Plausible Deniability

of dates and men

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Though her friends demand details of the night she spent with Niall in her bed, Aila refuses to give any. She wants to keep it a secret held close to her chest for as long as possible. And, if she’s being honest, she’s ashamed of how quickly she forgave him after so much back-and-forth in his attention.

He seems to have gotten her point clearly: He sends her a text every morning, making sure to inform her of any meetings he has planned for the day. In return, Aila tells him of her own plans—usually working—and ends each conversation with a ‘Miss you’. It’s stupid and hopeless, but Aila wants this to last.

Friday morning’s text is different.

From: Niall (08:36)
>
What are you doing tomorrow ?

From: Aila (08:37)
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Have to work at the hotel but should be done by 4. Why?

From: Niall (08:39)
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I’ll have Mully pick you up from work

From: Aila (08:40)
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If you’re trying to ask me out on a date, you should probably ASK instead of assuming I’ll just blindly go along with whatever you plan. We’ve not even known each other for 5 months, a lot of which we weren’t talking

From: Niall (08:46)
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You’re right. I’m sorry.
From: Niall (08:46)
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Okay
From: Niall (08:47)
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Aila, would you do the honour of going on a date with me this Saturday?

From: Aila (08:47)
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See how much easier it is when you ask? And yes, I suppose I will (: I’ll be ready to go by 4:30 at the latest

From: Niall (08:48)
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I’ll have Mully pick you up so you can get ready here
From: Niall (08:49)
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Yes it’s easier. I’m not used to this .

From: Aila (08:49)
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What? Asking gorgeous women out? Somehow, I doubt that. I’ll see you tomorrow xx

Aila keeps it to herself that Niall’s asked her on a date. A real date, instead of two stolen hours in her bed. Time to spend getting to know each other beyond the text messages and superficial information. As amazing as it was to learn his body and what sounds he makes as he loses control, she wants to know what makes him happy.

True to Niall’s word, Mully stands in the lobby of La Serene by the time Aila’s shift ends the next afternoon. She waves a goodbye to her coworkers and follows him through the doors. He doesn’t say a word as he holds open the back door to the sleek sedan. Aila used to wonder why he never spoke; now, she can’t find it in her to care.

“Welcome, Miss,” the old man says when Aila steps into the house. “Mister Niall is currently engaged in a meeting, but he wishes you to go upstairs to the guest room to ready yourself.”

“I’ll take her, Robert.”

“Very well, sir.”

Robert bows and strides away on silent footsteps. Aila glances at Mully, cocking her head. She forgot he has an accent identical to Niall’s. They must have grown up together. Her breath hitches when he turns toward her.

“C’mon.” As he climbs the staircase, Aila one step behind, he continues speaking, “Niall has been looking forward to this date. It’s all he’s talked about since he asked you.”

She lets out a breathless giggle—Niall wants this as much as she does? “I’m glad he has, or else this would be a very awkward evening.”

“It’ll do him some good to step away for a bit. Haven’t seen him this busy in a long time.”

“This isn’t going to make things harder for him, is it?”

Mully sighs, coming to a stop outside a familiar room. “Even if it does, he thinks you’re worth it. Do me a favour and prove that you are.”

He gestures her inside and walks away. Aila stares after him, mind racing. He hadn’t said a word to her before now, except to demand she get in his car months ago, and now he’s asking her for a favour? And one that’s almost impossible to fulfil?

Mera gives her a soft smile, gesturing toward the bed. “Mister Niall wasn’t sure what you would like to wear this evening.”

Aila follows the wave of Mera’s hand and gapes. Five dresses have been laid out on the mattress and matching shoes on the floor. She blinks owlishly as she nears the choices. They’re all so beautiful, ranging from casual to far too formal. Her stomach clenches at the mental image of him choosing the dresses. Her gaze meets Mera’s.

“I don’t know which one to pick.”

“No worries, Miss. If I know Mister Niall’s preferences, I suggest this one.”

Mera grabs the hanger of the dress in the middle. Blush-pink and simple, it borders the line of ‘not caring’ and ‘caring too much’. A bow holds the deep neckline together, and bell-shaped sleeves hang at the sides. Aila reaches out to touch the fabric and blows out a breath.

“It’s perfect.”

“Very well, Miss. Would you like some privacy to change?”

“Yes, please.”

Mera dips her chin and exits the room, pulling the door closed behind her. Aila inhales slowly, but her heartbeat doesn’t slow. She has been nervous before—her first date with Colton, telling her parents she was moving to Primden, walking down the aisle in front of family and friends—but all that pales in comparison to what she feels now.

She wipes clammy palms against her slacks and exhales a shaky breath. Heat blooms in her cheeks. Blood roars in her ears as she unbuttons her shirt, letting it drop to the floor, followed by her pants. The dress fits perfectly. It falls midway down her thighs and settles against her skin light as a feather.

Aila slides her feet into the plain black pumps set out then crosses the room to check her reflection in the mirror. Wide blue eyes, lip caught between teeth, reddened cheeks. She hardly resembles a twenty six-year-old woman. More like a frightened child playing dress-up. You can do this.

An open box sits on the vanity, dozens of makeup products arranged just so inside. Aila wonders if they are for her but decides maybe they are. After all, why are they in the room where she’s readying for the date if they aren’t for her use? So she reaches for the mascara and sets about making herself presentable—a face to match the simple beauty of the dress.

A knock echoes through the room, and Aila bites back a squeak of surprise before calling for the person to enter. Mera steps inside with a soft smile.

“Forgive me for being so bold, Miss, but Mister Niall will love seeing you in that dress.”

Aila turns back to the mirror. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Has… has he ever said anything about me?”

“I’m only staff, Miss. He rarely speaks to us.” Mera hesitates then approaches Aila. Her voice lowers to barely above a whisper. “But I have overheard him speaking to Mister Sean and Miss Tania about how to best apologise to you and show he cares for you.”

Aila chews on the inside of her cheek as the other woman’s words sink into her mind. Finally, she turns toward Mera and smiles, though it wobbles on her lips. Mera stares back, her brown eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun streaming in through the windows.

Mera stands just below Aila’s chin, dainty and delicate-looking, and her thin lips quirk under the scrutiny. Her hair has been pulled back into a walnut-coloured bun. The linen dress she wears denotes her station. She clasps her hands together in front of her, lifting her narrow chin.

“Robert will lead you to the car, Miss. And if I may say so, I hope you enjoy your evening.”

“Thanks, Mera. I hope I do, too.”

Robert stands just outside the bedroom when Aila pulls the door open. He gives a small bow then pivots on his heel. Aila keeps her gaze trained on the sheen of his silver hair, the stiff curve to his shoulders. She wonders how long he’s worked for Niall—if he’s watched Niall grow from a boy to man.

Other staff members cross through in the foyer, ducking into rooms on either side. Aila watches a child dart out of the first room to the right as his giggles sound over the squeak of shoes on marble. His blond curls bounce atop his head, and bright eyes shine over rosy cheeks. Robert clears his throat, reminding Aila of what she’s meant to be doing, and she hurries to follow him through the front doors.

She has just slid into the backseat when Niall comes striding out of the mansion. His brows draw together over his eyes, face set into a scowl, as Tania speaks. Aila watches them come nearer, heart in her throat. What if Tania is trying to talk him out of the date?

But then Niall is next to her, and Tania storms back inside. He leans over to kiss her cheek before his knuckles slip beneath her chin, turning her head toward him. The kiss he presses to her lips is soothing, so unlike the ones from the other night.

“You look beautiful, darling,” he whispers as he pulls back.

“Thank you. You do, too.”

He grins and strokes her cheek with his thumb. Turning toward the door, he ducks his head to peer up at Robert. “Make sure they don’t burn down the house. And don’t worry, I’ll have her home before the carriage turns into a pumpkin.”

“Very good, sir. After all, gourds rarely make for appropriate vehicles despite what the Fairy Godmother would have you think.”

Robert steps back and pushes the door closed. Aila giggles as the driver puts the car in gear.

“Robert’s sassy, I see.”

“Yes, he can be. He’s quite taken with you, by the way.”

“What do you mean?”

“He thinks you’re a good influence. He especially likes that you don’t tolerate my shite. He may have implied too often over the years that I’m impulsive and stubborn.”

“Is he really wrong, though?” Another soft laugh when he pins her with an exasperated look. She kisses away the irritation—real or fake—then settles against him. “Anyway, you’ve... You've gotten away with a lot more than I thought you would.”

“Robert doesn’t need to know that.”

Aila bites her bottom lip as she rests her head on his shoulder. His hand rests on her knee, fingers pressing firmly into her skin—a point of contact she clings to so she doesn’t fall headfirst into the doubts. He could always change his mind about her, and she’ll be the one left hurt. The one who has to put together her heart, at least the pieces she has given him. She must not have truly learnt her lesson after Colton.

But he’s solid and calm next to her. Aila lets herself believe he is as real as he feels, even with the thunderhead crowding the edges of her subconscious. Closing her eyes, she breathes in the scents of leather, smoke, and spiced cologne. She has to believe this is real, or else she is wasting her time. Begging for her heart to break.

She is making a mistake.

The car comes to a stop outside a restaurant Aila could never dream of stepping foot in, not even to use their toilets. She pushes away from Niall, although reluctant to put distance between them. The driver shifts in the front seat, but Niall waves him off.

“I’ve got it, Vincent.”

“Yes, sir.”

He helps Aila out of the backseat then rests his hand on her lower back as he guides her toward the door. The maître d’ blinks owlishly—just for a second—before composing himself. Greeting them warmly, he leads the couple to a booth toward the back.

Niall doesn’t let Aila sit across from him, instead pulling her to take a seat at his side. She bites her lower lip even as she sits close enough she can feel the heat coming from his body.

Aila frowns a few minutes, mouth closing in the middle of her story about Angel taking a nosedive into the lake. “Is everything okay?”

“Hm? Yeah.” He sighs and runs a finger along the rim of his glass. “No. I, well, I have to go back home for a bit.”

“Oversees divisions not doing so hot?”

It’s meant to be a joke, something to lighten the mood. But he doesn’t smile or laugh. He doesn’t even deny it. A lump forms in her throat, and her chest fills with a hollow tension. Nodding slowly, she blows out a breath.

“Oh. Okay. That’s fine. I mean, companies don’t run themselves, right? So of course you’d have to check in every once in a while. How long?”

“Fuck if I know. Could be anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks.”

“Well, let’s hope it isn’t a couple months.”

He leans in closer while his arm settles on her shoulders. His free hand drops to her thigh, fingers pressing firmly into her skin. “If it is, I’ll just kidnap you so I can have you all to myself,” he whispers before kissing her cheek, jaw, the patch of skin beneath her ear that sends shivers down her spine. His crooked grin against her skin tells her he noticed her reaction.

“You—you can’t do that,” she manages to reply, though her voice is far too shaky for such a public setting. “Might piss off my roommates.”

“I’m selfish, though. What do I care about them?”

“You’re not selfish enough to make my life hard.”

“Hmm, I suppose not.” A shoe scuffs against tile under the table, and his knee presses to hers. His breath ghosts along her skin as he whispers, “But fuck, it would be nice.”

A mental image floats unbidden to the surface of her mind—the memory of his body beneath hers, the strength in his thighs as he pushed himself deeper into her. The way the hair on his chest had scraped against her skin while she kissed him, fucked him to completion. Aila stifles a whimper as heat pools in her gut.

“So how did you meet them?” Niall asks, pulling away, as if the bastard doesn’t know what he’s done to her. “I don’t think you’ve told me.”

Aila swallows the disappointment when his touch leaves her body. Cold washes over her skin, but she ignores it in favour of telling him about Angel being her saviour after her relationship imploded. How Cheyenne, Paisley, and Willow were already living in the house by the time Aila moved in. He chuckles when she recounts the difficulties of learning to live with each other.

“So you lot are close?”

“Yep.” Aila takes a sip of her wine, determinedly not looking at him as she hooks her foot around his. “Kinda gotta be when you share bedrooms. It took a while, but now Paze can come home at two in the morning and I won’t even wake up. Willow drags us to clubs, Cheyenne makes sure we eat, Angel keeps us in high spirits, and Paisley and I show our bleeding hearts by volunteering.”

“You volunteer?”

She scowls at the surprise in his voice. “Yes. Not that shocking, is it?”

“No. I mean, it is a bit. Didn’t figure you’d have the time.”

“I make the time. It isn’t much, but we help serve food at homeless shelters. It’s more than they have, so why not give what I can?” She chances a look at his face, blinking stupidly in the affection there. The tender edges to his smile. “Anyway, what about you? Your friends?”

Niall pauses and turns his gaze to the tabletop. A darkness encroaches, threatens to turn into a storm in his eyes, but then it’s gone. He smiles and wraps his arm around her shoulders again.

“We grew up together. Our parents knew each other, so they forced us into close contact until we bonded. It seems to have worked.”

Aila’s lips tug down. This is all he’s giving her? It isn’t enough to fill a matchbook, let alone satiate her want to know more. Before she can say anything, the server approaches with a tray balanced on one palm.

The woman gives them a tremulous smile as she sets the plates down. “Hi. So sorry about the wait.”

Niall checks his watch and opens his mouth. Aila lays her hand on his arm, pinning him with a look she hopes tells him to shut up. His mouth closes. He nods and sits back in his seat. She considers it a win and grins up at the server.

“Not a problem. It gave us a chance to talk, so thank you.”

The server stares with wide eyes before squeaking as she turns away. Aila watches her go then shakes her head. Pinching Niall’s arm lightly, she releases her grip on him to reach for her fork.

“You should be nicer to waitstaff.”

“I tip well,” he protests, and Aila rolls her eyes.

“That may be, but I’m certain you contribute to high turnover rates of every restaurant around. I’m not saying be a complete pushover,” she says when he tries to argue. “I’m just saying a bit of manners goes a long way. How would you feel if I came to you complaining about someone being a dick to me while I was working?”

He ducks his head, cheeks burning pink, and mutters, “It would be the last thing they ever did.”

“Just... Be less aggressive toward people who are just doing their job, okay? And don’t murder anyone on my behalf,” she laughs—a threat built with no verity, it amuses her. “I can’t have that on my conscience.”

He snorts and drains his wineglass. When he looks at her, his eyes are full of something she can’t read. A challenge, perhaps? “You’d never know.”

“I’m not completely stupid, Niall. I think I’d notice someone suddenly never being around.”

As she says it, though, a nagging sensation floods through her. She can’t make out what it attempts to tell her, and her mind doesn’t care to figure it out. It screams for her to learn more about Niall. So Aila pushes away the warning creeping up her spine.

“I promise not to kill anyone on your behalf,” he finally mumbles before stabbing an asparagus stalk. The motion is smooth, well-practised.

She giggles, leaning over to kiss his cheek. “Thank you, love. My conscience and I appreciate it.”

Now that he’s warned her of his departure from Primden, Niall opens up more. His attention stays fully on her, and he asks question after question about her life. Her friends. Her family. She answers them all as truthfully as possible, even the enquiries about her relationship with her parents.

It’s easier, she thinks, to forget how often he’s ignored her when she has his undivided attention like this. It’s almost enough to make her start thinking that being with him could always be like this.