CLEARWATER — Heather McKenzie excused herself from the table at Carmel Cafe and headed toward the restroom.
Sam Pontikos seized the moment and stopped the first person walking by who looked as if he worked there. He needed the employee to keep the aisle clear in the cozy wine bar packed with 50 customers.
After Heather, 30, who works in public relations for an environmental engineering company, got back to the table, Sam got down on one knee in the walkway.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
The 37-year-old insurance claims manager grabbed her hands and replied, "You know how important you are to me and how we want to spend the rest of our lives together. . . . I have a quick question for you."
From his jacket pocket, he produced a ring holding the diamond Heather's grandmother had left when she passed away seven years ago.
The question was "Will you marry me?" The answer was yes. The applause from the diners at nearby tables was thunderous.
"I didn't notice everyone was staring at us until afterward," Heather said. "They were all standing up."
Heather and Sam didn't hesitate about their wedding — after getting engaged on Nov. 20, 2012, they wed on March 23.
Their reasons were family-related. Heather's only brother, Army Spc. Ryan McKenzie, was set to deploy this year. "I only have one brother, and I wanted to ensure that he would be there," Heather said.
Sam was fine with the quick turnaround because most of his massive Greek family lives in the Tampa Bay area. It was Heather's focus on family that scored her major points when the couple began emailing after seeing each other's online dating profiles.
Sam went through a year of dates before he stumbled across Heather's profile.
"I'm no spring chicken, so I was definitely looking for marriage when I was doing this," he said.
Heather was just as marriage-minded but a wee bit more skeptical. Her friends had to threaten to sign her up for a dating website before she enrolled herself in late 2011. Sam was the first person to send her an email, and after being contacted by others, she decided to stick with him and canceled her account. But even then, she kept the relationship email-only for five months.
"I went on a cruise with my girlfriends, and it just clicked for me, and I asked him to go on a date," she said.
Heather settled on the Carmel Cafe for their first date on March 20, 2012.
"It's just a great, cozy little wine bar with good food," she said. "And I knew I was going to want a glass of wine if I were going on a date."
It turned out her fears were for naught because at the end of the night, she knew Sam would be her husband.
It was only a matter of when.
Sam picked a week when Heather was out of town for work and asked her parents whether he could come over for dinner. He fumbled with the question. At first, her mother was cooking — not a good time. Then everyone was eating — hard to talk. After dinner, a program that her parents wanted to see came on TV. So he waited. Then he asked them for Heather's hand in marriage and her grandmother's diamond ring.
"Her mother cried," he recalled. "They said 'Yes, of course.' "
After scouting a couple of wedding venues, Heather and Sam settled on Feather Sound Country Club in Clearwater. The beautiful scenery had caught their attention when she attended a wedding there and when he went there for a work luncheon.
There were 130 guests to celebrate their love — including many of Sam's cousins. "I'm still meeting cousins," Heather laughed.
Her family, Ryan, and her new Pontikos family made the day even more special.
"I'll never have another night where everybody I care about is in the same room," she said. "That's what makes it special."