MARRYING MISTER PERFECT

Marrying Mister Perfect Copyright © 2015 Lizzie Shane. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

"How much do you love me?"

Miranda wedged the cell phone between her ear and shoulder, missing her Bluetooth like a phantom limb and wondering how many anti-cell phone laws she was breaking as she swung the oversized rental car into the narrow parking lot of Mel's Place. "That depends," she told her assistant. "Are you asking for a raise?"

"No. but if you feel like showering me with gifts when you hear my news, I take Armani and Gucci," Todd said, sounding smugly confident that whatever gossip he had was that good.

Miranda steered the rental slowly through the lot, searching for a space wide enough for the behemoth of American machinery and its crappy turning radius. She spared a single longing thought for her mini-Cooper as she began the twenty-seven-point turn necessary to wedge the SUV into the only available space. "So what's this news that's going to inspire me to max out my credit card in your honor?"

"After Damien Ross was arrested last night in Florida-"

"Wait-what?" She slammed on the brakes and the SUV jerked to a stop so abruptly it rocked for a moment afterward. She twisted around to make sure she hadn't grazed anything with the behemoth. Damien Ross. The astronaut who was supposed to star in the season shooting in three weeks. "What did he do?"

"Drunk and disorderly, driving under the influence, speeding, reckless endangerment-you name it. So far each of the networks is leading with a different charge. How have you not seen the coverage? I thought you were in Chicago, not the dark side of the moon. Besides, Glen has sent out like fifteen emails about getting in front of the problem."

"My emails haven't been syncing properly to my phone since I updated it, and my mother has a strict no television policy whenever I visit." She cautiously resumed her park-and-wiggle routine, finally managing to get the behemoth into the narrow space. "So Damien's out?"

"Oh yeah," Todd said with inappropriate relish-he did love drama, which was an advantage in their line of work. "Getting hammered and trying to break the land speed record in his Corvette isn't exactly wholesome Mister Perfect behavior. Marketing is already stripping his name from all the press releases and getting ready to pimp our new guy."

"They can't be thinking of using Javier." Their back-up Mister Perfect had been in the tabloids nonstop for the last few months-most recently with a sexting scandal. Trading a drunk driver for a womanizer wasn't going to improve the image of the show.

"Glen suggested Albert."

Miranda groaned. "He can't be serious. Albert is a sweetie, but he's the most boring man on the planet. We can't build a season around him." But she had a feeling her boss was, indeed, serious.

"He is serious," Todd echoed her thoughts. "And that's where my news comes in."

"The news that's going to make me want to buy you expensive gifts."

"Glen is out."

Miranda's heart almost stopped beating. It was lucky the car was already in park or she probably would have totaled it. "Say that again."

"The network guys are pissed. Ratings have been falling off, ad revenues are down, and now Glen is in damage control mode rather than using the publicity to pimp the new season. Glen doesn't know it yet, but I have it on very good authority from the big guy's executive assistant that Glen will be packing his desk before you get back from your little family weekend."

"Oh my God."

"Exactly. They're going to need a new Glen."

Executive producer of Marrying Mister Perfect. Her freaking dream job. Holy shit. "And whoever lands them a new Mister Perfect to make this season of the show the hottest goddamn ticket on television..."

"Has a pretty solid argument for taking over Glen's job," Todd finished for her.

"Todd, I love you."

"Should I reschedule your flight home for this afternoon?"

Miranda groaned. "Shit. No. If I leave before my brother's wedding on Saturday, my mother will disown me." She tapped a rapid pattern on the steering wheel, wishing she hadn't made her mother that idiotic promise that she would leave her iPad in Los Angeles. "Do you still have that friend at Dancing with the Stars?"

"Remy? Of course."

"Call him. See if they have any minor celebrities who didn't make it onto their show who might be interested in some extra publicity this season. But it has to be someone with a squeaky clean reputation. Someone we can really sell as Mister Perfect. I'll work my contacts from here and with any luck we'll have someone ready to sign before my flight lands at Burbank on Sunday."

"We make our own luck," Todd said, parroting one of her favorite sayings.

"Damn right we do. Good work, Todd."

She disconnected the call, tempted to immediately start making calls, but a glance at the time showed she was already late for her lunch date.

Crudly.

It was tempting to cancel the lunch entirely and take the two hours her mother expected her to be gone to call everyone she knew in LA who might have a lead on a Mister Perfect candidate, but Louisa Tanner had been a good friend for too long. And it had been too long since they'd seen one another. Miranda hadn't been back to the Forrest Park suburb of Chicago in over five years-not even for Christmas, as her mother loved to moan. Lou was the only one of her old high school friends who had kept up with her in that time, never seeming to mind when Miranda's crazy schedule made her take months to reply to an email or return a phone call.

Lou didn't deserve to be stood up-even if the opportunity of a freaking lifetime had just been dropped in Miranda's lap. So she hitched up her big girl panties and climbed out of the behemoth, heading into Mel's Place-the diner that hadn't changed so much as a plate since it had been their favorite high school hangout.

Lou was waiting in the third booth on the left and Miranda was suddenly very glad she hadn't canceled when her friend popped out of the booth with a wide grin and a squeal of delight. "Miranda-freaking-Pierce."

Miranda felt an answering dopey smile splitting her face and rushed forward. "Louisa-flipping-Tanner." She threw her arms around her friend and they laughed, rocking back and forth, before separating and tumbling into either side of the booth. For the first time she really felt like she was home, sitting across from someone who didn't want something from her-or secretly want her job-for the first time in ages.

"I'm glad you finally stopped boycotting Forrest Park. What's it been? Fifteen, sixteen years?" Lou teased, pale blue eyes sparkling.

"Five. And yet you look exactly the same. Do you just not age? You could still pass for seventeen if you didn't look so maternal."

Lou's hair was still the same mousey shade halfway between blonde and brown, scraped back into a messy ponytail. She looked like she hadn't put on an ounce in the eleven years since high school, but she still hadn't learned how to dress for her body-the Mom Uniform of jeans and a light knit sweater hung off her body making her look more shapeless than she was. But her eyes gleamed and dimples flashed. She practically glowed with happiness.

Lou Tanner was happy. The thought warmed something in Miranda. Proof that there was justice in the world.

"Mommy-hood clearly agrees with you."

Lou flushed. "Oh, I'm not-"

The pubescent waiter appeared with their waters and Lou broke off her protest. They both ordered their high school usuals-chocolate chip pancakes and a strawberry shake for Miranda, Monte Cristo sandwich and a root beer for Lou.

"Thank God you haven't become one of those gluten-free-no-carb-no-fat-no-flavor Californians," Lou said as the kid headed off to put in their order.

Miranda flapped a hand casually. "Calories don't count on vacation and since this is my first vacation in five years, I might as well live it up." She grinned, leaning across the table. "So tell me all about you and Sexy Jack. When did you two finally stop pretending you were just friends and start playing house?"

###

Lou felt the blush start at her collarbones and creep toward her face, gaining intensity as it rose. By the time it hit her eyebrows, it had reached Def Con One and she knew her entire face would be purple.

"We aren't actually-that is we never actually-it isn't-" She forced herself to stop babbling and spit it out. "We aren't together like that. Still just friends. I've just been helping him out with his kids since his wife died."

Miranda's face fell with comic speed. "You're kidding. That was like four years ago, right? I thought, from your emails..."

And Lou had let her think that. She'd let everyone she didn't see in person think that she and Jack and the kids were one big happy family. The Facebook Illusion. It wasn't her fault if they drew the wrong conclusion when they saw the Christmas card poses, right?

"It wasn't originally meant to be a long-term arrangement, but it really is the best thing for all of us. Jack doesn't have to worry about hiring some stranger to look after Emma and TJ while he's at the hospital and I have a free place to stay while I'm getting my Masters." Though she hadn't taken many classes lately-amazing how much time a four-year-old and a six-year-old could take up.

But she loved her life-right up until she had to explain their situation to anyone on the outside. Then her purely platonic pseudo-nanny relationship with Jack always seemed somehow pathetic rather than ideal.

Lou's shoulders tensed defensively as she looked across the table at Miranda-who had shot out of town for USC at eighteen as if she was rocket-propelled and didn't look like she understood the meaning of the phrase stuck-in-a-rut. Her once brown hair was now a stark platinum blonde, cut short and asymmetrically so it was all sharp, jagged angles and attitude-but somehow still accentuating the shape of her face and the slight upward slant of Miranda's brown eyes.

Her nails were short and black-just like her skirt. Dark, patterned leggings hugged her thighs and disappeared into snug knee-high black leather boots with heels that would've had Lou breaking an ankle in record time if she'd attempted to walk in them. Miranda's top half was layered with a funky mix of shirts and light-weight sweaters and scarves in clashing colors that somehow managed to come together into a look that was terrifyingly sophisticated. As sophisticated as the knowing twinkle in the eyes that peered at Lou from behind thick, black-framed glasses-glasses Miranda wouldn't have been caught dead in back in high school.

But this wasn't high school-even if Lou's feeling of being hopelessly outclassed was eerily familiar.

"I'm sure you're amazing at it and you look super happy," Miranda said. "I'm just surprised. I kind of figured you'd be a simultaneous translator for some fancy French diplomat by now. Or living in Milan or something. The way you always talked about Europe..."

"I know." Lou picked at a splotch of dried Go-Gurt on her cuff. "But I'm crazy about the kids. I can't imagine leaving them now."

"Wait, so Dr. Hottie pays the bills, you stay home to look after the kids, and there's absolutely no sex?"

"Yep."

"Sounds a lot like marriage to me."

Lou rolled her eyes. "Har har."

"Seriously, though, hon, you seem like a kick-ass mommy type, and I was genuinely happy for you every time I read another sickeningly cute post-but that was when I thought the hot doctor was taking care of your needs on a nightly basis. A girl needs orgasms, Lou-Lou. Are you even dating?"

"There's more to life than sex."

"Spoken like a woman who's never met a man who can rattle her blinds." Miranda took a long sip of water, studying Lou over the rim of her glass. "You aren't still hung up on Dr. Jack, are you? That isn't why you're..."

"Of course not!" Lou's blush reached critical levels. "God, that silly crush was a lifetime ago and it was nothing. A blip. I don't know why I even told you about it. Thank God he never found out. Can you imagine? If he even dreamed I was ever interested in him like that? Our friendship is so important to both of us and introducing sex into the equation would ruin everything-"

"You about done? Or do you want to keep protesting how little interest you have in Sexy Jack? Not that I would blame you. After I saw that picture you posted of him shirtless on the beach last month, I needed a freaking cigarette. Honey, I'd be more surprised if you weren't lusting after him."

"We're friends."

"With absolutely no benefits? You're never tempted to jump on that? Because you live with the hottest man I've ever seen in real life. And that's saying something. I work in television."

Lou lunged for the topic change with embarrassing desperation. "And how is life as a hotshot TV producer?"

"Subtle transition," Miranda said dryly. "But I'll allow it because now we get to talk about me." Her wry grin took the narcissism out of the comment. "Life in TV? I love it. It's a constant competition. You kill yourself to get to the top. Then you kill whoever you must to stay there."

Lou sent her an arch look. "Murdered anyone lately?"

"Not that they can pin on me. But this season is going to be even more cut-throat than usual. We just lost our Mister Perfect and now in the frenzy to replace him there's blood in the water and we can all smell it."

"You make it sound like Jaws. I thought you were all lovey-dovey hearts-and-flowers."

"Honey, it's about so much more than the romance. America wants a man they can fall in love with, a minimum of two women they can root for, at least one woman they can hate, a cat fight or two, buckets of tears, no less than three betrayals, an ambulance is always good for ratings and there still has to be that something else. That something new and unique that keeps it from feeling like the same show they've been watching for twelve seasons. I need a twist."

"How can it be new? It's the oldest story in the world, isn't it? Boy meets girl, falls in love, and they live happily ever after?"

"Yes, couples have been falling in love on national television since the days of Adam and Eve." Miranda flashed a self-deprecating grin and Lou laughed.

The waiter appeared with their food and they were temporarily distracted by the orgy of deliciousness on the table.

"I wish I could help you find your twist," Lou said, dragging a fry through her mustard. "But I'm just a housewife who isn't even a wife."

Miranda's fork froze, suspended between her plate and her mouth, and a terrifying gleam entered her eyes. "What if I could help you with that?"

Lou fought down a sense of dread. "What do you mean?"

"What if I could free you up to see the world by finding Jack a new wife? Widowed heart surgeon with a heart of gold, abs of steel, and two of the cutest kids on the planet? I can work with that. Oh honey, can I ever."

"Oh no." Lou put down her Monte Cristo before she choked on it. "No, no, no, no."

She could see why Miranda would want Jack for the next season of Marrying Mister Perfect. He was certified fantasy-bait. God knew he'd been Lou's personal fantasy since they were fourteen, though she'd take that secret to her grave.

Six-foot-two, with the body of an Olympic athlete. His thick brown hair had just the right amount of curl and a tendency toward sexy disarray-complete with a single lock that always fell over one eye when he was concentrating. A heart surgeon, a fabulous father, and an all around nice guy, Jack was the kind of man who helped little old ladies and held car doors. And then there was the piece de resistance-the eyes. Laser blue Paul Newman eyes edged by crinkly little laugh lines and filled with a constant twinkle. Those eyes were lethal to the female equilibrium. Lou knew that better than anyone.

"He would never agree to it. He hates shows like that. No offense."

"None taken. I hate them too. Almost as much as I love them. But just think of it. Dr. McHottie with a ready-made family and a hole in his heart just waiting to be filled. I could market the hell out of him." Miranda paused, swirling her straw through her shake as she eyed Lou. "Unless you still have a thing for him... I'd never cock-block one of my oldest, bestest friends."

A thing for him? Try a torch the size of the Statue of Liberty's that she'd been carrying for the oblivious man for the last decade.

"No, I've got no claim on him. But you're nuts if you think you can make Jack your next Mr. Perfect. As flattered as I'm sure he would be, you'd never get him to agree to it."

The terrifying gleam got brighter and Miranda's grin turned wicked. "Don't challenge me, Lou. You know I've never heard a no I couldn't turn into a yes."

Lou just smiled. She knew Miranda was determined, charismatic and persuasive as hell-you didn't get to be a producer on the highest rated dating reality TV show at twenty-nine without all those traits-but no one knew Jack the way she did. "Trust me. He'll never agree."

And thank God for that. She might have accepted that they were never going to be anything but friends, but the thought of Jack picking his new wife from a bevy of oh-so-eligible women on national television? Nightmare. Pure and simple.

"So I have your blessing to talk to him about it? You'd be okay if Jack said yes?"

"Go for it," Lou said. Confident in her certainty that Jack would never in a million years say yes.

 

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