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Chapter 65 – I Still

Smoothing the light purple blanket over Cheyanne's bed, Kevin did one final look around the room to make sure everything was perfect for the new mother. The bassinet stood next to the bed so Olivia would be in easy reach for nighttime feedings, though Kevin was certain Austin would insist on keeping the baby in their room so Cheyanne could have her rest. Picking up the hamper, Kevin dropped it instantly as the door flew open, banging against the wall loudly as his cousin burst in. "Holy Hell, B… What's your problem?" he questioned with disgust, stooping to gather the dirty sheets.

“I need to talk to you before Cheyanne gets home,” Brian insisted, his face almost ashen with shock as he stumbled into the bedroom, flopping on the bed. Craning his neck, he glanced out the hallway to assure that Baylee was still coloring the ‘Welcome Home’ sign with Vivian. Assured that no one would overhear, he hurriedly glanced to Kevin. “It’s about Nick.”

"Well, make it quick. Princess called a few minutes ago and said they're about ten minutes away. Did he die?" Kevin asked coldly, shoving the sheets back into the hamper.

“He got arrested for a DUI...” Brian blurted hurriedly, almost afraid that if it wasn’t fast it wouldn’t come out at all.

Kevin dropped the hamper again. "Holy shit," he breathed, staring at Brian. "Are you shitting me? Is he that fucking stupid?"

“Why would I shit you on something like this? He was going somewhere to meet Aaron and got pulled over. Like it would take a genius to recognize when he’s drunk off his ass. He got thrown in the county jail for a few hours and then released… Aaron actually called because Nick is ‘fucked up,’ whatever the Hell that means to a seventeen year old… I thought you needed to know before it starts spreading like wildfire.”

Picking up the hamper once more, Kevin bit back a string of choice words about Nick. "Was anyone with him?" he asked carefully, heading down the hall to the kitchen to get the sheets in the washer.

“Not that I know of?” Brian answered with question in his voice, scrambling off the bed to follow his older cousin. “But he had a nice choice of substances in his back seat…”

"What kind of substances?" Heaving a weary sigh, Kevin threw the hamper on the floor in the kitchen. "If that little pissfucker was carrying drugs--"

“No, just alcohol.”

"I guess he was going to meet his underage brother and have a party?" Kevin grumbled, shaking his head. Glancing at Brian, he noted the worry in his cousin's face. "Look, Brian, what do you want me to do? We've known for years that this shit was coming…"

“I want you to fix it. That’s our little brother… I mean, God, you’re like a father to him… He wasn’t like this with Cheyanne--”

"Fix it? Brian, he's twenty-fucking-five years old! I can't go behind him mopping up his messes like he's a two year-old!"

“He needs--”

"To grow up. To learn not to drown his stupidity in a bottle. He needs the same thing AJ needed four years ago. Do you want me to go bust down Nick's door, too?"

“He’s different than AJ.”

"Yeah?" Slamming the lid of the washing machine down, Kevin shoved the empty hamper into his cousin's hands. "He's your best friend. You deal with it."

“Damnit, Kevin! He loved Cheyanne despite what you think!”

"Sure he loved her. That's why he just walked out on her without saying goodbye? And when asked why, he said he'd gotten 'tired of fucking around with her'? If he loved her so damned much, why'd he leave her?"

“Because he wants to be strong and act like it doesn’t hurt. He knows how much Howie loves her. He gave her up for Howie--”

"And when did you have this illuminating conversation with him, Brian? Before or after he got drunk?"

“I didn’t need to talk--”

"Fine, I'll talk to him, okay? Will that get you off my ass?" Kevin questioned, brushing past his cousin when he heard the car pull up outside. "And wipe that shitty glare off your face before you scare La-La."

“DADDY! MY ANGEL IS HOME!” Baylee shrieked with the utmost delight, grabbing the giant poster he had just barely finished. Hurrying as fast as he could, though the wind whipping against the poster deterred him slightly. But he persevered, yelling for Moth to hurry up as he attempted to fly down the steps.

"Watch out, little man," Vivian laughed, scooping him up to help him down the steps as Moth raced to the car. "Can't have you falling down, can we?" she murmured, giving him a gentle squeeze before setting him down so he could chase Moth. Glancing over her shoulder, she stepped aside when Kevin came outside, noting the tenseness of his jaw as he passed. When Brian appeared a moment later, looking surly and bewildered, she assumed they'd had a few words. "What happened?" she asked gently.

“I told him about Nick,” Brian murmured, rubbing his face vigorously as he watched Moth attempt to leap in the window of the front passenger door, though it was closed.

"And, judging from the snippets of your conversation in the kitchen, he wasn't too eager to help?" she guessed as Austin flung open the passenger door, scooping Moth into her arms.

“He’s never been eager to help Nick… Well, at least not when he started getting into trouble…” Brian sighed heavily, watching Moth yip happily within Austin’s arms, Cheyanne sliding carefully from the backseat with the handled car seat within her grasp. “I think I should head back to Florida tomorrow, see how Nick is doing, tell AJ about Cheyanne and everything. Maybe get stuff around for a baby shower… Something…”

Slipping her arms around his waist, Vivian squeezed him reassuringly. "I'll look into a nearby hotel for me and Bay… 'Cause you know he won't want to leave his Angel. And I can't impose on their hospitality now…" Resting her head against his chest briefly, she closed her eyes. "And I'll take care of the baby shower."

“You’re not going to get Baylee to leave the house now that Cheyanne’s here… So, you mine as well just come to Florida with me,” Brian teased softly, kissing the top of his lover’s head as he watched Howie jog over to Cheyanne to take the baby seat while Baylee squealed for attention. “Like you want to stay in this chaos.”

"It's not chaos, Bear… It's a family--you'd pawn your boy off on that poor woman for the rest of your break? She just had a baby!" Vivian chided with a sigh, shaking her head. "And you know I won't be any help in Florida. I'll be tempted to make him sleep with the fishes…"

“Kevin and Austin and Howie are here… Not to mention you’d be helping me in Florida…”

"And how would I be helping you in Florida?"

“You already know--”

“BRIAN! GET DOWN HERE AND GET SOME OF THE GIFTS!” Kevin bellowed loudly as he finished offering a few quick kisses to Austin’s lips, hushing up the yelping pup who just wanted Cheyanne. “I swear, he’s useless with a woman around.”

"Did you give Moth a bath like I asked you to?" Austin questioned, sniffling Moth's back. Wrinkling her nose, she shuddered. "Good God, Kevin! Apparently, you're useless without a woman around… Here, go give him a bath in our bathroom," she instructed, pushing the squirming puppy into his arms. "And be sure and use the small bottle of baby shampoo. And while you've got him in there, give his nails a clipping, I don't want him to scratch Ollie." Leaning into the open trunk, she pulled out two bags filled with stuffed animals as Kevin grumbled under his breath. "And don't let him out of the bathroom 'till he's completely dry."

“Excuse me, doesn’t this rat jump into the shower every time Cheyanne jumps into a shower? Lord knows she’s going to want one tonight, so let the little ankle biter take a bath with her and get clean,” Kevin suggested, attempting to set Moth onto the ground, though he watched Austin for any signs that he might be slaughtered.

"Kevin Scott Richardson, if you don't go wash that filthy mutt right now--"

“We can get you a matching collar and bell like Brian,” Cheyanne interrupted with a sweet smile, finding it absolutely hilarious that Kevin was being chastised so strongly. Her sapphire eyes sparked with impishness as she and Baylee walked to the trunk, offering to help with the packages since Howie had stolen Olivia’s car seat, insisting it was too heavy.

Austin watched Kevin march into the house, still grumbling under his breath. "Honestly, that man is such a…" Clearing her throat, she handed Cheyanne the camera bag, knowing it wasn't too heavy. When Baylee insisted on carrying something as well, she handed him Cheyanne's rolling suitcase, smiling when he trundled off towards the house, clutching Cheyanne's hand. Looking at Brian and Vivian, she smiled sweetly. "Is he that annoying, too?" she asked Vivian, jerking her thumb in Brian's direction as Vivian reached to get some floral arrangements.

“He doesn’t grumble as much… He’s just lost without instructions, unfortunately,” Vivian giggled, smiling towards Austin as she collected what she needed so no one would have to make a second trip. “He’s going to take a trip down to Florida and would like it if Baylee could stay here. I suggested that I take him and get a room in the town till he comes back. Meanwhile, I have to plan a baby shower for Cheyanne. Brian’s idea as well.”

"Pooper Scooper's always welcome," Austin assured them as they headed into the house. "Why are you going to Florida?"

“I need to drag AJ’s butt out here, right?” Brian chuckled, holding the door so both women could go in first.

Austin cast him a suspicious glance. "AJ?" she questioned, one brow cocked as she set everything down beside the couch. Judging from the thumps heard down the hallway, she assured herself that Moth was getting his bath. Stepping across the living room, she glanced to make sure Cheyanne was in her room, smiling slightly when she saw Baylee proudly showing off his banner as he snuggled close to her side. "Why does Skinny need to come?" she asked Brian.

“Because he’s part of this family, too?” Brian questioned, hating that Austin was so inquisitive. It made it so hard, knowing that she would have a fit over Nick. So, he reached to grasp Howie as he walked out the hallway. “Where’s the little bundle of joy?”

"Asleep in her bassinet…" Howie trailed, glancing over his shoulder as Brian rushed down the hallway. "Don't wake her up!" he called softly before turning back to Austin. "Honey wants Disney movies," he informed her with a grin as he moved to the entertainment center. Grabbing a handful of DVDs off the shelf, he thumbed through them, nodding to himself. "And she asked for some juice, do you think you can handle that while I get a movie in for her?"

“Oh, City Boy, it’ll be such a tribulation to get her apple juice, which I’ve been doing ever since she was forced into bed rest. How might I manage without you?” Austin quipped sarcastically as she fixed the flowers on the nearby side table, willing herself not to look at the flower bouquet Nick had sent Cheyanne before the concert. “…What do you plan on doing today?”

Howie glanced at her as he headed for the hall. "I take it you have something in mind for me to do, so whatever I have already planned is no longer important…"

“Actually, I was just naturally curious as to what you’d be doing…”

"Nothing, really… Just making sure Honey's got all she needs…"

“I noticed you put your name on the birth certificate as father…”

"Yeah?"

“So… Dorough, I hate that you make me spell this shit out - What’s happening between you and Chey-Chey?”

"We're just friends…" Howie trailed softly, meeting her eyes. "Taking things slow… Why?"

“Because I wanted to know,” Austin stated as matter of fact, folding her arms across her chest. “Taking things slow to where?”

"To wherever… I can't predict the future, Austin."

“But you know where you want to go.”

"Yes, I do. But that doesn't mean I'm going to push it."

“Well, maybe she needs to know, too?”

"She knows."

Austin nodded, though she assumed otherwise. “I’ll get her juice and bring it in.”

"That's it? You don't want me to pee on a stick?" Howie questioned with sarcasm, turning to head down the hall.

“He is so lucky that my Chey-Chey still loves him,” Austin growled, resisting the urge to chuck a vase down the hallway to teach him a very well deserved lesson. There was always time to do so, especially when it came to Howie.

*~*~*


Howie jerked in shock at the soft sounds of whimpers floating down the dark hallway leading to Cheyanne’s bedroom. Turning on the uncomfortable loveseat which he was forsaken to, he hurriedly rubbed his eyes to orient himself. Sitting up, he glanced toward the pull out couch, noting that Vivian, Brian, and Baylee were cuddled sweetly within the middle, Baylee’s legs splayed on Vivian as his head and arms rested over Brian. It was a shock to see Baylee in bed with Brian, but remembered that the father had snatched Baylee away from Cheyanne’s bed when he had fallen asleep, wanting Cheyanne to have plenty of opportunity to rest. Though, as Olivia’s whimpers turned in soft, frustrated wails, Howie knew Cheyanne wouldn’t be sleeping through the night. Roused completely, he leaned over the back of the loveseat, waiting to hear Cheyanne’s soft shuffling to take care of her daughter. Maybe he could go check on her to make sure she had something to drink while she nursed? Would that offend her?

Rolling off the loveseat, he shuffled down the hall, wincing as Olivia's cries grew louder. How in the world was anyone able to sleep through that? Pushing the bedroom door open, he saw Cheyanne curled on her side, the blankets pulled over her head. Stepping around to the bassinet, he lifted the crying Olivia into his arms. "Shh… Daddy's got you," he whispered, patting her back gently as her mouth rooted against him. "Daddy's going to take care of you…"

Olivia squeezed her large sapphire eyes shut as she grasped at Howie’s baggy t-shirt, loud hiccups racking her tiny body with the furious cries of hunger. She anxious tried to find some source of food as Howie backed toward the door to shut it, not wanting to disturb anyone else. Especially Austin. She was grumpy enough. Though, his mind focused on Olivia as he bounced her softly, patting her diapered behind in attempts to soothe her. She was hungry and Cheyanne seemed far too exhausted to hear. Not that Howie blamed her. She was still slowly healing. But what to do?

As Olivia's cries increased, Howie made up his mind. Taking a deep breath, he stepped up to the bed, cradling Olivia close as he gently pulled down the blanket. "Honey…" he whispered softly, knowing the pain medicine she'd taken earlier was the reason for her deep slumber. Closing his eyes, he adjusted her nursing top up over her breast before sitting down next to her. "This better work," he whispered to Olivia before lying her down between them, holding his breath as Olivia latched onto her source of nutrition.

Only by the grace of God, or so Howie believed, had Olivia’s cries instantly halted. She hadn’t been a hard baby that was difficult to latch onto the breast. In fact, Olivia seemed to be the exact opposite. In fact, she wasted no time greedily sucking at her mother’s nipple, drawing a sweet source of milk. A few hiccups happened in between her long sucks, but she was pleased with the result. Slowly, her tiny body relaxed with gratification, splaying a tiny hand against her mother’s warm breast as she glanced up toward her father with thanks.

"Thank God," Howie breathed, holding a hand to her back as she noisily sucked.

The sound of Howie’s noisy thanks to God combined with the tugging of Olivia’s mouth at her nipple seemed to rouse the young mother from her heavy slumber. Her large sapphire eyes fluttered within the darkness as the sheet of darkness seemed to be lifted. Shifting slightly with a small yawn, complimented by her characteristic yip, Cheyanne allowed her eyes to open fully. It took a moment to adjust to the darkness, feeling Olivia’s tiny hand hold tight to her breast. Glancing down, she smiled softly at her hungry infant, wondering how she could have possibly slept through her cries. Tilting her gaze upward, fully prepared to apologize to what might be an upset Austin, she found herself shell shocked when she met Howie’s dark eyes. “Howie? What the…”

"You didn't wake up… She was crying really bad… I'm sorry," Howie said quickly, averting his gaze from her bare chest.

“Guess I won’t be taking that pain medication anymore,” Cheyanne breathed as broke Olivia’s hold on her breast. Immediately, Olivia wrinkled her nose with displeasure, preparing to cry out. But, Cheyanne brought her into her arms, helping her to take the breast once more. Continuing to suck greedily, Olivia relaxed against her mother, holding the breast once more as she snuggled close. Smiling softly, Cheyanne reached to bring her blankets up around her, frowning slightly at the snag. She glanced over to see Howie continued to stare at the wall. His cheeks were cherry red with morbid embarrassment. “Howie, it’s okay… It’s not like you haven’t seen them before… I’m sorry she woke you up, though.”

"No, it's okay…" Keeping his gaze away from her chest, Howie slid off the bed and helped her pull the blankets up. "…Want some juice?"

“No… Pepsi with crushed ice would be fantastic, though,” Cheyanne suggested with a small smile, hoping she could get him to smile as well. Though, it seemed as if he wouldn’t be looking at her for the next fifty years. “…Then you can go back to bed.”

"If it's alright with you, I'll stay… That way if you fall asleep I can put Cinnamon back in the bassinet," Howie murmured as he made his way to the door.

“And cover up my boobs, too?”

"Honey…"

“Howie,” Cheyanne laughed softly, squirming amongst the pillows slightly to get comfortable as Olivia continued to feed hungrily. “I was just teasing… Smiling ain’t a crime, y’know. Ain’t like I’m dying or something. I’m just healing.”

"I know… But it's not like every healing woman I've ever seen is as gorgeous as you," Howie murmured under his breath as he headed down the hall.

“He’s always been cranky in the middle of the night,” Cheyanne told her daughter, only hearing the beginning portion of Howie’s statement before disappearing. Sighing, she gently curled a finger within Olivia’s honey curls, musing that she couldn’t wait as the hair started to grow. It would be enjoyable to play with her daughter’s hair, much like Austin played with hers. There was so much that Cheyanne longed to do with her daughter. Though, now, she was just content with holding her and watching her. The faces Olivia made were adorable. At some points, she almost reminded Cheyanne of Nick, but wouldn’t admit to that. Already leaving one muffled message on his cell phone when she got home to discover everything of his had vanished. “We’re going to have to work out a system where you only wake me up, Ollie… Like a Momma-tug-a-bell-breast or something…”

Howie was back in a matter of moments, setting the glass of Pepsi within reach. "Do you want me to turn on a light or anything?" he asked softly, training his gaze on Cheyanne's face.

“If you want to turn on that lamp to its lowest brightness, that’d be fine. I don’t want my eyes to burn out or upset Ollie right now,” Cheyanne volunteered, reaching to take a small sip of her Pepsi as Howie did as requested. It was almost as if a candle were illuminating the room. A soft lighting that Cheyanne enjoyed, though she half considered just pulling off her shirt when Howie stood in the corner of the room, doing everything in his power not to look at her.

Stepping over to the crib, Howie surveyed the stuffed animals perched inside, smiling slightly when he saw the 'Welcome Home' sign tacked to the wall above it. "I think Cinnamon's going to need a room just for her toys," he mused thoughtfully, glancing over his shoulder to see Cheyanne switching breasts. Quickly turning away, he winced when his neck cramped.

“I’ll agree with you on that,” Cheyanne answered with a small smile. “Kevvy’ll have to build her a special play cottage in the backyard when we move to Kentucky…”

"You're moving to Kentucky?!" Howie questioned with shock, whirling around to face her.

Cheyanne winced slightly at the elevation in his voice that caused a faint shriek, feeling Olivia shiver with displeasure at the same noise. But, neither mother nor daughter openly expressed their disapproval, Cheyanne just glancing up to Howie. “Yeah… When Kevvy and Austi get married; they want to move closer to his mother. But, Austi doesn’t want me staying in North Carolina. Kevvy asked if I’d move with them… I agreed… I mean, Momma lives in Pennsylvania now... Kentucky is beautiful… Oh, and if you can’t stand to look at me, you could always write a note to Ollie on the belly mold to keep yourself occupied.”

"I can stand to look at you…"

“You still need to write Ollie a message.”

"Can I make a request, first?" he asked softly, lifting the mold off the shelf. Snatching up a marker, he settled at the foot of the bed, gazing at her.

“What request?”

"Could you call her Cinnamon?"

“Why?” Cheyanne questioned softly, being the first to break the gaze this time so she could look after Olivia. The infant was still feeding, watching her mother with a genuine curiosity that was indeed inherited.

"Because… That was the nickname you'd picked out…" Howie trailed softly, fiddling with the cap of the marker as he glanced down at the messages.

“For us to use together…” Cheyanne finished for him, gently brushing her fingertips down the side of her daughter’s face. “I can call her Cinnamon.”

"…Do you think you could start calling me Tea again? Even if it's just once in a while, when we're alone?" Howie murmured, finally starting his message. "'Cause I know Austin would probably fling a fit…"

“If you want me to call you Tea, I can do that,” Cheyanne agreed, not really caring at this point about what fusses Austin might have. They seemed so trivial considering what she had been through. Considering how drastically her life had changed with the small bundle in her arms. The bundle she would die for.

Nodding, Howie finished his message, the silence touched occasionally Olivia's soft sucking. Once finished, he recapped the pen and set the mold aside, tracing the outline of Olivia's foot with his finger. Immediately the memory of his actions flooded over him, and he felt so ashamed for having treated her so rudely. She had been so excited over everything, and he had pushed her away. "I'm so sorry, Honey…"

“Sorry? What are you sorry for? I already said it wasn’t a problem that you helped Olivia get a drink. I mean, I’m thankful you heard her--”

"No, not for that… Well, for that too, but… For everything I did before. The things I didn't do… Pushing you away when you needed me most…"

“Tea, it’s okay,” Cheyanne told him softly, glancing up from Olivia when her sucking started to slow and her eyes began to droop occasionally, though she fought to keep an eye on her mother. But, Cheyanne found herself drowning within Howie’s dark eyes once more, even if he seemed to be a great deal of distance away. “It’s in the past… I mean, you’ve done so much since Cinnamon was born… Trust me, I’m more thankful for that than anything.”

"Do you…" Sighing, Howie slid off the bed to replace the mold, clearing his throat. He loved the woman so much, yet he was so uncomfortable, as though he kept waiting for himself to slip up and ruin everything. "Would you mind if I stayed with you and Cinnamon tonight? Just to snuggle… I miss snuggling with you, Honey…"

“I’d like you to stay,” Cheyanne quickly agreed, no sound of hesitation reminiscing within her voice as she reached to lift the covers. “But, I miss you. Not just the snuggling.”

"I miss you too…" Sliding into bed beside her, Howie turned to his side to face her. "More than anything…"

“Y’know when you said you loved me at the hospital?” Cheyanne questioned softly, easing the slumbering infant away from her breast. Turning carefully, she tucked Olivia into the bassinet that was set close to the bed, making it easy for Cheyanne to reach the infant as well as made it safe to sleep with the infant, in essence. Once the infant was comfortable and tucked in with a single blanket, Cheyanne recovered her breasts and turned to Howie.

"Yes…" Reaching for her hand, Howie laced their fingers together, reaching with his free hand to flip out the light. "What about it?" he murmured.

“I never got a chance to tell you…” Cheyanne trailed as she slipped back beneath her covers, adjusting the pillows underneath her neck. Timidly, she brought their fingers to her lips, making sure to kiss his fingertips. It was risky, allowing Howie to have her heart once more. But Nick had emphasized that he wanted Howie taking care of her, that he wanted no part of her anymore. So, she needed to believe in something. That Howie really was the one. That Nick had been the one to show her that. “…I love you, too, Tea.”

"Honey," Howie breathed, leaning close to kiss her cheek. Blinking back tears, he allowed himself to breathe in her soft scent before resting his head on the pillow next to hers.

“I mean it… I’ve always loved you… Even when… I’ve always loved you, my Sweet Tea…”

"I've always loved you too," he whispered, wrapping his arms loosely around her. Tucking the blanket around them, he drew her closer, breathing a soft sigh of relief when her head rested against his chest. "And I always will…"

“You can’t let me go again, Tea… My heart can’t take if you leave me again--”

"I'll never leave you… I promise… When… When we go back on tour, I want you and Cinnamon to come with us."

“But you’re so busy… And you were so upset on tour… You don’t need us--”

"I do need you, Honey. Both of you. Not having you made me realize just how much I needed you." Lightly kissing the top of her head, Howie closed his eyes. "Just think on it, Honey… Now get some sleep, Cinnamon's going to be waking up in about three hours…"

“Can’t you just get up and put her on my breast again?” Cheyanne whined playfully, snuggling close to Howie’s body. Resting her head against his chest, she could hear the faint beat of his heart and smiled softly as she wrapped a leg around his.

"If you want me to…"

Cheyanne muffled a soft yawn, “Your heart is pounding…”

"It always does when you're near…" Howie murmured sleepily.

“Just…If I don’t hear her… Wake me up… Don’t want you turning into a cherry ‘cause you’re so red…”

"Okay… Even though I liked playing with your boob…"

“You didn’t even touch it, you liar.”

"I thought you were asleep?"

“I was, but I knew you did the bare minimum to get Cinnamon to eat by the look on your face. You would have thought a nun flashed you.”

"Honey… Go to sleep…"
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