Beryl smiled as she helped Elsie transfer the biscuits they’d made to the cooling racks waiting on the counter. “You’re quite good at this, Elsie. Why did I not know you could bake?”
Elsie shrugged. “No need. I learned from my grandmother. Your shortbreads make me think of hers.”
“High compliment.” Beryl told her as they finished. “Now. Would you like to help me prepare dinner?”
Elsie looked at her fingers, wiggling them about as she remembered the times they’d been cracked with a cane, the time they’d been broken, for not preparing a meal just the way Connell liked it. “I,” she started, her voice breaking.
Beryl touched Elsie’s arm. “What is it? What happened?” she gently prodded.
“He broke my fingers the first time I didn’t make his toast just the way he liked it. After that, if I didn’t prepare something just right, he would take the cane to my fingers,” was Elsie’s quiet answer, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Will I ever be able to do things without him being there to haunt me?” she asked as she looked at her friend.
“Yes, Lass, some day.” Beryl smiled tenderly at her friend. “Some day, good memories will replace the bad. Maybe tonight we can make a few new memories to help you along.”
Beryl winked. “I happen to know a giant of a man that loves roast and potatoes. Think of the smile on his face when he learns that it was his favorite Scottish lass that prepared the meal.”
Elsie bit her bottom lip. “You think so? What if I,”
Beryl shook her head and gently squeezed Elsie’s arm. “I’ll be right here, helping you. But, even if something were to go wrong and it didn’t turn out just right, Charles Carson would still be grateful. He loves you, Elsie. He’s nothing more than an overgrown teddy bear with you. Just good ol’ Charlie.”
Elsie smiled at that. “Teddy bear,” she whispered. “I don’t think he’d like that.”
Beryl laughed, “Probably not, especially the ‘stuffed’ part of it.”
“Not at all.”
“Now come on, Lass. Let’s make you some new, good memories.”
Elsie looked down at her hands, her fingers flexing. “For being the sister I always wished I had. For taking care of me. For letting me talk when I need to.”
Beryl’s eyes watered as she hugged Elsie. “I don’t need any more thanks that to see a smile on your face, Elsie. I’m your friend, and I’ll be a sister too, if that’s what you want. I never had one, just brothers, I like the idea of a sister. And I’ll always listen, Elsie. I promised.”
Charles smiled at the little girl in his arms currently pulling at his nose. “Honk,” he made the noise, chuckling when the tot giggled.
Anna laughed delightedly as she watched her daughter with Charles. “I think little Elsie May likes Mr. Carson as much as Mrs. Hughes.”
Charles smiled sadly as he looked down at Anna. “Not Mrs. Hughes anymore, Anna. Just simply Elsie.”
John took his daughter when Charles handed her to him then looked up at the man. “You said that you would explain everything when we arrived. What’s happened?”
“Not here, Mr. Bates.”
“John. There’s no need for such formalities now, Mr. Carson.”
Charles nodded. “Then I’m just Charles.” He looked at Anna. “To both of you.”
Anna nodded. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“Now, let’s gather your things and I’ll take you to my cottage. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve arranged for you to stay in my home. I don’t spend much time there, so you’ll have plenty of room. Mrs. Clarkson arranged for a crib for the baby to be brought and set up in my guest room.”
John looked at Anna and saw the same look of concern on her face as he knew was on his. Something had happened. This man was not the same formidable man he’d been the last time they’d seen him.
“Mrs. Clarkson?” Anna asked, choosing to ignore the questions she and John had until they were safely tucked up in Charles’ cottage.
“Ah, yes. I forgot, no one here to inform you of the goings on in the village.”
“Well, we do occasionally receive a letter from Mrs. Molesley, but it’s been at least three months since the last one.”
“She’s been quite busy as of late.” Charles informed her. “Mrs. Clarkson is Mrs. Crawley.”
“Oh.” Anna gasped, wide eyed. “When?”
Charles shook his head. “They married in secret and were hiding it for fear of what the family would say. Things happened that made them change their minds and it’s only recently that the truth has come out.” Stopping at a pristinely painted fence and gate, he looked back at the younger couple. “This is it.”
“It’s a lovely cottage, Mr.,” Anna started then stopped with a frown. “Charles.”
Charles chuckled slightly. “Thank you, Anna.”
John looked at the flowers, recognizing a few of them as ones he’d often seen in the former housekeeper’s sitting room. “Plant the flowers yourself?” he asked as they made their way up the path, pausing so Charles could unlock the door.
“With a bit of help from Joseph. It’s amazing how competent he is.”
John laughed, Elsie May giggling at her papa’s mirth. “Love of a good woman, Charles.”
“So I’ve seen.” Charles answered. “The bedrooms are upstairs. I’ll take your things up if you want to go through to the sitting room. It’s just there,” he pointed as he walked toward the stairs.
“Charles,” Anna called, smiling at herself for getting the name right. “Would you like for me to make tea?”
“I can do it, Anna. You’ve been traveling. Just rest. We’ll have a chat and a good cup of tea then I’ll take you to see Elsie. She’ll be very surprised.” Charles called down the stairs, hoping as he said the words that Elsie would be happy to see two of the people she’d cared about most at Downton.
He hadn’t told her they were coming, nor that they had named their daughter after her, hoping that seeing them and how happy there were would make her happy. It should be alright if he let Elsie May do the charming. He smiled at the thoughts of the dark haired, blue eyed tot. She was a perfect mix of her parents, and a happy little thing. She didn’t seemed to be bothered by his size, which was a surprise as most children were frightened seeing him the first time.
Placing John and Anna’s things in the guest room, Charles sighed as he looked out the window at the tree.
He didn’t want to tell them truth. It would hurt Anna and anger John, but they had to know. He couldn’t let them go to see Elsie without knowing that she wasn’t the same anymore. Her white hair alone would be enough to startle them, never mind the timid way in which she reacted to anyone these days.
Taking a deep breath, he tugged down his waistcoat and stood up straight, shoulders back, as he made his way downstairs to his waiting guests.
The stop in the kitchen to fix their tea would provide him with enough of a distraction to gather his thoughts even more.