Richard frowned as he stared down at his cards. Was Elsie stacking the deck in her and Charles’ favor? Or were he and Isobel just exceptionally bad at playing Cribbage?
Elsie smirked as she caught the look on Richard’s face which she’d seen mirrored on Isobel’s not a moment ago. Looking at Charles, she saw his satisfied smile and knew that he’d seen their friend’s scowls and realized that they had horrible hands once again.
Isobel huffed as Richard made his move then shook her head and laid her cards down on the table. “I give up.”
Richard nodded as he did the same. “We’re never going to win.” He looked up at Elsie, his grey eyes glaring at her. “Did you stack the deck?”
Elsie quirked an eyebrow at him. “That is Charlie’s specialty, thank you very much.”
“So you’re admitting that someone has stacked the deck?” Isobel asked in surprised humor.
Elsie rolled her eyes as Charles harrumphed. “I did no such thing! I simply stated that Charlie can stack a deck, I can’t.”
“Well, he has dealt a couple of hands.”
Charles shook his head. “Pure luck that we’ve had such good plays.”
“Well, I’ve been beaten enough tonight, thank you.”
Elsie chuckled as she stood. “Tea? Or something stronger to soothe your wounded egos?”
Isobel rolled her eyes. “Behave, Elsie Carson. I’ll come with you to make tea. It will warm us up for the ride home.”
Richard watched the women walk from the room then turned to Charles. Watching as the man concentrated on putting the cards into a neat stack, he reached across and started pulling the pegs from the board. “Charles, has something happened?”
Charles looked up in surprise. “What makes you ask that?”
Richard shrugged. “Something seems different.”
Charles sighed as he stopped what he was doing. Studying the cards, he slowly ran his thumb over the corners. “She’s been sleeping in my bed.”
Richard raised an eyebrow at that. “Oh? Did you,”
“No.” Charles shook his head. “Oh no. I would never. She came to me weeks ago during a storm,” his voice dropped. “That bastard used the storms to,” he stopped, not able to continue. “Anyway, she was half awake and nearly laid down on the pallet in the corner, but then she woke up all of the way and stopped herself. I heard her and then the thunder made her cry my name, so I asked her to let me hold her. That was the first time, but since the weather has gone so frigid, and she gets so terribly cold, she’s asked if she could sleep with me until it warms up a bit.”
“And how does that make you feel?”
“I love having her with me, sharing my bed, but I,” he sighed then looked up at his friend. “I’ve so far been able to,” he shrugged. “To keep her from realizing certain things, but Richard, what happens when she feels,” he stopped, looking at his friend helplessly.
Richard understood what his friend was talking about, understood that it was hard for him to articulate. “Charles, you can’t help what your body does in your sleep.”
“But what if,” he looked down as if ashamed of himself. “What if I’m not asleep?”
“You can’t help that, either, Charles. You love her. She’s your wife. You’re only a man.”
“But if I frighten her…” Charles swallowed. “God help me, Richard. If I frighten her it will kill me.”
“Elsie, has something changed between you and Charles?”
“I sense a shift. Call it woman’s intuition.”
Elsie fidgeted with the tea cozy. “I’ve been sleeping in his bed,” she whispered, her cheeks flushing.
Isobel reached out and rested her hand on Elsie’s. “And?”
“I slept there a few weeks ago because the storm frightened me. Nightmares, memories,” she whispered.
“Oh Elsie.” Isobel sighed, silently cursing that man once again and hoping he was burning in the lowest pit of hell. “And so you just continued?”
Elsie shook her head. “No. Only one other time when it stormed again. But,” she pulled her bottom lip between her teeth.
“Go on.” Isobel encouraged.
“I woke the other night so very cold. Charlie keeps my fire built up because he knows I’m not good with the cold, but it just wasn’t enough. My teeth were chattering and I didn’t know any other way to get warm. Charlie is always so very warm and he’s told me to come to him if I need anything.”
“So you went to him to get warm.”
“Yes. And as I was lying there curled against him, I asked him if I could sleep in his bed until it isn’t so frigid.”
“And have you been?”
“I have. Isobel, I,” she bit her lip. “I feel things when I kiss him, when I’m curled against him, his arms wrapped around me.”
“Fearful things? Or tingly things?”
“Never fearful. I never slept in Connell’s arms or bed, and he wasn’t interested in kissing.”
“So tingly things, then.”
Elsie nodded. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Just let your heart guide you, Elsie.”
“I’ve also felt,” she blushed again and looked down. “I woke up and felt, well…and I was startled and moved away a bit. He’s tried to hide it and keep it from me, I…”
“It’s the natural way of things, Elsie. Men’s body’s always do that, woman that they love in their arms or not.” Isobel rubbed her hand up and down Elsie’s arm. “Were you frightened? Or repulsed?”
“Just a bit startled, and it was only the once. He’s been very successful at keeping me positioned in a way so that I don’t feel anything. I think I was confused more than anything.”
“He can’t control it when he’s asleep. He, I’m sure, does his best when he’s awake, but Elsie, he’s in love with you. You’re his wife, and I’ve seen the way he looks at you when he thinks no one is watching. Holding you in his arms, all soft curves and sweetness, is going to affect him. He’s only a man, a very gentle, caring one, but still – just a man. Have you talked to him?”
“Oh no.” Elsie shook her head. “I couldn’t possibly.”
“You could. He is your husband.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want more? Or at least to try to explore the feelings?”
“I think all I can handle right now is just the kissing.” She gave Isobel a bashful smile. “I enjoy that.”
Isobel smiled as she squeezed Elsie’s hand. “It can be very enjoyable.”