Gotta say, not thrilled that this saga lives on, LOL. Whether or not I go through with this is totally dependent on how well it's received. So read, fave, follow, review and all that good stuff if ya'll want this one to continue!
The first part of the prologue takes place sometime between winter-spring 2009.
As he walked through the streets of New York, his mind wandered all over the place. It pained his pride to admit it, but he couldn't stop thinking about his twin brother. This was the kind of shit reserved for sappy romance novels. Not real life. Not over someone he – in all actuality – barely knew. But there it was. And here he was, totally confused, despite the several months that had passed since they'd last spoken to one another.
Hah, that was putting the interaction mildly. They'd beaten the piss out of each other…and then finally Hunter had beaten the shit out of him. Warned him to stay away. A bristle of anger crept up Howard's back, threatening to blot everything else out.
What the fuck would his brother do, even, if Howard decided to return to Connecticut? He didn't own the fucking state, county or town he lived in. Hell, he didn't even own the damn block he lived on. If Howard chose to move right next door, there wasn't a single damn thing that Hunter could do about it.
Is this what sibling rivalry was supposed to feel like? Is this how they would have behaved had they grown up together? Cursing each other out, fighting, and trading barbed insults, envious of the other's accomplishments and life in general?
No, Howard decided immediately. There was no damn rivalry. That implied some sort of back and forth exchange on who was doing better. Hunter had won. He'd won every possible contest that mattered: money, success, fame, loving family, happiness.
Happiness? He hadn't meant to think that. Agitated, he reached up and ran a hand through his flowing, blonde locks then yanked his hood over his head. When he was out and about he often wore his hair down solely because it attracted such attention from females. They all noticed it, wanted to touch it – and soon, him. He could literally have a different woman every single night. And during some stretches of his life, that's basically what he'd done. Yet he still found himself…with a void. Or something. He was chasing, always had been and had no idea why. Wouldn't know what he was subconsciously pursuing even if it smacked him upside his head.
Happiness. The word echoed in his mind again. Probably because he so rarely used it. What was it, even? He had fun; he often enjoyed himself. Was often entertained. He often smiled.
Often avoided thinking about the past and future with great depth. Why? He wasn't even sure anymore.
Stuffing his hands into his sweatshirt pockets, he took a detour down a rather deserted street. It would get him home faster, but he rarely traveled this way because it was so…desolate, in comparison with the major streets. The few people that littered the streets were in varying states of decay and despair. Making beds and pillows out of newspapers, old clothing and in some cases, the ground itself. No one bothered to beg here, even their desperation had run out. They'd seemed to accept that this was their fate, the best they could do given their circumstances. He'd feel sorry for them if it wasn't for one factor: certainty.
These people were certain. Of their present and their future. He guessed that they long ago gave up on even the tiniest glimmer of hope coming to rescue them from this mess. Howard hadn't reached that point because he chose to live in the moment. He had no particular hope because he had no solid plan. And without a plan, there could be no certainty of its success or failure. He was in limbo. This homeless population was not. He felt himself envying that stability, awkward as it was.
Allowing himself to go back in time for just mere moments, Howard realized he hadn't had much stability. Parents that had given him up, for reasons unknown. An adopted set of parents; one that had abandoned him and the other that had placed unrealistic expectations on him to make up for her own failures. A revolving door of women and friends. He was the owner of a very small chain of gyms, sure. They all happened to be in run down areas such as these. Where the street the facility was on was okay, but three blocks over it was like stepping into a wasteland of despair. In truth, he had hardly paid personal attention to the other two gyms over the years – just hired competent managers and got on with it. Even that had become problematic and he struggled with his recent financial decisions so much so that he'd like to pretend the gyms didn't exist. The only reason he bothered coming to this particular location is because it wasn't far from home. Far enough to justify driving…but close enough that he could walk if he wanted the exercise or space to think.
Above, the street lights flickered once, twice. Not unusual, but tonight it brought him into a state of higher alertness.
He realized that he was not alone, just a half a second before severe pain in the back of his head blotted out everything else.
Instead of having the chosen thirteen for Hunter and Stephanie's project "Tough Enough" undergo their training in Stamford, Vince decided that he wanted it to be at their developmental territory in Ohio. When the training schedule was on the verge of being finalized, Vince ended his association with Ohio Valley Wrestling and instead switched to Florida Championship Wrestling.
Either way, the change from Stephanie and Hunter's original idea was annoying because it required more coordination and money spent on travel.
They'd somewhat seen it coming when Vince decided to handpick the individuals he wanted to serve as guest speakers, trainers and such. At the top of that list was Hunter. The day her husband left town coincided with the kids first official day of summer break. They'd already decided that during the break, Steph would only work mornings at the office. Steph's friend and ex-coworker, Lauren had a little sister who babysat to earn spending cash. With her freshman year in college over, she'd be coming home rather than taking summer courses. So of course they'd hopped on the opportunity to have Leah look after the kids while both parents worked.
As a result of the project, Hunter's work hours had certainly become less flexible since Vince also still had him actively scouting. During Stephanie's hiatus from work, he got home by four on most days. If he managed to make it earlier, they squeezed in some alone time before going to get their children. Once she returned to work they had made the easy decision for her to work half-days at the office when the kids didn't have practice for some sport. So far, everyone loved this new schedule and now that summer was here, she would leave work at lunch, on a daily basis.
It just royally sucked that on the first official day of summer vacation, Hunter had to travel to Florida to train and lecture the contestants, followed by observing the program from a production standpoint. They agreed that during his absence they would talk on the phone at least twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. Still, the reassurance of being able to talk to him daily was doing nothing to ease her longing.
After checking on their sleeping children one last time, Stephanie entered the kitchen, not at all surprised to see her husband helping himself to a bowl of strawberries. Hunter looked up and grinned sheepishly, holding out a strawberry to her. He was fond of the fruit, but it was Stephanie's very favorite and he knew he'd be playfully scolded for eating them all.
"Thank you," she told him with an unconvinced smile as she accepted the fruit. In no way did this gesture persuade her to believe that he wouldn't have eaten all the strawberries if she hadn't walked in. "I can see why some wives get excited when their husbands are gone: more food for them."
Hunter's face fell into an undeniably adorable pout. But she could tell he only halfway believed her words. "Well!" He began, in mock offense. "Maybe I should leave town tonight," he proposed. "Then you can have all the fruit to yourself."
When he moved as if he was going to leave the room, Stephanie quickly looped an arm through his and dragged him over to her. His amused hazel eyes watched her every movement as she ate the strawberry, teasingly. When she was finished with it, she cleared her throat, pretending that what just occurred wasn't in the least bit suggestive. "Don't you dare," she told him, in reference to leaving almost a full day earlier than scheduled. "I'm already not sure how I'm gonna handle it in the morning."
Hunter reached out and tucked a stray wisp of hair behind her ear, but allowed his hand to linger there. "My plane doesn't leave until three in the afternoon, Steph," he told her.
Stephanie sighed and covered his hand with hers. "I know."
"But?" He prompted.
"But when we head to the office in the morning, I won't see you again until you come back."
"We can take lunch together," he suggested. "That should leave me with just enough time to get to the airport."
Stephanie nodded in confirmation, but felt her heart sink, as well. At the reminder that she wasn't…considered emotionally fit enough to drop him off at the airport. She remembered her father's secretary's words; no doubt she'd been repeating Vince verbatim. That the shuttle to the airport was considered mandatory because otherwise they might never let each other go. And then the project would be compromised.
A small wave of irritation rose up out of the sadness. She swore every time he made improvement in his parenting, he took two steps backwards. There was nothing she could do to repay him for his advice on fixing her marriage last year. But still. That didn't give him the right to insinuate that she – who was just as much a part of this project as Hunter was – was incapable of setting her own feelings aside long enough to get her husband to the airport on time.
Sensing her change in attitude, Hunter actually chuckled a little bit. He pressed a kiss to her forehead and attempted to soothe her with, "Let it go, Stephanie."
Stephanie grumbled under breath, burying her head against his chest as his arms came around her. "He's just…such…" she struggled to find the words that accurately described her father, more often than not. "He's a…shit. A jerk. An asshole."
"A shit jerk asshole?" Hunter questioned with another chuckle. "That's a new one."
"I'm serious. I mean he's denying me the opportunity to spend more time with you before you leave me for a week. And he's doing it basically by saying I'm an emotional basket case that will hang on to your leg as soon as you get out of the car and make you miss your flight."
Hunter knew she wouldn't do that. Hell, she knew she wouldn't do that. So he saw no reason to tell her so. "Steph, this could be directed at both of us."
She pulled back to look at his face. "Huh?" She asked, clearly puzzled.
"What makes you think I want to be away from you any more than you want to be away from me?"
Good question. She had no answer. Just figured that the majority of her dad's work directives that affected them both were mainly aimed at her. Hunter hadn't been happy about it when she told him of the little stipulation. He'd just been handling it better than she had. Perhaps she was blinded by the fact that it felt she was being punished by her father. "Oh," she said aloud.
"Mmhmm," he murmured as he watched the realizations dawn on her. "I'm not a fan of having to let you go," he told her, bringing her attention back to the verbalized fear the secretary had made.
Stephanie shook her head. "I won't let you. Ever," she said, taking the conversation in a metaphorical, rather than literal direction.
Everything about what happened next was sweet. Their lips and tongues melding together, the taste of fruit winding in between the kisses. Hunter's hands settling under her shirt to rest on her lower back. Not urgent, forceful or demanding – just rubbing softly. Stephanie's hands caressing his stubbly cheeks, encouraging their current pace. They'd moved around, without breaking their kiss, in attempt to find a surface. The kitchen counter had probably been the closest, but the dizzying effects of the embrace had disoriented them both. The next thing they knew, they'd bumped into a chair. They pulled their lips apart, giggling like a couple of idiots.
Hunter sat down first, his hands settling on his wife's hips as she plopped down into his lap. He received feather-light kisses to his lips, cheeks, jaw, neck and collarbone while she steadily worked at freeing his hair from its band. Once or twice he'd considered cutting it, but Stephanie somehow managed to amuse, comfort or arouse herself even more when she was able to thread her hands through it. A lingering kiss to his lips snapped him out of his thoughts.
When she pulled away, she simply looked at him, almost nervously, for a few seconds. "I love you, Hunter."
He smiled so hard and wide that he momentarily feared it may be mistaken for a grimace. But he honestly just loved it when Stephanie took time to think about the depths of her feelings, allowing herself to become so vulnerable right before she verbalized them to him. A lot of people threw the word love around so casually that it was almost akin to a hello. It was said without thinking, just automatic, part of the routine of life. And while those were fine in Stephanie's case – because he now had no doubt that she loved him – it was in these contemplative moments of hers that the spoken affection meant the most to him.
"I know," he reassured her. "I love you, too."