Happy May, everyone!
In celebration of Carlo Sr.’s favorite month, I’ve reduced all six volumes of the Pagano Family series to 99 cents each. This price will be in effect for the month of May.
The Pagano Family is a complete series, but now seems like an appropriate time to let you know that there are more Paganos on the (distant) horizon. I plan a new, spin-off series, focusing on the Pagano Brothers organization. The first book of that series has a planned release in 2018. More about that at a later date, when there’s more about it to say. 🙂
Anyway, if you haven’t read the Pagano Family, now’s your chance to get the series at a crazy-good price.
It’s time to reveal the cover and synopsis for the fourth and final installment of The Northwomen Sagas. Father’s Sun is Solveig’s story, and her true love is Magni.
If you’re a reader of the series, then you know that Solveig is Brenna and Vali’s daughter, and Magni is Olga and Leif’s son. The two have grown up together.
When I finished God’s Eye, the first book of the series, and Solveig was born, I knew right then that this saga would end with her story—in fact, I knew by then that the series would be four books long, and that Olga and Astrid would be the other Northwomen to lead books. Olga’s story rattled against the cage of my brain, demanding freedom, and Astrid, though she hadn’t asserted a strong presence on the page in GE, had made a deep impression in my head. I knew a lot about her and wanted to tell her story, too. She is my favorite Northwoman, as it turns out.
I liked the thought that by the time GE was over, we’d met all the women who would tell the sagas. I liked the thought of the story making a circle of sorts, so I ran with that. Other characters rose up here and there and waved at me, suggesting they had stories, too, and I have notes for possible shorts I might write someday (about Frida or Mihkel, for example), but it felt right not to let this series range too far from its core.
I didn’t know what Solveig’s story would be until I wrote it, but early on, it seemed fitting to end a story that began with Brenna and Vali’s great love and legend with the story of their legacy, and I had the name of the final book right then: Father’s Sun.
A side note, apropos of nothing, really: I like the symmetry of the titles in this series: God and Father, Heart and Soul. Also, the cover colors come from the shields themselves (there isn’t a color on the covers that’s not also found in one of the shields in the series), and are consistent with colors that were used by the people of that area and era.
I know most of my readers are interested in my bikers and not my Vikings, but writing The Northwomen Sagas has been a passionate love for me, and I’m heartbroken that it’s over. These stories were a joy to research and write, and I’m deeply proud of them.
Anyway. By the first chapter of Father’s Sun, some years have passed since the end of the first book—almost twenty—and about five years have passed since the epilogue of Soul’s Fire. Solveig and Magni are grown and finding their own paths in their world, seeking to step beyond their parents’ shadows.
Since Solveig and Magni’s story is so much about legacy, I wrote this one a little differently from my usual dual POV style. Solveig and Magni are certainly the dominant POVs of this story, but every now and then we connect with their parents as well, and see their children through their eyes. So Brenna, Vali, Olga, and Leif each get a chapter or two in their POV.
On to business:
The release date for Father’s Sun is Saturday, 3 June. I’ll upload it for preorder a couple of weeks in advance, as usual. I’ve set up the Goodreads page, if you want to add it to your TBR.
Here’s the synopsis:
Solveig Valisdottir is said to be born for greatness. The firstborn daughter of Brenna God’s-Eye and Vali Storm-Wolf, she carries her parents’ legacy on her shoulders and strives to be worthy of their legends. She is a strong shieldmaiden in her own right, but her parents are the greatest of their people, beloved of the gods, and she must reach as high as they, or even beyond, to feel she deserves the esteem she already has as their daughter.
She keeps her fears buried deep in her chest, trusting only Magni, her dearest friend, keeper of all her secrets, to know her struggle. Her love for him reaches deeper than friendship, but she cannot allow herself that love until she has done her parents the honor they deserve. She must find her story; she must make her name.
Magni Leifsson is the scion of greatness himself. His father is the revered Jarl Leif of Geitland, and his mother, Olga, is a beloved counselor of their people. They offer him a legacy of wisdom and compassion, and of strength and valor, and he means his story to be the next verse of theirs.
Magni has loved Solveig since they were children playing in the light of their parents’ friendship. The keeper of her secrets, he knows her better than anyone. He understands the burden of her legacy, and he vows to wait for her while she finds her story.
And he is at her side, offering her his strength and his love, when Solveig finds her legend on a field of loss.
Note: Explicit sex and violence.
Finally, as a teaser, I’m offering the Prologue of Father’s Sun, which covers some key moments in Solveig’s childhood:
Prologue: The Girl She Was
As the ships sailed into the harbor, Solveig ran to the fore of the crowd and pushed in between her grandmother and Håkon, her brother.
“Usch, child,” her grandmother said, combing back a loose blonde tress and tucking it into Solveig’s braid. “Always you are elsewhere than you should be. And where was that this time?”
“Helga’s cat had kittens!” She loved kittens. And puppies. And goatlings. And all baby animals. But kittens best of all.
Her grandmother shook her head. “And are kittens such a rare thing that you would miss the return of your father and mother from their great raid? Two of your mother’s cats littered while they were away. We are overrun with kittens.”
“Dagmar. Something’s amiss.” Bjarke, at her grandmother’s opposite side, spoke, his voice low and dark, like night thunder. There was such foreboding in his tone that even Solveig understood it—even Håkon, more than a year younger, seemed to understand it; his hand grasped Solveig’s and squeezed.
She looked out at the nearing longships, which had come close enough to drop their sails and go to oar, and tried to see what Bjarke could see. Their mother and father had been gone for a long time, Solveig thought, but not too long; summer was still warm and bright. They had gone off to raid in a faraway place called Anglia.
Her father was the Jarl of Karlsa. He’d left Bjarke, his good friend, in charge of Karlsa, and their mother had left her mother in charge of their children.
Their father raided every year, sometimes more than once, but this was the first time in Solveig’s life that their mother had gone as well. She was Brenna God’s-Eye, a great shieldmaiden, and the skalds told many stories about her—and about Solveig’s father, Vali Storm-Wolf, as well. Both were legends.
But to Solveig, they were simply her mother and her father. She missed them when they were away, and she was glad they were back. But something was wrong. She didn’t understand what it was, except that usually when the raiders came home, everyone was loud and happy. They had been that way when she’d run from Helga’s house to wait at the pier. But now everyone was quiet. There was a low mumble rolling through the gathered crowd; she tried to open her ears wide and hear what people were saying. Behind her, two women spoke, and she turned her head so she could focus her ears on them.
“Where is he?”
“He always stands at the prow, but I don’t see him. Where is she?”
“Would the gods take them both at once?”
“That is how it should be, the two lovers hand in hand, though I hope not yet. They are too young. Their children—”
“Öhm! Enough!” Solveig’s grandmother wheeled on the women, whose mouths snapped shut, and then turned to Solveig and forced her head forward again. “Pay them no mind, child.” Her hand shook against Solveig’s cheek, like she was chilled. Or frightened.
Solveig didn’t know who they’d been talking about. So she did what her grandmother said and stopped thinking about them. She looked for her mother and father on the ships. Her father was usually standing up front, just behind the dragon’s head, when he came home, but there was no one there this time.
The people on the ships were quiet, too. Usually, people on the shore called out to the raiders, and the raiders called back. Usually, there was much more noise.
Solveig began to understand that the wrong thing was about her father, who was not standing where he should be. Raiders were warriors, going off to fight for and win treasure and honor and glory, and to have their stories told in the sagas. Many, many times, she had watched her mother and father and all the other warriors in Karlsa practice fighting, with swords and axes and spears and shields, so they could make war on the weak people of other worlds.
She couldn’t see her father or her mother. The ships were pulling up to the piers now, and she couldn’t see them at all. She let go of her grandmother’s hand, and her brother’s hand, and she walked forward.
“Solveig!” her grandmother called, but she moved forward, drawn by a terrible curiosity.
Her mother was there; she had been sitting, and now she made her way to her feet. Solveig saw her fair hair in braids she knew, and, relieved, she broke into a run just as men jumped out to tie up the first ship.
Her mother’s arm and neck were wrapped up in dirty bandages, her arm bound to her side and across her middle. She’d gotten hurt in the raid. She had many scars, but Solveig had never seen her hurt before.
Her mother looked up. Weary anger had pulled her face tight, and Solveig felt real fear, though she didn’t understand yet why.
Solveig’s grandmother reached her just then and clamped her hand around her wrist, keeping her in place. As she drew Solveig into a stifling hold, she called down to the ship. “Brenna. Daughter, are you well? What do you need?”
Her mother gave her a small, tired smile, but she didn’t come out of the ship. She turned and looked down again, and Solveig finally saw what was really wrong. Not her mother in bandages.
Her father, her mighty father, bound to a litter, being lifted out of the ship by six men, carried up to the pier. He wasn’t moving. His eyes were closed. His chest was bare except for bloody, dirty bandages. His skin was shiny and grey.
A strange whoosh went through the crowd as the men carrying him climbed onto the pier, and the people on the shore saw the litter. And then all sound seemed to die.
Solveig stood in the silence and watched the men carry her father toward the great hall. Her belly felt funny, like something small and frail inside her had curled up at the bottom and died.
She felt her mother’s hand on her head, and she looked up into the beautiful face she loved above all others but one. “Did Pappa go to Valhalla?”
The weariness in her mother’s eyes twisted into something like hurt, but then she smiled and brushed an errant lock of hair from Solveig’s eyes. “No, Solveig. He is the mightiest of men, and he lives. It is up to Frida and the gods to make him well now. Hello, Håkon. I have missed you all so very much.” She patted Solveig’s brother on the head, then bent down and lifted little Ylva, the youngest of them, into her unhurt arm. To her mother, she said, “We need Frida, Mother. There is so much fever, and he hasn’t woken for days.”
“She was at the pier, waiting for Jaan. She is already in the hall.”
Solveig’s mother nodded and headed up the berm toward the hall, Ylva in her arms. Her grandmother and brother went after them. Solveig stood and stared at the emptying ship. Everyone had been happy when they’d sailed away. Everyone in Karlsa had been happy when they’d seen the ships on the horizon. Now everyone was sad.
Her father was the Storm-Wolf. The stories said that he’d fought Ægir, the lord of the sea, and won. He’d challenged Thor himself to combat and remained standing. He’d been split in twain in battle and put his parts back together to fight on.
He denied all these things, said they were stories, not truths, but Solveig believed them all. Never had she known her father even to be ill. He was big and strong and fierce. He was kind and warm. He was the mightiest of men, and her mother was the mightiest of women. Everyone agreed they were favored by the gods. How could they have been hurt?
She didn’t understand. Her head filled with noise, like Thor’s thunder, and her chest seemed to shrink and squeeze her heart.
“Solveig! Come!” Her grandmother stood with her hand stretched out, beckoning.
Solveig ran the other way.
Geitland was a much bigger place than Karlsa, and Solveig always felt smaller and less brave in the wild bustle of the town. On this visit especially, when they had grand guests from afar, her parents’ good friend, Astrid, and her husband, Leofric. He was a prince, which made Astrid a princess. They would be King and Queen of Mercuria someday.
Mercuria. A kingdom of Anglia. Solveig remembered that her father had almost been killed in a raid on Mercuria, and her mother had been badly hurt. She remembered the grief of the failed raid; Karlsa had lost many warriors. They’d thought Astrid dead for a long time, too. She didn’t remember many of the details, only enough to be confused by the celebration of their visit. They were friends, even after all that had been suffered and lost.
Her father and Jarl Leif of Geitland had once taken a massive fleet back to Mercuria to start a war and had returned instead allied with the people who’d almost taken her parents away.
She’d seen it many times in Karlsa’s great hall. Her father wanted people to be friendly when their conflicts had been settled. He believed that there was greater strength in friendship than in war.
Her mother didn’t always agree. Many times, Solveig had lain quietly in her bed, feigning sleep and listening to her parents talk out their own disagreements on matters of the hall. She listened because she wanted to understand. She was the daughter of the Storm-Wolf and the God’s-Eye, her life was filled with great heroes of the sagas, people touched by the gods, and she wanted to know all she could of everything, so that when it was time, she could take her place among them.
“Their ship is so grand,” Magni, said, stretching out on his belly beside her. “I want one like it when I grow up.”
Solveig rolled her eyes. Magni was the only living son of Jarl Leif and his wife, Olga. He was almost a year younger than she and still a child with much to learn. He needed to listen better. “Our ships are much grander than his. His is too big and too deep and can sail only in open water. Our ships can go anywhere.”
“But his has rooms. With beds.”
“Comfort is for soft people, not warriors. It’s why we’re better than they are at everything. Where’s Håkon?” She looked around; she was supposed to mind her brother, but he’d gotten bored with watching the hall, and she hadn’t. She liked to listen in when the adults didn’t know. She learned far more from the things they tried to keep from her than from the things they tried to teach her.
She’d heard him leave, but she hadn’t thought long about it. Only they two had sailed with their parents for this visit. Ylva, Agnar, and little Tova had stayed home with their grandmother. Håkon was next oldest. He had eight years and was old enough to mind himself, even if their mother didn’t think so.
“Gulla found him and sent him to bed. She’s looking for us, too, but I went through the goat pen and she didn’t see me.”
“She’ll not find us here.” Solveig had discovered this gap under a grain bin, against a wall of the great hall, a few years earlier. She’d kept it a secret unto herself until Magni had demanded to know where she disappeared to so often. When he’d claimed that Geitland was his home, not hers, and it was wrong to keep secret places from him in his own home, she’d made him swear an unbreakable oath never to reveal it. They’d cut their thumbs and mingled blood.
And then, the very next summer, he’d let Håkon follow him, and she’d had to make her little brother swear on blood as well. Magni hadn’t meant for Håkon to follow; he simply hadn’t noticed—which was just as bad, and perhaps worse.
Boys were fools.
She wasn’t sure how dolts like Magni and Håkon might someday grow into great men like their fathers. It seemed a tall mountain for them to climb. Nearly as tall as her climb to her mother’s greatness.
Solveig appraised the boy beside her now. She knew, from listening, that his parents and hers wished them someday to be wed. Since she’d heard that, during their last visit to Geitland, she’d tried to imagine mating with Magni. She’d known him all her life, and she liked him well. He couldn’t help that he was a boy and boys were fools.
He was pleasant to look at—as tall as she, though he was younger, with long blonde hair and dark blue eyes like his father. For all that, he was not so bad. But she couldn’t imagine doing with him the things men and women did together—the grunting and groaning and sweating.
Truthfully, she couldn’t imagine doing those things with anyone. She turned from Magni and resumed her watching. It seemed strange and unpleasant, even though men and women all seemed to seek it out as much as they could. Her parents certainly did. In the great hall right now, most people had wandered back to their own homes, and those that remained—Astrid and her husband, Magni’s parents, her own, a few others—had stopped talking amongst the group and started murmuring in mated pairs. While she watched through the gap under the wall, her father pulled her mother onto his lap and put his hand between her legs with a loud grunt like a bear.
She didn’t want that. What she wanted was the other thing—the way her father looked at her mother across the hall, when her mother didn’t know. Solveig didn’t know what that look was, but it was…replete. And utterly bare. She wanted a boy to look at her like that. Even if she never actually saw it directed at her, she wanted a boy to feel for her so deeply and truly that he looked at her that way when her back was turned.
Or the way her mother smiled when she heard Solveig’s father laugh. That smile was akin with her father’s secret look. It made Solveig’s chest feel warm and full to see them both.
In those moments, not in their wild wrestling, Solveig saw her parents’ love for each other. That was what she wanted. Someday. When she was worthy of such love.
“Usch,” Magni groaned quietly beside her. “I don’t want to watch that. Let’s go to the water. I want to look at the ship.”
“Why do you suppose they do it so much?” Solveig asked, ignoring his suggestion and his foolish obsession with the Mercurian ship.
“Erik says it’s like when you scratch an itch. He says you can do it to yourself, too.”
“He has twelve years,” Magni answered, as if that were enough. She supposed it was. Twelve years was grown. Some boys got their arm rings and became men when they had twelve years. Sometimes, they took wives as well.
“Have you ever done it?”
He pulled a face and shook his head. “You?”
“No.” She considered Magni again and wondered if they should try.
“Do you want to?” he asked before she had decided.
His shoulders came nearly up to his ears. “Perhaps it’s nice.”
Solveig doubted that. But she nodded. “All right.” She leaned toward him and pursed her lips.
Magni leaned toward her, and their lips touched.
He smelled pleasant, like wood fire and the goat pen. His lips were warm and dry, tense and puckered against hers. His breath, coming through his nose, tickled her cheek. It wasn’t unpleasant. Or pleasant. Or really anything at all. Their blood vow had had more feeling than this.
Solveig didn’t know what to do next, so she pulled back. She rubbed at her lips; they tingled.
Magni rubbed at his lips, too. “Can we go look at the ship now?”
Relieved that the experiment was over, and more sure than ever that whatever it was their parents liked so much about rutting, it wasn’t for her, Solveig sighed and scooted back from the wall. “It’s not as good as our ships. Let’s go and I’ll show you.”
Solveig stared up at the sky, a cloudless canvas of brilliant blue, no variation in its color at all, from horizon to horizon. Below them, Karlsa was quiet. The revels after the raiders had departed had gone on long, and those who remained behind were slow to begin the next day.
Time changed when the raiders were gone, and not only when the people were weary and ill from drink. The pace of the town slowed to languor, and only essential business was conducted. Everyone seemed to hover, waiting.
For her part, since the time her father had come home strapped to a litter, Solveig had never been able to put worry from her mind when he sailed away. On that day, when she’d been only small, she’d lost the belief that he was strong as a god. He was only a man. A great man, the best man, but only a man, and he could be taken from her.
Her worry was greater when her mother stayed home, as this time she had. Her father told many stories about the times her mother had saved him. He said often that his wife was fully half of him. He needed her at his side. But Solveig’s youngest sister, Hella, barely more than a babe, and small and frail, had taken ill, so her mother was in the hall tending her, and her father was alone in the wide world.
“When we are wed, will you live in Geitland, or will I live here?”
Solveig rolled her head on the soft grass on which they lay, at the edge of the Wood of Verđandi, and studied Magni’s profile. His cheeks were yet smooth, but his face had changed since she’d last seen him. It had become more angular, more manly. He looked much like his father.
“Who says we’re to be wed?” Honestly, everyone said it. Even she herself thought about it. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought, and sometimes, she entertained it for quite a while. Sometimes, things inside her stirred and ached, and all she could think of was him.
He turned and met her eyes. His were a blue darker than her own, more like the sea than the sky. “Everyone. Do you say we won’t?”
She shrugged and turned back to the sky. An eagle flew across the smooth blue and then dived, and she didn’t need to lift her head and look over the cliff to know he’d plucked a fish from the water below. “I say that when we wed, and whom, and if, is not for anyone but ourselves.”
His hand went over hers where it lay on the grass, and he squeezed. She felt his new arm ring, bestowed only weeks before, when he’d declared his loyalty to his father. She hated that twisting band of gold and silver, not for what it said about him, but for what the lack of such a thing said about her.
In Karlsa, as in Geitland, women were not given arm rings. They swore their fealty, and they fought alongside the men as equals, but they were not gifted a token of their allegiance. Solveig enjoyed trinkets and baubles, but it was not for its sparkle that she envied Magni his arm ring. She cared not to be excluded. Magni wore that arm ring, and now all he met would know he was a man and had been deemed a worthy one. Solveig would have to prove her worthiness every day.
She tried to pull her hand from his, but he held fast. He’d grown taller than she since they’d last seen each other as well, and stronger, too.
Magni shifted to his side, still holding her hand, and looked down at her. His long hair fell forward from his shoulders and shaded his face. Its ends brushed her neck. “I would wed you, Solveig. Not for our parents’ wish. For my own.”
That stirring she sometimes felt became a spasm, and her chest ached. But she wanted more than him. She had only just begun to train to fight, still with wooden swords. She wanted to find her honor and make her parents proud. When girls her age wed, they soon swelled with babes and spent their lives chasing children and chickens.
Her mother had wed much later, after she had made her name. Her father had been even older. She would wait for love until she had honor of her own.
“My mother and father are legends. I’m made from them. If I’m anything less than a legend myself, I diminish them. That’s all that matters—I must do them honor. I’ll wed no man until I have made my story and it shines with theirs.”
Her voice trembled, and she cleared her throat to rid it of its weakness. She felt strangely exposed, and that made her feel defensive. She’d given something away just then, though she wasn’t quite sure what.
His expression changed, and Solveig saw pity in it—and with that, she was sure that she’d exposed something raw and weak in herself. She yanked hard and freed her hand, pushing him away. She sat up and turned, making distance between them and facing him directly.
“If you share a word I’ve said with anyone, I’ll kill you.”
Magni put up his hands, as if warding off a blow. “I keep your secrets, Solveig. Always.”
He did, but her vulnerability wasn’t calmed. “Swear.”
“I swear.” He pulled his short blade from his belt. “I’ll swear on blood, if you need it.”
They’d made many such oaths, and both carried scars from most of them. Most had been childish vows, only requiring the solemnity of blood because they’d been too young to know any risk greater or to keep deeper secrets. But this one felt especially important, even if Solveig wasn’t sure why. “Yes. Blood.”
Without a blink, Magni drew the tip of the blade across his palm. She took the blade from him and made a cut on her own palm. The sting was mild and familiar. They clasped hands.
“I, Magni Leifsson”—his voice always deepened when he said words he thought important—“swear to you, Solveig Valisdottir, never to speak the words we’ve spoken here on this day to any other soul, or to share their import with any other soul. On my blood, and on my honor.”
“Swear on your arm ring, too,” she added as an afterthought, studying the sunlit glint of his new trinket.
“I swear on my arm ring as well.”
Satisfied, she tried to release his hand, but, again, he held on. “I will wait, Solveig. I would wed you, when you wish.”
“Pick it up.” Solveig’s mother brought her sword up and held it before her, pointing it straight up to the gods.
It wasn’t really her sword. Her true sword was a storied thing. She’d wielded it through many great raids and slain hundreds of men and women. She’d never named it, but everyone Solveig knew called it the God’s-Eye Blade.
Her mother’s eyes were unlike any other eyes in the world. They didn’t match. One was blue, a paler shade than Solveig’s, who had her father’s eyes. The other, though, was every color in the world, and through it ran brown lines that made the image of a rooted tree. Yggdrasil, the world tree. People said that that eye was Odin’s own, the one he’d sacrificed so that he might gain all the world’s wisdom. Thus, she was known and revered all through their world as the God’s-Eye.
She said that it was a story, not a truth, like all the stories about her, and the stories about Solveig’s father as well. But Solveig listened hard everywhere she went. She watched and saw, too. And she thought deeply about the things that she heard and the things that she saw.
She thought that stories were truths, no matter how many facts they stretched. The story of a thing was what really mattered.
There was truth in the belief in them, and there was magic in the telling. She didn’t know if her mother’s marvelous right eye was Odin’s very one. Neither did she know why it couldn’t be. But she did know that her mother was a great warrior. Her mother wanted that awe and fear for herself, not for her eye, but Solveig thought that one was the same as the other. People knew her as a mighty shieldmaiden, and they also believed that her eye had its own power. However they came to it, the awe and admiration they felt for her were true.
The same was true for her father. He said that the great stories of him were really times when he’d been saved. He hadn’t fought Ægir, but the jötunn had simply spat him out of the sea and saved him. He’d been badly hurt in battle, nearly split in twain—and he had a long, wide scar down his back to prove it—but he’d only fallen to the ground to fight no more that day, and he would have died right there had not Solveig’s mother saved him. In grief for the loss of his firstborn child, her older brother, who’d died on the day of his birth, he’d challenged Thor to kill him, not to fight him, but Thor had had mercy and let him live.
She believed that her father’s versions of events might be more factual, but not that they were any more true. People made their truth in the telling. What had happened wasn’t as important as what was made of it.
They also said, now, that his heart had been run through with a spear but he had not fallen, and that his heart had pushed the spear out on its own. She knew the facts—she vividly remembered seeing him carried off the skeid in a litter, his soul only inches from the door of Valhalla. It was one of her most complete early memories. Most of the people who now told the story of his mighty heart had been there the day he’d been carried off the ship. Many had been present on the day he’d been wounded. They knew the facts and told the story anyway. The facts were different, but the story was true.
He’d been shot with three thick arrows. One had struck near his heart, and all of the wounds had putrefied before they’d gotten him home. He’d nearly died. Often, in the weeks that he lay insensible, they’d thought that he would.
But he’d survived and recovered completely, but for the new scars on his broad chest. And that was the real story. Again and again, Vali Storm-Wolf had taken injuries that would kill any mortal man, and again and again he’d recovered and reclaimed all of his strength. Those were facts of things that happened.
His heart was mighty enough to push a spear from its chambers. His body was strong enough to hold itself together. His will was powerful enough to take on the gods. That was the truth the stories told.
“Pick it up, daughter. We go again.”
The God’s-Eye Blade hung in its scabbard in the great hall, beside her mother’s shield. But the dull iron of the practice sword her mother wielded now seemed legendary in her hands.
Solveig glared down at the hunk of iron her mother had knocked from her hands. A true blade awaited her, one that her father had given her mother upon their wedding. A day would come when she would be worthy to wield that gleaming thing. But not now. Now even worthless iron was more than she could hold. Her palms and fingers still ached and quaked with the force of her mother’s strike. It took all her concentration not to allow herself to shake the pain away.
She was the daughter of legends, and she wanted nothing in the world so much as she wanted one thing: to be worthy of their truths.
Standing before her mother, pain singing through her hands, she didn’t feel worthy of anything.
“Pick it up, my sun.” Her father’s shadow fell over her and the dull blade she had not yet recovered. He must have come from the hall to watch her humiliation.
She did as he’d said. When she stood straight and wrapped her hand around the hilt of the practice sword, he stepped behind her and put his arms around her, closing her sword hand in his, and gripping the elbow of her shield arm. His weapons were axes, not a sword, and he didn’t fight with either shield or armor, but he knew well how to wield all the tools of the warrior. He was a berserker of the Úlfhéðnar—the fiercest and boldest of all warriors.
Seeing her father’s intent, her mother relaxed her stance and let her dull sword point downward.
In her father’s arms, dwarfed by his body, Solveig felt stronger, like some of his storied might had moved into her through his touch.
“Always know the field around you. Front, back, and sides. Never expose your tender center. Protect yourself neck to thighs. Keep your shield facing your opponent, always, and brace it well”—he lifted her shield arm and set it where he wanted it, pushing her shoulder down and in—“and use your blade from the side. You cannot be disarmed if your blade is not where his blade is. Step to the side and push in.” He moved her body sideways and then forward, bringing her sword arm down and across to slash the air. Three more times, he made the same move.
Above her head, she felt him nod, and then her mother lifted the sword again and brought her shield up as well. Her mother attacked, and her father moved Solveig’s arm so that her shield took the blow. He pushed her inward, moving her sword arm, and she connected with her mother’s body for the first time, slashing with her harmless blade across her mother’s midsection.
Her mother smiled, her magical eyes landing first on Solveig and then lifting to linger on her father. Moving like water, her mother stepped back and came in again, and Solveig’s father helped her block the blow.
It was all slow and graceful, like a dance rather than a fight, but Solveig better understood what she was supposed to see and feel and do.
She relaxed and enjoyed the dance, letting her parents, the Storm-Wolf and the God’s-Eye, show her the steps of love and war, and she felt, for the first time, that she might someday be a shieldmaiden worthy of her lineage.
© 2017 Susan Fanetti
I’m contemplating a project (which is still tentative, so I’m not ready to say more about it), for which I’ve undertaken a re-read and re-edit of the Signal Bend Series. Other than to skim sections here and there to check for continuity points as I’ve continued telling stories in the same world, or to sample a few passages I especially like, I haven’t read any of the books from that series since shortly after I finished the manuscript of Leave a Trail—when, in a blaze of nostalgia, already homesick for the world I was leaving, I read through the whole series in a week. That was right about three years ago.
I just finished re-reading/editing Leave a Trail, completing the series, and now I feel bloggy. I have some nostalgic thoughts and observations about writing (and living) Signal Bend that interest me, at least, and I thought I’d share them in case they might interest you, too.
Fair warning: It’s long. I had a lot of thoughts. Also, here there be spoilers.
My writing style has changed noticeably since Move the Sun—and by “changed” I mean “improved.” Holy wow, was it hard not to dig my hands deep into MTS and really change the language. I still like the story, and I still think Isaac and Lilli’s chemistry crackles like Pop Rocks and Coke, but I see novice weaknesses in the actual craft that make my fingers itch.
However, throughout this re-edit of the series, I made myself stick to fixing actual errors and formatting glitches, limiting my editing of sentence structure mainly to style consistency and verb tense fixes. (LIKE USING PAST PERFECT TENSE CONSISTENTLY WHERE IT BELONGS, 4-YEARS-YOUNGER SUSAN. GEEZ. NOT LIKE YOU’RE AN ACTUAL EXPERT IN THIS GRAMMAR SHIT OR ANYTHING.)
That said, though, I wouldn’t change anything about the story of MTS. I still vividly recall the experience of writing Signal Bend. I began thinking about my writing process as a being named “Lola” because throughout that series, I barely had the feeling of crafting a story. It flowed through me as if I were merely transcribing someone else’s dictation. The saga wanted to be told, demanded to be told.
After this re-read, I think I see where those weaknesses of craft originated. It was more than simply a writer finding her footing in a new endeavor (it was that, too, of course). It was that I was chasing after the story, slapping words down on the page as quickly as they came to me. And I was still deeply living the story during the editing stage, so I still had that “flow” feeling and didn’t want to meddle with the magic.
Now, I wish I’d meddled a little. But I’m proud of the work.
Behold the Stars was written before I published MTS. I’ve always kept at least one book “in the bank,” as it were, so I’m sure what the next thing will be before I put something out. It helps control my anxiety about publishing. Currently, since I slowed my publication schedule down a little last year, but not my writing, I’ve generally got three books in the bank at any given time. When I release something, it’s probably been sitting, completed, on my hard drive for about six months or so. I keep telling myself that means I can take a break, but then I never do. It drives my husband nuts.
Anyway, Isaac and Lilli’s main, two-book story was wrapped up before MTS came out. I’d been waffling about publishing MTS, riddled with my usual anxieties, and I forced the point by refusing to allow myself to start Show’s story (which clamored to be told) until MTS was out in the world.
That’s worth mentioning for this reason (and confession): when I published MTS, I hadn’t read a romance novel in something like 25 years. Fabio was at his peak back then, and Johanna Lindsey and Laura Kinsale were my go-tos. I could not have named any current romance writer; the closest I’d come to reading romance in all that time was Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries.
Or Twilight. I’d read the Twilight books.
Even coming from writing popular SOA erotic fic, I had literally no idea that “MC romance” was a thing. I wasn’t even sure that I had written a romance. I’d simply written a story that wanted to be written about people I wanted to be with.
So I was a total n00b in the genre. Since I didn’t know that MC romance was a thing, I also didn’t know it was a hot thing. I completely lucked into that. I didn’t have a website, or an FB page, or any kind of author “platform.” I used Amazon’s cover creator for MTS’s first cover. I did literally nothing but slap the book on Amazon and hope my friends would buy it.
And then MTS got reviewed online at USA Today. Favorably. Things got a little crazy after that.
But I didn’t understand the romance world or the trade at all. These days, I understand it better, but I still suck at it. I’ve come to terms with that. For a while, during the Signal Bend days, I seriously considered giving up my day job—I was making a lot more money with book sales than as a professor—but I didn’t, for a couple of reasons: 1) I like my day job; it’s a career I worked hard for. And 2) I live with anxiety every single day. Writing is my haven and release. I didn’t want to turn it into something that had to make money. I didn’t want to be beholden to anyone but myself and my muse. That would have driven me straight off the cliff.
I’m so fucking glad I didn’t react to Signal Bend’s success by changing my life. Because writing is a lucrative hobby and not the way I pay my bills, I can write what I want, chase the stories that interest me, and not worry if anyone comes along for the ride.
So…Behold the Stars was written and in the can when I published Move the Sun. All the controversial elements of that story had occurred. Comet had died on fire. The kittens had been gruesome wind chimes. Daisy Ryan had been brutally murdered. Marissa Halyard had been killed. Lilli had been taken and brutalized by Ellis. All those things had happened.
I began writing Into the Storm approximately fifteen seconds after I clicked “publish” on MTS, weeks before BTS came out and the backlash hit. (What I thought at the time was backlash. The scale got reset a while later. Anyway, I got my first hate mail.)
Would I have written BTS the same way if I’d known I was writing romance, and if I’d understood the trade better? That was a question I went into this re-read with. Does the story hold up as it is, with its controversy, knowing what I now know about the romance world, and now that my head is out of the Signal Bend zone?
Answer: yes. (Phew!)
Yeah, those events aren’t “romantic,” yeah, at least one of those events puts some serious tarnish on the “heroes’” armor, yeah, I totally freaked myself out during this re-read, and yeah, it’s intense. But the story works, and it’s right for the world I’d made.
Here’s a thing that’s been true since I started writing bikers all the way back in fanfic: I don’t want to romanticize the outlaw MC world. I don’t want it just to be a backdrop for Bad Boys™. I’m not trying to write “heroes” and “heroines” (you’re never going to see me do the “H/h” thing). My leads are people I like—no, people I love—always, but when I write outlaws, they’re going to do bad things. Hopefully, they’ll do them for reasons they see as right, and they’ll want to, and try to, atone when it goes wrong, but they’re going to cross over into the dark—and I don’t just mean they’ll be assholes. I hope they’re not assholes, in fact. Even though they torture. And kill.
As a person and a writer, I’m interested in the complexity of people. I’m not interested in writing bikers because they’re hot (or, not solely for that reason, haha). I’m interested in outlaws, in people who reject the “right” way and find their own way. People who do bad things (and “bad” things) because they feel they must, but who aren’t, at their core, bad people.
I’ve said that all before at some point or another, but I went back into this re-read of BTS sort of peeking through my hands, hoping my rationale held up. For me, it does.
Also, the writing in BTS is a lot tighter than in MTS. In the second book, I got my legs under me and started to run. I can just about pinpoint the moment it happened, when the insistent demands of the story and my assertion of my voice to tell it really locked in.
Reading Into the Storm this time, I was struck by how much I LOVE SHOW. I mean, I’ve always loved Show. But wow. He’s awesome. I barely feel like I can take credit for that, lol.
I remember when I was finishing BTS and just DYING to tell Show’s story. That poor man! I spent a few days, as I was finishing BTS and figuring out how to publish MTS on Amazon, thinking about what Show’s story should be. I knew it had to be different from Isaac and Lilli’s story. I didn’t want to write the same story over and over, and anyway, Show needed something totally different.
The way I write, I almost never have any idea where a story is going. There are a couple of exceptions to that rule: final books in a series, for one—more on that later—and, in a singular instance, I wrote an entire book in my head while I was on vacation without my laptop, and that story, though it changed a lot in the writing, followed the main path I’d imagined (that would be Soul’s Fire, btw). What I otherwise do is figure out the main characters and the setting, then let the characters loose in the setting and see what they get up to.
So, for ITS, I asked myself: how on earth would Show come back to life, and who on earth would bring him back? I knew a couple of things, because I knew Show:
1) There was absolutely no chance that Show would open himself up if there was ANYTHING dangerous going on with the Horde. After what he’d lost, he’d never intentionally risk someone else he cared about getting hurt like that. He had to have some sense that things could stay quiet in Signal Bend.
2) It would have been completely unrealistic for me to populate Signal Bend with a bunch of superheroes. I already had Lilli, my badass chick who can do just about anything. There are more ways to be strong than that, though. I wanted a woman who was successful and smart, and strong in a more normal way. I also thought Show would respond better to a woman like that. Someone who’s not as combative and confrontational as Lilli is, but who asserts herself. From those ideas, Shannon was born.
I didn’t know about her secret until I was well into writing the book. That happens in almost every book, and I’ve come to trust it. The first time I alluded to Lilli having some kind of secret purpose for moving to Signal Bend, I had no idea what that purpose was. When she had a trunk full of weapons, I had no idea why. Likewise, when Shannon avoided holding a baby for the first time, I didn’t know why.
Like I said, I let my characters tell me their story. It works better when I get out of their way.
I’ve always considered Alone on Earth the weak link of the Signal Bend Series. It’s the transition book, the one that puts pieces in motion (though I didn’t know it at the time), sets everything up to bring the series story to its climax and resolution, and in my mind, it wasn’t as strong as the others. I was pleased and relieved about how strong the story felt to me as I read it now.
It definitely serves to transition from the peace of ITS to the Santaveria storyline. But the original reason I moved Bart out of Signal Bend had nothing to do with any of that.
I put him with Riley because he was so starstruck in ITS, the only Horde excited about the movie, and I thought that would be a cute, sweet, light story with some humor. Then, as I got into it and learned about Riley, as I came to understand her, I realized there was no way she’d give up her life and move to Signal Bend. Moreover, I didn’t want her to give up her life for Bart.
But I couldn’t imagine Bart ever leaving the Horde. I didn’t want him to give up his life for Riley, either. Neither is weak enough to be absorbed into the other so completely, and either would be a fish out of water in the other’s world.
But oh, shit. Wait. I’m halfway through writing this story. What the hell do I do now? Do I break them up?
Well, the Scorps are right there, in the clubhouse, being all threatening and douchey. What if something compelled Bart to give up the Horde to save it?
He totally would do that. Oh, man. Imagine the painful scenes (Lola and I, we love writing pain. Oh so very much.). All those goodbyes to write. When I started to bawl at the thought, I knew I was on the right track.
I also knew Isaac’s conflict with C.J. needed to get resolved, but I didn’t plan that resolution ahead of time. When it happened, I knew, by the way the words flew from my fingers, and the tears from my eyes, that it was right.
Anyway, it was good to read AOE again, remember how and why the story unfolded as it did—and also to realize that the writing is pretty tight in that one. It is funny, and Bart and Riley really click. The pacing is good, and the action is sharp. I went into this read a little nervous, like “Oh man, I hope this one doesn’t suck worse than I think.” So I was thrilled to discover that it doesn’t suck at all, lol.
I’m not going to say much about In Dark Woods, except that I wrote it in like three days. 20,000+ words. Talk about a story that wanted to be told.
A confession: I fucking love the hair-washing scene. I cried so hard when I wrote it. (Maybe you’ve noted a recurring theme: if an idea makes me cry, it’s getting written.) Sometimes, I go back and read just that scene, and revel in my own writing. (Ugh. Well, confessions are supposed to be embarrassing, I suppose.)
I didn’t want to write a story for Havoc. I didn’t especially like Havoc. He’s a bully and a jerk, and a sexist d-bag. I prefer “Gamma” males to Alphas—the tough badass who might be emotionally guarded, but actually treats people, especially women, well. The guy who doesn’t demand that a woman get behind him and isn’t threatened when she steps out in front.
Isaac. That’s my ideal guy. Gamma all the way.
But then Havoc and Bart had Bart’s last day in Signal Bend, and Hav was so hurt and mad and lost. There was something soft, even a little needy, inside that asshole shell, and that caught my interest. So I started his book. All the Sky was kind of an experiment: could I fall in love with a guy like Hav? (I have to be in love with my leads to write them.) Could he realistically fall in love and be a good partner? (Because NO WAY am I writing a lead woman who will just accept total douchebaggery from a guy.) Who would love him the way he needed to be loved and demand that he return the favor?
Uh, yeah, he really could learn to love and do it well. I love Hav’s evolution. I love how he learned to be a role model, a friend and a father, to Nolan, and a strong partner for Cory. But still kept his sharp edges, too. He didn’t get a personality transplant; he simply grew. I’m pretty proud of that.
And Cory is probably the lead female character I’ve written who’s most like me (Sadie is another who shares a lot of my own stuff), so I’ve always loved her.
But damn, was it hard to read ATS this time.
Actually, it was hard to read it the first time. I’d already written Show the Fire when I first edited ATS, and I think ATS was, originally, my least well-edited book, mainly because I couldn’t focus as well as I needed to. It was so damn hard to read his story, knowing what would happen not long after.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing in ATS, too, which I’d never intended. It’s like he knew long before I did how his story would end.
As you might imagine, I got a LOT of hate mail for Show the Fire. I even got death threats. Lost a lot of readers, some of whom still bear a grudge. Occasionally, I’ll still come across a stray comment somewhere on social media, somebody saying DON’T READ FANETTI, SHE KILLS LEADS! (Which, incidentally, I’ve never done in a romance. I’ve killed previous leads in two romances. Out of thirty books published.)
Even now, almost three years after I published STF, I still occasionally get angry messages.
I get that. Death threats are very much not cool (don’t do that, seriously), but angry readers expressing their anger, I get, and I expect. However, I occasionally also get messages from people calling me a “fraud” or a “cheat” or a “thief” because I call my work romance and then kill lead characters. Those messages piss me off a whole lot.
Again, I don’t kill lead characters—not when I call a book a romance. I have—rarely—killed previous leads. Call that a fine hair to split if you will, but it’s true. Always for story, and never for shock, but I’ve done it, and I won’t promise not to do it again. But the books I publish in the romance category all meet the Romance Writers of America’s definition of the genre (which seems to be the trade standard definition): a central love story, and an optimistic ending for the couple. The genre doesn’t require an ironclad HEA. At most, it requires an HFN, and all my books (but one) end with at least an HFN. The one that doesn’t, I don’t categorize as a romance.
Individual readers might require anything they wish of the books they read, obviously. Groups of readers, even large groups of readers, even the majority of readers, might require anything they wish of the things they read. If the stories I write aren’t what some readers want in a romance, that’s to be expected. To each their own. But I’m not a fraud or a thief because a book I wrote didn’t meet a reader’s demands.
I accept that the things I write make some readers so angry they hate me. I accept that some readers will never read me again, will write angry reviews, will tell all their friends to avoid me. If that’s the price for writing what I want, okay. But I don’t accept having my integrity impugned because something I wrote pissed somebody off. That is not cool, and it’s not fair.
Okay. That’s been sitting on my chest for a few years. Phew.
Anyway. Where was I? Oh, right. Reflecting on this re-read of STF.
STF has become sort of a battle standard for me, for probably obvious reasons, and I went into this one with fingers and toes crossed, hoping that the story made as much sense now as it did to me when I wrote it, that the events were as important and organic as I remembered. I was terrified that I’d read it now and regret.
No regrets. It helps, I’m sure, that the rest of the Night Horde’s story has been told, and I know how Hav’s death forged the rest of the series—and not just that, but entire Night Horde saga. I couldn’t take it back if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. His was a good death.
And, in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth, STF is the best-written book in the series.
And here’s the other book in the series that I had to sit on my editing hands as I read this time. When I set out to write the conclusion to Signal Bend, I knew I had a lot of open threads that needed to get tied off, so I made a list. That was the closest I’d ever come to making an outline ahead of time.
Reading Leave a Trail now, I can see a couple of things going on that I wish I’d had a better handle on: First, trying to get that list done and close everything off. I think that affected the pacing a bit, at least in the first half or so, as I tried to build a story that didn’t just shove those open questions in any old place. It was a different way of writing from what I’d learned to trust, and it didn’t allow me to follow my characters so blithely. I had to tell them to do things so I could move the story toward loose ends. Reading it now, there are a few scenes where I can feel my hand pushing too heavily on the story.
Second, I think I just wasn’t ready to leave Signal Bend. The story was ready to end, but I wasn’t ready to move away. So I think I lingered too long, maybe.
Anyway, I love Badge and Adrienne, and I love the way Signal Bend ends. But the book would read a bit differently, and be a bit shorter, if I were writing it now.
The True Seed, on the other hand—the epilogue?—wouldn’t change a damn thing there. Isaac + Lilli + angst = writer in the zone. Those two will always and forever be my favorite couple. I love all my leads, but they will always be my greatest love.
So. What have I learned?
Well, I’ve learned that a lot of things about my writing style have changed, and improved, over the past three-plus years and thirty-plus books. But even so, I think Signal Bend is still my best series (with The Northwomen coming up hard in second place). All the way through SB, that story needed to be told. I rarely felt like I was really creating it. It just flowed through me.
And back then, with my first books, every way I had of seeing and saying something was new. I hadn’t repeated myself yet. I’m very aware of that now, of my tendencies of language usage, and I’m always pushing myself to find a new way to describe something I’ve described before. (To that point: OMG WE NEED MORE SEX VERBS.)
I’m also in a steady battle not to allow the language to dominate the story. I write in Deep POV, a sort of hybrid between 1st person and 3rd, so I want my language to reflect the tone and personality and usage of the POV character, rather than a narrator’s voice. I’d much rather readers forget the words because they’re so immersed in the story than marvel at my linguistic pyrotechnics. If you’re marveling, then you’re reading, not living, a story. I want you to move into Signal Bend and slide into a booth at Marie’s to catch up on the gossip. (But don’t order off the menu. And don’t ask for fruit. Unless it’s pie.)
It’s a fine line to walk, being fresh and innovative without allowing my sentences to shout LOOK AT MY PRETTY WORDS. I don’t always keep the balance, but I’ve always got my arms outstretched, trying.
Though I still, and likely will always, let my characters tell me their story, these days, after so many words written (something like four million words in four years, including all my fanfic) and so many scenes described and worlds built, I actively craft the language more, pushing for freshness. Thus, the act of writing doesn’t flow quite like it did, when I was only taking dictation from my characters.
Writing has gotten harder, but I’ve loved writing almost every book I’ve written. Writing is my therapy, my refuge, my sanity. A hardcore introvert, I would rather be with my characters, all of them, than with most real-life people.
I hope I always love writing and never lose its comfort. But I know that no writing experience will ever again be as fulfilling, as inspiring and exciting and downright blissful, as writing Signal Bend.
It’s my soul’s hometown.
If you made it all the way to the end here, I hope this little tour through my head was worth the time.
PS: While I’m not yet ready to talk about the tentative project that spurred this re-edit (I will when/if it stops being ‘tentative’ and starts being ‘in progress’), I’ve uploaded these fresh files to Amazon. You can get the updates if you have the books on Kindle. No big changes. Just formatting cleanups and some corrections of typos and errors, stuff like that. Oh! And hyperlinked Tables of Contents! I added those!
PPS: I considered changing the book covers with this update, and I put some effort into it, but I like the original covers. The only one I’d change is MTS, and that’s only because the cover image has been used by too many other writers (another n00b move on my part). But the theme of the covers is just as it should be, so they stay.
It might be April Fool’s Day, but this is no joke! Twist is now live. Gunner and Leah. The Bad Boy and the Preacher’s Daughter. The broken man and the young woman holding everything together.
Hope you enjoy their story!
The preorder for Twist is live now on Amazon.
It’ll be up soon at iTunes, B&N, and Kobo, and I’ll let you know when those vendors go live. UPDATE: The preorder is now live at iTunes, B&N, and Kobo, too!
Release day is Saturday, 1 April 2017.
Add it to your Goodreads shelves here.
Read a preview here.
I hope you enjoy Gunner’s story!
Generally, I do the cover reveal and stuff six weeks ahead of the release date for a book, but that would be next weekend, and I’ll be out of town on a day-job-related trip next weekend, so let’s do it now.
Twist, Book 2 of The Brazen Bulls MC will release on Saturday, 1 April 2017—and no, that’s not an April Fool’s joke I’m planning. 🙂 I’ll set up the preorder around mid-March. In the meantime, I’m sharing the cover and synopsis and a teaser, and here’s the Goodreads page.
Twist is Gunner’s story. If you read Crash (and this is a series where the books don’t stand alone all that well, so it would be a good idea to read Crash before you read Twist), you might remember that Gunner has some impulse-control issues. And anger issues. And just…issues. He’s got some things he needs to work out.
Generally, I share the first chapter or the prologue of a book as a teaser, but sometimes, for various reasons, the opening of a book isn’t an ideal teaser. That’s the case here. So I’m sharing most of Chapter Three, which gives some insights into Gunner and his story, and also introduces Leah, who has a story to tell as well.
Tulsa, Oklahoma 1996
Maxwell “Gunner” Wesson is the loose cannon of the Brazen Bulls MC. A loss taken when he was a boy left a hole inside him, full of chaos and noise, and only pain and destruction can quiet the tempest. Full of courage and fiercely loyal, he has the Bulls at his back, even when his outbursts threaten to damage the club.
But the club president’s patience is wearing thin. Gun’s lack of control has put the Bulls on the front lines of a brewing war, right in the heart of Tulsa.
Leah Campbell is a small-town girl, living the life her mother walked away from. She takes care of her father, the town minister, and keeps his secrets, ensuring that he keeps his place as the moral and spiritual center of their community. But Leah has secrets of her own, and she’s faltering under the weight of all the things she cannot say, and all the things she must be and do to keep the truth at bay. She’s filled the hole her mother made, but it’s left her empty.
When two such damaged souls, full of secrets and empty of hope, come together, they will either save each other or tear everything apart.
Note: explicit sex and violence.
And the teaser, from Chapter Three:
The little old lady rooted around in her beaded coin purse. Gunner reached through her open car window and tapped her shoulder.
“I don’t need a tip, Mrs. Greeley. I just need you to sign the slip.”
“You’re a good boy, Gunner. You deserve a little somethin’ extra.” She handed him a neatly folded dollar bill and snapped her little purse closed, then finally signed the credit card slip for her gas.
“Well, thank you, ma’am.” He shoved the bill in his pocket—she always tipped him one dollar, and he always told her not to—and then jumped out of the way when Mrs. Greeley put her big old Lincoln Continental into gear and pulled off. He ran up and grabbed the easel sign, advertising an oil and lube sale, out of the way before she could clip it as she turned around the pumps. She got herself out onto the street without calamity and headed off at about fifteen miles per hour.
Mrs. Greeley likely would not pass a driving test if anybody made her take one now, but at least she drove so slowly that she’d probably just bounce off anything she hit, even in that road barge.
Delaney’s Sinclair was one of the last full-service stations in Tulsa. They didn’t even have a single self-serve pump. A fairly steady traffic of full-service customers, mostly old folks from the neighborhood like Mrs. Greeley, kept the pumps, and the pump jockeys, busy enough, but being full-service wasn’t much of a money-maker. Delaney’s made its real money in service and repairs.
Gunner was one of the few Brazen Bulls patches who didn’t work the busy bays at their president’s Sinclair station. He was good with engines. Really good. But he wasn’t a certified mechanic and wasn’t ever going to be. If he could just show the certification suits what he could do and get the piece of paper that way, he’d be fine, but there were required classes and textbooks, and written tests, and he sucked at all that stuff.
Reading wasn’t really his thing. He could read, he wasn’t a drooling moron, but he was slow at it. The letters shifted around on the page, and he had trouble keeping what he read in his mind for very long.
Put something real in his hand, and he’d understand it completely in minutes. He’d take it apart and know all its workings and then put it back together with his eyes fucking shut. Ask him to read a set of instructions on the exact same thing he’d just taken apart and put back together, however, and he’d be lost. Ask him to take a written test on it, and he’d forget everything he’d ever known, including his own fucking name.
So no certification, and Delaney wanted only certified mechanics in his bays. Which made Gunner a pump jockey. Well, hell, at least he had a job on the books, keeping the Feds off his scent.
His real job was next door, at the Brazen Bulls clubhouse. He was their munitions expert, keeping their weapons and ammunition in shape, managing the inventory, and, with Apollo’s help, researching any new weapons coming on their scene, including whatever shipments they were running for the Volkov bratva. He was certified on just about every kind of small arms, both military and consumer grade, and a wide assortment of large artillery as well—because all he’d had to do for that was show his Army instructors he could handle the motherfuckers.
And he could handle the motherfuckers.
That was where he made the money he lived on: in his cut of the club business. Going ten goddamn months without that cut—while he’d paid for the repairs to the pool hall, and restitution to Terry, the owner, and the huge damn fine Delaney had levied on him for starting a brawl on Dyson turf while he’d been wearing colors—had turned his financial landscape into something out of a Mad Max movie. He’d seriously considered putting his Chevelle up for sale, and he’d had that car since he was fifteen years old. He’d restored it from a husk.
If not for getting fed at the clubhouse, and Mo and Delaney’s house, and occasionally at his dad’s place outside of Grant, Gunner would have been living on ramen and tap water by the time Delaney had declared him square a couple months back.
If not for the kutte on his back, his landlord would probably have kicked him by then, too. But now he was square with club, his crib, and his chow again, and he still had his Chevy and his Harley. He just didn’t have room for much else yet.
Since that rave a couple weekends ago, he’d been really thinking about talking to his old man about renting out their barn. If they went in fifty-fifty, Gunner could get healthy. His father would fucking hate it all—the kids and cars and drugs and music—but if the money was decent, he might think about it, at least.
That rave had been fucking awesome. He’d been jacking off to his hazy memory of that little sparkle fairy ever since—way more than he’d been thinking about Willa, which was a nice, safe change. He wished he’d taken the time to really see her, but all he remembered was blonde and glowing. Like Tinker Bell. And slick and tight. Holy hell, she’d been a hot little number. She’d felt just perfect in his arms. He’d felt…he didn’t know. Like he’d found where he fit, maybe. But that was stupid.
Anyway, she’d made an impression, despite his dim recollection of her looks.
Behind him, the roar of hard wheels on pavement rose up, and he turned to see a group of neighborhood boys rolling their skateboards onto the station lot.
“Hey! No! You know better!” Gunner barked, flicking his hand, and the boys rolled back to the sidewalk. The kids liked to swing through, do turns around the pumps, and then roll on out. One of these times, Delaney was going to meet them with his shotgun. He insisted that it was a safety concern, but whatever the reason, his attitude about kids on the station lot could best be described as ‘crotchety.’
Gunner liked the kids. They were harmless, and he liked the hero worship. They lurked around the edges of the clubhouse and the station, trying to get a contact high of biker cool. Wally, in fact, one of their current prospects, had once been one of the skater boys.
Arrayed in plastic chairs along the front of the building, the usual suspects, a herd of retired old farts from the neighborhood who spent their days right there, bitching at each other about politics, talking about their days in The War, and trying to school a bunch of mechanics about cars, grumbled after the kids.
“You tell ‘em Gun,” Mr. Jones hacked in his three-packs-unfiltered rasp. “Buncha baby thugs.”
Offering the old coots an amiable shrug, he went back into the station.
Gunner opened the register and stuffed Mrs. Greeley’s charge slip under the till. An Oldsmobile pulled up at one of the pumps, and the driveway bell chimed over Gunner’s head. At the same time, the phone rang.
“Wally! Pump two!” Gunner shouted, and the prospect stopped stocking belts in the near bay and ran out.
Gunner picked up the phone. “Delaney’s Sinclair, this is Gunner.”
“Hey, Max. It’s Deb.”
He hipped the register closed. “Hey, sis. What’s up?”
“When are you done today? You have club stuff?”
“Nooo…” he answered, wondering what he was letting himself in for. “Off at two.” He’d opened the station this morning. Though he went to bed drunk or baked or otherwise altered most nights, he actually liked the early-morning shifts. He didn’t need, or want, a lot of sleep, and he liked the quiet of a drowsy dawn, before the day had had a chance to go to shit.
“You want to come for supper? I’m frying up the last of Dad’s bass and walleye from his trip. And coleslaw and beans.”
“Cornbread?” His stomach rumbled at the thought, and he looked over at the greasy bag of McDonald’s fries he’d been chomping on since Becker had done the lunch run a couple of hours earlier.
She laughed. “Sure.”
“What’s my tax for this wonderful feast?”
“Well, I could use some help. Dad wants to take some stuff in for the church donation run. They’re collecting for Berry Creek—you know, the twister that took out most of the town?”
Depending on the map you were looking at, either the entire state of Oklahoma formed the heart of Tornado Alley, or the western half of the state was its heart and the rest was its soul. Either way, Oklahomans knew wind like Alaskans knew cold. Dozens of tornadoes whipped through the state every single year. Sometimes they’d blow by and do little more than shake up a few windows, and other times, they’d erase whole towns and the people in them right off all the maps.
And sometimes they tore families right in half. Gunner stomped on the dark thoughts that started swirling around the base of his skull.
Berry Creek was a town smack in the middle of the state, in the heart no matter what map, so it was destined to get erased eventually. May 1996 had been its fated time, apparently. The Bulls’ old ladies had put together a collection, too: clothes, household goods, furniture, everything. Everybody in the neighborhood had chipped in —and not many people who lived around the clubhouse had much to spare. The women had done a big Wal-Mart run for toiletries and crap like that, too. The club was riding it out there on the weekend.
He should’ve asked if Deb and Dad had stuff for the Bulls run, he should have expected that they’d be chipping in, but it hadn’t occurred to him at all. He was shit about things like that. Oh well. They had it wrapped up, seemed like.
“I can’t get much in the Chevy, Deb.” He’d long ago taken the back seat out and customized the trunk for his NOS tank—and for his most excellent speakers.
“No, we can take the truck. I just need your muscles to carry stuff. I don’t want Dad doing it. His back’s been bugging him, though he won’t admit it. He’s doing that thing where he shakes out his leg, when he thinks nobody’s looking.”
Their dad had sciatica, and it got pretty bad, but he still worked every day on the farm. He had a couple paid hands, and Gunner came in and helped, too, at the beginning and end of each season, but Sam Wesson would be sitting in his own tractor every day until the day he died, even if he had to get tied in to keep his seat.
“You only love me for my muscles.”
“Not true. I also love you for…nope. You’re right. Just your muscles.”
“Loser. See you around three?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
“Great. Bring beer.”
“Hey!” But she’d hung up.
The Wesson family farm wasn’t much, just a few fields of wheat, corn, and sunflowers in rotation, plus Deb’s big vegetable garden and her couple dozen chickens, which kept her little roadside stand going through the summer. The big companies weren’t exactly fretting over the competition, but it had kept the family warm and full for generations. Some years were warmer and fuller than others, but they’d made it through them all.
It wasn’t much to look at, either, nearly indistinguishable from every other family farm for hundreds of miles. Unless it was your home. Then, it was beautiful and unique.
When Gunner rode down the driveway, he lifted a hand to his father, who was out in the wheat, doing a soil test. His father returned the wave and went immediately back to his work. He wouldn’t be back in until it was time to wash up for supper.
Gunner pulled his Fat Boy up between his father’s truck and his sister’s station wagon, the back of which was full of some weird thing. Once he was off his bike, he peered in through the side windows and tried to make it out. A bunch of wood. Some kind of contraption. No telling what bizarre thing Deb was up to. She was always on some new project.
He was fascinated, though, and he stared through the dusty window, trying to see how all the pieces would fit together—it was definitely in pieces as it was.
“It’s a loom.” His sister’s reflection came up beside his own in the wagon window.
“A loom? What’s that?”
She rocked her hip into his leg. “For weaving, dope. I got it at an auction for cheap. It’s broken, but I bet you could fix it.”
“Do you know how to weave?”
“I will when I have a loom to learn on.”
He’d thought often that his big sister had been born about ten years too late. She would have made a great hippie. She was artistic and mellow and a little bit weird—and fearless.
“What’re you gonna make?” he asked her reflection, which shrugged.
“I don’t know. Rugs, maybe? Whatever I can. I was thinking maybe you could bring it inside when we get back from the church.”
He laughed. “I’ve been had. You got a whole honey-do list for me. There’d better be pie, too.”
“Strawberry. And ice cream. Did you remember beer?”
He stood straight and nodded at his bike, where a twelve-pack of Coors Light, their father’s brand, was bungeed to the bitch seat.
His older sister beamed at him and then went and freed the beer. “We better get this in the fridge and get started. I got all the boxes and bags sealed up and ready to go.”
“I’ll bring the loom in first, if you want.”
A weird little look passed over Deb’s face and then was gone, pushed away by one of her sweet smiles. “No, no. No time. They stop taking donations in at four. We should get hoppin’.”
Gunner took the pack of Coors from her. “Okay, I’m all yours.”
Heartland Baptist Church was in the actual town limits of Grant, a few blocks off the town square. The parking lot was crowded with people offloading donations, and other people taking them in, logging them, and going through the boxes and sorting out what was brought in. Men were loading furniture onto pickups, and Gunner thought he’d ask if he could help, once he got their own shit handed off.
While Gunner put down the tailgate and dragged off the first box, Deb went over to talk to the Reverend, who greeted her warmly. She and their dad still went to church most Sundays. Gunner hadn’t gone, except for a couple of Christmas services he’d been guilted into, since he’d joined the Army.
He’d gone in the Army, too, for a while. The best way to get through Basic was to keep your faith. You got Sunday mornings off if you went to chapel. If you didn’t, you did KP.
Everybody had religion in Basic Training.
But they were wrong about there being no atheists in foxholes. Some people became atheists in foxholes.
Or sitting behind the gun in a helicopter door.
Especially if they’d already been really fucking confused.
The big box said CLOTHES in his sister’s spiky letters, so he carried it over to a table mounded with clothes. A girl with a long blonde ponytail was picking up items of clothing and describing them to an older woman, who was writing everything down in a spiral notebook. The girl had a nice bod, and Gunner always noticed nice bods, so he let his eyes roam a little.
She wore a white pair of those pants that stopped just below the knees and a little flowered shirt that absolutely screamed ‘good Baptist girl.’ Buttoned all the way up to her neck. Those tits, though, couldn’t be camouflaged by some buttons and ruffles.
Kind of a shame to put a figure like that on a good girl. If there was a God, he had a fucked-up sense of humor.
He put the edge of his box on a clear spot of the table and said, “I guess these are for you.”
She looked up. Oh, she had a cute face, too. Not gorgeous like a model, but nice. Pretty blue eyes. Really great mouth, with pouty lips. The kind of lips a guy would want to see on him. And feel on him.
A sense memory wafted through his head: the taste of bubblegum. His cock got a little tingle.
Then that mouth dropped open. Her eyes were wide, too; she was a picture of dumbfounded shock. Delaney’s wife, Mo, had a word she used that Gunner had always liked: gobsmacked. This girl seemed like someone had come over and smacked her gob.
Gunner looked to see if something weird was going on behind him. Nope. He turned back. “You okay?”
She didn’t seem inclined to answer. Then his sister called, “Max!” and he turned toward her voice.
“They want the blankets and bedding over here. They’re finishing up a load. Can you get that box?”
“Yeah. One sec.” He turned back to the girl, who had, at least, closed her mouth.
“You’re Max,” she said. “Max Wesson.”
“That’s what they named me, yeah.” Suddenly, his brain cleared up, and he recognized her. She was the Reverend’s daughter. Leanne or something like that. She’d been a little girl with bows in her hair the last time he’d been a regular around here. “You’re Lee…” he bailed, not sure if Leanne was right.
“Leah.” Her voice cracked. When she held out her hand, it was shaking. It shook harder when he took it and gave it a squeeze.
Was she freaked out by his ink? That happened sometimes. Sometimes people stared at him like he was the headliner in a circus sideshow. He didn’t have all that much. Rad had twice the ink he had. But his arms were pretty well sleeved, and his hands were covered.
Maybe that was it.
“Leah, right. You grew up good.” He gave her a little grin and took his tattooed hand away. “Anyway, here’s a box of clothes, according to the label, and I got to go be my sister’s errand boy. Nice to see ya.”
She nodded, still looking like she’d seen a ghost or a monster or something. That girl obviously needed to get out more. The Rev probably kept her locked up in a tower with her Bible all day and night. Considering her bod built for sin, he probably had her sealed into a chastity belt, too.
He went back to the truck and jumped into the bed, looking for the box marked BLANKETS AND LINENS, which, he remembered from loading the truck, was the box from their father’s fucking thirty-inch RCA.
Debra did not understand about efficient packing. Bigger wasn’t always better, but she did not get that. Pack a big enough box, and even blankets got heavy. Not to mention awkward. He pushed the big dumb thing to the tailgate, jumped down, and heaved it onto his back.
As he passed the clothes table, Leah was just opening the box he’d left. Her fugue state seemed to have passed, thank fuck.
Gunner dropped the television box of bedding off at the table where his sister was now working, and he turned right around and headed back to the truck for more.
A flash of white caught his eye, for no particular reason, and he looked that way—to Leah and the box he’d left. She’d opened it and was pulling things out, describing them to the woman with the notebook.
The white was a shirt she was holding up. Not just a shirt. A St. Louis Cardinals jersey. Small, for a little boy. Across the back, where the player’s name would go, in red satin letters, was the name MARTIN.
He stopped and stared. Somebody brushed against him, like he’d stopped short on them and they had to cut around not to run into him, but he barely noticed. He watched Leah as she set the little jersey aside and pulled out another one just like it. Again, she held it up. On the back was the name MAXWELL.
“What the fuck?” Gunner muttered. “What the fuck?” He went for the table. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?”
Reaching the table, he snatched his old jersey out of Leah’s hands—she was gobsmacked again, but fuck her—and grabbed his brother’s from the pile of people’s fucking discards. Their discards. Their giveaways. “WHAT THE FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK?”
He grabbed hold of the box and yanked it forward. It toppled off the table and spilled onto the parking lot.
The box was full to the brim with Martin’s clothes. And his clothes. All the stupid outfits their mom had dressed them in, him in blue and Martin in green. Were all those boxes marked CLOTHES his brother’s? All those boxes he’d lugged to the truck with a goddamn smile on his face? Was Deb throwing Martin the fuck away?
“FUCK! FUCK! FUCK YOU!” He swept everything up and shoved it all back in the box.
“Max! Max, calm down! Honey, it’s okay!” Hands grabbed at his arm, and he swung, wanting to be free of them. He felt his hand connect, and he heard people yell, but he didn’t fucking care. He stood up and carried the box back to the truck, and he slammed the tailgate shut. It didn’t latch, it bounced in his hands, and he slammed it again and again until it caught.
Then, roaring in rage, he punched the tailgate over and over, until his hand hurt enough for the pain to be heard.
Calming slightly, he looked back and saw a crowd of people staring at him. The Reverend had his arm around Deb. Her mouth was bleeding. That was what he’d connected with: his sister’s face.
Just at that moment, he didn’t give a fuck.
He got into the truck and drove away.
He went back to the farm, where he returned all of his brother’s belongings to the room they’d shared from the day of their birth until Martin and their mother had died.
He’d meant to put everything in its place, but he couldn’t. The room was empty; Deb had cleaned it out completely. Their father, too; there was no way this had gone down without his approval.
Gunner stood there, feeling the fury swirl and the chaos clamor. He flexed his hand, which he was pretty sure was broken, until the shifting bones hurt enough that he didn’t think he’d lose his shit again.
When he went back out, a car was pulling away, and Deb and their father stood near the garage. He walked right by them both, got onto his bike, and got the fuck away.
If they tried to do anything like that ever again, he’d burn the whole motherfucking place to the ground.
© 2017 Susan Fanetti