Page 88 of Wicked Burn

“Niall? What are you doing?” Vic asked as he slowly sat up to watch her, an expression of bemusement on his face.

Niall swallowed heavily, willing the bitter taste from her mouth. “You said . . .” She cleared her throat when she realized how hoarse she sounded. “You said that you were going to give those things to me last Christmas?” she asked as she bent and retrieved her pajama top.

Vic’s chin shifted to the items on the bedside table, including the little yellow butterfly, which she’d removed before going to the bathroom.

“Yeah,” Vic said slowly after a moment, a wary expression settling on his features.

Niall nodded quickly as she buttoned her pajama top with trembling fingers. “That’s what I thought you said.” Tears gathered in her eyes so rapidly that she kept her head lowered, not wanting Vic to see them.

That was it. That was what had been eating at her. She knew it was stupid. She knew Vic would never understand. But she felt so raw at that moment, so opened up, so vulnerable . . . so uncertain.

He’d bought her sex toys for Christmas.

He’d bought her sex toys during what she’d considered the most intimate, romantic time of their burgeoning relationship. When she thought of what she’d planned to give him for Christmas, a rush of mortification surged through her.

She’d endlessly researched online and finally found something at an auction house that she thought was worthy of him and that he might really cherish—a monogrammed ink pen that had once belonged to Arthur Miller. Vic had told her before how much he admired the American playwright.

Could there be anything that better symbolized the truth of how Vic must really feel about her?

God, she’d made such a fool of herself coming here, intruding on his personal space when he’d made it clear he didn’t want her there—

“What’s wrong? Niall.”

But for once she ignored her instinctive urge to respond to Vic completely. She never even flinched as she jogged barefoot toward the farmhouse, on the gravel turnabout, several seconds later. Her inner pain utterly consumed her entire awareness.

Vic sagged into one of the tall, supple leather chairs at the elegant bar of Toulouse several days later, feeling completely defeated.

Damn it all, if Niall wasn’t back to being as elusive as ever. She wasn’t answering her cell phone. She wasn’t at her loft in Chicago—or if she was, she didn’t pick up when the doorman rang her several times at Vic’s request. He’d never actually been inside Niall’s personal office in the museum, but he’d met her a few times in the more public work space where her administrative assistant, Kendra Phillips, worked. He’d met Kendra on those occasions, but the vivacious blonde’s desk was empty when Vic showed up that afternoon. Thinking she most likely was at lunch, he’d wandered down to the upscale restaurant housed inside the museum in order to think.

As to what the hell had happened two nights ago in his bedroom . . . Vic was still busy puzzling that one out. When he’d watched Niall come out of the bathroom, a flicker of panic had gone through him when he registered the expression on her face. Had he hurt her physically? He’d been far from gentle with her there at the end, but she’d seemed just as eager and wild for the ride as he was. The realization that he might have harmed her caused a wrenching sensation in his gut.

Then she’d asked that question about the sex toys, and his uncertainty had spiraled into confusion, which eventually progressed into a vortex of regret. What had made him pull sex toys out of the closet at that moment, for Christ’s sake?

He’d hardly left her feeling secure with their relationship, after all.

You told her the only relationship that existed between you was a sexual one. You told her that what had happened between you before was a brief, nearly forgettable relationship of convenience , he reminded himself bitterly. Not a brilliant move before subjecting her to the type of sex that requires the deepest form of trust. What’s more, why had he done such a thing right after she’d revealed something as intimate as the fact that she’d had a child . . . that she’d lost a child?

All in all, Vic was starting to understand all too well why Niall had fled up to her room the other night and come downstairs several minutes later, fully dressed. He’d tried to stop her, but in the end there’d been nothing he could do but watch her get in her car and pull out of the driveway—unless he bodily restrained her.

He’d tried to reach her on her cell phone several times yesterday and this morning, only to grow sick with frustration every time he heard her recorded voice repeat the same lines over and over again.

Vic had been talking with an equally concerned Meg on Sunday evening when the phone rang in the kitchen. The way that Meg glanced at him immediately when she answered gave him his first clue that Niall was on the other end of the line. He’d approached Meg and held out his hand tensely, but Meg had just shaken her head as she spoke to Niall.

When she said good-bye and hung up before Vic could grab the phone, he had stared at her in open-mouthed shock.

Damn if he’d ever be able to understand women! First Meg was pushing Niall on him when he wasn’t ready, and now she was leashing him when he was straining at the bit to talk to her.

“What’d you do that for? You knew I wanted to talk to her,” he’d accused incredulously.

“I know, Vic . . . but she said . . . she said she was fine. She . . .” Meg had swallowed and glanced away uncomfortably. “She said she didn’t want to talk to you right now.”