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Regina, aka Reggie, Vaughn turned the key in her ten-year-old Escort and prayed the car would start. The plea was a daily ritual. The present state of her finances made replacing the aged vehicle impossible, so she relied on divine benevolence instead.
After two tries, the engine finally rumbled to life. The rusted green body shook and vibrated as if it was going to fly apart, but with her prayers answered, Regina backed down her grandmother's snow-lined driveway and headed off to her job at one of Detroit's most prestigious riverfront hotels.
She'd been on the hotel's staff for five years. Initially, she'd worked at the concierge desk, but when the economy hit bottom two years ago, so did the hospitality industry. Her position was eliminated, and it was either be laid off or take any opening the hotel had. She found a spot in housekeeping. It was good honest work and she made a point of doing it well. However, being downsized also meant bringing home a smaller paycheck, one that didn't pay enough to handle both her bills and college tuition, so finishing school had to wait. Having to withdraw had been disappointing, especially since she was just a few credits short of obtaining her bachelor's in Music Education. She wanted to become a music teacher. In her heart she knew her dreams would come true, but right now, she was just glad to have a job.
At the hotel, she parked in the employee lot and entered the building. Housekeeping was run out of a small office in the basement. Ms. Harold headed the operation and had been doing so for fourteen years.
As Reggie entered and punched in, Ms. Harold called out, "Morning, Reg."
"Hey, Ms. Harold. How are you?"
"I'd be better if Trina hadn't called in sick again. You'll have to cover her floors today. Sorry."
Reggie wanted to jump up and down and throw a tantrum at the idea of all the extra work, but because she was twenty-seven and not seven, she said simply, "Okay. I'll see you later." Sighing, she left Ms. Harold and headed off to start her day.
On the way to the room where the housekeepers changed out of street clothes and into their uniforms, she gave a wave to the waiters, valets and other service employees she passed. The hotel's underground hive was already up and running, and she felt good still being a member of such a dedicated and award-winning staff.
Trina, however, was another story. She was Reggie's best friend. They'd been close as sisters since fourth grade. Where Reggie's dream was to be a music teacher, Trina's was to become a beautician with her own shop. Reggie rooted for Trina's dream just like Trina rooted for Reggie's, but when it came to work outside of a beauty shop, Trina was not the most diligent employee.
Reggie entered the changing room, pulled on the shapeless gray dress that was her uniform, buckled the shiny belt and went to grab one of the carts that held all the towels, bedding and other necessities she'd need to spend the next eight hours cleaning rooms.
Upstairs on the twenty-fifth floor, multi-award-winning music producer Jamal Reynolds checked himself out in the mirror. Tall and dark skinned, he knew he was a good-looking man, but that wasn't what drove his personality. The simple black turtleneck and black slacks were expensive but made him look casual and comfortable as opposed to the millionaire the music industry knew him to be. He preferred it that way. He wasn't into blinding people with bling or hanging so much gold around his neck that he had to walk bent over. His work was his focus and the only bling he cared about were the Grammys and Platinum awards he and his stable of artists displayed on the walls of their homes back in L.A. At present, he was on his way to a breakfast in conjunction with the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Grady Records, one of the pioneering recording companies of R & B. At thirty-three, Jamal was too young to have grown up owning any of the Grady hits, but he and everyone else in the music business owed their careers to the tracks laid down fifty years ago by the great Charles Grady.
The hotel room's phone rang. It was the front desk informing him that his hired driver and town car were downstairs. Grabbing his bag, he quickly left the room.
He and the driver were just about to pull away from the hotel when Jamal realized he'd stupidly left his phone in the bathroom. Offering a quick apology to the driver, he hurried back inside.
A maid's cart was outside his room and the door was open. Not wanting to scare whoever might be inside, Jamal entered and called out, "Hello?"
In reply, he heard a woman singing an old Anita Baker classic in a voice so fine it stopped him cold. The pitch and intonation were perfect. The resonation, pure. His heart raced as it did when he heard a new talent, so he peeked into the bathroom and got the backside view of a woman in a shapeless gray dress on her knees cleaning the bathtub. Headphones were in her ears, and her voice was rising and falling as if it had been sent from heaven.
He listened intently. Not only did she have amazing range, but more often than not an untrained singer sang flat when wearing headphones and this woman was blowing. Fighting to keep the excitement out of his voice, he called a bit louder, "Excuse me? Miss?"
Singing away and in her own world, Reggie happened to look around and jumped, startled at the sight of the tall, good-looking man in the doorway. He was dressed in all black and the dark beauty of him almost knocked her over. All she could do was stare at how absolutely gorgeous he was. She finally shook her mind loose, hastily snatched off the headphones and got to her feet. She wasn't supposed to be plugged in while working and she prayed he wasn't a new member of the hotel's security detail.
"Um, I forgot my phone," he explained.
Relieved that he wasn't security, she asked, "May I see your room key, please?" No matter how cute, the rules came first.
He handed it over. As she walked to the open door and stuck the key card into the lock, she could feel his eyes on her. She tried to ignore the silent scrutiny but found herself peeking over at him just the same. The speculative amusement in his gaze made her hastily turn her attention back to the door.
Satisfied his key was legit, she handed it back, then reached into the pocket of her dress and withdrew his phone. She handed it over. "I already called security about finding it, so make sure you let the desk know you have it. I don't want them thinking I kept it."
Reggie wondered why she couldn't seem to move. He had his phone and she had a roster full of rooms to take care of but they were staring at each other like two people caught in time.
"I heard you singing," he confessed.
"Please don't tell anyone. I'm not supposed to have headphones on, but it makes the day go faster."
"I understand. You have a great voice. My name's Jamal Reynolds."
"Nice to meet you."
"I'd like to talk to you, if I could."
"Getting you into a recording studio."
That broke the spell. She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, right. Nice meeting you, Mr. Reynolds. Have a good day." She moved back into the bathroom.
"No, wait. Here. Let me give you my card." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a platinum-engraved card holder.
"No, thank you."
"But I'm a producer."
"And I'm a maid with a bunch of rooms to do, so you go produce and I'll clean."
For a moment he appeared to be confused, as if he wasn't sure what to make of her. As if thinking maybe she wasn't getting it, he stated plainly, "I'm serious."
"So am I." Reggie knew better than to antagonize a guest, but the last thing she needed was to start her day having to fend off some joker intent upon Lord knew what. "Do I go back to work or do I call security?" she asked gently.
"So I can tell them you were singing when I came in?"
"Now you're threatening my job?"
He stiffened a bit. " No. I just want you to hear me out."
"And if I don't, you'll tattle like somebody in middle school?"
He stared. He didn't seem to like the sound of that. "Look, I'm Jamal Reynolds."
"You said that, but did you hear what I said?" she asked quietly and as politely as she could manage. "I don't have time to listen to whatever it is you think you're going to run on me, so just go, please, so I can get done in here."
He looked exasperated, then sighed. "Okay, you win. I'll leave, but I can make you a star."
"Uh-huh." She took the embossed card he was holding out, hoping it might speed up his departure.
"I fly back to L.A. tomorrow night," he said, looking all the world as if he couldn't believe she was actually turning down his offer. "Would you call me when you get off work, please?"
"I'll be expecting your call."
"Okay, okay. Just go."
So he did, and as soon as he disappeared, Reggie tossed the fancy business card into her trash can and went back to cleaning his room so she could move on to the next one.
At the end of the long day, she pulled into her grandmother's driveway, turned off the engine and dropped her head wearily onto the steering wheel. Lord, I'm tired, she thought. Thanks to Trina not showing up, Reggie's normal eight-hour workday had been lengthened to ten. There'd be overtime pay in her next check as a result, but at the moment the prospect of the extra money wasn't enough to compensate her for the weariness plaguing every bone in her body. She'd made endless beds, cleaned endless bathtubs and vacuumed until her back begged for mercy. Now, all she wanted to do was crawl into a nice hot tub and soak until she turned into a raisin.
Inside the house, she found her pajama-clad grandmother chilling on the living-room sofa watching an old Western. Her long dreadlocks were piled neatly atop her head.
"Hey, Gram," she said with a warm smile.
"Hey, baby. You look whipped. Long day, huh?"
"Too long." Reggie plopped down into their worn green recliner. "Trina didn't show up again."
Gram looked over and smiled. "Good thing you love her so much."
"I know. Otherwise I'd be tempted to kick her butt for having to cover for her again. How was your day?"
"Mr. Baines and I spent the morning riding through the Pointes looking at the rich folks' homes. You should've seen the tulips on Lakeshore Drive. Absolutely beautiful."
Mr. Baines was Gram's current boo. They'd been together a few months but Gram wasn't sure how much longer the relationship would continue. Being a retired English teacher, she thrived on intelligent conversation and that was not one of Mr. Baines's strong suits. The Pointes, however, were a group of rich communities east of Detroit. You had to have large dollars to live there and the black families in the zip codes could be counted on one hand. Many Detroiters took pleasure in slowly driving past the big lakefront homes to look at the spring flowers, Halloween decorations and the lights hung during the Christmas holidays.
"What was Trina's excuse this time?"
Reggie shrugged. "Who knows? I tried calling her to see if maybe she was sick but I got her voice mail."
"Probably man related, knowing our Trina."
"Probably. I'll try her again later tonight." A book could be written about Trina and her adventurous love life. She changed her men as often as she changed her hairstyle.
"At least you have the day off tomorrow," Gram pointed out. "You can relax."
"A little bit. The kids and I are having the final concert rehearsal tomorrow. Any errands you need me to run for you before then?" Reggie was the volunteer music director for a neighborhood elementary school.
"Nope. Mr. Baines and I got groceries today, so I'm set."
"Good. Then I'm sleeping in."
"Pancakes when you get up."
"Deal," Reggie replied with a tired smile and got to her feet. "Oh, I met a guy today who said he wanted to put me in the studio."
"What kind of studio?"
"Music. Said he was a producer."
"Did he give you his name?"
"Jamal something. Started with an R…Reynolds, I think. He was in one of the rooms on my route today, or should I say, Trina's route. Gave me his card."
"And you said?"
Their eyes met. Reggie waited for her grandmother to reply, but when no words followed, Reggie planted a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks for not fussing. I'll see you later."
"Get some rest."
Upstairs, Reggie took her bath, came down to eat, then went back up to her room and booted up her old computer. She Googled Jamal Reynolds. The picture of him on his Web site matched the handsome man she'd met at the hotel, and his credentials were impeccable. He'd produced some of the world's most famous R & B artists; most of whom were her favorites. He had numerous Grammys to his name and, according to his profile, was single. Not that she cared. What mattered was that he hadn't lied to her about his identity, even though his truthfulness didn't change her decision to turn down his studio offer. Once bitten, twice shy, she said to herself. Her curiosity about Reynolds satisfied, she shut down the computer and crawled into bed.
She couldn't go to sleep right away though, because one side of her kept asking why she didn't take the man up on his offer. Especially now that she knew he was legit. At one time in her life, being a singer was all she'd wanted to be. Even after the tragic death of her mother, she'd kept her eyes on the prize. With her old boyfriend Kenny producing and writing for her, they'd hustled her basement-recorded CDs from Detroit to Chicago and Windsor and back, only to have a producer they were working with disappear into the night with a slew of Kenny's best songs and the three thousand dollars Reggie and Gram had scraped together to invest in demos the man said she needed. Once bitten, twice shy, she echoed. Her heart had been broken, dreams shattered. Deep down inside, a small spark continued to burn for the hopes she once had, but she refused to take such an emotional and financial risk again. She told herself sharing her love of music with the kids at the school was enough. Another plus was that as soon as she finished her degree, the school's directors promised to hire her full-time. But the voice inside that wanted her to reconsider going back into a studio wouldn't leave her alone. Finally, she fought it to a draw and slid into sleep.