If Aidan had been any other member of staff, and had wandered through the office half an hour later, he’d have been stunned at what he saw. Not only was Nic Gerrard perched on the edge of his own desk, sleeves rolled up, and waving a clutch of papers in his hand, but Aidan West was currently sitting in Nic’s chair, still tapping away at his laptop, but with an uncharacteristically relaxed posture… and laughing.
“You see?” Nic smiled at him. “It’s so very important, the GSOH question, that it has to be explored a little further.”
“Good sense of humor, Aidan. Everyone says they want it in a soul mate, everyone says they have it themselves. But what is it? And is one person’s sense of humor the same as another’s? I’m sure you’d agree that’s not necessarily the case. I have hundreds of these jokes, I have Charlie search out new ones regularly. All kinds of humor, all kinds of delivery. And I ask people their response to a selection. It tells me—and others—so much about them. I mean, you loved the joke about the duck and the movie house, didn’t you?”
“Uh–huh.” Aidan couldn’t help the smirk at the corner of his mouth. It had been a short, sharp and outrageously rude joke. He’d actually found himself laughing out loud.
“But not the one about the penguins on the way to the zoo?”
“It was too long, too—”
“No, no.” Nic was shaking his head, but he was still smiling. His wide eyes glinted with a look of triumph, as well as a lot of enjoyment. “Don’t try to explain why, it doesn’t need it, and it’s the worse for the telling. It’s just an example of the way the program works—why it works so well, for so many people. If they can laugh about the same things to start with, you’re half way there!”
“And the other questions in this section?” Aidan was more than a little bemused. “Like, if you had to be a car, which car would you be? Is that a joke as well?”
“Based on a popular game, I guess. It’s a bit of fun, and it relaxes clients. But again, it tells me such a lot about them, almost against their will. It helps me connect with them. If they are lying, or putting on an act, they’ll rarely be able to sustain it through that.”
“So, which car would you be?” Aidan asked bluntly. He wanted to understand this, this connection thing. He stared at Nic, trying to guess his response.
“Ferrari.” Nic grinned.
“What fabric would you be?”
“Hot chocolate!” Nic flashed a mischievous smile. “What, you thought I’d be a cocktail or something?”
“Panther,” Nic replied, with no hesitation. “And you?”
“Tiger,” Aidan said automatically, then cursed himself for getting involved in the game.
Nic was watching him very closely. Aidan wondered why Nic’s breathing was suddenly a little faster.
“We’d fight, wouldn’t we? Good thing we’re not being matched.”
Aidan laughed, a little uncertain. “Well, we wouldn’t be, would we? You’re looking for a tall, independent, intelligent woman.”
“Where did I say that?” Nic’s voice had dropped in both volume and tone. “About a woman?”
Nic had leaned forward so they were barely a foot apart. His words lapped around Aidan like a blanket of warmth; he could feel the sensuality in them. To give Nic his due, Aidan didn’t think he realized quite how seductive he was.
He bent quickly to the screen again. “I input it here. At the first screen. Then it’s implied throughout the rest of the questions.”
“Uh-huh.” Aidan glanced back up. Nic’s head had dipped a little, his shoulders were hunched. Looked like he was thinking something through.
For a brief, secret moment, while Nic’s gaze shifted away, Aidan watched him with something like fascinated hunger.
He knew that Nic Gerrard took lovers of both sexes. Aidan might not bother reading the gossip magazines, but he didn’t go through life completely immersed in his work. Patti and the other girls always gushed over the boss as a perfect woman’s man, but Aidan had also overheard plenty of speculation about him from men, too. He’d always ignored it all: it wasn’t his business who other people went to bed with. He didn’t think it should be the other guys’ business, either. But he never said. He’d learned at an early age that it wasn’t worth trying to tell people how to behave.
However, he didn’t think Nic’s sex life was the issue absorbing Nic’s concentration right now… “You’re thinking of changing the program!” he blurted out.
Nic glanced up in surprise. “Yes, I am. How the hell did you know?”
“There’s a particular look to you—I remember it from last year, when we were first working on the program, when you first devised it. Every time you had another idea, you’d hunch down and go very still, then your eyes would widen and you’d grin, and your hands would start to wave about…”
“Hey.” Nic looked taken aback. “Didn’t know I was so transparent.”
Aidan flushed. “Sorry. That was rude, right?”
“No it wasn’t. It’s okay.” There was a silence of only seconds, but neither made a move to break it. The distance between them was still only inches. There was a sudden, sharp charge to the air, as if something more tactile—more emotional—bound them close.
It had been that way, then. Aidan remembered it very clearly. There had been many occasions when they’d worked on in silence: Nic would have run out of breath, Aidan would have been concentrating on his programming. But there’d never been awkwardness. It had seemed quite natural at the time. He realized there weren’t many people he felt that comfortable around.
“Aidan?” Nic’s eyes widened; darkened. He lifted a hand, slowly.
Is he going to touch me?
But as Aidan sucked in a breath—wondering what to say, if he should say something—Nic moved both hands in the air as if sketching out a design. Then he obviously saw what he was doing, caught Aidan’s ironic gaze, and laughed. The tension broke apart like smoke in the wind.
“Yeah, you got me. I’ve been thinking about a change, about an innovation for our lucky clients, and you’ve given me an idea. I want to keep up the interest in Sparks. I don’t want people to think we’ll get stale once we go public, that with our shares joining the worldwide market, we’ll somehow sell out to The Man.”
“I doubt anyone would think that of you,” Aidan murmured dryly.
And there was that smile again on Nic’s handsome face: a broad, excited smile that had been there for most of the evening. Aidan watched his boss slide off the edge of the desk and start pacing the room. His hair was a healthy fall of chestnut, curling into his neck as he nodded, obviously following a thought through in his mind.
“Let me do some more work on it. You’ve really made me think… well, we can talk tomorrow about it, maybe Friday. God, it could blow the whole thing wide open!”
Aidan just stared, watching the tall, lithe body fill the room with energy and vibration. He couldn’t help smiling in reply. God, Nic looked so… so good. Aidan felt he’d been transported back many, many months, back to when Sparks had started to take shape, when he’d been in this office more often than his own apartment. And had been around Nic Gerrard all the time. Gerrard, with his bright eyes and easy wit; his fast and frivolous intelligence. And that incredible charisma that drew everyone to him, that put him above everyone else. In the public eye—available for public use. Just how he seemed to like it.
Aidan realized his mind was wandering from the job in hand. His eyes were locked on Nic, but his mind was drifting away to those older memories. And so, it was all the more shocking, the sudden, uneasy chill that swamped him.
How could he have forgotten?
It was an almost physical nausea, and a growing anger against his own weakness. He’d not felt this disorientation for a long time—and dammit, he refused to let it return! Because if he did, he’d have to face what it was telling him; what it had told him every night, all those months ago, in his dreams. Painful, private, passionate dreams—
No! That time had finally passed. He’d pushed it away.
He would not be that vulnerable again.
Nic felt the atmosphere change in the room, but had no idea if Aidan noticed it. The man was a mystery to him for much of the time. But working with him tonight, leaning over the desk together, sorting through data, organizing the questions, sharing Nic’s profile…? It had felt different.
It’s the sharing. Nic realized how much he had missed working closely with Aidan West. And as the smell of the man’s skin teased his nose, as Aidan’s strong shoulder brushed against his, as their sharp banter sprang back into common use, their wits matched in so many ways, despite their obvious differences… Nic’s senses had fired up. On overtime.
He’d been on his way back to the desk, to stand by Aidan, but now he drew back. He swallowed. Hard.
Was he in trouble here?
“There are some questions left.” Aidan’s voice sounded as businesslike as ever. “Fantasies. Dreams. Preferred sexual role—”
What the hell? Nic had forgotten all of that.
“No more now.” His tone came out too sharp and Aidan winced. “I’ll… well, I’ll complete it later. You’ll have the rest of the data no later than tomorrow midday.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“No, you misunderstand. I’ll input my own info from here on in.”
Nic frowned. The damn man was relentless. But it wasn’t Aidan’s fault that Nic was so disturbed, was it? At least, not directly. Get it together, Gerrard. “Because I think that information is very personal, and not for discussing out loud in my office.”
“But I’ll still see it.” Aidan couldn’t seem to grasp Nic’s turnaround.
“Yes, I know,” Nic snapped.
“You’re not usually shy about these things. Don’t they ask even more personal questions in those interviews you do for the magazines?”
“Aidan, that’s enough.”
“What’s different now?” Aidan just kept asking. “Your lifestyle choices are tolerated well enough, as long as you’re discreet in the workplace. Why is tonight suddenly awkward?”
“Tomorrow morning,” Nic said through tight lips. His skin felt too hot. It felt very important that his personal data was seen as… well, just more of the usual stuff. Face to face with Aidan was suddenly, unexpectedly, a problem.
Aidan still persisted. “I don’t understand the issue. I have time now to finish. All we’re doing is talking about sexual preferences. We discussed these parameters enough times when we set up the program. And surely you know I’ll deal with it entirely objectively.”
“Yeah. Of course I do.” A bead of sweat tickled the back of Nic’s neck. The problem was entirely his own, he knew that. “Anyway. We’ve worked hard enough, right?” His cheerfulness sounded forced. “It’s been… an unusual evening. Too late to go home and cook, too early to finish the day. Why don’t we grab a bite to eat together?”
“I have work to do on this.”
“No,” Nic said, more firmly now. “You’ll finish now, and come eat.”
“I don’t need to eat much.”
Nic took a closer, though surreptitious look at Aidan’s sparse body, clothed in a simple polo shirt and pants. He could believe that. But the man wasn’t undernourished—there were well-defined muscles under the shirt, and implied strength in his back and legs. He held his head high and confidently; he pushed his dark, curly hair back from his forehead as he worked. Nic had seen him do it many times. He was very good-looking. Nic wondered if anyone had ever told him that. Probably never got the chance—Nic had heard plenty of complaints, albeit only in conversation, about how prickly Aidan could be about anything personal.
He reached for his phone and checked through to a restaurant that he often used, down the block. “It does all kinds of food,” he said hastily. Instinctively, he suspected that food—like many things—might be a hassle with Aidan. “You can choose as little or as much as you like. It’s on the company.”
Aidan shrugged, but his expression was unreadable.
Shit, Nic thought. Had they never eaten out together before? All those months, and he could only remember Aidan still in the office when he, Nic, went home, or darting away to his own place when no one else was looking. Perhaps this invitation was unwelcome. “Is it a problem? Eating with the boss? I doubt anyone from the company will see us there.” Never mind, he would let Aidan go home, as he wished. Funny, how disappointing that felt.
“What are you talking about?” Aidan sounded bemused.
“I.. it’s just, I recall how cautious you are about sharing your private life—”
“But why would I have any reason to keep things deliberately secret?” Aidan looked tense still, but he hadn’t dashed away yet. “I was just thinking I’ve got nothing to change into.”
Nic smiled with relief. “It’s not that kind of a restaurant. Besides, neither have I. It’s just a place I can feel comfortable in, without a lot of fuss. No reporters have caught up with me there yet, thank God. Just a quick supper and a chat, okay?”
“Okay,” Aidan replied, collecting up his jacket.
Aidan’s acceptance came swiftly enough, apparently welcome, though Nic worried he may not have given him a real opportunity to refuse. Would Aidan see it as an obligatory dinner with the boss, or else risk offending him? Jesus. Nic had rarely felt so unnerved.
Eating out was second nature, and almost always a pleasant experience for Nic. But for some reason it felt odd tonight, guiding Aidan out of the room, closing up the office behind them, traveling down in the elevator, just the two of them. Perhaps it was just hunger, and that accounted for the churning feeling in his gut. Yes, he was sure that was it.
After all, it wasn’t like this was a date or anything, was it?
“So… how’s work going for you? What about the modifications the team brought up last month for the secondary search?” Nic sat back easily, hands at rest on the table, a very satisfactory steak finished. The bistro was small yet comfortably furnished, more like a personal dining room than a fancy restaurant. No bunches of flowers on the table or silver cutlery, just clean, white cloths and generous plates of great food. A single candle lit their table, the main lights dimmed as the evening wore on.
At this late time, they were the only patrons there. Nic gazed at the remains of the sparse salad that Aidan had chosen, and then picked at fitfully. He knew if he commented on it, he’d sound like a nagging parent. But he wanted to.
“They’re done,” Aidan said. “It works well. Two days work, maximum.”
The silence fell again. Nic was finding it difficult to keep the conversation flowing, in his usual style. He called the waiter over for his usual dessert: ice cream, and all the trimmings. He was three-quarters of the way through a bottle of wine already, though there was little outward effect on his behavior. Aidan had barely had a glassful. “Yeah, I know we haven’t had the work for you we used to. But we do now. Are you happy to stay with us? Do you have everything you need?”
Aidan held his hand up at the waiter’s nod, refusing dessert and coffee, and requesting another water. He shrugged in reply to Nic’s question. “It’s good. I have everything I need, the guys work well enough. Your equipment’s always the best.”
Nic sighed. He reached across the table and tapped Aidan’s hand. Then immediately regretted it because Aidan all but jumped right out of his chair. “It’s difficult to find something other than work to talk about, right? Even when we’re supposed to be off duty.”
“Uh-huh. I guess so.” Aidan gave a small, rueful smile. “I doubt either of us are off duty for long.”
“Right.” Nic grinned back. He felt he’d dodged a bullet without knowing where the sniper might come from.
Aidan frowned, and waved randomly at the table, the plates, the room. “I should make more of an effort. This is not something I’m good at, I’m afraid. Socializing, I mean.”
“I suppose we don’t know each other well enough to have any other topics. At the moment, anyway. It’s always been just Sparks.” It was a surprise to Nic just how much he wanted Aidan to relax. He wanted to connect with him, he wanted to build a friendship on something other than their shared work experience.
Hey, Nic Gerrard, his inner voice hissed. Where’s that famous honesty of yours? Maybe it’s the man you want, not the employee.
Was that it? He hoped he wasn’t that predatory. Dammit, couldn’t he spend an evening with someone without it coming back to that every time? He studied Aidan as carefully as he could, hopefully without drawing attention to it. Aidan was gorgeous—there was no denying that. Wiry and of a similar height to Nic, even his careless dress sense couldn’t hide the body underneath. As they’d walked the couple of blocks to the restaurant, he’d moved with a controlled fluidity that promised suppleness as well as strength. Nic would have called it a prowl. His hair was a mess of curls, short and completely wild. Damned idiot must cut it himself, and with his eyes closed.
An image flashed across Nic’s mind, of grasping handfuls of that hair and tugging Aidan toward him. He was almost shocked at the strength of his feelings. And those very wary, fathomless, chocolate-brown eyes… even when they were glaring at him, they had a dark depth that drew Nic’s attention time and again.
Aidan West was an intriguing and fascinating package: a package with the combination of looks and natural intelligence that Nic knew he found attractive. It was overlaid by confrontation and an apparent arrogance, but when had Nic ever been intimidated by that? He just hadn’t found the motivation before now. Though he suspected that many wouldn’t find Aidan worth the trouble.
Nic didn’t quite know why he did—what had made him seek this man out, try to spend some time with him again.
It was partly admiration of his skill, of his talents at work. Of the way that he seemed to bring out the best in Nic’s own ideas, in his own inspiration. There was, of course, the growing appreciation of a good-looking man in his company. And, Nic had to admit, a mischievous fascination with Aidan’s outrageously blunt obstinacy. Nic knew he riled Aidan, and vice versa—but he rather enjoyed the sparring!
But there was something else … something that Nic was totally unprepared for. An increasingly strange, debilitating uneasiness when he looked at Aidan. Half unnerving—half thrilling. His whole body felt on alert, accompanied by a dry throat and a pounding head. All sorts of symptoms that Nic had never experienced before when he was pursuing his enjoyment. Or being pursued for it.
Had he always felt like this with Aidan West? Surely not… or perhaps he had, nagged an insidious thought inside him. He had, and yet he’d ignored it. Hidden it. Run away from it.
He wasn’t sure how to deal with its return. Or even if he welcomed it.
Aidan watched with guarded amusement the enthusiastic and almost childlike way that Nic demolished his ice cream. Amusement wasn’t the only thing he felt, but he was fighting hard to bury any other emotions. To bury them deep—very deep. The room was pleasantly warm around him, the water refreshing. Despite his confusion, he was happy at being there, with Nic. It was very disturbing.
“Earlier, when I was inputting? It seems you still know your way around the forms pretty well,” he said.
“Yeah.” Nic ran a finger around the edges of his ice cream bowl and lifted it to his mouth to lick off the last drops of cool liquid. “Of course I do. It’s my product.”
“No.” Aidan tore his eyes away from the sight of Nic finger slipping in through his lips and back out again, damp with saliva and the remains of the dessert. He shook his head, more frustrated at himself and his inability to express himself properly in front of this man, rather than with Nic’s answer. “I mean, as a user. I can’t believe you’ve resisted trying it out yourself before now. As a client.”
Nic raised an eyebrow. “Well, okay. Actually, I did. It was in the early days, when we were still testing it, and we were linking into a generic database. Before you joined us full-time, and worked with me to refine the whole program. Way before we took it to market. I did it for research purposes, you know? Or at least, that’s what I told myself.”
Aidan wondered how practised Nic’s self-deprecating look was. Nic Gerrard was no fool, and he’d better not think Aidan was. But he didn’t laugh at Nic, or make a crude comment, which he was sure some of the other staff—including that obsequious halfwit Charlie—would. Instead, he waited.
Nic cleared his throat and shifted on his chair.
Aidan never said he was a patient man, though. “What result did you get?”
Nic flushed. From irritation? Then he smiled and sighed with mock tragedy. “It was so very unsuccessful that I spent months out of the dating game until I regained my confidence.”
“Is that a joke?” Aidan raised a disbelieving eyebrow.
“Yeah. Partly.” Nic grimaced. “No, it didn’t put me off dating, but it was unsuccessful.”
“Why didn’t it work?”
Nic shrugged. “That’s the simplest question to ask, and yet I think we both know how difficult it is to answer. I was matched quite quickly, with… well, with a professional woman. We had a very strained and unsatisfying date, a whole day and evening because both of us seemed to think we should give it some time, to see if things clicked between us. But she was nothing like I imagined. Nice enough, you know, good looking, well educated. She gave a clever impression of sharing my interests, at least in the beginning. But things deteriorated as the evening went on. In the end, we both agreed there was nothing there. No spark.” He huffed quietly at his unintentional joke.
Aidan opened his mouth—which of the many questions would he ask first?—but at the serious look on Nic’s face, shut it again quickly.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Nic said. “I believed in the program, Aidan, from the very beginning. I knew the idea was sound, but that was the first time I realized it needed more work. Better work. Or maybe I’d have identified earlier on that the match wasn’t genuine. I often wondered how our pairing ever got through the system. Either she was lying when she applied—”
“Or you were?”
Nic winced. “Okay, so just speak your mind, why don’t you. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t, but maybe I was economical with my own truth. Anyway, I deleted myself from the records after that, and I’ve stayed away as a user. Until today.” He met Aidan’s gaze with wide eyes, and a searching expression. “And that’s why I took so much of your time in the early days, to develop that matching, to guide everyone into a more open, more honest application. It’s so important to me that my clients understand, you know? There’s no right or wrong answer, no judgement, just the truth about yourself. Nothing’s going to work unless that’s adhered to. And I’m not prepared to run it for anything less.” He shook his head, glanced away as if he found it hard to meet Aidan’s eyes. “I must have drunk more than I usually do, to be rambling on like this. I haven’t talked so frankly about Sparks since I started it.”
Aidan didn’t know what to say, but something prompted him to blurt out, “You feel strongly about it. Passionately.”
“Yeah.” Nic blinked hard. “You know, I’ve never told anyone about that date before. Embarrassed, I guess. Though I suppose you could’ve found out from some kind of audit trail, anyway, right?”
Aidan’s body tensed. What kind of man did Nic think he was? He’d never go snooping into the system for his own gratification. Chill out, he warned himself. He didn’t mean to insult you.
“So,” he said instead. “Is what you were saying earlier still true? Do you really have plans to change the program again?”
“Oh, yes. I just hadn’t decided exactly in what direction I’d go. But tonight… one idea has taken my fancy in particular. It’s partly because of what you said.”
Nic seemed to be watching Aidan very closely again. Did he have sauce on his chin?
“That’s better,” Nic said softly.
“When you forget to frown. Your eyes are much clearer. You look…” He seemed to lose the word he really wanted, then continued, “Much better.”
A flush crept up Aidan’s neck. “This isn’t about me.”
“Well, yes and no to that. When you talked about people categorizing themselves. Remember? Don’t look so shocked.” He laughed and leaned forward over the table. “You’ve always been a catalyst for me, suggesting things, clarifying what was just abstract to me. Didn’t you know that? We worked well as a team, in those early days. I often bounced ideas off you, brainstormed around you.”
“Of course I remember.” In those early days, Nic said. As if he, Aidan, might have forgotten a single moment of them, of all the work they’d done. Of all the time they’d spent together….
But Nic’s eager eyes had dimmed a little. “It must be confidential at the moment. I want no one to know yet.”
Aidan started. “So don’t tell me.”
Nic rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I mean. I’ll need your help with it, anyway. I just wanted you to understand the importance of this.”
Aidan frowned. It didn’t seem to him that Nic should even need to question that. “Okay.”
Nic worried his lower lip between his teeth, then the words just launched out. “Basically, I’m thinking of dispensing with the gender question. Making the match search over all the database—male or female.”
Silence fell. Aidan stared at Nic over the table, his mind whirling with the implications. Nic toyed with his half empty wine glass, as if wondering whether to fill it up, finish it off, or just throw the damned thing at the wall. When he spoke again, his voice had a very uncharacteristic tremor.
“What do you think about that, Aidan?”
Nic’s voice was low, and Aidan felt a tightening in his stomach. “What does it matter what I think? If you want it done, it’ll be done. You know I can do it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nic was impatient, now. Did he think Aidan was deliberately misunderstanding him? “I mean, how do you think a potential client would feel if they knew they might turn up a same sex soul mate? Is the market ready for it? Or am I being too fucking bold?”
Aidan took a long time answering. But it wasn’t because he was embarrassed. If Nic had challenged him, he’d have explained that he was considering it empirically—taking the appropriate time, preparing a serious response. When he spoke, he kept his tone cautious, steady. “Yes, I think it’s bold from a marketing point of view, though that’s not my area of expertise. But I think it’s a valid step, to make people face their prejudices and preconceptions. They should examine whether there are alternative relationships. Of course, they should still have the chance to specify a gender, if they know themselves well enough, if they only feel comfortable with one—”
“Yeah, of course.” Nic was leaning forward again, listening eagerly to Aidan’s careful reply. He looked like he could barely stand the suspense. Aidan didn’t think his personal input was ever going to be make-or-break for someone like Nic Gerrard, but…
He could feel an answering excitement inside himself. The blood raced around his body, and a shiver ran right down to his groin. He didn’t want to ask himself why the hell it mattered whether Nic was asking his opinion or not! But he wanted to give it—he wanted to give Nic a lot of things, not least his professional appraisal. “You must appreciate some people might be terrified at the thought.”
Nic seemed to hold his breath.
“But it could open up the whole world for others.”
Nic let out that breath. His eyes sparkled in the reflection from the candle. “Jesus, Aidan. You nearly gave me a heart attack! Sometimes you give me so little to go on, every word seems to be measured out… and you’re so sober, so pragmatic. Yet when you finally speak out, you have a damned fine way with words. I couldn’t have phrased it better myself!”
“Y-yes?” Aidan let the wash of delight flow over him.
“That’s exactly what I want to do. Here, let’s drink to it!”
They clinked glasses, Aidan rather self-consciously. The enthusiastic light in Nic’s eyes was fascinating, mesmerizing—he couldn’t help but compare it to being caught in headlights. For a few glorious seconds, he realized he welcomed it, whatever the analogy.
And then things shifted.
“What about you, Aidan?” Nic asked, very softly. He held the wine glass very gently now, deceptively casual. He gazed at Aidan over the rim. The candle was flickering fitfully, as it burned down near to its base. It played shadows over Nic’s face and his evening stubble. “What would it open up for you? When you put your own data in, how did you state your preferred sexual profile?”
Dammit, Aidan thought.
Misery stole over him as he realized the time had come. The time when he started to lose the little control that he kept for social occasions like this. The time that would bring an end to this meeting.
He felt a strange mixture of fury and disappointment. He thought he’d been having a good time, up until now. But he couldn’t let anyone know how vulnerable he could be, by exposing his private feelings. He couldn’t let Nic Gerrard, of all people, know how he affected Aidan on a scarily primal level.
“This isn’t about me.” He could hear his voice as harsh; dismissive.
“No. I mean—I—”
Nic was confused by his sudden anger, Aidan could see that. He watched Nic’s expression struggle with something, then rearrange itself into a pleasant enough smile.
“Don’t misunderstand me, please. I wouldn’t want that.”
Nic’s tone was smooth again; his eyes had flattened out into politeness. Aidan knew he’d failed—failed to say the right thing, failed to be what Nic had wanted or expected him to be. But Nic was still turning on the charm; still patronizing the awkward employee.
So this is the famous Gerrard effect, Aidan thought bitterly. And it was his honor tonight to be on the receiving end. “So this is your personal touch, is it?”
“What?” Nic’s eyes widened.
Aidan didn’t know where the anger was coming from, but he let it loose, whether it was deserved or not. “You take the details, just like we did earlier this evening. Then, I understand that you interview every client personally. Like me, here, now. Will you see all the others later? When I’ve gone home?”
Nic was looking bemused. Aidan had seen that look before on other faces. He knew how quickly his mood could turn, how harsh he could get. But he couldn’t stop it. Nic Gerrard seemed to provoke him like no other person. But now you’re not being honest, he thought. It wasn’t only Nic’s expectations that he’d failed, but his own. And how was anyone meant to know that, when Aidan kept it all so close inside him? He bit his lip fiercely, almost drawing blood.
Nic was still puzzled, it seemed genuinely so. “I don’t understand, Aidan. Yes, I sometimes see clients individually.”
“See them? How intimate do you get?”
“What the hell?” Nic frowned, starting to shake his head. “This isn’t an interview! Is that what you think? Is this about you having to give your details into the database as well as the rest of us? I didn’t see anyone else getting so uptight!”
Aidan was breathing fast, trying desperately to bring his temper back under control. “It’s not that.”
What, indeed. “I don’t want to discuss my personal details with you. You have no right to know them.”
Nic grunted with annoyance. “It was just a frivolous question, Aidan. Not for any business reasons, not to pry. It was… for personal reasons.” He was very flushed.
“Uh-huh. Well, I won’t discuss it. Also for personal reasons.”
Nic was suddenly as angry as Aidan. Aidan didn’t understand why, when obviously Nic took guys and women to dinner, fawned over them, pretended to be interested in their opinions. All as a way to peel away their defenses. Take what he needed. Take what he wanted. Nic Gerrard must do this all the time, and more fool Aidan, to think tonight was any different.
“You are really pissing me off, Aidan, you know? I don’t know what your problem is, but I didn’t mean to offend you, and you damn well know it. Oh. Wait a minute…”
Fuck, Aidan thought, as he saw realization dawn on Nic’s face.
“Did you think I invited you out just to come on to you? Damn you, to think I’d take advantage…”
“It’s what you do, isn’t it? Nic Gerrard, Party King. Everyone’s welcome.”
Nic flushed even more deeply. “I just thought we might be getting on well, that we might share some interests.”
Aidan didn’t like that look in Nic’s eyes: like genuine pain. But his mouth seemed to be working all on its own. “Some interests? Is that what you call it now?”
Nic froze. “I’m pretty sure that’s beyond offensive, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Since you told me you’re out of practice in a perfectly normal, human social situation.”
“I’ve obviously fucked up somewhere, and I apologize for misjudging.” Nic was almost snarling by now. “On behalf of both me and you, it seems. All I can say is, you need to get out more, Aidan West.”
Aidan snapped, his anger, his humiliation, his shame, his confusion, all a horrible, sour mess in his gut. “And you need to mind your own business, Nic Gerrard. I work for you, that’s all. You don’t own me, prying into my life like this—”
“Jesus, you can’t talk to me like that!” Nic was breathless, amazed.
Aidan sneered. “What, so this is supper with the boss, after all? You want the official company speak that the others give you? That your sycophantic little assistant gives you? Or do you want even more than words?”
“No, Jesus. I didn’t mean—” Nic almost growled. “Fuck you for even thinking—!”
“That’s not me,” Aidan interrupted firmly, pushing his chair back abruptly as he rose. He fumbled in his pockets, pulled out some bills and threw them down on the table. “It never will be.”
And he left.