“Did you really like it?” he asked, a grin tilting his lips, as though he found it amusing that he wanted her reassurance.
“I thought it was incredible,” she said feelingly.
“It wasn’t exactly pretty.”
“Pretty?” Niall repeated slowly. “No . . . I don’t suppose it was. But it was very human. And there were parts of it that were”—she paused, searching for the right words—“astonishingly beautiful,” she finished softly.
His brushed his thumb tenderly across her cheek before he kissed her once more.
Ellen and Meg didn’t bat an eyelash when Niall and Vic returned to the corridor looking flushed, mussed, and entirely pleased with themselves. Ellen just patted her son’s cheek fondly as they said their temporary farewells.
“Got no reason to be grouchy tonight, do you, boy? You got yourself a winner there,” she stated baldly. She’d glanced over at Niall, who was encircled in Vic’s arm, and winked mischievously. “The play wasn’t half bad, either.”
Vic looked down at Niall. “My mom always does pick the winners,” he said in a low rumble. Then he kissed her unashamedly as Meg and Ellen looked on with identical smirks on their faces.
Niall walked out of the theater a minute later and breathed deeply of the refreshing, cool air. “The city looks beautiful tonight, doesn’t it?” she asked, genuinely amazed at the surreal uniformity of the midnight blue sky, the sharp, crisp outlines of the buildings against it, how vibrant and colorful the lights from the high-rises were.
Meg laughed softly and took her arm as they headed to get a cab. “Oh, honey, you’re in it deep, aren’t you?” she murmured fondly. She laughed when Niall gave her a look of puzzlement.
When they arrived at the private room at Mina’s, Niall was a little surprised at how crowded it already was. She realized that she knew several people there. Many patrons of the theater were also sponsors for the museum. She was glad that she didn’t have to depend entirely upon contacts that Meg and Ellen had made through Vic’s earlier productions in order to socialize, and could introduce them to some interesting people as well. The overall atmosphere of the party was buoyant and energetic, just as it should have been on the night that symbolized the pinnacle of achievement for a company that knew they had a hit on their hands.
The three of them were chatting with an eclectic group consisting of Caesar Ramirez, Vic’s lighting designer; Marcus Alvion, a CEO for MarketTech, a Chicago-based company that supported the Hesse and who also sat on the fund-raising committee for Niall’s museum; and Mya Shore, a friendly, outgoing young woman who was an entertainment writer for the Chicago Tribune, when Eileen Moore joined them.
Eileen greeted Ellen and Meg with a kiss. She regarded Niall curiously as Meg formally introduced them, but without any of the rancor that she’d shown that evening at The Art. Perhaps she had no time for animosity, as aglow as she was with the evening’s success.
And she deserved it, Niall acknowledged. Her performance had been electrifying, and she told Eileen as much. She and the actress were in the process of feeling each other out, deciding whether or not they liked each other, when Vic entered the room. He received such loud, resounding applause from the partygoers that the regular diners in Mina’s restaurant must have thought a bomb exploded. He grinned slowly, waved, ducked his head, and turned aside to speak to the man who accompanied him into the room. Niall knew instinctively that while he appreciated the crowd’s sentiment, it couldn’t be over quickly enough for him.
She also noticed that Eileen clapped louder than anyone else in their group, and that the expression on her face as she stared at Vic bordered on idolatry.
Eileen stiffened even more than Niall did when Jennifer Atwood suddenly appeared out of the crowd and touched Vic’s elbow. Even from her distance across the crowded room Niall saw the marked change that overcame Vic’s countenance as he looked down at her. Jennifer went up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
“That bitch,” Eileen hissed softly as her clapping slowed to a stop. “She’s got nerve coming here on Vic’s special night after what she did to him.”
“What did she do to him?” Niall asked, not at all sure she really wanted to know.
“Fucked him up good,” Eileen muttered under her breath before she took a long draw on her martini. Her eyes never moved from the sight of Vic staring down at Jennifer Atwood’s beautiful face.
“He’s never told you about her?” Eileen asked bitterly, although she was careful to keep her voice low enough so that only Niall heard her.
Niall’s lips pressed together tightly. If Eileen had asked the question condescendingly, in a way that implied Niall couldn’t possibly mean anything to Vic if he’d never revealed his secrets to her, than Niall probably would have tried to turn the subject. But she hadn’t. Instead, she’d asked like she was totally preoccupied by the situation. Eileen obviously cared deeply about Vic and didn’t want to see him hurt again.
The fact that Jennifer still had the power to wound Vic was becoming uncomfortably obvious to Niall.
“No,” Niall admitted finally. “He hasn’t mentioned her to me.”
Eileen finally ripped her eyes away when Jennifer brushed Vic’s arm with her hand in a lingering caress and turned back into the crowd. “He was supposed to marry her, you know. But she was never happy with him, always scolding him for not living up to his potential, harassing him to move to Los Angeles and compete with the big boys like her slick-ass husband, complaining that his provincialism was bringing her career, as much as his own, to a halt,” Eileen said before she took another long drink, nearly emptying her glass.