Eric smiled at their family as they sat around telling stories. It was the last night he and Stephanie would be at home, the last time their family would see her. None of them knew that, of course, with the exception of Taylor, Jackie, and Massimo. He would need help when the time came to tell the rest of them what he and Stephanie had planned. Looking at Felicia, he sighed. She was going to be the hardest. She had so wanted Stephanie to be here for the birth of the newest Stephanie, but it just wasn’t going to happen.
With each passing day, Stephanie worsened, and she didn’t want her family to see her worse than she was now. It was why she had made the decision to leave for Italy sooner than they’d planned. The time they’d spent on the yacht with their family had been wonderful for all involved. Stephanie had been thankfully in good health for those ten days, due in part he was sure to the absence of pollution. The sea air had been good for her just as it was on their honeymoon.
“Tired, Sweet girl?”
“Mmm.” Stephanie hummed. “But don’t tell them to go just yet. Let them finish these stories before we break their hearts.”
“Hey.” Eric rubbed her arm. “They’ll understand.”
“Mom?” Felicia broke into their quiet conversation. “What is it?”
Stephanie swallowed as she squeezed Eric’s hand. “Come here, Baby.” She held out her hand.
Felicia moved to sit beside her mother, feeling her eyes water as Stephanie placed a hand on her stomach. “Momma?”
“It’s time, Baby.”
Eric heard their family’s questions and held up his hand. “Shh,” he quieted them. “You all know that Taylor bought us tickets to Portofino for Stephanie’s birthday.”
“Yes,” they all answered.
“Well, Stephanie and I are going to leave early in the morning and take that trip.”
Felicia’s lip trembled as she placed her hand over her mother’s. “You aren’t coming back,” she whispered.
“No, Baby. I’m not.” Caressing away a tear, Stephanie’s own eyes filled. “I know you wanted me to be here for her birth, to meet her, but I just can’t stay.” Looking up at the others staring at her with tears, she blinked to clear her eyes. “I can’t bear the thoughts of you seeing me as I will be when the end comes. I want you to remember me with happy things, not wasting away. It will be bad enough that your father will see me that way.”
Aly sniffed and leaned into Thorne. “I don’t want you to go, Grandma, but I understand.”
“Me too, Grandma.” Steffy whispered.
“Can we have one last slumber party?”
“Zende, I don’t think,” Eric started but stopped when he felt Stephanie tug at his hand.
Smiling up at Eric when he looked down at her, she nodded before turning back to look out at their family. “You can.”
Dino sniffed as he climbed down off Nick’s lap and made his way over to Stephanie. “Gramma?”
“Dino spend one more night snuggled up to you?”
Stephanie nodded as she, with the help of Eric, pulled Dino up into her lap. “Yes. You and Mommy can sleep in the bed with Grandpa and Grandma. I don’t think Mommy could spend the night on the floor.”
Dino looked at his mother and giggled sadly. “No. Dino don’t think so either.”
Felicia smiled at her baby. “Come on then, Little man. Let’s go with Daddy and change into our pjs.”
“I wear the ones Grampa made?”
“Yes. We’ll both wear the ones Grandpa made. How about that?”
Dino nodded then kissed Stephanie’s cheek. “We be back, Gramma.”
“And we’ll be waiting for you in the big bed.”
“Nick.” Stephanie called after her son-in-law before he left the room.
“I expect you to come back.”
Nick shook his head and chuckled a bit. “You’re a bit scary when you do that.”
Stephanie shrugged. “I know you, Son. You were going to tell Felicia you’d stay home. But you’re family, and this is a family slumber party.”
“Besides, I’m sure RJ can find you a place beside him under the bed.”
“Oh, Grandpa!” RJ frowned as he crossed his arms. “I’m not going to sleep under the bed.”
“You have the last two times we’ve had a slumber party with all of you here.” Steffy reminded him.
Zende nodded. “Maybe you should take Uncle Thorne’s place at the foot of the bed.”
“Oh no.” Eric shook his head. “If the boy rolls enough that he winds up under the bed, I won’t have him rolling over us in the middle of the night.”
Ridge raised an eyebrow as he looked at his son. “How did you wind up under the bed, Son?”
RJ shrugged. “I’m not sure, really. I was by Thomas, then the next thing I know, I was waking up, it was morning and I was under the bed.”
Ridge shook his head. “Maybe you should sleep over by the wall instead.”
“Are you staying, Dad?”
“I am. I’ve missed out on the others.”
Stephanie smiled at her oldest son. “Then you sleep by him. If he rolls over someone, it might as well be his father.”
Eric laughed at that. “Come on.” He stood up and helped her up. “Let’s go get ourselves changed and settled in to bed.”
“If we all hurry and come up and settle in, will you sing to us?”
“And tell us a story?” Thorne chimed in.
Eric smiled at his family, all them looking at him expectantly. “Yes, but you have to hurry.”
Stephanie caressed Dino’s back as he snuggled closer to her in his sleep, her was back pressed against Eric’s chest as he held her close. Reaching over, she laid her hand on Felicia’s stomach, feeling the small life within moving about. “I can’t believe Felicia is asleep. Baby Stephanie is being very active.”
Eric nuzzled her neck then kissed her ear. “She’s used to Dino,” he whispered earning a chuckle.
“I suppose,” she started the stopped when her voice caught. “I so wanted to meet this little one.”
“I know you did.” Eric held her a bit closer. “We can stay.”
Stephanie shook her head, swallowing back her tears. “No. I can’t do that to them. This will be hard, but seeing me waste away, having me not know them in the end,” her voice caught again. “I can’t.”
“Shh,” he soothed as he caressed her hair. “We don’t want you to get upset and have a coughing spell.”
Taking a few shallow breaths, Stephanie sighed as she closed her eyes. “I should have known they’d want to stay with us.”
“We both should have.” Eric whispered. “Rest now, Sweet girl. We’ve a long day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Mmm,” she murmured. “Must remember to thank Mass for the use of his jet.”
“Okay,” her voice trailed off, her breathing evening out as best as it could in her condition.
Eric let his hand drift down to rest over her heart, it’s steady rhythm soothing him, his own eyes closing in sleep.
Kristen buried her face in Tony’s neck to hide her crying. She’d overheard her parents’ conversation and it broke her heart. “It isn’t fair,” she whispered.
“No, Honey, it isn’t.” Tony told her as he caressed her back. “But she’s doing what she’s always done. She’s protecting her family from the most hurt, and you know, as well as I do, that watching her fade away to nothing and getting to where she doesn’t know you, would hurt all of you worse than her leaving is going to.”
From his place at the foot of the bed, Thorne wiped at his eyes. Out of all of his siblings, he knew that Felicia was going to struggle the most with this. Out of the kids, Dino more than any of the others because he was so young. He knew that Steffy was struggling, but Aly had stepped up, and together both girls were helping the other. His Aly, so much like her mother, yet more like her grandmother with each passing day not just in looks but also her fierce loyalty to family. Between her and Steffy, the next generation of Forresters would have one hell of a matriarch.
The family was still laughing as they made their way to the airport. RJ had managed to roll over his father in the middle of the night, and this time it was Thomas that would up under the bed, trying to escape RJ.
“Yes, Dino?” Stephanie asked as she patted his knee.
From his perch on his grandpa’s lap, Dino studied Stephanie. “You gonna go to Heaven?”
“Leave Dino here?”
“Yes, Baby. You have to stay here with Mommy. She’s going to need you to help her with baby Stephanie.”
“Anie.” Dino told her.
“Anie then.” Stephanie smiled at the little boy, knowing that he’d just made the decision for his parents about what they were going to nickname the baby. “You’re going to be her big brother and she’ll need you to teach her things. You’ll protect her like uncle Thorne and Uncle Ridge protect Aunt Kristen and your momma. That’s what big brothers do.”
Dino sniffed as he reached out to grab Stephanie’s hand with both of his. “I tell her about Gramma too. Tell her how Gramma made the best cakes for brea’flast. Teach her to like pya. Tell her how good Gramma’s hugs was. The best hugs in the world.”
“Oh Baby.” Stephanie pulled him into her arms, holding him close. “You tell her how much Gramma loves her even though I never met her. Hmm?”
Aly, having brought along a sketch pad, sketched the picture hastily so that Dino would always have a reminder of his last moments with his beloved Gramma. She hadn’t really known why she’d grabbed the pad, but now as she continued to sketch, she realized that something had told her she’d need it.
Eric watched his granddaughter, her pencil moving quickly over paper. She was so much like him, sketching scenes from their lives to remember. None of his children had inherited this part of him, and it made him proud to see that at least one of his grandchildren had.
“Dino loves you.”
“And Grandma loves Dino very much. As much as she loves all of you.” Stephanie added as she looked at the others in the car.
“We know that Mom.” Ridge told her as he wrapped an arm around Steffy.
“We do, Grandma. We’ve always known.” Aly smiled at her as she finished her sketch and tore the paper out. “Dino.”
Dino sat up and turned to look at Aly. “Yes, Alwi?”
Aly smiled at the way the boy said her name. “Here.”
Dino took the paper his cousin handed him and stared down at it. “It’s Dino and him Gramma.”
“Yes, it is. It’s for you to keep. Mommy and Daddy can buy you a frame so you can keep it in your room.”
“For me to keep?”
Aly nodded. “Yes, for you to keep. You can show it to Anie when she gets older.”
“Thank you, Alwi.”
Eric winked at his granddaughter, smiling at her as he mouthed, “Thank you.”
Stephanie stared at the sketch and shook her head. “It looks like you’ve got some competition, Honey.”
“I believe I do.”
“Oh no.” Aly shook her head. “I’ll never be a designer.”
“Well, be that as it may, you’re still as good as I am sketching like this.” Eric pointed at the paper Dino still held.
Aly blushed. “Thank you, Grandpa.”
“I think I’d like to do what you did in the business.”
Stephanie smiled. “Well, there is no more Forresters, but maybe your sister will let you learn working for her.”
Steffy smiled and nodded. “Uncle Thorne has Grandma’s business sense, you can help him. He’ll teach you.”
“I learned from the best. Can’t draw worth much, but I’m good at what I learned from Mom.”
“Well at least one of my children had to take after me.” Stephanie winked at him. “Sorry that you didn’t get the artistic gene, though.”
Thorne shrugged. “I can draw good enough to mess around, just not to design.”
“Well none of us design anymore.” Thomas reminded him.
“Well,” Nick broke in. “Jackie M is looking for a few good designers.”
“And I’m not going to be much good for a few months.” Felicia chimed in.
“Really?” Thomas asked, a glint of excitement in his eyes.
Felicia smiled at her nephew. “Yes, really. Kristen has already said that she would.”
“Kristen?” Stephanie asked as she looked at her oldest.
“We’re moving back, Mom.”
“But what about Zende’s schooling? And Tony’s job?”
“I can do my job from anywhere, Stephanie.”
“And I can go to school here. I also have a job working for Steffy.”
“And Ridge?” Eric asked his oldest. “What about you?”
“I’m going to do nothing. I’ll take requests to do wedding dresses or special events, but that’s it. Maybe in a few years my association with,” he shrugged. “Well, anyway. I’ll enjoy the break.”
Eric nodded. “Just promise not to travel for a while, hmm? You’ll be needed here to help Thorne take care of the family while I’m away.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, Dad.”
Stephanie squeezed Eric’s hand, smiling up at him. “Thank you, Honey.”
Eric pulled the blanket up around Stephanie. Saying goodbye to their family had exhausted her and she’d laid down as soon as the all clear had been given after takeoff. Felicia hadn’t taken things well, as he’d known would happen, but he also knew that Nick, Thorne, Ridge, and Massimo would take care of her while Taylor and Jackie took care of the girls.
He worried about Steffy. She was too much like her grandmother at times, always holding things in when she was hurt the worst. And she was hurting deeply, he knew. He wasn’t sure but what she wasn’t hurting more than his daughters and sons were. There was a different sort of bond between his oldest granddaughter and Stephanie than that of the ones shared by their children. While Ally looked like Stephanie, she was more like her mother and father in temperament. Steffy looked like her mother, but was as much like Stephanie as Stephanie herself was. Even more so than Felicia, who had always clashed with her mother because of how much alike they were.
Which is where the difference lay.
While Felicia had clashed with Stephanie because of their sameness, Steffy had always embraced it. She’d always used it, and been proud of it. She’d been proud to be named after Stephanie, the woman she looked up to, the one person she held in the highest regards. If anyone of them had ever understood Stephanie, it was Steffy.
He smiled as he thought about Steffy and Phoebe as babies. Steffy had always preferred Stephanie, Phoebe had always preferred him. Not that Phoebe hadn’t loved her grandmother, she had. All of their grandbabies had. There was just something about her that made children, whether their own, or a stranger’s, like Stephanie.
He couldn’t help but chuckle as he thought about the little boy in the park that they had walked by. The little guy couldn’t have been but two, yet he was flirting with Stephanie. When she had noticed, she’d winked, sending the little guy into a fit of giggles. His mother had been shocked because the little boy was usually very shy and didn’t like strangers. He could still remember hugging Stephanie close to his side and telling the lady that it was just the way children always responded to his wife.
And now that he knew of her past, he knew why. She made them feel safe because she’d never had that with any of the adults in her life as a child. His wife was some kind of woman. Life without her…
Wouldn’t be life.