Fire snaked into his lungs. Suffocating. Debilitating. He couldn’t breathe, his body immobile. He clawed at the air, at the coarse rope binding his feet, at everything his hands managed to reach. Why were his hands free?
Is this how someone feels when they burn?
Helios promised him there would be consequences. It had only been one more fire, one more kill. He had craved it more than he feared Helios’s warning.
One more mistake.
Smoke curled upward from the flames, dancing up the walls in a seductive swirl of lights and sound. The crackling of gunshots echoed somewhere beyond the steel door.
No chance of escape.
He didn’t deserve to die this way. His scream lodged deep in his lungs, so deep it burned his insides. A round of hacking coughs escaped his scorched lips. He desperately wanted water or a beer. Yes, when he got out of this—if he made it—he’d down a whole six-pack of Bud Light and thank whatever powers that be for his salvation.
I’ll be good. If you let me live, God, I’ll be good forever.
Did he hear his name coming back to him from the darkness beyond the flames? Yes, but from where, exactly?
It’s only in my head. No. No, no, no!
He heard shouts, or was fear mocking him? He yanked at the ropes around his ankles and brought away flesh covered in his own blood. Why couldn’t he move?
The door pounded. No, someone pounded on the door. The blaze caressed the floor around him, moving closer with a lover’s passion, inch by inch. He heard the loud crash this time and was certain someone stood on the other side of the door. A gust of air whooshed into the room and the fire found new life. It tormented him, licked his skin. A scream escaped, louder now because of the burn. Two strong bodies in masks lifted him away from the center of the inferno. His eyes remained opened, even as the sensation of floating carried him away from the chamber. He’d promised to be good and he would be. No man or woman or creature walking the earth could claim to be so good as he from this moment on and into forever.
Darkness consumed his whispered thanks while a cacophony of sirens trumpeted his fall into oblivion.
Another letter arrived with a clipping of the article from a fire three months earlier in Denver. How long would they torment her? The police investigation had uncovered the identity of the kidnapper soon after they rescued the victim from the burning building. A single shot is what finally stopped her, right through the center of her chest. A female serial killer, with a partner they couldn’t locate. The press clamored, begged, and went so far as to send letters with clippings to her publisher. One interview was all the public wanted.
Meaghan Ryers wanted to be left alone.
“It will blow over soon, Meg.”
Meaghan slid the letter into her shredder and waited for the grinding to stop. She spun her chair around to face her older sister. “It’s been three months, Amanda.”
“You know how crazy the press gets. All it took was one person mentioning that the fire scene resembled the one from your book, and suddenly there’s a murderer playing out your stories in real life.”
Meaghan scoffed and pushed up from the chair. The view of the Tenmile Range out the expansive office windows usually calmed her, gave her a center. She’d hiked several of the more obscure lower mountains on the range and a few of the Thirteeners in her twenties. The mountains had been her solace from the first moment her father took her hiking outside Breckenridge when she was five years old. He’d taught her the trails early and they’d enjoyed many explorations together.
The stunning mountain view brought her no pleasure today. Her seven private acres of land, tucked in a forest of pine trees, kept her separated from the world, and she despised the people who found a way to breach her sanctuary.
“The idiot who first mentioned the possible connection to my book was obviously illiterate, the anonymous coward.”
Amanda opened her mouth to speak, then shut it.
“Go ahead and say whatever you’re thinking.”
“There were some striking similarities, Meg.”
Meaghan raised a neatly trimmed eyebrow and stared at her sister.
“The body stripped to nothing, feet bound, the steel door, the fire . . . okay, I can see you want to murder me now. Put me in your next book and make it grisly.” Amanda sighed. “I need you to listen to me.”
“You need to get away from here, from all of this. Find a quiet place without cell service where no one can contact you, except me, of course.”
She sank back into the leather-and-plaid swivel chair she’d had custom-made when she landed her first book deal six years earlier. She’d never given much thought to high-quality desk chairs before she started writing full time. “I’m already someplace quiet where no one can contact me, or at least, I was before the press started sending letters to my private P.O. box. How’d they figure that one out?”
“It’s not impossible, Meaghan, especially these days. You can only keep so much close to your vest, and you’ve done a pretty good job, considering your popularity.”
Meaghan rose again and shook her head. “No, there you’re wrong. My books are popular. People don’t know me, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Amanda let out a breath and said, “You went on a full-fledged book tour when Rain in Silence was released. You put an end to the public appearances after that, but you gave people a glimpse. Sometimes they just want more.”
“You sound like the publisher’s marketing department, and I’ll tell you what I keep telling them—'Never going to happen.’”
“Then give up writing. You don’t need the work. Just walk away.”
Meaghan spun in the chair to face her framed book covers. How many times had she told herself the same thing? “It’s not about the money or wanting people to like me or my books.”
“Obviously not. You don’t like people.”
“Snark is not your forte.” Meaghan pointed to her first book cover. “Right there is when the exhilaration bug caught me. The thrill of writing is what I love. Everything that comes after is just business, and I want as little to do with it as possible.” She picked up a pen and scribbled herself a note. “Now, I have to change my mailbox number, no forwarding address.”
“Sheldon can take care of that for you.”
“He’s your assistant, Amanda, and I’d prefer to handle this on my own. Thank you, though, for the offer.”
“Sheldon loves your books and would leave me for you without any guilt.”
“I don’t like assistants. They’re always . . . there, which is why I gave mine up three years ago.”
“Meg.” Her sister grabbed her shoulders to hold her in place. “I get that you’re on the brink of a breakdown.”
“Nice alliteration, and no, I’m not.”
Amanda gave her a look that said, Shut up. “You’ve rarely listened to my advice over the years, despite my superior wisdom,” Meaghan held back a laugh, “but you need to listen now. Get out of town for a while and finish your new manuscript. All this craziness has given you a major case of writer’s block.”
Meaghan scowled at her sister. “There’s no such thing in my vocabulary.”
“Oh, and how many chapters have you written in the past two months?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I already have a mother. I don’t need another.” Meaghan slipped away from her sister and looked around her spacious office. She’d bought the place because of the view and this room. A massive stone fireplace rose to the top of the high ceiling. Windows covered the space of an entire wall. Stone covered a third wall, and the fourth wall was covered in barnwood shelves. She’d selected the wood antiques herself. A section had been left open for her whiteboard to be inset. Plush carpet prevented her from hearing even her own footfalls when she paced the room.
In the center, facing the windows and view, was the George III period mahogany writing table she’d picked up at auction. It should have looked out of place in the rustic elegance of the room, but with its scarred edges and inset-leather writing surface, it fit into the room like a dream. The overstuffed leather-and-plaid chair with ottoman in front of the fireplace offered her a place to relax when she needed a ten-minute power nap. She loved this room.
“I do need to get away.”
Amanda looked smug. “Yes, you do.”
Meaghan narrowed her eyes at her sister. “Don’t you have a dog or cat or something to take care of?”
“My clinic is in excellent hands.” She rubbed a hand over her rounded stomach. “When I go on maternity leave next month, they’ll have to figure out how to do without me for a little while.”
“Didn’t you brag last Christmas about how you are the animals’ favorite vet in Breckenridge?”
“I would never be so crass.” Amanda waved her hand in dismissal. “Where are you going?”
“You just told me I needed to get away from everything. I think that means family, too. I’ll stop in to see Mom and Dad before I leave.”
“And before they leave. They take off for Europe next week, or did you forget? They won’t be back until after Thanksgiving.” Amanda glanced around the room. “Do you even know what day it is?”
Meaghan shrugged. “I do when I look at my computer.”
“And your phone?”
“Is . . . somewhere. I have the landline if someone needs to reach me.”
“And who has that number besides family and your publisher?”
“Nary a soul. Come on, I’ll walk you out. I need to start packing.”
“Where are you going? ‘Seriously’, I said, ‘where no one can contact you’, but in the event of an emergency, Meg, you need to tell, at least, me.”
Meaghan pointed to the map of the United States they passed on the way out of her office. “I’ll pick a spot and call when I get there.”
She ushered her sister out the front door and leaned against it when she was once again alone. Meaghan didn’t handle company well, even family, for more than a few hours. She returned to the haven of her office and stared at the beautiful map. “Aged to look like an antique through a very creative process,” her husband had told her, when he presented it as a gift for her twenty-seventh birthday.
She loved maps and had a collection of true antiques and reproductions gracing the hallway walls of the upper corridor. The American-reeded frame with black channels and oxblood-red raised borders, circa 1840, gave the beautiful piece of work an authentic feel. It was the last birthday gift he gave her before he became sick, and she hadn’t traveled since. Meaghan preferred to get lost in her stories or the Colorado mountains outside her door.
“Where should I go, Marcus?” She found herself asking him questions often about any life decisions she needed to make. They’d been together only two years before he had to leave her, and now his memory was a dear friend and comfort. She moved her eyes to roam the map and found the answer. The one place Marcus always spoke of visiting, and would have if there’d been time.
A shrill noise filled the air in the distance. “I could have sworn I turned the ringer off.” Meaghan walked from her office to pick up the phone extension in the hall. She refused to have one in her writing sanctuary. “Yes?”
“Why do you have a phone if you hate them so much?”
Meaghan smiled at the sound of her editor’s voice. “I ask myself the same thing every day, Peggy. Ah, I don’t have the new chapters for you yet.”
“Hit a wall?”
Meaghan cringed. “Something like that. Amanda suggested I get away for a while to finish the manuscript.”
“Your sister’s smart. Guess she’d have to be with her fancy veterinary practice. I remember at a party she said she personally treats the spoiled cats of a high-profile actor, but she wouldn’t tell me who.”
“She probably does, and she knows she’s smart, which is really annoying. Anyway, I’ll see my parents and leave in a couple of days.”
“That’s a great idea.” Peggy’s voice sounded off.
“What’s going on? You didn’t call about the chapters, did you?”
A heavy sigh on the other end. “No. I asked to be the one to call you since we’re friends and not just writer and editor.”
“We’ve been getting some letters the past few months.”
“Uh-huh. The murder case following the plot of Phantom Fire? I already know about those. The temporary publicist they hired over there was terrified when she first told me about them. She sounded more scared of me. Have I earned a difficult reputation over there?”
Peggy chuckled. “No, she was just warned that you don’t like phones or people or the press.”
“Thank goodness Leisha is back from her vacation soon. What’s going on now?”
Meaghan heard another few seconds of nothing from her editor. “Out with it, Peggy.”
“There is one reporter who has been especially difficult. There’s nothing you need to worry about; we’re handling him on our end, but he’s been making a lot of noise about the public’s right to know, and how anyone can be sure you weren’t involved.”
Her hand gripped around the cordless phone until her fingers turned white, and she eased her hold to let the blood flow back through her digits. “Involved in acting out scenes from my own book? He’s really accusing me of kidnapping and almost burning someone to death? The police caught the person.”
“We’ve told him, and the police told him. A complaint has been filed with his magazine, but since he hasn’t broken any laws, they have no grounds to fire him.”
“How long has this been going on, Peggy?”
“A few weeks. I’m sorry. The crime was national news, and this guy is probably trying to make a name for himself.”
Meaghan felt the start of a headache. “Why in the hell can’t people figure out the difference between fiction and real life? Shoot! Sorry. I’m not angry with you.”
“Should I be worried?”
“About the reporter?” Peggy asked. “No, we filed a report with the police, just in case, but apparently, the guy qualifies for jerk status and nothing more dangerous.”
Meaghan sighed and closed her eyes, the phone still to her ear. “My number isn’t registered in my name, like the house. When did this become my life?” More silence on her editor’s end of the line. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this. It’s not in the editor’s job description.”
“You don’t worry about that, and you have a publicist for this reason.”
“No one’s bothered Leisha with this, have they? She’ll worry and right now she should only be focused on her new baby.”
“No, we’re handling it.”
Meaghan inhaled and exhaled deeply, just like she learned in yoga, back when she had the patience for it. “My parents fly out next week for Europe. They’ll be gone for a couple of months.”
“What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking it might be time to get away. I’ll book a flight tonight. This reporter has only been asking about Meaghan Nash, not . . . the real me, right?”
“Yes. Meg, I’m so sorry, sweetie. Take the time, write, relax, and email me when you’re ready. We’ve pushed your deadline—”
“No,” Meaghan said with some force. “I have two months until the full manuscript is due, and I’ll finish it. I’ve never missed a deadline and I’m not going to start now.”
“That’s our girl.”
Meaghan found she could smile again, though it didn’t make her feel better. “I’ll be in touch, Peggy. Thanks for everything.”
“Of course. So, where are you going?”
She studied the map again, her eyes focused on the northwest corner. “Yeah, I do.”
End of Preview
Excerpted from THE WICKED CRIES WOLF by McKenna Grey. Copyright © 2020 by McKenna Grey. Published by Cambron Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author or publisher.
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