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Upon a Midnight Clear (Chapter Five)

Kim waited inside the lobby. She tried to appear as casual as she could, even though her heart was racing. Why was she so nervous? It's not as if this was… a date or something. It was merely a chance to get out of the hospital and do something different.

The elevator doors opened, and Tony walked out with his skates swung over his shoulders. He was wearing jeans and big heavy construction boots. He had his hands tucked into his Patagonia jacket. "Hi, Kim," he said with a smile.

"Hi… Dr. Hoffman," she replied. Tony grinned at her. "Cmon," he said, nodding toward the exit. As soon as they stepped outside, he said, "Can you call me Tony now? I mean, we're not in the hospital anymore."

"I don't know," she said with a laugh. "I can try."

"Are you bundled up warm?" he asked.

"Warm enough."

"Good," he said. "Because I had to bring the motorcycle today."

His motorcycle? It couldn't be any warmer than thirty degrees. "Don't you have a car?" she asked suspiciously.

"I have a car, but it's got a hundred and fifty thousand miles on it, so it's continually in the shop. I need to go pick it up, but I haven't had a chance to get over there. Up until recently, though, it's been a great car. I can't quite bring myself to trade it in. Anyway," he said, nodding to the left, "my bike is right over there."

"We can take my car. Or rather, my dad's car," Kim offered hopefully.

"I like the fresh air. Do you mind? The park isn't far. It's right up the street."

"No," she said, resigned to making the best of the situation. "It's fine." He stopped at his motorcycle and slipped his skates into one of the containers he had fastened on the back. He handed her a helmet. "You keep an extra one?" she asked. Smooth operator.

He shrugged. "Sometimes." He slid onto the bike and motioned for her to get on behind him.

She winced as she pushed up her coat, straddling her legs over the banana-shaped seat, and sat up against him. This was way too intimate. What was she doing with this doctor without a cause? She looked for a place to hold on and, not finding any, folded her hands neatly in her lap. "So what kind of car do you have," she yelled. "A Jeep?"

"No."

"Saab?"

"No."

"Volvo"

He lifted off his helmet and twisted around. "Wrong again. This is Detroit, remember? I drive a Ford. A Taurus."

She looked at him as though she didn't quite believe him. He didn't look like the kind of guy who would drive a Ford Taurus. Too practical. She thought at the very least he'd be in a Jeep.

She must have looked confused because he bit back a smile and said, "Have you ever ridden on one of these before? "

She shook her head.

He laughed. "Well, you better hold on. I don't want to have you fall off. I'd have a hard time explaining it to your father." She uncomfortably placed her hands on either side of his waist He revved up the engine, and they were off.

Kim tightened her legs around the side of the motorcycle and leaned forward. The cold, damp air sprayed in her face as she turned back toward the hospital. She wondered what her father would think of Tony taking his daughter for a spin on his bike. She had a sneaky suspicion he wouldn't approve. Still, he must like Tony. Of all the doctors he could have chosen for his team, he had picked Tony.

Tony pulled the bike into the park and drove down to a pond that had frozen over. "C'mon," he said, pulling off his helmet and nodding toward a large wooden building. "That's the lodge. They rent skates in there."

Kim followed Tony inside. Before she could stop him, he had rented her a pair of skates.

"You didn't have to do that," she said.

"Do what? " he asked. "Rent me skates."

"Why? Did you plan on wearing those?" he said, pointing toward her cute little suede flats. She had lived in the south so long, she had found herself without boots or anything even close to resembling snow shoes. "You'd probably get the same effect."

"True," Kim said good-naturedly. "Well, thanks, Dr. Hoffman," she added somewhat awkwardly.

"Tony," he corrected her patiently, sitting down on the bench. "Please call me Tony. That's my name. I don't call you Artist Kim. Besides, it makes me feel old."

"Hmm. Old. I'm sure that's a word that's not usually used to describe you," Kim teased.

"Oh? And why not?" Tony asked hesitantly, not certain he was going to like her answer.

"Well, you certainly try your best to act young."

"Oh, really?" he said, looking at her playfully. "That wasn't meant to be a compliment by any chance, was it?"

"Well, you know what I mean. Motorcycle. Leather jacket. You just have an aura about you. You probably date college girls."

"I have a college girl aura?" He laughed. "The last time I dated a college girl was when I was in college." He looked at her and shook his head. "You think you've got me figured out, don't you?" he said as he stood up and skated onto the ice.

He turned around to face her and started skating backward.

Kim stood up to follow him, but hesitated, still at the edge of the pond, It had been a long time since she had been in a pair of skates–and she couldn't say she felt like a natural. "I wouldn't say I've got you figured out… but I think I understand you. Your type."

"My type!" he said incredulously, skating forward to help her onto the ice.

"You know… you're a doctor, so you feel like the creative side of you is being… well, denied. So you adapt this bad boy persona–i.e., motorcycle and leather jacket. Single guy–never been married… it's your way of letting people know that you're really a creative, multitalented individual."

"Is that so?" he asked, amused. "I'll have to remember that the next time I'm with a woman. I'll let her know that I can't possibly marry her, because, well, my bad boy image would go down the tubes."

"That's right," she said.

"Would you like some assistance onto the ice?" he asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously. She smiled, looking into his eyes as she accepted his outstretched hand.

"So what else do you think you know about me?" he said, resting one arm around her waist as he pulled her in close so that they were skating side by side.

She paused, thinking. "You're up on hip music," she said. "You're definitely a Democrat. You typically date about three women at the same time. You're spontaneous and… a little wild."

"Wrong, right, wrong, right, not really sure. What's wild?"

She smiled. "Trust me, you're wild," she said, breaking away. She skated toward the edge of the pond, her confidence increasing with her speed.

"Oh yeah?" he teased, following her. "You were wrong about the three women. I'll have you know I date no less than four women at a time," he joked. "And they're quadruplets to boot."

Kim laughed as she skated around the rink, her arms outstretched. Tony followed her, and soon they were doing turns around the ice, showing off their limited skills and laughing like schoolchildren. After a while, Kim got a little cocky, and when she completed her spin, she finished it off with a clumsy half-jump.

He clapped his hands in approval. "Excellent!" Kim pretended to bow. "Now you," she said, moving out of the way.

He skated away. She watched him pick up speed, and then, in an exceptionally graceful move, he jumped up and spun around, landing on one foot.

She clapped her hands, which turned out to be a mistake. She fell down, her rear end hitting the ice with a loud thump.

Tony was by her side in a flash, helping her up. He began to brush the snow off her rear end. Embarrassed, she said, "I'm fine. Really." She pushed him away and proceeded to fall right back onto her rear.

This time, embarrassment gave way to laughter. Kim sat on the ice and threw her head back as she howled with laughter. Smiling himself, Tony helped her up. He stood in front of her, gently holding on to her arms.

"How do you do that?" she asked. "That spinning around thing?"

"Practice. You could do it, too."

"I don't think so," she said, laughing. "It would take a miracle."

She suddenly realized that he wasn't letting go. Nor did she want him to. She glanced up at him. Both of them stopped smiling as they stared at each other, aware of the electricity between them. "Now it's my turn," Tony said softly, still staring into her eyes.

"For what?" she asked, swallowing.

"Let's see…" he said, thinking. "I'd say you're the opposite of what one would imagine an artist to be. You prefer classical music to, as you called it, 'hip' music, you're a Republican, you're compulsive to the point of driving your friends crazy, and you have trouble dating more than one person at the same time."

"Right, wrong, right, right," she said.

"So we're more alike than you thought Because I, too, like classical music. And I also don't like to date more than one person at a time."

"And are you dating anyone right now?" she heard herself ask.

He shook his head. Kim glanced away, mortified that she had been so forward. And so obvious. She noticed that he hadn't bothered to ask her that question. He may not be dating anyone, but he still wasn't interested in her. He was just being nice. And she had misinterpreted it.

She heard a quiet beeping noise. Tony pulled out a small black beeper and looked at it. Turning it off, he stuck the beeper back into his belt. "That's the hospital," he said, all trace of humor gone from his face. "We should get back."

Kim stayed with her father until he went to sleep. Before she left she tucked the blankets in around him. He had seemed quite a bit improved from the day before, but he was still groggy and tired.

As she walked down the hall she continued to think about her father. He had asked her several questions about her life, like if she was married, if she had kids. He asked her about her career and seemed happy that she was doing well.

Despite good intentions from both of them, they were still a bit awkward and unsure about each other. So much time had passed since they had last spoken that Kim wondered if they would ever be able to completely heal the broken bond between them.

Leaving thoughts of her father and the hospital behind her, Kim stepped out into the parking lot and saw that white, powdery snow had coated the streets and the cars. It had been so long since she had seen snow that she had forgotten how beautiful it could be. Zipping up her coat as she made her way toward her car, she stopped and glanced around the snow- covered lot. As she rounded the corner of the hospital she saw Tony standing beside his motorcycle, shaking his head…

"Tony?" she called out as she walked over to him.

"Hey, Kim," he greeted her. "Don't say it."

"Say what?"

"What you're thinking. "This guy should know better than to drive a motorcycle in December.'"

"Okay," she agreed, trying to keep the laughter out of her voice. "Can I ask you if you want a ride somewhere?"

He nodded. "If you give me a ride, then you can say it." She smiled as she led him back toward her car.

"Whoa," he said, sliding inside. "Now this is a car."

"Same car he drove when I was in high school"

"Does it bring back memories of driver's ed.?"

"Almost." She turned the key in the ignition, causing the engine to spin to life. "Where do you live?" she asked, backing the car out of the space.

"Not very far from here. Off of State Circle. On Michigan Avenue."

"Apartment?" she asked, effortlessly steering the car through what must have been at least eight inches of powdery snow.

"Is that where you'd think I'd live?" "Well," she said, smiling, "I would've said yes, but I can tell from the way you asked that you live in a house. Dont you?"

"Very perceptive, Holmes."

"Thank you, Dr. Watson… or Hoffman, as the case may be." He smiled at her. A friendly smile, she decided. But not an "interested" smile. She made a left-hand turn onto Michigan Avenue.

"It's this house up here on the right," he said pointing to a two-story colonial. Nice, but not ostentatious. It was a family house, not the type of house she expected him to have. She thought he'd have something a little flashier, showier.

"It's nice," she said simply.

"It's a little big for me right now. I haven't done much with it since I bought it"

She pulled up in front of his house and stopped. Before he could open the door she blurted out, "About earlier. I'm sorry if I seemed a little… forward."

He put his hand on the door handle and hesitated. "What? I was just about to apologize to you."

"For what?" she asked, surprised.

"Well, I… I damned near kissed you on the ice."

"You did?" she asked hopefully. "I, well, do you…" He hesitated for a split second. "Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee or tea? Actually, I could use your opinion on something. A couple of holiday decorations I bought for the yard."

Kim checked her watch, playing it cool.

"And I'd also like you to meet Geena."

"Geena? "

"My dog."

Kim nodded. Of course. His dog. "Um, sure," she said, turning off the car. As soon as she stepped outside she realized that she was going to have to walk through quite a bit of unshoveled snow. Her little flats–or what was left of them–would be finished off. Oh, well, she thought. All for a good cause.

Kim followed Tony to the house, trying to step into the imprints of his shoes. When he opened the door a golden retriever stood in front of them, wagging her tail in greeting.

"Hey, sweetie," Tony said, bending down to greet his pet. "This is Kim."

Kim leaned over and patted the dog. "She's adorable."

"Thank you," Tony said, glancing at Kim's feet. "Your shoes are soaked," he said. "It's no problem," she said, stomping her feet on the welcome mat.

"Give them to me," he said, adding, "I'll put them in the furnace room to dry."

She slipped off her shoes.

"And your socks," he said.

"My socks?"

He nodded.

She slipped off her socks and handed them to him, trying to ignore the chipped red nail polish on her toes.

He headed toward the furnace room with Geena following behind. As Kim listened to Tony gabbing amiably to Geena, she wandered into the room across from her and turned on the light. The large room was empty with the exception of a black leather couch placed in front of the fireplace.

"Like what I've done with it?" he said from behind her. She turned around. He was holding a pair of thick wool socks.

"Impressive."

"Here are some socks for you to wear while your shoes dry."

"Thank you." She took the socks and smiled. "Where's Geena?" "She's outside. She seems a little tired. I pay the kids in the neighborhood to come over and play with her during the day. She tells me it's been a rough one. I think they wore her out"

Kim smiled. "So what did you want my opinion on?"

"These," he said, heading toward the room across from them. He turned on the light. The dining room was empty with the exception of-an inexpensive- looking giant plastic Santa and snowman. Instead of appearing cheery, the Santa had an eerie, almost jack- o-lantern grin. And the snowman's eyes were painted so haphazardly, they appeared crossed.

All in all, they were two of the ugliest, not to mention scariest, Christmas decorations Kim had ever seen. She glanced at Tony. So much for his art appreciation.

Tony was looking at her intently, waiting for her opinion.

"Nice," she said, trying to sound sincere as she bent over to slip on the socks.

"Do you think they look good together? Or should I put one in the front and one in the back?"

God forbid they be together. One was bad enough. "Ah, one in the front, one in the back."

"Done!" he said just as the teakettle whistled. She finished pulling on her socks and followed him into the kitchen.

"What kind of tea do you like?"

"Um…" she said, staring at the wallpaper. She guessed that it had been installed by the previous owners. It was bright yellow with clusters of fruit all over.

"I've got Cinnamon Apple… and Cinnamon Apple. I also have some beer if you're interested."

"Cinnamon Apple sounds great."

She glanced at him as he pulled the tea bags out.

He handed her a cup of tea and then opened the back door, letting Geena back in. Geena walked into the room, gave them both a sniff, and then went to her bed and lay down. "What did I tell you," he said. "She's bushed. C'mon," he said, nodding for Kim to follow him. "Let's go back to the other room. I'll start a fire."

A fire? A fire was almost synonymous with romance. "I really can't stay that long," she said as she followed him back into the living room.

"It'll take a minute. If you're going to be indoors in the winter, you should have a fire."

She sat down on the couch and watched as he crumpled up some newspapers. "How long have you lived here?" she asked, looking around at the empty walls.

"I don't know. Five years or so."

"And you don't have any furniture?"

He nodded behind him. "I have a couch. Doesn't that qualify?"

"You know what they say about guys that don't have furniture," she said, sitting on the couch.

"I have a feeling I'm going to find out."

"No couch, no commitment."

"I have a couch," he repeated, lighting the fire.

"Well, you get the drift. Men who can't commit to furniture are certainly not going to be able to commit to a relationship."

He stood up and tilted his head, looking at her curiously. "I've got to admit I've never heard that before."

She shrugged her shoulders as she daintily sipped her tea.

"Just for your information," he said, leaning on the fireplace mantle, "the reason why I don't have furniture is because I was committed. And when we broke up, she got the furniture."

"Oh?" she asked as innocently as she could. "Ex- wife?"

He shook his head as he sat back down next to her. "No. Serious girlfriend. We dated for five years, lived together for one. When we split up, she got the furniture, and I got Geena. Which is exactly what I wanted."

"Oh," she said again, staring into the fire.

"Well?" he said, leaning over to look her in the eyes.

"What?"

He flashed her a sly grin. "You're going to let it drop? You're not going to ask me why it didn't work out?"

"Okay, doctor," she said amicably. "Why didn't it work out?"

He shrugged. "I really don't know," he said thinking. "It was just one of those things. We never fought, we just… drifted apart Actually, there was never that… spark, you know what I mean? I guess I always knew that we would never marry. And so did she."

She nodded.

"In retrospect, I think we were both too much alike. There wasn't enough… balance."

"Was she in medicine?" He nodded. "A surgeon. And, just FYI, she was a couple of years older than me." He took a sip of his tea. "So much for your theory of my dating younger women. Although," he said, hesitating, "I have to admit I've been out with a few younger women since my breakup with Robin."

"Playing the field?"

"Not really. I just… well, my time is pretty valuable to me. I don't have much of it. And I've decided not to keep seeing a woman when I know we're not right for each other. I learned that lesson."

Kim nodded. She understood. After all, she felt the same way–which unfortunately, meant that she usually ended up spending the holidays by herself– or worse, sitting across from a blind date.

"What about you?" he asked. "Any marriages in your past? Close calls?"

She shook her head and furrowed her brow, thinking. "I was serious with someone earlier this year, but it didn't work out"

"Too bad."

She shook her head. "Well, not really serious. I guess I should qualify by saying serious for me, which is probably casual for you… am I making sense?" "How many dates?"

"Dates? I don't know. A lot."

"Let me ask you this: Did he ask you out for Saturday night or was it just assumed you were doing something?"

"Assumed."

"Sounds pretty serious."

Kim laughed.

At just that moment, Geena walked into the room and let out a deep bark, causing them both to jump. Tony laughed and shook his head. "Sometimes she just does that. For no reasom"

Kim smiled at him.

"What do you think of dogs?" he asked.

"Do you mean, do I like them? Or what does it mean when a guy has a dog?"

"Both."

"Yes, I like them and yes, it's a very good sign. About commitment," she added quickly. "Helps to make up for the lack of furniture."

Tony nodded and grinned. He shook his head as if in admiration. "You know, I'm getting the impression that you have a wild, stubborn streak yourself."

Kim laughed. "I think you're right–on one account, at least. But I'm definitely not wild. I'm the type of girl who goes to bed at nine o'clock."

"Nine o'clock sharp?"

"Every night. And you?"

"I burn the midnight oil"

"See? Wild man."

"Yeah. I'm usually out escorting college girls around town or doing transplants," he joked. "I alternate nights." He paused, looking at her as if he was deciding on something. "You know, Kim," he said, raising an eyebrow. "I really didn't ask you in to get your opinion on those plastic… things," he said, nodding toward the dining room where the snowman and Santa were stored. "They're a joke present for one of the administrators at the hospital."

Kim started to smile.

"But I'll have you know, I was impressed by how… delicate you were about your disapproval."

"So," she said carefully. "Why did you ask me in?"

He glanced back at the fire. "I guess I just want to get to know you better. Most of the people… or rather women… that I meet are somehow connected to the hospital. It's not often I get to spend time with an artist."

She nodded. "So you like my profession." He shook his head. "I like you," he said softly. He sighed. "I just… well, it's a little awkward. The fact that you're Harold Risson's daughter."

"I'm of age," she volunteered. "Barely, of course."

"I know, but it could still be awkward."

She shrugged. "As you're aware, he and I have had our differences." She hesitated as she put down her teacup. "I've been making up my own mind for years."

Tony turned toward her and brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes. "There's that wild streak again."

She felt a tingling down her spine. He had a gaze that made her want to melt into his leather bachelor- pad sofa. Suddenly, Tony leaned forward and kissed her. Kim kissed him back, welcoming his tongue as it slid inside her mouth. But when he gently began to push her back on the couch, she broke away.

"What is it?" he asked quietly.

"I… I'm not sure I'm ready for this… for us," she stammered. "Not that we're an us, or anything," she added quickly. She didn't want him to think that she was assuming they were about to begin a relationship. For all she knew, he was interested in a one-night stand. "It's just that I've got a lot on my plate right now… with my dad and everything. I'm not going to be in town that long, and I'm not looking for a fling. I just…"

He put his index finger to her lips. "It's all right," he whispered, pulling her in to him. "You should know that if I was looking for a fling, I wouldn't choose Harold Risson's daughter." That's right, he realized. He wouldn't. So what was he doing here with her if he wasn't looking for just a casual friendship? Perhaps, just perhaps, it was because he knew that Kim Risson was special.

Tony smiled sweetly and slowly pulled away from her. "I know you've been through a lot recently. We'll take it as slow as you want. There's no rush."

Except for the fact that she planned on heading back to Florida as soon as her father left the hospital Their time was limited, and they both knew it. Tony kissed her forehead as he wrapped his arms around her. "I just like being with you." He leaned over and looked into her eyes. "Hey," he whispered in her ear. "Why do you look so sad?"

She sighed. "I don't know. The holidays always get me down, and with all that's happened in the past few weeks…"

"This Christmas will be better," he said, hugging her close. "I just have a feeling."

Kim was practically humming as she walked down the hospital corridor. She felt like a teenager in love. She glanced at the Christmas tree some of the hospital staff were decorating in the waiting room. Maybe her mother had been right. Maybe this was a magical season.

It had certainly been a magical night. She and Tony had talked for hours before finally drifting off to sleep in each other's arms. She had woken at four, found her shoes and socks, given Geena a pat good- bye, and slipped out without waking Tony.

After knocking on her father's door, she quietly walked into his room. He was sitting in bed and smiled when he saw her. "Kim," he said.

"Hi, Dad." She went over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "You seem like you're feeling better."

He nodded. "They're moving me out of critical care today."

"That's wonderful," Kim said.

He smiled. "Kim," he began. "I've been thinking. I… well, I feel like I've been given another chance. Another chance to make things right again."

Kim nodded.

"I'm sorry for never writing you back. Those letters that you sent me… they meant a lot to me," he said, struggling with every word. "I just couldn't bring myself to write back to you. If I did, our separation would become real. Instead, I made myself believe that it was just like when you wrote me from camp. That I'd see you again before I even got a chance to write you…"

"Oh, Dad," Kim said sadly, keeping an eye on the EKG machine. The last thing she wanted was to upset him. "We both made mistakes. I never really understood before what stress you were under… all the pressures from your job. I know it wasn't easy for you. I just… well, I was a child. All I knew was that my father wasn't around. I didn't–I couldn't understand why. But I do now," she said, thinking about the little girl who had died. The little girl he had tried to save.

"I want you to know… I'm sorry that I wasn't there for you. But I never stopped caring about you."

She nodded, touched by the sincerity in his eyes. She blinked back tears as she said, "I know that, Dad."

He nodded, blinking back tears himself. "I was sorry to hear about your mother."

Kim nodded.

"I loved her. I know she didn't think so, but I did. I just… I had a hard time showing it."

Kim glanced at the floor. She wasn't ready to discuss her mother with him. "When you and your mother left, a part of me died. I… I couldn't deal with it…" He looked at her and wiped away a tear.

She smiled weakly and gave his hand a squeeze.

Harold swallowed. As if embarrassed by his display of emotion, he shook his head slightly as he glanced at the dock. Suddenly he barked out, "Oh, for Pete's sake."

"What?" Kim asked, taken aback.

"Oh, Tony Hoffman was supposed to come here this morning at eight," he said, as if disgusted.

Kim checked the clock. It was already eight-thirty. Kim felt slightly guilty, realizing that there had not been an alarm clock in the living room. She wondered if he was still asleep on the couch.

"There's no excuse for this behavior. As usual, he's testing me. He's trying to annoy me."

"Calm down, dad," she said, disturbed by his vehement reaction. "I'm sure he's not trying to annoy you. He just saved your life. Why would he want to upset you?"

"It's a power play. These young, cocky surgeons are all alike. Tony is a decent surgeon, but he knows it. He's a wild card, and that's going to cost him some advancements around here." Her father glanced at her. "Have you met him yet?"

She nodded. "Ah, yes," she said quickly. She had done more than just meet him, but for some reason, she didn't feel like this was an appropriate time to discuss her budding romance.

Tony knocked on the door and peeked his head in. "Good morning, Harold," he said. "Kim," he said quickly.

"Doctor," Kim said, acknowledging him as she avoided his eyes. Talk about timing.

"You were supposed to be here a half an hour ago," her father said sternly.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, picking up her father's chart and looking at it. "I… well, I was delayed."

"I bet," her father said, irritated.

Kim stood up. "I… urn, I'm going to go get some coffee. Dad, do you want something?"

Her question seemed to soften him. He smiled at her warmly. "No thanks, dear."

She nodded. ''I'll be in the cafeteria," she said, glancing at Tony as she headed for the door.

Kim was on her way out of the cafeteria when she saw Tony. He was scanning the room and smiled when he anally saw her. "Ms. Risson," he said, hurrying to catch up with her. "Why didn't you wake me up when you left?" he whispered in her ear as he walked alongside her.

"Because you were sleeping," she said casually. "Besides, I didn't know you had an early morning appointment with my father."

"That's all right," he joked. "When I explained that I was late because you forgot to wake me, your father understood completely."

Kim looked at him, alarmed. "What?"

He smiled as he discreetly took her arm. "I had a feeling you didn't tell your father who you were with last night."

"The subject didnt come up."

"Hmm," he said, steering her into a deserted storage room. "Come here for a minute," he said, pulling her inside. He shut the door behind them and kissed her passionately.

She pulled back to say, "I feel like a schoolgirl necking in the boys' John."

"Oh, really," he said, nuzzling her ear. "Is that something you did often, you wild girl, you?"

"Not really. Never, actually. But I always thought it was a great idea."

He pulled down the collar on her sweater and began to leave a trail of soft, butterfly kisses on her neck. "Will I see you tonight?" he whispered in between kisses.

She stretched out her neck as she closed her eyes. "A second date? I'm flattered you're willing to invest the time in me," she teased him.

"How about dinner?" he asked softly, brushing his lips up her neck toward her ear.

"Maybe," she murmured.

He delicately ran his tongue around the inside of her earlobe.

She swallowed. It was becoming increasingly difficult to concentrate.

"Maybe I'll pick you up at seven-thirty?" he breathed into her ear.

"Do you know where my father lives?"

He pulled back and smiled at her, cupping her face in his hands as he brushed her lips with his fingers. "I'll find you. Don't worry." He gave her a hug good- bye, just as his beeper went off. "I'll see you at seven," he said, holding her hand tightly before they parted in the hallway.

Kim glanced at her watch. It was almost eight o'clock. Tony had called earlier to let her know that he was delayed, but she was starving.

Get used to it, she told herself. If she was embarking on a relationship with a heart surgeon of Tony's stature, she'd have to get used to eating meals by herself.

She walked into the kitchen and opened the cupboards. Her eyes lit up as she spotted the jar of Ragu. She hoped Tony liked Italian.

Kim hesitated as she remembered all the meals she and her mother had eaten by themselves, in that very kitchen. She knew that her mother had not lived the life she had intended. Her mother had come from a large, warm, loving family, where everyone had sat down to dinner together. She had never adjusted to having a husband who left early in the morning and did not return until late at night.

Kim poured the Ragu into a pan. She reminded herself that she was not her mother, nor was she in the same situation. She was not marrying Tony–she was simply enjoying his company. He was a fun, talented man, and doctor or not, she liked him. End of subject.

She busied herself with dinner, and by the time the doorbell rang, dinner was ready and a fire was blazing in the fireplace.

Kim opened the door, anxious to see Tony. He stood on the porch, his fit athletic form outlined in the moonlight. He was wearing a turtleneck, jeans, and an L. L. Bean jacket and was holding a bouquet of flowers in front of him.

"Hi," he said, leaning down to kiss her. "These are for you," he added and handed her the flowers.

"Thank you," Kim said, admiring the bouquet. First his coat, then the flowers. She'd better watch out for this one.

She glanced up at him. Her enthusiasm faded as she looked into his eyes. His beautiful eyes were a bloodshot red, and deep, dark circles were etched beneath. He looked as if he was ready to fall over from exhaustion.

"Sorry I'm late," he said.

"What's the matter?" she asked, ushering him inside.

"Bad day," he said.

"How bad?" she asked, taking his coat.

"I was on my way out the door when one of my patients simply stopped breathing."

"Is the patient okay?"

He nodded. "Now he is. But it was touch and go for a while. The guy is young, too. Only forty–with a wife and a baby." He sighed. "It just tears you apart." Kim nodded in sympathy as she thought of the pain the family must have experienced. She turned her attention back toward Tony, trying to comprehend the terrible duress of his day. In the dim light of the hall he looked older than his years, weighted down by the heavy burden of sadness and responsibility. She wondered how many times her father had come home suffering from the same burden.

Standing in the hall of her parents' home, holding Tony's coat in one hand, the flowers in the other, Kim couldn't help but compare herself to the ghosts that had stood in this very hall twenty years before.

Tony glanced at Kim and flashed her a tired half smile. "I'm sorry. I'll snap out of it. I know I have to work on leaving it all at the office, but it's difficult. I haven't developed that tough outer shell that, according to your father, is a necessity in this business. He feels that if a physician becomes too personally involved with his patients, it not only affects his professionalism, but can lead to early burnout as well."

"But I thought you said that he did get involved… with the little girl that needed a transplant…"

Tony nodded. "He did. I guess even the masters have their weak moments." He shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair. "In any case…" he said, then hesitated as though he was seeing her for the first time. "You look beautiful." He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulled her to him, and kissed her. "Mmm," he whispered, smiling. "I feel better already." Still holding her close, he paused, looking into the living room.

Kim almost laughed at the expression on Tony's face as he caught a glimpse of the decor. "Kind of makes you want to head out to a disco, doesn't it?" Kim asked.

He glanced around at the heavy wood paneling and the rust brown shag carpeting. "Now that you mention it."

"My father hasn't changed anything since my mother and I left," she said, breaking away from Tony's embrace. She carefully set the flowers on the entrance table before hanging his coat in the closet.

"What's that," he asked, pointing to the thick wool rug in front of the fireplace.

"The rug?"

"It's a rug? I thought it was some kind of animal," he joked.

"My high school boyfriends used to call it the make-out rug."

"Were they speaking from experience or are these the same guys you were meeting in the bathroom?" Tony eyes seemed to brighten as he watched the corners of Kim's lip turn up in a smile.

"These would be the bathroom guys," she said.

He grinned as he turned back toward the portrait over the mantle. "Is that you?"

Kim shut the closet door and picked up the bouquet. "Me when I was five. And my mother and father."

Tony stepped down into the living room and walked in front of the portrait for a better look. "Your mother was beautiful."

"Yes. Yes, she was."

"And look at you," he said, admiring the portrait. "You've always been beautiful, haven't you?"

Kim rolled her eyes. "Thanks."

"You are, you know."

For some reason, Kim always responded to flattery as though she was still an adolescent. And this time was no different. "Are you hungry?" she asked, changing the subject,

"Is that dinner I smell?" he responded, surprised and pleased.

Kim nodded. "Since you were running late, I thought we'd just eat here. I hope you don't mind."

"Mind? I love it! So you can cook, too," he said teasingly.

"As a matter of fact," she replied, "we're having my specialty," she said, heading to the kitchen to find a vase for her flowers.

After they had eaten and put the dishes in the dishwasher, Kim gave Tony a tour of the downstairs.

"You have a pool back there?"

Kim nodded. "My father does. Yes."

"You should take the cover off. It would make a great rink."

"Oh, sure," she said and laughed, certain that he was joking. "Right"

"No, I'm serious."

"I'll mention it to my dad. I'm sure he'll get right on it. I can just envision him doing a few pirouettes in the middle there."

Tony laughed. "Your father needs to start exercising. He's thin, but he's in terrible condition."

"So tell him."

"Harkavey's already told him," he said. "Your father can be very stubborn–a trait he's passed on to someone else I know." He smiled. Holding on to his glass of wine, he stepped into the den and pointed to a canvas that sat on the easel "Is that yours?" She nodded.

"Can I take a look?"

"Sure," she said. "It's almost finished." She turned on the light and nodded toward the painting. "It's a Christmas present. For my father."

He moved closer to the painting, visibly affected by the stunning impact of colors and shapes. A rich deep purple now twisted around the strong red lines. Clouds of a light, ethereal yellow lifted out of the dark green background. "It's wonderrul"

Kim glanced at him, trying to determine the truthfulness of his reaction. He seemed to be sincere. "I was having a lot of trouble with this. When I decided to paint it for my father, it all came together."

"How so?"

"Purple represents my father. It's a strong, stubborn color, a lot like him. The red is a signal of love, the yellow… hope."

"And the green?"

"A good background color." She smiled. "I hope he likes it"

Tony nodded as he swirled his glass of wine. "You know, Kim," he said, hesitating. "I spoke with Harkavey today, and your father should be getting out of the hospital in a couple of weeks. I was just wondering… do you think you'll be staying in Ann Arbor when he gets out?"

She shook her head as she glanced back at the painting. "I don't know. I wasn't planning on it. But it depends on how my father is doing."

He took a step toward her and set down his glass. "Your father is going to be just fine. I was still hoping that you might stay, though," he said.

She sighed as she brought the conversation back to her father. "How do you know for certain hell be fine? How does anyone know?"

"Trust me," he said quietly, tracing the outline of her lips with his index finger.

She smiled as his lips drifted toward hers. "Sounds like you've said that before."

He took her hand and led her back into the living room. He sat down on the couch facing the fire and pulled her on top of him, so that she was straddling his lap. "I know you think you know all about me, but you may not be as perceptive as you think you are."

"I find that hard to believe," she said, her eyes twinkling playfully.

He took her in his arms and kissed her so deeply she heard herself sigh with desire. "If you just give me a chance," he whispered while she attempted to catch her breath, "you might find out that we're more suited for each other than you think."

"I should tell you now that doctors aren't my type," she said, as his lips wandered to her neck.

"Even ones that can fix broken hearts?" he asked, his hand slipping inside her shirt. His fingers swept over her chest, lightly massaging the area over her heart.

"Even ones that talk like they write for Hallmark," she murmured, closing her eyes as he skillfully unsnapped her bra.

"Then it's very kind of you to let me stay here and nibble on you," he said, his hand grazing her bare breast.

"I'm like that," she said, as his fingers found her nipple, tugging on it gently. "Very kind." She hugged him tightly, feeling the warmth of his body meld with hers. She slid her hands under his shirt and ran them up his muscled back.

Tony gently lifted her chin, forcing her to look at him. "You're shaking," he said quietly. "Are you frightened–or cold?"

"I'm a… a little of both," she admitted.

He smiled a kind, sweet smile. "Don't worry. There's nothing to be frightened of," he said, brushing her hair back away from her face. "I really care about you–I mean that."

Kim closed her eyes as she ran her hand up his toned arm, holding it against her. She kissed his hand. "I care about you, too. I just–I didn't plan on this."

He lifted her hair and began kissing her softly on the back of her neck. "Being here with you… I can forget about everything else. It's just you and me. That's all that seems important."

All her fears melted away as a slow burning desire began to creep over her. It was enough to make her stop behaving like a frightened little gut

Kim pulled away from his arms and stood up, so that she was facing him with her back to the fire. He leaned up on one arm, watching her, curiously awaiting her next move. She slid out of her pants and shirt, standing in front of him wearing only her unsnapped bra and panties. She saw him inhale slightly with excitement as his eyes held her, encouraging her to continue. "I don't want to get cold," she said, teasing him.

"I promise that you'll never have to worry about that when I'm around," he said, enjoying the intimate banter.

Kim smiled slightly as she pulled off her bra, leaving on only her silky white panties.

Tony's eyes drifted over the curves of her pale form, drinking in each detail. "What kind of spell have you cast on me?" he murmured. He slid down onto the floor, kneeling in front of Kim as he pulled her to him, running his tongue lightly over her firm stomach.

"Tony," Kim teased as she glanced down at him, running her fingers through his thick, curly hair, "I'm curious. What's involved in this broken heart treatment of yours?"

He lay down on the soft white rug and pulled her on top of him. "I've already done the most difficult part."

"Oh?" she said curiously.

"I gave you my heart," he explained softly as he took her index finger and traced it around the right side of his chest. "But now, I have a very special recovery in mind for you."

"And what might that be?" Kim teased softly, enjoying the effect she was having on him.

Still holding on to her index finger, he brought it to his lips and kissed it gently. "It's very important that you close your eyes, relax… and let me love you," he said, his voice growing heavy with desire.

He gently pulled her down in front of him, so that her back was facing the fire. Shifting his weight so that he could lean on one arm, he stared intently into her eyes. He lifted her chin with his finger so that she was looking at him, and then he used that same finger to draw an imaginary tine down her body, starting with her shoulder and ending with her little toe. "You are perfect," he said, as his finger drifted back up her body, lightly brushing the tip of her nipple.

Kim smiled. "That's three," she said out loud. First the coat, then the flowers, and finally the sweet comment about her body.

"What?"

Kim leaned over and slid her hands around the inside of his jeans. "I think I'm ready for my treatment"

He grinned as he pulled her beside him. It was an offer he had no intention of refusing.

"I've decided to stay through the holidays," Kim announced.

Her father smiled. "But," he said, becoming concerned, "what about your show?"

"I called the gallery owner this morning. I explained what was going on, and he said he didn't think it was necessary for me to be there. He said it might even add to my allure if I wasn't there–make me seem more mysterious." "Mysterious?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. I wasn't quite sure what he meant either. But I didn't want to push it. I was just happy I didn't have to go back."

He nodded, his face solemn.

Kim said, "I thought you'd be happy."

He took her hand. "I am. I just don't want you to harm your career because of your concern over me. I'll be just fine."

She glanced away. "Don't you want me to stay?"

"Of course," he said quietly, giving her a weak smile. "It'll be the first Christmas I've celebrated in quite a while."

Kim had often wondered what her father had done on the holidays. She just assumed he had spent them with friends. Or a new family. But from the lack of visitors in his hospital room, she was beginning to realize that had not been the case. "What do you usually do?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "Work."

"Well, this year will be different. I'm going to get a tree later on today. This Christmas you're going to have atraditional Christmas dinner."

He nodded as a wave of sadness crossed his face.

"What's wrong?" she asked. "I just… I've missed so much. I… I just… well, I'm glad that you're here," he said, repeating her something he had told her many times already. "I've always tried to keep tabs on you, even when we weren't speaking. Many times I picked up the phone… but I just couldn't bring myself to dial the number." He shook his head. "I've been a lousy father. Stubborn pride."

Kim shrugged. "Fortunately for both of us, we still have the future to look forward to."

"Yes," he agreed. "And Christmas."

"How about this one?"

Kim shook her head. Tony was standing beside a tree that had to be at least fifteen feet tall. "Too small," she said, laughing. She pointed to a tree that was tucked away in the corner. "That's the one. That's the one I like," she said excitedly.

Tony nodded as he headed over to it. He took out his wallet and paid the vendor. "All right, m'lady, it's yours."

Tony grabbed the tree and hiked it over his shoulder.

Back at the house, he helped her set the tree in the stand. Only after they had wrapped several strings of tiny gold lights around the thick green branches did Tony's beeper sound. He pulled the beeper off his belt and looked at the number. "My service," he said, automatically recognizing the number. He kissed Kim on the lips. "I have a sneaky suspicion I'm going to have to go to the hospital for a while."

She nodded. "The phone is in the kitchen."

She understood. Even before he volunteered to help her pick out the tree he had warned her he was on call.

A few minutes later, Tony reappeared behind her. "Unfortunately, I have to go back in," he said as he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in close to him. "I can't remember when I've had a better afternoon."

"Will you stop by later?" she asked.

He kissed her forehead before he spoke. "I thought you'd never ask."

"In case I fall asleep," she said, handing him her key. "Let yourself in."

When Kim opened her eyes the house was completely dark with the exception of the lights on the Christmas tree. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" played softly on the stereo. She glanced over at the fire, which had died down except for a few embers that were still smoldering. She smiled to herself, recalling her day. After Tony left, she had rummaged through the basement and found the old box of Christmas ornaments that she and her mother had always used to decorate the tree. In a box beside the decorations were the old Christmas albums her parents had collected through the years. Kim had spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on a date with Christmas past, listening to Christmas carols as she unwrapped the old, familiar ornaments and hung them on the tree.

She heard the lock turn and smiled to herself.

Tony crept into the room and knelt down beside the couch where Kim lay curled up.

"Hi," he whispered, putting his hand to her cheek.

"Hi," she answered. '

"I thought you'd be asleep by now."

"What time is it?" she asked, yawning as she pushed herself up.

"Close to eleven."

"Did you see my dad?"

"I checked in on him right before I left. He was sleeping and doing just fine."

"Thank you," she said.

He sat up on the couch next to her, picked up her hand, and kissed it. "The tree looks beautiful," he said, wrapping his arm around her.

"Thanks. Do you want something to drink?"

He shook his head. "I didn't want to leave you today," he said quietly, caressing her fingers. "I've had a hard time thinking about anyone–or anything else."

She inhaled slightly as he began to lightly kiss each fingertip. "As a matter of fact," he said, his eyes settling on hers, "I've had a hard time thinking of anything else since I met you."

She leaned forward and kissed him. She slid her fingers inside his shirt as she drew him toward her. "I'm sure you say that to all the girls."

He shook his head. "Never," he said seriously. "I don't play games. I don't have time for them." He kissed her forehead and ran his lips down the side of her face, breathing in the faint, dean smell of her perfume. "I've known what I wanted for a long time. Until recently, I was beginning to give up hope that my wish would ever come true."

"What exactly did you wish for?" Kim asked as innocently as she could manage.

He held her hand to his lips and kissed it. "A woman…" he said, thinking. "A woman that I… well, could never forget"

"And what happened recently?" Kim teased as she leaned back on the couch.

His eyes locked with hers as he slowly began to unbutton her blouse. He whispered, "I met you."

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