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BIRDS OF A FEATHER
A simple kiss! Compared to the kisses of other men, Ben Sinclair’s kisses were like fireworks on the Fourth of July. And yet Jess Maddox had all but asked for it. Seventeen years ago he’d stood her up at her senior prom. Now, suddenly, he was back. The high school beauty was now a young widow with a name in California as a trainer of exotic birds. Ben had called for help with a murderous macaw. Jess had come expertly to the rescue. She had a knack for gentling any creature with beak or talon, but could she handle the passions Ben awakened? From the first, sparks and feathers flew. But she’d changed. No longer a young girl, she was a woman who cherished her career, her independence. Would Ben insist she give up everything for him, or was this a love that could take flight into the future?
“Hi, this is Jess, the bird lady. I’m unable to take your call at the moment, but if you would leave your name, telephone number, date and time of your call after the tone, I will return your call as soon as possible. There are a lot of crazy birds out there, so please be patient if I don’t return your call right away.”
“Hi, Jess, this is Ben Sinclair. A friend of mine said you’d be able to help me work with my macaw. My number is five five five, two seven three one. Oh, it’s Tuesday, the twenty-third, one thirty P.M.”
“Jess, this is Ben Sinclair again. I honestly do need help with this damn bird. Just in case my previous message was erased, the number is five five five, two seven – three one. It’s Thursday the twenty-fifth, two P.M.”
“Look, I hate to be a nag, but this is somewhat of an emergency. In case you haven’t guessed, it’s Ben Sinclair and it’s Sunday, the twenty-eighth at seven A.M. Don’t you ever stay at home?”
“I thought I was a patient man. Now I know different. It is now Friday, the third. Either I hear from you in the next twenty-four hours or you’ll receive an invitation to attend a barbecue at my house with roast macaw as the main course!”
Click! The machine shut off and the silence in the study was deafening. The woman seated at the desk turned her chair so that she could look out the window. A smile that radiated half sorrow and half pleasure curved her delicately formed lips.
Jess couldn’t believe that Ben was calling her after all these years. Of course, he might not even realize that she was the Jess whose older brother ran with the same high school gang as he had. The Jess who’d suffered a broken heart because of him.
She shook her head, dismissing the thoughts that had lain dormant for seventeen years. Her first thought was to either ignore the messages or call and explain she wouldn’t be able to help him at this time. She could always refer him to another trainer.
No, her conscience interrupted. He had called her and she would be the one to go out there. Jess smiled at the faint reflection of her face the window threw back. Besides, she wasn’t the same starry-eyed teenager he’d known. If he did remember her, well, she’d just play it by ear. Before she could change her mind, Jess picked up the phone and dialed quickly. She scanned her calendar and noticed she had most of the following week free. She might as well get this over with.
“Son of a—!” The man’s voice halted abruptly as he threw open the front door and gazed at his visitor. “It’s about time,” he complained. He stepped back and opened the door wider to allow his guest to enter.
“I suggest you put something on that.” Jess gestured toward the man’s hand, which was marred by bloody bite marks. It took every ounce of self-control not to stare openly at him. The Ben she remembered from high school had been too thin for his tall frame, and always seemed to have a hungry look. This Ben had filled out nicely, although he still had a hungry look in his eyes, but she would bet twenty dollars that the hunger had nothing to do with food!
“Are you trying to tell me that I could get rabies from a damn bird?” he grumbled, wrapping a dish towel over his wounds.
“No, but infections can be just as painful.” She smiled warmly. “I’m Jess Maddox, Mr. Sinclair. Is there someplace I could change my clothes?” She glanced down at the small tote bag she carried in one hand.
“Change?” Ben frowned, looking at her costume of old jeans and faded peach-colored T-shirt. “Do you wear a uniform or something?”
Jess shook her head. “I’ve just come from another client and I’ll want to wash up and change my clothes before I see your bird. It’s purely for his protection. It helps prevent the spread of germs.”
Ben blinked as if Jess’s simple explanation was over his head. “Down the hall, to the right.” He winced as a loud squawk rent the air.
“I’ll only be a few minutes,” Jess said over her shoulder as she walked down the hall. “You’d better take care of your hand right away.”
In no time, Jess had changed into clean jeans and a pale green cotton shirt. Her shoulder-length golden brown hair was pulled back into a loose braid. She stared into the mirror without seeing her reflection. She was too busy remembering the angry man who had greeted her at the door.
She had to admit it would be difficult to remain aloof around this older and obviously much wiser Ben. She hadn’t expected to find him such a good-looking man, with his dark blond hair and moustache, not to mention a pair of bone-melting deep green eyes. Why couldn’t he have gone bald and grown a paunch?
Jess quickly washed her hands and dried them on a pearl gray towel. The pale-blue-and-gray color scheme in the powder room was welcomely restful to someone who had been on the go since five o’clock that morning.
Following the sounds of an angry bird, Jess came upon a menacing Ben facing a red and gold macaw. The language Ben was directing toward the bird was far from complimentary.
“I’d be careful, if you don’t want him to add to his vocabulary,” Jess advised lightly, entering the sunny den. She looked around and saw a large open space perfect for her work. “They pick words up very quickly, and tend to show off their new phrases when you least expect it. I’ll get my work perch out of my car and begin.”
“I’ll get it for you,” Ben offered instantly, turning and hurrying out of the room.
Jess stood a short distance from the large round wrought-iron cage and talked softly to the bird whose tail feathers fanned out in a threatening manner. Low sounds were emanating from his colorful throat.
“So you’re the one who’s been putting up such a fuss.” She deliberately kept her voice level and maintained eye contact with the macaw. “We’re just going to have to teach you not to be such an ornery critter all the time.”
“There’s a simple explanation for that. He hates people, me especially,” Ben said, lugging in a large flat round piece of wood and a hollow metal pipe with wood doweling along the top. “What is this thing?”
“My work perch,” Jess replied, fitting the metal pipe into a hole in the middle of the wooden base. “Something like this would be a good idea for you when you work with— You never mentioned his name.” She couldn’t help wondering if Ben did recognize her. He hadn’t said anything if he had, but she hadn’t been there very long either. As it was, the mischievous twinkle in his eye certainly didn’t help her peace of mind.
Jess lifted her eyebrows in question. “Did he come with the name?”
Ben nodded. “He was a birthday gift from a . . . friend.” His hesitation told Jess to substitute woman for friend.