It started out fine. In fact, it should gave been a wonderful Valentineâ€™s Day. My boyfriend, Kurt, and I planned to celebrate our third anniversary with a romantic, candle-lit dinner at his favorite restaurant. Barnabyâ€™s overlooked the harbor, and while their menu didnâ€™t exactly boast a huge variety of diet-friendly foods, and in general the servers were snooty and impatient, the music often loud and intrusive and the clientele of questionable virtue, the slabs of beef they offered were quite generous and thatâ€™s what mattered to Kurt.
Iâ€™d ordered my sweetheart his favorite cologne, an expensive, exotic blend, that I was planning to pick up at his favorite menâ€™s shop on my way home from work. It had taken a big bite out of my budget for the month, but heck it was Valentineâ€™s Day and Kurt was worth every penny. Though our relationship had been somewhat stormy over the past couple of years, in recent weeks we had settled into what I thought of as an idyllic state of bliss. With the worst behind us, I just knew Kurt would be popping the question soonâ€”maybe even tonight.
I wanted everything to be perfect just in case. I had arranged to leave work early so I would have two full hours to dress and do my hair and makeup. Knowing how much stock Kurt put in being punctual, it wouldnâ€™t do on this special occasion for me to be running late. He would arrive at my apartment precisely at 6:45, and I planned to do my best to look ravishing.
The afternoon flew by, and before I knew it it was 4:30, time for me to put my special plans in motion. Time to get ready for the best Valentineâ€™s Day ever.
The first hint that the night wasnâ€™t going to be as perfect as Iâ€™d hoped came when I arrived at Montgomeryâ€™s Menâ€™s Store, starry-eyed with checkbook in hand, only to be told, â€œIâ€™m sorry, but the cologne you ordered hasnâ€™t come in yet.â€
My stomach took a nosedive. â€œBut…but you promised me it would be here today.â€
â€œI know, but there was a dock strike on the east coast,â€ the fresh-faced young salesman explained. â€œItâ€™s out of our hands. Check back on Monday.â€
That took the wind out of my sails, but what could I do? Surely Kurt would understand and be content knowing that such an extravagant gift was on its way. All was not lost, I realized as I arrived home. My special gift would be to wear my hair and makeup just the way Kurt liked them, and to wear his favorite outfitâ€”the red silk dress with the slit up the side and the strappy black stiletto heels. In truth, I would much rather slip into my black polyester sheath with the matching bolero jacket. Still carrying a few extra pounds left over from the holidays, Iâ€™d have been far more comfortable in the black. But picturing the gleam in my loverâ€™s eyes when he saw me in his favorite dress shoved all my self-doubts aside. It would be well worth a little discomfort. Well, maybe more than a little discomfort, since the stilettos always managed to rub my feet raw by the end of the evening. I brushed my hair until it glistened and applied the curling iron with dramatic flair. The end result was a riot of fine, blond curls around my artfully painted face, heavy on the mascara. Kurt had remarked often enough how he loved long, thick lashes on a woman. Heâ€™d find no fault with mine tonight. The reflection in the mirror showed a blue eyed, exotic-looking female staring back. A little red lipstick to match the dress, and Iâ€™d be ready to go.
The phone rang just as I was reaching for the lipstick in my bathroom drawer. â€œHey, babe. I had a little setback at work this afternoon. Would you mind terribly if I didnâ€™t pick you up? I called the restaurant and told them weâ€™d be a few minutes late. Think you could meet me there at 7:15?â€
Disappointment crowded my chest. I did mind. Iâ€™d taken great pains to make this night special, and now I was going to have to drive to the restaurant alone. Of course in the general scheme of things, it was only a minor setback. I could overcome. â€œSure,â€ I said with false cheerfulness.
â€œMeet you there. And Kurt…happy Valentineâ€™s Day.â€
â€œYou too, babe.â€ And he hung up.
I used the extra time to stuff my wallet and keys, along with a few other necessities, into my small black beaded handbag. Grabbing my coat and the Valentineâ€™s Day card Iâ€™d lovingly chosen for Kurt, I left the apartment and got into my car for the short ride to the restaurant. Stars shimmered brightly in the deep velvet sky, playing peek-a-boo with a glorious full moon. A night made for romance, if ever Iâ€™d seen one. Or so I thought until about a mile and a half down the road when my engine stuttered a few times and died. How could this be happening? I checked the slim silver watch at my wrist. In less than ten minutes I would be late for a very, very important date. Possibly the most important date of my life.
Luckily I was stranded in a safe place, on a residential street in front of a cheery home with lights in several of its windows. Grabbing my cell phone, I scrambled out of the car. Steam hissed from under the hood, and even before I threw it open I knew the radiator had sprung a leak. A serious leak judging from the puddle of rusty water beneath my tall black stilettos. I dialed Kurt, but got no answer. As I went around to the passenger side to retrieve my wallet, I heard another kind of hissing…just before the yard sprinklers came on full-force. With a screech and a howl, I high-stepped it back out into the street and attempted to use the car for a shield. Too late. To my shock and dismay, the back of my dress was soaking wet, my hair was damp enough to have lost most of its curl, and my ankle hurt like the devil from where I twisted it jumping off the curb.
And I was now officially late meeting Kurt.
There was nothing for it but to call a tow truck, seeing as how my boyfriend wasnâ€™t answering his cell. The chill night air forced me back into the car to wait. Sitting there alone in my clinging wet dress, with my hair straggling down around my shoulders and my ankle throbbing, I couldnâ€™t imagine a more ignominious ending to what should have been a beautiful evening. I was busy wallowing in self-pity when the tow truck arrived. I hardly noticed the man when he got out and walked up to my window, just grabbed my membership card and opened the door. His voice caught my attention first, deep, with a rough, sexy quality to it and a slight accent–southern maybe.
â€œEveninâ€™, maâ€™am. Looks like youâ€™ve been sidetracked on your way to an important engagement.â€
â€œItâ€™s Valentineâ€™s Day,â€ I replied, as if that explained everything. The guy didnâ€™t look much like a tow truck driver now that I was paying more attention. No grease-stained uniform or baseball cap featuring the company logo. Instead he wore a snug black T-shirt and jeans, boasted what appeared to be several days worth of golden stubble on his cheeks, and light brown hair that swung free to the tops of his wide shoulders. A country song came to mind, along with the image of a certain newly-married country singer.
â€œYes, maâ€™am, it is, so letâ€™s see what we can do to get you on your way.â€ He soon confirmed what Iâ€™d known all along, that my car wasnâ€™t going anywhere under its own power. I watched in silent misery as he hooked it up to the back of his truck, wondering what Kurt would think when I didnâ€™t show for dinner. I wasnâ€™t distracted enough to miss the competent way my rescuer moved, the bunching of his muscles, the smooth roll of his hips as he worked. The man might not look like a tow truck driver, but he knew the drill.
I gathered my things together, limped over to the truck, and tried to hoist myself up into the passenger seat. He appeared beside me, offering strong, gentle assistance. Iâ€™d have appreciated it more if the slit in my stupid dress had left me a smidgen more modesty. I caught a quick glimpse of my reflection in the rearview mirror, confirming my worst fears. With my soggy hair hanging down around my shoulders, I resembled a stray cat left too long out in the rain. Huddling in my wretchedness, I gave the man directions to an auto repair shop near where I lived, figuring Iâ€™d walk home from there. Repeated calls to Kurtâ€™s cell had gone unanswered, and at this point there wasnâ€™t a whole lot more I could do.
â€œWhere to now?â€ the Keith Urban lookalike inquired, after unloading my car in the parking lot of the repair shop.
â€œHome,â€ I said, avoiding his gaze. â€œBut I can walk from here.â€
He caught my arm as I reached for the door handle. â€œYou canâ€™t go home. You look much too pretty for that. Now, I know you had some special plans. Tell me where you were heading and Iâ€™ll see that you get there.”
Warmed by the manâ€™s words, I felt a spark of hope in my chest. â€œI was meeting my boyfriend at Barnabyâ€™s down by the harbor.â€
â€œThe harbor it is. Wonâ€™t take but a few minutes.â€
I did my best to tidy up on the way, but it was mostly a lost cause. At least I could refresh my lipstick, but not only would I be late for our reservationâ€”something Kurt abhorredâ€”my special gift of wanting to look perfect for him was ruined. My anxiety grew as we drew up to the restaurant, along with my sense of failure. And then I saw something that snatched my breath and had me grabbing my chest in pain. No! It wasnâ€™t possible! That couldnâ€™t be Kurt in the shadow of the building, pressed up against a strange woman, devouring her with his kiss.
My companion, sensing my distress, hung a quick left and headed in the opposite direction. â€œYou okay?â€ he asked, glancing sideways at me.
I couldnâ€™t answer him. Didnâ€™t trust myself to speak. Finally, I realized that the truck was no longer moving. My misery too much to contain, I threw open the door and climbed out. â€œThanks for the ride,â€ I murmured, then trudged to the corner and stood there in a state of suspended disbelief. This won First Prize for the worst Valentineâ€™s Day ever.
And then I felt a warm presence beside me, a gentle hand caressing my shoulder. â€œThat guy back there? Heâ€™s a loser. Donâ€™t waste another minute pining for him. You deserve a whole lot better.â€
I huddled deeper into my jacket.
â€œListen, my family owns a restaurant on the east side of town. Do you like Italian?â€
I turned to face him. His sexy grin sent my stomach twirling. â€œBut what about your job?â€
â€œThis isnâ€™t my regular job, Iâ€™m just covering for a buddy of mine so he could take his wife out for Valentineâ€™s Day. The shift ends at nine. What do you say? I can pretty much guarantee us a good table, and the foodâ€™s good.â€
Gazing up into his golden brown eyes, it hit me that I was seeing something there I had never seen in Kurtâ€™sâ€”not in the three long years I had known him. Compassion, respect, gallantry. Kurt. The man Iâ€™d caught kissing another woman less than an hour after he was supposed to be meeting me for a romantic dinner.
You deserve a whole lot better. The strangerâ€™s words echoed through my mind, and I suddenly realized that he was right. Holding out my hand, I gave him a tentative smile. â€œThanks. Iâ€™d love to.â€
Maybe this wasnâ€™t going to be the worst Valentineâ€™s Day ever after all.
Vicki Crum is a Connections Award Finalist, Paranormal for her manuscript A GLIMPSE OF ETERNITY. She is also a long time member, and volunteer, of OCC/RWA.
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