"What are you waiting for, Stephanie? Coffee. Now."
Twenty-one year old Stevie Baskara groaned and rolled her eyes as she pushed the blue leather chair out from underneath her desk. Accepting the job as one of the most promising musical talents, Emilia Rose's, personal assistant (or 'underpaid minion' as Stevie referred to it as) was most likely the worst decision that Stevie had made in her life. Although the job description had proposed that Stevie would be able to develop her contacts in the music industry, she frequently found herself running back and forth between various coffee shops and fashion boutiques at Emilia's every beck and call.
Apparently Her Majesty was now ready for her afternoon caffeine dose, which meant that Stevie had to traipse across town to the only coffee lounge in Downtown LA that brewed hand-picked St Lucian coffee beans, in accordance with Emilia's demands. With a quick glance at the appointment book, Stevie realised that Emilia had a meeting with a record label in ten minutes. Stevie reached across the polished teak desk and dialled Emilia's office number on the building intercom.
After a few static bleeps, Emilia picked up the phone.
"Have you already forgotten my order, Suzy?"
"It's Stevie, and no, I haven't. I just wanted to remind you that you have a meeting with the record label at two."
"Oh I know."
"Well…are you sure that you want me to go on your coffee-run now? I can wait and help out with your meeting first?"
"Eva, darling, I'm the successful one here, not you; I can handle the meeting on my own. Now run along and get my coffee. Oh and get me a frozen yogurt too."
"Whatever you say," Stevie sighed as she hung up the phone.
The park opposite Emilia Rose's office building was busy with dog-walkers, joggers and truant youths. The cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, dusting the cobbled paths with showers of petal-confetti. The urban-calm, however, was rippled as Stevie thundered through the crowds, juggling tumblers in either hand. As Stevie grumbled under her breath about the availability of coffee beans, she failed to notice the bumbling crowd of businessmen that ambled towards her. Stevie was tossed like a pinball between the men, making Emilia's coffee stir a few more times than she liked and sending the frozen yoghurt hurtling towards the dirt. Unfortunately for Stevie, she tripped over something on the path and ended up joining the tub of yoghurt on the floor.
"Whoa, are you okay?" A startled voice asked from above.
'Oh my god, I'm dead.' Stevie thought. However, when Stevie's eyelids parted to reveal her hazel eyes, she realised that she was, in fact, still in LA and not hovering around in the afterlife. There was a shadow above her face which blanketed her from the sunlight and as she moved to sit up, Stevie was able to focus in on the owner of said shadow. The man seemed to be around her age and had slightly curled blackened brunette hair. His arm was stretched out towards Stevie, offering her a hand to lift her back on her feet.
Stevie locked her hand into the stranger's and he easily hoisted her upright. Impressive biceps, Stevie thought; not that she'd actually tell him that to his face. At least not when she was sober anyway. Stevie released her grip from the man's hand and looked into his eyes. His eyes were an earthy brown but still gleamed in the bright light. As Stevie continued to explore the man's features, the corner of his lips rose slowly into a smirk.
"You were rescued by a good looking guy; you do realise how lucky you are, right?" He grinned.
That voice, Stevie gushed inwardly. His voice was smooth and finely laced with a New York accent; a combination Stevie began to appreciate. After taking a moment to mentally-flail, it dawned on Stevie what the man had actually said.
"This guy also happens to be the douchebag that left his stuff all over the path where people walk," Stevie responded, gesturing to the man's charcoal-coloured ukulele case.
"Well sorry for thinking that the big black box might stand out enough for people to see it; it isn't my fault that you were too interested in your fro-yo."
"It wasn't my yogurt; it was my murderer's," Stevie stated. The man raised his eyebrows in response, so Stevie continued, "I was getting yogurt for my high maintenance boss. She's gonna kill me for a) dropping her yogurt and b) being late."
The man sighed and scratched his neck whilst he looked around, "I guess since I kinda made you late I should buy you another frozen yogurt."
"So you admit it was your fault?" Stevie asked and the man rolled his eyes, but he couldn't hide the small smirk that tickled his lips. "But you don't have to buy more yogurt; Emilia has the attention span of a goldfish so she's probably forgotten about it anyway."
"Hey, I can't leave a damsel in distress now can I?" He smirked.
During the walk to the Iced Berry frozen yogurt shack, Stevie learnt that the man went by the name of 'Zander' and that he was an aspiring musician, hence the ukulele. Zander had told her how his father had thrown him out just after he finished high school because Zander refused to go his father's chosen university. Being a New Yorker, Zander had a smooth transition when he moved states and he had been living in LA for nearly three years now.
"Do you live Downtown or nearer the coast?" Stevie asked. She enjoyed listening to Zander speak; the way he told his stories made Stevie feel a surge of emotion with every twist and turn.
"Downtown," Zander smiled.
"Nice choice," Stevie winked. "Where to, exactly?"
There was a brief pause as Zander looked slightly caught out by her question. "About five blocks from here. But enough about me, let's hear your story," Zander replied.
"Well my name is Stevie and it's a pretty boring story; I was born and raised in LA, I decided to jump in at the deep end and skip college to get a job and here I am, getting frozen yogurt with a complete stranger who assaulted me with his ukulele case."
"It was hardly assault; I just wanted to get you to fall for me," That comment earned Zander a slap on the arm from Stevie. "So what is this wonderful job that you bailed on college for?"
Stevie hesitated; she was never too keen to tell people about her dream job. She always thought that people would use her to get closer to Emilia and Zander wanting to be a famous musician almost guaranteed him to do just that. Zander seemed to pick up on her resistance, however, because he changed the subject.
"Forget it. What were you going to study in college?"
"I was actually going to major in music," Stevie smiled up at him and Zander couldn't help but think that he liked it when she looked at him like that.
"So you're a musician too? You just keep on getting more and more attractive," Zander's comment earned him a blush from the mocha-brunette girl which made his heart swell.
Stevie gave a slight nod before continuing, "I mainly play the bass but I know my way around the piano, cello, violin and ukulele."
"Really?" Zander exclaimed and Stevie smiled. "That's impressive. Here, strum out a song on Beth for me," Zander gestured to his ukulele.
"I would love to but I've been out of the office a ridiculously long time and have almost certainly lost my job. I should probably get back and collect my stuff before Emilia hands out my stuff on the street," Stevie joked.
Stevie started walking away with Emilia's frozen-yogurt in hand. It had been a long time since Stevie had met anyone as musically motivated as her. She'd been a part of a band in high school and her band-mates had also loved music; enough that the drummer, Kevin, and keyboardist, Nelson, had flown off to England to start their careers there. The last Stevie heard, they were auditioning people to join their new band and that had been years ago. However, the former band's lead singer, Kacey Simon, had given up on music to become a fashion designer; her other passion in life. Kacey was still in LA and still in-touch with Stevie, giving her some normality at least.
"Wait!" Zander's voice called behind Stevie and she turned around. He was still stood where she left him, his ukulele strapped to his back. "Will I ever see you again?"
"This isn't some fairytale, Zander! Who knows?" Stevie replied before she carried on walking toward the park exit. Though admittedly, the ache in Stevie's chest told her that she did want to see him again.
The next day, Stevie once again found herself wandering through the park upon Emilia's orders. Conveniently enough, Emilia had another meeting with a group of music producers this afternoon which she insisted Stevie missed in order to get her coffee. Stevie was beginning to wonder whether performing at one of Emilia's private parties a few months ago had been a good idea; Stevie's coffee-runs had started to mysteriously coincide with Emilia's meetings.
Stevie's train of thought was brought to a grinding halt by the flow of a perfectly tuned ukulele. Stevie turned her head to the right to find Zander sat on the same bench as yesterday, playing a song Stevie hadn't heard before. A small smile graced Stevie's lips as she changed direction towards the bench and sat on Zander's left.
"Is this bench your equivalent of a stage at your own sell-out concert?" Stevie smirked.
Zander turned to face the girl, his fingers pressing flat on the strings of the ukulele to quieten the instrument to mute. Zander's demeanour appeared to instantly change; his shoulders straightened from the sagged position in which he played and his eyes brightened to contrast the rare overcast conditions in LA.
"This bench is special but I'd gladly trade it up for a huge theatre," Zander winked.
Stevie's smirk softened into a smile. Zander clearly had the same dreams as she did; to perform on a stage for adoring fans, playing the music she believed in. "How come you're here again today?" She asked.
"Not all of us have the luxury of having their office indoors, Steves," Zander sighed.
Stevie was caught off guard for a few reasons. Primarily, he'd called her 'Steves'; they had only met yesterday but Zander was already familiar enough with her to give her a nickname? Sure, she had nicknames before but with Kacey being the only real friend that she talked to these days it was weird hearing such names from a different voice. The other thing that Stevie had picked up on was that Zander had suggested that his job was busking, which was odd seeing as he looked like he was able to take care of himself financially.
Stevie raised her eyebrows and asked, "are you telling me that you're a busker or something?"
Zander gave a sheepish nod, peeking up at Stevie through his eyelashes to gauge her reaction.
"That's cool," Stevie shrugged.
Zander's eyebrows shot up, "'cool'?!"
"It's not like you're in the mafia, Zander."
Zander laughed and playfully shoved Stevie, causing her to join in with his laughter. As their laughter quietened down, Stevie noticed the silhouette of a man, dressed completely in charcoal-black leather with the hood of his jacket covering his face from the light, staring in their direction. The man's hands were in his pockets and his head was ducked. Eventually, the man shook his head and slinked away across the vibrant green grass of the park. When Stevie looked back at Zander, he appeared to also have been looking in the direction of the man, his face looking glummer than moments before.
"If you're a busker, how come you're wearing clean clothes? Not cheap looking clothes for that matter," Stevie broke the silence between them. Zander inspected his clothes and shrugged,
"You want to know the secrets of my group, Miss Stevie?" Zander asked with a squeaky accent and a raised brow.
"Oh this ought to be good," Stevie snickered.
Zander winked at Stevie before starting, "I live with a bunch of guys and surprise, surprise; we're all buskers. We all pool our money together and it works."
Stevie's forehead scrunched in confusion, "how much do you guys earn?! I'm totally ditching my job to get in on this!"
"I wouldn't bother; it's not nice living with not much more than a uke to call your own," Zander sighed.
Stevie examined Zander's body language; his posture again became slouched, almost defeated, and the dirty tips of his fingers tapped mindlessly of the neck of his ukulele as he stared absently in front of him. Stevie suddenly had an overwhelming urge to move closer to him and she complied, moving close enough that their thighs grazed each other.
"You must have something that's yours, even if you and the guys share your money…" Stevie trailed off.
"Let's just say our place has a minimalistic design," Zander shrugged. "Depressive talk over, what brings you back to the park? Let me guess…a handsome ukulele player?"
"Yeah right let me know when you see one," Stevie scoffed. "I'm on another coffee run; when I got back to the office yesterday, Emilia had locked up and gone home. I was right when I told you she was a goldfish."
Zander chuckled again before looking to his hands. He took a deep breath before asking, "What are you doing tonight?"
Stevie froze. She'd heard this line before and it hadn't ended well.
"I don't suppose you'd like to accompany this lonely busker on his evening rounds?" Zander proposed, tilting his to the right to look at Stevie from the corner of his eyes.
"You want me to do your work for you? That doesn't sound fair," Stevie smiled innocently.
"I'll make it worth your while," Zander smirked flirtatiously and sat up straighter, rotating his body to face Stevie.
Stevie had to supress an eye roll at his remark. Nevertheless, she played along, "and how exactly do you plan on doing that?"
Zander's lips slithered into a smile and he gently began to lean closer to Stevie. Her breath caught in her chest when she felt Zander's comforting, warm breath dance against her ear.
"Unlimited hot chocolate; my treat."
Stevie was effectively slapped back into reality. He hadn't given her the answer she was expecting. He sat in front of her now, clearly basking in her discomfort. Stevie's eye narrowed towards him; he'd planned the whole scenario effectively. No matter how annoyed with him she was Stevie couldn't stop herself from agreeing to the…date? Was it even a date? Or was it just another opportunity for Zander to mess with her head?
"Great, I'll meet you here at seven-thirty. Dress pretty," Zander winked before slamming the ukulele case shut and pulling it with him as he stood. He then left, not giving Stevie to snap out of her trance and respond.
"I can't believe you're meeting up alone at night with some guy you met yesterday!" Kacey cried from Stevie's laptop which lay on her bed. Stevie rolled her eyes from where she was stood in front of the mahogany wardrobe in her bedroom. She was beginning to seriously regret deciding to video-chat Kacey to get her opinion on her outfit choices.
"Come on, Kace! If I thought he was going to try something I wouldn't be going!" Stevie argued.
"I'm just saying that you met this guy, like, twenty-four hours ago; can you really work out that quickly if he's a good guy?"
"That's the whole point of us going out, Kace; to figure out if he's decent," Stevie raised her eyebrows as she held a pair of ripped black skinny jeans against her legs and gestured for Kacey to give her opinion.
"Those jeans are hot," Kacey winked and Stevie laughed before retreating back behind the computer screen to put the trousers on. "Are you sure you're going to be okay, though?"
"I grew up with four brothers; I think I should be able to protect myself," Stevie reassured her friend.
"I expect you to text me when you get home to your apartment and are locked safely inside, okay?"
"Yes, mother. Now do you think I should wear the wine-coloured halter top with this?"
"Definitely! Are you gonna wear that owl pendant I bought you?"
"You know it," Stevie smiled as she slipped her top from its hanger in her wardrobe.
"So where is this guy taking you?" Kacey asked.
Stevie picked up the bronze owl pendant from the countertop of the chest of drawers and slide the sleek chain over her neck. She then grabbed her hairbrush from beside her mirror and fell on to her bed in front of her laptop. Kacey was sat at her dining table in the small, brightly painted kitchen in her own apartment. She was turned towards the right of her laptop, her face concentrated as she sketched in her drawing pad.
"Oh you know…the park down the street," Stevie said quickly as she began to run the hairbrush through her hair. Kacey froze and looked towards her laptop, her eyebrows raised incredulously above the lime-green frame of her glasses. It didn't take long for Kacey to burst into laughter.
"He does know that you're above the age of ten, right? And that he's not going on a play date?"
"That's not some kind of a height joke, right?" Stevie joked.
"It wasn't, but the park? Seriously?"
"That's what he said," Stevie shrugged and she finished brushing her hair and carelessly tossed her hairbrush to the side.
"Not spending money on the first date isn't a good sign," Kacey sang as she returned to her drawing.
"Maybe he's sentimental! And I never said it was a date!"
"If it's not a date then what is it?"
"It's…I don't know," Stevie sighed as she glanced at the silver digital clock at her bedside. "Whatever it is, I'm gonna be late so I'll talk to you later."
"Make sure you stay safe!" Kacey yelled as Stevie's mouse hovered over the 'end chat' button.
"I will, I promise," Stevie smiled before closing the chat and clearing away her laptop.
Stevie stood from the bed and slipped on her worn, black sneakers. The nerves inside her stomach began to tingle as she made her way to the hallway. She stopped at the small, dusty glass coffee table to sweep her keys and bag into her hands. With a final fluff of her hair in the mirror, Stevie walked towards the door and stepped out into the hallway. Here goes nothing, she thought as she the door clicked shut behind her.
The first thing Stevie noticed about the park that it was surprisingly busy for a cold Thursday evening. People of all ages were mindless as they wandered through the park, taking in all the beauty the small patch of tranquil LA had to offer. As Stevie walked down the path to the bench that was becoming very familiar to her, she rubbed her arms trying to get them warm again. Why she left the apartment without a jacket, she'll never know.
As she turned the corner around a tall piece of shrubbery, Stevie was met with something she didn't expect… at all. Zander was sat at the bench, which was normal, however he had decorated the bushes behind the bench with bluebell coloured fairy lights and beside the bench was a burning candle, protected from the wind by a jar. She couldn't hide the smile that bloomed onto her lips as she approached the bench and its occupant.
"Impressive effort," Stevie complimented. Zander turned to face her and, despite how much she didn't want to admit it to herself, Stevie's heart took a small leap. Zander was dressed in dark wash jeans and a white V-neck t-shirt. He, however, had been smart enough to throw a maroon hoodie over the top. Zander also had his ukulele like a sash across his chest, clearly ready to start playing a tune at any moment.
"You too; I wasn't aware we were planning on wearing matching outfits," he winked as his eyes drank in her attire.
"Yeah I totally made sure that happened," Stevie rolled her eyes as she walked around to Zander's left and sat down.
"For the lady," Zander grinned as he presented Stevie with a tumbler of hot chocolate, which she accepted quickly given how cold she was.
After a short silence Stevie moaned, "Man, I needed that. Who knew it would get this cold in LA?"
Zander obviously took her comment as a cue to impress. He removed the ukulele from around his chest and placed it gently in Stevie's lap. He then removed his hoodie and delicately balanced it on her shoulders.
"Giving me your jacket? Could you be anymore cliché?"
"We're surrounded by fairy lights on our first date and you think the jacket is cliché?" Zander chuckled.
First date. He'd finally said it. Stevie couldn't believe it; she had actually gone on a date with a guy she'd met twice before. Quite hypocritical of her, Stevie realised, after she'd spent numerous months judging girls who accepted dates with guys they randomly meet in bars. So far, though, she wasn't regretting her decision, Stevie decided as she slipped her arms in to the warm sleeves of Zander's jacket.
"I didn't know this was a date," Stevie commented, bringing the electric blue coffee tumbler up to her tinted crimson lips.
"…surprise?" Zander offered earning a laugh from the girl beside him. "We can call it something else if you want?"
"Nah I'm fine with it," Stevie shrugged.
"You wanted it to be a date," Zander taunted, poking Stevie gently in the side.
"It's still not too late for me to leave, you know."
"Oh but it is; you've got a job to do."
Stevie raised her eyebrow at her companion. He appeared to be deadly serious about this busking-date idea. It scored him points for originality, but Stevie wasn't sure if she wanted people to be staring at her pitifully all night.
"And what exactly do you expect me to do?" she asked.
A youthful grin spread across Zander's face; his delight at the prospect of making music with Stevie too much to hide.
"That's what we need to figure out," Zander grinned. "First of all; do you sing?"
"Yes…" Stevie looked unsure.
"Then that's your job."
"What? No! How about I sit here and you play at your imaginary concert on your own?"
"Okay, what if I play the ukulele and you sing?" Stevie proposed.
"I think everyone in this park is fed up of my singing; time to bring in fresh meat," Zander smirked and Stevie looked disgruntled.
"You know, a real gentleman wouldn't force a girl into doing something she didn't want to do on the first date," Stevie glared softly at Zander, who remained unfazed.
"Too bad I'm too poor to be a gentleman. Now start singing, baby!"
"Okay, as much as it pains me to say it; I actually had a lot of fun tonight," Stevie laughed as she and Zander walked towards her weathered, red-brick apartment building. Zander's arm had slinked its way into the crook of her elbow as they sauntered through the crisp late night air. The pair had spent the past two hours serenading passers-by with the alluring combination of Stevie's voice and Zander's ukulele, earning Zander a lot more change than what he was used to.
"I knew you would; chicks dig the ukulele," Zander smirked before Stevie hit his arm with a stinging slap. "Ow! You know, Steves, our relationship isn't going to last long if you keep hitting me!"
"I don't remember agreeing to a relationship," Stevie raised a sculpted eyebrow as she turned her head to the left to look at him.
"Not yet anyway."
Turning her head to face the streetlamp lined street once again, a small smile flirted with Stevie's lips; Zander had been dropping lines like this all night. Normally Stevie wouldn't give guys the time of day if pick up lines spewed out every time they opened their lips, but, for some reason, whatever Zander said to her made her laugh or smile. If her brothers could see what Zander was doing to her she wouldn't be able to live it down.
"We're going to do this again, right?" Zander asked is a somewhat sheepish tone that surprised Stevie.
"I don't know; would there be more hot chocolate on offer?" Stevie smiled.
"Whatever you want," Zander laughed quietly.
"But you'll sing next time, right?"
"It depends if the moment is right."
Stevie's forehead crinkled slightly as she looked at him again. "What 'moment'?"
"The moment where I sing to you for the first time," Zander smiled genuinely.
"You've got to be kidding me?" Stevie snorted.
"What?! I thought girls would find that sweet!"
"I think you're forgetting that I'm not like most of the airheads you sing to on a daily basis."
"I know you're different; most girls wouldn't go out with a busker."
"Well I'm glad I did," Stevie beamed with pride as she looked at Zander.
The duo came to a stop in front of the cheap glass doors of Stevie's apartment building. Stevie stopped slightly ahead of Zander and turned to face him. Zander's arm that had been crossed through Stevie's had slide down her arm and stopped at her had where his fingers now played with hers.
"I am too; I really liked having you around, Stevie," he complimented as he ducked his head slightly.
"Well next time make sure you pick some better music to perform," Stevie said trying to lighten the mood.
"Those songs were classics!" he defended.
"Yeah, when my mom was in her teens."
"I think I'm gonna have to give you a lesson in music appreciation," Zander threatened playfully, taking a step closer to Stevie which left barely any space between them.
"Oh really?" Stevie smiled as seductively as she could master.
"Yep and I warn you; it's a very intense course," Zander whispered huskily.
"Interesting," Stevie murmured back before she rocked on her feet to balance on her toes. "Let me know when and where," she spoke in a soft, slow voice into Zander's ear. Stevie then took a step back, taking in Zander's hungry expression before she pivoted towards the door to the building. As she pushed the door open to step inside, she was interrupted.
"Aren't you going to ask me inside for 'coffee'?" Zander sneered playfully, making inverted commas with his fingers as he mentioned 'coffee'.
"I would but I have work to do tomorrow so I can't be up all night," Stevie winked before strolling into the building, grinning.
"Who would have thought that Miss Stevie Baskara could be so seductive?" Kacey's excited voice gushed through Stevie's sleek cell-phone. Stevie chuckled into her cell as she walked the familiar path through the park during her lunch hour. She promised herself that she was taking a shortcut to the bookstore through the park but she couldn't fool her emotions; she wanted to see Zander sat on the same seasoned bench as always, strumming away on his ukulele. As she fled her office building, Stevie had received a text from Kacey demanding that she call her as soon as possible to fill her in on last night's events.
"I wasn't trying to be sexy; I was just playing along with him!" Stevie defended herself before biting down on the corner of her lip.
"So you were flirting then?"
"Did you not say less than five minutes ago that he flirted with you all night?"
"…I might have."
"Exactly! Why won't you admit it? Steve, you're attracted to this Zander guy!"
Stevie paused, "so what if I am? I'm clearly just his busking buddy."
"From what you've told me, I think there's more to it than that."
The interruption of sweet music floating through the air allowed Stevie to not to respond to Kacey. She hurriedly mumbled an excuse to her friend and cut her off mid-sentence before shoving her cell haphazardly into her bag. As much as Stevie wanted to deny it, she picked up speed and rounded the corner with a grin on her face. That wide smile, however, dropped off her lips immediately as she was met with a blond man sat on Zander's bench, an abused ukulele being plucked by his fingers.
The man obviously sensed her presence and turned to face her, a devilish smirk forming on his face as he met her disheartened expression. Now facing her, Stevie could see a small scar above the upper right corner of his lip that followed the direction of his small lips as he smiled.
"I'm not who you expected, I'm guessing?" he asked her.
Stevie shook her head and began to walk slowly past him. She'd talked to a musical stranger once and look where that had gotten her.
"You're Stevie, right?" she stopped walking immediately. "That's a yes. Zander's talked a lot about you." That caught her interest.
Stevie spun around and moved to stand closer to the bench, not feeling comfortable enough to sit with a stranger who some how knew her name.
"And how do you know Zander?" Stevie asked with a characteristic elevated eyebrow.
"Cool it, babe, we live together; I haven't kidnapped him, no need to panic," the blond man laughed.
"Don't call me that."
"Whatever you want. Anyway how was your romantic evening with our man, Zander?"
"I had a great time, not that it's any of your business."
"Wow, Zander said you were feisty but I didn't expect this!"
Stevie sighed, "Sorry, it's just that it's not everyday that a complete stranger comes up to me knowing details of my life."
"It's cool," the man smiled. "I'm Nathaniel, by the way, but my friends call me Nate."
Stevie nodded in response. "Where is Zander today, anyway?"
"He's on watch this afternoon, didn't he tell you?" Nate asked confusedly as Stevie creased her brow.
"What do you mean 'on watch'?" she asked.
"Oh man, he hasn't told you yet?"
"Told me what?"
"It's better you hear it from him than from me," Nate sighed as he moved his gaze to his ukulele.
Stevie studied Nate's body language; he appeared to be conflicted, as though part of him wanted to blurt the truth into her face any second.
"He's not guarding a dead body or something is he?" Stevie gasped with widening eyes.
"Not that I'm aware of. Look, when I see him next I'll tell him he's got a lot of explaining to do," Nate shrugged as he packed away his things. Stevie watched him as he did so, her gaze drawing to the inscribed tattoo art on his wrist. "I'll see you around," Nate bid her farewell.
What has she gotten herself into?
A shrill buzzing noise rang through Stevie's apartment at nine-thirty that night. It hadn't been long since she had gotten out of the shower, so her hair was still wrapped intricately in a white towel and she wore a large purple hoodie with blue pyjama shorts. When Stevie reached the doorbell answering phone beside her door, she picked up the receiver only to be greeted with the familiar sound of a ukulele flowing through the phone.
"Zander?" Stevie asked her eyebrows knitted together in confusion.
"Stevie! Finally!" Zander let out a breath of relief.
"Is there any particular reason that you're playing you're ukulele through my receiver at night?"
"Let me in and I'll explain," Zander said. Stevie sighed and pressed the button to let Zander into the building.
It then occurred to Stevie that Zander was on his way to her apartment and she was currently stood balancing a towel on her head. She ripped the towel from her head quickly and tossed it into the coat closet in the hallway, making a mental note to retrieve it later. It was then that Zander rapped his knuckles on the door softly and she Stevie took a breath and opened the door.
"Hey – whoa," Zander's eyes widened with shock.
"I just got out of the shower so I look awful," Stevie shrugged as she stepped aside, allowing Zander into her home.
"You really don't, trust me," Zander complimented with his gaze firmly placed on her legs.
Stevie smiled, slightly embarrassed, to herself as she quietly shut the front door before leading Zander to her living room. The room was small; there was one cream sofa with an oak coffee table placed before it. The olive green walls of the room were lined with bookshelves and pictures. It probably wasn't common custom to invite a random guy you met a few days ago into your apartment when you live alone, but recently Stevie found herself breaking a lot of courtesies.
Stevie flopped down on to the couch, folding her legs underneath her neatly, and smiled warmly at Zander to sit next to her. When he did sit down, Stevie noticed two things; they were sat close enough that her knees pressed deeply into Zander's thigh and that Zander was yet to stop smiling as he looked at her. The two sat in silence for a moment, it was comfortable and they were both quite content to simply smile at each other and communicate with their eyes.
"Nate said that you two met today," Zander eventually whispered, watching her face for any sign of a reaction.
"Yeah, he seemed okay…a little weird though," Stevie shrugged.
Zander laughed quietly. "A lot of people say that. He lightens up when you get to know him though."
Stevie nodded. Zander was looking at her expectantly, as if he wanted her to say something. She knew what he wanted her to mention, but Stevie wanted to see if he'd talk about it himself.
"He also said that you thought I was a murderer?" Zander asked.
"I asked if you were guarding a body, I said nothing about murder."
"Well I wasn't guarding a body," Zander rolled his eyes.
"Then what were you doing, Zander? Because this 'watch' thing doesn't sound good when Nate won't say anything about where you are!" Stevie exclaimed. She was worried, Stevie realised, that Zander had gotten himself into something that could land in him in major trouble.
"I didn't really want to tell you yet," Zander sighed, cradling his head in his arms.
Stevie changed position to scoot towards Zander. She placed her right hand on his firm shoulder, her thumb stroking back and fore softly.
"Zander, are you in some kind of trouble?" Stevie murmured.
Zander titled his head to look at her. Genuine concern was spread across her face and he felt like a jerk for getting her so worried. He sat up, her hand fell gently off his shoulder but Zander took it between his two calloused hands.
"I'm not in trouble, Steves. I just…I don't want your opinion of me to change," Zander explained.
"I'm not gonna judge you, Zander. I like and respect you too much for that," Stevie reassured.
Zander smiled weakly before looking towards his lap as he took a breath. He slowly raised his head to look at Stevie.
"I know you're cool with me being a busker, which is awesome. But there's more to it than that. Remember when I told you that my dad threw me out?" Zander asked and Stevie nodded. "Well when I left all I had was a backpack with some of my clothes in and my uke. I had no money and my dad took my car."
Stevie nodded her head again, but she was absolutely astounded that a father could treat his child that way. "But how did you get to LA with no money?"
"I rode with a couple of generous people who were willing to pick up a hitchhiker," Zander shrugged nonchalantly.
"You idiot!" Stevie slapped his arm. "Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?!"
"Hey, I was a kid with a dream! And what's life without a few risks, right? Anyway, when I got to LA I was starving and desperate to find a place to stay. So I sat on the bench in the park considering my options; the bench by the bushes or the bench under the trees. But then I heard someone playing a guitar and being the musically driven guy I am, I followed the sound. That's when I met Nate."
"So you're big secret is that you were essentially a free-loader?" Stevie looked at Zander in confusion.
"It doesn't end there. Nate saw my ukulele and my backpack and told me to play him a song, and that if I impressed him, he'd have an offer for me. So I played him a song and sang a little bit and then Nate offered me a place to stay," Zander gestured with his hands.
"I'm guessing from your tone that the part you're worrying about comes next?" Stevie offered and Zander bobbed his head. "Try and shock me," she winked.
"Okay, so I agreed to stay with Nate. I didn't really think about how dangerous it was to hang out with a stranger but you've done the same with me, so it can't be as bad as I thought," Zander teased. "Anyway he took me to a building five blocks away from the park and I've lived there since."
"What's so bad about that?" Stevie was thoroughly confused by now.
"The building we live in…it's abandoned. We're squatters," Zander stated as he waited for Stevie's reaction.
Squatters. Stevie wasn't exactly expecting that. Both Zander and Nate looked so well taken care of Stevie never thought to make the connection to Zander's reluctance to talk about his home life. Stevie processed the name Zander had given to him and his friends; they were essentially homeless. She'd been seeing a homeless man without knowing it. This completely changed her opinion of those less fortunate than herself; she'd always hurried past men camped out on the sidewalk and never looked one straight in the eye for fear of the consequences. But for the past few days, Stevie had found herself longing to be in Zander's presence.
"I'm taking the silence as a bad thing," Zander sighed. "I knew I shouldn't have told you. I'll see myself out," Zander looked torn apart.
"Don't go," Stevie whispered, her grip latching onto his bicep to pull Zander back into the seat next to her. "I'm just trying to get my head around it."
"Look, I'll understand if you don't wanna see me anymore, just don't think you have to keep me around out of pity, Stevie," Zander told her.
"I'm not gonna do that, Zander. You've just got to understand this is kind of a shock for me."
"I know it is. If you want to think it over on your own for a while, I'll leave you alone until you give the nod."
"You're not going anywhere, Z. Tell me more about this…building of yours," Stevie demanded, her demeanour starting to soften again.
Zander smiled. "There are six floors; the first floor was a shop and the other floors were studio apartments. We can also get onto the roof, which is pretty cool in the summer."
"How come nobody's ever found you there?"
"The cops know we're there but since the building is in such a state that no one should use it, they don't really bother us," Zander clarified.
"So you're living in an unsafe building?!" Stevie cried. "Do you have a death wish?"
"It's not as bad as the authorities think it is."
"Does this place have heating or electricity?"
"The whole point of a building being abandoned is that it doesn't have anything useful in it, Steve," Zander snorted.
"Shut up," Stevie laughed. "I just thought that it would be like the films where you hacked into the power grid or something!"
"This isn't make-believe, Stevie. We just light fires when we need them."
"Oh so now you have fires in an unsafe building, this just keeps getting better," Stevie mumbled.
"As much as I appreciate the concern, they're controlled fires so there's no need to panic, baby," Zander winked.
Stevie rolled her eyes playfully and the two fell into a hush once again. When Stevie looked at Zander now, she didn't see him any differently despite knowing more about his lifestyle. So what if he lived in an abandoned building? He was the same guy that tripped her up in the park, took her on a charming busking date and serenaded her through her apartment receiver.
"When are you taking me to see your place?" Stevie asked.
"Are you indirectly asking me for sex?" Zander joked which led to Stevie smacking him three times across the face with a pillow. "Okay, I'm sorry! No need to get violent!"
"You were being a pig!"
"Whatever. How about tomorrow night? I'll pick you up, take you to my place and you can meet the rest of the guys," Zander proposed.
"I don't think I want to go there now," Stevie pouted, wrapping her arms around herself and turning away from Zander slightly.
"Awh, baby, I'm sorry," Zander cooed. Stevie felt the sofa cushion she was sat on sink slightly to the right and soon followed Zander's arms, weaving their way around Stevie's waist to pull her towards him.
"I'm still not gonna go," Stevie sang.
"Please, Stevie? I won't make anymore jokes like that unless you beg for them," Zander bargained.
After a moment, Stevie taunted, "Well I suppose I could show up."
Zander squeezed Stevie's waist with delight and her squeal ran through the room, causing Zander to laugh as well. Eventually they quietened down, though Zander's arms remained wrapped around Stevie.
"It's getting late," Stevie sighed, turning her head towards Zander.
"Don't make me go; I'm comfortable," Zander whined, hugging Stevie close to him again.
"Zander, release," Stevie ordered. Zander then unwound his arms and stood up, grumbling as he did so.
"I'll walk you out," Stevie smiled tauntingly.
Stevie walked through the hallway to the door to her apartment. She turned the brass knob of the door and pulled it open for Zander. He took a step outside the doorway, but turned to face her again.
"Thanks for not freaking out on me," Zander smiled sheepishly.
"There's nothing to freak out about," Stevie reassured him.
"I mean it, Steves. It would have killed me if you weren't so accepting of it," Zander told her.
"Don't worry about it; I still think you're the idiot who tripped me up on purpose to get me to talk to him," Stevie cheeked.
"I'm really glad I planned that," Zander looked genuinely into Stevie's autumnal hazel eyes. "Good night, Stevie," Zander whispered before he leant in and pressed his lips to her skin. He was millimetres away from her lips and he kept his lips against her skin for a few seconds, before pulling away slowly. He then turned and walked towards the iron staircase, his footsteps chorusing behind him.
The following day, Stevie was broken out of serenity as she read the worn novel held in her hands by a high-pitched ring that rippled through Stevie's apartment, signalling Zander's arrival. Stevie closed the jade green novel and placed it delicately on the coffee table before grabbing her woollen navy cardigan from the arm of the sofa. As Stevie walked towards the front door, her feet slapped rhythmically against the floor and her key-rings joined them with a clatter as she picked them up.
Not bothering in picking up the receiver, Stevie closed her apartment door behind her and she made her way downstairs to meet Zander. She probably should have checked who was calling her apartment, Stevie thought, but she didn't usually have any visitors so it was more than likely to be Zander. As she made her way down the stairs, the butterflies in her stomach started to flutter nervously. Stevie wasn't sure how Zander was going to act towards her today; he'd kissed her last night, sure it was on the cheek, but was he going to fall back into the gentle teasing dynamic they had between them? But he was taking her to his place today and she was meeting his friends; that had to mean something, right?
Stevie snapped back into reality as she stepped, rather abruptly, off the staircase and onto the creaky, wooden floor of the apartment building. Through the fingerprint dotted glass, Stevie could see Zander; he had his back turned towards the door and his hands stuffed in the pockets of his black leather jacket. Stevie bit her lip and moved slowly towards the door.
As the door screeched open, Zander turned to face her. A happy grin spread immediately across his lips, which made Stevie blush slightly. As the door sluggishly swung shut behind them, Stevie and Zander stood looking at each other, both waiting to see how the other would act. Again, Stevie was the most stubborn of the pair, leaving Zander to make the first move.
"Hey," he winked.
Is that it, Stevie thought? "Hi."
There was another short pause before Zander stepped towards Stevie and wrapped his arms around her waist before pulling her into a hug. Although she wasn't expecting it, Stevie enjoyed the embrace and reciprocated, coiling her arms around his neck. They stayed in that position for a few seconds before Zander loosened his grip, only to press his lips to her hairline.
"You ready for this?" his hot breath tickled her skin.
Leaning back out of his grasp to look at Zander's eyes, Stevie chuckled, "you make it sound as if this is going to be the end of the world."
"Well it could be the end of us if the building and the guys creep you out," Zander shrugged with a groan as he removed his hands from around her.
"I told you last night; I don't care about where you live. And I have four brothers, so your friends are gonna have to work pretty hard to freak me out. Now let's go to this palace of yours," Stevie teased which appeared to break Zander's sullen mood.
"Sadly I left my horse and carriage at the castle so we're gonna have to walk like peasants," Zander played along. He then twisted his fingers through Stevie's and led towards the right of the street.
"Welcome to la Casa de Robbins," Zander gestured to a tall building in a quiet street of LA. The building had once been painted a comforting cream-colour but over the years it had been battered by the elements, leaving the foggy grey bricks exposed on the sides and corners of the building. Each level of the building had three large windows on the front side which had now been boarded up. The windows aligned on the right had cast iron fire escapes running down them leading to an old sign, advertising the old shop as "Harper's".
"It's…charming," Stevie complimented, not quite sure how Zander wanted her to react.
"You don't have to pretend to like it, Steves," Zander laughed.
"No I do! I love fire escapes; there's something artistic about them," Stevie shrugged admittedly.
"Whatever you say, Picasso," Zander smiled. "I haven't been here since this morning so I don't know what kind of state the place is gonna be in," Zander groaned as he led Stevie to the back alley of the street.
"Well you said that you and four other guys live here, right?" Zander nodded. "In that case, it'll be like a dump."
"I think you'll find my level of the building is spotless…or as spotless as an abandoned building will get."
"Wait, you have one floor of the building to yourself?" Stevie asked incredulously.
"All of us do," Zander told her as if it was the most obvious thing.
When they reached the back of the building, Zander stood his combat boot of the mesh fence surround the building and helped Stevie across it before walking over it himself. The small patch of land at the back of the building had been paved over, yet small patches of life had sprung up between the cracks in the paving stones. The back of the building itself had faired worse than the front; neon colours streaked the brickwork; large creatures had been depicted amongst the scrawl of names and phrases. One illustration in particular had seemed to have been grafted over more than the others; it was a fierce looking dragon with swirled green and blue scales breathing smoke clouds through its nostrils in the shape of the letters C and D.
"That's our mural courtesy of Chuckie D, one of the guys I live with. Not only is he a genius with the saxophone, he knows his way around a spray can too," Zander explained to her.
Stevie walked towards the building and dragged her fingers lightly across the jagged brick surface. She traced the lines of Chuckie's drawings. "They're amazing."
"I can't help but agree with you," a voice deeper than Zander's replied. She looked to the fire exit on the right and saw a bulky man stood in the doorway. He looked to be in his late twenties with thick black hair and dark curls covered his chin. He wore simply a band t-shirt and dark-wash jeans that stretched tightly over his rounding stomach and chunky, white rimmed glasses on his face.
"I'm guessing that you're Chuckie," Stevie greeted, gesturing to the honey yellow paint that tinted his hands.
"That's Mr D to you," Chuckie retorted.
"Nah, I prefer 'Chuckie'," Stevie shrugged as she walked back to Zander's side.
"She's got a backbone; nice choice, Robbins," Chuckie nodded at Zander with a wry grin.
"Yeah I know," Zander smiled, ducking his head shyly as he moved his hand towards Stevie's to weave his fingers around Stevie's.
"All of the guys are inside, unless you two want to stay out here for privacy," Chuckie winked.
"Well…" Zander started until Stevie thrust her elbow into his gut to stop his remark. "Fine we'll go see the guys," Zander choked out.
Chuckie snorted something to himself and held the door open for Stevie and Zander as they walked past him. Zander led Stevie through what used to be an old stockroom but now stood empty with only a rotting bench pushed against the wall opposite the fire exit. The door at the back of the room opened into a hallway, which was illuminated only by the final few beams of sunlight filtering in through the rectangular windows. The end of the hallway met a small space that was bordered by an old counter. In front of the counter was what had previously been the shop floor. Empty plastic shelving stood in orderly lines through the spaces and old posters advertising special offers were plastered onto the side walls. The view from the front windows had been blocked by the wooden panels Stevie had seen outside. Stevie had expected the building to be in a dismal state considering the authorities handling of Zander and his squatting gang, but she was surprised to find no hazardous mould growing up the walls and for there not to be holes in the black and white chequered floors leading to a basement.
Zander tugged Stevie's arm gently to snap her out of her exploration and he gave her a reassuring smile which she returned. Zander began to pull her in the direction of a twirling, rusted staircase on the left. Stevie stepped over an old, trampled builder's glove on the floor which had been abandoned when Harper's shut up shop. When they reached the bottom of the staircase, Zander stepped onto the first ledge of the staircase and the metallic beast let out a tired groan. This caused Stevie's eyes to widen and she pulled on Zander's hand to try and get him off the staircase.
"It's okay, Steves. The metal is just really old and Nate checked the bolts on it; it's secure," Zander comforted her as his thumb began to sweep back and fore over her hand.
Stevie nodded and Zander took this as a sign to continue walking up the stairs. Stevie followed, inwardly wincing at every screech the metal made. When they eventually made it to the top of the stairs, a wide open room was revealed. The room was painted dirty beige and scratched oak flooring made the room feel warmer. The windows here had also been boarded up, prompting the occupants to light several candles around the room.
"Well if it isn't Mr and Mrs Robbins," a voice cheered from across the room. Stevie then noticed two dimly lit silhouettes sat on a sofa across the other side of the room and in front of them slouched another.
"Leave them alone, Danny," Chuckie defended as he walked around Stevie and Zander and towards the figures.
"Hey you guys were no easier on me and Cassidy!" exclaimed another voice.
"Yeah, how are you and your Cuddly-Wuddly Cassie doing, Harrison?" Zander scoffed at the dark shape. "Ignore them, they're just playing with you," Zander whispered to Stevie.
"I can handle it, Z," Stevie insisted as she motioned with her head for him to take her over to the sofa.
Zander beamed at Stevie happily before he guided her over to the group of men. Taking a deep breath, Stevie forced a believable smile onto her face as she got further to the group who were only visible because of the glow from the candles.
"Guys, this is Stevie," Zander announced with a flick of his wrist in her direction.
"Really? I thought she was the other chick you'd been blabbering about for days…oh wait all we've heard is Stevie, Stevie and more Stevie," the copper haired man sat on the left of the sofa sneered.
Stevie turned to Zander with a teasing grin on her face and Zander muttered for the man to shut up.
"Believe me, Stevie, you have no competition for Zander to worry about; he's talked about nothing but you," the young man with toffee brown hair sat on a green beanbag said. "I'm Harrison, by the way."
Stevie smiled at Harrison kindly before turning to the red head, "and you are?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Danny," he answered, clearly off-put by Stevie's tone.
"Well Danny, thanks for your attempted joke but if you could cut the attitude that would be great," Stevie gave him a saccharine sweet smile. The four other men laughed and Nate, who was sitting next to Danny on the couch, slapping Danny on the arm as he guffawed.
"Look girlie, you may have Zander whipped like a little puppy but it won't work with me," Danny retorted, Zander throwing a glare at him and Stevie joined him with narrowed eyes.
"You guys are getting on so well!" Chuckie praised sarcastically as he made himself comfortable on an old footstool. "Zander, find some way to occupy your girl before we end up scraping Danny off the wall."
"I'm out of here," Danny declared, slinging a scarlet guitar over his shoulder and storming across the room and up the stairs.
"What an ass," Stevie muttered to Zander and he laughed.
"He just doesn't like getting out-sassed by a girl," Zander teased her and squeezed her hand gently.
"Are you two just gonna stand there all night or are you gonna sit down and socialise?" Harrison asked, nodding his head towards the vacant seat on the sofa.
Zander turned to Stevie, "do you wanna stay down here?"
"Of course," Stevie smiled brightly at him. The two moved towards the sofa and Zander took a seat next to Nate, which left Stevie with nowhere to sit so she perched herself on the arm of the sofa. Zander, however, had a different idea and he grabbed Stevie by the waist, pulling her down onto his lap. Stevie wasn't quite expecting this and she thought that Zander was beginning to teeter out of the friendship-zone. But friends sat in each other's laps, right? And held hands? And occasionally kissed one another? Of course they didn't. Stevie had to admit it to herself; hers and Zander's relationship was developing rapidly and she definitely liked where it was going.
"Wait so he hid up a tree when the cop came?" Stevie snorted and Harrison nodded his head.
"Yep; he ran like a little girl," Nate laughed loudly, pushing Zander gently.
"Well sorry for not wanting to get arrested!" Zander exclaimed.
Stevie turned to look Zander in the eye. "Don't worry; I accept that you've got the courage of a hamster."
Zander began to squeeze Stevie's waist, making her squeal and try to squirm out of his grasp. The three other men in the room groaned.
"Were Cassidy and I like this?" Harrison mumbled to Chuckie.
"You were much, much worse," Chuckie replied with his thick eyebrows arched over the frame of his glasses.
"I'm so sorry," Harrison grunted.
"I don't think I can take any more of this," Nate shrugged and got up off the sofa. Stevie and Zander had stopped flirting and were looking at Nate breathlessly. "I'm gonna go play some guitar with Danny."
"Oh tell him I say 'hey'," Stevie cheeked with a wink. Nate chuckled and shook his head as he moved toward the staircase.
"You know, we should really rehearse too," Chuckie suggested to Harrison, who nodded and heaved himself off the beanbag.
"What instrument do you play, Harrison?" Stevie asked as she scooted off Zander's lap and onto the cushion beside him. Although there was still barely any space between them, Zander pouted at the loss of contact.
"The triangle," Harrison replied bluntly and Stevie's eyebrows shot down quickly in response. "I'm kidding; I play the violin," he chuckled.
"Oh cool! We need to compare skills some time," Stevie smiled.
"Definitely," Harrison replied. "It was nice meeting you, Stevie," he said before he left the room, closely followed by Chuckie who gave Stevie a salute.
Zander rotated his body to look at Stevie. She appeared completely relaxed and he was really happy that she seemed to get on well with the guys…except for Danny. But they'd learn to get on eventually…well, they'd have to seeing as Zander planned to keep Stevie in his life for as long as possible. Stevie met his gaze and slowly reached for Zander's hand. She slowly dragged her fingertips down the palm of his hand to the end of his fingers.
"I'm really glad I came here," Stevie whispered in a soft voice.
"I'm glad you did too. The guys really like you, I can tell," Zander complimented as Stevie blushed a faint red.
"I like them too. I also like where you live; you all seem really happy," Stevie said as she twisted her fingers around Zander's.
"I am happy; I've got music and the guys and you."
"You're so corny!" Stevie sniggered.
"I thought it was romantic!"
"Here's a life tip for you; if you think something's romantic, it's probably cheesy," Stevie soothed sarcastically.
"Oh so if my ideas are so clichéd I'm guessing you don't want to come up to the roof and roast marshmallows with me?"
"Are you kidding me? That involves candy; let's go!" Stevie beamed excitedly, jumping from the sofa and pulling Zander with her.
"This is pretty cool," Stevie spoke quietly. She and Zander were huddled on a tartan picnic blanket on the roof of the building. Zander leant against the short wall bordering the building's edge and Stevie sat in between his legs as they watched small burning pieces of paper hover up out of the fire burning inside a metal trash can. They spent an immeasurable amount of time talking and eating underneath the open sky of LA. During the whole time they had been there, Zander and Stevie had gotten up once so that Zander could get one of his sweaters for Stevie to wear. Stevie threw her head back against Zander's shoulder as he told her a joke whilst he roasted a marshmallow in a small hole he'd made in the side of the bin.
After holding the marshmallow in the jaws of the flames for a while, Zander pulled it out and let it cool in the crisp evening air. Eventually he held the treat towards Stevie's mouth for her to eat. As she licked her lips clean, something in the pit of Zander's stomach churned as he watched her tongue escape between her lips.
"I think this may be your best corny idea yet," Stevie sighed happily, interrupting Zander from his thoughts. Zander placed the skewing rod beside him and wrapped his arms tightly around Stevie's waist, resting his head on her shoulder.
"I'm glad you like it," Zander responded and Stevie leant her head against his gently.
"Although you've done a lot of cheesy things for me, Z, I really appreciate all of them."
"You deserve them, Steves. You don't realise how much you mean to me."
"Not to sound too cynical but we've only known each other for a few days," Stevie interjected.
"I know but in those few days you've helped me a lot."
"A couple of days ago I felt like I was forgetting why I was making music. But when I met you, it all made sense," Zander explained briefly.
"What made sense?" Stevie asked, removing her head from its position in order to turn to face Zander.
"You reminded me that I'm working towards my goal from the bottom for a reason; the people you meet and things you learn along the way. You made me realise that me living here doesn't define who I am or what I can do with my life. Steves, you showed me that it doesn't really matter that I'm starting my music career singing in a park for a few dollars; I'm doing what I love and I'm making great friends along the way."
Stevie's eyes flickered over Zander's face; he was so genuine in what he said and spoke so passionately about music. He looked determined and Stevie knew that Zander was going to make a name for himself. But most of all she saw that Zander was adamant that she was his reason for singing. That was probably the main reason why Stevie pulled Zander's face closer to hers and pressed a hard, long kiss to his cheek.
"Thank you," Stevie whispered.
"For what?" Zander sounded perplexed.
"You've given me something to think about," Stevie declared as she unwound Zander's arms from around her body and stood up.
"Well could you un-think it because I was really comfortable in that position," Zander whined as he looked up at her.
"I have something I need to do. I'll see you tomorrow, right?" Stevie asked as she began to move to the rusting door to the stairs.
"Wait you're leaving now?" Zander yelled disappointedly.
"Yeah but I'll make it up to you, I promise!" Stevie called to Zander before she turned and flew down the staircase and out of sight.
The sun had finally broken out through the clouds the following afternoon. Zander was sat out in the faint sunshine at his usual post on the park bench. He'd been there since ten that morning and the crowds of tourists had obviously flocked to the beach in the brightening weather, leaving Zander to play his ukulele to himself for most of the time. His slow day hadn't been broken up by a visit from Stevie either, which was strange. She normally came to find him early in the afternoon but Zander's watch had recently bleeped to alert him that it was now four o'clock and there was still no sign of her. He hadn't seen Stevie since she abruptly darted out of the door at his place last night. Zander had no idea what she had to do; probably some girl-stuff, he told himself. Looking down at the scratched scarlet watch on his right wrist, Zander let out a sigh; he needed to get back to Harper's to get ready for his evening busking rounds with the guys.
Zander stood slowly and laid his ukulele on top of the bed of coins strewn in his ukulele case. As he started making his way out of the park, Zander couldn't help but feel a slight gut-punch of sadness that Stevie hadn't turned up today. Sure, he couldn't expect her to turn up to a park to see him everyday but she did give him his word. A hushed cynical voice taunted Zander that Stevie had just lied to him to get out of the date quicker. It whispered that she was mortified to have been sat in some dank abandoned building with a group of wannabe-musicians and wanted to get away from there- from him- as fast as she could. Zander pushed these thoughts aside and remembered how happy the two had been last night talking with the guys and sitting on the roof of the building.
Suddenly, Zander was brought back into the real world as a heavy weight threw itself against his back, causing him to drop his cased ukulele to the ground. Two hands cupped over his eyes and legs slithered either side of his waist, knotting in the front.
"Leaving without me?" a voice whispered teasingly in his left ear.
A grin spread onto Zander's lips; he knew that voice too well. "I'd never dream of it, baby."
Stevie scoffed humorously and slid off Zander's back. She took a few steps around Zander so that she stood in front of him. She was grinning brightly at him, a grin that had something hidden behind it.
"Sorry about your uke," Stevie apologised as she gestured to the instrument case lying in the dirt.
"I guess I can forgive you," Zander shrugged.
Zander picked up his ukulele case and swung his right arm around Stevie's shoulders. He used his arm to guide Stevie back in the direction of the bench by which they'd met and Stevie seemed happy to tuck herself closer into his side as they walked.
"Where have you been today? I expected to see you this earlier this afternoon," Zander asked as the neared the wooden furniture.
"I've been with Emilia," Stevie responded vaguely.
"On a Sunday?" Zander looked confused.
Stevie sighed. "Zander, you've been completely honest with me so I think it's time I told you a bit more about myself."
Stevie looked a mixture of nervous and uncomfortable so Zander reached for her hand and wrapped his left hand around it. He brought their knot of fingers to rest on her leg, his thumb occasionally caressing her leg to calm her down. Stevie looked at Zander and smiled lightly.
"Remember when you asked me about my job and I didn't tell you anything?" Zander nodded, remembering the incident a few days ago. "The truth is that I was Emilia Rose's personal assistant."
Zander paused. "As in Emilia Rose the chart-topping singer?"
"The very one," Stevie sighed.
"And what's so embarrassing about that?" Zander pressed on.
"The job wasn't embarrassing; it was me thinking that you were going to use me for Emilia that is embarrassing."
"What? I would never do that to you, Stevie!" Zander exclaimed.
"And I know that now! But a couple of days ago you were a complete stranger buying me frozen yogurt!" Stevie tried to calm him even though her voice was gradually getting louder.
"Okay, I get that," Zander conceded. "So why were you with her on your day off?"
"I went to see her to hand in my resignation."
"Why? Have you got another job?" a prideful smile slowly began to emerge onto Zander's face.
"Not exactly," Stevie mumbled.
Her expression had changed now; Stevie had removed her hand from Zander's and she was fidgeting in her seat.
"What is it, Steves?" Zander demanded anxiously.
"Don't freak out but I thought about what you said about making your name in the music industry the right way," Stevie started. By now she had brought back the eye contact with Zander. "It made me realise just how unhappy I was working for Emilia and how I wasn't really following my dream. I took that job hoping that someone would see me perform at one of Emilia's parties and would sweep me away into a recording studio; but that never happened. I sang a song once at a party and ever since then; Emilia has tried to keep me and her record label as far apart as possible. I don't wanna be stuck in that job doing something I hate for a person who respects me as much as she does a peanut for the rest of my life, Z."
"You're amazing, Stevie," Zander complimented in a breathy voice. "Seriously, giving up your job because you want to follow your dream takes guts."
"Thank you," Stevie blushed.
"So what's your first plan of action? Are you gonna send off a demo to a record label? Or maybe perform at a few gigs?" Zander started babbling off all the ways Stevie could burst into the music industry.
"That's where you come in," Stevie smirked.
"What do you mean?"
"I've gotta work for Emilia for until Friday to finish off all the paperwork I'm doing and I've paid my rent up until the end of this month," Stevie trailed off.
"The end of the month is also Friday, Steves. Where are you going with this?" Zander asked suspiciously.
"I'm just gonna get straight to the point; I want to move in with you and the guys."
Had Zander been drinking something at this point, he would have performed the perfect spit-take. However, his mouth was dry so he had to settle for choking on air.
"I realise that it's kind of quick-" Stevie started but Zander interrupted her.
"Quick?! Stevie, I met you a couple of days ago!"
"So what? You agreed to move in with Nate and the guys the first day you met them!" Stevie argued.
"That was different!" Zander fought back.
"How is this different, Zander? You want to make a name for yourself and so do I. You wanted to work from the bottom of the food chain and I do too!"
"You can't just give up your whole life, Steves," Zander groaned into his hands.
"I'm not, Zander! If anything I'm just starting it!"
Silence crept over the two as Zander tried to process Stevie's bombshell as she watched him desperately. It wasn't that Zander didn't want Stevie to live with him; he just felt that she deserved better than some grotty old building.
"There's lot's of room in Harper's so it's not like we'll be climbing over each other all the time. And without my stupid office job to hold me back, you and I could go on those cute little busking dates everyday," Stevie tried to sweet talk him into letting her move in with him.
"That does sound nice," Zander whispered, lifting his face out of his hands. "But how are you gonna afford the money for getting out of your lease early?"
"My uncle rents me the apartment; there is no real contract," Stevie explained and started to move closer to Zander sensing that he was warming to the idea of her moving in.
"Living in an abandoned building isn't a holiday, Stevie; there are hard days," Zander warned.
"I know but I'll do my share of the work," Stevie reassured him.
Zander paused. "Are you sure you want to do this, Steves?"
"There's only one thing I'm surer about doing."
Stevie grabbed Zander's face gently with her hands and directed him towards her. Their lips met with a fair amount of pressure and Zander's chapped lips began to work against her own. His hands dropped to Stevie's waist and Stevie sighed blissfully into Zander's mouth. It was exactly how Zander had pictured this moment for the past few days; innocent but the chemistry between them bubbled away, getting ready to erupt. They eventually pulled away but the soft eye contact remained.
"Welcome to street life, Stevie."