Chapter 39

(see my Profile for more info ... Cast of Characters ... Timeline ... etc ...)

The Private Charter Bus … a few minutes later …

Everyone has taken a seat and gotten comfortable. Children at the front of the bus – playing games or watching the large screen television. Or in Jenny's case – sound asleep in her special car seat. Adults at the back of the bus – watching and listening to Matt and Stephanie. Brian is driving and Mike is serving drinks and snacks to everyone. It's a smooth, relaxing ride to their secret destination …

"If I could have everyone's attention –" Matt spoke up then waited. "It's my turn to say a few words. First – Stephanie and I would like to thank all of you for joining us on what we hope will be a trip of a lifetime. One that you will enjoy and remember for many years to come. And second – we want to thank you for sharing our wedding celebration with us. It means a great deal to us to have our families here together for this very special time in our lives." Matt paused as he looked at Stephanie then raised his glass. "And that's about it." He shrugged then touched his glass to hers then they each took a sip.

"Very well done, my darling." Stephanie whispered proudly then leaned to meet his lips in a quick kiss.

"Hear hear." Peter clinked his glass as they all took a drink.

"Since we're all here together – if we could have the newlyweds undivided attention - at least for a few minutes –" Susan spoke up then paused. "I really need a better idea of just what we're supposed to wear to this wedding of yours." She told them as several others made their agreement known.

"Clothes would be nice." Matt just shrugged matter-of-factly.

Stephanie just gave him an exasperated look.

"Be serious, dear. I'd like an answer to that myself. Or have you already picked out what I'm wearing?"

"Well – actually – I have. And I'll let you know what it is Saturday morning."

"This has got to be the strangest wedding we're ever going to attend." David remarked, shaking his head.

"It'll certainly be one we'll never forget." Mary agreed.

"Look – like I've already told you – this is going to be a very informal wedding. Keep it simple and comfortable. In fact – I don't see anything wrong with wearing the kind of clothes we're all wearing right now."

They all looked around at what everyone else was wearing. Stephanie looked over at her children and raised an eyebrow.

"I married a man who thinks that clothes don't make the woman. And that all that fancy, frilly stuff is just a waste of money."

"I thought you weren't going to tell them that." Matt gave her an exasperated look.

"You better hope your opinion doesn't catch on or you'll have a lot more mouths to feed when our business goes belly up." Thorne pointed out.

"Yeah. We'll have to move in with you and Mother and there goes your privacy. And if things get really bad – even Dad will have to move in with –"

"Alright – enough teasing." Stephanie interrupted Felicia.

"So – seriously – we could all show up for your wedding ceremony wearing the clothes we have on right now?" Susan repeated incredulously.

"Well – maybe not the blue jeans but other than that – yeah. I wouldn't have a problem with it. Would you.?" Matt answered then asked Stephanie.

Stephanie just shrugged in agreement. "I'm all for comfort these days."

"Mmmm – you and me both." Matt murmured as he nuzzled her cheek with a contented sigh.

"Well … now that that's settled – on to the next question –" David decided.

"Who said there were going to be more questions?" Matt pointed out, his eyes narrowing at his father.

"You're stuck on this bus with us and we have more questions." David pointed out. "I, for one, want to know more about that painting that everyone's talked about all these years. Obviously, now we know it's a painting of Stephanie -" He let his words hang.

Matt made a reluctant face.

"There's not much more to say then."

"We already have our own theories so why not just tell us the whole story?" Greg pointed out.

"Some of us have even seen the painting." Joyce added. "At least tell us when you realized that Stephanie was the woman in the painting."

"It took me a while." Matt admitted with a shrug – getting a surprised look from Stephanie.

"It did?" She asked. "I realize that after all those years, the resemblance was hard to see but I just assumed that was why you – you know – because you recognized me." She tried to choose her words carefully.

"Why I - you know - what?" Matt asked, trying not to smirk.

Stephanie gave him an exasperated look.

"Why you moved so fast." She finally spelled it out quietly.

"You had me from hello." Matt reminded her. "I just didn't know that you were her right away." He pointed out. "In fact - I was feeling a little guilty because I thought I was cheating on her – with you. But it felt so damn good – incredible – real - " He added sheepishly with a shrug.

"I'm confused." Mary spoke up. "When DID you know it was her?"

"The next morning – right before she left to go back across the hall. That's when I finally saw the resemblance and recognized her and that's when it hit me that it was Stephanie in the painting."

"Not until then?" Stephanie made a thoughtful face.

"Not until then."

"And you're not just saying that –"

"Do you really think I would just say that – if I didn't mean it?" Matt raised an eyebrow.

"Well – no." She had to admit.

"Well – then … I fell in love with the very real, incredibly beautiful YOU." He smiled then leaned to give her a tender, reassuring kiss.

Stephanie gave him a tender smile as she combed her fingers through his hair.

"Alright – on to the next question – " Thorne decided. "How long did it take before your FIRST kiss?"

"Forty-five minutes." Matt answered without any hesitation. "A very LONG forty-five minutes."

"And it was a very long kiss." Stephanie smirked as she caressed his cheek.

"And that's all we're going to tell you about that." Matt decided as he took hold of her hand and gave it a kiss.

"How long did it take you before you started to talk about getting married?" Darcy asked shyly.

"Hmmm … well … " Matt eyed her thoughtfully. "I brought the subject up first … during our first kiss. I wanted to be sure to make my intentions known. My very honorable intentions." He told his daughter with a wink.

"That must've been some kiss." Greg laughed quietly.

"Kissing Stephanie is pure heaven." Matt laughed then, realizing what he said, the blush quickly colored both of their cheeks.

"See what happens when you get loose lips and start spilling all our beans." Stephanie pointed out with narrowed eyes.

Matt just leaned closer and gave her a deep, loving kiss.

"Yep – pure heaven." He repeated with a smirk.

"Dare we ask how long it took you to get Mother into bed?" Felicia spoke up. "Or should we just guess and say less than an hour?"

"Alright – that's enough of that." Stephanie decided self-consciously as she shifted positions. "There has to be other things we can talk about besides the two of us."

"Like what – the weather?" Ridge spoke up dully, raising an eyebrow.

"Well – the weather will be an issue if this is an outside wedding ceremony." Pam spoke up. "Though – talking about it won't change things." She added with a shrug. "But I'm sure plans have been made for both scenarios."

"Why don't you at least tell us who the person in charge is." Peter asked curiously. "Is it someone we know?"

"Must be someone you really trust." Kristen pointed out. "I mean take a look around – you've got everyone from both families on this bus being driven by complete strangers to God knows where –"

"One wrong turn and whoops – we fall off a cliff - and it really will be heaven for us." Tony had to laugh.

"It's not funny." Kristen insisted, giving her husband a nudge.

"Kristen has a point, Mattie." Mary agreed.

"Of course it's someone I trust. Do you really think I would let just anyone plan my wedding to the woman of my dreams?" Matt pointed out matter-of-factly. "I don't think you've ever met him but I'm sure I've mentioned him – Doug Franklin. And his wife, Rachael, is helping him. We met a long time ago at some hospital benefit that he organized. And we've been good friends ever since."

"Darcy and I met them a few times at your apartment." Davey volunteered. "Nice people."

"So you just called him up and asked him to plan our wedding?" Stephanie asked curiously.

"Yep. After he stopped laughing. He didn't take me seriously at first." Matt shrugged.

"None of us did." Greg pointed out.

"I still can't get over the fact that you're letting someone else plan your wedding, Stephanie." Bridget spoke up.

"Well – I've had so many of them - I thought I'd try a different approach this time." Stephanie smirked with a wink – getting an exasperated look from Matt.

"I thought you were only married once." Joyce pointed out curiously.

"Ha! Now who spilled that bean?" Matt had to laugh good-naturedly.

"Well – I was only married to one man … just three times." Stephanie shrugged evasively.

"Four. And you've actually had five wedding ceremonies, Mother – but who's counting." Felicia smirked.

"The sixth time's the charm." Rick predicted smugly – getting an exasperated look from the bride.

"I can't imagine marrying the same man FIVE times." Susan spoke up then realized what she said and reached over to pat her husband's hand. "Except for you, of course, sweetie."

"Of course." Greg gave her a strange look.

"And for the record – Dad did plan two of the ceremonies all by himself." Thorne pointed out, trying not to laugh. "Not that the eventual outcome was any different than the other times."

"It really is such a shame that your mother can't be here with us this time, Stephanie." Mary decided then saw how quickly Stephanie's expression changed.

"Yes – it is a shame." Stephanie replied quietly as she reached over and gave Pam's hand a reassuring squeeze, managing a faint smile. "At this rate - maybe we could pay Brian to drive off that cliff." Stephanie whispered to Matt louder than she intended.

"Ssshhh –" Matt hushed her then gave her a comforting kiss then let out a heavy sigh as he nuzzled her ear. "This time Monday – we'll be all alone – just the two of us - in our own private heaven." He whispered for only her to hear.

Stephanie just let out a heavy contented sigh of her own as she turned her attention to all of their grandchildren at the other end of the bus – a peaceful expression returning to her face as she watched them.

"Not to be a mood breaker but there is something we need to discuss –" Ridge spoke up reluctantly. "Something the two of you need to be aware of and make a decision about –"

Stephanie turned back and gave him a look he was all too familiar with.

"I wouldn't bring this up if it wasn't important, Mother." Ridge insisted.

"What is it then?"

"Well – a year or so ago – Dad authorized Ben Richardson – head of Security at Forrester Creations – " He clarified for Matt's benefit. " - to install three GPS tracking devices – one in your car, one in your cell phone and the other one in your watch – just in case there was ever a security breach and we needed to track your location –" He paused, watching her eyes narrow and her posture stiffen. "It was for your own protection, Mother. After all – if anyone was ever going to try anything – against the business or the family - you would be the likely target – for ransom or revenge –" He paused again. "You are our most valuable asset and precautions had to be taken … we're the only three people who knew about it but now – well – you've got a new husband and a new life and –" Ridge let his words hang as he gave Matt a shrug.

"So – if he wanted to – Dad could use that to find out where Mother is right at this moment?" Thorne clarified.

"Well – technically – yeah – that's how it works." Ridge shrugged again. "This whole thing was Ben's idea – not Dad's. He was just doing his job. And under the circumstances – the state of the world – it seemed like a necessary precaution … it still does, frankly."

Matt let out a heavy sigh as he pulled Stephanie closer to him, deciding, "Then the devices stay where they are." He raised an eyebrow as she turned to look at him through narrowed eyes. "We're not going to argue about this now. But this should've been a three way conversation – in private, Ridge."

"The two of you aren't exactly easy people to access alone." Ridge pointed out. "But you're right. I'm sorry." He admitted apologetically.

"And I'm supposed to just sit here like an asset?" Stephanie finally spoke up.

"Well – our most valuable – and beautiful - asset." Matt smirked to lighten her mood before giving her cheek a nuzzle.

"You are just so –" Stephanie started.

"Irresistible." Matt finished for her with a soft laugh as he pulled her into a kiss.

"Frustratingly so." She added.

"Well – once we reach our destination – I'll be sure to do my best to ease all your frustrations, my love."

"And what if Dad does use it to track Mother down and crash your wedding?" Thorne pointed out.

"What's he going to do besides make an even bigger ass of himself? He can cause a commotion, interrupt our celebration - but it's not going to change anything. We're already married." Matt reasoned calmly with a shrug then paused abruptly as something dawned on him. "THAT'S why you decided we should go ahead and get married yesterday afternoon – isn't it?"

Stephanie raised an eyebrow. "I'm an asset with a brain." She pointed out smugly then held up her glass. "Mike – I'm in need of a refill please. Anyone else?"

A few minutes later …

Stephanie took a sip of her ice tea then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then repeated the process. Then repeated it again.

"What's going on?" Matt whispered when he noticed what she was doing.

Stephanie made a face. "I am suddenly feeling very claustrophobic." She whispered back, taking another deep breath.

"Christ – what am I supposed to do about that – we're on a bus." Matt whispered back helplessly.

"Just ignore me."

"Yeah – right."

She took another deep breath. "Just start talking about something – anything –"

"Have I told you lately how much I love you?" He started as he pulled her into his arms with a heavy sigh.

"Ha – you must." She let out a heavy sigh of her own then removed her watch and took her cell phone out of her pocket. "You hold onto these. I just – " She let her words drift off.

Frowning, Matt looked over at Ridge as he put the items in his jacket pocket. Ridge made a sheepish face.

"Are we some place where the bus can pull off to the side of the road?" Stephanie asked as she took a few more deep breaths.

"Mike – tell Brian to pull over. Now." Matt instructed calmly as he took hold of Stephanie's wrist to check her pulse.

"Yes sir."

"Don't –"

"Don't don't me." Matt tried to concentrate on her pulse as the bus slowed down and pulled over.

Everyone just sat there in silence – watching the two of them – trying not to panic. As soon as the bus came to a stop, Matt stood then pulled Stephanie up.

"We'll be right back." Matt said to no one in particular. "How much longer is it to where we're going?" He asked Brian as they reached the front of the bus.

"Just another half hour or so." Brian told him as he pressed the button to open the door.

"We'll be right back. We just need some fresh air."

"Alright sir. Take you time. This is a good place to be stopped."

Matt followed Stephanie down the stairs and out of the bus.

"Oh look – what a beautiful view." She sighed then started to take several long deep breaths of the crisp fresh air, feeling the warmth of the sunshine on her face.

"You're the only beautiful view that I want to look at." Matt stood next to her, taking his own deep breaths.

She started to laugh quietly. "I bet you would make a great Lamaze coach." She teased.

"Go ahead – make fun of me all you want." He told her as he pulled her into his arms.

"Alright … have I told you lately that I love you?" She repeated his earlier words as she pulled his arms around her tighter.

"It's been awhile." He kissed her hair.

"I feel like a total fool … reacting this way … but I just can't take being a bug under the microscope any longer. If they just wouldn't watch every move we make and listen to every word we say. Can't they entertain themselves? My family is just as bad as yours and they know how I hate all that attention. And now – knowing that every move I make can be tracked –" She let her words drift off. "Matthew –"

"I know, my darling … I know …" Matt sighed tiredly as he tightened his arms around her. "Just another half hour or so and then we can be alone together for as long as we like – and do whatever we like –"

"You're making love to me whether you want to or not." Stephanie told him in no uncertain terms.

"Well – you'll have to twist my arm but if I must then I must. I suppose you'll force me into taking one of those long, hot baths with you, too."

"Absolutely."

"And one of those cozy naps as well."

"Positively."

"The things a husband has to go through to keep his wife happy and satisfied."

"I tried to warn you about what you were getting yourself into." Stephanie turned in his arms and caressed his cheek tenderly.

"True … are you feeling better now?" Matt raised an eyebrow.

"Always." She met his lips in a deep, loving kiss. "Thank you, my darling."

"Anytime, my love."

"A few more deep breaths of this nice fresh air and then we can go back inside … would you mind if we sat up front with our grandchildren for the rest of the trip?" She suggested.

"Not at all. It'll give me a chance to get to know them better."

Stephanie took one more deep breath then gave him one more kiss then smiled reassuringly.

"I'm ready, Grandpa Brannigan."

"Alright, Grandma Brannigan. Let's go get this bus back on the road. As well as some food into our stomachs."

"Of course. Can't forget the food." Stephanie started to laugh easily and relaxed as they climbed back onto the bus.

"All set to go, Brian. Thanks for stopping and giving us a much needed break."

"No problem, sir." Brian told him as he pressed the button to close the door. "Like I said – just another half hour or so."

"Good. Thank you." Stephanie told him as she stopped next to her two granddaughters and gave both of their shoulders a squeeze. "Enjoying your time on your phones?" She teased.

"Grandma –" Phoebe started guiltily.

"It's quite alright. Beats having to talk to the rest of us." Stephanie assured them as she stroked Steffy's hair.

"You're the only one we want to talk to and you've been busy so –" Steffy explained with a shrug.

"We'll have a nice long talk during the next few days." Stephanie promised then went and stood next to Matt who was watching Thomas and Zende hunched over the chess board. "Hmmm … the Forrester brain trust hard at work."

"I'm practicing my moves on Tom here – in case we ever get to finish our game, Grandma." Zende explained pensively as he studied the board.

"Something tells me Grandma will be too busy practicing HER moves on our new Grandpa." Thomas tried not to smirk too obviously.

Matt started to laugh quietly as he kissed Stephanie's cheek. "I can only hope."

"Ha!" Stephanie laughed then went over to the bar and started to load up a plate of fruit, feeding Matt a grape when he joined her.

"Fruit won't satisfy my appetite. I need one of these sandwiches." He decided as he started his own plate.

"Hmmm … so that's what you need. I'll be sure to remember that." She raised an eyebrow as she ate her own grape.

"Well – it's only a substitute until I can get what I really crave." He raised an eyebrow then he took a big bite.

"What would you like to drink? How about a beer?" She suggested, looking through the bottles on the bar.

"Sounds good. Looks like there's room at Dino and Timmy's table for us." He picked up their plates and went on ahead while she poured their drinks.

"Hey you two – mind if your old grandparents join you?" Matt asked as he laid their plates down on the table.

Timmy just started to giggle with anticipation as Matt slid into the booth next to him.

"Grandma sits next to me?" Dino asked then turned it into a song so he could brag to all of the other kids. "Grandma sits next to me. Grandma sits next to me … I love my Grandma to pieces cuz she sits next to me." He laughed as Stephanie laid their glasses on the table and slid into the booth next to him. He quickly wrapped his arms around her neck and gave her cheek a big kiss.

"Mmmm – I love you to pieces, too, sweetie." Stephanie laughed as she gave him a tight squeeze.

"You make me so happy, Grandma." Dino told her as he quickly moved onto her lap to get comfortable with a heavy contented sigh. "Hey, guys – look where I am!" He called over to the table where Ally, Hope and RJ sat to brag some more.

"So? We've known Grandma longer and sat on her lap millions of times more than you." RJ pointed out. "Isn't that right, Grandma."

"Oh millions." Stephanie winked at RJ.

"Yeh – but you didn't have a new Grandpa hoggin' all of her time like now." Dino pointed out smugly.

Stephanie kissed the top of his head then combed her fingers through his curly hair before wrapping one arm around him while she started to eat with the other.

"So – who's winning this game of War here?" Matt asked curiously as Timmy scooted closer and closer then finally moved himself onto Matt's lap and got comfortable.

"Me." Timmy told him proudly, holding up his thicker stack of cards. "But Dino won the last game so –" He just shrugged.

"I really like Timmy. Can he move here and be my friend all the time?" Dino whispered loudly.

"Well, sweetie – " Stephanie made a face as she looked over at Matt for an answer. "I don't know. We'll have to talk about that later. Alright?" She just shrugged.

"Okie dokie … did you hear that, guys? Grandma and me are gonna talk later!" Dino called over to the other table again.

"Grandma!" Ally called back to protest.

"Ally!" Stephanie called back, imitating her tone.

"It's not fair. When's it our turn?"

"Well – sweetie – there's room here at the table for the three of you right now." Stephanie pointed out.

"Ohhh – man – I gotta share you?" Dino asked her disappointed.

"It's only fair, Dino. Grandma belongs to all of us." Hope told him as she quickly moved across the aisle.

The three of them just stood there for a moment to see how it was going to work out.

"I'll sit next to our new Grandpa." RJ volunteered then quickly became shy and hesitant. "If that's OK?" He asked.

"That'd be great, squirt. Climb on up." Matt slid him and Timmy over to make room with a wide grin.

Stephanie just gave him a wink as she leaned forward so Hope could climb behind her to sit near the wall while Ally slid into the seat on her other side.

"See – I told you there was room for all of us." Stephanie pointed out as they all snuggled up together and got comfortable.

"I remember when that used to us over there." Thomas spoke up dejectedly.

"Ahhh – the good ole days. Guess that's what happens when you grow up." Phoebe sighed.

"Growing up can really be the pits sometimes." Zende sighed as well.

"It's not our fault we grew up, you know." Thomas pointed out.

"We deserve equal time, Grandma. We just need a bigger seat, that's all." Steffy told her firmly.

"We'll see what we can do later." Stephanie imitated their pouts.

"We'll be sure to remind you." Steffy raised an eyebrow.

"Oh my God – she not only inherited your name but your voice and facial expressions as well." Matt started to laugh good-naturedly.

"Comes with practice." Steffy smirked proudly.

"How much you wanna bet there's four older us's up there pouting as well." Zende pointed out as he motioned to the other end of the bus.

"I hear they've been pouting ever since Grandma arrived home with our new Grandpa on Tuesday." Phoebe whispered loudly.

"We can hear you – you know." Ridge told his daughter.

"Now why doesn't that surprise me." Stephanie mumbled with a sigh as she tried to eat some more of her fruit salad.

"If I could have everyone's attention –" Mike spoke up from the front of the bus. "We'll be arriving at our destination in just a couple of minutes. Once we're there – we ask you to stay by the bus to help us sort out your luggage. After that, you're luggage will be taken to your accommodations while you will be given a tour of what will be your home away from home for the next four days. Brian and I will see you again Monday at noon for your return trip home … minus the newlyweds, of course."