STOP! This story contains SPOILERS FOR SEASON 2. Read at your own risk!

His words had been branded in her mind, and whenever she paused for a moment, she could hear them as clear as a bell: a loud, foreboding, and very ominous bell. So he had no sympathy for girls who couldn't pronounce a two-letter word: "no." Well, what about the men who couldn't control their urges and desires? Surely, a grown man was just as much to blame for seducing a young woman, just as much as the young woman was guilty of giving in to the sweet talk of futures, promises, and love before any commitment.

She wasn't sure if he even realized how cutting his words had been. She hadn't expected him to welcome Ethel back with open arms. Quite the opposite, in fact. She herself had never entertained that notion, either. But she hadn't expected him to take such a hard line in the matter. Of course, she had been slightly in the wrong to feed the dismissed maid from their own kitchens, but the wee babe couldn't be blamed for the misdeeds of his parents, nor was Elsie Hughes one to sit by and watch him fall into ill health when she could do a little something to help. Besides, if the Major had been any sort of gentleman at all, he would have admitted to his mistake and taken care of the woman and their child, at the very least financially, if not emotionally, too.

In her heart, Elsie knew she was going to be caught sooner or later. She briefly considered herself lucky that it had been Charles who discovered her secret and not Thomas or O'Brien. That would have been the ultimate breech of secrecy, in her humble opinion, not to mention she would have lost all credibility and authority among the younger staff. No, seeing the look on Charles' face when she closed the door after sending Ethel away, the heated conversation they'd had in her pantry, and the pained look flashing in his eyes when he informed her that they must tell Her Ladyship … that had been the worst of it all. Well, that and being haunted in her dreams by that look in his eyes. Sleep was not her friend. She could reason with Lady Grantham on such matters, but Charles … dear, sweet, loveable, infuriating, rule-bound Charles … he was another matter entirely.

In his world, there was little room for shades of gray. He wasn't an ogre by any stretch of the imagination, or else she wouldn't love him as much as she did, but to Charles, things were ordered, with a purpose, and fell into specific categories. Right or wrong. Black or white. Truth or fiction. Cut and dried with no frills. However, did that only apply to practical applications, or was that truly how he felt in matters of the heart? That last thought made her stop dead in her pacing. Did he believe her to be a woman of little substance? Did he see a bit of Ethel in her for having failed to say no on more than one occasion, just within the last week? And if she were to be compared to Ethel, was he to be compared to Major Bryant? Too many questions were forming in her mind with no promise of forthcoming answers.

She knew she would have to face him, alone in his pantry or her sitting room, at some point and that moment already filled her with dread. What would have normally been a time of relaxation and enjoyment would now, most assuredly, be filled with angst and unease. But the bigger question in her mind would be how they would overcome their differences of opinion, when the heart of the matter struck a little too close to home.

A knock on her door snapped her from her musings with the realization that whether or not she was ready for the moment of truth, it had, in fact, arrived. Her heart began to race, but not for the usual reasons when seeing Charles Carson standing at her door. What would have normally been a welcomed sight now filled her with tension. But out of that tension, was born an ingenious idea. So, a woman unable to say no was considered weak in his eyes. Very well. Elsie Hughes would prove she was no weak woman, and, perhaps, she could inform Charles how his words had wounded her, or at least allow him to see things from her point of view by the time this ordeal was over.

From his point of view, Charles Carson was having a most difficult two days. He always did when he was at odds with Mrs. Hughes. She was his rock, his confidante, his best friend, his … well, his partner for lack of a better word. She was his equal in all things, and she was usually the last thing on his mind at night and the first thing on his mind when he woke in the mornings. She consumed his thoughts and could reduce him to a quivering mass with the simplest touch or look. However, those looks could also drive a stake through his heart, as they had done a few hours ago. The pain he had seen in her eyes was confusing, and the anger in her voice was downright scary. She hadn't yelled or truly lost her temper. No, she wouldn't do that in front of the staff unless there was a definite need. She had been stilted in her demeanor, harsh in her tone, and calculating with her words. Her lips were drawn into a thin line, and her eyebrow arched higher than he had ever seen. And now, here he was, standing on the precipice, hoping he had given her enough time to regain her composure so they could have a rational discussion on the matter. After all, he was still unsure what had transpired between them to cause such a fierce reaction.

With a pounding heart, both at the prospect of seeing her and yet not knowing what was wrong, he knocked gently on her door and waited.

She opened the door slowly, not a hint of happiness written on her face. She was still angry at him, at his words, at his implications for the situation. Still, she stepped aside and with a swift sweep of her hand, silently invited him into her private sitting room. This was not a conversation she was going to enjoy. She dreaded the prospect of another sleepless night plagued with his haunting eyes and his voice laced with disappointment filling her thoughts. And the thought of what she might uncover with this conversation filled her heart with pain and sadness.

The air was thick with anxiety as he stepped across the threshold, entering her private room where they had spent many wonderful evenings, and even a few afternoons, in recent memory. But there was none of that happiness within these walls today. She was angry with him, for what he was unsure, but he was determined to learn why and then do what was necessary to repair the damage.

"Mr. Carson," she said very formally. "How may I help you?" She turned her back to him and began shuffling a stack of papers at her desk. They were unimportant papers, but he had no reason to be aware of that fact.

"First of all, Mrs. Hughes, I would appreciate speaking directly to your face instead of the back of your head. I understand you are quite busy, but I do believe whatever it is you're working on can wait for a few moments."

"Do you now? Did you come in here to tell me how to run my job, or am I still capable of performing that task in your fine estimation?" She knew that was a shot over the bow, but he had pushed her and she was on the verge of a full rant.

He shrank back at little at her biting words and cutting tone. "I came here to speak to you, Elsie, not to discuss work. You've been avoiding me. You won't look at me. You hardly even acknowledge me on a professional level, much less a personal one. Something is wrong, and I would like, very much, to know what it is you think I've done."

She whirled around, anger flashing in her eyes. "What I think you've done? I should have thought that was obvious, though there are a good many things which I've recently discovered aren't quite as forthright as I had assumed. Surely, those were my mistakes, though. Silly, foolish old woman," she grumbled.

He bit back a sigh and pulled himself to his full height, bracing for the worst. "Then I suppose since you are so enlightened, you would care to shed some of that light in my direction? I should not be held with my feet to the flames if I am not to know of what I am accused. Surely you wouldn't disagree with that sentiment," he countered. "And for what it's worth at the moment, I have never considered you silly, foolish, and most certainly not old." He studied her face for any sign of hope, any sign that he might have struck a chord that would allow them to talk through the problem and make peace.

"Fair enough," she replied after a long moment of pulling her thoughts together. "Based on our conversation last night and then again today in front of Her Ladyship, I am to assume you do not approve of my feeding Ethel and her baby."

"Is that what this is about? I thought we had that settled last night, and Her Ladyship didn't seem overly concerned with the matter this afternoon. I would dare say she was merely uneasy that it had been going on for so long before she was informed."

"No, that is not what this is about entirely. You said some ... " She paused, taking a steadying breath, letting out slowly. "I did feed her from the kitchens. Can you honestly sit there and tell me you would have done differently if faced with the young, foolish girl and her hungry babe begging you for help? If so, you are not the Charles Carson I thought you to be."

He felt a bit hurt, though she had a valid point. "I cannot honestly say what I would have done if faced with that dilemma. To be honest, I am surprised she came to you for help at all. I would have thought you would be the last person she'd want to see after the way she was dismissed, and given the circumstances. You did say you'd tried to warn her more than once about her behavior. Look where it got her."

"Yes, look where it got her. She was young, foolish, and full of dreams. We were all that way once, or at least I was. I did nothing as rash as having an affair and getting myself pregnant, but I made my share of mistakes. I would say you have made some, too."

"You know I have. I'm not particularly proud of my Cheerful Charlie days, but we've discussed all of that, discussed our pasts, and while we can't change what we did or did not do in those instances, we learned our lessons and have moved forward."

She was starting to see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. In her own way, she was starting to guide him down the garden path towards revealing his true thoughts. A lump formed in her throat at the prospect of what his answers might mean to her, to them.

"So, while Ethel is young and foolish ... out for a good time and unwilling to say "no" as you so eloquently put it this afternoon, does that make her unworthy of help? Or has she simply made a mistake that will haunt her for the rest of her life, a mistake which will have far more damning consequences than a few years on the stage or a dalliance with a farmer?"

"Elsie, I am not denying the girl needed help. I am not questioning the fact that her child needed your help. But I must ask ... why did you not come to me? Why did you not tell me when she first arrived and you started helping her? Do you think me that harsh, that cruel that you couldn't confide in me, of all people?"

She slumped down on the settee across the room from him and started to nervously wring her hands. She didn't dare face him now. He had wounded her with his accusations and rightly so. "To be honest, I wasn't sure what you would say. I thought I could help her a little along and no one would be the wiser. I was afraid you would say no and then my conscience would eat me alive if something happened to that poor babe."

"But you never gave me that chance. You assumed ... "

"Yes, yes, I assumed. But that doesn't change the argument, Charles Carson. I helped her. I'll not deny it. I didn't tell you about it until I was forced to admit it. Yes, I did that, too. That is neither here nor there. The fact of the matter, in case you hadn't realized it, is that we're no better than Ethel and Major Bryant."

There! She'd said it. It hadn't been as forceful or as passionate as she had imagined over and over again in her mind, but the cat was out of the bag now. She dared to steal a glance at his face, surprised to see him looking as if she'd hit him across the face with one of Mrs. Patmore's frying pans. Surely, the idea had crossed his mind. The similarities were obvious. Weren't they? The signs were all there.

"Elsie Hughes, I do not know how you reached your conclusion that our situation is in any way remotely similar to Ethel and the Major's, nor do I believe I wish to be privy to that nonsense."

"Nonsense?" she shouted. "A few hours ago you were standing in front of Her Ladyship and explaining how all of this was Ethel's fault, and then you had the audacity to tell me that it was her own fault and you had no sympathy for her because she couldn't say no to the Major. You even went so far as to imply that seducing young, impressionable women was what men were wont to do, something of a rite of passage. Is that really what you think? Because, believe it or not, Mr. Carson, you could very well be Major Bryant trying to get a leg over and I might as well change my name to Ethel because I haven't dared to tell you no."

He sat before her utterly shocked at her words. How could she ever compare what they had to what the dismissed maid and that brute of a soldier had? Did she think so little of him, think him so uncaring and unfeeling? She might as well have stabbed him directly in the heart with the dullest knife in the kitchen. However, now he was beginning to understand the argument they were having. He now understood why she was so angry at him and the entire situation.

Without saying another word, he crossed the room and sat beside her on the small settee. She visibly stiffened and clasped her hands together so tightly that her knuckles began to turn white. A plank in the barn didn't stand as straight as she was sitting, her eyes facing forward and her face a mask for her emotions. With more than a little trepidation, he reached over and covered her hands with one of his.

"Is that what this is about? You think what we have in some way is mirrored by what happened between those two? Elsie Hughes, how could you think that of me? Moreover, how could you even entertain the notion that you and Ethel are anything alike? You are strong, independent, willful, and with an intelligent mind. Your head can be in the clouds sometimes, but your feet are always firmly planted on the ground. We all have daydreams and ideas of grand adventures, but you've never let those dreams and hopes for adventures interfere with your work. You've managed to do the exact thing you had hoped Ethel would do. You struck a balance between a personal life and one of duty, maybe not to the family, but to your job."

Her eyes shifted as she gave him a sideways glance. "And, pray tell, how exactly am I different from Ethel? A charming man enters my life and whispers sweet words into my ears. He's handsome, tall, successful at his job, commands respect even from those living upstairs, and I, like Ethel, was unwilling to refuse his advances. I didn't say no, either," she said softly.

He removed his hand from hers and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, drawing her gently into his side. "You are so very different, my darling girl. You had my heart long before I had that first kiss. You captivated me with your mind before daring to ensnare me with the promise of pleasures. You were my best friend before you were my lover," he said softly. "And, correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe I said 'I love you' first." He was relieved to see a faint smile cross her face.

"Oh, Charles!" she said softly. "How could I have been so foolish? I'm sorry I compared you to Major Bryant. You're nothing like him at all."

"Really? Would you care to expound on this newly acquired knowledge?" he teased a little, hoping to lighten the mood and get them back on sound footing.

"Well, for starters you're much taller and without that horrid little moustache. It makes you so much more enticing to kiss, in my opinion at least." She was leaning against him heavily now, her head resting on his chest. One hand rested lightly on his thigh, giving it a tender squeeze while the other rested gently over his heart. "You're strong, dependable, honest, hard-working. A bit stubborn, perhaps, but your heart is always in the right place. And I do believe, if you ever got me pregnant, you'd do the honorable thing and stand with me, though at my age, I don't believe we have to worry about that anymore."

He laughed a little at her last comment. "Elsie, my dear, if I ever got you pregnant, we would leave service immediately, and I would work day and night to provide a good, decent, respectable home for you and our child. I would never abandon you, for this or any other reason. Surely, you realize that by now ... after all our years together."

She nodded her head and dabbed at her eyes as tears threatened to spill down her cheeks. "I am sorry I was so rude to you. I suppose I was hurt by what you implied earlier, and then coming in here, I let my mind wander. I was afraid of what you must think of me and worried that you might start to draw the same comparisons. Can you forgive me?"

He tried to pretend he was giving it serious thought, though they both knew the answer. "Give me a kiss first, and then I'll answer you."

She rose to the bait and happily so. "No, Mr. Carson. I cannot."

"Then I shall be forced to court you properly, walk you to the village, fend off every other suitor you may have for the chance of winning your favor. Then, then would you give me a kiss?"

"I would need more than pretty words and flowers. I'm told I'm no vulnerable young lass with stars in her eyes and a willing desire."

He laughed softly. "I would give you the moon if it was mine to give, and I do see stars twinkling in your eyes when you look at me. They're the same stars visible in mine when we're together. As for a willing desire ... " He paused and cleared his throat. "I believe we'd best leave that comment alone. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I believe, Mr. Carson, that that is a matter best discussed when we have more time. Would you be willing to join me for a glass of wine after you've locked up the house this evening? We should really try to put this issue to bed, for both our sakes, as well as for the sake of the household. I've no doubts they've noticed the strain between us today."

"Yes, quite right, Mrs. Hughes. Putting the matter in bed would be best," he answered, trying to sound as serious as she had a moment before and hoping she would catch on to his meaning. "I shall be honored to visit your room this evening, with only my best intentions, of course."

"I hope those best intentions include taking your time in reminding me how lucky I am to have you as that is what I plan to do for you."

"Then we are finally of the same mind again, my dear, sweet Elsie. Keep the lamp burning for me, please." He lowered his lips to hers for a sweet, chaste kiss. There was nothing rushed or pressing as his lips touched hers, just a sweet tender moment of reconciliation between them. He pulled back and rubbed his nose against hers as they both smiled.

"Goodness me. I do believe the butler of Downton Abbey has just made a pass at his housekeeper," she teased. "Should she cave to his advances or should she ...?"

"She should follow her heart, in this instance, and not over-think things," he replied.

"In that case ..." She closed the distance between them, wrapping both arms around his neck and drawing him to her for a heated kiss, filled with longing, love, and forgiveness. "Please don't be late this evening," she whispered softly. "I need to be with you tonight, even if you only just hold me."

"I will be here as quickly as I can and will stay at long as you wish and your bidding is my command." He kissed her sweetly on the lips one last time. "I am afraid it's almost time for me to ring the dressing gong. I wish I could stay here a bit longer, though."

She shook her head. "Go take care of your duties, and you let me worry about everything else. As long as we are together, there's nothing we cannot accomplish."

"Tomorrow, why don't we walk into the village and see about sending Ethel a little money? I have a little saved up that I could send, and it might help her buy food or pay her rent."

"Charles Carson, I didn't think it was possible, but I just fell deeper in love with you. Now, go before I turn into a blubbering mess of tears. Mind you, though, you'd better eat a hearty dinner tonight. You're going to need it when I get my hands on you."

The following morning, it was quite unusual for Mr. Carson to be late for breakfast. Mrs. Hughes had announced that he wasn't feeling all that well and would be taking the morning to rest. She smirked as she recalled the evening before and how they had made up from their argument. The word 'no' had most certainly not been in their vocabulary last evening or early this morning, she mused, and rightly so.

A/N: Thank you for taking the time to read the story. Reviews are welcomed and appreciated.