“Are you sure you’re warm enough, Elsie?” Charles asked for the third time since they’d left their cottage.
“Charles,” she fussed at him. “You can’t bundle me up anymore than you have or I won’t be able to move.”
Charles gave her a sheepish grin. “Sorry.”
Rolling her eyes at him, she patted his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s alright. Just stop fussing so.”
“Oh,” she huffed with a gentle pinch to his arm. “Where are we going first?”
“Well, we need things for the kitchen, and we need to post a few things.”
Elsie sighed, “We might as well get the post over with. At least if the woman sees me with you, she’ll keep her opinions to herself.”
“Are you suggesting that she’s afraid of me?” Charles asked as he looked down at his wife.
“You’re a big man and all you’ve ever been with her is gruff because of the way she acts. She’s not seen the softer side of Charles Carson.”
Charles shrugged. “If it keeps her from harassing you, I’ll be as grumpy as I can be.”
“Roar like a bear?” she teased.
Charles shook his head and winked. “No. My roaring is only for your ears.”
Elsie laughed and snuggled closer. “We’ll soon need to think about Christmas.”
Charles nodded. “We will. It’s rather hard to believe it’s so close.”
Elsie nodded, suddenly quiet as she remembered how her Christmases had been for the past three years.
Charles gently squeezed her hand. “Elsie, we’ll make new memories this year. Good memories. I’ve been thinking.”
Taking a deep breath, Elsie looked up at Charles. “Oh?”
“Mmm hmm. What if we invite Daisy and Beryl to have Christmas with us?”
Smiling, she nodded. “I’d like that. And a tree? Will we have a tree?”
Charles nodded. “Of course we will.” He frowned. “I don’t have many ornaments. We could buy some if you want. Start our own collection and traditions.”
Pausing outside the door of the post office, Elsie took Charles’ hand and squeezed it. “Thank you. I,” she bit her lip and looked down at their hands. “Just thank you.”
Lifting her face, Charles smiled at her. “I told you, I’ll do anything for you.” Gently tugging her back to his side, he opened the door and let her go in first, his hand against the small of her back as he stepped in behind her.
Elsie shivered a bit then took off her gloves before opening her small handbag to pull out her letters. “I thought I would send a Christmas letter to John and Anna now so that it’s sure to get there before the holiday.”
“Maybe when Spring comes we’ll take a trip to visit them. I’ve never been to Ireland.”
“Nor have I. I would love to see them again.”
“And I’m positive Elsie May would love to see her Grammy.”
“And her Charwie.” Elsie chuckled.
Charles’ smile turned to a scowl when he heard the grating voice of Mrs. Jones. Looking up at the woman, he gave his best butler’s stare, making her cower back which gave him more satisfaction that he knew it should.
Elsie bit her lip to keep from smirking as she and Charles moved up in the queue to take their place at the counter. Intentionally using her left hand, Elsie slid her letters across to Mrs. Jones.
“You’ve finally put a ring on her finger I see.” Mrs. Jones couldn’t help commenting. “The Dowager give you the money? That’s a fancier ring that a man such as yourself,”
“I’ll thank you to close your mouth.” Charles interrupted, trying to keep from roaring at the woman, knowing that raising his voice would upset Elsie. “The ring, though it’s none of your business, was my mother’s. Now,” he growled. “Do your job so that my wife and I may get on with our errands.”
Mrs. Jones kept her mouth shut as she took the letters, stamping them and putting them in the appropriate box to go out in the next post. “Good day,” she snapped.
Elsie smiled and chirped, “Good day, Mrs. Jones,” then took Charles’ hand as he led them outside.
“That insufferable,” Charles started, stopping when Elsie burst out laughing. “What in the world is so funny?”
“The look on her face! Oh how I love you, Charles Carson.”
Charles smiled. “I love you, too, Elsie Carson. Now put your gloves on, and come along. It’s starting to look like it might rain.”
Elsie looked up at the sky then sniffed the air. “You’re right. I can smell it.”
Charles looked down at her with a raised eyebrow. “You can smell it?”
Elsie nodded as she slipped her gloved hand through the crook of his elbow. “Yes. Farm girl, remember?” she gently nudged him. “Come on then, Charles.”
Charles shook his head. “You’re going to have to explain to me how you can smell rain before even a drop has fallen.”
“I don’t know how to explain it, Charles. I’ll just have to show you some day. If you don’t know what the air smells like before rain is coming, then you can’t know the difference.”
“Whatever you say, Darling.”
Elsie rolled her eyes. “Stop being smart and hurry up.”
Charles laughed as he easily kept up with her hurried steps. He could see by the clouds that the rain was growing closer so he had no problems hurrying along with his wife. Until his wife wasn’t hurrying anymore.
He hadn’t paid attention to the man yelling, hadn’t seen the hand being raised, but Elsie had and it had triggered memories. Moving to stand in front of her, he could see how pale she’d gone, how wild her eyes were as she struggled to come back from where her mind had taken her. “Elsie,” he said her name quietly. “It’s me, Charlie. Come on, Lass. Come back to me. It’s alright. You’re safe. You’re safe.” He reached out to touch her only to have her pull away, something she had never done before.
“Don’t. Please,” she pleaded, her mind still lost in the past.
“Elsie,” he said her name louder. “It’s Charlie. You’re safe. You’re safe.” As they stood there, Charles felt the rain begin to fall, his voice growing louder as he tried desperately to bring Elsie back out of her memories she’d gotten lost in.
Elsie felt the rain soaking through her coat and blinked, looking around before settling on Charles. “Charlie?” she whispered her hands reaching out to grab his arms.
“Yes, Elsie. It’s me. Come on, Lass. Let’s go home and get out of this rain.”
Charles knelt down in front of where Elsie sat in front of the roaring fire he’d built while she took a warm bath to try and warm herself. “Here, Elsie. Let me put these on.”
Elsie blinked and looked down at Charles, frowning when he lifted her foot. “What are you doing?”
“I’m putting a pair of wooly socks on your feet to try and warm them.”
“Wooly socks? I don’t have any wooly socks.”
“No, you don’t, but I do,” he answered as he slid one on, pulling it all the way up, the heel of it several inches above her ankle. “I’ll fold them down or they’ll be half way to your chin,” he joked as he winked up at her, feeling his heart lighten a bit when she smiled at him.
“Well, I don’t think they’ll go that far, but they are rather long for me.”
“But they’ll do,” he said as he slid the other one on, folding it down as he had the first one. “Now, would you like me to brush your hair?” he asked as he nodded toward the brush in her lap.
“Yes, please.” Elsie whispered, her teeth chattering.
Pulling the blanket tighter around her, Charles stood, scowling when his knees cracked. Taking the brush, he moved behind her, slowly and carefully pulling it along her hair. As he brushed, he felt his hands beginning to tremble, his eyes watering. Her beautiful hair, now white from the hell she’d lived. He couldn’t fix it. He could fix it when she was cold, he could bring her back from her painful memories, he could give her the love she deserved, but he couldn’t fix her hair. It would always be a reminder.
Elsie felt Charles’ hands pause their motion, then felt something warm and wet rolling down her scalp, a definite contrast to the coolness of the water that had soaked her hair. Then she heard a gasp and turned around, finding her husband standing behind her, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Charlie?” she whispered and reached for him.
Charles shook his head and moved back, plopping down on the settee. “I’m so sorry, Elsie. I was such a fool. If only I’d told you. If only I hadn’t been so afraid of change. I can’t fix it, Elsie. I can’t fix it.”
Elsie, stunned and confused, moved to stand before her husband and gently reached out to comb her fingers through his mussed hair. “Charlie, I don’t understand. Whatever in the world are you talking about? You don’t think my hell was your fault, do you?”
“Isn’t it?” he asked.
“Oh Charlie,” she whispered as she moved closer, pulling him close, his head resting against her middle. “No, Charlie. Is this why you’ve been pulling away? Have you kept all of this bottled up all this time?”
Charles wrapped his arms around Elsie and sobbed into the thick cloth of her dressing gown. His pain had been building since the day he’d learned she was gone from Downton, and he’d not let it out. No yelling. No tears. Nothing but a few late nights of drinking, talking with Lady Mary to take his mind away from missing his friend, and then late night chats with Richard. But those were before he’d known all of the things his Elsie had gone through. When Beryl and Richard had told him all that they knew, he had bottled that reaction up, as well, too afraid of frightening Elsie and needing to be strong for her.
“Charlie, why does my white hair bother you so?” Elsie whispered after a few moments, her fingers still gently combing through his hair.
“Because I can’t fix it. I can’t do anything to take away the reminder. Every time you look in the mirror,” he took a deep breath. “I don’t want that for you. I want to take it all away. I want to fix it.”
Leaning over, Elsie sighed as she rested her cheek against his head. “Oh Charlie, you can’t take it all away. You can only keep loving me and helping me learn to live again, live passed the memories and not let them rule my life. And you’re doing that, Charlie. You’ve been doing that since you carried me away from that place. Yes, my hair is a reminder, but it’s alright. The streaks that are left of my original hair color are also a reminder.”
Charles looked up at Elsie, his cheeks still damp with his tears. “They are?”
“Mmm hmm. They’re a reminder that I’m stubborn and that I’m a fighter. You just have to keep loving me and giving me strength to get that back. But you also have to start letting go a little. You don’t have to protect me as much anymore.”
“But what if something,” he started, stopping when she put a finger over his lips.
“I’ll always need you to protect me against the demons when they’re too much, but I also need to be able to get my independence back.”
Charles nodded then looked away, suddenly embarrassed by his outburst. “I’m sorry,” he murmured.
Turning his face back to her, Elsie cupped it with her hands and smiled at him, her own tears overflowing. “Oh no. Don’t ever apologize. You’ve been holding that inside all this time and it was eating away at you, pulling you away from me.” Without thought, she leaned forward and pressed a light kiss to his lips. “I need my Charlie too much for that,” she whispered.
Charles, stunned by the move, held her gaze, his hands resting lightly on her hips. “Elsie,” he whispered then swallowed. “You kissed me.”
“So I did, Charlie. So I did.” Elsie smiled. He was right to be shocked, she was shocked herself at the move. But she wasn’t frightened of Charles, and being kissed would never trigger anything because there were no bad memories associated with the act as kissing wasn’t something the bastard had been interested in.
Charles watched the emotions flit across his wife’s face and gently tapped her side. “I should get back to brushing your hair before it’s a dried mess.”
“You don’t have to. I can do it now.”
“Let me, please?”
“If you’re sure.”
Elsie nodded then moved to settle back in her chair by the fire. Feeling Charles’ hands carefully separating her hair into smaller sections, she let herself wonder at the tingling that still lingered on her lips after the kiss.
Maybe kissing was something they would have to start doing more of if it felt as nice as this.
She smiled when she heard Charles mutter when he hit a particularly stubborn tangle. His tears tonight had freed him of the burden he’d been carrying, though she knew it would take more for him to finally let go of all of the guilt he felt.