It's a treasure trove of trendy artworks and quirky ornaments, but the first thing that hits you when you step into Erin Simpson and Zac Franich's cosy new apartment is a graffiti-style decal on the lounge wall that reads, "You make me better than I ever thought I could be."
The design brings a street edge to their private sanctuary in Hobsonville Point, West Auckland, but the former leading man of The Bachelor NZ says he picked it out purely because the words are so fitting for how he feels about his girlfriend.
Erin couldn't agree more. "Zac makes me a better person – emotionally and physically. It's so handy having someone around all the time who you aspire to be. He's improved my diet, my fitness and my recycling! Just being around him makes me want to be better."
And there's another meaningful decal in the couple's bedroom. It says, "The only lie I ever told you is that I liked you when I already knew I loved you," and it reminds the TV presenter and homeware designer of their first date just over a year ago.
Erin had been going through a hard time after the break-up of her previous relationship and Zac, who she'd met at a few parties, asked if she'd like to talk about it.
She recalls, "I usually don't open up to new people, but the first time we met for coffee, I blurted everything out. I was embarrassed, but I knew this was someone I could easily be myself around. Of course, I didn't tell him that – I had to play cool!"
Since then, she and Zac have become inseparable. Erin, 36, says, "The days we're not together, it just doesn't make sense. Everything's a lot harder." Zac, who turned 30 last week, adds, "I don't sleep very well without her."
The surf-lifesaving coach had an inkling Erin was "the one" after a trip to Hawaii in August. He explains, "Travel is a real test for any relationship, but we had such a good time and squeezed in so much."
At this, Erin interrupts her boyfriend. "It wasn't that great – you made me do heaps of hiking!" she jokes. "He would say we were just going for a 20-minute walk, but it was actually two hours climbing a giant mountain."
Grinning, Zac adds, "You enjoyed it." To which Erin replies, "I did. As a coach and a beautiful partner, he is very encouraging and helped me along the way."
Soon after they returned, the apartment Zac and his parents had invested in a year ago was finally built, and he and Erin decided to move in together. He tells, "It worked out perfectly. It was meant to be and felt like a very natural, easy progression."
"Timing has been a huge thing in our relationship," Erin nods. "We came into each other's lives when we both wanted exactly what the other was wanting and needing.
"Now we're nesting so well, some days, we don't even want to leave the house. We've chosen not to have a TV in the home. Instead, we focus on each other, talk about everything and play games – chess is our go-to."
"The apartment has definitely brought us even closer," continues Zac. "It's one thing living in a house with a bunch of other people, but at the end of the day, I just want to sit down with Erin."
Asked about an engagement being on the cards, he says, "I'm not ruling anything out, but we're really enjoying just being together and having our little adventures."
However, Erin admits she likes the idea. She explains, "I've never been able to imagine myself getting married until now. For the first time, I can visualise a wedding and seeing Zac as I walk down the aisle. That's huge for me."
As for starting a family, they're both on the same page, having talked about wanting to have babies on their first date.
Erin smiles, "Everyone around us is having children, and we have so many cute nieces and nephews, so there is some pressure there. I don't necessarily believe in a biological clock – and I can't because I'm approaching 40!"
Snuggling into his girlfriend, Zac quips, "But you don't look a day over 21, sweetheart."
Their six-year age gap is a non-issue, they both agree. Erin says, "Zac is an old soul. He's very mature and has depth to him, while I'm very immature. We meet in the middle. It's a perfect match."
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