“You’re in danger of spoiling the girl rotten, Mrs Hughes.”
Her pen makes a loud click as she lays it down sharply and turns from her desk to face him.
Mr Carson points towards the toys and clothes, the boxes of tiny shoes spread out across her sitting room. “No child needs this many presents.”
He looks smug, superior. How can he? How—it— that, that man.
She crosses her arms over her chest and tries to give the appearance of looking down at him from her seated position.
“My gifts for Lizzie are already wrapped, Mr Carson and hidden in the blue room as agreed.” Here she frees a hand to gesture around the the room. “These gifts — that you are pointing at so imperiously — are the things left to be wrapped that you have bought her.”
She turns back to continue scribbling out the gift labels, bites down furiously on her cheek to keep a smile hidden.
“Well, I— that is, I wasn’t sure what— I couldn’t be certain what she would like, you see and I wanted to be sure I could give her at least one gift she would want.”
The smile she hides now is softer, fond and she turns back to him, rises and takes a step to bring him into reach. Laying a hand on his arm she meets his embrassed eyes. “It’s a lovely thought, Mr Carson, but perhaps you could have saved time had you remembered that she adores anything her ‘Uncle-Mister Carson’ gives her.”
“It would have saved my pocket book at least.” He agrees.
She takes another look at the piles of unwrapped presents scattered about. “You really shouldn’t have gone to such expense, Mr Carson. I would be happy to pay for—”
“Nonsense, Mrs Hughes. I would be a miserly man indeed if I minded the cost of bringing some happiness to the girl, after the sadness she has experienced this year.”
His smile is so sincere that she finds herself blinking back tears. She pats his arm, fingers stroking down the length of it until they reach his hand, curl around his palm and squeeze once. “Thank you Mr Carson.”
It takes a moment, but eventually he looks away from her and she lets his hand go, knots her own together at her stomach.
“Well then, Mrs Hughes, where have you put the paper? We can’t have much time to spare before Elizabeth bores of Mrs Patmore’s company.”
She shakes her head at him and points to the roll of brown paper partially buried beneath a rag doll and a small green cotton dress.
She settles herself back at her desk, smiles as he begins to hum beneath his breath. That man.
“How many is that?”
The little girl on his lap points a tiny finger at each empty paper circle on the table, counting quietly as she goes.
“Four.” She announces eventually with a little bounce. He clasps her by the waist with a grimace and shifts her a little further down towards his knees.
“Right. And how many are we going to tell your aunt that we ate?”
She holds up three fingers and with exaggerated consideration he reaches out and folds one of her fingers back down. “That many, I think.”
“Two.” She agrees with a giggle. She has little crumbs on her bottom lip and down the front of her dress but he thinks it might arouse Mrs Hughes’ suspicion more if he attempts to clean up all evidence of their little indulgencies. After all, she knows of his weakness for gingerbread — one shared with her niece it seems — but she doesn’t need to know just how great that weakness can be if left alone with a tin of them.
She slips off from his lap then, runs to the door with an excited call of “Aunt Elsie!” and he takes a deep breath before looking over at the doorway, tries to look innocent as he quickly gathers the papers together and crumples them in his hand.
“Uncle-Mister Carson said we only had two bis…biskits.” The girl says as her aunt lifts her up onto her hip.
“Yes, I heard.” Her tone is pleasant enough and Elizabeth is too young to pick up on the disapproval in the raised eyebrow he finds directed at himself. “Why don’t you go and find Mrs Patmore and thank her while I have a talk with Mr Carson?”
She pops her back onto the ground and Elizabeth trots off to find the Cook.
Mrs Hughes watches her go before turning back to him.
“Mrs Hughes, it was only—”
“Four, Mr Carson.” She finishes, taking slow steps towards him. “You’re teaching my niece to lie to me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say…it was just a harmless—”
She stops with not two feet of space between them. “Thankfully, she’s as lousy at it as you are.”
He isn’t sure what to say to that, and as she reaches out, touches her fingers to his chest, he finds himself unable to speak at all.
“You had better have saved some for me, Mr Carson.” She takes her hand away, heads back out of the kitchen. “And you might want to change before the gong.”
When she has gone he brings a hand up to where her fingers touched and then promptly jerks it away when he feels something wet.
Looking down he scowls at the soggy remains of gingerbread, pressed into his waistcoat in a perfect little girl sized handprint.
He straightens, raises his head up high. Change, yes. He’s getting better at that.
“Goodness Lizzie, there’s no need to shout like that, I’m not deaf. Now come over here, what’s that you have behind your back?”
“Mistletoe? Now I’m sure it’s not— Lord it is! Where did you get that?”
“Thomas gave it to me.”
“Did he? And what did Mr Barrow intend for you to do with it? I mean, why did he give it to you Lizzie?”
“For Aunt Elsie’s room so Uncle-Mister Carson can kiss her.”
“I see. Quite the secret romantic our Thomas is.”
“Why is Uncle-Mister Carson a goat?”
“I beg your pardon? Who said Mr Carson was a goat?”
“Thomas. He said if I took this then Uncle-Mister Carson might not be a grumpy old goat anymore.”
“Nothing! Well, I don’t think Mr Carson’s a goat, and I don’t think your aunt does either, at least not all the time. Why don’t I take that and we’ll see where we can hang it while your Aunt is up with Her Ladyship?”
“Come along then.”
“Berry, what does frij-it mean?”
“It means that Mr Barrow is well on his way to a clip ‘round the ear for Christmas.”
“I can take her if you’d like, Mr Carson.” She says, her voice tipped low so as not to disturb the sleeping girl in his arms.
“Don’t be silly. I’m perfectly alright.” He bounces her accidently and Lizzie snuggles her head into his shoulder with a small whine.
Elsie bites her lip and looks away before he can read anything in her eyes. How could anyone be expected to resist this sight; her flesh and blood cuddled up in his arms?
“The Mass was good.” She says, a pathetic attempt to direct her attention away from thoughts that have no place in their lives. They shared that kiss, yes and another last week beneath the mistletoe. But he has not spoken to her of any further intentions and she has Lizzie to think of now. Forgetting her reputation; she cannot afford the consequences of anything illicit, cannot be thrown from the house for being caught in a sinful relationship. Should he want that, of course; he hasn’t said anything to suggest he desires her in any way but as a friend. She is likely letting her heart run away with her.
“It was, although Mr Travis is starting to ramble, I’m finding it harder than I should to keep my attention from wandering.”
She laughs; “I noticed, for a moment there I thought you might begin snoring, thank goodness he paused for the psalm!”
Mr Carson frowns down at her as they turn the corner towards the Abbey (they have straggled a little, the others already disappeared inside).
“I do not snore, Mrs Hughes!”
“Oh you do, Mr Carson, I assure you. You forget, the walls between our rooms are not so thick as you might like.” And she has heard many things from behind them over the years.
His thoughts have perhaps strayed in the same direction, as she could swear that his cheeks are redder now than they were before.
“Then I must apologise Mrs Hughes, for keeping you awake with it.”
“There’s no need.” She hesitates and looks across at him just as he adjusts his hold on Lizzie, encourages her head to fit into the bend of his neck. ”It’s a comfort, Mr Carson, to know that you’re close.”
There is silence, a long pause that her mind fills with harsh words at herself; for pushing him, for ruining a nice moment with such boldness.
“I wonder,” he says unexpectedly at the door and she stalls in opening it, tips her head up to him.
“I wonder if you might allow me to put Elizabeth to bed tonight, the others can’t have gone up yet and it seems silly to disturb her now by handing her over to you.” He takes a breath while she nods her agreement. “And then if you would meet me in my pantry with tea, Mrs Hughes?”
Her heart pounds but she nods again, pushes open the door and holds it wide for him to step through after her. “Of course, Mr Carson. I’ll see if Mrs Patmore can spare a mince pie or too while I’m about it.”
The softness of his own smile does nothing to slow her heart rate as they part in the corridor.
She has the tea laid out on his table when he returns downstairs, the careful way that she has angled the handles of the teacups to line them up perfectly with the table edge does nothing to soothe his nerves, or the tight ball that seems to take root in his chest whenever he sees her these last few months.
He fiddles with the box in his hand, twirls it between his fingers.
He had meant to wait until tomorrow, as is customary when gifting a Christmas present, however there had been something in her eyes tonight as they left the church, a — dare he be sentimental — magical quality to their conversation.
He has known for some time that he loves her. For longer still that he desires her as any man would a woman like Elsie Hughes. But it has only been since little Elizabeth came into his life that he has found that his feelings for her, these ones he has successfully pushed aside for years, will no longer be ignored.
(He gave up on the idea of a family of his own years ago, when he returned to Downton from the stage, when the second woman that he could perhaps picture such a life with turned out to be as dedicated to her career as he was. But she has Elizabeth to raise now and he finds that he already loves the girl as much as he imagines any father might a child of their own.)
She jumps on seeing him as she turns from the little cork board on his wall where, amongst the outstanding invoices and supply orders there now rests pencil drawings of cats and dogs, himself and Mrs Hughes, Mrs Patmore and even Thomas. Elizabeth will certainly draw anything that takes her fancy.
“My goodness, Mr Carson! You gave me a scare. Whatever are you doing loitering about in the doorway?”
He steps through into his pantry, closes the door behind him, turns the key in the lock as quietly as possible.
He takes his seat, lifts up his cup to sip at the hot drink, milk and sugar added in just the right amounts.
“Please tell me that isn’t another present for Lizzie, Mr Carson? She really does have enough; I’m afraid you and I will be up the rest of the night tonight moving them from the blue room to the tree.”
She tilts her head towards the little blue-wrapped box he has dropped onto the table beside his hand, smiles at him from behind her teacup.
“No Mrs Hughes, although I do have one or two things for her stocking.” He delights a little, in the roll of her eyes. “No,” he repeats, and pushes the box across the table towards her; “this one is for you “
“I thought we were doing this tomorrow, Mr Carson?” She begins to rise. “Just let me get yours—”
“No, please don’t get up. You are quite right, Mrs Hughes and Father Christmas will bring my gift for you tomorrow just like all the others.” He hesitates (he has been doing that a lot of late, in conversation with her) but he cannot take it back now, does not want to and so he presses on. “This is something I think I should have given to you some time ago.”
She looks surprised, settling back into her chair and picking up the box. “Well now I am intrigued.”
She pulls the paper aside with careful movements and he wonders if it is his anxiety or if her every motion really is occurring at half the usual speed. Finally, the box falls free and he sees her hesitate to open it, taking in the worn black suede, her fingers trembling slightly when she begins to prise the lid open. Does she suspect what it is?
Her breath whistles out of her and back in on a gasp, and he should fold himself onto one knee before she looks up, but she catches his arm before he can.
“Is this…?” She asks, her blue eyes glittering in the firelight.
“Yes, Mrs Hughes.” He curses himself as the name slips out quite without intent.
She smiles, the corners of her mouth rising higher than he has ever seen, a laugh that rather resembles one of Elizabeth’s giggles escapes her.
“Then I think you’d best start calling me Elsie, Charles.” The sound of his name in her voice, the roll of the ‘r’ as it leaves her tongue distracts him for moment, before he comes back to himself.
“Yes, Charles. That was a yes.”
She slips the ring onto her finger and he lifts her hand up to his lips, kisses just beneath the band. “The ring was your mother’s?” She asks and he nods against her skin.
She turns her hand in his, curls her palm around his chin, tilts his head up. He thinks for moment that she might kiss him if the table were not between them.
“Drink up, Charles. We have a long night ahead of us.”
She flushes as red as he suspects he has and pulls her hand away, points at him as she drains her cup.
“The presents, Mr Carson. I was talking about the presents.”
Perhaps she was, but he is assured now that she won’t be forever.