Aidan strode into the Sparks office, his mind set but his mood confused from his tumultuous night with Nic. It was too still early for most of the staff to be on site, but Patti had arrived a little before him, and taken the call he was waiting for.
“It’s Transatlantic,” she said. “The woman’s been calling you on and off for half an hour apparently. Didn’t want to leave a message so she kept trying.” She bit back a yawn and blushed. “Sorry. The last couple of days have been manic, well, you know.” Even as she spoke, the phone started buzzing on her desk, and he could hear two more start up in one of the offices along the corridor. Patti rolled her eyes wearily. “Back to damage limitation duty for me. You could have given her your cell number—”
“I need to talk to her in the IT suite,” Aidan said curtly. Then he realized how tired Patti sounded, and saw the dark shadows under her usually bright eyes. She’d been battling valiantly on the front line to handle the whole gender flag scandal, hadn’t she? He softened his voice. “Thanks for holding the call for me.”
Patti blinked hard and blushed again. She smiled at Aidan, probably hoping for more conversation but he’d reached the limit of his sociability, both because of the early hour and because so much else was on his mind. He asked for the call to be transferred into one of the IT meeting rooms, though he felt her stare between his shoulder blades as he walked there briskly. What, was it such a surprise he spoke to someone kindly?
Huh. Maybe so.
He closed the door behind him, logged into the conference call laptop, and took a deep breath. The silence was welcome.
The speaker crackled before a voice came through. “Aidan West, is that you?”
“Megan!” He waited impatiently until her face appeared on screen. “So, what do you have to report—?”
“No apologies first?” she snapped back, startling him. “I’ve been waiting for you to get your arse out of bed for hours now.”
“Sorry,” Aidan said quickly, but he couldn’t stop the flush on his face at the thought of whose bed he’d just come from. And she was right to complain—she was eight hours ahead of him and had probably done as many hours work already.
And then she grinned as cheerfully as he’d ever seen from her. “Oh, look at that blush! Exactly what have you been doing with that cute arse, sweetheart? I want to hear you’ve found yourself a fit young man and you’re shagging him senseless. At bloody long last!”
“Megan!” he protested. He was acutely conscious the call was on speaker, and thankful there was no one in the corridor outside. There weren’t many people in his life that he’d discussed his sexual preferences with, but he’d always felt more secure with a few online friends, including Megan. “There are other things in life, you know.”
She gave an unladylike snort. “But they’re not as much fun, and I should know, I’ve tried most of those other things. And fun’s not something you seem to have a lot of, is it?” She smiled at him, unrepentant, and Aidan knew not to take offence.
In all the time he’d known Megan Baker, he’d never found her hampered by any inhibitions, and he’d learned to roll with her sense of humor. One day he wanted to travel to the UK to meet her in person, because for the last two years, after meeting on a technical forum, they’d only ever connected online. She’d never given details about her background: she occasionally mentioned big corporations she’d worked for but she didn’t boast about it. And she rarely referred to family or other friends. She had no social media accounts, at least not in the name he knew her by—and he’d rather shamefully checked. He wasn’t very sure of her age, and her hair and coloring seemed to change regularly. But he’d admit—though maybe not in public—that she had a far sharper brain than his in many technical areas.
In all honesty, he suspected that her extensive knowledge of hacking and computer espionage had been accumulated from personal—and probably illegal—experience rather than any lawful training. But in some of his lonelier, more isolated times, she’d been a cheerful and loyal companion. She was brutally honest and outspoken in her friendships, and judged no one. She had always accepted Aidan just as he was, never expecting or asking him to change, assuring him she liked him best that way.
“What fun I have is my own business,” he replied now with spirit, shaking his head.
She gave a low chuckle. “Guilty conscience speaking, eh? You have that poker-faced expression going for you, not letting anything slip. But I hear it in your voice. I never thought I’d hear Aidan West thick with sated passion, that’s the best news I’ve had all month.”
“Leave my love life alone,” he growled, though he knew she’d take no notice of his indignation. “I need your brain, not your lonely hearts advice.”
“Ah yes.” She smiled. “And you shall have both! I just wish I could be there to see you when you catch this thief, to accept the bottle of champagne you’ll have for me in person, and to see that hot Mr. Gerrard they all rave about in the press….” She paused.
Aidan almost panicked. “You do have something for me? Megan, this is really important. Maybe I can go back to the diagnostic testing I did the other night, I must be able—”
Her tutting interrupted him. “Calm down and let a girl have her fifteen minutes of fame, okay? You learned a lot from me, honey, but not enough, not yet. Come back soon for a refresher course, but leave this to the professionals. Because you’ve ground to a halt, haven’t you?” She leaned back so dangerously far in her chair that Aidan lost sight of the top of her orange-haired head, and worried she’d topple right over. “After all, why would you need me otherwise?”
“Nonsense, I’ve always valued any input—”
“Crap!” She swung her chair back down with a thump, and snorted again. But she seemed more smug than insulted. She’d called on Aidan’s advice enough times in the past for him to know this was how they operated together, the almost fond, bantering game they played.
“Yes,” he admitted. “Okay. I set the trap in the test system and there’s been activity. But I can’t make sense of it, and…” He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. “My meddling has allowed the hacker to steal some of the most confidential information.”
“Ah. Yes.” Megan’s voice gentled. “I read about that online. Sparks is about to recreate itself as truly, spectacularly inclusive.”
“Plenty of people hate that idea. Don’t give a damn.” Aidan tried to keep the wretchedness at bay. “It’s gonna ruin Nic if we can’t put a stop to it.”
Aidan had a horrible feeling he’d exposed something more personal in his use of Nic’s name, but Megan continued blithely.
“You were on the right track, Aidan. It would have worked eventually, but I guess the timescale has suddenly become urgent. And to be honest? You don’t have the most up to date software there. I have access to a hell of a lot more sophisticated options—”
“And devious,” Aidan muttered.
She laughed freely. “Yeah. But that’s what you need, right? Can’t have you trotting over to the dark web unsupervised. And I have the programs to search the live and the test system together, a fast and deep, mutual inquisition—”
“I didn’t tell Nic!” Aidan interrupted in sudden panic. She made it sound like the worst kind of invasive root canal work.
“What, that you’d given me your access to Sparks?” Megan tutted. “What happen between us, stays between us, honey. No one will even know I’ve been there. And the leak is blocked—for good. I’ve documented any changes I had to make, they’ll be in your inbox today.”
She must have heard Aidan’s sigh of relief, he couldn’t keep it in.
“You were really worried, weren’t you? Like I say, you would have sorted it yourself in the end. Unfortunately your diversion into the test system caused more confusion, not less, though it was a damn good idea. But the live program was still the key. This problem’s been going on for a few more months than you imagined.”
“Thank God,” Aidan said. His next words were ragged. “I needed your help.”
“Honey.” Megan leaned forward as if she wanted to touch him through the screen: to hug him. “I know what it costs you to say that. It’s not a weakness, Aidan, to collaborate for the greater good. Looks like something—or someone—has loosened you up enough to consider it.” She chuckled. “I just hope I didn’t destroy anyone’s chance for wedded bliss by a careless keystroke. That’d be fun, right?”
“Dear God.” Aidan knew she was joking, but that didn’t help calm his guilt at allowing, basically, a stranger—and a powerfully skilled one at that—into Nic Gerrard’s prized system. He needed to get back in and change all the passwords as soon as possible. “Just tell me. What did you find?”
Megan reached for a coffee cup that had been just out of shot and took a long, noisy slurp. “I found a random but frequent pattern of hacking activity, and a small band of Trojans left behind, uninvited guests still in hiding after the main party’s over. You were right to think the guy is only half-skilled. But whether by luck or judgement, he managed to crack his way in and has been nosing around ever since.”
Aidan swore once, colorfully.
After another slurp of coffee, and a look of pained accusation at the cup because it was now empty. Megan continued. “I have a persistent e-mail address at the end of the trail, one that’s nothing to do with any of your contacts or employees. It’s been routed through other addresses, but time and again the strands come right back to it. There’s no reason to be in your system, and the pattern of its entry is both suspicious and clumsy. It’s definitely your hacker. But it’s a nickname, and with a post box mailing address. However, it’s in your city.”
“How did you…?”
Megan snorted. “I’ll have you know I have friends in many an outlet store, many a public records office, many a postal sorting office, not just geeks like us. I hope it’ll help you, but I don’t know how much.”
“What is it?”
He could hear the rustle of paper as she looked through her notes. Her desk was always covered in paper. “It says ‘email@example.com’. Does that mean anything? Now we’re both thinking about it, I think I’ve seen a logo that matches those initials, on one of your weird and wacky channels.” Megan loved her TV, she had it on all the time, even when she was working. All the satellite channels she could access, across the globe, everything from cartoons to current affairs. “Aidan? If you give me more time, I’m sure I can track down a real life name as well….”
“I-spy,” Aidan muttered. He’d heard that word from someone’s mouth, only recently. “BWB…”
“‘Breakfast with Bradnam’,” came a soft voice behind him. “Amanda Bradnam, always on her endless quest for an exclusive.”
Aidan heard the door to the conference room click shut again behind the speaker. His whole body stilled. He turned around slowly, to see Nic Gerrard watching him, a strange, sharp light in his eyes.
“I had to come,” Nic said calmly. No apology. No personal greeting. Back in control of his company’s business. “She is, of course, the host of that program. And wouldn’t it be just like her to sign her e-mails in that boastful, pretentious fashion?”
“Aidan?” came a sly little chuckle from the conference screen. “What luck! Won’t you introduce me at last to the delicious Mr. Gerrard?”
That afternoon, Amanda Bradnam was found at her downtown apartment, sitting in a small, windowless, spare bedroom, surrounded by a selection of monitors that—according to Aidan West—were of surprisingly high caliber. And with enough evidence scattered around her to confirm that several of them had been used to hack systematically into the Sparks program for several months. The police had also found telephone records of calls to another state address that lasted for hours at a time—and just for good measure, a more than generous supply of Class A drugs.
Nic and Aidan went together to the police station to give statements. Charlie had followed, but only for support. He stayed by the car, fighting off the reporters as soon as they got wind of further developments in the Sparks/Gerrard story. Nic sat inside, in the hallway, watching the passing officers with something like shock, while Aidan paced.
“How stupid was she, to use her official e-mail address from her work?” he grunted. “She must have known I would track it down sooner or later. I’d never have thought she had the brains for this whole campaign. She can’t be a professional hacker.”
“God’s sake,” Nic muttered. He’d never felt so exhausted. “You mean there are people who make this a career?”
Aidan wasn’t listening. “Somehow, she was proficient enough to hack in, and she recognized the importance of the new gender flag work. She released the information to the press. But if so, surely she’s arrogant enough to have wanted her name on the byline? There’s something missing in this whole picture.”
Nic had no time to offer an opinion. The door across the hall opened, and two police officers came out, flanking Amanda. She was hunched into herself, looking considerably older and paler without her makeup and smart clothes, and in handcuffs. She’d tried to attack the arresting officers, Nic found out later, and they’d had to restrain her. Even though her attorney bleated that she was under the influence of ‘strong medication’, they weren’t taking any chances with her.
She glanced around the hallway, scowling. And she saw them. She came to an abrupt halt, the officer on her left putting out a restraining arm.
Nic half rose from his seat. But Aidan marched straight toward her, glaring.
“What do you want?” she said. Aggressive, but wary. Her eyes rolled unpleasantly in her head and there was a heavy sheen of sweat on her forehead. No sign of the polished, attractive TV personality now.
“I want to know what the fuck you were doing in my program,” he snapped.
“So, you’re the geek he’s so protective of,” she sneered. “I knew there was something about you at the launch. The way he was stripping you with his eyes, thinking no one noticed.” Her gaze flashed to Nic, then back to Aidan, and her eyes narrowed. “It’s a quaint approach to staff management, I must say. As a lover instead of just a minion, does he fuck you over more or less?”
“Amanda!” Nic rushed up behind Aidan, holding up a hand to beg a few minutes from the police escort. “Why the hell did you do it?”
“More to the point,” Aidan said grimly, obviously unfazed by her abuse, “How did you do it? I know you don’t have the skills, not on your own.”
Amanda’s attorney was blustering behind the police officers, an ineffectual man, obviously out of his depth in this kind of crime. He was making some muttered complaint about proper legal representation while in custody, and harassment by potential witnesses, but in any event, Amanda seemed careless of incriminating herself further.
“What do you know?” she spat out at Aidan. “You lost the best programmer you’ve had for years, someone with real flair. Damon would have shown you all what he could do, but you couldn’t recognize his genius.”
“Damon?” Nic frowned. “The only Damon I know…? Hiller, that’s it, Damon Hiller was his name. He worked for us when we first started up. But what’s he got to do with this?”
Amanda tried to run her hands over her face, but the tug of the cuffs stopped her. “He’s my brother.” She sneered at Nic. “No, we don’t have the same name, but people change their names, Nic, all the time. At least, I did, when I got married. It was a pathetic little marriage, and one I’d rather forget, but I kept the name long after the guy left. It sounds good, for professional purposes. You know they call me Ball-Buster Bradnam, don’t you?” She looked inordinately proud of the fact.
Christ, Nic hadn’t even known Amanda was married. She kept that quiet. He turned to Aidan. “Could it have been this Damon who hacked in?”
Aidan never took his gaze off Amanda. “He was a mediocre programmer, but he would have had limited access to the system while he worked at Sparks. He could have developed that maliciously, after I fired him.”
“He left!” Amanda growled at him. “He wasn’t fired, that’s a vicious lie. He left to find somewhere more appreciative of his talents.”
“I assume you’re referring to his talents for poor discipline and repeatedly sloppy work,” Aidan said coldly. “I wouldn’t have kept him on any longer than I had to.”
“And without even a reference.” Amanda looked anguished. “After the work he’d done for you and your precious matching program.”
Aidan turned back to Nic. “He threatened to go into competition against us, tried to scam a compensation payment out of me. I refused and had him escorted from the building.”
“Revenge against Sparks. Is that what all this was?” Nic was shocked. “Revenge against me?”
“Hiller took too many short cuts.” Aidan’s jaw was set firm. “He would harass me to work on the core program, but his skills weren’t up to it. I refused to risk the project by involving him in anything more critical.”
For the first time, Amanda smiled. “But he found his own way in, didn’t he? And I helped him, don’t you doubt it. I meet a lot of people in my job, you know. A lot of people with a wide range of skills. And plenty of them want to help me, for the promise of money or my precious attention.”
Jesus, Nic thought. She saw herself as sone kind of evil project manager.
“Ms. Bradnam, please—” her attorney huffed behind her, but she ignored him.
“If I’d had longer, we’d have found enough to set us up for life, to set up our own agency. We’d have brought down the whole of Sparks, and made a laughing stock of you all!”
“Not from my program, you wouldn’t!” Aidan snarled so fiercely, Nic put out a hand to restrain him. “And we found you in the end, didn’t we?”
“I’d never have let you get away with that, Amanda.” Nic shook his head at her.
“Stand up for each other, why don’t you?” She glared from Nic to Aidan, equal contempt for both. “Your own pathetic little clique, Nic Gerrard—your glamorous, gilded little world! What do you know about other people’s ambitions, their desires? Fucking nothing! And you couldn’t care less, either, could you?”
“She’s on medication!” the attorney bleated. “In mitigation—”
“Yeah?” The officer holding her arm tightened his grip. “Tell that to the guy she kicked in the crotch. Time to move on, Bradnam. We’ve got a cozy little cell for you now. It’ll give you time to get over your medication.”
They started to move her on along the corridor and toward the exit to the holding cells, the attorney scampering around on their heels. But Nic stepped in front of them. He had more questions, and he didn’t think he’d have the stomach to face her ever again. He had to know now. “Why, Amanda? Why attack me?” Other businesses had been featured on her show; other businesses would have been more vulnerable, surely?
She laughed, then. A thin, abrasive sound. “You arrogant bastard!” She glared at Aidan, standing close by. “If you’ve got any sense left, geek, keep away from this guy. He’s got no interest in anyone but himself—gives no one else a chance!” She turned back to Nic, eyes blazing with a hysterical fever. “How long did you give me, to impress you? One measly fucking date? You’d already made your mind up in the first hour, you hypocrite. You had no intention of following your own company’s report—your own match!”
“You dated her?” Aidan looked strained. “This was the woman Sparks paired you with, all that time ago?”
Nic’s face felt hot but his anger overrode any embarrassment. “You lied, Amanda, even on that first date. I looked into it afterwards, did you think I wouldn’t? I saw the stories you made up, creating a whole different persona, compared to the real woman I subsequently met professionally.” He suspected she’d avoided any initial interview; had hit on enough triggers to land him as a match. Maybe he hadn’t told the whole truth himself. Whatever the reason, they had nothing going for them—but his mistake was in thinking she’d accepted that. “The match was a chance, a miserable mistake. You brought any disappointment on yourself.”
“Chance?” Her voice dropped to a lower, sly tone, startling him. “It wasn’t all chance, Mr. Brilliant Gerrard. I wasn’t in your damned program just to see what jerk I’d be matched with. It was you I wanted… and you I was going to get! Damon made sure of that.”
“You were hacking in even then?” Aidan looked stunned.
“He was one of my original programmers,” Nic said. “Before you even joined Sparks.” God, but he’d made some mistakes in those days!
“It was just that one time. Damon said what a joke it’d be—to match me with the icon of the company, the creator of Sparks himself. And what an exclusive that would have been!”
“You bitch.” Nic swore quietly under his breath. She had played both him and his company—he wasn’t sure which hurt more.
“And later Damon said it had been a practice for him. Practice for when he would break in and take the secrets that should have been open to him in the first place. It would have brought us both everything in the end.”
“Take her away from me,” Nic said through gritted teeth. His head ached; every muscle in him was tight with anger and distress.
Suddenly the expression on Amanda’s face changed, her mouth twisting. She looked piteous. Even as he shrank away from her, she tried to struggle nearer. “It was a joke for Damon, Nic, matching us. But not for me. It wasn’t all lies, you know? I could have shown you a really good time.” She glanced at Aidan. “Better than you’d get from him.”
Nic wasn’t sure what he might do to her: he felt his hands fist at his sides. But it was Aidan who spoke.
“You were a fool, Amanda. Damon would never have broken through enough to destroy Sparks. And how could you think you could trick someone into a relationship with you?”
And then she lost control completely, yelling, struggling in the arms of the officers. “Do you think I didn’t know that? Even when I nearly got him to bed at last?” She glared at Nic, and he blanched from the hatred in her expression. “Do you think I didn’t notice your fixed smile as you put me in that bed? The fact I had to swallow bottles of wine and pills to get you in the same room with me? And then you fucking turned me down.” She turned suddenly on Aidan. “What tricks have you used? What makes you think you’ll be any more successful—that he won’t move on when he’s tired of fucking you too?”
Nic was caught between the scorching heat of Amanda’s loathing, and Aidan’s eyes on his back; he could feel his new lover’s silent shock.
“You think you can have whoever you want, Nic Gerrard, without giving anything in return,” Amanda hissed, glaring over her shoulder as she was hustled away. Tears were falling down her cheeks but she took no notice of them, as if she couldn’t feel the hot, angry trails. “Anyone. Everyone. And with nothing in return!”
Early in the working day, Charlie’s tablet arrived on Nic’s desk with another thump, but there was a smug look on his assistant’s face this time. “Read it, Nic!”
Nic groaned. It was only a week after Amanda and her brother Damon had been arrested, and they were still being held awaiting trial. He’d given statement after statement. At one stage, he’d had more lawyers in the office than staff. He’d only just called everyone back into work, trying to get a routine re-established. And he’d only just stopped being hounded by the press every hour. Now it was only four times a day.
The discovery of a hacker and saboteur was new excitement for the press, and to some extent it had restored public sympathy for Nic. The abusive attacks on his agency and on his personal life had eased. But he was still far from flavor of the month. The number of new clients to Sparks had trickled to nothing—even with his promise that no changes would be made to the current matching process—and he was currently patching together his other businesses to protect them from the fall-out. And now this….
Did Charlie expect him to read more about his failure? What kind of masochist did he think he was?
“What new spin on the disaster now?” He sighed. “Don’t think I’m not grateful, Charlie, for the work you’ve been doing to try to find enough success stories to counteract the bad publicity of my misguided ideas. But it’s barely damage limitation. Past successes won’t save us in the long term, going forward.”
“Read it,” Charlie repeated. “This is, I think you’ll find, a little more than a past success. This is a client who’s been through the new matching process, and… has something to say.”
“What the hell? What new process?” Nic rose to his feet, with shocked fury. “That program modification hasn’t been launched officially—it’s not going to be launched! Who put the changes through without my authorization?”
“Whoa!” Charlie protested, and backed away quickly. “Give me a hearing, okay? I just thought… well, no one wanted to know us as we were, and they all expected this revolutionary change. So, I thought—let’s give it to them! At least, some of them. Notably that batch of clients we had last month, begging for our attention. I thought they deserved our latest product. Give it a chance to do its magic!”
“Before Sparks closes its doors, you mean. Tell me who the hell you got to help you with this.”
“Read it first, Nic,” Charlie wheedled.
Reluctantly, with a sense of dread, Nic picked up the tablet. Sparks was front page news again, but this time with a very different tone. The lady in question had been through the new Sparks matching program, even in the midst of the recent scandalous revelations, and had been matched very successfully—with another, younger woman! They’d known each other only days, but they had a worldwide cruise booked together, and they were talking about moving in together in the near future. She’d never been so blissfully happy.
“It’s been the making of me,” was her gushing reply to the reporter. “I would never have considered a soul mate anything other than the handsome, rich, possessive men I’ve attracted so far. It’s taken this brave man’s agency and his unselfish desire for my happiness to open my eyes to such unexpected happiness. Damn Nic Gerrard! If he were a woman, I’d kiss his ass thank you on national TV.”
What a soundbite!
“She would, as well,” Charlie murmured with a fond smile. “Literally. My dear Mother!”
“Your—?” Nic was shocked beyond words.
“What, Nic?” Charlie was so smug he could barely keep still. “I never told you who my Mother is? She’s in the Sparks program under her real name, Marisa Cohen. An unusually discreet move on her part, considering how infamous she is under her professional name. Which is, of course….”
“Marisa Cain,” Nic whispered, staring at the quarter-page publicity photo accompanying the story. Marisa Cain—the famous television personality, sometime actress, and Erotic Romance author. A glamorous, outrageous woman; a national icon; a guaranteed draw for whatever program she graced. The most talked about and argued about woman in the US. And the one with the wittiest—and most caustic—tongue.
Charlie smirked again. “I’m proud of her. She took a little convincing to let her details go forward into this new process, but, well… I’ve always been her one weak spot, and it was at my request. We… I approached a few of our more well-known, but trusted, clients. But, rather to my amazement I confess, it was my own, so often infuriating Mother who came through for us.”
“Charlie, is this for real?” Nic was still stunned. “What did your mother put down for preferred sexual profile?”
Charlie grimaced. “Knowing Mother, something along the lines of ‘deceased’.”
Nic winced, but his assistant laughed.
“Nic, don’t expect any delicacy from Mother. She’ll tell you—and the US public—that she taught those sarcastic chat show darlings how to bitch, and the bad boy rock stars how to swear. Dammit, she’s still fighting that astonishing case with the Senator and the things he so unwisely said about her during his election campaign. And as for the slanging match at last year’s Oscars between her and that rap star…!” He shook his head.
“I can’t… was she really willing to go public like this? This could really turn things around for us.”
“I know. Nic, she did, genuinely, join the agency at its launch. Though I also confess I made sure I interviewed her initially. I couldn’t have guaranteed her anonymity otherwise, and she wanted to be treated the same as anyone else.” Charlie’s expression softened. “Despite her very acid public persona, she’s as vulnerable in relationships as any of us. Since she divorced my father—and probably even before then—she’s had the most appalling record with men, and plenty of disaster in the marriage bed department. My succession of stepfathers has proved fertile material for far too many of her shows.” His eyes widened with pleasure at Nic’s growing smile. “She’ll never tell anyone, Nic, but she’s like a young girl again. It’s almost nauseating, to see her so romantically happy with Libby. And, in a rare moment of filial devotion, I’ll confess how pleased I am for her!’
Nic grinned. He was trying to assess what all this meant. He wasn’t surprised to realize he couldn’t find the appropriate words.
“Enjoy, dear man,” Charlie murmured. “With Mother’s endorsement they’ll flock in now, you wait and see. It’ll become the latest designer accessory—to have been ‘matched’ by the gender-friendly agency. ‘Sparks: the agency that matches you to a true soul mate—that knows you better than you know yourself’!’’ He spontaneously hugged Nic as he stood by his desk. “Nic, they’ll love you again, you see. By the end of the week, the shareholders’ initial shock will be condemned as narrow-mindedness, Sparks will be hailed by the fickle press as ground-breaking, and the attacks on you will be so bitterly regretted that the network bosses may re-name Amanda’s show ‘Breakfast with Cohen’ as compensation. And as for the share price… have you seen in the late editions how it’s doubled?”
But Nic knew his expression had sobered: the sign of how his heart dropped. Charlie’s words trailed off.
“And what did you tell me just a while ago?” Nic said sharply. “‘Fuck the share price’, you said. Do you think I’ll be so easily flattered by social media that turned on me so viciously, just days ago? I think there’s been a greater lesson to all this, Charlie, than just how to seek public popularity. You yourself made the comment about how accommodating I’ve been—too accommodating, I think your words were.”
Charlie stared at him for a while. “I guess so. You’re right, boss. So. Will you let me give you some advice? One more good deed, in return for all you’ve done for me?”
Nic frowned, but Charlie continued before he could phrase any protest.
“Get away, Nic. Get away for a long while, see what it is you want from your life. Take a vacation—a trek, an adventure, whatever. Leave them all behind! They’ll manage, or they won’t. But you need to spend some time on yourself.”
Nic looked back at him, not agreeing or denying it. His mind was in turmoil. “Just one question, Charlie.” He didn’t miss the worried look that flashed across Charlie’s face. “Who helped you run live matches through the test system, which is where I assume this plot was hatched? I heard you say ‘we’. And you’re a very capable man, but I’m pretty sure there was no programming in your resume.”
“Never mind. I guess I know. I won’t have to pull out your fingernails to get you to talk.”
“Oh my fucking God.” Charlie wiped a suddenly sweaty brow. “Your humor slays me, boss. Um. If that’s what it is. Just let me know if I need to increase my life insurance. But I won’t apologize for doing it, for us trying to save the agency. And it was all true!”
“What do you mean, true?”
“You know it was West, right? Let’s face it, my technical manipulation starts and ends with turning something off and on again. He was the one made it all work. But he refused to fix the results, even though I asked him to. To be sure we got the right result, you know?”
“Charlie, that’s not how it go—”
“No. Well, West insisted, with that damned stubborn attitude of his, that the details would go in as usual, and the program would do its work. The new clients would take their chances, and be matched well—or not. The agency would be saved—or it wouldn’t. Like I stood any chance of shifting Aidan West’s ironclad principles.” Charlie looked very pained. “The only damn resort left to me was prayer.”
Nic smiled—a slow, smooth delight washed over him. It had worked… Sparks 2.0 had worked!
Charlie was on his way out of Nic’s office, when he paused with his hand on the door. “Just remember what I said—get away, take a break.” He winked mischievously. “And take West with you, eh?”
Charlie watched from the sidelines as Nic took the round of congratulations around the office. The phones were already ringing, begging his response, and email applications were arriving, thick and fast. The agency was back in business, and with a vengeance.
Charlie decided he ought to call Mother and take her out for lunch. And maybe it was time to meet one of her Jewish matchmaker friends. To play his part at last. It would be what she expected. Maybe he’d even suggest Sparks’s intervention for himself! He smiled at the not unpleasant thought.
He stopped by West’s desk as he left, though there was no sign of the guy. He’d left the office some days ago, and had been working from home ever since. Charlie wanted to leave him a note, to thank him. But he knew that’d be pathetic, and West would neither expect nor understand it. “It was your programming that saved us, West,” he murmured, though no one else was in earshot. “The damned program had to deliver, after all the hype, and it did. Not just to Mother, eh?”
He grinned, tapped a cheerful tattoo on West’s desk, and continued on out of the building.