Page 71 of Wicked Burn

“I was enrolled for riding lessons when I was seven. On the day that I showed up, the horse they had picked out for me bolted as the instructor was helping me mount. I sort of . . . refused to go back after that, much to my mother’s dismay,” Niall added under her breath.

In fact, Alexis had been at her wits’ end trying to understand how her daughter had been so terrified by the rearing horse. She couldn’t comprehend Niall’s solemn and eventually fierce refusals to return to her lessons. Alexis had been an accomplished equestrian from an early age, and it was beyond her how her own flesh and blood could abhor what she so loved.

“What do you think, Vic?” Donny prompted when Vic just looked down at his plate and speared a piece of steak with his fork.

“It doesn’t matter how much you want her to do it. She’s got to want to do it herself,” Vic stated laconically before he ate the meat.

“But those horses are gentle! Aster wouldn’t . . .”

“Aster would . . . if someone made her nervous enough,” Vic told Donny with a pointed glance from beneath his lowered brow. “I haven’t got a horse in my stables that doesn’t have some spirit. None of them are appropriate for a gun-shy first timer . . . except maybe for Traveler,” he added under his breath.

“Traveler?” Meg sputtered. “You’ve got to be kidding. You can’t be thinking of putting little Niall up on that mammoth!”

Vic set his fork down with a clanking sound. “I didn’t say that I was thinking of doing anything.”

Niall shifted in her chair uncomfortably in the tension that followed. Vic must have realized that everyone had paused in their eating and glanced at him, because he slowly inhaled and picked up his fork again.

“I just meant that Traveler is the best trained of the lot. He’d hold steady with a freight train barreling at him.”

“If you were on his back telling him to,” Donny conceded after a thoughtful moment. “But only until the last second before impact. He’d never let Vic get hurt,” the boy added as an aside to Niall.

Niall had caught a glimpse of Vic on Traveler on several occasions, and she had to agree. She’d never seen a man and a beast look so natural and graceful together. She smiled at Donny warmly. They’d been forming a close friendship, and Niall got the impression that the teenager wanted to share something that he knew about and enjoyed with her, just as she’d begun to do by opening up the world of art to him.

“I appreciate you thinking about me, Donny. I do,” she said. “But as much as I have to admit there is a certain appeal to the idea, I somehow don’t think God meant for me ever to get on the back of a horse.”

She felt Vic’s eyes on her as Donny opened his mouth to protest.

“But I think you’d get along great with Velvet. Maybe if—”

“Donny, just let it go,” Vic muttered with exasperation. There was just enough of an edge in his voice to silence Donny for the time being.

The following Friday Vic never showed up at the farm. Niall tried to tell herself that it didn’t matter—which was ridiculous, because it clearly did. A panic rose in her chest every time she considered that her stay on the farm was nearly half over and Vic still hadn’t spoken a dozen words to her since her second day there. And she had a sinking suspicion that he was spending time in another woman’s bed. What if he continued to shut her out, as he’d done to Jennifer Atwood so successfully? Was it past time for her to start accepting that their affair was a finished chapter, at least in Vic’s opinion?

Meg said it was too hot to cook, so Tim invited Niall and her to an Italian restaurant in El Paso that Friday evening. It had been the hottest day of the summer so far, and the evening didn’t appear to be cooling things off much. Niall came downstairs at their agreed-upon time for departure, and met Tim and Meg in the kitchen.

“What?” she asked Meg, her eyes widening in slight alarm when Meg unsuccessfully suppressed laughter at her appearance and Tim’s blue eyes sparkled with amusement.

“We’re not going to the The Ritz, Niall. It’s a little mom-and-pop place in El Paso,” Meg chuckled.

“Well, that’s what I thought,” Niall replied, looking perplexed.

“You’re wearing a dress, high heels, and pearls!” Meg supplied the obvious since Niall didn’t seem to see it.

She looked down, confused that her clothing would be the source for Tim and Meg’s amusement. “I’m wearing a cotton sundress and a pair of sandals. It’s scorching outside.”

“What about your hair?” Tim teased as he made some swirling motions around his head to signify her upswept hairdo. Meg snorted at his masculine fumbling.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake . . . there. Are you happy?” she asked with mock disgust as she pulled out the single clip that held up her hair and tossed it into her purse. It was one of the most informal of hairstyles, as Meg very well knew! Only a man would think it was fancy because it was up on her head. “A sundress is just as casual as a pair of jeans,” she reminded Meg as they headed out the back door. “And I only wore the pearls because . . .”

She stopped abruptly mid-sentence. Niall hadn’t worn her pearls since coming to the farm. But maybe her melancholy over missing Vic made her reach for them tonight. He’d always told her how much he liked it when she wore her pearls. And of course there had been that one time . . .

The charged memory of Vic looking up at her with hot eyes and a slow smile as he held up her pearls swamped her awareness.