A/N: Yes, yes, I know I have the R/E story to work on, too, but I need some familiar ground to tread upon from time to time, to keep everything plausible enough and maintain my balance… also, my Muse and I agree that multitasking is vital for maintaining a high level of creativity.
Therefore, I give you the first chapter of the last in the 'Improper' series: an insight into Charles and Elsie's married life, and, upon many request I'd been getting, their relationship with their 'adopted grandson', Robbie Branson. It will be a straightforward fluff and smut, with just a touch of angst here and there.
I'm quite tired of putting the 'be careful, this chapter is steamy' warnings into every second instalment, so I decided to rate this story 'M'—although I have no idea if I manage to pull the descriptions off, since my only 'real' smut story was the Lovejoy/Lady Jane one… you shall be the judges of that, I believe.
Also, I still don't own any of the characters I write about, with the possible exception of Robbie. I make no profit out of this, and I mean no harm to anybody.
Please let me know what you think, if you have the time!
Chapter 1, or: When Plans Go Amiss
May 31, 1922
A warm, summer afternoon on a Sunday should have been just that: warm, quiet and peaceful.
And yet, as Elsie and her companion reached the drawing room door, they were greeted by a bustle of voices that sounded neither peaceful nor warm.
Mrs. Branson's strong alto dominated the others for the moment. "Are you trying to tell me you've lost our child again, Tom?"
"Now, Sybil, I wouldn't exactly say I'd lost him… misplaced, perhaps, but—"
Elsie rolled her eyes, trying hard to suppress a smile. For such independent and strong willed a man, Tom Branson seemed to have been completely dominated by his lovely wife. And it was a high time to save him, for the former Lady Sybil Crawley could be quite difficult to handle once she turned into a lioness protecting her cub.
Having this in mind, Elsie pushed the door in and stepped forward. "Begging your pardon, Mrs. Branson—I think I have located the 'misplaced' individual."
Sybil Branson jumped to her feet and crossed the room with astonishing speed, sweeping her son Robbie off the floor and making his little, puffy hand slip away from Elsie's. "Oh, Mrs. Hu—Carson—thank you so much! Where on Earth did you find him?"
"He wandered off into the servants' hall again, ma'am," Elsie answered with a smile, reaching out to ruffle the boy's wavy, dark red hair. "Mr. Carson found him playing outside our office door." Since the wall between the butler's pantry and the housekeeper's parlour had been demolished, and exchanged for a flimsy, removable half-screen, the family and servants took up calling the whole working space 'an office' to avoid confusion.
"No, not again! Robbie, how many times do I have to tell you: stop pestering Mrs. Carson! You have your own family for this!" She kissed her son soundly on both cheeks, making him laugh out loud. "You'll be a good boy and spend the rest of the day with us, won't you now?"
Before the boy could in any way acknowledge his mother's request, there was a commotion in the hallway, and suddenly a decidedly male and sweaty body collided with Elsie's, almost knocking her down to the floor.
She whirled on the spot, ready to give whatever brute of a footman it turned out to be quite a tongue-lashing, but restrained herself as she realized it was, in fact, Mr. Molesley: panting, dishevelled, and slightly green about his cheeks and lips.
Robbie Branson, the brave explorer of servants' halls, had been momentarily forgotten as Lady Grantham, both of her daughters present in the drawing room and the Dowager Countess sprang to their feet (or raised themselves proudly from their seats, in the latter case). "Is it time?" Lady Cora asked, breathless, placing one hand over her heart as if to stop it from jumping straight out of her chest.
Mr. Molesley nodded, still breathless. "Lady Mary… asked… for your ladyship… and Mrs. Branson…" he managed to say between taking sharp gasps of air as he unsuccessfully tried to compose himself. Fortunately enough, his presence alone had been correctly interpreted in the only possible way: Lady Mary Crawley has finally gone into her (ten days overdue) labour.
"We shall all go to the Crawley House, presently," said the Dowager Countess firmly, tapping her stick on the floor to add some gravity to her words. "Molesley, go to the garage and tell Pratt to bring the motor over. Robert, stop gaping and get ready! And Sybil, put the child down. Mrs. Carson won't mind taking care of him for another afternoon, will you, Mrs. Carson…?"
"What would you have me say, then? 'Actually, your ladyship, this is my first half-day off that's coincided with my husband's since January'? Perhaps I should have added something about having my wicked way with you while I was at it?"
Charles chuckled quietly and looked over to the boy, sitting in the middle of Elsie's settee and playing with a set of old wooden blocks that had been his mother's and his aunts' before him. "Might it have been the first time you didn't stand up to the Dowager Countess, wife?"
Elsie rolled her eyes and took a sip of the wine she had had to abandon in order to escort young Robbie upstairs. The drink was slowly turning stale—a very sad condition for the wine to be in. "Perhaps you'd like to write me a note I could present to her each time a situation like this arose? Complete with your signature, if you please?"
"And what exactly would you have me put on it? 'Kindly stop bothering my wife on the rare days when it is I who has the right to do so'? 'To whom it may concern: do note that Mrs. Carson is quite a passionate woman, and having her contain all her passion for too long might result in unleashing a real torrent of emotions we're all better off not experiencing'?"
"Aye, that sounds just about right."
This time his chuckle was a little louder, and earned them a curious glance from Robbie. "Don't talk to me that way, unless you want the young rascal to get an eyeful of something he most definitely shouldn't be seeing for another twenty years," Charles muttered under his breath, taking hold of his wife's free hand and raising it to his lips. "I know we planned this day a little different… but since we seem to find ourselves in an unavoidable situation, why don't we try and make the best of it? How about a walk outside?..."
"This was the best of ideas, husband," Elsie whispered to Charles as she turned to take one last look at the scene behind them: Robbie sitting cross-legged on a colourful blanket, mouth slightly agape as he watched little Charlie Parks show him his wooden toys. Charlie's mother, Mrs. Ethel Watkins, previously a disgraced housemaid of Downton and presently a new wife of one of the estate tenants whose wife and daughter succumbed to the Spanish flu almost three years ago, sat by them, gently stroking the prominent swell of her belly and keeping a sharp eye on both boys.
They bumped into Ethel and Charlie having a picnic on a nearby meadow not five minutes after leaving the house, and as the other two offered to take care of Robbie for an hour or so, Elsie didn't hesitate much before jumping at the chance of having her husband just for herself.
"I'm glad you approve," was Charles' answer to her praise, followed by pressing the hand she held in the crook of his arm a little tighter against his side. "And I intend to make the best possible use of our time alone…"
"Hush now, somebody will hear," she whispered and kissed him, swallowing the moan that threatened to escape his lips. He responded eagerly and caressed her back through the thin fabric of her slip. They were on the settee, theoretically lying side by side but practically entwined so completely it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began, with most of their clothes scattered carelessly around them. As she arched her back and angled her hips into his once more, he thrust forward with slightly more force, making her stifle a moan in turn. She wrapped one leg, still clad in a silk stocking as per Charles' request, around his upper thigh, and bit his shoulder playfully.
"Was that a revenge?" she asked, scratching her fingernails down his spine, matching each of his moves with her own. He bowed his head and trailed his lips alongside her neck, latching them to the sensitive spot just below her ear. It was usually her undoing, and this time proved no different: she shivered, clenching her muscles and pulling him with her, until they lay, spent, breathing heavily and exchanging hot, sloppy kisses, basking in the afterglow of their shared passion.
"We really should work on a better system," Elsie remarked after several slow minutes, getting up and retrieving her underclothes from under Charles's desk. "Too many things get torn or misplaced, and I cannot spend all my days re-sewing buttons onto clothes."
Her husband groaned, still lying flat on the settee, apparently unable to move. "I cannot deny that having an actual bed we could stay in afterwards would be a nice change… My back would certainly appreciate it."
"As would mine," Elsie sighed, refastening her corset with remarkable swiftness she'd earned during her married life. "You'd think that, after allowing us to marry, his lordship would at least consider arranging the proper living quarters for us! How is it possible that, after having been married for close to two years, we still have separate bedrooms?"
Charles ran a hand over his face and sat up, ready to make the same argument he always had when this particular topic arose. "He did offer us a cottage, Elsie. And if I'm not mistaken, it was you who refused to move, claiming we had far too much work to stay away from the house."
"Only because I hoped he'd come up with some other solution! Why not make some adjustments upstairs, connect some rooms the way it was done here? Nobody protested when we suggested having a bigger office; why would a bigger, and shared, bedroom, be a problem?"
"Perhaps his lordship couldn't fathom why we would require to share the sleeping quarters in the first place?" Charles mused, standing up and coming closer to Elsie to take over the monotonous task of doing up the countless buttons of her dress—he found that he liked dressing her almost as much as reversing the process—almost being the operative word. Smiling with content, he lowered his lips to her shoulder and kissed it gently, running the tip of his tongue over her skin, slightly blushed from their earlier activities. "Perhaps he thought us both too advanced in age to still find pleasure in the union of the flesh?"
"Then he had been seriously mistaken," she answered with a slight tremble in her voice and extracted herself from his arms with one last kiss placed upon his jaw. "Perhaps I had been, too."
Charles furrowed his brow, looking down at Elsie in astonishment. "Are you saying that you wish to take his lordship up on his offer and move away from the house?"
She nodded and handed him his shirt, walking over to the mirror to fix her hair. "This isn't working, Charles. We are getting older, and I believe there's no shame in wanting some more comfort from life. Such as a bed neither of us has to sneak into."
He did up his buttons and reached for his waistcoat, eyes still fixed upon Elsie. "This will be quite a change for both of us, though. Especially now, with all the commotion—"
"Charles, let's be realistic—there's always going to be a commotion of some kind! The Bransons visiting, Lady Mary having her child, perhaps Lady Edith shall fall in love and want to get married soon? If we wait for the right moment, it might never come to us."
Charles fixed his collar and reached for his jacket, pausing to run his hands against the impeccably cleaned fabric. "This isn't a proper thing to say for a housekeeper, Mrs. Carson."
"I have been a housekeeper for a long time, Mr. Carson. And now I'm ready to be me for a change."
He shrugged on his jacket, checked his appearance in the mirror and nodded. "So be it. If you wish to try this new arrangement, I'm fully behind you, wife—although I do believe we're up for a bumpy ride, at least in the beginning."
Her eyes glittered as she stood on tiptoe and kissed him briefly, smiling in a way that lifted at least twenty years off her shoulders. "Thank you, Charles. We can make this work, I believe… not to mention the fact that, should we have a more comfortable lodging at our disposal, I wouldn't have to restrain myself and express my happiness only by means of words…"
"Does this stay true when your unhappiness is concerned? For if you're planning on hurling any plates in my direction, I might be forced to reconsider what I've just said—"
She scoffed and punched him playfully on the chest. The positively wicked gleam in her eyes made him want to scoop her up in his arms and restart what they'd finished mere minutes ago—but they were interrupted, to their mutual dismay, by a sharp knock on the door.
"We'll be off then, Mrs. Carson, Mr. Carson," Ethel said, leading Robbie into the former housekeeper sitting room and handing the small basket containing his things over to his peers. "Did you have a nice time?"
'Nice' was quite an understatement as far as Elsie was concerned, but she would never let the young woman know that. "Thank you, Ethel," she said instead with as much dignity as she could muster, "we have managed to reach several vital conclusions in our… arguments. It was a time well spent."
And an extremely pleasurable one, she thought to herself as she watched Charles lead Robbie away to the kitchen in pursuit of tea and biscuits (and, if Mrs. Patmore was so inclined, apple tart).
She looked around herself, taking in the walls and furniture that had become silent witnesses to so many things, good or bad, in the many years she'd spent in Downton. This place was hers because she made it so, tamed it to her hand; but it wasn't hers the way she knew Charles' heart to be—because it had been given to her willingly, to have and to hold. Knowing the latter, she could no longer feel satisfied with the former.
It was time for a change. And not only the one she'd told Charles about. But today was not the day to put it up for discussion. Not here, not now… not yet.
Sighing, she silently followed her husband and Robbie into the kitchen.