I didn't really want to go—I thought it would be more romantic to sit in my houseboat on Richardson Bay in Sausalito and do what loving, engaged couples do. You know, a quiet dinner, a suitable wine and a few hours of, "sweet nothin's."
But no, it wasn't meant to be. I could see right away by the way the stars were aligned that if I wanted any peace at all I'd quietly go along with Ciara to the annual Valentine's dance at her family's winery in Napa Valley.
She was from one of the old time Italian families that had been making fine wines near Calistoga for over a hundred years. It wasn't one of the larger families that are known throughout the country. But it was known among the wine aficionados as one of the consistently best producers of top quality Cabernets year in and year out.
One of the family scandals was that Ciara's mom, Angela, had married a non-Italian. Not too much was said though, since Gill Kibby brought to the marriage the largest liquor distributorship in Kansas plus owning award winning delis in St. Helena and Manhattan.
The annual Valentine's party and dance was Gill's idea. He invited the top twenty-five retailers and the top twenty-five restaurant owners based on sales volume of their Bella Vista brand. The party caught on quickly and it became one of the cachets that the rich seem to hunger after to show that they are special.
And a party it was! The finest foods, the best dance bands, a well known, but aging crooner from San Francisco and a parting gift of a magnum of one of the better Cabs from the wine library. But I wasn't rich or famous and I didn't want to go. I did love Ciara and bickering was an anathema to me ... so I went.
My fiancée had to be there all day to help with the preparations and to greet the guests as they pulled up in the daisy chain of limos. So with mixed emotions and some trepidation I put on the monkey suit Ciara had given me two years ago when I attended the Valentine's party for the first time. This part I didn't mind too much. I was average in height, a bit too slender, with thick, wavy black hair and even I had to admit I looked pretty good in a tux.
Once I arrived at the winery I felt somewhat better. I knew the food would be great and I never complained about having a chance to drink some wines that I would never be able to afford on my own. Ciara sometimes accused me of loving the wine more than I loved her.
"You just want to marry the winery, not me!"
I wasn't sure if she was joking or not but there was some truth there ... not that I'd ever admit it.
For the party they used the large wine cellar on the ground floor of the large stone building. It was lined along the sides with three thousand gallon redwood wine tanks. These were as old as the winery was and were part of the tradition at Bella Vista. Normally the center was filled with stacks of barrels but for the party these were moved to the warehouse next door with forklifts.
Ciara was, of course, also in charge of decorating the place. I had to give her credit—the place looked fantastic. The aroma from the wine aging in the large barrels always entranced me and she had taken the Valentine's theme to the max. The tables alternated with white and red tablecloths, with red roses on the white tables and pink roses on the red tables. The placemats were large glass hearts with the wineries logo and the person's name engraved. These were keepsakes for guests to take home as a memento of a luscious fest of food, wine and dance.
I caught up with my significant other talking with a too handsome man in the entryway to the cellar.
"Hi, Honey," she said as she gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. "This is Dante Loggia. He owns La Trattoria in Tribeca. Dante, this is Edward Imhoff, my fiancé."
"Eddie, why don't you go on in—our table is in the middle towards the left. I need a few minutes with Dante to work on a promotion."
Okay, I guessed I could live with that. I found the table and helped myself to a glass of '73 Vintner's Select Cab—now showing it's best at twenty years. At three hundred a bottle this was a special treat. I sipped, slowly, and enjoyed the wine as people were filtering in to the soothing rhythms of a jazz quartet. I'd finished my second glass and was debating with myself on the wisdom of a third when Ciara finally came in—with a rosy flush on her cheeks that belied the cool air typical of a large wine cellar.
I let her buss my cheek again as she patted my arm and turned to the woman next to her and started a conversation about wine sales in Oklahoma. I poured the third glass and morosely studied it as I figured out the cost: three hundred divided by four ... hmmm, seventy-five a glass. I started trying to figure out the cost per sip but said the hell with it and just drank it.
Dinner was boring but hopefully things would pick up with the dancing. Every time I tried to start a conversation with my beloved, someone would stop by and grab her attention. She must have caught my darkening mood—hell, she knew I didn't want to be there to start with—and assured me all of her dances would be mine.
After the too rich chocolate confection that passed for dessert along with the all too tasty glass of port were both disposed with, and the last of the dishes cleared off and the last of the ladies returned from the rest room in various sized clumps ... after all this, the dance band started playing.
It was a nice sized swing band playing all the old favorites from groups like Glenn Miller, The Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, and Harry James. They had a female vocalist reminiscent of Edie Adams singing, "I Must Love You" with Guy Lombardo's orchestra—this was before she became an actress and married Ernie Kovacs. She was assisted with the vocals by an aging crooner sounding a little scratchy from the vast quantities of wine he had been quaffing.
The dance floor wasn't very wide—no more that fifteen feet or so, but it ran the length of the cellar. I grabbed Ciara as the band started with "In the Mood." I had always been proud of my dancing and was more than holding my own. The next song was "Let's Jump," the old Count Basie favorite. Finally they played a slower one, one that I had always liked, "You Made Me Love You," a Harry James standard.
I pulled my girl closer and she put her head on my shoulder. I was feeling the music and feeling the love between us—maybe all was right with the world—when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. Of course it was that too pretty Dante, asking too politely for the dance. I tried to shrug him off but Ciara pulled back with a helpless shrug and opened her arms to Dante. I swear he gave me a smirk!
Dante grabbed her just as I had, and held her even closer. I stood there for a moment figuring I could take her back in my arms for the next dance but Dante was one step ahead of me and whirled her through the crowd away from me. I realized I was standing alone in the middle of the dance floor, probably looking like a fool—felt like one too. I went back to our table and flagged the waiter for another bottle of wine. He filled my glass and I swirled it around, not drinking it but wondering at the meanings of the different patterns the swirling caused in the wine. I took a few small sips as I looked around for my fiancée.
The band played four or five more numbers but no Ciara. They stopped for a break and I started to get up and look for her when her dad sat down next to me.
"How is your writing going?"
Well, hell, I knew what this was about. He felt that his daughter could do a lot better than marry a man that wrote Romance novels for a living. He knew damn well how my writing was going. I came across my writing skills legitimately—a Master's degree from Stanford—and had written several serious books focusing on different facets of the settling of the American west. These received top-notch reviews but the sales wouldn't even cover the payments on my houseboat.
During my senior year I took a directed studies writing class. The woman that taught it was a published author of general fiction and gave me various assignments that she would review and discuss with me. After the Christmas break, she sat down with me for a heart-to-heart.
"Eddie, your writing is great—and you know it. Technically it's first rate, you have a feel for characterization and are very imaginative with plots. But your writing seems too dry—not enough passion. I want you to try something with more feelings in it."
She gave me an assignment of writing a romance short story.
"And, Eddie, make me cry!"
I was a little pissed off about having to do this; hell, I was a serious writer. I treated it as a joke and wrote an over-the-top story of love gone bad but resolved with a teary ending.
Long story made short, she gave the story to her agent to look at and I wound up with a contract to make the story into a novel. Now I was pumping out about one every few months and living well. Not great, but enough for a nice car, my houseboat and a comfortable lifestyle. But I would never be flying in my own Lear like Ciara's dad.
So when he asked about my writing I knew he wasn't talking about the new book I was working on that analyzed the impact that the battles of Bloody Valverde and Glorieta Pass had on the South's attempt at taking over the West during the Civil War. He was laughing at me for having a real job like writing Romance novels.
.... There is more of this story ...