The tension in the van from the studio back to the house was so thick a chainsaw wouldn’t have been able to cut through it. No one had said a word, but the silence said so much. The cameramen had caught enough of the conversation between Kendra and Jax to make the moment look compromising. And the producers had aired it. And everyone in the contest, including all her teammates, had seen it.
Unlike the previous week, Jax didn’t ride back to the house with his team. He stayed behind at the studio for some kind of promotional something or rather. She hadn’t really paid attention as the other contestants chattered on about it. She’d been too busy avoiding Randi’s piercing glare. While some of the other contestants cast hard glances her way, Randi seemed to be the most furious about what the show had flashed on screen right before her performance—Kendra and Jax running inside the house, locking the cameramen out, so they could have a moment alone. Since the scene played through the window, their conversation couldn’t be heard, but his tenderness as he wiped her tears and encouraged her to let go of the past were there for all to see.
Shera sat next to her, as always, but even she seemed colder than usual to Kendra. When Kendra asked how her performance went, she was met with a curt answer. “Fine.”
At the house, Kendra headed straight for the stairs, not wanting to engage in the brewing confrontation, but Randi beat her to the stairs.
“Not so fast, Goth Queen.”
Kendra pressed her lips together. “Move.”
“What the hell kind of game are you playing?”
“Not cool putting the moves on Jax like that,” Pete said. Pete was the most easygoing out of the group. His Dean Martin wanna-be attitude meant he was more concerned with his hair and drinking than the constantly underlying drama of the team.
“I didn’t put the moves on Jax,” Kendra defended. She looked at Shera, her only real friend in the house, and felt a gut-punch when even she looked angry. “I didn’t.”
“We all saw the video,” Randi snapped. “Your little woe-is-me act was so transparent.”
Kendra scoffed. She hadn’t put on any kind of act, let alone one that would make her look more pathetic than she already was. But she wasn’t going to defend herself. Shoving her way past Randi, she made it upstairs and went straight to the bathroom where she used facial wipes to erase the layers of makeup that had been applied to her face.
When she jerked the door open, intent on finding something more comfortable to wear, Shera was sitting on her bed. Her expression reflected a mixture of confusion and anger and, if Kendra was reading correctly, a sense of betrayal.
She didn’t care what anyone there thought—except maybe Shera. Kendra headed for her dresser as she said, “I didn’t know he was outside when I went out. I needed some fresh air. All this was getting to me. I refused to tell him what was bugging me with all the cameras on us.” She slammed her drawer after finding her favorite pair of sweatpants. Facing her friend, she shrugged. “He pulled me inside and shut the cameramen out thinking they wouldn’t have anything to air if they didn’t have audio. Obviously, he underestimated the producer’s desire to cause drama.”
“Drama equals ratings, Ken.”
“I wasn’t putting the moves on Jax.”
“Okay,” she said softly. Then she smiled. “Not that I’d blame you. The boy is hot.”
Kendra laughed softly. “He was being nice. As a coach should. But that’s all there was to it. They just played it up. Like you said, for ratings.”
“I believe you. And I think the guys do too. Randi, on the other hand, is on the warpath. She’s tearing into Jax right now.”
Kendra opened her eyes wide. “What?”
“Randi went into a tirade after you came up. Jax walked in and she started in on him. He made us all leave before she got too far.”
She’d barely finished sighing before the door opened and then slammed shut. Randi narrowed her eyes at Kendra, but walked in without a word. The silence was tense as Randi stomped across the room to the bathroom and slammed that door also.
Shera smiled. “That went well.”
Kendra rolled her eyes and flopped onto her bed.
Jax walked into the silent dining room. “Let’s get this over with.” He didn’t have to elaborate on what he meant. The elephant was crushing everyone in the room. “I didn’t do for Kendra what I wouldn’t do for any of you. You’re my team. I’m your coach. You have doubts, I’m here to push you through them. Not all conversations are intended for national television. Kendra’s concerns were private, and I respect that. So will you. All of you.” He looked at Randi, leaving no doubt who he was talking to. “When you have doubts, and you all will at some point in this process, I’d do the same damn thing for you. Questions?”
He focused on Kendra. She didn’t look relieved by his speech, she looked even more embarrassed. But she’d have to deal with it. He hadn’t intended for it to look like he was playing favorites, but the producers had seen it that way. Some were thrilled, some were furious, and some were latching on to what they perceived as a blooming romance.
“We’ll monitor audience response before telling you how to proceed.” That’s what one of the producers had said during the impromptu meeting after the show had been recorded. The live audience had been split three ways—angry, indifferent, and excited at the prospect of the trouble an on-screen romance would cause.
“What romance?” Jax had insisted. “There is no romance. She was crying. What was I supposed to do?”
His denial was met with skeptical glances and a few knowing smirks.
Seeing Kendra now, he couldn’t deny he felt a connection to her, but most of that was because she was the only person on his team who seemed real. Pete was trapped in the 50s, Randi was so full of herself she couldn’t see anything else, Shera was nice enough but desperate to hang onto her youth, and Dominic spent all his time trying to convince Jax to introduce him one record producer or another despite the restrictions on Jax’s abilities as a coach for the show.
Kendra was the only one who he could talk to about real things. Non-super-star things. That was nice. She was nice. And genuine. And pretty. And easy to talk to. And…
And all the sudden he realized why the producers would think there was more to his relationship with his contestant. He forced his eyes from her to scan the rest of his team. “Glad we got that settled,” he said. “Let’s eat.”
He made sure that he didn’t get in line behind Kendra as the team headed for the buffet the chef had set up. He frowned at the food choices. Grilled chicken. Again. Steamed veggies. Again. What he wouldn’t give for a big ol’ hamburger and some homemade fries. He’d hit the kitchen up after everyone headed upstairs. He didn’t care what the production team thought—this healthy eating wasn’t what all stars wanted.
He’d gladly do a few extra sit ups in exchange for a good meal.
He put enough food on his plate to carry him over for the next few hours and when he sat at the head of the table, he noticed Kendra had sat as far away from him as possible. Good. That was good. It was best to keep some distance between them. But damned if he couldn’t stop glancing her way as he suffered through his meal.
Kendra was starving. Starving. And the smell of whatever was cooking called out to her. She tiptoed her way to the kitchen, determined to find out what was cooking and if there was enough for two.
She rounded the corner and sighed. Jax. Of course it was Jax.
“Don’t slink away,” he said.
She thought she’d gone unnoticed. Easing from the shadows, she frowned with disappointment at seeing only one hamburger in the pan. “I figure it’s best not to be seen alone after today’s debacle.”
“Debacle is a strong word.”
She eased at onto a barstool. “What’d you call it?”
She chuckled, and he grabbed a second plate from the cabinet. “Oh, I don’t…”
“Don’t lie. I know you hate the food here as much as I do.”
She smiled. “I’ve been craving a burger for days.”
“Me too. And pizza. If there had been a single slice of pepperoni in this house, we’d be having a deep dish right now.”
She lifted her brows. “I’m sure someone could smuggle pepperoni in here somehow.”
“I’m going to get a few things added to the menu.”
“Please do. I don’t know how these people live like this.” She inhaled appreciatively as he slid a plate to her with half his burger and fries piled on. “Are you sure?”
He didn’t have to tell her twice. She picked up her half of his sandwich and took a big bite and moaning with pleasure. “Oh my god,” she said around the food in her mouth. “That’s so good.”
He nodded his agreement instead of talking with his mouth full, and she put her hand to her lips.
“Sorry,” she said after swallowing.
He chuckled as he turned to the fridge. He pulled out two beers, popping the tops, before handing her one. “I’m the one who should be apologizing.”
He swallowed a drink before exhaling loudly. “I brought this drama raining down on you. I wasn’t thinking when I pulled you away from the cameras the other night. And I wasn’t thinking when I ran up to hug you after your performance. I was just so damn proud to see you let those walls down, I didn’t think.”
It was her turn to let out a soft laugh. “Drama seems to rain down on me wherever I go, Jax. It’s not you. It’s my karma.”
She let her smile fade a bit as she shook her head. “Sometimes I think I really must have done somebody wrong in my last life.”
He leaned on the counter, pushing his beer aside. “I feel that way sometimes.”
His confession surprised her.
“You kind of have it all, don’t you?”
He shrugged as she shoved a fry in her mouth. “I guess that depends on what you consider ‘it all.’ I have money. I have fame. I have success. I don’t have the woman I thought I loved. I don’t have most of the people I thought were friends. I don’t have a moment of privacy to mourn those things. My life is for show.” He nodded his head to the side to where the cameraman was focused on him. “Twenty-four seven, now. At least for a while. So. I guess to some people I have it all. To me, I lost an awful lot to have a little.”
She gave him half a smile. “It’s hard enough to know who is real when you’re flat broke and barely making it. Must be a thousand times harder when you’re successful.”
“It used to be.” He grabbed his burger again. “I’m getting better at spotting the fakes.”
The wink he gave her seemed to imply he was excluding her from that group but she was too aware of the camera on them and not allowing herself to gush at his charms to ask.
She returned her focus on her fries. “So, um, I was thinking maybe you shouldn’t stand by the deal we made.”
“That I’d sing Stronger if you agreed to make next week classic rock week. I don’t want the team to think you’re cutting me a break, especially after the tension we had today.”
“I agree.” He took a bite, but this time, opted out of the good manners he’d used before and followed her lead by speaking with his mouth full. “I’m thinking I should choose something you’d all hate.”
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment before swallowing. “Country western.”
She cursed and rolled her eyes as he threw his head back and laughed.