Plausible Deniability

giving up

Image


Aila hates how much she dwells on Tania’s words through the next week. No matter how hard she tries to make sense of the warning, Aila remains at a loss. What could she possibly ‘fuck up’, if there’s nothing even there? Sure, Niall saved her life, but that doesn’t mean she’s the damsel in distress who’s going to fall head over heels for the hero.

This isn’t a film, and she is not a damsel in distress.

Except she was. She never would have escaped that alley if he hadn’t come along. She would have died with fear in her throat, and the men would have gotten what they wanted before leaving her for dead. Niall had saved her and taken her to his house. He took care of her.

Aila groans and tugs a pillow over her face. She has to stop thinking about this, or she will drive herself insane.

A heavy weight falls across her belly, a sharp elbow landing on her hip, and she yelps at the pain that rips through her torso. She throws the pillow to the side and glares at Paisley. Her best friend only smiles back before brushing her braids from her face. Her umber eyes sparkle.

“Chey has news.”

“If it’s that she’s pregnant, I’m going to ask how that happened. Jenna doesn’t exactly have the proper parts for that.”

Paisley smacks Aila’s leg. “Don’t be weird. C’mon.”

“Hey, Paze?” At Paisley’s soft hum, Aila hesitates. “Do you think I’m being stupid, forgiving Niall like I did?”

“Nah. I think you’re doing what your heart wants you to do.”

Aila doesn’t respond. She just pushes her friend off her belly and climbs to her feet. Paisley leads her out to the living room where the other three women have gathered. Cheyenne is nearly vibrating on the couch, hands tucked between her thighs. As soon as Aila drops to sit on Angel’s lap and Paisley takes the remaining armchair, Cheyenne holds her left hand aloft.

“Jenna proposed!”

“Ow!”

Angel squeaks out an apology before rushing to Cheyenne’s side to examine the ring. Aila sits up and rubs her lower back, grumbling to herself about the pains of being dropped unceremoniously on the floor. No one is listening to her—they’re all enthralled with Cheyenne recounting the proposal. Aila can’t care about the pain. Her friend is too happy.

Three bottles of wine disappear that night, and Cheyenne is still blubbering about her fiancée as she falls asleep on the couch.

The next morning, Cheyenne drags Aila out of the house. Cheyenne’s chatter fills the trek toward downtown, but she doesn’t seem to notice that Aila is barely paying attention. She just keeps talking about her joy at getting married soon.

“So why are we here?”

Cheyenne pauses just inside the door to the shop, frowning. “Haven’t you listened to a word I’ve said?”

“Honestly?”

“I swear, Aila, if your head wasn’t attached to your body, I’d think it wasn’t there at all.” Cheyenne sighs and makes her way to a rack of dresses. “I have to meet Jenna’s parents. So we’re here finding a decent enough outfit so I don’t embarrass my fiancée.”

“Yeah, good luck with that.”

Cheyenne scoffs as she slides hangers along the bar, and Aila wanders around the shop. Business at the Northend was better than expected, so she might as well find something for herself before she can’t afford to even breathe.

“Good morning, miss. Is there anything I can help with?”

Aila blinks owlishly at the man who’s suddenly popped up at her side. “Um, no, I think I’m okay. Thanks, though.”

“Of course. If there’s anything I can do, just give me a shout.”

A strained smile spreads across his face, but Aila has no time to question it. He hurries away, taking up post behind the till. His eyes, dark as soil after a springtime rain, follow her around the shop. She keeps her head down, pretending she doesn’t notice. Pretends her skin isn’t crawling. Pretends she isn’t about to collapse under the weight of the memories of that night.

“We have a lovely blue, if you’d like that one.”

Aila glances up from the lace-wrapped sundress. The neckline is deeper than she usually wears, but the soft cotton tempts her. She can almost feel hot sunshine on her skin, can almost see her reflection in a mirror while wearing this dress. So she swallows down her discomfort and forces a smile.

“That sounds wonderful. Yes, please.”

The man dips his chin before disappearing behind a curtain. Cheyenne ambles closer, frowns at the situation.

“What the Hell is that about?”

“I honestly couldn’t tell you.” Aila shrugs. “Maybe he’s excited to make a sale?”

“I’m the one with seven dresses on my arm. If that were the case, he’d be falling over himself to help me. There’s something about you that’s got him all... that.”

Aila can only shrug. Her gut churns as Cheyenne’s words settle heavily on her mind. Cheyenne is the one spending the most money. The man shouldn’t be scrambling to help Aila like this. She stares at the floor while Cheyenne pays for her purchases.

“I’m gonna go get us something warm to drink. Meet at Triple C?”

“Hm? Oh. Yeah. I’ll be right there.”

Cheyenne breezes out of the shop in a swirl of cherry-scented perfume and blonde hair. Aila shakes her head and steps up to the counter. The man’s gaze darts to her face repeatedly as he scans the tag. Aila cocks her head at the total—something isn’t adding up. The tag says twenty, but the screen says eight.

“It’s on clearance, miss.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

The man passes over her bag but doesn’t relinquish the handle immediately. Chewing on his lower lip, he leans in closer. “Could you please tell Mister Horan I got his message this morning, and I will do as he’s asked?”

“Uh...” Her mind short-circuits. How does this man know Niall? Deciding that Noali’s is one of the businesses he inherited from his father, Aila twists her lips into a smile. “Of course.”

The worry falls from his face, and he nods, letting go of the bag. “Have a wonderful day, miss. Stay warm.”

She thanks him and heads to the door. His gaze lingers on her shoulders even after she steps outside.

From: Aila (11:58)
<
A guy at Noali’s says he got your message and he’ll do it??

The message turns to ‘Read’, but there’s no response from Niall. Aila sighs and pushes her phone into her pocket. Shivering in a sharp gust of wind, she pulls her jacket closer before bustling down the street. Coffee & Cocoa Cafe sounds damn inviting right now.

Winter reluctantly relinquishes its grip on the city. Snowfall turns to rainfall, and warmer moons take over the chilly mornings. The banners on the courthouse and streetlights change from silver-grey to a rich blue, a sure sign the Spring Festival is coming.

Aila’s breath puffs in front of her face, vapour clouds in the cool morning, and she concentrates on the steady rhythm of shoes to pavement. Not the burning in her legs that tells her she’s pushing herself too far. Not the stabbing in her chest that begs for a break. Just the bite of the wind and the thump thump thump of rubber to concrete.

“Do you ever stop running?”

The hand on her elbow is the only reason Aila manages to stay upright, though she shrieks loudly. She yanks her arm away, moving into a self-defence pose before bending over to catch her breath. Niall smiles apologetically when she glares up at him.

“I really hate you. What the Hell?”

“I called your name, like, a mile ago.”

Aila finally takes notice of their surroundings. The familiar trail she’s followed has shifted, morphed into a section she hasn’t seen nearly as often. The screeching of children is almost inaudible at this distance. She straightens up and sets her hands on the back of her head. Anything to help draw in more oxygen.

“Sorry, guess I was lost in my thoughts.”

“Anything good?” he asks with a soft grin.

“Mostly what I’m going to wear to the bachelorette party.”

The amusement flickers, and Niall cards his fingers through his hair. “Bachelorette party?”

“Yep. Cheyenne is one step closer to being permanently off the market.” She pauses, cocking her head when she realises he won’t meet her eye. “Wait. Did you think I was getting married?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know a lot of things about me. I told you, my ex is my ex.”

He shrugs, gesturing toward the path ahead of them. “Shall we?”

Aila rolls her eyes but starts jogging again. Niall keeps up easily. It’s weirdly comforting to not be alone, to have his breathing matching hers as they continue along the trail. She pretends she doesn’t hear the third set of shoes following them.

They have just begun to circle back toward the park entrance when he speaks again.

“I’ll be out of town next week.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Cousin is getting married, so I have to be there.”

“Well, I hope you have fun.” Aila glances at him from the corner of her eye; her gaze skims along the jacket he wears, though it does nothing to hide the planes of his body. “I can’t see you in a tux, though.”

He huffs out a laugh just this side of breathless. “Well, I’m not the one getting married, so a nice suit will be enough.”

“I’d like to see that.”

His blue eyes widen slightly, and he gives her a crooked grin as they slow. Aila’s cheeks are numb from the chill, the sharpness that lingers in the air. She still feels the warmth of his lips on her skin. The contact sends electricity through her blood. When he pulls back, his grin has softened.

“I’ll let you know when I’m back.”

He squeezes her arm, so gentle it causes an ache in her chest that’s unrelated to the two miles she jogged. Then he’s gone, followed closely behind by the man who acted as their shadow. Niall glances back at her before sliding into the backseat of the car waiting for him. She watches the vehicle disappear from sight, and a weight settles in her chest at the thought of not having him near.

She recognises the stirring in her gut way too well, even though the intensity is far greater than she ever felt with Colton.

Niall texts her early Tuesday morning, telling her to stay safe and he’ll see her as soon as possible. Aila tells him to have fun and stay out of trouble. She doesn’t question the ‘as soon as possible’ portion of the text. She couldn’t handle feeling foolish for reading too much into it.

Wednesday dawns warm and bright. No rain clouds hover above, no leftover snow on the ground. Aila breathes in the city’s smell as she makes her way to the station. She wonders how she ever felt at home in Tarris when Primden has been here all this time, waiting for her to settle within its borders.

Her body is loose in a way it hasn’t been since autumn. Her jogs had been put on hold for all the snow, but now she has resumed them with relish. She’d managed to sleep in this morning; a rare morning off from either of her jobs, she took full advantage.

The ladle nearly falls from her hand when the large doors swing open, Tania striding in as if she owns the place. The founder scurries out of the back office, and the men following after Tania watch the people gathered closely. The trio disappears into the office with Caryn.

Aila swallows against the lump in her throat. Why is Tania here? A tightness takes residence in her chest. She knows there is no love lost on Tania’s end. Perhaps she’s come to tell Caryn that Aila should be banned from volunteering—for whatever reason.

Tania emerges from the office twenty minutes later. Nothing on her face gives away what the meeting was about, but then she meets Aila’s gaze from across the room. Steel-blue eyes widening slightly, Tania nearly falters in her steps. She recovers with grace and strides through the doors to the streets of East Primden.

Thursday brings bored texts from Niall. Aila answers them as well as she can. Working two jobs makes it difficult, and she finds herself constantly apologising. He constantly tells her to stop saying sorry—“If you keep saying sorry , it’ll lose its meaning”.

From: Aila (13:21)
<
Can’t I just come work for you? Obviously your company is doing well. I wouldn’t have to work so much if I had a better-paying job.

From: Niall (13:24)
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Not happening
From: Niall (13:24)
>
Classy, right ?

Aila doesn’t get to question his abrupt refusal; she’s too enthralled by the photo that appears on the screen. His head isn’t in the frame, and there’s nothing behind him that gives away where he is. But her attention is firmly on the fit of his black suit. The crisp white collar that highlights the strong lines of his throat. The tie that settles between his lapels.

She swallows thickly at the mental image of her hands wrapped in that tie.

She shakes her head and locks her phone. The image stays firmly imprinted in her mind. A small part of her wonders why he’s affected her like this. Sure, he’s absurdly attractive, and his accent makes her weak in the knees. But he’s just a man. Gorgeous, but a man.

And her track record with men leaves a lasting, negative impression.

To her disappointment, Niall texts on Saturday evening, telling Aila he has to be gone longer. She pouts but hurriedly drops her phone into her pocket. Josh watches her closely, and Aila smiles apologetically in the face of his frown. She ignores the sinking feeling in her gut and the warning in her chest. Something is going to go horribly wrong.

From: Niall (20:41)
>
Finally home again . Never been happier to see my bed. Want to come over for a bit?
From: Niall (20:42)
>
I missed talking to you

Aila snorts quietly. He’s the one who hasn’t responded to any texts and ignored her calls. It’s been nearly two weeks since he first left East Primden, and those were spent in radio silence. She would be lying, however, if she said she didn’t want to see him again.

From: Aila (20:43)
<
Missed talking to you, too. Let me finish this film with the girls, and I’ll be there.

From: Niall (20:43)
>
Oh is it another Junk Night ? I don’t want to intrude or make you end it early

From: Aila (20:44)
<
Yeah, but it’s okay. They won’t mind. It means they won’t have to hear my bullshit commentary through the next bullshit film lol

From: Niall (20:44)
>
If you’re sure. . .

From: Aila (20:45)
<
I am. Be there in about an hour and a half?

A fluttering kicks up in her chest. Willow nudges her shoulder, brows furrowing. Aila bites back a smile and shakes her head as she settles back into the couch. Her friends know about the lack of communication in the beginning, and they are all too loyal to accept that Aila forgave him so easily.

That she’s letting her unexpected feelings grow too much, too fast.

Rushing through a shower and getting dressed, Aila ignores the questions of her friends and bundles up in Cheyenne’s boots and a jacket. Her heart thunders beneath her ribs, her blood running hot. She makes sure she has her phone, train token, and her wallet.

It’s been almost two hours by the time Aila reaches the gate. The guard—one who’s more pleasant to deal with than the man who tried to force her into becoming a Aila-popsicle—lets her in. Aila thanks him through clattering teeth and hurries up the long drive.

She shifts her weight between her feet, shivering in the chilly night air, and waits for someone to answer the door. When the door swings open, Aila can’t stop her gasp. A spectacular bruise spreads across Tania’s jaw and highlights the thin line of red across her cheek. Her fingers clench around the door, and Aila stares at the bloodied knuckles.

“Go home. Niall will call you later.”

“He invited me over,” Aila protests, her voice so small—too small. Tania rolls her eyes and opens her mouth.

“Back off, Tania. Niall can make her leave if he wants.”

Zayn nods succinctly at Aila before climbing the stairs. Tania lets out a disdainful sniff even as she steps out of the way. Aila hurries to follow Tania through the corridors. Her mind races with possibilities of what happened to the other woman. Is Tania part of a fight club? Is Niall involved?

A dozen people fill the kitchen; some cook while others grab dinnerware. None of them look up from their tasks. Tania pulls on a heavy door at the back of the room, leading Aila down a steep staircase. Patches of light dot the dark, and her footsteps echo through the basement.

Tania gestures at a door near the far end of the expansive room. Aila thanks her quietly only to receive a snort in response. She watches Tania stride away. The barest hint of a limp lingers in her steps. Gathering up her courage, Aila knocks on the steel.

A brown eye peers through the crack, then the door slides open with a screech. A man stares at her.

“Aila?”

“Yeah. Uh, Niall asked me to come over.”

“Wait here.”

The words are barely out of his mouth when a yelp breaks through the awkward quiet, and her stomach lurches. Someone is being tortured. Niall is being tortured. Should she call the cops? Her voice shakes as she demands an explanation. He sighs and steps back. She swallows thickly and moves past him.

Ice fills her veins at the sight before her.

Niall is laid out on a cot, staring at the ceiling with red spreading across his bare chest. Someone leans over him and mutters under his breath. Flashes of light reflect off the silver tool in his hand, and Aila watches in horror as the man tugs something from beneath Niall's skin.

The bullet drops to the basin beside the cot with a metallic clang. Aila lets her gaze drift along Niall’s torso. The stitches might as well be beacons with how they catch her attention, draw her focus onto the angry slash across his belly.

The man glances up, his eyes darting from Aila to the man next to her. “She shouldn’t be here, Liam.”

“Let her be, Harry.”

The conversation forces Niall to lift his head. His blue eyes widen then narrow. Lips pressed thin, brows pinched tightly together. No chill lingers in his eyes, but Aila can recognise the anger. His jaw clenches as he lets his head fall back to the cot.

“You should—fuck!”

Harry smiles grimly. “If you’d lie still for a fucking second, it wouldn’t hurt so bad.”

“Piss off.”

“One more, mate.”

Liam pushes at Aila’s shoulder until she takes the hint. Her knees quake as she hurries across the room to stand at Niall’s side. His face softens slightly when she wraps her fingers around his hand. Aila swallows down her questions, the crushing weight in her chest, as her gaze tracks over the scene before her.

Purple-black spreads across his forehead, stretching down over his eye. A thin slice interrupts the hollow of his throat—a warning of worse. His chest heaves with shallow breaths, eyes closing tightly against the pain. His fingers spasm around hers, and she glances up at the man currently working in silence.

Harry frowns as he wiggles the forceps, gingerly extricating the bullet from the hole an inch above Niall’s hip. There’s too much blood.

“Ya done?” Niall groans once Harry has finished sewing up the wound.

“Yes, now shut up.”

Niall waits until Harry bandages up the injuries, then pushes himself carefully to sit. Aila moves as he swings his legs over the edge of the cot. Niall’s face twists sharply. His hand covers the gauze over his chest. The fact she’s so near to him is the only reason Aila hears the stuttered intake of breath.

Harry grumbles but doesn’t speak of his obvious displeasure that his friend isn’t taking it easy.

“Why didn’t you go to the hospital?” Aila murmurs. Bile sits heavy in her throat, and she blinks a few times. The burning remains.

Niall snorts and reaches for a bottle of whisky nearby. Aila’s hand darts out, yanking it from his grip. Repeating her question, she returns the bottle to its previous position. Her stomach churns, and minute shivers run along her spine. Niall glowers at her and, maintaining eye contact, grabs the bottle again.

“I didn’t ask you to be here,” he snaps, and she nearly steps away at the bitter cold in his voice. As it is, a small gasp escapes her. He doesn’t react.

“Actually, you did. You said you wanted to hang out. You invited me over.” She swallows and releases his hand. Her voice wobbles as she continues, “You have no right to treat me like this. I did nothing wrong except care about the fact you obviously got shot four fucking times at some point between our texts and now. You could’ve died, and I wouldn’t have known. So fuck you.”

He sighs, reaching for her. “Aila—”

“Oh, and just so you know, alcohol thins your blood. But whatever. Bleed out for all I care, you utter asshole.”

Silence reigns in the room, echoing behind her as she storms away from the cot. No one stops her on the trek to the foyer, but Mully follows her without word. She wishes she’d never come. That he would have left her alone, hadn’t texted her and gotten her hopes up.

That she hadn’t ever met him.

The car comes to a stop outside of her house, and she hesitates. Her fingers tighten around the handle. The man stares at her in the rear-view. His face is an expressionless mask, and she wonders how he can be so calm. Unresponsive in the face of her heart breaking.

“Tell him to lose my number. This is the last time he treats me like this. And make sure he knows he won’t change my mind, no matter how many flowers he sends me.”

He nods, still not speaking. She slams the door shut and listens to the engine’s purr fading away. Once inside, she leans against the wall and lets go of her control.