There are men -- sweet, otherwise generous sorts -- who secretly believe Valentine's Day is just a conspiracy to coerce reluctant husbands/lovers/unromantic slugs into extravagant displays of affection.

You bet. Preferably with jewelry, lingerie, perfume, chocolate or flowers.

Most opt for the flowers. Cheaper than diamonds, less fattening than chocolate, smell great and one size fits all. Eighteen million people nationwide will cough up $400 million for bouquets today, according to the Floral Index, a Chicago firm that measures annual sales of perishable goods.

They all want roses and are prepared to pay top dollar to have them delivered on -- not before, not after, but on -- Valentine's Day.

Which is why 80 drivers got up at dawn this morning, put on tuxedos and hurried down to Rose Express on K Street NWto get last-minute marching orders for their biggest day of the year. The refrigerated vans were already overflowing with boxed ($54.99 a dozen) and arranged ($85 in a vase) roses: 2,500 dozen, all promised to arrive before the end of the workday.

Most of the orders are from men to wives or girlfriends -- or both. ("They beg you not to switch the cards," says Rose Express owner Michael Greenspun.) Women love to get roses on Valentine's Day because they are a traditional symbol of love and romance. Men love to send them because it means they don't have to go shopping.

There are a million stories in the naked city. And they all show up on the enclosure cards.

"The truth is we've heard it all," says Greenspun. "Some people pour their hearts out. You see more than you want to know."

Rose Express got repeated requests for the same three love notes. It took a while to figure out they were titles of Barry White songs: "Your Sweetness Is My Weakness," "You're the First, the Last, My Everything" and "It's Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me."

There's passion: At least one guy is enclosing a marriage proposal today. Playful: "For all you do, these buds are for you." And paranoid: "Don't tell your wife I sent these roses" (sent by a woman to her own husband to find out if he is cheating -- or thinking of cheating -- on her).

Then there are the "anonymous" valentines who insist on signing only "Be Mine" or "From Your Valentine." These secret lovers are the most time-consuming problem for florists on Valentine's Day.

"They'll say, 'You don't have to worry. They'll know,' " says Ted Huffcut of Nosegay in downtown Washington. "Ninety percent of the time, the recipient calls and wants to know who sent them."

Answering bewildered callers -- dozens of them -- took up so much time that Huffcut developed a system: Now when someone orders flowers to be sent with an unsigned card, Huffcut asks if he can release the customer's name on the off chance, of course, that his beloved calls. Every order is then coded in big letters "Information Okay" or "No Information."

They all want red roses. There are a few orders for yellow (friendship), white (purity) or pink (happiness). But most of the callers want a dozen red (love, passion, fooling around) roses.

Roses account for more than 70 percent of all valentine flowers sold -- even at premium prices. Growers and wholesalers jack up prices two weeks before the holiday, causing retail costs to almost double by Feb. 14. We demand and they supply. The average price in Washington for a dozen roses is normally $50. Last-minute lovers can expect to pay up to $100 today, if they can find any left to buy.

Nosegay's Huffcut, who provided flowers for Barbara Bush during her eight years in the vice president's residence, is recommending less expensive arrangements of mixed spring flowers this year. But more than half of his customers went ahead and ordered roses at $70 a dozen.

"There's the people who want roses no matter what the price," says Huffcut. "Ladies love roses. There's no way getting around it."

And love means never having to say you're sorry, so Huffcut throws in a little personal service for his special customers: He checks his orders a couple of days before Valentine's and makes a few phone calls to the procrastinators.

"I call the husbands to remind them," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, they're most grateful."

And it's smart business. Valentine's Day is the biggest single day of the year; sales now equal the week before Mother's Day; only the month-long Christmas season pulls in more money.

FTD, the nation's largest flowers-by-wire service, will deliver 655,000 arrangements today, a fraction of the 22 million orders it handles annually. Desert Storm Romeos can call one of the six florists in Saudi Arabia, members of an international florist network, which can wire to their Juliets one of FTD's Valentine's Day specials -- a porcelain heart or white flower basket with spring flowers, both retailing for under $35.

You would think Valentine's Day is sacrosanct to anyone named Kenneth Love. You would be wrong.

Love, a self-described "gardener" to Washington's rich and richer, is best known for his casual just-tossed-in-a-vase-look bouquets -- the kind of unstudied perfection that takes hours and up to $300 to achieve. But roses for Valentine's Day are no big deal to clients who order flawless fresh flowers every week.

"To these people flowers are not a luxury item," says Love. "They're just a fact."

Well, then. Tiffany's it is. And step on it.