Plausible Deniability

damsel in distress

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Aila makes her way on shaking knees to the break-room. How could he be affecting her this much? It’s been just short of two months since they met, and only a few of those weeks have held any sort of contact. Colton had broken her trust in men, in anybody, yet here she is trying to trust Niall.

Her old phone won’t turn on. The battery must have died—true to Paisley’s prediction. Aila is only surprised it lasted three hours. The phone Niall has just returned surprisingly has a full battery. The ice in her chest thaws slightly at the consideration he showed in charging her phone before giving it back. The gratitude almost drowns out the nagging that says something isn’t right.

Almost, but not quite.

Tapping in the PIN as quickly as possible, she brings up her text messages. The thread with Niall is gone. His name is no longer in her contacts. Her breath comes out in a shuddering gasp when she realises he’d removed all traces of his presence in her life. A heavy weight settles in her belly, and her hands tremble with far more than fear.

She’s so consumed by the hurt that she doesn’t even question how he got into her phone, considering she changes the lock code every other day like clockwork. Digits that always correspond with whatever book she’s enjoyed recently. Never anything easily figured out, like a birthday. She doesn’t care how he figured it out—all she can focus on is the fact he’s made his point clearly.

Three days pass before everything changes again. Aila drags her gaze from the mannequin on the other side of the window to the man’s reflection in the glass. Her mind races to place why he looks familiar. Throat closing, she realises she has seen him everywhere she’s turned since Niall gave her back her phone. His deep tanned skin and black hair, dark eyes that scan over the street constantly. The leather jacket he wears that doesn’t match the weather.

He’s been following her for days.

Aila swallows down the bile and pretends she hasn’t seen him, even when his head turns back toward her. Her legs don’t want to cooperate, don’t want to carry her into the boutique. She forces herself through the door as she thinks of every action film she has ever watched to devise an escape route. An assistant bounces up with a bright smile, and Aila pastes a matching grin on her face.

“Hi, uh, this may sound really, really dumb, but I’m being followed. Is there any way you can help get me out of here?”

The associate’s eyes widen, then she’s nodding vehemently. “Of course. Right this way.”

Aila follows with a pounding heart to the back of the shop. When they can no longer see the front window, the associate ducks into a narrow corridor and taps at the buttons on a keypad. The back door opens with a quiet click.

“Go to the left, and you’ll reach the cross-street. The right is will only lead you right back out front.”

“Thank you so much.”

Aila peeks around the corner of the building at the end of the street, gasping when she sees the man is still there. Her mouth grows dry, palms clammy beneath her gloves. A cop car screeches to a halt a moment later. Heat floods her face as she watches the man straighten to his full height. As the officer approaches. As the man’s eyes meet hers through the distance.

Even from half a block away, she can see the slight upturn to his lips.

Aila keeps an eye out for the man through the following weeks. He doesn’t reappear again, but the way her skin crawls tells her he’s still out there. He’s still watching her every move. She wonders if she should tell Niall about it. But what could he possibly do? Besides, it isn’t like he cares.

He might as well have screamed ‘fuck off’ when he scrubbed his existence from her phone.

Night has fallen by the time Aila leaves the Northend. Her body aches from hours of walking around and carrying heavy trays. She leans against the wall, dreaming of the hot shower and a long night of sleep, while Marian locks the door.

“Anybody need a lift home?”

Aila is the only one who shakes her head. Marian frowns and opens her mouth, but Aila beats her to speaking. “I promise I’ll be fine. I know my route like the back of my hand, and it isn’t that long of a walk. I won’t become a popsicle.”

“It’s not the cold I’m worried about.”

“You think someone is going to attack me?” Aila laughs. “Trust me, Marian, nobody is out right now. And even if they are, no one is gonna want me. I’m too much trouble.”

Marian tries to argue, but Aila waves and walks away. Her manager is well-meaning. Aila just doesn’t want to spend the next twenty minutes freezing while she proves her point. Besides, Marian lives all the way on the other side of the city, near the border between East and West. She doesn’t need to drive an hour out of her way.

Aila is four blocks away when she hears them: Heavy footsteps behind her, trailing after her. Cold wind bites at her cheeks, but Aila can’t feel it through the acid coursing through her veins. Whoever is following her isn’t surreptitious. They aren’t trying to hide the fact that she’s their prey and they are a predator looking for a victim.

They aren’t the man from before.

Aila gulps against the bile. She almost wishes he was around—at least with him, she didn’t know he was there. She wasn’t frightened of him.

A thick fog settles over her mind. Her knowledge of East Primden’s streets disappears. Aila tries sticking to the main streets where people still mill about, making their way to and from bars and work. Then she sees another man crossing the street, his gaze locked on her, his strides long and unwavering. Determined.

She knows they’re corralling her. She knows she is giving them what they want. She ducks down a side alley anyway in hopes of getting to the next street. Maybe she can lose them there.

Crumbling red brick is all she sees. Aila hears the footsteps nearing and sprints to the end of the alley. She’s just climbed onto the trashcan, hoping she’s tall enough to reach the top of the wall, when someone grabs the back of her shirt. Her nails scrabble against the wall, but she has no choice but to follow where the man yanks her.

He grins sharply, and the shadows enhance the menacing expression on his face. A tattoo spreads across his left cheek, up to his temple and down his throat. Aila’s vision swims when he crowds her against the wall. His lips are chapped, scabbed over, and he smells as if he’s just come from a brewery. Aila hardly dares to breathe.

“Please, j-just let me go. I’ll give you my money. I have seventy bucks. And my phone! You can have that, too. Just let me go. Please. I wanna go home, that’s all.”

“‘Just let me go’,” he mocks. His rough voice sends chills down her spine. She swallows down more tears. The icy wind presses against her belly when he lifts the hem of her shirt. “I don’t think we can do that, babe. See, you’re the kinda girl we like.”

Her gaze tracks over his face then to the other three men cornering her. The gleams in their eyes petrifies her. The man she assumes is the leader leans closer, his finger twirling in a lock of her hair. She tries to scramble backwards, further away from the hard line of his body, but there is nowhere to go. She jerks her head away, skull slamming against brick, as he leans forward to sniff at her throat. She can’t see through the fear and pain.

She quakes while his thick fingers trail along her collarbone, slip between the buttons of her dress-shirt. Across the swell of her breasts. She closes her eyes, though common sense yells at her to keep them open. “Please leave me alone.”

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

The voice rings out, colder than the wind whipping through the alley. Rage fills every syllable, and Aila can’t stop the sob when she recognises the accent. One of the men turns and curses loudly. The others follow suit, then they’re scattering. They nearly trip over themselves in their haste to shove past Niall, to get away from his wrath.

Soon, all that’s left are Niall at one end of the alley and Aila at the other end. Bile sits on her tongue, and she can’t drag in a steady breath. Her knees threaten to give out on her.

“Darling? Are you okay?”

Aila flinches away from the hand on her shoulder, no matter how gentle and warm it is. She hadn’t heard Niall approach. He murmurs an apology and repeats his question. She nods shakily but doesn’t open her eyes.

“Aila. Are. You. Okay?”

His tone brooks no argument, so she exhales unsteadily. “I’m fucking terrified, and you need to back up if you don’t want vomit decorating your shoes.”

He does. Aila immediately bends forward to throw up. Niall holds her hair back with one hand, the other pressing firmly against her shoulders, rubbing circles into her back through her jacket. He stays quiet until she coughs, spits out the last of the bile, and stands up again.

He catches her easily when she stumbles. Her legs will no longer support her.

“Come on.”

Aila leans into him and lets him steer her toward a car just past the alley. His hands are soothing when he helps her into the backseat. His arm stays around her shoulders, keeping her tucked against him, and he tells the driver to take them home.

“No, I—”

Niall shushes her. “If you go home, you’re going to scare your roommates. Text them and let them know you won’t be home tonight. I’d hate to have the cops called for kidnapping you.”

“I can’t,” she admits, holding up a hand so he can see how badly she’s trembling.

His lips brush against her hair, and he digs through her bag for her phone. Against her better judgement, she tells him the PIN and buries her face against his chest. Her heartbeat slows the longer she breathes in the scent of him. The phone makes a soft swooping noise, then he holds her more tightly.

The ride is silent with only the purr of the engine to break up the quiet. The fear has vanished, pushed out of focus by the comfort of his arms around her. She shifts to get more comfortable and sighs. His breathing is steady; she clings to the rise and fall of his chest to keep herself grounded.

To not let her mind travel back to that alley.

Even in her wildest dreams, Aila never would have guessed she would walk through the doors to the largest house she’s ever seen. But that’s exactly what happens. Niall says something to his driver, then to another man off to the side. Aila doesn’t pay attention to what he says or the surroundings. She only follows him up a grand curved staircase and down a hallway.

“Go ahead and get cleaned up, darling.” His knuckles brush against her cheek, soft and soothing. “Someone will bring you pyjamas, and there’s a fresh toothbrush in the cupboard.”

Aila lowers herself to sit on the edge of the bathtub. “Niall?”

He pauses in the doorway, one hand on the handle. “Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

His answering smile is far more beautiful than any she’s ever witnessed in her life. He leaves without another word, and Aila turns her gaze to the marble floor. Tonight has gone so wrong. A wave of exhaustion crashes over her, and she stumbles to her feet.

Once she’s splashed cold water on her face and scrubbed her teeth, Aila steps out into the corridor. A woman barely older than she is stands just outside. She smooths down the front of her linen dress and gives Aila a smile that’s meant to be comforting. Aila is too tired to care much.

“If you’ll follow me, Miss.”

Aila shuffles after the woman to a door three rooms down. Another woman has just finished pulling back the comforter on the bed, and a small pile of clothing sits on the chest of drawers just beside the door. The older woman bows slightly, her greying hair gleaming in the lamplight, then she’s gone.

“I got this, Mera.”

Aila turns at the chilly voice. It’s the woman from the bar—the one who terrified Aila so horribly. Mera bows her head and exits the room. The door clicks closed, and Aila frowns.

“Do I really need an audience?”

“Nah, but I’m to make sure you get into bed without any breakdowns.”

“Then can you turn around? Only my best friends are allowed to see me in my underwear.”

“Touchy, touchy.”

But she faces the wall anyway. Aila quickly strips her work uniform off and replaces them with the pyjamas someone set out for her. They fit perfectly, cool and soft against her skin. Her shoulders slump forward as she crosses the room to sit on the bed.

“I’m done.”

“Okay. Huh, Haz is actually a decent judge of clothes.” The woman shakes her head. “Anyway. Niall’s in the room to your left. If there’s anything you need, ask him.”

“Thanks.”

The woman pauses at the door, shifting her weight between her feet. When she looks up, Aila is surprised to see her eyes aren’t as hard as before.

“Don’t be too hard on him. I don’t know what he sees in you—no offence—but he’s... He’s not a bad guy at the end of the day.”

Aila snorts and shoves a lock of hair out of her face. “Well, he saved my life, so I’m sure he’s not.”

“Yeah, just remember that in the morning.”

Before Aila can say anything, the woman is gone. Her warning lingers in the air.