Sean and Andrea Carmine stepped from the comfort of the warm limousine out into the frigid December air.
They were a handsome couple, both in their thirties. She wore a form-fitting burgundy dress and three-inch stiletto heels; he was attired in a modern-fit dark charcoal suit with a shawl lapel.
As they walked quickly from the dark street to the restaurant, arm in arm, Sean glanced at his wife. Her brown hair was perfectly smooth, coiffed into an elegant twist at the crown of her head. The multi-strand black diamond necklace lay stark on her pale white skin. High above them, too hidden to see among the numerous lights of New York, was its inversion: Sparkling white stars set against a black velvet backdrop.
Andrea caught him looking at her and smiled - a bit coolly, Sean thought. He looked away and hoped his eyes hadn’t revealed that he was keeping a secret.
As one of the wealthiest couples in New York, they needed no introduction as they walked up the marble entry steps. The restaurant owner, Jacque Laferrière, was waiting at the door. “Bonsoir monsieur, madame. Sean and Andrea, I’m so pleased you’re here. It will be qui change la vie ... a life-changing night!”
It was the opening night of his new French restaurant, Vitalité Des Saveurs. This evening had been three years in the making, and although Jacque was nervous he didn’t show it. While there were many upper class guests dining in his restaurant tonight, having the dynamic Carmine couple in attendance was an honor indeed.
After a brief greeting, Jacque led them to a private table in the far corner of the dining room where a waiter stood ready. Andrea sat gracefully in the proffered chair. Sean took his seat across from her.
“This is your waiter for the evening, Alexandre. I truly hope you have a wonderful dining experience.” Jacque bowed and left the table.
Alexandre, young and eager, immediately filled in the silence. “Good evening; I will be your server tonight. Our wine list,” he said, offering it to Sean.
He poured a sample of an expensive red wine into the glass of Sean, who lifted, swirled, smelled and tasted it. “Excellent,” he said after a moment. Alexandre nodded in satisfaction and poured a full glass for each of them, then set the bottle on the table. He walked away, giving them a chance to review the menu choices.
Sean looked at the menu, resting it on the table and using it to block Andrea’s view of his face. Part of him was trying to decide between the Manuka honey-glazed roast lamb with orange chutney or the braised veal in a Chanterelle cream sauce. The other part of him was trying to hide his nervousness.
“Have you decided?” Andrea’s voice startled him. His heart jumped for a moment before he realized she was talking about the menu. “Yes, yes, I have. The braised veal. You?”
“The pan-seared foie gras d'oie.” She called Alexandre over to take their order. Sean picked up his wine glass, sipped it, and studied the contents to avoid looking into Andrea’s eyes. The red blend was exquisite…dark and smooth. Astringent. Spicy. Slightly floral.
They both ordered and, once Alexandre left again, silence settled over the table. Andrea cradled her wine glass in one hand. The fingers of the other hand tapped restlessly on the table.
Sean decided he would wait until the end of the meal to do it. It would be harder for him to wait, granted, but he told himself it would be more merciful for her. She could leave the restaurant immediately if she chose.
They kept their conversation topics distant, detached. They chatted about the wine, the restaurant ambience, and the other guests.
Alexandre reappeared with two small bowls of soup and placed them on the table, along with a bread basket piled high. He had already left when Andrea tasted her soup tentatively, then set her spoon down. “This is cool,” she said, frowning. Sean looked at his steaming bowl of thick lobster bisque. “Mine’s hot.” She gave Sean a look. “Mine is definitely cool.”
Sean turned in his chair, searching the room for Alexandre. He spotted him across the room, speaking with the maître d'. Alexandre looked up and caught his eye. Sean raised a finger and he hurried over. “What can I do for you?”
Sean started, “My wife’s soup-” Andrea interrupted him in a severe tone. “My soup is cold; I need a replacement.”
“Of course.” Alexandre looked shocked. “I sincerely apologize.” He scurried out of the room with the offending soup. Sean returned to eating and shook his head; his soup was so hot he could feel it burn as it went down.
The maître d' came over almost immediately and apologized, made sure the temperature of the new bowl of soup was to Andrea's satisfaction, and then left.
Sean spread a thick layer of silky artisan butter over a piece of baguette and bit into it. The crust was a perfect golden brown, the interior soft and airy. Minutes passed and they ate in silence. Sean thought it was a nice reprieve from the fights they’d been having lately, although he was sure that was going to change after the dessert course.
Alexandre arrived with two salads and set them down with a flourish. “Here we have our fresh arugula salad with chopped muscat raisins, crushed hazelnuts and a sweet pear vinaigrette.”
Alexandre moved on, and Sean could feel Andrea studying him. “Are you okay?” she asked. Sean didn’t meet her eyes; instead, he pushed back his chair, stood up, and hurried to the restroom.
Upon entering, he leaned hard on the granite counter and looked in the mirror. His eyes looked darker than normal, stormy. His face was troubled; it was the face of a man who was about to destroy his wife. He took a deep breath and willed himself to steady his nerves, then walked back out.
When he arrived back at the table, he seated himself and gave Andrea a reassuring smile. “I’m fine,” he said as he picked up his fork. She didn’t look like she quite believed him.
He turned his attention to his salad. While small, it really was beautiful. The tender arugula was strongly bitter, but paired with the sweet raisins and vinaigrette it made for a refreshing change in flavors. The hazelnuts added a rough, pleasing texture.
They finished the salads and sat there for a moment in silence before Alexandre arrived with the appetizer and two small plates. It was a large onion galette, a round pastry, stuffed with onions and mushrooms. Julienned roasted carrots and beets had been arranged gently on the top, and a bright red saffron garnish rested beside it.
Sean found out once he took the first bite that it wasn’t just beautiful; it tasted exquis … rich and earthy, savory. Hearty.
“Look, there’s the mayor and his wife.” Andrea motioned behind him. He twisted around to look, then glanced around the rest of the room. They weren’t the only high-powered people in attendance tonight; he recognized most of the faces there.
They nibbled at the appetizer and drank wine until Alexandre finally arrived at the table with their entrees. Sean could smell the braised veal and his mouth watered. He hadn’t realized he was this hungry.
The foie gras d'oie that Andrea ordered was overshadowed by Sean’s braised veal, he thought. Alternating thinly sliced radishes and mandarin oranges surrounded the veal steak, and white truffle shavings and a single lavender blossom had been artistically placed on top. Alexandre refilled their wine glasses and bid them bon appétit.
Midway into their entree, Jacque approached their table to apologize for the soup and see that everything was going well. Andrea waved off his apologies, and Sean complimented him on the restaurant. They chatted for a few moments more, then he moved off to visit other guests.
Sean wondered if he could follow through with his plan; he realized he was sweating and willed himself to calm down. The document envelope hidden in his shirt pocket was stiff, and he felt stiff along with it. Andrea looked at him curiously.
Before they finished the entree, Alexandre dropped off the dessert menu and offered coffee.
Sean focused on the menu to avoid ruminating on what he was about to do to his wife. An assortment of French desserts beckoned, waiting for him to choose one. Pears Belle Helene, chocolate souffle, lemon tart, chocolate mousse, Babas au Rhum.
He decided on the chocolate souffle. When he felt Andrea’s hand on his, he looked up. “Coffee?” Andrea asked. Alexandre had left the coffee pot on the table for them, along with cream and sugar. Sean felt a stab of guilt as he took the cup she offered.
He finished the last bit of veal, took a sip of the too-strong coffee, and added more cream. Alexandre appeared, took their dessert orders and then vanished. Minutes ticked by and Sean shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He felt warm. The meal was ending; he would have to do it. And soon. After dessert, he decided. He needed to find the right moment…but there wasn’t really a right moment…not for this.
Alexandre returned and set Andrea’s tarte au citron down gently in front of her. Vanilla icing laced the edges, and a tiny spun sugar bird’s nest with tiny golden eggs was carefully balanced on top. Sean’s bittersweet chocolate soufflé was no less impressive. Powdered sugar dusted the top, and a freshly sliced fig in raspberry sauce garnished the plate.
Sean picked up his spoon and took his first bite of warm soufflé, pausing, closing his eyes for a long moment to savor the rich chocolate. He opened them again to see Andrea refilling his coffee, then hers.
Minutes passed and then, as dessert was coming to an end, Sean noticed the restaurant around them had quieted. It was eerie, like everyone was waiting for something. Or maybe it was the wine making his thoughts a bit hazy. He finished his final bite of soufflé and Andrea drained the last of her coffee. He felt the envelope in his shirt pocket again, brushing against his chest. His heartbeat felt extra strong.
He should do it now. He took a deep breath, reached a hand into his pocket, and began to pull out the envelope with the divorce papers.
But his hand wouldn’t work; instead, it fell limply to his side. Dazed, he watched as Andrea leaned close to him, pulled the envelope out his pocket, and tucked it securely into her bag.
His last thoughts were a mixture of confusion and clarity. Andrea…the burning soup…the bitter arugula…his mouth watering…feeling warm…his hazy state of mind…
As Sean’s body slumped down and he took his last breath, Andrea smiled subtly - not enough for anyone watching to notice. Five drops was all it had taken. Not at all once, of course, lest the taste of the poison be too distinct. No, it had to be five drops across five courses.
And she had added each of them, quickly, when his attention had been diverted. Calling Alexandre about the perfectly hot soup. Leaving for the restroom. Turning to look for the mayor. Reading the dessert menu. Tasting the souffle with his eyes closed.
She thought of what Jacque had said to them when they first arrived. Dinner at Vitalité Des Saveurs had been life changing for both of them, indeed.