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

HONOR BB5 digital cover

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, you can add it to your TBR.

Synopsis:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: explicit sex and violence.

Preview:

CHAPTER FOUR

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

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

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

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

Seriously. He was ridiculously hot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He got up. And headed over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why would you think I’m not?”

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

“You do that a lot, get ‘vibes’?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what you are? Civilized?”

“I am if you’re a lady.”

“And if I’m not?”

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

He smelled good, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know one now.”

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

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

“Do women ever tell you no?”

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

“Do you ever take no for an answer?”

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

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

“You are an interesting woman, Jacinda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn, it is a gorgeous smile.”

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

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

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

“So what is it you do, Apollo?”

“Mechanic.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m a vegetarian.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Slick and Fitz are on that.”

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

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

“Trouble?”

“Nothing I have to deal with.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, kids.”

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

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

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

“I got it. Thanks. Have fun!”

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

“Your friend dating the singer?” Apollo asked.

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

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

“You have a problem with that?”

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

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

So she kissed him.

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

God, it was good, whatever it was.

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

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

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

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

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

HONOR BB5 paperback cover

 

 

 

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

suffragette pb cover FINAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Holidays!

s—

SYNOPSIS:

England, 1910.

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

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

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

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

This novel is a standalone.

Note: explicit sex.

PREVIEW:

ONE

 

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

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

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

“Nearly half nine, milady.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I doubt it, Kate.”

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

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

 

~oOo~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sighed. “I know. I’m trying.”

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

Nora glared at him, and he simply shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wronged, I tell you. I am wronged.”

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

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

Oh heavens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~oOo~

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

~oOo~

 

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

“What are you reading, monkey?”

Nora flinched, and he leaned closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now I’m a scandal.”

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

“This isn’t our world, Papa.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Papa…”

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

“Of course I do.”

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

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

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

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

suffragette digital cover FINAL

Cover reveal and preview! BLAZE, BBMC #4

blaze digital cover

Happy Saturday!

Today, I’m revealing the cover of the next Brazen Bulls MC book. Blaze, Book 4, is Simon’s story. If you’re caught up with the series, you know that we left things off in Book 3 (Slam), with the club in conflict with the Street Hounds, a gang that had taken over the the north side of Tulsa from Dyson, a longstanding crew with whom the Bulls had had a primarily (but not entirely) peaceful relationship. Well, in Blaze, that conflict becomes an all-out war. A whole lot happens in Blaze. Things get pretty damn intense–for the club and for their family.

But the heart of the story is Simon and Deb, Gunner’s sister. They started up a friendly “booty call” relationship a couple of years back, and they kept that to themselves. You might remember the scene at the end of Slam when Gunner notices Simon checking out her ass and wonders if there’s something going on there. Mav blows it off, but Gun was right.

Not that he’s happy about it when he finds out. Ha! No.

As often happens, there’s only so long that two good friends can bang each other’s brains out on the regular before “friends with benefits” is not all they are. Blaze begins as Simon and Deb start to figure that out–at the same time that war breaks out in Tulsa.

Blaze will go live on Saturday, 2 December 2017. I’ll set up the preorder as usual, about mid-November. In the meantime, here’s the synopsis–and, as a preview, the prologue, which takes place in 1996, two years before the present time in Blaze.

In Twist, which takes place in 1996, the Bulls ride out to Gunner and Leah’s hometown, Grant, after a deadly tornado. Gunner rides toward Leah, in town, and two of his brothers veer off and ride toward his family farm, to check on Gunner’s dad and sister. Simon is one who rides off to check on Sam and Deb Wesson.

And their relationship begins.

SYNOPSIS:

Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1998

Simon Spellman isn’t a native Oklahoman. He’s a city boy, born and raised in Chicago, but he’s lived in Tulsa, and worn a Brazen Bull on his back, for years. Tulsa is his home, and the Bulls his family—the only one he claims, and the only one he wants. As far as he’s concerned, life as a Bull is too risky, and the club too demanding, to make room for anyone else.

Especially now, while the Brazen Bulls MC stands on the brink of war, smack in the middle of their hometown.

Debra Wesson has been part of the Bulls family since her younger brother first put on a kutte. She’s known Simon for years; since a crisis threw them together a couple years back, she’s known him intimately. They are perfectly compatible, both adventurous in bed and neither interested in a relationship. They’ve enjoyed each other and kept their hookups a secret from her volatile brother and everyone else.

Until they realize that friends with benefits has become something much deeper, despite their guards against it, and they’re forced to contend with what’s real between them.

But it’s dangerous to be a Bull, or to love one, right now, as the conflict with the Street Hounds finds its flashpoint. With the enemy standing just on the other side of town, there’s no safe place to be.

When war hits home, everything that matters is in the line of fire.

Note: explicit sex and violence.

 

PREVIEW:

PROLOGUE

October 1996

Simon and Apollo rode side by side over one of those narrow country roads that didn’t even rate a set of yellow lines down the center. Both their bikes—Apollo’s ’93 Wide Glide and Simon’s ’90 Super—had 1300-plus CC engines and drag pipes and were loud as hell, yet the world around them felt heavy and eerily quiet. It was twilight, and their headlamps swept over a landscape that seemed a step or two off normal. Nothing obvious to see, just a feeling Simon couldn’t shake.

Tornadoes had missed this area, but the storm that had brought a bevy of them had not. Maybe that was the off-ness: the usual scatter left by a hard storm seemed wrong in contrast with the destruction that had brushed by them like the touch of an angry stranger passing by.

Simon was freaked out. He’d lived in Oklahoma most of his adult life, and he’d been through a couple of actual tornadoes and more watches and warnings than he could count. But this had been a strange year for storms. He’d never known so many twisters to touch down in the same storm, and he’d never known one to hit Tulsa itself. He’d been around for only one other F5, and that one had dug a trench through miles of Oklahoma, vaporizing everything in its path.

This big daddy hadn’t hit Tulsa on the nose, either. The city had gotten tagged by a couple of smaller ones, an F0 and an F1. Damage and inconvenience, a few low-level injuries. The clubhouse had taken some damage, but nothing that couldn’t be set to rights in a weekend. Mostly blown-out windows and the like.

But out here in Osage County, God had put his hand down on the ground and swept it clear.

Simon and Apollo had veered off from their brothers, who’d headed toward the little town of Grant, which had taken the F5 straight up the ass. The early reports and images they’d seen before they’d split the clubhouse suggested that their brothers were arriving at a cataclysm. It had sounded like Grant was just about gone, and a lot of its residents had gone with it.

Gunner’s new girl was from Grant, and she’d been in town, as far as they knew, for the twister.

Gunner was from Grant, too, more or less. Simon and Apollo were on their way to check on his family’s farm, and on his family—his dad and sister. They were out of the F5’s path, just barely—Simon had heard that the thing had been more than a mile wide—but they were Gunner’s family, and practically club themselves, and Gunner couldn’t be in two places at once. Leah had been right in the heart, so Gunner was there. Apollo and Simon would take care of the rest of his family.

And, Simon hoped, the brothers with Gunner could hold him together.

They rode around a hairpin, and a low valley opened up before them. In the falling darkness, Simon could see the Wesson farm, barely making out the pretty little white farmhouse—the dusk-to-dawn light was out. All the lights were out.

That was what was so strange about the way the world looked—it was always dark in the country, but they’d passed several farms, and not a single light anywhere.

As they passed the fields, he couldn’t tell if there’d been damage. Luckily, the harvest was done, so no crops had been lost. At the bottom of the long, low hill, they turned onto the gravel drive. Simon had been here quite a few times, helping out with the sowing or the harvest when Gunner sent up a call for it, and he knew that the gravel was white quartz that sparkled in the sun. Sam Wesson kept up his place. But the big black mailbox was gone from its white post and nowhere to be seen in the dark. The post itself listed drunkenly.

They parked their bikes at the end of the drive, and they saw the next signs of the storm: Sam’s big old pickup and Debra’s station wagon were off the drive, shifted sharply to the left as if a broom had come by and pushed them out of the way. The truck was flush against the garage, and the station wagon wasn’t square on the ground; it had been pushed so hard against the truck that one of the wheels had come up about a foot or so.

It took a lot of force to move cars that size that much.

“Shit,” Apollo muttered. “You think they’re okay?”

Simon studied the darkness in the direction of the house. He’d thought they were coming to do a quick check-in so they could assure Gunner that his dad and sister were okay. Now, he wasn’t sure. Without answering Apollo, he headed toward the house.

“DEB?” he called. “SAM?” Apollo picked up the call, and they crossed the yard, yelling.

No longer twilight, full dark had landed on the night, and Simon tried to remember the layout of the yard. He could barely see the porch, but he felt his way to it and put his foot on the first step, calling their names all the while.

“Here,” came Deb’s voice off the side of the porch. She came around the side of the house, a pale arc from a flashlight leading her way. She shined it up at them. “Hey. We were in the cellar. Dad’s hurt.”

Changing course, they met her at the corner of the porch.

“How bad?” Apollo asked.

“The cellar door hit him in the head when we were trying to get down. Knocked him out. He says he’s okay, but he was out for a couple of minutes, and his head is bleeding. Scared the crap out of me.”

She turned around right away to retrace her steps, but Simon grabbed her arm. “Hey. You okay?”

“Yeah.” Behind the flashlight, she was no more than a vague shape. Pulling herself free from his grip, she headed toward the slant doors of the cellar. “Shaken up. We heard about what happened in town.” At the open doors, standing at the top of the cellar stairs, she turned and faced him. “Is Max okay?”

Max was Gunner’s given name. “Yeah—it wasn’t too bad in Tulsa. I don’t know how he’s doing in Grant, though. Leah was there.”

“Fuck.”

“I hate that word,” her old man called up from below. “What’s wrong?”

Simon followed Deb down, and Apollo followed him. He and Apollo were both over six feet, so they bent low to make their way down.

A battery-operated Coleman lantern made a bright circle in the dark cellar. The farmhouse was more than a hundred years old, and the cellar was probably not much changed from the hole it had started out as. Dirt floor, wood slat walls, the house resting on hunky wooden support beams sunk in concrete. Heavy wooden shelving units that held the wide assortment of junk a country life accumulated. In the bright circle of lantern light, Simon could make out a few of those units. One of them was lined with Mason jars. Deb had a robust roadside produce stand in the spring and summer and canned a lot to sell in the winter.

“Max’s okay,” Apollo answered, hunched over beside Simon. “But Leah was in Grant when it happened.”

“Fuck,” Sam Wesson muttered, and Simon laughed. It sounded all kinds of wrong. Sam, sitting on a stack of aged Mason jar crates at the end of that preserves unit, holding a bandana—its fabric faded to grey and soaked with blood—to the top of his head, looked up at him. “She hurt? Max’ll…” He didn’t finish.

Simon crouched down so Sam didn’t have to crane his neck. “Don’t know. He’s there now. He’s got brothers at his back.” Nodding at Sam’s head, he asked, “What happened here?”

“It’s nothing. Debra fusses over everything.” His cheek was scraped up, too.

Debra scoffed and shoved her hands onto her hips. “Dad, you got knocked out. You need to go to the hospital.”

“I need no such thing. I barely closed my eyes.”

Blood had run in streams through the man’s white hair and striped his neck and plaid, pearl-buttoned shirt. It still looked wet. “Sam, can I take a look?”

“You a doctor all a sudden, Simon?”

“No sir, but I’ve seen my share of bloody wounds.”

That made the old man chuckle. “S’pose you have.” He took his hand away, dropping it with evident relief to his lap, and Simon took a look.

Just past the middle of his noggin was a goose egg, its center split open. “It’s pretty deep, Sam. You’re gonna need stitches to close it up. Yeah, you need the ER.”

Sam sighed and put the bandana back in place. “Fine. How’ll Max know where we are?”

Simon didn’t answer; his brain was occupied with the question of how they were going to get to Osage Regional Hospital. He and Apollo had ridden, and the Wesson vehicles were shoved up against each other in such a way that they wouldn’t be able to simply pull one out.

“I’ll ride to Grant and find him,” Apollo offered.

Simon nodded. “Wait up, though. We need to figure out how to get Deb’s wagon free.”

“What?” Deb asked. “What happened? Oh God, is there a lot of damage?”

Her voice had started up that ramp to panic that women took sometimes, and with that always came tears. Simon hated it when chicks cried. He took hold of her arm again and gave it a quick stroke. Even through the sweater she wore, he felt slim firmness, and a little bulge of bicep when she pulled free.

“Easy,” he said. “It’s not a big deal, and we didn’t see much damage. Wind just knocked ‘em around a little.”

“Them?”

Deciding that such questions were better answered with their own eyes, he asked, “Can you walk, Sam?”

“Course I can walk,” he barked and stood up. He wasn’t tall, so he could stand straight, but his hand was still on his head, and his knuckles nearly grazed the beams from the floor above.

“Then ‘Pollo, grab the lantern. Let’s go up and you can see for yourselves. And we’ll figure out how to get the wagon free.”

~oOo~

They got the wagon free when Simon drove the tractor over and they winched it. Sam’s truck was totaled, bent around the corner of the garage and sandwiched between that and Deb’s station wagon, and the wagon was pretty rumpled, but it ran. Apollo rode off toward Grant, and Simon drove Deb and Sam to the hospital.

By the time they were ready to go, Sam was not steady. He took the back seat and leaned his head back. He went quiet, but Simon checked the rearview mirror and could see his chest rising, deep and steady, and he was still holding a bandana—a fresh one, from the glove box of his truck—on his head.

Deb sat in front, chewing on her thumbnail and swiveling her head back and forth, checking on her father.

“I can see him in the rearview, Deb. I’ll let you know if he looks like trouble. You’re gonna give yourself whiplash.”

“Just restin’ my eyes,” came a tired, scratchy voice from behind them.

They rode quietly for a while. Osage Regional Hospital wasn’t all that close; they had more than a half-hour ride. Simon thought about turning on the radio to fill the empty air but decided that was insensitive, considering. Besides, he had no idea what kind of music Deb liked. He’d hate to switch it on and find his ears assaulted by Celine Dion or some shit.

“That door came slamming down, and he dropped down the steps and just lay there. Jesus, Simon. A tornado already took half our family. How much more does God want?”

And there were the tears. Dammit. Not knowing what else to do, but wanting the waterworks to stop just as quickly as possible, Simon reached over and took hold of the hand she hadn’t been chewing on. “Hey, hey. Everybody’s okay. Your dad just needs his head sewn up. Gun’s fine. You’re fine. The farm is fine.”

Simon didn’t know much about Gunner’s family history. He knew that their mother was dead, of course. And maybe there’d been a brother, too? He wasn’t sure. It sounded like that was the case, though. He hadn’t known that they’d been killed in a tornado, but that sounded like the case as well.

That was a hard thing. No wonder Deb was freaked out now. No wonder Gunner was crazy always.

She kept crying. Shit. So Simon held her hand and kept his eyes on the road and tried to pretend that she wasn’t. After a very long minute, she took a deep, shaking breath and got herself together. She squeezed his hand and pulled free, opening the glove box and rooting out a little packet of tissues. In the glow from the glove box light before she slammed it closed, Simon caught a dull metallic flash: she had a little snub-nose revolver in there.

“Sorry.” She muttered the word into her tissue, then honked her nose clear. Simon couldn’t help but grin. He was used to chicks preening around him, every little move made for an audience. Sure, the conditions on this night were hardly favorable for flirting, but now that he thought of it, he didn’t think Debra Wesson had ever behaved like she’d noticed that he, or any Bull, for that matter, was a man. Or that she herself was hot.

Because she was. Quite hot, in fact. Skinny, and not much in the chest department, but a very nice face. And all that wild black hair? That was something else.

He blinked all that out of his head as the bright lights of the hospital rose up ahead. “Don’t worry about it,” he finally replied to her apology. “It’s a rough night. ‘Course you’re emotional.”

“Yeah,” she sighed and twisted her neck to check on her father again. “Dad, we’re here.”

Silence from the back seat.

“Daddy?” Panic leapt back into her voice.

“Okay, Debra. I’m okay. Take a breath.”

She did, and then wiped her cheeks again with the sodden tissue.

Simon pulled through the ambulance lane and parked in a no-parking zone. He helped Sam—who took the help with a bad attitude, despite his shaky balance—into the ER, then ran out and parked the wagon in the patient lot. The lot was nearly full, and he had to park way in the back.

It was going to be a long night.

~oOo~

The sun was up when he pulled back into the Wesson driveway, with only Deb as a passenger. Sam had eleven stitches and a concussion, and they were keeping him for a night or two, concerned about his loss of consciousness. Leah was in the hospital, too, hurt pretty badly. Gunner was doing okay with the stress of that, but the Bulls planned to do a rotation to make sure he wasn’t on his own until Leah was out of the woods. They spent a lot of time babysitting that guy.

Leah’s father had died in the storm. A lot of people in Grant had been killed or hurt; Simon hadn’t heard an official count yet, but a rumor going around the hospital said that it was several dozen dead and more than that injured. Grant itself had been killed. Most of the town was nothing but splinters.

In the bright sun of a fall morning, the damage to the Wesson farm was obvious—and not that bad. Some fencing down, some broken windows, a few smaller pieces of equipment overturned. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with enough muscle, and insurance would cover anything big. Considering what had happened a few miles off, lucky was not a strong enough word for what they were.

“Thanks for the ride,” Deb said as she put her hand on the door.

Simon laughed. “It’s your car, hon.” He nodded toward the front. “Had to come back for my bike anyway.”

“Ah, right.” She smiled. It was the first one he’d seen since he’d gotten caught in her flashlight beam the night before. She had great dimples. “Well, then, just thanks. You were a huge help.”

“No problem. Gun’s family is my family.” He opened the driver’s door as she opened the passenger side, and the sound of angry chickens about knocked them back.

“Shit, the animals,” Deb groaned. “I locked them in before the storm and didn’t give them another thought. Idiot!”

Like he was agreeing with her self-assessment, a rooster crowed.

“Shit!” she said again. “Dandy gets so mean when they’re closed up too long. And after last night, they’ll all be agitated.”

“I’m still here, Deb. I’ll help.”

“Yeah? Thank you.” Her eyes sparkled. Oh God no, was she going to cry again?

Hoping to hold them off, he grinned. “No problem. But if I get attacked by an angry rooster, you supply the Band-Aids.”

“Deal.” She gave him a dimpled grin back, the clouds of tears clearing from her eyes, and they headed to the coop.

~oOo~

They turned the chickens loose. Deb didn’t want to turn the horses out to pasture until she could ride the fence lines, so they released them into the paddock.

Simon helped Deb clean up the coop and stalls, and they went into the house, where he helped her put boards on the broken windows and clean up the mess. Then she made him lunch—a couple of big turkey and cheese sandwiches on homemade white bread, with a mountain of potato chips. And beer. Good eats.

By the time she walked him to the boarded-up front door, though, Simon was absolutely fucking exhausted, and Deb looked not much brighter.

She leaned on the edge of the open door. “Thank you so much, Simon. I honestly don’t know how I’d’ve gotten through the night and day without you.”

“Don’t mention it, hon. Glad I could help. Like I said, Gun’s family is my family.” On the compulsion of some mysterious force, he brushed his fingertip down her nose. Cute nose. Straight and delicate. “You should get some rest.”

She looked up at him. Her eyes were pretty, too. This close, eyes he’d always thought of as simply ‘light’ turned out to be grey and green and brown. Hazel, he thought the color was called. Rimmed with long black lashes.

“Yeah,” she breathed, and the sound was…something had changed. “You should, too.”

Simon’s cock stirred. The air between them suddenly crackled like a storm front, and he was no longer thinking about how tired he was. That compulsion still had hold of him, and before he could consider what he was doing, his hand went around her neck, under all that hair, and he bent down and kissed her.

She let go of the door and wrapped her arms around him, kissing him back at once, her tongue shooting forward and finding his, twisting and lapping together. He went for her sweater, shoving his hand under it, pushing it up, finding her tits. They were covered in soft cotton, and so little. His hand took all of one and had space left over, but her nipple was like a rock against his palm, and that was beautiful. He shunted the cotton to the side and gave that hard nub a pinch.

Deb leapt back, out of his arms. “Shit,” she gasped.

“Yeah.” His breathing wasn’t any steadier.

They just stood there, panting, and stared at each other.

He needed to go. Under the heading ‘Reasons Fucking Debra Wesson Is a Bad Idea’ were at least a dozen entries, starting with ‘Gunner’s Sister.’ But he didn’t move.

Neither did she. They stared, and the air crackled.

“I don’t want to be with anybody. Not seriously,” she finally said. “I don’t need the bullshit.”

“Me either.” Get out, get out, get out. His feet wouldn’t move.

She pushed her hair back, trying and failing to tame it behind her ears. She made that move a lot—and he realized, for the first time, that he’d noticed that before.

“Max can’t know.”

Gunner wouldn’t celebrate the idea of his sister with a Bull, that was certainly true. Not even for a one-er. Maybe particularly not for a one-er. “No, he cannot.” Shit, were they doing this? It hadn’t been on his radar at all. Had it? His cock strained at his fly. “Deb…”

She charged forward and closed the distance she’d made, and Simon stopped talking. When she twisted her fingers in his hair and bit down on his lip, he quit thinking. He picked her up and carried her up the stairs, where he assumed her bedroom was.

© 2017 Susan Fanetti

blaze pb cover

 

 

Somewhere: Cover & Preview

Somewhere paperback FANETTI

On Saturday, 7 October, 4 weeks from today, I’ll (re)release Somewhere, Book One of The Sawtooth Stories. By now, you probably know the story of the original publication of this book, but if you don’t, you can read about it here.

I won’t do a preorder for this one, but I’m going to do a few teasers in the next month, in addition to sharing Chapter One with you here as a preview.

Somewhere is a contemporary, small-town, western romance. I really love Jasper Ridge, Idaho, the town I created as the locus of this world. It reminds me a little of Signal Bend–without the meth and drug cartels, lol. I also love the Cahill family, who are the heart of Jasper Ridge. The younger Cahill son is the male lead of Somewhere.

But first, you meet the female lead. So, without further ado, here’s the synopsis and Chapter One of Somewhere.

 

SYNOPSIS:

After a cataclysmic tragedy leaves her alone in the world, Gabriela Kincaid climbs into her father’s ancient pickup and strikes off on her own, turning her back on everything she knows. No destination in mind, moving toward nothing but distance.

Just somewhere.

Fate chooses her destination, and she finds herself in Jasper Ridge, Idaho, a small town in the shadow of the Sawtooth Range. With nowhere else to get to, and no way to get anywhere else, she decides to make her home there.

Heath Cahill is fighting the demons of his own horrific past. A son of the most important rancher in Jasper Ridge, he’s tethered to the town, so he’s made his escape inward, turning his back on any new chances for a happy life.

But he sees something in the eyes of the young woman who walks into the town saloon: a guarded pain he recognizes as like his own. He tries to resist the pull he feels, but with a nudge from Fate, friends, and family, Heath opens his heart again.

Together, they find love and hope for happiness. First, though, they must face a past that neither has escaped.

 

CHAPTER ONE: 

She’d been in courtrooms countless times during the past two-plus years, and in this one almost daily for weeks, but every time she sat down in the gallery, she felt the same sense of ill discomfort.

Nothing good happened in a room like this. Even if justice was served, whatever that meant, that justice was only offered because something terrible had happened.

It was an awful room, a room where awful things were relived and happened all over again, and where the only kind of hope that could breathe was a black hope for someone else’s pain.

That black hope was the only thing she knew how to feel anymore. It radiated from her scars and wrapped around her organs. It leaned on her thoughts every day and on her dreams each night.

But today would be the last day she’d have to sit on this hard seat and square her shoulders against the room’s ill air. Tomorrow, perhaps, she’d be able to shrug herself free of the past.

One more day in this room.

The first time she’d sat down in a room like this, she’d been too terrified of what loomed ahead of her to really notice the room itself, or the people in it—besides the one who sat at the table on the left, facing the bench. Him, she always noticed. He seemed to fill that chair even when he wasn’t in the room.

In all the days since the first day, in the many long lulls between horrors, she’d had ample time to memorize this room—the walls, the seats, the tables, the seal on the wall behind the bench. This courtroom in the District Court in Santa Fe, New Mexico looked much like the courtrooms they showed on television. And yet it lacked the imposing substance of those make-believe rooms, even though, in this one, real cases were tried, and real people’s lives hung in the balance.

It was just a room. Empty, it was nearly featureless. One might even mistake it for innocuous.

When she’d sat down on this day, the room had been nearly empty. She liked to arrive as early as allowed, because she’d discovered that people noticed her less often when she was already seated. They paid attention to those who came in after them, not those who’d arrived before, and she didn’t want to be noticed. She’d had enough of notice in this room.

Today, she knew, she wouldn’t be able to avoid it. It might have been better to stay home and watch the news, or wait for a phone call. But she wanted to hear the words when they were spoken.

So she sat in the back row and watched the lawyers at their seemingly bland prep work, and watched the people file in, the looky-loos and reporters, and waited to hear the words.

By the time the defendant was brought in from a side door, wearing the one Men’s Wearhouse suit he owned—black—the one good dress shirt—white—the one silk tie—yellow—the one pair of dress shoes—black—and the ankle and wrist shackles—silver—the courtroom had filled to capacity, and the deputies had closed the doors. There was a rumble of rumor and gossip as the shackled man was led to his chair and the bailiff locked his bonds to the table. Even over that excited hum, she could hear the metallic jingle of the chains.

Between the heads of the spectators filling the distance between them, she saw him turn and scan the room. He always did that, every day. Normally, she did what she could to be sure he couldn’t pick her out of the crowd, and normally she was successful.

Today, though, she didn’t try. When he found her, their eyes locked, and for the first time in weeks, perhaps months, they really saw each other.

He smiled. She didn’t.

And then the bailiff called everyone to rise, and the defendant turned away.

The judge entered, and everyone sat again, and she stared at the back of the man in the Men’s Wearhouse suit. Normally, she didn’t bother to pay attention until the lawyers began to talk; she had the beginning part of each trial day memorized.

But today was different. The main part of the trial was over. A guilty verdict had been rendered. Evidence in the sentencing phase had been presented. Today, they had all gathered to hear the sentence imposed.

So once the bailiff had finished calling the case, the judge—a tiny woman with a grey bob and a white lace collar—said immediately, “The defendant will rise.”

And in the back row, it was all she could do to keep her seat.

The defendant rose, his shackles jingling. She noticed that he’d gotten a fresh haircut over the weekend. His iron-grey hair was military short, and the skin above his collar was baby smooth.

“Mr. Kincaid,” the little judge began, in her husky, two-packs-a-day voice, “You have been found guilty of three counts of capital murder, and one count of attempted murder. Evidence has been presented in this sentencing phase, and I am ready to rule. Before I do, is there anything you would like to say to the court?”

The defendant turned and scanned the gallery again, but his lawyer nudged him, and he returned his attention to the judge. “No, ma’am—uh, Your Honor.”

“Very well. Stuart Donald Kincaid, for the capital murders of Edgar Sandoval, Gloria Sandoval, and Maria Sandoval Kincaid, I sentence you to three life sentences without any possibility of parole, to be served consecutively. For the attempted murder of Gabriela Kincaid, I sentence you to eighteen years, to be served consecutively, following the capital sentences. You shall return immediately to the custody of the State of New Mexico to serve your sentence.”

The judge slammed the gavel, and the gallery erupted in chatter. Some people applauded.

From the back row, she could see that reporters were texting the verdict to their editors, or tweeting it, or whatever, and getting ready to find their interviews. She stood, intent upon leaving the room, and the building, as quickly as she could. If she hurried, maybe she could disappear before anyone thought to look.

She paused to watch as the defendant was led back to the door from which he’d been led in only a few minutes before. He struggled against the push of the deputies and turned to scan the room again.

Their eyes met. “Gabby!” he yelled. “Gabby! Baby, I love you! Please!”

Heads began to swivel her way.

Gabriela Kincaid turned away from her father and ran for the courthouse door.

*****

Mrs. Brant was old and hard of hearing. She hated her hearing aids and only wore them when she was away from home. At home, she compensated for her failing ears with volume—the television, the radio, the ringer on her telephone, all at maximum. When the windows were open, Gabby could hear everything Rush Limbaugh or Fox News had to say over at her neighbor’s house. Not to mention most of her side of her phone conversations.

On this afternoon, as she sat on the front porch with a bottle of Corona, she could hear the local news. Now that the story was no longer “breaking,” the reporters had had a few hours to put together an in-depth report, telling the story of the night her father had lost his mind.

No, that was too kind a way to say it. He had not lost his mind. He had been, he continued to be, perfectly sane. He had been drunk and angry. He had often been drunk and angry, but on that night, he had also had a commercial kitchen’s worth of weapons at his disposal.

How strange to hear strangers speak so knowledgeably, so matter-of-factly, about her own life. No one could know what it had been like, what it still was like. Only she. And, she supposed, her father.

Gabby closed her eyes and tried to drown out the calmly interested tones of the reporter describing the scene on that night more than two years earlier. Her father, barricaded in the kitchen of her grandparents’ cantina, holding his wounded daughter hostage, a carving knife to her throat, sitting in the spattered and pooling blood of his wife and in-laws.

She didn’t need a stranger to draw a picture for her. She could still feel the bite of the blade into her neck, could still feel the blood pulsing from her side, growing sticky as it spread over her skin and cooled. She could still feel the desperation as her breath became blood and began to drown her.

When she closed her eyes, she could see her mother’s body, drenched in red, her eyes open, one hand out as if reaching for her. She could see her grandfather, burned by frying oil, his head caved in. She could see her grandmother lying in a nearly perfect halo of her blood. She had been the first to die, her throat slit before anyone had known there was trouble.

The brave girl fought for her family and was nearly killed herself. By her own father.

Gabby chuckled bleakly at the sensationalized truth of the reporter’s words. She had fought, she supposed that was true, but ineffectively. She’d loved her father. Even in the ugliness of her parents’ separation, even as his anger grew and flared, she’d remembered her daddy and loved him. She hadn’t believed him capable of such things, and she’d sought to find him behind those chaotic, killing eyes and bring him back.

When her grandmother had fallen, and her father had gone for her mother, Gabby had lunged between them and tried to hold him off. The wound in her side had happened in the scuffle. The blade had sunk into her lung, and she’d fallen, desperate for breath, choking on blood, watching as her father fought her grandfather, threw hot oil in his face, and then beat him with a skillet until his head no longer looked like a head.

Gabby’s mother was dead because she hadn’t run when she’d had the chance. She’d tried to bring Gabby with her. Her father had pulled her mother off of her and stabbed and stabbed and stabbed.

And then, as police sirens and lights flashed, he’d gathered Gabby up and put the bloody knife to her throat.

The last thing she remembered before she’d passed out—she’d thought she’d been dying—was him whispering, “You weren’t supposed to be here. Why are you here? Why are you here?”

Ms. Kincaid had no comment for reporters today, but when the trial began, she sat down with our own…

Unable to take it anymore, Gabby drank down the rest of her beer and went back inside to close up all the windows. Better stale air than refreshed pain.

*****

The next morning, Gabby stood in the living room with her third cup of coffee. She stared out the window at the news van. Just one, but it wasn’t yet six o’clock in the morning. There would be more. They hadn’t been happy with her headlong no comment the day before. She’d turned off the ringer on the landline phone last night, because there was no one in the world she wanted to talk to, and the only people who’d been calling had been reporters. So at least the house was quiet.

She took another sip of coffee and stared through the sheers at that blue van with the bright logo on its side and the satellite dish on its roof.

Fuck.

The mug she held was a cheap dollar-store thing with a generic pink rose glazed on one side, and the cheery pink words I Love My Mom! on the other. Gabby had given it to her mother when she was in grade school. She could remember using her allowance that Christmas at the dollar store, trying with the little bit of money she had saved to find something good for all the people she loved.

Everywhere around her was memory of a life she no longer had. She still lived in the house she’d lived in all her life; she hadn’t even changed bedrooms. Everything about the house was as it had always been, except that she was alone in it.

When she’d gotten out of the hospital, her whole family dead except the man who’d killed them, she’d had nowhere else to go, and she simply hadn’t cared enough about anything to dredge up the will to change the situation. At the hospital, she’d told the cab driver her address, and when he’d brought her there, she’d walked up onto the only porch she’d known, into the only front door she’d known, and had begun the motions of the life she’d had.

Her parents’ landlord was a decent guy, and he’d let her keep renting. She’d been the beneficiary of her grandparents’ life insurance, and, although after the funerals and her medical bills it hadn’t exactly been a huge amount of money, she’d been able to live on it. Not for much longer, though.

She’d had friends, but they’d been part of the life she’d lost, and they hadn’t known how to be with her in this new, numb place, so she’d let them fade away. It hadn’t taken long.

She’d dropped out of school—she’d only been going to community college anyway and hadn’t figured out why yet—and she’d hunkered down to the one thing she’d yet cared about. She’d devoted her days to her father’s trial.

And now that was over.

And she had no life.

But she was surrounded by the life she’d had—her parents’ furniture, her mother’s crucifix and generic painting of Jesus hanging on the wall near the kitchen door, the braided rugs her Nana had made, the neatly aligned, cheaply framed eight-by-ten school photos chronicling her advancement through public school, kindergarten to high school graduation.

The bed in the room that had been her parents’, and then only her mother’s, still made by her mother on the last day of her life, the purple chenille tucked neatly under the pillows, the vibrant throw pillows arranged just so.

Her own room, last decorated by a nineteen-year-old whose life had known no greater stress than her parents’ separation. She still slept in that room every night, but she couldn’t remember the last time she’d really noticed anything in it.

Gabby stared down at the cup in her hand, at that cheap pink rose, and knew with a flash of clarity that she could not spend another day in this non-life, walking like a ghost through her own past.

A sound beyond the window caught her ear, and she looked up to see another news van pull in behind the first.

Enough. There was nothing for her in Santa Fe now but broken history.

It was time to go. It didn’t matter where—just somewhere. A new place. A new life.

Looking around the room again, Gabby understood that there was truly nothing for her, not even in this house.

One thing. There was one thing she wanted.

And one thing she would take because it seemed fitting that she should.

*****

An hour later, she propped an envelope addressed to the landlord against the cookie jar on the kitchen counter, set her house key in front of it, and dug a ring of keys out of the junk drawer. She picked up her old duffel bag, packed with nothing but a few changes of clothes, and walked out the back door, locking the knob behind her. She crossed the small yard to the garage and heaved up the overhead door.

Her father’s 1970 Chevy pickup sat quietly. He loved that truck like a child. In the last months of her life, her mother had tried and tried to get him to take it away, but he’d procrastinated and refused and delayed. Gabby had known then that he believed that if the truck stayed, he might have a chance to come back home to stay as well.

She climbed up into the lifted truck and pushed her duffel to the passenger side. Before she turned the ignition, she picked up her mother’s gold crucifix from her chest and pressed her lips to it.

Gabby wasn’t particularly religious, especially not these days, but her mother had been devout. She’d worn this crucifix every day. She’d been wearing it on that last day; Gabby had had to clean old blood from around the body of Christ before she’d put it on.

It was the one thing Gabby wanted from the house as a memory to keep close.

She wanted the truck because it felt right to get away from her father in the thing he loved best. To take that from him as well.

She tucked the cross back under her t-shirt and turned the ignition. The truck had sat for more than two years; by all rights the battery should have been dead, but it caught, and the engine tried to turn over. Tried. For a few minutes, Gabby thought it wouldn’t start. As she tried without success to prime the old engine and nurse it to life, she began to feel deep panic, as if this big beast of a Chevy were her only chance for salvation.

Just as tears threatened to overtop her eyes, the engine caught and coughed, then roared to life. Gabby goosed the gas pedal until the truck settled into a fairly smooth idle. Then she put it into Reverse and backed down the long, narrow driveway.

She waved at the news teams as she shifted to Drive and left Santa Fe in her rearview mirror.

*****

She had no idea where she was headed; she’d never in her life been farther from Santa Fe than Albuquerque—which was where she headed first, because in her mind, you couldn’t get anywhere from Santa Fe unless you started at Albuquerque. Once in that city, though, the farthest reaches of what she knew, she had to pull over and think for a minute.

All she had to do was figure out which direction to point the truck.

South felt backward. She supposed she had family in Mexico—she knew she did—but she’d never met any of them, and she barely spoke any Spanish. Besides, she wanted to own her memories of her mother and grandparents, and she could only do that if no one else shared them.

West was more of the same and then California, basically, and all she knew about California was what movies and television said about it. Fake and bright and loud. Not even a chance to see the ocean could draw her through that.

East, from all she knew of it, was just crowded. People everywhere.

So she went north. Maybe she’d end up in Canada. Maybe she’d go so far as Alaska. She didn’t know, but the thought of going somewhere green and lush, getting away from the desert scrub of the southwest, made her feel calm.

So she went north, and she decided she’d know where she was supposed to stop when she got there.

© 2016 Susan Fanetti

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

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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