Niall took a deep breath in an attempt to quiet her racing heart. Her nervousness had nothing in common with the anxiety she associated with Stephen’s agitation and subsequent violence, but it felt extremely potent nonetheless. Vic never gave her the chance to respond, however. Instead he turned and left the room, slamming the door behind him so hard that Meg’s painting rattled on the wall. Niall just sat there with her eyes closed tightly and listened to the charged, terse exchange between Vic and Meg in the hallway a few seconds later, followed by the sound of Vic stomping down the stairs, his fury apparent in every strike of his boots on the hard wood.
She looked up wearily a moment later when someone tapped softly at her bedroom door.
“Come in.” She blinked in surprise when she saw the amused expression on Meg’s face.
“I thought that went pretty well, don’t you?” Meg asked through a grin.
“Oh, yeah, just great,” Niall agreed dryly. “At least he didn’t pick me up and throw me out in the driveway.” Her eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement when she saw that Meg’s grin only grew wider. “Meg, it’s not funny! We shouldn’t have done this. We should have at least warned him first or something—”
Meg scoffed. “He can handle it. Trust me, my little brother needs some stirring up. His morose act was really starting to bug the shit out of me.”
“He doesn’t want me here.”
Meg shook her dark curls in admonishment. “Honey, you knew he wasn’t going to welcome you with open arms. You’re not giving up that easy, are you? It was a sure bet he was going to act like a bear when he found out what we planned.”
Niall sighed. “I just hadn’t imagined him being quite so—”
“Pissed off?” Meg asked cheerfully. “Yeah, Vic’s a real ass when he gets mad. Don’t worry, though, he never gets violent. At least not with women, children, or animals,” Meg added as if in afterthought. “If you’re an inanimate object or a bully with balls, better watch out though.”
“Right. With a woman he just goes ice cold and shuts her out,” Niall murmured.
Meg reached for the light switch. Niall strongly suspected she was getting a perverse satisfaction from stirring up her brother’s temper, much like a mischievous child poking a branch in a hornet’s nest just for the thrill of being ornery.
“That was hardly ice-cold, Niall. Which is all the more reason to say that Vic’s reaction to you being on the farm was a good thing. Go to sleep, honey. Breakfast is served bright and early on the farm.”
She flipped out the light, plunging the room into an absolute blackness that was completely foreign to Niall.
Vic tripped on something on the way to the bathroom just before dawn. After he’d picked up the offending boot and launched it against the wall in a fit of ineffective rage, he felt like a fool.
He hadn’t slept all night. His head throbbed either from a hangover or from grinding his teeth together for so many hours—or most likely both. The image of Niall staring at him with those huge hazel eyes and looking all mussed and soft from sleep seemed to have been permanently etched behind his eyelids. It had been an unexpected, infuriating sight.
He’d rather not think about the fact that it had been a thoroughly appealing one as well.
There was no way that woman was staying on this farm another night. He didn’t want to pull rank with Meg, but this was his property, God damn it. He had a right to say who stayed on it, didn’t he?
He finished his business in the bathroom and scowled at his reflection in the mirror over the sink. He looked like some kind of wild mountain man. A strong urge to shave and make himself presentable overwhelmed him.
“Fuck that,” he muttered before he dried his hands with one swipe and stalked out of the bathroom.
Why does Niall want to be here after half a year of giving me the silent treatment? he fumed as he plopped onto his bed with a loud protest from the springs. Was her husband sick again and she required a warm body in her bed? Or maybe her presence here didn’t have anything to do with him at all . . .
Why’d she want to fuck with his head this way?
She’d made it clear after her mother revealed the fact that she was married that she couldn’t offer Vic a viable explanation for her dishonesty. He’d tried to contact her afterward, positive there must be some logic behind Niall’s incomprehensible behavior even if he couldn’t conjure it up in his own stunned brain. But when she’d carefully avoided him, Vic had finally been forced to accept the fact that Niall felt too guilty to face him.
He couldn’t imagine any other reason for the shattered expression on Niall’s face that evening in her apartment when her mother had let the bomb drop that Niall had a sick husband. What other reason could there be besides guilt to explain how she’d avoided him after the fact as if he possessed a virulent form of the plague? Even with all that, he’d still been enough of a sucker to be shocked to see moving men in the hallway between his and Niall’s apartments back in February. He’d stood there like an idiot at Niall’s open door, thinking he’d finally have the opportunity to confront her about what had happened between them when a sandy-haired young man passed by carrying a box.
“Hi! Are you one of my new neighbors?” he’d called out cheerfully.
He started at Vic’s terseness before he laughed good-naturedly. “I’m the guy who’s moving into this apartment. Pete Sheppard.” He shifted the box in his arms and stuck out his hand in greeting.