REVEAL! STAND, Brazen Bulls MC #7

stand digital cover

Hi all!

Today is reveal day for the cover, title, and description of Stand, The Brazen Bulls MC Book 7. I’ll set up the preorder next week, in advance of its release on Saturday, 1 September–four weeks from today!

Meanwhile, you can add it to your Goodreads TBR. If you’re new to the Brazen Bulls MC series, you can find buy links to the first six books here.

Stand is Caleb and Cecily’s story. If you’re caught up with the series, you know that Caleb and Cecily have had a couple thorny encounters in the past, and that Cecily has NOT been in a good place since her dad’s death. She’s basically a mess, and she knows it.

Caleb’s gotten into some serious trouble for his encounters with Cecily, and he’s got the scars to show for it, but he’s a patch now, with full standing in the club. Still, Cecily has a whole lot of stand-in fathers who’ve taken on the responsibility to keep her safe. Maverick in particular. Caleb is going to have to be right with them to get close to her.

They’re not the only family he’s got to get right with. He’s got troubles of his own at home, with a grandfather and a brother disappointed in the direction he’s aimed his life.

This story takes place mostly in 2001. Another major upheaval in the club is brewing, and chaos is about to hit the world as well.

If you’re interested, my visuals for Caleb and Cecily are Adam Beach and Sophie Turner.
Their theme song is “Strong Enough,” by Sheryl Crow.

Here’s the description for Stand:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2001.

Caleb Mathews is caught between two worlds: Osage Nation, the world of his ancestors, and the Brazen Bulls MC, the world of his brothers. Straddling both, he struggles to be steady in either. The pull he feels most strongly is to his club. There, he knows he’ll someday find his place to stand. But to choose them is to betray his blood.

After her father’s violent death, Cecily Nielsen turned her back on the Brazen Bulls—the world that her father helped create, and the only family she’d ever known. Now, she’s lost in the dark, unsure of what she has or who she is. Going nowhere, toward nothing, and spiraling out of control.

When Cecily finds herself in danger, it’s the Bulls she calls for rescue, and Caleb who answers. She doesn’t want to need the Bulls, whom she blames for her father’s death—and she especially doesn’t want to need Caleb, who’s seen her at her worst. But in her lowest moment, she calls out for the family she remembers, and Caleb brings her home.

At Cecily’s side as she finds her footing, Caleb finds his as well. Together, they stand on solid ground, and they keep each other steady when the club and the world itself fall into chaos.

The one who’s seen the worst of you and stays strong at your side is the one to hold close.

And the first half of Chapter One as a teaser:

CHAPTER ONE

“Can you give me a hand, Chief?”

Closing his eyes against the clench at the base of his skull that word always brought on, Caleb sighed and turned back to the truck. When he didn’t move right away to help, Van, one of the Great Plains Riders, tried to pull the last crate of AKs out on his own.

Caleb had had his top rocker almost a year—long enough that these assholes owed him some respect. Van knew Caleb’s name as well as Caleb knew his.

He was of a mind to let Van try to carry that crate his damn self. Instead, he stalked over and jumped up into the nearly empty compartment. “Call me ‘Chief’ again, and I’ll lift a tomahawk from a museum just so I can scalp you with it, motherfucker.” He shoved at the crate and pushed it around, then jumped down and grabbed hold of the side Van hadn’t been struggling with.

Van gaped at him. “Fuck, man, no offense meant. Didn’t know you were so sensitive.”

He wasn’t, generally. It always pissed him off, but he usually let it go without comment. If he fought every asswipe who threw that word his way, he’d never stop fighting. But there were some times and places he wouldn’t tolerate it. This was one of them. “Now you know. Lift.”

They lifted, and carried the crate into the quiet factory in the middle of Bumfuck, Nebraska, where Colin Murphy, the Riders’ VP, and Becker, the Bulls’ new VP, were heaving the crates through a trap door and into the basement below.

Setting this final crate on the floor, Caleb stood straight and looked around. The factory didn’t run on weekends, so the only people in the place right now were bikers on this job.

It wasn’t much, just a corrugated steel building with a cement floor and a framed-out storage area in the basement. About two dozen sewing machines, some pretty standard-looking and others pretty weird, were set up in neatly organized rows. He imagined that all those machines were run by hunched-over women during working hours, and this place was loud as hell.

Liberty Embroidery, it was called. Murphy’s cousin or something ran the place. They did embroidery for uniforms and patches—including the patches and flash on the Bulls’ and the Riders’ kuttes. And on hats and uniforms for Little League, and regional high schools, and all that. It was a humble family business and a great, low-profile location for short-term storage of black-market Russian weaponry.

It reminded Caleb a little bit of the beading business his grandma Jewel had run. That place was even smaller than this—just his grandma and his mom, his aunts, and a couple other women, and they’d mostly worked by hand, but they’d had a little storefront shop and worked in back, and their tables had been lined up a lot like this place.

The Osage were known for their elaborate traditional beadwork. Some patterns were sacred and only for their people, but the white suburbanites who wanted to hang tribal art above their sofas didn’t know a traditional Osage beading from a wallpaper pattern. As long as it was crafted by Osage women, they were content to pay top dollar. The shop had made a reasonable living for them all.

Most of what he knew of the shop, or his grandma, or his mom, came from old photographs and stories his grandfather told. His memories of them were sketchy and blurred; he’d been only seven when an overtired delivery driver had lost control of his truck, driven through the back of the shop, and killed them all. Every female member of his family gone, all at once. His grandfather had raised him and his brother.

Every time he stood in this place, his hazy memories of his grandma’s shop, and every woman of his family, rose up and perched on his shoulder for a day or two.

A hand slammed onto his shoulder now. “You ready, brother?” Apollo asked.

Caleb looked around—the crates were gone, and the trap door was closed up, with one of the sewing stations moved over it. Four Bulls and three Riders stood idle.

He shook off his ghosts. “Yeah. Let’s ride.” Time to get his ass back home.

~oOo~

Tulsa to just outside Lincoln and back again in one day was a long fucking haul, long enough that they couldn’t do it when Delaney or Eight Ball rode this run—Delaney because he was too old to ride all day, and Eight because his bad leg wouldn’t hold up for ten or twelve hours in the saddle. But this time, one of the few times that they ran all three runs at once, it was Becker, Apollo, Fitz, Slick, and Caleb riding north—nobody too old, everybody spry. With the truck empty of dangerous cargo, they got some speed going, too, and carved off an hour or so from the trip home.

The riders on the northern run would be back in town first; the other runs planned to stop for the night. With Delaney still on the road, and no call to the chapel likely, Caleb peeled off from his brothers near Ponca City and headed east, toward his grandfather’s place in Pawhuska.

This whole portion of Oklahoma, the huge wedge from Tulsa north and northwest to the Kansas state line that was Osage County, was Osage land, but there wasn’t an actual reservation in Oklahoma. Not like other reservations, which worked in part like separate countries, with firm borders. Through a series of political moves on the part of the federal government back in the 1800s and into the 1900s, moves that Caleb, much to his grandfather and brother’s chagrin, hadn’t studied well enough to entirely understand, the state of Oklahoma sort of overlaid Osage Nation, and tribal members coexisted with other Oklahomans. The result was that the Osage were a minority on their own reservation. But the Osage had three towns in Osage County that were substantially populated by tribal members, and they still held communal mineral rights as well. Including oil rights.

Those ‘headrights’ had been bones of contention between the Osage and whites for all the years the tribe had existed in Oklahoma—and they were here only because they’d been forced off their ancestral lands to the north and east. Back in the Twenties, Caleb’s great-grandfather had been murdered by a white rancher and his mob, set on stealing his land and the oil beneath it. Dozens of Osage had been killed in a span of a few years back then, in a plot worthy of a novel.

The tribe wasn’t nearly as rich as it had once been, but the land was still Osage land, and honestly, Caleb thought they were better off than most tribes. Not being fenced in had given them power in negotiation with Washington that others never had. That murderous rancher and his accomplices had been found out and imprisoned. They had good ranchland. They’d had oil. The elders were in talks with the federal government to remediate losses taken from the tribe through fraud and coercion. And now the tribal council was arguing, with the state and with each other, about casinos.

The sun had just about set when he made it to Pawhuska. Twilight turned the little town to shadows, but the last rays of sun behind him still flashed amber on the Main Street shop windows and made his shadow roll out long and thin on the road ahead of him. He rolled through town and hung a right, taking that road all the way to the end, where it gave up any pretense of being a paved road and hooked around near Bird Creek. He pulled his bike up on the broken blacktop of his grandfather’s driveway and parked behind his old Ford pickup.

Before he’d killed the engine, he could hear Ace barking, and by the time he had the stand down, the blue heeler had barreled up from the back. The dog jumped up onto his lap, that strident, ear-splitting bark still tearing from his mouth, even as his tongue turned Caleb’s face into a dripping mess.

Holding the wriggling dog, Caleb dismounted and got down on the ground with him to wrestle for a minute, until his grandfather’s whistle sliced the air, and the dog tore off toward it.

Caleb rose from the scrubby yard and brushed himself off as his grandfather ambled to him. They met under the dusk-to-dawn light humming in the front yard. The eerie glow directly above their heads deepened the creases and divots in the old man’s hawkish, pockmarked face and turned it into a death mask.

And then he smiled, and that fearsome look vanished. “Caleb. Didn’t expect you.”

“Hey, Grampa. Coming back from a ride, and I thought I’d stop in and see how you’re doing.”

Caleb was careful not to call it a ‘run,’ but his grandfather’s smile still wavered a bit at his words. He didn’t like that Caleb was a Bull. “I’m good. You hungry? I was about to heat up some stew and cornbread.”

“That’s okay. I can’t stay long. I’m going over to Kelly’s.”

The smile came back, this time with a hook of wry understanding. “So you’re here to get a shower before you go on a date.”

Not a date, exactly. More booty call. Kelly didn’t know he was coming over. But she never said no, and she was almost always around. She worked liked ten-hour days at the market, five or six days a week, so when she was home, she was home. But she was always game for some sweaty sex, and he liked a good fuck after a long run. Got the kinks out.

Kelly wasn’t the only sure thing in his life. In Tulsa, there was a clubhouse full of sweetbutts there for the pleasure of the Bulls. But sweetbutts tried so damn hard. They were all big hair and huge jewelry, and tits and ass everywhere. Most of them were heavily inked, too. There was some appeal, sure, but he liked normal girls, too. Kelly wasn’t the kind of girl anybody noticed on the street; even her Osage features were bland. But she was easy to be with, and sometimes that was exactly what he needed.

“I’m here to see you. And to get a shower. If that’s okay.”

His grandfather laughed. “Come on, son. Wash the road dust off you. I’ll get you a beer.”

~oOo~

Kelly’s roommate opened the door and rolled her eyes. “You’re such a shit, Caleb. You could at least call first. I’m surprised you don’t come to the door with your dick already out.”

“Gena, back off,” Kelly said from within. “Hey, Caleb.”

He looked over Gena’s head and into the room. Kelly was sitting on the sofa, still in her work smock. The television flickered blue over her face. “Hey, Kell.” He held up the flat box burning his hand. “I brought pizza.” He raised the six pack in his other hand. “And beer. Want to hang out?”

Kelly must have nodded or otherwise indicated assent, because Gena heaved a gale-force sigh, shoved the door open, and stepped clear. “There better be enough pizza for me, too.”

“Extra large. Plenty even for your wide ass.”

She kicked at the back of his knee and nearly sent him headlong. “Asshole.”

He stumbled but kept his feet and turned to her with a grin. “Bitch.”

They’d all grown up together, were all Osage kids, and had been friends their whole lives. He’d never dated either of them—or anybody, really, until after high school—but a year or so ago, right around the time he got his top rocker, he and Kelly had started up this semi-regular thing, and Gena had always been weird about it. Not jealous, but hostile. Caleb didn’t have to guess why; she said it outright every chance she got. She wanted more for Kelly than a booty call. But it wasn’t like he was keeping her from having a relationship, or even getting laid by other guys. He saw her once a week, at the most. She’d been spending her nights sitting on her sofa watching television before they’d started their thing.

Kelly got up from the sofa and dragged over to their Formica table as he opened the box and pulled three beers from the pack. Her hair was up the way she wore it for work, pulled hard back from her face and all knotted up on the top of her head. First thing when they got back to her room, he was going to pull that down. Then he’d get that sad smock off of her. And then he’d see if he couldn’t put a smile on her.

~oOo~

“Yeah! Oh God, oh shit! Shit! Harder!”

Caleb clutched Kelly’s hips and shifted his position, bringing his left leg up and planting his foot on her mattress so he could get better leverage and give her what she wanted. With his next thrust, she squealed—the sound had a weird metallic undertone, and it wasn’t until his phone rang again that he understood what it was.

Fuck. His fucking club burner. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He thrust a couple more times, trying to ignore it, but he couldn’t let it go. They had two teams out on runs.

“Caleb, please!”

He’d stopped moving, and she was close. The phone rang again. “I have to get that.” When he pulled out, she shrieked in frustration.

“You’re shitting me,” she gasped as he stood.

The phone was still ringing when he dug it out of his kutte pocket. “Yeah!”

A female voice he almost recognized, thought he should know, asked, “Mav?”

“No, wrong number, sorry.” Apollo did some weird shit with the burner phones, collecting them every now and then and wiping them clean. They weren’t supposed to give anybody the numbers but club members, but everybody did it all the time, so he shuffled the phones around to make it harder to use them as personals. It hadn’t worked. By now, all the old ladies had all the numbers, and they just—wait. This wasn’t Jenny, Maverick’s old lady, and it sure as hell wasn’t his little girl, Kelsey. It wasn’t any old lady, he didn’t think. So who the fuck had Mav given this number to? A sweetbutt? No way. “Who’s this?”

“Who’s this?” The voice was so damn familiar. Maybe it was an old lady? The words were badly slurred; even those two syllables had taken a twisty path out of the speaker’s mouth.

“I asked you first.”

“I need Mav. It’s an em—emer—emercy. I needim. Sposed…callim.”

Jesus hell, he knew who this was. His heart did a weird shifty thing that he hated. “Cecily?”

Cecily was the oldest daughter of Dane, the first Bulls VP. He’d died on the clubhouse floor, at the hands of another Bull, and Cecily had been on some kind of collision course ever since—and doing her damnedest to pull as many people as she could along with her. Including Caleb.

“Mav? Need you.”

“Mav’s in Texas, Ciss. This is Caleb.”

“Need Mav. Hurry.” She’d started to whisper now, and Caleb heard other voices in the background. A lot of them.

“Where are you?”

“Dunno. Bad place. Needmav.” The phone went dead.

“CECILY!”

Behind him, Kelly had sat up. “What’s wrong?”

He ignored her and dialed the incoming number. When he didn’t get an answer, he called Apollo, who picked up on the first ring.

“Yeah.” Apollo whispered, and Caleb could hear him getting out of bed. Jacinda was pregnant, and they’d had some trouble getting and staying that way. Caleb pictured her sleeping and Apollo tiptoeing out of the room so he wouldn’t disturb her.

“It’s Caleb. There’s a problem with Cecily. Can you trace her phone?”

“She doesn’t have a club phone. I don’t know her number. What kind of problem?”

“I have it. She just called me. I don’t know the problem, but she sounds like she’s in trouble. She was looking for Mav, says she needs him. She said she was in a ‘bad place’.”

“Shit. Shit. I can’t—I don’t have the tech to trace any number I want to. Just ours. But give me the number and I’ll see if I can call in a favor at this time of night. You at your granddad’s?”

Close enough. “Yeah. I can come in, though.”

“You better. If she’s in real trouble, it’s gonna take more than one of us to get her. What’s her number? I’ll call a friend and see if I can get a trace. Meet me at the clubhouse.”

Caleb gave Apollo the number. They ended the call, and he pulled the condom off his deflated dick. “Sorry, Kell. I got to go.”

Kelly had the sheet tucked up across her chest. “I heard. She’s somebody important to you, this Cecily?”

“She’s the daughter of a friend.”

That answer was close enough to the truth. Caleb had been only a prospect at the time of Dane’s death, and he’d mostly been intimidated by the club officers. He hadn’t known the man well. But he’d gotten to know his daughter since his death. A bit too much, if you asked some. Not as much as he’d have liked to.

“Are you coming back?”

He buttoned up his jeans and grabbed his t-shirt. “I doubt it, not tonight. I’m really sorry.”

“That’s okay,” she sighed. “I hope she’s okay.”

“Thanks, sugar.” Caleb kissed Kelly on the cheek, grabbed his kutte, and split.

~oOo~

Apollo was waiting for him when Caleb got there, but otherwise, the clubhouse was deserted. Most of the club was still out on the southern and western runs, and the others were, he supposed, home in bed. Apollo apparently hadn’t called them. Not even Becker, their new VP.

It was hard to get used to the idea that Becker was their VP. Just a couple months ago, he’d been a grunt like the rest of them and not obviously a standout at the table. But with Ox retiring and going off to Mexico to wait for his cancer to kill him, and Rad not wanting the VP flash, Caleb guessed there wasn’t a better candidate.

Honestly, he would have thought Maverick the best fit. He was smart and definitely a standout at the table. But for reasons above Caleb’s pay grade, that hadn’t happened.

“I got her 20,” Apollo said as he met Caleb at the door. “She’s east of downtown, off of 11th Street.”

“11th?” That was all hookers and pushers. “What the fuck?”

“If I’m right, she’s in more trouble than just tonight. But we can’t go thundering in there, or we’ll start some kind of shit. That’s too close to Hounds turf.”

It was still Bulls ground, but that close to Greenwood, in the northern part of the area that used to be neutral before the Bulls won a war against the Street Hounds and claimed that turf in the truce, the boundary was porous. The Hounds had permission to sell there and cut the Bulls in.

The Bulls drew a strange and, from Caleb’s perspective, arbitrary line around drugs. Delaney wouldn’t hear of selling it or running it, he had some kind of moral superiority about it, but every damn thing they did was connected to drugs in some way. The guns they moved went to drug cartels and their dealers. And they took a cut from the Hounds’ drug trade in Tulsa. Caleb thought it was damn hypocritical to get all high and mighty about staying clear of drugs, when most of their income came from a Russian bratva up to its ushanka in every kind of drug there was. But he was at the bottom of the heap, so nobody much cared what he thought.

He got what Apollo was saying—Cecily was in some kind of drug den, almost definitely run by the Hounds, and if they went in hot, they could start more than a brawl. But they had to get Dane’s daughter out of there. “What’s the plan, then?”

“You and me. Just us, no colors. We’ll take the van and see if we can get her out quietly.”

“Should we carry?”

“Oh, yeah. Let’s not be stupid. But if we can avoid starting a new war, let’s do.”

from Stand © 2017 Susan Fanetti

 

stand pb cover

SIGNINGS 2018-2019

Now that all the events I’m signed up for through next year have been announced, I thought I’d make a quick list with details for each. I’m linking to the FB groups for these events, where you can find links for tickets, merch, preorders, and the most updated information.

34471424_1018492368326843_549077604192223232_nFirst, coming up in just a few weeks, is Motorcycles, Mobsters, and Mayhem in Cincinnati–Saturday, 28 July! This is a one-time-only themed signing event, with an amazing lineup of MC and Mafia romance writers, and I can’t wait!

29187232_10155395489980835_6257614668479594496_oNext, coming up this fall, is Penned Con 2018 in St. Louis, MO–20-22 September 2018! This will be my second appearance at Penned Con. I had a fantastic time last year, and can’t wait to return to my hometown!

I have a preorder up right now for this signing.

36424177_1125305584283333_2645019437027033088_oAnd finally, just announced yesterday, I’ll be attending RARE19 London on 21 September 2019. This will be my first international signing, and the lineup of authors is ASTOUNDING!

That’ll be it for me, I think, until 2020, so if you can make one of these signings, I would love to see you!

Have a great weekend!
xoxo
s–

 

Simple Faith: Preorder is LIVE

PB1 digital cover

Simple Faith, the first in the new Pagano Brothers Mafia romance series, is now available for preorder! Release day is 14 July 2018!

Here are the key links:
Amazon
Amazon UK
Amazon Canada
Amazon Australia
Kobo, iBooks, B&N (It’s not live yet on those platforms, but that’s the link for when it is.)
You can add it to Goodreads, too.
You can read the synopsis and the first chapter here.

I can’t wait for you to read Trey and Lara’s story!

 

Why I Don’t Accept Reader Friend Requests

Close up of facebook page with friend request

Hi.

I got another message from a reader who was hurt that I hadn’t accepted her Facebook friend request, so I thought it was time to make another post about why I generally don’t accept friend requests from readers. I answered her privately, but here I want to address the question more broadly.

The first part of my answer is that I write under my real name. My social media accounts are in my real name, and I’ve had most of them since before I ever tried to write fiction. I’ve had Facebook and Twitter going on 10 years now. Since I’ve opened those accounts, Twitter has been where I keep up with the world, and Facebook is where I keep up with my family and friends. I’m careful about who I friend on FB. I keep it to people I know in person, and people I’ve interacted with substantively and positively online.

The second part of the answer is that I’m very politically engaged and opinionated. On my personal Facebook, in addition to talking about my kids, my cats, and my students, and sharing videos of baby goats in sweaters, otters holding hands, and baby bats eating fruit, I talk about politics and culture a lot. I rant and worry. I donate and fundraise and exhort. I do it only with people who think like I do, because Facebook is my online house, and I keep it as safe as I can.

Which brings me to the third part of my answer: I struggle a great deal with anxiety and depression. While I don’t write for the money and don’t need to worry how I’ll feed my family if I piss readers off (that might be apparent just from the stories I write, lol), I do take it hard when I get hate mail. I know I should have a tougher skin, but I just don’t. It sends me to the dark place and messes with my writing mojo—and that absolutely terrifies me. I don’t write to get paid, but I do write to stay sane.

On Twitter, as I have since 2008, I follow a lot of political people. While I don’t actively tweet very much, and rarely about anything other than books and writing, I do like a lot of tweets from the people I follow. I’ve gotten angry messages from readers because those likes showed up in their feeds, and they were upset about learning where I stand on an issue. From that evidence, I can be sure that opening my Facebook friends list, where I actually am very active and political, would invite strife into my online house.

I don’t fault someone for deciding not to read me anymore because they don’t like my politics. And I obviously understand that hearing from readers, those who hate me as well as those who love me, is part of the gig. But those angry messages mess with my head and get in the way of my writing, which messes with my head even more. To guard against it, I compartmentalize and do what I can to at least limit where and when and how those messages come.

Twitter is the place where I keep up with the world, and that account is my original account in my actual name, so I keep it and use it the way I want. I deal with the occasional angry message there and don’t worry about follower count. My personal Facebook is home, so I limit my friends list mainly to people I know, and who know me.

For readers of all stripes, I have my FB author page, and there you will not see political posts. There I am only about books and writing and reading. Perhaps occasionally some mom brags (my kids are awesome!) and cute animal videos. It’s a safe space, too—for you as well as for me.

I also have Instagram and Pinterest, and they’re pretty safe, too.

If you’ve sent me a friend request and you were hurt when it languished unanswered, I sincerely apologize. I leave them sitting open because the options are to confirm or delete, and deleting feels too harsh. There are too many to send a personal message of explanation for each one, so I leave them unanswered. But it’s not a personal judgment. It’s simply that we don’t know each other personally.

That’s my essay about why I don’t accept most reader friend requests. Let’s just come together on my author page and love books.

xoxo
s—

NEW SERIES! THE PAGANO BROTHERS

The Pagano Brothers—A Mafia Romance Series
Simple Faith, Book 1, Coming 14 July!

Close up of businessman in suit over dark gray background with c

Hi!

I’m excited to announce the start of a new series. If you’ve read my Pagano Family series (digital editions on sale right now on all platforms for .99 each, btw!), then you know the Pagano Brothers organization is connected to that family, on “the other side of the pews,” as the Paganos say. If you haven’t read about them before: The Pagano Brothers is a crime syndicate started by the brothers of Carlo Pagano Sr., whose children are the main focus of the Pagano Family series.

Both sides of the family are based in Quiet Cove, a small town on the coast of Rhode Island, and the Pagano Brothers hold the most powerful seat in the New England Council of Families.

The Pagano Brothers organization features strongly in the background and in the plot of five of the six Pagano Family books, and is front and center in Book 4, which focuses on Nick Pagano, a formidable mafioso (and arguably the star of that series).

I love the whole Pagano family, but oh, I really love Nick. Four years after I first created him, my love is still a raging blaze.

*dreamy sigh*

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. The Pagano Brothers!

While you might enjoy the Pagano Family (contemporary romance/family saga, with a dash of Mafia for spice), and can get them right now for a great price, you do NOT have to have read those books to know what’s going on in this new series—it is a spinoff, and it opens at the point at which the first series ends, but The Pagano Brothers will focus on the Mafia side of the pews.

If you’ve read the Pagano Family, you’ll recognize several key characters. If you haven’t, you’ll meet them as new characters in a new series, and their backstories will be like any important character’s backstory in any book.

So let’s meet—for the first time, or as old friends—the key players in the Pagano Brothers organization (minor spoilers for the Pagano Family series):

Nick Pagano: Don of the organization and CEO of Pagano Brothers Shipping. The only son of Lorenzo Pagano, who with his brother Beniamino founded the Pagano Brothers (they are the brothers for whom the organization and the shipping company are named). When his father died, Nick became Uncle Ben’s underboss. When Ben died, Nick took the helm. When the new series begins, Nick has been don for nearly twenty years, and the Pagano Brothers are more powerful than ever.

Nick is smart, honorable, chivalrous, demanding, ruthless and absolutely willing to do bloody violence in the name of justice (or vengeance). He wields his power like a man who knows he’s earned it. And he always gets what he wants.

He holds his family above all else and loves his wife and children with his whole, fierce heart.

My visual inspiration for him is Raoul Bova.

You can read the story of the beginning of his great love with his wife, Beverly, in Deep, Book 4 of the Pagano Family. Deep is set about twenty years before Simple Faith.

By this point in the Pagano timeline (which is contemporary but not bound to any particular date), Nick is 65 years old. While he likely will not be a lead in this series, he will certainly be a pivotal secondary character throughout.

Donnie “The Face” Goretti: Nick’s underboss, the second in command. Donnie is an important secondary character in Deep. He was very badly injured in that book and bears severe scars, physical and otherwise. It was after his injury that he became known as The Face. Donnie began in the Pagano Brothers as an insecure but stalwart young man, with a sheepish love of geeky television and a fascination with the ballet (and ballerinas). Over the years, he’s risen through the ranks to become Nick’s right hand. He earned Nick’s wholehearted trust on the day he lost half his face. Living with his scars has changed him, however. To every extent he can be and still be the second most powerful man in the Pagano Brothers, Donnie is a solitary man. At this point in the Pagano timeline, Donnie is in his mid-40s.

In this series, my visual inspiration for Donnie is Vincent Cassel.

He will be the male lead of Book 2 (not written yet; hopefully coming in 2019).

Angie Corti: Nick’s chief enforcer and head of security. He and Donnie make up Nick’s entire inner circle. Angie is a significant secondary character in Miracle, Book 6 of the Pagano Family (the series conclusion). He is the eldest brother of that book’s female lead, Tina Corti. In that book, Angie maybe doesn’t come off too well. Already a made man and an enforcer for the Pagano Brothers, he’s arrogant and kind of a dick, and he’s not very nice to Joey Pagano, Miracle’s male lead.

But an event in Miracle sparked an epiphany in Angie, and he’s changed a bit in the intervening decade or so. He’s still arrogant, but he understands the limits of his power and control. He can still be a dick, but it’s more a choice than a personality now.  He’s also in his mid-40s.

My visual inspiration for Angie is Edoardo Costa.

He’ll get a book in this series as well, I think. I like him. It’ll be a challenge for him to fall in love. He’s not going to want it, but it’ll happen anyway. Heh.

Trey Pagano: Nick’s cousin, though with 40 years between them, Trey has always called Nick “Uncle” and continues to do so. He is an associate in the Pagano Brothers, the lowest rank in the organization. He is only half-Italian, which, in the ways of La Cosa Nostra, should mean he can never be made or rise in rank. Even so, after college, and despite his father’s furious objections, Trey chose to join the Pagano Brothers. Nick has kept a close watch on the only other man in the organization who carries Pagano blood.

And Nick always gets what he wants.

Because this series will focus on the organization, the leads won’t all be Paganos, but Trey is the reason I wanted to write this series at all, so he is the male lead of  Book 1, Simple Faith.

Trey was a cute little preschooler with an obsession with sharks in Footsteps, the first book of the Pagano Family series. Over the course of that series, from the first chapter of Footsteps to the epilogue of Miracle, he grows up.

Simple Faith opens on the same weekend that the epilogue to Miracle takes place, when Trey is 25 years old.

In Simple Faith, he is a young man who has, for reasons he can’t quite articulate even to himself, chosen a dangerous path for his life. He is trying to find his footing with Don Pagano and the Pagano Brothers and to reclaim his relationship with his father as well.

I haven’t written farther into the series than Book 1 yet, but I have a very strong feeling that Trey’s story will continue in the background of subsequent books and serve as the spine of the series arc.

My visual inspiration for him is Alex Pettyfer. (I guess I could/should say that the model on the cover is my visual inspiration, lol, but I can’t afford Alex Pettyfer, and this guy gets damn close!)

In Simple Faith, because it’s Trey’s story, you’ll also meet (or visit with again) the leads from the Pagano Family series and their children: Trey’s mother and father, aunts and uncles, brother and cousins. But those characters will probably not be significantly present as the series progresses and characters not named Pagano take their turns in the lead.

If you’d like to get a peek at more of my character and story inspirations, you can check out the Pagano Brothers Pinterest board.

Okay, so that’s the context for this new series. Here are the deets (cover, synopsis, and Chapter 1) for Book 1: Simple Faith!

Release Date!

Saturday, 14 July 2018 (4 weeks from today)!
Preorder coming next week. You can add it to your Goodreads TBR now.

Cover!

PB1 digital cover

Synopsis!

Against his father’s wishes, Trey Pagano made a choice to join the other side of his family and stand with Don Nick Pagano, head of the Pagano Brothers, the most powerful Family in New England. Now he strives to find the balance between these two sides of himself, between the father who raised him and the don who means to lift him up.

Seeking the brightest mind to keep his secrets, Don Pagano recruited Lara Dumas, a woman with a brilliant intellect bound up in a damaged mind and frail body. Lara has carefully constructed a small world for herself in a comfortable corner of Providence, building boundaries within her limits.

When Lara is hurt by Pagano Brothers’ enemies, the safety of her world is destroyed. The don assigns Trey to take her away and protect her—and the things she knows.

Hundreds of miles from home, hidden from danger and cut off from everything they know and trust, Trey and Laura grow close. Against his better judgment, Trey falls for the woman whose strength shines through the cracks in her psyche. Despite her trauma, Lara comes to trust the man who’s kept her safe.

Whether the bond they forge in safety can survive when they return to the world is a matter of faith—in themselves and in each other.

Preview (Chapter 1)!

~ 1 ~

“There.”

Accompanied by a terse tip of his head, Angie’s syllable carried across the table, under the steady thump of house music. Trey looked over his shoulder, leaning back a bit to get a clear look around the blonde on his lap, and saw Kevin Swinton, co-owner of Cyclone—Quiet Cove, Rhode Island’s brand new club.

Cyclone was a typical dance bar, the kind full of chrome, shiny vinyl, and flashing lights. It was an all-ages club, with bouncers at the door to stamp patrons’ hands with marks showing they were old enough, or weren’t, to buy booze. Almost two months before Memorial Day, when the summer crowds would descend upon this sleepy little seaside town, it was the local kids celebrating the opening of the first real nightclub inside the town limits. An enthusiastic crowd, but not a large one.

Trey wasn’t the dance-club type, but he wasn’t here to party. While it might appear to the casual observer that the two men sitting in this sparkly purple vinyl booth, in the company of sparkly vinyl blondes, were enjoying a night out, it was Pagano Brothers business that had him and Angie stuck in this loud, flashy hell.

Swinton stood behind the bar, leaning in to talk at his bartender’s ear. He wore his thinning brown hair slicked back, and there was some kind of iridescent thread in his half-buttoned shirt—the combined effect of that slick glitz made him glow in the undulating rainbow of lights. Trey had never spoken to the man, had never seen him at a closer distance than the one between them right now, but he already couldn’t stand him. It didn’t take a heart-to-heart to know the guy was every nightclub-owner cliché embodied: slick, shallow, and craven.

Trey turned back to Angie. “That’s not Kenny, right? That’s his brother.” Kenny was the older brother, and the one truly in charge.

With a blithe sip of his scotch, Angie said, “Doesn’t matter. He’s a Swinton and an owner. You know what to do.”

That wasn’t wholly true. He knew what the outcome had to be, and he’d seen others, including Angie himself, do what needed to be done to achieve that outcome, but Cyclone was Trey’s first brand-new ‘account.’ Every other business he managed had been on the Pagano Brothers’ list for years.

There were two sides of the Pagano Brothers’ business. On paper and in reality, Nick Pagano was the President and CEO of Pagano Brothers Shipping. He filled that legitimate role and did the work it required. But from his office at the shipping company, he ran a much more important and lucrative business as well. He was the don of the Pagano Brothers, a powerful underworld family and the central seat of the New England Council of Five Families. He’d inherited both businesses from his father and uncle, who had been the Pagano Brothers.

Like most of the men closest to Nick, Trey worked for both branches of the Pagano Brothers. For the shipping company, he was an account manager—outside sales, cultivating and managing commercial transportation clients.

For the organization, his job was similar enough that the same title could describe his work, but Nick called him a ‘liaison.’ He didn’t do collections, but he set up the deals. He was the first contact for people who sought to reach out to Nick in some way, with business propositions or requests for help, and for people Nick wanted something from—but not favors. More like offers they couldn’t refuse.

Nick Pagano was not a man who often asked for favors. He bestowed them. And he collected on them.

Among the offers people couldn’t refuse was protection. Like every family organization in La Cosa Nostra, protection schemes were part of the foundation of their work. If you opened a business in the Cove, you paid the Paganos for protection. If you did not, then you needed protection from the Paganos. It was just the way things worked, and Nick took his end of the deal seriously. Quiet Cove businesses didn’t have a choice about contracting the Paganos for their security, but they could rest assured that their businesses would then be secure.

Tonight, Trey’s job was to introduce Kenny and Kevin Swinton to the way things worked.

Angie Corti was a capo in the organization, and Nick’s chief enforcer. He was here to make sure Trey didn’t fuck up, and to save the situation if he did, but what he was not here to do was help Trey do the job in the first place.

Knowing that, and having a strong enough sense of self-preservation to keep his self-doubt closed up inside his head where it belonged, Trey set aside his sparkly blonde and stood up. He buttoned the middle button on his Armani suit jacket, straightened his cuffs and his tie, and made a straight, steady path to Kenny Swinton.

The bartender was a local, and Trey’s age. They’d gone to school together all the way through high school. Jeff knew exactly who Trey was, and when he saw him approach, he gave him a nod and backed off, all the way to the other side of the bar.

Swinton sent a look twisted with confusion after his bartender and turned to Trey. “Help ya?” He did not recognize Trey, but there was no reason that he should, not yet.

Keenly aware of Angie’s eyes on his back, Trey set an elbow on the bar and leaned in. “My name is Trey Pagano.”

The name, Swinton knew. The twist returned, drawing his thick eyebrows together. “Pagano.”

“Yes. We need to talk.” He focused on keeping his voice at the right level, loud enough to carry past the techno din of the music, but not so loud that the effort was apparent.

“I don’t think we do,” Swinton replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t want what you’re selling.”

Trey smiled and hoped the expression showed exactly how much of that friendliness was artifice. “You haven’t heard my pitch. When you do, I think you’ll change your tune.”

“You can fuck right off, shithead,” Swinton snarled. “I know your game, and we’re not playing it.”

His heart hammering in his chest, Trey exerted all his will to keep his expression mellow and his tone steady. He was significantly younger than Swinton, and he had to put forth an image of dangerous strength that compensated for his youth. If he faltered, no one would take him seriously. If he wasn’t taken seriously, that reflected on Nick. Reflecting badly on Nick was a good way to get dead. “That’s a mistake, Kevin. A bad one.”

“Fuck off.”

With a head tilt and a disappointed shrug to indicate that the man had had his chance,  Trey turned and walked back to the booth. Angie’s eyes were on him the whole way.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

When he arrived at the table, Angie gave his blonde a swat. “Outta here, sweetcheeks. The grownups got some talkin’ to do.”

The girls left—Trey didn’t even remember their names—and he sat down and faced Angie, and the music.

“So that went well,” Angie said with a one-sided grin.

“He didn’t bite.”

“You know you’re not leaving without this guy in line, so what’s your move?”

Trey considered his options, none of which was giving up. He tried to think like the don would. Nick Pagano was nominally his first cousin once removed, but he was so much older that Trey had always called him Uncle, and he deserved the respect of the title. They were family. Moreover, in the nearly three years he’d been sitting on Nick’s side of the pews, the don had kept him close, let him watch, let him learn. Trey knew Nick. Were he here now, what would Don Pagano do?

“We wait.”

Angie leaned back against the glittery purple vinyl and snapped his fingers at a passing waitress. “We’ll need another round, sugarpants.”

~oOo~

At Trey’s word, they sat through last call and didn’t give up the booth until the music had gone quiet, the flashing lights had gone dark, and the house lights had come up. Then, when there was no one in the place but the Pagano men and the bar staff, they stood and walked slowly to the bar, Trey in the lead. With a backward nod, he called Ricky and Mel, the enforcers they’d had stationed near the door, to the bar as well, so that four Pagano men, all of them armed, stood before Kevin Swinton.

Trey sensed the staff making themselves scarce. They were all locals and didn’t bother to make even a show of standing up with their new boss. They knew how things worked.

Now he needed to get Swinton to read the memo.

With the club empty, quiet, and brightly lit, Swinton’s slick was more like slime. After a quick glance to see that not even his bouncers had stuck around and he was truly alone, he eyed the Pagano men warily.

But he stood his ground. “I guess this is the part where you start breaking my shit.”

Trey had had more than an hour to think about how to run this gambit, to try to think like Nick. He’d made some choices, and he hoped that they were decent. “No, Kev. We’re not gonna break your shit. It doesn’t help anybody to put you out of business. Not at this point, anyway.”

He turned to Ricky and Mel. The enforcers weren’t there to do his bidding—they were both made men, and Trey himself was not—and they weren’t his biggest fans. Most of the men on the lower rungs of the Pagano Brothers ladder resented Trey and his easy access to the don, particularly because he wasn’t made. He was a half-blooded associate who’d jumped way above his station, and they all wanted to drag him back down where he belonged. But he was the only man in the organization who shared blood with the don. Nick kept him close, so the soldiers and associates seethed quietly, out of sight of the don’s keen eyes.

Ricky and Mel answered to Angie, and that was what they were doing now, doing Trey’s bidding only because Angie had pushed him forward.

Trey didn’t care why they were doing what he wanted, only that Kevin saw him call the shots. Nick had taught him that there was power in being not the man who made the pain, but the one who ordered it. “I don’t want to break his shit,” he said, hoping they’d understand what he meant.

Angie got it. At his side, Trey heard a low chuckle and considered it an endorsement of his approach.

Mel got it, too. A sadistic sneer split his face, and, lightning-fast, he reached across the bar and grabbed Kevin Swinton by his shiny shirt. Yanking him forward, Mel threw his other hand up, got Swinton by the back of the head, and slammed his face into the edge of the bar. Blood sprayed up, and Swinton howled, the sound already stunted by his mangled nose.

“That’s for calling me a shithead.” He nodded at Mel, who still had Swinton by the shirt. The enforcer grabbed his head again, and made the same move. This time, the collision of face to wood had a distinctly squishy tone, and blood didn’t so much spray as gush. “And that’s for telling me to fuck off. Actually, you said that twice, didn’t you?”

The satisfaction of making this asshole eat his attitude created equilibrium in Trey’s mind. All his doubts and insecurities disappeared. He knew what to do.

“Wait, wait, wait!” Swinton shrieked, trying to hold back the blood fountain spurting from the middle of his face, and at the same time twist out of Mel’s grip. “Wait!”

“Waiting.”

“W-w-we’re …” He spat, swallowed, planted a bar rag on his face, and tried again. “We—we just opened. We put everything into getting the doors open. We’re tapped out. We can’t pay.”

“Kev, you haven’t even heard our offer yet. Don’t scream before you’ve been hit.”

At his side, Angie chuckled again.

“Let’s sit down and have a civilized conversation. I’ll lay out our terms.”

The rush he felt when Kevin Swinton’s shoulders slumped and his head nodded just about lifted Trey’s feet off the floor.

For nearly three years, he’d been working with Nick. This night was the first time he felt like a Pagano man.

~oOo~

The sun drew the next day’s first line of light across the Atlantic horizon, a pale streak across chalky blue, dividing the dawn sky from the night sea. Trey flexed his toes through the sand, digging down, finding yesterday’s lingering warmth under the crust of the night’s chill. He was alone on the beach; it was too early in the day, and still a bit too early in the year, for all but the most intrepid surfers. Trey was one of the intrepid, and surfed year round.

From the first time his father put him on a soft-top, the summer he was five years old, he’d been most at peace with himself when there was a board under his feet. From even before that, he’d loved it here—his earliest happy memories had to do with the ocean and the beach. He knew himself here like nowhere else.

Not even the rush of his success at Cyclone could match the powerful peace of the waves. Last night he’d finally felt like a Pagano man. But here, on this beach, he was Trey.

Quiet Cove was home base for the entire Pagano family, not just Nick and the Pagano Brothers, but the other side of the pews as well—his side of the family. Every corner of this little town was marked in some way by his people. With the exception of his years at Princeton, and his unremembered first years of life, when his father and bio-mom had lived an hour away in Providence, Trey had never lived anywhere else. And yet, since he’d been in middle school, he’d struggled to feel at home in this place that was the only home he’d ever known.

Except here, on this private stretch of family beach, and the wedge of the Atlantic beyond it. This was his home. If he could have sprouted gills and fins, he’d have dived under and never broken the surface again.

Failing that, he’d ride that surface as often as he could.

With the top of his suit hanging on his hips, and his board at his side, Trey stood bare-chested in the sharp slice of early spring breeze. He faced the breaking waves of a returning tide and waited for the light.

~oOo~

The surf was good, the waves firing at the perfect pace so that he spent little time on his knees, waiting for the next ride. By the time he let the water carry him all the way back to land, the sun blazed bright across the water, and the world had woken. He unleashed the board and carried it up to his little house on the beach.

His family had owned this house longer than he’d been alive. First, it had been his Aunt Carmen’s. Then she’d had a kid and gotten married—in that order—and moved out. Uncle John rented it from her after that, and eventually bought it, and when he’d gotten married and had a kid, they’d built an addition, and they’d stayed. Until their twins were born. For a few years after that, the family had used it casually, as a beach base and guest house. Trey had lost his virginity in the loft, in his junior year of high school. He’d gotten drunk for the first time—really drunk, not sucking-the-wine-puddles-from-the glasses-after-Christmas-dinner drunk—and stoned for the first time, on separate occasions in the living room. All his illicit firsts had happened in this little house.

The innocently illicit firsts, anyway.

After Trey graduated from Princeton, he’d asked Uncle John if he could rent the place, and he’d been here on his own since then.

Hooking his longboard at its place on the porch wall, Trey pulled a towel out of the weather-beaten cabinet by the door and knocked the sand off his feet. He stripped out of his wetsuit and dried off, shivering against the last kiss of cold in the breeze. Inside, his work cell chimed, and he went into the house, rubbing his head with the sandy towel, and grabbed the phone off the island counter.

Nick. “Good morning, Uncle,” he answered.

“Trey. This is the third time I’ve called this morning.”

Trey glanced up at the clock over the refrigerator. It wasn’t seven in the morning yet. But no one kept Don Pagano waiting. “Sorry, don. I was in the water.” When Nick didn’t respond, Trey asked, “Is there trouble?”

“An issue came up in the night. I want you here.”

Shit. Had the Swintons gone sour already? He’d only left the bar a few hours ago. “With Cyclone?”

“No.”

“Gessie’s First Communion is today.” Normally he’d never have dared push against a summons from Nick, but today was supposed to be sacrosanct, set aside for their family. Gessie was one of his little cousins, Uncle Joey’s middle child. They had a family breakfast before the Mass, and then a cookout at Joey and Tina’s place afterward.

Nick usually did all he could to keep work and family on separate planes; if he was letting work interrupt family, something big had come up.

“I’m aware, Trey. I want you at the office in thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes was generous; Nick had heard Trey say he’d been surfing and was giving him time to make himself ready. “I’ll be there.”

Nick ended the call, and Trey stared at the phone for a second, thinking. Missing Gessie’s First Communion would set his father off, and he was not in the mood for one of their free-for-alls. Not that he ever enjoyed them, but sometimes he was in the mood to provoke them. Today was not one of those times.

Trey and his father, Carlo, had been butting heads for more than a decade, since he’d started high school. Before that, they’d been incredibly close—he’d gotten teased through the last half of elementary school because on some busy-work handout in third grade, he’d filled in the line, ‘My best friend’s name is ____’ with ‘Daddy.’ It had been true, and he’d asserted that truth, even in the face of ridicule and bullying.

But then, the summer before ninth grade, everything went wonky, all at once. Like he’d gotten up one day that summer and the world was different. His father wanted a particular kind of life for him. Trey had wanted it, too. They’d been working together toward it for years. But that summer, Trey hadn’t wanted to do what his father wanted. He hadn’t even known why not, or what else he’d do. He simply hadn’t wanted what his father wanted. Simply because his father wanted it.

They’d had their first real fight that summer, and then fought all summer, until, the August he turned fourteen, they could hardly be in the same room together for ten minutes without shouting. Trey remembered what that was like—just being sure, in his bones, that he absolutely could not, would not do what his father wanted, but having absolutely no idea why not. Even if it had been something he’d wanted, too—even if it still was something he wanted. It became his mission to find another way to be. He’d seen how it tore his father up, but he couldn’t stop himself. When his father’s frustration had hit it boiling point and he’d begun to ‘lay down the law,’ they’d broken apart.

Almost twelve years later, they’d never again been best friends. The life Trey had chosen, he hadn’t chosen to spite his father, but after years of him acting out of spite, his father couldn’t believe he acted any other way. When Trey joined the Pagano Brothers and moved to the other side of the pews, his father had considered that the highest form of betrayal. He’d almost cut Trey out of the family over it. Trey’s stepmother, and aunts and uncles, had intervened, and after months of strife there had eventually been a truce between them, but some damage seemed permanent.

Trey hadn’t had a best friend, someone to confide in, since middle school, honestly. Since his father had held the title. The only kids he’d ever been able to tolerate, he was related to. He had his family, his cousins, his aunts and uncles, his stepmother—who was the only mom he remembered or needed. His life was full of love and friendship. But he missed his old man.

Who would totally lose his shit when he found out Trey was missing Gessie’s First Communion.

Setting the work cell down, Trey went to his bedroom and picked up his personal. He called his mom’s phone—she was a reliable buffer between Trey and his father, and unfailingly reasonable.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she answered warmly.

“Hi, Misby. How are you this morning?”

“I’m well. You’re calling early. All is well?”

“Uh … I have to work this morning. I’m probably going to miss the breakfast, maybe the Mass, too. I don’t know yet.” He heard her sigh, and guilt poured through the phone into his head. “I’m sorry, Misby.”

“Your father…”

“I know. I’d be there if I could. I want to be there.”

“I know you do. I’ll tell him. I’ll make it right.”

“Thank you. I love you.”

“I love you, too. Be safe.”

“I will be—and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

When he got off the phone, he put his ass in gear to get showered and dressed. You went to Don Nick Pagano’s office in one of only two ways: well dressed, or bound and gagged. Either way, you got there on time.

~oOo~

Pagano Brothers Shipping had gotten its start as a little one-truck operation run by Trey’s great-grandfather. The elder two of his three sons, Beniamino and Lorenzo, had built that little enterprise up into a successful company and built the Pagano Brothers organization on the same foundation. When Beniamino died, Nick, Lorenzo’s son, took over and, with savvy and ruthlessness, increased the power and influence of both.

Trey hailed from the other side of the family. His grandfather, Carlo Sr., had been the third and youngest Pagano brother, and he’d rejected his brothers’ decision to expand their father’s company into illegal trafficking, a decision that was the origin of the Pagano Brothers organization. Instead, Carlo Sr. began a construction company, and their hometown of Quiet Cove had become the base of two separate sides of the family: The Pagano Brothers, and Pagano & Sons. Now Trey’s true uncles, Luca, John, and Joey, ran Pagano & Sons.

Carlo Jr., Trey’s dad and the eldest of Carlo’s six children, had never wanted to work in the family business—like his own son, he’d been a disappointment to his father. He was an architect heading an elite firm in Providence.

Though the two sides remained family and bound together, the separation had always been apparent, all the way down to where they sat for Mass at Christ the King Catholic Church: Carlo Pagano and his family on one side, and Ben and Lorrie Pagano and their families and associates on the other side of the pews. Everyone in Quiet Cove knew exactly who and what all three Pagano brothers were, and everyone respected them all.

But Carlo Sr. had badly wanted his family to stay out of Pagano Brothers business. His oldest son felt the same.

Carlo Sr. had been bitterly disappointed when his youngest son, Joey, had crossed to the other side of the pews, but Joey’s tenure had been cut short by a disabling bullet.

Carlo Jr. had been enraged when his eldest son had crossed over. Trey was now in his third year in the organization and had no plans to leave it.

His father would have to come to terms with his choice.

Trey parked his Audi Q5 at the end of a short row of vehicles he knew: Angie Corti’s Hellcat, Donnie Goretti’s Porsche, and Nick’s Navigator. That was the inner circle.

He checked his watch—still had five minutes to spare, but he didn’t like being the last one in.

With a fresh sense of urgency, he keyed in the access code on the front door; it was Sunday, and the shipping part of the company was closed. In the reception area, Ray, Nick’s driver and bodyguard, sat comfortably on a sleek, black leather chair, reading on a tablet. He looked up as Trey came in, and they shared a nodded greeting as Trey headed straight for the don’s office.

One of the dark double doors was ajar, and Trey pushed it open as he knocked.

The room had a classy décor that told a story of a wealthy, high-level executive with tastes that ran to modern European style: clean lines, dark wood, firm leather, and earth tones. Doodads and knickknacks at a minimum. The wide window overlooked Quiet Cove Harbor, but Nick kept the view obscured with simple, semi-sheer white drapes.

Nick sat on the front edge of his vast desk. Angie and Donnie sat in the two leather chairs that faced the desk. Angie was still dressed as he’d been at Cyclone last night, and he looked like he hadn’t gotten anywhere near a bed in the few hours since they’d left the club.

“Trey. Excellent.” Nick stood and came over, his arms out for their usual quick hug of a greeting.

“Hello, Uncle. If I’m late, I apologize.”

Nick checked the Rolex on his wrist. “You’re not. Donnie and Angie were here with me when I called. Let’s sit.” He gestured to the sofa against the wall, and the hairs on Trey’s neck twitched. Was this meet about him? Had Cyclone gone wrong after all?

Knowing that showing anxiety would tweak Nick’s patience hard, he simply walked with him to the sofa and sat. Donnie and Angie shifted their chairs. Trey focused for a second on Angie; he was most likely to give him goodhearted shit, so if he looked overly serious, Trey would know he was in trouble.

He didn’t—he didn’t look amused, but he wasn’t turning his murder look on him, so whatever was wrong, it wasn’t Trey. That allowed him to let out a surreptitiously held breath.

“You said trouble came up in the middle of the night, Uncle?”

“Yes. I had a call from Frederick Dumas, and I spent the early hours with him in the ER in Providence.”

Frederick Dumas was the Pagano Brothers’ chief finance guy. Trey had done quite a bit of work with Dumas and sometimes had a thought that he’d like his job, when Dumas was done with it. His degree was in international finance, with a minor in information technology.

His father had wanted him to be an architect, or at least an engineer.

“What happened? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. It was his daughter who was hurt. Lara. They hurt her to get a message to him. You understand why it’s doubly dangerous that they got to Lara.”

Trey nodded. Lara was the brains of the Dumas operation. She was an elite cryptologist and created all the encryptions for Pagano Brothers—not just their financial data, but their job codes, their asset locations, their schedules, everything. She knew everything. Her father was the one with the good financial sense, but otherwise, he just mashed the keys his daughter told him to mash and served as the mature masculine face their business associates trusted.

They’d gone for the daughter to get information from the father, but it was the daughter’s brain where it all was stored.

Trey had met Lara Dumas only once, and from a distance—nothing more than a brusque wave from the other side of a large room. All he knew of her was blonde, slight, and unsmiling. And that her brain should have been about seven sizes bigger than her skull could contain.

“What did they do to her?”

“What they always do to women when they want to hurt the men who care about them.” Nick said that sentence with a dangerous snarl. “Then they turned her out to wander naked in the streets.”

“Jesus. Who did it?”

Nick nodded at Donnie, who pulled his phone from his suit coat pocket, flicked his thumb across the screen a few times, and handed the device to Trey.

He squinted at the screen, trying to make sense of the image on it. That was … skin, wounded skin. Shit, that was a brand. In the angry, livid wound, he could make out the shape that had been burned into someone’s skin—Lara Dumas’s skin. Once he realized that the scar showed the original image in reverse, he saw it: a B capped with a crown.

It was difficult to make out the details in the swollen burn, but Trey knew that if he saw the thing that had made it—a big ring, he guessed—the B would be drawn with flourishes, and the crown would be elaborate as well. “Bondaruk.”

A Ukrainian bratva based in New Jersey. Minor players in the underworld of the Eastern Seaboard, but they’d been making some noise in the past year, attempting to raise their profile.

Nick nodded. “Yes, good eye. Bondaruk.”

“Is this a message to you?”

A surprising hint of a smile lifted Nick’s mouth. “We’re not yet in agreement on that. I don’t think so. I think they’re trying to flip Dumas and had no intention of me finding out until it was too late.”

“I think it’s nuts not to act like it is a message direct to you, don,” Angie said. Though Sam was Nick’s bodyguard and Donnie was his underboss, Angie was their security expert. By nature suspicious, he was the one who saw deepest into the dark corners.

“And we will,” Donnie answered. “But we won’t tip our hand.”

“They go for families,” Angie pushed. “That breaks the code.”

“These Ukie bastards don’t give a shit about our code.”

“Easy, Donnie,” Nick admonished. “I’m not taking any chances with our families, Ange. You know I won’t. But tipping our hand puts everybody at risk.” Nick turned back to Trey. “This is where you come in. I have an assignment for you.”

“Of course.” Trey sat up straighter.

“They’ve shown they can get to Lara, and we have to protect that asset at all costs. I don’t know what kind of pressure she might withstand, and I won’t take the risk they’ll find out that it’s her who has the knowledge and take her again. I need her somewhere secure and under guard. That’s you, Trey.”

His first impulse was to resist the assignment. He hadn’t the first clue how to keep someone hidden, and, setting aside the shooting range, he’d fired his weapon two times in all the time he’d been with organization. Last night was the first time he’d led anything significant, and he’d had Angie right at his side.

But to push back would be to challenge the don’s decision, and no matter what his last name was, he did not have that kind of juice. The other two men in the room were the only men in the organization who could tell Don Pagano to stop and think again. They both seemed on board with this crazy plan, so Trey nodded.

“Tell me what I need to do.”

PB1 paperback cover

© Susan Fanetti 2018