Her little boy . . . her precious little boy.
She cried softly while the storm wreaked havoc outside. Right before she fell asleep, she had the thought that it was better to cry for Michael awake than in her dreams. Mourning in her nightmares always had such a painful, panicked quality to it.
But tonight—despite everything that had happened with Vic—once she’d had her cry, Niall slept restfully, without dreams.
The sun rose the next morning on a fresh, ethereal world.
“What’s got you in such a perky mood this morning?” Meg asked as they carried plates and glasses to the breakfast table. Donny walked into the kitchen as Niall was distributing plates.
“How could I not be in a good mood? It’s absolutely gorgeous outside today. Hi, Donny, I didn’t know you slept over last night.”
Donny shrugged as he shuffled over to the refrigerator, still looking half asleep. “The cops were over at my house last night,” he mumbled. “All those flashing red lights sort of make sleeping difficult.”
Niall and Meg exchanged a pointed glance. “What were the cops doing there?” Niall asked.
“Busting my brother Jake for armed robbery,” Donny said dully. He uncapped the milk jug and started filling glasses in a listless fashion.
“I thought Jake was in Pontiac,” Meg said, referring to the prison.
“He got out last week. Guess he missed it, cuz it didn’t take him long to buy a ticket back,” Donny said with a mirthless grin.
“Well, shit,” Meg muttered, shedding her principal persona in her compassion for what the boy had to endure on a regular basis.
“Yeah,” Donny agreed, giving the impression that he thought Meg’s description was pretty much dead-on. “Hey, Tim,” he said a second later when Meg’s husband came into the kitchen. “I saw Vic taking off on Traveler just now, so I guess he’s not eating,” Donny informed them.
Niall’s heart seemed to grow heavier in her chest at Donny’s casual statement. Was Vic back to ignoring her again so quickly? She took a deep, fortifying breath, determined not to be conquered by her fears and insecurities on such a glorious morning.
During breakfast Donny mentioned that he was going to be exercising some of the horses in the corral.
“Are you going to exercise Velvet?” Niall asked.
Donny nodded as he shoved a spoonful of oatmeal in his mouth.
“Well, maybe I could come out and watch—sort of meet her.” She paused when she saw Donny’s surprised expression. “Velvet is the one that you said maybe I could try to ride, isn’t it?”
Donny swallowed rapidly. “Yeah, but I thought you were too scared to try and ride.”
“Well, let’s take things a step at a time,” Niall said with a nervous laugh. “I’m not promising anything, but maybe if Velvet and I could get used to each other . . . Well, we’ll see.”
“Awesome,” Donny muttered before he started shoveling his oatmeal into his mouth with notably increased energy and enthusiasm.
Meg caught Niall’s eye and winked. Niall’s cheeks grew slightly hot at her friend’s subtle acknowledgment that she knew what Niall was doing. Niall supposed it was a small enough sacrifice to make in order to lift Donny out of his gloomy mood.
Or at least she thought that until she was standing outside the corral fence later, watching Donny send Velvet through her paces. Velvet was a beautiful, sleek mare that Niall supposed was rather small and delicate when it came to the average size of horses in general.
But the soft-eyed creature had looked absolutely enormous when Donny had brought her over to the fence a moment ago. The horse’s nervous prancing at being restrained when she’d just been running free a moment ago evoked an old, unnamed terror in Niall. She knew logically that she was perfectly safe, but she’d still been uncommonly relieved when Donny turned the mare’s head for another turn about the corral.
She put her arms up on the highest rung of the fence and watched as Velvet took a small jump at Donny’s urging. It was amazing how much she enjoyed observing the beautiful animal in action when it was at a distance versus within feet of her. She didn’t want to disappoint Donny, but she was doubtful that she’d ever conquer her fear sufficiently to be able to get on a horse’s back.
The storm last night had broken the hot spell. The temperature was currently in the low seventies, and the sun felt pleasant on her back and neck. She grew so comfortable and drowsy watching Donny and Velvet that she didn’t notice the muted sound of a horse’s hooves approaching in the grass behind her. A familiar voice called to her.
Niall turned around, blinking in disorientation into the bright sunlight that was partially blocked by an enormous dark shadow.
“Give me your hand.”
She reached up instinctively, before conscious thought struck her brain. She rocketed through the air abruptly, as if on a jet-propelled elevator. Strong hands gripped beneath her armpits.
And the next thing she knew, she was sitting on an enormous horse between Vic’s long, muscular thighs.
He chirruped softly and flicked the reins with a subtle movement of his wrist.
“Oh!” Niall muttered in amazement when Traveler turned around and headed back toward the barn. For a second she felt her world tottering off balance, but then Vic’s thighs tightened around her and his left arm rose to encircle her waist, anchoring her in place. Niall heard a loud whoop in the distance and dared to turn her head slightly toward the corral. Donny was waving and laughing as he raced Velvet in their direction.