Authors: Michelle Celmer
This month in
by Michelle Celmer
Nita Windcroft doesn't need a live-in bodyguard, but she can't resist him. While they work together to find the vandal wreaking destruction on her land, she finds more and more to like about Connor Thorne. Nita knows he wants her, but the stubborn man won't give in!
IS PROUD TO PRESENT
A new drama unfolds for six of the state's wealthiest bachelors.
And don't miss the next installments of the TEXAS CATTLEMAN'S CLUB: THE SECRET DIARY series
HIGHLY COMPROMISED POSITION
by Sara Orwig
A MOST SHOCKING REVELATION
by Kristi Gold
Available from Silhouette Desire!
Playing by the Baby Rules
The Seduction Request
Silhouette Intimate Moments
Running on Empty
lives in southeastern Michigan with her husband, their three children, two dogs and two cats. When she's not writing or busy being a mom, you can find her in the garden or curled up with a romance novel. And if you twist her arm real hard you can usually persuade her into a day of power shopping.
Michelle loves to hear from readers. Visit her Web site at: www.michellecelmer.com, or write her at P.O. Box 300, Clawson, MI 48017.
To Melissa Jeglinski, for taking an eight-year dream and making it a reality. Words cannot express my gratitude.
To Patience Smith, for being the editor I had always dreamed of and then some, and her unwavering faith in me. It has truly been a joy to work with you.
To my agent, Jessica Faust, for her unconditional support, for talking me down from the ledge a time or two and for being a hell of a lot of fun (and of course perky).
To the exceptional authors I had the privilege of getting to know while working on this project. Cindy, Brenda, Shirley, Sara and Kristi, thanks for making my first continuity such a fun, rewarding experience.
To Wanda Ottewell for diving into this midproject and managing to make sense of it all. I'd love to work with you again.
And finally, to my brother and sister-in-law, Jim and Sue, for their help researching this book. Thanks, guys!
From the diary of Jessamine Golden
October 11, 1910
Just when I thought I'd lost my taste for revenge, when I believed Brad's love for me had lifted the dark shadows that hung over my heart, I've been betrayed once again. Edgar Halifax stole my family and my security when he murdered my father. He ruined my life and took away my dreams of being a teacher. Now he's stolen the only man I could ever love, the only man who has ever loved me, and my thirst for revenge is like a fire burning out of control in my belly.
I've been framed, Diary. I didn't steal that gold
and I told Brad so. I swore to him on my father's grave that it wasn't me, that it was Halifax himself who'd done it. That he'd taken the gold and hidden it and made it look like a robbery. But Diary, when I saw the doubt in Brad's eyes I felt sick deep inside my soul and a sharp pain stole my breath. It was my heart ripping in two. I've been betrayed before, but it never hurt like this. I realize now what a fool I've been to let myself believe we could beat the odds.
But, Lord, I still love him. I crave the lips that touched mine so sweetly, the hands that caressed me so tenderly. The pendant rests close to my heart, a reminder of all that could have been. I'll keep it there, even though I know now our love can never be. In Brad's heart he will forever be a man of the law and my thirst for revenge will never be quenched. Not until Halifax pays for his sins. And he will pay. I'll see to that.
Without Brad's love, I have nothing left to lose.
ita Windcroft wasn't the crying sort.
The last time she'd shed a tear had been thirteen years ago, in the fourth grade, when she fell off the monkey bars and dislocated her shoulder. Buck Johnson had laughed and called her a baby and she'd hauled off and given him a black eye with her good arm. As far as she was concerned, most females were way too emotional for their own good. But in light of the recent happenings at their family horse farmâdeliberately broken fences, poisoned feed that nearly killed more than a dozen horses and the threatening letter they'd received just last week warning them to get off the landâshe was at the end of her emotional rope and clinging for dear life.
Doc Willard, the town veterinarian, came out of Ulysses's stall, a grim look painted in the lines of his
weathered old face. Nita felt tears prickling the corners of her eyes, but refused to let them flow over.
“I'm sorry, Nita. The break is too severe, and with his ageâ¦we're going to have to put him down.”
“Ulysses was just an old workhorse, but he was Daddy's favorite. He's going to be crushed by this.”
“How is your Pa?” Doc Willard asked. “I heard he took quite a spill when the horse went down.”
“He's in surgery right now. The doctor's say he'll be off his feet for at least six weeks and he'll probably need physical therapy.” Nita thought of her daddy, lying on the hard, dusty ground, his leg twisted and bloody after being launched from the horse's back. He'd been out checking the fence in the north corral when his horse stepped in a holeâone too large to be created by a prairie dog or a badger. None of their employees would be foolish enough to dig a hole there, so she knew it had to be another attempt to scare them away.
She also knew, no matter how vehemently they denied any wrongdoing, the Devlins were responsible for this. And this time they'd gone too far. Her daddy could have been killed.
A fresh round of tears burned their way up into her throat and she swallowed them back. She'd lost her mother to cancer when she was little, and later lost her older sister Rose to the lure of the big city. Nita didn't know what she would do if she lost her daddy, too. She would kill any man who tried to hurt him. But this situation was growing too big, too out of hand for even her to deal with.
She'd heard the Texas Cattleman's Club was a cover for some sort of mercenary group that traveled the globe
dispensing justice and fighting for the greater good. She'd asked them for help a couple times already. They'd even sent a man over to look around, her best friend Alison's new husband Mark. He hadn't found anything that made him believe the Devlins were responsible, but Nita trusted that family about as far as she could spit. For more than one hundred years they had been trying to get their hands on the Windcroft landâthe land they hadn't already stolen that is.
But like everyone else, including the police, the Cattleman's Club didn't want to get involved in the Windcroft-Devlin feud.
Maybe now they would, since people were getting hurt.
“You should be at the hospital,” Doc said.
“Before he went into surgery, Daddy made me promise to come home and see to the horse. You know how he is, the farm always comes first.” It was a quality he'd drilled into Nita from the day she was old enough to walk. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't worked the horse farm at his side. And now that he was incapacitated, it was up to her to see that things ran smoothly.
Outside the stable she heard hoofbeats. “Do what you have to do with Ulysses, Doc,” she said on her way out the main door. Outside, Jimmy Bradley, the stable manager, was dismounting his horse. The setting sun cast long, ghostly shadows, and the cool, dry air had her shivering under her heavy flannel shirt.
“Well,” Nita asked. “What did you find?”
Jimmy took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. “More holes, all through the north and south corral. We'll check the east and west corrals and the stal
lion pens tomorrow when we have more light. The boys will work through the night filling what holes we've found so far. Until it's safe we should keep the horses in the stables.”
“You're sure it wasn't an animal?”
“No, ma'am, unless this particular animal digs with a shovel and leaves boot prints in the dirt. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it's them damned Devlins.”
Having been with the farm since before Nita was born, Jimmy was no stranger to the Windcroft-Devlin feud. “I can't disagree with you.”
“Something needs to be done, ma'am.”
Frustration tied her insides in knots. She'd never felt so useless. “I know that Jimmy, but without proof the police won't get involved. When I called them this afternoon, they said it was probably just some kids pulling a prank.”
“This was no prank.”
With the police unwilling to help, she knew she had only one choice left. Even if that meant swallowing her pride, dropping to her knees and begging. The safety of her family and her animals was worth the sacrifice.
She pulled her keys from her pocket and headed for her truck. “I think it's time I paid another visit to the Cattleman's Club.”
Jimmy scoffed. “They wouldn't believe you before. What makes you think they'll listen now?”
She climbed into the truck and gunned the engine. “This time, I'll
Connor Thorne stepped from the cool Texas night into the Cattleman's Club lobby, the scent of leather and
cigars washing him over him and settling his soul. The club's paneled walls displayed oil paintings of members past and present, of whose ranks Connor had only recently joined. So recently, in fact, that he still felt a bit awkward breezing into the building unannounced.
But not for long. He was about to receive his first official assignment.
Considering the late hour the lobby was deserted. He'd come straight from the airport when he got the message from his brother saying an emergency meeting had been called. Connor had been in Virginia tying up loose ends after a very abrupt leave from the army. Of course the men from his platoon had insisted on throwing him an official going-away party. One that had lasted pretty much up until he boarded a plane that afternoon. He was functioning on about two hours of sleep and the remnants of a hangover.
Despite that, when he opened the door to the meeting room, he was filled with an uncharacteristic excitement, a sense of worth he'd not experienced since leaving the Rangers.
His identical twin, Jake, lounged in one of the maroon leather armchairs. Two of the other club members, Logan Voss, a successful cattle rancher, and Gavin O'Neal, the new town sheriff, stood around a table studying a copy of the map recently stolen from the Royal Museum.
“Connor, you made it.” His brother rose from his seat and grasped his hand. “Thanks for coming in so late. We have a bit of an emergency on our hands.”
“Not a problem,” Connor said.
The other men turned to greet him, each shaking his hand, then they all took seats.
“I know you just got off a plane,” Jake said. “You want a drink, something to eat?”
Connor knew his brother was only trying to make him feel welcome, but the gesture made him feel even more the outsider. “Let's get down to business.”
“That's my brother,” Jake told the other men with a good-natured laugh. “All work and no play.”
Though Jake's words annoyed Connor, he couldn't deny the accusation. He always had been the responsible, serious twin. The worker. Jake had been the outgoing, charming one. The one to have all the fun and to get all the pretty girls.
Although, as a recentlyâand very happilyâmarried man, Jake's-girl chasing days were definitely over.
“We got another visit from Nita Windcroft tonight,” Gavin told him. “Looks like the Windcroft-Devlin feud is heating up. Or someone wants it to look that way.”
“She barged right into the club again, demanding to be heard,” Jake said, looking more amused than annoyed. “You've gotta admire her determination.”
“I thought we weren't going to get involved in that,” Connor said.
Jake filled him in on Nita's visit and the recent disturbances at the farm. “We might have believed she was trying to frame the Devlins but according to Alison, Mark's wife, Nita would never do anything to hurt her family. We think someone really is trying to scare them off the land, and we're not sure how far they'll go. We feel it would be wise to send a man out to the farm to keep an eye on things until we find out who's behind this. Considering your experience with the Rangers, we think you're the man for job.”
Connor dashed a kernel of disappointment. It wasn't the international intrigue he'd been hoping for, the kind he'd grown accustomed to serving in the Special Forces. But no matter what the job, he would give it one hundred percent.
When given an order, he followed it to the letter.
“And Jonathan's murder?” he asked. “Are we still looking at Nita for that?”
“Alison swears she isn't capable,” Logan told him. “We want to know what you think. Nita has agreed to let us move a man into the house. While you're there you can do some snooping around, see if there's any evidence we're over looking.”
“Can you get away from the engineering firm?” Jake asked.
“Not a problem.” Another week sitting behind a desk and he'd go psychotic with boredom.
He never would have considered a desk job, but his father had wanted to retire and there had been no one else to carry on the family business. As always, being the responsible one, Connor had set aside his own dreams to accept the duty.
The sad truth was, it had been so long since he'd followed his own heart, the path he'd once dreamed of walking had become so overgrown with other people's expectations, he would need a machete to chop his way through. Joining the Cattleman's Club was the first thing Connor had done for himself in a very long time. Maybe ever.
Despite that, Jake somehow always managed to outshine him. If he didn't love his brother so much, Connor may have resented him. But Jake was so charming,
so full of playful mischief, it was hard not to get caught up in his energy. And he appeared to have outgrown his reckless tendencies. For the most part, anyway. Connor supposed marriage could do that to a man. Not that he would ever find out. Marriage and family weren't in the cards for him.
“What do you know about Nita Windcroft?” Logan asked.
“Not much.” Connor had never actually met Nita, but he'd heard plenty of talk from the people in Royal. He knew she was raised by a single father and worked the farm by his sideâan honest to goodness tomboy. Connor also had heard gossip that, if she didn't pretty herself up and find a man soon, she was fast on her way to becoming an old maid.
He had met his share of tough women in the military, the kind you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley, and it sounded as if Nita Windcroft fit the bill.
“I know that if you have a horse that needs breaking, even the wildest, meanest of stallions, Nita Windcroft is the woman to call,” Connor said.
The other men exchanged a look, and Connor got the idea there was something more to this than they were telling him.
“She's a pistol,” Gavin agreed. “With pride by the bushel load.”
“Why do I sense there's a problem?” Connor asked.
“She asked for a man to watch the
” Jake clarified. “We think that with her father out of commission, she may be the next target.”
“We believe she's in danger,” Logan added. “We don't want you to watch the farm. We want you to watch
Now it was starting to make sense. “In other words, Ms. Windcroft isn't going to be too keen on having a bodyguard?”
Jake nodded, a screwy grin on his face. “I'd say that's a fair assessment.”
“So, you're okay with that?” Gavin asked. “Living in such close quarters with a woman like Nita.”
Connor shrugged. “Sure, why wouldn't I be?”
They exchanged another look. This Nita person must be even worse than he'd imagined, in looks or personalityâor bothâif they thought he would be so put off by her that he wouldn't take the assignment.
“Who knows,” Jake said, leaning over and slugging Connor in the shoulder, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. “You might even like her.”
Granted, Connor didn't date much, but he was far from desperate. And he preferred his women to look likeâ¦well,
Round and soft in all the right places and reasonably attractive.
“I don't think we have to worry about that,” he told his brother. “I'm definitely the man for the job.”
“Then pack your bags,” Gavin said. “She's expecting you first thing tomorrow morning.”
Nine o'clock the following morning, gravel and dirt crunching under the tires, Connor drove his Mercedes up the long drive leading to the Windcroft horse farm. The sprawling, stone house looked fairly new considering how long the farm had been in the Windcroft family. The facade was punctuated with a lot of tall, easily accessible windowsâa prowler's dream. He hoped they had a good alarm system, and if they didn't, they needed one.
Wood rocking chairs flanked the long, covered porch, and off to one side of the front yard a cedar swing sat amidst a pristine, green lawn in the shade of a towering oak whose leaves had just begun to turn yellow. In the distance, on acres of flat land, he could see barns and outbuildings, corrals dotted with mesquite trees. There was also another smaller, older house several hundred yards back from the main structure. He didn't know much about horse farms, and even less about horses, but this one seemed pretty damn big. Which explained why Nita Windcroft was so charged to get to the bottom of the threats and mischief. The sheer size alone meant he would have his work cut out for him.