Rays of morning sun streamed in through the cracks in the blinds, and my eyes fluttered open. Strains of classical music floated form the clock radio on the nightstand. The digital display read 10:00.
"Oh no, I'm late!" I exclaimed, bolting upright. Then I remembered. It was Valentine's Day. And I was taking the day off to prepare a romantic Valentine's dinner for Wooton and me.
I sat up on the edge of the bed and stretched, noticing a small notecard propped up against the lamp on the nightstand. I immediately recognized Wooton's familiar scrawl.
"Breakfast is ready for you in the kitchen, my love."
Hmmm, I wonder what he made me? I wondered, noticing the delicious aroma wafting through the bedroom door. I bounded down the stairs to the kitchen, where I was greeted by a colorful array of fresh fruit spread across the table. Another note was propped up against the plate he'd set out for me.
"Waffles are in the oven 3"
I cracked open the oven door and carefully peeked inside. "Birthday cake waffles!" I exclaimed aloud. "And they're heart-shaped!"
I wished he were there with me, so I could throw my arms around him and kiss him. I really did have the best husband in the world.
After I'd eaten, I set right to work on the decorating. I was going to transform the dining room into a carnival scene, reminiscent of the circumstances under which we first met. It took me the rest of the morning just to hang the paper I'd planned to paint as a backdrop and place the paper mache pieces I'd made to mimic rides in the foreground.
I quickly munched an apple for lunch before starting in on the painting. This step once again took much more time than I'd anticipated, but I finally finished and left the paint to dry while I started assembling the ingredients for dinner.
This was going to be my first attempt at seared Alaskan salmon. For side-dishes, I was going to make baked macaroni and cheese (with aged fontina, of course—Wooton's favorite), and roasted vegetables. Piece of cake, right? I mean, I'd never been much of a cook, but I figured I could make it work.
I chopped up the vegetables and tossed them in a mixture of olive oil and spices before spreading them out on a pan to go in the oven. So far, so good. Next I started on the cheese sauce. Milk, butter and a little bit of flour. Then add in the cheese.
The cheese would take a while to melt, I thought, so I ran upstairs to grab Wooton's gift in the meantime. It was a painting I'd done of the two of us at the Eiffel Tower on our honeymoon. And it had turned out quite spectacularly, if I did say so myself. Jason Whittaker had even helped me pick out the perfect frame for it at his antique shop.
As I neared the bottom of the stairs on my way back down, the smoke detector began to chirp. Why would the smoke detector be going off? I wondered. We just changed the batteries.
Entering the kitchen, I discovered the reason. Smoke stung at my eyes as flames leaped from the pan where I'd left the cheese cooking.
"Oh no, oh no, oh nooo!" I shrieked, dashing toward the stove and snatching the pan off the burner, hoping some of the sauce would be salvageable. I flinched back from the pan's scalding handle, flinging the flaming spoon across the kitchen and into the dining room.
"Oh no, not the carnival!" I wailed, lunging for the fire extinguisher we kept in the pantry. My heart pounded, as panic set in. I could not allow myself to be responsible for Wooton's house—OUR house, now—getting burned down again. Without a moment's hesitation, I pulled the pin and squeezed the trigger, dousing all of my hard work with foamy liquid.
Slowly, the flames died down, and I was left with a mess of soggy paper and a foul-smelling brown goop I was sure was never going to come out of that pan. Let me tell you, this was nothing like the flaming cheese they serve at fancy Greek restaurants.
I sat down heavily at the kitchen table with my head in my hands and began to cry.
On my way home from my mail route, I stopped to pick up the giant bouquet of flowers I'd ordered from the florist Connie had recommended. Red, pink and white roses, dotted with sunny yellow buttercups—Penny's favorite. I knew she was going to love it.
As I left the florist shop, I fingered the tiny box in my pocket, just to make sure it was still there. The Art Deco-style emerald necklace had caught my eye at Triple J's Antiques several weeks ago. It looked like it had been made just for her, so of course I had to buy it. I'd been carrying it with me on the off-chance that she'd somehow find it and ruin the surprise, and now I felt I couldn't wait a moment longer to give it to her.
Pulling into the driveway, I noticed that all the lights were out inside the house. Hmmm, that's strange, I thought. Penny's car is still in the driveway. Where can she be?
I dashed inside, calling her name.
"Penny? Penny, where are you?"
"I'm in here, Wooton." My heart leaped at the familiar voice. But something still wasn't quite right. Her voice sounded muffled, like she'd been crying, and the entire house smelled like smoke.
"Penny! Are you okay? What happened?" I ran to her, barely noticing the singed spot of carpet and limp, soggy shreds of paper that hung from the dining room wall. What if somebody had tried to break into the house? What if she'd been hurt?
"Oh, Wooton—it was awful! I went upstairs to get your present, and the cheese started burning, and then I—the spoon—" A sob wracked her slight figure. "I ruined Valentine's Day!"
I knelt down beside her, gently lifting her chin so I could see her tear-streaked face. "No, you didn't."
"How can you say that?" she whimpered, gesturing at the aftermath of her culinary efforts. "I ruined everything!"
"Look at me, Penny." I rested my hands on her shoulders and stared deeply into her tear-filled eyes. "Nothing you could ever do could possibly ruin the way I feel about you. You are the very best part of me. I love everything about you. The way you run up to my office to greet me every day when you come home from work... The way you steer clear of the mushroom aisle at the grocery store when we're shopping together... The way you're YOU. That's all I really need."
I scooped her up in my arms and pulled her close.
"Oh, Wooton!" She melted into my embrace and her lips met mine in a heart-felt kiss.
"So, uh…Hal's Diner, then, maybe?" I offered, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I heard they're serving heart-shaped lasagna today."
"Well…" Her tone turned mischievous. "I did ask Zelda to hold a table for us…you know—just in case."
I had to chuckle. "That's my Penny." I leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Go get your coat."