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Moving from her closet to the bed where her suitcase was opened wide, Charlene Quinn sang the lyrics to "Finally" while folding and carefully packing clothes for her trip to Miami. The song was an oldie but goodie in her mind. The classic single by CeCe Peniston, released in 1991, hitting the number-one spot on music's Billboard charts, was a great dance tune that didn't quite give CeCe the credit her vocal abilities deserved.
Charlene couldn't stop playing the song. She had been since receiving the phone call two days ago from her agent, Sofia Wellesley of Limelight Entertainment. And while CeCe was actually singing about finally finding Mr. Right and falling in love, Charlene's rendition of the lyrics was something else entirely.
She definitely wasn't looking for love. Granted, she wasn't running from it either, like some people she knew, but it wasn't high up on her list of priorities. For Charlene, working as a vocal coach at the local community college was both challenging and rewarding because everybody who thought they could sing couldn't.
Her parents hadn't seemed thrilled with her career choice. They wanted her to be more like her older sister. Candis Quinn's illustrious career began with her debut as a Dainty Diaper Baby at the tender age of one. From that moment on, Candis had been in front of a camera, gracing the pages of magazines and then finally graduating to commercials in her high school years. Candis was three years Charlene's senior, and it was expected that Charlene would follow in Candis's footsteps.
It was usually around age three to four that most babies dropped the baby fat due to their increased mobility. Charlene's stuck like old gum to a shoe sole. While there were some ads that especially requested plump child models, the ones that wanted the cute, perfect look clearly outnumbered them. So Candis was the child star of the family.
Her father, Randall Quinn, had been the executive producer of over twenty hit sitcoms in the last thirty years. That made him the adult star of the family. Her mother, Marjorie, was the perfect wife, mother and overall female in Charlene's life. She supported her husband, went to all the photo shoots and commercial callbacks with Candis and tried her damnedest to make Charlene into something she just couldn't possibly be.
Marjorie had finally had enough of Charlene's diet failures when she turned sixteen. She took her daughter to a doctor, who quickly diagnosed Charlene with hypothyroidism, a condition described as a lack of functioning thyroid tissue and thyroid hormone. Early symptoms of this condition included fatigue, weight gainand water retention, all things that had plagued Charlene since she was a little girl. The strange thing was that this condition usually hit women during the first year after they'd given birth. Charlene's was a unique case, the doctor had said.
His diagnosis hadn't changed the stigma of growing up in Beverly Hills among models and actresses and a sister who was a goddess at five feet nine inches, boasting a teeny-tiny waist and sizable breasts. Even now, holding her own bit of height at five feet five and a half inches with a buttery complexion and slightly slanted brown eyes, Charlene felt a little uneasy about her looks. She was better than she had been but still the memory of being constantly ridiculed in school stuck with her. That's where her best friend Rachel had entered the picture.
Only three weeks ago Rachel Wellesley, the younger sister of Charlene's agent, Sofia, had been dealt a heavy blow. One of the things both she and Charlene feared had happened—Rachel had found herself in the limelight of the tabloids. Charlene met Rachel when they were both in the third grade attending the Beverly Vista School. It was there in the cafeteria, over a carton of warm chocolate milk and sticky, tasteless mac 'n' cheese, that a true friendship had been forged.
Like Charlene, Rachel came from a famous family— the Wellesleys, known for their budding new agency Limelight Entertainment. That, coupled with living in Beverly Hills, California, put the two girls in a position they dreaded. Paparazzi and reporters were always abuzz either around their homes or the school yard. Everybody wanted a glance into their personal lives, or at the time, the personal lives of their famous families. It was sickening and both girls swore they'd keep a low profile in their adult lives, which for Charlene wasn't going to be a problem since she didn't fit the profile of your average Beverly Hills female.
But the night she'd dragged Rachel to the karaoke bar in an effort to cheer her best friend up, Charlene's plans had changed.
"Why don't you sing something?" Rachel had said after the man with the beer belly and nappy-looking beard had shuffled off the stage. He'd attempted to sing "Flying Without Wings" by Ruben Studdard, but his rendition had been more than bad. Horrendous probably said it best.
"Oh, no," Charlene had answered quickly, taking a sip of her water with lemon slices. "You're the one on hiatus, you get up there. It'll do you good to get the whole situation with Ethan and the show off your mind."
Rachel was already shaking her head. "Now you know I can't hold a tune any better than I can hold hot coals in my hand. And the last thing I want to do is give the press any more ammunition against me."
Feeling the wave of sadness emanating from her friend made Charlene frown. She hated seeing the normally vibrant and cheerful Rachel this way. Reaching a hand across the table, she covered Rachel's. "It'll die down. You know those vultures find new targets every fifteen minutes. Besides, Ethan's love life is really old news."
Shrugging, Rachel tried for a smile. Unfortunately, the act was dismal and the smile never reached her eyes. "C'mon, Rach, I'm trying to cheer you up here. If you keep looking like that I'm going to get a complex. Being stuck with me can't really be that bad."
"You know what would really cheer me up?"
Rachel asked, this time her smile seeming a bit more enthusiastic.
Feeling the twinges of dread, Charlene responded, "What?"
"If you'd get up there and sing."
Her lips had been about to form the answer "no." Of all people in the world, Rachel knew how much Charlene loved to sing. She also knew all the insecurities Charlene kept from everybody else.
It was no secret that Charlene's passion was singing. She'd been singing any and every song she heard since she was four years old. It had been the only thing she was good at that Candis couldn't do. The best part about it was that Charlene could really sing. But once she had graduated from high school and went on to study music at The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, furthering her musical knowledge, Charlene's focus had turned to training other people with musical talent.
But tonight wasn't about her, it was about the friend who'd been there for her through all her trials and tribulations. After all, that's what friends were for.
"If I do this, you'd better smile for the rest of the night. No more sulking, no more regretting, nothing. Deal?"
Rachel, knowing she'd won this not-so-small battle, smiled happily, turning her hand over to grip Charlene's. "I promise. C'mon, let's look through the catalog to see what songs they have."
Before Charlene could say another word, they were facing the computerized jukebox, pressing buttons that allowed the display of songs to change quickly. After about four screen changes, Rachel pointed to a song and proclaimed, "That one."
Reading the selection, Charlene couldn't help but smile. It had been one of her favorite songs in high school.
So without further hesitation she'd selected the song and headed up to the stage while Rachel hurried back to her seat. It was Friday night, a little after ten, and the bar was just starting to pick up more customers. Karaoke night was huge here and the hot wings and beer weren't bad either. So as she adjusted the microphone to fit her height—the man with the huge belly had been taller by a few inches—she experienced a slight case of the butterflies after noticing the amount of people sitting at tables waiting for her performance.
Crowds bothered Charlene only to the extent that she didn't like people staring at her. As for performing, once she began singing she was often so lost in the music and the lyrics that all else ceased to exist. So her fingers trembled slightly when she lifted her enclosed fist to cover her mouth, clearing her throat.
Applause had already begun from a few of the customers sitting right up front.
"Sing, baby! Sing!" A partially inebriated man with a cigarette stuck to his lower lip yelled. How did he keep that thing on his lip? she wondered absently. Then she nodded to the older lady operating the karaoke machine.
She didn't need the words that appeared on the prompter, she knew the song by heart. The already dim room grew just a tad darker until there was only a spotlight on her. She couldn't see the faces of the people in the audience but could make out the outline of their heads. The first chords of music started and she felt that familiar stirring inside.
It began in the pit of her stomach, swirling around until warmth filled her entire body. That's what happened when she sang, her entire soul was filled.
Then right on cue, with her eyes staring out into the darkness, she began to sing the lyrics to Mariah Carey's "Hero."
"There's a hero, if you look inside your heart. You don't have to be afraid of what you are." This had been her theme song all throughout high school. Of course it had been out for a while by that time, but it didn't matter. She loved the lyrics, loved what they meant and how empowered they made her feel.
Loved them so much that they were all she could focus on while singing and she didn't see the tall, slender man watching her from a table in the far corner of the room.
Ten minutes and a roomful of applause later, Charlene had stepped down from the stage, only to be stopped just as she approached the table where Rachel was still clapping gleefully.
"Jason Burton from Playascape Records. And you are?"
For a second she'd only stared at him, not even acknowledging the business card he held out to her with one hand or his charming smile. Had he said he was from a record company?
Then Rachel was by her side. "She's Charlene Quinn and I'm Rachel Wellesley from Limelight Entertainment Agency. How can we help you, Mr. Burton?"
The conversation had gone on from that moment but Charlene was so flabbergasted at the actual thought of this man thinking she'd sounded good enough to record that she barely remembered it all.
The next day Charlene and Sofia were in downtown Los Angeles riding the elevator to the executive offices of Sahari Davenport, CEO of Empire Music, the music conglomerate that distributed Playascape Records. Charlene had officially been signed as a Limelight client and with Sofia's smooth expertise had left that office two hours later with her first record deal.
And now, as if she hadn't been on a fast enough roller coaster of emotions, she was heading out to Miami to work with superproducer Akil Hutton, the man who was going to make all her secret dreams come true.
Something was wrong.
It just couldn't be, Akil Hutton thought for the millionth time since he'd received the package from Jason early yesterday morning.
"She's gonna be the next Whitney Houston, Ace. I'm tellin' you, wait till you meet her."
Jason had called him Ace since their early days interning at Empire. Over the last ten years he and Jason had worked their butts off to build this company into the hip-hop and R&B powerhouse it was today. They'd both started out as interns for Empire Music, knowing that one day they wanted a piece of that pie for themselves. Since Jason was a people person with a distinct ear for what was hot and what was not, he'd been a shoo-in for the A&R spot, "Artists and Repertoire" was like his middle name.
And since Akil had been more of a beats-and-lyrics man himself, he'd taken his seat in the studio, working alongside the engineers and the artists to get the perfect sound for each recording.
Nineteen number-one hits, seven platinum CDs, three gold, five Grammy Awards ranging from R&B Single to Producer of the Year and millions of dollars later, Akil and Jason were still hanging tight. Akil could say that Jason was the closest thing to a friend he had in this world.
And that was a sorry shame.
But back to this latest dilemma.
In one hand Akil held a picture, an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven glossy print of a pretty woman, with butter-toned skin and root-beer brown eyes. Her smile was fun, touching the soft dimples in each cheek and the edges of her eyes. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face in some sort of updo that didn't really flatter her other features. But that was the least of his worries.
Although her face had captured him, sent a little tinge to his chest, the rest of her made him pause. She wasn't a rail-thin woman—after being in the business for years he knew this was the look, slim and trim, almost emaciated—on the contrary; she was full-figured with more curves than the law should possibly allow. Her clothes, however, left a lot to be desired. She wore slacks, nice enough, in a navy blue color and a button-down blouse, high heels and light makeup. An outfit that didn't scream "sexy" and barely whispered "diva."
It yelled "average, nondescript, forgettable" from the business standpoint. On the personal, well, he didn't even want to think about that.
All those words were deadly in his line of work.
Then he closed his eyes, shut out the visual and simply listened to the voice bellowing from the speakers in his home studio just outside of Miami.
The throaty, rich sound of a mezzo-soprano voice filtered throughout the room. He'd listened to this demo CD more than a dozen times in twenty-four hours, had become addicted to the smooth, melodious notes. There was no doubt she had a voice, a good strong one at that, just right for singing R&B ballads and dance tunes. Ten minutes into the first listen he'd known Jason had picked a winning voice.
As for the rest, the whole package, which was what he was responsible for, that was going to be a problem.