Plausible Deniability

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Marian forgets about the conversation.

Aila manages to get through her shift without being scolded—or fired. She digs her keys from the bottom of her purse and shuffles toward the nearest station. Her toes are freezing, slush seeping in through the soles. She’s needed new shoes for the last two months; she planned on buying another pair before the first snowfall. Any savings she’s had, however, has gone toward bills and groceries.

A shiver ripples down her spine as she takes the shortcut through the alley. She knows it’s the one section of her walk that has no cameras, no security. No lights. Her fingers grip her keys tightly, pointed edges outward. She rushes down the dark alley, listening for any suspicious sounds, then bursts out onto the next street. Blinking in the sudden glow of streetlights, she glances over her shoulder before scurrying away.

She never used to be afraid of the dark before moving to East Primden. Now, the dark poses dangers she would never have found in Tarris. Her home-city was too quiet, too close-knit, for any real risk. There was hardly any crime in such a small city, beyond the usual cattle theft or drunken teenagers vandalising the walls of the water reservoirs. Here, with a population of nearly eighty-thousand, Primden is rife with crime.

She still loves living here. She is just more careful.

The house is quiet, dark, by the time she walks through the front door. Aila kicks off her low-heel pumps and makes her way to the couch. Her feet are freezing from the snow outside and aching from being mobile all day. She presses her thumb firmly against the arch of one foot, massaging from heel to toe before beginning again on the other foot.

“I hate that they won’t let you wear anything more suitable to the weather.”

“Holy crap, Paze. Don’t scare me.”

Paisley turns on the lamp next to the couch, smiling ruefully. “Sorry. Just heard you come in. Figured I’d make sure you weren’t someone breaking in.”

“So you came out empty-handed?” Aila snorts. “What were you gonna do, launch yourself at them like a spider monkey?”

“Absolutely.”

”Why am I friends with you?”

“Because I have a nice rack.” Paisley sighs and drops to sit beside Aila. “Why don’t you ever get a ride from your coworkers? Your feet won’t be ice when you get home.”

Aila groans when Paisley wraps a blanket around her feet; Paisley pushes her thumb into the bottom of Aila’s foot, and Aila practically melts into the couch.

“I don’t want those pricks knowing where I live.”

“True. They’d demand hangouts then.”

“Exactly. Holy fuck, Paze, you’re amazing.”

“I know. Now get to bed. It’s after midnight.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Paisley gasps, clutching at her chest. “Don’t you ever insult me like that again, Aila Maleigh Greene.”

“If it’s any consolation, I like you more than I like my mother.”

“That’s almost enough.”

Aila giggles as she heads toward their bedroom. She doesn’t bother doing more than stripping out of her work uniform before falling face-first onto her bed. Paisley reaches for the lamp between their beds, turning the knob, and the room is doused in darkness. Aila blinks once, twice, then the world slips from her grasp.

From: Aila (10:39)
<
I’m so tired. And bored. We’re dead right now
From: Aila (10:39)
<
You should entertain me

There is no response. Aila stares at the screen of her phone, but he doesn’t reply. He doesn’t even read the message. Something jerks in her belly, and she can’t help but wonder if she’d done something wrong. No, he’s busy. She can only hope it’s the truth.

Then she wonders why she even cares. It isn’t like they are actually friends, no matter how often they’ve talked over the last two weeks.

Against her better judgement, she tries texting him a few more times through the day. Each message garners no response. Aila’s heart sinks further the longer he doesn’t reply. She knows it makes no sense. It’s utterly ridiculous to be upset. He is nothing to her except for the man who tried to make her ex-fiancé jealous.

She berates herself for thinking they were friends.

“Uh-oh, Aila has her ‘I hate life today’ face on.” Angel pats the couch beside her. “What’s up, love?”

Aila tosses her phone to Angel and heads into the kitchen for a glass of water. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to work at the Northend tonight—and she didn’t ask Joseph to pick up a shift. Her body aches enough already, and her mind is too preoccupied to deal with people calling her incompetent.

Cheyenne is frowning when Aila enters the living room. “Wait, he just suddenly stopped texting back?”

“Yeah, and I don’t know why. Did I do something wrong and didn’t know it?”

“No, you’re fine.” Paisley scrolls through the messages. “Everything seems like it was going well. Getting to know each other, the oh-so-subtle hints at your availability, the stupid puns only you find funny. There is nothing here to justify him not talking to you out of the blue.”

Angel shrugs, passing the phone back to Aila. “Honestly? If he’s acting like this now, seems you’ve dodged a bullet.”

Aila nods, though she doesn’t quite believe what Angel says. There had been something different about Niall—something she hadn’t recognised in any other man she’s known. Something that called for her to learn more and solve the mystery of who he is.

As much as she wishes she had an answer, Aila pushes the thoughts to the back of her mind. Angel is right—she dodged a bullet, the misery of another relationship coming to a painful end. She doesn’t need the heartache, and she certainly doesn’t want to swallow down whatever scraps of attention he bestows upon her.

No man is worth that. Not again.

So she stares at the thread, finger hovering over the ‘Delete’ button, then taps on the red warning. The messages disappear, but the unexpected hollow chill in her chest remains.

Over the next six days, Aila falls into a pattern. When she isn’t working at La Serene, she picks up as many shifts as possible at the Northend. She buys herself a new pair of shoes. Willow drags them to the Rogue, and Paisley and Angel help keep her mind off of him. Off the enigma he is, looming ever present in her thoughts.

She dances the nights away with the women who have been more like family than her parents ever hoped of being. She drinks away the odd sensation that she’s missing out on something that could be great. She sleeps away the loneliness.

It almost works.

But she’s just sat a plate in front of a customer when Manisha approaches. She doesn’t speak as she waits for the man to stop berating Aila for not being able to do her job, and Aila murmurs an apology she doesn’t mean. She plasters a smile onto her face and tells the man the four cocktails he’s had are on the house. As soon as she turns away, she rolls her eyes.

Manisha stifles a smile. “Someone’s waiting for you.”

“Did you seat them?”

“He said he isn’t here to eat.”

“Then why come to a damn restaurant?” Aila sighs and scoops up the bill folder that sits on an emptied table. “Okay, I’ll be right there. Let me grab ten’s refill.”

Aila makes sure none of her tables need anything from her then makes her way to the front of the restaurant. Manisha gestures with her chin before disappearing. Aila turns and immediately sighs. She’s done so well not thinking of him, but here Niall is in front of her. He looks better than any man has the right to. As amazing as she remembers him outside the bar.

She tucks her order pad into her apron, stepping closer. He still smells the same, even with the touch of earthy smoke mingling. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted to talk to you,” he answers easily with a shrug.

“Well, you should have just texted. I’m busy right now.”

His lips tug down into a frown. “Even for a minute?”

“Look around. I have twelve tables to juggle and another five hours to go because my replacement called off. This isn’t a good time.”

A storm overtakes his eyes, the blue growing dark. Icy. He nods and pivots on his heel, and Aila watches him leave. She blows out a breath when the gust of cold wind sweeps the scent of him from the entrance. The world tilts beneath her feet. Seeing him has dredged up the feeling that her life could turn out so differently if she gave him a chance.

She doesn’t answer his call on the ride home.

Niall doesn’t call or text her. Aila doesn’t call or text him. The next week passes by with no contact but plenty of dreams. She wakes each morning with an ever-deepening sinking feeling in her gut. Niall had been so nice, protective, at the bar. Charming when he and his friend came in for breakfast. Personable and intriguing during all of their texts.

Aila wonders where that Niall went and who is this cold impostor that’s taken his place.

“You don’t even know him, idiot,” she grumbles as she pushes past a couple arguing on the street.

The new year hasn’t brought in new cheer. Even the festival last month hadn’t distracted anyone from the cold weather or the unrelenting sleet that is a staple of winter in Primden. Aila’s feet slip inside Cheyenne’s boots, and she curses under her breath as she feels the blisters forming.

Thankfully, the landlord’s second building stretches up before her, ugly grey brick against an ugly grey sky. She shivers and pulls her coat more tightly around her before pulling open the door.

Inside isn’t much warmer than out. Aila carefully steps over the rubbish littering the cracked tile floor, wrinkling her nose at the odour that lingers. Her stomach lurches when a rat scurries along the baseboard of the wall.

Knocking on the door nestled in the back corner, Aila shudders and tries to hold her breath. It doesn’t work: Her nose fills with the stench of rotting food left in the lobby, the sickly sweet of chemicals pouring from beneath the door, and bodily waste. She doesn’t want to know if it’s human.

Preston yanks the door open, and his scowl turns to an almost bored expression. His too-thin frame trembles. She knows what it means. She forces herself not to react to the hollow cheeks or the fact he resembles a living, breathing skeleton. He leans against the doorway.

“Oh. It’s you.”

“Yep, it’s me.” Aila digs the money order from her pocket, holding it out. “Rent, as promised.”

He makes no move to take the sheet. She frowns and wiggles it. Still he doesn’t reach for it.

“Don’t need it.”

“It’s the second. Rent is always due on the second.”

Preston shrugs. “Talk to your roommates then, ‘cause one of ya paid already.”

“That’s impossible. We literally just went to the bank yesterday to get the money order.” She sighs. “Did you write down who paid it or something?”

He rolls his eyes. “Look, I don’t know what to tell you, kid. One minute, you owed rent. The next, the balance is cleared. Ain’t my job to care about who does it, just that it gets paid.”

“So you won’t mind signing a note saying we don’t owe anything this month?”

Another eye roll, but he disappears into his dingy flat. Aila doesn’t dare step inside. She can see the cluttered table, the cash spread out into piles. He comes back with a piece of paper.

I, Preston Mosley, have reseved payment from house number 7710 in the amount of $3180 for the month of Febuary 2018. Now leve me alone.

Aila knows it is as good a promissory note as she’ll ever get, so she tugs it from his hand. As soon as he relinquishes it, he slams the door closed. She hisses in pain when the wood collides with her knuckles. She glares at the door for a moment then tucks the note and money order into her pocket. If he says they don’t owe this month, who is she to argue.

Unfortunately, her friends aren’t as satisfied. The group chat fills with questions about who could have paid the rent. Angel wonders if it was a VIP staying in the hotel, and Cheyenne thinks it was one of their parents who sent the money. Paisley is quick to veto that—“Our families can’t afford that much unless they pooled their money. And we all know Aila’s mother wouldn’t even consider helping us.” It’s a low blow, but it isn’t inaccurate.

Aila mutes the conversation and heads to the bank to submit a cancellation on the money order. She goes to work at La Serene. She gets through the day without thinking once of Niall, though it takes a herculean effort. It’s ridiculous, she thinks, that he’s on her mind so often. He’s just a man. A gorgeous, mysterious man, sure. But a man nonetheless.

The thought slams to the forefront of her mind that night, while she’s showering off the stench of industrial-strength cleansers: Had he paid the rent for them? After all, they had been arguing. He obviously has money, so did he do it as some weird apology? Aila wipes the shampoo from her face and shakes her head. He wouldn’t have done. She isn’t that important to anyone let alone someone who is a perfect stranger.

Two days later, her certainty falters. Aila stares down at the bouquet of flowers she now holds as the deliveryman walks away. She thanks the stars that she’s alone, that she doesn’t have to answer probing questions from her friends. Her palms grow clammy, flowers quivering when her hands start shaking. Something stirs in her gut, something that tells her he won’t just give up.

Aila, I’m sorry for going silent out of nowhere like I did and for showing up at your work. I wish I could explain more. My phone is on for you, whenever you want to talk. -James

She swallows thickly, growling under her breath when her eyes begin to burn. A tightness eases in her chest, and her shoulders slump forward. Niall isn’t angry about her refusing to speak to him at the restaurant. He’s apologising.

She has no idea what makes her do it, but she hides the note in the top drawer of her dresser. Even as she covers the card with rolled-up socks, she knows there is nothing he needs to explain. He made his choices. All she can do is accept that he decided he no longer wanted to talk to her.

Except he said he would keep his phone on in case she wanted to resume their semi-friendship.

Thoughts racing, Aila picks up her phone and composes a new message.

From: Aila (11:49)
<
I got the flowers. They’re beautiful. Thank you. But you have nothing to apologise for or explain.

From: Niall (11:53)
>
I do .
From: Niall (11:53)
>
Can we talk?

From: Aila (11:53)
<
I have a few minutes before I have to get ready for work, so sure. What’s up?

From: Niall 11:55)
>
In person

From: Aila (11:56)
<
Well, as I said, I have to work tonight.

From: Niall (11:56)
>
So come by Bobby’s after. Please ?

From: Aila
<
Fine. It’ll be about midnight.

From: Niall (11:59)
>
I’ll wait for you

Aila frowns down at the message. Surely she’s imagining the intimacy it implies. He must have meant that he won’t leave the bar before they have the chance to talk. That’s all.