Elsie wiped at the tears on her cheeks as she watched Charles escorting Daisy down the aisle of the church. He was doing his best to keep from beaming with pride, but so far he was losing the battle. Daisy had become something of a regular visitor at the cottage the last few months, having shown up on their door one day when the weather had decided to be relatively nice for winter. Her smile had been as bright as the sun and she’d been fairly dancing with glee as she’d walked through the door then threw her arms around Elsie.
“Oh Mrs. Carson!” Daisy gasped.
“What is it, Daisy girl?”
Daisy pulled back and grinned as she tugged off her left glove and held out her hand. “He asked me, Mrs. Carson!”
Elsie smiled and took the girl’s hand to inspect the ring. “It’s a lovely ring. I’m very happy for you and your lad. Now why don’t you take your coat off and go through and tell Mr. Carson so he doesn’t wonder what the noise is all about.”
Daisy nodded as she shrugged out of her coat. “Mrs. Carson?”
“Do you think,” Daisy started the looked down and fidgeted with her ring.
“Ask him, Lass.”
Daisy nodded then rushed off to the sitting room, bumping into Charles who was coming out to see what was going on. “Oh,” she gasped. “Sorry, Mr. Carson.”
Charles held Daisy’s arms to steady her, sure that if he let go she’d fall backward. “What’s all the hurry?”
Daisy smiled up at the man she’d once been afraid of. “This,” she whispered as she held up her left hand.
Charles looked at her hand and gave her a puzzled look. “What’s so important about your hand? Have you done something to it?” he asked, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
Daisy scowled. “Mr. Car,” she started then noticed his lips twitch. “Mr. Carson! That is not funny. You mustn’t tease.”
“Sorry.” Charles winked at her. “It’s a lovely ring. So your lad has asked for you hand. Did he do it properly?”
Daisy nodded. “He asked Mrs. Patmore if it would be alright.”
“When I married William, you,” she started then began twisting the ring around her finger. “But I didn’t ask, it was just accepted that you would and I,” she chewed on the inside of her cheek some before looking up at the man that had come to mean so much to her. “Would you give me away to David?”
Charles felt his eyes mist as he pulled the young woman into a hug. “I’d be as honored as I was the first time, more so I suppose since you asked. I’ve grown very fond of you, Daisy.”
Elsie came into the room with tea just as Daisy was wiping her cheeks. “I take it he said yes?”
Daisy nodded as she sniffed. “He did, but you knew that he would.”
“I did.” Elsie winked and began pouring tea. “Sit and warm yourself.”
Daisy took the tea and sat in the chair by the fire. “Mrs. Carson?”
“Would you help me with my dress? Mrs. Patmore’s the best there is in the kitchen, but,” she shook her head. “She’s a right lousy seamstress.”
Elsie laughed at the look on the young woman’s face. “I’ll help you pick the material and the design, but we’ll leave the actual making to Mrs. Molesley. I’ll gladly do all of the flower arranging if you’d like. I’m sure Mr. Molesley will be happy to provide us with whatever you want.”
Wiping one last tear from her cheek, Elsie listened as the young couple exchanged their vows, her hand moving to clasp Charles’. Daisy had grown so much in the years since she’d last been married.
She wasn’t the only one that had changed.
All of the people here at the wedding had changed.
She and Charles more than most she supposed.
“Grammy!” Elsie May called out when she caught sight of Elsie at the party after the wedding.
Elsie smiled and bent down to catch the tot in her arms as she ran toward her. “Hello, my wee lassie,” she said as she lifted the little girl up, hugging her and smiling at the feel of two little arms wrapped around her neck.
“Oh Grammy, I’s missed you!” Elsie May said as she patted Elsie’s cheeks.
“I’ve missed you too, my wee lamb.”
“Did you see me with the flowers, Grammy?”
“I did. You did a very good job. Such a big girl.”
“Mummy made my dress.”
“And it’s a very beautiful dress. Did Mummy put the flowers in your hair, or did Poppy do that?”
Elsie May giggled and looked at her father. “Poppy can’t do hair, Grammy! He makes a mess!”
Elsie laughed and winked at John. “He makes a mess, does he? Hmm. Maybe it’s more to do with a certain wee lassie not holding still.”
John winked at his daughter. “I think Grammy has you figured out, Love.”
Elsie May wrinkled her nose. “Poppy.”
Anna laughed and leaned in to Elsie to give her a hug. “It’s good to see you. You look wonderful.”
“I feel wonderful, Love.” Elsie smiled when she heard her name being called by another little voice. “Oh, I didn’t realize they’d made it in.”
Anna turned to look in the direction Elsie was looking and smiled. “My how she’s grown.”
“Yes, she has.” Elsie whispered.
John held out his arms and took Elsie May just as Sybie stopped in front of Elsie. Watching as the little girl stared up at Elsie, he blinked in surprise as a tear rolled down her cheek, and wondered what was going through her mind.
Elsie bent down and wiped at the tear. “Lassie, why the tears?”
“I missed you. I didn’t get to say goodbye.”
“Oh Miss Sybie.” Elsie hugged the girl and looked up at Tom.
“Hello, Mrs. Carson.” Tom whispered. “She’s been so excited to see you. More than anyone, really. I didn’t realize this would happen.”
Sybie leaned back and placed a kiss to Elsie’s cheek. “Daddy called you Mrs. Carson.”
“Yes, he did. That’s who I am now.”
“Does that mean you married Carson?”
Charles answered from behind them. “It does, Miss Sybie.”
Sybie smiled as she looked up at him. “Hello, Carson.”
“Hello. You’ve grown since I saw you last.”
“Yes. I’m in school now.”
“Oh my. And do you like it?”
“I do, though some of my classmates speak oddly.”
Elsie laughed and shook her head. “This coming from a lassie who’s father is Irish.”
“And who’s surrogate grandmother is Scottish.” Tom added.
“Poppy, who is her?” Elsie May asked as she frowned down at the girl taking up Elsie’s attention.
John looked at Anna and raised an eyebrow. There little lass was jealous. “She’s Miss Sybie. She loves Mrs. Carson, too.”
“I have to share Grammy?”
“Yes, Elsie May.”
“But I don’t have to share my name.”
John had to bite back a laugh at the look of triumph on the girl’s face. “No. Just you and Grammy are Elsie.”
Beryl studied her friend as she danced with Charles. Something had changed between them and she wondered what it could be. Elsie seemed to be calmer.
Easier? Beryl wondered if that was the right word.
She was so lost in thought she didn’t notice Isobel come up next to her. “She’s beautiful today.”
Beryl started then turned to look at Isobel. “Yes, she is. Something’s changed.”
Isobel smiled and nodded. She knew what the change was, she’d recognized it the minute she’d spotted Elsie and Charles come into the church. “Yes, it has. She’s Charles’ wife.”
Beryl frowned. “Of course she is. What the,” she stopped, her eyes going wide as she realized what Isobel meant. “Oh. Has she told you?”
Isobel shook her head. “I just recognized the shift.”
“I’m married. I remember how different I was when I’d been with my first husband for the first time. You seem to carry yourself different. You’re,” she shook her head. “You’re what Elsie is.”
Beryl watched Elsie as she titled her head back and laughed at something Charles had said to her. “I know she was struggling. She’d told me how close they were getting.”
“I knew it, too. I’m happy for her.”
“I’m happy for them.” Beryl whispered.
“She’s come a long way since Charles brought her home.”
“She’s happy and her sassy self. She’ll never be the Elsie she once was, but at least she’s not the Elsie Charles brought to the hospital all bundled up in blankets and hid from prying eyes.”
“What are the two of you chatting about?” Richard asked as he stopped beside Isobel, his hand sliding around her waist and resting on her hip.
“Those two.” Beryl nodded her head toward Charles and Elsie.
“They do seem to love to dance.” Richard smiled, recognizing the shift in the couple as he watched them. “Seems things have changed,” he whispered.
“Which is what we were discussing.” Isobel winked at her husband. “They’re happy, Richard.”
“Prayers answered, Love.”
Charles watched Elsie as she stood staring at the shell resting on the mantel of their fireplace. He had hid it away the day before marrying Elsie and bringing her to the cottage, thinking to keep her from reliving that day at the beach and everything that followed.
“When did you find it?” he asked quietly, not wanting to startle her, though he should have known that she already knew he was there. She’d always had an uncanny knack for that.
“A few days ago.” Elsie answered then turned to look at him. “Why did you hide it?”
“I didn’t want you to be reminded.”
Elsie cocked her head as she studied his face. “But it was a good day, Charlie.”
“A day that’s been tarnished by everything that happened after.”
“That day is the only thing that isn’t tarnished.” Elsie whispered as she walked to where he stood. Taking his hand in hers, she smiled as she looked at them, marveling at how small her hand was against his. “The first year, I thought about that day by the sea all of the time. I dreamed of the feel of your hand in mine, of the sound of your voice as you told me I’d managed to make what I said sound risqué.” Lifting his hand, she pressed a kiss to the palm. “That day was all that I had, Charlie. After that, I was so lost I stopped thinking of that day, of you, of anything but making it through the day. Do you know, I dreamed of you just before the day you found me. It was just a dream. A dream of what it would be like to be openly in love with you. We had a life together in the dream.”
Tugging Elsie gently into him, he smiled down at her. “I dreamed of you on the train. It was much the same as your dream. We were happy and in love.”
“Maybe our minds were trying to tell us something.”
“Or our hearts.”
Elsie smiled. “Old softie,” she whispered.
“Haven’t I always been?”
“When you would let yourself be.”
“I love you, Elsie Carson.”
“Mmm,” she murmured, tugging him to bend down. “Then show me.”
Grinning, he cupped her face. “Oh, most definitely. I enjoy showing you that I love you this way.”
“I enjoy it too, but Charlie, don’t ever doubt that I knew how much you loved me before we got to this point. Everything you’ve done this past year, I know that you did it for me because you love me. The way you look at me, the way your eyes go soft, the timbre of your voice – all of it let’s me know, Charlie. I love you. Thank you for polishing the tarnish.”
“Oh no, Elsie. You never were. Never.”
“But to society I was, and to many other men, I still would be, especially after what was done to me.”
“Well, more’s the pity.” Charles caressed a loose tendril of hair behind her ear. “I never saw you that way, Elsie. You have to know that.”
“I do, you dear sweet man.”
“None of your friends did.”
“I know, and I bless them all. Now, stop talking.”
Charles gave her a sketchy salute then swept her up into his arms. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Elsie laughed as she cupped his face, her bright blue eyes staring into his dark ones. “Charlie Carson, you daft man. Take me to bed.”
“Gladly, Wife. Gladly.”
Elsie smiled at that. “Wife. I like that.”
“So do I.”
Elsie shivered at the way Charles’ gaze moved over her as she dropped her dressing gown, surprising him by not having a stitch on underneath. She winked when he looked up at her, his eyes darker than usual, his breath a bit erratic. “Charlie?”
“Elsie, dear heaven. You’re beautiful,” he breathed as he managed to shrug out of his own dressing gown. “I see we had the same surprise in mind.”
Elsie smiled. “We think alike more than we thought.”
“Seems so.” Charles whispered as he settled into the bed and held out his hand.
Taking his outstretched hand, Elsie settled on her side facing her husband. Cupping his hand, she placed it on her breast, letting her eyes close when he gently kneaded. “Oh yes, Charlie. Just like that.”
Charles watched Elsie’s face, smiled when her eyes closed and a gasp escaped her lips. She was beautiful to him always, but seeing her enjoying a man’s touch – his touch – made her seem even more beautiful. He knew that the physical was only part of life, of marriage, but knowing what she’d been through at the hands of the bastard that had claimed to be her husband, this was important.
Being able to enjoy being with a man was the last piece of the puzzle of healing Elsie.
Nuzzling her nose, he pressed a kiss to her lips, moaning when her mouth opened to his. She tasted of the sweets they’d had at the party, the wine they’d shared when they’d returned home, and what he recognized as a taste that was uniquely her. It was glorious. She was glorious.
Elsie whimpered when Charles broke the kiss then gasped when his mouth suckled a taut nipple inside, rolling it against the roof of his mouth as he slid his hand over her thigh, gently lifting her leg up and resting it over his. “Charlie!” she cried out when his hand touched her center.
Charles listened to the noises she was making, the sounds making his blood pump harder through his veins. The sound of her voice, low and throaty, would slowly be his undoing if he didn’t keep his mind focused on pleasuring her.
“Please,” she whimpered.
Watching his wife come undone with pleasure would never grow old. “You’re beautiful, Elsie. Beautiful,” he whispered as he pressed forward, slowly joining his body with hers.
Elsie pressed kisses to Charles’ neck, moaning when he began to move against her. “Mmm, oh yes. That’s wonderful,” she panted. Her body moved with Charles’, her fingernails marking the skin of his shoulder where she clung to him.
Charles felt her body rising to a peak again, and quickened the pace, his own control nearly gone. “That’s it,” he encouraged then lost all control when Elsie cried out the words she always did, words he couldn’t understand, words he was sure his wife would never tell him their meaning.
Elsie fell back on the bed, her hands resting on her stomach as she tried desperately to control her pounding heart and ragged breathing. Opening her eyes, she looked over at Charles and laughed. “My word, Charlie! What a sight we are!”
Charles grinned as he looked at her. “What’s so funny?”
“Your hair is sticking up. All those curls mussed all over your head.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. “Well, yours is a bit of a mess too.” Turning on his side, he smoothed her hair with his hand. “You’re still the most beautiful woman in the world, Elsie Carson.”
“Oh Charlie. More of your polishing?”
Charles laughed and shook his head. “No. Truth. You need no polishing.”
“You gorgeous, sweet man. I love you so very much, Charles Carson. More than I can ever tell you,” she whispered as she turned over and snuggled back against him. “Sweet dreams, my man.”
“Sweet dreams, Lass. I love you.”
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