Being a computer geek was never supposed to be dangerous...
Neither was falling in love.
HACKED: The Novel - The Secret of Secrets, Book 1
**Based on theBest Selling Novella by the same name**
NSA data analyst Samantha Perry never imagined life as an introverted computer geek could get dangerous, but when she digs a little too deep into a greedy blackhat's business, trouble comes right to her doorstep. Changing her identity and relocating nearly 2000 miles across the country are only the beginning of her problems. As she risks everything to try to close the case that turned her life upside down, she may end up putting a nail in her own casket. And if she doesn't, Seth, her hot new neighbor, just might.
HACKED was originally released as part of the Sweet & Sassy Anthology's - Hidden Identities Collection (2015). It was then released on its own where it quickly earned best-selling status as a novella. At the prodding of her fans, Stephanie enhanced the novellas and re-released them as full length novels in 2018.
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PLEASE ENJOY THE FIRST CHAPTER OF HACKED:
ve got secrets.
I know what you’re thinking. Everybody has secrets. Well, sure. I suppose. But the secrets that keep me up at night are a lot bigger than the little hit-and-run I had when I was sixteen. Or even the kiss I shared with uber-geek Todd behind the marching band’s bus. No, my secrets are the real deal. The kind that keep me looking over my shoulder and checking under my car. The kind I never signed up for and would do anything to get rid of. Society-altering, top-secret secrets.
It was well past normal business hours when my boss summoned me to his office. The fluorescent overhead lighting buzzed in the silence of the nearly empty building as I logged out of my workstation and made my way down the long stretch of cubicles. Most everyone else had gone home for the day, but I’d been onto something big for a couple of weeks and didn’t like the idea of being dragged away from it. It didn’t hurt that I had nothing to go home to. Which, most of the time was perfectly fine with me. I liked being alone almost as much as I liked checking off boxes and completing tasks.
Like everything in my boss’s office, the hard chair he offered me was the finest example of government-issued boring. The air hung with the stagnancy of a mosquito infested pond.
“Miss Perry.” Mr. Kravitsch’s eye twitched behind his spectacles. Gray hair rimmed his head, creating a halo around his shiny skull. Dark, heavy bags hung under his eyes and his mouth was perpetually drawn down. “As you know, it’s our objective to maintain the utmost degree of security for our government, our country, and our employees.” The deep creases that bracketed his mouth stretched like a marionette when he talked.
I nodded. “Yes, sir.” Confidentiality clauses and security screenings were something I’d grown quite familiar with. They’d been part of my daily protocol since being recruited from MIT to be a security analyst for the NSA.
“You have proven to be a most valuable asset to our country.” The corners of his mouth turned up into the briefest hint of a smile, revealing a touch of his coffee stained teeth and a glimpse of personality from the otherwise dry man. A half second later, he returned to his typical rigidness. The permanent furrow in his brow intensified. “Your help in infiltrating networks, thus finding and removing sensitive government data from our enemies has been priceless. Your dedication to protecting our country’s top defense contractors has been recognized at the highest levels. Our nation is undoubtedly in your debt.”
With the exception of a computer monitor and keyboard, the thick wooden desktop was barren. I scanned the room and found it, too, was remarkably void of any decor, personal or otherwise.
“Thank you, sir.” I nodded again, hoping he’d bring up 43M, the case I’d been so heavily involved in for the last several weeks. It had kept me late at the office for the past several nights, including this one. In a world of plastic money and digital banking, POS hacks – meaning point of sale – were constantly gaining frequency. Credit consumers were continually at risk of having their data stolen in one way or another. 43M was just such a breach. The coding had infected gas station terminals across the U.S. and, without the help of a physical card skimmer, successfully siphoned data and made charges to millions of consumer accounts. By adding one percent to every transaction, the hacker had been able to skim just over forty-three million dollars from unsuspecting credit card users in a single week.
I sat tall in my seat. Figuring out how the breach was pulled off had been the easy part. The challenge was figuring out who was behind it, especially given the hacker’s apparent self-control. After just seven days, he pulled out of the systems and deleted all evidence that he’d been there . . . or so he thought. It had been my task to discover otherwise.
I folded my arms confidently across my chest. All my extra hours in the office hadn’t gone unnoticed. Perhaps a raise was in my future.
“But . . .” Kravitsch cleared his throat. “Even when we do everything right,” he glared at me, “sometimes things go wrong.”
I shifted in my chair. Go wrong? What was he talking about? I’d followed every protocol, my code was always bug-free and performed exactly as intended, and, as the only female on an otherwise male team, my analytical skills and attention to detail were virtually unmatched. If he was implying that I’d done something wrong, he was mistaken. I was thorough and maybe even obsessive about getting things right. I could detect abnormalities in cyberspace better than any of my coworkers.
“Your workstation, including your laptop and cell phone are being wiped as we speak. Andre has taken the liberty of removing any items from your purse that might connect you back to this office.”
I didn’t have time to ask questions before a large man – presumably Andre – walked through the door with my handbag. “This is it, sir.” His dark hair was knotted back, forming a ball just above the nape of his almost non-existent neck. The collar of his shirt stretched to contain his large deltoid and trapezius muscles. He dropped a handful of my personal effects in front of Kravitsch.
A tube of Pina Coloda lip balm rolled past the half-full carton of spearmint gum. Andre slammed his palm over it to keep it from rolling off the desk.
“What in the . . .” I started to ask as Kravitsch sorted my driver’s license, credit cards, and car keys from the mix of other personal items. My body went rigid and my lower lip trembled.
“I’m going to need your employee badge as well,” he said.
I drew a protective hand to the badge hanging around my neck. “I don’t understand,” I said. My hand shook as I pressed the lanyard to my chest.
“We do our utmost to protect our assets,” Kravitsch said as he waggled an expectant finger in front of my badge. The room seemed to be spinning as I tried to process his words. My chest pressed in on itself. I forced myself to take a breath. And then another one.
Hesitantly I slid the chain over my head. He greedily snagged it from my grip then added it to the pile with my driver’s license and credit cards. Looking over the rest of my personal items tersely, he pushed them aside and drew a manila envelope out of his top drawer. “There is a car waiting for you downstairs.” He said each word slowly and clearly. “Andre will walk you out. Don’t open this” – he raised the envelope – “until the driver tells you it’s safe.”
Andre took the envelope then handed it to me along with my newly empty purse.
“Last time I checked, improper search and seizure was against the law.” I felt the fire in my cheeks and the vibrato in my voice. My red-headed temper was something only my family got to witness, but questioning my professional integrity and fingering through my stuff was too much. I smashed my lips together and tried to calm the volcano boiling in my chest.
“Like I said before,” Kravitsch said, his voice as calm as mine was wild, “it is our mission to keep our country and our employees safe. Please keep your voice down and go with Andre.”
“Go where with Andre?” I growled through clenched teeth. “Where is he taking me? And why do I need a driver?” I clenched my fists and drew a deep breath. “My car is in the parking garage. I can drive myself home.” I reached to retrieve my keys off his desk as I stood.
“Perry” – Kravitsch pinned a definitive finger on top of my MIT keychain, preventing me from taking it. “I don’t think you understand.”
“I understand perfectly.” My anger erupted as brightly as the red ponytail on the back of my head. “You’re firing me. What I don’t understand” – I slammed the palms of my hands down on his desk, barely aware of the manila envelope as it fell to the floor. – “is what I did to deserve this. I’m good at my job. I work hard, I stay late. I’ve never once breached protocol. If you’ve got a security leak, Mr. Kravitsch, it’s not me!”
“Samantha.” Kravitsch stood and looked me in the eye. It was the first time he’d ever used my first name. “You’re not being fired.”
“I’m not being fired?” I swallowed hard, but didn’t break eye contact. “Then would you please explain what in the world is going on?”
“You may have been compromised,” he said as nonchalantly as if he’d just ordered a bowl of pasta off a take-out menu. “We believe your role in one of our recent cases may be known.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.” Numbers and code from my latest projects ran through my mind. My code was tight. How could I be compromised? He had to be wrong.
“You’re being relocated. The details are in the packet.” He nodded at the envelope at my feet. “When you get to your destination, you’ll receive further instruction.”
I slid back into the chair and perched my head in my hands. “Is this some sort of witness protection plan?”
“In the sense that we need you to lay low for a while, sort-of. But really, it’s just a safety measure until we can close up the threat. Think of it as a temporary relocation.”
“Temporary?” My mind was busily trying to connect the dots. Compromised. Relocating. Temporary.
“So, when do I leave?” I pulled my cardigan around my torso, twisting it tightly as the unwelcome reality washed over me.
“You’ll go straight to the airport from here.” He sat back down.
“You can’t expect me to just up and go. How will I get my stuff?”
Kravitsch tapped on his keyboard then spun his monitor around so I could see it. “There’s not much left to grab,” he said, pointing to the screen. I watched flames dance across the computer monitor from what appeared to be a security camera feed. The blaze roared up a staircase and lurched its way through the entire second story of the building. A burst blew out one of the windows, and that’s when recognition hit me.
“That’s not real. That can’t be real.” I scooted to the edge of my chair to get a better view. Kravitsch punched a few keys and the screen switched over to a live-news feed. A news anchor stood at the base of the apartment building, reporting live about a suspected gas explosion. I leaned in close enough to see the numbers that hung over what used to be a front door. 17-B. My address.
Words scrolled over the bottom of the screen, officially classifying the fire as a gas explosion. Smaller words stated that authorities were searching for survivors. “What if I hadn’t been working late?” The words stammered past my lips. “And what about my neighbors?” I thought about the little girl with golden braids who lived in the apartment below mine. And the old guy next door. Somehow, I didn’t know their names. Why did I not know their names? Suddenly I wished I’d been a better neighbor.
“Don’t worry,” Kravitsch said nonchalantly. “I’m sure they’re fine.”
Though I didn’t understand his sense of calm, I was starting to get a feeling for the weight of the situation and Kravitsch’s urgency about it.
I picked the envelope up off the ground and tucked it into my empty purse. I then rescued my lip balm and pack of gum off Kravitsch’s desk, and drew in the biggest breath I could muster as I stood. “Can I call my parents before I go?” I pointed to my cell phone as I imagined them seeing the news unfold on their T.V. at home.
“No.” Shaking his head, Kravitsch clamped his hand over my phone and scooted it out of my reach. “It’s better that they don’t know.”
The knot in my chest became suffocating. How could I allow my parents to think I was dead?
“Perry,” Kravitsch said as I followed Andre toward the door, “this is just temporary. As soon as we get it worked out, we’ll bring you back to Maryland. If you keep your head down and be smart, everything will be okay.” He almost sounded human. And I almost took comfort in his words until he added three more: “Trust no one.”
I took one last look at the remains of my identity strewn across Kravitsch’s desk, then looked up at him haltingly. This wasn’t what I’d signed up for. Running and hiding and pretending weren’t things in my job description. I was a cyber-geek, plain and simple. I worked on computers and, when necessary, I spoke nerd to other nerds. That was about as adventurous as I got. I didn’t want this life. I was a quiet, keep-to-myself, check-the-boxes kind of girl, not some adrenaline-junkie secret agent.
The sun sank over the Maryland horizon as Andre ushered me into the back of a black Chevy Tahoe. There were two leather bucket seats. I slid into the one closest to me on the passenger side of the SUV, assuring a clear view of the driver. The large-shouldered man wore his hair buzzed short. A wire twisted its way out of his broad collar and into his ear. His eyes were glued to his windshield and both of his hands were squared on the steering wheel.
Andre made sure my door was secure then climbed in the seat in front of me.
A tree shaped silhouette hung from the rearview mirror, filling the car with the scent of artificial pine. It laced with the musky smell of leather seats and the burly scent of man, tickling my nose. The combination might have been welcome had it represented a date or something less dramatic than being rushed away from everything that was comfortable in my life.
Scratching the end of my nose, I turned toward the dark window. Heavy tinting blocked any sign of life on the outside of the car. It was so dark, I’m certain the inside of the car would’ve appeared to be night time even if it had been the middle of the day.
“Can I have a light back here?” I asked the men in the front seat as I pulled the manila envelope out of my purse and dumped its contents on the seat beside me. Neither one of them responded. “Please?” I added with a softer tone.
“I’m sorry.” Andre’s deep voice cut in staccatoed beats through the darkness. “We must keep cover.” He kept his eyes straight ahead.
Five, I counted to myself, sucking in as much air as my lungs could handle. The smell of leather mixed with artificial pine filled my nostrils. Four. I pushed the air – in small, almost rhythmic motions – out of my chest. Three. I drew in another long, purposeful breath. Two. I let it out: the pine scent, the musky leather, and the anxious knot in my chest. One. In again. Deep. Thoughtful. Relaxing.
Letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, I picked up the paperclipped pile that had fallen out of the envelope, and pulled it close to my eyes. A plane ticket lay on the top of the neatly stacked papers. I squinted in the darkness to decipher the destination —one way to the Salt Lake City International Airport. Under the ticket was a crisp, new passport, a small bundle of cash, a single credit card, and a driver’s license.
I pulled the driver’s license out of the bundle and examined it. According to the information on the front of the card I was a resident of Utah with brown hair and brown eyes, a B-level restriction that meant I was required to wear corrective lenses when driving, and my name was Ginger Alston.
Ginger? Seriously? I wanted to laugh out loud. Or cry. The American government – an agency with unlimited resources – couldn’t do better than a stripper name? Of course, even if I could pass as a Ginger without snickering every time someone said my name, none of the other information was true either. How was I supposed to pass through airport security when my red hair and blue eyes clearly didn’t match the girl pictured on my new ID? My stomach dropped at the realization. More than my name had to change.
The driver stopped his vehicle in front of a security station, flashed a card through the window, then drove into a dimly lit parking garage. Pulling to a stop in a secluded corner, he shut the engine off. There wasn’t a single other car anywhere to be seen.
Andre stepped out, walked back to my door, and pulled it open. Nodding toward a tiny Asian woman who’d seemingly appeared out of nowhere, he coaxed me out with a wave of his hand.
He pushed the car door closed, making barely a sound in the empty garage, then, crossing his arms over his chest, perched himself against the side of the car.
The little lady turned away and started walking. Andre raised his chin in her direction, a sign that I assumed meant I was supposed to follow her. I silenced the plethora of questions I had and trailed behind her shadow down a long, dark hallway. My stomach was in knots, anticipating the moment she might reconnect with those kung-fu skills that had allowed her to appear out of nowhere.
Gratefully, she didn’t open up any ninja moves on me before reaching the end of the hallway. I’d have never stood a chance against her. Or anyone for that matter. I was in way over my head.
There was only one door at the end of the hall. A large, metal one. The little lady pulled it open effortlessly. It slammed heavily behind us before the overhead lights flickered on.
A single salon chair sat in the stark room behind a floor to ceiling mirror. Beside the mirror hung the same photoshopped image of me that they’d used for my new ID. Brown haired, brown eyed me. I wasn’t sure I liked the look – it was far less conservative than I was comfortable with – but the urgency with which Kravitsch ushered me out of the office indicated that it was necessary.
The little ninja-lady motioned me to sit and I didn’t dare argue. She slid the hair tie off my ponytail, freeing my hair to flow down past the middle of my back. She drew a comb through the tangles, mumbling something in her native tongue, then grabbed her sheers and spun the chair so my back was to the mirror.
The muscles in my jaw tightened as I heard the scissors claim their first chunk of hair. I gripped the armrests and focused on steadying my emotions. How had I been compromised?
An hour later, eight inches of natural red curls scattered over the floor. Kung-fu lady instructed me to stand. “Gib me you swatter,” she ordered.
“Yas. You swatter.” She pointed to my cardigan.
Hesitantly, I slid the soft, brown cable knit off my shoulders and handed it to her.
“I put in trash where it belong.”
I flinched in horror as she tossed it in the trash can. “But I love that sweater,” I defended.
“It ugly,” she said matter-of-factly. “Dis so blaw.” She grabbed the collar of my white blouse and, without hesitation, unbuttoned the top two buttons. “So better.” She played with my collar again, this time pulling the lapel edges outward.
“Now skirt and shoe.” She pointed to my navy pleated skirt and simple black flats. “I get you better.”
Not brave enough to argue with her, I slipped off my shoes and slithered out of my skirt while she opened a wardrobe closet and riffled through it.
“Here,” she said, handing me a pair of black business pants and leopard print heals.
I shimmied into the skin-tight slacks, uncomfortable with how they hugged every curve of my lower body, then slid my foot into the three-inch heels. “I don’t do heels very well.” I eyed my discarded black flats, hoping she’d allow me some level of comfort.
“Den you learn.” She looked me over then, with a nod of approval, turned me around to face the mirror. “You like?” She smiled at her work.
The girl in the mirror was pretty. Her short, blunt cut hair hung in loose, sassy curls just above her shoulders. Her lips were full and colored with a radiant shade of red that accentuated her deep brown eyes. Even the shoes were appealing. But she wasn’t me.
Ninja-lady gave me about thirty-seconds to look myself over and then, without having fully processed the stranger staring back at me, I was back in the car.
The driver and Andre maintained complete silence for the drive. No music, no conversation, only the noise of the road beneath us. And, as far as I was concerned, that was a good thing. I didn’t like small-talk, and I certainly didn’t need a stranger to dig into my feelings. Especially since I hadn’t even had time to form any, let alone process them.
Compromised. Transferred. New identity. I repeated the words over and over in my head as I stared at my reflection in the car window. Only it wasn’t me. It was the newly invented me. The one where I sported a dark, shoulder length, blunt-cut bob and looked like I’d stepped out of a fashion magazine. The one where I was known as Ginger. Ugh. I silently repeated the name with disgust. Ginger snap. Ginger Spice. Ginger ale.
The driver dropped me at Dulles Airport and Andre escorted me through security with just enough time to board a red-eye to Salt Lake. Without luggage, we moved quickly through the terminal, stopping only briefly when I caught a glimpse of my burned-down apartment building on a recap of the nightly news. I wanted to mourn the loss of my identity, my family, my apartment, and the only life I’d ever known, but the thumping in my chest reminded me that I was on the run from some unknown threat. I didn’t have time for a breakdown. Andre stood silently by my side until the moment I boarded the plane. Like a child I simply followed his lead, blindly trusting that the US government knew what it was doing.
As the plane lifted, the stress of my evening started closing in. I’d always been a numbers and patterns girl. I liked order and had never made even the most trivial of moves without a solid game plan. Spontaneity was not my forte.
My hands shook and my head pounded in almost the same rhythm as my heart. I looked around the cabin, taking inventory of everyone and everything around me. Not that I’d have known what to do had someone actually assaulted me. I was fit and healthy, but definitely not strong enough to fight anyone off – especially in high heels. I’d made an investment in my brain, not my biceps, and for the first time in my life I questioned the wisdom of that choice.
I tightened my grip on the armrests and, pinching my eyes closed momentarily, focused on my breathing. In and out. In and out. In – I hoped that Kravitsch’s plan included placing someone on the plane who knew more about protecting me than I did – and out. In – if not, I’d have lost eight inches of hair and my favorite cardigan for nothing – and out.
As soon as we reached altitude, I moved to an empty row of seats in the back of the cabin so I could have full view of the entire airplane.
My eyes were heavy, but the uncertainty of what stood before me wouldn’t let me sleep. I’d lost control of my life. The government was calling all the shots now, not just in my professional life, but in the totality of who I was. I took comfort in Kravitsch’s parting words. Not the part where he’d said to trust no one, because, frankly, there was no comfort to be found there. But the words before that. The ones where he said, “It’s only temporary.” I repeated the phrase over and over in my mind. “It’s only temporary . . .”
~ Want to keep reading? - To get the rest of the story
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HUNTED: Beyond the Secrets - The Secret of Secrets, Book 2
After months under an assumed identity, NSA data analyst Samantha Perry is finally getting her real life back. Cleared of all connections to the federal government’s PumpPurge case, she is free to pick up the pieces of her previous life and move on as if nothing happened. But shedding her identity as Ginger Alston and leaving the deserts of Utah aren’t all Samantha had hoped they would be. Despite the comfort of her newly regained routine, thoughts of Seth and the love they might have, taunt her. But who is he and what is he hiding?
Using her connections with the NSA, Samantha knows she can unearth even the deepest of secrets. But, how dark is too dark? How deep is too deep? And what – or who – is she willing to risk find her man?
HOOKED: The Final Hack - The Secret of Secrets, Book 3
The deeper you cast your line, the more tangled things become.
Spontaneity is so far out of Samantha Perry's comfort zone, even the thought of it gives her anxiety. But love makes a girl - even a typically contemplative and logical one - do things she wouldn't normally do. So, when Alaska calls, she doesn't hesitate to answer.
Four-thousand miles may not be enough to keep her from tracking down the man who stole her heart, but will the man at the end of her line be the catch she's been hoping for?
HACKED (c) 2015 Stephanie Connelley Worlton. published by Spring Canyon Media. All rights reserved.
HUNTED (c) 2015 Stephanie Connelley Worlton, published by Spring Canyon Media. All rights reserved.
HOOKED (c) 2015 Stephanie Connelley Worlton, published by Spring Canyon Media. All rights reserved.
HOOKED (c) 2015 Stephanie Connelley Worlton, published by Spring Canyon Media. All rights reserved.