“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!”
Aidan West let himself into his downtown apartment, shutting the door firmly behind him. He nudged open a small box on the wall beside it and tapped in a quick, complex series of numbers, disabling the self-installed alarm system that covered the whole of the apartment. He shrugged his denim jacket onto the sofa, kicked off his shoes, and fired up his laptop. It was always his first move, before a drink, before supper. Before anything. Of course, he had emails to review, programming to check, but if he was honest, he knew the connection was more than that. It was his life. His purpose, his desire—and his only company.
Dropping his keys on the side table, he took a deep breath, back in the sanctuary of his home. It had been a hell of a long day. He’d been back working full-time at Sparks for some weeks now: they’d demanded his exclusive commitment as soon as they started preparing for the stock market listing. Well, maybe the increasingly urgent emails had requested it, rather than demanded, but as far as Aidan was concerned, the request had been made with determination and a salary figure that blew anything else he was involved in out of the water. It wasn’t a problem, anyway, because he wanted to work on it again.
And there would be plenty of work to be done. The system had run reliably ever since inception, but rumor was, the management was looking for a special something extra, to present an even more glamorous user interface in time for the public announcement. Something smarter and sexier! one of the Marketing guys had said, his young face pink with enthusiasm.
Aidan grimaced at the mere memory of the word in the same context as his work.
However, he was enjoying being at Sparks again, rejoining the technical staff. Being on a team wasn’t one of his main priorities when it came to career decisions, but it was surprisingly pleasant nonetheless. Only if the team was good, of course, which it was at Sparks. And even then, he didn’t allow the pleasure to distract him. He intended to direct the best programmers on project support, while ensuring that no one was allowed anywhere near the core program without his overall supervision. That was always part of the deal, and the way he worked best. He’d be given responsibility for a team and they worked to his standards—or they left. He’d fired men and women before, and he’d do it again if needs be. There had been a couple of guys at the beginning of the project that he inherited from the previous contractor: they’d been inferior and lazy, and he had been quick to insist they moved on.
He was glad that Sparks gave him that measure of authority—that they realized he knew best.
He turned on the small but powerful side lamp on his desk. The room’s main light bulb had blown days ago, and he kept forgetting to buy a new one. Like he forgot to get food, like he forgot to return texts and messages from his work colleagues. Now they didn’t bother inviting him out with them anymore. And when they did? Well, he had to admit he could be a difficult companion.
Aidan wasn’t so dense that he didn’t see his own character faults. He could be too serious: he’d miss the point of other people’s jokes, although his own sense of humor and his wordplay was sharp enough. He didn’t have much time for clubbing and drinking, either, and he dated so rarely he couldn’t remember the last time.
Yes, you can. He grimaced, ruefully. He didn’t broadcast his sexual preferences much—he’d never seen the need to announce details of his private preferences as a status, like some foolish people did—but sometimes he still attracted people, whether he wanted to or not. There’d been a guy he met at the squash court a couple of times, and Aidan had been tempted beyond a nod and a civil hello. It had been in a moment of weakness, of sudden loneliness, and the guy had finally persuaded Aidan to come for a drink after a tournament. The man had been good-looking, very easy-going. Good company, Aidan thought initially. But it had been the first and last date.
Aidan was nothing if not brutally honest, especially regarding himself. The failure had been largely his own fault. He was poor at social chatter and even worse at flirting: his interaction with people was clumsy and very often abrupt. He also got too angry, too quickly, he knew that. He had a temper he couldn’t control well when he was provoked. It was as if his body and emotions couldn’t keep up a match with his brain. Yet why should he tolerate less than the best?
“And I said to him, that’s the trouble with geeks, isn’t it?” The guy’s laugh was suddenly jarring, like a donkey’s bray. They’d grabbed a booth in the local bar, and he was leaning over the table, trying to catch the server’s attention for another drink.
“You’re talking about me,” Aidan said coolly. He’d already mentioned what his job was, though he had no time to explain the details to anyone who couldn’t keep up.
“Huh?” The guy shrugged and frowned. Maybe he caught the sharp edge of Aidan’s tone. “Just sayin’ they’re not in the real world, you know? Keep themselves squirreled away in some techy basement, letting us executive alphas make the decisions on the front line.” He must have seen something alarming in Aidan’s expression because he hurried on, “Hey, but that’s playing to our strengths, right? No offense meant.”
But Aidan didn’t give the expected reply—that none was taken. Because it was, and why should he bother lying, or justifying why the guy was so patently stupid?
“You don’t have the right,” he said, keeping his voice low. He wasn’t about to broadcast his anger.
“To talk about me as if you know me.”
“Look, man.” The guy was blustering, on the defensive now. “I was just talking generally. Not about you, specifically…”
Aidan stood: he made sure he was firmly on the other side of the table to his date. “Well, I am. Talking about me specifically, that is. And I’m leaving now.”
“What the hell? We were just having some fun—”
“You may have been,” Aidan had interrupted, although he wasn’t sure what fun the man intended to have, when he had so poor an opinion of Aidan’s intelligence. “But I’m not. Good night.” And he’d left the bar, the man’s open-mouthed astonishment a blur behind him.
Yeah. Date failure was a familiar pattern for him.
Tonight, he quickly checked for any new emails, and then padded into his bedroom. The apartment was just three rooms in total, and the generously-sized kitchen acted as his office, of far more use to Aidan than somewhere to cook or eat. All of the sparse furnishings were from outlet stores, the walls bare of decoration, not that his surroundings were of much interest to him. He had no TV, no music system. Just his kit, and it was leading edge equipment. He had other laptops he could use for streaming entertainment if he wanted, but he rarely did. And that was fine. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the money for anything else—no, the contract at Sparks paid well enough. But why would he need it?
He peeled off all his clothes, down to his boxers. He usually worked at night like this. The apartment was well heated, though he rarely felt the cold. He was thin—some said sinewy, like it was a compliment—with the pale coloring and thick, wavy black hair of someone of Celtic descent. He considered himself pretty hardy. The inherited looks came from his mother’s family who had emigrated from Ireland during the desperate famine of the nineteenth century, but Aidan had never cared to investigate his history any further. Likewise, he had little interest in looking in the mirror. He thought his nose too long, his mouth too full, his brown eyes muddy-colored rather than sensual. And if he did catch his reflection anywhere, all he saw was a habitual frown.
Like he was dissatisfied by life at the most basic level.
Is that what I am?
On the pile of papers on his desk beside the screen, he caught sight of Sparks’s logo. Further down, the document was signed off by Nic Gerrard. Aidan had worked very closely with Gerrard in the early days of development.
There’s a man who makes decisions on the front line.
At the time, he’d thought his new boss would be an insufferable nuisance, but he’d actually been quite tolerable. Very extroverted, very demanding, of course, and he moved in a different world from Aidan—but Gerrard had a good grasp of programming logic, even if he didn’t have any technical expertise, and an excellent understanding of how it could service the product. It was Gerrard’s idea and his enthusiasm that got it all going, but the final product, Sparks, bore the imprint of both of them.
That had been real team work—playing to their strengths—not the patronizing attitude of Aidan’s last, abortive date.
He was proud of his work: he’d enjoyed that project! And that wasn’t a word he used to describe his work very often. He smiled to himself, but ruefully. Part of his problem in socializing with other people was that he bored easily, and he needed continual challenge. Gerrard had always seemed to understand that. Since then, the Sparks program still needed maintenance and enhancements, and Aidan was kept busy enough. But it wasn’t quite at the same level.
He wished he wasn’t thinking about Nic Gerrard, though it was damned difficult not to, when the man was on every billboard and his interviews were shown in the office break room whenever he was on TV. Now he was even in the financial press.
And where was he? Aidan West?
On your own again, he told himself, which is how you like to work, remember? In a team, maybe, but not of a team. And he thrived on it. Meeting deadlines, delivering the product, forcing through the testing and the implementation, and testing again. That thoroughness and single-mindedness were his trademark skills. There was so much satisfaction in that, that he didn’t have either the time or the inclination for other relationships.
He shook his head, impatiently. It wasn’t his style, this introspection. What a fool, questioning himself! He sat down firmly at the screen and navigated to his development program.
It’d be another quiet night in for him.
Like it always was.
“Watch yourselves, Nic’s coming around this morning,” called one of the girls in the Operations office, passing by Aidan’s cubicle. Aidan glanced up over the half partition, but looked down again almost immediately—it was Patti, Nic Gerrard’s secretary, and she was talking to the guy in the cubicle one over from him. Aidan didn’t particularly want to catch her eye. She’d been acting kind of strange toward him recently. Kept hanging around him, even when he went for a cup of water. Smiling, when he wasn’t aware anyone had cracked a joke.
One of his other colleagues laughed loudly as she passed by, and there was a babble of voices.
“Coming to fire someone?”
“It’ll be about the stock market launch.”
“Nah, to catch you watching porn!”
More laughter, more banter. Gerrard ran a relatively relaxed office. Aidan had never mastered the same attitude toward his direct staff. He didn’t see the need to, to be honest.
But the boss hadn’t come around this department for weeks and there was a certain amount of excitement when he did. Aidan didn’t know why they should be so hysterical about it. Obviously the visit was to do with the launch. He paid enough attention to business matters to know the importance of the company going public, and also to expect the media circus that followed it. The same circus always followed Gerrard around.
Gerrard himself arrived a half hour later. Aidan could pinpoint the exact moment because of the sudden, excited tension that gripped the office atmosphere. He surreptitiously watched Gerrard as he moved down the corridor, greeting some of the staff, laughing with his PA, that dark-haired, bossy guy who always dogged Gerrard’s footsteps. They were looking through some of the ideas from the team, Gerrard was signing off on requisitions. It was just general stuff. What the hell was all the fuss? Surely he had a bunch of managers to run things for him.
Usually, Aidan made himself scarce when he knew a ‘presidential visit’ was planned. He could work remotely from his apartment as well as from here. But today had caught him unawares. The Gerrard effect was a distraction he didn’t need.
The Gerrard effect… It was a phrase that Lin, one of his more experienced colleagues, had coined. She smiled mischievously as she said it, though even her breath quickened at the mention of the boss’s name. It was obvious to anyone who worked in Gerrard’s companies for any length of time, the effect that his physical presence had. The whole office looked that little bit brighter, the staff more motivated.
Aidan wondered what it was that made Gerrard so charismatic; that made them all like him so much. There was no envy involved, just curiosity. Gerrard was good-looking, of course. Hot, Aidan had heard people say, like the guy was nothing but a cup of coffee. And there was an inner presence to him—a restless excitement that showed in the way he moved, in his fast speech, in his very tactile approach to everyone. He shook hands often, put an arm around a shoulder where he could.
Aidan found himself imagining that touch on his own body, but he shook off the ridiculous thought. He had no time for such nonsense.
Then the dark-haired assistant was pointing over to Aidan’s cubicle, and Gerrard was on his way over.
No place to hide.
“Aidan West? Uh… Aidan. Hello.”
“Is there a problem?” Aidan stood up to greet the boss, but he was confused. Gerrard seemed unusually tentative, but Aidan couldn’t think of anything that was running behind schedule, or not being dealt with correctly. He cursed the fact he felt uneasy. There was no reason for that.
Gerrard smiled. Aidan couldn’t help but notice the genuine pleasure in that smile. In fact, he found he couldn’t look away.
“Does there have to be a problem? It’s just good to find you in the office, first time in ages we’ve met up. I know we haven’t had many personal meetings since the initial launch, but we’re still on the same team, right? I just wanted to catch up with you. Say thanks for your work.”
They were of a similar height, and their eyes met with a flash of something almost electric between them. Aidan had never given it much thought before, but now he realized their meetings had often seemed to start with this almost confrontational punch. Did Gerrard feel the same? Was it just an effect of Aidan’s meager social skills? He preferred to think they were both confident in their role, both always ready and determined to make their point. Yet today, he felt oddly defensive.
Everyone said Nic Gerrard was a charming, regular guy. Too charming, really, because there were plenty of rumors about his sexual appetite, and the trail of discarded lovers he’d left behind him. Was that true, or the common lies found on social media? Aidan appraised the good-looking man standing in front of him, as if he were newly met. At least, he tried to. Gerrard was Aidan’s boss. He let Aidan work on his own ideas, at times to suit himself, which was more than fair. And he always gave credit back where it was due, was always scrupulously honest.
Well. No. Nic Gerrard was, actually, very far from a regular guy. Aidan wasn’t sure why that suddenly struck him afresh, and with such force.
“Come and see me next week,” Gerrard said abruptly, breaking into Aidan’s thoughts. “Okay? I may have some more ideas I’d like to discuss with you. For after Sparks goes public. Okay?” he repeated, as if he were worried Aidan would say no.
Aidan was surprised at the man’s insistence. His own, involuntary response to the man disturbed him—his awareness of the sharp, vibrant gaze, searching his; the other programmers, watching jealously; the slight increase to his heartbeat. God only knew why he couldn’t control that.
“Okay. But, Mr. Gerrard, if you can just email me—”
“How many times have I asked you call me Nic?”
And then Nic was being drawn away by Patti, both of them laughing, with only a brief backward glance at Aidan, who found himself standing beside his chair, temporarily halted from his work. There was an odd look on Gerrard’s face, almost as if he’d been surprised by something Aidan had said. Or not said. Had Gerrard—Nic—expected him to say no to a meeting? Was it something to do with that confrontation issue?
And, God. He really wasn’t used to questioning himself so much. Maybe he was sickening for something.
But just before Nic turned away again, Aidan saw a sudden glint, a widening of Nic’s eyes. A spark of something that sent out invisible tendrils to Aidan, teasing at his inner feelings. He felt Nic’s energy as if it had reached out with human hands and stroked his skin. How ridiculous is that? And, even more disturbing, he felt an answering reaction, a shiver throughout his body. Good or bad reaction, he couldn’t have said, because… he didn’t have the time to dwell on it.
He was being foolish. It was Gerrard’s company, wasn’t it? This walkabout thing was exactly what they all loved about him. It was just Nic’s normal practice. It was just his way of keeping them all on their toes.
It’s a damned distraction. Aidan settled back down to his screen. His fingers hovered over the keyboard, paused again.
Yes. Just a distraction.
“A virus?” Aidan West’s voice was too loud, and his tone blatantly disbelieving. It was the following Wednesday, late in the afternoon, and he was pacing in front of Nic Gerrard’s desk—he’d refused to sit—while Nic tried to find the best way to tell him there was a virus in Sparks’s program. “In my system? It’s impossible.”
“I don’t know for certain,” Nic replied. He tried to brush off Aidan’s possessive tone, his own voice tightening. “I’m no expert on these things. But there have been some odd error messages this week. Some of my reports won’t run properly first time, some of the links won’t work. And a couple of clients’ details have been lost first time through processing. Won’t you sit, Aidan?”
“Well, I’m not! You make me uncomfortable. Can’t you relax?” He laughed softly, trying to break the tension in the room. “It’s the energy that comes off you.” With a jolt, he remembered how there’d often been that charge in the room, when they’d worked together; he felt again the vigor of Aidan’s sharp, concentrated attention. It had been unnerving then, and—apparently—still was.
Aidan continued pacing. “Impossible,” he repeated. “I’d know. I check all the time.”
“I’m sure you do.” Nic sighed. “But I’ve also heard a couple of rumors about clients going to other agencies with complaints that they’ve had trouble getting through on the website, have had to wait too long for updates, and received substandard reports. And an increase in spam email, with enough detail for them to suspect it came from Sparks’s data.” He had several people on staff whose main purpose was to watch for online gossip. “I’d just like you to run a quick check.”
“It can’t be,” Aidan said yet again, and stared him full in the face.
Nic nearly blanched at the challenge there. “I’d like you to check,” he repeated, his voice firm.
“There’s no virus.”
“I said, check!”
Nic rose from his chair as well, and the two of them glared at each other. For an insane moment, Nic wondered if a passing visitor would be able to tell who was the boss and who the employee.
Then he took a deep, calming breath. “Aidan West,” he said. “We’re not going to fall out over this, are we? Wouldn’t you want me to do all I could, to protect the business? My business?”
Nic wasn’t sure if that was a proper reply or not. Was the man nothing but a geek after all? He’d always thought Aidan had more to him than that. Though obviously, not charm aplenty. “Do it. That’s an instruction.”
Aidan’s eyes widened, and for a minute Nic expected more argument. But apparently that wasn’t what was worrying the man.
“Of course I’ll do it. But I don’t want to disturb the live database, you can’t afford the potential downtime. I’ll resurrect the test environment on the main server, and update that with more recent data.”
“Not from live clients?” At the scornful look on Aidan’s face, Nic could have bitten his tongue off.
“No, of course not.” Aidan’s frown was more entrenched than ever. “But it should be realistic.”
“Whatever.” Nic shrugged. He had a persistent headache today, having come to work early after a late-night party thrown by a glamorous women’s magazine. He’d been persuaded to take twin models home, then to entertain them in bed—and out of it—into the small hours of the morning. He’d slept fitfully, then staggered awake at six a.m., peeling himself out from between their entwined arms, to send a text message to Charlie to come and collect him.
He’d not woken his lovers for any insincere farewells, because none of them was expecting any commitment from the fun. He left a bottle of good champagne and cheery well wishes, scribbled on a piece of discarded underwear. Not his.
And, shit. Now he had to battle with West. It was as exhausting as a couple of rounds in the boxing ring. He was too used to guys leaping about eagerly to do his will. This one obviously saw no need to give his employer the same respect.
“So.” Aidan sounded impatient. “I’ll need that data as a control for the test.”
What? Nic thought irritably. “I know. You said. Can’t you make some up?”
Aidan shook his head mulishly. “I also said, it must be realistic.”
“Use your own,” Nic suggested, rather mischievously. For a brief, wild moment, he wondered what Sparks would make of Aidan West’s personal data.
“Already prepared,” Aidan snapped. “I need more.”
Nic took another deep breath, trying to keep his temper, and gazed back at this awkward employee. But a gifted one, he knew that. If there was a problem….
“Okay, Mr. West. We’ll get a whole damned bunch of data for you.”
Nic strode out from behind his desk, brushing past Aidan on his way to the door. Aidan’s body was warm against his, and it startled Nic. He’d somehow expected it to be as icy as Aidan’s glare. For a second, he met that glare at close quarters. The hostility was fading in Aidan’s attractive dark-brown irises, but some other strong emotion flared there. It was almost as if he leaned away from Nic, afraid to be touched.
Nic had no time to investigate further. He flung open his door, leaned down the corridor and called out. “Free champagne in here, now! But only for the first dozen to get here and—”
He never finished the sentence, because anyone who was still in the office was now crowding around the door. Charlie was the very first, and Nic raised his eyebrows at him.
“So?” Charlie said, defensively. “Mother has expensive tastes, and I’ve inherited them. Also, I know any champagne of yours wouldn’t be some ten-dollar trash, whatever I have to do for it.”
“You’re right,” Nic replied with a grin. “On both counts.” His gaze ranged over the others, jostling in the corridor, some giggling, many puzzled. They’d learned to expect surprises from their boss in the past months. “Okay, the champagne is here, and it’s damn good stuff, as Charlie expects. But also, as he suspects, there’s a small favor to be given in return.” He studiously avoided Charlie’s eyes, which were dilating with amusement. “I want you all to complete an application for the Sparks program.”
There were murmurs all around.
“It’s not allowed for staff,” Charlie said quietly. “Remember our contracts?”
“I know,” Nic said. “And you’re not applying in reality,” he explained quickly. “It’s for internal work, and will be wiped the minute we’ve finished with it. You have my word on that.”
“Can’t afford the fee anyway,” came a grumble from one of the younger assistants.
“Unlike my Mother,” Charlie murmured dryly. “She’s been registered since launch day.”
Everyone laughed, but Nic continued, regardless. “We need data for a test module. Just a routine check, you understand. Three conditions to earn the champagne—you keep this confidential, we need the data completed tonight before you go home and, most important, I need you all to be completely truthful. Else it’ll be useless. You all know how critical that is to me. And, like I said, it won’t be kept on file.”
Charlie had grabbed a pile of application forms and was now standing beside Nic, handing them out. Several people were looking eagerly for a pen.
Nic smiled at the guy who’d complained he couldn’t afford Sparks’s fees. “Unless, of course, you want to join the program for real. In which case, for helping me out today, I’ll waive the contract restriction. And the introduction fee.”
There was a muted cheer from the back, and an increased hustle to grab pens from the nearest desk.
“Find me someone good.” Charlie pouted and, over Nic’s shoulder, he caught Aidan’s gaze from inside Nic’s office. “But for God’s sake, don’t let it be my Mother!”
It was almost nine o’clock at night, all the other staff had left, and a satisfactory pile of papers sat on Nic Gerrard’s desk. He leaned back in his chair, staring at them, feet up on the desk in front of him. “Damn, that was better response than I thought. It’ll cost me a fortune in champagne, as well as the lost fees.”
Aidan watched the ease with which Nic stretched out his arms, lacing his fingers behind his neck. He was confused. Should he apologize? Wasn’t it Nic’s own idea, to reward the staff for their input? Aidan had never known a strategy like it, though he couldn’t complain when he now had an extensive set of fresh control data…
Then he realized that Nic was watching him, grinning slyly. “It’s a joke, Aidan. Don’t you ever relax and have a laugh? Do something off the wall?”
“Of course I do.” Of course he did. Didn’t he?
“And, before you ask, you may use my data as well. We’re all in this together, eh?”
Aidan watched Nic reach for one of the remaining registration forms from his desk. He looked a little weary. And, rather like a Western gunfighter in one of those old movies, Aidan reached down beside him at the same time, and produced his laptop. “I’ll input directly. It’ll only take fifteen minutes.’
It took much longer than fifteen minutes, actually, but Aidan refused to rush, and Nic didn’t complain. Aidan, of course, was never happier than working on his laptop, wherever he was. He tapped through the questions with a facility that he privately knew exceeded any of Nic’s data processing staff. And, matching his speed, Nic Gerrard snapped out his answers.
“Preferred age of companion.”
“Similar, but it doesn’t matter.”
“None,” Nic interrupted, a little impatiently. “Look, skip through all this batch of questions, Aidan, I have no restrictions on any of that age/height/hair color crap. I don’t see the point of so much of it, though the clients like it. They think it enhances their profile. Think it helps to describe their real selves—”
“When they’re really just categorizing themselves,” Aidan said, without thinking.
“Yeah.” Nic looked surprised at Aidan’s response, but approving too. “That’s true. All it does is tighten the circle, restrict the field. They’re deliberately cutting themselves off from hundreds of potential soul mates. Smart comment, Aidan.”
Aidan hoped the warmth on his face wasn’t a blush. “Soul mates? Is that really what people are looking for?”
“You should know.” Nic smiled and ran a hand through the loose locks of hair that fell over his forehead.
“What do you mean?” Aidan instinctively watched the graceful movement, up until Nic pressed two fingers to his temple and sighed. Gerrard hadn’t said anything about a headache. Aidan didn’t know if he should offer to get water. The guy could get it himself, couldn’t he? But something made Aidan want to reach out and help—to soothe Nic’s ache.
“You’re the one who helps them find it, Aidan. Don’t you think everyone’s looking for a soul mate of some kind?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” Aidan said. And, searching his mind, he realized he spoke the truth. He had never really examined what he was doing, or thought about its impact on real people. He just worked on it because he could—because he could produce what this man had wanted. That’s what his particular skill was. Shit, was this introspection becoming a habit?
Nic was looking at him strangely. His eyes had traveled away from Aidan’s face, and down his body. They snapped back up again almost guiltily. “Back to the questions, eh?”
Aidan tapped again at his keyboard. “Favorite pastime on your own.”
Nic grimaced. “Dammit, I don’t have much time for hobbies. I used to like sailing, and sports.”
“Favorite pastime with friends.”
“I like to talk,” Nic laughed more freely, “as if you didn’t know! So, it’s conversation, and comfortable meals, and… just relaxing. Doing what I want, just to please myself. No deadlines, no restrictions. No commitments.” His gaze dropped and his voice was so low Aidan barely heard it. “And how long has it been since that happened?”
“Favorite pastime with a companion.”
“A leading question.” Nic was still smiling easily, but the color on his cheeks had deepened. “Sharing. Exploring. Touching. Whatever.”
Aidan paused. “I have no option for ‘whatever’.”
Nic laughed out loud. “Is that a joke, Aidan West?”
Aidan started to protest, then he saw that Nic himself was joking. He smiled, slowly. “Looks like it is. Who’d have thought?”
And things started to relax a whole lot more.