“It’s so beautiful, Eric.” Stephanie sighed as they stood on the balcony of their suite.
“Yes, it is. Taylor knows us very well. This is the same suite we always had when we were here together.”
Stephanie nodded. “She does know us. I’m grateful to her for all of her help.”
“She loves you.”
“She’ll take good care of our family.”
“Yes, she’ll help, but I think it will be Jackie and Massimo that takes care of them the most.”
“You have to promise to let them help you. And to take care of Pammie. You’re the only one right now that can help her.”
“Shh.” Eric whispered as he wrapped his arms around her from behind, pulling her back against him.
Stephanie sighed as she let herself rest against the solid body of her husband. He’d been her rock these last months, even when he felt he’d been weak, that had been when she found him the strongest. “Remember when you paid those musicians to play for us?”
“I do.” Eric whispered as he gently flicked the earring she wore with his tongue. “It’s the night I gave you these.”
“Mmm,” she hummed. “Teddy bear?”
“Yes, Sweet girl?”
Turning in his arms, Stephanie stared up at him. “Make love to me,” she whispered.
“Stephanie, I,” Eric started, stopping when she put her finger over his lips.
“Shh. One last time, Honey. I’ve been feeling good all day and I want this one last time with you.”
Caressing her face, Eric stared into her blue eyes, getting lost as he always had. “We’ll go slow and easy and I’ll stop if I think it’s too much for you.”
Cupping his cheek, Stephanie smiled sadly at him. “Always taking care of me.”
“Always.” Eric whispered, his voice cracking, a tear trailing down his cheek. Turning his face into her hand, he pressed a kiss to the palm. “Your medicine.”
Stephanie shook her head. “No. Not anymore,” she whispered.
Eric studied her, more tears falling as he realized what she was saying. Nodding, he held her hand as he led her to their bed and slowly began to undress her. Helping her beneath the covers, he undressed himself then lay beside her. “Are you sure?” he whispered.
“I’m positive, Honey.”
Gently caressing her, Eric’s lips moved against hers, careful not to take her breath. Slow and easy, he’d told her, and slow and easy it would be.
“Nick.” Felicia growled. “Nick!” she nearly shouted as she tried to pant through the contraction burning across her abdomen.
Nick blinked his eyes open and sat up when Felicia hit him. “What is it?”
Felicia scowled at him. “The baby. I think she’s decided it’s time to make her appearance.”
“Oh.” Nick breathed as he jumped up and began to hurriedly dress. Coming around the bed, he finished pulling his t-shirt over his head before helping Felicia up. “Do you want me to call for an ambulance?”
“No. I want you to call Kristen and tell her to send Zende over to stay with Dino. Once he’s here we’ll head for the hospital.”
“Okay.” Nick nodded dumbly, doing as he was told, though he wasn’t really aware of what he was doing.
Felicia couldn’t help but laugh. Her usually very sane, calm husband was walking about like some cartoon character with his head twisted around backward. Moving carefully, she picked up the clothes she’d laid out across the chair in the corner of their bedroom. Hearing a knock at the door, she smiled as she called out, “Come in,” knowing it was Kristen on the other side.
“Tony and I are going with you.” Kristen informed her sister as she helped her change.
“I think that’s probably best. Nick’s a bit,”
“A bit fuzzy headed.” Kristen finished with a chuckle. “I never thought he’d be one of those type of men. He’s a sailor for heaven’s sake.”
Felicia shrugged as she laughed then moaned as she bent over a bit, her arms across her stomach. “Ooh.”
Felicia panted through the rest of the contraction then sighed when it ended. Squeezing Kristen’s hand, tears filled her eyes. “I want Mom.”
“Shh.” Kristen soothed as she kissed her sister’s forehead. “I know you do, that’s why I’m going. I’m not her, and I can’t ever replace her, but I can still be with you all the way if you want me to…just like she would have been.”
Felicia nodded. “I want you there. Someone needs to call the rest of the family.”
“Tony called Taylor. She’s going to do the rest.” Kristen knelt down to help Felicia with her shoes. “Come on now,” she said as she stood back up and held out her hand. “Let’s go.”
“The next generation Stephanie is getting a bit anxious.” Felicia moaned as she gripped Kristen’s hand and bent over with another contraction.
Stephanie sighed as she settled back into the bed, feeling warm and cozy after the bath she’d just shared with Eric. He’d made love to her like never before, and her body had cooperated so that she could enjoy one last time with him, then he’d run a bath for them to share.
“What are you thinking about, Sweet girl?” Eric asked as he lay down beside her.
Smiling up at him, Stephanie patted his cheek. “Just how wonderful you’ve been. Thank you,” she whispered as she snuggled against him, her head resting on his chest. “I love you, Eric.”
“I love you, too,” he whispered as he pressed a kiss to her head. “How are you feeling?”
“Warm and comfortable.”
Stephanie shook her head. “No, not at the moment.”
“Good.” Eric told her then frowned when his phone buzzed on the nightstand. “What in the world?”
“Felicia.” Stephanie whispered.
Eric grabbed his phone, blinking in surprise when he saw the text. “How did you know?” he asked Stephanie as he settled back, letting her read what Felicia had said.
“I just did,” she whispered as she took his phone and typed out a reply. I’m with you, Baby. Just as I always will be. Daddy and I love you, Mom.
Eric read Stephanie’s reply before putting his phone on the nightstand and settling back against his pillows, wrapping Stephanie in his arms once again. “She’ll be fine, Momma,” he whispered as he felt a hot tear soak his shirt.
More tears fell as Stephanie snuggled closer to him. “I know but,”
“Shh.” Eric soothed as he rubbed her back in gently circles. “She’s your baby, I know.”
“She never thought she’d be able to have anymore children after Dino and now that a miracle has happened, I can’t be there with her to see this new baby make her appearance in the world. I wasn’t there for Dino and I,” she stopped and turned more into Eric, her face in his neck.
“Oh Sweet girl, I’m so very sorry.” Eric whispered, not telling her that she could have been there, that it was her decision to leave their family. He knew that she knew that, but he had also known, when she made the decision, that if she was still with them when the time came for little Anie to be born, this would be what happened. It was just the way his wife worked. She protected her family, even if it was at great cost to herself.
“Oh god!” Felicia cried as she squeezed Nick’s hand through another contraction. “Mom should be here, Nick.”
Wiping at Felicia’s forehead and face with a cool, damp cloth, Nick nodded. “I know, Sweetheart. I also know that she’s probably upset right now, wishing she were here.”
“She’s here in spirit, Fifi, you know that. She told you she was.” Thorne smiled at his sister as he kissed her cheek. “I’m going to go. Kristen will be back in. I know she’s not Mom, but you need her here with you. No offense, Nick.”
“None taken, Thorne. Can you send Mother in? At least one grandma should be here.”
“I’ll send her in. I think Mom would like that.”
Felicia felt another contraction and whimpered when her water finally broke. “She’d better hurry. My water just broke.”
The nurse in the room smiled as she moved to Felicia, checking monitors and such. “I’ll go get the doctor.”
“Thank you.” Nick told her then turned his attention back to Felicia. “Getting close.”
Felicia tried to smile but another contraction washed over her and she ground her teeth as she tried to breathe through it. “They’re nearly one on top of the other now,” she managed as she relaxed back against her pillows.
The doctor and nurse came into the room, followed by Kristen. “Hey Sis, getting close?”
“Mmm, I hope so.”
The doctor chuckled and winked at Felicia before making his examination. “Very close, Felicia. If there is anyone else you’d like in the room with you, I suggest you send for them now.”
“I’m here.” Jackie informed him as she came in, smiling at her son and daughter-in-law. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re wel…oh god.”
“And that would be the signal that it’s time to begin.”
Felicia looked up at her sister, “Tell Dad.”
“Done.” Kristen told her even as she was pulling out her phone to text their father.
Eric handed his phone to Stephanie, not even bothering to read the text beforehand. “Well?”
“It’s time to push.” Stephanie read. “It’s from Kristen. Won’t be long now.”
Taking his phone back, Eric turned to put it on the nightstand then moved back to his original position, pulling Stephanie close. “Then rest now, Sweet girl. They’ll text again when Anie is born.”
“I know.” Stephanie took a deep breath then relaxed against Eric. “I love you, Teddy bear,” she whispered.
“I love you too, Sweet girl.”
Stephanie let her eyes close, her breathing evening out, easier than it had been in weeks. She was in the arms of the man she loved, rest would come easy now.
“Momma!” Felicia cried out just as she gave her final push, her baby taking her first breath as her cries filled the room. “No!”
“Felicia, what is it?” Kristen asked as she wiped the sweat from her sister’s brow. “What’s wrong?”
Felicia looked down at the baby they placed on her chest, tears rolling down her cheeks as she caressed the tiny face. “She’s gone, Sis.”
Kristen blinked as she looked up at Nick and Jackie then back at Felicia. “I don’t understand.”
“Mom.” Felicia answered. “I felt it just as Anie took her first breath. Mom is gone. The original Stephanie died just as the new one was born.”
Kristen’s eyes filled with tears as she caressed a hand over Felicia’s damp hair, her free hand caressing the head of her new niece. “She’s beautiful.” Her voice caught as she whispered, “She has Mom’s nose.”
Nick looked at Jackie, gripping her hand as his eyes filled with tears. “Do you think?” he whispered.
Jackie wiped at her tears with her free hand, the other squeezing Nick’s as she nodded. “Thorne and Felicia are connected to Stephanie in ways that we can’t explain. If she felt her mother going,” she left the rest unsaid.
Nick nodded then turned back to look down at his wife and daughter. “She’s beautiful, Felicia, just like her mommy.”
Felicia looked up at Nick, tears still rolling down her cheeks and a sob escaped. Holding her baby close, she buried her face in her husband’s neck and wept.
Eric had felt Stephanie leave him, had known that she would when she’d refused her medicines. She’d had such an easy day, for which he was thankful. He’d feared that Stephanie would suffer and get to where she wouldn’t know him at the end. Hearing his phone vibrate, he picked it up, tears filling his eyes as he read the text from Kristen.
Stephanie had left them as the new Stephanie was born.
Pressing a kiss to Stephanie’s forehead, he got up and went to the desk, pulling out his sketchpad to make one final sketch of them and their last time together. Finishing the sketch several minutes later, he pulled out the other sketchpad and sketched what he knew would bring tears to his daughter’s eyes, but would help her heal in the days ahead. Tears blurred his vision as he sketched his wife cradling her new namesake, a smile on her face, a tear on her cheek. He was thankful Kristen had sent a picture with her text so that he could do this one last thing for his baby.
He knew he should probably answer Kristen’s query about her mother, but he couldn’t. Confirming what they already knew would only hurt them more. It was better to wait. Finishing the sketch, he closed the pad and placed it with the other. Opening the top desk drawer, he pulled out the letters he’d written to each of their children and grandchildren, Stephanie having left her letters at home to be given to their family once they’d learned she was gone.
Finished at the desk, he wrote a quick note to the manager of the hotel, then pulled one last item out. Staring at the bottle, he took a deep breath before opening the lid and dumping out the pills.
Everything was taken care of. His family was secure and in good hands with Massimo and Jackie.
This long, long journey had begun a life time ago when a blue eyed blonde had caught his eye across a crowded room.
Now it would end with that woman wrapped in his arms, starting a new journey and waiting patiently for him to join her.