Bring Me to Life by Anastacia
Past Featured StorySummary:

Co-written with Shrinkingviolet


Always flipping through the various songs of his career, Howie Dorough comes to a hard realization. That his voice is missing. Somehow, through the years, he has disappeared from existence. And, with the disappearance of his voice also comes the disappearance of his soul. Unable to handle the stress of the Backstreet Boys, Howie opts for a small vacation before the promo tour of Never Gone can begin. Kevin, facing his own demons of ignorance and underappreciation, decides to join Howie on his trip, never realizing the beauty they could find after being left behind.


Co-written with Shrinkingviolet


Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Group, Howie, Kevin
Genres: Angst, Drama, Humor, Romance
Warnings: Graphic Sexual Content, Sexual Content, Violence, Sexual Assault/Rape
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 88 Completed: Yes Word count: 458931 Read: 18998 Published: 02/03/06 Updated: 09/10/06

1. Claustrophobic by Anastacia

2. Good Knight by Anastacia

3. She?s Not For You by Anastacia

4. Naivety by Anastacia

5. Tempting Offers by Anastacia

6. Match of Wits by Anastacia

7. Closer by Anastacia

8. For Him by Anastacia

9. He Needs Her by Anastacia

10. Let Me Love You by Anastacia

11. The One by Anastacia

12. Welcome to my Heart by Anastacia

13. I?d Like a Beer by Anastacia

14. Repercussions by Anastacia

15. Revelations by Anastacia

16. A Gift of Silver Lining by Anastacia

17. The Sound of His Heart by Anastacia

18. Confessions by Anastacia

19. Bittersweet Romance by Anastacia

20. Normalcy by Anastacia

21. Obliterated by Anastacia

22. Wanting a Change by Anastacia

23. Falling Back by Anastacia

24. My Girl by Anastacia

25. Her Protector by Anastacia

26. Back to Her Heart by Anastacia

27. Needing a Chance by Anastacia

28. Such Sweet Sorrow by Anastacia

29. Into His Arms by Anastacia

30. My Angel by Anastacia

31. Love Me by Anastacia

32. Fanfare by Anastacia

33. Awesome by Anastacia

34. For Our Future by Anastacia

35. Keeping You Forever by Anastacia

36. Forlorn Goodbyes by Anastacia

37. Grounded, Almost by Anastacia

38. Up In Arms by Anastacia

39. Polar Opposites by Anastacia

40. Hillbilly Blunders by Anastacia

41. Let Me Tell You Something by Anastacia

42. Homecoming by Anastacia

43. Short of a Miracle by Anastacia

44. Pressing Buttons by Anastacia

45. An Unexpected Gift by Anastacia

46. Reactionary Guilt by Anastacia

47. Sweetness by Anastacia

48. Against All Odds by Anastacia

49. Facing Reality by Anastacia

50. A Night to Remember by Anastacia

51. You?re a Gift by Anastacia

52. The Road to Her Heart by Anastacia

53. Not Wanting to Compete by Anastacia

54. Just Go by Anastacia

55. Strong Enough by Anastacia

56. Returning What Belongs by Anastacia

57. A Proposal by Anastacia

58. Unyielding Aches by Anastacia

59. Family Functions by Anastacia

60. An Accident Waiting to Happen by Anastacia

61. An Emergency by Anastacia

62. Sacrifices by Anastacia

63. Daddy Dearest by Anastacia

64. He Didn?t Have to Be by Anastacia

65. I Still by Anastacia

66. Decisions by Anastacia

67. Confronting the Pain by Anastacia

68. Mending the Broken by Anastacia

69. Loving You All Over Again by Anastacia

70. Unmasked by Anastacia

71. Surprising Birthday Gifts by Anastacia

72. Sweetest Gestures by Anastacia

73. Bringing Out the Animal by Anastacia

74. Angel?s Watching by Anastacia

75. Saving Grace by Anastacia

76. Trusting Him by Anastacia

77. Tying Knots by Anastacia

78. Changing Relationships by Anastacia

79. Wedding Bells by Anastacia

80. Laughing Matters by Anastacia

81. Drunken Stupor by Anastacia

82. Rising Tensions by Anastacia

83. A Break by Anastacia

84. Holiday Mischief by Anastacia

85. Lingering Doubts by Anastacia

86. Wedded Bliss by Anastacia

87. Epilogue by Anastacia

88. Awards by Anastacia

Claustrophobic by Anastacia
Chapter 1 – Claustrophobic

Drumming his fingers lightly on his knees, Howie listened to Brian and AJ arguing over the inclusion of a song. Kevin and himself had voted yes, Nick had voted no. His reason? Simply because he didn't sing on it. Normally complacent and easygoing, Howie was unable to hold back the vile thoughts. Egotistical asshole. He still fumed, though no one sitting in the studio office noticed. Kevin kept glancing his way, worry etching his face, but said nothing.

“The song is just too damn slow,” AJ argued against Brian, reaching to cut off the soundtrack Welcome to my Heart. He barely noticed Howie physically wince at the sharpness of AJ’s detest over the song. It wasn’t as if Howie hadn’t poured his entire heart and soul into that piece… No, he hadn’t spent hours agonizing over the beautiful lyrics and soft melodies… He had even sang the majority of lyrics, somewhat proud at how it sounded. For the first time, he enjoyed listening to his voice. He was proud to put his name as the creator of the song. That is, until his band members started to squabble.

"So that's another no, then," Nick said decisively, studiously scribbling on his paper. "The next one on the list has to go on." The tone of his voice made it obvious he expected to get his way. Typical. He sang lead, and--whoopee--he'd played guitar on the track. Would anyone even be able to hear Howie's voice on what little of the chorus he'd sang? Doubtful. Clearing his throat, he pulled his list closer, mentally checking off those of his that had, so far, been trashed.

Assholes, he thought again, this time directing the epithet towards all his band mates. Well, with the exception of Kevin. After all, they were practically in the same situation, only one of Kevin's songs had missed the axe of the others.

“I really liked doing Poster Girl. I think our fans will really enjoy that,” AJ volunteered suddenly as Nick already added his song to their new CD. And Howie had to bite down on his bottom lip to keep from releasing a sharp groan when a chorus of approvals sounded. After all, AJ and Nick sang lead on that song. Why wouldn’t it be immediately approved? Without even having to hear the song again!

"Well, that's a CD full," Brian announced then, cracking his knuckles as he looked down at the sheet. "And we have the list of maybes for b-sides and the like," he went on, despite the audible sigh from his cousin. "We excited?" he asked, glancing around the table.

"Overjoyed," Howie muttered, pushing his chair back. Enough of this shit, he decided, reaching for his jacket.

“What’s his problem?” Nick muttered loudly as Howie stormed out of the executive office.

“He’s just tired. We’ve all been working hard, Nick,” Kevin covered, immediately standing and grabbing his jacket. He knew better than to explain the subtleties to Nick, because Howie would be a good way to his house before Nick would even begin to comprehend the very beginning. So, excusing himself, Kevin raced down toward the parking lot, catching Howie just leaning on the side of the building, his hands folded over his face. Kevin had seen Howie start to decline as the weeks passed by and their first album after a long hiatus was becoming completed. The younger man had tried to hide the darkness, but Kevin knew better. “Hey, D, we were all planning on going out for something to eat. You interested?”

Howie's reply was not immediate. Pulling his hands away, he shook his head almost imperceptibly. "I'm really not in the mood tonight," he said after a moment, his eyes overcast. Looking away from his friend, he set his gaze on the stream of traffic on the highway in the distance. He had to get away. Soon. Suddenly he realized, with startling clarity, what people meant by call of the open road.

“You haven’t really been in the mood for awhile…” Kevin observed somewhat softly, moving to lean against the wall beside his friend. Howie was usually upbeat and so personable, but lately, he seemed to be failing miserably at life. No longer did he laugh at Nick’s stupidity or Brian’s silliness. He hardly even bothered going out to various clubs with AJ anymore, which he had loved to do. Kevin feared, somewhere along the process of becoming a popular singer, the Howie he had come to know and cherish had died.

"I have to get away. Now," Howie blurted, heaving his body from the wall. Kevin caught his arm gently, emerald eyes filled with concern. Shaking his hand off, Howie shook his head. He had hoped he would understand, had thought maybe he wasn't alone in this. "It's just the stress of the new album," he lied, his eyes returning to the highway. "It's been so long, and there's so much pressure that it does well."

Kevin nodded. He could accept that. "So, you getting away has nothing to do with the fact all our songs were sent to the trash in there?" he questioned carefully, twisting the band on his finger almost nervously.

Howie fumbled in the pocket of his expensive jacket for the keys to his car, knowing that he would be going home to pack immediately. He didn’t know where he was going, but what did it really matter? He had nothing holding him back. It would be three months till the album was released in June and who honestly needed him? He had no lover, no wife, no children, no anything. He was alone in the world. Utterly alone. Or at least he had thought so until Kevin reached to grab his arm again. Howie did everything to fend off the touch, not willing to be made guilty for his emotions toward the group. “And if it does?”

Sensing Howie's anger, Kevin released his arm, following him to the rented convertible in the parking lot. "Has it occurred to you that I may feel the same way?" His fingers went to twist the band again.

“You’ve never said anything.”

“Neither have you.”

“And what could I possibly say, Kevin?” Howie rebutted with an exasperated sigh. “I worked so damn hard on those songs! At least you had one accepted onto the album. I had none. I could disappear and no one would even blink twice.”

“Howie…”

"And no one appreciates a thing I do! I'm constantly overlooked. Forgotten. When there's a decision to be made, it's given to them. Their opinion matters more than mine. Why? Is it because I don't hump the stage and act like a sex-crazed teenager? Because I don't have blonde hair and blue eyes and make the girls scream? Or am I not wholesome and sweet enough? What's wrong with me that I'm so forgettable?" Howie's voice cracked, and he was ashamed to feel hot tears spill onto his cheeks.

“Damnit, Howie…” Kevin cursed softly, knowing this had all been building over the years that the group had been together. Howie may have had an extremely sweet disposition, but ignorance could only be tolerated for so long. Kevin knew the pain and sorrow of being overlooked, from the business aspect as well as from a romantic aspect. He had learned to toughen his hide to accept the cruelty. Just watch with baited breath, thanking God for the small opportunities that he did have. But he understood Howie’s misery and could only worry about how far the man would fall. “The industry--”

“Please don’t start on the industry,” Howie choked, tired of the excuses as he wiped the hot tears on his sleeves. “I’m leaving, okay? Three months. That’s all I’m asking for.”

"You shouldn't go alone." Kevin didn't realize he'd said his thoughts aloud until Howie turned to look at him.

"Who am I going to take? Nick? AJ? Not hardly. And Brian's head is too far up his wife's ass."

"What am I? Chopped liver?" A tiny smile hinted at Kevin's mouth, and Howie realized he hadn't seen his friend smile in a long while.

“I don’t know where I’m going.”

“We can figure that out tonight.”

“And leave by tomorrow?”

“Anything you want, Howie.”

“If you’re willing.”

“Yeah, I think we both deserve it.”

*~*~*


"I'm not going to be much fun," Howie said softly, looking out the first-class window of their plane. The clouds were dark around them and he sensed a storm brewing, but he didn’t really care. In fact, Howie figured the plane could go down in flames and he’d probably welcome the darkness. After all, he had been adamant about wasting no time in leaving Florida. Barely giving notice to their band mates, Kevin and Howie had packed their bags and settled onto the plane early the next morning. Their destination was somewhere in North Carolina. Kevin had planned their extended vacation, telling Howie very little. Not that he cared. He just wanted to escape the suffocation and the thoughts of death that haunted him daily.

"Neither am I," Kevin admitted, glancing down at the pale skin on his left hand, where, until earlier that day, his wedding band had been. He was still unsure why he took it off. But it felt right, doing that, and he didn't regret it. Kristin never wore hers anymore, why should he?

"Does Kristin know you're leaving?" Howie questioned, still oblivious to the largest sign of marital discourse represented on Kevin's bare left hand.

"I left a message with her new assistant," came Kevin's murmured reply. It was a fine thing, he mused, accepting a drink from the stewardess, when a man couldn't even speak to his wife on the phone.

Nodding distractedly, Howie gazed out at the dark clouds once more. Hopefully, North Carolina would be a hell of a lot better to him than Orlando had been in the past few months.
Good Knight by Anastacia
Authors' Note: We say this now, there will be no slash. No warning was labeled for slash, so no slash allowed. Howie and Kevin would not make a cute couple, that's for sure. Thanks!

Chapter 2 – Good Knight

“What made you think that I would enjoy a cabin in the middle of no where?” Howie finally grumbled once he and Kevin made it to the dirt path that wrapped around the Smoky Mountain’s camping resort. It was one of the best renowned areas, or at least that’s what Kevin had said. The beauty of the mountains was breathtaking and the sharpness of the fresh air cleared his lungs like no other. There was a calmness and serenity that passed through him as he noticed the other camping lots off in the distance. But, despite the wonders, he had already been baffled by Kevin’s decision to take him to North Carolina, figuring they could have at least managed to find some island off the east coast to enjoy. But, to be stranded in the middle of no where, next to a large lake, and hidden in the dense forest brush was slightly unnerving. Howie supposed his nervousness was because of seeing so many horror movies which were set in this very scene, having wild, uncivilized populace attacking him from every bush. Possibly even jumping from the trees as another element of surprise. He wasn’t quite exactly sure, immediately glancing back to the cabin they would be occupying for three months.

Kevin paused on the trail, closing his eyes as the peacefulness of the atmosphere swept through him. Already he could feel the weight being lifted from his shoulders. "I thought you wanted to get away. Well, here we are. Away." Adjusting the brim of his cap as the warm March sun beat down on them, he continued along the trail. Despite the numerous campers, the only sounds that reached his ears were the gentle hum of insects, the whispering of the pines as a soft breeze blew. Breathing in the crisp mountain air, he felt comforted, the lingering doubts he'd had earlier slowly sweeping away. As they made their way down the path, he heard the excited chattering of squirrels, and, father away, the gentle splash of a pinecone in the lake. Never mind Howie's obvious distaste of the wilderness, he decided. This was exactly what he needed.

“I guess I could just consider myself lucky that you made sure we at least had a cabin with all the luxuries instead of having me cop a squat in the woods with a bunch of leaves as toilet paper,” Howie murmured, glancing sideways at his older friend to see him elicit a sinful smile.

“You’d be even luckier if I managed to remind you which leaves are poisonous,” Kevin jibbed and, in return, Howie actually chuckled.

It wasn't so bad, Howie decided, feeling himself relax more with each step. In fact, it was downright--

"A snake!"

The feminine shriek pierced his thoughts, echoing in the woods. Coming to a complete standstill, Howie looked cautiously around, half expecting to see a python slithering at him, fangs drawn. "Uh, Kev? You didn't mention snakes."

Kevin was further ahead, listening closely to the terrified squeals. Two girls, he decided. Hoping it wasn't poisonous, he rounded the bend, pausing only for a second when he saw a young woman huddled on a large rock. To the side of the path, on her hands and knees, was another young woman, reaching out to grasp something moving behind a fallen limb.

“You shouldn’t joke like that Austi! You know I always fall for that and then there’s a real snake right in the middle of the path!” the young woman perched on the rock scolded as Howie and Kevin quickly neared the situation. Her voice was filled with a sweet southern disposition despite her startled state. And she looked none too pleased with her friend attempting to wrangle the snake, but made no move to get down from the rock. “I absolutely refuse to suck poison from your body!”

Howie skidded to a stop as Kevin continued forward. Austi, the snake wrangler, pulled herself up to her feet, still leaning over. He could only stare when Kevin grasped her arm, attempting to pull her way from imminent danger. In a blur, his friend was rolled over the small woman's frame, landing with a startled groan on the path. Clapping a hand over his mouth, eyes wide with amusement, he glanced to see the girl on the rock staring in shock.

"Austi!" she gasped, her expression showing her mortification.

“Just stay up there till I find the damn snake, Cheyanne,” Austi demanded, completely unfazed by her decision to toss Kevin like a rag doll and that he was groaning painfully just at her feet. She didn’t seem to care about the man, which enthralled Howie as the words to ask if she was alright died in his mouth. After all, he didn’t want to tempt her to flip him, too. Instead, he watched as her dark brown eyes tore over the nearby brush, searching for what she had been trying to capture all along. She immediately jumped into the long blades of grass, making loud grunting noises in attempts to scare away the measly beast.

“Austin…” Cheyanne repeated, shaking her head in disbelief, but still kept her perch on the rock.

"Are you alright?" Howie asked her, noting the way she hugged her knees to her chest.

Glancing at him furtively, she nodded, her gaze returning to her friend. "Austin, he was only trying to help," she admonished softly.

"I can kill a damn snake without Pretty City Boy’s help!" Austin declared, stomping her boot-clad foot on the ground. Glancing around, she muttered a string of expletives. "Where'd the sumbitch go?"

"You're welcome," Kevin spat, slamming his fist into the dirt. His ass still smarted, and he groaned in pain as he stood, dusting his jeans off.

“I already said I didn’t need any help,” Austin growled aggressively toward Kevin, who naturally took a step away from her for fear of being flipped yet again. She seemed satisfied with his reaction as she pushed her dark brown locks away from her eyes, huffing a sharp breath before brushing the dirt from her bare knees. She then stood straight, though she couldn’t have barely reached Kevin’s chest, she exuded a wild passion and brutality that probably would have caused Kevin to cross the street if he had seen her anywhere else in life. Her dark mocha eyes warned Kevin to keep his distance as she crossed her arms curtly against her chest. “And if I did, it would only be to ask which campsite you’re staying in so I can hide the little pissfuck in your sleeping bag.”

“Austin…” Cheyanne groaned in dismay, obviously far too familiar with Austin’s maliciousness. Brushing a few rich honey blonde curls from her eyes, she attempted to crawl back down from the rock. The snake was long gone by now, especially when Kevin’s body had practically quaked the earth. She slipped slightly against the rock and was surprised when the quiet man extended her a hand. She stopped halfway, somewhat ignorant of the raging egos ahead of her, just studying Howie’s soft hand before glancing up to catch his dark chocolate eyes practically flaming her soul.

"Come on, Chey," Austin said, her eyes throwing daggers at Kevin. Hugging herself tightly, she turned and walked down the trail, knowing Cheyanne would be right behind her.

Nervously chewing her bottom lip, Cheyanne hesitantly accepted the hand still being held out for her. Smiling apologetically, she quickly pulled away from his warmth, though a tiny part of her longed to stay. "I'm sorry. Don't worry about the snake, after all her yelling, he's probably hightailed it back to the lake. Thank you," she said softly to Kevin as she slipped past him, rushing after Austin.

“Glad to know southern hospitality is still alive and well!” Kevin hollered toward the spitfire that had quickly thrown him into his place before he could say otherwise. His pride and ego sorely damaged as he rubbed his still stinging backside. Somehow, he just couldn’t allow her to have the last word.

“You seem to make friends wherever you go, huh, Kev?” Howie suggested with a faint smirk, his eyes still fixed on the shy woman jogging down the pathway to catch up to her brooding friend. He had to smile as her long blonde locks caught within the soft breeze, carrying like a golden ribbon as she reached to grasp her friend’s arm, instantly curling against her as they walked in unison. Something about her had instantly caught him by the very depth of his heart. Maybe it was the way she was perched on the rock, looking for some kind of knight to rescue her, or perhaps the way her dark sapphire eyes melted into his at the first connection. He wasn’t exactly sure, but he was stirred. For the first time in months, he felt lifted.

"Just call me Mr. Personality," Kevin muttered, brushing the dust from his worn jeans. That little spitfire had all but told him to go to hell, and he was sure, had she stayed long enough, he would have received that pleasure as well. The sparks of indignation in her eyes when she'd whirled around had startled him, and he hadn't expected to have a lie down so soon. Yeah, right, he thought, glancing after the two young women. Certainly, had he even expected it, she would have been able to knock him to the ground in one fell swoop.

*~*~*


“Austi, you do realize that he was only trying to help, right?” Cheyanne questioned out of no where as she handed the package of hotdogs to her older friend, watching her naturally tense at the mere mention of their saviors from earlier that day. Cheyanne attempted to offer her friend a sweet smile, but Austin looked none too pleased as she took the hotdogs to settle on the grill for their dinner that evening. Since returning to their campsite, neither woman had spoke of the incident earlier that afternoon. In fact, they had acted as if it never had happened, enjoying the peacefulness of their long vacation away from the stresses of their reality. But, Cheyanne couldn’t get away from the dark chocolate eyes that seemed to follow her throughout the day. She had hoped to tell Austin, but that was a lost cause. So, exhaling softly, Cheyanne obliged her friend’s nonverbal cues, simply seating herself next to their fire pit to create glowing warmth for them before they tumbled into their sleeping bags for the night. In all honesty, Cheyanne truly did understand why Austin was so hostile when the bulky fellow reached for her arm, but sometimes Austin had a way of being vicious for no apparent reason to the opposite sex. Besides, what did she have against the man who had offered Cheyanne a hand?

Austin glanced over at Cheyanne as she set to work on the fire. Loathe to admit it, she was mortified at her actions earlier. The all too familiar fear that had gripped her when the hand clamped down on her arm had immediately turned to defiance, and she hadn't realized until she heard his groan what she had done. The months of self defense training really paid off, she thought wryly, turning the hotdogs as they sizzled. Never one to apologize, she'd instead let her anger take over. Didn't he know better than to go around manhandling strange women? Biting back a smile as she reached into the cooler for sodas, she remembered his stunned expression. She had to smother a giggle as she remembered the way he'd stepped quickly away. Clearing her throat loudly, she handed Cheyanne a drink, looking over at the magnificent sunset, her thoughts on a pair of emerald eyes that had glittered.

"Austi! The dogs are burning!"

Austin lurched in surprise at Cheyanne’s outburst, causing her to immediately glance down at the small gas grill they had lugged for their trip. Sure enough, the sizzling dogs were practically in flames. Growling with frustration for letting her mind wander on a man that could only cause trouble, she immediately reached for the thongs to yank the hotdogs away from the flames. She had to remember to stay away from the flames if she didn’t want to get burned again. “Damnit!”

“Preoccupied?” Cheyanne questioned in surprise, watching her friend fumble with the hotdogs while cursing up a storm.

"Just wondering where the snake ended up at," Austin said quickly, pulling the hotdogs onto a paper plate. A little crisp, but still good.

"You lie," Cheyanne said with a knowing smirk, dropping onto the bench at the small picnic table they had found upon their arrival. Sweeping her hand over the plastic top, she pulled the basket of condiments closer as Austin sat across from her.

"I never lie." Austin affected a look of utter disbelief, sticking out her tongue when Cheyanne laughed at her.

Shaking salt onto her overly crisp hotdog, Cheyanne shook her head. "You sure about that? I swear, your nose just grew two inches."
“Chey, I swear to God…” Austin growled with a sharp threat to her southern tones, holding her hotdog toward Cheyanne like a weapon. Only, Cheyanne’s sweet, charismatic smile caused Austin to instantly weaken. She had known the younger woman since they shared their first college dormitory room at UNC Charlotte. Austin hadn’t known what to exactly think when she stepped into the room to find the sweet, shy Cheyanne fixing her side of the room, practically pleading for Austin to swear that it was alright she took that side. But, it was only a matter of time before Austin helped loosen the tight coils wrapped around Cheyanne. She had touched a place in Cheyanne’s heart that no one else could ever possibly reach and that’s why Austin was fiercely protective. Cheyanne was too na´ve when it came to hardships.

“I’m just saying… I think you were thinking of a different snake…” Cheyanne sang softly with an impish smirk, reminding Austin of why she loved the younger woman so.
She?s Not For You by Anastacia
Chapter 3 – She’s Not For You

Easing into the chair on the front porch, Howie released a soft sigh, his hands cupping his mug of hot tea as he leaned back. For a relaxing vacation, he sure was working his tail off. The cabin had many commodities, true, but he hadn't imagined he'd be lugging firewood. Or being sent on a grocery run. Kevin had helped, to be sure, but when it came time to prepare dinner, his friend had elected him. Just for tonight, he'd promised. After a fortifying meal of boxed spaghetti and overly browned toast, Howie had fixed his tea and slipped out to enjoy the peaceful quietness of his surroundings. Closing his eyes, he took a sip of his tea, the music of the crickets lulling him into a relaxed state.

A very feminine giggle erupted from the lot next to the cabin. Cracking one eye, he glanced over, praying it wasn't an overly amorous couple. The last thing he wanted to hear, now especially, was that. Sitting up, he looked over at the next lot, saw the small fire glowing, illuminating two figures sitting on either side. Were they roasting marshmallows? he wondered, moving to stand by the railing.

Thankfully, Howie wasn’t greeted by the throes of passion when he rested his cup of tea on the railing and focused on the couple by the fire. After being alone for so long, he didn’t think he could bear to see that kind of affection. In fact, AJ had tormented him into thinking he was a born-again virgin because of his lack of romance. But, he did his best to brush those thoughts away as he witnessed two young women enjoying the warmth of the fire on a chilly March night. Each had sticks of marshmallows pushed into the fire, exchanging what Howie assumed were funny stories. In the setting darkness, it was hard to make out their faces, especially at a distance, but he enjoyed the site nonetheless. Especially when the slender woman dressed in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans shrieked as the plumper woman attacked her with sticky marshmallows, tackling her onto the cold ground as they both burst into heavy laughter.

“AUSTI!” the woman on the ground giggled loudly, attempting to fend off the sweet stickiness.

Smiling slightly at their silliness, he leaned against the railing, watching them play fight with the sticks. Behind him the door opened, and he glanced over his shoulder to see his friend leaning in the doorway, an open beer in hand. Returning his attention to the two women, he watched as. Even with the distance he saw a glow of happiness about Cheyanne, one that he'd been unable to pick up on that afternoon. She looked peaceful, content, and damned beautiful.

"What's the view?" Kevin asked, dropping into a chair.

"You wouldn't like it," Howie assured him with a chuckle.

"As long as it's not Miss Attitude from this afternoon," Kevin said with a shrug, already on his feet to investigate.

Howie shrugged helplessly as Kevin immediately stood beside him, concentrating on the scene. It only took Kevin a mere moment to recognize the woman that had hurdled herself into his existence. And he was none too pleased with the realization, his face contorting as if he had been made to drink a pint of vinegar. Howie attempted to turn slightly so he could muffle his laugh and hide his smile, knowing very well that Kevin wouldn’t think twice about striking him for his damaged pride. But, he made sure never to let his eyes stray from Cheyanne, who now had tackled Austin in attempts of a come back. “I told you that you wouldn’t like it, Kev…”

“Do you know my ass still hurts from that broad?” Kevin scowled, not understanding why she had reacted so violently. He was only trying to be kind, yet she acted as if he had been trying to murder her. It was a shame that chivalry had died, though Kevin was convinced that it was murdered by women like that Austin.

"I give! Get your bony ass off me!" Austin squealed, laughing hysterically.

"She sure doesn't look strong enough to flip you over her shoulder," Howie mused.

Grumbling incoherently, Kevin nursed his beer, glaring at the women. Cheyanne shouted triumphantly, scrambling away as Austin sat up. From where he was he couldn't make out her features clearly, but he saw the flushed cheeks, the bright smile. Well, well, he mused, the broad knew how to smile. When she reached up, brushing back a lock of long chestnut hair, he felt something stir in him. Taking another sip of his beer, he watched intently as she scrambled into the tent, her curvy derriere sticking out as she rummaged around. Choking down his beer, he turned away, ignoring the heat that pooled in his stomach. There could be none of that, he told himself, once more dropping into the chair. Propping his feet on the railing, he leaned his head back, lifting the beer for one final sip.

“They’re pretty cute, huh?” Howie asked, breaking away Kevin’s sinful thoughts, oblivious to whatever was stirring deep within his friend’s soul. Instead, he still continued to lean against the railing, watching Austin dive into the tent while she hollered for Cheyanne to douse the fire. The younger woman promised to oblige the request, though she settled back at the fire, immediately immersing herself in the licking flames.

"Uh, Howie? They're kids. Younger than Nick, even. Why in the hell would they be interested in us in the slightest? Besides, we're not here looking for women," Kevin said, forcing himself not to get up and look over the railing again.

"I know we're not looking for women," Howie grumbled slightly, leaning on the porch railing as he concentrated intently on the campsite. The tent was slightly bigger than average and the women had done a pretty good job of setting up their campsite adequately. They looked as if they were used to this sort of thing. After all, they had braved the idea of sleeping outside, compared to Howie's slight air of nervousness and opting for a cabin instead. Though, he wouldn't have minded sharing a tent with the shy young woman who held a bemused smirk on her face when Kevin had toppled from her friend's firm push. The one who had quickly sobered by the light of the fire, holding her stomach delicately as if Austin had tickled too hard. "But what's so wrong with companionship when we're here?"

Companionship, Kevin mused, reaching to twist his wedding band. Feeling bare skin, he glanced at it, swallowing when he remembered taking it off. Dropping it on the dresser at home like it meant nothing. Did it? Running a hand through his hair, he expelled a weary sigh.

"Kev? Are there problems with you and Kristin?" Howie asked softly, dragging his attention from Cheyanne. From the corner of his eye he saw her douse the fire before crawling into the tent. Picking up his tea, he claimed the chair next to Kevin, stretching his legs out as the crickets' song reached a crescendo.

“Problems?” Kevin repeated as if it were absurd, though his voice wavered just the same. He attempted to exhale slowly to ward off the feelings of doubt and insecurity he faced whenever he thought of Kristin. But he could feel Howie’s eyes practically burning into him. Howie’s sensitivity made it quite easy for him to hurry through the lies that others used to block their hearts. Kevin had always trusted Howie with the deepest corners of his fears, so why should this be any different? Easy, because he was a failure. “…Nah, we’re fine… When we’re in different states… And in different places… And different beds…”

Setting his now cold tea aside, Howie looked at his friend. How could he have been so blind? So wrapped up in his own worries that he didn't notice someone he loved was in pain. "How long?" he questioned.

"I don't even know. Maybe when she started getting more big parts. Maybe it started when I went back into the studio last year. Hell, for all I know, it started when we came back after our honeymoon." It was no use trying to hold it in anymore.

“God, Kev…” Howie trailed softly, immediately flushed with a deep guilt that could probably never be explained in words. He could only imagine the pain Kevin had dealt with every time he had to witness his younger cousin falling utterly in love with his own wife and child. Not to mention the pain of knowing his marriage had failed while Brian’s blossomed. It must have been horrible. “I am so sorry…”

"Don't be," Kevin ground out, willing himself not to shed a tear. "It's not like she was in your bed," he muttered, chuckling humorlessly.

"Seriously, Kevin. I should have noticed. I've accused the guys of being egotistical, and here I was so wrapped up in my own shit I didn't realize your pain. I'm sorry, Kevin," Howie whispered.

Dropping his head, Kevin covered his face with his hands, shaking his head. "I didn't realize it myself until it was too late. It's…it's been over for a while, Howie." Pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, he drew in a deep breath, letting them fall to his lap as he turned his gaze in the direction of the campsite.
“I’m here if you need me,” Howie offered softly.

“I know,” Kevin promised as everything else went unsaid, into a comfortable silence.

*~*~*


Howie could hardly contain his curiosity as he heard the distinct laughter of two female voices. One in particular that had kept him up for the past two nights. He had just been planning on taking a walk along the quiet lake for means of solace. But the sweet, melodic laughter had drawn him into the dense brush. Peeking upward, he noticed two women standing on the rocky ledge overlooking the deepest part of the lake. He immediately recognized the shy Cheyanne peering over the edge, looking far too hesitant on jumping in. She was a picture of perfection in his eyes, tugging anxiously at a long blonde curl that had fallen from her low ponytail before settling both hands on her slightly bared tan abdomen. Her slender body accentuated and revealed in a tasteful orange sunset painted, triangular halter tankini top and low-rise, boy cut bottoms. She was beautiful as the reddish highlights crossed like ribbons against her dark honey locks, some dipping into the soft fabric of her tankini top, kissing flesh that Howie was starting to long to kiss. The heat surged within his system as he attempted to wet his drying mouth, glancing over to Austin for a comparison. Yet it didn’t help as the bold, brazen Austin, bright and effervescent in a bright yellow string bikini, was pushing playfully on Cheyanne’s shoulder, egging her further off the ledge.

"Go! Go! Jump you turkey!" the wild one persisted with a southern tinged cackle, continuing to edge the quiet Cheyanne toward the water. But, she still hesitated, nonetheless. That just seemed to agitate Austin, who quickly pushed her friend into the lake without a moment’s hesitation.

Howie had to gasp as Cheyanne surfaced from the lake, sputtering and attempting to pull away the plastered curls from her face. He first feared for her life, planning on diving into the water, thinking she might be hurt. But, he paled with surprise when he heard her sputter, "Austi! You gigantic whore!"

Austin cackled with laughter before jumping ungracefully into the lake. Howie's gaze flickered, going from Cheyanne, who was still pulling at her hair, to where Austin had gone in. She surfaced a moment later, beaming. "I may be a gigantic whore, but you love me," she crooned, giggling when Cheyanne splashed her.

Leaning against a tree, Howie watched them splash and play, loving how at ease they were with each other. No visible signs of the timid, shy girl he'd seen before, nor the loud, sailor-mouthed stubborn woman. Cheyanne moved fluidly through the water, pulling herself up on the dock, and his mouth became even drier as he took in the way the material clung to her body. Unable to resist, he headed for the dock, hands in his pockets as she reached for a towel. As she straightened, he felt the stirrings of desire when he noticed her hard nipples pressing against the top of her suit. Swallowing hard, he quickly looked away, hoping she hadn't seen him looking.

Cheyanne was oblivious to the extra person near the lake as she hummed quietly to herself, grasping her long beach towel. Apparently, also oblivious to the beauty she exuded. She moved to gently dab away the drops of water from her face, but coughed against her humming when she met the familiar pair of dark chocolate eyes she had dreamed about the previous nights. She instantly dropped the length of the towel to cover her body, blushing furiously. She hadn’t thought that she would be seeing him so soon and she immediately glanced back to the water to see Austin preoccupied with herself, which caused her to relax. Slightly. “What are you doing here?”

"Taking a walk," he said, smiling. "Enjoy your swim?"

"I--yes," she said, wrapping the towel around her body tightly.

"Except for being pushed off the rocks by your friend?" he queried in a teasing tone, his eyes dancing with humor.

"You saw that?" she asked, her face burning with embarrassment.

“Kind of hard not to notice you two…” Howie trailed softly, moving slightly so he could catch her eyes again. She complied with his movement, though she took a step back nonetheless. But, her sapphire orbs projected Howie directly into the deepest layers of her heart. An instant spark. A connection. Almost, for an instant, Howie reached his hand as if to cup her cheek, though he quickly let it drop so he could pick up her sunglasses for her.

“Especially when I’m screamin’ like a fool and lookin’ horrible,” she retorted with a hard blush, averting her beautiful eyes once more as her voice coated with a southern honey.

"Don't say that. You look beautiful to me," he said, holding her sunglasses out to her. Disbelief crossed her face, which instantly turned two shades redder. She stared at him, blinking once before taking her glasses with a shaky hand.

"You...thanks," she murmured, backing away quickly. "I--I don't even know your name," she blurted, sneaking a glance at his face.

"Howie."

"Howie," she repeated softly, his name rolling off her tongue. Never before had his name sounded so good.

“Yours is Cheyanne, right?” Howie questioned, hoping to continue the conversation. He prodded her softly, however, not wanting to scare her off. It was almost as if he were coaxing a skittish creature into his arms. Actually, it was precisely what he was trying to do.

“Yeah,” she drawled, dipping her chin as she focused on her sunglasses, though through her long eyelashes she admired the man in front of her. Chewing softly on her bottom lip, she admitted that he was far more handsome than she had first given him credited for. He was at least a few inches taller than her with a light caramel coloring to his skin, depicting a Latin descent. His dark, black locks were clipped short and mussed with what she assumed to be expensive hair gel, giving him a sexy underdressed look that caught her attention immediately. His lips curved into a handsome smile, beckoning her closer. Almost pleading with her to step into his arms, which were defined and ripped with a fair amount of musculature. She could only imagine what lay beneath the baggy t-shirt and jean shorts. Though that caused her to blush again.

Opening his mouth to speak, Howie quickly closed it when Austin clamored onto the deck, squeezing the water from her hair. She eyed him coolly, and suddenly all desirous thoughts flew his mind. He waited for her to launch into her overprotective spiel, but instead she grabbed a towel and tossed it around her shoulders. Cheyanne, he saw, stepped closer to her, as though she were her protector. Well, he mused, greeting Austin with a smile, she was.

"Hi," she said, her voice carrying the coldness of her eyes. "Chey, we need to go get dressed if we're going into town."

"Oh, right. I completely forgot we were going," Cheyanne said, giving Howie a smile. "I'll see you around, Howie," she murmured before trotting away.

Howie grinned that she actually made a point to remember his name. “Bye, Chey--”

“You think you’re pretty cute, huh?” Austin mused with a dark smile, something that told Howie not to tempt her. She folded her arms sharply as the towel wrapped easily around her petite body. Whatever easiness she had exuded in Cheyanne’s presence was long gone, leaving Howie to the sharks.

"I..."

"Look, city boy. Let's get this straight, okay? Chey? She's my best friend. She's all that is good and kind, and sometimes she has bad judgment. Just so you know, I have no intention of letting you get your grubby paws anywhere near her. So you can kiss the whole fantasy of seducing the country girl goodbye, okay?"

"I beg your pardon? What in the hell--”

"She's a virgin, get it? And she won't fall for any of your fancy bullshit lines." Snatching up the rest of her things, she sent him a glowering glare. "I suggest you jump in the lake and cool off," she said before stomping away.

"Holy Hell..." Howie murmured with a sharp breath, feeling as if Austin had just flipped him onto the hard ground much like she did with Kevin.
Naivety by Anastacia
Chapter 4 – Naivety

I don’t know exactly what you were thinking when you decided to pick up and leave like this, Kevin. Just taking off to another state without any warning? How irresponsible could you be? Your family keeps calling me, worried sick, because Brian is having a heart attack over you and Howie. He doesn’t know what’s wrong and I don’t either. What’s gotten into you? … There was an audible sigh of frustration… I just don’t know where your head is anymore. You’re worrying me. Give me a call back soon, Kevin… I won’t wait forever…

Kevin had to release his own sigh of mixed frustrations when he removed the small cellular phone from his ear, hurriedly racing down the stairs of the cabin. He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t heard his cell phone practically screaming against his ear early that morning. But, yet, he had lain there, still dreaming of another woman while his wife left him a berating message. A woman that annoyed him to all Hell, yet filled him with a deep passion that Kristin had long forgotten about. He could only imagine how disgruntled she would be to get the phone call back as he hurried to the dock for better reception. That is, if she even picked up at all.

Standing where the path met the dock, he finally obtained enough bars to make a call. Holding the phone to his ear, he listened to the ringing, nudging an empty soda can with his foot. Scooping it up, he carried it the two steps to the trashcan, growing tenser with each ring. Finally, just as he was about to hang up and send the phone sailing into the lake, he heard a click.

"Kris--" he began, and was immediately cut off.

"Miss Willits' personal line," came the chirpy male voice.

Just fucking perfect. Her anal-retentive assistant. "This is her husband," he said carefully, his free

hand clenched into a tight fist. "Let me talk to her."

"Oh, Mr. Richardson. I'm sorry, but--"

"Now," he growled, for once not caring that she'd asked him not to get angry with her assistants. Assistants, he thought with a snort. She went through assistants like he went through underwear.

"Just a moment."

There was a distinct shuffling of the phone before Kevin was placed on hold. He could only imagine the skinny little nobody hurrying toward Kristin as if the plague were coming down upon the world again. But he honestly didn’t care. In fact, he’d rather that the assistant have the fear of God beaten into him. Where did he honestly get the right to say Miss Willits’ personal line? That title had been erased as soon as she took the binding vows on the altar and in the eyes of God. Kevin could barely maintain an outward appearance of coolness as his hand wrapped tightly around the phone, threatening to break it if she didn’t appear soon.

“Kevin, do you realize how busy I am? You just can’t--”

"What the fuck is he doing answering your phone with your maiden name?" Kevin asked heatedly.

"Is this why you had him pull me out of rehearsal? Honestly, Kevin, I don't know what to do with you anymore. I thought I told you, it was better to use my maiden name. Richardson is easily forgotten, and Willits is unique."

Easily forgotten. Did that mean he was easily forgotten as well? His hand gripped the phone tighter even as he felt his heart fall to his feet. Drawing in a deep breath of the crisp morning air, he willed himself to calm down.

"Where are you? You sound like you're in a cave, and this isn't the greatest reception. Are you calling to apologize for disappearing?"

“Of course, Kris,” Kevin sneered sarcastically, his entire posture tensing as he froze on the long dock that extended into many piers for the various campers to use for their expensive boats. “I’m calling to apologize for taking Howie away from the pressure of our jobs so he didn’t attempt to commit suicide on me.”

"Howie? What's his problem this time?" Kristin asked with a dramatic sigh. "Really, Kevin. If you paid half as much attention to me as you did Howie, I'd--"

"You'd what?" he growled, angrily kicking the nearest anchor post. "You'd stay at home? You'd support my career and give me the slightest hint that you cared?" The moment he said the words he regretted them, but it was too late. He'd said it now, and it was the truth.

Kristin snapped the piece of gum she had been chewing quite loudly within Kevin’s ear, gasping as if she had choked. “You knew my career was important to me the day--”

“I never thought you would choose your career over me, Kristin!” Kevin exploded, unable to give her the chance at turning the whole conversation around. To make her the victim when Kevin clearly held the betraying dagger in his heart.

He was so caught up in his yelling match with his wife he didn't see Austin walking down the pier, idly smoking a cigarette until she was right upon him. Barely glancing at her, he saw she was wearing a snug tank top, showing off chiseled arms. Moving aside, he glared at her, felt her bump into him as she past. "Kris--" he began angrily, and realized his phone was falling to the pier, landing with a thump at his foot.

"Damnit! Why don't you watch where you're going?" he spat, turning to give Austin an evil glare. "I happen to be in the middle of a phone call!"

"Well excuse the hell out of me," she drawled, exhaling a cloud of smoke in the general direction of his face. She eyed him coolly, and when he stooped to retrieve his phone--he could hear Kristin's shrieks of anger from where he was--he felt his blood boil when Austin's foot shot out, sending the phone off the dock. Lunging for it, he caught only air, heard the soft splash as it landed in the lake.

Kevin peered over the side of the dock with true anguish, watching his expensive phone fill with water as it slowly descended to the muddy bottom of the lake. He was void of all emotion for the longest moment, unable to even form a single word to verbalize how much he truly despised the opposite sex at that moment. But, when Austin turned to leave, he caught her ankle, causing her to spill onto the dock just as hard as he had dove for his phone. “Why do women have to be such bitches! Answer me that, huh! What the fuck did I do to you that makes you think that you have the right to trash my personal property! Huh?!”

Yanking her leg from his vice-like grip, Austin scrambled away, her coffee brown eyes showing a glimmer of fear before closing off completely. Sitting up, she shot him the most livid glance he had received in all his years. Moving away even as she stood, she walked backwards, her eyes never leaving him. Turning, she tripped over a rope, her long ponytail swinging as she corrected herself. Kevin watched her run away, a mixture of dismay and relief sweeping over at him. What, he wondered as he slowly climbed to his feet, had made the fear shine through?

*~*~*


Cheyanne yawned softly as she felt a powerful force quaking her entire body from beneath the covers of her oasis, dragging her away from the sweet darkness of her nap. But, she didn’t respond to the harassment, simply turning onto her opposite side as if that would do the trick. She hadn’t been feeling too well after the trip to town yesterday, mainly sleeping periodically throughout the day as Austin went out to explore. Of course, Cheyanne realized Austin was no longer exploring when an overwhelming force yanked away the warm covers of her bed. Only to feel another person slide onto the inflated mattress and cover both of their bodies with the excess blankets and sleeping bags. The girls had found out from previous camping trips that it was far better to sleep on a queen sized mattress together than fair the rocky ground in flimsy sleeping bags. So, reaching upward to rub her tired eyes, she yawned again with a soft yipping sound. “What’s wrong, Austi?”

Heaving a great sigh, Austin rested her head against Cheyanne's back, still smarting from her encounter with the green-eyed monster. She knew she shouldn't have knocked the phone out of his hand, but the temptation had been too great to resist. Chewing on her bottom lip, she nearly winced when she remembered the pure rage on his face as she'd kicked his phone into the lake. That, truly, she should not have done. Groaning, she snuggled closer to Cheyanne, needing her friend's reassurance that, despite what the raven-haired asshole said, all women weren't bitches.

Oh, that had really hurt, being sent sprawling to the dock, only to have to bear his words. She hadn't seen a man so angry in a long time. Not since... She had turned away to get away from those intense emerald eyes that frequented her thoughts and her dreams, had been about to apologize when he'd grabbed her.

"I think we should stay away from the city boys," she told Cheyanne softly.

Cheyanne blinked her eyes rapidly to clear away the sleepiness and focus on Austin’s simple decision. She could already feel the heaviness of Austin’s heart, immediately shifting on the mattress to face her best friend. They were about two years apart in age and Austin was her protector, but Cheyanne was the soother. She held an optimistic nature that made even the worst of days seem like a passing phase. So, exhaling softly, she wrapped her arms around Austin, who instantly curled tightly into her embrace, resting her head on Cheyanne’s chest. There was the faint lub-dub of Cheyanne’s heart beat that started to soothe Austin along with Cheyanne’s fingers playing with her dark locks. “You’ve been telling me that from the beginning, Austi.”

"I mean it, though. They're nothing but trouble. Hell, all men are nothing but trouble," Austin said, closing her eyes tightly. "They cause nothing but pain and misery."

"You can't judge all men by Steven," Cheyanne murmured.

"Why not? I'll save myself a lot of heartache if I do." Austin willed herself not to cry. He wasn't worth it. None of them were. Especially the tall, dark one who had, much to her chagrin, entered her dreams the night before, making her believe, if only for a split second, that perhaps there was such a thing as love.

“Because not all men are like Steven, Austi,” Cheyanne countered softly, feeling Austin cling to her even tighter than before. Austin’s now ex-boyfriend had been a sore subject for several months during their year at UNC Charlotte. Because, unfortunately, Steven had never been taught to respect women nor to never raise a hand at one. And, since Austin was so passionate about life, it wasn’t long before she received a sharp backhand from the man she thought had loved her. Cheyanne could still remember Austin staggering home, covered in blood, begging for death to just consume her. She had worked so hard to get Austin away from Steven. So damn hard. And, something during their last months of school had willed Austin to listen. She broke it clean and this vacation was a celebration of that.

"What if they are, though? Chey, I'm so scared. Even--even if I found a decent guy, how could I ever learn to trust again?" Austin choked on trust, and felt all her frustration and pain well up in her eyes, the tears burning the backs of her lids as she struggled to keep them in.

"It's okay, hon," Cheyanne whispered, idly twisting a lock of hair around her finger. "When the time is right, you will. And believe me, the guy you open up to will be more than decent. He'll worship the ground you walk on."

Austin choked back a giggle. "Worship, huh?" she muttered, her tears flowing freely now.
"He damn well better. If he doesn't, he'll have me to deal with," she promised.

“I still can’t believe you laid Steven flat at the hospital,” Austin snorted, reaching to hug Cheyanne tightly as she affectionately kissed the younger woman’s cheeks. Cheyanne accepted the kisses as well, reached to help dry her best friend’s face, though the tears continued to fall nonetheless.

“He deserved it,” Cheyanne answered softly.

“If only you would have had enough sense to do that with Noah.”

Cheyanne stiffened slightly at the mention of her own ex-boyfriend, but refused to startle her friend. Instead, she pulled Austin closer to rest her chin on the top of her head, closing her own eyes to prevent any tears from gathering. That piece of history would be a permanent reminder in her life, no matter what happened. “Noah is a good guy, Austi…”

"Good guy," Austin muttered, sighing wearily. "Is there such a thing?"

“Howie isn’t so bad…”

“You know his name?”

“He told me, is that so bad?”

“Chey… Your heart is pure gold. I tell you that all the time, but that comes with a price. You’re so--”

“Na´ve,” Cheyanne sighed as Austin broke their embrace, allowing her to immediately sit up. Austin offered an apologetic smile and Cheyanne nodded, mumbling something about needing some fresh air as Austin mumbled something about taking a nap. They left it at that, too, because Cheyanne had heard that lecture far too many times already. Like when she had decided to date a fraternity brother named Noah. That’s one thing that Austin would never let her live down, though, Cheyanne knew it wasn’t just Austin that would refuse to let her live down that notion. Especially as she slipped out of the tent and braced a hand against her flat stomach, holding the secret child that was already starting to bloom.
Tempting Offers by Anastacia
Chapter 5 – Tempting Offers

Groaning in his half-sleep state, Howie shuffled to the kitchenette, his hands going through the motions of bringing water to a boil for his morning tea. Sleep had eluded him the night before, and he'd finally crawled from the bed, sitting by the window to watch the approaching storm. The day, it would appear so far, matched his mood. I have no intention of letting you get your grubby paws anywhere near her. Austin's words played over and over in his mind.

Howie pressed his lips to the rim of his teacup, blowing softly on the steaming liquid as he stepped out onto the sheltered porch of the cabin. Dawn had come a couple of hours ago, though it was hardly noticeable with all the thick, black clouds hanging in the air. Claps of thunder could be heard in the distance as rain pelted down upon the forest lands. Gazing through the sheets of rain to the top of the mountains, he wondered darkly if he would be missed. The idea of standing at a cliff and just letting go appealed to him suddenly.

He was grateful for the roof over his head as he glanced toward the familiar campsite, wanting to compare himself to that of a stalker. But, he couldn't help his wiles. He was drawn to watching the campsite, much like Kevin was. Though the older man would never admit to such accusations.

So, quietly, Howie watched as Kevin proceeded to arise and follow suit. But, Howie hardly noticed Kevin when there was a shuffle in the tent. He arched his back slightly as if to raise himself into better sites, watching Cheyanne come tumbling out of the tent with a screech. She was already drenched from head to toe, her baggy flannel shirt clinging to her like a second skin as rain pelted her from every direction. She looked to be on the verge of tears as Austin came rolling out, laughing hysterically.

“It’s hysterical, Austi! Yes! Just keep laughing! Please!” Cheyanne growled with much displeasure, staring back at the collapsed tent with disbelief. Her voice was thick with hostile southern tones, dramatizing her accent considerably. She had been sleeping peacefully when a cold bath had doused her, practically scaring her out of her skin. She hated it, stomping her foot into a growing puddle, causing more muck to splash onto her body. And that seemed to do it. Her entire body grew tense with frustration as tears started to mist her eyes. The emotional state of her appearance quite uncharacteristic. “My stuff is ruined, Austi! Absolutely ruined! The hole just has to rip right over my head, doesn’t it?!”

As the girls began bickering back and forth, Austin trying to contain her laughter and Cheyanne dangerously close to tears, Howie turned to Kevin, his earlier dark thoughts now forgotten. "We should help them," he stated simply, setting his tea down on the table.

"So I can get knocked on my ass again? I don't think so," Kevin said stubbornly, taking a swig of his coffee.

"Look at them, Kev. You'd let them stand out in the pouring down rain? They could catch cold," Howie pleaded.

“Looks like the spitfire is enjoying it,” Kevin murmured, glancing toward the puddle-filled campsite that belonged to the women. The storm that had started earlier the previous evening hadn't let up for several hours. It looked like the most disastrous part of the worst third world country and the way the tent was destroyed, there was no way the women could salvage their vacation. Yet, Austin was laughing hysterically, enjoying the hard rains.

"Fine. Be a jackass, Kev. It suits you," Howie grumbled, stepping inside the cabin to retrieve his warmest jacket. Pulling it on, he scrambled down the steps, his sneakers squishing in the mud as he hurried over to offer his assistance. If nothing else, he could offer them a place to dry off and stay warm by the fire. Cheyanne looked miserable, hugging herself, her honey locks plastered to her face. She looked cold and defeated, as though life had disappointed her too much, too fast. His heart went out to her, and he had to push away the images of warming her himself from his mind. Over the sound of the rain pelting their equipment, he heard Kevin's footfalls behind him.

“Don’t say a word,” Kevin grumbled, tugging the hood further over his forehead to shield his face from the heavy rains. No matter how upset he was with Austin for ruining his phone, he wasn’t about to let the women drown within the rain. In fact, perhaps, in the most nether regions of his mind, he thanked her for terminating the connection with his witch of a wife.

"Howie," Cheyanne said in surprise, her lips quivering as he approached. She hugged herself tighter as he and his friend surveyed the ruined tent. Then Howie turned his chocolate brown gaze on her. The warmth emanating from them made her want to cry.

"Here," he said gently, already removing his jacket. Wrapping it around her shoulders, he let his hands linger in a soft caress before pulling the hood over her head. "You should get inside before you catch a cold," he murmured, his eyes burning into hers.

"But..." Cheyanne glanced wistfully at the tent.

"There's a warm fire in the cabin, and I'll fix you a hot toddy."

"And get her drunk?" Austin blurted, whirling around to glare at him.

“Austin…” Cheyanne whispered hurtfully, dropping her murky sapphire gaze to the puddle that was growing beneath her feet. The whole hearted gestures Howie was offering would usually turn her heart to mush, but Austin was making it hard for Cheyanne. In fact, what Howie did seemed to be cheapened by Austin’s sharply bladed tongue, making Cheyanne uncomfortable. She’d never go against Austin’s wishes. Not after what happened with Noah. “Our tent is ruining and it’s not going to stop raining… I can’t get sick… He’s trying to be nice…”

“Howie wouldn’t even think of doing that kind of shit anyway. Why don’t you give him a break? Or are you under the impression that all men are egotistical assholes?” Kevin defended, annoyed that he had to continue to stand in the freezing cold rain while Austin stubbornly fought their offers of hospitality.

"You're one, aren't you?" Austin said, turning her fiery gaze on him. Her wet t-shirt and jeans clung to her body, and despite the cold Kevin felt warmth in the pit of his stomach as she stared him down. He had a good mind to throw her impertinent ass into the lake, but the thought of trudging through the mud quelled that idea. Besides, she'd only climb back out, and, knowing full well her strength, would probably throw him in.

"Kevin is not an egotistical asshole," Howie said defensively, resting a hand on Cheyanne's arm. "Come on," he said softly, his eyes pleading with her.

"Okay..." her voice drifted as she fell into step next to him, the heat of his jacket sinking into her. Turning her head slightly, she inhaled the softest hint of cologne, closing her eyes for a second. "If it's alright with you, I'd rather have some hot tea," she said as they climbed the steps. Glancing over at the campsite, she inwardly cringed when she saw Austin's defiant stance.

"Sure thing, honey," Howie assured her, ushering her inside.

Kevin watched briefly as Howie helped Cheyanne, feeling pride for the younger man taking an initiative in his life. That is, until he felt a sharp push against his chest. He stumbled back a few steps to see Austin still glaring at him, obviously annoyed that he had broke their heated gazes. “Alright, Princess,” he grumbled, rolling his eyes when she scoffed at his remark, only seeming to egg him further. “Let’s get this stuff out of the rain.”

"Who put you in charge?" she asked, her hands on her hips as he moved closer. Her push had knocked his hood off, and the fact that at least his head was getting wet satisfied her somehow.

"I am not going to stand here in the rain and argue with you, okay? If you want to stand here and drown, that's your problem. Just give me some of Cheyanne's things. At least she has the common sense to accept a little hospitality," he said, trying to keep his eyes away from her chest. The heat in the pit of his stomach continued to grow.

“Well, maybe you could head down to the lake and see if the rain stirred up your phone?” Austin growled sharply, watching Kevin step into the tent to gather what he thought could be Cheyanne’s things. That stirred her up far more than him calling her Princess. Now he was invading her privacy. And she stepped forward to yank him back by the coat, actually tossing him into the puddle. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! You have no right to be in there, you fucking bastard!”

Being thrown on his ass twice within a week was not good. Being thrown on his ass by a little bitch was definitely not good. Especially into a puddle. Sitting up, he wiped the mud from his cheek with the back of his hand, his eyes narrowed, shivering when he felt the water slosh down the back of his coat. This woman... One arm snaking out, he caught the hem of her lounge pants, and before she could react he'd hauled her into his lap. "Do you like getting wet?" he snarled.

At first, Austin was shocked that she was seated in his lap. Her body too stiff to really react as she felt him through the thinness of her soaked lounge pants. He was slightly harder than she had anticipated, causing a sharp sensation of need burn through her lower half. Her lips parted slightly as her facial features contorted to a look of surprise. She immediately began to wonder what he would be like fully aroused instead of soaking wet and cold, which is what she attempted to identify as the cause of his rigidity. But, that thought waned as she immediately wondered what he would feel like inside her. But, she instantly recoiled those thoughts as a streak of lightening smacked across the sky and she attempted to pull away with a snort. “Do you like getting thrown onto your back by a woman every day?”

"What's it take to shut you up?" he asked in a low voice, holding her to him. Each wriggle and gasp from her made the dull aches in his crotch grow into a full-fledged fire, begging to consume him. Thunder shook the ground, the rain falling harder and faster as he looked into her eyes. Her hands pushed lightly at his chest in an effort to get away, and he had to bite back a moan as her legs slid around him.

“Nothing you can offer, that’s for damn sure--”

But Austin’s smart remarks got her no where when she felt Kevin’s lips push against hers. Within the damn coldness of the morning, his lips were surprisingly warm as his minty breath permeated her aroused senses. She wanted to smack a freezing hand against his cheek for being so fresh, but was surprisingly interested in what his lips had to offer. Especially as he crushed her petite body against him, hardening his kisses with a series of tender bites before allowing his tongue to dip inside her mouth. He coaxed her awareness of his body, causing her to release a soft moan of delight. A delight that she never knew existed before. But, before she could make sense of her emotional surroundings, the warmth vanished and his lips were pulled away. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing--”

“Kevin. What the Hell do you think you’re doing, Kevin,” he breathed, lowering his mouth against hers once more.

*~*~*


Howie had to say he was quite proud of the fire he was stoking, making sure it burned with a brilliant orange glow that would keep Cheyanne warm throughout the day. He hadn’t built many of the fires since they arrived in North Carolina, since Kevin was more apt at that sort of thing. But, Kevin was busy and Howie couldn’t waste precious time. The poor thing had been chilled to the bone when he first brought her in. So, he quickly ushered her into the bathroom with a fresh pair of his clothes to change into. He could only hope that she would be warm enough, though he justified that perhaps he might have to hold her within his arms to keep her that way. A fire couldn’t possibly be enough, could it?

Though, those thoughts quickly burst into tufts to dissipate through his mind when he heard a soft clearing of a feminine throat. Turning slightly, he felt his breath catch hard within the depth of his own throat. Cheyanne had been quick to clean up in the bathroom, obviously nervous about being in an unfamiliar place. She had also donned Howie’s clothing and he couldn’t have imagined a cuter sight. His bright red hooded sweatshirt was excessively baggy on her petite frame. The hem fell to the middle of her thighs and the sleeves obviously too long as she bunched them up to keep them from falling. His black sweatpants were also excessively baggy and matched with a pair of his socks that she had to roll several times to fit her. But she looked comfortable, not to mention alluring seductive in his clothing. Her damp honey locks were now curling and framing her soft face. Her nose and cheeks were bright red from the overwhelming cold stirring outside, but it warmed his heart. He tried to hide a chuckle as she attempted a shy smile.

“Thank you for… Well… Everything…” Cheyanne whispered, quite unsure of herself as the bunched sleeves of Howie’s hooded sweatshirt slumped downward and over her hands again. She blushed faintly as she held one of the cuffs to her face, gingerly rubbing away some excess water droplets.

"It's my pleasure," he assured her, pulling the blanket off the back of the couch. Stepping behind her, he placed it around her shoulders, lowering his head to breathe in the faintest scent of her shampoo. "Come on, the fire's roaring," he murmured, his hands light on her shoulders as he ushered her to the hearth. Sitting, she wrapped the blanket around her, giving him a slight smile as she pulled her knees to her chest. "I'll go and get your tea."

“Thanks…” she whispered again, listening to his light footsteps retreating into the kitchen. There was then the faint bustle of him finding the proper supplies to make the cup of tea that mixed with the melodious fall of heavy raindrops against the roof, which enhanced the pleasure of sitting by a crackling fire. Adjusting the thick blanket over her shoulders to shroud herself in comfort, she continued to focus her gaze on the fire, not wanting to let her eyes wander. She was nervous beyond all belief, because not only was Austin missing, but she was in the presence of a man who had called her ‘beautiful’ without expecting anything in return. It was hard to think of him as the shallow brute Austin described when he treated her like this. And, unable to help herself, she brought the soft sleeve to her face, inhaling the soft scent of his spicy cologne mixed with his own musky fragrance. It enchanted her.

A few moments passed, and then he returned, a steaming mug in each hand. "Honey alright?" he asked, sitting in front of her, extending a mug. She accepted it with a slight nod, cupping the mug close to her chest, its soothing warmth moving through her chilled hands. Her eyes on him, she took a tentative sip, watching as he reached into the fire with a poker. She shivered when the wind gusted about the cozy cabin, and suddenly wondered what was keeping Austin. Was she still outside bickering?

Cheyanne, like a cheerful optimistic, spun her web of thoughts away from anything that would cause Austin harm. After all, she was with Howie’s good friend. A good friend that Austin seemed intrigued by, though she said otherwise. And, Austin was known to be incorrigible when it came to arguing; long winded, passionate, and alarmingly quick witted. There was no need to worry – Her thoughts quickly jumped away from Austin when she felt Howie’s hands on her shoulders, lightly adjusting the blanket that she was keeping close to her body. She jerked slightly in surprise, immediately covering the hot mug so the liquid didn’t spill. Glancing up into Howie’s dark eyes, she blushed terribly. Her mind sputtered for words, “Sorry, I didn’t…”

"It's okay," he whispered, his hands gentle on her shoulders.
Her heart hammered in her chest at his touch; it was all she could do to keep hold of the mug as his eyes looked through to her very soul. Her mouth fell into an "o" of surprise when one hand moved up, gently brushing the curls from her face. His touch was so gentle, so caring, it made her want to cry. The last time she'd been touched... No. She pushed the thought from her mind, letting herself relax under the warm hands of the man before her. His face drew nearer, and had she realized she was the one leaning in she would have been ashamed. His hands moved to cup her face, she could feel his breath against her lips.

The door banged open suddenly, causing them to leap apart guiltily. Face flaming, Cheyanne turned to face the fire, taking a hasty sip of her tea as Austin burst inside, dripping wet and lugging a backpack. Kevin was right behind her, soaking wet, his clothes splashed with mud, setting a damp suitcase on the floor.

“What took you so long?” Howie muttered, his voice dripping with a disappointed sarcasm as Cheyanne stood. He watched her set the cup of tea on the mantle before walking over to Austin to wrap the blanket around her shoulders. For once, the loud woman was quiet, calm, subdued, simply allowing Cheyanne to clear the streaks of dirt from her face.

“Had to get all the stuff sheltered,” Kevin mumbled, completely ignorant of any disdain dripping from Howie’s voice, shell shocked at what he had done just moments before, but far more impressed that he wanted to do it again.

"Did you fall in the mud?" Cheyanne asked worriedly, having seen the streaks of mud over her friend's clothes. She saw what, strangely, looked like a handprint on her neck, and raised a brow inquisitively. "Were you two fighting?" she whispered.

"I, uh... I tripped over something and fell," Austin said softly, pulling the blanket tighter around her. Though surely she didn't need its warmth now. "Is it okay if I take a shower?" she asked Howie, not daring to glance at Kevin.

"Sure, I'll--"

"Follow me," Kevin said through gritted teeth, leading the way down the hall.
Cheyanne looked quite skeptical as she watched Kevin’s lumbering form disappearing into the hallway while Austin was hot on his heels. She couldn’t place exactly what had happened, but knew better than to just assume her friend tripped. The flushed hue on her friend’s somewhat pale face had been the first indication, not to mention her shifting coffee eyes. Naturally, Cheyanne furrowed her dark blonde brows with contemplation, biting on the corner of her bottom lip as she just continued to stare down the hallway, oblivious to Howie yet again.

“Kevin will make sure that Austin is taken care of,” Howie assured Cheyanne, attempting to bring her focus back on him. He couldn’t help but feel the overwhelming loss of the situation, knowing how close he had been to claiming her soft lips as his own. He wanted her so badly, but kept his decency composed as her gaze turned slightly. He noticed the way her dark sapphire eyes caught against the flames of the fire, licking against an untold tale of her heart that Howie would willingly listen to. He wanted to know everything about her, but resisted the urge to ask by offering her the mug of tea again.

“No thank you,” Cheyanne declined gently, the sleeves falling over her hands yet again. She felt a blush creep to her cheeks as Howie stepped forward to fix them for her, making her stand quite still. She held her breath for the longest moment, not really wanting to tempt fate again. She had been close to kissing him. So close. “…Sorry for causing all this fuss for you guys… We’ll go to town tomorrow and get another tent or something…”

"There's no need for that," he said softly, gently rolling the sleeves up. "We have more than enough room here. Couldn't you stay with us?" He was sure Kevin wouldn't like the idea, but it was done now. The offer had been given, and he held his breath as he waited for her response. "I'm sure the bed here is more comfortable than sleeping on the ground," he went on, looking into her eyes.

“The bed? Does that mean we’re all sleeping together like some gigantic slumber party?” Cheyanne mused, actually allowing some of the tension gripping her shy nature to loosen. She actually felt comfort near Howie, especially as he continued to play with the sleeves of the sweatshirt.

Grinning, Howie tugged lightly on the sleeves. "If you want to, honey," he teased, growing warm at the thought of sharing a bed with her. Her cheeks flushed delicately, her lips curving into a sweet smile. His heart skipped a beat, and he brushed his thumbs over the backs of her hands, giving her a wink.

Cheyanne actually giggled when he winked, finding him irresistible. She got a little flutter of emotion in the pit of her stomach when he called her ‘honey.’ So her giggle was sweet and high pitched, adorable to say the very least. “I doubt Austi would enjoy that… She gets kind of jealous if someone takes my attention away from her…”

"What Austi doesn't know..." Howie slid his hands over hers and felt his stomach dance when her fingers wrapped around his. "Say you'll stay, Cheyanne," he murmured, stepping closer. "I worry about you out there," he admitted.

“Howie…” Cheyanne trailed softly, feeling her sapphire eyes glistening with unshed tears. She immediately dropped her chin to stare at their intertwined hands, liking the way hers seemed to fit so perfectly into his. His words were simple, heartfelt. Words that Cheyanne had always longed to hear, but her thoughts were sidetracked when a large crash sounded from back the hallway. She jerked slightly in surprise when she heard a muffled moan mix with a whine of pleasure. And, it was all too clear as Cheyanne’s sapphire eyes widened in horror. She was speechless as she noticed Howie’s bemused grin. She had to stifle a laugh as she shook her head. “…I’ll…ask Austi if it’s okay when they’re done… Because, obviously, she’ll be too tired to say no…”
Match of Wits by Anastacia
Chapter 6 – Match of Wits

Checking the lock for the final time, Austin huffed a gentle sigh, tugging on the hem of the Kentucky sweatshirt she wore. The one Kevin had insisted she put on. Dear God, how had she let that happen? The kiss hadn't been enough, had it, she berated herself, felt her cheeks burn slightly as Cheyanne crawled into the bed, still wearing the clothes loaned to her by Howie. It was too late to worry about their own soaked clothing. They could do that in the morning. Yawning, she padded over to the bed, glancing to make sure the lock was in place. Crawling in next to Cheyanne, she pulled the covers up, shivering when she remembered what had happened earlier. Shaking her head lightly to clear Kevin from her mind, she sighed lightly. Impossible. She was wearing the man's sweatshirt--not to mention his boxers as well, how could she hope to think of anything else?

"Why did you lock the door?" Cheyanne asked sleepily.

“Because I don’t want Mr. City Boy sneaking in here tonight thinking he can take you,” Austin answered, pulling Cheyanne into her embrace without a second thought. She buried her face into Cheyanne’s light locks, inhaling the soft scent of her shampoo. It calmed her considerably and made her forget the scent of Kevin’s musky passion, which only sent a fire burning down her belly. “Just because I agreed for us to stay here doesn’t mean I give him permission to take advantage of you. I saw the way he’s been looking at you.”

“Like the way you’ve been looking at Kevin?” Cheyanne mused softly, unable to help her impish nature from flaring. In fact, it honestly had to be said before she burst. The temptation was just too great when Kevin and Austin had returned from their shower, acting as if nothing had happened. Cheyanne had played along then, but all bets were off now.

"Oh, please. That pretty boy? Give me some credit," Austin said, trying to play it off. It was useless, though. Cheyanne could always see through her.

"Come on, Austi. I saw the muddy handprint on your neck. Not to mention the smears of mud all over your clothes. And I've known you long enough to recognize that twinkle in your eyes." Giggling, Cheyanne tugged playfully on Austin's hair.

"What twinkle?"

“Usually, your eyes are really dark… Even when the light is reflecting in them, they’re dark. Because you like to pretend your so tough. But when you get in that sexual frenzy… Which I know you have… They get lighter in color as you get this smirk on your face… Like this really soft hazel… You’re just so happy, Austi…” Cheyanne explained with another sweet smile. But, when Austin snorted, Cheyanne couldn’t help herself, “Twinkle, twinkle, Baby, twinkle, twinkle!”

"Ugh, Chey! Stop, already. Nothing--"

"My ass. Don't think I missed the way his hand just happened to pat your butt, either."

"I'm surprised you saw it at all, considering you kept gazing at Howie like he was your knight in shining armor," Austin teased with a giggle.

“This isn’t about me and you already said there’s nothing that’s going to happen between me and City Boy, right?” Cheyanne immediately flushed a bright red, burying her face against Austin’s chest to conceal the fact. Though, she figured after a few moments, Austin would know anyway, because her chest would be in fire from Cheyanne’s cheeks. She had tried her hardest not to make eye contact with Howie all night, but every time she glanced up, he was watching her. But, for the first time in ages, it really didn’t make her nervous. Instead, it intrigued her. But, that only seemed to cause added turmoil in her already confused heart, knowing now was not the time and place to be considering such foolish thoughts. Hadn’t she already gotten herself into enough trouble?

"Right," Austin said, twirling a honey curl around her finger. "Men stink, remember?"

Cheyanne snorted with giggles. "Well I'm sure Kevin doesn't. You should know. Didn't you scrub his back for him?" Unable to resist teasing Austin, she sat up, saw her friend's blush. "Or were you too busy scrubbing other areas?"

Austin’s jaw dropped ajar in pure shock. “Cheyanne Grace Lorde!”

“So…” Cheyanne trailed sweetly. “That’s a yes?”

Poking her playfully, Austin yanked the covers over her head. "Good night, Chey."

Still giggling, Cheyanne lay back down, wrapping her arms around Austin. "Night, Austi," she murmured.

*~*~*


Howie yawned softly as he stood beside the stove, waiting patiently for his Spanish omelet to fry. He did his best to keep his eyes open as he listened to the sizzling of the butter and various other ingredients, wishing he had slept better the previous night. But, that was a useless wish, considering Cheyanne had been in the cabin. He had hoped that somehow, having her that close would make it easier for him, but now it only seemed harder. Austin kept a close eye on the younger woman and a closer eye on him. And, just the mere thought of Cheyanne curled in bed a few doors down the hallway was enough to tempt him. His dreams had been quite amorous. Dreams that he thought were long forgotten. Dreams that had gotten him into a bit of trouble. But, he willed himself not to get stuck in that position again, watching Kevin stagger into the kitchen like a zombie. Poking himself into the fridge for the coldness, Howie couldn’t help but comment, “You must have slept like a baby last night.”

Grunting in reply, Kevin headed straight for the coffee, not bothering to cover his yawn as he turned it on. "Couldn't sleep," he finally grumbled, peering into the pan to see what Howie was fixing. His bed had seemed colder and lonelier last night that it had in a long time, despite the fact no one had shared it with him in months. He had entertained the notion that, after what had passed between them, she might come to his room, but that had quickly been shot down when he'd passed their door, only to hear the lock click. Lying in his bed, he'd replayed what had happened in his mind, holding his pillow as he'd fallen into a fitful sleep. The guilt hadn't hit him until he'd awakened, and even now it was dull. He couldn't bring himself to feel what he had once thought he'd feel if something like that happened. Whenever his thoughts drifted towards Kristin, they immediately shifted to the petite, curvy woman down the hall.

“Well, do you think you could at least try to entertain Austin a bit more to keep her away from Cheyanne?” Howie entertained hopefully when Kevin pushed him out of the way to retrieve some milk for his brewing coffee.

“Why don’t you do your own grunt work?” Kevin replied, obviously grouchy.

"Well," Howie said with a chuckle, slipping his omelet onto a plate, "I can't very well get time alone with Cheyanne if I'm entertaining Austin, can I?"

Slamming the refrigerator shut, Kevin stepped past him to retrieve a mug. "Why the hell would I want to entertain her?"

"You didn't seem to mind entertaining her last night," Howie stated, taking his plate to the table.

“Last night was a fluke,” Kevin growled, dumping the appropriate amount of milk into his mug before slamming the jug down. He didn’t seem to care as a bit of milk sloshed onto the counter, rummaging loudly for a spoon instead. He was so furious with himself for even bending under the pressure of Austin, but she was so damn alluring. The way she had instantly given into his kiss in the rain, wrapping her legs around him for leverage. She had even gone the distance to push him back in the mud so that she could straddle his lap. But, he had quickly flipped her. Then, when he had directed her toward the shower, she insisted on yanking him in. The heated kisses had led elsewhere. Somewhere a married man, no matter how miserable, should have never went. Kevin muttered a sharp curse at his mind for trailing again, ignoring how much his warm coffee matched her eyes. “I was just trying to shut her up.”

Judging from Kevin's expression, he was in no mood for teasing. Quickly biting into his omelet, Howie kept his thoughts to himself. Trying to shut her up, huh? He hadn't been too successful, especially considering the embarrassingly loud noises coming from the bathroom the night before. Cheyanne had been amused yet slightly mortified at the same time. Cheyanne. Glancing at the clock on the wall, he wondered if she'd be making an appearance soon. He longed to see her again.

There was a soft shuffle of locks from the hallway, causing Howie to perk and Kevin to slouch in their seats at the round kitchen table. Sure enough, Austin appeared first with Cheyanne slowly following behind. The eldest made sure to keep all eye contact from Kevin, though he didn’t look as if he were searching her out either. Instead, she headed straight for her purse hanging on one of the empty chairs, rooting in the depths to pull a pack of cigarettes from it.

“Morning,” Cheyanne cooed with sweet southern charm when she realized Austin wasn’t going to say anything. She offered a small smile, keeping her hands perched on her abdomen. Howie instantly noted how adorable she looked in her fresh, pale yellow, ribbed tank top and short jean shorts with faded and torn hems. Her honey locks were twirled into two long braids, giving her an innocent appeal. Though she looked good in his clothing the previous evening, he couldn’t deny the pleasure of seeing her in something that fit. After all, since he had been unable to sleep, Howie made sure to do all of the girls’ laundry, stacking it neatly outside their door. “Oh, Howie, thanks for doing our laundry--”

“But don’t ever do it again,” Austin was quick to snap into conversation. She glared sharply at Howie when she retrieved her addiction, only able to conjure the idea of Howie hording Cheyanne’s undergarments for sniffing or some other bizarre activities. Instantly smacking the bottom, she popped one out, only to hear a sharp snort from Kevin. Finally, she glanced up. “Alright, Smokey the Bear, I’ll take it outside. Chey hates the smoke anyway.”

Cheyanne smiled slightly as her friend skipped outside, dropping the pack on the table. "Is there juice?" she asked Howie softly. When he scraped his chair back, she shook her head. "I can get it," she assured him. Pulling down a glass, she found a jug of orange juice.

"Would you like an omelet?" he asked, motioning to his plate when she turned to face the table.

Oh, God. Covering her mouth, she felt her stomach churn at the sight of the eggs mixed with cheese and peppers. Quickly setting her glass down, she raced down the hall, slamming the bathroom door shut behind her.

“Apparently she’s heard of your cooking,” Kevin mused with a wicked smile, leaning back in his chair, trying to avoid the bay windows that would lead to the site of Austin.

"Oh, bite me," Howie muttered, already going after her. Pausing outside the door, he lifted his hand to knock, but dropped it quickly when he heard the gagging sounds coming from inside. A moment later the toilet flushed, and when she stepped out, her face damp and flushed from rinsing, he eyed her worriedly. "Are you okay, honey?" he asked softly.

“F-Fine,” Cheyanne promised shakily, bracing a hand on her abdomen as if she were telling the child to calm itself. She made sure to avoid any eye contact with Howie, holding her opposite hand to her fiery cheek. Only a little bit over a month into the pregnancy and she was already becoming extremely nauseous and sensitive to noxious substances and aromas. Only usually bothered by the smell of smoke, now, pregnant, Cheyanne became violently sick over just the bit of smell from Austin’s clothing. It was a horrible experience and she could only expect it to continue for another two months, if not more. And, she couldn’t dare tell a soul about the pregnancy, so she was utterly alone.

"You sure? I know my omelets aren't for everyone, but I didn't mean to make you sick," Howie said, reaching to smooth the curls from her face.

Smiling slightly, she shook her head. "I'm fine. My stomach's just been unsettled lately. I think I'll just make some toast," she said softly, leaning against his hand, suddenly needing his strength.

"I'll get you some, honey."

Cheyanne was about to object, but Howie really didn’t give her the room to do so. Instead, he reached to pull her to his side, circling a warm arm around her waist for stability while they walked back to the kitchen. She couldn’t deny the warmth that burned at the pit of her stomach, actually making the nausea wash away, but she didn’t admit to it. Instead, she let him help her into the kitchen chair like the gentleman he was before starting some tea and toast for her. But, what Cheyanne found most interesting was Kevin intently staring at Austin smoking on the porch. Only, when he was caught he snorted sharply and stood. “She smokes like a damn chimney! It’s disgusting! How many packs of cigarettes does she go through a day?”

“I…” Cheyanne could hardly manage to finish her sentence as Kevin reached into Austin’s purse, drawing out her unopened pack of cigarettes. She immediately furrowed her brows in disbelief. “What are you doing?”

"If she doesn't have any she can't smoke them, can she?" Kevin asked, stuffing the pack into his pocket. Snatching the open pack off the table, he crumpled it in his fist before tossing it into the trash.

"Oh my," Cheyanne whispered as Howie set her tea in front of her. "He's just signed his death warrant," she murmured as Austin came back inside.

“What do you mean?” Howie questioned in confusion, watching Austin blow off the rest of her drag before flicking the butt and stepping inside. Holding her favorite lighter, she prepared to slip it back in the open pack for safe keeping, but realized it was no where to be found. She then stooped into her purse, finding no fresh pack, either. Immediately, she whirled around to point a finger at Cheyanne.

“Did you trash my cigarettes again, Chey? Because, honestly, I promised I wouldn’t smoke around you anymore and I haven’t--”

“I don’t have them,” Cheyanne instantly defended.

“Then where are they?”

“In my pocket,” Kevin announced, leaning on the counter after dumping his coffee mug into the sink. A satisfied smirk spread to his face when he watched Austin’s entire body tense with aggravation. Though he already cared deeply for this woman, he wouldn’t allow himself to face those emotions. Which meant, that he would keep her in turmoil, escalating conflicts so he wouldn’t have to stoop below her and possibly admit his feelings for her. He knew she wouldn’t have the gall to retrieve them, which meant she had to stop smoking.

"And you think that'll stop me?" she asked, rolling her eyes. Crossing her arms over her chest, she glared at him. "Give them to me."

"You have to come get them on your own," he said smugly, resting his hands on the counter and returning her glare.

Narrowing her eyes, she sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, eyeing the bulge in his pocket. If he wanted to play this game, she decided, lifting her eyes to his, she would be more than happy to play along. Stepping over in front of him, she placed her hands on his chest, felt his muscles tense under her fingers as she slid them down. Pushing the memory of his naked wet body out of her mind, she dropped her hands lower, smirking when she heard his intake of breath. Leaning against him, she slipped her hand inside his pocket, feeling around carefully. "Whoops," she said with an amused smile, "wrong pocket."

“You’re not funny,” Kevin growled, hoping to keep his voice steady, though it wavered between octaves. That seemed to fuel her search as she slipped her hand into the opposite pocket, reaching for him instead of the cigarettes. She stroked the side of him, causing him to shudder before she allowed her claws to sink into the tenderly aroused flesh. He immediately jerked, hitting his back against the handles of the drawers, causing him to wince. “What the Hell are you doing, woman?!”

Austin became defensive. “Getting my stuff that you stole!”

“Well, I’ve got shit in there that belongs to me, too!”

“Don’t worry, I’m not after that!”

“Thank God for the little things!”

“You seem to tell Him that a lot, huh?!”

“Like she wasn’t already familiar with that area anyway,” Cheyanne breathed softly, holding a hand to the side of her face to shield the amusing scene unfolding. She knew if she laughed, Austin would torture her.

Howie clapped a hand over his mouth, amused at the two idiots yelling at each other, and slightly shocked at what sweet Cheyanne had said. "Why don't we go for a walk?" he murmured through his fingers.

Nodding gratefully, Cheyanne pushed back her chair, opting to take her tea with her. Glancing at Austin, she realized she and Kevin were in a glaring match, and decided it best to just slip away.
Closer by Anastacia
Chapter 7 – Closer

“You really didn’t have to come along for the walk,” Cheyanne politely responded toward Howie after a period of silence had enveloped them. Usually, she took a walk by herself every day with a small MP3 Player tucked in her pocket. It was her time to reflect on her life or, at least, think about what she was going to do with her child. It wasn’t that she was opting for an abortion, in fact, she was far from that point. She would never kill her child willingly, never. But, adoption was an option at this point, because she knew she wouldn’t make a good mother. Not now. Not at twenty two years of age. Not ever. Just like Austin said, she was too na´ve. But, she did her best to push those thoughts aside as she walked along the sandy shoreline of the large lake, Howie lingering a bit behind her. She was childlike with her movements, practically dancing on the shore, making sure to step and balance on the large rocks that came in her path. It was an enjoyable activity, now that her stomach had settled.

Howie smiled at the sight of her looking so carefree. The gentle breeze sent her curls flying about her, and her earlier stomach trouble seemed to have cleared. Catching up to her, he caught her hand in his, feeling a surge of happiness when she flashed him a sweet smile. "How did you and Austin meet?" he asked softly.

“By the fate of God!” Cheyanne declared dramatically as Howie tugged her gently toward his body. She flushed with another sweet smile, accepting his decision at keeping them close, and squeezed his hand at clarification of that. “Okay, so, I met her at UNC Charlotte during freshman year. We were forced to be room-mates the first semester and afterwards, she just kind of adopted me like a kid sister. It was funny to see a Criminal Psychology Major taking care of a Nursing Major, that’s for sure... But I love her, a lot… I don’t know what I’d do without her…”

"Criminal Psychology?" Howie repeated, unable to picture the energetic Austin sitting behind a desk listening to a serial killer's life history.

"I know," Cheyanne said with a laugh. "She should be something flashy."

"Are you from North Carolina?" he asked, changing the subject abruptly. He did not want to spend their walk talking about Austin. He wanted to know everything about this angel at his side.

“Born and raised,” she confirmed, nodding slightly as she climbed the long flat rock that had come into her path. But, she made sure not to break her hold on Howie’s hand, using him for balancing, knowing he’d keep her safe. “My father was a Marine at Cherry Point Naval Base, so I was born there. Then, when things didn’t work out with Momma and my father, we moved to the countryside. I love it here.”

Pausing on the rock, Howie gazed out at the lake, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air. He couldn't think of anyplace he'd rather be, than there with her in that moment. When she leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her gently in front of him. Resting his chin on her head, he closed his eyes when her hands rested gently on his arms. "I love it here, too," he murmured.

“Better than where you came from?” Cheyanne questioned softly, hoping she wouldn’t be prying too much into his life. She really didn’t have the heart to ruin the moment, feeling so safe and secure wrapping within his embrace. She loved the way she seemed to fit perfectly within his embrace, how his arms naturally wrapped around her, allowing her to rest her arms against his. As if they were holding her child together, though he was oblivious to that minor detail. It didn’t matter though. He was a cloak of warmth that she didn’t want to give up.

"Florida? It's nice," he said with a noncommittal shrug. "I love it because it's home and family, but here is so different. It's never this chilly back home, even in the middle of winter. The air is fresher here, somehow, not to mention these gorgeous mountains." Unable to resist, he pressed a soft kiss against the top of her head. "And the ladies here in North Carolina are more beautiful than I could have dreamed," he murmured with a smile. "One lady in particular."

Cheyanne’s soft lips curved into a sweet smile as she stared out at the shimmering lake, Howie unable to see the firm blush resting against her cheeks. The delicate touch of his lips to the top of her head sent a small shiver of delight through her system. But, known for her playful nature, she honestly couldn’t resist the temptation to tease. Especially as she nonchalantly replied, “Austin is really pretty, huh?”

"Austin?" he repeated, turning her around so she was facing him. "Honey, she's not the lady I had in mind," he assured her, tapping her nose playfully when he saw her smile.

"The little old lady at the office, then? I know she's really sweet, Howie. I think you'd have a chance, if you brought her out here and said something adorable," Cheyanne teased.

“You’re quite amused with yourself, aren’t you?”

“I have my good days,” she confirmed with a happy nod, attempting to walk off the rock to continue her exploration. Apparently, loving the idea of flirting, but not wanting to get too close to the flames. Austin would have a fit.

Following her, he held her hand, helping her off the rock. Resuming their gentle pace along the shore, he suddenly wondered what the other guys were doing. If they even missed him. Releasing a sigh, he felt Cheyanne gently squeeze his hand, felt his spirits lift even more when he gazed at her.

"What's wrong, Howie?" she asked softly, her sapphire eyes wide with worry. "Did I say something wrong?"

“No, Honey, no,” Howie quickly assured when she stopped their walk. He smiled softly, hoping it looked secure to her. Nothing she could do would ever cause something wrong in his heart. Never. The only thing that slightly baffled him was her pulling away when he was so ready to kiss her. So ready to finally taste her. “It’s not what you said…”

“Then…” Cheyanne trailed in confusion, not understanding. “…What? Are you really sure it’s not me?”

Reaching up, he smoothed the flyaway curls framing her face. "Honey, I assure you, it's not you," he murmured, grazing her cheek with his thumb. She stepped closer to him, her hand resting lightly on his arm as she leaned against his hand. His thumb slipped lower, tracing the softness of her lips.

"Howie," she breathed, her heart skipping every other beat. "If…If you ever need someone to talk to, I'm here," she murmured.

Nodding, Howie lowered his head, feeling her soft breath against his cheek. "Cheyanne, Honey," he whispered, releasing her hand to slide his arm around her waist. "Right now I just want to kiss you. But only if you're okay with it."

“Kiss me?” she repeated faintly, biting down on her bottom lip, making sure she understood correctly. Noah had never really asked if she was alright with what he did. In fact, he took things without permission. Which was the reason for her now hidden pregnancy. But, he was the farthest thing from her mind as her brows furled softly, feeling her breath catch, making her chest rise to brush against Howie.

"Please," he whispered, looking into her eyes. She nodded slightly, moving a bit closer to him, until he felt her chest pressing against him. Tilting his head, he drew in a shaky breath and captured her lips with his gently. Feeling her hands tentatively land on his waist, he closed his eyes, losing himself in the softness of her kiss.

“Mmm,” Cheyanne actually murmured softly against his lips, loving the intoxicating aroma of his cinnamon breath, mixing with the sweet taste of him. She had dreamed about this moment, though she’d never admit to that. But everything was so real compared to a silly dream. The way he held her close, never forcing the kiss to be painfully brutal. Nor was it lustfully hungry. The kiss just seemed so right in her mind. Slow, soft, perfect. Just a mere taste of what he had to offer. Everything that she wanted from him. She had even felt the need to prolong the delight, trailing her hands from his waist, slowly upward across his broad chest, to finally link behind his neck.

Howie smiled, loving the way she moaned so softly inside his mouth as his hands framed her face, getting caught within the braids she had weaved early that morning. It had a way of repairing the broken ego which had been practically shattered from years of worthlessness. She gave him everything he thought he had lost within a single moment of sweetness. Her reactions to his kiss letting him know that he indeed was lovable. He couldn’t even begin how to explain how passionately she stirred his soul, especially when it came to words. So, slowly, he parted their mouths, opening his eyes to see hers fluttering softly beneath the long lashes. He offered another warm smile as he leaned forward, pressing the softest kiss to the center of her forehead. “Thank you.”

“You’re more than welcome,” she promised, her voice coated with the familiar husky, southern, honey accent, biting down on her bottom lip with a firm blush.

*~*~*


Lightning filled the pitch-black night sky, illuminating the bedroom, followed closely by a crash of thunder that shook the cabin. Sitting straight up in bed, Austin held her breath, her hand clutched over her chest as the rain began. Glancing over at Cheyanne, who slept peacefully despite the chaos outside. Slipping from the bed, she tiptoed from the room, knowing it would be useless to try to sleep now. The wood floor was cool beneath her feet as she stepped into the hallway, the cabin quiet as she pulled the door shut behind her. Hugging herself, she looked around, feeling lost as the storm raged. Seeing light spill from an open door, she gravitated towards it, hoping only to find someone willing to talk with her until the storm passed. Peering into the room, she bit her lip when she saw Kevin sitting up in bed, an open book lying in his lap.

Despite all the indignation she caused the man, he looked quiet placid as he engrossed himself within the hardback book. But, Austin wasn’t really concerned about what he was reading, but more so, the way his long fingers touched his tongue before stroking the pages to turn them. He then rested his opposite hand on his bare chest, lightly scratching. No matter how much she argued with him, she still enjoyed the view. He may have been older, but men truly matured gracefully with age. His dark raven locks were cropped close to his head in a sort of buzz cut, enhancing the angular lines of his handsome face. The thickness of his dark eyebrows only seemed to accent his light emerald eyes and making him more mysterious. Not to mention how his body was taunt with a muscular physique that she most admired in a male companion. She felt a fire burn toward the pit of her belly as she subconsciously licked her lips, enjoying the view. That is, until a sharp crack of thunder caused her to yelp, launching herself inside Kevin’s room. “Holy Hell!”

Jerking with surprise, Kevin looked up to see Austin racing towards the bed. The book slit to the floor with a thump as she dove under the covers, peeking up at him. "What the Hell…" he began, trailing off when she sat up, folding her hands pertly in her lap. Not that he really minded her being there. The blue camisole top accentuated her curves, and when she lifted her head to look at him he saw fear in her warm eyes. "Are you afraid of storms?" he asked softly when he saw her tremble. The fact anything scared her was a shock to him, considering her usual attitude, and he reached to cover her hands with his, felt her draw in a deep breath.

"All my life," she stated blandly, moving closer to him as lightning flashed again. "I can't stand to be alone during one. I know it sounds crazy as hell to you, but it feels like the end of the world whenever one starts."

“You were laughing hysterically when the tent ripped…” Kevin trailed softly, lifting an arm to draw across her shoulders. He felt her slump forward with relief, curling against his side. It seemed so perfectly the way she rested head against the side of his chest, placing one hand against his chest for stability. Kristin had never done that, not even during their honeymoon. She liked her space in bed, which probably explained why they even had separate bedrooms.

"That was different," she murmured, her fingers smoothing over the warm skin beneath them. "It wasn't night, and I wasn't in a strange bed, and there wasn't any--" she cut off, wincing when thunder boomed in the distance. "There wasn't any of that," she whispered. The safety of his embrace made her move closer, her head resting on his shoulder as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Closing her eyes, she released a gentle sigh when his hand lightly rubbed her arm, sending tingles of excitement down her spine. Rain pelted the window, and when lightning flashed again she turned towards him, lifting her head. Unable to quell the storm raging within her, she leaned up, her hand sliding to his neck as her lips met his. "Think you can handle me again, Pretty Boy?" she whispered.

Like when she first arrived, Kevin was surprised at the warmth of her lips against his, more so the way she baited him into the stance. In fact, he was overwhelmingly caught when she slid onto lap, deepening her half of the kiss, biting down hard on his bottom lip. The warmth that started in the pit of his stomach quickly surfaced in his manhood, arousing a life in him that he had sworn to forget about after their shower together. But, there she was, freely offering herself as the lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the sweetness of her body. But, groaning, he grasped her shoulders to pull her back. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

"I'm trying to get a repeat?" Austin quirked and eyebrow at him, her nails raking down his chest.

Despite his earlier promise to himself, he slid his hands down her back, his fingers teasing the bare skin above the panties she wore. Her smooth tan legs pressed next to his thighs, and he could feel her heat against him as he yanked her forward, his lips crashing with hers as thunder rumbled outside. Her soft moan encouraged him as she wriggled her body against his, making him harder with each stroke of her fingers on his skin.

“You’re a damn minx,” Kevin growled sharply against her mouth, immediately tossing her on the bed to stop her insufferable wiggling. He then rolled to pin her petite body underneath his, reaching to nibble roughly on her neck. If she wasn’t careful, he was bound to explode without any chance for her to explore his strength and vitality. Much less scream his name.

"And you're a fucking tease," she hissed, sliding her legs around his waist, drawing him even closer to her. "'Come get them on your own.’ Like that wasn't an invitation." Moaning, she squirmed beneath him, licking her lips in anticipation when she felt his hard length against her.

“And your nails in my d--” Kevin gasped sharply when he heard a ripping sound and a cool breeze against his backside. Glancing down slightly, he realized that she had actually torn his boxer-briefs completely away from his body. And, it thrilled him as nature took its course, his hard member rising to the warmth of her belly, causing her to giggle mischievously. He could only harden his glare as he grasped her arms, pinning them above her head. “You’re paying for those.”

"Uh huh. Whatever you say." Austin stuck her tongue out, tracing his lips lightly.
"Would you rather I just leave?" she murmured against his lips before trailing her mouth to his neck, sucking hard as she breathed in his scent. "If I'm too much for you to handle, I can go," she purred, her teeth scraping his skin.

“Hey,” he hissed, holding both her small wrists in one hand as he allowed his other hand to slide down the length of her body. Over one peaked breast, down the valley between, over her warm abdomen, into her delicate panties, toward the inner thigh… Then he yanked the material away from her bottom half, tossing it carelessly to the side before reaching to rip away her silky camisole. Once she was as naked as he, he bowed his head to the valley between her breasts, flicking his tongue wildly against the sweet flesh. “Don’t run your mouth if you don’t plan on using it right.”

"You're paying for those," she growled, easily flipping him to his back. Releasing her wrists, he dropped his hands to her thighs, smirking when she dragged her hands down his sides, scooting back so she could grasp him. Holding him tightly, she lowered her mouth to his chest, nibbling and sucking his sensitive skin, the tangy sweetness of him making her moan softly. "What do you want me to do with my mouth?" she whispered, her hot breath rushing over him.

“I don’t think your cute little mouth could hold that, Princess,” Kevin promised, holding a breath as he grasped her face, pulling her down for a sweltering kiss. He felt her hold tighten against his erection, causing him to smile as he dipped his tongue deep into her mouth. She rocked her hips against him in anticipation and Kevin knew he was winning.

"Just give it to me, Pretty Boy" Austin whimpered, growing tired of the wordplay. She hadn't come for sex, but now she'd be damned if she'd leave without it. Releasing him, she braced her hands on his chest, sucking his tongue deeper into her mouth.
Kevin’s body tensed for a moment when he felt her lower herself onto the span of his erection. He blew out a tight breath as she grew accustomed to his length and size, her moist insides forming to fit his needs like a favorite glove. But, his sensible side panicked. “Wait, I don’t have a--”

"It's okay," she whispered, setting a gentle rhythm, her nails digging into his skin. "Mmm," she moaned softly, leaning over his body for a kiss. Closing her eyes, she bit down on his bottom lip, wanting to prolong the sweet torture as long as possible.
For Him by Anastacia
Chapter 8 – For Him

Pulling his cap low over his eyes, Kevin set his rod down, reaching into the cooler behind him for a cold beer. "Howie?" he asked, offering one. His good friend accepted, popping the top and taking a hearty gulp as the water splashed against the sides of the small boat. "Easy, man," Kevin said with a chuckle. "It's not even noon yet." Propping one foot on the side, he let his thoughts drift as the boat did, gripping the can in his hand as his thoughts turned to the woman who'd stayed in his bed for too short a time the night before. Her memory lingered, as had her fragrance on his pillow. His back still smarted from the nail marks she'd left, and so far Howie hadn't mentioned the marks left on his neck. Never again, though. He swore to himself that he wouldn't let it happen again.

“I know,” Howie choked slightly, the can already almost empty from the initial rush. The cold liquid burned against his throat as he turned on rubbing a hand over his tired face, somewhat unsettled about being in the middle of the deep lake with a small oar boat. Surprisingly, he was much more comfortable on the ocean in one of Nick’s expensive ‘sweethearts.’

“What’s wrong?” Kevin questioned, running a hand against the side of his neck were the broken capillaries resided from Austin’s powerful mouth. He attempted to focus on Howie, realizing the vacation had been about him in the first place. About helping Howie find his way back from his dark demons.

"Cheyanne asked what business we're in. And I couldn't just tell her the truth, could I?"

"Oh, Lord. What kooky career did you dream up?" Kevin asked, taking a sip of his beer. Setting his foot down, he propped his elbows on his knees, his eyes on Howie.

"Kooky? I'm almost offended," Howie chuckled, shaking his head. "Real estate."

"So I go from being a world-famous pop star to a dowdy real estate agent overnight?" Kevin couldn't keep the smirk off his face.

“We are anything but world-famous,” Howie replied, somewhat taut as he dropped his gaze to the now empty beer can. In an instant, the chuckle and smile faded at the mere remembrance of his career. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his career, because music was an essential part of his core. But, how could he possibly get a beautiful girl like Cheyanne to fall for him if he was nothing but a back-up singer to three handsomely distinguished men. The same men he had considered his best friends for the longest time. No, he wasn’t ashamed of his career, but more so his lack of being able to stand apart from the crowd. “Remember? We’re not Nick Carter, AJ McLean, or Brian Littrell. We’re the faceless nobodies at the back of the stage, practically nonexistent.”

Tapping his can lightly, Kevin nodded. "I know," he murmured, glancing down at the small pool of water in the bottom of the boat. Was it getting bigger, or…No, he was imagining things. "Maybe we should just strike it out on our own," he suggested with a rueful sigh, knowing it was a stupid idea. If nobody noticed them now, who the hell would care if they did something on their own? The world only saw them as 'those other two', the ones standing on the sidelines.

“I really don’t even want to go back,” Howie lamented, confessing his darkest thoughts. He continued to stare down at the crystal waters, exhaling a painful breath. “If Cheyanne asked me to stay--”

“Cheyanne?” Kevin caught in surprise, arching his thick brows to convey the same facial expressions. “If Cheyanne asked you to stay? I… Wow… D, I didn’t realize you were that… You really like her?”

"A lot," Howie admitted, meeting Kevin's eyes. "I know, it sounds crazy, it does to me, too. I know I just met her, but when I'm with her…" He let his voice fade, crinkling the can in his fist as he remembered her sweet smile, the way she'd so lovingly responded to his kiss. No kiss had ever affected him so.

“Makes you feel like you actually belong somewhere?” Kevin guessed, knowing on the deepest level that’s what he felt with Austin. That she was actually his equal. His match in life. Though she drove him utterly insane.

"Exactly," Howie murmured. "So… Go along with what I told her, please? I want her to think I'm a normal guy."

Kevin nodded, taking a sip of his beer, relaxing a bit with each passing second. "You? Normal? Howie, I hate to tell you this, but--- Holy shit!" he exclaimed, jerking his now soaking wet feet up. Looking down, he saw the small pool of water had steadily grown, and, from the looks of it, would continue to do so.

“Kev…” Howie trailed in bewilderment, shifting uncomfortably at the wetness accumulating beneath his seat. He couldn’t help but glance down at the few inches of water in the bottom of the boat, then toward the lake. He tried to remember if North Carolina was home to alligators or crocodiles. “What did you do to the boat?”

"Nothing," Kevin said, scrambling around to find the source of the leak. There, just below his seat, was a jagged hole that surely hadn't been there the day before when he'd looked at it. As the water level grew, he racked his brain, trying to think who would do such a thing. His mind could think of only one person. "That little bi--"

"Kev…are we going to have to swim ashore?" Howie asked nervously.

“Unless you plan on going down with the ship, Captain?” Kevin snorted, any sweet emotion he could have possibly felt for Austin now buried underneath a layer of annoyance and sheer disgust.

"But…" Howie hesitated as Kevin stood, removing his cap to tuck it in his waistband. "I…oh, alright," he relented, standing shakily, peering into the water as the boat swayed.

“It’s just water,” Kevin scolded, easing himself into the chilly water. He instantly shuddered with disbelief, vowing Austin a slow and painful death.

*~*~*


Austin heard heavy footfalls on the porch, and dove to the couch, picking up the nearest book and flipping it open. Taking a deep breath, she gave off the impression of having spent the entire morning in that spot, though she had been in and out of the cabin, nervously taking hits off the cigarettes she'd wrangled from Kevin's pocket the day before. He couldn't possibly know it was her, she decided as the door to the cabin flung open. Glancing up, she bit back a smile as Kevin stepped inside. "Oh, did you fall in the lake?" she asked innocently, snorting with laughter when she saw his wet clothes. Howie stepped in behind him, bewildered and just as soggy.

You--” Kevin was at a loss for words as he pointed an accusatory finger at Austin. He wanted to reach out and backhand her sharply for being so vicious, but he couldn’t will himself. Instead, he seethed as he pulled a long weed of grass from his hair, slamming it to the already sopping wet floor. “If I wasn’t such a southern gentleman and slightly afraid of my mother’s wrath if I hit a woman, I would take you out and drown you in the bottom of that lake with my phone!”

“Austi!” Cheyanne suddenly called out of no where, hurrying toward the living room with an adorable smile. Only, the smile quickly faded when she looked at the horror in front of her, hurriedly reverting her steps back toward the hallway. “Oh, Holy Hell!”

"Me? What did I do?" Austin asked innocently, setting the book aside as Kevin took a menacing step forward. The anger on his face made her slide to the other side of the couch, the memory of Steven's same expression still fresh in her mind. Cheyanne rushed from the room, muttering something about towels, but Austin was unable to pull her eyes from Kevin.

"You know damn--you know what you did," Kevin said, his eyes narrowing. "What kind of childish trick was that to play? Do you--"

"Kev, calm down," Howie said softly as Cheyanne breezed back in, carrying an armload of towels.

“If I had any mind I’d…” Kevin growled sharply until Howie reached to grasp his upper arm. That seemed to catch Kevin’s temper and he finally noticed the glimmer of fear cascading from Austin’s dark coffee eyes. Scoffing sharply, he snatched a towel from Cheyanne’s awaiting arms. “Don’t say a damn word.”

“I’m sorry, Howie,” Cheyanne whispered, somewhat clutching the towels against her chest from Kevin’s crankiness.

"It's not your fault, Honey," he whispered in reply, giving her a gentle smile as Kevin stomped towards the bedroom. Cheyanne relaxed a bit at his words, handing him a soft towel.

"If you had any mind, you would have checked the boat before taking it out on the lake," Austin snapped, unable to keep her mouth shut.

“Why even do it, Austin?” Howie questioned openly, dabbing his face with the soft, terry towel Cheyanne had retrieved for him. “I mean, fine, you and Kevin butt heads like crazy… But I was on the boat, too.”

"I'll go get you more towels," Cheyanne offered, already moving down the hall. Brushing past Kevin, who lingered, seething, she whispered an apology.

"Can't you take a hint, Howie?" Austin asked, folding her arms over her chest. "I don't want you anywhere near Chey. Period."

Howie recoiled as if he had been physically slapped by the petite woman’s powerful hand, but he really didn’t have a chance to respond. In fact, Kevin decided to answer for Howie as he barreled forward and hoisted Austin over his shoulder by the waist. The little joke may have been one thing, but attacking Howie so viciously was out of boundaries. Kevin had no desire to hear her mouth run against the poor man, deciding to teach her a grand lesson. She instantly screeched with disgust and began to fight against Kevin’s hold, but he was too strong, running down the porch and toward the dock. And, with great ease, tossed her hard into the water.

“What happened?” Cheyanne breathed at Austin’s scream, rushing toward the porch to see Austin sputtering heavily from the depths of the water, Kevin simply walking back toward the house to shower. “Oh my Lord… He just signed his death warrant…”

"What do you mean?" Howie asked softly, but she was already rushing down to the dock, clutching the towels to her chest.

"Austi!" Cheyanne cried, skidding to a stop. "Are you okay?" she asked worriedly as her friend pulled herself out of the water. Expecting her to be livid, she held out a towel. Austin's expression was blank, though, and she wordlessly took the towel, holding it to her face. "Austi…"

"I'm okay," Austin said softly, turning to look out at the lake. "Just…go tell Howie I'm sorry, okay? I'll be in soon."

“Austin…” Cheyanne trailed with obvious bewilderment. “But…”

"Please, Chey?" Austin whispered, sitting on the edge of the dock. She heard Cheyanne's sigh, followed by her slow footsteps as she headed back to the cabin. Plucking at the towel in her lap, she continued to stare out at the lake. "I'm so fucking stupid," she muttered, closing her eyes. She had realized it had been a huge mistake the moment Kevin had stormed into the cabin. It had seemed like good payback for the cigarette scenario the day before. But saying those things to Howie… He was, despite all her hatred towards men and general distrust of him, a decent guy. He surely hadn't deserved taking an unexpected swim in the lake. Cheyanne seemed to like him, for whatever reason. Sighing, she pulled her knees to her chest, resting her forehead on them as she fought back tears. "Steven was right," she whispered morbidly, clutching the towel, "I am a fuck up."

*~*~*


Kevin glanced up in confusion when he heard the soft tapping sound on his door. Glancing up briefly from the novel he had been ignoring for the past several hours, he was surprised to see Austin standing in the threshold of his bedroom. She actually looked quite somber and complicit, her dark brown, layered locks lying perfectly against her creamy shoulders as her bottom lip puckered into a soft pout. She looked quite inviting in her light pink panties and matching silk camisole, causing warmth to start to burn in Kevin’s nether regions. He willed that thought away though, still furious at what she had said to Howie earlier. But, when her light coffee eyes begged for a chance, Kevin complied with the shut his novel. “What do you want now, Austin?”

"I…" Austin trailed, hesitating still. "I wanted to say…"

"Say it then," he said wearily, setting his book aside. Yanking the covers up to his waist so she wouldn't see what she was doing to him, he drew in a breath and looked at her intently. Forgetting his earlier promise to himself, he tapped the mattress beside him invitingly, felt the heat increasing when she finally stepped into the room, pushing the door shut behind her. She stood there for a long moment, gazing at him warily. "Austin," he drawled, throwing the covers back, crossing the room to meet her, knowing that he'd never be able to resist her, despite the Hell she put him through. Leaning her back against the door, he caught her neck in his hand, lifting her head to look at him. "Do you have any idea what you do to me?" he murmured against her cheek, his fingers tangling in her soft locks.

“Probably exactly what you do to me,” Austin breathed softly, wrapping her arms around his neck. She could smell the mint lingering against the hot breath blowing softly to warm her cheek. She could feel the growth in his boxer briefs growing harder at each moment, which caused the moistness to grow in the pit of her soft womanhood. “But I’m sorry… Just don’t yell at me like that again… You scared me…”

"I'm sorry too," he breathed, sliding one hand over her body as he moved closer, his lips caressing hers. Her turgid nipples rubbed his chest through the flimsy silk, sending shockwaves of desire coursing through him. "I won't yell again…"
"Some yelling is okay," she murmured with a smirk, gasping when he lifted her legs around his waist, his mouth and teeth assaulting her neck. "If I remember correctly, you did quite a bit of yelling last night…"

“Then I think tonight is your turn,” Kevin chuckled wickedly, tossing her onto the bed before launching himself on top of her in attempts to muffle her squeals.

But, her squeals naturally turned into moans of delight while he grunted and groaned, throwing all of his passion into her body and throwing the bed into the wall. The same wall that connected his room to the girls’ room where Cheyanne had been attempting to sleep. But all hope was lost when Kevin and Austin became lost in their throes of passion, causing the bed to slam repeatedly into the wall, yanking the peaceful shroud of sleep that had been draped over Cheyanne. She yelped in shock at the first assault, rolling slightly only to fall off the bed. Her behind instantly smarted against the wood floors while she cringed at the muffled screams projecting from the room next door. Usually, Cheyanne attempted to ignore the noise, but she couldn’t anymore. The child growing inside her had been getting her far more sick than usual, masking a mild flu-like quality, though it begged for sleep. She had tried to nap frequently during the day, but this wasn’t helping. She felt her heart break as tears threatened to fall while she scrambled off the cold floor, fully prepared just to sleep on the couch.

The hallway was dark, but for the crack of light shining under the door opposite. Was Howie awake? Cheyanne wondered, tiptoeing across. A loud slam sounded from Kevin's room, and before she lost her nerve she flung the door open, startled to see Howie standing just on the other side of the door. "Howie," she breathed with relief, needing his kind words and comforting smiles more than anything.

“Chey…” Howie whispered with surprise, never expecting Cheyanne to be within the threshold of his bedroom. In fact, when he heard the first fall of footsteps in the hall, followed by the series of loud sexual noises, Howie had just figured he’d go sleep on the couch. He had hoped putting distance between himself and the noisy bedroom would give him a better sense to sleep. Or perhaps being further from the bedroom Cheyanne was occupying. He wasn’t sure what he had been thinking at first, because all those thoughts were lost when he gazed at his infatuation. She looked so adorable within the soft glow of his bedroom, dressed in a simple light green cami with the words Sweet Love scrawled across her bosom, matching a pair of short hot pants with a decal of Disney’s Tinkerbell on the bottom right side. Her long, loose curls were tossed back into a low ponytail, a few curls already falling out to frame her face.

“Howie… Hey…” Cheyanne trailed softly, blushing softly with embarrassment that she had been caught. Tucking the pillow underneath one of her arms, she reached with her hand in attempts to brush away any frustrated tears that might have fallen. “I… They’re banging on my wall again and if they’re not careful, they’re going to be joining me in bed.”

"We can't have that," he said with a smile. "I…the noise isn't so loud in here…you're welcome to stay," he murmured.

Cheyanne stepped toward the side as Howie moved to shut his door, demonstrating how the noise was practically muffled from within. Though, he really didn’t need to show her, because she instantly wanted to accept his invitation. She hated sleeping by herself, especially when Austin drifted in and out of their bedroom during the nights. It was unsettling. For once, she just wanted to be held. Someone to tell her everything was going to be okay. That she was going to be okay. But, unfortunately, her shyness exceeded her desire to instantly agree, causing her to blush furiously and shift uncomfortably. “In here? With you? All night?”

"It's a big bed," he assured her, gazing at her in the soft light. Admiring the delicate pink hue of her cheeks as she hugged the pillow to her body. "You'll be safe," he murmured. "I don't bite…"
Smiling, she blushed even more, her heart tripping over his words. Safe. That was what she needed above all else. Burying her face against the pillow, she let out a tiny squeak of excitement at being able to share this wonderful man's bed. Covering it up with a loud clearing of her throat, she lifted her head, smiling shyly. "Alright…"

Howie chuckled softly at the enthusiasm dancing in her sapphire eyes, causing a mixture of blue sparks to emulate across her irises. She may have hid the squeak, but he could recognize her emotions in her beautiful gem-like eyes. It gave him a sense of purpose, knowing how to fulfill her needs just with simple looks and touches. Like now, when he guided her toward his large bed. Taking her pillow, he settled it against the other on the right side, moving across to the opposite side to turn down the bed. He had to smile again when she worked with him to turn down the covers, like they were a perfect unit. He stood admiring her for a moment as she slid easily between the sheets, meeting his dark gaze with confusion. He jerked slightly with a bashful smile, motioning to his wardrobe consisting only of blue, pinstriped boxers. “Is this alright?”

“As long as you’re warm?” she returned with a soft smile, making sure to stay perfectly perched on her side of his bed. She clasped her hands delicately in her lap, trying to avert her attention away from his body. She knew that he exercised regularly, demonstrated by his amazing muscular physique. He was toned and perfected, causing her heart to accelerate just a touch as she thought of running her fingertips over each chiseled muscle.

Climbing into the bed, Howie pulled the covers to his waist, keeping a safe distance between himself and the angel next to him. "Do you want the light on, or…"

"You can turn it off," she murmured, pleating the blanket between her fingers nervously. "If you want to, that is."

“I think you might be able to sleep better if I turn the lights out,” Howie suggested logically, leaning toward the lamp to kill the lighting. Darkness comfortably consumed them as the full moon outside filtered in a soft silvery glow. Shifting, he made himself comfortable on his side of the bed, curling an arm underneath his pillows as he faced Cheyanne. He longed to reach out and draw her close to him, but she kept her distance, practically on the edge of the bed. He exhaled a soft breath. “Cheyanne, Honey, are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Cheyanne quickly answered, though it was too fast. She mustered a bashful smile as she dropped her gaze down to the warm blankets. Even though they had shared a kiss, she was still skittish, because her emotions were tying her into knots. Austin pressed for Cheyanne not to continue any type of relationship with Howie, but she wanted him so badly. She loved him. “I just don’t want to disturb you… I mean, this is your bed and you’re offering it to me. I want you to be comfortable…”

"I want you to be comfortable, too, Honey," he murmured, reaching over to cover her hands with his. "Everything's going to be okay," he whispered, something in his heart telling him she needed to hear those words. She was so gentle, so shy… Howie knew there had to be something troubling her. He only hoped that, whatever it was, she would feel comfortable enough to confide in him one day. He couldn't bear the thought of her being in any kind of pain, emotional or physical. Without realizing it, he edged closer, heard her soft sigh as her hand turned to grasp his gently.

Cheyanne blinked back a rapid set of tears flooding against her eyes with Howie’s sweetly tender words, her emotions like changing tides of the ocean in her hormonal state. It scared her, the way he seemed to be able to reach directly into her soul, finding the source of her heartache. The way he could make it all disappear with a few words. But, as much as it scared her, she also wanted to welcome it, hoping he could help her. Just the way his hand had reached for her in the dark, intertwining their fingers into a blend of perfection. He was offering himself to her. “I just want to feel safe…” she finally confessed in the soft moonlight.

"Cheyanne…Honey," he murmured, sitting up to look into her eyes. "Sweetheart, I want you to know that you're always safe with me, okay? I'd never let anything hurt you. Or anyone." Lifting his hand to her cheek, he smoothed her soft curls back, letting his thumb graze her lips lightly before resting his forehead against hers. "I know I'm going to sound completely corny, but… Is it okay if I hold you? Just until we fall asleep?" he breathed, wondering if he'd be able to sleep with her body so close to his.

“I like it when you’re corny,” Cheyanne giggled softly, tempting fate as she delicately brushed her fingertips against the side of his face. She suddenly wondered why God would have let Howie come into her life at this point instead of a month earlier. It didn’t seem fair, though, she did thank Him for this moment. To know someone could care for her without pressuring her beyond her boundaries. “And, I’d really like you to hold me all night. Not just till we fall asleep.”

The thought of waking up with her in his arms made his heart skip a beat, and the feel of her fingers on his skin made him long for more of her soft touches. He wondered if God knew He had such a sweet angel missing. "I'd hold you forever," he whispered, brushing her lips with his. "If you'd let me."

“You don’t even have to ask,” she promised with a sweet smile, leaning in to kiss him once more, framing his handsome face within her hands. The taste of him and the feeling of his soft lips against hers were addictive. Enticed by his seduction, she even allowed her tongue to slowly trace his bottom lip before kissing him again. Her entire soul warmed with the soft tones of his voice, promising her the world. Not that it mattered. She would have just rather had him anyway.

Reluctantly dragging himself from her tempting kisses, Howie lay back down, gently pulling her into his arms. She flashed him a beatific smile, her body curling against his perfectly. Breathing in her heavenly scent, he sighed softly when her hands rested on his chest, her head lying against his shoulder. Pressing a soft kiss to her forehead, he whispered her name. "Good night, Honey," he breathed.

“Night,” she lulled quietly, feeling him shift slightly to accommodate her before settling. Closing her eyes, she snuggled deeper into his embrace, tracing her small fingers delicately against his bare chest. She loved the warmth his bare skin provided her, the silkiness beneath her fingertips. And, soon, she slipped into the darkness, reaching to rest one of her legs over his for comfort. The slow beat of his heart providing a rhythm of perfection, finally allowing her to drink in the sleep her body so desperately craved.
He Needs Her by Anastacia
Chapter 9 – He Needs Her

Howie was amazed to find Cheyanne still resting peacefully against him when dawn broke against the windows of his cozy bedroom. In fact, so amazed, that he forced himself to muffle a loud yawn so that she wouldn’t stir just yet. At first he thought it had all been a simple dream, her sneaking to his bedroom in order to get away from the harsh realities of life. He had been her private oasis as she allowed him to curl his arms around her for safety, lulling her peacefully into a sleep she so richly deserved. Besides, he was so comfortable with her against him, lightly tracing his hand up the sleek curvature of her spine. She had shifted very little during the night, and, if she had moved any, it was only to get closer to his warm body. Her arms were still wrapped around him, as if she were hugging her favorite teddy bear in order to make the bad dreams disappear from existence. In fact, her head rested comfortably against his chest, her long honey curls draping a curtain of warmth over his bare skin as her warm breath offered a soft tickling sensation.

As he gazed down at the angelic expression on her face, she stirred, her lashes fluttering as she snuggled closer to him, sending a shiver down his spine. Her lips brushed his skin, causing him to bite back a moan. A groan escaped her, and she wrinkled her nose, pulling the covers up over her head. "I don't want to get up," she whined, burying her face against him.

“No one said you had to get up,” Howie chuckled, releasing a slow, noiseless breath to control any physical reactions to Cheyanne’s lips against his bare chest. He didn’t want to startle the younger woman, remembering how much Austin had emphasized her virginity. Though, he feared, if she kept sleeping with him during the lonely nights, he wouldn’t be able to hide his emotions much longer. But, he willed those thoughts away, not wanting her to leave his bed in the slightest.

“Good,” she chirped from underneath the covers, still curled close to him, resting against his stomach, her leg perched over his again. She poked him gently to emphasize her point, obviously not a morning person despite being a country-raised woman. “ ‘Cause I’m staying right here.”

Chuckling, he pulled the covers over his head so he could see her. Shifting slightly so she couldn't see his arousal. "Did you sleep well?" he asked, reaching to brush the hair from her face.

"Mm-hmm. Like a baby," Cheyanne murmured, trailing her finger over his bare abdomen. She felt his lean muscles tense slightly, and lowered her head, grateful he couldn't see her flushed cheeks as she brushed a kiss over his warm skin.

“Cheyanne,” Howie actually gasped, sucking in a hard breath to keep his emotions from exploding. His entire body was tense at the delight that rushed down his spine, centering a strong pull of burning desire in the very pit of his stomach. His hand tightened slightly against his hold on her curls as he willed himself to think of other thoughts. It had been so long since he felt the touch of a woman. A good woman for that matter. And, Cheyanne had such a powerful effect on him already that the other handful of women seemed pitiful compared to her.

“You taste sweet,” she coyly announced, continuing to trace her fingers lightly against his abdomen in the shape of hearts, unable to resist offering another kiss to his sweet flesh.

Oh, dear Lord… "Cheyanne," Howie whispered, his fingers tangling gently in her soft hair as her lips trailed up his chest. "Do you…"

"Hmm?" she asked innocently, resting her chin on his chest and gazing up at him. She couldn't believe she was doing this, but he was so sweet to her, so unbelievably kind and generous. Not to mention devastatingly handsome. Pushing the covers back over her head, she smiled impishly. "I suppose I should kiss you good morning, shouldn't I?"

“You…” Howie’s mouth was terribly dry as he stared down into the sapphire orbs that enchanted his dreams and bewitched his mind. She was filled with such youthful beauty that it was hard to even comprehend why she was treating him so magnificently. He could only imagine what kind of attention she had stirred in her University. The fraternities must have had been in a terrible panic to collect her digits. Yet, there she lay in her undergarments, fully open to his desires. Though, he couldn’t will himself to ask for such pleasure, not wanting to taint such a stunningly beautiful rose. He’d have to go to into private to relieve the tension unfortunately. “Chey… I… If you…”

“I want to,” she promised with a soft giggle, finally sitting up on the bed. Tucking the loose strands of honey behind her ears, she bent downward to meet Howie’s lips. She hesitated at first, but found herself yearning greatly for his taste and gradually continued. Tempting her emotions, she softly kissed his upper lip and then his bottom lip, nibbling with a quiet affection before drawing both lips together for a lovely morning kiss.

Just as Howie relaxed beneath her, his hands moving to cup her face, he instead jerked wildly as the door flew open with such force it banged against the wall. Cheyanne squeaked, scrambling to sit up as Kevin staggered into the room, scratching his bare chest absently. Normally, Howie would have been slightly pleased to see his friend, but this morning, however, he wished him to the Devil himself, reaching to pull the covers protectively over Cheyanne.

“D, I thought you’d be out cooking…” Kevin’s voice trailed in a peculiar surprise as his tired emerald eyes focused on the guilty party settled in the middle of the bed. Cheyanne looked as if she had been spooked by the boogie man; her face ashen white as Howie attempted to conceal her from Kevin’s critical glance. But, that was a useless aspect of the situation when Kevin noticed the flimsy straps of the camisole pushed away from her rounded shoulders and her curls mussed with what he would love to term as Howie’s ‘Latin passion.’ While his thick, wild brows furled, his lips curved into quite a pleased smile. “You are so dead, Howie…”

"Kev…" Howie trailed, glaring at him.

"It's not what you think," Cheyanne said feebly, pulling the blanket around her as she inched closer to Howie.

Smiling still, Kevin backed from the room, reaching to rub the recent marks of passion on the back of his neck. "I don't think I want to know," he drawled.

“Don’t even think about it!” Howie quickly warned, drawing Cheyanne into his embrace, fixing it to conceal her further, though he wished now she had come into the room in something other than her underwear. He unfortunately had that glimmer in his friend’s light emerald eyes. He had seen it a few times before, on rare occasions when Kevin considered himself to be in a playful mood. But, this attitude would only get Howie crucified and Cheyanne thrown into a metal chastity belt.

“Austin is sick with worry… She’s been looking for Cheyanne all morning…” Kevin trailed with a feeble shrug of his shoulders. Leaning on the frame of the door, he eagerly called to Austin, declaring he had finally located Cheyanne. If anything, she would attack Howie and Kevin could reap the benefits of her passion.

“You’re an asshole!” Howie seethed.

"Howie," Cheyanne said softly, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth. "Just let me up..."

Kevin turned in the doorway, blocking Austin's view of the bedroom as she barreled towards him. "Easy, Princess," he said with a smirk. Eyes the color of coffee warned him as she flashed him a glare, impatient hands pushing at him, the same hands that had grasped and clawed him with an insatiable hunger only hours before. "Don't I get a good morning kiss?" he drawled.

“The Hell you do,” Austin returned sharply, ducking underneath his cumbersome form to step inside Howie’s room. Only, when she straightened her petite height, she could hardly find the words to express the astonishment and sheer dismay she held for the situation. Howie still attempting to hold Cheyanne in bed as she furiously worked to unwrap his hands from her waist. When she seemed to get herself free, she stumbled off the bed to meet Austin’s height, immediately biting down hard on her bottom lip. She flushed with a terrible embarrassment as Austin eyed her lack of clothing, Kevin ducking out slightly to muffle his amused laughter. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing, Cheyanne Grace?”

“Waking up from a refreshing sleep?” Cheyanne tried, attempting to be quite sweet and endearing in hopes to ward off Austin’s toxic verbatim.

Austin's gaze flickered to Howie, taking in his lack of clothing as well. "What the fuck… Did you sleep here all night?" she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she turned her anger towards Howie. "How dare you? Who the fuck do you think you are, dragging--"

"Damnit, Austi! He didn't drag me in here!" Cheyanne erupted, unable to bear Howie taking the blame. Folding her arms over her chest, she stepped in front of Austin, shielding Howie behind her small frame. "For your information, I came in here to get away from the loud slamming of Kevin's headboard against my bedroom wall!"
The cabin grew deathly silent as Kevin poked his head in from the hallway; to assure himself that Cheyanne had indeed cursed at Austin. And, sure enough, Cheyanne stood quite defiantly in front of a shell-shocked Austin, hiding the slightly pale Howie. It looked as if Cheyanne had physically slapped Austin, her face contorted into a look of utter surprise. “Excuse me?”

“I hate sleeping alone and I figured I might as well try what you’ve been doing for the past how many days? Only, Howie was a complete gentleman unlike that caveman hiding in the hallway. He even asked to hold me, Austi. Asked to hold me. I’m the one that started kissing him. He didn’t provoke a damn thing. And I liked it. A lot. In fact, every night you go over to Kevin’s room, I’m coming straight to Howie’s room. Good Lord! Please, get off your high horse before you break your neck,” Cheyanne huffed, feeling the child inside her start to make its presence known as her stomach churned and her bladder ached.

Austin's full lips parted in surprise, her usual quick replies suddenly gone. Staring at her friend, she stepped aside mutely as Cheyanne brushed past her. A moment later the bathroom door slammed, echoing through the silent cabin. She continued to stand in Howie's bedroom, struggling to grasp the situation as Kevin and Howie looked at her. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her gaze to Howie, her lips forming the two hardest words. "I'm sorry." Turning, she rushed from the room, slapping Kevin's hand away when he reached for her. The last thing she needed at this time was his superior attitude. Grunting in frustration, she realized she still wore his Kentucky t-shirt. The one she'd slipped on after he'd ruined yet another camisole. Without bothering to go change, she charged outside, grabbing her cigarettes off the kitchen table, her body craving the nicotine as badly now as it had craved Kevin mere hours before.

*~*~*


“She really likes him, doesn’t she?” Austin announced out of no where, startling Kevin from his thoughts as he glanced sideways at the brooding woman in the passenger seat of his rented Ford Escape. She had been in quite the mood all day since Cheyanne had verbally attacked her and Kevin refused to tempt the sleeping beast when she requested he take her into town. He had simply gotten the keys from the table, telling Howie they would be back later. He had even managed to keep his cool when she lit her last cigarette in the rented car, knowing he’d have to pay the excess fee for that. But, he’d rather not tempt her at this point, not knowing how to take her silence. She seemed regretful of her decision to attack Howie so cruelly, especially when Cheyanne came to his defense. Kevin found it somewhat adorable, watching her stare out the window as she made sure to blow her plumes of smoke out the slightly cracked window.

"It would appear so," Kevin replied softly, returning his gaze to the road. "If it's any consolation, he really likes her too."

Austin sighed miserably, her free hand tugging at the hem of the t-shirt she wore. His t-shirt, she realized with a wistful smile. She had showered and returned to the bedroom to change, but was unable to resist pulling on the soft cotton that still retained his scent. It bothered her, how comforted she was by the tiniest reminder of him. Cracking the window further, she drew a final drag off her cigarette, tossing it out. Leaning her head against the cool glass, she glanced at Kevin. "I just don't want her to get hurt," she admitted.

“What makes you think that Howie’s going to hurt her?” he questioned, amazed at how easy the conversation came even though they weren’t bickering back and forth. Instead, both were quiet and willing to hear the other’s thoughts. In fact, anxious to hear the other’s thoughts. “I’ve known him forever. He’s a really great guy… He’d never do anything to hurt her… I think he’d sacrifice everything in this world just so she wouldn’t be hurt.”

“She doesn’t have the best judgment when it comes to this stuff… She has that golden heart and she just thinks there’s inherent good in every man on Earth. People seem to feed off that. Scumbags seem to feed off that,” Austin admitted with a heavy sigh, rubbing her temples furiously as she conjured an image of Cheyanne’s last boyfriend. Noah had been so sly and slick when it came to lying that he had even snuck past Austin’s radar. She blamed herself for when she came home one night, finding Noah attempting to coax Cheyanne into unthinkable acts. It had stunned her severely and made her vow to protect Cheyanne by any means necessary. “… Howie really likes her?”

"He said so yesterday. On the lake. Before… Well, you know," he said, pushing the memory of his unexpected cold swim away. When Austin dropped her hands to her lap, he took the opportunity to cover one with his, grateful when she didn't pull it away. "As for scumbags, well, Howie doesn't fall into that category. He's just as golden hearted as Cheyanne, and despite life's heartbreaks, continues to find good in people, even after they disappoint him." Twining his fingers with hers, he glanced down at the natural way their hands fit together. His gaze flickered to his other hand, and he clenched his hand around the wheel, not needing the pale reminder of his failed marriage. "I don't think you need to worry on that front," he assured her.

Austin nodded briefly, settling her other hand on top of his, gently stroking the back with her index finger. She knew she’d have to apologize to Cheyanne eventually and give in to letting Howie take Cheyanne’s heart. She may not have liked it, but she honestly didn’t have a choice in the matter. “If he hurts her, I’m going to slaughter him.”

“I have no doubt,” Kevin chuckled with appreciation, enjoying the spitfire as he ducked their car into a nearby dirt road tucked deeply within the lush forest. Parking, he took the opportunity to turn so he could cup her cheek in his hand. “But, Princess, you don’t have to worry about scumbags anymore, either, okay?”

Leaning against his hand, she met his eyes with hers. "Is that a promise, Kevin?" she asked, her heart tripping over his words, as well as the huskiness of his voice.

“A solid promise,” he confirmed, leaning forward to catch her lips in a sweetly stirring kiss. Something much less intimidating compared to their frequent romps in his bedroom, but twice as passionate. And, when they parted, he smiled at how her eyes fluttered just slightly as if he had touched her heart. But, then he exchanged the smile for a wicked grin. “But there’s no way in Hell I’m taking you to town for cigarettes.”

"And why the Hell not?" she pouted, turning completely to face him. "If you dragged me out here in the middle of the woods just for some hot afternoon sex--"
"You would have said yes in a heartbeat," he finished for her, unbuckling his seatbelt so he could lean closer, his desire for her so sudden he needed her. Soon, judging from the hot tightness of his jeans.

"You're full of yourself, you know that, Pretty Boy?" she asked with a smirk, meeting his lips in a gentle kiss.

“True, but you’re begging to be full of me, Princess,” Kevin bantered against her lips, easily sliding the seat back into the farthest position before pulling her to straddle his lap. He grinned with amusement as her brows arched in surprise, feeling the tightness of his jeans against her backside. She rolled her eyes nonetheless, but he didn’t much care. Tugging her mouth back down to his, he slipped his hand underneath her t-shirt, fingering the button of her jeans, and popping it quite easily. Slowly, his fingers eased inside, just underneath her hot pink thongs. He felt her shiver excitedly when his fingers slipped inside her delicate folds, releasing she was already ready for him. “And soon, huh?”

"As if you didn't know," she practically moaned, tugging impatiently on the green t-shirt tucked into his tight jeans. Just the memory of the passion he brought her to made her tremble in anticipation, and when her hands trailed up his chest she felt his moan against her lips. One hand skipped up to his neck, her fingers lightly tracing the marks there. Wriggling in his lap as his fingers continued their exploration, she turned her head, breathing in his intoxicating scent as her tongue darted over his earlobe.

God, I just like to hear you say it,” Kevin groaned hard, pulling his t-shirt away from her body to reveal her already bare breasts. He smiled with approval at that, loving the thought of only his t-shirt being allowed to touch her sensitive flesh. Dipping his head, he nibbled hard against her shoulder before trailing a force kiss down the center of her chest into the valley between her warm breasts. Removing his hand from within her, he started to pull her jeans and thong underwear away, anxious to be inside her warmth. To hear her cry his name.

"Kevin," she breathed, grunting in frustration when his shirt wouldn't comply with her tugging. "I want you inside me," she whispered hotly in his ear, her hands moving to unfasten his jeans. "Soon," she added, easing them over his hips. Stroking his arousal through the boxer-briefs, she nibbled at his ear, felt a tremor run through her body when his hands slid over her thighs. "Now."

“Okay, okay,” he hissed hotly, allowing her to release his erection from his boxer-briefs. Her demanding side seemed to rush the urgency of his need to relieve the tightness in his lower half. Her eyes seemed to glow with brilliance as she helped escort him toward the source of her frustrations. Easily gliding him into her, she whimpered loudly with ecstasy. She buried her face into the crook of his neck, biting down as she started to ride his hips, grinding hard against his lower half to push him deeper and deeper to her core. She continued to moan and pant with each deeper penetration and it thrilled him. He loved the sounds she made during their experiences, especially as she peaked in climax.

"Kevin," she ground out, her entire body aflame. His hands were everywhere; on her hips, guiding her movements as he matched them with his own, cupping her breasts, his thumbs grazing her exposed nipples. They responded to his light touch, as they always did. His low growls of satisfaction had her arching against him, her lips seeking his as her nails raked down his arms. His demanding hands returned to her hips, his fingers digging into her skin as he urged her to move faster, his moans corresponding with hers as she took him deeper.

“God, Austin, you’re perfect,” he breathed, arching his back slightly when her nails scraped against his back, telling him that she was close to peaking. She always became quite raw with aggression, biting down on his bottom lip between their hard kisses. He knew he was also reaching that point, inhaling the moist air of her breath as she panted against him. Waiting, just a moment longer, and she released a sharp scream of satisfaction, breaking over her climax as Kevin groaned loudly, allowing himself to release just a moment after. He had always been taught to allow ladies to go first. But, he couldn’t help grinning wickedly as Austin’s sweaty body collapsed against him, wheezing in his musky scent. Wryly, he kissed her damp locks before deciding. “But I’m still not buying you any cigarettes.”
Let Me Love You by Anastacia
Chapter 10 – Let Me Love You

Cheyanne exhaled a soft breath as her eyes began to droop again, causing her to shift slightly as the hammock swung lazily within the spring breeze. She had decided to spend a peaceful day alone since Austin was indefinitely off with Kevin and Howie had taken to some business. First, she had just decided to go for a gentle swim within the lake. Then, shuffling back with the large towel draped around her shivering body, she noticed the large hammock tacked between a shady area on Howie and Kevin’s cabin property. Her lips curved into a pleased smile as she declared that her resting spot for the entire day, sprawling within the netting, allowing the breeze to rock her. She had all the comforts she needed. Her MP3/radio tucked into her low-riding, boy-cut bikini bottoms, playing her favorite country station while she perused her Nursing Maternity Textbook. Since it had been one of the last classes in her sessions, it seemed logical that she would still be reading it. Though, no one knew about the names she had scribbled on the inside cover, nor that she was reading for her own knowledge more so than that of her patients.

Feeling eyes on her, she glanced up, saw Howie stepping out onto the porch, phone pressed to his ear. His gaze was on her, but something about his stance told her he wasn't really seeing her. She allowed a smile to alight on her face, thinking of the warmth and safety of his strong arms. So unlike Noah, she thought, one hand resting on her stomach.

Noah. Just thinking his name brought a wave of sadness and regret over her. He had seemed so perfect when they'd met at the fraternity party the year before. Austin had dragged her along, wanting a designated driver just in case. Cheyanne had ended up in the living room sipping hideously spiked punch after her friend had slipped upstairs, plastered beyond belief. Noah, with his Californian beach bum good looks, had so charmingly kept her company, his hands groping and pulling away. She'd fended him off, accepting his invitation to dinner and a movie. So it had begun. Months of pushing him away, explaining time and time again that she wanted to wait until marriage. Months of hearing his scornful virgin remarks, defending him against Austin, who insisted he was the scum of the earth. If only she'd listened to Austin, she wouldn't be in the predicament she was in now, she thought, pressing her hand against her stomach. Biting her lip, she shook her head. "I can't regret you," she whispered.

The child growing inside her womb may have been fathered by Noah, but his tie to the child had broke the second he found out she was pregnant. He had blamed her fully for the mishap, saying she should have been more experienced and known what to do. When, in fact, he had forced himself upon her and accidentally conceived the child in the process. She had wanted to break off ties that night with him, under much of Austin’s persistence. So, she had telephoned him, but he insisted on coming over. It was such a grand parting gift. One that Cheyanne buried under her heartache, fears, and ultimate regrets. She still remembered how used she felt when Noah flung fifty dollars into her face after a firm smack across the cheek, telling her to just ‘fix the problem.’ But she couldn’t. She couldn’t knowingly kill her child. She’d rather die herself. So, justifiably, she decided to carry the pregnancy to term. What happened afterwards was still unknown. She was already so connected with the child, but adoption seemed like the best alternative. She could never provide the child a good home as a single mother, though her mother had triumphed. She wasn’t as strong as her, nor as brave. She feared hurting the child worse than hurting herself. No matter how much she loved it.

"Do you mind some company?"

Howie's voice jerked her away from her thoughts, sending the textbook flying to the ground. Looking up at him, she gave him a shaky smile. His face was lined with worry, and she assumed the phone call hadn't been a good one. "I'll always be happy to have your company," she said softly as he stooped to pick up her book. He dusted off the cover, reading the title, and gave her an inquisitive look. "I had a Maternity class," she said, taking the book from him. "Just doing some brushing up."

“Do you plan on working in Maternity?” Howie questioned as she set the book on the opposite side of the hammock, not too concerned with any hidden connotations behind her words. Instead, he just leaned against the large oak tree, watching her easily sway within the soft netting. She looked so peaceful, basking in the sunny shade. Her lean, petite form displayed beautifully by her tankini. He had even taken notice to the small MP3 player tucked so delicately into the top of her bottoms, nestled in a place that Howie would probably never dare to venture.

“Not sure yet…” she answered with a shrug of her shoulders, glad to have diverted the question so easily. Resting her hands on her exposed abdomen, she glanced up at him again, noticing how truly uncomfortable he was leaning against the tree. She wanted to reach out to him, but his worrisome features gave her an uncertainty. Their relationship surely wasn’t defined by any means, so she could certainly do some serious damage if she wasn’t careful. So, sweetly, she played on the words he had used to coax her into his bed. “This hammock is big enough for the both of us… I don’t bite, either, y’know…”

Smiling in spite of himself, Howie joined her, enjoying her soft laugh as the hammock swayed precariously. Sliding his arm around her shoulders, he released a gentle sigh, felt the building pressures lift with her presence. Cheyanne snuggled close to him, her head resting on his shoulder as she hummed along to the song playing in her ears. Closing his eyes as the dappled sunlight warmed him, he turned his thoughts to the conversation he'd just had with his mother. She'd been so worried, so upset about him. He couldn't bring himself to tell her what was troubling him, not wanting to worry her further. Sometimes he was accused of being a Momma's Boy, and he supposed that was true, but most people didn't have a Momma like he did. She'd tried calling the others, but no one was ever answering, and when she'd tried his cell phone, neither did he. When he mentioned that AJ had her number, and surely he should have called her, she'd been silent. No word from his best friend.

Cheyanne had been somewhat silent despite her soft humming as Howie lost himself within his thoughts, but she soon started to feel Howie’s body naturally tense when she curled closer. At first, she had thought it was something she had done, like draping her arm across his chest, tucking it safely inside his fresh wifebeater top. So, worriedly, she pulled the ear-buds away, allowing the muffled music to crackle softly into the air. Craning slightly, she noticed Howie attempting to blink feverishly while draping his free forearm across his face. Cheyanne felt immediate pains in her heart, knowing something was wrong. Reaching, she tentatively brushed a soft hand down the side of his face. “Howie… Are you okay?”

Could he tell her? Should he divulge his problems to her? Taking a deep breath, he launched into the tale, leaving out the details pertaining to songs and recording. The desolate feeling of not belonging, of being unnoticed. How his friends seemed to look over him when he was silently crying out. He'd had to just get away from it all, get back to what really mattered. "But I still feel like I don't belong," he whispered, pulling his arm away to stare up at the leaves. All around him were signs of burgeoning life and beauty, yet he felt like he was dying inside.

Cheyanne listened and drank in every piece of information as she gently sat up in the hammock, just silently watching his turmoil. She never imagined that he was holding such pain inside. Such utter isolation and dark loneliness. At first, she really didn’t know what to say. How to make him feel better about the situation. She was probably just as lost as he was in this world, so who was she to say that he should just tough it out? It was unfair and she would never utter such words. She felt as if her heart had been pricked with several sharp pins, causing it to bleed for only him. She wanted to tell him that he belonged. He belonged right next to her. But, instead, she reached to wipe away the tears that had fallen down his wan cheeks, offering a sad smile. “Howie… You’ll find out where you belong…”

Covering her hand with his, Howie looked up at her. "I'm thirty-one years old, Honey. I was supposed to find myself years ago. It's too late now," he said, hating the thought of dumping his troubles and worries in her lap.

“Age doesn’t justify finding yourself,” Cheyanne scorned softly, allowing Howie to bring their hands to his lips as she continued to lean over him. Carefully, she moistened her bottom lip as she willed her thoughts to be voiced, no matter what consequences it brought. “Besides… What if all of this had a purpose? The neglect brought you out here… So you could find me? So you could belong to me?”

"Could I?" he asked softly, brushing his lips over her fingers. "Could I ever belong to someone so sweet and gentle, so kind and loving?" Her words gave him hope, as did the coy way her lips curved into a smile. He had never really been a believer in fate, but her hopeful expression made him want to believe in something. "I wouldn't be worthy of someone like you," he whispered.

"Howie, sweetheart, listen to me," she said, brazenly moving to straddle him. Holding her hands in his, she brought them to her heart. "You are the most sweet-tempered, gentle guy I've ever met. Any woman would be lucky to have someone like you by her side. I know I'm jumping the gun and you probably think I'm moving too fast, but you've already brought me so much joy in such a little time. I…" Cheyanne's voice trailed, and she swallowed back her tears. "I care about you," she murmured.

“You care about me?” he repeated, still so unsure of himself. He needed to know how she felt. He really did need for her to spell it out. No one had ever uttered those words to him. Instead, they had asked for the numbers to his bank account or perhaps the largest credit card. Yet, here Cheyanne was, fully open. Fully bearing her heart to him, asking him to take it from her, to keep it safe. The amount of emotional ties that lingered overwhelmed him to silent tears. To hope.

“I care about you,” she promised, releasing one of his hands as she brushed away a few tears that had spilled onto her cheeks. How to God she wished that she had met Howie first. That he could have been her child’s father. “I want you to belong to me. I want you to feel like you belong to me... I want to belong to you…”

"I want to belong to you too… Chey, Honey… I care about you," he admitted, pulling her down for a kiss. "Let me love you," he whispered as their lips met.

Cheyanne had to laugh softly against Howie’s lips as his hands framed her face. Their first kiss was quite slow and formal, easily arousing her taste for him. So, she leaned further, easily sucking his bottom lip into her mouth for a moment before bringing their lips back together, allowing her tongue to seductively tease his. She became quite aware of his hot breath exchanging with hers, feeling his hands move from cupping her face to holding the back of her neck. She leaned down further still, practically melting her body against his, whispering faintly. “As long as you let me love you, too.”

Howie trembled at her words, his hands coursing down her back, holding her body close to his. "You got it, Honey," he whispered, feeling her MP3 player pressing into his stomach. Sliding one hand down, he eased it away, let his fingers slip under her swimsuit top, needing to feel as much of her body as possible. Her tongue danced over his lips, encouraging his other hand to move lower, cupping her breast. She tensed immediately, and he quickly pulled his hand away. He surely didn't want her to think he was just after sex.

“Howie…” Cheyanne murmured hurtfully when he turned to his side to somewhat throw her off his hips. The hammock swung with the pull, causing her to gasp. He pulled completely away from her, almost as if she had scalded him sharply with her subtle tenseness. She hadn’t meant to shrink away, but she had first thought of Noah. She hadn’t been physical with any man but Noah and that had been forced. So, for Howie to reach for her had been a surprise. But she wanted Howie so badly, causing her eyes to grow somewhat teary with his actions. “I’m sorry… Wait--”

"Don't be sorry," he whispered, shaking his head. "I shouldn't have--"

"Howie…" Reaching for his hand again, she brought it to her lips, kissing the warm skin of his fingers before placing his hand over her breast. Drawing in a deep breath at his warmth, she met his eyes. "I want you to touch me."

“Cheyanne…” Howie breathed hard, his dark, chocolate eyes moving from where she settled his hand to her enchanting, sapphire eyes. The warmth radiating from her caused sharp shivers to race down his spine, knotting his stomach in several tight loops. He couldn’t believe what she was really offering him. After all, she was a virgin, inexperienced to this type of touch. She wanted him to teach her. She wanted him to love her. Him.

“Howie, please,” Cheyanne persuaded softly, leaning forward to kiss his bottom lip. “…Please.”

Swallowing nervously, he lost himself in her gentle kisses, his hand lightly caressing her breast as she drew him closer, her legs tangling with his as the heat between them grew. Dipping his tongue into her mouth, his mind raced as she pulled him over her, her soft hands smoothing over his body. He released a moan at her touch, gently pushing the top of her swimsuit up, gasping at the feel of her bare breast in his hand. "Chey..."

“Thank you,” she answered softly within his mouth, arching her back slightly at the sensation of Howie’s hand cupping her sensitive flesh. She had never felt such brilliant sensations of excitement racing through her body. She even grew lightheaded as her heart pounded hard against her chest, feeling Howie’s growing hardness against her, enticing her further. Her skin instantly prickled with delight, causing her to whimper delicately. She wanted to give him the world, even if he didn’t know.

"God… Chey," he whimpered, his lips finding her ear. Through the haze of his arousal he heard the Escape pull up and he reluctantly withdrew from Cheyanne's embrace. "Chey… not here, not now. I want to make love to you properly, not like some horny teenager under the bleachers," he whispered breathlessly, smoothing her swimsuit down. "Especially not with those two morons," he added, kissing the tip of her nose.

“Okay…” Cheyanne relented, exhaling a hard breath to release the tension forming tightly in the pit of her stomach. She offered a shaky smile toward him, nonetheless, doing her best not to be too disappointed. Only, Howie really didn’t give her warning as he suddenly swung the hammock, leaning down to grasp something that had dropped. She instantly curled her arms around him with a sharp squeal of surprise, expecting to fall out as she listened to Kevin and Austin’s laughter. “What did you do that for?!”

"Sorry," he said with a grin, reaching to tuck her MP3 player back in her bikini bottoms. "I think it was thrown to the ground…"

"In a moment of passion," she said coyly, smiling sweetly at his blush. "Thank you. I'd go crazy if I lost it." Finding the ear-buds, she grasped them in her hand, her heart still racing. "I have to have my music."

“And what music would that be?” Howie inquired, wrapping his arms around her shoulders as Kevin and Austin came barreling away from the car, obviously bickering and attempting to pin one another to the ground. Though, Howie didn’t pay them much mind as he watched her fix the small, purple MP3 player within the low waist band, knowing he’d be in a bit of pain in the passing moments.

“Country, of course,” she declared in her beautiful southern drawl, rolling off the hammock with ease and wrapping the towel around her again. She thought a fresh dip in the lake was in order. To settle her steamy emotions. “Like any self respecting Carolina woman would think of listening to anything else but country MP3’s and 99.3 for her radio.”

Howie nodded, somewhat grateful she hadn't told him she listened to pop or the top 40. Rolling out behind her, he tugged his pants away from his erection as Kevin chased Austin around the back of the cabin. Skidding to a stop, Austin gave them both a jovial grin.

"Hey, you two! We're having a wienie roast tonight!"

*~*~*


Kevin tipped the can of his frosty beer, swallowing the slightly bitter contents as he leaned back in his chair, admiring the beautiful scenery the sun left behind as it sunk into its lakeside bed for the evening. He had missed this part of is life; living in the country. He had forgotten how peaceful it could be and how beautiful it could be with the proper love of a woman. After enjoying Austin’s feverish body in the front of the Ford Escape, Kevin decided that he had to stop kidding himself. He was punch-drunk over Austin and wouldn’t continue to try to deny himself the pleasure of her body. In fact, he relished over the idea of her slipping into his bed later tonight. Just the mere thought set the embers of his loins aflame with desire. Kristin surely had broken the marriage bed before him, so why should he be so worried? She had yet to call since his phone took a plunge in the lake. That was proof enough. The marriage was over. But, he didn’t care.

“You know, the proper thing to do is offer a lady a drink.”

Kevin tipped his head back to see Austin standing behind him, arms crossed stubbornly over what he assumed were her still bare breasts beneath his t-shirt. “Funny,” he mused with a wicked grin, loving to agitate her. “I don’t see a lady.”

Austin leaned over him, taking the can from his grasp. "I forgot. Only gentlemen do that," she muttered before taking a sip. "And we all know that you're not--" she cut off when he yanked her into his lap. "Alright, Pretty Boy, don't you think it's a little early for you to be starting to get your buzz?" she asked, wriggling against him.

"Like you could keep up," he scoffed, reaching for his beer.

“I could drink your ass under the table,” Austin warned indefinitely, holding the beer out at an arm’s length so he couldn’t pry it from her hand. Her dark coffee eyes glittered with excitement as he protested with a sharp groan.

“Only if you started on that pisswater that you like to call beer.”

“Like yours is any better!”

“Better than what you tried to buy.”

“Kevin--”

“Princess, you can’t drink me under the table and it would be a shame to waste all your money considering we could put it to better uses,” Kevin chuckled, leaning to nibble the crook of her neck.

"You wanna bet?" she gasped, closing her eyes as her body responded to his attentions. The thin t-shirt scraped against her bare breasts as he pulled her closer to him. He had been awfully attentive since their earlier romp. She couldn't place her finger on it. "If I can't drink you under the table, I'll…"

"What?" he murmured against her ear, one hand sliding up her shirt, snaking upwards to grasp her breast.

"Kevin!" she squeaked, glancing through the open door. It was one thing, Cheyanne knowing they were fooling around. Another thing entirely if she caught them halfway in the act.

Kevin chuckled at her erratic squeak, loving how uncharacteristic it was of her as she slapped his hand away. She may have tried to be furious with him, but sweet milk had been poured into her dark irises, making them a rich mocha color of coffee. He bent again to nibble at her throat, drawing his beer back away from her trembling hands. “My, my, my… Princess, you have a weak spot?”

"You wish," she gasped, squirming against him. "Stop it! What if Chey comes out here and finds you groping me?"

Dropping his hand, he leaned back, a satisfied smirk on his face. "I got what I wanted," he informed her, lifting his beer to his lips.

"You--you--you--pissfuck!" she shrieked.

Kevin choked slightly on his beer at her declaration of a mixed profanity. Furrowing his dark, bushy brows, he shook his head in bewilderment, tilting them both slightly so he could retrieve a beer for her from the cooler propping his feet. “What the Hell is a pissfuck, Princess?”

Austin pushed the top of the beer can in, taking a hearty swig with no room for formalities. Settling back against Kevin’s chest, she swung her free hand somewhat passively as if to emphasize her point. “You know… Pissfuck… Right after a fuck, you stumble into the bathroom for your first piss. It burns like a mother and you have to think twice about dumping peroxide on or douching peroxide in the appropriate organ for sanitation purposes.” She then released a loud pass of air from her gut.

Kevin shook his head with true amusement. “Darling, you are nothing but a southern gentlewoman, huh?”

Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, Austin smiled sweetly. "I'm just a sweet southern belle," she purred, adjusting herself comfortably in his lap. "Waiting on a tall, dark and handsome beau to come sweep me off my feet," she said dramatically before taking another hearty swig.

“Haven’t I already swept you off your feet, several times in fact?” Kevin questioned, shifting his legs yet again to retrieve beers as each quickly finished off their firsts. Neither had yet to eat dinner yet, since he was waiting for moonlight to start the bonfire, which allowed the alcohol to dump far more easily into their systems than normal. But neither cared, having a silent contest as to who was the better drinker. The same air of competition that had sparked their relationship from the beginning.

"That's different," she said casually, propping one elbow his chest as she gulped her beer down. The buzz was kicking in already, and she met his eyes. "Its just sex, isn't it?" she asked softly. "For you, I mean."

Kevin, despite his lightheaded enjoyments, frowned when he concentrated on the end portions of her statement. He reached absentmindedly to rub his left pectoral muscle as if to mend a stabbed heart. He hadn’t been ready for that kind of statement, causing his mouth to dry somewhat considerably. Focusing on the sweating beer can, he frowned again. “Is that what it is for you? Since you leave every night after I fall asleep?”

Crunching her can, Austin tossed it to join the others littering the porch, giving him a shrug as she leaned over to retrieve another beer. She wasn't sure she even knew the answer to that question. It just seemed the right thing to do. Tossing back a hearty swig, she tapped her chest, releasing a hearty pass of air. "It's not like we get along so great during the day," she admitted, propping her elbow on his chest once more. "I'm not the greatest morning person after mind-blowing sex, and I sure as Hell don't want you up my ass anymore than you already are. Sex is all we have in common, right? I mean, you're some citified Pretty Boy, and I'm just a country bumpkin from the middle of nowhere. After sex, what is it?"

“So, I’m just your manwhore?” Kevin coolly stated, trying to control his already hot temper despite the alcohol dumping into his system. Trying to keep quiet, he downed a whole extra can of beer, crushing it easily within one hand.

"Why not? Aren't I your little country slut for your stay? Or do you have more?" she spat hatefully, clamoring from his lap. "Because if you have more whores than me, you better start wrapping that big dick of yours up." Kicking his legs off the cooler, she angrily yanked one out, gulping it down in her haste to blur the words she'd said. She surely wouldn't want to remember them later.

“I haven’t been with a woman since…” Kevin’s voice slurred slightly when he realized he was about to say ‘wife.’ That left a sour taste in his mouth while he covered with another slug of beer. He was already full, but Austin’s hateful stance was fueling his fires. He immediately began to see all women as heartless bitches only after him for one thing or another. “…What about you, Austin? How many men are you with? Because, I tried to use a condom how many damn times and you kept telling me no. Just can’t feel the rhythm of a dick anymore because you’re too loose?”

"You sonofabitch," she cried, whirling around to glare at him. "I was right all along, wasn't I? You and Howie were just nice to us for kickbacks, weren't you? Well you can take your so-called southern hospitality and shove it up your ass! That is," she added with a snort, her coffee eyes glittering with hatred, "if you can find room with that fucking tree branch already up there." Gulping down the rest of her beer, she unceremoniously dropped it in his lap, turning to head inside the cabin.

“Don’t you dare play the victim!” Kevin demanded sharply, reaching to grasp her upper arm before she made it even a mere inch away. He instantly stood to tower over her, though he swayed slightly with true inebriation. “You’re the one that always leaves my bed in the middle of the night! I never ask you to leave! I always tell you to stay! You’re the one that treats me like a whore. Not the other way around, Princess!”

"Austi?" Cheyanne questioned softly from the doorway. Seeing Kevin's glowering expression, coupled with the way he gripped Austin's arm, she felt alarm prickle her neck. "What's going on?" Stepping out onto the porch, she took in the littering of empty cans. "Are you--are you drunk?" she asked, horrified. Placing a hand on Kevin's arm, she tugged gently. "Let her go!"

Kevin stared down at the small, sweet Cheyanne, watching her defiant stance and sapphire eyes lick with icy flames of hatred. And, he laughed with a hardy snort, not knowing why she even bothered to attempt such a task. Did she honestly think she could match him? That sweet little thing? “Calm down, Sweetheart, I was just telling Princess some truth about the way she treats me,” he explained, yanking his arm away from Cheyanne’s grasp. Only, he nor she wasn’t prepared for the strength he exuded in breaking off her grasp, flinging Cheyanne into one of the plastic seats with a hardy crash that alerted Howie’s attention from within.

"Chey!" Austin gasped, pushing Kevin away, her only concern for her friend now. Shooting Kevin a look that told him to go straight to Hell, she rushed over, only to find Howie had already beaten her to it. Swaying on her feet, she was surprised to feel Kevin's hands, gentle this time, steadying her. "Chey," she said softly. "Are you okay?"

“I’m fine,” Cheyanne answered somewhat sharply, pushing Howie’s hands away from her in attempts to stand. She immediately clasped her hands against her abdomen, protecting the child that had almost been doomed in that very moment. She had hit hard against the chair, just enough to knock the wind from her lungs. If she had fallen the opposite way, surely she would have lost her child. At first, she cursed her luck for not falling face first, but a heavy weight of guilt settled over her heart at that hateful thought. How selfish could she be? Not to mention she was tired of becoming the scapegoat between Austin and Kevin. It wasn’t fair and she was already exhausted enough. She felt heavy tears cloud her hurt, sapphire eyes as she walked briskly toward the sliding glass doors leading inside the cabin, groping for her MP3 player before she ran down the stairs to get away, not wanting to say another word to any of them.

Howie felt his Latin temper rise as he watched her rush away. Turning his glare on the two drunken fools, he took a deep breath. "What the Hell is with you two?" he shouted angrily. "If you two aren't screwing, you're ready to murder each other! I'm sick of it! Cheyanne is the sweetest girl in the world, yet you two have to drag her in the middle of your petty bullshit like she's some pawn! You," he growled, pointing at Austin, "you're always yanking her away just when she's relaxing, and jump on anyone who attempts to be decent to her. Are you that insecure? Are you afraid she'll find someone who treats her nicer than you do and leave your sorry ass? And you," his finger and glare turned to Kevin, "I can't believe how fucking shitty you're being to her! Just because the woman you have your sights on is a major bitch doesn't give you the right to take it out on Cheyanne. If I had known all this damned drama would happen, I would have kept my ass in Florida!" Turning, he stomped into the cabin, slamming the door forcefully behind him.
The One by Anastacia
Chapter 11 – The One

Cheyanne sniffled hard as she stumbled through the darkness of the woods, persistent in her decision to get as far away from the cabin as she could. She was furious with Kevin and Austin for being so disastrously inebriated, knowing the damage it could cause. But she was more furious with herself than anything. The vicious thoughts she had about her child. It frightened her. She wasn’t fit to be a mother nor was she fit to get herself bothered into a relationship with Howie. What would he do when she started showing? It was a horror waiting to happen, so it was best not to press matters. She should be in a reflective mood anyway, almost like a nun, repenting her sins. Sniffling harder as she wiped away her tears with a baggy sleeve of her shirt, she glanced up to see the moonlight scattering amongst the trees. She was already used to the woodland area, not bothered with being alone in the dark. Instead, she pressed the ear-buds closer to her ears while tucking the small MP3 player into the back pocket of her faded and torn jeans. Attempting to soothe her soul, she hit the button for the radio station – 99.3. She always enjoyed the DJ at night. His voice calm and soothing. She hoped that would settle the sickness raging inside her.

The song playing faded out, and the DJ spoke in his gentle tones. "We have a very urgent dedication. It seems there is this very sweet girl who listens to us religiously, y'all. And this sweet girl has captured the heart of this guy, who seems to me to be pretty much head over heels in love with her. He doesn't know everything about her, doesn't know what's caused the hurt he sees in her 'beautiful blue eyes'-- his words--but he wants to be the person to make her shine again. Here's Gary Allan's The One, going out to Cheyanne, with love from Howie."

Cheyanne stumbled over quite a large stone when she heard her name over the broadcasted station, causing her to wince as she reached to hold steady to a tree. She stamped her right foot repeatedly in her scuffed sneakers, trying to rid herself of the cramping ache. But, her pain dissipated as the sweet melody of Gary Allan’s song began to play in her ears and the DJ’s words formed concrete images within her mind. Howie had remembered the exact radio station she always listened to and dedicated a song to her. But, not just any song, a country song. He had been listening whole-heartedly to her since the beginning. Slowly, she stopped any movements she was making, leaning back against the large tree for support. Wrapping her arms around herself protectively, she felt sweet tears well into her eyes as she made sense of the lyrics.

No rush though I need your touch
I won't rush your heart
Until you feel on solid ground
Until your strength is found, girl


Standing a few paces behind her, Howie stopped on the trail, his hands in his pockets as he watched her lean against a tree, felt his heart in his throat. Was the song playing? Were he closer to her, without the incessant chirping of the crickets and the distant hooting of owls, he'd be able to hear what song she listened to so intently. The moon shone down on her, and he felt his heart do a double take when he saw the sheen of tears on her cheeks. They had to be playing the song now. The dedication had been an impulse, but it was the only way he could think of calming her down, perhaps opening her heart to him more. Kevin had played the song on the long car ride from the airport, and it had stuck with him. He'd thought then that it would be the perfect song for such an occasion. He hadn't expected then to meet such a wonderful woman as Cheyanne, though, and had assumed he would never be blessed with such an opportunity.

I'll fill those canyons in your soul
Like a river lead you home
And I'll walk a step behind
In the shadows so you shine
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you're sure that I'm the one


Feebly, Cheyanne reached with the cuff of her sleeve to continue to wipe away the tears that continued to race down her cheeks despite her efforts. She sniffled hard as a hiccup rose against her throat, making an uncomfortable pairing with the sob caught in the same place. She just wished that Howie hadn’t been so golden. He was making things so complicated for her. At first she had just thought this vacation would be simple and hopefully at some point she could confess her sins to Austin. But, Howie had stopped any chance of that happening, having her entire heart aching just to be near him. But she didn’t think he’d ever understand. After all, he still thought she was a virgin. She could be sneaky and blame the pregnancy on him after seducing his lustful thoughts. But she was better than that and she loved him more than that. She couldn’t betray him so. It would just be easier to say no. To say that he had to leave her alone. But the more she listened to the music, the harder she seemed to cry. She had no idea that Howie was lurking in the shadows, far too caught within the lyrics to think about such things.

Somebody else was here before
He treated you unkind
And broken wings need time to heal
Before a heart can fly, girl


Gazing at her, Howie moved closer, longing to touch her, to assure her he meant every damn word in the song. He wanted to tell her that his arms would always be there to hold her, that he would protect her from every hurt the world could send her way. Stopping just behind her, he closed his eyes, able to hear the song slightly now. Taking a deep breath, he whispered her name. "I love you," he murmured, sure she wouldn't be able to hear him, but knowing it needed to be said.

Trust in me and you'll find a heart so true
All I want to do is give the best of me to you
And stand beside you
Just ask it will be done
And I will prove my love
Until you're sure that I'm the one.


Cheyanne shook her head in sheer disbelief as the song ended, holding a sleeved hand to her mouth to keep the sob from breaking against the hiccups. Her mind already decided. She needed a chance to love him, because he needed her. He had confessed his darkest thoughts to her just mere hours before. She couldn’t leave him now. Not when he laid his entire heart open for her to see. Besides, she felt her entire body ache for Howie, knowing she couldn’t deny him after such a beautiful dedication. All his heart and soul had been pushed into that song. She could feel him within that song and taste the sweetness of his lips. Exhaling a shaky breath, she yanked the earbuds from her ears and tucked them in her back pocket, turning in order to rush back to the cabin. But, gasped softly when she found herself looking into his dark chocolate eyes. “Howie…”

"Did you get the message?" he questioned softly, lifting his hand to caress her cheek. Brushing her tears away with his thumb, he smiled slightly. She had, he could tell. "Just so you know, Honey, you'll never be rid of me. I'm afraid you're stuck with me forever." Her sweet smile made his heart soar, and he stepped closer, cupping her face gently in his hands. "I love you, Chey," he whispered, covering her lips with his.

Trust in me and you'll find a heart so true
All I want to do is give the best of me to you
And stand beside you


*~*~*


Kevin grumbled with a thick string of expletives as he tried to balance himself to pull off his pants, only succeeding in falling backward onto his bed. He jostled slightly with the springiness of the mattress, attempting to lie still now so the room would stop spinning. Taking so many beers, so quickly, on an empty stomach had been a grave mistake. He could only imagine the hard headache he would wake up to the next morning. Not to mention Howie had sobered him severely when he exploded into a hurricane of emotion and disbelief. He knew, in passing, that he had reacted foolishly with Cheyanne, but he would not apologize for what he said to Austin. He had been right, despite his foolishness. He had given Austin no reason to think that she wasn’t the only one in his life. Kristin was nonexistent beyond this point. He loved Austin like no other. And what was so wrong with having a bit of passion in their words? They didn’t always fight with one another. Did they? Kevin had only thought their fighting had fueled the passion they had for one another. Or, at least, that’s what he told himself as he slowly attempted to slide his pants off while lying on his bed, having no bravery to attempt to stand again.

The door banged open noisily, slamming almost immediately. Groaning, Kevin lifted his head to see Austin standing there, looking about as bad as he felt, wearing his Kentucky t-shirt and a pair of leggings. Her hair was pulled back into a loose knot, her arms folded over her chest, her brown eyes locked on him. At least, he supposed they were locked on him. The fuzziness in his brain clouded his sight as well, though he was damn sure he saw a hardened nipple pressed against the gray fabric of the t-shirt. "What do you want?" he asked blandly, flopping his head back.

“I want to talk to you.”

“Like that isn’t par for course.” Kevin scowled.

“Look, you son--”

“Hey! You came in my room, remember? Stop bitching at me!”

“You almost hurt my best friend!”

“Like you weren’t cock-blocking her from the fucking start--” Kevin gasped sharply when he felt his pants suddenly get yanked from his legs, causing him to fall on the hard wooden floor with a sharp slap to his backside. But worse was the jostle of his already throbbing head. “Fuck it all, Austin!”

"When will you get into that thick, stubborn head of yours that I was trying to protect her? Do you realize the shit she's been through? Her last boyfriend was the King of all assholes, Kevin. He even bypassed you with his pigheadedness. She had to put up with roaming hands and belittling remarks because she was a virgin." Swaying on her feet, Austin staggered, unable to catch herself before falling into his lap. "And I worry about her. She's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me, besides you, and I'll do my damnedest to make sure she's not hurt. Just like I'd do anything to keep you from getting hurt as well," she admitted, her words slurring slightly. Looking into his eyes, she opened her mouth to speak, only able to release a hiccup.

“The best thing that’s ever happened to you? Keep me from getting hurt?” Kevin repeated with a sharp snort, instantly regretting that decision as his head throbbed. But, he ignored that quality, pushing Austin toward his side and off his lap, reaching to hold his spinning head within his large hands. He couldn’t take this tonight. It was too much. Because he wasn’t going to play this game anymore. He didn’t want another Kristin in his life. He was tired of being used. “I’m your manwhore, remember, Princess?”

Stunned, Austin pulled her wobbly knees to her chest. "That was your word, not mine. I shouldn't have said what I did, but… Damnit, Kevin, you're the only man who has the ability of making me want to smack the hell out of you and kiss you at the same time. And you never gave me any ini--indi--incda--whatever the fuck the word is--that you wanted more from me than sex. Every time I've been in your room, you've just rolled over like you were through with me. Sure, sure, you asked me to stay, but the tone of your voice… I didn't feel very welcome, after I had finished." Sighing, she rested her forehead on her knees. "How the Hell did this get so fucked up?"

“I wanted more from you than just sex since the first time you flipped me on my ass,” Kevin confided softly, reaching with a shaking hand to run his fingers through her loosely tied locks. He then slowly let his hand drop, tenderly rubbing the back of her neck. “You just never gave me the chance to get to your heart. You always blocked me before I even had the chance. And, I figure… Despite the throbbing headache… That some guy really burned you in the past. But, damnit, Princess, I’m not him. I’m not.”

"He more than burned me, Kevin. He almost fucking killed me." Austin relaxed under his touch, moving closer to his warmth. Through the alcohol induced haze in her mind, she thought of Steven. "And I know you're not him. I… I'd really rather not talk about him right now. It's late, I can barely see straight, and I need to go to my bed and sleep for the next couple of days." Glancing up at him, she blinked back her tears. "Unless you want me to stay."

Kevin nodded slightly as he moved to wrap his arm around her hunched shoulders. She really didn’t have to go into details about her past lover. He was smart enough to pick up the subtle cues in her tones. She had been in a violently abusive relationship, which made sense considering some of the reactions she had to his temper. Not to mention how she and Cheyanne reacted when he accidentally knocked her down that evening. He suddenly felt a strong desire to find the man and beat the living Hell out of him. To think that someone would even touch Austin out of anger was disgusting. He wanted to kill him, but exhaling softly, he moved to place a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I’d like you to stay, but I can’t take you leaving in the middle of the night. I don’t want that anymore, Austin. It has to be all or nothing.”

Nodding, Austin placed a shaky hand on his chest. "I'll give you all," she whispered, resting her head in the crook of his shoulder. Unable to resist the warmth of his body, she slipped back into his lap, needing to feel him. The fact he hadn't pressed her for information comforted her, as she wasn't quite ready to delve into the dark moments of her history. "But… only if you'll give me all, too."

“Princess, I think I’m way too drunk to read into your words…” Kevin murmured with a light grin, his body adjusting to her weight as well as quickly responding to the warmth of her lower half. As if he were some hormonal teenager, his manhood instantly hardened to her, causing her eyes to widen in wonder.

"I'm drunker," she informed him with a smirk, sliding her hands to his neck. "After all, I totally had more than you. And you said I couldn't out drink you," she added with a soft giggle, squirming against his erection. "So you owe me."

“I believe the payment plan has sprung up…” Kevin trailed with a hard grunt, grasping her hips to lift her. The added pressure she was adding to his lap was making it quite difficult to concentrate.

"Can I draw out my payments over time?" she asked coyly, lightly scraping his neck with her fingers as she leaned close for a quick kiss. "I think, Pretty Boy, I'm getting addicted to you." Skimming her hands down his chest, she shivered when his muscles tensed. "Just… can we move our drunk asses to the bed? I mean, floor sex is great, but I have no intention of throwing your back out tonight," she teased before sucking on his bottom lip.

“Are you trying to say I’m too old for you?” Kevin grunted as she drew him into a standing position. Both swayed considerably given their states of drunken stupors, but Austin fixed the problem by pushing Kevin back onto the bed. He hit the softness in surprise, but moved to cover her as she fell, not wanting to be on the bottom any longer.

"Age is just a number," she informed him, her legs moving to cradle his body, drawing him close. "Unless you're fifty or something. That would be a little weird, considering my dad is in his fifties, and then I would be--"

“Your rambling isn’t cute when you’re drunk,” Kevin informed her, leaning down to capture her mouth against his in hopes to smother her incessant noise. She muffled some words at first, but slowly complied, eagerly matching his powerful tongue against hers. Noises erupted from the pit of her throat as Kevin tormented and teased, never realizing that his boxer-briefs were now completely removed by her skilled hands. Glancing down for a moment when she giggled, he rolled his eyes as he moved to undress her between the skilled kisses. “I care about you so much, Princess.”

"I care about you, Kevin." Austin nibbled at his bottom lip, her legs tangling with his as she moved one hand to grasp him. "So much it scares me," she whispered, her soft moans increasing as he cupped her breast. The sensation overwhelmed her suddenly, causing her to tremble beneath him, her mouth opening to his gently insistent tongue.

“I’ll be there to hold you through the fears,” Kevin promised softly, curling his free arm around her as she gently lead him to her opening point. Unlike their other encounters, this was soft and dedicated solely to arousing one another’s ecstasies through emotional sensations. It wasn’t based on who made the other cry out first, but coming together as one collected being. Kevin could actually feel the tears in his eyes as he moved against her, holding her as close as possible to his body while he tenderly caressed her breast. He made sure to find her mouth with his, closing his eyes as he offered such soft kisses that they felt like whispers of words.

This was what she'd been longing for, Austin realized as she wrapped herself around him, returning his delicate kisses. The pounding of his heartbeat next to her caused her to draw in a breath, wanting to memorize each sensation. "Kevin," she whispered, feeling the tensing of the muscles on his back. Smoothing her hands over them, she whispered his name again, loving the sound of his name on her lips. "God… Kevin, I love you," she murmured, burying her face in the warm curve of his neck.

Kevin smiled at her confession, immediately planting several kisses to the side of her face. “I love you, too, Austin. So much.”

*~*~*


Humming softly, Cheyanne snuggled closer to Howie, her hum turning to a soft sigh as his hand splayed over her back, lightly caressing her with his warm fingers. "I'll be humming that song forever," she mused with a sweet smile, tracing his cheek with her finger. Knowing that each time she hummed the song, she would think of him.

“We can do a duet, then,” Howie decided, reaching with his opposite hand to catch the finger against his cheek, bringing it to his lips for a tender kiss. He found it truly remarkable that the music that had doomed him into loneliness had also been the same to send him into salvation. Without the song, Howie would have been lost as to how to find Cheyanne amongst her dark thoughts. But, he had trusted his instincts, and now they were lying peacefully in his bed, just listening to 99.3 on the radio at his bedside. Both had kicked off their shoes, deciding just to cuddle before getting ready for bed. They had taken a long walk after he admitted to loving her, simply silently exploring each others emotions as they walked.

“Only if you think your voice could be as good as mine,” Cheyanne teased, squirming slightly as she reached for her feet, antsy to get her socks off her feet. When she wasn’t wearing her sneakers or her favorite cowboy boots, she was always barefoot.

"I'm sure I could pass." Chuckling, Howie watched her, reluctantly slipping away to undress, hurrying as he did, wanting to have her body next to his again. Forever. Smiling at the thought, he turned to look at her, slightly taken aback to see she was sitting up in the bed, staring at him. She held one knee to her chest, her gaily-painted toes wiggling against his sheet in a silent invitation. Tilting her head to one side, she gave him a sweet smile.

“It was a nice show,” she explained with a cute shrug of her shoulders, unable to hide the sweet smile that was naturally turning into an impish grin. She had first thought about looking away, completely oblivious to the fact he was undressing till she managed to pull off her socks. But, when she glanced up, she truly couldn’t help herself. His body was absolutely amazing. Trim, fit, and sculpted with a sleek musculature that would always keep her warm during the coldest, scariest nights. She loved him so much and he enticed her sexual fantasies unbeknownst to him.

Smirking, Howie crawled back into bed, pulling her down into his arms. Tickling her lightly, he nuzzled her neck. "You're wearing far too many clothes now, Honey," he murmured, smoothing his hands over her stomach. Breathing in her scent, he held her close, still amazed he had such a wonderful woman in his life.

"Howie!" Cheyanne squealed, wriggling away from him. "I am extremely ticklish! Stop!" she cried as his fingers continued their trek over her body. Each touch sent a shiver down her spine, completely unrelated to being ticklish. Gasping for breath, she turned to face him, covering his lips with hers unexpectedly.

Howie’s lips curved into a playful smile between the kisses, unable to deny how truly good it felt to be connected to someone again. To someone who seemed to fit so perfectly into his soul. And, because of his passion for her, he could hardly contain himself, working steady kisses against her mouth, listening to her giggle slightly as his tongue played at the corner of her mouth before seeking entrance to dance with hers. Soon, he was surprised to find that her giggles were turning into the softest of whimpers, seeming to beg for more. The whimpers fueled the heat pooling in his lower half, enticing his hands to softly roam down to her ripped and tattered jeans, easing them off her hips.

“I love you, Howie,” Cheyanne confessed softly as he allowed her a breath, moving his kisses to the side of her neck. She could feel his hands against her bare legs as he carelessly tossed her jeans toward the floor. She took several gulps of air then, tensing with delight as Howie guided his hands upward from her toes to the outside curve of her hips. His trail seemed to leave a burning map against her soft, prickled flesh. She bit down hard on her bottom lip, allowing her sapphire eyes to flutter open in hopes to catch a mere flicker of his dark chocolate eyes. She needed him to know truly. “I love you so much.”

"I love you too, Cheyanne," he murmured, meeting her eyes with his. One hand slid to cup her face, his thumb tracing her lips lightly. The desire he felt for her was so strong he could barely think straight, but he needed her to know his feelings. Fumbling for the words, he looked into her eyes for a long moment, still unable to believe she was his. "Welcome to my heart," he whispered before kissing her again.

The sweetness of his words touched her heart in a way that she would never be able to explain fully, but she was convinced that she could at least show him her gratitude. Show him how much she wanted to be loved by him. How much she just wanted to love him. Making love had never really seemed like something attainable in her life, especially when Noah just took her virginity as if it were a piece of candy. But, the taste of Howie’s sweetness and his words convinced her otherwise, causing her body to physically cry out for his touch. She had never felt such a hard fluttering sensation in her stomach before. As if every butterfly she had collected over the years was taking flight at the same time. And, when Howie pulled back suddenly to look at her, she gasped softly at the sudden chill it provided, though she heated just as quickly when she watched Howie’s eyes rake over her still clothed body. But, when his eyes lingered at her bikini briefs, she blushed. Austin had gotten her a set that read RN – Real Naughty for graduation. “Welcome to my underwear?” she stated with obvious question, hoping to be cute.

"You think you're cute, don't you," Howie stated, running his finger along the line of skin showing below the hem of her shirt. Feeling her shiver, he eased her shirt up, caressing each bit of skin as it was exposed. Lowering his head, he traced her skin with his lips as she sat up, allowing him to pull the shirt over her head. Dropping his lips to her shoulder, he gave her a winsome smile. "You? Naughty? I don't believe it. Not my sweet little Cheyanne," he murmured, sliding his hands up her sides, moving them forward to cup her breasts. His boxers were painfully tight, his heart racing at each stage of their foreplay, but he had to make sure she wanted to continue before he went any further. "Chey…"

“It’s okay,” she promised with a sharp gasp, still not prepared for the feverish sensations exploding inside her body with every move Howie made. She was in a haze of ecstasy, willingly falling into Howie’s arms despite the pains she felt. She just wanted to let him love her, so she could forget her troubles for just a few moments. Just so she could feel complete for once. She had never made love in her life and she didn’t know what to expect. When Noah left her, she had been bleeding and sobbing. She feared the implications of this night, but knew she couldn’t possibly deny Howie the pleasure. Nor could she deny the pleasure of having Howie. She trusted him more than she had trusted any man in her life. Biting on her bottom lip, she leaned forward to take Howie’s bottom lip into her mouth for a promising kiss. “I really want this. I really want you. Just you and only you. Please?”

Please. The word sent a shiver through him, making him long for her even more. No one had ever said the things she was saying. Then again, no one ever meant so much to him. Sliding his hands up, he guided the straps of her bra over her shoulders, quickly unclasping it and removing it, biting back a moan when her breasts were free. One hand slid to her neck in a gentle caress, the other straying to touch her breast. Cheyanne gasped, pulling him down for a kiss, arching her body next to his as her legs spread to cradle him. "Chey," he whispered against her lips.

“I love you,” she promised again and again as their lips broke, her arms reaching around him to caress the taunt muscles of his back. She shivered again when his lips move against her jaw, to nibble on her earlobe, back along her neck, down the center of her throat, and the rest of the kisses remained within the valley between her breasts. She could hardly control her breathing as her hands entangled within his short, dark locks, the passion consuming her taking her to the brink of madness. She bit down hard on her bottom lip, feeling his hardness growing between their layers of underwear, releasing the softest, most arousing moan Howie had ever heard.

Feeling her hands on the waistband of his boxers, Howie moaned softly, gulping nervously when her fingers slid inside. Dear God. He was certain he would explode if she-- "Chey," he gasped when he felt her warm hands on his rear.

“I got excited,” she attempted to explain sweetly as Howie pulled away slightly to catch her shimmering sapphire eyes. Slowly, her hands traced up from his backside to his back, then down his chest. She then smiled quite triumphantly as she held his boxers in her hands, almost as if it were some kind of victory. The smiles and laughs made it easier for her to let go of her past, knowing Howie would be gentle and loving.

"I've been excited," he admitted with a smile as his erection rested against her stomach. Cheyanne's mouth opened in a surprise 'o,' but was quickly replaced with a pleased smile. Tossing his boxers aside, she wriggled closer to him, wantonly hooking one leg over his hip. Did she have any idea that each move drove him crazy with desire? Covering her lips with his, he kissed her hungrily, his hands moving to the waistband of her briefs. In one fluid motion he removed them, heard her soft whimper as his arousal pressed against her. Sensibility set in, and he leaned back slightly. "Chey… I… I need something."

Cheyanne studied his worrisome face with confusion, watching him blush with obvious embarrassment. But she didn’t truly understand what he was talking about as her blonde brows furrowed in attempts to clarify the meaning of his words in her head. She could only fidget slightly, antsy to feel him inside her as the heat of his arousal pressed against her inner thigh, waiting quite impatiently for its permission to enter. Then, through some spot of clarity in her hazy world of passion, she realized what he meant and shrank back with disappointment. At first she wanted to tell him not to worry. That there was no way he could even possibly get her pregnant, because she was already with child. But, instead, she moistened her bottom lip with anxiousness, not wanting to push him. “Oh…”

Mind racing for possibilities, Howie could think of only one likely solution. Hating to leave her, he pulled the covers over her naked form. "Wait right here, Honey," he murmured, pressing soft kisses along her neck in hopes they would be enough to tide her over until his return. "I love you, and I'll be right back." Slipping his boxers on, he slid from the bed, praying fervently that Kevin would be sober enough to comprehend what he needed.

Uncomfortably, Cheyanne pulled the covers Howie had used tighter around her nude body. She felt her body strongly ache for Howie to return as she leaned back on the pillows, clasping her hands over her flat abdomen. She couldn’t help but think that possibly this might be her punishment for not telling Howie the truth. There had been the perfect opportunity, yet, she concealed the truth, making him dash for some protection that he didn’t even have to worry about. Bowing her head, she just looked at the sleekness of her tummy underneath the sheets, wondering what she’d look like as it grew. Wondering if she’d have Howie around anyway…

The door opened to admit Howie, grasping something in his hand. Shutting and locking the door behind him, he leaned against it, gazing at the sweet innocence laying in wait for him. Nothing like… Shaking his head to clear the images he'd just witnessed from his mind. Smiling triumphantly, he rejoined Cheyanne in the bed, sliding under the covers next to her. "Where were we?" he whispered, sliding one hand under the pillow, the other returning to her breast.

“We were close…” Cheyanne answered softly, leaning back as Howie leaned toward her. Only, he didn’t really seem to notice her hesitation, beckoning her close with his sweet cinnamon breath carrying her name. Slowly, she cleared away her pessimistic attitude, framing his face with her hands. Leaning, she worked soft kisses against his lips before slowly teasing his tongue with her own, knowing that she finally deserved to be loved by a man. That she deserved to be happy. Even if this was the last moment of happiness in her life. It would be well spent.

She heard the soft crinkle under the pillow, and, blushing, looked away as he reached between them. His hand landed on her inner thigh, stroking her gently, making her shiver and moan in anticipation. His arousal was there, pressing against her, and she held her breath, looking into his eyes as his hands slid to her hips.

“I love you, Cheyanne,” Howie promised softly, hesitating just at her opening as he steadied both of them. He noticed the flakes of worry crossing over her deep sapphire eyes, which caused him to slow considerably. He took several deep breaths, gently massaging her hips underneath his hold. He had to make sure she knew the depth of his adoration for her was far beyond any need for a physical connection. They could wait if she wanted. He would wait forever for her. No matter what.

“I love you, too,” Cheyanne agreed, reaching to wrap her arms around his neck. Drawing his body closer, Cheyanne helped Howie ease into her tight womanhood. It was a slow process and Howie waited patiently once he was fully engulfed. She whimpered slightly with pain at the sharp sensation of herself adjusting to his thickness, burying her face against the crook of his neck so tears wouldn’t break. “…Please be careful…”

"Always…" Howie knew he would always be careful with her. He couldn't imagine anything in the entire world that would feel greater to him than making love with his Cheyanne. The sensations rushing through him were almost overwhelming, and he had to hold onto her for a long moment, fighting to calm his racing heart. "Chey… Honey…" He needed her permission to continue. He had to be sure she was ready, he didn't want to cause her anymore pain than he already had.

“O-Okay,” Cheyanne whispered against his shoulder, softly kissing his warm flesh as she rubbed her hand against his back. She took several deep breaths as Howie laid her against the soft pillows of his bed, making sure she was completely comfortable. When their eyes met, she nodded for confirmation. “I’m okay. I promise.”

Sliding his hands to her knees, he gently pulled her legs around him, laying his entire body against hers as he began his slow, gentle thrusts. Her hands moved over his back, a soft moan escaping her as she did so. He could feel her slowly begin to relax, could tell by the way her lips traveled his neck that she-- "Chey," he growled when she nibbled on his earlobe.

God, Howie, please,” she breathed with disbelief against his ear, unable to hide the delighted smile as she accompanied his movements. It felt like large waves of ecstasy were washing over her body with Howie’s tender movements. Soft whimpers and moans mixed within her labored breathing, locking her arms around the back of his neck. Ducking her head, she moved her kisses back to his neck before nibbling hungrily at his throat, dipping even further to place her kisses on his chest, where his heart was pounding.

“Damn Honey,” Howie choked in shock as he glanced down at his lover, unable to explain the overwhelming tide of emotions that had crashed against his soul when she kissed his heart. It was a simple kiss. Just the brush of her lips. But the implications meant so much more. Especially as he brought himself closer to nibble on her neck, the process of his thrusts picking up as the heat began to accumulate between them into molten lava. He smiled as her whimpers grew just a tinge louder, telling him that she was getting closer to her explosion of fervor. “I’m going to keep you forever.”

“As long as you love me like this all the time,” she cried softly with pleasure, her impish streak finally beginning to peek as her arms tightened around his neck and her legs around his waist. She pulled him as close as she possibly could to her, rotating her hips to enhance the pleasures of the moment. Her body was screaming for release, but she wanted to prolong the sensations. To never let the moment stop.

"That's one promise I never intend to break," he breathed, dipping his head. Flicking his tongue over a collarbone moist with perspiration, he thrust deeply into her, crying out at the sensations. He wanted to scream, to laugh, to cry, so deliriously happy he could barely believe it. Closing his eyes, he moved his hands to her shoulders, wanting to feel as much of her body against his as humanly possible.

“Howie…” Cheyanne whimpered hard, repeating his name incessantly as the wall building against her climax started to quickly crumble. She accidentally bit her nails into his back in attempts to pull him closer, wincing when he cried out slightly with pain. Releasing his back, she reached to cup his face as they continued to move against one another, whimpering when she caught his bottom lip with her mouth. She suckled on it gently before bringing her lips up to kiss him passionately. To apologize. “I’m sorry, Howie… I’m so close…”

"I am too, Chey. So close… Don't hold it in, Sweetheart…" Tangling his fingers lightly in her soft curls, he held her mouth next to his. "Cheyanne…"

“I love you, I promise, with everything that’s in me. I love you,” Cheyanne promised yet again, arching sharply against his hot body when she finally allowed herself to release. It was like a tsunami of passion crashing against the shoreline, causing her entire body to quake beneath him. Reaching to offer him another kiss, she actually released a soft scream of enchantment inside his mouth.

Unable to form words, Howie sucked her tongue into his mouth, thrusting one final time as wave upon wave crashed over him. Collapsing against her, he struggled to breathe, barely able to shift to her side as he brought her to him for a gentle kiss. Holding her close, he smoothed her hair as she trembled. "I love you, Chey," he whispered against her lips.

“Don’t leave me,” she whimpered softly, curling as close as possible within his embrace while she buried her face against his hot, sweaty chest. She inhaled the musky air of his natural scent, her lips curling into a pleased smile. She loved him.

"Never," he whispered, pulling the covers over them. Tucking them carefully around her. Closing his eyes, he pressed a soft kiss to the top of her head. "I'll never leave you," he promised, wrapping his arms around her. "Never," he affirmed again.
Welcome to my Heart by Anastacia
Chapter 12 – Welcome to My Heart

Austin grumbled incoherently with a long string of expletives as she staggered down the hallway of the warm cabin, wondering how it could physically be possible that she had such finally making love with Kevin last night but waking up with such a monstrous headache. She could only account for the thick, foamy beer Kevin had selected for their party the previous night, knowing that she’d never be able to challenge him to a drinking contest again if that was his choice of beverage. She still seemed to carry a bit of the buzz, too, attempting to hold onto the wall as a bit of leverage while she fumbled to stand upright. The whole house seemed to sway beneath her feet, but the brewing scent of strong coffee had pulled her from Kevin’s warm embrace. She looked like a zombie as she reached into open air, hobbling into the kitchen to find Cheyanne sitting a plate of light, fluffy eggs, toast, and a large mug of coffee fixed to her exact liking on the table. Moaning with ecstasy, Austin leaned to embrace Cheyanne, loudly smacking a kiss to the back of her head before falling into the open seat. “I love my Chey-Chey!”

“You’re welcome,” Cheyanne answered, running her fingers carefully through Austin’s wild locks as a bemused grin crossed her face. The older woman was always a sight the morning after a hard night of partying. And, like always, Cheyanne greeted her death-like appearance with a hearty meal that would settle her friend’s stomach without incidence. She had completely forgotten about the ugliness that had happened last night, too caught within her nurturing side to worry about pettiness. She wanted to make sure that Austin was well taken care of, Kevin and Howie, too. After all, she had woken up quite early with the child getting her violently ill. She had feared she might wake Howie, but he slept peacefully, turning onto his opposite side when she slipped away. But, after she had gotten sick repeatedly, she couldn’t curl back into bed. So, she went to work cooking, leaving Howie a note on his pillow with some of her favorite lyrics. “…Is Kevin right behind you?”

"I have no idea," Austin admitted, taking a hearty gulp of her coffee. "He was still asleep when I got out of bed…" A smile played at the corners of her mouth when she thought of his warm body curled next to hers the entire night. It had been such a comfort, waking up still in his embrace…

“Love’em and leave’em, that’s her motto,” Kevin jibbed with a groan, stumbling into the empty chair right next to his lover. As soon as Austin had left him, he had felt a difference within his sleep. Rolling over onto her slightly cooler portion of the bed had seemed to rouse him fully. He had actually feared she left during the middle of the night, until he heard her cursing in the bathroom, obviously missing the seat several times. So, he followed and he swayed slightly at the upright position, immediately bracing both of his hands on the table to steady himself. He attempted to blink rapidly to clear away the sleepiness, but feared that most of the symptoms were from the hangover.

“She did it to me first,” Cheyanne teased softly, getting up to serve Kevin a plate of food and a mug of coffee. Balancing them easily in her arms, she carried them back to the table, setting his place right in front of him and then revealing the two Tylenol in her hand. He looked genuinely surprised as he stared at her small hand, causing her to furl her light brows with confusion. “Tylenol… Those might help, too.”

"Thanks," Kevin said softly, taking the pills. Popping them into his mouth, he swallowed them quickly, turning his bleary gaze to the plate in front of him. Holy Hell… "You did this?" he asked, amazed. After the way he'd treated her, he wouldn't have been surprised to find a snake in his bed. "You're not trying to poison me, are you? Did I just swallow some death pills?"

“Why would I poison you?” Cheyanne questioned incredulously, moving to seat herself on the opposite side of the wooden dining table. She reached for her cold glass of orange juice, sipping easily so she wouldn’t upset her stomach. She had done enough vomiting to last her a lifetime, especially as she stared helplessly at her own piece of toast. She had no desire to put it into her stomach, though she knew she had to.

"I think that was my half-dead attempt at humor… After the way I acted last night, Angel… I haven't said I'm sorry yet, have I?" Propping his elbows on the table, Kevin blinked rapidly before focusing on her face. "I'm sorry. I was drunk and upset, which is no excuse, but I hope you can forgive me."

"Are you shouting on purpose, or is it just me?" Austin asked, holding her head in her hands.

“It’s you,” Kevin promised, watching Austin attempt to reach her hot mug of coffee, only miscalculating the distance and completely missing. He attempted not to laugh as Cheyanne actually giggled, causing Austin to curse with annoyance. Trying to muster his composure so he wouldn’t be slapped, he glanced to Cheyanne again. “Angel, you will forgive me, right?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Cheyanne easily replied with her charmingly sweet smile, waving her free hand to show him there was no animosity between them. “But… Angel?”

"Angel," Kevin repeated with a smile, pushing Austin's mug into her hand. "I rarely lose my temper like that--"

"My ass," Howie muttered good naturedly as he strolled in. Grinning, he crossed the kitchen to drop a kiss on Cheyanne's head before moving to the coffee. "Did you two sleep well?" he asked with a chuckle.

“Extremely well,” Kevin promised as he felt Austin’s hand drop to his thigh with a tender massaging motion. His lips curved into a lazy smile as he watched Howie prepare his coffee while Cheyanne stood to give him the rest of the breakfast waiting in the pan. Turning, he watched as Cheyanne shifted her weight to one foot, curling her opposite foot behind her so she could reach to faintly stroke Howie’s calf. And, like lightening, Kevin’s memory flashed backward to the previous night. He remembered making love to a screaming Austin as Howie tentatively snuck in, murmuring something about needing help. Kevin had to stop everything he was doing with Austin just to catch Howie’s drift, though he caught more of Howie’s erection than he cared to see. Devilishly, he couldn’t resist as he languidly sipped on his coffee. “I bet you’re exhausted.”

Cheyanne's eyes widened as Howie turned to stare at Kevin. "Excuse me?"

"Chey, I had the craziest dream last night," Austin announced, nibbling on her toast. "I dreamed that Howie came in asking Kevin for a condom or something." Shaking her head, she reached for her fork, muttering a curse when she knocked it into Kevin's lap.

Kevin chuckled as he reached to grasp the fork for her, knowing she’d probably pinch him far too hard or possibly stab the fork into his crotch if she did it. “That’s really funny, Princess, because I dreamt the same thing. And Howie had a really huge--”

“You two were so plastered last night, no wonder you had crazy dreams,” Cheyanne interrupted with a furious blush, handing Howie his plate of food before ducking into the fridge to retrieve the carton of orange juice. Holding her breath, she carefully walked back to the table, making sure to busy herself with filling her glass so she didn’t have to look to Austin. “Besides, I’m not allowed to be with him. So why would he need that? Right, Austi?”

"Actually," Austin said, sneaking a glance at Howie, who still stood by the coffeepot, "I'm starting to think he's a decent guy."

"Starting to?" Kevin repeated, giving her a look that told her she was nuts.

"He's good for you, Chey," Austin went on, giving her friend a smile. "Hell, I can't throw stones, I've been sleeping with Pretty Boy here," she said, pointing at Kevin with her fork. Leaning over the table, she whispered conspiringly, "Go for it, Chey."

Already did, Cheyanne thought with a furious blush creeping to her cheeks, but she nodded with a soft, shy smile nonetheless. It was easier to let Austin think that Cheyanne had waited for her approval, so she wouldn’t have to ruffle her friend’s feathers. It may have been a small white lie, but she was used to them by now unfortunately. Clearing those thoughts, however, Cheyanne leaned to kiss Austin’s cheek. “Thanks, Austi.”

"What's on the agenda for today?" Howie asked, hoping to change the subject as he moved to take a seat. Glancing at Cheyanne's plate of toast, he raised a brow. "Is your stomach still troubling you, Honey?" he asked worriedly.

“I don’t eat that much in the morning,” she answered meekly, pushing the plate away as any desire for food drowned within Howie’s darkly troubled eyes. She hated lying to him and keeping such a large secret, especially when she had given all of herself to him the previous night. It made her feel so unclean. So unwholesome. She attempted to drop her gaze to her glass of orange juice, rubbing her index finger along the rim, listening to Austin and Kevin bicker about what they wanted to do. “Did you get my note this morning?”

Howie smiled as he remembered her sweet note, scrawled in her curvy hand. "I did," he affirmed, gazing at her. "What song were those lyrics from? They were… beautiful."

"Horseback riding?" Austin suggested with a yawn. "No offense, Pretty Boy, but I'm sure you've never been on the back of a horse in your life."

“Where You Are, Rascal Flatts,” Cheyanne answered softly, before turning to catch Kevin launching into a spiel about how he was raised in Kentucky as a matter of fact. She quickly cleared her throat, not wanting to listen to their bickering this early in the morning. “No offense. But, I don’t think either of y’all should get anywhere near a horse’s back today. Austi can’t even reach for her coffee cup without grasping at air and Kevin can’t even concentrate on an object without his eyes crossing.”

"Why don't we go?" Howie suggested, reaching to cover her hand with his. Though the idea of getting on a horse didn't appeal to him, if it would mean spending peaceful time alone with Cheyanne, it would be worth it. Anything to get away from Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

“Are you sure your crotch can handle that much pressure two days in a row, D?” Kevin tormented, causing Cheyanne to cringe with embarrassment. He didn’t mean to put such pressure on the young girl, finding her adorable, but it was the first time in awhile that Kevin actually could make Howie squirm. Something to get their minds off the pain at home. To actually enjoy themselves.

"What the Hell… What are you talking about Kevin?" Austin asked, looking around the table. She had been eating her food between her bickering with Kevin, and now felt lost at this turn in the conversation. Cheyanne's cheeks were crimson, and even Howie looked to be blushing. Draining her coffee, she got to her feet, bracing herself against Kevin's shoulder. "I think I need a shower," she muttered. "Y'all have fun with your riding."

“I’ll join you!” Kevin announced, hurriedly shoveling the rest of the food into his mouth. Once he was finished, he yanked the napkin against his face before stumbling onto his wobbly feet. He seemed to head in two different directions at once as he attempted to catch up to Austin’s slow pace. It looked as if neither two were leaving the cabin that day.

“Do you really want to go riding?” Cheyanne questioned offhandedly as silence consumed her and Howie. Unable to sit still, she reached to gather Kevin and Austin’s plates along with her own, carrying them to the sink. She pressed a hand to her forehead as she heard a loud thump within the bathroom, knowing there was no way in Hell that she’d step into that bathroom. Even if they both had fallen into the toilet at the same time.

"It sounds like fun," Howie assured her, digging into his eggs. "I remember seeing something in the brochure about different trails around the mountain. I'm sure it would offer quite a few breathtaking views." None would compare to her, surely. Hearing another loud thud from the bathroom, he rolled his eyes. "It'll get us away from that for a while," he added with a smirk.

“You don’t exactly look like a man who likes to straddle a horse…” Cheyanne trailed with a soft smile, seating herself at the table again to finish her orange juice for the added nutrients. Off handedly, she started to rub her index finger around the rim of her glass again, wincing at the loud sound of Austin’s already wild moans. “But we definitely should get away from that… There’s a swimming hole down the ways with a dock in the middle… Sunbathing and swimming?”

"Sounds perfect," Howie murmured, watching her finger against the rim of her glass. "How about we-"

"Kevin!"

"Leave right now?" he suggested with a chuckle.

*~*~*


“Chey, I will never understand how you can manage to learn those dances and look good. As southern as I am, I still look like fruit-cup line dancing,” Austin laughed heartily, shaking her head in sheer disbelief as she collapsed back on the couch. Twilight was approaching yet again and the women were lounging in the large living room, oblivious to the fact that both men had finished changing for bed and were watching in the hallway. They hadn’t expected to see much. Only, Cheyanne had gotten antsy with just the sound of the fire crackling, putting on Blake Shelton’s She Doesn’t Know She’s Got it on the boom box. And, when the twang of country melodies filled the air, Cheyanne couldn’t resist. Standing up, she easily moved her petite body into the sassy steps of the familiar line dances, adding her own twist into each movement. It was a modernized version of classics that she loved to perform, especially when Austin dragged her to various bars for evenings.

“Just act like you’re stomping on snakes, Austi,” Cheyanne teased, beckoning her friend up from the couch. She bit down on her bottom lip coyly as she curled her index finger in a ‘come hither’ manner. Howie found her alluring within the hallway, loving how innocent she looked despite the facial expressions in her Tinkerbell cami and baggy, light green, lounge capris. The seduction could only last for so long as Cheyanne started laughing again, reaching to grasp her friend to pull her up, though she went down to the couch for tickles instead. “Austi! That’s my favorite song!”

"Pretty Boy!" Austin cried as Kevin walked in. "Do you play the guitar?" she asked, gently pushing Cheyanne off her. She'd seen the guitar resting in the corner since their first night, but not once had she seen either of the men play it. Pulling Cheyanne into a hug, she rested her chin on her friend's shoulder, enjoying the peacefulness of the evening. She watched Kevin move to sit in front of the fireplace and couldn't help but admire the dampness of his hair highlighted by the amber flames.

“You are obsessed with him,” Cheyanne attempted to hiss with amusement toward her friend, but her mouth was quickly clapped shut by Austin.

“Actually, I don’t play the guitar,” Kevin answered with a chuckle, flexing his hands toward the crackling fire as he glanced behind him. He held an amused smile as he watched Austin wrap her legs around Cheyanne from behind, pressing kisses to the side of her younger friend’s face. The two girls interacted so sweetly toward one another and he found it charming. Though, Austin kept her gaze on him as she playfully tickled Cheyanne. “It’s Howie’s… If you ask him really nice, Princess, I bet he’d play…”

"You play the guitar?" Cheyanne asked excitedly as Howie lowered himself on the opposite end of the couch. "Would you play something for us?" Leaning against Austin, she tickled the bottom of her feet, giggling when Austin squealed.

"You have to turn off the boom box first," Austin said in a singsong voice, disentangling herself from Cheyanne. "And you know I hate having my feet tickled!"

Howie couldn't help but grin at their exchange, loving how familiar and at ease they were when with each other. "I think I can play something," he said, glancing worriedly at Kevin. What, though? All the millions of songs he knew, none of them seemed appropriate for the moment. Kevin gave him a gentle nod, and when he reached for the guitar he realized what song he should play.

“Please?” Cheyanne asked hopefully, hurrying off the couch to reach the boom box continuing to play Blake Shelton. Tapping the off button, she moved to sit on the floor as Austin stretched herself out on the rest of the couch. Her sapphire eyes sparkled against the soft lighting of the fireplace, excited to hear Howie play the guitar. She loved music. She was practically infatuated with music, finding her stomach knotting with passionate delight as Howie strummed a few chords in order to assure the guitar was tuned.

"I'm not saying it'll be good, Honey," Howie said softly, his stomach knotting with worry. What if she didn't like the song? "I just need Kevin's help," he added, glancing at his friend. Worse, what if they laughed at it? As Nick had the first time he'd heard it. Sucking in a deep breath, he pushed thoughts of Nick away as he began to play.
Cheyanne smiled just the same, reaching over to tenderly rub Howie’s knee for encouragement. She could see the glimmer of nervousness hiding with the depth of his dark eyes, but she knew, somehow, he’d be beautiful. And, with just a touch of encouragement, he began to strum the familiar chords. Cheyanne sucked in a small breath to hold as she felt her heart connect with the soft, delicate sweetness of the notes. Then his voice sang above the chords, causing her hand to move to her mouth in sheer amazement.

“Darkness falls I thought I heard you call / Or was it just a dream? / I'm a little scared knowing you're out there / So far away from me / It's been so long since you've been gone / Every day I miss you more / And I wanna know / Why did you have to go?/ What were you looking for? / And I hope you find your way / But I can't wait to say,” Howie sang softly, allowing his eyes to drift closed so he wouldn’t have to see Cheyanne’s face if she was disappointed. His heart hammering hard against his ribcage as he listened to the soft pat of Kevin’s hands offering a rhythm before they both joined in the chorus.

“You're home now, not alone now / These arms are here to hold you / No need to be afraid / So come in 'cause I've been / Waiting for the moment to open up this door/ And I know that it's not much / Welcome to my heart…”

Austin sat up slowly, pushing back a lock of hair so she could better see Kevin. He leaned against the hearth, his gaze on her. She felt a delightful shiver go through her at the timbre of his voice as he sang. The silhouette caused by the fire behind him gave him an almost ethereal quality, and she was so transfixed on him she didn't hear Howie as he continued to sing.

Kevin smiled with approval toward Austin, knowing exactly what she was thinking as the dark coffee color of her eyes began to brew. But, both sat at opposite sides of the living room somewhat, appropriately waiting as Howie continued through the song and Kevin filled in with the chorus when appropriate. Kevin was proud of his younger friend. So very proud. Usually he was frightened to sing by himself, especially in front of those who mattered most. After being broken down for being the shadows in the Backstreet Boys, Kevin honestly didn’t blame him. But he looked so comfortable with the guitar underneath his hold, singing one of his favorite songs. One of the songs that he had written.

“So you lost your way but that's yesterday / And I don't care where you've been / 'Cause every step taken since you left / Has brought you back again / And I hope you see it clear / My love's always right here…”

Cheyanne was near tears as the beautiful words and melody flowed through her. His voice struck something in her. He sounded so sincere, as though each word came from the heart. His words echoed in her mind. Welcome to my heart. Howie had quoted his song to her. Tears brimmed, and she hugged her knees to her chest, wanting only to wrap herself around him and never let go.

“And I'm glad you found your way / And I hope you're here to stay… Welcome to my heart…” Howie finished softly, his fingers easily moving across the strings to end the lovely melody. And when the final string was plucked, silence evoked both couples in the middle of the living room, only the fire crackling softly against the background. But, Howie took that as a dreadful sign, tensing his entire body as he settled the guitar over in its place again. Glancing to Cheyanne, he noticed the unshed tears glistening her sapphire eyes. It felt as if someone had kicked him in the gut. Yet another disappointment when it came to something he thought he loved to do. He took a deep breath, fumbling with a hurt smile as if it didn’t matter. “I told you it wasn’t good…”

“Howie,” Cheyanne breathed with disbelief, shaking her head fiercely as she stood. She wasted no time crawling into his lap, pressing the most tender kiss against his forehead as she curled her arms around his neck. She couldn’t believe he thought that it had been disappointing. She couldn’t believe that he hadn’t sang to her earlier. “It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I just… Howie, it’s beautiful…”

"Beautiful…" Austin echoed, sliding from the couch with a thump. Moving to sit next to Kevin, she placed a gentle hand on his arm. He was looking down at his clasped hands, and she covered them with hers. "That's a song sure to win a girl's heart," she murmured. As though he hadn't won hers already. Resting her head on his shoulder, she softly kissed his cheek. "Among other things," she added coyly.

“I already took a shower…” he warned with a smile, reaching with his hand to cup her cheek, brushing his thumb along her cheekbone. He loved the way her dark eyes had brewed into a sweet, light mocha. Burning for desire for him. Only him. And he wanted her just as much as he leaned to capture her lips in a thankful kiss.

Holding Cheyanne to him, Howie slid his arms around her waist, pressing soft kisses on her cheeks. "Did you really like it, Honey?" he asked softly, needing her reassurance. Needing to know that she wasn't just saying it to make him feel better. Though he knew she would never lie to him, he had to know. "I sang it just for you," he murmured in her ear.

“Sweetheart, it was amazing,” Cheyanne promised, cupping his face within her hands as she pressed their foreheads together. She couldn’t erase the delighted smile from her face, even as she listened to Kevin heave Austin in his arms, walking toward their favorite place in the cabin – the bedroom. She didn’t care though, oblivious to whatever they might do as she rubbed her thumbs against Howie’s soft cheeks. “It was so beautiful. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you had such an amazing voice… Or that you wrote songs… If I had known, I would have let you do the humming and the singing… I mean, my God, you can always sing to me, okay?”

Smiling, Howie turned his head to kiss her palm. "If you're sure, Honey. Shoot, if it'll get this kind of sweetness from you, I'll sing forever," he said with a chuckle.

“Are you trying to say that I’m normally not sweet to you?” she pouted, attempting to hide a giggle at the light feeling of his lips against the center of her palm. She couldn’t deny the shivers racing down her spine, not only from the kiss, but his beautiful voice. It seemed like such a shame for him to waste such a fantastic gift.

"You're too sweet sometimes," he mused, moving his lips to her wrist. "Don't ever change, Honey. I love you sweet and innocent, just as you are."

"Not so much innocent anymore," she teased with a giggle, lifting his head for a sweet kiss, hoping he wouldn't see the flush creeping into her cheeks. Her stomach fluttered lightly at the touch of his tongue, and she knew it would only be a matter of moments before they followed Kevin and Austin's lead.
I?d Like a Beer by Anastacia
Chapter 13 – I’d Like a Beer

"You want to go where?" Howie asked incredulously as he followed Cheyanne into the living room. "A bar?"

"You know, Howie. One of those places that has karaoke and this long counter and they serve drinks? And sometimes they have jukeboxes and pool tables," Cheyanne teased, dropping onto the couch. "Austi!" she called out the open door. "Y'all wanna go to a bar and have some fun?"

“Bar?” Austin chirped with excitement, dragging Kevin into the living room with a squeal. He looked almost as bewildered as Howie did at the suggestion, but she didn’t care. Her dark eyes glittered with excitement at the suggestion, ready for a little rowdiness in the night. Not that she didn’t love spending time at the campsite, but sometimes a little trouble offered her a thrill, not to mention extra spunk with Kevin in the bedroom. “The Brass Rail?” she guessed, knowing Cheyanne’s thought patterns too well. And, when she received a nod, she squealed again, tugging Kevin toward the bedroom. “We need to get changed! Hurry! Drinks go on sale soon!”

“Why do you want to go to a bar?” Howie lamented yet again as Kevin’s bedroom door slammed closed again, obviously the couple wanting to help one another with wardrobe. Not that he didn’t enjoy a club scene, but he worried how different it would be in the country. What if he didn’t fit in? More importantly, what if he didn’t fit into Cheyanne’s life?

“Because it’s a lot of fun,” Cheyanne answered, hopping over the back of the couch so she could travel into Howie’s bedroom. Most of her things had been moved in there because she couldn’t deny the pleasure of sleeping with Howie every night. Leaning against the drawer Howie had provided her, she started to sift through her clothing, noticing Howie lingering at the door. “Why are you so worried? It’s not that smoky and everyone is really nice. The dancing is fantastic.”

"I'm not worried," Howie replied, watching her pull out clothes. "Is it a decent bar? I mean, there isn't going to be a bunch of drunk hillbillies--"

"Hillbillies? Howie!" Cheyanne admonished, pelting him with a shirt. "Come on, aren't you going to change?" she asked. "You can't go to The Brass Rail in that."

“What am I supposed to wear?” Howie teased, matching the horror in her voice, though he was smiling as he inhaled the soft scent of her favorite perfume lingering in her shirt.

“Not that,” Cheyanne laughed, moving toward Howie’s drawer as she rolled her eyes at his baggy, track pants and snug wifebeater. He would be demolished if he stepped into the bar wearing that, not to mention some of his other sorts of clothing. Orlando, Florida seemed like a world away compared to the little country towns of North Carolina when Cheyanne surveyed his clothing. Though, luckily, she found a pair of loose, comfortable jeans and a simple, red, button down shirt that he could wear over the wifebeater. She smiled as she tossed them toward Howie, moving back to select her tank top and ripped, faded, flared jeans. Turning her back to face him, she peeled off her shirt, reaching for the tank top. “Those will work nicely.”

Across the hall, Austin plucked a green flannel shirt off a hanger. "This," she told Kevin, holding it out to him. "And those skin tight jeans you were wearing the other day." Flashing him a smile, even though he rolled his eyes, she dug into her suitcase that lay in the corner, contents spilling over the sides. She hadn't found time to truly unpack anything yet. Seemed every time she set foot in the room, he--

"Skin tight jeans? Princess, I hate to break your heart, but I don't own any skin tight jeans," Kevin drawled as he peeled off his t-shirt. "You're the one who's been stuffing yourself into denim like a sausage." Smirking when she shot him a glare, he opened a drawer, looking for the jeans she spoke of. "Not that I'm complaining…"

“Just shut up, Pretty Boy, and wear what I tell you,” Austin warned, stooping into her suitcase. She loved dressing to go to the bars, because the atmosphere was so laid back. What Kevin would typically wear in the city would be laughed right out of the bar. So, she was quite pleased with herself when she pulled out a pair of snug jeans and a beautiful, silk, royal blue cami. She wasted no time stripping out of her previous clothing, unable to be bashful in front of a man who’s name she constantly screamed throughout the day. Though, she had to admit she liked watching him dress more than concentrating on her own needs. “I love when Chey wants to go out.”

"Does she want to go out often?" he queried softly, watching her sit on the edge of the bed to pull on her high-heeled boots. Lowering himself next to her, he slowly buttoned up his shirt, his eyes on her as she moved to brush her hair. "She doesn't seem like much of a party girl."

“She is nothing like a party girl. She’s much happier staying home and watching movies… Which I don’t mind at all, because she’s great to cuddle up next to, but I love when we go out. She’s so cute dancing,” Austin laughed wistfully, pushing her dark, auburn locks behind her shoulders. She stood to smooth the jeans over her somewhat spiked boots, glancing up to see Kevin concentrating intently on her. “No way. She only takes ten minutes to get ready, Pretty Boy. And I ain’t letting her change her mind.”

Opening his mouth to inform her that ten minutes would suffice for the time being, Kevin muttered a curse when he heard a knock on the door, followed by Cheyanne's chirpy voice. "We're ready!"

"Just a minute!" Austin called, turning in front of the mirror. "Alright, Pretty Boy," she said as he pulled on his jeans. "Get your sexy ass in gear before we leave you." Blowing him a kiss, she stepped out into the hallway. Cheyanne was talking excitedly in the living room, asking Howie where the keys were. Turning, she leaned in the door and watched Kevin tucking his shirt in. "You're just going to take your sweet time aren't you?" she teased.

“If you would have given me what I wanted, I would have been a lot faster,” Kevin muttered, yelping in surprise when Austin grasped his hands and yanked him to the hallway. Without warning, her lips feverishly pressed against his, slipping her tongue hotly against his as her hands traveled the length of his front side. He could hardly hide the moan of enjoyment as she pulled away just as quickly. He winced at the bulge in his jeans starting to grow. “Damnit, Princess!”

"You'll live," Austin tossed over her shoulder as she went down the hall, adding an extra sway to her hips. "After all, we can't spend all our time in bed, can we?" Smirking, she grabbed her jacket off the back of the couch and slipped it on. "What happened to the two lovebirds?"

“We’re waiting outside for you!” Cheyanne called, popping inside the sliding doors with a Cheshire smile. She was fully prepared to step inside, until Howie’s arms snaked around her waist. She squealed softly in surprise as she was yanked backward, allowing Kevin and Austin to step outside on the porch. Kevin had to chuckle when he assessed Cheyanne’s outfit, deciding she was far too adorable for words. She had decided on a light lavender racer-back tank top which ended a few inches above her belly button to compliment the faded hip hugging, flared jeans with tears in the knees, and matched with her favorite pair of cowboy boots and cowboy hat topped over her spiral honey curls.

"I'll drive," Kevin offered, reaching for the keys Cheyanne held.

"Oh no you won't," Cheyanne said, stepping away from him. "I'm the designated driver tonight." Giving him a brilliant smile, she hooked an arm through Austin's and the two of them headed for the Escape.

"Off to the Brass Rail!" Austin shouted triumphantly.

"Why is it, when she says it, it sounds like some dim roadside dive without a clean bathroom?" Howie asked worriedly.

"Probably because it is," Kevin said with a chuckle. "Come on, before they leave us."

*~*~*


“So, do you think this is still some two-bit dive filled with drunken rednecks?” Cheyanne questioned with a playful smile, fiddling with the black straw in her sweaty Pepsi as she glanced sideways to Howie. They had spent at least a half hour in the bar and Howie had yet to move from his barstool. Instead, he just nursed his beer, watching all the couples on the dance floor, moving to southern twang that he had never been properly introduced to. He felt so out of place as he heard Austin’s distinct laugh, watching Kevin twirl her in a circle while they both balanced drinks in their hands. Kevin had been born in Kentucky and raised on this music. He fit so perfectly into Austin’s life, compared to how out of place Howie felt.

"I wouldn't say drunken rednecks," Howie murmured, picking at the label on his beer bottle. Cheyanne had removed her hat, balancing it on her knee as she sat next to him. That had been a small comfort. She'd taken a turn around the dance floor with Kevin, and he'd sat with a rambunctious Austin, who'd tried to talk him into a dance. He didn't even know how to dance like that…

“You’re not having a good time, are you?” Cheyanne sighed as she turned in her chair to lean back on the bar. Her foot tapped softly against the metal bar of her chair, obviously keep with the beats of her favorite songs. But she felt guilty leaving Howie by himself, even when Kevin had asked for a dance. She had suggested the bar on the off chance that Howie would enjoy himself. She knew Orlando was all hustle and bustle, so she wanted to show him that the country had its own night life. But she had failed miserably.

"I am, Honey, I always have a good time when I'm with you." Turning to face her, he took a sip of his beer as Austin's laugh reached them again. "I just don't fit in with this sort of crowd. I'm not rough and ready, work with my hands from sunup until sundown, stop at the bar and have a few with the boys on the way home. I never have been, Honey. But honest, I'm having fun, just being with you." Placing his hand on her arm, he gave her a smile.

Cheyanne playfully rolled her sapphire eyes as she leaned over to gently kiss his ear. “You are a terrible liar, Howie…” Only, before she could anticipate his reaction, she felt cool air hit the open knee of her jeans where her hat had been resting. Glancing up in surprise, she met a pair of dark navy eyes, which twinkled at her as a somewhat rough-skinned hand plopped the hat back onto her head. He was tall and somewhat thick, obviously well toned from years of working on his Daddy’s farm. He wore a light, plaid flannel shirt with a pair of faded blue-jeans and somewhat monstrous belt buckle. His deliciously white teeth seemed glow brilliantly. Even in the darkness of the dimly lit bar.

“What’s a pretty little lady doing sitting at the bar when she should be dancing?” he drawled with southern comfort that made Howie’s stomach knot in disgust.

“Enjoying the view?” Cheyanne guessed softly, far too nice to turn the man away as he tugged playfully on her black cowboy hat.

"Whaddya say you come dance with me and everyone else can enjoy the view?" he asked with a grin. "Something tells me a cute little thang like you knows how to move."

Cheyanne flashed him a sweet smile. "You don't mind, do you Howie?" she asked, glancing at him worriedly. He had just said he didn't feel comfortable here, and she didn't want him to think that she would just up and leave him.

“No, no, no,” Howie hurriedly replied, not wanting Cheyanne to think he was possessive. He wanted her to know that he trusted her completely. That he knew she would never break his heart -- But the burly man didn’t give Howie time to even assure himself as he grasped her hand, whisking her to the floor. So, pathetically, Howie watched as the love of his life twirled into the arms of another man. She didn’t even seem to notice how disappointed he was, only laughing sweetly when the man dipped her, easily leading them both into the line of intricate dancers. Though, unfortunately, Howie hadn’t given her any reason to stay. He should have said something. Anything… Damn, he needed another beer.

"Billy! Another beer!" Austin called over the music, climbing onto the stool vacated by Cheyanne. "Where'd Chey go?" she asked Howie as a cold beer was placed in front of her. Digging into her pocket for cash, she raised a brow when Howie placed a twenty on the table.

"Me, too," he said morosely, glancing over to see Cheyanne being dipped once again. Damn. He could be doing that to her. He knew how to dance. He could easily show her a few moves he was certain Bubba had never seen before. Damn.

“Howie?” Austin called again, watching him slug at least half the contents of the frosty bottle before gesturing haphazardly to the dance floor. Turning in the stool with her beer, she scanned the dancers, though it only took her a few moments to find her friend. Cheyanne was dynamic on dance floor. Something about her enthusiasm for life sparked within her personality, drawing everyone toward her. And, tonight was no different. She looked quite entertained as she danced with the cumbersome cowboy, laughing in surprise when he grasped her hips to pull her close, moving them as a single unit. She didn’t realize that the man was close to taking advantage of her, causing Austin to whirl in her seat with a sour look for Howie. “Do you not understand the concept of double dating?”

"I didn't want to stand in her way. She wanted to dance," Howie said defensively, taking another slug of his beer.

“You mean you were chicken shit and didn’t have the balls to ask her to show you even the simplest of steps?” Austin guessed coolly, hopping off the bar stool. “Just because this wasn’t your idea doesn’t mean that you can’t at least try to enjoy yourself. Chey hardly ever likes to come out to the bars and when she does, she just wants to dance. Is that too much to ask? Or are you too proud to make yourself look like an ass, too?”

"Austin," Howie grumbled, shaking his head. He wasn't in the mood for her attitude now.

"The guy asked her to dance. She asked if it was okay with me. I said go ahead. What's it matter? As long as Chey has fun, why do you care who she dances with?" Draining the rest of his beer, he slammed the bottle down on the bar before heading to the bathroom.

“What the Hell did you do to him, Princess?” Kevin asked in awe as he passed Howie, who purposely shoved hard into his friend’s shoulder in order to pass. He stumbled a few steps from the blow, immediately reaching to protect his upper arm while taking a seat next to Austin. “And where’s Angel?”

"She's dancing with some hick, and he has a stick up his ass because I told him what I thought about it," Austin replied, reaching for her beer. Leaning over, she rested her head on his shoulder. "Is the men's room decent?" she asked suggestively, watching Cheyanne and her partner coming off the dance floor as the song ended.

“It’s decent enough for what you want to do,” Kevin promised, slipping a kiss to her forehead as he watched the stranger loop his arm around Cheyanne’s waist, drawing her close. Instantly, Kevin became defensive of the gesture, noticing how tense Cheyanne became because of it. Not to mention the thoughts of Howie’s confessions about loving Cheyanne played within the background of his head. Howie was just too damn nice to do anything about the situation, much like Cheyanne. She was far too proper to say anything as the man practically pushed her against the bar, ordering two beers though she tried to nicely decline the offer. Annoyed, Kevin motioned toward Cheyanne which caused Austin to straighten. Freed from his love, he turned in his stool, narrowing his eyes at the man who was just a few inches shorter than him and spoke in a thickly coated southern drawl. “Would you like to tell me what the Hell you think you’re doing buying my pregnant wife a drink?”

Cheyanne's mouth dropped open at this, even as the man with her stumbled away, dumbfounded. "I had no idea, buddy," he stammered, tipping his hat at Cheyanne. "Thanks for the dance, ma'am." Swallowing hard, he quickly moved away.

Cheyanne murmured her drink order to the bartender, who turned to fix her another Pepsi. Shielding her blushing face from Kevin and Austin, she sat on a stool, mortified. Surely he didn't know? There was no feasible way he could have any idea. After all, it wasn't as though… "Where did Howie go?" she asked suddenly.

“He was too chicken shit--”

“He went to the bathroom for a few minutes. He promised he’d be right back,” Kevin immediately interrupted Austin, giving her a somewhat stern glance that told her not to be too harsh on the man. He was unfazed by Cheyanne’s somberness, oblivious to the truth about his statement. Especially as he ordered another drink, well, two more drinks when Austin signaled she was ready for another round. “He might have been a bit jealous about you dancing with that backwards hick.”

“Jealous?” Cheyanne wrinkled her nose in confusion as she kept her eyes locked on her new drink, taking several deep breaths to calm her nerves when Austin said nothing about Kevin’s ‘pregnancy’ comment. “I asked if he minded…”

"And he should have said yes," Austin muttered, rolling her eyes when Kevin gave her another stern look. "What? Would you let some hillbilly whisk me off for a dance without so much as a by-your-leave?" she asked seriously, propping one elbow on the bar.

Cheyanne snorted at this. "I can't believe you just said 'by-your-leave', Austi," she remarked with a giggle.

“She better just stick to drinking beer,” Kevin humored dryly, pushing his bottle towards her when he realized hers was almost half empty. He had to laugh when Austin smacked his shoulder, but refused to give the bottle back. Shrugging, Kevin motioned toward Cheyanne as he continued. “Howie’s a really sweet guy, but he’s probably three times over just as insecure with himself. He’s not going to stand up and say he’s jealous, because he worries what you’ll think. Just like he had a heart attack singing that song the other night. He just wants things to be perfect for you, Angel. Just like I want things to be perfect for Princess, though she makes it so difficult to do so.”

"Like you don't," Austin muttered, lifting the beer to her lips.

"Howie…" Cheyanne smiled slightly at the thought that he wanted everything perfect for her. Didn't he already know that having him in her life was perfection enough? Taking her drink with a smile, she slid from her stool. "Thank you, Kevvy," she cooed, leaning up to kiss his cheek before going in search of Howie.

“See? I am the man, despite what you try to say after some good loving,” Kevin tormented Austin, receiving a sharp slap on the shoulder in the process.

Cheyanne took a sip of her drink as she heard the sharp slap echo over the twangs of the music, trying not to laugh so the bubbles wouldn’t fizz uncomfortably in her nose. Austin and Kevin were definitely quite the pair when it came to romantic relationships. They way they interacted with one another was horrid to say the least, but the love that glimmered impishly within their eyes was unmistakable. Cheyanne was just relieved that she had finally found someone who could handle Austin’s temper, especially as she pulled her black cowboy hat low over her face while making her way to the restrooms. Leaning on the warm jukebox, she watched as Howie practically burst from the bathroom, quite agitated with the world. Immediately, she stood and walked over to offer him a sip of her cold soda. “I think I’d rather have my city boy than some hick working sunup till sundown and then taking off for a few drinks with his buddies.”

Howie gave her a dumbfounded look. "Huh?" Handing her soda back, he saw her sapphire eyes sparkling with a warmth that made his heart sing. "You mean…"

Cheyanne wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing kisses against his lips. "Like I'd ever want some hick over you," she murmured.

“Now, I’ll show you why they call me Cupid,” Kevin smiled with approval as he watched Howie easily embrace Cheyanne, exchanging her kisses for some of his own. Whistling, Kevin finished the last of his beer and grasped Austin’s hand. Weaving their way through the crowds, Kevin located the somewhat rickety piano, jumping onto the stage as he motioned for Austin to stop the juke box. Some of the crowd got a little disturbed, but Kevin instantly started to tickle the ivories to deliver a sweet, slow melody that Howie could surely dance to.

"Would you like to dance?" Howie asked softly, moving his hands to Cheyanne's hips, silently sending a prayer of thanks up above for such a wonderful friend as Kevin.
"With you, Howie? I'd love to," Cheyanne murmured, drawing him towards the middle of the dance floor.

Austin watched Kevin's long fingers played the ivory keys, his eyes downcast. She could tell by the placid look on his face that he was in his element, as though he belonged at a piano in a redneck bar in the middle of nowhere. No, she though with a slight smile as he began to play, he belonged on a stage. The song was unrecognizable to her, but it was slow and peaceful, taking over her senses as she perched on a stool at the bar. She couldn't help but admire him from her vantage point, the way his fingers easily brought the tune forth from the instrument. His head was bowed, as though in prayer, his eyes closed, long black lashes curling against his tanned cheeks. His lips parted slightly as he played, the tip of his tongue darting over them in a movement that was so erotic Austin nearly moaned.

And, when he was done creating a romantic mood for Howie, Austin dragged him into the men’s bathroom for their own ceremony.

*~*~*


“If either of them start choking on the other’s tongue… Am I obligated to stop the car in order to perform the Heimlich maneuver and CPR because I’m officially a Registered Nurse?” Cheyanne mused softly as she glanced into the rear view mirror to check for any cars so she could move into the opposite lane, but her view became unavoidably blocked by two fused heads. After a night at the bar, it was easy to say that both Kevin and Austin were overly inebriated. Probably to the point of alcohol poisoning. But, neither much cared as Austin straddled Kevin’s lap roughly, attacking his mouth with sloppy, heated kisses that were actually starting to make Cheyanne’s stomach churn. The moans, grunts, and growls from the backseat were unanimous between the two drunken fools, having already consummated such passion in the men’s bathroom before deciding it was time to take the show on the road. Cheyanne could only shake her head in disbelief, praying that no clothing would fly into the front and block her view of the road.

"Seeing as how Kevin's helping me pay for our vacation, I'd appreciate it if you did," Howie replied with a chuckle. "Austin, however…" his voice trailing, he patted her thigh lightly.

"I heard that," Austin mumbled from the backseat.

"Yeah?" Howie returned, shaking his head.


"If I didn't have Kevin's hand down my pants right now, I'd--"
"Austi!"

“Yeah! Princess! Back to putting your pants down my hands--”

“Don’t even correct him,” Howie quickly warned, moving to adjust the mirror so Cheyanne wouldn’t have to see what was happening in the backseat as she pulled into the dirt road of their resort. He even made sure to avert his own eyes from any of the mirrors in the car, reaching instead to rest his hand on Cheyanne’s upper thigh. In all his years, he never thought he’d ever see the day when Kevin became hornier than Nick and AJ combined.

“Despite this drive home… Did you at least have fun?” Cheyanne questioned Howie softly, reaching to turn the radio a bit higher as Austin released a sharp squeal. Cheyanne could only imagine what Austin had found on Kevin as she reached to run her fingers against the back of Howie’s hand, able to steer the car with her opposite hand.

Smiling, Howie enjoyed the feel of her fingers on him. "Well, after I loosened up and we had our dance, I had fun. And watching those two act like morons was enjoyable as well," he added with a shake of his head.

"Princess!" Kevin exploded from the backseat, immediately followed by the sound of tussling. "You little--"

"Oh, good Lord," Cheyanne muttered, pulling up at the cabin.

“Would you two please get dressed, we’re back at the cabin!” Howie ordered as if he were directing children, watching Cheyanne immediately hopping out of the driver’s side to get away from the scene. He felt his heart drop, thinking she was going to run up the stairs and leave him with the drunken fools, but she coyly pulled open his door. He must have looked panicked, because she giggled.

“Did you think I was leaving you to lug them both in by yourself?” she mused.

"The thought crossed my mind," he admitted, climbing out. "You get her, I'll get him?"
"I can get out of the damn car by myself!" Kevin insisted, flinging the door open. "I'm not a child!" Setting one foot on the ground, he made an adjustment to his jeans as Austin slipped over him to get out, falling against Howie in the process. "Princess, watch it, you--fuck!" he exclaimed before falling to the ground.

"Not a child? Good thing, or we'd have to wash your mouth out," Cheyanne teased.

Kevin spat the dirt from his mouth, coughing heavily at the disgusting taste, but still managed to look up at Cheyanne with disdain. “I’ll wash your mouth out with my di--”
“Whooo,” Howie breathed, reaching down to help his large friend off the ground. He watched as Cheyanne easily coaxed her friend into taking a piggyback ride, hurrying up the stairs in attempts to get rid of Austin even faster. Howie knew he’d probably have a difficult time giving Kevin a piggyback ride, thinking maybe he should have taken Austin instead of his plastered pal. “Time to get you to bed, Kev.”

“Whoooooo!” Kevin hollered loudly as he flung his arms over Howie’s shoulders, slobbering the side of his face with kisses. Suddenly, he burst into a round of laughter, finding something hilarious that Howie would never know about. “Bed!”

“Not with me, that’s for sure,” Howie breathed, cringing at the wetness running down his cheek as he stumbled with Kevin to the stairs.

"Where's my Princess? What has Angel done to my Princess?" Kevin asked loudly as he stumbled through the door. "I need my Princess in my bed before I--"

"For God's sake, she's right there!" Cheyanne cried, coming from the kitchen with a cold soda. "Do you have to be so loud?"

"I'm just--whoooooo!" Kevin exclaimed, leaning against Howie for support.

"Kev, are you drunk?" Howie asked with a smirk, wiping his face on his friend's shirt.

"Of course!"

“Would you just put him in--”

“I’VE DECIDED!” Austin declared quite loudly, sitting straight up on the couch that she had previously been slumping on in a death-like mask. She held her index finger up in the air as she had stroked a brilliant idea like some intelligent inventor. Her dark auburn locks were wild from her stirring passion in the back seat of the Escape, but she cared not as she forced her dark eyes wide as if that would cause the room to stop spinning. “I’d like a beer and I’d like to see something naked!”

“You don’t need another beer, trust me,” Howie groaned as he crossed in front of her as he pushed Kevin onto the couch beside Austin.

“OH! NOT THAT! NOT THAT!” Austin moaned loudly, falling off the couch in attempts to hide her cherry-red face so she wouldn’t have to see Howie’s naked form.

“I vote for Cheyanne to be the naked one!” Kevin suddenly announced out of no where.

"No! Cheyanne will not be getting naked for you!" Howie shouted, taking the cold soda from Cheyanne and shoving it into Kevin's hands. "That will never happen, Kev. Believe me. Now drink this and then you two seriously need to go to bed."

"For someone who cringed at the thought of us sleeping together a few days ago, Howie Bear sure likes to tell us to do it," Austin commented with a slight yawn.

"Alright! No Angel being naked. Got it!" Kevin said with a dramatic wave of his hand. Examining his fingers, he wiggled them in the air, as though suddenly transfixed by the notion he could move them. "Then I'll get naked!"

"Whooooo!" Austin hooted, sitting up straight.

“Kevin, I’m not joking--”

“I’m too sexy for my shirt… I’m too sexy for my shirt…” Kevin started singing in a loud baritone voice, so far off key that Cheyanne thought animals would start to scatter from the forest. But, she couldn’t resist laughing in sheer disbelief as he started to remove his shirt. Fumbling with the buttons as he rocked his pelvis in a peculiar manner, he soon realized that there was no way that the shirt would fit over his head. Grumbling, he just yanked it off, buttons going everywhere as Austin screamed for someone to find her purse for some dollar bills. Kevin seemed fueled by the energy, yanking haphazardly on his pants to drop them to the floor. Only he couldn’t kick them off as he stumbled. “I’m too sexy for my pa—I’m too sexy for—my—D, can you help me with my sexy pants?”

“C’mon, Kevin, I’ll help you with your sexy pants,” Cheyanne interrupted before Howie could loose his temper with sheer exasperation. Much like she was taking care of a mentally ill patient, she helped support his heavy weight on her tiny frame, leading him back to the bedroom.

“Angel’s too sexy for her shirt--”

“If you can get it off me, Kevvy,” Cheyanne laughed from the hallway.

“Angel… I swear to drunk I’m not God…” Kevin stated with the utmost seriousness.

"Oh my God," Howie moaned, shaking his head in utter disbelief. Never, in all the years he'd known Kevin, had he ever witnessed such lunacy. This was definitely not something to write home about. Though, he mused with a chuckle, this was surely something he'd have to tell AJ about. "What are you doing?" he asked incredulously.

Austin peered up at him from her spot on the floor, one leg of her jeans pulled to her knee as she struggled with the zipper of her boots. "Pretty Boy's nearly naked," she stated simply, wrenching her boot off as though it were the most logical explanation. "Howie," she moaned plaintively, waving one arm crazily as though to get his attention, "I've fallen and I can't get up!”

“Oh, Austin,” Howie sighed, leaning down to toss her over his shoulder as if she were a sack of potatoes. She immediately giggled loudly at the change in posture, actually playing a rhythm of drums on Howie’s backside as he moved down the hallway. He tried to act as if it didn’t faze him, hurrying into Kevin’s bedroom to toss her into the free side of the bed. Somehow, Cheyanne had already managed to get Kevin underneath the covers, snoring loudly with Cheyanne’s lavender tank top cuddled to his face, leaving her topless with just her favorite lavender bra hugging her.

“Don’t ask,” Cheyanne sighed as Austin continued to giggle loudly, moving to help her friend just as she had helped Kevin. Though, she stopped halfway with Austin’s boot, glancing back to Howie. “I can finish this. You can go get ready for bed.”

"Are you sure?" Howie pressed, already backing into the hall. "I'd be more than willing to help--"

"He just wants to see me naked," Austin whispered loudly.

"Austi, lay back okay? There will be no getting naked for you tonight, I assure you," Cheyanne said gently, tugging her boot off. "Go on, Howie. I've got it."

Howie followed Cheyanne’s instructions with a nod of his head, knowing there was a good possibility that if he stayed, he’d be seeing one too many inches of Austin’s naked flesh than he wanted. Though, as he traveled into his bedroom, he couldn’t help but laugh. Drawing off his own clothing and tossing it to a feeble pile toward the corner of the room, he collapsed face first into the soft bedding. He was exhausted. This night had been completely insane and Kevin probably wouldn’t remember a mere second of it when he awoke the next morning. That is, if he ever awoke.

“Never again,” Cheyanne’s voice projected out of no where, though Howie felt her body on top of his a few moments later. She had pressed her face into the warmth of his back, unable to resist offering just the touch of kisses to his flesh, lightly poking with her tongue. She honestly loved the taste of him. Then as quickly as she had offered the kisses, she drew away to get changed. “Thank God I had a mental health rotation though, otherwise…”

Lifting himself onto his elbows, Howie watched her move around the dimly lit room, a smile touching his lips as she pulled on a Mickey Mouse nightshirt. Rolling over, he gazed at her, patting the mattress invitingly as she ran a brush through her hair. "I can truthfully say that, after that ordeal with those two, I definitely don't want children," he said as she walked over to join him.

“No children?” Cheyanne questioned in surprise, stopping hard in the middle of pulling down the covers for both of them. Instantly, she dropped the covers from her hands and covered her abdomen as if she were protecting her child from Howie’s vision. She felt so sick to her stomach, unable to find a note of teasing in his voice nor a hint of a sarcastic smile. She hadn’t exactly planned on telling Howie about neither her pregnancy nor what any type of future would be like with him. In fact, for once, she had just been living in the moment of their romance. But his words yanked her from that carefree world, dousing her with the chilliness of her life’s decisions.

"Only ours," he said with a sweet smile, patting the mattress again. "Besides, were we to have kids, surely they wouldn't be that bad," he assured her. "Now come here, I want to hold you."

“Only ours? As in mine and yours?” Cheyanne questioned as Howie reached to pull her onto the bed. She didn’t feel any better than she had before. Were we to have kids

"Would you rather have Kevin's kids?" he teased lightly, wrapping his arms around her. Lying back with her, he nuzzled her neck. "Who else's kids would I be referring to?"

“Kevin did get my shirt to sleep with for the night…” Cheyanne trailed in attempts to rouse the joke, trying to ward off her ill willed feelings. Holding a breath to keep the emotional tears from falling, she snuggled down into Howie’s embrace. Lightly, she traced her fingers over his muscular arm, releasing the shakiness of her breath slowly. She had hoped she’d feel the warmth she had felt before. But now she just felt cold. So very cold.

Howie felt the tenseness of her body as he held her. "Honey? What did I say?" he asked worriedly, smoothing her hair. "I was just teasing about Kevin, you know that, right? Sweetheart… Talk to me. Tell me what's wrong?" Tracing her cheek with his finger, he urged her to look up at him.

“Nothing’s wrong,” Cheyanne instantly promised, biting down on her bottom lip as she glanced into his dark eyes. She could feel the tears threatening to fall, but she rubbed her face furiously to keep them away. She curled closer to his body, pulling the covers tightly around them to keep from shivering. Softly, she pressed shy kisses to his chest, just over his heart. “I love you so much, Howie…”

"I love you too, Chey… You wouldn't lie to me, would you?" Howie murmured, lightly rubbing her back through the nightshirt. Kissing the top of her head, he pulled her as close as possible and felt her shiver slightly. "Honey…"

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” Cheyanne promised, rubbing her fingers over the kiss she placed on his heart. She hated to offer that white lie, but there was no other choice. Howie would never accept the child growing in her womb, but she didn’t want to think about that. She didn’t want to think about anything. She just wanted to feel him. “Howie… Will you make love to me tonight?”

Pulling her over him, Howie captured her lips in a soft kiss, running his hands down her sides. "You bet, Honey. Just… you're wearing too many clothes," he whispered, teasing her bottom lip with his tongue. "I love you, Chey…"

“I love you, Howie, so much…” Cheyanne promised, drowning herself in the sensations instead of her worries. At least, for tonight.
Repercussions by Anastacia
Chapter 14 – Repercussions

The sunlight streaming through the open curtain landed squarely on Austin's face. Groaning, she rolled over, attempting to ward off the offending brightness. The covers wouldn't cooperate, and when she tried to burrow beneath them, the tree trunk across her waist wouldn't budge. "What the Hell…" Cracking one eye, she winced, closing it quickly as her head throbbed. Her voice sounded hollow, far away, as though she were listening to her own echo in a tunnel. Smacking her dry lips, she cracked one eye again as the tree trunk began to snore. Oh, thank God. It was only Kevin. Lifting her head slowly, she whimpered at the pain in her neck. Why the Hell was he lying across her? Pushing at him weakly, she whispered his name, though it didn't sound like a whisper. "Kevin!"

What?!” Kevin yelped in horror at the sound of Austin screaming his name. Startled, he pitched forward on the bed, doing an awkward somersault to the floor. He landed with a sharp smack onto his back, though the ceiling was mysteriously covered in a light lavender shroud. Clumsily reaching to withdraw it, he winced as the bright lights invaded his grainy eyes, immediately closing them just as quickly. But the soft scent of Cheyanne’s perfume lingered in the air, causing him to furrow his brows though his eyes were still sealed. Groping, he felt the soft fabric again, realizing it was Cheyanne’s shirt. And he tensed.

"Why are you screaming?" Austin moaned, pulling the covers over her head. The sound of her heartbeat pounding in her ears made her shriek with frustration, causing her to groan in pain. "What the Hell was I thinking last night?" she moaned plaintively, shoving her head under the pillow.

“You’re the one making all those damn noises,” Kevin grumbled, his voice gravelly from lack of adequate hydration. He felt as if every drop of water had been sucked from his body, leaving him in a pile of human dust. But, that was the furthest thing from his mind, especially as he continued to hold Cheyanne’s shirt within his hands. He thought of shoving it down his boxers, but that would probably look far more suspicious if he was caught. He struggled to remember what happened last night, but it was just a fog of black. At least he had been in bed with Austin. Wasn’t that a good sign?

The door crashed open suddenly, slamming hard against the wall, causing Kevin and Austin to each groan loudly. Cheyanne appeared, all smiles and warmth, her cheeks flushed prettily. "Whoooooooo!!!!" she shouted with a giggle, leaning in the doorway. "Good morning!"

Grumbling under her breath, Austin snuggled further down in the covers. "Go to Hell, Chey."

“That is not very nice, Austi,” Cheyanne cooed with a firm pout, tilting her head slightly as she noticed Kevin still perched on the floor. Her shirt was still clutched firmly in his hand as he tried to tuck it underneath his back. Deciding to pay them back for last night, Cheyanne scrambled inside, stepping on Kevin in order to jump on the bed, spinning in a circle with each bubbly jump. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! I want to go horseback riding today!”

Pushing the covers back slightly, Austin pulled her head from under the pillow and glared at her friend. "Out," she demanded weakly, her head spinning and stomach churning with each bounce from Cheyanne. "Kevin," she whined, looking at him for help. "Chey's acting all bubbly and perky!"

“Neither of you are in a position to do anything about me! So! Up! Up! Up! Let’s go! I want a good horse!” Cheyanne demanded with a giggle, obviously having a very good time making love to Howie last night… And that morning… And about ten minutes ago…

Sitting up slowly, Austin held her head in her hands. "I'm going to kill you," she threatened. "Kevin… You're big and strong… get her out. Please? I beg of you…"

Pulling himself to his feet, Kevin gripped the edge of the bed for support as his vision swam. Blinking hard, he looked at Cheyanne, who still bounced up and down on the bed, seemingly extremely happy with her life. "Oh God," he groaned, dropping her shirt to the bed as his stomach churned noisily.

“Oh!” Cheyanne perked even further than before, stopping her jumping for just a moment. Leaning down, she snatched her lavender shirt from the bed, hopping down so she could kiss Kevin’s cheek. “I forgot you took my shirt from me last night! Thanks!”

"You took her shirt? Why the Hell…" Austin's voice trailed, and she vaguely remembered Cheyanne helping Kevin to bed. "Did you… God… No, you didn't. Chey would never have let you… You pissfuck!"

“She was hot?” Kevin mused in attempts to explain himself, attempting to move when Austin reached to hit him. That only succeeded on sending him down to his backside, which seemed to be his most comfortable location after meeting the two girls. He groaned in pain at the sensation that jostled his head, immediately reaching to yank the covers away from Austin. “Howie hasn’t murdered me yet, so I know I didn’t do anything!”

“I was just too sexy for my shirt last night,” Cheyanne agreed, leaning against the wall in obvious amusement.

"I need sleep!" Austin shouted, yanking the covers back. "Preferably alone," she added before burrowing under the pillow again. "Without annoyingly bubbly people and men who steal their woman's friend's shirts," she mumbled, folding her arms over the pillow.
"What did she say?" Kevin asked groggily, looking at Cheyanne for help.

"She wants me to jump on the bed some more!" Cheyanne exclaimed, leaping onto the bed once more. "Up, Austi! Up! Up! Up! Up! Up!"

“Kevin, I swear to God I’m going to kill her! First I’m going to slit her throat! Hack her into tiny pieces! And feed her to the spiders!”

“Austi--”

“C’mere you little imp!” Kevin groaned, unable to stand the sight of her jumping anymore. If he watched her much longer, he was going to be kneeling against the cold toilet for several hours. Besides, he needed to make nice with Austin again… For whatever he did with Cheyanne. So, anticipating a slight miscalculation in his body mechanics and sight perception, he reached to grab her. Catching hold of her baggy shirt, he pulled her close, hoisting her light, tiny frame into his arms.

“What’d I do?” Cheyanne pouted hurtfully as Kevin lumbered while carrying her out of the room.

Stumbling into the living room, Kevin saw Howie coming inside, empty mug in hand. "Here," he said, unceremoniously dumping Cheyanne into his friend's arms. "She's about to get killed, so I suggest you take her far, far away," he grumbled before going back to the bedroom.

"Chey," Howie said, shaking his head with a chuckle. "What did you do?"

“Nothing horrible,” Cheyanne defended with a faint pout, reaching to wrap her arms around his neck so he wouldn’t have the chance to drop her. “I just wanted Austi to get up so I could go horseback riding today… But I don’t think she’s in the mood… She threatened to feed me to the spiders…”

"You can go horseback riding with me," Howie offered, nuzzling the expanse of neck she offered him so sweetly. "That is, unless you're expecting some fancy cowboy moves or something." His mind scrambled to remember the last time he'd actually been near a horse.

“The last time it was suggested you were less than enthused,” Cheyanne remembered as Howie sat down on the couch, never attempting to make her move from his arms. She exhaled a sweet sigh, giggling as he continued to nuzzle her neck. “Are you sure you want to go?”

"Unless you'd rather stay here…" Howie let his voice trail as his lips moved to her ear.
“I risk my life if we stay here…” Cheyanne trailed just the same, though hers ended in a slight whine.

"Then let's go," Howie said, lifting her over his shoulder as he stood. "Can't have you dying because those two are hung over and can't stand your sweetness," he added, carrying her down the hall.

“DON’T BRING HER BACK TILL NIGHT FALL!” Austin bellowed from inside Kevin’s room, hearing Howie’s door close so they could change for whatever they were doing. She relaxed at that sound, watching Kevin stumble to draw the curtains tightly to shroud them in darkness. Then, undermining his footing, he fell backward into the bed with a sharp groan. Austin didn’t seem to care though, immediately curling against his warm body and kissing his collarbone. “I’ll love you again.”

“Oh, not right now, I couldn’t even see straight to get it in the right hole--”
Giggling softly, Austin moved to straddle him. "Who said you have to see?" she murmured, cupping his face in her hands. "I think your body should know by now…" Kissing him softly, she pulled the covers over them both, her hands sliding over his chest.

“We just can’t lie in bed all day and not move a muscle, can we?” Kevin sighed, feeling his body immediately start to arouse from her simple pleasures. Craning his neck, he leaned up to nip her bottom lip, knowing she’d be draining the last bit of fluid he had left in him.

"Okay…" Nuzzling his neck lightly, Austin moved to lie beside him again, pulling the covers over her head. Snuggling close, she sighed lightly. "Best suggestion you've had all week."

Kevin yawned as he turned, pulling her comfortably into his arms before pressing a kiss to the side of her face. He inhaled the light scent of her perfume lingering against a touch of perspiration causing a dewy glow. He thought she looked amazing, even under the worst of their hangovers. “I love you, Princess.”

"I love you, too," she murmured, turning her head to meet his lips. "Funny. You used to call me Princess out of dids--diss--whatever the fuck that word is-- and now you use it as a term of ender--endem--whatever the fuck that word is."

“You do the same with Pretty Boy…” Kevin frowned slightly against her lips at the thought. “…I hope?”

"Mm hmm. It's because you're my Pretty Boy," Austin said with a smile, resting her head on his shoulder. Having heard no sounds from the other bedroom, she sat up slightly. "WHAT'S TAKING Y'ALL SO LONG?!" she screamed.

“Just shut up and kiss me, Princess,” Kevin groaned, pushing her onto her back as he lowered his lips to hers, making her forget all about the other couple.

*~*~*


“How you doing, Howie?” Cheyanne called when she stopped hearing mixtures of sounds related to nervousness and fear emulating from Howie’s mouth. She had been so engrossed in the lovely mountain side that she had stopped worrying about Howie falling off. But, turning her horse, she realized that was a grave mistake. She saw him a few yards back, looking entirely too tense on the back of the gentle mare the stable had selected for him. He looked to completely hate the riding experience, not to mention the fact that he had agreed to even come with her. His back was far too straight as he bounced hard on the back of his slow moving mare, probably more uncomfortable than Cheyanne could anticipate. And he grasped the reins as if he were on the back of some violent beast, causing her to smile with pity. Gently nudging her horse in the ribs, she had her own mare trot back toward Howie, reaching to plop her cowboy hat on his short curls.

"Are you sure this animal isn't going to bolt?" Howie asked through clenched teeth, tilting his head back slightly to look at her. "I know I sound like a big wuss, but--"

“She’s not going to bolt,” Cheyanne interrupted with a soft promise, dropping one hand from her reins in order to reach over to Howie. Carefully, she helped him loosen his tight hold on the reins, giving the horse just a bit more freedom. She offered him an encouraging smile, squeezing his hand when he finally loosened just a bit. “You’re way too nervous and she can sense that, which will make her nervous. Move with her when she walks. Let your body flow. She’s not going to hurt you.”

"Do you ride a lot?" Howie asked softly, relaxing a bit under Cheyanne's gentle touch. "You seem to enjoy it." She seemed to enjoy a lot of things, he mused. Cheyanne was the type of person who enjoyed everything life offered her. He wished he could be more like her. He could remember a time when he was… Looking out over the vista before them, he drew in a gentle breath, trying not to let his thoughts darken.

“When Momma left my father, she moved into this small house on the countryside next to my great-aunt. She owned a horse farm and I spent all my days over there. Ever since I could walk, I was riding,” Cheyanne confirmed, allowing her horse to steady its pace next to Howie’s horse, that way she could keep her hand on his. She could feel the loosening of his body, knowing she couldn’t pull away. “After this vacation, Austi and I are moving into this really pretty ranch house on this vast amount of land. We got such a deal out of it… Austi almost thought she was going to have to sleep with the land dealer… But we worked so hard over college to save up money... Then, when we get settled, we’re going to buy two horses.”

"Sounds like heaven. You'll let me come see it?" he asked hopefully as the horses turned onto a trail through the forest.

I’d rather you live there with me, Cheyanne thought as she muffled a soft sigh. Though she knew that it was a far reach, she had started dreaming about starting a life with him. Of him holding her child and insisting to be the father. But, those were just dreams that she woke up from, knowing it wasn’t possible. Though, just the same, she offered a coy smile to her counterpart. “If you’re lucky.”

"I see how it is," he teased, giving her a wink. "I offer you my cabin, give you my bed, bring you to heights of passion unknown, and all I get is 'If you're lucky'? Well, I'm sure Austin will extend an invitation to Kevin, and I can just tag along with him."

“Doesn’t mean I’ll be around,” she answered, reaching to pushing on his head so he didn’t crash into the low hanging branch. “Besides, no wonder you bring me to heights of passion unknown. I haven’t been with anybody but you. So, let me go back to The Brass Rail and I’ll let you know how you turn out…”

"You think you're cute, don't you?" he asked, tugging playfully on her curls. "Maybe we can find that Bubba looking guy again. He sure seemed to like you…"

“Kevin scared him off,” Cheyanne remembered, pulling away so he couldn’t touch her. She offered him a demure smile when he reached but to no avail. “But, Kevin is always an option… He did yank my tank top off me last night… Not to mention the screams he gets out of Austi…”

"Chey…" Howie let his voice trail as the horses moved up the incline. "You're gonna get it when we get back to the cabin…"

“I’m going to get what?” Cheyanne mused, arching one light blonde brow toward Howie with confusion.

"You'll see," he promised, ducking to miss another low branch. "The least they could do is trim back the trees, if they're going to have a horse trail through here," he muttered.

"As long as the horses can get through without injury, it's okay," Cheyanne cooed, giggling when he rolled his eyes.

“So, you care more about the horses than me?” Howie guessed incredulously, holding a hand to his heart as if Cheyanne had broke it in half. He knew they had been playfully teasing throughout the entire trip, but he couldn’t help but worry in the back of his mind. Maybe they were subtle clues that she was sending. Something to tell him to back off. But if so, what was the reason for making love so many times the previous night into day?

“Depends on the situation,” Cheyanne jibbed, never noticing the snake slithering across the path. Though, her mare instantly recognized the intruder, rearing upward with a loud whiny, which caused Howie’s horse to back considerably. Only, Cheyanne wasn’t able to hold onto her mare with wild rear, causing her to slip and fall. Unable to stop herself, she immediately hit the small incline, tumbling down the stony dirt side in sharp twists and turns, ending with a hard hit to her abdomen at the bottom.

"Chey!" Howie cried, vaulting off his horse so quickly his foot tangled in the stirrup. Yanking it free, he stumbled down the incline, dropping to his knees next to Cheyanne. "Honey… Oh God… are you okay?" he asked worriedly, tentatively touching her face.

“I’m fine,” she promised, pulling away from his touch to curl onto her side. She held a strong hand against her abdomen as if to protect her baby, taking a few slow breaths. She had to calm down. She was just stunned. That’s all. The smarts of pain invading her body were result from the fall. Maybe a few scrapes and bruises, but she’d be okay. She was fine. Gingerly, she attempted to sit, still holding her stomach as she glanced toward Howie. She offered a shaky smile. “Did I mention how much I hate snakes?”

"Sweetheart… You fell pretty hard and pretty far. Are you sure you're okay?" Plucking a few dead leaves from her hair, he eyed her intently. "You might have some internal injuries. Why don't you let me take you to the hospital and have you checked out? I can't have anything happen to my Chey."

“I’m okay,” she promised, reaching to grasp his hands so he could help her into a standing position. She released a long, slow sigh underneath her breath as she attempted to straighten her position. Like she expected, her body stitched with sharp pains from the fall. She could even feel some stinging seeps of blood from various scrapes. But what she didn’t expect was the knife-like quality of pain that cramped against her lower abdomen. It was so powerful that she paled with the first hit, crumbled to her knees with a heavy wince as she reached to grasp Howie’s hands for help. Tears immediately flooded to her eyes. “Damnit…”

"Come on, Chey," Howie murmured gently, though his heart was nearly beating out of his chest with worry for her. Lifting her into his arms, he slowly made his way up the incline and saw the horses grazing just off the trail. Now how the hell was he going to do this? Walking over carefully, he leaned up to place her on the saddle of her mare. "Just hold on, okay?" he said, pulling the reins into her hands. "I'm taking you to the hospital."
Revelations by Anastacia
Chapter 15 – Revelations

Pacing the small waiting room, Howie listened to the nurses chatting away at the desk nearby. Unable to sit, he leaned in the doorway, his eyes on the door they'd wheeled Cheyanne through immediately upon their arrival. She'd put on a brave face, for him he was sure, but he could tell she was worried and in pain. Glancing at his watch, he sighed miserably. They'd been here for what seemed an eternity, yet it had only been an hour. Running his hands through his hair, he closed his eyes briefly. This was his entire fault. He should have asked her to stick to the open trails, not veer off into the forest. Should have kept an eye out for things that would spook a seemingly gentle mare. Should have… God, if anything was seriously wrong, he didn't think he could ever forgive himself.

Unable to lean for long, he immediately pushed off the wall and walked toward the nurses’ station. He continued to check frequently with them about any information they might have on Cheyanne. They had been very docile and sweet tempered despite his distress. He knew if this was Orlando, they probably would have flipped him off at least a dozen times. But, like always, they couldn’t provide him with any news. The worst part about the ordeal was not knowing what was wrong. He couldn’t deny how antsy he was within the small confines, wanting to just run back the hallway without any regard for any of the professionals in the small hospital. He was only concerned about being there for Cheyanne. He knew she would want him close by. After all, why would they keep Cheyanne for over an hour if something wasn’t wrong?

"Excuse me, sir? You're here with Ms. Lorde?"

Turning, Howie was face to face with an older man. Seeing a stethoscope around his neck and a battered looking clipboard in his hand, he belatedly realized he must be a doctor. Of some sort. Nothing like any doctor he'd come in contact with before, that was certain. "Yes?" he asked softly.

"She sure is a sweet little thing, your little lady. Lying back there bruised and in pain and all she can worry about is how you're fairing out here. Wanted to make sure we was taking good care of you." The doctor had a friendly smile, and jutted out his hand quickly. "Dr. Walker."

“Howie Dorough,” Howie quickly returned, shakily grasping the man’s hand. He wasn’t exactly ready for the warm formalities that the doctor was attempting to bring. He was far more worried about Cheyanne’s condition. He wanted it straight and even. “How is she?”

Dr. Walker chuckled as he leaned on the nurses’ station. “Calm down, Daddy. Momma and Baby are going to be just fine. She suffered from something we call placental abruption. It’s where the placenta, what nourishes the baby through the pregnancy, detaches from the uterus’ wall. This can cause serious bleeding and can sometimes cause the Momma quite a bit of trouble. But, Cheyanne’s detachment was minimal and the blood pocketed in like a little bubble. There was only minimal bleeding outside, so I have an IV to give her some extra fluids right now. In a few hours, we’ll let you take her home. She’ll need to be on rest throughout the rest of the pregnancy to make sure that the placenta doesn’t rip away anymore. And I’ll forward the documents to her obstetrician so she’s aware when you are ready to give birth. Don’t know what you two were thinking riding horseback when she’s nearing the end of her first trimester… Young kids these days…”

"Baby?" Howie repeated, gripping the edge of the counter. Baby? Cheyanne was pregnant? First trimester? Placental abruption? His brain struggled to keep up with what the doctor was saying, but all he could think of was Cheyanne. "You're sure she'll be okay?" he asked softly.

“As long as she makes sure to rest and doesn’t overexert herself, she will be perfectly fine. She’s just got to take it a bit easier. And there might be some mild discomfort. I’ve given her some pamphlets on recognizing signs of when the abruption could be worsening. If she notices any bleeding, she really needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible. It’s considered a medical emergency until stabilized. But, I’m sure we won’t have to worry about that. Daddy will take care of her. So, she’ll be fine. They both will be.”

"Can I see Chey?" Howie blurted. Surely she would straighten everything out for him. He had to see her. To touch her, to hold her. To know for sure that she was okay. Baby. His sweet little Cheyanne was going to have a baby. When the doctor nodded and told him to go straight on through, he rushed away. Baby. Baby. Baby. Holy Hell in a hand basket, as Brian would say.

Bursting into the private room had startled Cheyanne greatly. She looked lost as she glanced up from the fetal monitoring system, reaching to cover her exposed abdomen with the stiff, starched white sheet. Tears had already wetted her pale cheeks as she did her best to wipe away the remnants. The nurses had cleaned her cuts and washed away the dirt, minimal bruising noted on her arms and face. Her abdomen was still somewhat rigid from the bleeding and ached feverishly, but she had been so enchanted by the monitor. She had finally listened to her child’s heartbeat, which had somewhat soothed the pain. That is, until she saw the look in Howie’s dark eyes. He knew, but she tried her hardest to keep composed. “…Sorry they made you wait so long, Howie…”

"Chey…" Stepping forward, he stopped halfway between the bed and the door. His gaze swept over the equipment surrounding her, and when he heard the gentle thump-thump-thump he felt tears gather in his eyes. Her baby. "Oh, Chey," he whispered, moving to stand at her side. Reaching for her hand, he brought it to his lips for a gentle kiss. He felt an overwhelming relief sweep over him when she smiled slightly. "She sounds healthy," he mused softly, his gaze moving to her abdomen. All the clues he'd been given since meeting her hit him suddenly. The way she covered her stomach with both hands and the vomiting every morning. The way she'd reacted when he'd said he didn't want children. Oh Lord, she must have thought he was the biggest asshole in the entire world. "Honey… Why didn't you tell me?"

“Because it wasn’t your problem to worry about,” she stated softly, immediately dropping her gaze to her still somewhat flat abdomen. Unable to take her hand away from Howie’s grasp, she slid her opposite hand against her belly, rubbing gently to soothe the child. It would only be a matter of weeks until she started to round with the ripeness of pregnancy, then all Hell would break loose. She had just hoped maybe the vacation would be her final farewell to the goodness of life. Afterwards, she would tell Austin, when they were at the ranch. But, that plan had failed miserably. She had almost killed her child because of her foolishness.

"Cheyanne… I love you, Honey. Anything that's going on in your life I want to know about." Lowering himself next to her carefully, he reached with his free hand to cover the one laying protectively over her stomach. "Did you think me knowing this would make me love you any less?" he whispered, kissing her fingers again. "Do you expect me to yell and scream and storm out of your life forever?"

“The thought had crossed my mind,” she whispered softly, unable to stand the pressure of lifting her gaze to meet his dark eyes. Tears of frustration, sadness, and a slight pain of happiness started to gather in her murky sapphire eyes. The feeling of Howie’s hand over hers which protected her child was indescribable. It was what she had dreamed about for so long. For Howie to love her and her child. She had never thought in a million years that Howie would be so understanding, which made the guilt so much worse. She could only start to worry now that maybe he was just trying to be nice because the baby had been in trouble. That he was just going through the motions so she didn’t get any sicker. She immediately bit her bottom lip as a cramp tensed across her stomach. “You said you didn’t want kids...”

Howie felt her tense and slipped his hand beneath hers, gently caressing the tightness of her stomach. "I said that after dealing with two drunken morons," he murmured. Leaning over her carefully, he gently kissed her cheek. When she lifted her head and met his eyes, he saw the fear and worry there. "I'm just full of corniness, you know that, right?" At her gentle nod, he rubbed her stomach gently. "You're not alone now… These arms are here to hold you… No need to be afraid…" he sang softly, placing another gentle kiss to her cheek. "I love you, Chey, no matter what. You and your baby."

*~*~*


“We have definitely got to get plastered more often and then threaten bodily harm to Angel in order to get the cabin to ourselves,” Kevin murmured as he reached for the loofah Austin handed him, already soaped. Gently, he eased it against her bare back, combining just a touch of warm water to make her moan with delight. After sleeping for several hours, the couple decided that a shower was in order. But, when neither found they could stand without stumbling a few steps in either direction, they decided for a jacuzzi bath. And, Kevin couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon as Austin leaned comfortably between his legs, allowing him to pamper her as the water jets massaged their bodies.

"Sounds like a plan," Austin said, leaning her head back to look at him. Sighing gently, she felt the weariness seep from her muscles under his gentle hands. "How did you and Howie meet?" she asked suddenly. "I know you two are business partners, but… You grew up in Kentucky, and he grew up in Florida…"

“Um…” Kevin trailed for a moment as he bent down to kiss her damp back, hoping to give himself a few moments to think. Howie had never really gave him background and Kevin felt guilty for not telling her the truth. But, Howie had wanted it this way. So, he did his best. “…I wanted a change of scenery from the country, so I moved to Florida. I was actually working at Disney World as Aladdin for awhile… Flying carpet was my specialty… But, we had a mutual friend who introduced us. We seemed to hit it off right away… He’s my little brother…”

"You? Aladdin?" Austin couldn't help but giggle at the thought. "I can't see you dressed up as Aladdin… How did it come about that you two sang together? I just can't picture two real estate agents belting out tunes while showing a house," she teased, turning to face him.

Kevin rolled his eyes as he reached around to offer her the loofah, gesturing for her to lather it so he could continue. She was far too quick when it came to him making up stories. Especially when he was still slowly sobering from the alcohol. Rubbing his face with wet hands, he suddenly sparked an idea. “We went out to a bar one night after a really bad day. Somehow he conned me into karaoke… But, for a pretty penny, we do break it out in the condos for possible customers.”

Chuckling, Austin lathered the loofah up for him, wriggling closer to him. "Did you learn how to play piano in a bar as well?" she continued, suddenly eager to learn everything there was to know about him. "Oh, what song was that you played last night? Did you write it?"

“My father taught me to play piano. We had this old rickety piano at the campground my parents used to run. Plopped my behind down and just started teaching me. Some of the best times in my life,” Kevin answered wistfully, abandoning the loofah just to simply massage her shoulders. “And, yeah, I wrote that song last night.”

"Are you and your dad close?" she asked softly, closing her eyes. "Campground, huh? That explains why you're so good with the outdoorsy stuff." Reaching up, she grasped his hands in hers, pulling his arms around her as she leaned against him. They had snuggled in bed for hours, but she couldn't get enough of having his arms around her. "Why hasn't some gorgeous woman snatched you up already?"

“My Dad and I were close… He passed away awhile ago. Colon cancer… I miss him every day though,” Kevin answered softly, kissing the back of her head as his fingers lightly traced over the flesh they rested against. “As for a gorgeous woman…” Kevin took a deep breath. “…Why would I let anyone snatch me up when I was waiting for you?”

"You're such a suck up," she muttered, caressing the backs of his hands. "The women in Florida must all be stupid. Or flaming homosexuals. Or blind. One of the three." Laying her head on his shoulder, she lightly kissed his neck. "My turn to scrub you," she murmured, reaching for the loofah.

“Should I turn around?” Kevin laughed at her sudden change, leaning back slightly when she turned.

"If you don't mind, Pretty Boy." Reaching for the soap, she lathered up the loofah, wiggling back so he could move.

“Watch all those nail marks, some broad’s been getting pretty rough on me,” Kevin teased lightly, doing as he was told. He had never washed himself with a loofah before, so it was slightly surprising when Austin applied it to his skin. He arched slightly at the graininess, but soon comforted with a low moan as it soothed the itches on his back. “Damn…”

"Yeah, yeah… I have hickeys up and down my body from some city slicker," Austin returned, unable to resist leaning forward and nuzzling his neck. "Have I told you, you're the only man who's ever left a hickey on me?"

“Well, you’re the only woman who’s ever let me lay over top her in a drunken stupor for the entire night,” he teased, shivering slightly at the feeling of her face against his neck. Turning slightly, he couldn’t help but draw her back into his embrace. He chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip as he conjured the idea of her having other men. It drove him slightly insane till he remembered the man who almost killed her. He needed to know. “What about your other men, Austin? Like the one that broke you before I had a chance to mend you...”

Austin tensed slightly, attempting to draw away from him. "I… Kevin, why do you want to know? Steven's history now." Eyes downcast, she turned her face away, reaching up to wipe away the tears that threatened to fall. Just thinking of him made her feel useless, though she was in the arms of a man who made her feel so alive.

“Because I think if you hide it inside, you’re just going to die a little bit more every day. I… I want to know everything about you, Princess. The good and the bad. I want to kiss those tears away. Please?”

Taking a deep breath, Austin focused on the bubbles swirling around them. "We met in a bar my second year of school. Pre-med. Dazzled all the women there, and it made me feel special when he singled me out. We started dating, and things went fine for months. I knew he had a temper--I saw that a lot of times when we were out and other men would hit on me. But I had no idea… He never made it seem like we had a real future together, so I saw no harm in flirting with other guys. I guess it's just who I am." Hugging herself lightly, Austin closed her eyes, swallowing back the hard lump in her throat.

Kevin immediately reached to frame her face with his large hands, brushing away the heavy tears that were already starting to fall. He could only imagine what would progress from there as he pulled her into his embrace, allowing her to rest her face against his chest while he rubbed her wet back. He wished a thousand painful deaths on the bastard, knowing it would be a dark day in Hell if he ever crossed Steven’s path. “I love you so much, Princess.”

Nodding slightly, Austin wrapped her arms around him, needing his strength more than she had ever imagined she would. "He just blew up one night. We got home from a party and he was drunk, and went on and on about how all these guys kept undressing me with their eyes, and the next thing I knew I was waking up on the floor. I couldn't believe something like that could happen, and when he climbed out of his hangover long enough to notice me he started in on how he loved me, how sorry he was, how it would never happen again…" Sucking in a hard breath, Austin buried her face against Kevin's chest. "But it did, Kevin. It happened so many damn times, and I kept going back to him. I was so fucking stupid the entire time. I thought he loved me."

“But you got away from him and look how strong you are,” Kevin encouraged softly, bending to kiss her forehead repeatedly. “You knocked me on my ass in the first swing… Actually, flipped me on my ass.”

"Do you know what it took to get away from him? Two years of his bullshit, two years of Chey pleading with me to leave him, and he had to put me on my damn deathbed for me to see the light," Austin went on, unable to stop now she was actually telling him. She felt as though she had to explain why she was the way she was. "I still don't know that I'll ever be completely free of him. He was still calling me the day we left to come here."

“You’re not going back to him,” Kevin declared firmly, rubbing her back as she shuddered. “There is no way on this planet that I’d let you go back into his arms. And, if he comes near you, I’ll kill him. I swear to God, Princess. He’s written his death warrant. You’re safe. You’ll always be safe. Right here. With me.”

"Kevin… What'd I do to deserve you?" Lifting her head, Austin met his eyes with hers, moving closer to straddle his lap so she could wrap herself around him. "Are you this great to all the women who flip you on your ass, or is it just me?" she asked in an attempt to lighten the mood. "I love you…"

“It’s always been just you,” he promised, bringing her up for a sweet kiss.
A Gift of Silver Lining by Anastacia
Chapter 16 – A Gift of Silver Lining

"How do you feel?" Howie asked softly for possibly the millionth time since leaving the hospital. He had leaned back the passenger seat for Cheyanne, and she lay there, not moving, arms curved protectively around her abdomen. He drove as slowly as he could, not wanting to jostle her too much on the road. The silence was deafening, as she hadn't spoken a word. Reaching over, he flipped on the radio, adjusting the volume to background noise. "Do you want to stop anywhere before we head back to the cabin?" he asked, thinking surely she must be hungry. "I saw a little diner the other day…"

“No… I’m not hungry…” Cheyanne whispered, slowly moving her hands against her abdomen in a soothing, circular motion. She was attempting to appease the child inside, apologizing profusely for hurting it so much. The terrible cramps invading her lower half were unmistakable, causing her to just want to curl up and die. She could only imagine what the child felt. Not to mention the horrors that awaited her in the cabin. She could only imagine what Howie would say to Austin. What he thought about her now…

Howie covered her hands with his. "The baby's going to be okay, Honey. She's going to grow up to be a beautiful woman, just like her Momma," he murmured gently, his hand tender as it slipped beneath hers, softly caressing her stomach. "I love her already," he whispered.

"Her?" Cheyanne repeated, turning her head to look at him in the approaching twilight. "What makes you think it's a little girl?"

Easing the Escape into a stop at the intersection, Howie looked at her, still gently caressing her stomach. "I've always wanted a little girl to cuddle and spoil," he admitted. "A little angel to sit on my shoulders and giggle when I tell her silly things. A little curly haired sweetheart that brings sunshine and rainbows into my life." Meeting her eyes, he gave her a winsome smile, turning his hand to lightly grasp her fingers. "See? I do want children."

“I see…” Cheyanne promised, dropping her gaze as she fixed her fingers against his hand, intertwining them to hold against her painful stomach. She wondered what would happen if it was a little boy. Would she have to see Noah in his eyes every day? That is, if she kept it… That was still up for debate, despite Howie’s flattery. Like always, she took everything with a grain of salt. Far too insecure to trust him completely now that her secret had been revealed. After all, at the end of this vacation, he would be going back to Orlando and she would be going to her little ranch in North Carolina. Destined to be separated.

"You're not… You are planning on keeping it, aren't you?" Howie asked softly, turning his attention back to the road as the light changed. A million questions tumbled in his mind, and he longed to ask each of them, but knew she would tell him everything. When she was ready. He felt her squeeze his hand lightly, and saw the turnoff for Walmart ahead. On an impulse, he flipped on the blinker, grimacing as an overly loud pickup whizzed past. Turning into the parking lot, he eased his fingers from Cheyanne's hand and reached for his wallet, wondering how much cash he had on hand.

“What are we doing here?” Cheyanne asked with confusion, completely forgetting his previous question. Well, perhaps not forgetting, but more so trying to avoid it. She eased herself into a slightly seated position, noticing the blinding lights of the Walmart logo as Howie thumbed through his wallet. “Howie?”

"I just have to pick up something," Howie said evasively as he pulled into the closest spot he could find. Unbuckling his seatbelt, he leaned over, brushing his lips across her cheek. "I'll be right out, okay, Honey? I'll leave the music on for you," he added softly, giving her stomach a slight caress before moving to get out. "Keep the doors locked," he reminded her before shutting the door behind him. Pulling his baseball cap low over his eyes, he headed inside.

“He’s way too sweet,” Cheyanne told her child as she watched Howie jog from the parking lot, disappearing inside the store. Clasping her hands over her stomach once more, she settled back into her seat. She reflected on how he was always touching her stomach now. The tender caresses against her soft flesh that sent shivers down her spine, actually soothing her child. She remembered vaguely during her maternity rotation that everyone always loved to touch the mother’s belly. She wondered if it was just a natural reflex instead of Howie really caring about her unborn child.

Howie returned several long moments later, clutching a bag in his hand as he opened the back door, setting his purchase on the floorboard before climbing into the driver's seat. "You okay?" he asked, giving her a secretive grin. He longed to show her what he'd bought, but didn't quite know how she'd react just yet.

“I’m okay…” she promised, letting her voice trail with obvious confusion as he adjusted his seatbelt, made sure she was secure, and then started the engine. Something different was glittering in his dark eyes at that moment, causing her to tense just slightly. “What was so important that we had to stop right away?”

Howie covered her hands with his again, squeezing them reassuringly as he maneuvered through the parking lot back to the road. "I'll show you when we get in bed, okay? I want to make sure you're resting and comfortable."

“Okay…” Cheyanne agreed, sliding one hand from beneath his hold in order to cover his, so their hands were sandwiched. Softly, she traced the back of his hands with her fingers, growing quiet as she closed her eyes. She just allowed her body to flow with the easiness of the car, slightly drifting into a light slumber. That is, until she felt the stop of the car. Allowing her eyes to flutter open, she glanced up to the warm glow of the cabin. Her body tensed immediately with panic, sitting up with a hard pain. She could only imagine what Austin would say. The shame in her eyes. The infamous I told you so…

"Honey… What is it?" Howie asked softly, squeezing her hand gently before killing the engine. The look on her face told him something was very wrong. "Are you in pain?" he asked worriedly, already reaching for the bag from the hospital that contained her painkiller. "Let me get you inside and in the bed, then you can take something and get some rest…"

“Howie…” Cheyanne felt as if he were turning her in a strong whirlwind, watching him jump out of the car and rush to her side. Yanking the door open, he leaned inside to cup her face, searching her sapphire eyes for something. He looked so worried that it truly blew her back into the next year. She blinked rapidly, chewing on her bottom lip, knowing he wouldn’t be settled with a simple lie. Releasing a shaky breath, she melted her hands on his as he held her face. “Howie… I don’t want Austin to know… Please, don’t tell her… Please?”

"I won't tell her," Howie promised, releasing a relieved sigh. "I won't tell her a thing, but… should we just tell them you got thrown? Surely she'll see the bumps and scrapes on you, and I don't want her thinking I threw you down and had my wicked way with you." Brushing the tip of her nose with his lips, he gave her a slight, reassuring smile.

“I don’t think you have a wicked way… Ever…” Cheyanne trailed softly, unable to hide a giggle at the tickling sensation from his lips on her skin. She felt better as he helped her from the car, instantly wrapping his arms around her aching form for support. She buried her face against the crook of his neck as they stood, trying to ignore the terrible sensations of pain radiating down her spine. “It’d be easier to tell her about the horse, though…”

"You got it, Honey," he murmured, helping her up the steps to the cabin. "They did say keep you gone until nightfall, right?" Digging into his pocket for his key, he cradled her close as he unlocked the door. Hopefully the two morons inside were still worn out from the night before and wouldn't ask too many questions. Ushering Cheyanne inside, he glanced around, saw Austin and Kevin snuggled together in front of the fireplace, each holding near empty wine glasses. God, no. If they were plastered and determined to act like assholes for the evening, he would turn right around and take Cheyanne to the nearest hotel where she could rest in comfort.

“Did you wear her out yet so I don’t have to worry about her leaping onto our bed tonight?” Austin mused as she heard the door close, peeking away from Kevin’s embrace with a languid smile. Only, the smile instantly faded when she caught site of her younger friend. She looked to be a terrible fright, her hair wildly mussed, bruises and scrapes along her arms. Her chin scraped as bruising collected against the side of her face. Gasping, Austin pushed away from Kevin immediately, stumbling into a standing position. “Dear God, Chey, what happened?!”

“Just an accident,” Cheyanne whispered as Austin tugged her from Howie’s arms to glance over her injuries. She closed her eyes to keep the tears from falling, knowing Austin didn’t mean to be so rough in her handling. Though, the tears also freshened at the thought of lying to her best friend. Again.

"What happened?" Austin asked worriedly, holding her at arm's length. "You look like you were thrown down the side of a mountain, Chey!"

"I…" Cheyanne's voice trailed and she was grateful when Howie came to her rescue.

"Her horse got spooked on the trail and threw her. She took a tumble down the side of a hill, but other than her bruises and scrapes, she's okay," Howie said softly, gently pulling Cheyanne back into his embrace. "The doctor said she needs to rest for a few days."

“The doctor? You were bad enough that you had to go to a doctor?” Austin asked incredulously, shaking her head in disbelief as she gently ran her fingertips down the side of Cheyanne’s un-bruised cheek. She offered a frustrated gaze toward Howie before focusing all of her attention on Cheyanne. She couldn’t believe this had happened. She had always sworn to protect Cheyanne and here she was, hurt. “Sweetheart… What were you thinking going riding without me? Riding with someone who wasn’t experienced? Why didn’t you wait?”

“I’ve been on a horse before…” Cheyanne attempted to defend, feeling torn between Howie and Austin.

"Cheyanne doesn't need this now, Austin. She needs rest. Now," Howie said firmly but gently as possible. "You can bitch about everything later, okay? Come on, Honey," he murmured, already ushering Cheyanne to the bedroom. "After you get situated in bed I'll fix you something light to eat, okay?"

“Woah!” Kevin called as he settled his wine glass to the nearest side table, scrambling to his feet. He noticed the frustration and anger building between Austin and Howie, obviously having different points of view on what Cheyanne needed. And, too sweet, Cheyanne was caught tightly within the middle. So, Kevin wanted to intervene, stepping in between the both of them to sweep Cheyanne into his arms. “Send her to bed looking like a mess? Oh, no. This Angel needs a nice, hot bath. Right? Then you can go to bed.”

“Thanks, Kevvy,” Cheyanne whispered.

Austin drew in a breath, but at Kevin's censuring look she let it out gently. "I'll go change the sheets," she announced, heading down the hall.

"Howie, why don't you get started on her dinner? Angel looks like she needs something more than a light meal. Fix her something that'll stick to her ribs." Carrying Cheyanne to the sofa, he set her down gently. "Sit tight, Angel. I'll go get your bath started." He watched her curl her small body up, her arms curving protectively around her stomach. "Chey…" he began as Howie headed for the kitchen.

“Thank you, Kevin. Thank you very much,” Cheyanne whispered softly, closing her eyes to drift into the lightest slumber. To forget.

*~*~*


Howie took a deep breath as he trotted down the hallway of the cabin, listening to the quietness settling around the house. He had laid Cheyanne in bed a few hours ago after feeding her as much as he possibly could, promising he would return as quickly as he could. Only, the shower he had taken was longer than he originally anticipated. Underneath the sheets of steamy water, he couldn’t help but let his mind wander to Cheyanne and the baby nestled in her womb. He suddenly began to wonder who the man was that had stolen her heart first. That had created that perfect child inside her. And why he wasn’t around. Not to mention why Austin assumed Cheyanne was still a virgin. He couldn’t help the slight air of jealousy in his heart as he thought of the man. But, he tried to focus on other thoughts as he entered his bedroom, wanting to win Cheyanne’s confidence back with the gift he bought at Walmart. Only, when he entered, he found the bed empty, covers slightly mussed. Immediately, his heart dropped to the pit of his stomach, causing a brewing sickness. Where was she?

Glancing around the room, he saw her shoes were gone and knew she had to have gone outside. "Dammit, Chey," he muttered, yanking on a pair of sweats. She should know better than just wandering off, especially at night. Didn't she realize how much he worried about her? Especially now, knowing… Sighing, he stepped into his shoes, not bothering to tie them up as he rushed for the door. Snatching his coat off the hook, he stumbled outside, cursing under his breath when he stepped on his own shoelaces. Stooping, he tied them quickly, all the time wondering where she would have gone. Surely she wouldn't have gone walking… Looking around, he saw the moonlight reflecting off the lake, and quickly headed in that direction, hoping she'd be near the dock.

Sure enough, as Howie walked down the private dock for the cabin, he found Cheyanne sitting at the edge. She looked to be completely alone in the world, holding the cuff of her baggy sweat shirt to her mouth as if she had been crying while her other hand knowingly braced her painful abdomen. She had already removed her shoes, allowing her bare feet to lightly skim the surface of the beautiful lake. Her long honey curls had since dried from her long bath and now were tossed into a messy ponytail at the base of her skull. She looked to be in deep thought, staring down at the water, watching the way the moon moved throughout the ripples.

"Cheyanne," he said softly, so as not to startle her as he approached. She lifted her head, glancing at him before turning her gaze back to the water. "Honey…" Kicking off his shoes, he sat next to her. Looking out at the water, he sighed, the peacefulness of the scenery calming him somewhat. That and knowing she was safe. "Talk to me," he murmured.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she stated simply, as if that had explained everything that had built between them. She released a shaky sigh, dropping her other hand in order to hold the child more fully. Ever since the stop at Walmart, when Howie asked if she was keeping him or her, she couldn’t stop analyzing her situation. She loved the child so damn much, but she didn’t want to put his or her life in any more danger. Not after the stupid things she had just done that day. She wasn’t ready for a child. And she hadn’t the heart to glance into his rich, dark eyes, knowing she would crumble in an instant. “I should have left a note or something… Sorry…”

"Chey," he began softly, pulling the legs of his sweats up so he could dangle his feet in the water. Taking a deep breath, he fought to make the words come out right. "Austin… Austin told me you were a virgin… Oh, God." Stopping, he shook his head. "I can't help but have this rage towards whomever you were with before. The one who left you as broken as you are. I only hope that you can find me trustworthy enough to… What I'm trying to say, Honey, is… God, no matter how I put it, I'll sound like a pushy asshole."

“Why don’t you just say what you want to say?” Cheyanne offered softly, smiling ruefully at his bashfulness. She knew this conversation was going to happen eventually, though she tried to hide as long as possible. She trusted Howie, honestly, she just feared his reactions to her story. “…I’ve lived with Austi for how many years? I think I can handle you sounding like a pushy asshole for five minutes…”

Smiling slightly, Howie turned to look at her. "I want to know about him, Chey. The guy who took away your innocence. The asshole that left you alone and pregnant. I want to know everything about him, so if I ever meet him face to face I can… Well, you know," he said softly.

“I know…” Cheyanne agreed, casting her gaze back out to the dark waters. She didn’t blame Howie for wanting to know the details. If anything, he deserved to know what he was getting into if he wanted this relationship. If he wanted her. If he wanted her baby. Maybe he could help her sort through the problems she faced. The problems that kept her up at night. “He was a frat brother at NCU… It was my first time at a frat party and Austi was quite entertained with the idea of taking some grand tour… He kept me company downstairs… And he’s not a bad guy… He just makes bad choices…”

"What kinds of choices?" Howie asked carefully, envisioning a drunken, slovenly, jackass hillbilly who probably didn't even know how to tell time.

“Wanting to date a virgin who refused to settle her values because she wanted to wait to give herself to the one…” Cheyanne sighed, subconsciously continuing to rub her abdomen in attempts to soothe not only herself but the child as well.

"He raped you?" Howie blurted, eyes wide. That no-good, sorry motherfucker. If he ever saw him face to face, he knew damn well what he was going to do. And it wouldn't be pretty. Releasing his clenched fists, he moved closer to Cheyanne, carefully putting his arm around her shoulders, drawing her near.

“Not at first,” Cheyanne answered, shifting toward Howie’s embrace instead of away. She reached to curl her fingers within the hem of his t-shirt, toying slightly so she kept herself somewhat focused. “I dated him for a year… It was just off and on with him. He’d push, I’d pull, he’d yell, I’d cry… I don’t know how many times I was called a prude under another sling of hateful names… Austi just got so mad at me. Telling me to let him go. I could find someone better. So, I did, only he wanted to come over and talk…”

Gulping down his anger, Howie slid his free hand to her stomach as though to shield the baby from its father's stupidity. "Honey," he murmured softly, kissing the top of her head. "I… I wish I could have met you first," he whispered.

“Me too,” Cheyanne laughed painfully, closing her eyes as she turned her face against Howie. She inhaled the light scent of his cologne, allowing her to relax completely underneath his hold. “He…um… Wanted a parting favor if I was going to end the relationship. I did my best to get away, but he was just so huge… It was quick, I think… I try not to remember it… Well, until I started getting sick. I went to the nurse’s office and found out… I tried to tell him, but he slapped me so hard, threw fifty bucks at me and told me to fix the problem… I doubt he’s coming back…”

"He better not," Howie said softly, pulling her into his arms gently. "You don't have anything to worry about, Chey. I'll never let anyone hurt you again."

“I don’t have the courage to tell Austin about the baby… I don’t want to see the disappointment in her eyes… I don’t want to hear that ‘I told you so’ speech… I should have known better than to let him into the house. I should have… I guess I deserve this…” Cheyanne sniffled softly as she bowed her head, tightening her fingers within the hem of his t-shirt. “I just thought maybe I could hide under baggy shirts and give the baby to a better home… Act like it never happened…”

"Sweetheart, Austin loves you, remember? If anything, she'd go kill the asshole who did this to you. As for acting like it never happened… Sweetheart, do you really think you can give up your child? I know to you she’s a reminder of something that never should have occurred, but he has nothing to do with what's inside you. This," he murmured, touching her stomach lightly, "is all you. You created her, you're taking care of her, without any help from him, and despite all your worries and fears, you're doing a great job. I… I have something to give you," he said, reaching behind him for the bag he'd brought with him. He hadn't even realized he'd still held it when he'd gone to search for her.

“Howie…” Cheyanne trailed in disbelief as he settled the Walmart bag into her lap. Untangling her fingers from his shirt, he moved her hands onto the bag, egging gently for her to open what was inside. Carefully, untying the knot, she reached inside to pull out a personal fetal heart monitor. It was the very best quality and Cheyanne knew instantly it was the most expensive. This device, when applied to her abdomen, would allow her to hear not only her baby’s heartbeats, but its hiccups and kicks as well as other vital sounds she would enjoy. There was even a way to record the sounds with the device and transmit them over the internet. It was amazing to say the very least, but what shocked her most was Howie’s dedication. “…This had to be extremely expensive…”

"You're worth it," he said simply, kissing her forehead gently. "Only the best for you and your baby. I got the batteries too… in case you want to listen while we're out on a walk. Let me spoil you both, please? I know I'm not the father… but I'd like very much to get you anything you need."

“Howie… I can’t do this to you…” Cheyanne confessed with a depressed sigh, feeling tears already start to cross down her cheeks as she tucked the monitor back into its bag. He was so kind and loving. “I mean, I wish to God that you were the father, but you’re not… This is such a huge… This isn’t your problem… Honestly, you’re not the father and you don’t deserve the burden. It’s too complicated for you…”

"Cheyanne… Sweetie, listen to me," he murmured, cupping her face in his hands, brushing her tears away with his thumbs. "I wish I was the father too. There's nothing I can do to change that, I know. And I would never consider her a burden. I love you, Chey. Nothing is ever going to change that, either. I feel like this gives me purpose... that maybe life isn't as meaningless as I once thought it..." Taking a deep breath, he looked into her eyes. "Let me love you, Cheyanne. Let me love you and your beautiful baby."

Cheyanne trembled underneath his hold, biting down hard on her bottom lip. The tears continued to fall nonetheless, because she had been holding all the emotion in for so long. She had been so scared and alone. Howie was offering her the world and she wanted to take it. To fall into his arms and finally be safe. But she worried. Terribly. “What if I do? What happens when your vacation is over? When you go back to Orlando? And I move into the ranch with Austi… What happens? What do I do?”

Holy Hell… Drawing her close until her head rested on his shoulder, Howie looked out at the lake, his mind racing. "I wish to God that I could stay with you forever, Chey, but I know you'd never agree to leave Austin and come with me to Florida." Especially when she found out the truth about him. This damn lie was going to bite him in the ass, he could feel it already. "We'll work something out, okay? Just know that whenever you need me, I'll always be there. Don't worry, Sweetheart."

Cheyanne nodded as she wrapped her arms securely around his waist, pressing her face into his shoulder. She knew it wasn’t a definite answer, because, how could he possibly offer that at this point? He was trying though and he seemed enthused about the baby. Or so she hoped. Maybe, he would decide to move to North Carolina, or so she hoped wistfully. She sighed softly as she promised herself not to get ahead of the ball, offering a light kiss to his arm. “Thank you, Howie.”
The Sound of His Heart by Anastacia
Chapter 17 – The Sound of His Heart

Kevin yawned as he stretched languidly across the couch, smirking appropriately as he adjusted his head on the pillow that lay in Austin’s lap. Each was engrossed in a thick novel of their own, but felt connected just the same as Kevin played with Austin’s fingers, bringing them every so often to his lips for a kiss. Every so often, each would look up from a chapter to catch the others sight. Then, exchanging smiles, they would turn the page. Kevin couldn’t recall the last time he had such an intimate moment with another human being that required such simplicity. He could lay in Austin’s lap all day, perfectly content with the world. Not a thing could go wrong, till he heard the incessant chirping of Howie’s cell phone. Glancing up from his novel, he shifted. “Howie! Your phone!” Only, he received no reply and grimaced with annoyance. Howie had been laying in bed with Cheyanne all day, refusing to let her stir even for something to drink. He wanted her to rest, which meant he wasn’t leaving her side. So, Kevin reached to grasp the phone, never bothering to check caller ID. “Hey?”

"Holy shit! You're alive? To hear Kristin talk, you're lying in a ditch somewhere!" Brian's ever-cheerful voice shouted in his ear. Kevin had to cringe at the sound, holding the phone away from his head slightly. Brian had never learned to speak into a cell phone as he would any normal phone, therefore it was impossible to carry on a private conversation with the man.

“I’m alive and Howie’s alive… My phone, however, is buried at sea… Well… Lake, actually,” Kevin murmured, glancing up at Austin who just smiled coyly. He rolled his eyes at her smirk, sitting up fully and tossing his book to the coffee table. “Why are you calling, B?”

"Dude… Where the Hell are you? Kristin's been ragging on Leigh and me for days! I can't get a moment's peace around here without her calling and asking if I've heard from you, if I've talked to you. It wouldn't kill you to call her and let her know you're okay!" In the background Kevin could hear Baylee squealing excitedly over something. "Bay, shush… I'm on the phone with Kevin."

“She’s actually pulled her head out of her ass to care?” Kevin stated bluntly, unable to hide the disgust and contempt in his voice. In fact, he couldn’t believe that she had actually dragged herself from her assistant’s bed to make a decent phone call. Although, if she was allowed to play the victim, Kristin would drink that up as if it were a vital liquid.

"Kev… Don't say things like that. She cares, she really does. We all do," Brian said with emotion. "I don't understand why you two decided to just jet off to places unknown--"

"We're in fucking North Carolina, not some island in the middle of nowhere, okay? And if she cared, she would never have--" Kevin cut off, running a hand over his face as he remembered Austin sat next to him, listening to every word.

Brian actually gasped in surprise at Kevin’s sharpness, which made Kevin imagine as if Brian had sucked his entire face inward, scaring Baylee immensely. But, that didn’t keep Brian from talking. “You don’t have to be so callous, Kev. We’re just trying to help.”

“Yeah? Trying to help? Well, where were you when Howie thought about committing suicide. Huh? When he ran out of the room ready to leave everything behind, because he didn’t feel wanted. Huh?” Kevin growled, standing in order to rush into the kitchen, unable to hold his temper. “Where were you then?! Where was AJ when he should have been calling Howie’s mother?! Huh?!”

"Kevin," Brian sighed. "How were we supposed to know that anything was going on with Howie? You yourself said before that he keeps everything bottled up inside. Hell, I'm surprised you noticed anything was wrong with him. We had no idea he was upset about stuff until he stormed out of the studio. And you two just hopped on a plane, leaving us to deal with management and family. How the Hell did you expect us to explain that you two just left? Neither of you would answer you damn phones, and I had to hear so much bitching and whining from each end I was ready to walk out myself."

Kevin took a labored breath, leaning his head against the wall so he didn’t put his fist through it. He was flabbergasted that Brian had managed to turn everything around so quickly. How he easily laid guilt at Kevin and Howie’s feet without a concern for what Howie was doing. Or how he was at that very moment. “You won’t ever understand… Besides, what did you want me to do, B? Wait till we found him in the bathtub with his wrists slashed?”

The only sound coming from Brian's end was the muffled chatter of Leighanne. Kevin could only imagine what she was saying. He heard Brian clear his throat, then, "I didn't realize it was that bad. Is he okay now?"
“He’s getting better…” Kevin murmured, watching Howie shuffle into the kitchen in search of Hawaiian Punch and a large mixture of ice chips, something Cheyanne loved to munch on. He smirked thoughtfully as Howie took great care to perfect even the simplest drink, knowing a few weeks ago he was close to digging his own grave. But, suddenly, Kevin didn’t feel like talking to Brian anymore. “He’s happy… Finally… Do you want to talk to him?”

"Well, uh--"

Without waiting for a reply, Kevin shoved the cell phone into Howie's hand, giving him a dramatic eye rolling before going back to the living room. Dropping onto the couch, he flopped his head on Austin's lap, needing her now more than ever before. "My cousin is going to drive me crazy," he groaned.

“That was your cousin?” Austin questioned in surprise, furrowing her dark brows as she reached to massage his temples. She could feel the intensity just in his muscles, causing her to smile sadly at her lover. Bending down, she teased his lips with a gentle kiss, rubbing it in with her thumb. She had so many questions running through her mind. Who was Brian? Who was Leigh? Who was Kristin? Who was Bay?

"Yes. He's… taking care of the business while we're away," Kevin said, covering her hand with his. Holding it to his lips, he kissed it softly. "And he's being a total ass about everything." Kristin had been worried. Bullshit, he thought, glaring hard at the pale reminder of his marriage. Groaning, he closed his eyes. He didn't want to think about her now. Especially not with Austin loving on him.

“And that would be Brian?” Austin guessed.

“Yes, the asshole would be Brian.”

“Who’s Bay?”

“His son, Baylee.”

“Leigh?”

“His wife.”

“And Kristin?”

Kevin took a deep breath as his stomach churned into several tight knots, especially as Austin’s fingers moved around the pale reminder of his previous commitment. It was her subtle way of telling him that she recognized it. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that he was married, because, in a metaphorical sense, he wasn’t. He just needed to stall for a bit longer as he brought Austin’s lips to his own. “Someone I used to love but never loved me. And never will love me like you do.”

"Damn straight," she murmured against his lips. "No one can ever love you like I do." Sliding her hand down over his chest, lightly rubbing his tense muscles. "Do you and Brian usually get along?" she asked softly.

“When we were younger, yes…” Kevin answered, releasing a groan that mixed into a pleased moan at the skill of her tender hands. He smiled as he brought her down for another sweet kiss. He loved Austin so much. “Until we went into business together. Then things changed. He took the spotlight, y’know? And took that for granted…”

"Mm… I hate him already," Austin said softly, running her fingers over his stomach. "Have I told you, though, how much I love you?" she asked with a smirk.

“No, but thank you for just mentioning it,” Kevin chuckled, pulling her down for yet another kiss. Every time she attempted to inch away, he just cupped her face to bring her closer. “Have I told you that I think we need another bath together? Now?”
Giggling, Austin tossed her book aside with a thump. "Sounds like a perfect plan to me…"

*~*~*


Rolling over to his side, Howie watched Cheyanne crunch on the last of her ice as she flipped through a magazine. Letting his gaze travel her body, he smiled when he saw her left arm curved over her stomach. Impulsively, he leaned down, lifting her arm so he could place a gentle kiss on the patch of bare skin above her lounge pants. "Do you think she can hear us?" he murmured thoughtfully.

“Studies have been done that say babies can hear in the womb,” Cheyanne answered appropriately, trying not to shiver at the soft feeling of his lips against her abdomen. She adored how he was already referring to the child as if she were a little girl. As if there was no possibility she could be a little boy. In fact, she was just amazed at his attentiveness to her pregnancy in whole. When Noah reacted so violently, threatening an abortion, Cheyanne had naturally assumed that pregnancy was dreaded by the male species. After all, it’s not like her father had stuck around for the end results, either. She never knew this side of a man before. “…So, I talk to her all the time… I even downloaded some soft classical music and put my headphones on my belly at night… Well… When I slept alone…”

"Can we listen to her heartbeat?" he asked softly, hoping she would say yes. He'd seen her fiddling with the little machine earlier, but had yet to see her actually use it. "And maybe later… would you mind if I sang her a song?"

“Yeah, we can listen to her heartbeat,” Cheyanne agreed, holding a hand to her mouth when Howie excitedly hopped out of the bed. She watched as he hurried to lock their bedroom door, though both knew neither Kevin nor Austin would be dragging their wrinkled bodies from the bath tub any time soon, and then reached to grab the machine he had purchased. Marking her place in her magazine, she laid it on the nightstand and then moved to lie on her back. Gently, she eased down her lounge pants a bit more and then bunched up her camisole, only grimacing slightly at the twinge of pain. “But, how come she gets to hear all your songs instead of me now?”

"Sweetheart… How about I sing to both of you?" Howie offered, sitting next to her. Looking down at the monitor in his hands, he gave her a smirk. "I have no idea what to do," he admitted, handing it to her. "But I could do this forever," he said softly, tracing the gentle curve of her stomach with his finger. "Lying here with you, being with you… it just makes things seem right."

“You’re tickling me,” she giggled softly at the light movement of his finger against her bare stomach. Shyly, she pulled away from his touch, sitting up slightly to prepare the fetal monitor. Hitting the proper buttons, she leaned back down and gingerly felt her still cramped abdomen for where they had pinpointed her child’s heartbeat. It took only a few minutes to find before pressing the monitor to her skin. There was a distant crackling, then, softly the couple was able to hear the familiar lub-dub-lub-dub of the child’s heart. Cheyanne’s lips curved into a pleased smile at the treasured sound, but more awed by the look on Howie’s face. He looked so enchanted as he concentrated on her stomach; his dark eyes glittering with delight. Cheyanne felt herself flush with adoration, reaching with her free hand to tenderly rub Howie’s arm. She cherished how he always made life seem so new and beautiful. How he made her feel so beautiful.

Staring at her stomach in wonderment, Howie felt his throat close up with emotion. It was so beautiful. The life she carried inside her, the sudden glow she had when she heard their child's… No, it was her child's heartbeat. But did that matter? Lifting his eyes to her face, he watched her eyes dance with joy, and decided it didn't matter in the least. He would love this child as though it were his, as though it were theirs, as long as she would let him. "I'm so proud of you," he murmured softly.

Cheyanne glanced up from the small machine on her stomach, arching her brows at Howie’s statement. At first, it had taken a moment to register that he had said anything at all. His voice had barely been above that of the child’s heartbeat. As if he didn’t want to disturb the moment. But, Cheyanne reached up the same to brush her fingertips underneath his somewhat rough chin from the shadow of facial hair starting to grow. Though, Cheyanne liked it that way. When she caught his smoldering chocolate eyes, she smiled with confusion. “Why are you proud of me?”

"Because… you're a young, bright, beautiful woman who's going to bring a child into the world. Not to mention, I love you. Isn't that reason enough?" he murmured, fascinated when the heartbeat calmed at his voice. "Do you think she likes my voice?" he asked worriedly.

“I think she loves your voice, probably more than I do,” Cheyanne confided with an amused smile, loving how concerned he became over the tiniest details. And, with a streak of brilliance, she removed the small machine from her stomach before easing herself into a sitting position. Howie looked as if he might actually push her back to the bed, but she shook her head defiantly, hitting a few choices buttons on the machine. She then motioned for Howie to lie down. When he complied, she eased his shirt up to place the machine over his heart. Hitting a key button, she started to record the gentle sound of his heartbeat which would be able to be played back for the child. One of the key features on the expensive machine that Cheyanne was delighted in. “I think she needs to hear her Daddy’s heartbeat…” Cheyanne grew deathly quiet at her explanation, however, blushing furiously. “I mean--”

"Do you think of me as her Daddy?" Howie breathed, reaching for her hand. "Chey…"

Cheyanne bit down on her bottom lip with obvious worry, glancing to their blending hands before removing the machine from Howie’s chest. The recording had finished, but left a large gap between them with Cheyanne’s confession. She felt her cheeks start to burn with embarrassment as she dropped her gaze, only to reach Howie with her worrisome sapphire orbs. “I want to think of you as her Daddy… I want you to be her Daddy… But it’s your choice…”

Astounded by this revelation, Howie could only stare at her. "Chey… Wow." That was all he could think to say. Sitting up, he gently cupped her face in his hands. "Honey… if you want me to be, I'd be more than happy to be her Daddy," he whispered.

Cheyanne smiled with relief as she moved to rest her hands on his forearms. “I want that more than anything. You’re the most loving, gentle man that I have ever met. What you bring to my heart could never even begin to compare to any of the most prized treasures in this world. I want my child to have a strong man in her life to admire. A strong man to protect her and love her. To give her everything in his heart. I want you to give her your heart, Howie, because there’s no greater gift in this world than you.”

Howie felt tears in his eyes at her words. "Chey," he whispered before the tears flowed freely. Pulling her close, he wrapped his arms around her, burying his face in the softness of her neck. Never before had anyone made him feel so important. So needed. So loved.

“I love you so much, Sweetheart,” Cheyanne promised softly, tenderly rubbing his back as she felt the hot tears splash against her somewhat cooler skin. She hadn’t meant to affect him so. She just wanted him to know how special he was to her. She smiled softly as she turned her head to kiss the side of his face. “You’re my Sweet Tea…”

"Sweet Tea," Howie repeated, smiling through his tears. "Sweet Tea and Honey. We go together just perfectly, don't we?" he mused, lightly kissing her neck. "And our little Angel," he added in a whisper, his hand covering her stomach. "See? Perfect."

“Maybe she should be a touch of Sugar?” Cheyanne teased with a giggle.

"Oh, sure, just pick on me now. How about our little Lemon Drop?" Howie returned with a chuckle, lying back with her in his arms.
“Lemon?” Cheyanne wrinkled her nose at the thought. “Then she’ll turn out sour. What about Buttermilk?”

"Buttermilk? So there can be a fly in her?" Howie lightly kissed the tip of her wrinkled nose. "How about Dumpling?"

“No… Tea isn’t good with Dumplings…” Cheyanne disagreed with a giggle. “What about Cinnamon?”

"Cinnamon," Howie repeated softly, smoothing the curls from her face. "Tea, Honey, and Cinnamon. I love it."

“We love you, too,” Cheyanne promised, leaning up to offer him a soft kiss. Only, it was shorter than she wanted, so, she drew his bottom lip into her mouth. Nibbling lightly to draw his attention to her, she then met his mouth entirely, offering a soft stroke of her tongue against his. Instantly, her entire body lighted with a passionate fire, causing her to tense slightly underneath his hold. “And I’d love to make love…”

"Chey, baby," Howie murmured, sliding his hands down her back. "I'd more than love to make love… As long as it's with you," he whispered before returning her kiss.
Confessions by Anastacia
Chapter 18 – Confessions

“Is my Chey feeling better?” Austin inquired with amusement as she watched her friend’s finger inch toward the batter of chocolate chip cookie dough to steal just a taste of the dough before Austin could start laying it on the cookie sheets for baking. She had to laugh at the sheer look of innocence crossing Cheyanne’s glowing facial features when she was caught. It just seemed too priceless, accentuating Cheyanne’s loose pigtails, baggy t-shirt, and baggy jean overalls. She seemed to be so childlike and Austin loved that most about her. The laugh seemed infectious as Cheyanne giggled with delight. Austin just shook her head in amusement, reaching to tickle Cheyanne. Kevin and Howie had suggested taking a walk around the lake, but Austin had decided against it when Cheyanne complained of some belly pain. She decided it would be better for them to stay at the cabin and bake cookies. So, with Jeff Foxworthy’s comedy cackling in the background, the girls furiously cooked a large batch of cookies, hoping the boys would be pleased when they returned.

“I always feel better when I’m with you,” Cheyanne promised as Austin offered her the spoon with excess batter.

"Ditto," Austin said, bumping her hip against her friend's as she moved to put the cookies in the oven.

Cheyanne gingerly pulled herself up on the counter, letting her legs swing back and forth as she watched Austin. Licking the spoon, she giggled when Austin struck a dramatic pose in the middle of the kitchen.

"It was in the last place I looked," she quoted with perfection to the CD.

“Well, duh! I sure hope so!” Cheyanne giggled, immediately continuing with the CD where Austin stopped. Both girls had secret crushes on the Blue Collar Comedy Men. Bill Engvall, Ron White, Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy – they could quote them all. “…Terry did you find your wallet? Yeah, but I'm still looking for it! Just in case we're living in a parallel universe or something! ... Did Kevin find his boxers from last night's raid of nakedness down the hallway?”

Giggling, Austin lifted her shirt slightly so Cheyanne could see what was underneath. "I swear, I've stolen half his clothes," she mused with a shake of her head. Hugging the Kentucky t-shirt to her body, she breathed in his familiar scent before skipping to the refrigerator to get some juice. "And, it would appear, you've been raiding Howie's drawers as well," she said, tugging playfully on the sleeve of Cheyanne's t-shirt. "Wait… How do you like the Beauty and the Beast panties, there? Sharp, aren't they?"

“We got Snow White back at the house. Me, I'm wearing Lion King... ROAR!” Cheyanne finished yet again, pretending to show off her underwear. Usually, she would jump off the counter and pull her pants down to flash her underwear. Only, Cheyanne now feared stripping in front of Austin, worried she’d noticing the roundness starting to gather at her usually thin belly. “And Howie gave me this shirt… He gave me a lot of his clothes. I didn’t steal.”

"Aww," Austin cooed, handing Cheyanne a glass of juice. Leaning over, she scraped the bowl with her finger, sucking the dough off with a pleased look. "And just when did you plan on telling me the wonderful news?" she asked sternly, though her coffee brown eyes glowed with humor.

Cheyanne choked hard on the apple juice she had been attempting to swallow, immediately pulling the cup away from her lips. Cupping her hands over her mouth, she coughed violently, sending sharp spasms of pain to her belly. But, her mind was far more caught on what Austin had said. What wonderful news was she talking about? Had Howie actually betrayed her confidence? Terror coiled in the pit of Cheyanne’s gut as she paled. “What good news?”

"As if you didn't know, Chey. It's so obvious, the way you're glowing and so happy. Did you think you could keep it from me forever?" Austin asked, moving to check on the cookies. "Please. Despite the fact I've spent the last few days wrapped around Pretty Boy, I still notice things. So, come on, out with it!" she practically squealed, pulling herself up to sit on the opposite counter.

“Out with what?” Cheyanne whispered, holding the cold glass to her forehead as the blood started to drain, making her feel faint. “I don’t know what you’re talking about…”

"Cheyanne Grace Lorde! Stop acting the innocent!" Austin screeched, leaning back slightly. "It's so obvious. Howie's turned my sweet innocent little Chey into a… woman," she cooed, clasping her hands dramatically over her chest. "What did you think I was talking about?" she asked, seeing her friend's stricken expression.

“Oh!” Cheyanne released a long breath of relief as she cupped her hand on her abdomen. She furiously shook her head with disbelief, knowing this panic wasn’t healthy for her child. She couldn’t believe she was getting so paranoid. Rubbing her face as if to stimulate a response, she glanced meekly toward Austin. “I didn’t think you’d be happy knowing that Howie and me…”

Austin gave her a smile. "I'm just glad you've found somebody decent. Not to dredge up a bad mood, but Noah was the Ass of all Assholes. And Howie is a really sweet, decent guy. Even for a city boy," she added with a shudder. "Besides, can I be upset over the fact you're doing something I've been doing--"

"Since your second time meeting Kevin. I know, I know," Cheyanne said, rolling her eyes as her heartbeat slowly returned to normal. "I have ears, and you've always been a bit of a screamer…"

“Gotta shout it loud and proud!” Austin boasted with a proud smile, no where near embarrassed about the conversation as Cheyanne was. In fact, she relished finally being able to talk about sex with Cheyanne. It made her so curious, knowing Cheyanne had been a virgin. It was just amusing. “Makes the boys feel good.”

“I don’t scream,” Cheyanne warned. “And Howie seems happy enough…”

"Sweetie, our room is right across the hall," Austin said with a smirk, shoulders shaking with mirth when Cheyanne's cheeks started to flush. "Sound travels both ways, you know… And, while you may not scream, you do make quite a bit of noise. As does Howie," she added with a devious chuckle.

“I do not!” Cheyanne gasped, holding her cool hands to her flaming cheeks with shock and embarrassment. Austin’s laughter only seemed to fuel the fire as she shook her head in disbelief, throwing a towel at her friend with disgust. Austin could be so damn fresh at times. Though, after a few minutes of laughter, she became slightly curious. “…What do I sound like?”

Snorting with laughter, Austin threw the towel back. She had known Cheyanne would ask that. "Well, let's see. A few nights ago, as I lay snuggled up close to Kev and ready for sleep, this is what I heard…" Lips quivering as she attempted to stop laughing, she gazed at the ceiling. "Oooohhh," she moaned, dissolving into giggles. "Howie!" she cried softly a moment later, jumping off the counter as the buzzer sounded. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

“Austin Leigh! You’re horrible!” Cheyanne scolded with a sharp whine, folding her arms across her chest as if she were truly offended.

"Alright. Payback's a bitch… tell me what I sound like," Austin taunted with an evil grin as she pulled out the cookies. "Hot! Hot!" she cried, dropping the pan on the stovetop. "Stupid fucking oven mitts," she grumbled.

“Depends on if you’re sober or not…” Cheyanne giggled with a coy smile, tapping her fingers on her bare knees as she watched Austin flip the cookies off the hot pan and onto the cooling rack. “Drunken sex sounds like… Kevin, that’s not the right hole! Hand, keep your Kevin there! … Sober sex is just a lot of screaming, pounding, and crashing. I swore to high Heaven if you weren’t careful, you were going to end up in bed next to me…”

"That would have been interesting," Austin mused, tossing a cookie from one hand to the other. "I mean, Hell, the man's already stolen your shirt. We both know he'd love to be in bed next to you," she teased, tossing the cookie over.

“I think he loves you a little more than me… But if you and I want to go at it while he watches, I think he’d be okay with it…” Cheyanne trailed, biting into the cookie, never noticing the sliding door open as Kevin and Howie slipped inside.

“Do I get to film it as well?” Kevin announced with a wicked grin.

"Kevin!" Austin shrieked with laughter, even as Cheyanne dropped her cookie and buried her face in her hands, mortified beyond belief. Pelting him with her cookie, Austin shook her head. "You couldn't afford the cover charge."

Grinning, Howie leaned against the counter. "I don't know… I have a little savings set aside. What's the price?"

“More than Paris Hilton’s cheap ass tape, that’s for sure,” Austin snorted, not realizing the connection Howie and Kevin had with the catty woman.

"Really, now. Look at us," Cheyanne said, finally pulling her hands down. "As sexy as we are, you know we'd rake in millions!"

Kevin burst into laughter, tugging one pigtail playfully on his way to hug Austin. "I'd have all the men in the world jealous of me," he murmured in her ear as he wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“You already do,” Austin promised with a sensual purr to her voice, turning around in his arms. Coyly, she draped hers around his shoulders, popping onto her tip toes to greet him with a kiss. Only, he didn’t seem appeased as he bent down for a longer, slower, more powerful kiss. Grinning, Austin scratched his back. “How was your boy time?”

"Oh, Lord, they're starting again," Cheyanne said mournfully as Howie sidled over to greet her. "Save me from their constant--" she cut off when he met her lips in a gentle kiss, one hand resting on her cheek as the other slid to rest on her stomach. Smiling against his lips, she wrapped her arms around him, intensifying the kiss. "Oh, bleah!" she cried, pulling away. "Have you been drinking beer?!"

“We had a couple?” Howie answered in confusion, furling his dark brows at her sudden distaste for him. He hadn’t realized that all the senses in a woman’s body rapidly changed during pregnancy, usually turning more potent. In fact, things that hadn’t made Cheyanne sick before probably would start to cause her great discomfort.

“Tea, you taste awful,” Cheyanne groaned, reaching for her apple juice to wash away the taste as she wrinkled her nose with obvious displeasure.

"Tea?" Austin repeated with a chuckle. "Kevin, baby, let go so I can get the next batch of cookies in the oven."

"I'm sorry, Honey," Howie said, tapping Cheyanne's knees. "I didn't know you didn't like the taste…"

"You're baking cookies? Holy Hell, Princess, I didn't know you knew how to cook…" Kevin trailed, scooping up a handful off the rack. "Be honest. Angel did it, didn't she? And you're just going to stand there and take all the credit, aren't you?"

“Don’t eat them all!” Austin scolded as she offered Howie some cookies in attempts to ward off the taste of beer that Cheyanne so suddenly detested. Though, she really didn’t see a problem with it, considering Cheyanne didn’t like alcohol to begin with. “…And, Chey mixed the batter, but the recipe is something we invented. So don’t even start busting my balls.”

Raising one eyebrow, Kevin shook his head. "Do I look stupid? I start busting your balls, and mine will be turning blue!"

“You’re such a fast learner,” Austin cooed as she wrapped her arms around his neck once the cookies had been switched around. Batter in the oven, baked cookies on the cooling rack.

“Only when it comes to keeping his sexual needs fulfilled,” Cheyanne murmured out of no where, sliding off the counter to get more juice. “Other than that he’s just an ape with a really good set of piano fingers.”

"Chey!" Austin screeched, her jaw dropping at the sound of something so coarse coming from such a sweet girl. "Howie! You've turned my sweet innocent Cheyanne into a mouthy little imp!"

“Me? You blame me? How do you know that your years of friendship finally didn’t rub off!” Howie defended, swallowing the bit of cookie in his mouth before moving to the fridge for a glass of milk. He made sure to shield Cheyanne as she handed him the apple juice to place back in the fridge, wanting to keep Kevin far away from the sweet girl.
Giggling, Austin shoved a cookie into Kevin's mouth when he opened it to speak. "Play nice," she warned, leaning up to kiss his cheek. "You have to be sweet to our Chey now. Howie's turning into quite the protective little lover."

“I could take him to get to her,” Kevin mumbled with a mouthful of cookie, oblivious to any manners he had acquired in the course of his lifespan. “Besides, I got her tank top one night, bet I can get something else, too… If she’s not careful…”

"Yeah? What do you want?" Cheyanne teased from the safety of Howie's arms.

“I think I have to be drunk to actually tell you… That way Princess doesn’t get wild…” Kevin chuckled, amused at how she egged him on. She attempted to puff her chest out like a mighty beast, though she looked too adorable for words. She thought she was some powerful little imp, yet she stood in Howie’s arms, sure to squeal if Kevin even took a mere step toward her.

“Howie…" Cheyanne trailed with a frown, not liking the implications. She immediately took a step from his arms as if to challenge Kevin, only, when Howie let her go, she wasn't pleased. Hurriedly, she tugged on the back straps of her overalls. "Hold me back!"

"I shot you for coming through the window like that. You know, you ought to get a job like the rest of us. I was up at five forty-five this morning, had to make lunch for the kids then had to take them to school and then I had to go to work myself. At my lunch hour I had to get my drivers license renewed then I had to stop by the grocery store on the way home… are you listening to me? Are you listening to me?" Austin blurted with perfection, glaring at Kevin.

"If you bleed on my rug, I'm gonna shoot you again!" Cheyanne finished, and both women instantly dissolved into laughter.

"What the Hell…" Kevin's voice faded as he watched the women laugh hysterically.
“It’s all this fresh air,” Howie decided with a shake of his head. “We need to get them into some smog or something.”

*~*~*


Leaning back in his chair, Howie propped his feet up on the railing of the porch, tipping back his beer for a sip. Cheyanne and Austin had dressed for bed already, coming out a few moments before to say goodnight. They were now snuggled in the bed, settling down for a marathon of Disney movies Austin had rented earlier in the afternoon. Disney movies, Howie mused, gazing out at the night sky. She was going to be such a great mother, he thought, a smile touching his lips as he imagined her with her baby in her arms. His thoughts drifted home, and he wondered suddenly what his mother would think of Cheyanne. He could just picture them together, whispering conspiringly as he walked into the room, their heads close, eyes dancing with humor… Grinning now, he took another sip of his beer. Life, he decided, wasn't so bad--

"Howie? Get your mind out of Angel's panties and talk to me," Kevin demanded with a chuckle.

“What automatically makes you think that I was there?” Howie scoffed with a heavy roll of his eyes. Leaning up slightly, he pushed on his friend’s cumbersome arm, causing him to jostle his beer just a touch. Kevin offered him a glare, but it faded into a bemused grin. They had never been so relaxed in all their time together. It was an amazing transformation. Just being able to sit out on the porch, watching the stars fade against the moon, completely serene. Howie smiled yet again, attempting to take another sip of his beer, remember to rinse his mouth quite well before returning inside to find Cheyanne later.

"That smirk? What else could it be?" Kevin returned, reaching out with his foot to nudge Howie's legs off the rail. Smirking when Howie muttered a curse, he laid his head back. "What did Brian have to say to you?" he asked after a moment's silence.

Howie grew quite somber in a matter of moments, immediately setting his beer down at the side of his chair. He hadn’t even thought about Brian’s phone call since it happened. That is, until Kevin brought it up. He hadn’t want to think about that part of his life back in Orlando, too concerned with Cheyanne to care. She was far more important than Brian, AJ, and Nick. That was for certain. “Nothing really… He put Baylee on the phone…”

"There's a real treat," Kevin muttered, setting his beer aside. Clasping his hands behind his head, he sighed deeply, closing his eyes. "God forbid he had to actually talk to someone he's been ignoring." So fucking typical, he thought, grinding his teeth in anger. "What was his excuse for putting Baylee on? Had to go kiss Leigh's ass?"

“His lips are permanently sewn there…” Howie sighed.

“He didn’t even give a damn when I mentioned I was afraid of finding you in a bathtub with your wrists slit,” Kevin muttered, instantly regretting his choice of words when Howie flinched openly. Sighing yet again, Kevin shook his head. “Sorry, D… I’m still worried about you. Y’know… They don’t give a shit, but I do… I want to know that you’re doing okay now…”

"Honest? This trip really helped. I think I've found new meaning," Howie said softly, remembering the soft fluttering of movement he'd felt earlier as he'd gently massaged Cheyanne's stomach. She'd assured him it was too soon to feel movement, had blushingly suggested it may have been gas, but he hadn't cared. There was a little life in there that needed him. "Life doesn't seem as bleak as it did a couple of weeks ago," he admitted, looking over at his friend. "And you?"

“I’m happy,” Kevin admitted with a proud smile, just thinking of Austin at that very moment. He guessed that she had Cheyanne curled in her embrace, lovingly playing with Cheyanne’s thick curls, because she loved to play with his hair while she was resting. There would be an adoring smile on her face, just enjoying the peacefulness. Nothing compared to the spitfire he had first encountered. “I’m actually in love…”

"Me too," Howie murmured with a smile. Unlike Kevin, however, he had two loves, not just one. "Wait," he said with a conspiring smile as he sat up to look at Kevin. "You mean Austin, right?" he teased.

Kevin narrowed his emerald eyes toward his younger counterpart. He thought about reaching to backhand Howie upside the head like he usually did with AJ and Nick, but hesitated. He knew that wouldn’t really serve a purpose. So, instead, he shrugged his shoulders. “Unless you want to trade me Angel. She really is a cute little thing… And, from the bits I remember, she was just as excited as I was to get that shirt off…”

Chuckling, Howie leaned back in his chair. "She just did it to appease your drunk ass." Returning his feet to the rail, he lost his smile suddenly as his thoughts turned to their band mates. "Do you think this album will do well?" he asked softly, reaching for his beer. "Or did we really wait too long? What if the fans have outgrown us? Or worse, forgotten us?" He knew damn well what he'd do if things went sour. There was a little ranch here in North Carolina where he was sure he'd be more than welcome to stay.

“The album?” Kevin murmured with honest bewilderment. Dropping the beer to his lap, he turned to gaze at Howie for a long passing moment. Howie’s mind seemed to jump everywhere at once, losing Kevin at some points. But, just the same, Kevin understood what he was feeling. Turning his gaze back to the night, he sighed yet again. “I don’t know what it will do… I think our fans are excited that we’re coming back… And they most certainly can’t forget about Nick, AJ, and Brian… But what do you want the album to do?”

"Honestly? I want it to do good, I really do, but…" Howie trailed off, glancing down at his hands.

"But part of you hopes it bombs," Kevin finished for him. At Howie's slight nod, he sighed. "Me too."

“I love singing and I love making music… But…”

“How the Hell are you going to tell Angel what you do for a living when it finally comes time? I mean, we’re going to have to tour…”

"I haven't thought that far ahead," Howie admitted with a sigh. "I have no idea what I'm going to tell her. What are you going to tell Austin?"

"The truth, maybe?"

“What about Kristin? You’re going to tell her that you’re married?”

“I want a divorce…”

"If you hadn't met Austin, would you?" Howie asked carefully. "I know you and Kris have had a lot of problems and all, and I still feel bad for not noticing it before, but…" Howie set his beer down once more, leaning his elbows on his knees. "Are you sure about this, Kevin? I don't want to sound cruel, because I know you love Austin, but you're not just using her as a means to get out of a loveless marriage, are you?"

“No… No…” Kevin trailed, folding his arms across his chest as he leaned back once again. “It’s a fair question… If I hadn’t met Austin, no, I don’t think I’d consider getting a divorce. But I’m not using her to get out of a loveless marriage. She’s giving me the strength to know that I deserve something better. That she deserves something better. That we deserve each other. Together…”

Nodding, Howie returned to his comfortable position. "If you're sure… Hand me another beer, would ya?"

“I’m more than sure,” Kevin promised confidently, reaching into the cooler to pull out another beverage for his friend. Smirking, he handed it over. “Cheyanne isn’t going to want to be anywhere near you after this. You’d think you were eating worms or something when you kissed her this afternoon.”

"Honey has a weak stomach," Howie murmured as he opened the beer.

"Is that why she's holding it all the time?" Kevin pressed, eyeing him carefully.

"Uh…"

“Is something wrong with her?” Kevin queried immediately, arching his thick, dark brows with worry. “Because of the horse riding accident? Because, if there is, and you don’t tell Austin, I won’t hold her back. I’ll just have to buy bleach to get the blood out of the carpets.”

"No, nothing's wrong with her," Howie said quickly, shaking his head. "Everything is fine."

"And? I can tell something is up, D. You look like a deer caught in the headlights right about now. What's the big secret? She pregnant or something?" Kevin asked, chuckling slightly.

“I…” Howie paled, motioning toward the cooler. “I think I need another beer…”
Bittersweet Romance by Anastacia
Chapter 19 – Bittersweet Romance

“I can’t believe that little thing is pregnant…” Kevin murmured with astonishment, leaning on the kitchen counter in order to peer out into the living room. Sure enough, there Cheyanne sat in the living room with Austin, giggling about some goofy story they were exchanging. He had managed to pry the information from Howie last night while they were enjoying a round of beers. Howie had caved easily beneath his lies, confessing that Cheyanne was indeed pregnant, though he managed to leave out the details of Noah. So, Kevin took on a whole new perspective of Cheyanne from that night. He didn’t understand how she could look so sweet and innocent in that moment, remembering how Austin swore up and down that she was a virgin and had been under her ex-boyfriend’s ultimate control. Kevin narrowed his eyes at that thought. She could play the game well and he worried now that Howie would be dragged amongst the flames, even as he and Howie prepared a special spaghetti dinner for the girls, compliments of his Mama’s recipe.

"Kev…" Howie began softly, shaking his head as he stirred the sauce. "Is it almost ready? I'm starving," he announced, trying to change the subject. He still couldn't believe Kevin had wormed the truth out of him, despite his promises to Cheyanne. Well, he decided, moving to retrieve a cold soda from the refrigerator--no more alcohol for him--he hadn't exactly broken a promise. She'd never said not to tell Kevin, she'd only made him promise not to tell Austin. Still, he couldn't help but feel as though he'd betrayed her. Lord, if she ever found out… He would be a dead man, that was for sure. It would be bad enough when Austin finally found out the news, which couldn't be but too much longer. She'd have his ass for not telling her.

“Just let me drain the noodles. You get the sauce off the stove,” Kevin instructed, moving his gaze from the women to go about his tasks. Moving the pot toward the sink, he dumped the water and noodles into the drainer. Though, he was unable to help himself as he tossed his oven mitts to the side. “Do you realize how lucky you are? If she hadn’t fallen off that horse, she could have pinned you in that pregnancy…”

"Kevin, don't start," Howie warned, shooting his friend a glare as he jerked the pot of sauce off the stove. "You know Chey would never--"

"How am I supposed to know that?" Kevin asked defensively, returning the glare. "All I know is what she's shown me, and she plays the sweet and innocent act pretty damn well. So well, in fact, Austin said she was a virgin."

Howie groaned in dismay, “Kevin--”

“You’re vulnerable. Both of us know that. Her putting a little bit of attention into you has you hooked. She definitely knows how to play the game and I’m sorry if I’m worried about you. This vacation is supposed to be a release. Not a snare – Girls! Dinner!”

"Food!" Austin shouted excitedly, already coming into the kitchen. "I'm so hungry I could ride a horse," she said, collapsing into a chair.

"Austi!" Chey cried, blushing as she moved to take a seat across from her. "You mean eat a horse."

"Eat, ride… whatever!"

“You should be famished, too, huh, Chey?” Kevin murmured, carrying the now mixed spaghetti to the already set table while Howie walked behind him with the Caesar salad and breadsticks. And, Kevin distinctly noted the displeasure in Howie’s mind as he threw a sharp kick to the older man’s shin. But, Kevin knew he was doing it out of the best interest in his heart, so he didn’t become too fazed.

“I’m… My stomach still hurts from the fall…” Cheyanne fumbled in confusion, refusing to meet Kevin’s blistering stare as she reached for the iced tea.

Austin narrowed her eyes at Kevin, her gaze flickering from one man to the other. "What the Hell has gotten into you?" she hissed, snatching her napkin into her lap. She could already tell he had another stick up his ass about something. He'd been so damn rude all evening, despite the sweet gesture of fixing his Mama's famous spaghetti.

“Nothing has gotten into me,” Kevin murmured, making sure to connect a sharp gaze with Cheyanne. Though, she barely held it as she dropped her gaze to fiddling with her napkin, obviously guilty. Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, he gestured toward Austin’s plate. “How much do you want?”

"Of your bullshit or the food?" Austin asked, kicking him hard under the table.

“Damnit Austin!” Kevin cursed, dropping the plate to the table as he reached down to rub his tender knee, trying to ignore the fact that Howie was so amused with the situation. He was too concerned about his knee. It throbbed heavily and burned with the marks of Austin’s pedicure.

Turning her attention to Howie and Cheyanne, Austin smiled sweetly. "Forgive Kevin. He's nervous about the upcoming surgery."

"Surgery?" Cheyanne repeated, raising one brow in confusion.

"To have that giant stick yanked out of his ass," Austin replied with a wave of her hand as she reached for her tea. "Howie, did you do the salad?" she asked casually, ignoring the daggers being sent to her from Kevin's eyes.

“If I say yes does that mean you’re going to take some?” Howie approved, glancing sideways to see Kevin muttering a string of sharp expletives, reaching for Austin’s plate to dish out the steaming spaghetti. Though Howie had butted heads with Austin several times, he felt proud that she managed to control Kevin’s temper so easily. In fact, he relished in that, knowing Cheyanne didn’t need Kevin’s stress.

"I did the spaghetti. And the breadsticks. But does she give a fuck? No," Kevin grumbled under his breath, still rubbing his knee.

"What the fuck is your problem?" Austin asked, whirling around to face him. "Are you still pissed because I turned down your offer of sex last night? I told you, when I fall asleep to Cinderella, don't expect me to wake up for sex!"

“Y’know… I’m not really hungry anymore…” Cheyanne whispered softly, not really in any mood to get thrown into this fight. When Austin and Kevin butted heads; it was explosive. And, her stomach was already cramping terribly for the evening and she had an unsettling feeling that Kevin was perturbed with her more than anything. Though, she didn’t know what she did wrong. Setting her napkin aside, she attempted to stand from the table.

"Chey," Howie said softly, covering her hand with his. "Do you want me to bring you a plate in the living room?" he asked worriedly. "You should eat a little something…"

“She’s not going anywhere,” Austin answered, reaching to grasp her friend’s shirt to pull her back to the chair. Taking the plate Kevin had almost purposely dumped in her lap, she handed it over to Cheyanne. “We’re going to enjoy this dinner that Howie and Kevin made us and pray to God that Kevin doesn’t get kicked in the nuts during the course of dinner for being such an asshole.”

“Alright, Austi…” Cheyanne trailed, shaking her head softly in disbelief.

"She needs her rest," Howie said, scraping his chair back. "Come on, Chey."

"Look, I'm sorry, alright? I've just been in a pissy mood since Brian called the other day. Sorry, Angel." Kevin looked at her intently. He would never forgive himself if his being a jackass sent her into a nervous breakdown and caused a miscarriage. Despite his feelings that she was a manipulative minx, he still liked her.

“It’s okay…” Cheyanne promised with a soft trail to her voice, watching Howie slowly slide back into his place at the table. She glanced curiously toward Kevin, to see if he meant it, but noticed an unfamiliar flicker in his emerald eyes. So, she still remained slightly uncomfortable, lifting her fork to pick at the spaghetti. She honestly wasn’t hungry as her stomach began to cramp violently, but didn’t say nothing as she felt Howie’s hand find her upper thigh. Glancing up yet again, she looked at him with confusion. “Who’s Brian?”

Howie glanced at Kevin, patting Cheyanne's thigh lightly. "He's…"

"Our business partner," Kevin provided, reaching for a breadstick. "He and the others are holding down the fort for us."

"He's Kev's cousin, too," Howie said softly, giving her a look that told her Brian wasn't really the greatest guy in the world. Looking over at Kevin, she wondered if it was genetic.

“He and the others?” Austin was quick to ask, snatching the breadstick Kevin had hoped to seize. She smirked with triumph as he glared at her, leaning over to nip playfully at his bottom lip. Since he apologized to Cheyanne, it seemed as if Austin had taken to a completely different personality. Or, maybe it was the fact that she was finally stuffing her face with sweet morsels of food.

"Yeah… Aje and Nick," Howie said, serving Cheyanne some salad. She flashed him a quick smile, and he felt a shiver when her hand brushed his thigh under the table. "They… They kind of take over things when we're not around," he continued.

"And when we are around," Kevin added, swirling the dark wine in his glass.

“Is that your way of telling me that you’re not the boss of things? Because I think it’ll be a little chilly in Hell then,” Austin snorted playfully, reaching to take his glass when he finished the last bit, knowing he needed a refill.

"Are you kidding? Kevin's the Dad of our little family," Howie said sarcastically.

"Only because I'm the oldest. Those three don't give a fuck. Just do what they want, when they want, never bother to ask us if we agree with it or not," Kevin grumbled, his eyes following Austin as she came back with his wine. "Thanks, Princess."

“You’re welcome,” Austin promised, scratching his back before plopping down into her seat to enjoy the rest of her meal.

“So, wait… They don’t care what you say? So, it’s not like you even really need to go back?” Cheyanne asked in confusion, hoping she didn’t sound that hopeful about the situation. Not that she was happy Howie was so miserable in his job, but she dreamed about him coming back to North Carolina, no matter how far fetched it sounded. She knew they had to part on good terms, but it hurt. So, to make sure she didn’t look too desperate, she carefully forked some lettuce into her mouth.

"Angel, I hate to break your heart, but we do have to go back," Kevin said gently, sneaking a glance at Austin as he spoke, wanting to see what her reaction would be. "We, uh… have to do some traveling soon."

"Travel?" Cheyanne asked around a mouthful of lettuce. "What kind of travel?"

“We’re looking to expand our business…” Howie said as simply as he could, hating that Kevin was getting so technical with their lies. It was hard to keep everything straight, especially as the girls became far more curious than either had anticipated. It was only a matter of time before they would get caught.

“Sounds like you need some entertainment,” Austin laughed, allowing her bare foot to trail up Kevin’s leg and to his lap. “You can write it off as a business expense.”
Catching her ankle in his hand, Kevin held her foot to his growing arousal. "You're charging me now?" he teased, lightly running his fingers over her skin.

"Hell, as much as she makes him scream, she should," Cheyanne muttered to Howie as she reached for her tea again.

"Chey!" Austin cried.

“I was just stating the truth,” Cheyanne answered innocently, chewing the last piece of ice in her tea. Though, it looked as if her favorite animal had died when she noticed. Her bottom lip puckering with disbelief, knowing she’d have to get up and get the ice, which just seemed like a painful ordeal.

Stretching out one leg, Kevin nudged Howie under the table. "My Angel needs ice, man," he drawled, smirking when Howie shot him a glare. Sliding his hand up Austin's leg, he pressed her foot harder against the arousal in his jeans. "So… Princess… about entertainment," he murmured.

"God, don't you two ever stop?" Howie muttered, taking Cheyanne's glass and heading for the freezer.

"We didn't do a thing last night," Austin said defensively, slurping a noodle into her mouth.

“Because Kevvy was drenched in alcohol and couldn’t manage to salute…” Cheyanne mumbled in a slight daze, obviously assuming she thought the answer instead of speaking it aloud. That is, until she noticed Austin and Kevin’s wide eyed stares and she blushed furiously. “You two were reeking of beer last night. Don’t deny that.”

"Chey…" Chuckling, Austin reached for her tea. "Pretty Boy managed to salute, I was just too tired to--"

"Salute back," Kevin interjected with a grin. "Though, she did wake up about three and--"

"Way too much information," Cheyanne said quickly as Howie returned to his seat. "Thank you, Tea," she cooed, smiling sweetly when he set down her glass, filled to the brim with ice.

“The idea of discretion really isn’t in your vocabulary, is it?” Howie groaned, sliding his chair closer to Cheyanne’s chair so Kevin wouldn’t be able to reach him anymore. Not to mention he’d be closer to Cheyanne, freely able to touch her without worrying.

"Nope, not really," Kevin admitted. "In fact," he said with a wicked grin at Austin, "I'd like a beer and I'd like to see something naked!"

“How about you take your wine and we both get naked,” Austin suggested, abandoning her food as she pulled Kevin up by the collar of his t-shirt. Spaghetti could always be warmed, but waste Kevin’s proud erection at this point would be devastation.

“Oh, not that! Not that!” Cheyanne howled painfully.

"To Hell with the wine," Kevin said, setting his glass down. "D, I'll take care of the dishes… later," he muttered as he lifted Austin over his shoulder.

"Oh, good Lord," Howie muttered, shaking his head as the two headed down the hall. "Now we can eat in peace." Smiling, he slid his hand to her neck, caressing lightly. "Do you feel okay, Honey?"

“I’m fine,” she promised, chewing on the chipped ice Howie had gotten for her, though she shivered at the feeling of his soft hand on her neck. Trying to be oblivious to the sharp slam of the bedroom door and Austin’s squealing.

"You want to go sit on the porch for a little while?" he offered, pushing his chair back. "I heard down at the office this morning that there should be a meteor shower tonight, and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than snuggle with you and watch it."

“Sounds perfect to me,” Cheyanne agreed, taking his hands so he could help her up.

*~*~*


“You know how to drive me insane, y’know?” Kevin breathed heavily as he slammed his back into the door to close it, practically tossing Austin onto the bed before eagerly crawling on top of her. He wasted no time bending down to capture her mouth in a hot kiss, actually nipping at her tongue when her nails dug into his back. He was already painfully tight from her little foot fetish at the table and the intoxicating scent of her shampoo mixing with the cologne of his t-shirt that she was wearing was enough to drive him into a loud tizzy. Groaning with obvious pleasure at her hands peeling his shirt away in order to have a better grasp at his flesh, he dipped his tongue into her mouth to cause a sharp squeal of excitement. And, if anything, he surely was looking for security in Austin’s loving tonight. To know that she wasn’t like Kristin and Cheyanne. That she would truly love him until the end of time, despite his obstinate flaws.

"I try," Austin gasped into his mouth, rolling him to his back in order to attack his neck and chest with her tongue. His hands were all over her body, seeming to lightly tug on her hair and unbutton her tight jeans at the same time. Lifting her hips slightly, she squealed when one hand slid inside her panties, teasing her folds. Raising her head to meet his eyes, she was about to speak when she saw a flicker of emotion in the emerald depths. "Kevin," she breathed, moving up his body to lightly kiss his lips. "I've never felt for anyone the things I feel for you," she admitted.

“I know, Princess,” Kevin promised, holding a hand underneath her chin to deepening the sweet kiss she offered. Slowly, he withdrew his hand from her pants, moving to slide them easily down her legs. As though he were peeling a second layer of skin. But, he wanted top, so he easily rolled her while taunting her with kisses. “I’d do anything for you, Princess. Anything in the world. You’d just have to ask…”

"I… Right now all I want is for you to make love to me," she whispered, sliding her hands through his hair. "But… later… we can talk about this traveling you have coming up," she added with a smirk, her hands trailing down his firm chest, lightly grazing his nipples before skimming to the button of his jeans. Hearing his pleased moan, she smiled against his lips, loving his response to her touches.

“I can definitely make love to you,” he gasped as her hands painstakingly undid each button before slowly sliding down the zipper. Then they eased inside, sliding beneath the waistband of his boxer-briefs to cup his firm erection. Sharply, he bucked at the sensation of her cool hands against his flaming skin, leaning down to press a powerful kiss that broke into a loud moan of delight in her mouth.

“Well, stop wasting time,” Austin purred with a laugh, pulling down his jeans and boxer-briefs till he kicked them to the floor. She smiled at the gift she had just unwrapped. Kevin nude was just a magnificent piece of art. He cared a lot about his body, which was defined in the smooth, sleek contours of his chiseled muscles, allowing Austin to easily line where one began and one ended. But, what drove her wild was the small garden of dark hair brewing below his lower abdomen, leading to her Garden of Eden. Men definitely matured with age.

“Sorry,” Kevin actually apologized as she gently rubbed him while he furiously worked on removing her clothing. He felt his entire body tense with her soft hands cupping him, toying with him. He worried that he might be wasted if she kept playing games. So, holding his breath, he slid her bottom garments away, immediately probing a finger into her moist inner lining so she knew what it felt like.

"Kevin, baby," Austin moaned, arching her hips off the bed. He always knew just how to touch her to make her want to scream. Gripping him tightly, she nipped at his bottom lip, squealing when his thumb pressed against her clit. "Kevin…" Her nails raked his length, and she felt a surge of desire when he jerked against her hand.

“You done teasing me?” he breathed against the crook of her neck, smiling at the sharp squeal that echoed throughout the bedroom. The noises she made during their foreplay was astounding, not to mention how passionate she became when they were actually making love. Slowly withdrawing his hand from her, he licked his fingers, causing her to whimper with dissatisfaction. Easily, he moved to kiss her, allowing her to taste herself against his lips while she guided him deep into her inner being.

Whimpering, Austin tangled her legs with his, sliding her arms around his neck. "This," she whispered breathlessly as she arched to meet him, "is where I belong." Pulling him down over her, wanting to feel as much of his body as possible, she nibbled at his earlobe, one hand flailing out to grasp the sheet as her wave of passion began to swell.

*~*~*


“I think I’m starting to get baby fat,” Cheyanne announced quietly as she stood at the floor length mirror tacked to the closet of Howie’s bedroom, bunching her light yellow camisole and rolling Howie’s baggy boxers to further examine her changing abdomen. She was unaware that Howie had returned from the bathroom and was watching her intently. In fact, she was more mesmerized with her body than anything. Just the slightest amount of fat had started to layer in the pit of her stomach, bringing just a soft roundness to where she was usually concave. She could only count the days till she would be permanently condemned to wearing baggy clothing. Not that she mourned the idea of getting fat. In fact, it was much the opposite. She couldn’t wait for her pregnant belly.

Stepping up behind her, Howie slid his arms around her waist, one hand moving to gently cover her stomach. "I love it," he murmured, resting his head on her shoulder and looking at their reflection. "I can't wait to see how much you grow," he told her, lightly kissing her neck. "How is our little Cinnamon doing tonight? She settled down so I can make love to you?" he whispered, his lips trailing over her shoulder, dragging the strap of her camisole between them. Moving his hand up, he gently cupped her breast, felt her shiver slightly as he nibbled the soft, sweet skin of her neck.

“Will you still sing to me first even though she’s sleeping?” Cheyanne teased, holding her breath as long as she possibly could while Howie tickled her skin. Little shocks of delight quaked over her already overly sensitive body, sending her into an ocean of sheer delight. She actually started to tremble underneath Howie’s hold from the power of her brewing ecstasy, whimpering softly at the sensations of his fingers lightly dancing over her covered breast.

"What's your pleasure?" he asked with a wicked grin, moving to pay the same attention to her other shoulder. Gently stroking her breast, he nibbled at her earlobe, his other hand teasing the waistband of the boxers she wore. Feeling her tremble, he turned her in his arms, easing her against the wall. Her hands landed on his shoulders, her lips meeting his in a fevered kiss. Bracing one hand against the wall, he released a soft moan when her hands tangled in his hair, drawing him closer to her. Kevin's warnings played in the back of his mind and he quickly pushed them away, wanting only to think of Cheyanne, of her luscious body, her sweet smiles, her gentle touches, the way she--- "Chey," he gasped when her hands slid down to cup his backside, pulling him tightly next to her.

“You’re my pleasure,” Cheyanne whispered against his lips, allowing her tongue to gently tease his bottom lip. When his body practically melted against hers, she brought her hands up the length of his bare back, tightening her grasp as a powerful wave of elation attacked. Her whimpers labored with slight frustration at the sweet torture he was bringing to her aroused body, knowing there was no possible way she could keep herself upright for much longer. Especially as she ran just the tip of her tongue along the corner of his mouth, working her kisses against his jaw to finally suck his earlobe gently.

Moving his hands lower, Howie grasped her thighs, gently pulling her legs around his waist as he stepped back, holding her up against him as he moved to the bed. Lowering himself on the edge, he eased her camisole over her head, dropping light kisses over her chest, teasing her soft skin as she wriggled in his lap. "Chey… Sweetheart, do you have any idea what that does to me," he breathed against her collarbone as her hands stroked his back. The slightest touch from her aroused him, and coupled with her shivers and soft whimpers made him want to bury himself deep inside her center. "I love you, Honey…"

“I love you, too, Tea, so much,” Cheyanne promised as he glanced up, lowering her lips to his for several gentle kisses. Though, as she started to rotate her hips against his in a slow, circular fashion, her kisses hardened. Her entire body was heightening to pleasure that Howie had yet to show her. Every time with him seemed to bring another level of pure bliss. She craved him more than he would ever know. Especially as she nibbled tenderly on his bottom lip, wrapping her arms around his neck for protection. “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted. And, I thank God for the time I do have with you. Every moment of every day…”

Wrapping his arms around her, Howie returned her kiss, pulling her with him as he lay back. "You… you're more than I could have ever hoped for," he whispered, smoothing the curls from her face as he cradled her body next to his. What did Kevin know, anyway, he decided, gently moving her to her back. Her legs tangled with his, and he felt his heart surge with love for her as she began sliding his shirt up. "Can I keep you forever?" he murmured, lifting his head to gaze into her eyes.

“Please?” Cheyanne answered sweetly as she cast his shirt toward the floor, sliding her hands down his bare back with much delight. Her sapphire eyes shimmered within the soft lighting of the room, showing a depth of truth that Howie could never fully appreciate. Everything she felt for him, love, desire, wanting, hope, adoration, reflecting back against his chocolate eyes. She held no secrets. She offered him everything she had, asking for not a single desire in return. Though, she loved the way her soft skin seemed to melt into his, blending them into a soft caramel joy as she framed his face to pull him down for several long, supple kisses. There was nothing more than she could have possibly asked for. For him to keep her forever was a dream. Her Heaven. “Please, keep me forever.”
Normalcy by Anastacia
Chapter 20 – Normalcy

The afternoon sun beat down on the Escape as Kevin drove along the highway, his glance flickering over to Austin every few moments. "How the Hell can you paint your toenails in a car?" he asked incredulously

Rolling her eyes, Austin heaved a dramatic sigh as she painstakingly applied polish. "You wouldn't wait for me to do it earlier. What do you want me to do, paint them at the restaurant?" she returned, wiggling her finished toes.

“I’d be happier if you rolled down the window to get the fumes outta here,” Cheyanne drawled softly from the back, shifting slightly to bury her face into Howie’s shirt. She gently inhaled the soft scent of his cologne to ignore the potent odor of Austin’s expensive nail polish. Her stomach was churning violently as she wrapped her arms around it, attempting to ignore it so Kevin wouldn’t have to violently lurch the car. It was ridiculous how effective her senses were getting, like how just the smell of Howie’s coffee sent her running to the bathroom that morning. Now, sitting in the back of the car, she prayed they be getting where ever they were going soon. Very soon.

"I'm done, Chey," Austin assured her, capping the bottle. Rolling down the window, she turned in her seat, propping her feet outside. "Are we almost there, baby?" she asked, leaning against Kevin.

"You okay?" Howie asked softly, smoothing Cheyanne's ponytail as she gripped his shirt. "You want some water or something?"

“I’m fine,” Cheyanne promised, rubbing her face against him while taking a deep breath. Then, slowly, she pulled away from his scent, leaning to just rest within his embrace. Meekly, she glanced up to the front seat, noticing Austin’s legs draped out the window while she leaned on Kevin, though Cheyanne didn’t care to see where Kevin’s free hand was at that point. So, she turned her gaze back to Howie, tracing little shapes on his thigh. “But where are we going?”

Howie kissed the top of her head, gazing out the window at the passing scenery. "We're… Kev? Where are we going?" he asked. He honestly couldn't remember what the thing was called.

"The outlet mall," Austin replied, her fingers tracing the back of Kevin's hand that she'd pulled into her lap. Turning her head to look at him, she whispered, "We have to get rid of them so I can do some shopping."

The outlet mall? Howie shook his head slightly, unable to keep from grinning. Three months before he'd been in the most exclusive boutiques of New York, waited on hand and foot by the staff. Now he'd be trudging along like ordinary people. He loved it. Squeezing Cheyanne lightly, he lowered his head, his lips near her ear. "Do you think they have a Baby Gap?" he whispered.

Cheyanne glanced up at Howie with wonderment, her sapphire eyes growing wide at his question. She immediately pushed on his shoulder, furiously shaking her head. “No, no way,” she insisted softly, unable to believe that Howie was so excited about her child. More so, that he wanted to do all this shopping for the child. She felt so guilty when he suggested such things, not wanting to spend his money. His business may have been successful, but that didn’t mean she wanted to waste his hard earned money, either. And she didn’t have the money at the moment to worry about baby things, especially when she had six months to get her act together.

"I told you, I want to spoil her, remember? Besides, just a couple little things," he whispered, trailing her cheek with his thumb.

"They're whispering," Austin told Kevin, plucking at his fingers. "Are you mad or something? You haven't said a damn word in ten minutes…"

“No, I’m not mad,” Kevin murmured, pulling his gaze from the backseat. He could only imagine what Howie was saying to Cheyanne at that moment. The man was so damn excited about the baby and Kevin couldn’t help but worry. What would happen if Cheyanne suddenly went back to the baby’s father? Howie would be so broken and Kevin would be right back in the same place with Howie’s depression. Exhaling a slow breath, he brought Austin’s hand to his lips. “I was just wondering what shopping you have to do that requires us to get rid of the Lovebirds?”

"Somebody's birthday is next month," Austin whispered with a soft smile, pulling her feet back inside. Punching the button with her toe, she rolled up the window before snuggling closer to him, resting her free hand on his denim-clad knee. Going shopping had been her idea. She had to get something for Cheyanne, and with their limited incomes, it was going to be a small something. She was thinking of checking around the outlets to see if anyone had any Tinkerbell scrubs, or maybe some jazzy ink pens. She wasn't sure. "Are we going to eat out tonight?" she asked softly, reaching to adjust the volume of the country station playing.

“If you would like to go out to dinner, I can take you,” Kevin promised, figuring that Asheville wouldn’t be too populated that it might blow their cover. After all, how many people in the outskirts of North Carolina mountains were fans of the Backstreet Boys? Much less the two nobodies of the Backstreet Boys.

"Chey? Are you up for steak tonight?" Austin asked, examining her toenails as Kevin pulled into the parking lot. Cheyanne's stomach had been playing cruel games lately. It seemed everything sent her into a tailspin. In fact, Austin couldn't remember the last good meal she'd seen her friend eat. Part of her worried that she was getting sick, or had something wrong with her stomach. "If you're not, we can go back to the cabin and I can make some soup…" her voice trailed as Howie's cell phone started chirping loudly.

“We can have steak tonight,” Cheyanne agreed, knowing she could find something edible. And, if not, she’d just wait till they got back to the cabin. She didn’t want to seem too fussy, nor did she want Austin to worry. So, she offered a sweet smile as everyone climbed out of the car, Howie and Kevin simultaneously donning their baseball caps. “As long as I don’t have to pay for it…”

“Kev, the phone’s for you,” Howie mumbled out of no where, tossing his small, expensive cell phone at his older friend. He knew Brian’s number like no other and had no desire to speak to the man or his child for that matter.

Grabbing the phone, Kevin flipped it on without glancing at the display. "What," he barked, knowing it had to be Brian. He was in no mood to deal with his cousin's shit at the moment.

"What the Hell were you thinking?" Brian shouted without preamble. Kevin had to hold the phone from his ear at the crackly reception as well as the shouting.

"What the fuck did I do now?" Kevin asked miserably as Austin walked around to stand next to him, her brows raised slightly.

Grasping Cheyanne's hand, Howie looked at Kevin and Austin. "We're just gonna walk around. We'll meet up with you later, okay?" he questioned softly. At Austin's nod, he tugged lightly on Cheyanne. "Come on, Honey."

“Bye Chey,” Austin called with a little wave, knowing she’d be in good hands. Though, when she turned back, she suddenly wished that she insisted on tagging along. Kevin’s face was bright red with frustration and outrage, his large hand curled monstrously around the phone in a death-like grip. Yet, the crackling and his cousin’s high pitched voice on the opposite side was enough for Austin to pity her lover. She attempted to soothe him by placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. But he wanted no such part of her, immediately shrugging away and turning his back in her direction. Austin was flabbergasted at first, just staring at him with disbelief before her own temper flared. “Asshole…”

"…know damn well what you did," Brian continued shouting. "You left your wedding band--a symbol of your eternal bond with Kristin--on your dresser like it was a piece of trash. And she is beyond pissed, cuz. She's fucking hysterical. Do you realize what this could do to her career--"

“HER CAREER?!” Kevin exploded out of no where, immediately slamming his opposite hand into the side of the Escape, causing the car to jostle a bit. He forgot completely about his day in the city with Austin, oblivious to the fact that she was even present at that very moment. He was outraged at the fact that Brian was taking Kristin’s side over the whole ordeal. “What career?! She would be shit if she didn’t have my name attached to hers—Oh! I’m sorry! It’s Kristin Willits! Fuck me and the horse I rode in on! I’m nobody! I’m just the person that sleeps in our bed while she’s out fucking every producer, actor, and personal assistant that she can find!”

"That doesn't give you the right to leave your wedding band behind while you're off having a pity party for yourself and Howie! If you two are having problems, you try to work them out, not run away like a wimp," Brian went on. In the background Baylee squealed, and Kevin winced when he heard Brian snap at him. "I told you to sit down, dammit!"

Kevin exploded, “DON’T YELL AT THE BOY BECAUSE YOU’RE PISSED OFF AT ME!”

“You need to get your fucking act together, Kevin! This is ridiculous! We’re so close to launching this new album and you and Howie have to go apeshit on the rest of us! It’s not fair and we’re hauling your asses in. You signed contracts and there will be consequences. And just because you take your damn wedding ring off doesn’t mean to omit your obligations! Take your punishment like a man because you know you’ll never hear the end of it from our family if you fuck up again!”

And the line went dead.

"Kevin," Austin said softly, hugging herself in the light breeze as Kevin angrily threw the cell phone into the car. Wincing when he slammed the door, she grasped a handful of the t-shirt she wore. "What the Hell is going on?" she asked when he continued to ignore her presence, getting angrier with each passing second. It never failed, she thought as he glared off in the distance. All the sweet words he whispered in her ear when they were in bed seemed to leave his brain when the sun came up.

Nonetheless, Kevin really wasn’t concerned about Austin’s displeasure. He was more focused on Brian’s threats and the fact that Kristin was, yet again, allowed to play the victim. He was to play the bastard in the entire situation when she had broken his heart from the very beginning. She had been the malicious demon that attacked his soul with every chance she received. Yet he was the asshole. He was the one that had to be the man and get his act together. Not only that, Howie had to start shaping up, too. Heaven forbid that the man was suicidal and wanted to terminate his life. That didn’t matter, because an album and the other boys’ fame was far more important. “Damnit to Hell, Brian,” Kevin seethed finally turning to find Austin when his thoughts cleared, but she was no where in sight…

He heard her soft laugh from the strip of stores nearby, and it hit him that he was able to pick her laugh out of a crowd. Heading over, an apology on his lips for exploding in front of her, he dodged his way through the small crowd loitering on the sidewalk. Finally seeing her in front of Old Navy, he skidded to a stop when he saw her gazing up at a young man holding an armload of shirts as he held the door open. He couldn't hear what she was saying, but he felt jealousy and anger burn in the pit of his stomach when he saw her reach up and pat the guy's cheek before sauntering inside, followed a little too closely by a man whose eyes apparently couldn't raise themselves above ass level.

The flames of his anger now swept over Austin instead of Brian’s harsh criticisms, Kevin practically ripped the door to Old Navy open as he stalked inside. Searching through the crowds of people, Kevin immediately noticed the man standing next to Austin, slyly approving of the way her body was turning inward toward him. She looked completely taken with the man, seductively moistening her bottom lip as she reached to rub her hand on his shoulder. Without any hesitation, Kevin reached to rip the man away from Austin, causing him to stumble slightly as the shirts spilled. “She’s taken, asshole.”

"Kevin," Austin gasped in surprise as the man scurried to collect the shirts. "What the Hell do you think your doing?" she asked incredulously. The look in his eyes frightened her, and she unconsciously took a step back when he towered over her.

“What do you think I’m doing?” Kevin answered, his voice low and steady, knowing her history. He tried to maintain calm boundaries, though he was absolutely furious, not wanting to cause that much of a commotion. “What do you think you’re doing? With him?”

Austin averted her gaze, looking at but not really seeing the floor. Nervously chewing her bottom lip, she fiddled with the hem of the t-shirt she wore, suddenly wishing she could take back the past few moments. It had seemed like a good idea at the time… Mentally kicking herself, she finally lifted her eyes to look at Kevin, saw the hurt in his eyes. "I'm sorry," she said softly, putting as much feeling into the words as humanly possible.

“Is this punishment, then? For taking a slightly important phone call and accidentally ignoring you because I didn’t want to lash out at you when I was so mad at my cousin? Is that the thanks I get? An aching heart?” Kevin asked honestly, wanting to be able to take the role as victim for once in his life. He was tired of having to mount defenses for his thoughts as well as be the rock in every situation. Just once, he wanted to be able to express his true emotions. To tell Austin that it hurt beyond belief that she did that. That she could play him so easily because he didn’t do exactly what she wanted.

Austin felt tears prick her eyes at his words. Quickly blinking them back, she wound her finger in the hem of her shirt, trying to think of something to ease the pain that showed so clearly on his face. Apologizing wouldn't change a damn thing, would it? Unable to bear the look in his eyes, she glanced out the opening door. I didn't want to lash out at you. Deep inside, she knew he would never hurt her, no matter what the circumstances. Swallowing hard, she met his eyes again. He looked so broken, as though the world had moved on, leaving him alone and afraid. Did she really mean that much to him? "I'm sorry," she said again. The words that seemed so useless were the only ones that she could think of. And… "I love you, Kevin."

“I wish you’d show it a little more,” he sighed heavily, stuffing his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. He hadn’t meant to make the day so lousy of a start, but was unable to avoid Brian’s phone conversation. It just seemed typical. He wasn’t allowed to be happy. Shaking his head with disappointment, he started for the door to Old Navy’s. Only, when he turned back, he saw Austin still perched in her very position. Causally, he held out his hand. “Are you coming or not?”

Looking from his hand to his face, Austin stepped forward, reaching for him. When his fingers curved gently around hers, she followed him outside. Once on the sidewalk, she slid her arm around his waist, leaning against him as they walked along. "I do love you, Pretty Boy," she told him, resting her free hand on his chest, reassured when his arm slid around her shoulders. "And I promise… I'll spend forever showing you, if you'll let me."

I hope I can,’ Kevin thought, wrapping his arm around her shoulder, making other shoppers avert their path so he wouldn’t have to let her go.

*~*~*


Staring in awe at the smorgasbord of baby items before him, Howie was at first bewildered. Then, grinning, he squeezed Cheyanne's hand reassuringly, heading for the back wall that had NEWBORN painted in pastel colors. Cheyanne stood there staring at him as he thumbed through a rack of rompers. Picking one out, he held it up. "You think she'll like purple?" he asked hopefully, glancing down at the green elephants marching across the front.

"Howie…" Cheyanne trailed off when he turned and picked up a green elephant. She had to smile at his expression. He was just so adorable.

"See? It matches. Can't buy one without the other…"

“Howie…” Cheyanne trailed yet again, holding a hand to her mouth as she just shook her head. She did her best not to laugh at him, knowing he was quite taken with being the child’s father. That much was apparent. She didn’t see hardly any other fathers in the store, much less any male figures. Mostly, women clamored around the selections with coos and squeals. She felt slightly uncomfortable in the situation, finally starting to realize how serious this was. How in six months she’d be using all these things for her child. The little life inside her. She tried to steer away from pessimistic thoughts, watching Howie wave the outfit with the elephant doing a small dance. She rolled her eyes playfully. “Honestly, how do you know it’s going to be a girl?”

Shrugging, Howie placed the outfit and elephant in her hands. "I just know," he said simply. "What are those little things called that are like undershirts but snap at the butt?" he asked, looking around. Rompers, playsuits, booties, bonnets, ruffled dresses… No little undershirts that snapped at the butt, though, that he could see.

“Onesies?” Cheyanne answered, trying not to laugh as another mother overheard him and actually cooed at his sweetness.

"That's it! Where are they at?" Howie asked, looking around.

"Over here, sweetie," a woman said softly, giving Cheyanne a look that plainly said she was the luckiest woman in the world. "I wish my husband would help me do our shopping…" she trailed before moving away.

Cheyanne opened her mouth to inform the woman that Howie truly wasn’t her husband, but he seemed to know exactly what she was thinking. So, before she could act, he slipped a comfortable arm around her shoulders to draw her close to his body, leading her in the direction the older woman had gestured to. She glanced up at him for a moment with bewilderment, wondering why he didn’t want her to say what she was thinking. But, those thoughts got sidetracked when Howie, still holding onto her, reached for a delicate yellow onesie with the words – My Mommy is a Fox scrawled across the chest in black. She immediately rolled her eyes. “You’re not funny.”

"Maybe not," he said with a grin, "but I am adorable and you love me."

“I love you very much,” Cheyanne promised, taking Howie’s black Nike hat from his head, flipping it backwards onto her two braided pigtails. She looked quite adorable with his hat and matching light blue, baggy Nike shirt and her own ripped jean shorts. She was comfortable with just being herself, not bothering to dress up and place a mask on her pretty face. Howie appreciated that, especially as she actually motioned toward a light pink onesie with dark pink scrawling – I Love My Daddy. “I like that one a lot better than Mommy being a fox…”

"We can get both," Howie said. "Don't you think she'll need some plain ones to wear under her little outfits? And some little booties to keep her tootsies warm…" Wishing he had grabbed a basket, he began picking up each item he called out. No matter the cost, he wanted to make sure she had every item she could ever possibly use during the baby's first few months. If she asked for it, he would fly to the moon to collect rocks. "And a bonnet to keep the sun off her head… a rattle… Do you plan on breastfeeding or using a bottle?" he asked suddenly, turning to face her, his arms loaded with items.

Cheyanne’s mouth formed into a perfect ‘o’ of surprise with his frank question as her sapphire eyes widened with disbelief. She had been planning on breastfeeding ever since having her Maternity Nursing Class. In fact, a lot of her decisions had been made during that class, before she knew that she would be pregnant in a few short months. But Howie was overwhelming, especially with all the items bundled in his arms. It wasn’t that she wasn’t grateful, but she couldn’t accept these overwhelming gifts. “…I was planning on breastfeeding… But, really, Tea, this is too much. I don’t want anything…”

"I insist, Honey. Let me do this for you? For our little Cinnamon? I love you both so much, and being able to get you these things means a lot to me," Howie said softly. "How about we compromise? I'll just buy you a few things… and later we can get more."

“I don’t want it to seem like I’m using you for your money. I mean, you tell me your business is successful, but that’s your hard earned money. You shouldn’t have to spend it on a girl who got knocked up on accident,” Cheyanne attempted to explain with embarrassment, feeling her cheeks redden with a fiery blush. “I’m not looking for handouts. I’m not looking for some easy life. I plan on getting a job when we get settled into the ranch. To pay for what he or she needs. But I don’t need you to buy it. I just want my baby to be happy… That’s it…”

"Sweetheart… This is not a handout, okay? I love you. That's the bottom line. If I didn't have a successful business, I'd still help out in any way I could. If you think I'm doing this because I pity you…" Sighing, Howie set down the things he'd grabbed impulsively. Swallowing hard, he retrieved the soft pink elephant rattle, gazing down at it in bewilderment.

Cheyanne flinched slightly at the way his voice trailed off in hurt. She hadn’t meant to wound him with her words, she just didn’t want him to think she just wanted to use him. She loved him so much, but he didn’t have to give her the world. She would just rather have his heart. But, she didn’t no how to approach it, sliding her hands protectively to her stomach as she tensed. “Tea…”

"Maybe I was wrong all this time," Howie said softly, tossing the rattle back onto the shelf. Idly, he picked up a stuffed duck, turning it in his hands as he felt his heart begin to break. "I thought you wanted me," he murmured.

“Sweet Tea…” Cheyanne immediately whispered with guilt, reaching to rub his shoulder. Only, he turned away from her touch, keeping to his task of restocking the items he had so lovingly picked out. And, Cheyanne felt like the biggest louse in the world, reaching for him again. In her already emotional state, she felt tears starting to fall. “Howie, look at me. What are you talking about? Of course I want you…”

"Then why won't you let me take care of you? I know, I know, you can take care of yourself. I'm all for equal rights and women doing anything they want, but is it too much that I want to protect you? Both of you?" For emphasis, he rested a hand on her stomach, quickly pulling it away, certain she didn't want him to touch her now. Moving to put the I Love My Daddy onesie back on the shelf, he took a deep breath, felt a tear roll down his cheek.

“Howie, it’s not like that,” Cheyanne breathed with disbelief, stopping him from discarding the onesie she loved so much. Tentatively, she reached to brush the tears away from his tender cheeks, hating that she had hurt him so terribly. “Sweetheart, listen to me, I just don’t want you thinking I’m after your money, because I’m not. I’d rather just have all of your heart than all these material possessions. No matter how beautiful they are.”

Howie nodded slightly, wetting his suddenly dry lips as a young woman carrying a box stepped from the storage room. Glancing at her, he saw her eyeing him critically, and realized he must look a fright. Standing in a baby store, crying. Turning his attention to Cheyanne, he brushed her cheeks with his fingers. "Honey, you had all my heart from the beginning. And if you don't want me to buy anything, I'll try not to. Just…" Holding up the onesie, he raised his eyebrows hopefully. "Can I at least buy this for her? And the little ducky," he added.

Cheyanne sighed softly at the eagerness glimmering in dark chocolate eyes. He was so adorable and her heart swelled at the sweetness he was exuding, knowing she was unable to resist. He just wanted to give her the best of everything, which she honestly appreciated. Knowing he would be a wonderful father, she leaned forward to offer him a gentle kiss. “If I say you can spend forty dollars for Cinnamon, would it make you happy?”

"I love you, Honey," Howie murmured against her lips. "Alright, forty bucks… Why don't you go grab a basket for me while I pick out a few things?" he suggested with a grin. Tapping the end of her nose with his fingers, he felt the earlier pain wash away. "But… we'll have to go by another store so Austin won't get suspicious about the baby bags. How does a forty dollar spree at Victoria's Secret sound?"

“You’re an ass,” Cheyanne promised with a soft laugh, leaning up to kiss him once more before moving toward the front of the store like he requested.
Obliterated by Anastacia
Chapter 21 – Obliterated

“What’d you do to her this afternoon?” Austin freely asked as she turned in the front seat, amazed to find Cheyanne sound asleep, sprawled out on the back seat with her head nestled in Howie’s lap. She couldn’t have pictured a sweeter sight than Cheyanne perfectly nestled in Howie’s tight embrace, her cheeks lightly flushed from warmth, fallen curls framing her beautiful face as the sunset offered a brilliant glow against her strawberry highlights. She could only begin to imagine what Cheyanne and Howie’s afternoon had consisted of. They had returned to the Escape with several unmarked bags, shooing Austin away so she couldn’t pry. Kevin seemed to respect that as he motioned toward Austin’s own purchases for Cheyanne’s birthday. So, the mysteries remained held as they traveled for a steak dinner. Cheyanne had been able to eat a great deal more than before, though she settled for chicken instead of a hardy steak. Austin had been relieved at that though. The day had just been so wonderful and she couldn’t wait to get back to the cabin and start a fire, knowing both couples would curl in the living room for some light music and conversation.

"Just shopped," Howie said with a grin, smoothing the curls from Cheyanne's face. She had told him each thing he picked up in the store was too much. He'd managed to slip in a few things when she wasn't looking, and the total had been more than double her preset limit. He'd shooed her off to get them both something to drink as the salesgirl had rung up his purchases. The odd looks he'd gotten from her had worried him, and he'd thought briefly she recognized him, but no signs of that had crossed her face when she'd run his credit card. Content with his purchases, he'd met Cheyanne in the little ice cream parlor for sodas before going to find Austin and Kevin. Austin and Kevin, he mused, glancing up at the front seat to see them all snuggled together. Austin's head rested on his shoulder, murmuring something Howie was certain he didn't want to hear as the man drove. In the quickly fading light, he saw their hands clasped, and, judging from the peaceful look on his friend's face, Howie assumed that whatever Brian had said was long forgotten.

“Never really crossed my mind that Howie would be one to throw Angel into a bathroom and have wild passionate sex with her… But, considering he braved my room just to get a condom one night, I could see it, Princess,” Kevin announced loudly, flicking his gaze toward the rear view mirror to see Howie’s shocked expression. He had to smirk with accomplishment, loving to ruffle the Latin man’s feathers. In fact, he was in a good mood considering how horrible the afternoon had turned out. In fact, Austin had washed away all his doubts, sticking close to his side as they traveled into various stores. He had bought her quite a few items, which she hadn’t resisted, but he loved that spitfire streak in her.

"Howie got a condom? When was this?" Austin asked with a chuckle, kicking off her shoes to prop her feet on the passenger door as Kevin pulled into the campground. "If I wear one of my new camisoles to bed tonight, are you going to rip it off me?" she asked coyly, lifting his fingers to her lips for a soft kiss.

“I’ll try to be careful,” Kevin promised, glancing down to smirk at her and her obviously wandering mind. Now focused on the thought of them making love, she seemed to forget all about Howie, more intent on tasting Kevin’s fingers. He shivered slightly at the tip of her tongue moving as she sucked on his long index finger, trying to concentrate on anything but the erection that was obviously starting to grow. Staring straight ahead, he noticed their cabin marked with an unfamiliar car.

“Who the Hell would take a Cadillac Escalade to the mountains?” Austin asked, stealing the question from his mind.

"Why are they parked at our cabin?" Howie asked as Kevin stopped the Escape. The end of motion caused Cheyanne to stir in his lap, and she sat up with a groan. Blinking her eyes sleepily, she gave him a sweet smile, leaning forward to kiss him gently. "Sleep well?" he asked softly.

"I always do when I'm with you," she cooed, her voice husky from her light sleep.

"Why the fuck is that short little blonde guy glaring at us?" Austin asked Kevin, letting his hand drop from her grasp. Sitting up, she reached to pull on her shoes, not ready for any drama that evening.

Kevin glanced up to see who Austin was referring to and his heart stopped. “Oh Holy Hell--”

“Can I help you?” Cheyanne asked kindly with her sweet southern drawl as she easily slipped out of the back seat, oblivious to the horror etched in Kevin’s emerald eyes. She had no idea who the man was, but wanted to offer any help she could, smiling slightly when Austin hopped out of the car to defend Cheyanne if need be. But, Cheyanne kept her curious sapphire eyes on the man, holding a petite hand to her mouth as she yawned with a slight yip. Stretching her lithe body out, Howie’s t-shirt tightened and exposed her cute body, causing two men to tumble out of the car as if a gunshot had sounded.

Austin raised one brow critically as the two men rushed to join the one standing before them. Looking from one to the other, she unconsciously tugged Cheyanne back, crossing one arm over her as though to protect her from harm. Good God, she thought, glancing over her shoulder to see Kevin pushing open his door. Who the Hell were they? The short one was sending daggers at Kevin, his arms folded over his chest, bright blue eyes glittering with rage. And the other two… Yuck, she thought as the skinny one licked his lips suggestively. "Who are you and why the Hell are you here?" she asked.

“Excuse me?” the tall blond laughed with sheer amazement, slouching against the Cadillac in order to muster his most dazzling look toward Cheyanne. She seemed unfazed by the gesture of his puckered lips, merely furrowing her blonde brows in question as Austin practically pressed her deep into the Escape’s side. “You don’t know us? The Backstreet Boys?”

"Who the fuck…" Austin trailed, obviously thinking as the skinny one stepped forward with what she assumed was supposed to be a charming smile.

"Come on, babe. You gotta know who we are," he said, holding out his arms so she could see his body. Not that she wanted to see it. "Kevin, man, where'd you dig up these stupid hicks?" Shaking his head in wonderment, he looked over at the short one. "B, you hear that? They don't know who we are!"

“Stupid hicks?” Austin snorted, stepping toward him with every intention throttling his skinny frame till he was bare bones. “I’ll show you--”

“Damnit, Austin, don’t!” Kevin burst, grabbing her into his arms before she could start any chaos. Kevin could only imagine the Hell he would get from management if AJ was thrown into a country hospital’s ICU Program. And more important things were on his mind, like how the bliss he had been enjoying for so many weeks was about to come to a screeching halt.

“Who the fuck are these people, Pretty Boy?!” Austin growled as Howie clamored out of the car, gingerly pulling Cheyanne away from tall blond’s blazing gaze.

"Pretty Boy?" the skinny man repeated with a snort of laughter.

"Kevin, what the fuck is going on?" the short one demanded, dropping his arms. "We came here to talk some sense into you two. Remember? We have an album coming out in a couple months? Not to mention all the shit you've stirred up with Kris. She was completely miserable on the plane ride here, Kev."

Rolling his eyes, the blond straightened, smoothing his shirt. "Kris is always fucking miserable," he muttered. Flashing a grin at Cheyanne, he cleared his throat. "Hi. My name is--"

“Don’t even fucking think about it, Carter,” Howie interrupted protectively, pulling Cheyanne into his embrace, attempting to move toward the cabin. He honestly didn’t want to deal with these horrors right now. He just hoped beyond all hope that if he could just get Cheyanne inside, the mess would fix itself. He could calm her, explain everything, and she would still love him. But, Brian blocked his steps. “Brian--”

“Again, what the fuck is going on with you two? Do you know how bad the press has been chomping our asses because you haven’t been at any events?” Brian growled, poking Howie in the chest sharply.

"Brian?" Austin repeated, whirling around to look at Kevin. "Your cousin? The one you said took over things and enjoyed the spotlight?" She still didn't understand. Backstreet Boys? Didn't ring a bell. Why were the two morons acting as though they should know who they were? And, by God, if that blond guy sneered at Cheyanne one more time…

"I take over things and enjoy the spotlight?" Brian echoed softly, his eyes on Kevin now. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

"Exactly what it sounds like," Austin informed him, wrenching out of Kevin's grasp. "You sure are a piece of work, from what I hear. Don't even appreciate your own cousin, when a-freaking-pparently he has more going for him than you do. Pissfuck," she muttered, glaring at him.

“God, Austin, just shut up,” Kevin groaned.

“I don’t appreciate my own cousin?” Brian laughed cruelly at the younger woman, shaking his head in disbelief. “Well, he’s not all gold lining, Sweetheart, considering he’s currently having an affair with you when his wife is sitting in that car right there holding the wedding band he left on their dresser before coming here!”

Austin felt her entire world crash down around her, taking in the stricken expression on Kevin's face at his cousin's words. Her heart stopped beating, and it was all she could do to keep from bursting into tears. Taking a deep breath, she stepped away from Kevin, her eyes narrowing. "You're married?" she asked coolly. "All this time… You never said…" her voice trailed. Unable to think coherently, much less speak, she looked towards the Escalade as the affirmation of Brian's statements stepped out.

“Oh, that’s right, Princess, his wife! You’ve been fucking a married man!” Kristin hollered shrilly as she flipped her platinum blonde curls behind her shoulders. She had waited for the perfect time to get out of the expensive car as if she were directing some drama perfect for the movie screens. And, she played the victim perfectly as she dabbed a little tissue to her eyes. She then straightened her lean, body into a haughty stance, pursing her freshly made lips in a thin line of disgust. Her blue eyes blazing with sheer disgust as she glared at her husband. “Though I don’t know how he could satisfy a whore like you when he couldn’t even please me!”

"Whore?" Cheyanne repeated, her voice calm and cool as she moved to stand next to Austin. "I don't know who the Hell you think you are, calling her a whore. Anyone can tell just by looking at you that you are the whore, not her."

Kristin rolled her eyes, waving Cheyanne off as though she were a child. "Stay out of this, you little bitch. This is between my husband's whore and me. You have nothing to do with--"

"Austin, no!" Howie cried as she hurled herself at Kristin, knocking her into the side of the Escalade.

"Good God…" AJ murmured in disbelief as he watched Austin viciously throw heavy blows into Kristin's perfected face, causing the older woman to shriek with pain. But Austin didn't care as she smeared Kristin's beautifully expensive make up as she flailed to throw slaps back. Kristin even wrenched her hands into Austin's hair, ripping away small clumps, but Austin was furious. Every man standing between the two cars were terrified to even step into the situation, not knowing who to grab or how to intervene without causing serious damage.

"Austin Leigh!" Cheyanne yelped in disbelief, yanking herself away from Howie's body and scrambling toward her friend. Easily, she reached to grab both of Austin's arms, pulling her away from Kristin's now crouched body. Austin was sobbing horrifically as she fought slightly, only to wrap her arms tightly around Cheyanne's small body in the same moment. Cheyanne stumbled back slightly from the weight, but didn't break her hold. "I'm sorry, Austi. I'm sorry…"

Sitting up, Kristin lightly touched her lips, her eyes narrowing when she pulled her fingers away and saw blood. Getting to her feet, she shot Kevin a scornful glance. "You've picked a real winner, baby. She can't even finish her own damn fights without some scrap of nothing yanking her away. Where did you find them? The local whorehouse?"

Cheyanne’s entire body tensed with revulsion for the older, bigger woman standing just a few feet behind her. Who the Hell did she think she was? She had no right to treat Austin so horribly, no matter what lies Kevin had sprouted. Just the fact that she had uttered a single malicious phrase against Austin was enough to rile the youngest woman. And, refusing to justify Kristin’s hateful remarks with words, Cheyanne gently untangled herself from Austin’s grasp and stepped toward Kristin. Without a single warning, her right, tiny fist shot in a sharp cross against Kristin’s face, knocking her head hard and fast back against the Escalade, easily wilting her to the ground. She then glared at Kevin with disgust, shaking her head in disbelief. “You’re an asshole!”

"You're one to speak," Kevin said, speaking for the first time since seeing the heartbroken look Austin had given him. "At least I'm not single and knocked up, trying to nab a rich guy," he said icily. "Don't try to deny it. That sweet little act you put on doesn't fly with me, Angel."

Cheyanne paled dramatically at Kevin’s revelation and could feel Austin’s eyes burning into her back with disbelief. She suddenly felt violently ill to her stomach as her lower abdomen cramped terribly with the stress. The stress she wasn’t supposed to be having for sake of keeping the baby safe. She attempted to muster any source of words, but nothing seemed to project. “You--”

“Howie’s damn lucky your ass got thrown from that horse! Otherwise you probably would have pinned the baby on him. Don’t think it wasn’t on your mind. The way you just loved right up on him from the very start. Acting like you were some sacrificial virgin in order to play into his ego. Saying that he was your world when all you were doing was reaching for his wallet. Nothing but a loose whore who can’t manage to keep a man to save her life--”

“I WAS RAPED!” Cheyanne screamed painfully, holding her hands to her ears in order to block Kevin’s venomous words.

"Holy shit," Nick said, looking at Howie incredulously. "Next time you guys decide to come to the mountains, let me--"

"Shut the fuck up, Nick," Brian hissed. Looking at Howie, he shook his head. "And I always thought you were the sensible one," he muttered. As Kristin leaned against the Escalade, pressing a tissue to her bleeding lip, Brian turned his attention to his cousin. "Y'all need to pack. We have an interview in New York tomorrow afternoon. All of us."

Austin pulled a shaking Cheyanne into her arms, her eyes spitting fire at Kevin. She could see the hurt in his eyes, knew this had to be stressful for him, but the lies he'd told her piled up, making his hurt useless to her. "I lied," she told him as she ushered Cheyanne to the cabin. Tossing him a hateful look, she narrowed her eyes. "You weren't the best I ever had."

*~*~*


Howie exhaled a painfully broken breath as he heaved his suitcase onto the bed, trying to ignore the muffled voices of Brian, Kristin, and Nick in the living room. They were all angry, furious even, but Howie didn’t care. Nor did he care to the fact that Kevin was currently packing his things as well. He was more concerned with the betrayed look that had broken Cheyanne’s beautiful face when Kevin declared her to be some kind of whore. She had been so ashamed that she couldn’t even muster the courage to look Howie in the eyes to show him how much he truly had hurt her. How the lies and the broken promises had cracked her last brief hope in man kind. Howie had hoped to salvage something with her when the girls had packed up their things. He had even taken a bold step to slip his cell phone number into Cheyanne’s hands when Austin wasn’t looking. But, he feared that the number would be out on the yard when he was dragged away from the cabin and to New York for stuffy press meetings.

“Did you get her pregnant?” AJ questioned, flopping himself down onto the bed as he stared at his best friend, obviously far too interested in Howie’s indiscretion to be caught in the living room. Though, like always, AJ was oblivious to what special things had happened in the very bed he kicked his soiled feet onto, reaching for the fetal heart monitor for something to play with.

"No, Aje, I didn't get her pregnant," Howie replied, yanking the monitor from the younger man's grasp before carefully tucking it into his suitcase.

"You sure? 'Cuz you don't have to take care of the baby. Hell, D… There are such things as abortions, you know. Perfectly legal, perfectly safe… You can sure as Hell afford one." As he spoke, AJ reached for one of the unmarked bags Howie had dropped on the bed earlier. Peeking inside, he reached in, pulling out a stuffed duck. "D…"

"Goddammit, AJ, you've got a lot of nerve, you know that?" Howie spat, dumping the contents of his drawer into the suitcase. To hear AJ talk, an abortion was as simple as having a filling fixed.

“Why are you so pissed at me?” AJ winced as Howie snatched the soft duck from his grasp, immediately collapsing on the edge of the bed to hold it. AJ seemed unfazed by Howie’s loving gesture, continuing to pull out various items from the bags as if he were hunting for stolen treasure. He couldn’t believe the amount of items Howie had purchased, whistling loudly. “I’m not the bitch that tried to snare you into being her baby’s Daddy.”

"That's it," Howie said, getting to his feet. He couldn't take this anymore. Grasping AJ's arm, he yanked him from the bed, pushing him towards the door. Before throwing him out on his ass as he longed to do, he pushed him against the wall, his glare threatening. "First of all, Cheyanne is not a bitch. Got it? She happens to be a sweet girl, and despite what you and the other three assholes out there think, she didn't try to 'snare' me into being anything. Second of all, I love her, and if you ever say anything derogatory about her again, I will personally kick your scrawny ass until no one can recognize you." Flinging the door open, he pushed his band mate into the hall. "And spread the fucking message. Asshole," he added before slamming the door.

Staring at the door, AJ smoothed his shirt. "Well I'll be Goddammed," he muttered. Never before had he seen his friend so incensed. Maybe this Cheyanne broad was what Howie said she was, but he couldn't believe it. Women, despite being loving and dewy-eyed, were always after whatever they could sink their claws into. Shaking his head in disbelief, he headed for the living room. "You guys won't believe this," he said, flopping onto the sofa as Kristin stomped outside, cell phone pressed to her ear.

“I highly doubt it at this point, J,” Brian huffed, leaning back on the large couch as he rubbed his aching temples. Kevin and Howie seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace to get their things packed, which drove Brian to the brink of insanity. He had never had to manage the band as if he were the father. He had left those points to Kevin and Howie, never understanding the depths of frustrations it could cause. He had scheduled a late flight to New York that evening, hoping Kevin and Howie would understand how important this first press conference was. But, unfortunately, he wasn’t so lucky, starting to grind his teeth as he listened to Kristin’s shrill voice echoing from the porch, Kevin making a strong point to ignore her. What had he been thinking? An affair? Their family would have a fit. And, Howie with a pregnant young woman? Where had their sensibility gone?

"Howie said--"

"Hopefully he said his ass is almost ready," Nick muttered. He had decided to make himself useful, stuffing clean clothes into an empty backpack. Why, he wasn't sure. Brian had said they needed to hurry along, and anything was better than just sitting around listening to Rok bitch. Making a face, he held up an emerald green camisole. "Woo hoo! Wonder which one this belonged to?"

“Nick, don’t be an ass,” Brian growled, actually standing from his seat to deliver a sharp smack upside his younger friend’s head. The act was so uncharacteristic of Brian, causing Nick to actually stumble forward in surprise. But, Brian didn’t care, the physical action giving him just the tiniest bit of relief. And neither made mention to it, Nick stooping to hurriedly push the rest of the clothes in the backpack, not caring whether it was feminine or masculine. Kevin and Howie could fight about that in New York.

“Hello, I was talking!” AJ growled. “Who the Hell does he think he is? Interrupting my story--”

“What, AJ?” Brian exasperated, turning around on the second youngest. “What is so important? What did Howie say?!”

Rolling his eyes, AJ lit up a cigarette, propping his mud streaked shoes on the coffee table. Spread the fucking message. Asshole. Jesus, Howie was beyond pissed. All because Kevin had told the truth about the little woman? "Howie wanted me to tell you… Well, we can't say anything about the little blonde."

"What would we say about her?" Nick asked, leaning to one side to throw the backpack out onto the porch, heard with satisfaction the thud as it hit something solid.

"Damnit! Who the Hell--"

"Sorry!" Nick called, smirking. Hot damn, he'd hit the Mega Bitch. Flopping down in the chair by the fireplace, he looked at AJ. "Well?"

Eloquent as always, AJ flipped him off. "Quit fucking interrupting me, shithead. Anyways, Howie has threatened bodily harm if we say anything… Derogatory I think he said… About her." Taking a long drag off the cigarette, he exhaled a plume of smoke towards the ceiling before handing it over to Nick.

"He honestly thinks we'll go around saying shit about her?" Brian asked. He was honestly hoping once they all got to New York, all this drama would be forgotten. He had no plans of bringing up the little money-hungry slut. Ever. As far as he was concerned, she was gone. History. Howie would forget her soon enough. Maybe Leigh had a friend they could hook him up with.

“Apparently,” AJ mused, his dark eyes twinkling with satisfaction over the gossip he could stir. It wasn’t often that Howie made mistakes, so, AJ was giddy with excitement to relish in the fact. “He says he loves her and he’s got a whole damn baby store back in his bedroom. Machines, outfits, toys, pacifiers… The works…”

"Well he can just give it to a charity," Brian said decisively as Kevin's bedroom door opened. Looking down the hall, he saw a suitcase land unceremoniously on the floor before the door slammed again, shaking the entire cabin with its force. Sighing, he looked at his friends. "Somebody oughtta go talk to him."

Nick’s dark blue eyes bulged in disbelief as if Brian had just asked him to murder ten slumbering infants. “Are you fucking serious?”

“By all means, you go right ahead, B. If you don’t come out with your dick bleeding in your hands, I’ll follow next,” AJ chuckled, reaching to steal the cigarette from Nick’s hand. And, that’s where they waited, until Howie and Kevin were ready to finally depart.
Wanting a Change by Anastacia
Chapter 22 – Wanting a Change

“Chey…Chey, Baby-Girl,” Austin called softly, reaching with one hand to gently rouse her slumbering friend while she furiously rubbed the back of her opposite hand over her wet cheeks. She had attempted to bottle all her emotions after Cheyanne had cleanly laid Kevin’s wife to the ground, but it was useless. Kevin’s wife. It just seemed to tear a knife through her already heavy heart. That’s why the girls had wasted no time in escaping the horrors of their usually favorite vacation destination, calling the cab and hurriedly cramming their things inside the trunk before anything. Neither had said much on the ride, both drinking in their own sorrows with quiet reflections. In fact, Cheyanne had been so consumed with fear, anger, and overwhelming loss that she had cried herself to sleep. It was only an hour drive to their new home, which contained all of their Earthly possessions, so Austin had let her doze. She hadn’t the strength to confront the revealing secret, yet. To think Cheyanne was pregnant… She just couldn’t fathom that on top of her fresh wounds. “We’re home.”

“Already?” Cheyanne whispered, gingerly clearing her aching throat as she sat up to witness the cabbie pulling into their new driveway. She easily slid her arms around her tightly cramped abdomen, anxiously avoiding her friend’s eyes as she admired their quaint little ranch house. It was beautiful. Though it was missing one vital detail. Howie. But he had made that mistake. Not her.

Once inside, Cheyanne went to wash her face, leaving Austin leaning in the doorway, watching the cloud of dust raised by the cab as it rolled down the driveway. Folding her arms across her chest, she pushed the door shut with her foot, turning to look around the cozy living room. Kicking her shoes off, she dropped onto the sofa, staring sightlessly at the opposite wall. Her fingers twisted in the hem of the t-shirt she wore, and she glanced down, tears brimming again when she realized it was one of Kevin's. Sitting up, she was about to yank it off when she caught a lingering hint of his cologne.

The spicy scent of his cologne caused the tears to break against her muddy coffee eyes, hitting her flaming cheeks with an icy coldness. She should have known better than to think a man like that wasn’t taken. He was too perfect not to be attached to someone. And, his wife had been a picture of perfection. Curtly dressed in a wool skirt and expensive silk shirt, not a hair out of place, her lipstick probably costing more than Austin’s entire collection of make up. She would never be able to compare to her, no matter how awful the wife’s personality was. The facts were simple. She had been so damn foolish to think she could have him.

“Austi…” Cheyanne whispered, breaking into Austin’s pitiful thoughts and soft sobs. Her sapphire eyes softened with pity as she climbed onto the couch, easing her arms around Austin’s trembling shoulders. Forgetting her own plights and fears, Cheyanne gingerly kissed Austin’s forehead. “I’m so, so, so sorry, Austi… So, sorry…”

"I love him, Chey," Austin whispered brokenly. "Despite the lies and everything… I love him." Princess, you don't have to worry about scumbags anymore. A solid promise. Damn him. He'd said all the right things, given all the right touches, enough to make her learn to trust again, but had known all along nothing could ever come of it. Regardless of that, she loved him. Jerking her head up, she stared at Cheyanne. "Why didn't you tell me you're pregnant?" she asked softly, wiping her face with the back of her hands.

Cheyanne winced at the immediate change of Austin’s thoughts, pulling her arms away from Austin’s body. Like always, when she felt vulnerable, her arms curled protectively around her growing womb. Gently holding her child to shield her from any hurt that would come their way, which seemed to be happening more often than not. Her sapphire eyes fell in obvious shame, gently shaking her head. She had been so fearful of Austin’s reaction, now she had no choice. “I didn’t want you to be mad at me…”

"Chey… Oh my God, Chey… That fucker raped you?" Austin asked, vaulting to her feet. Pushing Kevin from her mind, she looked at Cheyanne incredulously. "Why didn't you tell me this when it happened? God, Chey… I'm so sorry. So sorry that I didn't realize something was going on." Swallowing hard, she dropped down on her knees in front of her, wrapping her arms gently around the younger woman's waist. "We'll make it through this, Chey. Just… promise me, you won't leave me, too."

“I’m not going to leave…” Cheyanne whispered, running her fingers delicately through Austin’s dark locks. She kept her chin down as she felt salty tears slip from her murky eyes. She couldn’t leave Austin, she loved her too much. Not to mention she had no one else. Even Howie had abandoned her. “I have no where to go… No one to help me take care of the baby… When I fell from the horse, my placenta ripped from my uterus’ wall, collecting blood behind it. I have to be careful till I give birth… Otherwise I could hurt my baby or myself…”

"You have nothing to worry about there. God… A baby," Austin said softly. "I'll take care of you, Chey. You and the baby. I promise. You two are all I've got in the world now. The two most important things in my life," she whispered. Sniffling, she sat back, kissing her friend's cheeks. "Why don't you go get a shower, and I'll get started on some supper."

“You’re sure you’re not mad at me? For not telling you about how Noah hurt me? For not telling you I was pregnant? For not telling you I was hurt?” Cheyanne whispered worriedly, unable to stand if another person looked at her with such scorn. Kevin’s eyes had shattered her soul from the very beginning, not to mention the way Howie had been so quiet when everything happened. He knew what had happened, yet he told Kevin lies. He never once stood up for her. And the lies. All those hurtful lies…

"I could never be mad at my Chey-Chey," Austin assured her. "You're my bestest friend in the whole wide world, remember? Now, get up, Momma. You need a shower, and we both need food. You up for my world-famous chicken soup?" she asked, tugging lightly on Cheyanne's hands.

“Momma…” Cheyanne laughed softly with a rueful shake of her head. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that, but I know the baby will enjoy your chicken soup… Thanks, Austi… So much…”

"Anytime. Get used to it. You're my little Momma now. Would the baby like some grilled cheese too?" Austin asked, cracking a smile. They would be okay, they had each other, that was all that mattered.

*~*~*


“Kevin, stop by the office, I need to get something,” Howie finally muttered as they bumpily traveled down the dirt road leading them to the highway. His eyes had been transfixed out the window, glumly taking in the beauty of the mountains that had captivated him so sweetly. Of course, now all was lost and the mountains looked bleak and confining, but that was because he lost the one thing that had honestly mattered in his life. And, instead of being allowed to grieve properly, his band members had pushed him out the door to the latest flight possible. His heart ached at the thought of returning to a world that ignored him when someone who loved him without conviction was just mere hours away. He should have gone after her. Why had he been so stupid?

“Stop? Why? We already paid…” Kevin trailed, stopping the Escape nonetheless. Glancing upward, he noticed the expensive, black car still tumbling ahead toward the highway. AJ was driving again and Brian and Nick wanted nothing to do with the older band members. Not to mention Kristin hadn’t said one word to him since she attacked Austin. So, Kevin had been enveloped into a world of silence till Howie’s soft words. He was slightly relieved that the younger man had said anything to him. He had been ignoring him since the entire blow-up had occurred.

"I just need to get something," Howie said, climbing out. Hopefully, the Dorough charm Momma insisted he'd inherited would work. Pasting a smile on his face, he stepped into the office, crossing over to the counter behind which a small television flickered. Drumming his fingers lightly on the polished wood, he had to grin when the older woman rose from her chair, wiping her hands on her apron as she approached. She'd always been so nice… "How are you today, Ms. Harrison?" he asked.

“I’m just fine, Dear,” the little old woman cooed, leaning over to warmly pinching his cheeks. She had fallen in love with Howie the instant she had first met him, of course, that had probably been because he was with Cheyanne. The sweet, young woman had captured Ms. Harrison’s heart in a New York minute, several years ago, when the girls first started coming to the campsite. And, knowing Howie was Cheyanne’s love interest made him golden. “Where’s your Sweetheart at? I baked some cookies this morning and Cheyanne has already designated herself the chief tester…”

Howie kept his smile going, leaning casually against the counter. "Sorry to break your heart, ma'am, but she had to slip out about an hour ago. Unfortunately, this mountain air doesn't suit well with the baby…" He hated lying to the sweet woman, but he couldn't very well tell her the truth. If he did, he was certain the sweetness would turn to coldness, and he'd find his ass outside in the dirt for his deception. "Silly Chey, she forgot to give me her address, and I was planning on surprising her. Do you think you can help me out, Sweetie?" he asked hopefully, flashing his sweetest grin.

“A baby?” the old woman gushed with disbelief, clapping her hands over her mouth as her light blue eyes glittered with delight. She shook her head in belief as she hurriedly moved back to the ancient computer, keying in the necessary information as she continued to stare at Howie. She even giggled with delight. “That sweetheart is with child? … Your child! Dear-Heart, you’re going to be a Daddy?”

Howie sure as Hell hoped he was. "Yes ma'am," he said, still grinning as the printer began to churn. "I'm really excited," he added.

“You know you should do right by her,” Ms. Harrison teased, wagging a wrinkled and slightly disjointed finger toward Howie. “She needs a pretty ring on her finger if she’s going to be having your child and such. I better not see her back at these cabins alone next summer.”

"Oh, I intend to," Howie assured her. If Cheyanne would have him. He watched Ms. Harrison moved to her living quarters behind the office. "Ms. Harrison?" he questioned worriedly, seeing the paper still lying on the printer.

"I can't have you leaving without taking some cookies, can I?" Ms. Harrison informed him, bustling back a moment later, tin in hand. "I packed you some extra to give Cheyanne. Send her my love, will you?"

“I promise,” Howie answered with obvious relief, leaning over the counter to smack a friendly kiss to her cheek. He smiled again when Ms. Harrison actually blushed, giving him the tin as well as the girls’ address and phone number. Spinning with triumph, he laughed and immediately rushed back to the Escape.

“What’s that?” Kevin question in surprised, watching Howie settle comfortably into his seat before popping open the tin of warm cookies. He naturally narrowed his emerald eyes in confusion, baffled as he pulled away, stepping up the speed of the Escape so they could catch up to the others.

"A tin of the greatest cookies in North Carolina," Howie said with a grin, holding one out for his friend. When Kevin reached for it, he snatched it back, biting into it. "Never mind," he said after swallowing. "You don't deserve it." At Kevin's glare, he winked, holding out the tin. "I have to keep you on my side," he said with a sigh. "Otherwise, I'm really by myself."

“I really thought you were going to hate me for the rest of our existence together,” Kevin answered honestly, reaching once again to actually pick out a chocolate chip cookie from the tin. He carefully bit into it while easily driving the somewhat busy highways toward the airport. “…Do you forgive me for what I did?”

Sighing, Howie munched thoughtfully on his cookie. "I don't know," he admitted softly. "Do you still believe she's a money-hungry slut?" It pained him to even say the words, and he quickly looked out the window.

“…You should have told me she was raped in the beginning… That would have changed the entire situation, D,” Kevin answered honestly, shaking his head. “I just didn’t understand why she’d get pregnant by her boyfriend and still let Austin think she was a virgin. But… Knowing… God, D…”

Sighing, Howie closed the tin, smoothing the printout over the lid. "She made me promise. Damn, I wish I'd never told you to begin with. It probably wouldn't be this hard. No offense, Kev, but you acted like a complete asshole about the entire situation."

“You’re preaching to the choir,” Kevin sighed, pulling the car into the rental station of the small airport. His heart was still heavy from the pain that had reflected in Austin’s eyes. He felt no better than the louse that had beaten her with his fists. In fact, Kevin felt worse than that man, because he had wounded her heart. “…I can’t… I’m so sorry, Howie… I’m sorry about everything I did…”

Nodding, Howie closed his eyes briefly. Opening them, he looked out at the parking lot. "Do you think… I want to send her the things I bought the baby. Do you think she'll accept them?" he asked worriedly as the others climbed out of the Escalade. Despite the darkness, Kristin had slipped on a pair of sunglasses and held a cell phone to her ear.

“I would hope so… She’s going to need all the help she can get… Wait, how do you know the address?” Kevin reveled in surprise, climbing out of the car to retrieve their luggage.

"I have my ways," Howie said secretively, tucking the paper into his wallet before climbing out. "I can't reveal all my secrets, can I?" he asked with a chuckle, reaching for his suitcase.

“It must be illegal,” Kevin mused, listening to Brian actually start to bark orders, claiming they’d miss their flight if they didn’t hurry. The airport was barely the size of a small Walmart. What made him honestly think they’d get picked over? Kevin just rolled his eyes, glancing sideways to the man he considered his best friend. “D, will you forgive me for fucking up?”

"I forgive you," Howie said softly, clapping him lightly on the shoulder. "It's you and me against those jackasses," he said with a conspiring chuckle.

“Ain’t that the truth…” Kevin sighed, throwing his bag over his shoulder as they walked toward the airport, far behind Brian, Nick, AJ, and Kristin. Kevin narrowed his eyes at the sight of his wife, wondering why she had even bothered to come in the first place. It certainly wasn’t to salvage their marriage. She hadn’t said a word to him since yesterday. He knew better than to question it, though. Kristin had come to stage the act. To play the victim. Which infuriated him, so he turned toward his shorter friend. “You going to be okay, D?”

"I will be after I can talk to her," Howie said softly. "Are you?"

“I will be…” Kevin trailed, noticing Kristin veering in a different direction than the rest of his band-mates. His furry brows furled with disbelief, unable to consider what he thought she was doing. It was ridiculous to assume she would be so callous… He hesitated, shaking his head with disbelief. This ended today. Right now. “Howie, can you take my bag?”

"Sure… Kevin?" Howie asked softly, touching the older man's arm. "Don't get into it too badly with her. Not now…"

“I won’t,” Kevin promised idly, hurrying off without any consideration for the promise. He was too concentrated on his wife. The woman that had destroyed any single thread of happiness he had hoped to have in the future. Given time, Kevin assumed that Austin would come to accept his loveless marriage and the fact that he wanted a divorce. He had just wanted to wait for the perfect time. But, Kristin ruined that. So, he was going to ruin her day, too. Not only one of them was going to be miserable. No way in Hell. Reaching, he caught her arm and yanked her backward, trying not to laugh at the futile attempts she made to hide the busted lip from Austin and the heavy bruises from Cheyanne. “Kristin! Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

"I'm going to LA to finish my shoot," Kristin replied haughtily, jerking her arm free of his grip. Peering at him over the sunglasses, she made a face. "I got rid of your little country whore for you. And believe me, I had to go through a lot of shit to get away from the set. The least you could do is thank me," she informed him, fluffing her platinum curls.

“Well, maybe I should tag along to get rid of your assistant asshole, producer pimp, juice gigolo, and who ever else you’ve fucked within a ten mile radius of our home in LA! How about that shit? Though, I think I’d need another vacation after all that running and a new car!” Kevin growled, wanting to just grasp her curls and yank them free from her scalp. After all, he had paid for them.

"Why the Hell would I want you to tag along?" Kristin asked spitefully. "Run along to New York with your dorky band, okay? Go earn some money."

“Don’t expect any of that money to be dropped into our joint bank account, that’s for fucking sure,” Kevin spat.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Kristin asked, eyes narrowing behind her sunglasses.

"Kevin! Our plane leaves in five minutes!" Brian shouted from across the terminal, his voice echoing.

“It means that you can expect a thick packet of divorce papers on our doorstep before you even manage to take a deep breath of smog,” Kevin snarled, turning to follow Brian’s annoyed voice. “Because, let’s face it, my country whore got me harder than you ever did even in the beginning of our relationship and she’s the only one I want. Oh, and don’t bother calling my mother to bitch. She never enjoyed your company anyway.”
Falling Back by Anastacia
Chapter 23 – Falling Back

“Why did they even make us come in the first place? Isn’t it so trivial? Look at all those signs… I love you, Brian. Have my baby, Nick. I’ll always love you, AJ… It’s sickening…” Howie mused with a heavy sigh, glancing out the tinted back windows of the boys’ elegant tour bus. He was watching the growing numbers of fans assembling just outside the Virgin Megastore in New York City, where the boys would be holding one of their first press conferences for the release of the new album. Brian, AJ, and Nick were up in the front, talking about the various fans they were spotting. Nick and AJ going as far to photograph the ones they wanted to find later for personal invitations into the tour bus. It was sickening, especially as Howie and Kevin lounged in the back, already forgotten. He could only imagine what Cheyanne was doing at that exact moment. The only woman in the world who loved him unconditionally. The only person in the world that Howie gave his full heart to.

Leaning his head back, Kevin stared at the ceiling, nodding in silent agreement to Howie's words. Rubbing his aching neck, he regretted sleeping on the plane. It had been the only thing to keep Brian's mouth shut, however, and he hadn't really meant to fall asleep, but the stress from the evening had finally worn through. "I'm going to announce the divorce," he said decisively, sitting up to look out the window.

“Is that why you called your mom out of no where?” Howie questioned, pulling his gaze away from the blur of faces. He kept hoping he would see Cheyanne in the crowd, but what were the odds of that? She didn’t even know who the Backstreet Boys were, let alone would she be caught dead in such an overpopulated city. She would be so skittish by nature. Howie would have had to hold her close through it all… He exhaled a soft breath at that thought, trying to focus back on his friend. He thought it was best to just announce the divorce forthright. After all, nothing was messier than a scandal.

"Yeah," Kevin said softly with a sigh. To his great relief, his mother had been supportive. He had expected her to give the you-married-her-you-stay-with-her-no-matter-what speech. Instead, she'd sighed a gentle 'Oh, Kev' before telling him that his happiness was what was most important. That meant a lot. A small part of him hoped Austin would see the press conference, and… What? Race into his arms? Not fucking likely, he thought miserably. The look she'd given him before storming out of the cabin had told him to go straight to Hell.

“How was she?” Howie questioned, glancing sideways to his older friend. He hadn’t been the same since everyone attacked them so viciously at the cabin. Parts of them had died there. Parts that they had just recently healed. And it hurt.

"Austin?" Kevin asked, confused. Dragging his thoughts from the woman who'd consumed him, body and soul, for mere weeks, he looked at Howie in confusion.

“Your mom…” Howie trailed, looking far more puzzled than Kevin. “Trust me, I already know how Austin is… Probably wanting to take a road trip to New Orleans for fancy voodoo dolls… Which is probably why your neck hurts. If my…y’know…falls off, we’ll know for sure…”

"I would think mine would be the one falling off," Kevin mused with a slight smirk. Standing, he moved to look out the window, wrinkling his nose when he saw signs for Nick. "Momma's okay. She said we're welcome there anytime. She says all you need is some good down-home cooking," he drawled. Turning to look at Howie, he shrugged. "Couldn't hurt, could it?"

“Not when your mom’s cooking is so fantastic,” Howie agreed with a small smile, though it seemed more forced than anything. “…But all I need? What did you say about me?”

"She asked how you were doing, and… You don't mind, do you?" It had felt good, talking to his mom about what had been going on, and he'd just let it slip about Howie's depression. Ann had been sympathetic, as always, offering only an open ear, but never any advice unless asked. He hadn't mentioned Austin, but Ann, ever the one to pick up on subtleties, had asked if there was someone else.

“The point of me minding is kind of ridiculous, huh, Kev?” Howie answered, forcing himself to chuckle, though it seemed to hurt more than anything. “Just don’t put me on suicide precautions or something stupid… Unless that package gets sent back from Honey…”

"She won't send it back," Kevin said softly. She wouldn't. Austin, however… She'd probably want to march it back to them and tell them where they could stuff each item.

"Let's roll!" AJ shouted from the front of the bus.

"Ready, D?" Kevin asked, patting his friend on the shoulder. "Maybe Cheyanne will be watching."

“I doubt it,” Howie sighed, though he stood anyway and fixed his t-shirt. Not that he knew why he fussed with it or his messy, short, dark chocolate curls, because no one would be looking at him anyway.

Brian met them at the front of the bus. Looking from one to the other, he narrowed his eyes. "Are you two going to at least pretend we're all in this together?" he asked carefully.

"Why should we?" Kevin asked in a low voice as AJ leaned out the bus doors. The screams and shrieks from outside pierced the silence between he and his cousin, and Kevin tilted his head to one side, eyeing his cousin. "It's been a helluva long time since we were all in this together," he said softly.

“Everything was just fine before he decided to run out,” Brian scoffed with obvious annoyance at Kevin’s answer, glaring slightly to Howie. But, he never had the chance to really respond properly as Nick anxiously tugged on his arm, yanking him outside. And, like a fall of dominos, the five men fell into the whirlwind of their joint careers. A variety of the female persuasion screamed their names wildly. Occasionally, then men would duck toward the line to scribble a few signatures before continuing their way toward the store’s press conference. Snaps of cameras exploded in their eyes, thrilling Brian, AJ, and Nick to the utmost extent, though Howie just felt claustrophobic and Kevin was pained.

Seated behind the long table, Kevin stared at the blue tablecloth, half-listening to the questions posed, mostly to Brian and Nick. AJ was asked about his sobriety, Howie about his Foundation. Drumming his fingers next to the bottle of water, his thoughts drifted to his ending marriage. He tried to drum develop a mental image of Kristin, but each time he did, her eyes turned to the color of creamed coffee; platinum curls into long, layered chestnut locks. Closing his eyes, he smiled slightly at the image, jerking back to reality when Nick kicked him under the table.

"What the--" Cutting off, he saw everyone was looking at him. Fuck. He'd been asked something. "I'm sorry?" he apologized sheepishly, reaching to rub his smarting knee.
“See? One question about his wife and he’s in Heaven,” Brian chuckled, doing his best not to narrow a sharp gaze at his older cousin. “Married bliss, right, Kev? Ready to give Baylee a little playmate?”

Married bliss? Brian was full of shit, Kevin decided, shaking his head slightly. "That won't be happening. The fact of the matter is, we filed for divorce yesterday afternoon," he said blandly, ignoring his cousin's wide-eyed stare. Next to him, Nick gasped. Had they really expected him not to? They had overheard every word said between he and his wife, the papers were already filed, and there was no turning back. He didn't see the point in keeping it hidden. Surely, the moment Kristin slid from the bed and read the documents, all Hell would break loose.

“Why?!” one reporter cried from her seat, popping up quickly to voice her presence. She looked completely flabbergasted by the news. Almost as if she were an avid fan herself. “What’s the reason for the separation?”

"I think I can speak for Kevin when I say that is unimportant at this time. As you can see, this news is still a shock to all of us. Next question," Howie said in a monotone. The last thing they needed was for some teenybopper reporter to dredge up all the unpleasantness about the situation.

“Then what about another playmate for Baylee?” another reporter questioned from the front row of seats. “Sources have confirmed that you were seen at a baby store outlet in North Carolina with a pregnant woman, buying an auspicious number of items for her and her unborn child. A photograph was even taken of you offering the woman a stuffed duck and a kiss…”

"What the Hell--" Nick cut off when Howie spoke.

"I don't see that my personal life has anything to do with the reason we're here," Howie said calmly, despite the ire burning within. "We're here to promote our album, not to discuss what's going on outside of the studio.”

“Who’s the woman?” another reporter questioned, obviously interested in the new rumors brewing freshly amongst the group. And, every single man in the band tensed, knowing how fast this would circulate.

"I don't think that's any of your damn business," AJ replied coolly, shocking his band mates. "Howie just said his private life has nothing to do with why we're here. And if you jackasses can't get that through your heads, we have no problems with leaving."
A murmur of voices shot through the congested group of reporters, obviously shocked that AJ had called them ‘jackasses.’ Each would probably make a personal vendetta against AJ within their page of media, but Howie was awed at the small reflection of his old friend in the shell of obnoxious stardom. And, thankfully, the reporters decided to continue the press conference, leaving the mystery woman for the internet.

*~*~*


Sitting up in bed, Cheyanne leaned against the pillows propped at the headboard. Laptop open, she idly surfed the internet, sending a quick email to her mother before turning to more serious matters. Backstreet Boys. Wasn't that what they were called? Typing it in, she glanced nervously at Austin, who was on her knees across the room, measuring the corner. Turning her attention back to the screen, she chewed on her lip, clicking on the first result.

Sure enough, Cheyanne was directed immediately to the Backstreet Boys’ official website and found Howie and Kevin captured amongst the men that had unleashed themselves at the cabin. They were dressed so perfectly in black suits, handsomely defined, obviously idolized. And, Cheyanne felt as if she had been punched sharply in the gut, exhaling a slightly pained breath as her hand braced against her steadily rounding abdomen.

"Why do you look like you just found a naked picture of yourself?" Austin asked softly, glancing up from the notebook she had been jotting measurements down in. Tucking the pencil in her upswept hair, she turned and looked around the room. Perhaps the crib would do best in the corner, away from the window. The changing table could go there… Would they even need a changing table? When her cousin's wife had their first child, they'd changed him on the bed. They could do that, right? "Chey? What do you think about… What's wrong?" she asked worriedly.

"Nothing…" Cheyanne answered softly, immediately clicking out of the website before running a shaky hand against her teary eyes. Just thinking about Howie made her nauseous, only able to think of how sincere he sounded when he promised to take care of her. But it had all been just a game. Now, she was working hard at a local the town's local OBGYN office, underneath her very own obstetrician. She was the only one who seemed to understand the seriousness of Cheyanne's condition, promising light work and weekends off as long as she promised to remain on strict bed rest during those times. Austin had made sure of that every time she wearily stepped into her home. Austin was the only person Cheyanne could ever trust, though she didn't want to hurt Austin with pictures of Kevin. "Just hormones, y'know?"

"You sure?" Austin asked, moving to sit next to her. Glancing at the screen, she saw Cheyanne's search. Wrapping her arm loosely around her friend's shoulders, she sighed lightly. "Chey…"

"He's such a liar," Cheyanne breathed painfully, rubbing her hands across her face to keep herself from crying. But that seemed useless as the tears flowed anyway. She had yet to cry for what happened at the cabin, merely keeping herself strong for Austin and the baby. But that was useless, especially with the pain being so raw. "Famous… Austi, they're famous… He promised he'd take care of me and promised that I would always be safe with him. It was just some huge joke to him, wasn't it? Seducing the rape victim? It's so damn sick…"

"Chey…" Austin said, pulling the laptop away from Cheyanne. "As much as he lied to you… I can't help but think he meant what he said. Maybe he was just waiting for the right time… He's probably surrounded by money-hungry women all the time, and wanted to be sure that you liked him for who he was…" Biting her lip, Austin looked away, unable to believe the same about Kevin.

"Why are you defending him?" Cheyanne asked bluntly as she watched Austin tuck the laptop away on Cheyanne's desk before curling back onto the large bed. Sniffling, Cheyanne allowed herself to be pulled into Austin's hold, folding the hem of Austin's t-shirt sleeve between her fingers. She didn't understand.

Twirling a golden curl around her finger, Austin closed her eyes, one hand moving to touch the growing bump of Cheyanne's stomach. "Because… I know you love him, and I do believe he loves you, too. If those three stooges and the Wickedest Bitch of the West hadn't shown up, I'm sure he would have told you the truth."

"And Kevin?" Cheyanne questioned softly, holding her breath as she waited for Austin's reply.

"I couldn't even begin to tell you," Austin sighed, knowing she couldn't glance into Cheyanne's deep sapphire eyes and lie. Exhaling a painful breath, Austin moved to rest her chin on the top of her younger friend's head, continuing to twirl the golden curls with one finger while her hand gently rubbed the growing child. "I want to believe everything he said… That he loved me… But, God, Chey, he's married… I was an affair…"

Snuggling closer, Cheyanne wrapped her arms around Austin. "Maybe his marriage was over? Didn't he tell you that they had fallen out of love long ago?" she asked softly.

"He said that Kristin used to have his heart…" Austin trailed softly.

Burying her face against the softness of the t-shirt Austin wore, Cheyanne let her tears flow freely. "I suppose we'll never know for sure," she whispered, sniffling lightly. The slip of paper tucked in her wallet would stay there. She knew she should just rip it to pieces and throw it away, but couldn't bring herself to be rid of Howie completely. He would have a piece of her heart.

"I suppose not," Austin agreed with a heavy sigh, allowing Cheyanne to cry softly against her. She cradled her younger friend peacefully, allowing her to cry away all her pain. It had been a long time since Cheyanne had actually allowed herself to cry. And Austin knew it was time for her friend to release her loss of Howie. After all, the two men were in New York, thousands of miles away from them. Even if they analyzed the situation to find that the men still loved them, it was still futile. They were busy singers with no time to devote to two simple country girls. It was easier to move on and concentrate on the future, which brought Austin's thoughts back to Cheyanne. "Hey… Little Momma, I was thinking about the nursery…"

"You mean the other half of my bedroom?" Cheyanne sniffled with a small laugh.
Smiling slightly, Austin tugged playfully on a curl. "Do you think you'll need a changing bed? I'm thinking of the crib in the corner, and putting a rocker by the window. There's enough room for a little dresser by the closet, and we'll need to get a shelf to put diapers and such. Maybe a little table by the glider for when you're feeding her, that way you can have a low lamp in the middle of the night and something to drink. But we should really get rid of the blinds for when she starts to climb, because we don't want her to strangle herself. What do you think about cotton diapers to save money?" she asked, speaking each thought that came to mind. It was easier to think of the baby than of Kevin.

"…I think that I might not have enough money for all of that…" Cheyanne sighed, honestly feeling pinned when Austin suggested all the things she would really need. As much as Cheyanne loved the child growing inside her, she could honestly only think of the problems that would surface. "Austi… This baby… I'm not ready…"

"It'll be okay, Chey. I promise. I put in for a part-time job at the Slip In. We'll make it, okay? Don't worry." Pulling Cheyanne closer, Austin gave her a sloppy wet kiss on the cheek. "If I have to work three jobs to take care of you two, I will."

Though the words were comforting, Cheyanne couldn't help but feel guilty at the thought of Austin working so hard. She didn't want Austin working to provide for her. Cheyanne was working at the office in order to pay for the baby, thought it was probably dangerous for her to do so. But, she didn't care. This had been her mistake from the very beginning. She should have never let Noah come to the house. "Austi, no, this isn't your problem--"

"Chey, listen to me. You're my little sister, remember? Anytime you have a problem, I have a problem. Besides, this baby isn't a problem. I know that she came about because of something bad, but we can't think of her that way. She's our little silver lining. I want to help you. I have to help you through this," Austin said softly. "You don't know how many times I've kicked myself in the ass for letting Noah do what he did to you."

"You didn't let him do anything," Cheyanne whispered, her voice quickly dropping as Austin remained quiet. She felt tears threaten to fall yet again as their hands overlapped on her slightly protruded stomach.

"I still feel like I should have done something," Austin whispered. Lightly squeezing Cheyanne's hand, she gave her another kiss before sliding away. "I need to get supper ready," she said softly, moving to the door. "Any requests?"

"Letting me help?" Cheyanne suggested hopefully, though that was immediately dismissed with a slightly annoyed glance from Austin's dark eyes. She attempted to smile coyly, resulting in a frustrated laugh from Austin. Cheyanne hated the idea of strict bed rest when she wasn't working, but Austin refused to let anything happen to the baby. "I'm hungry for chicken…"

"Chicken it is," Austin said with a slight smile. "No more Howie surfing, okay?" she asked softly before disappearing down the hall.

"No more Howie surfing," Cheyanne promised, though Austin didn't need to hear her answer, just assuming what it would be. Though, Cheyanne waited patiently for Austin to disappear into the kitchen, tenderly reaching over to grasp her laptop. Clicking on her music download program, she hurriedly keyed in the familiar name, wanting to download just a few songs to her MP3 player, because, despite the pain, Howie's voice soothed her growing child. "Backstreet Boys' songs… That's within the limits…"
My Girl by Anastacia
Chapter 24 – My Girl

Lulled by the gentle sway of the vehicle, Cheyanne felt herself relax as Austin maneuvered the car down the back road leading home. Staring down at the grainy black and white printout, she felt a happy tear roll down her cheek. Howie had been right. A baby girl. Running her finger along the spine, which looked like a small strand of pearls, she couldn't help but smile. A girl. "I want to name her Olivia Austin," she murmured.

“Olivia Austin?” Austin questioned, unable to hide the delighted smile accentuating her beautiful face, taking a quick peek at her best friend. To see the first ultrasound was amazing and Austin was so thankful that Cheyanne had demanded she be present. Holding her friend’s hand, she watched the transducer smoothly move over her friend’s bump of an abdomen, conjuring a picture of the little girl on a black and white screen. She had laughed as tears fell when the physician signaled to the grainy image, explaining the child was sucking her thumb. And hearing the sound of the little one’s heartbeats had given her hope for the future.

“Ollie for short… Do you like it?” Cheyanne asked worriedly, forcing to bring her eyes away from the baby’s first picture, biting down on her bottom lip. She knew she was taking great liberty in using Austin’s name as her child’s middle name, but she had longed to dedicate this child to Austin, because without her, all hope would have been lost long ago.

"Like it? Chey…" Austin felt tears brim in her eyes. That her friend would name her child after her… "Oh, Chey… God, don't name her after me. She'll grow up to be a spiteful little heifer," she teased.

“She’ll be strong and determined,” Cheyanne disagreed, her mind already settled on the name as well as the part Austin would play in Olivia’s life. “…Just like her Godmother.”

"God, Chey… You're going to make me cry, and you know my mascara runs when I cry."

“Well, if you’d actually spend a couple extra dollars for the water-proof version…” Cheyanne teased with a playful smile, leaning to dodge Austin’s soft swat as they parked in their driveway.

Climbing out, Austin moved to help Cheyanne, stopping when she saw a package resting by the front door. "Chey… did you order something?" she asked.

“No, with what money would I order something? Everything’s being saved, squeezed, and pinched for us,” Cheyanne teased, grasping onto her friend’s hands to easily slide off the seat of the truck. The obstetrician had been quite leery of the placental abruption when she examined Cheyanne’s abdomen. It seemed that the tearing was increasing in small increments, but Austin furiously promised to take care of Cheyanne to avoid complications. Neither wanted the baby harmed. So when she felt a sharp cramp against her side from the jostling, she refused to flinch. Though, she seemed to forget all about it when she gazed toward the front door, immediately noticing the monstrous box practically engulfing their small porch.

Ushering her friend up the steps, Austin leaned over. "It's for you," she said, gazing at the printed label. "The return address is New York City."

"I don't even know anyone in New York City," Cheyanne said slowly, reaching to unlock the door.

"Well move your pregnant butt so I can get it in," Austin replied.

"I should have mentioned to the obstetrician that you boss me around all the time," Cheyanne said, pouting as she pushed the door open.

“She’s the one that told me I should be bossing you around in the first place. As much as we both hate to admit it, you’re considered a high risk pregnancy,” Austin reminded Cheyanne, hunkering herself down beside the cumbersome box, attempting to wrap her arms around it. Holding her breath, she heaved it upward, fearing she might fall backward off the porch as she swayed underneath the girth and heavy weight. Muttering a string of curses, she hurriedly scampered into their living room, practically throwing down the box as she fell on top of it. “Holy mother of God!”

“See? If you wouldn’t have been bossing me around, I could have helped,” Cheyanne replied sweetly, sitting on the couch with a mountain of pillows just as Austin would have instructed her to do upon entering their house.

"Yeah, yeah. Like I would have let you even think about helping lift it," Austin said, sliding to the floor next to the box. "Good God, this bitch was heavy."

“What if it’s a bomb or something?” Cheyanne suddenly announced with a bewildered look, leaning back on the couch as if it would be safer. “…Did it tick?”

"I think it would have gone off when I dropped it on the floor… I hope it wasn't breakable. What are you waiting for?" Austin asked, looking up at her. "It's your package. I'm not opening it…"

“I don’t even know what it could possibly be… I don’t know anyone in New York…” Cheyanne restated the obvious, inching herself onto the edge of the couch. Glancing to Austin, she took the pocketknife the older woman always kept in her back pocket, easily opening it and pushing it into the heavy tape. Once the top was loosened, Cheyanne popped open the flaps, gasping softly in awe. The entire box was filled with beautifully expensive baby supplies with a somewhat large card sitting on top. Cheyanne was shocked into a silent submission, meekly handing the card to Austin as she peered inside. “Holy shit…”

Carefully pulling the card from the envelope, Austin eyed it critically, running her finger over the embossed lettering. Opening it, she gasped when she saw the names scrawled inside. "Chey… You won't believe this shit," she said, shoving the card into her friend's hand. Peering into the box, she bit down on her bottom lip when she saw the array of gifts inside.

Cheyanne took the card from Austin and quickly flipped it open while her friend started to pull out some things from the box quietly. Anything that had stunned Austin into silence was definitely worth appreciating. And, Cheyanne felt the tears immediately prickle against her dark sapphire eyes as she read the warm words. Some things to get our Cinnamon off to the right start… And a little gift to Angel's little angel... Love, Howie & Kevin. She felt her breath catch hard against her throat as she gingerly closed the card, staring at the beautiful cover. Howie had sent the things they selected for her child at the baby outlet along with several other items. It was amazing and beautiful, but Cheyanne found herself focusing on Howie’s words. Our Cinnamon…

"Aww, Chey, look," Austin cooed, holding up a stuffed purple teddy bear dressed in scrubs. "It looks like one from the Build A Bear place. It's so soft and cuddly." Handing it over, she smiled slightly before digging into the box again. "I swear, the man spent a mint on… Cinnamon?!" she asked incredulously, jerking her head up when she remembered the word in the card. "Where the Hell did that come from?"

“Us…” Cheyanne answered softly, gently rubbing her fingers against the bear’s soft ear. She could just imagine Howie walking through the Build-A-Bear Workshop with the purple teddy bear, dressing it meticulously. Though, Cheyanne didn’t know whether the bear was for her child or herself. “He called me ‘Honey’ all the time… So, I called him ‘Sweet Tea…’ Then we were teasing each other one night and decided she should be ‘Cinnamon…’ He put our Cinnamon, Austi…”

"He loves you, Chey," Austin said simply, pulling out a gift box. Lifting the lid, she nearly squealed at the frilly satin gown inside. "Oh my freaking Lord," she gasped softly, lifting the cream card off the top. "He got Ollie a christening gown, Chey…"

“Austi…” Cheyanne cupped a gentle hand to her mouth as she set the teddy bear aside, reaching to simply run her fingertips over the beautiful fabric. Her throat constricted dramatically at the beauty of the gown, knowing how expensive it must have been. Howie had thought to get all the necessities that Olivia would ever need, not to mention the sweet treats that Cheyanne would have longed to get her daughter. Only, it settled a sharp pain against her heart, knowing tears were already breaking down her rosy cheeks. “…This is way too much…”

"Do you want to send it back to him?" Austin asked softly, carefully laying the gown back in the box before pulling out a stuffed frog.

"No!" Cheyanne said quickly. "I mean… It would break his heart if I did that…"

“My Little Momma, still worrying about Howie’s heart,” Austin cooed with a bright laugh, knowing it would probably be near impossible to send the gifts back anyway. How could they possibly locate the men in New York with no permanent address to speak of? Besides, Austin would be damned if she let Cheyanne do such a foolish thing. They were so desperate for money to take care of Olivia and this was a Godsend. Without Howie’s contribution, they would have been floundering severely.

“That’s from Kevin,” Cheyanne suddenly announced knowingly, gesturing toward the light green frog dressed in a light purple gown, topped with an elegant tiara and wand.

“How do you know?” Austin answered in surprise.

“ ‘Cause the birth certificate is right here listing him as Daddy… Her name is Princess,” Cheyanne explained, pulling out a soft white teddy bear with wings and a silver halo, dressed in a t-shirt that read – I love my Mommy. “…And this would be Angel…”

"How… How dare he be such a lying pissfuck then turn around and do something so incredibly sweet that if he walked through the door right now I'd throw my arms around him?" Austin blurted, hugging the frog close.

“Because he’s a guy…” Cheyanne laughed, allowing Austin to take the Angel bear into her arms to hug along with the frog. She found it sweet that Austin adored the gesture that Kevin had made, wishing she could tell him that he still had her heart. “Besides… He didn’t exactly lie to you… You never asked if he was taken per say… But, I should be furious with him, calling me a whore… But… He wants you to take care of the bear and frog till Ollie is born.”

"Take care of them?" Austin repeated, getting to her feet. "I think I have room for them on the bedside table," she murmured. Burying her face against the frog's head, she rushed from the room before she broke down into tears in front of Cheyanne. Once in her room, she leaned against the door, telling herself repeatedly it was only her imagination that she could smell his cologne on the stuffed toys.

But, it wasn’t her imagination, knowing he lingered with her always as she sat on the edge of her bed. Besides, she wouldn’t put it past the man to actually dab the frog with a touch of his cologne. It made her fume slightly at the idea, but she maintained herself, easing both the bear and frog onto her bedside table. They were so beautiful and chosen with great care. She could only imagine the looks her strong man received walking through the store making a princess and an angel. But, he had done it and with great care. Burying her face in her hands, she shook away the thoughts with a bitter sigh. “Why couldn’t you have just told me the truth?”

A million reasons ran through her mind. He didn't want to hurt me. His marriage didn't matter to him. He loved me more than her. Sucking in a breath, she closed her eyes, shaking her head once again. "Pull yourself together," she whispered bitterly. It wouldn't do to go back out blubbering like an idiot. She had to be strong, for Cheyanne's sake. Her friend's hormones were so out of whack lately, she cried over the littlest things. The mail was late, her glass was out of ice, the sappy love songs she listened to on her MP3 player. Standing, she moved to her dresser, pulling out the gray t-shirt she'd worn home from the mountains. Peeling off her tank top, she eased into the comforting soft cotton, hugging herself lightly before going back to the living room.

“Do they look nice on your nightstand?” Cheyanne asked with a soft smile when her friend returned. She knew all too well what Austin had done in the bedroom. It was always her way, especially of late, moving to another room to collect her emotions before turning back to take care of Cheyanne. She respected that about Austin, acting as if she knew no better than what Austin told her. Gingerly, she patted the couch as an offer to Austin, having gone through only about a third of the box so far. It was filled with every single necessity Cheyanne could think of. Clothing, pacifiers, cloth diapers, rattles… And a somewhat small, wrapped gift box. Curiously, Cheyanne reached for the box to unwrap it, smiling when she found the fetal heart monitor within, though a few plastic cards were tucked underneath. “Austi…”

"Holy shit," Austin murmured, picking up the cards. Flipping through them, she shook her head. "Holy shit," she repeated, seeing they were all for various baby stores in the state. Reading the amounts on the back, her eyes grew wide. "Chey… Holy shit, woman. What'd you do to him?" she asked incredulously.

“What do you mean what’d I do to him?” Cheyanne questioned in confusion, feeling her heart flop as Austin offered her every single card after ogling the monetary amounts. She couldn’t even begin to add up the amounts on the back of the cards, knowing it would be a ridiculous sum. She actually felt queasy at the thought.

"I mean… I don't know what I mean," Austin admitted. Fiddling with the heart monitor, she sighed. "Too bad you don't have a way to contact him and thank him," she murmured.

Cheyanne pulled herself away from the box, eyeing Austin curiously. She instantly thought of the slip of paper tucked deep inside her wallet. Howie had scrawled his cell phone number, telling her to contact him if she ever needed anything. And, considering the overwhelming amount of royalties he had showered upon her and her daughter, she thought a large thank you was in order. “…If I could… You wouldn’t be mad at me?”

"What'd he do, slip you his number when we were hauling ass or something?" Austin teased, moving to gather up an armful of items to take to Cheyanne's room. "Or did he jot his number down somewhere on the card?"

“You know he wouldn’t be that brazen,” Cheyanne lied, leaning back on the couch as Austin disappeared. She carefully leaned to place the gift cards on the coffee table, then softly rubbed her aching stomach. She would have helped Austin carry back the items, but she wasn’t allowed. So, she couldn’t help but let her mind wander. She knew she had to call him, but would have to wait for a private moment. And, now didn’t seem like the time as Austin appeared. “Do you realize how much money is on those cards, Austi?”

"Um… Enough to furnish three nurseries?" Austin asked. "After I get these into your room, you think you can sit tight long enough for me to run to town and get a pizza? I've got a few bucks that don't have to go into the bank now, and… You up for some pizza?" she asked, dragging the box towards the hall. "If you don't want pizza, I can always make some--"

“Domino’s!” Cheyanne suddenly chirped excitedly, craving an extra cheesy mess of pizza. “With extra cheese, please?”

"You got it, Chey." Shaking her head at the younger woman's sudden change in demeanor. Almost like she couldn't wait to be rid of her. She supposed she was hovering, but she couldn't help but worry over her. "I think I have enough to go grab a couple movies too, if you like…"

Cheyanne hesitated, not wanting to splurge too much. “Are you sure?”

"It's rent one get one free night at Movie Gallery," Austin said with a shrug. "And I have a coupon for the pizza. And, considering your very recent windfall, I think we can afford a girls' night courtesy of your Sweet Tea."

“…We’re going to be able to get Ollie everything you talked about the other day… Not to mention all the stuff we would really love to have and spoil her with, but couldn’t think about getting her before…”

Smiling, Austin gathered the remaining items. "Maybe you should send him a fan letter?" she suggested with a giggle before going back down the hallway.

“Wouldn’t be as bad as that desktop you saved of Kevin on your laptop,” Cheyanne sang softly, shifting the pillows so she could sprawl on the couch for a quick nap. Though, she made sure that her purse was by her side and the phone within reach before drawing the blanket over her weary body.

Austin rumbled back to the living room, her mouth open in shock. "How in the Hell do you know what's on my desktop, Miss I Downloaded Twenty Backstreet Boys Songs?!"

“Ollie likes the sound of Howie’s voice and it calms her down at night when my stomach is cramping really bad, not that I have to defend that--”

"Aw. Well, seeing Kevin relieves my cramps," Austin said suggestively, grabbing her purse and keys. "Sit tight, Chey. I'll be back in a little bit."

“More like he’s the one that caused your cramps,” Cheyanne grumbled softly to herself as Austin locked the door behind her, hurrying out to the truck. And, Cheyanne waited until Austin revved the engine and pulled away from their driveway, leaning down to grasp her purse. Locating her wallet, she opened the compartment to draw out the small scrap of paper with Howie’s scribbles. She felt her stomach cramp terribly with nerves as she reached behind her for the phone. Wetting her lips, she dialed the specific number, hoping beyond all hope that Howie was the one that actually answered his phone.

She released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding when it began to ring. Nervously chewing her lip, she reached to rub her stomach, about to hang up when she heard an audible click, followed by a soft rustling sound.

"Hello?"

Cheyanne’s entire body tensed at the soft sound of his sweet voice, feeling an overwhelming rush of her emotions sweeping back over her. Within just one word, she could still feel his body next to hers. The way his lips tenderly met every portion of her warm skin. The way he laughed when she said something obviously silly. The way he loved her unconditionally. But she had ruined that relationship quite quickly, allowing Austin to take her away from him without any words spoke that night at the cabin. She hadn’t even had the courage to look into his dark eyes, afraid that she’d die there. Unable to help it, she flushed with a dark heat at the mere thought, furiously rubbing her cramping stomach, Olivia obviously making it known that she wanted her mother to proceed forward. “…Howie?”

"Chey?" he asked softly, and never before had her name sounded so good.

“Are you busy…? Are you alone?” Cheyanne trailed, slightly uncomfortable at the thought of bothering him while he was doing something important. Not to mention she was utterly uncomfortable with the thought of speaking to him while his band mates hovered. She could still remember the way AJ and Nick watched her and Austin as if they were pieces of expensive steak, practically foaming at the mouth. Not to mention how horrible Brian had been. Of course, there also was the problem of them considering her the ultimate whore trying to bait Howie into trouble.

"I'm alone," he assured her gently. "And, Honey… I'm never too busy for you."

Cheyanne bit down hard on her bottom lip when he called her ‘Honey.’ The tears immediately began to fall from her burning eyes, evaporating on her burning cheeks. She had missed him so terribly despite the pain and the overwhelming gifts he had sent was just enough to cause her to weep. She attempted to hide the sniffles as best as she could, longing just to keep talking with him. And she couldn’t help herself. “What are you doing?”

"I was just laying here in the hotel room… I just got back from an interview… Honey? Are you crying?" he asked worriedly, and in her mind she could see his eyebrows furrow.

“No,” she hiccupped sweetly, unable to keep it from happening. Immediately, she blushed with embarrassment, though he couldn’t see it. She didn’t know what to really say, especially when he sounded so close to her. She honestly wanted to tell him just to come to North Carolina. Even if it was just for a day, but she kept that thought secret. Knowing better. “I… Austi and I opened up the package you sent…”

She heard his hesitation, heard his nervous swallow. "I… Did you like it all?" he questioned slowly.

“Howie…” Cheyanne sighed softly, not knowing if it was appropriate to use her nickname for him. Instead, she hoped to focus on what he did for her and her daughter. “It was all so beautiful. I mean, she has everything that she’s ever going to need because of you. Not to mention things that I wouldn’t have been able to get her… And the christening gown… It was so beautiful… Everything… And the gift cards…”

"The christening gown was Kevin's idea… He helped me pick out a lot of it, Honey." She heard a soft sigh, then, "He wanted to apologize."

“It’s okay,” Cheyanne promised as if nothing had really occurred between herself and Kevin. “The frog and teddy bear he made for her… They were so adorable… Just thinking about him walking around a kind of store like that, dressing the animals like he did… It was really sweet of him…”

"Yeah, that's Kevin, alright. Sweet," Howie said with a chuckle. "Did we miss anything? I mean… Do you need anything else for Cinnamon?"

“We won’t need anything else. Lord, no,” Cheyanne breathed with disbelief, unable to even think about a single thing she could have added to that box. “…The gift cards will take care of the bigger items… Austi’s so excited about going baby shopping. Can’t believe she’s going to let me out to even shop… Just, thank you so much, Howie. And thank Kevin for us, too.”

"Anything for you… And for her, as well. Anything, Honey. I… You remember the night you recorded my heartbeat?"

Cheyanne moistened her drying lips, feeling her entire body tense with the soft trail in his voice. “Yeah, I remember… Why?”

"I… I recorded a little message for her. I didn't have a chance to listen to it, but I hope it came out okay…"

“Do you want me to play it for her now?”

Howie was silent for a moment. "Actually, Honey… I'd rather you played it for her later. When you're alone, and can listen… Just call me and tell me you liked it? Please?" he murmured.

“Okay,” Cheyanne agreed, carefully turning onto her side so she could rest the phone on the pillow and against her ear. “…You were right, y’know?”

"Huh? What was I right about?" Howie murmured, the phone rustling as Cheyanne imagined him repeating her movements.

“The baby… I had my first ultrasound today and my physician told me I was having a little girl,” Cheyanne confessed, knowing there was a great amount of tension between them that was left unspoken. So much was hazy and undefined, but she hadn’t the heart to ruin what she had at that moment. If she could just sleep tonight remembering the softness of his voice instead of the pain…

"Honey… Told you," he teased lightly. "How are you feeling? Are you getting lots of rest? Austin doesn't have you doing all the work around the house, does she?"

“I’m okay…” Cheyanne trailed, biting down hard on her bottom lip, knowing she couldn’t lie. “Austi goes to all my appointments with me and has been reading up on placental abruption in my nursing books. She makes me rest all day when I’m not working… Strict bed rest… Because the placenta keeps tearing a little bit… No worries, though… Austi loves being bossy.”

"Whoa, hold up. It keeps tearing? Honey… That can't be good. Damn this stupid ass promotional tour. I wish I could be there with you, Chey. That is… If you'd want me."

"It's just little tears... If it was too bad, they'd admit me to the hospital until she was born..." Cheyanne answered, attempting to avoid the bigger issue. Or what she assumed was the bigger issue.

"Honey… I have a couple of days off next week. Would it be alright if I flew down? Just to see you? To make sure for myself that you're okay?" Howie questioned, worry evident in each word.

"Howie..." Cheyanne breathed in disbelief, unable to fathom what he had just suggested. It caused her stomach to knot heavily with worry, wanting so desperately just to tell him to come now. That minute. That second. That very moment. But, she didn't know how to approach it. "...You're so busy with that tour, aren't you? Not being around your band mates and... Are you sure it's a good idea?"

"I really want to see you, Chey. We have so much to talk over. You left in such a hurry, and I have so much I want to tell you. I know that finding out everything like that was a shock, but… I can only hope you still love me."

Cheyanne released a heavy breath, "Howie... Of course I still love you..."

"I love you too, Honey… So can I? If you like, I'll just come out for a day. Just long enough to hold you and explain everything… And to hear Cinnamon's heartbeat…"

Cheyanne’s lips curved into an excited smile. “How many days do you have off?”

"Um… I have a flight leaving LA at eleven Tuesday morning for Orlando, and I don't have to meet up with the guys until that Friday… So, two and a half days. I can probably find a flight to Raleigh, and get a little prop job to Asheville, and rent a car and drive out to your place…"

“I’d be really happy if you stayed at least two days…” Cheyanne answered, knowing she’d have to butter up Austin from then until Tuesday, perhaps even hire a hot male stripper to keep her attention elsewhere. But, that seemed trivial, considering she was going to be seeing Howie again.

"I don't suppose Austin will be welcoming me with open arms, will she?" Howie murmured with a sigh. In the background, Cheyanne heard water drumming into a sink, followed by a door closing loudly. "Damnit, AJ--"

“You don’t have a hotel room to yourself?” Cheyanne guessed when she heard the string of raspy curses erupting for no reason whatsoever. She really didn’t know what was happening, but was sure that Howie didn’t want anyone knowing whom he was talking to.

"I'll be ready in a minute," Howie said distractedly, which was followed by an exasperated sigh from his band mate. A door slammed and Howie released a painful sigh. "Honey… I'm sorry. I do have a room to myself, but, well, some people just barge in…"

“Then I better let you go,” Cheyanne suggested, not wanting to pry into his life.

"We're supposed to go out to eat… I'd much rather talk to you, though. Screw them, they can wait a few more minutes," Howie said decisively. "Is Austin sitting there listening to every word you say?"

“No, since we came into a vast amount of fortune today, she decided to splurge. She went to go get us pizza and a couple of movies. Of course, I’ve been commissioned to the couch and not allowed to move an inch. Or… Sudden death,” Cheyanne answered, feeling guilty for keeping him from his life.

"Pizza and movies… No moving on the couch… That all sounds like heaven to me, Honey…"

“True… But I’m all alone,” Cheyanne answered, puckering her bottom lip as if Howie could see.

"Well, Honey, I wish I could be there with you. But… If I was, there would be no lying still on the couch," he teased lightly, his grin evident in his voice.

“I figured as much,” Cheyanne laughed softly, feeling the cramps slowly start to subside in her aching abdomen. “…So, you’re really coming next week? Here?”

"You bet… And when I'm there… Well…"

“Well?” Cheyanne actually giggled. “Well what?”

Howie chuckled. "I can't tell you over the phone, Honey… I'd rather show you…"

“Then, if I don’t get a special peek with conversation, I better let you get to dinner, huh?”

"Alright… But, first… Can I talk to Cinnamon?" Howie asked hopefully.

“How could I resist that request?” Cheyanne laughed softly, shifting the phone to her abdomen so Howie could talk to Olivia.

She heard his soft murmur, and felt the light fluttering movements of Olivia's response. "I love you, baby. I'll see you next week, okay?" She had to giggle at the kissing sounds he made, and lifted the phone back to her ear.

“She moved,” Cheyanne explained, tenderly rubbing her rounded abdomen as Olivia settled peacefully from Howie’s voice. It was the first time she actually felt Olivia inside her. The light fluttering movements. It was amazing. “She moved for you.”

"Oh, Honey… I can't wait to feel her move, to see how much you've grown with her. But… I should get going before they all start bitching. I love you, Cheyanne," he murmured softly.

“I love you, too, Howie,” Cheyanne promised, offering her heart and soul with the single sentiment, knowing Howie deserved another chance.
Her Protector by Anastacia
Chapter 25 – Her Protector

Kevin muffled a somewhat exhausted yawn as he pulled himself from the lonely covers of his hotel bed, reaching to pull on a pair of baggy lounge pants to save himself from the cool air conditioner. Only being able to occupy the middle made the edges of the bed quite cold when he rolled. Besides, he couldn’t get his mind off of Austin, no matter what he did. He thought of her, dreamed of her, and loved her from afar. So, seating himself at the desk, he hurriedly booted his expensive laptop, wanting to entertain other thoughts besides Austin. Only, when he connected to the internet, he couldn’t help himself by typing in ‘Howie Dorough pregnant’ into his favorite search engine. Sure enough, dozens of sites were listed with infamous photographs and the latest flings of gossip. Smirking, Kevin clicked into the first one, actually bringing up the photograph of Howie and himself walking through Build-A-Bear with animals they made for Austin, Cheyanne, and the baby. And, for once, Kevin wasn’t ashamed or annoyed with the public persona the media was displaying. It made him think of starting his own family. Of visiting Austin and Cheyanne when the baby was born.

Good Lord, people were going crazy over the pictures. Each site he clicked on had them, as well as the infamous picture of Howie and Cheyanne at the baby store in Asheville. Grainy, blown up, it showed Howie holding out a stuffed duck, Cheyanne leaning towards him for a quick kiss. Most of the remarks were rather rude towards Cheyanne, and he was tempted to leave a comment of his own when his door burst open to admit Howie.

"Morning," Howie greeted him with a grin.

"I guess," Kevin muttered, tapping his fingers against the keys for a moment. "You look like the cat who swallowed the canary," he commented as his friend helped himself to a bottle of juice from the mini refrigerator.

“If I was the cat who got the canary, I would have savored it instead of just swallowed it…” Howie warned with a thoughtful nature, falling back onto his friend’s bed. Sitting up halfway, he uncapped the juice, taking a long swallow, unable to stop himself from grinning. He had already booked his schedule of flights to visit Cheyanne as well as made a reservation for the car rental. Not to mention he already had the directions leading to the girls’ house from Asheville. He was all ready to leave, except for a few things that he wanted to pick up Cheyanne, the baby, and Austin before leaving. He just couldn’t wait.

“Howie… You’re just not that funny…” Kevin rued with a heavy sigh, turning the laptop slightly to block Howie from the ill words to Cheyanne as he furiously typed a nasty reply to their dastardly fans. “Especially since dinner last night…”

"Well, can you blame me for being happy?" Howie asked, glancing over at the computer. "Are you emailing your Mom or something? Send her my love…"

"Uh… Yeah," Kevin said, making a mental note to email his mother that day. "How can I blame you for being happy if I don't know why you're so happy?" he questioned.

"I'm going to see Cheyanne next week."

Upon hearing Howie’s blunt announcement, Kevin’s hands slipped hard on the keyboard, sending the viciously rude message to the group of fans who declared Cheyanne to be some loose whore who would demolish the entire Backstreet Boy kingdom. His voice was loud and abundantly clear with the post, curses rampant throughout. He had to speak his mind and feeling so lousy caused him to react far more violently than he intended. But, his thoughts were elsewhere as he stared at Howie with disbelief. “You’re what?”

"I'm flying to North Carolina to visit Cheyanne, the baby, and Austin," Howie replied slowly, as though Kevin had misheard him.

"But… Whoa. Does she know? Or have you started stalking her somehow, and you're just going to pop up on her front doorstep? 'Cause, if you do, I'd recommend wearing a bulletproof vest and one of those bomb squad helmets. Especially if Austin's the one answering the door…"

“She called me,” Howie defended with a firm shake of his head, leaning up fully as he finished the juice, tossing it into the nearby can. “She invited me to stay for our small break next week when I asked if I could just visit for a day. She said that her placenta is tearing more and I want to make sure she’s okay… Oh, she got the package, too. That’s why she called. She loved the christening gown. She loved the stuffed animals, too.”

“Yeah?” Kevin laughed in obvious surprise, shaking his head in disbelief. “She honestly called you?”

"As opposed to dishonestly calling me?" Howie quipped with a chuckle, lying back on the bed. He couldn't imagine life looking up any more than it had in the past day. His Honey was back in his life… At least, he dearly hoped they were back on track. There had been a soft murmur of a voice mail waiting for him when he'd gotten out of the shower. Howie… I had to thank you for the sweet message you did for Cinnamon… I love you…

“Well, what’d she say?” Kevin asked in astonishment, reaching to smack Howie’s leg to draw him away from his dreamlike trance. It just seemed so surreal, Cheyanne actually picking up the phone to purposely call Howie. In fact, when they left the cabin, it was almost as if both men had said goodbye to the women they loved. Almost as if they were leaving their headstones in a murky graveyard. The pain had been so sharp. So fresh. Yet, here Howie was, rejuvenated, claiming that he was going to North Carolina in a matter of days. Kevin was just surprised that his jaw hadn’t hit the carpet for rug burn yet.

"That she loved everything... And to thank us," Howie said softly, smiling to himself as he remembered the conversation. Of course I still love you… His heart had leaped at those words, filling him with a hope for their future.

“What’d she think of those gift cards?” Kevin chuckled, amused by the twinkling shimmer crossing his friend’s dark eyes. It was obvious that Cheyanne had said more than just simple thanks. Especially if Howie was dropping everything to go for just a simple two day visit after spending so much money to send her the things she needed for the unborn child.

"I think she was a bit flabbergasted about those. She said that Austin can't wait to go on a shopping spree to get the big things they need," Howie said softly. "Apparently, they've been pinching pennies to buy stuff."

Kevin sobered at the thought of Austin and Cheyanne struggling to maintain their household. They had worked so hard through college to launch themselves into a good life together. Only, with Cheyanne’s pregnancy being complicated, Kevin assumed it made it that much harder for them to manage. He wondered what Austin sacrificed to take such good care of Cheyanne. “Well, are they okay? Do the girls need help? I mean, if Angel can’t work, that’s not her fault… She needs to protect that baby and Princess can’t pick up extra jobs to take care of them both. She needs to worry about taking care of Angel instead of the money. Where’s my checkbook?”

"We didn't really get into that…" Howie trailed, instantly regretting not bringing up their financial means. He hadn't thought that Austin may be working two or more jobs. "The baby moved when Chey let me talk to her," he announced, unable to keep the ecstatic grin from creeping onto his face.

Kevin reached into his nearby jeans to collect his checkbook, sitting back down at the desk to draw out a check. He glanced up at Howie for a moment, unable to hide the grin forming on his face. Howie was so excited about the baby. Almost as if she were his own. And, as much as the guys would loathe him for being so sentimental, Kevin welcomed it. Howie had been so depressed since leaving the cabin. He feared that Howie may do something foolish in the upcoming weeks. But, talking to Cheyanne seemed to change everything. It gave Kevin great relief. “How far along is she?”

"A little over four months. She had the ultrasound yesterday, and the doctor told her it's a girl… A girl, Kevin. A little cutie with golden curls like her Mama's, and--"

"An attitude like her Aunt Austin's," Kevin interjected with a chuckle. "Do you think this will help them out?" he asked, handing Howie the check.

“…I think Austin will rip it up when she notices who’s name is scribbled on the bottom of the check,” Howie answered honestly, offering his friend a sad smile. He knew that Cheyanne was already working as hard as possible just to make sure that Austin was okay with Howie arriving. But if he came with “bribe money” from Kevin, Howie knew he would perish in a hot country second.

"Then you'll have to make sure she doesn't see it, won't you?" Kevin returned, getting to his feet. Digging around in his suitcase for a shirt, he muttered a curse. "Damnit. I think I left my favorite shirt back in Carolina… Did Angel mention how Austin is?"

“I think you gave your favorite shirt to Austin…” Howie trailed, immediately holding his hands up in defense when Kevin shot him a dark glare. “Hey! Take it easy… And, no, Honey didn’t mention much about Austin, except that she was really happy about the gifts we sent and she’s taking care of the Angel Bear and Princess Frog for Cinnamon until she’s born.”

"Just so she doesn't find the pictures online," Kevin muttered, yanking on a t-shirt. He still couldn't believe the things that some people had said. True, he'd thought the same when Howie had first told him of Cheyanne's pregnancy, but that was different. Lord, if Austin read some of that… There would be Hell to pay.

“What do you mean?” Howie asked in confusion, sitting up straight on the bed as he furrowed his dark brows at his best friend. The delivery of the sentence left an ominous note in Howie’s heart, curling his stomach into tight knots of worry. “What pictures?”

"It's nothing," Kevin assured him with a wave of his hand. "Just some stupid little bitches who have nothing better to do than rag on people who have lives. It's nothing to worry yourself into a snit over, believe me." Even as he said the words, Kevin knew it was useless. Howie would be searching for the pictures in minutes, he was sure. The worried expression on his face made his heart clench with emotion for him. "Howie… You remember how some fans were when me and Brian announced we were getting married?"

“Faintly…” Howie trailed, moving to seat himself at the desk to open up the laptop, bringing up a search engine as he waited for Kevin’s explanation. “What does that have to do with pictures? Pictures of who?”

"Somebody got pictures of us at the Build-A-Bear place… And I saw that picture of you and Angel getting ready to kiss back in Carolina," Kevin informed him. "D… I wish you wouldn't look… Have you eaten breakfast yet? I'm buying, whaddya say?"

“What’s so wrong with the pictures of us getting the stuffed animals or the pictures of me and Honey? Of course they’re going to be on the internet. We knew that with the stupid press conference…” Howie answered, ignoring Kevin’s suggestion as he keyed in the appropriate search.

“Howie, don’t--”

"Holy shit," Howie said, glaring at the screen. His dark brows furrowed in concentration as he scrolled through the comments on the blog. Whore. Slut. Each slur towards his beautiful Cheyanne was like a knife through his heart, and he slammed the laptop shut. "Who the fuck do they think they are?" he growled.

Kevin winced at the sharp temper exploding from the somewhat small man. He looked none too pleased with what he saw, causing Kevin to frown with regret. He felt so guilty calling Cheyanne those names in the beginning, thinking somehow his thoughts might have generated over to the public. Though that was impossible. “Howie, they’re nobodies. Just fans who are jealous like always. I mean, Leighanne had death threats hanging over her head when she married Brian and got pregnant. It’s just something that happens. You know that--”

"Leighanne is a bitch, okay?" Howie erupted, vaulting to his feet. "Cheyanne is all that is good and sweet and kind, not some money-grubbing whore. They called her a whore, Kevin. And they call themselves fans?! I have half a mind to…"

“To what?” Kevin stated nervously, reaching for his checkbook again to conjure up some bail money.

"I don't know," Howie said miserably, dropping into the chair again. "If I even left a comment, I'd be blasted out of the universe as a poser. If I left some anonymous comment, I'd be blasted for being gullible. Damnit. I have half a mind to drag Cheyanne to the courthouse and make her my wife. At least then, I could be assured she'd be safe. What if someone finds out who she is? God, some of the fans are so weird, they'd probably start stalking her…" His mind racing with all the horrible things that could happen, Howie hung his head.

“I left a comment for both of us,” Kevin assured, patting Howie’s shoulder as he tucked his checkbook away. “Besides, Angel lives in the middle of no where in the sticks of Carolina. There is no way on God’s green earth that any of those rabid fans are going to locate her. And, if they do, what makes you think they could get past her feisty little bodyguard? Not to mention, dragging her to a courthouse? What makes you think she wouldn’t go willingly?”

"Feisty little bodyguard…" Howie chuckled at Kevin's apt description of Austin. Looking up at him, he smiled slightly. "I'd have to conk Austin on the head, wouldn't I? Or have you there to divert her attention so Chey and I can slip away…" He wondered suddenly if Kevin would go with him. "Kevin…"

“Let her chase me around the chicken coop with a shotgun while you run away to romantic bliss? Sure, D, anything you say,” Kevin snorted sarcastically with a heavy roll of his eyes. Austin wanted nothing to do with him. She made that painfully clear awhile ago. And, to make the point stick, Kevin remembered how she hissed at him that he wasn’t the best lover she ever had. He seemed to think she enjoyed her mental blows more than physical.

"I was kidding," Howie assured him. Sighing, he rose to his feet. "Did you tell the bitches off?" he questioned, smirking slightly at the image of Austin chasing Kevin with a shotgun.
“See for yourself,” Kevin chuckled, leaning forward to key in the specific site he had visited. Clicking on the grainy photograph of Howie and Cheyanne, he quickly scrolled to the bottom of the comment section where his name was emblazoned – Kevin Richardson. So formal and matter of fact.

Reading the heated words, Howie covered his mouth in surprise. "Holy Hell," he muttered. "Wow. And I thought…"

"Thought what?" Kevin asked, scratching his chest absently.

"That you agreed with them," Howie murmured, overwhelmed that his friend had taken a stand for Cheyanne.

Kevin stopped in mid-scratch to stare down at Howie with an honest expression of hurt. What had Howie anticipated when he read Kevin’s reply? It was shocking to know that Howie assumed Kevin felt like the rest of the men when it came to Cheyanne. He felt so foolish to even let Howie begin to think that he hated Cheyanne. He furrowed his heavy brows with disappointment, shaking his head slightly. “Why would I agree with them?”

"You used to…" Howie trailed softly. "I'm sorry. Just, the things I overheard AJ and Nick saying last night made me think that maybe nobody likes Honey, and I was hoping with all my heart that I'd have at least your support in this. I love her, Kevin. More than anything in the world. I want to make things work with her. So much." Sighing, he closed the laptop gently. "Can you not tell the guys where I'm going?"

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re going to visit your mother for the break, nothing more or less,” Kevin stated with great ease, offering an encouraging smile to his friend. “And, the only reason I thought ill about her was because I didn’t know all the details. I thought she was searching for a meal ticket. If you would have told me her situation, I would have reacted a lot differently. I know you love her. And I also know that she’s the only thing in this world that actually makes you happy. So, I want you to go for it… But what did Nick and Aje say last night?”

Impulsively hugging his friend, Howie moved towards the door. "They were being their usual bastard selves," he said with a shrug. "You still buying breakfast?" he asked with a grin.

“If you get me all the dirt on Austin you can salvage,” Kevin persuaded with a matched smirk.

"All the dirt," Howie repeated, chuckling. "I suppose you'll want to know how many times she wears your shirt while I'm there?"

“A running tally may help my self esteem dramatically,” Kevin decided with a trail.

*~*~*


“So, let me get this straight… That jigger in your hand will let me listen to Ollie’s heartbeat? For free? Without a doctor present?” Austin demanded in question, motioning toward the fetal heart monitor Cheyanne had been fiddling with. The girls had spent a quiet Saturday at home, just lounging in Cheyanne’s large bed. She had been having terribly painful cramps all day, so Austin refused to let her move an inch, even while she was in bed. Taking all meals back to the bedroom, Austin kept her best friend entertained with old DVDs and enjoyable conversation. To make herself feel better, she kept a phone by their side in case an emergency phone call needed placed. But, for the most part, everything had been okay, especially as they snooped online for various items they wanted to buy Olivia. Austin was itching to get out shopping, waiting for a day when Cheyanne felt really well to try it out. Though, she knew she’d be pushing her out of the house next week. Having all this money for Olivia was exciting.

“Yes, this jigger will let us listen to Ollie’s heartbeat,” Cheyanne confirmed with a laugh as Austin yanked up her baggy t-shirt to expose her obtruding abdomen. She had gained the necessary five pounds during the first trimester. Now, every week afterwards, she would gain a pound. Her pregnancy was already noticeable considering her small stature, but Austin found it adorable. “…I just have to play her something real quick, okay?”

"Okay… What? Does she need to hear Howie's voice?" Austin teased, watching Cheyanne place the headphones over her stomach. Each time she looked at it she wanted to squeal with excitement. A baby. Her little Cheyanne was going to be a Mommy. Biting her lip, she blinked back the tears, not wanting her friend to see them. Lately, the slightest little things would set her off. She had practically sobbed throughout Little Mermaid. Austin thought it was cute, but knew the worst was yet to come. She kept poring over pregnancy websites, oohing and aahing over the slightest details that matched Cheyanne's progress. "Has our little Ollie moved any tonight?" she asked softly as Cheyanne adjusted the headphones.

“A little,” Cheyanne admitted as she made sure the headphones were settled slightly above where she was feeling the most movement that day, she then moved her hands back to the machine to prep the message. “I think she gave me a pretty swift kick to the bladder earlier…”

"So that's why you knocked my ass to the floor to get to the bathroom," Austin said with a giggle, lying on her stomach. Propping up on her elbows, she gazed at her friend's stomach.

“Ollie needed to use the facilities immediately. She’s been taking early lessons from Aunt Austi during those nighttime chat sessions,” Cheyanne explained with a wry grin, finally pressing play on the machine when she was certain Olivia would hear Howie’s voice.

Leaning close, Austin listened to Howie's sweet message. I may not be able to hold you, but you hold my heart. Always. I love you, my little Cinnamon. "Aw," she cooed, laying one hand over Cheyanne's stomach. "Chey… she's moving!" she gasped in excitement. "You like hearing your Daddy's voice?" she murmured softly.

“She loves his voice,” Cheyanne agreed softly, watching Austin scoot closer to fully press her hand over her warm abdomen, waiting for the next movement. Her friend’s dark coffee eyes glittered with excitement, because it was the first time she felt Olivia. But, Cheyanne was more fascinated with what Austin had said as she removed the headphones and moved the machine to switch it to listening for a heartbeat. “You called him her Daddy, Austi…”

"I know," Austin murmured, glancing up. "Should I have said 'You like your Momma's sex machine' instead?" she teased with a giggle.

“Austin Leigh,” Cheyanne immediately scorned, her cheeks lighting with a dark fire of embarrassment. “I was being serious... I mean, I didn’t think you’d think of him as her Daddy… Or… I don’t know…”

"Do you think of him as her Daddy?" Austin questioned seriously, sitting up to look at her friend. "I wouldn't blame you if you did. I mean… At least Howie loves you," she said softly.

“I…” Cheyanne released a soft sigh as she dropped her gaze to her bare abdomen, moving the machine around her abdomen to locate the child’s heartbeat instead of the variety of squelches and crackles. She felt so very guilty at that moment, knowing Howie would be arriving in a few days to visit while Kevin was somewhere else. She was so excited at the idea of being able to touch and hold Howie that she had momentarily slipped in thinking about Austin. Shifting uncomfortably, Cheyanne started to think she may have to call Howie and cancel. “…Kevin loves you, Austi…”

Austin bit her lip, pulling her knees to her chest, her gaze moving to the baby things arranged in the corner, where the crib would go once they bought it. "I don't think so, Chey…" If he loved her… Shaking her head of such foolish thoughts, she turned her attention to the machine on Cheyanne's stomach.

“Want to move it around to find her heartbeat?” Cheyanne suggested, knowing far too well that Austin wanted nothing to do with the previous discussion. In fact, Austin’s stubbornness caused a great divide in Cheyanne’s heart. She wanted to press the issue, but if Austin didn’t want to listen, then she simply wouldn’t listen. And, of course, Cheyanne felt guilty about even trying to talk about Howie. It wasn’t fair to Austin, having Howie visit.

Nodding, Austin reached for the machine. "Chey…" Moving the monitor carefully, she kept her eyes on her friend's stomach. "Do you… Do you think I should try to contact him?" she questioned softly.

“Do you want to contact him?” Cheyanne redirected in surprise, leaning back on the fluffy pillows to support her aching back while Austin took over the work. She tensed slightly at Austin’s suggestion, not knowing exactly what to say. Almost as if she were afraid it was a trap.

"I don't know… Part of me wants to be able to just cuss him up one side and down the other, you know? Tell him what I really think of all the lies. And part of me wants to just hear his voice, because I know that hearing him speak will make everything seem okay. I don't know… I can't make heads or tails of it," she admitted, smiling when she heard the gentle thump-thump-thump of Olivia's heartbeat. "I'm just crazy. Look at me, I wear his t-shirts all the time, and last night I had to hold that princess frog to be able to sleep, because the asshole had the nerve to put his cologne on it." With her free hand, she wiped her angry tears away from her eyes.

“You have the same relationship and feelings for him since the day you flipped him onto his back,” Cheyanne laughed softly, not wanting to disturb the sound of her child’s heartbeat. “You’ve always wanted to curse him and love him at the same time. And you miss him, so it’s not wrong for you to sleep with the frog or wear his t-shirts. You just want to be close to him, Austi. There’s nothing wrong with that. And, if you want his number, I’ll get it for you… Just to have for just in case…”

"Yeah… You're right. Me and Kevin have quite the love-hate relationship… Did you just say you'll get his number for me? How?" Austin jerked her head up to look at Cheyanne, eyeing the coy smile. "You little sneak. That Howie slipped you his number, didn't he?"

“Yes…” Cheyanne trailed with a soft blush, her southern accent dripping with the sweetest honey as she attempted to explain. “He gave me his number when we were leaving in case I needed him. And that gift he gave Ollie… There was no way that I couldn’t offer him a thank you. That’s not proper, nor nice for that matter. I had to call him. To thank him.”

"Oh, Chey… No wonder you were glowing when I got home yesterday. So, what'd City Boy say?" she asked eagerly. "Did he mention how Kevin's doing?" she grilled, wanting the slightest tidbit of information she could get on him.

“We didn’t talk much about Kevvy… I mean, I didn’t directly ask how he was doing. But Howie said that he helped pick out all the gifts for Ollie as an apology. He was the one that suggested getting her the christening gown, too,” Cheyanne explained, slightly relieved at the excitement in Austin’s tone. “…But you can ask him yourself in a few days… Get all the juicy details…”

Austin raised one eyebrow, staring at her friend. "Wait a minute. Is this your sly way of telling me that he's coming for a visit?"

“He asked how the doctor appointments were going and I couldn’t lie to him. So, I told him that the placenta keeps tearing and adding more blood into that little pocket it’s creating. I couldn’t help it… And he got really worried. He just wanted to come out to make sure I was okay. To listen to Ollie’s heartbeat again. He promised he’d only stay for a day, but he has two and a half days off from that promo jigger. So, I said he could stay if he wanted… But if you don’t want him here, I’ll call him and cancel. I don’t want you make you mad at me, Austi--”

Austin shook her head slightly. "Chey… You love him, right? In your heart of hearts, he's the one who makes you feel giddy and happy and complete? Like all those sappy romances we've read?" she asked softly, switching the machine off. Setting it aside, she lightly patted Cheyanne's stomach before pulling the t-shirt down. Hugging her knees to her chest, she looked at Cheyanne. "I know the answer to that already. I won't be mad if he comes for a couple days. Just… He's not bringing Pretty Boy with him, is he?"

“No… He muttered something about you chasing Kevvy around the chicken coop with a shotgun…” Cheyanne trailed, biting hard on her bottom lip as she carefully rolled onto her side to glance at her best friend. The guilt consuming her heart was unbelievable. She wanted so badly for Howie to visit, but she could see how it was hurting Austin already.

"It's okay, Chey. Ollie needs her Daddy, right?" Cheyanne needed Howie, she knew that. Despite the fact it would hurt her to see the Lovebirds together, she knew it would break her friend's heart if she told her to call Howie and cancel. Smiling, she lay next to Cheyanne, snuggling close. "Can we watch Beauty and the Beast now?" she asked softly.

“Yeah, that’s my favorite,” Cheyanne agreed as Austin drew the covers around them in a warm cocoon, holding both Cheyanne and Olivia in her arms. “But… You can decide against Howie at any time, Austi. I will cancel. Okay? You come first.”

"Not anymore," Austin informed her with a smile. "Ollie comes first. Remember that. What's best for her is more important than me."

“We can go shopping before he comes and make him lug all the stuff in to make the nursery?” Cheyanne suggested hopefully, just wanting Austin to laugh. To know that everything would be okay. That Austin was happy with the decision.

"He can be the mule," Austin assured her with a giggle.

“So, you’ll actually let me out of the house to walk around?” Cheyanne gasped with mock surprise, already knowing that Austin had placed a call into Cheyanne’s obstetrician to reduce her hours of work because of the seriousness of her condition.

"Walk? Who said you're going to walk? We'll use one of those motorized cart jiggers," Austin teased. "And I'll have all the hot guys carry you back and forth to the truck…" she trailed with a grin, slipping away to put the movie in.

“I don’t think I’ll mind that…” Cheyanne trailed playfully.

"Do you know what I miss most about Kevin?" Austin asked suddenly, waiting for the player to eject the last movie. Shifting her balance from one foot to the other, she tapped her fingers on her leg, instantly regretting bringing Kevin back into the conversation.

“Besides the sex?” Cheyanne attempted to be funny, but softened immediately when she noticed the forlorn look on her friend’s face. “What do you miss most, Austi?”

"I miss the quiet moments we had together. With Steven, there had to be constant conversation--or, in his case, arguing. But, with Kevin… We could just be together. Reading a book, or sitting out on the front porch looking at the view… I didn't need to hear his voice to know that he was with me. I miss that, Chey. I miss snuggling on the couch with his head in my lap and listening to his stories of growing up in Kentucky…" Austin trailed off, swallowing the hard lump in her throat.

“Austi…” Cheyanne sighed softly. “…I know I’m not Kevin, but… I can cuddle with you…”

Nodding, Austin pressed play before crawling back into bed. "Do you think you could talk in a slight southern accent with a deep voice? And call me Princess," she added with a slight smirk.

“Princess,” Cheyanne teased with a groan. “I’m full of a southern accent. Ain’t no way in Hell that I can slight it.”

"I love you, Chey. Now shush, the movie's starting," Austin said, snuggling close. Wrapping her arms around her friend, she reached to play with the soft golden curls. "Just… Please don't cry when Gaston gets whacked, okay?"
Back to Her Heart by Anastacia
Chapter 26 – Back to Her Heart

Glancing down at the scribbled directions he held, Howie nervously chewed on his bottom lip. Lifting his gaze to the ranch house nestled in front of a stand of pines, he smiled slightly, his nervousness slipping away as he eased the rented car down the driveway. An American flag hung off the front porch, wafting in the gentle spring breeze, and as he pulled to a stop, he saw a cluster of daffodils lifting their petals to the bright afternoon sun. Cutting the engine, he sat back in his seat, longing to rush into the house and pull his Cheyanne into his embrace. Instead, he slowly climbed out, feeling all his worries and troubles lift from his shoulders as he made his way to the porch. Taking a deep breath, he released it slowly as he climbed the steps, taking a quick moment to smooth his travel-wrinkled clothing before knocking softly on the screen door.

At first, Howie thought that maybe he hadn’t knocked loudly enough over the soft beats of the country twang, the girls obviously enjoying themselves immensely. So, he glanced down to his watch to check the date, making sure he had told Cheyanne the right date and time that he’d be arriving. Only, in mid-check, the front door snapped open and the screen door flew toward his face. He stumbled back slightly in surprise, glancing up at Austin with disbelief. He held a hand to his chest to keep his heart from flying out of his ribcage, taking a deep breath. Though, Austin looked none too fazed with her decision, smirking as she leaned on the side of the door frame. She looked cool and collected with her dark locks pulled into a ponytail, a touch of make-up, crisp jeans, and Kevin’s favorite Kentucky t-shirt. Her coffee eyes glittered with obvious amusement. “What the Hell took you so long, City Boy?”

Drawing in a calming breath, Howie raised one eyebrow critically. "You live in the middle of no-damn-where," he said with a nervous chuckle. "The flight was a little late," he added softly.

"You're just in time for the party," she said excitedly.

"Party? What party--"

"Austi, let the man in!" Cheyanne called from inside.

“It’s Chey’s twenty-third birthday today,” Austin answered nonchalantly as she stepped back from the threshold of the front doorway to let Howie in. She was halfway toward the living room when she turned, noticing Howie frozen where he had stepped inside. Furling her dark brows in question, she noticed the stricken look on his face. “What’s wrong? Didn’t you know it was her birthday--”

“Hey,” Cheyanne suddenly interrupted without warning, her cheeks flushed a rosy hue as she popped out into the foyer. She knew she would probably be scolded for getting up from the pull out bed, but she couldn’t wait anymore. She had already been waiting for over a week. And, she couldn’t have looked more adorable with her honey curls twirled into two pigtail braids, complimenting her white maternity tank top with Hot Momma emblazoned in hot purple – a birthday gift from Austin – and a pair of black, cropped, cargo maternity pants. She instantly smiled at the sight of Howie, relieved that he had actually decided to come. Though, she quickly noticed he had no luggage with him. “Are you only staying today?”

"I left my bag in the car… It's your birthday?" he asked incredulously. Holy Hell… All he had gift-wise was a little something he'd picked up for Cheyanne, Austin, and Cinnamon. Maybe he could run to town in a little bit and get her something…

"That's all?" Austin asked, shaking her head in disbelief. "You could at least give her a little kiss… I'll be right back," she said, heading for the kitchen. "Chey, get your pregnant ass back on the sofa bed!"

“I knew I was going to get in trouble,” Cheyanne sighed with the sweet southern twang that Howie remembered as she merely shrugged her bare shoulders. Easing her hands onto her rounded belly, she glanced up at Howie with a nervous curiosity. She couldn’t deny the nervous flitter racing through her system, wondering what he was going to do. If it was proper to reach up to kiss him. She didn’t want to make a mistake, so she lingered back, gesturing toward the living room, ignoring the fact that it was her birthday. “Sorry it’s not what you’re probably used to…”

"Let me look at you first," Howie said softly, taking in the soft glow on her cheeks. The fullness of her breasts against the material of her shirt made his heart flutter, as did the small protrusion she covered so protectively. Raising his eyes to hers, he couldn't hold back his grin when he saw the sparkle of life within them. "Oh, Honey… You look so beautiful," he whispered, finally stepping up to her. Gently touching her cheek, he sighed at her familiar scent, a mixture of her fruity shampoo, powder and soft perfume that always made him feel at ease. "Can I kiss you Hello now?" he murmured, unsure if in her mind their relationship was back where it once had been.

Cheyanne exhaled a soft, shaky breath as he stepped closer to her, flicking her eyes quickly to the kitchen to make sure Austin wasn’t watching. When she was sure, she reached a hand up to grasp Howie’s wrist as he continued to stroke her cheek, inhaling the soft scent of his cinnamon breath as he lingered so closely. She had dreamed about this moment ever since he suggested stopping by for a visit. Since leaving the cabin, she felt as if a piece of her heart had died the moment she left his arms. To have him in her home at that very moment was like a miracle. Even Olivia seemed to notice the change as she shifted in her cozy womb while Cheyanne’s body tensed with anticipation. “…I would hope you’d kiss me hello…”

"Chey," he whispered before capturing her lips with his in a soft kiss. His hands moved to rest on her shoulders, longing to pull her closer, intensify the kiss and put each bit of emotion he felt for her into the kiss. Instead, he tore his lips away from her sweet mouth, resting his forehead against hers. "God, I've missed you," he whispered.

“I missed you more,” she assumed, closing her eyes to savor the passed moment of their kiss, gently trailing her fingers against his cheeks. She felt the faint prickle of stubble, but smiled at the sensation. It was her favorite – a light five o’clock shadow. Of course, what she enjoyed more was the faint air of his Drakkar cologne lofting about her senses like a hazy summer morning. She didn’t know what she was thinking to have let him go without a chance to explain things. She loved him so much. She should have sacrificed. “We have a lot to talk about, huh?”

"If y'all are going to talk, then get your ass back in that bed!" Austin hollered from the kitchen, causing Cheyanne to step closer to Howie. "I have another present for you, and you have to be a good girl to get it," she added.

"I swear, she treats me like I'm an invalid six year-old--Howie! What are you doing?" Cheyanne squeaked when she felt his arms around her, lifting her off the floor.

“I’m making sure that you get back in that bed without getting hurt,” Howie answered simply, cradling her close to his chest as he walked easily toward the living room. He had already been worried about Cheyanne’s condition since her first phone call when she explained that the placenta was still tearing. And, judging by the way the house was set up, Howie knew that it was far more serious then Cheyanne led him to believe. Everything was made so Cheyanne would be resting at all times with not a single chance of her moving even the slightest inch to over exert herself. “And don’t think I’m not going to get the full story from Austin about what’s happening with you.”

“It’s going to be miserable having you two conspiring together,” Cheyanne pouted as Howie easily settled her onto the large pull out bed. She immediately reached to settle a pillow beneath her aching back, but Howie anticipated that with one swift move. She glanced up in awe, but still refused to remove the sweet pout.

"We just want what's best for you," Howie reminded her, glancing around the cozy living room. "Honey… I had no idea it was your birthday. Why didn't you tell me?" He would have gotten her something, much more than what was waiting in the car now. Sitting next to her, he eyed the stack of shirts. "Is that all Austin got you? Shirts?" he questioned with a smirk.

“I kind of forgot it was my birthday. Everything’s been so crazy, with Austi having to work so hard and me having to stay in bed all day, not to mention the doctor’s appointments… It just wasn’t important,” Cheyanne admitted shyly as she tugged on his shirt, letting him notice there was far more room on the pull out bed than just the sliver of corner he was occupying. She actually wanted him to lay back with her, so she could cuddle against him for protection. But didn’t want to be so brazen when he just arrived, especially considering how vulnerable Austin was. “And I really didn’t want anything, Austi just insisted on getting me these shirts ‘cause they all have funny sayings on them… They vary in size, depending on how much baby fat I get… Though I like shirts baggy. Baggier the better…”

"Birthdays are always important," Howie murmured, kicking off his shoes before moving closer to her. Jet lag was beginning to set in, and he longed to just lie back next to her, snuggle her close and fall asleep in her arms. Instead, he draped an arm around her, smiling when she rested her head on his shoulder. "And I think it's cute when you wear--"

"You little sonofabitch! You've been outside all morning, and now you take a piss on my clean kitchen floor!" Austin screeched from the kitchen.

“Do you guys have chickens?” Howie asked suddenly, almost out of no where, unfortunately jarred wide awake from Austin’s piercing annoyance. He had been so comfortable, but his jerking caused Cheyanne to sit up fully, almost as if she were determined to crawl away.

“Chickens?” Cheyanne questioned in confusion, arching her light brows in amusement at his question. “No, no chickens… But, I should go make sure she’s--”

"Happy Birthday," Austin announced as she stalked into the living room, holding out a squirming puppy. Setting it unceremoniously on the foot of the bed, she made a face. "I thought you might need a companion when I'm at work… Enjoy the little pisser. I have to go mop the kitchen floor. Again," she added with a dramatic sigh.

“Austin…” Cheyanne trailed softly, but it was useless as her friend sharply turned to disappear into the kitchen for yet another scrubbing. She thought about going to help, but a soft whine from the foot of the bed caught her attention. With awe, she held out her hand, clicking her tongue softly to draw the pup’s attention. Sure enough, his tiny triangular ears perked to attention, stumbling over the giant wrinkles to reach Cheyanne’s hand for a friendly lick. She immediately cooed with adoration, falling instantly in love. Austin had bought her a long-haired, golden Chihuahua puppy for her birthday. Her favorite breed of dog. Tiny and well managed. “He’s so cute.”

"He's a little pisser!" Austin called from the kitchen. "Howie? Can you come give me a hand? The puddle has gone under the washer, and I need a big strong man to move it for me."

"And she's asking for me?" Howie quipped with a grin, kissing Cheyanne's cheek softly. "You two get acquainted," he murmured.

“You’re strong, don’t worry,” Cheyanne promised with a sharp breath, obviously remembering all their nights of passion tucked away in the Carolina mountains. Only, when she realized what she said, she blushed furiously, averting her gaze back to the puppy, who had already crawled onto her lap, yipping for attention. “Just don’t let her crush you behind the washer…”

"She wouldn't do that… Would she?" Howie teased. Lightly patting the puppy's head, he got to his feet, shuffling into the kitchen to see Austin on her hands and knees in front of the washing machine. Groaning at the thought of moving heavy appliances, he emptied his pockets on the counter before walking over. Cheyanne's birthday. He had to go get her something.

"You're staying here tonight, aren't you?" Austin asked, getting to her feet. Moving to the side of the washer, she nodded in the direction she wanted to move it. "I have plans…"

“I was hoping it’d be alright to stay here, if it was alright with you. I have my bag in the car, I just didn’t think about bringing it with me when I first came to the door. Actually, I was hoping to stay until Friday morning, when I catch my flight back, but…” Howie trailed with a ramble, obviously nervous about speaking with Austin alone. She held such a significant portion of Cheyanne’s heart. If he blew it with Austin again, there was no chance in Hell that he’d reconnect with Cheyanne in the way that he wanted. Heaving a ragged breath, he pushed the washer as suggested, finally catching onto Austin’s last words. “Plans? For what?”

“A couple of our friends from college are driving into town and Billy wants me to go with them to the new bar. Not that I don’t love Cheyanne and the time I spend with her. But I’m working so hard now because she’s not allowed to work at all because of the baby… And I just figured with you being around, I wouldn’t have to worry about leaving her alone,” Austin explained simply, purposely forgetting to mention that Billy was just another college friend, knowing Howie would relay the information back to Kevin. “Do you mind babysitting my Little Momma?”

"Billy?" Howie repeated, eyes wide as she moved to grab the mop. His best friend was nursing a broken heart, and she was going off to bars with other guys? Oh, Hell no… However… It would give him some much-needed alone time with Cheyanne. "I don't mind at all," he said softly. "But… Billy?"

“Billy’s just a good friend,” Austin answered, emphasizing the ‘good’ so it would seem believable. It had taken Billy and Jeff practically every con in the book just to get Austin to consider going out. She worried so much about leaving Cheyanne at home, alone, knowing the dangers of her condition. If the placenta ruptured fully, Cheyanne could bleed to death in a matter of minutes. But, she had confidence in Howie and knew she wouldn’t be able to handle seeing Howie romancing Cheyanne so lovingly. She had to get out for a break until he left. Then she’d resume her normal pace. “But, you can’t let Chey get up and do anything. Dr. Synder has her on full bed rest, because of the baby. I mean, I get nervous just letting her walk around the house…”

"I understand," Howie said softly. Good friend? Just how good a friend was this Billy? Grunting as he heaved the washer back in place when Austin gave him a nod, he leaned against it momentarily. "Do you plan on wearing Kevin's shirt when you go out?" he asked casually, biting back a grin when she shot him a glare.

“I was thinking it might be a possibility considering the asshole tore all my sexy camisoles with his sticky paws,” Austin replied coolly, her southern tone hotter than Howie could have anticipated, almost as if she would scorch him with deadly flames.

"Okay," Howie said, holding up one hand as if in defeat. He had no intention of getting on her bad side. "Do you need me to do anything else?" he asked carefully as she shoved the mop out the back door.

“Just move the washer back,” Austin answered, though as she turned she noticed it was already back in the proper place. Smirking, she crossed her arms over her chest. “Is there something you need to do, City Boy?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her what Kevin had said to him just before leaving LA, but the look on her face made him think twice. "No, nothing," he said, whistling a happy tune as he headed back to the living room. Stopping in the door, he turned and gave her a sweet smile. "Kevin wants one of his t-shirts back." Without waiting for a reaction, he continued back to his Cheyanne's side.

“I’LL SEND IT BACK IN AN ENVELOPE!”

Cheyanne cringed at the sound of her friend’s thunderous snarl of disgust, jerking slightly as her puppy poked into her baggy t-shirt for a hiding place from the mean woman. He trembled beneath her shirt and when Cheyanne glanced up, she knew Howie was the cause just by the smirk on his face. Exhaling a tired breath, she rolled her eyes at the sound of Austin stomping toward her bedroom, gently stroking her puppy’s back through her t-shirt. “You’re an instigator, Mr. Dorough.”

"Me? I'm innocent," Howie said with a grin, rejoining her on the pull out bed. "All I said was that Kevin wanted one of his t-shirts back." One hand strayed to her stomach, and he leaned over, rubbing it gently as he pressed a kiss to the small lump. "Hi, Cinnamon," he cooed, easing her t-shirt up. "Why is that dog snuggled under your shirt? And how do I get to trade places with him?" he said softly, reaching to rub the puppy behind his ears.

“He was scared to death of the furious womanly rage you caused,” Cheyanne giggled, watching the little puppy furiously wagged his tail with Howie’s generous scratches. “I had to protect him and he obviously had to meet Cinnamon, too. He’s the man of the house now.”

"Ugh, I suppose I should go apologize," Howie muttered, lightly kissing her skin as he bared it. Feeling her shiver, he lifted his head quickly. "Do you want me to stop?" he asked in a whisper, silently willing the puppy to move. Instead, a pair of beady brown eyes gazed at him before looking away. Jealous of a dog of all things, he thought with a rueful grin as the puppy curled into a ball between Cheyanne's breasts.

“No, don’t stop,” Cheyanne told him, her voice softer than a whisper as she bit down softly on her bottom lip. She was quite tense beneath his hold, but not because she was nervous. Instead, she was just so thrilled with his presence and the affection he was donning on her. She had dreamed about him for so many nights and to finally feeling the softness of his lips on her skin gave her such delight. That had been the best birthday gift she ever received – having him with her that day.

*~*~*


“You’re up.”

Howie glanced up in a daze of confusion, stumbling slightly back in the hallway from Austin’s loud voice echoing around him. The jet-lag had unfortunately caught up with him a few hours after visiting with Cheyanne, causing him to fall asleep on the pull out couch. Cheyanne obviously hadn’t wanted to disturb him, shifting slightly so she could go back to her room for whatever reason. It wasn’t long before he awoke without the feeling of her warmth next to him. And, when he found her curled asleep on her bed, Howie immediately wanted to join her. But the new family member obviously disagreed with his plans, growling loudly as Howie tried to remove the puppy from Cheyanne’s snuggled embrace. Not wanting to be bit, he decided just to go get Cheyanne a drink of something cold for when she awoke. That is, until Austin caught his attention. Grimacing, he rubbed his face and followed the sound, poking into the bathroom to see Austin applying makeup. He knew in a moment that Kevin would have had a heart attack looking at the beautiful woman, laced in a black and pink corset, black jeans, and a pair of Cheyanne’s new black boots. Her long auburn locks were actually curled into ringlets, cascading down her back, giving Howie an illusion of her preparing for her significant other. Leaning on the door frame, Howie muffled a yawn. “Not by choice. The damn dog took my spot.”

“Moth is the man of the house, Howie. You’re just going to have to get used to that,” Austin giggled with obvious amusement, leaning close to the mirror to rake some mascara along her thick eyelashes. She found it delightful that Howie was so jealous of such a tiny runt of a puppy, especially considering how fast Cheyanne had fallen in love with the critter. She also found it adorable that Cheyanne named him Moth, an anagram for Man Of The House.

"You couldn't have gotten her a sweet little kitten?" Howie asked, looking away when the woman began tugging on her corset top. What, he wondered, would Kevin's reaction be if he told him Austin got all gussied up to go to a bar with a good male friend? Hell, she hadn't gotten that dressed up to go to the bar back in the mountains.

"How do I look?" Austin asked him, turning to face Howie.

“You look beautiful. Kevin would have fallen in love all over again,” Howie answered honestly as he admired her beauty for a moment, stumbling slightly as she grasped his hand and tugged him into the kitchen. When he was thrown back into a kitchen chair, he gasped the table in order not to get thrown onto his back. It seemed to throw him back to his original thoughts as he glanced toward the hallway, just wanting to be with Cheyanne. “Why didn’t you get her a sweet little kitten, Austin?”

"You can't have cats if you're pregnant. Toxoplasmosis. Now, tell me the truth, City Boy," Austin said, pulling out another chair and straddling it. Resting her arms on the back, she eyed him levelly. "Lay it on me, 'cuz I can handle the truth."

“What truth?” Howie squeaked slightly, leaning back in his own chair as she leaned forward.

Austin took a moment to collect her thoughts, one small part of her feeling bad for making Howie tell her everything. Especially when she should have the guts to get Kevin's number from him and find out on her own. "He went back to New York with the Wickedest Bitch of the West and they both laughed over how stupid I was, right?"

“Wickedest Bitch of the West?” Howie repeated in wonder, doing his best not to laugh at the accurate description, especially considering the seriousness of Austin’s dark eyes. So, he grew somber, and finally leaned forward to brace his hands on the table. “Kevin and Kristin aren’t together. They haven’t been together for months. She’s an aspiring actress, so she lived in their home in California and left Kevin all alone in Florida. He took his wedding ring off at home before he even thought that he was going to meet you. I know he should have told you from the beginning, just like I should have been honest with Honey in the beginning, but how was he going to explain that if he couldn’t even explain it to his friends and family first? I mean… He filed for divorce when we were on the plane…”

"He did?" Austin whispered, eyes wide with shock. The earnestness of his expression told her it wasn't some cockamamie story, and she vaulted out of the chair, scrambling for a paper towel as tears pricked her eyes. Whirling around to face him, she anxiously bit down on her bottom lip. "So I was just some convenient means of getting away from the Bitch?" she asked carefully.

“You weren’t any convenient means, because I asked him the same thing,” Howie admitted honestly, staring down at his hands. “He said that if it weren’t for you, yes, he probably would have stayed in his marriage. But, he told me that you gave him the strength to see that he deserved much better than Kristin. That he deserved you.”

"I don't deserve him, though," Austin murmured. Glancing at the clock on the microwave, she heaved a gentle sigh. Billy was supposed to meet her in town in ten minutes. "I gotta go," she said. "You better get back to Chey before she wakes up."

“I can’t get passed that tiny, ferocious pit bull you thought would make a wonderful birthday gift,” Howie snorted, hoping Austin would at least take what he said to heart. “But you should at least go kiss her goodbye. Despite you spending all that time with her, taking care of her, she’ll miss you while you’re gone.”

"Moth is not ferocious. He's a little sweetums," Austin cooed with a giggle, heading out of the room. "Oh… Howie? Thanks. For everything." Walking over, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I hope Chey knows what a sweetie pie she has." Skipping down the hall, she stopped in Cheyanne's doorway. Moth was curled up in her embrace, his chin resting on the pillow next to hers. "Aww," she breathed, moving to climb into the bed next to them. The puppy cracked one eye at her, released a sigh, and rolled to his back, baring his tummy for a rub. "You're not ferocious, are you?" she murmured, rubbing his stomach. "Chey… I've got to go meet Billy and the guys," she said softly, not wanting to wake her friend up.

Moth whined happily from the friendly scratches, wiggling on his back into Cheyanne’s side, causing her to stir. Shifting uncomfortably, Cheyanne reached to rub the sleep from her eyes, ending her sweet, delicate yawn with the familiar yip. Peeking her sapphire eyes open, she smiled softly at her best friend. “Give Jeff all my love?”

"You bet. I'll probably have to chain them to the bar to keep them from coming to see you. Now remember," she said, sitting up. Pulling Moth into her lap, she smoothed his fur. "No getting out of bed except for going to the bathroom. No overexerting yourself. If Howie crawls into bed with you looking for some lovin'--"

“Austin Leigh…” Cheyanne trailed with a grimace, wrinkling her nose in distaste. Sitting up slightly, she noticed Howie lingering in the doorway and a coy smile accentuated her sweet features. “If he’s looking for some lovin’ take full advantage of it?”

"You think you're so cute, don't you?" Austin said, shaking her head. Pushing Moth off her lap, she gave her friend a stern look. "You know you're not supposed to do anything. Unless he straps you down so you don't move an inch…" she trailed playfully, slipping off the bed. "Love you," she cooed, kissing her friend on the cheek.

“Love you, too,” Cheyanne promised as she stifled another yawn, waving slightly as Austin slipped past Howie after kissing his cheek again. In some way, Cheyanne felt a little upset that Austin was leaving her to go to the bars. Not that she really enjoyed them, but just the fact that she was on strict bed rest was frustrating. She muffled a sigh nonetheless, scratching her puppy behind the ears as he carefully inched his way up her belly and to her chest. “Have fun, Austi.”

"You want some Hawaiian Punch?" Howie asked softly as he came into the room, two cups in hand. One filled with just ice, the other had drink and ice. He remembered all too well lazy afternoons in the mountains, snuggled on the bed, only to have her push him away, demanding ice. Moth scrambled off the bed, landing with a thump before chasing after Austin. Finally, he could snuggle with his Honey. "Who's Billy?" he blurted as he handed her the cup of drink.

“Billy?” Cheyanne repeated, easing herself into a slightly seated position amongst the pillows so she could take the drink. Tentatively, she brought her lips to the cup, drawing the sweet liquid against her parched throat. She smiled gratefully to Howie, holding the drink against her rounded belly in hopes that the cramps might alleviate with the coldness since the heating pad hadn’t done justice through the name. “He’s one of our friends from college. He’s a criminal justice major and completely adorable. He’s one of the best.”

"Do he and Austin… Well… Are they…"

"Knocking boots?" Cheyanne finished for him with a grin.

“Cheyanne…” Howie grimaced, trying not to laugh at her blatant description of what he was asking. For the most part, his love was sweet as honey, but sometimes she could be the worst of minxes. It was definitely two opposite sides of the pendulum.

“No, they’re not lovers,” Cheyanne promised, crossing her heart. “They’re just really good friends. He’s been there for us when no one else was. We owe him a lot. But, not that. She’s just hoping that you’ll tell Kevin she’s in some torrid love affair so he’ll get jealous beyond all belief. It’s just her way.”

"Jealous… You mean… Oh Lord. I should keep mum about the whole thing, not even mention to Kevin that… She dressed up like a little hussy knowing that Kevin would ask me about her, didn't she? That little…" Howie shook his head in bewilderment. "Honey? If it was the other way around, and Kevin was here with her, would you do that so I'd get jealous?"

Lord no,” Cheyanne instantly breathed as if it were the most absurd idea Howie had ever proposed. Her making him jealous? She shook her head to emphasize the point, though she couldn’t keep the sweet smirk off her face. “I would never do that… Because I’m utterly pregnant, can’t go out, and sincerely doubt that a man’s going to come beating down my door looking for some pregnant lovin’.”

"I don't know, Honey… Some guys have a thing for… What?! Because you're pregnant? Are you saying that if you weren't--" Howie cut off abruptly at her giggle, and childishly stuck out his tongue at her.

"Gotcha," she teased, leaning over for a kiss.
Needing a Chance by Anastacia
Chapter 27 – Needing a Chance

Slowly stepping into the kitchen, Cheyanne breathed a soft sigh, leaning against Howie as she took in the scene. "Oh, Howie," she murmured as he helped her to the table. She smiled sweetly as she eased into the chair he pulled out for her, looking at the small glass holding a cluster of daffodils, the two lit candles casting a soft, romantic glow on the table. "It's beautiful," she assured him as he moved to the stove.

“I had to do something special for your birthday, even if it is a day late,” Howie answered, glancing back at the perfection he had fallen in love with so many weeks ago. She was dressed simply in one of Howie’s comfy t-shirt and a pair of her knit maternity shorts. Her long honey curls were tossed into a low ponytail, the glow of pregnancy accentuating the charming candlelight. She was so perfect and he wanted this dinner to be the best for her. When Austin came home that morning, Howie had snuck out to town to gather a few things for the dinner as well as presents for her birthday, before Cheyanne had even began to stir that early afternoon. She hadn’t known his plans, that is, until Austin scooted out to enjoy another evening on the town and Howie promised to make her something special. In fact, he had heard that she was craving breakfast for dinner. So, he created a smorgasbord of scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage, and fresh orange juice. Everything Cheyanne loved.

“You didn’t have to do anything for my birthday, honestly,” Cheyanne promised, easing back in the chair as she felt a soft tongue at her ankle. Bending slightly, she saw Moth eagerly waiting for attention and hopefully bits of supper to fall from her fork.

"Oh, really?" he asked, turning to look at her with a platter of eggs in his hand. "Then I suppose I can just give it to the dog…" Howie trailed with a grin.

“He wouldn’t be able to eat it all,” Cheyanne disagreed with a pout, folding her hands over her stomach as if it were a natural resting place, especially so she could hold Olivia. “Besides, he has a name, y’know.”

"Moth," Howie said, shaking his head as he brought the food to the table. "He responds better to Pisser…"

"If you call my widdle baby boy Pisser, you can take those eggs and shove them--sorry," she said abruptly, her cheeks flushing.

Howie arched his dark brows in natural surprise at the surge of annoyance that announced itself in Cheyanne’s usually sweet voice. He knew not to take it to heart though, Austin already reminding him earlier that the hormones were having a unique affected on their little spurt of sunshine. She had periods of sadness as well as anger. The littlest things would set them off like a match head and embarrassed Cheyanne greatly. She looked quite ashamed with herself as she leaned down to calm Moth’s nibbles at her ankle. “A little testy tonight, Honey?”

“More than that,” Cheyanne mumbled with a dejected sigh as Moth accepted the pats with a lick to her hand before scurrying off to his dish.

Setting the plate of eggs down, Howie backed towards the stove. "It's okay, Honey. I understand…" Lord have mercy, he thought, reaching for the sausage and pancakes. "I promise not to call him Pisser ever again," he assured her gently.

"Do you know how damn hard it is for me right now? Austin and the doctor would kill me, but I am so tempted to just knock everything to the floor so I can make love to you, right here and now," she blurted as he sat next to her.

Excuse me?” Howie choked, practically knocking over his glass of juice at her streak of boldness. He hurriedly lurched forward to catch it, actually dunking his fingers into the coldness so it wouldn’t spill and ruin the pancakes. He shivered at the wet, coldness, listening to Moth yipping excitedly at his ankles. But, he couldn’t help just staring at Cheyanne. Stunned.

"God, Tea, I am so sorry," she said, burying her face in her hands. "Now that my morning sickness has passed, I have… That is, I… Oh, Lord. These hormones are going to be the death of me," she moaned.

“Honey--”

“I’m sorry,” Cheyanne immediately interrupted again, pushing the chair back from the table. Her stomach cramped violently with the nervous flare of embarrassment. Olivia seemed to respond to her mother’s anxiety, making her own pains known. She felt tears prickle against the back of her burning eyes, knowing she was making a complete fool of herself. Howie had flown thousands of miles to spend a few days with her and she was making an absolute mess. She was nearly psychotic. Just so frustrated with her surroundings. Not to mention still nervous that Howie was even there to begin with. “Sorry, I’m not that hungry anymore… I think I’ll go lay down…”

"Do you want me to lay down with you?" Howie questioned softly, worry etching his brows as he watched her stand.

“Just enjoy the dinner,” Cheyanne breathed softly, hiccupping against her tears as she shielded her face from his gaze. She moved as quickly as she could, shutting her bedroom door before curling onto the right side of her bed. She pushed the pillow with Howie’s scent away, getting sick at the thought of him. She didn’t want him following her and didn’t want to think about him, especially considering how hormonal she was at that moment. She just wanted Austin to come home, so she could curl into her best friend’s embrace and be promised that everything would be okay. So she knew she wasn’t crazy.

Standing outside her bedroom door, Howie sighed miserably. He had tried so hard to make everything nice to her. Instead, he'd ruined the entire evening. One he had planned all day, hoping to end with snuggling together on the bed and falling asleep to the sound of the baby's heartbeat. Now it looked as though he would be sleeping alone on the pull out couch. Knocking softly, he pushed the door open slightly. "Honey?"

“I’m fine,” Cheyanne called with a sharp hiccup of tears, not aware of the fact that Howie was looking at her. She just buried her face into the pillow, holding her painfully aching abdomen. Shakily, she rubbed her abdomen in a slow, circular motion. “I’m sorry, Ollie. I’m sorry. I’m trying so hard…”

Crossing to the bed, Howie sat on the edge of the bed. "Honey… What can I do to help you try?" he whispered, covering the hand on her abdomen. "I'll do anything to keep you from crying, to keep you feeling good and happy."

“Tea…” Cheyanne whimpered in surprise, jerking slightly at the feeling of his hand against hers. She felt the tears break hard against her cheeks, causing her to sniffle as she sat up, just wanting to be held. She felt horrible when she caught his mournful chocolate eyes. He wanted so desperately to help her and she was blowing it. He would only be there for another day and a half. She had to make the most of it. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Tea. Don’t hate me.”

"Honey, I could never hate you… Can I bring you something to eat? You and Ollie need some food… Wait a second. Ollie?"

“Ollie…” Cheyanne trailed in a soft confirmation, sniffling as she buried her face in Howie’s shoulder. She felt her breath give slightly as he tenderly rubbed her back, trying to be understanding. So, she buried away the pain, trying to focus on what made her happy. “It’s her other nickname… Because I want to name her Olivia Austin…”

"I think that's beautiful," Howie murmured, turning his head to kiss her on her cheek. "Olivia Austin Dorough…" he whispered with a smile.

Cheyanne arched her light blonde brows as she pulled away slightly from Howie’s embrace. Her face was still wet with tears as she held onto him, studying his dark chocolate eyes in sheer disbelief. She couldn’t have possibly heard right. Not with what had just happened. “Olivia Austin Dorough? Is that what you said?”

"Would you prefer Olivia Austin Lorde-Dorough?" Howie asked, raising a hand to wipe her tears away.

“No… I like Olivia Austin Dorough… She doesn’t need to go crazy trying to write that whole Lorde-Dorough mess in kindergarten. I just… I didn’t know you wanted that…” Cheyanne sniffled honestly, reaching to intertwine his free hand into hers, so she could offer the most tender of kisses.

"Do you want that?" he murmured, moving closer to her. He had naturally assumed… But maybe he had been thinking wrong…

“I would love that,” Cheyanne confessed against the soft skin of his hand, making sure to keep her somewhat teary sapphire eyes at his gaze. Slowly, she lifted her lips from his hand, nervously wetting them. “She should have her Daddy’s last name. But, with everything that happened, I didn’t know if you still wanted to be her Daddy. Especially when I had that huge blow-up out there. You must think I’m crazy… But I’m just so nervous about you being here and wanting you to stay and… I missed you so much…”

"Chey, baby… It's normal. I have sisters, they've had babies… Believe me, what just happened in the kitchen is nothing compared to the blow-ups I've witnessed in the past." Smoothing her hair, he gently kissed her lips, sliding his arms around her. "I love you, Chey, and nothing you say or do is going to change that."

“I missed you so much,” Cheyanne declared again with a soft sigh, tilting her head slightly to catch him for another kiss. Unable to help her wave of emotions, she nibbled tenderly on his bottom lip, drawing him closer. Then, with the next kiss, she easily coaxed his tongue to hers. She had missed the taste of him so much. The warmness his kisses provided. Even if she wasn’t allowed to make love with him, she could still enjoy him. Even if it was only for a moment. “I love you, Howie. I’m always going to need you.”

"If you keep kissing me like that… I'm going to need to take a cold shower," Howie growled, pulling her closer to him so she could feel what she was doing to him. He had missed her kisses, her light, hesitant touches. The way his heart raced at each coy, smoldering look from her.

“We’ve got two showers in this house,” Cheyanne promised with a soft laugh as she settled onto his lap, feeling the hardness that she had caused. She heated at that sensation, tilting ever so slightly so she could kiss and nibble on his neck. Since Austin was gone, Cheyanne assumed she could play. Her sexual frenzy had been pent so tightly since she left Howie and having him with her… She just couldn’t resist.

"Whoa… Honey," Howie moaned, knowing he should stop her before they went too far. Austin would surely have his head for… Holy Hell, who cared about her at that moment? Sliding his hands beneath the t-shirt Cheyanne wore, he whimpered when he cupped a bare breast. "Chey…"

“Do you know how many nights I dreamed about you when you left?” Cheyanne whispered softly, her voice catching as Howie eased her onto the bed, his fingers tenderly stroking the already sensitive flesh of her full breasts. She closed her eyes as she savored the touch, reaching to gently ease her arms around his neck, pulling him down for a harder kiss, murmuring softly between each tease of her tongue. “I even downloaded your songs off the internet. Cinnamon and I listened every night… So you’d be here…”

"I'm always with you," he breathed against her lips, easing her t-shirt up. Dipping his head, he traced her collarbone with his lips, gasping when her nails raked against his neck. "Chey… Honey… We should stop," he murmured.

“I don’t want to stop,” Cheyanne whimpered, lifting her back slightly as Howie peeled her shirt completely away, tossing it next to where his t-shirt had already fallen. As much as she knew the reasons for why they shouldn’t, she couldn’t help but think of him leaving in a day. She didn’t know when he would be able to see her again. And, considering the Hell she had been through these past few weeks, she just wanted to feel loved again. The loneliness was so hard to deal with, knowing she was trapped within dangerous waters, capable of drowning at any moment. She just didn’t want to think about that anymore. Especially as she tenderly pulled Howie close, melting their skin together as she nibbled Howie’s shoulder.

“Honey…” Howie gasped sharply, trying to gather his bearings as Cheyanne overpowered his senses with her sweet seduction. He wanted her so badly. Not a moment passed during the day when he didn’t think about caressing her soft skin, savoring her flavor, holding her close, hearing the soft whimpers of delight erupting from her throat. But he couldn’t help but concentrate on Austin’s nagging voice in the back of his brain. If they did this, there was a good chance that Howie could hurt the baby. Not to mention he could cause the placenta to completely tear away from the womb, killing Cheyanne by causing her to bleed to death in a matter of minutes. He couldn’t risk it. No matter how much he wanted her physically. “Baby, we can’t… I could hurt Cinnamon… And I could really hurt you… I’m sorry--”

“It’s okay,” Cheyanne promised softly, feeling a large wave of cold water crash against her system, chilling her instantly. And, despite her disappointment, she wasn’t angry. Instead, she leaned up to kiss him once more, grasping her t-shirt from where Howie had tossed it. She understood the dangers better than he did. She just hadn’t wanted to worry him, even with the arousal already starting to painfully cramp her womb. She would probably need to excuse herself to make sure she indeed wasn’t bleeding. She gazed at him apologetically as she draped the shirt over her nude upper half. “…You probably need a cold shower, huh?”

"Several," Howie muttered, sliding away. "I'm so sorry, Honey… I shouldn't have--"

“It’s okay,” Cheyanne promised, feeling far sorrier for him than for herself. Easing herself into a sitting position, she tried to hide the hard grimace from the sharp cramps, pulling her t-shirt back on. “I shouldn’t have started it in the first place.”

"Do you want to take a warm shower with me? It'll ease those cramps you’re trying so hard to hide from me," he said as he stood. Looking at her intently, he held out a hand. "Come on, Honey."

“Are you sure it’s a good idea?” Cheyanne hesitated, though she grasped his hand nonetheless. Holding a deep breath, she allowed him help her off the bed. The sharp pain crashed hard against her lower half, causing her to wince as she pressed a hand against Olivia, like she was trying to tell the child to calm down. “I mean, I just did that to you and you still want to get into a shower with me? I don’t want you blue-balled--” Cheyanne blushed a moment when she realized what she said. “Austi’s words…”

"I can always take a cold shower after you get back in bed…" Howie eased her into his arms, walking towards the bathroom. "Besides, I need someone to scrub my back," he teased lightly.

*~*~*


Austin yawned loudly as she practically crashed in through the front door, stumbling slightly to catch herself before she ran into the end table with a bowl of keys. Fumbling quickly, she immediately darted her eyes around her surrounding, assuring herself that no one was up. She listened for several moments, assured that not even Moth was rousing to her sound. Satisfied, Austin peeled off Cheyanne’s jean jacket that she had borrowed tossing it onto the couch as she sauntered into the kitchen. The songs from the bar still carried in her brain as she moved toward the fridge, pulling out the almost empty container of apple juice. She was somewhat guilty that she had gone out two days in a row without Cheyanne, especially when Jeff (Billy’s best friend) constantly asked when the youngest would be popping her kid out. It had taken such a great amount of energy just to kick them toward the road that morning, fighting with them because they wanted to see Cheyanne. But, she had managed, despite their big brawny forms, to win. So, triumphed, she leaned against the fridge, glancing around her surroundings and noticing Howie’s little pile of personal items on the kitchen counter. Mostly, the expensive cell phone that was barely half the length of a pencil.

Picking up the cell phone, she gazed down at it for a long moment. It seemed wrong, snooping in Howie's phone. Keeping an ear out for sounds of the man coming down the hall, she flipped it open, searching for the stored numbers. Useless, she told herself. He probably kept numbers in his head, not in his phone where anyone could-

"Alex?" she muttered, scrolling through the names. "Brian--the asshole..." He had Brian's, surely he had Kevin's as well.

Her heart did a flip when she found his name. Grabbing the shopping list off the refrigerator door, she scrambled in a drawer for a pen, all the time knowing she would never be able to bring herself to call him.

Only, she was so enthralled on making sure that the digits were correct, that she never noticed Howie shuffling into the kitchen. Even he seemed slightly surprised to see her bent over his cell phone, furiously scrawling what he already knew was Kevin’s number. But, he couldn’t help himself, leaning on the doorframe. “You planning on selling those numbers so you don’t have to work all those jobs?”

"Holy shit!" Austin shrieked, staggering back from the counter, her hand knocking his cell phone to the floor as she clutched the paper in her fist. "Howie!"

“For bitching about Kevin not having any morals…” Howie trailed with a shake of his head, leaning down to snatch his now closed phone off the floor. He brushed it off to assess for damages, but nothing seemed hurt, so he pushed it into the pocket of his jeans, moving toward the coffee pot to start a fresh brew. Humming, he casually rattled off the numbers to Kevin’s cell phone. “Is that what you have written?”

"Yes," Austin muttered, shoving the paper into her pocket. "Ever heard of announcing your presence?"

"I did," Howie said with a smirk. "Did you just get in?" he asked incredulously. No way. He must have slept through her coming inside in the middle of the night… He had been sleeping so well, Cheyanne curled in his arms.

“Yes, Father, I just got in,” Austin answered sarcastically, folding her arms tightly across her chest. Obviously, she was brooding from being caught, which placed her in quite the foul mood. Not to mention she was fully embarrassed beyond all belief, but she’d never admit to that. “And you better thank your lucky stars that Billy and Jeff didn’t burst their way in here. Or you would have been in a mess of trouble.”

"Would they have yanked me out by the hair?" Howie questioned lightly, moving to get a glass for Cheyanne's juice. "Oh, by the way, you didn't need to snoop in my phone. Honey got his number last night," he said with a grin, biting back a snicker when Austin's jaw dropped. "Are you going to call him?"

“You’re an asshole,” Austin spoke freely, yanking the glass from his hand. She couldn’t believe that he had the gall to call her out like that, when just a day before he was having a heart attack over saying the wrong thing. She suddenly decided that she’d put him to hard labor in the nursery before leaving. Muttering a string of tired curses, she bent into the fridge, searching for what she knew Cheyanne would want to drink that morning. Not to mention cool her burning cheeks.

“Ooo wee, shut my mouth,” Cheyanne’s sweet voice quoted one of the girls’ favorite songs out of no where, shuffling into the kitchen to get a view of her friend’s luscious backside. She had woken up without Howie beside her and didn’t want to be alone. So, she decided to see if Austin returned from her night out. And her lips curved into an amused smile as she rubbed her rounded abdomen, whistling at Austin. “Billy was sure happy last night with some serious honky-tonk badonkadonk.”

"He wasn't so happy with it this morning, when I told him that his badonkadonk couldn't come inside," Austin said, ignoring Howie's earlier questions as she poured her friend a drink. "He and Jeffie said they'd be by this weekend with your favorite pizza and some non-alcoholic beer," she added, turning to give Cheyanne her glass. "And why are you out of bed?"

“I’m out of bed because it’s boring back there,” Cheyanne answered simply, seating herself at the table to sip on the orange juice she craved. “And, you can drink all the non-alcoholic beer, tell them I’ll take one nice, cold Pepsi with chipped ice and a good horror movie.”

"Even better," Austin said, helping herself to the cup of coffee Howie had poured.

"Excuse me," Howie countered, giving her a look. "You have to answer my question."

“She’s going to call him, don’t worry,” Cheyanne answered for Austin, who seemed too busy fixing the perfect cup of coffee to answer Howie’s question. She had heard the squawking of her friend from the bedroom, which might have been what drew her out firstly. “She’s just going to wait till she’s all alone, without you hovering and giving her such a hard time.”

"I sincerely doubt it," Austin muttered as she pressed her lips to the cup. "I wanted his number… Just in case," she said feebly, looking away from their knowing glances. When Howie crossed the room to greet Cheyanne with a kiss, Austin slipped out, clutching her mug as though it were her lifeline. Once in her bedroom, she dropped onto the bed, gazing at the frog and bear on her nightstand. Tears pricked her eyes, and when she heard a soft knock on her door she angrily brushed them away. "Yeah?"

“Hey, Austin, mind if I come in?” Howie called softly from behind the door, his voice sincere with apologies. “I have a white flag flying, I promise…”

"Sure, Howie," Austin said, setting her coffee down so she could remove her boots. Throwing them across the room and into the closet, she brought her knees to her chest as Howie pushed the door open. "What you need?" she asked softly.

“I’m sorry for giving you such a hard time this morning,” Howie instantly apologized as he stepped into the room, offering a warm cinnamon bun toward her as a peace offering. “I know what’s going on between you and Kev is really hard. If Honey hadn’t of called me… I just know it hurts… And I really do hope that you’ll call him, because he loves you a lot. And, I have something else for you…”

Taking the bun, Austin motioned to the bed, watched him sit down. "It's so hard, Howie. And it hurts a lot… And I really appreciate your friendship, and you have no idea how much this little trip of yours means to Chey… What do you have for me?" she asked softly, nibbling on the bun.

“I know you said earlier that Honey was trying to do some work in order to help pay for costs and with Cinnamon coming. But, since the tears are getting so bad, she has to be on full bed rest… Honey mentioned that you’ve been working yourself to the bone. How many jobs are you working right now, Austi?” Howie asked plainly, deciding just to throw all the cards onto the table.

"Three… I've got my fulltime job that I do here, and my part time job at the convenience store, and then the one I got last night in the new bar. Why?" she asked dubiously, reaching for her coffee. "If you're here to talk me into quitting the Slip In, forget it. We need the money--"

“I know you need the money,” Howie interrupted gently, reaching to pull the wallet from his back pocket. Opening the fresh leather, he plucked out the check that Kevin had written. Carefully, he handed it toward Austin. “Kevin and I really want you to just focus on that fulltime job of yours. I know you’re going to consider this a handout, but it’s not safe for Honey to be home alone so long. If something happened… I’d never forgive myself… Your health and hers have to come first. We’ll take care of making sure you guys are getting the money you need. For everything… Just, please don’t rip it up.”

Staring at the check, Austin shook her head. "Howie… We can't accept your money like this. All the shit you sent was more than enough… And I know that Chey shouldn't be here alone, but… But…" The imploring look on his face broke through her pride, and she snatched the check from his hand, letting it fall to the bed when she saw the signature scrawled at the bottom. "I guess this is his way of buying me off," she muttered bitterly.

“Austin, no,” Howie scolded firmly, reaching to pick the check back up. “I told him how hard you were working and how sick Honey is with the baby. The first thing he did was say that you shouldn’t be working that hard. He was scared that you were going to get hurt. Damnit, don’t do this to me when I’m leaving in a day. I cannot go back to Florida or start a tour knowing that Honey is here by herself. That you’re working yourself to death. Kevin and I won’t stand for it. If you tear that check up, I’m just going to sign another with my name at the bottom. Either way, you’re taking the money.”

"How can he afford this? With the divorce and all… What if the Bitch's lawyer finds out about this? He'll have Hell to pay, and I don't want to put him through that…"

“He doesn’t care about that and he has his own top lawyer to cope with her bitchiness. He just cares about you, Austin. I wish you’d believe that,” Howie sighed, offering her the check once more. “He told me before I got here that I can’t let you refuse this, no matter what.”

Taking the check, Austin nodded slightly. Suddenly overcome, she impulsively hugged him, felt her tears splash against her cheeks. "Thank you, Howie… For everything. It's been really great having you around." Squeezing him lightly, she pulled away, turning away from him. "Can you leave me alone for a few minutes? I need to make a phone call…"

“Sure, Sweetheart,” Howie promised, kissing her cheek affectionately, knowing exactly what she was going to attempt to do. “I’ll go get the brat in a shower… By herself… She has to get blood work today, right? So, we’ll take her and then I’ll take you girls out to eat and maybe some badonkadonk shopping, whatever the Hell that means…”

Snorting with laughter, Austin turned to face him again. "Howie… Listen to me…" Giggling, she fell onto the bed, unable to contain her mirth. "Badonkadonk shopping? You want to take us ass shopping?" The look on his face was priceless, and she began shrieking with laughter.

“I want to take your asses shopping,” Howie quickly covered, though it was useless. “Just make your stupid phone call so we can leave.”

"Get out and I'll be glad to make my highly important, necessary phone call," she teased, throwing her pillow at him. "Besides, Chey might get jealous if she finds you in here on my bed," she added, wagging her eyebrows suggestively. He was just too adorably sweet, she couldn't help but pick on him.

“Well Lord knows you won’t let me give it to her…” Howie trailed.

"Howie! Get out!" she shrieked, throwing another pillow at him.

“Going! Going!” Howie yelped, darting out the door and quickly shutting it before he could be attacked. She then heard his retreat of footsteps, followed by a holler. “HONEY! LET’S GET A SHOWER!”

Sitting up, Austin instinctively pulled the frog into her lap, digging into her pocket for the crumpled paper. Smoothing it over her knee, she gazed at the digits. She would be strong. Just a quick call. Hello, thanks for helping us out, goodbye. That was it. Nothing more. Reaching for the phone, she began dialing, knowing all her resolve would disappear once she heard his voice.

Each separate ring caused her heart to crack a little bit harder and a little bit deeper. She immediately wondered what he was doing at that exact moment. What could possibly be keeping him from his cell phone? Was it another woman? Had he found someone else—Hey, this is Kevin. Sorry I couldn’t get to your call. Funny, even the guy with the stick up his ass – sorry, Ma – forgets to grab his phone. But, leave me a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you… Oh… Austin, I still love you…

Surely she had heard wrong. There was no way in Hell that… Her heart lurched painfully at the words, and when she heard the tone signaling it was time to speak, she could think of nothing to say. "…Call me…" she murmured finally, hanging up quickly. I still love you… Hugging the frog tightly, she buried her face against the plush toy, breathing in Kevin's scent before the sobs wracked her body.
Such Sweet Sorrow by Anastacia
Chapter 28 – Such Sweet Sorrow

Propped against pillows in the bed, Cheyanne watched Howie and Austin maneuver the crib next to the wall. "It needs to go a bit to the left," she said sweetly before turning her attention back to her pregnancy book. Austin grumbled under her breath, which made Cheyanne giggle softly. Glancing up, she released a soft sigh. "No… The other left!"

"You're not even in the same room, are you trying?!" Austin retorted with a laugh. "Howie, run outside to the truck and get the glider?"

"What am I? A mule?" Howie asked, leaning against the wall for a breather. He hadn't had a moment's rest since they'd gotten back from their shopping spree. What was supposed to have been a simple afternoon of setting up baby furniture had turned into a complete rearrangement of Cheyanne's bedroom.

“More like a jackass,” Austin promised, trying not to laugh as Howie reached to kick her straight in the backside, though his movements were labored as he pressed a hand against his chest.

Cheyanne attempted to make a sound like a donkey, but ended up with a high pitched ‘hee-haw.’ At that sound, she set her pregnancy book in her lap and wrinkled her nose in obvious distaste. “That just sounded like a drunk redneck…” Then, much like Austin, her mood changed and she waved toward her labored lover. “Tea! C’mere!”

Doing as his beloved requested, Howie flopped down next to her. "How's my little Cinnamon doing?" he cooed, rubbing her stomach lightly as he leaned close for a kiss.

"Howie!" Cheyanne screeched at the feel of his phone pressing against her thigh. "Get that hard thing out of your pocket--"

"Chey!" Austin squelched, adjusting the crib a miniscule amount. "No sex in the new nursery! At least, not until six weeks after little Ollie makes her grand entrance into the world… Do you two want something to drink?"

“Austi, I was talking about his--” Cheyanne furled her brows with amusement as Austin pressed her hands tightly to her ears, walking out to obviously get drinks for everyone. Cheyanne really didn’t seem to mind her friend’s dismissal, reaching into Howie’s pocket to withdraw the phone, setting it on her bedside table. She then brushed her fingers underneath Howie’s chin, drawing him for another kiss, till Olivia delivered a swift kick to her side. She jerked away from Howie’s lips at her daughter’s request, staring down in absolute wonderment. That was the hardest Olivia had kicked and the first time since Howie had visited. Immediately, she grasped his hand, pulling up her shirt slightly so he could feel Olivia better. “She’s moving.”

Eyes wide in wonder, Howie held his hand against her stomach. As he shifted his fingers, he felt the slight movement beneath his palm. He had longed to feel Olivia's kicks, had come close to giving up on that for this trip. In the middle of the night, he had lain awake, gently rubbing Cheyanne's abdomen, singing softly, hoping for even the slightest flutter from the baby. An overwhelming sense of joy washed over him as the squirming beneath his hand continued, and when the tears slipped onto his cheeks he barely noticed them. Lightly rubbing his fingers over Cheyanne's warm skin, he sang softly, "From this moment, I have been blessed… I live only for your happiness… And for your love, I'd give my last breath… From this moment on…"

Olivia kicked his palm, and he grinned from ear to ear as he gently pressed his hand against Cheyanne's stomach. "I give my hand to you with all my heart… Can't wait to live my life with you, can't wait to start… You and I will never be apart… My dreams came true because of you…" Leaning down, he pressed a kiss to Cheyanne's stomach. "I will love you… As long as I live… From this moment on…" he breathed, closing his eyes as Olivia's movements slowed. Straightening, he gave Cheyanne an impish grin. "I think my singing put her to sleep…"

“I think your beautiful voice definitely put her to sleep, which is good, because her feet hurt,” Cheyanne laughed softly, reaching to brush away the tears that had fallen from Howie’s dark eyes. She was always charmed whenever Howie sang. The soft, sweet melodies of his voice always put her at ease as well as Olivia when they decided to sleep for the night. But, mostly, she was elated that he was so dedicated to Olivia. The way he tenderly kissed and stroked her growing belly gave her pride. She loved him, but him wanting her child to be his own made her fall in love all over again. “I had hoped she’d move before her Daddy left.”

"So had I," Howie murmured, lowering his lips to hers for a gentle kiss. "I wish I could stay longer…"

"Are you two decent?" Austin called from the hallway before stepping inside, balancing three glasses of tea.

“I only have my pregnant belly bared,” Cheyanne promised as Austin walked in halfway through her sentence. The pregnant woman simply shrugged her shoulders with a small smile, not knowing why Austin even bothered to ask. Gently, she rolled her t-shirt back down in time to receive a large glass of tea with plenty of ice. Austin even stooped to get the kiss she always sought, which Cheyanne delivered thankfully. “Ollie moved.”

"Whooo!" Austin dropped a kiss on Cheyanne's stomach as she handed Howie his glass. "I can't wait to see you face to face," she cooed before sitting on the foot of the bed. "All we need to do now is get the glider in…" she trailed, rolling her eyes when Howie's phone began screaming on the bedside table.

“Apparently, Jeffie and Billy are going to have to bring the glider in,” Cheyanne laughed as Howie purposely reached over her to grasp the phone, making sure to place a ticklish kiss against the crook of her neck. Which, only set Austin off when she pushed him sharply on his shoulder, making a warning glare as to tell him not to get fresh.

"You'd let two men into your bedroom?" Howie asked, catching himself so as not to fall atop Cheyanne. Grasping his phone, he looked at the displayed name and couldn't help but grin as he sat back. "It's Pretty Boy," he said dramatically, which caused Austin to cough on the mouthful of tea she had.

“You’re an ass,” Cheyanne drawled toward her lover, grasping his phone before he could answer. She could only imagine how he would torture Austin, who was staggering to leave the room, obviously flustered, though she lingered at the door just to hear the conversation. Smiling, Cheyanne flipped it open. “Hey, Kevvy!”

"…Angel!" Kevin exclaimed, obviously surprised to hear her voice. "I wasn't expecting to hear your sweet voice…"

“Tea was being an ass, so I had to intervene,” Cheyanne answered simply, amused with the carrying of Kevin’s voice. “…Did you not want it to be me, or what? ‘Cause you’ve got serious kissing up to do for me…”

"Angel, I could kiss up forever and not make up for the ass I was," Kevin said with a sigh. "How are you doing? Taking care of yourself and the baby?"

“I’m okay,” Cheyanne promised, covering Howie’s face with her small hand when he made a face as if he might correct her. “…And, Austi’s making sure that I’m taking care of me and the baby. Oh, and thank you so much for the package. The Christening gown was gorgeous.”

"I saw it and had to buy it for you… I've got some more stuff to send with Howie the next time he comes down…" Kevin trailed, and Cheyanne could picture him looking at a vast array of overly expensive baby items. "Can I talk to him for a minute? I have a quick question, then you two can get back to whatever adorably loving thing you were doing…"

“He was being my jackass,” Cheyanne answered simply as if it were the most natural thing in the world, handing the phone over to Howie, trying not to laugh at the stricken look on Austin’s face. The sheer mortification that Cheyanne had caused.

"What's up, Kev?" Howie asked, lightly tickling Cheyanne's side. "Moving in on my woman?" he teased.

“I already did at the cabin,” Kevin assured with a light chuckle, obviously amused at the sounds of Cheyanne’s soft giggles. “You get your flight for tomorrow morning?”

"Ugh, don't remind me," Howie said plaintively, reaching to grasp Cheyanne's hand with his. "I fly out of… Of… Honey? What the fucking doo-doo is that airport called?"

Cheyanne stared at Howie with true bewilderment, trying to register what he had just said. And, unfortunately, the oddity of ‘fucking doo-doo’ baffled her. Finally, she just shook her head with a groan, breaking their hands while she eased out of bed. “My God you’re an idiot,” she drawled with sweet southern honey, moving for the bathroom.

"What'd I say?" Howie asked Austin, who was rolling her eyes as well. "Anyways… I fly out of the airport at three thirty… Why?"

“I just wondered, because Brian is like Mr. Nazi at this point…” Kevin answered with a heavy sigh. “But… Is Austin busy?”

"Brian is always Mr. Nazi… No, she's not busy. She's standing in the doorway pretending not to listen to this end of our conversation," Howie said with a grin, ignoring the malicious look Austin sent him.

“Would it be alright with her if you gave me their home phone number, so I could return her phone call from earlier?”

"Uh…" Howie reached for his wallet, removing the slip of paper he'd written the number on for safekeeping. Though, he had memorized it already. Reading it off slowly, he saw Austin backing out of the door. "Are you going to call her now?" he asked casually.

Austin really didn’t need to hear Kevin’s answer nor Howie’s witty comment to it, knowing that the man would be calling. So, she had to get to the phone immediately, which meant finding it first. She tried her best to run through what she’d say when she answered, but the phone was already alarming. Her heart leapt to her throat as she stumbled backward toward the hallway, sprinting hard as she knocked into the walls, obviously not paying attention. Even as she sharply by passed her best friend who was emerging from the bathroom just to fall back against the wall.

“I know we say this all the time, but do you not realize I’m pregnant or what?!” Cheyanne hollered in disbelief, holding her abdomen as if she thought she was going into labor at that moment.

"Sorry!" Austin tossed over her shoulder as she flung herself into her room. Throwing herself on the bed, she pushed the pillows to the floor, grumbling under her breath when Moth scurried up to greet her with kisses. Grabbing the phone, she yanked the receiver to her ear. "Hello?" she questioned breathlessly.

“Y’know… When you call someone’s cell phone, Princess, it really helps to leave a name and number so I can call you back… I think that’s what I put as a voice mail message to begin with… But, I knew your voice the second I heard it…”

The low timbre of his voice, the slight drawl, sent a shiver down her spine. Sitting up, she wet her lips nervously. "Well, Pretty Boy… That last bit of your message left me at a loss for words," she admitted softly, pulling Moth into her lap.

“You… You believe me, don’t you?”

"Kevin…" Austin trailed, tucking the phone against her shoulder so she could reach for the frog. "I believe you… And…"

“I love you so much, Princess,” Kevin continued, obviously fearful that he may never have another chance. “I know it was rotten of me to not tell you about my marriage, but I didn’t know how… There was never a marriage to begin with. She never loved me. Everything I told you was the honest to God truth. No one has ever loved me like you do. And I already filed for divorce and you gave me the strength to do that. To know that I deserved better than her. To hope that I could have someone like you…”

Austin blinked back her tears, adjusting Moth in her lap to make room for the frog. "I love you too, Kevin. More than anything in this world. And it hurt like Hell when the Wickedest Bitch of the West showed up… Not to mention those three stooges you're saddled with for coworkers." Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes. "And I lied, too…" she trailed softly.

“You already have someone who treated you a helluva lot better than I did?” Kevin guessed with a painful breath.

"No," Austin murmured, confused. "You were the best I ever had. And I mean that in every way… You had this sweet little country girl's heart from the get-go, Pretty Boy."

“…Then… What’d you lie about? ‘Cause I sure as Hell didn’t find anything that gave me an indication you were really slinging a hunk of sausage between your legs…”

Austin laughed at that, causing Moth to leave her lap with a grunt. "Kevin… Listen to me, baby. What was the last thing I said to you at the cabin?"

“That I wasn’t the best you ever had,” Kevin answered, too quickly.

"That was the lie," Austin said softly, stretching out on the bed. Holding the frog close, she breathed in Kevin's scent, wishing now more than ever he were there with her.

“…So, I was the best?” he asked, causing Austin to envision his proud smirk.

"Egotistical ass," she muttered with a giggle. "Yes. You were the best. The best ever," she affirmed. "No other man on this planet could ever compare to you."

“…That didn’t sound so sincere, Princess, but I’ll take it… I’m really glad you called. I was so jealous of D when he said he was coming to visit. Thought about sneaking into his luggage or something, ‘cause Lord knows he has enough clothes… Then I thought you and Angel would be the kind of girls to keep a shotgun hung above the door…”

"City Boy did a thorough check when he got here. Oh," she murmured, suddenly remembering. "Thank you for the check… It's too much, but we can really use it."

“It’s not too much. Not for you and Angel,” Kevin disagreed. “Howie said he’d write the next one next month. Just until you guys get settled. I mean, with Angel’s pregnancy being so serious, those medical bills are going to be outrageous… We want to help you as much as possible. No matter what. We’ve got the money, might as well spend it the right way, huh?”

"I can't think of anything better for you to spend it on," Austin agreed with a smile. "Do you really want me to send back your shirts with Howie?" she blurted. "'Cuz I've been sleeping in them a lot, and… I like having a piece of you with me…"

“Nah… Send one of your shirts with Howie so I have something to put on my pillow… Then you can at least turn back two shirts when I fly you out.”

"Put on your pillow… Fly me out? What? When?" she asked excitedly, her thoughts jumbling at his words. "Fly me out where? I can't leave Chey--"

“Would you take a breath?” Kevin chuckled, exhilarated by her enthusiasm. “When we were at the mountain, you said that you wanted me to fly you out on one of my business trips to keep me entertained. Well, I’m going to need entertaining in a week when we finish this promo tour. What do you say about a nice vacation to New York City? To see me? To be pampered by me? Not to mention loved unconditionally…”

"Sounds like Heaven," she murmured. "But… What about Chey? You gonna fly City Boy out here to keep her company? Hell, I'll leave him here now and do his job on the promo tour jigger, okay?"

“I think Howie might enjoy having Angel in New York City, with all those fancy baby shops that’ll make her head spin… And, as much as he doesn’t think he’s important to this group, fans would be disappointed if he wasn’t with us for the promo tour. But you can wait a week, can’t you?”

"A week," Austin moaned. "As it is, I have to get my little bullet as soon as I get off the phone…"

“Your bullet?”

Austin bit her lip, feeling a faint flush creep into her cheeks as she giggled. "It's something I pull out when I'm missing you, baby," she whispered.

“When you… OH!” Kevin breathed with realization. “I could offer some…audio to this magic bullet if you like, Princess…”

"Yeah?" she questioned softly. "Hang on, let me get undressed…"

“I better lock my door then…”

*~*~*


“You little Pisser, if you wake her up…”

Howie’s voice was low and threatening within the softly light bedroom as he pointed an accusatory finger at the small Chihuahua puppy. Moth had immediately began to growl with disgust when Howie stepped into the bedroom, having quietly collected his things from the bathroom to stuff into his duffle bag. It was a little after one in the morning and his flight would be leaving at three, so, Howie was attempting to be as quiet as possible. He assumed that Cheyanne was sleeping soundly amongst her soft blankets, but that was farther from the truth. She hadn’t been able to sleep the entire night, knowing Howie would be leaving soon. Just the thought of him leaving made her physically sick to her stomach, which caused the cramps to become far more painful than she anticipated. A few tears had escaped from her tightly closed eyes, knowing she had to be strong, otherwise Howie would never bother to come again. She just should be thankful he managed to get a flight out to North Carolina and back to Florida so quickly.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Howie smoothed a hand over Cheyanne's cheek, heaving a deep sigh. How he longed to crawl in with her, wrap his arms around her body and never leave her side. "Honey," he whispered, letting his hand trail to her stomach, covering the hand she held protectively over it. "I love you," he murmured, not wanting to wake her up, but longing to hear her voice once more before he hit the road.

“I can’t sleep,” Cheyanne confessed softly, reaching to smooth her other hand on top of his and hers. She forced down the lump tightening her throat, refusing to let the tears fall. She knew this had to be ten times worse for Howie than her. So, she wasn’t going to make it a big fanfare. She didn’t want to upset him.

"I wish I could stay," Howie whispered for the millionth time since dinner. "But I'll be back, and soon, okay?" he murmured with a glance at the clock. He could linger for a few moments at her side… Though it would be even harder to pull away. "You and Ollie get plenty of rest, promise?" His mind raced with all the things he wanted to tell her. "If you need anything, don't hesitate to call me. I love you so much, Honey… Play the CD I brought you so she won't forget my voice? Tell her every five minutes how much I love her, and I want a phone call each time she moves. I love you…" he trailed, willing himself not to cry. He had to be strong, for he could tell she was about to burst into tears.

“If I call you all the times she moves, you’ll never get off the phone,” Cheyanne sniffled softly, moving to sit up carefully. She wasn’t going to lay in bed as he walked out, knowing she’d have to at least see him to the door, then crawl into Austin’s bed for safekeeping. “And, I’ll play the CD every night before we go to bed… But, you promise to call when you get home safe? No matter what the time? Just one call?”

"I promise," he whispered, pulling her into his arms. "Call me if Austin becomes unbearable and you need someone to tell her to chill, okay? Call me… Just call me, Honey. Anytime, day or night. I…" Covering her lips in a gentle kiss, he teased her lips with his tongue, wanting to taste enough of her to last him until he could see her again. "I love you," he whispered between kisses.

Cheyanne couldn’t help the tears that slipped from her dark sapphire eyes, cupping Howie’s face in her hands. She tilted her head slightly, parting her lips so he could slip his tongue toward hers. She felt her heart swell with warmth and adoration for the man that would be leaving her, knowing she’d miss him the second his shadow dissipated from her doorway. She wanted to ask if she could come with him, not caring about anything more or less. Just wanting to keep him by her side. Even if it was foolish. “I love you, Tea… Don’t forget me…”

"I could never forget you," Howie assured her, curling his fingers in her soft hair. Breathing in her scent as her thumbs brushed the tears from his cheeks. He hadn't even noticed he was crying… "I'll love you forever, Honey…" Allowing himself one final taste, he reluctantly pulled himself away. "I… I have to go," he whispered, sliding his hand to rub her stomach gently.

“Don’t forget to call when your safe at home,” Cheyanne reminded once more, wrapping her arms around herself as she watched Howie gather his bag from the floor, even managing to pat the growling Moth on the head. She felt heavier tears slide down her cheeks as she bit hard on her bottom lip, hating how sick she felt inside, watching him leave. “Bye Tea…”

"You can get out of bed and walk him to the door," Austin said softly from the door. She had crept from her bed, hoping to get her snuggles with Cheyanne, and had hesitated at seeing their tender goodbyes. Her heart ached for Cheyanne, and she hugged herself lightly, crossing the room to give Howie a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll miss you, City Boy," she murmured before climbing into bed.

“Do you want me to walk you out?” Cheyanne whispered as Howie moved to return the kiss to Austin’s cheek, obviously caring a great deal about their friendship. Though, Cheyanne hesitated on climbing out of the bed, not knowing if Howie would be comfortable. She didn’t want to make it harder.

Howie nodded slightly, sneaking a quick pat on the head to Moth, who slid from Cheyanne to snuggle with Austin. Walk him out… Hell, he wanted to just take her with him. It had crossed his mind so many times. But he couldn't ask her to leave her home just to ease his heart. "Please?" he whispered, reaching for her hand.

Cheyanne nodded in agreement with Howie’s request, turning to hurriedly yank the lavender colored pillow case off her favorite pillow. When she secured it, she accepted Howie’s hand, allowing him to pull her up. It took a moment to steady, but she shot a soft thank you to Austin, walking with Howie down the hallway. “I want you to have this, Tea… You always bring your own pillow from home when you travel… Now you can have my pillow case so you won’t be so lonely.”

"Honey…" Pausing in the living room, he gazed down at her, taking in her coy smile as she offered him her pillow case. "That's the sweetest gift anyone has ever given me," he admitted, covering her hands with his.

"I… I just want you to have something to remember me by," she murmured as he kissed her forehead. "I'll have your shirts to sleep in, and your beautiful songs to listen to," she whispered brokenly, swallowing the lump in her throat as the stepped slowly to the door. When he reached for the deadbolt she gripped his arms, felt her heart breaking when she realized he was truly leaving. It had yet to fully hit her, and when the cool late night breeze came through the open door she leaned against him, longing to beg him to stay.

“Honey…” Howie murmured softly, feeling her fingers tighten against his arms when he opened the door. Glancing down, he noticed her trembling severely as she stepped into him. Sighing hard, he wrapped his arms tightly around her, furiously pressing several kisses to the top of her sweet hair. He would have traded anything in the world to stay, even the career that he used to love. But, he had made a commitment to the group. He couldn’t abandon them, no matter how invisible he felt in their presence. “If I could stay, you know I would…”

“I know,” she promised, turning to press her face against his chest for safety, willing herself not to cry. She suddenly regretted walking him to the door, knowing this would be far more painful for him than either realized.

"I'll call you," he murmured softly into her hair. Memorizing the feel of her body next to his, he hugged her as tightly as he dared. Covering her face in soft kisses, he eased his hand under her t-shirt, lightly rubbing their baby. "I love you," he whispered fervently, tilting her chin up so he could look into her eyes. "Promise me, you'll never doubt how much I love you, Honey…"

“I promise,” she whispered, blinking rapidly to keep the tears from breaking against her murky sapphire eyes. She didn’t want to say goodbye, especially as Olivia moved against Howie’s hand. They wanted him to stay. She felt so selfish in admitting that though. She knew Howie didn’t think he was important to his group’s fanfare, but she knew better. He was such a beautiful man, it was impossible to think that he wouldn’t be missed. Others needed him more than she did. “As long as you promise to enjoy singing like you enjoyed it at the cabin… To love your career like you used to… You’re so important, Tea…”

He had never felt so important, until there was her. "Each time I sing, I'll think of you and our little Ollie, okay? Honey… I have to--"

"I know," she whispered, leaning up to catch his lips in a soft kiss. "Go… Before I really start to cry… I love you, Tea…"

"I love you, Honey…" Setting his duffel bag down, he stooped to lightly kiss the movement against his palm. "I love you, my little Cinnamon… Be a good girl for Mommy, okay?" Straightening, he kissed Cheyanne softly. "I love you…"

“I love you,” Cheyanne guaranteed once more, unable to resist lingering against him for just one final kiss, so she wouldn’t forget his taste. And, with that memory held, she released his hand, allowing him to step outside. She felt her stomach tighten with sickness, but said nothing to make him worry. “Have a safe flight… And you can call me when you’re not busy if you want…”

"I will… I'll call you when I land… Love you," he affirmed, leaning in to kiss her once more before backing slowly down the steps.

“Bye,” Cheyanne called softly, waving slightly as he continued to back toward his car, hitting his back against it. That’s when he finally had to turn and Cheyanne reached to lock the screen door. She then watched painfully as he climbed into the car, turning the engine on. It seemed to take him time to get adjusted, before finally pulling out of the driveway. And, she watched, waited, hoped, until his car disappeared into the darkness. So, she closed the door to lock it and that’s when the tears broke. Shuffling back the hallway, she crawled into her friend’s already awaiting arms, burying her face into Austin’s neck. “I’m going to cry, okay, Austi?”

Leaning over, Austin flipped out the lamp before wrapping her arms around Cheyanne. "Let it out, Chey," she whispered soothingly as Moth squirmed between them in an attempt to get in his usual spot. Smoothing the curls from her friend's face, she held her close as she began to sob. Her heart ached for her Chey. She could only imagine how hard it was for her to endure saying goodbye; and knew it would be the same after each visit with Howie. Closing her eyes, she brushed her lips over Cheyanne's forehead, rocking her gently as she herself began to cry.

“He’s always going to li-live in Florida… I’m a-always going to say goodbye… What if he for-forgets me? Doesn’t want to call?” Cheyanne hiccupped painfully between her hot sobs, trembling quite violently from all the sorrow that had pent up during Howie’s visit. She had been so happy to have him close. But, with all the love, the questions still lingered. Everything was so vague, except for her eternal love for him. “I d-didn’t want him to g-go.”

"He won't forget you," Austin said softly as Moth snuggled even closer to Cheyanne. Glancing down, she saw him rest his head in the crook of the younger woman's neck. In the moonlight she saw his worried expression, and it touched her how the little pup could sense Cheyanne's worries. Turning her attention back to her friend, she edged her closer, lightly tangling her fingers in the soft golden curls. "Everything will be okay, Chey. I promise… And I know he didn't want to go, either. If he could have, he would have stayed… He loves you, hun. You and little Ollie. He loves you guys so much…" Remembering Kevin's words, she knew they would be some comfort. "Besides, you'll see him next week…" she murmured.

“Wh-What?” Cheyanne hiccupped in confusion, blinking rapidly to clear the tears from her burning eyes. She looked so vulnerable and lost at that very moment, barely hearing the soft ringing of the phone at her bedside. She couldn’t believe what Austin had just murmured. She prayed Austin wasn’t making some wry joke.

"We're going up to New York for a few days," Austin said simply, pulling away slightly to reach the phone. "I've already cleared it with my boss," she added before lifting the phone to her ear. "H'lo," she murmured.

“New York?” Cheyanne questioned in confusion, not really caring that Austin was on the phone. She could only assume it was another drunken phone call from Billy or Jeff. They were notorious for that. “Why are we going to New York?”

"Ask Howie," Austin said with a slight smile, pushing the phone into Cheyanne's hand. "You have him trained so good… He's not even on the highway yet, and already he's calling," she cooed.

“Howie?” Cheyanne answered incredulously, shifting slightly so she could lie on her back, slightly propped. Moth whined at first in his mother’s shift, but soon crawled onto her chest for his familiar nest of warmth. Cheyanne shakily rubbed her face to clear away the tears, cradling the phone close as Austin curled next to her, flipping on the TV. “…Tea? I thought you were going to call when you landed…”

"I just had to hear your voice again," Howie said softly, and Cheyanne heard the familiar strains of their song. "…And I had to tell you I love you…"

Cheyanne hiccupped from her recent bout of sobs, feeling tears start to gather yet again. She couldn’t believe that he had even thought to call her. It was so endearing that her heart actually seemed to lift in her chest. She pressed a hand to her mouth to keep from hiccupping and crying together. She loved him so much. “Tea, you’re horrible…”

"But you still love me, right?" he teased lightly, followed immediately by a soft sigh.

“I’ll always love you,” she confirmed, ignoring Austin’s adoring coo as she focused on him. “…Are you okay?”

"I miss you already," he admitted, and she bit her lip when she heard their song began again. "I just had to hear you say that once more… Get some sleep, Honey… Promise me you'll get some sleep," he murmured.

“I’ll get some sleep,” she answered, not wanting to disappoint him anymore. “And Tea?”

"What do you need, Honey?" he asked quickly.

“I wanted to say I loved you one more time. So you’d have it to last you until you get on and off the plane...” she answered shyly, hoping to cheer him up just a fraction. “Oh… Te amo para siempre…” she added, though her Spanish for ‘I love you forever’ drawled with her southern accent into the cutest interpretation of her years of Spanish lessons in high school and college.

"Te amo para siempre, Miel," he murmured.

“I hope,” Cheyanne sighed with appreciation, knowing he meant it with everything inside his heart, though her mind wandered when Austin flipped on an old season of Real World from New York. “…But, what’s this about New York?”

"…New York? Austin told you?" Howie asked incredulously.

“She just… I was kind of crying and she said that everything would be okay… That I’d see you next week when we went to New York…” Cheyanne attempted to explain, blushing furiously.

"Do you think you can wait a week to see me, Honey?" he asked softly. "I want to take you and Ollie on a major shopping spree… As long as you'll be up for it…"

“If you can wait a week to see me, then I can wait a week, too,” she promised somewhat safely, not knowing if he really wanted to know how much she would miss him even within that short time span. But, knowing she’d see him in a week gave her hope. A tiny thrill of adrenaline. She could survive a week.

"I'll be counting the hours…" Howie assured her. "Honey… You need your rest. I love you… Te amo para siempre, Miel," he repeated emphatically, as though he wanted to make sure she knew.

“I love you, too, so much, but don’t forget to at least leave a message when you get there… If you’re afraid to wake me up…” Cheyanne advised, knowing he wanted to get off the phone.

"I'll call," he assured her. "I'd much rather talk to you until I get there, but I know I'm about to lose my signal… I love you…"

“Always,” Cheyanne whispered, allowing their exchange of affection to linger long after the connection had parted.
Into His Arms by Anastacia
Chapter 29 – Into His Arms

“Hey, D… Little excited?” Kevin chuckled as he slipped into Howie’s hotel room, noticing the younger man sprawled over several gifts, wrapping paper, tape and scissors. He looked slightly frazzled, but delighted with all his purchases. Only a week had passed since he visited Cheyanne in North Carolina and he saw fit to splurge on her birthday since. All the gifts were for her, to make up for somewhat missing her birthday. Kevin found it endearing that Howie was so nervous and frittered at the thought of Cheyanne arriving at the Plaza for a few days vacation in just a few short hours. In fact, Kevin was thankful that Howie was outward with his nervousness, making it easier for Kevin to contain himself as he set the gifts he bought for Cheyanne’s daughter on the nearby desk. The gifts for Austin would stay in his room for later that evening, when she would model for him. He couldn’t wait to feel her again.

"A little?" Howie questioned, glancing up from his wrapping. "Holy Hell, Kev… They'll be here in a few hours, and I haven't even had a shower yet! But I have to get all this wrapped for Chey… Have you had a shower?" he asked, his grin wide.

Kevin arched one brow as Howie got to his feet. Unable to see the connection of his cleanliness with Howie's gift wrapping. "Yeah, I took one this… No, D. I'm not wrapping that mountain of--"

Please, Kev?” Howie instantly requested with a sharp whine to his voice, looking far more pitiful than Kevin had anticipated. “I’ve got to get a shower before Honey comes. This is the first time they’ve ever been in New York and I messed up seriously when I went there last week and didn’t even know it was her birthday. I’ve got to make this special… Please? What’s it going to take to make this happen?”

“They’re your gifts, you should wrap them,” Kevin defended. “You should have either started wrapping earlier or not bought so much.”

"You're an ass," Howie grumbled, flopping back down as his door opened once more.

"Who's an ass?" AJ asked, coming to a standstill when he saw the array of things scattered over Howie's bed. "Whoa, D… Is it your Momma's birthday again?"

“My mother’s birthday is every year, J…” Howie mumbled, reaching for one of the gifts to wrap. “And Kevin’s an ass.”

“Yeah, he is an ass,” AJ answered, stepping further into the room to admire the items Howie hadn’t wrapped. And, before he could salvage the surprise, AJ dove toward Howie, yanking two random gifts. Immediately, his dark brows shot upward with amusement. “Since when did you start buying your mother warm vanilla scented lotion and a collection of romantic love poems?”

"They're not for his mother, you moron," Kevin informed him, yanking the items from the younger man. Deciding Howie needed as little torture as possible, he lowered himself to the bed. "Go on, D… I'll finish these up for you."

"What the fuck is going on?" AJ questioned, looking at the gifts on the desk. "Are you two throwing a baby shower or something?"

“Nothing of your concern--”

“This is fucking shady. You tell us Howie’s going to visit his mother during the small break. But I called his mother and she was squealing about his visiting her next grandchild. What the fuck is this about?” AJ demanded sharply, the rasp of his voice breaking slightly. He looked offended that Howie would be keeping secrets from him. That he wasn’t involved in his best friend’s business. “Damnit, D, what the Hell do you think you’re doing?”

"Momma was squealing?" Howie asked with a grin. Stepping to the bureau, he opened a drawer to retrieve some clothes. "And, I think I'm about to take a shower," he added with a casual shrug, ignoring AJ's incredulous expression. Now, suddenly, everyone was interested in his life? What a load of bullshit, he thought, heading for the bathroom. "Oh," he said, turning to look at his friend. "You need to clean up your mouth. Honey doesn't like cussing around the baby…" he trailed softly before shutting the door behind him.

"The baby," AJ repeated derisively. "Jesus Christ."

“That includes taking the Lord’s name in vain, AJ,” Kevin warned without much emotion, measuring the size of the wrapping paper before placing the book in the middle, assuring it would be perfect. This meant so much to Howie, so he had to help in any way possible. The man had been so miserable coming back from visiting Cheyanne. Obviously missing her worse than when he left. Kevin was already anticipating Austin’s arrival, so he figured he could pass the time by keeping busy.

"Does he really fancy himself in love with this chick?" AJ asked, lifting a gift bag off the desk so he could peek at the contents. "Jes--Dang, Kev! You're buying her shi--stuff too?!" Dropping the bag, he shook his head. "You two have lost your ever loving minds!"

“She’s not a chick, AJ. She has a name and she had some bad circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. But, she’s the kind of woman that overcomes that and wants to love her baby regardless of how she was made. And, Howie is truly in love with Cheyanne. So much that he went down to North Carolina to visit her because she’s what they call a high risk pregnancy. And, he invited her up here to New York City to get her mind off the problems of her pregnancy. He wants her to enjoy herself. And, Austin, the woman that I met in North Carolina, I invited her. I want her here because I love her. And, if you do anything to fuck this up this weekend, AJ, so help me God…”

"Yeah, yeah. I got it." Stuffing his hands into his pockets, AJ watched Kevin meticulously wrap the book. "Do you uh… Want me to help?" he asked softly, feeling chastened at the man's words.

“If you want to help your best friend do something that he believes is really important in his life, yeah, sit down,” Kevin offered kindly, respecting AJ as his peace was made.

Perching on the edge of the bed, AJ reached for a green gift box. "Whoa. He bought her something from Tiffany's?" he breathed, lifting the lid to get a peek. Only he replaced it quickly when the door banged against the wall. "Hell, Nick," he muttered, reaching for the paper. "Just scare the shit out of somebody!"

“Who’s birthday?” Nick immediately asked, amused slightly by AJ’s startled nature, but unfazed by his mumbling. His dark blue eyes made a quick survey of the room, calculating that his birthday was a few months off. These weren’t for him.

"Nobody's," AJ answered quickly.

"They're for Angel," Kevin said, setting the wrapped book aside. Reaching for the lotion, he shot Nick a glance. "What do you want?" he questioned as he hunted for a small bag to hold the lotion. He was certain the youngest member had a reason for popping by. Something inane.

"I'm bored as shit--"

"No cussing!" AJ admonished with a snicker.

“No cussing?” Nick scoffed as he sprawled his tall, slightly chunky form across the soft carpet. He tucked his arms behind his head, switching his gaze between AJ and Kevin. “Why the Hell not? And who the fuck is Angel?”

Leaning one foot out, Kevin nudged him in the ribs. "Angel is Cheyanne. And D doesn't want us cussing around her, because she doesn't like it. Got it?" he drawled.

“Cheyanne?” Nick answered, shifting slightly to get away from Kevin’s large foot. “Cheyanne… Angel… Oh! That hot chick that’s knocked up?! She’s coming to visit?”

"She's not a chick," AJ intoned seriously, repeating Kevin's earlier words. "She has a name, and she's going through a rough time. We have to be nice to her."

"When is she coming?" Nick asked excitedly, sitting up. "Are we going to pick her up?"

"She's not coming alone, dumbass," AJ said, rolling his eyes.

“Who’s coming with her?” Nick asked in confusion.

“Austin,” AJ repeated, topping the elegantly wrapped Tiffany’s box with a bow, handing it to Kevin.

“Austin… Kevin’s little love shack secret,” AJ snickered.

“Oh, shit, she scares me…” Nick shivered with obvious emphasis. “She could definitely kick my ass…”

"Definitely," Kevin agreed with a smirk, remembering all too well landing on his ass. "And probably would.”

“Does Brian and Leighanne know they’re coming?” Nick suddenly asked, sitting straight up with obvious interest. Since Howie’s little disappear episode, Kevin and Brian had seemed to switch places in the group. Though Kevin was still over emphasized as the father figure, Brian was the fierce bully behind the father, inflamed with control issues. He controlled with an iron fist that every fan would be shocked to see.

"They'll find out when the ladies get here," Kevin said, standing to stack the gifts on the desk. "Not that it's any of their damn business," he added under his breath. "J, can you clean up the paper? I have to go get with Drew about meeting them at the airport--"

"Can I go?" Nick asked hopefully, bounding to his feet.

“No--”

“Howie!” Nick blurted with excitement as Howie opened the bathroom door, interrupting Kevin when he knew it wouldn’t be the answer he wanted. He practically launched himself over the bed toward his older friend, towering over him by several inches. “I’m going to go pick up Cheyanne, alright?”

"Nick--" Kevin began angrily, stopping when he saw Howie's bemused smirk.

"You want to go pick her up?" Howie questioned carefully, not sure whether to be happy or upset at this development. "Why?"

“Because I think she should be welcomed with open arms into this group,” Nick defended, owning a mask of offense that Howie could consider he had other intentions.

“As well as an undone fly,” AJ rasped as he continued to clean the scraps of paper away from Howie’s bed.

"Do you honestly think Angel wants to see you when she gets off the plane?" Kevin asked, leaning against the doorframe as he watched his friends. "Let's be realistic here. The first--and last--time you met her, you weren't exactly nice to her."

"I didn't have a full grasp on the situation," Nick informed him with a pout.

"Do you ever?" AJ quipped, diving away to dump the scraps in the trashcan.

“You know what, J? You can suck my big di--”

“He has a hard-on for Cheyanne, D,” AJ announced proudly, grinning wickedly at the youngest. “And he figures since he’s closer to her age than you…”

"Enough," Howie said firmly with a shake of his head. "Nick, if you want to go pick Cheyanne and Austin up because you're actually going to be nice to them, then by all means, do. But if you're doing this because you're thinking with your other head, you can just go to Hell."

“I’m going out of the goodness of my heart,” Nick stated defiantly, sticking his tongue childishly out at AJ while flipping two sharp birds. He then hurried jumped out of the hotel room, waving toward Kevin. “C’mon old man! Hurry up! I want to get the little ladies!”

"Oh Lord," Kevin muttered. "Why do I have to go with you?"

"To keep his sorry ass out of trouble," AJ informed him. "Oh, D, you owe me fifty bucks for my wrapping services…"

"C'mon, Kev!" Nick shouted. "We don't want to keep them waiting!"

"Their flight doesn't come in for another hour and a half!" Howie shouted, ignoring AJ.

“See! We don’t have much time!” Nick whined, grasping Kevin’s arms to yank him down the hallway.

"You're not going?" Kevin yanked his arms out of Nick's grasp, sending the younger man to the floor with a thump. "Why don't you go with Nick? I'll stay here…" he trailed, his eyes on Howie.

“Hello! I don’t care who goes! Let’s just go! Cheyanne’s going to be disappointed if she has to wait!” Nick growled from a crumpled heap in the middle of the hallway, perturbed with the sudden slowing of his plans. He crossed his arms tightly over his chest, pouting severely.

"For Christ's sakes, why don't you all go?" AJ muttered, heading into the living room of the suite. "I'll go too! We'll make in an official Backstreet welcome!" he said excitedly.

"Oh, Hell no," Kevin said. "You go, Howie. I have to make dinner plans…"

"Ooo, dinner," Nick teased.

“Austin is going to be severely disappointed if you aren’t waiting when her plane gets there,” Howie disagreed immediately, knowing Kevin absolutely had to go. They had worked so hard to get Austin to call. Kevin couldn’t foul the whole opportunity now.

“And what do you think Angel’s going to do when you’re not there?” Kevin questioned.

“I’ll be there!” Nick emphasized. “If we could leave!”

"I told her that Drew was going to pick her up… She said she understood," Howie returned. "She mentioned something about not wanting to cause a fuss when we walked through the airport." Smiling triumphantly, he moved to inspect himself in the mirror.

"And bringing Junior here won't cause a fuss?" Kevin countered.

"I can go incognito!" Nick assured him, leaping to his feet. "When I want to, nobody can recognize me!"

“Do you even know what the word incognito means?” Kevin groaned, shaking his head in disbelief as he turned back to Howie. “You’re afraid of those photographs and what the fans were saying about Angel, huh? Don’t want to fuel the flame by letting them get more pictures and you don’t want the fans jumping on Angel… Potentially hurting her. Right?”

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Howie nodded. "Right," he murmured. "And, seeing her with you and Austin, that won't be so bad. Or will it? Hell, you just filed for divorce and I'm asking you to saunter around the airport with another woman. Maybe Nick and AJ should go?" he offered with a tentative smile.

“I’LL GO BY MYSELF!” Nick offered loudly. “AND I’M TAKING HER OUT TO DINNER, TOO!”

"What the Hell is all the screaming about?" Brian questioned angrily as he strolled into the suite, Leighanne and Baylee right behind him. "I swear, I can hear y'all in the elevator."

"I'm leaving!" Nick announced, already heading for the door.

"Nick… You don't even know the flight number!" AJ groaned from the couch. "Are you just going to wander around JFK shouting their names?"

"Whose names?" Brian asked.

“Howie, give me the flight number!” Nick demanded, scooping up Baylee without any warning. The two year old squealed in surprise as Nick furiously tickled him, causing a round of giggles. “Want to go get a really hot chick at the airport, Bayster?”

"Ladies!" Baylee squealed with excitement. "I go!"

"Nick, who--"

"Here," Howie cut Brian off, walking over to give Nick a sheet of paper. "Give that to Drew so it doesn't get lost, okay? And for Pete's sakes, be careful."

"Gotcha, Daddy. Ready, Bayster?" Wrinkling his nose, Nick turned to Brian. "He's had a crap already, right? I can't go picking up hot chicks with a smelly--"

"Just go, Nick," Brian groaned, shaking his head.

"Bye Daddy!" Baylee cooed as Nick toted him towards the door. "Hot chicks!"

“Don’t attempt to say anything smart to Austin. Don’t hit on Angel in front of Austin! Don’t touch Angel’s belly! Don’t hug Angel too tightly! And, for the love of God, don’t trip her!” Kevin called down the hallway, immediately cursing softly as he reached to tuck his phone into his pocket. “Damnit, hold on Nick! There is no where on God’s green Earth that I’m letting you go alone!”

“You really trust him to go by himself to get Cheyanne?” AJ questioned in disbelief toward Howie, subconsciously rubbing his bare arms as if Hell had frozen over.

"Kevin's going, too," Howie said, as though he'd known all along. "I trust him. And Baylee."

"Hurry up, old man!" Nick shouted impatiently.

"'Urry up!" Baylee echoed.

“It’s the girls from the cabin, isn’t it?” Brian suddenly groaned, glancing toward Howie with skepticism. He had known something occurred over their small break by the way Kevin was actually responding to the crowds happily compared to his scowling menace. Not to mention Howie’s sudden disappearance over the week. Without a single word.

"Got a problem with it?" Howie asked him, dropping onto the couch next to AJ. "They'll be here for a few days, and I want you to--no, I insist that you be decent to them." Reaching for the remote, he glanced at his watch. "Kevin, are you going to leave or not?"

“If Angel gets all weepy ‘cause you’re not there…” Kevin trailed with an uncomfortable threat, listening to Nick continue to holler loudly, obviously holding the elevator door.

"Nicky will be there to dry her tears," AJ muttered with a smirk, wincing when the hard plastic of the remote connected forcefully with his arm. "What the Hell?!"

“I won’t stop him,” Kevin warned, grimacing as he started toward the door, only to meet Leighanne’s ghastly gaze. He swallowed the urge to knock the sinister scowl off her face, biting down hard on his inner cheek. “You’re going to be sweet as a Georgia peach, Leighanne. To both of them.”

Glowering at him, Leighanne turned on her heel and stalked off to the largest bedroom. "Brian, can I speak to you?"

"In a minute. God," Brian grumbled, flopping into an armchair. "Are they staying with us?" he asked Howie.

“Where else would you have them stay, Brian?” Howie returned, overreaching his arm so AJ couldn’t steal the remote.

Brian bit back his first reply, keeping his gaze on the floor as he thought of a suitable answer. "Wouldn't they be more comfortable in their own room?"

"I ain't sleeping with Howie," AJ put in. "I love you, D, but you steal covers and you snore."

“I already offered and they declined. Honey said she’s more than comfortable sharing a bed with me. She doesn’t mind the light snoring and we cuddle enough so I don’t steal the covers. And, Kevin, well, let’s not be na´ve about that. He and Austin are passionate. You won’t break them up. So, grin and bear it, Brian.”

"Dude," AJ said, glancing at Brian. "Guess he told you."

"Shut the fuck up, Aje," Brian growled. Getting to his feet, he decided his fate lay better with his wife. "As long as you know what you're doing," he finally conceded. "The fans already hate her, D. Do you honestly think having her here is going to change that?"

"Some of the fans hate Leigh, too. That doesn't stop you from dragging her ass across Hell's half acre," AJ informed him. Entirely too pleased that no one was angry with him.

“That was an almost decent thing you did there, J,” Howie answered when Brian stalked away to soothe Leighanne’s temper tantrum. Though, he knew better than to give AJ full benefit as he stood, deciding he had to make sure his hotel room was suitable for Cheyanne. “Remember I said almost, though.”

*~*~*


“Austi, this place is huge,” Cheyanne breathed in disbelief as she reached to grasp Austin’s upper arm, afraid of drowning into the crowds at the congested New York City airport terminal. When she was sure she had hold of her friend, her other hand instantly reached down to hold her slightly cramped abdomen and Moth who was sleeping comfortably in his soft pet carrier draped over her shoulder. That had been the only bag that Austin allowed Cheyanne to carry, afraid of making her do anymore work with the kind of stress the airplane probably had created. Though, Cheyanne felt guilty, she said nothing, not wanting to make Austin far more tense than she already was. They just wanted to find their ride and leave, never having been in such a large and dangerous city before.

"I know… But don't worry. Pretty Boy said that some guy named Drew would be here to meet us." Austin tried to contain her excitement at seeing Kevin again, a bit subdued at knowing he wouldn't be meeting them. She adjusted the bags under her right arm, reaching to grasp Cheyanne's hand. "All we have to do is look for a big beefy guy…"

“Um…” Cheyanne didn’t have the heart to confess that every man in the city looked big and beefy to her. It may have been a stereotype, but she couldn’t even begin to count the number of times she heard about the crime rates in New York City. Only, those thoughts dropped for a moment when she finally caught site of a familiar face. “What about a big beefy guy standing next to a tall, dark, home-cooked southern man and a tall, chunky blonde holding an adorable baby?”

Austin's eyes darted around, and she felt her heart leap when her gaze landed on Kevin. "He came," she breathed, squeezing Cheyanne's hand. "Oh, Lord," she muttered, recognized the blonde man. "Why the Hell did he bring that pissfuck with him?" she groaned as the three men headed over to them.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cheyanne laughed softly, actually feeling the excitement racing through her friend’s body. She had been so overwhelmed the past week with joy for this visit. Every mere mention of Kevin’s name sent a silly smile on her face. So, Cheyanne released her hand, nudging her softly. “Just go give him a hug and kiss. Y’know you missed him more than a frog missin’ his lily pad.”

"Which one do you want me to hug and kiss?" Austin questioned with a smirk. Dropping the bags she held, she resisted the urge to race up to Kevin. Taking one tentative step, she met his eyes and rushed over to him, throwing herself into his embrace with such force he staggered backwards. "God, I've missed you," she murmured as his lips descended over hers.

“Likewise,” Kevin promised with a strong whisper, wrapping his arms around her small frame and lifting her into his embrace. He covered her mouth with his, feeling her tremble underneath the softest kiss. Suddenly, it felt as if he were propelled backward into the past, standing on the porch with Austin securely in his arms. He actually wanted to cry out with relief, breaking their long, slow, beautiful kiss into several. “I love you, Princess. I love you so, so, so much. I’m never going to let you get away again. Ever.”

“Kevin!” Baylee whispered in awe, clapping his tiny hands over his mouth as if he were in trouble.

Clearing his throat, Nick stepped forward to greet Cheyanne. "Hey, baby, how're you doing?" he asked, eagerly reaching for her hand. When she shrank away from him, he sighed. "I brought a peace offering," he said, pointing to Baylee. "He's cute, he's fun, and guaranteed to melt the heart of any female over the age of one!"

"Hot chick!" Baylee squealed, grinning from ear to ear.

“You’ve definitely taught him well,” Cheyanne murmured, unable to hide her smile as Drew meticulously went to collecting the bags Austin so carelessly dropped. Only, she was more focused on the adorable little boy hoisted in Nick’s arms. She recognized him instantly as Brian’s son, the better half of Brian’s coldness, in an almost mirror reflection with bright blonde curls, handsome smile, and big, blue eyes. And Cheyanne couldn’t resist his sweetness, smiling shyly as she reached out her hand to him. “What’s your name, Sweetheart?”

"Baylee," he said, tucking his head against Nick's shoulder shyly. When her fingers lightly tickled his stomach he squirmed, giggling as he reached for her. "Who you?" he chirped excitedly.

"This is Howie's Angel," Nick said with a grin.

Still reaching for Cheyanne, Baylee shook his head. "Nuh uh. No Howie. My Angel," he said.

“How could I say no to that?” Cheyanne cooed in complete infatuation, gesturing for Nick to hold her pet carrier. He quickly obliged, allowing Baylee to climb into Cheyanne’s embrace. It had been awhile since Cheyanne had held a child, but her warmth and sweetness made it easier than she anticipated. She had always loved children. Something about the joy they exuded gave her such faith in humanity. And, Baylee wasted no time wrapping his tiny arms around her neck, grinning with triumph toward Nick. Gently, Cheyanne drew Baylee’s attention back to her, blowing a small raspberry on his neck to elicit a sharp giggle. “You are the cutest thing, Baylee.”

"Cuter than me?" Nick asked with a small pout. Glancing over at Kevin, he opened his mouth to voice his irritation with Howie's little woman when he saw Austin was still wrapped around him. "Good God," he muttered, shaking his head. "Can we get back to the hotel now?"

"Me know," Baylee said, adjusting his legs around Cheyanne. Glancing down, his eyes grew wide when he saw her small bump of a stomach. "What dat?"

“That would be my baby girl,” Cheyanne answered sincerely, running her fingers through his wily curls before catching the sleeve of Nick’s t-shirt so he couldn’t go far. “She’s sleeping inside my tummy right now. Just like you did inside your Mommy.”

"Nick," Baylee whispered seriously, turning his gaze upward. "Shh. Baby sleeping," he intoned, holding a finger to his lips.

Easing the strap of the pet carrier off Cheyanne's shoulder, Nick peeked inside at the sleeping dog before draping his arm around Cheyanne. "Kev, dude, we need to roll," he said, receiving a slap from Baylee when he didn't keep his voice down.

"Baby sleep!" Baylee insisted, furling his flaxen brows.

“Alright, alright, damn,” Nick muttered, surprised that Baylee’s sharp slap had stung so much. Though, he refused to rub his shoulder, knowing it meant he’d have to loosen his arm from Cheyanne. Instead, he brought her closer, growling playfully against the side of Baylee’s head. “You’re ruining my charm, Little Man.”

Baylee furiously shook his head before whispering harshly, “Nuh-uh! My Angel!”

Tapping Kevin briefly on the shoulder, Drew pointed to his watch. "Getting close to rush hour, and the limo's waiting," he said, glancing over at Nick and Cheyanne.

"Limo?" Austin repeated after tearing her lips from Kevin's. "Y'all came here in a limo?"

"I sit in your lap, Angel?" Baylee asked, eyes wide as he gazed at Cheyanne. "I keep Nick away!"

"Sounds like a plan to me," Cheyanne said, adjusting him on her hip as Nick led her towards the exit. "Austi?" she called nervously, looking over her shoulder. Relief hit when she saw her friend and Kevin right behind them.

"My Angel," Baylee informed Kevin proudly.

“I called her that first, Young Blood,” Kevin chuckled, reaching forward to ruffle the boy’s hair, who pouted sharply and hid against Cheyanne. Only, a few moment’s later he peeked his big blue eyes over her shoulder, grinning with triumph as he patted his hands on her bare shoulder. As if taunting Kevin.

“That’s Brian’s kid, isn’t it?” Austin asked, shaking her head in disbelief at how fast Baylee had fallen in love with Cheyanne. Though, she didn’t know why she was so surprised. Cheyanne was absolutely beautiful with children, which is why she would make a wonderful mother. Though, she noticed how Nick’s arm was draped around the younger woman, making Austin resist the urge to draw public attention to him by kicking his behind.

"Yeah. Don't worry," Kevin murmured, his arm sliding around her waist to hold her close as they stepped outside. "Brian's nowhere near the Nazi he usually is when Bay's around." Reaching forward with his other hand, he slapped Nick upside the head.

"What the fu--heck?" Nick jerked his head around, shooting Kevin a glare. "What was that for?"

"Hands off Angel."

"My Angel," Baylee sighed, poking at Nick's arm.

“I was protecting her!” Nick defended as he looked to Drew for help, who merely shrugged with a smile, amusing that Nick’s head now throbbed with the arm Baylee insisted on stabbing at. Annoyed, Nick briefly dropped his hand from Cheyanne’s shoulders, bound and determined to get it back in that position.

“Where’s Howie?” Cheyanne asked suddenly, turning when they reached the sleek, black limo. Drew immediately handed over the luggage to the driver, opening the door so they could get inside to safety. No one had caught them yet, but anything was possible. So, Austin reached for the pet carrier and Nick took Baylee, allowing Kevin to help Cheyanne inside first. Once she was comfortable, Kevin helped Austin in. And, Baylee immediately hurried to climb onto Cheyanne’s lap before Nick could think twice.

"He's at the hotel," Kevin assured her as Austin settled beside Cheyanne. Pushing Nick in ahead of him, he bit back a smirk when the younger man muttered a string of expletives at being forced to sit across from Cheyanne. Austin tittered appreciatively, lifting herself so Kevin could sit down. Settling in his lap, she leaned against him, and he wrapped one arm around her, glorying in the feel of her body once again. "Hold the dog, Nick," he said, motioning to the pet carrier Austin held in her lap.

“Yeah, I’ll hold the dog…” Nick muttered with aggravation, obviously wanting to say something more vulgar despite the company. And, he didn’t dare to top Kevin, especially with Austin sitting so haughtily on his lap. He didn’t want to flare her temper. Not yet anyway. Let AJ get that first slap.

“My Angel puppy?” Baylee questioned curiously from her lap, leaning back to snuggle against her and the baby. His tiny hands gently patted the small, round belly as if he were soothing Olivia. And, Cheyanne found it adorable as she played with his curls, keeping him close.

“That’s my puppy Moth,” Cheyanne agreed.

“Want to play with him, Bayster?” Nick asked hopefully.

"Moth took a puppy Xanax, he won't want to play for a while," Austin informed him smugly.

“Then Bayster could take a nap with Moth…” Nick offered, somewhat puzzled by the dog’s name.

“Bay’ter fine right here’d,” Baylee promised with a soft yawn, shifting to curl against Cheyanne.

"Don't get too comfortable, we're almost at the hotel," Kevin said softly, smirking as Nick pulled the pet carrier into his lap. It was beyond humorous, how Nick seemed to be jealous of the attention Cheyanne gave to Baylee. What had he expected, after all?

"I hope you have plans on staying in tonight," Austin murmured, covering the hand on her stomach.

“I was thinking about taking you out to dinner… But that’s what room service is for,” Kevin retorted, brushing away the brunette locks away from her neck. Smirking, he leaned down to kiss the back of her neck, suckling ever so gently to entice her further. To let her know how much he had missed her. She looked so good stepping into the airport in her tight jeans and his Kentucky t-shirt. He couldn’t have asked for anything more.

"Not in front of Baylee!" Nick squawked, covering his eyes with his hands.

Shivering at the touch of his lips, Austin turned slightly, reaching to touch his cheek. "We can go out tomorrow?" she questioned softly, glancing over to see Baylee fast asleep against Cheyanne.

“We’ve got all the time in the world to go out,” Kevin mumbled against her sweet yet slightly spicy skin. He’d rather stay cooped up in the hotel for the first night back with Austin, relishing in everything he had missed.

"Finally!" Nick screeched when the limo stopped. Pushing the pet carrier aside, he flung the door open. Leaning over, he gently plucked Baylee from Cheyanne's lap. "Here," he said, shoving the sleeping toddler into Austin's lap. Grasping Cheyanne's hand in his, he helped her out of the limo. "Want the official escort to Howie?" he asked sweetly, draping his arm around her shoulder once again as he ushered her into the lobby.

Austin glared after him. "That sonofa--"

“Hey, you’ve got a kid in your arms,” Kevin intervened with a rueful chuckle, anticipating Nick would do something bold. Shifting to take Baylee, he allowed Austin to jump out of the limo while grasping Moth’s carrier. Swinging him over her shoulder, she prepared to stalk in, but Kevin knew Cheyanne would wait for Austin. Though, he had to keep up with Austin so she didn’t get lost. “You keep that up, Princess, Angel’s baby is going to be cursing a storm when her cord is cut.”

"I'm trying really hard. But that… BOOHBAH is getting on my nerves and we haven't been here for twenty minutes," Austin said, folding her arms over her chest. "I am this close to just… Why are you standing there staring at me?" she asked suddenly, looking up at him. Baylee was draped against his chest, head resting on his shoulder. Kevin looked so natural holding a child, and for one brief second she wondered what their children would look like.

“Boobah?” Kevin questioned with honest confusion, shaking his head in disbelief as he motioned toward the elegant lobby doors. Sure enough, Cheyanne was waiting patiently inside, though Nick seemed to be working every angle to get her to their joint Presidential suites, probably for a personal tour of his own room. “What is a Boohbah?”

"One of those fat, annoying kids' shows on TV." Looking around the lobby, Austin felt out of place amongst the indescribably rich atmosphere. Biting her lip, she looked up at Kevin, saw he was gazing at her in amusement. "Better than pissfuck isn't it?" she whispered.

"Come on," Nick told Cheyanne, leading her to the elevators. "Howie told me you're supposed to be on bed rest, you shouldn't be on your feet so much."

"Good idea," Kevin said with a smirk, transferring Baylee into Nick's arms. "C'mere, Angel," he said, reaching for her.

Cheyanne was stunned slightly by her surroundings, somewhat oblivious to Kevin’s calling until she felt his arms ease around her growing waist. The Plaza was absolutely gorgeous, layered in rich tones of gold, brown, orange, and creams. She seemed so frumpy in her lavender maternity tank top and maternity Capri jeans. She had seen some travel television broadcast on the hotel, knowing the best of the best stayed here. And, somewhere, Howie lingered. Though, she glanced up in confusion, furrowing her light brows when her thoughts returned to Kevin. “What are you doing, Kevvy?”

"Keeping that little shithead's hands off my Angel," he whispered in her ear as he lifted her gently. "Unless… Would you rather I didn't?" he asked softly, aware of Nick glaring at him.

“No, I’m fine with this,” Cheyanne quickly promised as she loosely draped her arms around his neck, glancing briefly toward Austin, who almost instantly nodded with approval. Carefully, she glanced back toward him with soft, sapphire eyes. “As long as you don’t think you’re making a scene?”

"Believe me, Angel, it's nothing compared to the scene that would play out if Nick was the one who brought you to Howie," Kevin said, stepping onto the elevator.

"What is she? A slab of meat used for bartering or something?" Austin asked as they all crowded on. Once the doors slid shut, she relaxed a bit. "Whooo! This is one fancy-schmancy place!"

“Just wait till you see our Penthouse,” Kevin chuckled.

“Could you smile for me, Austin, just once?” Nick asked out of no where, shifting Baylee uncomfortably in his arms. “Just so I know you have all them dad-burn teeth of yours…”

"Nick," Kevin groaned, shaking his head as Cheyanne stared at him in shock. Next to him Austin tensed. "Princess… Don't…" Good thing Nick was holding Baylee, he decided.

Spinning to look at him, Austin gave Nick a sweet smile that would have rivaled Cheyanne's best, making sure her lips didn't part. "Why Nicky… When we get up to the suite, I'll be sure and let you see all my teeth, okay?" she cooed, touching his arm briefly.

Nick took one large step away from Austin’s touch, holding Baylee protectively to his chest. Almost as if the little boy was a shield. Her dark coffee eyes warned him not to tempt her, making him unduly uneasy. He realized quite quickly he overstepped his boundaries. “That’s all right… I have to put Bayster down for his nap…”

"I'll help you," she offered, shooting a quick glare at Kevin when he snickered. "Wait a minute, doesn't he have parents? Surely they can put him down for his nap… Are you scared of me?" she asked, holding a hand to her chest in mock shock. Looking Nick up and down, she knew she could take him. He would be easier to knock down than Kevin had.

"Austi," Cheyanne chastened with a soft giggle. "Don't scare the poor boy."

"Hallelujah," Nick said softly when the elevator stopped. Stepping out, he quickly rushed into the suite. Hopefully his friends would save him.

“Pussy,” Austin breathed loudly when she heard the pounding of a door followed by a quick opening and sharp closing.

“She’s going to have fun this weekend,” Cheyanne sung softly as Kevin stepped off the elevator, still cradling her quite tenderly. And, as much as she enjoyed Kevin, she quickly glanced down the empty hallways for sight of her own beloved. Only, no one surfaced within the glorious Penthouse dedicated solely to the Backstreet Boys’ ultimate desires.

Her fears dissipated when Kevin walked up to the door. It opened immediately, and she felt her heart flutter when she saw Howie there. Sliding from Kevin's arms, she was immediately wrapped up in Howie's. Sliding her arms around his neck, she clung to him, tears of happiness flooding her eyes. His lips met hers in a soft kiss, and when he whispered her name she had never heard it sound more beautiful.

“I missed you,” she breathed passionately, clinging to him tightly as she tucked her face into the crook of his neck. She could hardly keep the pleased tears from falling to coat his soft polo shirt. She had missed him so terribly that week and curling against Austin at night had done nothing to curb her appetite. She felt her very best when she was with him. The pain of her complicated pregnancy didn’t attack so hard when she was in his arms. The fears of her unknown future remained tucked away in the very silver linings of hope that Howie offered with each breath. Smiling with true delight, she sighed, kissing his neck. “I missed you so much.”

"I missed you too," Howie whispered, drawing her into the living room. Despite having only talked to her that morning, there were so many things he longed to say to her. Knowing what a short time they would have together. For the moment he simply held her close, reveling in the fact that she was his, she was there. When she was with him the world was nowhere near as bleak as it had been. One hand strayed to her stomach and he rubbed gently. "I've missed her, too," he murmured.

“She’s missed you just as much,” Cheyanne agreed, smiling when Olivia reacted to Howie’s gentle caresses. It was almost as if she knew when Howie was near and when he went away. Because, every night Howie wasn’t with them, Olivia tossed, turned, and kicked, making Cheyanne ill. But, if Cheyanne let Howie’s CD play all night, then most of the kicks were eased into just a fidget of obvious loneliness. “She gets so restless without you…”

Howie was about to respond when he heard AJ conspicuously clearing his throat behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw his friend's tentative smile. Easing around, he kept Cheyanne in his arms. "Honey… This is AJ," he said, daring AJ to step forward and say something vulgar.

“I know the first time we met, we really didn’t meet, so…” AJ trailed awkwardly for a moment, standing from the couch. He tentatively stuffed his hands in his ragged jeans for a moment, almost as if he were shy. He glanced down at his bare feet for a moment, before glancing up and finally sticking out one of his hands. “It’s nice to meet you, Cheyanne. I know you probably got horror stories from D, but I am his best friend…”

“It’s really nice to meet you, AJ.” Cheyanne matched AJ’s somewhat nervous grin, reaching to take his hand for a gentle shake. Her voice was charming and sweet; dripping with a beautiful feminine accent to the ‘redneck’ sounds they had tormented Brian for in the beginning. Coming from her glossed lips though, it was like a gorgeous melody. “Thank you so much for letting Austi and I come for a visit. I know we’re invading your space, but it means a lot to me.”

"It means a lot to D, too… Don't you think you should be in bed?" AJ asked, glancing at her protruding stomach. "D told us about your problems and all… Do you want something to drink?" he asked, anxious to do something to show how apologetic he was for their first meeting.

“I’m okay being up. Being confined to bed permanently until I give birth gets boring really fast. And, I’m not thirsty, but thank you much,” Cheyanne laughed softly, watching his eyes fixate on her pregnant belly. Carefully, she moistened her bottom lip, gesturing to where Olivia was starting to kick. She didn’t know if that’s what he was waiting to do, but figured she could be kind enough to offer. “Do you want to feel her kick?”

AJ stepped forward eagerly, and Howie had to remove one arm from Cheyanne, keeping a close eye on his friend's hand. But AJ was gentle as he touched where Olivia kicked. Relaxing slightly, he decided that maybe this hadn't been such a bad idea.

"Awesome," AJ murmured, stepping away. "I'll leave you two alone so you can… Well, you know," he said with a mischievous grin.

“Thanks, AJ,” Cheyanne laughed as Howie wasted no time in wrapping both arms around her again. She hadn’t the heart to crush Howie’s ego telling AJ that they weren’t allowed to engage in such pleasures, because the risks were far too dangerous. If Howie wanted to ‘talk in the locker room’ that was fine, because, he certainly had something to talk about. “I like him, Tea.”

"He's alright," Howie agreed. "I have something in the bedroom for you, if you--" he cut off quickly when he heard an animalistic growl come from the suitcase. "What was that?" he asked, looking down at the bag Kevin had set by the door. "Did you bring that vicious beast?"

Cheyanne puckered her bottom lip into a piteous pout at Howie’s obvious detest with Moth. “He’s not a vicious beast and Jeff couldn’t take care of him. We had to bring him here…”

"Honey? I was teasing you… He's more than welcome. AJ?" Looking around, he saw AJ was about to step onto the balcony. "Can you take Moth for a walk?"

“Moth?” AJ questioned in obvious confusion, staring down at the little long haired Chihuahua Howie had set free from the carrier. He seemed well agitated by his new surroundings, instantly ducking in between Cheyanne’s legs for protection. AJ had to admit he was amused by the tiny puppy, taking the leash from his friend.

“It’s the anagram for Man of the House,” Cheyanne explained.

“Clever,” AJ approved, bending down to become acquainted with the tiny creature. He seemed to protest leaving Cheyanne’s closeness, but, slowly approaching. And, completely opposite to how he treated Howie, he actually began to lick AJ’s fingers. Smiling, AJ easily clipped the leash on the collar. “It’ll be fun to take him for a walk. I’ll have Baylee tag along.”

"I thought Baylee was asleep…" Cheyanne trailed softly as AJ headed down the hall to find the toddler. "What were you saying about something for me in your room?" she asked Howie sweetly, smoothing her hand over his cheek.

“It’s a surprise, you have to follow me,” Howie explained, turning his head so he could gently kiss her palm. He felt her shiver at the action, causing him to smile with approval. Reaching, he intertwined both their hands, delivering more kisses to each knuckle. “Please?”

“Okay, but if you’re just showing me the bed to put me there, I’m flying back to North Carolina,” she threatened, allowing him to lead her to what she would consider her oasis for the next few days.

“I have to show you the bed, but just to make sure you rest, because I don’t want anything happening to you or Cinnamon. But not right now,” Howie attempted to save, pulling her down the hallway to his hotel room. His was nestled between Brian and Leighanne’s room and AJ’s room. Kevin and Nick were on the opposite side, which gave Howie great relief. In fact, it caused Howie to chuckle slightly, knowing Nick would never be able to drown out the sounds. But, the nervous knots tightened in his stomach as he motioned toward their door. Easily sliding the key into his lock, he eased the door open, leading Cheyanne into the gorgeously regal cream colored room.

“Tea, it’s so beautiful,” Cheyanne gasped softly, allowing him to lead her inside, oblivious to the mountain of presents on the desk as she ran her fingertips over the satin bedspread. Seating herself on the soft bed of what seemed like clouds, she sighed softly. It was so lovely. So perfect.

Smiling at her dreamlike expression, he moved to the desk, grabbing the stack of presents. "Happy belated birthday, Honey," he said softly, setting them on the nightstand. "Oh, and these are for Cinnamon, from her Uncle Kev," he added with a grin, going to get the gifts Kevin had brought earlier. Setting them with the others, he sat next to her, saw tears gathering in her eyes. "Honey…"

“You really, really, really didn’t have to get me anything,” Cheyanne emphasized with a soft sniffle, rubbing her face with trembling hands in attempts to get rid of the tears. She was always overwhelmed with his romantic gestures, touching her heart like no other man could ever hope to do. “I was so happy just to have you there for my birthday, Tea… That was the best present I could have ever asked for.”

"Do you want me to take them back?" Howie asked, already reaching for them. "I mean, it's not much… But I just wanted to make up for not knowing it was your--"

“Tea,” Cheyanne interrupted softly. “It would hurt you to take those back…”

Grinning, Howie relaxed. "But… Promise me, if you don't like them, you'll tell me? And I'll take them back and try again…" he trailed as she reached for the first present.

“How could I possibly not like anything you picked out for me?” she scolded softly, taking the bow from the small package and allowing Howie to place it on her belly. She smiled softly as she ripped through the paper, pulling out a small green box. Uncovering the lid, she felt her breath catch sharply in her throat. Within the expensive Tiffany’s box lay an even more expensive gift. Howie had selected a platinum chain with a beautiful pendant of circular platinum set sapphires and diamonds interchanging in a delicate zig-zag, giving off the appearance of bubbles. “…Please tell me you went to Walmart and just stole this Tiffany’s box from AJ or someone…”

"No… J doesn't shop at Tiffany's," Howie said softly. "Do you like it?"

“Tea, it’s so beautiful,” she breathed, adoring the piece of jewelry as she delicately brushed a fingertip over the dark blue sapphire. It wasn’t that the gift had come from Tiffany’s, but more so that it had come from Howie’s heart. “They’re my favorite gemstone…”

"I picked them because they match your eyes," Howie told her. Reaching for the necklace, he brushed his lips over her cheek. "Can I put it on you?" he questioned softly, plucking the chain from her hands. Moving to kneel behind her, he brushed her soft curls aside, fumbling with the clasp in his haste. Finally securing it, he pressed a gentle kiss to the back of her neck. "I love you…"

“I think I have to love you more after such an extravagant gift,” Cheyanne confessed softly, turning so she could look into his smoldering chocolate eyes. She offered a shy smile as she beckoned him close, kissing his bottom lip before pulling him closer for a thankful kiss, expressing every bit of emotion she could gather.
My Angel by Anastacia
Chapter 30 – My Angel

Breathless, Austin closed her eyes, snuggling closer to Kevin. His hand moved to smooth her damp hair from her face, his lips brushing her forehead gently as she laid her head on his chest. Cracking one eye, she gave him a slight smile, willing her heartbeat to return to normal before speaking. "Glad to see you didn't forget how to shout my name," she murmured, pressing a soft kiss to his chest. His lips curved upwards in a satisfied smirk, his fingers trailing through her hair as he gazed at her, pulling her even closer to him. She could not imagine her trip to New York getting any better.

“So much for my modeling show,” Kevin sighed dramatically, running his hand loosely through her sweaty locks, moving down the contour of her neck, sneaking underneath their blazing covers to feel the soft ripples of her spine down to the small of her back. Then, like always, he brought his hand back up to grasp her locks, craning to kiss her forehead. His entire body was weak with the passion that had exploded over their reunion, knowing she had drained him completely of his life force. But, she was always wild like that. Insatiable at points. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’d dedicate his life to her if she asked. And she had. Just not in so many words.

"Modeling show?" Austin repeated, leaning her head back to look at him. Propping her elbow on his muscular chest, she gazed at him intently. "Did you have some hot date with a Victoria's Secret model and didn't tell me?" she asked softly.

“Not unless you got another job that you didn’t tell me about,” he returned easily, leaning to kiss her gently. “They’d have to change it to Austin’s Secret, though, I don’t think there’s many secrets left about you with me.”

Austin furrowed her brow, silent for a moment, smiling secretively when she saw his worried expression. "Well… There was that venture into soft porn I did my freshman year of college to cover expenses," she said with a wave of her hand, snickering when his eyes widened. "Of course, I'm sure you've already seen my spread in Hustler…"

“I’ve seen your spread, but definitely not in Hustler,” Kevin chuckled, leaning over her nude body to capture her lips. Teasing her physically like she teased verbally, he nibbled on her bottom lip, flicking his tongue inside her mouth as she moaned. “But, I did see Little Angel’s venture into Playboy… Tasteful… Even though you sold her innocence for a pretty penny.”

"Brian seems to be the type who watches porn, you should ask if he has my collection," she murmured, wrapping her arms around his neck, her body responding to his touches immediately. "But… What was this about modeling? Seriously, were you supposed to go out tonight?" she questioned, hands smoothing over the marks she'd left on his shoulders earlier.

“No, I cleared my entire schedule just to wait for you,” Kevin stated seriously leaving no room for her to argue the point. “You’re the only woman I care about, even if you abuse me. And, I pretty much bought out every lingerie store for you in New York. I figured I’d get a show tonight from you, but… You always have a way of changing my plans…” Kevin clicked his tongue as he leaned over to the nightstand at her side, reaching in the drawer to pull out a small box. “But you couldn’t change my plans to give you this. No matter what.”

Arching one brow, Austin scooted into a seating position, looking down at the box. "Tiffany's?" Jerking her head to look at him, she moistened her lips. "You bought me something from Tiffany's? That fancy-schmancy store?" she questioned, a hint of excitement causing her southern accent to become more pronounced. "Pretty Boy…"

“Every beautiful lady deserves one piece of completely expensive, utterly frivolous, piece of gorgeousness that can barely compare to what she exudes every day,” Kevin explained, moving to sit as well, rubbing her bare back with a tremor of excitement. The way her accent thickened sent chills down his spine. She seemed to fight so hard to hide that, except when he was there.

"Kevin," she practically whined, shivering at his words. He always knew just what to say to her. Leaning against him, she stared at the small box, her insides fluttering nervously as she thought of what could be inside. Worrying her bottom lip with her teeth, she slowly untied the cream bow, draping the satin ribbon over his bare leg. "No man has ever bought me jewelry before," she murmured, resting her fingers on the lid.

“Well, I’m glad to be your very first and your very last… I just hope you really like it, Princess,” Kevin whispered, rubbing the back of her neck, attempting to wait patiently.

"If you picked it out, I know I'll love it…" Unable to wait any longer, Austin lifted the lid, an audible gasp jerking the air from her lungs. "Kevin… It's beautiful," she whispered, staring in awe at the shimmering diamond starburst dangling from a dainty platinum double chain. A small pearl hung beneath the starburst, and when it blurred before her she realized she was crying. "Kevin…"

Kevin chuckled softly as he freed the elegant necklace from its bed, moving to seat himself behind Austin. Brushing away her damp locks, he reached in front of her to bring the necklace around. In an easy fashion, he fastened it quite quickly, leaning over her shoulder to trace the dozens of diamonds on the sunburst with his index finger. “You were always brilliant since the very first time I met you. This passion and energy that exudes from your very core. My own little fire… Spitfire, but fire nonetheless. This suited you.”

Turning to face him, Austin brushed her tears away with shaky hands. "Please tell me this didn't cost you a fortune. I'm not worth thousands of dollars." Resting her hand against his cheek in a soft caress, she leaned close for a soft kiss. "But… Knowing that you thought about it and didn't just buy the gaudiest, most expensive thing you could find… That means a lot, Kevin. How can I ever repay you?" Blinking back more tears, she felt such overwhelming love for the man she almost sobbed. "I love you, Pretty Boy…"

“You’re worth every red cent in my bank account,” Kevin promised as he cupped her face in his hands, wiping away each tear with his thumbs. He smiled with appreciation, leaning to catch the tears that crossed her lips with his lips. “And, knowing that you love me is all the repayment I’m ever going to want. See your eyes light up like that… It’s worth a million, Princess.”

"Is that how much the necklace cost?" Austin asked with a giggle, sliding her legs around him. "I do know of one way I can repay you…" she trailed suggestively, teasing his mouth with hers. "…Unless you have more presents?"

“If I tell you that you have more presents, there’s no way that I’m possibly going to get my repayment,” Kevin groaned against her lips, reaching to firmly grasp her hips, making sure she stayed against him. Though, he had the tendency to pull her closer, kissing the underside of her chin before moving back to her mouth, loving the salty taste of her lightly perspired skin.

Whimpering against his lips, Austin wrapped herself around him. "Your repayment may be even better if there are more presents," she informed him, one hand grasping the headboard as she wriggled against him, her only desire now showing him how much she appreciated him. How much she appreciated his love.

“My repayment is going to be all over these sheets if you don’t slow down and let me get the other gifts,” he groaned hard.

"I thought you were kidding," Austin murmured with a giggle, sliding from his lap. "Holy Hell, Pretty Boy… Are you trying to spoil me or something?" she asked, propping herself against the headboard as he slid out of bed. Pulling the covers over her, she admired the view of his nude body. Reaching up with one hand to touch the necklace, she drew in a shaky breath. She didn't deserve such a wonderful, kind… Awesomely pain in the ass man, she thought with a weary sigh as he belched loudly.

*~*~*


“Son, do you think that you could learn to sleep just a little bit longer?” Brian yawned loudly as he let Baylee squirm from his arms, plopping onto the living room floor only to stand and begin a hasty search. His father didn’t seem too astute of his search, merely collapsing on the plush sofa, reaching for the remote to the plasma TV. It was a little later than seven in the morning and Leighanne had already sauntered off to spend her day at the spa, convinced that she would not force herself to look at nor meet Austin or Cheyanne. Brian welcomed her disappearance, thinking he would be able to get some much needed rest. Until he felt the tiny feet jumping on his back, insisting it was time to rise to the occasion. So, after getting Baylee breakfast, Brian hoped they could curl onto the couch for a quick nap. Though, Baylee seemed preoccupied as he searched every inch of the living room. His light brows furled in confusion as he even bent down to look under the sofa, sticking his tiny butt into the air. Brian stifled a yawn as he furled his own brows with confusion. “Scooper… What are you doing?”

"Lookin' for Chey," Baylee informed him, his voice muffled as he crawled to check under the other sofa. "Where her at?" he asked pitifully, turning to look at his father with a small pout. "I want my Angel, Daddy!"

“Your Angel?” Brian returned with obvious confusion as Baylee came to stand between his legs, patting his knees as if it would make Brian hurry with an answer. Only, he was stunned. Nick had mentioned offhandedly how attached Baylee was to Cheyanne, but Leighanne had dismissed that with a snort. Though, last night she did everything in her power to assure that Baylee forgot about the other women, taking him on a lavish shopping spree. But, it seemed all the toys in the world couldn’t compare to Cheyanne in Baylee’s heart, which astounded Brian. He still figured her to be a loose woman of the night looking for a supple meal ticket. But Baylee was an excellent judge of character and never warmed up to someone so quickly.

"My Angel, Daddy. Where her at?" Baylee insisted, turning at the sound of a door opening. "Uncle Howie!" he shrieked, bounding over to the groggy man as he came into the living room. "Where Chey?" he asked impatiently, peering past Howie's legs for a sign of the woman. "Her up?"

“Woah,” Howie whistled softly in surprise, jerking downward to grasp Baylee before he could burst into the still dark and quiet bedroom. He hadn’t expected such a sharp burst of fury so early in the morning, especially one wanting to attack Cheyanne. Of course, if that had happened, he expected it to be far taller and a darker bleach blonde. Fumbling slightly to maintain the wiggling mass, he hoisted Baylee into his arms. “Chey’s still sleeping right now, Bay. She and the baby need their sleep.”

"I be quiet," Baylee promised in a whisper, holding one pudgy finger to his lips. "I just wan' see her."

“Baylee, you are your father’s son, there is no way in the world that you’ll be quiet,” Howie chuckled softly, pressing his face to his shoulder to muffle a yawn. Though, Baylee continued to squirm in his arms, bound and determined to see Cheyanne. Howie didn’t really understand Baylee’s necessity, not having heard all the talk about Baylee’s romance with Cheyanne. But, wanting to appease the child so he didn’t scream, Howie popped into the bedroom, holding Baylee up to see Cheyanne curled amongst the soft blankets.

"My Angel," Baylee whispered, pursing his lips in frustration when Howie closed the door and carried him away. "Her baby sleep o'tay?" he asked once Howie set him down.

"The baby slept fine," Howie said, glancing at Brian. "She's his Angel now?" he questioned with a chuckle, dropping onto the other couch as Brian lifted his head.

"Huh? Yeah. He's been talking about her ever since he got back from the airport yesterday. Leigh wasn't too thrilled with it," Brian muttered, pausing in his channel surfing. "But, Hell, she'll get over it," he added with a tiny smirk.

"Good to know he likes her," Howie said, glancing at the TV. "Care Bears?" he asked with a laugh.

Backing from the living area, Baylee kept his eyes on the two men until he was safely into the hallway. Standing on his tiptoes, he grunted as he struggled with the doorknob, falling to his knees when the door swung open. Hopping up, he stared at Cheyanne as he approached the bed. "My Angel," he whispered, tugging gently on the blanket.

His tiny tugs at the blanket did nothing to rouse the sleeping woman from her dreams, but managed to rock Moth into alertness. Whining, the puppy stretched against Cheyanne’s chest before rolling off her while licking his chops. The tiny tugs from Baylee caught the puppy’s attention as Cheyanne shifted underneath the covers. Crawling over the large wrinkles to the opposite side of the bed, he struggled as somewhat jumped and somewhat fell from the large bed beside Baylee. He stumbled to his tiny feet with a firm shake of his head, yipping toward Baylee before hurrying to find his source of breakfast. “O’tay, Moth, I cuddle My Angel for us,” Baylee promised, grasping the blankets to climb atop the massive bed.

Pulling the blankets back, he wriggled underneath them, looking down at Cheyanne's stomach. "Mornin' My Angel's baby," he whispered, patting it lightly before snuggling closer. One small arm protectively laying over her, he rested his head on her chest, sighing happily. "My Angel," he whispered again.

Somehow, amongst the depth of her sweet dreams, Cheyanne felt the shift in the bed as well as the extra warm little body snuggled to her side. The embrace around her was far different from Howie’s protective hold. So, very slowly, she started to stir to the sweet smell of Baylee’s Johnson’s Baby Shampoo and the melodies of his tiny little voice. I never break your heart. I never make you cry. I rather die than live wit-out you. I give you all of me. ‘Oney dat’s no lie… Upon hearing the little boy’s singing, her sapphire eyes gently fluttered open and her arms curled around Baylee’s little body. “What a sweet thing to wake up with.”

"My Angel!" Baylee cooed excitedly. "I sang you 'wake. But shhh. I not s'posed to wake you up," he whispered, eyes wide.

From the living room came Brian's voice. "Baylee! Where'd you get to?"

"Uh oh. Save me?" Baylee asked hopefully, pulling the blanket over his head.

“Of course I’ll save you. Who could resist that little face?” Cheyanne groaned with a soft yawn, complying with Baylee’s wishes. Hurriedly, she pulled the blankets up to conceal them both, allowing Baylee to cuddle deep into her embrace, his head nestled against her chest. He cooed softly in the darkness, obviously charmed with her heartbeat. And, Cheyanne could barely hide her smile as she listened to the heavy foot falls, shifting slightly as she let her eyes drift closed. “Be quiet as a mouse, alright, Darlin’?”

"Honey?" Howie said softly from the open doorway, peeking inside at the bed. Seeing the blankets pulled up over her form, he smiled. "Do you have a little visitor?" he asked as Brian stepped up behind him.

"Maybe," Cheyanne cooed from the safety of her blanket cocoon.

“Baylee not wid My Angel!” Baylee announced loudly from beneath the blankets, revealing his whereabouts almost instantly. And he couldn’t have looked guiltier nor more pleased with himself when Howie peeled back the blankets. There he was, curled happily within Cheyanne’s embrace, his arms attempted to wrap around her petite form with protectiveness as his head lovingly nestled against her chest. And, like always, he was grinning madly, wriggling in attempts to get closer to Cheyanne. “Mornin’ Uncle Howie.”

Leaning in the door, Brian couldn't help but grin at the sight of his son snuggled so close to Cheyanne. As Howie stepped away from the bed, moving to the dresser, he cleared his throat. "Did he wake you up, Cheyanne?" he asked.

Cheyanne looked up, a flush hitting her cheeks. "He was singing to me," she said softly, glancing around for Howie. "Tea…"

"My Angel want eat? Daddy make waffles for My Angel," Baylee said with a giggle, tucking his head under Cheyanne's chin.

“I couldn’t ask your Daddy to make me waffles, Darlin’,” Cheyanne cooed softly to Baylee, running her fingers through his messy curls as he sighed with sheer delight. She attempted not to look at Brian, uncomfortable to say the very least. Shifting, she reached to bring the blankets up further on her and Baylee. She felt somewhat naked, though she was dressed in Howie’s t-shirt and boxers. Brian had been so cold and callous since the mountains and her interacting with his son couldn’t have possibly made him happy. If anything, he probably wanted to tear Baylee away. “But, I’m sure he’d be happy to make you a batch of warm waffles to feed that tummy of yours while I try to get back to sleep.”

"I a'ready eated," Baylee said. "I sleep with you?" he asked hopefully.

"Baylee… Why don't we go watch Nemo and let your Angel sleep? When she's ready to get up, we can ask Uncle Howie if she'll be up to your company," Brian said as Howie turned from the dresser, camera in hand. His friend was grinning at the sight, and suddenly, despite his assertion that the woman was a money grubbing wretch, he had to admit she must be pretty decent, if Baylee had taken such a shine to her in so short a time. And, as Howie snapped a quick picture, he smiled.

"Howie," Cheyanne groaned, shaking her head. "How can you take a picture now? I just--"

"Look so beautiful," Howie intervened.

Cheyanne blushed furiously, “Howie--”

“Our first’ed picture!” Baylee suddenly squealed with delight, clapping his tiny hands as he shifted in her arms, reaching to pull the covers higher over them. Once he was satisfied that he wasn’t getting out of bed, not even for his father, he snuggled back into Cheyanne’s arms. “I get picture, Uncle Howie? P’ease?”

"Sure thing, buddy," Howie assured him with a grin. "Honey… You want some juice and toast?" he asked, certain there would be no way in Hell he or Brian could pull Baylee away from her now.

"I want juice," Baylee announced, twirling a golden curl around his fingers.

“I’ll take what he’s having,” Cheyanne suggested with a rueful smile, causing Baylee to grin harder with triumph. She rubbed the youth’s back tenderly, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “We’re taking Hawaiian punch with crushed ice, huh, Darlin’?”

“Z’actly!” Baylee agreed whole heartedly, seeming to know exactly what Cheyanne was thirsty for. “7-Up, too, Uncle Howie!” And, when Howie had disappeared, Baylee sat up slightly, having felt something cool and peculiar on Cheyanne’s delicate neck. Brushing away her curls, his brows furled as he located the beautiful necklace Howie had given her. “What dat?”

“Your Uncle Howie gave me that as a birthday present,” Cheyanne explained with a proud smile. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“S’cuse me,” Baylee suddenly announced, crawling over to the side of the bed to hop down. He looked none too pleased with the smile that had graced Cheyanne’s face with Howie’s gift, hurriedly running down the hallway to the bedroom he shared with his mother and father, disappearing inside.

“He’s really adorable,” Cheyanne told Brian softly as she attempted to sit up somewhat, tenderly rubbing her aching stomach.

"He takes after me." Brian stepped forward instinctively to help her, reaching to adjust the pillows behind her. At her startled expression, he shrugged lightly. "Leigh was on bed rest for a while," he explained. Stepping back, he cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable with being alone with her. Inside he conflicted. His son adored her already, but he couldn't shake the nagging feeling that she was after his friend's money. "When are you due?" he asked suddenly, at a loss for anything else to say.

“September,” Cheyanne answered softly, smoothing the blankets on her lap so she could avoid eye contact with him. She could feel the tension continuing to rise between them, knowing how much he detested her relationship with Howie. It wasn’t exactly an intellectual find, because he openly displayed it. And that hurt the most, because he didn’t know her. “Y’know… Just... Thank you for not making a fuss that Kevin and Howie wanted to invite us up here. It really meant a lot to Austin. And I know you don’t consider me sincere by any means, but I love Howie with everything that’s in me. I tell him not to buy me things, you can ask him yourself. And, if you don’t want Baylee around me, I respect that. But, please, don’t scorn Howie for wanting to be loved. He deserves so much better.”

Startled at her words, Brian looked at her. Expelling his breath in a rush, he dropped onto the foot of the bed. "I don't think I could keep Scooper away from you for anything," he admitted. Twisting the expensive wedding band on his finger, he glanced at her. "He's probably digging in his toys for something to give you. Hope you like stuffed animals… And honestly, I'm glad you're here. Even though, I haven't seen Kevin since he got back from the airport. Howie seems happier around you," he said gently. "The man hasn't stopped grinning. Despite my initial feelings, I can tell you're good for D. And that means a lot to me."

Cheyanne shyly glanced toward Brian, offering a sweet smile. Though she knew Austin would call the man every name in the book, she had to come to an understanding with him. She knew how important it was to Howie that things went smoothly. Besides, she couldn’t believe that he was necessary ‘Satan Spawn’ like Austin so eagerly claimed beforehand. Every person had a golden spark to their heart or at least Cheyanne hoped. “Thanks, that means a lot to me--”

“My Angel!” Baylee suddenly grunted, interrupting the adult conversation as he attempted to hurry back in the room. His eyesight was blocked by the overstuffed panda bear clutched so very tightly in his arms. In fact, he bumped hard into his father’s legs after bumping into the bed. “Daddy! Up! To my Angel!”

"What's that you've got there?" Brian asked with a chuckle, lifting his son onto the bed. He watched in amusement as Baylee tiptoed up to Cheyanne, setting the panda bear in her lap.

"'Appy Birfday!" Baylee announced proudly. "Mommy boughted it last night, but I want you have it, 'kay?" Grinning from ear to ear, he sat next to her. "You keep 'im?" he asked hopefully, gazing up at her.

“Of course I’ll keep him,” Cheyanne promised, reaching to make an ‘x’ across Baylee’s heart, which made him giggle. She thought it was adorable that he wanted her to keep the expensive panda bear with the F.A.O. Swartz tag in his ear. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what the price was for the animal, but knew she couldn’t break Baylee’s heart. Though, she grinned as she set the bear on the other side of the bed, reaching to take Baylee in her arms. “But I want to keep you, too!”

Baylee squealed with delight, glancing up when his father stood. "My Angel keep me, Daddy?" he questioned softly.

"For a little while, Scooper. Cheyanne, if he gets to be too much, don't hesitate to send his little butt to me, okay? I'll be in the living room." Stooping, Brian swept a kiss over Baylee's forehead. "Be a good boy."

"I pwomise," Baylee intoned, leaning against Cheyanne.

“You’re always a good boy, Darlin’,” Cheyanne promised, running her fingers through his light blonde locks, shifting so she could lie back down. Baylee seemed quite pleased with her decision, wiggling to get comfortable with her as he rested against her chest. Like before, he draped his little arm over her, making sure the bear was comfortably tucked in, too. “When Uncle Howie comes in here, we’ll make him put on a movie and take a nap.”

"O'tay," Baylee agreed. Gazing at her stomach for a long moment, he sat up, placing his small hand very gently over it. "This Uncle Howie's baby too?" he asked seriously.

Cheyanne was somewhat shocked with Baylee’s blunt question, not really prepared to answer something so personal. Though, she couldn’t blame the child’s curiosity, especially as he tenderly rubbed her stomach. She watched for the longest moment, not realizing Howie was lingering just outside the doorway with their drinks. “Yeah, she’s Uncle Howie’s baby, too. He’s taking really good care of her and me. He’s going to be a great Daddy for her. Don’t you think?”

Baylee nodded. "Uncle Howie nice," he told her, as though that were all it took to be a good Daddy. "You marry Uncle Howie?" he asked, eyes wide with childish innocence.

"7-Up and Hawaiian Punch," Howie announced, stepping inside, bearing a tray of drinks. Upon seeing Baylee rubbing Cheyanne's stomach, he shook his head. "Are you moving in on my girl, Bay?"

“Uncle Howie have my Angel’s baby an’ me have my Angel?” Baylee decided as if that were an even split, wrapping his arms around Cheyanne so Howie couldn’t take his spot. Though, the child seemed oblivious that Cheyanne fell into a tight silence, obviously wondering what Howie had overheard.

"I don't think I could give up Honey that easily," Howie mused softly, setting the tray on the nightstand. "I'd be willing to share her when she gets cranky, though."

Baylee looked bewildered that Cheyanne could ever be anything less than a sweetheart, instantly blaming Howie for the change. “My Angel not cranky for me. You no love her ‘nuff, Uncle Howie.”

"Your Uncle Howie loves her plenty," Austin said softly from the doorway. Yawning loudly, she shuffled into the room, going around to the other side of the bed to get in next to Cheyanne. Picking up the panda bear, she smiled slightly, handing it to Cheyanne before she snuggled close. "Can I doze in here while Kevin talks to you-know-who on the phone?" she murmured, already half asleep.

“Sure, Darlin’ and I were just going to watch a movie,” Cheyanne stated easily as Baylee instantly lay back down to snuggle against her other side, not wanting it to be stolen. He instantly thrust his tiny arm across her, making sure Austin knew who was more important. She smiled ruefully at her best friend, who leaned to tickle Baylee, though her gaze came to fall on Howie.

Leaning over Baylee, Howie kissed her lips softly. "I'll go shower and dress… And call Momma, okay? Maybe by then, at least one side of you will be free," he murmured against her lips. "Love you, Honey…"

“I love you, too,” Cheyanne promised, unable to help the flutter in her stomach that always accompanied any of Howie’s kisses. For a moment, she thought about trying to weasel away to join Howie in the shower, but knew it wasn’t possible. And, if it was, what made her think he wanted her with him? She truly doubted herself when it came to the relationship, but attempted to brush those feelings aside, smiling at him. “Tell your mother I said hi?”

"I will… Sure you don't want to join me in the shower?" he asked with a suggestive grin, giving her a wink when her cheeks turned red.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking,” she confessed softly as Howie still lingered near, obviously hiding Baylee from the conversation as best he could. “But I can’t get out of this…”

With a rueful sigh, Howie nodded, leaning close for another quick kiss, letting his hand linger on her neck for a moment. Getting a feel of her soft skin to last him through his fantasies in a lonely shower. "I'll have to make it a cold shower," he whispered against her lips before pulling away.
Love Me by Anastacia
Author's Notes:
We just want to make an announcement that we are extremely appreciative of all the reviews we've been recieving, but this is a co-authorship. Please, not one 'girl' has wrote this, but two. And, Anastacia owes a great many thanks to Shrinkingviolet for just being allowed to collaborate on such a project.
Chapter 31 – Love Me

Standing under the warm waterfall coming from the showerhead, Howie closed his eyes, sucking in a breath when the water coursed over his erection. "Damn, Howie," he muttered to himself, shaking his head slightly. Why had the sight of her snuggled close to Baylee aroused him so? He couldn't explain it, especially to himself. She had looked so warm, so cozy… So sexy, he thought, bracing one hand on the cool marble wall. Trying so hard to resist the temptation of giving in to his burgeoning desire.

Resisting the temptation meant to forget about Cheyanne as the blood continued to circulate to his manhood, tightening and stiffening the tissues inside, making his shower far more painful than he expected. Sharply, he squeezed his eyes shut, pressing both hands against the marble so he could avoid the situation entirely. But the images of Cheyanne continued to flutter around his mind like a sexual muse. Making love with Cheyanne at the cabin had been one of the most beautiful experiences in his life. Just the cues her body sent him, telling him she was overjoyed with his performance, was enough to send him into ecstasy. Or at least, he had thought when he traveled to North Carolina, knowing that traditional sex was out of the question. It was too dangerous. Rupturing Cheyanne’s placenta would mean that she bled to death instantly, cutting off oxygen to Olivia. Howie had used those thoughts to stop the progression of his natural desires. But, now, having her so close again, knowing he wasn’t allowed to have her, seemed to cause a frustrated insanity. He wanted to love her so much. More importantly, he wanted her to love him.

So wrought with conflicting emotions, he didn't hear the bathroom door open. Cheyanne slipped inside, shutting and locking the door behind her. Leaning against it, she looked at Howie's form through the steamed glass door, she felt a flutter of excitement, quickly peeling off her clothes before she could lose her nerve. Shaking her hair free of its pigtails, she opened the door and stepped into the steamy shower, biting her lip at the sight of his nude body. Honestly, the man was growing sexier each time she saw him… "Tea…"

The sound of Cheyanne’s soft voice through the hazy steam of the shower seemed like his mind’s last desperate attempt for salvation from the excruciating pain. The sweet southern coo of her voice sent shivers down his spine, tightening his muscles more than necessary. He bit back a hard groan as he tried to remember the dangers of hurting Cheyanne and how he should be above the need for just constantly having sex. Their relationship was more than that… Then he turned slightly in the shower, finally opening his eyes to see Cheyanne’s nude form through the layers of steam. The sight of her was almost enough to make a sharp release, but somehow it maintained as he groaned. Her golden curls slightly dampened by the moist air were falling against her creamy shoulders in shimmering ringlets, lightly kissing the fullness of her bare breasts. Though still quite petite, her body was changing with the pregnancy. Her hips slightly widened and her firmly rounded, little belly protruding gently with a dark line marked from between her breasts to her navel. She was gorgeous. And he gasped hard with shame, stumbling slightly to make sure his backside continued to face her, so she wouldn’t see his embarrassing arousal. “Honey!”

“Darlin’ is sleeping with Austin, so, I thought I’d take up your offer…” Cheyanne attempted to explain, not understanding Howie’s frazzled nature. Starting to think it was her presence, she curved her arms around her bare breasts as if to shield her nakedness, stepping back in the gigantic shower as if to step out.

"I'm glad you did," Howie said softly, snatching the washcloth off the railing to… What? Toss over his erection like a flag? Rolling his eyes at his own stupidity, he let the cloth fall to the floor. Drawing in a deep breath, he willed his body to calm down, lest she think he was an overly hormonal-- "Honey?" he breathed when he felt something brush his legs. Glancing down, he saw her arm reaching around him to grasp the cloth.

"I've got it," she assured him, glancing up so he could see her smile. Only, her smile quickly faded upon seeing what he had taken pains to hide from her, and she felt her body tingle with desire, remembering all too well how it had felt to make love to him. "Did I interrupt something?" she whispered, straightening. Tearing her eyes from his arousal, she looked up at his face, saw he was blushing furiously. Holding out the washcloth, she waited for him to tell her to leave.

Howie was completely mortified at her subtle announcement of her findings, not to mention how long it took for her to find his eyes. He weakly reached to grasp the wet washcloth, jerking slightly when he brushed her fingers. “No! I mean… I saw you with Baylee… God… You just looked so… We couldn’t… And we still can’t…” Howie felt like the world’s largest moron as he fumbled for an explanation, finding nothing as his erection seemed to grow at the mere sight of the water kissing her sweet skin. “I’m so sorry, Honey--”

“No, I’m the one that’s sorry,” Cheyanne quickly answered, mustering an apologetic smile as she stepped back again when Howie jerked at the brief connection of their bodies. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. You had just asked for me to join and I managed to weasel out. I didn’t think you’d be… I know it’s hard not being able to be with me because of the high risk pregnancy. I’m not an idiot. And I’m sorry that you have to suffer through it--”

"I wouldn't call it suffering." Reaching for her hand, Howie shook his head as he drew her closer to him, unable to resist touching her delectable body. "And you weren't interrupting me, Honey… I just… Well... I'm a man," he said with a shake of his head. "Sorry."

“You don’t have to be sorry. I know it’s hard to control when I was so…ambitious at the cabin,” Cheyanne promised softly, allowing Howie to bring her closer to him. She tensed slightly despite her strong desires for him, not wanting to cause him any more pain. But, when he wrapped her in his embrace, she couldn’t help herself. She exhaled a soft sigh of contentment, knowing he wasn’t upset with her. But, she couldn’t help but think back to his attempts at a birthday surprise. They had been so close to engage in making love, but he pulled away, knowing the damage he could cause, even though he was suffering. It wasn’t entirely fair for Howie, especially as she felt the hardness of him pressing between them. Blowing out a breath of nerves, she let her hand slip between them, trailing her fingers from his chest to the pit of his stomach. Hopefully, her sapphire eyes glanced upward. “Can I try to make it up to you? If not, you can go find a fan for a night of desire or something…”

Did she honestly think he could have anything remotely akin to desire for a fan? "Make it up to me?" he blurted, staring into her eyes, which were sparkling. The feel of her fingers on his skin brought for a tortured moan. "Honey…"

“I want to try to help, because I feel guilty,” she attempted to explain, not wanting to be completely brazen about the task she wanted to complete for him. Instead, she bowed her head slightly leaning forward to kiss the water from his chest, letting her fingers dance lower, carefully tickling the erect member that slightly twitched between them. “Please?”

Whimpering, Howie weighed her offer for a moment, the feel of her fingers on him nearly sending him over the edge. Her mouth trailed over his chest, and he felt his knees grow weak, leaning his hand against the wall once more. But… "I couldn't ask you to do that, Honey… Unless you let me help you, too," he murmured.

“You’re not asking me to do it,” Cheyanne disagreed softly, not really understanding how he could help her. Not that she truly cared, bringing her lips to his throat, suckling gently as her hand wrapped around his erection, just holding the warmth as she rubbed her thumb on its underside. She felt him shiver beneath her hold, causing her to smile against his throat, nibbling softly before breaking into several short kisses. “I want to do this for you.”

Howie nodded, unable to form words now. Wanting--needing to touch her, he let his hand trail down her side, gliding over her stomach before moving up to cup a full breast. Dipping his head, he caught her lips with his, moaning into her mouth as her grip on his arousal tightened. Stepping closer, he eased her legs apart with his thigh, his fingers stroking her nipple lightly.

Cheyanne’s back naturally arched as his fingers puckered her nipple into a hardened state of arousal, causing her skin to melt against his. Changing with the pregnancy, her breasts seemed to be the most sensitive and easily manipulated by his soft hands. Her breath easily changed into a quickened series of short pants, reaching up to nibble on his bottom lip before trailing her tongue against his lips. Her hand now began to easily glide against his length, manipulating him with her sweet caresses and gentle rakes of her nails. Hot water continued to pour down, drenching them in a pool of heat and desire. Faintly, she recognized Howie’s own manipulations with her body, briefly glancing down at his thigh. “Tea… W-What are you doing?”

"Helping you," he murmured, involuntarily lurching into her hand. The sensation of her nails raking him pulled the wind from his lungs, and when she leaned against the wall, offering her body to him as much as she could, he let his lips move to her neck. Fingers dancing down her side, he felt her tremble at his touch, heard her sharp intake of breath as his hand maneuvered its way between her thighs. "If--if you want me to stop… Just say so," he whispered against her skin as his mouth moved lower, his tongue flicking the warm water off her warmer skin.

“N-No, don’t stop,” Cheyanne whimpered, arching yet again at the pleasurable sensations rushing through her body. She felt as if she were fire underneath Howie’s hold. Spurts of electricity shooting down her spine with every tender touch, kiss, and caress. She knew she would be unable to handle her emotions if he just removed himself from her. It had seemed like far too long since she was able to physically show him how much she cared. So, attempting to remain on her feet, she wrapped an arm around his neck while continuing to stroke his length, teasing him with just the lightest of touches to firm massages. “I missed you so much…”

"I missed you," Howie whispered against her breast, his fingers lightly teasing her moist folds. The passion was so close to consuming him, and he knew that, despite all his control, it would only be moments before-- "Chey!" he gasped as her gentle strokes increased. Lifting his head, he quickly found her lips, teasing them with his tongue as one finger gently gained entrance.

Howie,” Cheyanne whimpered hard in disbelief, tightening immediately when she felt his finger inside her body. For a moment, her gentle strokes stopped on his erection, her nails slightly digging. She hadn’t been prepared for that. Nor had she been prepared for his gently strokes of her most intimate area. She felt sincerely lightheaded with the waves of pleasure crashing over her body, mixing with the sensual heat of the shower. Slowly moving her hand back against him, teasing the tip of his head, she shuddered with delight as she kissed the side of his face, nibbling on his earlobe. “I love you so much.”

"Chey," Howie moaned softly, closing his eyes tightly as his body trembled. "I-I love you… Honey… I'm…" Gasping, he eased another finger inside her, increasing his movements as his member throbbed in her hand. He was so close..."Chey…"

“Go ahead,” Cheyanne encouraged softly in his ear, rotating her hips slightly against Howie’s fingers. She felt her body start to build against the desire, knowing she would most certainly follow him afterwards. So she increased the rhythm of her strokes along his shaft, letting her nails add just a touch of pressure. She felt great satisfaction in pleasing him so, seeking his mouth with hers to drown whatever screams might be produced. “Let go, Tea.”

Howie's cries were muffled against her lips, thrusting himself against her hand as the wave overtook him. Tearing his lips from hers, he released a strangled cry, his body shuddering next to her. Dropping his head onto her shoulder, he drew in several shaky breaths, heard her soft murmurs as she cradled him close, her body curling next to his. Trembling, he gently increased the strokes of his fingers, felt her nails curve into his neck. "Chey… Let it go," he whispered against her ear.

Cheyanne nodded softly with a hard whimper, thankful that Howie told her it was okay. She had been so concerned about helping him release that she forgot about herself. So, shaking, she brought both hands to curl around his neck. She continued to rotate her hips against the thrusts of his fingers, burying her face so perfectly into the crook of her neck. And, as the dam of yearning broke, Cheyanne released a soft cry against Howie’s skin. Water pelting her tingling skin, she shivered, curling a leg around Howie’s calf. “Thank you…”

Wrapping his arms around her, Howie kissed her softly, shivering as her leg moved against his. "No… Thank you," he murmured. Once he trusted his legs, he stepped back until they were fully under the water, his lips never leaving hers as he reached for the soap. "I love you so much, Honey…"

“I love you, too. Far more than anything in this world,” she promised with a satisfied smile, leaning up to kiss him once more. She had been yearning so badly for him since he came to North Carolina, to be so contented from such an intimate moment offered her strength. She honestly couldn’t imagine her life without him. “…But I get the first back rub, right?”

*~*~*


“My Angel!” Baylee called excitedly, racing toward the living room with lightening speed once his father managed to wrangle him into a pair of jeans and a light t-shirt. He had fallen asleep with Austin in bed, only to be found by his father to be dressed for the day. So, he never knew that Cheyanne had disappeared on him to take a shower with Howie. Instead, he just assumed Brian had disrupted his slumber. So, his dark blue eyes were lit with happiness when he found Cheyanne lounging on the couch, curled next to Howie, simply watching a movie. He immediately rushed toward his bag of toys, pulling out a stack of blank paper and a box of crayons. Attempting to hold them against his chest together, he hurried over to her side, producing the materials. “Play wid me?”

“I’d love to play with you, Darlin’,” Cheyanne promised with a coo, moving to seat herself on the soft carpet with Baylee perched in front of her. She made sure that her back propped between Howie’s legs, so she didn’t move far from him, unaware that he was already reaching for the digital camera he refused to part with since she arrived. Instead, she laughed when Baylee offered her the paper and some crayons, insisting she draw something he could color. “Can we draw something for Austin?”

"Her sleep," Baylee said, brow furling as he settled next to her, spilling his crayons onto the coffee table.

"No her not," Austin said with a laugh as she entered the living room. Her damp hair hung down her back as she padded to the opposite couch in her bare feet. "Your Daddy woke me up when he came to get you." Not that she had minded, of course. Shuffling back to Kevin's room, she'd found him just getting off the phone, tense and thoroughly irritated. At first she'd been a bit hesitant to accept his offer of a quick shower, but… Smiling dreamily, she didn't even realize Baylee was talking to her. "What?"

"What you want me draw you?" he asked, impatiently tapping a crayon against the paper before him.

“I don’t know, surprise me,” Austin answered with a bemused giggle, patting the top of Baylee’s head before heading for the coffee pot, Kevin not far behind.

“Here,” Cheyanne sighed with a roll of her eyes, leaning over Baylee’s paper. The boy looked none too pleased with Austin’s quick dismissal, obviously hurt. So, kissing his cheek, Cheyanne blew a raspberry to draw his attention away from that. Then, quickly, she sketched a beautiful crown in black crayon, outlining it with diamonds and other various jewels. “Color that for her, ‘cause Kevvy calls her Princess.”

"Her his 'Rincess?" Baylee asked.

"She sure is," Cheyanne informed him, pushing the crayons closer.

"But… Her my 'Rincess too!" he insisted. "Wat color my 'Rincess like?"

“Green is her favorite color,” Cheyanne answered as he hurriedly snatched the various colors of green from the pile. She smiled as she leaned back against Howie’s legs, propping her elbows on her knees, just watching Baylee with his creation. He was so intent on making it perfect, the tip of his little tongue poking out the side of his mouth, his light brows furrowed in the utmost concentration. He was adorable and Cheyanne couldn’t help but wonder what Howie’s sons might turn out like.

Leaning over, Howie kissed the top of Cheyanne's head. "And you keep worrying that you won't be a good Mommy," he murmured.

“The thought has crossed my mind,” she admitted softly, tilting her head back so she could stare up at Howie. A small smile graced her face at his confidence in her skills, loving that he had so much faith. That he was so dedicated. That he loved her so.

Howie was about to speak when he saw Leighanne sweep into the living area, digging through her gigantic purse for something. Seeing Baylee next to Cheyanne, she skidded to a stop, her blue eyes narrowing. "Bay, it's time to go," she said with an impatient sigh. "We're going to lunch with Daddy."

"Sounds like a fun filled time to me," Austin muttered derisively into her coffee cup as she moved to sit on the couch again.

Howie choked hard on the tea he had been attempted to drink, immediately cupping a hand to his mouth to shoot Austin a playful glare. The woman merely shrugged her shoulders as if she were innocent, unfazed by the darkness in Leighanne’s eyes. Kevin had given her enough horror stories about the woman married to his cousin so she would be adequately prepared. That is, until she noticed the way Leighanne was eyeing Baylee so comfortably tucked into Cheyanne’s side. He didn’t seem to hear his mother till she called again, merely offering Cheyanne a piece of paper and crayons to draw a picture together at the same time. He waved his tiny hand at Leighanne, crawling into Cheyanne’s lap. “Dat’s o’tay, Mommy. Want My Angel.”

Leighanne dropped her purse to the coffee table. "Now, Baylee. Daddy wants to spend some quality time with us. You can play with Howie's girl toy later."

Leaning close to Howie, Austin kept her eyes on Leighanne. "If Brian wants quality time, he should have left her ass at home," she whispered. "And if she calls Chey a girl toy one more time, I'm going to have to bitch slap her silicone injected body into next year."

"No!" Baylee wailed as his father came from the bedroom. "Want My Angel!"

“Scooper…” Brian trailed in confusion, glancing at Leighanne for a source of answers. He obviously hadn’t been told about his plans for that afternoon. He could only guess the uproar Leighanne had caused, judging by the disgust on Kevin, Howie, and Austin’s faces. Not to mention the way Baylee continued to cry as he tried to pull him away from Cheyanne to hold. “What’s wrong, Scooper?”

“Wan’ta stay with My Angel! P’ease Daddy?!” Baylee whimpered hard, tears already bursting from his dark sapphire eyes as he buried himself into Cheyanne’s embrace. He curled his hands into tight fists around her tank top, refusing to budge. The harder Brian tugged, the more Baylee clung to Cheyanne.

Cheyanne frowned at Baylee’s distress, actually feeling tears moisten her eyes from Baylee’s tiny body trembling against her. She had no desire to hurt him so, glancing up hopefully to the woman that obviously despised her. She remained kind and sweet as if she had no clue, knowing somewhere inside Leighanne could be kind if merely extended the hand. “Leighanne, if you just want to go out to dinner alone with Brian, I could watch--”

"I don't fucking thing so." Eyes spitting fire, Leighanne glared at the woman her son clung to. The jealousy burning within was evident to Brian as he released Baylee to stare at her. "Get one thing straight, you little inbred. I don't care that you've got Howie wrapped around your little finger, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let you anywhere near--"

"Leigh--"

"Shut up, Brian. I'll be damned if--"

"Goddammit, Leigh!" Brian exclaimed, pushing her back a few steps. "What the Hell has gotten into you?"

“THAT BITCH!” Leighanne screamed in disbelief, causing Austin to tense with a riled fire. It looked as if she might pounce, so Kevin was quick to catch her, Howie bending down to wrap his arms around Cheyanne, drawing her upward with Baylee so Leighanne wouldn’t be tempted to physically strike. But, Leighanne seemed oblivious as she stabbed a manicure finger in the air toward Cheyanne. “She’s the biggest whore that one of these idiots has brought into this family and I’ll be damned if Baylee is subjected to her nonsense! Not to mention what if he catches something from her?! Would you be a man for once and stand up to her? You called her a money grubbing whore, same as I did, Brian Thomas. Now do something--”

"She is not a money grubbing whore!" Brian exploded, stepping closer to her. "If you would look past your own ass once in a while, you would see that she is a sweet girl. Look at your son! Look at him! Have you ever seen him take a liking like that to anyone so quickly? Shit, he didn't even like you at first!" Clenching his fists, Brian stared her down, his blood boiling with sudden rage at his wife. "You listen to me, and listen good. Say one more rude thing about her, and your ass is going back home. Alone."

Leighanne was honestly flabbergasted at Brian’s hostile attitude, unable to muster a word in edgewise, her jaw hanging slightly ajar. He had never attacked her with such viciousness, usually just letting her have her own way about things. And, to be verbally reprimanded so strongly in front of a crowd was beyond humiliating. Her face was cherry red by the time Brian had finished, her head slightly shaking as if to tell him to stop. But, all she could think to do was turn on her expensive heel after ripping her purse away. “I want to talk to you outside, now!”

“You can fucking wait you damn bitch,” Brian muttered without any warning, causing Austin to sit back in awe. Only, he didn’t seem to notice, crouching down in front of Cheyanne and Baylee, who was still wrapped tightly in Cheyanne’s embrace, crying softly. Tentatively, Brian reached to rub his son’s back. “Hey, Scooper. You still want to play with your Angel today?”

"Brian," Cheyanne breathed in wonderment, beyond amazed at his taking her defense.

Sniffling, Baylee nodded almost imperceptibly, peeking at his father. "Uh-huh. Me want My Angel," he said softly.

Smiling slightly, Brian leaned in for a quick hug. "You got it. If she doesn't mind, you can have her all day, okay? Daddy has to go talk to Mommy. And how about tonight you and Daddy go to Mickey D's and play in the ball pit? Then we can go see a movie. Just you and me, Scooper."

Grinning now, Baylee nodded again. "O'tay, Daddy. My Angel go too?"

“Darlin’…” Cheyanne trailed softly, moving to wipe away the crocodile tears that still wetted his beautiful face. “Your Daddy wants to spend alone time with you tonight. You can’t have me around all the time. You’ll get bored silly.”

"Next time?" Baylee implored, sitting up fully.

"You bet," Brian said. "Now you two get back to your coloring, okay? I want some pictures to put on the bus…" he trailed with a grin, kissing his son's cheek lovingly before standing up. Looking at Cheyanne, he hesitated, then leaned over, pressing his cheek to hers. "I'm so sorry about all the things she just said," he whispered before going after Leighanne.

"How come I wasn't invited to Mickey D's and a movie?" Austin asked with a playful pout, reaching to tousle the boy's curls.

“ ‘Cause you s’eeping all the time with Kevvy,” Baylee said quite matter of fact, pulling Cheyanne back to the coffee table. Scribbling something on his first drawing, he handed it backward to Austin, then diligently found a new sheet of paper to color with Cheyanne. “ ‘Sides, I love my Angel more.”
Fanfare by Anastacia
Chapter 32 – Fanfare

The warm sun filtered through the leaves, pushing away the damp chill that had hung in the air since the morning's rain. There, nestled in the midst of one of the world's busiest cities, there was peace. Children darted along the paths, followed quickly by their mothers, splashing in the puddles and squealing with glee. College students had blankets spread on the grass, taking the opportunity to work on their tans. An elderly couple, each using a cane, leaned more on each other than the support given them by their doctor. None noticed the four people walking slowly towards the playground, a blonde toddler with them chattering incessantly. Nor did they notice the burly man walking a safe distance behind them.

"Are you glad you dragged your butt out of the bed for the afternoon?" Kevin murmured low in Austin's ear as they strolled behind Howie and Cheyanne. He had to smile at the sight of Baylee walking between them, clutching Cheyanne's hand and keeping Howie from even touching her. It was just too cute, he decided as Austin twined her fingers with his with a gentle smile, Baylee's adoration of Cheyanne. He could tell, just from watching her with him, that little Olivia would have a wonderful mother. When the younger woman turned to make sure they were still behind, he caught sight of her protruding stomach. Shifting his gaze to the woman at his side, he wondered suddenly what she would look like pregnant.

“I’m just thankful that I was actually invited out on the adventure,” Austin teased wryly, stepping closer toward Kevin, having to take two quick steps just to compare with his one. She didn’t mind though, especially as he broke their hands to wrap an arm around her shoulders, reaching with his other hand to hold hers. She had to even giggle when he bent to brush a kiss to her cheek, overjoyed with New York’s pleasant atmosphere. “I thought Baylee was going to manage to con everyone out of going but Chey. I mean, he weasels himself into her arms before anyone else has a chance to get close. He’s even taking her away from me, Pretty Boy. The only creature he lets near would be Moth…” Austin laughed though as she glanced ahead, to see Howie holding Moth’s leash as he danced excitedly beside Baylee and Cheyanne.

"Are you jealous of a two year old?" Kevin questioned with a laugh, steering her to the side to pass a stroller.

"You think? Hell, I had to wait twenty minutes to be able to snuggle with her this morning while you were on the phone with your Momma. I swear, he slept with her last night…" Austin trailed, shaking her head. "Honestly. Oh, remind me to kiss your cousin when we get back to the hotel, okay?"

"My Angel swing?" Baylee asked hopefully, tugging gently on Cheyanne's arm to lead her to the swings.

“I’d love to swing with you, Darlin’,” Cheyanne laughed as Baylee hurried the pace of his steps, hoping to get to what he thought was a primer swing. She glanced back toward Howie with a mere shrug of her bare shoulders, almost as an apology, though Baylee took the attention away immediately. Tugging on her jean capri’s, he motioned for her to sit, which she obliged, then he reached upward. “We’re swinging together, huh?” Cheyanne approved, reaching down to bring Baylee into her lap. Holding onto one of the chains, she made sure to wrap another protective arm around Baylee’s body as he circled his arms around her. Resting his head on her chest, he giggled as she started to just swing them gently within the warm breeze.

“Excuse me? You want to what?” Kevin finally asked, attempting to pull his gaze away from Cheyanne and Baylee. He couldn’t have imagined Cheyanne looking any lovelier with her long honey curls tied into a loose ponytail, several falling to frame her sweet face. Her sapphire eyes sparkled in warmth as Baylee held onto her tightly. Both actually dressed in light green tank tops, per Baylee’s request, and jean shorts, though Cheyanne wore capris. If he didn’t know better, Kevin would have thought Cheyanne was Baylee’s mother, which Brian probably would have enjoyed more. But, he was flabbergasted at his girlfriend. “Kiss my cousin? Brian? You know my cousin is Brian right?”

"Duh," Austin said, rolling her eyes as she pulled him towards a bench. "I can kiss your cousin, can't I?" she asked with a smile. She was certain, once she told him her reason, Kevin wouldn't look so much like a choking fish. But part of her enjoyed teasing him, tormenting him. Once seated, she looked up at him with a smirk. "Or do you think the Wicked Bitch of the East would kill me?"

“I… You think he’s the Spawn of Satan, why the Hell would you kiss him?” Kevin earnestly replied, still confused by the entire situation. He didn’t know whether it was jealous or disbelief, but it didn’t feel good whatsoever. Even when Howie seated beside them, just watching Baylee and Cheyanne at a close distance with Moth attempted to hop on the bench for Austin and Kevin.

"Oh Lord. You think--I want to kiss him for being sweet to Chey," Austin informed him, biting back laughter at the outrageous expression on his face. Was he jealous? Over Brian? Lifting his hand to her lips, she gently kissed the tips of his fingers. "Unless, of course, you have some kinky fantasies involving Brian?"

“God, don’t answer that. For the sake of everything pure in this world, just don’t,” Howie breathed, overhearing just a few pieces of the couple’s conversation. Though, most of his attention was a few feet away, with Baylee and Cheyanne. He wanted to go over and push the two on the swing, but mostly keep a protective eye over them. Drew may have been several feet away, but Howie still worried sincerely about Cheyanne, no matter what. But, the idea of Kevin and Brian… He voluntarily shuddered at the image, attempting to reach down to lift Moth with hopes he wouldn’t be bit.

Austin glanced over as Howie pulled Moth into his lap, perching precariously on one knee so he could keep an eye on Cheyanne. Returning her attention to Kevin, she patted his thigh reassuringly. "Don't worry, Pretty Boy. I have nothing remotely resembling an attraction to the Spawn of Satan." Leaning against him, she immediately pulled away when she saw two women near Kevin's age slowly approaching.

Kevin furled his dark, thick brows in uncertainty at Austin’s immediate change of posture. She stiffened sharply and he glanced upward, noticing the women. He tried to hide his smile, wondering what Austin was thinking, doing his best to drown the pride at her sudden streak of jealousy. “Princess, are you okay—”

“ ‘Rincess!” Baylee suddenly shouted loudly, for a moment diverting the attention from the slightly stalking lionesses. His eyes were wide with excitement as he released Cheyanne’s hand for the briefest moment, jumping slightly against her legs. “C’I have my toys? My Angel and I play kick ball!” It seemed to catch Austin’s attention, who reached to collect the bag for Baylee, though her eyes never strayed from the woman. Baylee didn’t seem to care though, producing a somewhat small rubber kickball. He grinned with triumph. “Ready, My Angel!”

“We’re going to be taking a good nap today, Darlin’,” Cheyanne laughed softly as the little boy dropped the ball to kick toward her. It shot upward easily, but she managed to bounce it down from her knee, stabilizing it beneath her foot like an advanced soccer player. Smiling, she kicked it softly toward Baylee and Moth started chase to help.

Austin watched the women pause a few feet away. Seeing Kevin's smile she gritted her teeth, quickly biting back the nasty remark on the tip of her tongue about the women. When one stepped forward, Austin saw she was holding a small baby. Looking at Kevin, she wondered if maybe he was keeping a few secrets.

"Excuse us… Kevin and Howie?" the woman asked softly, a nervous smile touching her lips. Adjusting the baby in her arms, she looked from one man to the other.

“You caught us,” Kevin answered ruefully with a handsome smile, reaching an arm around Austin’s waist to keep her planted. He could feel the protective, jealousy energy radiating from her burning aura. And, he knew if he laughed, Austin would clock him hard against the side of the face. So, he did his best to maintain, though the smirk grew against the corners of his lips. “What can we do for you?”

"See, Anna, I told you it was them!" the woman said with a soft laugh. "We thought it was you two, and we just wanted to say…"

"Say what, sweetie?" Howie asked, rising to his feet to greet them. He made sure to keep an eye on Cheyanne and Baylee, however.

"Did he just call her sweetie?" Austin whispered at Kevin, only to be ignored as he, too, rose to greet the women.

Austin felt as if she had been slapped when Kevin completely ignored her question as he reached to actually hug the two women standing in front of him. Since she had only just blossomed her relationship in private with him, she wasn’t accustomed to the lifestyle of fans just approaching. In fact, she could hardly call for Cheyanne as she slid off the bench, just waving frantically at her friend. Cheyanne stopped playing with Baylee for a moment, arching her light brows at Austin’s furious movements. She then finally noticed Howie and Kevin interacting so intently with the pretty woman. She felt her heart fall at that moment, immediately shaking her head when Austin gestured for her to come over.

With a quick sigh, Austin stepped over to stand with Kevin, tentatively touching his arm as he spoke to the women. If he dared ignore her now… All tension left quickly when he placed an arm around her shoulders, drawing her closer to him.

"…And don't think I'm being mean or anything, but I was kind of glad to hear of your divorce," the woman with the baby was saying. "But I am sorry she wasn't the one for you."

Kevin nodded in appreciation of her words. "Thanks. I think I can honestly say I've found the one now, though," he added with a quick grin, lightly squeezing Austin's bare shoulder with his fingers. Her hand landed on his chest in a gentle caress, and he was relieved she was standing by his side instead of backing away as Kristin always had.

"I can't wait for the new album," the other woman said softly, fiddling with the antenna of her cell phone. "It's been too long, you know."

"We sure hope you enjoy it," Howie said, relaxing with their conversation. Cheyanne, he noticed, was gently kicking the ball with Baylee, and Moth had gone to join them, bouncing around Baylee with enthusiasm.

"I know I will." Shifting the baby in her arms, she smiled. "I downloaded a couple of songs off the internet last week, and they just blew me away."

"What songs?" Howie and Kevin asked quickly, both eager for any fan input on the music.

"Never Gone was one, and the other was… Oh… Anna, what was the name of that song?"

“The one that Howie sang lead on,” the other woman mused with a proud smile, glancing to Howie with obvious adoration. “Your voice is just so beautiful. I don’t know why you don’t sing more… Oh! The name is right on the tip of my tongue… Oh! Welcome to My Heart--”

“Darlin’! You just squished Moth with the ball!” Cheyanne’s southern twang interrupted the conversation with a joyous laugh as the bright blue ball bounced in between the group of four adults. She hurried over as best she could, gently holding her small protruded bump of a belly. She shook her head in disbelief as Baylee giggled with hysterical delight, rushing to pick the small puppy up in his arms for an apology. Though, when she bent down, she noticed Howie quickly stooping to catch the ball for her and heard the name of her favorite song. Her sapphire eyes instantly danced with delight as she tucked the fallen honey curls behind her pierced ears. “That is the best song in the world!” But, when she noticed the two women looking at her, she blushed furiously with embarrassment. “Sorry…”

"I think so too," the woman agreed with a grin. "Honestly, though? Why don't the two of you sing more often? It's a shame--"

"Because the other three are microphone whores," Austin muttered. Clearing her throat, she smiled sweetly. "And Welcome to My Heart is Chey's song," she said softly as Baylee came rushing up, Moth at his heels. Cheeks flushed with exertion, he gazed up at the strange women shyly before tugging on Cheyanne's pant leg.

Welcome to My Heart isn’t my song,” Cheyanne disagreed with a firmer blush haunting her already rosy cheeks. She looked mortified with Austin’s declaration, till she felt a sharp tug on her capri’s that caused them to fall a few inches. With widened eyes, she glanced down to see Baylee fidgeting as he thrust his arms sharply into the air, obviously wanting held immediately. Cooing softly, she knelt to answer his request, Moth somewhat displeased, though he found entertainment by biting on Howie’s shoelaces. Cheyanne was oblivious though, kissing Baylee’s forehead several times. “You’re okay, Darlin’.”

"Is this your son?" the woman with the baby asked Howie, her eyes on Baylee. She had noticed instantly the resemblance between Cheyanne and Baylee, and didn't miss the way Howie draped his arm around her shoulders.

“Howie would kill himself if Baylee was his,” Austin laughed softly against Kevin’s shoulder, wrapping her arms around him in a playful squeeze. She couldn’t help but comment as Howie shot her a short glare. But, it was obvious that Howie was slightly jealous of Baylee, who seemed to command Cheyanne’s attention. Even now, his tiny hands curled in her tank top with his head resting so comfortably on her shoulder, hiding against her for protection. “He’d never get any loving!”

"My Angel," Baylee said softly, sneaking a glance at the two women.

"He's just so adorable."

Clearing his throat, Kevin lightly tickled Austin's neck. "Baylee is Brian's son," he explained. "We're just all taking him out for a while to give Bri a little rest."

"Oh," the women said in unison.

"Have you been fans for a while?" Cheyanne asked softly, adjusting Baylee on her hip as she gave the women a shy smile. The way they kept looking at Howie and Kevin respectively told her that at one time, they'd had the men's posters on their bedroom walls. Probably still did, she thought with a bubble of laughter.

“Is it that obvious?” Anna asked with a small laugh, continuing to anxiously play with her cell phone. “We definitely grew up on their music, but they’re beautiful men, how could you not stick with them, right? Besides, we can’t be that big of fans if we didn’t realize that Howie was going to be a Daddy so soon…” She gestured lightly toward Cheyanne’s rounded belly that Baylee was rubbing with a tender smile.

Before Austin could open her mouth with a witty response, Howie cleared his throat loudly. Drawing Cheyanne closer, he gave the women his most charming smile. "It's not really public knowledge yet. Honey's a little shy," he told them. He felt Cheyanne relax next to him, and quickly kissed the top of her head, cringing when he felt a hot, wet tongue on his ankle. "Moth… yuck," he muttered, pulling his foot away from the puppy.

“Moth want love, Uncle Howie,” Baylee whispered with a bemused smile, attempting to push Howie away from Cheyanne as the women laughed, finding the encounter far too adorable for words.

"We should get going," Anna said, reaching to take the sleeping baby from the other woman. "Come on, Kat. Hope you guys enjoy your day in the park. We'll be first in line to buy the new album when it comes out," she assured them.

“It was very nice to meet you,” Austin and Cheyanne called in unison, causing Howie and Kevin to chuckle with amusement.

"Would you kill me if I get a hug from Kevin?" Kat asked Austin with a sweet smile. "I know I'm pushing thirty, but he's my favorite--"

"I don't mind," Austin assured her, poking Kevin in the side before stepping away.

“You should consider yourself lucky, she doesn’t let just anyone hug me,” Kevin teased with a laugh, squeezing the woman and planting a friendly kiss to her cheek. “She loves me too much, y’know?”

"I can tell," Kat said with a smile, squeezing him gently before pulling away. "Thank you, so much."

"Howie," Cheyanne said softly, giving him an amused smile. When he gave her a glance, she eased his arm from around her shoulders. "I think you should give Anna a hug," she murmured, further endearing herself to the woman for remembering her name. "As long as she doesn't try to steal you away from me," she added with a delicate blush.

"I wouldn't dare," Anna assured her with a laugh as Howie gave her a quick hug. "I saw that smile you put on his face."

“You should see the smile she puts on his face after a shower…” Austin ridiculed, unable to truly help herself. Her verbal abuse seemed just as bad as Baylee’s attention stealing, causing Kevin to roll his eyes with disbelief. She was just over the top.

"Austi!" Cheyanne screeched in mortification. The two women laughed appreciatively, giving small waves before leaving. Turning to her friend, Cheyanne stared, open-mouthed at her. Struggling to find words, she finally blurted, "Howie told you?"

“City Boy and I are best friends, Chey,” Austin answered with a wicked grin of delight.

“You told her?” Cheyanne accused Howie with disbelief, pushing his arm away from her shoulders. Her cheeks tinted with sheer mortification, wanting to beat him silly at that very moment. If it wasn’t for Baylee holding onto her so tightly. Boy, was he lucky.

"No… I told Kevin," Howie said meekly, putting on his best look of innocence. "He swore he would never tell anyone…"

“Uncle Howie lie!” Baylee shrieked in defense of his favorite woman, pointing an accusatory finger. “No more My Angel for you!”

"Honey… Come on," Howie said with a nervous chuckle. "Are you saying that you don't tell Austi about the things we do?"

"Hell no she doesn't," Austin muttered.

“You are so busted,” Kevin chuckled with far more pleasure than he anticipated. Howie floundering like a fish was usually a rare sight. He was quite smooth when speaking with the female persuasion. Latin Lover had been his nickname after all. But, everything he seemed to produce around casual women seemed lost when he was with the woman he truly desired.

“I figured you’d tell the guys that we… I mean, AJ is always emphasizing, so it wasn’t a big deal… You have a lot to brag about… But I didn’t know I’d be like the ‘must see TV’ story or anything…” Cheyanne trailed as Baylee whispered in her ear about going off alone to play.

Sighing, Howie nodded timidly. "I'm so sorry, Honey… We were just talking, and he said something about how Loud Mouth over there showed her appreciation for the necklace and stuff he gave her, and I knew that couldn't compare to what you… Lord… I'm such an ass. Shoot me?"

“Get my water gun, My Angel,” Baylee announced in a loud whisper, holding a hand out when Howie even attempted to step a mere inch closer.

"Did Howie just call me Loud Mouth?" Austin asked Kevin, nudging him gently when he laughed at Baylee's request.

"Honey… I'm so sorry. Let me make it up to you. You like jewelry, don't you? I'll buy you a lot of jewelry…"

“I don’t want a lot of jewelry,” Cheyanne immediately disagreed, shaking her head with a small smile. Howie was too adorable sometimes. There was no way that she could be upset.

"Flowers, then? Chocolates? Anything, Honey. Just say the word, and--" Howie cut off abruptly when Cheyanne stepped forward, leaning up to give him a gentle kiss despite Baylee's protests.

Wriggling away, Baylee slid to the ground, his lips pursed into a pout as he looked to Austin and Kevin for help. "Kevvy, dey kissin' again," he grumbled, folding his arms over his chest.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Kevin laughed.

*~*~*


“Hey, where’s your extra sack of confection sugar that’s usually attached to your hip?” Austin announced loudly as she appeared in the living room area of the penthouse, noticing her best friend lounging on the couch, alone. It was a startling discovery to see Cheyanne alone, no one pawing for her attention. So, Austin wasted no time hurriedly rushing over to playfully launch herself onto the couch, curling down in Cheyanne’s embrace. Much like Moth did, she wiggled to get snuggled comfortably, then released a pleased sigh. She had missed being able to hold Cheyanne, especially with Howie and Baylee hogging all her attention. Moth was easy to fight off, but Howie and Baylee were wily. “Now this is beautiful.”

“You’re safe. Darlin’ is out to dinner with his Daddy,” Cheyanne explained with a rueful laugh.

"And where is your Tea?" Austin questioned carefully, looking over her shoulder. She half expected him to appear out of nowhere, demanding she move so he could take her place. "Don't tell me you're letting him shower alone?" she teased lightly, lifting her head when she heard one of the bedroom doors open. Rolling her eyes, she mentally kicked herself. "Duh, Austi! He and Kevin have that interview jigger for the charity, right?"

“Yes, Austi,” Cheyanne giggled, loving how she hardly ever had to answer the questions Austin posed, because, like always, she seemed to answer her own questions. Cheyanne just needed to confirm the details occasionally. But, her thoughts sidetracked when Howie appeared, attempting to adjust his outfit. Her breath immediately caught against the lump in her throat, amazing at how handsome he looked. The interview would be formal with a dinner, so he dressed appropriately in a black suit, golden dress shirt, and black tie. His curls were slightly gelled and messy and he was freshly shaven. She couldn’t hide her smile of pleasure as she slipped from Austin’s hold, moving to help him fix his collar and tie. “You’re gorgeous, Sweet Tea…”

"You think so?" Howie asked, brushing a dog hair off his sleeve. Moth had claimed the bed as his napping place, and when Howie had laid out his suit, the dog had instantly curled upon it, leaving tiny remembrances of himself. At Cheyanne's nod, he felt himself relax.

"Absolutely gorgeous, City Boy," Austin put in from the couch. Pulling one leg under her, she gave him a smile. "You'll be beating the women off with a stick."

"Where's the stick that Moth brought from the park?" Cheyanne questioned with a giggle, smoothing her hand over his shoulders.

“I snuck it in AJ’s bed while it was extra slobbery,” Austin confided with a proud smile, obviously quite comfortable with tormenting the man.

“Guess you wouldn’t look too dapper with a sloppy stick in your hand, huh?” Cheyanne sighed softly, reaching to fix his tie once more. She was too afraid to wrap her arms around him, nervous that she might ruin his sexual appeal. He looked so handsome. So perfect. Everything that she wasn’t. She hardly dressed up. In fact, it was a rarity to even see shoes or socks on her feet.

"I'd look great if I had you on my arm, though," Howie murmured, pulling her to him. Wishing for the thousandth time she had accepted his invitation. Pressing soft kisses along her cheek, he felt her slight tremble, cupping her face in his hands before bringing his lips to hers. "You sure you don't want to go?" he asked.

"After I just spent an hour getting ready?" Kevin stated from the doorway. "I would be so crushed if you stood me up, D."

“He’s got two arms, I’m sure he’d still hold your hand,” Austin teased, immediately popping up with delight at the sight of him. Seeing him dressed so formally warmed her entire body and she couldn’t resist wrapping her arms around him. He was perfection dressed in a crisp black suite, black dress shirt, and a bold emerald green tie with golden tiepin. The hint of bold color accented his soft green eyes with a warmth and radiance that couldn’t go unnoticed. He was flawless.

“You already have a date,” Cheyanne told Howie softly as she watched Kevin and Austin passionately embrace from the corner of her eye. Attempting to offer a brave smile, she leaned up slightly to kiss him again, smoothing her fingers over his lips as if to keep him mint. She did regret declining his invitation to the formal affair, but knew it was in their best interest. After all, she wasn’t exactly well received by the public as Nick had rudely confided and she knew she would be uncomfortable. She didn’t exactly think she fit into this portion of his life. She was better kept as a little secret.

"Don't get me wrong, Kevin is a great guy, but I just can't see myself being invited into his room for a nightcap," Howie teased, tugging playfully on one curl before giving her one last kiss. Time spent with her always flew by, and he knew they were running late. But he couldn't resist holding her next to him, feeling Olivia's gentle movements as he gently rubbed Cheyanne's back.

“Right…” Cheyanne trailed softly, having no idea what he was speaking of, but feigned an innocent smile as if she knew. Though, she noticed his gaze flicker briefly to the wall clock, realizing she was keeping him. “Have fun tonight, okay? Just… Don’t be too suave with the ladies that you don’t end up coming back to me…”

"Oooh, dessert," Austin murmured against Kevin's neck. "If they have some yummy cheesecake, Pretty Boy, sneak a slice out for me?" she asked. "Oh, and try not to embarrass Howie. Don't drink too much, either. Or say anything stupid. In fact, it may be best if you just keep your sexy mouth closed until asked a yes or no question," she teased softly, her lips moving to his earlobe. "And try to--"

“You could write a whole book on rules for me, Princess, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve done this before,” Kevin interrupted with a hearty groan, shifting to capture her lips in another quick kiss. “You just make sure that Angel lies on that couch and doesn’t move an inch. Don’t let Nick anywhere near her. Don’t let Nick get anything for her. Don’t let Nick even look at her--”

"I am perfectly capable of taking care of Chey, Pretty Boy. And as for the moving an inch, well… If she has to go take a leak, I'm certainly not going to stand in her way," Austin informed him as she walked him to the door. "Be careful. Have fun. Be sure you're ready for some loving when you--"

Kevin leaned forward to capture her lips in another sultry kiss, drowning her words with a quick caress of his tongue. He smiled wickedly at the light flush of her cheeks, affectionately rubbing her shoulder. “You sound like my wife, Austin Leigh… D, let’s go!”

"Is that a proposal, Kevin Scott?" Austin teased as Howie moved to the door.

“Would you say yes?” he countered.

"Ask me and find out." Austin's eyes glittered with amusement, though she found herself holding her breath.

“I’ll consider the proposal,” Kevin chuckled, already knowing what her answer would be. In fact, he probably would have hit his knee in a mere instant if it wasn’t for being legally declared divorced from his wife and not having the proper ring to adorn her finger. He attempted to brush those thoughts aside though, glancing to Howie. “Did you get enough support from Baylee’s Angel?”

"He's all yours," Cheyanne assured him, hugging Howie tightly one final time. "Y'all have fun, okay?"

"You sure you two won't be bored? I mean, here you are in New York--"

"Good Lord, just go. If we get bored, we'll start swapping sex stories," Austin said, shooing them into the hall. "Love you," she cooed to Kevin.

Cheyanne watched with slight trepidation as Austin closed the door on their men, forcing them to proceed to their benefit for the evening. It hurt every time she watched Howie leave, no matter how short the duration. She allowed Austin to lead her back to the couch no less, easing down amongst the pillows. Chewing on her bottom lip, she rubbed her stomach to ease the queasiness that she felt. “He’s going to have a good time, isn’t he?”

"I'm sure he'd rather be right here with you," Austin assured her, curling up next to her. "The poor man didn't want to leave. Now. What are we going to do?" she asked softly. She had already checked the guide to see what was coming on, and nothing had sparked her interest. "Want to order up oodles of food and gorge ourselves until they get back?" Lifting her head as a bedroom door slammed, she groaned. "Ah, shit fire and save matches. Those two stooges are still here."

“Don’t mention them, otherwise--”

“Ladies!” Nick announced loudly as if he had heard himself being mentioned through conversation, sauntering into the living room with a bold smile. He had been waiting like a wild animal stalking its prey, watching for Howie’s shadow to dissipate from the penthouse. And, when the coast was clear, he pounced, making a signal to AJ that it was time to amuse themselves. “What are we doing this evening? No boyfriends to entertain?”

"Well, actually--"

"We were planning on entertaining each other, so if you don't mind…" Austin trailed suggestively, snuggling closer to Cheyanne.

It took a moment for her words to register, then Nick's eyes widened. "Oh, yeah? Don't you think it would be much better if you let me entertain you?" he asked.

"Are you going to break into song and dance?" Cheyanne queried with a soft laugh, playfully pushing Austin away.

"Please, no one needs to endure that torture," AJ said as he strolled in. "Especially when everyone knows I'm the better dancer," he added with a smile before flopping next to Austin. "Whaddya say, babe? Want me to show you my moves?"

“I don’t think you could possibly measure up to Kevin’s remarkable standards,” Austin answered smoothly, propping her legs on the coffee table. “Not to mention width, length, power, and stamina…”

"Ouch. Score one for Austi," Nick said with a grin. Easing himself down beside Cheyanne, he casually draped his arm across her shoulders, only to snatch it back quickly when he felt fingernails pinching his skin. "Ow! That hurt!"

"Good," Austin hissed. "Hands off the merchandise."

"We could play a game," Cheyanne piped up. "I saw a bunch of board games in the--"

"Cards?" AJ offered quickly. "We could play poker…"

“Poker?” Cheyanne repeated, immediately wrinkling her nose in distaste for the suggestion. “I’ve never played that before…”

Leaning forward, Nick met AJ's eyes, his own gleaming with sudden interest. An unspoken question was sent to his friend, and they both immediately grinned.

"Strip poker!" they cried in unison.

"Holy Hell. No," Austin insisted.

"It's easy," Nick assured Cheyanne. "I'll tell you each hand what to do."

“No,” Austin emphasized with a sharp growl, immediately moving to pull Cheyanne off the couch. “The only thing easy about that game is how you’d be able to get her naked. You’ll just be telling her how to remove her clothes during each hand. So, no. No way in Hell. Howie would murder you and Lord knows we can’t have the microphone whores maimed in any way.”

"What's the matter, Princess?" AJ questioned, a playful gleam in his eye. "Scared you'll lose?" He knew she would never be able to turn down the offer after hearing that. Knew that she had a competitive spirit.

"Scared I'll lose? Please. I could beat your skinny ass at poker with one hand behind my back." Intrigued at the challenge, Austin let her hands fall from Cheyanne's, resting them on her own hips in a defiant stance.

"As long as it's reaching back there to unhook your bra, babe," AJ informed her, getting to his feet. "Nick, get the cards."

“Austin…” Cheyanne trailed with worry as they all moved toward the dining area, removing the place settings and whatnot to give them ample room. She didn’t know what to say as AJ and Austin immediately took their seats, defiantly staring at one another. In the pit of her stomach, Cheyanne knew this was beyond all bad ideas ever conjured, but Austin could never resist a challenge. Especially by a man.

“Chey, sit down, we’re kicking some ass,” Austin barked.

“But you just said…”

“Chey, sit!”

“I don’t know how to play…”

"Don't worry, Sweetheart," Nick assured her, holding a chair out for her. "I'll make sure you don't lose." Tossing the deck to AJ, he claimed the chair next to her, drumming his hands on the table with excitement. "We need snacks. And drinks." Tipping his chair back, he snatched the phone off the base as Austin began demanding that she shuffle. This was almost too easy, he thought with a grin as he dialed room service.

“Well… How’s does this work anyway?” Cheyanne drawled as she watched Austin hurriedly cut the deck, tossing out each person’s divvy of cards, catching them underneath her hands. Usually, when Billy and Jeff declared a night of cards, Cheyanne would merely sit by Jeff’s side, watching the movie they rented to go along with the festivities. She just didn’t truly pay attention when it came to such frivolous games of debauchery. Though, now she feared she’d be paying the ultimate price as AJ and Nick rushed toward the door for the quick room service. “Austi… Can you just toss me some Ace’s, ‘cause they’re good, right?”

"That's cheating!" AJ declared loudly, returning to the table with a tray of sodas and ice. "You can't cheat, baby girl," he insisted, reclaiming his seat.

"And why not?" Cheyanne asked sweetly, oozing southern charm as she gave him a smile.

"'Cause he plans on cheating," Nick said, dropping the bags of chips on the table before sitting. Draping one arm on the back of Cheyanne's chair, he reached for his cards. "C'mon, lemme see what you got."

“Why am I so afraid that you’re going to be mighty accustomed to that phrase by the end of this game?” Cheyanne sighed softly, picking her cards up in a pile and offering them toward Nick. She watched him fan them out in a decorative display in his large hands, glancing over her hand. She wrinkled her nose as if she were staring at a complex physics problem, leaning over his shoulder as Austin and AJ stared each other down like aggressively territorial beasts. So, Cheyanne knew she only had Nick to rely on. “Are they good?”

"Ah, shit," Austin muttered next to her, causing Cheyanne to glance at her. Slapping her cards down on the table, she glared at AJ. "You stacked the deck!"

"You're the idiot that shuffled, not me!" AJ countered. "What'd you get?"

"Bite my--"

"Are they okay?" Cheyanne asked Nick, saw he was plucking two out of her hand. "But they're--"

"Trust me, you'll have better luck with those three," Nick assured her, tossing the pair of Queens face down on the table. Giving her his most charming smile, he handed the three low numbers back to her before reaching for his own cards.

Cheyanne nodded softly, shifting slightly in her chair as she eyed her layer of cards. She didn’t know exactly what was in her hand, but hoped that Nick wouldn’t purposely sabotage her, especially considering how invested Austin was in the game. So, she just waited patiently as Nick sifted through his own cards, making quick decisions. Chewing on her bottom lip, Cheyanne finally reached over Nick for a cup of ice to chew on. “How do we know who wins?”

"Whoever has the best hand. Everybody else has to take off one piece of clothing," Nick said softly, glancing at AJ. When AJ simply sat there, staring at his hand, he impatiently slapped the table. "Dude, it's your go!"

"I'm staying," AJ informed him with irritation creeping into his voice. Waving his hand over the table slowly, he rolled his eyes. "What do you think this means?"

"You're a fucking idiot?"

“Down boys,” Austin growled, looking as if she might jump into the battle to settle both men back into their seats. Hard. She wanted to play a wholesome game of sheer entertainment value, not argue who’s penis was a longer length.

“Well, how do you know what’s the best hand?” Cheyanne questioned again as everyone went through the motions, Nick playing with his cards as well as hers, until everyone was ready to show their hands. Shrugging, Cheyanne laid her cards on the table as instructed, sitting back in wonderment.

"I win!" AJ shouted triumphantly, grinning from ear to ear. "Thought you knew how to play?" he teased Austin, a wicked gleam in his eyes as he looked her over. Seeing the angry look on her face, he quickly glanced down, assessing the clothing situation. "I think you need to lose the jeans, babe…"

"So Austi's the only one who has to take off something?" Cheyanne asked sweetly, brightening at the idea. Maybe, with Nick's help, she wouldn't lose so many clothes…

“Oh, no, Babe, everyone who looses sheds a piece of clothing,” AJ chuckled with obvious delight and amusement over the situation. His dark brown eyes quickly glanced toward her for emphasis, though he immediately turned back to Austin while scooping up the cards for his deal. “Let’s go, Baby Girl, I want those jeans.”

“Wait… He gets to pick?” Cheyanne frowned. “We can’t choose?”

With a huff, Austin scraped back her chair, grateful she was wearing one of Kevin's oversized baggy t-shirts. Reaching for her fly, she glanced over at Nick and saw he was making wild hand gestures to AJ, blatantly pointing to Cheyanne's shirt. "Oh Hell no," she said, shaking her head. "If I lose my pants, everybody loses their pants."

"Is that an invitation?" AJ grinned, leaning back in his chair to look at her.

“Only in your wet dreams, Skinny,” Austin growled, hurriedly unzipping her jeans. She let them fall to the floor with a soft whoosh, Kevin’s baggy t-shirt falling to kiss the middle of her thighs, leaving AJ to barely peek at her unmentionables. He immediately frowned at the dissipation of excitement, which caused her to grin as she stooped carefully to retrieve her jeans. She then tossed them to the middle of the table, seating herself modestly. “Let’s go, Boobah. Pants. Now.”

"Ladies first," Nick insisted, waving to Cheyanne before reaching for a bag of cheetos.

"But… But… Don't you think it would be better if you went first?" Cheyanne squeaked, trying to delay the inevitable as long as possible. "I mean… You can show me how it's done," she added with a simper that would have made Scarlett O'Hara proud.

“Carter, let’s go,” AJ barked with annoyance, hurriedly shuffling the deck. “It isn’t like you don’t walk your lard ass around this penthouse in just a pair of boxers. We’ve seen your goods so many times that they seem like part of the fucking family. So, let’s go.”

Rolling his eyes, Nick sucked the cheesy powder off his fingers, getting to his feet. "Wait a minute… What if I'm not wearing boxers?" he asked, eyes wide. "I mean, I wouldn't want to put you to shame, J…"

“Either you do it or I do it for you, because, I’m definitely not waiting to sneak a glimpse at your fat ass when we’ve got beautiful ladies on either side,” AJ growled menacingly.

Muttering a curse, Nick yanked his sweatpants down, dropping into his chair to kick them off as Austin made gagging noises. "Shut up," he grumbled, rolling his pants up to toss in the center of the table. "Need some help?" he asked Cheyanne, once again reaching for the cheetos.

“I’m fully capable of undressing myself,” she promised, immediately slipping of out her chair, her cheeks already flushing as she glanced downward. She was still wearing her green maternity tank top that bared just a small inch of her growing abdomen and her low-riding, jean capris, so there was no way to spare the men’s gazes from her undergarments. Sighing softly, she undid the button fly, easing the jeans from her body. Oblivious to Nick’s closeness, she bent down to grasp her jeans from the floor, fully exposing her small, round behind to him. The firmness of her gluteus muscles seeming to charm Nick from underneath her cherry printed bikini briefs.

"Cheyanne Grace!" Austin screeched, leaning over to gently push her back into the chair. "Sweet Jesus, girl, you had your ass in Boobah's face!"

“What?” Cheyanne breathed in confusion as she folded her capris, placing them on the pile.

“Lord have mercy how’d I ever let her keep them britches on?” Nick panted out of no where, slumping in his seat to furiously rub his face as if to imprint the memory in his brain.

Leaning over AJ, Austin retrieved a glass of ice and a canned Pepsi. "Would you go ahead and deal already?" she muttered, her can rolling from her hand when she felt his fingers on the hem of her t-shirt. Swatting him away as though he were an offending fly, she shot him an icy glare before retrieving her can. Luckily for AJ, Moth scrambled into his lap at that exact moment. Not wanting to frighten the poor dog, she instead grumbled a list of expletives as she sat back, angrily popping the top of her can. "Deal!"

“Just making sure you didn’t have any testicles considering you’re so damn testy,” AJ chuckled with amusement, scratching behind Moth’s ears to thank his savior. Unable to erase the wicked grin from his face, he merely shrugged, hurriedly tossing out the necessary amount of cards, and snuck Moth a pretzel off the table.

"Austi? Have testicles?" Cheyanne repeated, clapping one hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter.

"Kevin doesn't strike me as the sort who would enjoy that," Nick muttered, reaching for his cards. However, instead of red diamonds and hearts, he saw cherries. Clearing his throat, he looked around the table. "Who goes first?"

“Nick… Make sure I have a good hand this time,” Cheyanne emphasized as Austin volunteered. Leaning over his broad shoulder, she rested her chin against him, holding out her cards. “Please?”

Glancing briefly at her cards, Nick automatically pointed two out. "Get rid of those," he said softly, watching in horror as she did so. Holy shit… The girl had three Kings in her hand. Fuck, fuck, fuck… And when he saw the two cards AJ dealt her he nearly groaned.

"Nick?" AJ interrupted his thoughts, his tone bored. "Sometime today, man…"

“I’m making sure she has the best hand possible,” Nick sharply answered, glaring at his older friend. AJ immediately held his hands up in mock innocence, though Nick turned his gaze back to their sets of cards. He had no idea how he was possibly going to make this work. “Unlike you, J, I’m not here to see her naked.”

"I'm not here to see Chey naked," AJ intoned seriously. Leaning close to Austin, he rested his head on her shoulder. "I'm here to see Baby Girl naked."

“You are so lucky that Moth is covering your twig and giggle-berries,” Austin hissed, rolling her shoulder sharply to drop his head from her shoulder. The sudden movement almost caused him to fall from his chair, causing Moth to yelp. Austin reached immediately to catch the puppy, curling him into her embrace for means of protection.

"I'm telling ya," AJ whispered conspiringly to Cheyanne, reaching into his pocket to pull out his cigarettes. Tapping one out, he tucked it in the corner of his mouth, his brown eyes vivid with amusement. "I get no respect."

"And kindly take that damn cancer stick out on the balcony. I'll not have you ruining Ollie's lungs," Austin said with a superior air, adjusting Moth against her chest.

“If he wants to smoke, I have no problem folding my hand or whatever you call it,” Cheyanne instantly offered, placing her cards on the table and moving to stand. She found it slightly amusing that Austin now termed it a cancer stick, when she had been an avid smoker just months before. But, wanting the best for Cheyanne and Olivia, she quit, especially considering how dangerous it was and how sick it made Cheyanne. “I can go watch a movie in Howie’s room--”

"No, stay!" Nick requested, reaching to catch her arm. "AJ can go outside. He really shouldn't be smoking in here anyway." Shooting his friend a quick glare, he eased Cheyanne back in her chair. "Come on, you're going to win this hand…" Giving her an endearing smile, he snatched up her cards and handed them to her.

“So this one is better than the last?” Cheyanne asked hopefully as AJ moved for a quick cigarette break. Her sapphire eyes sparkled hopefully at the thought of winning, reaching to affectionately kiss his cheek. If she won, she would let Austin have the selection of clothing to be lost, knowing it would delight her best friend.

The heat of her lips on his cheek elicited a grunt from Nick. "Oh. Yeah," he muttered, remembering all too well the hand she had. With a sigh, he glanced over at AJ's cards, half tempted to reach over and—

"Touch my cards and you're dead, Carter," AJ warned from the doorway.

Rolling his eyes, Nick petulantly drummed his fingers on the table, wrinkling his nose when he saw Austin making kissing faces at Moth. "Does Kevin know you make out with dogs?"

“He enjoys the doggy breath,” Cheyanne giggled with amusement as Austin flipped her middle finger sharply toward Nick as if she wanted him to sit on it and rotate. “Says it reminds him of home… Or maybe that was Brian waking him up on Christmas morning… Not sure, really…”

"Brian doesn't have dog breath," AJ defended from his place just outside the door. "Actually, his breath is rather minty first thing in the morning--"

"And you would know this how?" Nick questioned incredulously, turning to stare at AJ.

“Don’t get jealous, Lover, I always come to you every night,” AJ responded with a growl of appreciation toward Nick, taking several deep puffs before crushing the butt of his cigarette into the railing before returning.

"Holy Hell," Austin groaned before dissolving into laughter, her laughter increasing to guffaws of glee at Nick's beet red face. Cheyanne looked slightly confused but giggled in appreciation. Composing herself, Austin leaned over to place Moth on the floor, watching him scurry towards his food bowl before looking at AJ. "I always thought you walked funny… Can we continue the game now?"

“Sure,” AJ agreed, flopping down into his seat. Leaning back, he licked his lips toward Nick, loving to egg on the younger counterpart. “What do you have, Hot Stuff?”

"Y'know what, Aje? You can go to Hell… And I have a pair of tens," Nick muttered, tossing his cards over with a rueful sigh. Looking to Cheyanne, he reached for a drink.

“You knocked my ass out,” AJ sighed, throwing his meaningless hand toward the table. “Chey?”

“Three Kings, that’s good right?” Cheyanne asked excitedly, pressing her hand to the table.

"You got three Kings with an Ace kicker and you're asking if it's good?" Austin asked with a groan, tossing her hand down. "Trust the one who's never played poker before…"

"I won?" Cheyanne turned to Nick, grinning widely. "I won! Whooo!"

“Yeah, whoo!” Nick sarcastically returned, holding his can of soda in the air as if he were toasting, quickly chasing down any foul words with the bubbly caffeinated beverage.

“You’re fantastic!” Cheyanne cooed nonetheless, throwing her arms around him to press several kisses to his face. “Thank you, Nicky!”

"Okay, enough with the Boobah love! Seriously, your lips are going to rot if you keep kissing him… What have I got to take off now?" Austin asked, mentally assessing her outfit. Holy Hell, why hadn't she worn more clothes? All she had on was Kevin's t-shirt, a camisole, and a little pair of lacy thongs that didn't amount to much. "Chey? Chey! For the love of all things Holy, please stop kissing the man!"

“Hey, you pipe down over there!” Nick growled, flipping his own bird toward Austin while curving his arm around the small of Cheyanne’s back. He felt his heart flutter with excitement at the feeling of her silky lips across his skin, suddenly cursing Howie for being such a lucky bastard.

“You could--”

“Don’t even finish that sentence, Skinny, ‘cause Moth isn’t your lap protector anymore,” Austin threatened sharply.

“Damn…”

“Oh!” Cheyanne suddenly giggled, finally pulling herself away from Nick’s embrace, though his hand still lingered on her body. “I want your…” Cheyanne glanced toward her friend’s wardrobe with a worried pout, knowing she couldn’t humiliate Nick and AJ without humiliating Austin. “Favorite piece of jewelry?”

Nick bit back a groan. "But I'm not wearing--"

"Sounds good to me," Austin said, reaching behind her neck to unclasp her necklace.

"Here, allow me--"

"Touch me and you'll be singing falsetto for ten years, Skinny."

“Is that what you said to Howie when he first nailed your precious little girl?” AJ huffed in surprise, leaning back as he stripped off his favorite necklace. “Because, he doesn’t need any help in that department, though, he seems a little more high pitched now since visiting you…”

"Ugh, AJ, you are such an asshole. Here," Austin said, turning her back to him and sweeping her hair up to expose her neck. "I can't get it, Chey's too busy laughing and I'm not about to let Nick touch me with those dickbeaters of his."

“My pleasure,” AJ growled with delight, bending to nibble on the chain. Only, Austin’s sharp elbow into his thin stomach caused the wind to catch in his lungs, causing him to squeak. Unable to catch a breath, he muttered a high pitched curse, unclasping the necklace and hurriedly tossing it to the clothes.

"You want to deal?" Nick asked Cheyanne, handing her the deck after tossing his watch in the pile.

"Um… Sure," Cheyanne said softly. Leaning back in her chair, she cleared her throat when she felt his hand still lingering on her back, smiling sweetly when he pulled it away. Passing out the cards, she yelped when Moth licked her ankle. Leaning over, she scooped him up, giving him a quick cuddle before pushing him into Nick's lap. Resuming her dealing, she glanced over to see Moth try to get to the snacks Nick had stashed before him, succeeding in only knocking the cards she'd dealt the man to the floor.

“I got them,” Nick assured, booting the puppy back to the floor as he snuck another cheese curl into his mouth. Stooping down, he noticed that his cards had fluttered underneath Cheyanne’s chair. Reaching to collect the cards, his eyes couldn’t help but linger on Cheyanne’s long legs. She had them crossed daintily at the ankle, causing the well defined muscles tighten slightly. The warm glow of a light tan warmed her skin all the way up her lean thighs, disappearing beneath her bikini briefs. He could only imagine how she managed to evade tan lines so easily. Then Nick could only imagine how those silky, powerful legs would feel wrapped around his body as he throttled her with ecstasy. Wanting a taste, he ran his hand over her lower calf, smiling at how silky smooth it was. “Damn, you’re like cream…”

Nick!” Cheyanne yelped in surprise at the feeling of his gentle caress, causing the cards to spurt from her hands, fluttering in every direction for a messy game of fifty-two pick up. “What are you doing?!”

Leaning over, AJ peered under the table, letting loose a low whistle when he saw Nick copping a feel. "Dude, Howie's gonna--"

"Y'know," Nick continued, ignoring AJ as he moved his hand upward. "You really should get a tattoo. Right… About… There," he said, sucking his bottom lip between his teeth as he pressed his thumb to her inner thigh. Beneath his finger he felt her muscles tighten, heard her soft squeal of surprise at having his hand so close to her intimate areas. Smirking, he let himself visualize how those muscles would tighten further, how her squeals would turn into screams of delight as he—

"Nick!"

“If you don’t get your hand off her thigh, I’m going to have to rip your dick off, ram it in your ass, then take your testicles and shove them down your throat till you start choking,” Austin threatened sharply as she collected the cards on the floor, glancing over to see where Nick’s hands had landed. She felt her face flush with anger as she reached to point the thongs for the bucket of ice threatening toward his bulge. “I swear to God, Nick--”

"Alright, alright! Sheesh! I was just teasing, you don't have to go pulling a Lorena Bobbitt on me!" Nick cried, backing away from Cheyanne's delectable legs. Crawling into his chair, he released a quick sigh, one hand snaking across to snatch up AJ's cigarettes. "I'll be back," he announced as Cheyanne tried to straighten the deck.

“Bathroom and a Playboy Magazine might help you better!” AJ called with a wild hyena-like laugh of sheer hilarity.

Pausing at the door, Nick turned to give his friend a grin. "Playboy's for wimps, J… I read Hustler!"

“He’ll still be jacking off to the image of Chey’s thighs later tonight,” AJ stressed to Austin with a wiggle of his eyebrows. “I caught him in the bathroom when you two girls first got here and Baylee claimed Chey territory.”

"You know what, AJ? The mental image of Nick jacking off followed by the mental image of Nick jacking off coupled with Baylee's name is really not a good thing," Austin said with a roll of her eyes. Propping her elbow on the table, she gave him a smile. "And you? Have you done any jacking off since we arrived?"

“Can we keep our number of masturbations as well as technique, location, and length to a bare minimum?” Cheyanne announced with a frown, wrinkling her nose in distaste as she hurriedly flipped out the cards. She could still feel Nick’s hand between her thighs, causing her to shiver with slight annoyance. Thank God Howie wasn’t there…

"Aw, Chey-Chey, you ruin all the fun," Austin teased with a giggle. "Would you rather talk about the mutual masturbation you seem to enjoy?"

“I don’t masturbate,” Cheyanne mumbled, dropping her gaze immediately as her cheeks flushed crimson.

"So what do you do?" AJ pressed, leaning close. "I mean, Howie said you guys can't bang the headboard, and he's still smiling, so you have to do something."

“We can’t bang the headboard?” Cheyanne repeated in confusion as everyone gathered their cards for assessment, her sapphire eyes glazed with innocence.

"You can't grind his--"

"You can't have sex?!" Nick asked, eyes wide. "You mean you and Howie--"

“Thanks, Austin Leigh,” Cheyanne snapped with a small amount of hurt, immediately concentrating her gaze on her cards, feeling the feverish burn of her cheeks. She didn’t understand why her sex life was so interesting, much less the fact why Austin and Howie seemed so keen on using it as pillow talk.

"You know, if Howie can't rise to the occasion, I'd be more than happy to--"

"For God's sake, drop it, Nick!" Austin cried, leaning over AJ to embrace her friend quickly. "I'm so sorry, Chey-Chey. Honest, I was just teasing. All in good fun. You know I'd never--Skinny, you better get your damn hand off my ass--purposely try to hurt your feelings."

“You’ve got on black lace thongs for Christ’s sakes, like that wasn’t an open invitation!” AJ snorted loudly, shuffling his cards.

Rolling her eyes, Austin kissed Cheyanne's cheek gently. "I sorry," she cooed, sliding back to her seat. Pausing halfway, she shot an irritated glare at AJ. "Kindly remove your hand from my thigh. Or I'll be forced to--"

"To what?" AJ wanted to know immediately.

“Tell Pretty Boy,” Austin threatened coolly.

AJ grinned. "Yeah? Do you think he'd blame me?" he asked gruffly, slowly sliding his hand up.

"Oh Lord," Cheyanne muttered, shaking her head in disbelief. "The man wants to die."

“Then I’ll take care of it,” Austin growled, grasping AJ’s hand and bending it backward in an awkward position without the hint of warning. AJ immediately shrieked in pain, but Austin merely delighted in the sound, kicking on his chair to throw him backward on the floor. Stunned. “Don’t mess with me, you skinny asshole.”

Tapping his cards against the table, Nick reached for his soda. "Are we playing a card game or not? Jesus, J… Get your ass off the floor…"

“I fold…” AJ squeaked, just staring up at the ceiling with disbelief, refusing to move for fear that he was paralyzed.

“Good, then I win,” Nick decided with a hoot of delight, throwing his cards to the table to display a straight flush. He immediately started to do several pelvic thrusts of triumph, motioning toward Cheyanne with wicked delight. “I want the shirts. Let’s go!”

Groaning, Austin stood, glancing down at AJ's prone form. "Oh, please, I barely freaking touched you," she said, nudging his leg with her bare foot. "You could at least show some enthusiasm for the strip show I'm about to perform…"

“Y’know, if you caused him spinal cord damage, he’d have an overwhelming amount of enthusiasm for your strip show,” Cheyanne educated with amusement, thankful that Austin had diverted the attention away from her. “Men get priapisms with spinal cord damage… Just a fancy word for erection.”

"I've got an erection alright… But it's not from any spinal cord damage," AJ muttered, pulling himself to his feet. Turning his chair right, he sat down, facing Austin fully. "Alright, Baby Girl… I've got some fifty dollar bills waiting to get in those thongs!"

“Well, pull them out,” Austin insisted, smirking as AJ immediately reached to thumb through his wallet. Preoccupied with his busywork, he never noticed Austin peel off her baggy t-shirt, exposing her sleek black cami and matching black lace thongs. He could only mutter a sharp curse when he glanced up to be faced with Austin’s bare rounded behind, swaying seductively before rubbing against him. “Let’s go, Skinny, I want some fifties!”

"Austin Leigh!" Cheyanne shrieked in horror, hiding her face at the sight of her friend's antics. "What the Hell are you doing?!" Peeking between her fingers, she was duly mortified to see AJ's hand sliding over Austin's hip, tucking a crisp bill inside the elastic of the thongs as though it were nothing out of the ordinary.

“Making money for Ollie’s college fund!” Austin emphasized, seating herself on AJ’s lap with amusement. She languidly wrapped her arms around his neck, feeling another crisp bill slide against her opposite hip and then against the ‘T’ back of her thongs. “Skinny and I have an understanding, Chey.”

“Yeah, that you’re both going to buried ten feet under when Kevvy finds out,” Cheyanne threatened, shaking her head in disbelief.

"Looks like the bathroom and a Playboy are in order for AJ," Nick murmured, reaching to tug lightly on the hem of Cheyanne's tank top.

"Why the Hell would I need a Playboy, when I've got this sexy thing in my lap?" AJ questioned, letting his fingers trace the front of Austin's thongs before tucking another bill there. Holding his hand against it, he took the opportunity to nuzzle her neck, felt her tense slightly at his touch. Encouraged, he rested his other hand on her thigh. "You've got two hundred already, Baby Girl… Want some more?" he asked suggestively.

“I’m satisfied,” Austin stated easily, removing herself from AJ’s lap as if she were a feline who lost interest in her favorite toy. Plucking the bills from her underwear, she smiled and affectionately kissed his cheek. “But, thanks for the ride. It’ll fuel me up to give Pretty Boy some extra hard loving.”

Adjusting the aching bulge in his jeans, AJ cleared his throat loudly. "Glad to know one of us is satisfied," he muttered, making a mental note to keep his iPod volume as high as it would go when he got in bed. He certainly didn't want to hear the noises coming from Kevin's room later. "Your turn, Chey," he said, turning to look at her.

"Woo hoo!" Nick cried, still tugging on Cheyanne's tank top. "C'mon, Sweetheart… Off with the shirt!"

Cheyanne immediately attempted to push Nick’s hands away from her shirt, blushing furiously with embarrassment. “I only have a bra underneath and I don’t think you want to see a bloated whale…”

"You're far from a bloated whale," Nick assured her, pulling his hands away so he could enjoy the view fully. "Besides," he added with a gregarious grin, "I think pregnant women are the most beautiful women on the planet."

“Besides, you’re such a tiny little thing, Chey-Chey, and that bump ain’t no bigger than Baylee’s tiniest kickball,” Austin laughed.

“But…” Cheyanne was at a loss for words, exhaling softly as Nick made her stand. She adjusted her bikini briefs slightly, finally reaching for the hem of her tank top. There was no possible way that she could just run away from the situation. So, holding her breath, she peeled away the final layer of clothing.

"Trust me, D, they've probably gone to bed," Kevin's voice said softly from the opening door in the living room. "I told you not to worry," he continued as keys rattled and the door shut with a thump. "Princess won't let Nick get within ten feet of her…"

"I know… I think I'll go get her a drink to go with the cherry cheesecake I got her," Howie's voice replied, and the four in the dining room heard his footsteps nearing.

“Good God,” AJ breathed in horror, watching Nick jump up to help Cheyanne with her tank top, which was already peeled away, leaving Nick in a precarious situation. And, AJ would not be involved in that massacre, considering the large bulge already throbbing in Nick’s boxers. Immediately snatching his cigarettes from the table, he fell back in his chair, causing it to slap hard to the woodwork. Stumbling backward from the table, he raced hard toward the balcony, leaping outward as if the room were about to blow up. Then, furiously closing the glass doors, blocking them with the chairs as means of defense.

"Pussy," Austin muttered under her breath as Howie stepped in.

Jerking to a stop, Howie did a double take when the scene before him registered. The dining table, littered with cards, empty soda cans, chips, and, most importantly, a pile of clothes. Austin perched in a chair wearing only a cami and thongs, stuffing money into her cleavage. Cheyanne… Standing in only her panties and bra, her face stricken with shock. Nick, standing right next to her, one hand on her chest, the other clutching her tank top… Wearing a pair of boxers… "What the fuck?" he sputtered.

“THIS IS NOT WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE!” Nick screeched, glancing down to his hands. Jerking away from Cheyanne, he tossed her tank top across the room as if that would hide the evidence, and then popped his hands up as if he had been cornered by police. He attempted to shift slightly to hide his growing erection from feeling Cheyanne’s supple breasts, but it seemed impossible to hide something so palpable.

"What the Hell's going on?" Kevin asked, stepping into the room. His hand shot up to catch the article of clothing flying his way, and he looked down at it, brows furrowed. "Well, Hell, Angel, you could have waited until I got in the room before you started stripping," he said with a chuckle, his humor dying instantly when he saw the disarray before him.

"Not what it looks like? I suppose there's a perfectly logical explanation as to why my girlfriend is half naked! Honey, what's going on?" Howie asked heatedly, quickly taking assessment of her appearance. "Nick," he growled, seeing a large smear of orange powder on Cheyanne's thigh. Glaring at the younger man, he stepped forward. "You little--"

“HEY! CHILL OUT!” Nick shrieked, falling back into the large table as Howie advanced. “Why do you automatically think it’s my hands on her inner thigh! I mean, AJ high-tailed it outta here like a bat outta Hell the second he heard your voice! It was him!”

"AJ's hands aren't as big as yours," Austin said simply from her seat, biting back a laugh. At Nick's horrified stare, she shrugged. "What? It's true!"

“Don’t even make me get into what you were doing!” Nick threatened sharply, though it turned to a sharp squeak when Howie’s fist wrapped into his shirt, yanking him to his knees. “Damnit, D! She was ALL OVER ME! Leaning on my shoulder, kissing me, sticking her sweet ass in my face--”

"I thought you were supposed to keep Angel on the sofa?" Kevin asked Austin, stepping over to give Cheyanne her shirt. "She wasn't supposed to move an inch, remember? And we find her in here… Both of you half naked… AJ standing out on the balcony fully dressed… Jesus, Princess, what the Hell got into you?"

"Me?! Blame those two pissfucks! It was all their idea!"

“And yet you went along with it?” Kevin exclaimed with disbelief as Howie yanked Nick into the living room for a private moment. Kevin remained ignorant to whatever happened there, rifling through the pile of clothing. He handed Cheyanne her pants and then tossed Austin’s items of clothing at her. “And what the Hell are you doing showing them those thongs I bought you?! …You’re grounded!”

"Grounded?" Austin repeated, staring at him. "What do you mean, grounded?" Yanking on her shirt, she stood, reaching to grab her necklace off the table as Cheyanne meekly pulled her pants on.

“It means exactly what it sounds like!” Kevin exploded, reaching to grasp the expensive necklace before she could get her hands on it. In fact, he scooped up AJ’s necklace as well, tucking it in his back pocket. “Get to the bedroom, Austin Leigh. Now.”

“But--”

NOW!”

Stepping into her jeans, Austin looked over at Cheyanne. "Are you going to be okay?" she asked softly, backing towards the door.

“I’ll be fine…” Cheyanne trailed with a docile nod, watching Kevin lift Austin into his arms to lumber toward their room. Exhaling a slightly painful breath, she buttoned the fly of her jeans, glancing to see AJ still waiting out on the balcony, smoking several cigarettes in a long chain. Knowing he wouldn’t be any help, she moved to start cleaning the table, ignoring the final whelp released from Nick.

The balcony door eased open, AJ leaning in carefully. "Psst! Chey! Is it safe?" he whispered loudly.

Cheyanne lifted her head from her task, glancing to the door when Howie stepped in. He shot a hateful glare at AJ, who quickly shut the balcony door and replaced the chairs for his safety. Worriedly chewing her bottom lip, she stacked the glasses on the tray. "Did you hit him?" she asked softly, sneaking a glance at Howie's face.

"Austi beat me to it…"

“He was being really nice tonight. He was helping me play the game, because I didn’t know how… Without him I probably would have been naked…” Cheyanne attempted to defend the youngest man, though Howie’s eyes told her not to go any further. Sighing softly, she let her shoulders slump forward. “Are you mad at me?”

"How could I be mad at you, Honey?" he asked honestly, stepping over to her. Taking the tray from her hands, he set it down on the table, pulling her to him. "If I'd walked in and seen you giving him a lap dance, I wouldn't be mad at you… Nick, however… Well, let's just say he won't be bothering you again." Cupping her face gently, he gave her a smile, brushing her lips with his. "But why did you get dressed? I was hoping we could take a shower…"

“Austin gave AJ the lap dance… I just had Nick suggest where would be the best place for a tattoo…” Cheyanne confessed, curling her arms around his neck with relief. “But why are you back so early?”

"I was worried about you. I felt so guilty for leaving you here," Howie admitted, resting his chin on her head as she snuggled closer to him. "Wait a minute… Austi gave AJ a lap dance?"

“She made two hundred dollars, too.”

"Good Lord," Howie muttered, shaking his head. Smirking, he ran his hands over her back, sliding one forward to cup her breast. "I think I've got some spare cash…"

Howie!” Cheyanne gasped in disbelief, all too aware that AJ was watching through a now foggy window pane. She blushed furiously as her body immediately reacted to the softness of his hands, pooling warmth between her thighs.

"So that's a yes?" Howie whispered, dipping his head to nibble gently at her earlobe. "We should move to the bedroom… Unless you want to put on a show for AJ?"

“Not like he already doesn’t know what we do,” Cheyanne answered, curling against Howie’s body with a shiver of delight. “They had quite a time talking about our extracurricular activities.”

"Though I love performing for an audience, Honey, there are some things I'd like to keep private." Lifting her up carefully, he tucked her legs around his waist, carrying her from the room. "Unless, of course, you want to make a tape…" he trailed with a chuckle as he opened their door.

“You’re definitely not that shy, city boy I met in North Carolina when you rescued me from that boulder,” Cheyanne murmured in amazement, looping her arms around his neck as she leaned to offer tender kisses to his jaw line. “Besides, what kind of tape could we make? I’m not exactly cleared for entry till Cinnamon decides to move out.”

Pausing only to kick the door shut, Howie carried her to the bed, laying her down gently. Staying with her, he slid his hands under her tank top, his lips trailing over her neck. "Oh, I don't know… How about 'Hand Sex--Tips and Tricks For Bed Rest'?" he asked.

"Howie!" Cheyanne squealed.

“I love you, Honey,” Howie chuckled, moving his mouth to hers as the passion kindled a lovely heat throughout the room.
Awesome by Anastacia
Chapter 33 – Awesome

“Scooper requested his Angel before even attempting to go to sleep,” Brian announced as he carried Baylee into the living room, smiling at the sight of Cheyanne, Howie, and Austin snuggled on the couch, watching TV. Kevin had slipped to the kitchen to pop some popcorn, preparing for the movie they selected from the TV that evening. After yesterday’s strip poker fiasco, Howie and Kevin refused to leave Austin and Cheyanne alone, ever again. Not to mention AJ and Nick had kept far away, that is, merely peeking into the living room as Brian walked by. “Oh, and J and Nick want to know if they’re allowed in the living room without fear of bloodshed.”

"As long as they keep their hands and eyes to themselves," Howie said with a shrug as Cheyanne snuggled with Baylee for a moment. "Poor lil' guy," he added with a chuckle. "He can barely keep his eyes open…"

"We had a busy afternoon of coloring, didn't we, Darlin'," Cheyanne cooed softly, rocking the boy back and forth gently. "Your Daddy's going to have to buy me a bigger refrigerator to hold all the pictures you did for me and Princess."

Nodding slightly, Baylee buried his face in her neck. "Nigh-night, My Angel."

“Sweet dreams, Darlin’,” Cheyanne sighed, delivering several kisses to the side of his face. She could feel his warm breath even on her neck, realizing he had fallen asleep just as soon as he knew Cheyanne was holding him. Smiling ruefully, she glanced toward Brian. “Do you want to shift him or do you want me to take him back?” Cheyanne glanced toward her boyfriend with a bemused smile. “…He could always sleep with Tea and me…”

"Better take him," Howie said quickly as Austin leaned over to kiss Baylee's cheek. "Just don't go falling asleep with him, okay?" he murmured as Brian helped her to her feet. She shot him a quick smile before following Brian down the hall.

"Please… Mommie Dearest is in there," Austin muttered as AJ and Nick shuffled in, eyes downcast and hands behind their backs.

“You sit next to Austin, she almost broke my nose yesterday,” Nick exclaimed with a harsh whisper, pushing on AJ’s thin shoulder as Kevin returned with a large bowl of popcorn. “I’ll wait for Cheyanne…” He noticed Howie’s dark glare. “And make sure I stay far away from her thighs and her sweet, tight ass…”

Austin inched away as AJ sat next to her. "I swear to God, if you so much as accidentally touch me, you're dead," she announced with a smirk. "And I did not almost break your nose. If I'd wanted to break your nose--"

“You would have done it, I know,” Nick mimicked sarcastically with a dark scowl. “I should just let all your shit bare about what you did with AJ yesterday. Bet you wouldn’t have got that half a million freaking dollars back around your neck…”

Taking his place next to Austin, Kevin shot him a wicked grin. "You mean the lap dance? I heard all the juicy details last night."

“He even got the two hundred dollars with some fringe benefits,” Austin purred, running her hand gently against the inside of her boyfriend’s thigh. She held a pleased smile on her face as Nick muttered a string of curses into the palm of his large hand.

"You told him?" AJ squeaked, staring at her. He'd been trying to play it cool, thinking perhaps he would need to spend more time out on the balcony. "And he got my money?!"

“Would you rather I take my anger out of your flesh?” Kevin growled. “You should have known better than to touch my girlfriend, Aje. You’re lucky I didn’t murder you in your sleep. You owe her an apology. Not to mention letting Nick purposely sabotage Angel’s cards…”

"I swear on all things Backstreet, I did not know he was screwing with her cards!" AJ cried, holding up both hands in an innocent gesture. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Austin intently, making sure his eyes stayed on hers, knowing all too well his fate if his gaze flickered. "And I'm sorry. Really, truly, sorry. I mean it."

"From the bottom of my heart," Nick sang softly, laughing when AJ flipped him off.

“Nick was screwing with my cards?” Cheyanne asked in confusion as she had Brian came back from laying Baylee to rest. She had mentioned they were watching a movie, inviting Brian and Leighanne to join. Leighanne had, like always, feigned a migraine. Brian, annoyed by his wife, gladly accepted the invitation. Though, Cheyanne’s thoughts were elsewhere as she gazed at Nick with hurt.

"Oh, man," Nick breathed, turning to look at her. Seeing her face crumple with hurt, he suddenly felt like the biggest jackass on the earth. "Sweetheart, I'm so sorry," he said with earnest, clasping his hands over his heart. "Honestly, I was just trying to have some good clean fun--"

"Clean?" Cheyanne repeated with a snort. "Nicky, you left cheetos stains all over me! You ruined my brand new bra!"

"I'll buy you a new one?" he offered, giving her his sweetest smile. "We can go shopping in the morning--"

“You’re not taking her anywhere. You give me the money and I’ll take her out to get the best like always, besides, she has to get a dress for tomorrow evening,” Howie threatened Nick, tempting him to say something further, knowing he wouldn’t leave it up to Austin to throw the first punch.

“Tomorrow evening?” Cheyanne questioned in confusion as Brian wasted no time in plopping on the large couch next to Howie. She shifted uncomfortably as she clasped her hands over her growing abdomen, glancing at her options.

"You're getting all glammed up for a movie premiere," Howie said with a shrug, reaching for the popcorn. "Now come sit down, so we can watch the movie." Patting the cushion next to him, he gave her a wink, his smile growing into a grin when she walked over to ease down next to him.

“Do I get to pick the movie we’re watching now since I’m the youngest?” Cheyanne asked with excitement as she stole the remote from Nick, leaning to curl close to Howie as if that would put more distance between her and the other blonde at the end. She immediately flipped toward the list of movies to select from, suddenly furling her brows as she glanced up. “Glammed for a movie premiere?”

"She's not that much younger than me," Austin murmured in Kevin's ear, snuggling close to him in an attempt to remove herself from AJ.

"We're taking you two to the premiere of The Interpreter," Howie told Cheyanne. "So, yes, you're getting glammed up."

"Is glammed even a word?" Nick asked loudly, tired of all the murmurs going on around him.

“I don’t think you’re allowed to comment on the invention of words, Nick,” Brian chuckled, motioning for him to follow to get drinks and other snacks for everyone.

“Do I get to pick out a fancy dress, too?” Austin instantly questioned with a squeal of excitement.

"You bet, baby," Kevin said with a laugh, easing his arm around her. "We have appointments for both of you at a salon, so you'll be getting the full treatment."

"Salon? Tea…" Looking at Howie with a sigh, Cheyanne shook her head. "We can't afford that!"

“Yes, we can,” Howie accentuated, gesturing between her and himself when he mentioned ‘we.’ Everything that belonged to him, in his mind, also belonged to her the second she offered her heart. He wanted her to have the best of everything. To have the entire world at her fingertips. “This was a special trip to New York and we wanted it to be memorable. You girls have never been to a movie premiere and I want you to be a part of that world with me...”

“Tea…” Cheyanne murmured softly as Austin squealed loudly, moving to straddle Kevin’s lap to invite warm kisses of thanks. She wished she could be as excited as Austin, but she couldn’t help but worry. “…That’s the whole reason I didn’t go to your benefit…”

"Can you guys have this tender moment later?" AJ questioned with a weary sigh as Brian and Nick returned. Propping his feet on the coffee table, he looked from Howie to Kevin, and quickly back to Howie. "I thought we were supposed to be watching a movie…"

“You just need laid, J,” Austin huffed, shifting to seat herself on Kevin’s lap, leaning against him with his arms draped about her.

“Sorry, AJ,” Cheyanne apologized softly, hurriedly turning her gaze back to the TV selection. She tried to ignore the fact that Nick’s hand had again landed briefly on her thigh as he moved to seat himself next to her. Instead, she tightened and curled her free hand into Howie’s t-shirt, resting her head on Howie’s chest. She’d talk to him later about not attending the movie premiere. “White Noise!”

"Hell no," Austin said immediately, sitting up so fast her forehead banged against Kevin's chin. "I do not want to watch a horror movie!"

“Damn, Princess,” Kevin winced.

Princess is scared?” AJ cooed with amusement as he took the remove from Cheyanne, selecting the movie. Triumphed that he managed to gain an upper hand over the bold woman, he tossed the remote to the coffee table, settling back between Kevin and Brian. “You’re telling me little Chey can watch a horror movie but Princess is terrified?”

"I'm not scared," Austin insisted, folding her arms over her chest petulantly. "I just--"

"Piss yourself easily," Cheyanne put in with a giggle.

“I wouldn’t get so glorified there, Cheyanne Grace, ‘cause Ollie is going to be pounding on your bladder in a few weeks. More so than she already is and I won’t be sympathetic,” Austin threatened with a firm pout and glare. She looked as if she might leap over all the men to tackle Cheyanne quickly, but Kevin held her firmly.

“Austi,” Cheyanne whimpered.

"I'm just saying…"

"So if I dress up like Jason from Friday the Thirteenth, what'll happen?" Nick asked with a gleeful grin, rubbing his hands together in excitement.

"She'll fucking chop your head off… And not the one on your shoulders, either," AJ informed him quickly, raising a brow as Austin slid between he and Kevin. "Don't worry, Baby Girl… I'll protect you--"

“Would you watch your mouth and don’t even think about touching her,” Kevin growled, sitting the popcorn bowl onto AJ’s lap. “Just hold that you dirty bastard.”

“Do you have those ranch packets for making ranch dip?” Cheyanne suddenly asked as the credits rolled for the beginning of the movie.

"Chey, dear, this is a hotel, not an apartment," Brian said with a chuckle. Hopping up, he skipped across the room to call room service, tripping over Kevin's outstretched legs. Landing with a thud, he muttered a curse at the pain throbbing in his knee. Shooting his cousin a glare, he continued his trek for the phone. "But I can order some!"

“That’s what you get for being smart to my Angel or Baylee’s Angel, whichever you decide,” Kevin murmured lightly, throwing an arm around Austin’s shoulder to pull her close. Her face was already burrowed against his chest, folding her hands over her face to barely peek through her fingers to watch the beginning. He gently rubbed her shoulder, kissing the top of her head. “Why do you need ranch anyway, Angel?”

“To steal some of the popcorn and sprinkle it on some popcorn… It sounds really good to me right now…” Cheyanne answered softly with a light blush on her cheeks, feeling Nick’s hand tuck underneath her backside.

"Okay, that just sounds gross," Austin said, her voice muffled behind her hands. "HOLY HELL!" she screamed, leaping into Kevin's lap.

AJ shot Austin a bewildered glance, furrowing his brows with a wicked laugh. “That was just a cat, Austin…”

"Unless there's a fucking cat under the sofa cushion, Skinny, that was your hand," Austin shot back, taking deep breaths to calm her racing heart.

"I just poked your side!"

“To give me a heart attack!”

“Because you’re a wuss!”

“And I’m going to make you into a pussy! Literally!”

“Hey! You two don’t have a big hairy hand grabbing your entire ass so pipe down,” Cheyanne growled with disgust, upset that she couldn’t pay attention to the movie with the other two squabbling.

"My hand is not hairy!" Nick immediately defended himself. Seeing Howie's glare, he pulled his hand from beneath Cheyanne, clearing his throat uncomfortably. "Whoops?"

"Hands where I can see them," Austin told AJ, sliding back to the cushion. Snuggling as close to Kevin as she could, she turned away from AJ, feeling secure when his arm slid around her. If only they could watch something a little less horrifying…

"Y'know, Princess, it'd be easier for me to concentrate on the movie without you jumping up and down on my lap…"

“We could go to the bedroom,” Austin suggested hopefully, rubbing her hand against his inner thigh in order to stimulate him. Anything to get away from the horror movie and AJ’s potentially slippery fingers.

"Sounds like a plan to--"

"Oh, Hell no! Movie night means everybody stays and watches the movie," Brian said, lingering by the door to wait for the room service. "What's taking them so long? How much time does it take to grab a packet, toss it on a silver tray and make some skinny little guy bring it up?"

"Would everybody just HUSH?" Cheyanne demanded, slapping Nick's thigh for emphasis.

“HEY!” Nick yelped as a sharp pain radiated up from his thigh, causing him to lurch halfway off the couch. He immediately narrowed his dark blonde brows, reaching over to tickle Cheyanne as means of payback. “If you’re going to slap me, how about we take it to the bedroom where it can be really fun?”

"STOP!" Cheyanne screeched, swatting his hands away.

"Nick! I swear to God… If she just woke up Scooper, you'll have Hell to pay," Brian warned from the door.

"I thought you were supposed to keep your hands to yourself?" Howie asked carefully as Nick sat back.

"Oh. I forgot?"

“Why don’t you go sit on the floor?” Austin suggested, narrowing her dark coffee eyes toward the cumbersome blonde as the room service finally arrived. “You’ve been touching Chey-Chey enough between two days. Don’t think I can’t let your shit bare to Howie, especially considering the excitement of your…what do the fans call him? Thor?” Austin snorted.

"What shit?" Nick asked, whirling around to face her, his face blank. "I don't have any shit… And yes, the fans call him Thor." His voice raised in volume as Cheyanne snatched up the remote, increasing the TV volume with each word.

“You offered to give Chey passionately wild, animalistic sex since you believe that Howie couldn’t rise to the occasion,” Austin confessed, glancing to Howie to make sure he knew she wasn’t exaggerating.

“I can just watch this in the bed, that’s where I’m supposed to be anyway,” Cheyanne sighed, knowing it was futile as she attempted to stand.

"I said that in a joking--" Nick cut off when Howie's hand sharply connected with the back of his head. "Ow, fuck, I see stars now."

"You did what?!" Howie asked, pulling Cheyanne down into his lap. "And you're not going anywhere."

Turning to look at Kevin, AJ sighed dramatically. "I thought this was supposed to be a fun movie night with popcorn and nail painting and sex stories?"

“Austin can go get her nail polish and you two can just have a grand time,” Kevin chuckled, not knowing why AJ was so insistent on having things go according to plan. Nothing ever went according to plan when it came to this group of friends. And, Brian seemed to accept that much as he returned with a small bowl of popcorn covered in ranch for Cheyanne, though she wasn’t able to take it with Howie’s cinched hold.

“Tea, I can’t hear the movie and why are you getting so mad at me?” Cheyanne whimpered in shock at Howie sudden force, cutting off Nick’s means of salvaging himself.

"I'm not mad," Howie assured her, easing his hold. "Don't worry, Honey… Everybody will be quiet now."

"Promise?" Cheyanne asked softly as she slid next to him, adjusting just right, her popcorn in his lap.

"Promise," everyone echoed.

“And you get the Hell on the floor before I have means to make this group look for another young, blonde heartthrob,” Howie threatened Nick, jabbing a sharp finger toward the carpet as his arm eased protectively around Cheyanne.

With a dramatic sigh, Nick did as he was told, smirking to himself when Cheyanne rested her foot on his shoulder.

"I thought we were all supposed to be quiet?" Austin whispered to AJ a she leaned past him for her soda. "Oh my god!" she cried, dropping her soda on the coffee table at the sight on the TV screen. Turning, she buried her face in the nearest male chest. "Somebody better stay up with me watching Disney movies," she hissed.

“Damnit, Austin!” Howie cursed as the soda began to spill over the glass coffee table. Reluctantly pulling himself away from Cheyanne, he leaned forward in order to salvage the mess, trying to ignore the soft sound of Cheyanne’s giggles while Nick tickled her foot.

“I’ll stay up watching Disney movies with you, Baby Girl,” AJ promised with a wicked grin, wrapping his arms around her protectively as Kevin reached to throttle his neck.

Grinning from ear to ear, Brian leaned to the side, tapping Cheyanne's shoulder gently before reaching forward. At Cheyanne's gasp, he paused in his task, but continued almost instantly. "Hey, Howie, watch out for that snake!" he said softly.

“Watch out for--” Howie had no chance to finish his sentence as Brian’s fingers sank deep into the tight flesh of his backside for a firm pinch. The sharp pin prick sent Howie leaping into the air with shock, actually flipping over the coffee table to land hard on his back, pushing all the air from his lungs. And, all he could hear was the hysterical giggles bursting from his adorable girlfriend.

Lifting himself into a sitting position, he turned to look at her. "And you find that funny?"

"No," Cheyanne said through her giggles, tears rolling down her cheeks with her mirth. "That's not funny…"

"That's awesome, man!" Austin cried.

*~*~*


Turning in front of the mirror, Cheyanne smoothed the knee-length skirt of the sapphire blue gown, shaking her head slightly at her reflection. She barely noticed the woman gazing back at her. Her hand reached up to touch the upswept hair, trailing over the perfectly arranged spirals framing her face. With a sigh, she tugged upwards on the bodice of the strapless gown in an attempt to conceal some of her cleavage. Shaking her head once more, she turned to look at Austin, who had one foot perched on the bed, tying the straps of her high heeled sandals. "I'm not going," Cheyanne announced.

“Why are you not going?” Austin laughed, assessing the velvetiness of her leg before removing her foot from the bed. Wiggling slightly to smooth the wrinkles of her beautiful backless, floor length, scarlet gown with a rhinestone bodice, she glanced to Cheyanne. For a moment, she held her breath, amazed at the final picture of perfection. They had spent the day shopping for the gowns for the movie premiere, ending the festivities with a trip to the spa. Austin had never been pampered so lavishly before, relishing in the sweetness of ecstasy it provided. She had even had her dark hair curled into perfect spiral curls, thrown into a messy bun that offered a sexual appeal.

Cheyanne threw her arms up with a distasteful sigh. "Look at me, Austi. I look--"

"Gorgeous. Every man that sees you is going to be singing 'who's that girl', you know that, right?" Austin asked.

"I'm not cut out for this. Seriously, Austi. I'm not glamorous and sophisticated. I'm going to end up making a complete goof of myself, and embarrass Howie. I don't want that. I'll stay here. Brian can send the nanny off for the night and I'll watch cartoons with Darlin' and color pictures."

Austin smiled sadly toward her best friend, reaching to delicately cup Cheyanne’s rosy cheeks. The younger woman was so insecure about herself and her abilities. When she looked in the mirror, she didn’t see what everyone else saw. She didn’t see the radiant beauty she projected with such a sweet air of innocence. So many women envied her, yet she would never even begin to understand that. It hurt Austin to see her so unsure, so fragile, but knew that would always be a work in progress. “So, is that why you declined Howie’s invitation for that benefit dinner?”

“Like he wants to tote around a fat pregnant woman who isn’t carrying his child… Hell, Austi, I’ve never been in heels in my entire life! And what if I fall and hurt Ollie? The fans hate me. Nick’s told me that. He showed me the sights. They call me a whore--”

"Listen to me, Cheyanne Grace. Number one, you're not some fat pregnant woman. And as far as everyone in this penthouse is concerned, Ollie is Howie's child. Number two, who gives a flying shit what the fans think? Hell, they hate me too, do you think I care? As long as I know at the end of the day that I've got Kevin's heart, that's all that matters. Look at me." When Cheyanne lifted her head, her eyes bright with tears, Austin gave her a warm smile. "You love Howie, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"When you curl up next to him at night, after the lights are turned off and it's just the two of you, how do you feel?"

“Happy,” Cheyanne whispered softly as Austin offered her a Kleenex to dab the tears away, not wanting to ruin her makeup. “Like I’m actually complete and nothing can go wrong… He’s my world, Austi… Without him, I’d be nothing… Y’know that poem I love so much? So I love you because I know no other way than this: Where ‘I’ does not exist, nor ‘you.’ So close that your hand on my chest is my hand, So close that your eyes close and I fall asleep… That’s my Sweet Tea, Austi.”

"Isn't that all that really matters?" Austin murmured, reaching for a Kleenex of her own. "I was listening to one of Boobah's songs this morning, and--would you not laugh? I'm being serious!" she exclaimed with Cheyanne giggled.

"You were listening to Nick's solo stuff?" Cheyanne asked with a snort.

"It was in Kevin's CD case, and I… Oh, forget it!" Austin threw up her hands in defeat. "All I'm saying is that you and Howie have each other, so who gives a rat's ass whether the fans like you? As long as you and City Boy are happy, who cares? Besides… Just let 'em try to rough up my Chey-Chey. And why the Hell was Nick showing you the hate sites?"

“I don’t know why he showed me… Just said he saw something that I’d be interested in…” Cheyanne whispered as Austin fussed over her, making sure they were pure perfection for their boyfriends.

"Hmph. Probably trying to get a piece of the Chey pie," Austin grumbled under her breath. "I swear to God sometimes that man just makes me want to scream!" she shrieked, whirling around when the bedroom door opened.

“Howdy, Ladies!” Baylee announced with a proud grin, stepping into the bedroom after some fumbling with the doorknob. He patiently brushed his jeans as if he had been dirtied from the slight fall, but hurried over to the women. He smiled cheekily at their looks of confusion. “Uncle Howie tol’ me to come get you! You hold my hands! ‘Rincess and…My Angel, so pretty!”

"Our own little escort," Austin mused with a grin. Stooping so she was eye to eye with him, she tapped his nose playfully. "Does Kevvy look handsome?" she whispered.

“’Rincess,” Baylee groaned as he took her hand, obviously deciding to escort her first so he could reap some benefits of having alone-time with Cheyanne. “I not ‘posed to know that!”

"You are such a little pipsqueak, Bayster," Austin said with a chuckle. "Alright, my little gentleman, you do know to escort me out with--why are you running!" she cried, hurrying to keep up with his fast pace.

“’Cause Kevvy misses you!” Baylee exclaimed, playing his cheeky innocence. “Kevvy! I d’ot her!”

“Good job, Bay! ‘Cause if I had to hear Howie complain about me sleeping between Cheyanne and Austin one more time…” Kevin’s voice naturally trailed as Baylee pulled Austin into the living room, hurriedly turning to go back and find Cheyanne. But, Kevin didn’t let Austin go without a male companion for long, reaching to curl his arms around her waist. She was so beautiful. The sweeping, floor-length gown fit like a second skin, the tight rhinestone bodice hugging her torso glittered underneath the lighting. She was so sensually alluring with her dark ringlets tossed upward, the most expensive makeup touched to her already beautiful face. “God, Princess… You are so beautiful…”

"You… Whoa, Pretty Boy, let me get a good look," Austin murmured, taking a step back to admire his simple black suit. The white shirt was stark against his tan, open at the neck. Peeking from the left breast pocket a scarlet handkerchief that matched her dress perfectly. His hair, which had grown out a bit from the last trim, was combed back, and she felt a thrill go through her body when she saw the fire in his emerald eyes. "Holy Hell, I need to go change," she said, turning in his arms. There was no way she looked good enough to be at his side the entire night.

“Hey!” Kevin chuckled in surprise, tightening his hold to turn her back to face him. Cupping her face with a warm hand, he leaned down to kiss her softly. He felt his heart swell with adoration for the woman, tasting the sweetness of her lips mixed with the faintness of her perfume. It thrilled him to know that she was his and only his, knowing he’d make it permanent. Someday. “You are flawless, Austin. I refuse to let you change. You cannot get any more beautiful than this. Please, don’t leave me. I don’t think I could stand on my own.”

"But you've got that very convenient third leg there," she murmured against his cheek, breathing in the scent of his cologne as her arms curled around his neck.

“I’m going to have to keep you in front of me on the red carpet so no one else notices,” Kevin chuckled, pressing several more soft kisses to the side of her face. “I love you, Princess.”

"Sounds good to me… I love you too, Kevvy. So much." Closing her eyes, she turned her face, capturing his lips with hers. "If my heart should shatter watching you, there'd be one less thing I'd have to do," she whispered as he broke the kiss.

"Oh Lord, she's quoting our songs now," Howie muttered to himself as he waited impatiently for Baylee to bring Cheyanne out.

“I think Baylee is keeping Chey for the night,” Brian chuckled, having snuck toward the bedroom for a quick glance while his wife finished preparing. Sure enough, Baylee was serenading Cheyanne from the bed so he could reach her height for a quick dance. And, Brian couldn’t resist filming the precious scene.

"After the long ass pep talk I just had with her to talk her into going? Oh, Hell no. Baylee! Bring your Angel out here!" Austin called softly, turning in Kevin's embrace only to see Brian's camera trained on them. "Were you filming us?"

“Never!” Brian breathed in horror, unable to hide a pleased grin.

“Wait… You had to talk her into coming?” Howie interrupted with hurt, hearing Baylee’s hard sigh of protest.

"She just needed a little encouragement, Howie. She's… She doesn't think she's cut out for the whole going out on the town with screaming fans and cameras on her. So whatever you do, don't--"

"She doesn't want to go?" Kevin asked, brows furrowing at the thought.

“She’s naturally shy, Kevvy--”

“You done talking about me?” Cheyanne interrupted softly as she walked into the room with Baylee primly holding onto her hand. She smiled meekly at those who just stared at her, causing a blush to accentuate her glimmering cheeks. The maternity dress displayed her figure beautifully beneath its silky sapphire material. The bodice clinging to her full breasts showed an ample amount of her endowments before tucking into an empire waist while the skirting flared to kiss the middle of her thighs, displaying her creamy legs. Her long honey curls swept upward as some curled against her face like always. And, Howie’s birthday gift hanging gently along her graceful neck.

She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful creature on the planet. Her eyes shone with a mischievous glimmer, the tiniest hint of reluctance flickering through the sapphire orbs. Letting his eyes sweep her figure, Howie saw her wriggle her toes in the high-heeled sandals she wore. Stepping forward, he reached for her free hand, knowing he would be shot a scathing glare if he dared take her from Baylee. "Honey? You don't want to go?" he asked worriedly.

“I want to go,” she promised softly, raising his hand to her shimmering glossed lips for a gentle kiss. It may have been a white lie, but the devastation threatening his dark eyes was too much to bear. She couldn’t very well disappoint him when he had worked so hard and paid so much money to see this night occur. He was so excited and she would not ruin that. She refused. No matter how uncomfortable she was nor how nervous. She just didn’t want to disappoint him. To embarrass him. To ruin his reputation because she was just a ‘country girl.’

"You sure?" he asked softly, brushing his thumbs over her powdered cheeks.

"She's sure, let's go," AJ announced, hopping up from his spot on the sofa. "My date's supposed to meet me in the lobby!"

"You hired an escort?" Austin cried in horror, shaking her head at his stupidity. "Just remember… If you slip between her thighs, be sure and condomize, okay?"

“Baby Girl, when you’re this good looking, rich, well endowed, and famous; hiring an escort ain’t a priority. I just step out onto the balcony and select the girl with the biggest pair of tits flashing me,” AJ answered with a matter of fact tone to his raspy voice. Grinning at Austin’s surprised facial features, he patted her behind before jogging toward the elevator, assuming everyone would follow his actions.

“I’m sure you could get a much more elegant woman following his advice,” Cheyanne sighed softly, watching Leighanne breeze from the bedroom. Her bleached locks crimped in a fancy fashion, dripping with diamonds, and coated with an expensive perfume. Her gown looked to cost far more than Cheyanne’s and Austin’s combined. And, it stung as Cheyanne glanced toward Howie. He looked so gorgeous in the jet black suit and silver dress shirt and tie. His dark curls untamed, coaxing Cheyanne to toy with them. He smelled faintly of Drakkar Noir, causing her to tingle with arousal. He was so gorgeous.

"Honey, I've got the most elegant woman in the world standing right in front of me," Howie assured her, offering his arm. Her insecurity worried him at times. The fact she thought herself unworthy of being with him, especially on a magical night as this… "You sure you want to go? You wouldn't rather stay here with Baylee and color?" he asked in a whisper, hoping the toddler wouldn't hear him.

"Well endowed?" Austin repeated, following AJ to the elevator, knowing Kevin was right behind her. "Are you stupid?"

“Don’t make him answer that, it’d only ruin the movie,” Kevin sighed with a rueful smile, hurrying to catch his lovely woman.

“…Darlin’, you better go play with the nanny,” Cheyanne murmured, stooping slightly so she could meet Baylee’s eye level. She smiled sweetly as she leaned forward to kiss his wrinkled brow, playing with his curls. “I left Moth here for you to take care of. Can you do that for me, Darlin’?”

"You come back 'fore I go sleep?" Baylee asked hopefully.

“I think we’re going to be back a bit later than that,” Cheyanne answered honestly, allowing Baylee to wrap his arms around her neck so she could hold him close. Leighanne was still barking orders at the nanny as she stalked into the hallway, finally bellowing for Brian. “But Moth can sleep in your bed with you tonight and I’ll make sure to kiss you when I get back? Maybe Daddy will let me wake you up for a tiny second to say goodnight?”

"O'tay. I take care of Moth," he promised solemnly. "Love you, My Angel," he murmured, pressing soft kisses to her cheeks. "Uncle Howie be a gen-ta-mun, o'tay?" he questioned, turning his gaze on the man waiting somewhat impatiently for Cheyanne.

“I will be the perfect gen-ta-mun,” Howie promised softly, crossing his heart.

“Ni-night, My Angel,” Baylee finally consented with a soft nod, releasing Cheyanne and hurrying to Howie’s room to locate the probably sleeping Moth.

“Night, Darlin’,” Cheyanne called sweetly, moving to stand as she braced her tender abdomen.

Catching her arm, Howie tucked her safely against his side, steering her towards the door. "I'll bet you fifty bucks he's in our bed when we get back," he mused softly as they headed for the elevator. Seeing Kevin there alone, he raised one brow curiously. "Where did everyone go?"

“Downstairs on the elevator. Princess wanted to approve of AJ’s date. Leighanne wanted her and Brian to be the first in the limo. Nick wanted to stop by the kitchen to sneak some snacks… And, I wanted to be the one to compliment Angel once more, because she is drop dead gorgeous. And, I bet you a hundred that Bay kicks your ass out of the bed and takes Angel for himself,” Kevin answered easily with a genuine smile.

"Thank you, Kevvy," Cheyanne cooed with a blush, shaking her head with delight. "I'm sure my little Darlin' won't kick Howie out of bed…"

Brushing a piece of near invisible lint from the sleeve of his jacket, Kevin shook his head. "I wouldn't be too sure. After all, he was the one who insisted he escort you ladies out to us."

Giggling, Cheyanne turned to Howie. "Oh, really? He told me that Uncle Howie told him to come get us," she said with a playful smile, reaching up to adjust Howie's tie. "Acted as though Uncle Howie was having a fit from waiting for me…"

“I just hate having to share my Honey with some little pipsqueak?” Howie trailed with a shrug of his shoulders, reaching to press the button for the elevator.

“You have me all to yourself tonight,” Cheyanne offered, wrapping her arm around his waist. Tucking herself neatly against his side once more, she tilted slightly to catch another waft of his sweet cologne. She could feel the tenseness of his body and she wondered if she was the cause. He seemed different, but she didn’t want to embarrass him in front of Kevin, especially if she was just being overly anxious. “…And, did I mention how astoundingly handsome you are?”

"I don't think so… But you can mention it now," he murmured, brushing his lips over her forehead as he leaned close. He still couldn't believe he had been so lucky to have found her. "Have I mentioned how breathtaking you are?"

"No fair, I was supposed to give her the last compliment before we left the hotel," Kevin grumbled as the elevator doors slid open. "Alright, hop on, I'm sure Princess is being overly judgmental of AJ's date."

“She’s always overly judgmental and you can still be the last to give me a compliment. We’re not outta the hotel yet,” Cheyanne promised, rubbing Kevin’s shoulder lightly as Howie ushered her inside. She made sure to stay close to his side, glancing up to catch his smoldering eyes. “And, I wouldn’t rather be coloring with Darlin’ tonight. I’d always choose to spend time with you, Tea. Whether you’re gorgeously dressed to the nines or lounging in boxers and a muscle shirt… I just want you.”

"Whoooo Angel's getting frisky," Kevin announced with a chuckle.

"Are you drunk or something, Kev?" Howie questioned with a smirk before pressing a kiss to Cheyanne's forehead. "So Bay's big blue eyes and blonde hair don't sway your affections from me? I know he's only two, but he has a lot of charm--"

"He's been around AJ too much," Kevin muttered, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the evening. He couldn't wait to see Austin outshine every other woman on the red carpet. He was certain she would love sharing the spotlight. As long as she was willing to share it, he thought, watching the numbers light up as the elevator slowly descended. Surely she wouldn't want to hog it all?

“No one could ever sway my affections from you,” Cheyanne promised, lightly ignoring Kevin’s various comments. Moving her hand from his waist, she gently slipped it into the back pocket of his pressed pants. “My heart and soul has always been yours. Besides, I like the smoldering Latin sweetness… You’re my Sweet Tea and you exude far more charm than Baylee. He tugs on my hand to get my attention, but one look from you and you catch my heart.”

Warmed by her words, Howie kissed her gently, trying to think of a proper response to such a declaration. How could he put into words the feelings he had for her? There were so many words, yet none seemed to perfectly match his love for her. Breaking the kiss, he looked into her sparkling eyes. "Te amo, Miel," he whispered.
For Our Future by Anastacia
Chapter 34 – For Our Future

“I’ve decided!” Austin announced with a titter of excitement, reaching to hold Kevin’s hand while thrusting yet another package into the other. Kevin had decided for their last full day together that he’d take her for some private shopping, thinking of no place better than Greenwich Village. It seemed like something Austin would enjoy, which was proved with the endless receipts stuffed into Kevin’s back pocket. But he loved lavishing her with these gifts. Especially as her dark coffee eyes glittered with a brilliant excitement despite the slightly cloudy afternoon. He could spend eternity with her. He knew it. “I love red carpets! I love the attention! I love the people shouting my name! I love the pictures! And I love taking all the attention away from Leighanne so she throws a hissy fit!”

"You're horrible," Kevin informed her good-naturedly, his palm stroking the back of her hand as they strolled down the sidewalk. Somewhere, over on Fifth Avenue, he was certain, Howie and Cheyanne were shopping as well. Austin had asked them to come, but Howie had opted out, saying all the walking wouldn't be good for Cheyanne. Secretly, Kevin was glad. He hated having to share her attention, and since her arrival earlier in the week, the only time he'd had alone with her was in the bedroom. Hell, even there they weren't alone. He'd been beyond angry when AJ had burst in at the crack of dawn, flopping between them in the bed as though he were their child, spouting off about the exciting time he'd had the night before.

"Are you even listening to me?" Austin asked, elbowing him lightly in the side. Horrible… She wasn't horrible. Leighanne was such an attention whore. It had been marvelous when the photographers had asked her and Brian to step away so they could have shots of Kevin and Austin. She still tingled with excitement over every detail of the premiere. Glancing up at the next store, she tugged on his hand. "I need to get some yarn for the blanket I'm knitting Ollie."

“Alright, alright,” Kevin consented, allowing her to drag him in without any complaints. He made no reference to not listening, because she was right. And, starting a fight in the middle of New York was dangerous and as strong as Austin was, she probably couldn’t repel bullets. Besides, his mind was trained on the fact that she knitted. He had to stop halfway when he saw her pouring over the various styles, textures, and colors of yarn, smirking at the idea of gray roots attacking her luscious auburn locks. Growing old together seemed ideal. “You knit?”

"Mm hmm," she replied with a gentle nod, holding up a hank of pastel yellow yarn. "Tutu taught me when I was seven. She died just before I started college, and I picked it up again, as a way to feel closer to her." Setting the yarn back down, she reached for a light violet, shaking her head before she even touched it. Pulling him further into the store, she let out a squeal at the bins of natural fibers. "You know that blue sweater Chey's always wearing? I knitted that for her birthday last year… Oh heavens above, they're having a sale!"

“Does that mean you’ll get enough yarn to knit me something out of love, too?” Kevin asked hopefully, smiling at how adorably nutty she was. First she was overjoyed with the fact that the photographers had loved her more than Leighanne. Now she was insanely giddy over a yarn sale. He found it so very charming.

"As long as you'll let me pick out a nice emerald green to go with your eyes." Glancing up at him, she saw his smile, and couldn't resist leaning up for a quick kiss. "You think I'm crazy, don't you?" she murmured, sliding her hand over his shoulder in a gentle caress. If he said yes, she would have to slug him… No, she wouldn't. She loved him too much for that. She suddenly imagined him sitting on a front porch swing, his face slightly aged, his hair touched with silver, wondered if he had ever thought of growing old with her. "If I knit you a sweater, you'll wear it?" she asked suddenly, turning to make her selection. "'Cause Lord knows I don't want to work my fingers to the bone only to have you pull it out just when you know you'll see me--"

“I would at least pull it out a day beforehand to clear away the smell of moth balls,” Kevin interrupted in a light tease, leaning down to press a soft kiss to her lips. “Princess, I would cherish whatever you made me. Even if it was two sizes too small and filled with holes.”

"Now you're insulting my knitting talent," she murmured, poking him playfully in the chest. "I'll just have to call your Momma for the right size, won't I? And stock up on some embarrassing stories of your childhood," she added with a giggle, reaching for a skein of soft yarn. "How would this feel against your skin?" she asked softly, rubbing it slowly over the back of his hand. "Actually… This would be perfect for the baby's blanket…"

“I think my mother would fully enjoy having a long conversation with you on the phone. The way I talk about you, she’s ready to book the church for another wedding and start naming the grandkids,” Kevin teased lightly with a proud smile, closing his eyes to enhance the tactile sensation. He smiled proudly, glancing downward. “I love the feeling of that, too, though I think Angel’s little Angel is stealing it from me...”

"I can pick something else out for Ollie…" Austin trailed softly, furrowing her brow at his earlier comment. Grandkids? Was that his oblique way of saying he wanted children? Lord… Pushing the thought from her mind, she shook her head slightly. She surely didn't want to delve into that subject now. Not when they were having such a wonderful time… "You talk about me to your Momma?"

“Of course I talk to you with Ma. She’s a very important part of my life and you’re a very important part of my life. My big brothers keep asking when I’m bringing you home to the family. I keep telling them I’m selfish, which they already know anyway,” Kevin answered with a wry grin, watching Austin turn back to the variety of yarns.

"Momma wants to meet you, too," Austin admitted, mentally kicking herself for letting it slip. It hadn't been the greatest of conversations, having to stretch the truth about certain things. For one, her mother didn't know that Kevin was in the middle of a divorce, nor did she know what he did. She hated lying to her family, even more so when it was the same lies Kevin had told her. But Momma would have a coronary if her baby girl was the other woman in an affair. "Daddy, too," she added softly, turning back to face him, her arms loaded with yarn now.

“Well, I would love to meet them… Maybe when I’m touring close to North Carolina, I can swing by for a dinner? I would love to meet them. Possibly start the process of asking for your hand by means of your father. That way we can get started on our family. Can’t have gray hair during our son’s graduation photographs,” Kevin jibbed, reaching to take the yarn for her.

"You really want kids?" she murmured, looking up into his eyes. The seriousness behind the smile told her he wasn't kidding.

“Of course,” Kevin chuckled, leaning down to kiss her softly. “I was at the hospital when Baylee was born, watching Brian hold him for the first time. There was such a connection there. This instant bond. Brian fell in love instantly… Then Howie and Angel together with the Little Angel growing. He’s so happy and content. She made his life so different, changed everything and actually gave him something to live for again. Kids are just little miracles and…” Kevin glanced into Austin’s coffee eyes, noticing the cold darkness that he wasn’t accommodated with and his heart deflated, almost as if she had reached into his chest cavity to yank it from its bed. “You don’t?”

"Kevin… I love you, so much," she affirmed, delaying the inevitable. The look on his face as he spoke of children as little miracles, followed by the crestfallen expression when he looked at her was almost unbearable. Kids had never been on her agenda. Graduate, go to college, start a career, get married someday. "You want to ask Daddy for his permission?" she asked in hopes of avoiding the bigger issue. She didn't want to lose him. Not now. Not ever.

“Of course I would like to ask your father for his permission to take your hand… After my divorce is finalized with Kristin, of course… But, answer my question, Austin. Honestly,” Kevin pleaded softly, tucking them away in a lone isle so they could be alone. He did his best to hide the pain lurking in his emerald eyes, knowing he didn’t want to hear the answer, but needing to know for certain anyway.

"Honestly? I've never been able to picture myself with kids. I know I'll love little Ollie to death when she's here, but me? A mother?" Shaking her head slightly, Austin looked down to where his hand gently clasped her arm. As she spoke she felt his body tense. Biting her bottom lip, she avoided his face, knowing she would see pain there. "I'm sorry, Kevin," she whispered, touching his chest briefly in hopes of assuring him she meant it. Finally looking up, she saw the pain in his eyes, felt he heart nearly crush at the sight. "I can tell that you really want children, and I know that you would be the best father in the history of mankind… Perhaps it's a good thing we realized this now?" Biting back her tears at the thought of losing him over this, she looked away. "I mean… Now you won't have to go through the trouble of talking to Daddy, because I can't give you what you really want--"

“I want you,” Kevin interrupted gently, rubbing his face. He closed his emerald eyes, knowing there was no way that he could look at her without tears falling. He didn’t want to play the hurt victim, because this wasn’t what it was about. He had asked her an honest question and had wanted an honest answer. Sure, he wanted children, but she was more important. She gave him a fresh breath of life. He’d sacrifice anything to keep that. “That’s all I’ll ever want. That’s all I’m ever going to want. No matter what. Okay, Princess?”

"Okay," she whispered, still unsure. Not able to bear the hurt she could sense in him, she rested her head on his chest, closing her eyes briefly as his scent invaded her senses. "Kevin?"

“Yes, Princess?” Kevin returned, his voice slightly clogged with hurt. He did his best to clear away the pain, folding his arms around her small form, resting his chin against the top of her head. He wouldn’t lose her. He’d be damned if he lost her again. She was the only thing that mattered. He would give her what she wanted. Olivia would be another breath of fresh air. Children would always be around him. He’d make do. He would.

"If you really want children…" Lord have mercy, she was going to give in to him, she just knew it. He could ask her to shave her head and she'd do it. Anything to make him happy. "We can talk about it, right? This isn't written in stone or anything, is it? We have a few years left in us to make kids. If we decide to…"

“Whatever you want, Austin,” Kevin breathed softly, knowing not to give into his deepest desires. He wouldn’t force her into children. Never. “Whatever you want…”

*~*~*


"What do you think of this?" Howie asked Cheyanne softly, turning to get her opinion of the pearl necklace the jeweler held. He had decided to start on Cinnamon's jewelry box, and thought an add-a-pearl necklace was in order. "Each year I can buy her a pearl, and when she graduates high school she'll have a full necklace." Reaching for the gold chain containing a solitary pearl in the center, he held it up for Cheyanne's inspection. "Classic. It'll never go out of style…"

“I think you’re far more feminine than I am and it worries me,” Cheyanne teased good naturedly, her southern twang drawing a look of surprise from the jeweler. But, she ignored it, refusing to let herself feel self conscious. Instead, she tucked her hand into the back pocket of Howie’s jeans, admiring the necklace. “But, I think it’s a very elegant purchase, Tea. Maybe too elegant and too expensive for a child who isn’t born yet… You realize that you don’t have to buy us everything in the world, right? I just wanted to come to New York to see you. That’s it.”

"I know," Howie said with a grin. Turning back to the jeweler, he gave the man a slight nod. "We'll take it."

“You’re not going to make Olivia into one of these little divas, y’hear? Like some manic offspring of Nicole Richie who’s dripping in diamonds the second she pops out of the womb. She’s going to be my little girl. My messy little lady that knows how to ride a horse by the time she can walk. She may not like dirt, but she won’t be afraid of it,” Cheyanne warned as the jeweler scurried back to wrap the expensive purchase.

"She won't be a diva," Howie promised, sliding his arm around her shoulders. "But… I can frilly her up for special occasions, right? Please, though, no pink," he added with a dramatic shudder.

“We’re definitely on the same page with that number. No pink whatsoever, but she can be beautifully dressed. Momma dressed me in everything pink and frilly in the world and I’m anti-everything-womanly now. So, I’d be happy with yellows, purples, greens, light blues…” Cheyanne trailed, glancing up at him with confusion as an elderly lady shot her a hard look for sneaking her hand into his back pocket, but Cheyanne didn’t move. “…What special occasions?”

"You know. Her first Communion, church in general, birthday parties. The usual. But every other time she can just be my little country girl in jeans and a t-shirt. Like her Momma." Squeezing her shoulders, Howie reached for his wallet, grinning at her. "Mind giving me my wallet so I can pay?" he murmured.

“Well, I was thinking about keeping it…” Cheyanne trailed impishly, complying with his wishes nonetheless. Sneaking into the opposite pocket, she grasped the thick leather wallet, handing it to him. Her sapphire eyes sparked as Howie offered his credit card as payment, curling her arms around his waist. “No public displays of affection, right?”

"Depends on what you're planning to do to me," Howie informed her with a wink. "I don't think Saks has a shower we can sneak off into…"

“You are obsessed with the shower,” Cheyanne sighed dramatically, removing herself from him as he reached for the fancy bag. She easily rested a hand over her growing abdomen, toying with her birthday necklace. She heard the older woman mumbling something incoherently to her elderly partner, glancing down to her bare left hand to figure that was the presumption. “I prefer the bath… But, I know our PDA tends to get me in trouble.”

"Does it now?" Howie mused, escorting her outside. Glancing behind him, he saw Drew was a few paces behind Cheyanne. Giving the bodyguard a quick nod, he turned his attention back to Cheyanne. "What kind of trouble does it get you into?" he questioned softly, smiling when she tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. Keeping their pace slow, he kissed the top of her head when she leaned against him.

“Nick showed me all those hate sites… I think I might be even more unpopular than Kristin,” Cheyanne confessed with a meek shrug of her shoulders as if it truly didn’t bother her. She made sure to keep her gaze set on the beautiful scenery, daring not to look into her boyfriend’s deep chocolate eyes. She didn’t want to cause chaos on a beautiful spring day, especially considering they’d be leaving each other soon. “And, I can only assume how many photographers got an up close zoom of my hand in your back pocket at the show the other night… I’m just not ‘safe’ material for public viewing.”

"Honey… Don't worry about the fans. They're just vicious, jealous little wenches who have too much time on their hands. Besides, I liked having your hand in my back pocket the other night. Felt like you were staking your claim on me," he said with a grin, patting her hand as he led her into the next store. "Why do you say you're not safe?"

Vicious. That’s one word that made Cheyanne a bit apprehensive when Howie wanted to take her out amongst the public. Sure, Drew was extremely capable and had been with Howie for years; but she still worried. The hate sites had been growing in popularity. Not that she assumed she was popular by any means. But… Olivia was so precious and she was already walking a thin line with the pregnancy. Even taking a walk around New York City that day was a gamble. If she lost Olivia, she would lose herself. Exhaling a tight breath, she attempted to push the fearful thoughts aside, tucking herself closer to Howie. Wanting to avoid his safety question, a small smirk toyed with her glossed lips. “Stake my claim? Is that you’re way of telling me you like to be dominated, Mr. Dorough?”

"By you, Honey? You bet," Howie murmured suggestively. Stopping in the entrance of the shop, he turned to face her fully, placing his hands on her shoulders gently. "Honey… Do you feel unsafe?" he asked worriedly, his eyes locked on hers.

“No,” Cheyanne breathed sensitively, forcefully, a little too quickly. To save herself, she shook her head with emphasis, breaking his hold on her shoulders by moving to tuck the fallen curls behind her pierced ears. She shifted slightly, uncomfortable by the entire situation. “We’re blocking the doorway, Tea.”

To Hell with the doorway. "Nobody's coming in or going out, and if they do they can walk around us. Are you sure?" Howie pressed, moving his hands to cup her face.

Cheyanne bit down hard on her bottom lip, afraid that tears might break instead of blood. The beads of blood against her bottom lip would be easier to deal with. To have the slightest bit of control in a place where she had no none. For so long, she had no control over any of her situations. Austin or Noah had always bustled her in given directions. It was easier to follow the flow and she didn’t want to hurt Howie. She fluttered her sapphire eyes quickly to ward off the tears, circling her delicate hands around his wrists. “I feel safe with you. Safer than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I know you won’t let me get hurt. I know.”

Not thoroughly assuaged, Howie merely nodded. But… No, he wouldn't mention that he wouldn't always be there. "Honey, if you ever feel unsafe, no matter where I am, I want you to let me know, okay? If these hate sites are really bothering you, I can hire someone to keep an eye on your place in North Carolina. I don't want anything to happen to you. Or to Cinnamon and Austin." Leaning close, he brushed her lips with his, then moved to kiss the corner of each eye.

“Nothing is going to happen to me or Cinnamon or Austin… And I don’t want anyone watching my house… I already feel like a prisoner, no need to put the bars on the windows for an added effect,” Cheyanne murmured softly, shivering faintly against the touch of his lips against her cool skin. “Besides, I don’t need to spend any more of your money when you’re half a step away from buying Cinnamon a pony.”

"Do you want me to buy her a pony?" Howie asked eagerly, hoping to break the tension he felt. Immediately Cheyanne began to roll her eyes, and he nibbled gently on her ear. "How about it? And we can get her started on riding before she can open her eyes good…"

“You are so full of it,” Cheyanne drawled with a soft giggle from his ridiculous statement as well as the sensation of his nips. She bloomed with a dark, rosy blush, easing her arms around his neck so he couldn’t go far. “You refuse to even let me on a horse again let alone letting Cinnamon… But if I get a baby carrier, I could take her on the horse you buy for me…”

"You don't need to spend any more of my money, but I'm buying you a horse?" Howie questioned with a chuckle, stepping closer to her.

“I wouldn’t be spending any more of your money. You would be spending your money to buy me a horse out of the goodness of your heart,” Cheyanne twisted her words slyly, unable to hide her playfully impish grin of delight. Her fears completely crestfallen against her desire and Howie’s sweetness, causing them to be forgotten. To be brushed aside.

Grinning, Howie gave her a quick, gentle kiss, all too aware of the clerk waiting a few steps away to assist them. "Once your doctor says it's okay for you to ride, Honey, I'll buy you the horse of your dreams," he murmured. "And build a stable to house it." Looping his arm about her waist, he drew her closer.

Cheyanne’s dark sapphire eyes brightened in disbelief at his promise, immediately wanting to protest. She had just been teasing about him buying the horse, never considering that he’d actually agree. She didn’t want him to think that she… Though he silenced those thoughts with another kiss. She wanted to pull away, but his tongue tenderly teasing her own halted that thought, too. She pulled him closer before, hearing the faint clearing of another gentleman’s throat. Smirking, she nibbled on his bottom lip. “Now who’s playing dominant, Sweet Tea?”

"Can't I kiss my girl?" Howie asked innocently.

“Like that?” Cheyanne answered incredulously with a sweet laugh. “Of course!”

Nuzzling her neck, Howie nipped lightly at the sensitive skin behind her ear. "Kissing you like that may lead to other things, and as I said earlier, I don't believe Saks has a shower we can sneak into…"

“Like this isn’t doing the same thing,” Cheyanne replied with a hard shiver of delight, smirking innocently as Drew requested the attention of the clerk so he could start the shopping for the couple. “So, you better stop touching me otherwise we’re going to be in trouble that would even make AJ blush at.”

"Alright, if you insist," Howie murmured, letting his lips trail to her earlobe for a quick nibble before lifting his head. "I promise to be on my best behavior the rest of the day," he swore, crossing his heart before drawing her deeper into the store.

“You know… You can break that promise, okay?” Cheyanne mentioned shyly, unable to hide the blush on cheeks as Howie tucked them inside the expensive selections of petite maternity clothing. Cheyanne didn’t even want to look at the price tags, even when Drew motioned toward some tops and bottoms he found to be quite appealing for her.

"When we get back to the hotel, Honey," Howie promised softly, ushering her to a chair so she could go over the selections properly.

“Holy Hell,” Cheyanne breathed softly in disbelief, her body welcoming the relief of the plush chair. She noticed how the mirrors wrapped around the seating area, giving her an accurate reflection. She couldn’t imagine anyone going to such a fuss, especially as Drew motioned to some of his selections. “Drew-Drop, I have enough clothes to last me through my pregnancy. I’ve got my maternity capris, shorts, and pants, plus all those baggy t-shirts and tank tops…”

Drew blushed slightly at her nickname for him, clearing his throat before replying. "Maybe so, but I have my orders…" he trailed with a smirk, glancing at Howie. "Besides, can't have our little Cheyanne in need of clothes."

“But I’m not in need of clothes,” she objected quietly with a mock pout of protest. “And what kind of orders has he been giving you? Because I’d like to add to them…”

"Honey," Howie chided with a chuckle. "I just told him we were adding to your wardrobe. It's not like there's some vast conspiracy going on."

"Conspiracy?" Drew repeated, smiling secretively. "Nope, no conspiracy."

“Drew-Drop, be nice to me,” Cheyanne pouted sweetly, puckering her glossed bottom lip that seemed to make everyone melt within a five mile radius.

"I'm being nice," he assured her. "I haven't said a word about Howie's appointment at Harry Winston's looking for engagement… Whoops."

“Engagement...” Cheyanne couldn’t even complete the sentence herself, bringing her bare left hand to cup against her mouth. She felt the very breath being forced from her lungs, causing a lump of uncertainty to grow against her throat. Her eyes were instantly teary at the ramifications of Drew’s statement, actually afraid to even look to Howie… What if he was just teasing? She couldn’t get her hopes up…

"Nice, Drew. Real smooth," Howie muttered, shaking his head slightly. "Honey… Don't cry, Chey, please," he whispered, dropping to his knees next to her. "Sweetheart…"

“I’m not crying,” she promised softly, her complexion growing dusky as her hands trembled softly. She didn’t want Howie to see her nervous flitter, so she cupped both hands over her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut. She was shocked into sheer disbelief. “I’m not crying at all…”

"Look at me, Honey," he murmured, touching her arm gently. He had really hoped for it to be a surprise, had planned on meeting with the jeweler, who had already selected an array of rings according to Howie's specifications. "I was just going to look… Okay, okay, I was going to get you to help me pick out your ring. But not if you're going to go into shock over it…" Reaching up, he smoothed her hair gently, his expression worried. "Chey, Honey… Breathe…"

“I think I forgot how…” Cheyanne wheezed softly, shaking her head slightly as she finally met his dark chocolate eyes.

"Do you not want to marry me?" Howie asked softly after a moment.

“Are you crazy?” Cheyanne breathed with disbelief, her southern accent deepening with the whole wonderful revelation. She bit down hard on her bottom lip as the tears finally broke against her sweetly shimmering sapphire orbs. She had been so scared that becoming pregnant and having her child would alter her dreams. Would make it hard for a man to love her completely without worrying. All she had ever really wanted in life was to fall in love and raise a blissful family. And when she met Howie, he had made those dreams tangible, though they never spoke about it. She had just hoped, someday… She had to hold her breath again as she rubbed away the tears. “I just… Do you really want to marry me? You were really going to pick out a ring? Today?”

Bringing her hand to his lips for a soft kiss, Howie nodded. "I'm crazy over you," he murmured against her fingers, reaching with his other hand to brush her tears away. "And yes, I really want to marry you." Taking a deep breath, he looked deeply into her eyes, saw the hesitance there. As though she didn't want to believe it was true. "Cheyanne… I once asked God to send me an angel. Someone who would love me no matter what, someone that I could be myself around and never have to change for. I honestly thought it would never happen. And then, the day I met you, my life changed forever. I can't imagine spending the rest of my days with anyone but you. You complete me. I love you so much, and just the thought that you find me worthy of your love takes my breath away. Forever isn't long enough to love you," he murmured.

“You’re so perfect, Howie,” Cheyanne told him without any means for formalities, pride, or prejudices. She was honest and sincere; her sapphire orbs glittering with adoration at Howie’s confession. She felt as if she were resting on the softest clouds in the highest portion of Heaven’s most beautiful scenery. “I love you so much. You and only you. I couldn’t imagine having anyone else by my side. Anyone else telling me he loved me. Anyone else making love to me. Anyone else being Daddy to my children…”

Howie felt his heart soar at her words. Leaning up, he captured her lips in a gentle kiss. "I love you, Honey…" Resting his forehead against hers, he gave her his most charming smile. "So I take it that's a 'yes'?"

“Yes, you can fire Drew-Drop,” Cheyanne teased lightly, cupping his face within her petite hands.

"Why would I fire Drew?" Howie asked with a soft chuckle. In all honesty, he'd forgotten his longtime bodyguard was there.

“Because I ruined your perfect moment by squealing?” Drew offered with a firm smile, obviously still pleased with the results that had transpired. It would make the trip to Harry Winston’s far more exciting. “But, if you fire me, I’m going to live with my Cheyanne. Have no doubt about it.”

"Your Cheyanne?" Howie repeated, shaking his head. It seemed every male between the ages of two and eighty that met Cheyanne fell in love with her. "I'm not going to fire you--"

"Dammit," Drew muttered under his breath.

“Drew-Drop, you can come spend ‘quality’ time at the ranch till Howie sets a wedding date. Lord knows that’ll be forever and a half. Took him thirty one years just to pop the question,” Cheyanne teased, attempting to peek over Howie’s shoulder as she wrapped her arms around him, still trembling with excitement.

"It's a date," Drew assured her with a laugh. "As long as Austin doesn't chase me around the chicken coop with a shotgun…"

“What is it with you guys and that damn chicken coop--”

“Drew, can you please go get her some outfits to try on so I don’t have to compete with you for her attention?” Howie groaned playfully.

"Going, going," Drew said, shaking his head as he turned away.

Pulling Cheyanne closer, Howie pressed soft kisses to her temple. "So after this it's okay if we go to Winston's?"

“If that’s what you want,” Cheyanne agreed, unable to hide the pleased smile brightening her beautiful face. She was going to be a bride. “And as long as your family accepts? Because I know how important they are to you..”

"Maybe on my next break we can fly down for a visit? Momma wants to meet you… Though I'm sure I'll be fighting everyone for your attention every minute we're there," Howie murmured.

“So, they don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

"That you were planning to ask me..." Cheyanne trailed uncomfortably with a firm blush setting fire to her cheeks.

"Momma knows," Howie said softly, lifting his head to look into her eyes. "She's been begging for a visit from you since I first told her about you."

“She’s happy?”

"Ecstatic. I believe she said something about needing a dozen grandchildren from me… And then she mentioned what an angel you must be, to have put the smile back in my voice." Howie couldn't fight the grin that crept onto his face. He knew he would be grinning forever now. "I told her about Cinnamon, too…"

“About…” Cheyanne’s light brows furrowed with honest trepidation, unable to help but worry. She couldn’t believe that Howie had discussed her with his mother first and foremost. But to speak of her unborn child? How could she possibly gain acceptance into the family if they considered her some tramp. “Everything about her?”

"Honey… All I told her was that we're expecting," Howie assured her softly.

“But… Then she assumes that Cinnamon is biologically yours? Which is technically a lie…” Cheyanne immediately winced at Howie’s crestfallen experience. She furiously shook her head with embarrassment, tilting to kiss him gently. “I didn’t mean it like that, Sweet Tea. You are Cinnamon’s Daddy. Always and forever. But… I don’t want to be something I’m not with your family…”

"All that matters to them is that I'm happy. And I am happy. I couldn't love Cinnamon any more than I already do if I were her biological father." Smoothing the curls from her face, he grazed her cheek with his thumb. "I didn't want to tell Momma everything, especially without your consent. If you want to, we can tell her when we go visit. But please, never think that she'll like you any less because of your past. Momma's got a heart big as the world, and once she's decided she loves you, she's going to love you no matter what."

“So… We’re really getting married?” Cheyanne whispered with a charming excitement.

"Shhh… I haven't asked you properly yet," Howie whispered, tugging playfully on the silken curl he'd twirled around his finger. "But… Yes, we are… That is, after you say yes…"

"Well, can you hurry up and ask me properly? 'Cause I really can't wait to say it along with how much I love you."

"Can't ask you properly until we get a ring…"

“I don’t want to be there when you get the ring.”

"So you want me to run get it now?" he suggested, prepared to dash out at that moment.

“No…” she trailed, holding onto his hands for fear that he might break away and start in a furious sprint toward the expensive store. That would probably only cause needless chaos and Drew had stirred that pot far too much today. As excited as she was to say that she was engaged, she knew Howie adored perfection. He wanted it to be ‘just right’ and she could wait for that. “I want you to get it when you feel comfortable. I’d really like it to be an extension of your heart, y’know? So, when you’re ready, you can get it.”

"Yes ma'am," he murmured, leaning in for another quick kiss. As soon as she slipped away to a restroom, he'd make other plans to meet the jeweler. He didn't want her leaving for North Carolina without a symbol of his eternal love on her finger.
Keeping You Forever by Anastacia
Chapter 35 – Keeping You Forever

“Go fish, Darlin’,” Cheyanne announced with a sweet smile as she watched Baylee furl his light brows to the fact that she had no purple fish in her handful of cards. He had seemed convinced she was tucking them away or that Olivia was stealing. He had even lifted Cheyanne’s tank top to assure that Olivia wasn’t doing as he assumed. Everyone found the scene quite adorable, lounging about the luscious living room with no plans to do a single thing. Leighanne had been the only one looking for freedom, taking another day at the spa, making sure not to invite Austin nor Cheyanne. Not that the girls minded. Cheyanne was quite happy playing with Baylee and Austin was far more delighted just lounging on the couch between Kevin’s legs, both reading different novels.

"Darn it," Baylee grumbled, sitting back to pout as he added a card to his growing pile. His hands were clutching the cards tightly, and with each turn he seemed to accumulate more. "Your go, My Angel?"

“Thank’ya much, Darlin’,” Cheyanne agreed, glancing over her small number of cards while hearing Brian’s faint chuckle. She glanced up to see him occupying his expensive video camera and tried not to blush, fixing her attention back to the cards. It seemed like someone was always taking pictures or videos during this stay in the city. She was just surprised that Nick hadn’t brought a camera into the bedroom when he flopped between her and Howie, insisting on taking turns sleeping with her. “Do you have any fishies with stripes?”

Poring over his cards with deliberate attention, Baylee poked out his bottom lip. "Uh huh. Here," he said, holding it out. As she took it with a smile, he set his remaining cards down, remembering what he'd overheard Nick and AJ talking about days before. Standing, he wriggled out of his striped polo shirt, dropping it to the floor before giving Cheyanne an enormous grin. "You win!"

Cheyanne’s sapphire eyes popped open in surprise as he jumped upward with his arms outspread, puffing out his bare chest for her. Her glossed lips formed a small ‘o’ of surprise as Brian zoomed in his camera, trying not to laugh too hard. AJ and Nick even pulled their attention away from their game, though their faces deadpanned with horror. Cheyanne just shook her head in disbelief, reaching to take the little boy in her arms. “I win, huh?” She laughed as Baylee giggled. She immediately bent to press kisses to his chest with loud raspberries. “I win!”

"Who the Hell taught him how to do that?" Austin murmured, watching Cheyanne and Baylee with amusement. Her glance skipped over to Nick and AJ, and when she saw AJ biting back a laugh, she shook her head. "I should have known it was you, Skinny."

“Nick was the one talking about his royal hard-on when Chey was down to her skimpies. Ain’t my fault!” AJ instantly defended over Baylee’s shrieks of sheer delight. “How was I to know that little sneaky bastard was running around outside?!”

Vaulting off the couch, Austin landed atop AJ, clapping a hand over his mouth. "We don't say things like that in front of little ones," she hissed, aware of Kevin's censuring glance. "Take it back."

AJ grinned against her hand, furiously shaking his head as a sign of war. He knew if he copped to a squeal, she would leave just as quickly as she had tackled him. But, as they argued and she threatened bodily injury, Brian watched Baylee giggle and shriek with delight, not once letting Cheyanne stop her raspberries. He found it absolutely adorable that Baylee was so attached to Cheyanne. Every time he watched them, he felt even guiltier about saying such mean things about Cheyanne. She was such a gift. “Hey, Scooper… What are you doing?”

"My Angel won, Daddy," Baylee choked out amidst his squeals. "Her win, I lose! I take my shirt off for her!"

"Take it back," Austin whispered, digging her knees in AJ's sides. Again the man simply shook his head, grinning wickedly behind her hand. "Don't make me hurt you…"

“I like it when it hurts!” AJ mumbled behind her hand.

“Scooper, you’re supposed to win so your Angel can take off her shirt,” Brian explained gently with a smirk as the raspberries slowly subsided and Baylee curled protectively into Cheyanne’s arms. Both of their faces were flushed pink with exertion. Their blonde curls wild with amusement. Brian couldn’t have imagined a sweeter picture as he reached for his camera phone, thinking it’d be the perfect background.

“If her take her shirt off, my Angel be cold, Daddy,” Baylee explained with concerned confusion.

"Then your Daddy will just have to keep her warm, won't he?" Brian said with a smirk, snapping the picture just before Cheyanne's head jerked up.

"I'll just bet you do, Aje," Austin whispered. "But I'm not talking about that kind of pain…"

“Princess, get off AJ! AJ, stop swearing in front of the young’ins. Brian, what the Hell are you thinking?!” Kevin suddenly snapped, rendering order as he watched the chaos brew. The darkness in his voice caused AJ to buck Austin from his hips, hurriedly scrambling to return to his game. Austin just stared at AJ in a daze, wondering why he was so scared of someone like Kevin. “Do you know what Howie would do to you if he heard that?”

“Daddy, I keep my Angel warm!” Baylee objected with a growl, wrapping his arms tighter around Cheyanne’s neck.

"It was a joke?" Brian returned with a shake of his head. "Scooper, I think we should let Howie keep Chey warm…"

"No! I keep her warm!"

"Pussy," Austin whispered to AJ before going back to the sofa with Kevin. Settling against him, she reached for her book, fairly content to resume the peacefulness they had been enjoying earlier. Only… "Kevin!" she screeched, jerking around to look at him. "There's a young'in present," she muttered, pushing his hand from beneath her shirt.

“There are three young’ins present and you still felt the need to straddle AJ. So, why can’t I enjoy myself, too?” Kevin murmured loudly in her ear, drawing her back against his chest. He removed his hand as she wished, locking them around her waist instead. He was done with the novel he had been enjoying. Austin always seemed to arouse him far too easily.

“You know you’d be all over Chey if you had the chance, B,” Nick whispered loudly as AJ punched his shoulder, telling him to start the game again. “We all would.”

Turning in his embrace, Austin scooted up until her lips met his. "You realize, don't you, that you were supposed to hit your sexual peak about thirteen years ago, right?" she whispered, pulling the blanket off the back of the couch and over them for a tiny bit of privacy. "And I have yet to hit mine…"

"I would not, Nick," Brian sputtered, shaking his head in disbelief. "I'm a married man, for heaven's sake!"

“Married to Medusa. Just be honest for once, B. If you had a chance, you would dump Leigh for Chey,” Nick demanded with amusement. “She’s freaking hot-shit. Without any of the wraps, botox, breast implants, or whatever the Hell your wife does to make herself young…”

"Enough!" Cheyanne cried, beyond mortified at the turn of the discussion. What had been a simple morning was quickly turning into something far different. Reaching for Baylee's shirt, she eased it over his head despite his protests that he'd lost it.

Dropping into and armchair, Brian shot his friend a rueful grin. "Y'know… You're--"

"Brian!"

“Just admit it!” Nick howled, tackling his best friend in a tight headlock. “You’ve got a hard-on for little Chey! Just like I have a major hard-on for little Chey! Just like J has blown wad for Austin! C’mon! Admit it!”

“Where’s Howie?” Cheyanne questioned meekly, glancing up to Kevin and Austin for support. Only, she noticed the roaming lumps underneath the blankets, immediately realizing what they were doing without detection. Her cheeks burned furiously at the turn of events, wanting means of escape.

"Him's on the balcony," Baylee whispered conspiringly. "I not s'posed to know… He making a surprise for My Angel," he added, his brows furling at the thought. "We go in my room and watch Nemo?" he asked hopefully, wanting to keep her from Howie as long as possible.

"Get your sweaty armpit out of my face!" Brian shouted, pushing at Nick vainly.

"Admit it!"

"Never!"

“On the balcony?” Cheyanne questioned the little boy, furrowing her own brows with confusion, though her nose wrinkled as well. Baylee smiled at her adorable facial features, hopping out of her embrace in order to grasp her hands. He helped her stand and wanted to tug her back the hallway, but she stopped halfway, making sure to avoid the carnage of the living room. “Maybe I should go see Howie, Darlin’--”

"No! He come get you when he ready!" Baylee insisted. "We play hide n' seek wit' Uncle Howie!"

"Just go with Baylee already," Austin muttered from under the blankets. "And take those three stooges with you…"

“Why don’t you go to the bedroom where you belong?” Cheyanne scoffed with disbelief, though Baylee was already tugging her back the hallway.

"Can't," Austin replied simply, peeking out from under the blankets. "I'm not… Decent…"

"Is she ever?" AJ asked with a smirk.

“You little pissfucker--”

“Just hold the blanket,” Kevin groaned, interrupting Austin’s vile words. He immediately pulled them up from the couch, making sure the blanket shrouded them as he tucked her legs against his waist. He glanced up to see Howie appearing from the balcony, making sure the curtains were drawn tightly. “Angel’s right. We belong in the bedroom.”

"But I wanted to watch!" AJ cried.

“THEN PAY THE COVER CHARGE!” Austin bellowed with a wicked smile, poking her tongue out at AJ’s shocked face.

"I got the money!" AJ called, digging for his wallet.

"What the Hell…" Howie trailed, shaking his head in disbelief. Kevin was toting Austin down the hall like some hormonal caveman, Nick and Brian wrestled in the middle of the floor, and Baylee was tugging Cheyanne into his room. "Honey?"

“Tea!” Cheyanne burst with soft relief, attempting to stop though Baylee wrenched her into his bedroom, hurriedly shutting the door and locking it.

"Looks like he stole your woman, D," AJ commented as Kevin's bedroom door slammed shut. Kicking Nick's leg, he cleared his throat. "You two stop fighting over Brian's hard-on for Chey. D's here…"

“Howie!” Nick exclaimed with triumph, sitting on Brian’s chest so he couldn’t squirm away. After all, everyone had done their best to get him in trouble with Cheyanne during her visit. It was time for him to cause some havoc. “B wants Baylee to play Strip Go Fish with her! And when she looses her clothes, he so invitingly offered to keep her warm! He wants her bad, D!”

"I don't even want to know about it, Nick," Howie muttered with a wave of his hand, moving towards the room Baylee had taken Cheyanne into. It would only cause the fire of jealousy to grow, why bother?

"But--"

"Ha! Get your fat ass off me!" Brian shouted, pinching his friend's arm.

"HOLY SHIT!" Nick roared, leaping off Brian's chest. Graceless as always, he tumbled over the coffee table, banging his knee and shin in the process, before colliding with Howie. Instantly the two fell to the floor in a heap, the older man spewing expletives as he struggled to free himself from his friend's cumbersome form.

The thunderous crashes startled most of the occupants in the penthouse, including the one being held ransom in Baylee’s room. Only, Brian and AJ found it amusing, laughing hysterically at the predicament, more so entertained that it briefly stopped the thumping in one of the back bedrooms. But, not for long. Having been trained not only as an Emergency Medical Technician and a Registered Nurse, Cheyanne was acutely aware of her surroundings and safety measures. Tucking Baylee within the safety of the room, she hurried out to find Howie and Nick struggling. Holding her abdomen, she immediately bent down, fully prepared to offer whatever care she could muster. Her sapphire eyes shined over with worried tears as she reach out to the two men, more concerned about Howie than Nick for the time being. “Are you hurt?”

"I am," Nick whined with a slight pout, sliding off Howie in hopes of some sympathy. "I banged my knee… And I think my leg's bleeding a little…"

"It's his own fault," Howie muttered, sitting up to cast a hateful glance at his younger friend. Of all the stupid shit…

“Nicky…” Cheyanne trailed with a hard sigh, offering a small smile at how much he actually reminded her of Baylee. He could be a sweet guy when overly prompted. Though, it truly did seem like he was hurt. Only, she turned to Howie first, brushing her hands over his cheeks. As much as she was taught and drilled into taking care of the worst case scenario first, she couldn’t help but focus on her lover. “Are you okay, Sweet Tea?”

"I'm fine," Howie assured her with a smile, reaching to catch her hands. Lifting them to his lips for a quick kiss, he felt his heart trip a beat when she smiled at him. "Take care of the baby here… Then I've got something for you out on the balcony…"

“You’re not lying to me?” Cheyanne questioned, leaning forward to brush her lips against his forehead. Nick was quite a large man when compared to Howie. He was several inches taller and probably thicker as well. Howie taking the full brunt of Nick’s weight scared her. There was no telling what could have possibly happened. She didn’t want him hurting. Not in the least. “Howie, right? You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

"I'm fine, really. Nothing bruised but my ego." Lifting his head, he brushed her lips with his. "Seriously, I'm okay. It's not the first time his fat ass--"

"I am not fat!"

"--landed on me, surely it won't be the last. I've built up quite the stamina… Now go, kiss his boo-boos so I can give you your surprise."

“Howie, if you’re lying to me…” Cheyanne’s voice trailed faintly as she watched him carefully stand. He immediately braced a hand against his side, slowly walking back toward the balcony. It was obvious that more than his ego had been bruised. She wanted to call out to him to ask for a physical assessment, but Nick’s hands reached out to her, lingering against the side of her breast. She immediately glanced back to him, making him clasp his hands in his lap as she reached to bunch his windbreaker pants. “No matter how much you try to take Howie out of service, he’s still going to get all my loving, Nicky. I promise.”

"Would I ever try to take your loving away from Howie?" Nick asked innocently, his gaze moving to where she pulled his pants leg up. "Oh god," he moaned, closing his eyes at the sight of blood.

"Shit, dude, it's just a little scrape! Baylee gets cut up worse than that playing in the park!" Brian exclaimed.

"Beat it, Brian," Nick muttered, opening his eyes long enough to shoot a glare at his friend. Honestly, he was cramping his style.

"I got a wife, remember? Looks like you'll be the one beating it," Brian said before heading for the kitchen, whistling jovially.

“Your unmentionable lover can help you with that later,” Cheyanne teased softly as she lifted the pant leg higher to assess his knee. She thanked AJ quietly when he brought the first aid kit over, setting it at her side. Fishing inside the contents, she removed some cotton balls and the alcohol. Dumping some on the cotton balls, she began to wipe away the blood. Nick instantly howled with pain, far worse than what Baylee would conjure. Rolling her eyes secretively, she bent to blow softly on the scrape to cool the pain. “And, you try your hardest to steal away Howie’s loving from me. You’ve made that painfully clear considering how many times you’ve kicked Howie out of bed.”

"Baylee started it. Ow! Sweetheart, that hurts!" he cried, jerking his leg back. She was trying to kill him. He knew it. She was going to poison him, right here and now, make him pay for all the things he'd done wrong. "Kiss it better?" he asked hopefully.

"Jesus, Nick," AJ muttered, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry it hurts, but I had to clean it,” Cheyanne chided softly, holding his leg as still as possible, knowing she still had to make sure his knee wasn’t hurt. She continued to blow until the burning fire subsided in his leg, smiling gently as she reached for a Band-Aid to cover the scrape. “That’s all done, alright? …Now your knee…”

"I've got something else that's hurting pretty bad--"

"NICK!" AJ screamed.

"What the fuck is your problem, J?" Nick snapped with a scoff of disgust.

"You better hope Kevin keeps Baby Girl tied down until Chey-Chey finishes your knee, or she'll make sure you hurt real bad. Besides, Howie's waiting for her, and you know how impatient he gets. He comes back in here and sees you flirting with his Honey, there'll be Hell to pay." With a curt nod, AJ turned his attention back to the movie he'd turned to. "Besides, you're making so much fucking noise I can't hear Baby Girl no more…"

“And here I thought he was actually being protective of me,” Cheyanne sighed with a rueful groan. She should have known better. AJ was obsessed with Austin. In fact, somehow, they were almost extensions of one another. Extreme opposites, but still extensions nonetheless. Cheyanne brushed those thoughts away as she tested the strength of Nick’s knee, assuring there were no weak ligaments, tendons, or whatnot. “Does that hurt, Nicky?”

"No… Feels good," Nick murmured, biting his lip at her gentle touch. When she pulled her hands away, he quickly grasped them, returning them to his knee. "Don't stop."

"What the Hell do you think you're doing?" Austin's voice thundered suddenly.

“I knew Kev was only a minute-man,” AJ prided with amusement. “But boy is your ass grass, Carter.”

"For your information, I heard all the fucking commotion out here and had to come investigate," Austin said, pulling the blanket tighter around her naked form. Kevin was no doubt pouting, but he'd get over it. She'd had to make sure Cheyanne was okay. "Kevin is far more than a one-minute man." Whirling to glare at Nick, she saw his petulant gaze. "Get your grubby dickbeaters off Chey-Chey. Now."

“SHE WAS TAKING CARE OF MY PAIN!” Nick squawked in disbelief, squirming in attempts to get far away from Austin and her lethal hands.

"Get him, Baby Girl!" AJ urged from his place on the couch.

"The only reason you're telling her to 'get him' is so you can see her naked," Cheyanne observed softly, extricating her hands from Nick's so she could gather the trash. "And there's no need for her to 'get him' at all. He fell and scraped his leg, Austi. I was just taking care of it for him," she assured her friend.

“Please, he was damn close to putting your hands on his filthy little--”

“It is not little! It’s monstrous!”

“Hey! It doesn’t matter, I’m going outside!” Cheyanne answered quickly, tossing the trash into the garbage before moving to stand.

"Chey? Um… Thanks. For the Band-Aid and all. And…" Aware of Austin's threatening stance, as well as the fact that AJ was rooting for her to throw off the blanket and kick his ass, he cleared his throat, standing. "I'm sorry for being such a jackass."

Smiling sweetly, Cheyanne leaned up, pressing a quick kiss to his cheek. "You're a sweetie pie, Nicky. Thank you," she murmured before walking towards the balcony.

"You are so damn lucky she's a forgiving person," Austin muttered, turning on her heel and heading back for Kevin's room. Shutting and locking the door behind her, she released a low rumble of expletives, shedding the blanket as she crossed to the bed. Kevin was sitting up, waiting patiently, a look of slight concern etching his brow as she crawled into his lap.

"What now, Princess?" he murmured, smoothing his hands down her back as she buried her face in the crook of his neck. Her warm breath coursed over his skin, rekindling the fire she'd doused moments before in order to see what the noise was all about. He'd tried his damnedest to make her stay, using every little trick imaginable, but still she'd slipped from the bed. "What was it?"

Heaving a sigh of frustration, Austin shook her head. "Boobah was being a pain in the ass. As usual." Curling next to him, she wriggled against the sheet concealing what she longed to get at. "But I don't want to think about him now… Where were we?" she murmured against his ear, letting him roll her to her back.

*~*~*


Smoothing his shirt, Howie turned to look up at the sky when the sun peeked behind a cloud. Glancing around at the setting of the balcony, he took a deep, calming breath. Everything was perfect. The white roses on the table, surrounded by floating candles in bowls of water, casting a soft glow on their surroundings. He'd even managed to have some sheltering bushes brought up, after speaking to the concierge. Taking a deep, calming breath, he placed the small box on the table next to the roses, reaching to adjust the pillow on the chair he would usher her to. He couldn't blow this. He'd waited a lifetime to find the woman he would be willing to give his heart and soul to, and he wanted to make sure his proposal was perfect.

"Howie?"

Her voice from inside the doors; surely the angels in Heaven couldn't sound sweeter. His heart soared just from hearing his name pass her lips, and he had to quell the nervous flutters in his chest before turning to greet her. Nothing, he decided upon looking at her, nothing was more beautiful than the woman before him. Her soft curls hanging past her shoulders, a slight flush to her cheeks, the beautiful glow about her. The way her eyes twinkled with happiness, her lips curving into a sweet smile. The way one hand covered her abdomen, gently smoothing over it through the t-shirt she wore. Glancing down, he saw her bare feet, smiling when she wriggled her painted toes.

“No wonder Darlin’ wanted to hide me in his room so you couldn’t show off your surprise. He knew when I saw what you did, I was going to fall even harder in love with you all over again,” Cheyanne breathed softly in true adoration as she took in her surroundings. It was so beautiful. So breathtaking. So perfect. So like her lover to do something so warmhearted. But, as beautiful as the decorations were, Cheyanne was still far more enchanted with Howie. He had been wearing a white tank top and khaki shorts when he first appeared, but had quickly pulled on a light blue button down t-shirt to appear more formal. He looked nervous, but Cheyanne smiled at his adorable nature. Wondering if he knew how he affected her so just by the simplest smoldering look from his dark eyes. “You’re so handsome, Howie.”

"And you're so beautiful," Howie murmured, drawing her onto the balcony. The nerves hit full force when she flashed her sweetest smile, and he quickly brought her to the chair. "Cheyanne… I love you so much. You know that, don't you?" he murmured, taking her hands in his.

“I had an inkling?” she questioned with a teasing note to her melodious voice, glancing down to their interlocked hands. Gingerly, she rubbed her thumbs over the backs of his, unable to hide her smile. She was delirious with delight, never expecting any man would cater to her in such a fashion. To work so hard just to see her smile. It endeared him to her. Forever.

"I… I had it planned, all the words I was going to say. But everything simply pales in comparison to you, Honey." Taking a deep breath, he looked up into her eyes. "All I can say is how much I love you, and even that I can't put into words properly. How much joy you've brought into my life, how a simple smile from you can make all my worries disappear. How much I look forward to spending the rest of my life with you, raising a family…"

“Cinnamon is going to be a great big sister,” Cheyanne approved with another endearing smile, taking one of her hands to brush down the side of his silky soft cheek. She didn’t really understand what he was doing. Perhaps faintly aware, but not wanting to get her hopes too high just in case. “And you’re going to be a wonderful father.”

"With you by my side, how can I be anything less?" he asked softly. "Chey, Honey…" Reaching over with one hand, he grasped the small box. Lowering himself to one knee before her, he rested their clasped hands on her leg, brushing her fingers with his. "Would you… Are you crying?"

“Am I not allowed?” she sniffled softly, tilting her head slightly to wipe away the tears on her t-shirt. It was surreal, seeing Howie down on one knee. He was truly was her knight in shining armor. A traditional romantic. Everything she wanted and everything she thought she could never have. His money didn’t matter. Nor did his stardom. The only part of him that mattered to her was his heart, which he seemed to be offering. She couldn’t help the tears that fell, because they were for joy.

"I think it's cute," he murmured, reaching up to brush her tears away. "I… I called your mother the other day, and we had a very long talk about love, honesty, trust, all the things you and I have between us. Before you ask, I didn't mention Cinnamon. And, well, in case you're nervous about her answer, she emailed me her approval… I can print it out if you want?"

“You called my mother?” Cheyanne questioned with a small giggle, obviously bemused by his clumsy yet endearing quality of apprehension in making this proposal perfect. It didn’t shock her that he wanted her mother’s approval above all else. After all, he was a proper gentleman and her mother absolutely adored that quality in the man. Especially considering all the gifts he lavished upon her unborn grandchild. “She must have been reeling… She’s been so anxious about me getting married… Wants six grandchildren, y’know?” Cheyanne glanced up to see Howie exhale another tight breath and she smiled warmly. “I don’t need the email, but I’d like to know what she said.”

"Something along the lines of 'Chey better say yes', I believe," Howie said with a teasing tone, giving her a slight grin.

“I wouldn’t put it past her to say something brazen,” Cheyanne promised with another laugh. “She loves you. She better have told you that.”

"She did. Quite a few times, in fact. Now…" Clearing his throat, he squeezed her hand gently. "Cheyanne, would you do me the greatest honor and be my wife?" he asked softly, his eyes never leaving hers. He held his breath in anticipation of her answer. Flicking his tongue over his lips quickly, he opened the small box, saw the reflection of the sparkling diamonds and sapphires in her eyes.

“Howie…” Cheyanne whispered, her throat constricting in awe as she glanced down to the beautiful ring. It was in a platinum setting, a large round sapphire sitting in the middle to represent their present with two somewhat smaller diamonds nestled beside to represent their past and future. It was gorgeous, catching against the beautiful natural lighting of the sun. She was suddenly so thankful that she hadn’t picked out the ring, because Howie already knew exactly what she wanted. And, the tears fell yet again as she leaned forward to kiss him deeply. “There’s no way in the world that I would ever say no. The honor’s all mine. To take your last name. God, yes!”

Pressing his lips against her cheek, Howie felt his own tears start to fall as he released a soft sigh. Plucking the ring from its blue velvet resting place, he took her shaking hand in his, easing the ring on. "Do you know how hard it was to get your size? I had to measure your finger with a hair then call the jeweler back yesterday evening. Good thing you're a heavy sleeper," he mused. Lifting her hand to his lips for a soft kiss, he leaned back, gazing down at the ring on her finger. "It looks more beautiful on you than I had imagined," he whispered, tracing her knuckles with his lips.

“It’s perfect. Maybe too expensive, but beautiful and an extension of your heart,” Cheyanne told him, shivering at the soft touches of his lips against her delicate skin. She was smitten at the tears falling from Howie’s eyes, reaching with her opposite hand to brush them away, making sure to even catch the tear that had fallen to his lips. “You didn’t have to do it so soon, though. Work so hard and stress yourself out to make it fit so quick. I said when you were ready, Tea.”

"I was ready the first time you told me you loved me," he admitted sheepishly, turning to kiss the soft skin of her palm.

“I can’t believe…” Cheyanne shook her head gently as she wetted her bottom lip with disbelief. “I’m going to be Mrs. Cheyanne Dorough… Howie, I’m so happy… More than you’ll ever know… I love you. Heart, body, and soul… And, you can’t laugh at me, okay?”

"I promise never to laugh at you… Unless you give me permission," he assured her, tears springing anew in his eyes. Mrs. Cheyanne Dorough… She was his. Forever. Just as he'd dreamed for so long… Part of him felt like leaping to the balcony rail, shouting for all who could hear what a lucky man he was. Part felt like bursting into the penthouse, exclaiming his glee to his friends and band mates. Yet, the largest part wanted to sneak her into their bedroom, snuggle with her under the blankets, whisper to her how much he loved her… "I love you, Chey…"

“I love you, too, and I have to quote something for you, okay?” Cheyanne explained softly, leaning forward to kiss him once more. To show her appreciation, dedication, and adoration. “When we went to the premiere, I was terrified. But, Austi helped me remember this poem that I love so much. That reminds me so much of you. So, I’m going to be the sappy one, okay? For tonight?”

"Alright," he murmured, his lips tingling from her kiss. "…As long as it's not an N Sync song…"

“Pablo Neruda was around long before the dirty-dish-gang,” Cheyanne promised, threading their hands together again. She smiled at the feeling of the cool platinum against her forth digit, knowing it would never leave her. That he would never leave her. Seductively moistening her lips, she glanced upward to make sure she had Howie’s dark, concentrated gaze. “I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz, / or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. / I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, / in secret, between the shadow and the soul. / I love you as the plant that never blooms / but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; / thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body. / I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. / I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride; / so I love you because I know no other way / than this: where ‘I’ does not exist, nor ‘you,’ / so close that your hand on my chest is my hand, so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

"Honey," Howie breathed, trembling at the beautiful words. Her heartfelt expression assured him that each word was true. Pulling himself to his feet, he pulled her up as well, wrapping his arms around her before capturing her mouth in a searing kiss. "Chey," he whispered against her lips, sliding his hands to her neck in a gentle caress. Wanting so badly to make love to her then he almost cried out. "God, Chey… I love you so much… Let's go to bed…" Whoops. He hadn't meant to say that…

“Don’t tempt me,” she whimpered, curling her fingers in his silky shirt to steady herself. Her heart flamed for him in the worst of ways. She wanted him inside her. To feel his heartbeat against hers, uniting them as one. And, she couldn’t help herself as she nibbled on his bottom lip before slowly taunting his lips with her tongue, wanting him to come to her.

"Would… Do you think… God, I can't believe I'm about to suggest this…" Howie trailed, sliding one hand beneath her t-shirt. He felt a shiver go through him when he cupped a bare breast. "Chey…"

“Suggest what?” Cheyanne whispered, her voice catching at the feel of Howie’s warm fingers on her overly delicate breast. She arched naturally at his touch, brushing herself against him without any true intentions of doing so. A rosy blush accentuated her cheeks as she gazed into his chocolate eyes. She wanted him so much.

"If I promise on my love for you that I'll be gentle," he murmured suggestively, not sure he could voice his entire thought. Already he felt his arousal growing at her delicate touches. His thumb brushed her sensitive nipple and he heard her soft gasp, her eyes widening in realization.

“Please?” she questioned hopefully, obviously opening the invitation. She obviously forgot all about the warnings from her physician, deciding to tempt fate. Wanting to tempt fate for him. It was such a special night and her dreams of him had been so passionate, considering she’d be leaving so very soon. “I’ve missed you so much… Having you inside me… Us being one…”

"I've missed that too… But, Honey, the baby…"

“You were the one that just said…”

Taking a deep breath, Howie covered her lips in a deep kiss. "Promise me… If you feel the slightest twinge, you'll tell me, okay?" he whispered between soft kisses, his lips trailing down her neck, nibbling slightly at the chain there.

“I promise,” she exhaled with delight, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.

"Then we'd better get inside, before there's a video floating around the internet of us making love on a balcony…"

“You’d enjoy that too much,” she squealed in surprise as he lifted her from the ground, helping her to wrap her legs around his waist. She kept her arms wrapped delicately around his neck, leaning down to press the softest kisses to every inch of his face. She could wait to meet his family and begin the planning process. To know that she would be married made her life so utterly complete. “My Sweet Tea, I love you so much… So very much…”

Howie's hopes of taking her quickly to the bedroom with no interruption were dashed the moment he stepped inside the penthouse. The instant he shut the door behind him, Baylee rushed forward, his face pursed into a pout. Skidding to a stop a few feet away, he placed his small hands on his hips and glared at Howie. "Uh oh," Howie whispered to Cheyanne.

Cheyanne’s light brows creased with confusion as she turned slightly in Howie’s embrace, glancing down to catch Baylee’s defiant stance. He may have been small, but he blocked their means of escape, looking as if he might go right for Howie’s shins. Shifting, Cheyanne offered the little boy a small smile, thinking Howie would let her onto her own two feet, but he didn’t. “What’s wrong, Darlin’?”

"Howie marry My Angel?" Baylee asked piteously, blinking rapidly as he looked up at her.

“He would like to,” Cheyanne answered gently with a sympathetic smile, squirming until Howie finally relinquished his hold. She was all too aware of what the rapid flutter of Baylee’s eyes meant, knowing how upset he was. And the little boy wasted no time in rushing into her opened embrace, burying his face tightly against her chest for protection. Cheyanne cooed sadly for him, rubbing his tiny back as she picked him up to cuddle close. “He should have asked your permission first, huh, Darlin’?”

Nodding against her chest, Baylee wrapped his arms around Cheyanne's neck tightly. "He no love you like me, My Angel," he whispered.

Oh, for the love of… Taking a deep breath, Howie cleared his throat. "Bay? Would you feel better if I asked your permission to marry your Angel?"

“I feel better if you no marry My Angel. Let me marry My Angel,” Baylee suggested stubbornly, turning to rest his cheek on Cheyanne’s chest, keeping a deathly stare on Howie. “Keep My Angel for me and my Daddy. Not you.”

"Darlin'…" Cheyanne breathed softly, smoothing his hair. Glancing up, she saw Brian in the doorway, his gaze on his son. "Your Daddy has your Mommy… He can't have me, too," she murmured.

“Then I keep you for me’self,” Baylee declared, holding a hand out to keep Howie from stepping any closer while his other hand threaded into her golden curls to play with the tendrils.

“Darlin’,” Cheyanne sighed softly, shifting Baylee in her embrace so their similar gazes locked. Both had dark sapphire eyes that always seemed to twinkle with mischief. Though, now they both expressed sadness with the situation. She hadn’t realized how opposed Baylee would be to the marriage. If anything, she had been far more worried about Austin’s reaction. But, for now, she had to make sure Baylee wouldn’t be upset with her. She couldn’t handle that pain. “You’ve got to listen to me, okay? I love you so much, Baylee. You are so cute and I would keep you forever if I could. But, you have to stay with your Mommy and Daddy, because they love you so much, too… And I also love Howie very much. He has my heart and I would really love it if you agreed to let him marry me. That way, I have someone to love me extra when you have to be with your Mommy and Daddy. Please, Darlin’? It doesn’t mean that you’re not always going to be my special little Darlin’… Howie can never take that away from you…”

Looking at Howie, his expression the utmost of seriousness, Baylee heaved a sigh. "You take care of her?"

"I promise," Howie said, holding a hand over his heart. Never had he dreamed he would have a two year-old to contend with. "She'll be safe with me. I'll never hurt her, and I'll make sure she has all she needs."

“D’ank you, Howie,” Baylee conceded, reaching to wrap his arms around Cheyanne once more. “I still be you Darlin’, right? I snuggle with you and Moth? I get kisses and wet tummy kisses? Even if you marry him, you still my Angel?”

“You’ll get all of that and more,” Cheyanne promised with a soft laugh, kissing him several times. “Can you go give Howie a hug for me?”

"Congratulations," Brian said with a smile, stepping forward as Baylee reluctantly moved to hug Howie. Despite all his first impressions of Cheyanne, he had come to realize how much his friend loved her, how much he needed her. Pulling Cheyanne into his embrace, he hugged her gently. "Howie's going to make such a wonderful wife!"

“He’ll look quite beautiful in that wedding dress… Of course, it’ll have to be beige…” Cheyanne teased as well, accepting the hug with obvious surprise. Brian had been quite sweet to her since their initial conversation upon her arrival. She had just taken it as a mere formality. As if Howie had begged him to be kind. But, Brian had come on his own this time. She could sense that much in his light blue eyes. “And, thank you.”

"'Nuff, Daddy," Baylee said, squirming between them. "My Angel needs rest!"

"That she does," Brian agreed, stepping away. "And you need lunch. Mickey D's?"

“Des!” Baylee agreed with excitement, turning to tug gently on Cheyanne’s t-shirt. “Want me bring you home some?”

“If you want to,” Cheyanne answered, not wanting to break his heart anymore today.

"We bring My Angel a Happy Meal, Daddy?" Baylee asked, reaching up to be held. "An' get Moth some chicken nuggets?"

“Sure, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” Brian accepted, tossing Baylee into the air before holding him close. He laughed at his son’s manic giggle, glancing sideways to his quiet friend. “Are you going to offer Howie something to eat, too?”

"We bring Uncle Howie a Mac?" Baylee questioned, glancing over at Howie for confirmation.

“Sounds great, Bay,” Howie confirmed with appreciation, reaching to tussle his curls lightly.

“You look a little pale, D…” Brian chuckled as he set Baylee down, patting his behind in attempts to usher him to gather his coat and shoes.

"I'm fine," Howie assured him softly, sliding his arm around Cheyanne when she leaned against him. "Be sure and play an extra long time in the ball pit for us, okay, Bay?"

"But… Me wanna hurry and bring back food!" Baylee insisted before rushing to the bedroom.

“I’ll keep him busy for awhile,” Brian promised with a bemused grin at Howie’s frustrated facial expression. Once again, he reached to hug the newly engaged couple, knowing everything would be changing for his older friend. But, finally, for the better. “And congrats, D. This is great… You two are great, even if Scooper is always going to try to steal Chey away.”

"Well, for a minute there I envisioned having to bow down to him in a recreation of a scene from the Godfather," Howie mused with a chuckle. Kissing the top of Cheyanne's head, he looked at Brian. "Thanks, B." It meant a lot to him, having his friend's approval. Not that he needed Brian's approval in any aspect of his life, but knowing he had it made life happier.

“No, you’re going to have to bow down to the Godmother,” Cheyanne teased as Brian laughed heartily, bidding his goodbyes as Baylee bellowed from the front of the penthouse. She curled her arms around Howie’s waist, tucking herself close to kiss his chest. “More specifically, Cinnamon’s Godmother.”

"Should I call Momma and tell her to plan my funeral now?" Howie asked lightly, ushering her towards the bedroom. "Or should I ask for the ring back and hightail it out of town?"

“Would you honestly take the ring away from me and just leave me?” Cheyanne questioned with a soft hurt, her bottom lip puckering. “ ‘Cause I’ll definitely toss Leighanne out on her silicone behind and be Darlin’s Mommy… Brian’s a good looking man… I could deal with him…”

"Sure, why not? Then you and Austin can be cousins," Howie teased, shutting the bedroom door behind them. Lifting her into his embrace, he carried her to the bed, resting his head in the crook of her shoulder as she lay back. "Do you really think I could ever leave you?" he whispered, his hands trailing her sides gently. "You, who I love so much," he whispered, his lips caressing her skin in a sweet, slow motion.

“So much for Brian…” Cheyanne whispered before her breath caught against her lungs, causing the man’s name to squeak slightly. Not that she cared, her body reacting to Howie’s kisses and caresses more than she had anticipated. So delighted, her back arched to bring her closer to him as she bit down hard on her bottom lip to keep from whimpering. He knew how to take full control of her body and work it to his pleasure.

"Brian who?" Howie whispered against her ear, gently easing her shirt up to her chest. Leaning back slightly, he gazed down at her, taking in her flushed face, the way her breasts rose and fell with each breath. Her tongue darted over her lips, sending a shiver through him, and the way her eyes shifted to a deep blue, glittering with passion. "Chey…"

“I love you,” Cheyanne murmured gently, tucking her hands underneath his t-shirt to caress the taunt ripples of his tight abdomen. The coolness of her engagement ring, causing a shock of excitement between their blazing skins. “I love you because I know no other way than this. And I never want to know no other way.”

"I love you… And I don't believe there is any other way," he said softly, leaning down to capture her lips in a fervent kiss.
Forlorn Goodbyes by Anastacia
Chapter 36 – Forlorn Goodbyes

Tucked away in the private lounge of the airport, Austin held onto Kevin as hard as she could. Knowing she would have to let go within the next hour only made her hold tighter. His arm wound around her waist, he held her close, his chin resting atop her head, and her heart grew heavier with each passing moment. She didn't want to say goodbye to him. The past few days had been the most spectacular she had ever spent, and knowing the bleakness of being alone in bed at night made her want to cry. She had grown accustomed to the feel of his body next to hers, the way he would murmur softly in his sleep when he stirred. The joy of waking up to see his face, the slow sleepy smile that would light up the room when their eyes met first thing. The peaceful happiness of just being with him throughout the day.

With a sad sigh she glanced across the lounge, a smile touching her lips when she saw Cheyanne seated on the floor, Baylee next to her, each working hard on their coloring at the small table before them. The light caught the diamonds on Cheyanne's left hand and they glinted, reminding Austin that, before long, Cheyanne would have a family of her own. And she would have… Closing her eyes briefly, she snuggled closer to Kevin, suddenly longing desperately to give him the children he wanted so badly.

“It’s going to be okay, Princess,” Kevin murmured softly, linking his arms around her waist to hold her closer. He could feel the desperation and sadness lingering in her posture, transferring into his lonely aura. He now knew how hard it had been for Howie to leave Cheyanne in North Carolina and why Cheyanne was probably so concentrated on Baylee as Howie lingered elsewhere. Why, perhaps, he had been so quick to make a formal engagement. Kevin would have followed on bended knee, but his divorce was a slow and agonizing process. He refused to put Austin through that. The wait of an engagement ring propped on her finger without a distant promise of the future. That much he would wait for. After their initial conversation of not having children, Kevin’s dreams had dashed just a bit. But there was no relief with her leaving. He wanted her to stay. Permanently. If Leighanne could go for the entire tour, why couldn’t Austin?

"I know," she whispered, burying her face against his chest as Nick and Brian began tossing a basketball back and forth. AJ was joining Baylee and Cheyanne on the floor, muttering something that made them both laugh in appreciation. Howie lingered nearby, his gaze on his new fiancÚe, and despite her own sadness at leaving she could feel his worry. "When is your next break?" she asked softly, nervously twisting the hem of his t-shirt in her fingers. Part of her longed to hear him request that she stay for the entire tour, but knew he wouldn't. He did, after all, have an image to uphold. And she knew she would turn him down were he to ask. She couldn't leave Cheyanne alone, nor could she expect her to tag along on tour. Hell, the excitement of the past days was starting to show, and she swore the moment they got home, her friend was going to bed to stay. Whether she liked it or not.

“We’re finishing our small promotion tour over the next couple of weeks before starting the official tour. So, our next break is around two weeks… Three days off after the next two weeks… Why, you got something planned?” Kevin answered, unlocking his hands, keeping one on her waist as the other went to rub her shoulder. He pressed another kiss to the top of her head, exhaling a soft breath. He wanted to warm her, though the air conditioning was pumping because of the feverish weather outside. But, Kevin was looking to warm her heart instead of her skin. It hurt so much to hear her so frail and weak, so fearful of the future. Usually she was so proud and regal, he didn’t want that to leave her. Not his spitfire. Not now when he needed it most.

"I think Howie's taking Chey to meet his family then, and I'll be all alone…" Austin trailed softly, lifting her head to look at him. "You think you can lose the Stooges for three days and come keep me company?" she asked with a smirk, wanting to shake off the feeling of dread that hung over her. "I can show you my bullet," she added, trailing her fingers down his chest as she leaned up to kiss him gently. When his hand slid to her neck, holding her lips to his, she felt the familiar shiver, wished suddenly that they had more than an hour left together.

“When I come for a visit, you’re not going to have any silly need for that bullet,” Kevin murmured, pulling her close for another kiss, exchanging a mixture of their hot breaths. He felt her eyelashes flutter gently against his skin, causing him to smile. “And, I’d love to play house with you for the weekend.”

"God, get a room," Nick groaned, wearily shaking his head.

"We had a room, Boobah. Leave us alone," Austin muttered, tugging Kevin towards the corner. "How come this big ass airport doesn't have--"

"Austin Leigh Harrell! No!" Cheyanne demanded suddenly. "There will be no loving in the airport lounge!"

“Why do they always gotta be ‘lone anyway? Not like it’s any fun without me!” Baylee scorned with a wrinkle of his nose, ripping several pages from his coloring book. Shielding them from Cheyanne’s view, he hurriedly scribbled on the tops, folding four. Then, scrambling to his feet, he hurried to catch Austin and Kevin before they could disappear. “Hey! You two! Freeze!”

"Freezing!" Austin assured him with a laugh, turning in Kevin's embrace to look at the boy. "What you got there?" she asked, smiling when Kevin's arms wrapped around her from behind, holding her close to him. They would be alright, she decided, leaning her head back to give him a loving look.

“I got pi’tures for you,” Baylee explained with a lopsided grin, giving Austin the unfolded coloring pictures he had worked so hard on. Then, glancing back to make sure Nick and AJ held Cheyanne’s attention, he offered her the slightly crumpled, folded coloring pictures. “C’you give those to My Angel on da plane? For ‘prise?”

"Aw, Bay," Austin cooed, pulling away from Kevin. Kneeling in front of Baylee, she accepted the pictures with a grateful smile. "Thank you so much. And I'll be sure and give her these on the plane," she said, taking the folded pages to tuck into her purse. "You're too sweet. Have you been taking lessons from Kevvy?"

“Please!” Baylee scoffed with a snort of giggles. “I bedder than Kevvy. Way bedder! Even bedder than Uncle Howie…”

"Oh, really? How are you better than them? Maybe I can train Kevvy a little." Austin gave him a wink, reaching to tousle his hair. Brian sure did make a beautiful child. She wondered if… Pushing the thought away before it could complete itself, she turned her full attention to Baylee.

“If you pay me… I train d’em!” Baylee offered with excitement, glancing toward AJ to see the slight bulge in his back pocket. Baylee’s sapphire eyes immediately shimmered with remembrance as he turned to Austin, squealing. “I got’s My Angel a ‘resent in Uncle J’s pants!”

Choking on laughter, Austin could only look at the boy, clapping one hand over her mouth as Kevin dropped into the nearby chair, his eyes wide open. "You have what?" she finally got out, biting back giggles.

"What kind of… present do you have for your Angel?" Kevin asked carefully.

“A special ‘resent!” Baylee exclaimed, looking at the two adults as if they were completely absurd for asking such a question. “Bedder than darn ring Uncle Howie gave her. She love me more.”

Clearing her throat, Austin sat back on her heels, glancing over at AJ, who labored over whatever he was coloring. "That's funny," she murmured to herself. "I thought he had the hots--"

"Austin," Kevin warned, shaking his head. Turning to look at Baylee, he gave the boy a smile. "Why don't you go give your Angel her present now? I'm just dying to see what it is…"

“Keep Uncle Howie away for me?” Baylee questioned hopefully.

"You bet. Go on, hurry," Austin encouraged him, getting to her feet as he scurried away. "Hey City Boy… C'mere," she called loudly.

“She looks pale…” Howie murmured softly to himself as he crossed the private room to seat himself by Kevin and Austin. Shaking his head softly, he focused his attention back to Austin, who had said little to him since finding out about the engagement. “What’d you need?”

Scrambling for a reason to have called the man over, Austin grabbed his hand between hers. Licking her lips, she took a deep breath, decided she couldn't lie to him. "Bay's making a move on your woman," she said softly, nodding towards Baylee, who was whispering in AJ's ear. Kevin was leaning forward to watch, apparently not wanting to miss a second of the show.

What? Making a move on--”

“Hey! Hush up over there!” Kevin commanded with a bit of a southern accent he always seemed to catch now and again when he was with his lover and her best friend. His emerald eyes tore from Baylee and AJ for just a moment to offer Austin a hard glare, then he quickly glanced back. He noticed AJ’s hand secretively reach into his back pocket, withdrawing the item that Baylee had purchased in the airport gift shop. Both made sure that Cheyanne was oblivious to the exchange, Baylee standing behind AJ for the pass, grinning madly at his choice of jewelry. A silver ring with an oversized, purple, squared gem that outshined Howie’s expensive engagement ring. Or at least that’s what Baylee thought.

"See how he treats me?" Austin asked Howie, brown eyes wide. "I love him till he screams, and he tells me to be quiet. Well, not when I'm loving him. That's when he--"

“Go away now, Uncle J!” Baylee hissed loudly as he pushed on AJ’s shoulder, bringing everyone’s attention to the small table that he, Cheyanne, and AJ were occupying. His sapphire eyes were wide with emphasis as he pushed his coloring book into AJ’s lap, along with several crayons. “Hurry!”

"I did all that grunt work for you and now you're telling me to go away?" AJ questioned with a pout. Scooping up the coloring book and crayons, he got to his feet, sticking his nose up. "Fine! See if I help you anymore," he said with a huff, dramatically stomping to a chair. Flopping down, he picked up a crayon, pretending to color as he watched Baylee roll his eyes before moving to stand next to Cheyanne.

“You just booted my coloring partner,” Cheyanne cooed with a soft laugh, offering the boy a pout as if she were defending AJ. “He was helping pick out my colors since you scurried away to play with Austi and Kevvy.”

"I gots a 'resent for you, My Angel!" Baylee said excitedly, clutching the box in his small hands. Remembering how Howie had acted, he lowered himself to one knee, gazing up at her, his eyes wide with adoration.

“I can’t even imagine what beautiful thing my Darlin’ got me,” Cheyanne cooed with a gush of emotions, falling head over heels in love with the little boy all over again. He looked so cherubic at that moment, holding the box to his heart for safe keeping. His long blonde curls wild and unruly as he grinned with true excitement. He squirmed in his position, but followed Howie par for course.

Howie was less than amused, however. “He’s stealing my--”

“Leigh, get me the camera,” Brian breathed excitedly, nudging his wife hurriedly in the abdomen.

"Get it yourself," Leighanne hissed, folding her arms over her chest as she glared at Cheyanne. "Did you take him shopping for her?" she asked, anger slicing through each word.

“He wanted to go into the gift shop to get something real quick, but wanted J to take him. So, I gave him some money. What’s the big deal?” Brian questioned, blatantly ignoring his wife’s attitude as he fished into his backpack for the video camera that never left his side.

Snorting, Leighanne shifted in her seat, not understand how her husband could be on that woman's side. "How can you encourage his--"

"My Angel?" Baylee asked seriously, his eyes never leaving Cheyanne's face despite the bickering between his parents. "I love you."

“I love you too, Darlin’,” Cheyanne promised sweetly, reaching to brush her fingertips lightly over his chubby cheek, forcing herself to concentrate on the child instead of the explosion of emotions rushing through the variety of the adults in the room. She could feel the anger pulsating from Austin as Kevin and Howie maintained a tight hold on her, but Baylee wanted her utmost attention.

"I pwomise never to leave your side, My Angel," Baylee continued, holding out the box. "Will you be mine?" he asked hopefully, biting his bottom lip.

“Baylee Thomas Wylee Littrell…” Cheyanne whispered with true adoration at his lovability and sweetness. She clasped her hands over her heart with awe, watching him fumble to open the box to reveal his silver and purple ring. Her lips pursed with surprise as she reached to kiss his forehead. “I was always yours, Baylee. You’re my Darlin’, remember?”

"You wear my ring?" Baylee asked, holding up the box for her to better see the ring. "I picked it out jus' for you, My Angel."

“I would love to wear your ring,” Cheyanne agreed, glancing up briefly toward Howie before offering her right hand. “Will you put it on for me?”

"But dat's not the right finger," Baylee said, poking out his bottom lip as he looked at the ring Howie had given her.

“Darlin’, this hand is more special for you,” Cheyanne murmured softly, watching Howie’s eyebrows furrow with fear that she might actually remove the engagement ring. But, she refused to part with the treasure. With that part of Howie’s heart. “You see, this one is closer to my heart and the one I always hold Ollie with. And, when I write or draw for you, I’ll always see your ring first. Please?”

"O'tay." Remembering exactly how Howie had done so, he took the ring from the box, easing the cool metal onto Cheyanne's finger. "Now you're mine forever, My Angel?"

"Brian, how can you just sit there filming this?" Leighanne hissed in her husband's ear. To think that her own son had… "If you don't put a stop to it, I will!"

Brian rolled his eyes as he attempted to slide an arm around her waist, keeping the camera poised on Cheyanne as Baylee embraced her excitedly. “Leighanne, calm down, he’s two years old and he loves his Angel. It’s adorable--”

"It is not! You know just as well as I do that she's just with Howie for his money," Leighanne said heatedly, wrenching from his grasp.

"Oh, the same reason you're with me, right?" Brian returned, anger creeping into his voice. "That's a little like the pot calling the kettle black, isn't it?"

"Good God," AJ breathed, unsure whether he wanted to watch Cheyanne and Baylee or Brian and Leighanne.

“You sonofa--”

“Austin and I should really get our bags and head down to get boarded,” Cheyanne suddenly announced as she stood from the small table. Her stomach cramped terribly with the disgusted looks Leighanne was offering her, deathly aware of how hard Baylee was clutching her hand. She hadn’t been feeling well to start off with, now this was making it harder. She couldn’t even lift Baylee without pain, so she shifted uncomfortably in order to reach for her pet carrier. She didn’t want to stir controversy, much less a fight between Brian and Leighanne. “We’re not fancy like y’all. We board with the rest of the passengers.”

"No," Baylee wailed, clinging to her. "You can't leave me."

“Darlin’, your Daddy and I already explained this to you…” Cheyanne winced as Austin pushed herself from Kevin and Howie’s hold, stumbling to grasp the pet carrier and Cheyanne’s duffle bag. Though, Baylee caught it first and yanked it down hard so Austin couldn’t take it. Her eyes widened in surprise as he held tightly to Cheyanne’s capris with one hand, opening the duffle bag to crawl inside with the other.

"Baylee," Leighanne warned, reaching to grasp his hand. "You are not going home with them!"

"Mommy, le'go!" Baylee screeched, wrenching from her grasp. "My Angel needs her Darlin'!"

Fixing her icy stare on her husband, Leighanne yanked the video camera from his hand. "This is all your fault. You fix it."

“You pompous bitch,” Austin growled sharply, yanking her small stature away from Howie and Kevin. And, stepping toward Leighanne, Austin shoved her hands hard against the older woman’s shoulders, causing her to fall back onto a hard plastic chair. “What would be so wrong with Baylee coming home with us? If anything, Chey would be a helluva lot better mother than you could ever be. Baylee fell in love with Chey the second he saw her. And I damn well bet he wouldn’t even take milk from your plastic tit without draping a black towel over your face!”

Taking a deep breath to calm his frazzled nerves, Brian stepped between them, his glare on his wife. "Maybe you should go outside and calm down for a moment," he suggested softly. "I'll take care of Bay."

Scrambling to her feet, Leighanne attempted to push Brian aside, only to be caught at the waist by him. "Let me at her!" she shrieked, clawing at his arms when he ushered her to the door. "Goddamn you, Brian! Whose side are you on?"

“Ours, apparently, you crazy bitch,” Austin returned gleefully, practically hopping onto her tiptoes in order to see over Kevin’s outstretched arm, though Cheyanne was wilted in a plastic chair, holding her now cramping abdomen as Baylee sobbed against her, pleading for her to stay.

Giving Drew a nod, Brian disentangled himself from Leighanne's arms as the bodyguard ushered her from the room. Once the door was closed behind them, he moved to sit next to Cheyanne. "Scooper…" God, how he hated this. If he thought for one second his wife wouldn't kill him, he would ask the girls if Baylee could go for a couple days. But it would do more harm than good, he figured. "Son, please don't do this. You'll see Chey again soon."

“She p’omised to stay for’eber!” Baylee sniffled hard as sobs racked his tiny chest. He crawled onto the chair beside Cheyanne, making her a barrier to his father’s grasp. He then wrapped his arms tightly around Cheyanne once more, burying his wet face into the crook of her neck. The sobs continued to break repeatedly into pathetic wails, unable to be soothed. Instead, he glared shortly from his stance against Cheyanne, practically daring anyone to try to take him.

Cheyanne winced at his declaration, attempting to meekly rub his back as her stomach cramped violently. She knew not resting the entire weekend would cause serious problems for her, but she hadn’t expected… “Darlin’, please--”

"She'll be with you forever," Brian said gently, leaning his elbows on his knees as he looked at his son. Reaching over, he smoothed Baylee's hair, his heart breaking when the boy shrank away from him. "She'll always be right in your heart, won't she? And I promise, we'll go visit her soon, okay?"

"No want Mommy go," Baylee mumbled, on the verge of hyperventilating as he continued to sob. "I hate her," he avowed, blinking rapidly. "Her almost 'urt My 'Rincess."

“I think his ‘Rincess could have wiped the floor with Leigh’s fake hairpieces…” AJ murmured, completely oblivious to the fact that his voice seemed to echo against the softness of the room and Baylee’s wheezing sniffles.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Austin muttered, squirming in Kevin's vise-like grip. "You can let go now, I'm not going out there to beat the shit out of her."

"Just you and me," Brian promised, crossing his heart. "We'll hop in the car and take a road trip, okay? And when we get to Chey's you can serenade her and color with her and give her tummy kisses till the cows come home."

"Oh, so now I'm a cow," Austin whispered to AJ.

“If the bell fits…” AJ trailed with a wicked grin.

"Why you little--" Austin cut off when Kevin tugged her back to him, sticking her tongue out at AJ. Turning her attention back to Cheyanne, she noticed the death grip Baylee had on her, as well as the way her friend rubbed her stomach. Howie, she noticed, could only stand and watch, as was Kevin. The other two, she realized, were useless as always. Turning to look up at Kevin, she whispered, "I think he's taking this the hardest."

"Pwomise, Daddy?" Baylee asked, hiccupping.

"Cross my heart. Besides, you don't want Chey to get upset do you?" Brian asked softly. When Baylee shook his head, easing his grip on Cheyanne's neck, Brian sighed. "Do y'think you can let her go this time? Just for a little while?"

“The only reason you think he’s taking it the hardest is because he’s just a baby boy and unable to hide his emotions…” Kevin murmured softly, knowing he felt on the inside what Baylee expressed on the outside.

"I, for one, will be sobbing into my pillow tonight," AJ informed whoever would listen.

“Don’t worry, Nick will sneak in to kiss away your tears,” Kevin sneered toward his friend, watching Cheyanne carefully ease Baylee into her arms. She sweetly kissed away his tears as she ran her fingers through his unruly curls. Promises of every day emails and phone calls could be heard. Something to make Baylee feel special.

"My Angel call me every night 'fore I go bed?" Baylee asked hopefully.

“If your Daddy doesn’t mind,” Cheyanne answered, glancing toward Brian in an air of question. She wasn’t about to stir anymore trouble, especially considering how close Austin had been to attacking Leighanne.

"She can call," Brian assured his son. "After all, she has to use those minutes on that fancy cell phone Uncle Howie got her, doesn't she?"

Cracking a smile, Baylee nodded. "You send emails to Daddy for me?" he asked, snuggling closer to Cheyanne. "Or to Uncle Howie?"

“How about your Daddy sets up a special email account just for you so I can send messages? How about… Darlinbay-at-yahoo-dot-com?” Cheyanne suggested with a soft tease, sneaking her hand under his t-shirt to tickle his bare stomach.

Giggling, Baylee pressed wet kisses on her cheeks. "Do it now, Daddy," he commanded, casting a soulful look at his father. Turning back to Cheyanne, he hugged her tightly. "You call me when you get home?"

“I will call you the second my toes touch the carpet,” Cheyanne emphasized with great promise, leaning to kiss the tip of the little boy’s nose. Shifting, she moved to place Baylee back on the floor, needing just an inch of room to breathe before her abdomen burst. “But, I’m going to be stuck in this crummy airport if Austi and I don’t get going… So, go give your ‘Rincess some hugs and kisses for me, okay? So she won’t get jealous and leave me here.”

"O'tay. I love you, My Angel," Baylee murmured, hugging her once more. Turning, he scurried to Austin, tugging impatiently on Kevin's pants leg. "Move, Kevvy! Me gots to love My 'Rincess bye!"

“I swear I’m stuffing him in that duffle bag for Angel,” Kevin scoffed as he reluctantly allowed Baylee to push him away. He furrowed his thick brows when Austin swooped to hug and kiss Baylee goodbye, glancing to his quiet best friend. “Is this how you feel every day when Baylee is with Angel or what?”

Howie nodded, a wistful smile on his face. "Sometimes," he admitted.

“And you just silently watch… So very passive aggressive, D,” Kevin teased lightly as Nick swooped between Brian and Cheyanne. He made a point not to roll his eyes, knowing Howie would find it in due time. “You alright?”

"I'd be better if she could stay," Howie said softly as AJ moved in to hug Cheyanne as well. His chest panged at the thought of her getting on the plane and leaving, and he knew nothing would feel right again until she was by his side forever. Glancing at Kevin, he saw his friend's gaze on Austin, who was whispering in Baylee's ear. "You?"

“Miserable, but she’d never agree to stay on tour with me. Never in a million years,” Kevin murmured. “Goodbyes are a part of life, I suppose. Two weeks till I see her again. Just have to count the days…”

"Did you even ask her?" Howie asked, shoving his hands into his pockets as Brian started snapping pictures of Nick, Cheyanne and AJ. "I would have asked Honey, but with all the stress of going from place to place, I knew it wouldn't be good for her. She needs to be at home where she can rest… Two weeks… God, I'll be counting the minutes."

“I didn’t have to ask, I knew it by the look in her eyes,” Kevin answered easily, watching Baylee tug Austin toward the group for photographs. “She wants to get her career started and she won’t leave Angel alone by herself. There was no point in asking, just to put her in a place to feel guilty. Just like you didn’t ask Angel, knowing what’d it’d do.”

"So here we stand, suffering in silence," Howie observed. "And the moments tick by until their boarding call, and yet neither of us has the nerve to start saying goodbye."

“I never said we were brave, D.”

“Funny, neither did I…”

*~*~*


“You honestly didn’t have to walk us to our terminal. We would have been just fine with the goodbyes in the private room. What happens if someone recognizes you?” Cheyanne anxiously asked of Howie and Kevin, knotting her hands tightly against her aching abdomen. Despite her protests, she still kept to the path the men were providing, leading the girls toward their terminal, baggage in hand. Actually, in Drew’s hands, who would board with the girls to make sure it was safely secured before leaving. Just the nicest of touches provided when one was famous, though Cheyanne would never be comfortable with it. Though, that was the least of her worries as she chewed on the inside of her cheek, not wanting to say goodbye. Not wanting to part with her fiancÚ by any means. At that thought, she lightly rubbed the gemstones on her engagement ring, wishing with all her might that Howie would have just let go at the waiting room. The painful cramps were becoming unbearable with the heartache.

"That's what Drew is for," Austin said softly, clinging to Kevin's arm as they rounded the corner. There she saw the line waiting to board, and her throat closed up. This was it. Two weeks… Blinking rapidly, she bit back the tears, willing herself to be strong. If for no other reason than Cheyanne. She had to be strong for Cheyanne. When Kevin stopped, winding his arms around her, she felt a tiny piece of her heart break away, only a precursor of the emptiness and loneliness she would feel until his arms were around her again.

Turning to Cheyanne, Howie noticed the way she rubbed her abdomen. "Honey," he whispered, covering her hands with his. "You look so pale…"

“I’m fine,” Cheyanne assured, jerking her hands away in surprise at the feeling of Howie’s soft warmth. She mustered some kind of apologetic smile when he looked at her with confusion, reaching to fold her hands into his again. There was no reason to worry him. Since the tears had been worsening in her uterus, the blood pooling behind the tears had began to make her anemic, which resulted in, not only her paleness, but her weariness as well.