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 working like this, she’d have a decent house deposit saved for herself 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 was love at first sight, other times you had to introduce them to several different candidates before you would find the right one.

Other times it was like speed dating, last week she’d taken one executive to see five different apartments in his lunch hour. She always knew when they’d found the right place, 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 not to 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 in her seat with excitement.

“What’s tonight?” enquired Ariana.

“What’s tonight?!” Charlotte’s jaw dropped, “Only THE best band ever performing at the Regal, I’ve been talking about it for months!”

“Oh yeah, your favorite band, right?”

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.

“Yes, Cruise Control! Come on, Ariana, you know this. We’ve talked about it before. I still can’t believe you’re not going!” Charlotte looked stunned.

Why wouldn’t she be going? Cruise Control were immensely popular with young and old. 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 on Spotify or even audiobooks so she didn’t have to hear music at all.

Ariana realized 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 so AMAZING, though! 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 a song of theirs playing as she passed a store in the mall, although that was a while ago so maybe they’d had a new release since then. As the two women sat down at their desks, Charlotte opened YouTube on her computer and searched for the song.

“It’s so awesome.”

Charlotte began, as she looked through the search results for the video clip she wanted.

“When they sing it live, Gabriel does the same speech at the beginning and the whole crowd screams out the title of the song.”

Ariana was struck with 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 ass off for it!”

Ariana smiled and waved to Charlotte as she walked down the stairs to the front door. As she headed into the coffee shop, 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 last conversation she’d had with him before she left their tour for good.

“Why are you doing this, Ariana?” Sebastian had repeated the question Gabriel 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, ads and emails announcing their concert for months. She planned to spend tonight with her phone turned off, 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. After tonight’s concert, Cruise Control would 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 10:30am 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 makeup, 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. The room was full of excited chatter as people poured in behind her.

“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 a rush of adrenalin come over her. This was it, she’d worked so hard for this, and she couldn’t wait for the announcement.

“Welcome, everybody.” said Mr. Wilson as he walked to the front of the waiting crowd 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, “combined 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, and those standing at the back of the room strained forward to try and 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 sales competition will have a lot to live up to.”

Charles grinned at them, 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 nauseated feeling in her stomach. She no longer wanted to win at all, in fact she prayed she didn’t. She wished that 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, but now more than ever she wished that she was wrong as Charles finally 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 cheerfully.

“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, and 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?” asked Charles with amusement.

“Of course!” she replied and, as an afterthought, added “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 were 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 favorites 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 rumor 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. Organizing with Charlotte to pick her up on the way to the concert. 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”.

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. 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 in person again, though. Although she hadn’t allowed herself to think too much about how tonight would damage the small amount of progress that she had made in healing over the last two years.

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 favorite.

The limousine arrived and Ariana got in. Riding around in cars like this had been part and parcel of her life on the road with Cruise Control and it was odd to get in one again after so long. This limousine was long and white with blacked out windows. The inside was completely decked out and after they’d picked Charlotte up from her house, the girls amused themselves by pressing all the buttons.

A television popped up and started playing music, although the amusement ended for Ariana when the video clip Charlotte had shown her earlier started playing. They opened and closed the partition between themselves and their driver. The sunroof above them opened with another button, and they stood up and waved to the world through it. 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 her through tonight.

They arrived at the stadium just in time to stop Ariana committing murder to put an end to Charlotte’s constant prattle about Cruise Control. They were given lanyards to hang around their necks with “VIP” on them. Ariana didn’t think this boded well for her, but she 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. Charlotte bought more merchandise than she could possibly ever need. Ariana couldn’t resist buying a program for herself as a souvenir; 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 center of the stage, with 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, it was full of behind the scenes pictures and information about the album and tour. 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 that 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. Ariana tuned her out and watched the people entering the arena. There was an air of excitement in the place, and nearly everyone was bearing some sort of Cruise Control merchandise. T-shirts, bags, cell phone covers, and quite a few people had even brought along homemade signs proclaiming their undying love for the band.

The crowd became more energetic as show time loomed closer. Finally the lights went down and the crowd, including Charlotte next to her, screamed. The support act, Evening Star, came on stage. They started pumping up the crowd with teasers about Cruise Control coming out soon. As the crowd were getting increasingly 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. She couldn’t bring herself to leave, though. The desire to see Gabriel again was growing; this was a nice, safe environment. She could see him, and he would never even 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 eardrums might burst. Evening Star left the stage and the stage lights went down. The house lights came up again as roadies began switching out the equipment on stage.

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 pep-talk before going on stage. 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 pyrotechnics exploded and the entire stage was covered in smoke. It cleared to reveal the band standing on an elaborate stage set up. Each member had their own podium. Gabriel at the front on the keyboard, 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 members 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 hardcore fan like Charlotte, who was almost about to pass out next to her. She couldn’t stop herself from staring at him; just looking at him was like pouring salt onto an open wound.

How could she possibly 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? Tonight would probably mean two years of attempting to work through her issues in order to get over him going down the drain.

She couldn’t bring herself to leave, though, it was like 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, aching inside as they went from song to song.

She loved listening to Gabriel sing, and watching him perform was bliss. He threw himself into the performance with everything he had. Prowling 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 in front of his keyboard 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.

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