Under the Spell. Book 5 of the Incognito Series Excerpt Karen Wiesner. Prologue. May 6

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1 Under the Spell Book 5 of the Incognito Series Excerpt Karen Wiesner Prologue May 6 I always intended Gina to have everything I own, Alex heard his employer and the man he d considered a father for long years murmur. I don t believe she ll be comin back this way. But it s all hers. Always has been. Always will be. He glanced up from sweeping the horse barn after the morning muck of the stalls. Reggie Calhoun stood near his beloved saddle, which was displayed front and center on an inner wall. With one gloved hand, he lovingly touched the fanatically maintained, customtooled leather. He traced the spade patch on the side of it, then patted it protectively. The saddles on either side of Reggie s also had the Triple Aces Ranch logo on a patch. Considerable time had passed since it d been the Triple Aces Reggie, Alex s father Avery, and Dennis Omrinski riding pasture. More often than not of late, Reggie seemed to have his mind on his old pals. Old pals and the daughter who d selfishly run away and brought ruin to her own father. Alex could guess what the man was thinking: Ruined a helluva lot more n that. Not that I m gonna dwell on it for even one more second than I have all these years. Reggie lifted haunted eyes. I still have a safe box in Gina s name. I want ya to have the

2 key, Alex. The older man held it out to him. Alex wanted to refuse it, but the look in Reggie s eyes prevented him. Alex took the key and stuffed it into his pocket without looking at it. Later, he d put that key somewhere he wouldn t ever have to think about it again. But if she don t come back if she s really died you re the son I never had, Alex. All this everything I got is yours, just like I always intended. How long had it been since Reggie started acting so strange? Alex couldn t say for sure. All the skittish, fearful looks back over his shoulder. Insisting little Gavin and the women shouldn t be outside so close to dark. Paranoia about being followed, claiming he d seen someone or the ghost of someone he d once trusted. Today, if possible, the old man seemed even farther from reach. I m gonna run into Lubbock for supplies, Alex said, ignoring the awareness that Reggie wanted to talk. They d been over the past so many times. They d both lost. They d lost nearly everything that mattered to them. Only this ranch remained. And that was one thing Alex had no intention of ever losing. One way or another, he d keep what rightfully belonged to him. Or would one day, with Reggie s own blessing. Alex cast another reluctant gaze over his shoulder at Reggie. I might be a little late, he offered, replacing feed tubs and buckets in each stall. He swallowed the internal reminder that rose inside him. Supplies weren t all he had to do in Lubbock. But Reggie didn t need to know that. Alex shoved away the guilt. Anything you need? Reggie didn t answer. He d taken out his wallet and stood staring down at it. Alex didn t have to see it to know he was looking at the picture of his late wife and daughter. I feel lost, confused. Used to be I d look at these faces, and I d know what mattered. Everything came back into perspective. Now... Even while Alex wondered what on God s green earth the man was talking about, a part of him understood. When he felt lost and confused, he returned to the place where his father had been taken from him. At those times nothing made sense, but going there always put what mattered back into perspective. You need to stop talkin like this, Reggie. Like what? Reggie murmured, his gaze fixed on the picture in his wallet. Like you re gonna die. Like you got nothin left to hold on to. This ranch well, hell, it belongs to you. To me. To the boys. Reggie glanced up, and Alex knew what he wanted to hear. Reluctantly, he added, It belongs to Gina, if she ever comes back. When the old man nodded in fierce satisfaction, Alex saw a glitter in his eyes. I m not sure how long I can hold it together, Alex. That s the thing. I fired Carianne she betrayed me. Everyone I once thought of as a friend s betrayed me. This ranch only brings me pain now. I ve lost nearly everyone I love here. My trust s been shattered. I m heartsick, Alex. I ll give ya whatever you need to buy your own spread, but Triple Aces Alex tensed. He didn t know why Reggie had fired his old friend Dennis wife from her position as cook and housekeeper. He didn t know why, but he had no doubt what Reggie would say next. This time, he refused to hear it. Don t talk about sellin Triple Aces again, Reggie, Alex said, his tone hard and unyielding as stone. You and I both know that ain t the way. No way I d allow it. It d be over my dead body, old man. Or yours. Reggie looked at him helplessly. Not responding, Alex turned on his heel and stalked

3 out to his pickup. Almost without thinking about it, he drove to the west pasture, where he d set up a memorial in the exact place his father s torn, bloody shirt had been found seven years ago. The thought of losing this ranch made him nearly insane. He wouldn t allow it. No one, not even spoiled little Gina if she ever returned could take it away from him. Sharp pain suddenly penetrated the red heat in his brain. He glanced down to see that he d cut his hand on the rock at the top of the memorial. Making his silent vow to protect what he had to, any way he had to, he spread his blood over the stone. July 20 Chapter 1 Ugh, I m beat, Lucy murmured. The field operative had just emerged from unloading weapons. Wish I could skive off the briefing. Justine Fielding glanced up from running scans and then erasing the incoming mission panels. Standing between the Weapons department and Comm Central, Lucy had tipped her head back and was kneading her neck through long, black hair. Lucy Carlton was a Level 7 operative and would probably always remain there. Cocky and far too confident of her own skills, she d disobeyed direct orders numerous times, nearly getting fellow team members killed with her stubbornness. Only she would consider playing hooky instead of giving the required report after the mission she d come back from ten minutes ago. Though Lucy hadn t been on point, nor had she led the team, briefings were SOP. Lucy didn t like following any procedures but her own. Lucy, the Rebellion Hellion. Rebel with a cause only she understands. Justine didn t say a word, turning her gaze to Level 4 operative and Green Team Leader, Dez Luttino, emerging from Weapons behind Lucy. You re crazy, he said, It ll take two minutes. Go. Lucy gave Dez a half-hearted smile and left Comm. Justine and Dez shared a glance. He d gotten superficially involved with Lucy three months ago. Justine had taken it upon herself to look into Lucy s performance evals. Twice, the operative had been reprimanded for fudging reports in an attempt to disobey her team leader s orders. Once, just recently, she d been put in abeyance for hacking into Network Black Files and downloading sensitive, albeit seemingly random, files. The reason for her actions had never been determined by their superiors, but Lucy s intentions couldn t have been good. Justine thought it was a miracle she d hadn t been canceled on the spot. Probably only Dez s intervention had prevented it and put her back out in the field. The Rebellion Hellion is lucky to have you, Justine commented softly. In this place, friends were the only luxury they had. If someone didn t have your back, you might not survive. Dez gave a grin at the nickname for Lucy they used privately. How long ve you been on? he asked. Since seven a.m. I m almost done sweeping these panels. I ll finish. You go relax. Really?

4 Justine and Dez had been friends all of their lives, so his offer didn t come out of nowhere. She welcomed a reprieve. With Dez s good night echoing in the cavernous confines of Comm Central, Justine hurried upstairs to her apartment in the tower. Though she fully intended to relax, even put some dinner in the microwave, she got distracted waiting for the vegetable and rice bowl to cook. Once she sat down at her computer array, she forgot about everything else. Most of the time she was in her apartment she spent in her private hacking lab instead of relaxing. For the next few hours, she worked single-mindedly, only glancing up when the unexpected buzz of the intercom sounded from the elevator. She frowned. She assumed Dez buzzed her from the elevator, seeking passage. Who else could it be? Even by Dez s standards, it was late. Rising, she pulled up the baggy velvet sweats she d pulled on when she arrived and strode barefoot across the dimly lit room. She touched a finger to the video intercom. The last person she expected to see was her superior, Hunter Savage. Shannon McKee, #2 in Command, beside him surprised her even more. Tension seeped into Justine s chest. After six years in the Network, she still hadn t become acclimated to dealing with people who had the level of power her superiors did. Captain Shannon McKee had left her position in Washington, D.C. as Network Head Liaison #1. Although most operatives expected her to return to her original post since the Network had regained stability, McKee had remained in the role of #2 within the compound for the past eighteen months. She intimidates the hell out of me and now I m supposed to invite her into my personal sanctuary? Unwillingly, Justine pushed the button to clear them for entrance, then she stood back as the soft whir of the elevator brought the pair up to her. Just as the box reached her floor, she glanced down at herself in a ragged top that left most of her abdomen bare. The shoulders were so loose, they kept slipping down. But that wasn t the worst of it. If they saw her lab She had dozens of illegal programs installed. Even some she used for snooping on top Network operatives. Just for fun, of course. Justine rushed to the bank of computers and electronic equipment. The elevator doors slid open before she could do anything to cover her work. Is that why they re here? To confiscate my lab? Shannon McKee preceded the Head Team Leader/Mission Coordinator inside her personal space. Even at this time of night, the 2nd in Command didn t look any different than she usually did. She wore her military-short, mahogany-colored hair slicked back from her face. Unusually tall at six feet, she was in better shape than a military lifer. McKee s gaze moved, coldly efficient, around the room, taking in and logging every single detail without an ounce of emotion or obvious reaction. Justine suddenly felt naked. She glanced at Hunter Savage, who, as usual, looked hard and impassive not in the least at ease. Frequently, Justine wondered if he relaxed even off-duty in his private quarters. What are you working on? McKee asked in a loud, crisp tone. Justine swallowed, conceding that she d never expected to pull the wool over her superiors eyes indefinitely. Eventually, they d discover her fun at their expense and reprimand her. She might regret her actions then. She d just never been able to resist a challenge. One-upping the head honchos of the covert government agency she worked for was the ultimate temptation.

5 For a moment, she considered not answering. Then she figured her pet project was close enough to completion to do a preliminary unveiling. New stealth firewall protection. McKee took a few steps forward to view the main screen. We already have the most impenetrable firewalls in the world. Thanks to your team s efforts in Comm. The compliment came out of nowhere and with no gushing at all. Just the facts, ma am. Shannon McKee gave so few commendations, it was practically a miracle to be on the receiving end of an unexpected one. We won t for long, if we re not constantly a dozen steps ahead of our enemies, Justine gushed. They re getting better. So are we. And this one s better? McKee asked, her tone a challenge for Justine to prove it. She tried to contain her excitement and match #2 s calm. Our current system is completely intact, impenetrable, but it has a flaw. Hackers the most powerful ones can exit it by powering down all their systems after breaking through the initial level of our defense. They won t be able to with my stealth program. And the stealth device. She picked up the device the size of a nickel battery. I ve been working on this for over two years with Cara Ross and her best team in the Tech Department. My program works in two ways. First, when a hacker tries to break through our firewall defenses, penetration of the outer defense will activate a cage sort of a lock-down in every area of their system that won t allow them to power down or disconnect. We can trace them directly from their own source. In the case of terrorists, we can trace them directly to their satellite and then backtrack from there to target their immediate physical location. But it works with any system even a private one with only local internet access. Data-driven attack? McKee s eyes narrowed with interest. A data-driven attack was a stealth virus or other form of attack encoded in harmless data intended to fool firewalls. Basically. When the first layer of our firewall is penetrated, my stealth program fools the user into downloading and installing a back door into their system that allows us to gain primary control of their system with a few commands automatically programmed into the data. She held up the button. This tangible stealth device is a back-up for field work. It can be placed at the scene of suspected activity. Any trace of an electronic signature within a mile radius will automatically alert the stealth program in Comm Central. I m still working on increasing the radius of detection, and I expect that, within the next year, I can widen it dramatically. The stealth device is nearly undetectable. Even with an electronic sweep it s very difficult to pick up. It transmits a signal for less than a microsecond, repeating at random intervals of several minutes until it picks up an acknowledge. Then it stops the transmission attempts until there s some sort of change, or a query from Comm Central. With Stealth, we ll be able to track a target anywhere in the world. In less than five minutes, we can deploy a team and apprehend long before he can attempt to destroy the uplink, try to attack our secondary protocols, or even leave the premises. I ve already integrated it into our system. McKee lifted an eyebrow of awed interest. You ve tested this? Under glass, of course, within our current system, making adaptations and improvements. Evidence so far has proved that it works without fail. I d like to test the tangible stealth device in the field as a back-up to our primary defenses before I present it to Level 1 for system-wide incorporation. Nodding, #2 said, Proceed. I ll look forward to its official unveiling.

6 When Justine turned back, McKee simply assessed her with a gaze that felt like lasers trained on her. Why are they here? If they hadn t come about her internal spying, had they come about her on-again, off-again relationship with Dez? They d been off for over three years, though they still spent a considerable amount of their off-duty hours together as friends only. Shannon McKee s presence within the compound had proved she was serious about no sexual or romantic relationships among her operatives even high-level ones. True, the Network wasn t like any other white hat organization in the world. Their jobs were their lives. There was no room for divided loyalties. Especially the kind that could make an operative in trouble choose love instead of loyalty to the mission. Nevertheless, even McKee s threat of death hadn t quelled the need for uncomplicated liaisons that didn t last beyond a single encounter, nor bonds for those couples willing to take the risk of having some semblance of a life outside of duty. Those operatives had justifiably become more creative in their secret meetings. When it seemed neither McKee nor Savage would put her out of her misery, Justine plucked up the courage to be casual and ask, So, what s up? What did you wanna talk about? We have a situation, #2 offered. Do you mind if we sit? Justine waved them toward the luxurious living room she only used a corner of it for her lab. She found herself facing the two of them on the sofa across from her, feeling even more intimidated by what they d come here for. What situation? Why come up to her private quarters to reveal it to her? Network business was done in the perch, Tactical, or a debrief room. You understood that when you joined the Network, there was no going back? McKee began in a way that made no sense at all to Justine. She d fully understood what she was getting in to when she accepted the offer to join. We can t risk exposure by letting those who once knew us become aware of our continued existence. Justine frowned. She d willingly given up the life she d known when she was only seventeen, just as Dez had. As far as they both knew, their families believed they were missing or dead. We have a situation that requires us to break SOP. McKee glanced at her accomplice, and Savage offered quietly, Your father, Reginald Calhoun, was killed recently. For all intents and purposes, Reggie had died to her six years ago. She hadn t seen or talked to him in all that time. As McKee had said, there was no return to a former life. She d abandoned it and given her present and future to the Network. Yet none of it explained why she felt kicked in the gut by the news of Reggie s death. She could only look away while she tried to remember how to even breathe. Approximately two and a half months ago, on May 6th, a fire overtook the Triple Aces Ranch. A prairie fire that accelerated quickly. The main house, the bunk houses They were destroyed. Calhoun was in the main house at the time, along with a ranch hand s wife and child. Before Justine could think better of it, she demanded, Who? The woman s name was Colleen Olsen Olsen? Colleen Gaines? McKee nodded.

7 Colleen must ve married Lance Olsen. Colleen her daddy was a ranch hand when I was growing up. Her mother a cook. Colleen had a younger sister. Colleen married Lance, who d no doubt gone on to be a hand at Triple Aces, just like his father. Colleen and Lance had a child together. And now she and their child are dead. Did Lance survive? Justine asked in a small voice. All who lived and worked at your father s ranch survived except those I mentioned. What about Alex Lynch? While McKee and Savage didn t look at each other, Justine sensed something pass between them in the pause that followed her question. Alex Lynch survived, Savage revealed. He wasn t on the premises at the time. May sixth. Spring work would have begun, if not at that time then shortly afterward. Her father would have been coordinating the spring roundup, the branding season, working the calves born during the winter. Triple Aces would have crewed their cowboys with the neighboring ranches Lewis, May and Sanford moving from pasture to pasture to sort the cattle and brand the calves. Calhoun accepted your loss a few years ago, McKee interrupted Justine s thoughts. He stopped trying to find you, but he left you as the sole heir of the ranch and all his holdings. However, his will stipulated that, in the event that you didn t return to claim your inheritance, everything would go to Alex Lynch. A strange prickling heat began behind Justine s eyes. Alex had been the closest thing to a son Reggie had, long before she disappeared. Alex never disappointed him. No, I had the monopoly on that. Alex had inherited Triple Aces, her father s fortune, just as he was always meant to. The ranch house has been rebuilt. Day to day operations have continued without interruption. Of course. Ranching wasn t a punch-in, punch-out kind of job, no more than life in the Network was. Cowboys were on duty twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. A cowboy was his work, just like her work was her life. Approximately two and a half months ago, a fire overtook Wait a minute. Justine suddenly realized there was something strange happening. Why are you telling me this? Her superiors wouldn t be telling her at all without damn good reasons. When she gave her life to the Network, she effectively severed any hope of contact with her family and friends back in Fever, Texas. The Network certainly didn t make a policy of telling their operatives forbidden information about a life dead and gone. We don t believe Calhoun s death was an accident, Savage explained. Prairie fire or no prairie fire, this situation was unwarranted and unprecedented. While Justine now knew why two of her superiors had come to her private abode, she still didn t understand the connection what made it necessary for McKee and Hunter to reveal this to her. Justine, once Gina Calhoun, and Dez, the former Samuel Omrinski, had known each other all their lives. Samuel s parents had introduced both of them to computers when they were in their single digits. When she and Samuel were sixteen, his father Dennis went to jail for selling government secrets to a rival country. While she and Samuel had used the LAN Ethernet system they d set up in the private school they attended during the week in Lubbock, they d occasionally taken advantage of the back doors and passageways they d built-into that system. All for fun and the challenge, of course. Samuel s father had asked

8 him repeatedly to send some files through the school s system using one of the cloaked passageways. The files sent had been encrypted, and Samuel s father gave him his full trust in sending them. Sure, maybe Samuel should have asked more questions about it all, but he d been too happy about winning his father s previously withheld praise. He d merely been doing his father a favor. He d known nothing about the crime taking place. But after she and Samuel were approached by the Network a year later, they d realized only then that they were being monitored by the government for their hacker activities. In many ways, their agreement to join the Network had saved them from a life under a microscope. Samuel bore the scourge of his father s crimes on a daily basis. Gina had problems with her own father problems she couldn t bear to live with anymore at that time. So? she demanded. You think my father had something to do with Dennis Omrinski s spy activities? That would explain their presence here, and their revelation of forbidden information about her past. Just before Calhoun s death, Savage started, we intercepted an encrypted communiqué we strongly believe was to the contact who bought government secrets from Dennis Omrinski. The sender of that communiqué claimed to be Dennis Omrinski. Several follow-ups to that communication have been intercepted since. Nothing that we can trace only a residue attesting to the fact that sensitive material had been transferred into enemy hands. Where did the communications originate? Justine asked. Triple Aces Ranch. She figured that much, but she d needed to verify it. And Dennis Omrinski s alibi? He s still in prison. All his communication is monitored there, in whatever form it s sent. He could have had an accomplice on the outside, she offered. Shannon McKee nodded, and Justine knew what she implied even without the words. The buyer s identity had never been determined. While the government mole who d been feeding government secrets to Omrinski for profit had been arrested, they d never determined whether Omrinski had a partner in crime. Justine now knew that the Network believed Reggie had been that partner, laying low. But Reggie s death must have changed that. Reggie could have been killed when he intercepted the communications going out from his ranch. Someone at Triple Aces was taking over where Dennis Omrinski left off seven years previously. But who did the Network suspect? We need someone on the inside, McKee continued. Someone those at the ranch know and trust. Do you suspect my father was a spy, too? That he was Dennis s accomplice on the outside? McKee looked to Savage, and Justine followed the gaze expectantly. After Dennis Omrinski s arrest, Reggie had publicly denounced his life-long friend, saying he d never had a clue he was a traitor to their country. Did her superiors believe that d been a front to protect himself? All we know is, Calhoun s death is suspicious. We couldn t positively say the fire was deliberately lit, nor has it been determined whether the fire was intended to cover something up or kill someone, or both. And they needed someone on the outside to go in.

9 Someone the ranch hands knew and would accept. Someone who could get the information they couldn t. Dez is a field operative, Justine offered. I sit behind a computer most of the time, in a van or in Comm Central. The ranch hands know him. Maybe they wouldn t trust him, but Savage shook his blond head. Luttino wouldn t be effective for undercover on this mission. He claims he barely knew anyone on Calhoun s ranch, save for you. Justine s brain felt sluggish, not just because she hadn t slept in almost twenty hours. Her superiors were planning the unthinkable around her! They meant to insert her back into her old life as Gina Calhoun, long-lost daughter of ranch mogul Reggie Calhoun. How did they expect her to complete a mission like that without well, without getting involved? They had no idea what they were asking of her. You want me to find out the nature of my father s death? she verified in barely a whisper. If Omrinski had a partner or someone s taking up where he left off? McKee and Savage nodded. Who do you suspect? Everyone and anyone who was employed by the ranch at the time of Calhoun s death, Savage told her succinctly. Justine had been a Level 2 operative plenty long enough to know when she was being played. You suspect Alex Lynch, don t you? She couldn t help the snorted laugh that escaped her. You can t imagine how ridiculous that is! Alex doesn t even know how to turn a computer on! And he s a pussycat. A gorgeous, gentle, sweet and sexy pussycat. You haven t seen him for over six years, McKee reminded her. There s always a chance we really never know those we consider closest to us. Just like I didn t know my father? Justine murmured. Neither of her superiors spoke, and Justine offered again incredulously, I m a computer geek. I ve never been on the business end of a mission, outside of running parameters from the van console or Comm. I m background. You ve had the same training all operatives get. Lars Powell will take over Comm while you re under. Luttino will run the op from the compound and, when necessary, he ll be mobilized with his team to your area. We want you on site within thirty-six hours. Savage reached into his jacket and brought out a hand-held panel. Your cover story for the last six years. Any revisions are encouraged and due before you ship out. Report to Jocelyn Dominica to resume the basics of your former appearance. Weapons and Tech for your equipment before you leave the compound. We ll expect your first B&A within seventy-two hours following your insertion. Sure, I m supposed to give them a breakdown and assessment of a situation I ve tried not to remember since I was brought in? No problem. Have you set up a perimeter around the ranch? Savage shook his head. The area s too large. No doubt. And, Justine knew, with the cooperation between neighboring ranches occurring during spring roundup, perimeter alarms would have gone off several times a day as the cowboys went from one pasture to another. We also don t want to tip off the mole, Savage continued. Whoever s doing this has considerable skills comparative to those in our organization. Possibly even to yourself. Justine had a hard time believing there were more than a handful of hackers more

10 skilled than herself and her team not so much out of conceit but knowing that the Network sat atop the mountain of technology. Savage and McKee s expressions didn t change. They were dead serious. A perimeter would allow the spy to detect our signature, and we can t risk this person pulling back now. This may be our only opportunity to get the identity of the buyer. You won t be allowed to use any technology within the ranch boundaries. You ll go to a Lubbock hotel and send your scheduled reports from there. We ll give you a secure satellite phone for emergencies, but you need to get a few miles from the ranch before you use it. Outside of that, you ll be on your own. Until we know where the communications are being sent from, we won t be able to close in. She wouldn t be able to use any technology at the ranch, but the stealth device emitted so small an electronic signature, only someone with Justine s own skills could detect it. If she could figure out where the electronic communications were taking place within a mile radius, she could plant the device and wait for the system within the compound to be alerted. A team could close in within minutes, while the target was still trying fruitlessly to sever the connection with the buyer. Silence pervaded the room, and Justine swallowed. She d been forbidden from looking back for so many years. Now her superiors were commanding it of her. Not simply to look back. To go back to a former life still so unresolved. Are you still the picture of the ultimate cowboy of my dreams, Alex Lynch? Are you still shy? Still so full of your precious honor? Still feel anything for me? Her memories of Alex were all contradictory. The same shyness that endeared her had frustrated her because she could never get as close to him as she d wanted. Hell, she d wanted to enter his very being, his essence. She sighed loudly. Even that wouldn t ve been close enough for me. Alex Lynch had been the one person who could have convinced her not to give her life to the Network. Her relationship with Reggie had been volatile a cage she d wanted nothing more than to escape even if it meant she never saw him or her home again. Never saw Alex. She d never wanted to leave him. Yet Alex s honor had been the very thing that drove her into the Network s cold, iron arms. Now her superiors either believed her father had tried to stop or been involved with his former friend s crimes, and that Alex Lynch was somehow mixed up in the plot. Justine shook her head, lost in her memories. No, Alex would have had to change like night to day, good to evil to be involved. No one could change that much. Could they? But she had. Even as her superiors rose and departed, Justine held back from the preparations she needed to begin soon. Return to Fever, Texas. Return to the tiny ranch town she d grown up in and, at one time, believed she might die in right next to Alex Lynch. In some ways, she had died. Gina Calhoun was essentially dead. Justine Fielding had taken her place, only to be resurrected painfully to her former identity now. The thought was nothing if not bittersweet. Calhoun and Lynch may yet ride again.

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