Page 54 of Wicked Burn

Niall just shook her head rapidly as she pointedly avoided Vic’s stare. Her misery threatened to explode out of her at any moment. The feeling frightened her.

“I have to go,” she mumbled. When she felt Vic’s hand on her arm restraining her, she threw him off forcefully as the fingers of panic closed around her throat.

In the end she left the shopping bags and her coat behind, blindly grabbing at her purse before she made a hasty retreat from Vic’s apartment.

Niall left a message on Rose Gonzalez’s voice mail and shuffled to the next message that Kendra had just given her from Anne Rothman. The first thing she’d done once the pieces of paper were in her hand was check to see if Vic’s name was among them.

It hadn’t been. But then again, she hadn’t really expected it to be. Not after she’d thrown him off her and raced out of his apartment last night.

She’d spent the morning in meetings. She could only be thankful that the nature of the meetings didn’t require her to participate much, as exhausted and listless as she felt after her sleepless night. Considering how she felt, she was half hoping that Anne wouldn’t answer her phone when Niall returned her call. But she did, of course.

“Hey! I’m glad you got back so soon. Are you free for lunch? Guess who I’m meeting at the the Walnut Room?” Anne asked.

“I don’t know, Anne. I’m really busy . . .”

“Well, you have to eat, and it’s just across the street, for goodness sake. Besides, it’s the holidays. When else are you supposed to take long lunches that possibly include two . . . or even three . . . glasses of wine? Besides it’s practically a family occasion. That’s the surprise—I’m meeting with Meg Sandoval! She told me to call and invite you. It’s sort of a last-minute thing on her part. Remember how we talked the last time we all had dinner about one of my graduate students possibly going downstate to teach an art history class to gifted kids? Well, her school board just approved the money for it, and it looks like the Institute is going to approve more than just the funds to pay a graduate student. It looks good for us to offer programs in rural areas. Besides, it’s good P.R. for the Institute. Anyway, you can hear more about it at lunch.”

Niall’s eyes burned when she clenched them shut.

“I don’t think I can, Anne. I’m really swamped. Please tell Meg hello, though. Tell her . . .” Niall swallowed hard. Of course she would still be going to Vic’s farm for Christmas. To think otherwise just because of what had occurred last night was pure catastrophic thinking on her part. She really needed to shake herself out of this pervasive gloom. “Tell her how much I’m looking forward to seeing her, Tim, and Ellen for Christmas.”

Anne wheedled and scolded and then became duly concerned when that didn’t work. She hung up without a further fuss only when Niall pacified her by agreeing to have dinner with her at The Art the night before she left with Vic for his farm.

“Bring that gorgeous hunk of a cowboy playwright with you, if you can,” Anne encouraged slyly. “Oh . . . I better go. I’m going to be late for Meg.”

Vic paused in front of Niall’s front door when he arrived home that night at seven P.M. He’d stopped attending every performance of Alias X several weeks ago, although he was still in his office, backstage, or with a member of the technical crew more often than not for at least three nights out of the week.

The show ran smoother than a pricey piece of software on a premium hard drive. The reviews continued to be excellent, and his company usually performed to a full house. He’d started to long for the wide-open space of the farm instead of obsessing about the play, so he figured things must be going pretty well. After Christmas he planned to return to his regular schedule of spending only two or three nights in the city.

At least he had hoped to do that, if he could talk Niall into spending a good portion of her weekends with him on the farm.

Vic couldn’t believe that just last night he had been feeling so content, like nothing could interfere with the smooth roll of his world. How quickly that had all crumbled to ash when he’d turned and seen Niall’s face last night.

It had been like all those nights he’d awakened her from her dreams. Except that last night she’d been fully awake and he’d looked straight down into her wide eyes . . . right into the heart of her nightmare.

It made him feel like a shit to know that he’d caught a hint of her suffering early on, before they’d become more involved, and that he’d made a point of not seeing it. Now that he was ready to acknowledge everything about Niall, however—including her painful past—she was shutting him out.

He didn’t know what the hell to make of that fact. The only thing he knew for sure was that he was tired of it. At some point during the past five weeks, he had decided that he wanted in. Not just in Niall’s body, but in her mind . . . in her life.

Seeing Jenny on the opening night of Alias X had allowed him to resoundingly finish a scenario in his mind that had long been in need of a final act. He’d thought he’d accomplished that by refusing to see or speak with Jenny, but that particular coping mechanism had just served to make her bigger and bolder in his mind than she had ever deserved.

Opening night of Alias X had taught him something valuable—Niall had as much in common with Jenny as a butterfly did with a viper.

His face stiffened at the thought, and he knocked loudly on Niall’s front door. His little butterfly was being buffeted by some turbulent winds, and Vic was determined that she tell him what was going on, so that he could offer her some insulation against them.