When he finished the project, Richard stood back to take an all-too-critical look at his handiwork. He loathed all things cheerful, cutesy, and especially Valentine's Day-related (a holiday made up by greeting card companies if he'd ever seen one, and since he'd made the unfortunate acquaintance of a greeting card company bureaucrat, he could speak with authority on this), but the thing was, Caroline didn't. Caroline liked that kind of thing. Hell, she made her living on it. (And since he worked for her, technically he did as well, which was something he tried not to dwell on too much.) A Valentine's Day card would make her smile, and since that was a sight he loved above all else, he'd bitten the proverbial bullet and made her one.
He'd thought at first about painting her something—perhaps The Martyring of St. Valentine, something red and black with plenty of jagged edges—but she disliked his art almost as much as he hated her comic strip, so in the end he'd gone with a simple rendering of a heart with an arrow through it and had written a verse inside:
Roses are cadmium red,
Violets are...well, actually they're mostly dioxazine purple, but the rhyme scheme calls for cerulean blue;
These colors are beautiful,
And so are you.
It was about the furthest from great literature he'd ever ventured, but there was no way Caroline would be interested in verse that looked to Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath or Thomas Hardy for inspiration. No, this was as good as it got.
All that was left was to sign his name. He held his pen above the paper, ready to make the downstroke for the "R," followed by the loop and the tail and all the rest of the letters, but something held him back. Good sense, perhaps. Fear, more likely. After all, she'd never said anything to indicate she felt anything more than friendship toward him. There had been moments, over the past year and a half, when he'd thought...but thinking wasn't the same as having conclusive evidence, and he had no intention of making a fool out of himself again where Caroline was concerned.
With a sigh, he put down the pen and stuffed the card, unsigned, in an envelope. If he managed to give it to her, he'd explain in person.
The next morning, he arrived a few minutes early, the card safely tucked in his coat pocket.
"Hi, Richard," Caroline called from her side of the desk.
He instantly swiveled to face the coat rack, his face burning. "Hi, Caroline," he said, too loudly, while he hung up his black trenchcoat.
A short pause was her only acknowledgment of this latest strangeness. "Happy Valentine's Day," she said, chirpily as ever.
"Uh...yeah," he said, pulling the card from his pocket with trembling fingers. Now or never, he thought, feeling like a walking cliche. He turned and headed over to the desk.
Caroline put her pencil down and raised her eyebrows. "No, 'What's happy about it?' No rant about how this is merely a holiday invented by greeting card companies to prey on people's inadequacies? Are you feeling all right?"
"Sorry to disappoint." He took a deep breath and handed her the card. "Here. I..." made this for you, want to spend the rest of my life with you, love you, his mind supplied, but he couldn't get his mouth to utter any of the possibilities. Caroline was starting to look very confused, and he had to say something. "I found this outside your door."
Did her face fall just a little? Had she hoped he would give her something to acknowledge the date, to reveal that he bore her some kind of affection? He almost said, "April fool," but his throat seemed to close up, and the only thing he could do was watch her.
"Really?" She looked at the envelope, studying the way her name was written on the front. Half of him desperately hoped that she would recognize the handwriting as his, and the other half hoped just as hard that she wouldn't. "Oh, wow, it's a secret admirer! I've never had one of those before. I wonder who it could be? Oh, Richard, this is so exciting!" She slid her finger under the flap and opened the envelope.
"It might not be so secret," he said, rather hurriedly. This whole situation was going in a completely different direction than he'd planned. He certainly hadn't ignored his sense of good taste for her to leap to the conclusion that the card was from someone else entirely. "There might be some clue to the sender's identity inside."
Pausing before taking the card out, she looked at him with a horrified expression. "You don't think it could be Del, do you?"
If he caused Caroline and Del to get back together again, he really was going to throw himself off a bridge. "Uh, isn't he dating that girl?" Del was always dating a girl of some sort. Apparently the car really was a turn-on. "Karen, Lisa, Amy..."
"Jennifer," Caroline supplied.
"I knew it was something with a vowel."
"Still, that's never really stopped him before," she continued, looking worried. She glanced at the envelope, where he'd written her name. "Although his handwriting is loopier..."
"Caroline, for the love of god, will you just open it already?" he snapped.
The little self-righteous frown she got when he was being difficult made an appearance. "Okay, okay." She pulled the card from the envelope, and he watched her face for any sign of a favorable reaction. "Hmm," she said. "A heart and an arrow. A little generic, but it's the thought that counts."
Dammit, he knew he should've gone with The Martyring of St. Valentine! "Uh, well, maybe the inside is more interesting," he suggested.
"Yeah, maybe," she agreed, opening the card. She read his poem out loud, her brows creasing more with every word. "Huh," she said when she'd finished. "That's very...interesting. In an interesting sort of way."
His heart fell through his stomach, then crashed through the floor, the lobby, and into the laundry room to wind up in a spin cycle with someone's underwear. "You don't like it?"
Her midwestern niceness came to the fore. "Oh, no, no! No, it's very sweet. Whoever gave me this put a lot of effort into it."
If she'd actually put his heart in a blender and pushed "on," it couldn't have been more painful. Thank god he hadn't said it was from him.
"And I'm really flattered that someone would go to all this trouble..."
"But?" he forced out.
She looked down at the desk, apparently embarrassed. "I know this sounds really horrible and ungrateful, but it just seems...kind of impersonal. It's like whoever sent it doesn't know me at all."
Now it was his turn for monosyllabic answers. "Huh."
"But, you know, maybe it's just that we don't know each other yet, and, and this is the first step. Maybe it was that guy I ran into outside when I was going to the art supply store last week; maybe he saw me come out of the building and looked up my name on the intercom!"
He felt a sudden urge to beat his head against the desk.
Caroline, meanwhile, had gotten caught up in her speculation. "Or maybe it's the new super. I don't think he's married. Or...oh, no. It's my fan from prison. He's out, and he knows where I live! Richard, do you think this handwriting looks like it might be a criminal's? Is it even possible to see criminal tendencies in handwriting?"
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
"Just so you know, working with you for four years has warped me beyond repair," Richard said sourly, sitting beside Caroline on her couch and handing her a rather lurid red envelope he'd probably swiped from the display of Valentine's Day greeting cards in the lobby of their office building.
Caroline, who had honed the ability to see through his grouchy exterior both because she tried to always see the best in others and because otherwise she would have garroted him with a cat toy long ago, grinned at him long enough to finally make his mouth twitch just a bit. She then looked at the envelope, which had her name written on it in Richard's cramped-but-neat handwriting. Slowly, she slid her finger under the flap, gently tearing the envelope open.
"Oh, will you just open it already?" he groused, but she could hear that his heart wasn't in it. Oddly, he sounded a bit nervous.
"Happy Valentine's Day to you too," she said, still smiling. She finally got the envelope open, and pulled out a card—or, rather a sheet of cardstock that had been folded over to fit into the envelope, for she saw that this card was handmade. On the front was an impressively well-executed (sometimes, to her chagrin, she forgot how good Richard was) cartoon of Charlie Brown kissing a blushing red-headed girl on the cheek. Except it wasn't Charlie Brown at all; despite the iconic yellow t-shirt with its black zig-zagging stripe, the boy on the card had curly blond hair and wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. The girl's red hair was cut in the same style as her own, and she was wearing Caroline's favorite blue dress.
"Richard," she murmured, already feeling her eyes start to tear up.
"At least read it before you start crying on me, huh?" he said, nudging her gently with his shoulder.
She nodded, and thumbed open the card. Inside, he had written, "To my favorite red-haired girl. Love, Richard." And then, in a hasty scrawl, "P.S. If you show this to anyone, especially Annie, I will tear the heads off of every single paper doll in your collection."
"Happy Valentine's Day, Caroline," he murmured, slipping his arm around her shoulders. "I love you."
"I love you too," she said, putting the card on the coffee table and turning to kiss him.
When they came up for air, she wiped the last couple tears from her eyes, then smiled rather devilishly and lifted the lid of the table, retrieving a small wrapped package. "I got you something," she said, handing it to him. "It's kind of for both of us, really."
His eyebrows arching toward his hairline, Richard made quick work of the wrapping paper, revealing a jar of..."Chocolate body paint?" he read from the label.
Her grin grew wider. "Wanna try it out?"
"We just got out of bed," he said, but she could tell he was warming to the idea.
"And?" she asked, sliding her hand under his sweater.
He quickly fell prey to her feminine wiles, as well as to the fingers she was trailing up his chest. She knew she should probably feel guilty that he was completely helpless when she wanted to talk him into something, but at the moment, she felt no compunctions about bending him to her will. "And...I think that's a great idea," he said.
Taking his hand, the red-haired girl led her Valentine up the stairs.