“Dinner was wonderful. My favorite.” Charles murmured as he wiped his mouth with his napkin then patted his stomach.
“Elsie did most of the work.” Beryl smiled at her friend, a knowing look in her eyes.
“You’re a wonderful cook, Elsie. I didn’t know you knew how.” Charles said, genuinely surprised.
Elsie blushed and shrugged her shoulders. “I grew up on a farm. Meat and potatoes were a staple. Easy to fix and filling. Ma taught me as soon as I was old enough to handle a knife.”
“Well, if you keep fixing the meals, I won’t be able to walk.” Charles winked at her.
“Charwie!” Elsie May giggled when Charles blew out his cheeks.
Charles waggled his eyebrows and ruffled his hair, smiling when Elsie May giggled and clapped her hands. Standing, he swept the tot up and swung her about, making faces at her as she giggled.
“Charwie! Charwie!” Elsie May squealed as he brought her back down, resting her on his arm.
Elsie watched Charles with the tot, her mouth turning up in a smile as she watched him being Charlie. A laugh bubbled up out of her when Elsie May reached up and tweaked Charles’ nose, eliciting a honking noise from him and a squeal of delight from the tot.
And then it was quiet, all eyes glued to Elsie.
Elsie blinked in surprise when she realized it had suddenly quieted and that her friends were all staring at her. “What?”
Beryl’s eyes were filled with tears, a watery smile on her lips.
Charles’ dark eyes were glistening as he held Elsie May close. “You laughed, Elsie.”
Beryl nodded. “You laughed, Elsie. You laughed,” her voice cracked on the last word and she wiped at her eyes with the napkin.
Charles, having handed Elsie May to her mother, moved to where Elsie sat and knelt down in front of her. “Yes, Lass, and it was music to my ears,” he whispered as he gently placed his hand over hers. He wanted nothing more than to pick her up and twirl her around as he hugged her to him, but he refrained, too afraid of frightening her.
Anna smiled at Elsie May when she wiggled to get down. “What is it?”
“Elwsie waughed. Give her hug.”
Anna let the tot down and watched as she worked her way in between Charles and Elsie. Covering her mouth to hide her snort of laughter when Elsie May patted Charles’ cheek and told him, “Move, Charwie,” she looked at John. “We really need to work on her manners.”
John hid his own chuckle as he watched Charles help Elsie May up into Elsie’s lap. “I don’t think they noticed.”
Elsie sat staring into the fire, listening to the sound of Isobel’s muttering as she tried to knit. She didn’t know why the woman even tried because all she seemed to do was mutter and growl and get her fingers tangled in the yarn.
Isobel let out an expletive as she flung the yarn and needles to the floor. “Ugh!”
Elsie gasped then looked at her friend with a raised eyebrow. “Does your husband know that you know such language?” she asked, a tiny smirk playing on her lips.
Isobel cocked her head and studied Elsie. “Something happen tonight, Elsie?”
“Other than your language?”
Isobel frowned, her twinkling eyes giving her away. “Too many years spent around soldiers.”
“Hmm.” Elsie hummed.
“That isn’t what I meant, Elsie, and you know it. Now, what happened? Something’s changed.”
Elsie looked back into the fire. “I laughed,” she finally admitted.
Isobel, having just picked up her yarn and needles, dropped them again as she sat forward. “You laughed? Oh Elsie,” she breathed, knowing what a huge step forward such a small thing was. The woman had barely begun to smile again, a smirk every now and then, but to laugh? It was wonderful!
“Charles surprised me with some visitors, which didn’t go very well.”
“Who?” Isobel asked, not wanting Elsie to know that she had known about the surprise visitors beforehand.
“The Bates. I met their wee lassie first.”
Elsie nodded. “I didn’t think, I just picked her up and asked her how she’d gotten in the house. She pointed to Charles and then he told me who she was. I didn’t react well to the news.”
“But why, Elsie?”
“I,” Elsie started then stopped, she didn’t want to tell Isobel Anna’s secret. “I didn’t want her to see me like this.”
“Elsie, there is nothing wrong with the way you look.”
Elsie reached up and touched her hair. “Isn’t there?”
“Does your hair bother you? If it does, I’m sure,”
“It reminds me, but it bothers Charlie,” she whispered.
“Do you want me to take you to London to have it fixed?”
Elsie shook her head. “Oh no. I just,” she sighed. “I need to work through it.”
“And we’ll help you just like we’ve been doing.” Isobel smiled at her friend. “Now, tell me what made you laugh.”
Elsie smiled as she remembered. “Elsie May tugged on Charles’ nose and he made a honking noise.”
Isobel shook her head and laughed, “Well no wonder you laughed. I’d have loved to see that.”
“He’s very good with children, always has been.”
“I’ve heard stories from the girls and I watched him with Sybie and George.”
“He was being Charlie tonight instead of Charles. Swinging Elsie May about and making her squeal. He even ruffled his hair and waggled his eyebrows at her. She’s a lovely wee thing, very happy.”
“It was good for you. I think, if you’re up to it, I should invite Edith here. I know she would like to see for herself that you’re safe.”
“I think one wee lassie and her parents is all I can take right now.” Elsie sighed and then shook her head when Isobel got her fingers tangled in the yarn again. “For goodness sake,” she breathed as she moved to sit beside Isobel. “Let me help.”
Isobel flung her hands up and down, untangling them from the yarn once more and dropping it and the needles into Elsie’s lap. “You can do it. I give up. I’ll stick to my needle point.”
Elsie held up the item then looked at Isobel. “What is it you’re trying to make?”
Isobel shrugged. “A scarf?”