The Winchester Ranch is a place of age-old scandal and deadly family secrets. For DEA agent T. D. Waters, the thriving ranch and mysterious Winchester clan have the answers he's looking for. With the heart of a cowboy and a rebellious streak that can't be tamed, he's not going to let anyone interfere with his investigation. Nor will he let a beautiful, lonely siren distract him from his mission.
But when T.D.'s hunt for the truth puts lives at risk, protecting Lizzy Calder--and wrestling their potent attraction--becomes his mission. As the danger rises, secrets surface...and all hope for a Winchester Ranch wedding may be destroyed.
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December 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Winchester Christmas Wedding by B.J. Daniels
The call woke T. D. Waters from a restless sleep. He glanced at the clock and swore as the phone rang again. Who the hell would be calling this time of the night?
He considered ignoring it, thinking it had to be his boss, although he couldn't imagine why Roger Collins would be calling him. The last time they'd talked he'd told Collins what he thought of his latest sting operation.
"We had our reasons for what we did," his boss said.
"You got Ace killed and for what?" TD had demanded. "That whole operation was nothing but a setup. Were you trying to get the two of us killed?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Collins had shot back.
But TD couldn't help the feeling that he'd hit too close to home. Something had been very wrong with that entire assignment.
"Take some time off," his boss had said, getting to his feet and dismissing not only TD--but his concerns, as well. "Time to heal, relax, rethink things."
Rethink things? "Don't you mean quit asking questions? Quit voicing my suspicions?"
"I mean heal," Collins said. "Even if you hadn't been wounded during the operation, you're not ready mentally to be on the job. Take a vacation. Go somewhere warm. Get some sun. We'll talk in a few more weeks."
Get some sun. Yeah, right. The truth was TD wasn't sure he'd have a job in a few weeks. And even if he did, he wasn't sure he trusted Roger Collins anymore. This wasn't the first time that he'd wondered about some of the covert operations he'd been sent on--or about Roger Collins.
TD couldn't shake the feeling that neither he nor Ace had been expected to come out of the last one alive. Was that because Ace, too, had been questioning Roger's leadership?
That's just guilt talking, he thought as he reached for the phone. He'd gotten an agent killed. He should have checked the man on the ground for a pulse. Instead he'd given him a perfunctory nudge with his boot toe, his mind on the man getting away with what he'd believed was half a million dollars of federal money.
"Waters," he said into the phone out of habit.
Silence. No, not silence. He could make out what sounded like wind in the background, a strange static on the line as if the call was coming from some place in the sticks.
The static reminded him of a sound he hadn't heard since he was eight--that eerie howl the wind made as it whipped across the eaves of an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
"Hello?" he said, unable to keep the sharp edge of anxiety out of his voice.
"I'm not sure I have the right number. Were you born on May 22, 1983?" asked a clearly disguised voice. With that and the static on the line, he couldn't be sure if it was a man or a woman.
"Who is this?" he demanded as he sat up ignoring the sudden pain in his side.
"I doubt that."
"I have some information for you."
TD sat up straighter. "What kind of information?"
"Information about who you really are."
What? If this was some kind of joke, he was in no mood for it. He glanced toward his weapon lying within reach. He knew who he was, but apparently the caller didn't. "I don't have the time or patience for this."
He started to hang up when the voice on the other end of the line said, "I will give you information about your birth parents if you're interested."
His birth parents? Boy, did this guy have the wrong number. "What's in it for you?"
A slight hesitation on the other end of the line, then, "Fifty thousand dollars."
Now he knew the call had been a mistake. If his caller knew anything about him, then he would know better than to try to extort money from him.
"I know all about your home birth, the adoption and why you were given up. What's that worth to you?"
TD was shaking his head. The caller should have done his homework. He'd gotten the wrong man in more ways than one. "Sorry, but I wasn't adopted."
A dry, rattling chuckle. "Whoever told you those people who raised you in that farmhouse outside of Whitehorse, Montana, were your real parents lied to you. I don't know why they were murdered, but I have a feeling you do."
He felt an odd prickle at the nape of his neck. The caller knew about the farmhouse outside Whitehorse? Knew about the murder? Collins had said he'd taken care of the past, that nothing from it would ever lead the killers to TD.
"What exactly do I get for my money?" he asked, playing along as the blood-splattered satchel full of bundled cut newspaper flashed in his mind.
"I told you, I tell you who handled the under-the-radar adoption, I tell you who your parents really are and then you can find out why they were killed. We both know you are more than capable of finding that out on your own."
TD's heart was pounding. "How do I get the money to you?"
"I'll give you a mailing address." The caller rattled off a box number in Whitehorse. "Once I have the money, I'll call you with what you need to know. I advise you to move quickly. I'm not the only one who knows who you really are. Your life is in danger. The sooner you know the truth, the better off you will be." Click.
TD sat holding the phone, his heart slamming against his rib cage. What the hell?
Grabbing his gun from the bedside table, he moved to pull back the drapes at his apartment window and look down on the deserted street. Nothing moved. No sign of life and yet he couldn't help the paranoia.
I'm going to help you disappear. Isn't that what his now boss Roger Collins had told him that day as the car he was riding in raced away from the burning farmhouse? We can't let whoever killed your parents find out you're still alive.
But had Roger Collins been protecting TD or the agency? Or himself?
TD had a feeling that Roger Collins would do anything to protect his position with the agency. He'd said his climb to the top had been hard. How many people had he sacrificed to get there?
TD felt the room suddenly go cold. Someone knew who he was. That is, who he had been.
He checked the call that had come in, surprised that it wasn't blocked. Whoever had called wasn't a pro. Far from it.
Jotting down the unfamiliar number, he dug out the phone book and looked up the area code. His pulse jumped. Montana?
Hurriedly, he dialed the number. The line began to ring. It rang twice more before what sounded like an old woman answered.
"Someone just called me from there."
"Well, it wasn't me," she snapped. "It's after midnight. Call back tomorrow."
"Wait! Who else is there who might have called me?"
"How should I know? They come and go around here like it's a damned bus station. I'm just the housekeeper and cook. No one tells me anything."
He was afraid she would hang up. "Just tell me this. What's your nearest town?"
"Whitehorse." She did hang up, slamming down the phone.
He winced and started to call back, but stopped himself. Back at the apartment window, he studied the quiet Atlanta street again. He tried to stay calm, to think rationally.
Swearing, he closed the drapes. He'd been told all record of his life before the age of eight had been erased to protect him. Unless he wanted to end up like his parents, Collins had told him, he should forget the past. What was there in his past that even Collins didn't want him to know?
TD closed his eyes, seeing himself at eight, turning around in the back seat of the large, dark SUV as it raced away from the burning farmhouse. Inside the house were his slain parents. At least the people he had believed were his parents.
Doubt pierced through his memory, exposing what he hadn't questioned at eight, but couldn't ignore now. His parents had lived an isolated life outside of White-horse, Montana, in the middle of nowhere. His mother had homeschooled him. They didn't seem to have any relatives, or friends for that matter. And both had been killed--execution style, he now realized.
"Better to let the killers believe you died in that fire as well as your parents," he'd been told as he was hustled out to the waiting car. "Don't worry. Someone is taking care of everything,"
That person was waiting in the car. Roger Collins. As head of a secret government agency, Collins had seen that TD was issued a new birth certificate and given a new identity. Thomas Daniel Waters was born that day. Collins had even found people to take care of him until he was old enough to be on his own, friends of his, Collins had said.
Yes, Collins had taken care of everything, from that day at the farmhouse through college graduation and a job with his exclusive covert agency.
TD raked a hand through his hair. The stitches in his side hurt like hell. But that was nothing compared to the doubts surging through him. If Collins had taken care of everything, then why was someone calling him from Winchester Ranch near Whitehorse, Montana, saying they knew even more about him?
The caller had known his real birth date: May 22, 1983. Not the one Collins had given him: June 5, 1983. The caller had also known about the farmhouse and the deaths of his parents.
Hell, the caller seemed to know more about him than he did himself. Even TD didn't know exactly where he'd been born.
He shook his head, trying to clear out the doubts. But they had stuck. His parents had been older, neither had resembled him and he'd never really known what his father did for a living. Whatever it was, it had brought Roger Collins into his life that horrible day when he was eight.
His father must have worked for Collins. That was the only thing that made any sense now. Why hadn't he realized that before? What if the caller was right and the Clarksons weren't his biological parents?
TD couldn't believe the route his thoughts were taking. Was he really going to believe the word of some anonymous caller in the middle of the night? He pulled out an untraceable cell phone and made the call to the number he'd been given for emergencies only.
"You have a leak. Someone knows who I am," he said without preamble.
Hesitation, then Collins said, "That's not possible."
"I just got a call. The person seems to know more about me than even I do. You said my past was erased and that not even you knew the truth. Well, someone sure as hell does."
The silence this time had a weight to it. "Sit tight. I'll have someone there in twenty minutes," Collins said.
TD hung up and looked around his small apartment. From the time he was a boy, he'd relied on his instincts. Those instincts told him he was now on his own. At eight, he'd believed the people who had killed his parents would be looking for him. Why else give him a new identity? Why else would Roger Collins treat him like his own son, get him raised and educated, and bring him into the agency?
Now TD couldn't be sure who he really had to fear. He thought of Ace and the botched job. Ten minutes later he was packed up and gone. He'd always traveled light, knowing he might have to disappear at any moment.
By the time the sun came up, he was driving a pickup he'd paid cash for and was on his way to the Winchester Ranch somewhere near Whitehorse, Montana.
He'd tried to cover his tracks, but he knew Collins and the resources he had available to him. It was just a matter of time before he would have to deal with whoever Collins sent after him.
Roger Collins called in two of his men to bring in TD Waters. He thought about sending a couple more. Waters wouldn't want to come in. Waters had been getting suspicious for some time now. He was a danger to the agency, a danger to himself. He was especially a danger to Roger Collins. What would he do now?
Collins hated to think. He'd told the two men he'd sent to use force if necessary. He swore at the thought of how much force it would take to bring Waters in. He should have sent more men.
Thirty minutes later, he was startled out of his thoughts when his phone rang. He snatched it up. "Did you get him? "
"He was long gone when we got here," the agent told him. "The way the place was cleaned out, I'd say he isn't planning on coming back."
"He couldn't be that far ahead of us," the agent said. "We can shut down the city. He won't be able to get out."
"No." That was the last thing Collins wanted, to alert another law-enforcement agency, let alone try to shut down the city to find him. TD was too smart for that, anyway. He would have gotten rid of the big black SUV he drove courtesy of the government.
"Come back in," Collins said. "I'll take care of it."
He sat for a moment after he hung up. This couldn't have happened at a worse time. First the debacle with TD's last assignment, and now some anonymous phone call in the middle of the night.
There was no reason to panic, Collins assured himself. He knew where Waters was headed. Montana. If Waters was going after the caller, then he must have some idea where the call had come from.
Within minutes Collins had Waters's phone records and the number--and where the call had come from: Winchester Ranch. He smiled. This was going to be too easy, since right next door to that ranch, so to speak, was the McCormick Ranch.
True, it would have to be handled with the utmost of care--and not by just anyone. He needed someone he could depend on, someone who wouldn't question any order he gave, someone who knew his way around Montana.
It would have to be a new recruit, someone who had proven himself but was new enough that TD Waters didn't know the person and wouldn't suspect him. Someone who could get close to TD, watch him and at first, simply report back. But definitely someone loyal who, when it became necessary, would make sure TD Waters never left Montana alive.
Still smiling, Collins picked up the phone and dialed. "I'm sorry to bother you in the middle of the night, Elizabeth, but I have an assignment for you that can't wait."
Twelve hours later
"Lizzy?" Anne McCormick looked shocked to see her. "What are you doing here?"
Elizabeth "Lizzy" Calder hadn't known what kind of reception she would get at the McCormick Ranch this close to Christmas--especially showing up unannounced. Fortunately she had the perfect excuse--she was here to see her childhood friend.