April 19, 2004 12:00 PM

He’s newly single. He’s got washboard abs and a No. 1 hit. So if Usher is ever going to swing for the fences—romantically speaking—now, he figures, is as good a time as any. “Lucy Liu, give me a call,” he says with a grin. “Jennifer Lopez, we can dance meringue. Halle Berry, I understand. I will listen to you!”

Usher’s playfulness may hide his regrets about a woman whose name is no longer on that list: ex-girlfriend Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, formerly of the group TLC. “Rozonda was my dream girl,” says Usher Raymond IV, 25. They split in January. And before long, fans and reporters alike were speculating about Usher’s infidelity and a possible love child, based on the seemingly autobiographical lyrics on his new CD, Confessions, which sold 1.1 million copies in its first week. “He acts like it doesn’t bother him,” says best friend and personal assistant Keith Thomas, 24 (no relation to Chilli). “It does, but he doesn’t show it.”

Though they met in 1993 when Usher was just signed to a record deal at 14 and Thomas was already a star at 21, romance didn’t spark until she starred in his 2001 video “U Remind Me.” “I fell in love with her and her child,” says Usher, who considered himself a male role model for Thomas’s son Tron. After a brief separation last summer, Thomas, now 33, and Tron, 6, stayed at Usher’s Alpharetta, Ga., home while her house was being renovated. The stint lasted just a few months. “It’s a very skilled test like the S.A.T., in terms of making another person comfortable in your space,” says Usher, who admits to being moody and demanding at times. “I wanted to pack up and move to Los Angeles or New York, and I’m looking for the support of my woman. She wanted more stability. I felt like she wanted to be married…. There are always signs that something isn’t comfortable 100 percent. We can ignore [the differences] and keep moving forward, or just let go. I take responsibility for choosing another direction.”

A few weeks after their split, Thomas tells PEOPLE, Usher told her he had strayed during their relationship. “He portrayed himself as faithful, and he wasn’t,” she says. “I could never be with him ever again.” But, she insists, “not one song on that album is about me or our relationship. As far as him cheating and confessing, it just really seems like a whole publicity stunt.” Usher, who has confirmed the infidelity but denied he has an out-of-wedlock child, counters, “I have never wanted to make my relationship into a publicity stunt.”

With the success of his new CD, Usher is nursing his heartache by refocusing on his career. He does not think small. “I’ve got to become the richest man alive,” says the singer, who has his own record label and has dabbled in acting (credits include the 2001 movie Texas Rangers). “I want it all—a little bit of Will Smith, Puffy and Michael [Jackson].” An average day includes meetings, recording, six to eight hours of dancing and working out, often followed by clubbing with friends. Usher’s yearlong tour kicks off this month in Japan, and he’s in talks to star in a biopic of his hero Marvin Gaye. And yes, even if Lucy or Jennifer or Halle don’t call, his heart will go on. “I don’t think I’ll ever do what I did for [Rozonda] ever again—the rose petals, the gifts,” Usher says. “But I plan to date. I don’t know who and when. Be on the lookout.”

Anne Marie Cruz. Deborah Geering in Atlanta and Siobhan Morrissey in Miami

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