The Men And Women's Club

Private Places book cover
PUBLISHER: 
Berkley Trade
ISBN-13: 
978-0425221723
Book Series: 
The Men And Women's Club Series

Who is the animal, Miss Dennison?

Publicist Ardelle Dennison and Professor Joseph Manning founded the Men and Women’s Club, an intellectual society devoted to the study of sexology. They are seemingly content with their lives and their accomplishments. But all is not as it appears to be. The honesty of one woman divides the members of their club and rips apart their very lives when they are subpoenaed to testify in court. Their careers, their reputations—the very club into which they pour all their passion—will be destroyed. Ardelle and Joseph have one night to reconcile their past and the secrets that will be revealed in the witness box. The love and intimacy they have denied themselves is their only hope for salvation...

 

Chapter One

 

“ ‘Vive memor leti,’ Miss Dennison.”
 
The harsh greeting ricocheted around the twilight-blackened cornices, Latin words pulsing and throbbing over the muted grind of turning wheels.
 
“Mr. Manning!”  The feather-tipped silhouette whipped around, startled motion eliciting a kiss of cool air.
 
She did not see him.
 
A muffled gong pierced the thickly carpeted floor.
 
Rare uncertainty quavered her voice.  “Is that you?”
 
Silently he perused the pale outline of a nose and chin, all that the v-ed light bleeding through the boardroom door revealed of the twenty-nine-year-old woman’s beauty.
 
She had been twenty-seven when he first approached her, flushed with success at becoming the first female publicist for the London Museum.  He had been thirty-three, confident in his professorship at the University of London.
 
It was within their power to create a new order, he had told her.  A modern society of freethinkers unimpeded by conventional dialogue.
 
Together they had drafted rules for the Men and Women’s Club.  Together they had pored through professional journals and handpicked prospective members.
 
Together—he sitting at the head of the twenty-foot-long table where he now sat, and she sitting to his right—they had for two years weekly presided over men and women who coldly discussed sexology while overhead gas-light blinded them to their arrogance.
 
But tonight there was no light to blind him.  Tonight there were no men and women to redirect the desire that pumped through his groin.
 
Joseph Manning ignored Ardelle Dennison’s question.
 
“‘Live mindful of death,’” he translated instead in that harshly grating voice that came from his throat.  Immediately her head jerked toward the head of the table, blurred outline becoming an oval face pitted with black eye holes.  Joseph glanced down at the gavel in his right hand, a darker shade of shadow.  “My students interpret Persius’s words as a motto to live each day as if it were our last.  A license to sin, they argue.  But I think his words are cautionary, a warning that if we aren’t careful in our day to day activities, we will suffer, and we will die.”
 
Herded, sexless voices wafted up from beneath Joseph’s feet:  men and women he did not know, but who would soon know him.
 
“You take pride in masculine reason, Miss Dennison.”  Purposefully Joseph looked up; behind the feather-tipped silhouette, light slashed a squat credenza, turning anonymous black into gleaming mahogany.  “Do you believe Persius’s words are a warning, or an invitation?”
 
“I believe it’s late.”  Ardelle Dennison was frigidly forthright.  There was no sign of the vulnerability she had for one infinitesimal moment revealed.  “The museum is closing.  Why are you sitting in the dark?”
 
Through the v-ed door and down the dimly lit corridor, metal banged metal, the sliding gate of an elevator.
 
Memory gouged the throbbing twilight.
 
One man questioning.  One woman responding.
 
What does a woman desire?
 
Yet the woman had not asked what it was that the man needed.  And now they must each appear—every single member of the Men and Women’s Club—in a court of law.
 
“Tomorrow we stand before a judge and jury.”  Cold mahogany wood—an unwitting witness—pulsed against his fingers.  “What do we tell them?”
 
The feather-tipped silhouette visibly stiffened, even as distant laughter mocked his impotence, everything he had ever wanted lost in this room: his reputation; his position at the university.
 
The hope for love.
 
“Do we tell them about the French postcards we didn’t look upon?”
 
Naked men and women doing things he had imagined but never performed.
 
“Do we tell them about the pornographic shop we refused to visit?”
 
In his mind’s eye flashed the print of a woman who sat backward across a man’s hips, wearing only a smile of unfathomable mystery.
 
“Do we tell them we sat here while five men and six women flaunted every decent moral known to man”—the first in a series of dull bass bongs, Big Ben spitting out the hour, underscored his words—“and we did nothing to stop them?”
 
“We did everything in our power to direct those meetings,” shot through the deepening gloom.
 
Joseph was not fooled by the publicist’s righteous indignation.
 
“Do we tell them, Miss Dennison,” he asked, fingers choking the gavel that he had as president of the Men and Women’s Club wielded unsparingly, but which on the morrow would be used to direct jurisdiction in a court of law, “that when I had you on this table two years earlier, you were not a virgin?”
 
One final bong fell onto the sudden silence: It was seven o’clock.
 
A shudder vibrated the air, the public doors shutting.  The singsong hum of passing carriage wheels emphasized the dead stillness permeating the museum.
 
Ardelle Dennison’s voice, when she spoke, was arctic:  “How dare you bring up that night, sir!”
 
Joseph would dare many things this evening.
 
“Did I give you no pleasure at all?” he rasped.
 
In the thickening dusk he could for one fleeting second make out two shadowy figures:  a man . . . a woman.
 
Reaching.  Embracing. 
 
He knew that Ardelle Dennison also saw the two ghostly figures, a professor and a publicist who had for one brief moment dared to be a man and a woman.
 
“This lawsuit is a farce!” she lashed out with sudden anger.  “We can not be held responsible for men and women who cannot control their animal lusts.”
 
“Like us?” Joseph rejoined.
 
The silence was explosive.  But once again she regained her composure.
 
Surprise did not faze her.  Desire did not distract her.
 
She was everything he thought he had wanted, this woman who could match a man’s cold intellect.  He now realized he knew nothing whatsoever about Ardelle Dennison.
 
“Please state your business, Mr. Manning,” she curtly rallied.  “You rang you wanted to see me; here I am.  What do you want?”
 
Joseph wanted back his life that had been ripped away from him—all because of one man and one woman’s reckless pursuit of passion—but more than anything, he wanted back that which had been stolen from him two years earlier.
 
“You took something from me,” he said bluntly.
 
“I never took anything from you,” she instantly denied.
 
“But you did, Miss Dennison.”  It had taken a subpoena to make him realize just exactly what it was that he had lost.  “You unfastened my trousers—”
 
The rebuttal was swift.  “I will not discuss that night.”
 
But this evening she was not being offered a choice.
 
“—and you grasped me,” he baldly continued, reliving the memory of chill air chased away by warm fingers, “and you guided me, and you took me into your body—”
 
“I told you this topic is not open for discussion—”
 
Joseph talked over the icy admonition.  “—and you took something from me, Miss Dennison.”
 
Into the charged silence broke the distant patrol of footsteps.
 
Each impact of a wooden heel beating a wooden floor jarred his memory.
 
Another night: Saturday rather than Monday.  Another year:  1885 rather than 1887.
 
Joseph studied the faceless woman who with each pounding heart beat . . . with each jarring footstep . . . was fading into darkness.
 
Slowly, succinctly—his engorged penis throbbing in time with the blood that thrummed inside his temples—he enunciated: “And I want it back.”
 
It was the publicist who spoke, voicing the scorn of a woman who had fought in a man’s world against unbeatable odds, yet had won.  “And just what do you think I took from you, Mr. Manning?”
 
What could a woman take from a man, she inferred, when all the time men took from women?
 
“My virginity,” Joseph said flatly.  And remembered how it had been.
 
Before Ardelle Dennison had touched him, he had been content to hoard the memories of his past and furtively jerk his own flesh for release.  Now every night he sought to duplicate her touch, either with his hands or in his dreams.
 
A closing door sliced through the pulsing tension.
 
“There ye be, Mr. ‘Armon!” echoed down the corridor; now, not then when Joseph had still been young and full of hope.  The pale sliver of light delineating the mahogany credenza dimmed.  “All’s well, sir.  Just a few more cocks, and I’ll be out o’ ‘ere.”
 
“Very good, Mr. Bonnen.”  Ragged breathing rang out over the aged curator’s praise; it matched the bellowing of Joseph’s lungs.  “Have you seen Miss Dennison?  I thought she said she was meeting with a business associate, but she’s not in her office, and her cloak is gone.”
 
Instinctively Joseph’s gaze sought out the darker shadow clasped before the feather-tipped silhouette.
 
“I ‘aven’t seen ‘er, sir.”  The guard’s hollow voice penetrated wood, flesh and bone.  “Shall I look for ‘er?”
 
The breathing inside the boardroom quickened, faster than the air tunneling through Joseph’s own lungs; it almost drowned out the curator’s response:  “No, no need, Mr. Bonnen.  No doubt she finished her business early, and is already on her way home. She’s a capable woman, is our Miss Dennison.”
 
“That she is, sir,” gently trailed down the corridor.  The streak of dull mahogany faded to black, another gas cock screwed shut.  “Shall we take the lift tonight?”
 
Tensely Joseph waited: for Ardelle Dennison to alert the curator and the guard of their presence.  Or simply for her to turn around and walk out of the boardroom.  As she had walked out two years earlier.
 
She did neither.
 
Two pairs of receding footsteps traversed the corridor, one set firm, the steps of a healthy young man, the second halting.  Each fading, faltering heel tap was accompanied by the sharp stab of a cane, until even the retreating click . . . click . . . click was swallowed by darkness.
 
Metal grumbled, a cab climbing a metal cable.  Metal clanged, a gate opening . . . closing . . . elevator descending. . . .  Leaving behind Joseph Manning and Ardelle Dennison.
 
They were not the same man and woman they had been two years earlier.
 
Deepening twilight shone through a solitary window.  Faint chimes announced the quarter hour.
 
Between one accelerating breath and the next, a remote side door slammed shut, sealing together the two shadows they had become.
 
“‘Business associate,’ Miss Dennison?” Joseph hoarsely goaded.
 
“We are associates, Mr. Manning.”  A disembodied whistle penetrated the darkness, a bobby in pursuit of authority, or a boy in innocent play, neither with whom Joseph could identify, his childhood ripped away by the very people paid to protect it.  “I apologize if that disturbs you.”
 
“I don’t want your apologies, Miss Dennison,” Joseph baited, and did not know if it was anger or lust or fear that spurred him.  He did not know what would happen on the morrow, but neither did he know what would happen this night.  “But I am curious.”
 
Without warning, the feather-tipped silhouette turned in a flurry of rustling wool.  The v that had minutes earlier been filled with light but which now admitted only darkness, burst wide in a crash of metal stopper and wooden door; simultaneously, a wall of chill, musty air slammed into him.
 
She did not escape quickly enough.
 
“Who is the animal?”
 
Animal hurtled through the void that was the emptiness of their lives, an emotive ball of pain.
 
Ardelle Dennison halted—a black silhouette framed by even blacker shadow—and lied.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
 
“You said, ‘if we felt desire,’ ” Joseph quoted, capturing her every inflection those forty-four days past, that day they had voted into their club a woman who dared to be honest, and for whom they would now all pay the price, “ ‘we would admit it.  But we are guided by a higher moral ground,’ you said.  ‘We are not animals,’ you said.”
 
“Git your evenin’ news ‘ere, . . .” wearily drifted up from the street below.  “Globe’ll tell you all. . . .”
 
Fleetingly Joseph wondered if, come the morrow, the evening newspaper would carry their names, perhaps even their likenesses.
 
“Who is the animal, Miss Dennison?” he repeated, question rasping his throat.
 
Ardelle Dennison—the only woman he had ever allowed to touch him—remained frozen in the doorway.
 
“You, for taking my virginity?”  The precariousness of their future crawled on Joseph’s skin like electricity.  “Or me, for giving you my virginity?”
 

What the Critics Say

  • [The Men And Women's Club] is not what comes to mind when I think of erotica, although the sex scenes were really well done, and they basically talk about nothing but sexuality. Honestly, it’s so much more than erotica, because Schone tells a really fascinating story that deals with sexual repression and how dangerous it can be.

  • Awaken, My Love provides a refreshingly funny commentary on the time-travel genre. Elaine’s trials regarding chamber pots, makeshift maxi pads, and social sensibilities like unshaven legs underline such astounding oversights in other books that readers may never again be able to accept a sloppily written, unrealistic experience of waking up in another century.

  • Emotionally Believable.

  • There's a lot more than explicit sex—although there is plenty of that—to this frankly erotic romance, which takes a hard look at Victorian double standards and the penalties for women who ignore them and with feminist aplomb puts everything into perspective.

  • Schone again displays her talent for highly erotic scenes and descriptions—even without the sex. Before Rose and Jack engage in sexual play, their passion burns the pages. The research of 19th century marital laws and women's rights [add] texture to the plot.

  • ...Probably the first 53-year-old eunuch to be a romantic hero.