Shattered Moments

A/N: This was written in response to a series of comments made on Tumblr about an "almost" Charles/Elsie kiss. This is my response to the challenge but being the hopeless Chelsie romantic that I am, I couldn't let it end in an "almost" kiss. Also, thanks to "daggers-in-the-smiles-of-men" for the line: "Can you fix it, Mr. Carson?" Hope you enjoy!

Charles first noticed that something was amiss when Elsie received a letter at breakfast. It wasn't unusual for her to receive correspondence from her sister or even a friend from her life in Argyle but he noticed the way her hands trembled when she accepted the envelope from his hand. He wanted to offer her some words of comfort but … for what, he wasn't sure. There was nothing weak about Elsie Hughes, as she had often reminded him in her own subtle way, and perhaps he was reading more into this one small occurrence so early in the day, After all, he sometimes felt a bit off first thing in the morning, especially after a night of vivid dreams in which she had a starring role, in fact the only role in his most private thoughts. It was quite possible, she was simply having an off sort of day, and he was overthinking things, reading too much into a slight, almost imperceptible tremble of her hands. But, being a man who noticed everything about her, his eyes had certainly detected something … if not in her hands, then in her eyes. She suddenly seemed very uneasy and worried. Her eyes went from the sparkling blue of a summer day to storm clouds brewing on the horizon filled with winds and rain … lots of rain.

Pushing aside his own thoughts on her personal letter, Charles made a mental note to check on her later in the morning, after the maids were seeing to their duties and his footmen were tending to theirs. It would give her some time to read her letter, and no doubt she would be her usual witty self the next time he saw her. At least, he hoped that would be the case.

As soon as breakfast was over, Elsie took her letter and slipped into her sitting room, gently closing the door behind her. She had a strong suspicion about the contents of letter and for those few brief moments, she could pretend that there was nothing amiss, nothing out of the ordinary in her well organized universe. However, she couldn't deny the piece of paper she now held in her hands, the markings on the envelope letting her know the origins, and most likely alluding to the words she did not wish to read.

She sat down on her settee and took a steadying breath. It would do no good to cry or to turn sentimental. It wouldn't change anything nor would it make her feel any better. Headaches were never good for making any situation better and certainly not conducive to a productive day of work. She had duties to perform, staff to oversee, work that still needed to be done, yet the urge to sate her curiosity was stronger than all those things combined. So, with those same trembling hands that had accepted the envelope from Mr. Carson, she gently unsealed the envelope and began to read.

The door to her sitting room was still closed when he returned from his morning rounds of the house, and he paused for a moment outside his own door, wondering if he should speak with her, offer her some sort of support or even just a friendly smile. She was, after all, his best friend, his equal in all things, and if he could help her, even in some small way, he wanted to be there for her. So, pushing aside his own thoughts of duty and work, he gently tapped on her door, waiting patiently for her permission to enter.

She jumped at the sound of his familiar knock on her door and quickly noted the time. She had wasted most of her morning reminiscing about people and places she hadn't seen in years, decades even. It didn't make the pain any less bearable but it also didn't serve a true purpose. There would be time for her personal feelings later, when she was in her own bedroom and could give way to her grief more readily, indulge in a bit of sadness on her own time. So, quickly dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief, she called out for Mr. Carson to enter.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you, Mrs. Hughes, but, well … only you seemed a bit troubled by your letter this morning. I trust it wasn't bad news." He waited with baited breath for her verbal reply, though he'd already found his answer hidden in her deep blue eyes which were now a little red from her tears.

"Thank you, Mr. Carson. I appreciate the gesture. It was a bit of bad news, though it was somewhat expected." She crossed the room and placed the letter on her desk as she struggled to keep her memories at bay. The last thing she wanted to do was to start crying again. If there was one thing she knew of Charles Carson, it was that the dear man hated to see a woman cry. It made him as nervous as a teenage lad going in for his first kiss.

"Would you care to talk about your letter? Sometimes it helps to have a friendly ear, and, if I may be so bold, I like to think of myself as a friend to you."

"You are my dearest friend, Charles, and I greatly appreciate the offer." She paused for only a moment when she realized she had slipped and used his first name. That was something she only ever did late at night, when her active mind and her hungry body gave way to indulgences of the heart. She looked up sharply to see his kind, brown eyes smiling at her and she felt relieved, almost as if some invisible barrier had been crossed and she had lived to tell the tale.

He would be lying if he said his heart hadn't skipped a beat when her soft voice said his first name. His mind raced back to his dream from the night before. She had said his name then, too, though in a much breathier tone of voice and certainly closer to his ear, but it sounded much the same. Shaking himself mentally before traveling down that pathway, he gave her a smile.

"Elsie …" The sound of her name tumbling from his lips so effortlessly somehow made him feel free. He stretched out his hand to her, offering her a chance to tell him what was troubling her, or at least some measure of comfort, whatever she needed of him.

She smiled, her first one of the day and reached to take his hand, but just as she did, her dainty hand caught made contact with the little, white porcelain cat sitting on her desk. Elsie's breath hitched in her throat as she watched, helplessly, as the little cat bounced and tumbled its way to the ground, breaking into several pieces at her feet.

It was as if the last of her strong resolve shattered along with the cat, and suddenly Elsie was on her knees in floods of tears. She tried, in vain, to pick up the pieces from the floor but she could barely see them through her tears. Suddenly, a pair of large, strong, warm hands were covering hers and were drawing her into an equally pair of strong arms. Those same arms now wrapped her in the most comforting embrace she had ever known, allowing her to let go and grieve for her losses.

It had been a special gift from her favorite aunt, given to her on the morning she left Argyle for her life abroad. Her aunt had been like a second mother, a best friend, and an older sister all rolled into one. For as long as Elsie could remember, her aunt had always been there for her, listening to her problems and her hopes for her life. She had been the person Elsie relied on most, especially after her mother had died and now … with the delivery of that latter … now she was gone, too. And so was her last connection to that one constant in her life … the porcelain cat with the pretty blue bow was in ruins at her feet.

When she gathered her wits about her and ceased her crying, she felt a sudden shyness take hold of her, realizing she was leaning heavily against Charles as he cradled her in his arms. She tried to move away, but his arms were tightly wound around her, holding her to his chest, which was not at all uncomfortable. Almost as if he sensed the tension returning to her body, he began to rub her back gently, whispering softly to her.

"There's no shame in grieving for those we love, Elsie. When you're ready, in your own time, I would like to know what's made you so upset. What has brought you to such tears?"

She took the fresh handkerchief he offered and, without moving from his arms, she told him of her aunt and how incredibly special she was. She told him how she had wanted to be just like her when she was growing up and how her aunt had encouraged her to follow her own hopes and dreams, to make a life for herself doing what she wanted. Then, she told him of the porcelain cat figurine.

Finally, he understood why those little bits of porcelain on the floor had caused such an outburst of emotion from such a strong woman. As gently as he could, Charles shifted Elsie from his arms. He would almost swear he heard a slight sound of protest but perhaps he had been mistaken. So much had happened since he entered her sitting room, he dared not fool himself into believing such things.

As carefully as he would have handled the finest china the Crawleys owned, Charles gathered the bits of broken memories into his hand and studied them with a careful eye. He puzzled over them for a moment, until he felt Elsie's breath very close to his cheek. Turning to look at her, he was surprised to find that her face was right there in front of his.

Suddenly, the clock on her desk stopped ticking and everything was frozen in time. Her blue eyes had taken on yet another shade, this one much more becoming Elsie Hughes and one he had never seen in them before. They were a cross between a sunny day and a stormy night, almost the color of a velvet sky blanketed with stars. And the little wisps of her hair that curled about her face made him long for the privilege to brush them aside, tuck them behind her ear as he let his fingertips ghost across her skin. Never before had they been this close. Never had he wanted to be much closer to her than he was at this very moment. He found himself leaning towards her, leaning towards those parted lips which were the color of a fair pink rose and sure to be even softer …

Her mouth went dry and her pulse began to race. She could feel his warm breath sweeping across her lips. His deep brown eyes, the color of a rich chocolate icing were staring into her own eyes, eyes she dared not close for fear of breaking the moment between them. His cologne was stronger now, more intoxicating it seemed. She had been too distraught a few moments ago to really focus on such things, but now …with him so close, his eyes so intense, she couldn't help but notice everything about him. She found herself leaning towards him, leaning towards his supple lips which she knew would be so sweet and tender …

"Damn!" And the moment was broken. He looked down at his finger now bleeding from the small cut to the pad of his middle finger before looking back into her concerned face. Yes, the spell was indeed broken but he tried not to let his disappointment show. "It will be fine. I'll run some water over the cut and bandage it if necessary."

"Let me do that for you. After all, it is part of my job to see that you're well cared for, and it's my fault you are bleeding in the first place. Silly cat trinket …"

He covered her hand with his free one and shook his head. "It's not a silly trinket. It's important to you, Elsie, and I'm deeply sorry it was broken. Clearly, it was important to you and that means something to me."

She nodded her head and gave him a soft smile. "Do you …" She hesitated for a moment, her mind warring with her spirit.

"Do I what, Mrs. Hughes?" He hoped that by using her formal title, he might be able to restore some sense of calmness between them, though it pained him to do it so abruptly.

"Do you think it can be mended, I mean? Can you fix it, Mr. Carson?"

There was an underlying tone in her voice which reminded him of a small child whose favorite toy had been broken, quite by accident, but broken all the same. He knew, as soon as her request had been made, that he would gladly spend as long as it took to try to mend the broken bits of the cat, the broken pieces of her heart, too.

"I don't know, Mrs. Hughes, but I shall do my best if you will allow me to take the pieces with me to my pantry. I promise to take special care with them, and if I can't mend it, I will return them all to you."

That had been two days ago and Charles Carson had devoted every spare waking moment to his special project. He couldn't get the image of Elsie Hughes out of his mind. He had been so close to finally tasting her lips, to holding her in his arms as he had always dreamt of doing, of finding out just how good it felt to bury his nose in her hair and inhale deeply while running his hands along her sides and arms. And then he had cut his finger, thus breaking the spell he'd been under and most likely keeping him from making a fool of himself.

Neither of them had really spoken of that afternoon, or at least that part of it. He had gone to her pantry after dinner service that night and she'd shared a few stories over the remnants of the wine. She had thanked him the following day for being such a wonderful friend and reassured him that he had, indeed, cheered her a little. It helped to have someone to talk to and to at least share some of her grief.

Now, as the dinner service drew to a close and everything was in order with the upstairs and downstairs, Charles slipped into his pantry and opened the top drawer, carefully removing the crisp, white handkerchief and tucking it safely into his pocket. He gathered the wine decanter and two glasses before joining Elsie in her sitting room.

Elsie had told him of the letter she had sent to her cousin, expressing her deepest sympathy and promising to visit at some point in the near future. She would at least like to pay her respects at the grave since she wasn't able to make the formal service.

"If you'd like, we can stop by the church tomorrow and say a prayer for her and your family. That is, of course, if you're still planning to walk into the village with me."

"It will be the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary week for me … Charles."

He smiled broadly as she used his first name and he knew the moment had come. Carefully, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the handkerchief and handed it to her, cupping both of her hands in his as he placed the delicate item in her palms.

"It may not be perfect, but all the pieces are there," he said softly, watching her face as she slowly peeled back the corners of the handkerchief.

A fresh wave of tears flooded her eyes as she stared down into her palms which now cradled the little white cat with the blue bow. It looked almost new and had she not seen it scattered in bits across her floor, she might never have known it had been broken.

Without any hesitation and much to his delight and surprise, she closed the distance between them and wrapped her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly to her as her warm tears spilled down her cheeks.

He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her to him, relishing the feel of her body pressed to his. When she pulled back to look into his face, he seized the moment and closed the remaining distance between them without a moment's hesitation or a second thought.

His lips brushed against hers softly and slowly, just in case she felt he had overstepped the boundaries of their friendship and wanted to retreat. But, when her arms tightened around his neck and the fingertips of one hand brushed through his hair, he felt a surge of happiness flood his very soul.

Charles reached around behind him and gently pried the cat figurine from Elsie's hand and, without looking he placed it securely on her desk before devoting all this attention to the kiss and savoring the moment.

Elsie moaned softly into his mouth as he deepened the kiss. She'd felt warmth and heat before but nothing as consuming as this, nothing as intoxicating and energizing as the feel of Charles Carson's lips on hers, his hands on her waist, holding her to him. She pressed her body even closer, giving in to her all her longings and desires until they were both rendered breathless.

Charles rested his forehead against hers, his eyes closed as he tried to regain some sense of composure, at least enough to form a coherent thought. But before he could utter a single word, her lips were pressed to his again and he was being led in the direction of her settee.

"You must think me very brazen and bold, Charles Carson, but I hope I'm correct in thinking … you wouldn't object to …"

He brought her hands up to his lips and kissed them each in turn before leaning down to lightly kiss her lips in a chaste kiss. "I most certainly would not object, Elsie Hughes. But, not tonight. I want to enjoy every single minute. I want to have the luxury of courting you, of slowing learning what makes you happy, what makes you sigh in satisfaction, and what truly makes you hum in pleasure. You wouldn't deny me that, would you?"

She pulled him down onto the settee with her and wasted no time in snuggling into his arms. "How could I object to such an offer? But, I hope you won't deny me the chance to do the same for you …starting now." She loosened his tie and began pressing light kisses along his jaw and neck, rendering him speechless for the remainder of the night.

The mended cat figurine found a new place of honor in Elsie's bedroom. It was a constant reminder of her past, but also of the bright future just waiting for her on the other side of corridor where Charles Carson slept, dreaming of her and all the ways he was going to make her happy.

The End.

Reviews are always welcomed, encouraged, and most certainly appreciated.