Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard


  The old lady from across the street, her gray hair in pin curls, leaned over Jaine. “Are you all right, dear? That was the bravest thing I ever saw! You should have been here, Sam. When that… that hoodlum shoved Amy down, this young lady knocked him flat on his butt. What’s your name, dear?” she asked, turning back to Jaine. “I’m Eleanor Holland; I live across the street from you.”

  “Jaine,” she supplied, and glared at her next-door neighbor. “Yeah, Sam, you should have been here.”

  “I was in the shower,” he growled. He paused. “Are you all right?”

  “I’m fine.” She scrambled to her feet. She didn’t know if she was fine or not, but she didn’t seem to have any broken bones and she wasn’t dizzy, so there couldn’t be any major damage.

  He was looking at her bare legs. “Your knee is bleeding.”

  She looked down and noticed that the left pocket of her denim shorts was almost torn off. Blood trickled down her shin from a scrape on her right knee. She jerked the torn pocket the rest of the way off and pressed the cloth to her knee. “It’s just a scrape.”

  The cavalry, in the form of two patrol cars and a fire medic truck, arrived with flashing lights. Uniformed officers began wading through the crowd, while neighbors directed the medics to the injured.

  Thirty minutes later, it was all over. Wreckers had hauled the two damaged cars away, and the uniforms had hauled the drunk away. The injured young woman, kids in tow, had been taken to an emergency room to have the cut on the back of her head stitched. Minor scrapes had been cleaned and bandaged, and the elderly warriors shepherded home.

  Jaine waited until the medics were gone, then peeled the huge wad of gauze and tape off her knee. Now that the excitement was over, she was exhausted; all she wanted was a hot shower, a chocolate chip cookie, and bed. She yawned as she began trudging down the street to her house.

  Sam the jerk fell into step beside her. She glanced up at him, then focused straight ahead. She didn’t like the look on his face or the way he loomed over her like a dark cloud. Damn, the man was big, a couple of inches, maybe three, over six feet, and with shoulders that looked a yard wide.

  “Do you always jump feetfirst into dangerous situations?” he asked in a conversational tone.

  She thought about it. “Yeah,” she finally said.

  “Figures.”

  She stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face him, her hands planted on her hips. “Look, what was I supposed to do, just stand there while he beat her to a pulp?”

  “You might have let a couple of the men grab him.”

  “Yeah, well, no one was grabbing him, so I didn’t wait around.”

  A car turned the corner, coming toward them. He took her arm and moved her out of the street. “You’re, what, five-three?” he asked, assessing her.

  She scowled at him. “Five-five.”

  He rolled his eyes, and his expression said, Yeah, right. She ground her teeth. She was five-five—almost. What did a tiny fraction of an inch matter?

  “Amy the woman he hurt, is a good three inches taller than you and probably outweighs you by almost thirty pounds. What made you think you could handle him?”

  “I didn’t,” she admitted.

  “Didn’t what? Think? That was obvious.”

  I can’t slug a cop, she thought. I can’t slug a cop. She repeated that to herself several times. Finally she managed to say, in an admirably even tone, “I didn’t think I could handle him.”

  “But you jumped him anyway.”

  She shrugged. “It was a moment of insanity.”

  “No argument there.”

  That did it. She stopped again. “Look, I’ve had it with your snide remarks. I stopped him from beating that woman to a pulp in front of her kids. Jumping him like that wasn’t a smart thing to do, and I fully realize I could have been hurt. I’d do it again. Now carry your ass on down the street, because I don’t want to walk with you.”

  “Tough,” he said, and latched on to her arm again.

  She had to walk, or be dragged. Since he wouldn’t let her walk home by herself, she picked up her pace. The sooner they parted company, the better.

  “You in a hurry?” he asked, his grip on her arm reeling her back in and forcing her to match his more leisurely stride.

  “Yeah. I’m missing—” She tried to think what was on television, but drew a blank. “BooBoo’s due to cough up a hair ball, and I want to be there.”

  “You like hair balls, huh?”

  “They’re more interesting than my present company,” she said sweetly.

  He grimaced. “Ouch.”

  They drew even with her house, and he had to release her. “Put ice on the knee so it won’t bruise,” he said.

  She nodded, took a few steps, then turned back to find him still standing at the end of her walk, watching her. “Thanks for getting a new muffler.”

  He started to say something sarcastic, she could see it in his expression, but then he shrugged and merely said, “You’re welcome.” He paused. “Thank you for my new trash can.”

  “You’re welcome.” They stared at each other for a moment longer, as if waiting to see which one would start the battle anew, but Jaine put an end to the standoff by turning around and going inside. She locked the door behind her and stood for a moment, looking at the cozy, already-familiar, feels-like-home living room. BooBoo had been at the cushion again; more stuffing was strewn on the carpet.

  She sighed. “Forget the chocolate chip cookie,” she said aloud. “This calls for ice cream.”

  six

  Jaine woke up early the next morning, without benefit of clock or sun. The simple act of rolling over woke her, because every muscle in her body screamed in protest. Her ribs ached, her knee stung, her arms ached every time she moved them; even her butt was sore. She hadn’t had this many aches and pains since the first time she went rollerskating.

  Groaning, she eased into a sitting position and inched her legs over the side of the bed. If she felt this bad, she wondered how the old guys felt. They hadn’t been punched, but the fall would have been rougher on them.

  Cold was better for sore muscles than heat was, but she didn’t think she was brave enough to face a cold shower. She’d rather tackle a belligerent drunk any time than stand naked under a freezing blast of water. She compromised by showering in tepid water, then gradually turned the hot water completely off. Gradually working up to the cold water didn’t help; she stood it for about two seconds, then climbed out of the shower much faster than she had climbed in.

  Shivering, she quickly dried off and stepped into her long, blue, front-zip robe. She seldom bothered with it during the summer, but today it felt good.

  Getting up early had one advantage: she got to wake up BooBoo, rather than the other way around.

  He didn’t take kindly to having his beauty rest disturbed. The disgruntled cat hissed at her, then stalked off to find a more private place to sleep. Jaine smiled.

  She didn’t have to hurry that morning, since she had gotten up too early, which was good, because her sore muscles made it plain hurrying wasn’t on the agenda today. She lingered over her coffee, a rare weekday treat, and instead of making do with cold cereal the way she usually did, she popped a frozen waffle into the toaster and sliced up some strawberries to go on top. After all, a woman who had been in a brawl deserved a little extra treat.

  After finishing the waffle, she drank another cup of coffee and pulled up the robe to examine her scraped knee. She had put ice on it as directed, but there was still a nice large bruise, and her entire knee was stiff and sore. She couldn’t loll around all day on a pile of ice packs, so she popped a couple of aspirin and resigned herself to discomfort for a couple of days.

  Her first real surprise of the day came when she began dressing and put on a bra. As soon as she fastened the front hook, tightening the band around her sore rib cage, she knew the bra had to go. Standing in front of her closet, naked except for her panties,
she faced another dilemma: what did a bra-less woman wear if she didn’t want anyone to know she was braless?

  Even in an air-conditioned office, the weather was too hot for her to keep a jacket on all day. She had some pretty dresses, but her nipples would be plainly outlined beneath the thin fabrics. Hadn’t she read something once about Band-Aids over the nipples? Anything was worth a try. She got two Band-Aids, plastered them over her nipples, then pulled on one of the dresses and examined herself in the mirror. The Band-Aids were clearly outlined.

  Okay, that didn’t work. Plain surgical tape might do the trick, but she didn’t have any. Besides, the dress revealed her scraped knee, and it looked gross. She peeled off the Band-Aids and went back to examining the contents of her closet.

  In the end she settled on a long hunter green skirt and a white knit top that she covered with a cadet blue silk shirt. She knotted the shirttails at her waist, put on blue and green stretchy bead bracelets, and was rather impressed when she consulted her mirror.

  “Not bad,” she said, turning to examine the result. “Not bad at all.”

  Luckily her hair was no problem. It was thick and glossy, a nice dark reddish brown, and had plenty of body. Her current style was a sort of modified shag that required no more than brushing, which was good, because raising her arms made her ribs hurt. She made short work of the brushing.

  But there was a bruise on her cheekbone. She scowled in the mirror and gingerly touched the small blue spot. It wasn’t sore, but it was definitely blue. She seldom did a full makeup job—why waste it on work?—but today she would have to bring out the big guns.

  By the time she sashayed out the door in her chic serendipitous outfit and with full battle paint in place, she thought she looked pretty damn good.

  The jerk—Sam—was unlocking his car door when she stepped out. She turned and took her time locking the door behind her, hoping he would simply get into his car and leave, but no such luck.

  “Are you okay?” he asked, his voice right behind her, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. Stifling a shriek, she whirled. Bad move. Her ribs protested; she gave an involuntary groan and dropped her keys.

  “Damn it!” she shouted, when she could breathe again. “Stop sneaking up on me like that!”

  “It’s the only way I know,” he said, his face expressionless. “If I waited until you turned around, I wouldn’t be sneaking.” He paused. “You cussed.”

  As if she needed him to point that out. Fuming, she dug in her purse for a quarter and slapped it in his hand.

  He blinked as he looked down at the quarter. “What’s this for?”

  “Because I swore. I have to pay a quarter when I’m caught. That’s how I’m motivating myself to stop.”

  “Then you owe me a hell of a lot more than a quarter. You said a couple of words last night.”

  She curled her lip at him. “You can’t go back into the past and collect. I’d have to empty out my bank account. You have to catch me at the time.”

  “Yeah, well, I did. Saturday, when you were mowing your lawn. You didn’t pay me then.”

  Silently, her teeth gritted together, she dug out another quarter.

  He looked extremely smug as he pocketed his fifty cents.

  Any other time she might have laughed, but she was still mad at him for scaring her. Her ribs hurt, and when she tried to stoop down to retrieve her keys, they hurt even more. Not only that, her knee refused to bend. She straightened and gave him a look of such frustrated fury that one corner of his mouth twitched. If he laughs, she thought, I’m going to kick him under the chin. Since she was still standing on her stoop, the angle was perfect.

  He didn’t laugh. Cops were probably taught to be cautious. He bent down to pick up her keys. “The knee won’t bend, huh?”

  “Neither will the ribs,” she said grumpily, taking the keys and easing down the three steps.

  His brows lowered. “What’s wrong with your ribs?”

  “He landed a punch.”

  He blew out an exasperated breath. “Why didn’t you say something last night?”

  “Why? They’re not broken, just bruised.”

  “You know this for a fact, huh? You don’t think maybe they could be cracked?”

  “They don’t feel cracked.”

  “And you have so much experience with cracked ribs you know how they feel.”

  She set her jaw. “They’re my ribs, and I say they’re not cracked. End of discussion.”

  “Tell me something,” he said conversationally, strolling beside her as she stalked, as best as she was able, to her car. “Is there ever a day when you don’t pick a fight?”

  “The days when I don’t see you,” she shot back. “And you started it! I was prepared to be a nice neighbor, but you snarled at me every time you saw me, even though I apologized when BooBoo got on your car. Besides, I thought you were a drunk.”

  He stopped, surprise etched on his face. “A drunk?”

  “Bloodshot eyes, dirty clothes, getting home in the wee hours of the morning, making a lot of noise, grouchy all the time as if you had a hangover … what else was I to think?”

  He rubbed his face. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. I should have showered, shaved, and dressed in a suit before I came out to tell you that you were making enough noise to raise the dead.”

  “Just grabbing a clean pair of jeans would have sufficed.” She unlocked the Viper and began to consider another problem: how was she going to get into the low-slung little rocket?

  “I’m refinishing my kitchen cabinets,” he offered after a short pause. “With the hours I’ve been working lately, I’m having to do it a little at a time, and sometimes I fall asleep with my dirty clothes on.”

  “Did you ever think of leaving the cabinets until your off days and getting a little more sleep? It might help your disposition.”

  “There’s nothing wrong with my disposition.”

  “No, not if it belongs to a rabid skunk.” She opened the car door, stowed her purse inside, and tried to psych herself up for the effort of sliding behind the wheel.

  “Hot set of wheels,” he said, looking the Viper over.

  “Thanks.” She glanced at his Pontiac and didn’t say anything. Sometimes silence was more charitable than words.

  He saw the glance and grinned. She wished he hadn’t done that; the grin made him look almost human. She wished they weren’t standing out in the early morning sun, because she could see how dense his black eyelashes were and the rich brown striations in his dark eyes. Okay, so he wasn’t a bad-looking man, when his eyes weren’t red and he wasn’t snarling.

  Suddenly his eyes went cold. He reached out and gently rubbed his thumb along her cheekbone. “You have a bruise there.”

  “Da—” She caught herself before the word slipped out. “Darn it, I thought I had it covered.”

  “You did a good job. I didn’t see it until you were standing in the sun.” He crossed his arms and scowled down at her. “Any other injuries?”

  “Just sore muscles.” She looked ruefully at the car. “I’ve been dreading having to get in the car.”

  He looked at the car, then at her as she gripped the open door and slowly, painfully lifted her right leg and eased it inside. He blew out a breath, as if steeling himself to perform an unpleasant task, and held her arm to steady her as she inched her way under the wheel.

  “Thanks,” she said, relieved the task was over.

  “Sure.” He crouched down in the open door. “You want to file charges for assault?”

  She pursed her lips. “I hit him first.”

  She thought he might be fighting another grin. God, she hoped he won; she didn’t want to see another one so soon. She might start thinking he was human.

  “There is that,” he agreed. He stood up and started to close the car door for her. “A massage will help the soreness. And a steam bath.”

  She gave him an outraged look. “Steam? You mean I had a cold shower this morning for nothing???
?

  He began laughing, and she really, really wished he hadn’t done that. He had a nice deep laugh and very white teeth.

  “Cold is good, too. Try alternating heat and cold to loosen up. And get a massage if you can.”

  She didn’t think Hammerstead had a spa hidden anywhere on the premises, but she might call around and book one for this afternoon when she got off work. She nodded. “Good idea. Thanks.”

  He nodded and closed the door, stepping back. Lifting one hand in a wave, he walked to his car. Before he even got the door open, Jaine had the Viper purring down the street.

  So maybe she could get along with him, she thought, smiling a little. He and his handcuffs had certainly come in handy the night before.

  Despite lingering to talk to him, she was still early to work, which gave her time to ease out of the car. Today the sign above the elevator buttons said: FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION; IT’S BUNDLED WITH YOUR SOFTWARE. Somehow she thought management would frown more on that than on the sign from the day before, but all the geeks and nerds on the first two floors probably thought it was hilarious.

  The office gradually filled. The conversation that morning was exclusively about the article in the newsletter, split fifty-fifty between the contents and speculation about the identity of the four women. Most were of the opinion the entire article was the brainchild of the author, that the four friends were fictitious, which suited Jaine just fine. She kept her mouth shut and her fingers crossed.

  “I scanned the article and sent it to my cousin in Chicago,” she overheard someone say as he walked past in the hallway. She was fairly certain he wasn’t talking about an article in the Detroit News.

  Great. It was spreading.

  Because she winced at just the thought of having to get into and out of the car several times to go to lunch, she made do with peanut butter crackers and a soft drink in the snack room. She could have asked T.J. or one of the others to bring her back something for lunch, but didn’t feel like going into explanations of why she had problems getting into her car. Saying she tackled a drunk would sound like bragging, when in truth she had simply been too angry to think about what she was doing.

 
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