A/N sorry it took me SO long to update this! Work was hell, my mood was not the best and not suited for writing fluff. But I did not want this to be unfinished. So: this is the last chapter :) enjoy reading!
At breakfast he tried not to think about the bag inside the store cupboard, tried to calm his nerves and hoped that Elsie did not plan to check the provisions today. If she would, he had a lot of explaining to do. He could not simply invent a story of how that bag made its way into the store cupboard. That Daisy might have forgotten it there or that Mrs. Patmore was not able to finish unpacking the supplies. The cook was never neglectful when it came to food. Elsie would know that the only person that had had access to the key was him. And she would never forgive him should he tell a lie.
His gaze was fixed on the porridge in front of him. He had not taken a bite of it yet. Underneath the table he could feel how Elsie's leg brushed his knee, more than once, until she stepped on his foot to wake him up from his reverie. His head shot up abruptly to look at her and what he saw did not help him in his current state of mind. She had furrowed her brow, looked at him with a hint of worry in her eyes.
"Mr. Carson, you seem a bit absent this morning. Are you not feeling well?"He quickly scanned the faces of the other servants that sat around them at the big table. No one was paying attention to their conversation.
"Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Hughes. I am a bit tired to be honest." And anxious about a certain bag, he thought.
"Oh. Did you not get enough rest last night, then?" The worried look upon her face was replaced by a slight smile on her lips, obviously she remembered what they had done before he had left her bedroom twice last night. But not even this was able to lift his mood or solve the problem he was faced with. He let his leg fall against hers to let her know that he was still paying attention to what she had said. But apart from a small smile on his lips he did not answer her question.
Elsie slightly shook her head and her left hand reached underneath the table carefully to touch his knee, while she continued to eat her breakfast. Now this distracted him and led his thoughts away from the bag inside the cupboard.
Until Mrs. Patmore entered the kitchen a few minutes later, arms akimbo, her face read with fury. "Mrs. Hughes! Can you explain me why the door to the store cupboard was left open last night?"
Charles almost choked on the small portion of porridge he had just begun to eat. He had closed the door and locked it last night, for sure! However he had not checked it thoroughly but instead left the kitchen in a hurry. The only explanation that came to his mind was that the bolt had not slid into the lock completely, leaving the door open. Elsie's hand on top of his knee tensed up, her fingernails digging into the fabric of his trousers and through it. Her face white with anger, her lips drawn to a thin line. Before he knew what he was doing, Charles raised his voice.
"Mrs. Patmore, can we please discuss this after breakfast?"
Elsie shot him a furious glance, took her hand away from his knee and was about to stand up to face Mrs. Patmore now. Gently he put his hand on her shoulder, urging her to sit down again. Instead he stood and ushered the cook out of the servant's hall.
"Why is this a problem, Mrs. Patmore?"
The woman snorted. "I am refused to get a spare key to the store cupboard and she leaves it open over night. Always telling me that I cannot deal with the responsibilities this key involves. Whereas it is obviously her that cannot deal with it, not me."
He let out a small sigh. The ongoing fight for this particular key always had gotten on his nerves. Only today did it for once present to him a solution for his problem. He would suggest something he knew Elsie would not tolerate. "Can I have a look at the door?"
Mrs. Patmore crossed her arms, shrugged her shoulders and snorted, "She obviously does not care at ALL."
Charles turned the knob and was surprised that the small wooden door actually opened. The bolt had not locked it, as he had already suspected. Then suddenly an idea struck him yet he was certain that Mrs. Patmore and Elsie Hughes would not buy the story he would tell them now. Especially because it would take all his persuasiveness to make it seem believable. He had never been a good liar. Keeping things secret by not telling them was easy for him, telling an outright lie had always caused his voice to crack, sweating and an inability to look his opposite straight in the eye. Maybe he would manage to deceive Mrs. Patmore but Elsie was a different matter.
"So what is it now Mr. Carson?" Mrs. Patmore kept staring at him, how he had bent down to examine the lock and bolt of the door.
He cleared his throat. "Obviously the closing mechanism is broken." His eyes he kept on the lock, turning the knob, pretending that the bolt did not budge a bit. "Mrs. Hughes is not to blame." He looked up and into a puzzled face. "We have to call for the locksmith, Mrs. Patmore. No one has maintained this door for quite some time."
He saw how the cook's expression changed. "All right. Will the store cupboard stay open then?"A smile formed on her face, bright and cheerful.
"I'm afraid so. But I am sure that we will have it fixed this afternoon at the lastest."
Her keys announced her arrival in the kitchen a mere second later. "What is it now?" The edge in her voice told him that she was still annoyed by Mrs. Patmore's accusation during breakfast.
Mrs. Patmore just turned around and grinned at the housekeeper, provoking Elsie even more. Charles straightened quickly and stepped between the two women, looking first at the cook, a scolding expression on his face, and then at Elsie.
"The bolt and lock are broken and I will have to call for the locksmith to have it repaired." He realized that his voice was not as deep as it usually was and that sweat began to form on his forehead. He tried to hold her gaze but when she exhaled deeply, letting out a suppressed sigh he had to look away, suddenly very attracted to the copper pans on the wall.
"Better send some of the hallboys now or we will never have it fixed." Now it was his turn to let out a sigh when Elsie turned around to leave the kitchen.
It was early afternoon when he decided to ask his Lordship for permission to go to the village. Another lie told to conceal the true reason for his request. Helping a man he had once shared a life with, a life on stage, in dirty hotels and with so many lies that Charles had sworn never to get back to this again. Thirty years later he had. He stood in front of his employer whom he trusted and who had put all his trust in the butler. And he told a lie. The second in one day.
He changed quickly into his non formal attire and hoped that no one would notice how he slipped into the store cupboard. Elsie had been busy all afternoon preparing a dozen bedrooms for dinner guests that planned to stay overnight. The mood she had been in after breakfast and after her Ladyship had informed her that dinner tonight required slight changes had been so awful that Charles was actually glad that Elsie was out of his way for the rest of the day. It meant no additional lies for him and time to execute his plan.
The bag was still filled with the supplies he had gathered last night. He added a few more cans, closed the lid and wanted to lift it up when a can slid out and fell onto the floor, followed by several fresh apples. He silently cursed. It was only when he tried to pick everything up again that he noticed Anna standing behind him, a teatowel in her hand, staring at him.
"His Lordship asked me to… get these… for…", he stumbled through the sentence, undignified and making a fool of himself. "… for charity."
Anna still stared at him. "He usually does not make a big deal out of this so I would appreciate it if you keep it to yourself, Anna." He managed to make his voice sound more like Charles Carson the butler and not any longer like that of a young schoolboy, having been caught at cheating.
The housemaid nodded. "I understand, Mr. Carson."
"Thank you, now if you excuse me."
The food had not been enough. As soon as Charles had returned from the village, having run a few other errands while he was there, he was confronted with Charles Grigg again. This was his punishment for having lied to so many people in one day. People that had always thought they knew him, respected and trusted him. And now they were witnesses to his shame, his past, his darkest secret.
He kept himself busy after the revelation in the library, tried to avoid both Elsie and Anna, preparing the large dinner for tonight and thinking of nothing else than how to hide his past from Elsie. Could he keep it secret still, even though Anna, Mr. Bates and Lady Sybil knew now? A few times during the day he met her, tried to smile at her, tried to pretend everything was fine with him. She smiled back, rolled her eyes, letting him know without words how much she longed this day to be over.
Around midnight he finished locking up the house, closed the last door and switched off the last of the electric lights. An old oil lamp illuminated his way downstairs towards his pantry. He stifled a yawn and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand before he opened the door.
"I thought you had already gone to bed," he almost dropped the lamp when he heard her voice. She was sitting in his armchair, a cup of tea in front of her and an open book on her lap. Her features were softened by the yellow light from his desk lamp, making him forget how dreadful the day had been.
He closed the door, set the lamp on the table before he bent down to kiss her forehead. "It has been a long day and I must admit I am rather exhausted." Instead of sitting down on the old wooden chair in front of his desk, he took a seat on the armrest of his armchair. Elsie took this as an opportunity to lean her head against his chest and close her eyes.
"We haven't seen a lot of each other today since breakfast." She whispered.
His hand was gently stroking her hair. He too closed his eyes and listened to her breathing for a while. Should he tell her now? Should he destroy this wonderful moment? A sigh escaped him that caused her to lift her head to look at him, a questioning expression on her face. "Is something the matter? You seemed so distant all day."
To place another kiss on her forehead was all he could do at the moment. It allowed him to not have to look at her eyes and maybe he could distract her a bit, make her lean her head against his chest again.
"Charles, tell me. Something is upsetting you." It did not work. Not at all. Elsie Hughes had always been able to read his mind and knew when he withheld information from her. "Is it about the store cupboard?"
He could feel that she was still looking at him, had not averted her eyes. Charles had to face this now obviously. He could not tell another lie, make his situation even worse than it already was. "I've done something very foolish, Elsie", he started his explanation.
"The door was not broken, I suppose."
And he suddenly felt like that schoolboy again for the second time today. "Now it was not. I am sorry Elsie. I lied to you. I am sorry," he repeated, still not able to look at her.
"You took the keys out of my pocket last night, didn't you?" She did not sound offended or angry. "Charles, please, tell me what had brought this on."
He sighed a second time and finally looked at her. What he saw warmed his heart. She was smiling encouragingly, then took his hand into hers and placed a soft kiss on the back of it. "I've never told you what I did before I came to Downton." And then the story poured out of him in unfinished sentences, muttered words, his voice sometimes only a whisper. She listened patiently, held his hand, stroked it reassuringly with her thumb.
"And that is why you left me twice last night? To prepare this bag for Mr. Grigg? Charles, you could have asked me for the key, told me everything."
The love he felt for this woman right now was indescribable. "I was ashamed", his voice cracked. "And afraid you would find me ridiculous."
He felt her hands on his cheeks and let her draw his face down to meet hers. "I will never find you ridiculous." Her lips brushed his while she spoke and before she kissed him tenderly. "Never." Another kiss to seal her promise. "But please, never lie to me again."
His bed offered them a bit more space than hers. Elsie had draped her arm around his chest and nestled her head in the crook of his neck, still exhausted from their love making minutes ago. "I might reconsider what I demanded from you earlier", she murmured sleepily.
"What was that?" His hand caressed her back.
"Why my love?" the other hand found its way to her chest and moved a bit higher.
"You obviously felt the need to make up for what you did last night and throughout the day: keeping something from me. And it felt very very good." Her sharp intake of breath told him that his hand had caused the desired effect on her. "It still feels very good." She tilted her head and kissed his jaw, his cheek, the corner of his mouth and finally his lips.