"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.”