Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard

  “This is so cool!” Gina enthused. “I showed the newsletter to my husband yesterday, and he got really pissed when he got to number eight on the list, like he isn’t always turning around to look at women with big boobs, you know? I had to laugh. He still isn’t speaking to me.” She didn’t look very worried.

  “We were just having fun,” Jaine said. “This has gotten out of hand.”

  “Oh, I don’t think so. I think it’s great. I told my sister in New York about it, and she wanted a copy of the whole article, not just the little bit that was in this morning’s paper.”

  “Your sister?” Jaine’s stomach got that sinking feeling again. “Your sister who works for one of the networks?”

  “ABC. She’s a staffer on Good Morning America.”

  Marci began to look alarmed, too. “Uh—she just had a personal interest, right?”

  “She thought it was hilarious. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a call from them, though. She mentioned what a great feature the List would make.” Gina sailed to her desk, happy with her part in providing them with publicity.

  Jaine dug a dollar out of her purse and gave it to Marci, then said four very pithy words.

  “Wow.” Marci looked impressed. “I’ve never heard you say that before.”

  “I save it for emergencies.”

  Her phone rang. Jaine eyed it. Since it wasn’t yet eight o’clock, the phone had no business ringing. There could be nothing but bad news waiting if she answered.

  On the third ring, Marci scooped it up. “Payroll,” she said briskly. “Oh—T.J. This is Marci. We were talking—Oh, damn, honey, I’m sorry,” she said, her tone changing to helpless concern.

  Jaine snatched the receiver from Marci. “What’s happened?” she demanded.

  “I’m outed,” T.J. said bleakly. “I just picked up my voice mail messages, and there are seven calls from reporters. I bet you have the same calls on your voice mail, too.”

  Jaine looked at the message light. It was blinking like it had a tic.

  “Maybe if Marci and I talked to them, that would keep them off you and Luna,” she suggested. “All they want is a story, right? They need a face to go with the story; then it’s over with and they move on to something else.”

  “But they have all our names.”

  “That doesn’t mean they need four interviews. Any comment should satisfy them.”

  Marci, having followed the conversation just by listening to Jaine’s end of it, said, “I can do the interviews by myself, if you think it would work.”

  T.J. heard Marci’s offer. “It’s worth a shot, I suppose. But I’m not going to run from this. If they aren’t satisfied after they talk to you and Marci, or just Marci, then we’ll all four sit down and give them their interview, and whatever happens will happen. I refuse to feel guilty and worried because we were having fun and made up a silly list.”

  “Okay,” Marci said when Jaine hung up. “I’ll call Luna and fill her in, and then I’ll call those reporters back and set up something for lunch. I’ll take all the heat, downplay it as much as I can.” She crossed her fingers. “This can work.”

  All morning long people stuck their heads in the door and made laughing comments to her; at least, the women did. Jaine also received a couple of measuring offers, as she had expected, from two of the guys and a few sarcastic remarks from others. Leah Street gave her a horrified look and stayed far away, which suited Jaine just fine, though she expected to see a “whore of Babylon” sign appear on her desk at any time. Leah was having more problems with this than T.J., and that was saying a lot.

  All the messages on her voice mail were from reporters; she deleted them and didn’t return any of the calls. Marci must have been busy doing her mop-up campaign, because there weren’t any additional calls after about nine. The sharks, promised some chum, were now circling Marci.

  Just in case the barbarians were still at the gate, Jaine chickened out and bought her lunch from the snack room vending machines again. If the diversion didn’t work and this was only the quiet before the storm, she intended to make the most of it. As it turned out, there wasn’t that much quiet, because the snack room was full of people who had brought their lunches that day, including Leah Street, who was sitting alone at a table even though the other tables were crowded.

  The buzz of conversation transformed into a mixture of catcalls and applause when Jaine appeared. The applause, predictably, came only from women.

  There was nothing she could do but take a bow, sweeping as low as her scraped knee and sore ribs would allow. “Thank you very much,” she said in her best Elvis imitation.

  She fed her money into the machines and escaped as fast as possible, trying to ignore the comments of “That was so funny!” and “Yeah, you women get bitchy if some guy makes a remark about—”

  The snack room quickly became a battleground with the lines drawn between the sexes.

  “Damn, damn, damn,” Jaine muttered to herself as she went back to her office, diet soft drink and crackers in hand. Whom did she pay when she swore only to herself? she wondered. Should she put the money in a fund to pay for future transgressions?

  Lunch had long been over and the time was closing in on two when Marci called. She sounded tired. “Interviews are over,” she said. “Let’s see if the heat dies down.”

  The reporters were no longer camped at the gate when Jaine left work. She raced home to catch the local news, skidding to a stop in her driveway and slinging small gravel. She was glad Sam wasn’t home, or he’d be coming out to read her the riot act.

  BooBoo had been at the cushion again. Jaine ignored the clumps of stuffing scattered over the carpet and grabbed the remote, clicking on the television and sitting on the edge of her easy chair. She waited through the stock market report—no crashes or dramatic dips, damn it—the weather, and the sports. Just when she was beginning to hope Marci’s interview wouldn’t air, the newscaster said in a dramatic tone, “Coming up next: the List. Four local women tell what they want in a man.”

  She groaned and flopped back in her chair. BooBoo jumped into her lap, the first time he had done so since coming to stay with her. Automatically she scratched his ears, and he began to vibrate.

  The commercials ended and the newscast resumed. “Four local women, Marci Dean, Jaine Bright, T.J. Yother, and Luna Scissum, have put together a list of desirable qualities for the perfect man. The four friends work at Hammerstead Technology, and the List, as it has become known, was the result of a recent lunchtime brainstorming session.”

  Wrong, Jaine thought. They’d been at Ernie’s, after work. Either the reporter hadn’t asked and just assumed they’d been having lunch together, or “lunchtime” sounded better than “met at a bar after work.” Come to think of it, lunchtime would probably work better for T.J., since Galan didn’t like those Friday after-work get-togethers.

  Marci’s face flashed on the screen. She was smiling, relaxed, and at the reporter’s question, threw back her head for a hearty laugh.

  “Who doesn’t want Mr. Perfect?” she asked. “Of course, each woman would have different requirements, so what we put on our list wouldn’t necessarily be on someone else’s list.”

  Okay, that was diplomatic, Jaine thought. This was good; nothing controversial so far.

  Then Marci blew it. The reporter, politically correct down to her toenails, made a comment about the shallowness of the physical requirements on the List. Marci’s eyebrows arched, and she got a beady look in her eyes. Watching, Jaine could only groan, because those were Marci’s warning signs before she went on the attack.

  “Shallow?” Marci drawled. “I think it’s honest. I think every woman daydreams about a man with, shall we say, certain generous parts, don’t you?”

  “You didn’t edit that out!” Jaine shrieked at the television, jumping to her feet and dumping poor BooBoo to the floor. He leaped to safety barely in time, turning to glare at her. She ignored him. “This is in family time! How coul
d you put something like that on the air?”

  Ratings, that was how. With news at a premium, television stations across the country were scrambling for viewers. Sex sells, and Marci had just sold it for them.


  The phone rang. Jaine hesitated, debating whether or not to answer it. No more reporters should be bothering to call, since Marci had given them their story, but considering the timing, the call was probably from someone who knew her and had just heard her name on television and wanted to talk to her, as if her fifteen minutes of dubious fame could somehow rub off on him/her by association. She didn’t want to rehash anything about that damn list; she just wanted it to die.

  On the other hand, it might be Luna or T.J. or Marci.

  She finally answered on the seventh ring, prepared to lapse into an Italian accent and pretend to be someone else.

  “How could you do this to me?” her brother, David, snapped.

  Jaine blinked, trying to shift gears. God, would he never get over not being given temporary custody of their dad’s car? “I didn’t do anything to you. It isn’t my fault Dad wanted to leave the car here. I’d rather you have it, believe me, because now I have to park my car in the driveway instead of the garage.”

  “This isn’t about the car!” he half-yelled. “That thing on television! How could you do that? How do you think it’ll make me look?”

  This was getting weird. She thought rapidly, trying to come up with some way this would affect David, but the only thing she could think of was perhaps he didn’t meet all the list’s criteria and he didn’t want Valerie to know there were criteria. Discussing her brother’s physical attributes wasn’t something she wanted to do.

  “I’m sure Valerie won’t make any comparisons,” she said as diplomatically as possible. “Uh, I have a pot boiling on the stove, and I need to—”

  “Valerie?” he demanded. “What’s she got to do with this? Are you saying she was in on this … this list thing?”

  Weirder and weirder. She scratched her head. “I don’t think I know what you’re talking about,” she finally said.

  “That thing on television!”

  “What about it? How does it affect you?”

  “You gave your name! If you’d ever gotten married, you wouldn’t still have ‘Bright’ as your last name, but no, you have to stay single, so your name is the same as mine. It isn’t a real common name, in case you’ve never noticed! Just think of the ribbing I’m going to take at work because of this!”

  This was going a bit far, even for David. His paranoia was usually much less pronounced. She loved him, but he’d never quite gotten over his conviction that the universe revolved around him. His attitude had at least been understandable when he’d still been in high school, because he was tall and handsome and had been wildly popular with the girls, but he’d been out of high school for fifteen years.

  “I don’t think anyone will notice,” she said as carefully as possible.

  “That’s your problem; you never think before you open your big mouth—”

  She didn’t think now; she just did what came naturally. “Kiss my ass,” she said, and slammed down the phone.

  Not the most mature reaction, she thought, but a satisfying one.

  The phone rang again. No way was she answering it, she thought, and for the first time wished she had Caller ID. Maybe she needed it.

  The ringing went on and on. After she counted twenty, she snatched up the receiver and yelled, “What!” If David thought he could harass her like this, see what he thought when she called him at two in the morning. Brothers!

  It was Shelley. “Well, you’ve done it now,” was her sisterly opening shot.

  Jaine rubbed between her eyebrows; a definite headache was forming. After the exchange with David, she waited to see where this one was going.

  “I won’t be able to hold up my head in church.”

  “Really? Oh, Shelley, I’m so sorry” Jaine said sweetly. “I didn’t realize you have the dreaded Limp Neck disease. When were you diagnosed?”

  “You are such a show-off. You never think of anyone but yourself. Did it ever cross your mind, just once, how something like this would affect me, or the children? Stefanie is mortified. All her friends know you’re her aunt—”

  “How do they know? I’ve never met her friends.”

  Shelley paused. “I suppose Stefanie told them.”

  “She’s so mortified she owned up to the relation? Strange.”

  “Strange or not,” Shelley said, regrouping, “that’s a disgusting thing for you to put out there in public.”

  Swiftly Jaine mentally reviewed Marci’s television spot. It hadn’t been that specific. “I didn’t think Marci was that bad.”

  “Marci? What are you talking about?”

  “The spot on television. Just now.”

  “Oh. You mean it’s on television, too?” Shelley asked in rising horror. “Oh, no!”

  “If you didn’t see it on television, what are you talking about?”

  “That thing on the Internet! Stefanie got it from there.”

  The Internet? Her headache exploded into full bloom. One of the geeks at work had probably posted the newsletter article, in its entirety. Fourteen-year-old Stefanie had indeed had an education.

  “I didn’t put it on the Internet,” she said tiredly. “Someone at work must have.”

  “Regardless of who did it, you’re behind that… that list even existing!”

  Suddenly Jaine was fed up past the gills; she felt as if she had been walking a tightrope for several days now, she was stressed to the max, and the people who should be most concerned and supportive were giving her hell. She couldn’t take any more, and she couldn’t even think of anything scathing to say. “You know,” she said quietly, interrupting Shelley’s harangue, “I’m tired of the way you and David automatically assume I’m to blame without even asking me how this whole thing happened. He’s mad at me about the car and you’re mad at me about the cat, so you attack without asking if I’m okay with all this attention about the list, which if you thought for one second, you’d know I’m not okay with it at all. I just told David to kiss my ass, and you know what, Shelley? You can kiss my ass, too.” With that, she hung up on yet another sibling. Thank God, there weren’t any more.

  “That was me at my peacemaking, mediating best,” she said to BooBoo, then had to blink away an uncharacteristic dampness in the eyes.

  The phone rang again. She turned it off. The numbers in the message window on the answering machine said she had way too many messages. She deleted them without listening to any of them and went to the bedroom to get out of her work clothes. BooBoo padded in her wake.

  The prospect of getting any comfort from BooBoo was dubious, but she picked him up anyway and rubbed her chin against the top of his head. He tolerated the caress for a minute—after all, she wasn’t doing the good stuff, scratching behind his ears—then wiggled free and jumped lightly to the floor.

  She was too tense and depressed to sit down and relax, or even eat. Washing the car would burn off some energy, she thought, and quickly changed into shorts and a T-shirt. The Viper wasn’t very dirty—they hadn’t had any rain in over two weeks—but she liked it to gleam. All that washing and polishing, besides burning off stress, was satisfying to her soul. She definitely needed some soul-satisfying right now.

  She fumed as she collected the things she would need to make the Viper beautiful. It would serve Shelley right if Jaine took BooBoo over there and left him to destroy her cushions; since Shelley had new furniture—it seemed she always had new furniture—she likely wouldn’t be as sanguine as Jaine about losing cushion stuffing. The only thing that kept her from transferring BooBoo was the fact that their mom had entrusted her beloved cat to her custody, not Shelley’s.

  As for David—well, it was pretty much the same situation. She would have transferred Dad’s car to David’s garage except for the fact her dad had asked her to take care of it, an
d if anything happened to it while it was in David’s custody, she would feel doubly responsible. Any way she looked at it, she was stuck.

  After gathering her chamois cloths, pail, special car-washing soap that wouldn’t make the paint job lose its luster, wax, and window cleaner, she let BooBoo out onto the kitchen porch so he could watch the proceedings. Since cats didn’t like water, she didn’t think he’d be very interested, but she wanted the company. He settled in a tiny patch of late afternoon sunshine and promptly took a kitty nap.

  The driveway next door was bereft of dented brown Pontiac, so she didn’t have to worry about accidentally spraying the thing and arousing Sam’s ire, though in her opinion, a good wash job wouldn’t hurt it. Probably wouldn’t help much, either—it was too far gone for such surface beautifying to make much difference—but a dirty car offended her. Sam’s car offended her a lot.

  She settled down to industriously washing and rinsing, one section at a time, so the soap didn’t have time to dry and cause spots. This particular soap wasn’t supposed to spot, but she didn’t trust it. Her dad had taught her to wash a car this way, and she had never found a better method.


  “Shit!” she shrieked, jumping a foot in the air and dropping her soapy cloth. Her heart nearly exploded out of her chest. She whirled, water hose in hand.

  Sam jumped back as water sprayed across his legs. “Watch what the hell you’re doing,” he snapped.

  Jaine was instantly incensed. “Okay,” she said agreeably, and let him have it full in the face.

  He yelped and dodged to the side. She stood braced, water hose in hand, watching as he rubbed a hand across his dripping face. The first water attack, accidental as it had been, had wet his jeans from the knees down. The second one had pretty much taken care of his T-shirt. The front of it was soaking wet, sticking to his skin like plaster. She tried not to notice the hard planes of his chest.

  They faced each other like gunfighters, separated by no more than ten feet. “Are you fucking crazy?” he half-shouted.

  She let him have it again. She sprayed with a vengeance, chasing him with the stream of water as he tried to dodge and dance out of its way.

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