Novels

Morning Without Zoe

Chapter One

 

VALENTINE’S DAY

 

Zoe Dannae sipped her martini, relishing the crisp, cool slide of gin around her mouth, soothing her taste buds with hints of spice, juniper, and ecstasy. She closed her eyes, waiting for the alcohol to wash over her brain with waves of relaxation and wonder.

Magic time.

“Mmm, this martini is delicious,” she said, looking across at her husband, Nathan, sipping an Anchor Steam. “I’ve been waiting all day for this. This is a lovely restaurant, perfect for Valentine’s.”

Zoe’s eyes roamed over Vista del Mar restaurant as dusk settled over Monterey Bay. Streetlights glowed through the evening mist, illuminating the  sailboats in the harbor.  A crackling fire in the fireplace was putting out the aroma of pine as Johnny Mathis’s “My Funny Valentine” played over the sound system.

“Honey, this place is charming,” Zoe said. “They’re going all out for Valentine’s: napkins with red ribbons, sequin hearts sprinkled around the table, fresh flowers, and heart-shaped candles. How did you know about this place?”

Nathan reached into the breadbasket, tearing a warm roll, and handing half to Zoe. “I saw their poster in the hotel.  Complimentary champagne, flowers, and Valentine’s cake.”

They dipped warm rolls into a saucer of olive oil, garlic, and vinaigrette.

“I love these rolls,” Zoe said. “I could eat the whole basket.”

“Isn’t the fireplace amazing?” Nathan said, sipping his beer.

“Mmm, it’s making my backside so toasty. I was getting cold on the beach.”

Nathan grinned. “What kind of husband could let his wife get into bed on Valentine’s with a cold tush? That could spoil our evening.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” she teased. “You have this . . . look. You’d better stop it or we won’t make it through dinner.”

Their waitress arrived with a bottle of bubbly. “Compliments of the house.” She poured and bubbles trickled over the rim. “Enjoy your champagne.  I’ll be back to take your orders.”

 They clinked glasses. “Happy Valentine’s, honey,” Zoe said.

“Same to you,” Nathan said, “This Valentine’s weekend is going to be special. We’ve got the honeymoon suite and lunch in Carmel tomorrow. We’ve got all weekend to sleep late, make love, and talk about our future.”

Zoe’s eyes dropped to her menu. Oh, Nathan, I wish you wouldn’t talk about our future, this weekend of all weekends.

“Really? What did you have in mind?” she asked.

“Let’s wait until tomorrow. I feel romantic tonight and don’t want to get into a big discussion. Let’s just have a nice dinner and go back to the hotel.”

Zoe looked down at her hands, twisting in her lap. “I wish you could see your face right now; you look like a boy getting ready to open Christmas presents.”

The waitress returned. “How is your champagne, folks?”

Zoe said, “It’s a nice way to start the evening.”

“Are you ready to order?”

Nathan pointed to the wine list. “We’ll start with a bottle of Bernardus Chardonnay. Zoe, what would you like?”

She pointed to a slip with the specials. “I’ll have the green salad with artichokes and walnuts, grilled mahi-mahi, and rice pilaf.”

“Excellent choice. And you, sir?”

“The same salad, pepper steak, baked potato, and grilled vegetables. Medium.”

“Could we get more rolls, please?” Zoe asked.

“I’ll bring a new basket with your wine.”

Zoe picked crumbs from the basket while Nathan poured champagne into their glasses.

“This is our fourth Valentine’s,” Nathan said. “Remember the others?”

“Hmm, let me think. First time in San Francisco, dinner at the Top of the Mark. You had prime rib; I had a shrimp salad. We stayed in that cute hotel by the Bay Bridge.”

“Whoa, I’m impressed.”

“The next year was Hawaii, the Big Island. You were at a business conference and flew me over.”

“What else did we do that trip?”

“Flew over to Maui to watch sunrise at the Haleakala volcano. Got up at four in the morning and froze our butts.  That afternoon we swam in the lagoon. You know my favorite memory of Hawaii?”

“Let me think . . . the beach? The orchids?”

“You swimming with the dolphins.”

Nathan smiled. “God, that was great.”

“When the dolphins swam into the lagoon, you dove down, came up and leaped out of the water. Your back was arched and glistened in the sun. You looked like a bronzed god.”

“How about last year?”

“Napa at Silverado. We played tennis in the morning, swam before lunch, toured wineries in the afternoon.”

The waitress came with their wine and fresh rolls. She displayed the label to Nathan and poured a taste into his glass. He swirled, sipped, and nodded his approval.  She poured for them, and retreated with a bow. “Enjoy your wine.”

Nathan and Zoe raised clinked glasses again. “Happy Valentine’s,” they said in unison.

Nathan pushed back his chair. “I’ve got to find the restroom. Will you be OK?”

“Yes, please go. You’ve been squirming in your seat the last ten minutes.”

Yes, Nathan, give me time to collect my thoughts. I’m trying to smile, but my face is cracking from the strain. You don’t know what’s going to happen this weekend. Just a few more hours . . .

Nathan headed through the dining room and disappeared down a hallway. Zoe’s eyes darted from table to table, searching out anyone who might be watching her.

She picked her purse from the floor, unzipped a pocket, and pulled out a thick envelope. She flicked through a stack of hundred dollar bills, Benjamin Franklin smiling enigmatically. She had forty Franklins in the envelope. She thumbed through the bills and stopped at Andrew Jackson’s stern face. She had fifty Old Hickorys and more twenty and ten dollar bills.

Zoe put the envelope back into the zippered pocket and pulled out a travel guide: Weekender’s Guide to Southern California.

She leafed through the book: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Hollywood, Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach, La Jolla, San Diego.

Who would she meet when she left Nathan? Someone interesting . . . exotic . . . mysterious. What would be their story? She was always fascinated by stories men told her. If their stories were compelling, she’d stay with them awhile. If they weren’t, she’d move on. She was ready for new stories.

Zoe reflected on the men who had been in her life. Most lasted only a few weeks or months. Nathan had been her longest relationship. Too long.

Jeff was one of the first. They were young, starting new lives at the university. They had met at a gallery where he told her about his passion for art. All he ever wanted to be was an artist. She had loved that about Jeff, but they couldn’t live on love and his passion for painting.  She moved on.

Andy’s passion was science: physics and astronomy, a grad student at the University of Washington. It was fun for a while, meeting bright students and going to fun parties. Andy was brilliant, but he lived in his head.

Sean was next. All the girls thought he was so lovable. Cute, wavy blonde hair, piercing hazel eyes, muscular frame. A real Adonis. Sean would be a good husband. All he wanted was kids, a home in the suburbs, coaching soccer, and PTA meetings. How boring.

Rafe was the funniest. A true party guy. He could make her laugh anytime—in the shower, shopping, riding bikes. But he wasn’t a good lover. I’ll bet he is making some girl laugh right now. It wasn’t that hard to leave Rafe.

Then there was Antonio. Gorgeous, stylish, lots of money, and a great storyteller. A charming Latino. But he wasn’t my type; too conceited. Sorry, Antonio, you hated it when I left.

“Hey, I’m back,” Nathan said, standing over her. “What’s so interesting in your purse?”