Kate Carroll says 'no-one can take Steve's place' but she's have found love again with Derek
Kate Carroll is feeling truly blessed this festive season.
She has a close family circle, really good friends and - for the first time in almost a decade - she also has a special someone to share it with.
It wasn't so long ago that Kate, devastated by the brutal murder of husband Stephen, thought her life was also effectively over.
Constable Carroll (48) became the first PSNI victim of terrorists when he was shot dead by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon eight years ago.
It took just moments for her to lose a husband, a friend, her soulmate of 27 years and - she firmly believed at the time - any hopes of future happiness.
But in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Kate has opened up about spending a first Christmas with new partner Derek Egerton.
"God took an awful lot from me on March 9, 2009, but now He has given me an awful lot back," said Kate.
"I thought I'd never meet anyone else. I didn't want to. But now I've found someone who makes getting up in the morning worthwhile."
She added: "I'm fortunate to have met Derek. He's a good man. In this day and age you're very lucky to meet one good man, never mind two.
"This is our first proper Christmas together and it is a big deal for both of us."
Sitting in the smaller of two front rooms in her Banbridge home, Kate recalls that it was here, on March 10, 2009, that she first spoke of her late husband -just hours after a knock on the door brought news so incomprehensible she felt like locking herself away for good.
Instead, she stood up and spoke out.
She made sure she was seen and heard by politicians, senior policemen - and terrorists. Today, though, she's talking softly and enthusiastically about finding love again, courtesy of a bus driver from Drumaness.
"I was wary about him at first, but we got on like a house on fire," the 67-year-old recalled.
"He made me laugh. He was so down to earth, but initially I had no notion of romance."
Despite that early reticence, their relationship eventually blossomed - and now, a first Christmas for Kate in a committed relationship for nearly a decade.
"Recently I came across a camcorder I bought Steve for Christmas in 2008," she said.
"That was our last Christmas together. He filmed me while I was making Christmas dinner. It was hard to watch that. And, while I've come to terms with him being gone, it's still hard not to feel guilty about spending Christmas with someone else."
Derek (55) first contacted Kate through Facebook in 2012 and, although they became friends online, it was three years before they actually met up in person, and another 12 months before they developed a romantic relationship.
Even now, he doesn't stay overnight, except at weekends.
"He's a really nice person, a real gentleman," Kate said.
"We talk about Steve, and he doesn't mind that. Derek knows no-one could ever take Steve's place, but he's his own person.
"Derek told me he understands that my husband and I had such a loving relationship, and I honestly think it's a testimony to Steve and to Derek that I would want to be in another relationship because we did have a good marriage and it hasn't put me off being in a relationship with Derek."
So, having finally enjoyed a romantic Christmas dinner for two, could the sleigh bells ultimately lead to wedding ones?
"Derek got me a silver Ted Baker ring with a bow on it for my birthday in August," Kate revealed. "The subject of marriage has come up ... but that's possibly something we might consider further down the line."
In terms of the wider picture in Northern Ireland, grandmother-of-nine Kate fervently hopes the Assembly will be back up and running in early 2018, after nearly a year in limbo.
And she believes DUP leader Arlene Foster and her Sinn Fein counterpart Michelle O'Neill will ultimately succeed in steering the province through its current travails.
"I hope they continue the good work of their predecessors Peter Robinson and the late Martin McGuinness," she said, referring to two men who lent considerable support after Constable Carroll's murder and who were among the many high-profile attendees at his funeral.
"I admire Arlene and Michelle for their leadership skills and certainly I don't want them to jeopardise the progress we've made over the last 20 years."
The mother-of-one, a Catholic now in a mixed religion relationship with Derek, a Protestant, said she hopes 2018 will be a year of "political compromise, working together and less living in the past".
Three months after Steve died, the then PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde gave Kate a tree to plant in her back garden. It's now 15 feet tall and can be seen from the kitchen window and conservatory.
There's also a framed photograph of Steve in every room in the house currently bedecked in the reds and whites of Christmas.
This was their home - it's still Kate's and, over the last 12 months, it has all been about making room for another special person.
"Derek's in my life now, but Steve will never be too far away," Kate said.