Chapter Twelve: Stefana Gambles

"It really seems unnatural."

Marissa set down her drink, casting her companion a troubled look. "We have and me...but Maddy? She's never broken down like that before."

"I know." Stefana grimaced. "I actually felt bad for her. I mean, really bad. Even if she is crushing on my brother, I didn't like seeing her messed up like that. I just wish there was something we could find out. It's no good for the band to have her falling to pieces...especially with our big Arena show tomorrow night."

"Do you think we'll even play?" Marissa pursed her lips. "Stef, we don't even know if we have costumes, and our lead singer is having some kind of breakdown over something she won't even confide in us. Do you reckon we'll get as far as the stage?"

"Maddy will sing, because if she doesn't, Rory will want to know why." Stefana said grimly. "And I know from personal experience that the less he knows, the better off you are. No, Mari. We'll play. Trust me on that. She'll do it."

"And the costumes?" Marissa sighed. "It's all such a mess. I feel bad we're relying on Regine to come through when she's had her life turned over."

"We're not." Stefana shook her head. "This morning, I called Sadie. She and the other Jewels are friendly with that Gaynor girl who works for Regine and Shana. Anyhow, the short of it is that Sadie's getting Gaynor to help out. They'll be ready. All of Regine's designs are at the studio, anyhow. They just need finishing off, and Gaynor made Copper's damned wedding dress...she knows what she's doing. We'll be okay."

"Well, at least that's something." Marissa rested her chin in her hands. "Do you think we'll get anything done this afternoon?"

"I don't know, but I plan on turning up just in case." Stefana owned. "You know Luca was going to go to the chemical plant this morning. Regardless of what Maddy said. He was going to case the joint and see if he could find anything."

"Do you think he did?"

"Yes. I know my brother when he's playing the hero." Stefana nodded. "But it's his funeral. I just hope it doesn't make things worse for Maddy. God knows I don't want to see her cry again. Ever."

"Me either." Marissa sighed. "It makes you realise how much of a mother figure she can be, sometimes. Always steady, always in control. Last night was freakish. I don't want her upset like that again either."

She got to her feet.

"I promised I'd meet Clay early, so we could go over some harmonies before we play." She added. "If tomorrow night is going to go off without a glitch, we have a couple of things we need to tighten up. Particularly if Maddy's not feeling much like playing with the audience."

Stefana raised an eyebrow.

"Just work?"

"Yes, unfortunately." Marissa grimaced. "This time, it is. I'll see you later, Stef. Hopefully our run through will go off okay."

"Yeah. Hopefully." Stefana echoed. "Bye, Mari. I'll see you in about an hour."

Marissa raised her hand in a wave, then she was gone. Stefana watched her friend cross the road to where her car was parked, idly stirring her straw in her milkshake as she did so.

"You look unusually pensive today."

A familiar voice made her turn, rolling her eyes.

"Darren." She said with a sigh. "Do you know when I just don't want to talk to you? Or is it pure chance?"

"Bit of both, probably." Darren McMillan dropped down into Marissa's empty seat. "I was looking for you specifically, today. I admit, this isn't a chance encounter."

"I was afraid of that." Stefana grimaced at him. "There's nothing chance about you."

"Glad you realise it." Darren looked amused. "But you're usually such a good source of information - I wondered if you could clear something up for me."

"What kind of something?" Stefana was on her guard. "If you're going to embroil me in some other wild goose chase after a computer, just remember what happened to me the last time you wanted to play space invaders."

"That's old news." Darren shook his head. "Story written and filed for posterity. No, this is something else. Something I thought you might know more about than I do."

He reached into his bag, pulling out a blue folder and extracting a handful of photographs, which he dropped down onto the table. Stefana picked up the nearest one, a frown crossing her face as she registered what they were.

"Maddy." She murmured. "Where did you get these?"

"A contact of mine dropped them with me this morning - that's all you need to know." Darren said simply. "You know I am very particular about source confidentiality - something which you've always benefitted from in the past."

He tapped the edge of the photo.

"But according to him, she was seen in a very deserted part of town last night, acting very unlike her usual self." He added. "I dragged the barrel dry hunting for a scandal about her, when I was working under Rory's auspices at Rebel Records. I won't pretend otherwise. But I came up empty-handed. So you can imagine my dismay when I realised I'd missed the boat somewhere. This looks to me very much like a money drop. And either someone in her family has been kidnapped and held for ransom...or someone has some dirt she really doesn't want shared."

"Maddy and I don't have those kinds of conversations." Stefana dropped the photo down onto the pile, gazing at him impassively. "So there's nothing I can tell you."

"Nothing at all?" Darren raised an eyebrow. "Not even speculatively?"

"Nothing at all." Stefana repeated. "I told you. Mad and I aren't all that close. She doesn't tell me her secrets. If she has something to hide, maybe you should ask her about it."

"Maybe I should." Darren pursed his lips, scooping up the photos and glancing at them, dropping them back into his file. "But I doubt she'd want to make a comment. I think I'll just print the pictures and let the story tell itself. After all, it's fairly clear what's going on...and you never know what might come out of the woodwork if you start asking questions."

"No!" Stefana spoke before she could stop herself, and Darren eyed her keenly.

"That's what I thought." He said playfully. "You do know more than you're telling me. What's it worth to you, Steffi? Because this really has me curious. Madeleine is the kind of person about whom I wouldn't have expected to find a scandal. Yet here we are. Want to let me in on the secret?"

"I don't know what she's hiding." Stefana shook her head impatiently. "No, Darren, I really don't!" As he looked sceptical. "She hasn't confided in anyone. But if you'd seen her last night..."

She trailed off, biting on her lip.

"What would it take to make you drop this?" She asked softly. "We have a big show tomorrow night, and Maddy's already on edge. We don't want to be a laughing stock. We need good press. Not someone digging for scandals. Whatever Maddy's hiding, it's her business and it can't be so bad. We're talking Maddy, after all. It's probably not even worth front page attention."

"Let me get this straight." Darren frowned. "Maddy's being blackmailed about something, yet it's not worth my attention regardless? And you want me to sit on it so that you can play a decent show? Steffi, I'm surprised at you. What about freedom of speech?"

"What about destroying someone's life?" Stefana shot back.

"Then you do have a clue what it's about."

"No, only that she thinks it would wreck everything if people knew what it was." Stefana shook her head impatiently. "And I kinda understand that. I've been in the same position."

"And I'm a pressman. It's my job to print the news." Darren spread his hands. "The people have a right to know. I don't care about wrecking people's lives. You know that. If they don't want them wrecked, they shouldn't generate the scandal in the first place. I don't make the problem. I just expose it. That's all."

Stefana was silent for a moment, as if digesting this. She eyed him carefully for a long while, then,

"What if I offered a trade?" She asked at length.

"A trade?" Darren looked startled. "I'm intrigued. What kind of trade?"

"We want to know who's blackmailing Maddy." Stefana made up her mind quickly. "Whoever it was stole something of hers from Regine Cesare's house when it was broken into. You know she's Maddy's aunt? Oh, of course you do." As Darren nodded. "You're a geek, you know everything. Well, we don't know what was stolen, only that it was something belonging to her and it was something personal. It has Maddy in a flap. Do you think you have any chance of nailing whoever did it? And getting Maddy's stuff back?"

"This gets more interesting the further on you go." Darren rested his chin in his hands. "Do continue."

"Could you get that done?"

"Almost certainly." Darren nodded his head. "I have contacts in places that even you'd be scared to look, Steffi. Someone'd talk. But you're asking me to help you and so far not offering any kind of incentive to do so. I still want to know what Madeleine's big bad secret is. Obviously it's something. And that something might sell papers."

"I'll give you mine instead." Stefana said quietly, meeting his gaze with a challenging one of her own. "My story. Everything."

"Yours?" Darren stared. "But I thought we made an agreement about that, Stef. I don't break my word. I told you I wouldn't print your scandal, in return for the Synergy scoop. I haven't forgotten. Had you?"

"No, I haven't." Stefana shook her head. "But I'm offering it instead of Maddy's. She's a boring person, Darren. Whatever she thinks is the end of the world is probably not much at all to shout about. Mine, on the other hand..."

She swallowed hard, fighting not to show him how apprehensive she was.

"You know what mine contains." She managed. "And I'd give you everything. No holds barred. A full scale interview and license to print what you liked about me. My drug habit, everything. If you help us find who's hurting Maddy...and bury the story."

"Why would you do this, though?" Darren looked confused. "You're a selfish person, Steffi. You don't care about Madeleine. Why expose yourself?"

"Because it's in my past." Stefana said flatly. "I'm over it. It's not a nice thing and I'll get stick, I know. I'm proud and that makes me feel sick to think of. But it's still past enough for me to say I've left it behind me. I'm not the neurotic mess you thought I was when first we met. I'm a lot stronger than that, and I could take it. But Maddy..."

She paused, pursing her lips.

"Last night she was very upset." She said softly. "Whatever this is, she's not over it. When I tried to kill myself, Darren, it was Maddy who was there to talk me down. I owe her this."

She glanced at her nails, idly fingering the black nail varnish.

"Diablo would've lost out bigtime without me to play guitar." She added. "I won't lie about that. And I don't think it'd do a lot better either if Maddy was to give herself a mental breakdown - which she seems keen on doing right now. So it's not all unselfish, I admit that. I like stability and at the moment, there's not that at home. So there it is."

She shrugged, meeting his gaze. "The trade. Are you game?"

Darren eyed her long and hard for a moment.

"I find out who's blackmailing Maddy, and put a stop to it, burying my story in the process." He said slowly. "In return you'll give me license to print the real truth about Stefana Ranieri - without any sugar coating? Everything and anything?"

Stefana hesitated for a moment. Then she nodded.

"Everything and anything." She agreed, holding out her hand. "Well?"

"Well." Darren smiled slightly, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. "It's a deal. But don't think I won't collect, Stef. This is binding, and I take you at your word. Maddy's scandal for yours. You can't pull out when I've done my bit."

"I'm not breaking my word either." Stefana sent him a cold look. "Just find whatever you can as soon as you can, all right? The longer this goes on, the worse it gets for everyone, and we have some big shows coming up, plus a tour in the not too distant future. We want it well buried by then."

"I'll do my best." Darren promised. "You can count on me, Stef. I'll be in touch."

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

"You know, you really look beautiful, Nancy."

Mary Jane stepped back to admire her handiwork, casting her companion a warm grin. "You're a really pretty girl, do you know that?"

"I don't know about that." Nancy pinkened, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. It was the night of the party, and, mindful of Robin's advice, she had sought out her boyfriend's sister for help getting ready. "I have serious goosebumps about this party, to be honest. That no matter what I do, Mary Jane, I'm never going to be Sian."

"Noone is asking you to be, honey. Least of all Robin." Mary Jane said gently, reaching up to fasten a wisp of stray black hair back from her face with a floral clasp. "There. People won't expect you to be anything other than Nancy this evening."

She paused, eying her keenly.

"Are you worried about being compared to Sian?"

"Somewhat." Nancy nodded, sitting down on the end of her bed. "I mean, not by Robin. We've cleared that up between us - I know his mind on that subject better now than I have since we began going out, and I feel better about it. But with Carrowville as a whole. Honestly, I don't know if they're as ready for Robin to move on as he is."

"Well, Sian was one of those people who brought sunshine wherever she went." Mary Jane said wisely. "She's still much missed. Robin's moved states, changed his lifestyle, and found himself a new niche...a world in which he can be happy without being haunted by her past. I understand that. Staying in Arkansas was too difficult, with her memory everywhere around him. Someone always wanted to commiserate or remind him. He had trouble moving on in that environment. But you have to realise, well, the rest of us - we're all still here. We all still do remember. And we all still do miss her."

" close?" Nancy asked hesitantly. "You and she, I mean?"

"She was as much like a sister as I'd ever have hoped to have." Mary Jane sighed, sitting down beside her companion. "You know how close our family have always been to the Mayor's family - Robin's told you that, I'm sure. Sian was the youngest of her family - she was Rob's age, and he was only two years older than me. It wasn't a big gap. She was my chief bridesmaid. We'd share secrets and stories. Advice. When Rob was going to propose to her, he asked me to help choose her ring because he felt that, next to him, I was best placed to know what she'd want. Yes, Nancy. We were very close. Very close indeed."

"'ve been so kind to me." Nancy looked startled. "And you wanted me to come here - didn't you?"

"Of course I did." Mary Jane jerked out of her pensive reverie, squeezing her companion by the hand. "Very much, from the moment Rob mentioned you."

"I don't understand. Why?" Nancy frowned. "Some people have been hostile towards me, because I'm dating Robin. Why don't you hate it?"

"Because Robin is my brother, and I hate seeing him unhappy." Mary Jane said thoughtfully. "Though it's more than that, I admit. Sian was a very good person, Nancy. She never bore grudges or held onto things that were long past. She would have wanted me to speak to you, and welcome you into my home. And honestly, I wanted it too. I'll always miss her. She's the kind of person you never forget completely. But time moves on. It has to. God has Sian now. I'll see her again, when my time is up...I know that. In the meantime..." She shrugged. "Here we are."

She smiled.

"I hope I haven't completely scared you this week with my prying into your life." She said sheepishly. "It's just that I want to know you thoroughly, and I feel I have such a short time to do it in. You'll be gone before long, and I might not see you again for months."

"You think Robin and I will still be together in months from now?" Nancy asked softly. Mary Jane nodded her head.

"My brother doesn't give his heart easily." She said matter of factly. "But when he does, Nancy, he gives it wholeheartedly. And I think you're the same, from everything I've seen. He means a lot to you, else you wouldn't have delved into this lion's den with him and come to Carrowville, knowing Sian's ghost still lingers here for some people. That took guts, and more, it took love."

"I was about ready to go the other morning." Nancy confessed. "I felt so isolated - like people didn't really want me here. That I was the odd west coast girl who didn't belong here."

"And now?"

"I don't know." Nancy admitted. "I don't really understand how things work here, even now. It's a completely different way of life from the one I'm used to. But I guess...I guess I'm okay with it. And I know it's part of Robin. it's all right."

She smiled.

"And you're not that scary." She added. "To begin with, I thought you were a bit full on...but...but not in a bad way. I just wasn't quite sure how to react to it."

"Well, now we've fully sussed each other out..." Mary Jane grinned, pulling her companion to her feet. "Do you think we'll be friends, Nancy?"

"I hope so." Nancy nodded her head. "Of everyone in this crazy town, you're the only one apart from Robin who's been nice to me the whole time. You've never treated me like an outsider here, and I'm grateful for that."

She looked rueful.

"Now if only I can get through tonight without putting my foot in it, I'll be happy." She added. "I'm really nervous."

"It's just a party." Mary Jane looked amused. "Rob says you play to crowds of fifty thousand sometimes, when you're with your group. This is hardly that."

"I know. But that's my job." Nancy said sheepishly. "Honestly, though, I get nervous before that too. I'm really not a big event person. I'm not a keen socialiser - I tend to keep in the background and write my music as much as possible. I hate glamming up for the cameras and I never know what to wear or how to do my hair. We have stylists for our photoshoots, and my sister in law Copper is really good at doing hair, so I never look tragic. But it's a lot of pressure and it's not all me. I'm just in it for the music."

"I guess I never expected a big city celebrity to be shy around people." Mary Jane admitted. "I did wonder, when Robin told me what you did for a living, that you'd find Carrowville simple and backward and you'd turn your nose up at it. You've not done that, and I'm grateful. I know there are probably a lot of things in LA that you can't get here."

"Yeah. Crime. Gangs. Drugs. Tabloid press ripping shreds out of everything you do." Nancy grimaced. "In some ways, Carrowville is a welcome relief from those things."

She pursed her lips.

"And I did have expectations of it which I'm not sure are quite true." She added. "You all know each other, and grew up together. I find that intimidating, because I'm not a part of it and I don't know how to break through and make people accept me. You all believe in God and go to church on a Sunday. Robin told me that faith is strong in these parts...but I've never been much into those things, and I'm not even baptised. You all belong. I don't. That's quite scary. I understand a little how Rob felt when he first came to Los Angeles now. I've had it in reverse."

"If a man has no faith, Nancy, what does he have save the clothes on his back?" Mary Jane asked gently. Nancy shrugged her shoulders.

"I've no idea." She owned. "But I live in this world. Not the next. I'm sorry. That's just who - and how - I am."

Mary Jane laughed.

"And I wouldn't try to change you." She promised. She glanced up at the clock.

"Almost time. I better go make sure Robin's bothered to wear something presentable." She added. "You're going to take some living up to this evening."

"Well, I'm glad you think so." Nancy touched her hair self-consciously. "At least I'll look the part, even if I don't quite feel ready for it."

"Don't worry." Mary Jane's eyes twinkled. "You'll blow them away!"

Prologue: Flashback: University of Connecticut, Winter 2009
Chapter One: Starcrossed
Chapter Two: Tante Regine
Chapter Three: Flashback: University of Connecticut: Winter 2011
Chapter Four: The Poem
Chapter Five: A Shock
Chapter Six: Nancy Confesses
Chapter Seven: Flashback: Break Up
Chapter Eight: Blackmail
Chapter Nine: Conflict
Chapter Ten: Flashback: Assanti Meddles
Chapter Eleven: Pay Off 
Chapter Twelve: Stefana Gambles
Chapter Thirteen: University of Connecticut: Finals Week
Chapter Fourteen: Cracks
Chapter Fifteen: A Tiny Piece Of Truth
Chapter Sixteen: Flashback: Forever Changed
Chapter Seventeen: Secrets Will Out

Chapter Eighteen: Fall Out

Chapter Nineteen: Flashback: A New Life

Chapter Twenty: Darren Admits

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