This is an AU version of what could have happened if Elsie Hughes had made other choices in her life. I have had this story germinating for a while and wanted to throw it out there to see if it was worth continuing.
Disclaimer: As always, I don't own them, earn nothing from them but pleasure, and may return them when I finish.
March, 1913 Ripon
Charles Carson almost sighed in relief as he walked down the street, even if there was a light drizzle. It had been weeks since he'd taken any time away from the house, and he had been exceedingly grateful to Mr. Branson for allowing him to ride along on his way to Ripon, allowing himself to put a little distance between himself and Downton. He'd have to find his own way back, but that would be no trouble. Just being away from Downton and having very little chance to see anyone from the house, especially that odious housekeeper, made him feel that a great weight was lifted from his shoulders. She was far too familiar with him, and the thought of spending another half-day with her constantly interrupting his solitude was almost more than he could bear. He even allowed himself the pleasure of humming softly under his breath. After quickly making one or two purchases which were nearly impossible in the village, he went in search of a tea shop to settle down for the afternoon and make good headway on his latest book. Mr. Chesterton was always sure to please, none of that fanciful nonsense that Mr. Wells spouted.
He actually walked past the tea shop on his first pass. The front window had changed. The name was the same; Mrs. Beeton's Tea and Cakes, but now the display was different. It had been well over eighteen months since he'd visited the shop, but he hadn't known Mrs. Beeton to change the display in the fifteen years that he'd been frequenting her establishment. It wasn't a bad display. On the contrary, it was quite nice, but it was different and that didn't bode well. The window also glistened brightly. It had never been unclean, he would never have eaten here if it had, but now the glass reflected what little bit of sunlight there was brightly, almost mirror-like in intensity. He stood in front for a moment, wondering if he should seek a different establishment but then the drizzle turned into a light rain so he decided to take his chances. Taking a deep breath, he stepped through the door, wondering what he might find.
He noticed the girls first and foremost, or at least what they were wearing. Before, the two serving girls had worn simple dresses and neat but mismatched aprons. Now they both wore dark skirts, and white aprons which appeared to be starched nearly as stiff as his collars. Again, it wasn't that it was bad, he even approved of the matching clothes which made them look more professional, but it was different and that put his nerves on edge. The tea shop wasn't crowded at the moment, but then he was here at an odd hour. From the slightly harried look of the two serving girls, he had the impression that they'd been quite busy earlier. He frowned as he glanced across the room with its evenly placed tables to the spot where Mrs. Beeton usually sat on a stool only to see that it was empty. His confusion was so great that he missed the first words spoken to him. He looked down at the petite woman by his side and said, "I beg your pardon."
"I asked, sir," she said with a soft Scottish burr and pleasant smile, "if you would like a table for one or will others be joining you?"
"Oh, um," he replied, coming back to himself and shaking his head slightly to clear his fog, "For one, please."
"If you'll follow me, please," she said, turning around. He followed her with pleasure and couldn't help letting his eyes drift down. He might be an old and stuffy butler, but he always appreciated that view of nearly every woman.
She glanced back at him and her eyes dropped to the book tucked under his arm. Leading him over to a corner table, she asked, "Will this be satisfactory?"
"It will indeed," he agreed and rubbed the top of his ear, "Um, I'm sure you may be very busy later, but will it be terribly inconvenient if I…?" His voice trailed off, and he lifted his book.
She smiled at him, "We are seldom that busy, sir. You are welcome to remain for as long as you like. Now Mr.—"
"Carson," he supplied.
"Mr. Carson, if you will be seated I would be glad to take your order," she said.
A tingle ran down his spine as her voice rolled over the R in his name. He shook his head, "Mrs. –"
"Mrs. Burns, I could never sit in the presence of a lady," he answered solemnly.
She laughed and his heart leapt, "I am no lady, Mr. Carson, merely the manager of a tea shop."
"Nevertheless," he inclined his head and waited patiently.
She sighed and he thought she caught herself just short of rolling her eyes at him, "Very well. It would seem we are at an impasse."
"I'll have a single pot of tea and two sandwiches of your choosing," he said to end the stand off.
"Nothing sweet?" she asked, eyes twinkling with amusement.
"No, I shouldn't," he began, then corrected himself, "but perhaps if there is any apple tart?" he finished hopefully.
Her very blue eyes twinkled even more, "And one apple tart."
He bowed formally to hide his smile, and she turned on her heel to glide away from him. Watching her swaying hips until she pushed through the door to the kitchens, he smiled to himself as he sat down. A fine lady indeed.
He was soon enough lost in his book and was not quite sure how much time had passed before he glanced up to see that he was the only patron left in the shop. Actually, the only other occupant of the room was Mrs. Burns who was seated with a book before her but watching him with a curious expression. He rose quickly, folding his napkin neatly beside his plate. "I apologize madam. I've lost all track of time and kept you late."
She rose as well, but shook her head at him with a bemused smile, "It's no trouble. Everything is settled except your little table, and I haven't far to go. Besides, I'd not send anyone out in this." She nodded toward the front window, and he saw with dismay that the light rain was now pouring down. He berated himself for his stupidity in not bringing an umbrella.
She followed his gaze and answered his grimace, "You're welcome to stay here a little longer to wait for a break in the weather if you don't mind my clearing your table."
"That would be most welcome, but I wouldn't want to keep you from your family," he said.
Her face fell and her eyes dropped to the table, "I have no family, at least none here."
He had no idea why his heart stuttered at hearing that, but he was breathless for the barest moment. "I see," he said and lifted his teapot, cup and saucer before starting toward the kitchen.
"Mr. Carson," she said quickly, "You mustn't do that. You're a customer."
He turned back to her stiffly and arched his eyebrow, "I will gladly pay you for my tea, but you must let me help with the clearing up to pay for my shelter and your extra time."
She raised a matching eyebrow at him but gave a short nod before gathering up his plate and flatware. As they stepped into the kitchen, she asked, "Valet or butler."
"I beg your pardon." He asked, "Is it that obvious?"
"Perhaps not to everyone," she smiled as she placed her burden in the sink and turned on the water, "But I was in service once myself. Not many clerks would have time off in the middle of the week. You're dressed well, but not as well as a man of leisure. You're a bit too neat to be a chauffer and a bit too sure of yourself to be a footman. My guess would be butler, but you could be a valet with footman's training. It's your half day I suppose?"
He barked out a laugh as he removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. "Are you sure your name isn't Holmes? I'm a butler, but have you detected where?" he asked archly.
She clicked her tongue at him, "You needn't do that, Mr. Carson. I can do the washing up myself."
"I believe we'd agreed that I need to compensate you for your time," he said, fixing her with a steady gaze, "And it would be worth wet hands to find out if you know where I am the butler."
She relented and handed him a drying towel before beginning to wash the dishes while she reasoned out loud, "Not a place in town or close to town. I'd have seen you before. That suit looks London made, so I'd guess your family goes up for the Season."
He chuckled and nodded, "Correct and correct. Um, I think you missed a spot here." He passed the plate back to her and felt a jolt when her fingers brushed his.
She blushed and looked down at the water, "A large establishment, I think. You carry yourself with a great deal of dignity. There's a baronet, Sir Anthony I believe, near Downton. No; I don't think that's quite right."
He kept silent while he watched her hands make slow circles on the dishes. Her arm occasionally brushed his, and he found he didn't mind the contact at all.
"Downton Abbey," she exclaimed with a sudden burst of inspiration. "You're a butler at Downton Abbey."
"No," he said gravely but with a hint of a smile on his lips, "I am the butler of Downton Abbey, at your service madam." He sketched a slight bow.
"Perhaps Holmes was the name I was born with," she said, smiling broadly at him and taking the drying towel from his hands. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Carson, butler of Downton Abbey, but I should never have let you dry dishes. I'm sure it's beneath you to do such."
He scoffed and returned her smile, "I'm not the butler here. This kitchen is your domain, and it was well worth it to see your skills in action."
Their eyes met in mutual amusement, and he felt suddenly breathless again. His heart stuttered for a moment and then began to beat rapidly. Coming to himself with a start, he drew his watch from his pocket, "Weather or not, I'm going to be forced to leave soon if I want to catch the last bus."
She smoothed her hand down the front of her apron, "Yes, of course, let's go see if the rain's stopped."
He rolled his sleeves down slowly and drew his jacket back on, wishing that he could think of another excuse to stay or of a way to get back to Downton that didn't involve him leaving at just this moment. He followed her back into the dining room, letting his eyes drift down to enjoy the view, to see that the rain hadn't slowed a bit. He already dreaded leaving almost as much as the drenching that he was sure to get.
"Mrs. Burns," he said quietly, "I hope that it wouldn't be too much of an imposition for me to occupy that table again on my next half day. This afternoon has been the most peaceful and enjoyable one that I have had for a long while."
She met his eyes with genuine warmth, "Customers are always welcome, Mr. Carson."
He cleared his throat, "Yes, well, I see. I really must be off. Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Burns."
"Good afternoon, Mr. Carson," she said softly, eyes fixed on his shoulder.
He placed his hat carefully on his head and started to open the door when she stopped him.
"Wait," she said, hand on his arm. He turned to see that her other hand held an umbrella. "Take this. People are always leaving them, and you can see I have quite a collection."
He looked at the stand beside the door to see that indeed there were at least three other umbrellas there.
Still he protested, "Mrs. Burns, it really wouldn't be proper for me to take…"
"It would only be a loan, Mr. Carson," she said, meeting his gaze steadily, "Until your next half day."
"Very well, I shall see you in a fortnight," he said, taking the umbrella from her, fingers brushing along the back of her knuckles, "Until then, Mrs. Burns."
Reviews are welcome as always, even if it is just to tell me to stop.