Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  But, nooo. Jaine had to keep BooBoo. Never mind that she was single, was at work five days a week, and wasn’t used to having a pet. If she did have a pet, it wouldn’t be one like BooBoo, anyway. He’d been in a feline pout ever since he’d been neutered, and he took out his frustration on the furniture. In just one week, he had frayed the sofa to the point that she would have to have it reupholstered.

  And BooBoo didn’t like her. He liked her well enough when he was in his home, coming around to be petted, but he didn’t like being in her home at all. Every time she tried to pet him now, he arched his back and hissed at her.

  To top it off, Shelley was mad at her because Mom had chosen Jaine to baby-sit her precious BooBoo. After all, Shelley was the oldest, and obviously more settled. It didn’t make sense that Jaine had been chosen over her. Jaine agreed with her, but that didn’t soothe the hurt feelings.

  No, what really topped it off was that David, who was a year younger than Shelley, was mad at her too. Not because of BooBoo; David was allergic to cats. No, what had him steamed was that Dad had stored his precious car in her garage—which meant she couldn’t park in her own garage, since it was a single, and it was damned inconvenient. She wished David had the blasted car. She wished Dad had left it in his own garage, but he’d been afraid to leave it unattended for six weeks. She understood that, but she didn’t understand why she’d been chosen to baby-sit both cat and car. Shelley didn’t understand the cat, David didn’t understand the car, and Jaine didn’t understand any of it.

  So both her brother and sister were mad at her, BooBoo was systematically destroying her sofa, she was terrified something would happen to Dad’s car while it was in her care, and her sot of a neighbor was making her life miserable.

  God, why had she ever bought a house? If she had stayed in her apartment, none of this would be happening, because she hadn’t had a garage and pets hadn’t been allowed.

  But she had fallen in love with the neighborhood, with its older, nineteen-forties-vintage houses and corresponding low prices. She had seen a good mix of people, from younger families with children to retired people whose families visited every Sunday. Some of the older folks actually sat on their porches during the cool of the evening, waving to passersby, and children played in their yards without worrying about drive-by shootings. She should have checked out all her neighbors, but at first blush this had seemed like a nice, safe area for a single woman to live, and she had been thrilled at finding a good, solid house at such a low price.

  Because thinking about her neighbor was guaranteed to prevent her from going back to sleep, Jaine linked her hands behind her head and stared up at the dark ceiling as she thought about all the things she wanted to do with the house. The kitchen and bath both needed modernizing, which were big-ticket improvements and something she wasn’t financially ready to tackle. But new paint and new shutters would go a long way toward improving the exterior, and she wanted to knock down the wall between the living and dining rooms, open it up so the dining room was more of an alcove than a separate room, with an arch that she could paint in one of those faux-stone paints so it looked like rock …

  She woke to the annoying beep of the alarm clock. At least the damn thing had woken her up this time, she thought as she rolled over to silence the alarm. The red numbers shining at her in the dim room made her blink, and look again. “Ah, hell,” she groaned in disgust as she leaped out of bed. Six-fifty-eight; the alarm had been going off for almost an hour, which meant she was late. Way late.

  “Damn it, damn it, damn it,” she muttered as she jumped into the shower and, a minute later, jumped out again. As she brushed her teeth, she dashed into the kitchen and opened a can of food for BooBoo, who was already sitting beside his bowl glaring at her.

  She spat into the sink and turned on the water to wash the toothpaste down the drain. “Of all days, why couldn’t you have jumped on the bed when you got hungry? No, today you decided to wait, and now I don’t have time to eat.”

  BooBoo indicated that he didn’t care whether she ate or not, so long as he had food.

  She dashed back into the bathroom, did a hurried makeup job, slipped earrings into her earlobes and her watch onto her wrist, then grabbed the outfit she always grabbed when she was in a hurry because she didn’t have to fuss with it: black trousers and a white silk shell, with a snazzy red jacket topping it off. She jammed her feet into her shoes, grabbed her purse, and was out the door.

  The first thing she saw was the little gray-haired lady who lived across the street, putting out her trash.

  It was trash-collection day.

  “Hell, damn, shit, piss, and all those other words,” Jaine muttered under her breath as she wheeled and rushed back into the house. “I’m trying to cut back on my swearing,” she snapped at BooBoo as she pulled the trash bag out of the can and tied off the tapes, “but you and Mr. Congeniality are making it tough.”

  BooBoo turned his back on her.

  She dashed out of the house again, remembered she hadn’t locked the door, and dashed back, then dragged her big metal garbage can down to the curb and deposited the morning’s offerings inside it, on top of the other two bags already in it. For once, she didn’t try to be quiet; she hoped she woke up the inconsiderate jerk in the house next door.

  She ran back to her car, a cherry red Dodge Viper that she loved, and just for good measure, when she started the engine, she revved it up a few times before putting it in reverse. The car shot backward and with an almighty clang collided with her garbage can. There was another clang as the can rolled into her next-door neighbor’s can and knocked it over, sending the lid rolling down the street.

  Jaine closed her eyes and tapped her head on the steering wheel—gently; she didn’t want a concussion. Though maybe she should give herself a concussion; at least then she wouldn’t have to worry about getting to work on time, which was now a physical impossibility. She didn’t swear, though; the only words that came to mind were words she really didn’t want to use.

  She put the car in park and got out. What was needed now was control, not a temper tantrum. She righted her dented can and placed the spilled bags back inside it, then jammed the warped lid back on top. Next she returned her neighbor’s can to its full and upright position, gathered the trash—he wasn’t nearly as neat with his trash collection as she was, but what did you expect from a drunk—then walked down the street to collect the lid.

  It lay tilted against the curb in front of the next house down. As she bent to pick it up, she heard a screen door slam behind her.

  Well, she had gotten her wish: the inconsiderate jerk was awake.

  “What in hell are you doing?” he barked. He looked scary, in his sweatpants and torn, dirty T-shirt, a black scowl on his unshaven face.

  She turned and marched back to the worse-for-wear pair of cans and slammed the lid down on top of his can. “Picking up your garbage,” she snapped.

  His eyes were shooting fire. Actually they were just bloodshot, as usual, but the effect was the same. “Just what is it you have against letting me get some sleep? You’re the noisiest damn woman I’ve ever seen—”

  The injustice of that made her forget she was a little afraid of him. Jaine stalked up to him, glad she was wearing shoes with two-inch heels that lifted her up so she was level with his … chin. Almost.

  So what if he was big? She was mad, and mad beat big any day of the week.

  “I’m noisy?” she said through gritted teeth. It was tough to get much volume when her jaw was locked, but she tried. “I’m noisy?” She jabbed her finger at him. She didn’t want to actually touch him, because his T-shirt was torn and stained with … something. “I’m not the one who woke the whole neighborhood at three o’clock this morning with that piece of junk you call a car. Buy a muffler, for God’s sake! I’m not the one who slammed his car door once, the screen door three times—what, did you forget your bottle and have to go back for it?—and left his porch light on so it shone int
o my bedroom and kept me from sleeping.”

  He opened his mouth to blast her in return, but Jaine wasn’t finished. “Furthermore, it’s a hell of a lot more reasonable to expect people to be sleeping at three o’clock in the morning than it is at two in the afternoon, or”—she checked her watch—“seven-twenty-three in the morning.” God, she was so late. “So back off, buddy! Go crawl back into your bottle. If you drink enough, you’ll sleep through anything.”

  He opened his mouth again. Jaine forgot herself and actually poked him. Oh, yuk. Now she’d have to boil her finger. “I’ll buy you a new can tomorrow, so just shut up. And if you do anything to hurt my mom’s cat, I’ll take you apart cell by cell. I’ll mutilate your DNA so it can never reproduce, which would probably be a good thing for the world.” She swept him with a blistering look that took in his ragged, dirty clothes and unshaven jaw. “Do you understand me?”

  He nodded.

  She took a deep breath, reaching for the rein on her temper. “Okay. All right, then. Damn it, you made me cuss; and I’m trying not to do that.”

  He gave her a strange look. “Yeah, you really need to watch that damn cussing.”

  She pushed her hair out of her face and tried to remember if she had brushed it this morning. “I’m late,” she said. “I haven’t had any sleep, any breakfast, or any coffee. I’d better leave before I hurt you.”

  He nodded. “That’s a good idea. I’d hate to have to arrest you.”

  She stared at him, taken aback. “What?”

  “I’m a cop,” he said, then turned and walked back into his house.

  Jaine stared after him, shocked. A cop?

  “Well, fuck,” she said.


  Every Friday Jaine and three friends from Hammerstead Technology where they all worked, met after work at Ernie’s, a local bar and grill, for a glass of wine, a meal they didn’t have to prepare, and girl talk. After working all week in a male-dominated atmosphere, they really really needed the girl talk.

  Hammerstead was a satellite company supplying computer technology to the General Motors plants there in the Detroit area, and computers were still largely a male domain. The company was also fairly large, which meant the general atmosphere was a little weird, with its sometimes uneasy blending of computer geeks who didn’t know the meaning of the words “appropriate for the office” and the usual corporate management types. If Jaine had worked in any of the research-and-development offices with the weirdos, no one would have noticed she was late to work that morning. Unfortunately, she was in charge of the payroll department, and her immediate supervising manager was a real clock watcher.

  Because she had to make up the time she was late that morning, she was almost fifteen minutes late getting to Ernie’s, but the other three had already gotten a table, thank God. Ernie’s was already filling up, the way it always did on a weekend night, and she didn’t like waiting in the bar for a table even when she was in a good mood, which she wasn’t.

  “What a day,” she said as she dropped into the empty fourth chair. While she was thanking God, she’d add to the list her thanks that today was Friday It had been a bitch, but it was the last bitch—at least until Monday.

  “Tell me about it,” Marci muttered as she stubbed out a cigarette and promptly lit another one. “Brick’s been on a tear lately Is it possible for men to have PMS?”

  “They don’t need it,” Jaine said, thinking of her jerk of a neighbor—a cop jerk. “They’re born with testosterone poisoning.”

  “Oh, is that what’s wrong?” Marci rolled her eyes. “I thought it was a full moon or something. You’ll never guess—Kellman grabbed my ass today.”

  “Kellman?” the other three said in synchronized astonishment, their combined voices drawing the attention of everyone around them. They burst into laughter, because of all the possible offenders, he was the least likely.

  Derek Kellman, age twenty-three, was the walking definition of nerd and geek. He was tall, gangly, and moved with all the grace of a drunken stork. His Adam’s apple was so prominent in his thin neck that it looked as if he had swallowed a lemon that became permanently lodged in his throat. His red hair was a stranger to a brush; it would be matted flat in one place and standing out in spikes in another: a terminal case of bed head. But he was an absolute genius with computers, and in fact they were all sort of fond of him, in a protective, big-sisterly way. He was shy awkward, and absolutely clueless about everything except computers. The office buzz was that he’d heard there were two sexes, but wasn’t certain the rumor was true. Kellman was the last person anyone would suspect of being an ass grabber.

  “No way,” Luna said.

  “You’re making that up,” T.J. accused.

  Marci laughed her husky smoker’s laugh and took a deep drag off her cigarette. “Swear to God, it’s true. All I did was walk past him in the hallway. The next thing I know, he grabs me with both hands and just stands there, holding my ass like it’s a basketball and he’s about to start dribbling.”

  The mental image had them all giggling again. “What did you do?” Jaine asked.

  “Well, nothing,” Marci admitted. “The problem is, Bennett was watching, the jerk.”

  They groaned. Bennett Trotter thrived on picking on those he considered his subordinates, and poor Kellman was his favorite target. “What could I do?” Marci asked, shaking her head. “No way was I going to give the asshole more ammunition to use against the poor kid. So, I patted Kellman on the cheek and said something flirty, along the lines of ‘I didn’t know you cared.’ Kellman turned as red as his hair and dodged into the men’s room.”

  “What did Bennett do?” Luna asked.

  “He got that nasty smirk on his face and said that if he’d known I was so hard up I’d settle for Kellman, in the interest of charity he’d have offered his services a long time ago.”

  That set off an epidemic of eye-rolling. “In other words, he was his usual jerk self,” Jaine said in disgust.

  There was political correctness, and then there was reality, and the reality was that people were people. Some of the guys they worked with at Hammerstead were nasty leches, and no amount of sensitivity training was going to change that. Most of the guys were okay, though, and it all evened out because some of the women were barbed-wire bitches. Jaine had stopped looking for perfection, in the workplace or anywhere else. Luna thought she was too cynical, but then Luna was the youngest of their group and her rose-tinted glasses were still intact—a bit faded now, but intact.

  On the surface, the four friends had nothing in common other than their place of work. Marci Dean, the head of accounting, was forty-one, the oldest of the group. She had been married and divorced three times and, since the last trip through the courtroom, preferred less formal arrangements. Her hair was bleached platinum blond, her smoking was beginning to take its toll on her skin, and her clothes were always just a bit too tight. She liked beer, blue-collar men, rowdy sex, and admitted to a fondness for bowling. “I’m a man’s dream,” she’d say, laughing. “I have beer tastes on a champagne budget.”

  Marci’s current live-in boyfriend was a guy named Brick, a big, muscle-bound oaf whom none of the other three liked. Privately, Jaine thought his name was appropriate, because he was as dense as a brick. He was ten years younger than Marci, worked only occasionally, and spent most of his time drinking her beer and watching her television. According to Marci, though, he liked sex just the way she did and that was reason enough to keep him around for a while.

  Luna Scissum, the youngest, was twenty-four and the wunderkind of the sales division. She was tall, willowy, and had both the grace and dignity of a cat. Her perfect skin was the color of pale, creamy caramel, her voice was gentle and lyrical, and men dropped at her feet like flies. She was, in effect, the direct opposite of Marci. Marci was blatant; Luna was remote and ladylike. The only time anyone had ever seen Luna angry was when someone referred to her as “African-American.”

  “I’m an
American,” she had snapped, whirling on the offender. “I’ve never even been to Africa. I was born in California, my father was a major in the Marine Corps, and I’m not a hyphenated anything. I have a black heritage, but I also have a white one.” She had held out one slim arm and studied the color of it. “Looks to me like I’m brown. We’re all just different shades of brown, so don’t try to set me apart.”

  The guy had stammered an apology, and Luna, being Luna, had given him a gracious smile and forgave him so gently that he ended up asking her out on a date. She was currently dating a running back for the Detroit Lions football team; unfortunately, she had fallen hard for Shamal King, while he was known for his wild partying with other women in every city where there was an NFL team. All too often Luna’s dark hazel eyes held an unhappy expression, but she refused to give up on him.

  T.J. Yother worked in human resources, and she was the most traditional of the four. She was Jaine’s age, thirty, and had been married to her high-school sweetheart for nine years. They lived in a nice suburban home with two cats, a parrot, and a cocker spaniel. The only obvious fly in T.J.’s ointment was that she wanted children and her husband, Galan, did not. Privately, Jaine thought T.J. could be a little more independent. Though Galan worked as a supervisor on the three-to-eleven shift at Chevrolet and wasn’t at home anyway, T.J. was always checking her wristwatch, as though she had to be home at a certain time. From what Jaine gathered, Galan didn’t approve of their Friday night get-together. All they did was meet at Ernie’s and have dinner, and they were never out later than nine; it wasn’t as if they were hitting all the bars and drinking until the wee hours.

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