Tarnished

Chapter 39

New Year’s Eve saw Downton village covered in snow, and found Elsie shivering in her bed. Her fire hadn’t gone out, Charles saw to that, but the wind was blowing so hard, and the temperature so cold, that she didn’t seem to feel its warmth.

Her teeth chattering made her huff as she threw back her covers, barely keeping the squeak of surprise from slipping out as the cold air hit her full force. Her feet wouldn’t fit into her slippers with Charles’ wooly socks, so she hurried out into the hall and down to Charles’ room. It wasn’t much warmer there, though she knew that he slept better cold than she did, but she knew that his bed would be warmer because he was warm.

“Charlie,” she whispered.

Charles was awake immediately and sitting up. “Elsie, what is it? Nightmare?”

“No. Cold,” she managed through chattering teeth.

Charles held up his covers, inviting her in. “Come on then. You climb in and I’ll add a bit more coal on the fire.”

Elsie climbed in, sighing as the warmth enveloped her. She watched in the dim light of the moon through the curtains as Charles hurriedly put coal on the fire and stoked it. Smiling at him when he settled back into bed, she curled up against him. “Thank you.”

Pressing a kiss to the top of her head, Charles rubbed his hand up and down her arm trying to warm her. “Goodness, Lass. You’re freezing. Did your fire go out?”

“No. It’s cold, Charlie, and not all of us are walking stoves.”

Charles chuckled. “Well, I’m happy to be of service, my lady. Your stove shall keep you warm.”

Elsie laughed and nudged him in the ribs. “Charlie, behave, you know what I meant.”

“I do.”

“Have you always been so warm?” Elsie asked as she settled further into his embrace.

“Not when I was a child. Ma always worried I’d freeze to death in the winter. When I turned fifteen things changed and I was always fussing at her for making me have my room too warm.” Charles felt Elsie relaxing further against him. “How did you manage at Downton? The attics could be frigid.”

“A hot brick. Beryl kept it hidden for me and would put it to warm when she sent the last of the girls to bed. She was the only one that ever knew.”

“Why? I know that a few of the hall boys did the same. I think I even overheard Alfred saying he was thankful for the hot brick at the foot of his bed one winter.”

Elsie shrugged. “I suppose I didn’t want them to think me old or weak.”

Charles shook his head and gently squeezed her. “They wouldn’t have, Elsie.”

“Some of them would,” she whispered.

Charles growled. “He’s of no consequence.”

“Charlie?”

“Yes?”

Elsie bit her lip, wondering if she should continue, knowing she had to. “What happened to him?”

“The Dowager found another house for him to serve in.”

“Oh?” she said, her voice gone cold.

“It wasn’t like that, Elsie. She knew what she was doing. The house was that of Lord and Lady Smythe,” was all he said, knowing that Elsie would need no other explanation.

Elsie blinked in surprise. “Really? Oh my,” she breathed.

“Just reward.”

“Mmm,” she agreed.

Settling more comfortably against his pillows, Charles closed his eyes. “Warm enough now?” he asked, changing the subject. The last person he wanted to think about was bloody Thomas Barrow.

“Yes. Nice and cozy. Thank you.” Elsie sighed as she reached for his hand. “Charlie, don’t leave me in the morning. I’ll be okay if I wake up with you.”

“I don’t want to frighten you, Elsie. That’s why I always just get up.”

“Well, you don’t have to. I,” she bit her lip. “Do you think, since it’s winter and I get so very cold,” she paused again.

“I can find you a brick for you bed.”

Elsie shook her head and squeezed his hand. “No. The brick grows cold after a while, and it’s horrible to wake up from a stubbed toe.”

“I’ll do what I can to make sure you stay warm.”

“Do you think I could sleep here?” she asked quietly.

Charles’ eyebrows rose in surprise. “Are you sure?”

“If you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t. I’ll be glad to share my bed and my warmth with you.”

“Be my stove?” she teased.

“Mmm,” he rumbled as he gave her a tender squeeze.

“It’s a new year, Charlie.”

“It is and we’ve seen it in together.”

Charles heard Elsie yawn. “You’re sure about wanting me to stay in the morning? It isn’t going to trigger a memory?”

Elsie shook her head. “No, Charlie.” She reached up to turn his face down to hers. Pressing a soft kiss to his lips, she settled back against his chest. “I never slept like this. Only the corner. He never kissed me or made me lay in his arms. I’m safe here, Charlie.”

Charles, for the first time since he’d found Elsie, was glad that she’d not been made to sleep with the piece of trash she’d been married to. He hated that she’d slept in a corner, but at least knowing that she’d not slept with the man, gave him the comfort of her not being afraid of sleeping in his arms. “I’m glad you can feel that way. I always want you to feel safe with me.”

“Mmm,” she hummed as sleep slowly claimed her. “I always have, Charlie.”

Charles listened to Elsie’s breathing even out. He was still surprised she’d asked to sleep in his bed, but was grateful that she had felt strong enough and comfortable enough to ask. Of course he knew that it was the cold that had prompted it, and thought that when it warmed up a little, she would go back to her own bed, but he was happy to have her next to him for as long as she wished to be. She was his wife, his life now, and anything she wanted he would gladly give her if it was within his capabilities to do so.

Staring into the fire, he watched the flames and thought back to this time last year. He’d been missing Elsie, just as he had for all of the New Year’s Eves since she’d gone, and had sat up until the wee hours drinking the scotch he’d bought just for the occasion. He’d had no idea that only a few short months later, his world would be turned upside down, that he would find his fiery Scottish lass and be married to her come the next New Year’s Eve.

He reached up to touch his lips where the feel of her own soft ones still lingered. He would never instigate the kisses, but he would enjoy them and happily kiss her back.

His eyes slowly closed, a smile tugging up the corners of his mouth.

He was happy this New Year.


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