A Dangerous Scheme by Laura Beers
The coach came to a stop in front of Miss Locke’s stately country home and Guy stepped out, not bothering to wait for the footman to assist him. He was only here because he didn’t dare refuse her dinner invitation. It would have been intolerably rude to do so. At least, that is what he kept telling himself. But, truth be told, he found himself intrigued by the lovely Miss Locke. She was a delightful contradiction he found himself most curious about.
He had never met a young woman who cared as deeply for others as Miss Locke did. She was passionate about helping the coal miners, especially the children. It wasn’t an act, but she was genuine in her endeavors. It had been his experience that people in Society only seemed to care for themselves, so he found her behavior truly fascinating.
As he walked to the door, it opened, and the butler greeted him. “Good evening, Mr. Stewart,” he said, opening the door wide.
“Good evening,” Guy replied as he stepped into the entry hall.
“If you would care to wait in the drawing room, I was just about to ring the dinner bell,” the butler informed him.
Guy tipped his head in acknowledgement as he walked towards the drawing room just off the entry hall. He stepped inside and admired the shiny, black pianoforte in the corner.
Vaguely detecting the ring of the dinner bell, he sat on the bench, placed his hands on the ivory keys, and started playing a piece by Mozart. He let his fingers dance across the keys as the music brought back a flood of pleasant memories. Once the song concluded, he withdrew his hands and sat there for a long moment.
Miss Locke’s voice came from the doorway. “That was lovely.”
He shifted on the bench to face her and saw that she looked beautiful in a pale pink gown with white trim along the round neckline. “I apologize for presuming to play without an invitation. I’m afraid it has been quite some time since I played the pianoforte, and I couldn’t resist,” he admitted.
She walked further into the room and stopped next to the instrument. “It didn’t appear that way,” she replied. “You performed with such fervor.”
“I do appreciate that.”
“When did you learn how to play?”
“When I was at Eton,” he replied. “I was teased relentlessly for it, but I found myself drawn to the pianoforte.”
“Why would anyone tease you for playing the pianoforte?”
“Why, indeed?” Guy asked. “But the boys at Eton were merciless when it came to teasing me. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.”
“That sounds awful.”
“I grew accustomed to it.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
“No, but I did learn a valuable lesson,” Guy said. “If I didn’t stand up for myself, then no one else would.”
“That is a hard lesson to learn at such a young age.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t have time to be coddled, I’m afraid.”
Miss Locke’s eyes roamed over the pianoforte. “I envy how well you can play,” she said. “I struggle with it.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I require the use of spectacles to read the sheet music, and I am unable to do so when I play for others.”
She gave him a disbelieving look. “A lady does not wear spectacles in public,” she said. “It just isn’t done.”
“That is rather vain, is it not?”
“Perhaps, but I memorized a few easy pieces to play when I go to social gatherings,” Miss Locke replied. “I have learned that most people do not care what I play as long as I play.”
“It is a shame that you allow others to dictate your actions.”
“I am doing no such thing,” she defended. “I am still playing the pianoforte.”
“But you are hiding a part of yourself from them.”
“By not wearing spectacles?”
He shook his head. “No,” he replied. “You could be extraordinary, but you settle for mediocrity.”
“I daresay that you are reading too much into this.”
“That may be true, but I tire of Society dictating our every action.”
Miss Locke gave him an understanding smile. “I must agree with you there,” she replied. “Some of the rules are rather ridiculous.”
“That they are.”
“But who are we to change them?”
Before he could reply, Lady Frances stepped into the room with a cane in her hand. “Good evening, Mr. Stewart.”
He rose from the bench and bowed. “Good evening, my lady.”
“I have been informed that dinner is ready to be served,” Lady Frances shared.
Walking over to her, he offered his arm and said, “Allow me to escort you to the dining room.”
Lady Frances gave him a grateful smile. “I would appreciate that,” she responded. “I’m afraid I don’t walk as fast as I once did.”
“I think you are doing so brilliantly.”
“That is kind of you to say.”
After he led her into the dining room, he assisted her into her chair before claiming the seat across from Miss Locke.
A footman placed a bowl of soup in front of him. He was about to pick up his spoon when Lady Frances asked, “How long do you intend to stay in Anmore?”
“As long as it takes to do a thorough investigation of the conditions at the colliery,” Guy replied. “It could be days, or even weeks.”
“What do you think of our lovely town?”
“I have found the people to be most accommodating,” he replied.
Lady Frances nodded her head in approval. “It has been that way since I was a little girl,” she said. “Not like London.”
Miss Locke spoke up in an amused voice. “I do believe you made your distaste of London already known to Mr. Stewart.”
“I just can’t fathom why people live in Town,” Lady Frances said. “It is dirty and immensely crowded.”
“That it is,” Guy agreed. “Trying to secure a hackney is nearly impossible during certain hours of the day.”
Lady Frances picked up her spoon, then asked, “Do your parents live in Town, as well?”
“I’m afraid my father passed away, but my mother and sister reside with me,” he replied.
“My condolences for your loss,” Lady Frances said.
“Thank you,” he responded. “It was quite some time ago.”
“Did your father attend Cambridge?” Lady Frances asked.
A smile came to his lips at that question. “He did not,” he replied. “My father was a brickmason.”
“A brickmason?” Lady Frances repeated back in surprise.
Guy nodded. “Yes, and my mother was the daughter of a solicitor.”
Lady Frances looked puzzled. “How was it that you were able to attend Cambridge, then?”
“Through hard work,” he replied. “I was fortunate enough to receive a scholarship to Eton and then to Cambridge.”
“You are a self-made man,” Lady Frances said.
“That is an impressive feat,” Miss Locke acknowledged.
Guy met her gaze from across the table. “Not everyone feels that way,” he replied. “Members of Society can be rather cruel to someone in my position.”
“I can imagine that to be true,” Lady Frances stated.
“I am not quite part of either world, and neither one will let me forget about that,” he remarked.
“Well, I find it to be rather remarkable that you were able to rise above your station,” Lady Frances said. “That is not easily done.”
“No, it is not,” he agreed.
“I bet your mother must be very proud of you,” Miss Locke said.
“That she is, but I am afraid she is rather sick.”
Miss Locke gave him a look filled with compassion. “Have you consulted with a doctor?” she asked.
“We have, but the doctor is unsure of how to treat her.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Miss Locke murmured.
“Sadly, I am of the belief that her condition has more to do with a broken heart than a physical ailment. She misses my father most dreadfully,” Guy said. “I am afraid such a thing is untreatable.”
“What a wonderful legacy,” Lady Frances declared, “knowing that your parents loved each other to such a degree.”
“My father saw my mother walking down the street one day, and he knew that she was going to be his wife,” he shared with a smile.
“How sweet,” Miss Locke said.
“Unfortunately, my mother did not receive the same inspiration,” Guy chuckled, “and it took much wooing on my father’s part before she would even consider him as a suitor.”
“How did her parents react to a brickmason attempting to court their daughter?” Lady Frances asked.
“They were not pleased, and they fought against it. But love triumphed, and my parents married a few months later,” Guy said. “My home, albeit small, was filled with an abundance of love.”
“You mentioned a sister residing with you,” Lady Frances remarked. “Is she caring for your mother?”
“She is,” he replied. “Even though my sister may deny it, I must admit that she is much more clever than I am.”
“Is that so?” Miss Locke asked.
“She reads everything she can get her hands on,” Guy shared.
“You must have an extensive library, then,” Lady Frances reasoned.
“I’m afraid that is one area that our home is lacking.”
Miss Locke reached for her glass. “Then you shall have to take a few books from our library home for your sister.”
Guy looked at her in surprise. “Truly?”
“We have acquired duplicates of certain books over the years,” Miss Locke replied. “Besides, I want to ensure your sister has plenty to read while she is caring for your mother.”
“That is most kind of you,” he responded.
Miss Locke smiled at him. “It is but a small thing.”
“To you, perhaps.”
Gesturing towards his soup, Lady Frances remarked, “It would be best if we stop pestering you with questions so you can enjoy your soup.”
“I do not mind your questions, but this soup does look delicious.”
“Our cook is French,” Miss Locke shared. “Grandmother hired her right out from under our neighbor’s nose.”
Lady Frances didn’t appear the least bit embarrassed by Miss Locke’s remarks. “It is true,” she replied. “I enjoyed his food so much while visiting Mrs. Asburnham that I offered to hire Monsieur Barbet on the spot.”
Miss Locke smirked. “And Mrs. Asburnham wouldn’t dare to refuse my grandmother’s demands.”
“I did not demand anything,” Lady Frances declared. “I am old, and I enjoy eating the finest-tasting food.”
Guy reached for his spoon and took a sip of the turtle soup. “I was right. This soup is delicious,” he acknowledged.
Lady Frances smiled victoriously. “That pleases me immensely to hear.”
They had justadjourned to the drawing room when her grandmother suggested, “Why don’t you play something for us on the pianoforte?”
Daphne smiled. “I would be happy to.” She walked over to the pianoforte and sat down. “What would you wish to hear?”
“You choose, dear,” her grandmother replied as she sat down on the blue settee.
She was about to start playing when she saw Mr. Stewart approaching. He stopped next to her and said, “I would prefer it if you would play something that you don’t have memorized.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I find myself curious as to what you look like wearing spectacles.” He smiled, a dashing smile that almost disarmed her into doing his bidding—almost. But she was not foolish enough to fall for his charms.
“I’m sorry, but I do not think it is such a good idea.”
Mr. Stewart considered her for a moment before inquiring, “May I ask why you are embarrassed by a pair of spectacles?”
“They are unsightly.”
“I disagree,” he replied. “My mother wears spectacles whenever she reads, and I have never once thought they looked unsightly.”
“But I am much younger than your mother.”
“Are you?” he joked.
She laughed. “Perhaps it is you who need spectacles.”
Mr. Stewart put his hands up in surrender. “I give up,” he replied. “I shall stop pestering you about wearing your spectacles.”
“But I want you to know that no one has the right to make you feel inferior,” he said, giving her a pointed look.
Daphne watched Mr. Stewart walk away before she placed her hands on the keys and started playing a song by Beethoven. She had always been embarrassed when she wore her spectacles, and she truly didn’t want to wear them around Mr. Stewart. For some inexplicable reason, she hoped that he found her attractive. Which was odd. She had never cared about how gentlemen perceived her before.
Once she concluded, her grandmother clapped and praised, “Well done, dear.”
“I agree with Lady Frances,” Mr. Stewart said. “You play splendidly.”
“You are much too kind.” She rose from the bench, secretly pleased by Mr. Stewart’s praise.
After she sat next to her grandmother, Mr. Stewart went to sit across from them as his eyes roamed the room. “This is a lovely drawing room,” he commented.
“Thank you,” her grandmother replied. “I’m afraid that not much has been done to the manor since my husband died.”
“May I ask how long ago that was?”
A wistful expression came to her grandmother’s face. “I’m afraid it has been nearly twenty years,” she replied softly.
“You have my condolences,” Mr. Stewart said.
“I’m afraid that is what happens when people get older,” her grandmother responded. “We start dying by the wayside.”
“You are still young, Grandmother,” Daphne insisted.
“Only in your eyes,” her grandmother said. “But, enough of me, I would rather hear more about Mr. Stewart.”
“There isn’t much more to tell, I’m afraid,” Mr. Stewart stated.
“I find that hard to believe,” her grandmother pressed. “You are the son of a brickmason, and yet you have the demeanor of a gentleman. I find that fascinating.”
Mr. Stewart smiled. “Very few do, my lady.”
“Well, they are fools,” she quipped.
“I won’t disagree with you there,” Mr. Stewart said, “but I am a man who has no place in either world.”
“Then you must carve out your own place,” her grandmother advised.
“I’m afraid that requires more than what I have at my disposal,” Mr. Stewart remarked.
“You work at the bank, and that counts for something.”
A guarded look came to Mr. Stewart’s eyes. “That I do.”
Daphne’s reply was interrupted by the sound of the front door slamming shut. “Is anyone home?” a familiar voice asked.
Her heart dropped at the sound of his voice, and she tried to keep her face expressionless. She knew precisely why her cousin had decided to make the trek to Anmore.
Phineas walked into the drawing room with his hands out wide. “Grandmother!” he exclaimed. “I was hoping I would find you home.” He walked over to her and kissed her on the cheek. “I was worried that you would be out for the evening.”
Her grandmother smiled up at him. “I don’t go out very often anymore,” she admitted.
Phineas turned his attention towards Daphne and smiled. “Cousin,” he greeted. “It is a pleasure to see you again.”
She brought a smile to her face. “Likewise, Phineas.”
Phineas turned towards Mr. Stewart, his eyes widening in surprise. “Guy?” he asked. “Is that you?”
Mr. Stewart rose. “It is,” he replied.
Phineas perused the length of him, then let out a low whistle. “Last I heard, you were working towards becoming a professor at Cambridge.”
Mr. Stewart shifted in his stance. “I’m afraid that didn’t work out, and I now work for a bank.”
“Interesting.” Phineas turned towards his grandmother and explained, “Guy and I attended Eton together.”
“How fascinating,” her grandmother said.
Phineas sat on a chair next to Mr. Stewart. “I watched one of your boxing matches, you know,” he said. “I mistakenly bet on your opponent.”
“That was most unfortunate, since I hardly ever lost,” Mr. Stewart stated.
“I was surprised to discover that you retired from boxing shortly thereafter,” Phineas remarked.
Mr. Stewart nodded. “I’m afraid my heart wasn’t in it,” he said. “I only did it to support myself while I was at university.”
A young maid walked into the room with a tray in her hands and set it on a table. “Would you care for me to pour, milady?” she asked.
“No, thank you, Sarah,” her grandmother replied. “Daphne, would you do the honors?”
Daphne nodded, and Sarah smiled before she left the room, Phineas’ eyes following her.
Daphne moved to the edge of her seat. “Would anyone care for some tea?”
“I would,” her grandmother replied.
Phineas shook his head. “I would prefer some brandy,” he said. “Do you have any?”
“I believe we have some port in the study,” his grandmother responded.
“That is terribly disappointing,” Phineas stated. “I shall have to go into town and drink at the pub, then.”
Her grandmother gave him a disapproving look. “But you only just arrived.”
“I will be back later tonight,” he said, turning his attention towards Mr. Stewart. “Would you care to join me at the pub?”
Mr. Stewart met his gaze. “I would not.”
Phineas frowned. “You are no fun, Guy,” he said. “I see that some things never change.”
“I would agree with that sentiment,” Mr. Stewart replied, rising. “If you will excuse me, it is getting late, and I have an early meeting tomorrow.”
Placing the teapot down on the tray, Daphne rose. “Allow me to see you to the door, Mr. Stewart.”
“I would appreciate that.”
As she approached him, he offered his arm, and she placed her hand on his. He led her out of the drawing room, and she leaned into him so as not to be overheard. “I’m sorry about my cousin.”
“You have no reason to be.”
“But we were supposed to play games this evening, and Phineas ruined it.”
Mr. Stewart patted her hand. “It is all right,” he replied. “I’m sure you would prefer to catch up with your cousin anyway.”
Daphne let out a puff of air. “He has no interest in me,” she admitted. “He is only here to cozy up to my grandmother.”
“That is most unfortunate.” Mr. Stewart stopped at the door and dropped his arm. “If it isn’t too much of an imposition, would you mind introducing me to Mr. Burke tomorrow?”
“I would be happy to,” she replied. “I shall meet you at the bank at noon.”
He smiled. “I will be looking forward to it.”
They stood there for a moment, looking awkwardly at one another, before Mr. Stewart cleared his throat. “I should be going.”
“Thank you for joining us for dinner.”
“I appreciate the invitation.”
Mr. Stewart started for the door. “I do wish you luck with your cousin this evening.”
Daphne glanced over at the drawing room door. “Thank you,” she replied. “I will need all the luck I can get.”
After Mr. Stewart departed, she walked back to the drawing room.
“Is Mr. Stewart your suitor?” Phineas asked.
“He is not,” she replied as she sat down on the settee. “He just arrived in Anmore, and we thought it would be polite if we invited him for dinner.”
Phineas nodded in understanding. “I would stay away from Mr. Stewart.”
“Why is that?” Daphne asked, feigning interest. She cared little for what her cousin thought.
“He doesn’t have two sixpence to rub together.”
“How would you know that?”
Phineas shrugged. “He was at Eton on a scholarship,” he said in a disgusted tone. “He no more deserved to be there than did the servants who shined my shoes.”
“How judgmental of you,” Daphne stated. “He earned his spot at Eton and had every right to be there.”
Phineas huffed. “He was poor.”
“Not everyone who attends Eton is rich, Cousin,” Daphne remarked.
“No, but they all hail from aristocracy,” Phineas pressed. “Mr. Stewart is the son of a brickmason. He is as common as it gets.”
“Regardless, he has made something of himself.”
“A leopard cannot change its spots,” Phineas said. “He may dress in fancy clothes, but he is the same worthless street urchin who came to Eton all those years ago.”
“He is not worthless,” Daphne declared.
Phineas lifted his brow. “You seem rather defensive about a man you hardly know.”
“I know enough to know that you are wrong about Mr. Stewart,” Daphne replied, tilting her chin defiantly.
Rising, Phineas said, “Have it your way, but I have no doubt that you will eventually see Mr. Stewart for who he truly is.”
“Someone who is beneath your notice,” Phineas replied firmly.
“I contend that is not true.”
Phineas gave her a pointed look. “Be cautious around him,” he warned. “Mr. Stewart is not a man to trifle with. He was constantly getting into fights at Eton.”
“I shall keep that in mind.”
“I shall be back after I get my fill of the watered-down ale that the pub serves,” Phineas said, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets.
“Do be careful,” Grandmother urged.
Phineas smiled smugly. “I have become quite proficient at riding a horse drunk.”
“That is not something to be proud of,” Daphne muttered.
“Goodnight,” Phineas said as he departed from the room.
Daphne turned her attention towards her grandmother. “He is only here because you named me as your heir.”
“I know, dear.”
“How long do you think he will stay?”
Her grandmother rose. “Let’s hope not long, since it is evident that he has not changed his ways.”
“No, he most assuredly has not.”