“It’s because you want to change him.” Lizzie covered her mouth and burped quietly, tasting the piney-cedar burn of Tommy’s gin all over again.
“I have changed him,” Linda insisted. They were laying side by side on Arthur and Linda’s bed, supposedly listening to the shared wall between this bedroom and the nursery. The children were napping, and at the time it seemed to make more sense for the two women to retreat to the bedroom instead of returning to the parlor.
“He prays,” said Linda, propping herself up enough to take another pull from the bottle.
Lizzie liked the way their lipstick smudges crisscrossed over each other around the rim: the plummy color of hers, and the delicate pink of Linda’s, and within, the liquid-diamond sparkle of blue ruin.
“And he plays with Billy.”
“You’ve... you made him feel guilty,” said Lizzie, closing her eyes and tugging a bolster pillow onto her belly to hug. “He still does the drinking, and the snow, and the killing, but he’s- he’s messed up over it. Can’t have a man in his line of work feeling guilty or he’ll start to question himself.”
“He should feel guilty,” said Linda, but the tartness had gone out of her words. Instead of sounding like a missionary, fresh off the boat, she sounded like a tired wife.
Lizzie didn’t say anything to that. Everyone who fell into the life knew what they were doing, they knew what they were getting into. Nobody could claim ignorance of the Shelby family’s reputation. Not anymore.
“And you don’t want to change Tommy?”
Linda poked Lizzie in the side, and Lizzie opened her eyes and looked up into Linda’s flushed face. “Not the parts you want to change,” she said.
“So you’re fine with the killing, and the drinking, and the whoring,” said Linda, letting her butter-wouldn’t-melt-mouth linger on the last word. “That’s alright. You’re fine with that. You just want to be included in it.”
“More or less,” said Lizzie, rolling onto her side to look at Linda. “I chose this life.”
“We know,” said Linda.
“So you did,” said Lizzie, mildly annoyed on Arthur’s behalf. “You knew who he was.”
“Yes,” said Linda, setting the bottle of gin down on the bedside table with a thump. “And I saw who he could be.”
Linda nudged her. “Don’t tell me you didn’t think the same thing.”
Lizzie closed her eyes again, trying to ignore the way Linda’s bobbing made the bed rock. “No,” she said honestly. “I saw who I could be.”
“More than a whore?”
She’d never let it go. If it were up to her, Linda would have Lizzie’s gravestone engraved with it: Lizzie Shelby. Loving wife and mother. Brummie whore.
“More than a whore,” Lizzie agreed, too drunk to argue further.
“Why did you do it?”
“Because I lost my job at the BSA, and my mother was dead,” said Lizzie flatly. “Whoring was better than the workhouse.”
“What was it like?” Linda asked, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Did you ever- just… you know. Enjoy it?”
With Tommy I did, Lizzie thought. But… maybe this was why Linda had hated her for so long. She was intrigued, and ashamed of herself for wondering. Lizzie thought of the few church events she’d been to as a girl, back before the pretty, pious ladies had decided that she was destined for sin, just like her mother. The women had been zealous, yes. But there had been an edge to their compliance and undercurrents between them: the friction of allies in a bigger war, allies who have to tolerate each other, but who, if given a chance, would happily fight.
Or, Lizzie added. Maybe do something else .
“Sometimes I did like it,” she whispered, leaning a little closer to Linda and letting her voice find that lilting pattern she used when telling stories to the children. “Occasionally the gent was kind, or particularly good-looking. Sometimes I just needed to come.”
Linda’s mouth was slightly parted, her eyes wide and intrigued. “Did you ever- did women-”
Lizzie slid a hand along the curve of Linda’s thigh, tracing the soft skin up along her stocking to the edge of her dress, and then to the gap of skin beneath. “Of course there were ladies,” said Lizzie, leaning forward to press a kiss to the corner of Linda’s lip. “Sometimes I liked them better.”
She slid her hand up to the satin of Linda’s pants and toyed with the posh elastic, letting her finger trace back and forth, back and forth under the seam. Linda shuddered
“Why?” she asked. “God ordained it-”
Lizzie leaned forward to kiss her again, enjoying the little rush of power she felt at Linda’s eager, shamed reaction. It was nice to be the aggressor, just this once. To be the one with more experience and more power.
“God ordained nothing,” she whispered. “God has nothing to do with Birmingham, or the war. And I think if he is listening-” she slid her hand down inside Linda’s silky pants, combing her fingers through dark curls- “I think he has more important things to be worrying over.”
“He sees everything,” Linda muttered, and Lizzie had to hide a grin when, almost despite herself, Linda reached forward and cupped Lizzie’s breast.
“But we’re so much softer than the men,” Lizzie whispered, pressing forward to run her lips over the arch of Linda’s neck. Her perfume was dark and tasted bitter when Lizzie kissed her, but that felt right, too. Of course Linda had wanted her, of course Linda was angry with herself and the world, of course she smelled like overripe roses, dark and heavy and full of thorns.
“It’s only fair,” said Linda, pinching Lizzie’s waist just a little too tightly. “Our men walk around on us; everyone knows it.”
“Barely counts,” agreed Lizzie, hooking he fingers around Linda’s leg and resting it over the curve of her own hip. “This-” she dipped a finger inside Linda’s blazing heat- “Is all they care about. No… finesse.”
“Empty their balls and off they go,” said Linda, her voice gone breathless. She was timidly toying with the hem of Lizzie’s skirt, so she helpfully pushed it up herself, revealing her stocking clips attached to a silk suspender belt high around her waist. No knickers in sight.
“You slag,” said Linda, blinking in surprise. “You’ve- this whole time?”
“Mhmm,” said Lizzie, pressing even closer to Linda and letting her fingers begin to circle, ever so slowly, over her clit. “Tommy likes me like this. I like me like this.”
Linda’s eyes flicked from Lizzie’s cunt to her face, and Lizzie could read the uncertainty there. “Just touch me the way you do yourself,” she said, guiding her thin, fine lady’s hand higher. “Like you do when Arthur is off in London, having a grand old time, and you’re here seeing to everyone’s needs but your own.”
Linda nodded, biting at her bottom lip in concentration. It was adorable: flushed, confident, furious Linda reduced to arousal and shame and nerves. For once it was Lizzie who knew what to do, for once it was Lizzie who was in control of their interaction. She pressed harder at Linda’s clit, sliding her thumb down to toy with Linda’s entrance.
“Aren’t I soft?” she asked as Linda carefully parted her cunt. Lizzie was wet from this already; wet from Linda’s musky scent in the air and the soft flush of her cheeks. In an abstract way she had missed the occasional woman: the softness, the parity, the ease with which they could navigate each other’s bodies.
Linda nodded, gently stroking over Lizzie’s folds as though she was transfixed by the sight of them, pink and damp and blushing.
“Aren’t I warm?” Lizzie asked, rocking gently against Linda’s hand. Linda’s own hips were slowly rolling, too, chasing the patient caresses of Lizzie’s fingers.
Linda nodded again, and once more sank her teeth into her bottom lip. Lizzie wanted to laugh and tell her that there wouldn’t be a test on this; she wouldn’t be asking for recitation, but that would ruin the moment.
“On a cold night, when you’ve had too much champagne, and everyone seems to be happy and in love but you… wouldn’t you pay for this? To borrow all this softness for your own?”
Linda nodded again, and Lizzie leaned in to kiss her, and this time Linda kissed back. She kissed like a woman who couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop remembering if she’d brushed her teeth or if she was doing it correctly, so Lizzie bit her. Linda gasped and her hand jolted against Lizzie’s cunt, and so Lizzie smiled into Linda’s mouth and chased the taste of gin inside.
When they broke apart Linda’s eyes were dilated wide, and Lizzie chose to think of it as arousal as opposed to a reaction to the cocaine she’d snorted earlier.
“When I’m with a customer,” she said, close enough that she could see Linda’s freckles beneath the powder she wore, “I always try to make them finish first. It’s only right, you see, since they’re the ones paying for it.”
It was a little awkward- Lizzie was using her left hand for this, and Linda was squirming, but oh, the joys of women, so slippery and velvety. She slid two fingers inside Linda’s heat and let the other woman grind against the heel of her hand, wanton and wet.
“Isn’t it nice?” she asked, pressing at Linda so that she rolled to her back. “To have someone else seeing to you? I won’t be here to ask after my supper, and I won’t complain that you snore, or steal all the covers. I’m like a genie- you summon me up, and I see to your wishes.”
Linda had stopped touching Lizzie, and yet she could feel herself getting even wetter, slick to her thighs. It was the novelty, she decided. (And the scent of sex filling the air.)
“Keep talking,” Linda whispered.
Ah. Lizzie pressed her smile to the curve of Linda’s neck, where tiny little curls were beginning to form from the damp heat of their bodies. “You’re very pretty here,” she said, caressing Linda’s cunny without breaking the woman’s rhythm. “Like inside of a shell. Pink and hidden and safe inside.”
Linda’s thighs had gone stiff and trembly, and her eyes were tight shut with her hair tangled against the pillows. (Lizzie hoped that when Arthur came back he could smell them on the bed. She hoped he wondered. ) “Next time Arthur wants to fuck you without any play beforehand, and you can’t stop thinking about the laundry, or if he even loves you anymore- you can think of this.”
That did it. Linda came with a high gasp and a shudder of limbs, and Lizzie worked her through it, enjoying the feeling of Linda going molten inside while clutching at her fingers.
“Oh,” Linda sighed when Lizzie slipped her fingers free and wiped them on her own thigh.
“Lovely, isn’t it,” said Lizzie, rolling onto her back and finally letting her right hand drift to her own cunt. She was wet and throbbing and ready, and she didn’t know if she could draw this out even if she wanted to- and then Linda’s fingers twined with hers, both of them circling around and around Lizzie’s clit.
“What are you thinking about?” Linda asked.
Lizzie smiled, a crooked smirk. “About what Tommy would think if I told him,” she said. “The Shelby ladies, together in his brother’s bed.”
“Would he be furious?” Linda asked, her fingers nudging Lizzie’s out of the way.
Lizzie rolled her hips, finding a rhythm with Linda’s delicate fingers. “Yes,” said Lizzie, grinning even wider as she imagined the clench of Tommy’s jaw and the flash of those midwinter eyes. “But not- oh, Linda,- not for the reasons you think.”
“No,” said Lizzie, ignoring the clenching of the muscles low in her belly, trying to edge off her orgasm for a few seconds more. “He’d be angry he couldn’t watch it; couldn’t watch our pretty hands bring each other off. He says that I’m his.”
“He’d be so angry,” Linda whispered.
No, Lizzie thought again. He’d want me, want me so much more, because I’m his to touch, to own. She came on that thought, her legs closing around Linda’s wrist.
“Oh!” said Linda again, and Lizzie laughed as her pleasured faded to happy tingles in her fingers and lips.
“So,” said Lizzie as she crossed the room to the lav, leaving the door cracked. “How was that, then?”
Linda was silent. Lizzie washed her hands and hoped that Linda wouldn’t hate her even more; wouldn’t use this as the excuse she needed to destroy Lizzie completely. She walked back out into the room to find Linda seated on the edge of her rumpled bed, a vague smile on her face. “Hmm?”
Lizzie crossed the room and stroked cool fingers down Linda’s cheek. “Was it alright?”
Linda grinned up at her, and Lizzie sighed and wiped a smudge of white powder from Linda’s nose.
“I liked being your john,” said Linda. “You are very good. Of course, you’ve had plenty of practice,” she added, but instead of the biting tones she’d always used before, this time her words were soft and teasing.
Lizzie was glad things between the two of them were tilting back towards normal. “Now this part,” she said. “We have a drink, and we pretend like it never happened. But next time you see me you’ll raise your glass to me, just a little, and I’ll raise mine. And both of us will know , all dressed in our silk and jewels.”
“A secret,” said Linda, readjusting the bodice of her dress.
“A delicious secret,” said Lizzie.
“A sin,” said Linda, standing with a smile.
“The best kind,” Lizzie agreed, stealing one last kiss before they returned to propriety, and the parlor, and talks of divorce. “Sin shared.”