It was raining on the night of Feb. 13 when Lothario Jones finally crept into bed. He was exhausted from another record day on Wall Street and although he'd be the last to admit it, he'd also been feeling rather lonely of late.

His social life had been going through something of a "recessionary phase" during the past few months, but rather than dwell on the problem, he began to think about pork bellies and corporate acquisitions and soon drifted off to a light, if restless sleep.

Shortly after midnight, Lothario was awakened by a presence standing at the foot of his bed. It appeared to be an elderly man who glowed in the dark and had a halo about his head. He was wearing a simple white frock with hearts across the chest, was carrying a bow and had a sheaf of arrows slung over his shoulder. At first, Lothario imagined he was watching a cable TV fashion show.

"Who's there?" he asked nervously, suspecting the worst.

"Saint Valentine," came the foggy answer.

"Come on. Give me a break. The stereo's in the living room and there's nothing else of value in the apartment. If you leave me alone, I promise I won't call the police for at least half an hour."

The apparition frowned. "This isn't what you think it is, Mr. Jones. I am Saint Valentine. I represent the spirit of love. The spirit of passion. I'm here to teach you about romance."

"Great. Christmas Eve the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future show up to give me a lesson in human kindness. New Year's Day, Father Time drops by for a little chat about life fulfillment. Don't you guys ever give up?"

"When you get it right," replied the ghost.

"Swell. I can't wait to see who you send down for income tax day. Maybe Billie Sol Estes?"

The saint was not amused. "That's exactly the cynical attitude I'm here to discuss with you. Like that girl you took out the other night. She was charming. She thought you were attractive. Why did you have to tell her you didn't believe in romance?"

"Because I don't," the stockbroker replied, sitting up in bed to light a cigarette. "As far as I'm concerned, romance is dead. We live in an age of video games. Artificial hearts. Cars with numbers instead of names. Let me tell you: A '47 Hudson Grand Salon was romantic. An '83 Mitsutomi 59-93 just isn't."

The saint shook his head sadly. "That has nothing to do with real romance. You're talking about things that don't count."

"Why should I take your word for it? How do I know you're not a fake--just buying time for your partner who's out in the living room stealing my stereo?"

"Watch."

With a pop, the saint was suddenly transformed into a much younger man wearing a tuxedo, hair slicked back in the style of the '40s. He radiated elegance.

"Who are you now?" asked Lothario.

"Fred Astaire."

"But Fred Astaire is still alive."

"And so is romance," the apparition shot back. "The point is that in his movies, Fred Astaire understood how to treat women. He knew how to make them feel pretty. He realized it was the little things that count. He wouldn't be ashamed to look at somebody and say 'Be my valentine.' "

"But that was a different time," Lothario protested. "When Fred Astaire whispered in Ginger Rogers' ear, you can bet he wasn't asking if she had herpes."

"Once again, you're getting sarcastic."

"Don't interrupt me. Today, by the time you get to be my age, the bodies begin to pile up. You get jaded. It's too difficult to keep starting over every time with hearts and flowers. I remember the last time I did it. The girl was wonderful. Sweet. Terrific. I showered her with love notes and affection. I did everything right."

"So what was the problem?"

"She was living with somebody else."

The saint cleared his throat. "So you're giving up on romance? You're giving up on feelings?"

"Let's just say I've put them on hold."

"Times have changed" the saint admitted. "Personally, I always thought the Victorian Era was the most romantic period we've had--all that sexual fainting and stuff--but just because it's over doesn't mean you should give up on the whole thing entirely."

Lothario lit another cigarette. "I remember my first valentine," he said quietly. "The year was 1961. I was in first grade in Clinton School, and her name was Joan Applebaum. She had blond hair, and smelled of wet galoshes. When I asked if she'd be my valentine, she said 'yes . . . forever.' That was when forever meant something. Today only my Exxon bills seem to last forever."

The saint rolled his eyes. "You're getting cynical again."

"All right," Lothario interrupted. "Let me give you another example.

"Go on."

"It was 1970. The middle of a peace demonstration. I remember asking Linda Walk if she'd be my valentine, and she said it was possessive and sexist. She wasn't going to be anybody's anything. After that, I gave up asking."

"It must have been an overreaction to the times," said the saint, shrugging. "When it came to romance, she must have been deluding herself."

Lothario looked at him sharply. "And I'm not? Sitting here at one in the morning with a ghost who claims to be Fred Astaire?"

Let's get back to the problem at hand," the saint replied. "Now this girl you recently took out--Cindy?"

"Sally."

"Right. Do you like her?"

"Sure. She's okay."

"Well, you're not going to get her with cynicism. No matter what's happened in the past, you've still got to believe that every relationship is going to work out wonderfully. You've got to start fresh every time, no matter how many times you've been burned."

Lothario swung his legs over the side of the bed. "So what should I send her?"

"How about chocolates?"

"She's dieting."

"Flowers?"

"Allergic."

"A love letter?"

"It probably won't get there before April Fools' Day."

"I'm sure you can think of something," frowned the saint.

"The point is that Valentine's Day--and romance--are all about innocence. Not markdowns on used Chevrolets, or snow tire sales at Sears."

Lothario nodded slowly.

"Remember," the saint continued, "passions of the heart are the most genuine passions of all. We can't live without them. Don't become too jaded. It may be hard to start over--but it's worse not to."

With a pop, the apparition was gone. The room was empty, although the faintest scent of rose petals remained.

For a minute, Lothario wondered about Linda Walk and Joan Applebaum. He thought about 10-cent Hallmark cards and the smell of galoshes. He decided that no matter how many times Fred Astaire may have been jilted, he'd still be able to send love letters and flowers, forever remaining an innocent at heart.

In less than a minute, Lothario was on the phone with Sally, asking her to be his valentine.

"But I thought you didn't believe in romance," she said, yawning.

"Let's pretend we're Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," he said, turning out the light. "When you hear the music, how can you help but dance?"