from A Man without a Mistress
Sibilla sighed, setting down her cup to take up the search for her aunt’s reticule. But neither it nor the vinaigrette that it purportedly contained were anywhere to be found.
“I must have left it in the dining room,” her aunt cried, her hands fluttering like little birds trapped in a cage. “Such an addlepate I am. What will Lady Milne think?”
“I am sure a footman can retrieve it for you, Aunt,” Sibilla reassured, rising to find a likely servant. But all the footmen in the drawing room were engaged.
Fetching the reticule herself would be quicker. And it had the consequent benefit of removing her from the matrimonially inclined conversation of Lady Milne and Aunt Allyne. Perhaps she might even have the luck to overhear something that would help her persuade Theo how important it was that he take his seat in Parliament.
Her steps quiet on the softly carpeted hallway, Sibilla paused at the door to the dining room. She could spy no footman here, either, only the gentlemen, smoking and sipping at the other end of the room, far from where her aunt had been seated. It would be easy to dart in and retrieve the reticule without calling any attention to herself.
But was it worth the risk of being caught intruding on the gentlemen’s conversation?
Yes. Ducking down, she edged carefully across the carpet.
“Can I have heard you aright?” Lord James Dunster exclaimed in a tone of disbelief. “Is Dashwick truly going to propose an act to legalize bawdy houses? I find such a proposal more than reprehensible. Could he be in his right mind?”
Lord Milne raised his glass with a laugh. “Trolling Covent Garden in the wee hours of the night has certainly not dampened Dashwick’s reputation for eccentricity. At one time he bruited about the idea of reviving the sumptuary laws, to require lightskirts to wear a distinguishing mark. How this was meant to curb the practice, he never could explain.”
Viscount Dulcie gave a loud snort. “And soon all the fashionable ladies would be imitating the mark! Never be able to sort the doxies from the mere hoydens then, would we? Hmm, perhaps that would not be so bad after all,” he concluded, eliciting laughter from the younger bucks who surrounded him.
“Would men who keep a mistress have to be licensed as well?” asked another man. “Imagine you, Saybrook, taking yourself down to court to procure a paper for Mademoiselle Crébillon! Or, no, even better—imagine watching sobersides Kit, who always swore he had better things to do with his time than to chase after women, trotting out to procure a license now that he’s set up his own fancy piece! What a joke!”
Sibilla clapped a hand over her mouth. Her youngest brother had a mistress, as well as Theo? Ducking down behind a chair, she winced, praying her reflexes had been quick enough to avoid her brother’s gaze. Aunt Allyne would surely admonish that eavesdroppers never hear good of themselves, but Sibilla hadn’t expected to hear ill of her brother. Devil take it! Bad enough for Theo’s amatory relations to be bandied about in such a manner, but to have Kit’s morals questioned, too?
Lord Milne must have sent a quelling look in the direction of her brother and his tormenter, for no set-down came in response to the man’s ill-bred jibe. Instead, it was the earl who spoke next. “Surely, allowing the watch greater authority over such practices will curb streetwalking more than the licensure of bawdy houses or the marking of prostitutes. Will you be supporting the changes in the Vagrancy Bill that Dunster has proposed, Saybrook?”
Sibilla edged around the bottom of the table, closer to where her aunt had been sitting. Her hand groped under the chair, searching in vain for the missing reticule.
“Mmmm,” her brother replied, the slightest slur marking his speech. “Find some of the stranger positions men have taken regarding the suppression of prostitution highly amusing, though. Ever come across Reverend Madan’s volumes? Says England ought to become a polygamous society! Legalizing multiple marriage, the only viable remedy for men’s incorrigible need for sexual variety, so he writes.”
Her brother’s remark raised another laugh from the young bucks, but drew only a snort from her. Had Reverend Madan considered what would happen if a man developed an “incorrigible need” for his neighbor’s second wife? Or his third?
With a huff of frustration, Sibilla half rose from her crouch. Aunt Allyne’s reticule was nowhere in sight. Glancing over her shoulder to ensure none of the gentlemen were looking in her direction, she scampered back to the dining room door.
When she put a hand down to help her rise, though, instead of soft carpeting, her fingers lit on the smooth, polished surface of a man’s evening slipper. A blush, half embarrassment, half amusement, suffused her face. She hoped the footman would not give her away.
But when her head tilted upward, it wasn’t a footman or other manservant whom she found. Instead, her gaze was captured by eyes of the deepest blue, dark and unsettled as a stormy winter sea. Familiar eyes, she realized with a stifled gasp—the man from the park, the one who had pulled her from her horse and insulted her so abominably. He hadn’t been present at dinner. What could a man of his ilk be doing at Lord Milne’s?
“I wonder if the reverend intended that women also be given the right to marry more than one man?” he asked in a quiet voice as he crouched down beside her. “Surely, the incorrigible need for variety extends to the female sex? Women are far more libidinous than men, or so I have always heard . . .”
Before she could reply, she felt his hand, bare, warm, grasp hers. He stood, pulling her to her feet, as a blush of awareness warmed her fingers. She dropped his hand, unnerved, and stepped into the passageway. Why had she not put her gloves back on after removing from table?
He stood taller than she remembered, and slimmer, though large enough to shield her from the gentlemen in the dining room. Realizing she was staring, Sibilla jerked her own eyes free from his, only to find them flying to his other features—a thin blade of a nose, nostrils slightly flared, as if scenting for danger; high, narrow cheekbones; a shock of midnight hair in danger of tumbling into short, spiked lashes. Only the shape of one eyebrow, curved at both ends like a tilde, hinted that humor might occasionally lighten that sober countenance.
“Are you unfamiliar with Reverend Madan’s work, then?” Sibilla whispered, determined not to be intimidated. “Perhaps that gentleman would lend you a copy of the relevant volume, so that you might satisfy your curiosity on the subject.”
“You have no opinion on the topic yourself, then?” the man asked, as coolly as if they were discussing a performance of the latest opera rather than mankind’s sexual proclivities.
“Certainly I have an opinion. Though my aunt frequently tells me that a lady’s opinions on political matters are unlikely to be of interest to a gentleman.”
“The question of whether a man or a woman is more libidinous is a political one? In what regard?” he asked, his eyes crinkling with curiosity.
“In too many ways to number. But if you would like a specific example, then I would point to the discussion in which the gentlemen are currently engaged, on the subject of suppressing harlotry. If the female of the species is more driven by libidinous desires, then laws regulating streetwalkers would be the most efficacious route to dampening the trade. But if the male’s drives are more at fault, then the laws should be reframed to regulate male, rather than female, behavior.”
“What if both are driven by such desires?” the man asked. “Should both the woman who prostitutes herself and the man who buys her wares be subject to arrest?”
“Should not the focus still be on the man, as he is the one with the means? Women would not prostitute themselves if there were no financial gain to be had from the transaction. Do you not think—”
Sibilla stopped abruptly, realizing that the sounds of conversation from the dining room had grown silent as their voices had risen. Viscount Dulcie stood by her interlocutor’s side, a curious expression playing about his handsome features.
“You are kind to come and retrieve your aunt’s reticule, Miss Pennington,” he said, holding out the article in question. “May I escort you back to the drawing room?” Cutting a quick look at the man beside him, Dulcie offered his arm with a gracious nod.
“Thank you, my lord,” she replied. The flush that had faded during her sparring with the dark-haired man burned again across her cheeks. “Sir.” She nodded to him before turning to take the viscount’s arm.
She struggled to slow her pace to Dulcie’s, quashing the urge to flee. Her awareness of the silence, and of the male gazes focused on her retreating back, made it surprisingly difficult. One gaze in particular seemed to burn right through her, and not the one belonging to her brother. No, the scrutiny sending prickles of awareness trailing up and down her spine belonged to the cool blue eyes of the imperturbable stranger. The first, and perhaps only, man to deem her worthy of intelligent conversation this entire evening.