Just a short chapter to lead us further into the story.
Elsie rolled her eyes and deviated from the main corridor as she caught sight of Henry lingering by the kitchen doorway, waiting for some unsuspecting female to be caught out underneath mistletoe he'd strung up over the arch of the doorway. She was not going to be that female, even if it meant she had to carry the large soup pot the long way round to the kitchen, because she had absolutely no desire to feel his lips on hers. At times however it would appear that she was the only female in this house to feel that way, the others fawned over him.
She shook her head when she caught sight of another sprig of the plant hanging from yet another one of the doorways. It wasn't that she disliked the idea of mistletoe, in fact it was quite the opposite if one liked their partner. A smile bloomed across her face as she remembered last Christmas, when Joe had pulled her to the side of the path as they'd walked together one evening, producing some mistletoe from out of his pocket and kissing her. They had been fairly chaste kisses, but not unpleasant, and he was such a sweet man, a good man, but not the man for her.
She had written to him only a few weeks after her arrival here, ending their courtship once and for all, explaining that she did not wish to leave service and could not accept his offer of marriage. Her teeth worried into her bottom lip, so many girls in her shoes would be desperate to leave service to marry, but she was not one of them. She had seen what the life of a farmer's wife was and she knew she didn't want that drudgery for herself, service might be a hard life but it had its guarantees, you were always fed and you had a roof over your head. And it wasn't just that, but she enjoyed her work, as strange as it might sound and she believed that although they were certainly not perfect, the Crawleys were a pleasant family to work for. Her only hope was that she wouldn't regret what she had given up.
"I wouldn't stand there if I were you," a familiar deep rumble warned from behind her.
She turned, shooting Charles a look of confusion. "Why not?"
He inclined his eyes up and nodded his head at the archway. "That's why," he replied dryly.
"Oh," she remarked as she looked up and saw yet another sprig of mistletoe above her head. "I didn't see that one."
"You're lucky that Henry didn't find you here."
"Believe me I've never been more thankful," she laughed. "And here was me trying to avoid them."
"You'll have a hard job, although Mrs Jones is on the case, she's determined to track down every bit of it. I believe I heard her mutter that she will not have her maids taken advantage of. I have to say that Maggie looked quite disappointed by that piece of news."
Elsie laughed loudly at the statement, loving the small quirk of a smile that had been on his face as he'd spoken and they way his dark eyes had twinkled with humour. He might not show it to everyone else but she'd found over the last two and a half months that Charles Carson had a very dry, witty sense of humour. "I think she believes that Henry has a soft spot for her and that he'll start courting her, properly."
Charles snorted, the spot Henry had for Maggie certainly wasn't soft - not that he could repeat that in front of a lady - and his intentions were most definitely not honourable. "I fear she will be disappointed in that respect," he finally answered diplomatically.
"I know she'll be disappointed," Elsie replied. "He's a man who's out for what he can get."
Frowning, Charles asked, "He hasn't tried anything with you, has he Miss Hughes?"
"He has made a few comments but he quickly stopped when he realised that I was not about to change my first opinion of him, and you really do need to start calling me Elsie, everyone else does."
"You call me, Mr Carson," he pointed out. "It seems only fair."
"Because your position dictates that form of respect, that of a housemaid does not."
"But perhaps I think you do," Charles answered unthinkingly.
Her head tilted to the side, much to her own consternation she realised that she did not want him to see her in such a respectful way, because she didn't see him in the way a housemaid should see a valet. "I have done nothing to earn it."
"You work exceptionally hard, what more should you have to do?"
Elsie sighed in frustration. "I'd really prefer if you used my given name, you make me feel as though I'm about sixty when you call me Miss Hughes."
"Well you most certainly do not look sixty." He wanted to curse himself the moment the words left his mouth, although he did like watching a small flush cross her cheeks.
"I'm glad to hear that, although if I were you I'd work on my compliments."
He saw her shift and wince as she swapped the large copper pot to underneath her opposite arm. Rushing forward he told her, "I'll take that for you, Miss Hughes." Her breath caught as he reached her side and he followed her eyes upwards and realised that he'd forgotten all about the mistletoe that was still above her head. He felt his pulse quicken and his skin heat as he assured her hurriedly, "I'd forgotten that was there, I don't expect-" He cut off suddenly when he felt Elsie's soft lips pressing gently against his cheek.
"It's tradition," she breathed out softly as she drew back. "I wouldn't have thought you'd have wanted to break with tradition."
"I suppose not," he agreed, she was smiling again and he realised that her smile could convince him to do anything she asked of him. His fingertips brushed over her hand as he reached for the pot, his eyes still on hers. "Although I believe that you have the tradition wrong."
Her chin jutted out stubbornly. "In what way am I wrong?"
"Mistletoe means I should be kissing you," he replied and before he could dwell on the thought any longer, he moved forward, aiming for her cheek, only for her head to move so she could look at him, surprise evident in her eyes at his comment. His lips brushed against hers, lingering for the briefest of moments, the urge to deepen the kiss and push her against the wall unfurling inside of him. He couldn't though, he was a gentleman and so he could not behave in such a manner, in fact already his behaviour so far had been inexcusable. Reluctantly he made the decision to break the kiss rather than deepen it.
Elsie let out a hurried breath, biting back a noise of disappointment as Charles drew away from her. Her eyes blinked open slowly and she stated slightly breathlessly, "I don't know how I could have gotten that tradition so wrong."
"I am sorry," he stuttered out, his hand still resting over hers, relishing the warmth of it. "That was unforgivable behaviour from me."
"No, it wasn't, after all I started it," she reminded him.
"You did," he agreed, noting the sparkle in her brown gaze and realising that once again he appeared to have underestimated Miss Elsie Hughes.
"Then you will not feel guilty?"
"Good, and you will call me Elsie?"
"On one condition, you must call me Charles."
It was her turn to look flustered, her cheeks flushing as she told him, "I couldn't possibly, what would the others think?"
"It would certainly cause some raised eyebrows," he admitted. "But I meant when we are alone together." He frowned and cleared his throat awkwardly as he belatedly realised how that sounded. "What I mean is should we ever be conversing, just the two of us."
"I should like that," she assured him, watching as the tension in his shoulders evaporated.
He took the pot from her. "I'll take this back for you, Elsie, you can get on with the rest of your work."
"That's very kind of you, Charles," she remarked. "Although I can manage."
"I believe it was you who said that as colleagues we should be helping one another," he reminded her, a slightly smug smile on his face.
Elsie opened her mouth to protest and realised that he had her, that for once she did not have an argument and as she looked at his smile, she knew that he realised that. "If you insist," she finally replied.
"I do," he confirmed. "I shall see you later, at dinner then, Elsie."
"You shall, until then, Charles."
They shared a smile before turning and heading in opposite directions down the long corridor. Elsie looked over her shoulder, her smile widening at the sight of Charles' broad shoulders and the memory of his kiss, her cheeks heating slightly.
Charles turned, his footsteps stopping for a moment as he watched Elsie make her way down the corridor, her skirt swishing around her ankles. He had found housemaids attractive before, had even in his younger days - before he'd left service to be on the stage - indulged that attraction, but this was different, she was different.