Read an Excerpt From India Holton’s The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love, a historical fantasy rom-com by India Holton, out from Berkley on July 23rd.

Beth Pickering is on the verge of finally capturing the rare deathwhistler bird when Professor Devon Lockley swoops in, capturing both her bird and her imagination like a villain. Albeit a handsome and charming villain, but that’s beside the point. As someone highly educated in the ruthless discipline of ornithology, Beth knows trouble when she sees it, and she is determined to keep her distance from Devon. 

For his part, Devon has never been more smitten than when he first set eyes on Professor Beth Pickering. She’s so pretty, so polite, so capable of bringing down a fiery, deadly bird using only her wits. In other words, an angel. Devon understands he must not get close to her, however, since they’re professional rivals. 

When a competition to become Birder of the Year by capturing an endangered caladrius bird is announced, Beth and Devon are forced to team up to have any chance of winning. Now keeping their distance becomes a question of one bed or two. But they must take the risk, because fowl play is afoot, and they can’t trust anyone else—for all may be fair in love and war, but this is ornithology.

An ornithologist must be proficient in the three fundamentals of fieldwork: finding a bird, identifying a bird, and getting the hell away from that bird before it eats you.

Birds Through a Sherry Glass, H.A. Quirm

All along the streets to the museum, Beth met no trouble. Her plain brown coat, accompanied by a small hat, gloves, and air of cultivated intelligence, triggered fear in any man who glanced her way: one catcall, and she might educate them.

Slipping past museum staff to enter the archives with the speed and stealthiness of a well-trained ornithologist, she also met no trouble.

Wending a narrow path through shelves and cabinets to the back of the chamber, she met no—


Beth stopped so abruptly her hat shuddered, and only because of her stiffened posture did it retain its place upon her head. “You!”

Devon Lockley gave her a lithe smile. “You,” he replied, his tone more friendly and thus far more dangerous than hers. Worse, he’d removed his dinner jacket and unknotted his tie. The bare, olive-toned skin visible where he’d unfastened his shirt collar took “trouble” and dunked it in a glass of hot, rum-infused devilry. Light from the small, dusty windows slid across his mouth languorously, stroking the smile.

Beth looked away, clearing her throat.

Shelves of boxes stood to the right of them, and to the left a row of specimen cabinets. A wide, shallow drawer lay open in the cabinet directly beside Devon, revealing assorted birdcalls, bird lures, and bird thingamajigs whose purpose had long since been forgotten.

“I haven’t found it yet,” Devon said.

“I’m sorry?” Beth replied innocently. “Found what?”

His expression tilted with sardonic humor. “I suspect you’re not in the basement of the Museum of Magical Birds for the purpose of an afternoon stroll, Miss Pickering. You’ve come for the caladrius call.”

Beth applied to her sense of decorum for a suitable response, but it took one look at the man and turned away, busying itself with dusting its precious antique collection of curtsies. Left to her own devices, she gave him a second, considering look.

He was implausibly handsome for a university professor, who in Beth’s experience were a pallid lot, rather musty, with a constant yearning in their eyes for dinner, wine, and their latest lecture to magically write itself. But if there was any yearning done in regard to Devon Lockley, it was almost certainly not by him but toward him. Not that Beth felt any such yearning. Heavens no! She was far too sensible for that. The riotous sensations in her stomach were merely due to French tea. She also suspected him of possessing masculine wiles. He probably kept them up his sleeve or in a trouser pocket—upon which thought, Beth glanced at said pocket, and managed to prevent herself from blushing only by dint of general aggravation. She hauled her vision up by the scruff of its neck and discovered Devon watching her smugly, as if he could guess her thoughts and was considering whether to reach his naked hand into that pocket and bring out something truly scandalous indeed. Her aggravation increased by several notches.

“I am here to do some research,” she said, silently reassuring herself that it was the whitest of lies; beige at most. “However, this seems a convenient opportunity to apologize to you for our fracas in Spain.”

“No need,” Devon answered easily. In response, Beth’s aggravation forgot about climbing notches and took flight instead.

“Absolutely there is a need! I was an ill-mannered scoundrel of the worst kind to assault you with a parasol!”

He leaned back slightly. “Er…”

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The Ornithologist's Field Guide to Love
The Ornithologist's Field Guide to Love

The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love

India Holton

“You ought to be stern and judgmental.” She thrust out a gloved hand. “I insist upon apologizing. Kindly frown at me and then shake hands, so we may reestablish a civil rivalry between us.”

“All right,” he agreed—then ruined it by adding, “My pleasure.” He gave her a frown that was clearly wearing nothing more than a wicked grin beneath its coat. But before Beth could summon offense, he took her hand.

Immediately, she knew she’d made a tactical error. His bare fingers were warm even through the kid leather of her glove. His grip was firm in a way that made the description “firm” seem altogether salacious. An electric sensation rushed through her body, setting off alarms hither and yon. All that saved her was remembering the job she’d come to do.

“How do you know about the caladrius call?” she asked. Devon shrugged. “You told me.” “I beg your pardon—?—!”

“Well, to be precise, you told my spy, Lady Trimble, who then told me.”

“Egad!” Beth gasped. “That’s cheating!”

“Come now, Miss Pickering,” he said, laughing. “All may be fair in love and war, but this is ornithology. Cheating is practically one of our scientific principles. Or did they not teach you that at—let me guess, Liverpool University?”

He wanted to aggravate her. “Oxford,” she answered in her politest tone. After all, she could climb trees without showing her petticoats and wrangle birds into cages without swearing. No man was going to disturb her equanimity.

He smiled.

“Villain!” she remonstrated at once, before she even knew what she was doing. And once she’d got going, alas, there seemed no stopping her. “Don’t try that charm on me, if you please. I will not succumb like some—some—liberal arts undergraduate.”

“If you say so, Miss Pickering,” he answered, still smiling. “I do beg your pardon. And while I can’t apologize for using Lady Trimble to spy on you, I will point out that at least I chose to run here and find the call before you might, rather than steal it from you outright. Not that such virtue did me any good.” He frowned askance at the open drawer. “This collection looks like a pack of first-year students have held a keg party among it.”

The apology, such as it was, mollified her. “Perhaps we aren’t the first to come searching,” she suggested in a calmer tone. “Hippolyta cannot be the only one to know about the call.”

“Which also means others might appear at any moment.” Devon glanced over her shoulder as if expecting a sudden influx of ornithologists bearing lockpicks, pistols, and emergency marriage certificates for use upon discovering a bachelor and spinster alone together. Beth’s nerves ruffled all over again. Really, this encounter was going to drive her to drink, and she did not think there was enough tea in all of Paris for the purpose.

“I suggest a compromise,” she said. “I will search for the call, and you will stand guard, and once I’ve found it we will leave quietly so as to not draw attention to ourselves. What say you?”

“I say you need a better dictionary,” Devon replied, grinning. He looked over her shoulder again; glancing back, Beth thought she saw a darkness move between shelves, but she blinked and it was gone.

“I’m being paranoid,” Devon murmured, shaking his head. “How about I look for the call, you do the same, and may the best birder win?” “And when I win?” she asked cautiously.

“When I win, we’ll agree to disagree, and depart without further argument.”

“Very well.” She turned toward the cabinet—only to discover she and Devon were still holding hands. He realized at the same moment and released her just as she was pulling away. She rubbed her hand against her waist. Devon shoved his through his hair. Stepping apart, they set to opening cabinet drawers.

“I admit I’m a little daunted, competing with Britain’s youngest-ever professor,” Devon said as they worked.

Beth glanced at him sidelong. Was he mocking her? Or had that been a note of sincerity in his voice? If he’d whistled a birdsong, she’d have been able to interpret it at once, but her ability with human conversation was mediocre at best, and this one certainly had her floundering. She decided to retreat, as usual, behind niceness.

“I’m daunted myself,” she said, “competing with an academic wunderkind.”

“That’s merely a rumor started by my thesis examination panel because they wanted to get away early for a fishing trip.”

Beth stared at him with astonishment. “Really?”

He just grinned in reply, his dark eyes glimmering. Instantly, Beth’s aggravation discarded niceness and leaped once more into the breach, swinging its fists wildly and suggesting she close the wall up with a dead professor. Turning away, she rummaged through the birdcalls, not even seeing them.

For a while, Devon searched quietly alongside. But all too soon they were elbowing each other… leaning past each other to grab at something that looked like a possibility… humphing and tsking and smacking at hands… completely missing the caladrius call lying among several other antique whistles… then seeing it finally and both snatching at it with such urgency they knocked it clear off the tray. It flew past them, fell to the floor, and rolled through a gap between two shelving units.

“Now look what you’ve done!” they said simultaneously. “It wasn’t my fault!” they replied in chorus.

And shoving at each other, they squeezed their way through the gap to crouch in the dark narrow space behind, groping around the floor for the little wooden call. Thighs pressed against each other; shoulders rubbed; etiquette rules exploded left, right, and center. Finally, Beth’s fingers stumbled upon the call, and she clutched it in triumph.

Unfortunately, Devon did the same. “Let go!” she hissed at him.

“You first!” he hissed back. “How dare—”

“Shut up.”

Beth gasped in genuine shock. “I beg your pardon!”

He relinquished the call, but only so as to slap his hand over her mouth. Beth’s heart leaped with what was almost certainly alarm and not delighted excitement.

“Shh!” he whispered. “I heard something.”

Beth nodded. Devon moved his hand away, and together they shifted apart two boxes on the shelf at eye level so they could peer through to the passageway beyond.


Beth slapped her own hand over her mouth. A bird was tiptoeing delicately over the dusty floor—a dull brown bird, not much bigger than a magpie, with dainty legs and a small black beak. Vanellus carnivorus, her brain automatically recited.

Rabid flesh-eating lapwing.

It was the most vicious, deadly little bird this side of the Mediterranean. With scant effort it could bring down a grown man and the horse beneath him, and the servants attending him, and their horses too. Almost its entire population had been exterminated, leaving only two specimens in the highest-security aviaries.

And one in this basement.

Suddenly, Beth could not breathe. This was not due to her hand over her mouth; rather, she simply could not remember the process of inhaling air. The lapwing’s claws tapped gently against the floorboards, providing an eerily calm counterpoint to her crashing heartbeat. She and Devon were sitting ducks, with no easy way of escape. As it passed where they crouched behind the shelf, there came a tiny click of fang against beak, and the warm vanilla scent the bird used to attract prey. Instinct urged Beth to follow that scent, to tuck herself into coziness beneath the lapwing’s soft wing. Intelligence managed to restrain her, however, and the lapwing continued farther down the passageway, its lure diminishing as it went. Beth and Devon glanced at each other, exhaling with relief—

The lapwing froze. It cocked its head.

“Damn!” Devon swore. Grabbing Beth’s arm, he hauled her up with him and pushed her toward the gap in the shelving. “Run!”

Excerpted from The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love by India Holton Copyright © 2024 by India Holton. Excerpted by permission of Berkley. All rights reserved. 

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