Page 8 of Wicked Burn

But he could ignore reality for only so long.

Vic’s muscles clenched so rigidly it felt like they would break. He muttered a foul curse and pushed himself up into a sitting position.

“You should go.”

He heard her panting breath cease abruptly at his harsh statement, but he didn’t relent. He couldn’t. If he so much as looked at her at that moment, he would undoubtedly live to regret it.

Niall blinked heavily when her good friend Anne Rothman spoke. She felt like she’d been living in a daze for the past week and a half. The din of the crowded restaurant blended into a lulling white background noise. The Art was one of her and Anne’s favorite places to duck in for a quick bite after work. The museum was only blocks away and the Metropolitan Art Institute, where Anne was the Dean of Students, was just two buildings down from the restaurant. They’d come early tonight, so The Art bustled with the pre-theater crowd.

“I thought that salad was your favorite thing on The Art’s menu,” Anne managed between bites of seafood linguine. She pointed her fork at the enormous, untouched salad that sat in front of Niall. “Eat, girl! You look like you’ve lost five pounds since you came back from Tokyo, and you couldn’t afford to lose one ounce.” She shoved another forkful of pasta into her mouth. “You were gone for only a week. What . . . did you catch a bug or something?”

“No, of course not,” Niall replied as she picked up a heavy silver salad fork and unfolded a linen napkin. “I was just really busy getting things ready for the exhibit, that’s all.” She referred to her job as the Curator of the Department of Nineteenth Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art. She traveled quite a bit for her job, viewing collections everywhere in the world and negotiating for pieces for the exhibitions she planned. Her trip to Tokyo had been unusual in that her main contact hadn’t been with a museum, but with a wealthy industrialist who owned a vast collection of Cezanne, Picasso, and Vollard paintings.

“That was quite a coup for you to get those paintings lent for the exhibit, wasn’t it?” Anne asked as she tore apart a steaming roll.

“Yes. Most of Nakamura’s paintings haven’t been shown publicly in almost half a century. I could have done an exhibit with his collection alone. As it is, the addition of his paintings is going to make the show in April spectacular. Mac is thrilled,” she admitted, referring to her boss, Alistair McKenzie.

Both women looked up when the waiter asked them if they needed anything. Anne ordered another glass of wine, but Niall had hardly touched her first glass.

“So what’s wrong, then?” Anne asked once the waiter left, threading his way through the crowd in order to get to the bar. Before Niall had the chance to answer, Anne leaned forward in the booth. “Did you go to Evergreen Park? Is that why you’re so preoccupied?”

“No. I just got back from Tokyo yesterday morning. I’m just a little jet-lagged, that’s all,” Niall answered evasively.

“Has there been any change in his condition?”

Niall chewed her food slowly, not overly eager to start this line of conversation at the moment . . . never eager to do so. That was why so few of her acquaintances knew much about her past. But she’d been close with Anne since the older woman had been her advisor back when they both were at Northwestern, Niall as a graduate student and Anne as a professor.

She took a small sip of wine before she spoke.

“Have you forgotten that I’m no longer in a position to get regular updates?”

“I’m too thrilled about it to have forgotten. I just thought I recognized that expression on your face,” Anne said grimly.

Niall set down her wine glass and sighed. “Apparently it’s going to take a while before everyone else gets used to the fact. Evergreen Park did call yesterday. There’s been another relapse. Dr. Fardesh decided to make another significant medication change.”

Anne winced slightly. “Again? You know as well as I do, Niall, that he’s got to want to get better.” She took a drink of her ice water, trying to calm her overwhelming urge to vent her personal opinion on the matter fully. Niall had heard it before, and she didn’t need to hear it again.

“I hope this doesn’t change your mind about your decision,” Anne said cautiously.

Niall’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “No. I’ve made up my mind. Nothing has changed since we spoke a month ago,” she finally said in a low voice.

Anne reached out and covered Niall’s hand with her own. “You’re doing the right thing, Niall. You’ll get through this, whether you have your parents’ blessing or not.” Anne couldn’t help but give an irritated frown at this juncture. How Niall’s parents thought they were being supportive of their daughter with their actions was beyond Anne’s comprehension. “I don’t know how you’ve done it, honey. It’s just not possible for someone to exist the way you have for these last few years.”

Niall laughed softly. “Exist? Trust me, Anne, millions of people on this earth exist, and even thrive under conditions exponentially worse than you or I could ever imagine. I’m existing just fine, thank you.”

“You’re right,” Anne said with her professorial stern look. “I shouldn’t have said exist. I should have said live. You can’t call what you’ve been doing since Michael’s death and what Stephen pulled afterwards living.”

Niall took a slow inhale of air to calm the effects of the unexpected blow of hearing her son’s name spoken out loud. She really needed to get better at this. She wanted so much to be able to hear Michael’s name, to speak it and be able to remember the wonderful things—the sweet baby smell of his neck that still hadn’t completely dissipated at age four, the serious and thoughtful expression on his face as he drew with a crayon in one hand and held a purple popsicle to his mouth with the other, the sound of his laughter . . .