Jax hadn’t been kidding when he threatened to make the theme of the next week Country Western. The choice was supposed to be punishment to the entire group for the drama of the week before. That included Kendra—only because he couldn’t single her out—but he should have known better.
Country Western and guitar went hand in hand. She even managed to get around the whole cowgirl thing. He should have seen that coming. “No.”
“What do you mean no?” Kendra demanded.
He frowned at her. She was so damned resistant to branching out. “Darlin’, you are trying me.”
She laughed. “How so? This is Country Western week. Can you get more Country Western than Johnny Cash?”
“You mean The Man in Black?” He gestured toward her black jeans and T-shirt. “Way to push yourself, Ken.”
Grabbing her guitar, she gave him a defiant look before strumming the strings and belting out the first line of “Bird on a Wire.” He sank back in his chair and listened. Damn if she wasn’t singing one of the most beautiful renditions of the song he’d ever heard. Soulful and humble and filled with the pain of someone begging for forgiveness. The natural grain in her voice added a depth to the words and brought goosebumps to his skin. Damn it, he couldn’t tell her not to perform the song. This would definitely get her into the next round.
When she was done, she looked at him and grinned. “That was my mom’s favorite song. I sang it at her funeral, and I haven’t sung it since. So. It’s growth. Even if you can’t see it.”
He smiled. “All right. Johnny Cash, it is.”
“I thought you’d see it my way.”
If she kept serenading him like that, she could make him see anything her way. Yeah, he was in a little bit of trouble here. He wasn’t going to play favorites, but he couldn’t help but feel that Kendra was the most talented—and most deserving—member of his team. And that was going to skew his views whether he intended to or not.
This was a hell of a predicament.
“What?” she asked, pulling him from his thoughts.
Her lip ticked up in half a smile. “You’re staring off into space like you don’t know how to tell me my dog died.”
He chuckled. “You have a dog back home?”
“Then I guess I got out of that one.”
Her smile faded. “What are you thinking, Jax?”
“You can do this. You can make it to the end. But I’m worried I may not be the one to get you there.”
She creased her brow and he wasn’t sure if she was confused or hurt. Maybe a little of both. “Why?”
He drew a breath. “I don’t think I’m pushing you as hard as you should be pushed.”
She fell back in her chair, letting the guitar rest on its back across her thighs. “You want me to do Dolly Parton?”
Jax laughed. “No.”
“I’ve practiced ‘Jolene’ a few times. Want to hear it?”
“No. You picked the right song. You were born to sing that song.”
She chuckled. “That could be a slight overstatement, but I’m glad you see it my way. So why do you look so stressed?”
He subtly tilted his head toward the camera and she lifted her brows, letting him know she got it. They weren’t talking about this in front of the cameras. But when weren’t they in front of the cameras? And after the tension their last attempt to have alone time caused, he wasn’t tempting fate again. He couldn’t risk Kendra taking any more heat than she had already. He didn’t want her getting punished by the team or the judges because of he was inexplicably drawn to her.
Instead of responding, she tilted her guitar back up and starting singing again. Refocusing on the task at hand, he put his internal debate on the backburner and started doing his job—coaching his team member so she could give the best performance possible.
Kendra wished she could take back the off the cuff confession she’d made to Jax. Sometimes she simply forgot that cameras were monitoring her every move and catching her every word. But she’d said it. She’d told him she’d sung “Bird on a Wire” for her mother’s funeral and now the producers were determined to hear the story for the pre-recorded intro to her performance.
She’d seen people breaking down on these shows a thousand times and always rolled her eyes at the outpouring of emotion, but there she was, sitting in the spotlight with tears in her eyes, trying to hold back the emotional storm as she remembered her mother lying in a hospital bed.
Her sister had emailed a few photos that undoubtedly would be spliced in over her tale of her mother’s cancer battle.
She hated this, damn it, but as she started talking about the promise she’d made her mother to keep singing, the tears that had she’d been fighting won and ran down her cheeks before she could stop them.
“Sorry,” she whispered as she turned from the camera as a thousand contestants had done before. “This is still a little raw.”
“I think that’s enough,” Jax said from somewhere.
She sighed as she wiped her cheeks even faster, trying to pull herself together before he saw any more of this mess. But then he was kneeling in front of her, a handful of tissues at the ready.
She laughed slightly as she took one. “What are you doing here?”
He frowned as he looked over his shoulder then leaned close enough to whisper. “I’d say that I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure they were waiting for this. They knew I couldn’t let you sit here and cry.”
She rolled her eyes. One slip, one unintentional moment between them had started a craze that there was a budding romance. Though Kendra and the other contestants were cut off from the Internet and most of the outside world, when she’d called her sister to ask for photos, she’d said the possibility of romance was all anyone was talking about—at home and online.
The producers were going to stoke this for all they could. The thing was, she wasn’t that upset about them trying to put her and Jax in these situations together. She was more worried about upsetting her teammates or getting Jax kicked off the show for abusing his power—or whatever—as a judge.
“Jerks,” she whispered in return.
He smiled and she wiped her face. Sitting back, she sighed. “You know I always thought those people who sit in front of the camera sobbing were looking for sympathy, but damned if you guys don’t know how to twist emotions around.” Taking a deep breath, she exhaled. “I’m okay. I’m good. Let’s finish this interview so you can break the next contestant.” She grabbed Jax’s hand before he could stand. “Thanks, but I’m okay. I can get through this.”
He nodded, stuffed another tissue in her hand, and disappeared behind the bright lights with all the other people in the room. Kendra took a breath and nodded at the interviewer, letting him know she was ready to keep going.
Jax smiled. He’d hoped Kendra would sneak down for another midnight snack. Closing the refrigerator door as she stopped in the kitchen doorway, he did his best to hide his excitement. “Brutal day,” he said as he lifted up two beers. “Thought you could use this.”
She smiled in return and his chest did that stupid fluttering thing that tended to happen when he was around her. “I’ve been through worse, but I never turn down a good drink.”
“I am. Thanks. I don’t suppose you managed to get any more junk food into the house. I tried at dinner, but I can’t seem to stuff down my emotions with carrots.”
He held up a hand as if to quiet her, then looked around, making sure they were alone—as alone as anyone could get in a house filled with cameramen, anyway. Then he went into the pantry and produced a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa.
“Perfection,” she said sitting at the counter.
He poured the salsa into a bowl as she popped the tops on their drinks. He sat next to her and gestured for her dig in.
She dipped a chip and shoved the entire thing her mouth. “Wow. That’s good.”
Jax nodded. “I had to flown in from Texas.”
She stopped chewing and stared at him. Finally, she brushed her hands together. “You had salsa flown in from Texas?”
“And the chips. Good, huh?”
She laughed. “I didn’t know you could fly in chips and salsa.”
He grinned as he reached for the chips. “I should have kept that bit to myself.”
“No. No. I’m glad you did. This is a hell of a lot better than hummus and celery.”
“I just didn’t know people actually did that.”
He chuckled as a twinge of embarrassment started creeping in. Kendra was real. She was an everyday person. He hadn’t been in a long time, and in that moment, he realized just how far he’d come from the Southern boy who used to bale hay for his grandfather every summer. But in a way he hadn’t. “One of the first things I did when I got some money was buy my mama a restaurant. She’s the best cook I know.”
“This is hers?”
He nodded. “She made this batch special for me.”
Her smile widened and some of her disbelief faded into something tender. “My mom use to make this coffee cake with candied pecan crumble. That cake would just melt in your mouth.” Her eyes grew sad. “I never learned how to bake that cake and she never wrote down the recipe. I wish I had stopped living my mess of a life for just five minutes and asked her to write it down.”
She closed her eyes, but he saw the sheen of tears there before she did. Putting his hand on hers, he whispered his condolences and made a mental note to ask his mom to send Kendra a cake. After the contest had ended.
With a shake her head, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Tell me more about your mom.”
Leaning on the counter, he chuckled before delving into tales from his childhood.
Kendra took a deep breath as she stood just off-stage waiting for her turn to perform. Martin had shooed her teammates away from the screens, making sure there was no chance Randi could once again cause a scene based on what the producers had cut together. Unfortunately, Ken had to watch it. A two-minute intro with her talking about growing up and her mother’s death, Jax comforting her with a handful of tissues, a cute little quip from her to wrap it all up, and then the host bellowed out her name.
Taking one more deep, steadying breath, she walked out to the mic.
The emotions hit her hard. Nerves. Grief. Fear. She looked down, focusing on the guitar in her hand. She had to play the first chord before the backup band would kick in and her performance could being. Until she did that, the entire stadium was silent.
Save for the murmuring starting to come from the darkness where the audience was watching.
She lifted her hand, but couldn’t quite bring herself to touch the strings. Another breath, another moment to prepare.
Turning, she looked up at the big screen behind her. The one filled with a giant image of her with her arm draped around her mom’s shoulder. The urge to cry hit her. The urge to run. The urge to hide like she always did when things got too hard.
“You got this, Kenny,” Jax called from the judge’s table. His words were followed by sporadic cheering from the darkness.
Holding up her hand, she silently requested the audience quiet down. They did.
She looked offstage to where Martin had a clear sense of panic on his face. “When I would sing this for my mom, I didn’t have a band or a guitar.” She lifted the strap over her head and sat her instrument in the stand. “It was just me. So, um…” glancing back at the band, “if y’all don’t mind. Just sit this one out.”
Martin waved his hands, dismissing her request—this wasn’t how they had rehearsed her performance all week—but the band was already stepping back from their instruments.
Kendra closed her eyes, braced herself, and let the song loose knowing it wasn’t the most polished rendition she could have done. But as she sang, she didn’t care. She was thinking of her mother, of summers spent on a farm in Iowa, of the smells of coffee cake and sneaking bites before dinner hoping she wouldn’t get caught. She pictured herself sitting at the table, shucking corn while singing with her mom, fighting to replace the memory of singing this song while dressed in black and standing next to a casket.
The last note fell, and she could have sworn she heard Mama say, “That’s the way, Kenny. That’s how it’s sung.”
Then the sound of applause startled her. She jolted–she’d forgotten the audience was there.
Sighing heavily, she bowed just a bit and waited for the judge’s responses. B.G. Daze, the rapper, clapped and told her she’d done more with that one song than she’d done all season. Colbee Hardy wiped her eyes and said she couldn’t remember the last time someone on this show had made her cry. But Jax smiled and simply said, “You did her proud, Kenny.”
She choked on what was probably her hundredth bout of tears that week and whispered her thanks before leaving stage.
Jax couldn’t wait to catch up with his team. They’d all kicked butt with this week’s theme. Sure, he thought Kendra did the best, but he was proud of all of them. This wasn’t the easiest week for any of them, but they’d all pulled it off.
He had just gotten backstage, stripped of all the microphones and gadgets he had to wear while sitting in the judge’s chair, but before he could meet his team, the same producer stopped him that had stood in his way last week.
“Come on, man,” Jax said. “What now, Dave?”
“Come with me.” Dave led Jax to a small room away from all the other hosts.
Martin, the fidgety assistant who kept his team on track was there, and Jax’s stomach rolled a bit. He was wondering how long before they put an end to his and Kendra’s late night meetings in the kitchen. Looked like the ax was falling more quickly than he’d anticipated.
“Sit.” Dave gestured to the table where Martin was.
“Look, guys,” he started, hoping to work his way out of being told he could no longer have one-on-ones at midnight over junk food. “I know we’re not allowed to pick favorites, and that’s not what’s happening here.”
“What is happening?” Dave asked. “Between you and Miss Michaels?”
Jax creased his brow. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. She’s nice. That’s it.” He looked between Dave and Martin. “That’s it,” he insisted when they cast him disbelieving looks.
Dave slid a folder across the table and waited for Jax to open it. “This is just a sampling of what’s happening online, Jax.”
“Mandry? What the hell kind of stupidity is that?”
“That’s the pet name for you and Kendra being tossed around social media. You two have a following.”
Jax leaned back and sighed. He’d been down this road before. As soon as he and his ex-wife made their relationship public—back before it all turned to crap—they’d had a following, too. Diehard fans who turned against him as soon as the relationship crumbled. “Great.”
“They want to see more of you two. We monitored the social sites during her performance tonight. Off. The. Charts. They want you guys together.”
Jax shook his head. “No.”
“What do you mean no?” Dave asked.
“I’m not putting Ken through that. This has been hard enough on her already. She doesn’t like being center of attention and this,” he shoved the file, “is way worse than just being a favored contestant. These people will pick her apart if she even thinks about straying from how they think she should act. She’s not cut out for that.”
“That’s the price, Jax. She came here looking for fame. Fame comes with fanbases. Some of them more finicky than others.”
“Yeah, trust me, I know. That’s why I’m here, remember? One of those finicky fanbases crushed my career when my marriage fell apart. I’m not putting Kendra through that.”
Dave put his palms on the table. “I don’t think you’re hearing me, Jax. Fans equal ratings. Ratings equal keeping this show on the air. This wasn’t expected, but this is what’s happening and we’re running with it.”
He lifted his brows. “We’re running with it?”
“Martin will make sure there are more opportunities for you and Kendra to have those deep conversations your fans love so much. We want to see you guys opening up, getting to know each other. Running off from the cameras for a few minutes alone. They loved that.”
Jax sat back and sighed. “I’m not toying with her emotions so you can get your share of the Nielsens.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” Dave asked. “Toying with her?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you won’t be now. Look, I’m not suggesting you lie to her or manipulate her. Just keep doing what you’re doing. With our blessing.”
“Does she know you’ve given your blessing?”
“No.” Dave stood upright and crossed his arms. “And she won’t.”
“How am I supposed to be fair to the rest of my team if you want me focused on Kendra?”
“We’re not worried about your team,” Dave said flatly.
Martin leaned forward and smiled, and Jax was certain he heard a rattler give a warning in his mind. That distinct sound that let someone know they were in danger. “Look, Jax, I’m here to help with the team. That’s my job. I’ll make sure everyone gets their sessions in with you. I’ll make sure you have all the time you need to help them. Let me worry about all that. You just focus on seeing where this thing with Kendra is going. If it’s going anywhere at all. You know, maybe you two are just meant to be really good friends. If so, that’s okay. It is. Really. We’ll support that. But you deserve to see, don’t you? After all the two of you have been through, you deserve this chance. Take it. We’re giving it to you.”
Jax laughed softly, but he wasn’t amused. He was stunned. “And if I don’t. If I say thanks but no thanks?”
Dave narrowed his eyes a bit. “Then I’d say it’s probably best to get rid of a contestant who is manipulating a judge to gain favors. Wouldn’t you?”
“You’d send her home?” Jax clarified.
Dave nodded once. One definitive move.
Another unamused laugh as Jax shook his head. “Fine. What do you want me to do?”
In case you are unfamiliar with “Bird on a Wire:”