Cover Reveal & Teaser: Heart’s Ease

HE paperback

Hello, all!

Today Susan and I are revealing the cover for Heart’s Ease, the second installment of The Northwomen Sagas. The Goodreads page is updated, too, so you can add it to your TBR, if you’d like.

In the first installment, God’s Eye, we met the leads of Heart’s Ease: Olga and Leif. Their meeting and burgeoning relationship happens in the background of Brenna and Vali’s story, and they don’t end up in a good place. Leif makes some difficult choices that he can’t explain to his friends. Especially not to Olga.

They don’t start in a good place, either, frankly, seeing as Olga is enslaved by the Northmen who have ransacked her homeland, and Jarl Åke’s people aren’t known for treating their slaves well. But Leif is not like most of his clansmen.

Heart’s Ease opens at about the same time that the main action of God’s Eye starts, but only the first part overlays the same timeline. Here, Brenna and Vali’s story moves into the background, and you’ll see how Olga and Leif became close. You’ll also see why and how Leif made the choices he did, and what the consequences were for Olga.

The rest of the book moves forward beyond the time spanned in God’s Eye. Olga and Leif have a lot of healing to do and a lot of work to restore the relationship they’d started. And, of course, the hard times aren’t entirely behind them.

If you haven’t read God’s Eye, Heart’s Ease should work as a standalone, too.

Heart’s Ease will release on Saturday, 1 October 2016, and the preorder will be live a couple of weeks before that. Stay tuned for updates!


Here’s the synopsis:

When raiders from the North land in Olga’s world and take it over, she is captured and made a slave. She and her people suffer at the hands of creatures that seem more beasts than men, and not even her talent and skill as a healer can help them.

But one barbarian, big and golden, seems different from the others. He doesn’t revel or partake in the suffering of the new slaves, and, when he learns that Olga is a healer who knows some of their words, he releases her from her bonds.

The raiders stake claim to Olga’s world and mean to settle it, and she and the rest of her people who survived make a new community with the invaders. The barbarians who destroyed her world and made her a slave grow to be her friends and her equals.

The friendship she forms with the one who cut her bonds is the deepest of them all.

Leif is a valiant and esteemed warrior who’s raided for many summers. As a leader in this new world they mean to settle, he forges deep, close ties with those who’d been only allies, and sometimes enemies, and with the native people of this new land.

In particular, he’s drawn to the dark-haired healer, whose tiny body holds the will and spirit of a mighty raider.

Leif is deeply loyal to the jarl who’s treated him as a son. When the jarl arrives to view their success, Leif struggles to understand the ways his mentor has grown cruel and deceitful and to see the man he’s loved as a father, whose sons he loves as brothers. But he recognizes the brutal lies for what they are.

Torn between the man to whom he’d long ago sworn his unconditional fealty and the friends to whom he is devoted, Leif makes a devastating choice, trying as best he can to save those he loves, at any cost to himself. Even at the cost of their love for him.

The consequences of his choice are severe. Perhaps too severe to allow forgiveness.

But until there is forgiveness, there can never be ease.


And here’s the first chapter as a teaser:


1

The barbarians won the village and all its meager spoils.

Eight women had been spared from death during the scourge and claimed as slaves, Olga and Johanna among them. Johanna’s young friend, Helena, was also dragged away, bound by wrist and neck with hempen rope.

They were dragged farther inland, where the raiders made camp. A pen was made to hold the women, as if they were nothing but livestock. Olga understood enough of the talk around them to know that they were less than livestock to these strange men—and women, there were women among the raiders, bearing sword and shield and stained with blood as much as any man.

Four men—three fishermen and one soldier—had been held alive as well. The soldier was blindfolded and bound to a tree. The others were working to build the camp.

Some of the women were dragged away from the pen, and some were beset where they were, still tied to the post in the center by the rope around their necks.

Johanna was one who was dragged away. She screamed and clutched backward for Olga, her fingernails gouging deep into the flesh of Olga’s arm, until the barbarian hit her in the face and threw her over his shoulder.

For her part, Olga was taken in the pen, thrown face-down in the dirt, the rope tugging at her throat.

It was not the first time she had been taken in this way. She knew the pain of it, and she knew that men who could take this pleasure would take more pleasure in her suffering, so she bore the pain quietly.

She could hear the screams and wails of the other women and the girls, and she spoke clearly, as calmly as she could. “Be strong, sisters. Your pain and fear feeds them.”

Their anguish was too great, however, and they could not heed her.

Roaring fetid breath into the side of her face, the raider completed and left her. Before she could push herself from the ground, another was on her. She bore that, too.

And the next.

She did not resist; she lay as still and malleable as she could be, and she let it happen, because it would happen no matter her struggle, no matter her pain. It was the way of things.

Then she was left alone, as were the others in the pen. And then those who had been taken were returned. None of the women were unscathed; they showed ill use, and several had only scraps left of their clothing.

The raiders seemed to have burned off their savage need and were grouping now near a large fire, from which the smell of roasting meat wafted. They had a new appetite, and the women had a reprieve.

Johanna had been dropped near the pole and tied again to it. She made a weak cry and curled her body into a tight coil. Olga stood and went to her, ignoring the pains of her own body. Helena, bruised and battered herself, left wearing only a torn blouse, her bottom nearly bare, knelt over Johanna, sobbing; Olga nudged the girl to the side.

“Let me see, kullake. Let me see.” At Olga’s gentle urging, Johanna relaxed her body enough for Olga to examine her.

Blood had soaked through Johanna’s skirt, turning the red wool black and shiny. Olga turned to use her hands behind her and pushed the skirt up, over skinny, bare legs, pale but for the vicious bruises blossoming red and purple over the young flesh. And the blood coming from her woman’s place. Running freely. She had only twelve years. Only twelve, and the first blood to come from her womb should not have been this blood.

The sun still shone through pale clouds, and a light, cool breeze made leaves dance and sing on their branches. It seemed too light and gentle a day to hold such darkness.

The quantity and rush of blood foretold that Johanna would die on this day, in this awful place, so close to her home, and yet a world away. She would die in agony, when all around them were herbs for healing and comfort. Barely more than an arm’s reach away was bed of mouse-ear, which could slow the blood and ease her pain. And there were mushrooms that could take her away from this place. That could take them all away.

A certain kind of mushroom, and Johanna need never know pain again.

All of it, almost close enough to reach. But she was tied to a post, and her hands were bound against her back. In powerless frustration, Olga cast her eyes about the camp, as if there might be some help for them among the monsters making this nightmare.

Walking near their pen was the golden giant who had stopped the raider in Johanna’s hut. He had washed the blood from his face and hands. Olga had no cause to think him less terrible than any other of these barbarous creatures, except that he had met her eyes in the hut, and she had seen in his something other than the rapacious hunger of his blood-smeared fellow. And he had not come for the women. Not in the village, and not here in the camp.

She stood and walked the length of her rope.

Palun!” she called, and then remembered herself and sought the word in the raiders’ tongue. “Please!”

He stopped and cocked his head but didn’t speak.

Olga swallowed, and the rope rubbed against her throat. “Please.” She searched her mind for the words her brother had taught her. “Girl is bad hurt.” A nod toward Johanna on the ground would, she hoped, suffice to fill in any gaps in her words.

“You speak our tongue.” He stepped to the rope fence that bounded their prison.

“Little, yes. A plant at woods. Golden flowers?” She didn’t know how to say ‘mouse-ear’ in any other way. “It help her. Please.”

“You are a”—he said a word she did not know, and she shrugged and shook her head.

“I not know this.”

He paused as if he were thinking and then said, “You make people well?”

“Yes. I try.”

The raider pulled a knife from a sheath on his thigh and came into the pen. Olga ran backward, away from him and what she was sure was her bloody death. She tripped over her feet and had no way to correct or catch herself, with her hands bound behind her. She would have fallen, except that the raider caught her, his massive arm sweeping around her waist.

He was even more enormous up close. Olga felt sure he could have snapped her in two, and she was sure he was about to do just that. Instead, he set her on her feet and used that knife to cut her rope free from the pole. They had the complete attention of the other women, all but Johanna, who was curled again and moaning.

“Please. She suffers. More than we others. She is girl only.” Her mind raced, seeking all the words she knew of this strange tongue, which did not fit in her mouth very well.

He turned and looked down at Johanna, and, again, Olga saw something softer in his eyes. “How old is she?” When she couldn’t quite make sense of the question and didn’t respond, he asked, “How many years?” With that, she understood the first question, too.

“Twelve.”

His eyes closed. When he opened them, he turned them on her. They were deep blue, like twilight sky. “You can be of use. If you will work and do no harm, I will unbind you.” He shook the rope. “Understand?”

She understood most of his words, but she struggled to make sense of the change in her circumstances. Even if only temporary, it seemed an unthinkable boon. “I help girl?”

“If our healer can use your help, then yes. You will have run of the camp, and may see to the other slaves if you like. But if you make trouble, I will slit your throat.” Brandishing his knife, he asked again, “Understand?”

Olga nodded. “Understand.” She understood enough—he wanted her to work, and he would let her help Johanna. Perhaps the others as well. And he would unbind her.

He cut the rope from her hands and her neck, then sheathed his knife. With a huge hand wrapped completely around her arm, he led her from the pen and into the camp. Over her shoulder, she called to the other women in their own words, “Be strong! I will bring help!”

She hoped that was a truth.

~oOo~

The barbarian healer was another large man—they were all so big—though smaller than the blond, with bushy red hair and beard. He gave the blond one a long look and then nodded.

“You speak our language?” he asked of her.

She kept her eyes downcast; she knew well the role of the subjected. “Yes.”

“You know how to care for wounds—battle wounds?”

Running that sentence through her head as quickly as she could, translating the words, she nodded. “I am healer.” She used the word the blond one had used and thought she now understood its meaning.

There was only one wounded man in the tent. His face was covered in bloody bandages.

“I have no need of her now, Leif, but she can be useful,” the healer said to the blond one. Leif. His name. She looked up at his face and found his eyes on her.

“I will have her tend to the thralls, then. Some of the women are already ill used and will not be of much more use if they aren’t tended to.”

Olga’s head ached from trying to understand the raiders’ words, but sense was already coming more easily to her. “Please,” she said. “I help girl.” Too much time had passed already.

The blond one—Leif—nodded and took hold of her arm again.

But then a horn blew somewhere, and instead of leading her out of the tent, he pushed her back toward the redheaded raider. “You stay with Sven.” To the red one, he said. “Keep her here.”

And he was gone.

~oOo~

“Usch,” the redheaded healer—Sven—muttered under his breath again, while battle screamed and clanged outside the tent. “Usch.”

He went to the tent opening and stood looking. Olga could not see around him, but she didn’t need to; she had seen enough of battle in her lifetime. She had seen enough horror in this one day to last more than one lifetime.

She knew that she would be no help to Johanna now.

Sven turned back to her, a fierce scowl warping his features. “What are you called?”

“I…” She had not expected him to address her. “I…”

“Your name, girl! I am Sven.” He slapped his chest.

“Olga.”

“Olga. Fine. I have use of you after all.” He waved a hand at the corner of the tent. “Lay out the mats and furs. I will prepare. We will have wounded. There are always wounded. Understand?”

She nodded and went to the place he’d shown her. His voice called her attention back, and she turned to him again.

“If we are beset, get behind me. Understand?”

Again, she nodded. Though the soldiers, if it was they who had attacked the camp, were ostensibly on her side, she had no trust that she would be rescued by anyone attacking the healing tent.

His eyes traveled the length of her body, one eyebrow cocked in appraisal. “You are the size of a child. There had better be more strength in those skinny arms than a child’s.”

Olga said nothing. She was small among her people, and slim, but not child-size. These giant beast-men seemed hardly human to her.

He turned and crouched before a chest and dug into it, then threw something at her. Of instinct, she caught it. Cloth.

“Cover yourself.”

He had tossed her a tunic made of rough-spun wool. Olga looked down at herself and saw, for the first time, that her own blouse was rent down the middle. Her breasts were all but exposed.

She pulled the tunic over her head and rolled the too-long sleeves until her hands were clear.

“Let us prepare for our work.” Sven said, and then proceeded to ignore her.

Olga got to work.

~oOo~

Four men and two women—Olga marveled again at the idea of women warriors, with leather breeches and blood-spattered faces, wielding swords that seemed as long as she was tall—were brought into the tent. One of the men and one of the women were soon carried out, after Sven looked them over and then shook his head.

The other four, and the unconscious man from before, made up their charges. A raider who had carried in some of the wounded stayed and began to help the healing, lifting heavy bodies and stripping armor from bloodied limbs.

Surrounded by work to do, work she knew, Olga focused on her tasks. After a short time, Sven seemed to understand her skill and to trust that she would do no harm, and he left her alone to work. When she said she needed a certain herb, using pantomime to bolster her faulty language and make herself known, he even sent the raider out to gather it.

Beyond the tent, the sounds of battle became the sounds of aftermath. Olga did not need to see outdoors to know that, again, the raiders had won.

Then there was a new commotion outside the door, and a crowd of raiders—four of them—barged in, nearly tearing down the tent in their hurry to be in it. They bore a blood-washed monster in their arms, a man bigger than any Olga had ever seen. A man so big he dwarfed Sven and the others.

They carried him face down, and Olga saw instantly why. He appeared to have been nearly sliced in half. A long, wide gash split his back from shoulder to waist, and as the men carried him and laid him on a pallet far shorter than he, the gash widened, and Olga saw the ladder of his ribs.

She watched and waited for Sven to shake his head and the men to carry the giant out again. But this man must have been special somehow. Perhaps he was truly a giant. Sven knelt at his hip and dug his fingers deep into the wound. Then he brought his hand to his own mouth and sucked the blood.

“Clean. Thank the gods. Get out and let me work.” The men who’d borne the giant into the tent all nodded and took their leave, and Sven began to clean the blood from that massive back.

“I help?” she asked, quietly.

Turning intent green eyes on her, Sven answered, “You help by seeing to the others and leaving me to this work. Dan”—he nodded to the other raider, who had stayed to help—“will help you. Understand?”

“Understand.” Olga ventured to ask more. “This one is important?”

Sven stopped and looked at her directly. This time, she did not look away. “Yes. He is important. A good man and a legend.”

“Sorry. I not know…le-gend.”

The other raider, Dan, now standing at her side, answered. “Our people tell stories about him. Do you know stories?”

“Yes, I know. We have stories. Of great men. Strong.”

“Vali Storm-Wolf is such a man,” Dan said. “The best of us.”

Olga thought even the best of men like these could not be so great a man, but she was moved nonetheless.

~oOo~

The rain that Olga had seen in the sky in the morning, long hours and a lifetime ago, crashed over them in the dusk, not long after the raiders’ legendary giant had been carried into the tent. Olga turned and studied the opaque sheet of water beating down into the mud outside the tent, she listened to the deafening roar of rain pelting the tent roof, and she thought of the women tied to the post.

Without ever meaning to, she had abandoned them. She knew that by now Johanna was dead, and perhaps others as well. Hours since Leif had taken her away, and Olga had been so wrapped up in the work here that she had barely spared them—her friends, her own people—a thought. And now she was dry and protected, and they were alone, exposed to the elements and countless horrors.

The giant was conscious, but barely. Sven had begun to stitch the terrible wound closed, and a hoarse groan erupted from his patient every now and then, when the bone needle went into the tattered flesh.

In Olga’s opinion, Sven was causing more pain for no sound reason. No mortal being, not even a legendary giant, unless he was made of something more than flesh, could survive such a wounding.

The tent shook as someone came in, and Olga turned quickly, her heart racing. She did not like these raiders coming up behind her; she expected each time to be grabbed or stabbed.

It was a woman, a warrior, drenched from the storm but still covered head to toe in blood. She was tall, more than a head above Olga.

She took note of the people in the tent. When her eyes turned her way, Olga saw how strangely lovely they were. Two different eyes in the same head. The left eye was a shade of blue, light and deep like a cloudless sky. Pretty, but not unusual. The other, though, was a marvel. Olga had never seen its like. Without thinking, she narrowed her focus, trying to see all there was to see in that right eye. The candles in the tent burned brightly, and Olga saw green and blue and amber swirled together in the woman’s eye. More fascinating than that were the streaks of brown, almost like something drawn over all that color.

The warrior woman cocked her head, and Olga realized she was staring and dropped her eyes. She was sorry to do so.

“How is he?” the woman asked Sven.

Sven seemed shocked that she had spoken. He didn’t look up at her. “There is no offal in his blood. He might yet live if the bleeding stops.”

“See, Brenna God’s-Eye?” the giant gritted the words out. “We are fated to save each other.”

Vali Storm-Wolf and Brenna God’s-Eye. Olga almost smiled. There was something strong between these two. A true bonding. Olga could sense the way their life forces mingled and became something new, something singular and unified, and she thought she understood the raiders’ word.

Legend.

~oOo~

Vali Storm-Wolf’s wound might have been clean of offal, but it had not been clean of filth. The next day brought fever and swelling, and Sven and she had worked long to draw the corruption from him.

The warrior woman with the strange and beautiful eye came to sit with him again. Brenna God’s-Eye. These people must have thought her eye more than strange. They seemed all to fear it, and her. All but the giant, Vali.

Olga’s people had no gods. They believed that what lay on the earth, and in it, and above it, and beyond it, was all of a piece, that life rolled like a wheel through it all, and that balance in all things was the only true reverence. They celebrated the solstices, the longest and shortest of days, and the sowing and reaping, because those days were days when balance was most clear.

They treated beasts and trees and plants, and earth and sea and sky, with the respect due equals, holding no thing above another.

The nobles, perhaps, saw balance in another way, but neither Olga nor any of her people saw nobles as part of them. They were merely raiders of another sort. The sort that never sailed away and left them alone.

A horn blew again, and Brenna left Vali’s side. Shortly thereafter, a large party of the raiders left the camp on horseback. Sven stood at the tent opening, muttering under his breath.

Olga waited until he sighed and turned back to his patients before she asked if she might finally go to the women.

~oOo~

Johanna had died. The other women had tended her body as well as they could, but she yet lay tied to the post.

The storm and the night, and the raiders, had been hard on them all. They were all of them nearly or entirely naked, and they huddled together in the chill, trying to keep warm.

Olga, fully dressed and recently fed, knew deep guilt, and saw the condemnation on the faces of her friends.

But she had brought round loaves of flat bread and two skins of water, and a bundle of herbs gathered from the camp edges, and she did what she could to ease their way. They tore the bread and water from her hands.

With no way to prepare properly the healing herbs she had found, she made the best adjustments she could. After she treated the women’s open wounds with a quickly-prepared healing paste and gave them herbs to eat to thicken their blood, she handed small bunches of wild mushrooms to each of them. “These will make it easier when the men come. I will ask to take Johanna away, and I will try to bring you cover. I am sorry I can do no more.”

“It is the way of things,” Lagle said and took a bunch of small, long-stemmed mushrooms. She stared at her hand. “If we eat these all at once?”

Olga understood what Lagle was asking, and she shook her head. “That will make you only ill and hurt more. I cannot go far enough into the woods for the right growth to do more than that. Forgive me.”

There was commotion at the camp head; the raiders were riding back. “I must go. I will come back as quickly as I can.” With a last, lingering glance at Johanna’s small, broken body, Olga hurried away from the pen, back toward the healer’s tent.

~oOo~

Olga left the tent later, needing to relieve herself. Though many of the men frightened her, they did not accost her and had not since Leif had removed the rope. It was as if word had been passed to leave her alone.

Only Vali was left to heal, and he had fought off the fever and corruption. Olga thought the giant would live. He must indeed have been something more than mere man.

Brenna, the warrior woman—Olga had heard a word several times, shieldmaiden, and she believed that she had parsed out its meaning—was sleeping in the healer’s tent, stretched out at Vali’s side. Indeed those two were bonded, though Brenna did not seem to know it. A strong aura of peace rose up around them when they touched. There was so little of peace in this place that Olga could not help but notice, and she could not help but take from it some small ease in her heart as well.

Coming back from the tree behind which she’d crouched, Olga heard something and stopped to make it out. A beast in the woods?

No, a man. Either in distress or in pleasure. The sounds some men made were similar in any extremity.

Distress. It was distress—the long, deep, wrenching groan of true pain. She had earlier heard the screams of a soldier being tested, but this could not be a captive, beyond the edge of the camp. It must have been a raider making such a dreadful noise, and Olga considered ignoring it and returning to the healer’s tent. Now that Vali was recovering and alone in the tent, perhaps Sven would consider helping the women.

Or he could decide that he no longer needed her and send her back to the pen. Either way, she wondered how much the private pain of one of the monsters merited her attention.

Except that she was coming to see them as more man than monster. She was coming to like Sven, and Dan. And Vali and Brenna. Hidden away in the healer’s tent, doing the work she knew and being treated as one who had skill, she had seen more of these people as humans than the women in the pen, tied to a stake, could see.

And she could not ignore pain when it was so close and so obvious. She headed in that direction.

Leif was sitting on a large rock, his back to her. She recognized his leather and fur, and the long, loose mane of golden hair lying over it. He was folded over, his face buried in his hands, and he roared into his palms, again and again, a sound of pure misery.

This was, indeed, private pain. Deep and harrowing. He wanted to be alone. Meaning to turn and leave him before he knew she was there, Olga’s feet instead went forward, until she stood nearly at his side. He took no notice of her until her arm stretched out and her hand touched his head, stroking the length of his hair. Soft and straight, like spun gold.

He jerked from her touch and stood, his big hand gripping the pommel of the sword at his hip. His body was tensed to fight, but his face showed every shard of the anguish his voice had conveyed.

“You,” he said, but there was no accusation or malice in the sound. Only surprise.

“You have pain.”

His shoulders relaxed. “None that any healer can ease.”

Not knowing why she did so, Olga took the steps between them and laid her hand on his chest. “Pain of heart, then. Sadness.”

Leif stared down at her hand for a moment, and she felt the rise and fall of his breaths. Then he brought his own hand up and wrapped it around her wrist. He pulled her touch away and released her.

Again he said, “None that any can ease,” and he turned and walked back toward the heart of camp, leaving her in alone in the growing dark.

©2016 Susan Fanetti

The Freaks Do Sturgis!

Sturgis promo

This is the week of the 76th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and the Freak Circle Press is celebrating that yearly crush of bikes and bikers over on the FCP Facebook page.

Each day, a different writer of the FCP is taking the spotlight, sharing their work, offering discounts on their books, doing giveaways, and other cool stuff:

TUESDAY 8/9: C.D. Breadner
WEDNESDAY 8/10: Lina Andersson
THURSDAY 8/11: Sarah Osborne
FRIDAY 8/12: Catherine Johnson
SATURDAY 8/13: Shannon Flagg
SUNDAY 8/14: Susan Fanetti

On Sunday, 14 August, in addition to sharing pretties and stuff, we’ll be making an announcement.

Meanwhile, we’ve put Kindle editions of the entire Night Horde library on sale for this week. So if you haven’t met the Horde, or if you haven’t finished their ride, here’s your chance to hop on!

The Signal Bend Series
The Night Horde SoCal
Nolan: Return to Signal Bend

Horde Sale 99 nolan

xoxo
Lola

Cover Reveal & Teaser: MIRACLE, the Pagano Family, Book 6

Miracle

Well, hello!

Today, Susan and I are sharing the cover for Miracle, the sixth and final book in the Pagano Family series, as well as the synopsis and a teaser. Miracle is Joey’s story. Since the first book, Footsteps, Joey’s had a rough time. He’s due a miracle or two.

Miracle opens just about where John’s story, Prayer, leaves off, so we’re going to share the prologue as a teaser, since it puts us in Joey’s head at a key moment at the end of Prayer. It’s not a high point for Joey.

Though all the Pagano Family books stand alone pretty well, they share the same world and family story (and chronology), so there are spoilers here for the other books in the series, especially Prayer.

Miracle is set for release on Saturday, 6 August. As usual, we’ll set up the preorder a couple of weeks before that. Here’s the Goodreads page, if you want to add it to your TBR.

This summer is pretty…interesting…in our household, but we’re trying to keep up with all the dates and deadlines we’ve set for ourselves.

Happy reading!

Lola xo

 

THE SYNOPSIS:

THE CONCLUSION OF THE PAGANO FAMILY SERIES.

Joey Pagano was left disabled following a violent moment in his family’s history, a moment he chose to be a part of. During the past ten years of a life he’s only half lived, all of his brothers and sisters have gotten married and made families of their own, but Joey’s had no one. Before he was hurt, he was the carefree family clown, living a life of privilege and excess, with any girl he wanted hanging on his arm. Now he’s resigned himself to being alone. He’s given up.

Tina Corti grew up in Quiet Cove, just like Joey. She’s known him most of her life, though she hasn’t seen much of him since his troubles. No longer the daydreaming schoolgirl with a crush on her oldest brother’s best friend, Tina has worked hard to accomplish her goals. She wants to make a difference, to do her part, for her family and the world. She’s stretched her wings beyond the Cove, but she’s kept her roots firmly in place.

A chance meeting kindles a fragile friendship. Joey, scarred in body and soul, is guarded. But Tina’s gentle optimism and patience give him room and cause to trust, to love, to breathe. She brings him back to life.

Before they can settle into their love and imagine a happy life together, their families bring violence into their world again, and Joey will have to return the favor.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

 

THE TEASER:

Prologue

Joey Pagano stood at the altar at Christ the King Catholic Church, beside his brother John, feeling uncomfortable in a blue suit and tie. The tie felt like a fucking noose, and he kept pulling at it to try to let breath move up and down his neck.

Breathing was hard enough as it was. He only had about sixty-percent capacity on his best day. The last thing on this earth he needed was something to cut that down.

Fuck, the tie was tight. Why was this one so tight? He wore a suit and tie every single Sunday for Mass; his father would have had a heart attack if he—

He shoved that thought away with a burst of silent shame. His father’s heart was actually failing. He was dying, right before his family’s eyes. There he sat, in the front pew, a cannula in his nose and an oxygen tank on the pew at his side, between him and Adele, their stepmother.

Damn, it was hot in this church. It was December. Had they cranked the heat up to a hundred or something? Between the heat and the silk noose around his neck, Joey thought he was going to pass out.

Why had John picked him to be his best man? Why not Carlo or Luca? They were the successful ones, the responsible ones, the ones who’d made their lives into something. Joey was nothing but a loser. Wasn’t it bad luck or something to have a loser standing at your side when you got married?

Shit, had he lost the ring?

He checked his pocket and found it, right where it was supposed to be.

The ceremony was starting. Cousin Nick’s oldest little girls, Elisa and Lia, came down the aisle carrying silver baskets of white and blue flowers. Between them walked little Teddy, his sister Rosa’s oldest, in a blue suit and tie that was the miniature of Joey’s and John’s. Except John had a white tie. Was his as fucking tight? Was Teddy’s? No—Ted’s was a clip-on. Lucky.

Shit, even Rosa, their baby sister, had her life figured out. The spoiled little shit of an Italian American Princess had turned into some kind of big deal lobbyist in D.C. She was five whole years younger than Joey, but she had a career and a house in Georgetown, and a husband with his own restaurant, and two kids.

His whole family was successful. In an hour or so, John would be married, and only Joey would be alone. Their mother was dead; their father was dying. Carlo, Carmen, Luca, John, Rosa—they all had love and family of their own. Joey hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than ten years. Shit, he hadn’t had a fucking date in more than three. And what an unholy disaster that had been.

He was always going to be alone. Poor Joey, loser Uncle Joey—couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe, only had a job because his family owned a business. Someday, they’d have fights about whose turn it was to take him in.

Maybe that day was coming up fast. When Pop died…fuck.

Nick’s wife, Bev, the bride’s best friend, was coming up the aisle. Nick looked like a lovesick fool. Nick Pagano—Don Nicolo Pagano, the king of the New England underworld—making googly eyes at his wife of seven years, for all the world to see.

The music changed, and there was Katrynn, John’s bride, standing at the doorway, her arm hooked with her father’s. She was gorgeous and sparkly and happy. Joey looked sidelong at his brother. John was so obviously happy it seemed his feet might lift right off the floor.

Jesus Christ, his tie was tight. He couldn’t breathe. And holy fuck, was he crying? In front of everybody? He had to get out of here.

He nudged John, whose wide smile faltered when he met Joey face to face.

“Dude, what’s wrong?” He turned away as soon as he asked. Katrynn was more important right now, Joey got it, but damn, he needed…what?

To get the hell out of this church. Right now.

He forced the right words out of his stupid, slow, scrambled head. “I can’t…c-can’t.” Then he gave up and trotted down the altar steps, toward his other brothers.

“Joe!” John whisper-shouted behind him, but Joey didn’t turn around. John’s call had pulled Carlo and Luca’s attention from the bride’s walk, though.

And their father’s attention, too. He was sitting, and the look he gave Joey was an encyclopedia of disappointment.

“What’s goin’ on, bro?” Luca asked, his voice low.

“Joey, don’t fucking flake,” was Carlo’s helpful addition. Judgmental prick.

“T-t-t…” FUCK HIS HEAD! Stress made his troubles with speech and breath a million times worse. Joey closed his eyes and tried to make his breath steady and full. He pulled the ring from his pocket and held it out. “Take…this. C-c-can’t…do it.”

With a look of disappointment that rivaled their father’s, Carlo nodded and took the ring.

Joey needed to get out. He was ruining everything. Carlo had taken the ring. He could go now. So he did. He stalked down the side aisle as fast as his pounding heart and straining lungs would let him, and he escaped into the cold December air.

Once free, he collapsed onto the church steps. He tore his tie loose and fumbled his inhaler out of his jacket pocket. He was going to need to use the damn mask when he got to his Jeep, but right now he just needed to calm down and get enough breath to make it that far. He sucked down the foul mist and tried to get his shit together.

Behind him, his family was celebrating John’s wedding.

Out here in the cold, Joey was alone.

~oOo~

The next day, Joey was stretched out on the sofa in the cellar, playing video games—pretty much where he’s spent the night before, while his family had been out partying with John and Katrynn.

The door at the top of the stairs creaked open, and his stepmother called down, “Joey! Honey, it’s time to go over.”

They were meeting next door, at the real Pagano family house, to have brunch and watch John and Katrynn open all their wedding gifts.

Joey could think of one or two, or a hundred, things he would rather do. Like what he was doing.

Besides, he was not somebody John or Katrynn wanted to see today. He’d almost ruined their wedding, after all.

He closed his eyes and found the words he needed to say and lined them up at his tongue. “Go on over. I’ll…” I’ll come over later. How hard is that to say? “I’ll…c-c-c—”

For Joey, it was extremely hard to say. Ever since he’d been shot in the chest ten years before and almost died, when he’d lost far too much blood and stopped breathing for too long before they’d started breathing for him, when his body had started to shut down and had never turned all the way back on again, words—any words, complicated ones or simple ones, it didn’t matter—got lost on the way to his mouth.

It was better than it had been at first. Back then, right after, there had been a lot of words that he couldn’t even think. Now, he could think pretty straight, but it was like there was a maze in his head, and the words had to go through it to get said. At least half the time, they landed at a dead end.

It was worse than that. Sometimes words got lost in his ears, too. When more than one person was talking, he had trouble making sense of any words being said. In his family, everybody always talked at the same time, just yelling louder and louder over each other, and they usually forgot that that meant he couldn’t follow along.

They usually forgot him, that was.

It had been better for a little while. For a few years in the middle of these past ten, he’d been doing kind of okay. It was hard work to stay almost normal, but he’d been doing it.

Then it had been brought painfully, humiliatingly home to him that he would never be normal again, and that a little slow was just as bad as a lot slow. So he’d stopped trying, and he’d lost ground, acres of it. In words and breath both. Not to mention just general health and fitness. But who the fuck cared?

“Joe?” Adele was back at the top of the stairs. “Your pop wants you to come up and talk to him.”

There was a time that Pop would’ve come down to him, but he couldn’t do stairs anymore. Knowing he was in for a lecture about family and responsibility, Joey paused the game and got up from the sofa.

At the foot of the cellar stairs, he took the deepest breath he could. Stairs weren’t so easy for him, either.

~oOo~

Pop’s guilt trip got him showered and dressed and over next door, to the house that Joey and all his siblings had grown up in, which now Carlo, the eldest, lived in with his wife and kids while Pop and Adele—and Joey—lived in Adele’s house. Like a Pagano compound.

Carmen had had a major bitch fit when Pop had announced he was giving Carlo possession—not ownership, just possession—of the house and marrying and moving in with Adele. It had been a little weird, Carlo taking over the family house, but Joey hadn’t cared that much at the time. It was after he’d been hurt, but he’d gotten his own place by then, and he’d been feeling hopeful that he’d get back to full power someday.

The arrangement had turned out not to have changed things much. They still had all their family events at the house they’d grown up in, and Pop still sat at the head of the table. The only thing that had really changed was a few sleeping arrangements.

Today, the house was its usual chaotic celebration self, with women yakking in the kitchen, and kids running around squealing, and people laughing and talking and drinking and eating. After all these years, Joey knew that it was hopeless to try to keep up, so he turned himself down until everything around him was only hum. If anybody ever decided they actually cared what he might have to offer, they would probably have to put their hands on him to get his attention.

Knowing that John wanted to cave his face in, and not entirely confident that his ‘special needs’ status would prevent that from happening, Joey lingered as far back from the day’s festivities as he could get. John and Katrynn were seated together on the living room sofa, next to the big Christmas tree, around which was stacked a mountain of wedding gifts, most of them in blue, white, or silver paper and elaborate bows.

Sabina, Carlo’s wife, and Bev, Nick’s, were helping manage the gift situation—Sabina handing them a gift and Bev writing down what it was and who it was from after they’d opened it. Trey, Carlo and Sabina’s oldest boy, was on paper disposal duty. Everybody oohed and aahed over blenders and crystal and other wedding crap.

Joey stood at the doorway and sucked on his inhaler. When John caught his eye and gave him an angry look, the kind that said he was very much not forgiven for bailing on his best man duties, Joey stopped pretending he gave a shit about monogrammed towels and made his way to the cellar here, which had a much better media room.

~oOo~

He was down cellar watching Reservoir Dogs when he heard someone coming down the steps and girded himself for another lecture or guilt trip. Or maybe John was coming down to cave in his face.

But it was only Manny, Luca’s wife, and pretty much the only grownup in the family he could trust to just hang out with him without pity or judgment.

She had problems of her own, Manny did, some mental condition or something like that. She’d been born in Ukraine and spent her first years in an orphanage there, and she wasn’t good with people. She hated to be touched—almost any touch by just about anybody not named Luca Pagano—and she didn’t always get what people meant when they talked. She had trouble in the Pagano family chaos, too.

She and Luca had been married for years, and she was pretty comfortable with the family, since everybody understood her weirdness and left her alone about it. Joey really liked her. He wouldn’t say he got her, and he didn’t think she got him, but their respective oddnesses made them quiet in the midst of their loud family and set them on the outside, and they’d bonded over that. They’d spent lots of parties alone together down here.

“Hey,” she said as she crossed the room and sat on the opposite side of the sofa.

Joey nodded and started the movie going again. They watched in silence for a while, then, just as Mr. Blonde was about to torture the cop, Manny picked up the remote from the space between them and paused the movie again.

“Everybody’s pissed at you.”

Joey just nodded again. If he’d have spoken, it would have been something brilliant like Duh.

“They’re talking about you more than they’re talking about the wedding and the presents.”

He shrugged. Also duh. He was the family fuckup and the family project.

“Why are you being such an asshole?”

That surprised him. Sure, Manny always said whatever was on her mind without much filter, but he thought she understood what a suck it was to be him. Besides, she had freakouts, too.

“Please?”

“I like…I love you, Joe. You’re like my second-favorite Pagano. But you’ve turned into a whiny little bitch lately. Not to mention a lard-ass.”

Hurt feelings and shock threw up walls in his head right away, and he couldn’t even get his favorite word out. “F-f-fuck…”

Anticipating where he’d been trying to go, Manny shrugged. “Fuck you right back, buddy. You’re an asshole.”

His chest was going tight, and he sucked on his inhaler. “F-freaked…out. FUCK! Th…th-thought…you’d get it.”

“I get what happened at the church. You were right to leave before you lost it all over the wedding. I’m talking about your life, period.”

Now he was really angry. His heart pounded like a war drum. “Bitch….Like y-you’re…so normal.”

“Normaler than you. I work at it every fucking day. Every time I have to talk to somebody or go to the market or have dinner here when everybody’s talking all at once. Every day, I have to work to be a human being. It’s a lot better than it used to be, but it’s hard fucking work. You just sit around and eat junk food and pout. I bet you came back last night and felt sorry for yourself because nobody chased after you and fluffed your pillow and made sure you were okay.”

So what if he had? Like usual, everybody had ignored him. “F-f-f-f—”

“Yeah, yeah, fuck me. Whatever. I’m gonna go up and find Luca.” She stood and flicked a dismissive hand at the television. “Enjoy your vicarious badassness.”

“Easier…for you. Can talk.”

Manny stopped and turned back. “You could, too. When you were doing therapy, you were a lot better. All the things fucked up in your life—you did them to yourself.”

He barked a hoarse, gasping, bitter laugh at that ridiculous statement. “Yeah…sh-shot…myself.”

“No. But you gave up. You quit. That’s on you.” She turned and went back upstairs.

Joey flipped off the empty space where she’d been standing. Then he started his movie again.

Fuck her. Fuck them all.

©2016 Susan Fanetti

Cover & Teaser: Nolan: Return to Signal Bend

We were going to do this tomorrow, but tomorrow has filled up with family stuff, so…

Nolan cover

There’s the cover. The relevant dates for the release of Nolan’s book:

Preorder: Should be available by 18 May 2016. This title will be widely available, on Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo. And paperback.

Release date: Saturday 4 June 2016

 

Here’s the description:

Nolan Mariano is a man shaped by loss. All his life, people he’s loved deeply have left him in one way or another. In Signal Bend, Missouri, as a son and then a member of the Night Horde MC, he’s found a home and a family. His mother and his younger brother are protected and loved, too.

But Nolan can’t trust it. The past haunts him; injustices left unanswered loom over his present and threaten his future. One injustice in particular.

Iris Ryan is a Night Horde daughter who knows loss of her own. Taken away from her home as a child after unspeakable horror tore her family apart, she returns to Signal Bend, and her father, when she’s grown because she’s never felt at home anywhere else. As Iris settles into a new life of her choosing in the home she’s regained, she and Nolan connect.

As his love for Iris deepens, Nolan can’t ignore the way that loss has warped him. The past is a shadow over him, and he can no longer live under its weight.

He needs vengeance. At any cost.

 

And finally, here’s a teaser–Chapter One of Nolan: Return to Signal Bend

CHAPTER ONE

The cold was bitter, but the sky was clear, and Nolan rode into the night.

He liked riding in the cold, liked the feel of the wind so sharp it might almost cut his face. It braced him, made him feel like he was vying against the elements and holding his own.

It wasn’t winter yet, officially, but the cold had come in fast and hard. There had been little snow or ice, however, so he’d kept riding, even as his Night Horde brothers, especially the older among them, garaged their Harleys and started driving trucks everywhere.

Nolan rode up Highway 68, over the hills and around the bends, alone on the road, no company but the stars. Often in the night he just rode, with no destination in mind, no purpose but to get right with his head for a while. But on this night, he knew where he was going.

When he arrived where he’d been headed, he pulled off onto a narrow gravel lane mounded in dead leaves and rode slowly under a canopy of the skeletal trees from which they’d fallen. At the end of the lane, he parked and walked into the dark. The light of the star-filled sky was enough to guide him; he knew the way by heart.

He walked to the top of a hill and sat down on the frozen ground. From this vantage, he could see most of Signal Bend spread out below, beyond the rolling expanse of acres of sleeping farmland. Over his head was that infinite dome of starry sky. He lay back and crossed his arms under his head.

“Hey, Ani,” he whispered.

He hated this night. Four years ago on this night, he’d lost the first woman he’d loved. Maybe the only one he ever would.

The date on her headstone in California was two days later, but that didn’t matter. It was on this night four years ago that he’d woken to find her dying at his side. It was on this night that he’d held her as the light faded from her eyes. It didn’t matter that machines had kept her body going longer. Analisa had left him while he’d held her.

While they were together, she’d gotten a tattoo on her back, an inscription: We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands. Those words had been important to her, especially as she’d known her death was closing in. Since she’d gone, and he’d come home, Nolan rode out here on clear nights, where the stars filled the sky and seemed to nearly touch the ground, when he needed to be alone and remember.

On the anniversary of the day they’d met. And on this day. And sometimes just because.

He hadn’t had her love very long. Just a few months. And now, four years later, it seemed like he would never want anyone else’s.

Lying on the dead grass, the cold leaching up from the earth and into his bones, Nolan stared up at the stars. He didn’t talk; he wasn’t up here to have a conversation, and he didn’t really believe she could hear him, anyway. He just felt close here, and it was enough.

Well, not enough. Not at all. But all he had.

When the cold finally got to be too much, and he could feel his body going stiff, Nolan sat up. Pulling off a glove, he opened his coat and dug under the neckline of his thermal, catching a leather cord between his fingers and pulling it into the open. A little silver star, studded with diamonds. Analisa’s father had given it to him at the cemetery. It had been her mother’s, and then hers. Now it was his.

He kissed it, whispering, “Love you, babe.” Then he put it away, zipped up his coat, pulled on his glove, and stood. After one more look up at the stars, Nolan turned and went back to his bike.

He hated this night. There was only one day of the year he hated more.

~oOo~

“Morning, Mom.”

Nolan leaned in and kissed his mother’s cheek as she stood at the range, frying sausage patties in a cast-iron skillet. She was burning them, as usual. The smell of burnt meat wrestled with the strong aroma of cinnamon. He figured there were Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the oven, too.

“Hey, kiddo. Not in the mood for the Friday night scene at the clubhouse last night, I guess. You doing okay this morning?”

His mom knew what last night was, and what he’d needed to do. Normally, he lived at the Horde clubhouse, but he kept his room here, too, and sometimes he just needed to be home, to wake up to his mom and his little brother and a marginally decent breakfast.

Friday nights were party nights at the clubhouse, and the day after Thanksgiving was a big blowout party. The last place on earth Nolan could have dealt with last night.

“Yeah, I’m good.” He picked up a patty from the stack of paper towels on the counter beside the range and popped it into his mouth. He liked burnt sausage; he’d been surprised when he’d found out they came any other way.

As he poured himself a cup of coffee, a din arose from the other room. His little brother, Loki, was at his drum set.

“LOKE! NO!” their mom yelled. “Not before breakfast!” The din stopped, and she turned a long-suffering grimace on Nolan. “I still can’t believe you did that.”

He’d gotten his brother the kit for his tenth birthday that summer. Nolan grinned innocently back at his mom. “What? He loves ‘em. And he’s getting okay at it. He’d be better if you’d let me get him real lessons. Couple years, who knows? You two could start a band.”

Their mom played guitar and sang. She’d once done it more or less professionally, doing little gigs around the region, but now she managed a bar, so she didn’t play much. She’d get on stage at work every now and then, and she’d played some club events, but not much more than that. Nolan missed the days when her guitar was out all the time.

The timer went off, and she pulled a tray of rolls from the oven. “Lessons when his grades get better. Besides, he’s ten. I think it’ll be more than a couple of years before he’s ready to be in a band. Loke! Wash your hands!”

Nolan helped his mom set out breakfast. When his little brother came in, hands still dripping, he came straight for Nolan and gave him a hug. “Mom said you might be grumpy today. Are you grumpy?”

“Nope. I’m good. Heard you banging around in there. How’s your grade in reading?”

Loki sighed dramatically and slid his hand through his curly, dark hair. “The books are so boring. I like comic books. I found a box of ones you made, but Mom said I have to ask you before I read them. Can I read them?”

As a kid, Nolan had drawn all the time. He’d had some stupid dreams of designing a video game, or being the next Alan Moore or something. He’d been a pretty lame kid, really. All dreams and no life. “What are you reading for school?”

Another big sigh. “Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s so old and boring, and it’s all about this stupid boy who saves up for puppies and how long it takes him to save up and how he has to walk to get the dogs. I like dogs”—with his sock-clad foot, he nudged Thor, their old monster of a mutt, who was lying under the table waiting for nibbles to come his way—“but this Billy is dumb and boring. And there’s not even a red fern in the story. The title is stupid, too. I want to read X-Men instead.”

“You have a project due on that book on Wednesday, Loke. You need to get it read,” their mom said.

“A diorama. It’s so stupid.”

Nolan remembered that book. It had made him cry. In class. In fifth grade. Not a highlight in his memory reel.

Of course, his memory reel was mostly lowlights.

He reached over and set his hand on his little brother’s head. He was sixteen years older, and their dad had been killed when Loki was only two months old, so Nolan was kind of the closest thing Loke had to a father. He always tried to keep that in mind. “I get it, big guy. I really do. School can be a drag. But if you want drum lessons, you need to pull your grades up, right?”

“Yeah,” Loki sighed.

“Tell you what. I have work this morning, but I’ll come back after, and you can read to me about Billy and the puppies. We’ll talk about it, and I’ll help you plan out your diorama. When you get that project done, you can read my old comics.”

“I don’t think we can finish it tonight. It’s pretty long.”

Nolan grinned. “I’ll stay tonight, and we can read it tomorrow, too, then. I’m free and clear tomorrow. We’ll get it done.”

“Yeah? Cool! Thanks, bro!” Calling Nolan ‘bro’ was a new thing Loki had picked up recently, probably trying to mimic his uncles. The Horde all called each other ‘brother’ or ‘bro.’ That was what the club was, more than anything else: a brotherhood. Family. The best one Nolan—or his mom, for that matter—had ever had.

With a laugh, Nolan ruffled his little brother’s hair and went back to his burnt sausage and canned cinnamon roll.

His mom gave him a thoughtful look and then reached across and set her hand flat on the table, near his plate. She still wore her wedding and engagement rings, ten years after Havoc’s death, even though they hadn’t even been married a year when he’d died. The man had left a deep impression in their world. One so deep he’d erased Nolan’s deadbeat biological father from meaning and had become the only father he’d ever wanted—or needed.

And then he’d gone and died.

Nolan met his mother’s eyes and gave her the smile she needed to see. The one that said he was okay. He’d perfected that smile.

And he really was okay. Just as he’d found a way to be okay after his father’s death; he’d found a way to be okay after Ani’s. Time made scars and life went on. It had been ten years since Havoc, four since Ani. He was okay. Having his life. Just having a hard day in it every now and then.

Just like his mom.

Since this past summer, though, not long after Loki’s birthday, when the SoCal charter of the Night Horde MC had almost been destroyed in a hellfire of blood and death, he’d felt less okay.

Someone he’d thought long gone, probably dead and definitely no longer a danger, had risen up in the middle of the chaos in SoCal. Someone Nolan hated with a sick, simmering fury. David Vega.

Since then, Nolan had felt his old, restless anger pacing again at the bottom of his gut.

“Nolan?”

He looked up to see his mom’s head tilted and her brow furrowed, and he realized that he was dragging his fork across his plate, tines down, making a low screeching noise. He stopped. “Sorry.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

He finished his coffee and pushed back from the table. “I’m always okay. You worry too much. I gotta go, but I’ll be back.” He looked at Loki. “You be ready to read, guy. We’ll get that book done.”

“Okay!” Loki said and handed Thor a sausage patty while their mom’s attention was on Nolan.

“You’re working this morning? Saturday? Club stuff?”

“Yeah. Just a little protection run to Eureka. Squeaky clean.”

Though they ran little jobs here or there that might not have been completely legit, the Missouri Horde hadn’t been truly outlaw in a long time. These days, besides still being the de facto law in town, they worked construction and mechanical repair, they owned a few Signal Bend businesses, and they did some guarding and protection work—like the job he had this morning, riding with Tommy, escorting a shipment of completely legal inventory to its warehouse destination. The dirtiest thing about the job was the forged concealed-carry permit for the piece in his holster.

Most days, Nolan worked with one of the Horde’s companies, Signal Bend Construction. On those jobs, he was just a grunt, swinging a hammer. He liked club work better, even if it was just being visible around town, keeping their kind of order. In the club, he was the Sergeant at Arms. Not a role with the kind of punch it had had when Len had worn that flash, back in the days when the Horde had gone everywhere armed, but one that still carried some weight.

The last time there had been real danger around the Night Horde Missouri or Signal Bend had been the first time David Vega’s name had come up. Vega had been instrumental in the trouble then, when the mother charter had almost been destroyed. Vega himself had killed Nolan and Loki’s father. Brutally. And Vega had risen from the supposed dead and been involved this summer, when SoCal had almost gone down. When Bart’s wife, Riley, and the SoCal president, Hoosier, had been killed. More people Nolan cared about.

Vega had disappeared again. Nolan felt like that asshole was just lurking in the background somewhere, waiting for another opportunity to fuck things up for the Horde.

With a blink, he pushed that restless feeling off to the side. He gave his mom his reassuring smile. “It’s all good, Mom.”

His mom frowned but didn’t say more. He bent down and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back by one or so. You going to Valhalla this afternoon?”

“Yeah. Jackie’s closing, but I need to be there through the after-dinner rush. I’ll pick up a couple of pizzas at Tuck’s on my way home.”

“Sounds good. Love you.”

“Love you, Nolan. Be careful.”

“I always am. And you always worry too much.”

~oOo~

On Sunday afternoon, Loki swiped angrily at his face and threw the book. “That’s stupid! That’s so stupid! Billy is stupid!” His voice broke, and he sobbed for a second, then punched his leg and got some control. “What a stupid book,” he said through his tears and stopped-up nose. “I hate that book. I hate Billy, and I hate those stupid dogs for going after a mountain lion. Why did the guy write a book about dogs dying? Why did I have to read it? It’s so stupid!”

“I felt the same way, guy. But Billy loved his pups, and they loved him.”

Feeling emotional himself, Nolan hooked his arm around his brother’s shoulders, but Loki shook him off. “It’s stupid,” he muttered again.

“You want to take some time before we talk about what it’s about and figure out your project?”

“It’s about a stupid boy who let his stupid dog get eaten by a stupid lion,” Loki grumbled, picking at a hole in his sock.

For Nolan, the worst part this time was Little Ann, the other pup, lying on her brother’s grave and dying of starvation—or, really, of a broken heart. “Yeah, let’s take some time. You want to play Mario for a while?”

“No.” Loki lay down on his bed and put his back to Nolan.

“Okay, guy. I’ll be around. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“I hate school,” Loki snarled as Nolan left his room.

Nolan closed the door and went to the kitchen for a beer. He took it to the living room and plopped down on the sofa, not bothering to turn on the television. Their mom had gone off to run errands and wasn’t back yet. Thor shuffled in and collapsed on the floor at Nolan’s feet.

The house felt thick with quiet. Nolan took a long pull on his beer, then leaned his head back and closed his eyes.

Fifth grade was about the same time that school had started getting unmanageable for Nolan, too. He was smart, and Loki was as well. Too smart for school. None of the actual subjects had been hard for Nolan, and Loki had been doing well until this year. It was being required to do stupid shit for no discernible reason that had gotten Nolan hung up, and being ignored when he’d had legitimate questions and disciplined when he wanted to think about things in different ways. From that point on, school had been, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, traumatic.

Reading a book like Where the Red Fern Grows and doing nothing with it but assigning some stupid shoebox diorama for a project? How fucked up was that? Why not talk about how the prize money from the hunting competition made everything worth it to everybody but Billy and what that meant about how fucked up their lives were? Better yet, why not talk about how a book could break your heart, how some made-up story could remind you of things about your own life and make you think about those things differently? Why not just talk about why it was so fucking sad? Why assign a book that made you feel so much and not give kids a way to understand all those feelings? It was so fucked up.

But no. Glue some construction paper into a shoebox and move on to the next thing.

Loki was right: school was fucking stupid.

But why should it be different from anything else? Nothing about anything made any kind of sense.

Life was fucking stupid.

© 2016 Susan Fanetti