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Mr. Perfect

Mr. Perfect by Linda Howard
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Chapter One

Warren, Michigan, 2000

Jaine Bright woke up in a bad mood.

Her neighbor, the blight of the neighborhood, had just roared home at three A.M. If his car had a muffler, it had long since ceased functioning. Unfortunately, her bedroom was on the same side of the house as his driveway; not even pulling the pillow over her head could block out the sound of that eight-cylinder Pontiac. He slammed the car door, turned on his kitchen porch light -- which by some evil design was positioned to shine directly into her eyes if she was lying facing the window, which she was -- let his screen door slam three times as he went in, came back out a few minutes later, then went back in, and evidently forgot about the porch light, because a few minutes later the light in the kitchen blinked out but that damn porch light stayed on.

If she had known about her neighbor before she bought this house, she never, never would have closed on the sale. In the two weeks she had lived here, he had single-handedly managed to destroy all the joy she'd felt on buying her first house.

He was a drunk. Why couldn't he be a happy drunk? she wondered sourly. No, he had to be a surly, nasty drunk, the kind who made her afraid to let the cat go outside when he was home. BooBoo wasn't much of a cat -- he wasn't even hers -- but her mom loved him, so Jaine didn't want anything to happen to him while she had temporary custody. She would never be able to face her mom again if her parents returned from their dream vacation, touring Europe for six weeks, to find BooBoo dead or missing.

Her neighbor already had it in for poor BooBoo anyway, because he'd found paw prints on the windshield and hood of his car. From the way he had reacted, you'd have thought he drove a new Rolls rather than a ten-year-old Pontiac with a bumper crop of dings down both sides.

Just her luck, she had been leaving for work at the same time he did; at least, she'd assumed at the time he'd been going to work. Now she thought he'd probably been going to buy more booze. If he worked at all, then he had really weird hours, because so far she hadn't been able to discern a pattern in his arrivals and departures.

Anyway, she had tried to be nice on the day he spotted the paw prints; she'd even smiled at him, which, considering how he had snapped at her because her housewarming party had woken him up -- at two in the afternoon! -- had been a real effort for her. But he hadn't paid any attention to the peace-offering smile, instead erupting out of his car almost as soon as his butt hit the seat. "How about keeping your damn cat off my car, lady!"

The smile froze on her face. Jaine hated wasting a smile, especially on an unshaven, bloodshot-eyed, foul-tempered jerk. Several blistering comments sprang to mind, but she bit them back. After all, she was new to the neighborhood, and she had already gotten off on the wrong foot with this guy. The last thing she wanted was a war between them. She decided to give diplomacy one more shot, though it obviously hadn't worked during the housewarming party.

"I'm sorry," she said, keeping her voice even. "I'll try to keep an eye on him. I'm baby-sitting him for my parents, so he won't be here much longer." Just five more weeks.

He had snarled some indistinct reply and slammed back into his car, then roared off, the powerful engine rumbling like thunder. Jaine cocked her head, listening. The Pontiac's body looked like hell, but that motor ran smooth as silk. There were a lot of horses under that hood.

Diplomacy evidently didn't work on this guy.

Now, here he was, waking up the entire neighborhood at three A.M. with that blasted car. The injustice of it, after he had snapped at her for waking him up in the middle of the afternoon, made her want to march over to his house and hold her finger against his doorbell until he was up and as wide awake as everyone else.

There was just one little problem. She was the teeniest bit afraid of him.

She didn't like it; Jaine wasn't accustomed to backing down from anyone, but this guy made her uneasy. She didn't even know his name, because the two times they'd met hadn't been the "hello, my name is so-and-so" type of encounters. All she knew was that he was a rough-looking character, and he didn't seem to hold down a regular job. At best, he was a drunk, and drunks could be mean and destructive. At worst, he was involved in illegal stuff, which added dangerous to the list.

He was a big, muscular guy, with dark hair cut so short he almost looked like a skinhead. Every time she had seen him, he looked as if he hadn't shaved in two or three days. Add that to the bloodshot eyes and bad temper, and she came up with drunk. The fact that he was big and muscular only added to her uneasiness. This had seemed like such a safe neighborhood, but she didn't feel safe with him as her next-door neighbor.

Grumbling to herself, she got out of bed and pulled down the window shade. She had learned over the years not to cover her windows, because an alarm clock might not wake her up, but sunlight always did. Dawn was better than any clanging noise at getting her out of bed. Since she had, several times, found her clock knocked onto the floor, she assumed it had roused her enough to attack it, but not enough to completely wake her.

Her system now was sheer curtains over a shade; the sheers kept anyone from seeing inside unless a light was on, and she raised the shade only after she'd turned out the light for the night. If she was late to work today, it would be her neighbor's fault, for forcing her to rely on the clock instead of the sun.

She stumbled over BooBoo on the way back to bed. The cat jumped up with a startled yowl, and Jaine damn near had a heart attack. "Jesus! BooBoo, you scared the hell out of me." She wasn't used to having a pet in the house, and she was always forgetting to watch where she stepped. Why on earth her mother had wanted her to baby-sit the cat, instead of Shelley or Dave, was beyond her. They both had kids who could play with BooBoo and keep him entertained. Since school was out for summer vacation, that meant someone was home at both their houses almost all day, every day.

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 shecouldn'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 Idon'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 into 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.

Copyright © 2000 by Linda Howington
Atria Books; August 2011
352 pages; ISBN 9781451664621
Download in secure EPUB
Title: Mr. Perfect
Author: Linda Howard
 
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