He WAS there!

Challenge response to: What if Robert HAD gone to Murray's that Sunday? (ie: what if Mary Beth had NOT died that day?)

When Robert walked in to Murray's Café the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, he was greeted with Murray's cheerful smile and warm welcome. "Mr. Woodward! How nice to see you again! How is Mrs. Woodward? Your grandson told me last time you were both here that you were going to have her home on Thursday for Thanksgiving."

Robert, who had automatically opened his mouth to reply with his standard 'fine' when asked about MaryBeth, found himself telling the truth for the first time since admitting to Catherine two days ago that MaryBeth was NOT fine. "She wasn't well enough to come home. I doubt she'll ever be well enough again."

Murray's smile faltered and compassion filled his eyes. "I'm so sorry to hear that, Mr. Woodward. Here, your usual table by the window is free..."

"A-Actually," Robert almost stammered, unwilling to discuss MaryBeth any further when he was hoping to meet with Catherine. He felt almost as if he were cheating on his wife behind her back with this clandestine breakfast meeting. "Actually, I think I'm meeting a friend. I was praising your chocolate chip pancakes Thursday night ..."

"Pan ... OH!" Murray covered his shock and smoothly continued, his smile back. "She's here. Right this way, Mr. Woodward. Dr. Howard is back here..." Murray led Robert to the back and beamed at Catherine who looked up from her paper and smiled shyly when she saw Robert. "I'll just give you two a minute to look over the menu..." and he discreetly vanished.

For a moment, neither Catherine nor Robert said anything, then they both spoke at once and said the same thing. "I wasn't sure you'd come!"

Robert sat down opposite her and added, studying her intently, "You've done something to your hair."

Catherine wished she could treat Robert's expected and yet UNexpected appearance as nothing special, but for some strange reason, she felt as if her body had been tuned to his. Just having him near heightened her senses as well as her pulse. She did her best to give nothing away, though, and looked down at the menu in front of her as she murmured, "I just ..."

"It's softer. And ..." he quickly bent and looked under the table, ignoring her scandalized hissing of his name, "you're wearing a skirt! Damn, Catherine, are you trying to change your image?" he teased her. Her flushed cheeks answered for her, and Robert realized anew how beautiful she was. In spite of her air of confidence and assurance, she also looked disarmingly uncertain all at once. The combination was endearing to him and very much at odds with his first impression of her.

When he straightened up again, he watched Catherine in silence for a moment as she pretended to peruse the menu. He had missed her in the last couple of days, and during that time had found himself thinking about the future. He hadn't done much of that since MaryBeth had gotten sick over two years ago. Getting through each day, one at a time, had been enough. He had been grateful for what he still had in life – two daughters, a son-in-law and a wonderful grandson. People to love and to look after... people who had become his focus. He knew that MaryBeth's time was limited, but he had never allowed himself to look beyond the inevitable. He had never once imagined falling in love again, or getting remarried when the time came.

Certainly when they had first met, Catherine hadn't seemed like the type to change his mind about his future, and yet, unaccountably, she had done just that. Robert was challenged by her and at the same time desperately attracted to her. For the last three days, he had craved her company and her conversation. He was drawn to the softness he sensed at her core, the vulnerability she had trained herself to hide. His feelings for her almost terrified him, because he was not free, even if Catherine WAS. He could NOT have fallen so deeply in love in a matter of hours... could he?

There was an awkward pause while both of them tried frantically to think of something to say to diffuse the suddenly tense atmosphere. Both were thankful to see Murray approaching their table to take their breakfast order. When he had gone again, Catherine asked quietly how MaryBeth was doing.

Robert smiled wryly. "I've learned, Catherine, that it IS possible to teach an old dog new tricks. MaryBeth is not good at all. I'm going back to the hospice after breakfast, and meeting the rest of the family there. Maybe today she will look at Michael and remember the love he is so desperate to share with her."

"How are Lori and Jaclyn REALLY coping with all this?" Catherine asked, as if she had all the right in the world to ask, as any old family friend would have. Robert conceded her that right when he answered frankly.

For a few minutes, they talked about MaryBeth's illness and how the girls were coping. Then Catherine softly questioned how Robert himself was feeling. Robert said nothing for a moment, but his hand clenched tightly where it was lying on the table.

Catherine's gaze softened and she reached across the table and covered his hand with hers. "I understand, Robert. Well, not the children, but I understand what it means to be going through what you are with a spouse."

"Did you meet someone too, before your husband died?" Robert muttered, looking down at her hand over his and marvelling at how right it felt, although his head was telling him that it was all wrong.

"What did you say, Robert?" Catherine asked, puzzled. "I didn't quite catch that." She kept her hand on his, gently and unconsciously stroking it with her thumb.

"Nothing." he said gruffly. "I'm just hungry, I guess."

Catherine's eyes dropped to his hand as he turned it over and grasped hers gently. For a brief instant she wondered what his touch would feel like on her body and felt an electric tingling shoot through her before she slammed that door shut in her mind while pulling her hand from his. Then Murray was there with their order, beaming at them both.

"Here you are, chocolate chip pancakes for two of my favourite people! To think that you've both been coming here for so many years, and I never knew before that you were friends!" he chuckled as he placed the hot plates before them. "I suppose I should have guessed, of course, since you DO live in the same neighbourhood! Can I get you anything else? More coffee?"

"This is fine, thank you, Murray," both assured him, and with a final nod, Murray vanished into the kitchen.

"Now," Robert said heartily, glad for the change of topic. "Get the butter on those babies and pour on the syrup and try them. I'll bet a thousand dollars that they're the best pancakes you've ever tasted in your life!"

Obediently, Catherine doctored her pancakes as ordered, then lifted the fork to her mouth, pausing as she caught his watchful gaze. "That's not a metaphor, I hope. This isn't going to be like the macaroni and cheese, is it? I'm not going to gag on it?"

"How COULD you doubt me?" he questioned, and clutched at his heart dramatically. "Have I ever led you astray before?"

"Hmmm," was her non-committal response, and she put the forkful of pancake into her mouth and chewed.

Robert's anxious gaze never left her face. "Well?" he demanded at last. "What do you think? Aren't they the best pancakes you've ever had?"

Catherine swallowed, then a teasing light entered her eyes and she grabbed for her coffee. "That is the SECOND time you have tried to poison me, Robert Woodward!"

Incredulously, Robert's mouth dropped open. When he could speak, he sputtered, "You didn't LIKE them? What's WRONG with you, for God's sake?"

No longer able to contain her merriment, Catherine began to chuckle. "I'm sorry, I just couldn't resist. Truthfully, Robert, you were right. They ARE delicious! Might I suggest you start eating yours while they're still hot instead of watching me eat mine?"

Conversation for the rest of the meal was desultory as they devoured the delicious pancakes and finished their coffee. Then Catherine regretfully stood up. "I'm sorry, Robert, but I'm due at the hospital shortly."

"That's okay. I should get back home myself. We're going back to Shelby Manor this afternoon." Robert came easily to his feet as well, and picked up Catherine's coat, automatically holding it out for her to slip into. His hands lingered on her shoulders as he placed the coat properly on her, and she knew he was watching her again. Awareness rippled between them. She swallowed and almost turned away, but then he was adding in a low voice, "Let me help you do up your coat. It's damn cold outside. Even if you ARE an impressive doctor, you can still catch a cold!"

Catherine could have laughed, told him she never did up her coat, stepped back and broken the spell between them, but she didn't. Every day she saw a number of men professionally, but they were almost all anxious fathers paired with equally anxious mothers. Yet there was something about Robert that drew her, for all the antagonism that had been present when they had first met. It was... it was something about the way Robert looked at HER. Not that he was aware of how he projected his thoughts, of course, because Catherine was fairly sure she knew him well enough after their night in the cabin to know that he would be mortified to have his inner feelings so exposed. But no one had EVER looked at Catherine that way before... except maybe Tom at the beginning of their marriage. Right now, Robert was looking at her as if he wanted her... badly. He was looking at her as if he meant to have her, regardless of the consequences.

His hands slid up her arms to rest on her shoulders. "Are you seeing someone?" he asked gruffly. "Not professionally, I mean, but... socially."

Her brisk, professional deportment seemed to have deserted her. "No, I... I don't... I don't date... Not since..." she almost stammered.

Almost leisurely he cupped the back of her head and angled his own to peruse her features closely. "Why do you get to me?" he mused, not expecting nor receiving an answer. Then he focussed on her eyes. "Tell me something, Catherine."

She raised her eyebrows questioningly at him. She was growing increasingly uncomfortable with his proximity, but couldn't make herself move away from him.

"Do I get to you, too?" he asked, not waiting for her to speak.

She didn't answer, and he didn't seem to expect her to. Instead, he continued to study her face as if her reply could be found there. His gaze lingered on her lips, and she wet them nervously, knowing that that might signal acceptance of the kiss that seemed inevitable. She wanted him so badly she could almost taste him... but she had no idea what she would do if he DID kiss her. It would be wrong on so many levels... but she wanted his kiss so very much...

Then, without warning, as he had done the other night at the cabin, he released her and pulled away, his eyes darkening as though shutters had been slammed down on them. "I'm sorry."

Catherine felt a complete chill pass over her. She wrapped her arms around her waist and fought for equilibrium as she stumbled back against the table. Shame burned hot in her cheeks. "I'm sorry, too," she managed to say.

"I'm buying breakfast," Robert announced loudly, as if assuming Catherine would fight.

Instead, she inclined her head. "Fine. I'll leave the tip." Her voice was brittle and defiant.

"Fine."

When their business was concluded, they bade Murray goodbye and walked outside. "I'm parked just across the street," Robert said, pointing to his Suburban.

"I'm around the corner," Catherine waved vaguely to the left. "I'll see you ..."

"I'm walking you to your car," he broke in, glaring at her. "I still can't believe you drive that classic car in the WINTER!"

"For your information, Robert, I bought a new vehicle. I AM capable of re-assessing situations and I can be QUITE competent... so there's no reason for you to act like such an ahh..." Even as she was speaking, Catherine slipped a bit on the icy sidewalk.

Robert steadied her automatically then, with a laugh, he picked her up in his arms. "I told you once you need picking up. Obviously you STILL do!"

"Robert! Put me down!" As on Thanksgiving when he had carried her into the cabin, Catherine was afraid to struggle in case he lost his balance. "I don't care if you can lift me like I'm nothing at all..."

Feeling her warm breath on his neck and her arms holding on to his shoulders, his body responded enthusiastically. For all her strength and endurance, she fit into his embrace as if she belonged there. "On the contrary, Catherine, I lift you like you are SOMETHING – someone very special."

"Oh God, Robert, how could you do that to me?" Catherine tightened her arms around his neck and buried her face in his coat.

"Do what?" he asked, genuinely puzzled. Then he realized that the glint in her eyes just before she squeezed them shut had probably been tears. "I'm sorry, Catherine. I'm sorry! I just... we shouldn't..." Reaching her vehicle which she indicated with a nod, he carefully set her on her feet, trying to ignore the hot desire that was burning through his body. "You know, Catherine," he grinned, trying to speak lightheartedly even as he continued to hold her close, "if we were in our twenties, in this day and age ... or in a romantic fiction... I'd be scooping you up in my arms and we'd be heading for a bedroom right about now."

"Mmhmmm," Catherine sighed, still leaning against his body and feeling his arousal. Then a little smile curled her lips and she added demurely, "but since we're in our sixties and we know better than to fool around when one of us is married, we'd head for that bedroom just to sleep, of course."

He gave her an indignant look. "You sure do know how to ruin a romantic fantasy, Dr. Howard."

Catherine shrugged, her movement causing the length of her body to rub against his. She trembled slightly, but couldn't make herself pull away. She told herself it was just for the time being, and that it was all very innocent.

Somewhat hoarsely, Robert said, "So, we're friends?"

"Friends," she agreed in a husky voice herself.

"Maybe more sometime in the future?" he asked almost hopefully, and she felt the pressure on her hip increase.

Her breath caught as his movement sent ripples of pleasure through her body. When she could speak, she conceded, "Maybe." At his triumphant look, she added, "If we were in our twenties."

Robert's face changed imperceptibly. "Since we're NOT that age anymore...?"

"We have responsibilities and duties to other people. You have MaryBeth... not to mention Jaclyn and Lori and Michael to consider... I have my patients..."

Once more putting pressure where it was keeping her arousal heightened, Robert asked, "Your patients don't want to see you happy? I'd imagine that if Michael was one of your patients, for example, he'd be more than delighted to know that you were making his old grandfather feel like a teenager again."

"You? OLD? Please, Robert," Catherine scoffed, but her entire body was humming. She hadn't bandied words like this with anyone else for a long, long time, and she now realized she had missed it fiercely.

"Let's meet again, as soon as you've got a few hours free in the daylight. We'll go hunt for your necklace," Robert suggested impulsively, still not releasing her.

Catherine considered that for a moment. She probably shouldn't see him again. She didn't want to be the third person in a marriage... the outsider who COULD be accused of breaking the marriage up... even if MaryBeth no longer remembered her marriage. Robert and Catherine both remembered, however, and somehow Catherine sensed that as much as he might want to go further with a relationship with her, Robert's sense of honour and love for MaryBeth would prevent him from either acting on his desire or from enjoying it if he did. "Very well," she said at last, knowing she HAD to meet him, at least once more. Besides, she really and truly DID want to find her necklace! "I'm supposed to have Wednesday afternoon off."

"Your golf afternoon?" At her smouldering look, and pointed glance at the snow all around them, Robert grinned. "Good, we'll go hunting Wednesday, then. I'll drive."

"Going in the ditch was NOT my fault!" Catherine exclaimed. "If you hadn't grabbed the wheel ..."

"Okay, okay ..." Robert released her finally and held up his hands in surrender. "I concede that, in spite of the fact that you were driving a totally ridiculous car for this kind of weather, you may NOT have been totally at fault last Thursday night. By the way, nice wheels you've got now!" and he looked admiringly at her new vehicle. "Four wheel drive and everything!"

"Thank you," Catherine moved on shaky legs to get into her vehicle. "And goodbye until Wednesday, Robert."

"Take care."

O o O o O o

By noon on the Wednesday, although Catherine had looked forward for the last few days to seeing Robert again and hoping to find her necklace, she had mixed feelings about the proposed meeting. So many emotions had gone through her body and mind that Sunday morning and, indeed, ever since! Perhaps it would be best NOT to see him again. After all, he was not free in the eyes of the world, even if MaryBeth was no longer aware of the connection he had to her. For hours Catherine alternated between deciding to meet Robert anyway and making the decision that she would end any possible relationship right now. She wasn't sure she could handle simple friendship, especially given the underlying tensions at Murray's on Sunday. It would be so easy to have a relationship slip into something much more that neither was emotionally equipped to handle at the moment.

When an emergency suddenly arose, Catherine was grateful. While the expectant mother was being prepped, Catherine phoned Robert, pleased to get his answering machine instead of him. She quickly explained that an emergency had arisen and she wouldn't be able to meet him later as planned... then hung up before saying they would have to reschedule.

As for Robert, similar thoughts had been running through his mind from Sunday morning until Wednesday morning. On Monday, the owners of the cabin had phoned, having found his note of thanks for the shelter and the money he had left to fix the broken window. He had discovered that they had just decided to sell the place and move to Florida, so impulsively he had asked about buying it. The elderly couple had jumped at the chance to sell and arranged to meet with their lawyers on hand in two weeks' time. When Robert informed Jaclyn and Lori that he was going to buy the cabin, they both thought he was crazy.

"Dad! It's OLD and DECREPIT!" Lori admonished him.

"So? I can fix it up. I need a vacation home."

"Are you saying you need to get away from us?" Jaclyn asked, her big eyes filling with tears. "Do you want me to leave?"

"God, no! Come on, guys, work with me! I just... liked the cottage! Michael will love it in the summer!"

"So will the mosquitos," commented Lori, rolling her eyes. "I hope you don't have to pay too much for it!"

"Howard and Millie Bigcow just need enough to buy new furniture. I asked if I could keep what they have there. And furniture from New England wouldn't fit well in a mobile home in Florida."

"BIGCOW? Is that really their name, Dad?" Jaclyn asked incredulously, a reluctant smile spreading over her face. "Can't you do any better than THAT if you're making up a name?"

"I LIKE that name! I might even name the cabin that!" Robert growled.

By Wednesday morning, Robert had convinced the girls that owning a cabin in the 'wilderness' would be a fun thing, especially in the summer, and he was looking forward to telling Catherine about his proposed purchase. Then Sarah from Shelby Manor phoned and her news drove Catherine from his mind. MaryBeth had taken a turn for the worse and had been sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital. Robert, Lori and Jaclyn rushed to the hospital while Jeff kept Michael. It seemed weeks later, although it was really only a matter of about twelve hours, when Robert returned to the place he and MaryBeth had made a home and where she would never again even visit. Her death, although expected in a way, had shocked all of them out of their accustomed rut, and he wondered vaguely if anything would ever be the same.

For the three days after MaryBeth's death and before her funeral, he and the girls seemed to be functioning on autopilot. Everything else was forgotten. It was a week before Robert woke up one morning and remembered that he was supposed to have met Catherine the previous week. For a brief moment he considered calling her, but then he decided that it was too soon. He slowly began to re-build his life in the home that MaryBeth's presence had permeated even through the fall when she hadn't been living there and that now seemed so bleak and lonely despite Lori, Michael and Jaclyn living there with him.

Two weeks after MaryBeth's death, Robert had his meeting with the lawyers and the couple who owned the cabin and an hour later was driving away from the Land Titles office, the proud new owner of the cabin. Turning on the radio, he heard that another storm was tracking north with more significant snowfall amounts expected. Without saying a word to anyone, he drove along the road Catherine had taken from Shelby Manor, and spotted where her car had gone into the ditch. Parking not far from there, he began to walk along their route that Thanksgiving evening, searching the road and peering at the snowbanks along the sides, hoping to see the chain glinting in the sunlight. He had a few false alarms, finding three Coke cans partially buried, a tab from another can, and some tinfoil wrapper from gum. Seeing Catherine's scarf still tied to the tree on the lower road, he slithered down the hill through the trees, trying to follow the faint tracks of their passing almost three weeks previously. To his surprise, he found the chain with the pendant still attached, wound around a branch of one of the trees about halfway down the hill.

Triumphantly untangling the broken chain and slipping it in his pocket, Robert continued down and retrieved her scarf as well, resolving to get the chain fixed then return both scarf and necklace... sometime when it seemed that the time might be right.

O o O o O o

By the time Robert got home from the hospital on Christmas Eve and was telling Jaclyn and Michael about the new baby and how Dr. Howard had saved her life, Robert knew that the time had come to return Catherine's property. He would go early to the hospital tomorrow morning and look for her... and he would take the scarf and the repaired necklace with him.

O o O o O o

Once in the cabin on Christmas morning, when she realized that Robert had actually BOUGHT the cabin as his vacation home, Catherine didn't stop the joy spreading through her. She even went so far as to concede to him in their game of who owned the cottage, Howard and Millie instead of Charlie and Robin. The next thing she knew, he was kissing her and she was kissing him back, and it was as if they had kissed five hundred times before, they were so good at it. She loved the way he tasted, the toe-curling way his mouth fit against hers.... (BUT NO ONE COULD ACTUALLY SEE THEIR TONGUES!!!)

The End of the story and the beginning of their life as... friends? lovers? spouses?