The Album – Excerpt

Chapter 1 – The First Song

Ariana was getting ready to go to a charity event with her aunt. It was for a good cause—a local children’s hospital—but she wasn’t a fan of these things. The evening would be filled with rich people throwing around their money, and pretending to be philanthropic while claiming massive tax deductions for their donations.

Her uncle was out of town, and her parents were busy, so Aunt Susan had begged her to come along. Their children were all in their teens and uninterested in boring charity events. Ariana was adult enough to at least make it through the night without falling asleep during the speeches.

She put on a knee-length silver silk cocktail dress and some matching silver heels. It wasn’t an outfit she would generally be comfortable wearing, but her aunt had gifted it to her to wear as a thank you for accompanying her. Ariana was sure her aunt knew that her wardrobe wasn’t filled with designer labels, and it was a nice gesture to help her feel more comfortable attending tonight.

Even so, as she left the house and got into her waiting aunt’s car, she found herself wishing more than anything that she could’ve just stayed home instead.

Her aunt left her side early in the evening to circulate the room, while Ariana got herself a glass of wine. She socialized a bit herself—there were some minor celebrities there—but they didn’t overly faze Ariana. She’d never been one to fawn over people just because they had talent and the luck to be famous.

Later in the night, Cruise Control took to the stage for a short set. Ariana was amused because there was no way that her cousins would have passed on coming if they had known the band would be performing. She had been a fan of Cruise Control since she first heard their music online and was pleased to get a chance to see them perform live.

After the set was over, Ariana happened to walk past Gabriel Knight, Cruise Control’s lead singer and Sebastian Fox, the band’s lead guitarist. They were talking to a group of society ladies, her aunt, among them. Aunt Susan pulled her over to introduce her to them. Ariana had seen the ladies fawning over the band and hadn’t particularly wanted to join the conversation.

“Ariana, have you met Sebastian and Gabriel from Cruise Control?” her aunt asked her before turning away abruptly without another word in order to speak to the mayor of the city.

“No, I haven’t. It’s nice to meet you.”

She held out her hand and shook Gabriel’s. Ariana felt electricity shoot through her body when they touched, and her pulse raced.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Ariana,” Gabriel replied.

Gabriel had shoulder-length blond hair and ice-blue eyes. He was well built, and the t-shirt he was wearing clearly showed his well-defined muscles. As he looked into her eyes, Ariana thought despite herself that she might just melt into a puddle there and then.

This was the one band she really was dumbstruck to be meeting. She’d been playing their album, Cards Have Been Dealt, almost constantly since it had come out.

“What a gorgeous piece of ass,” Sebastian slurred at her.

“Excuse me?” she exclaimed indignantly.

“She certainly isn’t bad to look at.” Gabriel winked at her, and Ariana frowned.

“I wouldn’t mind doing more than looking,” Sebastian said, leaning towards her and stroking her arm.

Sebastian was equally as good-looking as Gabriel, the dark-haired counterpart to his bandmate with the same blue eyes. He was incredibly attractive, but he was leering at Ariana as he looked her up and down.

“I can actually hear you, you know!” Ariana was disgusted.

“Cheer up. We’re just joking,” Sebastian said, rolling his eyes and let his arm drop to his side as it became apparent she wasn’t interested in his advances.

“Are you? Well, I’m not laughing.” She glared at him.

They both reeked of alcohol, and she was disappointed that they were acting this way. Sure, they were gorgeous, and she loved their music, but their attitude was just the same as any other celebrity. Entitled. She had never been interested in that kind of person, fame, or no fame.

“If you’ll just excuse me, I see someone I need to speak to,” Ariana lied, and was grateful to be walking away from them.

She made her way towards the exit and found herself wanting to get some fresh air. It was such a shame to discover that Cruise Control was like that; she couldn’t help but think that it was never a good idea to meet your heroes.

Still feeling disillusioned, she left the ballroom and walked out into the garden, which was nothing short of artistic. There were beautiful flowers spreading across the ground with a marble path down to a grassed area. Ariana removed her heels and held them in one hand, allowing the cool marble to soothe her feet as she walked down the path. She reached the grass and enjoyed the feel of the earth beneath her.

As she strolled along the grass, Ariana began thinking. She was so confused about what to do with her life. She had not long ago finished her business degree and was still at that awkward point where she didn’t have much work experience but had to begin a career that she wasn’t even sure about. She’d been applying for jobs, but nothing was really panning out, so she’d been working as a temp doing several different admin roles in the hopes that something would come along soon.

She wandered down to an absolutely gorgeous pool. Crystalline blue and illuminated with round lights at the sides, it looked incredibly inviting. She sat down at the edge and placed her shoes beside her, dipping her legs into the water. She had been there about half an hour and was relaxing, resting back on her arms, kicking her legs slowly through the cool water with her eyes closed when a deep, sensual voice startled her.

“Do you mind if I join you?”

Her eyes flew open at once, and she turned her head to see Gabriel standing above her. Their eyes met, and she felt her pulse rate increase. She worked to control her breathing as she replied to his question.

“It’s a free country,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders.

He stooped to pull off his shoes and socks, then rolled up the legs of his jeans before sitting beside her with his feet in the water. There was silence for a few minutes. Ariana was unsure how to break it, or what to say to the beautiful man next to her.

They had absolutely nothing in common; he was a certifiable rock star, and she was just a college graduate with no life plan. Those women at the party had been hanging on his and Sebastian’s every word. She wondered why he was even bothering with her.

“I’m sorry,” he said simply, breaking the silence between them.

“It’s fine,” Ariana replied just as simply.

“Sebastian can be a bit of a dickhead, sometimes,” Gabriel smiled at her, “sorry about him. I like to think I’m a good guy, though, even when I’ve had a few.”

“Hey, it’s your life. You don’t have to answer to me,” Ariana told him, shrugging.

“I know that. It’s just that I’ve sobered up a bit since we last spoke, and I’ve been trying to find you to apologize. So what are you doing out here on your own? The party’s inside!” He grinned at her, and she grinned back.

“I’m not much of a party girl. What about you? Shouldn’t you be inside, chatting to some of your groupies?” She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Groupies? Hmm, I’m not much for groupies. I prefer someone I can talk to.”

The silence was more awkward this time, and Ariana didn’t really know how to break it. She wasn’t sure if he was flirting with her or not.

“Or—” he paused for effect “­—someone I can’t talk to.”

This time she laughed, and he laughed along with her.

“I’m sorry, I have to be honest; I don’t quite know what to say to you.”

She couldn’t look at him and instead stared across at the water feature at the other end of the pool.

“Why is that, Ariana?” he asked her.

She privately thought that she could listen to him say her name over and over for the rest of her life and be a happy woman. It took her a second to form a response.

“I’ve been a fan of Cruise Control since you guys first appeared online. It’s all well and good when you’re a fantasy, but it’s bizarre actually meeting you.”

The water falling down off the rocks was mesmerizing, but she shot a quick glance in his direction to find him looking at her and quickly looked away again as he said his next words.

“You fantasize about me?” he asked with a slight smirk.

Now she definitely couldn’t look at him. “Not like that, you know what I mean!” she protested.

“Maybe I do, maybe I don’t, but I’d really like you to elaborate either way,” she could hear that he was still smirking.

“I mean that when you’re on TV or the radio, you’re just some imaginary person, kind of like a character in a movie or a show but here you’re real, and I know so much about you, it’s just bizarre,” she shrugged at him.

“You didn’t seem bothered by any of the other celebrities in there,” he looked confused.

“They don’t matter to me,” she replied without thinking.

“And I do?” The air became tense.

“I’m not explaining this right.”

Ariana was frustrated, the conversation wasn’t going how she wanted it to, and she felt like she was making a fool of herself. He was too close to her; she could feel his muscled arm against her slender one, his thigh touching hers, and, as their feet swung back and forth through the water, every now and again, they, too, would touch.

She couldn’t concentrate; her mind was as much of a mess as her life right now. Ariana stood, walked over to the deck chairs, and reclined on one of them. Gabriel followed and relaxed on the one next to hers. With some space between them, she began to gather her thoughts.

“I’m a stranger to you, right?” She asked him.

“Sure,” he agreed.

“But you’re not a stranger to me. I know so much about you, I’ve watched you on television, I’ve read about you online, I’ve listened to your music, I would say that I could recognize your voice with my eyes closed, and yet, we’re strangers. To meet someone that you know so intimately face to face is weird. Can you see where I’m coming from?”

She turned her face to look at him and found herself looking into his incredible blue eyes.

“I’m just a man,” he told her in a scolding voice, “I’m a man like any other man. I eat, I sleep, I shit, and I sure as hell find beautiful women attractive. Yes, I’m a musician, and I love my job. Not many people get paid to do what they love, and I happen to be one of them, but that’s just a part of me, it isn’t all of me.”

“I’m sorry for pre-judging you,” Ariana felt abashed, “it’s hard not to, and I guess the same way you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you probably shouldn’t judge a rock star by his reputation.”

As much as she disliked celebrity gossip, she’d still read the stories online about Cruise Control. As they’d gotten more successful, there were more and more articles about them. The band apparently liked to party and were at a lot of high-profile events, often seen with other beautiful people around them.

“I have a reputation for a reason,” he said and smiled at her again, “it’s a part of the image. A part of being a successful rock star, but it’s also a façade. I enjoy the perks of my lifestyle for sure, but at the end of the day, I go to sleep like anyone else.”

“In a bed with fifteen hundred thread-count sheets, I’ll bet.” She couldn’t resist teasing him.

“I think you overestimate my celebrity; they’re only eight hundred thread-count. I dream of the day I get to sleep on fifteen hundred thread-count sheets. It’s why I got into this business to begin with, you know.”

They were laughing again, and it was a relaxed, easy silence that fell this time.

“So what do you do for a living?” he asked her.

“I’ve just finished my Bachelor of Business,” she told him.

“What do you plan to do now?”

“It’s funny you should ask, I don’t really know the answer to that question, so I’ve kind of been wondering myself.”

“How old are you?” he asked.

“I’m twenty-two.”

“You’re young; you have plenty of time to figure it out.”

She knew that he was four years older than her. She wondered how much would change in her life in the next four years.

“I know, I just worry that I’ll take the wrong job and find myself stuck there in ten years’ time, hating my life, and thinking about what could have been.”

“God, that’s depressing,” he looked at her, waiting until their gazes met before continuing his line of thought, “that won’t happen to you. I’ve known you for ten minutes, and already I can tell that you’re as smart as you are beautiful—have some faith in yourself.”

Ariana’s heart pounded at his comment; she could feel the heat rising in her cheeks but was unable to look away from him and couldn’t stop herself from seeking further reassurance.

“That doesn’t stop me worrying that I’m going to make a big mistake.”

“Well, for a start, you’re thinking about it. The people who have that life are the ones who never gave it a second thought. They took whatever came along and ran with it. In all fairness, you can’t spend your entire life wondering what’s behind door number three, but if you take the time to look when you have the chance, you might be pleasantly surprised.”

“That’s easy for you to say, isn’t it? You knew what you wanted from your life, and you got it. Why would you bother with door number three?” she wondered.

“I didn’t get where I am without a lot of hard work, Ariana. I also had a lot of knock-backs, and there were times when I thought it would be easier to quit than to keep beating my head against a brick wall.”

“What kept you going?”

“I was passionate about my music and what I wanted to do with it,” he answered, his tone honest.

“Now we reach the crux of the matter. I’m not passionate about anything.”

“Not about anything at all?” There was a teasing note to his voice, and she wondered again if he was flirting with her.

“Well, nothing I can do as a career anyway.” Her voice was full of melancholy as she thought of hours spent writing short stories for herself and friends in her teens.

“There’s something, though, isn’t there?” He searched her face and said, “I can tell there’s something that you would love to do for a living.”

“If you must know, I’ve always loved creative writing, but it’s a hard market to break into, and getting published is nigh on impossible.” She sighed.

“You need to have more faith in yourself.”

“I wish I could, but I’m practical if nothing else. I’ll probably end up putting my degree to good use in some boring office job. That’s life for most of us, Gabriel.”

He looked into her eyes and frowned.

“You can call me Gabe,” he said, then paused for a second, looking slightly stunned. “I hope for your sake that you’re wrong.”

“Okay, Gabe. Anyway, this conversation is getting depressing.” She cast about in her head for a different topic. “How about this weather?”

“It’s great weather. I could go for a swim, actually,” he laughed.

“Too bad neither of us have swimsuits.”

As his head snapped around to face her, she blushed.

“That is not your invitation to say ‘why don’t we just go nude?’ by the way!” she clarified.

“I would never!” He feigned indignation, “I was merely going to suggest that unless you’re particularly attached to that dress, there’s no reason that we couldn’t swim in what we’re wearing.”

Gabriel waited for her to answer, and she assessed the situation. So far, what she had discovered about Gabriel was that he was smart, funny, incredibly attractive, and liked to have fun.

If she had a bucket list, going swimming late at night in an expensive cocktail dress with a rock star would probably have been on it. On the other hand, the chlorine would ruin the fabric entirely, and her aunt had only just given her this dress. Looking over at Gabriel again, she decided it was worth it.

She stood up, walked to the edge of the pool, raised her arms above her head, and executed a dive into the water, leaving Gabriel sitting on his deck chair. The pool was heated, but it still gave her a bit of a shock as she turned and began to tread water while facing Gabriel, waiting for him to join her.

He smiled and stood up, as well. He made a show of taking off his T-shirt. Ariana would have complained that he would at least have something dry to put on later while she would be completely drenched, except that she enjoyed the view too much as his muscled form stalked towards the edge of the pool.

“So, do you work out a lot?” she asked Gabriel after he had joined her in the water.

Ariana could feel an ache between her thighs, and her breathing increased as she watched him. The silk fabric of her dress was clinging to her, and her nipples were hard against her lace bra.

“Yeah, a bit. I use it as my time to zone out and get away from everything, plus I find the ladies tend to like the muscles,” he winked at her, and this time she was sure he was flirting.

“I thought you didn’t like groupies?” She stuck her tongue out at him; being in the water and so utterly turned on had definitely loosened her inhibitions.

“Not all women are groupies or even fans,” he told her.

“Trust me, after your tour, pretty much everyone will be a groupie, or at the very least a fan. Your album is amazing.”

“You flatter me.”

“I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true,” she told him.

They were silent for a minute as they were treading water. Music floated on the air to them from the house and mixed with the sounds of the water lapping against the sides of the pool and the water feature trickling away.

“Where do you get the inspiration for your music?” Ariana asked.

“Where do you get the inspiration for your stories?” He parried.

“Fair call. How soon will you begin working on your new album?” Ariana had always been curious about this timeframe.

“I’ll probably work on it during the tour, so we’re ready to record by the time the tour ends. Sadly, these days the record labels mostly just care about output. They don’t put any time or effort into acts anymore. If you can’t produce sales, you’re fucked.”

“That must be a lot of pressure. Do you write all the songs yourself?”

“I write most of the lyrics, sometimes the music as well, but a lot of the time we collaborate with each other to write a song. I excel at lyrics if I do say so myself. I want my songs to mean something to the person listening to them, as well as to myself. I don’t even care if they get the same meaning out of it that I do, just that it means something. Does that make sense?”

“It sure does,” she said, smiling at him. “I often wonder if what I think the song means is the same as what it means to the artist.”

“You’ll never know,” he replied with a wink, “unless you can catch them to ask!”

With that, he swam quickly away from her, and she followed as fast as she could. She was a fairly good swimmer, but he managed to outstrip her easily, despite the fact that his jeans had to be slowing him down. When he reached the deep end of the pool, he turned and watched her swimming towards him, but as soon as she got almost close enough to touch him, he pushed off quickly in the other direction. Ariana turned herself around and swam towards the shallow end. She pushed herself to swim faster, and, as they got near the end, he slowed down as she sped up. It was only a few seconds before she was able to reach out and grab his foot.

“I got you!” she cried, like a child playing tag.

He stopped completely, and she lost her grip on his foot but kept moving forward, suddenly finding herself in his grasp.

“Who’s got who?” he asked while smirking.

Ariana’s heart thrummed in her chest, and she couldn’t answer. They were both panting with exertion as he continued to hold her in his arms for a second or two longer than was comfortable, or appropriate, for two near-strangers.

She was overwhelmed by how good it felt being held in his arms, and she wanted to stay here forever. She wanted to wrap her legs around his waist and be as close to him as she possibly could. She wanted to feel him deep inside her and experience all the carnal pleasure she sensed he could offer her.

“I should probably get back,” Ariana said huskily, ignoring her body’s pull towards him, “it’s getting late, and my aunt might be wondering where I got to.”

She felt utterly disappointed when her words broke the spell, and Gabriel released her immediately.

“Of course, I didn’t mean to…” Gabriel stammered, “that is to say that…”

He trailed off, and they got out of the pool in awkward silence. Ariana shivered as the cool night air hit her body. Perhaps swimming in their clothes hadn’t been such a stellar idea after all. Her wet dress was clinging to her body, and she felt incredibly exposed as Gabriel ran his gaze over her. While she enjoyed his gaze, she wasn’t sure how good she’d feel parading around like this in front of anyone else.

“I’ll just go get our stuff.”

He gestured towards his shirt and their shoes on the deck chairs down the other end of the pool, and she nodded while shivering. As he walked away from her, she couldn’t help admiring his physique. It was amazing how, in the last hour, he had gone from the amazing, unobtainable rock star Gabriel Knight to Gabe, the handsome, friendly guy who quizzed her on her life plans. When he bent to pick up their items, she smiled as she thought just how good he looked in those wet jeans. He put on his shirt as he walked back to her, and they headed back towards the main building, her shoes dangling from her right hand.

“This garden is absolutely beautiful,” she said aloud.

“It is beautiful, and so are you.”

She blushed, but didn’t know what to say to that, and changed the topic.

“So you’re going on your first tour, how do you feel about that?”

“Equal parts excited and completely petrified.”

He had seemed at home on stage and in front of an audience tonight, so his answer surprised Ariana. She couldn’t understand how this amazing man who performed so well could possibly ever be scared of going on tour.

“What part of it scares you?”

“Well, firstly, I’m told that most of the concerts have sold out, which is great for a first tour, but what if everyone hates us live?”

“They won’t. Next problem?”

“How do you know?”

He sounded like a little boy asking his mommy if the kids will be nice to him on his first day of school.

“I’ve seen you live, remember? Your performance tonight was fantastic, and you light up on stage, I couldn’t take my eyes off you. Next problem?” she repeated her question.

“If you’re sure,” he said, looking pleased with himself, “I guess the only other big thing is being away from home for months on end. Living out of a suitcase and sleeping in a different bed every night.”

“You must not be getting enough action if you’re not sleeping in a different bed every night!” she said cheekily, and he laughed.

“I guess I’m not. Why? Are you offering?”

He winked at her, and she felt a tingle of excitement from her head to her toes. She shivered as she remembered that moment in the pool and what could easily have happened if they’d stayed in there any longer.

“I think you’ve mistaken me for a groupie. I’m not that kind of girl,” she scolded him playfully.

“Believe me—” he looked her over again “—I haven’t mistaken who you are, sweetheart.”

They reached the house just then and headed into the ballroom to find the party still in full swing. Her aunt was looking for her, though, and when they walked in, she gaped at them in their sodden state.

“Ariana? Are you okay? I was wondering where you were. Why are you wet?” her aunt exclaimed.

“I’m fine, Aunt Susan,” she told her, “we just decided to go for a bit of a swim.”

“Well, that’s just great.” Her aunt sounded annoyed. “I’m ready to leave, and I have to be honest, I’m not thrilled about you sitting on the leather seats in the Porsche with wet clothes.”

“I’m sorry, it just happened,” Ariana said, sincerely.

As she caught Gabriel’s glance, though, they both had to hold back laughter.

“Goodbye, Gabe,” she said, “it was lovely to meet you.”

“It was great meeting you too, Ariana.” His smile was affectionate as she turned away from him.

She and her aunt headed out to the parking area. Aunt Susan handed the valet her ticket, and they waited for the car to be brought around. Just as her aunt’s silver Porsche appeared in sight, she heard her name being called.

“Ariana, wait!”

She smiled as she turned to see Gabriel coming towards her.

“What’s up?” she asked as he arrived in front of her, panting.

“I just wanted to know if you want to go out on Friday?” he asked between breaths.

“I thought you had a worldwide tour to be getting on with?”

“It doesn’t start for another month and a half, Friday’s only this week!”

Ariana hesitated for a moment. He was great, and she wanted so badly to just say yes, but his life was full of all of the trappings of celebrity, and she knew that was a dangerous path to travel down.

Their eyes caught, and she was surprised by the electric shock that traveled through her. She was overwhelmed with a desire to be with him and ached to feel his touch again. In his eyes, she could also see his concern that she was about to reject him.

“Okay, sure, why not,” she said against her better judgment and smiled at him.

They exchanged phone numbers, and a slightly awkward goodbye before Ariana got into the passenger seat of her aunt’s car. Her phone buzzed, and she looked at it to see a text from Gabriel.

I can’t wait to see you again.

She texted back quickly.

Me either. Tonight was awesome. Thanks!

Ariana relaxed back into the seat and found that she really didn’t give a damn about the leather.

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At what point in our relationship will you give in, Ari? How many years would we need to be together before you would feel comfortable telling the world about us?

– The album

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