PART THREE: TILL DEATH US DO PART
Chapter Eleven: A Friend Indeed
Meanwhile, Aaron had jumped behind the wheel of his car,
pulling out onto the main freeway as fast as he dared, and inwardly cursing
the business of the roads that lead out to the coast. All the time he kept
turning over Stefana's call in his head, and it had chilled him to the bone.
"I know she was upset the other night, but she seemed better - happier
- the other day." He murmured. "What on earth has happened to bring this
on? Hell, but she meant it. I know she did...I just hope she's all right.
I have to stop her."
He pulled into a vacant parking space, hurrying out onto the sea front
and scanning the pier for any sign of his friend. At first, he could not
see her, and his heart caught in his throat. Was he already too late? Had
Then, at the far end of the wooden structure, he caught sight of a lone
figure, and relief flooded through him. Quickening his pace, he hurried
across to her.
"Steffi?" He called. "Stef, what's all this about?"
Stefana turned, her breath catching in her throat as she caught sight
of the speaker. Somewhere inside her something gave and, now terrified,
she hurried towards him, throwing herself on him as she began to cry uncontrollably.
Aaron, bemused and relieved to find her safe, hugged her tightly, coaxing
her gently to sit down on the bench. Beneath them, the sea water swirled
and broke, and Aaron was all too conscious of how close he had been. Ten
seconds longer, and he might have been calling the lifeguards to hunt for
At length he spoke.
"Why did you call me?" He murmured. "And why are you out here like this,
Steffi? Why on earth would you want to do something like this...I don't understand."
Stefana raised green eyes to his, tears still rolling down her cheeks.
"I was afraid." She whispered.
"I realise that." Gently Aaron stroked her hair. "But Stef, this isn't
like you. You're so strong...what's happened to make you so...well...self-destructive?"
"Things." Stefana seemed loath to explain her motives. "You came...you
stopped me." She frowned. "Why did you come?"
"Hell, Steffi, I'm not going to ignore a call like that. I knew you meant
it." Aaron told her. "I didn't know why, but I knew it was for real."
"I thought you had a wedding runthrough."
"I did...but I told Copper it was an emergency and Copper's understanding.
She'll forgive me. Your life is more important than any rehearsal, after
"It isn't." Stefana shook her head slowly. "Everything's gone wrong, Aaron.
They say...they say that what goes around comes around and it does. It really
does. I th...thought I didn't care about anything or anyone but this last
week everything has just been crazy." She closed her eyes.
"I don't feel very good." She admitted. "The sea's making me giddy."
"Then let's go somewhere away from the water, somewhere quiet where we
can talk." Aaron suggested gently. "I want to know what made you so unhappy
that you'd want to jump from the end of the pier into oblivion...I want to
help you, if I possibly can."
Stefana shook her head, obediently letting him lead her further inland.
"You can't." She murmured. "I'm the only one who can, and I'm not strong
enough. You're all wrong - I'm not strong. This last week, everything's
given way...I'm not in control any more. I'm just...just afraid."
"Control? Of what?"
Stefana stopped, pulling him round to face her and raising sorrowful green
eyes to his grey ones.
"I'm a drug addict, Aaron." She told him brokenly. "I'm addicted to amphetamines
and I have been since I quit high school. They own me...they control everything
I do. I'm not in charge of it any more, and it almost killed Marissa." She
swallowed, lowering her gaze as his expression became one of stunned horror.
"They...Luca and Maddy and the others, they made me stop taking them, but
it's worse now than they even know."
"I see." Aaron gathered his wits hurriedly, aware that Stefana's mental
state was fragile and she needed his reassurance. "So you've not been taking
them this week?"
"No." Stefana agreed, almost dreamily, her expression somewhat detached
as she recounted the events. "But I'm addicted, Aaron...it's so terrible.
It's not that it makes me ill, which is what Luca thinks, he keeps asking
me if I feel all right. It's not that at all. It's just...I can't sleep
at the moment, and if I do sleep it's horrible nightmares...and no matter
what I do, Aaron, I can't get rid of the horrible empty feeling." She swallowed
"When you have the drugs," she whispered, "You can hide from the things
you don't like. But now I'm sober and I can't hide from them. I can't...can't
pretend everything is okay." She bit her lip. "All I know day in and day
out is that I'm a failure and noone actually wants me around. Luca looks out
for me out of duty to Dad, he promised he would, but I drive him mad and
interfere in his relationships because I'm afraid he'll find someone better
to spend time with than me. I hate Maddy because she's so much cleverer than
me and she damn well knows it - I'm just a high school dropout, she has a
college diploma! Clay thinks I'm an idiot, Rory...Rory uses me to his own
ends, he lies to me and gets me worked up to do things I shouldn't do. Marissa..."
"Marissa thinks a lot of you." Aaron told her gently. "And Steffi, you're
not a failure. You're a young guitarist with a lot of ability. Nancy's even
said so - and I consider her musical opinion as worth something, because
whatever else she is, my sister is a musical genius. Not only that, though,
you and the rest of Diablo have fought hard to win your success here. You've
been through hard times together and you deserve the plaudits you've gotten.
That's not a failure, and there's more in this world than academia to make
you a success."
"But I'm a drug addict." Stefana's tone was bitter. "And Mari's known
that all along. She's done her best to protect me, and dammit, maybe she
shouldn't have but I made her lie for me. I made her pretend...hell, I even
lied to you, that day in the forest when my pulse went crazy. I hadn't seen
a doctor. It wasn't natural or part of my family's genetics. Sure, heart
weakness is in our family, Dad died of it. But I'd taken something
not long before we met up. That's what did it. Speed."
"I see." Aaron's expression became grave. "If it's affecting your heart
like that, Steffi, you really have to get out of it. It's going to make
you permanently ill."
"What's the point?" Stefana sighed wistfully. "I just don't care right
now, Aaron. I just want out. It's so much pressure. And now...now Rory's
found out everything and he...he's threatening to ruin me in the press if
I don't do whatever he wants me to. If I don't, I'd be finished. Out of Diablo.
They'd go on without me. What then? That band is the only anchor I have
in this world."
"Then why did you call me, and not your brother?" Aaron asked gently.
"I already promised them not to do this." Stefana gulped. "I tried to
take an overdose after Marissa was rushed to hospital...but Maddy caught
me. They made me swear...but I'm so alone, Aaron." She closed her eyes against
further tears. "And I called you because...no. I...I can't tell you." She
shook her head slightly. "I can't make you hate me too."
"I don't hate you." Aaron looked startled. "Why would I?"
Stefana eyed him with big, scared green eyes. Then,
"It was me who sabotaged Jewel's stuff when Nancy's guitar almost blew
up." She whispered. "It was me who split Cameron and Topaz up the first time,
though her sleeping with Luca had nothing to do with me, I swear. It was
me who sabotaged Jewel's equipment at the studio before the fire. It...it
was me who tried to destroy Cynthia with the computer virus. Aaron....it's
all been me."
"You?" Aaron stared at his companion in disbelief. "Why in hell?"
"Rory paid me." Stefana's voice shook. "I needed the money...he never
asked questions why, but I n...needed it. I h...hate Jewel, they have
such a following and I wanted that for Diablo. And of course then...then
there was you." She bit her lip, lifting a pale hand to touch his cheek.
"I wanted you."
"Me?" Aaron's eyes widened. Stefana nodded.
"I fell in love with you." She said falteringly, dropping her gaze once
more. "I didn't realise it at first, but Mari kept telling me I had feelings
for you and that's why I hated Jewel so much. It wasn't till I sobered up
and saw things straight that I realised she was right. But...but you're
going to marry Copper, because she's beautiful and classy and you love her
and...and I hated her for that most of all."
For a moment, Aaron just stared at her in horror. Then he cursed.
"Nancy's always telling me I'm dense, and I don't see these things till
they're on top of me." He murmured. "I should have realised - Steffi, if
I ever led you on, I'm sorry. I didn't..."
"Just forget it." Stefana sighed. "It's not important, and I don't think
you did. I don't know. I...I think it was just...you know, you were nice
to me, and, well, not many people ever are." She frowned. "And now I've screwed
up yet another thing for you, haven't I? Your wedding rehearsal." She groaned.
"I don't know why you even came. You should have let me jump, the world would
be far better off."
"Nonsense." In an instant Aaron knew what he had to do. "Listen to me,
Stefana Ranieri. If you had jumped from that pier today, the world would
have lost a very talented young musician who has a lot more to give the world
than she realises. You were wrong to do those things to Jewel, and I'm sorry
that I was a part of your reason for doing it, but it's done now. It's past.
Noone's any the worse for it, not even Cynthia. This is your chance to take
your life into your own hands and prove once and for all that you are the
star Diablo's fans think you are. But first of all, you have to get help
for the drug problem. You need someone who knows what they're doing to get
you through this. Luca and the others care more than you think, I'm sure,
but they don't understand - and nor do I - what you're going through here."
"They said that." Stefana admitted. "But Rory..."
"Stefana, you stop caring what Rory will do right now." Aaron interrupted.
"This is your life. It isn't his. And Diablo won't let you be booted from
Rebel Records' books. You're too good a lead guitarist for them to let
you go, anyhow. And Luca wouldn't let Rory mess with you. You go to him,
tell him what you told me about Rory paying you to do bad stuff to Jewel,
and why you needed the money. I'm sure that a threat or two in Rory's direction
of legal action will solve your problems there."
"Luca already knows." Stefana said sadly. "He already settled Rory, but
you don't understand. Now he knows all about my...my drug problems, he...he
wants me to mess up your wedding. He...pretty much told me that if I didn't,
I was finished. And...well, I admit it, for a long time I wanted to stop
your wedding, but not on Rory's terms. Besides, you...you are my friend,
and...I don't want to hurt you."
"I'm glad about that." Aaron said slowly. "Because marrying Copper is
very important to me, Stef, but so is your friendship. I don't want to lose
"Even when I've done so many bad things?"
"I know you're not evil, Stef. I don't believe you realised the full implications
of some of the things you got involved in."
"I understood more than you want to believe." Stefana responded quietly.
"I'm sorry, Aaron. I did know what I was doing. I did it to hurt Jewel,
and to get the money from Rory...I'm not as nice a person as you want to
believe I am. I don't think you can gloss over everything I've done by claiming
I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't want Nancy killed, but...I wasn't
totally oblivious to the things I was doing. I knew."
Aaron looked at his companion long and hard, then he sighed.
"Yet I'm still not angry." He realised. "Just concerned. I won't tell
anyone what you've told me, Steffi, but I want you to promise me in return
that you'll get professional help with this. You need it, either way. You
must realise that."
Stefana's green eyes clouded, and she nodded.
"I just don't know how." She confessed. "I don't know anyone...and, well...think
of the scandal."
"Scandal?" Aaron's eyes lit up with an idea. "Oh, that made me think of
something! Stefana, I might just have your answer."
"You do?" Stefana stared. "How? I mean, what?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Sadie. Garnet. She's your answer."
"A Jewel? Are you mad? They hate me as much as I hate them!"
"Sadie isn't the kind of person to hate without a good reason, and she's
new to the group in comparison with the others." Aaron responded. "More importantly,
though, she's exactly the person you need. She worked as a drug counsellor
in England...she understands, and she could help you."
"Stef, things are pretty desperate if you're suicidal." Aaron took her
hand gently in his. "It won't do any harm to just talk to Sadie, see if she
can help you. Really."
Stefana bit her lip.
"Give in to a Jewel?" She murmured. "How could I live with myself?"
"You're not doing real great with it on your own, though." Aaron pointed
out. Stefana snorted.
"Thanks for pointing that out." She snapped. Then she groaned. "Sorry."
"It's all right." Aaron smiled at her. "Please, Stef. For me. I feel guilty
that I've let this grow and not done anything about it, and if I can help
you with your drug problem maybe I'll feel like I've done something to make
up for leading you on."
"You know what?" Stefana looked thoughtful. "You really are a nice
guy. Copper is luckier than she'll ever know."
"You won't wreck the wedding for us, will you?" Aaron begged her.
"I know you're upset, Stef, but..."
"When it came to it, I...I realised I couldn't." Stefana admitted. "I
gotta stop wrecking stuff for people who mean something to me. If...if you're
my friend, well, I wouldn't be much good as a friend if I wrecked your wedding.
Right now I need you to be my friend, weak and pathetic as it sounds. So
no." She swallowed. "I don't know if I'll come, though. It might be too much,
Aaron...you have to understand that."
"I do." Aaron nodded his head. "And I am your friend, Stef - really. Just
- no more sabotaging my sister and her group, huh? They might not have begun
in the same kind of world you guys did, but they work just as hard, believe
me, for everything they've got. Jewel are a big part of my life too, with
me being their road manager these days...so I'd appreciate it."
"No wedding wrecking, no Jewel sabotage..." Stefana sighed. "No fun."
"Okay, okay, I promise." Stefana groaned. "I'll be good. At least...at
least till I feel better."
There was a long silence, then Stefana met his gaze with a serious one
of her own.
"Once." She responded quietly. "I'll talk to her once. But if it doesn't
work...no more. Okay?"
"Okay." Aaron nodded. "It's a deal. And no more visits to the pier?"
"I don't want to jump now." Stefana assured him. "I...I guess I don't
know if I ever wanted to. I just wanted someone to...well...rescue me."
"And realise you needed rescuing, perhaps?" Aaron's eyes twinkled. Stefana
nodded, a slight smile touching her pale lips.
"Yes." She agreed. "I think so. Oh...but how am I going to settle Rory?
"Leave Rory to me." Aaron said resolutely. "You forget, Steffi, that I
work for one of Los Angeles' most powerful businesswomen, and that if she
wanted to make things uncomfortable for him, she could well do so, without
much provocation. I'm going to take up your case with him, and put it to him
how negative press would do none of them any good, him least of all. After
all, I'm sure Mom and Aunt Phyl can dig up plenty of negative stuff on him.
He won't risk it - he only said those things to get you to do what he wanted."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yes." Aaron said grimly. "And even if he didn't, by the time I've spoken
to him, he'll change his mind. Trust me, Stef. I won't let you down."
"I do trust you." Stefana murmured. "More than you know."
A new voice interrupted their conversation and both turned, meeting Copper's
surprised look. "Stefana? Um, am I interrupting something?"
"Yes." Stefana got to her feet, meeting the Jewel's confused gaze with
a level one of her own. "Aaron just saved my life, that's all. And now I'm
going home to try and get some sleep...so he's all yours."
She cast Aaron a smile, different and more genuine than any she'd ever
produced before. "Call me...I'll behave, I promise."
"I will." Aaron nodded. Copper watched her go, then frowned.
"Erm?" She asked. "What was that about?"
"I'm sorry I ran out on you and the rehearsal like I did." Aaron indicated
for her to sit down beside him on the wall. "Stefana tried to kill herself...and
we had a long talk."
"Suicide?" Copper stared, then, "Another of her schemes?"
"No, Copper. This is real." Aaron shook her head. "Stefana's got a lot
to handle and I promised I wouldn't betray her over it, so don't mention
what I just said to her. I only hope she takes my advice." He sighed. "Is
"She's still at the Starlight, I think." Copper frowned. "I came after
you to make sure everything was all right, that's all. Aaron, I'm worried
about Stefana coming to the wedding - what if she does something? Particularly
if she's emotional - we...well, we think she has a crush on you."
"She promised me she wouldn't - as it stands she mightn't even come."
Aaron responded. "Listen to me, Copper. I know that you knew Stef was doing
stuff, but you kept it from me - why?"
"Nancy was the first person she targeted...Nance said it would cause more
trouble than anything if you knew, and besides, we didn't want a bad relationship
with Diablo in the press. We wanted to forget it."
"And Cynthia? You knew that too?"
"Yes. Remember, Stefana broke the antidote disk in Nancy's face, pretty
"Yes, I remember." Aaron nodded. He sighed. "But right now, the girl needs
a friend and I'm gonna try and be that friend. This is more serious than
band rivalry, Copper. I mean it. I know you and the others don't like her,
but please, let her alone a while."
"Us let her alone? She's the one who sabotages us!" Copper
was indignant. "And she just did it again, calling you out like she did."
"Yes, I know." Aaron nodded. "But if I hadn't gone, Copper, she would
have jumped. I have no doubt about that. She told me it wasn't the first
time recently she's tried to take her own life. She has serious problems
you don't understand...let the past go. You have so much...stuff she doesn't
Copper's angry expression softened.
"I believe you." She murmured. "And I'm sorry, Aaron."
"You have nothing to be sorry about." Aaron kissed her gently. "Listen.
By this weekend we'll be a married couple, and we'll have plenty of other
things to worry about than Stefana and her problems. Let me help her now."
"I wouldn't stop you." Copper smiled. "Really...if it's serious, then
I trust you."
"I'm glad to hear it." Aaron said softly. "Because I love you more than
anything, and it would do no good if we were to fight over this. I don't
think Steffi will be quite such a problem for Jewel from now on, by the way.
I really believe I've come up with a...a solution of sorts."
"I hope you have." Copper murmured. "It would be nice, for once, to have
a peaceful life!"