Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Galan wasn’t in the kitchen. T.J. dropped her purse and keys in their usual place on the island, kicked off her shoes, and put on a pot of water to heat for tea.

  She didn’t call his name, didn’t go looking for him. She supposed he was in his den, watching television and nursing his grudge. If he wanted to talk to her, he could come out of his cave.

  She changed into shorts and a clingy tank top. Her body was still good, though more muscular than she liked, the result of years on a girls’ soccer team. She would have preferred Luna’s willowy build, or Jaine’s more delicate curviness, but all in all was satisfied with herself. Like most married women, though, she had gotten out of the habit of wearing formfitting clothes, usually wearing sweats during the winter and baggy T-shirts during the summer. Maybe it was time she started making the most of her looks, the way she had when she and Galan were still dating.

  She wasn’t accustomed to having Galan home for supper. Her evening meal was usually either delivered or something she microwaved. Guessing that he wouldn’t eat even if she cooked something—boy, that would show her if he went hungry, wouldn’t it?—she went back to the kitchen and got out one of her frozen dinners. It was low in fat and calories, so she could indulge with an ice cream bar afterward.

  Galan emerged from his den while she was licking the last of the ice cream from the stick. He stood watching her, as if waiting for her to jump in with an apology so he could proceed with his rehearsed rant.

  T.J. didn’t oblige. Instead she said, “You must be sick, since you aren’t at work.”

  His lips thinned. He was still a good-looking man, she thought dispassionately. He was trim, tanned, his hair only a little thinner than when he was eighteen. He always dressed well, in stylish colors and silk blends, expensive leather loafers.

  “We need to talk,” he said grimly.

  She lifted her brows in polite query, the way Jaine would have done. Jaine could accomplish more with the lift of a brow than most people could with a sledgehammer. “You didn’t have to miss work just for that.”

  From his expression she could see that wasn’t her scripted reply. She was supposed to attach more importance to their relationship—and his temper. Well, tough.

  “I don’t think you realize how seriously you’ve damaged me at work,” he began. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you for making me a laughingstock. I’ll tell you one thing, though: we don’t have any chance of working this out as long as you’re still hanging around with those three bitches you call friends. I don’t want you seeing them again, do you hear me?”

  “Ah, so that’s it,” T.J. said in dawning realization. “You think you can use this to tell me who I can have as friends and who I can’t. Okay. Let’s see … if I give up Marci, you can give up Jason. For Luna … oh, how about Curt? As for Jaine—well, if I give up Jaine, you’re going to have to give up Steve, at least; though, personally, I’ve never cared for Steve, so I think you should throw in an extra just to keep things even.”

  He stared at her as if she had grown two heads. He and Steve Rankin had been best buds since junior high. They went to see the Tigers during the summer and the Lions during winter. They did major male-bonding stuff. “You’re crazy!” he burst out.

  “That I’d ask you to give up your friends? Fancy that. If I have to, you have to.”

  “I’m not the one tearing our marriage apart with stupid lists about who you think is the perfect man!” he yelled.

  “Not ‘who,’” she corrected. “‘What.’ You know, things like consideration. And faithfulness.” She watched him closely when she said the last, wondering suddenly if Galan’s two-year suspension of affection had a more basic reason than simply growing apart.

  His gaze flickered away from her.

  T.J. braced herself against the crippling pain. She pushed it into a little box and tucked it away deep inside so she could function through the next few minutes, and days, and weeks.

  “Who is she?” she asked in a tone so casual she might have been asking if he had picked up the laundry.

  “Who is who? What she?”

  “The famous other woman. The one you’re always comparing me to in your head.”

  He flushed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I haven’t been unfaithful to you,” he muttered. “You’re just trying to change the subject—”

  “Even if you haven’t been physically unfaithful, which I’m not certain I believe, there’s still someone you’re attracted to, isn’t there?”

  He turned even redder.

  T.J. went to the cabinet and took out a cup and a tea bag. Placing the bag in the cup, she poured boiling water on it. After a minute she said, “I think you need to go to a motel.”

  She lifted a hand, not looking at him. “I’m not making any hasty decisions about divorce or even separation. I meant you need to go to a motel for tonight so I can think without you around trying to turn things around and blame everything on me.”

  “What about that goddamn list—”

  She waved a hand. “The list isn’t important.”

  “The hell it isn’t! All of the guys at work are riding me about how you like monster cocks—”

  “And all you had to do was say, yeah, you had me spoiled,” she said impatiently. “So the list got a little risqué. So what? I think it was pretty funny, and evidently so do most people. We’re going to be on Good Morning America tomorrow morning. People magazine wants to do an interview. We decided we’re going to talk to whoever asks, so the thing will die a quicker death. Some other story will come along in a few days, but until then we’re going to have fun.”

  He stared at her, shaking his head. “You’re not the woman I married,” he said in heavy accusation.

  “That’s okay, because you’re not the man I married.”

  He turned and left the kitchen. T.J. looked down at the cup of tea in her hand, blinking back tears. Well, it was out in the open now. She should have seen what was going on a long time ago. After all, who knew better than she how Galan acted when he was in love?

  * * *

  Brick wasn’t asleep on the sofa the way he usually was when Marci got home, though his old pickup was in the driveway. She went through into the bedroom and found him stuffing clothes in a duffel. “Going somewhere?” she asked.

  “Yeah,” he said sullenly.

  She watched him pack. He was good-looking in a beer-drinking kind of way, with too-long dark hair, an unshaven jaw, slightly heavy features, and his usual costume of tight jeans, tight T-shirt, and scuffed boots. Ten years younger than her, never good at holding down a job, oblivious of anything that didn’t involve sports—let’s face it, he wasn’t the catch of the century. She wasn’t in love with him, thank God. She hadn’t been in love with anyone in years. All she wanted was company and sex. Brick provided the sex, but he wasn’t much company.

  He zipped up the duffel, hefted it by the handles, and brushed past her.

  “Are you coming back?” she asked. “Or should I forward the rest of your stuff to wherever you’re going?”

  He glared at her. “Why’re you asking? Maybe you got somebody else all lined up to take my place, huh? Somebody with a ten-inch dick, just the way you like.”

  She rolled her eyes. “Oh, jeez,” she muttered. “Lord save me from injured male egos.”

  “You wouldn’t understand,” he said, and to her surprise, she detected a note of hurt in his rough voice.

  Marci stood blinking as Brick stormed out of the house and slammed into his truck. He slung gravel as he peeled out of the driveway.

  She was astounded. Brick, hurt? Whoever would have thought?

  Well, either he would be back or he wouldn’t. She gave a mental shrug and opened the box containing her new answering machine, deftly hooking it up. As she recorded an outgoing message, she wondered how many calls she had missed because Brick had thrown the other answering machine against the wall. Even if he had bothered to answer the phone, he wouldn’t
have taken any messages for her, not in the mood he was in.

  If there was anything important, she thought, they would call back.

  She had barely completed the thought when the phone rang. She lifted the receiver. “Hello.”

  “Which one are you?” whispered a ghostly voice.


  Jaine cracked open one eye and glared at the clock, which was emitting an extremely annoying high-pitched beeping sound. Finally recognizing it as the alarm—after all, she’d never heard it at two A.M. before—she reached over and slapped it. She snuggled down in the renewed silence, wondering why in hell the alarm had gone off at that ungodly hour.

  Because she had set it to go off at that ungodly hour, that was why.

  “No,” she moaned to the dark room. “I can’t get up. I’ve only been in bed four hours!”

  She got up anyway. She had had the presence of mind before going to bed to prepare the coffeemaker and set the timer for 1:50. The smell of coffee drew her, stumbling, to the kitchen. She turned on the overhead light, then had to squint her eyes against the glaring brightness.

  “Television people are aliens,” she mumbled as she reached for a cup. “Real humans wouldn’t do this on a regular basis.”

  With one cup of coffee in her, she managed to make it into the shower. As the water poured down on top of her head, she remembered that she hadn’t intended to wash her hair. Since she hadn’t factored in the time to wash and dry her hair when she calculated the time to get up, she was now officially behind schedule. She groaned and leaned against the wall. “I can’t do this.”

  A minute later, she talked herself into trying. She rapidly shampooed and loofahed herself, and three minutes later jumped out of the shower. With another cup of coffee steaming close to hand, she blow-dried her hair, then used a dab of hair gloss to smooth down the flyaway tendrils. When one got up so early, makeup was necessary to cover the automatic look of horror and sheer disbelief; she applied it with a fast but lavish hand, going for the glamorous, just-left-a-party look. What she got was closer to a hangover look, but she wasn’t wasting any more time on a hopeless cause.

  Don’t wear white or black, the television lady had said. Jaine put on a long, narrow black skirt, figuring the lady had meant to avoid black on her top half, which was what would be seen. She paired a scoop-neck, three-quarter-length-sleeved red sweater with the black skirt, cinched a black belt around her waist, and slipped her feet into black pumps at the same time as she was fastening classic gold hoops in her ears.

  She glanced at the clock. Three A.M. Damn, she was good at this!

  She would bite her tongue off before she ever admitted it.

  Okay, what else? Food and water for BooBoo, who was staying out of sight. Smart kitty, she thought.

  That little chore taken care of, she let herself out at five after three. The driveway next door was still empty. No brown Pontiac sat there, nor had she heard any other vehicle enter the drive-way during the night. Sam hadn’t come home.

  He probably had a girlfriend, she thought, gritting her teeth. Duh! She felt like an idiot. Of course he had a girlfriend. Men like Sam always had a woman or two, or three, on their strings. He hadn’t been able to get anywhere with her, thanks to her lack of birth control, so he had simply buzzed on over to the next flower in line.

  “Jerk,” she growled as she got into the Viper. She should have remembered her past experiences in the relationship wars and not let herself get so excited. Evidently her hormones had overruled her common sense and she had become drunk on ovarian wine, the most potent, sanity-destroying substance in the universe. In short, she had taken one look at his naked body and gone into heat.

  “Forget about that,” she muttered to herself as she drove the dark, quiet residential streets. “Don’t think about it.” Sure. Like she was going to forget the sight of that joystick of his waving proud and free.

  She felt like crying at the thought of having to give up that awe-inspiring, mouthwatering erection when she hadn’t even had a crack at it yet, but pride demanded. She refused to be one of a crowd in a man’s head, much less his bed.

  His only excuse, she thought, was if he was lying in a hospital somewhere, too badly injured to dial a telephone. She knew he hadn’t been shot or anything; that would have been in the news, if a cop had been wounded. Mrs. Kulavich would have told her if he’d been in a traffic accident. No, he was alive and well, somewhere. It was the where that was the problem.

  Just to cover all bases, she tried to work up a teeny bit of worry over him, but all she could manage was a heartfelt desire to maim him.

  She knew better than to lose her head over a man. That was what was so humiliating: she knew better. Three broken engagements had taught her that a woman needed to keep her wits about her when dealing with the male species, or she could get seriously hurt. Sam hadn’t hurt her—not much, anyway—but she had been on the verge of making a really stupid mistake and she hated to think she was so gullible.

  Damn him, why couldn’t he at least have called?

  If she had a lock of his hair, she thought, she could put a curse on him, but she was willing to bet he wouldn’t let her anywhere near him with a pair of scissors.

  She entertained herself with thinking up imaginative curses just in case she did manage to get some of his hair. She particularly liked the one that gave him a bad case of wilt. Hah! Let him see how many women were impressed when his joystick became a joyless noodle.

  On the other hand, maybe she was overreacting. One kiss did not a relationship make. She had no claim on him, his time, or his erections.

  Like hell she didn’t.

  Okay, so much for logic. She had to go with her gut feeling here, because it wasn’t allowing room for anything else. Her feelings for Sam were way out of the norm, composed of almost equal parts fury and passion. He could make her angrier, faster, than anyone else she had ever known. He also hadn’t been far off the mark with his assertion that when he kissed her, they would both end up naked. If he had chosen his location better, if they hadn’t been standing in her driveway, she wouldn’t have regained her senses in time to stop him.

  While she was being honest with herself, she might as well admit that she was exhilarated by their conflicts. With all three of her fiancés—in fact, with most people—she had held herself back, pulled her verbal punches. She knew she was a smart-ass; Shelley and David had both gone out of their way to tell her so. Her mother had tried to get her to temper her responses and had partially succeeded. All through school she had struggled to keep her mouth shut, because the lightning-quick workings of her brain left her schoolmates bewildered, unable to keep up with her thought processes. Nor did she want to hurt anyone’s feelings, which she had quickly learned she could do just by speaking her mind.

  She treasured her friendships with Marci, T.J., and Luna because, as different as they all were, the other three accepted and weren’t intimidated by her more caustic remarks. She felt the same sort of relief in her dealings with Sam, because he was as much of a smartass as she was, with the same verbal agility and speed.

  She didn’t want to give that up. Once she admitted that, she realized she had two choices: she could walk away, which had been her first inclination, or she could teach him a lesson about… about trifling with her affections, damn it! If there was one thing she didn’t want anyone trifling with, it was her affections. Well, okay there were two things—she didn’t want anyone trifling with the Viper, either. But Sam … Sam was worth fighting for. If he had other women in his head and bed, then she would simply have to oust them, and make him pay for putting her to the trouble.

  There. She felt better now. Her course of action was decided.

  She arrived at the television station faster than she had anticipated, but then there wasn’t much traffic on the freeways and streets that early in the morning. Luna was already there, climbing out of her white Camaro, looking as fresh and rested as if this were nine in the morning instead o
f not quite four. She was wearing a gold silk wrap dress that made her cream-and-coffee skin glow.

  “This is spooky, isn’t it?” she said when Jaine joined her and they walked to the back door of the station, as they had been instructed.

  “Weird,” Jaine agreed. “It’s unnatural for anyone to be awake and functioning at this hour.”

  Luna laughed. “I’m certain everyone else on the road was up to no good, because why else would they be out?”

  “Drug dealers and perverts, every one of them.”


  “Bank robbers.”

  “Murderers and wife-beaters.”

  “Television personalities.”

  They were still laughing when Marci drove up. As soon as she joined them she said, “Did you see all the weirdos on the street? They must come out at midnight or something.”

  “We’ve already had that conversation,” Jaine said, grinning. “I guess it’s safe to say none of us is a party animal, crawling home in the wee hours of the morning.”

  “I’ve done my share of crawling,” Marci said cheerfully. “Until I got tired of shoe prints on my hands.” She looked around. “I can’t believe I’m here before T.J.; she’s always early, and I’m usually late.”

  “Maybe Galan had a tantrum and told her she couldn’t come,” Luna suggested.

  “No, she would have called if she wasn’t coming,” Jaine replied. She checked her watch: five before four. “Let’s go inside. They might have coffee, and I need a steady supply if I’m going to be coherent.”

  She had been in a television station before, so Jaine wasn’t surprised by the cavernous space, the darkness, the snaking cables all over the floor. Cameras and lights stood like sentinels over the set, while monitors watched over everything. There were people around, jean-and-sneaker clad, plus one woman wearing a chic peach suit. She came toward them with a bright, professional smile on her face and her hand outstretched.

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