A new series is on the way! For those who love a touching romantic comedy, I present the first in my new Love in Rustic Woods novels, Kiss Me, Tate. We last met Bunny Bergen in the Barbara Marr Mystery, Citizen Insane. She returns now, facing more problems after being fired because her boss’s wife didn’t like her. Luckily, she lands a new job at the Rustic Woods Nature Center, but the boss’s wife continues to stir trouble. And if that isn’t bad enough, Bunny now works with Tate Kilbourn, a man she’s secretly longed for since high school. Only, Bunny isn’t exactly his type. Or is she?
Due to be released this summer, here’s an excerpt – Chapter One of Kiss Me, Tate:
Bunny Bergen’s biggest downfall was probably her inability to see past people’s social veneers. Which was why she found herself standing with a toothpaste samples box tucked under one arm and a severance check in her other hand, wondering what the heck had just happened.
She’d been fired. Or rather, “let go” as her boss, Dr. Page, DDS, had said. He’d told her that he couldn’t afford her, but that, she knew, was plain crazy. He barely paid her above minimum wage for a receptionist position that required far more than simply answering a phone for crying out loud. And she was the only receptionist, which meant he’d need to find someone else for less pay pretty darn quick. No, it didn’t add up. Bunny might be naive, but she wasn’t stupid.
As she balanced the box filled with her few personal items to find her car keys in her purse, Lois, the senior dental technician, hurried down the front walk of the RusticWoodsMedicalBuilding. She stopped in front of Bunny, putting a fist to her hip. “He did it, huh?” The woman, easily ten years Bunny’s senior, looked at her watch. “What did he do, call you in early to give you the boot?”
Bunny nodded, the reminder of her termination episode knotting her stomach. “You knew?”
“Let’s just say that I overheard some things.”
“Remember yesterday, when Broom Hildie was in?”
Bunny deepened her frown. She didn’t care for the name the staff had given Dr. Page’s wife. It seemed awfully harsh given that the woman was perfectly cordial to her yesterday. Yet, during her short, three-week stint at the dental practice, the technicians had shared rants more than once about ‘Broom Hildie’ Page. She thought back to previous day and Mrs. Page’s lunch-time visit. She had smiled and shaken Bunny’s hand, introducing herself. Said how glad she was to meet her and that Dr. Page had mentioned many times how lucky he was to find someone as hard working and dedicated as Bunny. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to Bunny. She shook her head. “I don’t get it. She was nice. I was nice. What did I miss?”
“She had an apoplectic fit outside when they left for lunch. She didn’t even wait to get to their car before she tore into him.”
“What?” Bunny covered her chest instinctively, mortified.
“Said they were hanging out like you were having a two-for-one sale.”
“They were not!” Bunny dipped her gaze and examined the guilty parties. It was true, she didn’t try to hide them. Her preference was for sweaters and blouses that complemented the cleavage she inherited from Nana McDougal, but she sure as heck didn’t let them “hang out.” Plenty of respectable women wore the kind of clothes she wore. The accusation caused her face to flame.
“It gets worse,” Lois said.
Bunny didn’t know if she wanted to hear anything worse. Lois told her anyway. “She called you a skank.”
The word hit Bunny like a punch to the stomach, making her nauseous. She’d been the source of nasty rumors before, passed on by people who didn’t know her. People who judged her simply because she was attractive and liked to wear decidedly feminine attire. She didn’t need this kind of trauma in her life again. Taking a moment to steady her rage and fantasizing about spitting on Broom Hildie, she pressed her car fob and heard it unlock. With some clumsy maneuverings, she managed to open the door and shove the box and her purse into the back seat. Slamming the door loudly helped her vent some of the anger and upset, but certainly not all of it.
Lois pulled something from her coat pocket. “Here.” She handed a folded piece of blue paper to Bunny. “I thought this might happen and I know you need the work. They need a receptionist at the NatureCenter, but they’re interviewing today. You should probably get over there as soon as possible.”
Bunny took the paper with shaking hands.
“I’m sorry,” Lois said. “I know it hurts, but I thought you should know.”
Tears welled in Bunny’s eyes, but she fought them back. “It’s…” she gulped, not wanting Lois to see her break down. “It’s fine.” She waved the blue paper in the air while opening the driver’s side door. “Thank you for this.”
Once seated in her car with the heat running, Bunny pondered her dilemma. She should sue. Surely you couldn’t just fire a person based on her choice of neckline or ridiculous lies spread by cranky wives. The waterworks began to flow at the thought. She would have to hire a lawyer and lawyer’s fees were the reason she’d taken this ridiculously low-paying job to begin with. Fighting her ex-husband for custody of her two boys had nearly bankrupt her, taking a serious toll on the financially secure way of life she’d always enjoyed.
After allowing herself a ten-Kleenex cry in her twenty year-old, junk yard-ready Ford, Bunny unfolded the paper and inspected it more carefully. Lois’ scrawl was nearly indecipherable, which didn’t matter, really. If she did decide to rush over, red-rimmed eyes and all, she certainly knew her way to the NatureCenter. Most people in Rustic Woods did, especially if they had children. Her own boys had attended summer camps there as well as boy scout nature hikes.
The question was, did she want to do this interview at all? She didn’t have a resume with her or anything. Not that there was anything on the resume. The job with Dr. Page was her first real work experience outside of a summer intern job between her junior and senior years in college, and that was with a fashion writer. Not exactly Nature Center sort of a background. And technically now she’d have to add her three week stint at Dr. Page’s that ended in termination. Her cheeks cramped as water filled her eyes again. She yanked three more tissues from the box, grabbed her phone and dialed Barb for advice.
Her friend picked up on the third ring and Bunny started blubbering again, even before she could hear the “Hello.”
“Bunny, what’s wrong? Has something happened?” Barb asked in a concerned voice. Barbara Marr lived one street over from Bunny and was a rock as far as she was concerned. They’d become friends during a very strange time in Bunny’s life, and the fact that Barb had tried to shoot her in the foot only strengthened her admiration for the woman. She’d done it to save Bunny’s life, after all.
Bunny choked back her sobs. “He fired me.”
“The dentist? Why?”
“My cleavage, apparently.”
“This sounds like a discussion we should have over a glass of wine.”
Bunny laughed over a sniffle. “It’s nine o’clock in the morning, Barb.”
“Coffee then. Do you want to come over?”
“I don’t know. Lois – one of the dental technicians – told me about another job but I need to go over right now.”
“Another dentist office?”
“No. The NatureCenter.”
“I do. You need a pep talk? I can meet you there.”
Bunny sniffled some more. She didn’t deserve a friend as sweet as Barb. “Thanks. Can you bring—”
“Getting a turtleneck from my closet right now. And a sweater for good measure.”
Barb’s white mini van was already parked in the large graveled parking lot of the RusticWoodsNatureCenter when Bunny pulled in herself, her cranky old car coughing and sputtering when she turned off the ignition.
They met in between the two cars. The curly-haired woman gave Bunny a tight hug that really did make her feel much better. “Thank you for coming. I’m still not sure about this though.”
“Pshaw,” said her friend. “You’ll go in there and knock ‘em dead. They’ll love you. Probably hire you on the spot. Now let’s get you interview-ready.”
Bunny looked around. “Where?”
Barb tugged hard to open the sliding van door. “My van. Hop in the back.”
Bunny, despite her name, didn’t hop anywhere easily. She was a tall woman with some fairly long and lanky bones.
Grinning, Barb handed her an emerald green turtleneck, and smiled. “Green to match your eyes. No one will even notice your knockers. Speaking of which, you owe me a story while you’re dressing.”
With a doubtful look on her face, Bunny wrangled herself into the back while trying to keep her black skirt from shimmying too high or her heels from flipping off her feet. Once in, she breathed heavily, winded from the work-out involved. When spring arrived, she needed put some serious effort into a plan for more exercise.
Barb followed behind, slid the door closed, and then scanned the parking lot through the tinted windows. “I think you’re safe. Undress, and I’ll keep lookout.”
Bunny unbuttoned her blouse while recounting her tale of woe, but grunted the story out less easily while trying to work her way into her friend’s turtleneck. Once she had one arm half way on, she knew she was in trouble. It was tight. Very tight. “Lois said she called me a skank,” more or less finishing her story. “What size is this?” she asked Barb.
“Medium. A skank? Based on what?”
“I don’t know.” Bunny contorted this way and that attempting to get the thing over her head and down over her bodice. “Medium, huh?”
“What size do you usually wear?” Barb asked her.
“Not a medium.” She pulled and yanked and shimmied. Finally, she had the turtleneck in place. Well, sort of. She looked down.
“Uh oh,” said Barb.
Uh oh was right. Donning a top that was too small had the opposite effect she was going for. Instead of diminishing the large appearance of her chest, the constricting nature of the fabric accentuated her girth up top. Her hopes sank. “I have a broad back.”
“To match your broad front,” said Barb with a light chuckle. “I’m so jealous. The only times I ever had a cleavage was when I was breastfeeding. I took pictures so I could look back and remember the good times.” She shook her head while Bunny laughed, thankful for her friend’s dry humor to lift her spirits.
“Back to the drawing board on Project Hide and No Peek,” Barb said on a sigh. “Get your blouse back on. We’ll have to cover you with this sweater.” Barb gave another scan to make sure the coast was clear for Bunny to strip.
Back outside, they battle-planned the wearing of the sweater. Which was also on the small side for Bunny, but not nearly the disaster of the turtleneck. Bunny brought up the idea of wearing her winter coat in, feigning the feel of a fever coming on, but they both nixed that approach pretty fast. Not only would it make Bunny look odd, but they’d probably end the interview too quickly, worried of germs in the air.
She fiddled with the sweater some more, then decided she’d done enough. Either she’d get this job or she wouldn’t, but she couldn’t worry anymore. She needed to just get in there, get it done and get out. She took a deep breath. “I’m ready.”
“That’s the spirit.” Barb gave her a warm smile. She took Bunny by the shoulders. “Remember, you’re a brave, strong, confident woman.”
“I’m not that confident…”
“What did you just say?”
“Confident. I’m a confident woman.”
“So confident, they’ll have no choice but to give you that job, right here, right now. Do you want me to come in with you?”
Bunny’s first thought was Yes please. In fact, can you interview in my place? But she dug down deep and found some courage. She shook her head. “No. No. I’m good.”
“Do you want me to wait?”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be. You should go home. Can I come by after?”
“Sure. I’ll have coffee waiting.”
“Have that wine chilled just in case.”
Bunny stepped through the doorway of the RusticWoodsNatureCenter and, not-so-confidently, peeked around the quiet place for a person to consult about this possible receptionist position. To both her right and left were rooms with posters on the walls and aquariums containing local plant life and probably a snake or two, if she remembered right from her trips with the boys. Was there a reception desk? She couldn’t remember. If they needed a receptionist, there must be a reception desk. Her heels clacked on the hard wood floor as she proceeded tentatively forward, her head propelled forward, leading the rest of her shaky body. “Hello?” She clacked a few more steps ahead. “Hello?”
Aha. There it was. Once more than halfway down the main hallway, she saw the appropriately rustic wooden reception desk. Seated there was a young girl who looked no older than her son Charlie. She wondered why the girl wasn’t in school. Or why she wasn’t answering Bunny’s call. A few more loud steps, and Bunny could see the reason why. She was reading a book and had tuned the world out with ear buds and an iPod.
She clattered a little more boldly to the desk. A teenager wasn’t so threatening. She could handle that. The girl still hadn’t noticed her, however, despite the fact that she stood right in front of her now. She cleared her throat. No reaction.
“Tap her book. She’s oblivious.” The low male voice came from behind Bunny and startled her enough to make her jump. Sitting on a bench against the wall was a man and a woman. The man was dressed like he’d just come from a shift at an auto mechanic shop. The brunette woman was younger and professionally interview ready in a salmon suit, which Bunny felt that while attractive in a sort of Floridian way, was entirely out of place in the month of February. She gripped a soft leather briefcase in her lap, as if afraid the man next to her might steal it.
“Tap the book,” the man repeated. “That’s what I did.”
Bunny smiled hesitantly at the grimy man. She turned and reached out, giving the girl’s book a small poke with her index finger.
Rather than seeming startled, the girl raised her eyes with an annoyed glare. After what felt like years to Bunny, the little brat pulled one bud from her ear. “Can I help you?”
“I was told… I mean, I’d like to…”
The girl sighed while Bunny fumbled to speak her thoughts coherently. The sigh irritated Bunny, prodding her to get a grip on her wits. “The receptionist position,” she said with more certainty. “I want to interview.”
“What’s your name?”
“Bu—” She stopped herself just in time. When interviewing, she always used her legal name, Robin. Sounded more adult she thought. More professional. “Robin Bergen.”
The girl made a grand gesture of leaning far over to look at a clip board. When she returned to book reading position, she acted very bored. “You’re not on the list.”
“That’s okay. I was told if I came right over, I could interview. I have a name…” she pulled the paper from her pocket. “I’m not sure what it is though. Allison, maybe?”
The girl stared at Bunny. Bunny stared at the girl. A big clock on the wall made of redwood ticked. And it tocked. The unblinking girl tapped her finger once, twice, three times. “Or maybe it was Avril,” Bunny finally said, her confidence waning. “I couldn’t read her writing.” She held it up for the girl to read, but the imp didn’t seem interested. Without taking her accusing eyes off Bunny, she picked up the phone and punch a button. “Abigail?” she said into the receiver.
Bunny heard a beeping noise, and a moment later a woman’s voice sounded over the intercom. “Yes, Corrinne?”
“Woman named Robin here was told she could just show up for an interview. What do I do?”
“She’s not on the list?”
Afraid her chances at the job were slipping away, Bunny waved her hand in front of the girl’s face. “Bunny Bergen. She might know that name. My friend Lois told me to come.”
The girl emitted a sigh with so much force that papers on the desk fluttered. “Now she says her name is Bunny Bergen.”
“Oh, for crying out loud, have her fill out an application. We’ll see her at the end if we have time.”
Bunny thanked the ill mannered receptionist reluctantly, plucked the offered application from her hand before it could be rescinded, and took the only space left on the bench next to the grimy man. She tightened the grip on her pen and focused her attention on making herself look good on paper.
The briefcase-clutching lady in the salmon suit was called in after a very keenly dressed, well-manicured man exited from the door to their right labeled Conference Room. The man had a wide smile on his face. Must have gone well. Darn. Bunny’s nerves were beginning to affect her stomach. It twisted and turned and gurgled. Quite audibly.
Time seemed to creep by at a horrifically slow pace as she waited her turn. Bunny looked at the clock on the wall for the hundredth time. It was dangerously close to noon. Would they have time for her? Finally, the grimy looking man came through the door and motioned to her with one hand while holding the door open with the other. “They said you can go in.”
“Oh, thank you.” Bunny rose, gathered her things, made sure the sweater wrapped nicely over her bosom, and teetered on her heels past the man. She stopped in a panic, right at the door.
“It’s okay,” said the man smiling. “You’ll do great. I’ll bet you’re a shoe in.”
Bunny felt guilty for thinking unkind things about his appearance. Hadn’t she just lost a job for that very reason? “Thanks.” She paused for a deep breath, then continued forth, trying to convince herself that she was, in fact, a shoe-in.
She had to pass through two sets of heavy wooden doors before entering the space that seemed to be less room and more conference table. And more people. What the heck? Bunny envisioned a one-on-one interview, much like the easy going time she had with Dr. Page, who had kindly put her at ease almost instantly. Here, at the horribly long table, sat five people. Five. She thought surely this must be the wrong interview location. For a much more important position than receptionist. The faces stared at her. Three men, two women. None of them smiled.
“I’m, um… sorry,” Bunny stumbled. “I think I’m in the wrong place.”
One of the women, one with scary hair and a scowl, spoke up. “Are you applying for the receptionist position or aren’t you?”
“Oh, yes.” Bunny held up the completed application. Her nerves were so frazzled, she thought she might faint soon. I should have skipped this and gone straight to Barb’s for that wine.
The frizzy haired woman raised her hand in the air, indicating to Bunny that she should bring the application to her, which Bunny did. While Bunny made the long walk to the back of the table where the woman sat, the woman made introductions. She pointed to the woman on her right – a short, round woman with glasses. “This is Olga, the NatureCenter’s Publicity and Outreach Coordinator. I’m Abigail, the Activities Coordinator.” She pointed to a man next to her with a brown bushy mustache and even bushier eyebrows who looked like he belonged in a barber shop quartet. “This is Rupert Long, whom you may recognize – he’s a member of the board of the Rustic Woods Association.” Next in the lineup was a thin, pasty-faced man with a pointy nose. “That’s George.” Bunny wondered why poor George doesn’t rate a designation. “And, finally,” said Abigail, pointing to the man at the end of the half-circle of interrogators… Bunny’s eyes landed on the dark-haired, bearded man with the sleepy onyx eyes, who looked very familiar. Her heart fluttered when she realized why. No introduction was necessary. She knew the man. Not well, but she definitely knew him. He was back in town and, holy guacamole, he was more gorgeous than ever.
Elation quickly turned to agitation. Crap, she thought, why here? Why now? Now I’ll really screw things up.
Abigail’s introduction continued, “This is—”
Bunny hadn’t meant to interrupt the woman. It just sort of happened. “I know, Tate,” she said, looking at the man. Her voice trembled slightly. “Nice to see you again.”
Really, really nice.