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Incognito Series, Book 5: Under the Spell
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Incognito Series, Book 5: Under the Spell

Score: 5.00 (votes: 1)

Men and women who have sacrificed their personal identities to live in the shadows and uphold justice for all--no matter the cost.

Alex Lynch has spent a lifetime working hard toward the goal of owning the Triple Aces Ranch in Fever, Texas. His dream has finally come true when Gina Calhoun--a girl he'd loved all his life, despite her penchant for looking for trouble and his penchant for bailing her out--drops back into his life, seemingly out of nowhere.

Network Communications and Systems Analyst Justine Fielding, the former Gina Calhoun, is all grown up, more beautiful than ever... and even more restless.

Little does Alex know that the woman he's falling under the spell of all over again is there on a mission to uncover and stop the dangerous men who killed her father--Alex being her chief suspect. This time, Gina may be the only one who can bail him out of the trouble about to come down on him. 

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  • Karen Wiesner
    Jan 3, 2018, 16:39
    5 star review from Fallen Angel Reviews
    Fallen Angel Reviews Recommended Read Award
    5 star review from Long and Short Reviews
    5 star review from ReviewYourBook
    5 star review from The Romance Studio
    The Romance Studio’s Sweetheart Award Winner
    4 1/2 star review from Dark Diva Reviews

    5 Angels! "What else can I say about this series that hasn't already been said? I have been lucky enough to have read each book in the series as it's come out and they just keep getting better and better. UNDER THE SPELL is no exception. It is full of the action, adventure and mystery that abound in the Incognito Series. The sexual tension between "Justine" Gina and Alex keeps you eagerly reading as you wait to see how it will finally turn out. This book has a lot of things going on and secondary characters that add to the mystery but the author never loses focus of the main characters. Author Karen Wiesner has a huge hit on her hands with UNDER THE SPELL, and I'm eagerly anticipating book 6, RENEGADE'S ROSE!" ~Fallen Angel Reviews

    5 Books! "If you've been following Karen Wiesner's Incognito Series, you are now well versed in its baseline motto; once you join The Network, whoever or whatever you are is dead - to yourself and anyone you will leave behind. There is no going back--ever. Ms. Wiesner, the queen of the 'what if?' scenario, once again plays with the rules of her world by having one of her characters, Justine, get offered the unthinkable--a chance to go back to being the person she once was. Whether or not the author intended this as a real life lesson, this story shares a warning to youthful readers who, as young adults, might be chomping at the bit of life and are resentful of the restraints they believe they are under. Perhaps they've even been bombarded with the advice all generations seems to be a recipient of: Don't rush into things; you have your whole life ahead of you; Tomorrow is another day, You're too young to know all there is about life. Gina Calhoun made that classic move; she joined The Network to escape the stifling thumb of her father and the spurned love of her life because she was convinced things would never ever get better. She was doomed to stay in the rut that was her life. She knew what was what and made her choice. Oh, the wisdom of youth. Justine a/k/a Gina Calhoun, is now a woman who must go back home to face more than just the investigation into traitorous activities. (Get ready for some surprise twists in solving this case folks, it’s a doozy!) She has to face the fact that what she believed about her father and his intentions at the time might have actually been colored and distorted by her youthful passions. In the process of facing the past she also has to face her preconceived notions about the man she loved and left behind, Alex Lynch. I enjoyed Alex. He was a man’s man even in his youth. His traits of honesty and loyalty are laudable. However, his stalwart belief in Justine/Gina’s father made him, in her eyes, weak, uncompromising and obsessive. Justine viewed his words of young love as questionable and insincere when he would not do as she wished back when she was ‘Gina’. I found it interesting that for the most part, Alex remained the same and those traits now made more sense to Justine. Alex wasn’t uncompromising, he just saw things more clearly. He wasn’t weak, he wanted it all too, but understood her dad’s position. To a point, I could see how Gina/Justine thought he was obsessive about the ranch, but I didn’t get the feeling he ever used her to get it. I enjoyed reading about her growth in understanding, yet I felt her pain. She can’t go back, she can’t have what she threw away – a love so special and real you want to rail at the unfairness of it all in her behalf. Yes, Alex and Justine/Gina love each other. There is passion and yearning and so many moments where you feel that theirs was a love that could have taken them onto their Golden Years. Yet Justine belongs to The Network. Oh, what to do? After reading this review you might be wondering many things. Who really is the bad guy in this story? Why didn’t I talk more about the suspense and action? Mostly because I really fell for the romance of Justine and Alex and that made a bigger impact on me. As for the future of their relationship you might ask, “Can there be a compromise? What does the author come up with this time that satisfies the romantic in all of us? Can Justine possibly hoodwink The Network?” I can tell you that what ends up happening makes me believe in the impossible. Another thing I can say, Karen Wiesner has me Under the Spell, and loving it!!" ~The Long And The Short Of It Reviews

    5 Hearts! "Karen Wiesner continues to weave some excellent storylines for this series about the covert operations of The Network. This time we get to go to working cattle ranch near Lubbock, Texas. The suspense is well done as suspicion falls on Alex and some unknown people who are searching the ranch when everyone is away or busy. Alex and Gina, against their better judgment, reheat a romance that was burning between them before she left. The characters are well done as we see both of them fighting to avoid a broken heart but unable to say no to each other. There's great contrast and comparisons between Gina as a spoiled, stubborn, rich teenager, and the savvy operative she's become. Alex is one of those characters we can't help but adore as his honor and morals vie with his needs to be macho and take care of his woman. Ms. Wiesner builds the suspense with a little humor and a lot of romance to make it more fun. We're pretty sure of the culprits by the end but she throws in a twist that many readers may not guess ahead of time. This series continues to be full of variety and well worth reading." ~The Romance Studio

    5 Stars! "UNDER THE SPELL is a beautiful love story. The plot has unexpected twists and turns. Gina and Alex make one of those unforgettable couples. Their romance is enchanting. UNDER THE SPELL has the action and adventure we have come to expect in this series. Karen Wiesner is an extremely talented author. I will be watching for more of her books."

    4.25 Stars! "UNDER THE SPELL is well written. I felt the emotional attachment of Justine and Alex was done well. UNDER THE SPELL offers plenty of passion along with being an interesting mystery/thriller." ~Night Owl Romance

    4 Stars! "More book space is spent on the romance than on the mission this time around. But do not worry, there is danger, as well as the surprise or two which the author, Karen Wiesner, is fast becoming known for. Excellent!" ~Huntress Reviews

    4 1/2 Delightful Divas! “Oh boy. Just when I think I’ve figured out how Karen Wiesner’s next book is going to go, she throws me a curve ball. And with this, the fifth book in her Incognito Series, UNDER THE SPELL, she proves once again that I don’t have a clue…and probably never will. But that’s okay ‘cause I’m usually pretty happy to follow along…unless of course it looks as though things may not turn out the way I want them to. I’m ALL about a happy ending, preferably an HEA—happily ever after. What’s surprised me the most about this series—or perhaps my reaction to it—is that these stories don’t have the classic all-ends-wonderfully-well endings. While I’ve been, not disappointed per se, even if the many and varied endings—in just five books so far—are not your, or rather my, typical HEA, I may not be completely thrilled but I do understand that these are the only way these stories could end…and I’m discovering that that, amazingly, works for me…mostly. I think it’s because that it’s not only the people that are so different in each story, or rather it’s the hero and heroine that are different while we do get to know the common characters a bit better with every meeting, but that the circumstances are all so unique. And sometimes both protagonists are members of the Network and sometimes only one is, so of course the endings are going to vary. And, love it or not, it’s one of the things that I most enjoy about Karen Wiesner’s stories. They’re each unique and as individual as the main characters, and with this author’s talent, that is very unique. In this book, UNDER THE SPELL, Justine, who in her previous life was Gina, has to return to her childhood home and discover who is betraying her country. The same thing that turned her entire life around years before is happening again. But this time she knows what is happening, if not who. And it’s discovering the who that is the biggest challenge. Going back to the Triple Aces Ranch and, more importantly, Alex Lynch gives Justine an opportunity that many of us never get: getting a second chance. Or is she going to have that opportunity? The mystery of who is working against the government is very surprising and there’s no way I’m saying any more about that! Let it be enough that I had no clue and, once again, Karen Wiesner blew the top off yet another of her books. Not only that, but she did such a wonderful job bringing to life Alex and Justine. I could almost put myself into their memories and all that they were feeling and, as the story progressed, it just got better and better. Then there were Justine’s off-site interactions with her teammate and the leader of the op, Dez Luttino. I’d heard his name before but liked finally getting a chance to get to know him—and I hope that we get his story at some point, too, because I’m all kinds of curious about him…even knowing a good deal of his past. But this is one thing at which Wiesner excels… and by no means is this the only thing: her characters and their continued development through their story and, for those who play much bigger roles in the books, each subsequent chapter in the series in which they appear. They are people who excite my curiosity, incite my frustration—some more than others—and always have me completely absorbed by what is happening. And the more I get to know, the more that I want to know. And in this book, UNDER THE SPELL and the Incognito Series to date, Karen Wiesner is showing just how deftly she is able to not only maintain the energy, but to increase it. All I can say is…WOW!" ~Kathy for Dark Diva Reviews

    4 Delightful Divas! “The Incognito Series continues with Book5, UNDER THE SPELL. As with all the other books, I am blown away by the depth of the plot, the suspense, and the unbelievably real characters. Karen Wiesner has the Network and her characters down to an art. Justine returns home, to the ranch where she grew up, to investigate her father’s mysterious death. She meets up with Alex again, and it is obvious that neither of them have lost the love that they felt for the other. Their emotion was real, powerful, and I felt it to my core. This book seemed to have less action, but the suspense and twists and turns kept on coming. More than anything, I enjoyed the renewed love between Justine and Alex. If you haven’t read any of the Incognito Series, I recommend that you start with Book 1, even though each book can be read as a stand-alone.” ~Melissa for Dark Diva Reviews

    "UNDER THE SPELL is Ms. Wiesner's fifth book in the Incognito Series. The agents in the Network are forced to give up so much--children, family, and friends--but in spite of their superiors, the Network's hard nose rules, and their own self-restraint, they cannot help but long for a sense of normalcy. It is an intriguing premise that keeps going strong through each book, and UNDER THE SPELL is no exception. Justine left her father's ranch expecting a life filled with more freedom but, ironically, ended up in a different type of cage. I loved the contrast between the twenty-first century technology, the coldness that is so much a part of Justine's life as an agent in the Network, and the one at Triple Aces Ranch. Justine's old friends are hardworking, honest, and salt of the earth cowboys and women, and when readers contrast that with the people who make up the Network and its constant intrigues, where no one is ever really free to completely let down his guard, it is hard not to sympathize. Readers will love Alex Lynch, who has pined for Gina all these years but is not about to let her return to claim the ranch he loves. With plenty of chemistry between its hero and heroine, nice dialogue and suspense, I recommend UNDER THE SPELL. Love may not triumph over all, but can it find a small place in the lives of those who are most deserving?" ~Romance Reviews Today

    4 Cups! "I loved this story. The action and the suspense had me guessing with every page. The clues are all there for the reader to easily see but yet it is not easy to figure out the ending. The agency that Justine/Gina works for is interesting and you never get the feeling you know exactly what they are all about. Ms. Wiesner has a flair for action and she proves it with this wonderful story. I look forward to reading the first books of this series and can only hope for more to come." ~Coffee Time Romance

    "The Incognito Series has been consistently one of the best thriller sagas on the market today. The fifth book will place newcomers UNDER THE SPELL of author Karen Wiesner (fans already are ensorcelled by this writer). The lead couple makes for a fast-paced plot as each realizes they still love the other, but neither trusts one another or their own heart. The espionage elements are cleverly designed to keep the audience and Gina struggling with the fact that Alex is certainly the traitor. As fans know, set aside the hours--this is a one-sitting espionage romantic thriller." ~Harriet Klausner

    “UNDER THE SPELL is aptly named, Gina/Justine and Alex fall hopelessly under each other’s spell. This is, not surprising, another great addition to a fantastic series. Although UNDER THE SPELL is part of a series, it reads wonderfully as a stand-alone, as with all of the books of this series. UNDER THE SPELL is more on the romantic side, but the suspense of the novel is not compromised because of it. I enjoyed this story and I know followers of this series will, too.” ~Joyfully Reviewed

    "I really liked this book in the Incognito Series. UNDER THE SPELL did not go into much about the Network...but I loved the characters. This book felt like a western romance to me, because it takes place out on a ranch with a cowboy. Once Justine makes her entrance she quickly realizes that Alex, her past lover is sexier and more available than ever. This mission becomes ten times harder for her because she knows that he is a very likely suspect in case. The romance aspect of this story was incredible. It was hot and spicy, and I found myself falling for Alex as well. I really enjoyed Justine’s character and felt that she was very believable. The ending is a big surprise; something that I would not have guessed...and was an added bonus of excitement." ~Front Street Reviews

    "UNDER THE SPELL is the fifth book of the Incognito Series. Once again Karen Wiesner draws the reader into the story with nonstop excitement and sexual tension. The story itself is super and the characters are electric. While I enjoyed Gina and Alex's story, I was left with an incomplete feeling. I wanted a nice ever after ending, but the Network storyline does not make that possible. The two lovers must steal the time they have together and keep it secret. I hope to read more about Gina and Alex in a future book of the series." ~Writers Unlimited

    "Book 5 of the Incognito Series, UNDER THE SPELL is a romance that rises above the Chicago Network's uncompromising rule of no relationships within the organization. Karen Wiesner will surprise fans with this story in the series!" ~Rolling Seas Reviews

    "The intriguing premise of this series, which is now up to book five, is based on characters renouncing their old life for a new life fighting crime. The Network demands duty before love, but love always wins out." ~Romantic Times BOOKreviews


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, custom-tooled 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 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'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 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.

Chapter 1

July 20

"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."


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.

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."

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.

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 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 e-mail 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. 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 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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Writers Exchange is a Christian publishing house, although we do publish many, many other genres and not all our authors are Christian:)

We have been publishing and selling books since 2000, but in 2017 we decided to sell MOST of our books exclusively from Amazon. A number of our books are also available from other retailers. We have made it very easy for you to find our books from whichever retailer you prefer, either in the "buy" links on each book page, but also by the Menu Item "Our Books by Retailer" which will show you our books at Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.

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