The girl was halted in her tracks at the sound of her name. She had one foot at the top of the stairs up to the stage, her hand still on the railing. Of course it was rude to eavesdrop, she knew that, the old saying about hearing something that you don’t want to hear did cross her mind but she couldn’t help herself from listening in. She could only just see the two men who were talking, though she knew immediately who it was. One man was tall and muscular, dressed in jeans and a shirt with his blonde hair curling at the nape of his neck. She could see him in profile and her pulse raced as she looked at him, thinking of their earlier activity. He was beautiful in the kind of way that made you feel in awe of him, he looked like a Norse god and as she had gotten to know him better, she wanted to get to know him even more. The second man was older and of average height. He was dressed immaculately in a black Armani suit, matching tie and shoes. His crisp, white shirt was open at the collar, showing a small amount of chest hair and a gold chain.
“I still don’t understand why, Gabriel. Surely you knew that it was going to cause issues?” The older man sounded frustrated.
“I like having her around.” Gabriel replied and the girl smiled to herself.
“You know she can’t stay on tour forever, though?” The older man seemed annoyed at the way the conversation was running.
“I don’t know that at all. She can stay on tour as long as she wants to be here as far as I’m concerned.” The girl frowned, concerned about being the cause of friction.
“They’re all the same, Gabriel, you can’t let yourself get attached. You have to remain objective.” Cooper said sternly.
“You’re crossing a line, Cooper.” Gabriel had a warning note to his tone.
“Fine.” Cooper said, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Just know this, you and Ariana have an expiry date. Maybe you don’t realize it but it’s there.”
“It’ll be fine, Coop. I’ve got it under control.” Gabriel sounded unconcerned by Cooper’s harsh words.
“You’d better.” Cooper sounded stern as he looked at the gold Rolex on his right wrist. “Anyway, we should go, we’re running late. I’m glad we had this chat.”
The men started walking towards the edge of the stage where the girl stood, frozen. She collected herself in an instant and fled as fast as she could, tears streaming down her eyes.
CHAPTER 1 – AN UNFORTUNATE WIN
Ariana yawned as she walked through the door of her office. There was definitely something in the phrase “Thank God it’s Friday!”, she couldn’t wait for the weekend. Work had been hell for the last month, today was the last day of a sales promotion they’d been running at the real estate agency where she worked. She had been flat out for weeks selling overpriced houses to people with more money than sense but she’d also managed to make more commission in the last month than the entire previous quarter and she was pleased with her results.
If she could keep up working like this, she’d have a decent house deposit in no time. Even though she was sometimes a bit jaded about being a real estate agent, she actually loved her job. Finding the right house for the right person often felt like being a matchmaker. You set up a blind date and sometimes it’s love at first sight, other times you have to introduce them to several different candidates before you find the right one. Sometimes it’s like speed dating, last week she’d taken one executive to see five different houses in his lunch hour! She always knew when they’d found the right house, though. People liked to play it cool but everyone had a tell, maybe their eyes would widen at the Olympic sized swimming pool with water feature and sunken spa, or there would be the slightest intake of breath when they saw the kitchen with marble bench tops and every appliance under the sun. More often than not they would just tense the tiniest bit in excitement before forcibly relaxing so as to not give the game away. Ariana always knew, though, and she couldn’t wait for the day that she got to look at houses for herself.
“Morning, Ariana!” a cheerful voice called out to her as she walked into the staff kitchen to put her lunch in the fridge.
“Good morning, Charlotte.” Ariana replied to the girl who sat at the desk next to hers, “TGIF!”
“Tell me about it, I’m so excited about tonight!” Charlotte was practically bouncing up and down and was visibly excited.
“What’s tonight?” Ariana enquired.
“What’s tonight?!” Charlotte’s jaw dropped, “Only THE best band ever performing at the Regal, I’ve been talking about it for months!”
“Which band, again?” Ariana could see where this was going, she’d carefully avoided as many conversations with Charlotte about this as possible but she just couldn’t seem to stop this conversation.
“Cruise Control, of course! You’re not going?” Charlotte looked stunned.
Why wouldn’t she be going? Cruise Control were immensely popular with young and old. They were everywhere and were largely called ‘The Beatles of their time’. Ariana had a hard time avoiding them, she changed the channel on the TV when they came on and had stopped listening to the radio when it had started playing their songs hourly, she preferred now to listen to carefully curated playlists or even audiobooks so she didn’t have to hear music at all.
Ariana realised that Charlotte was waiting for some kind of reply.
“Oh I, uh, haven’t really heard a lot of their stuff. I’m not really a fan.”
“Oh my gosh, they’re AMAZING! You have to hear their new song, it’s fantastic!” Charlotte pulled her in the direction of their work desks.
Ariana was pretty sure she had heard that song playing as she passed a music store in the mall, although that was awhile ago so maybe they’d had a new release since then. As the two women sat at their desks, Charlotte surfed to YouTube on her work computer and searched for the song.
“It’s so awesome,” Charlotte began as the song was loading, “when they sing it live Gabriel does this same speech at the beginning of it and the whole crowd screams out the title of the song.”
Ariana had a pang of hurt at the sound of Gabriel’s name, multiplied when his visage came on the screen. He began singing a song about the loss of love and hoping that this song would hurt his ex when she heard it. Ariana tried to tune out the music but his voice, the one she would know anywhere, was intensifying her pain.
“Isn’t he just gorgeous?” Charlotte smiled at Ariana, “I prefer Sebastian, though, he’s the guitar player.” She pointed at a handsome man playing guitar and Ariana forced a smile back at her.
“Hey, I’m meeting a client for coffee in about ten minutes.” Ariana looked at her watch pointedly.
“Oh sure, no worries,” Charlotte shut the site down mid-song, “I’ve got a bunch of paperwork to process before I meet a client myself. Bring on the weekend and the concert tonight, though! Hey, will you be back for the awards later?”
“Of course I will,” Ariana grinned a real grin this time, “how else am I meant to get my prize?”
“What’s sad is that I honestly think you’ll win, you’ve had a stellar month.”
“Thanks, I’ve worked my backside off for it!” Ariana smiled and waved to Charlotte as she walked down the stairs to the front door.
As she headed into Starbucks, Ariana saw her client sitting at a table in the corner but she was still thinking about the band. It was almost laughable, Charlotte telling her about Cruise Control as if she didn’t know who they were. Pointing out Sebastian and explaining who he was. Hadn’t she spent hours trying to beat him at pool when she was on the road with them? She could still recall the brief conversation she’d had with him before she left their tour for good.
“Why are you doing this, Ariana?” Sebastian repeated the question Gabriel had asked her earlier. “It doesn’t make any sense and Gabriel is devastated.”
“I’m sorry Seb, I don’t belong here and it’s time for me to go back to my real life.” She’d started to walk away but Sebastian had grabbed her arm and turned her to face him.
“Don’t do this. I don’t know exactly what your problem is but I know that you’re being ridiculous.” He glared at her.
“Ridiculous?” Ariana had yanked her arm from his grasp. “Perhaps I am but that’s how it is. Now if you don’t mind, I have a plane to catch.”.
It felt like a lifetime ago and mostly she tried not to think about it. She’d been ignoring posters and emails announcing their concert for months and planned to spend tonight incommunicado with the phone off the hook and hunkered down with a romantic comedy or two and some ice cream to keep her company. She reached the front of the line, made her order and stood to the side while it was made. There was no point thinking any more about the band, she grabbed her coffee and headed towards her client. She had more important things to do and after tonight’s concert, they’d be heading off to wherever they were going next and once again she would be left to live her life in peace.
After her meeting, Ariana headed back to the office, the client had signed the papers for an extravagant mansion and she was back just in time for the 10am morning tea where the announcement would be made for who had won the month-long sales promotion. She stopped in the toilet and touched up her hair and make-up, certain that she would win and equally certain that they would want a photograph. The prize had been kept under wraps but little snippets had gotten around that it was certifiably amazing, she couldn’t help but wonder what it was. Unless someone else had sold something phenomenal in the last week, she would still be on top from the last progress report.
Ariana walked into the boardroom and took a seat next to Charlotte, there were food and drinks on the table and the room was full of excited chatter.
“Have I missed anything?” she asked Charlotte.
“Not yet.” Charlotte replied, “Mr. Wilson isn’t even here yet.”
“Speak of the devil.” Ariana said as Charles Wilson walked into the room, she felt an adrenalin rush come over her. This was it, she’d worked so hard for this, she couldn’t wait for the announcement.
“Welcome everybody,” said Mr. Wilson as he walked to the front of the room and the entire room quieted.
“Thank you all for coming today. We’ve had a fantastic month of sales,” he looked around the room and grinned, “through our combined efforts we have not only exceeded our goal for the month but have obliterated our targets for the quarter, congratulations!”
Applause rang around the room.
“Now those of you that have met the sales milestones in the competition will be getting an email to let you know when you will receive your prizes but one person has won our grand prize.”
The excitement in the room was palpable as those standing at the back of the room strained forward to hear better.
“I must say that I am quite proud of this prize, I pulled a few strings to get it and all I can say is that next year’s end of financial year sales competition will have a lot to live up to.” Charles grinned, stringing it out.
“Firstly, the prize winner had better not have any plans tonight because you’ll be picked up from your house at 7pm by a stretch limousine!” He announced with glee.
“You’ll then be taken to the Regal,” Charlotte squealed with excitement as he said this and several people began muttering excitedly to one another as Charles’ grin widened, “obviously somebody knows where this is going! You will then be given the star treatment, sitting in a private box to see Cruise Control!”
Ariana suddenly had a nauseous feeling in her stomach, she no longer wanted to win at all, in fact she prayed she didn’t. She wished she could stop time altogether and run away from the here and now but she couldn’t and Charles kept talking.
“So without further ado, our lucky winner who has not only kept their lead throughout this competition but extended it further this week is-” he paused for effect as the people who had high sales figures all held their breath.
Ariana knew 100% that he was about to announce her name, they hadn’t posted the names of the people at the top of the competition but the figures they released had always matched hers. She hadn’t wanted to boast so she’d kept it quiet, now more than ever she wished that she was wrong as Charles made his announcement.
“Ariana Chamberlain, come up here!” he said with glee and her heart plummeted.
She was stuck. She couldn’t turn this down, not when they’d made such a big deal about it, not when it was obvious that she’d worked so hard to get it. The whole room was looking at her so she smiled brightly at everyone.
“Wow, thank you so much!” She said as she walked to stand at the front of the room next to Charles.
“How are you feeling?” he asked her solicitously.
“I’m kind of in shock.” Ariana replied honestly.
“Well, you can take someone with you, I bet you have a million friends who would love to go!” He was still grinning, so was she, as though this was the best thing ever to happen to her.
“I’ll be taking Charlotte O’Donnell with me.” Ariana replied without hesitation, she knew how excited Charlotte was about the band and it would’ve been like kicking a puppy to not take her. Charlotte screamed again with excitement, an eardrum splitting shriek that had the people near her rubbing their ears and she went bright red.
“I take it you’ll go then, Charlotte?” Charles asked with amusement.
“Of course!” she replied and added as an afterthought, “I have a spare ticket to sell now! If anyone wants to go and couldn’t get a ticket feel free to email me!”
The meeting broke up quickly after that and everyone headed back to their desks. Charlotte was babbling away about the band and what their concerts are like while Ariana tried to tune her out.
“They do this amazing thing where they sing their entire album in order, it’s fantastic and the album is brilliant, it’s completely like a relationship from start to end I love it so much. They do some of their old songs and some fan favourites first but the performance of Heart Wide Open is the best part. Gabriel, the lead singer, is the one who wrote all the songs, there’s a rumour that it’s about this girl he dated who dumped him but no one knows for sure, it’s just what you read online.”
So it went on for the rest of the afternoon. Ariana was in a daze, she played her part well though, organising with Charlotte for her to come to Ariana’s house at 6:45pm. Smiling gratefully at Charles as she informed him of her address for the limousine company, trying not to look too frightened as he promised that he “hadn’t spoiled everything” and that there were a “few surprises in store for her”. All she could hope was that there wasn’t some kind of meet and greet involved, although she wouldn’t be surprised if there was. If it was after the concert, she would make some excuse and duck out. Some part of her was looking forward to tonight and seeing Gabriel again in person. Although she hadn’t allowed herself to think much about how tonight would damage the small progress she had made in healing over the last two years.
As she showered and dressed for the concert, she thought about how amazing the success of Cruise Control was. They were already extremely well known in the States when she knew them but since then they had become a worldwide phenomenon. Part of her wanted think that they would’ve forgotten the “little people” since then and that if for some horrible reason she came face to face with them tonight, they would’ve forgotten who she was entirely. A larger part of her was hoping that Gabriel, at least, would never forget her. Perhaps that was why, when deciding what to wear that night, she pulled on an emerald green silk sheath dress that had always been Gabriel’s favourite.
Charlotte arrived and the limousine arrived not long after just in time to stop Ariana committing murder in order to put an end to Charlotte’s constant prattle about Cruise Control. The limousine was long and white with blacked out windows. The inside was decked out completely, Charlotte and Ariana amused themselves by pressing all the buttons, a television popped up and started playing music (the amusement ended for Ariana when the video clip Charlotte had shown her earlier started playing), the window between them and the driver opened and closed and the sunroof opened which they stood up and through which they waved to the world. They found a completely stocked bar and Ariana poured herself a vodka and orange juice, she had a feeling she would need some Dutch courage to get through tonight.
When they arrived at the stadium, they were given lanyards to hang around their necks with “VIP” on them. Ariana didn’t think this boded well for her but did her best to mirror some of Charlotte’s excitement as they were led through the crowd, past the line waiting to get in and entered the nearly empty building.
“The doors will open in 15 minutes for everyone else.” Their guide informed them. “If you want food, drinks or merchandise, you can get it now if you like.”
They both got a hotdog and a pre-mixed vodka drink and Charlotte bought more merchandise than she could possibly ever need. Ariana thought Charlotte had pretty much bought one of each item. Ariana couldn’t resist buying a program for herself, she always got a program when she went to a show. Their escort then showed them to their box, it was nothing short of fabulous. Set in the center of the arena, it was about ten yards from the end of a catwalk that jutted out from the centre of the stage with a space for what would more than likely be general admission in front of them. The box was raised so they could see over the crowd to the stage easily, the seats were plush, red velvet and there was a table in front of them for drinks or food.
They began flipping through their programs and Ariana’s heart froze as she opened to a spread dedicated to Gabriel. He was staring out of the page, his gorgeous, blue eyes penetrating into hers. She could recall with perfect clarity the way he could melt her insides with one look and found tears welling in her eyes unexpectedly. She’d known tonight was going to be hard but she suddenly felt unprepared to see Gabriel again.
Charlotte was chattering away as she looked through her merchandise and Ariana tuned her out and watched the people entering the arena, all the girls were dressed up to the nines, high heels, short skirts and low cut tops seemed to be the uniform du jour for girls. Most of the guys were wearing jeans and Cruise Control tees of some kind. The crowd became more energetic as showtime loomed closer and finally the lights went down and the crowd, including Charlotte next to her, screamed. The support act, Evening Star, came on stage and started pumping up the crowd with teasers about Cruise Control coming on soon. As the crowd started getting more and more excited for the band to come on stage, Ariana felt more and more nauseated. She could barely listen to Evening Star and as their set came to a close, Ariana seriously considered fleeing the concert entirely. Charlotte was beside herself and probably wouldn’t even notice or care if Ariana left and yet she couldn’t bring herself to leave. The desire to see Gabriel again was growing, this was a nice, safe environment. She could see him and he would never know she was there.
Evening Star finished their set and the lead singer called out to the crowd “Are you guys ready to see CRUISE CONTROL?” the screaming was so loud that Ariana thought her ear drums might burst. Evening Star left the stage and the lights went down, the curtains closed on the stage and then the lights came up again as the roadies began switching out the equipment behind the curtain. Ariana found it slightly bizarre to be in the actual audience for a Cruise Control concert, she hadn’t experienced their show with the masses, having always been backstage at this time. She knew that the band would be going through each of their pre-show rituals, then gathering the whole crew for a prayer and pep-talk before going onstage.
The excitement in the room reached fever pitch as the lights went down again and Ariana’s heart stopped for a moment at the sound of Gabriel’s voice through the microphone.
“Hello, Chicago! Are you ready to have a good time?”
The crowd went wild as the curtains swung open to reveal the band standing on an elaborate stage set up. Each member had their own podium, Gabriel at the front, Sebastian to the right on lead guitar, Harrison to the left on bass and Hayden at the back on the drums. Backup musicians were off to the side with a range of instruments but the main band were who people were here to see.
Ariana really hadn’t been prepared for this. As soon as she saw Gabriel, every fiber in her being screamed at her to run. Not away from him but towards him, she wanted him to hold her in his arms like he used to, she wanted him to tell her she was beautiful but most of all she wanted him to want her. Of course she couldn’t run towards him though. Security would think she was just another crazy fan like Charlotte who was almost about to pass out next to her. She couldn’t stop herself from staring at him though, just looking at him was like pouring salt onto an open wound. Once again the desire to run overwhelmed her, how could she spend the next two hours in the presence of the man she had done her damnedest to forget for the sake of her own sanity? She couldn’t bring herself to leave, though, it was as though some invisible force had her glued to her seat.
The show had started now and Gabriel was singing a song she remembered from when she was on tour with them. She lost herself in reverie as they went from song to song, aching inside, every other song she would vaguely think about leaving but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She loved listening to Gabriel sing and watching him perform was bliss, he threw himself into the performance with everything he had. He prowled the stage like a golden panther, muscles coiled and tensed to spring, his voice caressing the audience like velvet. As he finished singing a song about an hour into the show, the lights went dim and a spotlight focused on Gabriel standing at a microphone standing in the middle of the stage.
“I want to thank everybody for coming out tonight.” The crowd became a screaming mess and Gabriel waited for it to quieten again before he resumed. “Now we’re at the part of the show that I’ve enjoyed most on this tour and I know the fans have too. We’re going to perform Heart Wide Open from start to finish. This album is very close to my heart. As most of you will know, I wrote these songs myself with help from the guys. It means a lot to me that so many people enjoy it as much as they do. Without further ado, I’d like to begin.”
The lights came up on the rest of the band and they began to play the first song.