A/N: So this is it - the final chapter of the story that has renewed my love for writing. I just want to take a second to thank everyone who took the time to submit a review for this chapter: agonyzpuppy, Amyvedamarie, bkrbunny, cenasgrl, Disco Inferno1, foolishangel87, klh 5598, Maeggy, NSB, pianogal, Princess Mel, saintthistle, sarah7174, Sharnhorst, socalledsara, Tanya50801, VASHORTYGIRL, wrestlenascargirl, and lady bearwolf.
And I have to give a special thanks to Stacy, who has read so much of this story and given me her honest opinion. Your input has meant so much to me and this story would have never been what it is without your encouragement.
Oh, and one more thing: I have posted the "soundtrack" for this story over on our Myspace page. So if you want to know which songs inspired me in the writing of this story, you can pop on over and check it out.
And with that: Enjoy!
It had seemed like a good idea as she ran from the bar and drove out to Mark's ranch. Deterimined to wait until he got home and then demand the answers that had elluded her for so long, Winter had driven with a purpose, forcing the nerves in her stomach as far down as she could push them.
She waited on the porch until dawn, but when Mark hadn't arrived home, curiosity got the better of her. Trying her key in the lock, she felt a sense of relief when the front door clicked and opened with a little bit of help from her shoulder. Her conscience told her that she had no business enterting the home, but she reasoned that he knew she still had the key. Maybe he wanted her there.
After quickly depositing her shoes by the front door, she wandered barefoot over the smoothly polished wooden floor. Everything had been exactly as she remembered it, from the rustic scent, to the slight chill of the central air. Even as she made her way up the stairs, she couldn't keep the smile at bay.
His bed was unmade, the thick comforter on the floor at the foot of the hulking, four poster structure. While she ached to sink into the pillowtop mattress, to cover herself with the heavy blankets, to inhale his scent from the sheets, Winter resisted and made her way to the far side of the room.
Kneeling on the seat of the bay window, she stared over the bare acreage stretching beyond sight behind his home. They had so many dreams for that land: starting a horse farm, constructing a race track, building a training facility and a recording studio. The possibilities had seemed endless only six short months ago, but for Winter, it felt like another lifetime.
She left the room as tears poured over her cheeks. Being there, in the presence of everything inherently Mark, without actually having him there with her, somehow brought a sense of closure she hadn't realized she had been missing. Of course, had he been there, she knew she would be no closer to "over" their relationship than she had been months ago.
After walking through the entire house, Winter finally settled herself on the floor in the empty room next to the master bedroom. Once upon a time, it would have been the baby's nursery. She wrapped her arms around her upturned knees and, once again, considered what she would say when he arrived.
The recent road trip had seemed longer to Mark than any he had endured in recent memory. He'd yet to find any real sleep since leaving Winter's apartment nearly a month earlier, and he couldn't help hoping that being back in his own bed would rectify that dilemma. If he couldn't find sleep, at least he could ride his own bike for awhile.
The sight that greeted him as he pulled into the driveway chased any thoughts of rest from his mind. Winter's car was parked beside the house, and she was nowhere to be seen. She had been pretty angry that last time they had talked, and he couldn't imagine the kind of damage she was inflicting on his home. Maybe I should have changed the locks, he thought as he killed the engine and stepped out of the truck.
Hauling his luggage up the porch steps, he braced himself for the sight that would greet him on the other side of the heavy, oak door. She had every right to be angry, he knew. He could offer no excuses for what he had done to break her heart, and going to see her hadn't been his most shining moment, either.
He breathed a deep sigh of relief when he realized that the living room appeared untouched. Her boots sat neatly by the front door, but nothing else seemed out of place. Deciding against calling out for her, he searched the lower level and then started up the stairs.
Nearly twenty minutes later, he found her on the floor in the guest room, face turned toward the bright, morning daylight. From his vantage point in the doorway, he studied her still form, wondering how long she had been there and if she had fallen asleep. But no matter how he tried, he couldn't seem to find his voice.
"Interscope Records wants to sign me to a solo deal," she finally said, her voice flat and lifeless as she raised her head to stare out the window.
Mark cleared his throat and leaned against the door frame. "Congratulations," he responded, the tone of his own voice sounding foreign to his ears. "I'm proud of you."
"Yeah." With a sardonic chuckle, she rolled her neck and clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I figured you would be."
Months of separation created a palpable tension between the couple. Neither moved. Neither spoke. Each seemed content to reflect on their own thoughts, though both knew conversation was inevitable.
"You're not going to take the deal, are you?" Mark asked finally, crossing his arms over his chest again. When Winter shook her head, he let out a heavy sigh. "I think you're crazy," he said honestly. "You know how much talent and luck goes into an opportunity like that? It's a dream come true."
She nodded slowly, the conversation playing out exactly as it had in her head. "Not mine," she said softly, her voice barely audible. When Mark said nothing, she stood, turning to face him. "They think it's because I don't wanna leave the band. That's why I didn't take the deal, but it's not about the band." Shaking her head, she ran her fingers through her hair. "That kind of opportunity should be reserved for people who have wanted it their entire lives, who have sacrificed for it. Who crave it.
"I'm just a kid who can do it. I don't think about it. Hell, most of the time, I don't even put much effort into it. I show up when the band tells me to be there, and I sing the songs that I already know from the radio." Meeting his eye, she felt a million emotions darting through her body. "It's a hobby, Mark. No matter how bad I'm supposed to want it, I just don't."
It was a statement made in complete sincerity, but one that he couldn't wrap his head around. How could anyone be so talented, so gifted, and give up on the chance to turn that gift into a career? It seemed like such a waste. "All this time," he started, shaking his head in disappointment, "I thought I was the one holding you back. I thought you were sacrificing what you loved to be with me."
And, as if someone had slammed a spotlight on over her head, Winter knew. "So you walked away," she stated simply. He only nodded in response. "So that I wouldn't have to give up my dream." Biting her lip, she thought about his confession. "That," she sighed, nodding her head, "may be the dumbest goddamn thing I've ever heard."
He was slightly stunned by her reaction. Maybe he had been naive, but a part of Mark sincerely believed that Winter would, at the very least, respect the fact that he loved her enough, cared enough about her dream, to let her pursue what she wanted. "Well, excuse me for wantin' you to be happy," he spat defensively.
However noble he felt his intentions were, Winter didn't care. It was a stupid reason. It was weak. And it irritated her. No, it pissed her off. "I was happy, Mark. I was happier than I have ever been in my entire life! Why is it so hard for you to accept that you made me happy? That I didn't need anything else? That you are enough for me?"
"Because you can't live your entire life completely devoted to someone else, Winter! Twenty years from now, you've got a raggedy-ass husband who's too old, and too broken down, to move out of his recliner. You've got two or three kids who are so busy with their own lives that they barely have time to say 'hi' to you. And you've got nothing left for yourself." Shaking his head, he sighed heavily and stared at the ceiling, as if trying to calm the frustration coursing through his body. "That's no way to live, baby."
Taking a step toward him, she twisted her face. If ever she needed him to understand her heart, this was the moment. "I know this is hard for you to wrap your head around. You love the crowds, and the attention, and the life of a performer. That's big time to you, and that's awesome.
"Big time for me is not a stage with spotlights and screaming fans. That doesn't say that I've arrived. That's not success for me," she stated, her voice softening as she pleaded with him to understand her viewpoint. "As much as you've always wanted to be a wrestler? That's how much I've always wanted to be a wife and a mother."
She was right - he couldn't comprehend it. Not that there was anything wrong with having a family, but for him, it had always been supplemental. It was never a primary goal. "Don't you want something more, though?" he asked, his nose scrunched in confusion. "I mean, you honestly want to be an Administrative Assistant for the rest of your life? Making ends meet, watching the hours tick by until it's time to pick up the kids from day care, just letting all that talent go to waste?"
Winter shook her head and took a few steps closer to him. "I don't want to be sitting at a desk for the rest of my life. I want to be chasing our babies around the yard. I want to spend my afternoons in the kitchen, baking and cooking. I want to be a stay-at-home mom. I want to clean this whole house every day, and do your laundry when you're home. I want to mow the yard and plant flowers and be waiting for you on the porch when you get home.
"And I'll still do Open Mic Night down at Danny's. I'll still sing to you when you're trying to sleep, annoying the piss out of you until you clamp your hand over my mouth and tell me to shut up and go to bed." He couldn't fight the smile at the memories that accompanied that particular recollection. "I'll sing our babies to sleep. I'll sing in the shower. Hell, I'll buy a karaoke machine and sing to you every fucking night, if that's what makes you happy. But, Mark," she sighed, pressing her body to his and resting her hand on his cheek, "my dream is making you happy."
He sighed and rested his hands on her shoulders, feeling the warmth spread through him in an instant. Though his heart still ached for her, he was hesitant. "Sweetness," he whispered, leaning back against the door frame again.
Taking a step back, she bit her lip and twisted her fingers behind her back. "There's something else," she predicted.
"It's a lotta pressure," he admitted. "Bein' the center of somebody's world is a lotta pressure. I know I can't be everything you need me to be all the time." He was a man of few words, but when something needed to be said, Mark had learned that he had to open up. "Even when I retire from the ring, I'm probably gonna stick with the company somehow. Road agent, front office, somethin' else. . . I don't know how, but I'm not gonna be around all the time.
"Everything you want is beautiful, baby, but did you ever stop to think that maybe I'm not the guy to give it to you? My career is too fuckin' important to me." It sounded harsh, and he wished that he could take it back instantly, or say it differently. But regardless of the words, the emotion would be the same.
With her hands in her hair, Winter laughed. "You think I don't know that?" Flailing her arms at her sides, she shook her head. "Your career has been a huge part of who you are since the day I met you. And it's part of the reason that I love you so damn much. You're dedication is amazing. I love the way you give yourself over to it, even when your body doesn't think it's such a good idea. That commitment, and that passion, are what drew me to you in the first place. It's what tells me that you're in it for the long haul," she stopped and bit her lip, turning her head to the side. "Except for the whole engagement thing. That kinda makes me question ya a little bit."
"For forty-two years, the only person I've had to think about is me," he admitted, though the words sounded corny to him. He'd never really cared to express his emotions. Punching people in the head was far more efficient, as far as he was concerned. "It ain't easy to bring somebody else into this life." Reaching out to her, he placed a large hand on her hip and pulled her close. "But if you can forgive me for walkin' away, I wanna bring you back in. And keep you here this time."
Melting into his embrace, Winter rested her head against his chest and breathed his scent deeply. "Promise me you won't be an idiot this time?" she asked, wiping her tears against his tee shirt.
The laugh that resonated from deep within his chest felt surprisingly new. He couldn't be sure that he had really laughed since leaving her. Pulling back, he laced his fingers through hers and led her back to his bedroom.
Winter gasped when she saw the arrangement of rose petals and burning candles. Mark left her side and moved to his dresser, opening it and closing it quickly. Dropping to knee in front of her, he took her left hand in his and opened the black ring box in his hand. "I screwed this up in ways I'm pretty embarrassed to admit, Sweetness," he confessed, gripping her tiny fingers tightly. "But I never stopped loving you. And I told myself that I would do this the right way if I ever got another chance. So," he smiled when the tears began to flow freely over her round cheeks, "Winter, will you marry me?"
As he slipped the square-cut diamond over her left finger, Winter stared in disbelief. She had come here with every intention of finding out why he left, and then going home to grieve the definite conclusion of their relationship. In the best case scenario, she had considered that he would tell her he'd made a huge mistake and that he wanted her back.
But she had never anticipated the sparkling diamond, flanked on both sides with rubies. She had never dreamed of the romantic setting, and the look of love that his eyes were radiating back at her. "You're sure?" she asked, laughing through her tears. When he nodded, she stepped backwards, pulling him with her toward the bed. "Yes! A thousand times yes!"
She had tried to get over him, tried everything she could think of to live a life without him in it. But sheltered safely under his hulking frame against the soft mattress, she knew that every attempt had been futile. And she knew that being there with him, in that moment, and for the rest of her life, was the only thing she really wanted.