Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  Better to err on the side of caution, she finally decided, and chose the most severe man-tailored pants outfit she owned. Never mind that she had always liked the way the pants clung to her butt, or that it never failed to elicit a few admiring remarks from the male contingent at work; she wasn’t going to see Sam today. He had to be even more uncomfortable about what had happened than she was. If anyone avoided anyone, he would avoid her.

  Would a man who was embarrassed have flashed her that wicked grin? He knew he looked good; better than good, damn it.

  In an effort to get her mind off exactly how good he looked, she turned on the television to catch the morning news while she dressed and did her makeup.

  She was applying cover-up stick to the bruise on her cheekbone when the female anchor of the local morning newscast said in a chirpy voice, “Freud never found out what it is that women want. If he had talked to four area women, however, he would have known the answer to his famous question. Find out if your husband or boyfriend is Mr. Perfect when we return, after these messages.”

  Jaine was so stunned she couldn’t even think of a curse word to say. Her legs suddenly weak, she sank down on the closed toilet seat. Dawna, the bitch, must have given them up immediately. No—if she had named names, the phone would have been ringing nonstop. So far they were still anonymous, but that was bound to change today.

  She hurried into the bedroom and dialed T.J.’s number, silently praying that her friend hadn’t yet left for work. T.J. lived farther out than Jaine did, so she left home a little earlier.

  “Hello.” T.J. sounded rushed, and a little irritable.

  “It’s Jaine. Have you seen the news yet this morning?”

  “No, why?”

  “Mr. Perfect made the news.”

  “Oh. My. God.” T.J. sounded as if she might faint, or vomit, or both.

  “They don’t have our names yet, I don’t think, since no one has called. Someone at Hammerstead will figure it out today, though, so that means by afternoon it’ll be common knowledge.”

  “But it won’t be on TV, will it? Galan always watches the news.”

  “Who knows?” Jaine rubbed her forehead. “I guess it depends on how slow news is today. But if I were you, I’d turn off all the phones and unplug the one that’s hooked to the answering machine.”

  “Done,” T.J. said. She paused and said bleakly, “I guess I’ll find out if Galan and I have anything worth holding on to, won’t I? I can’t expect him to be happy about this, but I do expect him to be understanding. After we talked about our Mr. Perfect last week, I did some thinking, and, well…”

  And Galan hadn’t compared very favorably, Jaine thought.

  “On second thought,” T.J. said very quietly, “I’m not going to turn off the phones. If it’s going to happen, I’d rather just get it over with.”

  After she hung up, Jaine hurried to finish getting ready. The quick phone call hadn’t taken long, and the television commercials were just ending. The newscaster’s perky voice made her flinch.

  “Four area women have gone public with their list of requirements for the perfect man …”

  Three minutes later, Jaine closed her eyes and sagged weakly against the vanity. Three minutes! Three minutes was an eternity of airtime. Of all the days for there to be no shootings or accidents blocking the freeways or a war, a famine—anything to keep such an insignificant story off the air!

  The news story had stopped short of the raunchy requirements, but made sure the viewers knew they could get the List, as it was being called, and the accompanying article, in their entirety, on the station’s Web site. Women and men had been interviewed for their reaction to items on the List. Everyone seemed to agree with the first five requirements, but after that opinions began to vary widely—usually with women taking one view and men the other.

  Maybe if she took a week’s vacation, starting immediately, this would all have blown over by the time she got back from Outer Mongolia.

  But that would be the coward’s way out. If T.J. needed supporting, Jaine knew she had to be there for her. Marci could also be facing the end of a relationship, but in Jaine’s opinion, losing Brickhead wouldn’t be much of a loss, and besides, Marci deserved some flack for spilling this whole thing to Dawna in the first place.

  With dread weighting down her every step, she forced herself out to the car. As she unlocked it, she heard a door open behind her and automatically glanced over her shoulder. For a moment she stared blankly at Sam as he turned to lock his kitchen door; then memory came roaring back, and in panic she fumbled with the door handle.

  Nothing like a little notoriety to make a woman forget she wanted to avoid a certain man, she thought savagely. Had he been watching for her?

  “Are you feeling better today?” he asked as he strolled up.

  “Fine.” She half-tossed her purse into the passenger seat and slid under the wheel.

  “Don’t put it there,” he advised. “When you stop at traffic lights, anyone can come up, pop the window, grab the purse, and be gone before you know what’s happening.”

  She grabbed her sunglasses and slid them on, pathetically grateful for the protection they gave her as she dared to glance at him. “Where should I put it, then?”

  “In the trunk is the safest place.”

  “That isn’t very convenient.”

  He shrugged. The movement made her notice how broad his shoulders were, and that reminded her of other parts of his body. Heat began to build in her cheeks. Why couldn’t he have been a drunk? Why wasn’t he still wearing sweatpants and a stained, torn T-shirt, instead of oatmeal slacks and a midnight blue silk shirt? A cream-and-blue-and-crimson tie was knotted loosely at his strong throat, and he carried a jacket in one hand. That big black pistol rested in a holster against his right kidney. He looked tough and competent, and way too good for her peace of mind.

  “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you this morning,” he said. “I was still half-asleep and wasn’t paying attention to the windows.”

  She managed a nonchalant shrug. “I wasn’t embarrassed. Accidents happen.” She wanted to leave, but he was standing so close she couldn’t shut the door.

  He hunkered down in the V formed by the car and the open door. “Are you sure you’re okay? You haven’t insulted me yet, and we’ve been talking”—he glanced at his watch—“about thirty seconds already.”

  “I’m in a mellow mood,” she said flatly. “I’m saving my energy in case something important comes along.”

  He grinned. “That’s my girl. I feel better now.” He reached out and lightly touched her cheekbone. “The bruise is gone.”

  “No, it isn’t. Makeup is a wonderful thing.”

  “So it is.” His finger trailed down to the dent in her chin and lightly tapped it before withdrawing. Jaine sat frozen, ambushed by the abrupt realization that he was flirting with her, for God’s sake, and her heart was doing that sledgehammer thing again.

  Oh, boy.

  “Don’t kiss me,” she said warningly, because he seemed somehow closer, though she hadn’t seen him move, and his gaze was centered on her face in that intent look men get before they make their move.

  “I don’t intend to,” he replied, smiling a little. “I don’t have my whip and chair with me.” He stood up and stepped back, his hand on the car door to close it. He paused, looking down at her. “Besides, I don’t have time right now. We both have to get to work, and I don’t like rush jobs. I’ll need a couple of hours, at least.”

  She knew she should keep her mouth shut. She knew she should just close the car door and drive away. Instead she said blankly, “A couple of hours?”

  “Yeah.” He gave her another of those slow, dangerous smiles. “Three hours would be even better, because I figure that when I do kiss you, we’ll both end up naked.”


  Oh,” Jaine muttered to herself as she drove to work on autopilot, which in Detroit traffic was more than a little hazardous. “Oh?” What
kind of snappy comeback was that? Why hadn’t she said something like “In your dreams, buddy,” or “My goodness, did hell freeze over while I wasn’t looking?” Why hadn’t she said anything except oh, for cripes sake. She could do better than that in her sleep.

  She hadn’t said it nonchalantly, as if she had been asking for information and the answer wasn’t very interesting. No, that damn syllable had been so weak it didn’t even register on the Wuss-O-Meter. Now he’d think all he had to do was waltz over to her house and she’d fall on her back for him.

  The worst part of it was, he might be right.

  No. No, no, no, no, no. She didn’t do casual, and she wasn’t good at serious, so that pretty much took care of the romance department. No way was she going to have a fling with the next-door neighbor, whom only yesterday—or was it the day before?—she had thought of as “the jerk.”

  She didn’t even like him. Well, not much. She definitely admired the way he had slammed that drunk facedown on the ground. There were times when brute force was the only satisfying response; she had felt extremely satisfied, seeing the drunk smashed into the dirt and handled as easily as if he’d been a child.

  Was there anything else she liked about Sam, other than his body—that was a given—and his ability to manhandle drunks? She thought for a moment. There was also something appealing about a man who refinished his cabinets, though she couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it was; a touch of domestication, maybe? He definitely needed something to offset all that macho swagger. Except he didn’t swagger; he strolled. He didn’t have to swagger when he wore a pistol as big as a hair dryer on his belt. As far as phallic symbols went, he pretty much had that aced—not that he needed a symbol with the real deal he had right there in his pants …

  She clenched her hands on the steering wheel, trying to control her breathing. She turned on the air-conditioning and adjusted the vents so the cold air blew on her face. Her nipples felt tight, and she knew if she checked, she’d find they were standing up like little soldiers.

  Okay. What she was dealing with here was a major case of the hots. The fact was there, and she had to face it, which meant she had to be a sane, intelligent adult about this and get on birth control pills as fast as possible. Her period was due any day, which was good; she could get the pills and get started on them almost immediately. Not that she would tell him. The pills were just a precaution, in case her hormones overruled her gray matter. Such a silly thing had never happened before, but then she had never before practically had a meltdown at the sight of a man’s sticky-out part, either.

  What in hell was wrong with her? she wondered wrathfully. She’d seen sticky-out parts before. Granted, Sam’s was impressive, but as an intensely curious young woman in college she’d seen a couple of porn films, flipped through the occasional Playgirl, so she’d seen bigger. Besides, for all the fun they’d had talking about their Mr. Perfect and how big his penis had to be, the penis wasn’t nearly as important as the man to whom it was attached.

  Mr. Perfect. Memory returned like a slap in the face. Damn, how could she have forgotten?

  The same way she had earlier forgotten about Sam and his Mr. Happy because she’d been preoccupied with the silly newscast, that was how. As distractions, both subjects ranked right up there with, say, her house burning down.

  Today should be fairly quiet, she thought. Out of the eight hundred and forty-three people who worked at Hammerstead, the odds were several of the people who knew them had seen the newscast and would guess their identities. Someone would directly ask Dawna, she would spill the rest of the beans, and the information would flash over the entire building with the speed of E-mail. But as long as that information was contained to Hammerstead, T.J. had at least a chance of keeping Galan from finding out. He didn’t socialize much with his wife’s coworkers, except for his obligatory attendance at the company Christmas party, where he stood around looking bored.

  Surely there would be something more important that would happen today, locally if not nationally. These were the dreaded dog days of summer, when Congress wasn’t in session and all the senators and representatives either had gone home or were junketing around the world, so there wasn’t much national news unless there was some sort of catastrophe. She didn’t want a plane to crash or anything like that, but maybe something that didn’t involve loss of life could happen.

  She began praying for a stomach-churning stock market dip—so long as the market began recovering by the end of the day, of course. Another roller-coaster ride before the market suddenly surged to an all-time high would be nice. That should keep the newscasters occupied long enough for Mr. Perfect to be forgotten.

  As soon as she pulled up to the gate at Hammerstead, though, she saw that her expectation of a quiet day had been optimistic. Three television news vans were parked off to the side. Three scruffy-looking men with Minicams were each filming one of three individuals, a man and two women, who stood in front of the fence with Hammerstead in the background. The three reporters were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t intrude on each other’s shots, and they were talking earnestly into their microphones.

  Jaine’s stomach made a dive. She still had hope, though; the stock market hadn’t opened yet.

  “What’s going on?” were the first words she heard when she entered the building. Two men were walking down the hall ahead of her. “What’s with the TV crews? Have we been bought out or closed down, or something?”

  “Didn’t you watch the news this morning?”

  “Didn’t have time.”

  “Seems some of the women who work here have come up with their own definition of Mr. Perfect. All of the television stations are running it as a human-interest feature, I guess.”

  “So what’s their definition of Mr. Perfect? Someone who always puts the lid down on the John?”

  Whoops, Jaine thought. They had forgotten that one.

  “No, from what I heard it was the usual Boy Scout junk: faithful and honest and helps old ladies across the street, shit like that.”

  “Hey, I can do that,” the first man said in a tone of discovery.

  “Then why don’t you?”

  “I didn’t say I wanted to.”

  They laughed together. Jaine entertained herself with a wonderful fantasy of punting both of them through the door ahead, but was content with asking, “Are you saying you’re unfaithful? What a winner!”

  They both looked around as if startled to see her there, but they had to have heard the door opening and someone walking behind them, so she didn’t fall for the innocent act. She knew their faces but not their names; they were junior management types, late twenties or early thirties, spiffed up in their French blue dress shirts and conservative ties.

  “Sorry,” the first man said in insincere apology “We didn’t see you.”

  “Right,” she said, rolling her eyes. Then she caught herself; she didn’t need to get involved in these conversations. Let this particular battle of the sexes be waged without her; the less attention she and the other three drew, the better for them.

  In silence she and the two men strode to the elevators. There was no sign posted there today, making her feel deprived.

  Marci, looking tense, was waiting for her in the office.

  “I guess you saw the news,” she said to Jaine. Jaine nodded. “I called T.J. and gave her a heads-up.”

  “I can’t tell you how sorry I am this has happened,” Marci said, lowering her voice as someone walked by the open door.

  “I know,” Jaine said, sighing. There wasn’t any point in staying pissed at Marci; what was done was done. And this wasn’t the end of the world, not even for T.J. If Galan found out about it and went so ballistic that he and T.J. ended up divorced, then the marriage wasn’t very strong anyway.

  “Dawna gave them my name,” Marci continued. “The phone drove me nuts all morning. All the stations want interviews, and so does the News.” She paused. “Did you see the article this morni

  Jaine had totally forgotten about the morning paper; the peep show next door had been too distracting. She shook her head. “I haven’t read the paper yet.”

  “It was actually pretty cute. It was in the section where they always put recipes and things like that, so maybe not many people read it.”

  That was good to hear; it was being treated as human interest rather than news, and a lot of people never read what was still thought of as the “women’s section.” Unless an animal was involved, or a baby, human-interest stories tended to fade fast. This one had already lived past its natural life span.

  “Are you going to talk to them? The news people, I mean.”

  Marci shook her head. “No way. If it was just me, yeah, I’d have a little fun—so what if Brick gets his drawers in a wad? But with you guys involved, it’s different.”

  “T.J.’s the one with the big worry. I thought about it yesterday, and I don’t have anything to lose if my name gets out there, so don’t fret about me. Luna didn’t seem worried, either. But T.J.—” Jaine shook her head. “That’s a problem.”

  “Big time. Personally, I don’t think it would be much of a loss if she and Galan split, but I’m not her, and she probably thinks the same about Brick.” Marci grinned. “Shit, most of the time I think the same about him.”

  No argument there, Jaine thought.

  Gina Landretti, who also worked in payroll, entered the office. Judging from the way her eyes lit when she saw Marci and Jaine talking, the penny had dropped. “Hey,” she said, a big grin spreading across her face. “It’s you! I mean, you’re the four friends. I should have realized when I read Marci’s name, but it just now clicked. The other two are that pretty girl in sales and the one in human resources, right? I’ve seen you go to lunch together.”

  There was no point in denying it. She and Marci looked at each other, and Jaine shrugged.

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