Chapter 42

Elsie sighed, Charles’ slow even strokes with the brush through her hair relaxing her. “Thank you for brushing my hair.”

“You know that I don’t mind. I rather enjoy it.” Charles told her. He did enjoy it, though the color was still a reminder of the hell she’d gone through and still bothered him. Brushing Elsie’s hair was something intimate they could do without fear of triggering a memory. “Why don’t you wear it down around the house? Surely wearing it loose would be more comfortable.”

“It isn’t proper.”

“It’s just us and I rather like seeing you with your hair down.”

“Hmm,” she hummed. “I’ll consider it.”

“Thank you,” he whispered. Finishing with the last section of hair, Charles set the brush down on the side table and moved to gently tug her up from the chair.

“Charlie, what?” she asked then smiled when he pulled her down onto his lap. “Oh, this,” she breathed as she settled further into his embrace. “I enjoy this.”

Charles smiled as he took her hand in his, bringing it to his lips, pressing a kiss to each fingertip. “So do I, though we don’t get much done.”

Elsie chuckled as she looked up at him with a raised eyebrow. “I think we get quite a bit done,” her voice was low as she stared up at him.

“I meant about the cottage, Elsie Carson.” Charles mock scolded, his dark eyes shining.

“Are you saying my housekeeping is lacking, Charles Carson?”

Charles laughed and patted her hip. “No, Elsie, I am not.”

“Then what is it?”

Charles sighed as he pressed another kiss to Elsie’s hand. “I enjoy holding you like this, and kissing you, but I’m always afraid of going too far with as much as we do this. I don’t want to do something that sets you back.”

Elsie smiled at the sweetness and concern of her husband. Lifting their hands, she turned them so that she could kiss his fingers as he’d done hers. “Charlie,” she took a deep breath and held his hand to her chest. “I think I need to tell you everything,” she whispered, both of her hands holding his to steady herself.

“I don’t want to know, Elsie, because it will hurt you to tell me and hurt me to hear it, but if I don’t know,” he swallowed and let his head fall forward to rest against hers. “If I don’t know, I can’t be sure of myself. I won’t know if something I do might be like,” he pressed a kiss to her hair. “I don’t want to be anything like him.”

Elsie wanted to argue that he could never be anything like that man, but she knew what he meant, and knew that he was right. “Hold me tight, Charlie, and don’t let me go.”

“I promise.”

Elsie let her head fall to his shoulder, her eyes closed as she took a deep breath to begin her story. She was safe here, she knew that, but it still didn’t make the telling of things she’d never told any easier.

Charles listened as Elsie told him of the beatings, of the costumes she was forced to wear, of the positions she’d been held in as she was forced to do her wifely duty, of the other obscene things demanded of her. Her voice faltered as she spoke, but she continued on, drawing on his strength to help her. She was so brave as she told him of things that he knew were embarrassing to her. It made him ill to think of the degradation she’d been subjected to, and he wondered if she would ever be able to enjoy being with him intimately.

An hour later found Elsie asleep in Charles’ arms after having cried herself to exhaustion. Charles had held her as tightly as he could, whispering words of love, of assurance that she was safe and nothing like that would ever happen to her again.

As Elsie slept, the anger that had built inside Charles as she spoke, roiled and spiraled its white hot fingers of hatred though his veins and around his heart. Not for the first time did he wish that he had killed the man that day in the shop. Beaten the bastard as he begged, as he’d done to Elsie. Then he began to calm, the sweet warmth of Elsie’s breath against his neck reminding him that she needed him with her, not rotting in a grave after being hanged for murder. Alba had taken care of the waste of human flesh, and even though he thought that death by poison was too easy, he still relished in the fact that the man was dead – and smirked as he thought of how the man must have reacted when he realized a mere woman had taken him down.

Nuzzling his nose into Elsie’s hair, he inhaled the soft scent of it, calming even more until he’d relaxed. He didn’t want Elsie to wake and find him so angry, his anger could only serve to frighten her.

Closing his eyes, he turned his mind to the last few weeks, how they’d taken to sitting in this chair at night, the fire burning in the hearth as she initiated the kisses that led to racing hearts and panting breath. He’d even slowly moved his kisses from her mouth to her face and neck, smiling when her breath would hitch and she’d tighten her grasp on his shirt.

Things had gotten so heated one evening that he hadn’t been able to hide his body’s response and she looked up at him, her hand resting on his face as she apologized. He’d told her it was alright, but had spent extra time in the bath that night, relieving himself so that he could sleep. Elsie had been waiting for him, and he wondered if she suspected what he’d been doing, but had shook the thought off as he settled next to her, her soft body curling into his. She’d whispered an apology again as she drifted off to sleep, and he knew then that she’d done more than suspect what he’d been doing – she’d known. Might even have heard him. It embarrassed him but it hadn’t stopped him asking her the next morning if she’d ever been with a man before and she’d shyly admitted that she hadn’t been, though she did know what men got up to without a woman. That admission had him raising an eyebrow and asking how in the world she knew that. She’d blushed and chuckled then reminded him she’d grown up on a farm, and she’d been the housekeeper of a large house for years.

That had brought him up short. What in the world had she seen? He’d asked if any of his boys had been out of line, and she’d shook her head. They were young, and some of them not so discreet, but none of them had done anything wrong, of that she’d been adamant as she explained what she’d seen and heard. Then she’d apologized to him again, told him that she hoped that one day she would be ready for more than kissing so that he wouldn’t have to spend the extra time in the bath. He assured her that there was no need to apologize, that he should have been a bit more discreet and she’d chuckled, her blue eyes twinkling up at him when she’d reminded him that there hadn’t been much chance for that when she’d been sitting on his lap.

All fire and sass, she’d been as she’d snuggled closer and tangled her fingers in his hair and confidently asked him to kiss her and take her breath away. He’d been more than breathless when they’d finished, but the look on her face had been worth it. She was flushed and bright eyed, a smile on her swollen lips, and he’d once again assured her that if kissing was all they ever did, it would be enough.

And he silently made the vow to her now as she slept in his arms, a whimper escaping as what he was sure was a nightmare crept into her sleep. He’d known, and so had she, that nightmares would plague her after dredging up those horrid memories. It was one of the reasons why she’d asked him to hold her and not let go.

“Shh,” he soothed when she tensed in his arms. “It’s just Charlie, Elsie. You’re safe. You’re safe. I’ve got you and he’s dead. No one will hurt you.” Over and over again, he whispered the same things until she settled and whispered his name.

Letting his head fall back against the chair, he closed his eyes to rest a bit, knowing that it was going to be a long evening as Elsie fought with her demons.

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