COVER REVEAL & TEASER! Slam: The Brazen Bulls MC #3

Slam cover

Hi! It’s time to announce my next release and give you some details! Those of you who’ve been waiting for another Brazen Bulls book can mark your calendars for Saturday, 5 August, the day Slam, the third book in the series, goes live!

Slam is Maverick’s story. Mav has been in prison since before the series began, but in Twist, Gunner and Leah’s story, we got to meet him and learn a little about him. He did some hard work for the club during Twist, and he paid hard for it, but he’s finally being released.

His prison sentence, and the reason for it, tore apart more than his own life. He and his old lady were expecting a baby when he went in, and Jenny hasn’t forgiven him for leaving her and their daughter on their own, with heavier burdens than Jenny can bear alone.

Theirs is a deep and true love, though, and Slam is the story of them finding their way back together. Without his family, Maverick is lost. Without her love, Jenny is brittle.

Each chapter also ends in a flashback, about the early days of their relationship as well as even earlier days in each of their lives. As they remember how and why they loved each other, we can see it happen.

I’ll be uploading it for preorder on my usual schedule, two-three weeks ahead of the release, and I’ll provide live links when they’re available. Like all the Brazen Bulls books, it will be available on several platforms.

If you haven’t read the Brazen Bulls yet, you can find links to the Crash and Twist, the first two books of the series, here.

The Goodreads page is up now, if you’d like to add it to your TBR.

The synopsis and a preview below. Enjoy!

xoxo
s–

SLAM BB3 paperback cover

THE SYNOPSIS:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1997

When Richard “Maverick” Helm walks out the gate of the state penitentiary, after four hard years inside, he doesn’t know what life he has left waiting for him. Abandoned by the love of his life, a stranger to his only child, Maverick turns to his club, the Brazen Bulls MC, and holds on.

But he’s not sure of the club any longer, either. The Bulls have changed since he went inside, and they’d all but forgotten him.

Before Maverick can find a life worth living, he must heal the family he’d had—his woman and his child—and he must find his fit with his brothers. To do either, he must remember the man he was, and decide who he wants to be.

The love of Jenny Wagner’s life promised her a beautiful future. He swore he’d be there for her and their daughter forever. He wanted to be her hero, and she believed that he would be. Then he left her alone before their baby was born—and what he did left Jenny’s life in ruins. She’ll never forgive him.

But she’s never stopped loving him. Her anger arises from that deep, abiding love, and the pain of its betrayal.

Before Jenny can open herself and her daughter to a new life with Maverick, she must learn to trust again, and to be with him the strong woman she’s become without him.

It takes only a moment of reunion for Jenny to remember their love—a love Maverick’s never forgotten. It takes much longer to overcome the obstacles of the past and find a way to make a future together.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

And a PREVIEW (a scene from Chapter Two):

“Ready for another, Russ?”

Russ, sitting in his usual seat at the head of the bar, nodded. “Sure am.” Jenny pulled the tap and refilled his beer. As she pushed it across the bar, he put his hand around hers on the glass. “Someday, you’re gonna say yes.”

Jenny laughed and gently but firmly freed her hand. Russ was well into his sixties, a sweet old retired guy who spent his weekday afternoons sitting right where he was, on the first stool at the bar in The Wayside Inn. He flirted with her every day. While the come-ons were gentle, and she was slightly more than half sure they weren’t intended seriously, she worked to maintain a balance between being playfully friendly with him and leading him on.

“I guess we’ll have to see if you live long enough to see that day,” she retorted now.

He flattened his hand against his chest as if she’d wounded him there. “We used to call beauties like you femme fatales. You know that?”

Before she could counter that remark, the door opened and let in a blast of sultry air and dusty white light. The storms of the day before hadn’t broken the heat at all, and, once the clouds had cleared, the humidity had been even worse. The Wayside’s loud, rickety air conditioning unit was working as well as it could, but it wasn’t up to the challenge of this summer.

Russ had been the only customer in the bar on this early afternoon, so Jenny focused on the newcomers. The sunlight streaming through the open door cast them in silhouette, and all she saw at first was three sizable blobs. The jukebox wasn’t playing, and the volume on the television above the bar was low, so she could hear the clomp of boots as they came in.

Then the door closed, and she blinked and saw that they were all wearing kuttes. They were Brazen Bulls. Gunner and Rad and one she didn’t know.

The last time any of these sons of bitches had blighted her bar had been the year before, when Gunner had shown up out of the blue and coerced her into giving him a recent photo of Kelsey. For Maverick, Kelsey’s father.

Who had ruined her fucking life and was therefore out of it. Forever.

Now there were three of them walking toward her. She crossed her arms and turned her attention on Gunner. Of all the Bulls besides Maverick, she knew Gunner best. She’d liked him, in a different life. “What the fuck do you want?”

Gunner opened his mouth to speak, but it was Rad who answered. With a chuckle in his voice, he said, “Dial it down, darlin’. We don’t mean trouble.” He nodded at Gunner, who reached into his kutte and pulled out a fat, business-size envelope. He held it out to her, and Jenny stared at it, leaving her arms crossed.

The Bulls gave her money every month, something she supposed Maverick had worked out from prison. It was for Kelsey, and Jenny took it, notwithstanding her intention for Kelsey and her father never to meet. She saved almost all of it, only hitting it in emergencies—like last year, when Kelsey had had meningitis and been in the hospital for eight days. She never wanted to come to rely on that money for her daily living, and she meant it all to be a way for Kelsey to go to college and get her life started.

She got money from the Bulls on a regular basis, but not like this. Normally one of their hangarounds brought it by. And the envelope was never this thick. From the look of it, it was several times the normal amount.

Russ had turned on his stool and was considering the Bulls. He was a senior citizen whose body had been devastated a couple of years back in a cancer fight. There was quite obviously nothing he could have done against three big, burly bikers, but he still asked, “Jenny? You need anything here?”

For that, she spared her regular customer a grateful smile. “Thanks, Russ, but I’m okay.”

Since she’d made it clear that she wasn’t taking that envelope from him, Gunner set it on the bar.

“That’s more than usual. This whole thing is more than usual. Why?”

This time, Gunner did speak. “He’s getting out at the end of the week.”

“What? Why?”

She’d kept track of Maverick’s sentence. She knew that he’d been scheduled for release the year before and had had time added, and she knew he was scheduled for release again right before Kelsey’s birthday. If he was getting out this week, it was early—almost a month early. She wasn’t ready. Sharped-edged wings of panic fluttered in Jenny’s belly—and something else, too, something fragile and long unnourished. Even after everything, after the wreck her life had become, her love for Maverick Helm made her quiver.

All three Bulls, even the big blond she didn’t know, took on the same angry expression, like a shared mask of offense. Rad answered with a snarl. “He did his time. All you need to know.” He turned his glare on Russ, who shrank a little but held his seat.

Beginning to understand what that envelope and this visit were about, Jenny didn’t want Russ to be privy to the conversation. “Can you give us a few minutes, Russ?”

He glanced sidelong at the Bulls and then studied her. “You sure?”

“Yeah. I’m safe.” She believed that, at any rate. They wouldn’t hurt her.

“Okay. I could go squeeze one out, anyway. I won’t be far.” He slid off his stool headed toward the bathrooms in back.

Jenny watched him go. When she turned back to the Bulls, she said, “You think you can pay me to let him in. That’s what that is.” She tipped her head toward the stuffed envelope.

“He’s her dad, Jen,” Gunner said. “He wants to be her dad.”

“Then he should have been out here, being her dad.”

“Jesus fuck,” Rad muttered. He slammed his palms on the bar and leaned close.

Radical Jessup was the club Sergeant at Arms. He was big, a scowl rested more easily on his face than a smile, and he was almost as quick to violence as Maverick. Jenny fought the need to step back, out of his reach. She made herself stand firm and meet his dark, angry eyes.

“I don’t know what story you worked out in your head to make him a bad guy in this, but he did what he did to protect you—”

She scoffed, unable to hold it back, and Rad slammed his hands on the bar again, even more forcefully. She was also unable to hold back her flinch.

“If your life is shit now, that’s on you. You could shove that bastard in a state home and be done with it, but you like playin’ Little Miss Martyr, don’t ya?”

He was making a lot of assumptions about things he had no knowledge of. “Fuck you, Rad. Get the fuck out of here, all of you.”

Nobody moved. Then Rad reached out and grabbed her arm. He didn’t hurt her, but he used force to drag her close, until the bar cut across her ribcage, and he put his face right in hers. Jenny wondered whether she’d been right—would he hurt her?

“It goes like this, Jenny. Maverick is that girl’s father. He wants to be in her life. He’s a Bull. The Bulls got his back. So he will be in his little girl’s life. Whatever we have to do to make that happen. That envelope right there is one way. But there are other ways. You think about that.”

He glared into her eyes for another few seconds. His eyes were dark, dark brown, so dark his pupils were barely discernible. It was like looking into him and seeing nothing but abyss.

The words he’d said had been full of threat, but his eyes scared her most of all.

He let her go with a little shove, and she took a quick couple of steps to keep her feet.

Rad spun on his heel without another word and stalked to the door. The blond one followed.

Gunner held back. When Jenny made eye contact with him, he pushed the envelope closer to her. “Jenny, come on. Last year, I told you how bad he needed you and Kelsey. This year has been a fuck ton worse, but he’s finally getting out. You know he’ll be a good dad.”

She knew no such thing. He was a violent hothead who always had to have his way and never thought about the consequences before letting his fists fly. She’d been raised by exactly such a man, and he had not been a good dad at all. Now, because of Maverick and his flying fists, she was saddled with her father for the rest of his life.

Jenny didn’t answer Gunner, and she didn’t touch the envelope. Finally, he sighed.

“Friday. He gets out Friday.” He turned and headed for the door.

When she was alone in the bar, she picked up the envelope and pulled the flap free. It was stuffed with loose bills. Hundred-dollar bills, all of them. Riffling through it, she estimated that there was twenty thousand dollars in that basic white envelope. Several times more than usual.

Twenty thousand dollars.

That was what the Brazen Bulls thought her daughter was worth.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

 

Cover Reveal & Teaser: Father’s Sun, The Northwomen Sagas Conclusion

Hi all!

It’s time to reveal the cover and synopsis for the fourth and final installment of The Northwomen Sagas. Father’s Sun is Solveig’s story, and her true love is Magni.

If you’re a reader of the series, then you know that Solveig is Brenna and Vali’s daughter, and Magni is Olga and Leif’s son. The two have grown up together.

When I finished God’s Eye, the first book of the series, and Solveig was born, I knew right then that this saga would end with her story—in fact, I knew by then that the series would be four books long, and that Olga and Astrid would be the other Northwomen to lead books. Olga’s story rattled against the cage of my brain, demanding freedom, and Astrid, though she hadn’t asserted a strong presence on the page in GE, had made a deep impression in my head. I knew a lot about her and wanted to tell her story, too. She is my favorite Northwoman, as it turns out.

I liked the thought that by the time GE was over, we’d met all the women who would tell the sagas. I liked the thought of the story making a circle of sorts, so I ran with that. Other characters rose up here and there and waved at me, suggesting they had stories, too, and I have notes for possible shorts I might write someday (about Frida or Mihkel, for example), but it felt right not to let this series range too far from its core.

I didn’t know what Solveig’s story would be until I wrote it, but early on, it seemed fitting to end a story that began with Brenna and Vali’s great love and legend with the story of their legacy, and I had the name of the final book right then: Father’s Sun.

A side note, apropos of nothing, really: I like the symmetry of the titles in this series: God and Father, Heart and Soul. Also, the cover colors come from the shields themselves (there isn’t a color on the covers that’s not also found in one of the shields in the series), and are consistent with colors that were used by the people of that area and era.

I know most of my readers are interested in my bikers and not my Vikings, but writing The Northwomen Sagas has been a passionate love for me, and I’m heartbroken that it’s over. These stories were a joy to research and write, and I’m deeply proud of them.

Anyway. By the first chapter of Father’s Sun, some years have passed since the end of the first book—almost twenty—and about five years have passed since the epilogue of Soul’s Fire. Solveig and Magni are grown and finding their own paths in their world, seeking to step beyond their parents’ shadows.

Since Solveig and Magni’s story is so much about legacy, I wrote this one a little differently from my usual dual POV style. Solveig and Magni are certainly the dominant POVs of this story, but every now and then we connect with their parents as well, and see their children through their eyes. So Brenna, Vali, Olga, and Leif each get a chapter or two in their POV.

Father's Sun cover gold

On to business:

The release date for Father’s Sun is Saturday, 3 June. I’ll upload it for preorder a couple of weeks in advance, as usual. I’ve set up the Goodreads page, if you want to add it to your TBR.

Here’s the synopsis:

Solveig Valisdottir is said to be born for greatness. The firstborn daughter of Brenna God’s-Eye and Vali Storm-Wolf, she carries her parents’ legacy on her shoulders and strives to be worthy of their legends. She is a strong shieldmaiden in her own right, but her parents are the greatest of their people, beloved of the gods, and she must reach as high as they, or even beyond, to feel she deserves the esteem she already has as their daughter.

She keeps her fears buried deep in her chest, trusting only Magni, her dearest friend, keeper of all her secrets, to know her struggle. Her love for him reaches deeper than friendship, but she cannot allow herself that love until she has done her parents the honor they deserve. She must find her story; she must make her name.

Magni Leifsson is the scion of greatness himself. His father is the revered Jarl Leif of Geitland, and his mother, Olga, is a beloved counselor of their people. They offer him a legacy of wisdom and compassion, and of strength and valor, and he means his story to be the next verse of theirs.

Magni has loved Solveig since they were children playing in the light of their parents’ friendship. The keeper of her secrets, he knows her better than anyone. He understands the burden of her legacy, and he vows to wait for her while she finds her story.

And he is at her side, offering her his strength and his love, when Solveig finds her legend on a field of loss.

Note: Explicit sex and violence.

Finally, as a teaser, I’m offering the Prologue of Father’s Sun, which covers some key moments in Solveig’s childhood:

 Prologue: The Girl She Was

Six Years

As the ships sailed into the harbor, Solveig ran to the fore of the crowd and pushed in between her grandmother and Håkon, her brother.

“Usch, child,” her grandmother said, combing back a loose blonde tress and tucking it into Solveig’s braid. “Always you are elsewhere than you should be. And where was that this time?”

“Helga’s cat had kittens!” She loved kittens. And puppies. And goatlings. And all baby animals. But kittens best of all.

Her grandmother shook her head. “And are kittens such a rare thing that you would miss the return of your father and mother from their great raid? Two of your mother’s cats littered while they were away. We are overrun with kittens.”

“Dagmar. Something’s amiss.” Bjarke, at her grandmother’s opposite side, spoke, his voice low and dark, like night thunder. There was such foreboding in his tone that even Solveig understood it—even Håkon, more than a year younger, seemed to understand it; his hand grasped Solveig’s and squeezed.

She looked out at the nearing longships, which had come close enough to drop their sails and go to oar, and tried to see what Bjarke could see. Their mother and father had been gone for a long time, Solveig thought, but not too long; summer was still warm and bright. They had gone off to raid in a faraway place called Anglia.

Her father was the Jarl of Karlsa. He’d left Bjarke, his good friend, in charge of Karlsa, and their mother had left her mother in charge of their children.

Their father raided every year, sometimes more than once, but this was the first time in Solveig’s life that their mother had gone as well. She was Brenna God’s-Eye, a great shieldmaiden, and the skalds told many stories about her—and about Solveig’s father, Vali Storm-Wolf, as well. Both were legends.

But to Solveig, they were simply her mother and her father. She missed them when they were away, and she was glad they were back. But something was wrong. She didn’t understand what it was, except that usually when the raiders came home, everyone was loud and happy. They had been that way when she’d run from Helga’s house to wait at the pier. But now everyone was quiet. There was a low mumble rolling through the gathered crowd; she tried to open her ears wide and hear what people were saying. Behind her, two women spoke, and she turned her head so she could focus her ears on them.

“Where is he?”

“He always stands at the prow, but I don’t see him. Where is she?”

“Would the gods take them both at once?”

“That is how it should be, the two lovers hand in hand, though I hope not yet. They are too young. Their children—”

“Öhm! Enough!” Solveig’s grandmother wheeled on the women, whose mouths snapped shut, and then turned to Solveig and forced her head forward again. “Pay them no mind, child.” Her hand shook against Solveig’s cheek, like she was chilled. Or frightened.

Solveig didn’t know who they’d been talking about. So she did what her grandmother said and stopped thinking about them. She looked for her mother and father on the ships. Her father was usually standing up front, just behind the dragon’s head, when he came home, but there was no one there this time.

The people on the ships were quiet, too. Usually, people on the shore called out to the raiders, and the raiders called back. Usually, there was much more noise.

Solveig began to understand that the wrong thing was about her father, who was not standing where he should be. Raiders were warriors, going off to fight for and win treasure and honor and glory, and to have their stories told in the sagas. Many, many times, she had watched her mother and father and all the other warriors in Karlsa practice fighting, with swords and axes and spears and shields, so they could make war on the weak people of other worlds.

She couldn’t see her father or her mother. The ships were pulling up to the piers now, and she couldn’t see them at all. She let go of her grandmother’s hand, and her brother’s hand, and she walked forward.

“Solveig!” her grandmother called, but she moved forward, drawn by a terrible curiosity.

Her mother was there; she had been sitting, and now she made her way to her feet. Solveig saw her fair hair in braids she knew, and, relieved, she broke into a run just as men jumped out to tie up the first ship.

Her mother’s arm and neck were wrapped up in dirty bandages, her arm bound to her side and across her middle. She’d gotten hurt in the raid. She had many scars, but Solveig had never seen her hurt before.

“Mamma!”

Her mother looked up. Weary anger had pulled her face tight, and Solveig felt real fear, though she didn’t understand yet why.

Solveig’s grandmother reached her just then and clamped her hand around her wrist, keeping her in place. As she drew Solveig into a stifling hold, she called down to the ship. “Brenna. Daughter, are you well? What do you need?”

Her mother gave her a small, tired smile, but she didn’t come out of the ship. She turned and looked down again, and Solveig finally saw what was really wrong. Not her mother in bandages.

Her father, her mighty father, bound to a litter, being lifted out of the ship by six men, carried up to the pier. He wasn’t moving. His eyes were closed. His chest was bare except for bloody, dirty bandages. His skin was shiny and grey.

A strange whoosh went through the crowd as the men carrying him climbed onto the pier, and the people on the shore saw the litter. And then all sound seemed to die.

Solveig stood in the silence and watched the men carry her father toward the great hall. Her belly felt funny, like something small and frail inside her had curled up at the bottom and died.

“Come, daughter.”

She felt her mother’s hand on her head, and she looked up into the beautiful face she loved above all others but one. “Did Pappa go to Valhalla?”

The weariness in her mother’s eyes twisted into something like hurt, but then she smiled and brushed an errant lock of hair from Solveig’s eyes. “No, Solveig. He is the mightiest of men, and he lives. It is up to Frida and the gods to make him well now. Hello, Håkon. I have missed you all so very much.” She patted Solveig’s brother on the head, then bent down and lifted little Ylva, the youngest of them, into her unhurt arm. To her mother, she said, “We need Frida, Mother. There is so much fever, and he hasn’t woken for days.”

“She was at the pier, waiting for Jaan. She is already in the hall.”

Solveig’s mother nodded and headed up the berm toward the hall, Ylva in her arms. Her grandmother and brother went after them. Solveig stood and stared at the emptying ship. Everyone had been happy when they’d sailed away. Everyone in Karlsa had been happy when they’d seen the ships on the horizon. Now everyone was sad.

Her father was the Storm-Wolf. The stories said that he’d fought Ægir, the lord of the sea, and won. He’d challenged Thor himself to combat and remained standing. He’d been split in twain in battle and put his parts back together to fight on.

He denied all these things, said they were stories, not truths, but Solveig believed them all. Never had she known her father even to be ill. He was big and strong and fierce. He was kind and warm. He was the mightiest of men, and her mother was the mightiest of women. Everyone agreed they were favored by the gods. How could they have been hurt?

She didn’t understand. Her head filled with noise, like Thor’s thunder, and her chest seemed to shrink and squeeze her heart.

“Solveig! Come!” Her grandmother stood with her hand stretched out, beckoning.

Solveig ran the other way.

Ten Years

Geitland was a much bigger place than Karlsa, and Solveig always felt smaller and less brave in the wild bustle of the town. On this visit especially, when they had grand guests from afar, her parents’ good friend, Astrid, and her husband, Leofric. He was a prince, which made Astrid a princess. They would be King and Queen of Mercuria someday.

Mercuria. A kingdom of Anglia. Solveig remembered that her father had almost been killed in a raid on Mercuria, and her mother had been badly hurt. She remembered the grief of the failed raid; Karlsa had lost many warriors. They’d thought Astrid dead for a long time, too. She didn’t remember many of the details, only enough to be confused by the celebration of their visit. They were friends, even after all that had been suffered and lost.

Her father and Jarl Leif of Geitland had once taken a massive fleet back to Mercuria to start a war and had returned instead allied with the people who’d almost taken her parents away.

She’d seen it many times in Karlsa’s great hall. Her father wanted people to be friendly when their conflicts had been settled. He believed that there was greater strength in friendship than in war.

Her mother didn’t always agree. Many times, Solveig had lain quietly in her bed, feigning sleep and listening to her parents talk out their own disagreements on matters of the hall. She listened because she wanted to understand. She was the daughter of the Storm-Wolf and the God’s-Eye, her life was filled with great heroes of the sagas, people touched by the gods, and she wanted to know all she could of everything, so that when it was time, she could take her place among them.

“Their ship is so grand,” Magni, said, stretching out on his belly beside her. “I want one like it when I grow up.”

Solveig rolled her eyes. Magni was the only living son of Jarl Leif and his wife, Olga. He was almost a year younger than she and still a child with much to learn. He needed to listen better. “Our ships are much grander than his. His is too big and too deep and can  sail only in open water. Our ships can go anywhere.”

“But his has rooms. With beds.”

“Comfort is for soft people, not warriors. It’s why we’re better than they are at everything. Where’s Håkon?” She looked around; she was supposed to mind her brother, but he’d gotten bored with watching the hall, and she hadn’t. She liked to listen in when the adults didn’t know. She learned far more from the things they tried to keep from her than from the things they tried to teach her.

She’d heard him leave, but she hadn’t thought long about it. Only they two had sailed with their parents for this visit. Ylva, Agnar, and little Tova had stayed home with their grandmother. Håkon was next oldest. He had eight years and was old enough to mind himself, even if their mother didn’t think so.

“Gulla found him and sent him to bed. She’s looking for us, too, but I went through the goat pen and she didn’t see me.”

“She’ll not find us here.” Solveig had discovered this gap under a grain bin, against a wall of the great hall, a few years earlier. She’d kept it a secret unto herself until Magni had demanded to know where she disappeared to so often. When he’d claimed that Geitland was his home, not hers, and it was wrong to keep secret places from him in his own home, she’d made him swear an unbreakable oath never to reveal it. They’d cut their thumbs and mingled blood.

And then, the very next summer, he’d let Håkon follow him, and she’d had to make her little brother swear on blood as well. Magni hadn’t meant for Håkon to follow; he simply hadn’t noticed—which was just as bad, and perhaps worse.

Boys were fools.

She wasn’t sure how dolts like Magni and Håkon might someday grow into great men like their fathers. It seemed a tall mountain for them to climb. Nearly as tall as her climb to her mother’s greatness.

Solveig appraised the boy beside her now. She knew, from listening, that his parents and hers wished them someday to be wed. Since she’d heard that, during their last visit to Geitland, she’d tried to imagine mating with Magni. She’d known him all her life, and she liked him well. He couldn’t help that he was a boy and boys were fools.

He was pleasant to look at—as tall as she, though he was younger, with long blonde hair and dark blue eyes like his father. For all that, he was not so bad. But she couldn’t imagine doing with him the things men and women did together—the grunting and groaning and sweating.

Truthfully, she couldn’t imagine doing those things with anyone. She turned from Magni and resumed her watching. It seemed strange and unpleasant, even though men and women all seemed to seek it out as much as they could. Her parents certainly did. In the great hall right now, most people had wandered back to their own homes, and those that remained—Astrid and her husband, Magni’s parents, her own, a few others—had stopped talking amongst the group and started murmuring in mated pairs. While she watched through the gap under the wall, her father pulled her mother onto his lap and put his hand between her legs with a loud grunt like a bear.

She didn’t want that. What she wanted was the other thing—the way her father looked at her mother across the hall, when her mother didn’t know. Solveig didn’t know what that look was, but it was…replete. And utterly bare. She wanted a boy to look at her like that. Even if she never actually saw it directed at her, she wanted a boy to feel for her so deeply and truly that he looked at her that way when her back was turned.

Or the way her mother smiled when she heard Solveig’s father laugh. That smile was akin with her father’s secret look. It made Solveig’s chest feel warm and full to see them both.

In those moments, not in their wild wrestling, Solveig saw her parents’ love for each other. That was what she wanted. Someday. When she was worthy of such love.

“Usch,” Magni groaned quietly beside her. “I don’t want to watch that. Let’s go to the water. I want to look at the ship.”

“Why do you suppose they do it so much?” Solveig asked, ignoring his suggestion and his foolish obsession with the Mercurian ship.

“Erik says it’s like when you scratch an itch. He says you can do it to yourself, too.”

“Who’s Erik?”

“He has twelve years,” Magni answered, as if that were enough. She supposed it was. Twelve years was grown. Some boys got their arm rings and became men when they had twelve years. Sometimes, they took wives as well.

“Have you ever done it?”

He pulled a face and shook his head. “You?”

“No.” She considered Magni again and wondered if they should try.

“Do you want to?” he asked before she had decided.

“Do you?”

His shoulders came nearly up to his ears. “Perhaps it’s nice.”

Solveig doubted that. But she nodded. “All right.” She leaned toward him and pursed her lips.

Magni leaned toward her, and their lips touched.

He smelled pleasant, like wood fire and the goat pen. His lips were warm and dry, tense and puckered against hers. His breath, coming through his nose, tickled her cheek. It wasn’t unpleasant. Or pleasant. Or really anything at all. Their blood vow had had more feeling than this.

Solveig didn’t know what to do next, so she pulled back. She rubbed at her lips; they tingled.

Magni rubbed at his lips, too. “Can we go look at the ship now?”

Relieved that the experiment was over, and more sure than ever that whatever it was their parents liked so much about rutting, it wasn’t for her, Solveig sighed and scooted back from the wall. “It’s not as good as our ships. Let’s go and I’ll show you.”

Thirteen Years

Solveig stared up at the sky, a cloudless canvas of brilliant blue, no variation in its color at all, from horizon to horizon. Below them, Karlsa was quiet. The revels after the raiders had departed had gone on long, and those who remained behind were slow to begin the next day.

Time changed when the raiders were gone, and not only when the people were weary and ill from drink. The pace of the town slowed to languor, and only essential business was conducted. Everyone seemed to hover, waiting.

For her part, since the time her father had come home strapped to a litter, Solveig had never been able to put worry from her mind when he sailed away. On that day, when she’d been only small, she’d lost the belief that he was strong as a god. He was only a man. A great man, the best man, but only a man, and he could be taken from her.

Her worry was greater when her mother stayed home, as this time she had. Her father told many stories about the times her mother had saved him. He said often that his wife was fully half of him. He needed her at his side. But Solveig’s youngest sister, Hella, barely more than a babe, and small and frail, had taken ill, so her mother was in the hall tending her, and her father was alone in the wide world.

“When we are wed, will you live in Geitland, or will I live here?”

Solveig rolled her head on the soft grass on which they lay, at the edge of the Wood of Verđandi, and studied Magni’s profile. His cheeks were yet smooth, but his face had changed since she’d last seen him. It had become more angular, more manly. He looked much like his father.

“Who says we’re to be wed?” Honestly, everyone said it. Even she herself thought about it. It wasn’t an unpleasant thought, and sometimes, she entertained it for quite a while. Sometimes, things inside her stirred and ached, and all she could think of was him.

He turned and met her eyes. His were a blue darker than her own, more like the sea than the sky. “Everyone. Do you say we won’t?”

She shrugged and turned back to the sky. An eagle flew across the smooth blue and then dived, and she didn’t need to lift her head and look over the cliff to know he’d plucked a fish from the water below. “I say that when we wed, and whom, and if, is not for anyone but ourselves.”

His hand went over hers where it lay on the grass, and he squeezed. She felt his new arm ring, bestowed only weeks before, when he’d declared his loyalty to his father. She hated that twisting band of gold and silver, not for what it said about him, but for what the lack of such a thing said about her.

In Karlsa, as in Geitland, women were not given arm rings. They swore their fealty, and they fought alongside the men as equals, but they were not gifted a token of their allegiance. Solveig enjoyed trinkets and baubles, but it was not for its sparkle that she envied Magni his arm ring. She cared not to be excluded. Magni wore that arm ring, and now all he met would know he was a man and had been deemed a worthy one. Solveig would have to prove her worthiness every day.

She tried to pull her hand from his, but he held fast. He’d grown taller than she since they’d last seen each other as well, and stronger, too.

Magni shifted to his side, still holding her hand, and looked down at her. His long hair fell forward from his shoulders and shaded his face. Its ends brushed her neck. “I would wed you, Solveig. Not for our parents’ wish. For my own.”

That stirring she sometimes felt became a spasm, and her chest ached. But she wanted more than him. She had only just begun to train to fight, still with wooden swords. She wanted to find her honor and make her parents proud. When girls her age wed, they soon swelled with babes and spent their lives chasing children and chickens.

Her mother had wed much later, after she had made her name. Her father had been even older. She would wait for love until she had honor of her own.

“My mother and father are legends. I’m made from them. If I’m anything less than a legend myself, I diminish them. That’s all that matters—I must do them honor. I’ll wed no man until I have made my story and it shines with theirs.”

Her voice trembled, and she cleared her throat to rid it of its weakness. She felt strangely exposed, and that made her feel defensive. She’d given something away just then, though she wasn’t quite sure what.

His expression changed, and Solveig saw pity in it—and with that, she was sure that she’d exposed something raw and weak in herself. She yanked hard and freed her hand, pushing him away. She sat up and turned, making distance between them and facing him directly.

“If you share a word I’ve said with anyone, I’ll kill you.”

Magni put up his hands, as if warding off a blow. “I keep your secrets, Solveig. Always.”

He did, but her vulnerability wasn’t calmed. “Swear.”

“I swear.” He pulled his short blade from his belt. “I’ll swear on blood, if you need it.”

They’d made many such oaths, and both carried scars from most of them. Most had been childish vows, only requiring the solemnity of blood because they’d been too young to know any risk greater or to keep deeper secrets. But this one felt especially important, even if Solveig wasn’t sure why. “Yes. Blood.”

Without a blink, Magni drew the tip of the blade across his palm. She took the blade from him and made a cut on her own palm. The sting was mild and familiar. They clasped hands.

“I, Magni Leifsson”—his voice always deepened when he said words he thought important—“swear to you, Solveig Valisdottir, never to speak the words we’ve spoken here on this day to any other soul, or to share their import with any other soul. On my blood, and on my honor.”

“Swear on your arm ring, too,” she added as an afterthought, studying the sunlit glint of his new trinket.

“I swear on my arm ring as well.”

Satisfied, she tried to release his hand, but, again, he held on. “I will wait, Solveig. I would wed you, when you wish.”

Fifteen Years

“Pick it up.” Solveig’s mother brought her sword up and held it before her, pointing it straight up to the gods.

It wasn’t really her sword. Her true sword was a storied thing. She’d wielded it through many great raids and slain hundreds of men and women. She’d never named it, but everyone Solveig knew called it the God’s-Eye Blade.

Her mother’s eyes were unlike any other eyes in the world. They didn’t match. One was blue, a paler shade than Solveig’s, who had her father’s eyes. The other, though, was every color in the world, and through it ran brown lines that made the image of a rooted tree. Yggdrasil, the world tree. People said that that eye was Odin’s own, the one he’d sacrificed so that he might gain all the world’s wisdom. Thus, she was known and revered all through their world as the God’s-Eye.

She said that it was a story, not a truth, like all the stories about her, and the stories about Solveig’s father as well. But Solveig listened hard everywhere she went. She watched and saw, too. And she thought deeply about the things that she heard and the things that she saw.

She thought that stories were truths, no matter how many facts they stretched. The story of a thing was what really mattered.

There was truth in the belief in them, and there was magic in the telling. She didn’t know if her mother’s marvelous right eye was Odin’s very one. Neither did she know why it couldn’t be. But she did know that her mother was a great warrior. Her mother wanted that awe and fear for herself, not for her eye, but Solveig thought that one was the same as the other. People knew her as a mighty shieldmaiden, and they also believed that her eye had its own power. However they came to it, the awe and admiration they felt for her were true.

The same was true for her father. He said that the great stories of him were really times when he’d been saved. He hadn’t fought Ægir, but the jötunn had simply spat him out of the sea and saved him. He’d been badly hurt in battle, nearly split in twain—and he had a long, wide scar down his back to prove it—but he’d only fallen to the ground to fight no more that day, and he would have died right there had not Solveig’s mother saved him. In grief for the loss of his firstborn child, her older brother, who’d died on the day of his birth, he’d challenged Thor to kill him, not to fight him, but Thor had had mercy and let him live.

She believed that her father’s versions of events might be more factual, but not that they were any more true. People made their truth in the telling. What had happened wasn’t as important as what was made of it.

They also said, now, that his heart had been run through with a spear but he had not fallen, and that his heart had pushed the spear out on its own. She knew the facts—she vividly remembered seeing him carried off the skeid in a litter, his soul only inches from the door of Valhalla. It was one of her most complete early memories. Most of the people who now told the story of his mighty heart had been there the day he’d been carried off the ship. Many had been present on the day he’d been wounded. They knew the facts and told the story anyway. The facts were different, but the story was true.

He’d been shot with three thick arrows. One had struck near his heart, and all of the wounds had putrefied before they’d gotten him home. He’d nearly died. Often, in the weeks that he lay insensible, they’d thought that he would.

But he’d survived and recovered completely, but for the new scars on his broad chest. And that was the real story. Again and again, Vali Storm-Wolf had taken injuries that would kill any mortal man, and again and again he’d recovered and reclaimed all of his strength. Those were facts of things that happened.

His heart was mighty enough to push a spear from its chambers. His body was strong enough to hold itself together. His will was powerful enough to take on the gods. That was the truth the stories told.

“Pick it up, daughter. We go again.”

The God’s-Eye Blade hung in its scabbard in the great hall, beside her mother’s shield. But the dull iron of the practice sword her mother wielded now seemed legendary in her hands.

Solveig glared down at the hunk of iron her mother had knocked from her hands. A true blade awaited her, one that her father had given her mother upon their wedding. A day would come when she would be worthy to wield that gleaming thing. But not now. Now even worthless iron was more than she could hold. Her palms and fingers still ached and quaked with the force of her mother’s strike. It took all her concentration not to allow herself to shake the pain away.

She was the daughter of legends, and she wanted nothing in the world so much as she wanted one thing: to be worthy of their truths.

Standing before her mother, pain singing through her hands, she didn’t feel worthy of anything.

“Pick it up, my sun.” Her father’s shadow fell over her and the dull blade she had not yet recovered. He must have come from the hall to watch her humiliation.

She did as he’d said. When she stood straight and wrapped her hand around the hilt of the practice sword, he stepped behind her and put his arms around her, closing her sword hand in his, and gripping the elbow of her shield arm. His weapons were axes, not a sword, and he didn’t fight with either shield or armor, but he knew well how to wield all the tools of the warrior. He was a berserker of the Úlfhéðnar—the fiercest and boldest of all warriors.

Seeing her father’s intent, her mother relaxed her stance and let her dull sword point downward.

In her father’s arms, dwarfed by his body, Solveig felt stronger, like some of his storied might had moved into her through his touch.

“Always know the field around you. Front, back, and sides. Never expose your tender center. Protect yourself neck to thighs. Keep your shield facing your opponent, always, and brace it well”—he lifted her shield arm and set it where he wanted it, pushing her shoulder down and in—“and use your blade from the side. You cannot be disarmed if your blade is not where his blade is. Step to the side and push in.” He moved her body sideways and then forward, bringing her sword arm down and across to slash the air. Three more times, he made the same move.

Above her head, she felt him nod, and then her mother lifted the sword again and brought her shield up as well. Her mother attacked, and her father moved Solveig’s arm so that her shield took the blow. He pushed her inward, moving her sword arm, and she connected with her mother’s body for the first time, slashing with her harmless blade across her mother’s midsection.

Her mother smiled, her magical eyes landing first on Solveig and then lifting to linger on her father. Moving like water, her mother stepped back and came in again, and Solveig’s father helped her block the blow.

It was all slow and graceful, like a dance rather than a fight, but Solveig better understood what she was supposed to see and feel and do.

She relaxed and enjoyed the dance, letting her parents, the Storm-Wolf and the God’s-Eye, show her the steps of love and war, and she felt, for the first time, that she might someday be a shieldmaiden worthy of her lineage.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

Northwomen Sagas bookmark horizontal

Cover Reveal & Teaser: Twist, The Brazen Bulls MC #2

Generally, I do the cover reveal and stuff six weeks ahead of the release date for a book, but that would be next weekend, and I’ll be out of town on a day-job-related trip next weekend, so let’s do it now.

twist-pb-cover

Twist, Book 2 of The Brazen Bulls MC will release on Saturday, 1 April 2017—and no, that’s not an April Fool’s joke I’m planning. 🙂 I’ll set up the preorder around mid-March. In the meantime, I’m sharing the cover and synopsis and a teaser, and here’s the Goodreads page.

Twist is Gunner’s story. If you read Crash (and this is a series where the books don’t stand alone all that well, so it would be a good idea to read Crash before you read Twist), you might remember that Gunner has some impulse-control issues. And anger issues. And just…issues. He’s got some things he needs to work out.

Generally, I share the first chapter or the prologue of a book as a teaser, but sometimes, for various reasons, the opening of a book isn’t an ideal teaser. That’s the case here. So I’m sharing most of Chapter Three, which gives some insights into Gunner and his story, and also introduces Leah, who has a story to tell as well.

The synopsis:

Tulsa, Oklahoma 1996

Maxwell “Gunner” Wesson is the loose cannon of the Brazen Bulls MC. A loss taken when he was a boy left a hole inside him, full of chaos and noise, and only pain and destruction can quiet the tempest. Full of courage and fiercely loyal, he has the Bulls at his back, even when his outbursts threaten to damage the club.

But the club president’s patience is wearing thin. Gun’s lack of control has put the Bulls on the front lines of a brewing war, right in the heart of Tulsa.

Leah Campbell is a small-town girl, living the life her mother walked away from. She takes care of her father, the town minister, and keeps his secrets, ensuring that he keeps his place as the moral and spiritual center of their community. But Leah has secrets of her own, and she’s faltering under the weight of all the things she cannot say, and all the things she must be and do to keep the truth at bay. She’s filled the hole her mother made, but it’s left her empty.

When two such damaged souls, full of secrets and empty of hope, come together, they will either save each other or tear everything apart.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

And the teaser, from Chapter Three:

The little old lady rooted around in her beaded coin purse. Gunner reached through her open car window and tapped her shoulder.

“I don’t need a tip, Mrs. Greeley. I just need you to sign the slip.”

“You’re a good boy, Gunner. You deserve a little somethin’ extra.” She handed him a neatly folded dollar bill and snapped her little purse closed, then finally signed the credit card slip for her gas.

“Well, thank you, ma’am.” He shoved the bill in his pocket—she always tipped him one dollar, and he always told her not to—and then jumped out of the way when Mrs. Greeley put her big old Lincoln Continental into gear and pulled off. He ran up and grabbed the easel sign, advertising an oil and lube sale, out of the way before she could clip it as she turned around the pumps. She got herself out onto the street without calamity and headed off at about fifteen miles per hour.

Mrs. Greeley likely would not pass a driving test if anybody made her take one now, but at least she drove so slowly that she’d probably just bounce off anything she hit, even in that road barge.

Delaney’s Sinclair was one of the last full-service stations in Tulsa. They didn’t even have a single self-serve pump. A fairly steady traffic of full-service customers, mostly old folks from the neighborhood like Mrs. Greeley, kept the pumps, and the pump jockeys, busy enough, but being full-service wasn’t much of a money-maker. Delaney’s made its real money in service and repairs.

Gunner was one of the few Brazen Bulls patches who didn’t work the busy bays at their president’s Sinclair station. He was good with engines. Really good. But he wasn’t a certified mechanic and wasn’t ever going to be. If he could just show the certification suits what he could do and get the piece of paper that way, he’d be fine, but there were required classes and textbooks, and written tests, and he sucked at all that stuff.

Reading wasn’t really his thing. He could read, he wasn’t a drooling moron, but he was slow at it. The letters shifted around on the page, and he had trouble keeping what he read in his mind for very long.

Put something real in his hand, and he’d understand it completely in minutes. He’d take it apart and know all its workings and then put it back together with his eyes fucking shut. Ask him to read a set of instructions on the exact same thing he’d just taken apart and put back together, however, and he’d be lost. Ask him to take a written test on it, and he’d forget everything he’d ever known, including his own fucking name.

So no certification, and Delaney wanted only certified mechanics in his bays. Which made Gunner a pump jockey. Well, hell, at least he had a job on the books, keeping the Feds off his scent.

His real job was next door, at the Brazen Bulls clubhouse. He was their munitions expert, keeping their weapons and ammunition in shape, managing the inventory, and, with Apollo’s help, researching any new weapons coming on their scene, including whatever shipments they were running for the Volkov bratva. He was certified on just about every kind of small arms, both military and consumer grade, and a wide assortment of large artillery as well—because all he’d had to do for that was show his Army instructors he could handle the motherfuckers.

And he could handle the motherfuckers.

That was where he made the money he lived on: in his cut of the club business. Going ten goddamn months without that cut—while he’d paid for the repairs to the pool hall, and restitution to Terry, the owner, and the huge damn fine Delaney had levied on him for starting a brawl on Dyson turf while he’d been wearing colors—had turned his financial landscape into something out of a Mad Max movie. He’d seriously considered putting his Chevelle up for sale, and he’d had that car since he was fifteen years old. He’d restored it from a husk.

If not for getting fed at the clubhouse, and Mo and Delaney’s house, and occasionally at his dad’s place outside of Grant, Gunner would have been living on ramen and tap water by the time Delaney had declared him square a couple months back.

If not for the kutte on his back, his landlord would probably have kicked him by then, too. But now he was square with club, his crib, and his chow again, and he still had his Chevy and his Harley. He just didn’t have room for much else yet.

Since that rave a couple weekends ago, he’d been really thinking about talking to his old man about renting out their barn. If they went in fifty-fifty, Gunner could get healthy. His father would fucking hate it all—the kids and cars and drugs and music—but if the money was decent, he might think about it, at least.

That rave had been fucking awesome. He’d been jacking off to his hazy memory of that little sparkle fairy ever since—way more than he’d been thinking about Willa, which was a nice, safe change. He wished he’d taken the time to really see her, but all he remembered was blonde and glowing. Like Tinker Bell. And slick and tight. Holy hell, she’d been a hot little number. She’d felt just perfect in his arms. He’d felt…he didn’t know. Like he’d found where he fit, maybe. But that was stupid.

Anyway, she’d made an impression, despite his dim recollection of her looks.

Behind him, the roar of hard wheels on pavement rose up, and he turned to see a group of neighborhood boys rolling their skateboards onto the station lot.

“Hey! No! You know better!” Gunner barked, flicking his hand, and the boys rolled back to the sidewalk. The kids liked to swing through, do turns around the pumps, and then roll on out. One of these times, Delaney was going to meet them with his shotgun. He insisted that it was a safety concern, but whatever the reason, his attitude about kids on the station lot could best be described as ‘crotchety.’

Gunner liked the kids. They were harmless, and he liked the hero worship. They lurked around the edges of the clubhouse and the station, trying to get a contact high of biker cool. Wally, in fact, one of their current prospects, had once been one of the skater boys.

Arrayed in plastic chairs along the front of the building, the usual suspects, a herd of retired old farts from the neighborhood who spent their days right there, bitching at each other about politics, talking about their days in The War, and trying to school a bunch of mechanics about cars, grumbled after the kids.

“You tell ‘em Gun,” Mr. Jones hacked in his three-packs-unfiltered rasp. “Buncha baby thugs.”

Offering the old coots an amiable shrug, he went back into the station.

Gunner opened the register and stuffed Mrs. Greeley’s charge slip under the till. An Oldsmobile pulled up at one of the pumps, and the driveway bell chimed over Gunner’s head. At the same time, the phone rang.

“Wally! Pump two!” Gunner shouted, and the prospect stopped stocking belts in the near bay and ran out.

Gunner picked up the phone. “Delaney’s Sinclair, this is Gunner.”

“Hey, Max. It’s Deb.”

He hipped the register closed. “Hey, sis. What’s up?”

“When are you done today? You have club stuff?”

“Nooo…” he answered, wondering what he was letting himself in for. “Off at two.” He’d opened the station this morning. Though he went to bed drunk or baked or otherwise altered most nights, he actually liked the early-morning shifts. He didn’t need, or want, a lot of sleep, and he liked the quiet of a drowsy dawn, before the day had had a chance to go to shit.

“You want to come for supper? I’m frying up the last of Dad’s bass and walleye from his trip. And coleslaw and beans.”

“Cornbread?” His stomach rumbled at the thought, and he looked over at the greasy bag of McDonald’s fries he’d been chomping on since Becker had done the lunch run a couple of hours earlier.

She laughed. “Sure.”

“What’s my tax for this wonderful feast?”

“Well, I could use some help. Dad wants to take some stuff in for the church donation run. They’re collecting for Berry Creek—you know, the twister that took out most of the town?”

Depending on the map you were looking at, either the entire state of Oklahoma formed the heart of Tornado Alley, or the western half of the state was its heart and the rest was its soul. Either way, Oklahomans knew wind like Alaskans knew cold. Dozens of tornadoes whipped through the state every single year. Sometimes they’d blow by and do little more than shake up a few windows, and other times, they’d erase whole towns and the people in them right off all the maps.

And sometimes they tore families right in half. Gunner stomped on the dark thoughts that started swirling around the base of his skull.

Berry Creek was a town smack in the middle of the state, in the heart no matter what map, so it was destined to get erased eventually. May 1996 had been its fated time, apparently. The Bulls’ old ladies had put together a collection, too: clothes, household goods, furniture, everything. Everybody in the neighborhood had chipped in —and not many people who lived around the clubhouse had much to spare. The women had done a big Wal-Mart run for toiletries and crap like that, too. The club was riding it out there on the weekend.

He should’ve asked if Deb and Dad had stuff for the Bulls run, he should have expected that they’d be chipping in, but it hadn’t occurred to him at all. He was shit about things like that. Oh well. They had it wrapped up, seemed like.

“I can’t get much in the Chevy, Deb.” He’d long ago taken the back seat out and customized the trunk for his NOS tank—and for his most excellent speakers.

“No, we can take the truck. I just need your muscles to carry stuff. I don’t want Dad doing it. His back’s been bugging him, though he won’t admit it. He’s doing that thing where he shakes out his leg, when he thinks nobody’s looking.”

Their dad had sciatica, and it got pretty bad, but he still worked every day on the farm. He had a couple paid hands, and Gunner came in and helped, too, at the beginning and end of each season, but Sam Wesson would be sitting in his own tractor every day until the day he died, even if he had to get tied in to keep his seat.

“You only love me for my muscles.”

“Not true. I also love you for…nope. You’re right. Just your muscles.”

“Skank.”

“Loser. See you around three?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

“Great. Bring beer.”

“Hey!” But she’d hung up.

~oOo~

The Wesson family farm wasn’t much, just a few fields of wheat, corn, and sunflowers in rotation, plus Deb’s big vegetable garden and her couple dozen chickens, which kept her little roadside stand going through the summer. The big companies weren’t exactly fretting over the competition, but it had kept the family warm and full for generations. Some years were warmer and fuller than others, but they’d made it through them all.

It wasn’t much to look at, either, nearly indistinguishable from every other family farm for hundreds of miles. Unless it was your home. Then, it was beautiful and unique.

When Gunner rode down the driveway, he lifted a hand to his father, who was out in the wheat, doing a soil test. His father returned the wave and went immediately back to his work. He wouldn’t be back in until it was time to wash up for supper.

Gunner pulled his Fat Boy up between his father’s truck and his sister’s station wagon, the back of which was full of some weird thing. Once he was off his bike, he peered in through the side windows and tried to make it out. A bunch of wood. Some kind of contraption. No telling what bizarre thing Deb was up to. She was always on some new project.

He was fascinated, though, and he stared through the dusty window, trying to see how all the pieces would fit together—it was definitely in pieces as it was.

“It’s a loom.” His sister’s reflection came up beside his own in the wagon window.

“A loom? What’s that?”

She rocked her hip into his leg. “For weaving, dope. I got it at an auction for cheap. It’s broken, but I bet you could fix it.”

“Do you know how to weave?”

“I will when I have a loom to learn on.”

He’d thought often that his big sister had been born about ten years too late. She would have made a great hippie. She was artistic and mellow and a little bit weird—and fearless.

“What’re you gonna make?” he asked her reflection, which shrugged.

“I don’t know. Rugs, maybe? Whatever I can. I was thinking maybe you could bring it inside when we get back from the church.”

He laughed. “I’ve been had. You got a whole honey-do list for me. There’d better be pie, too.”

“Strawberry. And ice cream. Did you remember beer?”

He stood straight and nodded at his bike, where a twelve-pack of Coors Light, their father’s brand, was bungeed to the bitch seat.

His older sister beamed at him and then went and freed the beer. “We better get this in the fridge and get started. I got all the boxes and bags sealed up and ready to go.”

“I’ll bring the loom in first, if you want.”

A weird little look passed over Deb’s face and then was gone, pushed away by one of her sweet smiles. “No, no. No time. They stop taking donations in at four. We should get hoppin’.”

Gunner took the pack of Coors from her. “Okay, I’m all yours.”

~oOo~

Heartland Baptist Church was in the actual town limits of Grant, a few blocks off the town square. The parking lot was crowded with people offloading donations, and other people taking them in, logging them, and going through the boxes and sorting out what was brought in. Men were loading furniture onto pickups, and Gunner thought he’d ask if he could help, once he got their own shit handed off.

While Gunner put down the tailgate and dragged off the first box, Deb went over to talk to the Reverend, who greeted her warmly. She and their dad still went to church most Sundays. Gunner hadn’t gone, except for a couple of Christmas services he’d been guilted into, since he’d joined the Army.

He’d gone in the Army, too, for a while. The best way to get through Basic was to keep your faith. You got Sunday mornings off if you went to chapel. If you didn’t, you did KP.

Everybody had religion in Basic Training.

But they were wrong about there being no atheists in foxholes. Some people became atheists in foxholes.

Or sitting behind the gun in a helicopter door.

Especially if they’d already been really fucking confused.

The big box said CLOTHES in his sister’s spiky letters, so he carried it over to a table mounded with clothes. A girl with a long blonde ponytail was picking up items of clothing and describing them to an older woman, who was writing everything down in a spiral notebook. The girl had a nice bod, and Gunner always noticed nice bods, so he let his eyes roam a little.

She wore a white pair of those pants that stopped just below the knees and a little flowered shirt that absolutely screamed ‘good Baptist girl.’ Buttoned all the way up to her neck. Those tits, though, couldn’t be camouflaged by some buttons and ruffles.

Kind of a shame to put a figure like that on a good girl. If there was a God, he had a fucked-up sense of humor.

He put the edge of his box on a clear spot of the table and said, “I guess these are for you.”

She looked up. Oh, she had a cute face, too. Not gorgeous like a model, but nice. Pretty blue eyes. Really great mouth, with pouty lips. The kind of lips a guy would want to see on him. And feel on him.

A sense memory wafted through his head: the taste of bubblegum. His cock got a little tingle.

Then that mouth dropped open. Her eyes were wide, too; she was a picture of dumbfounded shock. Delaney’s wife, Mo, had a word she used that Gunner had always liked: gobsmacked. This girl seemed like someone had come over and smacked her gob.

Gunner looked to see if something weird was going on behind him. Nope. He turned back. “You okay?”

She didn’t seem inclined to answer. Then his sister called, “Max!” and he turned toward her voice.

“Yeah?”

“They want the blankets and bedding over here. They’re finishing up a load. Can you get that box?”

“Yeah. One sec.” He turned back to the girl, who had, at least, closed her mouth.

“You’re Max,” she said. “Max Wesson.”

“That’s what they named me, yeah.” Suddenly, his brain cleared up, and he recognized her. She was the Reverend’s daughter. Leanne or something like that. She’d been a little girl with bows in her hair the last time he’d been a regular around here. “You’re Lee…” he bailed, not sure if Leanne was right.

“Leah.” Her voice cracked. When she held out her hand, it was shaking. It shook harder when he took it and gave it a squeeze.

Was she freaked out by his ink? That happened sometimes. Sometimes people stared at him like he was the headliner in a circus sideshow. He didn’t have all that much. Rad had twice the ink he had. But his arms were pretty well sleeved, and his hands were covered.

Maybe that was it.

“Leah, right. You grew up good.” He gave her a little grin and took his tattooed hand away. “Anyway, here’s a box of clothes, according to the label, and I got to go be my sister’s errand boy. Nice to see ya.”

She nodded, still looking like she’d seen a ghost or a monster or something. That girl obviously needed to get out more. The Rev probably kept her locked up in a tower with her Bible all day and night. Considering her bod built for sin, he probably had her sealed into a chastity belt, too.

He went back to the truck and jumped into the bed, looking for the box marked BLANKETS AND LINENS, which, he remembered from loading the truck, was the box from their father’s fucking thirty-inch RCA.

Debra did not understand about efficient packing. Bigger wasn’t always better, but she did not get that. Pack a big enough box, and even blankets got heavy. Not to mention awkward. He pushed the big dumb thing to the tailgate, jumped down, and heaved it onto his back.

As he passed the clothes table, Leah was just opening the box he’d left. Her fugue state seemed to have passed, thank fuck.

Gunner dropped the television box of bedding off at the table where his sister was now working, and he turned right around and headed back to the truck for more.

A flash of white caught his eye, for no particular reason, and he looked that way—to Leah and the box he’d left. She’d opened it and was pulling things out, describing them to the woman with the notebook.

The white was a shirt she was holding up. Not just a shirt. A St. Louis Cardinals jersey. Small, for a little boy. Across the back, where the player’s name would go, in red satin letters, was the name MARTIN.

He stopped and stared. Somebody brushed against him, like he’d stopped short on them and they had to cut around not to run into him, but he barely noticed. He watched Leah as she set the little jersey aside and pulled out another one just like it. Again, she held it up. On the back was the name MAXWELL.

“What the fuck?” Gunner muttered. “What the fuck?” He went for the table. “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck?”

Reaching the table, he snatched his old jersey out of Leah’s hands—she was gobsmacked again, but fuck her—and grabbed his brother’s from the pile of people’s fucking discards. Their discards. Their giveaways. “WHAT THE FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK?”

He grabbed hold of the box and yanked it forward. It toppled off the table and spilled onto the parking lot.

The box was full to the brim with Martin’s clothes. And his clothes. All the stupid outfits their mom had dressed them in, him in blue and Martin in green. Were all those boxes marked CLOTHES his brother’s? All those boxes he’d lugged to the truck with a goddamn smile on his face? Was Deb throwing Martin the fuck away?

“FUCK! FUCK! FUCK YOU!” He swept everything up and shoved it all back in the box.

“Max! Max, calm down! Honey, it’s okay!” Hands grabbed at his arm, and he swung, wanting to be free of them. He felt his hand connect, and he heard people yell, but he didn’t fucking care. He stood up and carried the box back to the truck, and he slammed the tailgate shut. It didn’t latch, it bounced in his hands, and he slammed it again and again until it caught.

Then, roaring in rage, he punched the tailgate over and over, until his hand hurt enough for the pain to be heard.

Calming slightly, he looked back and saw a crowd of people staring at him. The Reverend had his arm around Deb. Her mouth was bleeding. That was what he’d connected with: his sister’s face.

Just at that moment, he didn’t give a fuck.

He got into the truck and drove away.

~oOo~

He went back to the farm, where he returned all of his brother’s belongings to the room they’d shared from the day of their birth until Martin and their mother had died.

He’d meant to put everything in its place, but he couldn’t. The room was empty; Deb had cleaned it out completely. Their father, too; there was no way this had gone down without his approval.

Gunner stood there, feeling the fury swirl and the chaos clamor. He flexed his hand, which he was pretty sure was broken, until the shifting bones hurt enough that he didn’t think he’d lose his shit again.

When he went back out, a car was pulling away, and Deb and their father stood near the garage. He walked right by them both, got onto his bike, and got the fuck away.

If they tried to do anything like that ever again, he’d burn the whole motherfucking place to the ground.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

 

Cover Reveal & Teaser: Soul’s Fire, The Northwomen Sagas #3

Hi all!

Today, I’m revealing the cover and synopsis for Soul’s Fire, the third installment of The Northwomen Sagas, and sharing the prologue as a teaser.

sf-pb-cover

 Soul’s Fire is Astrid’s story. It opens about five years after the epilogue of Heart’s Ease. I did my best to make Heart’s Ease stand alone from God’s Eye, but that was tricky, considering their overlapping timelines. Soul’s Fire, on the other hand, should stand alone quite easily, though of course there are nuances that can only be appreciated if you’ve read the whole series.

Soul’s Fire will be released on Saturday, 4 February 2017. As usual, the preorder will be live a couple of weeks before then.

Meanwhile, here’s the Goodreads page.

Before I share the synopsis and teaser, and I want to wish you all a safe and happy New Year’s Eve!

xoxo
s–

Here’s the synopsis:

Astrid has been a warrior since the day she was old enough to make the choice to live and die with an axe in her hand. She is strong and stoic, powerful and brave, and she has the life she desires, free of complications and distractions.

She is a shieldmaiden, and that is all she wishes to be.

She has been the strong right hand of her jarl since the day they and their allies overthrew the cruel Jarl Åke. Jarl Leif is mighty and honorable, and with Astrid’s help, he has brought great prosperity to their people. Every summer, the raiders sail into new lands, traveling farther and farther, claiming treasure to enrich their people. They meet little resistance from the rulers or the people of these strange worlds.

Until they land in a country whose king has learned the lessons of his neighbors and meets the raiders with a cunning and brutality that matches their own. In that clash, and after it, Astrid’s shieldmaiden’s strength and will is put to the harshest tests.

Leofric is the second son of a king. Without the expectations or attention imposed on his older brother, he is free to live more or less as he chooses. But he is a seasoned warrior and not half so dissolute as his reputation suggests. When his father and brother seek to salve their rage by torturing a captive barbarian woman, Leofric sees their action for the evil it is and does all he can to save her, and then to heal her.

To love her had not been part of his plan.

The captive is strong and stoic, powerful and brave. She is a marvel unlike any woman he’s ever known. But if she is to live, she must learn the ways of his world. If she is to thrive, she must cast aside what she was and become something new. Leofric would give her all that he has and more, but there is one thing he cannot offer.

His world has no word for shieldmaiden.

Note: Explicit sex and violence. Dark themes.

And here’s the teaser:

PROLOGUE:
SHIELDMAIDEN

Astrid kicked on her mother’s door. The move jostled the girl in her arms, and she moaned.

“Mother! Are you there!”

From behind the slatted wood, she heard, “Usch! I’m here! Why all the yelling and pounding, just open the—”

The door swung open, and Geitland’s healer—her mother, called Birte—stood there, her face flushed and her hair stuck in wet sweeps over her forehead. She had been at the fire, probably boiling some new potion.

“Öhm!” she exclaimed upon seeing the girl Astrid held. She moved her substantial body out of the way, and Astrid pushed through, carrying the girl to the cot in the main room of her mother’s house. When she laid her down, the girl moaned and clutched her side, where blood soaked her tunic.

Birte dried her hands and pushed Astrid out of the way. “Another? You push these girls too hard, daughter. If you are not careful, one will die from your training soon.”

“If they would die in training, then they are not fit for battle.”

After she turned eyes full of weary displeasure on her daughter, Birte bent to the girl and plucked at her tunic. “Let me see, child.” She lifted the coarsely woven fabric and showed a wide, deep wound. She had been slashed with a true sword, sharpened for battle.

Astrid had been training shieldmaidens for years, and she knew her work. There was little to be learned batting sticks at one another. She taught her charges the way she had been taught: with sharpened weapons. They learned because their lives depended on it.

Her mother knew that, and also knew that Astrid’s shieldmaidens had brought great honor on themselves and on her. But it was true that this year, there had been more injuries. Astrid blamed the crop of new fighters, who were softer than any she’d known before. In the past, young women had come to her with some fighting skill already. All boys, and many girls, in their world were taught to defend themselves as soon as they could wield a weapon.

But in the past few years, with Geitland basking in great prosperity, people had grown soft. They had only raided once each of the past three summers. Each raid had brought so much treasure that everyone had more than they needed, and the appetite for the fight had dwindled as warriors grew rich and drunk and made their women fat with their children.

If not for the sneak attack during the winter from an inland clan, which had shaken all of Geitland up and awakened their bloodlust as well as depleted some stores, Astrid doubted the people of Geitland would have had the interest to raid at all this summer.

But they did. In fact, Leif, Geitland’s great jarl, and Vali, the jarl of Karlsa, Leif’s good friend, and his northernmost ally, planned to raid again together this summer, in a daring journey to the other side of the fertile land they had plundered so fruitfully for the past four summers.

Anglia.

For this new, bold raid, a long voyage in new water, to new land, her shieldmaidens could not have any softness in them. They would need all their wits, all their strength. They would need to turn their hearts and bodies to stone and iron.

As Astrid had, long ago.

She watched as her mother pressed her fingers along the girl’s wound. When the girl whimpered, Birte shushed her, her voice and breath both crooning softly. These soft touches and sounds were not the kind of mothering Astrid had grown up with, and she felt a pluck of irritation at the bleeding girl.

Then her mother pushed a finger into the wound, and the girl screamed.

Astrid scowled at the sound.

Her mother sucked the blood from her finger. “You are fortunate, child. There is no greater damage than this slice. I will close it, and you will heal.” She turned back to Astrid and waved her hand toward the door. “Schas, daughter! I have no need of you. You have done enough, I think.”

Dismissed, Astrid left without another word and headed for the great hall. She had no more need to be there than her mother had need of her. The girl was of no more interest to her. She would make no shieldmaiden.

A true shieldmaiden closed her mouth against her pain.

~oOo~

Winter had crept away, and the afternoon bore the warm promise of dawning summer. The door and windows of the great hall had been thrown open. The night would likely freeze again, the sun was still young and its warmth did not last long, but for now they could enjoy the air and light.

As Astrid came to the main doors, a trio of young goatlings trotted out on their stiff legs, bleating. Right behind them, laughing as he tried to catch one, was Magni, Leif’s son, born of his second wife, Olga. He had five years, and he had grown wilder with each of them. He was a goodhearted boy, and robust, but he was undisciplined.

Astrid had never borne a child, and she cared not to do so. She had never had a husband or a man promised to her, and she cared not about that, either. When she wanted a man, she had one. When she was done with him, she went away from him.

She wanted no man to seed her. A shieldmaiden who mated and bore children was a shieldmaiden no longer. A mother was bound to the hearth, to tend to the needs of others during her years of greatest strength. Such was not the life for Astrid.

Her lack of experience about children or parenting did not stop her from judging the parents she knew, however. She kept her mouth closed, but she judged nonetheless.

Leif and Olga, in her estimation, were soft. Olga’s mothering was sweet songs and gentle kisses. Leif’s fathering was play and laughter. Having five years, Magni was old enough to begin to be taught the ways of their world, which was a harsh place of long winter and cold iron and steel.

Instead, he was being shown a world of love and warmth and joy. Without hard training to forge his will, he would make no good jarl to sit in his father’s place one day.

Astrid doubted that Leif would ever be challenged for his seat; he was revered as jarl, he had earned the seat in battle, and he would hold it until his death. But he was not immortal, and his son—if Magni were not challenged even before he could claim his father’s seat, Astrid believed he would be challenged shortly thereafter. And he would be killed.

Unless he found his stone and iron before that day.

She watched the boy dive for a goatling, his blonde hair flying. He missed, landing in the dusty dirt with a gleeful shout, then jumped up and ran again. All around him, people at work made way for the jarl’s son, his only living child.

Leif had put in the ground six children, his first wife, and the unborn son she’d carried. Olga had thought herself unable to bear Leif a child, until she’d borne their son. Perhaps there was good cause in that for the way Magni was indulged. Good cause, perhaps, but not good sense.

Astrid shook her head and went into the hall to discuss with Leif their upcoming travel to Karlsa, where they would make their plans for this great raid.

~oOo~

Vali, Jarl of Karlsa, strode down the pier to Leif, and the two men clasped arms and then embraced warmly. Though Leif was a large man among their people, Vali stood taller and wider. He was the largest man Astrid had ever known. His size and power, his ferocity and skill in battle, and his endurance had made him a renowned warrior. His steady hand, keen mind, and warm heart had made him, like Leif, an esteemed leader.

Vali’s wife, Brenna, known as the God’s-Eye, who had once been a legendary shieldmaiden, stood behind her husband, their three children around her. When Vali and Leif had made their greeting, Leif moved on to Brenna, wrapping his arms around her. She released the hand of Ylva, her youngest, so that she could hold him. At the same time, Vali embraced Olga, who, with Magni, had joined them on this brief journey north.

Then the women embraced and cooed over their children. Brenna and Vali’s oldest, a girl, Solveig, had more than six years. Håkon, their son, was only half a year younger than Magni, so had near five years. The three of them greeted each other like old friends and ran off toward town, their parents calling after them warnings to be careful, as if every eye in the town would not be mindful of the jarls’ children.

Brenna and Vali’s youngest, Ylva, still bore the round cheeks and wispy locks of infancy and could not have had more than three years. With wide, still eyes, she studied the adults as they spoke together. Vali swept his youngest girl into his arms, and she tucked her fair head under his dark beard.

Still in the ship, Astrid watched all that friendship and family with an evaluative eye. There was no denying the greatness of either man, or of Brenna. But the men were building on their legend, adding tales to their story. Brenna had given over to breeding and had not raided for many years, since they had traveled for the last time to Estland. There, they had met Olga, Leif’s wife. And there, Vali had wed the great God’s-Eye and turned a shieldmaiden into a broodmare.

She did not understand the impulse. The children were well-made and good-featured, yes, and she supposed there was the drive to leave one’s blood behind after death. But she had admired the God’s-Eye as a great warrior, and here she stood, in a hangerock fastened with bejeweled brooches, smiling up at the man who had sheathed her sword when he’d sheathed himself in her.

At the intimate image that accompanied that impatient thought, Astrid scanned the people of Karlsa who stood along the shore, watching the welcoming of the Jarl of Geitland. She did not see the face she wanted. When she joined Leif in Karlsa, she coupled with Jaan, with whom she’d often coupled in Estland as well. He was good company, well built, and a fine rut. Usually, he was at the shore for the welcome, but on this day he was not.

She found herself disappointed. No matter; she was sure he would show himself.

Vali handed his daughter to Leif, then turned and smiled at Astrid. “Will you stand there glowering, my friend, or will you join us?”

He held his large hand out as if he meant to help her onto the pier. She gave him the smile he sought, and she joined her friends, but she did not take his hand.

~oOo~

“Again, you would have us be farmers? Was not our failure in Estland lesson enough?” Astrid slapped her hand on the hide before them, covered with thin lines and small pictures. A ‘map,’ it was. She was still skeptical of them. It seemed to her that to use such a thing for navigation was to trust someone they did not know to create an image of a place they had not seen.

The sun and the stars. The wind. Her own eyes. Her own feet. These were things she could trust to show her the way.

Vali leveled sharp blue eyes at Astrid. “Estland did not fail because we could not farm. Estland failed because we were betrayed. By the jarl you’d sworn fealty to.”

“Leif and your wife had sworn to him as well.” She should not have brought up Estland. Vali always harkened back to Åke when that time was raised in disagreement. But he wanted to carve a settlement from this new raid, and that was folly. Astrid tried another tack. “To the point: none among us is a farmer. We were not farmers in Estland. Why would we settle land we do not know?”

“We do know it. We have explored well inland and taken great mountains of treasure from these kingdoms of Anglia. We know it is lush and green.” Vali leaned back. “You are right. I have no wish to be a farmer. My duty is here, in Karlsa. My home.” He reached over and took his wife’s hand. “Our home. But there are those among us who would seek to make a life in that greener, warmer place. Raiders who are farmers, and would rather sow the earth with seed than with blood.”

Then they were not raiders, not truly. No matter their skill with a blade.

Astrid turned to Leif. “And you? You think this is wise?”

“I think that we should see what we see in this new place. With each raid, resistance has grown, and the battles have been harder won. So we move to the west, where they might not expect us. If we can take the land we need, we should take it. We take all that we can claim. Why would we not take the land as well?”

“Because we are not people of that place. It is not our home.” The words churned from Astrid’s mouth, through teeth clenched in frustration. Their last attempt at settling had been a terrible disaster, one she meant never to see repeated.

“It shall be, when we make it so.”

Brenna had spoken those words, and Astrid turned her frustration on the God’s-Eye, “We?”

The woman who had been a great shieldmaiden turned a look on Astrid that would have made a softer soul quake, full of fire and fury. The God’s-Eye stare. Brenna’s strange right eye might well have held the power of the Allfather, and Astrid gave it the respect it was due. She could not hold Brenna’s gaze.

“Yes, we. I shall raid with my husband, my friends, and my people.”

The God’s-Eye would be a shieldmaiden once more? Was she fit, after so many years with a child at her teat?

It wasn’t a question Astrid would ask. If she was not fit, then she would die in battle, and that was none of Astrid’s concern.

As long as Vali wasn’t weakened by his concern for his woman.

Astrid could meet Vali’s eyes, so she did, though she was faced with a furrowed brow as he agreed with his wife. “Brenna’s mother will tend to the children, and Bjarke”—he nodded at the man beside Leif—“will hold Karlsa in our absence. His woman is bringing forth their child soon, so he will not be with us.”

“Ah!” Leif exclaimed and slapped Bjarke on the back, changing the mood of the room at once. “That is good news, friend.”

Bjarke grinned. “I am sorry to miss this raid, but I am honored to have your trust to lead in your stead, Vali.”

And again, Astrid was surrounded by people celebrating the thought of a coming child, with no concern that they had lost a strong warrior to that endeavor.

~oOo~

That night, in Karlsa’s great hall, which was far less great than Geitland’s, the people of Karlsa feted Leif and Olga and the rest of their guests. After a few horns of mead, Astrid began looking in earnest for Jaan. She was restless and irritated, and she wanted to expend some of that energy.

Wandering through the hall, pushing away drunken hands that sought the same thing she did, Astrid pulled up short as Solveig, Magni, and Håkon ran across her path, holding hands like a chain and giggling.

She tried to remember if she had ever played as these children always seemed to. If she had, her mind could not recall it. She had been raised in a house that had been always full of the ill. She had been raised to be quiet, to be helpful, or to be sent away. And when she was sent away, it had been to her father, a cart maker. With him, she’d learned hard, physical work, and to be stoic in any discomfort.

Her parents had tended her well, kept her fed, clothed, shod, and warm. Though they had been disappointed to have had only one child and a girl at that, she supposed her father had loved her in his way, and she knew her mother did in her way.

But no, she did not think she had ever run giggling through the hall.

The mead had made her thoughts maudlin. She needed a good rut. But Jaan was not in the hall, and there were no other men of as much interest as he would be.

She went outside, into the bright light of a nearly full moon. The night was warm enough that her breath didn’t plume from her mouth. This summer might be long. That was good; this year, she hoped for more than one raid. Her joints felt stiff with idleness.

She took a long, deep breath and let it out, blowing it toward the heavens.

“Astrid.”

She wheeled and saw Jaan in the shadows along the side of the building. With a smile of pleasure anticipated, she went toward him. “Jaan. It has been a long while.”

“A long while, yes. You look well.”

He’d taken a step back as she’d neared. Surprised, her battle senses tingling lightly at the suggestion that all was not right, she stopped. “As do you. You have been keeping yourself from me today. With purpose, I think.” Understanding had dawned as she’d spoken, while he lingered in the shadows, holding himself off.

“I am wed.”

She laughed. Of course. Why not he, as with all others in her life. “Then glad tidings. I wish you and your beloved many fat babies. Good night, Jaan.”

Feeling a sour turmoil in her belly that she didn’t understand, Astrid turned and took a step toward the hall. She would find one of the men with the grasping hands and mount him. One ride was as good as another.

That wasn’t true, of course. But it would be true tonight. With enough mead, it would be true.

“Astrid, hold.”

She stopped but didn’t turn back.

“I’m sorry to tell you in this way.”

“It matters not, Jaan. I hope you are happy.”

“I am.”

There was nothing more to be said, so Astrid left him in his shadow and went back to find a horn of mead and a man to mount.

© 2016 Susan Fanetti

The Brazen Bulls MC: New Series—Book One Cover Reveal & Teaser!

bulls-patch-leather-weathered

Susan here. I’m giving up the little gimmick of writing my posts here in the voice of Lola, my muse. That play has lost its appeal for me. Besides, after almost two years, the place was due for a little restyling.

As I mentioned during the FCP’s Sturgis Week celebration back in August, I’ve begun a new MC romance series: The Brazen Bulls MC. Today, I’m revealing the cover and synopsis for the first book, Crash, and offering the first chapter as a teaser.

Crash will release on Saturday, 3 December 2016. The preorder will be up around the middle of November.

In the meantime, you can add it to your tbr on Goodreads.

crash-paperback

If you’ve read the Night Horde series (Signal Bend and Night Horde SoCal), then you probably recognize the name of the club. The Brazen Bulls are allies of the Horde, and this series occurs in the same world as the Horde series do (actually, all my series occur in the same world, even my Vikings).

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about whether I’ll write more about the Horde, either a series about the next generation in Signal Bend, or about the new Montana charter of the club. My answer is: probably not. The timeline of the Horde saga is too far in the future from us for the stories to go any farther forward, at least not until we here in the real world have caught up a few years. But I can go backward, and once that occurred to me, I really liked the idea and found a rich field of story potential.

It’s been a big heap of fun writing about the kinda-near past. Remember a time when we didn’t carry the whole world of information and everyone we know around with us everywhere, in our pockets? I know—the olden days! How did we manage?

This new series begins in 1995, when the Bulls are early in their alliance with the Horde. The Bulls you meet in the Horde stories are young patches here, and the Horde will be secondary, recurring characters throughout the series. You’ll get glimpses of Isaac, Showdown, and Len as young patches, and you’ll meet Big Ike and see his relationship with his son. You’ll catch glimpses of Tasha and her dad, too.

And, of course, you’ll meet the whole Nineties roster of the Bulls, starting with their SAA: Rad.

I hope you dig the Bulls!

Cheers!

s—

PS: Little bit of cool/disturbing trivia: The Brazen Bull is a medieval torture device. The victim was sealed up in the belly of a large brass or bronze bull, and a fire was stoked under its belly, cooking the victim to death. Smoke—and screams—came up through the bull’s mouth and nose, which were connected to the belly through pipes intended to turn the sound of screams into the bellows of a bull. Here’s the Wikipedia page.

So, you know, as outlaw MC names go, I’m gonna call it pretty damn badass.

brazen_bull

Here’s the synopsis for Crash:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1995.

Conrad “Radical” Jessup, Sergeant at Arms of the Brazen Bulls Motorcycle Club, has life just about where he wants it: he’s free of a bad marriage and his club is cruising along healthy and strong, their business relationships as solid as their brotherhood. He’s a contented man, riding his road at his speed.

Until a massive highway wreck sends a blonde on a little sportster crashing into his life.

Willa Randall is making a new life in Tulsa, working hard to put a demolished past in her rearview mirror. Trying to keep herself safe, she’s built a life insulated by locks and walls. Inside those walls, she’s alone, but she feels secure, and that’s enough.

Until a big, tattooed biker holds out his hand and helps her up from the pavement.

A love seeded in chaos grows fast and deep.

But when chaos is a constant, can any love endure?

And a little taste:

CHAPTER ONE

The plate clattered to the table before him, and he scowled down at it. His order of blueberry pie with a scoop looked like someone else had chewed it first and hocked it back onto the plate. He was pretty sure he saw a froth of spit swimming in with the melting ice cream.

He looked around the table at the picture-perfect slices of fruit pie before his brothers, each topped with a pretty ball of vanilla ice cream. Delaney’s even had a little sprig of mint or something.

He lifted his eyes to the waitress still standing at his side. “Come on, Kay Ann…”

She gave him a blatantly insincere smile, then shifted her attention to the full table. “Y’all let me know if there’s anything else you need.” As she shimmied off in her blue polyester uniform, the men at the table who didn’t have a plate full of garbage broke into raucous laughter.

“What the fuck you do to her, Rad?”

Conrad ‘Radical’ Jessup, Sergeant at Arms of the Brazen Bulls MC and notorious enforcer, glared at his brother Becker’s grinning gob and shoved the heavy china plate away. “Not a damn thing.” Becker was a smug young asshole. He needed some time in the ring, Rad thought. A little seasoning.

“I’m gettin’ a picture that her story’s different.”

He had no doubt. But shit, the chick was a waitress at a truck stop just south of Dallas, on I-45. The Bulls landed here maybe six-eight times a year, tops. So what if he’d been banging Kay Ann pretty regular the last two years or so, when they were here for a night or a few hours? So what if last time they’d come through he’d wanted a change and taken on the new little brunette—whatshername? Kay Ann was a good fuck and a sweet girl, but shit. Nobody had any claim on anybody. He’d’ve been fine if she’d spread for one of his brothers.

Spending the night at her place that last time with her had been a big fucking mistake. He’d known it at the time. Rad loved women, but since his—nasty, expensive—divorce three years before, he steered clear of romantic entanglements. But he’d been tired and beat up—and, yeah, feeling lonely and sorry for himself—and Kay Ann had offered him comfort. He’d been weak and taken her comfort, and now he wasn’t getting her pie.

It was possible that he’d gone for the little brunette the next time on purpose; Rad was self-aware enough to realize he might have been looking for a reset after that night at Kay Ann’s. When he’d woken in her bed, with her snuggled on his chest and purring like a cat. Definitely needed a reset.

It was also possible he was an asshole. His ex, among others, would say that was a certified guarantee.

He fucking hated being called an asshole.

Delaney, their president, sliced his fork into his flaky piece of pie and took an appreciative bite. Around the mouthful of berry and crust, he said, “What do I say, brother? I say it all the fuckin’ time.”

“One chick to a roost,” about six of the men at the table chimed in. Delaney’s big wisdom: outside the clubhouse, never bang two chicks who know each other.

Rad flipped them all the bird and poured himself another cup of coffee from the carafe Kay Ann had left on the table. He didn’t really want pie, anyway.

He was in too damn good a mood to let a bitch’s hissy get him down. He wasn’t looking to get his knob polished today—they were planning a straight shot home this run and only stopping here to refuel body and bike.

The Bulls were on their way back from a charity run and rally in Houston, and they were all in high spirits. They’d been riding in a massive formation with other friendly clubs, and the occasional solo rider or couple of buddies. Clubs didn’t mind some civilians in their midst on runs like this, as long as they kept their manners and didn’t get tangled up inside different club formations or try to showboat. Bikers respected each other, sporting colors or not, until that respect was broken.

The diner here at Ethel’s Fuel & Food was nearly packed, and Rad guessed more than half of the clientele was affiliated. Several of the clubs they’d been riding with had pulled off with them—he saw patches from the Night Horde, the Priests, the Vikings, and a couple others the Bulls didn’t work with much or at all. As they’d been eating, more bikers had come in, wearing colors or just carrying their helmets. The Houston rally pulled people internationally, from Mexico and Canada both. They’d just spent three glorious days partying hard with friends from all over.

The clubs taking this route home to points east would all probably stick more or less together as far as Tulsa, where the Bulls called home, and the rest would break off onto different interstates and keep on rolling.

As Rad finished his third cup of coffee—he was going to have to drain the pipe before they hit the road—and his brothers finished their pie, Big Ike Lunden, president of the Night Horde MC in Missouri, came up to the table.

The Horde was a piddly-ass club in the middle of bumfuck nowhere. They ran a tiny town that was dying on the vine, and they shouldn’t have been of any account to the Bulls or anybody else. But Delaney and Lunden went back some kind of way, and he’d convinced the club to bring the Horde into some business, to help them keep their club—and, apparently their whole damn town—afloat.

Rad didn’t like it much. Lunden was a sour son of a bitch who ran his two-bit club like his own personal kingdom. Way too goddamn big for his boots.

Delaney saw Big Ike coming and wiped his mouth before he stood and held out his hand. “Hey, Ike.”

Ike grabbed his hand and shook. “D. We’re headin’ out. Wanted a proper handshake if we don’t see ya on the road. And I want to thank you again.”

Even on fun runs, some business always got done. This time, the officers had met with Kirill Volkov to finalize changes to their gun routes, and Delaney and Dane, the Bulls VP, had met with Big Ike and Reg, the Horde VP, to pull them in on some of the transport work.

“Always help a brother out, you know that.”

They embraced, and Ike nodded at the rest of the Bulls collectively. “Fellas.”

They all nodded and muttered vague pleasantries back. The rest of Lunden’s small club were standing, hanging back a few steps; when Big Ike headed toward the door, his men followed in a line, nodding to the Bulls and other riders they knew as they walked out. Lunden’s son, Little Ike, brought up the rear, as far from his old man as he could be.

That kid was young, not long patched, but not remotely little. Rad figured ‘Little Ike’ for a good six and a half feet, maybe more, and he carried lots of muscle on that tall, broad frame. He was near twice the size of his old man.

The vibe between those two had never been warm. When Delaney had started throwing work the Horde’s way a couple of years back, Rad had protested—he was concerned that so much obvious venom between the king and the prince could only mean instability in the club as a whole, which was a dangerous risk in outlaw work, but Delaney knew them better, knew Big Ike well, and insisted that the boy would toe his father’s line.

In Houston, Rad had made note of the new, nasty red scar that climbed up half the kid’s face, from his mouth to his temple. He’d also noted the way Big Ike looked at it, and he wondered if that scar hadn’t been Little Ike getting his toes dragged back where they belonged.

Rumor had it that Big Ike was damn loose with his fists in his family. Some even said he’d killed his wife.

Not that that was any of Rad’s business. But he’d had a hard father, too. He remembered the lash and the fist, the buckle and the switch. He carried the scars, too. So he felt a little sorry for the big kid sauntering out of the diner door behind his buddy Showdown, dragging a hand through dark hair almost long enough to pull into a ponytail.

Rad sent a thought out to the kid. Little Ike was big. His father was not. When you were beaten down all your life, it was hard to see when you got bigger than your old man. You had to be bigger on the inside as well as the outside before you could see it. But one day it would happen, if it hadn’t yet. It had happened for Rad, and it would happen for Little Ike. On that day, the old man would learn that his days of beating his boy down were over, well and truly.

Rad’s face stretched in a bitter, nostalgic grin.

~oOo~

From Ethel’s, they took US-75 north to Oklahoma. The sun on this early April afternoon shone warm and gold in a blue sky, and Rad settled into the saddle and let his mind wander. It was a long day of riding—eight hours on the road—but he was in no hurry for the ride to end, and he doubted anyone else with an engine between his legs felt any different. You didn’t ride if you didn’t want to be on the road as much as you could.

Rad rode near the head of the Bulls pack, alone in the lane for the most part, just behind Delaney and Dane, who rode side by side. Every now and then, Griffin, a young patch Rad had sponsored, would pull up alongside, just being companionable. But Rad preferred the lane to himself, and Griff knew it, so he’d drift back after a few minutes.

They cruised along just faster than cage traffic when they could, but when they got bogged down, it was no sweat—just meant sharpening the senses to guard against the drivers who were still on autopilot.

It was a fine day and a fine ride, and Rad’s spirit puffed up and crowed.

Every now and then, a sport bike or three would zoom past, wanting the speed more than the ride, but so far, nobody had been obnoxious. In fact, for a good ten miles or so, two brightly-cladded Kawasakis, each carrying two riders, all in full gear, had ridden up with the Bulls. Rad could tell they were youngsters, getting a rush from riding with the Big Bad Outlaws, checking out the massive American metal, and they behaved themselves.

The passenger on the green bike, nearest Rad, was wearing a pack on her back with a shiny logo from Six Flags Over Texas. Her bright red ponytail brushed wildly over it. Rad figured that was how they’d spent their spring weekend, and it confirmed his assumption about their youth.

Cruising wasn’t what the kids were after, and it didn’t take long for them to tire of the easy pace. When the rider on the green bike held up a gloved thumb and then waved, Rad returned both gestures, and the two crotch rockets surged forward with the high-pitched racket of bumblebees on steroids.

Rad cringed. That was his number-one reason for hating sport bikes. They had no throat at all. When he opened the throttle, he wanted a roar, a rumble, something that would make a civilian quiver in fear, thinking a beast was on his tail, ready to eat him, not swat at his neck, expecting to be stung by a bug.

Not long after his young Kawa bees had flown off, another bike pulled into the lane beside Rad’s. As always, he took note. A little Harley sportster with a silver tank. The rider was wearing full gear, even an armored jacket, and a solid black full-face helmet. But Rad could tell it was a chick—that ass, sheathed in black riding leather, was a work of art. Jesus on a biscuit.

Ascertaining that she was solo, he slowed up just enough to get her a bit more forward and then settled in to appreciate the view.

Since he’d slowed, Griffin pulled up at his flank and waved at him, checking in. Rad gave him a thumbs up. He was great. He was building up a nice picture in his head of what that ass might look like naked and rocking on his cock.

Then the hot ass on the little Harley turned that black face shield and pointed it right at him. He could see nothing—fuck, for all he knew, it was a dude with a feminine shape in there, not that he was going to let that thought stomp around on his fantasy—but still he felt sure that it was a she, that she was fully aware that he’d been checking her out, and that she was letting him know she knew.

She faced forward again and opened her throttle, pulling up ahead, lane splitting and putting some distance between her and the Bulls.

They were within an hour of Tulsa, though. The afternoon was getting old, the shadows were long, and traffic was thickening up. Lane splitting was illegal and drew unwanted attention, so most riders resisted the urge. On straightaways, he could still glimpse the Kawa bees. Hot Ass wasn’t getting far.

He entertained the thought he might follow her a ways, if she pulled off before the Bulls did. He was curious what was under that helmet and that armored jacket.

Letting his mind play around with that thought, Rad settled in for the last leg of this long ride.

~oOo~

Fifteen minutes later, all thoughts of how that ass might feel in his hands were gone.

Rad saw it all happen.

The road lay before him like a ribbon, rising just enough to clear the view, like standing at the bottom of an amphitheater and looking up into the seats. About a mile ahead, maybe a little less, with the last of the sun glinting off their cladding, he could still make out the bright green and red flashes of the Kawa pair, heading up the rise of the road.

Hot Ass had almost caught up to them; she was about three or four cars behind.

A fuckwit in some kind of cage—Rad could name most bikes at some distance, but cages these days all looked the same to him—was starting to get ragey in the thickening traffic on this spring Sunday evening. Rad had seen him do the move drivers did where they shoved themselves into a space barely as long as their cage, then tailgated until they could shove themselves in front of a car in the next lane, like that video game with the frog. That was dangerous shit, especially for bikers, because there was no way the asshole driving like that was paying attention to anything but the slimmest hint that there was room in the next lane. If that.

Noting that driver make that fucked-up move three times in succession, Rad had his antennae up. The road was still full of bikers, but the traffic had broken them up some. Few drivers understood that it was bad form to break into a riding formation. They figured if the bikes weren’t all grouped in a knot, they could slide in.

They could, technically. There might be room, technically. But they shouldn’t. They should let the bikes keep together. The best kind of drivers would slow down or pull over, in fact. But pretty much the only drivers who did that were also riders.

If you rode, you knew it was up to you to look out for your own head. Nobody else was going to bother.

Rad had just about enough time to wish there were a way to send a warning up ahead, because those kids on the sport bikes were riding too comfortably, like they believed that everybody on the road with them understood that they had a right to be there.

He wasn’t surprised, therefore, when the rager shoved his cage into the lane and took both Kawas out.

What happened next, however, shocked the shit out of him.

The green Kawa went airborne, its riders flying pell-mell, and the red bike laid down, spinning wildly backward, into traffic. Rad didn’t see either rider part from the bike, but they must have.

The rager’s cage spun forward and stopped facing the median.

“Don’t do it, jackoff,” Rad muttered as he quickly instinctively maneuvered out of the way of the continuing crash.

He pulled to the shoulder, sensing every bike around him doing the same, and brought his Dyna into the median as the chain reaction went on. Trained to pay attention to his surroundings, he listened and watched. He lost count at ten collisions—they were overlapping each other too much to distinguish—but they were nowhere near done.

The wrecks up at the front were bad—fatally bad. He had every expectation that he’d get up there and find the young bikers in mangled pieces. As the reaction rippled down the line, it finally petered out at fender benders not far ahead of where he and the rest of the Bulls—and another twenty or so patches from other clubs—had come to rest in the median.

Screams and moans already undulated in the air.

The cage that had started all this mess was gone—the rager had bolted. As Rad had suspected he would.

Nearly as one, every biker stood his bike on the shoulder or laid it in the grassy median and ran forward to offer their help. It would take some time for emergency crews to get to the scene, through the mess of traffic and the crumpled snarl of involved vehicles.

Rad saw the little silver sportster on its side in the middle of the interstate, its rider lying prone not far from it. He ran there first.

As he neared, he felt a charge of relief when the rider worked her way to a seated position. She pulled off her black helmet and showed short blonde hair.

Rad skidded to a stop at her side, then dropped to his knees. “You okay?”

©2016 Susan Fanetti

Cover Reveal & Teaser: Heart’s Ease

HE paperback

Hello, all!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s the synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And here’s the first chapter as a teaser:


1

The barbarians won the village and all its meager spoils.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stood and walked the length of her rope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I not know this.”

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

“Yes. I try.”

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

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

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

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

“Twelve.”

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

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

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

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

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

She hoped that was a truth.

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he was gone.

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Olga.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover yourself.”

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

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

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

Olga got to work.

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I help?” she asked, quietly.

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

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

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

“Sorry. I not know…le-gend.”

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is he?” the woman asked Sven.

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

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

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

Legend.

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have pain.”

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

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

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

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

©2016 Susan Fanetti

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

Miracle

Well, hello!

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

Lola xo

 

THE SYNOPSIS:

THE CONCLUSION OF THE PAGANO FAMILY SERIES.

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

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

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

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

Note: explicit sex and violence.

 

THE TEASER:

Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit, had he lost the ring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out here in the cold, Joey was alone.

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They usually forgot him, that was.

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~oOo~

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everybody’s pissed at you.”

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

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

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

“Why are you being such an asshole?”

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

“Please?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easier…for you. Can talk.”

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

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

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

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

Fuck her. Fuck them all.

©2016 Susan Fanetti