Chapter Twenty: Darren Admits

"You look really pretty, Stef. Going somewhere exotic?"

Stefana turned, sending the speaker a grin. It was later that day and, after much deliberation, she had picked out her outfit for her night out with Darren, mindful of the fact she did not want to give him the wrong impression.

"Define exotic." She said now. "Come in, Mad, and shut the door. Luca's been in the shower and the whole landing stinks of his new shower gel."

"Tell me about it." Madeleine grimaced, obediently coming into her bandmate's bedroom properly, closing the door behind her and leaning up against the dog-eared poster that was emblazoned across the inside. "So where are you going this evening? With one thing and another we haven't had a chance to talk about yesterday - I hoped we would tonight, but obviously you have plans."

"I do, and they connect with yesterday." Stefana set down her hairbrush, eying her reflection then reaching for her mascara. "I didn't think there was a lot to be said, though. Aside from having a mental at Luca, you pretty much made it clear you didn't want to discuss this. I get that. I don't like discussing things I feel like crap about either."

She paused, carefully applying the black liquid to her lashes, then, "I didn't deliberately spy on your secret, by the way. Darren told me either I read it or he would tell me out loud, when anyone might have heard it. He had a bee in his bonnet about it and said you shouldn't be alone with it, regardless of what you thought about it. So that's how I knew. I wasn't going to tell you that I did, but you figured me out."

"I see." Madeleine looked thoughtful. She came to stand behind her friend. "Need some help putting your hair up? It's not quite straight at the back."

"Please." Stefana grimaced. "I hate curly hair when I'm trying to do anything other than look scary. I can never get it level and I want to be classy, devilish and completely unattainable this evening. I'm meeting Darren for dinner, if you must know, and it's not exactly something I'm looking forward to."

Madeleine, who had reached for Stefana's discarded brush and comb paused, frowning.

"Is that what you traded him for keeping my story quiet?" She asked softly. Stefana nodded her head.

"More or less." She agreed. "It wasn't the original bid on the table, but he wouldn't accept that once he found out what the deal was. Mad, my hair spray's on the bookshelf, underneath that book on Chinese Astrology Mari lent me. I'm never comfortable being in debt to someone and not repaying them that debt, so I asked him if there was anything else and he suggested this. He said he wasn't trying it on with me or anything, so I don't know why - maybe this is the only way he gets women to go out with him. But I don't mind. We'll go to Ratelli's and I'll speak Italian to Guiseppe and Cinzia and make him feel completely out of his league."

She set down her mascara brush. "He isn't going to print the story though. He knows what it is, but he won't write it. He promised. And I'll make sure he keeps that promise."

Madeleine unearthed the hairspray, setting it down on the cabinet as she loosed the clip from Stefana's hair, brushing out the thick silky curls so they flowed loose around her shoulders once more.

"I wasn't actually thinking about that." She owned. "I was rather wondering what you gained from helping me. And what you offered him in the first place must have been a big deal, for him to agree to help nail this guy. I want to know everything, Steffi. After all, you know everything about me now. I think it's only fair I know what the bargaining chips were to secure my secret."

Stefana frowned.

"I offered him a trade." She owned. "My story for yours. He seemed to agree that I'd be more interesting writing material - especially since he knows a good part of my history already, worm that he is. The only reason he hasn't printed it sooner is because he gave me his word about it over something else I helped him with in the past. I told him if he buried your story, he could have mine instead. And he agreed."

"But why?" Madeleine looked confused. "I appreciate the gesture, but I know how you feel about people knowing what you've done. When you were struggling against the speed and the depression and everything else, we pretty much had to bully you to seek outside help and support. Why would you expose everything you've kept so carefully covered to protect me...when you've never really liked me all that much anyway?"

"If you hadn't talked me down that night at Rebel Records, when I was ready to take those pills, I wouldn't be here now to protect you and your secret." Stefana said matter-of-factly. "And that would suck, because I was crazy then. Dying would have been a seriously bad career move on my part. I just couldn't see past things and needed another perspective. You were the one who told me life was worth more than that. You didn't exactly like me, either - but you still came through and helped me. Why is this any different?"

Madeleine pursed her lips, digesting her bandmate's words.

"I have a confession to make." She admitted at length, as she pulled strands of Stefana's hair neatly back into the clasp. "I went to Hartford expecting to hate you. I guess that's why I probably wound up doing it."

Stefana turned, meeting Madeleine's gaze with a thoughtful one of her own.

"And I hated you because when my Mom first kicked me out, I couldn't get Luca on the phone." She replied softly. "I tried, but he was with you. I felt replaced when I needed him most...and I didn't want you to come back to Connecticut. I hoped you'd stay in California, or go home or whatever. When you came back I had visions of you and Luca getting cosy again and pushing me out. Because he really liked you, you know, Mad. I think he would've got back together with you then, if you'd given him any sign you were interested."

Madeleine looked rueful.

"He's said as much to me." She owned. "I don't know what I'd have done if I hadn't have contracted this stupid thing when I did - but once I came to terms with it, I felt it was a push in a new direction. I would have gone to Boston, probably, if I'd not become sick at Tante Regine's place. Not Hartford. Diablo would have been a memory. But part of me did want to go back to Connecticut and try it with Luca again. We were pretty serious a couple for six months and our relationship never did end naturally. I guess maybe that's why both of us had thoughts about wanting another try."

"You still love him, don't you?" Stefana asked bluntly. Madeleine laughed.

"You've accused me of that enough times to know that I do." She agreed. "But I won't be acting on it, now or ever. He's my friend, even if sometimes he drives me crazy. And that's enough."

She sighed.

"Somehow, though, talking to you about this is easier than it was talking to him." She added, reaching for the hair spray. "Maybe because you understand what it's like to have secrets you don't want anyone to find out about."

"Luca dwells on things, and he can be way too obsessively protective if he thinks someone he cares about has a weakness." Stefana said with a shrug. "He's like a big labrador puppy, eager to smother you with affection, without waiting to see if you really want it. But he does mean well. I mean, he's a moron sometimes, but he is my brother and he has always been there when I've needed him. Don't rip him to shreds too much, Maddy. This is a big shock for all of us, you know - we're gonna deal with it in different ways."

"I know." Madeleine said pensively. "And I'll try. He says he'll try not to fuss, so that's a start. And there's your hair you think that looks better? It's straight at the back now."

"Much." Stefana nodded her approval, rummaging through her top drawer for the right colour lipstick. "You know, we've never ever talked like this. With the exception of my embarrassing suicide attempt, we've never really had a heart to heart - just you and me. It's kinda surreal, don't you think?"

"Very." Madeleine agreed. "But I'm kinda touched that you'd go so far to protect me. I guess I'm realising more and more since you sobered up that there are aspects of your character the drugs concealed completely. You're not quite the person I thought you were when I first met you."

"Nor are you." Stefana pointed out. "Luca used to wax lyrical about you when he'd come home for a weekend or whatever - he'd talk about fun stuff and jokes and college pranks and yeah, he said you were into your studies and dedicated and whatever, but you had a sense of humour and you liked to enjoy yourself, too. You weren't a complete nag."

She shrugged.

"But I guess we were neither of us really us when we met up properly." She admitted. "I was stoned and you were diagnosed with this thing. Shit happens. And changes us, whether we like it or not."

"That's overly philosophical for you, you know." Madeleine observed teasingly. She sat down on her friend's bed, watching Stefana put the finishing touches to her make-up. "Stef, tell me something. Talking to Luca earlier really made me stop and think a little about the future - what it might hold, what might or might not happen and when. Does that bother you, living with someone who's future is as unsettled as that?"

"Blah." Stefana snorted. "I told you, Luca broods. This is how it is, Mad. We all drop dead eventually. I've probably come closer to it than you have so far, considering. You at least have a healthy lifestyle - I smoke too much and even if I don't do speed any more, I am addicted to chocolate chip ice cream. Marissa's a diabetic - she lives on that knife edge every day, and we've all seen what it can do to her when she's not completely vigilant. As it stands, too, Clay could crash his car tomorrow. Luca could be hit by a bus. We don't any of us know what's in our future, so why is yours any different? So you have HIV. You don't know it will kill you, and since it's not right at the moment, don't let my dumbass brother make you think that way. Life is a terminal illness. It's how you live it, that's what counts."

She dimpled, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

"And how many rules you bend before your time is up." She added. "You need to do more rule bending. Maybe you'd find it fun."

Despite herself, Madeleine laughed.

"Well, so long as Darren keeps his mouth shut, your way of dealing with this problem certainly had better results than mine did." She said ruefully. "Thank you for saying that, Stef. I've always told myself that the future is the future and I'll worry about it when it happens but...well...Luca did kinda make me dwell."

"Then he's an asshole." Stefana said frankly. "And there. I'm done. How many levels above Darren's grubby fingers would you say I am now, Mad? Out of ten?"

"At least six or seven." Madeleine looked amused. "But I think he's getting his money's worth. You look really beautiful."

"So long as I don't look like a hussy." Stefana eyed herself anxiously. "I deliberately chose something to wear that would tell the most sleazy man on the planet I wasn't interested...but I didn't want to go out wearing a sack either."

"You don't look at all like a hussy." Madeleine assured her. "You look fine."

"Okay." Stefana grinned. "Then I'd better go. Do me a favour and don't tell Luca who I'm out with this evening, huh? If he asks, tell him I went to a club or something. I don't intend to be out late, but there are things that he doesn't need to know."

"If he asks, I'll remember." Madeleine promised. "Have a good evening. Show him what classy chicks Diablo are comprised of, huh?"

"Believe me, I intend to." Stefana winked. "Bye, Maddy. No doubt when I see you later I'll have lots of dumb Darren anecdotes for you to laugh about!"

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The Tribune office was almost in darkness by the time Stefana pulled her car up outside. Darren was waiting for her, and, as he crossed the car park towards her, he cast her an amused grin, clearly entertained by the surprised look on her face.

"What, did you think that because you were meeting me at work I wouldn't have a chance to change?" He asked playfully, as he pulled open the passenger door, climbing into the vehicle. "We do have a locker room, and I did want to make an effort. After all, it's an auspicious occasion. I'm honoured by your presence tonight."

"You should be." Stefana told him firmly, putting the car roughly into reverse and screeching out of the newspaper forecourt. "But this is a one off, Darren, you do know that, right? For Maddy's secret - what we agreed the other day."

"If you think I sit at my desk pining over you, Stefana, you can put your mind at rest." Darren chuckled. "You're an interesting specimen of human life, that's all - and I was curious to see you in a different setting. The little piece of Hell doesn't have time for men in her busy schedule - that's been well documented by Cool Trash, though I'm sure there are plenty of desperate young guys who'd give it a shot if they could get within an inch of you. I guess there's a kick in scoring something that most people don't get this case, being bought dinner by rock and roll's own demoness."

"Hah." Stefana snorted. "Whatever. Just so you know that it's a one off, I don't care what your reasons are. So long as you know that you're not my type and I could never find you attractive, then we'll be fine."

"Believe me, it's not only understood, it's mutual." Darren assured her. "Like you, I have no time for silly romantic connections complicating my life. I have no respect for people who feel they must be 'involved' in order to be alive."

He sat back in his seat, glancing out at the scenery.

"So where are you taking me?" He asked. "Chinese take-out?"

"I'm not quite as broke as all that." Stefana bristled. "No. Ratelli's. Do you know it?"

"Italian restaurant on eighth and west?" Darren asked. Stefana nodded. "Never been there, but I read the reviews when the paper went to copy the other month. Got good ratings, if my memory serves me correctly."

"Of course it did." Stefana shrugged. "I'm Italian. If I'm going to eat Italian food, it's not going to be second rate crap made by some guy who's never been to Italy."

Darren laughed.

"You're no more Italian than I am." He said frankly. "You're American - why deny that? Without Diablo, would you ever have been to Italy?"

"You wouldn't get it." Stefana shot him a withering look, flicking on the indicator. "You're a mutt."

"Actually, my family were Scottish." Darren grinned. "Not unlike your friend Clay's...who knows, we may even have distant clansmen in common. Although of course, Clay's genes are diluted by that wonderful Wissex blood."

He cast her a sidelong glance. "But I don't consider myself Scottish. I don't understand why people do that. It's like selling out who you are."

"No, it's about belonging to something other than the land in which you were born." Stefana shook her head. "I wouldn't expect you to understand - you probably came in a box from JerksRUs - but my father was born in Italy and we were very close. He taught me to speak Italian, and I know his family came from Napoli. Luca and I have a house there - or we're paying it off, like I told you the other day. Besides, it's a free country. If I want to be Italian, what business is it of yours?"

"None, I guess." Darren observed. "But that's what makes me a good reporter. I ask questions."

"No, what makes you a good reporter is that you sit on people's heads till you get an answer, and substitute work for life." Stefana told him acidly. "You spend all this time burrowing into other people's lives - do you even have one of your own?"

"As you said, it's a free country." Darren shrugged his shoulders. "At least I never turned to drugs to solve my problems."

"Maybe you didn't have the problems that I did." Stefana suggested. "Besides, this is a pointless conversation. I thought you didn't want the Stefana're not going to trick it out of me by getting me off guard tonight."

"Believe me, I have no interest in catching you off guard tonight." Darren assured her. "I have no pen, no notepad and no dictaphone."

He eyed her playfully.

"You can frisk me if you want."

"Don't even go there." Stefana rolled her eyes. She paused at a red light, casting him a questioning look.

"And if you're not looking for answers, I am." She added. "I want to know exactly why you didn't complete our trade. You gave me Maddy's stuff - she's had them back, she's happy, everything is going back to how it should be. But I'm still bothered by it. Why you wouldn't take my story. You said it wasn't because of me...what did you mean? I didn't think you and Maddy knew each other well enough for you to care."

"We don't." Darren shook his head. "It wasn't really about her, either. I had my reasons, Stef. You could accept it and leave it at that."

"I could." Stefana nodded, putting the car in gear and roaring across the intersection, startling a pensioner who had not quite finished crossing the road. "But let's say, for argument's sake, that I'm as inquisitive as you. You ask a lot of questions, and you expect to be given answers. Now I'm asking some questions. I want to know."

"And if I was to say it wasn't your business?"

"Nor was my past. But you still dug it up."

"One, you're in the public eye, so you're fair game. Two, I'm a reporter. Three, I did the hard graft to find your secrets." Darren counted them off on his fingers. "That's what makes it different."

"So you'd rather I went snooping around behind your back, then?" Stefana raised an eyebrow. "I could, you know. I'm a better spy than you give me credit for. But it'd save time and energy if you told me yourself. At least then I wouldn't get a distorted view of things."

"I have a distorted view of your history, do I, Stef?"

"Maybe. Don't change the subject." Stefana was unmoved. "I have a full tank of gas and I intend on driving round and round Los Angeles at speed until you tell me why you didn't claim on our deal. I won't tell anyone else, if you don't want me to. I'm not you. But I am curious. And I'd feel better knowing there was a reason other than some nasty ulterior motive. I know how tabloid press work."

Darren was silent for a moment. Then he shot her a wry look.

"So was this a set up, or are you acting on impulse?" He asked. Stefana shrugged.

"Both. Either. You choose." She replied. "Well? What was so special about Maddy's file that you decided to be charitable and spare us both the public execution?"

Darren cast a glance out of the window, and for a moment he didn't speak. Then,

"Anything I say is not to leave this car." He said quietly. "And we won't talk about it again. Not this evening, not ever. Is that understood? Because if it isn't, I'll make life very sticky for you and Maddy both in the future. I'm not kidding - I want your word on this."

"I can keep a secret." Stefana nodded. "I promise. Go on."

Darren pursed his lips, his expression grave.

"My mother died of AIDS six years ago." He said softly. "We were very close - probably as close as you were to your Dad, so you'll know what it means when I say losing her was a big blow."

Stefana's eyes became big.

"Seriously?" She demanded. Darren nodded.

"Completely seriously." He agreed. "The difference between your Dad and my Mom though, Stef, was that your Dad died of a heart condition. My mother's life was almost considered over as she walked out of the hospital door after she was diagnosed. My father left when he found out. People shunned her. Shunned me. Treated us both like freaks of nature because she had a disease that people were scared of. Ignorant people, who thought they could catch it by talking to her or touching her or even socialising with her only son. Can you imagine what that was like? I felt it for her more than I did for me. She spent most of my childhood fighting my father to keep custody of me. I didn't want to go, but she constantly found herself in a battle with one narrow minded social worker after another who considered her care a 'high risk' environment. The number of times I was whisked off to spend a few nights in care because my mother's situation was 'inappropriate for a child'..."

He shook his head.

"Never mind that she was a damn fine mother." He added pensively. "That wasn't ever taken into consideration. They only ever saw the diagnosis. They never saw her as a person."

Stefana chewed on her lip, digesting this.

"No wonder you have issues." She said at length. "They just cut her out of it? Just like that?"

"Just like that." Darren agreed. "When I was in college, she was fairly sick and I couldn't leave state - though she wanted me to go somewhere where I could leave the stigma behind. I didn't go. I stayed close to home until she passed on. Then, six years ago, I came to California. It was liberating. Nobody here knew my past, or what other people had said about me. I could get a job based on what I could do, and I knew that what I could do was damn good work. I'm one of the best reporters in this city, Steffi, and I'm not going to make a secret of it."

He looked rueful.

"I guess a psychologist would say I get a kick out of wrecking people's lives because of the way other people wrecked my mother's." He added. "Issues make a reporter, Steffi, just as much as they make a musician. Don't forget that."

"So you kept Maddy's story quiet because you don't want her to go through what your mother did." Stefana said thoughtfully. "Darren, you're sounding dangerously human."

"Nobody should go through that." Darren agreed. "And I'm certainly not going to be the one to blow the whistle. She's not someone who cries and whines and begs the press for their attention every few minutes. She works hard and she keeps her head down. I respect that. She doesn't deserve her life to be wrecked just to sell a few papers. So I won't print it. And now you know why I'll keep my word...they'll never hear Maddy's story from me."

"How did it happen?" Stefana asked. "Your Mom, I mean. If your Dad left...did she have an affair? Or...?"

"Of course not." There was an edge to Darren's tone, and Stefana knew she'd hit a nerve. "She never would have. No, it didn't happen that way. She had a blood transfusion and it was infected. Some kind of mix up - I don't know how. I was...I was too small to know. All I knew was she got sick, my Dad left and there it was - Mom and me on our own from thereon in."

He shot her a sidelong glance.

"I don't have it, if you're wondering how to ask the question." he added. "It happened after I was born and with all the times I was dragged into social care, I had more blood tests than I like to remember."

"I wasn't going to ask the question." Stefana said frankly. "That would only matter to me if I was interested in bedding you which, by the way, I'm really not."

She flicked on her indicator, pulling into the car park of the restaurant. Pulling the car to a stop, she glanced at him, and her expression softened.

"I'm sorry you went through that." She said quietly. "I wouldn't have guessed you did...but it does make sense, now."

"Well, I've always felt guilty about my Mom." Darren shrugged his shoulders in resignation. "I couldn't help her either, really, and I know I must have been a huge burden on her, growing up - all those battles, all the problems of raising a child on her own...and everything else. But I know she'd want me to help Maddy, so that's why I'm doing this. Like I said, it's not really for you, or all that specifically for her. It's for people like my mother who have cruddy luck and have things happen to them that they don't deserve."

"I respect that." Stefana assured him. "And noone will hear about this from me, either. Not even Maddy, unless you say she can. I don't talk about my Dad much, either. But things do happen, you know. I mean, I wish I could have done something to save him but the bottom line is noone could. Nor your Mom. If she hadn't wanted you, she wouldn't have kept fighting for you. Doesn't sound to me like you have much to feel guilty about."

"Well, maybe not to you." Darren said with a frown. "But I feel it anyway. See, the reason she had the transfusion in the first place was because of me. She had complications when I was born, and she lost a whole load of blood. That's why they gave it to her. Because of me."

"More likely because some asshole doctor didn't do his job properly." Stefana said bluntly. Darren spread his hands.

"That too." He acknowledged. He offered a rueful grimace.

"And I'd appreciate that we quit talking about this now." He added. "I've never told a soul in California what I just told you, and I don't really like knowing that. I'm usually the one asking the questions - I feel safer there. So let's drop it, okay? You understand now - let's leave it at that."

Stefana unfastened her seatbelt, reaching over to open the door. She nodded.

"Not another word." She agreed. "After all, you still haven't told me how I look tonight, and even if this isn't a proper date, that's unforgiveable behaviour."

"Chivalry is dead - didn't you get the memo?" Darren quipped back at her, but there was relief in his eyes at the change of subject matter.

"I'll give you memo." Stefana glowered at him, and Darren grinned.

"You look like the perfect piece of Hell." He said, winking at her. "Come on. I'm anxious to try this Italian food that you think is so wonderful...I know it takes a lot to get in your good books, so the cooks must be nothing less than genius."

"They are exactly that." Stefana told him with a shrug. "Follow me and I'll introduce you to how a celebrity really lives!"

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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