Stephanie held Eric’s hand as they stared at the entrance to Angels Flight. “Why haven’t we done this before?”
“I’m not sure we should be doing it now.” Eric held her close. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay doing this?”
“I’ll be fine, Honey.” She smiled at him.
Eric nodded and reached in his pocket for the two quarters it would take for them to make the ride. “It’s a nice day for this,” he commented quietly after they climbed aboard the funicular.
Stephanie nodded as she moved to stand at the front so that she could see the sky as they climbed to the top. As they began to move, her mind was flooded with memories of the man sitting behind her. The life they’d lived together, through the divorces and the marriages, came back to her with startling clarity. Each embrace, each dance, each kiss was relived as though each moment happened within the last few minutes instead of in the past.
Eric watched Stephanie, a coughing fit causing her to lean forward and grip the railing a bit tighter. Memories of the painful times in their past flashed through his mind. Every time he left her for a younger woman, every time he caused her blue eyes to fill with hurt, the pain that flashed in those eyes the day he told her that he didn’t need or want her.
Carefully standing, he moved behind her and slid his arms around her waist just as they reached the crest. “Beautiful,” he whispered against her ear, not really speaking of the scenery. “I’ve been such a fool over the years, Stephanie. So many times I’ve hurt you all for the sake of,” he shrugged. “my ego, I guess.”
Stephanie patted his hand. “A step closer to Heaven,” she whispered.
Eric blinked at her response. “You were always my Heaven. I’ve just been a little slow realizing it.”
After the car came to a stop, Stephanie turned in his arms and smiled up at him. “Your ego?” she smirked. “Is that what you’re calling that these days?”
Eric reached up and caressed her cheek. “I suppose it was all about sex.”
She nodded. “And I take part of the blame. I couldn’t give you what you needed.”
“You gave me everything you could, Stephanie. I should have been man enough to help you instead of just acting like a fool and finding what I thought I needed somewhere else.”
“It’s alright because it’s over, and in the end, you’re in my arms, no one else’s.”
“Ready to go back down?” he asked after a tender kiss.
Stephanie sighed and nodded. “Yes. We need to be at the house before the family.” Her eyes watered as she thought of what lay ahead. “I don’t want to hurt them.”
“It will only hurt them more if they find out the way Thorne did.”
“He’s going to be the strong one for the rest of them.”
“He’s more his mother’s son than we realize.”
“He’s more of the both of us than any of the other children.”
“It’s amazing, really,” he commented as they sat down for the trip back down to the exit.
Stephanie rested her head against Eric’s shoulder. “What is?”
“That we only have one child that’s a perfect blend of everything good about us.”
Stephanie shrugged. “Maybe we just got things right when we had Thorne.”
Eric sighed, “Who knows. All I know is that I love them all, no matter how they act. Even Ridge.”
“Who is acting a lot like his father,” she mumbled, thinking of Massimo.
“He’ll come around, Stephanie.”
“But will he really? He’ll be shocked that I’m sick, angry that Thorne knew first, and he’ll probably apologize for his actions, but,” she turned her head into his neck. “I don’t want him to pretend just because I’m sick. I want my son back, but I don’t believe that will happen.”
Eric heard something in her voice. “Sweetheart, what is it?”
“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I’ve always favored Ridge over the other children. While I believe I was right about how he’s never cared for me like I have him, the contempt he showed the other day,” she shook her head. “It’s been there ever since he learned what I did.”
“What you did? Sweetheart, what do you mean?”
“I mean that he’s hated me deep inside for trapping you into marriage, and then that only grew when he learned that he wasn’t yours. Then it became all about how I’d trapped you using a child that wasn’t even yours.”
“Stephanie, no.” Eric denied as he helped her stand, holding her shoulders as he looked down at her. “He doesn’t hate you.”
“Yes, I believe he does. I don’t think we’ve ever really confronted his true feelings about what I did.”
“You didn’t trap me, Stephanie. I know that I’ve said that you did in the past, but you didn’t.”
Looking up at him, a tear rolled down her cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Sweetheart. Now come on. If we leave now, you can rest for a little while before the family all shows up.”
“A nap sounds wonderful. You kept me up late.”
Eric stopped and stared down at her with raised eyebrows. “I kept you up late! Stephanie Forrester!”
Stephanie laughed as she snuggled back against his side. “I guess it was me who kept us up late.”
“Damn right, it was.” Eric growled, playfully patting her hip. “But I’m not complaining.”
Smiling up at him, Stephanie felt her heart swelling with the love she felt for him. “I’m not complaining, either. You’ve been wonderful.”
“I have a lot of time to make up for.” Stopping beside their car, he turned her to look at him and cupped her face. “I want you to know that I do need you and that I do want you.”
Stephanie felt her eyes watering as she remembered that day in his office when he’d told her that he didn’t want her, didn’t need her. She remembered how her heart had broken in two, how she’d laid in bed that night and cried herself to sleep. “In all the years we’ve been together and apart, you hurt me the most that day.”
Caressing her cheek and catching a tear with his thumb, Eric closed his eyes. “I was an idiot, Stephanie. A damned idiot.” Cupping her face in his hands, he opened his eyes and stared into her blue depths. “I’m slowly realizing I’ve been a horrible man and I’m not proud of it. I’m learning, but I hate that this is the cost of my lessons.”
Placing her hands over his, Stephanie smiled at him. “You’ve never been a horrible man, Honey. Just a little misguided. I’m learning things, too, and I’m realizing I’ve not been the kind of woman I should have been.”
Tears on his cheeks, he sighed, “Why has it taken you getting sick for us to realize how wrong we’ve been?”
“I don’t know, Honey. I don’t know.”
Eric blinked in surprise as he stared at his youngest child. “Felicia? Baby, when did you get in?”
Felicia wrapped her arms around her father, hugging him tight. “An hour ago.”
“Why didn’t you call us and let us know you were coming in? We could have had a car there to meet you. Or at least one of your brothers could have been there.”
“I wanted to surprise everyone. Where’s Mom?”
Eric moved to close the door, thanking the driver with a tip for bringing Felicia’s luggage in. “She’s upstairs.”
“Why aren’t the two of you at work?”
Eric frowned. “You mean you haven’t talked to anyone?”
“I stopped in Florida to see Kristen, and Thorne and I talked a couple of days ago. Why?”
“Your mother and I are no longer part of FC. Neither are Thorne and Steffy.”
Felicia’s eyes widened. “What the hell happened?”
Eric laughed and shook his head. “It’s a long story, Baby.”
“One that I should wait to hear.”
“Fine. I’ll just go up and see Mom.”
“Uh, Baby,” Eric started.
“Yes, Daddy?” Felicia asked as she paused on the stairs.
Shaking his head, he sighed, “Never mind. Go on.”
Studying her father a few moments, Felicia shrugged then rushed up the stairs, anxious to see her mother and share her news. Stopping in the doorway of her parents’ bedroom, her breath caught as she watched her mother changing the bed linens. Instantly she flashed back to the last time she’d watched her mother change the sheets on a bed, her bed, after her accident when she was fighting cancer.
Those were the three thoughts that immediately followed the memory, and no matter how much she tried to dismiss the thoughts, they wouldn’t let her be.
Stephanie looked up. “Baby?” she whispered and held out her arms.
“Mom.” Felicia rushed into her mother’s arms. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Stephanie squeezed her daughter tight and kissed her head. “I’ve missed you, too. What are you doing home?” she asked as they pulled back from the hug. “And why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well you did.” Stephanie smiled as she went back to making the bed. “Help your old mom?”
“Sure.” Felicia answered as she went to the opposite side of the bed and pulled up the sheet. Following her Mother’s movements, she noticed that Stephanie was moving slower and looked a bit pale. Her hair was wet and she was in her robe. A shower in the middle of the day? What was going on?
“What has you frowning, Baby?”
“Oh, nothing. You know how much I hate to make beds,” she joked.
Stephanie smiled as she remembered the many fights they’d gotten into down through the years over Felicia not making her bed. “Yes, I do.”
Felicia laughed. “So how are things,” she started then the sunlight streaming through the window caught her mother’s engagement ring. “Mom!” she shouted as she climbed across the bed, making a mess of the sheet they’d just finished putting into perfect place.
“Felicia! You just messed the bed up!”
Felicia shrugged and grabbed Stephanie’s left hand. “You’re engaged!”
Stephanie smiled at the excitement she could hear in her baby’s voice and see in her eyes. “Yes. Eric asked me last night. None of the other kids know.”
“You mean he didn’t ask you at your party?”
Stephanie sat down next to her daughter and shook her head. “No. He saved it for after they were gone.”
Felicia smirked. “Wanted to do it privately so he could get you in bed afterwards.”
“Felicia!” Stephanie scolded then coughed and shook her head when it kept going.
Stephanie pointed at the water pitcher sitting on the nightstand as she pressed a hand to her chest trying to get the coughing to stop.
Felicia poured her mother a glass of water then sat beside her as she drank. “Are you okay, Mom?”
Taking a breath after she finished drinking, Stephanie patted Felicia’s knee. “It’s alright, Baby.” She smiled and changed the subject. “Where are you staying? Here or one of the guest houses?”
“The guest house I always stay in.”
Stephanie nodded. “Well, help me finish making the bed. I really need to get dressed. The rest of the family will be here pretty soon.”
“Yes.” Stephanie answered, not explaining further.
Felicia started to question her mother further, but something deep inside told her not to. Again her earlier thoughts came back.
Thorne was the first to arrive, bringing Aly with him. He’d held his mother a little tighter as he hugged her, struggling to keep the tears at bay. “Momma,” he whispered, not caring that it sounded childish for a grown man.
Stephanie caressed Thorne’s head. “Your sister’s here,” she told him, patting his cheek when he pulled back.
Looking up, Thorne smiled as he let go of his mother and held out his arms for his sister. “Hey, Fifi.”
“Don’t call me that!” Felicia groaned, temporarily distracted from the odd exchange between her mother and brother.
Aly studied her grandmother a few moments before hugging her. Holding her just a bit tighter, she felt tears threaten. Something was going on and deep down she knew it wasn’t good. Sniffing, she smiled as her nose was filled with the scent of her grandmother’s perfume. It was a scent that always soothed her because in her mind it was linked with comfort and love.
Patting her granddaughter’s face, Stephanie chuckled. “I believe you take after your father.”
“What do you mean, Grandma?”
“You were sniffing my neck.”
Aly blushed and Thorne laughed.
“I think you mean she takes after her grandfather since I’m sure that’s where I got it.” Thorne winked at his father.
Eric shrugged. “What can I say? She smells great and I just can’t resist.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Oh brother.” Pushing a hair away from her face, her ring caught the light.
“Mom!” Thorne shouted, echoing his sister’s earlier reaction. Moving to his mother, he held her hand and studied the ring on her finger. “I remember this ring. It’s the first one.”
“Yes, it is.” Stephanie whispered.
Thorne looked at his father, understanding the significance of the ring. “So when did you ask her?”
“After you guys left last night.” Felicia answered. “He wanted to get her into bed afterward.”
“Felicia!” Stephanie scolded again. “Not in front of Aly.”
Aly laughed and hugged her grandmother before taking her hand and studying the ring. “It’s alright, Grandma. It doesn’t bother me. This ring is your very first engagement ring?”
“Yes.” Stephanie answered. “Your grandfather spent the last of his money to buy it for me.”
“Aww,” the young woman cooed. “That’s so sweet and romantic.”
“Very romantic.” Stephanie agreed.
The doorbell rang, stopping any further discussion.
Eric opened the door to find his oldest son and Brooke standing on the other side. “Ridge. Brooke.”
“Dad.” Ridge greeted as he nudged Brooke through the door.
“Ridge.” Stephanie greeted her son. “Brooke.”
Brooke stared at her mother-in-law, wondering what all of this was about. “Stephanie.”
“Mom.” Ridge returned the greeting then noticed Felicia. “Hey, Sis. When did you get in?”
Felicia frowned. “What the hell is going on? Why are you so cool toward Mom?” she asked, completely ignoring her brother’s greeting and question.
“Don’t, Felicia. It isn’t important now.” Stephanie’s hand on her daughter’s arm stopped her.
Studying her mother, Felicia was even more sure that something was wrong. “Okay, Mom.”
“Hey, Grandma.” Steffy called as she came in. “Aunt Felicia? I didn’t know you were going to be here.”
“No one did.” Felicia smiled at her niece. “I came in as a surprise.”
Thomas, followed closely by Hope, came in after Steffy.
“All that’s left is Pammie.” Stephanie said then smiled when her sister appeared.
“Here I am.” Pam smiled. “What’s going on?” she asked then noticed Felicia. “Hey, Felicia.”
“Hi, Aunt Pam.”
“Why don’t we all go into the living room?” Eric suggested as he closed the front door.
Stephanie watched their family as they walked into the other room. “I don’t want to do this,” she whispered when Eric joined her and took her hand.
“I’m right here, Sweetheart. I’ll help you tell them.”
Looking into his dark eyes, she drew on the strength he was offering her. “Let’s get this over with,” she sighed as they walked into the living room.
“So, what’s this about?” Ridge asked. “Is it to tell us you’re getting married again?”
Stephanie shook her head as she and Eric sat down on the sofa. “No. Although,” she held up her hand. “we are.”
“Congrats, Grandma.” Steffy smiled.
“Thank you, Sweetie.”
Pam studied her sister. “Steph? Why are we all here?”
Looking down at her and Eric’s joined hands, Stephanie swallowed. “You’re all here because I have something to tell you. It isn’t easy for me so you’ll have to forgive me if I stumble a bit.”
A feeling of dread gathered in the pit of Felicia’s stomach, and by the looks on the faces of those around her, the same thing was happening to the rest of her family. With a few exceptions. Namely, Brooke.
“I fell two days ago after being short of breath. I lost consciousness and had to go to the hospital.” Stephanie began. “The doctor was worried about the dizziness and shortness of breath, so she had tests done.”
Stephanie heard her children and grandchildren’s voices blending together in their questions and she closed her eyes, leaning into Eric. “I can’t do this,” she whispered.
“It’s alright, Sweetheart.” Eric assured her as he kissed the side of her head. “What Stephanie is trying to say, is that the tests,” he paused to take a deep breath then looked at Thorne because he knew he wouldn’t see the look of shock on Thorne’s face that he would the others. “Your mother has cancer,” he whispered.
Stephanie heard the gasps of breath, the quiet sobs, and the murmured denials. Feeling a hand on her lap, she opened her eyes, the pale blue eyes of her baby staring up at her.
“Momma?” Felicia whispered, feeling just like a child.
“It’s true, Baby.”
Closing her eyes, Felicia leaned up and rested her head against Stephanie’s chest. “No,” she whimpered.
“Shh.” Stephanie tried to soothe.
“Mother?” Ridge questioned.
“It’s true, Ridge.”
“Oh please.” Brooke rolled her eyes. “You’re going a bit far with this, aren’t you? When are you going to stop this madness? You’re not even with FC anymore. Why do you care about what I do now?”
Eric ground his teeth and started to say something, but Thorne stopped him.
“Ridge, if your wife opens her mouth one more time, I’ll personally pick her up and carry her out,” he told his brother, his voice calm and eerily quiet.
Ridge looked at his wife. “Brooke, why don’t you go wait outside? I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
“Whatever.” Brooke shrugged. “She’s just playing you all. Just like she’s done time and time again.”
Stephanie sighed and held Felicia tighter when she felt her daughter starting to get up. “No. It’s alright, Baby. Just leave it alone.”
Eric glared at his oldest son. “I don’t know why you brought her. And right now, I don’t care. Just know this. She isn’t welcome in this house, no matter what’s going on.”
Ridge studied his parents. “She told me about Mom’s fall the other day. How Mom was faking and trying to blame her.”
Eric closed his eyes. “There are CT scans in the doctor’s office that prove otherwise. I was there, Ridge. I walked in and found your mother lying on the floor where Brooke had left her after she fell. Brooke didn’t call for help, didn’t help Stephanie up when she asked her to. She just walked off and left her. Stephanie’s breathing wasn’t right and she was pale. Your mother can’t fake something like that, even if she tried to.”
“She faked a heart attack.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. “I’m not faking, Ridge, but the fact that you believe your wife says a lot about what you feel for me.” She swallowed and sighed. “I know you hate me for Massimo and that whole mess. You can’t hate me anymore than I’ve hated myself over the years.”
Thorne looked at his brother and sighed, “Why don’t you just leave, Ridge? Mom has other family here that are stunned by this news and need to hear the rest of what she and Dad have to say.”
Ridge glared at his brother. “You don’t seem as surprised as the rest are.”
“I’m not. I found out last night.”
“Accidently.” Eric informed them when he noticed Ridge’s face get red, a sure sign he was getting angry. “I think Thorne is right, Ridge. Just go on and take Brooke home. If you want to come back later, that’s fine.”
Ridge shrugged and walked from the room, not sure what to think about what his mother had said. How could she possibly know he hated her? And didn’t he have every right to hate her for what she did to him? And how was he supposed to believe her about the cancer? After all, as he’d reminded her, she had faked a heart attack.
Pam looked at her sister after the sound of the door closing echoed through the quiet house. “What kind?” she asked as she scooted closer to Stephanie on the sofa.
“Stage four lung cancer, Pammie.” Stephanie wrapped an arm around her sister and pulled her close. Looking at the rest of her family, she felt her eyes water as she watched the tears roll down their cheeks, even Thomas was upset as he sat down in a chair.
“Stage four.” Felicia whispered.
“Yes, Baby. It’s spread to my brain.”
Felicia closed her eyes. “You can still beat this,” she whispered.
“No, Baby. Even with treatment I’ll only have six to eight months.”
Felicia opened her eyes and stared up at her mother. “You can’t talk like that. I won’t let you.”
Stephanie caressed her daughter’s face and looked up at the others around her. “Eric and I have been talking,” she paused and looked at Eric. “Talking, crying, and arguing.”
“Only one argument.” Eric whispered as he caressed her face.
Stephanie gave him a soft smile before turning her attention back to their family. “We still have a lot of talking to do. But one thing we’ve both agreed on, I won’t take chemotherapy.”
“But Mom,” Felicia started but Stephanie stopped her with a finger to her lips.
“Let me finish, Baby.” Stephanie took Eric’s hand. “I know what chemotherapy will do to me. If I were young and had small children, I would consider it, but I’m not. I’ve lived a very full life. Not so happy at times, overjoyed at others. I’ve raised my children, had the privilege to see my grandchildren grow and become wonderful people.”
“But Dino’s not grown.” Felicia reminded her, her voice trembling.
“Oh, Honey. I know that, but he’s old enough to remember me and he has all of you to tell him stories.” Stephanie closed her eyes against the tears.
Eric squeezed Stephanie’s hand. “I know that you want to keep her here for as long as possible, but the chemotherapy she’ll have to take will be horrible. And the months and weeks it might give her won’t be spent with the family because she’ll be too sick.” Tears slowly rolled down his cheek as he looked at the woman beside him. “I’ve only gotten her back, I don’t want to lose her, but,” he stopped and took a deep breath. “If this is her time, then I want her to be able to spend each and every moment enjoying her children and grandchildren and her sister.”
“And what about spending time with you?” Thorne asked.
“Oh, we’ll have that, too.” Stephanie spoke up again. “I have an appointment with my doctor tomorrow and we’ll discuss me possibly having surgery to remove the primary tumor, which at this point will cause me the most discomfort because it’s in my lungs. I’ll ask more questions about the brain tumors and we’ll go from there.”
Pam laid her head on Stephanie’s shoulder. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Stephanie kissed her sister’s head. “It is a bit surreal. But you won’t be alone, Pammie. You’ll have my kids and Eric. They’re your family and they love you.”
Aly took Felicia’s place on the floor in front of Stephanie and stared up at her grandmother with teary blue eyes. “Why, Grandma? Why you? I,” she stopped on a sob.
Stephanie felt her heart breaking as she pulled Aly into her arms. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I can’t answer that except to say that I would rather it be me than Eric or any of you. I watched Felicia suffer and nearly die, I don’t want to do that again. I don’t want you to have to watch while I go through this, but for selfish reasons, I’ll gladly be the one it’s happening to. This way I know you’re all okay and have the chance to live the rest of your lives and grow old with your families.”
Aly clung to Stephanie as her heart broke, her sobs echoing in the hearts of the others in the room. No one noticed Steffy standing and shaking her head.
“No! No! No!” Steffy shouted as she ran from the room.
“I’ll go after her.” Thomas said as he stood up.
“No, Tom. Let me. I think she needs her grandma right now.” Stephanie kissed Aly’s head as she stood up, handing the girl off to her grandfather then walking over to where Thomas stood. “Thank you.”
Grabbing his grandmother in a hug, Thomas cried into her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Grandma.”
“Shh, it’s alright.” Stephanie pulled back and cupped his face. “No more apologies.”
Thomas nodded. “Yes, Grandma.”
Smiling, Stephanie patted his face. “I’d better go find Steffy. Although I don’t think I’ll have to look very hard.”
“The tree house.” Thomas whispered.
“Yes, the tree house.”
Pam frowned. “Tree house?” she asked after Stephanie had left the room.
Felicia smiled as she cuddled up next to her father who had Aly curled up against him on the other side. “Oh yes. Dad had it built for the boys shortly after they moved here. He got tired of them trying to climb the trees only to fall and hurt themselves.”
“So, I hired someone to come in and build them a tree house around one of the trees out on the grounds beyond the pool. The boys tried to keep Kristen out and a fight ensued.” Eric rolled his eyes. “Stephanie, as always, had the perfect solution.”
Thorne laughed. “Yes she did. And it worked, too.”
“Well? What was it?” Thomas asked.
“She told us that our days to play in the tree house were Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Kristen and her friends got Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.”
“Who got Sunday?” Pam asked.
“No one.” Felicia laughed. “Mom said that day was for spending with the family all together.”
“And it was. We always did things together on Sundays. She made sure to do things that she knew we wanted to do. Picnics, days at amusement parks. Always, always it was about us.” Thorne looked at his daughter. “And then she did the same with each grandchild.”
“And my other children.” Eric whispered as he thought about how Stephanie had accepted Rick and Bridget.
“Speaking of which, where are they?” Felicia asked.
Hope, who had been quiet the whole time, finally spoke up. “Bridget couldn’t make it. She’s coming over later. Rick won’t be coming.” She stared at Eric. “I’m sorry for Mom. I should have left when they did, but, I,” she dropped her head as her tears rolled down her cheeks.
“It’s alright, Hope.” Eric smiled at the young woman. “And you don’t have to apologize for Brooke.”
“I should still go.”
“She loves you, Hope. She’s always loved you as one of her own.”
Felicia nodded. “After all, she did help deliver you.”
Hope’s eyes widened. “She did?”
“You didn’t know that?” Thorne asked a bit shocked she had no idea about that part of her history.
Hope shook her head. “No clue.”
“Well,” Eric started. “Your mother went into labor up at Big Bear.”
“What is it about that place?” Felicia asked, interrupting the story.
Eric shrugged. “No idea, but it does seem to be the place for births.”
Hope smiled. “So, go on with the story.”
“Anyway,” Eric began to recount the story, all the while wondering how Stephanie and Steffy were doing.
Stephanie stared at the steps leading up to the tree house where she could hear her granddaughter crying. She hadn’t been up these steps in years but was glad that Eric had had the foresight to have them built like regular stairs because there was no way she could have climbed up the normal ladder type steps usually found with tree houses.
“Steffy, baby girl.” Stephanie whispered a few minutes later as she carefully lowered herself to the floor and pulled her granddaughter into her arms.
“It isn’t fair! They made a mistake! You aren’t…” she started. “You can’t…” she sobbed as she fisted her hands in Stephanie’s blouse.
“Shh, baby girl.” Stephanie gently rubbed Steffy’s back.
“You can’t leave me. Phoebe’s gone. Dad doesn’t care about anything but Brooke and the company. Thomas has turned into a young version of Dad. I have Mom, but you’re,”
“I won’t leave you, Steffy. I’ll always be here. Right here,” she rested her hand over Steffy’s heart. “You have memories of me, of my love, something that will never leave you no matter what happens to me.” She smiled when the young woman looked at her. “And you have my name. You have my spirit and loyalty to family.” She caressed Steffy’s face. “Just don’t keep the bitterness, baby girl. I want you to be the Stephanie I never was. Let go of it all. You’ve taken the first step by leaving FC. For me, live a happy life with a man that loves you and no one else. Start that business of yours but don’t ever forget to live life outside of business. Don’t make it all you have.”
“I promise, Grandma.” Steffy reached up and mimicked a gesture she used to do as a child.
Stephanie smiled when she felt her granddaughter twiddling a piece of her hair between her fingers. The first time she’d done that had been when she was a baby. “The first time you did that, we all thought you were going to grab a fistful of hair. Taylor was all set to scold you and take your hand out of my hair, but I told her to wait until you’d actually pulled my hair. You never pulled, just twiddled the bit of hair you had between your little fingers.”
“I remember you holding me when I was sick and humming to me. I had my fingers in your hair. I remember thinking how soft it felt, like my favorite fuzzy blanket.”
Stephanie laughed. “Thankfully my hair wasn’t fuzzy.”
Steffy’s smile was a bit wobbly. “No, never fuzzy. Just soft.”
Stephanie caressed Steffy’s hair away from her face. “Why don’t we go back in, baby girl? If I stay down here much longer, we’ll never get me up.”
Steffy smiled and stood up, reaching out to help her grandmother stand. Holding Stephanie’s hand, she stared at her ring. “It’s a beautiful ring, Grandma.”
“I’ve always thought so. Mother and Father weren’t impressed by it because it was simple and small.” Stephanie’s face took on a dreamy look as she thought back to those early years. “I didn’t care that it was simple or that it was small. Eric had spent his last dime on it and to me that made it more precious than any large expensive ring could ever have been.”
“He really loved you back then.” Steffy commented.
“To be honest, Steffy,” Stephanie sighed. “I’ve never been sure. I’ve wondered over the years. But it doesn’t matter because he loves me now. We can’t undo the past or change the mistakes we’ve made, we can only realize those mistakes and change the way we act in the here and now.”
Hugging her grandmother, Steffy’s tears returned. “I’ll keep my promise, Grandma.”
“That’s my girl.”
Stephanie smiled at the baby as he cooed up at her. “Hey there,” she whispered as she caressed his face. “You’re a handsome little man. I believe I see some of your grandpa in you.”
Bridget smiled. “You do?”
“Yes.” Stephanie nodded and held up Logan’s little hand. “Long graceful fingers…piano player’s fingers, just like his grandpa.” Caressing his little nose, which twitched at the soft touch, she chuckled. “Thankfully his nose takes after his momma, although it twitches like his grandpa’s does when you touch it.”
Bridget laughed. “Dad’s nose twitches?”
“Oh yes. I found that out by doing just what I did to Logan.” Stephanie smiled over at Eric who stood by the fireplace. “I was tracing his features one day because I wanted to memorize them. He was asleep so I was doing it very softly. When my finger ran over his nose, it twitched and he smacked at it in his sleep.”
“Aww, how sweet. And how funny.” Bridget smiled at Stephanie then Eric. Noticing a sad smile on her father’s face, she studied him a moment then looked back at Stephanie. “Stephanie, why did you want us all here today?”
Stephanie pressed a kiss to Logan’s tiny hand and watched him sleep. “I’m sick, Sweetheart.”
“How sick?” Bridget asked quietly, her eyes filling with tears.
“Stage four lung cancer, Bridget.” Eric whispered as he came over to join them. Sitting beside Stephanie, he caressed his grandson’s head. “It’s spread to the brain.”
Bridget closed her eyes, tears rolling down her cheeks. As a doctor she knew what the statistics were, what the odds were that Stephanie would survive. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered as she opened her eyes and looked at the woman who had always been more of a mother than her own flesh and blood mother had ever been. “He won’t get the chance to know you as his grandma.”
“I’ll love him as much as I can and then you’ll tell him about me.” Stephanie handed the baby to Eric then held out her arms for Bridget.
Gladly moving into the embrace, Bridget cried against Stephanie’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t know how to be a real mother if it wasn’t for you.”
“Yes, you would, Sweetheart. You’re a natural.” Stephanie kissed her head and smiled when she sat up. “I’m going to ask a favor of you, although I shouldn’t.”
“I’ll do anything, Stephanie.”
“I know you will.” Stephanie caressed her face. “I’m sure that Whip already knows about this by now because of Taylor, but Jackie and Nick and Clarke need to know. You were all my family during those lonely months after I left FC. You all stood by me when I had my stroke and made sure that you accepted Pammie into the crazy little world of Jackie M.”
“You want me to tell them? It’s alright if you do. I know how much of a toll this has to have taken on you just telling all of us.”
“Thank you.” Stephanie sighed. “I know I should do it, but, I just can’t be the bearer of bad news to anymore people I care about.”
“I’ll tell them when I leave here.”
“We really appreciate it, Honey.” Eric smiled at his daughter as he handed Logan back to Stephanie. “There is a bit of good news in all of this sadness.”
Stephanie smiled and held up her left hand. “We’re getting married.”
“It was my first ring.” Stephanie informed her. “Eric’s being a romantic again.”
Bridget smiled at her father. “The artist and musician in him.”
“I guess so.” Stephanie nodded then kissed Logan before handing him to his mother. “He really is a beautiful baby, Bridget. I’m so happy you finally have the child you’ve always wanted.”
“Yeah.” Bridget sighed. “I just wish I hadn’t screwed up to get here.”
“Just learn from it, Sweetheart.”
“I have, believe me.” Bridget sighed as she stood up to put Logan in his carrier. “I’m going to go ahead and go. You look like you need some rest and I need to catch the others while they’re all still at work. It will be easier to get them all in one place that way.”
Eric stood up to help her, and gently grabbed her arm as she walked to the front door. “Do me a favor, Honey?”
“Try to talk to your mother and make her see that Stephanie isn’t faking this. As long as Brooke doesn’t believe her, Ridge won’t either, and it’s hurting Stephanie.”
“I’ll do whatever I have to, Dad.” She assured him, rolling her eyes that her mother was causing drama at a time like this.
“Thank you, Honey.”
“No thanks necessary, Dad. You know how I feel about Stephanie.” Kissing her father’s cheek, she walked out the front door, grumbling about how stupid her mother could be at times.
“I wonder why Felicia came home.” Stephanie whispered as she rested her head on the pillow in Eric’s lap.
“I have no idea. She never really got a chance to tell us.” Eric answered as he pulled the throw over Stephanie. Caressing her arm with one hand, the other smoothed her hair from her face. “Rest, Sweet girl. Your Jackie M family will all be converging on us after while, I suspect.”
“Mmm, probably,” she murmured as the gentleness of Eric’s caresses lulled her to sleep.
“That’s it,” he whispered. “just rest.” Watching as her eyes closed and her breathing evened out, Eric felt tears rolling hot and wet down his face.
His beautiful Stephanie had spent most of their life together often wondering if he’d ever really loved her.
It was amazing that he’d been so daft all of his life, that he couldn’t even let the woman he’d fell for the minute he saw her, know that his heart had been hers the moment their eyes met across a crowded room. He could still see her, standing there in that royal blue dress that made her eyes shine brilliantly, like two perfect sapphires staring at him. He had never met anyone like her. No other woman that he’d ever laid eyes on matched the beauty of the one standing across the room full of people at a campus party.
He still wasn’t sure what Stephanie had been doing there. As a Freshman, he was positive she hadn’t been invited. Or maybe she had. After all, everyone that heard her name and where she was from, instantly knew she was from money. Anyone that looked at her could see that she was wealthy. The clothes she wore, while not fancy, weren’t off the rack, either. Or maybe it had been just him that noticed that part. Maybe it was the designer in him that noticed how the clothes fit her curves to perfection, accenting all the right parts of her body while still being classy and modest.
He shook his head as he looked down at her. She had influenced his designs even before he ever truly met her. Just seeing her, the grace, the poise, the class, it had all added up to what he wanted to create. He wanted women to feel sexy but in a modest, classy way. Stephanie had been the epitome of that.
“Always,” he whispered.
Even as her body had changed over the years, the grace and class were still there. So was the sexy, although she would scoff at that. With good reason. He hadn’t really given her much cause to believe it with the way he’d cheated on her off and on after the business had gotten on its feet.
He shook his head. Why hadn’t he told her how beautiful she was more often? Was she right about his feeling trapped? Had he really known what real love was in the beginning? Had what he thought was love, been nothing more than his fascination and lust for the beauty of the creature that appeared to be a goddess come down to earth to help him create his dream?
“No,” he denied. “I did love her.” And in that moment, he realized that while he had loved her, the way he loved her had scared him. The way she slipped into his heart so easily, the way her face filled his dreams, his every waking hour. The way he became half of a whole, the way his soul depended on hers to be happy and fulfilled. It had all added up to frighten him because he’d never known anything that was so all consuming. He didn’t think anyone was ever fully prepared for that kind of thing, although he was sure that some people were more ready to accept it and believe in it.
Stephanie had been, he knew. She had accepted the all consuming love she felt for him, let it become her world. He understood now how she had been so ready to accept it, her parents had left her with a desperate need for that kind of love. And yet, when he had been the one to hurt her, she hadn’t turned her back on him as she’d done her parents after their marriage. While they had visited her parents, it hadn’t been frequently, or cheerfully, only dutifully. It had been more for Pam’s sake than anything.
Still, when he’d cheated on her that first time, she hadn’t turned her back on him and gone about their marriage out of duty, she had forgiven him. Forgiven him and continued to love him. “Gave me another child,” he whispered as he thought about how only six months after that mistake of a one night stand with a model, Stephanie had come to him with the news that he was going to be a father again.
The child that he had never known.
He’d been so angry at Stephanie when he’d learned that Angela hadn’t been stillborn as she’d claimed. But after the ordeal with the fake Angela, he slowly began to realize that Stephanie had only been doing what she had always done, protect him.
“Because no one ever protected her,” he whispered as the sudden realization dawned on him.
It fit now. All of the times she protected him, their children. They had all complained about her being over-protective, but it all made sense. She had grown up with no one to protect her from the abuse of her father, not even her mother, so she had become a woman who was fiercely protective of those she loved.
Shaking his head as he leaned over, he pressed a soft kiss to her ear. “You’re an amazing woman, Stephanie Forrester. If only I’d made sure you knew that. So many wasted years apart. So many memories lost because of my stupidity.”
So many things left to do to show her that he had loved her. That he still loved her.
“And I always will, my sweet girl.”
Jackie’s face showed how she felt as she walked into the Forrester mansion foyer, followed closely by Nick and Clarke.
Staring at her one time nemesis, Jackie couldn’t keep her tears a bay. The woman had become a dear friend, and to know that she was dying was just so unreal. “I’m so sorry, Stephanie,” she whispered as she sat down and hugged her friend.
“Thank you, Jackie.” Stephanie smiled at her friend when she pulled away. “We sure have come a long way, huh?”
Jackie laughed sadly. “Yes, we have.”
Nick sat on the coffee table in front of Stephanie and took her hand. “I never thought I’d see the day that I would like you again after what happened, but something changed in me the day I found you at the harbor. The sadness I saw in your eyes,” he stared into those same eyes. “I’ve come to care about you a great deal, Stephanie. This is just unfair.”
“Life is never as fair as we’d like it to be, Nick.” Stephanie patted his face with her free hand. “I don’t think I ever really thanked you for your kindness that day or for taking me into your company and giving me a chance to prove I was still needed.”
Clarke’s sparkling eyes stared at her as he sat on the other side of her. “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met. We’ve had our ups and downs, but I’ve never stopped respecting you or caring about you.” His voice lowered. “Never.”
Stephanie smiled as she caressed his face, remembering how he had shown her that she was still an attractive, desirable woman when Eric had turned to another woman so many years ago. “You’ve always been a pain and a dear, Clarke.”
Clarke laughed at that even as his eyes watered. “I’m going to go see Sally. She needs to know about her Queenie.”
Stephanie laughed and rolled her eyes. “Her and those nicknames.”
“She was just showing how much she cared about you.” Clarke smiled. “She was another person that never thought she’d like you.”
“Yet we became the best of friends.” Stephanie whispered as she looked at Nick then Jackie. “I know the two of you aren’t speaking or getting along,” she started.
“Stephanie,” Jackie tried to stop her but sighed when Stephanie gave her a listen to me look.
“I know what you were going to say, Jackie, but I can’t just not say anything. I care about the two of you and I don’t want to see you torn apart. I know that this thing with Owen and Bridget and the baby, and the scandal that has ensued, has been hard on all of you, but don’t lose what you’ve always had. You love your son, Jackie. I’ve seen how much. Is this crazy thing you’ve got going with Owen and Bridget really worth losing the man you gave birth to and love? He is your family, your baby, Jackie, even if he is a man. Don’t be like me and choose the wrong thing.”
Jackie and Nick frowned as they stared at Stephanie.
“What?” Nick questioned.
“In my case it was bitterness and choosing one child over all my others. It was a mistake, one that has cost me on several occasions the man I love, a granddaughter, and a son. Don’t do that to yourself. Either of you.”
Jackie looked from Stephanie to her son, then back at Stephanie, finally realizing that Stephanie was right. Nick had always been her whole world and she’d hurt him by choosing this crazy thing with Owen over him. She had been so desperate to hold on to her husband, that she’d forgotten that her son loved her unconditionally as no one ever had in her life. “You’re right, Stephanie. You’ve been right from the very beginning of this mess.”
Nick kissed Stephanie’s cheek. “Always the mother,” he whispered and chuckled when she raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, in Mom’s case, best friend.”
Jackie laughed and hugged Stephanie. “Thank you.”
“The only thanks I need is for the two of you to fix this mess.”
“You got it.” Nick assured her. “Have you told Dad?”
Stephanie sighed. “No. I’m not sure that I’m going to.” She shook her head. “I don’t really need him coming in and aggravating Eric with his posturing.”
“He still needs to know, Stephanie.” Jackie told her. “I’ll call him for you, if you’d like.”
“It’s alright, Stephanie.” Eric smiled at her from his place across the room. “He’s Ridge’s father, and he loves you in his own strange way. He deserves to know.”
Stephanie sighed and nodded. “Alright then, you can tell him, Jackie.”
“I’ll tell him as gently as possible. He really does love you.”
“I know. He always loved me more than I did him. He was in love with me, and I just loved him as a friend. Even if I was a little confused for a while.”
“It’s easy to do.” Clarke smiled at her and kissed her cheek. “I need to go. I’ve got an early flight that I still haven’t packed for.”
“Tell Sally not to leave that island and her cabana boys. Tell her to just keep having fun, and to have a little extra for me.”
“I’ll tell her, although I’m not sure she’ll listen.”
“Make her listen, Clarke. I don’t want her coming back here for this. She’s happy where she’s at, and I want her to stay that way. Tell her Eric is with me and taking excellent care of me along with my family. She can call me, but under no circumstances is she to show up on my door step.”
“Like she’ll listen to me.” Clarke frowned.
“Then when you get there and after you’ve told her I’m sick, call me, and I’ll tell her that she has to stay put.”
“It’s a deal, not that I think she’ll listen to you, either.”
Stephanie laughed and hugged him. “You’re a good man, Clarke. Don’t forget that.”
“I won’t,” he assured her, caressing her face, his hand lingering just a bit as he stared into the blue eyes that had always captivated him. “Bye, Stephanie.”
“Have a safe trip, Clarke.”
Eric watched the man leave, and wondered what it was between Clarke and Stephanie that felt as though they’d been more than friends. It was something he’d have to ask Stephanie later.
“I should go, too.” Jackie stood up. “You need your rest, and I have that phone call to make.”
“Thank you, Jackie.”
“I’ll be by to see you in a few days.”
“I’ll be around here somewhere.” Stephanie winked. “Eric won’t let me out of his sight.” She held up her left hand. “He thinks he owns me now.”
Jackie smiled. “So he’s asked you to marry him again. I was wondering why he hadn’t done that already.”
“I had to have that ring resized and re-plated, which takes time. And I wanted the time to be perfect…what better time than her birthday?”
“It’s a beautifully simplistic ring.”
“It’s my first ring.”
“Oh how romantic.” Jackie sighed. “I’m very happy for the both of you.”
“Thank you. Goodnight, Jackie.”
Nick watched his mother leave then turned his attention to Stephanie. “Thank you for understanding and not being angry at me over Bridget.”
“Oh Nick. She made a mistake, and you were hurt. I’m not angry at either one of you.”
“Amazing,” he whispered making Stephanie chuckle.
“Well, you were once my drinking buddy.”
Nick laughed. “Falling down drunk, we were that night.”
“Never got that drunk again.”
“Me, either.” She patted his hand. “Felicia is home, if you’d like to go and see her.”
“I’d love to see her.”
“I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you, too.”
Standing up, Nick leaned over and kissed Stephanie’s cheek. “If you need anything, anything at all, I’ll be here.”
“That means a lot, Nick. Thank you.”
Eric shook Nick’s hand. “Thank you, Nick.”
“See the both of you later.”
“Bye.” Eric and Stephanie called after him, sighing when the door closed behind him.
“I’m so glad this day is over with.” Eric sighed.
“So am I. I’m glad we decided to get this over with all in one day. Spreading it out over several days would have just made it harder.”
“We still have Kristen, Tony, and Zende to comfort when they get here.”
“Yes, but we’ve got the majority of the family taken care of, although,” she shook her head. “Oh never mind. I don’t even want to think about that.”
“Oh Sweetheart.” Eric murmured as he stood in front of her, holding out his hand. “Come on. Let’s go to bed. I’m in need of a good snuggle.”
Stephanie took his hand, standing up and smiling at him. “A good snuggle sounds wonderful. I need the comfort of your arms.”
“And I need the comfort of your warm body next to mine.” He kissed her head as she leaned into him while they walked out of the living room and up the stairs.
“Maybe after a little catnap, I’ll make love to you.” Eric whispered as they rounded the corner of the upstairs hallway that led to their bedroom.
“Catnap? Are you planning on setting the alarm? We’re both so tired, I don’t think we’re going to be taking just a catnap.” She smiled up at him as they entered their bedroom. “Although making love with you sounds wonderful.”
“Then we’ll sleep until we wake up, and then I’ll make love to you.”
“It’s a date, Mr. Forrester.”
“A date, Mrs. Forrester.”