Part 5 ...

"Oh, and Catherine?"

About to hang up the phone, Catherine caught Jaclyn's last whisper. "Yes?"

"I could leave the front door open for you. I'm a VERY sound sleeper! Dad's room is the first one at the top of the stairs. EWW, I can't believe I'm SAYING this! I really can't picture Dad making out, and I REALLY don't want to! But, well, you might want to come and play doctor to a stubborn, irascible old fool ... He really is hurt, although he won't admit it." and Jaclyn hung up quickly.

Catherine stared at the phone in her hand before thoughtfully putting it down. She smiled slowly. Had Jaclyn really just invited her over to 'play doctor' with Robert? In spite of how she was obviously rather squeamish about thinking of her father and Catherine together? Then Catherine's smile faded. Jaclyn had sounded quite serious when she had said that Robert really was hurt.

Torn between what her instincts were screaming for her to do and what her practical side was insisting she SHOULD do, Catherine dithered. She wandered around her living room, but instead of thinking of Tom, it was Robert's image stretched out on the chair snoozing which occupied her mind. Just how badly WAS he hurt? Bruised, no doubt ... and she really couldn't help with bruises ... although she DID have a wonderful salve which would take some of the pain away and hasten the healing ... Yes, Catherine decided abruptly. She owed it to Robert to help him. It was because of her that William had gone over to fight him anyway. Yes, she would go over. Just to talk, and to take him the salve.

Grabbing the container of medicinal salve from her bathroom, Catherine shrugged into her coat, put the salve in her pocket and started out the door. At that moment, her phone rang. She hesitated, then sighed, and went back to check to see who was calling this late. It was Robert!

"Hello," he said, huskily. "Jaclyn just told me you had phoned. Funny thing, she said I didn't need to call you back tonight because you had said to call tomorrow morning, but THEN she said to tell you that she was heading back to Lori's for the night. Any idea what she's planning?"

Catherine caught her breath. Jaclyn obviously really hoped Catherine would go over that night. "Robert? I'll be right over."

"What? No, wait, Catherine! I'm in no shape ..." Robert began to protest, but Catherine disconnected the phone, dropped it into its cradle and practically flew out the door, wanting to get to him as soon as she possibly could.

"It's the middle of the night, Catherine!" Robert met her at the door of his place. She stared in horror at his bruised, puffy face and knew by the way he held himself that he was in a great deal of pain. "Are you insane?" Robert continued. "You have to work tomorrow ..."

"No, I don't. I quit. I have another job starting in a couple of weeks." Catherine said absently, still running her eyes over him and cataloguing his injuries. "Oh, God, Robert, you ARE hurt!"

"What do you mean you quit?" He fell back in surprise and she came in, closing the door behind her. "I'm not hurt that badly. It looks worse than it is."

"It's a long story, I'll tell you later. Take off your shirt."

"Catherine, for God's sake ..."

"Take it off!" she ordered him again.

Sighing, Robert's hands moved to his buttons. Then he paused and looked in disgust at her. "I really would have thought that a DOCTOR would be smart enough to know that coats have buttons precisely because they are meant to be done up!"

"Robert!"

He grinned slyly. "I'll take my shirt off if you'll take yours off ..."

"Don't be ridiculous. You're in no shape to do anything tonight. William must have addled your wits when he hit you if you think otherwise."

"He looks a whole lot worse than I do!" grumbled Robert.

Catherine threw off her coat after taking the salve out of the pocket, and kicked off her boots. "Hurry up. The sooner I get this salve on you, the better you'll feel."

Muttering under his breath, Robert locked the door, then said, "You may as well come in to my bedroom. I ache all over and ..." he brightened a bit and finished smugly, "I probably need a complete body massage."

"We'll see if that's necessary." Catherine said briskly. "Lead on."

He led the way into his bedroom, then stopped in the doorway. "Wait a minute. What do you really mean by saying you quit your job? You're not working for that bastard anymore?"

"No, I'm not. And Robert, I'm SO SORRY he came to you and ... and although normally I don't condone violence, I'm thrilled that you fought him and beat him! He deserves to be maimed for ... never mind. It's a long story, and you need to get this on those bruises." She again brandished the jar of salve.

"Catherine," Robert took her shoulders and carefully touched his lips to her nose. "I love you. I will be proud to marry you and continue to fight your battles ..."

She sighed. "As I keep trying to tell you, I am perfectly capable of fighting my own battles. Take off your shirt."

He folded his arms mutinously and glared at her as best he could with his face so battered. When her frown registered, he sighed and removed his shirt. "What you make me do ..."

"I'm more concerned right now with fixing what William did to you because of me," she murmured, examining his bruised body with compassion. "Oh, God, Robert, I wish I HAD kneed him when I had the chance!"

"That sounds like a story to hear ..."

"Maybe later. Lie down."

"Most of the bruises are on my front, not my back," he said helpfully as he stretched out on the bed.

Catherine grinned. "Oh, I plan to find every one," she promised, and bent over him, kissing each bruise on his face very gently, then putting some salve carefully and tenderly on it. "This salve is a topical analgesic, so even just putting it on and NOT rubbing it will help ... almost like an anaesthetic."

"Whatever you say ... Catherine, I want to hear what happened today at work to make you quit ... and make William come looking for a fight!"

"Can't I finish putting this on? You'll really feel more comfortable."

With a defeated sigh, Robert closed his eyes. "Go ahead, then."

Again kissing the bruises gently before anointing them with the medicated salve, Catherine moved down his bare chest, her fingers massaging him, soothing him, loving him.

Then Robert spoke again. "NOW may I hear the story?"

Catherine sighed, then unemotionally told him what William had been saying all week, and what he had done that afternoon. Robert started to rise, swearing and saying, "I'll KILL him! I swear, Catherine, he deserves to be CASTRATED so that he won't think with that part of his anatomy any more! And you know that's not an idle threat, because every man cringes to even THINK of that happening!"

"I have a hunch that Marina might feel exactly the same way you do ... and I'm sure she will find an effective punishment, Robert. Please, can we forget him? I don't have to see him again. I resigned, remember."

"Tell me about this new job."

"Please, Robert, roll over and I'll massage some of this salve into your back." He did as ordered, and as she smoothed the soothing medication on his shoulders, she gently kneaded the muscles in his shoulders and back, relaxing him as she told him about the phone call from the administrator of the new hospital unit, and how she had been offered the position as Head Pediatrician.

"I'm so proud of you, my love," Robert said drowsily. "Please ... marry me. Let's start the new year with a new life together."

Catherine continued her massage. "We'll see, Robert. I still need time. I'm still not sure about your children ..."

"Hmmm," was all Robert said. By the way his body was relaxed, she knew he had gone to sleep.

Bending down, Catherine kissed his shoulder and, knowing he couldn't hear her, murmured, "Good night, my love. My hero. My world. I hope Lori will accept me as Jaclyn seems to have ..." Then she curled up by his side and fell into a healing sleep as well.

They both slept long and heavily, then awoke entwined together. For a brief moment, neither was sure exactly WHY they were together, then memory came flooding back. By means of light touches and kisses, they both assured themselves of the other's well-being, although Catherine's heart cried at the sight of the bruises on Robert's arms and chest, and in particular the one along his jawline.

"Are you feeling any better this morning?" Catherine asked softly.

"Well, I can move without cringing from the pain." Robert tested his statement by stretching. Then he said, "But since I don't plan to go to work today, know what I'd like to do?"

"I think I can guess," Catherine smiled, snuggling closer.

"Well, that too," he agreed with a laugh. "But what I was thinking originally was that we should go back to Shelby Manor today. I called yesterday and Sarah is going to be there today ... and Tom's room is empty again. I thought you might like to, well, visit it again."

"Oh, Robert!" She threw her arms around his neck and tried to keep the tears from flowing. "Oh, I DO love you! Thank you!"

Accordingly, in a couple of hours they were on their way, Robert driving Catherine's vehicle. "Maybe with the MD licence plates, I can park real close to the door!" he grinned.

They stopped to pick up another gift basket for the staff, and when they walked through the doors together, Sarah was at the front desk. She looked up, then beamed at them both. "Dr. Howard! Mr. Woodward! I'm so glad to see you! You must have been the ones who called yesterday!" Then she looked curiously from one to the other, and said thoughtfully, "The last time I saw you two together was Thanksgiving day, when you drove off into the blizzard!"

"It was certainly one special night, that Thanksgiving!" Robert chuckled. "SHE put us in the ditch before we even got half-way home!"

"I remember your son-in-law was here looking for you that night," Sarah agreed. "That was a rough weekend for you, Mr. Woodward. I'm so sorry about your wife."

"Thank you, Sarah. I am, too. Catherine, er, Dr. Howard was wondering if she might ..." he began.

"You can go on up, Dr. Howard," Sarah nodded to her, understanding immediately what it was that Catherine was hoping to hear. "It's empty. I understand you were by on Christmas Eve. That must have been hard, finding it occupied."

"Oh, it was, Sarah," Catherine agreed. "But it was that night that my whole life changed, when I got a phone call from the hospital that there was an emergency and it turned out to be Robert's grand-daughter on her way, a little early. But she's fine. And how is YOUR daughter now?"

"Just fine, too," beamed Sarah.

"Good. I ... I think I'll go up now. I'll be back shortly." Catherine squeezed Robert's arm, then turned and headed for the stairs, leaving Robert to tell Sarah about little Mary Beth, and give her the gift basket he had carried in.

"There's tea when you're finished!" Sarah called out to Catherine, who waved her acknowledgement and continued on her way.

Slipping into the room where she had spent so many hours, first with Tom and then alone as she mourned his death, Catherine looked around, then went over to the window and sat looking out at the familiar view. "Tom?" she whispered. "I know you are aware of everything. I want to thank you for all you ever did for me, for loving me so much that I could not turn love away when I found it again."

Warmth flooded through her, and her tears gathered. He understood. He had always understood her. She had never thought to ever find another man she could love as much as she loved Tom, but her feelings for Robert were living proof that miracles can and do happen. Hearing someone open the door, she turned and looked. It was Robert, with a small bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand.

"May I come in? I'm looking for a vase," he said huskily.

Catherine stood up, her tears glittering in her eyes. "Do I look like I work here?" she asked, and her breath caught in her throat as he came closer to her and enfolded her in his arms.

"It's all right, Catherine. It's all right to cry. You loved him as I loved Mary Beth." His voice broke, and she realized that tears were clogging his throat as well.

"Oh, Robert," she sobbed fiercely into his shoulder for a minute, then clung to him as she managed to regain control. "They would understand ... at least, Tom would, and from what you say about Mary Beth, I think she would, as well. They would understand how wonderful it is that we found each other in our pain and managed to connect and ..."

"Catherine? Are you finally answering my proposal? Are you going to marry me, Catherine?" Robert's hands held her back from him for a moment and he studied her tear-streaked face.

"I'll come with you to Lori's for New Year's Eve," Catherine said softly. "I'll talk with Lori and Jaclyn. Then we'll see."

"What about tonight and tomorrow night? You're going to make me wait THAT LONG for an answer? Catherine, I'm not in any shape to suffer further! You can't do this to me!"

Catherine's lips curved into a lovely smile and she lightly caressed the bruise on his jaw, then trailed her hands down his shoulders. "Well, I might see my way clear to ... putting some more salve on you..."

He kissed her lips lightly a couple of times, then she leaned into him and with their lips, they made promises and commitments that Catherine was not willing to voice aloud until she had had a chance to speak with Lori. She truly felt she owed the younger woman that much, although she wasn't sure why. Perhaps because it WAS so soon after Mary Beth's death, perhaps because of Jaclyn's capitulation after their talk. Even though Jaclyn seemed to think Lori was too occupied with her own family to think of her father's 'straying', Catherine was determined to start off on the right foot with her. After all, both Jaclyn and Lori would be her step-daughters if and when she married Robert!

Then Robert disentangled himself gently and said, "Look, I brought you these forget-me-nots, then dropped them all over the floor!"

They laughed and both bent to pick up the flowers. "Shall we ask Sarah for a vase?" Catherine asked.

When they got back to Robert's house, Jaclyn and Lori were waiting for them. "We hope you don't mind," Lori said, avoiding Catherine's eyes for the moment, "but we decided we'd all have supper here tonight. Jeff has Michael and will be here in about ten minutes."

"Jeff has Michael? Isn't he back with you?" Robert asked, puzzled.

"Jeff IS back with me, yes," Lori said. "He just took Michael with him to the store. We ran out of lettuce."

"Oh, I see."

"May I help with supper?" Catherine asked Robert's daughters, ignoring Robert's surprised look. After all, he KNEW she couldn't cook! However, he should realize that this would be a good time for her to speak with Lori. Since he didn't say anything, she assumed he HAD reached that conclusion.

"Sure, come on in." Jaclyn dragged Catherine down to the kitchen. "Well?" she asked, the minute the three of them were alone.

"Well, what?" Catherine raised her eyebrows.

"Jaclyn, I TOLD you ..." Lori began.

"It's okay. SHE'S okay. We want to hear what happened last night and today. Not the gory details," Jaclyn grimaced. "Just the highlights. Did you come here last night? Dad actually looks a LOT better. If you DID come, you must be a great doctor!"

Catherine smothered a laugh as the colour rose in her face. "I, er, yes, I did come last night. I have a medicated salve which works wonders on bruises ..."

"And?"

"Jaclyn!" Lori protested again.

"Today your father took me back to Shelby Manor." Catherine said, looking from Jaclyn to Lori. They both looked taken aback, but neither said anything. Questions were teaming in their eyes, however. "My husband died there last year. Both your father and I needed to ... come to terms with both Tom's death and your mother's. We needed to think about them, and about us, and the two of you, and YOUR family, Lori ..."

Now tears were gathering in Lori's eyes. "I wondered if you had just forgotten Mom," she admitted.

"How could we?" Catherine asked gently. "Your father loved her so much, even more than either of you did, I expect. In a different way, of course. But no, we haven't forgotten her. Nor have we forgotten Tom. We loved them, and they loved us. Love doesn't just end because the physical body is gone. Don't you see? It's because of our love for Tom and Mary Beth that we were able to find each other, to find love again. There's no limit to how much love one person can have. You should know that, Lori. I'm sure you don't love Michael any less now that you have little Mary Beth to love."

Lori shook her head, unable to speak. She clung to Jaclyn's hand. Catherine noted the tears running down Jaclyn's cheeks. Then Jaclyn asked, "You ARE going to marry Dad, aren't you?"

"I would love to," Catherine said, "but I won't unless you agree."

"It's so soon!" Lori moaned, her tears spilling over now.

"Time really doesn't mean much when it comes to love, Lori," Catherine reminded her. "Yes, we could wait. We could just ... live together." She saw the girls' eyes widen at the thought. "But that's not what either of us want. Our generation needs the commitment, needs the recognition of the rest of society ... and your father and I need each other in our lives to fulfill an emptiness that has existed within each of us since Tom and your mother died. I love him, Jaclyn and Lori. I love him a great deal. But if you can't accept me as your father's wife, then ..." she swallowed before continuing bravely, "then I won't marry him."

"Oh! I always liked you, from what little I knew of you!" Lori hugged Catherine tightly. "And then, you saved little Mary Beth for us ... how can I NOT accept you? That would be too cruel to you AND to Dad! I see that now."

Jaclyn joined in the hug and the three cried a little more. When Robert walked into the room, he was taken aback. "What's the matter?" he asked sharply.

"Nothing, Dad!" Lori said, wiping her tears and laughing a bit.

"We're just welcoming Catherine to the family," Jaclyn added.

They pulled Robert in to the hug as well, and as Robert's arms went around Catherine, her voice trembled as she said to Jaclyn and Lori, "Thank you for accepting me."

"Thank YOU for accepting US!" Jaclyn grinned.

"Does this mean you're going to marry me?" Robert asked Catherine tentatively.

Catherine laughed through her tears, and so did Lori and Jaclyn. "Yes!" the three said together. Then Catherine added, "I'll be proud and honoured to marry you, Robert."

"When?" was his immediate question. "As soon as possible? Monday?"

Laughing and agreeing, Catherine said, "I love you. Robert, I love you so much ... I'll marry you whenever you say! But yes, Monday would be good because that will give me a whole week to enjoy life with you as my husband before I have to start work again."

She pressed a kiss on his lips which he deepened, and in moments, Jaclyn and Lori were both forgotten as Robert and Catherine expressed their abiding love, straining to get ever closer to one another while their heartbeats and breathing speeded up.

Catherine barely registered Jaclyn's exaggerated "EEEUUUWWW! Can't you two get a room?", Lori's "JACLYN! WHAT are you telling them to do? YUCK! DAD?", then the giggles of the two sisters as they escaped from the kitchen, laughing and saying they had a lot of planning to do if the wedding was going to be in just a couple of days.

That night, Robert took Catherine back to the cabin for the first time since the day after Christmas. He had to leave his truck on the road because the lane down to the cabin wasn't plowed and the wind had put deep, impassible finger-drifts across it. Finding the path a little icy, Catherine wondered vaguely if she had had too much to drink. Jeff had insisted on opening a bottle of wine to have with their meal.

At that point she slipped on the ice, and Robert swept her up in his arms. She hooked her arms around his neck. "Really, Robert, you don't have to carry me!"

"Hush," he said, breathing hard. She began to worry if perhaps he was over-exerting herself. Being a cardiologist, she did not want him to have a heart attack carrying her!

"Robert, put me down," she said in a matter-of-fact tone, not twisting too much in case she caused him to slip on the ice himself.

"Just shut up and let me be macho, okay?" He tempered his words with a brief smile. Then he concentrated, breathing heavily, all the way to the porch of the cabin. When he set her on her feet inside the lean-to door, he doubled over, making a show of gasping for air.

Catherine had to smile, but she pretended outrage and put her hands on her hips belligerently. "You certainly know how to make a woman feel feminine and petite! Do I seem grossly overweight to you?"

Robert straightened up and winked, no worse for wear after his exertions. "Not at all!" he leered at her. "You're perfect in every way! Perfect for me!" They stepped into the main part of the cabin, and almost before the door closed behind them, their coats had been discarded and Catherine was plastered against him, kissing him desperately.

"What is it about this doorway? It seems that the moment we walk in, you want me begging you to touch me!" Catherine's breath was ragged.

"You ARE clever, Catherine, my love!" He kissed her deeply.

Though it was frosty and cold outside, they were both soon warm and sweaty. Catherine's heart continued to gallop with his. She looked over at the sofa bed he had opened out when they had been here Christmas Day. "You don't think we're too old for antics like this?" Catherine asked at last.

"Do you feel too old?" He still held her close, uncaring that they standing just inside the door of the cabin.

"No," she admitted. "But I think I SHOULD feel too old!" She frowned at him when he laughed.

"I can't leave you alone again," Robert explained. "And do you know what is best of all about having you by my side?"

She shook her head, her eyes shining from the tears that were gathering.

Robert drew her closer, and said, "Talking with you, sharing the little and the big things of the day ... simply BEING with you! I love you so much, Catherine."

"Oh, Robert, I'm not sure what I did to deserve you, but I love you, too!"

For a few moments, the only sounds in the cabin were low murmurs and soft gasps, then Robert made the supreme effort and stepped back from Catherine, saying, "I think we need champagne to celebrate our upcoming marriage!"

"I don't need more to drink," Catherine's eyes were shining. "I think I'm drunk on your kisses and your love!"

"The champagne is already out in the snowbank, chilling. Actually, I had it all out there on Christmas, and forgot about it!"

She laughed. "You'll be lucky if it's not FROZEN out there!"

"Never mind that. I'll be back in a minute."

Robert dug the champagne out of the snowbank and found the glasses, filling them and handing one to Catherine. They touched their glasses together, and said softly, "To us."

Robert added, "To ageless love."

They both sipped the frosty drink, their eyes never leaving each other's. Catherine acknowledged at that point that she was willing to have him possess her completely; not just her body but her heart and soul as well. She was helpless to stop the invasion, and realized she didn't want to stop him, ever. She loved him as much as he loved her.

The next morning, flat on her stomach, replete and sated after a night of the most erotic lovemaking she had ever known, Catherine eased awake by slow degrees. She smiled as she rolled over onto her back and stretched. He loved her. Yes, they still had much to talk about, but what they had done last night, how he had made her feel ... she badly wanted to give him whatever he wanted. She was more than ready to admit now that she wanted the same thing he did, a new life in the new year for both of them. Together.

THE END! (... and the beginning for them ...)