Chapter 37

Elsie carefully lifted an item out of the crate, gently unwrapping it and smiling as she held it up. “This one?” she asked, wanting Charles to tell her the story behind the ornament.

Charles turned from fussing with the lights to look at the object in Elsie’s hand. “That was the first one my father bought. It was for their first Christmas together as a married couple.”

Her eyes soft with love, Elsie stood and walked over to her husband. “Then it deserves the best place on the tree.”

“The best place on the tree is the top, and that isn’t made for a topper.”

Elsie shook her head at him. “No, Charlie. The center so that it’s the eye catcher.”

Smiling down at her, Charles nodded. “Fine then, but let me finish with these blasted lights. How did they get tangled so? We’ve only just purchased them!” he grumped.

Elsie laughed and shrugged. “I have no idea, Darling.”

“Don’t be smart, Lass.” Charles scolded playfully.

Going back to the crate, she lifted another item out, unwrapping it and smiling. “Well, I don’t have to ask about this one. It says.”

Charles nodded without looking. “That is the only one that says anything besides the one my father bought. Ma saved from one Christmas to the next to buy an ornament. There are only,” he paused, his voice thick with emotion. “There are only nineteen.”

Elsie felt her eyes tear up as she realized just why there were only nineteen – Mrs. Carson had stopped buying ornaments when her son had left. “Oh Charlie. I’m so sorry.”

Charles shook his head. “I was gone for six years. Six years that she worried over me and when I came home,” his voice cracked.

“I know. Beryl told me.” Elsie whispered. “Darling, even if Beryl hadn’t said, I would know that your mother loved you just by looking at these.”

Charles looked over his shoulder at the woman he loved sitting surrounded by the only mementos he had of his mother other than the ring adorning Elsie’s finger. “She would have loved you. You’re a bit like her.”

“Because I love her son?”

Charles shook his head. “Because you’ve a fire in you when there’s a need for it.”

Elsie smiled. “And because I love her son,” she added quietly.

Charles gave her a soft look then turned back to the tree. “I’ve just about finished with these lights.”

“I’ll bring these over then.”

Charles laid the plug down just under the outlet then turned to help. “Now, little lass,” he teased, earning him a huff and a glare before Elsie laughed and shook her head at him.

“Oh you. Behave.”

“Which one are we hanging first?” Charles asked as he winked at her.

“This one. The very first one.” She handed him the heart shaped ornament. “Your father was a romantic.”

Charles looked at the ornament then frowned over at his wife. “What makes you say that?”

“Charlie, that is the ornament he bought for their first Christmas and he had their initials painted on it.”

Gently fingering the cool ceramic heart, he placed it the center just above the middle of the tree. “I suppose he was. Ma never said much about that.”

“No, I don’t suppose she would have.” Elsie caressed Charles’ arm. “Here,” she handed him the next one. “Your first Christmas.”

Charles nodded as he took the ornament, shaking his head at the ragged look of the small stuffed dog. “Ma said I managed to get this one down from the tree and chew on it.”

Guiding his hand so that he would put it in just the right spot, Elsie chuckled, “Teething little men need things to chew on.”

“Maybe so, but it didn’t do much for the poor thing.”

Handing him another, this time a ceramic circle with a C elaborately painted on it. “Second Christmas.”

“Ma said that it was time I had my own letter on the tree.”

“And this one – the third Christmas?” she handed him another.

“Yes. I’d taken a liking to the neighbor’s horse.”

As Elsie continued to hand Charles ornaments, he explained the story behind them, filling Elsie’s heart with love for the woman she would never get to know.

“An acorn, Charlie? For your seventeenth Christmas?”

He gave her a sheepish look. “I’d shot up so much from my fifteenth to my seventeenth, Ma said I’d grow as tall as an oak and would be as sturdy as one too.” Patting his stomach, he shrugged. “I suppose she was right.”

“I like my sturdy oak of a man, thank you very much.”

Charles smiled and took the next ornament, letting Elsie’s hand guide his once again in its placement. “I’ve never had anyone to share the stories with.”

“I’m happy to hear them. It lets me get to know the woman that raised such a fine man.” Elsie handed him the last ornament, watching as he caressed a thumb over it before placing it. Looking down into the crate, she frowned at the large object still wrapped and sitting on the bottom. “Charlie? I thought you said there were only nineteen.”

Charles looked down in the crate then gently lifted the item out. “There are. This is the tree topper. My grandfather made it.”

Elsie gasped in surprise as Charles unwrapped the object, revealing a intricately carved and painted bird of peace – a white dove. “It’s beautiful, Charlie. And your grandfather did this?”

Charles nodded as he lifted the bird from its cloth nest and turned, reaching up to place it at the top of their tree. “Ma said he was very good with his hands, at making things. He was a peaceful man from all accounts, so this was no surprise. Ma said it had always been at the top of their tree as long as she could remember having one.”

Elsie sat the crate down then moved back to look at their tree. “It’s lovely and perfect.”

“Now just to put the ornaments on that we purchased.”

“And tinsel. We mustn’t forget the tinsel.” Elsie shook her head. “We must have been insane to spend so much. The lights,” she looked at Charles. “The lights were so expensive, Charlie.”

“My ever thrifty lass. It’s our first Christmas. We can afford to splurge.” He winked at her. “Now. I’ll help you with the other decorations. You get a box of baubles, and I’ll get the other. We’ll make short work of it that way.”

Elsie nodded. “Don’t trip over the crate,” she warned as she pointed to where she’d sat it.

“Thank you, Lass.” Charles told her as he bent to lift it and bring it with him to where they’d laid out their treasures. “It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas in here.”

Elsie quirked an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you mean, look?”

Charles shook his head. “Smell.” He pointed to the tree.

“Ah.” Elsie sniffed the air. “So it is. It will smell even more so when I start baking.”

“We start baking. I can help if you’ll let me.”

“I would enjoy it.” Elsie smiled at him as they walked back to the tree. Humming a carol, she began to hang the brightly color baubles, frowning when she stretched but couldn’t quite reach the spot she wanted to hang one.

“Here.” Charles laughed as he took it and placed it.

“Thank you, but don’t laugh,” she scowled at him with shining eyes full of mirth and happiness.

Charles shrugged as he went back to hanging his own baubles. “I rather like you being short. You tuck in quite nicely when I hug you.”

Elsie rolled her eyes at that, though a soft smile was playing about her lips. “Just under your chin if I’m wearing my shoes.”

“Mmm hmm. Just right.”

They continued on, both humming carols as they went, Charles occasionally taking another bauble and hanging it for her when she couldn’t stretch far enough. Finished with the baubles, they moved back to the settee and looked at the tinsel then up at each other.

“Just throw it at the tree and see where it lands?” Elsie asked making Charles frown.

“Wouldn’t that be a bit of a mess?”

She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll pull it apart and you can place it. Hmm? Will that work with your style and show?” she asked, winking up at him with a teasing smile.

“Quite right.”

Elsie shook her head, her tinkling laugh filling their cottage. Taking apart the first handful, she handed it to him, watching as he studied the tree to find just the right spot. This was going to take forever going about it like that.

By the time they finished, both were laughing as Charles had finally abandoned the ordered placement for simply throwing it at the tree. Of course, that had resulted in tinsel landing in his hair and in Elsie’s, which led to them laughing and removing the silvery strands to put on the tree.

“The lights, Charlie. Turn the lights on.”

“Turn the cottage lights off.”

Elsie hurried to do as he said then turned back to watch as he bent to plug in the lights. The brightly colored bulbs lit up, their colors bouncing off ornaments and tinsel. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered as she held out her hand for Charles. “Our first tree, Charlie.”

“The first of many.”

“Can we stay like this for a while? Just sit on the settee and enjoy the lights?”

“I think that’s a good idea. Maybe a glass of sherry to sip, hmm?”

Elsie nodded, tugging at his hand before he could release hers. “Thank you for giving me new and happy memories.”

“It’s been my pleasure, Elsie. Thank you for caring about the stories that go with my ornaments. This is the first time I’ve enjoyed decorating a tree in years.”

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