Plausible Deniability

too much to ask

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Work goes horribly. Aila is so distracted by her thoughts of Niall, what he could possibly say to her, that she messes up order after order. She gives the wrong tables the wrong food. She nearly trips over her feet with a full tray in hand, catching herself just in time on a nearby booth—thankfully empty. A soda slips off the tray, but the rest is unscathed. Not victims of her distraction-induced clumsiness.

By the time she and Priya have finished closing the front of the restaurant, Aila’s skin is crawling. Her stomach won’t unknot itself, and her lungs are at least two sizes too small for her chest. At least. She carries the cash drawer to the office so Marian can count it. She tips out the rest of the staff, pocketing her share. Then she’s stepping outside into the cold February night.

Her breath puffs in the frozen air, snowflakes falling fat and puffy to the ground. Footprints have smashed a path on the pavement, and the city gleams orange-gold in the halo from the streetlights. The only sounds left now are the commuter train running its last lap of the night and the clock tower two blocks over chiming the hour. Rattling carriages and rich bells.

A cacophony that shouldn’t work but feels like home.

Aila wraps her scarf around her throat, tugs her beanie more securely onto her head, and sets off for the bar on 7th Street. The red glow of the sign spreads along the sidewalk, cursive letters forming Bobby’s. She pauses outside the door then pulls it open.

Smoke, liquor, and too many bodies. She shudders in the warmth and makes her way up to the bar. The same bartender from before beams as she comes to a stop.

“You’re back.”

“I am. It’s kinda weird that you remember me.”

He chuckles and shakes his head. “What can I say? Hearing you speak Irish made you memorable. Not a language spoken often around here.”

“Had an Irish neighbour growing up.”

“That explains it. So what can I get for you?”

“Um, I’m actually here to see someone. I don’t see him, though,” she says slowly as she scans the bar. Niall isn’t anywhere to be found, not even in the corner where she first laid eyes on him.

“Ah, another Irish boy, ‘bout this tall, always dressed as if he’s on his way to a business meeting?”

Aila laughs, nodding. “Exactly.”

“He’s back there.”

Aila cocks her head when the bartender gestures to a door behind the bar. He chuckles, tells her to go on, and turns back to his duties. She thanks him quietly and hesitates before stepping around the edge of the bar.

“Hey, why’s she getta go back there?” someone grumbles.

“You can either be happy with where you’re at, Job, or you can be happy on your ass in the street.”

Job doesn’t respond, and Aila ducks through the door.

It’s almost like stepping into every single mafia film she has ever watched: A large group of people sit around a circular table, Niall directly across from the door. To his right sits the man who gave her a lift home. The man to Niall’s left is slender, dark hair falling over blue eyes that rival Niall’s. A woman with pale blonde hair glances up, and one perfect brow raises as she takes the card Niall passes over.

Aila doesn’t bother examining the others. She only stares at Niall for answers, but he doesn’t look away from the cards he holds. He does gesture to a man standing along the wall, so obviously he is aware of her presence. Aila would be terrified of the man’s appearance—broad body, scars across his face, the way his jacket doesn’t fall smoothly along his hips. But there’s a light in his brown eyes that dispels any fears she has.

Lift-Giver scoots his chair to the side as the man sets another next to Niall. Aila nods and sits. She grits her teeth against the questions, against the desire to breathe in the scent she’s remembered so vividly since the night she gave Niall her number. Her blood burns hot in her veins; what is she even doing here? She’s making a fool of herself, coming to him when he calls.

No one speaks until someone across the table reveals his hand. Aila knows nothing of poker—games promoting gambling were forbidden when she was growing up—but she can understand the ruckus that explodes. He must have won the round. Niall shakes his head with a rueful smile before setting his cards down face-up.

Aila swallows harshly when he stands, excusing himself from the table. The others stare-without-staring at her. The other woman, however, doesn’t bother with pretences. Her blue eyes are narrowed, lips set in a hard line. Slender fingers, ivory skin meeting scarlet nails, drum on the tabletop.

Aila averts her gaze to the table. Something about the woman screams danger. Maybe it’s the slow roll of her fingertips to wood, or the way she holds herself so languidly, the shadow in her eyes that promises she’s on the ready.

Thankfully, Niall comes back after a moment with two glasses in hand. He passes one to Aila and waves the others away. The woman rises smoothly to her feet. Aila sees the knife at her waist. Blood rushes in her ears. The door closes behind them, then the only ones who remain are Niall, Aila, and the man who gave her a seat. He stays beside the wall, but still she can’t wonder if he’s close enough to hurt her.

As if he can read her mind, Niall gives her a lopsided grin. “Don’t worry. Yuri is too nice for his own good. Aren’t you, Yuri?”

“You are insulting me, sir.”

Niall’s laugh is bright, beautiful, even with the cold edge it holds. “I’ll do better. Anyway. Thank you for coming by, Aila. It... it means a lot that you’d be willing to talk to me.”

“What is this about?” she murmurs, risking a glance at his face to see the amusement is gone.

“I can’t tell you why I stopped messaging you,” he says. Aila’s mouth opens, but he shakes his head. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I wish I could.”

“Is there anything you can tell me? I really don’t think it’s too much to ask, Niall.”

His face closes off. His jaw tics, and he spins his glass slowly. “I can’t.”

“Then I don’t think there’s anything more to talk about.”

She leaves her drink untouched and strides from the room. A fire runs along her spine, pools in her gut. How could she have gotten her hopes up that he’d be upfront with her? She storms to the bar, dropping a few bills into the jar, then storms out of the building.

“Asshole,” she mutters to herself as she all but stomps down the pavement. “‘Oh, I’ll apologise for not telling you anything, but look here, I can’t tell you anything! How convenient for me!’ Stupid man. And stupid me for believing he’d be honest.”

The twenty-block trek home is filled with anger and an indignant voice in her head telling her she shouldn’t have trusted him so easily. It isn’t wrong, not really. Only two months have passed since Colton proved that finding a good man, an honest man, is almost impossible. They all have their secrets, and some secrets shouldn’t be kept.

Aila locks the door behind her and kicks off her heels. A voice in her head screams for her to throw them as hard as she can. She doesn’t, but she is far beyond tempted. The couch squeals, springs compressing then releasing, and Willow comes into view. Her brows furrow.

“Whoa, what happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Aila, you know I know you better than that.”

“Stupid men.”

“Colton or the man who got you those gorgeous flowers?”

“How do you know it was a man who got them? Maybe I bought them for myself.”

“Yes, because I totally believe that. Pink carnations, white clover, white rose, red salvia, and chamomile? None of those are something you’d buy for yourself.” Willow shrugs when Aila pushes past her toward the kitchen. “I’m just saying. My mother made me learn flower symbolism as a kid. All of those are too romantic to be a self-absorbed purchase.”

“Yeah? What do they mean, then? Since you’re so knowledgeable.”

Willow pins Aila with a flat look. “In the Victorian era, pink carnations meant ‘I’ll never forget you’, White clover, ‘think of me’. Chamomile symbolises patience in adversity. A white rose is ‘I’m worthy of you’, and red salvia means ‘forever mine’.”

“So... you don’t believe I bought them for myself?”

“Definitely not. Nice try, though.” Willow sighs, throwing an arm over Aila’s shoulder. “Honey, what happened?”

Aila draws in a steadying breath and tells her friend of how Niall showed up at the Northend last week to apologise, how he’d sent the flowers this morning and asked her to meet him after work. How she had but he hadn’t been able to explain why he stopped talking to her in the first place.

“I just don’t know why he can’t tell me the truth. Hell, I’ll even take a ‘It’s been fun, but I’m done with you’.”

“After those flowers, I don’t think it’s that, babe.” Willow pulls her into a tight hug. “Go to bed. Things will make more sense in the morning.”

Aila hopes Willow is right.

Paisley doesn’t stir even when Aila turns the lamp on. Undressing quickly, Aila pulls a T-shirt on then digs through her bag. Her chest tightens, pulse racing, and she dumps the contents out onto the mattress. Pens, order pad, apron, wallet. No phone.

She curses under her breath, rummaging through the mess to no avail. She even searches under her bed in case it managed to bounce out of her bag. The familiar device is nowhere. Aila bites back a growl. Of course this would be happening. She had an awful day, so why wouldn’t the middle of the night be just as awful?

Aila checks Paisley’s phone and breathes out a sigh of relief. Her roommate has to be awake early, so Aila can just rely on the alarm Paisley has set. She crawls into her bed, sighing as her eyes burn. Once the lamp is off, Aila lets the tears fall.

A hollow void has taken up residence in her gut. Loneliness clings to her like a second skin, and a voice in her head tells her she should never have trusted that Niall would be different. Colton had been just as charming in the beginning before the indifference and the infidelity. He’d shown interest in who Aila was as a person. The only difference is Niall lost interest more quickly than Colton had.

The bar.

She must have dropped her phone at the bar when she stormed out. Of course she had, because her day wasn’t horrible enough. Sighing, Aila rolls onto her back and stares through the dark at the ceiling. She scrubs a hand over her cheeks, sniffles, and decides to deal with everything in the morning. Especially the flowers.

Paisley offers up her phone the next morning. “I don’t have anything planned today, so I was just gonna be lazy in front of the television all day.”

“Nah, I’ll use my old one until I can put in an insurance claim this afternoon.”

“But you hate that phone. I hate that phone. The screen is cracked to Hell and back, and it dies within an hour.”

Aila frowns and tries to protest, but Paisley is right. The phone has definitely seen better days. Unfortunately, Aila is stubborn, so she sets off to work with the phone in her bag and a strong urge to stop by the bar on the way. Ignoring that urge is harder than it has any right to be. Her mind tells her seeing Niall is a horrible idea, but the rest of her wants to see him.

Wants to drink in his vivid blue eyes, even with all their iciness. Wants to breathe the scent of him. Wants to know if his hair is as soft as it looks. Wants to figure out why he keeps his cards so close to his chest.

As much as she wants to believe it, Aila can’t convince herself he’s just another rich guy who dropped her when he realised she would never fawn over him. A small part of her clings to the hope he is different than he seems.

From: Willow (11:20)
>
Hey, someone was here trying to find you. He said he found your phone at Bobby’s.

From: Aila (11:27)
<
Blue eyes, dark hair, Irish accent, a body you could climb for days?

From: Willow (11:27)
>
That’s a very specific description but yes.

From: Aila (11:28)
<
Okay. Thanks. I’ll get a hold of him.

From: Willow (11:29)
>
WAIT! Is that the guy who you’ve been texting?! The one who sent the flowers??? Oh hell he’s gorgeous.

Aila ignores the last text and opens the thread with Niall. Her chest fills with a surge of gratitude that the contact book synced to her account this morning. Leave my phone at my house. I’ll get it before my shift at the Northend. There. Succinct, to the point, emotionless.

He reads it but doesn’t reply.

Thankfully, Portia assigns her to the fourth floor. No disgusting VIPs to clean up after, and Aila could kiss her manager with joy. She gathers up dirty towels, she strips beds, she scrubs the bathrooms. It’s mindless, something to clear her brain as she works. Her thoughts float away in the hum of the vacuum cleaner. Her body relaxes the more she settles into autopilot.

Reality crashes down around her. Aila is heading toward the kitchen when something suddenly screams for her to look up from her shoes. She does, breathing out sharply. There is Niall in the lobby. He leans against the wall with an almost bored expression on his face, his phone in hand. His peacoat hangs open in the front, and the white of his button-down is a beautiful contrast to his skin.

Aila exchanges a look with Bernie at the front desk then makes her way to Niall’s side. “What are you doing here?”

He glances up at her before finishing out the text he’s composing. Cold flushes over her skin at the sight of his eyes. No longer warm, they chill her to the bones. She did that. His hand disappears into the pocket of his dark slacks, and he comes up with her phone.

“We were already almost here when I got your message. It would’ve been stupid to turn around.”

His voice is just as frozen as his eyes. Aila reaches for the device with a trembling hand. Niall’s gaze flickers to her fingers as they wrap around her phone, brush against his. He gives away no reaction. She opens her mouth to—what? Thank him? To beg for answers?—but he turns on his heel. She watches him leave.

Her heart drops at the sight of his back disappearing in the crowd outside.