Plausible Deniability

ink on skin

Over the next week, Aila manages to forget about the mansion, the rude guard who tried to make her walk home, and the man who’d been a saviour no matter how rude he was. There is too much in her brain already, so she uses her two jobs as an excuse to occupy her mind.

Her friends have tried to cheer her up, distract her from the pain she’s felt for the last two months. It hasn’t worked. How is Aila supposed to just brush off the fact that her ten-year relationship ended abruptly? Messily and painfully and leaving her with tears and snot on her face, and Colton Irvine perfectly fine?

The worst part, though, was being left at the altar. She’d stood before their families and friends in a gown her mother picked, holding a bouquet her mother picked, and waited for the fiance she loved so much. He never showed. Her face burned with mortification as everyone realised he wasn’t coming. She had been so distraught that she hadn’t noticed Aubrey was no longer in the line of bridesmaids.

A week later, she found out the reason they both abandoned her on her wedding day: Aubrey and Colton had found each other, discarding Aila without a thought for how she would feel. Her fiance had cheated on her for nearly a year, and Aila hadn’t seen the signs. She was too busy trying to plan the wedding while her mother took over every single decision.

“Good riddance,” Angel said before sending a message to Aubrey telling her she had thirty days to get her stuff. She was no longer welcome to live in the three-room house with the rest of them.

Aila steps through the doors of La Serene Hotel, ready to ask for a shift. Russ shakes his head before she can even ask. He scurries out from behind the check-in desk and throws his arm over her shoulders. She plants her feet as he tries to steer her to the door. He sighs.

“Too far into overtime, hun. Sorry.”

“But—”

“Go home. Relax. Trust me, your check will be large enough even without working today.”

Aila pouts and pokes his shoulder. “You used to be cool before you became a big-shot manager.”

“I’m still cool. You just don’t see it because you’re being a brat.”

“Screw you.”

But she’s laughing as she leaves. The cold wind whips around her face, hair swirling and dancing among the snowflakes. She has no idea where to go. Going home doesn’t sound appealing—Cheyenne’s girlfriend is over, and Aila really can’t stand the thought of being around so much lovey-dovey kissing and cuddling. Paisley is at work, and Angel is at the salon so Willow can colour her hair again.

Aila decides to walk around the city. She has lived in East Primden for seven years. Colton had begged her to come with him after she turned eighteen. He’d gotten a job at a manufacturing plant, and he claimed he couldn’t live without her by his side. The six hours between Primden and Tarris were five and a half hours too many, he said. She’d foolishly followed him.

Despite the time here, she hasn’t had the chance to actually see what the city offers. As soon as she and Colton had moved into a tiny little flat near the edge of the city, he was gone for work all the time. She needed something to distract her from the lonely hours, stumbling onto a housekeeping job at La Serene within days. She applied for the position at the Northend a week later.

They lost the flat, Colton moved back to Tarris to live with his parents, and Aila had nowhere to go. Andrew had allowed her to stay in one of the smaller rooms, free of charge, for a week. Then he’d told her she had to go—it was cutting into the profits. Angel, rightfully named, had been a blessing. Though she and Aila never really talked, she’d offered up a room in the house with her friends.

“You’ll have to share, but it’s better than being on the streets.”

Meeting Paisley Hoyle had felt like finding a soulmate. Paisley was ambitious where Aila was content her life as it was. Aila was reserved where Paisley didn’t care what people thought of her. She’d wear whatever struck her fancy, despite the stares she got when walking around. Aila was desperate to fade into the background.

Attention only reminded her of the attention she’d received at the church. When everyone watched her dreams shatter around her.

But over the years, Paisley has helped Aila find more to live for.

Willow Chapman is the ‘party animal’ of the group, often dragging the others to clubs where they can dance and drink the nights away. Cheyenne Berns is the most understanding and responsible one, and that nurturing spirit only grew in intensity once she met her girlfriend six months after Aila moved in.

Angel Walton proved herself to be loyal, even going so far as to hunt Colton down and scream at him about how he lost the most amazing woman he’ll ever find.

Aila never expected Aubrey Geller to help him cheat. Aubrey had been quiet and always quick to lend an ear whenever any of them needed to talk. Even while sleeping with Colton, Aubrey was like a sister to Aila. Aila never saw it coming, two relationships severing with the truth that Colton was taking Aubrey to bed before coming to Aila’s.

Colton spent a year saving up for a new flat, moving back to North Primden. He got his old job at the plant and promised things would be different now. Their relationship picked up where it left off—Aila completely, desperately in love and his promises that turned out to be so empty. She’d told him she refused to move in until a ring was on her finger.

He proposed a week later.

She should’ve seen the signs when all he did was hand her the box with a quick ‘Love you, babe’. When he didn’t seem interested in planning their wedding. When he kept postponing the date until Aila put her foot down.

Now she sees it for what it was—the knowledge that even if she wasn’t living with him, he was still happy enough with Aubrey to keep him satisfied.

Aila is still disgusted at the thought of how many times they’d had sex with Aubrey still on his tongue.

She can’t help but wonder if he’d been as unfaithful during the year apart, despite how often they talked on the phone every day.

She’s halfway through her shift at the Northend when Joseph approaches. Aila sets the bill on the table, telling the patrons to have a wonderful night, before following her manager to the front. He stands behind her and waits for the husband and wife to pay for their meals. Once she’s finished cashing the bill out, she turns to him. A heavy weight settles in her belly—she knows that look.

“What’s up?”

“We’re dead tonight, so why don’t you go on home?”

“It’s only eight, Joe. I’m sure it’ll pick up again.”

“Aila.”

She doesn’t argue further. She merely unties her apron on her way to the break-room. Stuffing the apron and order pad into her oversized purse, she slings the strap over her should and calls out a ‘goodnight’ to Hester and Michel.

The cold air of the night sucks away Aila’s breath. She’d somehow forgotten the low temperatures in the hours spent indoors, moving around and serving tables. She remembers now as the sweat on her skin freezes. She tugs her coat more securely around herself, ambling down the pavement.

The bar is the one place Aila never expected to end up. She stares up at the neon sign—Bobby’s—then pushes open the door. She doesn’t want to get drunk, but she doesn’t want to go home.

The televisions hanging on the grey-painted brick walls catch her attention as soon as she steps inside. Aila frowns, stepping to the side for anyone else who might come in. Her gaze skims over the matches on-screen until one in particular catches her attention. She groans with the rest of the bar-goers when the goalie blocks the shot. Cursing under her breath, disgusted with the score so far, she weaves her way through the tables until she reaches the bar.

The bartender smiles and shakes his black hair from his face. “What can I get ya?”

“Hi, can I get a White Russian? Oh, and a shot of whisky, please.”

His brows furrow, but he dutifully sets about making her drinks. “Celebrating or drowning sorrows?”

“A bit of both,” she admits and winces at the emotion that slips into her voice.

She hadn’t expected to feel anything tonight. She’s done so well with keeping thoughts of Colton and Aubrey out of her mind. But now that he’s asked, the memories surge forward. Aila shakes off the dark cloud that forms over her head, in her gut. The bartender passes over a shotglass, and she mutters a quick “Sláinte”. She swallows the shot in one go then taps the glass to the bar two times. Just like Eoin taught her.

The man slides the mixed drink across the bar to her. She ignores the inquisitive expression on his handsome face. His brown eyes are golden in the lights overhead. She wraps her fingers around the cold glass and turns to examine the available seating. A booth near the window has just cleared out. She thanks the bartender, tosses a bill from her pocket onto the bar, and hurries to the empty seat.

She doesn’t even care that the previous patron’s glasses are still there. She just needed away from the bartender before she made him into her therapist.

“Aila?”

She almost thinks she’s imagined it, the rough scrape of his voice, but then she looks up. Colton stands at the edge of her table, frowning down at her. His eyes are nearly black, the glow of the televisions dancing off his dark skin. He swipes a hand over his cropped hair before sliding onto the empty bench across from her.

“What are you doing here?” he asks. Aila can’t believe his audacity to act as if he hadn’t ripped her heart from his chest.

“What’s it look like?”

Colton sighs, and his long fingers trace the label on his beer. “Can we talk?”

Aila only shrugs as she turns her attention to the disappointing match. Colton pauses then blows out a breath.

“I’m so sorry for what I did. I should never have slept with one of your best friends. It was wrong, and I regret doing it. And for leaving you at the altar in front of everyone. I should’ve talked to you, explained how I was feeling.”

“You cheated on me, Colt. For almost a year. Choosing someone else to sleep with wouldn’t have been any better. But hey, whatever you wanted was all that mattered, right?”

“Damn it, Aila, I’m trying to apologise.”

Before she can say anything, the bartender interrupts. Another drink is in his hand, and Aila blinks down at her empty glass. She hadn’t realised she drank it all so quickly. She smiles up at the man and thanks him.

“Don’t thank me, babe. It came from the guy at the end of the bar.”

Aila’s gaze follows where he points, and her breath hitches. He’s gorgeous. Even with the distance and the low lights, she can see the vivid blue of his eyes, the line of his jaw, the subtle curve to his lips. The broad shoulders her hands itch to run across. He cards his fingers through his dark hair, winking at her when she continues staring.

She raises her glass in thanks then asks the bartender to pass along her gratitude. His gaze cuts to Colton, a slight curl to his lip before he turns away. Aila swallows a giggle. The man has obviously read her ex-fiance well.

“That was fucking disrespectful.”

She stirs the ice in her drink as she levels him with a flat look. “What was?”

“What if you’d been dating me? He would’ve been intruding on our relationship.” His eyes widen. “You’re not going home with him, are you? He’s a stranger, Aila. That’s dangerous.”

She slides out of the booth, grabbing her bag from the seat. Thanking the old Irishman who lived next door for what she’s about to say next, Aila raises a brow at Colton. “Póg mo thóin.You left me. You no longer get a say in who I fuck.”

Colton’s jaw tics, and he opens his mouth to say something. She cuts him off.

“Your stuff is at your parents’. I made sure to take a train the whole six hours to give it back. So… I think we’re done here.”

“The ring?”

“You mean the ring that said you’d spend your life with me?” Aila lets out a mirthless laugh and swallows down her drink. “It’s in one of the boxes of worthless memories you left behind.”

She orders another shot and finishes it quickly. The bartender gives her a reassuring smile as she drops a few bills into the tip jar, and she waggles her fingers before heading outside. Colton calls after her, but she ignores him. It’s no longer the voice she aches to hear.

From: Aila (22:51)
<
When you’re done with work, can you pick me up? I’m at Bobby’s on 7th.

From: Paze (23:02)
>
Great timing, sweet cheeks. Heading out the door now.

Aila drops her phone into her bag and leans against the wall, closing her eyes. How could this have become her life? All the years she thought she would be Mrs Irvine, down the drain because of Colton’s selfishness. The lack of support she got from her parents after he broke her heart. Her mother only made excuses for his actions.

“Oh, I doubt he actually cheated on you, Aila. And even if he did, you should forgive him. He was just stressed about the wedding. Can you honestly say you’ll find anyone better than Colton?”

Her father didn’t care one way or the other. He kept his nose out of her business. She used to wish he showed more interest in her life.

The door swings open, a raucous roar coming from the crowd swelling in the quiet. Someone must have flubbed. Aila opens her eyes to see, only a few feet away, the man who bought her drink. Had he meant to make Colton jealous? She frowns and peers more closely at him. He looks familiar, and she can’t place why.

“You okay?”

His voice sends shivers down her spine, her knees turning to jelly. Rich, low, the same accent as her childhood neighbour. He’s beautiful up close. She nods quickly and huddles in on herself.

“Cold, mostly.”

“Hey, girl! Where have you been?”

Her head snaps up at the sound of heels clicking closer. The woman leading the group beams and wraps her in a tight hug, as if they’ve known each other their entire lives. She’s a stranger. Aila pulls back and pastes a smile on her face.

“Sorry, I needed fresh air, started wandering, and wound up here. Oh! This is my friend, James. He’s waiting with me until my roommate comes.”

“Pleasure,” the woman says sweetly, but Aila sees the tension disappearing from her shoulders. “Well, call me when you get home?’

“Absolutely.”

The man watches the group of women disappear around the corner then turns back to Aila. His brow quirks. “Friends of yours?”

“Not a damn one of ‘em.” Aila laughs, a real laugh that she hasn’t heard from herself in a long while. “But they did what women should. They looked out for me, in case you’re a flesh-suit-wearing serial killer or something. Wish Aubrey would have had that decency,” she mutters under her breath.

He looks like he’s about to ask what she means, so she hurriedly shakes her head. Spilling the story to the bartender is one thing. Telling a perfect stranger what’s happened is another. Aila’s phone beeps in her bag, and she pulls it out to read the text from Paisley—her friend is stuck at a red light a block away.

“Could I have your number?”

She freezes, eyes widening. He isn’t a friend. She doesn’t know him. Giving him a way of tracking her sounds like a very poor decision. Her lips form the word ‘no’, but “Sure” comes out instead. His smile is gorgeous, takes away the chill in his eyes, and he pats his pockets.

“I… left my mobile in the bar,” he announces with a twist of his lips. “I don’t think I’ll have enough time to grab it before your friend gets here.”

“No worries. I’m always prepared.”

Aila digs a pen out from the bottom of her bag, uncapping it while he rolls up the sleeve of his button-down to expose his forearm. She steps closer without hesitation. The scent of his cologne is more intoxicating than she expected, and her head swims more than it had after the drinks. She bites her tongue and holds her breath. He stands completely still as she scrawls her number in ink on his arm.

“There ya go.”

He grins and gestures toward the street where Paisley’s car idles. “Looks like you’ve gotta go.”

“Yeah, Paze might kill me if I make her wait too long. Um, thanks for the drink. And for waiting with me.”

His only response is a soft smile. Aila swallows harshly and makes her way to the car. He waves then heads back inside. She blows out a breath and looks at Paisley. She wants to tell her friend about him—about how he smelled, how soft his skin was under her fingers, about the way the ice in his eyes had melted as he stared at her. How he looked familiar but she couldn’t place why. Instead, she keeps those details to herself.

She does tell Paisley about Colton showing up. That’s a safe topic, as rage-inducing as it is. It’s something Aila is willing enough to share.