Read an Excerpt
If Jack Murphy had to face down another giggling, giddy woman baring herself in nothing but a corset and drawers, he knew he was going to go completely barmy.
Eight times in three days was simply too much for any man. Even one so appreciative of the female form as Jack considered himself to be. Ordinarily, he enjoyed women of all kinds, in all sorts of diverse arrays. In the satiny embrace of an evening gown. In the close-fitting hug of an afternoon dress. Or in the altogether, as God—and right-thinking males—preferred.
But now, gazing in dismay at the widow Marjorie Lancaster's curvaceous form, adorned with its telltale gussets and lacings and froth of lacy trim, Jack felt his...er, enthusiasm wane.
Given his yen for intellectual pursuits, he couldn't help but analyze the situation. The only explanation he could discern was simple. As experiments went, his accidental foray into ladies' unmentionables had turned out disastrously.
Not merely because of the aforementioned women, all of whom had waylaid him—one being so bold as to strike in his offices at Boston College—to make clear their admiring status of his sartorial "gifts." But also because, thanks to his unwelcome notoriety, he could scarcely leave home without inspiring gossip and speculation—or inciting women to clamor for samples and, in the case of the brashest, to offer him further "insight" into their most intimate clothing needs.
It was true that Jack—a professor by training but an inveterate inventor otherwise—had accidentally created the city's most scandalous ladies'undergarments. But that didn't mean he wanted his whole life turned wrong side up. He refused to stand for it. Which was why he'd come here, determined to enjoy at least one aspect of his day...and his night.
Marjorie wriggled on her bedroom's red velvet settee, trying another seductive pose. Her silky dressing gown slid further askew, improving his view of her unmentionables.
Her damned, trouble-causing, all too familiar—"Jack? Is something wrong?"
Her question drew him to her bewildered frown, then to the alluring pout of her lips. Misgivings assailed him. It wasn't Marjorie's fault that he'd had such a turnaround in his fortunes—nor that he'd been forced to evade several representatives of the Jordan Marsh department store on the way here. They'd been veritable pests of late, ever since the news of his chance invention had gotten round.
"Nothing I can't manage," he told Marjorie.
At least that much was true, Jack assured himself as he crossed the room, doffing his suit coat in the lamplight. He tossed it to a nearby chair, then loosened his necktie and collar as well. At the end of a long day, all a man wanted was to be comfortable. And maybe, in isolated instances, to be comforted. Which was the other reason he'd come to Marjorie's. "Because if you want to talk about things," she went on,
"I'm certainly willing to listen. I know a man like you doesn't require assurance, but perhaps we should catch up on events. Ever since I returned from Philadelphia—"
"Shhh. No talking." Kneeling at the edge of the settee, Jack took her face in his hands. He surveyed her familiar features, her dimpled chin, her experienced demeanor. They'd dallied together for years now, whenever either of them felt lonely.
"No talking," he repeated sternly, "and no thinking."
He kissed her, hungry for exactly that.
Marjorie's guffaw disturbed the moment. She leaned back, nearly succeeding in drawing his attention to her damnable undergarments again. Deliberately, Jack concentrated on her face. He didn't see what was so funny—and that was with his Irishman's good humor to aid him, too.
"You? 'No thinking'?" Her eyes shone with utterly unsup-pressed mirth. "That will be the day. Aside from which, you haven't said a single thing about my new lingerie. We may have been friends for a long time now, but that doesn't excuse you from common courtesy. Let's start over, shall we?"
Agreeably, Jack nodded. He reached for his cuff, preparing to shed his shirt. The sooner he could be naked, the sooner he could forget the travails of the day. The sooner he could persuade Marjorie to shed her underclothes, as well.
She modeled them for him, gracefully spreading her arms to show off her garments' most outrageous features. Her expression told him she expected admiration and commentary. Banter, just as they'd always shared. But after a full day spent debating, dodging specious "investors," and finally moving his things out of his now-former offices at Boston College, even blarney-tongued Jack didn't have the will to oblige.
"Those things will look superb on the floor." He kissed her again, reaching for the nearest set of lacings. Their innovative design was woefully well known to him. He tugged them free with his usual ease. "After I take them off you."
"You rascal!" Giggling, Marjorie slapped his hand away.
"There'll be no removing anything till you've fully appreciated the extraordinary effects of this bodice. It's positively revolutionary, wouldn't you say so?"
No, he wouldn't. Jack tightened his lips, not wanting to ponder the garments that had inadvertently wrecked his life and his livelihood. But apparently Marjorie didn't realize she was wearing one of his own "revolutionary" designs. She'd been in Philadelphia when all the trouble had started, so she couldn't have known what an entanglement those undergarments had turned out to be.
Neither could Jack, else he'd never have drawn them in the first place. He'd created them—a modification of the typical feminine undergarments—as a lark, performed while naked and sated and inspired. He'd never realized his scandalous schematic would go any farther than his notepad and pencil.
Unfortunately for him, it had. Disastrously.
He looked away, profoundly unwilling to discuss it. He would finish undressing, he would take Marjorie in his arms and he would forget his current predicament. He'd be damned if he wouldn't. After the week he'd had, he needed solace.
But Marjorie wasn't offering solace, and she wasn't settling for his not admiring her ensemble either. With her customary assurance, she tipped his chin in the desired direction. Her bejeweled fingers gleamed in the lamplight, adding to the luxuriousness of their surroundings.
Since taking over as proprietress of her late husband's bookshop, Marjorie had done well for herself. Her jewelry proclaimed as much, as did her well-appointed town house.
"Pay attention," she urged playfully. "Otherwise you'll fail to notice how cunningly this lace frames my..."
Trailing off, Marjorie paused. As though getting her first truly good look at him, she peered into his face more closely. In reply, Jack raised his eyebrows and went on unfastening his shirt cuff, giving her his best carefree expression—the one every Irishman kept at the ready. But Marjorie wasn't swayed. She merely went on studying him.
No, no, no. He had, typically, not chosen a cotton-brained woman to pass his nights with. Just at that moment, with his longtime paramour's astute gaze pinned on him, Jack sorely regretted it. Why couldn't his tastes in women fall toward silly bits of skirt with no ambition, no sense and no interest in anything beyond their own stylish bonnets?
"Well, now. This is a twist." Marjorie's eyes met his. She gestured to her clothing. "I thought you'd be pleased. I had to pay a pretty penny for these fripperies. There's scarcely a set to be had in all of the city, you know."
"I know." But he wished he didn't.
She watched him unwaveringly. Damn it.
"Something else has happened, hasn't it?"
"Yes." Jack tried out a wolfish smile. "I've let nearly eight minutes pass without getting you out of those clothes."
She wriggled out of reach. "Shall we talk about it?"
His smile faded. He didn't want to talk. Didn't want to think, didn't want to remember. Instead Jack pushed his attention to Marjorie's bounteous bosom. He waited for the usual spark of interest to overtake him.
It was a wondrous bosom, uplifted to a perfect degree by her corset's ingeniously stitched seams and its heretofore untried design elements. It was further augmented by the cleverly hidden horsehair-padded—
Blast it. He was doing it again. Ruminating on the structural elements of corsetry when he had a perfectly proportioned woman to divert his attention. What was wrong with him? "I heard rumors about some shocking design you'd created." Marjorie touched his sleeve. "I discounted them at the time, of course. But Mrs. Parker had it from Mrs. McIntire that the college might request your resignation. Is that what's the matter? What's diverted your attention from...me?"
She gestured elaborately, indicating her seductive attire. Jack frowned, resolutely not glancing at those incriminating undergarments. Doggedly, he unfastened his other cuff.
"Or have they already? Have they asked you to leave?" Marjorie tilted her head in concern. "Oh, Jack. I'm so sorry."
Her soft voice knifed through him, making him feel even more pitiful than he had when he'd arrived. Leaving his shirt unbuttoned and his cuffs loose, he knelt to remove his shoes.
"No worries, darlin'," he managed huskily. What the hell was wrong with his voice? Jack cleared his throat. "Till I take another position—" if there were any to be had for him
"—I'll have more free time for myself. More free time for you."
His teasing tone did not have its desired effect. "But how could the college do this to you?" Marjorie persisted. "You've enjoyed your professorship there for ages. You've done remarkably well for yourself. Surely your invention, whatever it was, was not so shocking as all that."
Wryly, Jack recalled the past few weeks. Ever since his four sisters had found his schematics, taken them and had samples made up to market, his life had turned into a fool's bonanza of shilling salesmen, outraged faculty members and women clamoring to show him his own handiwork. He'd never have guessed there were so many females interested in newfangled corsetry with all its attendant horns and bells and whistles.
Glancing at Marjorie, Jack shook his head. "It's a ridiculous imbroglio, not worth discussing further."
"But if it's cost you your position—"
He slanted her a quelling look, then lifted her hand for a kiss. Her fingers curled around his in response. Fondly, Jack gazed at her—and for a moment, relented. Marjorie deserved the truth. "It turns out my talent for undressing women has brought on a knack for dressing them, as well. I can't believe you didn't guess...given the present circumstances."
Wanting to make light of the whole mess, he raised his eyebrow toward her ensemble. For a moment, Marjorie merely seemed perplexed. Then, finally catching the direction of his gaze, she widened her eyes. She slapped her hands over herself.
"This?" she breathed, caressing her corsetry. "Truly?" With a shrug, Jack nodded. He hadn't come here to un-burden his troubles on her. But she would learn of them soon enough, he reasoned, and as the inspiration for his designs...
"Those drawings were just a diversion!" she protested.
"Just a way to pass the time between our...oh, my."
Mouth agape, she glanced in astonishment from her under-garments to Jack, then back again. He nearly regretted confiding in her...until, in the next moment, Marjorie recognized the significance of their situation.
"I am the model for the city's most faddish new dress!"
"You needn't sound so thrilled with the fact," he noted. "As you pointed out, it's cost me my position."
"I know. And I'm sorry for it. Truly, I am." Her gentle squeeze reassured him. "But still...isn't it exhilarating? I've inspired a sensation! And all thanks to your genius."
Her sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks made him grin. The widow Marjorie Lancaster was hardly a girl, to become boundlessly excited like this. But seeing her this way, so enthusiastic and pleased, almost erased Jack's displeasure over the whole mess. Almost.
He dragged his braces from his shoulders, still intent on his original plan. He'd come here to forget his troubles, and that's what he intended on accomplishing. With Marjorie's help, of course. If he could only persuade her to undress...
"Honestly, Jack. This isn't so awful." Marjorie levered upward on her settee and wrapped her dressing gown around herself, apparently settling in for a businesslike discussion of this new development. "There's a potential fortune to be made here! You're the darling of fashionable eastern women now—"
He quirked his lips. "Purely involuntarily, I assure you."
"—and perhaps, especially with your teaching position forfeit, you should take advantage of that."
"No." The last thing Jack wanted was to prove himself the
"sissified corsetry creator" his more sober colleagues at Boston College had sneeringly accused him of being. He refused to consider the incident any further, much less embrace it.
"And that's enough talking for now."
"You shouldn't be too hasty," she opined. "After all, I've learned a great deal about the world of commerce since taking over the bookshop, and it's only wise for you to—"
"Enough," he growled and descended upon her at last. Marjorie's words ended in a shriek, then a lusty giggle. The settee groaned beneath their combined weight, but Jack knew it would hold. It had done so many times before. Clad only in his britches and unbuttoned shirt, he cupped Marjorie's head in his hand and kissed her again.
"Quiet now," he warned, shoving all thoughts of business and colleges and corsets from his mind. "Otherwise I won't have the concentration to ravish you properly."
Marjorie scoffed, more than wise to his ways by now. "You always have concentration aplenty. Perhaps too much, especially when it comes to—"
Jack silenced her complimentary chattering with another kiss. He didn't need to be told of his prowess in bed, particularly by the very woman with whom he'd soon be demonstrating that selfsame skill. Groaning with the need to lose himself in comfort, in familiarity, in a woman's welcoming embrace, he slid his hand lower.
Marjorie squealed in delight.