Elsie Hughes sat in her pantry, drinking her second cup of tea and nibbling on a few biscuits as she pored over the mountain of paperwork that she'd been avoiding all morning. Normally, she would simply wait until the evening to look through the invoices and orders, but she knew Mr. Carson was planning to join her in her sitting room after everyone had gone to bed. She wanted to insure that there was nothing which might remotely be considered a distraction - for either of them. She smiled as she recalled the look in his eyes as he softly asked permission to share a quiet evening with her … alone.
She felt herself drifting off into a mixture of daydreams and memories. He had been courting her for a few weeks, though they'd kept everything very discreet. As far as she knew, no one in the household knew that anything had changed between them, nor did they wish anyone to know. Charles seemed especially pleased when planning a rendezvous in an unused portion of the house or arranging for a walk into town together. Even the nights when they did nothing but sip wine and cuddle on the settee were happy occasions. She'd never realized just how wonderful it could be to be wrapped up in his arms, her head resting on his chest, his fingertips dancing lightly over her shoulder and arm, and those intoxicating kisses which were incredibly slow, long, and sensual. It was a side of Charles Carson she was thankful he reserved only for her.
Elsie felt the room growing a little warmer, and she chuckled to herself. She was starting to act like a teenager again, heaven forbid! But she wouldn't change that for the world. The feelings that Charles inspired in her made her love him all the more, and she could only hope that when he sat alone in his pantry, he, too, enjoyed the occasional daydream or fantasy about her.
She was just about to put away the papers for the day when a soft knock on her door stopped her. It wasn't a firm knock like any of the servants would use, but a timid little one. When she opened the door, she looked down to see Lady Sybil, tear stains on her cheeks and red eyes.
"Mrs. Hughes," she said so softly Elsie almost didn't hear the child, "do you have a minute?"
Seeing the look on the child's face broke Elsie's heart. "Of course I do, my lady." She opened the door a little wider and allowed the child to enter her office before shutting the door quietly behind her. "What can I do for you?"
Sybil stood in the middle of the room, lip trembling as if she would burst into tears at any given moment "If I asked a question, would you tell me the truth? I don't think you would lie to me," she said before a few tears slipped down her cheek.
Elsie walked over and took the girl by the hand, leading her over to the settee. She sat down then pulled Sybil into her lap. "Of course I would tell you the truth, lass. Why don't you tell me what's got you so upset, and we'll see what we can do to make it better, hmm?"
Sybil nodded and wiped her cheeks with her back of her hand. "I was playing with Edith, and I suggested that we stop playing and write our letters to Father Christmas. She laughed at me and told me there was no such thing as Father Christmas and that I was being a silly little baby. She started making fun of me." Sybil looked directly into Mrs. Hughes face with big eyes filled with unshed tears. "Mrs. Hughes, is Father Christmas real?"
Mrs. Hughes felt her heart break a little. She had always wondered when the day would come that one of the older sisters would let it slip about Christmas but she never dreamed Edith would do so intentionally. She hugged Sybil a little tighter in her arms and kissed the top of her head. "Before I answer you, let me ask you a question. Why did you not go to your parents or your granny? Why did you come to me?"
Sybil smiled and snuggled into Mrs. Hughes arms. "You're very sweet to me, and you let me sit on your lap, and you always have time for me. Daddy and Mummy would probably think me very silly for being upset, Edith would get into trouble, and Granny would tell me not to worry about it. But you … you haven't done any of those things … well, except to make some time for me."
At that moment, Elsie knew she was going to do whatever it took to put a smile back on that little girl's face. "Then I shall answer you truthfully. There is a man named Saint Nicholas, though we call him Father Christmas here. Other parts of the world call him by other names. He does good deeds for those who deserve it, like rewarding good girls and boys who have obeyed their parents and tried, very hard, to stay out of mischief," she said, giving Sybil's nose a little tweak. "I would say you have nothing to worry about, lass. You've never been any trouble. Your sisters, on the other hand … they shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Father Christmas, and I'm sure he wouldn't like to know that Edith made you cry today. That wasn't very nice."
Sybil thought for a moment. "Does he come to see you, too?"
"I believe, this year, he will. I've been a very good girl, too," she said with a wink, "and I wrote him a lovely letter. I believe he was most pleased to read it," she said, thinking back to the love letter she had written Charles, expressing her happiness and telling him all the things she had trouble saying to his face.
Sybil jumped and her hand flew over her mouth. "Mrs. Hughes, do you think it's too late for me to write a letter to him? I could tell him how good I've tried to be and to ask him not to be angry at Edith or Mary. Mary is nicer to me than Edith, but I wouldn't like to get presents all by myself. Then I'd have to share," she said, wrinkling her nose.
"I think that is an excellent idea. Why don't you sit here at my desk, and I'll loan you the paper and pencil. Perhaps you could draw him a little picture, too? I bet he would like that very much."
Sybil's eyes sparkled as she threw her arms around Elsie's neck, hugging her tightly and then giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you, Mrs. Hughes. If I write the letter and draw the picture, would you help me mail it? I'm not allowed to go into town by myself and I don't know where he lives. Well, I do know it's at the North Pole, but I'm not sure how far that is from here. I've only ever been to London and that took ages to get there."
"You just write your letter, my dear, and I'll see that it gets delivered. Now, while you're working on your letter, I'll go see about a cup of chocolate for you. How's that sound?"
"Mrs. Hughes, if Granny wasn't my Granny, I would want you to be mine," she said with a broad smile before turning her attention to the paper in front her. She never saw the single tear that slipped down Elsie's cheek as she made her way to the kitchen for two cups of hot cocoa.
Later that evening, Elsie sat on her settee curled up in Charles' arms retelling the story of Sybil and her worries. She felt his soft chuckle as she tried to convey the seriousness with which Sybil had approached the question and then how she had turned into that adorable little girl when all was right with her world again.
He kissed the top of her head and tightened his arms around her. "That explains the story I overheard at dinner this evening. Her ladyship was telling everyone at dinner how Edith had very nearly ruined Christmas for Sybil. Apparently, after she left you, there was a bit of a tussle in the nursery when Sybil returned. Edith tried teasing her a little more, but Sybil announced that Father Christmas was real because you had said so and that even you had written a letter to the man himself." He raised an eyebrow and grinned. "Should I be worried?"
"Whatever for? I did write my letter, and you seemed rather pleased with it. Or were you simply putting on an act for my benefit?"
He tilted her head up and kissed her softly, leisurely on the lips. "I was beyond pleased, Elsie. I'd never received a love letter before, and the fact that my first one came from the love of my life, well, that made it all the better. Perhaps Father Christmas will put a little something extra in your stocking this year," he said with an impish grin.
"I have everything I need right here," she said, giving him a tight squeeze. "I meant what I told Sybil earlier today. This is going to be a wonderful Christmas, the best I can ever remember."
They continued to kiss and cuddle until it was well past their bedtimes. Their quiet time together seemed to fly by in the evenings, much to their dismay, and parting was so hard. When they reached the landing separating the men's corridor from the women's, Charles dared to lean down and plant a very warm, lingering kiss to Elsie's lips before whispering into her ear, "See you in my dreams. I love you."
She caressed his cheek and let her nails lightly scratch a newly discovered sensitive spot behind his ear. "I'll meet you there with open arms." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him once more before stepping through the hallway door.
Elsie woke early the next morning with a large smile on her face and an idea forming in her mind. It was Christmas Eve and everything about the day seemed magical already and her feet hadn't even hit the floor. But, if she had her way and if she could convince Charles to play along, it was about to be spectacular for one little girl.
After breakfast, she went into his pantry and closed the door firmly behind her. She wasn't sure why, exactly, she was feeling a bit nervous, but then again, she was asking a lot from him, though she did promise he would be fully rewarded for his kindness.
"She all but told me she would wish me to be her granny, Charles, if Lady Violet wasn't. That's very high praise from an innocent child. Please … help me make her Christmas special."
The pleading look in Elsie's eyes was his undoing. His first instinct was to say no, but this meant the world to Elsie and would most likely be a story that Lady Sybil told her own grandchildren one day. So it was soon settled, though he made sure to receive a firm down payment on his reward … a series of rather steamy kisses … before he would let her leave his pantry in search of the necessary items.
Elsie braved the bitter cold of the attic, trusting no one else to undertake the task at hand. If one word of it reached the staff's ears, Charles would kill her and most likely her secret would be ruined. An hour later, she emerged triumphant and scurried to her sitting room, carefully locking the door behind her as she made the necessary preparations and adjustments.
After Christmas Eve dinner, the children were packed off upstairs with the governess for their bedtime but not before Lord Grantham had gathered his girls around him as he read them the tale of "The Night Before Christmas." When he was finished, he and Cora kissed each girl on the forehead, wishing them sweet dreams then watched them head upstairs. It would be an early morning for them since Sybil was still so young and innocent but they feared this might be her last Christmas of believing, especially if Edith had her way.
The dowager countess had decided to stay overnight so she could be there for the morning festivities, and once everyone had retired for the evening, Mr. Carson made his way downstairs, bypassing the kitchen where his dinner awaited and instead going straight to Elsie's sitting room.
"Is everything ready?" he asked softly from the doorway, causing her to jump slightly.
"I thought you'd never get here," she scolded, though neither her tone nor her facial expression held any sternness for the man standing before her. She pulled him further into her sitting room and locked the door behind him. "I think I have everything you'll need. It will be dark and really all she needs is the impression of Father Christmas, not necessarily anything else."
Charles looked in the corner of her room and was surprised. "Elsie, it looks exactly like a Father Christmas costume. Wherever did you find it? Surely we didn't have that upstairs just lying about?"
"Actually, it's bits and pieces of things I found and simply pulled them together to make a costume for you. The beard was the trickiest part, though I was fortunate to find something I think will work nicely. Even if she were to see you by candlelight, I am certain she will be too surprised to suspect any trickery on our parts."
So, after being assured that everyone was in bed, Charles and Elsie quietly slipped from her sitting room and up the stairs leading through the many corridors until they reached the nursery door. Gently easing open the door, Elsie peeked inside and saw Sybil fast asleep, her black hair pulled back into a braid and her little body curled into a ball. The silly girl had kicked her blankets away and was now suffering for it. She couldn't help but smile a little.
"Well?" Charles whispered softly.
"She's asleep. I'll give you a minute to get inside the room and get your bearings and then I'll make a little noise that will hopefully rouse her enough. Just remember not to say anything or she might catch on that it's you. That would break her heart, Charles," she gently reminded him.
"Elsie, my love, I will be careful. I would not wish to ruin this for her … or for you." He patted her bottom and gave her a little wink. "Shall I also tuck her back in while I'm there?"
"You'd better, if you know what's good for you!"
As quietly as he could, Charles Carson, dressed as Father Christmas, crept into Sybil's room. He smiled down at her as he watched her snuggle back into her warm blankets he'd just replaced for her. She really was a beautiful child and had a heart of gold. Anyone else who could love Elsie as much as he did certainly deserved a happy Christmas. He turned and looked back at the door and gave Elsie a nod.
Taking that as her cue, Elsie made a little noise in the hallway and sure enough, Sybil began to stir in her bed. Charles left a little note and a doll on the little girl's pillow, compliments of Elsie. He was just slipping out of the nursery and into the hallway when he heard a little gasp behind him and a child's voice whispering, "He is real! Father Christmas …"
Quickly grabbing Elsie's arm, Charles ushered her down the back stairs in case the little imp decided to follow the man in the red suit. They'd gone to so much trouble to stage this little ruse and to be caught out in the very end would be heartbreaking, resulting in more than a few uncomfortable conversations with his employers.
Jogging down the hallways, they did not stop until they were safely in the servant's corridors. They paused for a moment to catch their breath and it was Elsie that noticed it first. "Look, Saint Nicholas … mistletoe," she said, pointing above their heads.
With no further warning, she wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him down for a very sensual kiss, pressing her body to his, molding herself into his arms which were now tightly around her and drawing her even closer. The fake beard tickled a little, causing her to break the kiss and giggle. Neither of them noticed the little dark-haired girl standing on the stairs in her bare feet, holding her new dolly and watching as Mrs. Hughes kissed Saint Nicholas squarely on the lips.
As quiet as a church mouse, Sybil stood rooted to the spot until she saw Mrs. Hughes take the man's hand and draw him into her sitting room, whispering something about presents and rewards for being good. She smiled as the door closed and the voices ceased. Sybil slipped back upstairs. She couldn't wait until morning to tell Edith all about how she'd actually seen Father Christmas and that Mrs. Hughes knew him personally. And the best part of all … she had a note from him thanking him for the very pretty picture, which was now framed and in his room, and a doll, the prettiest doll she had ever seen.
The morning chatter both upstairs and downstairs seemed to be more animated than usual. Sybil was regaling everyone with her tale of seeing Saint Nicholas in her bedroom and how she'd followed him downstairs. She discreetly left out the bit about seeing him kissing Mrs. Hughes beneath the mistletoe. Charles merely smiled as he listened to her talking about how Edith was wrong and she had the proof because she had been a very good girl. He knew Elsie would get much enjoyment from hearing how well her little plan had worked.
As the breakfast dishes were being cleared, Lady Violet summoned Charles into a corner of the room. "Would you happen to know anything about Sybil's visitor last night, Carson?"
"Perhaps, my lady," he said, raising an eyebrow and setting his jaw firmly in place. If she wanted to know more, she would simply have to ask him directly.
She smiled at him and gave him a subtle wink. "Then I thank you … and Mrs. Hughes. I'm sure she had a hand in it as well. Sybil is often talking about Mrs. Hughes and how she hugs her and gives her hot cocoa when she's feeling sad. It makes the girl happy, keeps that pretty smile on her face."
"I believe, if I may be so bold my lady, it makes Mrs. Hughes happy to be able to assist Lady Sybil. They have a mutual affection for one another, which has served them well this season, I believe."
"Indeed it has, Carson. Indeed it has."
After the luncheon was served, the staff was always given the day off to enjoy as they wished. Christmas dinner for the Crawley family was always held at the Dower house so none of the Downton staff was needed. Using this to her advantage, Elsie had spent the morning working on a little picnic supper for Charles and her. It wouldn't be quite the romantic Christmas she would have liked but she would do all she could to show Charles just how loved and special he was to her. They were learning, quite quickly, to make the most out of every moment they had together and finding creative ways to invent more of them. No one would think to look for them in the little reading room off from the library, especially not on Christmas night.
As she waited for him in her sitting room, a little girl bounded through the doorway and immediately Elsie found her arms were full of Lady Sybil and a baby doll, one Mrs. Hughes recognized very well.
"Gracious child! You seem excited. Whatever's after you?"
"Look! Look, Mrs. Hughes. I've wanted to come and see you all day but I couldn't until now. I saw Father Christmas last night, and he gave me this! Oh, isn't she beautiful? I've never seen a prettier doll. Edith and Mary both were jealous and asked if they could hold her but I wouldn't let them. I don't want her to ever get dirty or broken." Sybil cradled the doll as if it were a piece of the finest crystal, ever so delicately and with more love than her little heart could contain.
Elsie shifted the little girl and her new doll on her lap, cradling her in one arm and moving her so that she could see Sybil's face and her new treasure. "She is a fine doll, indeed. I'm sure you'll give her lots of love and treat her very kindly, won't you?"
"Oh yes, I will, Mrs. Hughes. Would you help me pick out a name for her? I've tried to think of a few but I don't really like any of them."
"Well, let's see. She has pretty brown hair like yours. You could name her after yourself," Elsie suggested. Seeing the frown on Sybil's face, she continued. "How about a character from one of your favorite books or perhaps you could name her after your mummy or granny? I'm sure they wouldn't mind at all and would be flattered."
Sybil pondered that idea for a moment before asking. "Mrs. Hughes, what is your first name?"
"Mine? My first name is Elsie, love. Why?"
"Then if you don't mind, I would like to name my doll after you. You helped me write and send the letter to Father Christmas. Without your help, he might not have given her to me and I think she's very pretty, just like you. She even looks like you with her dark hair and her blue eyes. Please. You won't mind, will you?"
Elsie felt tears prickling her eyes, letting only one escape before she hugged the little child tightly in her arms. "My dear, I would be honored. Perhaps you could come down to visit me sometimes and bring her with you along with another doll, and we could have a little tea party. Would you like that?"
Sybil grinned and nodded her head. "I would like that very much, but do you think we could have cocoa instead? I don't like tea very much."
Elsie nodded. "I believe I can arrange that for us." She looked up to see Charles standing in her doorway and wondered how long he'd been listening, how much he'd heard. "Should we ask Mr. Carson if he would mind serving us our cocoa?"
Sybil turned and smiled at the kind-hearted butler. "I think that would be wonderful. He could join us, if he liked. I could bring a dolly for him, too."
"Well, we'll talk about it later, then, hmm? Right now, you should get back upstairs and put Elsie to bed. It's nearly her bedtime and she's had a very big day. Wouldn't you agree?"
Sybil stifled a yawn and nodded. "I'm ever so glad you helped me write the letter to your friend, Mrs. Hughes." Sybil did not miss the puzzled look that crossed Elsie's face. "I saw him in my bedroom last night and when he left I followed him down the stairs." She looked down at her lap and continued softly. "I saw you kissing him and then he came in here with you and you closed the door. I hope you had a good visit."
Elsie looked past Sybil and directly into Charles' face. "We had a wonderful visit, Lady Sybil. Thank you for asking. He was very sweet to me and gave me exactly what I wanted for Christmas, too. I was even able to surprise him with a little present." She kissed the little girl's cheek. "Now, off to bed with you and Miss Elsie. Would you like me to walk you back upstairs or do you think you can manage?"
"I will be okay. Oh, and I didn't tell anyone about seeing you kissing him last night. I wanted to keep it our secret. I like having you all to myself, so I really didn't want to tell Mary or Edith that you know Father Christmas so well. Promise me you won't tell them our secret."
"I promise, lass. It will be our secret … and Mr. Carson's since he just overheard us. But I think we can trust him not to tell."
"Oh, please say you won't tell on us, Mr. Carson."
He bent down until he was at her level. "Would you consider giving me a hug, and then I will promise not to tell a soul for as long as I live."
Sybil hopped down from Elsie's lap and rushed over to Charles, nearly knocking him over in the process as she flung her little arms around him, then leaning back to kiss him softly on the cheek. "Thank you, Mr. Carson." She turned and waved at Mrs. Hughes, who was watching the scene before her through watery eyes.
"Sweet dreams, lass, and you come and visit me again soon."
They waited a few moments after her departure before either of them spoke. "She's right you know," he said.
"You're very pretty, just like the doll." He leaned over and kissed her softly on the lips, drawing her into his arms. "And speaking of the doll … I know you didn't have time to go into the village to buy it and I've never seen it before. Where did it come from?"
Elsie closed her eyes and leaned against him, her mind filling quickly with memories from a Christmas long ago. "Father Christmas gave him to me one year when I was very young. Like Sybil will do, I'm sure, I took excellent care of her. And, as I grew older, I couldn't bear to part with it. Her name was Maggie and she was my most cherished toy. She's been tucked away safely in my trunk in the attic, and I thought it was time she was loved again by someone who would truly appreciate her."
"Elsie Hughes, while you are no toy to me, nor a possession of any kind, I believe you have more in common with that doll than you realize. It's time for you, my dear girl, to be loved by someone who will always appreciate you and take good care of you. Will you allow me that pleasure? Will you allow me to cherish you as none other could?"
"Why, Father Christmas … you are a terrible romantic, aren't you? And yes, I can think of none other that I would rather have cuddling me and loving me, but only if I am allowed to return the favor."
"I see no reason why that couldn't be arranged," he laughed softly.
"Good. Then, if you would be so kind as to accompany me, I believe we have a little bit left of this Christmas day, and I have arranged a little surprise picnic for us. Now, more than ever, I would like to spend it somewhere that we won't be interrupted, somewhere we can relax and enjoy a bottle of wine and the fire."
"I love you, Elsie Hughes."
"And I love you, Father Christmas."
A/N: On my way to work this morning. I heard "Santa Baby" on the radio and naturally my mind went to Charles and Elsie and Batwings79's story, "Christmas Ringtone." As my mind wandered, I couldn't get the image of Elsie kissing Charles dressed as Father Christmas out of my head. This is the result of that rabid plot bunny. I hope you have enjoyed it.