No Small Parts

No Small Parts is book #16 in Riptide Publishing’s Bluewater Bay universe. You can read it as a standalone book without missing anything, but trust me, you’ll want to read the other Bluewater Bay books. I haven’t read all of them yet, but so far, every single one I’ve read has been, without fail, incredible. No Small Parts is available in ebook and print from Riptide Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your other favorite 3rd party retailers.

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nosmallparts_200x300 Nat Horn is almost living the dream. His part as a werewolf extra on the hit show Wolf’s Landing has somehow turned into a regular role. Beautiful rising star Solari Praveen has taken an interest in him. He’s even making enough money to think about getting out of Bluewater Bay someday. Except his retired dad’s dependence on pain medications seems to be getting worse, and Nat’s the only one around to take care of him.

When Nat learns that Solari’s interest isn’t romantic, his disappointment is surprisingly short-lived, because in getting to know her, he also got to know her assistant, Rafael. And Rafael turns out to be the kind of friend—and potential boyfriend—Nat never dared to dream about.

Distracted by his astonishing new life, new friends, and new possibilities, Nat lets his guard down, and suddenly his life goes careening out of control. Racked by guilt, he tries to push his new friends away, but the bonds he’s formed are already too strong. In fact, they’re strong enough to pull him forward, into the future he’s been longing for—but to get there, he’ll have to let go of the past.

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© Copyright 2016 Ally Blue

“Nat. Wake up.”

Nathaniel brushed a vague hand at whatever dream person was bugging him. “Go ’way.”

“You’re already late. You have to get up.”

Wait. He knew that voice. Low, scratchy, nervous.

So. Not a dream.

Odds were he wasn’t actually late, but he couldn’t avoid dealing with his dad when he got insistent.

Nat forced himself upright, hauled his eyelids open, and squinted at the ancient clock radio on his bedside table. The skull sticker he’d stuck on the table’s peeling paint in high school glared back at him with its one remaining eye socket. “Christ, Dad. It’s only seven thirty in the morning.”

“You said you had to be on set at six thirty. You’re an hour late already.” Jerome Horn nudged Nat’s chest with a thin, trembling finger. “They’re going to fire you, and then where will we be?”

“I have to be there at 6:30 p.m. It’s a night shoot. Like last night. Remember? I didn’t get home till three in the morning? Which was four and a half hours ago?”

Realization dawned on his father’s face, followed by a flood of guilt, and Nat wished he’d kept his mouth shut. He knew his dad had a hard time remembering his Wolf’s Landing shooting schedule, in spite of the paper stuck on the rust-spotted fridge with Wolf’s Landing magnets. Hell, Nat had trouble himself sometimes. He’d worked nights before. But his part-time werewolf gig on Bluewater Bay’s wildly popular TV series had him going from indoor daytime set shoots to midnight forest shoots and back again. It was crazy and sometimes exhausting.

Worth it, he thought, picturing the barely controlled chaos that somehow created weekly magic.

The money was nothing to sneeze at either, considering the sporadic nature of the work and how little other income he had.

Nat’s father edged toward the door. “Sorry. You go on back to sleep.”

God, he wanted to, but . . . “What’re you gonna do?”

“Me? Oh, don’t worry about your old dad. I’ll keep myself occupied.”

Last time his dad said that, Nat had found him curled up in agony on the hall floor, where he’d fallen after getting a bad muscle spasm while trying to fix the broken hinge on his bedroom door. No way was Nat letting that happen again.

“Naw, I think I’m gonna get up and make breakfast.” Nat kicked the covers aside, stood, and stretched. “You want some scrambled eggs?”

“I’m not really hungry.”

“C’mon, Dad. You know you can’t take your Flexeril on an empty stomach.” Nat glanced sideways at his father as they left the bedroom and started across the squeaky old floor to the kitchen. Food or no food didn’t really matter with Flexeril, but sometimes this was the only way Nat could get his dad to eat. The logging accident four years ago had robbed him of his appetite as well as his health. “I can make pancakes if you’d rather have that.”

A rare spark of interest lit the elder Horn’s eyes. “I do love pancakes.”

“I know.” Nat rubbed a hand between his father’s shoulder blades. Gently, so the touch wouldn’t trigger any of the muscle spasms that had plagued him since the accident. “Go lie down on the couch. I’ll bring you your pancakes on the TV tray, okay?”

“All right.” His dad smiled. “Thanks, son.”

“Sure.”

His father shuffled off to the sagging old sofa, and Nat went to the kitchen to gather supplies for a pancake breakfast. He got out the eggs, milk, and pancake mix, found a bowl in the top cabinet, then wrestled the pancake turner out of the drawer that wouldn’t ever stay on track. Jesus, this kitchen was falling apart. Probably because it was older than him and his dad put together. Nothing worked anymore.

“Nat?”

“Hmm?”

“You heard from Abby lately?”

He planted both palms on the counter and clenched his teeth until the usual surge of anger passed. He’d never blamed his sister for running off with her boyfriend all those years ago. She and their dad had never gotten along, mostly because he’d always subtly discouraged her dreams. Implied that her place was here in Bluewater Bay looking after her family, not out in the world making something of herself. Nat had been thirteen when she left, old enough that he’d understood her side of things. Old enough that he’d also understood all the ways their father treated him differently than he treated Abby.

Then the accident had happened, and she hadn’t come back. Not even for a little while, to help him get situated. She’d sent money, which he’d needed and resented. But she’d left Nat to deal with it. She’d gone on with her awesome life in New York, while Nat had left behind his tiny Port Angeles apartment with the gorgeous mountain view and the lawn-maintenance job he’d enjoyed to move back home and become his father’s caretaker.

No, he didn’t blame Abby for leaving. But he’d never forgiven her for not coming back.

Sometimes she’d email him. Occasionally he’d email her back. But they would never be as close as they’d been as children. Her staying away lay between them like the Grand Canyon.

“Nat?”

He closed his eyes. Breathed deep. Blew it out and opened his eyes again. “I got an email the other day, yeah. She’s expanding the shop, and Colin got a showing at some super popular gallery.”

His father let out a gravelly laugh. “Well, I’m glad for ’em, though I don’t understand why people buy that modern art. The way I see it, if it’s something I could’ve painted, it ain’t art, you know?”

Nat kept his own opinions behind his teeth. He didn’t want to think about Colin and his ugly fucking paintings, or how happy he and Abby were and how great their life was. The bitterness might drown him.

Turning his thoughts to Wolf’s Landing instead, he took the crappy store-brand coffee out of the cabinet and focused on brewing a pot.

* * *

“Cut! Perfect.” The director, Anna, flashed her wide grin around at the Wolf’s Landing cast and crew. “All right, people, that’s a wrap. Great job, everybody.”

The silence surrounding the take broke into talk and laughter as the actors drifted toward the makeup trailers in the parking area down the road, while the crew started breaking down the set. They’d been out in the forest for more than six hours, shooting the last bit of a particularly dramatic episode, and it was now nearly one in the morning. Everybody was anxious to put another late Friday shoot behind them and get some sleep.

Everyone but Nat. Tired as he was, he didn’t want to leave. Not yet.

He loved the woods. Loved the quiet of it, the wet-earth smell of it, the way the branches always dripped water down the back of his neck even if it hadn’t rained lately. Night was the best time to be out here, especially when the moon was full and the sky was clear. Ever since he was a kid, he’d loved stretching out in the damp mulch under the trees and gazing up at the stars glittering between the leaves.

Of course, these days he had a brighter star to watch.

He ducked his head and pretended to be busy on his phone when Solari Praveen hurried by, her stride quick and determined like it always was. She was so close he caught a whiff of her perfume as she passed. Something softly spicy, like vanilla and cloves. He lifted his gaze to watch her go up to Anna and start talking, gesturing with her hands. She was a tiny thing, probably a foot shorter than him, everything about her small and delicate, yet she projected power and fierceness with every movement. Her thick black hair flowed and shimmered in the moonlight, the ends brushing the curve of her waist. Simply looking at her made his heart pound so hard it hurt.

He stood there, knees shaking and pulse thumping at the base of his throat, trying to get his shit together before she could turn around and spot him. Sure, he wanted her to notice him, only he didn’t. At least, not like this, all sweaty and nervous and tongue-tied. If she so much as glanced his way right now, he’d probably faint or piss his pants. And wouldn’t that make a great impression?

At least she’s a woman. You don’t have to be so careful if you get together.

He stifled a snicker. Yeah, like that was gonna happen.

“Hey, Horn Dog.”

Startled, Nat spun around too fast and almost tripped. He glared at his friend Suzanne, who laughed. “It’s not funny, Suz.”

“It kind of is.” She peered over his shoulder, hands in her jeans pockets. “You still crushing on Stargirl?”

That was none of her damn business, so he didn’t answer. “Don’t call me that. I hate it.”

Her smile twisted, turning sharp. “I’ll trade you. Don’t call me Fag Hag, I won’t call you Horn Dog.”

He wrinkled his nose. Or at least, tried to. The werewolf prosthetics got in the way. “Fine. But if you don’t want me to call you that, you have got to stop trying to set me up with guys.”

She tilted her head sideways, making her look like a puppy on account of her two high-set ponytails. “Huh? But I did so good last time. You and Lem dated for, like, six months. That’s a record for you.”

It was. And for a while, it had been great. Then Lem had started getting more serious than Nat was comfortable with. When he’d said so, Lem had called him emotionally unavailable, Nat had countered with “Fuck you,” and their sort-of relationship had slammed head-on into the breakup wall.

Of course, his father’s constant nagging at Nat to Stop with the gay stuff, why can’t you find a woman since you ain’t particular, hadn’t helped. Might have even given the relationship car a nudge downhill. But Nat didn’t blame his dad. Especially since cutting ties with Lem had been more of a relief than a heartbreak.

Not that he was telling Suz any of that.

He cast a cautious glance around at the dwindling crowd. Anna caught his eye for a brief second and raised her eyebrows at him, as if to ask if all was well. He waved and smiled, then edged closer to Suz and dropped his voice. “I don’t want everyone here to know I’m bi, that’s all.”

Suz narrowed her eyes. “Since when have you been in the closet?”

“I’m not. I just don’t want everybody knowing. You know?”

“Uh-huh. You like your privacy. I get it.”

They’d been friends long enough that he knew she did, in spite of her teasing tone. “And I hate ‘Horn Dog’ even more now than I did in high school, so, c’mon. Please?”

“Yeah, okay.” She held out her hand. “Shake.”

He shook. They smiled at each other, and he felt better.

He plopped down onto a mossy tree trunk. Suz settled herself beside him. They sat and watched in silence as the crew hauled away the lights, the generators, the cameras, and the bits of set that took the forest from its usual verdant beauty into something otherworldly. Solari walked beside Anna, keeping pace with the taller woman’s longer stride and talking nonstop, her hands in constant motion.

Solari’s assistant sidled up to her and handed her a large mug of something that sent steam curling into the chilly night air. He caught Nat’s eye and smiled. Nat nodded back, feeling like he’d been spotlighted. Why did the guy smile at him?

Suz grinned. “Are you flirting?”

“What? No. Being friendly, is all. I mean, he smiled at me, so . . .” He watched the assistant—what the hell was the guy’s name, anyway?—accept Solari’s distracted thanks with a nod, then hurry away again to do whatever assistants to TV stars did all day. He glanced Nat’s way again. Favored him with another smile. He had dimples. “He’s cute, though.”

Suz cut him a sly look. “He’s gay, you know.”

Jesus Christ. Nat resisted the urge to hide his face in his hands. “So?”

“So, you should talk to him.”

He almost laughed. Cute Assistant Guy might be a mere flunky, but he was still so far out of Nat’s league it was stupid. “Yeah, no. I don’t think so.”

“Suit yourself.” Suz took his hand and squeezed. “So. When’re you gonna make your move?”

“What’d I just say?”

“On Solari, moron.”

“Oh.” The very idea gave him hives. “Never. I’ll admire from afar until I get over it.”

Suz snorted. “Way to go there, champ.”

“Shut up.” He watched, heart aching, as the woman he longed for said goodnight to Anna with a wave and a dazzling smile, then headed for the trailers in the parking area, where taking off her makeup wouldn’t involve anything more than some cold cream. “She’d laugh in my face.”

“No, she wouldn’t.”

Impossible hope rose in Nat’s heart, threaded through with pure terror. He stomped it down, because, come on. “You can’t tell me she’d actually go out with me.”

“How the hell do I know? But she’s way too nice to laugh at you.”

“Wait, you know her?” There went that crazy, scary hope again. He told himself to stop it.

Suz shook her head. “Naw, not really. I’ve met her, though, when I got sent over to help out with makeup to the stars that one time. She was super nice to me. And everybody else always says she’s really cool and down-to-earth.”

He was still turning that over in his head, wondering what to do with it, when Anna walked over, hands in her jacket pockets. “Hi, Nat. Suz.”

They both scrambled to their feet. “Hi, Anna.” Nat still felt weird calling the director by her first name, but she insisted, and everyone else did it, so he did too. “What’s up?”

“I’d like to talk to you about something, Nat.” Anna smiled at Suz. “Could you excuse us for a minute?”

Suz nodded. “Sure. I should be getting to the makeup trailer, anyway. See you in a few, Nat.”

“Yeah, see you.”

She jogged off, casting him a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder.

He swallowed, his throat dry from the adrenaline rush. “So, Anna. What did you need to talk about?” Fear had his pulse thumping way too fast. He’d never get rich at this job, but right now it was the main reason he managed to keep food on the table. His part-time job with his uncle’s charter boat didn’t pay much. If Anna fired him, he didn’t know what he was going to do.

Sympathy softened her expression. “Don’t worry, it’s not anything bad.”

Heat rushed into Nat’s cheeks. Thank God for the wolf face hiding his blush. Stupid pale skin. “Um. Okay. Good.”

Her eyes took on the sharp glint that reminded him why she was a well-respected director. “Actually, I was wondering if you’d consider tackling a higher profile role. Maybe even a speaking part.”

Okay, he hadn’t expected that. “What?”

“I’m not talking about a full-time, major role here. I want to be clear on that.” She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, still watching his face with uncomfortable intensity. “But as a physical actor, you’re a natural. I’d like to bring you more to the front, give you a line here and there, and see what you can do. If you’re willing, that is.”

He managed to suppress the urge to let out a victory whoop, but it was a near thing. “I’d love that. Thank you.” Overcome with gratitude—and, honestly, excitement—he grasped her hand and shook it. “I won’t let you down, Anna. Thank you so much for this opportunity. Seriously.”

“Hey, you wouldn’t be getting it if I didn’t think you could do it.” She pressed his hand between both of hers for a moment, then let go. Her smile held a tilt that said she had an idea of how much the extra money would mean to him. She pulled her jacket tighter around her as a cool, damp breeze flowed through the trees. “You and I can get together with the legal people and the union reps and hammer out your new contract details in the next few days, if that works for you.”

Terror and anticipation slammed into Nat’s gut. God this was a speaking role. Like, actually saying words on TV. Yeah, it was exciting. But now that it was an actual reality, the possibility of failure loomed like the childhood closet monster. What if he couldn’t do it? What if he fucked up so bad they kicked him off the show? What if, what if, what if?

Stop it. You can do this. At least, you have to try.

He swallowed hard. “That’ll be fine.”

She smiled. “Great. I’ll have my assistant give you a call. See you, Nat.”

“Yeah. See you.” He waved at her as she walked away. “Thanks again.”

He stood there for a second, soaking up the happiness of the moment. Deliberately focusing on the good to drown out the nagging voice whispering, What if you fail? Maybe now he could save enough to buy a car he wouldn’t need to fix every other day. Hell, maybe this would lead to a steadier job. Something he could count on for daily work. Then he and his dad could get a new place, he could hire someone to look after his dad while he was working, he could have a life, finally . . .

Someone’s nearby laughter jolted him out of his thoughts. He shook his head. Good Lord, what was wrong with him? One mention of him maybe getting more screen time and he was already spending the money he didn’t have yet. Inventing a life where he got to choose his own path rather than following the moldy breadcrumbs laid out for him. Like that was ever going to happen.

You’re a daydreamer, son, said his dad’s voice in his head. Your mom always said so.

Of course, his mother had always said if you lost your dreams, you lost yourself. But his dad never seemed to remember that part of her. He never seemed to remember any parts of her that meant he didn’t get to passive-aggressively cut Nat down.

Oh well. Maybe a new car and house were pie-in-the-sky, but if the more visible role worked out, it really would mean more money. Possibly a lot more money. Which Nat definitely needed.

Shoving his hands in his jeans pockets, he strode off down the dirt road toward the makeup trailers.

***

When he finally got home at four fifteen in the morning, a sharp burning smell greeted him. Black smoke trickled from the kitchen doorway.

Shit.

Throwing his keys on the little table beside the door, he ran for the kitchen. A pan sat smoking on the stove, something unidentifiable charred in black lumps on the bottom. He covered his mouth and nose with his shirt, grabbed the pan, dropped it in the sink, and turned off the burner. “Dad? Where are you?” He flung open the window over the sink, crossed the sagging floor, and opened the door to the tiny backyard. Damn it, he needed to put in a smoke detector.

“Mmf.” The sofa springs squealed, and his father’s tousled head peered over the back of the couch. “Oh, Nat. You’re home. I made dinner.”

Relief and fury played tug-of-war in Nat’s gut. “You nearly burned the house down. You could’ve died.” He flipped the switch for the overhead fan. The old motor ground to life, and the smoke began to swirl outside. He glared at his father, heart hammering and the sour taste of fear lingering on the back of his tongue. “What the hell were you thinking? How many times have I told you not to use the stove when you’re on your meds?”

His father peered at him with a remorse Nat had long ago learned not to trust. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d turned off the stove before I took my Vicodin, honest. And I wouldn’t have taken it at all, but you know how my back gets when it’s damp like this, then you were so late getting home, and I just . . . fell asleep.”

“Uh-huh.” Nat glanced around. The three empty beer cans weren’t enough to explain the slur in his dad’s voice. Not after his heavier and heavier drinking lately—both on the sly and not so much—along with increasing doses of painkillers and muscle relaxers. Christ. If he could figure out which of his dad’s old drinking buddies kept supplying him with beer, Nat would have them arrested. No matter how many cans Nat poured out, more kept popping up. “How many pills did you take?”

“Only two. I swear.” His dad’s eyelids drifted down, settled there for a heartbeat, then rose like they weighed ten pounds each. His forehead creased, his mouth twisting in a pained rictus Nat had seen all too often. “Don’t look at me like that. You don’t know what it’s like.”

Nat turned away. The fact was, he really didn’t know what it was like. He knew how his father had writhed in agony on a hospital stretcher when he was first injured. He knew he’d watched the man who’d been so physically strong all his life dwindle to a thin, stooped shadow of himself since that accident. He knew he’d seen the spark of life and hope go out of his father’s eyes, replaced by the fever of addiction.

He knew his father was in constant pain—both physical and mental. But, no, he didn’t know what it was like.

Worse, he had no idea how to fix it.

For a single, searing second, Nat stood there staring at the charred mess in the sink and fighting the overwhelming urge to run. To bolt out the open door and keep going until he dropped. To never look back.

But he couldn’t do that, and not only because he refused to be the sort of man who abandoned his responsibilities. His father hadn’t always been the shell of a person he was now. He’d been a loving, caring, attentive dad. And he’d worked hard to make sure Nat and his sister had had everything they needed after their mother died. Nat had only been seven when he’d lost his mother to cancer, but he still remembered her face, and the sound of her laugh. And he remembered his father holding him tight while he cried for his mother, telling him everything would be all right. That Dad would look after him.

Jerome Horn wasn’t a perfect man, or a perfect father. But he’d been strong for his children when they needed him. The way Nat saw it, he owed his father the same now that their situations were reversed.

A soft snore told him the drugs in his dad’s system had taken over again. With a sigh, Nat turned, pulled the old plaid blanket up over his father’s bony frame, and went to scrub the burned pan.