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Authors: Merline Lovelace

Texas…Now and Forever

BOOK: Texas…Now and Forever
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Blinded by the Light!

s there anything more glorious than the sight of Luke Callaghan? Oops, I touched a sensitive spot there, since Luke Callaghan was temporarily blinded on his adventures in Mezcaya. But now he's back and he's better than ever! No, I'm not overcompensating for the time in high school when I put hair removal gel in Luke's shampoo. Believe me, he retaliated. I'll just say the words “garden slug” and “daddy longlegs” and that's enough to relay a bad sleeping bag experience during sophomore year camp-out.

Because we're among friends, I can say that Daisy Parker is more twitchy than Mrs. Pritchett's squawking parrot. I haven't been able to get a peep out of Daisy, though she's appreciated my superfudge brownies (bribery). When I tell her that confession is good for the soul, she laughs in my face (although it could be my new hair color). If anyone knows Daisy's big secret, please let me know. I've had sleepless nights over this one.

And we must keep baby Lena in our thoughts and prayers. She's gone through so much in the last year, and now to be kidnapped! I've been practicing my kickboxing, so, Mr. FBI Agent, Sean Collins, I am ready to be a part of your squad in Operation: Rescue Lena!

Make the Lone Star Country Club your afternoon delight, morning, noon and night….

About the Author


spent twenty-three years in the air force, pulling tours in Vietnam, at the Pentagon and at bases all over the world. When she hung up her uniform, she decided to try her hand at writing. She's since had over forty novels published, with more than five million copies of her works in print.

Merline was thrilled to participate in the LONE STAR COUNTRY CLUB series. She served three different tours of duty in Texas, which is where she met her own handsome hero of thirty-plus years. As a result, the Lone Star State will always hold a special place in her heart.

Watch for Merline's next sizzling, action-packed release.
The Captain's Woman,
featuring Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, is a January 2003 release from MIRA Books.


Welcome to the

Where Texas society reigns supreme—and appearances are everything.

Danger reaches a fever pitch in Mission Creek….

Luke Callaghan:
The Lone Star Country Club elite couldn't spread the news fast enough that one of their own—international millionaire Luke Callaghan—was baby Lena's flesh-and-blood daddy! But against all odds could this battle-scarred war hero save his tyke from a deadly foe?

Haley Mercado:
After receiving a menacing call from her daughter's kidnapper to do his bidding—or else!—she had no choice but to come out of hiding and enlist the help of her former flame, Luke Callaghan, if she ever wanted to see her baby alive again. But could their love—and his specialized military training—triumph over peril, heartache…and the ultimate betrayal?

Miracle in Mission Creek:
The entire town bands together as explosive revelations send shock waves through Mission Creek…and the search for baby Lena reaches a shattering climax. But will it take a miracle to end the bitter feud between the Carsons and the Wainwrights?

For my own handsome hero, and all the days and nights we spent under Texas skies during our assignments in Fort Worth and San Antonio.
Thanks for the memories, my darling.


shrill buzz cut through the air-conditioned silence, haunting the small farmhouse just outside Mission Creek, Texas. Like a deer speared by truck headlights, Haley Mercado froze. Her glance sliced to the FBI agent who'd acted as her controller for the past year.

Across the living room Sean Collins met her desperate look. They'd been waiting for this call, she and Sean. So had the small army of agents guarding the safe house where the FBI had stashed Haley until they captured Frank Del Brio.

Frank Del Brio. The smooth, handsome head of the Texas mob who'd once shoved a square-cut, three-carat diamond on Haley's finger and announced that she was going to marry him. The ruthless thug who'd forced her to flee her home in South Texas and to assume another identity abroad. The vicious killer whose horrific acts had brought Haley out of hiding a year ago and sent her undercover, determined to assist the FBI in bringing Del Brio down.

Frank Del Brio, who'd kidnapped the child she'd placed in safekeeping while she worked undercover, the child who only a few nights ago had been spared in a wild shoot-out that had left her father in ICU and Haley under close protection at this secluded farmhouse.

The phone shrilled again, sending a jolt of desperate hope into her chest. They've got him! Please, God! Please let this call be from the FBI command center, advising that they've cornered Frank and rescued her baby! Her heart in her throat, she wiped her palms down the front of her jeans and kept her gaze locked on Sean as he reached for the cordless phone.

“Collins here.”

When the FBI operative's face tightened, Haley's hope shattered into a thousand knife-edged shards.

“How the hell did you get this number?”

It was Frank, she thought on a wave of sickening certainty. It could only be Frank.

Collins confirmed it in the next breath. “No way I'm putting her on the phone, Del Brio. You can damned well talk to me.”

The mobster's response sent a tide of angry red surging into the FBI agent's cheeks. His eyes blazing fire, Sean snarled back.

“Listen to me, you two-bit piece of slime. You
hurt that baby and there won't a patch of dirt anywhere on this earth big enough for you to dig a hole and crawl into.”

Haley flew across the living room. “Let me talk to him.”

“I'm warning you, Del Brio—”

“Let me talk to him!”

The agent relinquished the instrument reluctantly, signaling for Haley to string out the conversation as long as she could. She understood. The communications technicians hooked into the line would need a few moments to trace the call. She understood, too, that the events of the past year were rapidly spiraling to a terrifying conclusion.

“Frank! Frank, are you there?”

“Hello, Daisy.”

The deep, rich baritone made her skin crawl.

“You fooled me with that brassy hair and nose job, babe, but I have to admit I like the new look.”

Haley didn't bother to comment on the fact that he'd penetrated the cover she'd been using for the past year. The long months she'd spent as Daisy Parker didn't matter anymore. All that mattered was her baby. Only her baby.

“Don't hurt her, Frank. Please, don't hurt her.”

She hated to beg, hated hearing the abject pleading in her voice, almost as much as she hated Del Brio for the pain he'd caused her and her family.

“What do you want?” she whispered. “What do I have to do to get Lena back?”

“Two million just might do the trick. In unmarked, nonsequential bills. Nothing bigger than a hundred. I'll let you know where and when to deliver it.”

His voice dropped to a low caress. Soft and husky, it scraped across Haley's raw nerves like a rusty nail.

“I'd better not see one cop or one fed, particularly your pal Collins or that bastard Justin Wainwright.”

Haley's heart squeezed with pain. They'd come so close, so very close. Mission Creek's sheriff and the FBI had almost—almost—captured Del Brio three nights ago. He'd made his escape, gunning down her father in the process. Taking her baby with him.

“If I even smell their stink when you deliver the ransom,” Frank snarled, “you'll never see your brat again. You understand me?”


“Good. Talk to you soon, babe.”

“Wait!” Her frantic shout bounced off the walls. “Don't hang up! Tell me how she's—”

The hum of the disconnected line thundered in Haley's ear. She wanted to scream, to shriek and batter the receiver against the phone. But she'd
spent the past year living a dangerous lie. A year undercover, risking her life every day to ferret out the details of the mob that had operated out of Mission Creek. If nothing else, those torturous months had taught her to subdue every natural impulse. To smile when she shook inside with fear. To hide her anguish as she watched another couple love and cherish the baby she'd been forced to give up temporarily for the child's own safety.

All those months had left their mark on Haley. Instead of shrieking or hurling the cordless phone at the wall, she merely handed it to Sean and listened in stony silence while he barked at the communications techs working the trace.

“Did you pinpoint the location?”

She knew. Even before she saw his mouth twist into a disgusted grimace, she knew. Frank was too smart to trip himself up with a simple phone call.

“Okay. Thanks.”

His jaw tight, Sean punched the off button. Frustration gave a sharp edge to his broad New York accent when he confirmed what she already suspected.

“Del Brio used some kind of electronic scrambler. We couldn't confirm his location.”

She nodded. That was all she could manage. From the day Lena was kidnapped, Haley had carried both fear and dread around inside her like a
stone. It crushed in on her now, so massive and heavy she could hardly breathe.

“He'll kill her.”

“Listen to me, Daisy—”

The special agent caught himself. He'd insisted they use her alias of Daisy Parker in every communication and every conversation for the past year. Although that cover was now blown, Sean hadn't quite made the transition back to her real name.

“Listen to me, Haley. Del Brio can't kill Lena. Not until he gets what he wants. He knows we'll demand proof she's still alive before we play his game.”

The iron control she'd exercised for more than a year slipped and came close to shattering at that moment. “It's not a game!” she snapped furiously. “This is my child's life we're talking about!”

“Dammit, I know that.”

Months of unrelenting tension sizzled and spit between them. With a little push Haley could almost have hated Sean Collins, too.

“I'm sorry,” he said finally, shagging a hand through his thick, reddish hair. “You know I'll do whatever it takes to get Lena back. I want Del Brio as much as you do.”

“No,” she countered swiftly, her throat raw. “You couldn't. It wasn't your mother Frank mur
dered, Sean. Your father he tried to destroy. Your trusted friend and advisor he blew away.”

She closed her eyes, aching for her mother. Grieving for the white-haired Texas judge who'd helped her arrange her escape and acted as her life-line all those years she stayed in hiding. Hurting, too, for the father who now lay in ICU, battling for every breath.

Frank Del Brio had wreaked such havoc on her life. Haley knew he wouldn't hesitate to take the next fatal step. She wrapped her arms around her middle and squeezed tight, wishing with every ounce of her being she could hold in her terror for her child and keep it from spilling into reality.

Eyes closed, she pictured Lena the last time she'd seen her. The one-year-old was such a happy, bubbly child. All smiles and gurgles and bright blue eyes. With her mother's pointed chin and her father's black curly hair.

Her father. Oh, God! Her father.

Luke Callaghan.

Swallowing the moan that tried to escape, Haley dug her hands into her sides. She had to tell Luke. Had to confirm what the DNA tests had already substantiated. He was Lena's father. When she admitted that, she'd have to confess, too, that the blond waitress he knew as Daisy Parker was Lena's mother.

She cringed at the thought of having to explain to Luke the tangled web of lies and deceit she'd woven to protect herself and Lena, but every instinct told her he was now her only hope. Frank had warned her not to bring the feds when she delivered the ransom. He hadn't said anything about the baby's father.

Her mind worked feverishly. Del Brio was ruthless and totally without conscience. He also exercised an extensive network of contacts. He'd known how to reach Haley here, in this supposedly secure haven. He'd probably get word within minutes if she left it and went to Lena's father. He wouldn't worry, though. If there was a chink in Del Brio's armor, it was his arrogance. He wouldn't doubt his ability to handle the combination of a terrified mother and a blind father.

But could Haley handle it? After all this time, could she face the man who'd fathered her child? The man she'd loved as long as she could remember?

She could.

She had to!

Spinning, she bolted for the front door. Sean followed hard on her heels.

“Where are you going?”

“To find Luke Callaghan.”

“No way! You're not setting foot outside this safe house.”

“Safe?” Whirling, she leapt to the attack. “What's safe about it? Frank knows where I am. He got through your command center's elaborate electronic screens with one call. If he wanted to, he could probably order one of his goons to launch a shoulder-held missile from a mile away and put it through that window right now.”

The fact that they both knew she was right didn't lessen Sean's bulldog stance. “We've made it this far together, Dai—Haley. Don't give up on me now.”

“I'm not giving up. I've just decided to play the game by Frank's ground rules.” Icy resolve coated every word. “He wants two million dollars. As you pointed out, he's not likely to hurt me or my child until I deliver it. And I do intend to deliver it. With Luke Callaghan.”

“Christ! Callaghan's a good man. A war hero, no less. But he can't see a red flag waved two inches in front of his face.”

A new ache pierced Haley's heart, adding another layer to the hurt and guilt and fear she'd carried for so long. Seeing the pain on her face, Sean backpedaled gruffly.

“Look, I'll admit Callaghan has moved mountains to help us find Lena. Once DNA tests indi
cated that he was her father, he let us tap his phones. He offered to provide the ransom, when and if it was demanded. He even volunteered the theory that he was the source the kidnappers intended to milk right from the start. With all his millions, it was certainly a distinct possibility.”

More than a possibility. Since Lena had been taken just days before Luke returned to Mission Creek, everyone on the task force initially suspected his vast wealth had sparked the kidnapping.

“Callaghan also worked his own net,” the FBI agent conceded with a touch of grudging admiration. “He has more contacts than any six men I know. And not just in the government. He and those three buddies of his scoured more dives, bribed more drunks and coerced more lowlifes into spilling their guts than our entire task force. But he can't—”

“No buts,” Haley interjected swiftly, fiercely. “Luke Callaghan is Lena's father. I can't let him stand idly on the sidelines now while Frank Del Brio barters her for blood money.”

Reaching for the door, she yanked it open. Sean's big, beefy hand smacked hard against the wood panel.

“Don't try to stop me,” Haley hissed. “Don't even think about trying to stop me. I've done everything you asked me to, Sean. All these months
I risked my life to provide the information you wanted. I will not risk my child's.”

“All right!” Conceding defeat, the FBI operative nodded. “Hang loose a minute. I'll have my people track Callaghan down for you.”


Haley drove away from the farmhouse a few moments later, trailed by a dusty white van and armed with the 9 mm Glock that Sean had instructed one of his agents to hand over.

She knew how to fire the handgun. She'd grown up in this patch of South Texas, on a sprawling acreage just outside Mission Creek. Indulged by her parents and spoiled shamefully by her older brother, Ricky, she'd spent most of her after-school hours in voice lessons, dance classes and giggling with her girlfriends as they checked out the hunks at the pool of the luxurious Lone Star Country Club. Ricky had taken her out to ping tin cans off fence poles often enough for Haley to know one end of a gun from another, though.

Grimly, she locked her hands around the steering wheel and drove through the night. A million stars winked in the inky sky. The moon hung low, dazzling in its silver glow. Haley didn't even spare it a glance.

As promised, Sean had pinpointed Luke Callaghan's present location. He was with one of his
buddies. At the Saddlebag. The same watering hole where Haley had bumped into him two years ago, with such earth-shattering consequences.

The irony of seeking Luke out at the Saddlebag ate into her soul. He hadn't recognized her that hot July night two years ago. The London plastic surgeon who'd altered Haley's face had more than earned his five thousand pounds. Luke wouldn't recognize her tonight, either. Not just because he'd lost his sight, but because she'd all but crawled into the skin of the fictional Daisy Parker. No one—until Frank—had penetrated her cover.


Lately, Luke had been asking questions about the blond waitress with the thick-as-road-tar Texas twang. He'd even cornered her once at the Lone Star Country Club. He'd brushed his mouth across hers, as if testing his memory. He'd tested Haley's nerves, as well. She'd shied away, refusing to admit she knew him.

BOOK: Texas…Now and Forever
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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