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