Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard


  “Hello, I’m Julia Belotti, with GMA. I assume you’re the Ladies of the List?” She laughed at her own joke as she shook hands all around. “I’ll be doing your interview. But aren’t there four of you?”

  Jaine refrained from making a show of counting noses and saying, “No, I think there are only three of us.” That was smart-ass stuff, the sort she typically held back.

  “T.J. is late,” Marci explained.

  “T.J. Yother, right?” Ms. Belotti wanted to show she had done her homework. “I know you’re Marci Dean; I caught the local bit that was aired.” She looked at Jaine, her gaze assessing. “You are …?”

  “Jaine Bright.”

  “The camera is going to love your face,” Ms. Belotti said, then turned with a smile to Luna. “You must be Luna Scissum. I must say, if Ms. Yother is as attractive as the rest of you, this will be a real hit. You do know the buzz your List is getting in New York, don’t you?”

  “Not really,” Luna said. “We’re surprised at all the attention it’s been getting.”

  “Be sure and say something to that effect when we’re taping,” Ms. Belotti instructed, checking her watch. A tiny frown of annoyance began to pleat her brow; then the door opened and T.J. entered, her hair and makeup flawless, her dress a rich blue that flattered her warm coloring.

  “Sorry I’m late,” she said, joining the little group. She didn’t offer any excuse, just the apology, and Jaine gave her a sharp look, seeing the fatigue under the makeup. They all had a good reason for looking fatigued, considering the hour, but T.J. had added stress.

  “Where is the ladies’ room?” Jaine asked. “I’d like to check my lipstick, if there’s time, then find a cup of coffee if there is any.”

  Ms. Belotti laughed. “There’s always coffee in a television station. The ladies’ room is this way.” She directed them down a hallway.

  As soon as its door swung shut behind them, everyone turned to T.J. “Are you all right?” Jaine asked.

  “If you’re asking about Galan, yeah, I’m all right. I sent him to a motel last night. Of course, he may have called his girlfriend to join him, but that’s his choice.”

  “Girlfriend!” Luna echoed, her eyes widening in shock.

  “Son of a bitch,” Marci said, leaving it to T.J. to decide if she was calling Galan that or just using it as an expletive.

  Jaine said, “He doesn’t have much leverage now to use against you on this list thing, does he?”

  T.J. laughed. “None, and he knows it.” She looked at their concerned faces. “Hey, I’m okay. If he wants out of the marriage, I’d rather know now before I waste more time trying to keep things going. Once I decided that, I stopped worrying.”

  “How long has he been having an affair?” Marci asked.

  “He swears he isn’t, that he hasn’t been physically unfaithful. Ask me if I believe that.”

  “Oh, sure,” Jaine said. “I believe the sun rises in the west, too.”

  “He might be telling the truth,” Luna put in.

  “Possible, but not likely,” Marci said with the voice of experience. “Whatever they admit to is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s human nature.”

  T.J. checked her lipstick. “I don’t think it makes much difference. If he’s in love with someone else, then what does it matter whether or not he’s slept with her? Anyway, forget about him. I am; if there’s any making up to do, he’ll have to be the one to do it. I’m going to play this list thing up as big as it’ll get. And if there’s any sort of book offer, I say we go for it. We might as well get some money for all the trouble we’ve been through.”

  “Amen to that,” Marci said, and added, “Brick left. His feelings were hurt.”

  They gaped at that, trying to imagine Brick with feelings.

  “If he doesn’t come back,” she complained, “I’ll have to do the dating thing again. Man, I hate the thought of that. Going out dancing, letting men buy me drinks … it’s awful.”

  They were laughing as they left the ladies’ room. Ms. Belotti was waiting for them. She directed them to the coffee urn, where someone had procured four mugs for them. “We have a small set ready for taping whenever you get settled,” she said, a subtle way of telling them to shut up and sit down. “The soundman needs to get you miked and sound-checked, and the lighting has to be adjusted. If you’ll come this way …”

  Their purses were stashed out of sight, and coffee mugs in hand, they settled on a set decorated to look like a cozy living room, with a sofa and two easy chairs, a couple of fake ferns, a discreet lamp that wasn’t turned on. A guy who looked about twenty years old began attaching tiny microphones to them. Ms. Belotti clipped on her own microphone to the lapel of her jacket.

  None of them had been intelligent enough to wear a jacket. Luna’s gold wrap dress was okay, as was the collar-bone skimming neckline of T.J.’s dress. Marci wore a sleeveless, mock-turtleneck sweater, which meant the only place the microphone could be attached was right on her throat. She would have to be very careful moving her head or the resulting noise would blot out everything else. Then the soundman looked at Jaine’s red scoop-neck sweater, and said, “Uh-oh.”

  Jaine grinned and held out her hand. “I’ll clip it on. Do you want it to the side or right in the middle?”

  He grinned back at her. “I’d like it right in the middle, thanks.”

  “No flirting,” she admonished as she slipped the mike under her sweater and clipped it to her neckline, between her breasts. “It’s too early.”

  “I’ll be good.” With a wink, he taped the cord to her side, then returned to his equipment. “Okay I need all of you to talk, one at a time, so I can check the sound.”

  Ms. Belotti began an easy conversation, asking if they were all from the Detroit area. When the sound was duly checked and the cameras were set, Ms. Belotti looked at the producer, who then did the countdown, pointed to her, and she went smoothly into the lead-in comments about the famous—“or infamous, depending on your point of view”—List that had swept the country and was being discussed over breakfast tables in every state. Then she introduced them in turn, and said, “Do any of you have a Mr. Perfect in your lives?”

  They all laughed. If only she knew!

  Luna nudged Jaine’s knee with her own. Taking the cue, Jaine said, “No one is perfect. We joked at the time that the list is really science fiction.”

  “Science fiction or not, people are taking it seriously.”

  “That’s up to them,” Marci put in. “The qualities we listed are our ideas of what would make the perfect man. A group of four other women would probably come up with different qualities, or list them in a different order.”

  “You do know that feminist groups are outraged at the physical and sexual requirements on the List. When women have struggled so long not to be judged by their looks or bust size, they feel you have damaged their position by judging men according to their physical attributes.”

  Luna raised one perfect eyebrow. “I thought part of the feminist movement was to give women the freedom to be honest about what they want. We listed what we want. We were honest.” This line of questioning was her cup of tea; she thought political correctness was an abomination and never hesitated to say so.

  “We also never thought the List would become public,” T.J. put in. “Its release was accidental.”

  “You would have been less honest if you had known the List would be published?”

  “No,” Jaine cracked. “We would have upped the requirements.” What the hell; why not have fun with it, as T.J. had suggested?

  “You said you didn’t have a Mr. Perfect in your life,” Ms. Belotti said smoothly. “Do you have a man at all?”

  Well, that little dig had been slipped in with the ease of an expert, Jaine thought, wondering if the slant of the interview was to paint them as women who couldn’t keep a man. Grinning a little, she had to admit that, given all their circumstances, the slant was pretty damn accurate. But if Ms. Belotti wan
ted a little controversy, why not give it to her? “Not really,” she said. “Not many men can measure up.”

  Marci and T.J. laughed. Luna restricted herself to a smile. From offstage came a quickly smothered snicker.

  Ms. Belotti turned to T.J. “I understand you’re the only one of the group who is married, Ms. Yother. What does your husband think about the List?”

  “Not much,” T.J. admitted cheerfully. “Any more than I liked it when he would turn around to ogle large breasts.”

  “So this is a bit of tit for tat?”

  Too late she realized her choice of words wasn’t the best in the world. “More tit than tat,” Marci said gravely. Good thing the interview was taped instead of live.

  “The thing is,” Luna said, “most of the requirements are qualities all people should have. Number one was faithfulness, remember? If you’re in a relationship, you should be faithful. Period.”

  “I’ve read the entire article about the List, and, if you’re honest, you’ll admit that most of your conversation wasn’t about the qualities of faithfulness or dependability. The most intense discussion was about a man’s physical characteristics.”

  “We were having fun,” Jaine said calmly. “And we aren’t crazy; of course we want men who look good to us.”

  Ms. Belotti checked her notes. “In the article, you aren’t identified by name. You’re listed as A, B, C, and D. Which of you is A?”

  “We don’t intend to divulge that,” Jaine said. Beside her, she felt Marci straighten a little.

  “People are very interested in who said what,” Marci said. “I’ve had anonymous phone calls asking which one I am.”

  “So have I,” T.J. put in. “But we aren’t going to say. Our opinions weren’t unanimous; one might have felt more strongly about a particular point than the other three did. We want to protect our privacy on that front.”

  Another poor choice of words. When their laughter died down, Ms. Belotti turned once more to the personal. “Are you dating anyone?” she asked Luna.

  “No one exclusively.” Take that, Shamal.

  She looked at Marci. “And you?”

  “Not at the moment.” Take that, Brick.

  “So only Ms. Yother is in a relationship. Do you think this means you might be too exacting in your requirements?”

  “Why should we lower our standards?” Jaine asked, eyes flashing, and the interview went downhill from there.

  “God, I’m sleepy,” T.J. said, yawning, when they left the studio at six-thirty. Ms. Belotti had plenty of material to edit down for the short piece that would actually be aired. At one point she had abandoned her notes and passionately argued the feminist point of view. Jaine doubted any morning television show could use even a fraction of what had been said, but the studio crew had been fascinated.

  Whatever was used, it was supposed to be aired next Monday. Maybe then all the interest would die down. After all, how long could the List be discussed? People had lives to lead, and the List had already long outlived its allotted fifteen minutes.

  “Those phone calls worry me a little,” Marci said, frowning at the bright, cloudless morning sky. “People are weird. You never know whose chain we’re pulling.”

  Jaine knew one person whose chain she hoped to pull. If some of what she had said was aired, Sam would probably take it as a personal challenge. She certainly hoped he did—because that was exactly how she had meant it.

  fourteen

  Okay,” Marci said when they had been served their coffee and given their orders at the diner where they had all stopped for breakfast, “tell us about Galan.”

  “Nothing much to tell,” T.J. replied, shrugging. “He was at home yesterday when I got home. He began with a demand that I give up my friends—three in particular, and guess who they are. I countered with a demand that he give up one of his friends for each one of mine I had to give up. Then—I guess it was feminine intuition, because all of a sudden I wondered if he’d been so cold for the past two years because of another woman.”

  “What’s wrong with him?” Luna demanded indignantly. “Doesn’t he have any idea how lucky he is to have you?”

  T.J. smiled. “Thanks for the vote. I’m not giving up, you know. We might be able to work this out, but I’m not going to let it destroy me if we don’t. I did some heavy thinking last night, and this isn’t all Galan’s fault. I’m not Mrs. Perfect any more than he’s Mr. Perfect.”

  “You haven’t been seeing another man,” Jaine said pointedly.

  “I didn’t say we were equally at fault. If he’s interested in keeping our marriage going, he has a lot of making up to do. But I have some things to make up to him, too.”

  “Like what?” Marci asked.

  “Oh … I haven’t exactly let myself go, but neither have I made any special effort to attract him. I’ve also been caving in to everything he says in an effort to please him, and let’s face it, on the surface that sounds good for him, but if he wants an equal partner, then it must be maddening. I bounce ideas off you guys the way I used to do with him, but now it’s as if I keep all the interesting parts of myself away from him. I give him the cook and housekeeper instead of the lover and partner, and that isn’t good for a marriage. No wonder he got bored.”

  “Do you know how typical that is?” Jaine said, her tone shaded with indignation. “Whatever happens, women take the blame for it.” She stirred her coffee, glaring into the cup. “I know, I know, sometimes we need to. I hate being wrong, damn it.”

  “That’s a quarter,” said three voices.

  She dug in her purse for the change, but came up with only forty-six cents. She laid a dollar on the table instead. “One of you can make change for the other two. I need to stock up on change again. Sam wiped me out.”

  There was a long pause, with three pairs of eyes trained on her. Finally Luna said delicately, “Sam? Who’s Sam?”

  “You know. Sam. My neighbor.”

  Marci pursed her lips. “Would this be the same neighbor who turned out to be a cop but whom you’ve described at various times as a jerk, a drunk, a drug dealer, a bottom-feeding son of a bitch, a hulk who hasn’t seen a razor or a shower in this millennium—”

  “Okay, okay,” Jaine said. “Yeah, it’s the same guy.”

  “And you’re now on a first-name basis with him?” T.J. asked, amazed.

  Jaine’s face heated. “Kind of.”

  “Oh my god.” Luna’s eyes were huge. “She’s blushing.”

  “This is scary,” Marci said, and the three pairs of eyes blinked in astonishment.

  Jaine squirmed in the booth, feeling her face get even hotter. “It isn’t my fault,” she blurted defensively. “He has a red truck. A four-wheel drive.”

  “I can see where that would make a big difference,” T.J. said, studying the ceiling.

  “So he isn’t that big a jerk,” Jaine muttered. “So what? Actually, he is a jerk, but he has his good points.”

  “And the best one is in his pants, right?” quipped Marci, who, like a honey badger, always went straight for the groin.

  Luna displayed a shocking lack of decorum by making a whooping sound and saying, “Dive! Dive! Dive!” just like in a submarine war movie.

  “Stop it!” Jaine hissed. “I haven’t done that!”

  “Oh-ho!” T.J. leaned closer. “Just what have you done?”

  “Exactly one kiss, smarty and that’s all.”

  “One kiss does not a blush make,” Marci said, grinning. “Especially not on your face.”

  Jaine sniffed. “Obviously you’ve never been kissed by Sam, or you wouldn’t make such an erroneous statement.”

  “That good, huh?”

  She couldn’t help the sigh that heaved out of her lungs, or the way her lips curved. “Yeah. That good.”

  “So how long did it last?”

  “I told you, we haven’t had sex! It was just a kiss.” Like the Viper was just a car, and Mount Everest was just a hill.

  “I mean
t the kiss,” Marci said impatiently. “How long did it last?”

  Jaine drew a blank on that. She hadn’t exactly timed it, and besides, there had been a lot of other stuff going on, like an impending but ultimately denied climax, that had occupied most of her attention. “I don’t know. Five minutes or so, I guess.”

  They all sat there blinking at her. “Five minutes?” T.J. asked weakly. “One kiss lasted five minutes?”

  There went that damn blush again; she could feel it creeping up her face.

  Luna slowly shook her head in disbelief. “I hope you’re on birth control pills, because you’re definitely in the red zone. He could score at any time.”

  “That’s what he thinks, too,” Jaine said, and scowled. “As it happens, I renewed my prescription yesterday.”

  “Evidently he isn’t the only one who thinks it,” T.J. cracked, and broke into a big grin. “Hey, this is something to celebrate!”

  “You’re all acting as if I was a lost cause.”

  “Let’s just say that your social life sucked,” Marci said.

  “It did not.”

  “When was the last time you had a date?”

  She had her there, because Jaine knew it had been a long time, so long she couldn’t say exactly when. “So I don’t date much. It’s by choice, not necessity. My track record in picking men isn’t exactly outstanding, remember.”

  “So what’s different about this Sam cop person?”

  “A lot,” Jaine said vaguely, remembering him naked. After a moment of reverie she shook herself back to reality. “Half the time I want to strangle him.”

  “And the other half?”

  She grinned. “I want to tear his clothes off.”

  “Sounds like the basis of a good relationship to me,” Marci said. “That’s certainly more than I had with Brick, and I kept him around for a year.”

 
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