"Hey, Radcliffe, you comin’ to the Valentine Dance?" Joe Maxwell's voice was carefully nonchalant but a bit wistful as they sat on the sofa in his office.
Catherine Chandler looked mildly regretful as she said, "I hadn't planned on it, Joe."
Taking no chances to miss this God sent opportunity, Joe chimed in with, "You know, Radcliffe, you really owe it to this office."
"I owe it?" Catherine looked flustered.
"You sure do - big time!" he quipped, a cheeky grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"How come, Joe" she asked, her eyes now dancing with the fun of the moment as they kidded each other.
"Every holiday we have celebrations. We have Christmas parties, Thanksgiving lunches, 4th of July and Easter Egg picnics even ... and a Valentine's Dance. But you, Miss Secretive, always manage to wriggle out of attending."
"I'm sorry, Joe," she looked sad, as she realized, now on reflection, she had been avoiding all the office festivities.
"We're not good enough, for Miss Debutante, is that it?" Joe teased as he tried every trick in his book, to get his dear friend Cathy to see him socially, out of office hours.
"It's not that, Joe," she said, as she playfully swatted his shoulder but she felt a twinge of guilt as she realized what interpretation could be put on her past actions.
"So what is it then, tell me, I sure would like to hear this one." He turned serious and got up to perch on the corner of his desk as he awaited her reply. He picked up his ever present rubber band and manipulated it through the complicated finger exercises that Cathy always found fascinating.
"How do you do that Joe?" she asked.
"Don't change the subject, Radcliffe."
"Sorry." A pause followed, then slowly Catherine stood up and moved in front of Joe. She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes, trying to think of a way to explain the unexplainable.
"I'm waiting," he said with a 'this better be good' smile.
Catherine suddenly looked at Joe from a new perspective, as she realized, deep down he really cared, and her flippant attitude had hurt him. He knew full well she had a special someone in her life, and he accepted this reluctantly, but ... an office party. This was his territory and he had no special someone of his own to attend with him. He not only cared deeply for Catherine, he thoroughly enjoyed her company. Her presence would make this a pleasant experience instead of a tiresome social obligation. Catherine could see this, and understood how an innocent office dance would give him such pleasure ... so how could she say no? Also, although unintentional, her past behavior shamed her and she did not intend to appear to be standoffish, ever again.
"Hey, penny for them," he said, nudging her back to reality.
"You're on, Joe Maxwell, I'll come to the party but you had better behave yourself," she said and pointed her finger at him, "or my special guy will be on your case." She gathered her purse and coat from the chair and turned toward the door.
"I'll call for you, Cathy," his voice suddenly husky.
"Say sevenish," Catherine said over her shoulder.
"Make sure you're ready," he shouted triumphantly, as a few heads turned in the outer office at his raised voice. Joe shut his office door behind her so she didn't see him punch the air saying, "Yes, yes, yes!"
As she was walking down the corridor to the elevator, the reality of her accepting his invitation, (or was it a challenge?) hit her. Now she had to quickly hide her apprehension about tonight, lest Vincent read more into it than there was.
Outside the office building, the normally busy streets were now becoming jam-packed as people poured out of the buildings and made their way to the car parks, bus stops and subway, heading for home. The snow that had fallen early that morning and given everything a Christmas card look, had been churned into dirty slush by the heavy New York car and foot traffic.
Pulling her collar up to keep out the icy winds and damp air, she hailed a cab and soon was heading for home and a much needed coffee. As the taxi stopped in front of her upscale apartment building, the doorman opened the cab door for her, touching his hat in an old-fashioned, deferential manner.
"Good evening, Charles." She smiled and took the arm he gallantly offered to assist her across the slippery sidewalk.
"What a day it's been," he said, initiating a conversation since she was one of his favorite residents. Someone who treated him like a person instead of a faceless convenience.
"Yeah, and it's not over yet, unfortunately there's more snow on the way." She waved bye cheerfully and crossed the lobby. She stepped into the elevator and punched the button for her floor but before the doors slid shut, an impetuous youth squeezed through, eager to share an elevator ride with the object of his teenage devotion.
"Hi, Brian." She'd had a few major crushes of her own in her adolescence and tried to be patient with him.
"Hi, Miss Chandler." His expression left Catherine in no doubt as to his thoughts, as this love sick teenager tried to act blase and hide his infatuation.
"Late home from school?"
"Yeah, I had to pick up some stuff from the Deli for Dad."
"How is your Dad, is he well?" she asked, silently willing her floor to appear fast. Conversations with Brian were always difficult. He contrived situations to be in her presence but then became too embarrassed and tongue-tied to talk to her.
"He's okay, I guess."
The doors flew open and escape was eminent. "See you around, Brian. Bye." The doors shut and he was gone. Catherine fumbled in her purse for her keys and opened her apartment door.
Once inside, she hung her damp coat on the coat tree by the door. As she passed by she flung her suit jacket and purse on the 'little dinky couch' and headed for her bedroom, kicking off her shoes and beginning to unbutton her blouse. She hands froze in mid-unbuttoning when she heard a familiar tap on her balcony doors.
Breaking into a carefree run across the floor, she quickly opened the door and flung herself into Vincent's waiting arms.
"Catherine," he whispered in his velvet voice.
"Oh, Vincent, I needed that hug," she said as she nestled against his chest.
"I felt conflicting emotions from you a short while ago. That is why I'm here now ... I fear for you constantly, Catherine. Tell me, is everything as it should be?" he asked with deep concern.
"Yeah, sure, Vincent, no problems."
Placing both his hands on her shoulders, he gently eased her away from him so he could look directly into her lovely face. "Tell me," he pleaded.
Catherine turned away, and clutching her arms with her hands to ward off the cold, she left Vincent and stood looking out at the night sky and the buildings which were lit up like a fairy land before her. "I have a date, Vincent," she reluctantly confessed.
"A date?" he repeated in disbelief.
She turned back to look at him. "With Joe Maxwell ... it's not what it seems, Vincent and I don't want you going off half-cocked over this."
"Hear me out, Vincent, before you get upset."
Vincent was new to all these emotional upheavals. Jealousy was one he particularly did not cope with very well. He couldn't have Catherine in the true sense of the word, his decision, but although he couldn't have her, neither was he willing to share her. Especially not with Joe Maxwell, who he suspected loved her deeply.
"It's just a simple Valentine dance, Vincent, in our office. Well, not in our office exactly, same floor but in the empty offices at the other end. For the three years since I've worked there, I've refused every off-hours activity. Knowing you can't be there it holds no interest for me, so I don't go. Well, today, to my chagrin, Joe pointed out it wasn't fair to all those who support these get-togethers if I constantly refuse to attend. It gives the appearance I think I'm too good to attend, or that the people I work with aren't important enough for me to make the effort."
"I see." He looked thoughtful as he mulled this over, then spoke in slow deliberation, "Then you must go, Catherine." His voice was steadfast but his mind was reeling, protesting the idea of Catherine dancing with another man.
"I said I would, but I won't go if you're too unhappy about it."
"I'm sorry your secret life with me causes you so many problems, Catherine. If I may quote Sir Walter Scott, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!"
"I didn't know you read Scott, Vincent."
"Father was very keen I sample all types of literature."
"So I see," she said, returning to his warm embrace. She added reluctantly, "I must hurry, Vincent, I just have enough time to shower and change, and have a quick sandwich before Joe picks me up."
"What time will your dance be over, Catherine?" Vincent asked suddenly, as an inspired idea invaded his jealous thoughts.
"Well, it starts at seven so I guess it'll be over easily by ten. After all, it's not a formal dance, just an office party."
"Could we meet after your dance?" he urged.
"Why yes, Vincent, if you like."
"It isn't too late ... you will come, Catherine?" he asked insistently.
"Of course, I will. I'll meet you Below, Vincent. I'm only guessing at the time but I'm sure I'll meet you by eleven at the latest."
"Till then, dearest Catherine." With a brief hug, he was gone.
The mad whirl of shower and nibbling at a sandwich as she put on makeup had Catherine almost ready, when a loud knock at the door announced Joe's arrival. Still putting on her earrings, she headed for the door, checking through the peephole to see it was Joe before opening the door to let him in.
"Woweee, Radcliffe, you look like a million dollars," Joe exclaimed, thinking to himself that she could probably make rags look elegant.
"Well, thank you, kind sir," Catherine did a little curtsy, then spoiled the elegant effect by giggling.
Joe's left hand appeared from behind his back and he thrust a bunch of red roses into her arms. "For you," he said gruffly, suddenly rather embarrassed at this unusual act for him.
"Cause it's the custom, see ... red roses, Valentine's Day and all that jazz," he added nervously.
"You old fashioned romantic thing you," she grinned and planted a kiss on his cheek as she took the roses to pop into water, until she could arrange them later.
As she filled the sink with water, she looked up at Joe, standing in the kitchen doorway, waiting for her. She very much liked what she saw. Joe was a very good looking Italian and tonight in his dinner jacket he was a heart stopper. Had she not had a great, golden lion in her life, then Joe would certainly have been relationship, and possibly husband material, of that she had no doubt. But Vincent was in her life and they were two halves of a whole. Tonight she realized that Joe would always have a very special place in her heart and her life, as well. She had always intended Vincent and Joe should meet one day and eventually perhaps they could even take him down to show him the world below Central Park. She mused dreamily ... if she and Vincent married ... had children, Joe could be uncle, godfather, the possibilities were endless and ....
"Radcliffe, you need to give them water not drown them," Joe laughed.
This brought Catherine back to reality with a thump. "Sorry, Joe, I was daydreaming." She picked up one perfect rosebud and clipped the stem short, then dried it carefully before walking over and placing it in Joe's lapel. "Just the touch you needed, handsome," she teased.
To get a taxi at that time of night would have been like expecting the moon to shine brightly at midday so he had kept his cab waiting, meter ticking away while he collected Catherine from her apartment.
The party was well under way when they arrived. Rita, Edie and a few of the others watched in utter shock as Joe proudly entered the room with Catherine on his arm.
Catherine thought it felt very strange to be here this late and not be slaving over paperwork. The lights were dimmed and glasses clinked as the drinks flowed and someone's tape deck played romantic music.
"Let's dance," Joe said, hanging up their coats and wasting no time making his move.
"Sure," she readily agreed.
Suddenly his world was complete as his arms encircled Catherine and he held her gently but close. When the slow dance ended they had a glass of punch. When an upbeat number started they returned to the dance floor that had been created by shoving desks to one side.
In between dances, Catherine chatted with her fellow workers, determined to show them she was 'one of them'.
Edie drifted by. "Hey, girlfriend," she teased, "how come you're slumming tonight?"
Catherine's eyes flashed as she retorted, "I'm making points with the boss - aren't you jealous?"
Edie laughed and went on her way.
Catherine politely danced with a few of the men who got up the nerve to ask her but mostly she danced with Joe. She could relax and have fun with him. He was surprised to learn that Cathy loved all kinds of music, not just that 'high-brow stuff' as he had assumed.
After the party Joe faithfully delivered Catherine back to her door. He stood before her a happy and contented man and Catherine cupped his face between her two hands and kissed him gently on the lips.
"Goodnight Joe, and thank you for shamelessly blackmailing me into a wonderful evening."
"Goodnight Cathy, you know I ..."
"Shush, I know."
He took her key and unlocked the door, then handed the key back to her, turned and sauntered to the elevator whistling. He knew in his heart she would never really be his, but for one magical evening he had been able to pretend.
A short time later Catherine met Vincent Below as planned. No words were spoken, none were needed, just a tender hug. Together, hand in hand, they walked along the dimly lit, dusty tunnels, heading for the home chambers.
"I have a surprise for you, Catherine."
"Oh, Vincent, what?" she asked, her eyes aglow with anticipation.
"Wait and see," he teased.
"I can't ... tell me, Vincent, please?" she cajoled.
But no meant no and he would not surrender to her begging. Eventually they reached Father's warm and cozy study.
"Ah, Catherine, you look delightful, my dear. What a pretty dress, Vincent tells me you've been to a dance."
"Yes, a Valentine Dance at my office."
"Somehow," Father teased, "I can't imagine a group of attorneys dancing the night away. It seems a bit too frivolous or something. Tell me, do they argue over each song to be played?"
Catherine laughed. "No, but they're not exactly the most convivial party animals I've ever seen."
Vincent was nervous over the plans he'd made and was becoming a bit impatient with the social pleasantries. "Come Catherine, Father we must leave now, please excuse us."
"Of course, of course, you two must go and enjoy the rest of your evening," he said, smiling at Catherine, who suddenly felt that Father was well aware of Vincent's surprise.
"Where are we going, Vincent?" Catherine asked as they strolled down a tunnel that wasn't familiar to her.
"To a special place, just for us," he replied.
"Really?" She cautioned herself against getting her hopes up, but Vincent was usually reluctant to be completely alone with her so she couldn't help speculating.
As they rounded a bend in the tunnel, the chamber in front of them stood out; the entrance was framed in red and white roses and lit by wall sconces. Inside there were candles everywhere, giving a soft and gentle glow. To one side, rugs were spread on the floor and huge cushions were there to sit on. The small table had a battery run cassette and at the flick of a switch, it clicked into action and romantic music filled the chamber.
"At Winterfest we danced when everyone had left the Great Hall. The memory of it will live in my heart forever, Catherine, but tonight I would like for us to make new memories."
"Yes." Catherine's lips curved into a smile as she nodded and her eyes filled to overflowing with tears of joy.
"May I have this Valentine waltz, Catherine?" he asked
"It will be my pleasure," she replied.
His arms opened up for her and she filled them to perfection. They held each other tightly as they swayed to the music. They danced until the tape ran out and clicked off. Reluctant to part, they continued to stand with their arms around each other, her head resting against his broad shoulder.
"Catherine ..." he said huskily.
She raised her head from his shoulder and tilted her head back to look up at him. "Yes, Vincent ...?"
As he stared into her fascinating gray-green eyes her 'yes, Vincent' echoed through his mind. Suddenly he knew with every fiber of his being that she truly loved him and would wholeheartedly say yes to him no matter what he asked. He gathered his courage and leaned down and their lips met for the first time. It was as if a million fireworks had suddenly exploded. Time stood still as they shared kiss after fevered kiss.
On shaky legs Vincent led her over to the cushions and they gratefully sank down on them. Wrapped in each others arms, both breathless from the experience, they knew this was the turning point in their relationship.
"Will you be my Valentine, Catherine?" he whispered softly and beguilingly as he nuzzled her ear.
"Will you be mine?" she responded instantly.
"Forever, Catherine, if you'll marry me."
"I thought you'd never ask," she said. She couldn't resist teasing him a bit, "I literally thought you'd never ask."
Catherine smiled to herself. Thanks to the Valentine dance and Vincent's jealousy over her 'date', the next step in their lives had suddenly and rapturously begun. She felt utter contentment as well as raging excitement when Vincent's lips met hers again.