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But Who's Counting?

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No, couple of the moment Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones didn’t get married—or even engaged—when they celebrated their birthdays (his 55th, her 30th) with a party for 150 at the New York City nightclub One51 on Sept. 25. A sign of trouble? Not to those who turned up. “They make an adorable couple,” said gushing guest and fellow birthday girl Barbara Walters, 68, who stood by as the two actors spent the evening dancing to a 12-piece swing band, sharing birthday cakes (his a golf ball, hers tap shoes) and giving their pals a peek at the state of their union. At one point in the evening, says a close friend, “Michael gave a toast and said how he’s known Catherine for a year and how much she’s meant to his life.” By the time Douglas and the Badgley Mischkaclad Zeta-Jones left at 4 a.m. with pals Mick and Ann Jones, many friends guessed another celebration—with a different kind of cake—was only a matter of time. When asked if they looked to be in love, friend and partygoer Carol Burnett concluded, “Yes, they really do.”

Of course, there is a sizable obstacle to any immediate wedding plans between Hollywood veteran Douglas, the son of actor Kirk, and Zeta-Jones, the Welsh beauty who shot to fame after her sizzling turn in last year’s The Mark of Zorro. And that would be Douglas’s still-binding marriage to his wife of 22 years, Diandra. The couple, who have a son, Cameron, 20, separated in 1995, but their divorce has yet to be finalized. “Before Michael can marry,” Diandra told the Times of London last month, “he has to divorce me—or become a Muslim so he can have two wives.”

Douglas’s conversion to Zeta-Jones began last September, when they met at the American Film Festival in Deauville, France, where Douglas was promoting his thriller A Perfect Murder and Zeta-Jones was plugging Zorro. “They had a couple of dinner dates in Los Angeles over the months, but nothing more than that,” says a source close to Douglas. “They didn’t really start dating as such until this past June.” Early that month, they vacationed together at Douglas’s cliffside villa on the Spanish isle of Majorca, and in August they dined with his father, Kirk, 82, and stepmother, Anne, 80, in Beverly Hills. By then, they’d already gone public with their romance at the Edinburgh premiere of her thriller Entrapment. “Michael is here tonight,” Zeta-Jones told reporters that evening in late June, “because we wanted to publicly say that we are together.” Added Douglas: “I am a very lucky man.”

Indeed, since their 25-year age difference seems irrelevant to Zeta-Jones. Raised in working-class Swansea, Wales, by mother Pat, a homemaker, and father Dai, a retired vending-machine salesman, she was trained in dance and musical theater before finding success at age 22 in the hit British TV series The Darling Buds of May. In 1995 she moved to L.A., where she landed a role in the ’96 CBS miniseries Titanic. Steven Spielberg saw her and recommended her to Zorro director Martin Campbell—and her career took off. The actress is close to her family: Her parents flew in from Swansea to visit the sets of Zorro and The Haunting and also attended last week’s birthday bash, and her brothers Lyndon, 26, and David, 32, both work for her. Those ties seem to have left her with a mother’s touch. Marilu Henner, who costarred in Titanic, threw a Fourth of July party during the project. “Catherine didn’t know many people,” she recalls. “She walked in alone, sat down on the floor and started playing with my two kids. My 2-year-old son fell madly in love with her. She hung out with them all evening.” The actress herself recently told Glamour, “I don’t want to be 50 and going to see somebody else’s kids.”

Romantically, Zeta-Jones is no stranger to older suitors. She has been involved with a series of older men over the years, including director Nick Hamm, 41, actor Paul McGann, 39, Simply Red lead singer Mick Hucknall, 39, and Braveheart actor Angus Macfadven, 36, to whom she was engaged in 1995. “I’ve never dated anybody the same age as me,” she told Details in May. “I think it’s because I love the knowledge older men have.” In fact, says The Haunting production designer Eugenio Zanetti, “she thought [69-year-old Entrapment costar] Sean Connery was the most fabulous thing in the world. She said, ‘He’s a cake. You could eat that.'”

That must sound sweet to Douglas, who married Diandra in 1977—nine weeks after they met at a Washington, D.C., party—when he was a 32-year-old actor and producer and she was a 20-year-old student at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. They separated and reunited twice over the course of their marriage; Diandra once blamed “the other women” for their marital strain. (The Fatal Attraction star has denied persistent rumors that he sought treatment for sex addiction but admits that in 1993 he entered a clinic for substance abuse.)

Since he and Diandra split, Douglas has been something of a serial dater, squiring New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, 47, ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas, 37, and former White House aide Lisa Caputo, 35. But Zeta-Jones apparently appealed to his most basic instincts. At a chatty, relaxed dinner at the Manhattan restaurant Seppi’s with Zeta-Jones’s family two nights before the birthday party, the pair were at ease with the dozen or so guests and each other. “They behaved as though they were in love,” one observer said. “They were definitely very affectionate.” Even dad Kirk can see the change. “I’ve never seen Michael so happy,” he told reporters last month. “She’s a really intelligent woman, and I am proud.”

Dan Jewel

Susan Christian Goulding and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Jane Cornwell in London, David Roberts in Swansea and Courtney Callahan and Sue Miller in New York City