Three people at the brink of achieving all they’ve dreamed of since childhood…will the past get in their way?

 Zannia Morrow is blazing a path to stardom as supermodel, Zane. Her million dollar face and body have landed her the most coveted modeling contract in the business, but Zannia has a problem. It’s one that money and success can’t fix.

 Bonita Jones ran away from home at 16 and now she’s Benxi, a hot new R&B singer with the right voice and look to take her right up the charts.  Her future is bright, but she’s done some things she’ll do anything to keep the world from knowing, even if includes sacrificing the success that’s right within her reach.

 Mekhi Johnson’s had success as a music producer. He’s got the talent, connections, and drive to take him all the way to the top.  He just needs the right artist to make it happen.  Will he be able to sign Benxi, or will an old enemy stand between him and his next level?


Chapter 1


Zane

Go Home.

Go Back to Jamaica.

Go Die.

 
Gangsta witches.

I stared at the text messages again, raised my eyes, and scanned the faces of the women in the room. Like me, they were all models in varying stages of getting dressed or undressed.

One of these witches had sent me those text messages. Eight pairs of eyes looked back at me. Some were filled with murderous venom and others were empty…vacant. Those would be filled with hate too if the light in them weren’t dimmed by drugs. I was warned this kind of jealous drama would happen. I expected notes or unfriendly behavior, not people getting access to my personal cell phone number. I returned the phone to my bag, stood, and straightened the bust of my dress.

“I’m going to put some tape along your back to hold the dress so it doesn’t slip. Alyssa, my wardrobe assistant, pushed the tacky surface against my skin.

The girl was a beauty in her own right. Too short to model, but her face, thin frame, and graceful movements would work for her well one day.

“You’re excited, no?” Alyssa asked.

Was she kidding? Photo sessions were not exciting. Maybe the girl was new. “You’re from Italy?” I’d recognized her accent the first time we’d worked together, but I didn’t ask before.

“Yes, Sicily. I’ve been here five months.”

I wondered how easy it was for a girl to get to the U.S. from Italy. She was the right color, so I ventured not as difficult as it had been for me. But still, she’d left her home and probably her family and friends behind. I remembered what that had been like and tried to be nice to her.

“The Donna Karan jacket I wore yesterday…they gave it to me. I watched her eyes turn into saucers. Her bottom lip actually trembled. Was she going to salivate? “You can have it.”

Alyssa clapped her hands together.  “Thank you. I love Donna Karan and I don’t own anything designer yet.” She paused and then, “It’s beautiful. Are you sure?”

“The sleeves are too short.”

She clapped again before dancing to a nearby table, picking up more tape and resuming her work on my dress.

I wished her energy was contagious, but it wasn’t catching. I released a long breath. I was tired. I was trying to be excited. I wanted to be over the moon, but this job – this perfect opportunity – was scary. New York was the first of many trips that included Paris, Italy, London, Japan and at least twenty other countries. Twenty more countries that would separate me from Mekhi. Not that he wanted anything to do with me, but still, I hoped he’d change his mind. I hoped he was missing me.  

“All done?” I twisted my head as if I could see my back. Alyssa held up a mirror. It wasn’t my job to assess her performance, but I could see she’d gotten me properly fixed up.

“We’re ready for you, Zane!”

“Right on time.” Alyssa smiled. “You’re the prettiest Belle ever.”

Her words swirled around in my head. I wondered if she really meant them.

“Let me know if you need anything,” she added.

I nodded. I walked through the opening of the tent transformed fitting room toward the pool. Two of the guys helped me step down into the water. I knew I’d be in here for hours. Jumping, splashing, laughing, throwing my head back, kicking my legs up and smiling...always smiling. The evening gown sank under the weight of the water. It was already heavy when it was dry. It would weigh a ton wet. The set assistant waded toward me, bringing a fur jacket. More weight.

She draped it across my shoulders and I thanked her.  

“Do you need anything before we get started?” she asked. “Water?”

I shook my head. “I better not. I don’t want to have to pee.”

Even though she and I were the only ones that could hear, she raised a hand to whisper, “It’s a pool. You’re the only one in the water.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Peeing in a ten thousand-dollar dress. That won’t be what I’m remembered for.”

She smiled and then gave everyone waiting a thumbs up and made her way out of the water.  A powerful fan began to blow. The long, red wig they’d pinned on my head floated in waves behind me.

“Okay, Zane, let’s get warmed up here.” The photographer was the world renowned Dino Riche. I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of him. “Pose for me.”

I sprang into action.

A smile, iridescent and bright, filled my face. I couldn’t actually see my face, but I knew what I was doing. The magic I’d practiced my entire life. The magic my mother had taught me. Mommy assumed I would be a front desk person in one of the local hotels on the Jamaican coast, like she had been and her mother before her.

We have the gift of beauty in our family. The people at the hotels like to put pretty girls on the desk, even if they haven’t been to university. So you learn to smile, Zannia. You use your smile to get you the job you want.”

I moved with swiftness as I jumped and kicked up my leg. The stage under the water was solid, but in heels it didn’t feel so. I knew my torso and thighs would hurt later. This kind of balance in heels, in water, on a stage required the use of every muscle in my core and below.

Passersby began to stop. People couldn’t help but stare at the beautiful, black goddess in the water. I twirled my neck, threw up my arms and continued to smile. Continued to give everyone the show they wanted to see.

I was the new Belle. The model everyone would want to see for the next year or two or how ever long I lasted. Belles were the world’s most photographic models. They made life look fun no matter what they were doing; sitting in a cafe in Paris, on safari in Kenya or on a freezing cold set in Switzerland. The job was to sell fun and happiness.

Kathy Latimore, the model who was going out, had a reputation for being easy to work with. Good natured, funny, sweet, and extremely gracious were a few of the words thrown in my face about her. I had a lot to live up to. I had to make sure to have the same kind of reputation. Ugliness in modeling was not tolerated on the set, not in public, and certainly not from a black girl from Jamaica.

“Back to me, Zane,” Riche called. I turned on command, making sure not to fall as I moved. “Drop your chin a little and pout.”

A pout was easy. I had a pout in my belly. I wanted to pout all day. Pout about Mekhi. Pout about my broken heart. The broken dream of having found the man I’d wanted to be with. My lip trembled. My pout turned into a frown that I had to fix before Riche noticed.

I needed to stop thinking about Mekhi. But he baffled me. What was it with him? Why didn’t he see having this year’s Belle on his arm at events as a good thing? I already had music artists and athletes sending invitations for dates. Their notes and cards were arriving with flowers and gifts. Men wanted to be with me.  But not Mekhi. And I knew the reason. It was the same reason I hadn’t told him I loved him before that day. He was in love with someone else. He always had been. I’d never fully had his attention. Unfortunately, my silence hadn’t stopped him from seeping into my soul.

“A little less attitude,” Riche said. “Be playful.”

Focus. I told myself. I tried to hear Mommy’s voice. Pay attention, Zannia. Smile.

The memory of her made me fight to keep my jaw open. It was a struggle to keep that million dollar look in my eyes I knew the photographer wanted when I thought of her. I fought to keep from remembering one of the worst days of my life, but like it always did, it came back to me no matter how hard I tried to block it.  

  

We stood outside the house of the Powells, a wealthy family who Mommy worked for when their helper was sick or on vacation. Mommy took work as a domestic from time to time. She enrolled me in ballet lessons. My brother took piano and complained about it every week.  She had to work extra to pay for our lessons. It was also fall which was low season for tourism and the hotels laid people off until holiday. My brother could be trusted to stay home alone, but not supervising me. Not in our neighborhood for the whole day, so I went to work with Mommy. I was good at cleaning. I helped her get through the houses faster.

We entered the house and found Mistress Powell preparing to leave. “I’m going to the supermarket. Let your pickney come with me,” she said, gathering her handbag and shawl.

“Mistress, I can go to the store when I’m done cleaning,” Mommy offered. She didn’t like me to be far from her side.

“I want to go for myself, but I need help with the bags.” Mistress Powell glanced down her nose at me. “You trained her not to run off, didn’t you?”

Mommy nodded, told me to mind my ways and we left.

When we returned, I carried the groceries inside and began to put things away while Mistress Powell went next door to visit a neighbor who had called to her. I wasn’t sure where everything was to go, so I went to find Mommy. 

The house was large and grand, four stories tall with more rooms than I could count. But it was scary. I felt like a monster was going to bust from the door or a snake would come out of the walls. I was only nine, so I blamed it on the darkness of the halls. I checked every room except the master suite, because Mommy told me never to disturb that room. The mister might be home, but I had to find her. It was about more than the food; I wanted to know where she was. I pushed the door open enough to make a crack.  

Mommy was undressed down to her bra and slip. Her helper uniform was on the chair next to where she stood.  

“Mistress Powell is back. I need to get cleaning or she gonna call me lazy and fire me.” Her voice shook with each word.

Mr. Powell came into view. “You’re the best helper she ever had and I’m not just talking about cleaning.” He touched Mommy’s face. I could see her disgust when she turned her head from him. “I wouldn’t let her fire you.”

He was a fat man with more hair on his bang belly than he had on his head. He was wearing boxer underwear and black socks. He reached for Mommy, she moved and he twisted her arm when he got her.

“One more time.” He pushed on her shoulder. She dropped to her knees in front of him.

“You have a pretty mouth,” he said, pulling down his underwear.

A squeak came out of my mouth. I jumped back. The door creaked as it swung open. Mommy jumped to her feet. Mr. Powell grabbed her arm before she could rush to me. He used his free hand to pull his underwear up.

“Get out of here gal or you’ll be next,” he barked.

Mommy smiled, but I could see the pain. Her face looked like the one on the skeleton in the nurse’s room at school. Her eyes scared me worse than the mister’s yelling.

Mommy’s voice cracked when she stuttered, “Gwaan. Dust the library room.”

I swallowed sadness, reached for the knob and pulled the door together. Before I clicked it shut, I saw Mommy drop to her knees again.

 

“Open your mouth and throw your head back!” Riche yelled.

I took several shallow breaths. I felt like I was under water instead of standing in it. It took me a few seconds, but I regained my composure and did as I was told.  

I gave Riche the right amount of teeth, eye drama, and anything else he asked me to do with my million dollar body. I was a supermodel. I would soon have international fame. Unlike my mother, I had control over my future. That was more than enough to smile about. I wasn’t going to let Mekhi Johnson or any other man bring me to my knees.

                                                                              
Chapter 4

Mekhi


This was a whack party.

All these bums and busters in this spot. It was a miracle shots hadn’t rang out. Low rent, like the person throwing it. Columbus Isaiah Graham, known to everyone as Cig, was holding court in the V.I.P. section like he was God.  He wasn’t nothing but a low class, cheap thug from the Old Fourth Ward before gentrification; when it was the biggest drug spot in Georgia.

Cig was not a very important person, but it was his party. It was his night, so he could have it.

I had not been invited up there. I hadn’t been invited at all. Cig and I had too much history, most of it too bad for him or me to ever invite the other into our inner court.  

“Can I get you something?” The sweet voice came from a girl who looked about twelve. Too much weave, too much makeup, too little experience in the world to be working a private party in Miami. Some things never changed. Cig liked his girls young.

They do what you say when they young.

He and I took different stances in this area. I preferred women who did what I suggested because I was right, not because they didn’t know any better. I glanced at my watch. My time at this party was coming to an end soon, so with a shake of my head, I sent the waitress on her way.

Benxi, Cig’s biggest female recording artist made her descent down the steps from V.I.P. She was the person I was waiting to see. She was the reason I was here.

Benxi had everything I was looking for in an artist – real talent, beauty, and presence. She had what it took to go all the way in this business. She took command of the metal steps in what had to be five-inch, platform heels. Old-School, Daisy Dukes showed off muscular legs, a firm behind and a tiny waist. Halfway down, she stopped, pivoted, tossed back her long, blonde hair and gave the photographers face as they hungrily grabbed pictures of her. The yellow spotlight above cast a tan light on her ginger complexion. From where I was standing she almost looked high yellow, when the truth was she could pass for white.

I’d been following Benxi on social media, so I knew she had a plane to catch tonight. To where she hadn’t disclosed, but in order to make that flight, she was going to have to stop posing and get out of here soon.

Benxi wasn’t happy with CoCo Records. That was the buzz. I wasn’t surprised. Cig was incapable of handling a talent like her. He wasn’t focused enough to fast track her to where she needed to be. But she wasn’t talking to record companies. Not yet. She’d be leaving him soon. Just like she was leaving this spot now. With her entourage around and behind her, Benxi moved through the party in the way a star does when they’re making their exit. I knew what that looked like. When they were leaving, the whole gang moved with them. Half completed drinks were put down on tables, conversations and dances ended abruptly. It was a game…follow the leader.

“You want something to drink?”

Rufus, the follower I led also doubled as a driver, gopher, bodyguard, investigator, and friend came up on the left. Ruf was a jack of all trades. Whatever I needed done, he got it done. That’s why I’d kept him around since fifth grade.    

“They got Tigre Blanc.” Rufus raised his glass.

“We need to go.” I nodded in Benxi’s direction. She’d stopped moving, but only momentarily to talk to the choreographer she’d worked with in her last video.

“I’ll get the car.” Rufus placed his half empty glass down and rushed out of the club.

Five minutes later, Benxi made her way out the door and into a waiting limo. Her people piled in behind her. I climbed into the Viper I’d rented for the night.

“You got a plan?” Rufus pushed the button to open the panoramic moon roof.

I didn’t respond. He knew that meant no. I hated that I didn’t have one because it meant I was relying on luck. I wasn’t given to trusting luck. It didn’t serve me well. I was a man who always had a plan or two, but tonight I’d figure it out. I’d see how far I could get in my plan to get Benxi’s attention.

Her limo pulled onto the interstate and we followed them as they followed the signs for Miami International. Rufus had informed me that her flight tonight was to Atlanta. He’d gleaned that much from one of the girls in her group. He’d already checked and confirmed that Delta Airlines was the only one with a flight leaving this late, so when he pulled ahead of her car and exited the highway for the airport ahead of them, I wasn’t surprised. He pulled up to the terminal for the airline, and I climbed out as Benxi and her crew pulled up behind us. I went inside and waited.

Minutes later, she entered. Two of her girls dragged the luggage that should have been for six women behind them. The driver/bodyguard hung back and that was when I knew he wasn’t joining her. Dark sunglasses and hat donned, she obviously thought she could make it back to Atlanta without anyone recognizing her. When she reached the counter with her ticket, I joined her.

“The disguise is good, but it’s still hard not to know who you are.”

She turned, looked at me and squinted behind her shades like it was going to give her a better view. “You look familiar.”

“He was at the party,” one of her girls offered.

Benxi’s bottom lip trembled for a moment. She looked back for her man, but he had already slipped out the door. She needed better help.

“Mekhi Johnson,” I said, hoping to take the fear/hesitancy/regret or whatever she was feeling about being followed from a party out of her.

She removed her shades, looked me up and down now and smiled. “You produced a few songs for DisQuiet.”

“Among others.”

“I love that album.” She handed the waiting attendant her ticket and identification. “Especially your songs.”

That’s what I needed to hear her say. That was what luck couldn’t get you. “I’m glad you’re a fan.”

She smirked playfully. I asked if I could join her on the way back to Atlanta. Benxi did a flirty thing with her eyes that I’d seen hundreds of women do in my lifetime. She’d decided I was good looking enough to pass the time with. I let my confidence do the talking when I purchased a ticket and asked the agent to seat us together. Benxi slid her shades on. She hadn’t said she agreed, but she offered no objection. Silence meant yes.

***

The trip to Atlanta went exactly the way I needed it to. We had lots of conversation about the music business, some about her career, and then finally my record label. She had a few drinks. At twenty-one, she was barely old enough for them. They loosened her up. Halfway through the flight, she was flirting. When she wasn’t flirting with her words, she did so with her eyes. She spent long moments analyzing me.  I hoped it wasn’t just the alcohol, because she’d be sober tomorrow.

The stewardess announced we were preparing for the final descent to Atlanta. I was running out of time, so I asked the question I’d gotten on this airplane to ask. “Can I take you to dinner tomorrow?”

She dropped her head to one side and pursed her lips. “Is that dinner for business or pleasure?”

“It can be both. We’ll make sure to get some good food.” I chuckled. “You’ve already said you’re looking to move on from CoCo Records.”

 “Because they’re small, so how would going with you fix that?”

“I have a better team. More creative. I’ve also been in talks with a distribution company. The largest. We’ll have a deal when I bring an artist that they can get behind.”

Benxi seemed to sober quickly. “Who’s the distributor?”

Resigned to not reveal that, I twisted my lips. “The biggest. You can probably guess. A verbal commitment from the right artist will close the deal.”

She nodded. “Must be UMC.”

“I can’t say.” I smiled. I was glad she’d guessed. “What about that dinner?”

She looked disappointed. “I would if I could, but I’m not going to be in Atlanta. I’m going to Tampico first thing in the morning. It’s my grandmother’s eightieth birthday. I’ll be in South Georgia all weekend.”

I chuckled. “I’ve lived in this state my entire life. I’ve never heard of Tampico.”

Benxi laughed with me. “It’s a really small town. Like two hundred people in the entire high school and that’s two counties joined together.”

“Okay, that’s tiny.”

“Her church is big though. First Baptist of Tampico. People come from three counties to attend.” Benxi paused a minute, taking a sip of her drink. “They’re giving her a luncheon tomorrow.”

“At the church?”

She nodded. “She thinks that’s it, but I’m having a surprise party for her. I booked a hall and hired a caterer and a party planner.”

“That’s cool.”

“I owe her. I missed her last five birthdays. Last year I was in the studio and on the road. The years before that…” Her voice trailed off. Her eyes got a faraway look in them. She took another sip of her drink. “Anyway, this year makes up for it.”

I nodded. “And at eighty, I would think you’re right on time.” I paused for a moment and then said, “Back to the dinner question.”

“We’ll have to make it in a few weeks. I’m going to L.A. next week and from there to Vegas.”

Bad timing. “What are you doing in L.A.?”

“Video shoot. Cig is releasing the single I recorded for the new Spike Keith movie. Then I’m opening for Black Sky in Vegas.”

I said it was cool, but I didn’t really feel that way. Not at all. I pressed on. “So, if you could tomorrow, you would?”

She shot me that flirty smile again. “Yeah, I’d be interested in dinner and maybe talking about your label.”

Our eyes locked for a moment. She blushed and I turned away. I wasn’t trying to get this young woman hot for me.

As soon as the plane landed she picked up her cell and turned it on.

“Let me have your phone,” I said.

She cocked an eyebrow, but did as I asked. I programmed my number into it and returned it to her.

“Now give me yours,” she said. I booted my phone up and did as I was told. She programmed a number into mine and handed it back. “We peoples now.”

I found her name in my contacts and pushed dial. Her phone rang. She was so surprised, she jerked forward and spilled the rest of the drink on her lap. “What the heck!” She giggled. “Not trusting many folks these days?”

“Beautiful women give out fake telephone numbers all the time.”

She kept her eyes trained on me. She pursed her lips again. “That’s true, but I bet you ain’t never got a single bogus one in your life.”

I kept the cockiness out of my smile. She was right. But I wasn’t going to take any chances with my future. Making this deal with her was everything.

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