Adya tossed another handful of bread crumbs, and the pigeons fluttered up, then settled again, resuming their greedy pecking. Dirty birds, people called them. “Rats with wings,” Graci had once said, and maybe it was true. Pigeons scavenged off men, sucking up whatever sustenance they found in the parks and alleys and sidewalks of cities. They crapped all over and probably carried diseases.
But they made such lovely soft cooing noises, soothing and calming, and they were pretty in their own non-showy way, with their feathers in muted shades from gray to slate blue to lilac. They were comforting birds—even if having a flock of them surrounding her on this park bench was a little creepy—and she needed some comfort and peace right now.
Sitting here alone in the park with the breeze blowing through her hair, no expectations, no pressures other than learning the ropes at her new job, no fears, and no man controlling her life. Simply being in the moment was exactly what she needed right now.
One bold charcoal-headed fellow bobbed closer, watching the bag in Adya’s hand with red eyes. It climbed onto the toe of her shoe, and she feared it would be on her lap next, trying to get at the food. She hid the bag in her coat pocket, but the bird watched her every move.
“Hey, there’s seed over there.” She pointed. “Go get it.”
Suddenly, the birds around her flapped and rose as one in a swirling cloud, scattering feathers as they flew up. The cause of their mass exodus came roaring in like a freight train, barking with deep-pitched, bone-shaking exultation. A dog. A huge black-white-and-gray dog barreled toward her.
She should probably be afraid. The beast could clamp down with those massive jaws and tear her arm off if it was feeling ready for a snack. Maybe it was the speed with which the incident happened, but adrenaline didn’t kick in. Instead, Adya leaned to greet the big dog which, as soon as it realized it couldn’t catch one of the pigeons, came straight to her. “Hello, sweetie. How are you?”
The dog’s tongue lolled as it gazed adoringly into her face. Its massive head was nearly at eye level. Adya reached out, fingers curled into palm so the animal could sniff and approve her. Then she dared scratch between its floppy ears. One was flipped inside out, and she straightened it.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
The animal huffed a hoarse woof in reply.
“Carvey, come! Leave the lady alone,” a voice nearly as deep as the dog’s bark called, and Adya looked up to see a man who matched his pet in size and shagginess running across the grass. He was followed closely by a small girl with red hair that looked as if it had been run through an egg beater rather than combed.
“Carvey, bad dog!” The girl’s reedy voice echoed her father’s. He must be her father, because despite the difference in height, weight, gender, and every other aspect, the pair appeared similar. They wore matching expressions of concern tempered by a hint of amusement at their bad dog’s antics.
“Sorry, ma’am.” The bearded man grabbed the trailing end of Carvey’s leash. “We were on our way to the dog park.” He pointed across the grass. “I was getting stuff out of the car and gave Penny the leash to hold.”
The little girl threw her arms around the dog’s neck. “Sorry. He’s usually good. I take him on walks all the time, and he never pulls away even though he’s stronger than me, not even when he sees a squirrel. But he got excited today, I guess. He really wanted those pigeons.”
“For pigeon pie, probably,” Adya said. “Four and twenty of them, no doubt.”
The girl, who looked about eight or nine, maybe ten at the most, grinned at her response and shot back, “We have a chef’s hat at home for him. Carvey’s a great cook.”
“And housekeeper,” her father chimed in. “Wears a ruffled apron when he vacuums and cleans.”
Penny laughed hard—deep laughter for such a little girl. She let go of the dog and plopped onto the bench beside Adya. “You’re hilarious. What’s your name? I’m Penny.”
“A good, old-fashioned name. I like it,” Adya said. “Mine’s Adya.”
The man had crouched to give Carvey a talking-to. He held the dog’s head between large hands and faced him eye to eye. Now he looked up to frown at his daughter’s rudeness. “Penny!”
“It is an odd name. It’s Hindu for ‘first or unparalleled.’ My mother was into Indian culture around the time she had me.” Adya had no idea why she volunteered that information or how she’d gotten sucked into conversation with this family. All she’d meant to do was sit quietly in the park and feed the birds.
“My mom named me Penny.” The girl ran a hand through her tangled hair. “Because even when I was a baby, my hair was this color. Copper like a new penny. Get it?”
“Uh-huh. I like your hair. Always wished mine was red instead of plain brown.”
Penny cocked her head and eyed Adya as the pigeon had, except her eyes were a soft gray-green rather than devil red. “You could dye it.”
“I have before, but red didn’t look right on me.”
“Well, it’s pretty the way it is. Straight and smooth and brown like wood.” Penny reached out to touch Adya’s ponytail.
“Thank you.” Adya smiled at the girl’s easy familiarity. Like her pet, Penny was open and ready to make friends with strangers.
Adya tried to remember the last time she’d spoken with a child. Maybe not since high school, when she’d done a little babysitting. Her life hadn’t brought her into contact with anything resembling a family, and as odd and unexpected as this exchange was, Adya found she enjoyed it.
The big man unfolded to his full height and loomed over her, blocking the sunlight, his dog’s leash firmly looped around one fist. “I apologize again for Carvey. He would never bite anyone, but I know his size can be intimidating.”
“It’s all right. I could tell right away he’s a sweetheart.”
“When I was little, I used to ride him like a pony.” Penny slid off the bench. “Want to come to the dog park with us? It’s fun to see all the different kinds of dogs playing together.”
“We’ve bothered this poor woman long enough,” her dad said.
Adya squinted and tried to see his face, but he was backlit by the sun, which glowed like a halo around him. She could see the painting he would make, Giant in Sunlight, and for a moment, her fingers ached to hold a brush even though it had been years.
“Unless you’d like to join us. We’ll be throwing a Frisbee.” His glance took in her cream cashmere coat and expensive slacks and shoes. “But you’re not really dressed for it. You’d end up with paw prints on your coat and poop on your shoes.”
Adya shielded her eyes, and now she could see that his expression was as open and friendly as his daughter’s. The same gray-green eyes shone down at her. Even his moustache and beard couldn’t hide his bright smile.
Mountain Man in Sunlight. Abruptly, she stood. “I could care less about this coat. I hope it gets covered with paw prints.”
“Um, okay.” His brows knit in a quizzical frown.
“Sorry. I broke up with the person who gave it to me,” she explained.
“Ah. But you’re still wearing it.”
She shrugged. “Because I need a coat, but maybe I’ll get rid of it soon.”
He nodded slowly. “My name’s Luke, by the way. Luke Bridger.”
He stuck out his free hand, enveloping her chilled hand in his warm one. She liked how firmly he pumped before releasing his grip. No lingering caress or flirtation such as she was used to from men. Just a no-nonsense, no-hidden-agenda shake.
Luke led the way toward the dog zone. Adya looked at the big hairball plodding in front of them. The dog’s ears pricked up as canine voices caught his attention.
“What breed is Carvey?”
“Dad says he’s an amalgam and a symbol of our nation.” Penny, walking beside Adya, looked up, her pixie face framed by a riot of red curls. “Dad’s a teacher. He says weird stuff sometimes.”
Adya glanced at Luke.
“Fifth-grade social studies and some science classes too, due to budget cuts,” he said.
“That sounds like a good job, shaping kids’ lives. Do you enjoy it?”
“I like teaching. It’s the administrative bull that can be hard to take, rules and red tape that makes it harder to do the job.” He shrugged. “But no whining. I owe fifty cents to the complaint jar, Pen.”
“A dollar because you complained about Carvey’s farts in the car on the way here.”
“Right. Another of the joys of pet ownership.” He smiled at Adya. “So, what do you do?”
A few short weeks ago, she wouldn’t have had an answer she’d feel comfortable giving, especially not in front of a child. Professional mistress was basically the same as paid escort. But now she could proudly say, “I’m a waitress at Dizzie’s Diner.”
He glanced at her pricey coat, and she sensed him wondering how she could afford it.
“I recently moved back to Cincinnati after being gone a few years. I’m…starting over, I guess you could say.”