Plausible Deniability

dancing in the streets

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Niall doesn’t text her again. Aila doesn’t know why it hurts—it’s what she wanted after he was so cold. After all the back-and-forth. The cycle of attention and pretending she doesn’t exist. Colton had destroyed her trust, but he taught her she deserves better.

Niall isn’t better.

The morning of the Spring Festival dawns bright and warm. Aila doesn’t want to attend, but she knows her friends will worry if she doesn’t. The group has never not gone to any of the festivals—the one time the city shuts down. Only emergency services remain staffed.

Restaurants set up booths along the main streets, coffee-shops handing out pastries and drinks without expectations of repayment. Tables of goods and balloon artists line the blocks. Tourism is at an all-time high; the festivals are well-known in surrounding cities, and for good reason. It brings everyone together for a fun time with no responsibilities.

Aila dons the typical outfit for the Spring Festival: brightly coloured top and jeans, ribbons braided in her hair, flowers painted on her cheeks. Paisley coats her dark skin with silver glitter, and Angel’s false lashes are covered with blue mascara. Willow twirls through the living room, lilac skirt flaring around her legs. Cheyenne is the last one finished.

As she stares at her friends, the darkness melts from Aila’s chest. She may have lost what Niall could have been, but she’ll always have these women. The ones who saved her from the heartbreak that came with Colton and Aubrey. The ones who are still here through everything with Niall.

Aila clings to Paisley’s hand as Angel leads them through the throngs of people, the crowd that’s gathered to celebrate the start of another spring. Voices hang thick in the air—no singular accent, no one language, musical in the beauty. Her head swims at the overwhelming aromas of foods laid out and the hard bumps of shoulders against hers.

The group comes to a stop in front of a stage. Aila can barely differentiate this band’s sound from the others, but she doesn’t mind. The wall of noise reminds her why she’s here. Niall may be an utter jerk. He can’t take away her enjoyment of the Spring Festival.

Cheyenne latches onto Aila, spinning them both in circles, as the song changes to something distinctly Celtic. Bright. Aila steps to the side as Angel, Willow, and Paisley link arms to do a jig. The fiddler notices them, laughs, and taps his toe to the beat. He shouts encouragement at the women dancing in front of the stage, and Aila laughs when Paisley blows a kiss to the man.

She isn’t sure what makes her look up to the balconies of surrounding buildings, but she does. On one side, the man from the club sits surrounded by equally terrifying men. Aila chokes on a breath when he winks at her. She turns away and hopes he forgets about her.

A movement from the north catches her attention next. She has no hope of recognising this man, but she recognises the air of danger, darkness, that enshrouds him. The shadows catch on his face, throw the scars into deep recess. His greying hair shines in the sunlight. Gnarled fingers grip the balustrade.

Niall stands on another balcony, across the street from the first group. His gaze drifts along the streets as if he’s watching over them. As if he’s keeping guard. His white suit jacket flutters in the breeze; Aila can’t help but note the similarities between an angel and him. Tania rests a hand on his shoulder, mouth moving, and his head snaps to the left.

His eyes are hard even through the distance. He raises a brow—a question? An acknowledgment? Aila isn’t sure—but then he turns his back to the festival. Tania takes his place. Aila swallows harshly then faces her friends.

Niall has done what she wanted. He’s respected her wishes of not contacting her. Aila wonders if it was a mistake.

A sharp whistle breaks through the noise. She glances up, but none of the groups above seem bothered. Shrugging, she tugs on Cheyenne’s hand and leads her friend toward the nearest food booth. Chey chatters on about Jenna and the wedding.

“We want a longer engagement, ya know? Everything I’ve read says a long engagement has better results for longevity of a relationship.”

Aila snorts as she swipes a packet of mustard from the bin. “Trust me. You and Jenna are sickening with how in love you are. Your relationship is gonna be one of legends.”

“You’re only saying that because you’re my friend.” Cheyenne sighs, picking up her bratwurst. “So what’s going on with you and that guy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on, Aila. Don’t tell me you actually expect me to believe that you’ve been talking to him. You haven’t smiled in the last, like, week.”

“It’s fine. I just got tired of the whole ‘you exist, oh!, no you don’t’ thing. I gave everything for Colton. I won’t do it again if it isn’t reciprocated.”

Aila shrugs and accepts the plastic wineglass from another booth. Cheyenne follows close behind, grabbing a plate of Mexican cuisine on the way. They find a spot that’s as secluded as any spot could be. Aila watches the citizens dancing and cheering down the block. Someone supplied everyone with headbands topped with bobbing cartoon suns.

“I forgave him once,” says Aila before sipping the champagne. “I can’t keep forgiving him every time he decides to do this.”

“I get that, babe. I do. I just... I wish it was different, that’s all. From what Willow said, he’s quite the looker.”

Aila barks out a laugh when Cheyenne shoves at her shoulder. “He’s cute, yeah.”

“‘Blue eyes, dark hair, Irish accent, a body you could climb for days’?” Cheyenne reads off her phone’s screen. “Oh, yeah. She sent it to the rest of us. It was accurate, she says.”

“Of course it is. When have I ever been a liar?”

Cheyenne giggles, sliding her phone into her bag. “Look, I’m just saying. If he comes to you again, at least hear him out, okay? I’m not telling you to forgive him immediately, but make the decision after you’ve heard his excuse.”

“I can do that.”

Cheyenne nods succinctly and drops the paper plate into the recycling bin. Aila finishes off the champagne, wrinkling her nose when the bubbles tickle the back of her throat. Even knowing he’s so near, she lets herself sink into the joy and merriment of the day. She dances with her friends—and a little boy who said her ribbons were pretty—and plays the games set up along the street.

She lets herself forget about his presence, if only for a few minutes.

Aila wakes with a start in the middle of the night. Cold sweat coats her skin, and her heart pounds painfully in her chest. She can scarcely breathe, gasping and shivering all over. Paisley sleeps on in the bed next to her. Running her fingers through her damp hair, Aila slides off her mattress and tiptoes toward the door.

She’d seen with her own eyes that he’s fine. He survived whatever happened and the impromptu surgical procedure in his basement. Still, her subconscious had decided to torture her with scenarios she loathes thinking of: him dying before she got there, him dying while she clung to his hand, him surviving only to have the danger come back to finish the job.

“Why do you even care?” she mutters to herself as she grabs a glass from the cupboard.

It’s a good question—Niall has done nothing but twist her world around. He’s been distant and cold even from the beginning, even when he paid attention to her. Aila should only forget about him. She has to focus on herself, on learning how to be alone after the horrible end of her last relationship.

Aila doesn’t go back to bed, even though she has to work in the morning. Her thoughts are racing too much for her to relax, and she’s terrified of what dreams may come.

Somehow, Niall has become a large part of her life spent asleep. Aila couldn’t bear anything happening to him, even though he’s nothing to her.

“You didn’t sleep.”

Aila shrugs as she sips at her coffee. “I slept.”

“Right.” Paisley sits at the dining table and rummages through her cosmetics bag. After a moment, she comes up with a tube of maroon lipstick. “That’s why I woke up at three, and your bed was empty. And again at five. And oh, look, it’s half-seven, and you’re already on your third cup of coffee.”

Aila snorts, setting her mug aside. Paisley stills as Aila takes the lipstick. It’s mostly a distraction, a tactic to prevent her best friend from saying what Aila knows is on her mind.

So she does her best to stretch the time spent painting Paisley’s lips.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Aila freezes then caps the lipstick. She can’t lie—the others have made it clear that Aila has no poker face—but she also can’t tell the truth. She can’t explain how much it hurts that Niall turned out to be just another disappointment in a long string of them. She has no words that won’t make her look foolish.

“Of course I am,” she says after a long moment, and Paisley pins her with a flat look. “Okay, he’s cute, sure, and he seemed to be a really sweet guy. But things didn’t work out. Big deal. It isn’t the first time things didn’t work out with someone. Now can I go get ready for work?”

“Sure. You can also talk to me about why you’re pretending this doesn’t bother you.”

Aila groans, tossing her hands into the air. “Because it doesn’t! Holy shit, Paze, let this go. He’s just done dude with money who’s pissed I won’t throw myself at his feet. That’s literally it. I don’t give a damn how cute someone is. I’m not going to put them on a pedestal and let myself become a laughingstock.”

Paisley doesn’t believe her. Hell, Aila barely believes herself. She makes a hasty retreat before her friend can call her out on the lie.

Thankfully, Paisley must have told the others about the conversation. None of them speak Niall’s name, and they don’t broach the topic of him in any manner. Aila is grateful for it. Her thoughts revolve around him enough, despite what she told Paisley in the kitchen that morning.

Niall isn’t just ‘some guy’. He hasn’t been since she sat with him in the back room of Bobby’s. Since he took her to his house after rescuing her from certain death. Aila has to convince herself otherwise, though. Any other option leaves her hanging on to the thread of hope that things could be different. That she could let him string her along until he tires of her.

She deserves more than that.

Life has a funny way of destroying the best-laid plans.

It’s nearly a week later when Aila rides the commuter train with no destination in mind. It is scheduled to run for another two hours, and she needs that time to clear her mind. Marian nearly fired her tonight for neglecting a table; only her manager’s soft heart saved Aila from losing a job.

She sees a familiar reflection in the window of the train. Liam leans carefully against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. Zayn sits a few seats ahead of her, but he doesn’t turn to face her. He barely even acknowledges the low murmurs coming from Liam.

She closes her eyes and clings more tightly to the pole when warmth presses against her back. Niall’s hand wraps around the pole just above hers, his free hand settling on her waist as they sway with the carriage rattling on its tracks.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers, and Aila suppresses a shiver at the hot breath and soft lips against her ear. “I just... I wanted to keep you out of it.”

“‘It’?” she whispers back despite her better judgement. He doesn’t deserve her attention, her acknowledgement of his existence. She gives it to him anyway.

“Can I please explain myself?”

Aila makes a show of reaching up, pulling his sleeve back, and checking the time on his watch. “You have two minutes.”

His chuckle ghosts along her skin. Her stomach clenches at the sound. Her body reacts to him even while her brain screams to get away. She doesn’t need him derailing her life any more than he already has. God, does she want him to, though.

“Aila, you’ve been an enigma since we met. I didn’t want to drag you into everything I do. This lifestyle. So I tried to keep you and my businesses separate, and your feelings got hurt in the process. I hurt your feelings. I hurt you. That wasn’t what I meant to do, and I’m sorry.”

“So you treated me poorly in some chivalrous attempt to, what, make my life easier?” she spits through gritted teeth, but a heat blooms in her chest anyway. He may have gone about it all wrong. That doesn’t change the fact he’s apologised. That he feels guilty over it.

“I’m a stupid man.”

She chews on her bottom lip as she lifts her free hand toward his. His fingers spasm against her waist but link with hers. A breath stutters from her chest with the contact. Niall huffs out a laugh, holds her against his chest, when she leans back against him.

You’re being an idiot. The voice continues to reprimand her even as she leads him out of the carriage, across the platform to the exit. She should be but isn’t surprised to see his car coming to a stop just outside. He holds the back door open, and she climbs inside. Liam sits up front, while Zayn takes the seat next to her.

Everything in her gut tells her she is being reckless. She’s letting him in far too quickly. She’s pushing for more when she should be retreating, when she should be running in the opposite direction. This is going to bite her in the ass, but she doesn’t want to stop this. She wants to find out what it could be like with him.

Aila turns to him. “Fuck that. You don’t make my choices for me.”

Niall’s mouth opens, but then she’s kissing him. His breath catches in his throat before his mind catches up. His hand is gentle on her cheek. The kiss is anything but. A fire flares to life beneath her ribs, and she pushes closer.

“We, uh, we can go to my place,” she breathes against his lips. “Angel dragged Paze and Willow to the club. Cheyenne is with her fiancée.”

“You heard the lady,” Niall laughs before pulling her in again.