Pelican Creek, South Carolina
The ocean was still, refusing to propel even the slightest breeze inland to relieve the summer heat. Frank Valentino leisurely swayed back and forth on the front porch swing, the humidity dripping from his skin in beads of water as if he’d been bathing in the Atlantic. The big four-o, he thought. It was his birthday; the first one that he would be spending with Robyn since they’ve been together. He wished he could just chill and relax at home, alone with her, aware that her friends were not at the summit of his fan club list. But, as usual, Robyn had her way and invited practically everyone she knew for a casual celebration.
She spent most of the day draping crepe paper streamers throughout the first floor of the house and blowing up balloons for the occasion. She baked a two-layer vanilla cake filled with strawberry fruit topped with whipped cream icing, the words ‘Happy Birthday Frank’ scrolled in a circle around the edges of a candied tropical flower, duplicating the one that he picked and placed in her hair when they were in Manzanillo. She prepared a delightful spread of cold meat platters and salads, taking into consideration that it was too warm and muggy for formal wear and a sit-down dinner.
She opened the front screen door. “Frank honey, our guests ‘ll be here in less than an hour. You don’t have much time left to shower and change,” she drawled.
“Coming,” he grunted as he pulled himself up and followed her inside. Before heading upstairs, he grabbed a couple of jalapeno stuffed olives from the plate in the fridge. “I’m starving,” he muttered. “I think that work-out I had earlier gave me an appetite.”
“Keep your hands off,” she scowled, slapping his fingers. “You didn’t go to the gym today.” She
looked at him puzzled, then turned to fill a ceramic boat with pickles.
“I wasn’t referring to the gym,” he teased as he wrapped his arms around her from behind, nibbling on her ear.”
“Cut that out. You’re tickling’ me.” She squiggled away from his grip. “Now get that butt of yours upstairs or no dessert,” she scolded.
“Yes, mam. Be down in a few.” He flashed a grin.
Robyn fluttered around the house, tending to last minute touches while waiting for the festivities to begin. She completed the dining room buffet setting with a centerpiece of fresh colorful wild flowers that she picked from her garden and streaked the linen tablecloth with scented spikes of lavender.
At a snail’s pace, Frank showered and dressed in tan shorts with a sleeveless black t-shirt, exposing his bulging forceps.
He thought about the new Mercedes SL Convertible that he’ll be shopping for when he returns to Charleston within the next few days. He could smell the scent of fresh leather already. Shirley always lavished him with the best of the best on his birthdays. This year would be no different, he thought, even though he was absent more often than she cared for. But once he stared into her eyes, once she felt his touch, she would succumb and the Mercedes would be his.
The fragrance of Prada after shave followed him as he made his entrance shortly after the last guest arrived.
They brought boxes wrapped in brightly colored paper bound with ribbons and an array of ornamental gift bags for the birthday boy. Everyone mingled, satisfied their appetites, and quenched their thirsts. A few danced to the music of classic rock, some to prime country, and others whirled to the crooners of yesteryear. Michael took dozens of pictures and even snapped one of Molly as she put her front paws on the table, stretching her snoot forward, snatching a turkey finger sandwich.
During the course of the evening, Frank excused himself to take a phone call. Nearly forty-five minutes lapsed and Robyn thought it odd that he hadn’t yet returned. The cake needed to be served and the presents opened. Deciding that his social code of behavior was in need of attention, she knocked on the door to his study where Molly was anxiously scratching at the floor, whimpering. Frank failed to answer. She knocked again. Prepared to address him, swinging the door open she suddenly stood frozen, her vodka martini slipping from her hands. The echo of shattering glass and Robyn’s screams penetrated the house, bringing their guests rushing to her side. Frank was lying on the bare wooden floor, unconscious, in front of his desk.