Tarnished

Chapter 43

It had taken Elsie nearly three weeks to stop having constant nightmares after confessing everything to Charles. Many times in the night, she’d wake up in a cold sweat, crying out for the torment to stop.

And always, her Charlie was there to hold her. He’d even gotten up and ran her a warm bath and fetched a fresh nightdress on the nights she’d been drenched. While she bathed, he would change the linens on their bed. Those weeks they’d had more laundry than ever, but Charles had helped her, growling gently at her when she would apologize and tell him to let her do it herself because she was the reason for the extra.

Well, now he was the reason for the extra.

She had woke up the night before, not from a nightmare, but because she’d suddenly felt like she was on fire. Touching Charles had felt like touching a burning flame and she’d nearly knocked the lamp to the floor as she’d reached to turn it on. Turning back to her husband, he’d been drenched with sweat and bright red, muttering nonsense in his sleep.

She’d jumped out of bed and rushed to the telephone downstairs, trying her best not to cry as she waited for Isobel or Richard to answer.

Now, here she sat hours later, bathing her dear man’s face with a cool, damp cloth trying to get his fever to go down. Richard had stayed with them most of the night, helping as best he could. The fever had gone down somewhat and he’d left to try and get a bit of rest before going to the hospital. Charles was still muttering nonsense as he tossed about, and she felt hot tears on her cheeks as she bathed his face.

“Damn and blast this influenza,” she cursed quietly before she did something she hadn’t done in a very long time.

She prayed.

A fervent prayer for the man who held her heart.

“Elsie! Elsie, please, don’t leave me. Why did you leave me?” Charles’ voice cried out, interrupting Elsie’s prayer.

“Oh Charlie, I’ve not left ye. I’m right here,” she whispered, her brogue thickening with her worry.

“No.” He jerked away from her touch. “Stop tormenting me in my sleep! You left me! Why? Why? Didn’t you know? Didn’t you know you’d break me if you ever left me?”

Elsie’s tears returned. Her dear sweet man had been tormented by thoughts of her after she’d left. She’d only been thinking of him, trying to protect him, and yet she’d hurt them both more than staying and facing Thomas’ accusations would have ever done. “No, Charlie. I didn’t know. I didn’t. You loved the Crawleys, they were your family, I thought I was protecting you. I love you, Charlie. I only wanted to keep you from being hurt by losing the reputation you’d worked so hard for.” Leaning forward, she pressed a kiss to his fevered brow. “I’m so sorry, my man. So sorry. I’m here, Charlie. I’m not a dream. I’m real.” Bathing his face in between kisses, Elsie hummed softly trying to soothe Charles’ feverish ramblings.

She’d never known how she’d broken him, no one had told her. If only they’d admitted how they felt for one another. If only she’d done what she always had, gently led him to the courage he needed to tell her that he loved her. She hadn’t known of his true feelings for her. She’d known he thought of her as a friend. After her cancer scare, and his singing that song out of his happiness for her good news, she had thought that he felt something more, but then everything had gone back to the way it was.

Until that day at the sea.

Maybe she’d been trying to lead him to admitting how he felt about her, but then maybe she’d just been teasing him.

She had never really understood what possessed her to offer her hand to him, other than she’d been suffering from too much sun.

That had always been the only thing she could think of to explain why she’d thrown propriety to the wind that day. She had been the bloody housekeeper! What in the world had she been thinking, taking off her shoes and stockings and wading in the sea? Well, she could sort of answer that – she loved the sea – though that didn’t explain why she’d lost all sense.

Lost all sense.

Yes.

That’s what she’d done.

Then she’d dragged Charles along with her.

And look what it got them?

Foolish woman.

Hearing Charles muttering again, she nuzzled his nose with hers. “I’m still here, Charlie. I’m never leaving you again. You married me, remember? You’re stuck with me. I love you. Besides, I would never leave a man that takes such good care of me and has given me such a lovely home and ring. I’m afraid that Mother Carson would haunt me if I did that, now that I know about her.”

“Ma?” Charles whispered, turning his head back toward Elsie. “Ma, have you come for me?”

Elsie felt her heart break. “No, Charlie boy,” she whispered, hoping to sound enough like his mother to soothe him. “It’s not time for you to come home, just yet.”

“But Ma, I miss you.”

“Shh, Charlie boy. I miss you, too, but you must stay with your lass.”

“Mmm, Elsie. Do you like her, Ma? She’s like you.”

Elsie couldn’t go on and just simply murmured something then went back to bathing his face. This fever was playing cruel games with her husband’s mind, and she hoped that he would remember nothing of what he’d said or recall thinking his mother had been here.

If his fever hadn’t gone down in the next hour, she would call Richard again. Charles hadn’t been this bad when he’d had the Spanish flu.

Feeling the water, she snarled. It had gone tepid. “Charlie, I have to go and get fresh water. I’ll be right back. I promise,” she added, hoping that he understood so that he wouldn’t think she’d left him again.

Taking the bowl to the bathroom, she dumped the water then felt herself trembling, the bowl clattering against the sink. She was so very tired, and worried.

And frightened.

Charles was her best friend before anything else and she hated seeing him sick, she always had, but now he was her husband – the most important relationship of all.

They had so much to learn together, so much to do. She wanted to have the chance to be his wife, to truly be his wife. She wanted to hear more stories about his life before she’d met him.

Looking up in the mirror, she saw her tired eyes staring back at her. “Please, God,” she breathed then returned her attention back to refilling the bowl with cool water.

She had a husband to get back to taking care of.


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