‘No, no, no!’ Nino ripped his headphones off and turned off the audio. ‘None of these singers work.’ He put his head in his hands.
‘What about that Dominique girl?’ Adrien said, ‘Or Estelle! She was good.’
Nino ran his hands down his face and glanced at his friend. He loved Adrien, and would forever be grateful for his support. After all, if it hadn’t been for Adrien, Nino would never have shot to fame as he had. But the dude knew nothing about music.
‘Yeah, yeah, they’re all good,’ Nino said, slumping back in his chair. ‘But none of them are right .’
Adrien gave him an apologetic look. ‘Doesn’t your manager want this single done, like, by today?’
‘Ugh,’ Nino thumped his head on the desk and groaned. ‘Don’t remind me.’
Adrien patted him on the back. ‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out.’
Nino nodded and sat up. ‘Yeah.’ But when he took in all the various audio tapes that had been sent in he only felt overwhelmed and tired.
‘I’m gonna go for a walk,’ he said suddenly, ‘clear my head.’ He pushed his chair back and stood up in one swift motion, and ignored Adrien’s worried expression as he made his way out.
Nino stepped into the cool evening air and breathed. It was a beautiful night in Paris; the lights glistened on the Seine, tourists and Parisians alike laughed in the bars, and Nino smiled as he let his feet take him wherever, no direction in mind. Letting his thoughts drift amongst the lights and the stars.
Eventually he found himself on an unfamiliar street. It was quiet here, off the main road. The golden lights of the Eiffel Tower glimmered through the gaps in the buildings.
But a wave of heaviness swept over him when his phone started ringing. He stared dully at his manager’s name on the screen before looking up at the stars and slowly exhaling, bringing his gaze back down until it landed on a coffee shop. What he really needed was a good night’s sleep. But a coffee was the next best thing. He declined the phone call and headed in.
The door gave a welcoming tinkle as he stepped in, taking off his hat and headphones as he did so. It was a small café with a cute window seat and a couple of tables around the back. It was rustic and quaint. The sort of place that did proper coffee but wasn’t pretentious about it. It was empty but the atmosphere was warm, and the tension slowly leaked out of Nino as he made his way to the counter.
He went to ding the bell that had a little sign saying, ‘Ring for Service’ but a sound made him pause. A voice drifted from the back, low and sultry, singing a song he’d never heard but entranced him instantly.
Without thinking Nino slipped past the counter and went into the backroom, walking past fridges and shelves, following the siren’s melody to a little brightly lit staffroom at the side.
The first thing he saw when he peered through was a mass of dark red hair belonging to a girl cleaning the staffroom counters. She moved her hips and shoulders side to side in time with her words, and Nino stared as she sung, falling in love with her voice before he’d even seen her face, her hair glowing from the warm lights and her sound filling the space.
As her voice crescendoed, she gave her tea towel a flourish and spun on her heels. Her startled golden eyes met Nino’s. Her song cut off.
The girl recovered instantly, throwing the tea towel over her shoulder and placing her hands on her hips.
‘And how long have you been standing there, hmm?’
Nino stumbled back and blushed. ‘No, no, no,’ he stuttered, turning redder by the second. ‘I didn’t mean to—I just walked in!—I heard your voice and—’ He cut off as the girl threw her head back and laughed. ‘I, uh,’ he rubbed the back of his neck, ‘sorry.’
She snorted. ‘Apology accepted,’ she said in a way that made Nino question whether or not her words were sarcastic. But her grin was sincere, and Nino exhaled with relief. ‘I’m guessing you’d like a coffee?’ she then asked, striding past him. ‘Come on then,’ she gestured with a flick of her head. Nino sheepishly followed her back to the front.
‘What can I get you?’ she asked once Nino was on the correct side of the counter.
‘Uh, just a mocha, please.’
‘One mocha, coming right up.’
A companionable silence rose between them as she went about making his drink, the whirring of the machine was surprisingly soft, and the clinking of spoons was comforting. But as Nino watched her, all he could think of was her singing.
‘You have a lovely voice,’ he said before he could stop himself. The faintest of blushes rose on her cheeks. ‘Where did you learn to sing like that?’
‘Learn?’ The girl shook her head as she poured. ‘I just sing whatever calls to me and let loose.’
‘You’ve never had any formal training? But you’re incredible!’
She blinked. ‘Thank you.’ She glanced down at the finished mocha in her hands before handing it to Nino. ‘That’s big praise, coming from you.’ She met Nino’s gaze and held it.
The drink felt heavy in Nino’s hands. ‘What do you mean by…’ He trailed off. Her gaze remained unblinking. ‘Oh, you know who I am.’
‘My sister loves your music,’ she smiled, ‘plays you constantly. I’m not the biggest fan though,’ she said playfully and winked.
‘Oh really?’ Nino said, scoffing with mock offence. ‘Well, I’m not such a massive fan of your coffee.’
Her face lit up. ‘Hah! Oh I like you,’ she said. Heat rose in Nino’s cheeks. ‘There’s nothing worse than a celebrity who can’t take themselves seriously.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ he said, taking a sip. ‘Thank you by the way, uh…’ he peered at her name badge, ‘Marinette.’
‘Ah, that’s uh, not my real name,’ she said sheepishly. Nino raised an eyebrow. ‘I don’t like strangers using my name like they know me! It feels weird.’
Nino grimaced and nodded. ‘That I can relate to, to be fair.’
The girl gave a soft smile. ‘My name’s Alya. Alya Césaire.’
Nino smiled back. He held out his hand. ‘It’s nice to meet you, Alya Césaire.’
‘Likewise, Nino Lahiffe.’
There was a beat of silence as they shook hands.
‘Please sing for me,’ Nino blurted out.
Alya’s eyebrows flew up. She pulled her hand back. ‘What?’
‘For my new single!’ he clarified. ‘I’ve got a new mix in the works and your voice would be perfect for it, honestly.’
‘Is that so?’ She thought about it a moment. ‘What do I get if I say yes?’
‘You’ll be paid, obviously. A flat rate session fee of about—’
‘A flat rate? Nah, nah, if this song makes it big I wanna reap the rewards. I want 80% of the royalties.’
Nino deadpanned. ‘You get ten. And that’s being generous!’
Alya laughed. ‘Fine, fine…fifteen?’
Nino rolled his eyes. ‘You drive a hard bargain Mademoiselle Césaire.’
‘Sweet.’ She grinned. ‘But that’s just the deal if I decide to sing for you,’ she said quickly, ‘I haven’t actually agreed to do that yet.’
Nino made an exasperated sound. Alya laughed.
‘Fine, fine. What will make you say yes?’ He looked around for inspiration. ‘What if I buy you a drink?’
Alya considered it a moment. ‘It wouldn’t hurt your prospects,’ she said.
‘Well go on then, make what you want and I’ll pay.’
Alya grinned. She set about making a drink.
‘All right,’ she said once she was finished. Nino pulled out his card. ‘Including your mocha, the total is thirteen euros forty-five.’
Nino froze. He looked Alya in the eye. ‘Thirteen… thirteen euros forty-five?’
Alya nodded. ‘Your mocha was three euros fifty, and mine,’ she gestured to her drink, ‘was nine euros ninety-five.’
Nino blinked and goggled at her drink; a giant monstrosity of cream and caramel and God knows what else. ‘TEN EUROS —?!’ he exclaimed.
‘Nine euros ninety-five.’
‘—THE HELL ARE YOU DRINKING?’
She grinned. ‘That’s for me to know, and you to pay for.’
Nino grumbled and placed his card on the chip reader. Alya’s smug grin widened as the machine gave a happy little ‘beep’ at the successful transaction.
‘You have to sing for me now,’ Nino muttered.
Alya took a giant slurp of her drink and put a finger to her chin in thought.
‘Please,’ Nino begged, ‘I’ve never heard anyone sing like you. I’ll do anything.’
Alya crossed her arms. ‘Anything, huh?’
Nino nodded. She quirked an eyebrow. And Nino regretted his words when she gave a jagged grin.
Thirty minutes later Nino had wiped down all the counters, cleaned the coffee machine, taken out the rubbish, and was currently mopping the floors, all while Alya lounged in a chair, her feet kicked up on a table, sipping away at her ridiculous coffee.
‘My manager didn’t even ask me to do a deep clean,’ she said as she scrolled through her phone, ‘but boy is she going to be happy with me in the morning.’
Nino stared at her. But then she winked at him and stuck out her tongue, and Nino’s heart pounded. Damn, this girl really had him wrapped around her finger. But then his phone buzzed in his pocket, bringing him back to reality.
Brodrien: Where are you?????
Nino slipped his phone back into his pocket with a long exhale and rested his head against the mop handle. He needed to go.
He stayed still for a moment, reluctant to move. And then just as he was about to pull himself upright, Alya started to sing.
She was still lounging back and scrolling in the same position as before, but the sound coming from her was indescribably beautiful; strong and moving, echoing off the tiles. Nino raised his head. She was singing one of his songs.
Alya’s gaze flicked to his as her song came to an end. She placed her phone and drink down, and swung herself upright.
‘You really do like my voice, huh.’ Nino nodded, speechless. Alya glanced away. ‘I knew I had a good voice, but hearing it from someone like you – an actual musician – makes it more real.’ She fell silent. ‘Thank you for the coffee and for helping me clean,’ she said. ‘I’ve had a fun evening. Can you give me twenty-four hours to think about your offer?’
Nino thought about the hounding messages he was gonna get from his manager.
‘You know what? Here.’ He pulled an audio tape and some lyrics from his pocket and shoved them in her hands. ‘Have a listen, see if you like the song, and— are you free tomorrow evening? Come to this address at seven pm.’ He whipped out a business card and handed it to her, holding her golden gaze. ‘I’ll be waiting.’
He slipped out the door before she could say another word.
Nino tapped away nervously as he waited, ignoring Adrien’s doubtful glances.
‘Are you sure she’s coming, bro?’ Adrien eventually asked.
Nino glanced at the clock. Twenty past seven.
‘She’ll be here,’ he said.
Adrien sighed. ‘I love you man, but you’ve really got to just pick—’
Nino shushed him with a wave of his hand and leapt to his feet as the door suddenly opened. Alya walked through with a friend in tow, and Nino forgot how to breathe. Dressed simply but stylishly with her hair down this time, Alya Césaire was gorgeous.
‘Sorry we’re late,’ she said. But Nino simply grinned. ‘I hope you don’t mind I brought my co-worker, Marinette, with me?’
‘Full disclosure, it’s completely my fault Alya’s late!’ Marinette said, waving her hands in distress. ‘I was restocking the coffee beans and the bag split on me and they went everywhere, ’ she wailed. ‘Into the drawers, under the cupboards, and I kept stepping on them…it took forever to clean up!’
There was a split second of silence. Adrien burst into laughter. Marinette turned bright red and chuckled.
‘Well, I’m glad you made it,’ Nino said, grinning.
Alya smiled back. ‘I listened to the song,’ she said, ‘It’s good, I like it.’
‘Really?’ Nino’s heart fluttered. ‘So, you’re sure you want to do this?’
‘Hmm, well…’ She posed in thought, and Nino slumped, exasperated. Alya threw her head back and laughed. ‘I’m just kidding, I’d love to sing it.’
It didn’t take long to show her the recording booth and how all the equipment worked. They played the audio though, and she had a quick practice. And when she was ready, they started to record; Alya started singing in earnest.
Adrien let out a low whistle.
‘Woah.’ Marinette’s eyes widened.
And Nino smiled. Each note she sung sent tingles running through him, and the way she felt the music filled him with warmth; her eyes were closed, head moving to the melody, hips swaying side to side. She opened her eyes and gazed at him, her golden eyes piercing. Nino’s heart pounded. God she was perfect.
The recording session ended too soon in Nino’s opinion. Alya had been the ideal candidate and it hadn’t taken long to get everything they needed.
‘Thank you again for agreeing to sing for me,’ Nino said as she picked up her bag.
‘Don’t thank me, just give me that fifteen percent and we’re good.’ She winked and Nino laughed.
They fell silent a moment. The tension built between them. Behind, Adrien and Marinette chatted into their silence.
‘Hey, would you be down for doing something together again?’ Nino said quickly. ‘You know, something like last night?’ He frowned. ‘But with maybe less cleaning.’
Alya laughed. ‘I’d love to,’ she said, and he flushed with warmth. ‘And I’ll buy the drinks this time,’ she said, grinning.