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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…"
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