One minute Hannah Baker is a quiet science professor. The next, a possible murder suspect. Six victims, one per week, all poisoned with the same exotic chemical Hannah once worked with. Now she’s wanted by Houston detective Owen Randall—but is it to enlist her help, or arrest her? Owen knows the prim Hannah is hiding something, but he isn’t sure she’s a killer. Especially after some unfortunate incidents. Is she the next victim of the chemical killer? Torn between duty and his growing feelings, Owen only knows he has less than a week to save her…
About the Author
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"Dr . Baker, is this going to be on the test?"
Hannah sighed quietly, her hand pausing in its journey across the chalkboard. One two three
When she made it to five, she turned to face the class. Twenty-four faces watched her, their expressions running the gamut from drowsy boredom to bright-eyed interest. She was gratified to find that most of the students were awake, but she knew from experience they weren't all paying attention. The endless distractions of the internet were but a click away, and most kids couldn't resist the temptation of their phones for the full hour of class.
How times have changed. She felt like a stick-in-the-mud for even thinking it, but when she had been in college, she had come to class prepared, asked questions and paid attention. Now students howled in protest whenever an assignment was given, and spent more time trying to figure out how to get out of studying than they spent in class. It was a fact that amused and exasperated her in equal measures.
"You know I'm not going to answer that," she replied, smiling a little to soften the blow. "Like I told you on the first day of class, if I'm talking about something, it means I think it's important. And if I think it's important, you should, too."
"There's just so much material," another student piped up. "How are we supposed to know what to study?"
Hannah felt her smile grow thin. "Study all of it."
"All of it!" Despair was almost a palpable thing in the room, hovering over the students' heads like a gray storm cloud. "But that's not fair!"
"It's not that bad," she said, smiling at them before delivering her final coup. "You have all of spring break to study."
A loud groan rose from the mass of students, and she chuckled, a small part of her enjoying their over-the-top reaction. If chemistry didn't pan out for them, they all had a promising future in acting. She glanced at the clock. Almost time to end for the day. Recognizing she wouldn't be able to pull them back on track with so little time left, she decided to cut her losses. "Remember, you can always email me over the break if you have questions while you're studying. Try to do a little bit of work every day, rather than leaving it until the end and trying to cram. That never works." She started to gather up her papers, and the students, recognizing their cue to leave, began to do the same. "Have a good break," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the din of books thumping shut, bags zipping closed and phones beeping as they were switched off of silent mode.
She checked her own phone as the students filed out, a little surprised to find a missed call and message from her friend Gabby. Gabriella Whitman had been her roommate in college, and the two stayed in touch after going their separate ways, Gabby to medical school and Hannah to graduate school. Now that they were both back in the same city, they made it a point to have dinner together once a month.
Hannah slipped the phone into her pocket, deciding to wait until she was in her office before checking the message. Gabby probably just needed to reschedule their upcoming girls' night. She worked long hours as the county medical examiner, and it wasn't always possible for her to get away. Since Hannah's schedule was more flexible, she didn't mind adjusting to accommodate her friend.
She moved on autopilot back to her office, her mind already turning to the exams she needed to work on over the upcoming break. Then there were the letters of recommendation she had agreed to write for students applying to summer research programs or professional schools. She felt a surge of pride when she considered the number of references that were due. It was always gratifying to help a student succeed, and she had to admit, it made her feel good when a current or former student asked her to help them. Brian's letter was due next week, so she really needed to finish it and send it off well before the deadline
"Are you Hannah Baker?"
She stopped a few feet away from her office door, taken aback by the question. Two men stood in the hall, one tall and one about her height. The shorter man continued his perusal of the students walking by, apparently not particularly interested in her. The taller man, however, ran his gaze slowly over her body, seemingly evaluating her appearance and comparing it to some mental standard. Hannah felt her face heat, and her skin tingled in the wake of his blatant scrutiny. It had been a long timetoo long, her hormones chidedsince a man had paid her any attention. Especially a handsome man. And there was no denying her mystery questioner was attractive.
"Yes," she replied, taking a moment to return his stare. He was tall and lean, but she'd bet almost anything his body was rock solid underneath the green polo and khaki pants. He carried himself with the confidence of a man who could handle any physical threat that came his way, his stance relaxed but not soft. His dark brown hair was short and clipped, threaded with a few silver strands that caught the light of the hall. His cheeks were stubbled, giving him the look of a man who had rolled out of bed and come to work. She had the insane urge to run her fingertip across his face, to feel the sandpaper softness of his whiskers against her skin. Would it tickle against her chest, her stomach? Whoa, she thought, shutting down the crazy daydream before it could go further. Her cheeks grew even warmer, and his dark blue gaze filled with lazy satisfaction, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
She cleared her throat and swallowed, needing to steer herself back onto professional ground. She didn't know who these men were. They didn't look like the usual textbook reps; they lacked the ready smile and casual friendliness exhibited by so many of those salespeople. But no matter their identity, standing in the hall gawking at one of them was no way for a professor to behave. "How can I help you?"
"I'm Detective Owen Randall with the Houston police department." He pulled a shiny badge from his pocket and showed it to her, then gestured to the shorter man. "This is my partner, Nate Gallagher." The other man nodded at her in acknowledgment before returning his gaze to the stream of people walking past. "May we have a minute of your time, please?"
"Of course." Her fingers fumbled with the keys, and it took her several attempts to find and insert the correct one into the lock of her office door. She wasn't used to having an audience, particularly an audience of handsome police officers. What on earth could they want with her?
Her stomach dropped as she pushed open the door. Was one of her students in trouble? Everyone had been in class today, and she didn't recall any missing faces in yesterday's classes, either. But she only saw them for an hour at a time, which gave them ample opportunity to get up to something. While most of her students were good kids, no one was perfect. Besides, how well did she really know them?
Hannah rounded her desk and sat, discreetly adjusting the fabric of the turtleneck she wore to make sure it fully covered her neck. She usually left her shoulder-length hair down as an added layer of concealment, which made it unlikely that Detective Randall or his partner had gotten a look at her scars. Still, her vanity demanded she check. Although she'd made her peace with the burn scars on her back and neck, she still didn't like others to see the marks. She'd had enough pity, and she didn't like answering questions about them, no matter how well-meaning the intentions of the other person.
The two men settled into chairs on the other side of her desk. Detective Gallagher, deprived of his view of the activity in the hall, turned his attention to her office, his eyes roaming across the walls and shelves, pausing here to take in her stack of books, there to examine the antique lab instruments she kept on her desk. Detective Randall was more direct, keeping his focus on her. She shifted slightly, then forced herself to stop. She was a professor, for crying out loud! She was used to demanding and commanding the attention of dozens, if not scores, of students at a time. She could handle being the center of attention of one man.
Even if he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen in real life.
"How can I help you gentlemen?"
"How long did you work for ChemCure Industries?"
She leaned back, surprised by the question. Of all the things Detective Randall could have asked, inquiring about her career in the pharmaceutical industry was the last thing she'd expected. "Five years. Why?"
He ignored her question. "And during your tenure there, did you work with nitrogen mustard chemicals?"
"Yes," she said slowly.
Detective Gallagher spoke for the first time. "Isn't that the stuff they used during World War I? Mustard gas?"
Hannah reluctantly turned her gaze to him, keeping Detective Randall in her peripheral vision. For some reason, she wanted to monitor his reaction to her responses, even though his expression hadn't changed from the businesslike look he'd adopted once he'd started asking questions.
"The chemicals are related but different. The nitrogen mustards I worked with are used as chemotherapy drugs."
"Is that what you were researching?"
She turned back to fully face Detective Randall. "Yes. The drugs are fairly effective at treating leu-kemias and lymphomas. I was trying to determine if related compounds would have the same effects, with less toxicity."
"And did they?"
"There were a few promising compounds, but the side effects were too severe, so we didn't pursue them. Did you really come here to ask me about my previous work?"
The two men exchanged a glance. Detective Gallagher raised one shoulder in an almost imperceptible shrug, as if to say "all yours." Detective Randall seemed to sigh before turning back to her.
"We're investigating a series of suspicious deaths."
Hannah felt her eyebrows shoot up. "And you think I had something to do with them?" The question came out as a high squeak, making her sound like a cartoon mouse. Real smooth, she thought, struggling to rein in the reflexive alarm the detective's statement had triggered. Her brain kicked into overdrive, trying in vain to determine why two police officers would think to question her in regards to any kind of deaths.
Some of her panic must have shown on her face. "You're not a suspect," Detective Gallagher assured her. "We just need to get some information from you, to help us in our investigation."
"Oh." Then why the cloak-and-dagger routine? Annoyance sparked as the adrenaline rush of the scare faded, and she narrowed her eyes at Detective Randall, who stared back at her impassively. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? I'm happy to help in any way I can."
"We appreciate that," Detective Gallagher replied.
Detective Randall coughed meaningfully, as if to signal to his partner to shut up.
"Why did you come to me?" Had something happened in her neighborhood? Was that why they were asking her questions? She frowned, considering. She hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary lately, and these quiet, tree-lined streets weren't the sort that drew trouble. Surely her neighbors would have mentioned a string of deaths in the area. The older, close-knit community had an active neighborhood association, and this was just the sort of thing that would have triggered an emergency meeting, complete with notices to lock doors and be on the lookout for suspicious activity. Still, perhaps the police were keeping things quiet.
Apparently ignoring his partner's signal, Gallagher spoke up again. "The medical examiner, Dr. Whitman, suggested we speak with you."
"Gabby thought I could help you?" That explained the mystery phone call. She'd bet a year's supply of chocolate the message on her phone had something to do with the two men sitting in her office, and she kicked herself for not listening to it on the way back from class. Gabby had probably shared details with her, something the handsome, closed-off detective and his partner seemed reluctant to do.
"Why did you leave ChemCure Industries?"
The question took her off guard, and Hannah reflexively moved her hand to her neck, her fingers slipping under the fabric to brush across the raised smoothness of her scars. "It was time for me to move on," she said, dropping her gaze to her desk. "I was tired of working in the industry." And I couldn't go back. Not after the accident. "I'd always wanted to teach, and when this position opened up, I jumped at the chance."
"Did you leave on good terms?"
She thought of the nondisclosure agreement she'd signed, the weeks spent in the hospital and the months of physical therapy. The company had been quick to deny any responsibility for the explosion in the lab that had nearly killed her, but when her attorney had come knocking, they'd been even quicker to settle out of court, agreeing to pay her a nice lump sum and take care of all her current and future medical bills.
Had it been an amicable parting? Not really. But it could have been worse.
"It went about as well as these things go," she said, tugging up the neck of her shirt before letting her hand drift down to lie on the desk.
Detective Randall narrowed his eyes at her, his doubt plain. "They didn't think it was odd you would leave a high-paying career in industrial pharmaceuticals for a teaching position at a small college?" He glanced around her office, then back to her, his expression calculating. "That must have been quite a pay cut."
"It was." She held his gaze, kept her voice cool. "But there's more to life than money. Don't you agree?"
For the barest second, heat flared in his eyes, burning bright and hot. His mouth softened, becoming a seductive curve, and his eyelids dropped slightly, giving him the look of a man who had been well and truly satisfied. She shivered, her skin prickling at the wild thought that she had been the one to satisfy him.
Then his expression shifted, returning to an inscrutable mask she couldn't read. She shook herself free of the moment, still feeling a little dazed. Get a grip! she told herself. He isn't the first handsome man you've talked to, and he won't be the last. Besides, she had no business letting her libido run the show when he was here to question her about people dying.
"Can't argue with that," Detective Gallagher piped up. His smile was friendly, and she felt herself relax. "Still, people don't usually walk away from that much money without a good reason."
Hannah shrugged, trying to seem indifferent. "I had gotten burned out by the hours I was working. I wanted to slow down, find someone, start a family."
Detective Randall's eyes flicked to her left hand, then back to her face. "And have you?" His voice was so low the question was almost a rumble, making it seem even more personal.
A lump suddenly appeared in her throat, and she swallowed hard to push it down. "Not yet," she replied. Jake, her ex-fiancé, had left once he'd learned how long her recovery would take. She'd pushed the pain of his betrayal aside and directed all her energy toward healing, but now she was finding it hard to ignore. The worst part of all was the despair, a swirling black hole in her stomach that threatened to consume her soul. She felt scarred both inside and out, and it was becoming increasingly clear that she was destined to be alone. Who would want her? It was hard enough finding a man who wanted to date a chemist. The men she encountered seemed to be intimidated by her intelligence, a reaction that made it hard to get a second date. And even if she did manage to find a man who wasn't bothered by her intellect, there was no guarantee he'd be okay with the extensive scarring on her back. Pushing back the familiar feelings of loss and loneliness, Hannah pasted on a bright smile. "I'm sure you're not here to talk about my personal life, Detectives. Why don't you tell me what you think I can do to help you today."