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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.
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