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Excerpt - Thread of Suspicion by Susan Sleeman

Thread of Suspicion
by Susan Sleeman


FALSELY ACCUSED! 
When someone sabotages former navy SEAL Luke Baldwin's "unhackable" software, there's more than his reputation at stake. Faced with treason charges, Luke turns to Dani Justice, a computer expert and skilled investigator. She's eager to dive into the challenging case…until she uncovers a devastating connection. The hacker framing Luke has a personal, deadly history with Dani. Luke's code of honor and his growing feelings make him resolved to protect the sweet, strong woman he knows is more vulnerable than she'd admit. But what good is his training or determination against an enemy who can hack into any system and find them wherever they hide?  
The Justice Agency: Family and law enforcement go hand in hand


Excerpt of chapter one:

Luke Baldwin's training as a Navy SEAL warned him he was in trouble. To pay attention, be still and take precautions. But darkness clawed at his senses, keeping him from fully waking and heeding the warning.

Hoping to get his bearings, he concentrated on the sounds unfolding around him. Cars whizzed by. Horns honked. If he were home in bed where he should be, he'd hear the quiet of suburban life, not Portland's bustling traffic.

Digging deeper, he managed to pry his eyes open and look around. He sat behind the wheel of his battered Jeep Wrangler tipped at an angle in the ditch with the hood pressed against an enormous Oregon pine. Thick underbrush had swallowed up his car and spindly pines swayed overhead in icy winds.

"What in the world?" He shook his head to clear his mind. Razor-sharp pain stabbed between his eyes. He let the lids fall, hoping to end the blinding intensity. Nausea curled his stomach and burned up his throat as the damp cold of winter seeped to his bones.

How had he ended up in the ditch?

C'mon, Baldwin, think.

He breathed deeply, letting oxygen rush to his brain and stem the nausea. Clarity tugged the edges of his mind, then suddenly it all came flooding back.

He'd been driving home in the wee hours of the morning to grab a quick shower before today's demonstration of his company's software. The roads were slick with rain, and fog hovered over the pavement. Driving too fast for the conditions, he'd felt his car start to slide. He'd pumped the brakes. The pedal had sunk to the floor with no resistance. His car had left the pavement, slipping into the ditch and ramming the tree. With no airbags, his head had slammed into the wheel and everything had gone black.

His ancient Jeep had failed him again. Of course it had. It was on its last legs and needed replacing. He should get a better car. One with reliable brakes and airbags. Not happening, though. He'd poured all of his money into his company.

Wait. Company. What time is it?

He glanced at his watch: 1030 hours.

No! Couldn't be. He'd be late for the demonstration.

He released his belt and dug out his cell phone. Dead.

"No, no, no!" He pounded the wheel, the lancing pain slicing up his arm and into his already throbbing head.

Just what he deserved for failing his staff. His software company vied for a multimillion-dollar military contract today at 1100 hours. He could kiss the money and his company goodbye if he didn't show up.

Not an option for a SEAL, even a former one.

He forced open his door, the bent metal groaning and creaking. He stumbled out. Rain spit from the gray winter skies, dampening his mood even more. He grabbed fistfuls of grass and pulled his aching body up to the winding road leading into Portland. He waved at cars, hoping to flag one down, but they sped past as if he were invisible. He'd have to hoof it down the hill to the coffee shop where he got his caffeine fix every morning. They knew him and would let him use their phone.

He hunched into his jacket to fight the wind whistling down the hill and jogged down the road. Ignoring the pain pulsing through his body, he settled into the zone he'd often found as a SEAL after silently dropping behind enemy lines. His mind floated free, and oddly, his father's voice rang in his head.

So you screwed up again. I knew you'd never amount to anything.

Maybe his father was right. He was a screwup. He'd failed most everyone who mattered in his thirty-four years on this earth. His mother, his older sister—both of them killed in a fire set by his crazed father. His fiancée, Wendy, who'd wanted more from him and had every right to expect it before she'd bailed two years ago. And Hawk. Poor Hawk.

Luke flashed back to Afghanistan, to before he'd left the SEALs to be close to his only living sister, Natalie. Insurgents had rushed his SEAL team—guns blazing in the night, his buddy Hawk falling and never getting up again. All courtesy of an intercepted satellite phone call. Luke had held Hawk as he took his dying breath and made a promise to prevent other soldiers' deaths because of satphone security issues. So he'd founded SatCom with Hawk's little brother, Timothy Rev-ello, and their dream was moments from becoming a reality.

If Luke made it to the office before he broke that promise.

He upped his speed and soon swung into the coffee shop, heat instantly cocooning him as the scent of aromatic java perked him up. The owner stood behind the long mahogany bar, a line of customers waiting for their drinks. With no time to wait in line, Luke approached Earl.

Earl placed a cup in front of a young woman, then looked up. "Man, Baldwin. You look rough."

Luke's chest burned from exertion, but he managed to say, "Need your phone, Earl. Car and cell dead. Need to call a cab."

Earl grabbed a cordless phone and a laminated cardstock listing local phone numbers, then slapped them on the counter with a solid whack. "Want your usual when the line gets down?"

Luke nodded, and as he worked to bring his breathing under control he requested a cab, then dialed his partner, Tim's, direct line at SatCom.

He tapped his foot on the floor as he waited, and caught sight of his scruffy appearance in the front window. A lump, swollen and purple, stuck out on his forehead. A cut on his cheek gaped open and blood saturated his wrinkled pants and shirt. No wonder people were staring at him. He might need to go home and change before the demonstration. If Tim thought he could handle it. A big if for the introverted geek who'd rather walk on a bed of nails than speak in public.

"Revello," Tim finally answered, sounding out of breath.

"It's Luke."

"Where are you?" Tim demanded. "I've been going crazy here."

"I'm sorry." Luke took a quick moment to regroup and not let Tim's frantic tone up his own anxiety. "I ran my car off the road on my way home last night and knocked myself out. I called a cab and should be there in forty minutes tops."

"Forty minutes?" Tim shouted. "You better hope we're still in business by then."

So much for changing clothes.

"Can you stall with General Wilder? Just until I get in."

"Probably, but Wilder's not our biggest problem right now."

"What's going on?" Luke asked calmly, though his heart had kicked into high gear again.

"The procurement committee got an anonymous call late yesterday afternoon claiming our software has been sabotaged."

"What?" Luke barked out.

"Yeah," Tim said. "Wilder sent over a consultant to validate the program. She was waiting at the door when I got here. She's been evaluating the software and our network logs all morning."

"This is a joke, right? To get back at me for being out-of-pocket and making you worry."

"Nah, man, it's no joke.

"So let me get this straight," Luke said, dread settling over him. "We're minutes from demonstrating our software for the military brass and they send an independent consultant to validate it? Just because some crackpot calls and says it's corrupt?"

"Not just any consultant, but Dani Justice." A waver of uncertainty threaded through Tim's voice.

"You make it sound like she's well-known in the computer world."

"Tops in our field."

"And we're sure the general contracted with her?"

"Yep. Confirmed it with his aide before I let her in the building." Tim paused and a long sigh filtered through the phone.

This can't be happening. "You know anything about this Dani Justice?"

"Yeah, she's legendary in the Portland computer world. She once worked for the FBI in cyber crimes. Now she and her siblings own a private investigation company." Tim snorted. "Working in a mom-and-pop agency seems like a waste of all that talent, but what do I know."

"I should've known Wilder would hire the best."

Earl called out Luke's coffee order, his face creased with his usual easygoing smile.

Luke held up a finger and smiled back despite his inner turmoil. "Too bad Wilder didn't give us a heads-up."

"He said they couldn't warn us she was coming or we might try to cover up the software's vulnerability."

"We'd never do that. If there was a vulnerability, that is." Luke craned his neck, hoping to see his cab pulling up.

"I know, but Wilder thinks someone at SatCom is guilty.

The aide said if they find even a hint of sabotage, Wilder would pursue prosecuting the guilty party for treason."

"Treason!" Luke shouted, the entire coffee shop stilling. He lowered his voice. "That's a pretty serious charge for tampering with software."

"I know, right, but we both know if someone sabotaged it, they could listen in on the military's satellite phone conversations."

"And lives would be lost," Luke added. His gut clamped down as he imagined how the information gained by altering their software could give the enemy an upper hand. Field operations would be vulnerable. Locations known. Soldiers under fire. A shudder claimed Luke's body.

He had to get to the office. Where was his cab? "Before I go, please assure me that Ms. Justice won't find anything wrong with our software."

"We should be good. We've done our due diligence and hired people to validate it. We got a clean bill of health."

Unease niggled at Luke's gut. "But we didn't hire Ms. Justice like the general, did we?"

"Are you kidding? We could never have afforded her."

"If you'd come to me I would've found the money somewhere, Tim. You know that."

"Where? You're completely tapped out. You've already sold your house and moved in with your sister. You've even maxed out your credit cards and company loans. So where would this cash come from?"

"Still—"

"I know, I know," Tim interrupted. "If you've told me once you've told me a thousand times. You'd rather our company fails than deploy anything that could put service personnel in danger."

"It's not just talk, you know. I mean every word of it."

"Believe me, I got it." Tim sighed as he usually did when they talked about commitment to honor and sacrifice that soldiers lived and breathed, but Tim had no clue about.

If a SatCom employee had actually tampered with the software and planned to put soldiers at risk, Tim wouldn't believe they deserved to be charged with treason, but Luke did. Even if the lost contract forced SatCom into bankruptcy or if, as the owner of the company, his name and reputation would be tainted for life.

If they don't bring you up on charges, too, and you don't end up in a prison cell of your own.

Espionage, Dani Justice thought as she stared at her monitor in the minuscule SatCom office.

Someone had remotely hacked into SatCom's network last week and left a gaping hole in the software. After the military deployed this software to their satphones, the hacker could access their calls and sell information to the highest bidder. And that was unacceptable.

Question was, who would do such a thing? Was it one of the owners, Timothy Revello or the conspicuously absent Luke Baldwin? She was hired to locate the problem, not prove who perpetrated it, but she couldn't let a traitor go free.

She could track the transmission through the internet service provider, and that meant she needed Derrick's help. She dug out her phone and dialed her twin brother.

"Do you still have that friend at Northwest Internet?" she asked the minute he answered.

"Yeah," he replied skeptically.

"I need an address for one of their clients."

He didn't respond right away, and she was tempted to ask again. But while she made snap decisions, he often needed to process information first, so she waited, tapping her foot on the floor and feeling as if time physically ticked away. She glanced at the clock on her computer. The demonstration would start any minute now, and she needed to get to the conference room to tell General Wilder and his joint military committee about her findings.

"I don't know, sis," Derrick finally said. "Stan's a contact you don't want to burn. He's helped me a lot lately, and I don't want him to get into trouble."

"This is important, Derrick."

He snorted. "You always say that."

"This time I mean it." He'd agree if she offered details of her discovery, but she wouldn't do that until she'd put together a comprehensive report for their family's private investigations agency.

"You promise you won't ask me to talk to Stan again after this?"

"Promise," she said, but her response didn't ring true even in her own ears.

"That didn't sound real convincing."

"It's hard to make a promise like that. What if we faced a lifeor-death situation and Stan could save someone's life? I'd go back on the promise then. Or what if—"

"Enough." He laughed good-naturedly. "I got it. I'll call Stan."

She rattled off the network login information Stan would need. "This is urgent. As in, I need the information now."

"Don't worry. I got it. I'll get back to you as soon as I can." He disconnected.

She went back to the software and started her written report for the general. In less than ten minutes, her phone chimed a text. She grabbed it from the desk and smiled when she saw Derrick had come through with the address she needed. She plugged it into a database they often used to locate people, and a name flashed on the screen in front of her.

"Really?" she whispered in surprise as she spotted the name of a SatCom associate, then sat back with a satisfied sigh.

God was smiling on her today. She'd located her first ever traitor, possessed the evidence to prove it and was only moments away from exposing him at the demonstration.

Inside SatCom's modern two-story building, Luke rounded the corner to the conference room. The three-member military procurement committee and two of his staff members sat around a long table. Tim, wearing his usual jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt, paced at the head of the table. A tall, slender woman with softly waving blond hair stood at the side. Her back was to Luke, but he could still see her hands in motion as she spoke.

The infamous consultant Dani Justice, he assumed. And if she was attending the demonstration, their software was most likely corrupt as the anonymous caller had claimed.

Could this be the end of his company? Of his reputation? Of everything he'd worked for?

He dragged in a breath but came up thirsting for more, his heart racing.

Breathe, he told himself. Just slow down and breathe. Your team needs you. Fight the problem, but do it the right way.

Calm. Respectful. Befitting a former SEAL.

He slowed to compose himself. No point in barging in the room with a crazed glare as if he'd crawled out of a combat zone.

"Your software has been altered, Mr. Revello." Ms. Justice's voice, filled with passion, carried out the door. "I found a backdoor, fully compromising it."

Luke's feet completely faltered for a moment as shock from her confirmation washed over him. A surprised murmur traveled through the committee and several mouths dropped open. Luke had no clue what a backdoor was, but he clearly understood someone had compromised Crypton as the anonymous caller had claimed.

"Is this possible, Mr. Revello?" General Wilder asked, though his expression said he'd already decided it was true.

He thinks we sabotaged the software on purpose. Luke's heart sank.

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