Stephanie stirred and blinked against the bright light of the sun shining through the open french doors of the bedroom balcony. Wondering what woke her, she smiled when she felt a soft touch against her cheek.
“Happy birthday, Sweetheart.” Eric whispered as he caressed his thumb across her lips.
Stephanie reached up and cupped his cheek. “Thank you, Honey,” she told him softly, her keen eyes taking in the sadness in his dark ones.
“I’ve brought you breakfast in bed.” Eric told her before leaning down to kiss her.
Stephanie hummed her approval then smiled when he pulled back. “What did you bring me?”
Eric smiled as he got up and went to where he’d set the tray down. Returning to the bed, he chuckled as Stephanie grumbled at the sheet when it wouldn’t stay where she wanted it. “I can give you your nightshirt, Stephanie, if you want it.”
She grinned at him and shook her head. “No. This sheet will co-operate.”
“I’m sure it will,” he laughed.
Stephanie smiled once she’d accomplished her task then patted the bedside. “Now, I want to see what you brought me.”
“Papaya,” she whispered as she looked at the bowl of her favorite fruit.
He nodded. “And a mimosa.”
“Well, it is your birthday.” He smiled at her.
“Aww,” she breathed then pointed to the second bowl on the tray. “And this?”
“That,” he said as he picked up the bowl. “is my breakfast. Grapenuts.”
She snarled her nose. “Those things are like eating rocks.”
Eric laughed and kissed her nose. “You’ve always said that.” A sudden sadness washed over him. “Oh Stephanie, I…”
“Shh,” she breathed as she cupped his cheek. “Eat your cereal, Honey. You still have to finish your birthday ritual.”
Taking a deep breath to stop the tears that threatened, he looked at her. “Making love to you after breakfast in bed.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“I love you, Stephanie.”
“Aww, Honey. I know. I love you, too.” She took a bite of fruit. “Especially since you brought me papaya.”
Eric laughed. “Why do you think I’ve always brought you that for your birthday breakfast?”
“So now I know,” she chuckled, happy that he’d gotten into the game.
“Of course. Did you really think I brought it to you because it’s your favorite?” He took a bite of his cereal.
“So I wasn’t the only one with a bill of goods to sell?”
Eric watched her eat for a few minutes, quietly eating his own breakfast, before answering. “No. You’re weren’t the only one.” His voice was low as he placed his bowl back on the tray, reaching out to take a drink of his orange juice.
Stephanie sensed his sadness, and placed her fork down. “I’m full,” she informed him.
Taking the tray, he sat it down away from the bed, then untied his robe and laid it across the foot of the bed as he walked around to his side. Sliding in beside her, Eric stared at her. “It wasn’t a bill of goods, Stephanie.”
Settling down against her pillows, she held him close when he joined her. “Oh, Honey, I know that.” She caressed his face, memorizing once again the line of his jaw, the arch of his eyebrows, the shape of his lips.
Eric closed his eyes, letting her touch ease the sadness he felt in his heart. Her fingers in his hair sent shivers across his nerves, something that had always happened. There was just something so sexy about it.
Stephanie’s breath caught when his warm hand cupped her breast and began to gently knead. “Eric,” she whimpered when his tongue traced her jaw before he nibbled on the lobe of her ear.
Kissing his way from her face to her breast, Eric rolled the taut nipple between his tongue and the roof of his mouth as his hand slid down her side to the curve of her hip. Bringing their bodies closer, he felt her leg lifting over his, giving him the signal he needed to know that she was just as ready as he was. Slowly and gently, he thrust his hips forward, joining their bodies with a moan.
Stephanie opened her eyes, staring into the dark eyes of her lover. “I love you, Eric. Thank you for making this birthday the best I’ve had in a very long time.” She caressed his face. “Not because of the papaya, or because of this…”
Eric caressed her face. “Then why?”
A tear rolled down her cheek. “Because you’re here with me. Because it was your handsome face that I saw when I woke up this morning.”
Feeling his own tears wet his cheeks, Eric leaned his head toward hers, capturing her lips in a kiss full of the love he felt for her and the passion their kisses and touches had ignited. “I’m always going to be here. Always,” he promised.
Stephanie closed her eyes and kissed him, their bodies moving perfectly together in a rhythm they both knew by heart. She knew this lazy pace, loved how slow and easy it all was. These were the times when Eric’s hands touched every inch of her gently, sensuously, almost worshipfully. In these moments, she experienced the greatest pleasure.
Taylor was startled to see Eric standing in her office. “Eric? You’re my one-thirty appointment?”
Eric nodded as he walked across the room to stare out of the office windows. “I’m your patient with all that implies.”
“You’re starting to frighten me, Eric.” Taylor spoke softly as she walked up beside him.
Eric handed her a check. “This check is for the full amount of your fee.”
Taylor felt her heart begin to race as she looked at the check Eric held out to her. “Eric, tell me what’s going on.”
“Take the check, Taylor.”
Swallowing down her rising panic, Taylor took the check. “Alright. Now tell me.”
“You’re bound by your oath to keep what I say to yourself.”
“I swear on my children’s lives that I won’t breathe a word of what is said.”
Eric, seeing that she meant it in her eyes, turned back to stare out at the city below. “I’m going to lose the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Taylor blinked in surprise at his words. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to lose Stephanie,” he whispered, his eyes filling with tears.
“You aren’t making any sense, Eric. The two of you just got back together. Why would you lose her?”
“Because I’m being punished,” his voice shook. “She’s being punished to punish me.”
Taylor stood in front of Eric, gripping his arms to shake him, but stopping when she saw the anguish in his eyes. Her breath caught. “My god, Eric. How is she being punished?”
“She’s,” his voice caught on a sob and he closed his eyes. “She’s dying,” he said it in a barely audible voice.
Taylor stumbled a bit, bumping into the window behind her. “Dying? Eric?” her voice caught.
“Stage four lung cancer that’s spread to her brain,” he whispered.
Taylor closed her eyes, her tears slowing making streaks down her face. “How long have you known?”
“We found out yesterday after she took a fall at Ridge and Brooke’s and lost consciousness.” Taking a few steps, he sat down on the sofa. “Brooke just left her lying there on the floor. Didn’t call for help. Didn’t believe that something was wrong,” his voice trembled. “All those years I took Brooke’s side. All those times I hurt Stephanie for Brooke’s sake. I,” he started then stopped, his head dropping into his hands. “My god, Taylor, what kind of man am I?”
Taylor, still reeling from the news that her best friend was dying, took a deep breath and pulled herself together for Eric’s sake. Sitting down beside him, she slid an arm around his shoulders and rested a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, Eric. I’ve always known what kind of person Brooke is, but I never thought she’d be that cruel. Does she know about Stephanie?”
Eric shook his head. “No. I’m the only one who knows,” he finally looked up. “Well, until now that is.” He saw the pain in Taylor’s eyes and reached out to squeeze her hand. “I’m sorry, Taylor. I shouldn’t have told you, but I just didn’t know who else to turn to. I can’t let Stephanie know how I feel. I have to be strong for her, but I don’t know how. She’s always been the strong one.”
“You don’t have to apologize, Eric. I’m glad it’s me you came to.” She squeezed his hand. “I can’t tell you what kind of man you are, Eric. Only you can answer that. I don’t believe that this is punishment for anything that you have done.” She took a deep breath. “Maybe it’s an opportunity for you and Stephanie to grow as human beings. To see some of the things you’ve done wrong and make them right. Maybe it’s a chance for all of us to learn and grow as humans and as a family.”
“She doesn’t plan on telling the family any time soon,” he sighed. “I don’t know if she’ll ever tell them.”
Taylor nodded. “She will because her children know her. They’ll know something is wrong.” She smiled sadly. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Thorne is the first to question her about it.”
Eric smiled sadly. “Thorne always has been our most sensitive. He’s already questioning what’s going on with her.”
“She wants a birthday party tonight, at the house. I’ve made all the plans. I have one more person to invite after you. I was told to make sure you’re there. You and Whip. She says she has a surprise for us all. Even I don’t know what she’s planning.”
“We’ll be there, Eric.” Taylor assured him. “And I can understand Thorne’s questioning this. But what about Ridge? Isn’t he a bit suspicious?”
Eric frowned. “You don’t know?”
“Stephanie and Ridge aren’t exactly on good terms at the moment. She signed over her shares of FC to Ridge. She offered it to Thorne, but he didn’t want it. He chose to leave the company with his mother and Steffy.”
Eric nodded. “She signed over her shares to Thomas. I signed what’s left of mine over to Ridge.”
Taylor sighed. “Why did this happen?”
“Because Thomas took Brooke’s side and Ridge showed his pride. Together they showed complete contempt for Stephanie. She saw it in their eyes. They hurt her, especially Ridge.”
“And she realized that he doesn’t care about her like she does him.” Taylor guessed.
Eric nodded. “Then she went to Thorne to give him her shares. She told him she’d been wrong to always choose Ridge over him and the other children.” He leaned back and let his head rest on the sofa. “It’s like she’s suspected something was wrong. I don’t know.”
“Sometimes we subconsciously know that something isn’t right, but we ignore it.”
Pulling Taylor into a hug, Eric kissed her head. “I’m sorry, Taylor.”
Hugging him back, Taylor felt her tears return. “I’m sorry, too.” She pulled back and kissed his cheek. “Just love her, Eric. Loving her will give you what you need to be strong for her.” She smiled sadly. “But don’t be too strong. She knows you, Eric. If you’re too strong, she’ll suspect that you’re holding back. You can’t do that. Let her see you hurting, it shows her that you care. Cry with her. Hold her and let her know that she doesn’t have to be strong with you. Let her know that it’s okay to fall apart when it’s just the two of you.”
Eric nodded. “I do love her, Taylor. I’m realizing just how much I’ve always loved her.”
“I’ll see you tonight.” She smiled as they stood up, hugging each other once more.
“You always were her favorite daughter-in-law.”
“All I did was love her, Eric.”
He nodded. “Something the rest of us have forgotten to do more often than not.”
“Stephanie wants me there?” Pam asked Eric.
“You’re her sister, of course she does. Why wouldn’t she?”
Pam looked down at her hands. “Eric, Steph and I haven’t been getting along all that well lately. You know that.”
“All of that doesn’t matter for tonight. She wants all of her family at her party, and that includes her baby sister.”
Nodding, Pam looked up at Eric. “She was right about Stephen,” she admitted quietly.
“She’s right more often than not, Pam. We’ve all just been too blinded to see it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Tell her I’ll be there. I’ll get her something special.”
“She doesn’t want gifts, Pam.”
“Well, she’s going to get one anyway. It doesn’t seem right not to get someone something on their birthday.”
Eric shook his head. “You are your sister’s sister.”
Pam laughed. “That sounds funny.”
Eric smiled. “Yes, it does. We’ll see you at six.”
“I won’t be late.”
“Bye, Eric,” she told him. “Oh, wait,” she called just before he shut the door.
“Yes?” Eric asked as he stepped back inside.
“Do I dress up?”
“Nothing fancy. It’s just family. Just dress like you would for dinner.”
“Bye again.” He smiled at her and closed the door.
Pam sat on the sofa and frowned. Her sister wanted a birthday party. Why did it feel like something wasn’t right?
“Because Steph doesn’t like attention for herself,” she answered her own question as she looked at the picture sitting on the end table of her and Stephanie. “What’s going on, Steph?”
“Hello, Ridge.” Stephanie greeted her son, the tension there despite her best efforts. “Where’s Brooke?”
Ridge blinked in surprise. “I was told not to bring her,” he answered tersely.
“Oh.” Stephanie answered, shocked herself. “I’m sorry. Why don’t you call her and tell her to come on over? It is for family, and I know you’d prefer to have her here.”
Eric frowned at his son from his place behind Stephanie. If Ridge agreed and invited Brooke, he’d regret the decision. He didn’t care that Stephanie had told their son to do so, Brooke wasn’t welcome in this house.
“Sorry, Mother, but she’s having a night with her sisters.”
“Well, okay.” Stephanie nodded then turned and smiled at Eric behind her. “Hello, Honey. Everything looks wonderful.”
“I told you I’d make sure you would like it.”
“I do, very much,” she breathed as she caressed his cheek and kissed him.
Ridge rolled his eyes and walked past his parents. “I’ll be in the living room when you come up for air.”
Eric pulled out of the kiss and rolled his eyes. “Is he really too old for a spanking?”
Stephanie couldn’t help but laugh even though her eyes showed her sadness. “Yes, Honey. He’s too old.”
“I’m sorry about his attitude, Sweetheart.”
“No need to apologize, Honey. It isn’t your fault.” She smiled up at him. “I wish the girls could have made it.”
“I do too, Stephanie. They promised to come as soon as they can. Felicia said that Dino is missing his grandma.”
“Dino’s grandma has been missing him,” she sighed as she leaned against Eric, a coughing spell sneaking up on her.
Eric rubbed her back, his eyes focusing on Taylor as she stepped through the open door. He could see her worried expression then watched as she schooled her features. “Come on, Stephanie. Let’s get you something to drink for that tickle in your throat.”
Stephanie nodded and pulled away, smiling when she saw Whip and Taylor. “Taylor,” she greeted the younger woman with a hug. “Whip, I’m so glad you could make it. I know how crazy things have been for you with everything going on at Jackie M.”
Whip nodded and kissed Stephanie’s cheek. “I miss you around there. In the midst of all of this, you would be our calm reasoning.”
Stephanie laughed then coughed as she patted his arm. “I’m sure you’re doing a fine job of keeping things as sane as possible.”
“I’m trying, but it isn’t easy.”
“I know.” Stephanie shook her head and looked up at Eric who gave her a knowing look of his own.
“Come on. Let’s go get that drink.” Eric pressed a hand to her back.
“Go on in. There’s drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Oh, and Ridge.”
Taylor couldn’t help but laugh. “That good, huh? I think I’ll settle for a drink.”
Stephanie shrugged. “His mood is foul, just be wary and don’t ask where Brooke is.”
“Not a problem.” Whip assured her as he escorted Taylor into the other room. “Happy birthday, Stephanie,” he called.
Stephanie shook her head then started to follow Eric when she saw Steffy come through the door. “Steffy. Hello, Honey.”
Steffy rushed to her grandmother, hugging her. “Hello, Grandma. Happy birthday.”
“Thank you, Honey. What’s this?” she asked when Steffy handed her a package. “I said no gifts.”
“Granddad told me that.”
“But since she’s just like the woman she’s named after…”
Stephanie rolled her eyes as she looked up at Eric. “Behave, Mr. Forrester.”
“Yes, Mrs. Forrester.”
Steffy laughed at her grandparents. “Come on, Grandma. Open your present.”
Stephanie smiled at her granddaughter. “Alright,” she agreed and pulled at the ribbon, then lifted the lid from the package. “Oh, Honey, it’s beautiful.”
Eric looked at the item Stephanie pulled from the box, his heart catching in his throat. In her hand she held a beautifully crafted glass figurine of a woman holding a small child. “It’s lovely, Steffy.”
“It made me think of Grandma and how she was with us kids.”
Stephanie felt her eyes water as she handed the gift to Eric and pulled Steffy into a hug. “I love it, just as much as I love the wonderful young woman that gave it to me.”
Steffy felt her eyes water. It wasn’t often that her grandmother was this emotional, and it made her wonder if something was wrong. “I love you, Grandma. I just wanted to give you something to show you how much.”
Stephanie pulled back and looked up at her granddaughter, wiping at the tears on her cheeks. “You don’t have to buy me things to show me how much you love me. I know how much you love me just by your actions, Honey.”
Steffy nodded. “Still,” she started. “you’ll have something to look at and remember when I’m not around.”
“I’ll keep it right by my bed so that I see it every morning.”
Steffy smiled. “I saw Whip and Mom’s car outside.”
Stephanie nodded. “They’re in the living room with your father.”
Steffy sighed. “I suppose he has to be here,” she mumbled.
“Steffy, don’t hold this against him too long. He’s your father and loves you, even if he doesn’t show it right now.”
Eric watched his granddaughter walk away then placed the gift box down on the foyer table. “She’s turning into a perfect replica of you.”
Stephanie shook her head. “I don’t want that. I don’t want her to be me. I want her to be free from all the bitterness that I’ve always carried around.”
“You’ve had good reason, Stephanie. So does she.”
“But it’s not the life I want for her. I want her to have what,” she stopped and shook her head.
Eric cupped her cheek. “You want her to have what you never did. She already does, Sweetheart. And some day she’ll find a man who will love her unconditionally, the way her grandfather never loved her grandmother,” he whispered.
“Shh,” she soothed as she pressed a finger to his lips. “You love me now, Eric. It’s all I need.”
Thorne watched his parents from his place just inside the door. He’d overheard part of their conversation, and it only made him more sure that something was going on. Clearing his throat, he put on a smile when his parents turned their attention to him. “Happy birthday, Mom. Hi, Dad.”
Stephanie couldn’t help but chuckle. “You’re the first one that’s remembered to greet Eric.”
Eric shrugged. “I’m used to it by now. You’ve always been the favorite.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Oh brother,” she mumbled then smiled back at Thorne. “Are you just going to stand there?”
Thorne smiled and walked into his mother’s open arms. This was the only place in his life that he’d ever felt truly loved, even though she’d always shown favoritism for Ridge. He had never doubted his mother’s love for him, even if he hadn’t always appreciated the way she showed it by trying to interfere in his life. “I love you, Mom.”
“Oh, Honey, I love you too.” Stephanie smiled and patted his cheek. “Go on in. I’m going to go check on the caterers.”
“Be careful around your brother, Thorne. He’s not happy to be here by himself.” Eric warned. “Don’t mention Brooke.”
Thorne rolled his eyes. “That won’t be a problem.”
Stephanie held up her glass of champagne. “Everyone, may I have your attention please?”
Whip leaned over and whispered in Taylor’s ear, “What’s going on?”
Taylor shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“First of all,” Stephanie continued. “I want to thank you all for coming here tonight. I’m just delighted and tickled pink that you’re here to celebrate my birthday. And then I guess I should say, that all the years I have been married on and off again to Eric, I never allowed him to make a big celebration on my birthday. But this year I decided to say yes…I was tired of saying no.”
“And I was tired of hearing it.” Eric quipped making everyone laugh.
Stephanie smiled at him. “This year, however, my birthday wish is not going to be that things would turn out exactly as I want them to be. My wish this year is that we will all find joy and happiness in things exactly as they are. After all, we only have the moment.” She smiled at her family. “And now, I have something to tell you. What I’m about to say will surprise you, but, well, recent events have given me a new perspective on things, and I feel compelled to share this with all of you.”
Eric cocked his head to the side, mimicking what everyone else in the room was doing at the moment. “What have you got up your sleeve, woman?”
Stephanie smiled at him. “Patience, Mr. Forrester.”
“Yes, Mrs. Forrester,” he answered, earning a laugh from the others in the room.
“Oh, don’t look so worried,” she continued a few moments later when everyone had stopped laughing and were again staring at her. “I mean, we have had a few unpleasant surprises these past few months, and we’ve had some difficult times for the family, that’s true, and I’m sure there will be difficult times ahead, but not tonight. Tonight is a celebration of my life.”
“And your modesty.” Eric added with a grin.
Stephanie chuckled. “My extraordinary modesty.” She smiled when everyone laughed. “And my extraordinary family, and my super-duper, well, not husband. Lover?” she questioned earning groans. “Oh, sorry. I guess you didn’t really want to know that, huh?”
“Not really, Mother.” Ridge spoke up with a grimace.
Stephanie shrugged her shoulders and chuckled. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but how do you kids think you got here?”
Thorne laughed. “Touché.”
“Stephanie,” Eric laughed. “behave.”
“Yes, Mr. Forrester,” she mimicked his earlier response.
Steffy laughed, “Grandma, go on with what you were saying.”
“I woke up this morning, and I felt so alive and so young,” she looked at Eric, a knowing smile on her face. “And I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got all these fabulous experiences to live.” Then I remembered something. I remembered a request that was asked of me by every single child and grandchild, and I always said no. First to Ridge, then to Thorne, and on down to the youngest grandchild. And I’ve realized, I’m tired of saying no.” A knock on the door made her pause and smile before continuing. “Aha, this is your lucky day. Do you remember?” she asked as she pointed to Ridge. “Do you remember?” she asked pointing at Thorne. “You always used to say to me, “It would be so awesome if we could come down off that landing and slide right into the living room.”
Thomas’ eyes widened. “Oh oh.”
“Tom, go get the door, fast as you can.”
“Oh,” everyone chorused as they started to guess at what was going to happen.
“You’re all going to be surprised. Hurry up!”
Thomas laughed as he opened the door, his eyes registering his surprise as he looked at the men and what they held.
“Did someone order a slide?” the man asked as he and his partner entered the room.
Pam shook her head. “I don’t believe it.”
Eric shook his head as he watched the last of the men leave, promising to return in two hours to retrieve the slide. Looking at Stephanie, he saw the happiness on her face as she watched their family. This was all she’d ever lived for. The family she had created with him. The family that he had left her to raise while he concentrated on his work.
Taylor squeezed his arm as she walked up next to him. “She’s pretty amazing,” she whispered.
“She always has been, Taylor. I just wish I hadn’t forgotten that’s part of what drew me to her.”
“It happens to all of us, Eric. We all make mistakes, even her.”
“But the mistakes she made were to protect our family. I can’t really fault her too much for that, even if some of the things were a bit awful.”
“Don’t make a saint of her, Eric. She won’t like that.”
Eric chuckled. “No, she wouldn’t.” He watched Stephanie kiss Aly. “Look at her. She’s beautiful.”
“Yes, she is.” Taylor agreed. Stephanie had always been a beautiful woman, no more so than when she was surrounded by her family.
“I can’t believe how much Aly looks like Stephanie. I’m glad she’s back from studying in Europe. Stephanie has really missed her.”
“From the looks of the way Aly is clinging to her grandmother, I would say the feeling is mutual.”
“Aly always was very fond of her grandma. Especially after that first Christmas without Darla.”
“Stephanie was always there for Aly, just as she has been for every child and grandchild in this family.”
“It was horrible what happened with Stephanie’s father and mother, but it made her a wonderful mother and grandmother.”
“Yes, it did. Even if her children didn’t like the over protectiveness.” Taylor laughed.
Eric chuckled. “I think it was a little more than that, but they understand now, and are glad she was the way she was.”
Taylor nodded. “I’m going to go see if Whip is going to do this.”
“I’ll bet he does.”
“I’m sure he will.” Taylor laughed as she walked away.
Eric held out his arm when Stephanie came up to him. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he kissed her head. “You amaze me.”
She smiled up at him. “I just want them to have some fun and be happy for a while. Even Ridge is having fun.”
Eric shook his head. “You going to do this?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m too old. You?”
“No,” he frowned. “If you’re too old, then so am I.”
She laughed. “Oh yeah, you are older than me.”
Eric squeezed her and squinted his eyes. “Behave, Mrs. Forrester.”
“Yes, Mr. Forrester,” she chuckled.
Eric caught sight of Ridge at the top of the slide. “I think Ridge is getting ready to go. Looks like Steffy isn’t going to be the first to go down after all.”
“He always did want a slide in here. Remember the blue prints?”
“Yes, I do.” Eric chuckled.
Taking Eric’s hand, Stephanie led them over to the side of the slide and watched and cheered with the others as Ridge made his way down.
Eric watched the joy on his Stephanie’s face as each member of their family made the trip down the slide, laughing with her when Pam came down in her crazy way. For the rest of his life, he would remember this moment, and the selfless way his ex-wife was making happy memories for their family.
“Come on, Grandma, you have to do this!” Steffy shouted, bringing Eric out of his revelry.
“No.” Stephanie shook her head.
“Stephanie. Stephanie. Stephanie.” A cheer rose up, and she sighed, looking at Eric for help.
Eric shrugged. “I can’t help you now. If you don’t go, this mob will riot.”
“Thanks a lot, Mr. Forrester.”
“Not at all, Mrs. Forrester.”
Stephanie rolled her eyes then turned her attention back to their granddaughter. “Oh, alright. But only once!”
Steffy nodded and tugged at Stephanie’s hand, leading her to the stairs amid cheers from the others in the room. “It’s so much fun, Grandma.”
“For you maybe.”
“Oh, no. You’ll enjoy it.”
“Fine, but you have to promise to talk your grandfather into doing this.”
“You got it.” Steffy agreed as she helped her grandmother position herself on the slide.
Stephanie looked at the faces around her, all of them filled with anticipation. Taking a deep breath, she held her nose as Pam had and pushed her way off. As she slid down, she felt free and young once again. Laughing when she came to a stop on the soft cushions, she smiled at those around her, hugging them all in turn then kissing Eric’s cheek when it was his turn for a hug. “That was fun.”
“You were great,” he told her, pride in his voice.
“It’s your turn, Granddad.” Steffy looked at him with the look he’d never been able to say no to.
Eric rolled his eyes. “You are too much your grandmother’s. Did she teach you that look?”
Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Don’t blame me. I don’t do that look.”
Eric looked at her. “Oh yes you most certainly do. That look is how we wound up with this house.”
Steffy laughed. “Come on, Granddad.”
“Oh, alright. But just like your grandmother, I’m only going down once.”
Stephanie watched Eric as he made his way upstairs. She knew that he was hiding his sadness, and she was very proud of him. As he slid down, she laughed and cheered with the rest of the family, wondering if it was right to want him with her through all of this.
Was it right of her to make him watch her suffer as this disease slowly progressed and got worse?
Eric sat beside Stephanie as she opened the presents that Thorne, Aly, Pam, and Taylor had brought. He laughed at the silly slippers Pam got her. “Minnie Mouse? Is that a hint for something, Pam?”
Stephanie laughed. “Eric, behave.”
“Yes, Mrs. Forrester,” he answered in the same deadpan he had used all evening.
Pam smiled as she leaned forward and hugged her sister. “You bought me a pair of these when we were younger. You knew how much I loved Minnie Mouse and you used your allowance to buy me a pair of slippers with her on them. We had to keep them hidden because Mother would have thrown them out.” Her eyes watered as she hugged Stephanie again. “I love you, Steph. Happy birthday.”
Stephanie caressed her sister’s hair. “Oh, Pammie. I remember.”
Taylor hid her face in Whip’s neck, her tears soaking his shirt collar. She wasn’t going to be able to bear losing her best friend. Seeing Stephanie with her family, and the memories she was making and sharing with them, was only making it harder.
Whip held Taylor close, pressing a kiss to her head. Something was bothering her, he knew that from this afternoon and how she’d clung to him as she sobbed, unable to tell him just exactly what it was due to patient doctor confidentiality. He hated seeing her like this, and as he watched Stephanie and Eric, he began to wonder if the thing that was bothering his wife somehow involved the couple currently laughing at the slippers Stephanie had put on her feet and was wiggling around.
Eric kissed Stephanie’s cheek as he laughed. “Those are so sexy,” he whispered in her ear.
Stephanie shook her head and laughed as she turned to stare at him. “I’ll be sure to model them for you later,” she whispered back with a wink.
“Behave, Mrs. Forrester.” Eric warned her with a smile.
“You started it, Mr. Forrester,” she reminded him.
“Okay, enough of that!” Aly chirped as she took Pam’s place beside Stephanie. “Here, Grandma.”
Stephanie smiled and opened the package, gasping as she lifted out the contents. “Oh Aly. It’s beautiful. Look, Eric,” she held the sketch up so Eric could see.
“Portofino,” he whispered, remembering well the times they shared there.
“Hotel Splendido at night.” Stephanie added.
Eric nodded then looked up at their granddaughter. “It’s beautiful, Aly. You’ve turned into a very talented artist.”
Aly smiled. “I got the best of both of you, I guess. Looks from Grandma, talent from Grandpa.”
Thorne laughed. “Hey! I have talent, too, you know.”
Aly turned and smiled at her father. “Which you got from Grandpa.”
Stephanie laughed. “She got you there, Son.”
Thorne smiled. “I suppose she did.”
“It really is beautiful, Sweetheart. Thank you.” Stephanie patted Aly’s cheek. “But when did you go to Portofino?”
“One of my art classes took a field trip as a reward for how well we had all done on our mid-term projects. When the teacher asked where we wanted to go, I suggested Portofino and it didn’t take much to convince the others that’s where we should go.” Aly looked at her grandmother. “I remember hearing stories about how Grandpa won you back in Portofino by romancing you and I remember hearing you talking about how much you love the Hotel Splendido.” She shrugged. “I was missing you and I thought maybe going and seeing the places I’d heard you talking about might make me feel better.”
“You could’ve called, Honey.” Stephanie reminded her as she pulled her close and kissed her head.
“I know, Grandma, but calling and hearing your voice only made me miss you more.”
Stephanie felt her eyes water as she rested her face against Aly’s head. “Oh, Aly,” she whispered.
Eric squeezed Stephanie’s shoulder, knowing that she needed his strength to help her keep her emotions under control. Out of all of their grandchildren, Aly was the one who could easily break Stephanie, and he knew that she didn’t want that. “We’re glad you’re home, Aly.”
Aly sat up and smiled at her grandpa. “I’m glad, too, Grandpa. No more studying abroad for me.”
Stephanie smiled and chuckled as she patted Aly’s hand. “You’ll meet a boy some day and he’ll whisk you away.”
“But never so far away that I can’t go visit my grandma any time I want to.”
Eric had to bite his tongue as he gently pressed a hand against the small of Stephanie’s back. “So, who’s next?” he asked, hoping that whoever was next wouldn’t have a gift so full of emotion.
Taylor sat down beside Stephanie and smiled at her best friend. “You’ve always treated me like a daughter, even when things were tense. I love you and decided that I wanted to treat you to something I know you love.” She handed Stephanie an envelope. “I didn’t know what Aly’s gift was, but mine sort of goes along with hers.”
Stephanie frowned as she opened the envelope, her eyes widening in surprise as she pulled out two airline tickets for Portofino. “Oh, Taylor,” she whispered.
“You deserve a trip away with Eric.” Taylor smiled as she leaned over to hug her friend, holding on just a bit tighter as she thought about how this was probably going to be the last birthday they’d have with Stephanie.
“Well, now I can romance her all over again.” Eric smiled when Stephanie turned to look at him. “And this time, no separate suites.”
Everyone laughed as Thorne took Taylor’s place.
“I didn’t know what to get you, but I assure you, I already had this before Dad told us no presents.”
Stephanie frowned as she looked at the book Thorne handed her. “What in the world?” she wondered as she opened the book, surprised to find a picture of herself staring back at her.
“I wanted you to see how much I love you.” Thorne told her, knowing by the look in her eyes she remembered their conversation the day before.
Try as she might, Stephanie couldn’t stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks as she looked through the pictures and articles that her son had collected over the years. There were several pictures of just the two of them together that she’d often wondered where they’d disappeared to. “Oh Thorne,” she whispered as she pulled him into a hug. “Thank you, Sweetheart.”
Eric pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to Stephanie as she leaned back against him. Pressing a kiss to her head, he smiled at their son. “Thank you, Thorne,” he whispered then turned his attention to the rest of the family. “Thank you everyone for the gifts. They mean a lot to Stephanie, and to me. They show just how much you love her. Thank you.”
“Dance with Grandma, Granddad.” Steffy spoke up as she wiped at her eyes.
“There’s no music.” Stephanie informed her.
“There’s always music.” Eric smiled and nodded to Steffy who went to the stereo.
“I have a gift for you, as well, Sweetheart,” he told Stephanie as he pulled her up and led her out away from the furniture.
Stephanie cocked her head with a puzzled look then smiled when she heard the music start. She would know that piano playing anywhere. “Oh, Honey,” she whispered. “When?”
“Oh, I’ve been working on it for a while now. I wanted to surprise you with it for your birthday. I had lunch with Mick a month or so ago and he asked me if I was ever going to make a cd like you kept saying I should, and it hit me. A cd would be a wonderful gift for your birthday.”
“This song,” she breathed.
“Yes, this song,” he answered as he pulled her close, gently swaying her to the soft strains of his rendition of Elton John’s Blue Eyes.
Thorne watched his parents and noticed his brother slipping out the front door. Anger filled him as he followed. He didn’t know what was wrong with Ridge, but enough was enough.
“No, Thorne. Just let him go.” Taylor whispered as she caught Thorne’s arm.
“But Taylor. She’ll be hurt when she realizes he’s gone.”
“I don’t think she will, Thorne. Ridge hasn’t been much fun tonight, with the exception of the slide. I’m guessing Stephanie will breathe a bit easier with Thomas and Ridge gone.”
Thorne blinked and looked back into the living room. “When did Thomas leave?”
“When everyone was watching Stephanie open her presents.”
Thorne sighed. “They’re going to regret this. One day, they’ll regret the way they’ve acted.”
Taylor didn’t say anything but nodded her head. Yes, one day they would regret their actions. If only they knew just how close that one day was.
“Donna?” Eric said the name in surprise as he looked at the woman standing on the other side of the door.
“What are you doing here?”
Donna walked into the house, turning to face Eric. “I came to tell you that I want you back. I still love you, and I know that you still love me after what you said the other day.”
Eric closed his eyes. “Donna, I,”
“Oh, I know. You think you’re happy with Stephanie, but how can you be? She’s already bossing you around, making you give up your company.” She moved to press herself against Eric.
Stephanie took a deep breath and turned back upstairs, walking slowly to her bedroom. This was all she needed to do what she’d been thinking about doing since earlier this evening. Eric could go back to Donna and have a young wife who wouldn’t leave him alone and sad.
Eric sighed. “Donna, I was wrong the other day. I do regret our marriage. I regret every marriage I’ve had to any woman but Stephanie. I’ve hurt her enough. It’s time I grow up and be the man she’s always seen in me. Please leave and don’t make a fool of yourself.”
Donna glared at the man she thought would surely take her back. “You’re going to tell me you prefer that old bag to me? What can she give you? She,”
“Just stop. You couldn’t possibly understand. Love is so much more than sex, Donna. Hell, sex isn’t love. And sex is all there was between us.” He rolled his eyes. “Sex I had to use pills to achieve.”
Donna narrowed her eyes. “Don’t try to tell me you don’t have to use pills with her.”
“I never said a word.” Eric told her, pointing to the open door. “Leave, Donna, and don’t come to this house again. The only Logans welcome here are my children, and only if they can respect my relationship with Stephanie.”
“Then I wouldn’t count on seeing your son.”
“I have no doubts you are right about that. Goodbye, Donna.” Eric watched the woman storm away, knowing in his heart that she’d only wanted him back for the status being his wife provided her.
Hearing noise on the stairs, he shut the door and turned to see Stephanie standing on the bottom landing staring at him. “Hey, Sweetheart. I thought you were going to bed.”
“I was, but,” she paused and made her way down the rest of the stairs. “we need to talk,” she finished as she made her way into the living room.
Eric followed with a frown. “What is it, Stephanie?”
“You need to leave.” She was blunt and to the point, it was the only way.
Eric started in surprise. “What? Stephanie, what is this about?”
“You need to go back to where you belong.”
“Back where I belong?”
“Donna, Eric. You belong with her.”
“Stephanie, you aren’t making any sense.”
“Don’t argue, Eric. I know she still wants you. She’s young, she,”
“She’s vapid and greedy.”
“Eric, don’t try to tell me you wouldn’t take her back. This just isn’t working. You’re better off with her.”
Anger filled Eric and he lashed out. “Damn it, Stephanie! Stop trying to rule me! You have cancer. You’re,” but he couldn’t say it.
She could. “I’m dying, Eric. Say it.”
“Damn it! Stop this!” he yelled as he moved to grab her, but she was already making her way out of the room up the stairs.
Thorne stood outside the front door, his knees too weak to hold him up as he slid down to the steps, his eyes blurring with tears. Dying. Cancer. His mother. Bowing his head, tears dripped from his eyes, splattering on the concrete beneath him.
Eric heard a sound outside the door and frowned. Looking up the stairs, he shook his head, deciding that maybe Stephanie needed some time before he went up to try and talk to her. Hearing the noise outside the door again, he walked over and opened it, startled to see his son sitting there, his shoulders shaking.
“Thorne? Son?” he questioned as he squeezed the younger man’s shoulder.
“Is it true?” Thorne asked as he looked up at his father. “Is Mom really,” he couldn’t say it, just stared at his father.
Eric swallowed. “Yes, it’s true. I’m sorry, Son. You weren’t meant to find out this way.”
“Where is she?”
“Upstairs. Go on.” Eric encouraged, knowing that only Stephanie could help their son now.
Thorne found his mother sitting and staring out the open french doors in her bedroom. Going to her, he knelt down in front of her, finding himself staring up at her like he did as a small child. “Mom?”
Stephanie was startled by Thorne’s presence, and even more startled to see the tears in his eyes. “Honey? What is it? What’s,” she stopped. “Oh god, Thorne,” she breathed, pulling him into her arms when she realized he knew about her cancer, that he must have overheard her and Eric’s argument.
“Mom, when? Why didn’t you tell us? I,” he sobbed as he buried his face in her neck and held tight.
“Shh,” she soothed, just as she had when he was a little boy. “Yesterday, Darling. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want this. I didn’t want you to hurt.”
Thorne gripped her blouse in his fists, the pain in his heart nearly taking his breath away. “How,” he started then took a deep breath. “How long?”
“Without treatment, they can’t say for sure.”
“With treatment?” he asked.
“Six to eight months, but I would be very ill and unable to enjoy the last precious moments with my family.” Stephanie held her son to her as he cried, remembering all the times she had held him down through the years. “I remember the day I brought you home,” she whispered as she caressed his back.
Thorne pulled back and sat down on the floor. “Tell me,” he whispered, tears still rolling down his cheeks.
Stephanie smiled at him and caressed his face. “I was so happy to be home. I’d missed my own bed and those nurses,” she sighed. “They always seemed to be bothering me.”
Thorne nodded. “They don’t give you much chance to rest.”
“No, they don’t,” she agreed. “Anyway, I was tired. Your father had left Ridge with friends so that I could rest. He helped me to bed and put you in the cradle. It didn’t take me long to fall asleep. I woke about half an hour later to the sound of your cries. I picked you up and you settled a bit. After making sure your diaper didn’t need to be changed, and knowing that you weren’t hungry, I laid down with you on my chest. You quieted down and snuggled your face into my neck.” Reaching out, Stephanie wiped at Thorne’s tears. “That’s how you always slept when I let you sleep with me. It’s what you always did when I would hold you when you were crying. When you got older, you would do it just to sniff my perfume.” She smiled. “I think you saw your father do that a time or two and were mimicking him.”
Moving onto his knees again, Thorne held his mother, his face against her neck. “You can’t leave us.”
“Shh, Honey. It’s alright. I’ll never really leave,” her voice was gentle as she pressed her hand to his heart. “I’ll always be here. You gave me the scrapbook of the pictures and articles you’ve collected about me, those are some of your memories, Honey.” Cupping his face when he pulled back to look at her. “And every time you look at Aly, I’ll be there.”
“In those magic blue eyes,” he whispered something he’d heard his father once say.
Stephanie kissed his forehead. “Go on home to Aly. Just promise me that you won’t say anything to anyone. I want to do that myself. I can’t stand the thoughts of another one of my family finding out the way you did.”
“I won’t tell, Mom.” Thorne kissed her cheek. “I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you, too, Honey.”
Eric stood watching Stephanie as she looked through the sketch pad he’d given her the day before. “I’ve had that pad full of sketches for years, adding to it when something caught my eye or some new thing happened in our life. I left the hospital yesterday to get it because the gift shop didn’t have anything. I didn’t want to leave, but you’d asked me to sketch you something, and I just couldn’t disappoint you.”
“You’re still here?” she asked, her voice quiet.
“Yes, I’m still here, Sweet girl.”
The use of the nickname was her undoing. The pad slipped to the floor as Stephanie’s hands came up to cover her face, her body shaking with sobs. Everything she’d been holding in was now pouring out of her and she clung to Eric when his arms pulled her against him.
“Let it all out, Stephanie. I’m here and I’m not leaving. I don’t want to be anywhere but here, with you, holding you and loving you through whatever lies ahead.”
“I’m sorry for trying to push you away,” she whispered. “I don’t want you to leave me. I need you.”
“I know that, Sweet girl. I’m sorry for yelling at you.”
Still crying, but quietly now, Stephanie listened to the sound of Eric’s heart beating. She remembered the first time she’d heard the sound, the night they made love for the first time. The sound had soothed her then, and it continued to soothe her now.
Eric cradled her head in his hand, his own tears rolling down his cheeks, landing in her hair. The feel of her in his arms still felt just as wonderful as it had that very first time. All the years since then, the times that she had clung to him when she was hurting were the ones that seemed to mean the most. In these times, when she was the most vulnerable, she needed him and the strength he could offer. It was true he had never been a strong man, but there was enough strength in his embrace for her to always seek it out for comfort.
“Sweetheart,” he whispered, smiling when she looked up at him. “I have another gift for you that I didn’t want to give you in front of the kids.”
Stephanie frowned. “What in the world couldn’t you give me in front of the family?”
“This,” he whispered as he pulled a velvet box from his pocket. Opening the box, he held it for her to see.
“My first engagement ring,” she breathed.
“Yes. The very first one. Its stone isn’t as big as the others, but I,”
“I loved this ring. It was always my favorite.”
“Because you used the last of your money to pay for it.”
Smiling at her, he caressed her face. “So, will you marry me again? Let me put this ring back on your finger?”
Stephanie hesitated. “I don’t want you marrying me because I’m sick.”
“I’m not. I’ve had this planned for weeks. I was always going to propose to you tonight.” He raised an eyebrow. “Not exactly like this, but still, I promise that this was what I originally had planned for your birthday.”
Stephanie smiled and nodded her head. “Then yes, I’ll marry you again. I’m tired of no one knowing what to call me when referring to you and I.”
Eric chuckled. “They could call you my lover.”
“That embarrassed the children,” she reminded him.
“My kept woman?” he suggested.
“Absolutely not.” She shook her head and snarled her nose.
“My best friend?”
“I really like lover, though.”
Stephanie shook her head. “Being your lover is wonderful, but it’s still embarrassing to those around us.”
“Then I guess we’ll just have to make you my wife so there’s no question about how to refer to the two of us.”
Holding out her hand, she smiled as the cool gold band slid on her finger. “It fits perfectly.”
“Of course it does. I took one of your rings in for the jeweler to get the right size.”
“Yes, I am, but I had a very good teacher.”
“Oh,” she huffed and wrapped her arms around him. “I love you, Eric Forrester. Thank you for not leaving me when I tried so hard to push you away.”
“No matter how hard you push, I’m not going to budge.” He cupped her face. “I love you, Stephanie Forrester. I always have, even when I’ve been too blind to see it clearly.”
Caressing his lips with her thumb, Stephanie stared up into his dark eyes. “Are you going to do what you did the first time you gave me this ring?”
“Even though the rest of my plan changed, that part hasn’t,” he assured her. “I’m going to make love to you slow and sweet, just like that first time.”