Plausible Deniability

kept secrets

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Aila doesn’t remember falling asleep. She doesn’t remember whether she tossed and turned all night or if she even dreamt at all. All she knows is waking to a pounding headache and a bitter taste in her mouth. She blinks slowly then sits up, stretching out the kinks in her body.

The mattress is better than the one she has at home. Aila reaches for the elastic band on her wrist, pulling her hair into a low ponytail as she examines the room like she hadn’t been able to last night.

Deep burgundy curtains are drawn tightly together around the room, fragmenting the pale creme-coloured walls. A black rug spreads across the floor around the bed frame. The mirror above the chest of drawers is gilded with gold, elaborate carvings along the edges. A nightstand sits beside the bed, and her phone sits on top. White against mahogany. There are no other decorations.

No one must sleep here, she thinks. Aila exhales sharply and pats the mattress. Would Niall think it weird if she asked to take it home? Shaking the thought away, she pushes back the heavy comforter and clambers off the bed. Her uniform hangs from a hook on the back of the door, and another pile of clothes are stacked neatly on the bureau. A folded piece of paper rests on top.

Aila, these are for you to keep. Breakfast is in the dining room whenever you’re ready.

The handwriting takes her aback. Loopy and tidy, it doesn’t exactly match what she’s seen of Niall’s personality. Aila sets the note aside and picks up the blouse. The black fabric flows like water between her fingers, the silken smoothness interrupted only by the intricate lacework along the neckline. Her cheeks flush when she sees the underwear that had been hidden beneath the top.

Had he chosen them? Or did he have Scary-Woman pick them out? Whoever did it did a good job. Aila blows out a breath and hurriedly changes. It should concern her that everything fits comfortably. That the outfit is the same style as something she would have purchased for herself—if she could afford it.

She makes sure to grab her phone and bag before leaving the room. The creme walls have extended to the hallway, white marble twin snakes on either side of a maroon rug running the length of the hall. Aila pauses next to a painting on the wall: Rolling fields of green, a cluster of cottages under an expansive stretch of blue sky. She has no idea what place the painting depicts—it certainly isn’t Primden or any of the surrounding towns—but it radiates peace, stability, home. A small scribble in the corner marks the artist’s name, though she can’t decipher it. It looks like a blob.

Breakfast is in the dining room. Right. She was on a mission. Where is the dining room? She had been so frazzled last night, she hadn’t paid attention to the path Niall had taken when bringing her to the room.

Her head swims as she realises she’s lost. A small voice tells her she will never leave this corridor and she’ll die here, become a skeletal decoration. Aila swallows thickly and tries to decide which corner to take: the one before her, or the one at the other end.

A quiet shriek escapes her lips when someone rounds the corner in front of her. The older man’s face remains impassive as Aila clasps a hand to her chest. As if it will control the sudden galloping of her heart. As if it can calm her breathing. It doesn’t work, but she tries to find comfort in the pressure above her sternum.

“I was looking for the dining room?”

She winces when the words come out as a question. The man nods stiffly and turns on his heel, striding away. Aila scurries to follow him. He may not know it, but he’s saved her from rotting in this house. His steps are measured, the route a well-learnt path, and Aila forces herself to not gawk at the decor they pass.

He comes to a stop just outside enormous doors. Voices come from the other side, unintelligible through the wood, and Aila meets the man’s gaze. His chin dips, then he reaches out for the handles with gloved hands. The doors swing open without a sound, and she watches as the people in the dining room come into view.

Niall sits at the head of the long table, and the driver who gave her a lift home that day is to his right. Scary-Woman sits to the left. Aila is focused on the soft smile on Niall’s face, not bothering to look at the others. He waves the old man away. The man bows and leaves Aila alone. She inhales as steadily as possible, hoping to draw strength from it, but her knees still shake as she takes the seat the driver vacates.

As she sits, she finally takes stock of the others. Her brows furrow. “Didn’t you get picked up by the police?”

The man’s cheeks flush a furious red, eyes flashing. His scowl disturbs the sharp lines of his cheeks. Someone down the table snorts, a hand clapping over his mouth, and even Niall appears amused by her enquiry.

“He did. He was let out.”

“Why was he stalking me?”

“Not stalking, love. I asked Zayn to keep an eye on you for your protection.”

“Yeah, that worked out well,” she grumbles, and Niall’s gaze drops to the table, pink tinting the tops of his ears. “Anyway. If you wanted me to have a bodyguard, you probably should have picked someone less attractive.”

Niall tilts his head with a brow raised. She almost gets lost in his eyes, but his voice distracts her, pulls her out of the daze. “What do you mean?”

“He’s too… pretty, I guess, to be inconspicuous. He stood out in a crowd. Wait, why the fuck did you have someone tailing me?”

He sighs, raises his hands in surrender, and promises to explain after breakfast. She frowns, wanting to argue, but he’s already moved on. She sits back as a woman sets a plate in front of her. She picks at the food and wonders if she can get by with not eating. Her thoughts are racing too much for her to feel any hunger.

Niall pushes her fork closer to her without even taking his eyes off the man he’d had following Aila. She blows out a breath and picks up the utensil. His lips quirk as she takes a bite. The others talk around her, obviously assured she won’t understand the coded phrases. They aren’t wrong, she thinks. She has no hopes of understanding. So she only picks at her food and tunes them out as much as she can.

Aila comes back to herself when she realises she’s alone with Niall. Her eyes widen at the empty chairs and silence. He swallows down the rest of his coffee before gesturing for her to follow him from the room. His hand settles, warm and gentle, on her lower back as he guides her to a room across the foyer.

Navy blue walls greet her, and the same burgundy curtains hang over the windows here though they’re tied back. Weak sunlight barely touches the room, but the lamps on the end-tables illuminate the space enough. A chessboard sits below the front window, two wingback chairs placed on either side, and the far wall is blocked off by bookshelves that stretch from floor to ceiling.

Niall waves toward the couch in the centre of the room, and Aila sits at one end while he takes the other. She stares at the coffee-table, at the knives and wire spread across the surface. She shifts uncomfortably when she recognises them from the films she’s watched with her friends.

“When I realised my wallet was missing, I figured someone would have found it at some point.” Niall smiles when she finally meets his eye. “I have more faith in humanity than most would like, but even I didn’t figure it would be brought back with nothing stolen. You surprised me.”

Aila scratches idly at her hairline. “There was nothing in it. I told you that.”

Her tone is too defencive, she knows it is, but all Niall does is laugh and shake his head.

“Yes, well, that just further proves you didn’t search through it for longer than it took to get my address. If you had, you would have found my bank cards.” His face settles into seriousness, and he hesitates before turning to face her more fully. “When I saw everything was just as it was when I lost it, it intrigued me. I’ve lived here for almost nine years. People don’t often return lost items without demands of compensation.

“But you? You wanted to return it directly to me—or rather, Mister Niall Ho-ran. It’s Horan, by the way. And you yelled at the guard because he walked away without offering you a lift home. Which is why I sent Mully after you. Didn’t want you to freeze to death after being so kind to me.”

“I appreciate that. Well, my feet do, anyway.” She pauses, running her finger along the seam in the leather cushion. “Still can’t tell me anything, can you?”

“You believe me when I say I wish I could, don’t you?”

“I suppose I have to, don’t I? It’s the only answer I’ve ever gotten from you.”

Niall gives her a crooked grin. “I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. You’re something else, Aila.”

Her gaze drifts along the expanse of his body, the T-shirt over broad shoulders and chest. The slacks that hardly conceal the muscles of his thighs. Her eyes focus a second too long on the stretch of fabric between his legs. Cheeks flushing, Aila quickly looks away.

“So what are your plans for the day?” he asks as if he hasn’t noticed her checking him out.

“Probably go home and sleep some more. I have tonight and tomorrow morning off, so my roommates and I will most likely have a belated Junk Night.”

“You’ve mentioned that before. What exactly is ‘Junk Night’?”

Aila laughs and wonders how she can explain it without making it sound like they’re all a bunch of gluttons. “Well, we’re broke as Hell, so we pool our money once a week to get a bunch of takeaway and criticise whatever films we’re watching that night. Last time was the Godfather series, but there wasn’t much we could criticise about those. They’re classics.”

“You like mafia films, then?”

She wonders about the slight downturn to his lips, the darkness in his eyes. She nods and explains she likes almost any movie she watches. She’s more particular about books, but she can usually find at least one redeeming quality with films. Even the worst ones.

“Anyway, Junk Night is basically just a reason for the five of us to hang out, relax, and forget about the fact we’re all working too long hours for too little pay to put up with the shit we do.”

“It sounds like fun.”

“It is. Which is why I forgot to text you back before.”

Niall laughs and pats her knee. Aila’s breath catches in her throat at the contact. “And I told you that you’re forgiven for it.” He checks the time then grimaces. “I hate to do this, but I’ve a meeting to get ready for. Whenever you want to go home, let Tania or Mully know. They’ll give you a lift.”

Aila nods and watches him stand. The muscles in his back ripple beneath the cotton of his shirt, slacks tightening around his ass before relaxing once he’s fully upright. He smiles down at her, fingers brushing along her cheek as he passes, and a fluttering kicks up in her chest. His touch was soft—almost inconsequential—but it still affects her. She hardly dares to believe in the juxtaposition of the feather-light contact and the hard ice in his eyes the last time they saw each other.

“Am I allowed to text you again?” she asks; her voice is small, and she waits with bated breath and heart racing.

He pauses at the doorway, but he doesn’t turn around. “I’d like it if you did.”

Then he’s gone. Aila listens to his footsteps as they fade then stares around the room. Nothing catches her interest. Her head is spinning too wildly for her focus. This is a totally different Niall than she saw the last two times they were face-to-face. He’s still guarded. He keeps his cards held too closely to his chest. But she doesn’t feel like it’s her fault anymore, that she somehow caused him to pull away.

Whatever he’s hiding is on him. She has to trust that the truth will out eventually.

His name is in her contact list once more.

Rising to her feet, Aila exits the room in search of Mully. Tania—she assumes Tania is the woman from last night—is far too frightening. She’s been in close quarters with Mully before; she can at least have faith he won’t kill her for stumbling into Niall’s life.

“May I help you, Miss?”

Aila whirls around, eyes wide. The old man watches her with glittering eyes. She gasps in a breath.

“You need to wear a bell.”

His lips twitch minutely as he bows his head. “I apologise, Miss. My intention wasn’t to startle you. May I help you?”

“Yeah, um, I’m looking for Mully.”

“I’m sorry. Mister Sean has just left. Miss Tania is around if you’re interested in speaking with her.”

“She isn’t going to, like, murder me, is she?”

“Of course not, Miss. Mister Niall would not be pleased if she did.”

“Then I guess I’ll talk to her.”

“Right this way.”

Tania is sat at the edge of a gigantic indoor pool when the man leads Aila through the archway. He bows again and disappears. His footsteps are far too quiet. Aila draws in a steadying breath before turning back to Tania. Zayn and two of the men from breakfast are swimming laps, none of them paying attention to the newcomer.

“Uh, Tania?”

“What?”

“Niall told me to ask you for a lift home?”

Tania glances back over her shoulder with narrowed eyes. Finally, she scoffs and clambers to her feet. “If he said to ask, then I guess I have no choice.”

“I can take the train back, it’s not a problem.”

“Yeah, that’ll go over as well as a lead balloon. Niall won’t risk your safety like that. Lou, I’ll be back. Keep these idiots in line.”

Lou waves a hand, grinning brightly at Aila, and dives under the water again. The other two follow suit. Tania’s soft smile disappears when she faces Aila. No words are spoken as Tania leads her through the corridors, through a kitchen bustling with activity, and into a garage. Aila can’t stop the gasp.

Seven cars are sheltered from the weather outside. From vintage to modern, every single one of them shine in the overhead lights. Tania makes her way to a gleaming teal sports car and pulls open the door.

“You coming or what?”

Aila rushes to the passenger door. Bass thunders through the car once Tania starts the engine. She doesn’t bother waiting for Aila to buckle up; she presses a button on the pad above her head, and the garage door rises with a rumbling hum. She reverses quickly out of the building, a sharp smile on her pale face when she sees Aila clinging to the door handle.

Aila doesn’t let go as Tania goes well over the speed limit. She takes curves far too fast. She weaves through the traffic cluttering up downtown. She doesn’t slow down even when the lights turn yellow. Eventually—sooner than Aila expected—the car squeals to a stop outside of her house. Tania stares out her window while Aila steps out of the car.

Before she can shut the door behind her, Tania lowers the music and leans over. “Don’t fuck this up, Aila.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just remember that.”

“You’re making me remember an awful lot without explanation.”

“You’ll never get one from me,” Tania says with a snort. “Now go away.”

Aila pushes the door closed, and Tania speeds away. These people are demanding too much of her patience if they expect her to be okay with not having answers.