Elsie spun around, searching for the feminine voice saying her husband’s name. Of course, it wasn’t her husband the woman was calling. A toddler was waddling across the sand as fast as his chubby legs could carry him. The owner of the voice, his mother one would assume, was looking dishevelled and flustered, just catching the child by the arm before he stumbled into the potentially dangerous water.
Charlie... She still couldn’t quite believe how easily the name fell from her lips since he’d proposed.
She’d only ever called him ‘Mr Carson’ up until that point. Now and then, she’d scolded him with his full name. ‘Charles Carson, whatever are you thinking?’ seemed to slip out before she could think better of such impertinence and catch it.
But Mr Grigg had called him ‘Charlie’ and somehow she’d thought it more intimate when deciding on how to address a man who would be her husband. She found herself tentatively testing the waters, so to speak, and using that name during the New Year’s festivities. From his reaction, that boyish and humbled smile, she assumed he was pleased. Certainly he’d never corrected her henceforth.
Charlie had been the name of Ethel’s wee bairn, a sweeter child she could not remember, but such a sad situation. His life would still be balanced precariously between the classes, she supposed.
Oh, how she and her Charlie had tussled so over that particular maid’s dilemma. Elsie should have brought up their initial dealings at Downton at the time, she reckoned now. After all, it had seemed he’d known all along about her suspicions.
“Did I know that when you first started at Downton you thought I was having an affair with one of the housemaids?” he’d asked after they’d been talking of their first meeting on their wedding night.
He was seemingly not too concerned about her confession that she had cast such aspersions upon his character. Instead, his interest had been piqued by the faint red line that he’d found on the underside of her breast.
Charlie’s finger traced the scar’s path back and forth as he spoke, proving he still had a butler’s skill for concentrating on more than one thing at a time. “Yes, I did,” he added, with every appearance of not being angry. In fact, he sounded amused by her indiscretion.
Before she could begin to fathom the implication, he was changing the subject. “It doesn’t hurt, does it?”
He looked up, and she was so distracted by that one lock of hair curling on his forehead that it took her a moment to actually realise he was referring to her scar. “No, just occasionally itches like the devil,” she replied. “Often at the most inopportune times. Imagine that stickler of a butler’s face should I have started scratching it when greeting a member of the peerage.”
He emitted a pleased rumble before he began kissing along the puckered mark left from the cyst removal.
“It wasn’t only one housemaid,” she admitted vaguely, perhaps to distract herself from wanting to again clutch his hair and direct him to her throbbing nipple.
“What?” he murmured airily. He was too preoccupied to be insulted, it seemed.
She gave in to her desire to touch him in return; massaging his shoulders and neck. She dug her nails into the fleshy muscle as it shimmied beneath her each time he moved from one breast to the other, which she was sure he was now doing with a deliberate intent. He would suckle and kiss and explore one and its nipple relentlessly and thoroughly, until she thought she would faint from not being able to take this regard a moment longer. At that exact moment, he’d swap to the other side, and her tolerance levels would even out for the shortest while before they would again slide dangerously close to shattering.
She actually needed him to stop for a moment before she lost all sense. She was panting and gasping for air, all while lying stationary and doing little but clutch his shoulders!
“I thought you were abusing your position and having sexual relations with at least three of the maids," she said in a rush when he had leant back to alter sides once more.
He looked up then and his eyes flashed darkly in the muted light.
“I hope once we met, you realised the error of your ways.”
She was simply concentrating on inhaling and exhaling by this time. “Not exactly…”
She had first arrived at Downton during one the family’s frequent jaunts to London. Charlie had, of course, been travelling with them and, therefore, she’d been installed as the housekeeper for several months before they met.
The skeleton staff left at the house that year had included the head cook, Mrs Collins, and kitchen and house maids numbering almost fourteen.
The agency advised that her predecessor, Mrs Murdoch, had not approved of Lady Grantham’s Jewish roots; or her American ones for that matter. Elsie had jumped at the chance to work at Downton again, being familiar with the house from her brief time there as head housemaid.
Of course, she would have accepted any position at the time. Her previous employer, Lady Fairfield, had passed away. Lady Fairfield’s family was continuing to pay her wages and gave her an exemplary reference with a promise of hiring her in their London house should she not find suitable employment within a two month period. There they already had a capable housekeeper, however, so the position would be head housemaid. That step down, and the fact that Elsie had always regarded herself as a country girl at heart and was not keen on living in London, meant she’d grasped the Downton offer with both hands before thinking too long on the decision.
And in her excitement, she had not taken any time to delve too deeply into the background or reputation of Downton’s butler.
Mr Fulton, Lady Fairfield’s butler, was 72 and had retired straight after his mistress’s death. It was suffice to say Elsie had basically been allowed free reign over that house for some time.
She was told Mr Carson would be much more involved in the housekeeper’s activities.
“Interfering, is how I’d put it, in my own words,” Mrs Collins, the Downton cook, informed her during her first week.
Mrs Collins went on to say that it was Mr Carson who had been unhappy with Mrs Murdoch and arranged for her resignation. It was nothing to do with her disapproval of Lady Grantham, or vice versa. Every decision in the household was made by Mr Carson. He had no time for a woman’s point of view. No time for a housekeeper’s authority. Yet lots of time for fraternising with the younger female staff, she hinted.
“You’ll need to watch yourself, you will.”
“But when I spoke with Lady Grantham--”
Mrs Collins cut her off. “You don’t think she runs Downton, do you? Oh no, this is Mr Carson and the Dowager Countess’s domain, this is. They’re as thick as thieves, they are. She was the one who employed him, you see. When Lady Grantham was visiting her mother in America, no less. To deliberately embarrass Lady Grantham, to be sure.”
Mrs Collins’s habit of adding unnecessary comments at the end of her sentences was getting on Elsie’s nerves already and making it difficult to get the gist of their discussion. “Embarrass her?” Elsie wondered aloud.
“Mr Carson was put on as a ploy to undermine her son’s new wife, you see. He was far too young to be the butler of a grand house as this, surely. And we never were privy as to who his previous employers were, still today. The Dowager set him up to fail, mark my words. And for his failure to make Lady Grantham look foolish, you see.”
“And Lord Grantham allows this?” she asked, skeptical.
Although they were not in the kitchen and Mrs Collins’s hands were clean of food, the cook wiped them down her apron. A habit, Elsie supposed. Or something else… Her instincts told her that all was not what it seemed with this lofty and big-boned woman.
“Mr Carson has been here nearly ten years,” Elsie reminded the cook. This much Elsie did know.
“Yes, he’s been here for longer than anyone reckoned, that’s a fact. But as for the rest? Well, you’ll have to wait and see, Mrs Hughes, won’t you.”
Mrs Collins turned and walked away then, insolently dismissing Elsie.
“She was right about that,” Charles told her after Elsie had relayed the story. “I suspect the Dowager knew about my life on the stage when she approved my appointment.” He shook his head. “I jumped at the chance to work somewhere like Downton so quickly that I never thought through why they’d employed me until much later,” he said, not knowing this confession gave them something in common she would have never imagined. “And then, when I did put two and two together, I think it made me even more determined to make a go of things.”
“Which you did,” she said with a smile, proud for him. His reputation as a butler was incomparable.
“No, I merely muddled along before you came to my rescue,” he insisted, kissing along her shoulder blade now.
“Don’t be silly.” Still, she couldn’t help but glow at his words. And it was true that once she’d settled into the routine of the house, they had made a nice team.
“Elsie, it’s completely true. My job became a hundred percent easier with you by my side.”
His thumb circled her navel, and then followed the couple of fine hairs that grew near it down… Down… Down, until he reached her triangle of darker hair.
“We seem…” He swept back the tight grey and golden curls. “...To complement each other, don’t you think?”
She arched her back and gasped out his name, but he just patiently stared with fascination.
Finally, when she thought she could no longer tolerate the tension building, his thumb gently brushed against the vulnerable flesh he’d exposed. The pleasurable ache in her lower abdomen surfaced yet again. She bit down on her bottom lip, and forced herself not to beg, although she assumed her hips lifting off the mattress might have given him some indication of her mindset.
Elsie frowned and stiffened. Why had he taken his hand away from between her legs? In fact, where was he?
She opened her eyes, a little disconcerted that she couldn’t even remember closing them.
“Charlie?” she whispered.
He was kneeling near the end of the bed.
She pushed past the bereft feeling which instantly settled upon her from this forced distance he was putting between them. With a brave wobbly smile, she patted the bed beside her; a needy invitation. Her heart jumped for joy when he accepted the overture with his own crooked smile, and came to snuggle alongside her. This wasn’t second thoughts then, at least.
Yet thinking about the other Cheerful Charlie could hardly be conducive to the required mood for the evening!
“Why would you be mentioning his name now then?” she wondered aloud, tidying his hair that was sticking out in clumps here and there, and blushing again when she acknowledged how the tufts had come to be.
“I know you, and everyone else, make light of my life before Downton. But…”
Her frown deepened. “Yes?” she encouraged.
“He liked to taunt me. My lack of worldliness when it came to women amused him greatly. And my lack of taking what was on offer. ‘You can click your fingers and those lovelies in the audience will come running’, he would insist.”
“But you didn’t,” she reminded him. “You were an honourable man before and after you arrived at Downton. There are not many who can say that.”
“Yes, it was true, I refused any offers from the tarts he’d arranged to harass me. But he had other things.”
Elsie mind boggled. She, the family, and any of the servants that knew of his background on the aulds always found it amusing, but obviously the memories for Charlie were not at all funny. Wracked with guilt, she reached over and cupped his cheek tenderly.
“And I made you forgive someone who bullied you for my own selfish needs?” she confessed with shame.
He tilted his head slightly, kissed her palm that cradled his face.
“I’m not telling you to fill you with guilt, Mrs Carson, but to explain…”
“There was all sorts of filth… I suppose my biggest problem was I quite often told him and the women involved what I thought of them, and they would seek revenge for my bad opinion.”
“Oh…” Tears glistened in her eyes. She really had shown such a lack of sympathy all this time.
“One time… They planted pictures in amongst my belongings.”
“Pictures?” she asked, confused.
“Postcards. Ones depicting…”
Her mouth formed a wide O shape.
Before she could make any type of appropriate response, however, he continued: “They scattered them through my things. I would find one and rip it up, and then, perhaps days or weeks after, I would come across another, and sometimes I would forget what they were, and look at them before…”
“Charles Carson, looking at such things does not make you a lesser man,” she assured him. “That simply makes you human.”
“No, I know,” he agreed quickly. “But I bring it up now because… Well… There were some things I saw that…”
She blinked, but could find no words to what she thought he was trying to tell her. He wanted to do these dirty things he’d seen in the postcards to her on their first night together? Surely she was mistaken. And surely her heart wasn’t skipping a beat with anticipation at the very idea.
“I’d like to… I mean…” A fine film of sweat had broken out on Charlie’s forehead. “I think I remember what was happening in this one postcard…”
Charlie’s face was as red as he claimed Joe’s to be. How long had he studied that card? Had he torn it up as he claimed?
She should be appalled, and knew he was most likely appalled to be admitting such a thing. But, of course, her peculiar sense of humour surfaced and her lips twitched uncontrollably.
“Elsie, are you laughing at me?”
“No,” she said, attempting to swallow down her guffaws. “No,” she repeated and kissed his prominent nose affectionately.
“It’s not funny!”
“It is a little,” she teased with a gentle smile.
He let out a huff, but their gazes met and she gratefully saw his eyes were also dancing with amusement.
It made her bold.
“Just what was it you had in mind, Mr Carson?”
“The one I am thinking of… The woman in the photograph looked genuinely happy, but I concede she might have been acting.”
Elsie couldn’t control her snort at that comment, earning her another mock scowl from Charlie.
“I want you to tell me if you find it revolting, and I’ll stop immediately. And I’ll do the same.”
“You’ve put quite a bit of thought into this, then, Mr Carson.”
“Yes. No! I mean… I like to be prepared, but I wasn’t… On the train, I...”
She began laughing in earnest again at his stammering.
He took a deep breath, and ignored her teasing as he often did by going on. “And, I believe it might help… Things… Fit.”
“Oh,” she murmured, now suitably subdued. She again glanced down automatically. This time she couldn’t see anything because he’d risen from the mattress and moved to kneel at the foot of the bed.
“Charlie?” she asked, bewildered.
“Scoot up towards me a little more,” he commanded in a sweet tone.
Finally, he manoeuvred her, until she was lying with her back on the bed, but her legs were draped over his shoulders. She shivered, confused but excited. How did he ever imagine she could have done this with any other man?
“Charlie?” Her tone was hoarse and strangled.
Next, he leaned forward and kissed her between the legs. Then, his hands parted her gently and his mouth searched deeper.
She could utter no intelligent comment. Instead she simply whispered, “Oh my.”
End of Chapter 3