A Dangerous Scheme by Laura Beers

Chapter Three

Daphne was in an impossible situation. The wedding had been a small, intimate affair, and it was evident to all how much Eliza and Mr. Fitzwilliam cared for one another. But then they adjourned for the wedding breakfast, and Daphne found herself sitting between Mr. Huxley and Mrs. Cadogan, Eliza’s mostly deaf grandmother.

Mrs. Cadogan leaned closer, and the strong scent of peppermint drifted off her person. “Did you enjoy the wedding?”

“I did.”

“What did you say?” Mrs. Cadogan asked, leaning even closer.

“I enjoyed the wedding,” Daphne replied, raising her voice to be heard over the noise in the dining room.

“I’m happy to hear that, but did you enjoy the wedding?” Mrs. Cadogan questioned.

Daphne bobbed her head. “I did.”

Mrs. Cadogan returned her smile. “My Eliza was such a beautiful bride.”

“She was.”

“You are a pretty little thing,” Mrs. Cadogan said. “When are you planning to marry?”

Her question caught Daphne off guard, and it took a moment for her to come up with a response. “I suppose when I find the right suitor.”

“I wouldn’t wait too long,” Mrs. Cadogan advised. “Your beauty will fade, and then you will lose your advantage.”

“I am only twenty years old,” Daphne defended.

“When I was your age, I was already blessed with two beautiful children,” Mrs. Cadogan said. “You do want children, don’t you?”

“I do.”

Mrs. Cadogan nodded in approval. “That is good. For what purpose is a woman to a man if she doesn’t bear his children?”

Daphne frowned. “I hope my husband will appreciate my mind.”

“Your what?”

“My mind,” she repeated.

Mrs. Cadogan gave her a blank look. “Why would your husband care about the mine?” she asked.

“I said ‘my mind’,” Daphne attempted again, pointing to her head.

“Ah, that makes much more sense,” Mrs. Cadogan replied. “I am sure your husband will appreciate your mind, but it is not nearly as important as being a dutiful wife. After all, you only speak your opinion when your husband specifically asks you to do so.”

Daphne was about to reply when she heard Mr. Huxley chuckle. She turned towards him with a questioning look.

He met her gaze and smiled. “I daresay I find your conversation with Mrs. Cadogan rather interesting.”

“How so?”

“She may be old and senile, but she was right about one thing.”

“Which is?”

With a knowing look, he said, “You should be married by now.”

“My marital status is none of your concern.”

“I believe I have adequately made my intentions known towards you.”

“You have, but I promptly explained the many reasons why we would not suit.”

Mr. Huxley gave her an amused look. “What does marriage have to do with two people suiting?”

“I believe that two people must have more than mutual toleration for one another for a marriage to work.”

“I disagree.”

“I am not surprised by your stance, but it does not change mine.”

“That is regrettable,” Mr. Huxley said, reaching for his glass. “Together, we could have ruled this town.”

“I am not interested in ruling anything.”

“That is your problem, Miss Locke.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I did not realize that I had a problem.”

“You do,” Mr. Huxley said as he put his glass back on the table. “You believe you are better than everyone else in this town.”

“I assure you that is not the case.”

“You rarely attend social gatherings. For example, I noticed that you did not attend Mrs. Johns’ house party this past weekend.”

“My grandmother was not up to attending,” Daphne maintained.

“You could have come on your own.”

“Without a chaperone?” she asked. “I think not.”

“Mrs. Johns could have acted as your chaperone.”

Daphne shook her head, causing the curls that framed her face to sway back and forth. “It wouldn’t have been fair of me to leave my grandmother.”

“Lady Frances has an entire household staff to tend to her every need,” Mr. Huxley pointed out.

“But I am her granddaughter.”

Mr. Huxley shrugged. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I rarely see my grandmother.”

“Lucky woman,” Daphne muttered under her breath.

“It isn’t becoming for someone so young to spend time with an old woman,” Mr. Huxley pressed.

With a frown on her lips, she chided in a hushed voice, “That ‘old woman’ raised me and is the daughter of a duke. She deserves a little more respect than what you are affording her.”

Mr. Huxley didn’t appear remorseful, if the smile tugging at his lips was anything to go by. “My apologies, Miss Locke.”

Daphne turned her attention back towards her plate, wishing she could just disappear. Mr. Huxley was insufferable, and she tired of being in his presence. They may have grown up in the same town, but they never had become anything more than acquaintances.

Mr. Huxley’s voice drew her attention back to him. “Would you care for some more champagne?” he asked, holding the bottle up.

“I would not.”

Daphne watched as her friend, Augusta, excused herself from the table and rose awkwardly from her chair. She decided to follow suit and go speak to her friend.

“If you will excuse me,” she murmured as she pushed back her chair.

Mr. Huxley rose and held his hand out to assist her in rising. “Allow me, Miss Locke.”

“Thank you.”

Once she had slipped her gloved hand out of his, Daphne hurried towards the door where she had seen her friend exit. She stepped into the entry hall and found Augusta pacing.

“Whatever is wrong?” she asked.

Augusta placed a hand on her increasing stomach. “My back started aching in that chair,” she explained.

“How much longer do you have?”

Her face softened. “The midwife says I have a month left.”

“Are you terribly uncomfortable?”

Augusta bobbed her head. “I am,” she replied. “I feel as if every part of me is swollen.”

“Is that commonplace?”

“The midwife assured me that it was.”

“It sounds painful.”

Placing a hand on the small of her back, Augusta continued to pace the tiled floor. “It is not. It is merely an inconvenience.” She gave Daphne a pointed look. “I couldn’t help but notice you were seated next to Mr. Huxley.”

“I was,” Daphne said ruefully. “I shall have to thank Eliza for seating me next to him.”

Augusta smiled. “Well, someone had to sit next to him, especially since he is Mr. Fitzwilliam’s cousin.”

“I just wish it hadn’t been me,” Daphne responded. “He is just as vexing as I remember from our last conversation.”

“Which time was that?”

“The time he offered for me.”

Augusta giggled. “How could I have forgotten that?” she asked. “If I recall correctly, you didn’t take his offer seriously.”

“I did not, because we hardly know one another.”

“You grew up together.”

“That doesn’t mean we are friends.”

“People have married for much less.”

“That may be true, but I feel no attraction towards Mr. Huxley.”

“Then you must not marry him.”

“I do not intend to.”

Augusta stopped pacing and turned to face her. “You are the last of us to marry,” she said. “I must admit that I will be eager to see the man you choose.”

“Why is that?”

“I worry that you have set lofty goals when it comes to marriage.”

Daphne nodded, seeing no reason to deny it. “I refuse to settle.”

“Nor should you, but I fear you are looking for a man who does not exist.”

“Then I shall not wed, and I will remain a spinster for the remainder of my days.”

Augusta grimaced. “The baby just kicked me when you said that,” she revealed. “I hope that is not a bad omen.”

Daphne laughed. “I do not believe in such things.”

“No, I suppose you don’t,” Augusta murmured. “Shall we return to the wedding breakfast?”

“Must we?”

“I would hate to miss Mr. Fitzwilliam’s toast.”

Daphne stepped closer. “Before you go, I wanted to speak to you about something that is rather important.”

Augusta rested her hand on her protruding stomach and gave her an expectant look. “Is something the matter?”

“My grandmother just informed me that she changed her will, and I am now her heir,” Daphne revealed.

Augusta’s eyes grew wide. “You are an heiress,” she declared.

“I am.”

“Why did she change the will?”

“Because she finally recognized that Phineas is a despicable profligate,” she replied. “Now do you see what is at stake for me?”

“Once the gossips get wind of this, you will be hounded by fortune hunters,” Augusta said.

“Precisely, which is why I do not intend to tell anyone other than you.”

Augusta nodded her head in understanding. “I will not betray your confidence.”

“Thank you,” Daphne replied. “That means a great deal to me.”

The clearing of a throat could be heard behind her, and Daphne turned to see Mr. Huxley standing in the doorway. “I was worried about you, and have come to see if you require any assistance.”

“I do not,” she replied.

Mr. Huxley tipped his head. “Then my presence is not needed here.” He turned and disappeared back into the dining room.

Daphne turned back towards Augusta and asked, “Do you think Mr. Huxley overheard our conversation?”

“I do not believe so,” Augusta responded.

“I’m glad because I have no desire to take Mr. Huxley into my confidence.”

Augusta looped her arm through Daphne’s. “Come,” she encouraged. “Eliza would be furious if we miss all the toasts in her honor.”

“You mean ‘in their honor’.”

“I stand by my statement,” Augusta joked.

Guy exited thecoach and stared up at the thatch-roofed coaching inn. He had been on the road for many hours and was anxious to begin his assignment. He walked towards the door and opened it.

He stepped inside the crowded hall, where men sat at tables running the length of the room, loudly talking as two serving women brought them drinks.

A tall, portly man approached Guy with his hands out wide in a welcoming fashion. “How can I help ye, Mister?”

“I am looking for a room for myself, as well as one for my driver and footman.”

The man nodded. “I can help ye with that,” he replied. “My name is Angus Croke, and I am the owner of this fine establishment.” He walked over to a table and opened a book. “Are ye just passing through, or are ye staying in Anmore?”

“I will be staying here for a few days.”

“Very good,” Mr. Croke said, looking down at the book. “We do have two rooms available, and I hope ye find them to yer liking.”

“I am sure that will be the case.”

Mr. Croke wrote something down in the book. “Do ye require yer trunks to be brought in?”

“My men will see to that.”

“Understood, Mister.” Mr. Croke snapped his fingers and a young boy appeared at his side. “Will ye show Mr.…” He paused. “I’m afraid I didn’t catch yer name.”

“Stewart,” Guy replied.

Mr. Croke tipped his head in acknowledgement as he extended a key towards the boy. “Will ye show Mr. Stewart to room three?”

“I will,” the boy replied. “Follow me, Mister.”

As he followed the young boy up the stairs running along the back wall, Guy asked, “How old are you?”

“Eight,” the boy replied.

“Do you enjoy working here?”

The boy smiled, revealing missing teeth. “I do,” he said. “They treat me real good.”

“Very good.”

The boy led him down a dimly lit hall and stopped at a door with the number three painted on it. “This is your room.” He unlocked the door and opened it. “Would you like me to start a fire for you?”

“Not at this time.”

The boy extended him the key. “I am to inform you that we are serving stew all day, if you are hungry.”

“That sounds delicious.”

“It is,” he replied, puffing out his little chest. “I even helped trap the meat myself.”

Reaching into the pocket of his waistcoat, Guy pulled out a few coins and handed them to the boy. “Thank you for showing me to my room.”

The boy’s eyes grew wide at the sight of the coins. “Thank you, Mister,” he said as he clutched them tightly in his hand.

“What is your name?”

“Henry.”

“That is a strong name.”

Henry bobbed his head. “I was named after my father, but he died a few years back.”

“I am sorry to hear that.”

“My mother is dead, too.”

Guy reached out and placed his hand on the boy’s thin shoulders. “It sounds like you have had a rough go of it.”

“It’s all right,” Henry said. “At least I don’t have to work at the mines anymore.”

“Why don’t you want to work there?”

“That’s where my parents died,” he shared.

“I am pleased that you were able to find work with Mr. Croke.”

“He is nice to me,” Henry shared. “I sleep in the kitchen near the hearth. It’s nice and warm at night.”

“That is most important.”

The boy took a step back. “I should be going,” he said. “Mr. Croke doesn’t like when I dilly-dally.”

“I imagine that most employers would not.”

Guy watched as the young boy walked swiftly down the hall before he stepped into his room. It was exactly what he had been expecting. The bed was pushed up against one wall, which was adorned with faded blue paper, and a writing desk sat next to the cracked window.

He came back out and locked the door. He didn’t have time to waste in his room, especially if he wanted to be home by the end of the week.

As he descended the stairs, Mr. Croke walked over to him. “Is everything in order?”

“It is, but I’m afraid I have an important errand to run,” he replied. “May I ask where the bank is in town?”

Mr. Croke’s hands came alive as he said, “The bank is in the center of town. It is a whitewashed building and is attached to the new coffeehouse.”

“That is rather progressive of this town, to have a coffeehouse.”

“It is,” the innkeeper agreed. “The mayor pressed for one since he moved here from London a few years back, and he’d developed the taste for it.”

“I shall have to try the coffee, then.”

Mr. Croke made a face. “I do not like that black stuff. It is much too strong for my taste,” he said. “Ale is what I enjoy.”

“As do most men.”

Mr. Croke cracked a smile. “I knew I liked ye, Mr. Stewart.” He walked over to the door and opened it. “If ye walk down the road, ye can’t miss the bank.”

“Thank you,” Guy acknowledged.

He exited the coaching inn and headed down the street towards the center of town. Glancing in the storefront of a modiste shop, he caught his reflection in the window. He was dressed fashionably in a blue jacket, buff trousers, intricately tied cravat, and black top hat, marking him as a gentleman.

This was supposed to be his life, he thought. He had received an impressive education and had been destined for great things. But it had all changed when his father died and he became responsible for his family.

At times, he found himself angry at the man responsible for killing his father. He was the one who had taken away his dreams. Not his father. Not his mother or sister. The man who had mugged his father had drastically changed his life.

Up ahead, he saw the two-level bank with the coffeehouse next to it. He approached the main door and opened it. The hustle of the street seemed to disappear as he stepped into the quiet building.

A solemn young man rose from a desk and greeted him. “Welcome to Shrewsbury and Tilbury Mutual Society,” he said. “How may I help you?”

“I am here to see Mr. Huxley,” Guy replied, removing his hat.

“Do you have an appointment?”

“I do not, but I do believe Mr. Huxley is expecting me.”

“May I have your name?”

“Mr. Stewart.”

The young man tipped his head in acknowledgement. “Please wait here, Mr. Stewart.” He opened a door and disappeared into a back room.

After a long moment, the young man returned and said, “Mr. Huxley will see you.”

Guy followed him into the back room and saw an older man bent over his desk. He didn’t look up and acknowledge him at first, so Guy waited.

Mr. Huxley placed the quill down next to the ink pot and eyed him critically. “I received word from Mr. Watson that you would be arriving, but I do contend that your visit is unnecessary.”

“Why is that?”

Leaning back in his seat, Mr. Huxley regarded him for a moment before saying, “You are here to inspect the conditions of Linton Colliery, are you not?”

“I am.”

“Then you are wasting your time, since we have not had a reported death in over a year,” Mr. Huxley said, “which is quite above standard for our industry.”

“I do not question that, but I was hired to inspect the colliery’s conditions,” Guy replied. “It is a role that I take quite seriously.”

“Is it because that child got hurt?” Mr. Huxley huffed.

“I am not at liberty to say.”

“It was his fault for falling asleep,” Mr. Huxley declared. “The putters beat him because he did not open the doors for them when he was supposed to.”

Guy kept his face expressionless as he tried to squash his growing irritation at the casual way Mr. Huxley spoke about the ill-treatment of a child.

The banker continued. “I do hope you don’t intend to speak to the children. They are required to be up early in the morning for their tasks, and they do not get paid if they show up late.”

“I cannot say for certain if I will need to speak to the children or not, but I will be mindful of that.”

Reaching for a worn book, Mr. Huxley held it up. “This is the ledger for Linton Colliery last quarter. Mr. Watson thought you might want to review the wages to ensure they were handed out fairly.”

Guy stepped closer to the desk and accepted the book. “That was rather thoughtful of him.”

“I do hope you will avoid causing any delays at the mine,” Mr. Huxley said. “The colliery is on a tight schedule.”

“Have you received any complaints from any of the workers?”

“None.”

Guy lifted his brow. “I find that rather difficult to believe.”

“It is true,” Mr. Huxley defended. “If anyone comes forward with a complaint, they are dismissed.”

“Ah,” Guy replied. “I’m beginning to understand the situation.”

“I shall have my son escort you out to Linton Colliery tomorrow morning, and with any luck, your investigation will conclude by the end of the day.”

“I doubt that.”

Mr. Huxley rose from his desk. “If you will excuse me, I’m afraid I am late for an appointment,” he said. “May I walk you out?”

“I would appreciate that.”

Mr. Huxley came around his desk and walked over to the door. After they departed from the building, he turned towards Guy and said, “I would recommend you eat at Gosforth’s Pub rather than eat the sludge they sell at the coaching inn.”

“Is it that bad?”

“You have been warned,” Mr. Huxley stated. “If you do, you wouldn’t be the first person who became ill from eating their food.”

“I do appreciate the suggestion.”

Mr. Huxley tipped his head. “Good day, Mr. Stewart.”

Guy watched Mr. Huxley walk down the street as he debated about what his next course of action would be. He needed to discover if a trade union had formed in this town and how they were communicating with the other unions.

As he stood there, he noticed a fair-skinned young woman with dark hair approach him on the street. Her beauty was the first thing he noticed, but it was her deep green eyes that drew him in. They spoke of a keen intellect and sparkled with energy as she assessed him. Her elegant gown and neatly coiffed hair marked her as a genteel woman.

She met his gaze for only a moment, but it was enough for him to memorize nearly every feature of her lovely face. He knew it was not polite to stare, but he found himself unable to look away. He couldn’t. There was a familiarity about this woman that he could not explain.

The young woman turned her attention towards an elderly woman he had only just noticed. What was wrong with him? He had seen beautiful women before and was able to maintain his composure. Besides, he needed to keep his wits about him if he was going to complete his assignment.

He had no time to socialize with a young woman, especially one he had no right to even approach. Despite posing as a gentleman, he was anything but. He could barely sustain the life he had provided for his mother and sister. No, he would be mindful to avoid this beautiful creature.

Coming to this decision, he crossed the street and headed towards the pub. He needed to get back to work, and he couldn’t risk becoming distracted.