Chapter 1

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"Okay, I'm done. Now hurry!" the makeup artist cried out. "You're up in two minutes. Don't you dare mess up your makeup again!"

Maude ran out, keeping her hands away from her recently rouged cheeks, and Matt hurried behind her.

She stood right behind the curtain and listened to the host's cheerful voice, announcing her.

"Now ladies and gentlemen, we have a new artist with us tonight. She's spent her last six months in New York working on her first album. Her first single has been released and is a huge hit . . ."

"Maude," Matt whispered, tugging her sleeve.

"Yes?" She looked back at him, smiling.

"I just wanted to tell you . . . to let you know that you can always count on me."

"I know, Matt," Maude smiled gratefully.

"Her voice will take your breath away, her music is amazing . . . "

"No, I'm serious. Our friendship has had its ups and downs, but I don't want it to be that way anymore."

Maude nodded.

"I don't care if you're with Thomas Bradfield. As long as you're happy, I'm happy."

Maude paused, puzzled. "What? Thomas Bradfield—"

"Give a round of applause for Maude Laurent!" the host cried.

"That's your cue! Go!" Matt urged.

Maude reluctantly turned away from Matt and hurried on stage.

The blaring lights blinded her as she entered the stage and faced the cheering crowd. She had to restrain her impulse to shield her eyes and continued steadily towards the dark Steinway.

She had played on it earlier but then, she hadn't felt nervous. Her hands hadn't been trembling, and her voice hadn't been shaky.

Maude sat on the piano stool and looked towards the crowd.

They were all there.

James and Victoria were holding hands and beaming like proud parents. Cynthia, dignified as always, was trying to keep Ben from falling off his seat while he was waving madly at Maude. Jazmine, hands clasped, was sending all the positive energy she could muster from her seat.

Maude turned to the piano and sang her first song. She had played it many times before, but this time was different. She had grown. Maude wasn't the same person she'd been six months ago, and her performance wasn't that of a mere teenager—it was that of a young woman who had looked at life in the eye and refused to bend her spine.

She finished her first song and prepared herself for the second.

She had planned to sing 'Sunrise' from her debut album, but now she knew she couldn't play that song, not after all she'd just been through. Maude dedicated her second song, John Lennox's 'Coming Home,' to her parents.

She took a deep breath and started singing:

There is nothing left for me to do

But to live without you

To bear the pain and misery

Of your silent memory

As she played, she released the pain she had been holding back for years. Her parents were dead. They were gone forever, but she was still alive. Though her pain was severe, it also gave her strength. Strength to sing in a clear voice, strength to overcome her fears, strength to master her initially shaky fingers, and strength to let her notes reverberate through the audience.

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