Almost Perfect

By: Julie Ortolon

To Friends

For filling my days with laughter

For three-hour lunches (when we should be writing)

For enabling my Chico's shopping addiction

For unquestioned support, sympathy, whining and wining

For champagne celebrations (anytime, any reason) And for e-mailing in the face of deadlines!



* * *





Chapter 1





"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 the 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 premed, 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 gray 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.