Chapter One

Soup Swap

No one wants bird poop in their salad.

That’s what Emily Wellington’s girlfriend, Gretchen, always said about the Little Bird, a quaint, outdoor café across from the ocean in Santa Monica. True enough, but it was still Emily’s favorite restaurant. The place was surrounded by bird feeders that attracted calliope hummingbirds, American goldfinch, and song sparrows. It was like dining with feathered friends, which were preferable to most humans.

Emily shifted in her seat, tugged on her collar, and glanced around the café. It was like a million-watt spotlight beamed down, considering the table was right in the epicenter. That wasn’t good when it came to tornados, earthquakes, or restaurant seating. Emily preferred out-of-the-way corner locations, anyplace where she could blend into the scenery like a chameleon. To take her mind off being center stage, she replayed the strange voice message she’d received from Gretchen that morning.

First, it was odd she’d suggested they meet at the café for lunch, considering the bird-poop threat and the fact that it was Monday. Lunch was every Tuesday and Thursday, date nights Monday and Friday, and lovemaking Saturday night. This impromptu lunch would throw off their entire schedule, which was unheard of. And even weirder was that Gretchen had ended by saying, in a terse tone, “We need to talk.” Normally, that’d mean Emily was about to get dumped, but she knew better. They fit together like peanut butter and chocolate. Emily’s mouth watered. What she wouldn’t give for a Reese’s peanut-butter cup. Instead, she slipped a straw into her mouth and gulped down unsweetened, watered-down tea, which was a sad substitute.

There was only one thing this unscheduled lunch could be about: D-Day. Two years ago, Emily had made a promise to her parents and Gretchen, and now it was payback time. She’d racked her brain all morning trying to come up with an excuse to postpone the inevitable, but she had nothing. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and reveled in the lullaby of a sparrow: three short, clear notes followed by a buzz and ending in a trill. If anything could calm her nerves, it was a songbird. She probably could have sat there all day allowing the symphony to wash through her if it weren’t for someone loudly clearing their throat.

Emily’s eyes popped open. A stunning woman with deep-blue eyes and shoulder-length golden hair stood beside her table. She had the milky complexion of a snowy owl, and despite well-defined arms that suggested she lifted weights, the woman moved as gracefully and confidently as a peacock when she shooed a bluebird off the table. Instinctively, Emily sucked in her gut. The woman had the proportions of a Malibu Barbie. Emily, on the other hand, would be Barbie’s distant cousin who never got invited to the Dreamhouse for a pool party.

“Well?” The woman rhythmically tapped her foot, which probably wasn’t to the tempo of a bird song.

Momentarily confused, Emily silently stared until she realized the woman had most likely been speaking for quite some time. Tuning people out was one of her talents, especially when birds were around.

“What?” Emily asked.

The woman sighed and looked as though she was resisting a dramatic eye roll. “Would you like to order now?” She pronounced each word precisely and raised her voice as though Emily might be deaf.

“But what about—”

“Jill, your waitress, is on a break, and I’ll be taking over your table.” The woman’s left eyebrow shot up. “Sooo?”

“Oh. No. I’m waiting on someone.”

“Right. Your girlfriend.”

“How’d you know that? Wow. Just how gay do I look?” Emily chuckled.

The woman turned redder than a male cardinal. “I didn’t mean…I just…um…I’ll check back later.” And with that she was gone.

Emily grabbed a spoon and studied her reflection. Short chestnut hair, brown eyes, khaki shorts, red plaid shirt, hiking boots. What about that screamed lesbian? It wasn’t like she was carrying a golf club, and her rainbow keychain was tucked into her pocket, not even visible.

When the waitress cleared her throat again, Emily jumped in her seat, causing the utensil to clang to the table.

“Christ. You scared the crap outta me. You’re as quiet as a dead three-wattled bellbird.”

“A what?”

“The bellbird is the world’s loudest bird. It can be heard almost a mile away, so the fact that it’s deadwould then make it the quietest. Get it?”

The woman blinked rapidly and didn’t even crack a smile. No one ever got her bird humor.

“Yeah. Whatever. I just wanted to say that I don’t have anything against lesbians.”

“Okaaay.”

“There’s no reason to say anything to my manager. I’m one myself. A lesbian, I mean.”

“I didn’t plan to.”

The woman’s jaw muscles clenched. She peered down at Emily with squinty, suspicious eyes and looked like she was about to grab her by the collar with both hands. It was amazing how she could pull off stunning centerfold and scary biker chick all at once.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” Emily said. She usually didn’t strike up conversations with strangers, but something about this woman piqued her interest. She didn’t look like the waitress type.

The woman paused, one of those long, uncomfortable silences that made Emily want to crawl under the table. Finally, she said, “I’ve been here a couple of months. I work the night shift, but I’ll be taking over the lunch run for Jill.”

“Oh, right. She mentioned she was going on vacation next week. I’m Emily, by the way.”

“Sydney.”

“You’ll see me here a lot. It’s my favorite lunch spot.”

“Really? Even with all these birds flying around?” Sydney ducked when a hummingbird whizzed past her head, so close her hair swayed in the breeze.

“That’s the best part. I own a bird magazine. The Tweet. Maybe you’ve heard of it?”

Sydney stared, stone-faced, like a flawless marble Aphrodite statue. She was about as enthralled with that revelation as she was with Emily’s bellbird joke.

“”It’s okay,” Emily said. “Most people aren’t into birding. Where’d you work before?” Emily held up a finger. “Wait. Don’t tell me. You’re a wannabe actress slumming as a waitress, right?”

“No.”

“Musician?” Sydney shook her head. “Dancer?”

“Not exactly.”

“What then? I know people. Maybe I could help.” That was a lie. Emily knew no one. If she wasn’t sitting in her cramped two-person office, she was looking through binoculars. But she was curious as to the beautiful waitress’s aspirations.

Sydney’s eyes, the color of the Mediterranean, shifted back and forth. “I should just concentrate on this job for now. I really can’t fuck it up again.”

Again?Sounded like Sydney had issues holding down a position.

“Well,” Emily said, not wanting to push the issue, “I’ll give you a little tip about waitressing. Be nice no matter how cranky the customers are.”

“Right. Oh, hey. Here comes your girlfriend.” Sydney pointed to a fast-approaching Gretchen.

“How’d you know—”

Sydney sped away before Emily could finish her sentence.

Gretchen hooked her bag on the back of the chair and lightly patted Emily’s shoulder. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, breathless. “The Rasmussen audit went long.”

Emily pointed at Sydney’s retreating back. “Do you know her?”

Gretchen slid into the chair and ran fingers through long, frizzy brown hair. “No. Why do you ask?”

“She recognized you.”

A flash of something, maybe worry or anger, crossed Gretchen’s face. She grabbed a menu, eyes darting around like a nervous squirrel. “How about mushroom soup?”

“Gretchen, look at me.”

Gretchen sighed dramatically and focused on the space above Emily’s head. And there it was, the telltale sign of lying—no eye contact. Emily’s heart beat faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Oh my God. Maybe she wasabout to get dumped. Maybe Gretchen and the waitress where having an…

“An affair? Is that why you wanted to meet me here?”

“What are you talking about?” Gretchen batted her eyelashes and looked about as innocent as a convicted felon.

“You and Sydney!”

“Who the hell is Sydney?” Gretchen’s voice rose two octaves.

“Our waitress!”

Gretchen burst out laughing. After several minutes, she said, “I barely even caught a glimpse of her, and you think we’re having an affair?”

“But…she knew I was waiting for my girlfriend…and…she’s a lesbian and…she recognized you…” All that information seemed incriminating in Emily’s head, but saying it aloud sounded ridiculous.

“I’m not sleeping with the waitress.” Gretchen chuckled in a way that made Emily feel like a moron. “Now where’s this Sydney person? I’m ready to order.”

Gretchen signaled Sydney, who was beside their table in a flash with a pad and pen.

“Mushroom soup?” Gretchen asked Emily.

Emily scrunched her nose and scanned the menu. “It’s too hot. A Cobb salad sounds good.”

“You’re slouching again,” Gretchen said.

Emily sat upright and lifted her chin. Sydney shot Gretchen a go-to-hell look, the kind Emily wished she could do sometimes. It always made her feel like a kid when Gretchen corrected her posture. She was right, though. Emily wasn’t the most poised person.

“I heard the soup is really good here,” Gretchen said.

“Where in the world did you hear that? And since when are you so hot for soup?” Emily chuckled at the unintended pun, which apparently went over everyone’s head. “Get it? Hot? Soup?”

“We’ll take two mushroom soups,” Gretchen said, completely ignoring Emily.

“Right away.” Sydney gathered the menus and sped away before Emily could protest.

Whatever. She didn’t want to waste time changing the order. The sooner she got this lunch over with, the better.

Emily took a deep breath. “I know why you wanted to meet.”

“You do?” Gretchen’s forehead wrinkled, which always happened when she was worried about something.

“I realize it’s been almost two years.” Sydney placed a bowl of steaming soup in front of Emily. “Wow. That was fast.”

“Let’s dig in,” Gretchen said brightly. She was awfully excited about mushroom soup.

Emily gulped down a spoonful. “Now about—”

“Take another bite. A big one.” Gretchen sat motionless, observing Emily like a specimen under a microscope.

Emily did as instructed, with Gretchen watching her every move. After she swallowed, Gretchen frowned and peered into the bowl. Had she seen a bug fly in there or, worse, a bird dropping? Suddenly, Emily wasn’t very hungry. She pushed the bowl aside.

“Eat more,” Gretchen demanded.

“Why? You haven’t even touched yours.”

Gretchen huffed, grabbed a spoon, and vigorously stirred the thick liquid. She grunted and signaled Sydney, who rushed to the table. Sydney looked as though she were about to say something when a woman sitting beside them screamed like a banshee. She took something out of her mouth and plunked the object into her bowl. Gretchen sprang to her feet, pushed Sydney aside, and thrust her hand into the woman’s soup. She whirled it around a few times, grabbed the object, and clutched it in her fist.

“What the hell’s going on?” Emily jumped up. Why was her girlfriend’s hand covered with a stranger’s tomato soup?

Fire blazed in Gretchen’s eyes as she pointed at Sydney, red sauce dripping from her fingertips. “You idiot! I told you mushroom, not tomato.”

The manager, in a suit two sizes too small, rushed to the table. “What happened?”

Gretchen wagged her finger, causing drops of tomato juice to dot Sydney’s white shirt. “Your idiot waitress just ruined the most important moment of my life!”

Emily nervously looked around the restaurant, all eyes on them. She wanted to shrink to the size of a mouse and scurry into a hole. She’d been taught never to make a scene. Her own mother’s hair could be on fire, and you wouldn’t hear a peep out of her.

Sydney’s eyes narrowed, fists clenched. “You switched it at least five times yesterday. I had to keep crossing it out and rewriting the order.”

“I want her fired,” Gretchen demanded.

“I’m not losing my job over your stupid idea. Who the fuck proposes to someone with mushroom soup? You should have done it during a Dodgers halftime like every other moron in this city who thinks love lasts a lifetime.”

Wait…what had Sydney said? Gretchen was going to propose?

The manager pointed at Sydney. “You. Behind the counter. Now.”

“Un-fucking-believable.” Sydney shot invisible death rays at Gretchen and stalked away, yelling over her shoulder, “And I’m not an idiot!”

The manager attempted to wipe Gretchen’s dripping tomato hand with a napkin, which did nothing but make a bloody mess. “I’m so sorry, miss. There’s no charge, of course. Can I bring you another bowl?”

Gretchen shook her head. “It’s too late. The damage is done.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said and headed straight toward Sydney.

Emily lowered herself into the chair, knees suddenly wobbly. “You’re going to ask me to marry you? With mushroom soup?”

“This isn’t how I planned it. I spent an hour explaining my idea to our idiot waitress yesterday.”

Gretchen plopped into her chair and shot Sydney a dirty look. Emily blinked wildly, still not comprehending what was happening. Marriage? That seemed so…permanent.

Gretchen dipped the ring in her water glass and wiped it on a napkin. She scooted her chair closer and focused on Emily. “We’ve been together for five years now, and it seems that the next reasonable step in our relationship is that we get engaged.”

Gretchen grabbed Emily’s hand and slipped a diamond ring on her finger. Emily’s gaze jumped from the sticky, red-from-tomato-sauce ring to Gretchen’s expectant expression. Emily waited for more words to come, but none emerged. She’d never been proposed to before, but wasn’t it supposed to be in the form of a question and weren’t you supposed to wait until afterthe woman accepted to put the ring on her finger? But then again, wasn’t Emily’s response inevitable? She and Gretchen were perfect for each other. Both were practical, responsible, and had the same values. Gretchen was right. It was the next reasonable step.

“Well?” Gretchen asked, concern filling her brown eyes.

“Yes. Of course I’ll marry you.”

Gretchen smiled and looked as though she were about to kiss Emily, but refrained. She wasn’t one for public displays of affection. “I think we should make the announcement tomorrow night at your parents’ dinner party.”

Emily nodded, knowing that everyone would be ecstatic.

“So what do you think?” Gretchen motioned toward the ring.

“It’s so…big. And beautiful.”

The diamond was huge, probably five carats. Too garish for Emily’s taste, but she certainly couldn’t complain. It must have put Gretchen, or rather her parents, back over ten thousand dollars. She guessed this meant she needed to get Gretchen a ring now. She certainly couldn’t afford something this expensive.

“You don’t seem very excited,” Gretchen said.

“I am! I’m just surprised. Actually, I thought you were going to talk to me about the magazine.” Emily chuckled nervously.

“That’s second on my agenda.” Gretchen pulled a stack of papers out of her bag and shoved them at Emily. “As your accountant I must tell you that The Tweetis in serious trouble.”

Emily had no idea what she was looking at, but all those negative numbers couldn’t be good. She knew her business was losing money, but was it thatbad?

“You’re headed toward financial ruin. And need I remind you that you’re nearing the deadline.”

Two years ago, Emily had quit a high-paying marketing-manager position to start a bird magazine, despite horror-filled gasps from Gretchen and their parents. She’d promised that if she couldn’t make a success of the publication in two years, she’d shut it down and go back to the corporate world. But that was the last thing Emily wanted to do. The Tweetwas everything to her.

“If it weren’t for Owen…” Emily scowled.

“You can’t blame him,” Gretchen said adamantly.

Actually, she could.

“And now that we’re getting married, you need to think about our future,” Gretchen said. “You’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to grow up and get a real job.”

A real job? Emily had worked harder at the magazine than she ever had in marketing. It never felt like work, though, since it was her passion. Gretchen never had understood Emily’s love of birds. She’d tried to explain it to her many times, but it was like talking to a potted plant. She hadn’t comprehended one word, not that Emily could blame her. Most people thought birding was for nerds.

“You promised. Remember?” Gretchen flashed a stern expression.

Emily lowered her head, the glint from her diamond ring momentarily blinding her. “I know. Maybe you’re right.”

It would be devastating, but closing the magazine would be the responsible thing to do, and Emily was all about being responsible. In fact, quitting her job and starting The Tweetwas the only irresponsible thing she’d ever done.

 

Chapter Two

Pole Power

Click-click-click.

That’s what Sydney Cooper heard when she turned the ignition on her eleven-year-old Ford Fiesta.

“Come on, baby. Don’t do this to me now.” She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and cranked the engine again, with no success.

“Fuck.” Sydney banged the heel of her hand hard against the steering wheel.

It’d been one hell of a day, and the last thing she needed was a dead battery. Sydney glared at the Little Bird Café through her bug-stained window. She couldn’t go back in there and ask for help, not after getting fired thanks to that dreadful couple. She couldn’t believe that Gretchen woman had called her an idiot. That had stung worse than getting canned.

Sydney rolled down her window when Jill tapped on the glass.

“Are you okay? I saw what happened.” Jill eyed the inside of Sydney’s car disapprovingly.

Due to a break-in last month, the passenger window had been smashed, the CD player ripped out, and the carpet and seat were stained. It wasn’t like she lived in the safest LA neighborhood.

“I’m fine.”

That was a lie, but Sydney certainly wasn’t going to say otherwise, especially to someone as put-together as Jill. She was a fifty-something rich widow who worked as a waitress because she thought it was “fun.” She had houses in Beverly Hills and Palm Springs and a cabin in Ojai Valley, and she was going to Europe soon on vacation for a month. Some people had all the luck.

“You know,” Jill bit her bottom lip, “you really shouldn’t yell at the customers or, God forbid, use the F-word. You might have a bit of an…anger problem.”

Sydney stuck her tongue inside her cheek to keep from pouncing on Jill like a Tasmanian devil. She really didn’t want a speech right now about her temper. She’d heard it all before.

“Riiight. Well, I don’t want to keep you from work.” Sydney nodded toward the café.

Jill stood upright and said, “Good luck. You’ll need it.” She’d whispered that last part just loud enough for Sydney to hear.

After Jill disappeared into the Little Bird, Sydney sat back in her seat and fumed. Monica would throw her out of the apartment for sure this time. Sydney had barely been able to come up with her half of the rent for months, and she certainly couldn’t do so now. Maybe Sydney’s mom had been right after all. Maybe she was a loser.

Sydney grabbed her phone and pressed the speed dial. “Hey. It’s me.”

“Hi,” Monica said, breathless. “What’s up?”

“My battery is dead again. I thought maybe you could pick me up.”

“Sorry, but I’m running out the door for work. Did your shift end early?”

“Um.”

“Syd?”

“Wellll.”

“Christ. You got fired again, didn’t you?”

Sydney could picture Monica standing in their 4x4 pink-painted kitchen with a hand on her hip, smoke practically coming out of her ears.

“I know…I know…but it wasn’t my fault.”

“You should stop screwing around with crappy jobs and come back to the club.”

“No way.” Sydney vigorously shook her head.

“Cruz said you were the best pole dancer he’s ever had. He’d hire you back in a minute.”

“The last thing I want is to entertain sleazy, drooling, drunk men and the occasional seedy lesbian. No matter how much they pay me. It’s demeaning.”

Hopefully, Sydney hadn’t just insulted Monica, considering she was Leave It to Beaver’s top dancer. Actually, Sydney was grateful for the five years she’d worked there. It had gotten her out of her mom’s house, and she’d met Monica, who introduced her to pole dancing, which had changed her life in ways she’d never anticipated.

“Fine,” Monica said and blew out a strong puff of air. “I’ll get Victor to jump-start your battery, but he can’t do it until late tonight.”

“Tell your muscle-bound boyfriend thanks. And don’t worry. I’ll find a way home. I’m a survivor.”

“All right, tough girl, but how do you plan to pay your half of the rent?”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“If you need me to loan—”

“No…no. I can handle it.” The last thing Sydney wanted was a handout.

“Whatever. I gotta run. Later.”

After quitting Leave It to Beaver three years ago, Sydney had gotten fired from so many two-bit jobs she’d lost count. Most times it was because of her so-called “bad attitude,” but there were always extenuating circumstances that weren’t her fault.

“Enough,” Sydney said to herself.

No more crappy jobs.

No more hateful customers.

No more being broke.

She knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. And this time she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Sydney opened her wallet and frowned at a lone five-dollar bill. That wouldn’t get her very far in a taxi, and she didn’t have much more than that in her checking account. She got out of the car and stuck her thumb in the air. Hitchhiking probably wasn’t the safest thing to do, but with her good looks she usually nabbed a ride within minutes and always had a can of mace in her backpack in case anyone tried to get fresh.

An hour later, Sydney wound her way through a courtyard, behind manicured bushes, inside a gate, and stood in front of PowerBar, Beverly Hills’s hottest women’s pole-dancing studio and where her dream job resided. It’d taken her days to find the place the first time she’d heard about it. It was tucked away with no signs in sight, like a dirty little secret. Not the way Sydney would have done it if this were her studio.

Most people thought pole dancers were strippers or even prostitutes. What Sydney loved about it, though, had nothing to do with getting men hard but just the opposite. She wanted to teach classes that empowered and liberated women and to help them get in touch with their bodies through physical expression. After all, pole dancing had saved her life years ago.

Sydney examined her white shirt splattered with tomato soup. It looked like she’d been in a gang fight. Damn that Gretchen. It wasn’t bad enough she got Sydney fired, but she had to wag her finger around spraying soup everywhere. Oh well. She didn’t have time to go home and change. She grabbed the steel handle and yanked open the heavy wooden door.

Sydney nodded at a tall, lanky woman wearing enough bling to blind ten people, strode purposefully to the main desk, and stood behind someone talking to the receptionist. Sydney wasn’t one to eavesdrop, but she couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.

“I can’t do that,” the woman said.

Sydney cringed at the word can’t, which wasn’t in her vocabulary.

“I have no upper-body strength.” The woman rolled up her sleeves and attempted to flex. “Plus, isn’t it for younger women? I’m not in my twenties anymore. I have at least ten extra pounds on me. They’re practically…naked.” She whispered the last word, as though it were obscene.

Sydney couldn’t stand by and listen to this nonsense any longer. She loudly cleared her throat, which prompted the woman to turn around.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Sydney said, “but I’ve been pole dancing for years, and while those are typical reasons why someone wouldn’t try it, I have to say that they’re not altogether accurate.”

“Oh, really?” The woman’s tone oozed cynicism and a little irritation.

“First, the lack of clothing has to do with the fact that dancer’s legs, arms, and stomach need to be exposed in order for skin to grip the pole. It’s a safety concern. And it doesn’t matter how strong you are, your age, or even your size. There are maneuvers that anyone cando.”

The woman chuckled. “You don’t know me, honey. I have two left feet. I’m just here picking up my daughter. She’s into this stuff.”

“I know several routines you’d be amazed that you could accomplish. The more you do it, the stronger you get. There’s no judgment, no competition. Everyone goes at their own pace.”

The woman leaned close to Sydney and whispered, “Just between us, it is something I’ve always wanted to try. You really don’t think I’m too old or thick around the middle?”

“Not at all. More than anything, it’s about letting go and trusting yourself.” Sydney pulled out her business card and handed it to the woman. “Why don’t you give me a call? I give private lessons in the comfort of your home.”

The woman studied the paper. “Hmm…I might just do that, Sydney Cooper.”

Sydney watched the woman walk away, knowing full well she’d probably never hear from her. Too bad. She was just the type of person Sydney wanted to help.

Sydney leaned across the receptionist’s desk. “Hi. Is Sue here?”

“She’s finishing a class and should be right out. Oh, there she is.” The receptionist pointed down the hall.

When Sue, PowerBar’s owner, met Sydney’s eyes, her wide smile dropped. She approached and cocked her head. “You? Again?”

“Just checking to see if you have any openings.”

“Since the last time you asked two days ago? No.”

What an exaggerator. It had been at least four days.

“If you’d just give me a chance to show you what I can do, I’m sure you’d—”

“Sydney, as I’ve said before, you don’t have the…qualifications I need.” Sue eyed Sydney’s tomato-stained shirt and shook her head slightly.

Qualifications, my ass. What you really mean is I’m not posh enough.

Sydney bit her tongue, literally, and paused to reel in her rising temper.

“All I’m asking is a chance to demonstrate my skills. You have no idea how good I am. Sue, working at PowerBar is my dream.” Sydney batted big baby blues and flashed a pleading expression.

Sue rubbed her forehead like she had the worse migraine ever and drummed her fingers on the desk. This was a good sign. She’d never done that before. It was always an immediate no.

“All right, listen. I do have an opening, and we’re having auditions at the Ojai Women’s Festival.” Sue reached across the reception desk, grabbed something, and handed Sydney a piece of paper. “Fill out this application, bring it with you, and I’ll let you audition.”

Sydney’s heart ballooned to the size of the Goodyear blimp, her lips curling into a smile. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d been this excited.

“You won’t regret this. You’ll see. I’ll knock your socks off.”

Sydney rushed out of the studio before Sue could change her mind. She’d lost a job today, but she’d just gained a lifeline. Now all she had to do was find a way to Ojai, the small valley town two hours from LA, and come up with enough money to pay for a hotel. She’d figure it out. Nothing would stand in her way.

Sydney glanced at the application she was clutching, her heart suddenly deflating.

Crap.

Question number five could not only stand in her way but completely obliterate any chance she had.

 

Chapter Three

Where the Lovebirds Are

Emily’s stomach soured the moment she walked into the Little Bird Café and heard that crackly, grating voice. Owen. Backstabbing, con artist, lower-than-the-lowest-slug Owen. He was sitting at a corner table, yapping to someone. Owen ran For The Birdsmagazine and was Emily’s biggest competitor, but that’s not why she despised him.

Jill approached with a menu. “Table for one?”

“Yeah. As far away from himas possible.” Emily pointed.

Jill grinned and led her to the opposite side of the restaurant. With Owen’s big mouth, everyone within a fifty-mile radius knew they were mortal enemies.

After taking a few deep breaths to calm her nerves, Emily perused the lunch specials, when she saw mushroom soup recalling Gretchen’s proposal from the day before. It hadn’t been very romantic, but Gretchen wasn’t the mushy type, not that Emily needed hearts and flowers. Fairy-tale romances were for kids. Who wanted to be swept off their feet anyway? That sounded kinda dangerous. Yes, they were the perfect couple, except maybe for the bedroom, but that was Emily’s fault. It wasn’t something she and Gretchen ever discussed, of course―that would be far too embarrassing―but it was abundantly clear that Emily was incapable of having orgasms. Actually, she could have orgasms, but only when alone.

Chills ran down Emily’s spine at the snap, crackle, and pop directly behind her. She knew that sound all too well. Owen had cracked his knuckles, just one of his many annoying habits.

“What a rock! You getting hitched?”

Emily glanced over her shoulder at the life-sized rat with beady pink eyes, long nose, and yellow, crooked buck teeth.

“That’s none of your business.”

“What’d you say?” Owen walked around the table and tilted his left ear forward.

Emily rolled her eyes. He always made a point of reminding her about his hearing loss. No matter what he said, it wasn’t her fault.

“I said that’s none of your business.”

“What’s that about beeswax?”

“I didn’t…oh, never mind. What do you want, Owen?”

“Testy, aren’t we?”

“I’m trying to figure out what to order,” Emily said as she studied the menu.

“Who’s a hoarder?”

Emily closed her eyes and sighed.

“Still sore about losing out on the blackbird story, I see,” Owen said with a smirk.

Emily’s eyes popped open, her heart beat wildly. “I didn’t loseout on the story. You stole it!”

“Such strong words from a pretty little lady.”

Jill approached Owen from behind. “Would you like some dessert, Mr. Reynolds? We have a nice pecan pie today.”

“That ismy favorite.”

Funny how Owen had heard every word Jill had said, but when Emily spoke he was suddenly deaf. Jill winked at Emily and led the rat away.

Emily wasn’t a violent person, but she’d give anything for a rock-hard dinner roll to sling into the back of his meaty head. She’d spent months doing research on the tricolored blackbirds and a week writing an in-depth article, only to have Owen snatch the printed copy off her desk when Cole, Emily’s assistant, wasn’t looking. Cole should have known better than to let Owen into the office when she wasn’t there, but she couldn’t blame him. He was an innocent kid tricked by a bitter old man. Emily had been shocked and appalled when Owen printed her story, word for word, in his magazine.

She’d reported him to the authorities, but there was no way to prove she’d written the article instead of him. It was his word against hers. Owen’s magazine had gained national attention because of the story and an award from the California Fish and Game Commission. They listed the tricolored blackbird as an endangered species since the extensive research proved that the population had plummeted 64 percent in the past six years. That article could have secured her magazine’s future, but instead, Emily was now facing closure.

Emily glanced around the café for Jill but spotted Sydney instead. Despite the mix-up yesterday, it was nice to see her. She looked even more beautiful today. Emily signaled Sydney, who stared a full minute before she finally crossed the room.

“Can I get the Cobb salad?”

Sydney’s jaw dropped, eyes widening. “Are you kidding?”

“Uh…no. Am I supposed to order the mushroom soup again?” Emily chuckled.

“Unbelievable. What sort of sadist are you? You’re sticking the knife in even farther?”

Emily tilted her head. “What?”

Sydney’s eyes narrowed into two dark slits. “If this doesn’t beat all. You and your girlfriend didn’t have enough fun crucifying me yesterday?”

“You’re the one who screwed up. And isn’t crucifya little strong? I know Gretchen was mad, but―”

“Forget it. I have bigger and better things to deal with than you and your fiancée.” Sydney turned and marched away.

What the hell was that about? Emily shook her head and grabbed her cell phone when it rang.

“Hey, Cole. I’ll be in the office in—”

“Oh my God! You’re not gonna believe the call I just got.” Cole sounded frantic, from excitement or panic, Emily wasn’t sure.

“Fran’s Fig Farm in Ojai has a flock of Agapornis canuswho are eating her crops, and she wants to know what to do about it. Can you believe it?”

“Wait a second. Take a deep breath and slow down. Now what’s this about?” Emily couldn’t have heard correctly.

Agapornis canus. In Ojai!”

Emily chuckled. Cole was a nice kid who’d make a damn fine birder one day, but he still had a lot to learn. “Relax and check the Sibley Guide. It’s on the bookcase behind my desk.”

“I don’t need to check anything,” Cole said, sternly. “I know it’s gray-headed Madagascar lovebirds. And at least twenty of them are eating Fran’s figs.”

“That’s impossible. They wouldn’t be in Ojai.” Emily paused. “Unless…no, it couldn’t be.”

“But what if it is?” Cole asked, reading Emily’s mind.

“What did this Fran person say exactly? Did she describe the birds?” Emily clutched her cell phone.

“She said some have green backs and wings, gray heads, and black markings on the tail.”

“Male Madagascar lovebirds,” Emily whispered. “What about the females?”

“She described them, too. Entirely green with dark-green backs and wings, and lighter gray-colored heads.”

Emily gasped. “Are we the only ones she called?”

“I think so. She saw a copy of The Tweetat the grocery store and thought we might know how to stop the birds from eating her fruit. She didn’t sound very happy about the situation.”

Call Fran back right now, get the address, and tell her I’ll be in Ojai tomorrow.”

Tingles rippled up and down Emily’s spine, goose bumps appearing on her arms. This story could save her magazine. Emily disconnected and pulled out her laptop. She needed to book a hotel room quick.

“What’s in Ojai?”

Emily whipped around to see Owen standing behind her. Crap. Hopefully, he hadn’t overhead her conversation. The last thing she needed was him acing her out of the story.

“Geez, Owen. Stop creeping up on me. You’re freaking me out.”

“It’s a free country.”

Emily snorted. “Original comeback.”

“You seem pretty excited about going to the valley.”

“Aren’t I allowed to take a vacation?” Did that sound convincing?

“You ordered the crustacean?”

Emily stared, expressionless. “Have you ever seen shrimp or lobster on the menu? I said vacation.”

“This darn thing.” Owen fiddled with his hearing aid. “It’s pretty hot there this time of year.”

Emily connected to a travel site and focused on her laptop. Maybe if she ignored him he’d leave…or not. After a few minutes, she looked up at him again. “Why are you still here?”

Owen rubbed his stubbly chin. “Seems like an odd time to take off, with your press deadline coming up and all.”

“Don’t you have anything better to do than concern yourself with my life?”

Owen cracked his knuckles and displayed an evil grin. “You have fun now, you hear?”

Emily shuddered as he slithered away. She returned her attention to the laptop and frowned. Her search for Ojai hotels resulted in no availability. That couldn’t be right. The small town wasn’t exactly a hub of activity. Emily logged into another site but with the same results. She even searched surrounding towns with no luck.

“Are you ready to order?” Jill placed a glass of water on the table.

“This is crazy,” Emily mumbled to herself.

“Is something wrong?”

“I need to go to Ojai tomorrow, and all the hotels are booked.”

“Oh, you won’t find anything right now. A women’s festival is going on. The place will be packed for weeks.”

Ugh. Emily would sleep in her car if she had to, but a room with electricity and running water would be preferable.

“If you need a place to stay I have a cabin in Ojai,” Jill said.

“Really? Could I rent it out?”

“Sure. I’ll be in Europe for a month and won’t need it. I gotta warn you, though, it’s not very fancy.”

Relief washed over Emily. “Anything will be fine. Thank you so much, Jill. You’re a lifesaver.” Emily took out her checkbook, scribbled an amount, and handed it to her.

“Whoa. You don’t have to pay that much.”

“Well, I’m not sure how long I’ll be there, and trust me, it’s worth it.”

Jill paused but then tucked the check into her apron pocket. She wrote something on a pad and handed it to Emily. “Here’s the address. And my email.”

“What’s this say?” Emily squinted at Jill’s illegible handwriting.

“Reeves Road. It’s close to Meditation Mount in the hills.”

“Sounds nice. I’ve never been to Ojai.”

“You’re in for a treat. It ain’t called California’s Shangri-la for nothing,” Jill said. “It’s not very big, but it’s picturesque and surrounded by the Topa Topa Mountains. It attracts nature lovers, artists, writers, and those new-age hippie types.”

“I thought it was farmland.”

“Oh, it is. It’s a growers’ paradise. Citrus, avocado, fig, apples, olives—you name it, it’s there. Ojai is also famous for the pink moment.”

“What’s that?”

Jill smirked. “You’ll see. It’s usually a peaceful, serene place, but with the women’s festival going on, there’s no telling what it’ll be like. My cabin is about two miles outside of the hubbub, though, so you should be okay. What are you heading up there for, anyway?”

“I’m going to Fran’s Fig Farm. Maybe you know where it’s located?”

Jill shook her head. “Honey, you must have that wrong. You ain’t going there.”

“Um…yeah, I am. She called The Tweetabout needing some help.” Emily didn’t want to mention the Madagascar lovebirds. If the news got out, every birder this side of Texas would be in Ojai.

“If you’re looking to buy Fran’s figs, you can get those at the farmers’ market out on Highway 150. No one goes to her farm.”

“Why’s that?”

“Just trust me on this one.” Jill chuckled. “Now, the key is under a potted plant on the porch. Hopefully, the place has everything you need. I’m unplugging while I’m gone, but I’ll try and check my email once or twice.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll be fine. And thanks again.”

Everything was falling into place. Now all Emily had to do was locate and photograph the Madagascar lovebirds, which shouldn’t be too difficult considering she knew exactly where to find them.

 

v

 

Sydney covered her ears as three police cars raced down Hill Street. She and Monica had lived in the neighborhood for years, but she’d never get used to the ear-splitting sirens. Unfortunately, it was a common occurrence in the crime-ridden area.

“So then what happened?” Monica asked and followed Sydney into the grocery store.

“Emily had the gall to give me her order. Can you believe that?”

Monica snatched a basket and walked to a display of latex condoms. She grabbed two boxes and tossed them into the basket. “Maybe she didn’t know you got fired.”

“Her girlfriend was the one who told the manager to can me. She knew.” Sydney followed Monica down the chip-and-dip aisle.

“You’re sure worked up over this woman.” Monica peered at Sydney sideways. “Maybe you have a little crush on her.”

“I don’t even know her,” Sydney said, irritated.

Monica stopped. “Ew, look at these weird chip flavors. Cappuccino. White chocolate. Hey, these look yummy.” She grabbed a bag of wasabi ginger. “Is she cute?”

“I dunno. I didn’t notice.” But Sydney did know. Emily was adorable, with big, brown expressive eyes, a dainty nose, and pouty lips the color of Red Hots, the spicy, cinnamon candy. And she was way nicer than her girlfriend. If Sydney was the type to have crushes, Emily would certainly qualify, but the last thing she wanted was a girlfriend…an engagedgirlfriend.

“Then why are you blushing?”

Sydney put her hands on her cheeks, embarrassed that they were warm.

Monica shot her an I-told-you-so smirk. “When was the last time you had a date?”

“I don’t need a date. Besides, relationships never last.” Just ask Sydney’s mother. She’d been married five times.

“That’s not true. Look at me and Victor.” Monica grabbed a bottle of Scope.

“I don’t think two months equates long-lasting. Speaking of which, hot date tonight? Condoms, chips, mouthwash.”

“No. I’m working.”

That explained the black lace tights, see-through beaded mini-dress, and leather boots. Normally, wearing an outfit like that outside of the club would be trashy, but in their neighborhood it was the norm. Sydney shuddered at the memory of donning that getup for five long years.

“What were you doing at the café anyway?” Monica surveyed the wine and snatched a bottle.

“Picking up my last paycheck. Not that it amounted to much. It’ll barely pay my gas to Ojai.”

“I don’t know why you’re so hot to teach a bunch of Beverly Hills bitches when you could be making big bucks at the club.”

Sydney didn’t bother trying to explain. Monica wouldn’t understand since she actually enjoyed baring it all for sleazy guys. Sydney would be forever grateful to Monica for teaching her pole dancing, but she was growing out of the friendship. There had to be more to life than living in a run-down apartment in the worst part of town, struggling to pay bills, and working at jobs she hated.

“Why don’t you just teach private lessons?” Monica asked.

“The clients aren’t steady enough. I need a full-time job.”

“What about Robin’s studio? She’s been trying to hire you.”

“PoleCat? No way.” Sydney huffed. “I wish she’d stop calling me about it.”

“You’ve never even been there. Maybe it’s nice.”

“It’s in South Central LA. How nice could it be?”

Monica stopped in the middle of an aisle and put her hands on her hips. “Well, excuse me. When did you get so high and mighty? Need I remind you that’s where welive.”

“I just…I want something better.”

Monica took two pizzas out of the freezer and put them in the basket. “So, where are you gonna stay in Ojai if you’re broke?”

“Well…” Sydney glanced around to make sure no one was listening. “Jill, a waitress at the Little Bird, has a cabin there.”

“Oh yeah? She’s letting you use it?”

“Yes. She just doesn’t know it.” Sydney smirked.

Monica stopped in her tracks. “You’re gonna break in?”

Sydney put her hand over Monica’s mouth. “Geez, just tell everyone in the store, will ya? Maybe there’s a cop in aisle three who didn’t hear you. It’s not breaking in per se. It’s more like…borrowing.”

“I didn’t think you had it in you.” Monica chuckled and slapped Sydney on the back. “There’s that seventeen-year-old badass girl I remember.”

For some reason, that crack didn’t sit well with Sydney. She’d like to think she’d matured the past eight years. Okay, so she should probably call Jill and ask her permission, but what if she said no? Technically, it wasbreaking and entering, but it wasn’t like it was a felony. She wasn’t going to steal anything. Jill would be in Europe for a month and wouldn’t know anything about it. Ignorance is bliss, right?

“So when’s the audition?” Monica placed her items on the counter and didn’t bat an eye when the checkout guy ogled her cleavage.

“In a couple of weeks, but I’m driving up there tomorrow. I can practice my routine and…well…get other stuff done.” Sydney was tempted to tell Monica about the one thing that could prevent her from auditioning but changed her mind. No one needed to know about her private business.

They both jumped when two booming gunshots rang out.

“Whoa. That one was too close for comfort.” Sydney craned her neck and peered outside.

“Probably the Tongan Crip,” Monica said, referring to one of the many LA street gangs.

Sydney ducked when more shots were fired. She glanced at the checker, who hadn’t so much as flinched, his eyes still glued to Monica’s breasts.

Ugh. She needed to get out of this neighborhood…and fast.