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Kendra closed her eyes and drew a deep breath as applause filtered through the backstage area. What the hell was she was doing? She had no business being here, surrounded by half-naked, overly made up twenty-somethings.
Two of those Barbie dolls walked by just as someone tapped Kendra on the shoulder. She ignored the girls’ snickers as a kid half her age gestured behind him.
“You’re up, lady,” he said from behind the mic that stuck out of the oversized headphones covering his ears.
“More like grandma,” one of the girls said.
The other giggled and her breasts nearly bounced out of her tight corset style shirt.
Kendra barely glanced at them. She had bigger issues to worry about than the two twits she could have given birth to. She was going to kill Mandy for talking her into this.
This is your chance, she’d said.
It’s destiny, she’d said.
“Jerk,” she whispered even though her sister was sixteen hundred miles away in the cozy farmhouse they grew up in and now shared.
Taking another cleansing breath, Kendra followed the assistant producer to the edge of the stage. Her heart beat so fast and hard, she was certain the organ was about to burst through her chest. One more thump, and her ribcage was going to splinter and send bone and cartilage flying as her seizing muscle lurched out and made a break for it. Running as far as it could. Just like she should do.
She smirked at the image of the two twits squealing as a bloodied organ trotted around backstage. Her amusement was short-lived.
Kendra Michaels was announced with the flourish of a game show host and her time was up. This was it. This was the moment she’d been fighting for all her life. Three minutes. In the spotlight. On a national stage.
Yes, her name had been spoken as if she were a contestant on a game show because she was a contestant on a game show. Only instead of spinning wheels and solving puzzles only to walk away empty-handed, she was throwing her dream out to be seen, judged, and then trampled by a group of has-beens grasping on to the last shred of celebrity life they could find.
The kid with the mic gave her a nudge, and Kendra plastered a smile to her face. So blinded by the stage lights, she could barely make out the crowd who would determine if she moved on or not. Her mouth went as dry as her delicate skin in the Iowa winter. Not the best timing for cottonmouth when she was supposed to wow the world with her vocal talents.
She didn’t have a chance to indulge the panic engulfing her. She had no choice but to get with the program when the drummer behind her slapped his sticks together and started the countdown. And just like that, she strummed her guitar strings and the first strains of her chosen song filled the air.
She closed her mind to the lights, to the judgment, and the looks of disapproval she was so certain she’d find if she could see beyond the rainbow of starbursts. She wasn’t over the hill at forty-one, but she was a hell of a lot closer to cresting the top than her competitors. She’d spent the day surrounded by cutesy bombshells in mini-skirts and heels that should be illegal if for no other reason than to save those poor girls from breaking their ankles. The boys were all unnaturally handsome and chiseled. And then there was Kendra.
Not a speck of glitter to be found on her face or nails, nor a hint of cleavage spilled from her black T-shirt. The most skin she showed was from the middle of her forearms to the tips of her unpainted fingers. Her jeans were just tight enough that they didn’t fall down, but certainly didn’t cling in all the places that jeans could, and her practical shoes didn’t add even an inch of height to her petite figure.
She was the anti-pop star. She was the anti-contestant. And she knew it. She wasn’t counting on sex appeal to get her accepted onto Music Star Dreams. She was counting on her raw talent. But after a day of watching even the more emo of her competitors preen, she had begun to doubt if that would be enough.
And so she stood there, in the spotlight, wishing the world would swallow her whole as she belted out “Barracuda” like she somehow had the right to touch the sacred tune.
Finally, her time ended along with the condensed version of her favorite song and she stepped back from the microphone to catch her breath.
Then the auditorium burst into applause.
Startled from the daze she’d put herself in, she managed a smile as the clapping died down and she was left with nothing to do but watch the votes roll in. The host, another of those unnaturally handsome men—except this one looked old enough to legally drink—came to stand next to her.
“Kendra,” Jason Taylor said in his deep baritone, “how are you feeling?”
She laughed softly. “Relieved that’s over.”
“How did you learn to play guitar like that?”
Despite her silent command not to blush, her face heated and she imagined her cheeks were flame red. Rather than admitting to being the world’s biggest introvert who would rather spend hours with her guitar than another single person, she said, “Just, um, lots of practice.”
“You know what to do,” he said returning his attention to the crowd. “All she needs is an eighty-six percent approval rating to continue. It’s up to you guys.”
The room was eerily quiet as her judges—the sold out crowd of them—punched their ranking of her performance into little handheld computers.
Kendra had no idea what she would do if she actually made it. Up to eleven weeks living her life out on television, having her voice and her dreams scrutinized as she lived in a house filled with the very twits who resented her very presence. She didn’t fit in here, shouldn’t be here, but after watching three seasons of the show insisting she was better than each and every contestant and winner, her sister had submitted a tape of Kendra performing and she got “the call.”
She wanted to kill Mandy. As soon as they told her she had to jump on a plane to Los Angeles and spend an entire day surrounded by other hopefuls, she tried to back out but Mandy convinced her to try.
For once just try, Ken.
And now, she stood here, heart in the throat, waiting to see if she’d make it to the next round of being judged.
“Okay. Time’s up,” Jason said. “Let’s see where you rank.”
On cue, the big screen on the stage started tallying up her ratings. The number of her approval climbed. Forty percent. Fifty percent. Sixty. Eighty.
“There you have it,” Jason announced. “With an eighty-eight percent approval rating, Kendra Michaels, you will be living your Music Star Dreams.”
Kendra hadn’t had time to breathe in the days that followed, let alone take in the enormity of what was happening. Her quick trip to L.A. to try out for a reality show had turned into a commitment that would most likely result in complete and utter humiliation in front of the millions of people.
“Just try to avoid being the first one sent home,” Mandy said through the phone Kendra had squeezed to her ear. “I’ll never let you live that down.”
“Not helping,” she said.
“Come on, Ken. Breathe. In and out. You can’t sing if you hyperventilate.”
She laughed softly. “I don’t know. Some of these girls have that whole breathy thing going on. It seems to work for them.”
“You’re better than that,” she said with the conviction that Kendra needed to hear. “You don’t need to show your tits to get anywhere in life. You know that.”
“You got this. So go get it.”
“Let’s go,” Martin, the kid with the headphones and mic, called out. He’d lost the headgear, at least for now, as he herded the top twenty finalists out of their temporary housing.
Kendra didn’t know how he’d gotten such a crappy role in this whole production, but he seemed to relish in it. His number one job was to make sure the Music Star Dream contestants got where they were supposed to be on time. Glorified babysitting. Already that had proved to be a challenge with some of the more self-centered contestants. Kendra had determined that was most of them.
She swallowed hard as adrenaline surged through her. “I have to go,” she said into her phone. “Nanny McPhee is gathering the children. It’s time to go.”
“You’re going to be fine, Ken.”
Kendra closed her eyes and squeezed them tight. This was the last time she’d hear her sister’s voice before facing the celebrity coaches, at which time five finalists would be eliminated and the rest divided into three teams. After tonight, only one contestant per week would be shown the door, but the odds of getting through tonight… She didn’t want to think about it. If she just got through tonight’s elimination, she’d feel like she’d at least touched her dream.
“Let’s go,” Martin yelled again.
“I love you,” she whispered into the phone.
“I love you, too. Now go show those toddlers a thing or two about real talent.”
Ken laughed quietly as she hung up. She grabbed her guitar case and followed the rest of the contestants out the door and into what looked more like a party bus than a van.
She sat in the front seat while most of her housemates headed straight for the back—just like elementary school. She smiled when Shera, the only person remotely close to her age, sat next to her. While the rest of the singers hooped and hollered as they headed for the studio, Shera and Kendra stared out the window.
“I still can’t believe this,” Shera finally said.
Though Shera was in her mid-thirties, she had succumbed to the tight clothes and glitter covered eyelid phenomena that had so strongly captured their younger counterparts. Her slanted eyelids were highlighted by purple gems that matched several chunks of dyed hair. Shera had a hint of Asian to her look but she had another ethnicity that Kendra couldn’t place, but she was leaning toward Latin. It really didn’t matter, the mixture had created a stunning creature in Shera, and even with the gems and purple hair, the woman was far more beautiful than the glitter dusted challengers.
“I keep expecting to wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming.”
Shera chuckled. “Not unless we’re sharing the same dream. Which would be crazy.”
“No more crazy than the fact that we’re about to jump head first into reality TV.”
Shera smiled but it faded quickly. Somehow Kendra’s reminder seemed to have deflated her. If she’d known how, she would have tried to reassure Shera, but she was too nervous to soothe anyone at the moment.
They traveled the rest of the way in silence, and then, like the week before, a rush of activity swept them up. Before she knew it, Kendra was standing in a dressing room looking at a rack of jeans and shirts.
“I actually don’t mind what I’m wearing,” she said to the woman in beside her.
“That’s nice, but I do,” she said flatly. “Remember when you filled out the form with your sizes and color preferences, and all that? This is why. Take your pick of the outfits here, but you will not wear that on national television.”
Ken looked down at her jeans and T-shirt and then at the rack. The styles were similar, casual and loose-fitted, but the outfits hanging on the rack were much more expensive. Much more expensive. She selected a pair of dark jeans, a gray long sleeved shirt as well as a pair of black Chucks.
Then she was whisked to a chair where a Chatty Cathy coated her face in layers of makeup and flat ironed Kendra’s naturally black hair until it was poker straight.
She looked almost like herself underneath gads of foundation, hair products, and fancier plain clothes. She looked so causal that when she walked to the greenroom, Martin tried to send her back to makeup.
Brylee, the bubbly blond who’d snickered at her the first week, did so again. “She looks like she walked right out of a How to Be Grunge handbook,” she said, and also like the week before, she said it just loud enough to make sure Kendra heard her.
Kendra ignored the jab. She had no time or interest in partaking in toddler-time. Especially when the toddler looked like she belonged on one of those child beauty queen shows. Any more sequins on the girl and the judge’s eyeballs would explode from the light reflected back at them.
Shera stepped up to where Kendra was cracking open a bottle of water. “Honey, she’s right. You should have dressed up a bit more. You need to stand out.”
“I’m the only woman here who doesn’t look like she’s trying to pick up a john for ten bucks, Sher, I think that alone makes me stand out.” Her eyes grew as she looked at her newfound friend. “I didn’t mean you.”
Shera let out a chuckle. “No worries. I’m not offended. These girls”—she shoved her obviously surgically enhanced breasts together and gave them a jiggle— “have gotten me this far, I’m not ashamed to let them take me all the way.”
Kendra laughed and then took a long drink from the bottle in her hand. “Nervous?”
“I’m dying inside. Literally. I can’t handle this stress.”
“Well, it doesn’t show. You look completely calm.”
Shera smiled and ran her hand over Kendra’s hair. “And you look beautiful. Don’t let those jerks make you doubt yourself. Me included.”
Kendra was tempted to hug the woman, for no reason other than she needed a hug herself, but Martin poked his head in and once again started shooing his flock in the right direction.
“Remember, guys,” he said as twenty anxious contestants huddled around him. “This is live. No cussing, no foul gestures, no nudity. Don’t embarrass us or yourselves and you’ll be fine. Cause us to get a fine from the FCC, and I will make your life hell until the day you die. Got it?”
Mumbles and chuckles intermingled as he put his hand to his reattached headphones. He said something to whoever was on the other end and then looked back at the wide eyes watching him.
“We’ve rehearsed this all week, people. Don’t screw up now.” With that he held up his hand and started counting down from five.
Kendra entered that same trancelike state that she’d found herself in the week before. She walked out on stage on cue and sang her part in the opening number, a medley of top forty songs. She was fortunate enough to get to cover P!nk, so she was at least in the same zip code of her comfort zone.
She was doing okay, feeling almost comfortable in the hot lights. She was just one face in a sea of eager singers.
Jason entered from stage left just as the songs ended and gave his spiel about the show. Twenty contestants, three celebrity coaches who would pick five singers to take under their wing and lead them to success. The five singers not chosen, would be going home immediately.
Kendra held her breath and silently pleaded to stay. Don’t be sent home first. Don’t be sent home first.
“And this season’s celebrity judges are…”
Kendra bit her lip.
She exhaled as a larger than life rapper took the stage. He smiled at the contestants, gold shining on his teeth, and waved causing the light to flash off his big diamond rings.
“What up?” he asked, not anticipating an answer from anyone. He took his seat and went through the obligatory small talk with Jason.
“Judge number two,” Jason announced, “Colbee Hardy.”
The pop starlet bounced out on the stage in her stiletto heels and pastel tinted hair. She was cheery beyond reason, and Kendra wondered if the girl were high.
As with the first judge, the chitchat commenced and then judge three was introduced.
“Jax Landry,” Jason shouted enthusiastically. The crowd applauded, but Kendra felt her heart drop.
Not one coach covered her brand of music. Rap, pop, and country. No rock. Damn it. She was sure to get kicked off now. She kept her frozen smile on her face and did her best not to feel defeated, but as Jax Landry talked in his southern twang about how he was looking forward to finding the next big thing in country, she felt her hopes fading.
“We’re going to take break,” Jason said to the camera, “but when we return, our judges will get their first taste of our very talented contestants.”
The house lights went up, and Kendra and her mates were hustled off the stage and back to the greenroom. She tuned out the chatter of everyone around her and in her mind sang her chosen song, “Gold Dust Woman.” The song highlighted her guitar skills and her gritty voice. But now she wished she’d gone with something softer. She couldn’t image any of those judges appreciating the rough edges the song required.
She was so going home.
“What’s the matter, Grandma?” Brylee scooted up next to Kendra. “Not enough grunge on the panel for you?”
“Screw off, Teen Barbie.” Shera pushed her way between the women. “You okay, Ken?”
“Great.” She sighed and rolled her head. “She’s right. There isn’t nearly enough emo on that panel to get me through.”
“Don’t give up.” Shera put her hand on Ken’s shoulder. “You have to get through because I am determined to get through, and I can’t survive this special brand of hell without you. I will end up in jail if I’m left alone with these shallow, soulless creatures.”
This time Kendra did give in to the urge and hugged her. “You’re going to make it. Trust me.”
“You will, too. Now. Enough of this. Get back in the zone.”
Kendra took that advice, focusing her energy on making the most of her three and a half minutes on stage. She had to wow them, move them, make them believe in her so she wasn’t sent home on the first night. So that Mandy wouldn’t taunt her about that for the rest of her life.
She smiled as she realized her sister would. She’d never let it go. She’d forever remind Kendra that she was front and center, nationwide television, and was kicked to the curb. But she wouldn’t do it maliciously, she’d do it to remind her that even though she’d failed, she had tried and that was the most important thing. Her sister was sick and twisted like that. But it was a kind of sick and twisted that worked for her.
When Martin came to collect her for her performance, Kendra felt like the floor fell out from under her. She pushed herself up and gave a weak smile to her only companion, Shera, and followed Martin to the stage.
“Your guitar is set up. Walk out, pick it up, do your thing, smile for the judges, be considerate, and then come back.”
“Yes, sir.” She didn’t hide her sarcasm, and he didn’t pretend he hadn’t heard it.
Her heavy heart thudded as she moved to center stage with a fake smile plastered to her face and put her guitar strap over her shoulder. She took a breath and started plucking the strings, not giving herself a chance to think, as she dove into the song with a guitar solo.
She ended with a flourish and to wild applause, which shocked her. Unfortunately for her, the judges’ commentary wasn’t as complimentary.
“Honey,” Colbee cooed, “you sound amazing, but your performance was a little dull. You’ve got all these people out here singing along, entranced by your voice, but you didn’t even look at them. You have to work on that.”
Kendra nodded. Okay. Eye contact. She could do that.
B.G. agreed and pointed at her with a fat finger covered in gold and diamond rings. “You could dress a little better, too. I get the whole grunge thing, but you can flaunt it a little. But, seriously, girl, you got some pipes.”
“That was amazing,” Jax said, forgoing on talk about her stiff posture and dark attire. “If Stevie Nicks and Christina Aguilera got together and had a baby, she’d sound like you. It works really well.”
And with that, Kendra was dismissed.
The next hour of seeing contestants come and go was torture. Absolute hell. She had no idea how the other performers were holding up or how the judges reacted. All she knew was that when Martin came back and pulled them all to the stage, she couldn’t breathe for the fear that had crept up and started strangling her. The spotlights seemed to shine on all her fears.
Don’t go home first. Don’t go home first.
She jolted when she felt a hand grasp hers and turned to smile at Shera. This was it. They stood lined up like homeless puppies, waiting to find out who would get taken home on adoption day. Actually, this was worse than puppies seeking love and affection. This was like standing in gym class hoping one of the team captains would pick her…and preferably not last.
B.G. chose first. Then Colbee selected Brylee. No big surprise there.
Then it was Jax’s turn. Kendra closed her eyes and held her breath. Shera squeezed her hand more tightly.
“Kendra,” he said without hesitation.
“Oh, my God,” Shera squealed. She bounced and hugged Kendra before Ken even had a chance to realize that not only had she been picked, she’d been in the top five. That never happened. Not even in gym class.
“Go, go,” Shera insisted.
Kendra numbly walked across the stage and stood next to her new coach. Jax laughed and put a hand on her shoulder. “Breathe, darlin’. I don’t need my first pick falling over dead.”
She laughed softly and watched as one by one the coaches picked their teams. She was joined by Pete Sussex, a deep voiced swooner; Randi Dowry, a Brylee wannabe; and Dominic Walker, R&B extraordinaire. Kendra stared at Shera who was looking more than defeated behind her plastered on smile.
Ken crossed her fingers. “Please, please, please,” she whispered.
“The last one to join Team Landry,” Jax drawled out. “Shera, come on over!”
Kendra smiled widely as the closest thing she had to a friend ran over and hugged her. Okay, so eventually they’d probably be trying to get each other kicked off, but for now, she wasn’t in this alone. Shera was a poor substitute for Mandy, but she’d do. She’d have to do. Because they both had made the cut.
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