Lovebirds

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 dead would 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 was about 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 after the 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 Tweet is 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 that bad?

“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 Tweet was 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 Tweet was the only irresponsible thing she’d ever done.