Kendra bounced, missing a string on the chord she was playing, when Shera plopped on her bed.
“He is so freaking dreamy,” Shera said, followed by a long sigh.
“What? Who? Jax, you twit. Did you hear a word he said during your one-on-one or did you just get caught up in his eyes? Because I didn’t hear anything beyond him professing his undying love for me.”
Oh, she had noticed. She didn’t want to notice. But she had. She hated to admit to being star struck, but that was the only explanation to what was going on with her. The way her heart fluttered whenever she caught him looking at her. The way her skin held the heat of his hands long after he stopped touching her. The way his smile made her forget how absolutely miserable she was putting herself on display like this.
Kendra giggled and accepted the licorice Shera held out to her. She took a big bite of the candy as she forced away her memory of her time alone with Jax. “He wants me to sing ‘Stronger.’”
Shera flopped on her side and scrunched up her nose. “Kelly Clarkson? Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. He says I have to get out of my comfort zone.”
“Which you do. You have to quit playing it safe.”
“Kelly Clarkson isn’t safe?”
“Not for you.”
Kendra laughed. She’d actually laughed more since coming to L.A. than she had in a long time. Which felt good. Mandy had been the only one who had made her laugh for so long, she forgot others could possess the ability. Between Jax and Shera, Kendra had managed a good belly laugh a few times a day the last few weeks.
She was so glad that Shera had been selected to stay. She’d have been incredibly lonely without her new friend. Everyone else in this dreadful house—the men included—was too busy counting calories and plotting how to sleep their way into recording contracts. She would be perfectly content to never leave this room other than going to her sessions with Jax. That seemed to be the only thing that was going to be worthwhile.
She didn’t buy into the choreography they were doing and the pitch she had to sing for their team performance wasn’t well suited for her. She was a singer, not a performer. She held firm that there was a difference, no matter what Jax tried to tell her. Yeah, okay, so she didn’t have the stage presence that Brylee had, or even that Shera had, but she had a good voice and even Jax had acknowledged that it was refreshing to see someone just get up and sing.
Kendra dug her teeth into the candy and chewed for a moment. “He says I can’t hide behind my guitar with ‘Stronger.’”
“There’s a guitar in there somewhere.”
“But it’s not highlighted. I like songs with strong guitar riffs so the focus is there.”
“Honey, nobody is looking at the guitar when you are on stage. You were awesome. You really stood out, and that was because of the guitar. Nobody else plays instruments the way you do. We’re all focused on moves and being flashy. It’s awesome that you can do that.”
“Thanks.” Kendra made a face and chomped on what was left of her candy. “I hate this. I hate the spotlight and judgement. I just want to sing.”
“What are you going to do if you win and get a big recording contract? How are you going to avoid being in the spotlight then? I mean, the point of this whole thing is to get a contract and then you’ll be front and center for the whole world to see. You know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. But she didn’t have to like it.
Shera cast her a side eye glance. “Did you bring up his promise to let Randi take the lead on the group performance?”
“Yes. I gave him a little bit of hell for it, but he said we’d all get a chance to shine. Every week he’ll let someone take the lead, but that taking the lead didn’t mean lead singer. I don’t know how the hell he plans on balancing that out, but whatever. As long as he doesn’t secure her a win because she flashes her boobs in his face, then I don’t care.”
Kendra didn’t mean to have such a drastic reaction, but she inhaled sharply at the thought of Randi and her boobs anywhere near Jax. But she had. And Shera hadn’t missed it.
“I don’t think he will give her an edge,” Shera was quick to add, clearly assuming Kendra’s reaction had been to the idea of Randi winning the contest.
She scoffed at her own response and shook her head. “No. He doesn’t seem to be the type. I’m sure he’ll be fair.”
“He better be,” Shera said falling onto her back again. “Or I’ll make it my mission to make his life hell. And I can, too.”
“I don’t doubt that,” Kendra said, strumming her guitar again, wondering why she cared so damn much about Jax’s response to Randi.
“So?” Jax asked. “You gonna do it? You gonna sing ‘Stronger’ for me?”
Kendra gnawed at her lip. She’d played the song a dozen times the night before. The lyrics finally grew on her and she could see how he thought she would be able to pull it off. But doubt still lingered in her mind. “You really think this is a good idea?”
“I know it’s a good idea. It’s breaking the mold. You gotta break out of this shell if you’re going to stay around. You only have nine weeks left, Kenny.”
Kendra’s gaze darted up and she focused on his face. She hadn’t been called Kenny in years. At least not in a way that was meant as an endearment. Most people used it to sarcastically point out her lack of femininity. She held his stare, saw the eagerness there, and couldn’t seem to refuse him. “Sure. Why not?”
He hooted in triumph. Leaning forward he put his elbows to his knees, closing a bit of the distance between them. “What’s this all about anyway?”
“You. Being here. I’ve never seen anyone so uncomfortable in the spotlight willingly throw themselves into it. Why are you doing this?”
Kendra swallowed as she lowered her gaze. “I told you—”
“Your sister got tired of you talking crap and dared you to audition.”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“Not buying it. Why are you here, Kenny?”
She lifted her gaze again. Something about that nickname melted her a little. Jax’s eyes were so piercing she felt like she were being pinned to the spot, unable to move, unable to stop him from reading her mind. The thought made her heart race and she was certain that the feeling of lightheadedness that followed was the color draining from her face. She sat back, putting more of that space back between them. “Sometimes the best way to get over your fears is to face them.”
“What fear is that?”
She glanced in the direction of the camera that she had gotten so used to she usually forgot they were around. Only now, in this moment, she was all too aware of how the lens was directed right on her. “Stage fright, of course.”
He nodded. He didn’t believe her. She could see it in his eyes. But he let it go.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I got the music right here. Let’s get started.”
His dismissal stung for some reason she didn’t understand. He didn’t push when he could have, when he should have. He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t push. That hurt in a way that didn’t make sense. Why did she give a crap what he thought? Her issues were none of his business. But it did matter. He’d thought less of her for the avoidance of the truth. He hadn’t said it, he hadn’t had to. She read it in his eyes.
“I, um, I don’t like the attention,” she said, hoping to give him enough to get him to go back to the hopeful and excited expression instead of the flat disappointed look he’d had when he looked away. “I don’t like having people looking at me. Judging me. It’s hard for me to get past that. Putting my focus on the guitar helps me forget they are watching me. Makes it easier to get through.”
He looked at her for a long moment before grinning. And he was back on her side again. “Well, let’s help you get over it, huh?”
“That’s the plan.”
He pushed a button and the music started. She looked to him one more time and he nodded as if to reassure her before she started singing. She’d barely gotten the chorus out before he reached over and stopped the music.
“Nope,” he said.
“Come on, Ken. I saw you singing last week and I watched the video of your audition. Give me that same passion. I know this isn’t your usual music, but it still has emotion to it. This is a girl who is pissed as hell over being betrayed. Have you ever been betrayed?”
Kendra blinked when flashes of her ex-husband ran through her mind. “Sure. Who hasn’t?”
“Tap into that. Let me feel your anger. Okay? She is determined to prove she isn’t broken. You aren’t broken, either. You’re here, defying what others think, right?”
She gave him a slight grin. “Sure.”
“Yeah,” he said flatly. “That’s the kind of excitement that will take you far. Look, you’re not like the rest of the contestants here. You’re older, less comfortable. As a matter fact, you probably should have gone home the first night.”
“But you’re here,” he said as if she hadn’t spoken. “And there are people out there who want nothing more than to see you go home. To see you fail. Because you don’t fit in and they don’t think you deserve to win. Are you going to prove them right on the first real challenge?”
“No,” she whispered.
He leaned closer. “Are you going to prove them right on the first real challenge?”
“No,” she said more firmly.
“Good. Every singer out there has someone who told them their dream was stupid. You have one too. You think about that person and you take this song, and you tap into that rejection and let them know that you are here to stay. Got it?”
She nodded and drew a breath as he restarted the music. This time, she kept her focus on the sheet music and pulled on every ounce of frustration she felt at Randi and Brylee for their snarky comments. When she reached the chorus, she tapped into every bit of anger she still had toward her ex-husband for all the times he’d laughed at her singing.
She didn’t think she had it in her to sing a pop song, but when she finished, he held his hand up waiting for her give him a high-five. She slapped his palm and he laughed.
“That’s my girl,” he said.
And that was all the payment she needed for subjecting herself to the hell of stepping away from her comfort zone.
Jax sank down in the lounge chair when the door to the patio opened. He had hoped sneaking out the pool at nearly one in the morning would afford him some privacy. It hadn’t. Bare feet slapped on the patio and he watched from where he was practically hiding as Kendra moved to the edge of the patio that overlooked the lights of the city.
He sat silently, watching her stare for what seemed like an eternity. The wind whipped her dark hair and she wrapped her arms around herself even though the breeze wasn’t cold. Then she sniffed and wiped her long sleeve under nose.
Jax sat, frozen. He should leave. This was a private moment. Whatever was going on, she had come out here for the same reason he had. To be alone.
He eased up but then she sniffed again and his feet, damn them anyway, headed right for her instead of the door like he’d intended. “Hey,” he said softly, offering her a weak smile when she jumped at the sound of his voice. “Sorry. Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
She quickly wiped her face and nodded. “Fine.”
“The snot on your sleeve says different.”
She chuckled lightly and his smile spread a bit. At least she wasn’t so far gone she couldn’t give him half a laugh.
“My mama would tell you God made Kleenex for a reason.”
She gave him another soft laugh as she wiped her eyes again.
“What’s up, Kenny?”
Looking out over the city, she drew deep breath. “Oh, you know. Homesick.”
“Yeah. Sure.” She faced him and shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because you aren’t a ten-year-old kid at sleepaway camp.”
She smiled as she lowered her head. He tilted his face down to see hers better.
“Talk to me,” he whispered. She met his gaze, looking like she had plenty to say, but then nodded her head to the right where two cameramen had their equipment trained on them. Boom mics loomed over their heads, capturing every word. Jax sighed. “Do you guys ever sleep?”
They didn’t answer, of course.
Taking her elbow, Jax led her back toward the house. The cameramen followed. “Run on the count of three,” he whispered.
He grabbed her hand and practically dragged her inside the house, slamming the glass door shut and locking it before the techs could get in. He smiled and waved as one of the men lifted his hands, as if to ask what the hell Jax was doing.
Kendra giggled. “Who taught you to count?”
“Who taught you to run?” He led her to the table and pulled out a chair. “I figure we’ve got about five minutes before they radio for one of the cameramen upstairs to get down here, so make this fast. Why were you crying?”
She inhaled deeply and held her breath before letting it out slowly. “Mmm. Nope. Not sharing.”
He lifted his brows and dipped his head. His mother used to give him that stare. “Share.”
She groaned, and he knew his mother’s demanding glare still worked.
“Fine. You told me to tap into my sense of rejection. I did. And it still hurts.”
She didn’t answer right away, but finally she met his gaze. Her eyes were so sad. “Everyone. Everyone but my sister.”
“But whose rejection hurt the most?”
“My ex. He used his words like…daggers.” She bit her lips and tears filled her eyes.
He reached out and wiped one away when it fell. She lifted her wet eyelashes to him and he saw the raw pain. She’d been hurt. Soul deep hurt. It hurt him just seeing the agony in her eyes.
“He’s not here now,” he whispered. “I’m here now. And I believe in you. I more than believe in you. I’m blown away by you.”
She creased her brow and he wondered if he’d overstepped. Hell with it if he had. He wasn’t going to sit there and watch her suffer.
“You’ve got something inside you that threatens other people. Once you learn how to release what’s bottled up inside of you, you’re going to blow them away, too. And they know it. They’re scared of it. Don’t let their fear hold you back.”
She scoffed and shook her head. He gripped her hands in his, tugging until she looked at him again.
“All that crap inside you, all the hurtful words and negative energy are your strength. You take that and you bundle it up and you release it when you sing. Don’t think about me or the contest or the audience. You get up there and you show that bastard that you are stronger. That you are here to win. Because you deserve to win. And I don’t mean this show, Kenny. I mean life. You’re not going to let some jackass ruin the rest of your life. You’re here because you’re ready to let that go, whether you know it or not.”
She lifted her chin a bit. “Make a deal?”
He creased his brow, suspicious of the smirk on her face. “Maybe.”
“I’ll give this song my all. My absolute best.”
“And in exchange?”
“Next week is classic rock week.”
He stared at her for a moment before laughing. Holding his hand out, they shook on it. He probably would have pulled her into a hug, but a cameraman moved into his peripheral vision, reminding him they weren’t the only two people in the world.
He swallowed, wondering how long they’d been there and how much of the exchange was going to be aired for dramatic effect. But then Kendra laughed and shook her head and he realized he didn’t care.
When Friday rolled around and it was time to record the next show, Kendra frowned at her reflection. The monstrosity staring back at her was so far from what she looked like it wasn’t even funny. The costume lady, evil as she seemed to be, agreed to let Kendra wear pants instead of the skirt the other girls on her team were wearing. She still looked like she’d been dressed against her will in the flowing black slacks and tight white blouse. Hell, she was. Her hair, which she always wore down was pulled back in a ponytail, one of those fancy ones with the puff on the top of her head. She had put her foot down at adding swooping lines of eyeliner and glitter eyeshadow.
She left the greenroom with her team, Shera at her side, and got into her pre-performance trance waiting for her cue to go on. She hated this. She hated the song. Hated the tempo. Hated the outfit and the choreography. But she sucked it up. Sucked it up and when Martin pointed at her, she smiled and walked out on stage to belt out her section of the pop song for their group performance. She sang her lines just like rehearsed, hitting each note, moving her feet as instructed, and then moved to the background so she could join in the chorus with her teammates as Randi took the lead…or as Jax had said, the highlight.
The song ended, applause filled the room, and she and her team disappeared to get ready for their individual performances. She dressed in black jeans and black blouse with tall high-heeled black boots. She hadn’t made the decision, but it seemed those were the only shoes she had at her disposal.
She dressed and tugged her hair out of the ponytail. She refused to wear it looking like a horse for her solo.
“Are you singing a vampire funeral march?” Randi asked as she sat in the makeup chair next to Kendra.
As she always did, Ken ignored her and focused her energy on herself.
“Are you always such a snob?”
Kendra finally cast her gaze toward Randi. “Excuse me?”
“I don’t think you’ve said five words to me since you got here.”
“Oh. Well, when you say something nice, I’ll respond in kind, but I have no interest in being catty, so I’ll keep to myself until you give me something else to work with.” She grabbed a brush and pushed herself up, leaving Randi slack jawed in her wake.
Shera sat in front of her half an hour or so later. “What did you say to the Ice Queen?”
“Not much, why?”
“She is on a warpath, Ken. She said you called her a bitch.”
Kendra grinned. “Not in so many words.”
Shera let out a low whistle. “Well, you pissed her off.”
“She’ll get over it. Forget that. What did you think of our performance?”
She rolled her head back. Her hair was red this week. “It was awesome! I loved it! What did you think?”
Kendra chuckled. “I hated it, but I must admit I think we pulled it off.”
“Now that we’ve had a week of coaching with Jax, what do you think of him? Cute, huh?”
Kendra pushed memories of their quick dash into the house from her mind. They hadn’t had long alone, but the few minutes had been emotional. And he’d been so supportive. “He’s nice. I’m still not sure I like his ideas for me, but I’m giving him a chance.”
“Giving him a chance? I’d roll around naked on hot coals if he asked me to.”
Kendra laughed. “Simmer down, Sher, he’s but a mortal man.”
“No. That man has got to be a god somewhere.”
“Kendra,” Martin called. “You’re up.”
“Crap,” Kendra breathed as she pushed herself up. She’d learned not to dally when Martin called her. Young pup that he was, he still had a bite if someone made him wait.
“You got this,” Shera called.
Standing in the wings, waiting to be unceremoniously shoved onto the stage, Kendra closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. She needed to get into her zone and sadly the zone for this one included zeroing in on the one thing she’d love to forget.
She heard her ex-husband’s voice echo through her mind. “You suck, Kendra. Nobody would pay to hear you sing.”
She was nearly there, nearly mad enough at the world to pull off singing a freakin’ Kelly Clarkson song when she heard a gasp next to her. She turned to her right and was met with Randi’s face—eyes wide and mouth open—as she watched the screen leading up to Kendra’s intro.
They couldn’t hear the audio from where they stood, but the visual was more than enough. The scene played out, much like Kendra remember it, with Jax wiping her tear dry and offering her kind words as they sat at the table, analyzing her stupid feelings. The moment had felt intimate at the time, but she’d convinced herself she’d blown it out of proportion, but seeing the video certainly made it look like Kendra and Jax were a bit more than friendly.
“If you think you’re going to sleep your way through this contest,” Randi started. She didn’t get to finish.
Martin gave Kendra the shove she’d been anticipating and she headed out to the stage. She situated in front of the microphone and tried to let her ex into her mind one more time as she strapped on her guitar. Despite Jax’s pleading, she refused to not have her safety net.
That had been the one concession Jax had made. He wanted her move around and egg the audience on. She wasn’t ready for that. They compromised. She’d look up, she’d feel some real emotion, and he’d let her have her guitar.
What they hadn’t prepared for was her to be completely knocked off kilter by having the world see her in a vulnerable moment with Jax tending to her wounds. She swallowed, took a breath, and silently reminded herself that she could do this.
The music started, the spotlight lit, and she lifted her dark eyes to stare into the camera just as Jax had coached her. She started singing, calm at first, and then let a bit of defiance touch her voice.
Finally, she broke the dam on her determination to win and forced it out with the lyrics. By the time she insisted that she’d come back swinging, she really did feel like it had. It wasn’t just an act. It was a determination that she’d tapped into and it was right there on the stage.
She carried on singing, damn near cheering herself through her self-doubt, forcing away the negativity, at least for the next few minutes.
She couldn’t see into the darkened arena so when the song ended, she half expected to be laughed off the stage but the crowd roared and Jax jumped to his feet to applaud her. He actually climbed the steps and threw his arms around her.
She tried to pull back, but he wanted no part of that, he draped his arm around her shoulder and faced the crowd, encouraging them to applaud louder and they did. The moment seemed to last forever, but finally, he dropped his arm and leaned down.
“You did it, Kenny. You showed him,” he said in her ear and then trotted back to where the other coaches were sitting.
She barely heard Jason announce that the show would continue in a moment. All she could hear was Jax’s whisper in her ear.