Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, and I make no money from this work of fiction!

CHRISTMAS GIFT OF LOVE - SEQUEL TO ONE SPECIAL NIGHT

As she stepped inside and her eyes adjusted to the dimness after the sunshine outside, warmth and realization struck her. "THIS is your vacation home?" she asked, looking around quickly, then back at him. "You BOUGHT it?" her smile wavered.

"Yes," he said, helping her take off her coat and scarf as she turned for him, and tossing them onto the chair by the open door. "Just for emergencies. In case I ever get stranded again." He turned her to face him, his hands gentle on her upper arms, and looked earnestly at her. "Do you believe in second chances?"

Catherine smiled tremulously, joy breaking over her. She shook her head slightly. "I'm a woman of science," she stated softly, her eyes never leaving his. "I only believe in what I see."

Robert released her for moment, reaching for the door and pushing it shut. Then his hands were on her arms again. "Merry Christmas, Millie," he said softly, looking into the beautiful, blue eyes of the woman who had stolen his heart one special night just last month.

"Merry Christmas, Howard," Catherine replied, her love showing in her eyes and her voice. If she wanted to, she couldn't refuse him her love this day ... and she didn't want to.

She saw the magnetic, compelling desire in his eyes which made her body respond with a will of its own. Without any conscious volition, she felt his mouth find hers and his arms tighten around her. Their lips met, at first tentatively, then firmly. Barriers were broken down, guilt and grief assuaged at the first touch of passion as the kiss deepened. Their doubts and worries fled for the moment as they both shook with quickened expectation.

"Catherine ..." he breathed, kissing her cheeks, her closed eyes, and then her soft full lips again.

His hands smoothed down her back and over her hips, and her breath began to quicken as she moved with him, feeling a tingling sensation grow stronger and stronger. Slowly he pulled back slightly, his eyes steadily on hers, his arms loosely around her back. He said nothing for a moment or two. Catherine licked her suddenly dry lips. "Should we perhaps sit down? Or ... what do YOU want to do, Robert?" she asked, rather nervously. This was all moving a little too fast for her.

He studied her carefully, then gave her an odd, indecipherable grin. "Mostly I just want to look at you, Catherine, and bask in your presence."

Catherine wished she had a huge glass of ice cubes she could pour down the front of her sweater, or that she was outside in a blizzard. It was the only thing she could think of to combat the sudden burst of heat infusing every inch of her body. She had never been very good at flirtatious comebacks. "Oh, well ..." She stepped back, not looking at him, then headed for the couch, only just registering the small Christmas tree on the table with a large, gaily-wrapped box beside it.

"Should I build a fire?" he asked, following her. "Or are you warm enough?"

"Well, it does appear to be a little chilly in here now, doesn't it?"

"It'll warm up quickly," he promised with a smile that caused the colour to rise swiftly in her cheeks. "I had the fire set and ready." Opening the damper and striking a match, Robert had the fire blazing in no time at all. He sat beside Catherine on the couch, and half turned towards her, putting his arm along the back. "Now, what shall we do first? Open presents? Have a rematch of Scrabble? Listen to Frank Sinatra and me accompanying him on the ukelele?"

"Presents?" Catherine echoed. "Oh, Robert, I ..." Again her gaze drifted to the table with the tree and present.

"Fine. We'll do presents later. Right now, I just want to look at you ... and kiss you again ... oh, Catherine!"

He captured her mouth once more in a passionate kiss. They tasted each other, quickly and voraciously, building even more intensity between them as their hands became instruments of pleasure as well as their mouths ... stroking, kneading, almost pleading to shed the barrier of clothing that separated them. They broke apart again, Catherine burying her face in the curve of his neck, not saying anything as they caught their breaths. Then Catherine realized that tears were streaming down her face and that Robert was trembling every bit as much as she was. Turning her head, she smiled shakily, seeing that he was struggling to keep his own tears at bay.

"It's all right, Robert ..." she said softly, and with a rough sob, he pulled her back tightly into his arms and they both cried. It was a cathartic, healing experience for both of them. Claiming she had too many responsibilities, Catherine had never allowed herself to grieve, and Robert's grief was still fresh.

This was a time of tenderness, friendship, and bonding, allowing another beyond the barriers to reveal their true selves. They held each other before the flames in the fireplace, whispering words of encouragement to each other, releasing the hold they had put on Tom and MaryBeth, allowing themselves to move beyond the tightly held memories. In the process, they freed themselves to love again, and they freed those they had loved in the past. At last, almost miraculously, they found closure together, and that closure provided a whole new opening ahead for the future. Catherine would always love Tom and Robert would always love MaryBeth, but now they were making room in their hearts and minds for each other.

Settling into his arms with her back tucked half under one of Robert's arms and half against his chest, Catherine smoothed her hands over his, playing with his fingers as she stared into the flames dreamily.

"What kind of magic do you possess, Catherine? You have captivated me, and have since the night we met." Robert murmured in her ear.

"Must have been later on that night, because you certainly were NOT impressed with me at the beginning, seeing my car, hearing my taste in music ..." she chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.

"Even then, I felt that things I had buried long ago were reawakening, and I wasn't prepared for that. You, well, made me begin to feel my heart again ..."

"Nonsense, Robert! You had Michael ..."

"All right, you made me begin to feel like a sexual being again, then!" he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, then resumed his casual stroking with his thumb on her sensitive palm. "After I got to bed that night when Lori and Jeff had found us, I couldn't sleep. I tried to figure out why this had happened to me, how I could fall in love with another woman while I still loved my wife, why I was opening myself up again to the possibility of another woman in my life when I hadn't even accepted the impending loss of Mary Beth."

"I know," Catherine nodded. "That night, I realized that the terrible longing in my heart to have Tom back with me was easing. It, well, made my knees go weak when I realized that just looking at you caused an ache deep inside wondering what it would be like to be held in your arms, feeling the passion within you as you kissed me. I no longer wanted TOM back, I ... I was thinking about ... you," she admitted, her eyes downcast, her hand playing with his fingers.

"Catherine, I know Tom died last year. How long since ...?"

"His surgery was 2 ½ years ago," Catherine said, stroking the back of his hand. "We never made love after that. Not the same way. And ... he changed. He didn't want me to share a bed with him, he hated that he was no longer as much a man. I told him over and over that I didn't feel that way, but ... but he pushed me away. I REALLY lost my husband then, not when his body finally gave out last December."

"I lost Mary Beth the day she didn't know me anymore even when I reminded her ... and we hadn't had sex for months before that. I'd say it has been almost three years ..."

"But you loved her, and she loved you," Catherine murmured. "You could still 'make love' even if you didn't have sex ..."

"No," Robert admitted quietly. "We couldn't make love. She had no interest in me that way. She knew I was her husband, but the word husband had no meaning."

"Not at the end ..."

"Not even near the beginning. I ... I don't think she even LIKED me after she realized what was happening to her, Catherine," his voice was husky with pain. "She thought I was trying to kill her more than once, and not just lately. There were a few occasions over the first years when she was still home. She knew Michael, but called him Lori much of the time ... or thought he was her little sister. The disease progressed very rapidly. Jaclyn came home once and left almost immediately ... and we never could make her understand that when we moved Mary Beth to Shelby Manor permanently last summer, it was as much for Mary Beth as it was for me. I'd say we BOTH lost our partners long before we put their bodies in the ground." His arms tightened around her, and he rested his cheek on her head. "I think maybe that's why I have a mixture of feelings about what we are experiencing together now ... a bit of guilt, a bit of rationalizing ... and a whole lot of joy ..."

Catherine twisted in his arms and kissed him lightly on the lips. "A whole LOT of joy ..." she agreed. Settling back against him, she said, "I THINK Tom would be happy for me ..."

"I KNOW Mary Beth would be. She told me, when she suspected this was coming, that she didn't want me to be alone. She told me to fall in love again as soon as I could, and not even wait for her death. Silly woman thought I couldn't take care of myself!" his laugh was half sob, half laugh.

"No man can," Catherine smiled faintly. "Tom kept pushing me to find someone else while he was dying. He said he wanted to KNOW that I would be happy."

"Did you? Find someone else, I mean."

Catherine turned again to him, searching his eyes. "I couldn't. Not THEN. I didn't think I would EVER let another man into my life, my heart ..."

"... your damn car ..." he grinned. "Then you LAUGHED when I fell out of it, trying to climb out in the snowbank!"

"I'll have you know that's a classic car!" She tossed her head, chuckling, and settled back into his arms.

"I know. And your father gave it to you, probably when it was brand new. That makes YOU a classic, too, Catherine," he chuckled.

They were quiet for a while, then Catherine said rather hesitantly, "Robert? Have you spoken with Lori and Jaclyn about ... us?"

His arms tightened and he dropped a kiss on her head. "I have."

"And?"

"Well, to be honest, Lori is too concerned right now with Jeff and Michael and little Mary Beth to worry about her old father. She's just glad to think that I'll have someone to look after me and feed me when she moves out. I didn't tell her your speciality is peanut butter and jam on a spoon."

Catherine jabbed her elbow into his stomach, and he laughed. "What about Jaclyn?" she asked next.

"Jaclyn ... well, Jaclyn is ... different." he said slowly.

Again Catherine twisted to look at him. "She isn't pleased!"

"Actually, her precise words last night were, 'Dad, if you don't get off your butt and go after her NOW, you might not get another chance! After all, you're not getting any younger. You don't have a whole lot of time left to fool around! Get out there and buy her a ring and get her committed to you before it's too late!' Of course, the stores weren't open, so I couldn't buy you a ring ..." he stroked her left hand sensuously again, "and Lori said this morning that you might want to choose your own..."

"Oh, Robert, I ..." Catherine began, knowing he had heard her catch her breath in surprise at his words.

"Shh!" he brushed her lips gently with his finger, lingering on them lovingly. "You wanted to know the reactions. Jeff said that he had overheard one nurse asking who Dr. Howard was involved with, and that she thought it was about time. He said he didn't hear the answer, but I'm wondering if you would be willing to tell ME."

Catherine smiled, and kissed the finger still stroking her lips. "You KNOW, intimately, who I am involved with, Robert. The nurses at the hospital regularly set me up with any man who ever stopped to talk with me. Why, even William has been a suspect!"

"Even William?" Robert sounded faintly surprised, and he nuzzled by her ear, blowing lightly and sending shivers through her. "Catherine?"

"Hmmm?" Her fingers tightened on his as she tilted her head to give him better access to her ear.

"Who is William?" his tongue traced the delicate skin behind her ear and began its descent down her neck. "My rival for your ... love?"

"W-William?" Again her breath caught, and she closed her eyes and swallowed hard before speaking, punctuating her words with soft kisses on the hand she was still holding. "He's a friend. Just ... a friend. William and ... Marina. His wife ..." As she spoke, she twisted in his arms and pressed against him, her lips seeking and finding his.

When they at last broke the kiss, he murmured huskily, "Is it the same for you? The wonder that it is possible to fall in love for the second time? Can you feel how much I love you?"

"I can feel how ready you are to love me," Catherine whispered with a faint smile as she rubbed her body against his.

He groaned and crushed her closer. "Don't tease like that, Catherine. I've waited and longed for this moment too long, wanting you so badly ..."

"I'm not teasing you, Robert," Catherine whispered throatily as she pressed closer to him. "I'm tired of longing and wanting and waiting, too. I want to feel alive again, and I want to feel that way with you. Now."

She revelled in his touch with a primitive abandonment that left her heady with powers she had forgotten she possessed. He laughed, a throaty sound that said he was as aware of his own powers as she was of hers. They were together on earth at this moment to please, to tease, to satisfy. Time slowed and stretched, or maybe it sped up. She wasn't sure, and didn't care. He kissed her desperately, reality blurring until the two became one. The last vision Catherine had was of the flames in the fireplace shooting up higher and higher, then she closed her eyes and let them burst inside her mind.

He rained little kisses on her face while she slowly came to her senses. "God, Robert, I ... I think I ..." she couldn't say anything more.

"Me, too," Robert murmured, "I was going to suggest that we play a game of scrabble while trying to decide what we're going to make for our Christmas dinner, and maybe listen to some of Howard and Millie's Frank Sinatra records, but right now I think it's time you opened your present."

"My present?" Catherine craned her head to look over at the little tree on the table.

"Jaclyn went out and bought it last night. I was ordered to go looking for you today if you didn't stop in at the hospital."

Groaning a little and staggering as he got up, he stretched before reaching for the present. Catherine accepted the large box carefully. "I guess it's not a ring," she murmured, trying to smile. "Oh, Robert, I didn't ..."

"Did you see the label? Michael printed it. He desperately wants a grandma to hug who will respond to his love."

Tears came to Catherine's eyes, and she blinked fiercely as she studied the uneven letters. "To Robin with all our love, Charlie." Her surprise burst out in soft laughter. "Oh, Robert!" she said, again.

"Don't cry, darling," he tenderly wiped the tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks.

Catherine folded her trembling lips tightly as she carefully began to unwrap the box. After easing the tape away from one side, she turned it around.

"Don't tell me you are one of THOSE people!" Robert groaned in frustration. "Just OPEN it!"

Laughing through her tears, Catherine ripped the paper off, then stared, astonished at the neat rows of candles which filled the box.

"I don't know if there are actually a thousand candles there," Robert whispered..

"Robert ..." her voice was almost inaudible. "You remembered ..."

"How could I forget the image?" he asked. "We'll light a thousand candles, and make love all night long ..."

"What if we burn the house down?" She pushed the box aside and put her arms around him.

"We'll build a new one."

"Now?"

"You're right. We're busy now. No sense being careless. We'll light the candles later." Robert wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly when she snuggled up against him. The incredible gift they had shared filled them both with contentment. "I will always love you, Catherine. You brought me back to life." he spoke at last when his heartbeat had slowed.

"I only am here because of you, Robert. We made powerful magic together today, and now we're both alive again, aren't we?" she whispered. "This is what Christmas is all about. Love. New life."

He sighed then stared into her eyes, "Catherine, will you honour me by becoming my wife?"

She swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. "Yes, Robert, I will. Gladly. Lovingly ..."

"SOON!" they said together, and laughed briefly before losing themselves in each other once more.

The conflagration ignited by their loving that Christmas Day and into the night did not burn the house down, but it was their gift of love to each other, and it DID assuage their grief and heartbreak and grant them new life and new love together.