Chapter 29

“They’re taking care of her, Charles.” Richard assured the man for what seemed like the tenth time in as many minutes.

“I know. I’m just worried for her. She’s afraid. I don’t want her to do this because she doesn’t have any other choice. I never want that for her again. I just want to take care of her, that’s all.”

“I know that, Charles. I’m sure Elsie knows it too, but she’s leaving the safety we’ve given her here for something new, it’s going to take a bit for her to be comfortable with the change. Beryl and Isobel both have assured us that they will tell her she doesn’t have to do this if she doesn’t want to. I would tell you that Isobel and I would cancel our holiday, but my sister has been ill and I promised I’d come for a visit.”

Charles sighed and sat down. “I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize, Charles. I understand. I would feel the same if it were Isobel.”

“I just don’t want to do anything to frighten Elsie or make her think I’m taking away her rights. I don’t want her to ever feel like she is my property and I’m afraid that this will do just that. I’ve already told her that I wouldn’t ask her to wear a ring. But what do I do about the people of the village when the see her? They’ll gossip because she’s living with me and we’ve had no wedding that they know of, and they’ll not see a ring. I just don’t want their nosiness and gossip to hurt her.” Scrubbing a hand over his face, he looked up at Richard. “If only I could build her a home underground where no one could touch her.”

“But she needs to get back into society, Charles. That is another part of her healing process. The gossip will die out once the nosey busybodies see Elsie out and about and not hidden away.”

“I know that Elsie needs to do that, but I also know I want to keep her hidden away from prying eyes and anyone that can hurt her. I only want to keep her safe. I failed so miserably before.”

“Charles, you can’t blame yourself. You had no idea that any of this would happen. If you had known and had stood by and let it happen, then I would blame you and so would anyone else that loves Elsie. But, you didn’t know. None of us did. Who would ever think that one’s own sister would do such a thing?”

“But I know Barrow. I should never have taken Elsie’s hand that day knowing that he was about.”

“You could also go back and blame Lord Grantham for never having gotten rid of the prick, but that isn’t going to help Elsie. What’s done is done. Now, you have to keep loving Elsie and giving her everything she wants or needs. If you keep helping her, you will help yourself.”

Hearing movement on the stairs, Charles stood and walked out into the hall, smiling as he watched Elsie follow Beryl and Isobel down the stairs. As she stopped in front of him, he reached out and gently took her hand. “Are you sure, Lass?”

Looking up into the eyes that never lied to her, Elsie took a deep breath. “I’m scared, but yes, I’m sure.”

Charles nodded. “You look beautiful, Elsie.”

“Thank Isobel and Beryl.” Elsie whispered as she looked away shyly.

Tenderly lifting her face back to his, Charles smiled down at her. “Don’t turn away, Lass. Are you ready to go?”

Squeezing his hand, Elsie nodded. “You are going to ride next to me, aren’t you?”

“I won’t leave your side, Elsie.”

Nodding, she let go of his hand so she could put on her hat and coat. Her trembling hands made it impossible for her to fasten her hat pin. Looking up when she felt a warm hand on hers, she found herself caught up in the love Charles felt for her and it steadied her nerves enough that she was able to finish. “Thank you,” she whispered as they lowered their hands.

“Don’t forget your gloves, Lass.” Charles told her with a smile.

Elsie wrinkled her nose at him even as she pulled on her gloves. He’d always been fussy about her gloves.

Charles shook his head and gently tapped her nose. “Don’t wrinkle that pretty little nose at me. It’s cold out.”

Beryl hid her snigger behind her hand, remembering the times in the past that Charles and Elsie had fussed over gloves. Though tapping her nose was a new thing.

Isobel smiled back at her husband as he helped her into her coat, his own smile greeting her. Charles was in fine form today, easily slipping into his role as Charlie the clown to take Elsie’s mind off her nerves. Though if Isobel was honest with herself, the tapping of Elsie’s nose was rather sweet. Maybe just maybe her friend would get through this day with a bit of happiness instead of all of the fear.

Elsie’s nose twitched. “Charlie,” she huffed. “Not my nose.”

Charles chuckled and grinned down at her as he held out his arm. “And why not your nose? Or are you trying to tell me I was wrong about it being a pretty little nose?” he asked as he led her out to the waiting car.

Elsie rolled her eyes up at him. “Maybe we should ask Richard if he knows a good eye doctor.”

Charles laughed at that. Helping her into the back seat, he carefully folded his tall frame in, scowling over at Elsie when she laughed at him as he pulled his hat from his head and began fussing to fix it. “I’ve just dented my best hat and the lady I love is laughing at me,” he grumbled though his twinkling eyes told her he wasn’t angry just playing along.

Elsie loved the man beside her even more in that moment than she thought she could ever love anyone. She had seen him riding in motors before and knew that he could easily fit without squashing his hat. He had done this just for her, to continue to help her with her nerves. Wrapping her arms around his, she let her head rest against his shoulder. “I love you, Charlie,” she whispered so only he could hear.

Charles patted her hands as he smiled and leaned over to whisper, “I love you, too, Lass.” He could feel that she’d calmed and looked down at his hat with a sigh. Smashing his best hat had been worth it.

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