Authors: Kate Dolan
An Ellora’s Cave Romantica Publication
A Certain Want of Reason
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
A Certain Want of Reason Copyright© 2007 Kate Dolan
Edited by Mary Altman.
Cover art by Lissa Waitley.
Electronic book Publication: February 2007
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This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the authors’ imagination and used fictitiously.
A Certain Want of Reason
“We’ve done it!”
Lucia Wright looked around for the source of the exclamation, knocked her knife off her plate and made a futile grab for the implement as it skittered across her lap and down the front of the tablecloth, leaving a trail of butter grease and orange marmalade in its wake. It came to rest against the table leg just out of her reach. With an apologetic glance at her friend Eugenie, she returned her attention to the informal, bustling breakfast table at the Bayles’ home—a much livelier meal than she could ever imagine having at home in the country with her brother and sister.
Eugenie’s sister Sophie waved a buff-colored card with a triumphant flourish before setting it in front of her father. “An invitation to the Adrington soirée.”
“Congratulations, my dear.” Mr. Bayles smiled as he spoke to his daughter but kept his attention focused on a slice of toast as he succeeded in spreading marmalade just to the very edge without running over the sides. Only then did he look up to speak to Sophie directly. “You’ve worked with exceeding diligence to make the acquaintance in time.”
“And put in a fair bit of unwarranted flattery,” Eugenie added with grin.
“What was that about flattery?” Mrs. Bayles asked, her hand poised in midair as she prepared to strike the lethal blow to the shell of her boiled egg.
“Nothing directed at you, Mother,” Eugenie assured her. She winked at Lucia, then turned her gaze toward the door. “Ah, morning mail. I thought I heard the bell a moment ago. You’ll forgive us if we read at the breakfast table? It is rude with a guest in the house, but you see, we shall all behave as if you were one of the family.”
As if waiting for his cue, a footman entered and began circling the breakfast table, depositing a few cards in front of diners who received them with varying degrees of interest. To Lucia’s surprise, a letter appeared in front of her plate as well—a letter addressed in Helen’s faint, half-inked scrawl. She reached out to take the folded paper into her hands but could not bring herself to open it.
“I see that my sister already usurped your role as the bearer of good tidings, Allen,” Eugenie offered sympathetically to the footman as he turned away.
Allen nodded, a hurt expression barely visible in his eyes.
“Do you see what I must contend with here?” Eugenie asked Lucia. “Sophie, you are the cruelest sister imaginable. The one joy that man gets is to be the conduit of communication, and you have to go and wrest the letter from his hand.”
“He never took hold of it, actually.” Sophie sucked at a paper cut on her finger. “I saw the postman from the window and managed to reach the—”
?” Mrs. Bayles demanded, pointing her spoon accusingly at her daughter.
“Nothing, Mother.” Sophie suppressed a giggle, casting a guilty glance at both her sister and Lucia before resolutely focusing her gaze on her plate.
“I heard something about the door,” Mrs. Bayles insisted.
“No, I was, um, pacing the
. Waiting for the post.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Bayles’ expression faded from disbelief to disinterest.
Lucia glanced at the letter in her hand, then tucked it under her plate. Why would Helen have written so soon? Lucia had only reached London the previous evening, so her sister would have had to have posted the letter less than a day after Lucia’s departure. Could something disastrous have transpired in such a short interval? It seemed unlikely, and yet…
“Look, look at this one!” Sophie hoisted another card to wave about the table, this one the hue of dried pea soup.
“That is truly a hideous color,” Eugenie pronounced. “Nothing that color should be permitted to exist.”
“Not the color, you cake. The crest. The Earl of Rathley. An invitation to his ball, as well.”
Lucia kept her gaze focused on Eugenie and Sophie so that she would not look at her sister’s letter.
“No more than we expected, of course.” Mr. Bayles eyed his toast from another angle. “Since his cousin—”
“Yes, yes, I know,” Sophie interrupted. “But it’s a relief to have the invitation in hand. And then Tulliver has secured tickets for the opera for tomorrow.” She stuffed a piece of cold partridge into her mouth.
Mrs. Bayles slammed her cup of chocolate onto the table, setting all the dishes clattering as she glared at Sophie. “You really must not do that, dear!”
“‘oo ‘at?” Sophie appeared stunned at her mother’s outburst.
Eugenie leaned in toward her. “Talk with your mouth full, dear sister.”
Sophie swallowed. “What did I do, Mother?”
“You should not refer to the baronet as ‘Tulliver’. It is most unseemly.”
“He does not mind it.”
“Does that mean it is acceptable for her to speak with her mouth full?” Eugenie demanded.
Lucia smothered a laugh, thoroughly enjoying the feminine repartee she had not experienced since her days in school.
Mrs. Bayles ignored Eugenie and kept her gaze riveted on her other daughter. “Have you actually addressed the baronet in such an informal fashion?”
Sophie shrugged. “On occasion.”
“Oh, dear.” Mrs. Bayles shuddered.
“And with your mouth full of bacon, too, no doubt.” Eugenie affected a shudder that would have been sufficient for both herself and her mother.
“We shall discuss this later,” Mrs. Bayles announced with a meaningful look at Sophie.
“Ahem.” Mr. Bayles looked up. “Would you please stop shuddering? You’ve set the dishes to rattle again.”
Mr. Bayles then turned his gaze to Lucia for the first time that morning. “What is our guest to think? You two girls prattling on about bacon and earls while the poor girl is trying to read a letter.”
Silence hung almost palpably over the table for exactly three seconds.
“I am sorry, dear. Do not mind us a bit.” Eugenie patted Lucia’s hand. “Is that a letter from one of the twins?”
“It…it is.” Lucia looked down at the paper under her plate with some reluctance. It was far more fun to observe the Bayles family antics than to contemplate those of her own family.
“I hope all is well at home?”
“I hope so too. I’ve not had time to read as much yet.”
“You mean you’ve not had the opportunity.” Eugenie smiled. “We have been nattering on too much. I promise to keep as silent as the grave while you read your letter. You must as well, Sophie.”
“I must what?”
“Must promise to keep silent as the grave.”
“The grave?” Sophie grimaced. “Can we not pick something a little less morbid for the breakfast table?”
“Very well. As silent as…for the life of me, I cannot think of something silent.”
“I wonder why?” Mr. Bayles sighed.
“Never mind. Silent as the grave.” Eugenie nodded at Lucia. “I promise.”
Lucia picked up the letter warily. “Perhaps I should read it later.”
“Nonsense. It is from your family. You must read it now. We will keep silence.” Eugenie looked around the table with a ferocious gaze. Then her expression abruptly changed. “Oh—is that the card from the Adringtons?”
“I must say, Eugenie, if ever I came across a grave as noisy as yours, I would send for an occultist straightaway.” Sophie handed the card to her sister.
Eugenie’s eyes widened. “I am so sorry, Lucia.”
“Lucia, I think you may as well learn to ignore your dear school chum and go ahead and read while she is talking,” Sophie offered.
Lucia forced a smile. “If you must know, my sister’s writing is rather…difficult to decipher. It takes a bit of concentration to read one of her letters.”
“I comprehend you perfectly,” Eugenie replied with a conspiratorial nod. “My sister also writes with a dreadful hand.”
Lucia smiled again. Would that handwriting were the only difficulty! The inanity of her sister Helen’s prose, interspersed as it was with miscellaneous measured observations, made it virtually impossible to discern the actual news of the letter. Yet with Geoffrey in the house, Helen was sure to have news of some sort, the only question being whether her news was slightly bad, amusingly bad or terribly bad.
Due to some miracle—or perhaps the fresh rack of toast Allen had just placed on the table—the room fell silent long enough for Lucia to plunge into her sister’s narrative with grim determination.
After a few horrendous minutes, Lucia pulled herself free from her sister’s words when she realized someone was speaking to her. “I’m sorry. What did you say?” She could not even have told who had called her.
“I said, you’ve picked a most fortuitous time for a visit, Miss Wright.” Mr. Bayles waved his toast, which was still unmarred by any signs of consumption. “What with the earl’s ball, the opera and now the Adrington soirée, your visit could not get off to a more splendid start. What say you?”
“I must go home.” Lucia set down the letter with determination.
“What?” Mrs. Bayles’ empty chocolate cup clattered to the table.
“Surely you jest, Miss Wright.” The toast faltered in Mr. Bayles’ hand.
Eugenie leaned over to Lucia and patted her arm with reassurance. “I know you worry about your brother and sister. And after a good visit, you will—”
Lucia shook her head. “I must go home now. Today.”
Eugenie abandoned her toast with only the faintest hint of reluctance. “Perhaps we’d better excuse ourselves from the company.”
“Yes, thank you.” Lucia stood, faltering a bit as she stepped on the knife she had knocked off the table earlier. “I need to…but, Eugenie, you need not—”
“Oh yes, I need to.” Eugenie had bounded to her feet and pulled Lucia halfway to the door before she could protest.
“Do you not want to finish your—”
“No. Let us go. A pleasant morning to you all!” Eugenie waved cheerily as she pushed Lucia out the door and into the hall. Once outside the room, her grin vanished. “We will discuss the matter upstairs.”
“Eugenie, this is not for—”
“I will not let you leave this time.” Eugenie dragged her toward the stairs.
“But you do not understand.” Lucia wrenched her arm free. “Geoffrey—”
“I will not stand by and let Geoffrey ruin your life.”
“Well.” Lucia smiled weakly. “I am afraid it’s rather a bit too late for that.”
* * * * *
“So you see,” Lucia stared at the chest of drawers in Eugenie’s bedroom as she concluded her narrative, “I have to go home now.”
“No, I do not see. I think it is wonderful that Geoffrey’s taken a pastime.”
Lucia snorted in derision, her embarrassment at the rude sound eroded by her disgust at the contemplation of her brother’s habits. “Geoffrey does not take up pastimes. He takes on occupations.”
“So? Whatever he chooses to call it, it will keep him busy and it will keep him out of the house.”
“If any of the house remains,” Lucia muttered.
“Listen, Eugenie. You don’t understand about Geoffrey. He…proceeds with rather more zeal than sense. When Geoffrey took up the practice of law, he stole our neighbor’s horse so he could then offer representation in a conversion action. He was most distressed when Mrs. MacGill refused his offer to represent her in her suit against himself. When he wanted to be a blacksmith, he decided he could get the hottest fire from the fireplace in the main drawing room. He started building a forge—we’ve never come up with a good way to cover the scorch marks on the floor. In preparation for his planned life as a naval officer, he sank the tea chest and two chests of flatware in a mock battle in Blackridge pond. Last month, he decided he was going to be a chimney sweep, despite the fact that he’s nearly eighteen years of age and taller than many full-grown men. He got stuck somewhere between the flue to the dining room and the one leading to his bedroom. It took three local men the better part of an afternoon to free him—and he was still occasionally coughing up wads of black phlegm when I left.” She smacked her hands together with a sigh, wishing that once, just once, her family could manage without her having to oversee every minute detail of daily life. “I never should have gone off. He simply cannot be trusted on his own.”
“But he’s not on his own. Your sister, Helen, is with him and she can take care of him for a few weeks. Or your stepfather—surely he might help.”
“Helen is not much better, I’m afraid.”
“What? I knew Geoffrey was always a bit of a difficult cracker, but you’ve never let on that Helen, that dear young thing, was… Well, how bad is she?”
“Not as bad as Geoffrey, of course. Not yet, at least. And her…eccentricities aren’t so dangerous. Of course, one day she did fall into the river while collecting her daily sample, but on the whole—”
“She collects samples of river water at certain times of the day.”
“Oh. That sounds rather…scientific of her.”
“Yes, she catalogs her samples in a very studious manner, and some of her findings have even piqued interest at the Royal Society.” Lucia sighed. “I just wish she wouldn’t insist on keeping all of her collections.”