Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  “You have two problems,” he said.

  “I do?”

  “Yeah. First, you left the water on. You’re going to have a hell of a water bill.”

  She sighed. The driveway must be awash by now. Sam had obviously driven her insane, or she would never have been so careless.

  “What’s the second problem?”

  “Your yard is full of those reporters you mentioned.”

  “Oh, shit,” she moaned.


  Sam handled the situation. He left the garage, locking the padlock behind him so no particularly nosy reporter could peek inside and see her—though she rather thought he was protecting the car more than he was her. She listened at the door as he walked over to the Viper and said, “Excuse me, but I need to get to that faucet to turn off the water. Would you move, please.” He was extraordinarily polite. Jaine wondered why he was never that polite when he was talking to her. Of course, his tone was such that it was more of an order than a request, but still…

  “What can I do for you guys?”

  “We want to interview Jaine Bright about the List,” a strange voice said.

  “I don’t know a Jaine Bright,” Sam lied.

  “She lives here. According to public records, she bought this house a few weeks ago.”

  “Wrong. I bought this house a few weeks ago. Damn, there must have been an error when the deed was registered. I’ll have to get this straightened out.”

  “Jaine Bright doesn’t live here?”

  “I told you, I don’t know a Jaine Bright. Now, if you guys don’t mind, I need to get back to washing my car.”


  “Maybe I should introduce myself,” Sam said, his tone suddenly soft. “I’m Detective Donovan, and this is private property. You’re trespassing. Do we need to continue this discussion?”

  Evidently they didn’t. Jaine stood motionless as engines started and cars departed. It was a miracle the reporters hadn’t heard her and Sam talking in the garage; they must have been talking among themselves, or they would have. Certainly she and Sam had been so engrossed in their own conversation they hadn’t heard the reporters arrive.

  She waited for Sam to come unlock the garage. He didn’t. She heard water splashing and tuneless whistling.

  The jerk was washing her car.

  “You had better be doing it right,” she said between clenched teeth. “If you let the soap dry, I’ll skin you alive.”

  Helplessly she waited, not daring to yell and bang on the door in case a reporter was still lurking. If any of them had half a brain, they’d know that while Sam might be able to squeeze into the Viper, no way would he spend that kind of money to buy a car he’d have to drive with his knees jammed up around his ears. Vipers weren’t made for tall, linebacker types. He was better suited to a truck. She thought of the red Chevy four-wheel drive and began to pout. She had almost bought one, before the Viper won her over.

  She wasn’t wearing her wristwatch, but she estimated it was over an hour, closer to an hour and a half, before he unlocked the door. Twilight was deepening into night and her T-shirt was dry, that was how long she had stood impatiently waiting to be freed.

  “You took your sweet time,” she hissed as she stalked out of the garage.

  “You’re welcome,” he said. “I finished washing your car, then I waxed and buffed it.”

  “Thank you. Did you do it right?” She rushed over to the car, but there wasn’t enough light left to tell if there were any streaks.

  He didn’t take umbrage at her lack of faith. Instead he said, “Want to tell me about the reporters?”

  “No. I want to forget the whole thing.”

  “I don’t think that’s going to happen. They’ll be back as soon as they check the records and find out I own the house next door, which will be first thing in the morning.”

  “I’ll be at work by then.”

  “Jaine,” he said, and this time he used his cop tone of voice.

  She sighed and sat down on the porch steps. “It’s that stupid list.”

  He settled beside her and stretched out his long legs. “What stupid list?”

  “About the perfect man.”

  He came to attention. “That list? The one that was in the paper?”

  She nodded.

  “You wrote it?”

  “Not exactly. I’m one of the four friends who came up with the list. All this hullabaloo about it is an accident. No one was ever supposed to see the list, but it got into the newsletter at work and it’s even on the Internet, and everything has snowballed from there.” She folded her arms on top of her drawn-up knees and rested her head on them. “It’s a mess. There must be no other news at all for the list to be getting this kind of attention. I’ve been praying for a stock market crash.”

  “Bite your tongue.”

  “Just a temporary one.”

  “I don’t get it,” he said after a minute. “What’s so interesting about the list? ‘Faithful, nice, employed.’ Big deal.”

  “There’s more than what was in the newspaper,” she said miserably.

  “More? What kind of more?”

  “You know. More.”

  He thought about it, then said cautiously, “Physical more?”

  “Physical more,” she agreed.

  Another pause. “How much more?”

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “I’ll just look it up on the Web.”

  “Fine. You do that. I don’t want to talk about it.”

  His big hand settled on the nape of her neck and squeezed. “It can’t be that bad.”

  “Yes, it can. T.J. might end up divorced because of this. Shelley and David are both mad at me because I’m making them look bad.”

  “I thought they were mad about the cat and the car.”

  “They are. They’re using the cat and the car as a springboard to get even angrier about the list.”

  “They sound like pains in the ass to me.”

  “But they’re family, and I love them.” She hunched her shoulders. “I’ll go get your money.”

  “What money?”

  “For the cuss words.”

  “You’re gonna pay me?”

  “It’s the only honorable thing to do. But now that you know the new rule about making me swear, this is the only time I’ll pay you when it’s your fault. Seventy-five cents, right? Two earlier, then one when you saw the reporters.”

  “Sounds about right.”

  She went inside and dug out seventy-five cents. She was out of quarters; she had to pay him off in dimes and nickels. He was still sitting on the step when she returned, but he stood up to drop the change in his pocket. “Are you going to invite me in, maybe cook dinner for me?”

  She snorted. “Get real.”

  “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Okay, then, do you want to go grab a bite to eat?”

  She thought about it. There were definite pros and cons to accepting. The obvious benefit was not having to eat alone, if she had felt like going to the trouble of preparing something, which she didn’t. The biggest con was spending more time with him. Spending time with Sam could be dangerous. The only thing that had saved her earlier was that they hadn’t been in a private place. If he got her alone in his truck, there’s no telling what would happen. On the other hand, she would get to ride in the truck …

  “I’m not asking you to solve the meaning of life,” he said irritably. “Do you want to grab a burger or not?”

  “If I go, you can’t touch me,” she warned.

  He held up both hands. “I swear. I’ve already said you couldn’t pay me to go anywhere near that sperm-eating egg of yours. So when are you going on the pill?”

  “Who said I was?”

  “I’m saying you’d better.”

  “You stay away from me and you won’t have to worry about it.” No way would she tell him she’d already planned to go on the pill. She had forgotten to call the clinic today, but that w
ould be her first call in the morning.

  He grinned. “You talk a good game, babe, but it’s the bottom of the ninth and I’m ahead ten to nothing. The only thing left for you to do is lie down.”

  If any other man had said that to her, she’d have handed him his ego in shreds. The best she could do now was delay him. “Am I still at bat?”

  “Yeah, but it’s two down and a three-oh count.”

  “I can still hit a home run.”

  “Not likely.”

  She growled at his disparagement of her resistance. “We’ll see about that.”

  “Oh, hell. You’re making this a contest, aren’t you?”

  “You’re the one who started it. Bottom of the ninth and you’re ahead ten to nothing, my ass.”

  “That’s another quarter.”

  “‘Ass’ isn’t a cuss word.”

  “Says who—” He stopped himself and heaved a big sigh. “Never mind. You sidetracked me from the subject. Do you want to go get something to eat or not?”

  “I’d rather have Chinese than a burger.”

  Another sigh. “Fine. We’ll eat Chinese.”

  “I like that place on Twelve Mile Road.”

  “All right,” he yelled.

  She gave him a brilliant smile. “I’ll go change.”

  “So will I. Five minutes.”

  Jaine hurried into the house, well aware that he was hurrying as well. He didn’t think she could change in five minutes, did he? She’d show him.

  She stripped to the skin as she raced to the bedroom. BooBoo trailed after her, meowing plaintively. It was long past his dinnertime. She pulled on a pair of dry panties, hooked herself into a dry bra, pulled a red short-sleeved knit top over her head, jerked on a pair of white jeans, and stepped into sandals. She ran back into the kitchen and opened a can of food for BooBoo, dumped it into his plate, grabbed her purse, and was out the door just as Sam jumped off his kitchen porch and headed to his garage.

  “You’re late,” he said.

  “I am not. Besides, you only had to change clothes. I changed clothes and fed the cat.”

  He had a modern garage door. He pressed the button on the control in his hand, and it slid up like oiled silk. She sighed, assailed by a bad case of garage-door envy. Then, in the light that came on automatically when the door opened, she saw the gleaming red monster. Chrome twin pipes. Chrome roll bar. Tires so big she would have had to vault into the seat if he hadn’t also had chrome bars to aid those not blessed with his length of leg.

  “Oh,” she breathed, and clasped her hands. “This is just what I wanted until I saw the Viper.”

  “Bench seats,” he said, and lifted a wicked eyebrow at her. “If you’re really good, after you get on the pill and your eggs are under control, I’ll let you seduce me in the truck.”

  She managed not to react. Thank God he didn’t realize how tenuous her self-control really was, though it was the thought of seducing him rather than the location that revved her up again.

  “Nothing to say?” he asked.

  She shook her head.

  “Oh, damn,” he said as he put both hands around her waist and effortlessly lifted her into the cab. “Now I’m worried.”

  Marci’s plan hadn’t worked. T.J. faced the inevitable after the third reporter called. God, why didn’t this thing just go away? What was so fascinating about a funny list? Not that Galan would think it was at all funny, she thought, depressed. He didn’t seem to think anything was funny anymore, unless it was something that happened at work.

  He had been so much fun when they were dating, full of laughter and jokes. Where had that cheerful boy gone?

  They didn’t even see each other much anymore. She worked eight to five, he worked three to eleven. By the time he got home, she was asleep. He didn’t get up until after she had left for work. The most telling thing, she thought, was that he didn’t have to work the three to eleven shift. He had chosen it. If his intention had been to get away from her, she thought, he had accomplished his aim.

  Maybe their marriage was already over and she simply hadn’t faced the fact. Maybe Galan didn’t want to have children because he knew it was on the rocks.

  The thought made her chest hurt, deep inside. She loved him. Rather, she loved the person she knew he was, inside the surly exterior that was all she had seen for the past few years. If she were sleepy or thinking of something else and he popped into mind, the face she saw was the young, laughing Galan, the one she had loved so desperately in high school. She loved the clumsy, fumbling, eager, loving Galan who had made love to her, the first time for both of them, in the back of his dad’s Oldsmobile. She loved the man who had brought her a single red rose on their first anniversary because he couldn’t afford a dozen.

  She didn’t love the man who hadn’t said “I love you” in so long she couldn’t remember the last time.

  T.J. felt so helpless, compared to her friends. If anyone tried to give Marci guff, she blew him off and looked for someone to fill his shoes—or rather, her bed. Luna was upset over Shamal, but she didn’t sit at home waiting for him; she carried on with her life. And as for Jaine—Jaine was complete in a way T.J. knew she herself wasn’t. Whatever life handed her, Jaine faced with humor and guts. Not one of the three would take the grief from Galan that she had been silently enduring for over two years.

  She hated her own weakness. What would happen if she and Galan split? They would have to sell the house, and she loved her house, but so what? She could live in an apartment. Jaine had lived in one for years. T.J. could live alone, though she never had. She would learn to handle everything herself. She would get a cat—no, a dog, for protection. And she would date again. What would it be like to spend time with a man who didn’t insult her every time he opened his mouth?

  When the phone rang, she knew it was Galan. Her hand was steady when she lifted the receiver.

  “Have you lost your mind?” were his first words. He was breathing heavily, telling her he had worked himself into a rage.

  “No, I don’t believe so,” she said calmly.

  “You’ve made me a laughingstock here at the plant—”

  “If anyone is laughing, it’s because you let him,” she interrupted. “I’m not going to talk to you about it on the phone. If you want to talk to me in a civil tone when you get home, I’ll wait up for you. If you intend to rant and rave, I have better things to do than listen to you.”

  He hung up on her.

  Her hand was shaking a little now as she replaced the receiver. Tears blurred her eyes. If he thought she would beg him for forgiveness, he was sadly mistaken. She had lived the last two years on Galan’s terms and been miserable. Maybe it was time she lived her life on her terms. If she lost Galan, at least she could hold on to her self-respect.

  The phone rang again half an hour later.

  T.J. frowned as she went to answer it. She didn’t think Galan was likely to call back, but maybe he’d thought about what she said and realized she wasn’t going to roll over and play dead this time when he raised his voice.

  “Hello,” she said.

  “Which one are you?”

  She frowned at the ghostly whisper. “What? Who is this?”

  “Are you Ms. A? B? Which one are you?”

  “Get a life,” snapped the new T.J., and she slammed down the phone.


  Jaine jumped out of bed early the next morning, determined to leave for work before Sam was stirring. While her heartbeat accelerated with excitement at the thought of sparring with him again, her head told her he had likely pulled up the list on the Web last night after they returned home from pigging out on small Chinese doughnuts. He was worse than a pit bull in not letting go of anything, and he had bugged her about the rest of the list the entire time they were eating. She did not want to know his thoughts on anything after number seven on the list.

  She was on her way out the door at the ungodly time of seven A.M. when she saw that her answering machi
ne was full of messages again. She started to hit the delete button, but hesitated. With her parents traveling, anything could happen: one of them could become ill, or there might be some other sort of emergency. Who knows? Shelley or David might even have called to apologize.

  “Fat chance,” she muttered as she hit the play button.

  There were messages from three reporters, one print and two television, requesting interviews. Two hang-ups, back-to-back. The sixth call was from Pamela Morris, who introduced herself as Gina Landretti’s sister. Her voice had the mellow, modulated tones of a television announcer as she informed Jaine she would love to book her on Good Morning America to talk about the List, which was absolutely sweeping the country. The seventh message was from People magazine, requesting the same.

  Jaine fought down rising hysteria as she listened to three more hang-ups. Whoever it was waited for a long time, silently, before hanging up. Idiot.

  She cleared the calls; she had no intention of returning any of them. This whole situation had moved beyond silly into downright ridiculous.

  She made it out of the driveway without sight of Sam, which meant her morning was off to an even-tempered start. She felt so good that she tuned the radio to a country station and listened to the Dixie Chicks singing that Earl had to die. She even sang along, and wondered if Sam the cop would think Earl’s death was justifiable homicide. Maybe they could even argue about it.

  She knew she had it bad when the thought of arguing with Sam was more exciting than, say, winning the lottery. She had never before met anyone who not only didn’t blink an eye at anything she said but could go toe-to-toe with her—verbally, that is—and not break a sweat. It was a very freeing notion, that she could say anything and he wouldn’t be shocked. Sometimes she had the feeling he enjoyed rousing her temper. He was cocky—in more ways than one—and irritating, macho, smart, and sexy as hell. And he had the proper reverence for her dad’s car, plus he had done a pretty good job washing and waxing the Viper.

  She had to get those birth control pills, fast.

  There were more reporters at the Hammerstead gates. Someone must have tipped this bunch off about what she drove, because flashbulbs began exploding as she slowed for the guard to lift the barrier arm. He grinned down at her. “Wanna take me for a test drive and see if I meet the requirements?” he asked.

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