Killer Colton Christmas
This special holiday release features two novellas: Special Agent Cowboy by Regan Black and The Marine’s Christmas Case by Lara Lacombe.
The Coltons of Shadow Creek series comes to a shocking Christmas climax in two heart-pounding stories…
Special Agent Cowboy by Regan Black – When hackers strike Colton, Inc., they put executive Marie Meyers in their crosshairs. FBI agent Emiliano Ortega is charged with protecting the beautiful city girl on his ranch. But keeping their mutual attraction professional under the mistletoe is impossible…
The Marine’s Christmas Case by Lara Lacombe – When Dario Ortega meets Felicity Grant, the lovely marine-turned-PI spurns his advances. Instead, Dario offers his tech expertise to help Felicity solve the Colton, Inc., hacking. Working the case together softens Felicity’s steely heart and makes Dario rethink bachelorhood. But can they catch a killer Colton in time for Christmas?
~~~Excerpt from Special Agent Cowboy~~~
Marie Meyers cringed at the headline alert on her phone, the sugar-sweetened coffee in her mouth going bitter. It couldn’t be true. A headline like that was an exercise in sensationalism. Click bait. Livia Colton, ruthless killer and crime boss of Shadow Creek, Texas, had died on her way back to jail when her car was washed into the river. True or false, this was almost the worst news Marie had ever heard.
As the chief digital officer for Colton, Incorporated, Marie defined her primary goal as creating a superb online experience for their customers and she worked to keep that positive experience a priority in long-term corporate growth strategy. Not only did that require her to collect data on their customers’ habits, it meant being aware of what was trending in the media and analyzing the corresponding data to better anticipate their subsequent interactions with the company.
Marie’s thumb hovered over the link on her cell phone, resisting the inevitable. She had to open the article, had to know what kind of message, rumors or facts were circulating out there, so she could be informed during the inevitable crisis meetings at the office today.
She set aside her coffee and held her breath as she clicked the link, half expecting her phone to explode. Or implode. Didn’t matter, as the result would be the same.
The banner for Everything’s Blogger in Texas had been updated to reflect the top, scintillating story, and the article boldly declared Livia Colton, criminal mastermind presumed dead, was in fact back among the living. The blog promised to deliver every juicy detail of the hunt for the Queen of the Coltons in real time. There was a convenient link to subscribe for updates.
“Lovely,” Marie muttered. A quick search proved Everything’s Blogger did have the jump on other gossip sites and traditional news outlets. They posted quotes from victims and people connected to Livia’s prior crimes and were weaving the story as they went along, connecting dots that might not even be related. The other sites were merely reporting the shocking news and waiting for confirmation, making them appear half a step behind.
Marie didn’t expect the lag to last, and the more reporters covering this development, the tougher things would be at work. Her appetite gone, she skipped breakfast and headed into the office, the news following her on every station as she scanned the radio channels during the drive. Her grip tight on the steering wheel, she cursed the way one high-profile bad apple could ruin the whole bushel.
For Marie, Colton, Incorporated, was more than a career choice. The company had embraced her and she returned that welcome with a loyalty and affection as powerful as family ties. Now, thanks to one evil woman’s machinations, her family of coworkers would be cast into a glaring spotlight as the authorities investigated Livia’s connection to the company.
She’d seen it happen elsewhere. The most innocuous decisions and comments would be scrutinized for use as potential evidence, and as those details reached the press, the court of public opinion would weigh in first. Doubts crept into the customer mind-set quickly, and regardless of damage control, it could take years to restore confidence.
In the digital age, nearly everything lasted forever. Usually that worked in her favor as a CDO, sifting through data for patterns, identifying influencers and tailoring experiences for their customers. This process was known as data mining, but companies that mishandled the wealth of information had given a valuable process a bad name. She feared this kind of headline would work against her beloved company.
As she pulled into her parking space near the office, the radio went silent midbroadcast as if the station had lost the signal. In the next moment a new voice broke the quiet, speaking through an alteration device that hid the speaker’s gender and identity. “The Cohort will prevail. We can and will expose everyone colluding with Livia Colton. We will see true justice is served.”
“Not good,” Marie murmured to herself as the normal radio hosts came back on air, apologizing for the strange interruption. The Cohort, a notorious hacktivist group, claimed to work collectively for pure transparency, holding the powers that be accountable. In college, her professors had built several lectures and case studies on the organization’s methods, recruiting and most successful hacks. Unfortunately, they were often as destructive as Livia had been, despite their noble claims.
At thirty, Marie had experienced her share of bad days. Mentally, she shuffled today into her top ten list of worst ones, though there was serious competition in her history. She turned off the car and took a deep breath, resisting the urge to run flat out into the office and stay locked inside the building she loved until they stopped whatever the Cohort had planned. A thriving corporation connected by name and bloodlines to Livia would be an irresistible target.
Glancing around the parking area, she imagined someone hacking into the cameras and flashing her panicked race to work all over the internet with another headline full of negative insinuations about the company.
With that unpleasant image in mind, she forced herself to move with deliberate, calm purpose, belying the dread knotting her stomach. Purse over one arm, computer case over the opposite shoulder, she strolled into the gleaming twenty-five-story glass tower, hoping the lingering panic inside was hidden by her professional confidence and perfect posture.
The Cohort had a global reputation for following through on its threats. She knew Zane Colton, as head of security, would have precautions and heightened alerts in place, and the cybersecurity division would be shoring up firewalls and such to protect the company from a digital assault. As soon as she got upstairs, she would do everything possible to help ward off an attack.
The lobby door had barely whispered closed behind her when a wave of jitters surrounded her like a sudden storm. The air in the soaring atrium practically buzzed with nervous energy. She hustled to the elevators and upstairs to her office, just in time to pick up the phone ringing on her assistant’s desk. “Marie Meyers. How may I help you?”
“Zane?” she asked, startled by the obvious relief in his normally composed tone.
“You’re needed in the conference room,” he said.
No sense in wasting time with questions. “I’ll be right there.” The urgency was surely related to the Cohort broadcast. She wouldn’t know how bad it was or how best to help until she got down there.
If she’d thought the building had a jittery vibe downstairs, it paled in comparison to the action in the conference room. A grim resignation pulsed through the air, as various people sat around the long oval table, murmuring stats and updates as they studied laptop monitors. At the head of the table, Fowler Colton, company president, stood with his brother T.C. and their stepbrother Zane. Today the company’s top men wore similar expressions of anger, frustration and grave concern.
Had the Cohort made an attempt on the company already? It seemed impossibly fast, considering the news had just broken.
At a colorful oath, her head swiveled toward the presentation screen along with all the others in the room. Feeds from half a dozen computer monitors, presumably projections from those around the conference table, were displayed for everyone to see.
She walked closer to the screen, disbelief and alarm going to war with that knot of dread in her stomach. Under a black-and-white banner the names of the highest-ranking officers of Colton, Incorporated, were posted, including hers. Alongside each name were personal details, ranging from partial home addresses and phone numbers to bank accounts and social security information. While some of the information was shown for each name, other fields had been completed with Click for More links.
“What site is this?” she asked the room at large.
“Does it matter?” Fowler asked.
“It does,” she replied, thinking of customers and their viewing habits. “We need to get it shut down—”
“Too late, Marie. The first successful breach of the firewall occurred just after five this morning and we’ve been scrambling to stop the digital bleeding ever since.” Zane gave a nod to a young man at the table. “Show her.”
That put the breach two solid hours before Everything’s Blogger in Texas posted the story that Livia wasn’t dead. Marie was trying to make sense of that when the screen flooded with a scroll of more names. She pressed her hand to her lips to smother the alarmed gasp. The Cohort hadn’t just compromised the executives or those with the last name of Colton. It had systematically captured the personal records for everyone in the company.
“How can I help?” she asked, determined to fight back.
“You’re looking at a dark website where the Cohort has started an auction,” Zane told her. “We’ve contacted the FBI. They should be here any minute.”
An auction for this kind of data would be irresistible to thieves, smugglers and human traffickers. The criminals who could afford the information wouldn’t hesitate to use it. Although she had concerns for herself, she was only one person. Her heart sank for the employees and their families over the terrible consequences of identity theft of this magnitude.
How ironic that the Cohort, supposed champions of personal privacy, had just compromised the data of innocent people while she worked relentlessly to protect the information gained by her efforts.
“We have to move quickly and get an identity protection plan in place for everyone.” Each of them faced more than just immediate inconveniences. With just a few hours’ head start, bank accounts and retirement funds were already in jeopardy.
“We are,” Zane said. “There’s more, Marie.”
“I’ve got it here,” a tech offered.
“No,” Zane said. “Send it to my office.” He exchanged a stormy look with his family. His expression softened only slightly, his gaze holding hers while he crossed the room. “Come with me,” he said, holding the door open for her.
What couldn’t he say in front of the team? Her knees went watery under the combined weight of everyone staring at her. They couldn’t possibly believe she had anything to do with this. A breach like this could end her career, even though it wasn’t her fault. Her position as CDO had been a dream come true, allowing her to hit the pinnacle of her professional goals two years earlier than she’d planned. The Coltons had to know she would never jeopardize the opportunity.
To quell the worst-case scenarios stampeding through her mind, she turned her gaze to the stunning view of the city from the uppermost windows of the tower. Dallas sparkled below, rolling with glittering confidence toward the horizon. She remembered school field trips as a kid, standing on the sidewalk, tipping her head way back and staring up at this tower and others nearby. More than the glossy shine of excellent architecture and construction, she’d seen the security and stability she longed for as she watched executives, assistants and employees serving all levels of the businesses inside. Those field trips solidified her personal goals and she set out to achieve what many of those people probably took for granted—a place to belong. A place to make a difference.
“Marie, you should have a seat.” Zane gestured to the visitor’s chair in front of his desk.
She didn’t realize how far afield her mind had wandered until she noticed him politely waiting for her to sit down first. Perching at the edge of the chair, she waited for whatever he didn’t feel he could say in front of the others.
“As I said, the FBI is on the way,” Zane began. “I’m sure once they arrive, we can come up with the best possible solution.”
“Count on me to help out.” She cleared her throat when he frowned. “Security is your area, of course, but whatever I can do to…” Her voice trailed off at his raised hand.
“I appreciate the offer.” Shifting in his chair, he reached for his monitor and turned it so she could see the display, though it remained blank. “Unfortunately, I feel it’s best for you and the company if we keep you far away from this particular situation.”
“Pardon me?” Please don’t kick me to the curb so close to Christmas.