PIECES AND PARTS - CHAPTER ONE
“I’m not going.”
Nick Malone pressed a finger on the center knot of the curly ribbon to keep it from slipping and peered over the kitchen island at his son. “Excuse me? You haven’t stopped talking about Wyatt’s birthday party for weeks.” He tapped a finger against the package covered in Pokémon wrapping paper. “You declared this the ‘most awesomest gift ever.’”
Henry blew out a breath, sending the hair covering his forehead skyward. “I’m going to the party, Dad. I’m not going to Nana and Pops’ house.”
Nick stared at his son. Normally, following eight-year-old logic came naturally to him, but right now he wasn’t tracking. “Are you talking about next weekend? When I’m going to Andrew and Grace’s house? You know that party is just for grown-ups.”
Henry sighed and threw his hands up. “I’m not going to Nana and Pops’ house when you go on tour.”
Nick curled the tails of ribbon with the side of an open scissors – giving himself a moment to digest Henry’s declaration. “You’re not?”
“No.” Henry hopped onto a counter stool. “And you can’t make me.”
Nick’s eyebrows shot up. Parenting was a lot like eating sweet and sour candy. Sweet, he didn’t want to discourage his son from standing up for himself. Sour, he wished the kid had picked an issue he could control.
Nick smiled, trying to soften the words. “I can, in fact, make you. You know why? The word ‘Dad’ is actually an acronym. It stands for ‘Do as Dad Says.’”
“That’s DADS. With an S,” Henry said, his face pinched, wrinkles creasing the skin between his eyes.
Nick nodded sagely, biting back a smile. “Yeah, it’s plural because it’s meant for all dads, not just me or any singular dad. It’s not a commonly known fact, but we’re all one big cosmic team. Dads, that is.”
“That’s not funny.” Henry dropped his chin into his hands.
“What? That was grade-A material. I made it up on the fly. Don’t I get any credit for that?”
“No.” Henry’s frown deepened.
Huh. Humor nearly always worked with Henry. Nick dropped onto the stool next to his son and drew lazy circles down his back. “What’s going on, bud? You’ve always liked staying with Nana and Pops.” Nick mentally scanned his detailed lists and calendars, trying to identify what had triggered Henry’s resistance. Only one change loomed on the horizon. “Is this about starting third grade on Monday? Are you nervous?”
“No,” Henry said. “I like school.”
Nick had no reason to doubt Henry’s statement. Like Nick, Henry loved learning new things. Last year on the first day of school, Nick had woken to find Henry sitting on the bench near the front door, his backpack already on – at six a.m.
If it wasn’t the start of school, what could it be? What was different about Nick leaving this time? Henry understood and seemed to like their routine.
Before the band left on tour, they sat down and highlighted the bus’ route in Henry’s atlas and read about the cities where Storyhill would perform. When Nick left, Henry moved to his grandparents’ home and Nick regularly called and sent pictures of the sights they’d discussed beforehand. No formula existed for balancing life as a single parent and a touring musician, but he tried to get it right.
Henry occasionally threw out some benign complaints or shed a few tears, but Nick’s parents had a permanent room for Henry that included toys and clothes, and Henry felt as comfortable there as he did in his own home. Or so Nick thought.
Yes, their life was unconventional, and Nick regularly contemplated changing jobs, but ultimately he kept singing with the guys because he wanted to show Henry that it’s important to follow your dreams.
Nick straightened the bow atop Wyatt’s birthday present. “Is this about your birthday?”
Henry stared at the colorful package but said nothing.
“We talked about this, remember? Nana and Pops are bringing you to Boston on your birthday.”
“I don’t want to be with them. I want to be with you,” Henry said.
Nick pushed down the guilt that always hovered right under his skin. “I’ll be there, buddy. Nana and Pops can join us, or we can spend the day just the two of us. It’s your birthday, you get to decide. And don’t forget, we’re having a big birthday dinner with everybody. You’ll be able to tell all your friends that” – Nick grabbed hold of the large wooden peppermill from the counter and mimicked singing into it like a microphone – “a famous band sang you happy birthday.”
“No,” Henry said, kicking his feet against the stool’s foot rail. “I want to be with you the whole time. Not just on my birthday. I don’t want to go to Nana and Pops! I want to go on the bus with you!”
Nick attempted to hide his surprise. “You don’t want to go to Nana and Pops’s because you want to go on tour with us?”
Henry slapped his palms against the counter. “Yes!”
No one could say single parenting was boring. Nick summoned up the advice from the parenting book on his bedside table. Present the facts. Make sure the child feels heard and understands they have a say in any decision that directly affects them.
Nick drew in a steadying breath. “Okay, I hear you, and here are some things for you to consider: There are long boring stretches on the bus and touring is work for me. What will you do on the bus? Who would stay with you while the guys and I are performing? And what about your schoolwork?”
Henry twisted his lips in thought. “Maybe Nana or Pops could come with us and my teacher could fill up my backpack with homework. I’d do it, I promise.”
Henry looked at Nick with such naked hope it nearly ripped him in two. He got it. He hated being separated from Henry when he was on the road, but for now, this was their reality.
“Nana and Pops have to work, too, bud. And what about your friends and all the art projects and science experiments you’d miss?”
“I don’t care!” Henry yelled. “I don’t care about any of that stuff!” He jumped from the stool and ran down the hall.
Nick listened for the slam of his bedroom door, but it didn’t come. Henry had inherited his mother’s stubbornness, but thankfully, not all her theatrics. It wasn’t fair to blame Kirsten for all of Henry’s more challenging traits, but since his ex-wife wasn’t here to help with any of the parenting duties, Nick figured he was owed at least that much.
It had been five years since Kirsten was involved in Henry’s life. And thoughts of her only surfaced in Nick’s mind during challenging parenting moments. Or maybe it wasn’t about Kirsten at all and simply about Nick’s desire for help. He had the Storyhill guys and his parents, but as supportive as they were, it wasn’t the same as having a partner, being one half of a team.
But wishing didn’t change his situation. And it wouldn’t. Because how could they possibly integrate another person into their lives, into their schedule?
Nick took a couple of cleansing breaths and walked down the hall. Henry was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his folded hands in his lap. Nick knocked softly on the door frame. “Can I come in?”
Henry nodded but didn’t look up. Nick stepped forward and crouched next to his son. “How about we make a deal?”
Henry’s eyes met Nick’s. The boy resembled Nick in every way – right down to the uncooperative cowlick on the crown of his head – except for his eyes. His green and gold irises were one hundred percent his mother’s.
“A deal?” Henry whispered.
Nick nodded. “You go to school for one week” – Nick held up a single finger – “and then next Saturday, a week from today, we’ll talk about this again. See if you still feel the same.”
Nick stuck out his hand, fairly certain that after Henry got back in school and spent time with his friends, all this talk of going on tour would disappear. “Deal?”
Henry looked at Nick’s hand. “We’re tabling the discussion?”
Nick chuckled. “Where did you learn that expression?”
“Under P in the encyclopedia.”
Nick smirked, remembering the day Henry found his grandfather’s well-used set of encyclopedias stuffed into the far corner of the guest room closet. He’d carried two thick volumes into the kitchen and begged to take them home. Nick’s mom insisted he take the entire set and minutes later she had them packed in a box and was ordering Nick to carry them out to his car. Before Henry could change his mind, Nick assumed.
“Under P, huh?”
“P for Parliamentary procedures.”
Nick pulled his son into a hug. Despite all the challenges brought on by their weird lifestyle, Henry was a good kid. “Is that a yes?” he said, inching back.
“Deal,” Henry said, placing his small hand inside Nick’s much larger one.
A knot loosened inside Nick’s chest. “Good.” Nick rolled his wrist and glanced at his watch. “You ready to go to Wyatt’s birthday party? It starts in a few minutes.”
Henry hopped down from the bed and ran from the room. “Yep! Did I tell you that Mr. Mick said we could try on his football pads?”
Nick followed Henry, then turned into the kitchen to grab the gift. “Hey, you have to sign the card. Do you have a pen?”
“Dad, I’m eight. Why would I have a pen?”
Nick rounded the corner into the entryway. “Well, since you’re almost nine…”
Henry rolled his eyes, and Nick handed him the card and a pen.
Henry finished tying his shoes and looked up at Nick, eyes narrowed. “How did me and Wyatt become friends again?”
“Storyhill,” Nick said, opting for the simplest answer. The actual explanation – that Wyatt’s mom’s sister is Uncle Matt’s wife – required a kid to connect a lot of dots.
“Okay.” Henry nodded, as if Nick’s one-word answer made everything clear.
Nick grabbed his keys from the hook inside the front door. “Maybe Mr. Mick will show you his Super Bowl ring too.”
“That would be cool,” Henry said, bouncing up and opening the door to the garage. “Let’s go, Dad!”
Nick slipped into his sneakers. “Right behind you, bud.” Just like he’d always be.
Nick took a long pull off his beer and blew out an unsteady breath. Wyatt’s birthday party felt like a month ago rather than just a week. Henry had gone back to school. Loved his teacher; talked about his friends, old and new; yet still insisted he accompany Nick and Storyhill on tour. No matter how Nick came at the question, Henry stuck with the same answer: I just want to be with you, Dad.
Henry wasn’t telling Nick the whole truth. And that’s what worried him. Stubborn or not, it wasn’t like Henry to hide things or not respond to reasoning.
Last night, Henry had arrived at the dinner table with a handwritten list of what he’d do on tour and how he was “most definitely” old enough to stay in the hotel room and order room service on concert nights.
Alone in a hotel room? At eight years old? Yeah, that was a hard no.
Nick eyed the nearly hidden handles on the French doors leading to Grace and Andrew’s balcony. He could slip out, unnoticed, and sink into one of the patio chairs and do nothing but stare at the sky for a while. Collect his thoughts. Finish his beer.
But that wouldn’t solve his problem.
Tonight, he needed the band. He needed his brothers.
Time to stop feigning interest in the framed album covers hanging on the back wall. No answers would materialize while he lurked in the shadows. He stepped around the black Steinway grand piano that filled the space most people reserved for a dining table and scanned the room.
Together, the four other members of Storyhill – Andrew, Blake, Joe, and Matt – and two of their wives –Julia and Avery – sat on or leaned against the large sectional perfectly positioned in the room to maximize the view out the floor-to-ceiling windows. The twinkling lights of the Nashville skyline were almost enough to distract Nick from his thoughts. Almost.
“The fire extinguisher is under the kitchen sink,” Grace said, rounding the kitchen island and stopping next to Nick.
Startled, Nick scanned the room again. “Is something on fire?”
“Relax, Dad,” Grace said with a soft laugh. “I was talking about the smoke billowing from your ears. These gatherings are supposed to be relaxing. You’re not following the brief, Malone. It’s clear your brain is spinning at warp speed.”
Nick rubbed the back of his neck. “That obvious, huh?”
Grace hummed and gave a small nod. “Something I can help with?”
He hoped someone could. “I’m contemplating sending out the band Bat Signal.”
Grace’s wintery ice-blue eyes pinned him. “Is Henry okay?”
He had no idea how to answer her question. Did acting completely out of character count as “not okay”? Was Henry’s refusal to stay with his grandparents simply a kid testing his boundaries?
“Nick?” Grace asked, placing a hand on his arm.
“Henry is…” Henry was what? “He’s insisting that he accompany me – us – on this tour.”
Grace’s brow furrowed. “Has he asked to come along before?”
Nick set his empty beer bottle on the kitchen island, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and shook his head. “That’s why it worries me. He’s never even hinted at it. He’s always loved spending time with his grandparents, but no matter what I say, he insists he’s coming along. I know I’m the dad and can force him to stay, but something in my gut is telling me that’s not the right answer.”
Nick had asked himself, too many times to count, if the guilt of leaving his only child was driving him to believe something was different this time, but every time the question arose, a sense of foreboding overtook his normal, run-of-the-mill regret.
“Thus the Bat Signal?” Grace said.
Nick sighed and nodded. Next to him, Grace let out a piercing whistle, shocking Nick and silencing the rest of the room.
“Wow, babe,” Andrew said to his wife. “Didn’t know you could do that. Commanding is a very sexy look on you.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “I’m going to need you to focus, Cowboy. Nick needs your help.”
Seven pairs of eyes zeroed in on him. And Nick knew why. He was always the helper, never the guy who needed help.
“What’s up?” Matt asked.
Nick shifted uncomfortably under their gazes. “I think I’m going to need to find someone to replace me on tour.”
That got them going. Voices collided until Grace whistled again. Nick nearly laughed when Joe raised a hand in the air and Grace pointed at him, channeling some kind of inner schoolmarm.
“Why?” Joe asked.
“Henry’s going through something. I either have to find someone to replace me temporarily or” – Nick sucked in a breath and pressed a finger into his temple – “bring him on tour with us.”
“Replacing you is not an option,” Blake said.
“But that means an eight-year-old on the bus,” Nick said, grimacing.
“Pfft. He’s eight going on forty-three, making him older than all of us. He’s definitely more mature than Mattie,” Blake said, waggling his eyebrows.
“Hey now,” Matt said.
Nick walked to the closest open chair and dropped into it. “You might not think that when you have to live with him in less than three hundred square feet.”
“We can do it. It might even be fun,” Andrew added. “We can all take a turn watching him or helping with schoolwork.”
Nick balled his hand into a fist and knocked it against the arm of the chair. “I appreciate that, I do. But we have a job to do. For this to work, I would have to find a… unicorn.”
“A unicorn?” Avery asked.
Grace smiled and nodded. “A magical creature that is half-nanny, half-tutor with three open weeks, starting almost immediately. Is that right, Nick?”
“Nailed it. Plus, he, she, or they would need to be willing to travel with them.” Nick gestured to the other members of the band.
Grace laughed. “I’ve been on the bus. They’re not that bad.”
“We’re right here. We can hear you,” Blake said, his fake indignation barely covering the laughter in his voice. “And if we’re not that bad, Gracie, are you volunteering?”
Grace waved a hand in the air. “Sadly, I need to put on my producer hat while you’re gone. I leave for Minneapolis tomorrow.”
“Sounds like a convenient excuse,” Blake said, smirking.
Nick blew out a long breath. “It looks like we’ve come full circle. I need to find a replacement, unless someone knows where I can find a magical creature in” – he pulled his phone from his back pocket and tapped the screen to life – “nine days?”
Silence fell again until Joe’s wife Julia jumped up. “Wait! I do!” she said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.
“Really?” Nick breathed out.
Julia yanked her phone from her handbag. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of it right away. Want me to call her right now?”
Nick crossed the room to Julia and gently pulled away the index finger poised to hit dial. “Maybe you tell me a little about her first.”
Julia laughed. “Right. That makes more sense. I just got excited.” She slid over and nudged her husband’s shoulder to make room for Nick on the sofa. “My friend Ivy. Ivy Winston?” Julia searched his face for any sign of recognition. “I introduced the two of you at our house last summer. Petite, pretty, brown hair, whiskey-colored eyes.”
Nick shook his head. “Not ringing a bell, Jules.”
Julia snapped her fingers and pointed at him. “Henry threw up on her shoes after the hot dog eating contest.”
“Right,” Nick said, scrubbing a hand down his face. “Now I remember. But we didn’t really get off on the right foot – no pun intended – did we?”
“No worries.” Julia waved her hand in the air. “She taught elementary school in Chicago for like eight years. A little vomit doesn’t scare her.”
“She’s a teacher?”
“Yep. Or she was. Right now, she’s finishing up a PhD program in English and Comparative Media something-something. Plus, she’s exceptionally well-traveled and very outgoing.”
Nick blinked at the rapid-fire factoids. “Slow down, Jules. Remind me how you know this woman and finish with why you think she might be both able and willing to do this.”
“We’ve been friends forever. We met when my dad got transferred to Brussels for two years. Her parents are diplomats, and they were living in the US embassy there. She tracked me down on my first day of school and took me under her wing. We stayed in touch after my family returned to the US. And then, about four years ago, she enrolled at Vanderbilt. I’ve loved having her nearby again.”
“And you think she can just pick up and leave in nine days because?”
“We had dinner last week and she mentioned she’d wrapped up her research and teaching commitments. She’s using the next few months to finish writing her thesis.” Julia shrugged. “Feels like something she could do from anywhere.”
Nick’s shoulders dropped a tiny fraction. Friend of Julia’s, check. Educator, check. Still sounded too good to be true. “Why did she leave teaching?”
Julia nibbled an appetizer – something wrapped in puff pastry. “I’m not sure she has. At least not officially. She’s considering a few different options after finishing her PhD.”
Nick brushed a hand over his close-cropped hair. “You trust her?”
“I wouldn’t suggest her if I didn’t.” Julia laid her hand on Nick’s arm and squeezed. “What do you think? I’m planning on seeing her on Tuesday for coffee. I could explain the situation then. Gauge her interest.”
“Sounds like it’s worth a shot,” Joe said.
“Especially since replacing you is not an option,” Andrew said. “Good, bad. Easy or difficult. Family sticks together.”
Nick turned his attention back to Julia. “If she’s interested, I’d want to interview her without Henry. And then have them meet.”
Julia nodded. “Of course. I’m guessing she’d want the same things.”
Nick collapsed against the back of the couch and tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling. “I can’t imagine anything else materializing.”
“Is that a yes?”
Nick sat back up. “Yeah, Jules. Talk to her and let me know how it goes.”
Julia clapped her hands together. “I have a very good feeling about this, Nick Malone.”
“I guess we’ll see soon enough.” Nick wished he shared Julia’s optimism, but hope wasn’t something he excelled at. Not since Henry’s mother had walked out the door without looking back. And even if Ivy ended up helping, it would be a temporary win. The actual battle involved figuring out what was going on with Henry.
But one problem at a time…