Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  “Afraid so, kemo sabe.”

  “That means food, and stuff like that.”

  “You got it.”

  “Who the hell is going to handle all this?” His expression clearly said he wasn’t.

  “Shelley will. She loves this kind of sh—stuff. Nothing fancy, though. I’m on a tight budget, with the house payment and new security system, the cell phone, and now I have to buy new clothes and a new mattress and box spring—”

  “You don’t need the mattress and box spring,” he pointed out, and T.J. and Luna began hooting with laughter. T.J. got five bucks from her purse and slapped it in Luna’s hand.

  “Told you,” Luna crowed.

  Jaine narrowed her eyes at them. “You’ve been betting on my love life,” she accused.

  “Yes, and I have to say, I’m disappointed in you,” T.J. said, trying for a severe tone. She was still laughing, so the attempt didn’t quite come off. “I thought you’d hold him off for at least another couple of weeks.”

  “She couldn’t resist me,” Sam said smugly, pouring himself another glass of tea.

  “I felt sorry for him,” Jaine corrected. “All that whining and begging. It was pitiful.”

  His grin promised retribution. She felt a thrill of anticipation. She might have to make love with him, oh, three or four times to soothe his hurt feelings. What a sacrifice!

  She loved the way he was so comfortable with her friends. He sat down at the table and helped them plan the wake, though his contribution was, “Beer and popcorn. What more do you need at a wake?” Which proved he had no understanding of women and food.

  After T.J. and Luna left, they went out to move her dad’s car from her garage to his. As he helped her fold the tarp back and uncover the little silver bullet of a car, he said, “Do you have the keys with you?”

  She fished them out of her jeans pocket and dangled them in front of his eyes. “Wanna drive?”

  “Are you trying to suck up to me, to make up for that crack about whining and begging?”

  “No, I planned on making that up to you later.”

  He grinned and swiped the keys out of her hand. “Oh, man,” he sighed as he toed off his shoes and swung one long leg over the door, then the other, and slid down into the driver’s seat. The little car fit him like a glove. He ran his hands over the steering wheel. “How did you say your dad got it?”

  “He bought it, back in 1964, but he had an ‘in.’ You know: ‘Built by Shelby, Powered by Ford.’ Dad was on the production team that developed the motor. He fell in love with the car. Mom was furious with him for spending so much money on a car when they had a baby—Shelley—and needed to buy a house with more space. Only a thousand of them were built. One thousand and eleven, to be exact. So now Dad has one of the original Cobras, and it’s worth more than they paid for their house.”

  He glanced over his shoulder at the Viper sitting in her driveway. “Your dad isn’t the only one who spends a fortune on cars.”

  “I’m a chip off the old block. Besides, I bought the Viper used, so it isn’t like I shelled out the full sixty-nine grand for it. I lived off Hamburger Helper and tuna casserole for three years to pay for it.”

  He shuddered. “But it’s paid for, right?”

  “Free and clear. I couldn’t have afforded the house if I still had to make those car payments. It’s Dad’s fault I bought it, anyway.”

  “How’s that?”

  She nodded at the Cobra. “What do you think he used to teach me to drive?”

  Sam looked aghast. “He let a beginner drive it?”

  “That’s how he taught us all how to drive. He said if we could handle the Cobra, we could handle anything. But Shelley and David didn’t really have the knack for it, they were more comfortable in Mom’s Lincoln. Some people like comfort over speed, I guess.” Her expression said she didn’t understand it, but accepted it anyway.

  “Jesus.” He was actually pale at the thought of three untutored teenagers behind the wheel of this car.

  “Dad hates my Viper,” she confided, then grinned. “Part of it is because it isn’t a Ford, but he really, really hates that the Viper has him beat at top-end speed. The Cobra has faster acceleration, but over any distance I can catch him.”

  “You’ve been racing?” he bellowed, looking as if he would jump out of the car.

  “Just to see what the horses could do,” she assured him. “And it wasn’t street racing. We went to a test track.”

  He closed his eyes. “You and your dad are a lot alike, aren’t you?” he asked, his tone as filled with horror as if he had just discovered they were typhoid carriers.

  “Yeah, you’ll like him.”

  “I can’t wait.”

  When Luna arrived at her apartment, she was startled to see Shamal King sitting on the floor beside the door. He stood up when he saw her, and she stopped in her tracks, irrational fear flooding her. Shamal was big and well-muscled. For a terrified instant she thought he—but that was impossible. The killer was a blond, a white man. She swallowed, weak from panic and relief, one following so closely on the heels of the other.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked, reaction making her blunt, and saw surprise in his eyes at her lack of welcome.

  “I haven’t seen you lately,” he purred in the velvety voice that had women flocking to him, though the millions he made carrying a football didn’t hurt. He usually had a small entourage of hangers-on around him; he loved his fame and the limelight, and made the most of it.

  “The last two weeks have been crazy,” she said. “First there was the List, then Marci—” She stopped, her throat seizing. She still couldn’t believe Marci was gone. No; she did believe it. She just hadn’t accepted it.

  “Yeah, I’m sorry about that. The two of you were tight, weren’t you?”

  He really didn’t know much about her, she thought. Their relationship, such as it was, had always been about him.

  “She was my best friend,” she said, and tears blurred her eyes. “Look, Shamal, I’m not in the mood for—”

  “Hey, I didn’t come here for that,” he said, frowning as he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his tailored silk pants. “If it was just sex I wanted, I could get that from—” He stopped, evidently realizing that wasn’t the wisest thing to say. “I’ve missed you,” he said helplessly, ill at ease. That wasn’t the type of thing Shamal King said to women.

  Luna stepped past him and unlocked her door. “Really,” she said in a dry tone. It was funny; for almost a year, since the moment she met Shamal, she had dreamed about him saying something like that, indicating that she was, in any way, special to him. Now that he had, she wasn’t inclined to give an inch. Maybe she had already given all she could, gone as far as possible.

  He shifted from one foot to the other. He didn’t know what to say, she realized. He had always been too handsome, too gifted, and now he was too rich; girls had always chased him. He had been sought after and idolized and pandered to since junior high, when his running ability became obvious. This was new territory for Shamal King.

  “Would you like to come in?” she finally asked.

  “Yeah, sure.”

  He looked around her small apartment, as if he was seeing it for the first time. Going over to the bookcase to examine the books she had there, and the family photographs. “Your dad?” he asked, picking up a photo of a stern, handsome Marine major.

  “Yes, right before he retired.”

  “So you’re an army brat?”

  “A Marine brat,” she corrected, concealing her wince at his failure to recognize the uniform.

  He looked uncomfortable again. “I don’t know anything about the military. All I’ve ever done is play football. I guess you’ve traveled all over the world, huh?”

  “Parts of it.”

  “I could tell you’re sophisticated.” He returned the photograph to its place, precisely lined it up as she’d had it. “You know wines, and things like that.”

  Luna felt a twinge of surprise. He sounded a little insecure, an emotion she would never have associated with him. He was always so cocky and brash, as if he thought it only natural to receive as much attention as he did. He lived in a mansion, she thought, and he was intimidated because she had traveled some and been exposed to a lot of formal dinners.

  “Would you like something to drink?” she offered. “I don’t have anything stronger than beer. There’s also fruit juice and milk.”

  “A beer,” he said, relieved. Maybe he’d been afraid she would offer him a selection of white wines.

  She got two beers out of the refrigerator and twisted the tops off, then handed him one. He watched, fascinated, as she took a long swallow.

  “I’ve never seen you drink beer.”

  She shrugged. “It’s kind of endemic to a military base. I like it.”

  He sat down and rolled the frosty bottle between his hands. After a moment of gathering his courage, he said, “Luna—the reason I’m here—” He stopped, and did some more bottle rolling.

  She sat down across from him and crossed her long legs. He eyed the elegant length of exposed skin, as she had meant for him to do. “Yes?”

  He cleared his throat. “When you stopped coming around, I … well, it kind of surprised me. I thought we … that is—”

  “We had sex,” she said gently, deciding to help him along. At the rate he was going, he would still be trying at midnight to spit out whatever it was he wanted to say.

  “That’s all it ever was to you, and all you seemed to want. I wanted more, but I guess you get that a lot from all your other girlfriends.”

  More discomfort. “It—uh … it was more than just sex.”

  “Um-hmm. That’s why you have something like three girls for every day of the week, a party in every city you go to. Shamal, I’m not an idiot. I woke up and smelled the coffee. I wanted to be special to you, but I’m not.”

  “Yes, you are,” he insisted. He examined the beer bottle again, a flush darkening his face. “More special than you know,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to lose you. What do I have to do?”

  “Lose all the other girls,” she said promptly. “If you can’t be faithful, I’m not interested.”

  “Yeah, I know.” He managed a faint grin. “I read the List. Parts of it I can’t manage.”

  She smiled. “Parts of it were a joke. The first five items weren’t.”

  “So if I … lose the other girlfriends, you’ll come back?”

  She thought about it, thought about it for so long that he began to sweat, even in the air-conditioned apartment. She had already written him off in her mind, she realized, even if her heart hadn’t quite been convinced. Turning things back around would take some effort.

  “I’ll give it a try,” she finally said, and he collapsed back on the couch with a “whoosh” of relief. She held up a slender hand. “But—if you’re unfaithful at all, that means even just groping a girl at a party the way I’ve seen you do, then I’m history. No second chances, because you’ve already used them all up.”

  “I swear,” he said, holding up his right hand. “No more fucking around.”

  “Screwing,” she said.


  “Screwing around.”

  “That’s what I said. Same thing.”

  “No, your language could use a little cleaning up. That’s what I meant.”

  “Babe, I’m a football player. We swear.”

  “That’s fine, when you’re on a field, but you aren’t on a field now.”

  “Man,” he complained, but good-naturedly. “Already you’re trying to change me.”

  She shrugged in a take-it-or-leave-it manner. “My dad can peel your skin off when he’s swearing, but he watches his language around Mom because she doesn’t like it. I don’t care for it either. My friend Jaine is trying to stop swearing and has done a really good job. If she can do it, anyone can.”

  “Okay, okay. I’ll try.” Suddenly he grinned. “Hey, this is kind of homey, isn’t it? Domesticated. You ragging on me, and me promising to do better. Like a couple.”

  Luna laughed, and went into his arms. “Yes,” she said. “Just like a couple.”


  Bleary-eyed at dawn on Saturday morning, Sam yawned and sat up on Luna’s couch. Around midnight the women had decided he could watch the apartment just as well from inside as he could outside, and insisted he come in. He was tired, so he did. He hadn’t had much sleep for two days and nights—he would have gotten more if there hadn’t been a certain smart-ass lying under him, insisting on wiggling her pretty butt—and was disgusted after a day chasing leads that turned out to be nothing on another case he was working, plus not getting anywhere on the files from Hammerstead. The computers hadn’t turned up anything so far on the names they had run, except for the odd unpaid ticket and a few domestic disturbances.

  By midnight, fueled by beer and chocolate, the four women were still going strong. Cheryl turned out to be a toned-down version of Marci, similar in looks and voice and with the same boisterous sense of humor. They had talked until they were hoarse, laughed and cried, drunk beer and eaten everything they could get their hands on. It had been an amazing sight.

  They moved the wake into the kitchen, and he stretched out on the couch. He had slept, but with one ear attuned to the noise from the kitchen. Nothing alarming had happened, except he discovered that Jaine sang a lot when she was tipsy.

  When he woke, he noticed immediately that the noise had died down. In fact, it was downright quiet. Quietly he opened the kitchen door and peeked in. They were all asleep, breathing with the heaviness of fatigue and alcohol. T.J. was snoring slightly, a delicate sound that didn’t qualify as a full-fledged snore. Having grown up in a house with four brothers and his dad, he knew exactly how a full-fledged snore sounded.

  Jaine was under the table. Literally. She was curled up with her head pillowed on her folded hands, looking like an angel. He snorted; that was a real con. She had probably practiced sleeping like that since she was a little kid.

  Luna rested her head on her folded arms, like a child in grammar school. She was a sweet kid, he thought, though she had to have some grit to her to hold her own with the others. Cheryl’s head was on the table, too, but she was using a pot holder as a pillow—a flat one. With enough beer inside you, a lot of things made sense that normally wouldn’t.

  He searched for and found the coffee and filters and put on a pot of coffee, not making any attempt to be quiet. They continued to sleep. When the coffee was ready, he hunted through the cabinets for the coffee cups, and got down five of them. He poured four of them only half full, in case there were some shaky hands, but his he filled to the rim. Then he said, “Okay, ladies, time to wake up.”

  He might as well have been talking to the wall for all the effect his announcement had.

  “Ladies!” he sounded, more loudly.


  “Jaine! Luna! T.J.! Cheryl!”

  Luna lifted her head an inch and looked blearily at him, then let her head drop back down on her arms. The other three didn’t stir.

  A grin spread over his face. He could shake them awake, he supposed, but that wouldn’t be much fun. What was fun was finding a pot and a metal spoon and banging them together, then watching the four women bolt upright, wild-eyed. Jaine hit her head on the table and yelled, “Son of a bitch!”

  His mission accomplished, Sam distributed the coffee cups, bending over to give Jaine hers; she was sitting under the table, rubbing her head and glaring. God, he loved that woman.

  “C’mon, get it in gear,” he said to the group at large. “The funeral is in roughly five hours.”

  “Five hours?” Luna groaned. “Are you sure?”

  “I’m sure. That means you have to be at the funeral home in four hours.”

  “No way,” T.J. pronounced, but she managed a sip of coffee.

  “You have to sober up—”

?We aren’t drunk,” came a growl from beneath the table.

  “—eat something, if you can, shower, wash your hair, whatever it is you have to do. You don’t have time to sit under the table growling.”

  “I’m not growling.”

  No, that was more like a snarl. Maybe some medicinal sex would sweeten her mood—if he lived through it. At the moment, he kinda knew how the male praying mantis felt when he was approaching Ms. Mantis, knowing the sex was going to be great but he was going to get his head bitten off.

  Ah, well. Some things were worth losing your head.

  Cheryl stood up, very creakily. She had the imprint of the pot-holder loop on her cheek. She drank some coffee, cleared her throat, and said, “He’s right. We have to get moving, or we’ll be late.”

  A slender arm thrust out from under the table, holding an empty coffee cup. Sam got the carafe and refilled the cup. The arm was retracted.

  God willing, he could look forward to forty or fifty years with her. It was scary. What was even scarier was that he liked the idea.

  T.J. finished her coffee and got up for a refill, so she was functional. She said, “Okay. I can do this. Let me pee and wash my face, and I’m good to drive home.” She stumbled down the short hall, and a sudden wail floated back: “God, I can’t believe I told Sam I have to pee!”

  Fifteen minutes later he had them all lined up, even Jaine, and they were all scowling at him. “I can’t believe you’re making us do this!” she snapped, but obediently blew into the Breathalyzer.

  “I’m a cop. No way am I letting any of you drive until I’ve checked that you’re okay.” He looked at the reading and grinned, shaking his head. “It’s a good thing I’m here, babe, because you aren’t driving anywhere. You’re slightly over the limit.”

  “I am not!”

  “Yes, you are. Now drink some more coffee and be quiet while I check the others.”

  Cheryl was okay. T.J. was okay. Luna was okay, barely.

  “You cheated!” Jaine accused, her expression thunderous.

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