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

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!

 

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

 

 

COVER REVEAL & PREVIEW! Fight, The Brazen Bulls MC, Book 6

fight digital cover

Hi all!

Today, I’m revealing the title, cover, and synopsis of the next BBMC book, and I have a preview for you as well. I’m also, at the end of this post, including the book’s Author’s Note, which contains a major spoiler. This book kind of needs a content warning.

Fight releases in 6 weeks, on Saturday, 2 June. I’ll set up the preorder a few weeks in advance. You can add it to your Goodreads TBR in the meantime.

Fight is Ox and Maddie’s story, and that makes it a little bit different right off the bat, since Ox and Mads are a long-established couple. There are some other differences as well–for one thing, Ox is the son of a Mexican immigrant, from Yucatán. He has a large and boisterous blood family, and connections to his father’s birthplace and Maya heritage, and all that figures in his story fairly significantly.

I won’t say more about the story right now; down below you can read the synopsis, and Chapter One, and, if you don’t mind a big ol’ spoiler, the Author’s Note, and get all the flavor you need from that. But I will say that I personally love this book. It’s one of my most personal stories, and the act of writing it was deeply emotional and cathartic. It wasn’t an easy write, and it probably won’t be an easy read, but I’m really proud of this one.

2017 was a very good writing year, now that I think about it. I wrote a lot of my best stuff last year. Including this.

Anyway, on to the rest of the reveals. Here’s the synopsis:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2000.

Fernando “Ox” Sanchez spent more than two decades as an enforcer in the Brazen Bulls MC before he was named to take the Vice President flash from a brother lost in club turmoil. In the time since, as Ox has settled into the place at their president’s side, the club has cleaned out festering wounds and begun to heal.

The Bulls are strong and growing, their work is expanding, and Ox’s life with his old lady is perfect. Their love has never wavered in fifteen years, their lust for each other still burns hot, and together, they’ve made a home that is a sanctuary from their past and their present.

Life is good. But Ox came from nothing, and scraped for years just to get by. He’s lived long enough to know better than to take the good times for granted.

Madonna “Maddie” Donne met Ox when she was at her lowest, and with him at her side, she’s climbed to heights of success and power matched only by the Bulls. After spending her whole life fighting for survival, she built herself up from that nothing, and Ox offered his shoulders for her to climb on when she couldn’t reach alone.

Together, they’ve built a beautiful life. But that beauty won’t protect them from the fight they’re about to face.

When Ox, named for his size and brute power, takes ill, he and Maddie will need every ounce of strength and resolve, every moment of love and trust, to fight the battle before them now.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

***

And Chapter One:
(Oh! I should point out that, since Ox and Maddie have been together for a long time, they get right down to the good stuff. This last scene of this chapter is very “smexy,” as they say!)

CHAPTER ONE

“Do we need to grow the table?”

At Maverick’s question, Ox scanned the faces around the Brazen Bulls’ table. Ten men sat at that scarred oak with him. Eleven members wasn’t the biggest roster Ox had known, in twenty-five years of association with the club, but they were talking about patching in three prospects at once, and fourteen members would make the roster the biggest in Bulls’ history.

Maverick had raised a good point—the club was in a period of peace, hard-earned, and there was no need for a large table in peacetime. Of course, that kind of thinking could leave the club undermanned should trouble rise up again. They’d been stretched thin, with thirteen members, during the recent war with the Street Hounds, which had come up in the middle of their Tulsa home after a long peace with Northside—stretched so thin they’d nearly lost.

In fact, they were contending with the question of patching in three members at once because they’d taken on three prospects to help fill the gaps as that war had loomed. Back then, they hadn’t had the luxury to consider the question of what they’d do when these men came up at the table all at once.

Another factor, the one that had spurred Maverick’s question, which had come on the heels of Eight Ball asking directly: how much would each patch’s take shrink when it was divided among fourteen men rather than eleven? The officers’ takes were bigger than the others, and all takes were calculated according to seniority and involvement, but everybody would take a hit. The money was rolling in, but three new patches meant a noticeably smaller cut. Not enough to cripple anybody—except possibly Eight Ball, who used up cash like it was toilet paper—but enough for everybody to feel.

But Caleb, Fitz, and Gargoyle had been prospecting for two years. Normally, they considered that the limit—if a prospect hadn’t earned his patch after two years, he washed out. It wasn’t a rule, though. The rule was only that a prospect period was reviewed after two years. Technically, a prospect could keep prospecting if he wasn’t ready.

Still, they’d never let a prospect go much longer, certainly not without hope that his patch was in sight.

And there was more, something the table didn’t know yet. Only the officers knew. Until, Ox assumed, now.

At the head of the table, Delaney patted his kutte absently; he’d given up his unfiltered Camels a couple of months back. He chewed nicotine gum constantly now, but at the table, he really faltered. Ox saw his mood tank as he patted his empty pocket.

Delaney was a different president now than he’d been most of the time Ox had known him. He’d led the club for more than twenty years like a cross between a drill sergeant and a father, with a strong hand and a warm heart, never wavering in his confidence in his sense of rightness and integrity, always willing to hear other ideas.

His integrity hadn’t stumbled, but his confidence had. The last couple of years, since Dane Nielsen’s death, Delaney’s state of mind had darkened. And time, rather than easing the pain of losing his best friend and right hand man, seemed to have infected the wound. Now, he led the club with a palpable weariness and a dwindling sense of joy.

He’d made some bad calls, too.

Ox sat at his right hand, and he wondered, often, whether there was more he could do, should do, to bring Delaney back to the light. But they’d never been best friends. They were close as brothers, loved and trusted each other, but they’d never had the symbiotic bond Delaney and Dane had had. Delaney had tapped Ox for the VP chair because he thought he was the best fit for the job, not because he felt especially close to him.

There was much Delaney didn’t share with Ox. Personal, interior things he might have shared with a best friend.

His need for a smoke unsatisfied, Delaney scowled at Maverick. “Let’s get to the point that was first on my agenda, before Gunner brought up the prospects. Got a call from Irina. She wants to expand her reach into the west. Add a new route straight west, with a customer pickup in Bakersfield.”

Beside Ox, Apollo jerked up straight. “D, that’s…shit, that’s something like fifteen hundred miles. She wants us to manage that? Longest run we have now is Galveston, and that’s a third the distance.”

“Longest run we’re in charge of is to Canada,” Ox corrected him. “We hand off at Lincoln, but we’re responsible for the Riders all the way to the border. That’s a thousand miles. We brought them in, so Irina sees them as our subcontractors.”

“We’d have to ‘subcontract’ another club to get a fifteen-hundred mile run done,” Simon mused. “How often would this new route run?”

“Once a quarter,” Delaney answered. “Four times a year.”

Gunner laughed. “Fuck me. That’ll have us running Russian shit about once a month.”

Running guns for the Volkov bratva was by far their riskiest work. Every time they escorted a truckload of her wares, they ran the risk of getting caught up in a legal snare. In Tulsa, they were fairly safe; the club had highly-placed friends throughout the city government. In the whole state of Oklahoma, they faced little risk. But once they crossed state lines, the risk skyrocketed.

It was also by far their most lucrative work. All the Bulls had earned sizeable stacks of cash over the years of their partnership with Irina Volkov.

“We get paid a cut of the take and a transport fee by the mile, right? Same deal as the other runs?” Eight Ball asked. He could always be counted on to see the green first.

Delaney nodded. “That’s right.”

“And if we say no?” Maverick asked. He could always be counted on to shoot darts at Delaney’s plans.

Their president didn’t answer, except for what could be read in the lines on his furrowed brow.

After a silence so heavy and alive it thrummed, Delaney went on, leaving Maverick’s question without a voiced answer. “Alexei will come out, and we’ll hammer out the details face to face. The new run won’t start until we’ve got the route scouted. Simon’s right. We’ll need to bring another club on board—”

“At least one,” Maverick cut in.

Delaney’s scowl deepened, but he nodded. “At least one, yeah. I assume, Mav, you’re about to call for a vote?”

Maverick raised his head and lowered it, one time, slowly, and Delaney sighed.

“Do we agree to take on the Volkovs’ new run, or do we refuse and accept the consequences? Aye takes the work. Aye.”

It was eight to three in favor of the work. Maverick, Simon, and Gunner voted against it. Ox thought that was bullshit—they had the luxury of standing on principle because they knew the majority would go the other way. Everybody knew that the consequences of refusing Irina would be dire, and the vote was more formality than not. As far as Ox was concerned, a nay vote under these circumstances was a hairsbreadth from disloyal.

“Now,” Delaney said, breathing a bit more calmly, “we can take on the question of the prospects. Sponsors, are your men ready?”

Gunner was Caleb’s sponsor. Caleb had been prospecting a couple of weeks longer than Gargoyle or Fitz. He was the first to respond. “Yeah. Caleb’s ready. And it looks like we need the bodies after all.”

Eight Ball, Gargoyle’s sponsor, nodded. “Yeah. I’m not keen on a bigger split, but Gun’s right. If we’re gonna take on another run, we need them. Gargo’s a weird son of a bitch, but he’s tough and loyal, so yeah, he’s ready.”

“Same for Fitz,” Becker said. He grinned. “Not the weird, but the ready.”

“Alright, then,” Delaney said. “Let’s vote. Caleb. Aye.”

They went around the table three times, and all three votes were unanimous, as was required to seat a new patch at the table.

“Alright. We got us three new members. Simon, get the patches. Ox, bring the boys in.”

While Simon went to the safe at the far corner of the room, Ox went around the table and opened the door to the clubhouse. “PROSPECTS!” he shouted. “Get your asses in here, shitheads! NOW!”

Caleb stood behind the bar. He looked appropriately scared. “All of us? What’d we do?”

“DID I FUCKING STUTTER?” Behind him, the patches at the table coughed back their laughter. Ox didn’t have trouble stifling his own smile. He fucking loved scaring the shit out of prospects, and he especially loved the way this particular event had returned the table to its rightful goodwill.

Caleb flew out from behind the bar. Fitz ran from the kitchen. Gargoyle came last, up from the basement. Not taking his time, but not running, either. He was older than the others and not as easy to freak out.

When all the prospects were in the chapel, lined up behind the end of the table, Ox sat back down. The three men stood there, in varying stages of anxiety, while the patches at the table glared.

Delaney crossed his arms. “Sponsors, stand the fuck up and account for these assholes.”

This was all ritual, a performance the patches had each experienced themselves. Gunner, Becker and Eight Ball got up and stood behind their prospects. They each had a Brazen Bulls MC patch tucked inside their kutte.

Eight Ball moved more slowly that the others. Several months back, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, he’d laid his bike down on a Texas highway and spent months out of commission. His left leg now was a reconstructed mass of skin and muscle grafts, and not a pretty sight. He’d never be the same, and he’d never walk without a pronounced limp or move more quickly than that hitching gait, but he was back in the saddle again.

When Caleb tried to turn to his sponsor, Gunner slapped him upside the head. “Eyes front, meat.” Caleb’s head swung forward again, so fast that his long hair lifted off his shoulders.

When the prospects were fidgeting with tension, Delaney said, “What say you, sponsors?”

As one, the sponsors yelled “Aye!” and slapped the Bulls patches against the prospects’ backs. Almost as one, the prospects jumped. Caleb yipped out a chopped-off yell. Even Gargoyle jumped.

“Congratulations, brothers. Welcome to the table,” Delaney said, and the old patches stood up and cheered.

No matter what kind of shit had come up at the table, it was always a celebration when they named a new brother. Or three.

~oOo~

Ox grinned when he saw Maddie’s Porsche 911 in the driveway. He’d left the clubhouse while she was still at Signet Models, and yet she’d beaten him home. His old lady had missed her calling; she should have been on the NASCAR circuit.

He’d left the club still celebrating their new patches and didn’t feel at all guilty about it. They’d do the real party on the weekend, anyway, and tonight, the only celebration would be three young guys getting their rocks off every way they could. That would happen at the party, too, but there’d be more people around to dilute the obnoxiousness of it all.

Ox was getting old, no doubt about it. These days, when he could see fifty waiting up ahead, all that party-hearty bullshit was just that: bullshit. As much as he loved his brothers, hanging out at the clubhouse had lost its appeal even before the nastiness with the Street Hounds. If he wasn’t on the road, he preferred to be home.

Parking his bike on the driveway beside his woman’s little hotrod, Ox opened the garage overhead and walked past his truck and the covered corpse of his old 1950 Indian Chief. He’d restored that thing not long after he’d gotten his own patch, and he’d ridden it as his main bike for a while, which had been fucking stupid. He’d dropped it on a no-lane road out in the sticks, fuck, twenty years ago? Before he’d met Maddie. Wrecked a classic bike and fucked up his back, which had vexed him ever since.

Someday, he was going to put that Chief back together. Maddie didn’t really believe him anymore, after all these years, but she didn’t bitch about the hulking ghost taking up a slot in their three-car garage. She used her slot only in bad weather, anyway; she lacked the patience to pull it in and out of the garage. She liked to go fast in everything she did.

He went in through the garage door, which opened into a short hallway between the den and the huge, largely unused, kitchen. Maddie stood there, leaning on her hip at the end of the hallway, a glass of red wine in one beautiful hand, and a glass of tequila in the other.

“Hi, boo,” she purred.

God, she was beautiful. She could see fifty, too, not much more distant from it than he was, but whereas he looked every day of his age and more, she looked fifteen years younger. He liked her best as she was right now—all her jewelry off, her stilettos kicked away, her silk blouse untucked from her leather skirt, leaning on the wall in their house, holding a drink for him. His successful businesswoman home for a night relaxing together.

The danger and upheaval they survived, the turmoil and drama they tolerated, it was all for this.

“Hey, nena.” As he took his glass, he bent down and kissed her, tasting her wine on her tongue. “Good day?”

“Normal. You?” She held out the hand he’d emptied when he’d taken his glass, and he shrugged out of his kutte and handed it to her.

“Patched in the prospects.”

Maddie arched up an elegant eyebrow. “All three?” She hung his kutte on the back of a chair in the breakfast area.

“Yep.” He swallowed his tequila, letting the warm silk pour down his throat until the glass was empty. Then he set it on the table. As he untied his knife sheath from his thigh, he added, “Looks like the Russian work is expanding. Smells good in here, by the way.”

“I ordered from Jasmine Dream. Got here right before you did. Expanding how?”

Maddie didn’t cook, but she was a master takeout-orderer. She could get meals from restaurants that didn’t normally do takeout, and she could sometimes even get delivery from places that didn’t deliver or do takeout. Whatever they were in the mood for, she could get it in their house.

Ox loathed eating in restaurants. He had to do it plenty on the road, and he did not want to eat in public when he didn’t have to. Maddie loved eating out, the more posh and pampering the better, but she’d learned to do it with her friends instead.

When they wanted a homemade meal, Ox cooked.

“Thai sounds perfect. We’re adding a run to California.” He pulled his sheath off his belt and set it on the table beside his empty glass, and fastened his belt again.

Finishing her wine, Maddie picked up his glass and went to the liquor shelf in the kitchen. “California? You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. Nothing’s set up yet. We got a lot to do to get it ready. It’ll be months yet.” He sat down and pulled off his boots. Something in his back pulled, and he winced but held back a grunt. Something was always bitching in his back. He was getting old, and he’d lived a hard life. From when he was small.

His Mexican father had immigrated to the US after World War II; he’d married an Anglo girl in Texas, and they’d run north from her outraged father. They’d made their way to Tulsa, and they’d cobbled together a rocky living from seasonal farm work, odd jobs, and whatever charity or assistance they could get, mostly from the Church. Except for knocking up a girl before marriage, his father had been strictly Catholic and strictly traditional. Ox was the third of eight children. Like his older siblings and the two that had followed next after him, he’d dropped out of school after eighth grade and gone to work in the fields to help keep his family sheltered and fed.

So yeah, he had a lot of aches and pains. A new one barely deserved notice.

Maddie brought over his refreshed glass. “I don’t know, boo. I’m worried.” She smoothed her hand over his short-shorn head. “California is a lot of state lines to cross.”

Some patches kept their women in the dark about club business, but Ox’s old lady wasn’t the kind of woman who tolerated secrets and ignorance, and he didn’t like them, either. From the start, they’d been open with each other about what went on when they weren’t together.

Ox took the glass and pulled his woman between his legs. “You know we can’t say no to Irina.”

Her pretty mouth made an irritated twist. “You know, I worked my ass off to get to a place where there was nobody in my life I couldn’t say no to. I got rid of my pimp, but I’m stuck with yours.”

“Hey, Mads, come on. We’re not gonna fight about this, right? That’s not what I want to do.” He drank his second tequila and set the glass aside again, freeing up his hands to undo the buttons on her blouse. “You’re wearing my favorite bra.” He flipped the sides of her blouse away and cupped her gorgeous tits in his hands. Such a contrast of his brown, battered mitts on her silky, sheer bra and fair skin, both the same pale tone. Her nipples beaded up against his palms, and he took one hand away and replaced it with his mouth, savoring the pink sweetness.

She moaned, and her hands dropped to his head. “Dinner’ll get cold.”

“I like cold Thai.” He stood, ignoring the twinge in his back and the creak in his knees, and pulled his woman to their bedroom.

~oOo~

Their bedroom was Ox’s favorite room in the house. He was proud of the whole building; he’d grown up sharing one of two bedrooms in his parents’ tiny rental shack with three brothers, his three sisters had shared the other bedroom, and his parents and the youngest brother had slept on a fold-out sofa in the front room. His entire, enormous family had shared one bathroom. This three-thousand-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath, ten-room house in a style he’d learned was called ‘Tudor’ was like some kind of lord’s estate to him, and in the first year after he and Maddie had bought it, he’d roamed the rooms in the night, trying to understand how he’d managed to live in such a place, and strummed with anxiety that it would be taken away. He loved the whole damn thing. Even the leaky basement.

But the bedroom—that was the best. Though they lived alone, it was this room that felt truly private, and, thus, truly comfortable. Maddie had chosen the décor here, as in every room, according to her taste, and that was fine with Ox. He hadn’t really developed any taste growing up, so glomming on to hers had been easy. Now, after living here for several years, he could say that he shared her taste—big pieces of dark furniture, rich colors on the walls and fabrics, no fussy clutter. But a lot of plants. Maddie had a green thumb, and there were big tropical leafy things in every room. Even the bathrooms.

In this room, which itself had almost half the square footage of his parents’ whole shack, Ox’s favorite thing was the bed. King-size, four poster, ebony wood, heaped with soft linens and pillows. They’d had it custom-made to stand at exactly the right height so that Ox could stand his six-foot-six-inch body against the mattress and fuck his wife from behind. Maddie had to do a little hop to climb on at night.

He loved that thing almost as much as he loved his bike.

As he led his woman into the bedroom, she shook her hand free of his and went to her dressing area. He followed, and caught her hands as she moved to push her blouse off her shoulders. Their eyes met in the mirror, and she dropped her hands. The framing rows of round, pinkish light bulbs glowed in her clever grey eyes.

Ox’s palms and fingers were rough, but he’d learned long ago how to handle her dainty things without snagging them with his clumsy clubs. He pulled the silk back and down, letting it wisp over her skin until it floated past her fingers. Leaning around her, he draped the blouse over the back of her chair.

She stood still, her chest rising softly with each deep breath, and watched him in the mirror.

He skimmed his sandpaper palms up her bare arms, from her wrists to her shoulders, and then paused there to knead the muscles at her neck. When she moaned and dropped her head forward, Ox smiled.

“Watch me, nena,” he murmured, leaning close to her ear. “See me claim what’s mine.”

Under the transparent silk of her bra, her nipples tightened to hard pink knots. Maddie lifted her head and met his eyes in their reflection again.

Now that she was watching, he brushed his fingertips down her spine and unfastened her bra. She didn’t move, but let him ease the straps from her shoulders and push the silk away, until he could drop it to the floor at the foot of her chair.

Again, he swept his hands up her arms to her shoulders; this time, he pushed them forward, down her chest, over her tits, and swirled his fingers around points of tender flesh gathered tightly. In the mirror, he watched his hands and saw her eyes watching, too. She bit down on her bottom lip.

“Ox…”

He took his hands away. “Shhh. You don’t talk.”

She closed her mouth, and her eyes.

Kissing his way down her spine, letting his tongue dawdle over his flame between her shoulder blades, Ox worked himself to his knees. He undid the hook and zipper of her leather skirt and pushed it from her hips, catching the slender sides of her thong as well. It matched her bra, the same creamy, see-through silk. Maddie’s underthings always matched. He pushed skirt and thong down to the floor. She stood still until he wrapped a hand around one of her graceful ankles, then she shifted so he could lift her foot and pull her clothes free.

This was who they were in this favorite room: Maddie was his, and she gave herself up to him, put herself in his hands. To some it might seem strange, that a woman who’d spent twenty years, from the time she was thirteen, working with her legs spread, doing the sexual bidding of an abusive pimp and every john who had the rate, would, now that she was free of that and in charge of her own life, wish to submit, but it made sense to Ox. She got off on being able to trust him, on knowing that his sexual desires were about her pleasure and not her pain. On being able to give freely what had once been bought and paid for or just plain taken.

Kneeling behind her, still clothed while she was now fully bare, Ox wrapped his arms around her hips and pressed his mouth to one of the round scars on her firm, shapely ass. A cluster of three dark, rough circles—cigar burns. She had two more on her belly, from another of her pimp’s ‘corrections.’ And a ruched scar at the top of her inner thigh, all the way to her pussy; the same pimp had tried to rape her with a butcher knife when she’d made her break for freedom.

Ox had very much enjoyed breaking that bastard’s bones until he could fit into a footlocker. He was buried in that box inside the concrete foundation of an office building downtown. As far as Ox knew, he’d still been alive when he’d sunk into the soft cement.

He’d killed more men, but none had ever been so satisfying.

When Ox loved on his woman, he loved on her scars, testaments to her toughness and spirit.

Working his way up to his feet, pushing back the pain in his knees, he stood behind Maddie again, head and shoulders taller than she. With his arms around her, he bent his head to her shoulder and kissed the knob of bone there. He trailed kisses to her neck, to her ear, and whispered, “What do you want tonight, nena? What do you need?”

“You, just you.”

“Just me?” He smoothed his palm over her sleek belly. “What do you want from me?”

“Your cock. Your beautiful cock.”

He brushed his nose through the tickling silk of her short blonde hair, taking in the tropical linger of her shampoo and styling gel. “What will you do for me if I give you what you want?”

She knew the answer; it was always the answer. “I’ll come for you.”

“When I say you can.” He pushed his fingers between her legs, over the smooth, hairless flesh at the heart of her. She was hot enough to scald him and wet enough to ease the burn. As he slid over her clit and into her, she moaned and trembled in his arms. “Not until I say.”

“Not until you say,” Maddie echoed on a breath.

He removed his hand and led her to the bed. “Up you go, and on your knees. Ass up.”

While she climbed up on their perfect bed and got into position, Ox yanked off his shirt and shoved out of his jeans. She was ready for him by the time he was as naked as she was; he fed himself into her, sliding easily into her scorching sheath, and grabbed her hips in the coarse mallets that were his hands.

Fifteen years. Thousands of fucks. It didn’t matter. Time between them was endless and immaterial. As well as they knew each other, as well as they knew the dances of their foreplay, the moves of their bodies, the places of their greatest pleasure, their intimacy had never grown routine. Each time with his old lady was better than any time he’d had with anyone before her. Every time his body and hers joined, his world rocked.

He thrust into her, picking up the drumbeat of their familiar rhythm. Each time he slammed against her, she grunted, the sound high-pitched and plaintive, each one like an extra stroke along his aching cock. When those high grunts became squeaks, he knew she was struggling to hold back, to do his bidding and wait to come. Struggling himself, the hot pool of need at the base of his gut catching flame, he held himself off, driving her to desperation.

Not until she flailed on the mattress, her head turning back and forth, those gorgeous grunting squeaks becoming the word please bursting out on every breath, not until his own body had tightened like a spring, did Ox relent. Still pounding into her, sweat seeping from his brow into his eyes, he leaned forward and slid his hands under her shoulders. He dragged her up until her back crashed into his chest. With one arm across her body, that hand gripping a tit, and his other hand shoved between her legs, over her clit, Ox worked Maddie with everything he had, until she screamed her pleas to the ceiling and her hands clawed at his arms.

“Please, Ox! Fuck, please let me come!”

“When I say,” he growled at her ear, tearing the words out through his clenched teeth. “You. Are. Mine.”

As always, those three words at her ear drove her need to its final frenzy, and as her nails dragged ridges into his arms, he said, “Go, nena. Show me.”

She exploded almost at once and went wild in his arms, her release washing over him as he kept up all his frantic attentions, chasing after her body that would no longer do his bidding. He let go of his own reins, too, and got slammed by his own climax just as she began to settle. His hoarse shout and tense clench drove her back up for another bump of fresh pleasure, and then he fell forward, dropping them both back to their sumptuous bed.

They lay in a heaving heap, her legs hooked back around his hips, his legs drooping off the end of the mattress.

“Love you, boo,” Maddie gasped, her voice muffled by the comforter.

Te amo, nena,” Ox answered. “You hungry?”

***

And finally, the Author’s Note. WARNING! SPOILERS!

Spoiler alert grunge rubber stamp

If you’re a reader like me, who wants to go into every book blind and experience the story without any preparation or protection, even if that means unexpectedly feeling raw pain, then you shouldn’t read this note. Just jump to Chapter One.

If you’re a reader for whom certain topics might trigger traumatic response, or who simply prefers to be girded before encountering hard topics, or who wishes to avoid them entirely, this note is for you, and will include certain specific spoilers for the story ahead.

I’ll wait before I proceed, while you decide whether you’d like to read this note.

Okay, now that I’m talking only to readers who don’t mind spoilers…

The trigger I’m warning you about here is terminal cancer.

In some way, every book I’ve written, from bikers to Vikings, contains a little part of me. Not only in the way that all books contain a piece of their writer, but in my own history and specific experiences. That’s not so unusual, either, of course. In my case, sometimes it’s a fairly subtle inclusion—a character who thinks like I do, for example, or looks like someone I know. But other times, I give a character an important piece of my history or personality. Cory’s unstructured parenting. Lilli’s Italian heritage (though I’m not fully Italian) and love of cooking. (And, of course, the whole Pagano Family, too.) Rad’s favorite exclamation. Sadie’s secret self-harm box. Carmen’s tendency to blow shit up when she gets scared. Theo’s professorship. Solveig’s self-doubt. Sid’s college rape. And so on.

Ox has a deeply important part of my own history, in several layers. The story of his father’s cancer is largely the story of my father’s cancer, all the way to the ages Ox was when it was diagnosed and when his father died. Ox’s decision about how he would respond should he ever be diagnosed with cancer himself, and how that decision, when he is faced with it, is complicated by love and obligation to others, is my own (though I haven’t had to face that diagnosis). His experiences with his own treatment reflect my experiences watching my father contend with his treatment.

Ox is alive at the end of this story, and he and Maddie are in a good place, content and at peace, wrapped up in their love. But even so, I’m not labeling this book a romance, because when it ends I know, you will know, and more importantly they know, quite clearly, that Ox won’t be alive much longer. Their happiness is thus too bittersweet and obviously fleeting, even for my own rather liberal interpretation of the genre guidelines for romance.

I’ve written about terminal cancer before, in Today & Tomorrow. That was a story about a young life flowering to fullness, finding fulfillment and new love in the brief moments before its untimely end.

This is a story about a mature life lived fully, and a deep, long-term love coming to terms with the time of parting.

Maybe because it’s so close to the rending loss of my father, I cried harder and more often—big, ugly, shirt-soaking tears—writing this book than any other book I’ve written, and I needed several days to recover before I could start the next thing. But those tears were cathartic and ultimately deeply satisfying. I’ve found myself returning again and again to read Ox and Maddie’s story. It’s full of love and strength and peace, and even hope.

It’s also full of family, both club and blood, and important things happen in the Brazen Bulls as well. So this book is not a “Byway” or a “Side Trip” or anything else that suggests it’s a pull-off on the series’ road. It’s not Book “5.5.” This is Book 6 because it is an integral part of the series. If you choose to skip it, but continue on with subsequent books in the series, you might need to ask someone for a recap of club events in the book so you can keep up. I’ve written Books 7 and 8, and I’ve done my best to include that recap myself in Book 7, within the context of that story.

I want to be clear, so you know what you’re getting into: though it’s also sweet and sexy (these two are seriously smoking hot, actually), though there’s club action and deep friendship, this isn’t a book with a difficult chapter or two. A lot of this story focuses on Ox’s illness and how it changes his and Maddie’s life together. This is a book about finding peace in the certainty of dying, and finding strength when you know you’ll lose the one you love most in the world.

I’m proud of this story. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written, and not simply because it’s intensely personal to me. Ox and Maddie’s love gives me hope, and their strength makes me feel strong.

I hope you’ll join me here, at the end of their journey.

xoxo
Susan

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

fight pb cover

HONOR, Brazen Bulls #5: Cover Reveal & Preview!

HONOR BB5 digital cover

It’s time for the cover and synopsis reveal for Honor, the Brazen Bulls MC #5! Honor is Apollo’s story.

I’ve got also Chapter Four for you as a preview—when Apollo and his love, Jacinda, first meet.

Honor goes live on Saturday, 24 February—4 weeks from today!

Because I’ll be away at an academic conference during the week that I would normally set up the preorder for an upcoming release, I’m going to set this one up a few days earlier than usual—the preorder will be up next weekend. And, of course, I’ll let you know when it’s live.

Meanwhile, you can add it to your TBR.

Synopsis:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1999.

Born on the day after the moon landing to a father with his head in the stars, Neil “Apollo” Armstrong has never felt that he could reach as high as his father’s dreams. He got as far as Tulsa, and there, with the Brazen Bulls MC, he found a way to fly on wheels. But he’s worried now that the club has lost its way.

The Bulls are reeling from a bloody, blazing street war that tore through the heart of the club. Their brotherhood has been badly damaged, and the trust among them is fragile.

Jacinda Durham doesn’t have a lot of trust to give. With a painful past still weighing on her present, she keeps people at a distance, preferring inconsequential encounters, to guard against the chance of being hurt. The career she’s chosen is another piece of her armor; she makes a living of suspicion.

After a blistering-hot night together, Apollo and Jacinda go their separate ways, despite a mutual sense that their attraction is deeper than skin. Then a fateful coincidence throws them violently back together, and Apollo finds himself standing between his club and a woman he barely knows, each a possible threat to the other. Where his loyalty lies should be clear, but his trust in the Bulls is shaken, and he can’t allow another innocent to be hurt.

It’s more than a question of loyalty. It’s love as well, a deeply rooted love for his club, and a powerful new love growing between him and this tough, beautiful woman who’s offered him her precious trust.

To save all he loves, Apollo must put everything on the line—his honor, his love, his life. He will have to pay the price that settles all their debts.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

Preview:

CHAPTER FOUR

“You have Adonis’s complete attention now,” Ryan said with a snort.

Jacinda didn’t look. She’d noticed the guy because the couple farther down on her side of the bar had had a spat about him, and her brain was wired to notice domestic spats and investigate. So she’d tagged him as he’d made his way around to the far side of the bar, the last seat, where the bartender had set his Guinness, and pose himself on the stool like the lord of the realm. Her job was to observe discreetly and see everything, so she’d observed and seen this guy.

His attitude was pure cock, straight-backed and strutting, but there was a dash of sweet in it, too, somewhere. Probably a blend he’d concocted to perfection by years of unbridled success with the ladies—because he was absurdly good looking. Easily the best-looking guy at Donovan’s, possibly the best-looking guy in Tulsa. A contender for the whole state of Oklahoma.

Handsome like Michelangelo had chiseled him from marble. Short blond hair, trim blond beard, cheekbones etched to precision. Big, too—over six feet, carved muscle from his neck down. He wore a blue and white checked shirt that strained against his substantial form. On her way to and from the bathroom, she’d seen faded jeans fitting nicely over solid thighs and slim hips, and black, square-toed cowboy boots on big feet.

Seriously. He was ridiculously hot.

She also saw a bit of smooth, contoured chest with an edge of ink showing under his shirt (three buttons open) and the white beater under it, and more ink on his arms, showing beneath his turned-up sleeves. She hadn’t been able to make out the images themselves. There might also have been a burn scar on an arm, or it had been a weird trick of the light. She hoped it was a scar. The dude needed a flaw.

That was all she’d been able to take note of without stopping and simply staring.

The bartender came over and set a fresh drink she hadn’t ordered on a green cocktail napkin before her. “From the guy at the end of the bar.” With his head, he indicated Adonis.

She looked, and he lifted his Guinness at her with a smile that must have been rehearsed in the mirror for hours until it had been perfected.

That was cocky as hell, seeing as fifteen seconds of noticing her would have produced the information that she was here with a man. That Ryan was gay and they were here because he had a crush on the grey-haired fiddle player was irrelevant; Adonis over there couldn’t know that.

She pushed the drink away. “No, thank you.”

With a wry smirk, the bartender took the drink away.

“So this is the dance tonight?” Ryan asked, finishing his beer and gesturing for a new round for both of them—making a statement of his own. The bartender set the drink he’d made in front of Jacinda again, and this time she didn’t refuse it.

“What do you mean?” she picked up the drink she’d already had.

“Please. I saw you Sherlocking the guy, and he sure as hell noticed you. Hottest guy and girl around notice each other across a crowded pub. Hottest guy buys hottest girl a drink. Hottest girl refuses it, plays hard to get. It’s like the opening of a romance novel. Or Cinemax After Dark. Next, he’ll get up, push himself in next to you, and ask why you turned down a free drink. I give it ninety minutes before you’re shagging in his…Jeep Wrangler. He looks like a Jeep Wrangler.”

“I’m not playing hard to get, and I absolutely will not be shagging anyone in a Wrangler. Ever in my life.”

Ryan simply grinned and paid for their drinks. Sidelong, Jacinda noticed Adonis notice that. If he got up and came over now, then he was either a glutton for punishment or pathologically confident.

He got up. And headed over.

Ryan, the turd, picked up his beer and pushed his chair back. “The band is back. I’m gonna go talk to Jimmy.” The fiddler.

He was leaving her with an empty seat at her side, all warmed up for Adonis. “You asshole.”

“Play nice, now. I’ll watch from afar and make sure you don’t break him.”

“Har har, asshole. This friendship’s over.”

Chuckling, he kissed her head and left, passing Adonis with a nod.

As expected, Adonis made himself comfortable in the seat of her betraying friend. “This seat taken?”

Of course he had a great voice, too. Deep and smooth, like velvet soaked in whiskey, rolling over the air.

Jacinda sipped her drink. “I thought it was, but apparently not.”

He nodded in the direction Ryan had gone, toward the stage. “You with that guy?”

She turned to look him in the—bright blue—eyes. Jesus, was this guy built in a lab or something? “You know I am.”

He grinned. Straight, white teeth, too. “I mean, are you with him?”

“Why would you think I’m not?”

He lifted a shoulder. “Just not the vibe I’m getting.”

“You do that a lot, get ‘vibes’?”

“I’m pretty good at understanding the things I see, yeah.”

That was a surprisingly interesting answer, and Jacinda gave him another hard look.

Ryan knew her well. The truth was, this guy here was hot beyond all reason and had the makings of a very nice fuck. She was into him, no denying it. For years, Jacinda had avoided relationships with men, but a harmless, meaningless good time was another matter. Maybe it seemed upside down, to trust strangers more than lovers, but she knew how to defend herself against strangers. It was lovers who came up from behind while her guard was down and did real harm.

She turned away from the blond god’s sapphire stare and sought out Ryan. She found him standing beside the stage, grinning and laughing like a schoolgirl while he chatted up his crush.

“Ryan’s a friend,” she answered, turning back to the guy she might or might not be shagging later on. But not in his Wrangler. They’d do it in a cheap motel, where meaningless fucks and illicit liaisons were meant to be done.

“As I thought. So, then, I have a question. Why’d you turn down my drink?” As he spoke, he watched her mouth; she’d used the stirrer straw because the drink was more ice than liquid now, and she didn’t like the ice dumping against her mouth when she tipped the glass.

She set the glass down. “Why’d you think I’d accept? I don’t know you.”

“In civilized societies, buying a lady a drink is an accepted means of getting to know her.”

“That’s what you are? Civilized?”

“I am if you’re a lady.”

“And if I’m not?”

His confident grin widened to unrehearsed enjoyment, and he leaned in close. “Then I’m anything you want me to be.”

He smelled good, too.

She laughed and shook her head. “You think you’re God’s gift, don’t ya?”

“I think we’re all God’s gift.” He nodded at her nearly empty drink. “Offer’s still good.”

“One drink. And I’ll buy the next round. Keep things even.”

“Free drink from a beautiful woman? Sounds great to me.” He waved for the bartender. “Bobby! ‘Nother round over here—and send one to her friend over there—and the band, too.”

The bartender took in the scene at the stage, and her and Adonis, and gave him a smile she couldn’t quite read.

“Spending money isn’t gonna impress me, if that’s your gambit.”

“No gambit. Just a nice guy is all.” He held out a large hand adorned with two heavy rings. “I’m Apollo.”

Sweet baby Jesus, he was an actual Greek god. She choked on the last sip of her current Sea Breeze. When she’d coughed her throat clear, she gasped, “You have got to be shitting me.”

“Nope. Apollo.” His offered hand hovered between them. “In civilized societies, it’s also accepted that you shake a hand when it’s offered.”

She shook his hand. Rough, like he did manual labor. She could feel the strength in it, but he didn’t squeeze hard. Before she let his hand go, she turned it and noted his rings—an intricate bull’s head on his middle finger, and a thick, solid band on his ring finger, etched with letters. She leaned in and saw icent desol. “Magnificent desolation?”

“Yeah.” She could hear in his tone that she’d pleasantly surprised him. “It’s a quote. You know it?”

“Buzz Aldrin said it from the moon. About the view from there. Is that why your parents named you Apollo? They’re space nuts?”

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, and she realized she was still holding him. She let go. As he pulled his arm back, she saw the ink on his forearm in better detail: a bull, breathing fire.

Bull ring, bull ink, rough hands, cocky—fuck, he was a Brazen Bull.

He confirmed it with his answer. “My dad’s a space nut. They didn’t name me Apollo, but yeah, that’s why I’m called that. I was born the day after the moon landing, to folks named Armstrong. Guess what they named me.”

“Not Neil.” Nobody would really do that, right? That was worse than naming him Apollo—which was obviously his road name.

His sardonic grin was answer enough. Jacinda had a strong urge to offer condolences, and might even have done so, but Bobby the Bartender brought over their new round of drinks just then. Jacinda thanked him with a smile.

“You’ve got a great smile. Don’t suppose I could get one turned my way.” Apollo said, leaning close again. “Or at least your name.”

“I’m not a trained poodle. I don’t do shit on command.”

“I’ll earn the smile, then. But it’s only fair you tell me your name. You got my whole name and a story.”

She’d gotten more than that. Sitting here with him, she’d also learned that he was a patched member of the Brazen Bulls MC. She’d lived in Tulsa her whole life, so she knew the Bulls, and last year, she and her parents had paid very close attention to what had gone down between the Bulls and the Street Hounds. It had been hard to miss for even the most casual viewer of the ten o’clock news, but people in their line of work had contacts with more information than the average Tulsan. Jacinda had good information about exactly what both sides of that war had done.

Before last year, she would have said that she didn’t have a problem with the Bulls. They stayed on their playing field and didn’t cause trouble for regular citizens, and Jacinda herself had wobbled on the fine line between legal and expedient more than once. It was part of the job. Sometimes law had to be pushed out of the way a little bit to reach justice.

But last year—that was something else. Innocent people had gotten hurt. Lives and livelihoods had been destroyed. After the war between the Bulls and the Hounds, the racial line between black and white, always solid in Tulsa, now had barbed wire.

They hadn’t pushed the law out of the way, they’d obliterated it. If they’d found justice, it wasn’t for Tulsa.

The question now before her, as Neil ‘Apollo’ Armstrong of the Brazen Bulls MC awaited her name, was whether it mattered to this moment and, if so, how much. Not at all, for a meaningless fuck at the Osage Motor Inn. But she’d be careful what she told him about herself.

And it probably wasn’t a Jeep Wrangler he’d ridden in on.

The band began their next set, filling the pub with folk music. She turned and sought out Ryan, who’d taken up a seat at a tall two-top near the stage. Seeming to sense her attention, he turned and smiled at her, lifting his hands in a question. She sent back a subtle thumbs-up, and he laughed. Cocky fucker.

Turning back to the cocky fucker at her side, she said, raising her voice above the music, “Jacinda.”

“That’s beautiful. Never known a Jacinda before.”

“You don’t know one now.”

He laughed, his confidence unshaken. “I’d like to.”

Every time he parried one of her barbs, she liked him more. He flew by all her checkpoints, never turning into an asshole, never getting hurt and then pissy. Just evaded the blow of her snark, or absorbed it, and kept moving.

“Do women ever tell you no?”

“Sure. You’ve told me no several times already.”

“Do you ever take no for an answer?”

“Sure. But I told you, I’m pretty good at reading situations, and your nos don’t seem firm. Tell me I’m reading this wrong, and you want me to go, and I’m gone.”

He wasn’t reading it wrong. She sipped her drink and said nothing, until he laughed and picked up his glass.

“You are an interesting woman, Jacinda.”

“How do you know? Maybe I’m just a secretary who lives alone with her cat.”

“I know a lot of secretaries. Never met one who wore black leather pants and boots like that.”

“You have now.” Not a lie, strictly speaking. She did all the administrative work of the agency, including answering the phones most of the time. And she lived alone. With a cat.

He cocked a blond eyebrow at her over his glass. “A secretary, huh? What kind of secretary?”

“I work at a company that does insurance work.” Also true. They got a lot of business from insurance companies investigating claims. It seemed prudent to keep the specific nature of Durham & Associates Detection Services’ work to herself while talking to a Brazen Bull.

“Well color me surprised. Are you like Catwoman, meek and mild by day, pouncing on unsuspecting men by night?”

She laughed. “Sure. We’ll go with that.” As she sipped the last of her drink, Apollo brushed a finger along her cheek.

“Damn, it is a gorgeous smile.”

She tipped her head out of his reach and focused on getting the attention of Bobby the Bartender so she could order another round and square things up between her and the Greek god who was making a claim on her.

Bobby came over, and she ordered. That would make five drinks for her in—she checked her watch—less than two hours. Shit, when she stood up, the room would spin. She’d be too drunk to drive. She might already be.

Okay. That meant making conversation for a while until she could get some water in herself and have another pee, too.

“So what is it you do, Apollo?”

“Mechanic.”

Of course he was. At Brian Delaney Auto Service, no doubt. She let him dissemble, as she had. There was no need for full disclosure between them.

Bobby brought their drinks. As Jacinda reached for hers, Apollo laid his hand on her arm. Yeah, that was a burn scar, dark and smooth. At the same time, he held Bobby up with a gesture of his other hand. “Hold up.” He turned to Jacinda. “You’ve been pounding those back. How about we get something to eat?”

He wanted to sober her up? “You want to sober me up? I thought you had designs.”

“Basket of chips,” he ordered, “with salt and vinegar, and a cheeseburger for the lady.”

“I’m a vegetarian.”

That was a pants-on-fire kind of lie that had come out of nowhere, probably because she didn’t like him ordering for her, but Apollo simply said, “Make it a garden burger.” Bobby made a note and handed it to a bar-back.

When the bartender was gone again, Apollo leaned in close. “Never in my life have I needed to get a chick drunk.”

Of course not. They probably passed out from the sheer power of his pheromones. “Point of pride?” she asked, adding a little stinger to her tone.

“Point of human decency.” He sat back and picked up his glass.

Well, shit. That was a good answer. She was starting to like this guy, and not just because he was beautiful and she was—yes, getting drunk.

She watched him while he poured Guinness down his throat. Even the cadence of his swallows, the flex of those muscles, showed his strength. An urge grabbed her to press her fingers against his pulse point and feel that strength; she quelled it and sipped her own drink.

Setting his glass down abruptly, Apollo leaned toward her and fished in his jeans pocket. He pulled out a cellphone. “’Scuse me,” he said and answered. “Yeah. … Hey, Ox, there trouble?”

He turned away and pushed his chair back, as if he meant to get up, but stopped, leaning forward. Jacinda couldn’t help but listen. Eavesdropping was a professional skill that became an unavoidable personal habit.

“Slick and Fitz are on that.”

Apollo. Ox. Slick. Only big bad bikers could get away with calling themselves such ridiculous names without being ridiculed.

“Yeah, that’s right. You need me to come in? … Okay, man. Call again if you don’t get him. Yeah, ‘night.” He ended the call and pushed the phone back into his pocket, then turned to her with that well-rehearsed smile. “Sorry about that.”

“Trouble?”

“Nothing I have to deal with.”

“You and your friends have interesting names. Is that a thing with…mechanics?”

He shrugged. “It’s a thing with my friends, how ‘bout that.” Shifting his chair to face hers, he leaned in, so close that she felt his beard on her cheek, a sensation that tripped wires all the way through her, tightening her nipples and clenching her pussy, and murmured in her ear, “It’s not nice to listen to other people’s conversations.”

Turning her head slowly so the touch continued, her cheek slipping against his beard, her nose brushing his, their mouths close enough that his breath tickled her lips, she whispered back, “In civilized societies? I thought we’d established that we weren’t civilized.”

When he smiled, his beard brushed her lips, they were that close. “I guess we’re not. I like you, Jacinda the Catwoman.”

Though they were already practically mouth to mouth, and the magnetic fields of their bodies drew them to close the infinitesimal distance remaining, they didn’t. Jacinda liked that zing of the pull, the way the chemistry between them tingled all through her, too much to give into it, and Apollo seemed to like it just as much. So they hovered there, quivering on the fulcrum of potential, and everything around them dimmed to an inconsequential hum.

Until a broad shadow loomed over them and parked itself there. Reluctantly, Jacinda leaned back and looked up into Ryan’s smug face.

“Hello, kids.”

Jacinda sighed. “Ryan, meet Apollo. Apollo, Ryan.”

To her friend’s credit, though his eyes narrowed at the name, he kept his snark about Greek gods to himself and shook Apollo’s hand.

“Don’t mind me. I just want to let Jacinda here know that she doesn’t have to wait on me. I’m going upstairs to hang with the band after last call, and I’ll call a cab after.” Donovan’s kept an apartment above the pub to house talent while in town. Ryan shifted his friendly grin to one with some edge. “But until then, I’m just over there if you need anything.”

“I got it. Thanks. Have fun!”

Ryan blew her a kiss and wended his way back to the band’s table.

“Your friend dating the singer?” Apollo asked.

The singer was a waifish woman named Nuala. Ryan was out, but Jacinda made a point to let him deliver word of his outness to the people he met. This time, however, the words coasted out on a Sea Breeze wave. “The fiddler.”

“Oh. Ah.” Apollo shot a glance over her shoulder, toward the stage.

“You have a problem with that?”

“Why would I? Where he puts his dick is his business, as long as he has permission to put it there.”

Again, this guy surprised her. Not only for his lack of judgment, but for the oddly astute and precise way he had of explaining his reasoning. She liked it. She liked him.

So she kissed him.

She’d surprised him, but he recovered quickly and opened his mouth for her, letting her find his tongue. Oh, she liked that, too, how he didn’t take over and try to dominate her. This guy was smooth as glass. The rich taste of Guinness lingered on his tongue and rolled over hers. His lips were soft and full, and his beard was just rough enough to electrify the contrast of sensation. He smelled—God, what was that? He didn’t smell overly chemical or like she’d just dodged the cologne gauntlet at Dillard’s.

God, it was good, whatever it was.

She lifted her hand and hooked it around his neck—so solid and firm—and that touch charged through him somehow. Without ending the kiss or pulling back at all, he gripped the arms of her chair and yanked it around so that she faced him directly.

That surprise really hit her, and she turned away from his mouth with a gasp she couldn’t hold back. But he was right there, his hot breath skimming over her flushed cheek.

“Food’s here, Catwoman,” he murmured, his lips caressing her skin as he spoke.

Jacinda swallowed and tried to focus, no longer clear on whether she was drunk on vodka or on the god whose tongue had just memorized her mouth.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

HONOR BB5 paperback cover

 

 

 

Cover Reveal & Preview: Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven

suffragette pb cover FINAL

Today I’m revealing the cover and title of my next release. Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven is a standalone historical romance that opens in 1910.

I loved writing this like I can’t even describe, and I’m super proud of how it turned out. It’s a big ‘un—155,000+ words. In paperback, it’ll be 735 pages—and the scope of the story is bigger than anything else I’ve written. The research for this one was intense—and so very much fun. The bulk of the story takes place from 1910-1913, and there was a lot going on during those years!

The title comes from the epigraph, which is a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the women’s suffrage movement in England. The quote is: “Once they are aroused, once they are determined, nothing on earth and nothing in heaven will make women give way; it is impossible.”

The release day for Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven is Saturday, 13 January 2018—four weeks from today. It’ll be available on the usual digital platforms, and in paperback as well. I’m sort of waffling on whether I’ll set it up for preorder, but I’ll let you know if I do.

I’ve set up the Goodreads page, if you’d like to add it to your TBR.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis and Chapter One as a preview.

Happy Holidays!

s—

SYNOPSIS:

England, 1910.

Lady Nora Tate is a young woman caught between the expectations of her station and the demands of her own heart and mind. The noble world of her birth is a luxurious cage, locking her away from all she wishes to know and feel and do, the woman she wishes to be. All around her, the world is changing, and she fights to join it, even as she creates scandal with her every attempt to break free.

William Frazier is the scion of an American railroad tycoon, in England to seek new business opportunities for his family’s empire and visit his good friend, Lord Christopher Tate. With Chris as his guide, he tours the London Season, and meets his friend’s younger sister. He’s captivated at once by the lovely young lady with the sharp wit and searching eyes.

Raised by visionary parents, William sees Nora’s cage for what it is and admires her striving against constraint. But her world will neither free her, nor accept him. William would be her hero and save her, but Nora wants to save herself, if she can.

Set against the tumultuous cultural and political backdrop of the end of the Edwardian Era, on two continents and across an ocean, Nothing on Earth & Nothing in Heaven is a story about the deep love between a young woman finding her voice, and the man strong enough to stand at her side as she demands the right to use it.

This novel is a standalone.

Note: explicit sex.

PREVIEW:

ONE

 

White light blasted suddenly through Nora’s head, murdering sleep with its fiery blade. She moaned and rolled over, burying her head beneath a silken pillow. It seemed she’d closed her eyes mere moments earlier, but the sun had quite obviously risen since she had.

“It’s time to be up, milady,” Kate, her maid, chirped as she flung open the draperies at the other windows. “I held back as long as I dared, but if you lie abed much longer, you’ll leave your father waiting.”

“What time is it?” Nora mumbled under the pillow.

“Nearly half nine, milady.”

Nora pushed the pillow up and exposed her weary eyes to the sunlit room and the doubly bright glare of Kate’s smile. Her father liked to leave for their morning ride in Hyde Park promptly at ten. Now that she’d been presented at court, to the new King George V, and was a proper lady, it took thirty minutes or more to get dressed in the morning—and in the evening, much longer than that.

If her first few weeks of womanhood were a mark by which to judge the condition, she preferred girlhood.

But it wasn’t her maid’s fault, so Nora sat up and blinked her eyes into working order as Kate set a tray across her legs. While Nora grumpily nibbled at a piece of toast with jam and sipped the day’s first cup of tea, Kate bustled around the room, fluffing Nora’s riding habit, arranging the brushes and pins and other assorted necessities of Nora’s ablutions, and gathering up the crumpled underthings Nora had been too tired to allow her to attend to the night before—or earlier in this same morning. The bells had tolled for three while she and her father were yet in the carriage last night.

“How was the ball?” Kate asked, setting out Nora’s boots for a polish.

Nora finished her tea and set the tray aside. “Like all the other balls. Women preening for the men and trying not to show it, and the men browsing the women like wares on a cart. Everyone trussed up like Christmas geese and too uncomfortable to breathe, let alone enjoy the evening.”

Kate stood at her dressing table, brush in hand, and Nora, understanding the unspoken message, slid from bed. She sat before the mirror and let Kate begin her torturous ministrations.

“But was the Duke there? Did you dance with him?”

Richard Jameson, The Duke of Chalford. He was the supposed catch of London, and he’d turned his eye toward Nora at most events so far this Season. He was handsome—tall and broad-shouldered, with a nicely arranged face and wavy ginger hair. At first, hearing how coveted his attention was, and seeing how pleasant he was to look at, Nora had been, she could admit to herself, dazzled in the beam of his bright blue eyes.

But then she’d sat beside him at a few dinners and spoken with him in a few drawing rooms and during several dances. Now she knew that everything interesting about him was apparent from across a crowded room. And he didn’t like her much better. She talked too much and had too many opinions.

Indeed, that was the growing consensus among everyone in London, whispered in tones loud enough for all to hear. Lady Nora Tate talked too much about unseemly things, like politics. Lord Tarrin had let his youngest child and only daughter run wild for too long. She thought she was a man.

No, Nora knew full well she was a woman. She simply wished she were a man.

She sighed and watched in the mirror as Kate began the painstaking, and painful, ritual of winding her thick blonde mane into the coils and ratted puffs of a proper style. All those pins, digging into her scalp, all the day long. Already she missed the days when she’d worn her hair loose and long—only weeks ago, but never again.

“He was there,” she answered Kate’s question. “We had one dance.”

Kate pulled a little face of disappointed commiseration. “Well, that’s all right. You’ll have another chance at your dinner tonight.”

Her dinner. Before they’d arrived in London, while she was in Paris with her Aunt Martha, buying so many lovely dresses and shoes and hats, Nora had been excited at the prospect of her first Season. Now, after weeks of visits, and dinners, and breakfasts, and parties, and balls, and weeks more to go, seeing the same people over and over, either struggling dully to comport herself like a lady or scandalising the people around her by daring to express an opinion about anything more controversial than the neckline of another lady’s gown, weeks of feeling the baldy estimating gaze of men she barely knew, all she wanted was to return to Kent and the home she loved.

Each day, the expectations for her ladylike comportment, miles wide but barely an inch deep, wore harder on her. She thought it unlikely that the Duke would find her temper any more appealing at her own dinner this evening.

“I doubt it, Kate.”

The robust optimism of her maid was not so easily thwarted. “He’ll have made way for someone else, then. As lovely as you are, the fine lords must be clamoring amongst themselves to claim your hand. You’re sure to have a list of proposals before the Season is out.”

Nora studied the mirror as Kate transformed her into a lady of the Realm. In that glass, she could see everything about herself that was of value. Here in London, no one seemed to care what she wanted, or what she had to offer besides blonde hair, blue eyes, a fair figure, and a titled father.

 

~oOo~

 

Like most young ladies in London during the Season, Nora rode with her father in Hyde Park every morning that the weather was fair. The effort was ostensibly intended for fresh air and good health, but truly, riding the Ladies’ Mile was an event like all the others, meant to display the young ladies to their best advantage so that they might catch the fancy of a likely gentleman.

Nora had always loved to ride with her father, but at home in Kent, she’d been allowed truly to ride—to gallop and jump and splash through muddy pools, to sit astride and even to wear breeches, so long as there were no guests in residence who might be scandalised. When there were guests at Tarrindale Hall, and now here in London, Nora sat sidesaddle, dressed in a cumbersome and dour riding habit, a uniform virtually indistinguishable from that of all the other young ladies riding the Mile.

She wondered whether her father would allow her to sit astride when they returned home in August, or whether, like her corsets and coiled hair, a side saddle and riding skirts were all her future might hold, now that she’d left girlhood behind.

On this morning, like all the other London mornings, Nora and her father rode abreast, nodding greetings to the other pairs of riders they passed. As usual on these daily rides, her father spoke little beyond pleasantries, to her or any other. He was keenly aware of the gossip—that in his great grief at losing his wife and two of his sons all within the span of a single week, he’d left his youngest child to grow up wild in the country, and now, her manners were mannish and unseemly—and he fretted that he’d failed her, that because of him, Nora wouldn’t get the marriage proposal of which her maid was so confident, and her future wouldn’t be secured.

Twelve years earlier, her mother, and Edmund and Peter, her two middle brothers, had all succumbed to scarlet fever. Nora herself, then a child of only six years, had been gravely ill as well, but she’d recovered. Only Christopher, the eldest, and their father had been spared the illness, if not its consequences.

Nora didn’t remember being ill, and she barely remembered her mother or her brothers, but she hadn’t been neglected and allowed to ‘run wild’ after their deaths. She’d been raised by her father and brother, two wonderful men who’d lavished love and encouragement on her and allowed her interests to flourish and her curiosities to be sated. When she’d asked a question, whatever the question, they’d provided an answer, or directed her to the place where the answer might be found. At home alone with family, she’d been free to work out what she wanted and valued in herself and in the world. And to wear riding breeches and ride astride.

Her father had, however, withdrawn from Society upon his grief and never fully returned to it until now. He’d rarely gone to London, and Nora had never been at all until this year. At the few country balls and dinners she’d attended before, she’d thought the other girls vapid and silly and assumed they were country rubes.

She’d expected London to be different. All the most interesting news came out of London. Politics and culture, business and entertainment—it all happened in this great city. For the past several years, Christopher had spent most of his time in the city, when he was in England at all, and he’d always come home with dazzling stories about great debates and brilliant artists. Especially after a few weeks in Paris, Nora had been beside herself with anticipation of her debut London Season, thinking she’d meet many fascinating people and have many captivating discussions.

But no one in London wanted to hear what women had to say, or seemed to have any use for them at all except as ornaments to be hung on a gentleman’s arm. The young ladies here, with whom she was expected to strike up great friendships, were just as insipid as the girls in Kent—either that, or they were well practiced in pretending to be so. Nora was not. Used to speaking her mind at home, she had not yet managed a reliable habit of holding her tongue in London—nor had she managed to understand why she should.

Thus her father, who at home would quiz and challenge her about current events, now in public barely spoke to her, lest she lose control of her tongue and try to express herself, exposing herself as a thinking human being, and thereby ruining her chance to make a good match.

Glum and bored, still tired from the long night before, and hungry now for breakfast, Nora rode at her father’s side, keeping a social smile in place. Most of the riders were young ladies and their fathers or chaperones, but a few young men rode around and with the ladies as well. They were there for the show, of course. Nora could see them considering the ladies as they rode past, leaning over to remark to each other and chuckle.

She’d learned to shoot from the saddle a few summers earlier. If she had her bow and quiver here in London, she could make those ‘gentlemen’ a bit less arrogant. Her fantasy of racing through Hyde Park hunting conceited young men improved the ride markedly, and Nora grinned. Her father noticed and looked around.

“Is there someone here you’d like to speak to?” he asked. “The Duke, perhaps?”

Nora rolled her eyes. The Duke of Chalford would not warrant such an expression from her. But she scanned the people around anyway, hoping to find someone—a lady would be best—she could mention, since she could hardly tell her father that she’d been imagining running arrows through all the young gentlemen in Hyde Park.

She was saved by broad shoulders and blond hair, riding in from an intersecting path. “Christopher!” Heedless of the propriety, she urged her horse into a trot and weaved through the riders to her brother.

He grinned as she rode up and turned her horse to stand beside his, and he leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Hello, little sister! I wondered if you’d be riding today.”

“Of course. I’m surprised that you’re here, however.” Christopher enjoyed the balls and parties of the Season, but he was critical of the aspects that made it seem overtly like a market—like the Ladies’ Mile.

He smirked. “Just out for a ride on a lovely day.”

“And seeing the sights,” she challenged, nodding toward the lovely riders, most of them batting wide, hopeful eyes at her ruddily handsome brother. If the Duke of Chalford was considered the greatest catch in London, the younger Lord Tarrin might be next in line.

“These are lovely sights indeed, and I am not a man who would turn a blind eye to beauty.”

“You would turn none of your parts, especially the one that leads you,” Nora muttered, hoping she’d been quiet enough that only Christopher could hear.

He laughed and kissed her cheek again. “Careful which man’s cheeks you redden with such words, Nono,” he muttered while he was still close. “What you might say to your brother for a laugh, could turn against you in someone else’s ear.”

She sighed. “I know. I’m trying.”

“I know you are. From all I hear, you should try harder.”

Nora glared at him, and he simply shrugged.

Her brother was twenty-eight years old and had little interest yet in choosing a bride. That was another injustice of Society: women were expected to marry the moment they were old enough to do so. Men were expected to wait—for years—and ‘sow their wild oats’ before settling down to domesticity. Nora had some wild oats, too. There were things she wanted to do, and see, and know. She imagined that most women had wild oats. If they didn’t, they should have.

She’d barely left Kent. Christopher had traveled the world. He’d fought in the Boer War. He’d been to India and Africa and America. He’d seen things, done things Nora could scarcely dream of.

Their father wanted him home now, and to settle down. Brother and sister were finally in the same place, expected to marry. But Christopher had got to have a full life first.

Nora didn’t begrudge him his adventures; he’d brought her marvelous stories and treasures. But she envied him. She envied him even the war, though she’d never say so aloud. That was the only adventure he wouldn’t tell stories about. He’d brought home nothing but a thick scar across his chest and a long stare in his eyes.

“Good morning, Father,” Christopher said with a courtly nod, and Nora turned to see that their father had caught up with them.

“Christopher.” A small, warmly paternal smile flickered at the corner of his mouth. “It’s early for you to be out, is it not?”

“You both wound me with your surprise. I’ll have you know I was abed before the clock struck twelve last night, and up whilst cocks yet crowed this morning.”

“Are you ill, brother?” Nora asked, trying to shape her voice into a guise of concern but unable to control her grin.

“Wronged, I tell you. I am wronged.”

Their father nodded to a point beyond Christopher. “You are not the only one. Forgive me, sir. My son forgets his manners.” He nudged his horse a few steps forward and held out his hand. “I am Oliver Tate, Earl of Tarrin, and this sorry fellow’s father.”

Surprised that there had been someone beside Christopher all this time, Nora nudged her own horse up a step and saw … oh. Oh.

Oh heavens.

Christopher slapped his forehead. “I’m sorry, old bean. I’m an ass. Father, allow me the great honour of introducing my friend William Frazier. William, my father, who has stepped in where I failed and introduced himself already.”

Christopher’s friend grasped their father’s hand. “It’s a true pleasure, sir.”

Hearing his name, Nora had expected the dark-haired, bearded man at Christopher’s side to have a Scottish accent, but he did not. He was an American. She’d never met an American before.

“It was William who saved my life in San Francisco,” Christopher added.

Their father’s aspect changed abruptly, from socially pleasant with a touch of haughty peerage, to openly pleased. “Well, good heavens!” He reached forward with his other hand and shook Christopher’s friend’s hand with both of his. “It is indeed an honour to meet you, Mr. Frazier. We are all in your debt.”

Mr. Frazier responded with a smile and a nod. “Think nothing of it, Lord Tarrin. I’m honoured to call your son my friend.”

Christopher had been in San Francisco, California four years earlier, in 1906. A terrible earthquake had nearly leveled the city, including his hotel. He’d been trapped under rubble, with fires burning all around him, until someone had pulled him free.

This man right here, dressed all in black and seated astride a powerful bay horse. Unlike nearly everyone else in Hyde Park, he wore no hat.

As broad across the shoulders as her brother, but dark where Christopher was fair. His hair and beard were sable-dark, his hair a bit longer than the fashion. Even his skin was a shade or two deeper, the sun-kissed tone of a man who spent a great deal of time out of doors. The crinkled rays at the corners of his eyes—she couldn’t tell what colour they were—spoke of an outdoor life as well.

He was the handsomest man Nora had ever seen. And a hero in the bargain.

She knew the story, of course. Christopher and Mr. Frazier had become good friends in the weeks and months following the earthquake, while Christopher’s broken bones had healed. The hospitals had been overwhelmed, so Mr. Frazier had invited him to convalesce at his ranch across the bay. His father was an industrialist of some sort. Railroads, Nora thought.

The man was looking right at her now, his mouth canted to one side in a lopsided, and inordinately appealing, smirk. With her father and her brother at either side of her, she’d been left without an introduction.

Entirely done with being ignored, Nora cleared her throat with a theatrical flourish. “And I am—”

“—My sister,” Christopher cut her off. “Forgive me again. Lady Nora Tate, please meet my dear friend, Mr. William Frazier.”

Mr. Frazier made a deep bow from his saddle. “It’s a particular honour, Lady Nora.” His voice was deep and smooth, his accent not at all what she’d expected, without drawl or twang. When he sat up again, Nora saw that sardonic grin had taken over his eyes as well. They glinted at her as if she and he shared a secret.

It made her insecure, and her attraction made her self-conscious, and, after being so blithely ignored, that unsettling roil of feelings was just too much to take. She straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. Using the imperious tone she’d heard so often in the past few weeks, when a lady wished to be mannerly but also convey contempt, she offered him a single, terse nod. “Mr. Frazier. Papa, we should be off. Mrs. Owen will have breakfast waiting.”

Christopher and her father stared at her, surprised. Mr. Frazier’s expression changed not a jot.

“Oh. Yes, I suppose you’re right. Well, it was a real pleasure to meet you, Mr. Frazier. Please do pay us a visit at Grosvenor Square—in fact, we’re having a dinner tonight, in my daughter’s honour. I would consider it an honour as well if you would join us.”

It was Nora’s turn to be surprised. Her father had just invited a stranger to her dinner. Her dinner, what was supposed to be the pinnacle event of her first Season. Of course, almost all the guests were strangers to a degree. Certainly, few were friends.

His gaze had hardly shifted from her, nor had its wry gleam faded. “I would be honoured to join you. If it’s all right with Lady Nora?”

Her father had made the invitation, so she could hardly refuse to extend it herself now. The oddly tumultuous feeling he seemed to instill in her would only make a stressful event more uncomfortable. On the other side, Mr. William Frazier was very nice to look at. Also, as an American he wasn’t a suitable match, so she wouldn’t have to be quite so careful of the things she said to him—or quite so worried when she wasn’t careful enough.

She smiled in the way she’d practiced for her presentation at Court. “I, too, would be honoured, Mr. Frazier. Of course.”

 

~oOo~

 

Breakfast that morning was a quiet affair. Christopher normally stayed in the family townhouse when he was in London, but, pleading an intolerance for the commotion of Nora’s debut Season, he’d gone off to stay at the Carlton when she and their father had come to town. Thus, on days without visitors, Nora and her father took their meals alone.

After returning from their ride, Nora went up to change into the day’s second ensemble. With her dinner that evening, she was able to decline visitors and stay in for the better part of the day, so she would have only four changes of dress for the day: her riding habit; her day dress, for breakfast and luncheon; her tea dress; and finally, her dinner gown. On most days, she changed clothes five or six times, dressing additionally for luncheon and for evening.

Being at home without company for the next several hours, Nora was able to wear her corset a bit looser and her hair a bit less pinned. One had, of course, always to be ready for the unexpected visitor, so she could hardly go about the house in her dressing gown, but she was glad to be somewhat more comfortable.

After breakfast, her father closed himself into his study to conduct his correspondence of the day. Nora wandered listlessly in the same direction, toward the adjoining library, where her correspondence awaited her. Thank you notes to send and visitor cards to answer.

On the way, she chanced to meet Mr. Gaines, their butler, moving through the main corridor at a sharp clip. When he saw her, he drew back, pressing the papers in his hands to his chest as if to protect them from her view.

“Excuse me, my lady.” He stepped to the side, out of her way.

The fold of papers he held so protectively was only the daily newspaper—the Times, she could see by its type and layout—and Nora couldn’t fathom why Gaines would try to shield them. Her curiosity piqued, she held out her hand.

“I’ll take those to my father, Mr. Gaines. I’m on my way to the library.”

He glanced guiltily at his burden, as if he held a penny dreadful rather than the most esteemed newspaper in London. “Thank you, my lady, but there’s no need.”

She pushed her open hand closer and used her London Lady voice. “I’ll take them, Mr. Gaines, thank you.”

It worked! The butler bowed and handed them to her, albeit reluctantly. “They aren’t for you, Lady Nora. They’re too coarse for a fine lady’s lovely eyes.”

With a sudden crash of understanding, Nora snatched the fold of papers from the butler. She’d always shared the news with her father. When they were alone together in Kent, they would even read at the breakfast table, and her father would ask her what she thought about the most important items. But that was to be taken from her now, as well?

What was it, exactly, that proper ladies did to spend their hours? What thoughts filled their heads?

Nora spun on her heel and stalked down the corridor, toward the library. Her father wished her to marry well and want for nothing. She wished to make him happy. But this life he wanted for her was no life she wanted. For herself, all she truly wanted was a life like her Aunt Martha—independent and alone. Of course, Aunt Martha had married a man much older than she and been widowed within a few years.

Perhaps that was what Nora should do. Find an old lord who still needed an heir. Perhaps one who was hard of hearing.

In the library, she closed the door and opened the papers, wondering what had happened in the world to make Mr. Gaines so worried about defiling her virgin eyes.

Nothing. But oh—this wasn’t the Times. Another paper lay atop it: the Daily Herald. Oh, interesting. Why was her father taking the Herald? It was the paper of the lower classes, with a decidedly pro-Labour editorial stance. Her father hated the Herald.

Feeling almost as if she’d in fact come across a penny dreadful, Nora glanced guiltily at the closed door of her father’s study before she set the Times aside and settled at the desk at which she’d been meant to write her notes and replies. She laid the Herald out before her and, beginning at the front page, undertook to read every word.

 

~oOo~

 

Deeply immersed in an editorial regarding the recently convened constitutional conference, Nora heard the door open but didn’t heed its warning until her father’s shadow loomed over the desk and his hand settled gently on her shoulder.

“What are you reading, monkey?”

Nora flinched, and he leaned closer.

“Is that…what is that rag doing in my house?” He snatched the paper from the desk in an angry fistful and wadded it up.

“Ga—“ She stopped abruptly. Clearly, the papers Gaines had been holding had not been her father’s. To say more would impugn the butler. “I found it outside. I went out for a breath of air.”

“And brought a filthy piece of rubbish into the house with you? And read it? Nora, what were you thinking?”

Abashed and outraged in equal measure, Nora stood up and faced her father, her fists clenched and shaking at her sides. “I was thinking that it would be interesting to read what the workers think! I was thinking that I wanted to know! I had questions and I was thinking to find the answers!”

Her father glowered at the wad of newsprint in his hands. “GAINES!”

Gaines was at the main library door at once. “My lord?”

“Lady Nora informs me that she dragged this foul thing in from the streets.” He thrust the Herald at the butler. “Rid us all of it, please. And see to it that better attention is paid to the condition of the grounds around our gates.”

“Of course, my lord. My apologies.” With a quick and grateful dash of his eyes to Nora, Gaines took the bundle and absented himself from the room.

“I don’t understand, Papa. It was only the news. Why does it give you such offense?”

Her father turned a far softer look on her then. He took her hand. “Oh, my love. Come and sit with me.” He led her to the nearest sofa, and they sat together. “The Herald is not the news. It’s claptrap masquerading as news. But that’s hardly the point.”

“The point is I’m not supposed to care about such things any longer.” She pulled her hand free and threw herself against the back of the sofa. “Now that I’m a lady, all I’m supposed to care about is dresses and suitors. But you’re the one who taught me to care.”

“I know, Nora, and I did you a grave disservice. All I wanted after your mother and brothers died was to make you as happy as you could be, and I didn’t see that it was my task to teach you how to be happy in the life you would lead. Instead I let you follow your own will, and now…”

“Now I’m a scandal.”

“Not a scandal. But not properly studied in the ways of our world.”

“This isn’t our world, Papa.”

“It is, Nora. This is the world you must find your future in. I will see you settled and secure. I will be sure of it. But I need your help. People say you are the greatest beauty in London this Season, and perhaps even for many seasons before. You should be in high demand and have your choice of proposals. I want that for you, to be able to choose the man who will be your husband. But you speak of vulgar things, and it puts good men off.”

Nora might dispute the point that a man was good if he could be put off by a woman having thoughts of her own. Her own father, the man now cajoling her to act the empty-headed mannequin, was the one who’d taught her to think for herself. “It’s not vulgar to know what’s happening in the world. Politics is not vulgar.”

He chuckled bleakly. “Little in the world is more so, Nora. If you were part of it, you would see it to be true. Such talk is not for graceful ladies.”

It wasn’t her fault she wasn’t part of politics. Women couldn’t vote, much less hold office. “I don’t want to be a graceful lady. I want to go back to Kent and be as we were.”

In his forceful sigh, Nora heard the end of this argument. He would hear no more. “You sound like a petulant child, Nora. You are my daughter. I am the Earl of Tarrin, a line more than a thousand years old. We all have our roles to play in service to our ancestors and to our King. Yours is to marry well and produce strong heirs for your husband. Mine is to preserve the Tarrin legacy. I have faltered with you and Christopher both, giving you too much your own way, but I will not fail either of you. I see my errors now, and I will repair them.”

“Papa…”

“Enough.” Her father stood and pulled her to her feet as well. “Do you love me, Nora?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then do this for me. Be the elegant lady I know you can be. Find your happiness where it should be. Show me tonight that I needn’t worry for you.” He squeezed her hands. “Please, monkey. Give me some ease.”

How ironic that he would use his pet name for her, a name she’d earned as a small girl, climbing and cavorting like that animal through the woods at home, at this particular moment, as he demanded that she set that part of herself—which was her whole self—aside. Yet Nora could hardly deny such a request from the man she loved best in all the world. “Very well, Papa.”

He folded her in his arms, and Nora promised herself she would try to find something of interest in the interests she was allowed to have.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

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