Colton’s Deadly Disguise
Part of the Coltons Series
For an undercover duo, investigating a beauty pageant turns ugly.
When Bella Colton undergoes a makeover to enter a beauty pageant, she’s on a mission. She’s determined to find out why her best friend died. Enter undercover FBI agent Holden St. Clair. Holden’s hot on the heels of a serial killer, who has Bella in his crosshairs. As the chemistry between Bella and Holden sparks, can they capture the murderer in their midst?
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
Colton’s Deadly Disguise
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Colton’s Deadly Disguise
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Offstage, Bella quickly slipped out of the espadrilles and shoved them into her oversize tote. Her feet made no sound on the old, highly waxed corridor floor that had borne thousands of teenaged feet through the years.
Looking over her shoulder, she made sure that the way-too-intense security guard hadn’t followed her, but he’d been pretty settled in his chair on the stage, observing the pageant committee’s discussion. The members had been deep in conversation as she and the other contestants exited. Bella had made to leave with the group, then peeled off as the last of the women exited through the main door.
The memory of his gaze on her made her skin heat and her anger rise. Did he think she couldn’t see him as the pageant committee grilled her? And what was his job here, exactly? She thought security guards just manned doors and entrances.
Memories swiped at her focus as she ran to the teachers’ conference room. She’d been in several musicals during middle and high school, all performed in this very building, on the same stage where she was going to have to pretend to compete for Ms. Mustang Valley. Bella knew these corridors and rooms as well as the house she’d grown up in until their parents had died. Some buildings were imprinted on a heart as firmly as the memories that were created in them. She sighed. Even the not-so-great memories—the ones of Aunt Amelia, who had single-handedly raised Bella and her brothers after the accident—were here. Bella recalled Aunt Amelia at back-to-school , frazzled as she found getting to three different class sessions impossible. She’d taken it out on the triplets later, complaining about how her life could have been so much easier if Bella’s parents had lived.
Bella hoped that tomorrow she’d be asked to report back to participate in the pageant. She knew it depended the interview, the personal essays, answers to a total of five written questions that covered her views on charity, community and personal excellence, and her “contestant resume.” The resume had to include current contributions to Mustang Valley, her service hours outside of work, and her place of employment. She’d cringed at the glamour portion of the submission package, which required a headshot as well as an “athletic pose.” Bella used her tripod to take the photo of herself in yoga pants and workout bra. But it’d all be worth it if she made the cut. She’d learn more about the selection process and any “advice” doled out by the committee that might include starving oneself. She was looking for this kind of evidence against the pageant, but Bella needed more proof that this pageant in particular encouraged the women to be as thin as possible, or any other trigger that would have set off Gio’s issues. Gio had mentioned Señora Rosenstein as being particularly snide in her comments about any plus- sized contestants, forcing them to weigh in each day, sometimes twice per day. As the pageant’s self-appointed volunteer choreographer, Selina had made nasty, derogatory comments to Gio and other contestants more than once, and Gio told her there were transcripts of the actual pageants where Selina cut contestants for such subjective transgressions as not being “dancer-like.” Gio’s claims weren’t enough to write an investigative report with, however. Bella needed to establish a pattern of wrongdoing for as far back as it existed, if possible.
The records of the previous pageants were reportedly stored in a single, locked file cabinet in the corner of the teaching-staff room which doubled as a group dressing room. Gio had gone over all of it with her as she lay dying, her spent body nearing its end on the hospital bed.
Gio’s last smile to her had belied her wasted state, and Gio’s spirit buoyed her with each step closer to the staff room. Reaching the steel door, she peered through the small, high window, but it had been papered over from the inside. Probably a security move due to the ever-present threat of school shootings. It was a harsh reality Bella’s generation had only begun to come to grips with. She sucked in air as quietly as she could, listening for anyone else in the area. It was impossible to tell if someone was in the room until she entered, and she had no idea how much time she had to find what she wanted.
Holding her breath, Bella opened the door and pasted a smile on her face. If anyone was here, she’d make up a stupid excuse and skedaddle.
No one was in the room and she scanned it with her reporter’s-eye view. The worn furniture and wood-paneled walls had been replaced with contemporary ergonometric chairs, sofas and laptop desks. The walls were a pale shade of lime, the white trim of the huge picture windows creating a crisp, clean, calming effect. If she weren’t a Mustang Valley native, she’d be stunned by the unparalleled view of the Mustang Valley Mountains.
Bella would have plenty of time to appreciate aesthetics later, while running through the pageant. Right now she needed the files Gio had told her about. The files held the transcripts of previous pageants, priceless evidence. Her chest felt heavy as she remembered Gio’s insistence that the Ms. Mustang Valley pageant was the most tortuous, demeaning experience of all the pageants she regularly competed in. Sure, Ms. Mustang Valley held the highest prize—a full, four-year ride to the local college. But it came at such a high price. As part of her prep for going undercover, Bella had interviewed a couple dozen Ms. Mustang Valley pageant entrants from the past decade. She’d found their names in the archives of the local newspapers, as all contestants were announced before the final night.
While all described the competitive environment she’d expected, with the stakes so high, none gave her the specific details Gio had in those last months before she died. Bella needed the pageant’s written history, and if she was lucky, she’d find out what Selina Barnes Colton and Hannah Rosenstein had really said to Gio.
Acutely aware that she could be interrupted at any second, Bella searched the room for the file cabinet. Nothing resembling Gio’s description or her memory existed in the staff room. Tears of frustration and rage threatened and she blinked. She refused to have her attempt to find justice for Gio stymied this early into her efforts.
Calm down. Think.
Hands on hips, she took one more look around the room, beginning and ending with the stage door. Her mind’s eye saw the stage beyond the double doors, the dressing area to the left—
The dressing room! The space beyond the room divider where the cabinets had been placed. She recalled Gio’s offhand comment about how crowded it was in there, with twenty-four women changing for swimsuit and evening-gown competitions.
She slowly opened the double doors to the stage, aware of each tiny creak and squeak. The voices of the pageant board floated through along with the unmistakable scent of the stage. Pinewood, varnish, decades of sweat and joy that had been expended through performance after performance, tryouts and auditions. To her left the sun’s rays filtered through dust from the dressing room. Sweat beaded on her upper lip and trickled down her spine, even made her palms wet. Apparently air-conditioning wasn’t in the school’s weekend and evening budget.
As soon as she could close the doors without a sound, she made haste toward the side room. Before she reached the threshold, her gaze landed on her prize: the old, battered metal file cabinet sat in the far corner of the room, laden with props resting atop its rusty finish.
She reached into her pocket for the key that she’d found in the box of treasures Gio had left for her. A favorite pair of earrings Bella had always admired, photographs going back to elementary school, the tickets from a summer concert series they’d scrimped and saved to afford. And a small, sealed envelope.
Gio’s mother brought the box over to Bella’s home two weeks after her daughter had passed. She expressed again how much Bella had meant to Gio and how much Bella’s support helped her during the awful grieving process.
Bella wasn’t surprised to find a small note in Gio’s unmistakable neat print addressed to her. Her bestie liked to have closure and loved writing letters. The surprise had been the file cabinet key tucked inside the exquisite stationery.
Bella had expected that she’d have to do a lot of digging and research before getting enough evidence to take to the police in the hopes of obtaining a search warrant, to get official access into the files. Gio’s claim that certain pageant officials had caused her eating and mental disorders needed to be substantiated.
The pageant files from years past would tell Bella not only who the judges had been, but bear witness to their thought processes and training methods. Methods that Gio thought still existed even today, with all the knowledge about eating disorders and mental illness.
Bella looked at her watch. She figured her time was running short, as the security guard was bound to get up and check the backstage area. Did she have enough time to finish her theft?
No time to worry about it.
The key was in her pocket and she wrestled it out, jiggled it into the lock. For one heart-stopping moment she feared the key might break before she was able to turn the lock as both were practically ancient, the metal spotted with rust.
Finally the lock turned and she grasped the handle, used her thumb to slide the drawer stop to the right.
The sound of fabric against fabric was her only warning before a strong hand clamped over her nose and mouth. She was pulled up against a person behind her. She fought to turn but her attacker was stronger and yanked her hair, hard.
“Don’t move or I’ll snap your neck.” The low, taut voice vibrated with menace and sounded like a horror-film villain’s. Spots started to float in front of her vision and she kicked backward with her heel, hoping that the blows against this maniac’s shins and feet would make him loosen his hold on her.
He tugged harder on her hair and she cried out in pain but with her air supply cut and in such agony it came out as a whimper.
“You’re not being very smart. You’ll never win this pageant. If you want to live, you’ll quit before you start.”
Focus. Observe. She tried every tool she’d ever read about to capture a solid description for the police. And most of all, she fought for her consciousness. Victims who passed out didn’t always fare well.
“Stop!” A loud, booming voice echoed through her rapidly fading awareness. Bella tried to hold on to that voice, its strength, its promise of safety.
But her world crashed into nothingness.
“Stop or I’ll shoot.” Holden had his weapon aimed on the man in black, whom he’d gone after when he saw him in the shadows. The creep held an unconscious, drooping Bella Colton with one arm, her head up next to his as protection from Holden’s bullets. At least, Holden hoped she was unconscious and not dead.
“Never.” The assailant turned and faced him. He wore a ski mask and sunglasses under the black ball cap. A mouthpiece revealed how he disguised his voice. “I will crush her throat if you don’t back off.”
Holden stood his ground, praying for extra time. For this suspect to make a mistake, to move enough so that he could get a clear shot without risking Bella’s life.
Unless the killer had already claimed his next victim. He risked a quick look at her face and its pink tinge assured him her heart was at least still pumping.
Moving his gaze back on the enemy, he slowly lowered his weapon. The other man had no visible weapon. , so his comment about crushing her throat didn’t match. But it might be part of his thrill—using different MOs.
“You’ll never get out of here alive. Turn yourself in now and you live.” Holden had to be careful to not betray his real identity to this lowlife. The less the killer knew, the better. It wouldn’t matter if he could apprehend him right here, right now, but Holden had been in this situation before. Bella’s safety came first. He watched the man’s hands for any sign of movement toward Bella’s throat. Right now his arm held her neck up against him.
“You don’t own me, you pathetic excuse for security.” The killer’s voice sounded like a space alien and that added an extra creepiness to his words. Holden itched to cuff him, to get him to confess to what he’d done.
“What do you have against this woman? Drop her.”
“Everyone is not what they seem.” He was backing toward the exit, dragging the still unresponsive Bella with him. “If you were doing your job, I wouldn’t have been able to get to her. She’s mine.”
Not on Holden’s life.
Holden took one step toward the assailant and allowed himself to fall forward, as if he’d tripped. The man jerked, saw the clear line Holden had to shoot him and let go of Bella, then ran out the exit. Holden took off after the man, but when he entered the large corridor he was gone. Holden pulled out his cell and called 9-1-1, identifying himself as pageant security to keep his cover. He requested police backup, informed them of Bella’s unconscious state and asked for EMT support ASAP. He continued to run through the school in all directions the man could have gone but it was fruitless. And he had to turn back to protect Bella until the other LEA arrived on scene.
The man behind the stage, who’d rendered Bella Colton unconscious, had disappeared as if a stage trapdoor had opened and swallowed him whole.
Sirens sounded and he rounded back to the staff room, to check on Bella. As he neared, he saw EMTs rush in and decided to stay back until they’d treated her. If she regained consciousness here, he didn’t want to be the first person she saw. Better to stay in the background of all that had happened. His cover was vital to keeping the pageant contestants safe, especially the single redhead with green eyes, Bella Colton.
He slipped into an empty classroom and called Bud Langston, the Arizona State pageant director, one of the few people who knew about Holden’s undercover role besides Holden’s handler at the FBI office in Phoenix. Bud had contacted Holden, who got permission from his supervisor to work the case that the FBI began investigating after the second pageant murder. Bud’s son had been Holden’s college roommate and Bud had jumped at the chance to have Holden work undercover during the Ms. Mustang Valley Pageant. Anything to keep the participants safe.
“Talk to me, Holden.”
“It’s a rough start to Ms. Mustang Valley, Bud.” Holden recapped what had happened.
“Thank God that Bella Colton wasn’t harmed—or was she, besides being knocked out?”
“I don’t know for certain, but I’ll find out and get back to you. She was out the entire time I was there, so there’s slim to no chance she knows of my involvement.”
“That’s something, at least.” Bud swore and Holden bit back a grin—Bud was a navy veteran and salty came to mind. “I wish you’d caught him.”
“I do, too. But, Bud, we can’t be certain this is the same man we’re looking for. Beauty pageants attract all kinds, and are the perfect target for anyone who’s off-balance and looking for a sick thrill.” Criminals had all kinds of motives.
“I get that, and I’m glad you’re on the case. What will it take to call in more federal agents?”
“That’s above my pay grade, but to be honest, we’re stretched thin at the moment. Plus, the risk of anyone figuring out we’re here will prevent us from operating with the freedom we need to apprehend the suspect.” Holden was fairly certain the criminal only saw him as a bumbling security guard, which was how he wanted it. It might make Holden the man’s first target, if and when he came back. Holden would be ready for him.
“Thanks for what you did today, and please keep me informed.” Bud’s sincerity was tangible in his voice.
“Will do.” When Holden disconnected, he put in a call to his FBI supervisor, who expressed the same disappointment that Holden hadn’t apprehended the criminal, and added an additional task that Holden had already figured into his work in Mustang Valley. He’d call Spencer later, after he got out of here. Spencer and he had agreed to not communicate unless absolutely necessary while Holden was on this case, undercover. And now his buddy’s sister was smack dab in the middle of the case. She’d been hurt on his watch, not something he relished telling Spencer.
He had to keep tabs on Bella Colton at all costs, without her figuring out he was FBI. Holden had trailed suspects and victims alike, all in the line of duty as an agent.
So why did the prospect of keeping her safe fill him both with anticipation and dread?