Past PerfectbyAlessia Brio©
The ease with which Jacqueline Manceaux breezed through life provided a perpetual source of annoyance for Denise. She shone like the sun, even in her darkest hours, and to be fair, she had more than her fair share of them. Denise strove not to take any sort of snide comfort in the misfortune that often befell Jacquí, as she was affectionately called by the hordes of her closest friends.
In contrast, Denise felt like an ogre in Jacquí's company. On those rare days when she felt well above average on the attractiveness scale, Jacquí would arrive at the office in a sleek and stylish new designer suit and steal what little attention Denise hoped to garner. The leggy blonde epitomized sexy and had enough smarts not to need good looks to succeed in the business world. To add insult to injury, she had the nerve to be one of the nicest people Denise had ever met. No one, not even Mother Teresa, deserved to be that close to perfection.
Jacquí strolled past her office carrying her typical bagel and coffee. She lifted the foam cup in a g'morning salutation and gave a megawatt smile that might as well have been nails on a chalkboard for its impact on Denise's mood. Even at eight forty-five on a Monday, the woman looked like a taller version of Heather Locklear in a power suit. Prettier, too, with all the beauty and none of the harder edges. The glass walls allowed Denise to follow her progress down the hall.
Denise hated the fact that she spent so much time trying to find fault with Mademoiselle Manceaux, some chink in the "charmor" that would enable her to legitimately despise the bitch. Maybe she abused small animals or kicked homeless people as they slept on the street. One could only hope. Shaking herself from the vortex of her thoughts, Denise returned her attention to the day's schedule.
Few people wanted to look at real estate during the morning hours on weekdays, so Denise used the time at her desk to return phone calls, schedule building inspections, challenge property tax assessments, and scour the newspapers online for For Sale By Owner ads. Her commissions didn't suck, but they could be better. Denise longed to have the finesse other agents used to reel in the reluctant do-it-yourselfers. Jacquí, unsurprisingly, led the firm in signing FSBOs. She also bagged more than a fair share of the sweet multi-million dollar estate listings.
The busywork made the morning pass quickly, and Denise's stomach reminded her that she'd skipped breakfast. She tidied her desk, signed off her computer, and retrieved her purse from the bottom desk drawer, intending to grab a soup-and-salad special in the building's basement cafeteria.
"You look nice today," a dulcet voice called from the doorway accompanied by a light one-knuckle knock. Even Jacquí's vocal cords evoked envy. When Denise looked up, she continued, "Well, you always look nice, but I especially like you in green. Brings out your eyes. Um, sorry to interrupt, but can I talk to you for a minute? It won't take long."
In spite of herself, Denise beamed. To be first complimented, then wanted—for whatever reason—by this ultra-smooth, ultra-savvy woman made her ego momentarily swell with pride. It didn't take long, however, for the inner cynic to squelch that elation.
"I'm on my way to lunch." She enjoyed the flash of disappointment on Jacquí's face. Unable to maintain the brusque dismissal, Denise capitulated, "But you're welcome to join me. I'm just going downstairs for a quickie. I have to show an apartment at one on the other side of the city."
Jacquí grinned. "Let me grab my purse. Be right back." With that, she scurried down the hall as fast as her butter-cream Prada pumps would carry her. Denise forced herself not to admire the retreat.
Before she could count to twenty, Jacquí returned with her matching butter-cream Prada handbag. Denise tucked her Coach knock-off under her arm. She felt good about the purchase when she impulsively dropped forty dollars on it last weekend. Now she just felt like as much of an imposter as her bag. Without matching faux-Coach shoes, she even failed as a competent fraud. The urge to compete was strong, but Denise knew that she could spend every spare moment at the gym and every spare dollar on clothes and still not even come close to stealing Jacquí's thunder.
To deflect attention from her perceived physical flaws, Denise strove to make herself indispensable in every other endeavor. That urge to overcompensate made her angry. Her envy angered her further. It wasn't as if Denise lacked either beauty or brains. She knew she could hold her own in most circles, even around much younger women, but Jacquí made her feel like a mutt.
They shared idle chit-chat in the elevator and as they wove through the lunch line. More than once, Denise wondered what was up. Jacquí declined several invitations to join other groups, opting instead for a small two-person table against the far wall. Once seated, she decided to cut to the chase, as Jacquí seemed reluctant.
"So, what did you want me for?" she asked, mentally kicking herself for phrasing the question in that way.
Jacquí raised a perfectly-plucked eyebrow but didn't otherwise react to the unintentional innuendo. "You know I just moved into a new place, right? The Garden Towers on sixty-fifth?" She paused to allow Denise time to nod in recognition of the exclusive luxury condos. "Well, I'm having a little dinner slash housewarming party on Friday night—just a dozen or so friends. Nothing fancy or anything, just come-as-you-are. And, well, I was hoping you'd come... as you are, of course. Do you have other plans?"
Denise attempted to decide if microwave popcorn and a stack of rented DVDs qualified as other plans and concluded that, yes, it did. She must've hesitated a bit longer than she realized, though, because Jacquí spoke before she was able to formulate a plausible excuse for declining the invitation.
"Did I do something to offend or upset you? I get the feeling that you don't..." Jacquí paused, apparently struggling to form the words for such a foreign concept, "...like me."
"No, Jacquí, you haven't done anything to offend me." Other than exist, she wanted to snarl. Other than to grate on my every nerve with your face and your body and your hair and your clothes and your success and your sparkling fucking personality. Green, Denise decided, was not her color in spite of Jacquí's earlier compliment.
"Then you'll come?"
It was Denise's turn to raise an eyebrow, and she gave Jacquí an "A" for Aplomb in the face of it. Such composure should be rewarded, even if grudgingly. "Sure. I'll stop by. Can I bring anything?"
"Do you have any of that wine left from the vineyard property you sold last month? I heard through the... um, grapevine," she chuckled at her little play on words, "that the sellers gave you a case as a bonus. If you have any left, I'd really like to try it."
Denise agreed and, with that business settled, they finished their lunches over light office gossip and speculation regarding the outcome of the softball tournament between the area's competing real estate agencies.
As the week progressed, Denise hoped that Jacquí would just forget about having invited her to the dinner slash housewarming party. Making small talk with a bunch of strangers just wasn't Denise's idea of a good time, and Jacquí's friends were likely to be a gaggle of Manceaux wannabes. After all, what woman in her right mind didn't want a killer body, successful career, seemingly effortless beauty, style, social grace, wit, and brains? The woman was the epitome of femininity.
She did her best to avoid contact with her objet d'envie throughout the week, and largely succeeded given their busy schedules. Four closings and a slew of showings for a new listing kept her out of the office most of each day. While at her desk, Denise kept the door closed—the agency's standard Do Not Disturb protocol. The few times they bumped into one another were brief and didn't leave an opportunity for discussion of anything other than pressing work-related matters.
Denise often wondered how she landed in real estate, given the amount of networking required to be successful. Unlike Jacquí, schmooze really wasn't her strong suit. Her background in interior design with a minor in architecture, however, gave her an eye for property that many lacked. Someday, after she finished her MBA, she hoped to open her own design firm and capitalize on all the reluctant schmoozing.
Late Friday afternoon, as Denise prepared to leave for the weekend, Jacquí dropped by her office to remind her about both the party and the wine she'd agreed to bring. While Denise felt ragged and drawn after a hectic day at the end of a hectic week, Jacquí looked as if she'd just stepped from a salon makeover. Over a few minutes of idle chatter about the party menu, it dawned on her that Jacquí didn't really need the wine. She had simply used it as a hook to ensure her attendance, knowing her ultra-reliable colleague wouldn't renege on a commitment. Smooth, Denise admitted to herself. Very smooth indeed.
"See you at eight-ish. I've got a million and one things to do before then." With a twinkle of her French manicured fingertips, Jacquí was gone.
As Denise straightened her desk and shut down her computer, she wondered if she had enough time to shop for something fresh and new to wear to the party. At the same time, she chastised herself for even considering it. Impulsively, she paged a delivery service and met the courier in the parking garage. Offering one bottle of the dry white as a tip, she instructed him to deliver the rest to the posh apartment on 65th street.
That commitment satisfied, Denise could now bail on the party without guilt if she chose. The maneuver bought her some measure of calm, knowing she had an out. She took her time on the evening commute and, once home, unwound with a glass of merlot and a single bong hit. The combination provided the perfect mood adjustment. Both mellow and self-confident, she shed her work attire and dove into her closet.
"Come as I am, eh? We'll just see about that." She pulled a short denim skirt from its hanger, followed by a soft, white blouse. While it was tempting to throw on sweats and a T-shirt, Denise compromised with a more presentable form of comfort and hoped that the other guests would be similarly attired. She knew better than to expect Jacquí to look anything less than perfect, regardless of what she wore. No use even trying to compare.
Fueled by the wine and the weed, Denise deftly wove her waist-length hair into a loose braid and slipped her bare feet into a pair of well-worn penny loafers. The macramé belt was an afterthought, but it blended well. She set out on foot and empty-handed, planning to hail a cab when she tired of walking. The evening was as comfortable as her attire, and she covered almost ten city blocks before her feet began to protest the lack of socks.
Her nerves resurfaced when the taxi pulled to a stop in front of Jacquí's building. She resisted the urge to stop in the lobby's restroom to primp, instead moving directly to the elevators. Seventeenth floor. Not quite penthouse level, but well above the city streets.
The walk down the hallway to Jacquí's apartment seemed unnaturally long, distorted by anxiety. Denise felt as if she was stepping into a social situation that would make her feel even more awkward and inadequate, hob-knobbing with the upper echelons of beauty and success.
Strains of classical music seeped through the door of 17-C, which opened just as she lifted her hand to ring the doorbell. Jacquí stood there grinning. Barefoot, in torn jeans and an off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, she reminded Denise of a cast member from the movie Flashdance ... only sexier. Her hair, worn up during the work day, rested on her bare shoulders in soft waves.
"When the wine showed up by courier, I figured you'd be a no show. I'm glad you're here. C'mon in." She threw open the heavy door and gestured. "You're the first one here. Make yourself comfy. Can I get you something to drink?"
Stepping inside, she looked around in awe. Creamy white carpet stretched in every direction. Eclectic décor screamed of expense coupled with a non-conformist's taste. Denise kicked off her shoes before leaving the tiled entry for the warm, snowy landscape. That earned a smile from Jacquí, whose toenails sparkled with a fuchsia polish that matched her fingernails and lips.
"You like? I did it all myself—against the advice of...well, of damned near everyone. It's not like me to be so rebellious, but I love this space. It's my haven. Know what I mean? Here, let me show you around. Can I get you something to drink?"
It took Denise a moment to realize that she was referring to her interior decorating rather than the fuchsia cosmetics. The aimless chatter seemed out of character for the typically-composed beauty, which made her wonder what Jacquí was trying to conceal. She followed her down the hallway, only half listening to her ramble about where each piece of artwork or furniture originated.
Miro on this wall, Manet on that. Even a Henry Moore piece, albeit a small replica, on the ledge over the marble garden tub. She knew the art of which she spoke, too. It wasn't merely name-dropping. Jacquí understood every element of the design of her condo and its contents. Not only that, but she clearly wanted Denise to appreciate it.
"There's no one else coming tonight, is there?" The clarity leapt at Denise, impulsive but fully formed. She just...knew.
Jacquí turned. Her mouth hung open as if stunned by the accuracy of a gypsy's fortune. The expression told Denise all she need to know.
"I'll be going now," she murmured, shaking her head as she turned toward the door.
Silence followed her. As heavy as the mask of tomorrow's humiliation, it curved around her body and molded itself to her frame. Denise took a deep breath and willed her feet to move, to take her away from the embarrassment of being played for a fool.
"Please," Jacquí whispered. Her voice echoed in the corridor. "Stay. I'm sorry for..."
"For what exactly? You're sorry for luring me here under false pretenses?" Denise spun and stepped toward Jacquí, her shoulders squared and mind blazing. "You think you can just jerk people around this way? Make them do your bidding 'cause you're so fucking perfect? Well, cross me off your list of acolytes, Ms. Manceaux. I don't play that way."
Jacquí sighed, but she stood her ground with a defiant expression on her face. Denise fought the urge to slap it, to make her feel the sting of anger that threatened to escape its bounds. Her hands twitched at her side.
"I just wanted..." Jacquí reached out, her fingers brushing Denise's forearm. The touch sparked the release of pent-up emotion, and Denise wrenched her arm away, unintentionally catching the underside of Jacquí's chin with the back of her hand. She watched in shock as Jacquí's head snapped back, colliding with the wall.
Before she could speak, though, Jacquí righted herself and shook it off. She looked sideways at Denise, eyes narrowed, and snarled. "Go if you're going. I won't try to stop you."
"Why?" Jacquí rolled her eyes. "Because even though this is my house, and even though I invited you here, I can still be charged with battery. Because we work in the same office. Because..."
"No. Why the dinner slash housewarming party story? Why the elaborate ruse?"
Sighing, Jacquí slumped against the wall. "I didn't lie about the party, y'know. I just... um...exaggerated the number of guests."
"Would you have come otherwise?"
Denise shook her head, not as a negative reply, but at Jacquí's misunderstanding. "No, why me? What do you want from me?"
A small frown line formed at the bridge of Jacquí's aquiline nose as she appeared to weigh her words. Finally, she opted instead to act. The feather-light kiss caught Denise completely by surprise.
"You, of course," Jacquí whispered when she pulled away. "I want you. I've been trying to get your attention for months."
Of all the things Jacquí could have said, that had to be the last thing Denise expected to hear. It was so far outside the scope of her thoughts that it took several moments for it to register. Her body responded well before her mind, fueling her anger and adding another dimension to her sense of betrayal. When the shock released her vocal cords, she howled with incredulous laughter.
It soon had her doubled over, holding her stomach and gasping for breath. Each time she thought she'd gotten it under control, the improbability of the situation would bubble up and the giggles would again erupt. It wasn't until Denise saw the hurt expression on Jacquí's face that she was able to stem her laughter.
"I'm sorry." She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with the backs of her hands. "It's just that...well, you wanting me... when you can have anyone you choose... male or female... is just... too... rich." In spite of her resolve, some residual chuckles punctuated her speech.
Jacquí pushed off the wall and stormed past. "Fuck you," she called over her shoulder. Making a bee-line for the front door, she threw it open. "I think you should leave now."
Denise crossed the distance in a few long strides and slammed the door closed a bit more forcefully than intended. Its impact rattled the umbrella stand and knocked over the vase of fresh flowers on the small table nearby, but she barely noticed. "I don't think so," she growled, pinning Jacquí to the door with her body. "You think you want me, eh? We're gonna get past perfect and find out."
The intensity of their first real kiss surprised Denise with its bruising ardor. She tasted blood but couldn't tell if it was hers or Jacquí's, and she sucked hard on those fuchsia lips while her fingers wove through the loose blonde locks.
Parting the taller woman's legs, she pressed her bare thigh against Jacquí's sex, eliciting a moan that vibrated on Denise's tongue. The heat emanating from the worn, threadbare denim caused a reciprocal reaction between her legs, and Denise felt the crotch of her thong grow wet.
The harder she pushed, the more enthusiastically Jacquí responded.
"Manipulative bitch," Denise spoke into her mouth. "You play people to get what you want. I see it all the time at work. In return, they get to bask in your divine presence for a little while. You turn that megawatt smile on them, make their knees weak. Didn't work with me, did it? That had to bug the fuck out of you.
"If you want me, you're gonna have learn to be a lot more direct about your desires." She took a step back and reached for the hem of Jacquí's sweatshirt, whipping it over her head in one swift movement.
Jacquí brought her arms down and crossed them over her breasts, eyes blazing.
"Hands at your sides. Now."
Denise didn't miss the tiny smirk that teased the corner of Jacquí's mouth as she complied, and she vowed to give the woman far more than she bargained for. Taking her time, she studied Jacquí's breasts. Perfect, of course. Comfortable handfuls of firm flesh topped with slightly oval, tea-stained nipples that puckered so invitingly. Denise's hands again twitched, but for an entirely different reason.
"Yes, they're gorgeous." Denise confirmed the challenge in Jacquí's eyes. "But you already know that. Touch them."
"No, not me. You. Put your hands on your tits. Show me how you want me to touch them. Show me how you touch them when you think of me."
Her expression went from one of confident defiance to one of apprehension.
"You must not want me as much as you claim, then. Get out of my way. I'll be going."