Queen of Emeralds
When Penelope was whirled away for a dance by some lord’s youngest son, Charlotte took the opportunity to slip away from the crush and make a hasty exit out to a balcony door. Her head had begun to spin and she feared she might be sick from the drink if she couldn’t get out of the stifling crowd. The balcony was large and its stone railing wrapped around most of the lavish building her father owned. The new electric streetlights illuminated the foggy London streets with a dim yellow glow. The large glass doors that led inside did surprisingly much to mute the loud music and Charlotte was grateful for the cold winter breeze and bit of privacy the balcony offered.
She pulled off the long white gloves she wore and leaned against the railing, inhaling large gulps of fresh air. “How I wish this was all over,” she whispered to the empty streets.
“How can ye wish your own party to be done?” A deep voice asked from the most shadowed of corners.
Charlotte turned around, her light purple skirts flying with the quick motion. “Who’s there?”
A tall man stepped from the darkened place where he had sat on a stone bench. His loose blond hair brushed his shoulders and his blue eyes seemed to flash brightly in the dark. He wore a black military jacket and a sharp yellow and black kilt that looped about his shoulder and was fastened with a silver and emerald pin. Traditional high socks covered his strong legs. A short sword was fastened to his hip by a rugged leather belt and his hand lay casually on its silver hilt. “Conner MacLeod. Chief o’ the MacLeod clan.”
“Charlotte Holloway, daughter of the Duke of Glenwood,” Charlotte answered, stunned by the strange dress and deep Scottish lilt. She wasn’t sure where he had come from, as he certainly would have stood out in the crowd of morning coats and ball gowns. She tried to advert her eyes from the bare swatch of leg that showed between his socks and kilt but could hardly bring herself to look away.
“I know who ye are, of course. This entire party is in your honor. But, I must ask…why do ye wish it over so soon?”
“I’m not much for balls.”
“A pretty lass like you? How can ye no’ be much for balls?” His lips curled in a mischievous smirk. “Do you not like the pomp and circumstance?”
Charlotte felt her cheeks grow warm and she wasn’t sure if it was from the drink or the way the Scotsman looked at her from under his dark lashes. All the same, she sensed in him a kindred spirits of sorts. “I’m not much for society at all. I’d rather be out riding or reading a good book than be stuffed in this dress meeting every eligible bachelor in the city.”
He laughed deeply. “I admire your honesty. Not many lasses are willin’ to admit when a party does no’ suit them.”
“I assume the party doesn’t suit you much either?”
“Not much. Us Scots have been tryin’ to be more respected in our own right. One o’ the ways to do that is to spend a bit o’ time with the English. Make them see we’re not all barbarians.”
“Ah, fraternizing with the enemy?” Charlotte could almost hear Penelope chastising her for speaking so familiarly to a man, and about politics at that!
“Ye could say that.” He brushed his hands through his hair and leaned against the railing beside her, looking over the side. “Ye aren’t cold out here in the night air?”
“No, I rather like being outside no matter what the weather is.” She took another deep breath. “Besides, I do think I drank a bit too much punch.”
“And danced with a few too many borin’ men, most like.”
She giggled, despite being told a hundred times by Abigail that it was very unladylike to do so without shielding your face with a fan. “I suppose that might have something to do with it. But, that’s the job of a duke’s daughter.”
Conner stepped toward her and extended his hand. “Well, since we are both trapped at this comin’ out party, we may as well have a bit o’ fun. Fancy a dance, Lady Glenwood?”
Charlotte took his rough, warm hand in her own. His palms were worn, much unlike those of English gentlemen with their silky smooth hands kept clean in powdered gloves. This man was obviously used to physical activity and hard work. She kept their hands together before remembering she had removed her gloves and left them on the railing. “Oh, I’m sorry!” She pulled away from his grasp before slipping her fingers inside her gloves once more.
“You ladies and your gloves. Scared o’ touchin’ anythin’ without a barrier o’ silk?” he teased.
“I hate them, personally. However, one must play the part at times.”
“And what part are ye playin’?”
“The part of a dutiful daughter.”
“Then it looks to me that you are doin’ a right fine job.” He offered his arm, which she gladly took. “Now, my lady, let’s go have us a dance.”
The room hushed slightly as Charlotte entered on Chief Conner MacLeod’s arm. Penelope watched, wide-eyed, as the couple began a lively waltz with the other colorful pairs of dancing guests. Conner was an animated dancer and whirled Charlotte around the floor with surprising ease for someone as rugged as he. She was enjoying herself so greatly that she hardly notice the strange looks some of the guests gave them, nor the look of disapproval on Abigail’s tightly pinched face.
His hands clutched her closely, perhaps closer than was really appropriate. He grinned with the self-confidence that only good-looking men rightly had and gazed at Charlotte with true merriment in his sapphire eyes. Conner didn’t attempt the usual small talk that most men would try during a dance, but just let their mutual joy at having a fine partner fill in the silence between them.
“What a crowd,” Conner whispered into her ear as the music winded down and the dancing couples slowed to a halt. “Ye would think they’d never seen a pair o’ dancers before.”
Charlotte felt a chill go up her spine that she tried to ignore. “I suppose your appearance has caused quite the titter. I must say, we do not see very many Scottish Lords and it always is the surprise.”
“I suppose the man approachin’ us would agree with ye.”
“I am here to collect my dance.” Richard Howard’s monotone voice greeted Charlotte’s back.
Conner dipped a short bow and lightly kissed Charlotte’s hand. Even through the silk of her glove, she felt the heat of his mouth on her skin. “A pleasure, my lady.”
Charlotte blushed again and felt bold enough to ask, “If you stay longer, perhaps we might dance again?”
“Perhaps,” he answered smoothly as he backed away into the crowd. “Perhaps.”