A disturbed criminal wants to destroy her life.
After her colleague’s brutal murder, Dr. Waylynn Hargraves’s past makes her a suspect, but Blackhawk Security investigator Elliot Dunham is certain she’s innocent. When Waylynn’s research reveals she faces a danger worse than being framed, Elliot will defy all of the rules he’s set for himself in order to protect Waylynn from the killer who is stalking her.
An ear-piercing scream had Elliot Dunham reaching for the Glock stashed under his pillow. He threw back the sheets and pumped his legs hard, not bothering to check the time as the apartment blurred in his vision. That scream hadn’t come from his apartment, but close. Air rushed from his lungs as adrenaline burned through his veins. There was only one name that came to mind. “Waylynn.”
Ripping open his front door, he made the sharp turn to his left in the darkness and faced his next-door neighbor’s front door. No hesitation. He aimed the heel of his foot toward the lock and kicked with everything he had. Pain shot up his leg, but the door frame splintered, thick wood slamming back against the wall. Dust flew into his beard and face as he raised the gun and moved in. One breath. Two. Nothing but the pounding of his heartbeat behind his ears registered from the shadows. He scanned the scene, his senses adjusting slowly.
He’d gone into plenty of situations like this before, but this wasn’t just another one of his clients. This was Waylynn. She mattered. He’d trained out of Blackhawk Security, offered his clients personal protection, home security and investigative services, as well as tactical training, wilderness survival and self-defense. But none of that would do Elliot a damn bit of good now. He was running off instinct. Because when it came to that woman, he couldn’t think. Couldn’t breathe.
Debris cut into his bare feet as he moved deeper into the dark apartment. A broken picture frame—Waylynn’s doctorate degree from Texas A&M University—crunched beneath his weight. Torn couch cushions, a broken vase, a purse that’d been dumped over the floor. Signs of an obvious struggle littered the living room, but it was the trail of dark liquid leading to the back bedroom that homed his attention to the soft sobs echoing down the hallway. Blood. “Waylynn? It’s Elliot. Are you dead?”
“Don’t come in here!” That voice. Her voice.
“I take it that’s a no.” While his gut twisted at her hint of fear, relief spread through him. She was alive. And the scream… Something horrible had happened to make her scream like that. The front door had been locked. No breeze came through the apartment from a broken window. Elliot moved down the hallway, putting the survival skills ingrained into him since he was fourteen to good use. No sign of a break-in. No movement from an intruder. He hit the bedroom and pushed the partially open door open with his free hand. The bed had been perfectly made, brightly colored throw pillows straight. Not much damage in this room. Light from beneath the closed bathroom door stretched across the beige carpeting.
And Elliot froze.
The gun faltered in his grip as water seeped from beneath the bathroom door. Not just water. Water mixed with blood. He shot forward. “I don’t care if you’re naked, Doc. I’m coming in.”
Elliot shouldered his way into the brightly lit bathroom and caught sight of his next-door neighbor huddled against the wall. Ice worked through him as he took in her soaked long blond hair, her stained oversize sweater and ripped black leggings, the terrified panic in her light blue eyes as she stared up at him, openmouthed.
And the dead woman in the bathtub.
“Oh, I didn’t realize this was a party.” A hollow sensation carved itself into the pit of his stomach as he dropped the gun to his side. Terror etched deep lines around her mouth. Pressure built behind his sternum. Elliot set the gun on the counter and crouched in front of her, hands raised. Mildly aware he wore nothing but a pair of sweatpants, he ignored the urge to reach out for her. He’d take it slow. The woman in front of him wasn’t the one he’d moved in next door to a year ago. This wasn’t the woman who’d caught his attention with a single smile and a six-pack of beer in her hand when she’d made the effort to introduce herself to her new neighbor. This woman was scared, vulnerable. Dangerous.
“Who’s your friend?” he asked.
Her gaze wandered to the body, far too distant, far too empty. Color drained from her face. “Alexis.”
“Okay, then. First piece of the mystery solved.” Elliot framed her chin between his thumb and index finger and softened his voice. He didn’t have a whole lot of training when it came to trauma victims, but he couldn’t keep himself from touching her. “Second question. Are you the one bleeding?”
“I’m…” She turned that ice-blue gaze back to him, her voice dropping into hollow territory. “I’m not the one bleeding.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere.” He lowered his hand, careful of where he stepped, careful not to leave prints. He’d barged into the middle of an active crime scene. A crime scene where the most trusting woman he’d known stood in the center. There’d been a struggle, that much was clear. Things had obviously gotten out of hand, but he needed to hear the rest from her. He’d learned to trust his instincts a long time ago and something about the scene, about Waylynn’s scream a few minutes ago, didn’t sit right. He pointed to the bathtub. “Last question. Why is there a dead woman in your tub?”
“I don’t remember. It’s all a blur. I woke up facedown on the bathroom floor. Water and—” she shuddered, wrapping her arms tighter around her middle “—blood were spilling over the edge of the bathtub. I got up and then I saw her. I screamed.” Tears streamed down her cheeks and she wiped at them with the back of her long, thin fingers. She worked to swallow, her knees pressed against her chest, hands shaking. She blinked against the brightness of the lighting. “It’s Alexis. Alexis Jacobs. She’s my assistant at the lab.”
Genism Corporation’s lab. The largest, most profitable biotech company in Alaska. Also one of the military’s biggest prospects for genetic testing, from what he’d learned, because Dr. Waylynn Hargraves herself had put them on the map. Advancing their research by decades according to recent publicity, she’d proved the existence of some kind of highly contested gene.
Elliot scanned the scene again.
He dragged his thumb along her cheekbone, focused entirely on the size of her pupils and not the fact every hair on the back of his neck had risen at the feel of her. Only a thin line of blue remained in her irises, which meant one of two things in a room this well lit. Either Waylynn had suffered a head injury during an altercation or she’d been drugged. Or both. He scanned down the long column of her throat. And found exactly what he was looking for. A tiny pinprick on the left side of her neck. The right size of a hypodermic needle. He exhaled hard. Damn it. She’d been drugged, made to look like she’d murdered her assistant. Framed. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Anything to give them an idea of who’d done this. Because it sure as hell hadn’t been Waylynn.
She blinked against the bathroom lights as though the brightness hurt. “I… I was supposed to meet Alexis here, at my apartment. She said she’d found something alarming in the recent study I oversee at work, but she didn’t want to discuss it over the phone or at the lab. She insisted on somewhere private where we couldn’t be overheard.”
If Waylynn headed that study, anything alarming her assistant uncovered would’ve fallen back on her, threatened the project. But not if Alexis disappeared first. Whoever’d killed the assistant had known she and Waylynn were meeting and planned the perfect setup. Pinning his next-door neighbor as a murderer.
“Okay. You had a meeting scheduled here,” he said. “You obviously got in your car and left the lab. Then what?”
“I…don’t remember.” She wrapped long fingers around his arms. “Elliot, why can’t I remember?”
“Sorry to be the one to tell you this, Doc, but I think you were drugged.” He pointed at the faint, angry puckering of the skin at the base of her throat to distract himself from the grip she had around his arms. “Hypodermic needle mark on the left side of your neck.”
“There’re only a handful of sedatives that affect memory. Benzodiazepines mostly. We store them at the lab.” Hand automatically gravitating to the mark, she ran her fingertips over the abrasion. Her bottom lip parted from the top, homing his attention to her mouth. That wide gaze wandered back to the tub and absolutely destroyed her expression. Waylynn worked over sixty hours a week at the lab. Stood to reason her assistant did, too. They’d probably spent a lot of time together, gotten close. Shock smoothed the lines around her eyes. Her hands shook as she covered her mouth. “But drugging me doesn’t explain how Alexis… This can’t be happening. Not again.”
Again? Alarm bells echoed in his head and his fight instinct clawed through him. “You know, that makes me think you killed somebody in a past life I don’t know about.”
Movement registered from somewhere inside the apartment and Elliot reached for the gun on the counter. The metal warmed in his hand as he barricaded the door with his back.
Voices thundered through the apartment. Then footsteps outside the bathroom door. “Anchorage PD! We received a disturbance call from one of your neighbors. Is anyone here?” a distinct feminine voice asked.
“I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had this much excitement since getting shot at a few months ago.” This night was getting better by the minute, yet Waylynn hadn’t moved. “I don’t mean to alarm you, Doc, but I think the police are here. And they’re probably going to arrest you.”
“Elliot, I think I killed her.” Waylynn’s fingernails dug into his arms harder. “I think I killed Alexis.”
This couldn’t be happening. Not again. She couldn’t go through this again.
Waylynn Hargraves pressed her elbow into the hard metal table, threading her fingers through her hair. Focus. She hadn’t been charged with anything. Yet. They’d taken her blood to run a tox screen, but if Anchorage PD believed she’d killed Alexis, wouldn’t they have put her in cuffs? She couldn’t have killed her lab tech. She’d never hurt Alexis. They were friends. Even if… No. She’d been drugged. She’d been forced. Framed. All she had to do was remember.
Pain lightninged across her vision and she blinked against the onslaught of the fluorescent lighting above. A dull ache settled at the base of her skull. Whatever drug she’d been injected with still clung to the edges of her mind, kept her from accessing those memories. She couldn’t think. Couldn’t remember how she’d gotten to her own apartment, if she’d talked with Alexis, how she’d—
Waylynn swallowed around the tightness in her throat and lifted her attention to the mirror taking up most of one wall in front of her. They’d left her alone in this room, but she doubted the room on the other side of that glass was unoccupied. The weight of being watched pressed her back against the chair. “Elliot?”
The door to her right clicked open. A female uniformed officer set sights on her. Past memories overrode the present and, for a split second, Waylynn felt like the fifteen-year-old girl accused of murdering her father all over again. Scared. Alone. Pressured to confess.
Tossing a manila file folder to the table, the officer brought Waylynn back into the moment. Long, curly brown hair had been pulled back in a tight ponytail, highlighting the sternness in the officer’s expression. “Dr. Hargraves, sorry to keep you waiting. I’m Officer Ramsey. I have a few questions for you about what happened tonight.”
“I know how this works.” Waylynn shifted in the scratchy sweatshirt and sweatpants Officer Ramsey had lent her after crime scene technicians had taken her blood-soaked clothing as evidence. This time would be different. She wasn’t a scared teenager anymore. She’d left that girl behind, studied her way through school, worked multiple jobs to pay for it herself, graduated with a master of science, landed a job with the top genetics laboratories in the country as their lead research associate. The work she’d done over the last three years for Genism Corporation would save lives. But the research community wouldn’t see anything other than a murder charge attached to her name. “I’m not sure how much I can tell you.”
“You do know how this works, don’t you?” Officer Ramsey took a seat, sliding the folder she’d placed on the table across its surface. Waylynn didn’t have to look at the contents to know what they contained. Her sealed records. “You’ve done this before. Are you sure you don’t want your attorney present?”
Done this before. That wasn’t a question. That was an accusation.
Her entire career—everything she’d worked for, everything she’d left behind—crashed down around her. A wave of dizziness closed in, but Waylynn fought against the all-consuming need to sink in the chair. No. This wasn’t happening. She didn’t kill her lab assistant.
“I don’t have an attorney. Listen, my father wasn’t a very nice man. So if you’re looking for some sign of sympathy when it comes to his death, you’re not going to find it, but I didn’t kill Alexis.” She set her palms against the cold surface of the table to gain some composure. “If you read the file, then you know I was acquitted. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict me of his murder.”
She hadn’t been the one who’d killed her father.
“But there is now.” Light green eyes pinned Waylynn in place. At her words, another uniformed officer shouldered into the room, handing Ramsey a clear plastic evidence bag and another manila file. The policeman closed the door behind him, nothing but silence settling between her and the woman across the table. Officer Ramsey held up the evidence bag for her to see. “Do you recognize this?”
A piece of paper? “No.”
“Really?” Ramsey set the bag labeled “evidence” flat on the table and slid it closer. “Why don’t you take a closer look?”
Picking up the bag, Waylynn studied the blank sheet of paper, not entirely sure what Officer Ramsey intended her to see. She flipped it over. A gasp lodged in her throat as a flash of memory broke through her drug-induced haze. Sharp pain as she held on to the pen. The barrel of a gun cutting into her scalp. The handwritten words fell from her mouth as she stared at the note. Her handwritten words. “Tell Matt Stover I’m sorry. I had to save the project.”
What was this supposed to be? A confession? A suicide note?
“Crime scene technicians discovered that note on your nightstand. That’s your handwriting, isn’t it?” Officer Ramsey collected the evidence bag, still holding it up. “Your supervisor, Dr. Matt Stover, who you mentioned in the note, was very helpful in providing us samples.”
A flood of goose bumps pimpled along her arms. That was why they’d kept her contained in this room for so long. They’d been buying their time. Dread curdled in her stomach. If someone had forced her to write that note at gunpoint, what else had they forced her to do? What else would the crime scene technicians uncover? “Handwriting analysis can’t be used as evidence in court.”
“Right. You’ve done this before. I keep forgetting.” A placating smile thinned Officer Ramsey’s lips, deepening the laugh lines around her mouth as she leaned back in her chair. She pointed toward Waylynn’s throat. “Tell me about that mark on your neck. What’d you do? Shoot yourself up with saline to make it look like you’d been drugged?”
A pitiful laugh burst from between Waylynn’s lips. “What?”
She couldn’t be serious. Why would she drug—
“The tox screen we ran earlier on the sample of blood you gave us came back negative for any kind of sedatives or other drugs.” Officer Ramsey folded her arms across her midsection. “I have enough to arrest you right now, Dr. Hargraves. The only thing we can’t account for is the gun you used to shoot Alexis Jacobs. You worked with her, didn’t you? For three years. So why don’t you tell me what really happened after you lured your lab tech to your apartment to kill her and where you stashed the weapon?”
Alexis had been shot? But Anchorage PD hadn’t recovered the gun.
Waylynn couldn’t focus. Couldn’t breathe. The toxicology screen was negative, but why couldn’t she remember anything after she’d left the lab? She threaded her fingers into her hair. This was insane. There was no way she would’ve killed Alexis. “Talk to Elliot Dunham, my next-door neighbor. He was there. He broke down my apartment door seconds after I woke up on the bathroom floor. He heard me scream. That wouldn’t have been enough time for me to stash a gun.”
“He’s in the next room over, but I’m not stupid enough to believe anything that comes out of Elliot Dunham’s or his team’s mouths, Dr. Hargraves. I rely on evidence.” Officer Ramsey leaned back in her chair. “All this evidence, plus the voice mail Alexis left on your phone, is telling me your assistant uncovered something in your most recent research trial for Genism Corporation. Something that would bring the entire study down. You killed her to protect yourself.”
The interrogation room door swung open for the third time and Waylynn studied a single man carrying a briefcase. Early fifties if she had to guess, short, cropped blond hair, piercing blue eyes almost the same shade as hers. The tight fit of his expensive suit and white shirt accentuated lean muscle, but it was the sternness etched into his expression that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. “My client won’t be answering any more questions. This interrogation is over. Dr. Hargraves, I’m Blake Henson. Your lawyer.”
Waylynn straightened. “I didn’t call a lawyer.”
“Your employer keeps me and my firm on retainer,” he said. “Dr. Stover brought me in after the police coerced him into handing over writing samples without a warrant this morning.”
The less than enthusiastic tone in his voice slid through her, which she understood. Blake Henson was a corporate lawyer, not criminal. Maybe she should’ve called her own counsel.
“Dr. Stover gave us those samples voluntarily, but nice try.” Officer Ramsey collected the evidence bag with the handwritten note and both manila file folders and stood. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re just in time. Your client is about to be arrested for murder one, counselor.”
“Not without a murder weapon she’s not. Everything you have is circumstantial at best. For all we know, Alexis Jacobs shot herself to frame my client and had someone else get rid of the gun.” Leveling the briefcase parallel with the table, Blake Henson slid the leather across the surface and hit the locks. He extracted a single piece of paper and handed it to Officer Ramsey. “Regardless, Dr. Hargraves signed a nondisclosure agreement pertaining to the research she and the deceased perform for Genism Corporation. Any intellectual property Dr. Stover provided to this department wasn’t his to give, and I’m afraid you don’t have a judge in the state who will overturn that, Officer. Trust me, I checked.”
Officer Ramsey read the document, then lowered it to her side. “You’re suing the department?”
“Not yet, but if you insist on trying to charge my client of Alexis Jacobs’s murder without evidence, my firm won’t have any other choice than to take you and the entire department to court.” Blake wrapped a strong grip around Waylynn’s arm and lifted her from her seat. A rush of heavy cologne churned her stomach as he escorted her to the door. “You, of all people, can’t afford that, Officer Ramsey.”
Was her lawyer threatening an Anchorage PD officer? Before Waylynn had a chance to reply, he’d directed her into the hallway, his hand still tight around her arm.
“Doc.” In the blink of an eye, Elliot was there, and a flood of relief washed through her. Elliot with his handsome face, dark brown hair, strong jaw, broad shoulders and athletic build. Elliot, the only man she’d ever let give her a nickname that actually made her feel better whenever he said it. No cuffs. He hadn’t been arrested, but his normally gleaming stormy-gray eyes darkened with an edge as his attention locked on her lawyer’s hand. “There a problem here?”
Waylynn wrenched her arm out of Blake Henson’s hold. “I’m not being charged. Yet.”
“Thanks to me.” Her lawyer switched his briefcase from one hand to the other, then offered his hand. “Blake Henson. Dr. Hargraves’s attorney. And you are?”
“Me?” Elliot closed in on her, ignoring Blake’s extended hand, his shoulder brushing along hers as though he intended to possess her. His clean, masculine scent dived into her lungs. He looked angry, which was odd considering her next-door neighbor usually went to great lengths to hide what he was thinking by layering everything out of his mouth with sarcasm or a joke. This wasn’t like him. Too serious. Too…dangerous. “I’m her damn bodyguard.”