Colorful hues from multiple spotlights streaked across the stage in laser precision. The floor vibrated with the impact of drums as Grace Brennan smiled up at her Star Notes costar, Michael Gold.
"I saw you watching me from the corner of your eye," Michael sang, leaning forward and giving her a long, sultry look. "You like me, I can tell."
With an audacious wink at the audience, Grace placed a hand on Michael's chest and pushed him backward. "I know you think you saw something you did not see. I like my hound dog just as well."
As they continued their comedic duet, Grace felt a familiar tingle. Michael could sizzle the bark from a tree in January with those smoldering dark eyes. And his voice was on a par with Josh Groban's.
Three vocal backups — Cassidy Ryder, Delight Swenson and Blake Montana — joined them onstage, and the Star Notes show breezed on with all the energy and laughter of a typical night. The interactive show — like a country Star Search — had become so popular that the waiting list for guest amateur appearances was ridiculously long. The audition manager chose only the best vocalists, and the winner of each show was invited to return for further competition.
The theater was packed tonight due to the influx of tourists into Branson on the Friday after Thanksgiving. As the appreciative audience continued to applaud, Michael announced their final amateur guest vocalist of the evening. She came onstage and on cue began her ballad, with the Star Notes performers providing backup and harmony.
The Star Notes cast had intense practice sessions daily, and their expertise showed. They could make almost any voice sound good. The ongoing one-liners and repartee — which changed from night to night — kept the crowds coming back for more.
As the guest ended her song and turned to leave the stage, Grace invited another round of applause.
Michael took Grace's hand and kissed it. She met his dark gaze with a searching one of her own, and her skin tingled where his lips touched. Fresh cheers rose from the crowd.
When the Star Notes director, Henry Bennett, had added romantic interaction to the show's script last year, the crowds had responded with enthusiasm. So had Michael. Only Grace continued to have misgivings about it. Sometimes she couldn't help wondering how much of what went on between her and Michael was an act, and how much was real. And lately she wondered about it after every performance.
As the applause died and the theater lights came on, Grace eagerly anticipated the final phase of the show. She loved talking with the audience.
An usher came down the aisle carrying a huge bouquet of red roses and a gold foil package. He stepped onto the stage and presented the items to Grace with a flourish. "Delivery services brought these for you, Miss Brennan."
The cast of the show often received flowers, gifts and cards from fans. Gifts brought onstage during the final few moments of the show added to the "reality" ambience — another of the director's ideas.
The card with the roses read "From your biggest fan," and it was signed "With love, Michael."
She read the note aloud, waited for the catcalls and applause to die down, then grinned up at Michael as he took the bouquet from her arms so she could open the lid of the package.
She pulled out a music box of stained glass and caught her breath. The jeweled colors reflected the stage lights with sparkling intensity in its artistic representation of a winding, whitecapped river.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, touching the box reverently. She looked up at Michael. "It's —"
But she caught him frowning at the gift, and saw the barely detectable shake of his head.
Okay, so this wasn't from him. She lifted the lid, and music from the song "The Water Is Wide" spilled across the auditorium as its notes were picked up by her microphone.
The tune chilled her with unwelcome memories.
A gold-embossed card lay on the velvet lining of the interior. With carefully concealed reluctance she pulled it out and scanned the childish scrawl on the elegant card. The chill in her spine intensified.
"Cheaters never prosper. Remember the contest? Soon everyone will know. There are some things time won't erase. And this is just the beginning."
Grace froze at the accusation. The chatter seemed to fade around her, and she grew intensely aware of the waiting audience.
She forced her smile back into place. No time to think about the ominous note now, or what lay behind it. She passed the gift to Delight, the youngest and most energetic member of the cast, who always welcomed a chance for the limelight.
Snap out of it, Grace. There'll be time to think about this later.
Michael frowned at the momentary look of shock in his costar's aquamarine eyes. Something was wrong. Just for a second, Grace's smile didn't quite fit.
The impression disappeared, but he studied her as she chatted with apparent spontaneity, charming her way into hearts as she always did — as she'd long ago done with him. Grace didn't realize the effect she had on people.
For the final set she had changed into a satin-and-lace gown in a rich dusky purple, and had caught her hair up in a rhinestone clip. Her face glowed with healthy color. She had been discovered by Henry in an amateur contest eight years ago. Henry had quickly recognized Grace's potential. Not only did she have a beautiful voice with exceptional range, but she was also a talented songwriter, whose words touched the very soul.
Michael doubted anyone else had noticed Grace's lapse of composure over the mystery gift. At last she thanked the audience for being there, and amid renewed applause made her way from the stage. Michael followed. Henry had called a meeting in the green room after the performance. They all knew the director would be waiting for them.