Elsie couldn't remember the last time silence had been so painful. Each tick of the clock seemed to hammer another notch into her already bruised heart. She sat on the edge of her seat and fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve, feeling just as anxious as an impatient child being forced to wait alone. She mentally scolded herself for preparing the tea so early; now it would get cold too soon, and who would want to drink cold tea? Charles would surely think her foolish for being so nervous and pathetically uncertain.
At the sound of his knock, Elsie was out of her seat in a jolt. She heaved a frustrated sigh at herself as she tried not to rush to answer the door. She hated the type of person that this was making her become.
"Mrs. Hughes," he greeted, quieter than he had intended, with a small smile.
It was somehow strange yet simultaneously comforting to hear him use her professional title after the events of that morning.
"Come in," she said, hoping that her voice sounded as steady and nonchalant as she had intended.
Elsie felt all her plans of rational conversation disintegrate the moment she sat down across from him and allowed him to catch her gaze. She dropped her head slightly in an attempt to hide the deep flush that she could feel traveling up her throat and across her cheeks. She felt a stir within her as Charles shifted in his seat.
"You know, you gave me quite a fright this morning," he spoke at last.
"Oh?" she replied, making an attempt to look him in the face but finding it too difficult to let him see the vulnerability she knew that was etched onto her face.
While Elsie generally considered herself an expert at hiding her thoughts and feelings from most people, Charles had somehow always been able to see straight through her defenses, and that terrified her, now more than ever.
"Yes." He gave what sounded like a sad chuckle. "When you walked away from me without a word, I was certain I had offended you."
"Offended me?" she repeated, sounding ridiculous to her own ears.
She raised her head but could not yet bring herself to make eye contact.
"When I told you I love you," he said slowly. "Did you mean it?"
There was a brief pause as Elsie nervously caught her lower lip with her teeth, but to Charles, it felt as if the moment would somehow become forever frozen in time as he waited.
She had spoken his name so softly that he was not completely certain she hadn't simply mouthed the words. Something about the sadness in her eyes threatened to tear out his heart and set ablaze any remaining strength and hope he had left. Had she regretted her words to him? Had they only been spoken in the fading heat of the moment, or to placate him?
"I couldn't..." He could barely hear her words now over the pounding of his own heart. "That is to say, I am not the type of woman who could tell someone I love him if I didn't."
Charles sat as if he were made of stone. He tried to tease apart what she had said, fearfully seeking an indication that she was going to say that she had made a mistake and that she didn't love him after all.
Elsie held her breath as he rose from his seat and moved to stand before her. He held out his hand, and she took it, carefully but not at all hesitantly. She began to tremble as he helped her to her feet and stepped so close to her that she feared he could have heard the frantic beating of her heart. She felt a pull low in her stomach as Charles slipped a hand onto the curve of her waist.
"What do we call this?" he asked with a smile. "Whatever this is between us..."
Elsie gave a small laugh and a playful half shrug.
"Perhaps we could call it love."
"Good," Charles replied with a chuckle. "Because I do love you. I wanted to tell you so before I had made such a mess of things before."
Elsie opened her mouth to speak, but whatever she had meant to say was suddenly lost as he leaned in to close the remaining distance between them by enveloping her into his arms and finally experiencing the light, sweet taste of her kiss.