"I can't believe you agreed to meet a fan!"
Luca cast his sister a look of disapproval, folding his arms across his chest. "What about everything Rory said about safety, huh? You don't know a thing about this guy, what makes you think you're safe with him?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Luca, relax." Stefana rolled her eyes, taking a drag on her cigarette and blowing a cloud of smoke in his direction. "I'm fine, I can handle him. I'm not a baby any more, you know...and it's no big deal. He's just a guy."
"It only takes one guy with a warped psyche." The disapproving tone slipped out of Luca's voice as he eyed his sister keenly. "I'm just worried about you, Stef. You're my kid sister, you mean the world to me. I don't want anything to happen to you."
Stefana paused, staring at her brother in surprise at the sincerity of his words. Then she shrugged.
"Well, don't. There's nothing to worry about." She said flippantly, flicking ash into the tray that the coffee shop they were in had provided. "I can handle myself around guys. Don't you remember the bruising I gave that guy at your college grad party? The one who thought it'd be fun to make the move on me? I'm not some sweet little rock chickette like those Jewel morons are. I can deal with unwanted attention. In any case, he's not a risk." She pulled a face. "He's a gentleman."
"How can you be so sure?" Luca pressed. "You never know with these people, Steffi. The fact he got hold of your address is bad enough!"
"Because, lamebrain, I know!" Stefana flared back. "I spent yesterday evening with him, all right? We were alone in his car and alone in the park and he didn't lay a finger on me, except to kiss me goodnight- on the cheek! He might be a wuss but he's not a psycho...he's not going to attack me!"
"Well, I hope you're right. Remember what happened to Blade." He remarked. Stefana rolled her eyes.
"If you weren't so busy sleeping with Sirena and letting her walk all over you with baby sitting duties, you wouldn't give a damn about Blade." She retorted. "Give it up, Luca. I'm fine, I can deal with it. He's a bore anyhow, I probably won't be seeing him for long."
"Why see him at all, if he's that boring?"
"I dunno. Something to do - gives a little spice to the image." Stefana shrugged nonchalantly. "You know that our public profile's kinda down at the moment, well, I wanted to give it a bit of a talking point. Make a few people jealous. Besides, it's good publicity to be so hands on with our fans."
"Yeah, well, don't get too hands on." Luca warned her. "All right?"
"Honestly." Stefana rolled her eyes again. "Luca, I'm not a slut. I'm not gonna sleep with any guy who asks me, okay? And this one is definitely not my type! Why don't you go and hassle Sirena, and play Daddy with that brat of hers? I don't need it, and he sure does, considering the lousy genes he's been landed with!"
"Mike's not a brat, and he can't help who his father was." Luca chided.
"I didnt just mean his father." Stefana replied sweetly, getting to her feet and putting out her cigarette. Before Luca could stop her she was gone, leaving him with a frown on his face. Even though her direct interference in his relationship with Sirena had been stopped, it was clear she still felt as bitter and angry about it as before.
"I only hope she knows what she's doing with this guy." He murmured to himself. "She might think she's safe with him, but who knows what he really wants from her? And even if he is on the level, well, things can happen. I don't want her running to big brother again begging for help to fix her 'little mistake'. I've been down that road."
He sighed. In truth, though he loved his sister to death, he knew that she had definite personality issues. Though her substance abuse had passed by his notice, her wild behaviour had not, and he often feared for the kind of trouble she would get herself involved in. Talented though she was, his initial decision to allow her to join the group and to come with them to Los Angeles in the first place had been so that he could keep a firm eye on her, and try and keep his word to his long dead father to look out for her.
It wasn't easy.
"Live fast, die young." He murmured, looking troubled. "I only hope that isn't gonna be Stef's epitaph."
He sighed, getting to his feet.
"Well, maybe I'll go do some research on this Jake Barren guy." He decided. "At least then maybe I'll know what he wants with my sister."
Oblivious to her brother's plans, Stefana had taken a drive out of town
to consider her next plan of action. The sabotage had gone perfectly, but
she was unsure as to the next step in her plan. After all, she did not
want Jake getting too suspicious too soon, and she knew that if she asked
him to take her back there again that night, he would start to wonder.
"He wasn't too suss on the phone earlier, mind you." She remembered, as she pulled into a layby, getting out of the car and heading into the little knot of woodland to find a cool place to think. "Pity Luca walked in on me and heard the tail end of that call - I'd have rather he didn't know about my new hobby. Ah well." She shrugged. "I'll probably be done with Jake soon, anyhow. He won't need to worry. I'm not Topaz or Sirena, I'm not gonna start sleeping with the first guy who offers and come on, he's wayy below my notice."
She settled herself on the grass, rummaging in her purse for the clear plastic bag which held her amphetamine tablets. Downing a dose with a gulp of mineral water, she set her mind to thinking. It had long since been her belief that the drug aided her thinking process, though in truth it only heightened her senses for the briefest of moments, and caused her poor body more harm than good. She no longer experienced the emphatic highs that had first made the drug such an attractive prospect, but her dependancy meant that she could not stop, even though her body was tired and often confused, and she suffered from bad fits of depression and paranoia.
A voice from behind her made her jump and she swung round, gazing at her companion with some surprise.
"Aaron!" She exclaimed, inwardly wondering how long he had been there and what he had seen. "What...what brings you here?"
"Copper and I were looking at houses." Aaron explained. "You?"
"Just came for a time out. Busy showbiz life and all that." Stefana struggled to get a grip on her senses, inwardly berating having taken the drug when he was so close at hand. Could he tell? Did he know?
"So where is your lovely fiancee? Or did you kill her and hide her body in the trees?"
The words were spoken lightly, in jest, but inwardly Stefana's devilish side wholeheartedly wished this could be a possibility. Aaron laughed, sitting down beside her.
"No, she had to hurry back to work. Practice or something. Everything's chaos at Misfit Music at the moment anyway."
"Oh?" Inwardly Stefana's heart constricted. She hated how out of control she always felt around him, that hollow knot of jealousy that clawed away at her and had made her cry herself to sleep more than once over the past months. She had always blamed it on the drug's crash, but it was more than that.
"Mm, someone broke in and sabotaged a bunch of stuff." Aaron frowned. "The world is full of wonky people, who knows what drives them on?"
"I...I see." Stefana's expression became stricken, and she fell silent. Aaron, interpreting her look as one of shock, rather than the guilt it really represented, nodded.
"Right." He agreed. "So Cynthia and I are being roped in as extra security for a few nights, hence my time free now. Copper and I decided to take advantage and go peek at a house I heard about. It's not right, though." He grinned. "It's fun, looking for houses and talking about setting a date and all that. Seems so real - I can't wait for us to be married. I can't imagine not being with her now."
Stefana didn't answer immediately, toying with the grass. Then she raised clouded green eyes to his.
"Some might say a long engagement can go stale." She said lightly. Aaron laughed.
"Mm, I've heard that too, but it doesn't seem to apply in our case." He replied. "We must be the exceptions who prove the rule."
"Hah." Stefana snorted, lighting up a cigarette. "I'm not into all that stuff. I don't want to be tied down - life's too short."
"You shouldn't smoke those things, you know." Aaron scolded gently. Stefana raised an eyebrow.
"They're bad for you."
"So?" Stefana demanded. "What do you care? It's my body, you know, I can do what I want with it."
"Yeah, I know, but just because life is short doesn't mean you should try and make it shorter." Aaron responded with a shrug. Stefana grinned, flicking ash on the ground.
"I had a friend in high school who used to say 'live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse." She said. "I don't see why anyone should not be able to do what they wanna do, if they enjoy it. I mean, it's true that life is short, but see, I could give up smoking tomorrow like a good girl, then be run over by a bus. Who knows what the future is gonna bring? I say live while you can!"
"You and Sadie speak the same language." Aaron sighed. "Fine, I give up. It's just that cancer is such a frightening thing - I don't see the point in tempting fate with it."
"Well, we see things different, I guess." Stefana shrugged. "I..." Anything else she might have said was lost as she took a sharp intake of breath, dropping the cigarette to the ground and putting her hand to her chest.
"Stef? What's up?" Aaron, instinctively knowing there was something wrong with his friend cast her a look of concern, putting a supportive arm around her shoulders. Her sudden pallor alarmed him, and it was a while before she was able to answer him.
"Something...I...I feel dizzy." She murmured, taking another deep breath in an attempt to calm her body down. Absently she was aware of Aaron reaching gently for her wrist to take her pulse, for her clawing at her chest had made him wonder if it could be the girl's heart at fault. He wasn't far wrong, for Stefana's poor abused heart was protesting loudly and beating erratically, causing the guitarist to feel lightheaded and sick.
Out of the corner of her eye she was aware of Aaron reaching for his phone and panic seared through her.
"What...what are you doing?" She demanded, grabbing for the phone and knocking it out of his grip. "I'm okay!"
"I was going to call an ambulance." Aaron told her firmly. "You're not okay, Steffi. Your heart is crazy!"
"I...I am." Stefana closed her eyes, re-ordering her thoughts as her pulse slowed to normal rate. "Really, Aaron, I am. It...it's over now. I promise."
"Hm." Aaron eyed her thoughtfully, but the colour had begun to return to her cheeks, and he reached for her discarded mineral water, handing it to her. "Here, drink some. It might help."
"Th...thanks." Still shaken, Stefana obeyed.
"Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes...I'm fine. I...I've just been working too hard, I guess."
"Have you ever felt like that before?" Aaron asked her gently. Stefana scowled.
"I'm fine, Aaron! F-I-N-E so stop fussing!" She exclaimed, immediately on the defensive. "I can handle myself, I'm all right! It's just one of those things, that's all!"
"Stef, answer the question, please?" Aaron's tone was beseeching and despite herself Stefana's heart won out. She sighed.
"Once...once or twice." She admitted slowly. "But they always go away, Aaron, and they don't last very long when they do come. I...I really can handle them."
"You should see a doctor." Aaron said decidedly. "It's not natural for your heart to do that, whatever you say about it. You can't be too independant, Steffi...not when your health is at risk."
"Well, I feel fine now. There's no point." Stefana said firmly.
"Do Luca and the others know about these attacks?"
"No." Stefana admitted. "I...I don't want to worry them. Besides," She paused, thinking fast. "Besides, I...I've seen a doctor, they...they put me on some pills to help it. I...I don't want anyone else to know, but I'm okay, I can cope. Please don't betray me...I don't want people fussing."
She gazed at him with big green eyes, willing him to believe her lies, for she knew only too well that a trip to the hospital might well expose the truth. Aaron sighed.
"You've sought medical advice?" He said at length. Stefana nodded.
"Yes." She lied quietly. "I've had these flutters since...since Mom kicked me out of home and I dropped out of school. I can deal with them...they're no big deal."
"Well, all right." Aaron frowned. "I don't like it, but if you've seen a doctor, I guess it's okay."
"It is." Stefana's relief was clear. "Besides, heart murmurs are nothing in the Ranieri family." A note of bitterness touched her words. "Heart trouble kinda comes with the territory." She made herself more comfortable, re-composing her scrambled senses, then,
"Why did you bother about it, anyway? I mean, it was my problem. Not yours."
"We're friends, aren;t we?" Aaron reminded her. Stefana nodded.
"So Id be a pretty bad friend, then, wouldn't I, if I didn't want to help, and worry that you were okay."
"I...I guess I didn't think of it like that." Stefana's tone was slightly bewildered as she considered this. Inwardly, however, she felt a glow knowing that he cared about her, albeit platonically, and her resolve to get Copper out of the picture hardened. "Maybe I don't have many friends as good as you are."
"I'm sure you do." Aaron grinned. He got to his feet, pulling her up with him. "Listen, I'm heading back now, can I give you a lift?"
"I have my car here."
"Well, we can take that. I don't like you driving so soon after you went so dizzy."
"Aaron, I'm fine!"
"Well, humour me, then." Aaron told her with a grin. "Okay? Because if you had another turn and crashed, I wouldn't forgive myself."
"Well...okay." Stefana's tone was reluctant, but inwardly her heart rejoiced. "I s'pose you have a point. Just...just remember I don't need fussing over, all right? I...I am okay."
"It's understood." Aaron winked at her. "Now come on. Let's get you home."
Chapter One: The "Anniversary"
Chapter Two: Jewel's Sound
Chapter Three: At Sirena's Place
Chapter Four: Jewel's Video
Chapter Five: Fanmail
Chapter Six: A Stranger
Chapter Seven: Stefana's Date
Chapter Eight: The Results
Chapter Nine: A Moment's Weakness
Chapter Ten: A Shock For Zoe
Chapter Eleven: A Surprise For Jetta
Chapter Twelve: Fire!