Vic registered the amazed expressions on the couple’s faces when they turned around a moment later at his harsh proclamation.
Niall’s parents, he thought immediately when he saw the woman’s face. It was like looking into a magic mirror to see how Niall would look in twenty-odd years. If that was the case, Niall was one hell of a lucky woman. The woman who stood in front of him was a knockout—more polished than Niall, less approachable, diamond-hard . . . completely flawless. Vic found himself staring at her nose, not realizing until later that he searched for what he missed—the adorable imperfection of Niall’s freckles. Her eyes—not hazel like her daughter’s, but instead a startling shade of azure—flickered over his body. Vic forced his expression into neutrality.
Great. Stellar first impression. He wore only a towel.
“How do you know Niall isn’t in there?” the tall, distinguished-looking man barked sharply. “Did you hear her leave this morning?”
“No. She hasn’t left for work yet.”
The man glanced back uneasily at Niall’s front door. “But you said—”
“I’m right here, Dad.” Vic turned at the sound of Niall’s low, sleep-roughened voice. Sunlight flooded her from behind, making the exposed skin of her legs and face look ethereally pale.
Vic didn’t need to look at Niall’s parents in the tense seconds that followed to know that they were doing the equivalent of manually lifting their lower lips off the hallway carpet. Niall’s face, on the other hand, looked like it had been carved from marble.
“Is it an emergency?” Niall asked, dread lacing her tone.
Her father recovered first from his shock at seeing his daughter half-dressed in the company of a nearly naked man. “Yes, Niall. It is.”
Vic tensed unconsciously at Niall’s father’s tone of voice. Something in it seemed to imply that Niall was somehow responsible for whatever the emergency was. Vic didn’t take too kindly to that insinuation, especially when he saw that whatever tiny remnant of color Niall possessed in her cheeks had faded completely.
She ducked her head as she turned. “I’ll just get my things,” she murmured.
Vic glanced back at the hostile-looking couple before he let the door close heavily with them on the other side of it. Trying to make “nice-nice” with Niall’s parents at that moment would have been a big mistake.
“I’m sorry,” Niall said a few seconds later when she came out of his bedroom. She paused as she hastily zipped her leather boot. “I don’t think I’ll be able to make your play tonight.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Vic said from the doorway of the kitchen.
She gave him a harried look of apology before she started for the door.
“Niall,” he said, garnering her attention before her hand reached the knob. He waited until her big eyes met his. “I’ll call you later this afternoon,” he added pointedly.
Her gaze shifted away from his. “Don’t. I mean . . . it’s not necessary. I . . . I have to go.”
Vic stood there after she left, listening. No more voices from the hallway, just the sound of Niall’s keys rattling in the hostile silence.
Niall glanced up when her father approached her in the waiting room of Covenant General Hospital. They’d done nothing but sit and wait since arriving four hours ago.
She accepted the cup of coffee that Niall Chandler Sr. handed her. Niall was a family name, passed on for seven generations of Chandler men. Since Niall and Alexis Chandler hadn’t supplied the required male, their baby girl had been the recipient of that particular family honor.
The original Niall Chandler had made a lasting name for himself almost two hundred years ago by building a financial empire for his descendants through several activities, the milder of which was usury and the more stringent of which would be called extortion and loan-sharking in this day and age. Niall had mixed feelings about reverting to her maiden name a year ago. She’d wanted a fresh start, but the name Chandler was associated with almost as much emotional baggage as her married name.
For well over a century now the Chandlers had been squeaky clean in regard to their business activities. Still, the taint lingered sufficiently that Niall’s father didn’t take too kindly to his daughter’s tongue-in-cheek references to their august ancestor’s checkered past.
“You and Mom should go home,” Niall told her father quietly.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Alexis Chandler said briskly. Her erect carriage hadn’t wilted in the slightest during the interminable wait. Alexis worked out for two hours every day at her health club. Her ramrod-straight posture came from a lifetime of riding horses. She rode rain or shine, every day without fail.
Niall knew firsthand just how strong her mother was, both mentally and physically. Niall herself practiced a fairly rigorous yoga routine, but she nowhere near approximated the magnitude of her mother’s fitness and energy level. During the crisis three years ago—at the frenzied heights of Matthew Manning’s trial—Alexis had been as staunch and solid as a marble pillar while Niall’s world crumbled around her to ashes.
Her mother removed the lid from the coffee cup and blew on the steaming liquid delicately. “We wouldn’t dream of leaving when a family member is in a crisis, Niall. You know that.”
“There’s nothing we can do here, Mom, least of all give comfort,” Niall said wearily. She’d sat like this in waiting rooms too many times not to feel the sense of suffocating helplessness press upon her. This was all part and parcel of the chaos of Stephen’s life, something that Niall knew all too intimately.