Disclaimer: I don't own any of these characters, and I'm not really sure who DOES own them, but I know I make no money from this work of fiction. Oh, and the DVD was produced by Kaboom!
Exhausted, a little uncertain about the future yet happy, Catherine made her way out to her vehicle that Christmas Eve. She reached her destination and fumbled for her keys, wearily trying to fit the correct one into the doorlock. She had run the gamut of more emotions than usual this evening, and could hardly wait to get home before attempting to process them all. Most insistent of all, however, was the little voice in her head that kept chirping, "He was there!"
"Stop right there, Doctor Howard! You're not going anywhere for a few minutes!"
Her fingers tightened on the keys for a brief moment of consternation until she recognized the voice, then Catherine looked around to see Robert looking at her with such naked longing on his face that her knees turned soft and she went light-headed.
"You're beautiful." His voice was ragged. "The most beautiful person in the world for saving my grand-daughter's life tonight."
The compliment was so simple and heartfelt that it almost brought tears to Catherine's eyes. "Th-thank you."
"I can't thank you enough. I want to kiss you in gratitude, but..." Robert's voice trailed away.
"I... you shouldn't say that..." Catherine began, but she didn't mean it. She wanted him to say it. She wanted him to do it! Not in gratitude, though, but rather in desire. She wanted him to push her against the vehicle and kiss her until she ran out of breath. She wanted to feel his body pressed up against hers... all that hard masculinity...
"You came tonight. You're here now, close enough for me to touch. I haven't been able to think about anything or anyone else, Catherine, but you, for months!"
"We only met four weeks ago," she pointed out perversely.
"It's just a metaphor. I'm very attracted to you," he admitted candidly, his eyes searching hers. "Are you saying you don't feel the same way?"
She felt exactly the same way. She rarely went more than five minutes without thinking about Robert. She hadn't since he had walked into Tom's old room at the hospice last Thanksgiving Day, if she were truthful to herself. She hadn't wanted to be thinking about him. She had been angry with him, both that Thanksgiving night and then when he had not shown up at Murray's the following Sunday, and even more earlier this evening when he had claimed to have been at the restaurant after all.
Yet, Lori had said that her mother had died that Sunday morning, so Robert had not lied to her after all. He had been there! In spite of all the anger and questions, sensual images of Robert and of how they might have been together had things been different had plagued her for weeks. Could she lie now? Could she look him in the eye and say she did not want him? If she could, it might make their lives simpler. Catherine really didn't need a man in her life, having at long last come to terms with Tom's death, and it seemed probable that Jaclyn and Lori would feel her unnecessary, to say the least, in Robert's life.
Yes, shutting the door firmly on any type of personal relationship was the sane, wise thing for her to do. Robert would respect her decision. She knew that about him. Catherine looked him steadily in the eye and stiffened her spine, mentally rehearsing what she would say. She opened her mouth, intending to be firm but kind. But what came out of her mouth were the words, "I want to kiss you more than I have ever wanted to kiss anyone in my whole life."
Her words surprised Robert as well as herself, but he told himself he just wanted one kiss then he would go home and try to forget about her for a few more months. He grasped her shoulders and backed her up against her vehicle. Catherine's moist lips parted slightly, her breasts rising and falling rapidly as he could see easily since her coat, as usual, hung open. "Last chance to say no," he murmured huskily, almost licking his lips in anticipation of the treat to come.
Catherine took the initiative, leaned forward, pressed her enticing lips to his, and they were immediately in a different world. Time and space were non-existent. For Robert, there was only Catherine; the feel of her, the scent of her, the wanting that so obviously welled up in her as palpable to him as his own desire. She kissed him deeply, her arms tightly around his body, and he felt the almost-forgotten fire of desire flaring hotly.
A wolf whistle broke them apart, and a laughing group of nurses passed. Catherine hurriedly got into her car without another word to Robert, who stood back and watched her drive away. Later that evening, tossing and turning in her bed and unable to sleep, Catherine wished she had not kissed him, wished she had told him that she had lied about not being at Murray's, wished the night would pass.
The next morning at the hospital, however, after she had agreed to go with him and he had brought her almost to the cabin, Robert was hoping desperately that he would never have to kiss her then watch her leave him again. Of course, she might have been more impressed with him that morning had he managed to stay on the road instead of ending up in the ditch once more, and in the same place, but he didn't think he really had stranded them here on purpose, as Catherine suggested!
Once inside the cabin after Robert had again broken in, much to Catherine's dismay, she took off her scarf and demanded, "Where are Charlie and Robin?"
"Howard and Millie moved to Florida," Robert announced. "The place was for sale." He grinned at her, unrepentantly, and waited for her to state the obvious.
"This is your vacation home?" Catherine asked, incredulously. As she stepped further into the room, she looked around the cabin which hadn't changed much in the month since they had been here. "You ... bought it?" She turned to allow Robert to remove her coat, noting the fire in the fireplace.
"Yes. For an emergency. In case I ever got stranded again, which, as you know, I just did!" He tossed her coat onto a chair and put his hands on her upper arms as she turned back to him. "Do you believe in second chances?" he asked, hardly daring to hope she felt as he did. She had to have experienced the same emotions when they had kissed the previous evening, or his perceptions had dropped way off in the long months since MaryBeth had been distanced from him by the Alzheimer's.
"I'm a woman of science. I only believe in what I see." Catherine replied, staring directly at him and smiling slightly. Happiness was shining out of her eyes and shimmering through her veins.
Robert reached out with one hand and closed the door gently, still running his gaze over her lovely face hungrily. It was so hard to believe that they were here again... that she was here again, with him! But he, too, believed in what he could see, and he could see love in her expression. "Merry Christmas, Millie."
"Merry Christmas, Howard," Catherine replied softly, conceding to him in their game of names.
Their lips met, tentatively at first. As the kiss deepened, they drew each other closer and kissed with all the pent-up need both had suppressed for so long. Heat exploded inside them and both felt as if they might just burst with happiness. The kiss lengthened, then became two, then three, then too many to count.
Then Catherine froze momentarily, thoughts of Tom, Marybeth and Robert jumbled in the haze passion had cast over her mind. Instantly aware of her hesitation and correctly guessing the cause, Robert very slowly ended the kiss, and eased back before opening his eyes to see her dazedly looking at him. Her lovely blue eyes were shadowed from the shock of her re-discovered passion. He was certain the look on his face showed his confusion just as much as hers did.
"Oh, damn, Robert!" she said at last, when she could speak, and pressed her face into his shoulder. She couldn't bear to look at the pain she knew she would see in his eyes.
Both were trembling in the aftermath of their ardour and it took a few moments before Robert could speak. At last he muttered, "Sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..." He went over and sat on the sofa with his head in his hands, wondering how his life had spun so out of control in just one month.
Catherine followed after a moment and perched beside him, nudging him until he looked up at her. Seeing the look of dismay on his face, and hoping it was because of his tangled, raw emotions and not because of their kiss, she took his hands in hers and said earnestly, "It's just too soon, Robert. For both of us, I suspect, but especially for you. It has only been a month. And even after a year, well, as I've said before, you never really forget the person who has occupied your heart for so long! Yes, we appear to be attracted to each other right now, but perhaps it's just the timing and the fact that we're missing Tom and MaryBeth so very much. Let's go for... for a full year... simply as friends... friends for those times we need a companion... rather than trying to, well, trying to be lovers. We don't have to rush into things. Let's wait and see... and just be friends, with no strings."
"No benefits, either?" Robert couldn't resist quirking an eyebrow at her. He truly loved her for being so sensible, so beautiful...
Catherine flushed and drew back. "Well, certainly not those benefits!" she almost snapped.
"Damn. Would it help if I said it has been much more than a month of abstinence for me?"
Now Catherine laughed. "No, Robert. That does not help. No strings, and no benefits! Well, other than companionship when otherwise we would be alone. Friends?" She held out her hand, reminding him of their handshake on Thanksgiving night.
Robert couldn't believe he was agreeing to this. Just friends? With Catherine? With this woman he suddenly wanted more than he wanted air to breathe? He was in trouble, but what could he do? He held out his hand and took hers in it, gently but firmly. He had to concur, damn it. He also had to get the tow truck to come to get him out of the ditch as soon as possible so he could get Catherine back to her house before he attempted to ravish her again!
Thus began a new life for both of them. They met at Murray's often for breakfast over the following months... usually with Michael as their unofficial chaperone but not always. Sometimes Robert's entire family was there, and Catherine was welcomed into their midst with only minimal wariness. They attended the occasional concert and went to the movies when a new one came out. Catherine helped refurbish the cabin to be a 'proper' vacation home and Robert added a couple of bedrooms so they wouldn't have to climb the ladder to the loft. They talked, getting to know each other well. They even talked about Tom and MaryBeth.
"I think you would have gotten along well with Tom and I think I could have been friends with MaryBeth," Catherine mused once.
"She'd have loved you as much as I do," Robert grinned, then stopped. "Wait. No, she wouldn't." Catherine chuckled and Robert growled a bit before saying, "That was just a metaphor! Fine. Back to friends with no strings or benefits. Just breakfast dates, dinner dates... no pressure and no rush."
At his disgruntled look and tone, Catherine grinned. "I think I have already experienced your idea of 'no pressure'!"
"You feel the same way, Catherine Howard, and don't you try to convince me otherwise! Besides, you'll find out that I improve over wine and with time." Then his voice softened and he said, "I promise I'll do my best to be the gentleman you want me to be until you feel comfortable with taking things to the next level."
Over the months, they grew closer together but never once kissed again, although it was getting harder and harder to turn away from each other. Robert's gaze more and more frequently drifted to Catherine's lips and his desire grew so great that it was a physical ache. MaryBeth had not been his wife in more than name for over three years which was something that truthfully had never bothered him before meeting Catherine. But there was something about this new woman in his life that drove him crazy with lust! He often questioned his sanity for having agreed to keeping their distance for an entire year.
Because he was not too subtle with his emotions, Catherine found herself dizzy with longing to feel his mouth on hers, his body against hers with no more barriers between them. To be completely honest with herself, Catherine admitted inwardly that it was much more difficult than she had thought it would be to restrain herself from having a blatantly sexual relationship with Robert. She had thought that, at their age, their hormones would have gone to sleep. Instead, it seemed that the moment they had agreed to a more or less platonic friendship, she had been ready to drag him to the nearest horizontal surface and ravish him!
The fact that they were not overtly affectionate with one another seemed to please Lori and Jaclyn very much indeed, which only exacerbated Catherine's longing to love their father in every possible way. She ruthlessly suppressed those desires, of course, but they haunted her none-the-less. She began to wonder why Robert had ever agreed to her crazy idea to keep their friendship non-physical, and the fleeting thought crossed her mind that perhaps he found her easy to resist because of her 'ice and high walls' before she told herself crossly that she never had had those in place anyway, even before changing her hairstyle slightly!
By the time summer was almost over, they were no more been able to keep from kissing than they had been able to avoid seeing each other. Catherine had already worked through her grief at Tom's death, finally realizing that she could no longer use her late husband to work through her problems, to share events of the day and her deepest thoughts. She needed to deal with her life by herself. Tom was gone. That would always be a tender point of grief, but she was still living. And living meant she had to at least make the attempt to open herself and her heart to new experiences – and new loves – that life brought her.
One evening right after Robert's family had left the cabin following a day of vigorous outdoor activity, Catherine gathered her things for the drive back to her place.
"Want to go to Murray's for a late dinner?" Robert asked as he walked her out to her vehicle.
"Catherine, my family trusts me and they like you."
"Robert, do you know how bizarre this all is? MaryBeth..."
"MaryBeth was sick for years, and they knew it," Robert growled. "I'd have thought you, of all women, would understand. I'll have you know I was a faithful husband until I met you, and I took my 'for better or worse, in sickness and in health' commitment seriously! It wasn't until after MaryBeth died that I..."
"Robert, I'm still uneasy. It's too soon. Lori and Jaclyn will have a hard time accepting me as a more permanent fixture in your life..."
"So what are we supposed to do? Just wait until they give the signal that we've suffered enough loneliness to suit them before getting together?"
"I'm just as confused and trapped by social niceties as you are, Robert! Marina and William have never let me forget that I should still be worshipping Tom's memory! But..."
"Aw, hell, Catherine! We're talking too much!" He gripped her upper arms, drew her close, lowered his head and kissed her before she could evade him.
O o O o O o
After the kiss, Catherine had fled, her face pale and her lips swollen from a kiss that had gone from whisper-soft to ardent before either of them could stop it. Yes, both of them would continue to struggle with this intense passion between them for some time yet! They'd both feel a little guilt, too, because it simply wasn't possible for anyone to live with another person for so many years and make every memory go away! And yet, it had been a real challenge for Robert to let Catherine go, and he was already wondering how long she would make him wait now before he could see her again.
Giving her time to get home, Robert phoned her later and, although it went against the grain to say it, he muttered, "I'm sorry I just grabbed you, Catherine."
Catherine winced at the dejection in his tone. "Oh, Robert, it wasn't that. No, the kiss was wonderful..."
He drew in a long, relieved breath. "What I really wanted to do was to take you to my bed and show you that I am not without some finesse."
"I think by now I know what you are and what you're capable of, Robert."
"Let me come over, Catherine. We shouldn't be having this conversation on the phone!"
"No... no, Robert. Please. If you come over now, when I'm still so... well, it won't be just kissing. And I'm not ready for anything more yet, and I don't believe you are, either... yes, it is obvious our relationship has moved to the next level now, and we are going to be kissing each other..."
"A lot!" he interjected.
"Probably," she admitted truthfully. "But..."
"You're killing me, Catherine."
Catherine sighed and sank down on her bed, eying the peanut butter jar conveniently on her night stand. She needed her comfort food – now! "I'm not feeling too wonderful myself, Robert."
"I knew that. My hunch is that you're now going to try to freeze me out because you think that what we just shared was a mistake."
"No, it wasn't a mistake. It was wonderful, as I said. But I can't just throw aside all my duties and responsibilities that easily. People depend on me, and if I get too involved with you right now, I'm not going to be thinking clearly. No, Robert... kissing, but no further. Until our year is up in November, all right?"
Grumbling, Robert finally agreed, although every time he kissed her after that, he kept trying to urge her to go a little further.
Then it was Hallowe'en. Catherine hoped to see Robert that evening, but they hadn't made any specific plans. That evening, she was home and going to the door every time she heard muffled shouts, knocking or the doorbell, handing out Hershey bars and admiring the children's costumes as usual. Seeing that the huge bowl of candy wasn't being depleted very quickly, she reflected that there were not as many children coming around as there once had been, proof that not only was she getting old but so were most of the people in her neighbourhood!
Once the doorbell rang and she opened it to see Michael standing there, grinning up at her. "Hi, Dr. Cat! Here's a message for you!" and he held up a yellow paper with uneven letters printed on it.
"Well, hello!" She eyed him thoughtfully. "You're a messenger boy?"
"That's right!" he beamed. "You guessed right!"
Seeing Lori and Jaclyn standing back by the driveway, Catherine waved at them and they waved back. She wondered where Robert was but didn't like to ask the young boy. She pretended to be disappointed in just a paper message and said to Michael, "No singing telegram? In that case, before you get a treat from me, I expect you to treat ME... and sing a song!"
Michael thought about that, then nodded. "Okay. This is baby MaryBeth's favourite song now." and he sang, "I love you! You love me! We're a happy family..."
Catherine chuckled and hugged him, then Michael dissolved into giggles before saying, "That's a message from Grandpa for you! Your singing telgram!"
She dropped a number of chocolate bars into his bag after thanking him, wished Robert had put the idea into Michael's head, then waved again to Lori and Jaclyn. Later on, after not having had any trick-or-treaters for a while, Catherine was opening one of the Hershey bars to eat herself when the doorbell rang again.
Glancing first at the clock to see that it was later than most children generally were out, she went to the door and peered through the peephole. Instead of seeing anyone, she could only see a large plywood heart with a crack down it and messages printed in magic marker all over it. 'Wanted: Impressive doctor to mend broken heart!' 'TLC Required!' 'Doctor's assistance needed!' were just a few of the visible messages.
Catherine began to laugh, opened the door and Robert peeked around the heart, looking indignant. "I worked hard at this, and you laugh? You're supposed to be a heart doctor and mend hearts, not break them!"
"Oh, Robert, honestly!"
"Come with me to the cabin, Catherine?" he asked abruptly.
Catherine's breath caught in her throat. She had become so aware of this man over the last eleven months. Whenever he touched her, even when it was just his eyes on her, her skin tingled. Her pulse raced and her heart beat faster in anticipation of the time when they finally would act on the intense emotions that had been building ever since their first special night.
"Now? At this time of night? You're crazy, Robert!"
"Probably. Will you come anyway?"
She couldn't resist him any longer. Suddenly talking was no longer enough for her. She nodded and grabbed her jacket, taking his hand as they walked to the car. It seemed that for both of them suddenly it was no longer satisfying to merely talk, and the kissing was growing more and more heated.
Even so, once they were in the cabin and Robert had started a fire in the fireplace, she tried to slow things down when he reached for her. As he lowered his head, Catherine whispered, "Robert, we shouldn't. I don't think..."
"Stop thinking for once," he murmured huskily. "Just for one minute, stop thinking and only feel... me..."
His kiss was as tender and as coaxing as his words. His lips brushed over hers before skimming over her cheek and chin, then back to her mouth. He claimed her mouth with his, after which nothing else seemed to matter.
"I love you, Catherine!" he said huskily.
"I love you, too," she responded in her own throaty whisper.
True love really was an acceptance of all that is, has been, will be, and will not be. Catherine trembled as though struck by lightning, and held on to him tightly. Robert could feel the tremors of his own excitement and need, and guided her to the couch. That, however, proved too narrow, so they ended up on the carpet in front of the fireplace, entwined in each other's arms, and loving each other passionately.
As the all-consuming wave of desire gradually receded, their hearts continued to pound as one. Robert buried his face in Catherine's hair as he fought to catch his breath. He didn't want to live in the real world, where passion dies but life goes on. He didn't know what he would do if he looked into Catherine's eyes and saw regret.
Catherine came back to the real world as her breathing finally began to even out and she realized she was lying on the cabin floor with a delicious man on top of her. This was crazy! She laughed, because what else could she do with the realization that they were complete lunatics? "We couldn't even make it to a bed."
"We were living dangerously," Robert mumbled. "Give me a few more seconds, Catherine, and we can try again... in a bed..." He hadn't recovered this quickly since he had been a teenager!
"I loved your passion." she admitted softly, smiling up at him.
"You inspired me. But now I don't want to let you go in case you try to run away again."
"I just need you to roll off me..." Catherine sighed.
With a satisfying growl, Robert rolled them again. Catherine barely had the energy to grab at the afghan on the sofa and pull it over them as they lay side by side on the thick rug on the floor before they fell asleep after their delightful exertions.
The next morning, Catherine was awakened by a kiss and a question, "Do you want a big church wedding?"
"No!" she croaked, then cleared her throat and peered at him blearily. "Do you?"
"It takes too long to plan that kind of wedding," she added.
"Okay, let's elope to Vegas tonight," he suggested, with an ardent and intimate leer.
"Too flashy and impersonal," she said.
"We could have a minister or a judge come to the house. Either of the houses. Or here."
"Here," Catherine said immediately. "I want to live here with you. I have so many special memories of our night here last year! I can sell my place."
"I'll sell, or better yet, give mine to Lori," Robert said. "That way, if that little weasel cheats on her one more time and she throws him out for good this time, she and the kids will still have a home."
"Then I'll give the same amount that your house is worth to Jaclyn, so she doesn't feel slighted. I think we'll have enough left to live on."
"Works for me. When is this going to happen? Today?"
"Robert! I have people dep..."
"I know! I know! You have responsibilities and duties, and people depend on you. Welcome to the real world, Catherine!"
She smiled reluctantly. "You're right. But I don't think I can be ready today. I want a new dress... and I want a few days off, at least, so I'll have to give them some notice..."
"That's one nice thing about owning the company, I don't have to answer to anyone. But I'm thinking now I want to retire and spend most of my time loving you..." and Robert kissed her and began to caress her again so tenderly that she fell even deeper in love with him, if that were possible.
"Oh, oh yes, Robert!" she gasped at last. Holding his hands still for a moment, she managed to say, "I think I'll put in for retirement, too, if you are. I could have retired after Tom died, but I needed to keep going then. Now, however..."
"So when can we be married, if not today?"
"How about Thanksgiving Day?" Catherine suggested. "A year since we met! We can light a thousand candles, tell everyone who has come to all go home, then we can play scrabble and make love all night long..."
"Works for me!" Robert said, although by the twinkle in his eye, she knew he was thinking about burning the house down. "Mmm, Millie or Robin or Catherine, whatever your name is, you are delicious!" and he nuzzled her again.
"That's what I thought about you, last year and now!"
And together they created some more special memories.