Riana Turner looked at the two women sitting across the table from her in the artsy downtown bistro. She couldn't understand why they were suffering her company. Not only were they suffering it, but it seemed, by their rapt expressions as she talked, that they were enjoying it as well.
"So that's how you got this job?" asked Alexis Baylor.
Alexis was a knockout. She was petite and slender, with a shoulder-length bob of bleached blond hair. It was there, however, that standard methods of description went the way of poodle skirts and beehive hairdos.
Today, Alexis was dressed in a fashion that, though reminiscent of the fifties, was wholly contemporary. White pedal-pushers, crisp sunflower-yellow blouse with three-quarter sleeves, and slim navy flats. Conservative as individual items on a mannequin, but when bare forearms and ankles showed collages of colorful tattoos, the overall impression was… was… hillbilly freak-show?
That's not it, Riana thought, jogging through the cluttered tracks of recent memory. Psychobilly, that's it!
She recalled that psychobilly had something to do with an alternative music scene, a bastard child, as it were, of bebop and punk rock. Though, if she were honest, she wasn't completely sure. It was proving very difficult to keep straight the multitudes of unique genres of music on which these women had decided to educate her.
Boxing renegade thoughts into a corner of her mind, Riana smiled weakly at her companions. "Yeah," she said, finally answering Alexis' question. She fidgeted with the salt and pepper shakers on the table. "All because of my brother."
"I always knew you would make it to the city," beamed the second girl.
The smile directed her way was wide and welcoming, alleviating a bit of Riana's inherent fears: strangers, noise, cities, and generally most things that didn't reflect safety, harmony, and boredom.
Jeff, her older brother by two minutes and thirty-eight seconds, had stressed that if there was one person she could trust to ease her transition from West Coast suburbia to East Coast city, it was this girl. Looking across the table at her brother's best friend and lead singer of their band, Not Irish, Riana found it hard to doubt his advice.
There was an aura of singular confidence and ease around Irish Delaney, as if she had somehow fought for and earned her peace in life. Dressed simply in a black beater, a red, knee-length skirt, and chunky black heels, her force of presence left little question as to why her fans—male and female—couldn't get enough of her. Her sleek, black-haired, violet-eyed beauty made Riana cringe with envy, as well as distaste for her own blond, mainstream looks.
"Just so you know, Jeff only likes to tell everyone that he got you this gig," Irish said, chuckling. "When your portfolio came in, Riana, it went straight to the boss's desk."
Alexis nodded in agreement. "It was kind of strange, really. Mike C. had been off his rocker all day. We're talking anal retentiveness to the extreme. When the Fed Ex guy finally came, and Mike basically tackled the poor man for your package."
Riana frowned, uncomfortable with the implied flattery. "I don't understand what all the fuss was about. It was just a preliminary portfolio, not even all of my best work."
"Are you nuts?" Alexis cried. "The photographs you sent were fucking amazing!"
Riana glanced helplessly at a nearby elderly couple. They were scowling in censure. She wanted to crawl under the table. A small part of her, though, envied how little Alexis cared about what others thought of her. It was something Riana herself couldn't comprehend.
What would it be like, she thought, to be so free?
"They were fantastic," Irish agreed, dragging her back to the present. "You really know how to capture the essence of a person. I know this is just a day-job for you while you work on your masters degree, but seriously, Riana, you are going to immortalize the underground scene in the city."
"You'll be a fucking legend!" Alexis grinned, glancing at Irish. "I'll be friends with two famous people. One who's always in front of a camera, and one whose camera everyone wants to be in front of!"
Riana felt her face heat. "I doubt that will happen, but thanks."
Silence descended. Riana lifted her coffee, then set it back down when she realized the cup was empty. Instead, she gazed out the windows of the cafe, at the colorful flow of passersby. There were so many different styles, professions, ethnicities. The sheer number of individuals, the constant noise inside, the endless traffic outside… It was totally overwhelming.
She pressed her fingers to her temples, turning her gaze back to the safety of the tabletop. She could feel concern radiating from her companions.
Irish and Alexis were so different from her, from any women she'd known. They each radiated such exotic, alluring personalities. They had flawless poise and style. They were beautiful, sensual, slender women.
The only thing Riana had in common with them was slenderness, except in her case it was the unflattering, no-soft-curves type. She was neither beautiful nor sensual, but was exactly the type of person no one as cool as these women would ever willfully associate with.
She was a square.
Riana abruptly knew that despite her dreams of living in the city with her brother, of his friends accepting her, of fitting in, that they were just that, dreams.
With her long, dirty-blond hair, unremarkable green eyes, and skin so pale it was constantly reacting to the sun or wind, she simply was not pretty enough. Her jeans were loose and ripped at the knees, and her blue t-shirt was a hand-me-down of Jeff's that read in block letters It's Cute How You Think I'm Listening.
She wasn't cool.
She had no vibrant tattoos, and only one conservative piercing in each ear. She would never belong with these people. Even with a press pass hanging on her neck, she knew that at the many of the local concerts she would be covering for Alternative Review, she would stand out like a sore thumb.
The negative odds of her finding success and happiness in the city piled up. Her eyes began stinging. A lump rose in her throat. "I—I'm sorry," she stammered, snatching her purse and lurching to her feet.
"Riana, wait!" Irish called.
She was already out the door of the café. She ran toward the curb to hail a cab and crashed into a pedestrian. Grocery bags went flying, foodstuffs scattering over the cement. Hands caught themselves on unfamiliar clothing as feet lost balance and seconds later, Riana lay on her back, blinking at the sky.
The clouds were white and fluffy. A formation of birds flew lazily beneath a particularly inviting patch of azure sky.
A male voice groaned near her ear. Reality snapped into place like a camera shutter, and she realized that something—or someone, rather—had cushioned her fall. She lay frozen for a moment, her skin alive with the horror and mortification of having her head pillowed on a hard, unfamiliar stomach.
Just before she was able to command her body to move, a voice spoke from beneath her, "Sweetheart, there are other ways to get my attention."
Even more maddening than the amusement in his tone was the fact that it flowed with a thick, honeyed Scottish accent. Somehow it made the situation worse, more humiliating. It wasn't bad enough that he was a total stranger, but he was a tourist as well.
He'll probably carry stories of the clumsy American girl back to foreign soil. I'll live on in infamy, then, if not fame.
Riana scrambled to her feet, backing to a safe distance before looking down at her personal crash-test dummy. Her mouth was open to apologize, but the breath left her lungs in a silent flight, and all she managed was a sigh.
Sprawled on the cement, leaning back on his elbows and grinning up at her like he hadn't a care in the world was the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. Brown, curly hair was longish and played around his face. Pale blue eyes, framed by dark lashes women paid good money for, held humor and warmth, not accusation as she had expected.
"Nicolas!" squealed a woman as she streaked past Riana in a blur of yellow and white.
Sure enough, Alexis materialized as she threw herself onto the sprawled boy's lap, wrapping her arms around his neck. "When did you get into town?" Alexis asked, finally releasing her choke-hold on him.
Nicolas affectionately ruffled Alexis' hair. "Couple of days ago, doll face. I was going to give you a call after I'd stocked the empty fridge."
Irish appeared in the door of the café, glancing both ways at the cluster of spectators that had gathered. "Move it along, people! Don't you have anything better to do?" Amazingly, they listened to her, and foot traffic began again, flowing around the scattered groceries.
Riana crouched and began fitting containers of orange juice, a carton of Marlboro Reds, and yogurts into a deflated paper bag. Irish knelt beside her, scooping bundles of vegetables from the ground.
"Just give it a shot, Riana," Irish said softly, looking up from her task. "If you hate it in a month or so, you can move back to your sleepy coastal town."
Not knowing what to say, Riana just nodded. She stood, only to find herself face to face with the foreigner. He smiled down at her from an impressive height. "Just got into town?" he asked, taking the bag she was holding.
She nodded, blinking dumbly at him.
Nicolas grinned and glanced at Alexis. "Does pretty girl have a name?" he asked.
Riana looked from Nicolas to Irish, but the punk queen was still on damage control some feet away, apparently unaware of the conversation.
"Riana," Alexis said, smiling happily. "Jeff's twin sister from California."
Riana snapped her head around. Me? Pretty girl?
"Thought she looked familiar," Nicolas said, his demeanor shifting from flirtatious to polite as he extended a hand. "Nice to meet you, Riana."
She smiled uncertainly and clasped his long, strong fingers. "You, too," she managed. "I'm sorry about…" she gestured to the ground.
He chuckled. "Don't worry, it was a pleasure."
Riana felt her cheeks flame red, and cursed her Celtic blood. Nicolas's eyes narrowed, his grin widening. "New to town?" he asked. She nodded jerkily. "Well then, stick around and I guarantee this city will change your life forever."
It already has, she thought.
Irish stepped forward to kiss Nicolas's cheek and deposit several bags onto his arm. "Glad you're back, Jazz. Sticking around for a while?" she asked warmly.
"Yeah, Ri," Nicolas said. "Finally got the call from the university. I'm on as associate professor starting this fall."
"Congrats!" she said happily. "Are you missing all the green of Scotland yet?"
Nicolas glanced at Riana, who stood close by, feeling like she was eavesdropping. "Nope, not yet," he said.
Alexis snaked her arms around Nicolas from behind, squeezing him soundly. "Coming to the show tomorrow night?" she asked.
"And which show would that be?" he asked.
"Mine," Irish said. "We're playing the amphitheater."
His brows rose. "Do I get in free?"
Irish laughed. "Yeah, I'll put you on the VIP list."
"Great!" he turned and handed several of his bags to Alexis. "Come on, Lex, walk me home."
Alexis looked knowingly at the girls. "And by that he means 'make me lunch, woman!'"
"Precisely!" Nicolas proclaimed, steering her down the street.
Irish laughed; Riana managed a weak smile as Nicolas and Alexis waved and disappeared into the pedestrian flow.
Irish touched her arm gently. "How about you come to my place tomorrow afternoon and we hang out until the show?"
"I don't know—" she began.
Irish held up a hand, smiling softly. "I know you have doubts, but if you don't give the city a shot, you'll go the rest of your life wondering what would have happened if you'd stuck around."
Riana sighed. "You're right," she said, knuckling her eyes. "I guess I'm still jet-lagged." She looked up as something occurred to her. Panic built in her chest. "All my clothes are jeans and t-shirts."
Irish grinned. "Don't worry about a thing. I have a wardrobe to stun a princess. We're about the same size, so I'm sure we'll find you something." Riana opened her mouth, but Irish cut her off. "Something casual, that you'll feel comfortable in."
She nodded, caught up in the sparkle of violet eyes. "Okay, what time should I come by?"
"Why doesn't Jeff just bring you after you two hang out? You're going to the zoo with him tomorrow, right?"
"Yup, with him and Tim."
"Have you met Tim yet?"
Riana shook her head, not liking the mischief that suddenly blossomed in her eyes. Chuckling, Irish looped an arm through hers and began directing her down the street. "You're in for a treat, kid. A treat."