Valentine's Day: the day of roses and hearts and chocolates and romantic candlelit dinners. When people proposed marriage and professed undying love.
Arabella sighed, staring unseeing into her bowl of cornflakes as they succumbed to their milky grave and turned to soggy goop. Funny how a date on a calendar could open the pit of despair that lived somewhere near her stomach. It had to be near her stomach. She'd been reasonably hungry until she'd noticed the date and the pit opened. Her hunger had fallen into it, and the memories and pain rose out of it.
There was a time when this day had been wonderful. Life had been wonderful, they didn't need Valentine's Day, but they celebrated it with reverence and, sometimes, wild abandon.
She knew what love was, what it felt like to love a man and how it felt to lose him. She remembered what he'd said that last morning, how he'd kissed her; how the sun had lit his face as he smiled, promising he'd be back. She remembered the police, how the sun seemed to dim as they told her the stock phrases. They were sorry for her loss.
Since that time, Valentine's Day had passed unheralded, unheeded and uncelebrated. She knew she was the office joke -- fully forty and never been fucked, that's what they said. The dowdy old spinster who had no idea what fun was, wouldn't have known what to do with a man if by some miracle she did snag one. They were wrong, of course. Not that it was any of their business; it certainly didn't affect her ability to do her job.
If she chose to act and dress her age and spend her evenings quietly, rather than as mutton dressed as lamb in some gaudy nightclub, surely that was her right? She knew the most beautiful thing about her was her name. Jane would have suited her features better. Somehow 'Plain Arabella' didn't work for the office bitches at all.
She sighed again, getting up from the table, taking her cereal bowl and dumping the gloop down the sink. A bleak day of petty jibes and pitying looks lay ahead. At least she knew what to expect this year.
Last year had been her first Valentine's Day with this particular company and, therefore, her first with this particular bunch of savages -- her fellow employees. As front counter receptionist, she was the company's first "public face" and some of her co-workers had decided it didn't look good if that face wasn't surrounded by gifts from admirers on this day.
When the first bunch of anonymous flowers had arrived, she had been flustered, flattered and flabbergasted that anyone would send her flowers. She had hurriedly cleared a space on the counter for them, proudly displaying them, fussing with them to show them off at their best and make them visible from the greatest distance. She kept touching them, moving them slightly, reaffirming they were really there. Her heart sang -- someone had noticed her. Maybe he was too shy to reveal himself; maybe he was married and couldn't: her mind was alive with questions, trying to solve the mystery of their origin. She was happy.
Then a large box of chocolates arrived, closely followed by more flowers. By lunchtime, these had been joined by a little plush cherub, two red plush love hearts, a pair of earrings, three more bunches of flowers, four assorted boxes of chocolates and a large jar of candy hearts. They all carried the same anonymous message. And she knew.
By the end of the day there were nine flower arrangements, ten boxes of chocolates, three cherubs, the two red love hearts, three teddy bears, two jars of candy, the earrings and a gift box containing four pairs of edible undies. Just before the close of business the final humiliation came -- a fantastically wrapped see through box containing an inflatable male doll with vibrating tongue, a massive purple vibrating dildo and a copy of the Kama Sutra.
Arabella had to stay at her post until the last visitor/client left. But the rest of the staff was already filing out of the building. Some boggled at her desk, some snickered, a couple made loud crass comments and a very few had appeared horrified at the pile of stuff surrounding her. The building had almost emptied before that last visitor departed. She was sure that, too, was a set-up, particularly when she saw who it was the client had been visiting.
Jason ushered the man to the street and turned back to Arabella as she gathered her coat and handbag, ready to escape.
"Gee, you're a popular girl. Who woulda thought?" He reached her counter and began collecting up the flowers, grinning madly. "Let me help you with all that."
Before she could say a word, he bundled all the flowers, chocolates and assorted other items into her arms. She could barely see where she was going. Jason put his arm around her back and shepherded her out the door, leering at the vibrator in its transparent box. "There you go, sweetheart. Looks like you're definitely gonna get some action tonight." He turned smartly away, laughing as he rapidly put distance between them.
She'd thrown the whole lot in the nearest dumpster and hurried to the relative sanctuary of her car before breaking down and sobbing, burying her head in her hands to hide from prying eyes of curious passers-by.
Standing at her kitchen sink, Arabella wondered what they'd pull this year. It couldn't be worse, could it? She sighed again and then abruptly shook her head, standing straighter. To hell with it - she was not going to let them get to her today.
It had already begun when she arrived. A bouquet of irises sat at the front of the counter. She was tempted to throw them straight in the garbage, but decided they were too pretty, too unusual. So they stayed. Curiosity got the better of her and she looked at the card, expecting it to say something sappy and insincere, as last year's cards had.
"You are worth far more than they will ever realise. Hear the flowers."
Arabella pondered the card. Hear the flowers? What on earth did that mean? She raised an eyebrow as she settled into her post: at least it seemed this year would be more intriguing than last. During quiet moments throughout the morning, she'd pick up the card, reread the cryptic message and study the beautiful bouquet, but its secret was never revealed.
No gifts arrived for her, no more flowers. She was relieved, but it only served to deepen the mystery of the flowers. As her lunch hour approached, other staff began filtering out of their offices to take a break. They all noticed the irises. Several of the women stopped and commented on their beauty. No one laughed.
As always, Arabella left the building for lunch. She usually grabbed a sandwich somewhere and did a bit of window shopping. Anything to get away for an hour - if she stayed in the office, someone always "needed" her for something.
When she returned, a neatly typed page was on her desk: "The meaning of flowers". One line was highlighted in blue: "Iris: Have Faith. Don't Give Up Hope." A single purple violet was pinned to the page. She scanned the page to find "Violet (Purple): You occupy my thoughts". She put the page to one side, but still in view, unsure whether to laugh at it and throw it and the flowers away before the punch line or wait it out. This was definitely a far more sophisticated assault than last year.
Throughout the afternoon a steady procession of couriers arrived, carrying flowers and gifts. Arabella nervously watched each one approach her counter, only to breathe a sigh of relief as the teddy bears and hearts, the chocolates and flowers were all destined for other souls.
At 4.30pm a man approached her station: nothing unusual in that; everyone that came to see someone had to check in with her. What was unusual was that he actually saw her as a fellow human, not a robot programmed to take names and give directions. He smiled at her, a real smile that reached his eyes and warmed her heart.
"Good afternoon. My name is David Emerton. I have an appointment to speak to Jason Cornish. Would you mind letting him know I am here, please?"
Quickly she dialled Jason's extension, giving him the information. Jason, as usual was brusque to the point of rude, telling her to "entertain the idiot till I'm ready for him -- he's not supposed to be here for another 15 minutes".
Arabella was tempted to tell the polite gentleman exactly what Jason had said, but instead used her tact and diplomacy (that was why she was hired after all) to tell him that "Mr Cornish is a little delayed. He will be available in a few minutes." And she offered him a seat.
Again he smiled. "Those are beautiful flowers," he said, nodding towards the iris bouquet. "A discerning choice for a lovely lady." Arabella lowered her eyes, feeling the heat rise in her face, knowing she was blushing.
His voice softened and became much quieter. "You don't remember me, do you?" Her eyes flew to his face, confused. Was she supposed to know this charming man?
"I had an appointment here at the same time, on this day last year. I was waiting outside for a taxi when you left. That was uncalled for, mean and heartless and exactly what I would expect of Jason and his friends. I deal with them only because I must. They offer a service unparalleled in this town." He leaned across the counter, his voice so low only she could hear. "How they manage it, I cannot tell. They are pig swill and don't know a pearl when confronted with one." He paused, seeming to weigh up his next statement, then leaned closer to her. "Did you hear the flowers?"
Her eyes again flew to his face, her mouth falling open a little. "You sent them?"
"I did. And the violet. I had hoped to counter whatever crass display they had planned this year. Would you possibly consider spending the evening with me?" His face was eager, hopeful. "A nice dinner?"
She was stunned, flattered, amazed - but also wary. This was Jason's client. He could easily have been put up to this. She studied his face closely, seeking any hint of a lurking cad. His face fell. "But, of course, you have other plans. I apologise for embarrassing you." He moved away and sat, abashed, on one of the hideous lounge chairs to await his appointment.
Arabella studied this man. He didn't seem to fit the mould of Jason's usual cohorts. For one thing he was unerringly polite. He was also good looking, without being outstanding or flashy. He was also much closer her age than Jason's and had an air of quiet confidence, like he had nothing to prove to anyone and nothing to fear from them either. She looked at the flowers. Could Jason have possibly thought of something this elegant? She didn't think so. She took a deep breath: to hell with it.
"Mr Emerton?" He looked up. "What time would you like to pick me up?"
In her bedroom, staring at the clothes hanging limply in her closet, the cool bravado that had claimed her as she agreed to the date vanished. In its place indecision, doubt and outright terror took hold. It seemed painfully obvious to her now, away from the office and that lovely man, that it was all another twisted joke, something for the office beautiful people to laugh at during tomorrow's coffee breaks. Why did she say yes? Her wardrobe was woefully inadequate. It was years since she'd been out with a man; she was bound to make a fool of herself, even if it wasn't a set-up.
At that thought her heart jumped and lurched. The possibility that Mr Emerton -- no, [i]David[/i]; this was a date not a business appointment -- was sincere in his wish to take her out only heightened her confusion and indecision.
Finally, in desperation and the realisation that if she didn't decide soon, she'd still be in her underwear when he arrived; she chose a below-knee length chocolate skirt and pink cashmere sweater, topped off with knee length boots. The heels were quite high, but she remembered he'd been tall, so that wouldn't be an issue, as long as she didn't fall over in them.
Arabella was saved from an overcritical examination in the mirror. She had just completed her applying her makeup when her date arrived. She grabbed her coat and quickly walked out the door, before she had time to rethink and back out.
"You look lovely," David said, smiling down at her. Arabella felt the heat in her cheeks again; she wasn't used to receiving compliments, particularly from someone like him. She mumbled her thanks as he helped her put on her coat and led her to his car.
Sitting in the car as he drove, she was able to study Mr David Emerton. He wasn't handsome, not in the classical sense, but he certainly wasn't ugly and he had a serene air about him -- a man at peace with himself. He knew who he was and was content with that; he knew he wanted and how to get it; and he what was beyond his capabilities and lost no sleep over it. He obviously managed quite well; his car was expensive but not flashy.
The restaurant he took her too was a quiet small place, away from the standard eat-and-entertain strip. It was intimate without claustrophobia; the decor was elegant without being overbearing; the lighting low but not dim; the service attentive without being intrusive. The food Arabella could not describe -- she later barely remembered what she had eaten beyond it being "nice" -- her attention was totally taken by David.
He was gallant and charming; helping her with her coat and holding her chair for her at the intimate table for two tucked away in a corner. He quietly suggested items on the menu he thought she might like. It was obvious he'd been here before, was a regular, but usually without company. His choice of wine was perfect to go with the excellent food as they enjoyed each other's company.
And they talked.
She learned a lot about Mr Emerton. David was 46, older than she had thought; he had been married, but his wife died young and there were no children. He had had a series of short term relationships that had petered out and, for the past few years, had let a solitary life, rarely going out with women. He didn't work as such; his livelihood came from investments, which explained his being a client of her company. Jason may be a jerk, but he was the one of the best investment brokers around.
He had been attracted to her the first time he met her, a year ago, but had been intimidated by the evidence of all her admirers. When he realised it was all a cruel joke played by his adviser and the other brokers, he was mortified. He had seriously considered changing brokers, going to another firm but that would have meant he had no chance to meet Arabella again. So he stayed. He had been in her office on three occasions since then, and each time had seen her quiet, unflappable charm and how her talent and lovely nature were either ignored or taken for granted by those around her. He was determined to gain her attention, but without the office buffoons being able to use it against her, hence the mystery flower delivery this morning.
Arabella found herself opening up to him. He seemed sincerely interested in hearing what she had to say, hanging on her every word. It was a liberating and wonderfully powerful feeling. She wasn't used to being the centre of anyone's attention. She told him of her pride at her independence since the loss of her lover, all those years ago. She was happy in her little home, content with her work, rarely coming to the attention of the office jokers.
It was over coffee that she admitted to David something she hadn't admitted to herself: her life was lonely and she missed the affection of another person. She missed the companionship of sharing her life with someone.
Immediately the words had left her lips she regretted them. She had given away too much of herself, been too forward. She lowered her eyes, not wanting to see the closed expression she knew would be on his face, so she didn't see the fleeting look of pain, quickly followed by understanding and hope.
She did feel his hand close over hers and squeeze lightly. She looked up into a face of gentle eyes and soft smile. "Would you like to take a walk with me," he said quietly. "I think it's time we left - they want to close the restaurant."
Arabella looked around her. They were the only people other than staff left in the restaurant, and many of the lights were dimmed. She gasped in wonder -- she had no idea they'd been there so long. "Yes, a walk would be lovely."
David ushered her along the street and across a small, neat park to a promenade along the riverbank. It was enough lit to feel safe and they walked along arm in arm. She felt his arm snake around her waist to hug her to him, and she snuggled against him, her arm around his back. The moon was up, the stars were out and the night was peaceful and clear.
Arabella's heart was singing and her eyes sparkled. She had been right to take this gamble. He was sincere, and it was wonderful. But the night was late, and it was rather cold.
She shivered. David felt it immediately and turned off the promenade and back toward the street where they had left the car. "I'd better take you home. It wouldn't be much of a date if you ended up ill."
At her door, he formally thanked her for a lovely evening and asked if he could see her again. She smiled and surprised herself only a little by reaching up and kissing him lightly on the lips before saying: "Would you like to come in for a nightcap?"
David blinked, looking mildly bemused for a moment before studying her face. "Are you sure?"
Oh, most definitely, she was sure. She had thought of nothing else since they had left the river. He looked right, he felt right, and he smelt right. She wanted him but was sure he'd never make a move. He was too much of a gentleman to ever force the issue.
She took his hand and led him into her home, kicking the door closed with her foot, shutting out the rest of the world with its mean people and ugly attitudes. Arabella reached up to kiss him again. This time he lowered his head to hers, cradling her face in his hands as he returned the kiss. The lips met and parted, allowing their tongues to join and caress each other. His hands moved down from her face to caress her body, hers moved up from his hips. They parted, searching each other's faces for confirmation of their desires.
"I think we're on the same page," Arabella said. "Why don't you leave your coat on the couch? Do you want the nightcap now, or after the tour?"
"I'll take a raincheck on the nightcap," David said, reading the desire in her eyes and knowing it was mirrored in his and stripping off the coat.
"Right." Arabella took his hand again. "This is the lounge. There," she pointed to the right, "is the kitchen and dining nook. This way," pulling him down the hall, "is the second bedroom, the bathroom and," dragging him through a doorway, "here is the main bedroom."
"Very nice," he said, looking around, trying not to focus on the bed.
Suddenly shy, they both looked at anything but each other, awkward in their lack of intimate knowledge of each other. David tentatively reached out a hand to her, aiming to caress her breast, veering off at the last moment to her shoulder, but still lightly brushing her breast with his fingertips. Arabella's gasped breath emboldened him and he reached his other hand, caressing her other breast lightly as she shivered under his touch and sighed.
Her hands went to his chest, running down the front of his shirt and back up, then beginning to undo the buttons, pulling the shirt from his trousers and teasing his bare skin with her fingers.
David pulled his shirt off and then raised the sweater over her head and off her arms, moving in to kiss her as his hands went around her back to undo the clasps of her bra and returned to cup her breasts. The sensation on her breasts as he caressed and pinched her nipples sent a sharp message straight between her legs. She could feel herself becoming moist and shuddered under his touch, her breath becoming uneven.