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Chapter 34 – For Our Future

“I’ve decided!” Austin announced with a titter of excitement, reaching to hold Kevin’s hand while thrusting yet another package into the other. Kevin had decided for their last full day together that he’d take her for some private shopping, thinking of no place better than Greenwich Village. It seemed like something Austin would enjoy, which was proved with the endless receipts stuffed into Kevin’s back pocket. But he loved lavishing her with these gifts. Especially as her dark coffee eyes glittered with a brilliant excitement despite the slightly cloudy afternoon. He could spend eternity with her. He knew it. “I love red carpets! I love the attention! I love the people shouting my name! I love the pictures! And I love taking all the attention away from Leighanne so she throws a hissy fit!”

"You're horrible," Kevin informed her good-naturedly, his palm stroking the back of her hand as they strolled down the sidewalk. Somewhere, over on Fifth Avenue, he was certain, Howie and Cheyanne were shopping as well. Austin had asked them to come, but Howie had opted out, saying all the walking wouldn't be good for Cheyanne. Secretly, Kevin was glad. He hated having to share her attention, and since her arrival earlier in the week, the only time he'd had alone with her was in the bedroom. Hell, even there they weren't alone. He'd been beyond angry when AJ had burst in at the crack of dawn, flopping between them in the bed as though he were their child, spouting off about the exciting time he'd had the night before.

"Are you even listening to me?" Austin asked, elbowing him lightly in the side. Horrible… She wasn't horrible. Leighanne was such an attention whore. It had been marvelous when the photographers had asked her and Brian to step away so they could have shots of Kevin and Austin. She still tingled with excitement over every detail of the premiere. Glancing up at the next store, she tugged on his hand. "I need to get some yarn for the blanket I'm knitting Ollie."

“Alright, alright,” Kevin consented, allowing her to drag him in without any complaints. He made no reference to not listening, because she was right. And, starting a fight in the middle of New York was dangerous and as strong as Austin was, she probably couldn’t repel bullets. Besides, his mind was trained on the fact that she knitted. He had to stop halfway when he saw her pouring over the various styles, textures, and colors of yarn, smirking at the idea of gray roots attacking her luscious auburn locks. Growing old together seemed ideal. “You knit?”

"Mm hmm," she replied with a gentle nod, holding up a hank of pastel yellow yarn. "Tutu taught me when I was seven. She died just before I started college, and I picked it up again, as a way to feel closer to her." Setting the yarn back down, she reached for a light violet, shaking her head before she even touched it. Pulling him further into the store, she let out a squeal at the bins of natural fibers. "You know that blue sweater Chey's always wearing? I knitted that for her birthday last year… Oh heavens above, they're having a sale!"

“Does that mean you’ll get enough yarn to knit me something out of love, too?” Kevin asked hopefully, smiling at how adorably nutty she was. First she was overjoyed with the fact that the photographers had loved her more than Leighanne. Now she was insanely giddy over a yarn sale. He found it so very charming.

"As long as you'll let me pick out a nice emerald green to go with your eyes." Glancing up at him, she saw his smile, and couldn't resist leaning up for a quick kiss. "You think I'm crazy, don't you?" she murmured, sliding her hand over his shoulder in a gentle caress. If he said yes, she would have to slug him… No, she wouldn't. She loved him too much for that. She suddenly imagined him sitting on a front porch swing, his face slightly aged, his hair touched with silver, wondered if he had ever thought of growing old with her. "If I knit you a sweater, you'll wear it?" she asked suddenly, turning to make her selection. "'Cause Lord knows I don't want to work my fingers to the bone only to have you pull it out just when you know you'll see me--"

“I would at least pull it out a day beforehand to clear away the smell of moth balls,” Kevin interrupted in a light tease, leaning down to press a soft kiss to her lips. “Princess, I would cherish whatever you made me. Even if it was two sizes too small and filled with holes.”

"Now you're insulting my knitting talent," she murmured, poking him playfully in the chest. "I'll just have to call your Momma for the right size, won't I? And stock up on some embarrassing stories of your childhood," she added with a giggle, reaching for a skein of soft yarn. "How would this feel against your skin?" she asked softly, rubbing it slowly over the back of his hand. "Actually… This would be perfect for the baby's blanket…"

“I think my mother would fully enjoy having a long conversation with you on the phone. The way I talk about you, she’s ready to book the church for another wedding and start naming the grandkids,” Kevin teased lightly with a proud smile, closing his eyes to enhance the tactile sensation. He smiled proudly, glancing downward. “I love the feeling of that, too, though I think Angel’s little Angel is stealing it from me...”

"I can pick something else out for Ollie…" Austin trailed softly, furrowing her brow at his earlier comment. Grandkids? Was that his oblique way of saying he wanted children? Lord… Pushing the thought from her mind, she shook her head slightly. She surely didn't want to delve into that subject now. Not when they were having such a wonderful time… "You talk about me to your Momma?"

“Of course I talk to you with Ma. She’s a very important part of my life and you’re a very important part of my life. My big brothers keep asking when I’m bringing you home to the family. I keep telling them I’m selfish, which they already know anyway,” Kevin answered with a wry grin, watching Austin turn back to the variety of yarns.

"Momma wants to meet you, too," Austin admitted, mentally kicking herself for letting it slip. It hadn't been the greatest of conversations, having to stretch the truth about certain things. For one, her mother didn't know that Kevin was in the middle of a divorce, nor did she know what he did. She hated lying to her family, even more so when it was the same lies Kevin had told her. But Momma would have a coronary if her baby girl was the other woman in an affair. "Daddy, too," she added softly, turning back to face him, her arms loaded with yarn now.

“Well, I would love to meet them… Maybe when I’m touring close to North Carolina, I can swing by for a dinner? I would love to meet them. Possibly start the process of asking for your hand by means of your father. That way we can get started on our family. Can’t have gray hair during our son’s graduation photographs,” Kevin jibbed, reaching to take the yarn for her.

"You really want kids?" she murmured, looking up into his eyes. The seriousness behind the smile told her he wasn't kidding.

“Of course,” Kevin chuckled, leaning down to kiss her softly. “I was at the hospital when Baylee was born, watching Brian hold him for the first time. There was such a connection there. This instant bond. Brian fell in love instantly… Then Howie and Angel together with the Little Angel growing. He’s so happy and content. She made his life so different, changed everything and actually gave him something to live for again. Kids are just little miracles and…” Kevin glanced into Austin’s coffee eyes, noticing the cold darkness that he wasn’t accommodated with and his heart deflated, almost as if she had reached into his chest cavity to yank it from its bed. “You don’t?”

"Kevin… I love you, so much," she affirmed, delaying the inevitable. The look on his face as he spoke of children as little miracles, followed by the crestfallen expression when he looked at her was almost unbearable. Kids had never been on her agenda. Graduate, go to college, start a career, get married someday. "You want to ask Daddy for his permission?" she asked in hopes of avoiding the bigger issue. She didn't want to lose him. Not now. Not ever.

“Of course I would like to ask your father for his permission to take your hand… After my divorce is finalized with Kristin, of course… But, answer my question, Austin. Honestly,” Kevin pleaded softly, tucking them away in a lone isle so they could be alone. He did his best to hide the pain lurking in his emerald eyes, knowing he didn’t want to hear the answer, but needing to know for certain anyway.

"Honestly? I've never been able to picture myself with kids. I know I'll love little Ollie to death when she's here, but me? A mother?" Shaking her head slightly, Austin looked down to where his hand gently clasped her arm. As she spoke she felt his body tense. Biting her bottom lip, she avoided his face, knowing she would see pain there. "I'm sorry, Kevin," she whispered, touching his chest briefly in hopes of assuring him she meant it. Finally looking up, she saw the pain in his eyes, felt he heart nearly crush at the sight. "I can tell that you really want children, and I know that you would be the best father in the history of mankind… Perhaps it's a good thing we realized this now?" Biting back her tears at the thought of losing him over this, she looked away. "I mean… Now you won't have to go through the trouble of talking to Daddy, because I can't give you what you really want--"

“I want you,” Kevin interrupted gently, rubbing his face. He closed his emerald eyes, knowing there was no way that he could look at her without tears falling. He didn’t want to play the hurt victim, because this wasn’t what it was about. He had asked her an honest question and had wanted an honest answer. Sure, he wanted children, but she was more important. She gave him a fresh breath of life. He’d sacrifice anything to keep that. “That’s all I’ll ever want. That’s all I’m ever going to want. No matter what. Okay, Princess?”

"Okay," she whispered, still unsure. Not able to bear the hurt she could sense in him, she rested her head on his chest, closing her eyes briefly as his scent invaded her senses. "Kevin?"

“Yes, Princess?” Kevin returned, his voice slightly clogged with hurt. He did his best to clear away the pain, folding his arms around her small form, resting his chin against the top of her head. He wouldn’t lose her. He’d be damned if he lost her again. She was the only thing that mattered. He would give her what she wanted. Olivia would be another breath of fresh air. Children would always be around him. He’d make do. He would.

"If you really want children…" Lord have mercy, she was going to give in to him, she just knew it. He could ask her to shave her head and she'd do it. Anything to make him happy. "We can talk about it, right? This isn't written in stone or anything, is it? We have a few years left in us to make kids. If we decide to…"

“Whatever you want, Austin,” Kevin breathed softly, knowing not to give into his deepest desires. He wouldn’t force her into children. Never. “Whatever you want…”


"What do you think of this?" Howie asked Cheyanne softly, turning to get her opinion of the pearl necklace the jeweler held. He had decided to start on Cinnamon's jewelry box, and thought an add-a-pearl necklace was in order. "Each year I can buy her a pearl, and when she graduates high school she'll have a full necklace." Reaching for the gold chain containing a solitary pearl in the center, he held it up for Cheyanne's inspection. "Classic. It'll never go out of style…"

“I think you’re far more feminine than I am and it worries me,” Cheyanne teased good naturedly, her southern twang drawing a look of surprise from the jeweler. But, she ignored it, refusing to let herself feel self conscious. Instead, she tucked her hand into the back pocket of Howie’s jeans, admiring the necklace. “But, I think it’s a very elegant purchase, Tea. Maybe too elegant and too expensive for a child who isn’t born yet… You realize that you don’t have to buy us everything in the world, right? I just wanted to come to New York to see you. That’s it.”

"I know," Howie said with a grin. Turning back to the jeweler, he gave the man a slight nod. "We'll take it."

“You’re not going to make Olivia into one of these little divas, y’hear? Like some manic offspring of Nicole Richie who’s dripping in diamonds the second she pops out of the womb. She’s going to be my little girl. My messy little lady that knows how to ride a horse by the time she can walk. She may not like dirt, but she won’t be afraid of it,” Cheyanne warned as the jeweler scurried back to wrap the expensive purchase.

"She won't be a diva," Howie promised, sliding his arm around her shoulders. "But… I can frilly her up for special occasions, right? Please, though, no pink," he added with a dramatic shudder.

“We’re definitely on the same page with that number. No pink whatsoever, but she can be beautifully dressed. Momma dressed me in everything pink and frilly in the world and I’m anti-everything-womanly now. So, I’d be happy with yellows, purples, greens, light blues…” Cheyanne trailed, glancing up at him with confusion as an elderly lady shot her a hard look for sneaking her hand into his back pocket, but Cheyanne didn’t move. “…What special occasions?”

"You know. Her first Communion, church in general, birthday parties. The usual. But every other time she can just be my little country girl in jeans and a t-shirt. Like her Momma." Squeezing her shoulders, Howie reached for his wallet, grinning at her. "Mind giving me my wallet so I can pay?" he murmured.

“Well, I was thinking about keeping it…” Cheyanne trailed impishly, complying with his wishes nonetheless. Sneaking into the opposite pocket, she grasped the thick leather wallet, handing it to him. Her sapphire eyes sparked as Howie offered his credit card as payment, curling her arms around his waist. “No public displays of affection, right?”

"Depends on what you're planning to do to me," Howie informed her with a wink. "I don't think Saks has a shower we can sneak off into…"

“You are obsessed with the shower,” Cheyanne sighed dramatically, removing herself from him as he reached for the fancy bag. She easily rested a hand over her growing abdomen, toying with her birthday necklace. She heard the older woman mumbling something incoherently to her elderly partner, glancing down to her bare left hand to figure that was the presumption. “I prefer the bath… But, I know our PDA tends to get me in trouble.”

"Does it now?" Howie mused, escorting her outside. Glancing behind him, he saw Drew was a few paces behind Cheyanne. Giving the bodyguard a quick nod, he turned his attention back to Cheyanne. "What kind of trouble does it get you into?" he questioned softly, smiling when she tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. Keeping their pace slow, he kissed the top of her head when she leaned against him.

“Nick showed me all those hate sites… I think I might be even more unpopular than Kristin,” Cheyanne confessed with a meek shrug of her shoulders as if it truly didn’t bother her. She made sure to keep her gaze set on the beautiful scenery, daring not to look into her boyfriend’s deep chocolate eyes. She didn’t want to cause chaos on a beautiful spring day, especially considering they’d be leaving each other soon. “And, I can only assume how many photographers got an up close zoom of my hand in your back pocket at the show the other night… I’m just not ‘safe’ material for public viewing.”

"Honey… Don't worry about the fans. They're just vicious, jealous little wenches who have too much time on their hands. Besides, I liked having your hand in my back pocket the other night. Felt like you were staking your claim on me," he said with a grin, patting her hand as he led her into the next store. "Why do you say you're not safe?"

Vicious. That’s one word that made Cheyanne a bit apprehensive when Howie wanted to take her out amongst the public. Sure, Drew was extremely capable and had been with Howie for years; but she still worried. The hate sites had been growing in popularity. Not that she assumed she was popular by any means. But… Olivia was so precious and she was already walking a thin line with the pregnancy. Even taking a walk around New York City that day was a gamble. If she lost Olivia, she would lose herself. Exhaling a tight breath, she attempted to push the fearful thoughts aside, tucking herself closer to Howie. Wanting to avoid his safety question, a small smirk toyed with her glossed lips. “Stake my claim? Is that you’re way of telling me you like to be dominated, Mr. Dorough?”

"By you, Honey? You bet," Howie murmured suggestively. Stopping in the entrance of the shop, he turned to face her fully, placing his hands on her shoulders gently. "Honey… Do you feel unsafe?" he asked worriedly, his eyes locked on hers.

“No,” Cheyanne breathed sensitively, forcefully, a little too quickly. To save herself, she shook her head with emphasis, breaking his hold on her shoulders by moving to tuck the fallen curls behind her pierced ears. She shifted slightly, uncomfortable by the entire situation. “We’re blocking the doorway, Tea.”

To Hell with the doorway. "Nobody's coming in or going out, and if they do they can walk around us. Are you sure?" Howie pressed, moving his hands to cup her face.

Cheyanne bit down hard on her bottom lip, afraid that tears might break instead of blood. The beads of blood against her bottom lip would be easier to deal with. To have the slightest bit of control in a place where she had no none. For so long, she had no control over any of her situations. Austin or Noah had always bustled her in given directions. It was easier to follow the flow and she didn’t want to hurt Howie. She fluttered her sapphire eyes quickly to ward off the tears, circling her delicate hands around his wrists. “I feel safe with you. Safer than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I know you won’t let me get hurt. I know.”

Not thoroughly assuaged, Howie merely nodded. But… No, he wouldn't mention that he wouldn't always be there. "Honey, if you ever feel unsafe, no matter where I am, I want you to let me know, okay? If these hate sites are really bothering you, I can hire someone to keep an eye on your place in North Carolina. I don't want anything to happen to you. Or to Cinnamon and Austin." Leaning close, he brushed her lips with his, then moved to kiss the corner of each eye.

“Nothing is going to happen to me or Cinnamon or Austin… And I don’t want anyone watching my house… I already feel like a prisoner, no need to put the bars on the windows for an added effect,” Cheyanne murmured softly, shivering faintly against the touch of his lips against her cool skin. “Besides, I don’t need to spend any more of your money when you’re half a step away from buying Cinnamon a pony.”

"Do you want me to buy her a pony?" Howie asked eagerly, hoping to break the tension he felt. Immediately Cheyanne began to roll her eyes, and he nibbled gently on her ear. "How about it? And we can get her started on riding before she can open her eyes good…"

“You are so full of it,” Cheyanne drawled with a soft giggle from his ridiculous statement as well as the sensation of his nips. She bloomed with a dark, rosy blush, easing her arms around his neck so he couldn’t go far. “You refuse to even let me on a horse again let alone letting Cinnamon… But if I get a baby carrier, I could take her on the horse you buy for me…”

"You don't need to spend any more of my money, but I'm buying you a horse?" Howie questioned with a chuckle, stepping closer to her.

“I wouldn’t be spending any more of your money. You would be spending your money to buy me a horse out of the goodness of your heart,” Cheyanne twisted her words slyly, unable to hide her playfully impish grin of delight. Her fears completely crestfallen against her desire and Howie’s sweetness, causing them to be forgotten. To be brushed aside.

Grinning, Howie gave her a quick, gentle kiss, all too aware of the clerk waiting a few steps away to assist them. "Once your doctor says it's okay for you to ride, Honey, I'll buy you the horse of your dreams," he murmured. "And build a stable to house it." Looping his arm about her waist, he drew her closer.

Cheyanne’s dark sapphire eyes brightened in disbelief at his promise, immediately wanting to protest. She had just been teasing about him buying the horse, never considering that he’d actually agree. She didn’t want him to think that she… Though he silenced those thoughts with another kiss. She wanted to pull away, but his tongue tenderly teasing her own halted that thought, too. She pulled him closer before, hearing the faint clearing of another gentleman’s throat. Smirking, she nibbled on his bottom lip. “Now who’s playing dominant, Sweet Tea?”

"Can't I kiss my girl?" Howie asked innocently.

“Like that?” Cheyanne answered incredulously with a sweet laugh. “Of course!”

Nuzzling her neck, Howie nipped lightly at the sensitive skin behind her ear. "Kissing you like that may lead to other things, and as I said earlier, I don't believe Saks has a shower we can sneak into…"

“Like this isn’t doing the same thing,” Cheyanne replied with a hard shiver of delight, smirking innocently as Drew requested the attention of the clerk so he could start the shopping for the couple. “So, you better stop touching me otherwise we’re going to be in trouble that would even make AJ blush at.”

"Alright, if you insist," Howie murmured, letting his lips trail to her earlobe for a quick nibble before lifting his head. "I promise to be on my best behavior the rest of the day," he swore, crossing his heart before drawing her deeper into the store.

“You know… You can break that promise, okay?” Cheyanne mentioned shyly, unable to hide the blush on cheeks as Howie tucked them inside the expensive selections of petite maternity clothing. Cheyanne didn’t even want to look at the price tags, even when Drew motioned toward some tops and bottoms he found to be quite appealing for her.

"When we get back to the hotel, Honey," Howie promised softly, ushering her to a chair so she could go over the selections properly.

“Holy Hell,” Cheyanne breathed softly in disbelief, her body welcoming the relief of the plush chair. She noticed how the mirrors wrapped around the seating area, giving her an accurate reflection. She couldn’t imagine anyone going to such a fuss, especially as Drew motioned to some of his selections. “Drew-Drop, I have enough clothes to last me through my pregnancy. I’ve got my maternity capris, shorts, and pants, plus all those baggy t-shirts and tank tops…”

Drew blushed slightly at her nickname for him, clearing his throat before replying. "Maybe so, but I have my orders…" he trailed with a smirk, glancing at Howie. "Besides, can't have our little Cheyanne in need of clothes."

“But I’m not in need of clothes,” she objected quietly with a mock pout of protest. “And what kind of orders has he been giving you? Because I’d like to add to them…”

"Honey," Howie chided with a chuckle. "I just told him we were adding to your wardrobe. It's not like there's some vast conspiracy going on."

"Conspiracy?" Drew repeated, smiling secretively. "Nope, no conspiracy."

“Drew-Drop, be nice to me,” Cheyanne pouted sweetly, puckering her glossed bottom lip that seemed to make everyone melt within a five mile radius.

"I'm being nice," he assured her. "I haven't said a word about Howie's appointment at Harry Winston's looking for engagement… Whoops."

“Engagement...” Cheyanne couldn’t even complete the sentence herself, bringing her bare left hand to cup against her mouth. She felt the very breath being forced from her lungs, causing a lump of uncertainty to grow against her throat. Her eyes were instantly teary at the ramifications of Drew’s statement, actually afraid to even look to Howie… What if he was just teasing? She couldn’t get her hopes up…

"Nice, Drew. Real smooth," Howie muttered, shaking his head slightly. "Honey… Don't cry, Chey, please," he whispered, dropping to his knees next to her. "Sweetheart…"

“I’m not crying,” she promised softly, her complexion growing dusky as her hands trembled softly. She didn’t want Howie to see her nervous flitter, so she cupped both hands over her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut. She was shocked into sheer disbelief. “I’m not crying at all…”

"Look at me, Honey," he murmured, touching her arm gently. He had really hoped for it to be a surprise, had planned on meeting with the jeweler, who had already selected an array of rings according to Howie's specifications. "I was just going to look… Okay, okay, I was going to get you to help me pick out your ring. But not if you're going to go into shock over it…" Reaching up, he smoothed her hair gently, his expression worried. "Chey, Honey… Breathe…"

“I think I forgot how…” Cheyanne wheezed softly, shaking her head slightly as she finally met his dark chocolate eyes.

"Do you not want to marry me?" Howie asked softly after a moment.

“Are you crazy?” Cheyanne breathed with disbelief, her southern accent deepening with the whole wonderful revelation. She bit down hard on her bottom lip as the tears finally broke against her sweetly shimmering sapphire orbs. She had been so scared that becoming pregnant and having her child would alter her dreams. Would make it hard for a man to love her completely without worrying. All she had ever really wanted in life was to fall in love and raise a blissful family. And when she met Howie, he had made those dreams tangible, though they never spoke about it. She had just hoped, someday… She had to hold her breath again as she rubbed away the tears. “I just… Do you really want to marry me? You were really going to pick out a ring? Today?”

Bringing her hand to his lips for a soft kiss, Howie nodded. "I'm crazy over you," he murmured against her fingers, reaching with his other hand to brush her tears away. "And yes, I really want to marry you." Taking a deep breath, he looked deeply into her eyes, saw the hesitance there. As though she didn't want to believe it was true. "Cheyanne… I once asked God to send me an angel. Someone who would love me no matter what, someone that I could be myself around and never have to change for. I honestly thought it would never happen. And then, the day I met you, my life changed forever. I can't imagine spending the rest of my days with anyone but you. You complete me. I love you so much, and just the thought that you find me worthy of your love takes my breath away. Forever isn't long enough to love you," he murmured.

“You’re so perfect, Howie,” Cheyanne told him without any means for formalities, pride, or prejudices. She was honest and sincere; her sapphire orbs glittering with adoration at Howie’s confession. She felt as if she were resting on the softest clouds in the highest portion of Heaven’s most beautiful scenery. “I love you so much. You and only you. I couldn’t imagine having anyone else by my side. Anyone else telling me he loved me. Anyone else making love to me. Anyone else being Daddy to my children…”

Howie felt his heart soar at her words. Leaning up, he captured her lips in a gentle kiss. "I love you, Honey…" Resting his forehead against hers, he gave her his most charming smile. "So I take it that's a 'yes'?"

“Yes, you can fire Drew-Drop,” Cheyanne teased lightly, cupping his face within her petite hands.

"Why would I fire Drew?" Howie asked with a soft chuckle. In all honesty, he'd forgotten his longtime bodyguard was there.

“Because I ruined your perfect moment by squealing?” Drew offered with a firm smile, obviously still pleased with the results that had transpired. It would make the trip to Harry Winston’s far more exciting. “But, if you fire me, I’m going to live with my Cheyanne. Have no doubt about it.”

"Your Cheyanne?" Howie repeated, shaking his head. It seemed every male between the ages of two and eighty that met Cheyanne fell in love with her. "I'm not going to fire you--"

"Dammit," Drew muttered under his breath.

“Drew-Drop, you can come spend ‘quality’ time at the ranch till Howie sets a wedding date. Lord knows that’ll be forever and a half. Took him thirty one years just to pop the question,” Cheyanne teased, attempting to peek over Howie’s shoulder as she wrapped her arms around him, still trembling with excitement.

"It's a date," Drew assured her with a laugh. "As long as Austin doesn't chase me around the chicken coop with a shotgun…"

“What is it with you guys and that damn chicken coop--”

“Drew, can you please go get her some outfits to try on so I don’t have to compete with you for her attention?” Howie groaned playfully.

"Going, going," Drew said, shaking his head as he turned away.

Pulling Cheyanne closer, Howie pressed soft kisses to her temple. "So after this it's okay if we go to Winston's?"

“If that’s what you want,” Cheyanne agreed, unable to hide the pleased smile brightening her beautiful face. She was going to be a bride. “And as long as your family accepts? Because I know how important they are to you..”

"Maybe on my next break we can fly down for a visit? Momma wants to meet you… Though I'm sure I'll be fighting everyone for your attention every minute we're there," Howie murmured.

“So, they don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?”

"That you were planning to ask me..." Cheyanne trailed uncomfortably with a firm blush setting fire to her cheeks.

"Momma knows," Howie said softly, lifting his head to look into her eyes. "She's been begging for a visit from you since I first told her about you."

“She’s happy?”

"Ecstatic. I believe she said something about needing a dozen grandchildren from me… And then she mentioned what an angel you must be, to have put the smile back in my voice." Howie couldn't fight the grin that crept onto his face. He knew he would be grinning forever now. "I told her about Cinnamon, too…"

“About…” Cheyanne’s light brows furrowed with honest trepidation, unable to help but worry. She couldn’t believe that Howie had discussed her with his mother first and foremost. But to speak of her unborn child? How could she possibly gain acceptance into the family if they considered her some tramp. “Everything about her?”

"Honey… All I told her was that we're expecting," Howie assured her softly.

“But… Then she assumes that Cinnamon is biologically yours? Which is technically a lie…” Cheyanne immediately winced at Howie’s crestfallen experience. She furiously shook her head with embarrassment, tilting to kiss him gently. “I didn’t mean it like that, Sweet Tea. You are Cinnamon’s Daddy. Always and forever. But… I don’t want to be something I’m not with your family…”

"All that matters to them is that I'm happy. And I am happy. I couldn't love Cinnamon any more than I already do if I were her biological father." Smoothing the curls from her face, he grazed her cheek with his thumb. "I didn't want to tell Momma everything, especially without your consent. If you want to, we can tell her when we go visit. But please, never think that she'll like you any less because of your past. Momma's got a heart big as the world, and once she's decided she loves you, she's going to love you no matter what."

“So… We’re really getting married?” Cheyanne whispered with a charming excitement.

"Shhh… I haven't asked you properly yet," Howie whispered, tugging playfully on the silken curl he'd twirled around his finger. "But… Yes, we are… That is, after you say yes…"

"Well, can you hurry up and ask me properly? 'Cause I really can't wait to say it along with how much I love you."

"Can't ask you properly until we get a ring…"

“I don’t want to be there when you get the ring.”

"So you want me to run get it now?" he suggested, prepared to dash out at that moment.

“No…” she trailed, holding onto his hands for fear that he might break away and start in a furious sprint toward the expensive store. That would probably only cause needless chaos and Drew had stirred that pot far too much today. As excited as she was to say that she was engaged, she knew Howie adored perfection. He wanted it to be ‘just right’ and she could wait for that. “I want you to get it when you feel comfortable. I’d really like it to be an extension of your heart, y’know? So, when you’re ready, you can get it.”

"Yes ma'am," he murmured, leaning in for another quick kiss. As soon as she slipped away to a restroom, he'd make other plans to meet the jeweler. He didn't want her leaving for North Carolina without a symbol of his eternal love on her finger.