Prologue

 


Two years earlier

 

 

Noelle danced to the beat of the music in a break-neck rhythm. She was like a sparkling flame in her short sequined dress as her hips swayed seductively. She grabbed the microphone and yanked it from its stand with a feral toss of her head, her waist-long hair flowing around her with a life of its own.

Helena watched her with more personal interest than she was prepared to admit. Noelle Laurent was the latest addition to Venus Media Production, and it was no small feat to have snagged her from under the noses of her old record company and all the other bidders. Noelle was the hottest young star around, on a steady track to cult status. Helena had not yet had the pleasure of meeting her face to face, but was intimately familiar with her voice and performance.

“Happy fortieth birthday,” someone purred in Helena's ear as a woman’s slender arm circled her waist. “You don't look a day over thirty-nine.”

“You crack me up, Myra. Honestly, shut up. I want to listen to this.”

“Ah. The scrumptious Ms. Laurent.” Myra Hollander, Helena's lover more than twenty years ago and now a good friend, chuckled. “Of course, you want to check her out.”

“It's business.” Helena was lying and she knew it, but she'd never confess that to Myra. Myra knew all about Helena's philosophy when it came to relationships. Short. Sweet. Bye-bye. To be caught gaping like this at a kid more than ten years her junior was embarrassing, which was another reason not to confess.

“Of course.” Myra opened her mouth to continue, but a quick glance from Helena was obviously enough. “All right. All right. I'll go see a girl about some punch.”

Onstage, two other performers belonging to VMP had joined Noelle and they were now slowing the music, moving toward the corner where Helena stood surrounded by friends and employees. The band began to play the interlude to “Happy Birthday,” and to Helena's dismay, the trio of young women shimmied down the four steps from the catwalk and approached her.

“Happy birthday, Ms. Forsythe,” they crooned, “happy birthday to you.”

They stopped right in front of her and kissed her on the cheek, one by one. Noelle was the last in line, and to Helena's surprise she didn't kiss her, but hugged her shyly.

Noelle Laurent was even more breathtaking up close, her complexion damp with perspiration, which only emphasized her scent of citrus and vanilla. Appalled at the deep surge of emotions, which she rationalized as mere lust, Helena stepped out of reach.

“Thank you, ladies. Now, don't let me hog you. I think the audience wants more of you.” She could tell that her standoffish response to the public display didn’t bother the first two girls, but Noelle's golden eyes seemed to lose their sparkle and turn into a muted dark brown.

“Anytime, Ms. Forsythe,” the first of the young women said, and winked before she reentered the stage area. The second one merely giggled and waved at the crowd as she followed suit. Noelle stood as if frozen and looked like she wanted to add something.

“I'm so thrilled to finally meet you.” Noelle seemed reluctant to return with the other two, who had already begun a wild dance along the catwalk toward the stage.

“And now you have.” The corners of Helena’s mouth had never felt so rigid. She tried to smile politely, but couldn’t. She didn't need a mirror to know how arrogant she looked. Her reaction shocked her. Even if she normally didn't mind living up to her reputation as the company bitch, she was always civil and professional. What about Noelle triggered this weird reaction? Helena shrugged inwardly. Maybe the fact that she'd never cared much for birthdays?

“Sure.” Noelle pivoted so fast, Helena stepped back when Noelle's long hair whipped through the air. She jumped up on the catwalk, ignoring the people who offered their hands for support. Grabbing the microphone, Noelle let her voice dominate the rest of the song, out-staging the other performers by a mile.

Helena knew from a business point of view that VMP had struck pure gold when they signed Noelle Laurent. On a personal level, Helena had no idea why she was certain that she should keep her distance.¨

Chapter One

 

 

Helena plowed through the busy corridor at VMP's headquarter with an ease born of confidence and familiarity. It didn't hurt that a mere look at her solemn expression scattered the junior staff in all directions. Occasionally an intern too eager to get out of her way would literally hit the wall.

Her office on the top floor of the American Standard Building was decorated to fit the original building. Helena loved it and normally entered the vast room with a feeling of anticipation. Today was different. She was not looking forward to dealing with yet another spoiled pop-diva while still jet-lagged after her flight back from Europe two days ago.

“Anything significant come up while I was in London?” Helena asked briskly as she passed Wanda Mayer, her assistant.

“David Boyd called. Said he has something urgent to talk to you about.” 

“Noelle Laurent's producer?”

“Yes. He doesn't sound too happy.”

“Really? Well, better return his call. Give me two minutes.” Helena walked into her office. Yellow roses stood in a blue vase on the coffee table in the sitting area of the room. Helena's mother had started the custom decades ago, which Wanda continued. She had worked for Helena's mother's assistant, who had groomed her meticulously until she took over.

Stopping in front of the vintage oak desk, Helena remembered exactly how her mother had looked behind it. Stern and goal-oriented, Dorcas Forsythe had been a woman in a man's world when she took over after her husband became ill during the seventies. When Helena finished boarding school, she'd begun to work with her mother, eager to please and to learn how to become as poised and ambitious.

Helena sat down at the desk, pulled her laptop from her black leather briefcase, and docked it with her desktop computer. As she waited for the call to David Boyd to go through, she updated the files she'd worked on while on her business trip to the London office.

“David Boyd for you on line one, ma'am,” Wanda said over the intercom.

“Thank you.” Helena pressed the button in question. “Helena Forsythe. What's up, David?” Helena barked her question, making sure she sounded as impatient as she felt.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Forsythe, but we have a bit of a situation.” David Boyd seemed apologetic, but also stressed and concerned.

“What kind of situation?” Helena pulled up Noelle Laurent's dossier, and a picture of the strikingly beautiful singer filled her computer screen.

“Noelle is causing trouble. She was impossible to deal with when we met to plan her second release. Come to think of it, she already seemed disgruntled when we recorded her first album for VMP. Makes you wonder how she treated her producers when she cut her first eight albums for those other labels.”

Helena browsed through some photos of the tall, curvaceous soul-pop star. With a voice that could move mountains, and enough sex appeal to mesmerize an arena full of fans, Noelle Laurent was apparently completely spoiled and truly represented the new “brat pack” in the music business.

“What did she do?”

“She walked out on us. She's never done before, and it concerns me. Could be she’s preparing to lawyer up and risk breaking her contract, for all we know.”

“But you're not sure?”

“No. She just stormed off with that big dude of hers in tow. Morris something. I have to say he became a bit unstable at one time during our...altercation.”

“You mean her bodyguard?  What in blazes did you do, David? Just what kind of altercation are you talking about?”

“Nothing, really. Thor tried to get her to stay by blocking her—”

“And the bodyguard made you all look like fools when he simply guided our little diva out of there.”

“Eh, yeah.” David sighed. “Pretty much.”

“And what exactly provoked this bit of drama?”

“Noelle has written a bunch of songs and now she wants to record them. We tried to tell her those songs weren't her, you know. They’re the deep kind of songs. Not at all what her fans are looking for.”

“How did she respond?”

“Like a true diva. She probably sees herself as the next Alicia Keys. What worries me even more is that Noelle seems to think she's earned the right to change the contract.”

“Oh, she does, does she?” Helena grimaced as a headache began to squeeze her temples. “What the hell. I'll handle it.”

“Thanks, Ms. Forsythe. She's being impossible.”

Even if Helena could understand his frustration, something prissy and overbearing in his tone made the idea of a rebellious Noelle Laurent understandable.

After Helena hung up she asked Wanda to join her, explaining the situation. “Schedule a meeting with Noelle Laurent and her agent today. Make it clear that if she doesn't show up, I'll consider her in breach of contract.”

Helena thumbed through the newspapers and some of the magazines that Wanda had stacked on her desk. The second magazine featured a full spread about Noelle Laurent, focusing on her wardrobe onstage, which showed more skin than fabric. The author asked the readers to go to the magazine’s Web site and discuss if Noelle's outfits were too outrageous for her younger fans.

Helena shook her head. Noelle's clothes weren't any worse than other pop star's; she merely filled them better. Frowning at how she kept staring at the picture of Noelle, Helena closed the magazine, uncomfortable about the direction her mind had taken her.

 

***

 

Adjusting her deep purple shirt, Noelle made sure she looked as businesslike as possible, given her outrageous hair and hourglass figure. She'd minimalized her makeup and pulled her long, black-and-blond hair into a strict bun at the nape of her neck. The phone message from Venus Media & Publishing headquarters via Brad, her agent, had sounded ominous, but she was ready to stand her ground. She had paid her dues by doing everyone's bidding over the last decade. It was time for a change.

Noelle sat down at the island in the kitchen, where her mother was making breakfast just as she had when Noelle was little. Her mother had worked two jobs back then, but always managed to cook for her girls before she sent them off to school.

“Can I help, Mom?” Her mother's raised eyebrows telegraphed her surprise.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

“With what? Breakfast? Don't be silly. I'm almost done.”

“We're big girls, Mom. Almost,” Noelle added, with a quick glance in her younger sister Claudia's direction. As the second youngest of the five sisters, Claudia had quickly established her role as the family’s diva. She had never showed any sign of getting out of the “terrible twos.”

“What's eating you?” Claudia plopped down on a stool next to Noelle. “And what's with that outfit? You look like you're going to church.”

“And good morning to you, too.” Noelle regarded her sister calmly. Claudia was seventeen going on forty-five, more cynical and acerbic than anyone at her age should be. “I'm on my way to a meeting. And you?” Claudia was dressed in a silk nightgown worthy of a movie star from the forties and tossed her hair in a way that would make any professional hair model envious.

Claudia had already lost interest in what Noelle had to say and reached for the plate of pancakes. “Mine?”

“No, your sister's. Didn't you hear what Noelle said? She's has to go to a meeting.”

“She's not the only one who's busy. I'm off to school.” Claudia's anger seemed to always be simmering just beneath the surface.

“Dressed like that?” Noelle knew better, but couldn't resist needling Claudia.

“Ah!” Claudia twirled and left the kitchen.

“Sorry, Mom.” Noelle dug her fork into the syrup-infused pancakes, not about to let Claudia's antics get to her. She was nervous as it was. Being summoned to see Helena Forsythe was like being called to the principal's office, something that had happened only a few times when she was in high school. Always the shy and proper student, Noelle had felt she'd failed her parents miserably the few times she got into trouble. Being the oldest of five girls wasn’t easy. Thank God, they're not all as temperamental as Claudia. Or as ungrateful.

“You seem far away.” Reba sat down with her own plate after she placed the remaining pancakes in the oven to stay warm.

“I'm worried, Mom.” Noelle hadn't meant to be so candid, but she was so rattled that not even her mother's comfort food could distract her. “I have to go see the CEO at VMP. She's called the Dragon Lady on her best days, and I’m not looking forward to this. She doesn't like me.”

“What? What's not to like?” Reba looked aghast at the possibility of someone not appreciating her firstborn. “What's wrong with this woman?”

“Oh, Mom.” Noelle chuckled. “She just doesn't. I met her once, at her birthday party two years ago, and she blew me off for no reason. Totally cold. Treated me like air. I don't know what I did to her then, but I know why she's mad at me now.”

“And why is that?” Reba’s fork was halfway to her mouth. “Don't tell me she has a problem with your songs? Surely she has to appreciate the fact that you're evolving as an artist. As a performer.”

Claudia entered the room, pulling on a pink sweater. “She probably thinks Noelle is stuck up and conceited.” She glanced around the countertop. “My pancakes?”

“Oven. And don't talk about your sister that way. She pays your way to that fancy school and supports all your expensive habits.”

“Mom—”

“It could change in a heartbeat so we better stick together and support her.” Reba didn't budge. “Apologize.”

Claudia obviously knew better than to cross her mother when she sounded so authoritarian. “Sorry, Noey.” She looked at Noelle from under her thick bangs. “I can be rather shi—I mean, I can be a bitch in the morning.”

“And that's just to warm up, huh?” Noelle smiled to take the sting out of the tease. Claudia was a pain and could be insufferable, but she was seventeen. I never had to struggle in a famous sibling's shadow, so what do I know about how it affects her? “What do you say we hit the mall tomorrow morning?” Claudia would recognize the olive branch.

“Sure. Guess we could take the kid.”

“Kid. Thanks.” Fifteen-year-old Lauren, low-key and the brightest student of the sisters, sat down and accepted a plate from her mother. She propped her head up with her hand and began to munch on her pancakes. “I wouldn't mind going. I need stuff for school.”

“For school?” Claudia rolled her eyes theatrically, clearly finding her stride again. “I'm going to shop for clothes and makeup, and get some of the latest CDs. You'd think that stingy bi—” she glanced at her mother’s quickly darkening face. “You'd think that woman at VMP would give you all their music as a courtesy. You're supposed to be their biggest star.”

“I'm one of their bestselling artists. There's a difference, Claudia.”

“Still.”

“I'll tell her you said so.” Not. “I'm out of here. Thanks, Mom.” Noelle rose and carried her plate over to the sink.

“Here. Take a few pancakes to Mr. Morris.” Reba handed a plastic box to Noelle. “He spends a lot of time waiting for you. He must get hungry sometimes.”

“Wish me luck.” Noelle gave her mother a quick kiss and waved to her sisters. “Later.” Off to the dragon's lair.

 

***

 

“The receptionist downstairs called. Noelle Laurent is here,” Wanda informed Helena over the intercom.

“Thank you. Tell her to come right in.” It would take Noelle at least five minutes to cross the large reception area and take the elevator up. Helena began to tidy her desk, but then relented, letting the magazines, papers, and folders flood her desk as usual. She was normally a bit of a neat freak, but her office usually overflowed with documents and work-related items, especially when she'd been on a business trip.

Helena rolled her shoulders, the constant tension in her neck dissipating some. She was happy with the meetings in London, even if she'd been distracted and succumbed to jet lag and fatigue more than usual. Declining several offers from VMP's London branch execs to take her out for dinner in the evenings, Helena opted for long baths and tried to relax and rejuvenate in her hotel room. But her soreness and malaise still persisted here in the US. Not even playing with her dog, Soledad, and taking her for long walks along the beach seemed to help. Soledad had pressed against her leg as they strolled, instead of running around like possessed and jumping into the water. She seemed to sense Helena’s ambivalence.

“Ms. Forsythe?”

A husky voice with a timbre that made Helena shiver interrupted her thoughts. Noelle Laurent stood just inside the door, a large Prada Fairy Bag slung over her left shoulder. Dressed in a dark gray business suit over a purple silk blouse, she looked impeccable, in spite of her extreme hair. Its restraint in a low bun today couldn’t hide the fact that the top layers were dyed white-blond, contrasting wildly with the blue-black hair underneath.

“Welcome. Please, have a seat. Your manager not joining us?”

“I thought he was here already. Maybe he's stuck in traffic.”

“Perhaps. Can I offer you anything to drink?”

“No, thank you.” Noelle walked on ridiculously high-heeled pumps over to the leather visitor's chair, shook Helena's hand, and quickly let go. She sat down while opening her bag. “Brought my own.” She held up a narrow, deep red thermos. “Mom's chamomile tea.”

“Really?” Helena had already risen and now stepped over to the counter where a state-of-the-art coffee-center machine stood ready to provide her with any hot beverage she could possibly desire. She pressed the buttons for black espresso and returned her attention to Noelle as the machine ground the coffee beans. “I received a call from one of your producers. Not going so well with the new album, is it?”

“If you mean I'm not ready to repeat the previous album, I guess you're right.” Noelle crossed her legs and brushed away invisible lint from her pants.

“You've signed a contract and we have a deadline.”

“I’m not debating that. I just don't want to sound exactly the same or sing exactly the same songs as I did on the last one.”

“Which was tremendously successful.” Helena forced herself to sound gracious, refusing to let her annoyance with Noelle show. Sugarcoat them, if that's what it takes. Her mother's voice permeated Helena's thoughts. Whatever it takes to get them to sign on the dotted line. Just do it.

“Yes. But, been there, done that.” Noelle bent forward, showing off her décolletage, deliberate or not. “The thing is, I know I'm capable of so much more. Of sharing so much more with my fans. I can't see myself singing happy-go-lucky pop songs my whole life.”

“Nothing wrong with pop music.” Helena spoke shortly, dreading a long song and dance interspersed with words like “creativity,” “inspiration,” and “culture.”

“Never said there was.” Pausing, Noelle seemed to look for the right word. “What I'm trying to say is...I've worked with several producers over the last decade, including David and his crew, always eager to please and be whatever they needed me to be. I've been so grateful for the chance of a lifetime, never quite sure I deserved it. But now—” Noelle lifted her shoulders in a barely noticeable shrug— “I've finally reached my limit.”

“Your limit. Can you elaborate?” Helena sat down behind her desk, balancing the small espresso cup.

“Haven't you ever felt like you've come to a point where you just can't do it anymore?” Gesturing emphatically with her hands, Noelle gazed at Helena with serious, dark eyes. “When it's so important that you follow your heart, nothing else matters?”

Helena couldn't believe that she, who'd stared down the most intimidating old foxes at numerous board meetings, would feel so cornered by the look in Noelle's eyes. Annoyed, Helena thought Noelle needed a lesson in boundaries—as in when not to cross them.

“This isn’t about me,” Helena snapped. “You've signed a contract that ensures VMP two albums of your trademark music style. We didn't sign you to experiment with your fan base, and if you want to do that, you'll have to wait until you've fulfilled your obligations to us.”

“How can you run a recording company and not be interested in your artists' creative growth and development?” Noelle looked both hurt and confused. “I've proved myself and brought my huge fan base to VMP time and again. You talk about two albums. Don’t forget the six number-one-hit singles on the Billboard list, just from the previous album alone. Also the three songs I've recorded for the soundtrack of the new Diana Maddox movie. And come to think of it, you've bought the rights to eventually re-release the albums I recorded while on the two previous labels. I've fulfilled every single aspect of my contract so far, down to every dorky way to promote it that you've sent me on.”

“Dorky?” Helena could hardly believe her ears. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I know I have fans of all ages, but honestly, what did you think you'd achieve by having me as a guest star on Barney and Friends?” Folding her arms, Noelle glowered at Helena.

“Oh. Well, that was a bit ridiculous.” Helena groaned inwardly at the idiot PR person who'd thought of that.

“Right.”

“But that doesn't mean—” The intercom beeped and Helena pressed a button. “Yes, Wanda?”

“Mr. Brad Haley is here to join you and Ms. Laurent, ma'am.”

“Show him in, please.” Perhaps he'd be able to talk some sense into Noelle, though Helena doubted it.

“Noelle! Ms. Forsythe, how great to see you again.” Brad Haley strode across the room, extending his hand to Helena, pumping hers happily. “I'm sorry I'm late. Total gridlock. No, worse. A parking lot.” He sat down, at Helena's suggestion, and patted Noelle's shoulder while getting comfortable. “So what are we talking about? Fill me in?”

“Your client doesn't want to fulfill her contract with us.” Helena spoke curtly, feeling edgy and not about to mince words.

“A mere misunderstanding, I'm sure.” Brad never lost his broad grin. “Honey, what's going on?”  He turned to Noelle.

“I'm not trying to dodge my contract. I'm ready to start recording, but they want me to sing the same mindless songs I've been performing for ten years.”

“Which is what your contract stipulates.” Helena reclined in her chair, forcing herself to keep her hands neatly folded rather than drum her fingers on the desk.

Noelle straightened. “My contract stipulates that I deliver two albums in the soul genre.”

“Soul pop.” Deliberately making her voice steely and unforgiving, Helena saw how her tone affected Noelle. Her perfect eyebrows knitted and her eyes became slits as Noelle took on the challenge.

“Soul music has many faces.” She spoke in a low voice, but her anger was obvious in the way she held her chin and regarded Helena with narrowed eyes. “If I can't grow and develop as a singer, a performer, then what's the use? Why should I put so much hard work, so many hours into sounding exactly the same, album after album?”

“Because you do it so well, and because that's where the money lies,” Helena said quickly.

“It can't be all about the money! Music is so much more than that.”

“You knew what we expected when you signed the contract.” Helena didn't wait for Noelle to answer, but turned to Brad. “And I’m sure you’ve informed your client of this more than once?”

“I'm right here,” Noelle said sharply. “No need talking about me like I’m not.”

“Noelle, a contract is a binding document.” Brad was clearly trying to soothe her, but instead he came off sounding condescending. “We’ve discussed—“

“For heaven's sake, Brad. I know what a contract is and what signing it means. Let's get something straight. You work for me. You do my bidding. You find out my goals, wants, and needs, and you do your best to make them all happen.”

It wasn't hard to read between the lines. Noelle was obviously saying, Make it happen, or you don't work for me anymore.

Brad cleared his voice, but never lost the shimmer in his smile. “Now, now,” he said. “I'm sure we can reach consensus on this matter.”

“I'm not so sure,” Helena said. “Noelle seems pretty set on changing genres, and the producers are concerned about her lack of interest in the work they've put into finding new songs for her to choose from.”

“Trust me, they offered the same song, over and over again, so it couldn't have been that hard on them.” Noelle stood, slinging her Prada bag over her shoulder. “Since neither of you will listen to anything I say, I'll leave you to it, to figure things out. Brad, call me when you have something positive to say.”

Noelle's lower lip seemed to tremble as she donned her big sunglasses, but she certainly didn't hesitate when she rattled off her bitter words and swept through the doors.

“I've never seen Noelle like this,” Brad said, adjusting his tie. “She’s usually such a sweet little thing.”

“Are you blaming her behavior on me?” Helena tapped her chin. “Not so good from a negotiation standpoint.”

“No, no, Ms. Forsythe. I never meant to imply that.” Brad looked shocked. “Noelle has never had anything but good to say about VMP and its management until now.”

“‘Until now’ being the operative words.” Helena pressed her palms against her desk and rose from her chair. “You know my opinion. And even if Ms. Laurent thinks she can throw a temper tantrum and have her way just because she's a super star, she's way off. If she decides to not listen to reason and break her contract, the penalties will be severe. And even if she thinks all the record companies would welcome her with open arms, she might just think twice. She's not the only super star out there, and people hold on to their money these days.”

“Just give her time to cool off. I'll talk to her, and I if I need to, I'll contact her mother.” Brad stood and extended his hand. “Noelle will come around. I'll see to it.”

Something in the man's voice made Helena wonder what means of persuasion he intended to use. There was something about Brad Haley she didn't like, and the way he treated Noelle and talked about her made her uncomfortable. It was one thing that Noelle had decided to go all creative and explore—something she should do on her own time and dollar—but Brad's overbearing manner was not the way to dissuade her. This approach was something he seemed to have in common with David Boyd.

Helena said good-bye coolly to Brad and sat back down at her desk. The relationship between Noelle and her manager wasn't her problem, as long as Noelle honored the contract. Browsing through her latest e-mail messages, she couldn’t get the image of Noelle's look of anger and hurt out of her mind.

 

***

 

“Home, please, Morris.” Noelle curled up in the backseat of the limo. Morris had scrutinized her with darkening eyes when she returned to the foyer where he patiently waited for her. He knew her so well, and no sunglasses in the world could hide her true emotions from him.

“You all right?” Morris glanced at her in the rearview mirror.

“I'm fine.”

“Not true,” he muttered. “What did that moron agent say this time? Or was it the Forsythe woman?”

“Both. Never mind that. I have to go home and prepare for Friday evening. I can't worry about what these money-loving barracudas think.”

Noelle tried to focus on her mini-concert this upcoming Friday, when she was supposed to sing at a charity function. Annelie Peterson, publisher and Hollywood producer, had approached her personally. Annelie also ran a nonprofit organization for, among other causes, battered-women-and-children shelters.

Deciding to take the leap, Noelle had not asked Annelie to go through her agent, but made the arrangements herself. She intended to sing her own songs, welcoming the chance to try them out on a live audience without having the Forsythe woman or Brad interfering.

Just thinking about Helena Forsythe made her press her lips tightly, not letting any rude words escape. Raised to not curse, to always be well-mannered and humble no matter what, she still found it easy to follow her gut reaction and agree with the people who referred to Forsythe as a company shark and a four-star bitch.

Admittedly, Helena had been just as larger than life as she'd been at her birthday party two years ago. And just as disdainful. She filled the room as if she was physically much larger than she actually was, Noelle guessed Helena to be around 5’5” tall, about four inches shorter than Noelle. Though Noelle always wore six-inch heels, Helena's presence had still not made Noelle feel she was that much shorter.

Helena’s throaty alto voice was probably a real asset when it came to chewing someone off at the ankles or scaring her business opposition to death. But surprisingly, Helena's golden-brown hair, cut just beneath her jawline, looked like silk, and the soft colors of her makeup not only lent her a classic beauty, but also softened her features.

“We're here, Noelle.” Morris pulled out of traffic and stopped outside the condominium complex. As a doorman hurried toward the limo and opened the door, a scattered group of paparazzi buzzed around the vehicle. Noelle made sure her sunglasses were safely in place before she exited the car.

She hurried through the small crowd to the sound of whirring cameras and voices calling for her attention. The doorman ushered her into the building and she tipped him generously. As she rode the elevator up to her condo, she did her best to look happy, to not alert her sisters or their mother to anything amiss. She had promised her father that she would look out for them and never forget where they came from, and a promise was a promise.

Chapter Two

 

 

Noelle tucked her sheet music into her folder and double checked her appearance in the mirror. She looked a little pale, but she could easily remedy that with something from her sizable beauty box, which she always carried with her. Her long black dress hung in its protective bag on her bedroom door, which now opened as her mother poked her head in.

“You ready, darling? Morris has already been tapping his watch four times.”

“As if that helps.” Noelle wrinkled her nose. “I'm never late. I just always cut it close.”

“There never was a truer word.” Reba glanced at the briefcase. “So you're going with your own material after all?” She looked concerned now.

“Yes.” Noelle didn't want to get into a discussion, or she'd lose her nerve.

“Why now, when you're in the middle of a minor crisis at VMP?”

“Because I really want to sing these songs to a live audience and...” She shrugged.

“I don't want you to think I'm not being loyal, but what would it hurt to give in and do one more album in the same style as before?” Reba touched Noelle's arm gently.

“That’s not the issue.” Noelle didn’t withdraw her arm, but she did grow tense. “I’ve sung these songs for ten years and dreamed for ten years of doing other things, other songs, my songs. That’s a long time. I've earned this chance.”

“I see. I've never thought about it like that.” Reba caressed Noelle's cheek and hugged her. “Get going. You'll do great.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

In the limo, Noelle hummed the melody of her opening song, hoping she wouldn't forget the words or screw up some other way, since so much depended on the outcome of her performance. Not when it came to her career, but for her self-esteem. Her self-confidence was pretty shaky right now, since nobody at work had expressed any true interest in her thoughts and ideas. Occasionally, her producers allowed her to change a word or even a phrase, but this...this would be a baptism by fire.

 

***

 

At least eight hundred people mingled in the conference hall of the Hilton. The chatter was deafening, but Helena was used to large groups and had hosted enough shareholders’ conventions to not feel intimidated. After adjusting her mauve see-through shawl, she tucked her pearl-embroidered purse under her arm as she descended the stairs. At the bottom  Annelie Peterson, whose non-profit organization hosted this charity function, greeted her warmly.

“Helena. So good to see you.” Annelie wore an ice blue evening dress that perfectly matched her eyes. Her long blond hair was swept back in an intricate French braid, with small tresses curling around her neck. Without her usual austere expression, she seemed much more approachable than she had several years ago.

“Annelie, you know I wouldn't miss any of your projects.” Helena stood on her toes and kissed Annelie Peterson's cheek. Annelie had been her friend ever since they collaborated in creating the famous Maddox audio books. The books about Diana Maddox had become a huge overnight success, and Annelie had then taken yet another step and produced two movies about the illustrious lesbian criminal investigator. After a stormy courtship, Annelie ended up marrying Carolyn Black, who played Diana Maddox. Now Helena gazed around, looking for the beautiful actress. “Where's Carolyn?”

“At the studio. She's running late, but should be here any minute. She's looking forward to meeting you. Be forewarned, though. She's not happy about you missing our wedding.” Annelie winked at Helena, then smiled at the next guest waiting in line. Helena kept walking and braved the crowd. She had set her eyes on a waitress with a tray of champagne flutes and soon was close enough to snag a glass for herself.

“Good God, Helena, you that thirsty?” a familiar voice said from behind.

“Of course, Myra.” Helena turned around and greeted her former friend. “And yes, I've had quite the week coming back from London, so I'm very thirsty.”

“Don't tell me your superstars are driving you to drink?” Myra sipped her own champagne.

“No. Well, they just might if I let them. It would be hard to find a more self-centered bunch.”

“Aw, come on. You love juggling celebrities and earning all that lovely cold cash.”

“I wish!” Helena nodded in passing to a few business acquaintances. “Everyone's had to tighten their belt these days.”

Myra grew serious. “VMP isn't in trouble, is it?”

“No, we're fine. So far. Like everyone else we need to be smart, though.”

“Ain't that the truth. Speaking of your superstars, I noticed that your prize possession is performing.”

“What? Who?” Helena looked over at the stage where a grand piano was faintly lit.

“You didn't know?” Myra looked surprised. “Noelle Laurent is the poster girl for this particular charity. She's appearing in a few minutes.”

“No, I didn't.” Afraid she'd chip a tooth if she clenched her teeth any harder, Helena willed herself to relax. “Then again, I can't keep up with everyone's schedule. That's impossible when you run the one of the largest labels in the US.”

“Ah, don't be humble. VMP is the biggest label. Period.”

Helena shook her head. “Have you been reading Forbes Magazine again, Myra?”

“It's my substitute for a little black book,” Myra said, and winked. “Never know when the ‘richest, most powerful’ list will come in handy.”

“You calculating bitch.” Helena gazed affectionately at her friend. She and Myra hadn’t spoken for a couple of years after their breakup. Myra had actually been quite heartbroken after Helena dumped her, but once they cleared the air, they'd found an easygoing friendship.

“You bet.” Myra looked over Helena's shoulder. “Looks like the show's about to begin.”

Annelie entered the small stage and stopped by the microphone. After checking something over her shoulder, she turned back and greeted the audience.

“Thank you for attending our annual charity function for the Key Line AIDS Foundation. I couldn't be more thrilled than to introduce one of our brightest stars in the sky of popular music, Noelle Laurent.”

Applause thundered between the walls as the lights lowered in the room and increased onstage. A curtain fluttered on the left side of the stage and the light homed in on a lithe woman dressed in a long, sleek black dress that revealed her bare shoulders. The black and blond hair was brushed away from her face in a long, low tail, and her only jewelry was a pair of sparkling diamond earrings. Helena held her breath as Noelle sat down at the piano. What was she doing? Where were the sing-back tracks, the dancers and back-up singers?

Noelle looked down at the keys before she slowly raised her hands and began to play. The audience was now completely silent, seemingly as mesmerized as Helena was. She was shocked when Noelle began to sing.

The reflection in my mirror,

Is this what others see?

Those who go dead silent when I enter

And laugh behind me when I leave.

With her amazing voice, Noelle told the story of a shy, lonely girl. Instead of the usual roaring lioness who prowled the stage as if stalking prey, Noelle sang every word with naked honesty and a raw emotion that made Helena take a step back, seeking cover near some large plants. Hiding in the shadows, she stared at the revelation that was Noelle, illuminated by an unforgiving spotlight where she sat at the grand piano. She swayed with the intensity of the song as her fingers danced over the keys. Helena tried to remember if she'd ever known Noelle could play the piano, let alone this well. The arrangement was beautifully done and not overly complicated.

No matter what, I won't surrender.

I made a promise late last night.

I may have miles left on my journey,

But I'm prepared to stay and fight

Noelle's voice carried easily across the hushed crowd. She sang the refrain one last time and slowly ended with a few wistful chords. After an initial dead silence, the audience drew a simultaneous deep breath before they unleashed their applause. Helena clapped until her hands hurt, and around her, other people did the same.

“God, who knew she could sing like that?” a woman to her left said to her companions. “Young Noelle Laurent obviously grew up.”

“Sure did.” The man to her left nodded emphatically. “Oh, good, she's not done.”

Noelle began to play her second song, this time with a completely different theme and set in a minor key. At first, she hummed the melody softly, lulling Helena into assuming everything was all right. When she went on to sing the lyrics, she yanked Helena back into reality with her first words, making her flinch enough to spill some of her cocktail.

If you think I'll buy a fast “I'm sorry,”

Such empty words don't work on me.

Try giving me a cold, cold diamond,

I'll show you how cold I can be.

It was like a typical “angry young woman” song, but Noelle's voice, and the authenticity with which she sang, turned it into a razor-sharp criticism of anything superficial. Is that how she's been treated? Is that her reality? Helena moved toward the stage without really noticing how she nudged people out of the way. She wanted to see Noelle's expression up close; she needed to know for sure, somehow, that these were her own true words and not speculation on Noelle's part. Helena stopped five yards from the stage, still able to hide behind two rows of spectators.

Noelle was hammering the bitter tones on the piano now, and tears, probably of fury, hung like crystals from her eyelashes. Then the music changed again, sent Helena's feelings on a different track as Noelle played softly, her voice low and with a beautiful tremor.

The song rang out with a painfully strong chord, and the audience awarded Noelle with more loud applause. When she rose from the piano stool, people cheered and called her name over and over. Noelle looked like she couldn't believe how her songs were received. Clutching the microphone hard enough to whiten her knuckles, she thanked the audience for their response.

“I have never sung my own songs in public before, and I was really nervous, thinking maybe I'm the only one who likes them.”

The audience laughed and several people raised their voice. “We love them. And we love you too, Noelle!” a young man close to Helena shouted.

“Thank you. I love my fans too.” Noelle’s beauty was nearly otherworldly as she blew a kiss in the young man's direction. “I want to finish this mini-mini-concert by singing a song that's a little more cheerful. I hope you'll like it. It's called 'One day.'”

Noelle sat down, this time on a tall chair, and someone handed her an acoustic guitar from the shadows behind her. She tried a few chords and then began to play a wistful but happier song about dreams for the future. Helena wondered how autobiographical the words were and if Noelle realized how transparent she made herself.

I don't think it's too much to ask

For life-long love and happiness.

A soul mate, and a best friend too,

Someone to help me fight the blues.

So if not right now, or right away...

Then— one day!

Helena thought the stomping and cheering would never end. Noelle finally left the stage after taking a bow five times. Shell-shocked, Helena was beginning to think Noelle had psychic abilities. Several of the phrases she'd sung, and certainly the meaning that was clearly between the lines, was as if picked from her own life.

The first song reminded her of her first awful months at boarding school as an eleven-year-old. She'd gone from being abysmally shy to ruling the school in a couple of semesters. She learned a valuable life lesson when she figured out that young peers eat shy, polite girls for breakfast. Her mother had used Helena's transformation as evidence that boarding schools were a fantastic way of fostering your child into becoming a go-getter and a powerful force. Soon Helena was chairman of several extracurricular clubs at her school and graduated in the top two percent, even being elected Best All-Around Student. Dorcas had made it clear that anything less was unthinkable.

“That was amazing. She's sure come a long way, creatively speaking,” a familiar alto voice said, jolting Helena back to reality. Twirling, she found Annelie standing right behind her. “Noelle's fantastic. Congratulations on having her in your stable, Helena.”

“Thanks.” Helena returned the hug Annelie had just given her.  “You sure know how to throw a party. Looks like a huge success.”

“Thank you. Carolyn said—” Annelie gestured apologetically. “Sorry. That bell’s calling me. Got to go be the hostess for a bit as we're moving into the banquet hall. You're seated at our table so I'll see you there.”

“All right.” Helena began to walk toward the huge double doors, hoping to avoid the large crowd that would soon get the same idea once Annelie announced that dinner was being served. She glanced over at the now-dark stage, inwardly hearing the pensive, intense tones and the haunting words of Noelle's songs. She caught me off guard. That's all.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Noelle stood trembling in the conference room that served as her dressing room, her breath coming in short gasps. They cheered! They actually cheered. She had struggled to pick her strongest songs, and the mere idea of playing a musical instrument in public had also strained her nerves. As she had sat down in front of the grand piano, her hands shook so badly she had serious doubts about accompanying herself.

A blond man who had introduced himself earlier as Gregory Horton, Annelie Peterson's assistant, approached her. “Ms. Laurent? This way, please. It's time to join Ms. Peterson and her company at the head table.”

“Thank you, Gregory.” Noelle took her beaded evening purse and walked from the room ahead of him. Outside, people hurried toward the banquet hall, but several approached her.

“I love your new songs,” a young girl said, beaming. “I could relate so much to the first one. I used to be really shy.”

“Thank you. How sweet of you to tell me this.” Noelle shook her hand.

“When do you plan to record these?”

“I don't know yet. I'm about to start a recording session, so we'll see.”

“I've got all your CDs, so no matter what, I'll know whatever you come up will be great.” The girl looked so starstruck Noelle decided she better leave before they ended up blocking everybody.

“Enjoy your evening. Thank you.” She nodded to the girl and her party and followed Gregory, who guided her to the head table. Everyone's glances and curious stares felt like fingers against her skin, and she wondered, as she often did, why she never became used to being under scrutiny. Early in her career her mother had cautioned her to develop an emotional armor during public appearances, to help her retain her privacy and ultimately her sanity. However, Noelle had never mastered the ability to keep a healthy distance. Unkind remarks and critiques that seemed more personal than constructive still devastated her.

“Here you go, Ms. Laurent.” Gregory stopped at a round table. “Do you know everybody?” He gestured toward the six men and women.

“I know some.” Noelle gazed around the table and extended her hand to Annelie Peterson.

“Noelle, you were amazing. I can't thank you enough for donating your time and talent to our charity.” Annelie rose to kiss Noelle's cheek. “You've met my wife, Carolyn, right?”

“Only briefly, at an awards show years ago. Hello, Carolyn. It’s great to see you again.”

“You too.” Carolyn Black shook her hand firmly, her blue-gray eyes piercing, but warm, as she studied Noelle. “Your voice is something else. I was only able to hear the last song, but I loved every second of it.”

“Thank you.” Noelle had of course seen Carolyn Black in several productions on both the big and the small screen, but hearing her famous, throaty voice in person was impressive.

“And of course Helena Forsythe doesn't need extra introductions either.” Annelie motioned to the woman sitting with her back to Noelle.

Wondering how she could have missed Helena, Noelle struggled not to flinch as Helena patted the chair next to her. “Have a seat, Noelle. I agree with the previous speaker, you were wonderful tonight.”

Every bit as distinctive as Carolyn's, Helena's voice created goose bumps on Noelle's arms. Say something! Noelle fought to break out of her temporary daze at seeing Helena here.

“Noelle?” Helena touched her arm briefly, which made her shudder again.

“Yes. Of course.” Noelle sat down abruptly, nodding at the other three who sat at the table. “Nice to meet you all.”

Gregory took the last empty seat, placing his arm subtly around a pretty young brunette. After the final introductions, Noelle remained quiet and listened to the conversation around the table. Helena glanced her way every now and then, and Noelle tried to think of something to say.

“Annelie tells me you've recorded three of the songs for the Diana Maddox movie soundtrack.” Carolyn leaned sideways to let the waiter remove her soup bowl. “I'm thrilled, since that will encourage the younger generation to embrace our characters.”

“Our latest statistics reveal that the younger generations are just discovering the Maddox books, the audio books in particular, and the movies are a big part of that,” Annelie said.

“To add music by someone with Noelle’s popularity and star quality is a smart move,” Carolyn said.

“As much as I’d like to take credit for being the genius, the honor goes to Helena,” Annelie said. “I called her six months ago, and she didn't hesitate when I asked who among her many talents she recommended to put this soundtrack on the map.”

“I remember that.” Carolyn pointed her fork at Helena. “You should have heard Annelie that weekend. I don't know who she was praising to the skies more, you or Noelle.”

“Noelle’s the one with the talent. I'm just a desk jockey who shuffles paperwork around.”

Noelle glanced at Helena, trying to gauge her sincerity. Oddly enough, Helena looked completely serious.

“The songs from the soundtrack were great, very rewarding to perform.” Noelle chased a mushroom around her plate, anything to avoid looking directly at Helena. “I loved the style and the lyrics.”

“Speaking of that,” Gregory said, “the lyrics you sang tonight felt very personal. Are they autobiographical?”

Noelle nearly hiccupped, though she’d been prepared for such direct comments. “Eh, yes. Not literally, and not everything, but I've felt most of the emotions I sang about.”

“Surely no one ever bullied a beautiful young woman like you?” The woman who asked looked baffled.

“No, not bullied exactly. A lot of people envied me in high school, though.”

“God, high school can be hell on earth,” Annelie said with a disdainful expression.

“My high-school years were fantastic, but middle school wasn't exactly heaven.” Helena placed her right hand on Noelle's backrest.

“Yes, middle school wasn't much better.” Annelie nodded thoughtfully. “And bullies don't need a so-called reason to do their thing. They persecute a target for any number of twisted reasons.”

“They sure do.” Helena tapped her glass with her French-manicured nails. “You did a good job on the lyrics, Noelle, and I was impressed with how well you play both the piano and the guitar. I feel silly that I didn’t know that about you. You need to take these songs back to the producers and we'll renegotiate. I'm sure we can work something out.”

Noelle wanted to leap to her feet and shake Helena’s hand, make her promise, make her give her statement in writing on a napkin, or whatever, but she remained calm and merely thanked her. “I'll tell them you said so,” she said, making sure Helena knew she planned to test her sincerity.

“So they picked on you, hit you, even?” Gregory's date asked.

“They never beat me, but envy can disguise itself in many ways.” Noelle shrugged with one shoulder. “I didn’t attend my ten-year reunion, though, so perhaps they hurt me more than I thought.”

“Their loss,” Carolyn said, winking. “I bet a lot of them were disappointed you weren't there, and some were relieved, knowing you'd outshine them. Living your life well and being happy, that's the best revenge.”

“Thanks, that sounds good to me.” Noelle was very conscious of Helena's arm, which grazed her back every now and then. Was Helena aware of the possessive gesture, or was she herself the only one seeing it that way. Is she showing her superiority, or that she's bought me for an obscene stack of dollars? Noelle thought of easing in the opposite direction, but didn't want to cause a scene.

“I don't see how anybody could have a problem with you now, for any reason. I could listen to you forever,” Gregory's date gushed. “Will you go on tour soon?”

“Eh, no, not any time soon. I have one more album to record before I'm ready to hit the road again. I just finished an international tour nine months ago.”

“Tours demand a lot of the artist.” Helena finally let go of Noelle's chair. “I saw a few of your shows, and the way you give it 110 percent, every time, is spectacular.”

“I'm allowed to live my dream, to do what I love, and people pay a lot for a ticket to these events. The least I can do is give it...what was it? 110 percent.” Noelle didn't take her eyes off Helena; suddenly it was important that Helena understand. “It's not only my work ethic. I mean, it's more a sense of gratitude. Tons of youngsters out there dream of a break like mine and a career similar to mine. Most will never get any closer to it than going to a concert.”

“Quite refreshing to meet someone so successful who is also humble.” Carolyn raised her glass. “Let’s toast both Annelie and her charity function, and Noelle for donating more than mere cash to it.” Carolyn lifted her glass of white wine. “To Annelie and Noelle.”

Blood infused Noelle’s cheeks. She hoped her makeup hid the embarrassing pink, but wasn’t sure it did. If she’d worn her flamboyant stage makeup, she could've blushed a deep crimson without anyone having a clue. She murmured a faint “thank you” and sipped her water.

She never drank alcohol in public, a rule her mother had enforced when she was in her teens and which made a lot of sense later. “You're never on your own time when you're out in public,” Reba had said. “You're always Noelle the superstar, whether you want to be or not. Everything you do, say, wear, or endorse shows up on the Internet instantly, and in the papers and gossip magazines shortly after.”

“That sure sucks,” Noelle had complained, eager to spread her wings and party with friends like everybody else her age.

“I know it does. But you have one thing you’ll always be able to call your own. Something that nobody else can touch, not even your nagging old mom.” Reba made a funny face. “Don't look so suspicious. I mean your thoughts, girl. Those are yours, all yours.”

“Noelle? Oh, my, where did you escape to? Didn't mean to startle you.” Helena's soft touch on Noelle's arm had made Noelle jump, pulling her into the present at record speed.

“Sorry, eh, yeah, got lost in thought. You were saying?” Noelle tried to focus on Helena's face instead of her hand, where it still rested on her arm.

“If you're not busy this weekend, would you come to a get-together at my house in the Hamptons? I'm having guests that I'd thought you'd like to meet, and I know they'd enjoy spending time with you.”

Taken aback, Noelle couldn't think of a single excuse, even if she’d wanted to make one up. “I look forward to it.”

“Good. I'll have my assistant e-mail you a map. Why don't you come Friday evening? That will give us all of Saturday and most of Sunday.”

“Sounds good.” Noelle wondered if she sounded as lame as she feared. Who's acting starstruck now? I feel like the principal has invited me to tea.

“Settled, then.” Helena let go of Noelle's arm with a quick movement, as if she'd just realized where she'd kept it for the last few minutes. Noelle furtively glanced at her arm to try to spot something that could explain the tingling sensation that lingered. Her arm looked perfectly normal, but the feeling remained for several long seconds.

 

***

 

Helena tried to sneak out when photographers lined up to take the promotional pictures. They were already snapping away, and she hated the purple and green dots before her eyes that the flashes caused.

“Over here, Helena,” Annelie said, loud and clear over the noise. “You're a major contributor. I want you right here.”

“Damn.” Helena glued on a smile and stepped over to Annelie, who stood lined up with Carolyn half in front of her. To her right, Noelle stood patiently waiting, her fingers loosely laced in front of her. Tall in her high heels, she gazed down at Helena, looking almost amused.

“You're not too fond of this part, are you?” Noelle looked completely relaxed, her famous beaming expression in place.

“Not really.” Helena stood next to Carolyn, which placed her half in front of Noelle.

“Move back, please. Closer together.” A bright-eyed photographer ushered the twenty-some people toward the far wall. Helena had to maneuver twice to avoid getting stepped on, and suddenly two hands were on her upper arms guiding her.

“Whoops. Don't fall, now.” Noelle kept her hands on Helena's arms a few seconds longer.

Holding her breath, Helena felt the warmth of Noelle's along her back. When someone in front of Helena stepped on her toes again, Helena tried to not crowd Noelle, but had to, to save her feet. Now she enjoyed more than Noelle's body heat; this time she felt the entire outline of Noelle's front pressed against her back.

Noelle’s scent was intoxicating too, a fruity combination mixed with something dark and sweet, like an expensive port. Helena felt momentarily light-headed, either because she was pressing harder against Noelle or because she was dizzy, but she certainly hadn't reacted this way in years, if ever. She's not even my type. And she's in VMP's stable. Holy hell, I don't need this.

Helena willed herself to remain where she was, pressed up against the much-taller Noelle. She thought she heard Noelle gasp, but wasn't sure. When the photographers finally let them go, Helena said good-bye as fast as she reasonably could.

“I'll see you Friday, then, Noelle.”

“Thank you. I'm looking forward to it.” Noelle appeared sincere and was still smiling widely for the benefit of the photographers, but the quick flutter of her eyelashes told Helena that she didn't feel as casual as she sounded.