Finally, the last chapter of Childish Pranks. I am sorry for the delay. My computer has been very sick and had to be bleached to remove all viruses. I hope you enjoy and thank you so much for all the reviews and for sticking with the story this far. Another JF-like time jump here to about 1927 (ten years after Charles' collapse).
Charles opened the door of the cottage he'd shared with Elsie for the last ten years gingerly. If he was very lucky she would not have returned from the village yet.
He was not very lucky.
"Charles Carson, what on earth has happened to you? You're drenched to the skin! It's not raining, is it?"
He leaned heavily back against the door to try to remove his muddy boots without doing too much damage to the floors.
Elsie stepped closer to help steady him, and he sighed, "I fell in the stream," at her raised eyebrow, he defended himself, "That log is still very slippery."
"Are the boys all right?"
"Yes, yes, of course," he reassured her, "David sent me ahead to get dry as quickly as possible. He'll be here after he takes the boys back to the house."
She looked at him with a worried frown, "You should get out of those wet things immediately. I'll fetch you a warm towel."
He grinned at her wryly, "Mrs. Carson! You'll use any excuse to get me out of my shirt, won't you?"
There was a quick intake of breath in the kitchen followed by a soft giggle and Elsie's sharp, "Charles!"
Too late, he realized that his wife was not alone. He wondered briefly if he should just go hop back in the stream before addressing her companion with chagrin, "Good afternoon, Daisy. I'm sorry I didn't see you there, although I should have guessed from the delicious smells. Are you going to join us for tea?"
Elsie returned then with a towel and handed it to him, "You knew from the delicious smells? Are you implying that there wouldn't be delicious smells if I was the only one here?"
"Now, Elsie," he began placatingly as he dried his hair with the towel, "You're an excellent cook, but no one makes an apple tart like Daisy, and that is what I smell."
She sniffed at him, but softened it with a smile.
Deciding that now would be an excellent time for an exit, he said, "I'll just go change into some dry clothes." Then he added with a wink at Elsie, "I do hope you'll stay to tea, Daisy. Mr. Cauthon plans to join us once he's finished the boys' lesson."
Daisy's cheeks tinted faintly as she looked at the floor, "I may do just that Mr. Carson. I wouldn't mind seeing Dav-, I mean, Mr. Cauthon again. He's a pleasure to talk to."
Elsie rolled her eyes at his amused smile and all but shoved him into the bedroom.
"What was that all about? If you don't mind me asking."
"I don't mind," he answered with a grin as he removed his tie and began to unbutton his shirt.
She punched him lightly in the arm for his deliberate teasing and began to unbutton his waistcoat.
"Really, Charles, I don't know what you were thinking. A man your age could catch his death of cold getting this wet."
"A man my age!" he exclaimed, "You didn't think I was too old this morning," he pointed out as he caught her hands when they met his in unbuttoning his shirt.
"Well, you do tend to rise with the sun, now don't you?" she smiled up into his eyes.
He bent down to kiss her, drawing her tight against his chest for a long moment before pushing her quickly away, "Woman, don't be such a temptress when we're having guests to tea," he admonished softly.
"Perhaps you should rethink who's doing the tempting since there's only one of us still fully clothed."
He laughed and then heard the outer door open. She started out of the bedroom to greet her nephew, but he caught her hand to draw her back. He very much hoped that Davey had brought the items he'd been so desperate to procure for today and wanted to give Daisy and him plenty of time to arrange them.
"You should give them a few moments alone, dear wife," he whispered in an effort to prevent Elsie from entering the other room.
She quirked an eyebrow at him before walking to the wardrobe to fetch a clean shirt and trousers for him, "Do you know something that I don't, dear husband?"
"Well," he began teasingly slowly as he removed his wet, muddy trousers, "I did see a note that Davey received yesterday…"
He reached to take his trousers from her, but she held them just out of reach as hostage to further information.
He drew his eyebrows down to give him the sternest look he could manage standing in undershorts and undershirt, "Elsie…."
"You mentioned a note that Davey received?"
"It was from Mrs. M-A-S-E-N," he answered as he snatched the trousers from her hand with a satisfied grunt.
"He never!" she exclaimed.
He nodded emphatically as he drew his trousers on, "Addressed to Mr. C-O-T-H-A-N."
She laughed, "You've told those boys that story one too many times."
"Can I help it if Master Robert and Master William are quick studies and true romantics?" he asked innocently as he buttoned his shirt.
She smiled at him affectionately before stepping closer to drape his tie around his neck. Using his tie to pull him down for a soft kiss, she said, "I happen to know that Mrs. Masen received a note yesterday as well."
"Now isn't that odd?" he asked shifting his shoulders slightly and placing his hands on her hips to steady her as she tied his tie, "From Mr. Cothan?"
She nodded and smoothed his tie. His arms slid around her waist to draw her closer, and he leaned down to nuzzle her neck, "Mmmmm, you smell delicious."
He nodded, "Like apple tart."
Lifting his head slightly he kissed her again, "You taste like apple tart as well. Let's see, if you smell like apple tart and taste like apple tart, then you must be…."
She placed the tips of her fingers over his lips quickly. "Let me stop you before you actually call your dear wife a tart," she said looking at him seriously.
"I was going to say baking," he said with a soft chuckle before placing another quick kiss on her lips, "Do you know what today is?"
"Dear husband," she sighed, "Do you think I could ever forget?"
"I'm so grateful you went on that picnic with me," he said as he wrapped his arms loosely around her waist and gazed down into her eyes.
"I suppose I did save you from the gaggle of giggling girls," she said stretching so that her arms would wrap around his neck.
"But you've been no protection whatsoever from the bevy of boisterous boys," he pointed out with a smile.
"I would hardly call two seven year old boys a 'bevy', Charles," she sighed in pleasure as his lips found the distracting spot behind her left ear.
"You've not taken them on a picnic with your nephew," he chuckled against her neck, "They certainly take after their mother. Plenty of spirit."
"You always appreciated that in Lady Mary," she admonished as she drew away, "Speaking of Davey…"
"David," he corrected with an upraised finger, "or Mr. Cauthon as long as he's tutoring the boys. Yes, I suppose we've given them enough time."
He opened the door to allow Elsie into the living area only to see David helping Daisy with her coat at the door.
Unless he was very much mistaken, Daisy's hair was mussed, and David was biting the inside of his jaw to avoid grinning like a besotted fool. It looked like the notes had had their desired effect.
"Uncle Charles, Aunt Elsie," David said quickly and a tiny smidgen guiltily, "Mrs. Mason has remembered something urgent she must do at Downton, and I've offered to walk her there. I wouldn't want her to come to any harm," he finished smiling at Daisy softly before taking her hand.
Daisy added without quite looking either of them in the eyes, "We're sorry to miss tea, but I'm sure you'll enjoy it without us," she finished with a sly smile.
Charles and Elsie nodded their good-byes, and the young couple departed quickly.
"Now what on earth could Daisy have that is so urgent with Lord and Lady Grantham away in London?" Charles asked smiling.
"It seems that Mr. Cothan and Mrs. Masen would rather be alone at the moment," she said wryly, then asked, "How long do you think it will be before we have grand-nieces and nephews to spoil?"
"Perhaps by this time next year," he said hopefully as he drew her toward the table to examine the fruits of this afternoon's labors.
She gasped in surprise to see the box of chocolates, the bouquet of Michaelmas daisies, and the large bowl of raspberries in the middle of the table, "How did those get there?"
"You underestimate me, dear wife," he said in satisfaction as he drew her back against his chest, "or rather you underestimate the bevy of boisterous boys who were perfectly happy to gather Aster novae angliae and Rubus idaeus, which I now know are the names of your two favorite things according to your too-smart nephew."
"Well, at least the bevy of boisterous boys did learn something while they were doing your work for you," she smiled.
"I'm just taking advantage of their romantic natures and excess of high spirits," he said defensively, "Now am I going to get my apple tart or not?"
"After you've eaten your chicken and carrots," she admonished.
"So you did remember," he said in appreciation before drawing her back toward the bedroom, "I believe that I'd like to have my dessert now and eat later to rebuild my strength."
"Charles, the chicken will be dry and the carrots will be burned if we don't eat now," she argued half-heartedly as she followed him toward the bedroom.
"Mmmm, I like my chicken chewy and my carrots with a little black on them, but not as much as I like a wife who tastes like apple tart," he said smiling as he drew her close for a long tender kiss.
"Charles," she asked as she pulled back just a little, "have you been happy? Have you had a good life?"
"Elsie, love, I couldn't imagine being happier," he said, and she placed her feet on his so that she could stretch up to kiss him hungrily.
"Then we'll have our dessert now and chewy chicken later," she said smiling against his lips.
"And chocolate," he said.
She nodded in agreement, "With nuts."
Again, I thank you so much for sticking with this story and reading it to the end. I've loved living in my little AU for the last little while and hope you enjoyed it as well. As always, reviews are welcome and feed my addiction.