Wheeler: One Fire Burns Out Another’s Burning – Preview

11 January

Northaw, England

Loren Mackenzie padded into the gourmet kitchen, and the view out of the windows halted her steps. Mist clung to the fields of the Ridgeway.

“Like a scene out of a horror movie.” She shivered then smothered a sneeze into the sleeve of her thermal so she wouldn’t wake Graham. “My head feels like it’s going to explode,” she groaned and grabbed a tissue from the box on the counter. Eyeing the canister of tea next to the tissues, she bent down to rummage through the cabinet in search of the electric kettle. After filling it with water and pressing start, she opened the enormous double-door refrigerator, jumping away when a can of Ryzak recovery drink fell from the shelf to land near her foot. The bright red leaping horse logo brought forth an unpleasant taste in her mouth as she chucked the can in the trash.

Another shudder went down her spine at the freshly-remembered photoshoot in New York, thanks to her friend and agent, Ron Hudson. Last night, he had emailed a mock-up of the new promo using one of the photos, along with a note that the commercial she shot with Jon Haskins, IDC’s men’s team leader, would be unveiled during training camp.

Loren heaved a sigh and grasped the lemon juice for her tea when her mobile pinged on the counter.  

“Speak of the Devil.” Her eyes narrowed at the text. Nice work on giving cozy a new definition? She opened the attached photo and her jaw dropped. The grainy shot was of them kissing with his hand was up her shirt in what Graham had assumed was a hidden alcove.  

‘Hunky actor, Graham Atherton gets cozy with girlfriend, pro cyclist, Loren Mackenzie while on holiday together in Iceland.’

“Oh my god.” She rolled her eyes and plopped down on a stool at the island. “Hunky? Really?” Her mobile buzzed another text from Ron.  

Never fear. I’ve taken care of it.

“You better have,” she muttered as she typed.

You’re up early, Lancelot. Hunky? Are they kidding?

Loren smirked at his reply.

Late. I’m up late. TTFN

After a quick glance at the still not boiling kettle, she swiped through her photos when she came to a video of her best friend and teammate, Cece Taylor, skipping around on a snow-covered street. Loren snorted with the laughter in the background when her friend slipped and fell on her bum.  

I’m glad they came with us. Her smile softened at a photo of Cece hugging her boyfriend, Anthony Ainsworth, Loren’s pseudo big brother. She swiped the screen again and gazed at the face of a man with a grin much like her own.

And then there’s my real big brother. Adam’s jaw was wider and his eye color was a tinge more brown than gray, but there was no denying the resemblance in their dark auburn hair, high cheekbones, and tapered nose, including the sprinkling of freckles.

I’ve missed him since he moved out, even though we text all the time. She and Graham helped him move out of the house on Vineyards shortly before they were all supposed to visit their aunt and uncle in Rochester for Christmas. Adam begged off, claiming something with work.

“Yah, well, if you went, you could have drawn some heat off me,” Loren told his picture. Instead, Maggie and Randall cornered her almost as soon as she and Graham arrived, demanding a more thorough explanation of the events surrounding the death of Felix Lalonde. With a sniffle, she shoved the dark thoughts away and started a video she took dancing with Graham on New Year’s Eve with Cece and Anthony in Iceland.

Twenty-four hours of darkness was strange, and the foursome found themselves in a nightclub at noon, then skiing under the lights at three in the morning. Loren touched a picture to enlarge it, focusing on Graham grinning ear to ear as he stood in the middle of a hotel room made of ice.

He loved that hotel suite, but soaking in the volcanic hot pools was way more awesome. Her smile vanished at remembering how Cece and Anthony also asked some hard questions. It took several false starts for her to explain why she hadn’t spent more than an hour in the house in Enfield. They were visibly shaken when she told them about the tiny camera in the ceiling light fixture in her bedroom, and the one the police found just above the fireplace in the living room.

Felix took my sanctuary from me. The soreness in her throat ratcheted up as her gaze went around the great room. A natural stone fireplace dominated the wall opposite her and before it, a nest of giant bean bag chairs, similar to the ones at Benny and Alejandra Wallace’s New York penthouse. An ‘L’ shaped sofa sectional took up the center of the room, surrounding a square, concrete top coffee table.

The huge argument we had over that thing when I wanted to acid wash it like Claire and Jared’s kitchen counters but Graham wanted to keep it natural. A crooked smile formed, recalling how they made up on top of it. Her humor faded though, taking in the remainder of the room. The colorful Art Deco prints and heirloom dining set were things they chose together.  

I thought I could feel at home here. The kettle began to whistle and she hurried over to the counter to silence it. “Enough wool gathering.” She got up, poured hot water over a tea infuser in her thermos, then headed back into the bedroom.

Pale light filtered through sheer drapes over the glass doors on the far side of the room. A red velvet chaise lounge and glass top coffee table faced the outside, with more abstract artwork in bright colors on the dove gray walls. Further into the room was the king size bed, featuring a luxuriously soft pillow-top mattress, flanked by dark wood night tables with matching lamps Loren found at an antique shop in St. Albans. Then she drank in the man on the bed.

Still asleep and sprawled out on his stomach, he faced the doorway where she stood. Lopsided eyebrows. Perfectly straight nose. The corners of his full lips turned down in sleep. Sable brown hair curled at the ends. Sideburns melding with a close-cropped reddish-brown beard. Her gaze continued over his broad shoulders and muscular back, trim waist and hips, then down his slim legs that ended with his large feet hanging off the end of the bed.

Graham Atherton. A-list actor. My knight in a shiny Jaguar. How did I get so lucky? He shifted, and his movement pulled at the white sheet barely covering his naked bum. Seriously, what if there’s a fire? Her giggle turned into a loud sneeze, and Graham woke with a sharp inhale, popping up on his forearms.

“Who? What? Oh.” He let out a groan and flopped back down.

“Sorry,” Loren murmured, moving to the bedside. He turned over to his back and yawned, causing her to yawn back. “Stop that!” she laughed. Graham coughed, then cocked his head.  

“Why are you dressed?” he rumbled. “You should be naked in bed with me.”

“I have to see Dr. Pallas this morning,” she replied, tracing her finger along his shoulder.

“Oh right.” A familiar pinched expression came over him. “I am rather proud of you for sticking with it. I know it’s not easy.”

“Oh ye who only went to two appointments,” she teased, leaning over to kiss him.

“I know, but I’d rather talk to you about all my shit,” he croaked. “You understand me better.”

“She’d understand you just fine if you gave her a chance, but I get it. She’s my shrink.” Loren dropped her chin, her hair falling over her face. “Still, I appreciate you went with me.” He moved her hair to uncover her smirk. “But I’d rather be naked in bed with you.”

“Would you now?” he chuckled, pulling her down on top of him, only for her to turn away and sneeze again. He touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “Bless you. You feel a bit warm, love.”

“That’s your fault,” she purred and kissed him again. His hands wandered under her thermal shirt to touch her skin, making her writhe away. “Cold hands! Cold!”

Graham pulled back, frowning. “You’re not usually this warm.”

“I’m fine, really, but I do have to get going.”

He kissed her nose. “Enjoy the drive in your new car.”

“Oh, I will.” She shot him a grin and scooted off the bed.

“Ah, any suggestions on what to make for dinner with your brother tonight?” His question turned Loren around.

“Make whatever you’re in the mood to make,” she said, then pointed at him. “Just no cream sauce!” they laughed in unison. She started for the door but turned back to him, her smile gone.

“I love you.”

“I know,” he said, and his come hither look made her want to jump back into bed with him.

“Would you stop that.”

“Stop what?” His eyes narrowed further.

“Stop giving me the smolder,” she answered, clenching her teeth.

“Is it working?”

Loren folded her arms over her chest. “Yes, but no.”

“Damn bloody shrinks,” Graham muttered, and her laughter echoed through the house.

Out in the garage, the rising door slowly revealed a royal blue hood with orange and white racing stripes to the morning sunlight. Loren breathed in the new car smell sliding into the smoke gray leather driver’s seat of her Mini Cooper Clubman.

“My first new car.” Pressing the ignition button, the engine growled to life. She depressed the clutch, pushed the gear shift into first, then gave it some gas. The Mini jerked forward and stalled.

She pursed her lips. “Damn parking brake.”