, love.”

 

Her fingers tightened their grip on his. “I need for you stop shutting me out. Please, Tommy—tell me what’s in your heart.”

 

He held her gaze for a moment, then kicked off his shoes, and slid into bed next to her. Propping himself up on his elbow, he caressed the palm of her hand with his thumb, and said softly, “I’m in awe of you.”

 

“I’ve done nothing—“

 

“Shh.” He placed a finger on her soft, full lips. “Let me speak. Then you can have your say.” Cupping her face in his hand, he said, “Since France, my mind has been a very dark place. During the hours I’m awake, I’ve kept busy by focusing on the family business. I work until I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep at the desk.”

 

He cleared his throat, trying to keep his voice steady. “But then you came along, and in just a short period of time, you changed my life for the better. When I danced with you that night at the wedding—that was the first time in five years that I had even wanted to dance. And after we made love, I fell asleep with you. I’ve never fallen asleep with a woman in my arms—never even thought about it. But it just felt fucking right.”

 

He paused for a moment, then said, “When I was here earlier, you had no idea who I was. The anaesthetic had done something to your brain, and you thought you were back in France. You asked me to find your husband.“ He swallowed. “Seeing you like that—it was difficult—-and it made me realize something.”

 

Lifting her hand to his lips, he kissed it. “Alex Ross, you’ve managed to find your way into my heart, and I need you to know that. I don’t want you wondering if you’re just a passing fancy, or thinking I’m going to toss you aside once I’m tired of you. Because I want you—in my life, and in my bed.”

 

Xxxxxx

 

“How long does it take to set up a fuckin’ puppet show?” Darby Sabini thundered, banging his fist on the table. The clear glass bottle of grappa trembled, splashing the liquid against the sides.

 

Maria Sabini gave her son a withering look. “Don’t be such a coglione .  The Opera dei Pupi is an art form—-a national treasure. It takes time to set it up properly.”

 

One of his men approached the table. “Begging your pardon, Mr. Sabini, but two men are at the door asking to speak to you.”

 

“Tell them to fuck off. I’m busy.” Sabini drained his glass, and reached for the bottle.

 

The man cleared his throat. “They claim to have information on Alex Ross.”

 

Sabini’s hand closed around the neck of the bottle. A gleam came into his eyes, and his voice softened. “Well, why didn’t you tell me that to begin with? Search them well, then bring them to me.”



Chapter Text

    Alex reached up and touched his cheek with her good hand.

 

   “I’ve told you how much you’ve come to mean to me in the short time we’ve been acquainted.”  She choked back the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her, and steadied her voice. “But you have to admit that our bond has become intense very quickly.  I have to wonder how much of what you’ve just said to me is motivated by guilt--whether it be conscious or subconscious.”

 

  He stiffened. “You think I’m just feeding you a line?”  

 

  “That’s not what I mean,” Alex said softly. Her index finger lingered along his full lower lip, and she nearly lost her resolve. A sudden flare of pain in her right hand, however, was quite effective at tamping down the wisp of desire that had begun to make its way into her core.

 

     She took in a breath, trying to distance herself from the pain by focusing on their conversation. “There’s no doubt that the circumstances that brought us together have shaped our relationship. How could they not? Few couples have a casual meeting that is promptly followed by an full-throttled attempt on their lives. And even fewer experience a threat to such a degree that one party is forced to move in with the other for protection.  From our time in France, both of us well know that violence and chaos can forge an intense attachment among those struggling to survive it. I suppose it’s instinctual—a way to increasing the odds of living to see the next day.”

 

  In response,Tommy slid the small signet ring off his little finger, then took her left hand in his. Fixing his eyes on hers, he gently slipped the gold band onto her ring finger.

 

 The circlet was still carried his warmth. Alex could have sworn that the skin beneath it began to tingle. It was as if Tommy’s personal brand of charisma had been transferred onto her.  She looked down at the initials on the ring. TSM .

 

  “Thomas Michael Shelby,” he murmured, folding her hand into a fist. “I want everyone to know that you are mine.”

 

   She bit her lip, and lowered her eyes.

 

   He tilted her chin up, and she saw his jaw had tensed. “What’s wrong?”

 

  “Tommy, I—I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I’m trying to put you off, because nothing could be farther from the truth. When we were at Olive’s cottage, I told you in embarrassingly honest language how I feel about you. But we ended up in bed together before we ever had a proper date. I don’t—-“

 

  He raised an eyebrow. “So the Lee wedding wasn’t a proper date? I seem to recall us dancing together—you were a fucking vision in that green dress.”

 

  She rolled her eyes. “I’d hardly call it the most intimate of moments. We were in the midst of a crowd of drunk Romani...with sweet Baba Theodosia predicting that I’d be a Shelby broodmare before too long.”

 

  “Problem?” As his gaze swept over her, Tommy could not hold back a smirk.

 

  Alex laughed. “Not for you, I’m sure. After all, you don’t have to carry a child for 9 months, do you? But this just illustrates my point. You don’t even know if I want to have children—I might not even like them.”

 

  He sighed, and looked up at the ceiling before turning back to her.  “Please don’t insult my intelligence.”

 

 “What?”

 

 “You’re a natural with Finn—and I caught you staring at Baba Theodosia’s infant granddaughter with a silly smile on your face.”

 

 “I was thinking how cute her wee yellow dress was.”

 

 A broad grin spread across his face. “And you were imagining our daughter lying on a blanket on a sunny hill in Sutton Coldfield, wearing the exact same dress.”

 

 She lifted her chin. “That is not true.”

 

   He leaned over, and reached for the pack of cigarettes that were tucked inside his the pocket of his overcoat. Pulling them out, he gave her a sideways glance, and shook his head. “You are a terrible liar, Alex Ross. Those pretty pursed lips give you away every time.”

 

  She made a face at him, and his expression instantly transformed into the grave countenance she had seen him assume when he was focused on business. “Okay, then. Never let it be said that I don’t know how to compromise. We can stop at eight if I have my four boys by then.”

 

 When Alex laughed again, she was rewarded with the sort of smile that she thought gave a glimpse of what Tommy had been like before the war.  The upward quirk of his mouth was really only a small part of what made him so attractive at that moment. The tiny crinkles around his eyes warmed the blue of his irises, transforming them into a kaleidoscope of colors that took her breath away for an instant.

 

The swirls of grey, aquamarine, and green reminded her of a long distant autumn afternoon spent on a misty Scottish beach. She hesitated, then said, “Have you ever been to Luskentyre Beach, on the Isle of Harris?”

 

 Tommy struck a match. A tiny flame traced a small arc into the darkening shadows, then vanished.  He took a drag, then exhaled a languid, rolling plume of smoke that only served to accentuate his chiseled good looks. “I’ve never been to Scotland, so that would be a no,” he said, leaning back and tucking an arm behind his head.

 

  A sudden burst of rain lashed the window, and Alex looked away.  “I hate it when you do that.”

 

 “Do what?”

 

  She flushed. “Make smoking look sexy.”

 

  A flicker of amusement showed in his eyes. “Easily fixed. I can just channel Uncle Charlie down by the cut, and drop ash all over my shirt.”

 

  “That will do nicely. Uncle Charlie is a good man, but he’s not exactly—“ Alex shifted, and gasped as a bolt of pain shot into her bandaged hand.  She clutched the edge of the bed, fisting the sheets in her left hand. Tommy put down his cigarette, and put an arm around her shoulder to steady her.

 

  “Bad, is it?” he asked quietly.

 

   After a moment, she shook her head. “Could be worse.”

 

  “Here, lean against me.”  He drew her against his chest, and carefully slid a pillow under her right arm. She closed her eyes, and allowed her breathing to slow, matching the timing of his slow, easy inhalations.

 

   “So, what were you going to say about Luskentyre?”

 

   “I suppose it’s my Barafundle. It’s such a gorgeous place, with some of the most wild, windswept landscapes you’ve ever seen. Harris is a study in contrasts—-the northern part of the island is rocky, even desolate in some areas. But once you drop down into the southern area, the mountains give way to the white sand beaches of the west coast. They say Luskentyre on a sunny day gives you a glimpse of paradise—the water is a turquoise so clear that you can see through it to the bottom, and the sand fairly sparkles in the sun.  I was there on a windy, overcast day, and there was a fine mist of rain in the air. But the ocean on that stormy day was an indescribably beautiful color—a mix of blue, green, and grey. The waves seemed almost alive—as if they were possessed by a restless energy searching for the peace that has always managed to elude its grasp.” Her throat tightened. “When you smiled just now, that’s what I saw in your eyes.”

 

   He was silent for a moment, then rested his head on her shoulder.  “When I’m with you, the sounds of the tunnels—-the constant drip of the water from above, the slosh of the mud, the incessant fucking clinking of the German shovels—they just go silent.” He kissed the hollow above her collarbone, his lips skimming upwards. “Never think that I’m with you because of guilt,” he murmured, his warm breath teasing the tiny curls that clustered at the nape of her neck. “You’ve given me a bit of my life back.”

 

    A pleasant shiver spread down her spine, and she relaxed against him. “I just want you to be sure. When I’m with you like this, I feel more secure than I’ve ever felt in my life—because I’m done with war. God willing, this mess with Sabini will soon be behind us, and then I’ll have the rest of my life to look forward to. A future where I’ll be with a man who is confident and supportive. A man who’s successful in his own right—who doesn’t care that I’ve my own career, and isn’t threatened by my education.”

   

 Thunder boomed in the distance, followed by a flash of lighting. “It seems as though we’ve found a bit of peace in each other, eh?” He rested his chin on her shoulder, then chuckled, his chest vibrating against her back. “Fucking ironic, that is. No one else would ever picture me as a refuge from the turmoil of the world.”

 

                                         Xxx

 

   “Now we’re getting somewhere!” Sabini crowed, slapping the table. The marionette knight, an imposing four feet of plumed helmet, polished armour, and bejeweled sword, slashed at the bandits attacking him. Limbs flew across the stage as a pile of bodies rapidly formed. Reinforcements rushed to the hero’s aid, and the battle intensified. Wounds bled beet juice that served as a reasonable facsimile of blood, and wooden limbs flew across the stage. By the time the curtain fell, a pile of marionette bodies had formed stage left.

 

  Sabini stood up, clapping with enthusiasm. “ Fottutamente fantastico !” he shouted.

 

   The pointed toe of his mother’s boot hit his leg an instant later.  “ Porca miseria! Sei un uomo importante!” she hissed. “Stop acting like a peasant who doesn’t know his shoes are covered in shit!”

 

  He felt a surge of annoyance, then realized she was right. These people should be applauding him.  After all, he was the most important man in Birmingham.

 

  Sitting down, he muttered, “ Chiedo scusa, mamma.”  He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you for arranging this. It was brilliant.”

 

  The puppeteers came out and bowed. He waved an imperious hand at them, then nodded at Gianmarco, his lieutenant. “Have Alberto take these gentlemen back to the hotel. They’ve put on a good show, and I want them well taken care of. Then bring in my two guests. And have the waitress bring me a new glass.”

 

  “ Certo, capo. ” Gianmarco ushered the puppeteers out.

 

 Maria raised an eyebrow. “Would you like for me to leave?”

 

 “No, mamma. I want you to watch and listen, then give me your opinion afterwards.”

 A comely waitress in a stylish off-the-shoulder red dress suddenly materialized. She bent over, positioning herself so that her boss, and not his mother, got a lingering look at her cleavage. She placed a chilled, straight sided shot glass in front of Sabini, then knelt at his side. As she looked up at him, the tiny silver beading on her bodice reflected the light.

 

   Maria looked away, disgusted by the waitress’ painted red lips.

 

   In an instant, the woman’s hand snaked under the table, finding the erection that was waiting for her.  One nimble twist of her fingers opened his fly, and she closed her hand over him.

 

  He leaned back in his chair, spreading his legs slightly as her fingers began to caress and stroke his length. “Is it cold enough, sir?” she inquired. “I was afraid it was a bit too hot in here.”

 

  “Fuck, no,” he said, struggling to keep his voice even.

  

  Maria made a disparaging noise. Sabini felt himself start to soften, and cursed under his breath.

 

  “It’s fine,” he said curtly. “You’re dismissed.”  The waitress rose to her feet, and sashayed off.

 

  “What are you, fifteen?” his mother hissed, leaning over the table. Her hand shot out, delivering a stinging slap to his face. “What kind of a man lets a slut slap his salami right in front of his own mother?”

 

 “ Mi dispiace, mamma. Ti prego, perdonami.”

 

 Pulling out a rosary from her pocket of her black dress, she began to run the wooden beads through her fingers, muttering the familiar prayers under her breath.

 

  The door swung open, and Sabini sat up, squaring his shoulders. Giancarlo brought in two men, and gestured for them to stand before Sabini. Eyes remaining watchful, the lieutenant took a step back, and gave his boss a nod.

 

  The gangster filled the glass in front of him, then took a sip.

 

 “Tell me your names, and where your family is from.

 

  A tall, muscular man stepped forward confidently.  “Salvatore Falcone. From Palermo.”

 

  Sabini looked up. “What part?”

 

 “I was born in Albergheria.”

 

 “The old quarter,” the gangster mused. “What was your father’s trade?”

 

 “He was a cobbler. Died of a fever when I was 15. My mother sent me to the Order of St. John of God, but I didn’t last long there.” He grinned, revealing a gap between his front teeth. “Managed to get myself expelled within six months.”

 

  “What for?”

 

 “Got caught fucking one of the laundry girls in a confessional.”

 

  Sabini gave him a slight nod.   Clever. Got him out of that hellhole with a bit of fun to boot.

 

  His eyes swiveled to the bald, stocky man. “And you, Cicciobomba ?”

 

  The man’s spine stiffened.  “This ain’t fat, sir. I’m big boned. Name’s Luca Cinquemani. I was born in Catania.”

 

  “Luca Five Fingers, eh? What did your father do?”

 

 “He ran a pawn shop.”

 

  Sabini hooted, then saluted the man with his glass. “I can guess why he had the name Cinquemani. Stole jewelry from neighbors, then sold it right back to them. Am I right?”

 

   Luca’s eyes narrowed. “No sir.” He paused, then said, “My father was a man of honour.”

 

   Mafia. “Your clan?”

 

  “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

 

  “Your father was Cosa Nostra .”

 

   Luca’s face remained impassive. “Didn’t say that. Just said he wasn’t a fucking thief.”

 

   Sabini held his gaze for a moment, then gave him a curt nod. “So, I’m told you two have information that might be useful to me.”

 

   Sal spoke up. “It’s no secret that you’ve got a feud on with the Peaky Blinders. Word has it that some of your men had a shootout with Tommy Shelby in Small Heath not that long ago. Only it wasn’t Tommy that killed two of them. It was a lady doctor, name of Alex Ross.”

 

  “What of it?”

 

  “Well, me and Luca work at the Royal Orthopedic as orderlies. We’ve also got some other business on the side.” He exchanged a brief glance with his comrade, who gave him the slightest of nods. “You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but Luca here is a master calligrapher and artist.”

 

 “A useful skill.” Sabini cocked his head at Luca. “I’m assuming you don’t waste your talents laboring over wedding invitations?”

 

 “No, sir. My tastes run more to Raphael and Titian. Venus and Organist and Little Dog ? I’ve done a replica that you’d think was the original. Made Venus’ tits a good sight bigger though.” He gave a coarse laugh. “Titian may have been a fucking genius, but he didn’t have a fucking clue about the proper proportions of a beautiful woman.”

 

 Maria, eyes fixed on her beads, loudly cleared her throat. Luca reddened. “Sorry, ma’am.”

 

“Why don’t you stop wasting my son’s time?” she snapped. As she fixed her piercing eyes on the pair, her fingers moved on to the third decade of her rosary. “Tell him what you came to tell him, and be done with it.”

 

 Sal took in a deep breath. “This morning, we were moving a female patient to the post-anesthesia area, and this bloke tried to go in with her. I told him family aren’t allowed, and he told me to fuck off. Luca got into it with him, and this man—fucking vicious looking cunt, he was—called me one of Sabini’s dogs. A fight broke out then. A few men took up for him, and some of the orderlies came to help us out. We was getting the best of them when Dr. Harbottle—fucking man always acts like he’s got a fucking rod permanently stuck up his ass—comes out and breaks it up. Tells us to apologize to the Shelby brothers. Doesn’t take long to put two and two together.”

 

 Luca cut in. “So, right before Harbottle docks our pay and sends us home for the day, I look at the name on the stretcher’s placard. Alexandra Ross. She’s had some sort of complicated surgery to her right hand, and she ain’t moving from that hospital for at least two days.”

 

 Sabini looked at his mother.

 

 Eyes shining with excitement, she licked her dried lips. “ Vento, tempo, donne e fortuna -- prima voltano e poi tornano, come la luna. This is your chance, son. It has to be done tonight.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Gianmarco came back into the club. Going over to Sabini, he whispered a few words into his boss’ ear.

 

The gangster scowled, then lit a cigarette. “He’s got some fucking nerve. What makes him think I’m going to drop everything and see him right now?”

 

“He says he’s got a business proposition for you. A deal that will benefit both of you.”

 

Sabini leaned back in his chair, then shrugged and gave a short laugh. “Why not? I’m in a good mood—things are going my way tonight. Show these two fine gentlemen out, then bring in my guest.”

                                                                         Xxxx

Lulled by the sound of the rain and the warmth of Alex’s soft body, Tommy had fallen asleep. Several hours later, he awoke with a start, and realized that Alex was no long nestled against his chest. As his vision adjusted to the darkness, he saw her sitting on the edge of the bed. She was doubled over in pain, holding her bandaged arm against her abdomen.

 

 He sat up, placing his hand at the small of her back. “Are you hurting again?”

 

 “Yes.”  Her voice wavered.

 

 “I’m going to ring for the nurse.”  He reached for the bell, but she stayed his hand.

 

 “Please don’t call them. I don’t want any morphine.”

 

 “You’re in pain. You need something.”

 

 “I’ll be fine,” she murmured. “Just give me a moment.”

 

Fatigue and stress had depleted what little patience he had left. He pinched the bridge of his nose, then stood up and threw up his hands. “So you’re just going to sit there and suffer?”

 

 “It’ll pass eventually.”

 

Exasperated by her intransigence, Tommy cursed under his breath, then began to pace the length of the room. When he glanced over a few minutes later and saw her rocking back and forth, he halted. Putting his hands on his hips, he took in a deep breath, then went over to the bed, and sat down next to her.

 

Taking her face in his hands, he leaned his forehead against hers. The faint scent of her perfume lingered in her hair. Surely his sweet, sensible Alex was still within his reach.

 

“Enough,” he said quietly. “There is no shame in seeking relief from pain that is very real.”

 

She bit her lip, and gazed down at the bandage on her hand. “I don’t want the morphine, Tommy.”

 

“Do you mind telling me why?”

 

“I can do without it.”

 

Frustration was building in him, but he kept his voice measured. Tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear, he Inquired, “So, do you refuse your patients pain medication when they need it?”

 

Her eyes widened slightly, and she drew back. “Of course not. That would be sadistic.”

 

Tommy pulled out a cigarette, and took his time lighting it. He took a drag, then followed it with a long, slow exhale, allowing the nicotine time to focus his thinking. As he did so, the pieces fell into place. He cocked his head as he looked at her. “This is about him, isn’t it?”

 

She hugged her arms to her chest. Her silence told him that he was correct.

 

“Alex, punishing yourself won’t bring him back.”

 

“I know that!” She swallowed, and averted her eyes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken to you so sharply. But when I think about what Jonathan suffered—dying in agony over the course of hours, without anyone or anything to comfort him— I wonder why I have to be so weak.”

 

“Look at me.” He spoke in a tone that left no doubt that he expected obedience. When she turned her eyes to him, he said, “You’ve nothing to prove. Not to me.”

 

She stiffened. “Why does this have to be about you? This is about me. Can’t I just make a choice? Elect to have some control over my body in a situation that was not of my own making?”

 

Her words stung, reawakening the guilt that he had pushed to the back of his brain. Before he had a chance to reply, there was a knock on the door. A young nurse came in, followed by a middle-aged orderly with a wheelchair.  She gave them an apologetic smile. “I’m so sorry to interrupt. Dr. Ross, your surgeon has ordered an X-ray today on your hand. Oscar here will escort you to the X-ray department.” She turned to Tommy. “And Mr. Shelby, there’s a telephone call for you at the nurses’ station.”

 

Tommy reined in his annoyance with difficulty. He gave her a nod, then said curtly, “Have the matron take a message.”

 

She blinked, then shifted, clasping her hands in front of her. “I’m sorry, sir, but the caller, a Mr. Solomons, was quite insistent. His language was rather colorful.”

 

Alex gingerly eased herself into the wheelchair. Her brow furrowed in concern as she looked up at him. “You should talk to him. He wouldn’t call unless it was important.”

 

Tommy sighed. He had his doubts. Whenever Alfie called him on a very important matter, he suspected that the man’s real mission was to wind him up about something. “Alright—but wait here until I get back.”

 

She caught his hand. “Tommy, I’m exhausted. I just want to get it over with. The X-ray suite is just around the corner. If I know Alfie, I’ll be back before you’re even off the phone.”

 

He held her gaze for a moment. “Then Arthur goes with you.”

 

The nurse cleared her throat, then busied herself with tucking a blanket around Alex’s knees. “Sir, I believe the other Mr. Shelby is busy at the moment.

 

Tommy gave her a cold stare. “Busy? With what?”

 

“One of the student nurses is giving him a tour of the hospital.”

 

“Fucking hell,” Tommy muttered. He could feel a dull throbbing starting at his temples.

 

Alex squeezed his hand. “Go on. We’ve both got a bit of cabin fever. A chat with Alfie might be just what you need.”

 

He hesitated for a moment, then shook his head. “No. I’m going with you.” He turned to the nurse. “I assume the radiology department has a telephone?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Then tell Mr. Solomons I will ring him back within five minutes.”

 

“Shall I get his—“

 

Tommy cut her off. “I know how to reach him.”

 

“Yes, sir.” She gave a him a nod, then made a hasty retreat.

 

“A direct line for very, very good friends?”  Alex glanced up at him, and he saw a glint of amusement in her eyes. He grinned, and felt some of the tension leave his body. “Yeah, something like that. Sure you don’t want something for the pain?”

 

She shook her head. “I’m fine. But I’ll be glad to have your company.”

 

He brushed his fingers against her cheek, then turned to the orderly. “Alright, let’s make it quick.”

 

“Yes, sir.”  The man carefully maneuvered Alex out of the room, and set out down the hallway. Tommy strode alongside, his hand straying inside his jacket to tap his shoulder holster twice. It was a old habit—so old that he couldn’t recall exactly why he’d started doing it—but it always served to calm him.  The corridor was dimly lit, and his eyes scanned the path ahead, alert for any possible threat.

 

Once they reached the X-ray suite, he finally allowed himself to relax.  The technician, a tall, thin man with a neatly trimmed mustache, met them at the door.

 

“Good evenin’, Dr. Ross. My name’s Bob Miller. We’ll have you in and out of here in a jiffy.”

 

Oscar caught his eye. “This is Mr. Thomas Shelby,” he said, emphasizing the last name.

 

The technician straightened his lanky body, and gave Tommy a respectful nod. “Mr. Shelby, eh? That’s a name that’s well known in Birmingham.”

 

Tommy lit a cigarette, and gave him an appraising look. “For good reason, Mr. Miller. Now, while you very carefully take a picture of Dr. Ross’ hand, making sure that she is comfortable at all times, I need access to a telephone. I’ve an important call to make.”

 

“Certainly, sir. There’s one just across the hall here, in the supervisor’s office.” He stepped across the corridor, and opened a door. “It’ll take me a few moments to set up the glass plate and take the X-ray, so please make yourself comfortable.” He indicated a battered leather chair behind the desk. “And sir—don’t worry about Dr. Ross. I’ve been doing this for ten years. She won’t feel a thing.”

 

“Good.” Tommy gave him a curt nod, and the man left. Sitting down in the chair, he picked up the telephone. “Camden 7-1-8.”  

 

There was one brief ring, and then Alfie’s voice boomed across the line. “Fuckin’ hell! Took you long enough!”

 

“Things have—“

 

“Listen, mate, I ain’t got time for it—and neither do you.  Sabini’s men are on the move. Do you hear me? They are headin’ for the hospital, and they mean business. Get Alex out of there now.”

 

“But she’s—-“

 

“She’s with you, right? Don’t fuckin’ tell me she ain’t with you!” Alfie’s voice had escalated to a roar, but Tommy never heard it. The receiver dangled from its cord as he sprinted out of the office, gun in hand. He tried the door of the X-ray suite, cursing when he found it locked. Cocking his pistol, he fired two shots at the lock in rapid succession, then put his shoulder into the door, throwing it open.

 

An unconscious Alex sat slumped on a chair, her arm strapped onto the X-ray table. The technician stood behind her, the long fingers of his right hand curled around her neck. In his left hand, he held a gun that was pointed at her temple. When he caught sight of Tommy, his mouth twisted into a smirk, and he loosened his grip slightly. Alex gave a thin gasp through her blue lips, then fell silent. A few seconds later, she took in a shuddering breath, but her eyes remained closed.

 

“Couldn’t fucking leave it, could you?” the man snarled. “I almost had her at her last breath when you blasted the fucking door open. I could have finished her off just now, but I chose not to. You know why? Because on second thought, I realized that it might be quite entertaining for me to see the expression on your face as you watch her die. Sometimes even the tough ones break down when it’s someone they love—blubber like babies, they do.”

 

“Get your fucking hands off her.” Tommy spoke slowly and deliberately, forcing himself to focus his attention on the killer rather than on Alex. Although every fiber of his being wanted to rush to her side, he was well aware that any sudden movement would just result in the man pulling the trigger.

 

“She’s got a thin little neck, this pretty one. Would be easy enough to snap, but where’s the fun in that?” The man slowly ran the tips of his fingers along the course of her carotid artery, and a gleam appeared in his eye. “Ah, her pulse is still thrumming. Good. There’s much more of an art to squeezing the life out when they’ve got a bit of fight left in them.”

 

He looked up at Tommy, his eyes an unearthly pale grey. “But you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Mr. Shelby? When you kill someone, there’s something about watching the light in their eyes just slowly extinguish that makes it so fucking satisfying. And with you looking on…well, it’ll be as good as getting off with a two shilling whore in a back alley somewhere.”

 

“One last chance,” Tommy said, keeping his voice even as he cocked the hammer on his pistol.

 

The man shook his head, and gave a thin laugh. His fingers tightened around Alex‘s slim neck. “You still think you’re in charge here, don’t you? For your information, your Blinders are no match for Sabini’s—“

 

A second later, Alex’s left arm shot up, shoving the assassin’s hand away from her head.

 

In that instant, Tommy squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit the technician square in the middle of the forehead, spraying blood onto the wall behind him. He fell to the ground, his limbs jerking as he struggled for his last few breaths. Tommy fired one more round into him, then went to Alex.

 

She sat motionless as he knelt beside her. He loosed the bonds of the harness that held her right arm in place, then took her face in his hands. “You’re a brave woman, Alex. Very brave indeed.” She stared back at him, her hazel eyes devoid of emotion.

 

He kissed her then, his lips lingering on hers for just an instant. A tremor ran through her body, and her left hand seized his jacket.

 

He caressed her cheek with his thumb. “It’s over, alright? But we need to leave right now. You’re not safe here. Do you understand?”

 

“I thought I was going to die,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. “And I prayed for you to come through that door. But he said—he said there are more men coming. They’re coming for you, Tommy.”  She coughed, then swayed as she clung to him.

 

Without hesitation, he went to pick her up.

 

“No. I can walk,” she said hoarsely. “You have to be ready for them, and you can’t do that with me in your arms. Do you have an extra weapon?”

 

He shook his head.

 

“I suppose it’s just as well.” She coughed again, then drew in a shaky breath. “I’m not sure I’d be much help at the moment.”

 

Taking her by the hand, he advanced to the door, then peered out into the corridor. “Quickly now. Stay behind me.” They were halfway down the hall when the first bullet ricocheted off the wall.

 

Tommy pulled Alex into an alcove, positioning his body in front of her before returning fire. A distant scream told him he’d hit one of them.

 

“Surely someone will call the police,” Alex whispered. She leaned against the wall, rubbing her throat with her left hand.

 

“Where the fuck is Arthur?” Tommy muttered. He glanced behind him, and saw a door that read MORGUE.

 

Taking a step back, he tried the handle, and found it unlocked.  He looked at Alex, and saw a glimmer of hope come into her eyes.

 

“Almost all morgues have a separate entrance and exit—it allows for inconspicuous transport of the deceased. The undertakers typically collect the bodies from a loading dock at the rear of the complex.”

 

Tommy followed her line of thinking. “So if we can find the exit—“

 

She nodded. He inched the door open, holding his breath as he did so. When no sound was forthcoming, he motioned for Alex to slip inside the morgue. Holding her bandaged arm awkwardly against her chest, she maneuvered through the door. He followed, then closed the door without a sound.

 

Although it was masked somewhat by the cold, the unmistakable smell of death hung in the air. Tommy strode purposefully through the large room, ignoring the unmoving bodies that lay on a neat row of slabs. Each was covered by a sheet that had once been white, but was now stained by years of service spent in protecting the dead from prying eyes.  He glanced at Alex. Her expression remained neutral, and he once again thanked the good fortune that had sent him a woman who did not panic easily.

 

As they approached the autopsy area, he felt his stomach turn at the sight of neat racks of test tubes that held specimens of bodily fluids. A rusty saw and several large forceps lay on the metal table, directly alongside a bright red pail labeled ORGAN BUCKET.  He took in a breath, wiping beads of sweat away from his forehead.

 

“It’s a natural reaction for everyone the first time they see it,” Alex whispered, laying her hand on his arm.

 

“Natural?” He shook his head, and muttered, “This is the most fucking unnatural thing I’ve ever seen. Pol would have a fit if she knew we were in here.”

 

He guided her through the room, stopping only when he noticed her shivering. Shedding his jacket, he draped it over her shoulders, then took her hand and headed towards the back of the morgue, where a sign indicated that the loading dock was straight ahead.

 

“We’re almost there,” he murmured, stroking her palm with his thumb. A moment later, the large metal door in front of them scraped open, providing a brief glimpse  of thick fog. Tommy threw an arm around Alex, and pulled her behind a pillar, pressing her body against the wall with his own. The door slammed shut, and a flashlight swept along the opposite wall. A shudder ran through Alex’s body. He placed a reassuring hand on her back, only to tense when he heard the sound of a heavy bolt being slid into place. Then there was silence.


Chapter Text

The corridor was blanketed in darkness, and a terrified Alex hardly dared to breathe. She huddled against Tommy, drawing strength from the familiar scent of tobacco and the warmth of his body. Cradling her right arm in her left hand, she closed her eyes and began to pray.

Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come and help us, for thou givest not always the battle to the strong. Help us thy poor servants begging mercy, and imploring thy help. Please protect and preserve Thomas. I have seen that he is capable of gentleness, and I pray that he will come to know peace and joy in his lifetime.

The sound of measured footsteps interrupted her thoughts. A few seconds later, they stopped, and the shrill blast of a trench whistle split the air. In an instant, memories of France came flooding back to Alex, and she broke into a cold sweat. Tommy inched forward, his hand on his holster. Desperate to touch another human being, she placed her hand on his back, and felt his muscles coil under her fingers.

The sound of the whistle cut off abruptly. A metal object hit the floor fifteen feet away with a clang, then skittered across the floor and started a slow roll towards them. In that instant, Alex recognized the sound, and her heart stopped. Tommy flung himself forward, scrabbling across the floor until he found the grenade. Picking it up, he flung it back down the hall, then seized her hand. “Run!”

They had almost reached the main room of the morgue when the lights in the corridor were switched on, surrounding them with a brilliant blaze of light. Two shots were fired in quick succession, one missing Tommy by inches. Once they turned the corner, Tommy motioned for Alex to move against a large cabinet. He flattened himself against the wall and counted to five, then shifted position and fired off a shot at their attackers before seeking cover.

As he exchanged fire with their enemies, Alex realized that nearly a minute had elapsed without the the grenade exploding.

So it was a fake—used in combination with the trench whistle to evoke memories of the war and get us out into the open.

She glanced around the dimly lit room, searching for a way out. Heart hammering in her chest, she made up her mind to venture to the front of the morgue to see if the outside hall was clear. No sooner did she take a step away from the cabinet when she saw a man enter the chamber and stealthily begin to skirt the edge of the room, pistol at the ready.

She slid back behind the large structure, banging her right arm against the metal in the process. A jolt of white hot pain shot through her hand and forearm, and it took all the self-control she had to keep from crying out. As her vision began to blur, she dug the nails of her left hand into palm, willing herself to remain conscious. Dragging her body forward, she reached out and grasped Tommy’s coat.

He jerked at her touch, whirling around to face her. There’s an armed man in front of us, she mouthed, her heart in her throat.

His jaw set, and he gave her a nod. In one smooth movement, he pulled her against his chest. Covering her mouth with his, he kissed her fiercely, then pushed her against the wall, motioning for her to stay put.

“You’re cornered, Shelby.” A mocking voice with an Italian accent echoed through the mortuary. “Do you really think we’d be so stupid as to fail to ensure that both the exit and entrance were sealed off? Give up the girl, and maybe we can come to some arrangement.”

Tommy’s answer came in the form of a gunshot that appeared to have found its mark by the sound of muffled Italian curses.

However, it appeared that his target was not seriously injured. Seconds later, a bullet careened off the corner of the cabinet. Alex instinctively made her body a smaller target, pressing her cheek against the cool metal. A few feet away, Tommy grunted, then swore softly. When she looked up, her heart dropped.

Even in the dim light, she could see that his pristine white shirt had been torn by a bullet. A dark pool of blood was spreading down his left arm, soaking the fabric as it went.

Her left hand reached for his shoulder, but he impatiently shook her off. Another gunshot hit the cabinet, burying itself in the metal a few inches away from Tommy’s head. “The corridor’s too quiet. Take a quick look around the corner,” he whispered.

Alex slid across the floor, covering the few feet in a matter of seconds. Taking a deep breath, she peered around the corner. An instant later, she found herself staring into the barrel of a pistol. Before she even had time to gasp, a tall, stocky man seized her, pinning her against his chest. Putting the pistol to her temple, he pivoted around he corner.

“Drop it, Shelby—unless you want to see your girl’s brains sprayed all over the wall.”

Without a word, Tommy complied, placing his gun on the floor. His expression was neutral, but Alex saw that his face had drained of all color. She tried to keep calm, but the man’s grip around her chest was so tight she could barely breathe. He was sweating heavily, and the overpowering stench of his body odor made her nauseous.

Ho preso Shelby e la sua troia!” the man shouted, receiving several answering shouts of approval in Italian.

“Now hands in the air—higher, keep ‘em where I can see ‘em—and stand up.”

Tommy slowly got to his feet, keeping his eyes on Alex the entire time. They were soon surrounded by four other men, one of whom had a makeshift bandage tied around his left shoulder. Without warning, the man standing behind Tommy struck a savage blow to his head with his pistol, then shoved him to the floor.

“No!” Alex cried out, struggling to free herself. In response, her captor shifted his grip, delivering a punch to her stomach. The pain was so intense that her vision dimmed, and she dropped to her knees. As she clutched her abdomen, gasping for breath, she saw Tommy trying to get up. A well-placed kick to his ribs flipped him onto his back. He groaned, then turned onto his side, and lay still.

Alex’s head snapped back as one of the thugs grasped a fistful of her hair. She bit her lip to keep from crying out again, determined not to give him the satisfaction.

He looked down at her, the ugly scar on his right cheek accentuated by the grin that split his face. “Your boyfriend looks a bit worse for the wear, don’t he?”

Undaunted, Alex stared back at him. “Even unconscious, he’s still twice the man you are.”

One of the other men sniggered, and his face reddened. “Fuck off, Angelo! You ain’t—“

He was interrupted by a the sound of a soft metal thud, followed a second later by a metal grill sliding open. Before the Italians had a chance to react, gunfire erupted from the elevator that was in the far right corner of the room. John’s first shot hit the man standing over Alex square in the chest. He made a horrible gurgling noise, then fell backwards. His grip on her hair tightened as he fell, and she was thrown onto her back. Her right hand struck the floor, sending another wave of almost unbearable pain up her arm.

Arthur had wounded another man, who dragged himself across the floor, trying to find cover under one of the gurneys. A second shot soon ended his life. The two remaining men rushed John and Arthur, and the two Shelby brothers found themselves fighting a pair of skilled boxers.

Meanwhile, a seemingly inert Tommy had pulled himself to his feet and launched his body at the last remaining Italian. His momentum propelled the man backwards. Losing his balance, Sabini’s henchman landed on top of one of the bodies awaiting autopsy. Twisting in panic, he pulled the sheet off the body, revealing the bloated, pockmarked face of an middle aged man.

Merda!” the Italian shrieked, reflexively raising his hand to cross himself. Tommy caught his hand mid air, then slammed his other fist into the man’s jaw. With an angry roar, Tommy’s opponent fought back, throwing a left handed punch to the ribs. It landed in the same area where he had been kicked just a few moments earlier, and the eldest Shelby brother doubled over in pain.

Seeing a chance to press his advantage, the stocky Italian tackled the gangster, throwing him against the autopsy table. They were soon engaged in a tense battle for dominance. After a few minutes, Tommy’s strength seemed to be waning, and his opponent caught him in a headlock. As Tommy struggled for breath, his eyes searched the area around him. Alex saw that John and Arthur had finally managed to dispatch their two opponents.

“John! Arthur!” she screamed. They were already halfway across the room, caps in hand, when Tommy’s hand shot out and grasped a pair of autopsy pliers. He swung them downwards, landing a vicious blow to the Italian’s kneecap. The man howled in pain, and reached for his leg. In an instant, Tommy had thrown him to the floor. The autopsy pliers connected with the man’s head with a sickening crunch, and his body went limp. His face a mask of savage fury, Tommy continued to hit the man again and again. When John and Arthur finally pulled him off, the Italian’s face had been beaten to a bloody pulp, his features unrecognizable.

Tommy struggled with his brothers for a few moments, calming only when Arthur whispered something into his ear. He stilled then, taking several slow, deep breaths. When he finally turned to face her, Alex felt as if she was looking at a man who had walked out of the gates of hell. His face was covered in blood, and his bruised jaw was markedly swollen.

He came over to her, and extended his hand. Pulling her to her feet, he put his arms around her, pressing her against his chest. Only then did she realize that he was shaking.

 

Chapter Text

The next instant, the morgue erupted into chaos. Police stormed the area, whistles blaring.  John and Arthur, being closest to the door, were surrounded almost immediately. Despite putting up a fierce fight, they were pinned against the wall within seconds.

 

Tommy threw a protective arm around Alex’s waist, drawing her against his body. He murmured a few soothing words in her ear, but they barely registered. Her eyes were focused on the officers brandishing truncheons who were advancing upon them.

 

“Hands up!” shouted a red-faced sergeant, his jowls spilling over the strap of his helmet. He wiped the sweat from his brow, then directed his beady eyes at Tommy. “Let her go! You’ve done enough killing for the night.”

 

“You’ve got it wrong,” said Tommy calmly, raising his hands in the air. “This is—“

 

At that moment, Alex stepped forward. “Sir, my name is Dr. Alexandra Ross.  I’m currently a patient at this hospital, and I owe my life to this brave man and his brothers.”

 

Ignoring Alex, the sergeant scowled at Tommy. “You look familiar. Have we crossed paths before? Perhaps in Small Heath? I was on the force there some months back.”

 

Tommy returned his gaze equably, slowly bringing his hands to his sides.. “I can’t say as I recall you, officer.”

 

The policeman looked him up and down. When he caught sight of the razor blades in Tommy’s cap, a spark of recognition appeared in his eyes. As a triumphant smirk spread across his face, he drew himself up to his full height, his fingers wrapping around the handle of his truncheon. “Well, well, what do we have here?” he murmured. Pursing his lips together, he let out a high-pitched whistle that sent Alex’s ears ringing. “It’s a red letter day for us, boys!” he called out. “Looks like we caught ourselves some Peaky Blinders.  And not just rank and file men. We’ve got Tommy Shelby and his brothers.” Smirking, he turned to Alex. “Sorry, miss, but we’ll be bringing your heroes back to the station with us.”

 

“The charge, officer?” Alex asked politely.

 

The policeman flushed, then took a step forward. Although he was careful to keep his tone neutral, he appeared to be struggling to contain his temper. “Since that one’s still breathing—“ he said curtly, nodding at the unconscious man on the floor, “—we’ll start out with assault and battery.” He gave a sarcastic laugh. “Oh yes—then there’s the matter of the dead men scattered around the room.”

 

“We ain’t done nothin’ that wasn’t self defense!” shouted John, struggling against the two men holding him.

 

“We were fighting for our lives!” yelled Arthur. In response, a burly officer delivered a hard punch to his left kidney. The eldest Shelby brother stifled a moan, then clutched his abdomen and sagged against the wall.

 

Tommy’s jaw tensed. Alex, sensing that he was about to lose control, turned to the sergeant. “The man lying on the floor there, the one with the scar on his cheek—“ she pointed at the prone form. “He was holding a gun to my head. I was barely aware of it at first, because seconds before that, he had punched me in the stomach so hard that I thought I would pass out. I could hardly breathe.”

 

Her voice began to tremble, at this point more from anger than fear. She put her left hand on Tommy’s arm, hoping to steady herself as well as him. Taking in a deep breath, she continued. “Then he grabbed me by the hair, and told Thomas—“ she held Tommy’s eyes for a moment before turning back to the sergeant, “—that he was going to blow my brains against the wall. That’s when it sank in that I was going to die.”

 

Alex shuddered. “And that wasn’t the first time that thought had crossed my mind this evening.”  Taking in a deep breath, she said, “If you send one of your men to the X-ray department, you’ll find a technician who died from a gunshot wound to the head. He took me for an X-ray, but decided he’d rather kill me instead. Only the grace of God and quick action by Thomas saved my life. This man was employed here under the name Bob Miller, but I suspect that if you dig into his background, you’re likely to find out that his real name has a distinctly Italian ring to it.” The officer, who had been watching her intently as she spoke, blinked, then averted his gaze.

 

Seeing his discomfort, Alex pressed on. “Sergeant, I have faced death before. I served in one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the war. My husband, born and raised in Birmingham, gave his life for this country. That’s why a Scottish female physician has started up a medical clinic in an industrial city in the English Midlands. I lost Jonathan far too soon, but I will honor his memory by providing medical care to an underserved population—without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, or gang affiliation. Apparently that’s why I have run afoul of Darby Sabini and his men. But mark my words, sir—no one—not the medical establishment, and certainly not a third rate hoodlum like Sabini—will stop me.”

 

“A worthy project, I’m sure.” The policeman met her eyes, and she felt a ray of hope. That was dashed in the next instant when she saw his mouth tighten. “But that pretty little speech has nothing to do with what happened in this morgue tonight.”

 

Alex glanced at the three Shelby brothers, then turned her hazel eyes to the sergeant. “Actually, sir, I believe it is very much relevant. My husband didn’t deserve to meet his end on a cold, muddy field in France. And these men—no matter what they have done in the past—do not deserve to be unjustly accused of cold blooded murder. They put their own lives on the line tonight in order to save mine. And that’s God’s honest truth.”

 

The officer shifted uncomfortably, then sighed.  “Alright, miss. You’ve made your point. I suppose there’s enough doubt about what went on here that we can defer taking them into custody now.” Jerking his head at the man Tommy had beaten, he said severely, “But when and if that one there wakes up—I’m going to be very interested in what he has to say.” He glared at the brothers. “And I want all three of you to give your statements before you leave. You, miss, can wait until tomorrow.”

 

‘Thank you,” Alex said faintly, blood rushing to her head. Adrenaline was retreating from her body just as quickly as it had appeared, and the world began to spin around her.  “Tommy, I—“ As her vision began to dim, she tried to take a step forward, and felt her body pitch forward.

 

Xxxxx

 

“Give her the morphine.”

 

Tommy’s words pulled her to the surface, then quickly faded away.

 

Alex felt as if all the energy had been drained from her body. She could dimly hear people speaking around her, but the mere thought of opening her eyes was too exhausting to even contemplate.

 

A stentorian voice spoke, and her fuzzy brain identified it as belonging to Dr. Harbottle. “Mr. Shelby, when we left the operating theatre, Dr. Ross was quite clear that—-“

 

Tommy’s reply came in a dangerously low octave, sending a chill down Alex’s spine. “Give her the fucking morphine. Now .”

 

The doctor cleared his throat.

 

He’s giving Harbottle the stare.

The one that’s as cold as a winter’s eve in the Highlands.

The one that makes you want to crawl into a hole, barricade the opening, and never come out.

 

“Right away, Mr. Shelby,” he said, his voice turning hoarse.

 

Alex’s mouth felt impossibly dry. She tried to speak, but could not form any words. Thirty seconds later, she lapsed into blessed oblivion.

 

The sun-dappled orchard was set high on a hill overlooking a small town. A gentle breeze whispered through the trees, sending a brilliant orange leaf spiraling through the air. After a slow, lazy descent, the leaf came to rest on the plaid woolen blanket that was spread across the grass.

 

Alex lay nestled against Tommy, her head on his shoulder. The fall day was warm enough that they were comfortable even in the shade. Try as she might, she could not remember the last time she had felt so relaxed. Even her blissful stolen moments with Jonathan had taken place against a backdrop of death and destruction.

 

Tommy kissed the top of her head. She looked up at him with a smile, and murmured, “I think we’re in heaven.”

 

He returned her smile, but it did not quite reach his eyes. Brushing her cheek with his thumb, he said quietly, “I’d do well to enjoy it then. Because if it does exist, this is as close as I’ll ever get.”

 

She frowned, and gave him a little shake. “I don’t like it when you talk like that.”

 

He looked up the sky and sighed. “Then let’s talk about where we’re going to spend the night. Did you decide which of the two inns you prefer?”

 

Her index finger traced the a circle around one of the buttons on his shirt. “Are there any other options?”

 

He gave her a quizzical look. “What’s wrong with the two I proposed?”

 

“I just—-“ she halted, unsure how to phrase the next part.

 

In the next moment, an explosion was heard in the distance, and Alex sat bolt upright. The sky darkened, and the trees vanished, leaving behind a landscape that resembled a wasteland. Blinking, she saw that she and Tommy were sitting in several inches of mud. As a steady rain assaulted the already saturated landscape, English troops streamed by them, focused upon launching a major offensive. Officers shouted orders, whistles shrilling to punctuate their commands.

 

Tommy got to his feet. He was bare to the waist, his lean, muscular torso streaked with mud. His eyes, which had been so warm just moments before, were now remote. “My men need me. Go back to Watery Lane and watch over Finn. He’s obsessed with everything to do with war, and I won’t have him—or you—caught up in this.”

 

Confused, she stood up, and looked down at her clothes. Her soft blue dress had transformed into the olive green drab of her Scottish Women’s Hospital uniform. The hem of the long skirt was torn, the fabric splattered with blood. “I can’t go to Birmingham now. I have to get back to my medical unit.” As she glanced at the chaos around them, her stomach began to churn. “Everything looks different now. I’m not sure I know where the hospital tent is.”

 

“You’ll figure it out. You always do.” Putting his hands on her waist, he touched his lips to hers. She leaned into his body, grateful for a few more seconds to regain her strength. She had been working 18 hour days for the past fortnight, and her usually inexhaustible reserves of energy were waning. She sensed that Tommy was feeling the same degree of strain. As he drew away, she looked up at him, and bit her lip. His face was drawn, thinner than it had been just one week ago. “I know you’re exhausted. Promise me—-“

 

Suddenly he was gone, and she was alone in the heat of battle. Bullets whistled over her head as a grenade exploded less than 200 yards away. Terrified, she began to crawl towards the nearest trench. After twenty agonizing minutes, she reached the edge, and tumbled over.

 

Landing heavily at the bottom, she lay stunned for a moment. Then she shook her head and sat up, trying to get her bearings. Looking to her left, she saw an officer lying prone on the ground. She crawled forward, then froze when she saw his regimental badge. With a trembling hand, she turned the body over, gasping when her eyes came to rest on the face of her husband. As she stared at him, he took a shallow, choking breath, his eyes slowly opening.

 

“Alexandra Rose, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” he croaked.

 

Taking his hand, she pressed his fingers to her mouth. As his frozen skin met her warm lips, her eyes filled with tears. “Jonathan darling, you mustn’t talk. Conserve your strength.”

 

He coughed. Blood trickled from his mouth, curving under his jaw to trail down to his collar.  Then he looked up at her, his dark eyes dimming as he summoned up a weak smile. “I knew you’d never forsake me. I didn’t believe them when they told me.”

 

“Told you what?”

 

“That you’d found another man. A clay-kicker. From Birmingham, they said.”

 

He began to struggle to breathe, his nails digging into her skin as he fought to maintain the flicker of life that still remained within him.

 

“Promise me—“ he gasped. “Promise me that—”

 

His voice died away, replaced by the sound of a steady tapping.

The sound was familiar, but she couldn’t quite place it.

 

Someone was carrying her. She knew immediately that it wasn’t Tommy. The man smelled of onions and yeast, and his chest was thin and bony. Her right elbow bumped against something hard, and she moaned in pain.

“Fuckin’ hell!” The source of the roar that came from behind them was unmistakable

“Mind the fuckin’ doorway, Ollie! I don’t pay you to barrel around like an ox, do I?That’s precious cargo you got there, not a fuckin’ sack of potatoes!”

Chapter Text

Tommy.

 

Her mouth tried to form the word, but it wouldn’t come out of her throat.

 

He’s been shot. I need to be with him.

 

Desperate to be free, she began to struggle. The man carrying her jumped, nearly losing his hold. He stumbled, nearly dropping her.

 

“For fuck’s sake!”  

 

She heard a clatter as something was thrown to the ground. A few seconds later, a deep growl followed that quickly escalated into a roar. “Give this poor woman over to someone who doesn’t have his head up his fuckin’ ass!”

 

Alfie.

He’ll know where Tommy is.

 

As her body was gathered into a strong pair of arms, a barked command sliced through the air.

 

“Now fuck off!”

 

The moment Alfie’s biceps tightened around her body, Alex relaxed, finally feeling secure. He carried her down the hall, his broad chest vibrating against her cheek as he muttered under his breath.

 

“Alfie Solomons is gettin’ too old for this shit. Why the fuck can’t I have one person—just one —who does his job without me havin’ to shove a hot poker up his ass?” The slow scrape of a door came to her ears, followed by the sound of the wooden floorboards creaking under Alfie’s heavy boots. “Then there’s the problem of my sweet Alex and her pikey paramour. I fuckin’ hate the thought of Tommy Shelby—“

 

“Tommy.” She grasped Alfie’s shirt with her left hand. He leaned over and settled her on the bed. “He was shot.”

 

He calmly detached her fingers from his shirt, then took off his hat. “Yeah, well, you know what they say, sweetie—if you want to catch a fish, you better be ready to get wet.”

 

Although her spine had curved into the softest, most comfortable mattress she had ever had experienced, Alex’s body was still taut with tension. Her thoughts were consumed with Tommy.

 

“I saw him bleeding, Alfie. Tell me he’s okay,” she pleaded.

 

His eyes became unreadable as he patted her cheek. “He’ll be fine, love.”

 

“When can I see him?”

 

“Soon.” He sat down on the bed and took her left hand in his, easily wrapping his warm fingers around her own cold digits. “So, how are you feeling?”

 

Alex felt a pang of fear. “You don’t know where he is, do you?”

 

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Now you’re goin’ and gettin’ all hysterical on me, love. Where’s the tough Dr. Alex that threatened me with a shot in my ass if I didn’t get out of bed?”

 

Cradling her bandaged right forearm across her abdomen, Alex struggled to sit up. “Do not patronize me, Alfie Solomons. If Tommy is in trouble—-or if you’ve gotten him in trouble—“

 

Alfie gave her a hurt look. “Do I look like the kind of man who would do that?”

 

She rolled her eyes, then winced. “I don’t know what to think right now.” Her voice wavered for an instant. “I just want to see Tommy safe, then have a warm bath.”

 

He sighed, then folded her against his chest, being careful to avoid jostling her arm, His right hand came to rest on her lower back. She closed her eyes as his fingers began to trace small circles.

 

“Well, no need to worry, yeah? I sent Tzvi down to police headquarters to check on Mr. Shelby, so I’m sure our favorite whisky swillin’ Peaky will come prancin’ in here sooner rather than later, no worse the wear for a flesh wound on the arm.”

 

“I don’t know what’s happening to me, Alfie. I can’t stop thinking about Tommy, but—“ her throat tightened as grief washed over her once again. “Do you know that Jonathan will have been dead a year next Wednesday? And despite all the promises I made myself, I haven’t gone to see his parents. They deserve to hear about his last weeks...and to meet the woman who loved him. But I can’t bring myself to do it.”

 

“You need time,” Alfie murmured.

 

“That’s what I tell myself. But it’s been nearly a year—and now I’m starting to tell myself that it’s been too long—that it’ll be too difficult to explain why I waited so long.” She sniffled, then said, “I’ve walked by their house three times...once I nearly made it up the steps before my courage failed me. So I decided I’d write a letter instead. I’ve written nearly a dozen, but never posted any of them. Isn’t that ridiculous? I faced death every day in France...and just now nearly lost my life to Sabini’s men...but I’m too much of a coward to face the grieving parents of the man I loved.”

 

“You’re many things, sweetie, but you sure as hell ain’t a coward.”

 

“Yes I am,” she choked. “I’ve often woken up in the middle of the night after dreaming of meeting them. Each time, they are so welcoming, and so anxious to hear what I have to say. But when they start to ask me questions, my mind goes blank and I can’t speak...I just stare at them, and they look so disappointed. I can see on their faces that they are wondering why on earth Jonathan ever married me.”

 

Alfie pulled back and scowled, the lines in his forehead deepening as he took her face in his calloused hands. “Now, just a minute. Don’t you ever—“

 

In the next instant, a knock came on the door. A middle aged woman, her grey curls tucked under a dark blue headscarf, opened the door. Fingers tightly laced together, she took a step forward. “Alfie, there’s a man here to see you. He says—“

 

“Not now, Zaika. I’ve got my hands full.”

 

“So I see.” The voice was hoarse, but immediately familiar. As Alfie released her, Alex looked up, and felt her heart constrict. The usually impeccably groomed Tommy was almost unrecognizable.  A livid purple bruise covered much of his left cheek, and splotches of blood were still visible on his forehead. His starched white shirt was torn and streaked with dirt and blood.

 

He blinked, then stared at her, hollow-eyed. “You’re safe.”

 

“Yes, Alfie thought it best that I be moved from the hospital.”

 

His gaze sharpened, then settled on the Jewish gangster. “Alfie thought it best.” He spoke in a low, measured tone that Alex instinctively knew was barely harnessing his fury. “A word, Solomons.”

 

Alfie stood up, and motioned for Zaika to come closer. “Alex, this is Zaika. She’ll take good care of you.” He turned to the older woman. “ Prinesi yeyo tepluyu vannu, a zatem uspokoysya v posteli. Eto mozhet zanyat' nekotoroye vremya.”

 

“Konechno.”  As he headed for the door, she nodded, and moved towards the bed, giving Alex an encouraging smile.

 

Alex, desperate for a chance to assure herself that Thomas Shelby really was alive and well, called out, “Tommy, I’ve been worried about you. Please let me look at your wound.”

 

“Later,” he said gruffly, disappearing before she had a chance to say anything else.

 

Xxxxxxxx

 

The light from a half moon filtered through the small window, illuminating the hallway with a pale glow. Alfie crossed his arms and leaned against the wall. To a casual observer, he appeared relaxed. In reality, he was primed for the sort of interaction with Tommy that he especially relished.

 

Tommy stood still, shoulders squared and back ramrod straight. “We discussed this once before. Alex’s safety is my responsibility. No one else’s.”

 

The remark was unexpected, and somewhat disappointing. The opening that Solomons had anticipated having to work for had practically been handed to him. He scratched his head, then returned Tommy’s icy stare. “Yeah, well—only problem is, you’re shit at it. aren’t you, mate?”

 

Tommy’s gaze flicked for an instant to the door to Alex’s room, then back to Alfie. He shook his head, his jaw tensing. “I know what you’re trying to do. It won’t work.”

 

“No hidden agenda here, mate. The only thing I’m tryin’ to do is make sure that Alex stays alive—and well.”

 

“Oh, there’s more to it than that.” Tommy pulled out a small silver case from his pocket, and extracted a cigarette with unblinking precision. Lighting it, he took a long drag, then slowly exhaled. “You knew exactly what would go through my mind when I couldn’t find Alex at the hospital.” He gestured with his cigarette, cocking his head slightly. “I tore that fucking hospital apart looking for her. No sign of Alex Ross anywhere.”

 

”Then I did my job, didn’t it?”

 

Tommy’s mouth tightened, but he kept his voice even. “By the look of things when I came in, I’d say you went above and beyond the call of duty. You want her to think you’re the only one she can really count on, don’t you?”

 

In one quick movement, Alfie swung his cane up, placing the tip on Tommy’s chest. Twisting the handle slightly, he pressed the wooden shaft against the sternum of his nemesis.

 

“You know full fuckin’ well that she would have been dead if I hadn’t made that phone call.”

 

Tommy returned his gaze levelly. “And you have my thanks. But I’ll take it from here. And just so you know,  I’ll be lying next to her in that bed tonight.”

 

His arrogance hit a nerve. Alfie snapped, “One fuck on a night when she was vulnerable doesn’t mean shit.” Tommy’s eyes widened for just an instant, and Alfie felt a surge of triumph. “Let’s see if you can use that gypsy magic on her when she’s got her wits about her.”

 

Without another word, Tommy thrust the cane aside with his arm, and vanished into Alex’s room.

                                      Xxx

 

Alex appreciated the work Zaika had put into drawing her a steaming hot bath, but she was too exhausted to even think about getting out of bed.

 

“A bath sounds lovely, but I can barely keep my eyes open.”

 

“But the water is ready!  And I have added juniper, lavender, and rosemary oil.”  The older woman was aghast. “Such a luxury cannot go to waste.”

 

The door opened then, and Tommy entered. The glow from the bedside lamp threw his angular features into stark relief. He took a long drag from his cigarette, then exhaled slowly. As the smoke curled above his head, the sharp scent of tobacco floated across the room. Zaika straightened up, and turned to face him.

 

“Thank you, Zaika. You’re dismissed.”

 

A furrow creased her forehead. “But Mr. Solomons—“

 

Tommy was firm, but polite. “Good night, Zaika.”

 

The door closed softly behind her. Alex sat up, her eyes focused on Tommy. She tucked her legs underneath her, pulling the duvet up to her waist. “I’ve been out of my mind with worry.” She patted the bed next to her. “Please come sit down, and let me examine your arm.”

 

She watched as he brought the cigarette to his lips and took another puff, then stubbed it out in a small ceramic bowl.

 

In a few steps, Tommy was at her side. He glanced at her bandaged arm, then sat down heavily on the bed and put his head in his hands.

 

“Alfie was right,” he said hoarsely.

 

Alex yearned to touch him. She stretched out her left hand, then lost her nerve, letting it drift back to the duvet.

 

“Right about what?”

 

“You’d have been dead if he hadn’t made that phone call.”

 

“And I’d have been dead if you hadn’t saved my life the night of the fire.”

 

Tommy lifted his head. “Alfie would never have—“

 

“Tommy.” Alex caressed his face, and he instinctively leaned into her touch. “Take off your shirt, love. You took took a bullet for me, and I mean to take a look at that wound.”

 

He rested his cheek on her palm for a moment, then straightened up. Easing the tattered garment off his left shoulder, he allowed her to inspect the area where the bullet had torn through his skin.

The throbbing in her right arm prompted her to raise her left hand. It felt unnatural and awkward to probe the skin with her nondominant hand. Tommy grunted, and leaned forward. His full lips were inches from hers, but his mind was a world away. His eyes were closed, his right hand maintaining a tight grip on his thigh,

 

“We’re a proper pair, aren’t we?” she said softly. He smelled of musk and blood and earth. The shyness she had felt a few moments ago was overcome by a wave of tenderness. Her lips brushed against the curve of his jaw, careful to avoid the bruises.

“Only one good pair of hands between the two of us.”

 

He took in a breath, his fingers slipping to her waist.

“Who needs hands, eh?”  

 

Then his lips met hers. An instant later, she had melted into his body, secure in the knowledge that he would lay down his life to protect her.








Chapter Text

Alfie limped into his study and sat down at the desk. He shifted, trying to get into a position that would ease the growing ache in his back. The high backed leather chair, like everything else in his Birmingham residence, was brand new. Annoyingly so. Alfie was a man who appreciated quality, but he was also a man of habit, especially when out of sorts. Right now, he longed for the familiar comfort of his battered chair at the distillery.

 

Nostrils flaring, he gave a snort of disgust. “Smells like it just rolled off the fuckin’ assembly line.” He rubbed his eyes wearily, then put on his half-moon glasses and opened the ledger in front of him. As his finger ran down the columns, he frowned, then turned back a few pages. Finding the figure he had been seeking, he gave a hum of satisfaction, then leafed forward to projections for the next month.

 

A wet nose nudged his forearm. He looked down to see Cyril’s dark liquid eyes peer up at him from under the crook of his elbow.

 

“Sorry, mate, but I ain’t got time for a walk tonight. You’re gonna have to content yourself with a good scratch.” Leaning over, he ruffled the soft fur behind Cyril’s ears, then moved on to rub the dog’s belly. A few moments later, the boxer stretched. His head shoved Alfie’s elbow upwards, knocking the ledger off the desk. It hit the floor with a bang.

 

“Shit.”  Alfie swiveled his chair, leaning over to retrieve the leather bound volume. As he picked it up, a yellowed envelope slipped out of the pages, fluttering to the ground.

 

His calloused fingers scrabbled across the floor, finally reclaiming the faded paper. Turning it over, he saw the inscription, and swore under his breath.

 

To my dearest Alex.

 

Xxxxxxxxxx

 

Alex rested her head against Tommy’s shoulder. “I’m really too tired to take a bath at this point. You, on the other hand, look as though you could benefit from a good soak. After all, that lovely water really shouldn’t go to waste.”

 

“We could bathe together.” Tommy’s voice was low and husky against her neck. His warm breath caressed her skin, sending a wave of heat into her core. A vision surged into her brain of their wet, naked bodies entwined in a large clawfoot tub, and she swallowed

 

“It’s a very tempting offer, but the unpleasant after effects of the morphine seem to have hit me. I’m dizzy, and slightly nauseous as well. Then there’s the matter of the bandage on my hand —“ She pressed her lips to his cheek, careful not to linger too long lest she lose her resolve. “I’ll have to take a rain check.”

 

He drew back, and cocked his head to the side. A glint of mischief stole into his eyes. “Well, now that you mention it, that would be a brilliant way to do a bit of physiotherapy once your hand starts to heal.”

 

“Really?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “I had no idea that you were an expert in such matters.”

 

Tommy skimmed his thumb over her cheek, then traced a slow, sensual path across her full lips. “Massage, manual therapy, hydrotherapy...you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish in a good sturdy tub.”

 

Her mouth went dry for a few moments. Well aware of the desire in his eyes, she struggled to keep her composure. “Given the talent you’ve shown me so far, I can only imagine.”

 

He glanced at the lavatory door, then slid off the bed and cleared his throat. “I think I’ll take advantage of that hot water.”

 

As he walked away, a niggling question that had been lurking at the back of her mind decided to push its way forward.

 

“Tommy—“

 

He turned. She hesitated for a moment, then blurted out, “How many women have you been with?”

 

A few seconds of silence followed. Then he took in a breath, and said, “Enough to realize that you may be the death of me.”

 

Xxxxx

 

He had been absent for nearly five minutes when a soft tap came at the door. Alex had been dozing, nearly lulled to sleep by the soft patter of rain against the window. She raised herself up on her elbow, wincing as her right hand began to throb.

 

“Come in.”

 

Zaika inched the door open and peered inside. Seeing that Alex was alone, she gave a visible sigh of relief. Slipping inside the room, she approached the bed, carrying a small tray. “I thought you might benefit from a bit of homemade broth.”

 

Alex’s nausea receded a bit when the scent of the rich chicken stock drifted to her nose. She gave the older woman a warm smile. “Thank you for your thoughtfulness. You are too kind.”  

 

Zaika’s gaze lowered to the tray, where two white bowls stood. Shifting from one foot to the other, she murmured, “I was not sure—I did not mean to presume—“

 

Anxious to dispel the woman’s unease, Alex replied, “I’m sure Mr. Shelby will be grateful for something warm as well.” She gestured at the small bedside table. “Can you please put the tray there? I’ll wait until he finishes with his bath.”

 

Zaika’s dark eyes filled with disappointment. “You did not wash yourself?”

 

“I’m exhausted, and the medicine they gave me at the hospital has caused me to feel a bit off.”

 

The housekeeper’s chin lifted. “Tomorrow, then. I will prepare the same bath, and we will get you properly cleaned up.” She wrinkled her nose as she set the tray down. “You have just come from the hospital. I have not seen one yet that was not a dirty, filthy place.”

 

“The Orthopaedic Hospital was actually quite clean, and the nurses were very careful to practice aseptic technique. So I was really very lucky.”

 

“Luck,” Zaika murmured, her fingers reaching for the mother-of-pearl pendant around her neck. “So elusive for some, even those who deserve a bit of happiness.”  Her eyes suddenly misted, her mouth twisting as she worked to control her emotion.

 

“Madam, I do not know you, but it is obvious that Alfie—my second cousin on my dear mother’s side—respects you. We of the Jewish faith have faced prejudice and violence throughout our history, and we tend to keep to our own. For Alfie to have welcomed you into his home speaks much about his feelings for you.”  

 

“The feeling is mutual,” Alex said quietly. “He has been a good friend to me.”

 

Twisting the chain of her necklace around her finger, Zaika ventured, “Alfie says you are a doctor—and a very good one. He says you saved his life when he was wounded in the war.”

 

“I had something to do with it.”

 

“Then may I be so presumptuous as to ask a favor of you?” Before Alex could respond, the woman pressed on, her words tumbling over each other. “Not for myself, but for the daughter of my childhood friend. Her mother is like a sister to me. We grew up together in Galicia. Samara—the little girl—“ She checked herself, then gave a rueful smile. “I sometimes have to remind myself that she is a young woman now. A physician, like you. When the war broke out, Samara had just arrived home for a visit after finishing her training in London.”

 

Zaika wrapped her arms around her chest, and took in a deep breath before continuing. “She found herself trapped in a war zone. A return trip to England was out of the question. The local doctor was called up to army almost immediately, and she became the only physician within a fifty mile radius.”

 

Alex thought of the terrible strain that the young woman must have been under, and her heart went out to Samara. “She must be a very strong person.”

 

“She is—was.” Zaika’s voice caught with a sob. “The civilian populace suffered greatly during those years, and the stress took a terrible toll on Samara. She has lost interest in medicine—and I fear she has lost interest in life itself. Her mother has brought her to London in an attempt to find someone who can help.”

 

Alex sensed where the conversation was heading, and said slowly, “I would like to be of service, but I have no experience in the treatment of melancholia.”

 

The housekeeper clasped her hands in front of her, her tone now pleading. “But you are a physician—and more importantly, you are a woman. A woman Samara’s age who knows of the unspeakable things that happen during a war.” She blinked, then said, “There is a Russian saying that a drowning man clings to even a straw. As Samara has lost the will do to so, I must reach for that straw. Please, I beg you—help her.”

 

The idea of assuming such an enormous responsibility—one that she had no formal training for—caused Alex to pause before answering. Then her she recalled the depression she had plunged into after Jonathan’s death.

 

I know all too well that modern medicine has yet to come up with anything that can readily heal a wounded spirit. She needs a friend—someone with an open heart and a sympathetic ear.

 

“Of course,” she said in a rush. “I’ll do my best. Give me a day or two to get back on my feet, and I will be glad to meet her. Just send word to let me know when and where is convenient. I am staying with Mr. Shelby’s family at the moment— 6 Watery Lane.”

 

“Thank you.” Zaika’s voice trembled. “May the Lord our God bless you, doctor.”  Dabbing her eyes with her apron, she fled the room.

 

As the door closed, Alex closed her eyes, and said a silent prayer for Samara. Then her stomach rumbled, and she glanced at the tray. She hadn’t eaten in hours, and her nausea had finally resolved.

 

I could just have a taste of the soup while I wait for Tommy.

 

With difficulty, she pivoted around in the bed, and reached for the bowl closest to her. As she lifted it off the tray with her left hand, the smooth porcelain slipped from her fingers, and fell to the ground in a crash. Shards of china ricocheted off the wall, bouncing across the floor.

 

She cried out in dismay, pressing her hand to her face as tears of frustration sprang to her eyes.  Almost instantly, the door to the lavatory opened. The floorboards creaked under Tommy’s bare feet, and she felt him take her hand.

 

“Hey,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “Are you alright? Did you burn yourself?”

 

“No,” she choked. “But not for want of trying.”

 

“It’s not the end of the world. It’s just soup, eh?”

 

“I’m just so bloody clumsy. How am I going to do my job with only one good hand? I promised Mr. Burns that I’d operate on his hernia next week, and Mrs. Horn expects me to—“

 

His voice hardened. “John Burns has been complaining about that fucking hernia for over two years. He’s only pushing for you to fix it because you’re a soft touch, and let him talk you down to a fee five pounds lower than any other doctor in Birmingham. And as for Jennie Horn, the woman is a proper hypochondriac. She spends more time complaining about her supposed illnesses than she does talking to her own family. It won’t hurt her to wait a couple of weeks to be seen for whatever she thinks is ailing her.”

 

“What if I never regain use of my hand?” she said, her voice cracking. “How will I be able to continue my work? I never even really got started—and I had such hopes and dreams for my little clinic.”

 

“Look at me.”

 

Alex, lost in her misery, began to cry. “I promised myself I’d use my work to honor Jonathan’s memory. How will I be able to do that if I have a useless right hand?”

 

“Alex, look at me.”  His tone was commanding this time. She opened her eyes, blinking back tears, and saw a bare-chested Tommy kneeling in front of her. Droplets of water lazily trailed over his pectoral muscles, tracing a course down his abdomen to disappear in the towel that had been hastily knotted around his waist. He gazed up at her, his eyes softening.

 

“You have many years of medical work ahead of you.”

 

“You can’t guarantee that.”

 

He scoffed. “The fuck I can’t.”

 

She snatched her hand from his, balling it into a fist as her voice rose. “Tommy, when will you learn that there are some things on this earth that even you can’t control? Your arrogance is nothing short of terrifying. I won’t—I can’t—see another man into an early grave.”  Wiping her eyes, she sobbed, “You said I’d be the death of you, and that’s exactly what Polly told me. We’re just not—-“

 

“Polly said what ?” he snapped.

 

Her guard down, she looked down at him, his blue eyes beckoning her touch. Unable to resist, she ran her fingers through his damp hair, and was rewarded with a barely audible sigh.

 

“The issue she has with us is not due to any physical intimacy that might—“ she blushed, “or has—occurred. She said that the danger lies in you becoming emotionally involved with a woman you are meant to be protecting. She told me that if I allow that to happen, that you will lose all objectivity—and that everything else in the world will cease to matter—including your own life.” She took in a shuddering breath. “I can’t let that happen. I won’t let that happen.”

 

“Listen to me, love.”  He tilted her chin up. “Polly is my aunt. I respect her opinion regarding the family business, but her input ends at my bedroom door. You want to know what I meant when I said you’d be the death of me? I meant that you’re the first woman who has made me think beyond a fuck. The first one I’ve ever contemplated making a life with. When and if that choice is made, the man I have been since the war will cease to exist.”

 

“I don’t want to put you at risk. I don’t—“

 

His lips met hers in a hard. demanding kiss that took her breath away. When he pulled away and leaned his forehead against hers, it took all her resolve to keep from whimpering.

 

“I can take care of myself. Have since I was a boy. You let me worry about the consequences.”

Chapter Text

Later that night, Alex was wide awake. She had slept deeply for a good four hours, only to be awoken by a burning pain in her palm. She shifted onto her side and gazed at Tommy. He lay next to her, his even breathing the only sound in the room. Even in repose, he was a model of discipline. His hands lay one on top of the other, an inch above the upper edge of the spare quilt. He had carefully wound the material around his body, denying himself the reward of sliding into bed next to her.

 

Lead us not into temptation.

 

Her eyes settled on his profile, her mind searching for answers. Even in the half light, the rich copper threads running through his hair stood out, as did the sharp demarcation line between the thick, natural growth and the shaved area that lay beneath it. Then there was the thin scar on his left cheek—barely a quarter of an inch, but there had to be a story behind it. One that she did not know.

 

She liked to think that she had begun to understand him to some degree. But now, with the wind whistling around the eaves of the great house, she began to realize how little she actually knew about the man who had made her realize that her sexuality had not ended with Jonathan’s death.

 

In truth, grief had still been a daily presence in her life when she had met Tommy. It hovered nearby, striking her at the most mundane of moments. One day the radio had begun playing a song Jonathan had often whistled, and she had found herself sobbing over the kitchen sink. The sight of a bar of his favorite soap could unleash a wave of sorrow that she would have to battle the rest of the day.

 

Just a month ago, the idea of meeting another man that could ever take her husband’s place had seemed preposterous. Yet here she was, lying in bed next to the most notorious man in Birmingham. A man who killed with impunity. A man who couldn’t be more different than Jonathan Britton—the gentle, compassionate Anglican priest with a sly sense of humor and a ready laugh.  Yet she wanted Thomas Shelby badly—perhaps more than she had ever wanted Jonathan.

 

Out of all of the men in Birmingham, why did it have to be him?

 

As his mouth curved into the slightest of smiles, she reached out to touch him, longing to feel the stubble on his cheek sliding under the tips of her fingers.

 

Be rational. He will bring you nothing but grief.

 

She pulled back her hand as his words echoed in her brain.

You’re the first woman who has made me think beyond a fuck. The first one I’ve ever contemplated making a life with. When and if that choice is made…

 

Her thoughts in turmoil, she slid out of bed, cradling her right hand against her chest.

 

So he’s contemplating making a choice. That means nothing. It’s not a commitment. And you—stupid, stupid girl—you’ve already slept with him. Not because he seduced you, but because after a few glasses of wine, you wanted to ease his loneliness.  Or was it your own?

 

Desperate to clear her head, she grasped a blanket, awkwardly draping it over her shoulders with her left hand. Quiet as a mouse, she made her way to the door, and slipped out of the room.

 

Once in the chill of the corridor, her surroundings seemed to spin around her body. Leaning against the wall, she took in a few deep breaths, steadying herself before continuing. She passed several rooms, then rounded a corner, gasping when she nearly ran into Zaika. The housekeeper shook her head, her eyebrows knitting in concern.

 

“Madam, you shouldn’t be out of bed. It’s far too cold in these drafty halls. If you get an infection in your weakened state, you won’t be able to fight it off.” She suddenly stopped, drawing her shawl around her long flannel nightgown. She gave Alex a rueful smile. “Here I am lecturing a doctor on how to manage her health. I am quite a silly old woman.”

 

“Not at all. It shows you care—and doctors are often not the best of patients, so a gentle word of caution is not a bad thing.”

 

A thought seemed to strike the older woman. Worry filled her eyes as she put her palm to Alex’s forehead. “Are you having a chill? Feeling feverish?”

 

“No. I’ve just never been a good sleeper. I had already been awake for 30 minutes or so when my hand starting hurting a bit, so I decided to distract myself by taking a little walk.”

 

Zaika gave her cheek an affectionate pat. “Now that you have done so, you should go back to bed. Off with you! I need to go to bed myself, and I will get no sleep at all if I must lie awake worrying about you roaming the halls and catching your death of pneumonia.”

 

Alex could not help but smile. “I don’t want to be responsible for that. Good night, Zaika.”

 

As she turned to go, the woman stopped her. “Madam, I am afraid you will think this quite a strange request, but can you please not mention Samara and her mother to my cousin? They are quite private people, and made me promise not to involve Alfie. I am the only person in London whom they know and trust.”

 

“Soon, I hope there will be two.”  

 

“Sleep well, madam.” Zaika gave her a small curtsy, then left her, disappearing into her room some distance down the hall.

 

Alex, still feeling restless and distracted by the throbbing in her hand, found herself longing for a good book. Then she recalled Alfie mentioning that the library was next to her bedroom.

 

I’ll just slip in there and find a book, then tuck myself into a chair and read until I start to nod off.

 

Once inside the library, she closed the door behind her, and immediately felt at peace. The wall to the left of her was lined with volumes of differing sizes. Quite a few of the titles had spines with worn gilt lettering in English or Russian. There was a smattering of Hebrew and Italian books as well. A few dying embers glowed in the fireplace, and she could smell the lingering scent of Alfie’s pipe tobacco. A large couch was set in front of the fire, the rich leather illuminated by the last bits of light from the hearth. A low table in front of the couch was empty except for a half empty bottle of whisky and an open book..

 

Alex picked up the slim volume and began to read.

 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
     — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
     Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
     And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

She snapped the book shut, her throat tightening as she saw the title. Selected Poems by Wilfred Owen.

 

It was then that she noticed the gramophone, with a record still in place. She hesitated, but curiosity as to Alfie’s musical tastes finally moved her to action. Turning the volume to the lowest setting, she dropped the needle. The smoky, rich sound of blues filled the room.

 

I can't sleep at night
I can't eat a bite
'Cause the man I love
He don't treat me right

Tears welled up in her eyes.

 

What in the world is happening to me? I’m crying over Jonathan one minute, Tommy the next.

 

Desperate to head off another emotional outburst, she went over to the window. Pushing back the heavy velvet curtains, she threw it open. Her blanket slipping to the floor, Alex closed her eyes as the cold air flowed over her.  Taking in a few deep breaths, she opened her eyes, and saw the first snowflakes of the season swirl through the air, then disappear into the night.

 

When she began to shiver, she closed the window, then leaned her forehead against the cool glass as a heavy snow began to fall. She began to sway to the sounds of the muted trumpet, her eyes half closed.

 

Suddenly a pair of bare, muscular arms wrapped around her, and a voice still rough with sleep murmured into her ear.

 

“Harbottle said you’re to be wearing your sling when you’re up and about.  Are you disobeying doctor’s orders, Alexandra?”

 

She looked down, and swallowed when she saw the sling in Tommy’s hand. “And if I were?”

 

“Hmm.” His lips skimmed her neck. “I’d have to chastise you for your willfulness. I can think of several methods that would be appropriate, but right now, I’ll settle for a dance.”

 

“But my hand—“

 

“Turn around.”  

 

She obeyed, and watched as he took the sling and put it around his neck, then adjusted it so that it hung over his back instead of his chest. “Slip your hand in there. It’ll be well supported, and I can hold you without fear of making it worse.”

 

Alex did as instructed, then settled against him with a sigh as they began to move to the music. “You’re so warm. How is that possible?”  He was barefoot, and clad only in a pair of pajama bottoms.

 

“Well, I was in bed until thirty seconds ago. Nearly lost my fucking mind when I woke up and found you gone. Luckily, the music gave you away.”

 

“I’m sorry I worried you. I just couldn’t sleep, and didn’t want to disturb you.”  Her white nightgown was made of thin cotton, and she could already feel his erection beginning to push against her lower belly.

 

He looked down at her, “Like you’re disturbing me now?”

 

She blushed, and buried her face against his bare chest. “I hardly think I look seductive right now.”

 

He looked down at her, his eyes filling with amusement as he took in her ankle length garment. “Alfie covers all contingencies, doesn’t he? He made sure Zaika put you in a nightdress that probably dates back to his grandmother’s time. Was a chastity belt included?”

 

“It’s a little late for that.” His mouth was so close now, and a throbbing ache had started to build in her core.

 

His mouth brushed against hers with the lightest of kisses. “Do you regret the night we spent together?”

 

“In the light of day, I sometimes think of Jonathan, and I feel like I’ve dishonored our marriage vows. But at night—“

 

“You can’t think of anything else.” His lips grazed her cheek. “I know, because I’ve been there, eh? I couldn’t sleep myself for the first hour after I laid down tonight. I had to wrap myself up in the spare quilt and imagine I was lying next to Esme’s Aunt Hilda.”

 

Alex bit back a laugh. She imagined Tommy trying to summon up an image of a stern Gypsy woman with a body that resembled a broomstick—with an outlook on life that was just as narrow and unforgiving.

 

He grinned. “That did the trick—until I saw you standing in front of that window with the moonlight shining down on you. Alfie definitely didn’t take that possibility into account, because the material in your gown was practically transparent. Fucking distracting, it was.”

 

“Kind of like the pain I had earlier. Which, oddly enough, seems much better since I attached myself to you.”

 

Tommy glanced at the gramophone. The record had finished playing, and the needle was silently circling the last groove. In one smooth movement, he lifted her up. As she shifted to wrap her legs around his waist, the modest neckline of her nightdress was dragged down, exposing the swell of her breasts.

 

“Yeah, well—-the distraction has only gotten worse for me.” His mouth was exploring her neck now, and she let out a little moan when the hem of her gown slid up above her knees.

 

“Tommy—I can’t.”

 

“Skin against skin. Just for a moment,” he said, his voice coaxing.

 

“And you have the self-control to stop there? Because I’m not sure I do. And our first time was so unexpected—I mean, I thought I was ready, and I wanted you—want you— badly— but something makes me think that this is isn’t right. Not now.”

 

Without a word, he set her down, then went to the window, and stood staring out into the street below.

 

“What are you doing with a man like me? That night at Olive’s cottage—it never should have happened. I should have had the willpower to stop, but I didn’t.” He shook his head, bracing himself against the wall. “I knew full well how it was with you that night—knew you were lost in this fantasy of a broken man who could be made whole again. But I didn’t fucking care. Which proves I’m not the man for you. I never will be.”

 

“Stop.” Alex struggled to keep her voice steady. “You’re a good man, Tommy.”

 

Tommy whirled around to face her. “You think so, eh? Did the vicar ever tell you about how he had killed a man? And after that, did he pin you to the bed and fuck you until you were hoarse from screaming his name? Because that’s the kind of man I am, Alex. And you deserve better.”

Chapter Text

Alex was taken aback for a moment. But as his words sunk in, she said quietly, “Two things trouble me about your statement. One is the implicit self loathing. The other is the assumption that you know me better than I know myself.”

 

“I never said—“

 

“Not in so many words, but the message was clear enough.” Despite her best efforts, she could hear her voice trembling.

 

Tommy shook his head, brushing past her and heading for the bottle of whisky. He turned his back to her, filled a glass to the brim, then downed it.  An instant later, he had poured himself a refill.

 

Although common sense told her that the best course of action at this point would be to hold her tongue, his silence pushed her over the edge. “Do you have any idea how many times I have had men tell me that they know exactly what a “nice young lady” needs? Usually that declaration is followed by one of several predictable statements, but perhaps you have something original to say that I haven’t heard before. Please, go ahead.”

 

He turned to face her, his jaw tightening. Alex felt a flicker of satisfaction that she only half regretted an instant later. She had succeeded in provoking him, just as he had her. When he spoke, his measured voice was devoid of all warmth. “We both know exactly what I meant. You married a man like your vicar for a reason—because deep down, you know you don’t belong with a gangster who spends his days doing the things I do. And his nights? Well, as for those—“ Tommy raised his glass in a mock salute. “To whisky—and a cheap whore that can be fucked over a desk.”

 

Wiling herself not to flush at his coarse remark, Alex stood her ground, cocking her head as she returned his gaze. “I think there’s something else going on here. You’d like me to believe that we’re through if I’m not willing to service you at the drop of a hat. The question is—why? Because I know that the man I gave my body to is not that sort of man.”

 

She held her breath for a moment, then took a step forward. He was close enough now for her to catch the faintest scent of cedar, and it took real effort on her part to maintain her focus. “You know what I think? I think that the idea of letting someone see the real Thomas Shelby—the vulnerable man behind the cool, dangerous persona that you present to the world—is just too terrifying for you to allow it.”

 

He scoffed, narrowing his eyes at her. “So now you’ve decided to branch out into some of that Freudian nonsense? What is it they call it?” Giving her a mocking smile, he said, “I remember now—psychoanalysis. Let me guess—my problems all go back to wanting to fuck my mother.”

 

“I can tell you exactly what your problems are down to.” Drawing herself up to her full height, Alex locked eyes with him. “You’re trying to forget a childhood where you lived with a drunken, abusive father and a mother who was terrified of him. As a boy, you turned to the streets—initially just to survive, but then to make your mark on the world. After that, there were the four harrowing years you spent in France underground coated in filth, digging tunnels while living in constant fear that death was just around the corner. That damages a man, Tommy. How can it not? But medicating yourself—whether it be with whisky, money, or women—is a sign that you’re deeply unhappy with the life you’ve made for yourself. And your family only makes it worse—not just because of the business, but it’s down to you to rein in—“

 

“Do not fucking go there! You have no idea—“ He suddenly stopped, then exhaled, scrubbing his face with his hands before raising his eyes to her. “Look, you’re young and idealistic. You think you can change the world single-handedly. But that’s pure fantasy.“

 

“That’s not true!” Alex’s voice rose. “Things change—people change.”  She held her right arm against her chest, trying to fend off the flood of unpleasant memories rushing into her brain. “They told me not to apply to medical school—that the only women who would even stand a chance would be the daughters of famous physicians or wealthy benefactors. But I was accepted. Me— Alex Ross, the daughter of a policeman. And I graduated, with honors. I am living proof that it’s not just a man’s world anymore.”

 

Tommy laughed outright, shaking his head at her naïveté. “Sweetheart, it will always be a man’s world. That’s never going to change.”

 

Blood rushed to her head, followed closely a surge of anger that flooded through her veins. “Spoken like a man who is threatened by—“

 

The door banged open. Alfie stood in the doorway, light spilling over his broad shoulders. He was clad in an sober grey union suit, which stood out in stark contrast to the silk jacquard robe that hung from his large frame. The material was a riot of vivid red, blue, and green, and featured five whirling, snarling dragons engaged in an epic battle. Solomons, looking for all the world like a mythical creature himself, stood staring at them. His hair was a wild mess, his eyes flashing with fury.

 

“What the fuck is going on in here?” he growled.

 

Alex took a step back, then spoke up. “I was—“

 

Alfie held up a hand. “I’m not talkin’ to you, love. I want to know to hear what Tommy fuckin’ Shelby has to say.” He fixed his gaze on his adversary. “What I want to know is why you think you can come into my house and start a fuckin’ row—at two o’ clock in the fuckin’  morning, no less— in my library, which has been designed specifically by me as a place of refuge from people like you.” He ran his fingers through his hair, his expression darkening. “Decent fuckin’ people—-hardworkin’ people—are tryin’ to sleep. And right now, with you up here and your brother Arthur—who just for the record, is fuckin’ insane —downstairs wearin’ a hole in my carpet, I’m just about ready to unleash some Old Testament style justice.”

 

Tommy straightened up. “Arthur is here?”

 

“Yeah, he’s whingin’ on about how Polly sent him to get you—“

 

“Shit.” He brushed past Alfie, disappearing into the hall.

 

Alfie glanced at Alex, a gleam coming into his eye. “I heard raised voices. You need me to beat the shit outta him? Because all you gotta do is say the word, love, and I’ll have him wishing  he’d never—-”

 

As he spoke, the left side of her head began to throb, and she braced herself for the onslaught of a migraine.

 

“No,” she said, closing her eyes as she felt for the pulse in her left temple. “I don’t need or want you to beat Tommy. I’m just—so tired. Do you mind if I sit down?”

 

“Of course not. Go ahead, take a load off.”

 

Alex sat down heavily, leaning her head back against the sofa.

 

“You should go lie down—-get some rest.”

 

“Why do men insist on giving me orders?” she snapped. “If I want to lie down, I’ll bloody well do it without being told to.”

 

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “On behalf of the men of the world, I accept responsibility for our uncanny capacity to fuck things up at the worst possible moment.”

 

She sighed. “I’m sorry, Alfie. I don’t mean to take out my frustration on you...it’s just...it’s just all too much right now.”

 

Alfie shoved his hands in his pockets, and leaned back against one of the bookcases. “What now?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“What’s your plan? For tomorrow...for the day after, for the next few months?”

 

“I suppose that depends.”

 

“On what?”

 

“On Sabini. On my hand. On Tommy. I’m not a person who thrives on chaos, and at the moment, I feel like the world is spinning out of my control. Forget thinking about next week—I can’t even predict what I’ll be doing an hour from now.”

 

She paused for a moment, her fingers toying with the bandage on her opposite hand. “I never imagined my life would be like this. Even though we only had a short time together, Jonathan and I had plotted out our one year and five year plans for the future. Sometimes I find myself wondering what my life would be like if he had lived.”

 

Alex looked up to see Alfie stroking his beard, deep in thought.

 

“Alfie?”  There was no response. “Did you hear anything I said?”

 

“Yeah. You’re wondering how you could have married a saint, then fallen for the devil.”

 

She was stunned. In one sentence, he had neatly summarized the doubts that plagued her—-but she didn’t intend to acknowledge Alfie’s uncanny ability to read her mind.

 

“It’s hardly that black and white. Jonathan was a wonderful man, but he wasn’t perfect by any means. And Tommy—“

 

Alfie scoffed, narrowing his eyes at her. “Don’t try to bullshit me, love.” He turned around a straightbacked chair with a deft flick of his wrist, then sat down. Squaring his shoulders, he leaned his elbows on the top rail. “And as an intelligent woman who has always prided herself on being levelheaded, that bothers the hell out of you.”

 

Alex, unsure of how to reply, found her gaze intently focused on her hand. She heard a rustle, then was startled by the soft whoosh of a yellowed envelope landing in her lap. Looking down, she saw Jonathan’s elegant, flowing script leap out at her from the faded paper. In that instant, she could almost hear him saying her name in the smooth, velvety baritone that had always made her heart skip.

 

“How—where—” Finding herself at a loss for words, she picked up the envelope gingerly, then glanced up at Alfie.

 

He sighed, then shrugged. “What can I say? I don’t live in the past. Never have. When I was on that fuckin’ ambulance train heading to London, all I could think about was gettin’ away from the smell of piss and shit and rotting flesh. So when I limped onto the platform in Charing Cross, I left all that behind me. The head nurse was screamin’ at me, tellin’ me I needed to sign some fuckin’ form. I just kept walkin’. Never looked back.” The chair creaked as he shifted his weight, stretching out his right leg.

 

Alex traced her name on the envelope with her index finger, sucking her breath through her teeth as the memory of Jonathan making love to her for the last time drifted into her consciousness.  As a trickle of sweat traced a lazy trail between her breasts, she gulped, then finally managed to stammer, “But the letter—how did you—“

 

Alfie wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “The night before they put me on the ship to go home was a bad one. I got up to take a piss, and tripped over a basin the nurse had left on the floor for the poor bastard next to me. The lad was from Yorkshire. Barely eighteen, and he’d been wounded badly. He had somethin’ wrong with his stomach, and couldn’t stop retching. When my foot caught on that basin, I fell hard—saw stars for a good minute or two. The pain in my leg was so agonizin’ that I thought that you or one of your colleagues would insist on cuttin’ it off. But they doped me up with morphine, and after that, I didn’t have a fuckin’ care in the world.”  

 

His pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, and appeared to be lost in his memories. “Now that I think back on it, I have a vague memory of being wheeled out to the hospital ship early the next mornin’. It was raining, and the sky was thick with clouds. Like everyone else, I had my discharge papers in my hands. And I remember Jonny rushin’ up to me, askin’ me to keep a letter for you—just in case he didn’t—well, you know.”

 

The lines in his forehead deepened as his eyebrows drew together. “I just stared at him. He gave me a look, then thrust the letter into my papers. And when I got home, I took those fuckin’ discharge papers and shoved them into the back of one of my ledgers. Completely forgot about the whole thing until I came across the letter by chance just hours ago.”

 

Silence hung in the air.  Alex swallowed. “Read it to me—please.”

Chapter Text

The chair creaked as Alfie took the yellowed envelope from her. He ran his calloused thumb over the flap, then cleared his throat. “Look here, love—this ain’t really right. Jonny wrote this for you. I don’t think he meant for somethin’ so personal to—“

 

“Just read it.” Her eyes were closed now, and all color had drained from her cheeks. He started to press the argument, then decided that the wisest course would be to accede to her wishes. The ticking of the small clock on the bedside table, barely audible a few moments ago, now seemed to fill the entire room.

 

Sliding his finger under a section where the seal had loosened, he eased the envelope open and extracted a thin sheet of paper that was folded in half. Then he fished his half moon glasses out of his pocket and settled them on the bridge of his nose. Taking in a deep breath, he began to read.

 

My love ,

It is a strange thing to sit down and pour one’s heart into a letter that it is fervently hoped will never be read by the intended recipient—but despite your eternal optimism, I fear that the outcome of this war is becoming more uncertain by the day. Perhaps my misgivings serve a purpose, for they have spurred me to put pen to paper.

 

I hope to be able to say these things to you in person, but if I am gone when this war is over, know how much I have loved—and love—you. You came into my life during a seemingly endless stretch of darkness. Days that were full of mud and rain and death began to be punctuated by moments of lightness. Even now, when I picture you in my mind, I choose to focus on images of you singing, laughing, or smiling.

 

The thought of my beloved Alex dressed in widow’s weeds and locked in a cycle of perpetual mourning is more than I can bear. So, I ask you to do this one thing for me—please promise me that you will open your heart to the possibility of finding love again.

 

We had such a whirlwind courtship that there was little time to become fully aware of each other’s imperfections. I know I have struggled with communication at times. I wish it would have been otherwise, but unfortunately emotional restraint appears to be deeply embedded in the Britton genes. Make sure that you keep the lessons of our relationship in mind when (I do not say if, because God willing, you have a long life ahead) you give your heart to another.

 

As for myself, you have taught me that one cannot truly ever understand another human being, even one whom we adore with every fibre of our beIng, without open and honest communication. It is easy to share the lovable aspects of our personality, particularly when the road ahead is smooth. But there is risk in allowing another person to see the darker recesses of our soul, because this requires us to acknowledge that those places actually exist. Look for a man better than me—a man who from the very beginning, treats you with honesty, trust, and respect, for you deserve to be cherished by someone who is worthy of you.

 

I pray that this letter will be but a distant memory when we are together in the drafty garret bedroom that graces my little vicarage. If not, remember the words of Goethe—“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love”—and know that I became a better man for having loved you.

 

Your devoted husband,

Jonathan

 

Alfie looked up. Alex was staring at the ceiling, her left hand resting on her chest. Her dark hair spilled across the pillowcase, standing out in stark contrast to the pristine white linen. Free of any rouge or lipstick, she looked impossibly young—and more vulnerable than he had ever seen her.

 

“Thank you.” Her voice was thin, but controlled. “I’m quite tired now. I’d like to sleep for a bit.”

 

“Yeah, good idea.” He stood up, suppressing a groan as a spasm seized his lower back. “I’ll go see what havoc Tommy and his brother have wrought downstairs.”

 

She turned on her side to face the wall. When Alfie saw her thin shoulders start to shake, he began to sweat. The prospect of being trapped in a room with a crying woman was alarming, even if she was a dear friend. This was the type of situation he tried to avoid at all costs. Grief couldn’t be solved by shaking someone down or tossing money at it. Besides, he was shit at dealing with anything that involved emotions. But Alex’s sorrow touched a place in his own heart that he had nearly forgotten existed. Before he knew it, his lips began to silently form the words of a prayer that he had heard all too frequently as a boy.

 

HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.



Taking a few steps, he sat down on the bed. He pressed a fist to his forehead, the Hebrew lines bringing back the memory of a small boy pressed against the back of a closet, holding his hands over his ears to drown out the sound of wailing.

 

Gingerly placing his hand on her shoulder, he murmured, “Let it out, love. Shelby ain’t here to see your weakness, and old Alfie knows how much Jonny meant to you.”

 

He sensed something inside her break then, and she wept.

 

Xxxxxx

 

Rain slashed against the windscreen as Tommy drove through the dark streets of Birmingham. Visibility was poor, and when a large truck lurched out from a side street and skidded towards his car, he was forced to make a split-second decision to veer onto the sidewalk.

 

An instant later, the sound of grating metal announced that his rear fender had made contact with a fire hydrant.

 

“Fuck!” He slammed his hand against the steering wheel, cursing his ill luck.  The brand new Bentley had been delivered to him only a week ago, and he’d planned to take Alex out to dinner as soon as she felt up to it.

 

Alex .

 

Why couldn’t she just let well enough alone? He’d tried tonight to make her see that the idea of a relationship had been a mistake right from the start. But she’d kept pushing and pushing, bringing up his family, his past, the war—using anything she could think of to try to tear down the barricades he’d so carefully erected over the years...

 

His brother’s deep voice interrupted his thoughts. “It’s alright, Tom. It ain’t likely to be but a scratch. I bet if you take it—”

 

“Not now, Arthur,” he said curtly, keeping his eyes trained on the road as he eased the car off the sidewalk.

 

Tommy Shelby didn’t let anyone in. That was a rule he had established long ago. The closest anyone had gotten to him in the past several years was Polly.

 

Polly .

 

Something had to be terribly wrong for his aunt to have sent Arthur after him. However, his brother hadn’t been entrusted with any details, and that lack of information had nearly sent Tommy over the edge. He had gone upstairs to had to let Alex know that he had to leave, but the hum of Alfie’s voice from behind the bedroom door had caused him to abandon that plan. The last thing he needed was Solomons baiting him again in front of her. But try as he might, he couldn’t erase from his mind the flash of hurt he’d seen in her eyes just a short time earlier. It had come right after his mocking toast to whisky and whores, and had left him with an uneasy feeling that he couldn’t quite identify.

 

Regret? Remorse?

 

Impossible. Tommy Shelby didn’t have a conscience.

He couldn’t afford to have one.

 

That was another reason why he was the wrong man for Alex—and why a woman like her would never bring any degree of peace to his personal life. He desperately longed for his nights to be an oasis of calm, with the noise of the shovels finally disappearing from his life forever. With Alex in bed beside him, her soft body curving against his hard angles, he might have had a chance. But now that she seemed intent upon trying to rescue him from himself, that dream—like so many others—was lost to him.

 

He shook his head as he rounded the last corner to Watery Lane, his eyes already scanning the row houses for any hint of trouble. No sooner had he pulled to the curb in front of number 6 than the door to the house jerked open, spilling light onto the slick cement.

 

“Thomas. Thank God you’re here.” Polly rushed to meet him, a stub of a cigarette still glowing between her thumb and forefinger.

 

He was at her side in two strides, Arthur at his heels. “What is it?”

 

“It’s Frances—and Mabel. I mean, we know where Mabel is—but where her mum is, well, that’s anyone’s guess right now.” Her hands fluttered distractedly, the red glow of her cigarette oscillating in the darkness. “Their house has been ransacked, and Mabel can’t really tell us—“

 

“Pol.” He put his hands on his shoulders. “Is Mabel okay?”

 

His aunt’s eyes welled up as she grasped his forearms. “Oh, Thomas. They roughed her up something awful.”

 

“Where is she?”

 

“There was blood everywhere, and—“

 

He gave her a little shake. “Pol, focus. Where is she?”

 

She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “John found her, and carried her to his place.”

 

He took off, walking as fast as he could, and reached the door of John’s house within seconds. Pushing the door open, he saw John’s children huddled together on the couch. John Jr. was rocking one of his younger sisters. The little girl was crying softly, her face buried against his thin chest. The boy looked up at Tommy, the grave expression in his eyes making him look much older than his years.

 

“Miss Mabel’s in the boys’ bedroom with my mum.” He hesitated. “Uncle Tom, she looks scary.”

 

“Well then, it’ll be down to me, your dad, and your Uncle Arthur to find out who did this to her and make them pay, because no one—“

“Fucks with the Peaky Blinders.” John Jr. finished the sentence with him, and Tommy gave him an approving nod. “That’s right. Now take your sisters and brother over to Aunt Pol’s. You boys can sleep on the couch, and the girls can take my bed for the night.”

 

“Really?” Alice’s face glowed with excitement. “I heard Dad tell Mum once that she wouldn’t believe the things that happen in your bed at night.”

 

Tommy bent down and affectionately ruffled the little girl’s hair. “Just between you and me—your dad has an overactive imagination. Now off with you.”

 

The children scampered off, John Jr. swinging his little sister onto his back. As the door closed behind them, Tommy took off his cap and walked down the hall. Reaching the boys’ room, he placed his hand on the doorknob. As his fingers wrapped around the cool metal, he took in a deep breath, steeling himself for what he might see.

 

Even with this preparation, he was taken aback by the scene that met his eyes when he entered the room. Mabel lay on her side in the narrow bed, curled up in the fetal position. Both of her eyes were swollen shut, surrounded by purple halos that had spread down over her cheekbones. The perfect cupid’s bow of her upper lip had been split in two and was distended to nearly three times its size. Splotches of dried blood were scattered across her skull, matting her soft blond curls against her head.

 

Esme sat on a stool by the bedside, a grey shawl wrapped around her shoulders. Her eyes met Tommy’s.

 

“Has a doctor already seen to her?”

 

“Yes—Arthur called Harbottle, and he sent one of his colleagues over.  It looks bad, but he said there’s no major injuries. She’ll heal.”

 

“Good,” he jerked his head towards the door. She nodded, and slipped out, closing the door behind her.

 

“Hey you,” he murmured, taking Mabel’s hand in his.

 

“I didn’t tell them anything, Tommy,” she said hoarsely. “They tried to get me to talk, but I didn’t. I mean, I couldn’t really tell them anything anyway, but even if I knew what you had done, I wouldn’t ever betray you, I promise.”

 

“Shh.” He slid his thumb back and forth across her knuckles, relieved to see that her fingers hadn’t been broken. “I know you wouldn’t. But you do need to tell me whomever did this to you, because they are going to wish they’d never been born when I’m done with them.”

 

“First you need to find Mum.” She wrapped her other hand around his, her voice rising in panic. “God, what if—“ she swallowed. “What if they’ve done something to her?”

 

“She’ll be fine. I promise.”

 

“Will you and look for her now? Promise me you will.” There was a note of hysteria in her tone now.

 

“I’ll go right now,” he said soothingly. “Let me round up John and Arthur—“

 

“No need.” Tommy turned to see John standing in the doorway, a toothpick jutting from the corner of his mouth. “Your mum’s safe and sound, Mabel—found her wandering around down by the cut. She’s a bit cold, but nothing a cup of tea and a chat with Pol won’t fix.”

 

“Thank God,” Mabel breathed.

 

Tommy swung his gaze back to her. “Now that that’s settled, I need a name.”

 

“I thought I was going to die.” Her voice broke. “There were two of them, and they just kept asking me the same questions—Where’s the doctor? Where’s Shelby hiding her? What’s he hiding over at Charlie Strong’s yard?—and they kept hitting me, over and over again—until I blacked out.”

 

“Did they have an accent? Did you hear any names?” She shook her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Their voices are all a blur.”

 

“Where they Italian?”

 

Her head tossed on the pillow. “I don’t know. Might have been. One was taller than me, and one shorter. That’s all I remember. I’m sorry,” she sobbed.

 

“You have nothing to be sorry for—you’ve done well.. Right now, all I want you to focus on is getting well. Don’t worry about your mum. Pol and Esme will take care of her. And don’t worry about your house—I’ll send a crew round to fix it up.”

 

“But I’ve got the rent to worry about...and groceries...and Mum needs a new coat, her old one is practically threadbare.”

 

“It’ll be taken care of—and you’ll be back on your feet before you know it.”

 

She bit her lower lip. “I’m so tired, Tom. I’m getting too old for this. If I could leave Mum alone during the day, I could get a real job—but I can’t just leave the house for 8 hours at a time.” She coughed, and winced. “I’d love to be a shopgirl—or maybe a secretary—-then I’d be doing work I could be proud of. I used to be good at numbers back in school. Do you remember when I won the maths contest?”

 

“Yeah, I do. You got a big blue ribbon that must have been a foot long. You were always better at school than me, that’s for sure.”

 

“And I knew enough to use that to my advantage, didn’t i?”

 

He grinned. “You were ruthless. A poor innocent like me had no chance— especially when the price for the answers to a page of grammar questions was a kiss.”

 

A ghost of a smile flitted across her swollen lips. “Even though you dropped out of school before I did, I always had something you wanted, didn’t I?”

 

“Yeah, you did.” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze..”You know, there’s always room in my organization for people who have proven their loyalty. We may be able to work something out.”

 

She gave a bitter laugh. “I’m not sure Dr. Ross would be too thrilled with that idea.”

 

“Alex does not make business decisions for me,” he said stiffly, prickling at the suggestion that he was already under her thumb.

 

“She may not—-but you’re obviously taken with her.”

 

Tommy chose not to ignore her last comment. “I’ll be back to check on you tomorrow.” He stood up, and lit a cigarette, inhaling the curling smoke deep into his lungs. As he opened the door, Mabel called out in a weak voice, “For God’s sake, for once in your life, be honest with yourself. Don’t end up like me. The worst thing in the world is to be alone.”

 

He turned, his gaze sweeping over her damaged face. “No. The worst thing is the world is to be powerless.”

 

Chapter Text

Tommy lay on the ancient couch in John’s sitting room, the hard wooden supports pushing up against his ribs. A large quantity of whiskey had relaxed his muscles, but his mind remained restless. His fingers itched for the smooth brass stem of the opium pipe. He took in a deep breath and closed his eyes. He imagined inhaling the smoke, the familiar euphoria washing away the dark thoughts that had occupied his mind for the past few hours. Then his breathing would slow, and he would drift off into place where pain and fear had no place.

 

He stood in front of the fire, warming his hands against the cold. His uniform was pressed and starched, boots polished to a mirror shine. The medals that lined his broad chest served as a testimony to his service. Thomas Michael Shelby had fought for King and country, and he had fought with honour and gallantry.

 

Conversation rose and fell behind him, the room gradually falling silent as men filed out. Squaring his shoulders, he turned around, and found himself face to face with the battalion commander.

 

“Not you, Shelby.”

 

A familiar feeling began to uncoil from deep in his stomach, and he fought to keep his composure. “I’m not sure I understand, sir. The ceremony is meant to honour those who put England before themselves—and who risked their life doing so.”  

 

Colonel Drummond returned his gaze unblinkingly. “We’re not on the front anymore, Shelby. Certain traditions have to be upheld. I’m sure you understand.”

 

“Traditions.” His jaw tightened. “Like keeping Romani dogs in their place?”

 

The Colonel’s lips pressed into a hard line. “Sergeant Major, need I remind you that you are speaking to an officer?”

 

A hand touched Tommy’s sleeve as a cool feminine voice spoke up, “So sorry to interrupt, Colonel. Sergeant Major, your assistance is required in the dispensary.”

 

He recognized the voice, but couldn’t quite identify the speaker. Turning, he saw the woman slip out of a door at the back of the room. He followed her down a dark, winding corridor. No matter how hard he tried to catch up, even breaking into a run at one point, she always remained several steps ahead, her slim body beckoning him to follow. Finally, they reached a room far away from the awards ceremony..

 

Opening the door, his guide stepped back into the shadows, and motioned for him to enter the room.

 

He peered inside, and saw the earthen walls of a trench. The distant pounding of artillery shells echoed in his brain, and he began to sweat. In one quick motion, he stepped back, kicking the door shut with his foot. He pressed the woman against the wall with his body, pinning her wrists above her head. She gasped, her breasts swelling against his chest. He lowered his mouth to her ear. “This is no dispensary. Who the fuck are you?”

 

She turned her head to look at him. Her long, dark lashes skimmed against his cheek for an instant.  He took in a sharp breath, and released his grip on her.

 

“Alex.”

 

Reaching up, she traced the swell of his lower lip with her finger, her gentle touch instantly banishing the anger that had flooded his body. Looking into her eyes, he saw conflicting emotions, and his heart constricted in his chest. Her breath was warm and light against his skin, just as he’d remembered..

 

“I was ready to make a commitment, but you pushed me away—said you weren’t the right man for me. Why did you do it, Tommy? You made love to me. I thought I meant something to you.”

 

“I was—I was—“ He cleared his throat, searching for words that wouldn’t reveal how much he regretted what he’d said.

 

She raised an eyebrow. “Afraid?”

 

His eyes traveled over her body. He took in her starched white coat, sober dark dress, and sensible low heels. He scoffed. “Of what? Getting my temperature taken?”

 

She lifted her chin.”Classic Tommy. You want me to take the bait, don’t you? Because you’re afraid of someone who understands you. Someone who knows what it is like to have beaten the odds and achieved something tangible—something you’re really proud of—and yet still feel invisible. Someone who knows the guilt that comes with getting up every morning and still being alive—while so many that deserved the same lie in an unmarked grave on a muddy field in France or Belgium.”

 

He shook his head and stepped back, his fingers reaching for the pack of cigarettes hidden inside his jacket. “I parted ways with guilt a long time ago.”

 

“Then why do you still hear the shovels at night?”

 

He stilled.

 

“Be honest with yourself for just once in your life, Tommy.”

 

Rolling his eyes, he pulled out a cigarette and a match. She slapped them out of his hands, her eyes flashing. “Don’t you dare light another damn cigarette when I’m talking to you! You will hear me out this time. No matter what you may think, the war affected all of us. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t feel some guilt every day about something that happened over there—whether it’s Jonathan’s death or some young soldier I couldn’t save. But both of us live a life where we often have to be the person in the room that everyone is looking to for answers. You can’t tell me that the strain of that doesn’t wear on you—because it wears on me. And I don’t want to bear it alone.”

 

She unbuttoned her white coat, dropping it to the floor. He blinked, and saw that her modest, professional attire had vanished. A black satin corset skimmed over her slim curves, drawing the eye down to the matching garter belt. Silk stockings led to black high heels, each graced with a satin bow.

 

“You know what you did. I know what you did. You’re a war hero and a brilliant strategist when it comes to the family business—but you’re human. We all need someone to soothe and heal the broken, raw bits inside us. I love you—for your imperfections as well as your strengths. You don’t have to hide anything from me.”

 

He stared at her as she began to work the buttons of his uniform. In a instant, he was bare to the waist, the throbbing length between his legs causing him to nearly lose control. She moved to his trousers, hooking her fingers inside the waistband and neatly unbuttoning his fly.

 

“Truth or dare,” she murmured, kneeling in front of him.

 

He swallowed. “Your mouth,” he said hoarsely.

 

She looked up at him, her fingers lightly stroking the hard muscles in his groin. “We’re going to play the game by my rules, Sergeant Major. Do you understand me?”

 

He nodded, then groaned as she brushed a fingertip against his cock for just an instant. He shifted, desperately seeking contact once again.

 

“Fucking hell, you’re gonna—“

 

She placed her lips on the hard planes of his lower abdomen, planting a trail of soft kisses. “You will be allowed a dare only after you’ve given me a truth. Be forewarned, I’ll know if you’re lying—and you’ll be punished very severely for any untruth.”

 

Then the silence was broken by the dull thud of mortar shells reverberating in the distance, and the familiar clank of metal began to close in around them.

 

He shut his eyes tightly, and the sounds seemed to retreat. Reaching down, he took her head in his hands, winding his fingers into her hair. When he spoke, his voice was rough with desire. “For fuck’s sake, don’t make me wait.”

 

“Look at me.”

 

He obeyed, and the sound of machine guns and shovels intensified. He glanced down, and felt his stomach turn. Her right forearm was gone, a small stump visible just below her elbow. She gazed up at him, her eyes focused on his.

 

“What are you afraid of?”

 

He woke up in a cold sweat, his heart racing. Sitting up, he lit a cigarette. Then he took a drag, and put his head in his hands.


Xxxx

 

Cyril whined softly, his tail thumping against the polished wood floor. Alfie glanced up, and saw a pair of chocolate brown eyes gazing at him hopefully.

 

He sighed, and took off his glasses. Although sheer exhaustion had finally caused Alex to fall asleep, he’d been up much of the night. “Mate, I wish I could— but I got too much fuckin’ work to do.” Searching through a pile of papers, he scowled as he sighted a neat heap of cigarette ash atop one of his paperweights. Picking up the glass orb, he deposited the ash into the bin, wrinkling his nose in distaste. .”And don’t even get me started on the shitshow with Shelby and our Alex.”

 

The hair on Cyril’s neck stood up, and he gave a low growl.

 

Alfie gave him an approving nod. “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”  Just then, the phone rang shrilly. Solomons pulled out his gold pocket watch and squinted at the time. “Fuck. It may be worse than I thought. I bet Ollie a tenner that he’d wait til noon to make contact.”  Snapping the case shut, he frowned, and rubbed it against his vest. As the phone continued to ring, Cyril barked.

 

“Alright, alright,” Alfie muttered, silencing the dog with a wave of his hand. The animal whined softly, then retreated, curling up next to the basket where Ophelia lay with her puppies. “Nothin’ wrong with lettin’ old Tommy twist in the wind a bit.” Picking up the receiver, he barked, “Solomons.”

 

“Good morning, Alfie.” He hadn’t thought it possible, but the monotone of Shelby’s Brummie accent was even more annoying this morning.

 

He leaned back in his chair, swinging his boots onto the desk. “Yeah, I expect it is for some.”

 

There was a pause, then Tommy said, “How was her night?”

 

“I ain’t gonna lie to you, Tommy—it was rough, mate. A lotta pain, and a lotta memories. She talked about Jonathan quite a bit, yeah she did.”

 

Another pause, then Tommy cleared his throat. “It’s probably best I give her a bit of space then. Harbottle left word that he’ll come by to see her around 1 pm. I’ll be over to see her later this afternoon.”

 

“Yeah, about that.” Alfie stroked his beard, carefully crafting his next few sentences in his mind. “It would be best if you waited a day or two.”

 

“And why is that?” Despite the static on the connection, the chill in Tommy’s voice came across loud and clear.

 

“You told her you ain’t the right man for her. Now give her some fuckin’ space and get out of her head.”

 

“I told you this once before, but it appears that you weren’t listening very closely. Alex is my responsibility.”

 

Alfie smirked. He could see almost see Tommy’s hand tightening around the receiver.  “Is that so?” He placed the receiver against his shoulder and picked up a puppy who had wandered over to him. Placing the little animal in his lap, he began to stroke the puppy’s soft ears as his voice hardened. “Then you shoulda been sittin’ by her bedside last night instead of stormin’ out of here like a little girl who just got told that her dress ain’t pretty.”

 

“I’ll be there at 5.” The connection went dead. Alfie hummed a few bars of a jaunty little tune, then lifted up the puppy, his face softening. “Ain’t you a cute little fucker.”


Xxxx

But Tommy did not come that day. Or the next. Instead, he sent Arthur.

 

“You don’t have to make excuses for him. I know how busy Tommy is.” Alex glanced at the eldest Shelby brother, who sat in a chair next to her bed. He had spent most of his visit tugging at his bow tie, his right knee jiggling incessantly.

 

“He wants you back at Watery Lane tomorrow,” Arthur muttered. He stood up and put on his coat, avoiding her eyes.

 

“That will suit me nicely. I plan to be back at work the day after tomorrow.”

 

He looked at her in disbelief. “But you only just got the cast off today—and didn’t Harbottle tell you that you’re not to even attempt to use the hand for several weeks?”

 

“I can do quite a bit without my right hand. And I haven’t been lying here idle—I’ve been practising writing with my left hand.”  Reaching for the bedside table, she held up a sheet of paper.

 

Arthur failed to suppress a grin. “You might consider hiring John Jr. or Alice to take notes for you.”

 

Alex rolled her eyes. “You’re quite the charmer.”

 

“Aww, I’m just giving you a hard time. I’d probably not do half as well.” Leaning over, he gave her a kiss on the head. “See you tomorrow, then.” As he turned the doorknob, he looked back at her, and shook his head. “Tom’s a fucking fool.”

Then he was gone.

Chapter Text

Tom’s a fucking fool.  

Arthur’s words still rang in her head an hour later.

He’s not the only one. Last night, she had fallen asleep aching for Tommy. In her dreams, he had come to her. Blue eyes full of remorse, he had made love to her with a gentleness that had captured her soul as well as her heart. She had been so sure that it had been a sign. Arthur’s appearance had been a bitter disappointment. She suspected he had guessed as much despite her best efforts to appear cheerful.

It was clear now that there was only one path left going forward. She needed to shift her mind’s focus. Instead of daydreaming about a future with a handsome, troubled gang leader, she would put all her energy into building her medical clinic.

 The best way to soothe the stinging pain of Tommy’s rejection would be to immerse herself in her work. Not having the use of her right hand would be a handicap, but not an insurmountable one. The question was who she could recruit to help. Esther was too valuable a resource to spend the day hovering at her elbow.

Jeremiah’s wife had proved to be more than capable as a nurse. In fact, Alex had carved out several hours of their daily clinic schedule for Esther to work independently.  With quiet efficiency, Esther took care of tasks that ranged from dressing infected wounds to assisting young mothers struggling with breastfeeding.This allowed their little clinic to see more patients, with Alex focusing on the more complex cases. 

A soft knock came on the door, interrupting her thoughts. The door opened a crack, and Alex caught a glimpse of Zaika’s sharp eyes peering into the room.

“The coast is clear. Mr. Shelby left several minutes ago.” She smiled as she saw the housekeeper visibly relax. It had not escaped her notice that Zaika gave all things Shelby a wide berth.

The older woman came into the room, bearing a pitcher of water that she placed on the nightstand. “I don’t feel easy around those Blinder men, but I suppose I should be grateful to them. They’ve driven me to the far corners of the house, and I’ve accomplished quite a bit in the past three days. I’ve sorted the jumble of items that the last owner left in the attic. Who would have guessed that an old maid would have a trunk of rather risqué clothing sitting right next to a stuffed ostrich?  I also organized the linen closet on the third floor, and aired out all the feather beds. We’ll have the really cold nights soon enough.”

 She leaned over to adjust the pillows behind Alex’s head, then perched on the edge of the bed and gave Alex a searching look. “Mr. Solomons is going to be closeted in his study for the next two hours. He’s gave strict instructions not to be disturbed—unless it’s an emergency, of course.

“I promise on my honour not to disturb him.”

Zaika smiled. “Madam, I have no worries where you are concerned. You are a good girl. What I was thinking was that perhaps this would be—if you felt well enough, that is—a good time to introduce you to Samara.”

Alex hesitated. “I don’t know.” Then she saw the housekeeper’s shoulders sag, and hastily added, “What I meant is, I don’t exactly look presentable.” She reached for a glass of water, suddenly aware of how dry her throat was.

“You may be a bird with an injured wing, but you are beautiful, my dear,” the housekeeper said earnestly. “Why do you think Mr. Blue Eyed Gypsy Criminal Man stares at you like a hungry wolf?”

“I think the wolf has lost his appetite,” Alex murmured, taking a sip from her glass.

Zaika shook her head vigorously. “Oh no—not a man like him. Mark my words, he is biding his time. He hopes that you pine for him, your spark of interest fanning into a bonfire of desire.” She took Alex’s hand in hers.”Please, madam, promise me you will not be a trusting, innocent little rabbit. I know the sort of man he is. Do not succumb to him. He will only bring you heartbreak.” 

“I promise to be on my guard at all times,” Alex said, vowing to make those words a reality.

 “Ah, you bring relief to my heart.” The older woman took Alex’s hand in hers. “Would that you could do the same for Samara. May I bring her to you?”

 

Xxxx

 

The meeting had gone much better than expected, Alfie thought. He shed his jacket, rolling up his shirtsleeves to his elbows. Picking up the handsome leather box that had been a gift from his guest, he opened it, then sniffed the contents.

“Well, fuck me.” A grin spread across his face. “Ollie, my boy, these ain’t no cheap Birmingham cigars.”  Lighting a match, he put a cigar to his mouth, then leaned back in his chair. “You’d do well to learn from the master. After a few minutes—not hours—of negotiation— boom!” He slapped the table,causing Ollie to jump. “Our bakery signs an agreement that will pay off on multiple levels—financially, professionally, and personally.” 

“There’s no one better, Alfie,” Ollie said, a tad too mechanically for Alfie’s taste. The young man’s eyelids were drooping, and he was fighting off a yawn. “Did you notice the clock? It’s—“

“I’m well aware of what fuckin’ time it is,” barked Alfie, stealing a look at his pocket watch. “You got a hot date or somethin’?”

The tall man flushed and swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “It’s just that it’s nearly nine o’clock, and I promised Dr. Ross that I’d bring her a book from the library before I went home. Can I go get it?” 

Alfie scowled.“I’ll take care of it. The last thing the good doctor needs is for your ugly mug to be the last thing she sees before she goes to sleep. Now fuck off.”

“Okay, boss.”

As Ollie’s footsteps receded into the distance, Alfie closed his eyes, inhaling the smoke from the hand-wrapped Cuban. He didn’t have much use for Italians, but they had damn good taste when it came to tobacco.

I bet Tommy Shelby wouldn’t know a good cigar if it hit him in the head. He chain smokes those fuckin’ cheap cigarettes like it’s his last day on earth.

After a few minutes, he placed the cigar in an ashtray and heaved himself up from the chair. Scowling at the papers covering the surface of his desk, he headed for the corridor. The house was still and dark. A gas sconce flickering at the end of the hallway was the only visible light.

Heading down the hall, he saw a beam of light from under the library door. It wavered, then disappeared. Zaika had told him she was turning in early, and he knew Alex wasn’t up and about yet. Reaching for the holster under his arm, he pulled out his revolver and stealthily moved forward. He turned the door knob with a practiced hand, making not a sound in the process. In a matter of seconds, he was inside the room, the door closing silently behind him. A stub of a candle guttered at the very back of the room, and he saw a dark figure hovering in front of a shelf filled with gilt-edged leather volumes.

A hand reached up and retrieved a tall, thin book. Alfie’s jaw dropped. 

Illustrated Jewish Folk Tales. That’s a very valuable book, innit? One of only two known copies that weren’t destroyed in the pogroms. But it’s what’s hidden inside that’s the real prize. And that sure as hell ain’t gonna fall into the wrong hands.

Circling behind a tall painted screen, Alfie listened as the coils of the couch in front of the bookcase creaked. He heard one page turn, then another. Then came a soft whine. A tongue clicked, and the sound abruptly stopped.

“This, little one, was my favorite story, probably from the time I could first talk. My mother read it to me dozens—nay, hundreds of times.The heroine is a very strong, very brave girl named Ilona. She is the daughter of the wisest rabbi in all of Russia. When he is thrown in prison by the evil czar and those of the Jewish faith are persecuted, she risks everything—“ the voice caught, then steadied, “—to save her people.” 

Alfie crept closer to the edge of the screen, intrigued by the soft, musical voice.

“It seems very easy in these tales to be brave, doesn’t it?”

Unable to resist, he peeked around the corner, and saw one of Ophelia’s puppies snuggled against a shoulder. Even with one eye half closed, the animal caught sight of him, and dove straight for him, barking joyously. He took a step back, knocking over a small table.  Then there was a scream, and a woman darted past him.

Whirling around, he caught her by the waist. “Not so fast, girlie.” Her eyes flicked to the revolver in his hand, and she went limp for an instant. Then the adrenaline seemed to kick in, and she gave him a sharp elbow to the stomach. He stifled a groan, and tightened his grip around her. “That’s enough! I’m in no fuckin’ mood for this.” Struggling against him, she began to sob, and cried out in Yiddish. 

He froze. It had been a long time since he had thought of that day, but the memory was just as painful as ever. Images of torn clothing and broken bodies flashed into his brain, and the smell of death seemed to descend upon the room. His arms dropped to his sides as his stomach turned, and he took in a shaky breath. Then there was a rush of air, and then he found himself alone.

 

Xxxx

 

Alex sat in the back of the Bentley, her mind still trying to process the events of the evening. Zaika had failed to materialize with Samara. Close to eleven o’ clock, John had abruptly appeared at her bedroom door, declaring that he was here to take her home.  He had brushed aside all questions, tossing her few belongings into a valise and taking her by the arm. She had expected Alfie to raise a fuss when he emerged from his study. His clothing was rumpled, and he reeked of vodka. But he had merely kissed her cheek, and said he’d see her soon, an absent look on his face. 

When they pulled up in front of 6 Watery Lane, she made a conscious attempt to avert her eyes from Tommy’s window. “It’ll be nice to be back in a familiar bed,” she murmured. John made no comment as he helped her out of the car, throwing her valise over his shoulder. The house was quiet except for the faint sound of music from the far end of the hall. She started for her room, but John steered her to another door.

Alex shook her head, backing up against him. “I don’t think so.”

“Look, we had to make a few changes while you were gone, but things are sorted now.”

“Changes? What do you mean?”

“Frances Wright—Mabel’s mum—is staying in your room. And you’re to sleep in Tommy’s. Mabel got roughed up a bit, and Tommy is—“

Alex’s heart sank. “Don’t tell me any more. I can’t bear it, John.” She turned the knob, hating how small her voice sounded. “This is fine.”

“Good. It’s all settled then.”  He tossed her valise onto the bed, and helped her shed the coat that had been draped over her shoulders. “Night, Alex. Sleep well.” He kissed her on the head, then closed the door behind him, whistling as his steps receded into the distance.

Alex was grateful that she had merely thrown a shawl over her nightdress. Just the idea of having to change clothes at this point was completely exhausting. Making her way over to the washbasin, she splashed some cold water on her face with her left hand, then laid her shawl at the foot of the bed. Pulling back the covers, she slipped between the sheets and reached for the pillow. Her eyes stung with tears as she inhaled the faint scent of Tommy’s cologne, mixed with the ever-present smell of tobacco.

Just for tonight, I’ll pretend he’s here with me.

Drawing the blanket around her shoulders, she closed her eyes, and drifted off to sleep.

 

Xxxx

 

For the third night in a row, Tommy sat in the snug, having drunk himself into a near stupor. The dead ends, the frustration, the longing—it was eating away at him, and he just wanted to forget for a few hours. Despite canvassing the neighborhood, the Blinders were no closer to determining who had attacked Mabel. And despite his best attempts, he could not get Alex Ross out of his head. 

He shook his head. My mind is playing tricks on me. It’s not her I need, just a good fuck .

Ordinarily, he would have placed a call to Mabel, telling her when to expect him and what to wear. He considered his other options. There was Rosina Wood over in Sutton Coldfield. She was buxom and obliging—but too submissive for his mood right now. Isabelle Bertrand at the Grand Hotel was another thought. Curvy and fiery, she fit the bill when he wanted something a bit rough. But something inside him tonight screamed for tenderness.

Fuck it. Cursing his weakness, he decided to take solace in his pipe. He could already feel the sticky ball of opium rolling between his fingers, and the familiar craving spurred him to action.

Standing up, he put on his coat and made his way to the door. Steadying himself against the wood, he stepped out into the chill night air. He kept his steps measured, concentrating on maintaining a relatively straight line. He’d be damned if he’d have anyone in Small Heath catch him stumbling around like a common drunk. When he finally reached the door of 6 Watery Lane, he breathed a sigh of relief. The stairs were a bit of a challenge, but he’d navigated them more than once when he was three sheets to the wind.

Finally reaching his room, Tommy shut the door behind him. It was pitch black, but he had no desire for light. He shed his shoes, then began to methodically undress, tossing his clothes onto the chair that he knew stood exactly three feet to the left. Clad only in his boxers, he let the cold air flow over his heated skin.

“Retractor.”

The curt command startled him, and he jumped.

“More exposure. Sponge.”

His body tensed. There was no mistaking the voice. His shook his head, thinking that the alcohol must be getting to him. She was at Solomons’ house just a few hours ago. She can’t possibly be in my bed.

“Clamp. No. No. No!” There was a soft keening, then a desperate moan. “Tommy, no—please...don’t leave me...please.”

The pain in her voice was like a knife to his heart. He stumbled forward, reaching the bed within seconds. She shrank from his touch, writhing under the covers. “I won’t abandon him. I won’t!”

“It’s me, love,” he murmured. Feeling for the edge of the quilt, he slid underneath, wrapping an arm around her body. She twisted against him, her nightdress damp with sweat.  As her silken hair brushed against his cheek, he kissed her neck. He meant for the kiss to be quick and reassuring, but his lips lingered on her soft skin, tracing the curve of her neck that led to the inviting hollow just above her collarbone.

“Alex, I’m here.”

Chapter Text

She gasped, then gulped, her breathing becoming uneven as she choked back tears. “God..Tommy, please tell me you’re real...tell me I didn’t just see you die.”

The pain in her voice sent a rush of tenderness into his heart. He took her face in his hands, planting a kiss on her forehead before gazing into her eyes. “I’m right here, love. It was just a dream, eh? I’m fine. Come here.” Gathering her against him, he took her bandaged hand in his, and placed it over his heart. 

“I told you I wouldn’t be gentle with you, but that I wouldn’t break you.” He stared up at the ceiling. “And although I’ve come pretty fucking close to going back on that promise, you’re still here...and you’re worried about me . That kind of trust, that kind of loyalty—it’s…” His voice trailed off, and he swallowed.

“Given freely—and in the knowledge you would do the same for me.”

He gave a bitter laugh. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Emotional intimacy is not exactly a Shelby trademark—no doubt you’ve already noticed.”

Alex nestled against him, pressing her soft lips against his chest. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and when she smiled, he saw a flash of the sweet dimple in her right cheek. “I think you show great promise,” she murmured.

He closed his eyes, unable to believe that she could be so forgiving. “Ever after I acted like a stupid fuck the other night at Alfie’s?”

“I think you were as overwhelmed as I was...and it’s in your nature to push people away when you feel like they are getting too close.”

His throat tightened, and he lifted her chin with his finger. “Few people are foolhardy enough to even try.”

He knew this could be taken as intimidation—as a warning—but she seemed to read his thoughts, and to recognize that that wasn’t his intention. Regarding him with her level gaze, she cocked her head. “I was right, wasn’t I?”

Tommy let go of her, and fixed his eyes on the ceiling again. “Right about what?”

“Look at me, Tommy.” Her voice was calm, but had the tone of one who is used to giving orders—and being obeyed. He found it surprisingly arousing.

Turning towards her, he lifted an eyebrow. “Now I feel like I’m back in primary school.”

Ignoring his comment, she said, “I believe there have been several occasions when I’ve gotten a glimpse of the real Thomas Shelby...not the gangster, not the soldier, but the man—who has weaknesses as well as strengths, who struggles with decisions that prick at the conscience that he likes to pretend he doesn’t have—and who needs someone by his side more than he realizes.” She reached up, skimming his jawline with the tips of her fingers. “And every time the door opens just a little bit, you realize what you’ve done, and slam it shut.” She kissed his cheek. “But just so you know, I don’t give up that easily—and I’m far tougher than you realize.” Laying back on the pillow, she turned on her side to face the wall.

He was silent. As someone who who had mastered the art of hiding emotion, he found her intuition unnerving. When she spoke next, he could almost hear the smile in her voice.

“I can tell you’re three sheets to the wind, so you don’t have to say anything right now. But like it or not, I’ve got your number.”

Looping his arm around her waist, he drew her back against him.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a brash little minx?”

He felt her body vibrate with suppressed laughter. Then she yawned. “No. But I think I like hearing it from you.”

He chuckled, and allowed his breathing to slow. After a few minutes, he entered the stage of light sleep that he had perfected in the tunnels during the war. Although his body appeared relaxed, his mind had not yet shut down.

Then he felt the fingers of her left hand lace into his, and she whispered, “And I’m afraid that I need you much more than I thought.”

Xxxx

 

Tommy awoke in the hour before dawn.  

A faint light was beginning to peek under the faded lace curtains. Fucking hell. I must have slept a solid 5 or 6 hours . Raising himself up on his elbow, he ran a hand over his face, and looked down at his bedmate.

With her dark hair tumbling around her shoulders like a halo, her lips curving up into the slightest of smiles, she was the very picture of an angel. As he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, a long-forgotten prayer echoed in his mind, and he was instantly transported back in time.

“Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here.  Ever this day be at my side, to light, to guard, to rule, to guide.”

His mother had insisted that he and Arthur kneel and recite that prayer every morning when they got out of bed. Restless and anxious to get dressed and run down to breakfast, they had chafed at her instruction. But she always somehow knew when they’d skipped it, and would make them kneel down in the kitchen and pray before they took their first bite of toast and jam.

On that particular morning, his father had stumbled into the kitchen, his eyes bloodshot from a night spent somewhere in the company of a bottle of whisky.

“What the fuck is this?”

Tommy watched as his mother shrank into the corner. He thought quickly. “Arthur and I were praying for our guardian angels. Sister Mary Perpetua says they guide and protect us every day. We all have one.”

His father bent over, his mouth twisted into a sneer. “Is that so?”

Uneasy, Tommy nodded.

Without warning, his father struck him across the face. “No son of mine needs a fucking guardian angel, do you understand me?”

Tommy nodded mutely, one thought echoing in his brain. I will not cry. I will not cry.

His mother put her hand over her mouth, her eyes wide with shock at her husband’s blasphemy. Turning, Arthur Shelby Sr. picked up the chipped angel statue that sat on the shelf above the table. He turned it over in his hand for a moment, then hurled it to the floor, smashing it to bits. “Your father is Arthur Thomas Shelby!” He roared, spittle flying from his mouth. “He protects and guides you, not some fucking angel! If you want to kneel to anyone, you kneel to me!” With a powerful thrust of each arm, he shoved the boys to the floor.

Tommy sat bolt upright, the sheet falling to his waist. He ran a hand through his hair, then scrubbed his face vigorously. Gazing down at Alex, he felt his racing heart start to slow. She stirred, and murmured something under her breath, her head tossing on the pillow. He stroked her hair, and watched in wonder as his touch calmed her within seconds.

It has to have been hours since she’d eaten. Harbottle had stressed how important it was that she eat regularly in order to heal properly. Sliding out of bed, he tucked the covers around her. Then he pulled on a pair of trousers, and headed to the kitchen.

How hard can it be? Pol throws together a full fry up in minutes. Surely I can at least can poach a egg, make some toast, and put a kettle on.

Ten minutes later, he was sweating over a boiling pan of water on the stove. He cursed as the fourth egg he had cracked into the the water blossomed into curling wisps of white. Second laters, the smell of burnt toast came to his nostrils, and he yanked a slice of charred bread out of the jaws of the toaster. “Fuck!”

A laugh floated across the room, and he looked up to see Ada. She clapped her hands, her eyes bright with interest.

“Hmm...Tommy Shelby is in a kitchen—and he’s making breakfast. Let me guess. Alex is back.”

He gave her a dark look. “Fuck off, Ada.”

She hopped up on the counter. “Don’t be so defensive. I think it’s sweet.” Peering into the pot, she made a heroic attempt to keep a straight face. “May I ask what you’re doing?”

“I’m poaching a fucking egg. What does it look like?”

“Right.”  Well, you might want to—“ she dissolved into a fit of laughter for a few seconds before managing to control herself and continue. “In order to achieve said goal, you should probably not fling the egg into the pot like it’s a hand grenade. And turning the temperature down from a rolling boil would be helpful as well.”

He dumped the remnants of his latest disaster into the sink, then slammed the pot back on the stove. “What are you doing up anyway? It’s barely dawn.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, my room is the closest to the kitchen. With all the noise you were making, I thought Arthur was well into one of his drunken cooking sprees.”

Tommy could not help but grin at his sister. “Remember the last time?”

Ada, doubling up with laughter, nearly fell off the counter. “Oh my God. How could I forget? Remember the look on Polly’s face when she found him in a gingham apron having a go at making groaty pudding?”

He chuckled. “He said we needed it for Guy Fawkes’ Day—but it was the middle of July.”

Wiping her eyes, Ada slipped off the counter.. “Here, let me give you a few tips, and you’ll soon have a breakfast fit for a queen.” She hesitated for a moment, then gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. “It’s good to see you happy, Tommy.”

 

Xxxx

 

Alex sat up, gingerly flexing her right wrist. The pain this morning was minimal, and she hoped that was a good sign. She glanced over at the pillow next to hers, and smiled when she saw the indent of a head.  She had fallen asleep with Tommy’s body wrapped around hers, and the memory was an entirely pleasant one. The bedside clock read 7:30, and Alex supposed he had already left for the day. So when the door swung open to reveal a few moments later to reveal Tommy carrying a breakfast tray, she was taken aback.

“I thought you were already gone.”

He shut the door with his foot and shook his head, his blue eyes warming. “Not a chance. I got up early to get you some breakfast. I owe you that much.”

Setting the tray on her lap, he sat down next to her, and leaned back against his pillow, crossing his arms behind his head. “Not a bad spread, eh?”

Keeping a straight face, she surveyed the tray. “It’s adequate.”

“That’s it?” He gave her an incredulous look. “But there’s a poached egg...and flowers.”

He was so earnest that Alex could not help but tease him a bit. “Ah yes, pansies. You’ve done well. They will come in handy at the clinic. Did you know that these little flowers have excellent expectorant properties? In fact, there are few things better for treating bronchitis and whooping cough. And as for rheumatism—“

Whisking the tray away, he pushed her back onto the pillow.

“We’re going to need to do something about this constant focus on work.” The husky note of desire in his voice made it difficult for her to maintain her calm demeanor.

“That’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black if I’ve ever heard one.” Reaching around to the back of his head, she drew him closer. “Did you pick orange pansies for any particular reason?”

He gazed down at her, his mouth quirking up into a smile. “I didn’t exactly have a lot to choose from given how late it is in the year—they’re the only flowers still blooming in the little patch of garden Pol has out back. But actually, when I saw them, they reminded me of you. They look so delicate, but they’re resilient and strong.”

“Really? I thought you might have picked them because orange symbolizes optimism...and also love and passion.”

“Well, that was the other reason. You just didn’t let me finish.”

She slapped him lightly on the neck. “You’re such a liar.”

“Not too many people can get away with calling Thomas Shelby a liar,” he replied, giving her a stern look. “By all rights, I should punish you for that statement—if only to protect my reputation as a merciless gang leader.”

“Even if it’s the truth? And we’re in the privacy of your bedroom?”

“That just means I can be a bit more creative with the punishment,” he said, lowering his mouth to within a breath of hers. “Any last requests, Dr. Ross?”

“Just get it over with—as soon as possible,” she breathed, willing his full, warm lips to cover hers. His mouth hovered over hers for an instant, then moved to her cheek. His breath warmed her skin, followed by the delicious scrape of his stubble. The friction sent a surge of heat into her core, and she instinctively moved her hips against his.

His hand slid to the curve of her hip, and he gave her a little shake. “None of that until I give you leave. You questioned my word, and I mean to make you suffer.”

“Good luck with that.” Alex began to giggle, her left hand slipping inside the rear band of his trousers.

“You think I don’t have self-control, eh?” Drawing back, Tommy gave her a smoldering look. Thinking of just how little control he had shown the night they’d been together at Olive’s cottage, she laughed, and slapped his ass.

“Did you just smack my ass?” The note of incredulity in his voice made her laugh even harder. He shook his head, and gave her a smirk. “Now you’re really in trouble, my lovely Alex.”  A moment later, his mouth claimed her own. The kiss was hot and demanding, his tongue sweeping along her lips. The instant she parted them ever so slightly, his tongue plunged into her mouth. Inhibitions dissolving as she tasted the heady notes of whisky and tobacco, she did likewise, eliciting a groan from him.

He shifted against her, his fingers sliding under her nightdress to stroke the soft inner skin of her thigh. “Fuck,” he muttered as he inched higher. “I swear your skin is as smooth as silk. How the hell is that possible?”

She rolled her hips in response, moaning his name in a way that sounded unbelievably wanton.

“Tom!” Arthur’s voice boomed from down the hall.

His thumb trailed along her folds, and she gasped, her nipples straining against the cotton fabric that still covered her breasts.

“Tom! For fuck’s sake, it’s important, man!”

Growling in frustration, Tommy rolled off her. He wrenched the door open, then slammed it behind him, breathing heavily as he turned to face his brother. “What, Arthur? What is so fucking important that I can’t get a moment’s peace to spend some time with Alex?”

Arthur swallowed, averting his eyes from the prominent bulge in his brother’s trousers. “There’s a man at the front door—and he’s asking for Alexandra Ross Britton.”

Chapter Text

Tommy took a step forward. Mindful that Alex was within earshot, he leaned over to Arthur’s ear, lowering his voice. “You go down, and you fucking tell him that there’s no one here by that name.”

“I don’t know if—“

The uncertain look on Arthur’s face did little to calm Tommy’s jangled nerves. Seizing his brother by the forearm, he propelled him down the hall, stopping only when they reached the staircase.

He glanced out of the small, soot smeared window to the left, his jaw tightening when he failed to catch a glimpse of the visitor. 

“Fuck. He must be standing off to the right.” Tommy began to pace back and forth on the small landing. His steps, at first quick, became measured as he forced himself to clear his mind.

“Who opened the door? Was it you? Ada?”

Arthur cleared his throat. “It was Finn.”

Tommy stopped, and ran a hand over his face. He wanted nothing more than to light a cigarette and take that first long drag of the day, urging the smoke into his lungs. Within a minute or two, his active brain would feel some relief, the anxiety evaporating as a plan emerged from the thoughts swirling in his mind. Why do I never have a fucking cigarette on me when I really need one?   He began pacing again, the nervous energy in his body demanding some outlet. 

“He’s not a fucking Italian, is he? One of Sabini’s thugs?”

Arthur shook his head. “Nah. I got a look at him through the window at the top of the stairs. Pasty looking ginger, he is. Looks like he spends most of his time in a library. Got those little round glasses, and he’s thin as a rail. Suit cost a pretty penny, though.”

Tommy closed the space between them. “Send him on his way, brother. Then slip out the back and follow him. See where he leads you.”

Arthur nodded, then headed down the stairs.

 

     Xxxxxx

 

When Tommy re-entered the room, Alex saw that he had withdrawn into himself. His eyes had that remote, yet focused look that she had already learned to recognize meant that his thoughts were occupied with business...or trouble. She sat up, drawing her right arm against her abdomen.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Everything’s fine.” As he reached for his cigarette case, the wind picked up, and rain began to drum against the window.

It wasn’t so much that he was lying to her. She could forgive him for wanting to protect her from worry. But his evasive manner only served to stoke her anxiety. A dozen different scenarios flooded into her brain, each more awful than the other. 

Calm down. The past few days have primed your mind to expect drama around every corner. You’re safe now, and this problem with the Italians will be solved any day now. You need to focus your energy on healing. 

She summoned up a smile. “Right, then. Perhaps I should tuck into the lovely breakfast you made for me. That was very kind of you to go to the trouble of rummaging around in the kitchen—especially since you are not one for breakfast.”

He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, his brow furrowed in thought. Although his hair was rumpled and his feet bare, his eyes were steely, and his body was taut with tension. When she saw him like this, he was instantly recognizable as the man who could strike fear in the hearts of his adversaries just by standing in front of them. She had to remind herself that she knew he was capable of kindness—even tenderness,  if the setting were right.

“Tommy.”  

He went to the window, and lifted the faded curtain just a fraction of an inch, peering out into the street.  Alex shifted, tucking her legs under her. 

“Tommy.”  

After a few moments, her hand began to throb, and she leaned back against the pillows. A loud clap of thunder shook the room. Alex watched his bicep ripple as he lifted the cigarette to his full, sensuous mouth. She replayed their last kiss in her mind, her eyes closing for an instant. Then the image of Mabel appeared in her mind, and her throat tightened.

Alex was not jealous by nature, but the thought of Tommy bedding another woman—especially one whom he had known since childhood—was enough to drive her mad. 

She shook her head slightly, trying to banish that particular thought. “Tommy? Are you expecting someone?”

He stared out the window, then muttered something under his breath. Desperate to break the tension, she said casually, “Arthur said he’ll teach me the tango once my arm has healed. Isn’t that lovely?”

He turned, a scowl spreading across face. “What did you just say?” 

“Nothing. I was just checking to see if you were listening,” she said, giving him a sweet smile.

He shrugged, a roguish glint appearing in his eye. “Well, if you’re keen on Arthur, I suppose I could arrange a quiet night for the two of you at one of Birmingham’s finer restaurants.”

Grabbing the pillow that lay beside her, she flung it at him. He raised an eyebrow when it failed to even clear the end of the bed. “A bit short, that was.”

“That’s only because I had to use my non-dominant hand,” she replied loftily. 

“So, you’re yearning for a dominant hand, eh?”  His voice was low and husky. When Alex looked up, he was staring at her. The grey flecks in his eyes were smokier than ever, swirling against a background of hypnotic blue. The heat from his gaze seemed to spread through her body, penetrating her core within seconds. Her voice failed her.

She swallowed, and saw his eyes move to her throat. As he leaned against the wall and continued to smoke, a hint of a smirk appeared on his face. Alex wondered how it was humanly possible to find a man extremely irritating and incredibly arousing in the same instant.  An image appeared in her mind of Tommy gazing into her eyes as he buried himself inside her, each powerful thrust sending a jolt of pleasure deep inside her body…

His voice interrupted her thoughts. “You’re thinking about what you’d like me to do to you.”

It was said as a statement, in a tone so confident that Alex was taken aback. She shook her head, marveling at his boldness. “I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you’re mistaken.”

Tommy held her gaze for a long moment. Then he walked over to the bed and sat down, the mattress creaking under his weight. 

“I stand corrected.” His gaze remained steady as his hand settled on her leg. He began to stroke her bare skin with his thumb, the rough callus on the pad creating a delicious friction. “You were thinking about what you want me to do to you.”

She lifted her chin. “You’re awfully sure of yourself.”

His hand slid up to her thigh. ”Am I wrong?” When she averted her eyes, he said softly, “Alex, I only know because I catch myself thinking about us in exactly the same way.

Alex, barely able to breathe, shook her head slightly, then put her hand on his and whispered, “How do we know this—us—isn’t—“

“A mistake?”  He took her hand, his eyes searching her face. When she nodded, Tommy gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then cleared his throat and began to speak in a slow, deliberate voice. “When the Army handed me and Arthur and John shovels and told us we’d be working in the tunnels, we were told lots has been drawn, and that the job had fallen to us.”

He shook his head. “We knew they were fucking lying. Jeremiah and Freddie were given the same assignment, as was Danny Whizz-Bang, whose mind was already starting to go from the stress of leaving his family behind—his little daughter was sickly, and barely six months old when we shipped out.” He paused, then said, “There’s a reason they sent Gypsies and anyone else who wasn’t welcome in polite society down there—because it was dirty, dangerous work, and If we didn’t survive, well, good riddance. I looked at my brothers and I knew we were all thinking the same thing. We’re fucked .”

A lump rose in her throat as she thought of the unfairness of it all. Tommy, deemed expendable because of his Romani blood, had been sent to fight a grueling subterranean war. Long hours were spent in near total darkness. The bone-chilling cold and claustrophobic conditions frayed on men’s nerves, their unease made worse by the knowledge that even the smallest of sounds could betray their position to enemy diggers, bringing death within seconds. 

She wanted nothing more than to hold him, but sensed that he would more than likely recoil from any gesture that acknowledged the dark times that still haunted him.“I can’t even imagine what that was like. How did you survive?”

“When things got rough, I only allowed myself to think one thing— they are not going to win.  Not the Germans, not the Army, not everyone in the fucking government who thought we were expendable. As soon as we got on the boat to France, I sought out two of the Welshmen who’d twenty years’ experience in the slate mines, then arranged it so we Brummie boys were assigned to their work detail.”

He blinked, then hesitated for a moment. His voice was hoarse with emotion when he continued. “They were good men, Derwyn and Owain. We stuck close to them, and they taught us a good deal about how to survive underground—not just physically, but mentally. And they weren’t afraid to deliver a good cuff on the head whenever one of us did something stupid that could have meant death for all of us. But in the end, what kept me alive was trusting my instincts. Facts, information—I’ll not deny they’re useful, eh? But interpreting them in order to survive—and to get what you want in this world—that’s where you’ve got to trust what Pol calls the sixth sense. I call it going with your gut.”

“You mean taking a leap of faith?”

Tommy shrugged. “I’m not sure faith has anything to do with it.” Then he reached up, taking her face in his hands. “As for us, all I can say is that I’ve known you for how long? Two weeks, eh? But for the life of me, I can’t fucking remember what my world was like before you came to Small Heath.”

He leaned over, and brushed his lips against hers. The first time, the contact was just for a millisecond—but the second time, he explored her mouth slowly, settling a possessive hand on her waist and drawing her against his hard body. He stoked her desire for him into a dizzying intensity with the subtlest of movements. One moment, it was the gentle stroking of his thumb against her hip. The next, a tantalizing bit of tongue teasing her lower lip, then retreating and leaving the faintest hint of of tobacco and mint on her mouth. 

With an effort, she pulled away—trying to ignore those gorgeous, beckoning lips nearly driving her to distraction—and laid her cheek against his. 

“Thank you for all you’ve done for me. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had the security of having someone to look out for me. But no matter what happens, I have to be able to stand on my own two feet. I’m going back to work tomorrow.”

She could feel his chest rising and falling against hers. There was one breath, then two, before he murmured, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes. My patients need me...and I need to feel useful again.”

He drew back. “Three days a week. Three hours only.”

“That’s not nearly enough,” she protested. “Esther already has a waiting list of almost 50 patients. Monday through Friday, five hour days. That’s a little less than 50% of that I was doing.”

 “Going straight back and working 25 hours a week is insane. I won’t allow it. You’ll have no time to rest and heal.”

“Says the man who lives, breathes, and sleeps business. When’s the last time you just sat by the fire and read a book?”

He scoffed. “If that’s what you think I do to relax, you don’t know me as well as you thought you did. Besides, we’re talking about you, not me.” 

“8-12, 5 days a week. I’ll be home in plenty of time for an afternoon nap and my physio.” 

“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 9-12. Arm in the sling at all times with your hand touching your opposite shoulder.”

“I don’t have to—“

His mouth hardened. “That’s enough, Alex. Even if you don’t have enough sense to follow Harbottle’s instructions, I do. Three hours a day, four days a week. Wednesdays off.”

She cocked her head. “Has anyone ever told you that you can be quite authoritarian?”

“No.” The corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly. “But then again, I don’t think that particular word is part of the everyday vocabulary of Small Heath.”

”Perhaps it should be.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean we have a deal?”

“We still haven’t addressed the matter of my lodging.”

Tommy glanced at the bed, then met her eyes. “I’ll admit it’s a bit spartan in here, but I can assure you that the bed is quite sturdy—-and my bedmate last night kept me quite warm. In fact, it was the best sleep I’ve had in weeks. Is the arrangement not to your liking?”

“I didn’t say that,” she blurted out, then flushed when she saw the grin that spread across his face. “But this is only temporary—once Mabel and her mother return home, I’ll move back to my room.”

“Why?”

“Because—“ she suddenly found herself grasping for words, her desire to be with Tommy threatening to overwhelm her common sense—which was telling her that this was too much, too soon. “Because there’s not much space here—and there are logistical issues. I’ll need help getting dressed and undressed.”

He nodded towards the door, his face perfectly straight. “Well, Arthur is just down the hall. Hang on, I’ll just go and ask him if he can help.”

“Stop it!” She was laughing now, and was rewarded by a crooked grin. God, I’ll do anything to see him smile like that. “ Okay, you win—I’ll abide by the hours you’ve proposed—if you’ll take on the role of my dresser.”

He slipped his hands around her waist. “I think I can agree to those terms.”

She placed her left hand on his chest. “And no substituting one of your brothers—or Esme—or anyone else, for that matter. And if you don’t keep your end of the bargain, I don’t have to keep mine.”

“You’re a ruthless negotiator, Dr. Ross.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Fair enough. But a deal’s not a deal until it’s sealed with a kiss. Romani code, you know.”

“Really?” She arched an eyebrow at him. “I’ll have to ask Alfie how he rates you.”

“Oh, I can assure you the kind of kiss you’ll get is much, much different than any that Alfie could ever hope to receive.”

And several minutes later, a breathless Alex could only agree. 

 

Xxxx

 

“Did you make contact with her?”

The man adjusted his glasses, which had once again slid down the bridge of his thin nose. “No, Mr. Britton. I am sorry to say that the lead proved to be false.”

“Proved to be false,” came the mocking echo. “And how did you make this determination, Mr. Lambourne?”

“I inquired of the inhabitants of the house, and spoke with several persons well acquainted with the neighborhood.”

The tall man who sat behind the desk leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. “Mr. Lambourne, you came to me highly recommended. I was assured you were discreet, thorough, and dogged in your investigations. Do you really think the word of a gang of criminals and their associates can be taken at face value?” His voice, heretofore mild, escalated into a shout. “The answer is FUCKING NO!”

James Lambourne felt a flush of anger steal across his face, and damned the genes that caused him to display his emotions so openly. “I will be happy to look into the matter further, sir.”

“Of course you will.” Stephen Britton sat forward. “Because you won’t receive sixpence from me until I see some results. This isn’t some idle game, Mr. Lambourne. My inheritance is on the line.”

 

  Xxxx

 

Alfie sat at his desk, his head throbbing. He half expected it to explode any minute now, but he had only himself to blame.

 

Rum is for fun and fucking. 

Whiskey is for business.

Vodka is for forgetting. 

 

He sighed, cursing his lack of self control the night before.

Drink a half bottle of vodka on your own, and you’ll forget all right.

When he’d first come back from France, the backfire of a car or the acrid smell of thick smoke from one of the nearby factories had set his nerves on edge. But nothing could compare to the fear and guilt that rushed through his veins whenever he heard anyone recite the words he had heard his sister utter on that terrible night.  

They had huddled together in the closet, his face buried against Amalya’s shoulder. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her arms wrapped around him, the soft wool of her dress warming his cheek. As the heavy footsteps had come closer, she had stroked his hair, and whispered,

 

In the name of Adonai the God of Israel:

May the angel Michael be at my right,

and the angel Gabriel be at my left.

 

Two hours later, he had stood alone amidst the smoking ruins of his small village, the sole survivor of a pogrom that had erased from the earth everyone he knew and loved. 

He pressed a fist to his forehead as the memory of the smell of death and blood and smoke flooded into his brain.

Not now. Not fucking now.


Chapter Text

The door to the empty betting shop slammed, signalling Arthur’s return. Tommy counted to three. Perfectly on cue, a bellowed “Tommy!” followed. 

 

Sighing, Tommy called out, “In here, Arthur.” 

 

Arthur entered the office and shed his rain-soaked coat. Tossing it onto the coat stand, he dropped into the chair that faced the desk. 

 

Tommy put down his pen and folded his hands. “Well?”

 

“Trailed him to the St. Paul’s Club.” 

 

“Hmm. So he’s in the employ of someone with means.” He thought for a moment. “As far as I know, Sabini isn’t a member of any private club. It’s not his style.”

 

Arthur wiped his nose with his sleeve. “No. But I did get a look at the members’ register from this morning.” He gave his brother a wicked smile. “Let’s just say me and the girl running the coat check go back a ways.”

 

Tommy raised an eyebrow. “Well done, brother. Anything of interest?”

 

“Boring reading, most of it. The usual toffs—Makepeace, Weston, Fernsby.” He paused, then cleared his throat. “And one Stephen Britton.”

 

“Interesting bit of information, that is.” Tommy leaned back in his chair, his brain rapidly sifting through the possible scenarios. “So the family of Alex’s deceased husband—or at least one member of it—wants to locate her. The question is—why?”

 

Arthur sniffed, then shrugged. “They probably want to meet her—get to know her.”

 

“But why? He’s dead and gone. There’s no child.”

 

“They don’t know that.”

 

Tommy scoffed. “If they’ve been able to track her down, they’re well aware there’s no offspring in the picture. So why bother?” He picked up his pen, tapping it absently against the desk. “I’ve looked into the Britton family.  I don’t think Alex is aware of this, but her beloved Jonathan was the heir to the Coronet Pen Company.”

 

Arthur gave a low whistle. “So if the poor bastard hadn’t died, he would have been due to come into a tidy sum.” 

 

“My point exactly. This Stephen—Jonathan’s younger brother—is the heir now. So why contact Alex, and risk her asking for money?”

 

 Arthur stood up and picked up his coat. “Come on, Tom. Alex and her husband were only married a little over a month. His family isn’t obligated to do anything for her.”

 

“Maybe. But this is 1919, Arthur. Old traditions are dying away. We have no idea what his family might intend to do for her—or with her.” 

 

Arthur shook his head, and headed out of the office. “I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing,” he called. 

 

“Maybe.” Tommy stared up at the ceiling. Coronet Pen would fit nicely into the legitimate businesses that Shelby Company Ltd. was slowly adding to its portfolio. “But I mean to get to the bottom of it.”


Zaika was tidying up the kitchen when the tap of a cane came to her ears. She stopped and listened, then snatched up the teapot. Alfie would be no doubt be in a foul mood, but at least she had had the foresight to prepare his favorite breakfast. She could only hope that blini with strawberry jam and a steaming bowl of kasha would sweeten his temper. 

 

She opened the door to the dining room just a crack, and peeked out. Alfie was sitting in the high backed mahogany chair that stood at the head of the table,  arms crossed and folded against his broad chest. His eyes were bloodshot, and his uncombed hair resembled that of an enraged porcupine. She closed the door softly, then leaned her forehead against it. This was not a good start. She took in a deep breath, then thought of what her mother used to tell her when she was faced with a seemingly insurmountable task.

 

Без труда́ не вытащишь и рыбку из пруда́.

 

“Without effort, you cannot even pull a fish out of the pond,” she whispered, then put on a bright smile and pushed the door open. 

 

“Good morning, cousin.” 

 

Alfie grunted in response.

 

“You look tired, but I’ve just the thing to pick up your spirits. I’ve been busy making blini —light and fluffy, just the way you like them. Here, have some tea while I prepare your tray.”

 

Quick as a hummingbird, she poured his tea and turned to head back into the kitchen. Her progress was arrested by the hand that shot out, capturing her elbow in a grip of steel.

 

“I found somethin’ unexpected in my library last evening. Care to hazard a guess as to what it might have been?”

 

“Hmm.” She tilted her head to the side, remaining poised despite the steel in his voice. “A large bottle of vodka?” 

 

 His jaw clenched, and she knew she had gone too far. In that instant, the silence in the room became deafening. 

 

In order to keep her hand from shaking, she placed it on his shoulder, and gave a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry, myshonak .  This old woman sometimes thinks she is making a clever remark, when she is actually being quite stupid. Forget the blini . Let me make you some schav instead. It always worked wonders for my uncle when he’d had too much to drink. You’ll be as good as new by lunch time.”

 

Alfie muttered something under his breath.      

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll have it ready within an hour. Would you like me to get you an aspirin?” She made to leave again, and his grip tightened.

 

“What I’d like is for you to tell me who she is.”

 

His voice was low, but had an edge to it that Zaika knew meant his patience was wearing thin. She bit her lip, torn between her loyalty to her cousin and her friend. Just a few days ago, she had promised Frema her discretion. Now in one evening, all of her good intentions had been undone. Why hadn’t she realized how unwise it was to leave Samara alone, even if only for a few minutes?

 

“You’ve heard me speak of Frema, my childhood friend. Well, she has come to London with her daughter Samara.” She hesitated for a moment, then said carefully, “Samara was in Galicia during the war, and she had some traumatic experiences.”

 

Alfie looked up, an unspoken question in his eyes. She gave him a slight nod, and felt his hand drop from her arm. An instant later, a soft whine came from under the table. Clearing his throat, Alfie leaned over and picked up the puppy that had been hidden under the long linen tablecloth. The little animal licked his face, then snuggled against his broad chest and promptly went to sleep. 

 

Her cousin’s face took on a meditative expression as he stroked the puppy’s soft fur.  “You’re happy now mate, aren’t ya? Just wanted a bit of love, a full belly, and a warm place to sleep.” The dog gave a contented squeak, his left paw twitching in his sleep. Alfie looked down at him, then murmured. “You know what? In France, even when I was exhausted and muddy and frozen half to death, I fell asleep in the trenches dreamin’ about the exact same things.”

 

He fell silent, and the only sound in the room was the ticking of the grandfather clock that graced the far wall. Then it chimed the half hour, and the sound seemed to rouse him from his reverie.

 

“I saw some fuckin’ terrible things in France. And it weren’t all soldiers I saw dead in the ditches, yeah? The women and children—“ his voice became hoarse, and he paused for a moment, clearing his throat before continuing. 

 

“There was this one little girl—I swear I’ll never forget the sight of her as long as I live. She must have been all of five years old—was wearin’ a blue dress that was two sizes too big, with these tiny—tiny white flowers embroidered across the bodice—“ His voice trailed off and he closed his eyes, shaking his head slightly as he pressed a fist to his forehead. 

 

Zaika saw his hand tremble, and her heart ached for him.

They all think they know who he is—but I am the only person alive who has any concept of the suffering he has endured.  

 

Placing a hand on his shoulder, she said softly, “The Talmud tells us that the best preacher is the heart.”

 

He absently patted her hand, then said gruffly, “I don’t think my heart has too much to say on the matter.”

 

“Then you must listen all the more carefully.” She leaned over and kissed the top of his head, then headed for the kitchen. 

 

His voice followed her. “I’ll have some schav ...but first the blini —and a glass of kefir —skip the chives, though. They turn my stomach, and that’s the last fuckin’ thing I need right now.”


The first day back was much rougher than Alex had anticipated. The fatigue that had set in after the first hour and a half had been the first indication that she had gone back to work too soon. Stepping into the lavatory, she splashed some cold water on her face, then went on to the next patient. She could not allow herself to fade. Too many people were counting on her. 

 

Unfortunately, it seemed to take twenty minutes to do with her left hand what she could have done in two with her right. The simple drainage of an abscess from an elderly man’s arm turned into a laborious task that left her damp with sweat by the time it was completed. One look at her schedule for the next few days told her that she could expect more of the same. 

 

As the clock of the nearby church struck noon, she heard the piercing whistle that announced John’s arrival, and felt a rush of relief—although she could not help but feel a pang of disappointment that Tommy himself had not come.

 

When Alex stepped outside and saw John’s car at the curb, she nearly cried with joy.  As exhausted as she was, the thought of the ten minute walk back to 6 Watery Lane had been almost unbearable. She touched his sleeve, and said softly, “I’m more tired than I thought I would be. Your kindness is much appreciated.”

 

He shrugged, then open the door with a flourish, giving her a cheeky grin. “What good is the fucking thing if I don’t take it out now and again?” 

 

The day was cold and dreary, and she had never been so glad to close the door to Tommy’s room and curl up on the bed. She wanted nothing more than to slip under the covers and sleep away the deep ache in her hand—and the headache that had resulted from asking Esme to take notes during the clinic appointments. But there was no time for a nap. Before doing anything else, she needed to read through the charts from the day and try to make sense of Esme’s scribbling, editing the notes as needed.   

 

Sitting up, she slipped off her shoes and settled back on the pillows with a chart.

 

Old Man Boyce is here with throat pain. Doesn’t mention that he yells and cusses at his wife all night long when he’s drunk, but everyone knows he does. Says it started after he drank some of the cheap whisky being served up at the Garrison. Doesn’t mention that he’s too stingy to pay for anything better, but that’s a fact. 

 

“Please tell me this is a one-off,” she murmured, reaching for the next one.

 

Kitty Delaney comes in complaining of stomach cramps. Says it started after she picked up a crate at her father’s grocery...before it burned down, that is. When asked, says there’s no chance she could be pregnant. Dr. Ross took her at her word, but everyone knows she left the Garrison with Bill Harlow at closing time the Friday and Saturday before the fire. 

 

Tossing the chart to the side, Alex closed her eyes and groaned. 

 

“That bad, eh?”

 

Startled, she gasped and looked up. “Good God, Tommy! I didn’t even hear the door open.”

 

He leaned against the door frame, hands in his pockets. “Sorry—I didn’t mean to frighten you. Thought you might be sleeping, so I tried to be quiet.” Closing the door, he took off his coat, then came over and sat down on the bed. Keeping his face carefully neutral, he said, “Want to tell me about your day? How’d your hand hold up?”

 

Alex leaned back against the pillows, and gave him a tired smile. “My hand was a bit of a nuisance, but nothing I couldn’t handle. As far as my day, it was busy, but fairly routine. There were a few bright moments this morning...Mary Reynolds brought her twins in—they’re recovering nicely from the bronchial infection. And Mrs. Phillips’ leg is much better—she said to tell you thank you.”

 

Tommy chuckled. In one smooth movement, he swung his legs up onto the bed. Settling back on the pillows, he put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.  “I’m sure Peg Phillips said much more than that.”

 

Alex glanced up at him, and a faint blush stole across her cheeks. “She did mention that I should give you a kiss from her—right on the lips, mind you—per her instructions.”

 

“In that case, who am I to disappoint the woman? She’s known me since I took my first steps. Smacked my bum more than once after I snatched a tart from a tray that was cooling on her windowsill.”

 

“When was this? Last month?” Alex tried to keep a straight face, but dissolved into laughter. Tommy gave an aggrieved sigh.

 

“Can a man not get a bit of respect from his fiancé?”

 

 Her heart started to pound, but she gave him a serene smile. “There’s no efficiently nosy nurse here, Mr. Shelby. No need to maintain that bit of fiction.”

 

“Fiction?” He captured her left hand, running his thumb over the signet ring that encircled her fourth finger. “I gave you a ring, didn’t I?”

 

“Thomas Shelby. You know as well as I do that this is not an engagement ring.” 

 

“I didn’t say it was. But if you recall, I told you that I was giving it to you because I wanted everyone to know that you are mine.”

 

“So you have exclusive rights to me, do you?”

 

His equable gaze met hers. “I’ve never been good at sharing, Alex—especially when it comes to anything—and anyone—I value.”

 

She took in a breath, steadying herself before she spoke. “So this exclusivity—does it go both ways?

 

He made a dismissive gesture. “Look, as far as Mabel—the arrangement I had with her is over and done with, eh? That’s a promise—and I’m not a man who makes a promise lightly.”

 

“There are other women in Birmingham besides Mabel.”

 

“So there are. But I’m not with them, am I?”

 

This was not the answer she had hoped for, and it left her feeling a bit unsettled. But before she could reply, his mouth was on hers. Within a few seconds, the world around her dissolved, leaving nothing but the intoxicating sensation of being the focus of his attention.

Chapter Text


    Tommy closed the door to his office, then poured himself a stiff drink. He ran a hand over his face, then drained his glass in two gulps. Refilling it, he adjusted his trousers, trying to will away the deep aching in his balls.

 

            What the fuck is wrong with me?

           

            He’d become hard within seconds of Alex nestling against him, and was certain he could have coaxed her into allowing him to fuck her. But the dark smudges under her eyes had pricked at his conscience, so he’d settled for kissing her to the point where he felt like a frustrated fourteen year old. Then he’d forced himself to pull away from those lush, gorgeous lips. 

 

         When he had told her he had pressing business that couldn’t wait, she’d been sympathetic, oblivious to his discomfort. He shook his head, a smile tugging at his lips. Maybe it was the fatigue taking its toll on her, but for a widowed physician, Alex could be charmingly innocent at times.

 

            Sitting down at his desk, he opened a ledger. As his eyes scanned the columns, he attempted to immerse himself in the monthly figures for the betting shop. However, after a few minutes had passed, the persistent throbbing of his erection became intolerable. 

 

           “Fuck it,” Tommy muttered, slamming the leather bound volume shut. Standing up, he rolled up his sleeves. Then he emptied his glass, went into the lavatory. and locked the door. 

 

           Unbuttoning his trousers, he took in a deep breath, and closed his eyes.

 

             He opens the door to Alex’s office, dusting the snow off his coat.  The waiting room is shrouded in darkness, a small lamp in the hall providing the only visible light. Locking the door, he notices that her bag and coat are not in their usual place, and feels a surge of irritation.

 

            “Let’s go, Alex!” he calls out, tapping his cap against his leg. “It’s after 7, and I’ve a meeting with some business associates at 7:30.”

 

             She responds blithely, “Not anymore.”

 

               You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. He stalks down the hallway, bristling as her laughter floats through the air. 

 

            He reaches the entrance to the exam room to find her working at the desk, her back to the door. “For your information, I’ve had that fucking meeting set up for a month.”

 

        She swivels around in her chair, legs elegantly crossed. Black sheer stockings lead his gaze up to the hem of her starched white coat, and he cannot help but notice that it seems shorter than usual. She shifts, and just for an instant, he catches a hint of a red satin garter belt.

  

            He swallows, his cock stiffening in an instant. Then the thought of another man walking into the room crosses his mind, and he scowls. “You dress like that when you see your patients, eh?”

 

            “Is there a problem?” The serenity in her voice is enough to drive him mad.

 

            He starts to pace the room, then points at her, forcing himself to keep his voice level. “Yeah, there’s a problem. No one—no one—-should be allowed to see you like this—except me.”

 

           Alex looks up at him through her lashes, giving him a smile that pierces his armor in an instant. “Thomas Shelby, this is for you.” She stands up, and walks over to him with the self assurance of a queen. “Now, let’s get down to business. When was the last time you saw a doctor?”

 

         “Probably when I had diphtheria when I was six. Haven’t needed once since. Are we done?”

         

         She divests him of his coat in a matter of seconds. “No. It’s Friday night, your calendar is clear, and there is such a thing as preventive care. My mission tonight is to take care of you.”

 

        “By being poked and prodded about?” He shakes his head. “No thank you. Not my idea of fun.”

 

      “Sit down.”  She pushes him onto the exam table with a surprising amount of strength. 

 

       “Alex, I’ve got…”

 

       “Shhh.” She puts a perfectly manicured finger to his lips, her crimson polish glinting in the lamplight. “This will be the like no other physical you’ve ever had.” Setting to work on his shirt, she brushes her lips against his cheek, and murmurs, “I must inform you that there are rules in this office, even for VIPs.” 

 

        His cock is harder than ever, and a bead of sweat trickles down his spine. He’s never had a woman set any kind of boundary on him, and the idea is galling, yet erotic. Deciding to test her resolve, he gives her a cold stare. “You’ve got it wrong, love. I make the rules in this city.”

 

         Alex ignores him, and continues to methodically strip him. She runs her hands over his biceps, then turns his attention to his chest. She searches out his scars, acknowledging each one with a kiss, and he finds himself unable to resist her touch. A few minutes pass, and he is now clad only in his boxers. 

 

      She takes his face in her hands, and gives him a searching look. “While you are within these four walls, you are completely safe. Just for this once, give up control. After all, if you can’t trust someone who loves you, who can you trust?”

 

     He sees the raw honesty in her eyes, and a sense of relief washes over him, A slight nod is all it takes to bring the sweetest of smiles to her face. Taking him by the hand, she leads him to the exam table. “Lie down, and close your eyes.” 

 

      He settles back, the crinkling of the stiff white paper setting his nerves on edge. His eyes stray to the neat row of clear glass jars. Arranged by size, they hold gauze and cotton and shiny metal instruments.  He folds his hands and places them on his chest, knowing that they will start to shake if he doesn’t.

 

       He exhales. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t much care for doctors—present company excepted.  And I’ve never liked surprises.”

 

       Alex leans over him, touching her soft lips to his for the briefest of moments. She tastes of vanilla and honey, and he desperately wants more. “Just close your eyes,” she whispers. “Trust me.”

 

       He holds her gaze for a moment, then obeys.

 

       There is a movement, then the clang of a metal lid. He tenses, relaxing only when she places a hand on his forehead.

 

      “I’m going to put a soft cloth over your eyes in order to remind you to keep them closed.”

 

       A layer of silk glides across his face, then settles into place in the form of a blindfold. 

 

      One hand strays to the edge of the table, and he fights the urge to hold on for dear life. “Is this part of your standard routine?” 

 

       She laughs. “Only for you.” He hears the sound of her coat falling to the ground.  Her hands slide up his legs, straying under his boxers. He shifts, his breath hitching as one slim finger, then another, trails up his inner thigh, coming within a hair’s breadth of his erection before retreating. Then she cups his balls, massaging them until he is nearly writhing on the table. Then the warmth of her touch vanishes, and he feels as if he’s fallen into a void.

 

     “Alex—please.” 

 

     He is begging now. He can hear his voice shaking, but he is beyond caring. 

 

      The paper on the table rustles, and he almost weeps when she climbs onto the exam table and straddles him, her slender thighs pressing against his

muscular body. Then her fingers slide to his temples, and begin to trace small circles. After a minute or two, he relaxes again, and Alex gives a low hum of approval. “That’s perfect. You know just how to please me, don’t you?”

 

         As she bends over and presses her lips to his forehead, her hair brushes against his cheek. Her bare breasts swell against his chest, the impossibly hard nipples teasing his sensitive skin. She smells of violets and fresh grass and sunlight, and an almost uncontrollable desire surges through him. He reaches for her, but she easily captures his hands, guiding them back to rest on his chest. 

 

       “Not yet, love,” she whispers, her breath warming the patch of skin in front of his ear. “My exam room, my rules. I will tell you exactly what I’m going to do as we go along, but you may not touch me unless given permission to do so.” Her mouth moves to his earlobe, and she takes it between her teeth and gently sucks. 

 

The back of her hand skims across his lower belly, first in one direction, then the other.  He arches his back just a bit, willing her fingers to drop the last few inches. She retreats, and he has to stifle a whimper.  Alex seems to sense his disappointment, and her fingertips trace the circular tattoo on his upper left chest. She murmurs, “You’re doing so well, Thomas.” The approval in her voice sends a thrill down his spine. He imagines her lying on the table, her legs wrapped around him as he fucks her so hard and fast that she is almost delirious, her body pushed to the brink of ecstasy.

 

Then her mouth goes to work, and his mind and body are transported to another dimension. He had no fucking idea it could be like this. Her tongue is smooth and rough and wet and warm, and it is everywhere—licking and gliding and sucking, exploring every inch of him until he is sure he can’t hold out any longer. As she takes him fully into her mouth, she pauses to moan out his name, and his self discipline finally dissolves. He hears himself cry out her name once, then twice, his voice hoarse with need.

 

When his breathing finally evens out, Tommy realizes  that his shirt is damp with sweat. He leans his forehead against the cold tile, and swears under his breath. Up until now, he has refused to acknowledge or name this alien emotion. Instead, he has chosen to banish it to the far corner of his brain where he keeps his fears and desires locked away, lest they betray him. But every so often, one gains the upper hand, and he is left vulnerable, becoming easy prey as it breaks through the bars of the prison he has so carefully built.

 

He washes up, letting the cold water run freely over his hands. After a few minutes, the simmering heat in his veins finally dies down, and he returns to his office. Cigarette in hand, he sits down in the tufted leather chair. He takes a drag, then slowly exhales as he stares up at the ceiling. “You’re well and truly fucked now. The question is—what are you going to do about it, eh?”

 

Chapter Text

It had all happened so quickly. Even now, as Alfie lay on the sidewalk, his vision blurring, he was unsure of what had gone wrong. He could hear Tzvi cursing up a storm as gunfire erupted all around them. The pavement smelled of piss and curdled milk, and he felt his stomach heave. Fuck no, not here, not now. He tried to turn over, but the explosion of pain in his shoulder stopped him short. 

 

Rain the colour of mud began to fall. Am I in Birmingham or London? Everything looks the fucking same. 

 

As his cheek scraped against gravel and soot, the only fact that was irrefutable was that his blood was seeping onto the hard pavement, and he was powerless to stop it. 

 

Xxxxxxx

 

Alex knew she had made the right decision. Why hadn’t she thought if it before? Curly was always so eager to please, and as long as his attention could be kept focused, she was sure his note taking skills would be a huge improvement over Esme’s.

 

Mr. Smith is an old man with a bad problem he has a terrible case of piles. I dont know how he is able to sit on a chair. Alex told him he needs to eat more vegetables. I don’t much like vegetables especially greens. But they are good for horses and make their coats shiny so thats okay. Mr. Smiths face went all purple when Alex told him he should drink less when he goes down to the Garrison. He said ha, wont Mr Shelby be mad when I tell him his bird lady doctor is taking business away from his pub. Alex just laughed and said go ahead, I can handle Mr. Shelby. Her cheeks turned a funny pink color though, like they do every time she talks about Tommy. Charlie says she is sweet on Tommy, maybe he is right.   But Tommy is my friend and I like Alex so thats okay. I just wish Alex wasnt afraid of horses because they are so nice and If she would learn to like them she could have fun and ride them.

 

Alex looked up. “Curly, I am really proud of you. You put a lot of effort into this. And your handwriting is definitely better than mine.”

 

The man beamed, his round face lighting up with happiness. “Can you tell Tommy? As soon as you see him?”

 

“I will indeed.”

 

“And tell him I kept my promise. I didn’t say a word about the horse he bought for you.”

 

She smiled. “Absolutely. You can can count on me.”

 

He twisted his hat in his hands, fidgeting slightly. “ “Can—can I tell you something, Alex?”

 

“Of course—as long as it’s not a secret, that is.”

 

“Well…” For a rather unremarkable piece of tweed, Curly’s hat was morphing into a surprising series of shapes. “No one told me not to tell you.”

 

 “If it makes you uncomfortable, maybe you shouldn’t—“

 

“Tommy likes you,” he burst out. “He came over to the yard the other night and had some whisky with Charlie while I was brushing down the horses. Charlie was giving him the business about you, teasing him and trying to rile him up, you know? And Tommy just leaned back, all thoughtful like, and he kept on smoking. Then he turned to me and said, ”Tell me, Curly, what do you think about Alex?” And I said that I think you are nice and smart and pretty.” He blushed, his ears turning crimson. “And do you know what Tommy said?”

 

She shook her head.

 

Curly’s voice dropped to a half whisper. “He said, ‘She’s all that, Curly, and more.’”

 

Those six words brought a lump to Alex’s throat. She was desperately afraid that she was going to burst into tears in front of dear, sweet Curly. Picking up a paper clip, she began to bend its metal limbs into a series of shapes.

 

Curly squatted down next to her desk, his eyes wide with concern. “You look sad. Please don’t be sad, Alex. It’s a good thing that Tommy likes you—he doesn’t like too many people.” A thought seemed to strike him, and he knelt on the floor. 

 

“You do like him back, don’t you? Because I want Tommy to be happy again.” The pace of his speech picked up, and his words began to tumble over each other. “Before the war, we used to stay in the barn at night when a mare was about to foal. And we would play cards, and Tommy would tell me Gypsy stories. He tells the best stories, Alex—does different voices and everything. Ask him sometime to tell you a story.” He hesitated. “That is, if you want to. A lot of people don’t like Tommy. That’s why I carry a gun when I go places with him. Some people are afraid of him. Are you afraid of him?”

 

He looked miserable. Alex put a comforting hand on his shoulder, and smiled. “No, Curly. I’m not afraid of him. Tommy is a man who has good and bad points, just like everyone does. I’m no saint, that’s for sure.” 

 

“So you have no intention of trying to reform me?”

 

She looked up, and saw Tommy standing in the doorway. His cap was pulled down low over his forehead, and she was sure she could make out the outline of his shoulder holster under his coat.  

 

Lifting her chin, she said, “Maybe I like you just the way you are.”

 

Tommy nodded to Curly, who jammed his hat on his head and hurried out of the room. Then he took off his cap, walked over to the desk, and sat on the edge. “Are you sure about that? I’m a dangerous man, Dr. Ross.”

 

She shifted in her chair, and her leg brushed against his. “Some people crave danger, Mr. Shelby.”

 

He chuckled. “So you’ve been craving me, eh?”

 

Standing up, she began to gather up her papers. “I said some people. I didn’t say anything about me.”

 

Circling behind her, he put his arms around her waist, and drew her back against his body. Alex craned her neck to look up at him. “So, dangerous man, are you planning on just having your way with me?”

 

He rested his chin on her shoulder, the corner of his mouth quirking up.. “Actually, I have had this fantasy where I come to pick you up at work, and you’re sitting in that chair with your white coat on.”

 

She laughed, then tossed her papers to the desk, and covered his hands with her own.  “I had no idea it was so easy to get you excited.”

 

He clicked his tongue reprovingly. “Ah, but you didn’t let me finish. You see, when you swivel around, I can see that your coat is much shorter than is appropriate—-and you’ve got on these black heels, matching stockings—“ His voice was becoming lower now, dropping into the register that sent a shiver over her spine, “—and a red satin garter belt. And then I realize that you are otherwise quite naked under that starched white coat.”

 

She gave him a sweet smile. “Well, if you play your cards right, perhaps something can be arranged. But a fully functional right hand might make that dream more achievable—and I seem to recall you promising to take me to Dr. Harbottle’s surgery today to get my dressing off.”

 

“So I did.” Tommy sighed, then gave her a lingering kiss on the neck. “Alright then. But a promise is a promise...and I’ve a long memory, Dr. Ross.”

 

Xxxxxxxxxxx

 

“Hang on, boss,” Alfie thought it odd that Tzvi’s voice seemed far away. As he felt himself being dragged up a series of steps, the lad’s harsh breathing was nearly deafening. Then there was light and warmth, and he was lying on something hard. He could hear Zaika calling out his name, followed by a resounding slap to the face. 

 

“For fuck’s sake, stop manhandling me!”

 

She grasped his shirt, almost lifting him off the table. “You deserve that and more, Alfie Solomons! You told me you were done with violence! Done with getting your hands dirty, and now you show up like this? Lign in drerd un bakn beygl!” 

 

He tried to glare at her, but couldn’t keep his eyes open. “Yeah, well, how about you drop the alte Makhsheyfe act and do something useful? Get Alex Ross on the phone and tell her to have one of those pikeys get her over here pronto.” 

 

Zaika gritted her teeth, then let go of him. Snatching the phone from the side table, she got the operator on the line. “6 Watery Lane, and quickly, please—it’s an emergency.” 

 

Despite the warm blanket Tzvi spread over him, Alfie was shivering. As Zaika’s voice receded into the distance, his thoughts similarly slowed.  Damn, it’s cold in here. What the fuck am I doing in a meat locker?

 

Xxxxxxx

 

Samara lay on her bed, the quilt pulled up to her neck. No matter what she did, she couldn’t stop trembling. It had been a mistake to come to London. A mistake to believe that any doctor could put the shattered pieces of her existence back together.

 

She had let Zaika and her mother talk her into meeting this Alexandra Ross. Zaika had spoken so warmly of the woman, and the idea of meeting another female physician was so novel that it had broken down her resistance. So she had left the house for the first time in a fortnight, only to fall deeper into the pit of despair that she had only just begun to try to scratch her way out of.

 

The feel of his rough, calloused hands on her skin had thrown her into a whirling vortex of fear, panic, and pain. Once she had escaped his grasp, she had fled down the hall, going up and down staircases in a frantic bid to get as far away from those hands as she possibly could. She had stopped only when she ran headlong into Zaika. 

 

Then her stomach, overwhelmed by the rush of adrenaline, had heaved. The idea of having embarrassed herself in that way in front of Zaika was humiliating. She wondered how she would ever face the woman again. 

 

There was a knock on the door, much louder than her mother’s timid tap.

 

I’ll just lay here. Whoever it is will go away.

 

“Samara? I need your help! it’s a matter of life and death!”

 

Zaika’s voice, usually soft and gentle, was almost hysterical.

 

Samara sat straight up, and was at the door in five steps.. “What’s wrong? Is it mama?” Her eyes searched the hall for the woman who had been her anchor for the past 18 months.

 

“No, it’s my cousin. He’s been shot, and he’s bleeding all over the dining room table. He wanted me to call Alex, but I can’t get ahold of her, and Tzvi said—“

 

“He needs to get to a hospital,” Samara snapped, even as she was putting on her shoes. “This isn’t 1917 Galicia. I’m not digging out a bullet on a dining room table when the best medical care money—and I know Alfie Solomons has a lot of it based on the house he is living in—can buy. Whatever he does, it pays well.” She snatched up her coat. “So I will stabilize him—if he will even let me touch him—and off to a hospital he goes.”

 

“No! No hospital!” Zaika was nearly screaming. 

 

Samara stopped. “Please do not tell me he is one of those people who hates doctors.”

 

“No not at all. I just told you he was asking for Alex, remember? He just—doesn’t like hospitals.” Zaika’s hand went to her mother of pearl pendant, her fingers toying with the chain.

 

Samara thought of the guard she had seen stationed outside Solomons’ door. “He’s not making his money by doing something illegal, is he?”

 

“Okay, If you want the truth—“  Zaika took in a deep breath, then spoke in a rush. “He’s afraid of hospitals—had a bad experience during the war.”

 

“Didn’t we all.” A few images flashed through Samara’s mind, and she had to force herself to stay calm. “I will go, but you will promise me one thing, Tante—that  man will not touch me.” 

 

Zaikas face softened. “ I know I am asking a great deal of you. But Alfie is a good man, and he would never hurt a woman. You just startled him. He thought you were a thief.”

 

Samara raised an eyebrow. “A book thief?”

 

“Some books are worth a great deal, rebyonok— whether in monetary or sentimental value.” She took Samara’s hand in hers. “Trust me. Alfie is very close to my heart—as are you.”

 

Tears began to prick the back of her eyes. Samara swallowed, and nodded. “For you, Tante, I will go.” 

Chapter Text

Upon reaching Harbottle’s surgery at the appointed time, Alex and Tommy were immediately led to an exam room.  The doctor stood waiting to greet them, his tall frame silhouetted against the neatly framed diplomas.

 

He inclined his head. “Mr. Shelby.” 

 

Tommy stood at Alex’s side, his hand curved protectively around her waist. The only response he gave was a curt nod. Harbottle tugged at his collar, then broke the uncomfortable silence by turning to Alex. “Dr. Ross, I trust your recovery has been uneventful?”

 

Alex felt Tommy’s hand slide to her lower back, and she relaxed into his touch. “It has. Mr. Shelby has been most attentive.”

 

Harbottle cleared his throat, his eyes flicking to the razor blade in Tommy’s cap. “Cold day, isn’t it?”

 

As Tommy eased Alex’s cloak off her shoulders, his gaze met the physician’s. “It is, but as my Aunt Pol always says, there’s nothing like glad tidings to warm the heart. I expect you’ll have some good news for us shortly, just as promised.” Alex glanced up, and a chill ran down her spine. Every trace of warmth in his eyes had vanished, leaving only a cold, predatory stare.

 

The tall man shifted uneasily, and summoned up a faint smile. “When you have the best hand surgeon in Britain, why would you expect anything else?”  

 

However, as he unwound her dressing, Alex could not help but notice that his normally steady hands fumbled with the gauze.  When her palm was finally free, the surgeon carefully took her hand in his, peering down at the incision from several different angles.

 

“How does it feel?”

 

Alex, her eyes focused on the small window across the room, caught a glimpse of a flock of ravens wheeling through the grey sky. “Numb. The skin feels tight, and itches terribly right around the incision.” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tommy‘s expression darken, and hastily added, “But I know that’s to be expected.”

 

The surgeon nodded. “You’re right, of course.” He turned to Tommy, who had started to pace the room. “The itching means that healing is well underway, and the incision looks quite good. With any luck, the scar will be minimal, and Dr. Ross will be back to doing her own suturing by New Year’s.  I don’t think you realize how lucky you are to have had someone trained in—“

 

Tommy stopped in his tracks. “Talk is cheap, eh?” He stood in front of physician, one pace too close for comfort. When he spoke, his voice was low, but the threat was unmistakable. “You stand there preening yourself as you tell us what a fucking miracle worker you are, but I have yet to see any fucking evidence. So I ask you—can she even move her fingers?””

 

Harbottle swallowed. “Actually, I think Dr. Ross is at the point where she can give it a go.” Turning to Alex, he said, “Go ahead and curl your fingers ever so slightly—not too much, as we don’t want to stress the tendons too soon.”

 

Alex’s heartbeat slowed as she looked down at her hand for the first time. The tissue around the incision was pink and healthy. That was a good sign. As for the suture line, it was pristine, each neat little stitch equidistant from its companions. “It looks brilliant,” she breathed, giving the surgeon a grateful smile.

 

The physician’s shoulders relaxed an inch, and he gave her a nod. “Go ahead—just a very small curl.”

 

Taking in a small breath, Alex willed her fingers to move. An instant later, she felt a rush of joy when they obeyed, moving an inch before Harbottle barked, “Stop!”

 

Startled, she jumped. Tommy bristled, and took a step forward.

 

“Please—I meant please!” Harbottle blurted out, backpedaling until he slammed into a glass cabinet. “Thank you, Dr. Ross. that was fantastic,” he said, his voice unnaturally loud. “A model patient, you are.”

 

“That’s good,” murmured Tommy. “Very good, indeed.” Stepping forward, he patted the man’s cheek. “Keep this up, and you’ll be able to pay for the privilege of being the official surgeon of the Peaky Blinders.” He leaned closer, and lowered his voice. “Protection for your practice will be gratis, of course.”

 

The surgeon sagged against the wall. “Of course,” he echoed faintly.

 

Despite the surgeon’s caustic remarks in the past, Alex could not help but feel sorry for him. Tommy had effortlessly shifted into full-on intimidation mode, and had left no doubt that he was quite good at it.

 

“I am so grateful for all you’ve done for us,” she said warmly. “Now, if you can give us instructions regarding my physio, we will be on our way. After all, it is Friday, and I’m sure you’re anxious to be home with your family.”

 

“Yes, yes—the physio. Very important. A key part of the recovery.” Harbottle straightened up and began to speak with a bit more self assurance, doubtless sliding into a speech he has given countless times. ”The sooner the fingers are mobilized, the less likelihood of scar tissue forming. The less scar tissue, the better chance of a good—I mean full—recovery.” 

 

It did not escape Alex’s notice that was scrupulously avoiding eye contact with Tommy. She suppressed a smile, and nodded her understanding.

 

“Now, you will need to have a partner who can assist you with the exercises twice a day.  Do you have someone you can count on to help you?”

 

Even as he continued to scowl at the surgeon, Tommy put a reassuring hand on Alex’s back. “Done.”

 

“Tommy, you’re so busy. Perhaps it would be better if—“

 

“The exercises must be done without fail,” intoned the physician, adjusting his glasses and looking down his long nose at Tommy.

 

Tommy cocked his head. “Do you doubt my word, Dr. Harbottle?”

 

“No—no, sir. I didn’t mean to imply that at all, Mr. Shelby. My apologies. Please allow me to show you the exercises, and then we’ll set up an appointment for next week.”

 

Once they got in the car, Alex adjusted the splint on her right arm, then gave Tommy a sidelong glance. “You enjoyed making him squirm, didn’t you?”

 

“Guilty as charged,” he replied equably, starting up the Bentley. 

 

She slid over and tugged on the lapel of his coat with her good hand. “Well, Mr. Shelby, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching you. Well done.” Leaning over, she kissed his cheek, and was rewarded with the slightest quirk of his mouth. 

 

“An appreciative audience is always a plus,” he murmured. “Although I was hoping for more of a reward.”

 

“Hmm.” She arched an eyebrow, and moved back to her side of the seat. “Perhaps after dinner, I’ll let you win at checkers.”

 

He shook his head slightly, and stepped on the accelerator. “A tempting offer, but you won’t be sleeping at 6 Watery Lane tonight, Dr. Ross—-and neither will I.”

 

“Really?  May I ask what plans are in store for me?”

 

“You may not.”  He smirked, but keep his eyes on the road. 

 

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

 

“I am.”  

 

“Tommy Shelby, you are the most—“ Exasperated, she struggled to find the words. 

 

He gave her a sympathetic look. “Perfection is difficult to describe, eh?”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Well, Mr. Perfect, taking a woman somewhere against her will is not a good look for anyone.”

 

“Very well.” He nodded at the next corner. “I’ll pull over by that telephone booth, and you can give Arthur a ring. He’ll be more than happy to rescue you from my clutches.”

 

“Very amusing, you are.” She slid next to him once again, and he put an arm around her shoulder. “So, are we staying in Birmingham? Or going outside city limits?”

 

“Sorry, ma’am, that’s classified information.”

 

“Then suppose I’ll have to use my feminine wiles to get it out of you.”

 

He shook his head, his eyes crinkling in amusement. “Wile away.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, Tommy pulled into Charlie’s yard. Dusk was approaching, and Charlie and Curly were warming themselves around a fire. Alex, content to know that Tommy has something out of the ordinary planned for the two of them, slipped her arm through the elbow he offered her. 

 

Charlie gave Tommy a nod, then jerked his head towards the cut. Curly waved, then seized a battered knapsack and made a beeline for the canal, with Alex and Tommy following close behind. 

 

As they rounded the corner that gave them a full view of the waterway, Alex gasped. A sleek green narrowboat was moored at the dock, the black letters on its prow proudly proclaiming it to be the Cygnet.  Curly stood next to it, holding a lantern that cast a golden glow through the shadows.

 

“Are we—“

“Going to travel the canal? That’s the plan.”

 

“Just the two of us?”  The thought of having him all to herself—with no telephone, business, or brothers—made her practically giddy. 

 

Putting his hands on her waist, Tommy drew her close. “Unless you’d like to invite John and Arthur. Might be a bit crowded, though.”

 

She smiled up at him. “I think this particular Shelby is quite enough for me. But what about clothes? And meals?”

 

“I’ve taken care of that.”

 

“But—“

 

He leaned down and kissed her, his lips lingering on hers until she was nearly dizzy with desire.

 

“Any other objections?”

 

“I—I think you’ve explained everything to my satisfaction.”

 

He gave her an approving nod, then took her hand and led her onto the boat.

 

The aft deck was small. To the left was a large coil of rope and an area for the helmsman to stand. It was the rudder, however, that caught her eye. A long column of silky brown hair hung from the metal bar.

 

Alex gulped. “Is that—“

 

“That’d be Millie. Cut down in her prime, she was. She was beautiful—the clearest eyes you’ve ever seen, and the way she’d nuzzle you first thing in the morning made you feel like you were God’s gift to the world.” He waited a beat, then clicked his tongue. “There’s nothing like that soft nudge when you bring an apple—“

 

Suddenly it dawned on her. “You’re talking about a horse.”  The look on her face must have said it all, as Tommy burst into laughter.

 

“I ought to throw you in the cut, Thomas Shelby.” She gave him a little shove, and he caught her left wrist.

 

“Ah, but you need me. I’m the only one who’s been properly trained to deliver your physio.”

 

“I’m reserving judgement until I see your technique.”

 

“You seemed fairly content the first time we—“

 

“Tom! Enough with the canoodling. I’ve had a long day. Take it in the cabin, man.” Charlie’s irascible voice floated to them from the darkness, where the glow of a single cigarette could be seen.

 

“Always a pleasure, Charlie,” said Tommy dryly.

 

“Charlie, don’t be so mean,” scolded Curly. “You know this is a special trip. Tommy’s going to—“

 

“That’ll do, Curly,” murmured Tommy. Then he ushered Alex down into the cabin, and closed the door behind them.

 

Xxxxxxx

 

Bile rose in Samara’s throat as she stepped into Alfie Solomons’ dining room. The air was close, and the heat stifling. She couldn’t even catch as much as a glimpse of her patient. In front of her, a dozen men were milling around, passing a bottle of whisky between them. Zaika stood next to her wringing her hands, and a large dog with a tawny coat was howling. 

 

“Got some more laudanum!” came a shout from across the room.

 

“Good man!” The slurred voice escalated into a near shout. “And bring the fuckin’ hedgehog with you—damned if those fuckin’ pikeys won’t try to make stew out of ‘im if they catch ‘im.”

 

Oh God. There was no mistaking that last voice. Brilliant. He’s already doped up.

 

“No more laudanum! Doctor’s orders!” She was surprised by the strength of her voice. The burly men in front of her turned around and eyed her skeptically.

 

“Yes, I’m the doctor..and yes, I’m a woman. Now that we have that out of the way, I need all of you—including the dog—to clear the room except for you—“ she indicated Tzvi, who was standing by Solomons’ side and actually listening to her with a modicum of respect—“and Zaika.”

 

There was some shuffling and muttering, and then Zaika stepped forward with the air of a general. “You heard Dr. Cantor!” She snatched up a feather duster and made several ferocious jabs in the air. “Out! All of you, except Tzvi!”

 

Then men filed out, several giving Samara doubtful glances. “Just give us a shout if you need anything, boss,” murmured one, placing his hand on Alfie’s shoulder for an instant before retreating under Zaika’s watchful eye.

 

Once the door had shut, Samara took in a deep breath, and gave Tzvi a grateful nod. “Thank you for staying.”

 

“Thank you for coming.” He extended his hand. “Tzvi Bernstein.”

 

He had a friendly, unassuming way about him, and she immediately sensed he was to be trusted. “Samara Cantor,” she replied, shaking his hand.

 

“And I’m Alfie Elchanan fucking Solomons...or should I say Solomons, Alfie Elchanan fucking ? In the Army, they always went for that last name comma first name shit.”  He turned his head and squinted at Samara. “Look, I can’t see shit with you dancin’ around with that bushy tail of yours. Come sit by me, Bashka,” he said, his voice pleading. “Just like you used to.”

 

Samara raised an eyebrow, and glanced at Zaika.

 

Winding her mother-of-pearl necklace around her fingers, the older woman cleared her throat. “He—-umm—he appears to think you’re a pet squirrel he had when he was a boy.”

 

“Right.” Samara had seen many delirious patients, but this was a first. She straightened up, then came over to his side. “It’s good to see you, Mr. Solomons,” she said, immediately feeling foolish.

 

The white lace tablecloth was soaked with blood, and his face was as white as the new fallen snow she used to play in as a child.  

 

“Yeah, it’s about fuckin’ time, innit? All those acorns we shared, and then one fuckin’ day, you’re gone. Poof.” He tried to make a gesture with his left hand, and let out a moan of pain. When he spoke again, his voice reminded her of a small child. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw you, but I shouldn’t have followed you onto the roof. Mama will kill me...and Amalya will get in trouble, because she was supposed to be watching me.” He let out a choked sob. “I don’t want Amalya to be punished. It’s all my fault. I snuck off when she went in to check on the baby.”

 

Samara was taken aback by the grief in his eyes. “It’s okay,” she said soothingly, taking his hand in hers. ”Everything will be fine. I promise.”

 

“No,” he said, his voice breaking. “It won’t be. It can’t be—not ever again. It’s all my fault.”

 

“Listen to me.” She took his face in her hands, unable to believe this was the confident, burly man who had wrestled with her in the library the night before. Alfie stared at her for an instant, then blinked, and tossed his head restlessly from side to side “Your hands feel so fuckin’ good,” he murmured. Then he stilled, squinting up at her.  Reaching up, he touched an unruly lock of hair that had escaped from her bun. “And that hair...a coppery golden cloud, just like the sunrise on an October morning.” His eyes suddenly widened. “You as sure as hell ain’t Bashka. Are you some kind of angel?”

 

His eyes were so innocent and trusting that Samara could not help but smile down at him. “The Talmud says, Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘grow, grow.’ “She paused for a moment, then said softly, “Perhaps you are my blade of grass for today.”