Helen Lee has a top-secret dream: to publish a romance novel. There’s just one problem, and her most recent rejection letter doesn’t mince words: Helen can’t write a love scene to save her life. As Head of Reference at Willow Springs, Kentucky’s Pembroke College, Helen is hoping her library research skills will do the trick. But she may have to resort to a far more “hands-on” course of study. Luckily, there’s someone who’s more than happy to instruct her . . .
History professor Henry Beckham has noticed that his friend, Helen, is behaving strangely. Known for her laser sharp focus—not to mention her snorting laugh—she’s been oddly distracted. He misses that laugh. But it all makes sense when he catches Helen researching erotic writing and discovers her ambition. She seems to think her only option is to die of embarrassment or give up and surrender to spinsterhood in the company of her two basset hounds. Good thing Henry has a much more real-life approach in mind. And his tutorial just might teach them both a thing or two . . .
Praise for Sarah Title’s Southern Comfort Romance series
“Wild, witty, and wonderful.”—Jo Goodman, New York Times bestselling author
“Quite a sexy book.”—USAToday.com
“A really cute and fun story . . . It’s sexy and made me laugh!”—Smexy Books
“A fast-paced read that provided just as many smiles from the humor as it did sizzles from the romance.”—The Book Diva’s Reads
“Sexy and made
About the Author
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Practice Makes Perfect
By SARAH TITLE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sarah Title
All rights reserved.
Dear Ms. Lee,
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to the Romantic USA Annual Editors' Choice Contest. Of the hundreds of submissions, only one could be selected for the grand prize publishing contract. The judges had a difficult choice to make. Unfortunately, Worth the Wait was not selected.
Thank you again for your interest, and keep writing!
A note from one of our editor/judges: Your voice is strong and it stands out from the pack in many ways. I just cannot offer you a contract for an erotic romance because, honey, your story ain't erotic. The timing of the sex scenes is spot-on, and I can see how, in theory, the sex moves the plot along. But something seems to happen once Rennie and Hawk start taking their clothes off, and that something is that the book gets boring.
I'd love to work with you on this book. There's a market for it. But unless you can spice up the love scenes, my only other suggestion for you is to tone down the spiciness and submit it as a sweet read to a more traditional publisher. I am warning you, though: If you do that, you will break my heart.
Please, please spice it up. You said you knew nothing about MMA when you started writing, and whatever research you did was seamlessly integrated into the story. As someone who follows MMA, I would have thought you were a fellow fan. I suggest you apply your considerable research skills to the sex scenes as well.
Good luck. I would love to see this again, with more spice in the spicy parts.
Helen read the first paragraph of the email, recognized it for the rejection letter that it was, and was about to file it with the others in the folder she'd succinctly labeled "Nope." It was getting to be her most popular folder, almost the size of the "Dumb Questions from Students" folder. Almost manuscript-sized. She could probably craft some kind of meta-novel from all of her electronic rejection letters. Maybe she'd be more successful in the world of literary fiction, anyway. Apparently her love scenes were bad enough. Maybe she could get on a book tour with Franzen.
This letter, though, was different. It was more than two sentences long. It actually referenced the content of her submitted manuscript. It was not just a generic "thanks but no thanks." It was specific with changes, and included an invitation to resubmit. And it implied she knew nothing about writing sex.
Great. Just what she wanted to hear. A single librarian who spends more time with her elderly basset hounds than she does with human males definitely wants to hear that her ability to portray a steamy love scene on the page is an accurate reflection of her actual recent sex life. But she knew about sex! She had it all the time! Just not terribly recently. In fairness, the only reason she wasn't dating at the moment was that she was focusing on her writing.
Oh, the irony.
But when she did have sex, it was great! She was super into it! Dammit, she knew about sex!
She just couldn't write about it.
That was a small but significant difference. She thought back to the last time she got down and dirty. When was it? Definitely before she adopted George and Tammy, and that had been, what? A year?
Not great. But not terrible, right? In fact, it was the breakup with that visiting professor that had propelled her to the dog pound. Get a dog, everybody said. You'll meet tons of guys if you have a dog. And she had! Really cute, nice guys with dogs, who also had really cute, nice wives. Or husbands. Either way, George and Tammy were clearly not pulling their romantic weight.
"Good thing you're cute," she told their floppy, mooshy faces as they followed her up to bed.
Oh, the irony.
* * *
Hands, warm and strong, touching every inch of her body. Her calves, her thighs, her hips, her back. She arched and writhed, and everywhere she moved, the hands moved too, into just the right spot. They were mapping the terrain of her body and she was an arching, writhing, moaning ... beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping.
Helen moaned in frustration as the alarm on her phone interrupted her sexy dream just when it was getting good. She reached for the notebook she kept by the side of her bed and started scribbling everything she could remember, before it was gone. Hands. Hips. Maps.
Maps. Sexy, sexy maps.
She threw herself back onto the pillows in frustration. Tammy growled in protest as Helen moved her foot, which was falling asleep, and which the dog had been using as a pillow.
"I'm sorry," she said, moving over so there was space on her warm pillow for both heads.
"You're spoiled, you know." She reached up to scratch behind Tammy's ears and the dog snuffled in pleasure, which caught George's interest, and soon Helen was deeply ensconced in some slobbery morning cuddles.
Maybe she should spend less time with her dogs. But then she thought about how George and Tammy had been found tied to a dumpster behind a GoMart, and she nuzzled them close and whispered sweet dog-nothings to them.
Maybe she should write dog mysteries. She lived in a small town; there was plenty of fodder. A librarian who finds nothing but trouble ... and murder. Good thing she has two prescient hounds who point her to the clues. And they keep her warm at night, until a new cop comes to town, asking all the right questions, and suddenly the librarian wants more in her bed than two sets of walking jowls ...
... And this was why she was writing erotic romance. Because wherever her stories started out, they always ended up in bed.
Too bad that was where they got boring.
She looked up the email on her phone again, just to start the morning off right with a little self-flagellation. "Considerable research skills," it said. She did have considerable research skills. She was a librarian, after all. And she apparently had the knack for integrating research into a story so it looked like she knew what she was talking about. So, OK. That was it.
She would just use her considerable research skills to find out about great, toe-curling sex.
See? She already had the toe-curling thing. That was new. She jotted it down in her notebook.
Into great sex.
She could do this.
After she walked the dogs.CHAPTER 2
Helen was upset, and Henry didn't like it. He also didn't like not knowing why. They were more than just colleagues. They were friends. They shared things. But he also didn't like that he didn't like that Helen didn't share everything with him. That was her prerogative, and he needed to respect it.
He just hated to see her upset.
And maybe there was something he could do about it. He had helped her out of jams before. He'd driven her and Lindsey home when they'd had too many margaritas on a girls' night a while back. He'd gone to her cousin's wedding with her, and endured her mother's not entirely subtle comments about how he wasn't a real doctor, just because he had a PhD. He'd bought her tampons. Just the once, and with very specific instructions, but he'd done it. Dammit, he was helpful.
Whatever it was, she would tell him eventually. Or she wouldn't, and he would be totally fine with that.
He dropped his briefcase on his desk with a little more force than he intended, sending a pile of papers swooshing to the floor.
Great. He'd spent half of yesterday putting that stack of nineteenth-century property deeds in date order, and now he was going to have to spend half of today fixing it. He could hear Helen: It takes the same amount of energy to scan them as it does to copy them. But if you really want to kill trees and have print copies, you can at least organize them into folders. Maybe if you put your research into folders instead of piles, you'd save yourself a whole lot of time. It's the twenty-first century, Henry. There are file cabinets now.
She was right, of course. And there was no reason photocopies of tax records couldn't be stored, conveniently and chronologically, away from an active work surface. But he liked having them at his elbow. He could refer to them at a moment's notice, squelch that spark of a question with an immediate answer. (You can also roll your chair over to the file cabinet, Helen-In-His-Head said.) There was something about having them right there, though, that made it feel like the old documents (Copies of old documents, H-I-H-H said) were actively contributing to his work, as if the typesetting and elegant handwriting helped pull his mind into the past. He was writing about history, dammit. He needed old stuff.
He knelt down and tried to salvage whatever order he could out of the mess of papers. They had not, as he'd hoped, fallen in convenient chronological order, as if held together by a cosmic paper clip.
The documents themselves were barely legible, being old and fragile, and the photocopies didn't do much to improve that. But at least he vaguely remembered which property records went with which deeds and tax forms.
Who said history wasn't sexy?
He was writing about a brothel, after all.
And nothing says sexy like the property tax forms from an alleged brothel.
Which was the problem.
Brothels were legal in Kentucky into the early twentieth century, although they were far more prevalent in the big cities. Lexington had had a red light district. Willow Springs ... not so much.
But Willow Springs did have a legendary madam, Renee Beauchamp, who somehow made her way to the small town from a riverboat on the Ohio River. She bought a house, the biggest house in town at the time, and set herself up in business.
But hers was no ordinary brothel. She modeled her business plan, such as it was, after the infamous Belle Brezing, the "Belle of Lexington," who made her house of ill repute reputable by having a salon downstairs where respectable men could be respectable, and an upstairs where, well, they could not.
Renee Beauchamp — allegedly — entertained professors from the still-new Pembroke College, who led discussions downstairs, and had the favor returned upstairs. Even before women were allowed to teach at Pembroke, they were allowed to teach at Madame Renee's, giving lectures and concerts and self-defense demonstrations. Madame Renee insisted that all of her "girls" know how to read and handle money, and if they didn't when they came to her, she made sure they were taught. She had a doctor on staff — a female doctor! — who allegedly mentored Margaret Sanger.
And all of this in a small town in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
He'd written about Renee Beauchamp, using what he could find in the Pembroke College archives. Unfortunately, early-twentieth-century advocates for the temperance movement decided that hiding the shame of a house of well-educated ill-repute was more important than a historical record of it, and a breakout faction of the Willow Springs Historical Society had wiped any mention of her from the records. So although Madame Renee had surely existed, and had surely run a brothel, no one was quite sure where that brothel was.
Except Henry. Henry was sure.
He was sure it was the big old house on Wood Street, the one with a large parlor and lots of small rooms upstairs, each of which had its own balcony where the ladies could issue verbal invitations to passing gentlemen.
He just had to find the proof.
He felt even more of an impetus to find proof since Pembroke College had bought the old house as part of a downtown revitalization partnership with the town. He still hadn't heard what the committee planned to do with the house, but he had nightmares of glass-walled condos and twenty-four-hour gyms.
Henry would do everything in his power to save that whorehouse.
And he got no end of crap for it from his friends. But then, he always thought that was how you knew who your true friends were. Enemies made fun of you behind your back; friends did it to your face.
He wasn't sure who was worst: Lindsey, who knew the least about the project but kept sending him ideas for "Save Madame Renee's Brothel" swag; Grace, who worked at Pembroke with him and knew all the right academic buttons to push; or Helen, who not only worked at Pembroke but was also helping him with his research. At first he was grateful; librarians had always been helpful, but he'd never worked with one so proactive before. Then he found the Burt Reynolds centerfold hidden in a stack of newspaper clippings that Helen sent over via interoffice mail. You can just email the articles, he said. No, I'll send paper copies, she said. I know how you like paper copies. Then ha ha ha naked Burt.
As much as his friends teased him, though, he much preferred that to the whispered comments he overheard from some of his colleagues in the history department. Henry knew he had a reputation as a stuffy, prematurely old-man professor who fetishized the puritanical. Which wasn't fair at all. He just liked bow ties. And he was studying a brothel! What was puritanical about that? He knew that some of the other professors found his focus on local history less significant than their work on Important Topics in the Historical Canon. "Charming," they called his research, despite the fact that he had presented at international conferences on the significance of the hyperlocal and community-building through academic research, that he'd won awards and fellowships and mentored students who went on to do the same. He was a talking head in a Ken Burns documentary, dammit.
Let the haters begin, he thought as he rough-sorted his documents. He dug a binder clip out of his junk drawer (All of your drawers are junk drawers, Helen-In-His-Head chided, not inaccurately) and clipped them together. Good thing too, because as he stood up, he knocked his hip against the desk and the documents went down, flopping messily, but together.
He sat on his chair and put his head on his desk. I should go home, he thought. The universe is against my getting any work done today. But he had office hours and later he was supposed to track down Mary Beth Brakefield, the Realtor who had sold him his house and, coincidentally, sold the Wood Street house to Pembroke. And she sat on the town-and-gown committee that was deciding the ultimate fate of the house. Mary Beth's brother, Jake, flipped old houses for a living. Henry and Jake weren't close — Jake was kind of macho and Henry was kind of not — but Jake was engaged to Grace, and Henry was friends with Grace. He planned on using that tenuous small-town connection to push Mary Beth into siding with the Wood Street restorers on the committee. Then he had to track down Helen and have an awkward conversation about her feelings and why she'd been acting so quiet lately, when normally Helen was the loudest person in the room.
Maybe coffee. He had had some coffee at home, but maybe he needed more. And maybe he could stop by the library on the way back from the Daily Drip, the worst-named coffee shop in the state of Kentucky and the only one in Willow Springs. Helen said she had some stuff to show him from the special collections, and she didn't want to copy it if she didn't have to. Fragile old documents. It made his heart go pitter-patter. Unlike conversations about feelings.
Just when his body had decided that, yes, more caffeine, then fragile old documents, then feelings, his first appointment of the day showed up. He waved her in and dug around his desk for his calendar. Ah yes, the History 215 student who wanted to argue that the hypermasculinity of early twentieth-century boxing was actually thinly veiled homoeroticism. Or was she the one who wanted to argue about the B on her paper? Whatever it was, she was on time, which was a nice change, and he pushed thoughts of caffeine and documents and Helen aside to listen to his punctual student.CHAPTER 3
Her student assistants were covering the desk, her web bibliography for Grace's English 240 class was done enough for now, her exhibit on the Pembroke Hellbenders — the first integrated college basketball team in Kentucky, and also currently the worst — was just waiting for the start of basketball season to go up.
So Helen had a moment to breathe.
The problem was, she couldn't breathe. Oh, sure, the normal minimal required amount of oxygen to maintain biological functions was happening, no problem. It was the relaxing, turn-off-your-brain, slowdown-your-heart kind that was MIA.
If only her problems were strictly professional.
No, she'd always had a pretty easy time managing her professional stress. She had good relationships with the humanities and social science professors, and had mostly gotten them to treat her like a colleague instead of a research assistant. Some of them even considered her valuable, and not just because she had a key to the archives and could let them in off-hours. She did committees and professional organizations and student advising — it was all just a matter of being organized. She got stuff done, dammit.
Excerpted from Practice Makes Perfect by SARAH TITLE. Copyright © 2016 Sarah Title. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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