Groaning in his half-sleep state, Howie shuffled to the kitchenette, his hands going through the motions of bringing water to a boil for his morning tea. Sleep had eluded him the night before, and he'd finally crawled from the bed, sitting by the window to watch the approaching storm. The day, it would appear so far, matched his mood. I have no intention of letting you get your grubby paws anywhere near her. Austin's words played over and over in his mind.
Howie pressed his lips to the rim of his teacup, blowing softly on the steaming liquid as he stepped out onto the sheltered porch of the cabin. Dawn had come a couple of hours ago, though it was hardly noticeable with all the thick, black clouds hanging in the air. Claps of thunder could be heard in the distance as rain pelted down upon the forest lands. Gazing through the sheets of rain to the top of the mountains, he wondered darkly if he would be missed. The idea of standing at a cliff and just letting go appealed to him suddenly.
He was grateful for the roof over his head as he glanced toward the familiar campsite, wanting to compare himself to that of a stalker. But, he couldn't help his wiles. He was drawn to watching the campsite, much like Kevin was. Though the older man would never admit to such accusations.
So, quietly, Howie watched as Kevin proceeded to arise and follow suit. But, Howie hardly noticed Kevin when there was a shuffle in the tent. He arched his back slightly as if to raise himself into better sites, watching Cheyanne come tumbling out of the tent with a screech. She was already drenched from head to toe, her baggy flannel shirt clinging to her like a second skin as rain pelted her from every direction. She looked to be on the verge of tears as Austin came rolling out, laughing hysterically.
“It’s hysterical, Austi! Yes! Just keep laughing! Please!” Cheyanne growled with much displeasure, staring back at the collapsed tent with disbelief. Her voice was thick with hostile southern tones, dramatizing her accent considerably. She had been sleeping peacefully when a cold bath had doused her, practically scaring her out of her skin. She hated it, stomping her foot into a growing puddle, causing more muck to splash onto her body. And that seemed to do it. Her entire body grew tense with frustration as tears started to mist her eyes. The emotional state of her appearance quite uncharacteristic. “My stuff is ruined, Austi! Absolutely ruined! The hole just has to rip right over my head, doesn’t it?!”
As the girls began bickering back and forth, Austin trying to contain her laughter and Cheyanne dangerously close to tears, Howie turned to Kevin, his earlier dark thoughts now forgotten. "We should help them," he stated simply, setting his tea down on the table.
"So I can get knocked on my ass again? I don't think so," Kevin said stubbornly, taking a swig of his coffee.
"Look at them, Kev. You'd let them stand out in the pouring down rain? They could catch cold," Howie pleaded.
“Looks like the spitfire is enjoying it,” Kevin murmured, glancing toward the puddle-filled campsite that belonged to the women. The storm that had started earlier the previous evening hadn't let up for several hours. It looked like the most disastrous part of the worst third world country and the way the tent was destroyed, there was no way the women could salvage their vacation. Yet, Austin was laughing hysterically, enjoying the hard rains.
"Fine. Be a jackass, Kev. It suits you," Howie grumbled, stepping inside the cabin to retrieve his warmest jacket. Pulling it on, he scrambled down the steps, his sneakers squishing in the mud as he hurried over to offer his assistance. If nothing else, he could offer them a place to dry off and stay warm by the fire. Cheyanne looked miserable, hugging herself, her honey locks plastered to her face. She looked cold and defeated, as though life had disappointed her too much, too fast. His heart went out to her, and he had to push away the images of warming her himself from his mind. Over the sound of the rain pelting their equipment, he heard Kevin's footfalls behind him.
“Don’t say a word,” Kevin grumbled, tugging the hood further over his forehead to shield his face from the heavy rains. No matter how upset he was with Austin for ruining his phone, he wasn’t about to let the women drown within the rain. In fact, perhaps, in the most nether regions of his mind, he thanked her for terminating the connection with his witch of a wife.
"Howie," Cheyanne said in surprise, her lips quivering as he approached. She hugged herself tighter as he and his friend surveyed the ruined tent. Then Howie turned his chocolate brown gaze on her. The warmth emanating from them made her want to cry.
"Here," he said gently, already removing his jacket. Wrapping it around her shoulders, he let his hands linger in a soft caress before pulling the hood over her head. "You should get inside before you catch a cold," he murmured, his eyes burning into hers.
"But..." Cheyanne glanced wistfully at the tent.
"There's a warm fire in the cabin, and I'll fix you a hot toddy."
"And get her drunk?" Austin blurted, whirling around to glare at him.
“Austin…” Cheyanne whispered hurtfully, dropping her murky sapphire gaze to the puddle that was growing beneath her feet. The whole hearted gestures Howie was offering would usually turn her heart to mush, but Austin was making it hard for Cheyanne. In fact, what Howie did seemed to be cheapened by Austin’s sharply bladed tongue, making Cheyanne uncomfortable. She’d never go against Austin’s wishes. Not after what happened with Noah. “Our tent is ruining and it’s not going to stop raining… I can’t get sick… He’s trying to be nice…”
“Howie wouldn’t even think of doing that kind of shit anyway. Why don’t you give him a break? Or are you under the impression that all men are egotistical assholes?” Kevin defended, annoyed that he had to continue to stand in the freezing cold rain while Austin stubbornly fought their offers of hospitality.
"You're one, aren't you?" Austin said, turning her fiery gaze on him. Her wet t-shirt and jeans clung to her body, and despite the cold Kevin felt warmth in the pit of his stomach as she stared him down. He had a good mind to throw her impertinent ass into the lake, but the thought of trudging through the mud quelled that idea. Besides, she'd only climb back out, and, knowing full well her strength, would probably throw him in.
"Kevin is not an egotistical asshole," Howie said defensively, resting a hand on Cheyanne's arm. "Come on," he said softly, his eyes pleading with her.
"Okay..." her voice drifted as she fell into step next to him, the heat of his jacket sinking into her. Turning her head slightly, she inhaled the softest hint of cologne, closing her eyes for a second. "If it's alright with you, I'd rather have some hot tea," she said as they climbed the steps. Glancing over at the campsite, she inwardly cringed when she saw Austin's defiant stance.
"Sure thing, honey," Howie assured her, ushering her inside.
Kevin watched briefly as Howie helped Cheyanne, feeling pride for the younger man taking an initiative in his life. That is, until he felt a sharp push against his chest. He stumbled back a few steps to see Austin still glaring at him, obviously annoyed that he had broke their heated gazes. “Alright, Princess,” he grumbled, rolling his eyes when she scoffed at his remark, only seeming to egg him further. “Let’s get this stuff out of the rain.”
"Who put you in charge?" she asked, her hands on her hips as he moved closer. Her push had knocked his hood off, and the fact that at least his head was getting wet satisfied her somehow.
"I am not going to stand here in the rain and argue with you, okay? If you want to stand here and drown, that's your problem. Just give me some of Cheyanne's things. At least she has the common sense to accept a little hospitality," he said, trying to keep his eyes away from her chest. The heat in the pit of his stomach continued to grow.
“Well, maybe you could head down to the lake and see if the rain stirred up your phone?” Austin growled sharply, watching Kevin step into the tent to gather what he thought could be Cheyanne’s things. That stirred her up far more than him calling her Princess. Now he was invading her privacy. And she stepped forward to yank him back by the coat, actually tossing him into the puddle. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?! You have no right to be in there, you fucking bastard!”
Being thrown on his ass twice within a week was not good. Being thrown on his ass by a little bitch was definitely not good. Especially into a puddle. Sitting up, he wiped the mud from his cheek with the back of his hand, his eyes narrowed, shivering when he felt the water slosh down the back of his coat. This woman... One arm snaking out, he caught the hem of her lounge pants, and before she could react he'd hauled her into his lap. "Do you like getting wet?" he snarled.
At first, Austin was shocked that she was seated in his lap. Her body too stiff to really react as she felt him through the thinness of her soaked lounge pants. He was slightly harder than she had anticipated, causing a sharp sensation of need burn through her lower half. Her lips parted slightly as her facial features contorted to a look of surprise. She immediately began to wonder what he would be like fully aroused instead of soaking wet and cold, which is what she attempted to identify as the cause of his rigidity. But, that thought waned as she immediately wondered what he would feel like inside her. But, she instantly recoiled those thoughts as a streak of lightening smacked across the sky and she attempted to pull away with a snort. “Do you like getting thrown onto your back by a woman every day?”
"What's it take to shut you up?" he asked in a low voice, holding her to him. Each wriggle and gasp from her made the dull aches in his crotch grow into a full-fledged fire, begging to consume him. Thunder shook the ground, the rain falling harder and faster as he looked into her eyes. Her hands pushed lightly at his chest in an effort to get away, and he had to bite back a moan as her legs slid around him.
“Nothing you can offer, that’s for damn sure--”
But Austin’s smart remarks got her no where when she felt Kevin’s lips push against hers. Within the damn coldness of the morning, his lips were surprisingly warm as his minty breath permeated her aroused senses. She wanted to smack a freezing hand against his cheek for being so fresh, but was surprisingly interested in what his lips had to offer. Especially as he crushed her petite body against him, hardening his kisses with a series of tender bites before allowing his tongue to dip inside her mouth. He coaxed her awareness of his body, causing her to release a soft moan of delight. A delight that she never knew existed before. But, before she could make sense of her emotional surroundings, the warmth vanished and his lips were pulled away. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing--”
“Kevin. What the Hell do you think you’re doing, Kevin,” he breathed, lowering his mouth against hers once more.
Howie had to say he was quite proud of the fire he was stoking, making sure it burned with a brilliant orange glow that would keep Cheyanne warm throughout the day. He hadn’t built many of the fires since they arrived in North Carolina, since Kevin was more apt at that sort of thing. But, Kevin was busy and Howie couldn’t waste precious time. The poor thing had been chilled to the bone when he first brought her in. So, he quickly ushered her into the bathroom with a fresh pair of his clothes to change into. He could only hope that she would be warm enough, though he justified that perhaps he might have to hold her within his arms to keep her that way. A fire couldn’t possibly be enough, could it?
Though, those thoughts quickly burst into tufts to dissipate through his mind when he heard a soft clearing of a feminine throat. Turning slightly, he felt his breath catch hard within the depth of his own throat. Cheyanne had been quick to clean up in the bathroom, obviously nervous about being in an unfamiliar place. She had also donned Howie’s clothing and he couldn’t have imagined a cuter sight. His bright red hooded sweatshirt was excessively baggy on her petite frame. The hem fell to the middle of her thighs and the sleeves obviously too long as she bunched them up to keep them from falling. His black sweatpants were also excessively baggy and matched with a pair of his socks that she had to roll several times to fit her. But she looked comfortable, not to mention alluring seductive in his clothing. Her damp honey locks were now curling and framing her soft face. Her nose and cheeks were bright red from the overwhelming cold stirring outside, but it warmed his heart. He tried to hide a chuckle as she attempted a shy smile.
“Thank you for… Well… Everything…” Cheyanne whispered, quite unsure of herself as the bunched sleeves of Howie’s hooded sweatshirt slumped downward and over her hands again. She blushed faintly as she held one of the cuffs to her face, gingerly rubbing away some excess water droplets.
"It's my pleasure," he assured her, pulling the blanket off the back of the couch. Stepping behind her, he placed it around her shoulders, lowering his head to breathe in the faintest scent of her shampoo. "Come on, the fire's roaring," he murmured, his hands light on her shoulders as he ushered her to the hearth. Sitting, she wrapped the blanket around her, giving him a slight smile as she pulled her knees to her chest. "I'll go and get your tea."
“Thanks…” she whispered again, listening to his light footsteps retreating into the kitchen. There was then the faint bustle of him finding the proper supplies to make the cup of tea that mixed with the melodious fall of heavy raindrops against the roof, which enhanced the pleasure of sitting by a crackling fire. Adjusting the thick blanket over her shoulders to shroud herself in comfort, she continued to focus her gaze on the fire, not wanting to let her eyes wander. She was nervous beyond all belief, because not only was Austin missing, but she was in the presence of a man who had called her ‘beautiful’ without expecting anything in return. It was hard to think of him as the shallow brute Austin described when he treated her like this. And, unable to help herself, she brought the soft sleeve to her face, inhaling the soft scent of his spicy cologne mixed with his own musky fragrance. It enchanted her.
A few moments passed, and then he returned, a steaming mug in each hand. "Honey alright?" he asked, sitting in front of her, extending a mug. She accepted it with a slight nod, cupping the mug close to her chest, its soothing warmth moving through her chilled hands. Her eyes on him, she took a tentative sip, watching as he reached into the fire with a poker. She shivered when the wind gusted about the cozy cabin, and suddenly wondered what was keeping Austin. Was she still outside bickering?
Cheyanne, like a cheerful optimistic, spun her web of thoughts away from anything that would cause Austin harm. After all, she was with Howie’s good friend. A good friend that Austin seemed intrigued by, though she said otherwise. And, Austin was known to be incorrigible when it came to arguing; long winded, passionate, and alarmingly quick witted. There was no need to worry – Her thoughts quickly jumped away from Austin when she felt Howie’s hands on her shoulders, lightly adjusting the blanket that she was keeping close to her body. She jerked slightly in surprise, immediately covering the hot mug so the liquid didn’t spill. Glancing up into Howie’s dark eyes, she blushed terribly. Her mind sputtered for words, “Sorry, I didn’t…”
"It's okay," he whispered, his hands gentle on her shoulders.
Her heart hammered in her chest at his touch; it was all she could do to keep hold of the mug as his eyes looked through to her very soul. Her mouth fell into an "o" of surprise when one hand moved up, gently brushing the curls from her face. His touch was so gentle, so caring, it made her want to cry. The last time she'd been touched... No. She pushed the thought from her mind, letting herself relax under the warm hands of the man before her. His face drew nearer, and had she realized she was the one leaning in she would have been ashamed. His hands moved to cup her face, she could feel his breath against her lips.
The door banged open suddenly, causing them to leap apart guiltily. Face flaming, Cheyanne turned to face the fire, taking a hasty sip of her tea as Austin burst inside, dripping wet and lugging a backpack. Kevin was right behind her, soaking wet, his clothes splashed with mud, setting a damp suitcase on the floor.
“What took you so long?” Howie muttered, his voice dripping with a disappointed sarcasm as Cheyanne stood. He watched her set the cup of tea on the mantle before walking over to Austin to wrap the blanket around her shoulders. For once, the loud woman was quiet, calm, subdued, simply allowing Cheyanne to clear the streaks of dirt from her face.
“Had to get all the stuff sheltered,” Kevin mumbled, completely ignorant of any disdain dripping from Howie’s voice, shell shocked at what he had done just moments before, but far more impressed that he wanted to do it again.
"Did you fall in the mud?" Cheyanne asked worriedly, having seen the streaks of mud over her friend's clothes. She saw what, strangely, looked like a handprint on her neck, and raised a brow inquisitively. "Were you two fighting?" she whispered.
"I, uh... I tripped over something and fell," Austin said softly, pulling the blanket tighter around her. Though surely she didn't need its warmth now. "Is it okay if I take a shower?" she asked Howie, not daring to glance at Kevin.
"Follow me," Kevin said through gritted teeth, leading the way down the hall.
Cheyanne looked quite skeptical as she watched Kevin’s lumbering form disappearing into the hallway while Austin was hot on his heels. She couldn’t place exactly what had happened, but knew better than to just assume her friend tripped. The flushed hue on her friend’s somewhat pale face had been the first indication, not to mention her shifting coffee eyes. Naturally, Cheyanne furrowed her dark blonde brows with contemplation, biting on the corner of her bottom lip as she just continued to stare down the hallway, oblivious to Howie yet again.
“Kevin will make sure that Austin is taken care of,” Howie assured Cheyanne, attempting to bring her focus back on him. He couldn’t help but feel the overwhelming loss of the situation, knowing how close he had been to claiming her soft lips as his own. He wanted her so badly, but kept his decency composed as her gaze turned slightly. He noticed the way her dark sapphire eyes caught against the flames of the fire, licking against an untold tale of her heart that Howie would willingly listen to. He wanted to know everything about her, but resisted the urge to ask by offering her the mug of tea again.
“No thank you,” Cheyanne declined gently, the sleeves falling over her hands yet again. She felt a blush creep to her cheeks as Howie stepped forward to fix them for her, making her stand quite still. She held her breath for the longest moment, not really wanting to tempt fate again. She had been close to kissing him. So close. “…Sorry for causing all this fuss for you guys… We’ll go to town tomorrow and get another tent or something…”
"There's no need for that," he said softly, gently rolling the sleeves up. "We have more than enough room here. Couldn't you stay with us?" He was sure Kevin wouldn't like the idea, but it was done now. The offer had been given, and he held his breath as he waited for her response. "I'm sure the bed here is more comfortable than sleeping on the ground," he went on, looking into her eyes.
“The bed? Does that mean we’re all sleeping together like some gigantic slumber party?” Cheyanne mused, actually allowing some of the tension gripping her shy nature to loosen. She actually felt comfort near Howie, especially as he continued to play with the sleeves of the sweatshirt.
Grinning, Howie tugged lightly on the sleeves. "If you want to, honey," he teased, growing warm at the thought of sharing a bed with her. Her cheeks flushed delicately, her lips curving into a sweet smile. His heart skipped a beat, and he brushed his thumbs over the backs of her hands, giving her a wink.
Cheyanne actually giggled when he winked, finding him irresistible. She got a little flutter of emotion in the pit of her stomach when he called her ‘honey.’ So her giggle was sweet and high pitched, adorable to say the very least. “I doubt Austi would enjoy that… She gets kind of jealous if someone takes my attention away from her…”
"What Austi doesn't know..." Howie slid his hands over hers and felt his stomach dance when her fingers wrapped around his. "Say you'll stay, Cheyanne," he murmured, stepping closer. "I worry about you out there," he admitted.
“Howie…” Cheyanne trailed softly, feeling her sapphire eyes glistening with unshed tears. She immediately dropped her chin to stare at their intertwined hands, liking the way hers seemed to fit so perfectly into his. His words were simple, heartfelt. Words that Cheyanne had always longed to hear, but her thoughts were sidetracked when a large crash sounded from back the hallway. She jerked slightly in surprise when she heard a muffled moan mix with a whine of pleasure. And, it was all too clear as Cheyanne’s sapphire eyes widened in horror. She was speechless as she noticed Howie’s bemused grin. She had to stifle a laugh as she shook her head. “…I’ll…ask Austi if it’s okay when they’re done… Because, obviously, she’ll be too tired to say no…”