Ice lake gone cold cold.., p.5

Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold, page 5


Ice Lake: Gone Cold\Cold Heat\Stone Cold

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  “This doesn’t have anything to do with that.” At least Luke hoped not. “I also need to borrow your snowmobile.”


  TOM TRIED ONCE MORE to get unstuck, but the tires spun and the SUV didn’t budge. As he turned off the engine, he glanced over at Morgan, as if about to apologize.

  She realized how little she trusted him now. Had he gotten the SUV stuck on purpose, so she couldn’t leave him once he told her the truth?

  “You don’t think I got stuck on purpose, do you?” Tom asked, no doubt reading her expression. He let out a curse as he opened his door and got out.

  Morgan opened her door, too, and was instantly forced to hang on to it to keep the wind from ripping it from her hand. Once out, she slammed it, struggling against the blinding snow as she headed up the road in the direction of the cabin.

  She waded through the drifts, understanding how easy it would be to get lost out here. She knew of ranchers who used a rope system to get from their houses to their barns in blizzards like this. Suddenly, she realized she hadn’t seen Tom’s tracks in the snow ahead of her. Was he back at the SUV, trying to get it unstuck?

  A gust of wind whirled snow around her for a moment, and then she caught a glimpse of the cabin. There was a light on in the living room. Morgan frowned. She didn’t remember leaving one on. Tom must have turned on a lamp when he’d gone back for his wallet earlier.

  Stumbling up the steps and into the chilly unit, she shrugged off her coat and hat, then moved to the fireplace. The embers had died while they’d been gone.

  Always practical, she began to build a fire, even though she doubted it would warm her. She was shivering uncontrollably when she heard Tom come in. He stomped snow off his boots at the door. She didn’t turn, couldn’t look at him right now.

  “Here, let me do that,” he said from behind her.

  “I have it,” she snapped, still not looking at him. She heard him take off his coat. He didn’t try to touch her, didn’t even come near her, as if he knew it would be the wrong thing to do right now.

  She’d been so busy working and taking care of her mother, she hadn’t had time to date much before meeting Tom. No wonder he had been able to sweep her off her feet, she thought as she heard him head toward the bedroom.

  Reminding herself of all the lies he’d told her, Morgan wondered if he was finally going to tell her the truth—or merely come up with more lies. That Luke was the one who’d found out the truth about Tom made it worse. Luke must think her such a fool. All her friends had tried to warn her that she was moving too fast, especially him.

  She couldn’t bear to think of him right now, or that kiss in the darkroom. Had a part of her wanted him to stop her from marrying Tom? Hoped that he’d tell her he loved her, wanted her, couldn’t live without her?

  With a shock, she realized that she would have cancelled the wedding. As much as she’d believed in her heart that she loved Tom, one word from Luke that day and she would have called off everything with Tom. She would have had to until she resolved her feelings for Luke.

  Feelings for Luke? She laughed to herself. Tom had picked up on them. Probably everybody in the newsroom had. As it turned out, Luke had simply wanted to wish her luck with her marriage. Clearly, he hadn’t been trying to stop her from marrying Tom. Right? He was a good friend, she thought, remembering how worried he was about her now.

  Morgan turned only when she heard Tom let out an oath. He was standing in the bedroom doorway, shoulders slumped, head down. The sight of him sent a dagger of icy fear up her spine. With the memory of the snowman fresh in her mind, she demanded in a tight, strained voice, “What is it?”

  As she took a step toward him, he motioned for her to stay back. But she was already moving, unable to stop even though she knew, whatever it was, she wouldn’t want to see it.

  The far wall of the bedroom was smeared with what looked at first to be blood. But she quickly realized it was too red for that. Words appeared out of the mess, vulgar angry words scrawled with venom and spray paint across their bedroom wall.

  A cry escaped Morgan’s lips as she stumbled back from the horrible sight. Her eyes filled with tears of both fear and anger.

  Tom hurriedly closed the bedroom door and stepped toward her. He was shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe this any more than she could.

  But she knew that wasn’t true.

  “This has something to do with your past,” she declared, and saw her accusation hit its mark.

  He stopped inches from her, his face filling with anguish as he said, “I’m so sorry. You can’t know how sorry I am.”

  Morgan dropped into the nearest chair. Her limbs felt as if they were made of water. And while her brain was screaming, “Run! Get out of here before it gets any worse!” she couldn’t move, could barely speak. “It’s her, isn’t it? The woman who sent you the text message. Allison Stuart.”

  He slowly lowered himself into the chair across from Morgan and dropped his head into his hands. “It has to be, and yet I don’t understand how she could have found us.”

  Morgan fought for breath, feeling as if all the oxygen in the room had suddenly been sucked out. “Why is she doing this?”

  Tom lifted his head, and she saw the guilt in his eyes. He knew exactly why. “You have to believe me. I hadn’t seen her in years—not until last week. I thought she was out of my life.”

  Morgan wanted to throw up. “You were in love with her?”

  He nodded. “In high school. We were going to get married, but then, like I told you, something horrible happened.” He seemed to struggle with his next words. “My parents and siblings were murdered.”

  She stared at him, aghast. For a moment she didn’t know what to say. Why would he lie about his identity unless… She felt her eyes widen, her heart take off like a rocket. “Tell me you didn’t—”

  “How could you even think that?” He gave her an incredulous look. “Don’t you know me at all?”

  “Apparently not. Why didn’t you tell me this? Why would you keep it from me if you had nothing to hide?” Because there is more to the story, she thought with a sinking feeling.

  “I was out with Allison the night they were murdered. When I came home, I found them.”

  She saw his pain, felt it at heart level. It melted her anger a little. “I’m sorry. I can’t imagine…”

  “If that wasn’t bad enough, the media descended on the small town where we lived. It was a circus. Reporters were constantly pushing microphones into our faces.”

  The small town in Arkansas. Something flickered in her memory. Some news story about ten years ago. “So you left the South and changed your name.”

  He nodded, giving her a guilty smile. “I thought I’d put it all behind me, including the accent. I guess I was wrong. But you have to understand. Everywhere I went, I was the kid whose family was slaughtered.”

  Slaughtered. She shivered, trying to block out the thought of what it must have been like for him to come home and find his family…gone.

  Seeing her shiver, Tom went to the fireplace and threw more logs on the blaze as he talked. “It only got worse when Allison’s older brother was arrested for the murders,” he said, his back to her.

  Morgan couldn’t help gasping in shock. “Why would he hurt your family?”

  “Apparently, because my father had kicked him out of the hardware store we owned in town. He had tried to steal some tools, but Dad caught him and told him never to come back. Dad didn’t call the cops, I guess because I was dating Allison. I wish he had.”

  If he had, maybe Tom’s family would still be alive. “You said siblings?”

  “A sister and brother. Joey was six. Melody four.”

  “Oh, Tom, I’m so sorry. They’re sure it was Allison’s brother?”

  He nodded. “Allison adored her older brother and was very protective of him. She was inconsolable. And his arrest made it impossible for us to see each other, what with the town crawling with r
eporters, all wanting to turn our tragedy into tomorrow’s headlines.”

  The way he said “reporters” made her think of Luke, and Tom’s instant dislike of him. Maybe it had never been jealousy. She tried to imagine what he’d gone through, but couldn’t.

  “I went away to college. Allison still had another year of high school. She couldn’t have left, anyway. Her parents needed her. I took the coward’s way out. I ran as far away as I could, and changed my name. I couldn’t stand the way people looked at me when they recognized the name Eric Wagner.”

  Morgan’s eyes widened with recognition. Goose bumps skittered over her skin as she recalled the media stories. She hugged herself. “Oh, my God.”

  LUKE DROVE HIS editor’s snowmobile up onto the back of the four-wheel drive pickup and then headed for Ice Lake. The trip normally took less than an hour, but with the weather…

  His every instinct told him Morgan was in terrible trouble.

  “Why Ice Lake?” he’d asked her when she’d told him about their plans for the short honeymoon.

  “Tom thought it would be nice,” she’d said. “He said the lodge is beautiful.”

  She hadn’t sounded that excited about the prospect of spending her honeymoon there. But what stuck in his mind now was that Tom had chosen it. Luke hoped to hell it was just a coincidence that the surviving victim of the Big Sky Stranglers was staying there.

  As he drove through the snowstorm, he tried to tamp down his fear. He reminded himself that Morgan was smart and capable. But even as he thought it, he couldn’t forget that Tom had fooled her from the moment they’d met. The man had conned her into falling in love and marrying him. What would he do when he realized he’d been caught?

  Luke shook his head as he recalled something that had happened at the wedding. Morgan had invited only a handful of friends, including a few from college. Tom, who was new to town, claimed his friends and family from Seattle couldn’t make it on such short notice. He’d added that he and Morgan would throw a party in the summer and get all his relatives and friends out to Montana. Another lie.

  But it was what one of Morgan’s college friends had told him that now kept Luke’s foot nailed to the gas pedal as he raced through the storm toward Ice Lake. She had been with the soon-to-be-bride before the ceremony, helping her dress, when Morgan had suddenly looked as if she was going to pass out.

  “Did she explain what was wrong?” Luke had asked.

  “She said she hadn’t eaten breakfast and was just feeling a little faint.” The college friend had dropped her voice. “Then Morgan said, ‘Tell me I’m not making a mistake.’”

  “What did you tell her?” Luke had asked.

  “I didn’t know what to say. You’re closer to her than I am. Do you think she’s making a mistake?”

  He had. But he’d answered, “I just want Morgan to be happy.”

  Now Luke wanted to kick himself. The signs had been there all along. Not only was something terribly wrong about Tom Cooper, but Morgan had sensed it on some level. Tom had rushed her to the altar, no doubt realizing she was having misgivings.

  If any of her friends had just spoken up, they could have stopped this. If he had spoken up… Luke shook his head. It was far too late for what-ifs.

  But he couldn’t help remembering that day after the wedding, how cold her hands had been when she’d thanked him for being there.

  “Promise me we will always be friends,” she’d said.

  He’d smiled and squeezed her hands. “Always.”

  But Luke had known he’d lost her. Tom would see to that. Especially if he ever found out about that darkroom kiss.



  Morgan’s mind whirled like the snow outside the cabin as she pictured shots of the murder house, the bodies. It had been a massacre and on all the news about ten years ago. More like twelve.

  Here in the cabin, the fire licked at the logs in the grate. The soft crackle of dry pine was the only sound in the room. Tom stood silhouetted against the blaze, his head down. He seemed to be waiting for her reaction to everything he’d told her.

  Still in shock, she glanced toward the closed bedroom door, remembering what she’d seen scrawled on the wall. “Why would your old girlfriend…” Morgan stopped as she realized what could have made a woman react in such a way. “You broke her heart.”

  “I deserted her when she needed me the most,” he said, his voice tight with some strong emotion. Guilt? Regret? “I was planning to marry her, but after what happened…”

  He looked beaten, broken, his back to her as if he could no longer face her. This man, her husband, had been through something so horrible she couldn’t even comprehend it. What that must have done to him…

  Morgan rose and went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and pressing her face into his warm back. “You can’t blame yourself.”

  She felt him flinch, and drew away as he turned to face her. One look at his expression and she knew. “There’s more, isn’t there?”

  “We fought about her brother,” he said. “I wasn’t very understanding.”

  “How could you be? He killed your family.” Slaughtered them.

  “He was sick—that’s how she saw it. She didn’t want him to go to prison. She was afraid for him because of what the other inmates would do to him, and the whole time he kept denying what he’d done. Maybe if he would have unburdened himself…”

  Morgan shook her head. “I can see how awful this was for both of you, but still that doesn’t excuse her—”

  “Allison was pregnant with my baby when I left.”

  Morgan felt all the air rush from her lungs.

  “She miscarried and wasn’t able to have any more children.”

  It took Morgan a moment to realize there was only one way he could know that. “She told you this recently. How many times have you seen her?”

  He dragged his gaze away and Morgan’s heart fell. As she dropped into the chair again, he said, “Three times. I wanted to tell you—”

  “Before we got married. Yes, that would have been a good idea.”

  His gaze came back to her and she saw why he’d continued to lie even before he spoke. “I was afraid you would call off the wedding.”

  With a start, Morgan remembered the “ushers” Tom had hired to stand outside the church. “You thought she might try to stop the ceremony.”

  He didn’t have to reply.

  “Did she threaten you? Us?” Of course she had. Morgan covered her face with her hands for a moment. “The brother was homicidal and now his crazy, vengeful sister is after us, and you didn’t think to tell me? Better yet, call the police?”

  “She’s just hurt.”

  “No, Tom,” Morgan said, getting to her feet. “Someone who is ‘just hurt’ doesn’t follow us on our honeymoon and stomp our snowman flat or write obscenities all over our bedroom wall.” A thought struck her. “How did she even know we were coming here?”

  He shook his head. “I swear to you I don’t know. I certainly didn’t tell her. She must have followed us.”

  Morgan remembered him checking his rearview mirror yesterday. She realized now that he’d been worried that Allison would tail them.

  “We have to call the sheriff.” Morgan pulled out her cell phone. Earlier, Luke had been able to get through, but they’d been cut off. With the blizzard howling outside… “No service.” She snapped the phone shut and looked toward the front window and the driving snow, wondering where Allison was.

  Only a crazy person would go out in a snowstorm like this.

  “Honey, I should have told you,” Tom said, reaching for her. “I tried so many times.”

  She sidestepped his embrace. “You didn’t try hard enough.”

  “I didn’t want you to see me as Eric Wagner. I only wanted to be Tom Cooper to you. Can’t you understand that?”

  Actually, she could. She wished his past had never come up, but he’d been naive to think that he cou
ld keep such a secret. Especially when there was an ex-girlfriend in town with a need for vengeance.

  “I am the one person on earth who needed to know who you really are,” Morgan snapped.

  “You know who I really am. I’m not Eric Wagner. He died the night he opened the door of his house to find his family murdered. I had to put all of that to rest. I didn’t want to spend my life defined by that horrible tragedy. I knew it would destroy me.”

  “Why has it taken her more than ten years to come after you?” Morgan asked, as she had another thought. She’d been pacing, angry and scared, but now stopped to face him.

  He shrugged. “Well, last I heard, she’d been in and out of mental hospitals. Until recently. And I was thinking it must have been the marriage license that led her to me now. It’s the only paperwork that left a trail to me.”

  Morgan remembered how surprised she’d been when she’d realized that Tom didn’t have any credit cards and always used cash. Even when he bought a car. Was it possible that their marriage license was how the woman had found him?

  Tom looked sick. Morgan stared at him, weakening as she saw the pain in his face. How could she not feel compassion for everything he’d been through? He was a victim, just as much as his family and his high school girlfriend and her family had been.

  “Maybe if we talked to Allison—”

  “I wish it was that easy,” Tom said. “Her brother was killed last year in prison. She’s made it clear she will never forgive me.”

  “She can’t blame you for that.”

  “At her brother’s trial, she pleaded with me to beg the judge for leniency for Louis. I didn’t. I couldn’t. If you had seen my little brother and sister…”

  “What does she want, Tom?”

  He shook his head. “I’m not even sure she knows. I’ve told her how sorry I am. I’ve offered her money, which in retrospect was a mistake. I don’t have enough to make up for the past.”

  “She wants you.”

  He fell silent.

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