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The Fear In Her Eyes

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Stephanie heard her children talking, her heart breaking as she heard her youngest son telling his sister, “Dad said he couldn’t throw Mom out, she’s not well enough.” It was as she’d feared, as she’d known deep down. Promise or no, Eric didn’t want her after what she’d done, but because she was sick he wasn’t going to make her leave. Closing her eyes against the sting of her tears, she fought the fear that crept up inside her.

“You brought it on yourself, old woman,” she murmured in self recrimination. Opening her eyes, she continued up the walk to the front door, pausing to take a deep breath before quietly opening the front door. Swallowing the lump in her throat at the sight of Eric standing staring into the fireplace, clearly lost in thought, she fought the urge to go to him, to seek the comfort of his arms. No comfort would be found there this day. Taking one last longing look, she turned and slowly made her way upstairs, careful not to make noise so that she wouldn’t have to face him.

Eric frowned, sure that he’d heard the door open. Turning and expecting to find Stephanie behind him, all he found was their youngest son and daughter standing staring back at him from the foyer. “I thought you were going home, Thorne.”

Thorne frowned. “I was, but decided to go visit with Felicia.”

“We thought we saw Mom come in.” Felicia spoke up as she looked beyond her father into the living room.

Eric shrugged. “I thought she had, but it was the two of you I heard opening the door.”

Thorne shook his head. “The door was open when we got here, Dad.”

Clearly confused, Eric looked upstairs, wondering if Stephanie had indeed come home. “Maybe you did see your mother. She probably wanted to be alone after her talk with Brooke.”

Felicia sighed as she walked into the living room, her brother following. “I wonder how that went.”

“I have no idea. I’m sure I’ll hear about it later.” Eric sighed.

“How are you going to live with Mother after what she’s done?” Thorne asked.

“He doesn’t have to.” Stephanie spoke up as she stepped off the bottom step, bag in hand.

Eric noticed the bag in her hand, his heart dropping at the implication. “Stephanie,” he began as he walked toward her. “what are you doing with a bag?” he finished as he stopped to look down at her.

Reaching up to caress his face, she stared into the dark eyes that had only the night before burned with passion for her. “I’m leaving. I’ve found somewhere else to stay. I’ll,” she started then stopped when her voice cracked. “I’ll send for the rest of my things later,” she finally managed.

“I,” he began then swallowed. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m freeing you from the promise, Eric. I know that you don’t want me after what I’ve done.” She pressed a finger to his lips when he started to protest. “I know that you weren’t planning on making me leave because of my health, but that’s not what I want for you.”

Thorne looked at his sister, their mother’s words making both of them realize she’d heard their conversation.

“Stephanie, I,” he started only to be stopped once again.

“It’s alright, Eric. I don’t blame you. I don’t like myself much right now. How can I expect you or my children to do something I can’t?”

“But Stephanie,”

“Shh,” she hushed him. “I’ll be fine. I deserve,” she started, pausing to get past the lump in her throat. “I deserve to be alone.”

Eric felt a sense of panic engulf him at the stark fear he could see in Stephanie’s eyes before she looked away from him. He’d known all along, deep down, that her deepest fear was of dying alone, and the haunted look in her eyes just now confirmed it. “Thorne, Felicia, go home,” he commanded, not wanting their children to see their mother break as he was sure she would when he confronted her as he planned on doing. He was also a bit angry with them that they’d been so careless with their conversation, knowing that they were how his wife had known what he’d said. Although, his children had no idea that his statement hadn’t been in jest. They couldn’t know that he understood why she’d done what she had. They couldn’t know that he loved their mother more now than he ever had, that he would never throw her out no matter what, healthy or not. He hadn’t told them any of that, and he wasn’t sure they would understand if he tried.

“Daddy?” Felicia asked looking at her father in bewilderment at his tone.

“I said go home. We’ll talk later.”

Thorne grabbed his sister’s hand and tugged. “Come on,” he mumbled as he drug her out behind him, the click of the door closing seeming to echo in the silence.

“I need to be going, Eric.” Stephanie murmured as she turned to walk away from him, stopping when his hand gently wrapped around her arm.

“No,” he told her firmly as he pulled her back, looking down at her. “You’re not leaving, Stephanie.”

“Eric, please,” she whispered, her eyes looking down at the floor.

“Look at me.”

Stephanie shook her head.

“Look at me, Sweet girl,” he whispered, feeling her tremble at the use of the nickname.

“Oh god, please, Eric. Don’t call me that. I’m not. I,” she shook her head. “Please don’t.”

“Sweet girl,” he used the name again, his finger under her chin, lifting her face up so that she was forced to look at him. “I made a promise to you that I intend to keep and not just because of your health.” He stepped closer to her. “I intend to keep it because I love you.”

Stephanie felt her resolve crumbling as her lips quivered and her eyes watered. “I’m not your sweet girl,” she murmured.

Tucking her hair behind her ears, Eric smiled gently at her as he cupped her face. “Yes, Stephanie, you are.”

She shook her head, closing her eyes. “Not after what I’ve done.”

Eric sighed and took a deep breath. “I don’t like what you’ve done. I hate that it’s hurt our family, but I think I understand why you did it.”

Startled at his admission, she looked up at him, her bag slipping from her fingers and landing with a muted thud on the floor beside her. “How can you understand what I’ve done, when I don’t really understand it myself?”

Caressing her face, he studied her eyes, seeing the fear hidden there. “You did it because it’s the one thing you’ve always been able to do and control, at least to a point. You’re afraid of losing control of everything in your life. That one little thing, fighting with Brooke, is something you’ve been doing for so long, you were afraid of the changes in your relationship with her.” He paused to wipe at a tear. “You were reacting to your fear.”

Startled, she blinked at him. How could he possibly know? She had never said anything to him about her fear. “Fear?” she questioned, her voice shaking, wondering if he’d seen past that fear to her greatest fear.

“You’re wondering how I know about that.” He smiled as he gently traced around her eyes. “You aren’t as good at hiding things from me as you think. I’ve seen the fear in your eyes for quite a while now. I thought at first it was the fear of me leaving you. I had always suspected some of it was due to how things had changed between you and Brooke. But today, when I saw the stark fear staring back at me as you told me you were leaving, I realized it was more than that.” Pulling her into his arms, he held her pressed close to him. “I won’t let you die alone, Sweet girl. I promised, out of my love for you, that I would be by your side no matter what. I meant it,” his voice was tender as he said the words. Feeling her gasp then clutch at his jacket, he held her even closer.

“Even after what I’ve done to our son and grandson?” she asked, her voice cracking.

“No matter what,” he murmured.

“Eric, I,” she started then stopped on a sob.

“It’s alright, let it all out,” he whispered as he rubbed her back and pressed a kiss to her head. “I’m not leaving. I’m not making you leave, or letting you leave on your own. This is your home. These arms will always be your safe haven when you need them. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Stephanie sobbed against his chest, her fists clutching the lapels of his jacket. She’d been so sure he would hate her. So sure that he would willingly let her go so that he wouldn’t have to miserably keep his promise. Yet, here he was, holding her, refusing to let her leave. Telling her that he understood something she herself hadn’t understood until he’d said the words. She was afraid of all the changes happening in her life that she couldn’t control. She was afraid of dying alone.

“I,” she tried amidst sobs. “I’m, I’m s-s-sor-ry. So ver-y sor-ry,” she managed even as she trembled against him, her knees growing weak.

“Let me take you upstairs, Sweet girl. You’re exhausted and need to rest.” Bending to pick up her bag, he wrapped an arm around her and tucked her against his side as he gently nudged her toward the stairs. “Come on.”

Numbly moving along with him, Stephanie kept her head down all the way to their room, letting Eric help her undress. She frowned when his hands left her for a few moments, then felt more tears fall when she felt the warmth of his shirt against her as he slid first one sleeve then the other over her arms. She hung her head with the shame she felt at what she’d done, her teary eyes watching as Eric buttoned the shirt.

“Climb into bed, Sweet girl,” his voice was low and soothing as he held the covers up for her. “You need to rest.”

“I don’t think I can,” she whispered, even as she settled against her pillows.

“Just close your eyes and rest. You don’t have to sleep.” He tucked the covers around her, tenderly caressing her face before placing a soft kiss to her forehead. “I’ve got something I need to do, but I’ll be back, I promise,” he whispered as he used his handkerchief to wipe her face of the tears that streaked her cheeks.

Stephanie held his hand when he started to get up. “Don’t be angry with them, Eric,” she whispered, knowing that he intended to go talk to their children. “They didn’t know.”

Shaking his head, he leaned over and kissed her tenderly. “I won’t be, but I do intend to make sure they understand that I am not leaving you, nor am I letting you stay here because you’re sick. I want our children to know that I love you the way I always should have.”

She nodded. “Don’t yell too much,” she breathed even as she drifted off, the fitful nights of sleep finally catching up with her.

Eric caressed her face. “That’s my sweet girl,” he whispered. “Just rest.” Sure that she was asleep, he got up and went to his closet to grab another shirt before making his way to have a discussion with their children.

E**S


“So when are you going to make Mother leave?” Ridge asked his father as he caught up with him just outside the mansion’s front door, Eric having just returned from confronting Thorne and Felicia.

Eric turned and looked at his oldest son with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not.”

Ridge frowned. “What? After what she did to me?”

“Just you?” Eric asked with a frown of his own. How had he missed how self-centered his son was?

“You know what I mean.” Ridge growled. “I can’t believe you aren’t going to make her leave. It’s not like you’re married.”

Eric sighed. Why did all of their children keep throwing that in his face? “No, we’re not married. Not that our marital status has any bearing on any of this.”

“Of course it does. It means you can leave, or make her leave, and not worry about losing anything in a divorce settlement.”

Eric shook his head. “I’m not leaving your mother, nor am I throwing her out. She’s not well enough, Ridge.” Not that Stephanie’s health had anything to do with his decision, although he doubted his son would understand that so he kept the thought to himself.

Ridge shrugged. “She was well enough to pull this latest stunt. Seems to me, she’s well enough to be on her own.”

“Ridge, go home. I’m not in the mood to argue with you.” He looked at his son. “And just so you know, I hold you just as responsible for this mess as I do your mother, Thomas, and Brooke.”

“What the hell?” Ridge growled. “How are Brooke and I responsible for this?”

Eric raised an eyebrow. “Hmm, let me see. Brooke, married to me, sleeps with you. Brooke, married to Thorne, wants you. Brooke, goes after you, never caring that you’re married to Taylor. Brooke has an affair with her daughter’s husband. Brooke has sex up against a wall with her daughter’s boyfriend. All things that Thomas knows that you’ve laughed off or overlooked. So, when he needs a way to grab the media’s attention for his men’s line that, let’s face it, wasn’t that great, he grabs his step-mother and kisses her. You laugh at it. She lets it happen without slapping the young man’s face. She goes along with it. Encourages it. You encourage it. You build a whole campaign around it. A whole line around it. You let them work together. You send them off on PR trips together. She doesn’t tell about the kiss he gave her while she’s sleeping. Doesn’t tell about the candle light dinner. She gets caught in one compromising situation after the other with her step-son, but you laugh at it.” He held up his hand when he saw his son opening his mouth with a retort. “Oh yes, I was just as guilty of going along with the whole thing after I saw how much money it was bringing in. Don’t think that I’m not kicking myself. But, you, my son, are the one that wanted to capitalize on the media’s belief that your son and your wife were involved in an affair. So I don’t want to hear about how it’s all your mother’s fault.”

“You sound like Mother. Always blaming everyone else.”

“Did you hear one word I said? I’m not putting the blame on anyone that doesn’t deserve it. Brooke’s behavior led to Thomas believing he could do what he did and you wouldn’t think a thing of it, he was right. The more he worked with Brooke, the more he was affected by her giggles, the wiggle of her hips, and the sighs. Everything in this whole mess was the perfect setup for what your mother did. We all have blame in this, Ridge. Stop laying it all at your mother’s feet and grow the hell up. Open your damn eyes and realize that as long as you are with Brooke, this is what your life will be. Scandal after scandal. You’ve laughed it off and patted Brooke on the head so often that she doesn’t even think when she does something. She just does it, then cries and says it was a mistake, and you forgive her, then it starts all over again. Frankly, Son, I’m glad you took her off my hands.”

“Well don’t preach at me. You’re doing the same thing with mother.” Ridge grumped with a smug look.

“No, that’s where you’re wrong, Ridge. I’m not doing the same thing. I’ve never done the same thing. As a matter of fact, this is the first time I’ve ever stayed with your mother after she’s done something like this.” He shrugged. “I don’t expect you to understand. Your brother and sister certainly don’t. And at the moment, I don’t care. I have to get back to your mother.”

Ridge watched his father disappear inside his home and scowled. “What the hell has gotten into him?” he mumbled as he stormed back to his car, deciding that he’d go talk to his siblings to see what they were going to do.

E**S


“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Please! I don’t want to die alone! Please!” Stephanie cried out in her sleep, her head tossing on her pillow, her hands tangled in the sheet.

Eric heard her cries and rushed into their bedroom, nearly tripping over his feet as he ran to her side, pulling her trembling body up into his arms. “Shh, Sweet girl. I’m here. You aren’t alone. Shh,” he soothed as he caressed her damp hair. “I’m here. Wake up, Stephanie. It’s alright.”

Still in the middle of her dream, Stephanie clung to him, her body trembling. “You promised, but you broke your promise. I’m alone.” She gasped for air, her body stiffening.

“Stephanie!” Eric yelled and shook her, his heart thundering in his chest. “Wake up! I’m here! Breathe!”

Stephanie took a deep breath, her eyes snapping open. Staring up at Eric, she blinked as she looked around their bedroom before settling her gaze back on her lover. “Eric?”

Eric closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Dear god,” he whispered as he pulled her close and held her. “You scared me.” Pushing her back, he cupped her face and looked deep into her eyes. “Are you alright?”

Still blinking in confusion, Stephanie nodded. “I’m fine. Honey?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”

Eric sighed in relief that she didn’t seem to remember the nightmare he’d pulled her out of. “You were having a bad dream. You scared me, that’s all. It’s alright now.”

Cocking her head, she studied him then nodded and settled back against his chest. “How did things go with the children?”

“I didn’t yell…too much.” He caressed her hair. “They just don’t understand my suddenly acting like a husband when I’m not one.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not sure why they keep throwing that up at me. They seem to think that because we’re not married I can just walk away from you as easy as making you pack a bag.”

“Because it’s always been that easy before,” she whispered.

Eric held her tighter, hating that she was right. “I know it has, but not this time.” He cupped her cheek when she pulled back a bit and looked up at him. “I may not be your husband, something that I think maybe we should discuss remedying, but I am the man that has learned to love you as he should, good or bad.”

“And this is definitely bad,” she mumbled.

“Yeah, it is,” he agreed as he gently laid her back against the pillows. “Rest some more. I’ll be right here.”

Stephanie held his hand even as her eyes closed. “Did you talk to Ridge? I tried to apologize to him, but,”

“Shh.” Eric hushed her with a gentle finger to her lips. “We’ll talk about all of this later. Just rest, Sweet girl.”

“Mmm,” she murmured as she slipped back into sleep.

Eric watched her for a few moments, then moved to sit in the chair by the windows. After the nightmare he’d walked in on, he wasn’t about to leave her while she was sleeping. He could only imagine what she’d been dreaming when she gasped for air. He had wanted to ask her how things had gone with Brooke, but after his confrontation with Ridge, he could just about guess.

He shook his head. Things were in such a mess. It would be so easy to fall back into his old habit and leave her, join the rest of his family in blaming her for everything, but he couldn’t. No, he shook his head. He wouldn’t. He’d meant what he said to Ridge. He wasn’t going to lay all of the blame on Stephanie when every one of them had had a hand in this mess. Sighing, he let his head rest back against the chair and closed his eyes. Maybe he’d catch a nap while Stephanie was resting.

E**S

“Absolutely not!” Eric shouted, his head shaking as he did so. “I will not let you embarrass yourself just to satisfy her mean streak.”

“But she asked if I really meant it when I said I’d do anything.” Stephanie tried to make him understand.

“No.”

Lowering her eyes, she twisted her hands. “Please Eric? If you do this with me, I’ll be able to get through it, and then we can leave and come home.”

Hearing something in her voice, Eric studied the woman standing across from him. “Are you sure?”

Stephanie took a deep breath and sighed it out. “No, I’m not sure. But what other choice do I have? I’ve embarrassed her, isn’t it only fitting?”

Eric rolled his eyes. “Her embarrassment is highly doubtful, considering.” Sighing, he reached out to caress her face. “I’ll play for you if this is what you want to do.”

Closing her eyes and leaning into his hand, Stephanie used his touch to calm herself. “I know I’m not supposed to drink, but,”

Eric chuckled sadly. “I think in this case, it will be better if you do. There’s plenty of champagne here for you to have a couple of glasses before we go.”

She nodded. “That should at least be enough of a start,” she mumbled and watched as Eric went and poured them both a glass. “Thank you for doing this.”

Eric handed her a glass. “I wouldn’t let you do it by yourself.”

Stephanie took a long sip of the bubbly liquid. “The children are angry with you, aren’t they?” she asked after a few moments of silence.

“They don’t understand why I’m standing by you. Ridge is the only one angry with me,” he shrugged. “At least for the moment. I’m sure Rick and Bridget will be angry when they realize I’m not kicking you to the curb.”

Swallowing the last of her champagne, Stephanie walked over to where Eric had left the open bottle and poured herself another glass full. “You don’t have to…”

“Don’t start that again.” Eric interrupted her, his eyes meeting hers across the room. “I told Ridge, and I’m telling you – Ridge, Brooke, and I are every bit as responsible for this mess as you and Thomas are.”

Stephanie frowned. “What?” she asked incredulously.

“We are. Brooke’s past and present behavior, Thomas’ knowledge of said behavior and his father’s reactions to it, Ridge’s seeing dollar signs, my seeing dollar signs,” he shrugged. “All of it led up to this. If Brooke had slapped our grandson’s face when he kissed her, if Ridge had put a stop to things right then and there, none of this would have happened.”

“I didn’t have do to what I did.”

“Neither did Thomas. Don’t take all of the responsibility, Stephanie. He’s greedy and power hungry, just like Ridge was, and still is to a point. Ridge is learning how I felt all those years ago.”

“I didn’t have to help.”

“No, you’re right, you didn’t, but again, Thomas didn’t have to go along with your plan. If he wasn’t greedy and wanting power at the company, he wouldn’t have let you use your shares to get him to go along with this.” Eric shrugged. “Besides, neither one of them really knows what happened. For all we know,”

“Don’t say it.” Stephanie held up her hand. “I haven’t had anything to eat and I’m drinking.”

Eric chuckled. “We should probably go get changed. I don’t think you showing up in just my shirt will work.”

Stephanie drank the last of her champagne and set her glass down. “No, I don’t suppose it will. What am I going to wear?”

Eric smiled as he set his own glass down. Taking her hand, he began to walk toward the stairs. “I know just the thing. How are you feet?”

“My feet?” Stephanie asked with a frown. “What have my feet got to do with it?”

“Yes your feet.” Eric laughed then winked. “You’ll see.”

E**S

Stephanie, finished with her song, sat the microphone down on the piano and took the drink Eric handed her. Whispering, “Thank you,” she swallowed the shot of bourbon and let the fire burn down her throat then looked back up at Eric. “Take me home, please,” she whispered.

Eric heard it in her voice and saw it in her eyes, desperation. He could see that she was on the verge of losing control of her emotions and showing her embarrassment, something she didn’t want to do in front of all of these people. “We’ll have to tell those two goodbye,” he looked over at Ridge and Brooke, growling low in his throat at the look of utter glee on Brooke’s face.

Stephanie nodded. “Fine, then take me home.”

“How about I take you home and then up to Big Bear?” he suggested.

“I think I’d like that. No press.”

“No angry children. Nothing that we don’t want.” He smiled at her as he pressed his hand to the small of her back. “Have I told you how sexy you are in those shoes?”

Rolling her eyes up at him, Stephanie smiled in gratitude. “Not in the last few minutes.”

He winked at her. “Damn sexy,” he murmured just before they were stopped by Jackie and Owen.

“Well that was very interesting.” Jackie said as she tapped Stephanie’s hand. “We need a little chat.”

Stephanie watched her friend blow a kiss then walk away and shook her head as Owen told them goodbye. Then she elbowed Eric, once again in a hurry to get out of there.

“Look, your mother and I don’t want to interrupt your evening, so we’ll be going.” Eric told Ridge.

Ridge just looked at his parents. “Brooke told me why you did this, Mother, but it’s going to take more to make up for what you’ve done.”

Eric glared at his son. “No, Ridge. It’s not. This is done. Your mother is not going to do anything else to humiliate herself for something we’re all to blame for.” Taking Stephanie’s hand, he nodded at his son and Brooke, then turned and led Stephanie out of the restaurant.

“That will only make him angrier.” Stephanie sighed as they waited for their car.

“I don’t give a damn, Stephanie. You aren’t going to keep humiliating yourself so they can satisfy their egos. I saw the look on Brooke’s face. She was enjoying this way too much.” Eric stopped to help her in the car, then slid in beside her. “Well, no more. They’ve had their fun.”

Stephanie leaned against his shoulder as their car headed toward home. “How long are we going to stay at Big Bear?”

“As long as you want. We have nothing pressing that needs our attention.”

“Don’t you think everyone will say I ran away?”

“I doubt that they will since I’ll be going with you, but even if they do, I don’t give a damn. You need to get away from this madness. I won’t have you getting sick over this mess.”

“I did bring it on myself,” she reminded him.

“Doesn’t matter. Ridge is seeing an opportunity to get more power out of this, and he’s going to do whatever he sees as necessary to get it, but I’m not going to let him. Those stocks you promised to Thomas are yours until your death and that’s how it’s going to stay. He isn’t going to go after you as long as I have anything to say about it. Tonight was the last time I let them use your guilt to get what they want.”

Stephanie looked up at Eric as their car stopped outside their home. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?”

Eric smiled as he got out of the car and held out his hand to her. “No,” he said as she stepped out of the car. “you haven’t, but your eyes have.”

Waiting until their driver and car were gone, she stepped into his arms. “I love you, Eric Forrester.”

“How about showing me how much?” he asked, a twinkle in his dark eyes.

Smiling as she caressed his cheek, she answered him in a soft voice. “If you want me to, I will.” She smiled then added, “When we get to Big Bear.”

E**S


Stephanie wiggled her toes as she sat on the bed. It was cool here in the mountains and Eric had gone out to get a bit of wood for a fire, leaving her to change out of the outfit she’d worn to the restaurant…and the shoes. She smiled and shook her head as she thought back to when Eric had pulled out her outfit and then came carrying her shoes out. Shoes she hadn’t known she even had until Eric had knelt in front of her and gently slid them on her feet. When she’d asked him where the shoes came from, he’d simply smiled at her and told her that he’d bought them after he designed her outfit in the hopes he could talk her into wearing them. Then his smile had faded as he gently caressed her ankle.

“I only wish it was a happier occasion for you to be wearing this outfit for the first time.”

“Honey? Why did you pick this for me to wear? I could have worn something I’ve already worn.”

“I wanted,” he paused as he moved to sit by her on their bed. “I wanted you to have something no one has ever seen before because I know how embarrassed you’re going to be. I wanted you to look spectacular…and beautiful.” He smiled as he caressed her cheek. “Not that you aren’t those things to me every day, but I just wanted to make you feel that way because of what you’re going to be doing.”

Smiling, she kissed him softly. “But heels, Honey? Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve worn heels? I’m not sure I even remember how to walk in them.”

“Steph.” Eric called her name as he knelt down in front of her, slipping a pair of fuzzy socks on her cold feet.

Stephanie blinked then smiled when she saw what he was doing. “Fuzzy socks?”

“You’re feet are cold.” He shrugged. “I keep a pair up here for you.”

“Just for me?”

“Just for you,” he nodded. “They stay tucked away in the back of a drawer no one ever uses.” He winked. “That way they’re only worn by you when I’m with you because only I know where they are.”

Stephanie chuckled. “Get a fire built?”

“I did.” He smiled as he stood and held out a hand. “Come snuggle in front of it with me and tell me what you were thinking about.”

Taking his hand, she sighed as she leaned against him. “I was thinking about earlier when we were dressing for my,” she paused and snarled before continuing. “performance.”

“You were every bit as beautiful and spectacular as I knew you would be when I designed that. And those shoes,” he licked his lips. “Damn sexy.”

“At least I didn’t wobble,” she laughed.

“No, you most definitely didn’t wobble.” Nuzzling her ear when they sat down, he pulled her against his chest. “Your hips swayed a little more than usual though,” he informed her, his voice low.

“Eric,” she breathed as his warm breath tickled her ear.

“Are you hungry? We didn’t eat anything.”

“A little. Why don’t we go fix something?” she asked as she moved from his arms and stood up, her hand going out to him as the collar of her top slipped off her shoulder.

Eric took her hand, swallowing as he caught sight of her bare shoulder. Pulling her into his arms, he looked down at her as he pulled the top back up. “If I keep getting peeks at your bare skin, we won’t be eating anything,” he told her before pressing a kiss to her neck.

Pulling out of his arms, Stephanie winked at him as she shrugged her shoulders, the top once again slipping from her shoulder. “It just won’t stay up.”

Eric’s eyes narrowed at the mischief he saw in her eyes. “I think we’d better hurry with dinner.”

Stephanie laughed as she turned and made her way to the kitchen. “Come on, Honey,” she called to him, knowing that he’d been watching her walk and not following.

Shaking his head, Eric followed her into the kitchen. “So? What are we going to have?”

Stephanie poked her head into the refrigerator. “I see you put some wine in to chill.”

“After I finished with the fire.”

“I could make some stew, if that’s alright.”

“It’s perfectly fine with me. Do you want me to put some rolls in the oven to go with it?” he asked as he moved behind her, his arms snaking around her waist.

Leaning back against him after she closed the door, she sighed. “Rolls, mmm, yes. Rolls would be lovely.”

Eric smiled. “Just how hungry are you?” he asked, his voice a low murmur in her ear.

Shivering as his hands caressed the sides of her breasts, she swallowed to get out an intelligible answer. “Ooh,” she moaned when he nuzzled her neck. “Not very,” she managed to whisper.

Releasing her, he held out his hand. “Follow me.”

Smiling at him, eyes hazy with passion, she took his hand and followed him through to their bedroom. Sitting on the bed and watching as he built a fire, she felt tears threaten as she thought about how she had expected to be alone tonight.

Eric, finished with the fire, turned to find Stephanie crying. Kneeling down in front of her, he reached up, caressing the tears from her cheeks. “What is it?”

“You,” she answered quietly.

“Me?” he asked a bit confused by her answer.

She nodded. “You’re here.”

“Oh, Sweetheart,” he sighed. “Of course I am. I love you.”

“Even after everything I’ve done,” she murmured the words as a statement rather than a question.

Eric agreed. “Even after everything.”

“And you want to make love to me,” her voice was quiet as she held his gaze, her own showing the fear she’d had the last few days. “I was so scared that last night would be the last time you would make love to me. This morning, when you held me in your arms before we started getting ready for the wedding,” she paused and looked down where his hands held hers. “I was so afraid that would be the last time you would hold me. When I was confessing,” she paused as her voice broke.

“Shh,” he soothed.

She shook her head to clear it. “When I was confessing, I knew I was hurting everyone involved, but all I could think of was how disappointed and angry you were going to be.”

Getting up, Eric tugged on her hand to pull her up with him. “I was disappointed and angry, that’s true. I’m still disappointed, but the anger disappeared once I saw you and realized that I understood why you had done what you had.” He caressed her face. “Go wash the tears from this beautiful face while I get a little more comfortable.”

She titled her face further into his hand and held his gaze before nodding and walking out of the room to the bathroom. This wasn’t how she’d imagined tonight would be. She’d imagined that she’d be alone somewhere waiting for the next round of arguing and angry words.

Eric heard the water and sighed. He was going to have to do a lot to reassure Stephanie that he’d meant what he said. Making love to her was just one way of showing her. Marrying her would be another, although they’d have to be careful about it after everything that had happened today. Pulling his shirt up over his head, he moved over to the suitcase sitting on top of the dresser. Dropping his shirt, he stripped the rest of his clothes off before pulling out his pajama bottoms and stepping into them. Shaking his head against the matching shirt, he moved back to the fire, poking at it before adding another log. Going back to the bed, he turned back the covers. Hearing her come into the room behind him, he turned with a smile, his breath catching at the sight of her standing there, her legs bare.

Dropping her pants on top of his, Stephanie walked over to Eric, smiling up at him as she carefully toed off her fuzzy socks. “I see you’ve made it cozy in here.”

“I intend for you to stay warm.”

“Oh, I’ll stay warm with you next to me. You’re always warm.”

“Climb in, Sweet girl,” he whispered then followed her. Waiting for her to settle in, he turned off the bedside lamp before settling against his pillows. “Come here.”

Settling against his chest, Stephanie sighed when his arm wrapped around her. Staring into the fire, she easily settled a leg between his, her foot resting against his calf. She could feel his heart beating against her cheek, its easy rhythm reassuring. As she laid there, her breathing slowly matched his, her own heart beating in the same thump thump pattern.

Eric sighed in contentment, perfectly happy to lie here holding the woman he loved while they watched the fire sparking and fluttering as it heated their room. He could feel her breathing slow to match his, her heart beating in perfect rhythm with his own. His body reacted when she began to caress her foot up and down his leg and he tightened his arm around her.

Letting her hand caress the warm skin of his chest, Stephanie continued to move her foot, knowing the effect it had on her lover. “Eric?” she whispered.

“Mmm, yes?”

“I believe I was supposed to show you how much I love you,” her voice was soft.

Moving so that they were laying face to face, Eric tucked her hair behind her ear. “How about we show each other?” he asked as he let his hand wander over her.

Closing her eyes and enjoying his touch, she smiled. “I think I like the sound of that.”

Resting his hand against her heart, he looked deep into her eyes when they opened. “I love you, Stephanie Forrester. No matter what,” he told her softly, noticing the fear in her eyes disappear completely with his words. This was what he’d wanted and what he would strive to keep.