JOEíS BIRTHDAY GIFT

JoAnn Baca


"So whaddaya think, Radcliffe? Can I take you to dinner and the ballet?"

Catherineís boyishly handsome boss was tossing darts while she gathered her paperwork from his desk. Their meeting on outstanding dockets was finally over, and Joe was using his favorite method of unwinding. The topic heíd brought up - her birthday - was a surprise to her. She frankly never imagined he knew when her birthday was, much less that heíd offer to celebrate it with her.

His voice sounded deceptively casual. Catherine studied him intently as he pretended not to notice, then she tossed off a cautious, "I donít know, Joe. You have to admit, thatís not your usual style. I guess Iíd be less surprised if youíd suggested a Knicks game and a hotdog with Ďthe worksí!"

He turned to her, feigning hurt. "Gee, give me a little credit, Cathy. Itís your birthday, not mine. The trick is to do something that youíd enjoy -- you know, a little highbrow stuff."

Her brow furrowed in curiosity as she crossed her arms and replied, "Are you sure you want to do this, Joe? Men in tights? No dialogue? Do you know what youíre in for?"

His look changed from contrived hurt to truly offended. "Itís not like I live in a hole in the ground, for Godís sake. I do know what culture is! Just Ďcause I donít often indulge doesnít mean I donít enjoy it."

She eyed him skeptically. "Have you ever been to the ballet?"

He shrugged and turned on the full force of the Maxwell charm. "Look, thereís a first time for everything, Radcliffe. You want to go or not? If not, Iím sure I can scalp these tickets, right? Out front of Lincoln Center, thereís gotta be a guy or two desperate for ballet tickets for a hot date?" Joeís smile was so endearing, Catherine was forced to laugh.

"All right, all right! Iíll go!" she conceded, shaking her head. "But itís against my better judgment. And not because I wonít enjoy it -- I know I will. I just think this is taking friendship a bit too far, even for you!"

Joe grinned and hugged her companionably. "Donít worry about me, kiddo. Iím happy as a clam to be going! Pick you up Saturday at 6? I know a great little Italian place with veal picatta that will make your heart sing. Something light -- I know how you girls are always watching your weight."

"Hey!" Catherine slugged his arm, laughing.

"Just trying to be thoughtful -- donít beat me up!" He lifted both hands in a gesture of surrender, still smiling.

Catherine was still chuckling and shaking her head as she exited his office.

His voice called after her, "Hey, kiddo! Did you see where I put that bag of chocolate-covered cheese nuggets?"

Catherine shook her head in disbelief. Men. You canít live with Ďem, you canít kill Ďem.

* * * *

Humming the strains of ProkofievĎs Romeo and Juliet, Catherine shut her apartment door, then locked and leaned against it. What a night! Against all odds, sheíd had a remarkably good time with Joe. Dinner had been a delight. He was true to his word -- that restaurant was a keeper. If you closed your eyes, youíd swear you were in Piazza Navona. He had been a considerate host, suggesting dishes, selecting the perfect wine to accompany their meal. He was a good sport about the ballet, too -- no snide comments or rolling of the eyes to mar her enjoyment. A night off from his usual sarcastic banter had given her a rare glimpse into Joeís true nature, his passionate intensity of spirit, his convictions apart from "the job," and she found herself liking him more than ever. He was a true friend and a great person. But despite all sheíd learned about him, and in spite of the positive outcome of the evening, she was sorry sheíd ignored her first instinct to reject his offer. She thought back on the conversation in the cab as he dropped her home....

"Youíre a great gal, Cathy. I know I donít tell you as often as I should. Youíve helped me out of some tight jams, and I appreciate it. But more than that.... I donít know, Iím not good at this type of thing. I guess what Iím trying to say is...you mean a lot to me. I know youíve got something going with someone. No, donít give me that look or try to deny it, we both know Iím right. Anyway, whoever this mystery man of yours is, heís a real lucky guy. I hope he knows that. Iíd...Iíd give anything to...be able to come home to someone as terrific as you. Look at me, getting all maudlin here -- that ballet musta affected me more than I realized! Just ignore me, Radcliffe."

Catherine reflected on his words. Theyíd both learned something that night. Heíd learned that "culture" didnít have to equal "boring." And sheíd learned that Joe was...at least a little bit...in love with her. Heís a realist, though. I guess what he was saying was: if you ever find yourself free.... Shaking her head, she slipped into her bedroom, eager to shed the clothes sheíd worn for her night on the town.

After changing into her nightgown, Catherine made herself a cup of tea and sat on the sofa to unwind. While looking through her dayís mail, she noticed out of the corner of her eye a slight shift in the shadows on the balcony. Vincent? But...why didnít he let me know he was here? Softly padding to the French doors in the dining alcove, she peeked out. He was standing by the railing, looking out over the city.

He didnít turn when she opened the doors and called to him. Nor did he greet her as she neared him. Baffled, Catherine reached out a hand to his shoulder and shook it gently.

"Vincent? Are you all right? I didnít hear you knock."

He continued to stare out into the night, but he replied, "I...didnít knock."

Puzzled, she asked, "Why?"

There was no response.

Catherine shifted gears, trying to determine what had made him so pensive, so distant. "How long have you been out here? Iíve been home for a while."

Still no response.

She tried yet another angle, growing increasingly concerned. "I wasnít expecting you tonight. Is something wrong?"

Finally, Vincent turned his head just enough to look down at her. "I didnít want to disturb you. Your thoughts...run deep tonight."

Baffled by those enigmatic words, she grasped his shoulder more firmly and forced him to turn and face her. "What are you talking about, Vincent?"

Not answering her question directly, he looked away again as he said, "You were out with Mr. Maxwell tonight."

She nodded. "Yes, I told you about that. He took me to dinner and the ballet for my birthday. I couldnít really refuse, not after heíd already bought the tickets. We had a good time. He dropped me off about a half hour ago."

She saw his eyes close, felt an uncertain tremor within their Bond as if he were searching for an answer there. "Your feelings about him are...confused."

"My feelings about him? Not really." Whatever point he was trying to make was eluding her. Heíd known from the beginning how much she respected, admired, and liked her boss. Why would those "feelings" suddenly concern him so? Then a possible reason for his uneasiness glimmered in the back of her mind. "I did discover something about his feelings tonight, though. Perhaps thatís what you felt...troubling me. Itís because I donít want to hurt him, and now I realize that I probably am."

She saw his shoulders sag and realized heíd been holding himself still through great effort of will. The urge to pace must be strong in him. Then, in a tortured whisper, she heard him say, "He...told you...he loves you."

Gently she replied, "Well, no, not in so many words. He knows...suspects, really...that I have someone special in my life. But...yes, I believe he is a little in love with me."

He turned to her suddenly, stiffly, awkwardly. "One cannot be Ďa littleí in love, Catherine. One either is...or one isnít."

Seeking to reassure him, she placed one hand on his forearm. "And one can either act on it...or one can choose not to, Vincent. He has chosen not to."

He stepped back slightly, enough to dislodge her hand from his arm. "Because you will not let him."

Catherine tried to keep her voice calm and her thoughts rational, even though his retreat from her had set alarm bells ringing in her brain. "Itís not a matter of Ďlettingí him love me, Vincent. Heís a big boy; he can handle his own heart. Besides, I canít help how he feels. You know Iíve never encouraged him."

Vincentís voice took on a guarded, carefully neutral tone. "Perhaps...perhaps you should not be so hasty in dismissing his...interest in you."

Catherineís eyes widened in disbelief. "What are you saying? That I should encourage him? Why would I be so cruel?"

Shaking his head, he replied stoically, "Not to be cruel. To...explore...the possibilities."

Adamant, she said, "There is no possibility there. You know where my heart lies, Vincent."

With a kind of resigned patience, Vincent ground out, "Heís not like Elliot Burch. From what youíve told me of him, heís a good, decent man. His love is not a frivolous thing. You should give that love a chance to grow. He could give you the future you deserve. If I were Mr. Maxwell...." He stopped, aware heíd revealed too much, then returned to his original point. "If you allow him to, he could be...everything to you."

Anger replaced incredulity in Catherineís eyes. With a fury she could barely control, she declared, "I already have someone who is everything to me -- someone who means more to me than Joe...or Elliot...or anyone else ever could!" Throwing up her hands in exasperation, she continued, "Why does it seem that these conversations always involve how wonderful a life I could have with some other man? I donít want any other man. I could never be happy with anyone else. Why canít you believe that?"

Catherine regretted her outburst immediately, and with an effort she calmed herself. She knew this argument, made many times, had little effect on him, and the more she tried to push him on this point, the more he retreated behind his differences, behind what he perceived as his limitations. She knew he was trying to be noble, trying to offer her options, but those options included a world which no longer held any attraction for her.

Deciding to challenge him in as direct a way as possible, she continued, "Do you know what Joe told me tonight? That he envies you, Vincent. Here you are, wishing you were another man I donít love and never could, and that man wishes he were you!"

Reaching out to him once more, Catherine cupped his cheek warmly with one hand, expressing her tenderness and love in a tangible way, to offer the strongest possible contrast to her words. She felt the slight pressure as he leaned almost imperceptibly into her touch. "If you could trade places with him, be him, what would that gain you? Can your love for me be cast aside so easily?" She pulled her hand away from his face and saw him flinch visibly at the loss of contact. "I donít love Joe. Would you trade the love we share to become him? Would you truly rather be a Joe or an Elliott than you, the man I ache for at night, the man I long for whenever weíre apart...the man I love?"

Catherine paused to catch her breath. Vincent gazed mutely at her, struggling with her words. She was arguing so adamantly to defend his right to love her, and hers to be loved by him. Always before, he had tried to make her see what she would not see -- that his love would only hold her back, diminish her existence, burden her. Tonight, her words made him see things from her point of view -- and it left him breathless. It wasnít a matter of settling for less, giving up too much -- she wanted a life with him, no matter where, no matter what. Above, Below -- it didnít matter to her. The life she dreamed of was with him.

What was it she had said so long ago? There is no life without limits. He had insisted she deserved such a life - but all this time he had forced her to live within limitations of his own devising. He was denying her the one thing he longed to give, the one thing she craved beyond thought -- his complete love. If he shattered those barriers he himself had constructed, her life would hold fewer limits than before. He could give her what he claimed was her birthright -- a life limited only by her dreams. Maybe it still wouldnít be perfect, but she would be so much happier. And so would he. Oh...so would he.

She was right. She had been right all along.

All of these thoughts flitted through his mind in the space of a drawn breath. Recharged, Catherine pressed on. "And another thing..."

She never got to finish the thought. Vincent hushed her with a finger against her lips. She fell silent at the unexpected gesture, startled at its suddenness. "Enough, Catherine. Iíve heard enough." When she would have protested, he shook his head. "I have no wish to be Joe. And I would be no one else, since I have your love."

Her eyes softened at his words, and she pressed a tender kiss to the finger which he still held against her mouth. A ghost of a smile played across his unique lips at that, and he removed the restraining finger. Catherine kept still, waiting. Slowly, but with deliberate intent, he stepped closer, then wrapped his powerful arms around her small waist and hugged her closer still. She came willingly into his embrace, astonishment melting to a happy expectancy on her face.

"I was blind not to see what was clear to you for so long." He sighed, then said simply, "I love you, Catherine."

Catherine leaned her head against his broad chest and hugged him tightly, so happy she could scarcely contain the joy.

A husky whisper breathed against her ear, turning her insides molten, thrilling the blood in her veins until her heart beat so hard she felt it might burst from her chest. "I need the warmth of you, Catherine, the fire of your love. I could never live without it, no matter what I said. You always knew, didnít you? You always knew."

Catherine reached up to take Vincentís face between her palms, her thumbs reverently stroking the velvet stubble on his cheeks. Their eyes locked and every atom of emotion within them was exchanged in a flash-fire of Bond-inspired communion. The truth of his words burned brightly between them. And she said the words he would never tire of hearing, treasuring them as a fresh miracle every time they were spoken: "I love you, Vincent. I always will."

* * * *

Monday morning came too soon for Catherine, and as she tossed her briefcase on her desk and shrugged off her coat, she couldnít hold back a jaw-stretching yawn. She was taken completely by surprise when, immediately behind her, a familiar voice cracked, "We keeping you up, Radcliffe?"

Flushing guiltily, Catherine whirled to confront her early-morning tormentor. "Sorry, Joe. I guess the anticipation of the long hours ahead got the better of me."

"Weíre boring you here, are we? The work doesnít inspire you?" he replied, his eyes sparkling with merriment as he enjoyed her predicament.

She narrowed her eyes and shoved an index finger into his chest. "Get off my case, boss, or Iíll tell everyone you went to the ballet...and enjoyed it."

Mock horror filled his face. "Thatíd ruin my reputation for sure!"

She nodded. "Now youíve got the picture, smart guy. So...whatíll it be? Lay off the impertinent remarks, or get revealed as an old softie to your staff?"

He shook his head, smiling. "OK, OK. You win!" Then the smile slipped, and after a moment he added in an earnest voice, "I had a real good time the other night."

Catherineís eyes grew soft, and she replied, "So did I. It was nice."

The word "nice" seemed to stab at him, for the skin around his eyes tightened as he winced slightly. Knowing why, she added, "You donít realize it, but you gave me a wonderful birthday gift that night."

Puzzlement filled his face. "What....?"

"Something you said...well, didnít say." She shook her head, frustrated as she tried to find the words without revealing too much. "I canít really get into it, but...just know that I treasure your friendship, and that evening put a lot into perspective. Things...fell into place which had been in a holding pattern for too long."

"I donít understand," he said, obviously struggling to make sense of such a baffling statement.

She smiled sympathetically and patted his arm. "I know. But...thank you."

"Youíre welcome...I guess." She could tell he was dying to know more, but he wouldnít pry.

"By the way," she added, "Iím going to be leaving the D.A.ís office."

"What?" His shocked voice was almost a shout, and several people nearby turned to look at them.

"Not soon," she assured him hastily. "But...not too far in the future either." She smiled dreamily as she looked off to the side at nothing in particular, and he saw that her mind had drifted to some other place, some other time...some other person. His heart gave a painful lurch. Well, heíd known all along that she had something...someone...in her life besides work.

Suddenly he realized how important this revelation was, how much trust sheíd placed in him with even this small admission, and he wanted to let her know he understood. "Iím glad, Cathy. Whatever it is...whoever it is. Iím real glad for you." His voice was candid, his dark eyes sad yet sincere. Catherine looked at him and knew he somehow understood.

"Thank you, Joe. For everything." The tears in her eyes were unexpected, but he accepted them gratefully.

"Sure, Radcliffe." He gazed at her for a moment more, taking in her fresh beauty, and the glow of love that so permeated her being. How could he have missed that look before? He must have been blinded by his own hopes - when all along heíd never had a chance.

Roughly he shook himself. "Better get to work. The city doesnít pay us to gab all day."

Catherine sniffed, then smiled. "Yes, boss." Impulsively, she hugged him, and after only a slight hesitation, he returned the embrace.

The next moment, he turned and walked away.