LUTZ — It took weeks for Jim Kennedy to work up the nerve to ask his veterinarian on a date. Then he almost blew it. Twice they met for coffee. Once they grabbed lunch. But when he finally hooked Azza Diasti for a "real" date, to see a touring Broadway play, Kennedy didn't recognize her. "I'd only seen her in scrubs and a lab coat," he said. "I didn't know she was so gorgeous." Seconds later, he salted the wound. "I forgot her name when I went to introduce her," he said, wincing, about three-and-a-half years later. Diasti looked beyond his nervousness and saw the man who would share her faith and future.
Kennedy owned Bing, a Weimaraner, Basil, a Vizsla, and Brutus, a Great Dane, when a friend recommended Lakeside Animal Hospital in Odessa. Besides being convenient to his home in Cheval, his buddy said, the vet was good-looking.
Picturing "an outdoorsy, cow rustler-type," Kennedy was pleased to find Diasti nothing of the sort.
"I used to whisper to the dogs when we got there, 'Now act sick,' " he said. "But she was always formal and would not call me Jim."
Kennedy, 52, a Sarasota native, is a certified health law specialist at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, a distinction earned by fewer than 1 percent of all lawyers admitted to practice in the state.
Diasti grew up in Cairo but spent summers with relatives in Greenwich, Conn. She married another Cairo University veterinary student and moved to Lakeland in 1991 and they operated gas stations. When the marriage ended, Diasti completed her veterinary studies at Cornell University and joined Lakeside. Almost two years later, in 2003, she bought the practice.
The frequency of Kennedy's appointments — and his interest in the boss — did not go unnoticed by Diasti's staff.
"They said, 'He likes you, give him a chance,' '' said Diasti, 44. She readily shares her cell phone number with pet owners, and that is how Kennedy asked her out for coffee in fall 2006.
"But we were on the clock,'' he said. "We met at 2:30 and she said she had to pick up her daughter at 3:10."
She was still calling him Mr. Kennedy when they attended a Tampa General Hospital theater event in January 2007.
"While I was waiting outside for her, this hot young chick comes up and says hello," recalls Kennedy. He barely nodded, silently willing her to move on.
"Well," asked the dark-haired woman, after an awkward pause. "Are we going in?"
Recognition dawned. Embarrassment ensued.
Not bad enough?
A few steps away, hospital CEO Ron Hytoff waited at the door to greet them.
"Ahhh, this is Doctor, ummm . . . " he stalled, his mind a blank. Hytoff, a client and friend, rescued him, then pulled him aside.
"Whoa, Jim," he said. "You are way out of your league here."
In the lobby, Diasti spotted her brother, Tampa internist Sam Diasti. She hovered near him all night.
"Everybody was watching Jim and I," she said, "It was really nerve-racking."
Later, walking to her car, he thought he'd bombed.
"Good night, Mr. Kennedy," she said.
"Good night, Doctor," he replied.
At home that night, he saw a text message in his BlackBerry.
I THINK YOU SHOULD CALL ME AZZA, he read.
The couple began to weave their lives together — two busy professionals, four children, three dogs, two cats. Diasti also was overseeing a $1.7 million expansion of her vet clinic.
Kennedy, meanwhile, used his free time to explore his girlfriend's religion. He read books, visited mosques, and spoke to several imans before converting to Islam.
"My friends say I'm the only Irish Catholic Muslim Cracker they know," Kennedy says.
On her birthday in December 2008, Kennedy gave Diasti a Tiffany jewelry box. Inside was a diamond ring.
With her kids looking on, he asked her to marry him.
They wed July 4 in a black-tie ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort.
Kennedy's daughter Bridget, 22, became a notary to officiate. His son Gannon, 18, was best man.
Kevin Diasti, 17, escorted his mother down the aisle. Daughter Katie, 13, was maid of honor. Champagne toasts and belly dancing honored the newlyweds.
Heart Beat is a summer series that features recent intriguing stories of love and marriage. Amy Scherzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332.