Queen Of Emeralds – Kelsey McKnight

Charlotte Holloway picked the stray pieces of hay from her loose hair as her stepmother looked on, disapprovingly, from her place by the roaring fire. They stood at a distance in her father’s lavish study, waiting for him to return from his business somewhere deep in the countryside. He had been gone for two long weeks and Charlotte had taken advantage of his absence by forgoing her tightly laced stays in order to watch the farmhands birth the late winter foals, and take lingering walks around the frozen lake of the estate until her cheeks were reddened and the hems of her dresses were damp with snow. Overall it had been a delightful time and Charlotte was more than saddened to hear of her father’s impending return. “Charlotte,” her stepmother, Abigail, the Duchess of Glenwood, snapped, “do stop that fidgeting and try to look like a proper lady. I don’t want your father to know that you’ve had the run of the estate like a common farm girl.” “Yes, ma’am.” Charlotte rolled her eyes and slumped into a plush red armchair surrounded by piles of books she had recently devoured, but had not put away. With Christmas only just over and the beginning of the London season a few days away, Charlotte attempted to display as much freedom as she could in what little time she had left. One of those freedoms was reading several of the newest novels her father had ordered for her from London. Her stepmother believed novels to be inappropriate for young ladies and would rather Charlotte spend her time practicing running the home or doing needlework by one of the many fireplaces for hours. Charlotte, for the most part, detested all things having to do with being a proper lady and she was anything but. She liked her frocks to be as loose as her hair and didn’t see the need to do any kind of needlework. She preferred to sneak into the kitchen to bake with the friendly cook, who was as quick to smile as she was to reprimand her small staff, and spend time outdoors doing all sorts of unladylike things. In her youth, Charlotte was allowed these little freedoms, but it had been a long time since her father had willingly permitted her to gallop her horse at full speed or stay up late reading in the library.

Now that Charlotte had approached the age for marrying, she was suddenly expected to be as still, and as boring, as her stepmother appeared to be. The study’s oak door swung open with a flourish as her father, George Holloway, the Duke of Glenwood, entered the room followed by a butler with a silver tray of tea. Her father’s portly form was reddened from the trip up the stairs and down the long hall to greet his tiny family. “Good evening, my two loves!” He gruffly pulled a reluctant Abigail into a hug before crossing the room to Charlotte. “Hello, Father.” Charlotte stood and planted a kiss on her father’s cheek. “I hope your business went well.” “Quite.” He sat down behind his desk with a sigh as the butler poured tea for the three of them. “But, judging by the hay in that auburn hair yours and the mud on the seam of your dress, I see that while the cat’s away the mice will play.

” Charlotte’s cheeks heated at being caught so soon and she declined the steaming cup offered to her. “The stables had three new foals born since you’ve been gone. They’re all a bit too early but lovely all the same. I can already tell they’ll be in fine form to pull a carriage, but I do hope you’d consider one for the races. He has splendidly long legs and already canters so beautifully!” “We’ll see, we’ll see.” He dabbed the stray drops of tea from his walrus-like mustache. Abigail came up to the desk and delicately took her cup and saucer. “Charlotte has been running around here like a fool. Fraternizing with the farmhands, locking herself away with books unfit for young ladies, and baking cakes in the kitchen with the staff…she hasn’t even stood still long enough for me to have her fitted for this season’s gowns.” “Has Charlotte anything new to wear to Christmas dinner at least?” her father asked over the rim of his cup.

“Not a stich.” Abigail paused, taking a small sip of tea before passing her almost full cup back to the butler. “Charlotte has made herself quite scarce these past weeks. I do believe she has been hiding from me.” The duke turned to his daughter. “Is that true, Charlotte? Have you been avoiding Abigail?” Charlotte shrugged, causing another piece of hay to be knocked loose from her curls. “Hiding from the seamstress, mostly. She pricks me with her pins on purpose and always tries to force these obnoxious gowns on me. They make me look like a pile of bed linens trimmed in lace.” “My dear, could you give my daughter and I a moment alone?” the duke asked his wife, wearily.

Abigail complied and shut the door sharply behind her on her way out. “Charlotte, you’re no longer a child and I’ve told you before that it is high time you stop acting like one. I can indulge your childish ways no longer.” She leaned a hip against the smooth desk and folded her arms. “It was just a harmless bit of fun. No one’s about to see me riding or baking, so I don’t see the harm.” “When you were five, it was a harmless bit of fun. You’re almost nineteen and you are to be presented this season onto the marriage market. You need to learn to control yourself and begin acting like a young lady of your station.” “Marriage market.

That term makes me feel like little more than a brood mare.” He sighed, bringing his hands to his brow and massaging the tension. “We all have jobs to do, Charlotte. Men work and provide for their wives, bringing titles to the table. You, as a woman, will bring forth a large dowry and produce healthy heirs for a duke, baron, or lord. Your life of skipping about with your hem tied up to your knees is no longer acceptable. I expect you to conduct yourself like the daughter of a duke. Otherwise, no proper man would give you a second look.” “Oh, so I should be a perfectly boring porcelain doll with nothing better to do than attract a titled man and talk to other boring porcelain dolls about ribbons and feathered hats?” “Yes, Charlotte, that is exactly what you should do.” He deposited his empty cup on the desk and studied her for a moment, his expression almost unreadable.

“You know that I’ve given you all that I could after the death of your sainted mother. I felt responsible for your happiness and hoped that, with my allowing you to grow up without the rules I should have, you would never feel the sting of being a motherless child. I know I coddled you in a most abhorrent way and now I am being punished for my soft heartedness. I’ve given you a youth of careless abandon and now you must put it aside in order to be a fine young lady who showcases your breeding and graceful charms.” “But, Father, I’m just not like that. Sewing bores me to tears and the other ladies Abigail brings about are only interested in talking about whom married whom, which lady has the most expensive fan, or what will be served for dinner at the next ball. It’s perfectly horrid.” Charlotte threw up her arms dramatically and sat back down in her chair. “Now, see here!” The duke bristled suddenly, thumping his meaty fist on the desktop. “I will no longer have my daughter rolling about in the hay and playing in the dirt.

Your launch into society is planned for a week’s time and I expect you to behave in a manner that will not embarrass myself, nor your mother.” “Stepmother,” Charlotte murmured just loud enough for her father to hear. “My dear, Abigail has done her best these past ten years to be a mother to you. She has done her best to teach you how to behave and how to act like a lady of our social standing. She may have been a harsh teacher at times, but it was all done out of love for you. Abigail does not want to see you grow old without a husband and have nothing when I am gone. You would only receive the smallest of allowances given to spinsters of noble birth. You know well that the bulk of my fortune, and my title, will go to your cousin Franklin when I die. If you do not take a husband, you will be entirely dependent on Franklin’s goodwill to feed and house you. And we both know that Franklin isn’t the kindest of men.

” “I’m aware that by being a female I have been declared utterly incapable of holding land or titles by myself. You do not have to constantly remind me of my apparent inferiority.” “Obviously, I do. Your dowry is enough to attract a good suitor, but it won’t even exist if you don’t marry. Dowries do not go to unmarried women. They go to dutiful wives.” “What about Abigail? When you met her, she lived on her own estate and by the number of servants she had about her, she wasn’t in need of any financial help.” “She lived on the generosity of her benevolent brother, Michael. He allowed Abigail to live on one of his smaller estates and gave her a sizable allowance to spend on dresses, maids, and other such fripperies out of love. Do you think your cousin Franklin would be so generous to you?” Charlotte remembered her cousin’s pinched face and the way he sneered at her when he pushed her down in the mud or kicked her shins under the table at dinner.

“No, Franklin is absolutely horrid and I wouldn’t trust him to take care of a fish, let alone me.” “Then you see why it is imperative that you marry. When you do find a husband, you will be able to keep this estate and most of my other properties when I pass, although the title will still go to Franklin along with some of my fortune. If you decide to remain alone, then you get nothing.” “But I don’t get to keep anything, really. It all goes to my husband.” “Which is exactly why you need to find a good man, one who will keep your inheritance intact and not gamble it away at the club or sell it off piece by piece like the husband of Lady Gertrude did to her. You should find someone we can trust, without question, who will not betray the family.” “So I am your property to do with as you wish until I marry. Then my husband will control me until his death.

And finally, if I give birth to a son, he will hold my fate in his hands? Am I just the property of men until I, myself, am in the grave?” The duke nodded. “Then you find yourself at the mercy of another man—God.” *** “It really won’t be that bad,” Charlotte’s oldest friend Penelope said as she adjusted her parasol to keep the sun off her ivory skin. “There are dozens of eligible men looking for wives this season.” “Doesn’t it feel strange? Being paraded about, hoping one of them will select us? It’s very much like being a show pony.” “Well, I’m quite delighted being a show pony. This season I’ll meet a wonderful man with a lovely country home and a townhouse in London so that I may go to the shops whenever I wish and hold picnics in the spring by my private lake. We’ll honeymoon in Paris and he’ll adore me.” “Everyone adores you, Penelope, and anyone who doesn’t is a fool.” “You’ll meet a nice man, too.

Just try to keep an open mind.” “I wish I didn’t need to worry about meeting any man. I wish I could just live my own life.” “And do what? Run about outside every day until you’re as brown as a berry and live out your days a spinster?” “What would be so bad about that? Not having to wear a corset and being able to lounge around in bed with a book one day, then jump in the lake for a swim on another sounds very nice to me.” “But what about a husband and a gaggle of children? I know you’re fond of children. You spend every summer at that orphanage with all the little waifs.” “I would love my own children, but I do have a tender heart for orphans. I would very much like to improve conditions at those institutions.” Charlotte tapped her pointed chin with the tip of a finger. “I could open a school, perhaps, or merely invite children to come ride the horses and see the foals.

Country air would probably do them all a world of good.” “Your father would never agree to you collecting unwanted children. He could hardly stomach you giving the homes your allowance every month,” Penelope pointed out. “Although it would be positively darling of you to open your home to them, if you could.” “It would never happen. You’re right in saying that my father would certainly not allow it.” “But a husband might.” Penelope grinned mischievously, pulling Charlotte to a stop. For such a polite young lady, she could be as cunning and as sly as a fox. “A husband might adore you so much that he would help you in your quest to open your estate to orphans or students.

” Charlotte looked up at her friend in earnest, her eyes wide. “Do you really think a husband would be so understanding?” “I do.” She glanced about at the empty field before leaning in closer. “Remember Eleanor Gainsby?” “Yes, we had the same French tutor, I believe. I haven’t seen her in years.” “Well, I saw her not too long ago in Mr. Penny’s hat shop. She’s gotten married to a wealthy Parisian man who indulges everything she does. Eleanor has always loved exotic animals, so her husband transformed one of his country estates into a menagerie of lions and elephants…all sorts of queer creatures.” “Elephants and little children are quite different.

How would I know that any man I married would be interested in having strange children about, or even taking in a few foundlings?” “That’s the point of marrying a good man. A man who loves you would do anything to make you happy and a rich one would have the means to do so. Besides, even if he didn’t want to indulge your ideas, you would have access to your funds as a properly married woman. While you wouldn’t be able to take any into your home, you could be allowed to spend your time and money bettering the orphanages. Philanthropy is all the rage in some circles.” “Penelope, you’re right!” Charlotte grinned. “I foolishly thought that by getting married I would be signing over ownership of myself to a man, but in reality I would be freer than ever!” “Now, all we need to do is find you the perfect man and make him fall madly in love with you.” She had a slightly dreamy glint in her fair eyes as she spoke. “I don’t know how to even talk to a man, let alone make one fall in love with me.” Charlotte sighed, gazing out at the frozen waters of the lake.

“I just can’t be a debutante like you.” “Oh, of course you can. Just wear pretty things and go to fun parties. It’s not as if it’s difficult.” “I can’t imagine any man would be attracted to my wild ways. Everyone in society is just so boring and close-minded.” “Not me.” Penelope tucked a stray blonde curl back into her bun. “Everyone adores me, remember?” “Well, everyone doesn’t adore me.” “That’s not true.

You’re smart, funny, and you have the nicest hair of anyone else entering society this season.” “I need more than nice hair to attract a husband.” “You could try actually staying out of the sun and using your parasol for once. White complexions are all the rage.” Charlotte twirled the close lace umbrella by her side and shrugged. “What’s the point of going outside if you have to stay out of the sun?” “The sun is appropriate in small doses,” Penelope stated in a matter-of-fact way. “As is this cold air. Although, I do believe we will both catch our deaths being out here like this.” “Nonsense. I spend hours outside in the snow and feel as right as rain.

Besides, my stepmother will watch us like a hawk if we’re inside.” “I don’t know why you don’t like her. She’s always pleasant to me.” “That’s because she admires your ladylike ways and hopes that your delicate manner will rub off on me. After a dozen years of having you as my dearest friend, you would think she would realize that I can’t be influenced by anyone.” “You could give it a try, you know. Put on a bit of a show until the end of the season, or when you find a husband,” Penelope suggested, adjusting her wrap. “Just put on a good display of being a timid little mouse and see how many proposals you receive. “I don’t think I could pull it off. I’m not dainty or charming like you.

You already have suitors banging on your father’s door for a chance to take you riding or to the theater when you come out. You already have a full social calendar.” “I could help you, you know. Teach you how to attract men.” Charlotte smiled and playfully tapped Penelope with her parasol. “You’re going to teach me how to flirt? You’re positively wicked.” “Come now, Char, it’ll be great fun. You’ll be my own little project and by the end of the season we’ll find you a great lord to marry and he’ll help you make your dream of opening an orphanage a reality.” “As long as he is kind and well-read.” “Does it really matter what books he reads?” “I could never bring myself to marry a man who can’t hold an intelligent conversation.

” “Men don’t talk to ladies about anything outside of the home, weather, and idle gossip. You probably won’t find out if a man is well-read until after you’re married.” Penelope linked arms with Charlotte and steered her toward the house. “We can only try to do our best to find you a smart, titled, kind, handsome man…but for now we must work on you.”

.

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