Excerpt: Almost Perfect
Book 1: The Perfect Trilogy
“How to Have a Perfect Life.” Maddy shook her head in wonder as she read the title of the slick, hardcover book she held in both hands. “Ten Steps to Outrageous Happiness, by Jane Redding.”
“I still can’t believe Jane, our Jane, is now published. On top of everything else,” Christine said, staring at her own copy.
“I can.” Amy smiled with pride as they moved away from the autographing table where a line of Jane Redding fans waited for their chance to meet the TV-anchor-turned-motivational-speaker.
“Actually, I can too,” Christine admitted as the three of them headed toward to coffee shop in the corner of the bookstore. “Jane was always so disciplined and hardworking back in college. She’s the only person I know who studied harder than I did. And considering I was pre-med, that’s saying something.”
“You were both driven, which is the only thing you had in common,” Maddy said as she and her friends passed a decorative handrail that created the feel of a sidewalk cafe. She breathed in the rich aroma of coffee. Light jazz mingled with the buzz of conversation and hiss of the cappuccino machine. “In fact, given how different the four of us were, I’m amazed at how well we got along as suitemates.”
“Opposites do attract,” Christine said as they joined the order line.
“That’s certainly true for you and me.” Maddy smiled at her friend of fourteen years. Most people saw Christine Ashton as an intimidating combination of Ice Princess and Rocket Scientist, with her elegant height, sleek blond hair, and cool blue eyes, but Maddy knew the wicked sense of humor that lay beneath.
“I think the key for us,” Christine went on, “was having you and me in one half of the dorm suite and Amy and Jane in the other. Can you imagine if Jane and I had been paired together?”
Maddy laughed. “Amy and I would have been taking bets on which one of you would commit murder first. Perfect Jane the Neatnik or Pristine Christine who is secretly a slob?”
“No, you would have been taking bets,” Christine corrected. “Amy’s too sweet to profit from a friend’s demise.”
“True.” Maddy gave Amy a one-armed hug. “Mother Amy would have been wringing her hands and begging you children to behave.”
“Actually Jane was a lot of fun.” Amy frowned at them. “And for the record, I always hated my nickname.”
“Yeah, me too.” Christine gave Maddy one of her aloof looks. “So watch the name calling, Gypsy Girl.”
“Hey, if the nickname fits . . .” Maddy twisted her hips to make the tiny bells along the hem of her skirt jingle. Colorful beads and shiny charms adorned each wrist and a scarf circled her head from nape to crown, holding back a bonfire of red hair.
Four roommates couldn’t have been more different, or fit their nicknames better. Amy Baker was an intriguing blend of wisdom and whimsy with a need to nurture. Men, unfortunately, never seemed to look past her plumpness and notice her sensual side. Of course, the fact that Amy wore glasses that obscured her big green eyes, dressed in baggy jumpers that made her look frumpy, and kept her glorious, waist-length brown hair confined in a tight braid didn’t help.
And then there was Jane. Glancing back at the signing table, Maddy realized the petite brunette hadn’t changed much in the ten years since graduation. She was still immaculately put together and still glowed with an inner light of intelligence and determination. She sat behind the table piled with her books, wearing a stylish purple suit, her shoulder-length bob swinging slightly as she laughed. Her brown eyes smiled up at one of her fans who stood with a book clutched to her chest, gushing with praise.
Envy snuck up and gave Maddy a painful bite. “God,” she sighed. “Jane really did make it, just like she always wanted. But it’s not just the fame and fortune. She looks so dang confident!”
“And she’s still so beautiful,” Amy added with genuine admiration in her voice.
“She looks happy,” Christine said with no inflection. “Really happy. Can I kill her?”
“Christine!” Amy gasped. “What a thing to say.”
“Ah, com’on Mom, can I?” Christine clasped her hands together. “Please, please, please?”
Amy laughed in spite of herself. “You are so bad.”
“Which is why we love her,” Maddy insisted, since a part of her felt the same way. She was thrilled for Jane’s success, but it made her feel like a failure for never achieving her own dream of becoming a professional artist. She’d met and married Nigel, a sweet but admittedly geeky accountant, right out of college. Nigel had loved her art, believed in her wholeheartedly, and insisted she stay home and pursue her art career full time.
Unfortunately, two years into the marriage, he’d been diagnosed with cancer and she’d spent the next six years taking care of him while helping him keep his accounting firm open. If not for the moral support of Christine and Amy, she wasn’t sure how she would have made it through those years.
Jane had long since moved to New York, and they’d rarely heard from her. Although they’d certainly heard a lot about her lately, with her marriage to a sports announcer, her “lake house” in Austin on the cover of Homes and Living, and now her best-selling self-help book.
When Maddy compared her own lack of accomplishments to all that, she couldn’t help but feel inadequate.
“Next!” called the tall, skinny kid behind the counter and Maddy realized she’d reached the front of the line.
“Oh.” She looked up at the coffee menu hanging overhead. “Hold on. Give me a second.”
“Come on, Mad, you can do this,” Christine whispered encouragingly. “Make a decision.”
“The pressure, the pressure.” She touched her fingertips to her brow, like a fortune teller communing with the other world. “Okay, I got it. I’ll have a Mocha Madness. With extra whipped cream. And caramel swirled on top, please.”
The kid called out the order to the harried woman manning the industrial-size machine.
After Maddy had paid, Christine stepped up without even looking at the board. “Coffee. The gargantuan size. No fluff and stuff. Just give me caffeine and an IV tube.”
Maddy frowned at her. “I thought you were going to cut back on caffeine.”
“Damn! You would remember that.” Christine made a face. “Okay, make that decaf.”
The kid relayed the change in her order and started to ring it up.
“No wait.” Christine reached out and grabbed his arm, desperation lighting her eyes. “Make that decaf with a depth charge of espresso.” She made a face at Maddy. “I’ll cut back more seriously when my residency is over.”
Obviously used to dealing with coffee addicts, the kid rang it up without batting an eye.
Amy came next, chewing her lip and eyeing the pastries. The light from the case shone off her glasses. “I’ll have a sugar-free vanilla cappuccino.”
“Did you want a pastry?” the kid asked.
She hesitated, but held firm. “No. Just the cappuccino. Skinny, please.”
Maddy started to tell Amy to go for a pastry, but reminded herself not to sabotage her friend’s diet. Personally, she thought Amy looked just fine and should stop starving herself. Sexy came in many shapes and sizes. Maddy was no Skinny Minny, but she’d learned to celebrate, rather than hide, her abundant curves. Nigel had certainly enjoyed them in the early days, before he’d become too weak to enjoy much of anything in life.
“So,” Christine said after they picked up their orders, “shall we grab a table and look at this book?”
“Sounds like a plan.” Maddy headed for an empty table near a colorful display of coffee mugs and gift items. “I’m dying to know the ten steps to outrageous happiness.”
“Me, too.” Christine opened her copy of the book as soon as they were seated. “After the last few years of all work and no play, I could use some happiness, outrageous or otherwise.”
“But you’re making it.” Amy smiled at her. “A few more months and you’ll be a doctor. Surely that makes you happy.”
“If I live that long,” Christine said as she read the contents page. “Let’s see. Step one, Know What You Want.”
“That’s easy.” Maddy sipped her sweet coffee, then licked whipped cream from her lip. “A winning lottery ticket that makes all the bills go away forever.”
Christine frowned at her. “I thought you were doing okay financially, what with the life insurance and selling the accounting firm.”
“I am, but you know I hate balancing a check book, or anything else related to number. Plus, I wouldn’t mind having some money to travel.”
Christine squeezed her forearm. “I think traveling would be a good idea. It doesn’t have to be an expensive trip, just something that would get you out of that empty house.”
“You’re probably right.” Maddy thought about the letter lurking in the bottom of her purse. The job it described would certainly get her out of the house. Waaay out of the house. If she had the guts to apply for it. “What’s step two?”
Christine looked down. “Oh, this sounds cheery. Face Your Inner Fear.”
Maddy snorted. “Well, hey, I’ve got that step down at least, since I’ve just gone through years of facing fear on a daily basis.”
“True. Let’s see what she has to say on the subject.” Christine flipped forward to that chapter. The minute she started skimming the page, her eyes widened. “The bitch!”
“What?” Maddy straightened in surprise.
“She used us in her book.”
“You’re kidding! She mentioned us by name?” Maddy craned her head to read the page.
“No, but still, she says, ‘I had three friends in college who are excellent examples of how women frequently let fear hold them back from pursuing their dreams.'”
“Does she go into detail?” Amy chewed her thumb nail.
Christine ran her finger down the page. “Let’s see, ‘I had an artist friend,’- gee, I wonder who that could be- ‘who let her fear of rejection stop her from going after an art career with any real dedication or enthusiasm.'”
“That’s ridiculous!” Maddy set her coffee down with a thud. “I didn’t pursued an art career because I had a dying husband to care for.” Even as she said the words, she knew they didn’t explain why she wasn’t pursuing an art career now. “What else does she say?”
“Oh, get this.” Christine read further. “Apparently my fear is that of parental disapproval. ‘My med-student friend spent so much time trying to win her father’s approval, she frequently sacrificed her own happiness.'” Christine looked up, her blue eyes blazing. “How dare she print her interpretation of things I told her in confidence? Besides, what is wrong with me trying to please my father? Yes, it’s hard to live up to his standards and I’ve complained a time or two, but he’s a great man, a leader in the medical community, and a brilliant surgeon. Just because Jane’s mother was an alcoholic and her father skipped out what right does she have to criticize me? In print!”
“At least she didn’t use your name,” Maddy said.
“She might as well have! Anyone who knows me, knows I roomed with her at UT. What if my dad reads this?”
“A self-help book for women?” Maddy raised a skeptical brow.
“Well, someone else could read it and show it to him.”
“What does she say about me?” Amy asked in a small voice.
Christine resumed reading. “Apparently, your fear is that of taking a risk. According to Miss Perfect, ‘My other friend was so afraid of trying anything new and failing, she’d rather stay in her safe routine than take a risk that might bring her a more satisfying life.'”
“That’s such bull!” Maddy contemplated marching over to the autographing table and giving Jane a piece of her mind.
“Actually, it’s true,” Amy said quietly.
“But you own your own business,” Maddy argued. “That took risk.”
“Not much.” Amy sighed. “Traveling Nannies is a franchise, so it was fairly safe. And since I’m the owner, no one can fire me. It’s about as low risk as you can get.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean you’re an unhappy coward,” Christine insisted.
“I guess not.” Amy dropped her gaze to the table.
“Amy?” Maddy ducked her head to see her friend’s face. “You are happy, aren’t you?”
“But . . . ?” Christine made a beckoning gesture with one hand. “I definitely hear a but in there.”
Amy hesitated. “I just wish, sometimes, that I were one of the nannies I place with the rich and famous who are traveling on vacation. They go to some really exciting places, stay at fabulous hotels, eat at fancy restaurants, and meet interesting people. I’ve never been outside of the Austin area.”
“Is that really so bad?” Maddy asked. “Considering you have no sense of direction–as in absolutely zip–it’s only natural that strange places terrify you. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“It is if I let it rule my life.” Amy raised her chin, determination on every round curve of her face. “Look at Christine. She’s afraid of heights, but every Christmas back in college she went to Colorado with her family and got on a lift so she could ski.”
“Actually . . .” Christine looked back and forth between them. “I didn’t.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t?” Maddy frowned at her. “You brought back pictures of those ski trips, so we know you went.”
“Okay, truth.” She sat forward. “When I was growing up, I was so determined to outdo my brother at something, I forced myself to ride the chairlift even though I nearly fainted every time. As soon as I started college, though, I figured out some inventive ways to spend those family vacations in the ski lodge. Hence pictures, but no actual skiing.”
“Inventive ways like what?” Amy leaned forward, clearly intrigued.
“A couple of years I faked altitude sickness. The problem there was I did such a good job, Dad wanted to check me into the hospital. So, the next year I showed up at the airport wearing one of those big black boots, claiming I had a stress fracture. But Dad kept wanting to examine my foot. After that, I just insisted I was too busy and didn’t even go.”
“You’re kidding.” Amy looked as stunned as Maddy felt. “But I thought you liked to ski.”
“I do!” Christine exhaled in a burst of self disgust. “It’s getting to the top of the mountain that I don’t like. Although, in my defense, those lifts are nothing more than a bench dangling about a mile off the ground, and they take approximately three years to get from the bottom to the top. The real bitch, though, is I’m a good skier. Damned good. I think I really could best Robby in that one thing if I weren’t afraid of the dang chairlift.”
“Wow.” Maddy stared at her. “I had no idea your phobia was that bad.”
“Well, now you know.” With a touch of drama, Christine dropped her head onto her arm on the table. “I’m a total wimp.”
“No, you’re not.” Maddy laughed. “Look at all you’ve accomplished. You save lives, for heaven’s sake. Who cares if you’re afraid of heights?”
“I care.” Christine lifted her head. “Amy’s right. It’s okay to be afraid, but it’s not okay to let fear keep you from something you want to do.”
“Exactly.” Amy nodded eagerly. “Which is why I think you should go skiing again and figure out a way to conquer the chairlift.”
Christine laughed. “I’ll make a deal with you, Amy. I’ll go skiing again if you take one of those nanny assignments.”
“Oh, no.” Amy shook her head, her eyes round behind her glasses. “I couldn’t possibly leave the office to someone else that long. Could I?”
“I don’t know.” Christine raised a brow. “But talk’s cheap.”
“Yes, but . . .” Amy chewed her lip as she considered the idea.
“I will if you will.” Christine smiled.
Maddy looked from one to the other. “You know, I think y’all should do it. In fact, make it a bet with a time limit. Agree that one year from today whoever hasn’t met their challenge has to treat the other to a fab lunch somewhere fun.”
“You really think we should?” Excitement lit up Amy’s face.
“Absolutely,” Maddy said. “The bet gives you incentive. Amy, when you get scared about heading off to someplace you’ve never been before, just think about Christine and how your bravery is nudging her to do something she really wants to do. The same for you, Christine. When you balk at getting on the lift, just think of Amy and how you’re encouraging her to see someplace new.”
“You know”–Christine nodded–“I think that might actually help. I’d crawl over hot coals for either one of you, so why not face my fear of heights? What about you, Amy? Are you game?”
“Oh, goodness.” Amy patted her heart. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“I really think I am.” Christine smiled. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
Resolve spread over Amy’s face, followed by delight. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but okay!”
“All right then.” Christine held out her hand. “Deal!” After they shook, Christine turned to Maddy. “So what about you? What will you do?”
“Me?” Maddy froze.
“Yes, you.” Christine snorted. “If we have to do something scary, so do you. What’s it going to be?”
“I know.” Amy held up a hand at shoulder height. “You have to get your artwork into a gallery.”
“Within the next year?” Maddy scoffed. “I’m not nearly ready for that. Although . . . there is one thing I’ve been thinking about–“
Maddy hesitated, wondering if she had the nerve to even tell them about the letter, much less act on it.
“Let me put it this way.” Christine gave her a sweet smile. “Either you join the challenge, or it’s off. I’ll never downhill, Amy will never travel, and it will all be your fault.”
“Oh gee, thanks.” Maddy smirked at her. “I appreciate the lack of pressure.”
“Hey, what are friends for?” Christine batted her lashes.
“Okay.” Maddy took a deep breath. “I got a job offer in the mail a few days ago.” Retrieving her macrame purse, she dug out the letter. Her hands shook as she laid it on the table. “Do y’all remember me talking about Mama Fraser?”
Christine and Amy exchanged a look and shook their heads, no.
“You know, the Frasers?” Maddy prompted. “The foster parents who adopted Joe when he was sixteen?”
“Joe?” Christine’s eyebrows went up. “As in your high school sweetheart, Joe? The sexy bad boy who rocked your world, then asked you to marry him? That Joe?”
Maddy nodded, her heart racing. “That’s the one. Even though Mama Fraser was really mad at me for breaking Joe’s heart, she’s kept in touch. After Colonel Fraser died, she moved back to New Mexico, and now runs a summer camp for girls near Santa Fe. And she’s . . . well, she’s asked me to come work for her.”
Both friends stared at her with wide eyes.
“Aren’t you a little old to be a camp counselor?” Christine asked.
“I’d be one of the coordinators,” Maddy explained. “I’d have my own living quarters and I’d supervise the arts and crafts activities. It’s only for the summer, but it sounds like fun.”
“Not to mention that Santa Fe is one of the art capitals of the world,” Christine pointed out. “Maybe you could get your work into one of the galleries out there.”
“In Santa Fe? I doubt it!” Maddy laughed nervously. “My portfolio of current work isn’t nearly strong enough, but Mama Fraser says I’d have plenty of free time to paint in the evenings.”
“It sounds perfect,” Amy said. “You should do it.”
Maddy grimaced. “There’s only one problem.”
“What’s that?” Christine asked.
“Joe,” Maddy said as if it should be obvious. “I don’t know how I feel about seeing him again.”
“Didn’t you tell us he’s career Army? In the Rangers of something?” Christine asked. “With everything going on in the world, I doubt he’s even in the country.”
“Actually . . .” Maddy smoothed the envelope. “He was wounded two years ago and had to leave the Rangers. He works for his mom now as the camp director. So . . . if I take the job, I’ll be, you know, working for him. Seeing him. Every day.”
“Would that be hard?” Concern lined Amy’s face.
Maddy huffed out a breath. “We didn’t exactly part on friendly terms. For all I know, he still hates my guts and never wants to see me again.”
Amy frown deepened. “If that were true, why would he have his mother offer you a job?”
“You know . . .” Christine sipped more coffee. “That bothers me. I mean, how dorky is it to get your mom to fix you up with an ex-girlfriend?”
“Joe doesn’t know. Mama Fraser says she didn’t want to tell him until after she had my answer, in case I turned her down. Which suggests to me he’s still angry over my rejection.”
“Or that his mother knows he wants to see you,” Amy said. “And she doesn’t want him to be disappointed if you say no.”
“The important thing here,” Christine said, “is do you want to see him?”
“I don’t know.” Maddy rubbed her forehead. “I’d really like to take the job. It would be a nice bridge between the last ten years and whatever it is I’m going to do with the rest of my life. And it would help Mama Fraser, who sounds a little desperate to fill the position.”
“Plus”–Christine wiggled her brows–“you’d get to spend the summer with an old flame. From what you’ve said, things were pretty hot between you two.”
“Christine . . .” Maddy laughed nervously. “I’m not going to Santa Fe so I can have wild sex all summer with Joe Fraser in front of a camp full of young girls and his mother.”
“Why not?” Christine sat back with her cup of coffee. “Sounds good to me. Well, the wild sex part, not the camp full of girls and the mother. I know how ill Nigel was those last years, so I can imagine how long it’s been since you had any sex, much less wild sex.”
“Forever.” Maddy felt her body heat at the mere thought of sex with Joe. Saying he rocked her world was putting it mildly. He’d set it on fire. “But that is totally beside the point. I just want Joe and me to get along. Who knows, maybe this is a chance for us to put the past to rest.”
“Either that or rekindle it.” Christine grinned.
“You just want a vicarious thrill since you aren’t getting any either,” Maddy said.
“Only because I made you two promise not to let me date anyone who didn’t meet your approval,” Christine grumbled.
“With good reason, and considering your track record with men.” Flustered, Maddy turned to Amy. “What do you think I should do?”
Amy folded her hands on the table. “I think you should do it, for yourself, not as part of this challenge. As you said, it would get you out of the house. As an added benefit, maybe you can make peace with Joe so you can be friends.
“If you do it, though”–Amy took hold of Maddy’s hand–“you have to promise to show your work to some of the galleries while you’re in Santa Fe. And keep at it until you get one of them to take you on.”
“Gee.” Maddy tried to laugh. “Facing an old boyfriend who probably hates me isn’t enough?”
Amy’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “Not if I have to risk getting lost in some strange place and Christine has to conquer the ski lift.”
Panic crawled up Maddy’s throat. “I think the challenges are a tad uneven here.”
“Like hell!” Christine sat her coffee down. “You just have to get one gallery to take on your work, and considering how good you are, that should be a piece of cake. I’m committing to spending Christmas with my whole family in Colorado.”
“Who said anything about the family?” Maddy frowned at her. “You could go on your own.”
“No, if I’m going to do it, I’ll kill two birds with one stone. Conquer the lift . . . and annihilate my brother on the slopes. Preferably in front of my father.”
“A noble cause.” Maddy laughed.
“You, on the other hand, are going to go to Santa Fe, have hot sex with your old flame, and jump start your art career. Agreed?”
Maddy laughed. “Are you making sex part of the bet?”
“No . . .”- Christine grinned-“But we expect a full report. And photographic proof that Joe is as hot- looking as you claim.”
Amy snorted into her cappuccino, then had to wipe froth from her nose.
Maddy mulled it over. “I just have to get one gallery to take on a piece of my work, correct?”
“Correct.” Christine said.
“Can it be on consignment?”
Christine looked to Amy, who nodded. “Okay, on consignment. Is it a deal?”
Maddy took a deep breath. “I know I’m going to regret this–“
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Christine held up her coffee. “So here’s to us, and facing down fear. May this be the start of a perfect life for all of us.”
Maddy’s stomach did a somersault as their three cups clinked. “For all of us.”