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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
320 pages
Oct 2006
Integrity Publishers

Calm, Cool & Adjusted (Spa Girls Collection)

by Kristin Billerbeck

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1


Miles run: 6
Laps swum: 24
Desperation scale: 2

Contrary to popular opinion, I am not desperate. Not yet anyway. I would just prefer to have an escort for my best friend’s wedding before my friends find me a mercy date. I suppose I just don’t understand why anyone cares that I have a date for the wedding. It’s not like I have a reputation for being normal. When I show up to any event, it’s expected that I’ll dance to the beat of my own drum. It’s part of my charm.

Besides, a mercy date is so demeaning. I shudder to think about the reading of the vows next to someone I barely know. There’s the uncomfortable shifting, the avoiding of glances while the romantic promises are read. Does anyone facing thirty really need that kind of pressure? I think not. A girl of my age should be allowed to show up at a wedding unencumbered, to pluck from the trough of the buffet without fear or recriminations. I am a modern woman. I’ll get my endorphins from chocolate, thank you very much.

Why must we always come down to the men? Men are a dime a dozen. (Well, not the good ones, but my point is still valid.) I’m not doting or cutesy or even able to hold my tongue at the point when most women know better. My goal is health: to make as many people healthy as possible. Most people simply aren’t concerned about their health, and when I look into a pair of green eyes surrounded by a yellowish tint, how can I not comment on their liver function? I’m a doctor, after all! Granted, I didn’t actually take the Hippocratic oath—I’m a chiropractor. However, I did earn the “Doctor” title and so I like to think that brings me in under an umbrella clause. One of the benefits of doctor status is my free advice.

Am I right? What’s the first thing people do at parties to a doctor? “Oh, Doc, I have this ache in my shoulder.”

Emma, my receptionist, comes in gnawing on a carrot. Emma is the epitome of health and beauty—what the women’s magazines put on their covers—and yet she sees none of it. Wastes her life on a useless boyfriend and working here. Not that I’m not grateful, mind you. I just see her accomplishing so much more with her life and healthy habits.

Perhaps finding a sexy marathon runner and settling down.

But Emma will have none of it. Her ambition is to have conversations all day with my patients, and then fill me in on the gossip. It’s a quest for her. To know more about everyone than they know about themselves.

“Hey, Poppy, Dr. Nip/Tuck is here to see you.” She bites off another piece of carrot as she finishes her sentence. “He’s so fine. You be nice.”

I force down a smile because I know exactly why Dr. Jeff Curran is here. I push through the custom curtain to the office foyer, which is a muted red to inspire energy, wealth, and romance. The plastic surgeon from the office next door sort of matches the wall—his face is a deep shade of scarlet, and something tells me he’s not getting the peaceful feeling from my waterfall feature in the office.

Dr. Jeff is a bit of a dichotomy. You get the impression he used to be ruggedly handsome and hardily masculine before succumbing to the evils of his trade. Now, his skin is as smooth as a baby’s bottom—as if he’s microdermabrasioned daily. Truth be told, he scares me a little because this man is wielding a knife to bring others into his plastic fold.

Perhaps I’m too harsh on him. He is quite handsome; it just pains me to admit it. He’s attractive in that high school quarterback way. But I imagine the only kind of woman he wants is his own mirror image with implants. At least that’s my assessment. As I said, maybe I’m too harsh on him.

“Hi, Dr. Curran. Is there something I can help you with?”

I use my sweetest, low-toned voice to inspire calm. His eyes thin in immediate challenge, which makes me sigh. Why are there people on earth who make Christianity so difficult?

Those who seem to make you an immediate hypocrite just because they are so grating? I suppose it’s the weeds in the field, a product of the fall, but Jeff Curran makes me feel so spiritually weak. He claims Christianity, actually goes to my church, but he and I could not be more opposite if he were a Hindu and I a Muslim. We are, most certainly, unequally yoked in the Christian sense.

“You parked your Subaru in my space again.” He tries to keep the anger from his voice, but he doesn’t succeed. He says Subaru like it’s a main course on Fear Factor.

I did park my car there. On purpose, actually. It’s not technically his space, but he’s so attached to it I just can’t help but taunt him with my inferior car. I sort of enjoy forcing humanity upon him, making him deal with us little people. Yes, it’s childish, but what else do I have going on? When life is boring, you spice it up. Granted, it’s the same way I did it in second grade, but what can I say? I’m easily amused.

 “Have I defiled the space? How will you ever park your Beamer there again? Did I leave an oil stain?” I ask hopefully.

His jaw clenches. “My reputation is everything in this career, Ms. Clayton.” (He refuses to call me Doctor.) “Would you like it if your earthy clients caught you driving a Hummer?” He crosses his arms, waiting for my answer. “I didn’t think so.”

“Maybe you’d like me to get you a nameplate for the spot so everyone will know what you drive.” This makes me laugh a little. As though his personalized “TuckMe” license plate doesn’t tell everyone just whose car it is.

“Poppy, you are the most peaceful woman I know. I come in here and there are scented candles burning, soft music playing, a water fountain. So tell me, how is it you’re so peaceful . . .” He pauses. “ . . . to everyone else? Why must I endure your wrath? What makes me so special?”

That’s a good question, and the simple answer is that I don’t like him, and I don’t like what he does for a living. Feeding off the insecurities of women. Hmm . . . I suppose I believe I must be his voice of reason. Oscar has Felix, SpongeBob has Squidward, and Dr. Jeff has me. It’s the natural course of life.

Since I didn’t answer him, Jeff continues. “Since we must share office space, would you mind keeping your clients’ cars from my side of the parking lot? It’s closer for them, anyway. I think the more convenient we make it for our clients, the better—” He swallows abruptly. “—doctors—” He chokes on the word. “The better doctors we’ll both be. Certainly we can agree on that much.”

I hate to be patronized. For all intents and purposes, I’ve been an adult since I was thirteen. At thirty, I hardly need someone to dumb it down for me. “I can’t exactly go outside and direct traffic. I have a business to run here. Besides, maybe if your clients walk more, they’ll need less liposuction,” I say.

He stands over me menacingly, and I have to admit, he is prettier than me. He’s like a work of art, and I find myself getting lost in his baby blues, which hold no sparkle at the moment. Even angry, they’re beautiful. “You’re sabotaging my practice, Poppy, and I know you wouldn’t do that on purpose.” Again with the patronization. “My clients see the beaters your patients drive and worry that I’m a hack surgeon. They need to trust me with the knife, and part of that is creating an environment they trust. Like your Zen spa space here.”

“Red is the color of energy. My clients should leave here energized and ready to face the world, not relaxed.”

Somehow, that seems different to me than judging a surgeon by the cars in the parking lot, but what do I know of his world?

He gazes up at the wall. “Whatever. Listen, when I have my own surgical center in a few years, I won’t be here. So let’s do our best to coexist, shall we?” He moves a hanging leaf away from his face. “After that, your jungle can reclaim its own and you can go back to smoking incense or whatever it is you do over here.”

“Jeff, you park your car in front of my office. Granted, I understand you don’t want your beloved Lexus scratched, but it makes it look like I’m here for the money. Just like you don’t want the beaters in front of your office, I don’t want the status symbol in front of mine. It says that I value the wrong things in life.”

“Status symbol? I beg your pardon, but I drive a very practical car and the space in front of your office is bigger. No door dings, as you pointed out.”

“It really bothers you this is a free country, doesn’t it? All these people running around with wrinkles and fat you can’t suck out. It’s just criminal that God makes you deal with the riffraff, but I’m afraid that’s the way it is. I park there because I want my patients to trust me. It’s the same difference.”

“Uh, no, it’s not. I’m not charging them seventy-five bucks a pop for voodoo. My clients actually get what they pay for. I promise and I deliver. With you, it’s just the luck of the draw.”

I gasp audibly at his true belief in my practice. “I beg your pardon. Chinese medicine has been around longer than your rudimentary surgery skills. Which will, I’m sure, be out of date with the next brilliant procedure that plasters the skin tighter to the bone. I cure the whole body, not just focus on the superficial.”

He looks around my office and at the water feature in particular. “I’m doing important work over there. I’m not just creating an ambiance.”

Just as he says this, a woman with lips the size of inflated tires comes through the door. “Oh, thorry,” she lisps. “Thought thith wath the exit.” She quickly retreats, and I have to cover my giggle. I’m not sure where plumping lips the size of life preservers comes in on the importance scale, but that’s his problem, not mine.

“Your lips thin when you get older, Ms. Clayton. Someday you too may want injections and just so you know there’re no hard feelings, I’ll be happy to plump them up the first time for free.”

“If you’re hoping I’ll give free adjustments for oversized implants and their effects on the back, I’m afraid I won’t return the favor.”

“I don’t do implants for cosmetic reasons, and you know that.”

I’ve heard him make a point of that, and as much as the rest of his work disgusts me, I can respect that. But we rarely give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s part of our insane and ludicrous mutual attraction, I suppose.

“Poppy.” He lowers his voice to that sexy purr he possesses. “Does it really bother you that I park there?”

I pause for a moment to really ponder the question because he sounds as if he’s really interested. “No,” I admit. Just your very presence in my building annoys me, I think with regret for my own control tendencies.

As much as this man drives me crazy, he’s a very warm spirit. He’s gentle and kind, just incredibly misguided. And Lord forgive me, there’s something within me that wants to set him on the path to righteousness on a daily basis. If I wasn’t visited weekly by people who had destroyed their health over something cosmetic or unnecessary, I wouldn’t have this attitude. I really wouldn’t.

“My patients just don’t want to get old before their time. I know we disagree on methods, but—”

I interrupt him. “How can you perpetuate the myth that it’s about nothing more than being an ornament?”

“I don’t perpetuate that myth, as you put it. But it seems selfish that you would stop women from trying to improve themselves. It’s a choice, you know, and most women aren’t blessed with your looks or that body.”

“Is that a professional opinion?” I ask him. I have no idea why I love to see him squirm, but I apparently live for it. I see his eyes fall on my figure and quickly come to my eyes as if he hasn’t noticed a thing.

“As I was saying . . .” I see him visibly swallow and for some reason, this gives me a small thrill. “Clients seek my help when they aren’t given what nature has been so generous with for you. I would think being beautiful—”

I look down. I’m above this. I know better than to fall for smooth talking, but as I meet his gaze I realize I’m only human.

 “And don’t play coy as if you don’t know it, Poppy. Women know the power beauty yields them, and you’re no different. As I was saying, I think you’d have a little more mercy on your fellow woman.”

Dang, he knows how to make me feel small. I want people to know the power that healthy living can bring them; I want them to know they hold the gift of God’s creation right at their fingertips. But I stumble and become so very human when Jeff calls me beautiful. I am so petty. So vain in my own way.

“I won’t park in your beloved space, all right? Are we done now?”

“I appreciate that.” He flashes those teeth once more and retreats into his world of Botox and silicone. Plastic surgery. Even the name drives me insane. Everything about it says fake, facade, industrial, when we, as doctors, should be teaching the world all things natural: eating habits, renewable resources, exercise. If he wasn’t so Neanderthal, he would see that. But I hold out little hope for him as he slinks back to where he came from.

“I don’t know why he annoys you so much,” Emma says, staring at the closed door our offices share. “He’s always nice to you. He tries, Poppy—you have to give him that.”

“He’s really not that kind, Emma. You’re just charmed by him. Like a snake in his basket. He plays a tune, and we all follow blindly.” I click my tongue, “And I’m no different.”

“Maybe I am charmed, but so what? Does everyone have think like you?”

“Of course not, but it would help if my office staff did. Do you know how many people I see sick from all the environmental triggers in the air? That man deliberately injects people with botulism for vanity’s sake. It’s his entire worldview I have trouble with. Not him, per se.”

“It’s not like he’s forcing it on people. He’s not at a loss for clients. That place is like Grand Central over there, and have you seen they’re carrying that really good mineral makeup at the medical spa?”

I look at her with my naked face. “No, I hadn’t noticed.”

One thing about Emma, what she lacks in ambition she more than makes up for in opinion. “What makes you think you have any right to change him, Poppy?”

“Don’t you see, Hollywood is forcing it—people have an unnatural desire to be youthful. It’s so important to maintain balance in all areas of your life. If you don’t want to age, you should live a healthy lifestyle.”

“Remember that Grape Nuts guy did that, and he still died. Besides, it’s not all about health; it’s about looking good too. No one wants to go through life with 9 percent body fat and the face of a troll, am I right?” Emma asks.

“How can the body work against those poisons he injects, Emma?” I shake my head. “He just wakes up wrong every day. We can’t all age like Cher. We shouldn’t. It isn’t natural.”

“Of course it isn’t natural. That’s why it’s called plastic surgery. Plastic, not so natural. Surgery, not natural. What does that have to do with you taking his parking space everyday?” Emma asks.

“It just makes me feel better, all right? Sort of my own way of balancing him out. I’m the yin to his yang. I bring balance to his world.”

“I don’t know. I like him. He’s always very complimentary of you.” Emma looks at the door, like a retriever waiting for its owner to return. “You don’t have to agree with each other to share office space.” She shrugs. “What do you say to each other at church when you attend?”

“Nothing. And he’s complimentary of everyone, Emma. It’s how he makes his money. ‘Oh, you’re beautiful, dahlink!’ Let me flash my fake smile at you as an exclamation point. He’s a used car salesman with a knife. No wait, that’s too unkind to the car salesman!”

“I just think you could work a little harder to be neighborly. Love thy neighbor as thyself, and all that.”

“I am being neighborly. I’m showing him that his neighbor is valuable even in an American vehicle.”

“No, you’re being motherly. Like you always are—you think you’re Mother Earth and you can parent the rest of us so much better than we can handle our own lives.” Emma grabs up her purse, which is weighted down with foodstuffs.

She gnaws constantly, like a chipmunk, usually on some grain, and has such a high metabolism she even makes the scales nervous. “Want something from next door?”

I shake my head. There’s a café next door. It’s a tiny, Greek place with wonderful delicacies like hummus and grape-leaf sandwiches, but my encounter with Dr. Nip/Tuck has left me without an appetite. “I have a full schedule this afternoon. I want to keep the patients moving through, and I think I’ll just run for a while. I need to clear my head.”

“You already ran this morning. You’re going to look like one of those Hollywood starlets with the stick figure and a big balloon head perched on the shoulders. Is that what you want?”

“I’m just going a mile. I won’t be ten minutes. I’ll eat something fattening when I get back, all right?”

As Emma shuts the door for the lunch break, I allow my body to fall and mold into my ergonomic chair, made especially for my spine. Who wants to be loved for her beauty anyway? Anyone can be beautiful. If they’re not by nature, Jeff seems to be able to boil just such a brew next door. This morning’s situation makes me anxious about the wedding all over again. Why should I bow down to society’s whims? I don’t believe in plastic surgery; that’s easily explained. So why isn’t it just as easy that I don’t want a date for Morgan’s wedding? This is my second best friend to get married within six months. I don’t want to go with just anyone. Of course, if I go alone, people take pictures, and I get to remember I was alone during the day. It’s just not a history I care to relive either way. Is that so wrong?

The way I see it, I have two choices: first, I can tell Morgan and Lilly, my best friends and Spa Girls, that I already have a date for Morgan’s wedding. This would involve lying and I’m a terrible liar. I’d never get away with it. Lilly’s got the eagle eye for truth.

My second option is that I can act as though the wedding means nothing to me and lure some unsuspecting male friend into being my escort. The wedding of course involves two full months of festivities. There’s the couples’ shower, the dinners with out-of-town guests, and, naturally, the rehearsal dinner and wedding. Where am I going to find a date to fill two months of drudgery? Between thoughts of the first shower and the final wave from the “Just Married” limo, my head starts to hurt.

I haven’t had a boyfriend that lasted for two months in, well, I don’t want to say. A long time. Statistically, my chances of holding onto a boyfriend for two months are not pretty, especially since I have no current prospects. Okay, technically, I have no future prospects at the moment, either, but I’m not about to admit that. I must seek out a different avenue in telling my best friends that I’m right on this one.

It wouldn’t be a big deal that I was dateless in San Francisco if I didn’t know Lilly and Morgan were looming with someone to fill the vacancy. Friends always think they know best in terms of your dating options, and let’s just say I’d let them pick me an entire wardrobe before I let them find me my wedding date.

I look up at the clock and realize my running time is quickly dwindling. “I’m just going to call Morgan and Lilly and tell them I’m coming alone.”

The phone rings. And rings. Emma has obviously left for lunch already—and why wouldn’t she? It’s 11:30 and it’s been at least ten minutes since her last snack.

“Dr. Poppy’s office,” I answer.

“Poppy, it’s Lilly.”

My stomach twirls a bit as I think about my next move.

“Hey, Lilly, how’s everything coming for the couples’ shower?” I ask.

“What? Oh, fine, fine. Morgan and George are going to love it. I’ve got the invitations all set. And hey, did you get the times and gift suggestions prepared for the Round-the-Clock shower? I’m going to need those soon.”

“I’ll e-mail them to you today. I’ve got them all finished. You know what I did?”

“Do I want to?” Lilly asks.

“Every two hours is an organ meridian in the Chinese acupuncture clock. I came up with gifts that go with those two hours, to nurture their health. Isn’t that terrific?”

Lilly sighs. “Example, please?”

“Okay, you know how everyone needs a pick-me-up at three in the afternoon? That’s your bladder meridian, and lack of a healthy meridian there can cause fear and a tensed nervous system. So gift suggestions are aromatherapy candles and bath products.”

She sighs again. Louder this time. “You know, Poppy, what’s wrong with just saying the afternoon’s for tea time? Three to five can be tea time, and you can suggest that someone buy a teapot. It’s better than reminding people of the bride’s bodily functions, don’t you think?”

“Well, that’s weird,” I shrug. “Who has tea time in America?”

 “Right,” Lilly says. “Because in America, we’re busy having bladder time instead.”

“We should be,” I say. “Improper bladder function is what causes that afternoon fatigue. God created your organs to work in harmony, Lilly. It’s not a joke to ignore them.”

“I’ll do the time features. Thanks for trying. I don’t even want to know when colon time is.”

“Lilly, you can’t just take everything over.”

“Poppy, you can’t just make Morgan’s shower sound like a New Age gift show. If you show up with healing rocks, you’re outta there.”

I’m quiet. I can’t really answer to that. I don’t believe in the healing power of rocks. But hello? I worked hard on those gift suggestions. Sure, I knew they weren’t the norm, but neither is Morgan. She’s special and I wanted her shower to reflect that. Anyone can do a twenty-four-hour shower. Big deal.

“What I really called about, Poppy—and don’t hang up until you hear me out.”

I look around my office thinking of my alternatives, and yeah, I can hear her out. “I’m listening. Have you been taking that elixir I sent you home with?”

She ignores my question. “Now, we know you have no trouble meeting men. Heck, we’ve been beside you long enough to know all hail the redhead. But Morgan and I met this great guy last night and we thought maybe—”

No, I certainly don’t have any trouble meeting men. It’s the red hair—it’s like a guy magnet. I think all those Maureen O’Hara-John Wayne movies conditioned men to believe taming the fiery redhead is some sort of hero ambition. Of course, I’m nothing like Maureen O’Hara, and I usually turn out to be a big disappointment to those with preconceived ideas. Once I’ve told a man how he needs to improve his kidney function or pump his adrenals, the O’Hara fantasy generally evaporates quickly.

So a blind date is not on my priority list. “Lilly, you know I appreciate you two, but I’ve decided I’m coming to the wedding alone. The pressure of getting a date is just doing nothing for my peace levels. Every time I think about it, I want to run. I’m sure this guy is wonderful, and you can invite him to the wedding and maybe it will be love at first sight. I’ll be overcome by his magnetism, and you can tell me that you told me so. All right?”

“Really, Poppy, you’d like him, and he has a great spine. Very tall. His color is good. He could star in a vitamin ad. Really. You’d love him or I wouldn’t have picked him out for you.”

“Funny, that’s exactly what my dad said about my stepmother—that I’d love her. And we all know where that headed.”

“You’re not going to even give this a chance, are you?”

“Not even a whisper of a chance.” If there’s anything more pathetic than not having a date, or wanting one, it’s being told the perfect man is out there. Here’s the problem with this: your friends, well meaning as they may be, set you up with some form of an ape, and then you question not only yourself, but what your friends must think of you. So I start to pedal quickly. “I’m training for the triathlon in Hawaii and that’s my focus. What’s it to you if I show up alone?”

She’s quiet for a minute—which, may I say, is not like Lilly. “Don’t take offense, Poppy, but lately, your naturalhealth thing is consuming you. The running, the swimming, the eating weird foodstuffs . . . We’re starting to get concerned.”

“I’ll eat what I’m served at the wedding, Lilly.”

“Morgan has taken a lot of flack in the city, what with her father being in jail and a lot of the socialites thinking she belongs there too. Her wedding day is a chance to start fresh. To walk down the aisle with George and little Georgie and know that her history is just that: history. We just need to do what we can to make this day great for her.”

“What do my health interests have to do with Morgan’s wedding?”

“Isn’t it true that at my wedding reception you told the mayor his teeth-whitening system had been linked to cancer?”

“Yeah, but it has and—”

“And isn’t it also true that you told my Nana’s boyfriend that his esophagus spasms could be helped with a proper diet? And you started to write it down?”

“He can’t eat like that and not expect some repercussions.”

“Nana lives to cook for him, Poppy. You ticked both of them off and I had to explain how you are a natural health food promoter.”

“So what does this have to do with Morgan’s wedding? You don’t want me to talk about health, fine, I’ll shut up.”

“Morgan’s had a rough year. She’s been in the newspaper for nothing but scandal for a long time now. This is her day, and no one needs to be diagnosed at the wedding.”

I catch my breath and feel a welt in my throat as I realize my friends don’t really want me at the wedding. They want the Stanford Poppy—the one who graduated with them and was little more than a bad dresser. I embarrass my friends. I know I’m different. I’m not prone to care what the world thinks, but I realize, with a sharp pain, that I do care what Morgan and Lilly think. I’ve always been proud to be different. Until this moment, anyway.

Lilly’s already married. I obviously didn’t do any real damage at her wedding. She’s pregnant, too, so I fail to see how my actions could harm anything in Morgan’s celebration.

George loves her. His son, Georgie, loves her. If I tell someone they need more whole grains, how is that going to hurt anything?

I let out a deep breath. “Fine. I won’t say a thing, even if someone’s liver is puffing their face up to the size of a super tomato. I’ll say nothing,” I vow.

“You can’t help yourself,” Lilly continues. “You’re a natural mother, and you want to mother everyone, and I’m just asking, for this one day, can you put a muzzle on it?”

Can I? I’m sure I probably could, but what about me will be at the wedding? If they want my shell, maybe they could call Stepford.

“I put up with your hair obsession. This is my weirdness; you have to accept it. That’s the cost of being my friend.” Lilly thought at one time that all of her life’s woes were caused by bushy, frizzy Italian hair. She eventually learned it was merely an excuse.

But Lilly doesn’t back down. “Get a date, or I’ll find one for you,” she says. “You’re not going to try and make me feel guilty. He can be as earthy as you like. Just get one or I’ll get one for you.”

“I don’t believe you’ll get me one,” I say, challenging my best friend.

“Try me. Show up alone, and I’ll have someone meet you at the door, and he might have a lace muzzle I’ve sewn.”

This makes me laugh. “Who would you get?”

“Nate, if you’re not careful.”

Nate’s her former toad neighbor who goes through women like Kleenex. “I’ll find a date.” So much for Eleanor Roosevelt and my suffragettes. In the world of weddings, a girl is in need of a date. Sometimes we are so Victorian.

Lilly offers one last stand. “This is for your own good.”

“What if I’m destined to be single for the rest of my life, and you’re upsetting the balance of nature and God’s plan?”

 “I’ll take it up with Him. See ya, love.” Lilly hangs up the phone, and I’m in no better place than I was before the conversation.

I slide into my running shoes, lace them up, and exit through the back door of my office. Dr. Jeff is getting into his Lexus—which I called a Beamer just to bug him—and there’s an awkward moment where we should probably acknowledge each other’s presence, but don’t. A Lexus convertible, I think to myself. Little cars for little men.