Page 60 of Wicked Burn

Niall felt a pang of remorse when she fully recognized Mac’s concern. He and Kendra had obviously noticed that she was unusually preoccupied and tense since Christmas of last year. They’d assumed that it related to Stephen’s partial recovery, the finalizing of her divorce, and the anniversary of Michael’s murder. And they wouldn’t have been entirely wrong in their assumptions.

But they didn’t know that the primary reason for her emotional unrest related to the fact that the man that she’d so recently come to realize that she loved had disappeared from her life. Nor did they know that Niall, immobilized by a fog of uncertainty and guilt, had just let Vic go without a word of protest or explanation.

Maybe she’d deserved Vic’s scorn at that fateful moment when Alexis had blurted out the truth about her marriage. Niall wasn’t sure about that. The only thing that she knew for sure was that over the past few months her fog had lifted. It had taken her three and a half years to get here, but she’d arrived, nonetheless, at a state of acceptance.

She knew she’d grieve over Michael for the rest of her life. Her little boy’s senseless death—not to mention the fact that Niall had been there and witnessed it herself—had left a jagged, deep wound that had been extremely difficult to heal. Niall suspected that the psychic scar would pain her intermittently for her whole life. The subsequent loss of Stephen to madness had only exacerbated her grief.

But what had happened with Stephen back in January had helped her to understand the machinations of her husband’s insanity . . . and with understanding came healing.

She considered telling Mac about her lonely journey, but she refrained. For some reason, the first person she wanted to talk to about what she’d kept locked away for so long was Vic. Not that there was any guarantee that he would listen . . . but she owed it to both of them to try.

She leaned forward, elbows on her desk, and caught Mac’s eye.

“I want you listen very carefully. I can’t wait to go downstate to teach those kids art history. It will be a challenge to work with teenagers, but a refreshing one, I think. And I’m going to be boarding at Meg’s farmhouse. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to breathing the clean air, taking long walks . . . looking into the sky at night and actually being able to see the stars.”

Mac relaxed a little in his chair when he saw her enthusiasm.

“You’re fired up about the whole thing, aren’t you?” he asked with a laugh.

Niall sighed. “You have no idea.”

Once again, Mac hesitated. “And . . . and your decision has nothing to do with . . . what’s going to happen in late June?”

Niall’s eyes flickered up to Mac’s in surprise. “How did you know about that, Mac?”

“I read a blurb in the Tribune that Manning’s execution had been rescheduled.”

Niall exhaled slowly during the silence that ensued.

“It’s been postponed twice now since they made him the exception for the moratorium on executions in Illinois. Chances are it won’t happen.”

“So your leaving town this summer has nothing to do with—”

“No,” Niall said abruptly, shaking her head. But even as she answered so surely, she wondered if some unconscious part of her brain hadn’t nudged her to plan events so that she could escape the horror that just seemed never to go away . . . if she secretly wished to be near Vic on the fateful day of Matthew Manning’s execution.

She was so nervous and excited about leaving for Vic’s farm tomorrow that she practically hadn’t slept in a week. She also was scared witless that Vic would be so furious about Meg and Niall’s little conspiracy that he’d shut her out as efficiently as he had Jennifer Atwood when he’d discovered her betrayal.

Meg still didn’t know all the details of Niall’s past, but Niall had told her about her son’s death, not revealing exactly how he’d died. She’d also told Meg about Stephen’s condition, her divorce, and how Vic had found out in such a shocking fashion that Niall had still been married during their affair.

Meg had been nothing but kind and sympathetic. But she was also baldly honest and had told Niall that every time she talked to her brother about Niall, he went cold as a frigid Chicago winter wind. Vic had never actually forbidden Meg to speak about Niall in front of him. But Meg explained to Niall just a few weeks ago that she got the impression he’d done just that, given the fact that he turned and walked away every time Meg tried to plead Niall’s case.

Niall had felt awful about that, of course. She didn’t want to cause any arguments between Meg and Vic. And she doubted that she was sowing much fraternal accord by showing up on Vic’s farm to live for two months when he knew nothing about it, either. But Meg and Anne had been so convincing. And Vic’s sister had implied that she was worried about Vic’s state of mental health, as well.

Niall had prepared herself to weather Vic’s initial storm of fury at her unexpected presence on his farm.

She had to do this. She just had to. When she considered the fact that she hadn’t seen Vic’s face or looked into his magnificent, soulful gray eyes now for over six months, it caused a sharp, nearly debilitating pain to go through her. Not to mention the fact that the last time he’d been staring at her, it had been with an expression of stark disbelief, as if he had been watching her face morph into a stranger’s right before his very eyes.

But no, she wouldn’t dwell on that now. If she did, she’d sink back into that morass of hopelessness and despair that had overwhelmed her when she spent last Christmas alone in her depressing beige and white Riverview apartment. Maybe she’d deserved his anger back then, but she hadn’t deserved to lose him forever. Which is precisely what she’d almost let happen due to her own guilt.