“I want an honest answer out of you for once in your life, Nick,” Kevin announced loudly as he climbed onto the van that would transport them back to the hotel for the evening, immediately spotting the youngest sitting in the far back. Surprisingly, he had taken a shower at the arena and was already somewhat nicely dressed in a pair of dark tan cargo pants, a dark blue muscle tank, and a jean jacket. He looked as if he were going out, which immediately sent warning flares in Kevin’s mind. Weaving past AJ who was talking excitedly to Howie, Kevin slumped into the seat beside Nick, keeping a firm gaze set on the young man. “You knew they were coming, didn’t you? And don’t play stupid. You knew that Austin and Cheyanne were coming to this concert and didn’t tell us a word.”
“Actually…” Nick trailed, leaning away from Kevin’s threatening posture. “I told Brian--”
“Don’t you get me involved!” Brian warned as he made sure to buckle Baylee into his car seat while balancing his phone to his ear.
“You are such a shithead,” AJ cackled as he turned in his seat, ignoring Howie’s slumped posture.
“I am not. I did good for once,” Nick defended with a scowl, glancing back to Kevin. “Austin’s birthday’s coming up…” Nick noticed Kevin give him a ‘no shit’ glance and he hurriedly continued, “And Chey was talking about how much she knew Austin was going to miss you. So, I managed to score them some tickets. They drove down here and I even managed to get them in our hotel, knowing that you’d want to see Austin immediately afterwards. I was just doing you a favor, Kev, honest--”
“You mean yourself a favor,” AJ interjected. “’Cause with Austin out of the way, Little Nicky gets a free play date with Little Chey.”
"Goddamnit, AJ would you please butt out of it?" Nick grumbled, leaning further away from Kevin. "It was supposed to be a fucking surprise."
"Surprise! Daddy, My Angel here?!"
“You were supposed to be sleeping,” Brian sighed ruefully toward his son after murmuring a soft goodbye to the infamous Vivian. He turned so he could run his hand through Baylee’s light blonde locks, wishing that Baylee hadn’t heard just yet that Cheyanne was visiting. There would be no peace until Baylee saw Cheyanne, though Brian figured there would still be no peace with the way Howie’s body tensed in the front seat.
Baylee heaved an elaborate sigh. "You was talkin' funny on the phone, and then dey started makin' noise…" Trailing off into a yawn, he rubbed his eyes sleepily. "We go see My Angel 'fore you go see Snookums?" he questioned hopefully, even as his head began to droop with the gentle motion of the van leaving the arena.
"Snookums?!" AJ and Kevin repeated in horror, staring at Brian with wide-eyed shock.
“None of your business,” Brian answered, stiffening his posture to show that he wasn’t going to budge on the issue. Though, he softened when he leaned to place several kisses on the top of Baylee’s head. “We can’t go see your Angel tonight, Scooper. It’s way past your bedtime and I think she has plans with Nick--”
"She what?!" Now Kevin and AJ turned to stare at Nick, who shrank back under their glares.
"God forbid she actually come spend time with her fiancé," Howie muttered bitterly from his seat.
“So that’s what you are to her this weekend?” Nick spat, though he was still shriveled beneath Kevin and AJ. He knew he probably should have held his tongue, but he was disgusted with the way Howie had been treating Cheyanne. Nick had dealt with the pain first hand. He was the one that had kissed away the tears Howie had caused. And he was not going to be put to shame for it.
"What the Hell is that supposed to mean?" Howie countered, turning to glare at Nick. "I've been her fiancé since she left New York!"
“Ain’t that a fucking surprise! The way you were acting someone would think she was just your damn concubine,” Nick exclaimed with a heavy air of sarcasm, his dark ocean eyes blazing with disgust.
"Daddy, what's a concubine?" Baylee murmured.
"Listen here, you little fucker--"
“No! You listen!” Nick exploded as he sat up in his seat, throwing a disgusted finger toward Howie. “You are nothing but a pompous asshole who takes for granted what she’s giving you! She loves you with all her heart and all you can do is treat her like fucking dirt. I went to North Carolina to cheer her up and I don’t even think I could begin to fix all the hurt you’re causing her! Just mentioning your name brings tears to her eyes! She told me that you don’t love her anymore! How fucking far can a man stoop to make his supposed fiancée feel like she’s not loved anymore?! It’s not like she’s needy! God, she’s more supportive of your career than your family! She wouldn’t care if you just called once a day as long as you made the effort! You don’t deserve someone like that! She’s so beautiful and you’re just crushing her! You selfish bastard!”
"How many fucking times do I have to tell you?! I've been busy! I've been working twenty-four fucking hours a day to get our honeymoon and house planned!"
"Maybe she doesn't want that, D," Brian put in gently, leaning back when Howie made a threatening gesture. "Has it ever occurred to you that all she really wants is you?"
“My Angel love Uncle Howie,” Baylee interjected, obviously wanting to help his father in the discussion. “More d’en she even loves her’s Darlin’! But… I working on fixing d’at.”
"Well, I can guaran-fucking-tee you, I love her more than Howie," Nick declared calmly, leaning back in his seat.
AJ, Kevin, and Brian all sucked in hard breaths of shock, feeling the air intensifying with an electrifying anger while the van eased into the back parking lot of the hotel.
"Daddy? Nicky tol' us dat he loves My Angel, 'member?"
“Scooper, now is not the time,” Brian hissed, hurriedly unbuckling his son and tugging him from the car seat before practically rolling out of the van, following the nearest bodyguard inside. He didn’t want to be witness to any murder that was for sure, especially as Howie and Nick just matched fierce glares.
"…What did you say?" Howie asked carefully.
"Good God," AJ breathed, torn between hauling ass as Brian had done or staying to watch the outcome.
"Y'know what, Howie? I'm sick of your bullshit. I've got plans," Nick announced with a casual wave of his hand before climbing past Kevin to get out of the van. Turning to Kevin, he gave him a secretive smile. "Austi's in room eight-sixty-two," he murmured before following Brian inside.
“Thanks…” Kevin answered as he watched Nick stuff his hands into his pockets, whistling happily as he entered the lush building. As if he had no care in the world. Glancing to AJ, he watched the man study Howie for a moment before crawling out of the van. Howie seemed broken, slumping in his seat as he punched the back of the passenger’s seat. “…I told you from the beginning that Cheyanne didn’t want all that fancy shit. She just wanted you. She fell in love with you at the cabin, not what accessories you had. And, Nick’s right in some kind of way. You broke her, Howie, no matter how good your intentions were. You’ve got no one to blame for this mess but yourself.”
"…I know…" Howie murmured miserably. "I just… I think I could handle losing her this way if it was to anyone else, you know? But, God… What if when she leaves me she falls into Nick's arms?"
“If you think you can handle losing her, then you don’t deserve her at all,” Kevin mumbled, knowing Cheyanne deserved a man who couldn’t possibly live a moment without basking in the sweetness of her sunshine.
"Just go, Kevin… Go find Austin, 'cause I know you'll find her company more enjoyable than mine."
“The truth hurts, D,” Kevin answered plainly, climbing from the van. He turned to go inside, but hesitated, ducking backward. “And it’s going to keep on hurting you.”
After stewing in the van, Howie had been forced to go inside by Drew, who gently informed him that he had a phone date with Josephine. Well, break out the champagne, Howie thought bitterly as he slumped against the elevator wall. Couldn't the man see he was breaking inside? It was as though the bodyguard constantly rubbed it in that he had a healthy, growing relationship with the single mother.
"Yeah, I'm sure glad Chey hooked us up," Drew mused as the elevator stopped on the top floor.
Howie flung himself into the hall, not wanting to hear the name of the woman he loved so desperately. Stepping into the suite, he saw AJ in the living room, nervously drumming his fingers on his knees. He opened his mouth to speak, but Howie immediately shook his head. "I don't want to hear it, J."
"No," Howie stated firmly, dragging himself down the hallway. His door was open, and for a moment he thought he'd left it open, but clearly remembered shutting it before leaving for the concert. Stepping inside, he glanced around, his breath immediately catching in his throat. Before he could stop himself, the words exploded from his mouth. "What the Hell are you doing here?!"
Cheyanne flinched at the harsh tones that spewed from his mouth, though she immediately scolded herself for thinking he might at least he somewhat happy to see her. After all, she remembered how cold he had sounded on the phone when she had last spoken to him. The callousness of his persona immediately sent Cheyanne into a high state of alert as she pushed herself off his bed. Pushing the stray golden ringlets that had fallen into her face, she then immediately clasped her hands behind her back, twisting the engagement ring on her finger. Her skin was pale with a nervous air as she actually took a step away from him, though she really wanted to curl into his arms. When she had returned to the hotel, Austin and Jeff had taken to wrangling the inebriated Billy into the spare room, and Cheyanne knew what she had to do. She had gone so long without seeing him. So, making sure her clothes were still presentable and adding the finest touch of gloss to her lips, she went to the upstairs floor, knowing she had to speak with him. “I wanted to… AJ saw me waiting at the door and…”
"Apparently he showed you into the wrong room… Nicky's room is down the hall," Howie informed her, his heart pounding in his chest. Longing to pull her into his arms, but knowing it was probably too late.
“I wanted to see you,” Cheyanne answered, her voice docile as she willed the tears not to form at the ice over Howie’s heart. She felt Olivia writhe uncomfortably within her, obviously picking up on Howie’s hatred, too. It was so uncomfortable. Cheyanne felt as if she were suffocating again and she knew she was to blame. Maybe she should have tried calling him more. Maybe she shouldn’t have been overly needy. Or overly judgmental. “…I missed you.”
"So much that you went off to a bed and breakfast with Nick? Funny… Whenever I wanted to take you anywhere, you couldn't go. But apparently, all he has to do is flash a smile and any woman within ten miles will do his bidding…" Raking a hand through his hair, Howie released a pained sigh. "Why didn't you call and tell me you were coming tonight?"
“It was a surprise for Austi’s birthday and she wanted it to be a surprise for Kevin. So, Nick--” Cheyanne forced herself to use Nick’s proper nickname, “made all the plans for us and promised to keep it a big secret… Besides… I tried calling you so many times, but you wouldn’t pick up… Maybe your battery was dead or something…”
Howie was silent for a moment, his eyes on the plush carpet. "Are you sleeping with him?" he questioned suddenly. Not wanting to know, but needing to.
Cheyanne held her breath at Howie’s blunt question as she folded her arms across her cramping abdomen. She had never expected that to come up within their conversation. In fact, she hadn’t really planned to say much of anything. Seeing all the women at the concert had given Cheyanne a hard shove into reality. The women that screamed his name were beautiful and intriguing, without any baggage in their lives. They would drop everything in a mere moment to be with him. She honestly wasn’t part of his life. She had only been there to heal his hurt at the cabin. To have that small piece of him. As if she were his nurse instead of a lover. But, like most patients, he didn’t need her anymore. She was struggling to hold onto something he didn’t want. She could have told him the truth at that moment, but she couldn’t break his heart. “Nick has nothing to do with us…”
"Do you love him?"
“I love you.”
"Then why…" His voice fading into a sigh, Howie shook his head. "Just go."
“Just go?” Cheyanne repeated with a hurt disbelief, feeling as if a thick stake had just punctured her heart. She felt Olivia kick her hard in the abdomen, causing her to hold her breath. It almost felt as if she were dying.
"Go… If you stay, I'll say something I'll regret later…"
“What could you possibly say that you’d regret later?”
"So many things. Just go. I'll… I'll call you and we can work this out."
Cheyanne stepped toward Howie in the off chance that something would kindle, but he took a step back. She visibly winced at the dismissal, curving her arms protectively against her chest as if to protect her heart. She couldn’t go on hurting like this. Austin had said that when they arrived back at the hotel. Howie hadn’t even made a point to find her during the concert. He didn’t care anymore. And she had to ask. “Do you love me?”
Cheyanne nodded when he couldn’t even finish his sentence, the tears breaking against her murky sapphire eyes. She pinched her lips together in a thin line to keep the sob from breaking in her throat. She couldn’t even bear to look into his dark chocolate eyes, knowing her heart would stop beating at that very moment. She moved for the open door, though she feared her legs wouldn’t support her for much longer as her body trembled. “It’s okay, Howie… I already knew the answer…”
“It’s okay,” Cheyanne interrupted, shrugging her shoulder when she felt his hand scald her. “You don’t have to bother calling me to work things out. Just… Enjoy your tour. You were really great tonight and… I’ll… I’ll just go…”
Jerking his hand back, Howie watched her slowly walk from his room, felt his heart break again when she didn't give him a parting glance. Opening his mouth to call her back, he gripped the doorknob when he heard Nick laughing from the direction of Brian's room.
AJ glanced up from his magazine when he saw Cheyanne moving toward the door for the hallway. He offered a lazy smile as though she had seen him, but then he noticed the heavy tears falling from her beautiful eyes. Immediately, AJ sobered as he glanced back to Howie, watching Cheyanne even ignore the sound of Nick’s laughter a few doors away. “Chey--”
But she didn’t bother to stop, completely ignorant to the sounds around her. She could only hear her heart shattering from inside. She had figured all along that Howie didn’t love her, but it pained to hear the words aloud. She clawed at her throat as she fumbled briefly with the door before just walking out. She struggled for a breath when she reached the hallway, hurriedly pressing the button for the elevator. She needed to get out. She needed air. Now.
"Chey!" Nick cried, rushing towards the elevator. If she heard him, she showed no signs, stepping onto the elevator without a glance in his direction. When the doors slid shut, he muttered a string of curses, hurrying towards the stairs. He should have known she would go see Howie. Realizing he was nine floors from the lobby, he hit the stairs at a breakneck speed, not stopping until he reached the lobby. Bursting out, he saw Cheyanne already stepping off the elevator, angrily wiping tears from her face. "Sweetheart!"
Cheyanne consciously decided not to hear Nick’s callings, tucking her arms against her chest as she weaved through a small bustle of people. Her eyesight was blurred by the continuous rush of tears as she tucked her chin to her chest, pushing on the lobby doors with a shaky hand to streak into the night. The cool summer winds whipped around her, but she didn’t care as she moved down the somewhat dark streets. She hadn’t even bothered getting in touch with Austin. Hell, she didn’t even know where she was going. She just wanted to leave. To get as far away from Howie as physically possible. To forget the pain he had caused her over the past several weeks.
A hand gently caught her arm, pulling her back onto the sidewalk when she made to cross the street. Whirling around, her other arm flung out in defense, only to be caught by the wrist. Looking up, she sobbed when she realized it was Nick.
"Sweetheart… You're not leaving without me," he murmured softly just before she collapsed into his arms.