Sparks Fly – Chapter 1

“And this morning’s guest on your favorite breakfast TV show, ladies and gentlemen, is the successful and, dare I say, very eligible entrepreneur, Nic Gerrard!”

The ripple of excitement reached behind the cameras, and Nic could see most of the makeup and costume staff watching from one or the other side of the studio. Amanda Bradnam, the host of the chat show, crossed her legs, tugged at her inappropriately short skirt, and turned appreciative blue eyes on him, sitting beside her on the comfortable armchairs.

“Welcome to ‘Breakfast with Bradnam’, Mr. Gerrard. Or Nic, as I know you prefer to be called. A meteoric rise to fame and fortune in the last two years, it has been said. You have masterminded the launch of not just one, but three or four very diverse ventures. All of which have been extremely successful! Most of our business commentators attribute this to a combination of astute decision making and great personal charm. What do you think of this assessment?”

What he thought, Nic wanted to say, was that he was feeling pretty bloody uncomfortable. He’d tried to settle in the chair, but it felt too cramped for him, his legs crossed and folded to the side. He could see his reflection in a screen over the nearest camera and measured it unfavorably compared to the movie star Amanda had just interviewed before him. At twenty-six, he thought he looked too young to be a mastermind, his eyes were half-sleepy considering this time of the morning, and he should wipe that nervous smirk from his face. It made his too-generous mouth look lopsided. And what the hell had make-up done with his hair? The thick curls flopped over his forehead so he had to keep pushing them back.

Nic had read descriptions of himself in plenty of magazines over the last couple of years: he didn’t recognize himself in most of them. Bloggers said he looked as cute and approachable as the guy next door you’d always had a crush on, and journalists praised the confidence and assertiveness that commanded respect in the commercial world. Some days he wasn’t sure where he fitted between the two. Not that he denied personal vanity. This morning, he’d dressed smartly in a dark-colored designer suit, with the jacket clinging snugly to his broad shoulders and the pants resting just a little too low on his hips. He’d had it tailored to fit to his preferences. No necktie, just a crisp white silk shirt open to just below his throat: he knew it would show off his warm, golden tan. At Amanda’s question, he shifted himself to sit more upright, his feet planted firmly on the studio floor. His trouser legs rucked up, disclosing his unexpected, yet very elegant, cowboy boots. He grinned ruefully.

One of the makeup girls sighed helplessly in the background.

“Come on, Amanda, if I listened to those commentators too often, I couldn’t get my big head through a doorway in the morning. It’s due to hard work, a couple of good ideas, and a hell of a lot of luck. There are plenty of other guys in the same position.”

Amanda raised her eyebrows for the cameras, but he didn’t miss the way her gaze ran quickly up and down his tall frame. He knew he looked good, but he also knew most of it was an accident of birth, nothing more. He didn’t always set out deliberately to attract. After all, he didn’t work out enough, he didn’t take enough care with his skin regime, and most of all? You’re not on my radar, lady.

Amanda laughed, a glance at the camera to bring the viewers in on the joke. “I’m not so sure about that. We’ve been trying to negotiate a visit from you to the show for months now. You’re in high demand.” She laughed, rather too brightly. “And, of course, our introduction referred to your eligibility. Not only because you are, as far as we know, unattached, but also because this month you have announced the imminent stock market listing of your most popular company. The dating agency, Sparks. What interested you in this business to start with? It’s an unusual one, when most of your other commercial work is in electronics and technology.”

“Yes, I suppose so.” Nic shrugged. “But that’s only with hindsight.” He found these interviews really embarrassing, but his Promotions team insisted he do them periodically. “Sparks was my first, you see. It wasn’t my idea initially, though. It was a friend’s venture, and he couldn’t keep it on, so I offered to buy it off him. I thought there was some mileage in it. I redesigned it, and re-launched as—”

“Sparks, I know. And it’s gone from strength to amazing strength, in a cut-throat market of many such agencies, all competing for clients. What makes yours so different?”

Nic recovered enthusiasm, talking about his happiest acquisition. “I wasn’t impressed with the very broad, unimaginative questions that most agencies ask their clients, to try to establish a suitable profile for them. I had some guys develop a different template. I reckoned my clients would rather wait a little longer, and put in a little more work themselves, for the sake of one or two fewer suggestions—but ones which matched far more closely what they wanted.”

“And they seem to love it, wouldn’t you say?”

“Many do, yes. But they have to be honest with me.” He leaned forward instinctively: this was the critical issue for him. “There should be no lies. The whole thing hinges on it. There’s no point in a relationship based on lies right from the start, is there?”

Amanda tensed for some reason, but the camera probably wouldn’t have seen. Gotcha, Nic thought.

She rushed on. “So, you programmed this new matching system—”

“Not me,” he broke in, gently but firmly. “It was my idea, and I developed the initial parameters, but I’m no computer genius.”

“You rely a lot on your IT department?”

“I have to. The whole principle is initially a database management issue. We gather what we can about the client, then it’s compared against the other clients on file. I’d be lost without the technical staff to do that, same as in most businesses. All credit must go to them. I just have the vision, but they deliver it.”

“I think it’s a little more than that, Mr. Gerrard, isn’t it? Don’t you interview your potential clients personally?”

Nic raised an eyebrow. That hadn’t been on the pre-production list of questions. Where was she taking this interview? “Well, yes, I used to. In the early days, though now my timetable doesn’t really allow for it. But my managers maintain that role nowadays. The bulk of the matching work is done by the system, but I still think there’s scope for some final assessment—a personal touch. That’s the one thing that can’t be programmed.”

“That’s very admirable,” Amanda murmured. Her producer was waving his arms behind the camera; there were only seconds left in the segment. “And I suspect that’s what makes you so very successful, compared to others. Just one last question, Nic, if I may…”

Here it comes, he thought to himself. He knew she’d been leading up to this for the last ten minutes.

“Anyone special in your life at the moment?”

“No, Amanda, not that I’d necessarily be broadcasting it on national TV if there were!” They both smiled—politely—at his gentle jibe. Out of the corner of his eye, Nic saw the makeup girl in the wings smooth her hair, with more hope than expectation.

“We’ve seen you out on the town with many companions in the last year or so. Many in number, men and women alike, many in type.”  Amanda’s lip curled in a slight sneer. “Perhaps you might use your own agency, eh? To find that someone special?”

There was an awkward second of silence, and some nervous laughter from the crew. Nic stared back steadily, until she shivered slightly. He knew he was in the public eye, and that included his social life. He was fair game. But for a second, Amanda looked panicky, maybe wondering if she’d gone too far in the name of journalism. Maybe even in the name of a rather more personal interest.

And then Nic smiled. Someone’s personal camera clicked: someone else chuckled. He knew his grin was well recognized—after all, he had been on Time Magazine’s cover last month—and this latest sign of cool amusement would soon be all over social media. “You’re not the first to suggest that, Amanda.”  He kept his voice smooth and totally controlled. “And perhaps, one day, I will.”

But until then, no one would know what it cost him to keep up that smile.

Nic nodded to the doorman and took the elevator up to his hotel suite. It had been a very long day. That tedious TV interview, then endless meetings with his accountants, getting ready for the stock market launch, and finally a very mediocre supper with an investment banker who gave the accountants a good run for their money in the Mind-Numbingly-Boring Stakes. Nic had executives to handle his businesses, sure, but he’d wanted to oversee this one personally. He had a very soft spot for Sparks.

But it had been a fuck of a long day. He couldn’t help but think of how often he’d felt that way recently. Was he losing the taste for all this?

“Thanks, Charlie.” His assistant had arrived before him, to take his coat and jacket, and to offer him refreshments, but then Nic waved him away. “Take the night off, okay? I think I just want to turn in early. There’s nothing on the agenda for tonight, is there?”

Charlie Cohen, always alert and loyal, cleared his throat warningly. “There was one call, Nic, from Ms. Amanda Bradnam—the interviewer of this morning’s TV show?”

Nic winced. “One call?”

Charlie grimaced. “You guessed it, boss. More like ten.” His nose wrinkled with distaste.

Nic sighed. He caught the inquisitive glint in Charlie’s eye. “It’s just business between us.”

“You want to tell her that?” said Charlie sharply. “I’d prefer not to deal with her calls at all.” He shook his head, temporarily losing his professional calm. “The arrangements for that interview have been nothing but a thorn in my side, due largely to her attitude. Pushy, arrogant, disrespectful…”

“Charlie,” Nic said with mild reproof.

“… and so obviously keen on a date with the famous, sexually generous Nic Gerrard. She’s a pest. Annoying and cheap.”

Nic grinned wearily. “Charlie, that’s too harsh. She’s a journalist, is all. And if you really need to know the whole of it, we dated once. Long time ago, before I was a media hook at all. But only one date. We both decided to give it a miss. I doubt she even remembers.”

Charlie didn’t reply but his raised eyebrows spoke volumes.

Nic shrugged. “That’s how it was for me, believe me. I have no desire to resurrect it. Please make my apologies, you know—?”

“I know,” replied Charlie, and his smile grew warm again.

“Another night, maybe,” Nic murmured, biting back a yawn. He remembered Amanda’s shining, inquisitive eyes at the interview. Charlie wasn’t the only one who’d felt harassed. He felt a knot of tension in his throat, and sudden sympathy for how a victim of stalking might feel. He’d been lucky his fans hadn’t turned rabid on him. At least, not so far.

“Nic, are you all right?” Charlie was hovering, concerned. “I’ve rustled up a light Caesar salad for you, it’s all laid out in case you want a snack. And I poured you a drink, it’s beside the bed with a fresh bottle of water as well. Can I get you anything else?” He was shorter than Nic, with black hair and dark, hooded eyes. He was running to plumpness already, although he couldn’t have been more than a couple of years older. A good Jewish boy was how he always described himself, though he did it with an attractive, cynical smile—he ate what his glamorous, divorced Mother baked for him, saved a large proportion of his salary according to her instructions, and spent weekends meeting her choice of prospective Jewish brides. Then—he would add, laughing good-naturedly—he’d spend the following week avoiding the hapless girls’ return calls.

He’d been with Nic for over two years now and was devoted to him. In return, Nic had come to rely on Charlie for his invaluable organizational skills—and his ability to keep secrets when it mattered.

Charlie’s question tonight was very deliberate, as he put a hand on Nic’s arm. “Tell me how I can help?”

“Charlie, I’m fine…” But the murmur was half-hearted. Charlie must have felt Nic’s hesitation, and his response was to run his hand down Nic’s chest. He slipped his fingers between the buttons of Nic’s shirt, and started to flip them open.

Nic sighed. “You don’t have to.”

“I know. But I want to. You need to relax.” Charlie tugged the shirt tails out of Nic’s pants, sliding it back off Nic’s shoulders. Gently, he pressed his boss back against the wall, his hand firm on Nic’s bare, lightly-furred chest. For a few minutes he massaged the knotted muscles of Nic’s neck and shoulders, trying to bring him some relief. His breath was soft and steady on Nic’s skin as he concentrated.

Then he crouched down in front of his employer, and slowly unzipped Nic’s pants.

“God, wait … I don’t know if I…” Nic groaned slightly, though from the way his hand darted instinctively to the crown of Charlie’s head, no one would doubt he’d done this before. And Charlie, too.

“Relax, Nic. It’ll be good. It always is.”

Nic still protested, though half-heartedly. “When I gave you your job description….”

Charlie laughed softly. “This is as a friend, Nic. This isn’t on company time. It’s for you. And me, too.”

Sighing, Nic leaned his head back against the wall, running tentative fingers through Charlie’s dark hair. Charlie reached inside Nic’s pants, his nimble hands smoothing across the silk boxers. Ones that he’d shopped for himself, he was always pleased to remind his boss, because Nic never had the time. Nic flinched gently as Charlie stroked the telltale bulge underneath, and nudged the waistband down to Nic’s hips. Eagerly, Charlie encouraged Nic’s cock out of the silk, nestling it in his palm. His hand was warm and smooth.

Nic glanced down, half-reluctantly. The ruddy flesh of his cock bobbed out from the bed of crisp pubic curls. It was filling slowly, the tip easing out of its sheath, glistening with a bead of pre-cum. Charlie gently squeezed him, and Nic’s cock—as a weary but horny young man’s cock would—swelled.

Charlie sighed, gently. “Boss, you need looking after. And for me, it’s a win-win.” His voice was slightly breathless as he pressed thin, smiling lips to Nic’s dick and licked greedily across the tip. He murmured with pleasure as Nic shuddered: the flesh swelled even more, and pushed through his lips. His mouth widened, sliding down over the head, and he started to suck.

Nic felt the thickness grow, the pressure of passion building up inside Charlie’s mouth. It’d be quick tonight, he could tell.  He moaned quietly, pressing down on Charlie’s head, rocking his hips to meet the suction. For a few blissful moments, his memories of the rest of the day eased away. All he could feel was the delight of Charlie’s mouth and his confident hand, cupping Nic’s balls inside the silk boxers. Nic’s eyes were half closed but he knew how this scene would look if he glanced down again—the dark head bobbing at his groin, Charlie’s hand down inside his own pants, Charlie’s fiercely polished shoes creased at the toes as he crouched down awkwardly to blow Nic….

Nic shook his head with irritation; his attention was drifting. Just then, Charlie ran his tongue around the crown of his cock, and slipped his fingers back under Nic’s balls to stroke at the skin of his perineum. Nic sucked in a painfully excited breath. Damned guy knew exactly where to press, at just the right time…! Charlie started to rock backwards, increasing the pressure, running his tongue across the slit, savoring the seed that was starting to leak out. Nic was gasping now; every one of his nerves was straining, the blood rushing from elsewhere in his body to that one, magnificent, tortured point. He gripped at Charlie’s hair, his thighs tensed, and he cried out loudly. The rush of excited lust and his desire for relief took him over the edge to climax, and he thrust forward, spitting cum into Charlie’s mouth. His vision blurred; his skin flushed all over. In the background, he could hear Charlie chuckling.

Panting, his heart hammering against his ribcage, Nic flattened his hands against the wall to help keep himself upright.

Grinning, Charlie straightened up. He ran a hand across his mouth, scooping up a few loose strands of cum. His eyes were dark with excitement.

“Charlie.” Nic could hear how hoarse his voice was. “You…?”

Charlie shook his head ruefully. His face was very flushed. “Got to go, I’m afraid. I’m due at Mother’s. Late already, actually. And you gave me the rest of the night off, remember?” He was joking, but his eyes betrayed his hunger to stay a little longer. So did the thick swelling at his groin, his arousal tight inside his smart pants. But he was apparently wise enough to know when to push for more, and when not to. “A quiet night in for you, then, boss. I’ll see you in the morning, eight o’clock prompt!” He smiled at Nic, who was still having trouble focusing.

“Sleep well, Nic.”

Later on that evening, Nic sat propped up on his king-size bed, watching some sporting event on the giant wall-mounted TV screen. He had no idea what the score was, yet he didn’t feel inclined to turn it off and try to sleep. He’d picked only fitfully at the salad that Charlie had prepared, and he’d not touched his drink. His mind was elsewhere, and it wasn’t particularly content.

A quiet night in, Charlie had joked. But it always was, wasn’t it? At least, if he was given the choice. The only times he went out nowadays were on PR duty, a sponsor-related event, or one of the many media parties he was invited to. It was a long time since he just went somewhere for casual fun.

An even longer time since he’d dated anyone, let alone someone he’d have called special. He didn’t count the astonishing yet pragmatic with-benefits arrangement he had with Charlie, or the succession of young men and women who threw themselves at him on a regular basis, just because he’d been on TV that week or in a popular magazine. Yeah, he sometimes caught and enjoyed them—but it was a mutually enjoyable, short term thing. A man needed to relax, after all, and he’d always had a more than healthy and fully inclusive libido. He was financially well off, and in the public eye. That was enough, he knew cynically, to hold attraction for many. And if that was all it was, that was their problem, not his.

But it never gave him anything for keeps.

He gazed restlessly around the suite. He’d been here for some months now, after uprooting to the city so that he’d be nearer the center of the negotiations, but he hadn’t added many personal fittings or decoration. He knew he might be moving on again at any time. That was another symptom of his unusual and erratic lifestyle: he rarely stayed anywhere longer than six months, and it was always a hotel, a suite, a base; not a home.

But wasn’t all this what he’d always wanted? Success, money, fame! Everything that’d seemed so far away when he was a child. His mother had been a rebellious, free-spirited girl who was a persistent runaway all through her teens into early adulthood. All she wanted was to live by the sea and follow the surf—and surfers. When she fell pregnant, she was abandoned by the boyfriend she’d devoted herself to all that summer. His family had other plans for his professional future where a wife and baby weren’t featured, she’d told Nic, though with surprisingly little bitterness. All he inherited from Mom’s romantic adventure was a blank space on his birth certificate and the hint of a West Coast accent from the surf community she adored. It was always stronger when he was tired.

Mom had struggled without any help from her disapproving family to bring Nic up on her own. She couldn’t hold down much of a job; she’d continued to be rebellious and awkward in the face of authority. But she’d never been less than fiercely devoted to him. They’d lived in hovels and trailers and the spare rooms of passing friends until he could earn some money of his own and had scraped his way through a business college course. It wasn’t a particularly unique story—he knew that, he wasn’t looking for sympathy—but it was his, and had shaped the man he was today.

Just after he left college and started looking for a job, Mom contracted cancer. Her family suddenly vanished from all contact, despite his initial calls, and so it ended up as the pair of them alone, same as it always had been. She died quickly and relatively painlessly—Nic knew he should be grateful for that, for her sake—but he’d been full of grief and shock for a long while. He often wondered if he’d have got himself back on track on his own, but he hadn’t needed to. He met Greg, who’d graduated from the same college as a mature student, and that unexpected friendship changed his life again.

Greg was so full of entrepreneurial ideas that they seemed to spill out from him. They bonded as friends almost immediately and Nic moved into Greg’s apartment. He took a job as a clerk in a financial services company, bringing in a modest but steady salary that covered most of the bills, while Greg pursued innovative business venture after venture. Some worked—some didn’t. Greg’s enthusiasm wasn’t matched, unfortunately, with a commitment to hard work.

Nic smiled at his memories, because he didn’t hold that against his friend. Success just didn’t seem to matter to Greg; the excitement was the thing that got him buzzed. Most of Greg’s ideas started with a few bottles of beer, a twenty-four hour website search, and then the preparation of an impassioned, if rarely robust, business plan.

“Keep moving, man,” Greg had always protested. “Don’t let them get your hooks into you. Job, money, sex—there’s always something new, something better!”

Nic hadn’t necessarily agreed: and he was never sure who “they” were. But Greg allowed Nic into his dreams, and Nic started to bring his own inspiration and developing maturity to the partnership. They’d balanced each other out for a long while.

For Nic, however, success had been important. When Greg lost interest in a small but promising online dating agency he’d started, Nic almost tripped over his eagerness to get at it. It had caught his imagination and he could finally see the chance to bring his own ideas to fruition. It’d be his escape—a dream come true! A chance for him to build his own life, and his own career.

Astonishingly hard work of course, turning a failing business around entirely, but he’d done it. He’d learned from Greg, both what to do and what not to do. He kept the overhead low and the working hours long, and spent his money on shrewd marketing and sound technological support. Plenty of people thought he was too young to deal with, and plenty of people were proved wrong. He re-branded the business as Sparks, followed up the contacts he’d pursued, and personally chased for clients.

It had worked. The first few months burned up every penny he’d ever stashed away. But then Nic’s online interview on a friend’s blog caught the attention of a popular podcast, and a guest spot there led to Sparks being featured in an online lifestyle magazine…. The registrations began to swell, and the agency became a business reality.

Nic didn’t stop there. As soon as Sparks started to build a reputation, he moved quickly out into the public arena to market it. And knowing no different, he did it all himself. Without consciously planning it that way, he was building the brand of Nic Gerrard, not just the business. He was his own best advertisement! Whatever the agonies he’d suffered in the early days with so many sleepless nights, sitting on Greg’s apartment floor surrounded by piles of how-to books and spreadsheets, panicking about pitching to potential markets, sweating over funding proposals—despite all that, he was determined to start each day and every meeting as a bright, eager young man. And people responded to that.

Though, as Greg often said with a generous grin, the good looks didn’t hurt either.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Nic—to know about him. Sparks had caught more than just his imagination, and so had its chief, and only, executive. Nic had been surrounded by marketing advisors, commercial proposals, and sponsorship deals. It had been the greatest change in his life since Mom died—but he’d embraced it with enthusiasm. Occasionally, of course, his past life was touched on in interviews or articles, but he never encouraged it. If anything, it added to his reputation as someone who’d striven to rise above his early disadvantages.

To Nic, personally and privately, it was just the way things had to be.

He enjoyed being an entrepreneur, and he reckoned he did it damn well. Soon, he’d started looking around at other opportunities. And from then on in, maybe because of his growing confidence, as some kind of snowball effect, everything he’d touched had turned to commercial gold.

Those were the days. But now, tonight…

He kicked listlessly at the sheets on the hotel bed. Why was he so restless?

Everything had been so exhilarating at the beginning! Maybe he was getting a little sentimental, but it was true. He’d shared with Greg the buzz of excitement at the start of a project. Now, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that thrill.

When had he last really enjoyed himself?

He reached for the remote and snapped off the TV. The hotel suite was cool and quiet around him. Being on his own had always been an advantage—he gave all of his time to his business career—but it made for some lonely times. He glanced over at his phone on the bedside table, but made no move to call anyone. Nic treasured his friends, but there were less of them around nowadays. Not close ones, anyway, who’d known him at the beginning, who liked him for himself, not just the public persona. And, of course, he had little private time to nurture new ones.

God. Welcome to my own personal pity party!

Greg had baled out long before Sparks regained success, both from the business and from Nic’s life. Nic hadn’t seen him since, and rarely talked about him to anyone. The friendship had been something private and precious in his life, helping him build his confidence; helping him find his way. He missed Greg, often, but he’d honored the man’s decision to move on. Apparently there’d been some fantastic new opportunity in Australia that Greg had found. He’d pinned up pictures of beaches and surfboards all around the apartment, and talked endlessly about waves and leisure-wear franchises and the freedom of a new life. And the guys. Plenty of guys. Oh yes, Greg had always had an eye for a cute body and made no secret of it. It was largely why he was always so easily distracted from work. But his irrepressible excitement had amused Nic, all through the upheaval, the packing, the hasty departure. It was difficult to feel any other way with Greg.

Nic was still fond of Greg, even though he hadn’t received more than a handful of emails in the years since Greg left. They might have become lovers, at one stage, but Nic had held back from that step. He’d been much less experienced with relationships—and had dated mainly girls at college—although he knew he was attracted to men as well. But, he just knew in his heart that it was better if Greg stayed a friend.

And Greg’s departure had opened the way for Nic. He’d rented Greg’s apartment for a few more months until he found somewhere of his own, and so he had plenty of time to concentrate on developing Sparks. He couldn’t keep it running on his own indefinitely, so as soon as he knew he was on to a potentially winning proposition, he found new premises and recruited his own very modest team of staff. And to give the old program a ‘facelift’, he started looking for suitable programmers.

Well, just one in particular sprang to mind. Nic shifted again on the bed. Funny he was thinking of that guy now.

Aidan West was his name.

Nic couldn’t remember who’d recommended the systems engineer who re-wrote Sparks’s original program almost single-handedly. Aidan West was around Nic’s age, and with a glowing resume that Nic had suspected at first had to be faked, it was so gushing. Then he met the man himself—quiet, fiercely determined, and seriously introverted—and Nic knew that deceit and fiction were equally unlikely for this man. He’d been a revelation. Aidan had grasped Nic’s ideas in minutes, had worked as hard as Nic himself to get it written, and taken on Nic’s passion to give the industry something way more sophisticated than it had ever seen before.

And they’d had fun doing it, hadn’t they?

Ridiculously long days and nights; so many crumpled sheets of paper lining the floor that Nic had fallen over hidden folders and trash cans more than once. Charts on the wall, stuck and re-stuck with old tape; sweeping lines in red marker pen as he sketched out on a whiteboard the pattern of a client’s profile he was looking for. And through it all, the relentless tap-tapping of Aidan West at his keyboard, his dark head bent over the keys.

Nic couldn’t remember Aidan ever going home before Nic did himself. They’d been excellent company for each other in a strange, diverse, yet complementary sort of way. Nic chatting continually, excitedly, Aidan a silent, concentrated counterpoint. But the guy had made his mark, regardless: he’d make shrewd, quiet suggestions just when Nic was at his most frustrated, suggestions that allowed them to branch out in directions that hadn’t been taken before. And then his fingers would fly faster—Nic remembered more than once the need to move half-empty cups of cold coffee out of the way of his jerking elbows—and the program took shape.

Nic hadn’t forgotten Aidan, but for a while, he’d been out of Nic’s thoughts. The memories provoked a frisson of emotion he didn’t immediately recognize. He hadn’t seen Aidan around the executive offices recently. That was probably because, once the agency launched, the level of development work dropped to less urgent maintenance. There’d been no need for Nic to work with Aidan directly again.

Nic guarded the secret of the software most carefully, and had been worried that Aidan would be tempted to develop it for others, too. But he never had. He’d come to them as a freelancer, but he was still committed to Sparks, contracted on a regular basis for upgrade issues.

Aidan West.

His face was suddenly very vivid in Nic’s mind. Nic felt a slight shiver that had nothing to do with the level of air conditioning in the suite.

A fantastic worker, an invaluable asset—that’s how Nic remembered describing him to some of the potential investors. Nic had tried to get to know Aidan personally, like he did most of his close staff, but he had no luck. Aidan didn’t seem secretive, as such, just private and sparing with his conversation. Involved almost entirely in his work.

A company geek, some of the other staff had joked.

Nic frowned to himself. The guy had been far more than that, surely? Patti, Nic’s executive secretary, had also called Aidan a geek more than once, though she added that he was the best looking geek Nic ever employed. The memory made Nic chuckle. Patti didn’t often let anything get in the way of a romantic conquest, but he was pretty sure she’d had no success there, or wouldn’t the whole office have heard by now?

He’d look up Aidan West tomorrow, he decided, when he visited the executive office to sign some stuff. Yeah, he nodded at the thought, that’d be good. Some of the tension had eased inside him, and maybe he’d settle to sleep, now he had a specific plan to deal with. He got up out of bed and padded over to the bathroom in sweat pants and a sleeveless t-shirt, having changed as soon as Charlie left. It made him feel younger, less inhibited. His hair was damp from an earlier shower and curled down on his bare shoulders. It needed a cut: he’d have to get Charlie to organize that. It flicked around his neck as he washed his hands and splashed his face one more time. The style was too long for the City, apparently, for the ‘suits’ who’d been working on his proposal, who’d been negotiating on his behalf. He wore the wrong clothes, too—those cowboy boots, for a start!—although they were of the best designer quality. His style could be, as Patti put it, eccentric.

Nic grinned, remembering when he first interviewed Charlie, who’d turned up in a smart, tightly buttoned and immaculately pressed suit. All through the meeting, Charlie’s eyes had been fixed on Nic’s bright red shirt and his long, wavy hair, which he had to push back now and again behind his ears. Charlie confessed, after he got the job, that his own choice of clothes had been his Mother’s. Nic told him that if he saw him wearing a necktie again around the office, he’d throttle him with it. Charlie had paled, very quickly. It took him another week before he adjusted to Nic’s sense of humor, and loosened up enough to wear more relaxed colors. Though his shoes were always so polished you could see your face in them.

Nic knew the value of discipline and strong networking—but he was never going to be one of the crowd.

He stretched now, linking his hands above his head and pulling some remaining kinks out of his shoulders. His t-shirt rose up, and the cooler air made the muscles in his stomach tense up. He cracked his knuckles. Perhaps he just needed a change.

Some new challenge.

Aidan West… yeah, he would see him tomorrow, assuming he was in the office. Apparently Nic’s mind knew best, and the reason for his agitation was to do with Sparks. Aidan would be the best guy to talk to about the current status and any new ideas for the program. And then Nic could move on to other things.

He looked over at the well-stocked drinks cabinet, but his glass was still full from earlier. He pushed it away and settled back down on the bed. Maybe he’d run through that business plan for the Spring campaigns from the Marketing team. Charlie had brought it over to the hotel earlier, and left a luridly-colored post-it note on the cover, suggesting slyly that Nic might need something to lull him to sleep later.

Nic pulled the pile of papers off the side table and on to his lap. He turned the first page and yawned.

Yes, a quiet night in, it certainly was.


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