Check out the first chapter of Pre-Meditated Murder. Paper copies are available now. Kindle and Nook versions will release on Monday, January 8! Leave a comment below letting me know what you think, and you’ll be entered to win a $20 Amazon gift card! Drawing will take place Monday, January 15.
I slipped through the restroom door, leaned my back against the counter, and tried—unsuccessfully—to slow the pounding in my chest.
Dad’s voice echoed inside my head. Take it easy now, Kate-Girl. Remember what Rene told you. You have to act like everything’s normal. You don’t want to ruin tonight for Michael.
Almost three years after his death, Dad was still right. Tonight wasn’t about me. At least not just about me. It was Michael’s night, too. Or it would be, provided I didn’t die of heart failure.
Public restroom or not, I could think of worse places to die. The floor’s shiny black marble was spotless. A trio of lavender-scented candles cast dancing light beams across the matching countertop. The purple blooms of a phalaenopsis orchid cascaded from a dark green plant in the corner. The place even sounded inviting, thanks to soothing classical music floating through hidden speakers. Normally, I would have been enchanted by the room’s painstaking ornamentation. Not today. Today, I was too busy trying not to hyperventilate to revel.
My adrenaline-laced anticipation surprised me, especially since I’d spent almost a year avoiding the very conversation Michael and I were about to have. Then again, maybe I was worked up because I’d been avoiding it for so long. Until recently, I’d had no idea how important our future was to me.
Maybe a relaxing breath practice would help me calm down. I closed my eyes and inhaled, mentally coaching myself as I would one of my yoga students. Inhale and slowly count to four. One, two, three, four. Exhale, one, two …
A few cycles later, my heartbeat slowed. The chattering of my monkey mind subsided. My hands were still trembling too hard to touch up my makeup, so I picked stray dog hairs off the black cocktail dress I’d borrowed for the evening and ran a comb through my shoulder-length hair. I smiled to make sure lipstick hadn’t coated my teeth, pinched my cheeks to give them some color, and headed back to join Michael at our table.
Every part of SkyCity, the Seattle Space Needle’s upscale restaurant, had been designed to seduce multiple senses. The heels of my three-inch stilettos sank into the lobby’s lush oriental carpet. Notes from a baby grand piano caressed my eardrums. Swirls of color burst from a Chihuly painting, exploding the piano’s overture on canvas. A kaleidoscope of scents arranged and rearranged themselves in my nostrils, creating a fluid collage: garlicky pasta Alfredo, musky perfume, the sweet floral bouquet of deep red roses.
For most Seattleites, dinner at SkyCity was reserved for special occasions. For practically broke small business owners like Michael and me, the experience might be once in a lifetime. But man, was it worth it. SkyCity served more than delicious food. It provided unparalleled atmosphere and a rotating, panoramic view of the entire city.
Any other evening, I would have been glued to my seat for every one of the forty-seven minutes it took for the restaurant to complete a full rotation. Any other evening, I would have been transfixed by the view: toy-like rooftops, tiny ferries, the stark lines of the Olympic Mountains. Any other evening, I would have been drunk on the surroundings before I took my first sip of champagne.
This evening, however, I’d barely noticed any of it. I hadn’t even tasted the pasta I’d picked at for dinner. I was too preoccupied. Waiting. Waiting for Michael to stop pretending that we were here to celebrate my thirty-fourth birthday. Waiting for him to pull out the jewelry bag that Rene had spotted him carrying two days ago. Waiting for him to ask me to marry him.
Michael stood and pulled out my chair, grinning. “You were gone for an awfully long time. I was about to send in a search party.”
“Sorry about that.”
I glanced at him over my wine glass as he nodded discreetly to our waiter. On a bad day, Michael was pretty darned handsome, and today was far from a bad day. His sexy, blue-green eyes sparkled. The tailored suit he wore accented his broad shoulders and six-foot-tall frame. Curly brown hair brushed delightfully above his ear lobes, as if daring me to nibble them. Unmentionable body parts tingled. If Michael didn’t hurry up and give me that ring soon, I might consummate our engagement before the proposal.
I grinned. Now wouldn’t that give new meaning to SkyCity’s 360-degree view.
“Care to let me in on the joke?” Michael asked.
“Sorry. Nothing. I was just thinking about how happy I am.”
As if on cue, a line of wait staff approached our table. One carried a huge ice cream concoction enveloped in a thick dry-ice fog. Another brandished a bottle of my favorite bubbly and two crystal champagne flutes. The rest surrounded our table in a black-and-white semicircle. Conversations around us grew muted as people stopped eating to watch the theatrics. I felt my face redden. Leave it to Michael to embarrass me with a grand gesture.
Michael grinned like a madman; a cork popped through the air; the entire restaurant burst into song.
“Happy birthday to you …”
Ten seconds later, I blew out the candle and watched as the wait staff disappeared. The other diners resumed their conversations.
I surreptitiously picked through the ice cream, hoping to find buried treasure. Nothing but frozen dairy products and chunks of rich dark chocolate. No diamond lurked in the bottom of my champagne glass, either. My unmentionables stopped tingling, replaced by an awkward unease. Could Rene have been wrong?
Michael leaned across the table and clinked his glass against mine. “Happy birthday, Kate. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.”
The smile I flashed back felt so stiff, it could have been molded from plastic. “Tonight has been wonderful, Michael, truly. The flowers, the dinner, the champagne …” My voice trembled. “Everything.”
Michael frowned, confused. “What is it? Don’t like the dessert? The reviews said it wasn’t too rich, so I asked for extra dark chocolate.”
“It’s delicious, Michael.” I lifted the spoon to my mouth, but pasta with garlic sauce threatened to leap for my throat. I laid the spoon back on the table.
“It was that damned birthday song, wasn’t it?” Michael grumbled. “I should have known better. I know how you hate it when people make a fuss over you. I just thought … well, I thought it would be fun.”
“It was fun,” I assured him. “And the dessert is awesome. It looks like an erupting volcano.” Tears burned the back of my eyes. If I didn’t get out of this restaurant soon, I might erupt right alongside it. I looked pointedly at my watch and waved to get the waiter’s attention. “It’s almost eight. We should leave soon to pick up Bella.”
“Already?” Michael didn’t hide his disappointment.
“The twins have been fussy lately. I promised Rene we wouldn’t be out late.”
I lied. My German shepherd, Bella, suffered from significant separation anxiety, so I never left her alone for more than an hour or two. Michael already knew that Rene was dog-sitting tonight. What he didn’t know was that Bella’s visit was supposed to be a sleepover. Rene had insisted, claiming that my engagement night would be significantly more romantic without a furry, hundred-pound bed hog.
Make that supposed engagement night.
Michael didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t argue. “Before we go, I have something for you.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small, foil-wrapped box stamped Trinity Jewelers.
In that moment, the entire world seemed to freeze. I would have sworn that the Space Needle stopped spinning. I was so excited—so relieved—that I didn’t grasp the significance of the box’s flat, three-inch-square shape.
Michael slid it across the table. “Go on, open it.”
My hands trembled again, but I managed to unwrap the paper, ease the top off the box, and gaze down at—
A simple gold heart suspended on a delicate chain. A locket.
Michael reached across the table and opened it. Two tiny pictures were nestled inside. On the left, a grinning Michael. On the right, Bella. “I know you don’t wear much jewelry,” he said, “but I wanted to give you something special. This way Bella and I will always be close to your heart.”
The necklace was gorgeous. Breathtaking, really. Michael had obviously put a lot of thought into the gift. Normally, I would have been stunned—in a good way.
But tonight wasn’t supposed to be normal.
The tears threatening my eyes spilled down my cheeks. “It’s exquisite.”
Michael dropped the necklace back into the box and took my hand. “Kate, honey, what’s wrong? You’ve been acting weird all night. I’m starting to get worried.”
“Nothing. It’s just that …” I swallowed. “I thought you were giving me a ring.”
At first Michael looked confused. “A ring? In a necklace box?” Then his face turned ashen. “Oh.”
Disappointment flashed to embarrassment, which I covered up by pretending to be angry. “Oh? That’s all you have to say? Oh?”
Michael opened his mouth, then closed it again without speaking.
The silence between us echoed like a shot to the gut, but it felt significantly more painful. The waiter eased next to Michael, slid the bill onto the table, and scurried away.
“I’m sorry, Kate,” Michael said. “Really, I am. I didn’t mean to disappoint you. But what made you think I was proposing tonight?”
I stared at the tablecloth, wishing I could disappear underneath it. “Rene went shopping for the twins at Westlake Center on Thursday.”
Michael groaned and rubbed the crease between his eyebrows.
I pointed at the box. “She saw you walk out of Trinity’s carrying this. We both assumed—” My voice cracked.
The restaurant’s energy—or at least my experience of it—shifted. The room grew quiet. Sympathetic eyes burned the back of my neck. The dry-ice fog surrounding my uneaten dessert threatened to suffocate me. I gripped the seat of my chair with both hands, willing myself not to bolt.
“Kate, I will propose to you someday, I promise. But not tonight. I can’t.”
Michael refused to look at me.
Deep inside my gut, I knew that I shouldn’t keep pressing. If I kept pressing, Michael’s explanation might change our relationship forever.
I pressed anyway.
“Michael, what aren’t you telling me?”
His jaw trembled. “You know I love you, right?”
I loved Michael, too. More than I’d ever loved anyone, except maybe Bella. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say the words back. “Out with it, already.”
Michael stared at the floor for what felt like an eternity. When he looked up again, his eyes were wet.
“I’m sorry, Kate. I’m already married.”
So, dear readers, what do you think?
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