Plausible Deniability

no small talk

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The ride to her house is nearly silent. Aila rests her head on Niall’s shoulder and thinks about everything that has happened this week. The terror she felt while stuck in that hotel room is gone, leaving only a lingering memory. She knows it may happen again—she would be surprised if it didn’t—but Niall proved he would come for her.

And now she knows the truth. She is aware of just who he is. Instead of frightening her, it reassures Aila that she will always be safe, even when in danger.

“Be careful, darling,” he murmurs against her temple, lips pressing the words into her skin. The doors unlock with a thunking sound, but Niall’s hand stays wrapped around hers.

“I will. I really, really don’t want a repeat of the last three weeks.”

“Weeks?”

Aila pauses, staring at him with wide eyes. She forgot she hasn’t told him about being watched so heavily. His eyes narrow as he lifts a brow. Demanding an answer. An explanation.

“I’ve felt like someone’s been following me since you came back,” she finally admits.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

She shrugs and fidgets in her seat. They really should buckle up whenever they’re in the car. It’s hazardous if they don’t. He clears his throat, and her gaze darts back to his face.

“You weren’t talking to me. I thought maybe I was just being paranoid, and I didn’t want to annoy you. You’d made it clear you were done with me, I thought.”

A growl escapes him, and his grip tightens around her wrist. Too tight—too painful. Anger spurs his actions. “We could’ve stopped what happened if you’d just fucking told me. I don’t give a damn if we aren’t on speaking terms. You tell me if you feel like your life is in danger, no matter how annoying you think you are.”

“Let go of me,” she whispers, but her voice doesn’t shake. It’s steady, cold as he’s ever been toward her. He releases her quickly. “You ever grab me like that again, I’ll kick your ass all the way around the world. I’ll even stop in for a spot of tea with your parents while I’m at it.”

His mouth opens, but Aila is already out of the car. She’s sure she isn’t imagining Liam and Mully laughing from the front seat. Hands trembling, she slams the door behind her and strides toward her house. She let him get by with grabbing her face like he had last night. She won’t let him do it again.

Willow glances up from her magazine when Aila walks in. “Hey! You live!”

“I live.” Aila forces a laugh, though she feels anything but amused. “Just needed some space to clear my head.”

“Yeah, your friend from work told us about the fight. Everything okay?”

Aila plops down onto the couch next to Willow and nods. “Yeah, miscommunication and overreactions don’t go well together. We’re fine now, though. I even stayed the night with him last night.”

Willow waggles her eyebrows, nudging Aila. “I’m sure that was a very pleasant time making up.”

“Almost makes me wanna fight with him all the time,” laughs Aila as she shakes her head. “Anyway. Where are the others?”

“Paze and Chey are at work, and I think Angel is with her boyfriend.”

“She’s been over at his a lot lately.”

“Yeah, but can we really blame her?” Willow shrugs and reaches for the next magazine, a model staring from the cover with a harsh-cut bob. “She likes sex. He likes sex. They’re bound to be having a lot of it.”

“Think she’s gonna move out?”

“Nah. His place isn’t big enough. You saw it, it’s the size of a matchbox. He’ll probably end up moving in here.”

“Great, nights should be easy to sleep through.”

Willow’s loud, drawn-out yawn fills the room for a long minute, then she glances at Aila. “Aubrey came by looking for Colton. Hear from him lately?”

“Yeah, I ran into her on the street a while ago. She asked me the same thing. I haven’t seen him since we ran into each other at Bobby’s.”

“He’s probably too busy regretting choosing Aubrey over you.”

Aila snorts, letting her head fall back. “Well, he made his bed. He can lie in it. I’ve moved on.”

“And made a damn good upgrade.”

“Oh, shut up. Niall and I haven’t been dating that long.”

“Don’t care. You’re happier than I’ve seen you in a long time, Aila. Like, you weren’t even this happy when Colt moved back from Tarris or when he proposed.”

“That’s true. Wills, you’d give me the truth, right?” At Willow’s low hum, Aila draws in a breath, fingers playing with the hem of her shirt. “Do you think I’m moving too fast with him? I mean, you’ve seen how it’s been since we met.”

“What I think is your heart knows what it wants, even through the ups and downs. Sure, the relationship may implode like a nuclear bomb, but can you really look me in the eye and tell me Niall doesn’t make you happy?”

“No, I guess not. Even when we weren’t talking, he was all I could think about.”

“And he hunted you down to apologise this last time, right?”

You have no idea. “Yeah, he did.”

Willow slaps Aila’s thigh with a wide smile. “Then shut up and accept you fell stupid for this guy.”

“Are you sure?”

“As sure as I’m certain pink is my colour.”

“Yeah, you’re the only person I know who can wear pink and not look like an underfed pig on two feet.”

Willow blinks owlishly, magazine going neglected in her hand, then she cocks her head. A lock of dark hair slips free from her ponytail. “I... think that was a compliment? So thank you.”

There’s someone new at the Northend when Aila walks through the door an hour later. He beams, waving jauntily, before taking the plates from the service window. His light brown hair is pulled back into a low ponytail, his deep olive skin highlighted by the chandeliers hanging overhead.

“Where’s Nathaniel?” she asks as she steps up to the podium. Marian isn’t supposed to be working tonight.

Marian grunts in response, continuing to count the bills in the till. “Called in the other day and said he quit.”

Aila frowns and checks the assignment chart for her section. Why would Nathaniel quit? As much of a creep as he could be, he enjoyed his position as manager. Aila hadn’t really known him well—their shifts rarely overlapped—but even she knew of his glee at being in charge. Shaking her head, she heads off toward her station and gets to work.

He isn’t worth her thoughts, and she has a job to do.

The next two weeks pass in a blur. She works mornings at La Serene and spends her evenings in the Northend. The new guy, Chris, is on shift every time she is. He keeps her laughing, not letting her dwell on the rude customers, and walks with her to the station. It isn’t until five days after she meets him that she notices the scar along his neck. She doesn’t ask.

She ignores her mother’s calls. She knows why Priscilla is trying to contact her, and Aila cannot handle another argument about Colton. She’s much better off without him. He broke her heart, and now she’s found someone more able to love her properly.

Though she tries to split her time evenly, Aila finds herself spending more nights in Niall’s bed than in her own. He isn’t there every night, but it’s comforting enough to fall asleep in bedsheets that smell like him. She has yet to see him come home as injured as he was that night so long ago. For that, she’s thankful beyond words. Knowing is far different than seeing.

The bartender grins when Aila slips onto a stool and immediately sets about making a drink. “Been a while.”

“Yeah, hard to come to a bar when you’re working two jobs to keep your head above water.”

“Oh, trust me. I understand completely.” He slides her drink to her then rests his elbows on the bar. “Before I got here, I worked sixteen-hour days in a factory.”

“That sounds... fucking awful, if I’m being honest.”

“It was. Why do you think I moved here? Heard employment was about a hundred times better.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.” Aila swallows her mouthful of vodka and holds out a hand. “I’m Aila, by the way.”

He laughs, shaking her hand. His fingers are rough, large against hers. His summer-tanned skin turns hers paler. “Ivan.”

“Five second warning,” someone mutters in her ear, and it’s only because of Ivan’s friendly smile that she doesn’t immediately lash out. Zayn drops onto the stool next to her. “Niall’s parents are here, and his mum just cleaned the others of everything but their clothes. She’s oddly skilled at poker.”

Aila nods slowly as Ivan walks away, and a smile tugs at her lips. “I appreciate the heads-up.” Pausing, she runs her finger along the rim of her glass and stares at the television in the corner. “I... I never thanked you lot, did I?”

“For what?”

“For coming for me,” she says, voice quiet but he hears it anyway. He leans closer; the dim lights catch on his dark eyes, shining brightly. She remembers when they were dangerous.

“We always will, Aila.”

“I don’t know why. I’ve not done anything.”

“Love, open your eyes,” he chuckles. “You make the idiot happy, and you’re still here after he’s told you. That’s enough.”

“Yeah, well, someone who actually belonged with you lot wouldn’t have gotten abducted like that.” She shakes her head when his mouth opens. “Just thinking about how close I came to dying without ever making up with him.”

“If it matters at all, I’m glad you’re still alive.”

“Thought you didn’t trust me?”

“That might be changing. Might,” he stresses, poking her cheek when she giggles.

“I’ll take it.”

Zayn laughs and taps his beer bottle against her glass. She shakes her head, sipping at her drink while turning back to the match. She has no idea which teams are playing, but it’s something to focus on other than the fact Niall’s parents are here. In this bar. Just in the other room.

“You must be Aila.”

Zayn gives her a look drenched in meaning then disappears. Traitor, she thinks before turning to face the woman behind her. Blonde hair, kind eyes. Aila sees Niall in the woman’s face.

“Depends on who’s asking, doesn’t it?”

The woman regards Aila with a raised brow, but then a smile pastes itself to her lips. “Oh, pet, it’s wonderful to finally meet you. Niall has spoken very highly of you.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Uh, wanna sit?”

“Thank you, dear.” The woman takes Zayn’s place, gesturing toward Ivan. “I’m Maura.”

“You’re his mother.”

“I am. Thank you, Ivan.”

“You’ve done a wonderful job raising him.”

“I appreciate your words, Aila. It means a lot that you’d find him acceptable. I don’t think, if I can be honest, that I’ve ever seen my son quite so mixed up over someone before in his life.”

Aila snorts into her glass. Niall is far beyond ‘acceptable’—especially now he’s been truthful and isn’t ignoring her. “He had me mixed up, too. Never knew whether we were off or on. Then I stupidly fell for him, so... now here we are.”

“‘Stupidly’?”

“Oh, not because he’s not an amazing man!” Aila rushes to assure Maura. “Because I ignored my better judgement and gave him too many chances when I should have walked away. I, um, I was engaged before. That guy didn’t turn out quite like I hoped. Then Niall came along and convinced me he was different. After a while, anyway.”

Maura nods, patting Aila’s hand. “Yes, he told me he wasn’t sure if you’d forgive him or care for him again. He admitted to quite a lot of wrongdoing when it came to you. How he failed to treat you as you deserve.”

“He’s more than made up for it.”

Someone cheers from further in the back, and Maura rolls her eyes at the interruption. “Just between you and me, love, I know what happened.”

Aila pauses then sets her glass on the bar. The abduction. A shiver runs down her spine at the memory. The fear that kept her awake, the hopes of Niall caring enough to come for her. The trust that he was searching for her. If Maura knows, does that mean Niall’s father knows, too? What would they think of her?

“Don’t worry. Bobby won’t know of it unless Niall tells him. We believe Niall can handle his own business without us micromanaging, so Bobby usually keeps his focus on himself.”

“I never thought Niall wouldn’t come for me,” murmurs Aila, and Maura’s eyes widen slightly. “He... He saved me once when we weren’t speaking. I knew he’d do it again.”

“Well, I’m truly thankful he met you. You’ve changed him.”

“Harry said the same thing.”

Before Maura can reply, the door behind the bar opens. Aila finishes the vodka in her glass as Niall leads the group out into the main room. His jaw unclenches when he spots her at the bar. He gestures for the others to wait then approaches where Aila and Maura sit.

He hugs his mother quickly then turns to Aila. “Sorry, darling. I have some things to take care of.”

“Okay. Stay safe,” she says—pleads—before pulling him in for a kiss. Her hands adjust the way his shirt falls on his back, without thought but full of care.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he whispers against her lips. “I have something to come home to, don’t I?”

One last kiss, then he steps back. He presses a kiss to his mother’s cheek and turns toward the exit. Aila’s chest tightens as she watches him go. Even with her displeasure of not having him by her side, she notices the way the patrons studiously avoid looking at him. Maura rests her hand on Aila’s.

“He’ll be okay. He won’t be as reckless with you in his life.”

“Does it get easier? Watching them go, I mean.”

“Unfortunately not.” Maura grins at Aila’s curse, pushing herself to her feet. “Come with me.”

Ivan passes Aila a fresh drink, and she mutters a ‘thanks’ before following Maura to the back room. A man sits at the table, a ledger in front of him. Aila glances to her right and waves at Yuri who stands guard. His face softens, lips twitching, but immediately turns stoic once more.

“Bobby, this is the lovely young woman who’s stolen our son’s heart.”

“I see.” Bobby closes the ledger and leans back in his seat. His eyes are just as blue as Niall’s but somehow colder. Less trusting. His expression doesn’t change as he scrutinises Aila closely. “You know the truth?”

“He told me.”

“And you’ve stayed.”

She straightens further, drawing on a courage she didn’t know she possessed. Something tells her that her body would never be found if he decides she isn’t worth the air she breathes. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Bobby. That’s enough. Don’t scare the poor girl.” Maura squeezes Aila’s arm and gestures toward the chairs. They sit. “Yuri, be a darling and give us a moment, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Once the door closes behind the guard, Maura sighs. “Aila, I understand he’s confided in you, and I adore you just for staying. For standing by his side, even with the truth. I have to ask, though. Are you certain you can handle this?”

“Yes.” Aila frowns when Bobby only raises a brow across the table, and she clears her throat. “I know it’s going to be terrifying sometimes. I know something can happen to take him away from me. But I think it’s worth it, if only to be with him. He may be cold and ruthless—he has to be, right?—but he isn’t with me. Often, anyway,” she amends before draining her glass of the vodka.

“What do you mean?”

Aila freezes. This is dangerous territory. She’s far too close to letting Bobby know she was taken, and Maura will most likely want to hunt her son down when she learns the truth. Coughing quietly, Aila shifts in her seat and wishes she had more liquor.

“I made a snide comment, and...” She looks between Bobby and Maura. Rip the bandage off, Aila. One fell swoop. Just don’t mention the abduction. “He, um, he grabbed my face to make me look at him so I couldn’t avoid him as he made his point.”

Bobby sits up straighter in his seat. His eyes darken, lips press tightly together. “My boy put his hands on you?”

“No, no, it’s okay. He apologised immediately. He was just— He was worried. And it hasn’t happened again. I told him if it did, I’d kick his ass and come to yours for tea while I was at it.”

Silence reigns. Even the noise from the main room of the bar has died down, or maybe it’s the blood rushing in her ears that muffles sounds. Maura hides a smile with her hand, then Bobby bursts into laughter.

“I suppose you’ll fit in quite nicely. You’ve got a spark about you.”

Aila ignores the warmth in her chest, though she relaxes in her seat. Maybe he doesn’t hate her like she feared. With his parents’ approval, she and Niall can stay together. She chews on the inside of her cheek and asks how everyone got involved.

She should know the history if she is going to be a part of the future.

Maura explains it’s a ‘family business’. The control gets passed through generations, starting with Bobby’s father. Bobby met and began trusting some men who were involved with the lifestyle, and Niall formed friendships with Harry, Louis, Liam, and Zayn. They stayed with him when Niall broke off on his own.

“And it will be passed to Niall’s son or daughter once they’re of age.”

“What about Tania? You’ve not mentioned her.”

Maura sighs as she brushes hair from her face. “Tania is... She’s different. She wasn’t born for this, but she grew up in the real world. She knew what it meant to get your hands dirty—really dirty—and not care they’d never wash clean.”

“What do you know of her history with Niall?” asks Bobby; his voice is low, echoing with judgement.

“Nothing. I haven’t had the courage to ask,” Aila admits.

“She had a job to do. Louis stumbled upon her, learnt of the job, and raised concerns with Niall about the risk she posed. Instead of taking her off the board like he should have done, Niall gave her a chance to escape. He told her if she walked away, he’d keep her safe. She told him to piss off and die because this job would keep her safe. Said no one else could.”

Maura takes over. She doesn’t meet Aila’s eye as she speaks, as she says Niall understood. “He’s known since he was a wee boy what it meant to trust a stranger. Could it be a trap? Could it mean death? All he could do was make sure she knew the offer was still there, even once she completed the job.”

“He let her?” breathes Aila.

“Yes, though it hurt him.”

Aila swallows thickly—what had Tania done? When she asks, Bobby shakes his head. Tells her it’s not their place to say. Tania’s past is her own story to tell. Aila understands. Aila almost doesn’t want to know.

The trio and Yuri go back to the manor an hour later. Maura convinces Aila to stay awake for one more cup of tea, then Aila crawls into Niall’s bed. Alone. Her mind races, fears and worries bumbling over each other. Niall is out there in the city somewhere, and she won’t know if he gets injured until it’s too late.

She somehow manages to fall asleep with her heart in her throat.