A clever new grumpy/sunshine romance, featuring a hot veterinarian and a chicken-loving influencer who can’t help but ruffle each other’s feathers, is out next week from author Emma Barry, and I have the whole first chapter for you.
The tiny dinosaurs surveyed Nicole Jones hungrily. One scratched the ground. Another squawked.
Nic rolled her eyes. “Come on, ladies. We’ve been through this a bazillion times. I can’t get into the coop if you crowd the doorway.”
Her words fell on feathered ears. Feathered gallinaceous ears, those belonging to her backyard chickens. They moved with none of the coordination or grace of a school of fish. Heads bobbing to individual rhythms, they kept bumping into one another, seemingly unable to get out of each other’s way. One managed to shake the group. She celebrated by snipping at the fabric of Nic’s skirt, which she found inedible . . . and then tried to eat a second time.
“Oh, you clever girl.” Nic tsk-tsk-tsked her way between the birds and hung the feeder on a hook. “There you go. Plenty to eat now.”
She dropped back a few steps and watched the flock peck greedily at the pellets of grain and meal. Nic still had to paint the coop and plant its rooftop garden bed with herbs and flowers, a process that she would document in extreme detail for her loyal fans, who’d give her clicks and subscribe to her Patreon and otherwise keep Nic’s career simmering— especially after the disaster of six weeks ago.
As she’d been dumped by her boyfriend and rejected by her best friend and then had driven across the country in a car jam-packed with chickens, the only thing Nic had been able to think was “Granny would’ve seen this coming.”
She would’ve sized Brian up with a glance, something Nic hadn’t managed to do in years of close observation, and she never would’ve let Nic forget that she hadn’t fallen for his act.
That one’s a dud, darlin’. She would have known it instantly.
Nic had flaws, of course. She scribbled in her books and left her socks on the floor, and she cared entirely too much about what people thought of her. But she’d never suspected she was a poor judge of character.
There was no escaping what you’d hatched.
But speaking of chickens: “Where’s Mitzi?” Nic asked.
The flock just kept eating, of course. The absent one was probably laying, grateful to finally have an egg box and some privacy again. That Nic completely understood. She was looking forward to alone time herself.
Rain splattered across Nic’s face. The black clouds that had been hanging heavy in the sky all afternoon while the movers finished their work were finally spilling over. At least it had held off that long.
“I’ll check on you in a bit,” Nic said to her birds. Then she hiked up the skirt of her maxi sundress and dashed across the yard to her back porch. Several raindrops ran down her back before she got through the screen door and into the house.
The atmosphere inside was heavy and still. It had been too long since Nic had been in the South, and she’d forgotten how the air was different here than on the West Coast. More present, never letting you forget about it. Air that demanded things from you.
Nic dodged through the piles of boxes and the maze of the unfamiliar layout. Move to a new town, they said. Get a fresh start, they said. Nothing like a thousand miles to put your breakup behind you, they said. They left out how much damn work it would be.
She threw herself into the first chair she could find. But the instant her butt hit the seat, before she’d even finished exhaling all the way, a knock sounded on the front door.
Nic didn’t want to get up, not now and maybe never again. She was exhausted. But it was probably a curious neighbor who’d seen the moving truck, and Nic needed to make a good first impression. She slid her aching feet back into her flip-flops, forced a smile onto her face, and dashed down the hallway.
The hello died, or more precisely evaporated, in her mouth when she opened the door. An enormous, wide-shouldered, sandy-blond- haired, broad-faced man—good looking in a pillaging-Viking sort of way—stood on her steps. He had been smiling, a polite, neighborly sort of smile, but as soon as he and Nic locked eyes, the corners of his mouth fell, and crisp parallel lines appeared across his forehead.
“Um, hey. What can I do for you?” Nic asked after an almost inappropriately long pause. He was just so good looking, and he appeared to be so annoyed, and she was so tired. Too tired for the puzzle this was going to be, for whatever apology she was going to have to offer. For what, she didn’t even know.
“Do you have chickens?” His tone wasn’t rude, but it was curt.
For a minute, it was all Nic could do to blink at him. Did she have chickens? But this wasn’t about Nic at all. The guy probably hated chickens, assuming they’d be smelly or loud and bring down his property values somehow. The kind of person who lobbied cities to keep the poultry laws strict and punitive.
She knew all about how to handle that type. She needed to be charming and to promise him some eggs, and he’d fade into the background.
“Yes, I do,” Nic said. “But they won’t bother you. In fact, I—” “One of them is loose.
The grumpy Viking was wrong. He had to be. “That’s impossible. I was just out there.”
“She’s about this high.” He held his hand about a foot and a half off the ground. “Golden. Sort of . . . curvy.”
He was describing Mitzi, the hen Nic had assumed was laying.
“Son of an amorous Zeus, how is that possible? How did she get out?”
“Chickens can fly.”
Normally, Nic would eat anyone who tried to mansplain chickens to her—but she didn’t have the time just now. She had a bird to catch. She stepped onto the stoop and scanned the yard. It was poultry-free. “Where did you see her?”
“In those bushes.” He pointed to the large holly hedge that separated Nic’s house from the one next door, maybe his place. No—nopity, nope, nope, nope. The last thing she needed right now was some silly crush. The best way to avoid landing on TMZ again was not to fall in love, and, at this point, that seemed a small price to pay. “Hubris,” she muttered as she marched away from the man whose hotness she wasn’t going to notice again. “What?”
Obviously his granny hadn’t gifted him d’Aulaires’s Greek Myths for his fifth birthday. “That’s how people offend the gods. Like Arachne, bragging about how she could weave better than a goddess. I’d just been thinking I could relax—that was hubris. I need to atone, make an offering. Roasted meat is traditional.” Maybe she ought to barbecue a certain chicken.
Nic lifted a branch to the side, but no bird was visible in the thick hedge. Her neighbor had no reason to lie to her, though. He wasn’t Brian. She moved another branch, and bingo. A small dark figure stood in the midst of the bushes. It shifted its weight from one foot to the other, the universal signal for chicken guilt.
“Mitzi, come out here right now.” Nic’s hens responded only to treats in her hands, but a sharp command was worth a try.
The figure shifted again.
This wasn’t going to be easy. Nic got on all fours and began crawling into the hedge.
“Flush her toward me.” The Viking’s voice came from behind Nic and down a ways. From there, he’d have a perfect view of Nic’s ass hanging out of the bushes.
Sweet salami on a cracker. She had bad luck.
“I got this.” Nic had been aiming for a breezy and confident tone, but she’d hit “gritted out between her teeth” instead.
“It’s raining.” He didn’t sound happy about it. All this just seemed to annoy him, which raised the question about why he’d bothered to knock on her door at all. Was it really a random act of kindness if you were growly about it?
Except it had really started to come down. It wasn’t cold—thank you, southern June weather—but Nic’s dress suddenly seemed hopelessly thin and increasingly damp. She might need some help.
Swallow your pride and then ignore him forever. That was what Granny would say if she were here, anyhow, and Nic could at least pretend to follow her wisdom.
“Okay. I’ll try to shoo her out. If you sort of . . . loom over her, she’ll probably squat down, and you can grab her.”
Nic edged into the bushes. As her eyes adjusted, she could see Mitzi clearly. The hen flicked her head from side to side, likely trying to decide which way to run.
“Go out toward the large man. Better yet, you could let me grab you.” Nic wasn’t certain whether she could get them both out even if she could get a hand on Mitzi, but it would do wonders for her ego. Maybe then she’d ask for the Viking’s name, see whether she could get him to smile, though that might crack his stern face in half.
“You want to get out, don’t you?” Nic tried to make her voice soft and nonthreatening as she inched forward. “We’re going to help you. We’ll get you back to the coop, and you’ll feel so much better with your flock and some dinner.”
Nic lifted up one hand and slowly extended it toward Mitzi’s foot. “I’ll give you a big handful of—ack!”
Mitzi made a distress call as she rushed toward Nic, and then feinted and dashed out of a small gap in the branches. Outside the bush, there was a rustle of wings, a few choice curses, and then a thud.
Nic backed out of the holly as quickly as possible and found an irate Viking on his butt in the grass without a feather in sight.
“She eluded you?” Nic scrubbed at a scratch she’d gotten down one arm.
“Yup. I slipped and—” He gestured to finish the thought, and he was such a picture of grumpy disappointment that Nic wanted to giggle.
She didn’t want to be rude, though. For all that he was aggravated, he was helping her. “I’m sorry. Just so sorry. I appreciate you telling me she was out, but you really can go. I won’t be offended.” Actually, Nic would prefer it.
“Nah,” he replied dryly, “I’m curious how it’ll end. What’s her name?”
He hadn’t asked for Nic’s name, but she tried not to let that bother her. “Mitzi.”
“Houdini would’ve been better.”
Probably when he wasn’t wet and being bested by a lawn dinosaur, the Viking was charming. But it was the charming ones who hurt you the most.
“Believe it or not, she’s never escaped before. The move upset her. Do we have any leads?”
“There, I think.” He pointed toward the landscaping in front of the house, a whimsical mix of flowering bushes. They looked impossibly deep and as if a chicken might find shelter there indefinitely.
Nic really hadn’t spent that much time, make that any time, in front of her new house. She’d bought it almost overnight after browsing on Zillow. Ninety-some years ago, Granny had been born in Yagerstown. It hadn’t mattered that she’d moved away at fifteen and Nic had never set foot there in her life. It had seemed like Brigadoon, hidden and waiting for her and disconnected from the rest of the world. Yagerstown, I should move to Yagerstown.
When an adorable bungalow with a massive porch and yard and a nice kitchen had appeared, it had been the real estate answer to her prayers.
Now, the dream had collapsed, a Jenga tower five minutes into the game after all the easy moves had been taken. Because of a tangential connection to the town and a porch, Nic had actually bought a house over the phone.
She was definitely suffering from hubris.
“Mitzi, you better not be eating that hydrangea, or so help me.” Obviously Mitzi wasn’t taking Nic’s advice, but some lines were worth defending.
The Viking nodded. “It’s toxic.”
He must have pets of some kind to know that. He seemed like a dog person. He’d have something massive and manly, maybe a Danish wolfhound.
So she shouldn’t get a crush on him. She shouldn’t get a crush on anyone. But she could ask. It would be neighborly. It wasn’t as if she had many friends these days, seeing as her best friend wasn’t speaking to her. Who didn’t want to be at least friendly with their neighbors? “Do you have a dog, or—”
“You take that side,” he said, ignoring Nic’s question. “I’ll look over here.”
A few moments later, Nic called, “She’s here.”
Mitzi stood behind an azalea with one foot stretched out behind her, the same posture as a ballet dancer about to launch herself across the stage or the Road Runner about to smoke Coyote for the hundredth time.
“Right. It’s a plan.” In some other time, she would have offered a halfhearted cheer. That was the sort of thing Brian was always trying to get her to do and always putting on his or her YouTube channel when she complied. The reflex almost reemerged now, but then she remembered she didn’t have to do that shit anymore. She could be herself without any need to perform. No one was filming this. It wouldn’t be on the internet later.
The Viking crouched down, disappearing from sight.
A beat passed.
Then the hen exploded from the bush, a storm of clucking and flapping wings. Mitzi was incensed. For a second, her feet touched down on the banister, but then she was off again, across the yard in the other direction.
Chickens couldn’t so much fly as they could leap and use their wings to extend their distance. They were basically the best long jumpers of all time. While Mitzi was drenched, her feathers deflated, she still crossed a good twenty feet of the yard before Nic had made it three strides.
“You saucy minx,” Nic shouted as her flip-flops lost purchase on the wet grass, and she had to windmill her arms to stay standing.
Mitzi had come to rest on the low-slung branch of a small tree.
“You sure she’s never done this?” Nic’s Viking neighbor was out of breath, his chest working like a bellows and straining against his damp T-shirt. It wasn’t checking him out to note that that was objectively a lot of muscles. Was he a jogger? Or maybe he carried Thor’s hammer around or something?
No. Damn. Men. She resolutely trained her attention on the hen. “Not her, but the others. Somewhere, I have a hook I use to catch them”—though Nic had only ever used it to snatch one out of the flock for a nail trim—“but everything’s still boxed up. I could get some treats, but honestly, she’s so worked up, she’s not going to eat out of our hands right now. We could leave her for a bit, hope she finds her way back to the coop, but—”
“That’s not safe.”
“Excuse me, but—this blows.”
Nic had to laugh. “I’ve been using way stronger curses, at least in my head, for the last five minutes.” She’d become pretty good at not uttering profanity out loud; Chick Nic had to keep it clean for the kids, or she’d lose some portion of her audience.
“I didn’t want to presume.”
“Presume away.” Oh, she wanted that back. It was far more of a come-on than she’d intended.
But it was too late. He gave her a long look . . . and then his eyes glided down her body, as if her sopping curves were the Slip ’N Slide they no doubt resembled.
If his scowl were anything to go by, he didn’t seem to approve. Because she’d sworn off men, this shouldn’t bother her. She certainly didn’t want her neighbor to leer at her, but surely there was a happy medium between skeevy and disdainful. Why did she seem to bother him so much? And why was he helping her if he couldn’t stand the sight of her?
“Hey, I didn’t, I mean—”
He turned from her with a grunt. “Try again?”
Because she just wanted to get this over with, Nic echoed, “Try again.”
Their third attempt resulted in Mitzi dashing wildly across the yard, back into the holly. When they managed to get her out of there again, she flew over the picket fence into Nic’s backyard. But rather than heading for the safety of the chicken run—and her flock mates who were watching with concern from the other side of the wire fence—she flew over the back privacy fence and into a small easement between Nic’s yard and that of the neighbor behind her.
“I’m beginning to think we’re not good at this,” Nic deadpanned as they regarded the space: it was about two feet wide and overgrown with soggy plants. It was probably filled with snakes. Wet, tropical snakes. Pythons. “I guess I’d better go after her.”
The Viking made a rough noise. He’d become less and less vocal as the ordeal had dragged on, and he hadn’t exactly been chatty to begin with. The idea of him crashing down the easement was impossible. His shoulders alone were twice that size.
“I’ll try to herd her toward you.” That was all the strategy Nic had. Mitzi might have a brain the size of a ripe green pea, but she was canny and bound and determined not to be caught. “If worse comes to worse, I guess I’ll try to keep her going. You could meet us on the other side, on—what’s that street called? Mason?”
Her neighbor gave a brusque nod. “Can’t wait to see how the chicken will defeat us.”
Nic began inching down the alley sideways. “Please let there not be snakes.” There weren’t enough . . . stones. Or sunlight. Snakes liked stones and sunlight, right?
Once Nic had made it about twenty feet, Mitzi materialized under a large fern frond. She made a bobbing twirl that carried the air of nanny nanny boo boo. But all the bravado was hollow because Mitzi’s feathers were sodden. Nic only had to get on the other side of her and drive her toward the Viking.
“You’re a damn nuisance.”
Peck, peck, peck.
“You can make it up to me, though. Let me get past you.”
Peck, peck, peck.
“Okay, do we all understand our roles here? Peck if you do.” Peck, peck, peck.
“Let’s go, then.”
Nic made to grab the chicken’s feet, but Mitzi dodged. Then Nic made the best squall she could. Mitzi’s eyes widened at the sound, and she tossed her head to one side and then the other and began to run.
“No! No! Up!” Fast as she could, Nic lunged forward and down. One of her hands brushed a claw, which drove the hen up. The ground was slick, and Nic powered . . . straight under her. For a long second, Nic slid on the wet ferns and grass and weeds, but she finally managed to grab the fence on either side—that was going to give her splinters— to stop herself before pivoting and starting toward the hen and the Viking.
Having completed the biggest, or at least the highest, flight of her life, Mitzi was completely disoriented. She was making the raptor call she uttered when you opened the egg box and she was laying. All rage and confusion and ancestral swagger.
Mitzi leaped again, smacked into Nic’s fence, and landed on the ground. Without pausing to recover, she started down the alley in earnest toward the wet waiting neighbor.
“It’s working,” Nic bellowed. “We’re—”
But before she could get the rest of the sentence out, the Viking came crashing into the alley.
Mitzi squealed, and then she launched herself straight into his chest.
Which was when something extraordinary happened.
He caught her.
Those enormous hands of his wrapped tightly, securely, perfectly around the hen. Mitzi let go of a huge breath and sagged as if to say,
Thank goodness. I’m so relieved. I was wondering how long it was going to take for you to get me.
Nic pushed her stringy hair out of her face. “Holy crap, you did it. You did it!” Now she actually felt like doing some cheering. “I thought we were going to have to put her on the FBI’s most-wanted list or something.”
“Let’s get her caged.”
They edged out of the easement—he honestly didn’t fit into the space at all—and then into Nic’s backyard. When she opened the gate to the chicken yard, he released Mitzi before snapping the door closed with almost comic haste. Nic snorted, though obviously neither of them wanted to risk a repeat performance. The flock immediately surrounded Mitzi, clucking loudly, no doubt asking for every detail of her walkabout.
“I can’t see how she got out,” Nic said. The run was fully enclosed, there was even chicken wire on the ground, and there weren’t any gaps or tears in the fencing. Nic had sent a detailed plan to the contractor she’d hired, and he’d done a good job.
The Viking shrugged. His expression was shuttered, his hair plastered to his head, his shoulders sagging, and his shirt almost black. Well, at least she knew Brian hadn’t broken her totally. She could still notice an attractive man and feel as if someday she’d like to tangle with one of those again.
But she merely said, “I really appreciate you helping me. Especially since . . . just thank you.”
The polite thing would have been for him to respond you’re welcome. Or even no problem. Hell, she would have taken a shrug.
Except Vikings weren’t people pleasers. After a few seconds that could best be described as aggrieved scowling, he took his fine wet butt across her backyard to the gate and away from her.
“Good riddance,” she whispered after him. Nic had had quite enough arrogant men for a lifetime. From now on, she was going to stick to chickens.