Now that the celebrity judges had their teams selected, the remaining cast of Music Star Dreams had moved into separate houses. Martin was off the hook from the day-to-day babysitting which would then fall onto the coaches. Kendra was happy to be in a house without Brylee and most of her cohorts, though Brylee’s pet Randi was clearly disgruntled to be separated from her friends.
“First thing,” Jax said to his team as they sat around a long table in the mansion’s open concept dining room. “Just because I sing country doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate other music. I do. I like all music, and I appreciate all talent. My job here is to help you delve deeper and fine-tune the skills you already have. Don’t fight me. Don’t think you know better than me. And don’t piss me off.”
Kendra spared a glance at Shera.
Everybody knew Jax was not in a good place. Recently divorced and on the ugly side of most of the tabloids, rumor had it that Jax only took the job as coach on Music Star Dreams because it was wildly popular and he needed major damage control on his downward spiraling career. The golden boy of country music had said some not so nice things about his darling ex-wife during their split and it had bitten him in the behind.
He’d had the world on a string when the break-up started. His wife, top-selling singer Tanya—just Tanya—had cheated on him with her producer and broken the hearts of all the fans who thought she and Jax were music royalty. But one bad drinking spell and a reporter in the right place at the wrong time had turned the tides. Jax went from being the victim of his wife’s adultery, to a vicious man who deserved it. He was none too happy about his new status and, according to gossip, this was Jax’s way to make nice with his fans again.
Hearing Jax warn about not making him angry seemed to confirm that he wasn’t the prince the country darlings had made him out to be, but the brute his ex was claiming. But then he grinned and winked at the group, and Kendra felt some strange fluttering sensation low in her gut.
She wasn’t one to fall for the charms of a handsome man. She was wiser than that. If the package was too tidy, the inside was likely to be dark and ugly. Egos and pretty boys were like bees and flowers. Where there was one, there was bound to be the other. And one of them was sure to sting some poor unsuspecting bystander. She’d learned her lesson. Cute smiles and well-timed winks didn’t win her over, but damned if she didn’t feel that same tingle when he squared his broad, red-and-black flannel covered shoulders and leveled his dark brown eyes on her. The scruffy three-day looking growth parted to reveal a bright straight-toothed smile.
“I’m kidding, guys,” he said. “I’m not a jerk, so relax.”
Kendra did relax a bit. And then she silently cursed herself for the girly sigh that escaped her.
“This is my first season on the show,” Jax continued with his drawl, “but I did get some pointers from B.G. Y’all know someone from his team won last season, so I think his advice is worth taking. I’m going spend an hour each day with you individually and then an hour with you as a group. We have to do a team performance each week, as well as individual performances. That should give us all enough time to prepare and rehearse.”
He leaned his forearms on the table, looking more like a buddy than a coach. “While I’m working with you individually, your teammates will be working on costumes and choreography. I’ll pick the team song. Sorry, folks, but I don’t want to waste time bickering over it. I’ll do my best to be diverse so each week we have something new to sing that will highlight each of your individual talents. This week we’re covering ‘Shape of You’ by Ed Sheeran. If you don’t know it, learn it. There’s a copy downloaded to the player in each of your rooms. The audience will vote for the winner each week. I expect you all to get enough to stay. Got it?”
Everyone nodded and then Jax slapped his hands on the table. “Okay, head upstairs to find your rooms and get settled in.”
Kendra and Shera joined their chattering teammates in oohing and ahhing at the house they’d be living in. It was much smaller than the one they’d been in for the last week, the one shared with all the contestants, but as far as Kendra was concerned this house was much better.
She really liked the Italian-inspired decor. She’d never been to Italy, and probably never would, but walking through the house made her feel as if she should be able walk out the tall glass-paned doors and right into a vineyard rather than a cement patio with a large pool in the middle.
They took the sweeping staircase and found a room marked for men and another for women. The one at the end of the hall had a big star on it, clearly reserved for Jax. Kendra, Shera, and Randi walked into their shared room and Randi made a beeline for the bed that was closest to the glass doors leading to the balcony.
Kendra didn’t mind taking one of the other beds. The remaining two were so close together she and Shera could pass treats in the middle of the night without having to get out of bed. She smiled at the thought.
“You thinking about how easy it will be to share three a.m. snacks?” Shera asked quietly.
“Sweet,” Shera squealed before collapsing on the bed she was claiming. After a moment, she kicked her legs wildly. “I can’t believe we’re here!”
“I can’t believe I’m stuck with you two,” Randi muttered.
Shera rolled onto her side to face Kendra. “You know what else I can’t believe? Jax Landry is going to be sleeping right down the hall. I wonder if he sleepwalks. Or cooks in his underwear.”
Randi smirked and crossed her arms. “Seriously? Do you really think Jax would even look at you. You’re, like, old.”
“Uh, in case you aren’t aware of this sweetheart, Jax is thirty-seven. I’m two years younger than he is.”
“Are you even old enough to vote?” Kendra asked, tossing her bag on her bed.
“I am twenty-two.”
Shera grinned at her. “I don’t think your age matters. Something tells me the man has had enough of high maintenance bimbos.”
“I am not a bimbo.” Randi huffed and focused on unpacking while Kendra smirked at Shera.
Score one for the old ladies.
“We haven’t been formally introduced,” Jax said as the rest of the team co-mingled while chicken cooked on the grill. He held his hand out to Kendra. “I don’t count that passing moment on stage or our rush to get settled in as a proper introduction. Jax Landry.”
She slid her palm into his and, damn it, his entire hand started to tingle. He’d hoped he had imagined the little spark he’d felt onstage and again when he arrived at the house and his team had surrounded him. He’d instantly sought out the little grungy woman and had nearly chuckled to find she looked pretty much the same off stage as on. Even now, she didn’t seem too interested in hyping her looks up. She was the complete opposite of everything he’d come to expect from the glitzy world that had become normal to him the last few years. He liked that. Liked that her screw-the-world appearance wasn’t just a show.
“That was a hell of a performance you put on yesterday, Kendra.”
She smiled and, damn it again, the blush that swept across her cheeks made his heart beat a little faster.
“Thanks,” she said as she pulled her hand from his. He hadn’t realized he was still holding it. “But I’m told it was nothing compared to some of the other girls.”
“Not everyone enjoys watching someone hump the mic stand. I’ll take a good guitar player and a little head banging anytime.”
She let her mouth fall open and widened her dark eyes. “I went hairband?”
He laughed and a quiet giggle left her, almost too subtle for him to hear, but he did. And it made him pause and clear his throat. “I didn’t know hairband was a verb.”
She confirmed with a dramatic nod. “Oh, it is. And it’s not a compliment.”
“Well, it worked in your favor. It was different, which made you stand out.”
She lifted one shoulder and let it drop casually. “Well, I guess that’s what counts, right?”
He lowered his gaze over her. Even though the sunset was cooling the temperature down, it was still closing in on eighty-five degrees. Shera wore a sundress while Randi pranced in a bikini trying to get Jax’s attention. Kendra, however, had on her trademark jeans. While he admired that she stuck to her own thing, he couldn’t help but ask, “Aren’t you hot?”
“Not much, no.”
“Seriously? Even I had to trade in the cowboy boots for some sandals. It’s hotter than a billy goat’s butt in a pepper patch.”
For the first time since he met her, he got a real laugh. She rolled her head back and let the sound rip from her. Her happiness settled deep in his gut, and he immediately vowed to make it his mission to make as many corny redneck comments as he could to hear the sound again. Unfortunately, though, Kendra laughed loudly enough that Randi pranced over to intervene. God forbid she not be the center of attention. Kendra lifted her brows at Jax when Randi leaned in close to him and peered over her sunglasses.
“Jax,” she said in what seemed to be her trademarked pout, “we haven’t had a minute alone. We have to discuss what I bring to the team.”
Jax opened his mouth, intent on protesting, but Kendra cut him off.
“Well,” she said, “I think I’ll see how dinner is coming along. I’m really hoping they are serving peppers with the chicken.”
Jax snorted, but she disappeared before he could stop her. He did his best to focus on the girl in front of him. She was perky and clingy and as fake as her platinum hair color. He already regretted picking her for his team. She exaggerated her pout and pressed her arms together to shove her barely covered cleavage higher as she talked about her assets.
Lord. He was tired of women like her. He’d married a woman like her. No. He’d married a good woman. Being a celebrity had turned her into that. Tanya hadn’t been the kind of woman to lie and cheat and sleep her way to the top, but she certainly turned into one. The more success Jax found, the more desperate Tanya had become to outshine him.
She had her own brand of success, but it wasn’t on the same level as his and that had driven her crazy. At some point, she’d started desperately backstabbing her way to the top. Too bad it took a tabloid magazine exposing her affair for Jax to realize how much of that stabbing had been done to his back.
And it took one stupid comment in a magazine to take him from the sympathetic husband who’d unwittingly been supporting his wife’s affair, to a man who deserved everything he got.
Note to self: Never give interviews after half a bottle of scotch.
So, no. No matter how many times Randi pouted or flaunted her boobs in his face, Jax wasn’t interested, and he wasn’t taking the bait. He was done with women like this. Women who only cared about their own success. He may not have seen this dark side when he married Tanya, but he certainly recognized it now. And Randi wasn’t even famous yet!
Not that he wanted a woman in his life, but when he did, when he was ready, he’d find someone who wasn’t nearly as shallow.
He didn’t mean for his gaze to wander, but it did. He skimmed the small gathering until he found Kendra talking to Shera. She glanced at him and their gazes locked. She grinned, seemingly aware of his misery and silently mocking it, before she toasted him with her bottle of water.
“Jax,” Randi said putting her hand on his arm. “What do you think of my idea?”
He looked at her, realizing he hadn’t heard anything she had said. “Uh. Yeah, sounds great.”
She clutched her hands together and squealed before throwing her barely clad body at him, hugging him around the neck. “This is going to be so great!” Pulling away, she clapped her hands. “Guys! Jax just agreed to let me be the lead on our group performance!”
The gathering grew quiet. Even Kendra stopped smiling at him.
Crap. He’d agreed to what?
The door to the studio barely closed before Kendra cocked a brow at Jax. Her coach. The person she was supposed to trust to get her to the finish line of this crazy contest. And he was putting Randi in the role of lead singer? They weren’t even supposed to have a lead singer.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I don’t need you to give me that look. I know you think I messed up.”
“Can you trust me? Just a little?”
She sighed and eased her stance, willing to at least give the man his last words before she choked the life out of him. “Fine. Care to tell me why you agreed to Randi’s plan?”
“Well…” He glanced at the camera behind her.
Kendra looked back, too. Funny how she’d already gotten so used to having the crew around that she’d actually forgotten this little confrontation was being filmed for the TV show. She frowned and crossed her arms, still waiting for Jax to convince her he wasn’t setting Randi up to take the crown.
He sat on a stool and clutched his hands together, letting them drop between his spread knees. She thought he actually had a bit of a pout on his face as he shrugged. “I’m not.”
“So you didn’t tell her she could be the lead singer?”
He puffed his cheeks out and let his breath eek out slowly.
“I guess I kind of did, but,” he was quick to add when she rolled her head back. “It’s not what you think.”
“So what is it?”
“You’ll all get a chance to sing, to show your stuff, but this is a pop song. And who could be a better representation of pop than Randi? Right?”
She could see on his face that he was making this up as he went. Crap. She would get stuck with the coach who had no idea what he was doing.
“So. We let Randi carry the team this week. And…someone else carry the team next week. She won’t always be the lead. And calling her the lead is really an exaggeration. She’s the highlight. See? There’s a difference.”
She stared at him for a moment before scoffing. “Right. Sure.” Sitting on the stool next to him, she shrugged. Like she was going to get to the end anyway. “So what are we working on?”
“Ahh. Your performance.”
Kendra squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands over them for good measure as Jax cued up her last two performances. “Don’t make me do this.”
“We’re supposed to analyze each piece you did to see where you need improvement, although I have a pretty good idea already.”
“Do I have to watch?”
“’Fraid so, darlin’.” He laughed as he gently pulled her hands down and clicked the mouse on the laptop in the small studio inside their house.
Her heart pounded at the heat of his fingers around her wrist, still holding her hands from her face even though she’d made no move to hide again. The warmth of his touch was forgotten, and she moaned with humiliation as she watched herself singing. Her voice was fine; her stiff posture was atrocious.
“This is terrible,” she said.
Jax chuckled. “No, it’s not. It’s real. It’s raw. That’s what made it so refreshing. We all—the coaches I mean—said the same thing. You have a true talent that doesn’t require fancy dance moves and flashy lights. You feel the music and it shows. That’s awesome, Kendra. We just need to work on making a stronger connection with the audience. You get up there and you’re in your own world.”
“Okay,” she drawled out. “But you just said you already know what I need to work on, so why are we watching this?”
He turned off the video and faced her. His dark eyes bore into her soul and she felt her cheeks warm. Damn her pale skin for always betraying her.
“Your simplistic performances work for now,” he said, “but when you get down to three or four competitors, it’s going to bite you in the behind. You can’t grab an audience by blending into the background. You need to pull yourself out of that bubble and look at what is going on around you. Look at the fans, connect with them.”
She exhaled slowly. “Yeah. Not so great at that.”
“Have you had any stage experience?”
“Not really. I got caught up in life and music kind of took a backseat.”
“Why are you coming back to it now?”
“I was forced.”
She lifted her brows. “I always give the performers crap so my sister submitted a tape of me singing. But neither of us thought I’d actually get this far. Just getting past the regional auditions was unexpected, but to actually be in the top fifteen is insane.”
“It’s not insane,” Jax said genuinely and her cheeks grew even hotter. “You deserve to be here. Now we have to make sure you stay.”
“I’m not sure Ed Sheeran is the best tool for that. I’m not a pop singer.”
“I think you’ll be surprised what you can do when you step outside your box. What have you picked for your solo?”
“What did you sing for your audition piece? The night you got voted into the top twenty?”
“Ooh, barracuda,” she sang.
He grinned. “Heart, Stevie Nicks, and now Pat Benatar.”
Kendra’s confidence fell. “Is that wrong?”
“Not wrong. Classic rock is your comfort zone, but staying in your comfort zone isn’t going to help you grow, and if you don’t grow, you aren’t going to win. Want to know what we’re going to do for you, Miss Kendra?”
“No,” she deadpanned.
He ignored her. “We’re going to pick a new song to yank you right out of that cozy little bubble and toss you into the spotlight for the world to see. We’re singing a pop song as a group. Let’s pick a pop song for your solo, too.”
“Yay,” she said sarcastically. Even with his cute dimples, gorgeous smile, and sexy Southern drawl, his idea sounded terrible.