Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold, page 13
Winston glanced at Leah, then quickly looked away. “He’s trying to stir up trouble about you. Keeps harping that you’re to blame for this mess.” The manager gave her a sympathetic look. “I’ll get down there and have them all head back to their rooms.”
“Tell Harper it’s an order,” Alex barked. “If he leaves his room again, I’ll arrest him for interfering with a federal investigation.”
Winston didn’t smile but came close. “Oh, I’ll gladly let him know that.”
As soon as the manager left, Alex locked the door and aimed a fresh scowl at Leah. “You knew Harper was trying to pin the danger on you?”
She nodded. “He mentioned it when I questioned him in the restaurant. Right before the lights went out.”
Alex looked back at the laptop and studied the man on screen. “He fits our profile.”
“Yes. But so do others—David Fowler and Joe Tarkington. Patrick Harper could just be having a bad reaction to the fear and stress. There’s no crime in being a cocky jerk.”
“Or he could be a killer who thinks he can bait you into meeting him in the storage room.”
Leah couldn’t help it; she smiled. “You make it sound as if we have another option.” She dropped the smile. “We don’t.”
“We do,” he snapped. “When the intercom is working, I’ll use it to broadcast a new plan—that you won’t be going to the storage room. I will be.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “You know the strangler won’t agree to that. He wants me. Not you.”
The muscles in Alex’s jaw flexed, and his index finger landed against her chest. Or rather, the Kevlar vest. “He’s not getting you, and that’s the end of this discussion.”
With that hanging in the air, Alex went back to studying the screen, where Winston had appeared, obviously to talk with Harper and the small group of people around him. It didn’t take long, just a few seconds, before everyone dispersed but Harper. He continued to argue with Winston.
“We don’t need a hothead like this,” Alex mumbled.
No, they didn’t. Fear would hold people in their rooms for only so long. Soon they would need to feel safe, and would want answers about how this strangler could be stopped. Frustrated at exactly how they might do that, Leah sank down onto the foot of the bed.
The mattress shifted a little and sent her suitcase and Alex’s field bag sliding into her. She pushed them away, but not before she noticed the paper on top of the supplies in the field kit. Her eyes skittered across it before she could stop herself. What she saw caused her mouth to drop open.
“What the heck is this?” She snatched up the paper and repeated her question.
Alex whirled around, looking puzzled at first, until his gaze landed on the paper. He groaned softly. “You weren’t supposed to see that yet. But I was going to tell you after…well, after this.”
She tuned him out for a few seconds so she could read through the forms. “This is a request for a transfer of supervision, effective tomorrow.” Leah got to her feet so she could look him in the eyes. “You no longer want to be my boss.”
“I never wanted to be your boss,” he quickly admitted. He groaned again and put his hands on his hips. “I thought I could make it work, but I can’t. So I requested that Sanchez become your supervisor.”
Martin Sanchez, an agent in their field office, he was someone Leah respected, but still…
“You worked hard for that promotion,” she reminded him. “You deserve to be the team leader for everyone in the office, including me.”
Alex stepped closer, reached out and ran his hand down the length of her arm. It was a gesture no doubt meant to calm her, but Leah didn’t want to be calmed down. She wanted answers. Something like this could possibly hurt Alex’s chances of promotion down the line. She didn’t want him to risk what he loved most just because it was an uncomfortable situation.
“I can try harder,” she suggested. “Maybe not mouth off to you as much.”
He gave a weary sigh. “This isn’t about you. It’s about me. About what I didn’t do.”
Leah had to shake her head. Alex was a model agent. A model supervisor. “I can’t imagine you not doing something required for the job.”
“Imagine it,” he mumbled. And that’s all he said for several moments. “When I went running into that house and found you nearly dead, I wasn’t thinking like an FBI agent. I reacted like your…friend. Your former lover.”
She shook her head again, uncertain of what he was saying. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t secure the scene,” he blurted out. “Didn’t check to see if the killers were still in the house. Hell, I didn’t even check on the other woman. I went to you and started CPR.”
Leah swallowed hard. Some of the images of the attack were still a nightmarish blur, so this was the first she knew about how Alex had responded. One thing stood out loud and clear. “If you hadn’t done CPR, I would have died.”
“Yeah.” He hesitated again. “But the point is, I quit being aware of my surroundings and focused only on you.”
Despite what she’d said earlier about wishing the strangler had stayed in that house long enough for Alex to catch him, Leah was thankful to be alive.
She took a step closer to him. “If you think I’m sorry for the way you responded, I’m not.”
“I’m not sorry, either,” he stated, staring at her. “But if the stranglers had still been there in the house, they could have killed both of us.”
When she started to object, Alex touched his fingers to her mouth. “Yes, our personal relationship is over, but too many things have gone on between us for me to be objective when it comes to you.”
Leah didn’t know who was more surprised by that revelation—Alex or her. Judging from the way his forehead bunched up, he hadn’t intended to tell her about this. Not tonight, anyway. And she knew how much it cost him to give up what he loved most—that promotion. Even if it was only a small part of his power and position. Alex was married to the badge, and it was a huge concession for him to do anything that would affect his job.
“I’m sorry,” she said. And she meant it.
She leaned in to brush a kiss on his cheek. A mistake, she quickly realized. There was too much energy zinging between them for that kind of personal contact.
Alex cursed, slid his arm around her waist and pulled her to him.
Before Leah could tell him what a bad idea it was, his mouth was on hers. Kissing her senseless. Kissing her until she forgot all about the massive mistake they were making.
Leah lifted her arms, wrapped them around Alex and melted into the kiss.
ALEX FELT THAT FAMILIAR punch of heat. He should have been immune to it by now, or at least aware enough to know that he should resist it. He was still technically her boss, and they had other things they should be doing.
But he didn’t resist.
One touch of his mouth to Leah’s, and the taste of her slammed through him.
He dragged her closer until she was plastered against him and tangled in his arms. In the back of his mind, he knew he was being too rough. Too stupid. But even that didn’t stop him. Alex shifted them, placing her against the door and deepened the kiss.
Another huge mistake.
Leah made that little eager sound of pleasure. Another familiar punch that was like lighting another fuse that shouldn’t be lit. It was the sound she’d often made just seconds before he hauled her to bed. And with every passing moment, bed was feeling like more of a possibility.
She lifted a leg, sliding it along the outside of his. Making the contact in the midsections of their bodies even more intense. Because he was already too deep in that zone, Alex helped her. He dropped his hands to her butt, lifting her so that her sex aligned with his.
But not good.
It only made him think of sex that couldn’t happen.
Still, Alex didn’t stop kissing her. And he
He slipped his hand between them to cup her right breast, pausing at the barrier of the Kevlar vest—if only she was naked so he could taste her there. Of course, that wasn’t the only reason he wished their clothes would vanish, but it was a start. He slid his hand lower, to her stomach.
Alex put his hand at the juncture of her thighs. The one spot that would make them even crazier. It worked. Yeah, they still had the clothes barrier, but his fingers were now where another part of him wanted to be. Bad. Since that couldn’t happen, he settled for touching her. All in all, it was a paltry substitute, even though Leah was clearly enjoying it. That meant Alex was enjoying it, too. He loved seeing her soar.
She made that sound again, the let’s-have-sex-now sound. She pushed her hips toward him, getting the most from his touch. But soon even that wasn’t enough. She wanted more. So did Alex. But she was the one who did something about it. She started maneuvering him toward the bed, one step at a time, without breaking their intimate contact.
And that’s when Alex knew this sweet torture had to stop.
He caught her shoulders, anchoring her in place against the edge of the mattress, and backed away from her. Not easily. It took every ounce of his willpower, but Alex finally managed to put a few inches between them.
Leah’s breath was gusting and her face was flushed. Except for that bruise. And it was the bruise that caused Alex to realize just how big of a mistake he’d just made. He opened his mouth to tell her how sorry he was, but she clapped her fingers over his lips.
“Don’t,” she rasped, still panting. “We both know it shouldn’t have happened.”
Yeah, they did. But Alex eased her hand away. “I could have hurt you.”
She gave him a flat look. “Trust me, I wasn’t hurting.” Her gaze dropped to the front of his pants. “And neither were you.”
No pain then, but he was damned uncomfortable now. And probably couldn’t walk, thanks to the erection that kept urging him to go back to Leah for another round. A round that would lead to sex.
No. Make that great sex.
Alex cursed, stepped back even farther.
Leah stayed put, still trying to level her breathing. “We’ve always had this thing for each other. It’s apparently still there, whether we want it to be or not.”
“This thing” was lust. According to Leah that’s what it had been. It had always felt a little more than that to Alex.
“We should get back to the case,” she mumbled. “Two in the morning will be here before we know it.”
Alex knew she was right, but he didn’t want to go there just yet. Yes, catching the strangler was important. However, Leah was, too. And maybe, just maybe, this had all been more than lust.
“What did you see when your life flashed before your eyes?” he asked.
She blinked. Shook her head. “Best not to answer that when we’re still burning from that kiss.”
Leah brushed past him and went to the laptop Winston had delivered. “The job,” she reminded him. Maybe she was reminding herself, too, because she repeated it.
“You can avoid this conversation,” he said, “but not forever.”
She made a sound of disagreement. Alex copied it, causing her gaze to swing back to him. He saw the debate in her eyes. The argument. But then she lifted a shoulder.
“Not forever,” she finally agreed. “But for now.”
Alex huffed, knowing she was right, and they had no choice. A killer was bearing down on them. It was that thought alone that kept him from pulling Leah back into his arms and demanding answers about what that kiss had really meant. He couldn’t save her by kissing her or having sex with her. So he turned toward the laptop and focused on what Leah was watching.
The right side of the screen showed a man on a ladder taking down a security camera—one of the lodge workers. Thankfully, no one was around to see what he was doing. At least no one else within camera view. It was possible the strangler was in another hall, watching. And waiting for 2:00 a.m.
A moment later, that side of the laptop screen went blank. The worker had disconnected the camera.
“Maybe he’ll be able to move it closer to the storage room,” Leah remarked.
Yeah, maybe. Alex knew where she was going with this, but she wasn’t spelling out the bottom line. “A camera won’t stop an attack.”
“And dodging the strangler’s request won’t stop him.” She met Alex’s scowl with one of her own. “You know he’ll just find another target if he can’t get to me.”
Alex did know that. And here’s where he had a conflict of interest the size of Montana. If Leah were any other agent, he would have already seriously considered using her as bait to stop a serial killer. But he kept going back to that cast on her broken wrist, to those bruises.
To the psych test she’d failed.
It was an easy evaluation to pass, if you were careful about how you answered.
Or if you lied.
Most agents did one of the two rather than risk being placed on leave. But Leah had let it slip to the shrink that she wasn’t sure how she would react in another situation like that.
She might freeze, she’d confessed.
The comment had been the kiss of death. And it literally could mean her death, if she froze at the wrong time.
Such as during another attack by the strangler, in that storage room.
“What?” she pressed, her scowl turning to a concerned stare.
Alex went through several things he could say, but there was an obvious answer: that they had to stop this SOB from killing again. And for that to happen, he had to risk Leah.
He met her concerned look with one of his own, and repeated the key question on the psych eval. “What will you do if the strangler manages to get his hands on you again?”
Her chin came up. She made direct eye contact. “I’ll do what I’ve been trained to do.”
That was the right answer.
It was also a lie.
In the depths of those green eyes, he could see her split-second hesitation. A second that could get her killed.
“Let’s consider our best-case scenario.” Leah tossed out the suggestion before Alex could voice his obvious concern. “Winston gets the camera set up, and we’re able to see the strangler sneak into the storage room. I go to meet him—with you right behind me,” she quickly added.
“What if he shoots you when you walk in?” Alex asked.
She tapped her chest. “I’m wearing Kevlar, remember?”
Alex gave her a flat look. “Yeah, but if he goes for a head shot, you’re dead.”
She mimicked his skeptical look. “Nothing about his profile says he’ll go for a head shot, or any other kind, for that matter. He kills with his hands. Face-to-face. That’s what gets him off. And that’s what he’ll want to do to me. He didn’t follow me all the way out here to Ice Lake just so he could end things quickly with a bullet.”
“Is this supposed to reassure me in some way?” Alex pointed to her throat. “Hell’s bells, Leah, I can still see his handprint on you.”
“No, it’s not meant to reassure you.” Her voice softened. So did her expression. “But if he wants his hands on me, he’ll have to get close enough to me to do that. You’ll be there to stop him.”
Alex went through that so-called plan and saw an immediate flaw. “What if he has his partner in there, waiting?”
Without taking her gaze away, she walked closer. “There’s no indication whatsoever that his partner is here. The threats have all been from one source. The dominant guy. But if I’m wrong, then we stop them both.”
Alex was about to point out that the strangler could be the one who did the stopping, when he saw something flash on the laptop screen: the im
“Step one’s a success,” Leah concluded. She stared at Alex. Waited. And he knew exactly what she was waiting for. She wanted him to approve this plan.
While he didn’t want to approve anything that put Leah in even more danger, he knew he had no choice. So he nodded.
“Good,” she mumbled. But there was no celebration in her tone or expression. She knew they could be walking into a death trap.
To minimize the danger, Alex made a quick mental list of what he needed to do. “I have to question Patrick Harper and Joe Tarkington again,” he told her. “I’ll also search their rooms, and if I come across anything out of the ordinary—anything—I will find some place in the lodge that we can use as a containment area.”
“You’re going to arrest them?” she challenged.
In a heartbeat. Even if it might be stretching the law, that didn’t matter to him. “If they’re contained, we can keep watch over them, and if our strangler doesn’t show, then we’ll have a pretty good idea that either Tarkington or Harper is our killer.”
She nodded. “All right.”
Alex reached for the security latch, but before he could open it, someone knocked on the door. Probably Winston. However, when Alex checked, he saw it wasn’t the hotel manager, but someone else he definitely wanted to talk to.
He made sure Leah was behind him, and just in case this was about to turn ugly, he drew his gun.
“What the heck is going on?” she asked. She drew her gun, as well.
Alex flipped the latch, opened the door and came face-to-face with the lodge’s missing employee.
OF ALL THE PEOPLE Leah might have expected to see at the door, David Fowler wasn’t one of them. She figured if he was the strangler, he would have stayed in hiding—until 2:00 a.m., anyway. And if he was an innocent bystander in all this, then he would have been long gone.