Chapter Two | Rules in Defiance
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“You won’t be able to go home. Police tend to frown on someone living in the middle of an active crime scene.” Elliot pushed the SUV harder. The faster he got her to safety, the faster the knot behind his sternum might let up. He never looked for trouble, but he had no problem befriending it. And Waylynn Hargraves had been trouble since the day he’d moved in next door. A more recent example would be her dead assistant’s body in the tub. And the fact he’d nearly torn a man’s arm off and beat the bastard to death with it for putting his hands on her.
Not very professional. But the moment he’d seen Blake Henson’s hand on her arm, it’d taken every ounce of his control not to kill the lawyer in the middle of Anchorage PD’s station. Possessiveness unlike anything he’d experienced before had clawed up his throat and taken control. Nobody—not her lawyer, not the police, not him—touched Waylynn without her explicit permission.
“I remembered something.” Exhaustion clung to her words. The sweatpants and sweatshirt someone at the station had lent her hung off her narrow frame, but nothing could detract from her overall beauty. The light in her ordinarily bright eyes had dimmed over the past few hours. Finding a dead woman in your bathtub could have that effect on a person. “When Officer Ramsey was questioning me, she showed me a handwritten note, and I remembered writing it. Only, in the memory, there was a gun pressed to my head.” Her voice dropped as she stared out the passenger side window. “Somebody forced me to write it.”
“You’re being framed for your assistant’s murder, but I have a sense you already knew that.” Someone had been in her home. Drugged her. Forced her to do hell knew what. And he hadn’t heard a thing aside from her scream. Right next door. Elliot strengthened his grip around the steering wheel as downtown Anchorage passed in a blur. Working for Blackhawk Security certainly had its benefits. Use of the company’s SUVs, health coverage, an armory of weapons, not spending the rest of his life behind bars in the middle of nowhere thanks to the founder of the firm. None of it did a damn bit of good if he lost the closest person he had to a friend. Snowy peaks along the Chugach Mountain Range glistened in the sun as they headed east, and he pushed one hand through his hair. Even in the middle of June, Anchorage gave him the proverbial middle finger. He missed the desert. He glanced toward her, then back to the road as the signal ahead turned red. “Anything else?”
“Nothing. Whoever drugged me knew what they were doing. I can’t remember what happened in my apartment and the drug didn’t show up on a toxicology screen. I guess I’ll take that as a win-win situation. I’m not sure I want to remember what happened.” Color drained from her face as she leaned her head into her hand and her elbow against the passenger side door. Disheveled blond hair slid over her shoulder as she shook her head. The weight of her attention fell on him, hiking his awareness of her—of her flowery scent—to an all-time high. Geraniums. Her favorite. But not just from the bottle. Almost as though the scent had become a permanent part of her over the years. Now he couldn’t smell the damn things without thinking of her. “Why did you tell my attorney you’re my bodyguard?”
“I know you, Doc.” And not because it was his job to know. He’d spent the last year as a private investigator for Blackhawk Security, uncovering those secrets his targets hid from the world, declassifying documents for his own curiosity. Hell, he kept files on every one of his teammates. His former navy SEAL boss Sullivan Bishop and the fact he’d killed his own serial killer father, forensics expert Vincent Kalani and the accusations filed against him back in New York, their resident computer geek Elizabeth Bosch—Dawson, whatever she went by now—Anthony Harris’s classified missions for the army, and the saddest of them all, their psychologist, Kate Monroe. But digging into Waylynn’s past had never crossed his mind.
The light turned green in his peripheral vision. Car horns blared for him to get moving, but he didn’t give a damn. “You’re a scientist. You’ve spent your entire life in search of the truth and there’s no way I’m going to let you get yourself killed going after this guy on your own.”
“My boss was right.” She hugged herself a bit tighter and stared out the windshield. “You and I spend way too much time together.”
“Or maybe Dr. Stover wants you all for himself.” Couldn’t blame the guy. Waylynn had a pull to her, a sort of gravity that was hard to fight. Even now, something about her urged him to close the small distance between them, but he’d never cross that line. Not with Waylynn. She needed his help now and that was as far as it would go between them. Ever. He stepped on the accelerator, barely making it through the light. Her mouth parted as though she intended to deny it. “Trust me, Doc. Bosses don’t usually call lawyers when their employees are being charged with murder.”
Helping them escape out of an Iraqi prison was another thing.
“I think Matt is more interested in my research than what’s under my lab coat.” Fingers spread wide, a combination of passion and excitement controlled her hands as she spoke. She did that a lot. Spoke with her hands and he couldn’t do anything but pay attention. “The research we’re doing is important. Have you heard of the warrior gene before?”
“Is that the movie about the boxer?” he asked.
“The warrior gene,” she said. “Nearly every human being alive has a monoamine oxidase A gene, but, in several cases, individuals with low activity in that specific gene were found to have higher aggression in certain high-stress situations. It’s a variant and has come to be known as the warrior gene. Identifying the subjects who possess the warrior gene has the potential to save thousands of lives a year. Active shooters could be stopped before they picked up a gun because they wouldn’t be able to get one in the first place. Homicide rates would plummet. Army, navy, air force, the entire military would benefit from our research.”
“What? No psychic telling you who to arrest before the vision comes true?” Elliot made a sharp right turn and floored the accelerator as they climbed Seward Highway’s on-ramp. Couldn’t take her to Blackhawk Security. Despite the fact its founder and CEO, Sullivan Bishop, had turned it into a fortress, Elliot wasn’t willing to take the risk while the building was still under construction. It’d been five months since a bomb had ripped apart the conference room, but the best place for Waylynn right now was with him. “What you’re talking about sounds like science fiction.”
“It’s not like that.” Her hands fell into her lap as they left the city limits.
Greenery bled together in his peripheral vision, sunlight glimmering off the Turnagain Arm waterway almost blinding. He hadn’t chosen Alaska. If it were up to him, he’d have left a long time ago, but he’d keep his promise to his employer. He’d work off his debt.
“And, no, we don’t have a psychic predicting violent events and the justice system would never sentence a person of a crime before the actual crime is committed,” she said. “But knowing who carries the gene will be a huge step forward in genetic engineering and protecting lives.”
“What you’re saying is everyone with the warrior gene will eventually snap when put in a high-stress situation.” Elliot turned off the highway, throwing them deep into the middle of the Alaskan wilderness just before the Potter Creek trailhead that led into Chugach State Park. The property wasn’t much and he’d bought it for close to nothing, but he could keep Waylynn safe out here. And that was all that mattered. “Good thing I’m prepared for the zombie apocalypse.”
“Not…everyone. But, according to the studies I’ve done, it’s a possibility.” Her voice wavered on that last part and he narrowed in on the slight twitch on the left side of her mouth. A tell. Waylynn cleared her throat as a rush of pink climbed up her neck and into her cheeks. She tipped her chin up, studying surrounding trees as the SUV climbed up the dirt trail. Look at that, Waylynn Hargraves was hiding something. “Why are you helping me?”
She could keep her secrets. For now. As long as they didn’t get him killed. Because he sure as hell wasn’t the sharing type. Besides, he had ways of uncovering the truth. No matter how deep it was buried. Elliot pulled off the main road, driving deeper into wilderness. No one would find them out here. And if they did, he’d come prepared. “I don’t think you killed your assistant. If you had, you would’ve asked me for help burying the body.”
A smile overwhelmed the exhaustion in her features and, for a split second, Elliot couldn’t take his eyes off her. He’d never been the type to stick around long. A month here, a few weeks there. He’d made some enemies along the way, but having Waylynn next door settled the restlessness singing through his veins most days. “You have experience with that kind of thing?”
Elliot leveraged his palm against the steering wheel and stretched back in the seat. “Did I ever tell you why I came to Anchorage?”
She shook her head as the SUV bounced over fallen branches and dead foliage. He made one last turn, forcing her to reach for the handle above her seat before he brought the vehicle to a stop and hiked it into Park.
“I ran a con that ended with me on the wrong side of the Iraqi government.” Reaching back behind her seat, close enough to get a lungful of her light perfume, he grabbed the duffel bag he kept stocked full of supplies and hauled it into the front. “Turns out being paid for assassination contracts you never intended to carry out constitutes fraud when the people paying you work for the government.”
A weak laugh escaped from her lips as those blue eyes of hers widened. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“My boss, Sullivan, was starting a security firm here in Anchorage. Needed a private investigator. I was recruited for the job.” Elliot shouldered his way out of the SUV, hiking the duffel over his shoulder. He clamped his hand on top of the roof of the vehicle. “And by recruited, I mean he made a deal with the people who had me arrested and is forcing me to pay back the money I conned out of those nice killers until we’re even. After that, who knows. Maybe my next project will be getting paid to bury bodies for people with your warrior gene.”
“You don’t strike me as a professional con man,” she said.
“That’s what makes me so good at it.” He winked at her, a smile pulling at one side of his mouth, and motioned her out with a single nod. “Come on. I’ll show you around.”
Waylynn focused on their surroundings through his open door. He noted the exact moment she realized where he’d brought her as her mouth parted. “Please tell me you’re joking.”
He couldn’t hold back the laugh rumbling through him and turned toward the dark green cabin. “Not this time, Doc.”
A tiny cabin.
Not an oh-this-is-so-cute-and-perfect cabin, but a real, featured-on-the-Travel Channel tiny cabin in the middle of the freaking woods. Broken twigs and foliage crunched under her feet as she rounded the hood of his company SUV. Dark green paint chipped off wood planks, a single window above the shack-like door. She ran her fingers through her matted, blood-tinted hair, then cringed at the thought of what she might look like. He couldn’t be serious. “Anchorage PD is going to charge me with your murder in the morning and I’m going to tell them it’s because you made me stay here.”
There was no way they could both fit inside this thing. No way they wouldn’t run into each other in there. Waylynn swallowed hard. They’d been friends for over a year. Every night when she came home from the lab, he was there in his crappy camp chair with two beers and that damn gut-wrenching smile of his. She’d tell him about her day. He’d tell her about his most recent investigation, then they’d head inside to their apartments. Alone. But this? The idea there wouldn’t be any barriers between them? It’d either destroy their friendship or push it to the next level. Either way, their relationship would never be the same if she stepped over that threshold.
“Well, now you’re trying to hurt my feelings.” Elliot offered her his hand, the other cinched around the duffel bag he’d extracted from the backseat. He was giving her a choice. Giving her safety if she wanted it. “It’s a lot bigger than it looks.”
His easygoing smile and confidence melted through her. Of course he had confidence. Wasn’t that what con man stood for? She’d known he had a past. Everyone did. But could she trust him to keep her safe? Trust him to help her uncover who’d framed her for Alexis’s murder? That was the question. Despite his revelation about the con he’d pulled in Iraq—a con that’d landed him in prison—her gut already knew the answer. Waylynn stretched out her hand, sliding her fingers up his palm. Rougher than she’d expected. Calloused, as if he’d been working with some kind of machinery or maybe out here in the woods. Desire exploded through her with a single touch, just as it had back at the police station. “It better be.”
A breeze whipped through the surrounding trees, shaking them into a frenzy as Elliot reached for the door. He led her inside, a rush of heat dissipating the goose bumps pimpled along her arms. A combination of wood and spice wrapped around her as the main living space came into focus. She glanced toward him, unsure what to say.
“What’d I tell you?” Elliot released her hand, taking his body heat with him, and motioned to the unbelievable modern space with both arms wide. He set the duffel bag on the floor, then collapsed backward onto the single couch, fingers interlaced behind his head. For as small as the cabin looked from the outside, the layout worked well for the limited space. A fireplace, complete with a stock of firewood, lay dead ahead. Off to the left of that a single countertop with bar stools on one side and a kitchen sink and stove on the other. No dining table. Not enough room. A short hallway led to what looked like a bathroom with a set of stairs leading to a space on the second level. The one and only bedroom. The decor fit the location. Wood, wood and more wood. Just as she’d expect from any other cabin stashed in the wilderness, but the granite countertop and brightly colored accents brought the entire room into the modern era. It suited him. At least, what she knew of him.
“And you thought this would be awkward.” He compressed his mouth against a smile.
Surprise pushed through her. “I never said that.”
“You didn’t have to.” He swung his legs over the side of the couch and pushed to his feet. Closing in on her, he leveled that dark gaze on her and every cell in her body responded. “I read people for a living, Doc. It’s what makes me good at my job.”
Heat flamed up her neck and into her cheeks. She brushed a strand of blood-matted hair behind one ear and fought the urge to cross her arms. What else had he read about her? “In that case, I can’t promise you I won’t let you down when you look at me too closely.”
“What are you talking about?” One distinct crease deepened between his eyebrows as he shifted his weight between both feet. “You haven’t let me down.”
“Someone is framing me for Alexis’s murder.” Waylynn interlaced her fingers. She used her hands to speak a lot of the time, but right now, all she wanted to do was close in on herself. To hide. From whoever’d killed her assistant. From the man standing in front of her who knew her better than any other person in her life, but she didn’t want to lie to him. Ever. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of killing someone.”
Seconds slipped by. Maybe a full minute. She couldn’t read his expression, didn’t know what he was thinking. Was controlling what others read in his body language a part of being a con man, too? “Say something. Please.”
Elliot ran a hand over his beard, tugging on the end. “Tell me what happened.”
The same intensity she’d witnessed back at the police station consumed his expression. “I was fifteen. My father…” She pushed back the memories, but her pulse skyrocketed. “He deserved what happened to him. The cancer had already affected my mom, and police concluded she didn’t have the strength to do what had been done, so I became the next logical suspect. They took me out of school, arrested me and attempted to try me as an adult, but in the end, I was acquitted. Not enough evidence. They couldn’t find the gun that’d been used to kill him.” The Beretta 92 pistol he’d kept stashed away in the linen closet of her childhood home. “Same as now.”
That gut-wrenching smile overtook his stubborn expression, and she struggled against the gravitational pull she experienced every time he came around.
“What are the odds someone has been accused of murder twice in their life?” he asked.
“In my experience? High. Normally? Zero.”
He stepped into her, setting her chin between his index finger and thumb as he had in her apartment. Her insides turned to molten lava. Hesitation gripped her hard as he studied her. “Whoever’s doing this is counting on you taking the fall for Alexis’s death.” He released her, the tingling sensation spreading behind her sternum fading. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
All she had to do was lean forward—just a bit—to press her mouth against his. What would he taste like? Feel like?
A dull ringing reached her ears. Waylynn blinked to clear the last few seconds from her mind. She rushed to retrieve her phone from the pocket of the grungy sweats Officer Ramsey had lent her. The screen brightened with the laboratory’s number. “This is probably my boss. I should answer.”
Elliot swept his arms wide and bowed before retreating toward the door and, just like that, the intensity in his body language disappeared. As though it’d never happened. “By all means, use whichever part of this room you prefer. I’ll grab the gear from the truck.”
She stared after him as he closed the door. A small burst of disbelieving laughter escaped up her throat. No. Nothing was happening between them. That hadn’t been a connection. It’d been her body’s automatic reaction to a stressful situation. She and Elliot were friends and she’d keep it that way. They didn’t have a future together. There was no future with her.
The phone vibrating in her hand brought her back into the moment. She swiped her finger across the screen and brought it to her ear. “Dr. Hargraves.”
“Waylynn, I can’t believe it.” Dr. Matthew Stoker’s frantic tenor intensified the stress lodged between her shoulder blades. “The police were here at the lab. They wanted copies of your reports to match your handwriting—”
“It’s fine, Matt.” Waylynn ran a hand across her forehead. Dr. Matthew Stoker had been her boss for close to ten years. He’d given her the opportunity to conduct her research and convinced Genism’s board of directors to fund her projects. He was on the path to put the lab on the map for genetic research all before he hit forty. The entire company depended on him. But getting dragged into a murder investigation threatened his promising future. “You were doing what you had to for the best of the company. I don’t blame you for handing the reports over. I’m sorry they came to you.”
“Don’t worry about me. Are you okay?” Static reached through Matt’s end of the line. Or was that the sound of broken glass in the background? “I called the company lawyer for you. Blake Henson told me you’d been arrested, but they couldn’t keep you in custody. Where are you?”
“I’m…” She didn’t know what to say. She’d found her assistant dead in her bathtub and all the evidence Anchorage PD had recovered pointed at her. Someone had framed her for murder and the only reason she’d come out into the middle of the woods with Elliot was for her own protection. Should she trust Matt with the location?
The front door clicked open.
Elliot hauled another duffel bag inside, tossing it onto the floor, and her awareness of him rocketed to an all-time high. The zip-up hoodie he wore did nothing to hide the bulk in his arms and across his chest. The air in her lungs stilled. She’d never noticed his physique before.
What had changed?
“Waylynn?” Matt asked over the line.
She took a deep breath to restart her system as Elliot maneuvered around her in the small space and headed for the back of the cabin. His clean, masculine scent worked deep into her lungs, became part of her, and she had the feeling that was only the beginning as she studied the rest of the tiny space. He’d brought her here to keep her safe from whoever’d killed Alexis, but what if it was him who needed protection from her? “I’m somewhere safe.”
“Good. Keep it that way, because there’s something you should know.” The tension in Matt’s voice failed to drown out the tinkling of shattered glass over the line. “Someone broke into the lab. Somehow a fire broke out and… Everything, all of your research for the past ten years… It’s gone.”