Christmas Eve Contemplations

Disclaimer: Not the characters, nor circumstances nor even the original idea for this story belong to me (see note below!), but since I'm not making any money on it, probably not too many people care.

Note: I maybe wrote most of the actual words here, but the credit, some portions of it and many thanks go to Sue for the push, the idea and the unofficial permission to do this story!

"Lori? Lori, what is it?" Robert hurried into the living room where his daughter was hunched over on a chair, groaning.

"Sorry, Dad," she panted, "I've just got really bad cramps. I'm glad Michael's still over at Jeff's."

"Lori?" Jaclyn joined her sister and father. "Are you still feeling sick? You haven't felt good all day!"

"Yeah. I've spent more time in the bathroom this afternoon than I should have! I hate the stomach flu, especially when it comes with diarrhea! I was supposed to get all these presents organized for Michael while Jeff had him, but ... oohhhh," she grimaced and clutched her stomach again, then made a beeline for the bathroom where the others could hear her vomiting again.

Robert and Jaclyn exchanged looks, then ran for the bathroom when Lori cried out again. "Oh, God, now I'm bleeding a bit!" She looked up them piteously, her face tear-stained. "I really don't feel good. These cramps must have shaken the baby up or something."

"I'm taking you to the hospital," Robert said abruptly. "No point in taking chances!"

"Dad, it's Christmas Eve! I'll never see a doctor anyway, and I HAVE to be here for Michael!" Lori protested.

Jaclyn, however, fetched Lori's coat, her eyes worried as she helped her older sister. "You go! We don't want to take any chances with this baby!"

"It's too EARLY for the baby! I've got another month to go!"

"Let them tell you that. I'll stay here and wait for Jeff to bring Michael home. Dad, look after her and call me when you know anything, okay?" Jaclyn almost pushed them out the door.

"Sure, honey. Come on." Robert helped Lori into the truck. Her face was pale and she held her protruding stomach as she grimaced with pain again.

In no time at all, they were pulling up to the Emergency entrance of St. Mary's hospital. Robert ran in and got a wheelchair for Lori, who couldn't walk anymore for the pain that was now coming in waves. He left her with a nurse at the door, went back to his truck, parked then ran back into the hospital, his eyes wild.

"Where is she?" he demanded at the admitting desk. "My daughter Lori was just brought in ..."

"She has been taken up to Obstetrics for some tests," the receptionist began, then she called after him as he rushed over to the elevators, "Wait, sir, you can't ...!"

The doors closed behind him, and Robert almost held his breath willing the elevator to move faster. He pushed them open and staggered over to the nurses station. "What is it? What's wrong with Lori? It's not the baby, is it? It's too early!"

A nurse took his arm and tried to calm him down. "We're hooking her up to some monitors now."

"What doctor is here?"

"There isn't one here at the moment, but if the situation warrants one to be called ..." she began.

"I want Cath ... Dr. Howard! Call her, please! Call her. Tell her she's needed."

"Dr. Howard isn't on call ..."

"I don't give a damn! This is my grandchild we're talking about! Call Dr. Howard! I know her. She'll come. Tell her it's Robert Woodward. Tell her I'm BEGGING her to come!"

"Very well, sir, we'll see if we can contact her ..." the nurse gave up in face of his distraught behaviour.

Moments later, Robert was interrupted mid-pace by another nurse. "Mr. Woodward? Your daughter is in premature labour due to a and the baby is experiencing some problems. We've called a doctor ..."

"Catherine? Dr. Howard?"

"Yes. She's on her way."

Robert sagged with relief momentarily. Catherine would come! Then his worry for Lori rose again. "How's Lori? Can I see her?"

"I'm sorry, sir. That won't be possible. We'll keep you posted. Is there anyone you could phone? Your son-in-law perhaps?"

Robert turned away without answering. Jeff? After he had abandoned Lori and Michael for a fling? Lori had told him the whole story just last week, and asked his opinion of Jeff's repeated apologies and requests for forgiveness and reinstatement in her life. And yet ... Robert wondered about his own 'fling' that past Thanksgiving. It had been completely innocent, unplanned and unwanted ... but it had happened. In the face of his own emotions, how could Robert continue to refuse Jeff's supposed change-of-heart if Lori was ready to accept her erring husband back? Yes, circumstances were very different, but still ...

At last Robert halted his pacing and went to phone Jaclyn to pass on what little news he knew. After hanging up, Robert sat on the edge of his seat in the waiting room, keeping an eye out for the elevators down the hall in case he could see Catherine coming in. Catherine. He hadn't seen her for a month. He should not be feeling so excited about it, especially considering the circumstances. He really WAS very worried about Lori and the baby! But ... CATHERINE!

O o O o O o

Catherine got into her SUV parked in front of Shelby Manor, holding herself together with all the strength and self-control she could muster. She put the key in the ignition, and at that moment her grief overwhelmed her. She sobbed bitterly for Tom, for herself and for the unfairness of not being able to sit in Tom's old room just for a few moments on Christmas Eve. She hadn't been here since Thanksgiving, and now, tonight of all times ... Catherine put her hands on the steering wheel and her forehead down and gave in to her desolation. Not only had she not been able to sit in Tom's room, but Mary Beth Woodward was no longer a patient there! Had she been avoiding Shelby Manor for no reason? The fact that the woman she had never met had obviously been well enough to go home meant, too, the death of Catherine's vague dreams about Robert. He belonged to Mary Beth. Catherine had no right to ever think of him again. They had simply been two strangers who had spent a night sheltering from a storm and getting to know each other a little better. Two ships passing in the night, as the saying went. Her hopes that perhaps she had found someone whom she could love and who could love her in return for who she was had just been shattered. With a final effort, Catherine sat up again, sniffing and wiping her cheeks with the back of her hand. She could not POSSIBLY be crying over something she had never really had! No, she MUST be crying for Tom and for herself trying to live without HIM.

Her phone rang at that moment. It seemed that, even here, she could not be alone. Trying to choke back her tears, Catherine fumbled for the cell phone and answered it, knowing that it was most probably the hospital and she was needed there. At least she was still needed SOMEWHERE, she thought morosely. Her self-pity vanished, however, upon hearing about the preemie and mother in danger. Pushing her personal emotions beneath her professional exterior, Catherine drove to the hospital.

Striding quickly down the hallway, she took off her coat and questioned the nurse who met her. Then her professional aura was severely threatened at the sound of his voice calling her name. Catherine stopped, disbelieving. Robert? She turned and he was there, explaining why he had had her called.

There was no time to think about herself. Barriers to her vulnerable inner being were again erected, and Catherine touched Robert's arm lightly. "I'll get back to you as soon as I can." she said, after hearing that the mother and baby emergency were his daughter and grandchild. She disappeared around a corner to get scrubbed up.

When Catherine hurried into the labour room, Lori was being prepped for a caesarian. Jeff came barrelling into the room moments later and the nurses tried to remove him, but Catherine spoke up for him, and he stayed by Lori's side. Catherine gritted her teeth hearing him demand that Lori forgive him, and Lori's weak, "Okay." After the little bit that Robert had known and had told her at Thanksgiving, she had formed an opinion of the man which had only partially been revised upon meeting Jeff the next morning. She hoped she had gotten the wrong impression then, and perhaps she had. After all, he WAS here with Lori now, when it counted. Then the baby was lifted out, and Catherine went to work.

Lori and Jeff's daughter, at thirty-four weeks, had a good chance at life, if they could get that life started. With every firm massage of her fingers on the tiny girl's chest, Catherine prayed that the baby would live: for Lori and Jeff, for Robert, and for herself.

O o O o O o

She had come. He had known she would. She had come, and she would save the baby. He knew that, too. Because Catherine was with Lori and the baby, Robert knew that all would be well. He had even pointed Jeff in the right direction and let his son-in-law go on in without him. She was here. Robert poured himself a cup of coffee and stood looking out the window on the gathering darkness. What a glorious Christmas this was! He would speak with her, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after. But he would speak with her and his world, which had been crazily tipped since Thanksgiving, would right itself. Robert was euphoric.

"Robert?" Catherine was there, her eyes cool as she looked at him without really seeing him or allowing him to see her. She gave him the news of his grand-daughter succinctly and turned to go.

Desperate to hold on to her for even a few seconds more, Robert called after her retreating figure, "How ... how have you been?"

She stopped and looked back. "Fine. Fine. And you?"

He shrugged. "Okay. I ... I was hoping to run into you."

Catherine distanced herself from him. She couldn't understand why he was keeping her here, torturing her like this. Didn't he realize ...? But no, how COULD he realize? That one special night hadn't seemed to mean as much to him as it had to her, obviously. If he had REALLY wanted to 'run into her', he would have been at Murray's that Sunday!

"Did you go?" was his next question. "To Murray's," he added when she didn't answer right away.

What should she answer? What was he expecting her to say? She could not tell him that she HAD gone, had waited for him and had been devastated when he had not appeared! "Oh, you know what? I forgot! I got so busy ..."

"Oh ..."

The look on his face almost annoyed her. How dare HE look so disappointed? Had he really expected her to bewail the fact that she had gone and sat waiting for him, humiliating herself in front of Murray? "Did YOU?" she asked, knowing he could not say yes.

"I was there."

THAT was unexpected. "You WERE?" She stared at him suspiciously. "You were there?" He was LYING to her now? This was unconscionable! Catherine wondered if she had ever really known the true Robert Woodward, or if she had built up his image in her head and, well, fallen in love with a figment of her own imagination!


Catherine almost shook her head in incredulity. She dropped her hand from her hair and walked towards him, still questioning him on the off chance that she had misunderstood. "At Murray's? On Main? On Sunday?"

Now Robert looked surprised by her disbelief. "Yes!" Then he shrugged and smiled a little sadly. "I got called away, but I was there!"

Catherine's skeptical expression relaxed into one that he interpreted as faintly derisive. She changed the subject. "I have to go." and began to leave the room again.

"When can I see you?" he called after her in desperation.

She stopped and turned, sighing. "I don't know. It's a very busy time of year."

Robert knew she was making excuses, but he still wasn't sure why. It had something to do with Murray's. Why was SHE upset? She hadn't even BEEN there! At least he had made the attempt! "Yeah, well, I know I should have called, but ..."

Catherine stopped him. "I understand," she said, coolly. "I HAVE to go!"

"Ahh ..." once more Robert's voice stopped her. He fumbled for something to say, then said something about going away for Christmas to his vacation home, and finished suggestively, "maybe when I get back?"

"Sure!" Catherine smiled, knowing she could come up with an excuse later, and needing to rush away. She was stunned to find herself inwardly shaking at the betrayal of who she had thought Robert was. How COULD he have lied to her? She made it out the door only to hear him call her name again. With great effort, she moved back into the door of the room, looking at him almost impatiently.

"She may be the one ..." he said simply. Catherine stared at him, puzzled. He elaborated, "Special child you were meant to save."

Catherine trembled as his words sank in. Oh, God, how she had loved him for having said that in the cabin, and how she loved him even more now for repeating it and ... Wait. He was married. MARRIED! She had no right to love him. Oh, God, this was ridiculous. She had to get back to Lori and stop all this nonsense about her feelings for Lori's father! "Well, it's Christmas Eve. It's the right night for it." She tried to shrug off what she had done for the baby as being just her job.

They stared at each other for another second, then Catherine was gone, leaving Robert to his thoughts.

O o O o O o

That night, Robert lay in bed and went over the events of the past month. He remember how, the day after Thanksgiving, he had returned to the cabin to look for Catherine's necklace. He had had hopes that he might see her there, knowing she had been adamant about finding it. But her car was gone from the ditch and she was nowhere in sight. He had parked his truck not far from the cabin, and had noted by the smoke coming from the chimney that the owners were in residence. Resolving to stop in and explain the previous night, Robert had then walked back slowly along the road, eyes darting to both sides. Sure enough, shortly before the place she had fallen face first into the snow, he had found part of the necklace sticking out of the snowbank on the side. Gratefully he had dug it out, then had hurried back and had slid down the hill to where they had found the tractor. There he had untied her scarf from the tree and had stuffed it into his pocket along with the broken chain and necklace.

Now he wondered if the moment she had fallen flat on her face had been when he had begun to see her as human rather than an automaton. It had taken much more of his teasing before she had shed the rest of her condescending, incredibly irritating, holier-than-thou attitude, but that moment seemed almost the turning point for him. She had been so ... so cute, berating him, then falling down mid-word. And he had felt such admiration for her, bravely getting up and carrying on as if nothing had happened, although he knew the fall had to have hurt not only her dignity but her body as well.

The Catherine of the time she had lost the necklace and abandoned her scarf would have scoffed at his following actions, but the Catherine of the morning after their one special night would doubtless understand. That day after Thanksgiving, after finding the scarf and necklace, Robert had approached the cabin, had knocked on the door and had introduced himself to the young man who had answered. Philip had come to the cabin that morning to clear out his grandmother's personal effects since she had been admitted to Shelby Manor and had known she would not be coming back home. It had been up to Philip to make arrangements with a realtor to sell the place.

In the month since then, Robert had never regretted his impulsive actions that morning. He had explained to Philip what he had done when breaking in the night before for shelter, then had offered to buy the place as it was. Philip was welcome to take anything he or his grandmother wanted, naturally, but Robert had been willing to buy everything, including the woman's bathrobe in which he still frequently pictured Catherine as she crowed over beating him in scrabble or comforted him when he spoke of his dying wife.

Mary Beth's death had put his life in limbo for about three weeks, dealing with all the issues which always arise in those times. He had spent hours talking and crying with his daughters as they had tried to put the past behind them and move on. One day, Lori had found the scarf and necklace with the broken chain on his dresser and had asked him about them, saying she couldn't remember her mother ever wearing them. That was the day thoughts of Catherine had chased away the mists of his mind. He had muttered that they belonged to Cath – Dr. Howard, not their mother. Then he had sat down with Lori and Jaclyn, holding the necklace and scarf, and had told them the story of that one special night and the special person he had met.

"Oh, I probably never told you, but guess what? We know her," Lori added, looking at Jaclyn. "Remember when we used to go out for Hallowe'en, and that big white house by the river where we always got the Hershey chocolate bars? That's HER!"

"You mean, SHE is a doctor? SHE'S the one who put her car in the ditch so she and Dad had to walk? The HERSHEY lady? Are you positive?" Jaclyn was incredulous. She turned to Robert for assurance, but he shrugged apologetically. In those days, Mary Beth had gone trick-or-treating with the girls and he had stayed home to give out candy.

"So, what are you going to do with these now?" Jaclyn poked the scarf, then trailed the broken chain through her fingers.

"She's probably got more than one scarf," Lori said, "but she might want the necklace."

"Yes, Cather ... Dr. Howard DID indicate it meant something to her. I believe her husband gave it to her for their twenty-fifth anniversary." Robert sat looking at it for a moment, then he made up his mind. "I'm going to take the necklace in to the jewellers to get it repaired, then I'll give them back to her."

Both girls looked at him speculatively, but neither said a word.

"What?" he asked defensively. "I'm just returning her property!"

"But you bought that cabin, didn't you? The one you stayed in that night." Jaclyn said slowly. "Dad, did you ... do you ...? Oh, never mind." She blushed and looked away.

Lori looked down at her fingers twisting together in her lap and said softly, "Have you seen her since Thanksgiving, Dad?"

"No," he said, rather shortly. "And I haven't talked with her, either."

The silence was deafening. Then Jaclyn said in a small voice, "Have you ever met her husband? What is he like?"

"I never met him ... and he died last year."

"I see ..." Jaclyn looked helplessly at Lori who stubbornly wouldn't look up.

"It's no big deal," Robert finally said, impatiently. "I'm just going to get the necklace fixed and return it and the scarf sometime. I have no plans to make a special point of seeing her. We'll just see what happens."

"Well, it IS your life," Lori said, slowly.

"Thank you for that!" Robert almost growled. He picked up the gold chain and put it in his pocket. "I'll just take it now – I'm on my way to the site to check on something."

He had had the necklace repaired, and both necklace and scarf were still sitting on his dresser ready to return them sometime. He hoped that sometime would be very soon.

Rolling over and thumping his pillow, Robert stared into the darkness. It had been wonderful to see Catherine tonight. Despite the circumstances, she had looked lovely. Guarded, of course, and anxious to be away from him ... but lovely all the same. Even more gorgeous than he had remembered. He thought maybe she had done something different with her hair. Anyway, he was sure that she would be happy to get her necklace back, and wondered if she had ever gone back to look for it. Yes, she would gasp in surprise when she opened the box to see it, and happiness would shine softly in her beautiful blue eyes. From what he had seen, she had lost weight in the last month. Probably she had been working too hard. She needed ... she needed picking up. He grinned. Just as he had said that one special night ... His grin faded. That had been the first time that Thanksgiving night that he had felt the incredibly strong urge to crush her lips under his. It had not been the last.

He had been so close to breaking his wedding vows a number of times that night. The way she had trembled in his arms, the look in her eyes, the slight quiver of her lips ... Robert groaned. Oh God, he had wanted to taste her! He had made the effort and put her down, almost running away from her. Both of them had worked at getting back to their previous relationship, but it had been hard. The games of scrabble had helped ease the tension in the air, but when they had started talking about Murray's, then agreed to meet for pancakes on Sunday morning and shook on it, the tension had fairly crackled again. He had wanted to tug on her hand, to pull her slowly over to him, to search out her secrets and give and receive the pleasure he had known they could find together. The chemistry had been right ... and it still WAS right! Wasn't it? Hadn't there been a spark of happiness in her eyes when he had said that his grand-daughter might be the one special child she was meant to save? Dared he believe that the hum of anticipation he had felt surging through him tonight was echoed in her?

Robert groaned again, twisting in the sheets on the bed. He hadn't been this bothered in YEARS! He debated getting up, but didn't want to disturb Jaclyn or Michael. He wondered if Jeff had ever left the hospital. He wondered if Jaclyn would agree to taking the small Christmas tree and their presents over to the hospital first thing in the morning so they could have some family time with Lori before he ... He thumped his pillow again, and sighed. He wondered if Catherine would come to the hospital in the morning while they were there. Lori had said Catherine planned to check on them first thing in the morning. Robert decided that if Catherine did not show up while they were with Lori, he would track her down and return her property. He also hoped to convince her to come with him, back to the cabin, to what he hoped would become THEIR vacation home, to where he had stored the thousand candles he had bought in the last week. He wanted to make her fantasy about Robin and whatever-she-had-called-him a reality. He wanted to light all of the damned candles and make love to Catherine all night long and not worry about the cabin burning down. Hell, he wanted to marry her so they could continue making love, and arguing, and making up by making love for the rest of their lives.

O o O o O o

Catherine fared no better trying to sleep that Christmas Eve. Dazed by the news that Mary Beth had died the Sunday after Thanksgiving, she had somehow managed to take her leave of Lori and the tiny baby cuddled in her arms and walked down the hall with a slight grin on her face. "He was there!" she said quietly to herself Now she knew why Robert hadn't shown up that Sunday at Murray's. His absence had not meant that he had stood her up. No, that hadn't been the reason at all. His family obligation had come first ... as it should have done. Catherine could not remain angry with Robert. There was no reason to have ever been upset. Had she known, however, she would not have suffered nearly as much as she had for the last month!

When Robert had not shown up at Murray's, she had been crushed. Humiliated. Although she had told herself that he would not be there, she had somehow expected to see him come striding into the restaurant, his abrasive yet bracing comments enlivening her and, well, bringing her back to life. She had tried her best to forget him after that. She had stopped going to Shelby Manor for fear of running into him there again. She had avoided Murray's. She had gone to work early and come home late, and had forced herself to work hard and exercise and walk so that she would be able to collapse into bed and find some easement in sleep. Now she knew he HAD been there ... but he had been called away, just as he had said.

Getting into her SUV, Catherine put a Sarah Vaughn CD in the player and chuckled as she thought of that Thanksgiving night conversation in the car with Robert when he had blatantly shown his distaste for her choice of music. She had bought this new CD the day after Thanksgiving, right after she had bought her SUV. Despite the pain it had caused occasionally when she had thought of Robert, Catherine had found herself enjoying the CD immensely. Robert did have good taste in music.

When Robert had failed to appear at Murray's, Catherine had been determined to keep her anguish a secret from everyone. In fact, she had tried her best to forget him. She never told Marina or William or ANYONE a thing about that one special night. The only time she had come close to mentioning it had been at the children's Christmas party at the hospital, when she had approached William to ask if Robert's assessment of her had been as accurate as she feared it might have been. William had stared back at her, puzzled, had said he thought she had been having too much eggnog, and had gone home and had told his wife that Catherine was finally losing it. Marina had phoned that night, and what she had said had made Catherine realize, with a laugh very close to tears, that William and Marina were both convinced that she was making a play for William.

"We understand how you must feel," Marina said, gently. "It has just been a year. This is a bad time for you, Catherine. But to ask how you appear to a man? What IS all this I hear about being interested and pretending not to be ...? Catherine, I don't want to ask, but I just have to. Are you after my husband?"

"Marina, of COURSE not!" Catherine couldn't believe her ears. "You must know I don't feel that way about William!"

"Well, I hoped not," Marina confessed. "But, Catherine, what IS it all about?"

"I just wondered how I appeared to other people. Not necessarily men, but ... I just wanted to know if I came across as warm and open as I think I am."

There was a pause, then Marina said carefully, "Catherine, I think you TRY to appear open, and yes, you are warm, but, well, most people who look deeper than the smile on your lips notice that there is a barrier in your eyes. I'd say you are walling up your emotions to avoid being hurt again. It's perfectly understandable. I mean, losing Tom like that after so many years and with you two not bothering with kids ... well, I'm sure you are feeling very alone and vulnerable right now. Especially this time of year when everyone is with family."

Catherine was surprised, yet not surprised. She hadn't realized that her unconscious attempt to avoid more pain was that obvious. She felt a pang hearing Marina's view that she and Tom had not 'bothered' with children. It hadn't upset Tom that they were childless. He had merely shrugged and had said that it was just as well they had no children, what with their busy life style. It was funny that no one had ever cared enough to ask her, or perhaps a truer comment was that no one had been as brash as Robert, so no one else had ever brought up the subject. Robert had been the only one to understand her unspoken regret for her childlessness, and he had been the one to heal her inner wounds with the simple comment, "Maybe you weren't meant to have your own. Maybe you were supposed to save one special one."

The glorious truth that had set her free from the guilty secret of dreaming about a married man who had had no intentions of ever meeting with her again blazed through her. Robert HAD been at Murray's! If ONLY she had known at the time! She almost felt like dancing and singing along with Sarah Vaughn. She hadn't stopped smiling since she had left the hospital. Robert had looked so handsome standing in the waiting room and drinking that awful hospital coffee. She had tried so very hard to be professional and polite. He had kept calling her back when all she had wanted to do was get away. She had not wanted him to know that she had waited for him at Murray's. But now, well, now everything was changed. Maybe, just maybe, Catherine thought ...

When she got home, Catherine debated whether to crawl into bed or sink into a hot bath. Before doing either, she decided to have a glass of wine. Unable to relax even then, she continued to pace restlessly. Why was she suddenly feeling so lonely? Yes, as Marina had said, it was a bad time of year, but this was her second Christmas Eve to be alone. It was fate, she now decided, making her restless with her life. She was questioning her priorities at a time when she really needed all her concentration and effort focussed if she hoped to make it through the Christmas season unscathed. Physical attraction, which she should not even be feeling, was not enough and SHOULD not be enough to distract her.

She settled on the sofa with her glass of wine and wondered just what this all meant. Unbidden memories rose of how it felt to be in Robert's arms. That one time, he had ruthlessly scooped her up and carried her indoors, ignoring her protests that she was perfectly capable of walking in herself. Then, when he had carried her into the porch, he had not let her down right away. Instead, he had stared into her eyes and told her he thought she needed picking up. How could he have known her so well after such a short time? The tension had been palpable. His eyes had moved to her lips and back to her eyes, and she had felt his kiss almost as keenly as if it had been physical. Then he had jumped away from her. Catherine had had to force herself to go back into the cabin after him, and to act as if nothing had happened. She wondered what WOULD have happened if he had kissed her as she knew he had been longing to do. Somehow, she doubted that they would have played scrabble, nor slept platonically together on the old couch in front of the fire.

She had known when they had made their agreement to meet at Murray's and had shaken on it that they were in dangerous territory. Again it had been Robert who had pulled away, Robert who had stood up and had walked around the room trying to think of a way out of the impossible situation they had found themselves in. It had been then that he had told her the truth about Mary Beth, and probably then that he had first admitted to himself the reality. Lying back against the couch, they had warmed their feet by the fire and discussed their childhoods, and what it was like to lose a spouse.

Running her fingers through her hair, Catherine decided she needed sleep, not self-analysis. Yet when she crawled into bed, she couldn't sleep. She was still trying to figure out what exactly she was feeling and what she was expecting to happen now. After all, she and Robert had only had that one evening. Yes, they had talked about their lives and their families. Yes, they had seemed to connect on a deeper level. But that was all that had happened! Why would she even think there ever would or ever could be more? Robert had been lonely and had needed a friend to talk to, someone who understood, someone who had been there. She had gone through the same situation the previous year with Tom. Maybe that was all that Robert had needed, someone to open up to, someone to talk to, someone impersonal and not involved.

Catherine rolled over again. It really was much too soon for Robert to pursue an intimate relationship. It had taken Catherine a good year after Tom died to even look at a man on a personal level and that man had been Robert. Just because she had had her grieving time ... "Oh, Catherine, what are you doing? Just what are you expecting from this?" she grumbled to herself. "The man just lost his wife a month ago. He needs HIS time to grieve."

She thumped her pillow, rolled over once more as she struggled to keep her tears from flowing, whispering into the darkness, "You are such an idiot! Stupid, stupid ..." She pushed the pillow off the bed in her anger at herself. Burying her face in her pillow, she struggled inwardly until she had her feelings under control again. Then, daringly, she allowed herself to wonder what it would be like to be with Robert, fully and completely, with no misunderstandings and nothing else between them. She imagined the heated look that had been in his eyes that one special night. What would it be like now that he was free? She remembered a similar look in his eyes in the waiting room tonight ... a look that had hunger and hope mingled. Oh, God, what was wrong with her? Was she so desperate for a relationship that she was willing to chase a man who had just lost his best friend, lover and mate of many years?

When she finally fell into a restless sleep, Catherine's dreams were a tangle of fantasies, all involving Robert and herself. Early the next morning, she bundled up for her daily walk, needing something to reinvigorate herself after spending a night tossing and turning with thoughts of Robert flooding her mind. The very brisk weather might just do the trick this morning. Today she was glad for the cold winter temperatures that seemed to not be letting up at all lately. As much as Catherine usually enjoyed all four seasons, this winter struck her as being much more intense than usual and she found herself longing for the first days of spring when the birds would be singing and the flowers beginning to bloom. Spring always made Catherine think of new beginnings. Was this possible for her? She desperately needed a new beginning.

As she walked, Catherine reflected that it was almost the New Year as well, another sign for new beginnings. Could Robert be part of her new beginning? Was this a new chapter in her life and in his? Oh, the questions Catherine had! If only she had some answers! All she knew was that she felt SOMETHING for Robert. Everything else was a question. What, exactly, did she feel for him? Deep friendship alone, or could it possibly be love? Was it real, or just brought on because of their propinquity that one special night? Did he have those same feelings? Had he ever REALLY thought of her since their time in the cabin? Again she smiled faintly. Well, he had shown up at Murray's that day, so if nothing else, Robert was or could be a friend. Could he possibly be MORE than a friend? One question just led to other questions ...

"Oh, give up all the thinking and over-analysing and just walk, Catherine!" she commanded herself as she hurried along down the path and right towards Robert's house. Then she smiled upon discovering she had walked right there without even meaning to. She still found it strange that they lived so close to one another, frequented the same establishments and yet had never met before. Life was funny like that. It made one realize that even though at times the world may seem small, sometimes it is just the opposite. Looking up the drive towards his house, Catherine realized that it didn't look as if anyone was home despite the early hour. Where could he be? She supposed they might have gone to the hospital to see the baby and celebrate Christmas as a family, but at this hour it seemed a bit unlikely. Still, if she hurried, she might be able to catch him ... THEM ... all there.

A slight frown came across Catherine's face as she remembered that Robert had said he was leaving for his vacation home for Christmas and would like to talk when he returned. Why would he be leaving on Christmas Day when his family was right here and his daughter had just given birth? Would he not postpone his vacation until after the holidays so he could spend the time with his family? He had claimed to be quite the family man, so why…?

An unwelcome thought suddenly occurred to Catherine. Could Robert possibly be taking someone to his vacation home with him? If he were to do that, the someone must be important to make him leave his family, especially while his daughter and new grand daughter were still in the hospital.

"Oh, what an idiot you are, Catherine!" she said softly to herself. "What a fool you are! Do you really delight in torturing yourself like this?" She turned around, braced herself against the wind and headed back down the path in the direction from which she had come.

With all those thoughts on her mind and with every intention of trying to forget about Robert as best she could, Catherine headed off to the hospital to check on little Mary Beth and her mother as promised. There, her whole world would change …. thanks to one special man.

THE END. (Well, their beginning! LOL)