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.
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.