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Own the Stage

 

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EXCERPT:

“Is it all worth it?”

Immediately defensive, though she wasn’t sure why, she played dumb. “What do you mean?”

“The schedule. The headaches. The insomnia.”

She tensed as he ticked off the negative points she couldn’t argue. After days of nothing but pillow talk and laughter, the harsh reminder of reality stung. Pasting a teasing smile on her lips, she fluttered her lashes and attempted to head off the unpleasant direction the conversation had taken. “We’ve cured the insomnia, remember?”

He didn’t smile as she’d hoped. “What about the headaches?”

“Those, too.” With the way he seemed to spot whenever a migraine came on, he had to have noticed she’d been headache free since they’d been in the woods. Only time would tell if they would return once she was back onstage, but the tone of his questions made her nervous. “Where’s this going, Max?”

He shifted to his side so she came to rest on her back, her head cradled on his forearm. None of the easy laughter of the last few days shown in his somber eyes. “I’m curious. That first night at my condo, you spoke about your mother’s death and of owing your father for helping you attain her dream of seeing you on stage, but you said nothing about the dream being yours.”

Nerves skidded into unease and her stomach plummeted. With less than twelve hours left before they had to leave, she could think of a thousand things she’d rather do than discuss her career or her meltdown last week. Obviously, Max was of a different opinion.

“What kind of question is that?” Try as she might, some of her tension leaked out, making her answer curt. “I’ve worked damned hard to make it to where I am.”

He leaned over her, his gaze steady as it held hers. “I’m not questioning your talent or your drive. You have more of both than anyone I’ve ever met. You shine when you stand before an audience, Jess. I’ve never seen anyone own the stage the way you do, but I’ve also seen the fear in your eyes before each performance.”

She shrugged a shoulder as if the gut-wrenching terror gripping her each time she stepped on the stage was no big deal. “Lots of performers suffer from stage fright. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there.” The claim sounded defensive even to her.

He nodded, as if he agreed, but didn’t back down from his line of questioning. “And afterward? The headaches and insomnia? Where do those come from? Because there hasn’t been a stage in sight for five days and suddenly they’re gone.”

Damn it. Did he think she hadn’t noticed? Didn’t wish there was a viable solution to make the stress and unhappiness go away? Angry tears of desperation threatened, and she avoided his gaze by rolling her head to the side. The best defense was a good offense. Several deep breaths helped her gain control and she went on attack. “Why all the questions? Is this another of your attempts to prepare me for when you’re gone?”

The question had been a red herring, designed to knock him off track, but the flash of guilt in his eyes told her she’d hit the bull’s eye.

He sighed. “In a way, I guess it is, but you came to me for help. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“How? By pissing me off?” She attempted to roll away from him. He threw a thigh over both of hers and held her where she was.

“By asking the questions you should be asking yourself.” He swept his thumb over her cheek in a gentle caress. “You claim you’re losing yourself. How can you find your way to where you want to be without looking at where you’ve been?”

Her attempt at diversion had only added hurt to an already uncomfortable conversation. Maybe sarcasm was the answer. “Geez, who are you, Dr. Phil?”

He didn’t bite. Saying nothing, he continued to hold her pinned beneath him.

Damn it, why couldn’t he just drop it? What was the point? Every dream came with sacrifices and hardships. The important ones anyway. Her mother hadn’t survived to see hers realized. That made her dream more important than most.

Jessi slid her eyelids shut against his intent gaze. “I have to sing, Max. If I couldn’t, my soul would shrivel up and die.” She opened her eyes. “Are you suggesting I give it up?”

His gaze softened, and he shook his head. “Not at all. If singing is what you need, then do it. All I’m suggesting is you take a good hard look at your life and consider your options. Figure out what’s holding you back from being happy. Find out what it is you want and then make it happen.”

The earnest concern in his eyes warmed her heart. She lifted her hand to cup his bristled cheek. “Haven’t I made it perfectly clear what I want?”

“Jessi.” He wrapped his fingers around her wrist and tugged her hand away from his face before letting go.

“Max.” She held his gaze until he dropped his chin to his chest and sighed.

The marked pain on his face slashed at her like knives. After the emotional jarring he’d just given her, evidence the past two days hadn’t made a bit of difference in his plans really did piss her off.

Sliding his arm from beneath her head, he flopped onto his back to stare at the ceiling.

She rolled her head and stared at his profile. “At least I’m honest about what I want.”

“Are you? When you’re afraid to even look at a reality that’s making you ill?”

Her slow, indrawn breath didn’t fully deflect the hurt. She rose on her elbow and leaned over him. “What about you, hopping from woman to woman while getting your family fix through my family’s gatherings.”

His eyes sliced to her, full of heat at her cruel words.

Too hurt and angry to care, she pressed on before he could reply. “What kind of existence is that? Don’t you want more than a borrowed family? Don’t you want one you can call your own?”

He bared his teeth in a smile that didn’t come close to reaching his eyes. “I’ll stick with borrowed. I’ve had some experience with real family.” He pushed up to sit on the edge of the bed. The muscles of his back bunched as he leaned forward. “In my experience, they’re not worth the effort.”

Sarcasm aside, the underlying anger in his words cooled hers. She curled her fingers around his arm before he could stand. “I’m sorry, Max. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Her fingers slid away as he bent to pick up his briefs and stood.

“Your family’s friendship means a lot to me. I’ve never hidden that fact, but they aren’t a stand in for a family of my own.” He stepped into his briefs, tugged them up his legs, and over his hips. “Not everyone is cut out for picket fences and kids, Squirt. In fact, in most cases, the world is better off when bad blood isn’t passed on.” He headed for the door. “Get some sleep. We have an early flight in the morning.”

She stared at his back as he disappeared down the stairs. Bad blood? What the hell?

Players series available in all formats @ Lyrical Shine button