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Chapter 38 – Up In Arms

“Cheyanne Grace Lorde, you are so lucky that you’re a high risk pregnancy right now, otherwise I’d throttle the life from you!” Austin seethed with sheer disbelief, slamming the driver’s side door of the raggedy pick-up truck to convey her anger toward Cheyanne. Sure enough, the truck rattled with the slam as she impatiently waited for Cheyanne to climb out of the opposite side, seizing her arm to drag her back into the house. They had just returned from the obstetric appointment and Austin was flabbergasted. It seemed as if Cheyanne had been hiding more secrets than either Austin or Howie could expect. The blood was pulling behind her placenta more than before as it continued to tear, making the young girl anemic. The bleeding had also started again. It may have been slight, but most of the blood was pooling behind the placenta. Not to mention the Braxton-Hicks contractions she was suffering from could be signs of preterm labor, which made the obstetrician prescribe a list of medications in order to strengthen Olivia and stop the contractions from occurring. Cheyanne was in a dangerous situation. So dangerous that the obstetrician was ready to place her in the hospital for observation. Once her water broke, it would be a life or death situation for both Cheyanne and Olivia. They would need immediate medication attention. And it had scared the Hell out of Austin. “What were you thinking hiding this all from me?! Did you not think that I would ask your obstetrician to explain the things I didn’t know? Honestly?! I should have let her put you in the hospital until you gave birth! You hear me?!”

“Austin, I’m not going to stay in a hospital for two months and please don’t be so angry with me,” Cheyanne pleaded softly as tears threatened to fall against her wan cheeks. She felt her stomach clench at the anger racing through Austin, knowing she may have made a mistake. She just didn’t want anyone to worry about her. She didn’t want to be fussed over and held prisoner. She didn’t want Howie to know.

Flinging the door open, Austin ushered Cheyanne inside, kicking the door shut behind them. "Bed. Now," she added when Cheyanne opened her mouth to protest. "I'm calling Howie and telling everything. Everything!"

“Austi, please,” Cheyanne strained with a choked whisper, feeling the tears now start to wet her pale cheeks. She felt herself tremble with fear at Austin’s phone call to Howie. Not to mention how her stomach knotted with worry at Austin’s anger. It made her physically ill to know that Austin was upset with her. The innocence of her demeanor making her far more susceptible to others emotions, especially Austin’s and Howie’s emotions. “I’m sorry--”

"I know, Chey. You didn't want us to worry about you. But, God… Not telling us everything that's going on? What if you went into early labor and I had no fucking clue about all this? I don't want to lose you, Chey-Chey," Austin whispered, reaching to brush the tears from her friend's face. "And… I won't call Howie. Not now, at least. Now, go to bed with Moth. I'll bring you your favorite snack… And we can watch some scary shit movie?"

“Please don’t call him,” Cheyanne pleaded meekly, closing her eyes at the feeling of Austin’s fingertips brushing away the tears. She was trembling horribly, feeling slightly lightheaded at the mere thought of Howie knowing. “He… He has to concentrate on the tour… He’ll be so worried… He won’t focus. His fans need him at his best. Please, Austi?”

"You worry too damn much, you know that, don't you?" Austin asked softly. Sighing, she hugged her friend gently. Turning her to the bedroom, she gave her a gentle nudge. "Go lay down. I won't call him. But, if he asks…"

“He’s too busy. He won’t ask,” Cheyanne assured as she turned toward the hallway, moving in the direction that Austin requested. And, it wasn’t long before Moth’s excited yips could be heard, obviously anxious to have a companion in Cheyanne’s large bed.

"Oh, and there ain't no damn way I'm letting you go to Florida!" Austin called behind her before heading into the kitchen.

AUSTIN--”

"GO TO BED!"

“YOU CAN’T TELL ME THAT I CAN’T GO--”

"DO YOU WANT ME TO CALL HOWIE?!"

“AUSTIN LEIGH--”

"I'M PICKING UP THE PHONE RIGHT NOW! BED!"

“YOU CAN BE SUCH A BITCH!”

“It’s like having Baylee in this house, I swear to God,” Austin breathed with disbelief as she listened to the sharp slam of a bedroom door. She ducked into the hallway for a moment, assure that Cheyanne was laying down when Moth became quiet. Austin had already trained the young puppy to make sure that Cheyanne rested. Just another little quirk that irritated Cheyanne, but Austin was doing it in her best interest. The very thought of having to put Cheyanne in a casket within two months made Austin determined, especially as she snatched the cordless phone from the kitchen wall, dialing Howie’s number. Waiting with impatience, she rummaged through the fridge to get Cheyanne something good to eat.

"H'lo?" Howie sounded sleepy.

"Good God, Howie, wake up!" Austin hissed, pulling out ingredients for Cheyanne's favorite sandwich. Easing the fridge door shut with her hip, she moved to the counter, pausing to make sure Cheyanne wasn't tiptoeing down the hall.

“Austin?” he slurred slightly with disbelief. A rustling could be heard, so Austin assumed he was searching for an alarm clock, especially as things began to crash. “Holy Hell, Badonkadonk, it’s only nine… Do you have any idea what time our concert ended at last night? Or how insistent Nick and AJ were to go out and celebrate? Somebody better be dying…”

"Well excuse the Hell out of me," Austin muttered, spreading out the sandwich fixings. "I just thought you'd like an update on Chey, but if you'd rather sleep… Are you naked?"

Howie stalled at the blunt question, obviously far too tired to deal with Austin’s constantly changing train of thought. “No, I’m not naked… Why?”

"Just wondering. I know Kevin sleeps naked, and I thought--"

“That every Backstreet Boy must sleep naked, too? Um, no, I only sleep naked when Honey’s by my side.”

"Doesn't that defeat the purpose? After all, you two aren't--Damnit, Howie! I'll bet all this shit is your fault!”

“Bet all what shit is my fault?”

“Did you not hear your PDA go off today, City Boy? Are you that retarded that you can’t even remember that Chey’s appointment was today? Because, mind you, Jeff called the minute we got out of the hospital to check up on her!”

"Well excuse me for having an interview! And why the fuck is Jeff calling her?" Howie took a deep breath before continuing. "What did the doctor say?"

“Jeff calls because he’s her best friend. Because he cares about what’s happening to her. He actually hunted Noah down after Chey-Chey finally confessed to what happened… Did you and Chey have sex after you proposed to her?”

"Well if I could, I'd hunt Noah down and kill his sorry ass… Yeah, why?" Immediately Austin heard him slap himself and groan. "I mean--"

“You sonofabitch!” Austin screeched with a wave of anger, slamming her hand sharply on the counter. Then, she cursed again at the pain throbbing through her hand, throwing the dirty knife into the sink. “What the fuck were you thinking? You hormonal-monkey-crazed-badonkadonk-searching-piece-of-cow-shit!”

"Austin, let me explain--"

Explain what?! You were explicitly told that Cheyanne couldn’t have sex! You knew that having sex with her would contact her uterus, which would make the placenta detach even more, and could possibly send her into preterm labor! And, thank-you-very-fucking-much because Cheyanne has been going through these false labor contractions that could turn into preterm labor without the slightest fucking hesitation. Could you not keep your snake caged for four fucking days?!”

Sighing, Howie groaned at her words. "How bad is she?" he asked softly.

“Do you want the fucking laundry list or just the top ten?” Austin seethed, having half a mind to march straight to Canada just to throttle Howie since she couldn’t touch Cheyanne. He should have had better sense. Damnit, she had told him!

"Austin, please, calm down. Cheyanne wanted it just as much as I did--"

“But damnit, Howie, you’re the man! You should have known!”

"Well if it makes you feel any better, I've been fucking kicking myself ever since!" he shouted.

“Yeah, I’m sure you’re real upset over getting laid!”

"Goddamnit, Austin. Just--tell me what the doctor said so I can feel like a complete heel."

“Oh, I’d love to,” Austin spat, throwing the bologna sandwich onto a plate as she stomped toward the fridge to retrieve the Hawaiian Punch and 7-Up, which Cheyanne seemed to crave since becoming pregnant. “She took another ultrasound of Ollie today and she said that Ollie doesn’t look like she’s in any distress right now. But the blood is piling up behind the placenta while it tears further and further away. So, because of that, Chey is anemic. Which makes her tired and exhausted on top of everything else. Not to mention these freaking contractions she keeps having. Usually, they’re not problem in normal pregnancies, but with Chey, it could turn into preterm labor. So, now she’s on this whole list of medications to help keep Olivia strong in case the preterm birth happens and a medication to keep these contractions from happening. Not to mention the doctor wanted to put her in the hospital till the birth, but Chey refused. I don’t know what to do with her. She’s in so much pain, but she won’t tell me. She just lays there, so damn quiet… Do you realize what happens when she goes into labor? I have to get her to the hospital as fast as possible or she dies. She and Ollie could die. And if I have to put either one or both of them in the ground, I’ll kill you.”

"Oh my god," Howie breathed. "Let me talk to her?"

“If I had any mind I’d…” Austin’s voice trailed off as she dumped the mixture of 7-Up and Hawaiian Punch into a glass of ice. Balancing the phone to her ear, she grasped the plate and glass, shuffling back down the hallway. “And don’t think for a minute that she’s coming to Florida next week.”

"Austin, we've already been through this--"

“She’s not going.”

"Do you want my entire family to show up on your doorstep? Because if I tell them she can't come, they'll all converge on your house like a swarm of locusts."

“You’re not threatening me into letting her go to Florida. If I had my way, she’d be in the hospital right now till Olivia decided it was time to greet this world. She can’t have that stress nor can she have your big-ass family swarming around here.”

"My family will make sure that she is comfortable. Momma's already getting the biggest guest room ready for her, and the last I heard, Polly's hiring a nurse--"

“And you’ll be fucking her to high Heaven, I’m sure.”

"Austin--"

“It’s the damn truth and you know it,” Austin hissed as she lightly kicked open Cheyanne’s bedroom door. And, the younger woman had done as she was told, dressing in Howie’s t-shirt and boxers, curled beneath the covers. She was crying softly into a pillow however, Moth attempting to cheer her up by licking her tears, whining when she attempted to turn away from him.

"Can I at least talk to her? Or are you afraid that the sound of my voice will be too erotic for her to stand?"

“She doesn’t want to talk to anyone right now,” Austin half lied, setting the plate of food and drink on Cheyanne’s bedside table. Usually, she probably would have given the phone to Cheyanne, knowing Howie could calm her down. But, today she was just so upset that he could compromise Cheyanne like that. Not to mention the thought of Cheyanne getting married to Howie still played an awful notion in her mind.

“Is that my Sweet Tea?” Cheyanne sniffled when Moth actually growled at Austin for trying to rub her back. “’Cause you promised you weren’t going to bother him…”

"Move, Pisser," Austin hissed, pushing the dog out of her way. Ignoring Cheyanne's question, she directed her next comment to Howie. "Why don't you call later after Chey's had some rest?"

“Because I want to talk to her now. I don’t care if I talk to her on this phone or call her cell phone. I’m going to talk to her. She’s my fiancée for Heaven’s sakes--”

“Austi…” Cheyanne called meekly.

"Ugh. Fine. Here, talk to your Tea," Austin relented, handing the phone over to Cheyanne. Moving in for a quick snuggle, she jumped back when Moth's teeth bit down on her arm. "You little Pisser--" Cutting off when she heard a truck pull up, she immediately slid off the bed. "Billy and Jeffie are here!" she squealed, racing to greet them.

“She’s going to make them bring in the duct tape, I can see it now,” Cheyanne sniffled as Moth crawled onto her protectively, staring ominously at the door. Shifting slightly as to not disturb her puppy, she brought the phone to her ear, biting down hard on her bottom lip. She could only imagine what Austin said, because she had heard the muffled yells through her bedroom door. Howie would not be pleased and tears seemed to start anew. “Did… Did she wake you up?”

"Oh, Honey… You know what? You're the type of person who would just rush into the burning apartment building to save a kitten on the top floor, and not care about yourself one bit. Just as long as the kitten was saved," Howie said thoughtfully. "Yes, she woke me. But I don't mind…"

“I told her not to call you. Not to worry you…” Cheyanne murmured, hiccupping slightly from her sobs as she curled back down into her blankets for protection. She heard the heavy stomps of her friends’ cowboy boots, followed by Austin’s squeals, knowing she’d be giving Jeff the horror stories. “You can go back to sleep if you like. You had that late interview, right? You must be exhausted…”

"I'd much rather talk to you, Honey. Why… Why didn't you tell me? If I had known, I never would have--"

"She what?!" Jeff screeched from the living room.

Cheyanne winced at sharpness of Jeff’s surprise, causing Moth to jerk with awareness. Immediately, the little puppy stood to his paws on Cheyanne’s hip, puffing himself with several low growls, prepared to attack the next person to enter. She had only wished that her beloved pet was adept enough to lock a door, but that wouldn’t be happening. “…Tea, what happened… What is happening… It’s not your fault… That one time after you proposed didn’t make this all rush on… And I wouldn’t take that back for anything--”

"Neither would I. But, Honey… I know you don't want me to worry about you, but I do. I have since the first moment I laid eyes on you--"

"Where is she? Austi, get your skinny ass out of my way! Billy boy, go start the truck, I'm going home to pack!"

“If this phone conversation gets cut off… You just go back to sleep okay?” Cheyanne requested as she heard the heavy footfalls thudding back the hallway, nearing her room. Moth’s growls grew in intensity and she pulled the covers over her head, much like Baylee had done to hide. The only other time Cheyanne had ever heard Jeff this upset was when she confessed as to how she became pregnant with Olivia.

"Honey, what--"

Cheyanne's door eased open, Jeff leaning inside. Looking around, he shook his head. "Hiding under the blanket doesn't work, Chey. And call off your vicious attack dog before he takes a flying leap at me."

"Do you want me to let you go? Lord knows I don't need Jeff threatening bodily harm on me right now… Austin did enough of that," Howie said softly.

“If you want to let me go…” Cheyanne trailed vaguely, refusing to lift the covers from her head. Instead, she sneaked a bare arm out to grasp Moth, tucking him underneath the covers with her.

"They won't duct tape you to the bed and refuse to let me talk to you anymore, will they?" Howie chuckled nervously.

"Fine, fine, hide. But I'll be back soon, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you hide from me while I'm staying here!" Jeff warned, shutting her door with a thump before heading back down the hall.

"He's moving in?!"

“Apparently…” Cheyanne trailed miserably as Moth wriggled to get underneath her T-shirt. “God…I’m going to have to kiss his ass tonight… Because I’m a royal screw up…”

Before Howie could reply, Cheyanne's door opened again. "And I'm bringing Billy back with me!"

Cheyanne groaned, hearing Howie's soft chuckle as her door thumped shut once again. "You're not a screw up, Honey. You just worry too much that everyone else will worry too much about you, causing them to worry even more… God, I've been around Nick way too long," he muttered.

“Does he like the iPod selection I downloaded for him before I left?” Cheyanne questioned suddenly, wanting to move away from the topic about her condition. She knew she’d be hounded enough when the boys returned, which would take less than fifteen minutes considering Jeff would force Billy into the passenger side because he was angry.

"The medical stuff?" Howie asked. "I have no clue… Well, wait. He was spouting off something earlier about bipolar psychos…"

“What about the country?”

"Oh, God. He was singing some whiny song about a woman driving her car over a cliff and a night to remember or something. It was just awful. And last night when we got back to the hotel he insisted on me hearing some song… I swear, I love the man like a brother, but God I hope he never tries to do a country album…"

Cheyanne’s sniffling hiccups turned into a soft laugh for a moment. It was far too easy to picture Nick driving Howie insane with the various songs she had downloaded for him. “Nicky is adorable…”

"And, oh God! He's been playing that ass-shaking song nonstop! I swear, if I hear Badonkadonk one more time, I'm going to--"

“To what? …Tea, that’s one of my favorite songs.”

"Think of you and smile," Howie said immediately. There was some rustling, followed by a soft groan. "Honey, we'll be leaving in about two hours, and I still have to pack…"

“I didn’t want her to call in the first place,” Cheyanne sighed ruefully, knowing that situation all too well. Even if the girls had only been home a short time, Cheyanne had almost become far too accustomed to Howie’s short conversations and quick goodbyes. That is, until her bedroom door slammed open like a gunshot and her covers were ripped away. “Jeffie!” Cheyanne yelped in horror as the large man jumped into her bed, obviously having been lurking in the doorway and sending Bill and Austin off to get their clothing instead of leaving himself. “What if I was naked?!”

"Like I ain't seen you naked before! Is that Howie? Tell him I said hey," Jeff said, snuggling close. "And get that varmint away from me!"

"Tell him 'hi'," Howie said with a chuckle. "Moth doesn't like anybody messing with you, does he?"

“No, Moth isn’t particularly fond of anyone messing with me…” Cheyanne drawled with agreement, giggling lightly as Jeff slipped his hand beneath her shirt to rub her belly once Moth had been gently dropped to the floor. “But, he’s especially unkind to those who sneak their hands into his favorite hiding place.”

"Jeff's hand is on your chest?!" Howie practically shouted.

Jeff winced at the sound of Howie’s voice rebounding over the telephone, unable to stop smirking when Cheyanne wrinkled her nose in distaste. “You better let him know it’s under your shirt there, too, Kitten.”

"Oh, God," Howie groaned. "I really don't--Holy Hell, I've got to go. I'll call you later, okay? I love you…"

“I love you, too--”

"Bye!" Jeff called, taking the phone and ending the call. Tossing it aside, he heaved a heavy sigh. "A'right, Cheyanne Grace. Give me the scoop."

“Y’mean ‘sides the fact that Howie is way too busy to have a fiancée?” Cheyanne drawled with a soft sigh, resting her head on Jeff’s chest as he cuddled her close. She recalled far too many nights at the University of Charlotte where she threatened to give up her studies in Nursing and Jeff would simply curl with her on the small dorm beds, reading textbooks that made absolutely no sense to him whatsoever. He was a great friend and would make one woman very lucky someday.

"Well, Hell, I offered, but you turned me down flat before I could even get my drunk ass down on one knee," Jeff reminded her, cocking one eyebrow when he felt Moth jump onto the bed. Lifting his head, he glanced down and saw the puppy slowly working his way up, giving him the most evil glare a dog could manage before sliding under Cheyanne's shirt again.

“Jeffie, you were drunk,” Cheyanne emphasized, shifting to accommodate the new occupant underneath her shirt. “How was I supposed to take you seriously when you were drunk?”

"Because when I'm drunk is the only time I am serious," Jeff admitted with a grunt, wincing when he felt Moth's claws digging through his and Chey's shirts. "Jesus, that dog…"

“You’re the one in his territory,” Cheyanne teased lightly, tucking her hands underneath her shirt to steady the puppy. He whined slightly at the assistance, but licked her hand in thanks when she rubbed behind his ears. She smiled toward Jeff when Moth was finally calmed. “Are you really moving in?”

"Naw, I just told those two freaks that so I'd get some time alone with you," he crooned, puckering his lips. When she playfully slapped his chest, he grinned. "Hell yeah, I am. Is your precious city boy goin' to come down here and chase me around the chicken coop with a shotgun if I do?"

“Everyone is so fixated on this chicken coop that we don’t seem to have…” Cheyanne mumbled with bewilderment, instantly giggling when Jeff tickled her lightly. “Okay! Okay! I don’t think my precious city boy is going to do a dad-burn thing about it, honestly. He wasn’t even upset with our naked comments… Where are you going to sleep?”

"I ain't figured that out yet… There's the couch, but you know how bad my back gets after a long day. And I'm damn sure Bill's already claimed Austi's bed. Besides, I don't like sleeping with her--she snores too damn much. I guess I could just make a pallet on the floor somewhere," Jeff said with a resigned sigh.

“Don’t you like sleeping with me anymore?” Cheyanne instantly pouted with hurt. “I thought I snuggled good with you…”

"But you're all engaged now," Jeff said, shaking her finger. "And if you roll over in the night and hit me with that, I'll probably bleed to death… And if that mongrel snuggled up tight between your boobies gets a hankering to bite something, I know damn well what he'll be sinking his teeth into…"

“Why would that be raised to attention?” Cheyanne questioned with an impish smirk, trying not to be hurt at the fact that Jeff wouldn’t sleep with her at night. She didn’t understand why he saw fit to make excuses for that, but could yank the covers off her and curl her close now.

Chuckling, Jeff pulled her closer, pressing a sloppy kiss to her forehead. "Are you going to invite me to sleep in here or do I have to pout and whine all day?"

“I just invited you to sleep in here but you gave me all these excuses as to why you can’t--”

"Damnit, Chey, you know I'm thick as a post, you've got to say the words clear as a bell to me!"

“Jeffrey, would you please do me the honor of accompanying me to bed during the length of your visitation? Accepting this means a night of happiness snuggled underneath the covers, providing you are nice to Moth,” Cheyanne asked with an air of sophistication.

"Oh, sure, now you're goin' to get all fancy on me with those big words." Grinning, Jeff nodded. "Hell yeah! Can I sleep naked--"

“Jeffie!” Cheyanne exclaimed with a giggle. “Let’s keep some mystery to our relationship how ‘bout it!”

"Alright, alright! I cave! I'll sleep with you!" Jeff cried as he heard the roar of Bill's truck in the drive. "They're home!"

“Throw your jeans into the hallway and give Austi a heart attack!” Cheyanne hurriedly suggested.

"I really wasn't planning on dying today… Okay!" Jeff said, pulling away. Sliding off the bed with a thud, he wriggled out of his jeans, tossing them into the hall just as he heard Austin's footsteps on the front porch. Giving Cheyanne a grin, he crawled back into bed with her, reaching to pull the blanket over them. "If she threatens to chop off my tallywhacker, you better fess up and say it was all your idea!"

“Wait!” Cheyanne squeaked, immediately reaching her hands beneath the blankets. Wiggling slightly, she slid Howie’s boxers from her lower half, leaving her in a pair of bikini briefs. That seemed to be tradition when it came to the boys, so she wasn’t exactly coy. Balling them slightly as she kept her arm poised, she waited for Austin to come thumping down the hallway, tossing the boxers at her as soon as the door opened.

"What the Hell?!" Austin cried, dropping the boxers to the floor. Looking at the two in bed, she rolled her eyes. "You two are so immature," she announced. "Jeffie, get out of Chey's bed and go get your shit in. Billy said--"

"I said there ain't no damn way I'm bringing your shit in. Bad enough I had to go pack for you!" Billy shouted from down the hallway.

“Leave it to the ancient old bitty and old crow to ruin our fun,” Jeff sighed dramatically, pressing a few kisses to Cheyanne’s cheek before hopping out of bed. He smiled good naturedly as he slipped past Austin, only to receive a kick in the backside.

“It was my idea, so you’d at least smile instead of being so mad at me?” Cheyanne explained hopefully as her best friend turned to just stare at her.

"At least with those morons here to entertain you, I won't have to worry as much while I'm working," Austin said with a sigh. "Billy's offered to fix us some of his not-so famous steaks on the grill. And, if you promise to stay in bed the rest of your pregnancy, I'll let you sit on the back deck and eat."

“I promise to stay in bed with Jeffie until next weekend when I go to Florida,” Cheyanne bargained instead.

"You're not going to Florida, remember?"

"But--"

"Only if you take Jeffie with you!"

“He won’t fit in my duffle bag!”

“Then put the dog leash on him!”

“He’d enjoy that too much!”

"Can you two nags stop screaming long enough to tell me if I'm cooking on the grill or not?" Bill shouted.

“I’m going to go throttle him,” Austin growled.

“As long as you tell me you’re not mad at me anymore… And let me tell you that I’m sorry?” Cheyanne questioned.

Sighing, Austin flopped down gently next to her. Giving her an enormously gentle hug, she nodded. "I'm not mad at you. And I'm sorry too," she murmured.

"WELL?! AM I COOKING OR NOT?!"

The girls exchanged knowing looks. “Throttle him.”

*~*~*


With Jeff gone to his father's ranch to help with some paperwork, Cheyanne had little to do but snuggle with Moth and watch a marathon of her favorite movies. Billy slipped out just before lunch, telling Austin he needed to help his uncle on his horse farm. After taking Cheyanne her lunch and making sure she was settled, Austin slipped into the small spare bedroom that had been converted into her office. Settling in her chair, she glanced at the picture of Kevin she'd printed off the internet, smiling wistfully before turning to her stack of folders. She was making notes to type and fax to her boss when she suddenly tossed down her pen, shaking her head with a sigh. She couldn't concentrate on the depravities of this certain sociopath. Not today. Part of her was tempted to chuck her work aside and crawl into bed with Cheyanne, but she knew she didn't want to watch the horror movies her friend insisted on watching.

Grabbing her cell phone from her purse, she flipped through the stored numbers, pausing on the one Kevin had given her if she wanted to call his mother. In all honesty, she almost feared calling the woman, half expecting she would get a furious talking to for being the other woman. Sighing, she continued scrolling, soon finding herself at the entry once more. Kevin's Momma. Taking a deep breath, she hit the call button before she could stop herself, bringing the phone to her ear as she turned to look out the window.

It rang several times, causing the knots to tighten in her stomach. As much as Kevin talked about marrying her when the divorce terminated, she couldn’t help but worry about what Ann Richardson would have to say. She was the only parent Kevin had left, so obviously her opinion mattered. Suddenly, Austin couldn’t help but ruefully smile at herself, thinking she was acting far too much like Cheyanne. Sighing, she prepared to just terminate the call. That is, until there was a short rustling, followed by a warm southern answer. “Hello?”

"Mrs. Richardson?" she drawled, heart in her throat.

“Speaking, how may I help you, Dear?”

"This is Austin… Pretty--Kevin gave me your number and told me I could call you anytime. But, if you're busy, I can let you go--"

“Busy?” Ann actually laughed softly. “I am a retired woman who’s raised three brutes that I love to call sons. I ain’t got nothing to do but sit on the front porch drinking some fresh lemonade. But, Austin? My little Kevin’s love? Oh, Dear, I’ve been waiting for your call!”

Austin relaxed immediately at the woman's words. "I would have called earlier, but it's taken a couple days to get everything settled here… Cheyanne's the greatest nurse in the word, but she is one miserable patient."

“I understand, Dear,” Ann answered quite sympathetically. “I’m just happy to get your phone call. Kevin is just so happy that he found you… Cheyanne? Howie’s fiancée, right? I hear she’s just the sweetest little thing…”

"She really is. And I'm happy Kevin found me, too. Though, looking back, I kind of wish I hadn't thrown him over my shoulder…" Austin couldn't help but wince at the memory.

“He’s always needed a good swift kick to the backside,” Ann laughed merrily, obviously already knowing that tale. “His older brothers are so small compared to him. He’s always been a bit of a proud rooster.”

"He does like to swagger," Austin agreed with a small laugh. "Did he… Did he tell you that I kicked his cell phone into the lake and threw him into a mud puddle?"

“He mentioned you were bit of a spitfire, but that’s why he loves you so much. Dear, a woman who is so concentrated on making a man mad as well as happy is someone to keep hold of… Kristin never much cared for Kevin in either part of that. Good riddance, I say. And, I look forward to the second wedding.”

"Second wedding?" Austin squeaked. Kevin hadn't been kidding, then, when he'd mentioned that in the yarn shop. "Well, if the Wickedest Bitch of the West would just divorce him already, I'd marry him the next day." She instantly clapped a hand over her mouth for letting her nickname for Kristin slip. "I didn't mean--"

“That’s exactly what this family needs,” Ann chuckled. “She really was a fright, wasn’t she?”

"God, yes," Austin sighed. "I swear, when she jumped out of that rental car at the cabin, wearing her expensive clothes and those bleached curls adjusted to perfection, I only wanted to throw her ass in the lake after Kevin's phone…"

“Money was her love, Dear,” Ann sighed softly, “But, the divorce papers should clear soon. It seems like it’s been so long… But, no matter. When are you going to come for a visit and bring my son? It seems like he’s been gone for just as long. I know he’s busy. But is it too much to ask for a visit?”

"Do I have to call his sorry butt and fuss him out for not visiting his Momma?"

“It’d do my heart good.”

"I'll call him when I get off the phone with you," Austin promised. "But… Mrs. Richardson?"

“Yes, Dear?”

"I… I think I told your baby boy a lie a few days ago…"

“What would that be?”

"I told him I don't want to have any kids," Austin said softly, biting her lip as she waited for the gauntlet to drop.

“Austin…” Ann paused for a long moment. “Dear, what are you trying to say?”

"I don't even know," Austin sighed. "I mean, the look on his face when I told him that… It was like I'd broken his heart. And I never want to do that, not after all I went through to mend what you-know-who tore apart. And even though a tiny part of me still says I'm too young to have kids, when I'm safe in his arms all I can think of is growing old with him and giving him a dozen babies," she admitted in a rush.

“Well… Have you told him that?”

"No…" Standing, Austin headed for the kitchen, stopping only to grab a can of soda from the fridge before stepping onto the back deck. "I don't want him to think that I'm saying it because I know he wants kids, you know? Lord knows I don't want him to think that… I guess I'm scared? I don't know. But, Mrs. Richardson, I'd gladly give you a houseful of grandkids," she added with a smile, reaching into the box of tools behind the grill. Digging quickly, she pulled out her hidden pack of cigarettes, moving to sit on the steps for a smoke. If Cheyanne walked out, she knew she would have an earful, but assured herself that her friend wouldn't be moving from bed. And she'd be sure to take a shower and brush her teeth thoroughly before setting food in the bedroom to check on her.

“Thank you for letting me know that, Dear. But, I think my son would also like to hear those words too. Seeing him with his nieces and nephews… And he’s so excited about Cheyanne’s pregnancy, for Howie of course. But, him with children is just so beautiful… Once you work your nerve, I’d like for you to tell him. And, honestly, don’t call me Mrs. Richardson. Bless my soul, I may be old, but not that old.”

"I'll have to do a lot of finagling to get him away from little Ollie," Austin mused with a chuckle, glancing nervously over her shoulder after lighting up. "Can I call you Momma, then?"

“I’d like that a lot, Dear.”

"Kevin must have gotten all his sweetness from you," Austin said softly. "He… He told me about his father. I wish I could have known him. When Kevin talks about him, he makes him sound like quite a man."

“He was quite the man… Kevin reminds me a lot of his father… You’re a lucky woman, Austin, and that’s not just a mother speaking.”

"When I'm with him, I feel like the luckiest woman alive. I honestly don't think I deserve him," she murmured.

“Dear, it’s not a matter of deserving him, but cherishing what he gives you. As long as you know how much he means to you and how much you mean to him, then it’s meant to be… It’s a beautiful thing, Dear. A very beautiful thing. So, please, just love him like he’s meant to be loved. That’s all he’s asking for. And, as your mother-in-law, that’s all I could ever hope for.”

The woman's wise words nearly made Austin drop her cigarette. Hot tears flooded her eyes, and she quickly brushed them away, as though Ann could see them through the phone. "I… I love him so much, Momma Richardson. I know I can tell you this, because you're his mother and will understand… Despite that rugged, stuck-up attitude he has, he's really just a scared little boy, isn't he? So afraid that people will think he's not worthy of them…" Austin looked out at the towering pine trees, suddenly wishing Kevin were there with her so she could hold him and tell him just how worthy he really was.

“You know him a lot better than I do, Dear. But, I’d wager to say that’s a fair guess. We know better, though, huh? The two most important women in his life… Well, three, counting Cheyanne… Four fairing that daughter of hers… We better just stick to us two or the fans will have a fit.”

Laughing, Austin leaned back, gazing up at the cloudless sky. "I don't know… From what I can tell on the internet, Boobah, Skinny and Preacher Boy have more fans than Howie and Pretty Boy combined," she mused softly.

“Well, I didn’t say the fans had taste…”

Choking on her laughter, Austin slapped the wooden deck. "You, Momma, are so freaking cool."

“Remind your boyfriend of that,” Ann laughed softly, obviously smiling. “And next time you call me, which I expect to be every other day, I’d like to speak to Cheyanne. Howie is like a fourth son to me…”

"Just every other day?" Austin questioned with a pout. "I was hoping to call you every day… And I'm sure Chey would love to talk to you. I think she's about to go stir crazy…"

“Dear, I would have told you to call me every day, but I figured I might be too pushy. So, you just call me when you feel like calling me. I’ll enjoy hearing your voice no matter what. And… I understand about Cheyanne being so stir crazy. It’s hard being pregnant… Kevin told me about all her troubles. The poor Sweetheart. He also told me that she’s supposed to be going to visit Howie’s family next weekend? To meet them to get their approval for the engagement?”

Damn that Kevin, Austin thought with a slight scowl. He just had to go around blabbing everything to his Momma, didn't he? Pursing her lips, she knew she couldn't make the woman think her son was a liar. Besides… "Yeah, she's excited about it," she finally said. Damn, damn, damn. Now she'd have to go cowering back to Cheyanne and tell her she could go. Because if it got back to Ann that Austin had been the one who told Cheyanne she couldn't go…

“I’d imagine. I know she’s younger than you, pregnant, in love, and getting married. All these pieces of her life are finally sewing together in proper order… It’s a time for her to be excited. And, I know that you don’t want her to go, because you’re worried about her state. I would be, too. That type of pregnancy is scary, especially for the ones who love her most… But she really does need to go see Howie. Not just for her, but him, too. You see, Dear, Howie was battling depression before he met you two at the cabin. Kevin would call me at night, because he was terrified that Howie would actually try to take his own life. But since meeting Cheyanne, Dear, you can’t even imagine what a tremendous help it’s been. It’s rough for those boys on the road. Especially Kevin and Howie. He just needs those few days with her, so he can keep going. She needs those few days with him, so she can keep strong. You see?”

Austin sat up, crushing her cigarette beneath her shoe. "I had no idea Howie… And the way I treated him at first… He must have thought I was the biggest bitch in the whole state, Momma. And since Chey's met him, her entire outlook has changed. See, she was with this major ass--jerk who treated her worse than you'd treat a cockroach. But, I'm sure Kevin told all about Noah…"

“Both Howie and Kevin told me about Noah. The man is just lucky that Kevin and Howie haven’t thought of searching down his whereabouts from the internet. But, this isn’t about him, it’s about how perfect Cheyanne and Howie are for each other. Just, tell her that she can go to Florida and we’ll keep this between us. I’m sure it’ll do the girl wonders. She needs him.”

"Thanks, Momma. Something tells me I'll be calling you a lot in the next couple of months. When I complain to Kevin about how worried I am over Chey, he just pats me on the shoulder and tells me I worry too much. Speaking of him, I need to call him and start a fire under his butt for not calling you."

“That’s my favorite daughter-in-law,” Ann laughed. “And, it’s good that you’re so worried over Cheyanne. She’s in a scary situation. But you need to keep your wits about you when the time comes, y’hear? She’ll need you more than anybody else.”

"I don't guess I could persuade you to come up here and coach me, could I?" Austin suggested with a laugh, getting to her feet. Moving to replace her contraband, she heard Moth's insistent scratch at the back door, and stepped over to let him out. "As it is, I'll probably have Howie fainting on me or something…"

“I might be persuaded to do so as long as you promise to insist on you, Kevin, Howie, Cheyanne, and the newest Backstreet Baby come for a weekend visit to this ranch.”

"As soon as little Ollie and Chey are up for travel, we'll be there," Austin promised, keeping an eye on Moth as he did his business behind a tree.

“Good, now start the fire underneath my baby boy, please.”
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