Easing into the chair on the front porch, Howie released a soft sigh, his hands cupping his mug of hot tea as he leaned back. For a relaxing vacation, he sure was working his tail off. The cabin had many commodities, true, but he hadn't imagined he'd be lugging firewood. Or being sent on a grocery run. Kevin had helped, to be sure, but when it came time to prepare dinner, his friend had elected him. Just for tonight, he'd promised. After a fortifying meal of boxed spaghetti and overly browned toast, Howie had fixed his tea and slipped out to enjoy the peaceful quietness of his surroundings. Closing his eyes, he took a sip of his tea, the music of the crickets lulling him into a relaxed state.
A very feminine giggle erupted from the lot next to the cabin. Cracking one eye, he glanced over, praying it wasn't an overly amorous couple. The last thing he wanted to hear, now especially, was that. Sitting up, he looked over at the next lot, saw the small fire glowing, illuminating two figures sitting on either side. Were they roasting marshmallows? he wondered, moving to stand by the railing.
Thankfully, Howie wasn’t greeted by the throes of passion when he rested his cup of tea on the railing and focused on the couple by the fire. After being alone for so long, he didn’t think he could bear to see that kind of affection. In fact, AJ had tormented him into thinking he was a born-again virgin because of his lack of romance. But, he did his best to brush those thoughts away as he witnessed two young women enjoying the warmth of the fire on a chilly March night. Each had sticks of marshmallows pushed into the fire, exchanging what Howie assumed were funny stories. In the setting darkness, it was hard to make out their faces, especially at a distance, but he enjoyed the site nonetheless. Especially when the slender woman dressed in a baggy sweatshirt and jeans shrieked as the plumper woman attacked her with sticky marshmallows, tackling her onto the cold ground as they both burst into heavy laughter.
“AUSTI!” the woman on the ground giggled loudly, attempting to fend off the sweet stickiness.
Smiling slightly at their silliness, he leaned against the railing, watching them play fight with the sticks. Behind him the door opened, and he glanced over his shoulder to see his friend leaning in the doorway, an open beer in hand. Returning his attention to the two women, he watched as. Even with the distance he saw a glow of happiness about Cheyanne, one that he'd been unable to pick up on that afternoon. She looked peaceful, content, and damned beautiful.
"What's the view?" Kevin asked, dropping into a chair.
"You wouldn't like it," Howie assured him with a chuckle.
"As long as it's not Miss Attitude from this afternoon," Kevin said with a shrug, already on his feet to investigate.
Howie shrugged helplessly as Kevin immediately stood beside him, concentrating on the scene. It only took Kevin a mere moment to recognize the woman that had hurdled herself into his existence. And he was none too pleased with the realization, his face contorting as if he had been made to drink a pint of vinegar. Howie attempted to turn slightly so he could muffle his laugh and hide his smile, knowing very well that Kevin wouldn’t think twice about striking him for his damaged pride. But, he made sure never to let his eyes stray from Cheyanne, who now had tackled Austin in attempts of a come back. “I told you that you wouldn’t like it, Kev…”
“Do you know my ass still hurts from that broad?” Kevin scowled, not understanding why she had reacted so violently. He was only trying to be kind, yet she acted as if he had been trying to murder her. It was a shame that chivalry had died, though Kevin was convinced that it was murdered by women like that Austin.
"I give! Get your bony ass off me!" Austin squealed, laughing hysterically.
"She sure doesn't look strong enough to flip you over her shoulder," Howie mused.
Grumbling incoherently, Kevin nursed his beer, glaring at the women. Cheyanne shouted triumphantly, scrambling away as Austin sat up. From where he was he couldn't make out her features clearly, but he saw the flushed cheeks, the bright smile. Well, well, he mused, the broad knew how to smile. When she reached up, brushing back a lock of long chestnut hair, he felt something stir in him. Taking another sip of his beer, he watched intently as she scrambled into the tent, her curvy derriere sticking out as she rummaged around. Choking down his beer, he turned away, ignoring the heat that pooled in his stomach. There could be none of that, he told himself, once more dropping into the chair. Propping his feet on the railing, he leaned his head back, lifting the beer for one final sip.
“They’re pretty cute, huh?” Howie asked, breaking away Kevin’s sinful thoughts, oblivious to whatever was stirring deep within his friend’s soul. Instead, he still continued to lean against the railing, watching Austin dive into the tent while she hollered for Cheyanne to douse the fire. The younger woman promised to oblige the request, though she settled back at the fire, immediately immersing herself in the licking flames.
"Uh, Howie? They're kids. Younger than Nick, even. Why in the hell would they be interested in us in the slightest? Besides, we're not here looking for women," Kevin said, forcing himself not to get up and look over the railing again.
"I know we're not looking for women," Howie grumbled slightly, leaning on the porch railing as he concentrated intently on the campsite. The tent was slightly bigger than average and the women had done a pretty good job of setting up their campsite adequately. They looked as if they were used to this sort of thing. After all, they had braved the idea of sleeping outside, compared to Howie's slight air of nervousness and opting for a cabin instead. Though, he wouldn't have minded sharing a tent with the shy young woman who held a bemused smirk on her face when Kevin had toppled from her friend's firm push. The one who had quickly sobered by the light of the fire, holding her stomach delicately as if Austin had tickled too hard. "But what's so wrong with companionship when we're here?"
Companionship, Kevin mused, reaching to twist his wedding band. Feeling bare skin, he glanced at it, swallowing when he remembered taking it off. Dropping it on the dresser at home like it meant nothing. Did it? Running a hand through his hair, he expelled a weary sigh.
"Kev? Are there problems with you and Kristin?" Howie asked softly, dragging his attention from Cheyanne. From the corner of his eye he saw her douse the fire before crawling into the tent. Picking up his tea, he claimed the chair next to Kevin, stretching his legs out as the crickets' song reached a crescendo.
“Problems?” Kevin repeated as if it were absurd, though his voice wavered just the same. He attempted to exhale slowly to ward off the feelings of doubt and insecurity he faced whenever he thought of Kristin. But he could feel Howie’s eyes practically burning into him. Howie’s sensitivity made it quite easy for him to hurry through the lies that others used to block their hearts. Kevin had always trusted Howie with the deepest corners of his fears, so why should this be any different? Easy, because he was a failure. “…Nah, we’re fine… When we’re in different states… And in different places… And different beds…”
Setting his now cold tea aside, Howie looked at his friend. How could he have been so blind? So wrapped up in his own worries that he didn't notice someone he loved was in pain. "How long?" he questioned.
"I don't even know. Maybe when she started getting more big parts. Maybe it started when I went back into the studio last year. Hell, for all I know, it started when we came back after our honeymoon." It was no use trying to hold it in anymore.
“God, Kev…” Howie trailed softly, immediately flushed with a deep guilt that could probably never be explained in words. He could only imagine the pain Kevin had dealt with every time he had to witness his younger cousin falling utterly in love with his own wife and child. Not to mention the pain of knowing his marriage had failed while Brian’s blossomed. It must have been horrible. “I am so sorry…”
"Don't be," Kevin ground out, willing himself not to shed a tear. "It's not like she was in your bed," he muttered, chuckling humorlessly.
"Seriously, Kevin. I should have noticed. I've accused the guys of being egotistical, and here I was so wrapped up in my own shit I didn't realize your pain. I'm sorry, Kevin," Howie whispered.
Dropping his head, Kevin covered his face with his hands, shaking his head. "I didn't realize it myself until it was too late. It's…it's been over for a while, Howie." Pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, he drew in a deep breath, letting them fall to his lap as he turned his gaze in the direction of the campsite.
“I’m here if you need me,” Howie offered softly.
“I know,” Kevin promised as everything else went unsaid, into a comfortable silence.
Howie could hardly contain his curiosity as he heard the distinct laughter of two female voices. One in particular that had kept him up for the past two nights. He had just been planning on taking a walk along the quiet lake for means of solace. But the sweet, melodic laughter had drawn him into the dense brush. Peeking upward, he noticed two women standing on the rocky ledge overlooking the deepest part of the lake. He immediately recognized the shy Cheyanne peering over the edge, looking far too hesitant on jumping in. She was a picture of perfection in his eyes, tugging anxiously at a long blonde curl that had fallen from her low ponytail before settling both hands on her slightly bared tan abdomen. Her slender body accentuated and revealed in a tasteful orange sunset painted, triangular halter tankini top and low-rise, boy cut bottoms. She was beautiful as the reddish highlights crossed like ribbons against her dark honey locks, some dipping into the soft fabric of her tankini top, kissing flesh that Howie was starting to long to kiss. The heat surged within his system as he attempted to wet his drying mouth, glancing over to Austin for a comparison. Yet it didn’t help as the bold, brazen Austin, bright and effervescent in a bright yellow string bikini, was pushing playfully on Cheyanne’s shoulder, egging her further off the ledge.
"Go! Go! Jump you turkey!" the wild one persisted with a southern tinged cackle, continuing to edge the quiet Cheyanne toward the water. But, she still hesitated, nonetheless. That just seemed to agitate Austin, who quickly pushed her friend into the lake without a moment’s hesitation.
Howie had to gasp as Cheyanne surfaced from the lake, sputtering and attempting to pull away the plastered curls from her face. He first feared for her life, planning on diving into the water, thinking she might be hurt. But, he paled with surprise when he heard her sputter, "Austi! You gigantic whore!"
Austin cackled with laughter before jumping ungracefully into the lake. Howie's gaze flickered, going from Cheyanne, who was still pulling at her hair, to where Austin had gone in. She surfaced a moment later, beaming. "I may be a gigantic whore, but you love me," she crooned, giggling when Cheyanne splashed her.
Leaning against a tree, Howie watched them splash and play, loving how at ease they were with each other. No visible signs of the timid, shy girl he'd seen before, nor the loud, sailor-mouthed stubborn woman. Cheyanne moved fluidly through the water, pulling herself up on the dock, and his mouth became even drier as he took in the way the material clung to her body. Unable to resist, he headed for the dock, hands in his pockets as she reached for a towel. As she straightened, he felt the stirrings of desire when he noticed her hard nipples pressing against the top of her suit. Swallowing hard, he quickly looked away, hoping she hadn't seen him looking.
Cheyanne was oblivious to the extra person near the lake as she hummed quietly to herself, grasping her long beach towel. Apparently, also oblivious to the beauty she exuded. She moved to gently dab away the drops of water from her face, but coughed against her humming when she met the familiar pair of dark chocolate eyes she had dreamed about the previous nights. She instantly dropped the length of the towel to cover her body, blushing furiously. She hadn’t thought that she would be seeing him so soon and she immediately glanced back to the water to see Austin preoccupied with herself, which caused her to relax. Slightly. “What are you doing here?”
"Taking a walk," he said, smiling. "Enjoy your swim?"
"I--yes," she said, wrapping the towel around her body tightly.
"Except for being pushed off the rocks by your friend?" he queried in a teasing tone, his eyes dancing with humor.
"You saw that?" she asked, her face burning with embarrassment.
“Kind of hard not to notice you two…” Howie trailed softly, moving slightly so he could catch her eyes again. She complied with his movement, though she took a step back nonetheless. But, her sapphire orbs projected Howie directly into the deepest layers of her heart. An instant spark. A connection. Almost, for an instant, Howie reached his hand as if to cup her cheek, though he quickly let it drop so he could pick up her sunglasses for her.
“Especially when I’m screamin’ like a fool and lookin’ horrible,” she retorted with a hard blush, averting her beautiful eyes once more as her voice coated with a southern honey.
"Don't say that. You look beautiful to me," he said, holding her sunglasses out to her. Disbelief crossed her face, which instantly turned two shades redder. She stared at him, blinking once before taking her glasses with a shaky hand.
"You...thanks," she murmured, backing away quickly. "I--I don't even know your name," she blurted, sneaking a glance at his face.
"Howie," she repeated softly, his name rolling off her tongue. Never before had his name sounded so good.
“Yours is Cheyanne, right?” Howie questioned, hoping to continue the conversation. He prodded her softly, however, not wanting to scare her off. It was almost as if he were coaxing a skittish creature into his arms. Actually, it was precisely what he was trying to do.
“Yeah,” she drawled, dipping her chin as she focused on her sunglasses, though through her long eyelashes she admired the man in front of her. Chewing softly on her bottom lip, she admitted that he was far more handsome than she had first given him credited for. He was at least a few inches taller than her with a light caramel coloring to his skin, depicting a Latin descent. His dark, black locks were clipped short and mussed with what she assumed to be expensive hair gel, giving him a sexy underdressed look that caught her attention immediately. His lips curved into a handsome smile, beckoning her closer. Almost pleading with her to step into his arms, which were defined and ripped with a fair amount of musculature. She could only imagine what lay beneath the baggy t-shirt and jean shorts. Though that caused her to blush again.
Opening his mouth to speak, Howie quickly closed it when Austin clamored onto the deck, squeezing the water from her hair. She eyed him coolly, and suddenly all desirous thoughts flew his mind. He waited for her to launch into her overprotective spiel, but instead she grabbed a towel and tossed it around her shoulders. Cheyanne, he saw, stepped closer to her, as though she were her protector. Well, he mused, greeting Austin with a smile, she was.
"Hi," she said, her voice carrying the coldness of her eyes. "Chey, we need to go get dressed if we're going into town."
"Oh, right. I completely forgot we were going," Cheyanne said, giving Howie a smile. "I'll see you around, Howie," she murmured before trotting away.
Howie grinned that she actually made a point to remember his name. “Bye, Chey--”
“You think you’re pretty cute, huh?” Austin mused with a dark smile, something that told Howie not to tempt her. She folded her arms sharply as the towel wrapped easily around her petite body. Whatever easiness she had exuded in Cheyanne’s presence was long gone, leaving Howie to the sharks.
"Look, city boy. Let's get this straight, okay? Chey? She's my best friend. She's all that is good and kind, and sometimes she has bad judgment. Just so you know, I have no intention of letting you get your grubby paws anywhere near her. So you can kiss the whole fantasy of seducing the country girl goodbye, okay?"
"I beg your pardon? What in the hell--”
"She's a virgin, get it? And she won't fall for any of your fancy bullshit lines." Snatching up the rest of her things, she sent him a glowering glare. "I suggest you jump in the lake and cool off," she said before stomping away.
"Holy Hell..." Howie murmured with a sharp breath, feeling as if Austin had just flipped him onto the hard ground much like she did with Kevin.