"Merry Christmas, Millie."

"Merry Christmas... Howard."

Robert took Catherine firmly in his arms and she waited for his kiss, a little furrow in her brow at the faint uneasiness she was feeling with the whole situation. It was too soon for her, even if Tom HAD been gone for over a year... and it was definitely too soon for him! But oh, how she had dreamt about this moment! Then his lips touched hers, and his kiss was everything she had hoped for... every forbidden fantasy fulfilled. Her eyes drifted closed. He deepened the contact, she responded fervently, and in a moment they were both lost.

Finally they took a breath, arms still tightly around each other, holding each other closely, eyes closed in wonder that the other truly did have the same feelings. There was the added factor that neither was sure of actually being able to stand alone, since the kissage had been spectacular, knee-buckling and mind-blowing.

"Robert ... are we really doing the 'swept-away' thing... at our age?" Catherine questioned him at last, her breathing still quick and her heart still pounding.

"I don't know what you're doing, but I'm living out an ancient fantasy that I'm only seventeen!" He buried his face in her neck and sucked hard on her skin, then licked the spot to soothe it again.

Catherine had to chuckle even as her body reacted to his delicious teasing. She knew what she wanted, knew what she felt... and she knew exactly how much trouble two adults could get into if they really worked at it. It seemed that Robert was more than willing to work at it and she really couldn't muster up any logical objection even if she had been so inclined.

Inwardly, Robert conceded that he wasn't completely sure he was up for hours of lovemaking in spite of that being what was primarily on his mind. He hadn't tested the capacity of his virility in a long, long time and he had heard that men his age found long, constant or rapidly-repeated love-making sessions somewhat tricky, but he hoped that he and Catherine could prove them wrong. Today. Tonight. Tomorrow. All next week. For the rest of their lives. He kissed her deeply again. She was a dream he had never hoped to find again. She turned him inside out in ways he hadn't thought to experience again.

Catherine nestled into his arms and returned his embraces passionately, but suddenly the strength and intensity of her feelings for Robert, the helpless happiness, the vulnerability, the unknown future and unanswered questions all started to smother her. The awareness of where this fledgling relationship could lead and the traps they could both fall into along the way almost overwhelmed her. She stiffened almost automatically, and Robert groaned a denial and deepened his embrace. Unable to resist him, Catherine responded wholeheartedly once more.

When Robert's cell phone began to ring persistently, they pushed away from each other, breathless and dishevelled. The phone stopped for a moment, then started up again. "Damn," he panted, fumbling for the phone. "I'm... I'm sorry, C-Catherine." He flipped open the phone and barked, "W-What?", his voice catching.

"Dad? Is that you?"

Robert visibly controlled himself, but his eyes met Catherine's. "Yeah," he said. "Sorry, Jaclyn. I was... a little..." His voice trailed off.

Catherine smiled teasingly and stepped a little closer. "Busy?" she whispered, supplying him with a missing word.

Stifling a groan, Robert closed his eyes, and the hand not clutching the cell phone slid gently down her cheek and over her kiss-swollen lips. She sucked one of his fingers into her mouth suggestively and Robert began to tremble with the force of his desire for this beautiful woman.

"Dad?"

His daughter's voice brought him back to the present. "Yeah?" he managed to say.

"Sorry if I caught you at a bad time..." Jaclyn's voice revealed that she wasn't sorry at all. In fact, she sounded strained herself. "Ah, it's just that, well, they've decided to throw Lori and the baby out of the hospital tonight, and Jeff only has his sports car here at the hospital. Can you come and take Michael and I home ... and the tree and presents?"

"NOW?" Robert couldn't prevent his dismay from surfacing. "Damn... I mean, yeah, sure, Jaclyn. I'll be... oh. Wait. I can't go anywhere. I'm, ah, in the ditch again, same place as Thanksgiving."

O o O o O o

When her father finally answered the phone, sounding out of breath, Jaclyn wondered where he was and what he was doing, then blocked the unwanted images that began to present themselves to her mind's eye. When he heard that Lori was being released, he confessed he had put the Suburban in the ditch, then asked, "Any chance you can send Jeff for us? He'll know where it is. We're in the cabin." Jaclyn's last hope that her father hadn't taken leave of his senses was banished. Especially when he added, "No rush, of course. We're warm enough, since the power is on and the fireplace has a roaring fire in it!"

Jaclyn got off the phone and stonily related the message about being in the ditch. Jeff rolled his eyes. "Last time it was HER, this time HIM. What is it about old people? Maybe they should get their eyes checked! Kinda makes you wonder just what they're DOING in the vehicles, doesn't it?"

"Jeff, please!" Jaclyn pressed her hands to her temples where a massive headache was starting to pound.

"Ewww," Lori agreed. "We really didn't need THAT visual! Okay, we can all fit in your car to get home. We'll just leave this tree here for the other new mother! Then you can take the Jeep to get Dad and the doctor."

"Is the doctor coming home with Grandpa?" Michael asked curiously. "Does baby MaryBeth need her?"

"No, it's your Grandpa who thinks he does," grinned Jeff. "Seems like he's thinking with the wrong head."

"Grandpa only HAS one head!" Michael frowned, puzzled.

"JEFF!" both women exclaimed, and he raised his hands in laughing surrender, not seeing their tension.

Jaclyn chafed at the time it took Lori to get dressed and get the baby ready to go, not to mention gathering the presents, then thanking all the nurses and passing on the small decorated tree along with a box of chocolates. Every moment they wasted here at the hospital then driving home was a moment more that her father could be... she shuddered inwardly, praying her imagination was just being overworked. Dad and the doctor were both too old for that sort of thing, weren't they?

Once they were finally back at her father's house, Jaclyn helped Lori and the baby get settled for a nap before she sent Jeff and Michael off to the cabin and started to organize for the dinner. She had put the turkey in early that morning, so just had to get out potatoes, carrots, and turnip and peel them, leaving them to sit in cold water until the time came to cook them. She made sure the jar of cranberry jelly was at the front of the fridge so she wouldn't forget to put it out. This was the first Christmas she had been 'in charge' of making the meal, and she didn't want to make any mistakes. Her eyes blurred as she set out her mother's fine china, and she longed fiercely to be wrapped in her mother's loving embrace once more. Thinking it would be easier to remove a place setting later rather than add one, she even set a place for the doctor, all the while hoping the woman would just ask to be dropped off at her house the way she had at Thanksgiving.

Two hours passed before Jeff's jeep turned in the driveway and Jaclyn's watchful eyes saw her father jump out of the back seat and hurry around to open the other back door to help the doctor out. So she HAD come back with them. Well, Jaclyn could prove her good upbringing and be polite if it killed her!

As it turned out, although she really didn't want to have anything to do with Dr Howard, Jaclyn found herself liking the older woman more and more as the day went on. Catherine was very good with Michael and paid equal amounts of attention to all the adults. When Catherine asked to see some of Jaclyn's work that had been stored in the basement, Lori said she would finish up the last minute things in the kitchen. Jaclyn led the way downstairs, Catherine and Robert following her.

Grudgingly Jaclyn admitted to herself that the woman understood artistic natures. Catherine exclaimed over the paintings, saying just the right things about each one. When Catherine said softly, "Your father told me at Thanksgiving that your mother had one of my favourite quotes on a plaque. I think you must have inherited a lot of your mother's soul.", Jaclyn was touched, although she refused to admit it even to herself.

"What quote?" Jaclyn asked curiously, wondering if Dr. Howard really meant what she was saying, or if it was just a way to get on her good side.

"'Feed the body food and drink, it will survive today. Feed the soul art and music, and it will live forever.'" Catherine said softly.

Jaclyn's eyes prickled with unshed tears. She loved that quote, and always had. To think that it had meaning for Dr. Howard, too! If only the woman would stay away from her father, Jaclyn mused. Then Michael came clattering down the stairs, and the emotional mood was shattered.

Breathless, Michael came to a halt by Robert. "Grandpa, what is sex?" he asked unexpectedly.

The adults all stared at him in shock. When no one else spoke, Catherine began, "Michael, I don't think your mother..." but Robert interrupted her.

"If he's old enough to ask the question, he's old enough to hear the answer from the person he asked." Robert sat down and took Michael on his knee, ignoring Catherine's somewhat disapproving look, and Jaclyn's blush of discomfort. Steeling himself to leave nothing out, Robert proceeded to describe for Michael in simplified terms all the variations of human sexuality he could conjure, careful to impress upon his grandson the joys and responsibilities of intercourse and procreation. Michael's eyes grew larger and larger. Then Robert concluded, "So that's what sex is, Michael. Do you understand?"

"I guess so..." Michael said slowly, confusion still warring with disbelief on his small face. He slid off Robert's knee and added, "Mom said to tell you that dinner would be ready in a couple of secs."

Now it was Robert's turn to look shocked. After a moment, Catherine and Jaclyn both burst into peals of laughter. That time of laughter brought Catherine and Jaclyn even closer together. Jaclyn found it very difficult indeed to stay aloof from someone who shared her joy in art and had the same sense of humour. As they started up the stairs after Michael, Jaclyn sneezed.

"Bless you! Nine to go!" Robert said cheerfully.

"WHAT?" Jaclyn turned to stare at him and noticed that Dr. Howard was looking puzzled as well.

"What?" he asked, somewhat irritably, frowning at them both. "I've heard that ten sneezes equal the force of an orgasm, so you have nine to go!"

"Where on earth did you hear such a ridiculous statement?" Jaclyn asked, rolling her eyes. Honestly, FATHERS! They shouldn't be talking about such things in front of... well, Dr. Howard wasn't exactly a stranger, unfortunately, but pretty close to it! She wasn't family... yet, anyway. Jaclyn's mood suddenly plummeted.

"Well, technically the fact I heard was that one sneeze is equal to the force of one tenth of an orgasm, but hey, it's just a matter of simple mathematics." Robert said.

"And physiology," added Catherine dryly, but her smile grew broader.

"You tell him," murmured Jaclyn, shaking her head. This was fast proving the strangest Christmas she had ever spent!

Over a merry Christmas dinner, Catherine endeared herself to all the members of Robert's family by insisting that they call her Catherine and not Dr. Howard. She frankly admitted her hopelessness in the kitchen, and praised Jaclyn and Lori's delicious offerings. She commented succinctly and perspicaciously on Jeff's struggles with certain divorce proceedings, then made her views clear on men who cheat on their wives before acknowledging that the men might believe there were extenuating circumstances. Jeff, abashed, kept his head down and seemed relieved when the subject was changed.

Michael hung on every word Catherine said, and was thrilled to be invited to Murray's for a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes the next day "if your Grandpa will bring you," Catherine added, slanting a teasing glance at Robert.

"Your wish is my command," Robert said grandly. Michael giggled.

By the time Robert left in Jeff's car to take Catherine back to the hospital for her vehicle, Jaclyn was almost reconciled to the fact that her father was infatuated with the doctor. That didn't stop her from watching rather wistfully out the window as the car left the driveway.

Lori paused on her way upstairs with the sleeping MaryBeth and asked, "What is it?"

"Nothing, really," Jaclyn sighed. "I just... miss Mom, I guess."

Following Jaclyn's gaze out the window to the car disappearing down the street, Lori nodded. "I am finding it hard to accept that Dad is interested in another woman, too. I almost wish I could hate her, but..."

"I know. I kept looking for flaws all night... Catherine seems to be practically perfect in every way!"

"Except that she's not Mom." Lori said softly.

"Yeah." After a short pause, Jaclyn added gloomily, "And Dad likes Catherine... REALLY likes her, you know? And it gives me the shivers to think of him, well, getting it on with her..."

Lori winced. "I know. We shouldn't be like that, but... Dad? Acting like a lovesick teenager?"

Together the sisters chimed, "EWWWWW!" then laughed.

O o O o O o

When they reached the hospital parking lot, Catherine directed Robert to her vehicle. He had been looking for her red Jaguar, and now looked at her approvingly when she indicated the SUV. "I'm impressed!"

"Well, it's practical ... and someone once told me I had to live in the real world where people don't drive Jaguars in the snow." Robert chuckled. Catherine put her hand on the door handle, then turned to look at him in the dim light from the street lights. "Thank you, Robert, for a wonderful Christmas."

"Thank YOU... Robin..."

Before Catherine could exclaim in wonder that he remembered the name of the fictional cabin owner SHE had made up at Thanksgiving, he had pulled her over to his side... or squirmed over to hers... she wasn't sure which, and nor did she care when his lips were on hers. For long, endless moments they kissed, their passion rising fast and furiously. At last Robert broke away and panted, "DAMN. I'm too old to be trying to make out in a car! Catherine..."

"I know, Robert..." Catherine was having difficulty controlling her own breathing. "I know."

"Michael and I will be by to pick you up about 9 for breakfast, if that's all right."

"That's fine."

"And Catherine... have supper with me tomorrow night?"

Catherine hesitated, then said, "What will your family think of that? Two nights in a row... that's moving awfully fast, don't you think?"

"I'll deal with it. I just... want to be with you. Not in a car... and not somewhere where we can be interrupted."

Knowing exactly what he meant, Catherine flushed lightly, then whispered, "I'd like that, too."

O o O o O o To be continued

Jaclyn tried not to think of what her father and Catherine Howard were doing on the nights they spent alone either at Catherine's house by the lake or at her father's new 'holiday home' cabin. It was obvious before New Year's Eve that the two were extremely close. When Brock phoned to ask her to come back to New York City for the party on the 31st, and to stay, Jaclyn first spoke to Lori, then to her father, then called Brock back and accepted. Maybe it would be easier on her to get away from the whole situation between the doctor and her father for a while!

Once back in New York City, Jaclyn found that it was MUCH easier to ignore the dilemma of what she termed her father's 'reversion to adolescence'. In fact, after she and Brock decided to get married in the summer, Jaclyn's thoughts were divided between work and wedding details, with only occasional moments of worry about her father's love life. Jaclyn HAD to tell her father to be sure to invite Catherine to the wedding, of course, although she felt like a hypocrite saying, "Of COURSE she's welcome, Daddy!"

Over the following months, Lori would mention over the phone that Catherine had been over for dinner or that her father had taken the doctor out for supper. On a couple of occasions, the two had gone away for a weekend together. Jaclyn shuddered at the intimacy such actions implied, but agreed with Lori that there was nothing for it but to accept their father's desire for Catherine's companionship.

"Do you really think they LOVE each other?" Jaclyn asked Lori one night. "I mean, the way Brock and I...?"

"I don't want to think about it," Lori said promptly, then sighed. "But yeah, I think they do."

"I always thought that once you were old, you didn't feel the need of physical love. Maybe they're just friends ... doing things together so they don't have to be alone?"

"Dad? With an attractive woman like Catherine? You really think they don't... you know... kiss and stuff?" Lori scoffed.

"Kiss I can maybe accept," Jaclyn grumbled. "It's the 'and stuff' that bothers me."

Lori laughed, and Jaclyn reluctantly joined in, realizing she was behaving like a spoiled child. The sisters then got in to a big discussion regarding Jeff and his rather amazing switch to becoming a model husband and father. Jaclyn admitted that for a while she had thought Lori had taken leave of her senses when she just accepted him back 'no questions asked' on Christmas Eve.

"Oh, there were questions... later... believe me. And he's on a very short leash right now," Lori said pointedly. "He knows he has to remain on his best behaviour, or there will be hell to pay. First I told him... then Dad talked to him... and I have the feeling Dad actually HIT him during that 'talk'!"

"Dad?"

"Yeah. I guess I have you to thank for that – you were the one to tell Daddy the truth about our problems last fall. From what I understand, Dad put the fear of God into Jeff. I don't think he'll stray again. And Heather has gone. She moved to Los Angeles, so I REALLY don't have to beware of her anymore."

"Wow! Dad really did that? Cool."

"Of course, Catherine's comments now and then helped too... she told us that her marriage wasn't idyllic in the beginning either, but they worked together and things improved. So Jeff and I are really trying now, both for the sake of the children but also for our OWN sake!"

Even Jaclyn was a little sorry when her father informed her the day of her wedding that Catherine had been called in to the hospital for an emergency, and didn't think she'd make it to either wedding OR reception. Catherine had been so helpful in the week preceding the ceremony, and at the rehearsal had remarked wistfully that this was as close as she ever expected to get to helping with a daughter's wedding. Then she had added softly, "And Jaclyn, I know you are missing your mother very, very much at this time, and it's only to be expected. My mother was gone by the time I was married, too... and there is really no replacement for her, is there?"

Catherine had also refused to sit with Robert for the ceremony, overcoming his loud and strenuous objections, saying she had no real part with the family, although she had agreed to sit with him at the family table for the reception. Jaclyn was so happy about her marriage and so full of love and forgiveness that she was actually delighted when the doctor appeared late that night, looking weary but beautiful, and wished the young couple a very happy life. Certainly Robert's eyes lit up when he saw Catherine, and that night Jaclyn didn't begrudge the older woman a thing.

One night in mid-November, Jaclyn phoned home and Robert asked her whether or not she and Brock were coming home for Thanksgiving, because he and Catherine had some news for them all. Jaclyn had already told him in October that they may not make it home because work was building up, but had said she'd call closer to the time. Now she said, "Please just tell me you didn't get her pregnant."

"JACLYN!" Robert growled. "Damn it, what happened to the manners we taught you?"

"Sorry, Dad," Jaclyn said unrepentantly, still feeling uncomfortable at the thought of her father having an active love life... and suspecting she knew exactly what news he and Catherine had to share. "Brock and I will be home Thursday night, if that's all right?"

"Fine. Good. See you then, darling."

"Bye, Dad."

O o O o O o

"Well, she's coming and Brock's coming with her," Robert said, dropping the cordless phone onto the table by his side and smiling crookedly at Catherine who was snuggled against him in the big bed they had bought for one of the new bedrooms at the cabin. "And she doesn't want to be told that you're pregnant."

Catherine laughed. "I wonder how she guessed my secret when I haven't even told YOU?" she teased him. Then she added, "MaryBeth is my one special child, I think, although we HAVE had fun, haven't we, over the months? I think I'm glad I'm too old to get pregnant. I had once thought YOU were too old to be so virile!"

"I'll have you know I'm not old... not when I'm with you, anyway. Do you think Jaclyn knows what we want to tell her? Or Lori?"

"I think both of your daughters are extremely bright woman... and I'm sure they know. I just hope they will accept me as a more... public part of your life."

"How can they not? You're a very impressive doctor... you're beautiful, sexy..."

"Somehow I don't think those qualifications of yours will enhance my suitability as a possible wife for their father," Catherine said seriously, stopping his hand as he tickled her lightly.

"It has been almost a year since MaryBeth's death," Robert said, evading her fingers and letting his hand drift down her body. He loved the feel of her smooth, soft skin... loved HER. "I reminded them that their mother and I got them another puppy when theirs was killed, and that they loved it just as much..."

"I'm not a puppy, Robert," Catherine said, just a little sharply.

"It was just a metaphor."

Catherine rolled her eyes, then said, "I don't expect them to love me just as much as they loved their mother, or in the same way. I just want them to see that I don't plan to take YOUR love away from them as well. I want them to accept me as a permanent, important part of your life... and perforce theirs."

"Mmmhmmm," Robert nuzzled her neck, his lips moving up her chin then covering her mouth. "I love you, Catherine. I am sure they will accept you. What's not to accept? God, you're killing me, Catherine..."

"That wasn't exactly the idea," she murmured, returning his kisses. "You DID say you weren't old, didn't you? Mmmm, that's nice..." Their passion flared again, and she trembled as he started streaks of lightning flashing through her veins, heating her to boiling point in moments. She loved the slight roughness of his work-hardened hands and the way they could move with such intuition. He seemed to know without asking exactly where she loved to be touched. "Oh, Robert, I DO love you!"

In no time, they were lost in their own world.

O o O o O o

Seeing her father's besotted expression as he was telling them all that he and Catherine were both handing in their respective resignations in mid-December and planning a wedding on Christmas Eve, and viewing Catherine's look of love tinged with anxiety, Jaclyn was finally forced to put aside her feeling of dismay at the news. No matter how much she might wish her mother had not died and her father had not fallen in love again, those were the realities, and she had to accept them if she wanted to maintain any sort of a relationship with her father in the future. Besides, of all the women he MIGHT have chosen, Jaclyn had to concede that Catherine was probably the best choice. If he had to choose anyone to replace her mother, of course.

She had to tell herself that she was happy for her father once again that Christmas Eve when she and Lori stood with Catherine and Robert as they committed themselves to each other in a small ceremony at the cabin where they had taken refuge just over a year previously. Brock, Jeff, the two children, and Catherine's friends, William and Marina, were the only other guests. As she listened to the words spoken, Jaclyn suddenly realized that it was no longer a real hardship to accept Catherine into their family.

"A wedding is the celebration of the highest we know in love, the pledging of the deepest fidelity, the expression of the highest aspiration. A relationship so sacred must not be entered into casually, but thoughtfully and deliberately. A wedding is also a recognition that love and marriage are not always easy and that along with the tenderness, newness and joy in a marriage, a marriage must overcome many forces that might destroy it. Out of this tangled world, these two have been drawn together, two people bound firmly by the sure insights of love. I charge you, Catherine and Robert, with the responsibility to keep your love alive — to grow, to change, to maintain the capacity for wonder, for spontaneity, for humour, to remain flexible, warm and sensitive. Give fully to each other, show your real feelings to one another, save time for each other, no matter what demands are made upon your day. I charge you to nurture each other to wholeness, realizing that each of you will need at times to bring strength and support and worth to the other."

Seeing the happiness on the older couple's faces, then glancing over at the picture on the mantel of their family a year before MaryBeth's death, Jaclyn knew that it was true... love could not simply cease to exist. Instead, love continued to grow and expand, enriching the lives of all who opened themselves to its power. Reaching out impulsively, Jaclyn took and squeezed Brock's hand, feeling warmth flood through her at his return smile. When the wedding was over, Jaclyn was the first to embrace Catherine and welcome her to the family, and knew from Catherine's moist, happy eyes that the older woman understood.

O o O o O o

Only a week later, the night before she and Brock were to leave to return to New York, Jaclyn woke up with a start. Unsure of what had awoken her, she lay still and listened intently. The silence surrounding the cabin almost unnerved her. She was much more accustomed to the constant noise of the city traffic. Then she heard the bedsprings in the next room, and heard her father's faintly irritated voice saying, "Oh, come on, Catherine. Please?"

"Leave me alone," came Catherine's muffled grumble.

"You know it won't take long."

"Robert, what I KNOW is that I won't be able to sleep afterwards! And I have to work tomorrow!"

"But you know I can't sleep without it."

"And that is my problem? Tell me, Robert, do you often think of things like this so late at night?"

There was a brief chuckle, then her father said, "Only when I'm hot." Jaclyn grimaced inwardly.

"Damn it, Robert, you get hot at the most inconvenient times."

His voice took on a wheedling note as he said, "If you loved me, Catherine, I wouldn't have to beg you."

Catherine heaved a sigh. "If you loved ME, you'd be more considerate, Robert!"

"I guess you just don't love me any more, or you WOULD..."

"Oh really, Robert, you know I love you!" Now Catherine sounded exasperated. "Please, let's forget it for tonight. I'm TIRED, Robert! It has been a very long, stressful day for all of us!"

"Please...come on, Catherine... please?"

After a short pause, Jaclyn heard Catherine sigh loudly again, then say, "All right, I'll do it."

There was a somewhat louder creaking of the bedsprings, accompanied by various grunts and sighs. Jaclyn squirmed in her own bed, covering her head with the blankets and trying to block out the sounds. It didn't work.

"What's the matter now, Catherine? Need a flashlight?" His voice almost sounded taunting.

"I can't find it, damn it."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, just feel for it!" Robert sounded almost exasperated.

Jaclyn grinned, then suddenly remembered just what it was that was happening in the next room, and she shuddered.

"There!" Catherine exclaimed almost triumphantly. "NOW are you satisfied?"

"Oh, yes," Robert almost moaned. Jaclyn frantically tried to cover her ears again.

"Is it up far enough?" Catherine asked in a long-suffering voice.

"Oh, yeah, that's good."

Jaclyn was about to throw the covers back and get out of the room when Catherine spoke one more time.

"Now go to sleep, Robert, and from now on when you want the window open, do it yourself!"

For a moment Jaclyn was frozen, then she had to struggle to keep from shrieking with laughter. Her own bed moved as Brock rolled over and drew her close to him. "I heard it, too," he whispered, and Jaclyn could tell he was fighting his own laughter, "and all I can say is, it serves you right, my love, for having such a dirty mind! That'll teach you for not being sure Catherine was the right woman for your father! See? Father knows best!"

"Oh, YOU!" she whispered back crossly, but she melted into his arms and kissed him. Long after her father's snores rumbled through the cabin, Jaclyn and Brock celebrated their own love quietly but no less effectively.

THE END