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Second Act

by Kaje Harper

Sometimes you have to go home again.

When Bryce Edwards left Minnesota for the bright lights of Hollywood ten years ago, he was determined not to look back. He's built a solid acting career through his own hard work and talent. But when he finds himself unemployed right before Christmas, the memories he's been ignoring start to rise up and annoy him.

Maybe it's time to take a different approach; maybe it's time to confront his past and not just use it as motivation for his next angsty scene. If he can make peace with what happened back then— the small-town bigots who drove him away, and his first boyfriend who refused to leave with him— maybe he'll be free to move on to something better. He's not sure what “something better” will look like, but he's finally ready to get on a plane, go home, and find out.

 

64,000 words

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Excerpt:

Bryce Edwards let his gaze drift toward Scott, who stood four feet away, breathing hard and toweling his sweaty face with his T-shirt. God, that man was good looking. The bright light gleamed off his sweat-slick bare shoulders and made his blond hair into a white halo around his strong features. He was sex on legs, a walking dream if you were a woman, or gay.

Which Bryce was. He didn’t turn his head too far, though, keeping the angle open rather than looking all the way around at Scott. Bryce was a pro, and the point was for the camera to catch his longing, his desire, with Scott in the shot behind him. The way to make that seem real was to feel it. Which wasn’t that hard.

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Scott was exactly his type, looks-wise anyway. A decade ago, that tired, blond runner Bryce was watching could have been Cody, toweling off after an hour pounding along the gravel road behind the farm. At least, it could’ve been if Cody had worked his upper body a lot more in the gym, and if he’d ever paid two hundred dollars for a haircut. Bryce managed to keep that amused thought from showing on his face. Cody would have been horrified at the waste of money.

Focus, dammit.

He tilted his head, let his angled gaze drift over Scott’s half-clothed form, as Scott stretched through a cool-down routine. His own character in this movie was secretly in love with the straight boy, which wasn’t that different from being in love with the closeted boy. Lots of yearning, lots of heartache. He remembered how that went, used it now. I wish just once he’d smile at me in public and really mean it. I wish he’d look at me the way I look at him.

On cue, Scott laughed, turned, caught sight of Bryce. Their eyes met for a count of one, and two, and then Bryce dropped his gaze, and made his expression as blank as he could. He kept his eyes on the toes of his boots, but Scott was a pro too. Uncertainty and worry would show in his expression, in his body language.

“Cut!” Malberg, the director, took a couple of steps, reached down to his chair and picked up his tablet. He’d been messing with the damned thing between takes all morning. Now he stared down at it for a minute, then looked back up at them. “We’ll call that a wrap.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “Only one take? Was it that perfect?”

Malberg shook his head. “You let me worry about that. One hour break, people. Eat, drink lots of fluids, get back here looking pretty in one hour.”

If that was really all they were doing with this scene, though, then Bryce was done for the day. The afternoon scenes were scheduled to be Scott meeting the girl who was his love interest, and co-demon hunter. Chronologically, they came a week before the little bit of byplay they’d just filmed. Scott’s character would meet “Linda” out running, and hit it off. Bryce’s character was in for a lot of heartache.

The unprecedented single take bothered him, but at least he was done standing around sweating in full uniform. He pulled off his jacket gratefully. Even though it was December, the sun was unseasonably hot and the reflectors didn’t help one bit. Back home the weather would be grey and cold. He’d heard Minnesota might get some snow this week. He suddenly missed the change of seasons desperately. Ten years in L.A. were nine bland, boring winters too many.

He jumped as Scott clapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, dude, I guess you nailed that.”

“Thanks. You too.” At least his ten years of Hollywood experience let him give the kid a warm smile, despite the fact that he hated to be called “dude.”

“Yeah. Anyone would think you really were gay.”

They exchanged a look that held just a glint of irony. DADT, Hollywood style. Pretty much everyone knew Bryce was gay, but he took girls out now and then to public events, and kept it mostly under wraps. Funny, in a way, to think that ten years ago he’d come to L.A. to let his freak flag fly and make movies. And now, despite the openness of California in general, and L.A. in particular, he was more in the closet than he’d been when he left home. Because it turned out you could be a blatantly out gay actor, or play straight he-man heroes, but not both.

A wardrobe assistant came and took the jacket from him, and he let go of it gratefully. As he turned away, looking forward to getting back into his own T-shirt and shorts, Malberg called over to him, “Edwards. Meeting first. My trailer.”

There was nothing obviously wrong with that, but the man’s tone sent little fingers of apprehension down Bryce’s spine. “Now?”

“Yeah. Go wait for me, I’ll be right there.”

He mustered all the nonchalance he could. “Sure. I’ll just grab a water.” He detoured to pick up a cold bottle, wet with condensation, and poured half the contents down his throat as he walked the necessary fifty yards. The wonderful shock of chilled liquid made him shudder and relax, but his tension ramped up again as he stood waiting beside the trailer door.

He’d already had his character tweaked twice, as the writers tried to make the pic more commercial. He’d had his hair shaved when he was switched from ex-Army to a serving Marine. Contact lenses took his eyes from light blue to shockingly green. Three completed scenes had hit the metaphorical cutting room floor. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what came next.

He kept his stance casual and easy as Malberg approached, and tried for a bit of Zen. Repeating scenes was just extra work, not a problem. This was his big break. He was making twice as much for this picture as he’d ever made in his life, and the star power of the leads would give it some legs. There might be sequels. “Hot out here today,” he said casually as Malberg dug in a pocket for his keys.

“Yeah. C’mon in. Have a seat.” Malberg pointed at a chair, and pulled the door shut behind them.

Bryce glanced around as he sat in the nearest wooden chair. It was just the two of them, without the writing team. Maybe this was something different. “What’s up?”

“So.” Malberg moved behind his desk and eased his bulk into his upholstered seat with a soft grunt. He set his tablet on top of some papers, tapped it on and frowned. “I want you to know you’re doing good work. You’re a… consummate professional.” He said the words as if he’d read them somewhere and looked pleased with himself. His eyes didn’t meet Bryce’s.

“Thank you.” But you didn’t bring me in here just two weeks into shooting the picture to tell me that.

“And we will of course pay you the full amount of your contract.”

That wasn’t just little chilly fingers but a whole bucket of water in the face. “For what? We have a long way to go.”

“No.” Malberg finally looked straight at him, his gaze cool. “I got the final emails just now. There has been a decision, at multiple levels, to replace your character in the storyline.”

“Replace?” He wasn’t sure if the word actually passed his lips. He cleared his throat. “But… that takes half the conflict out of the story. The tension. The whole romantic subplot rests on the way Kenner’s torn between his love for Linda and the pull he’s always felt toward other men, toward—”

“We changed that.” Malberg cut him off. “The love triangle character will now be a woman. A female Army Sergeant. It’s perfect for the mood of the country right now.” He put his elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “This isn’t the time to push a gay agenda. We can appeal to women, to the patriotic crowd, and yet it’s edgy because she’s serving and enlisted. She’ll be played tough, older than Kenner, but with a soft side too.”

“Gay agenda?” He’d gotten stuck back there somehow. “That’s not what this was.”

“Whatever you want to call it. The backers were worried it wouldn’t go over well.”

Brokeback Mountain was huge.”

“We’re aiming for a different market segment. This isn’t a drama. It’s action, paranormal, with romance on the side.”

“But—”

“Now, Bryce, you know how these things go. A female Sergeant is a stroke of genius. It picks up almost the same demographic as a gay sub-plot but without pissing anyone off. It’s perfect.”

He gritted his teeth, and tried to speak reasonably through the ringing in his ears. “One guy, two women is boring. It’s been done a thousand times.”

“But this is a twist. She’s going to be almost as tough as he is. She’s going to kick serious ass in some of those demon-fighting scenes. And she can wear fatigues, not high heels and leather. She’ll be All-American.”

I was supposed to kick ass. “Fans of the book will be unhappy.”

“Frankly, Edwards, they’re not a big concern. The writers are excited about this, and so am I.”

Of course they are. They get to write new shit. And it will be shit.

Malberg sat back in his chair and frowned, even though Bryce was sure he hadn’t said a word out loud. “More importantly, so are the backers. Your character is out. But we’ll pay you the full contracted amount, and I’ll tell anyone who asks that you’ve been professional, on time, and easy to work with. Think of it this way—you’ll get paid for this job and still be free to go out and land another part. It’s like being paid double.”

Bryce swallowed hard, fighting back the protest that wanted to escape. It wasn’t fucking fair! He’d done his best work and more for the last two weeks. This was his big break. The part was perfect for him, and he was right for the part. He clenched his jaw until it hurt.

Nothing he could do. Nothing he could say. The man was right. There was simply no way for him to change their decision once it was made, which it clearly had been. All he could do was maintain his dignity and his reputation and keep doors open.

He thought it was perhaps the best performance of his life when he stood, easily and smoothly. When he held out his hand with an expression as close to a smile as he could manage. When he said, “Well, it’s been an honor and an education working with you. I hope to have the chance again someday.”

Malberg’s damp fingers closed on his own for an instant. “Likewise. Have your agent get in touch with accounting and we’ll sort out the paperwork. And hey, you’ll get a bit of a Christmas vacation. Time off for the holidays instead of putting in the crazy hours. Lucky guy.”

He even managed to swallow that bit of hypocrisy and say, “Yeah. Lucky me. Maybe I’ll go skiing.”

“Well.” Malberg’s gaze slid away from him. “Best of luck to you.”

“Thanks.” He put his hand on the back of the chair, pushed it into place, a little harder than he should have. There was a flicker of something in Malberg’s face that might have been anxiety. Bryce realized that Malberg was twenty years older, half a foot shorter and far less fit, and for a moment it was tempting to loom over him and throw a fit. But only for a moment. Not worth the fallout.

He left the trailer, without even slamming the door. In fact, he made it through changing clothes, turning in his costume, picking up his personal stuff from the hotel and putting everything in his car, all the details of shedding the role of his life. He did it without so much as one swearword. Of course, he wasn’t sure he knew any words that fit.

The only bright side was that he’d insisted on driving his own car. So even though the shoot was well into the countryside, out of the studio line, he didn’t have to wait around for production to arrange a ride home to L.A. for him. After leaving the hotel, he drove back past the location in his ten-year-old hatchback. Around a bend in the road, he caught sight of Scott heading toward the old barn where the afternoon’s shooting schedule would begin. Scott tilted his head, laughing at something the prop manager had said. He was stripped to the waist again, skin already spritzed and glistening, all blond and fit and perfect.

For a moment, Bryce flashed back to that old yearning that used to hit him when he caught sight of Cody. That Jesus-I-want-him feeling, all tangled up with can’t-have, don’t-dare. Then a scrawny stand of trees came between him and the barn, and he turned his attention back to the road. He’d been over Cody for years, and Scott was just one more straight guy with a pretty face. It was losing the job that had him feeling so hollow right now.

He’d thought about pulling over to call his agent at the first truck stop, but he drove on by. Something about being behind the wheel was relaxing, even when the wheel was steering a Mazda with as much rust as paint. He could pretend that driving was all he was supposed to do. No difficult conversations, no thinking, no posturing and pretending and schmoozing. Just him and the car and the road, mile after mile

COLLAPSE

About the Author

I get asked about my name a lot. It's not something exotic, though. “Kaje” is pronounced just like “cage” – it’s an old nickname.

I live in Minnesota, where the two seasons are Snow-removal and Road-repair, where the mosquito is the state bird, and where winter can be breathtakingly beautiful. Minnesota’s a kindly, quiet (if sometimes chilly) place and it’s home now.

I’ve been writing for far longer than I care to admit (*whispers – forty years*), mostly for my own entertainment. I mainly publish M/M romance (with added mystery, fantasy, historical, SciFi…) I also have a few Young Adult stories released under the pen name Kira Harp.

My husband finally convinced me that after all that time writing for fun, I really should submit something, somewhere. My first professionally published book, Life Lessons, came out from MLR Press in May 2011. I have a weakness for closeted cops with honest hearts, and teachers who speak their minds, and I had fun writing the four novels and three freebie short stories in the series. I’ve been delighted by the reception Mac and Tony have received.

I now have a good-sized backlist in ebooks and print, both free and professionally published. A complete list with links can be found on my Books page.
I also have  an author page on Goodreads where I do a lot of book reviews. You can find me to chat there– I hang out on Goodreads a lot because I moderate the  Goodreads YA LGBT Books group there. I also post free short YA stories on that group, more than 50 of them so far. Or find me on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/KajeHarper


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