Nic went for a drink with Amanda Bradnam the following night. Her calls had been frequent and insistent, and Charlie explained he couldn’t guarantee being polite for much longer unless Nic dealt with her. In the end—and still a little unbalanced from his startling supper with Aidan—Nic agreed to meet her at a trendy wine bar in a city center hotel.
She pretended it was for a follow-up to the interview, but Nic knew different. How could he tell? Well, he thought wryly, as they sat at the bar together, he could tell from the outrageous dress she wore, too low on her cleavage and too high on her thighs; from the clichéd, suggestive way she caressed the stem of her champagne glass; from the obvious way she pressed her leg against his, and took every opportunity to touch him.
“Tell me more about the matching program, Nic,” she purred. “I love to hear you talk about your work. Your passion.” Her hand fell on his thigh, the long nails slim and sparkling against the pale cloth of his pants. He reflected ruefully on how much more obvious, and less charming, she was outside of the studio. ‘Reverting to type’, Charlie would have said, barely resisting the urge to say ‘I told you so’.
“It’s not something I discuss,” Nic said, rather curtly. “It’s Sparks’s property, Amanda, both physical and intellectual.” As well you know already.
“Of course, of course. But what about the guys who wrote it? Are they working on anything new? I’m in need of an exclusive, sweetie, the show needs it. And think of the publicity for you!”
Nic winced at the ‘sweetie’. “There’s nothing I can tell you at the moment. He’s not got a new project yet. We’ve been discussing modifications to the core program, some work I’ve suggested on the hobbies and leisure interest section—”
“You said ‘he’, sweetie. Do you have only one analyst, Nic? Don’t you think that a bit dangerous, for such a significant organization?”
Nic tensed. “You’re lecturing me on business risk management now, Amanda?”
“Ah, now, don’t be so defensive!” She simpered, the expression giving an unpleasantly creased effect to her champagne-flushed face. “Perhaps you’ll let me interview him, too, sometime.”
“I think not.” Nic imagined briefly, and with the threat of hysterical laughter, how the introverted Aidan West might react to the idea of being interviewed on a frivolous TV show, in front of millions of anonymous viewers.
“Just a few words,” she persisted. “Just a few words on how it is to be the nerd to the stars.” Her words were slurring slightly, and she’d leaned forward over his lap.
“Nerd? You have a very old-fashioned turn of phrase, Amanda. I’ve no doubt you mean it insultingly, too. Whereas I’ve come across some pretty sexy, smart nerds in my time.” Nic was half off his seat already. “I think that’s probably all we have to say to each other this evening, don’t you agree?”
“Sorry, sorry… Nic, please.” Her voice was wheedling now.
Nic had some sympathy for her. He knew she’d spoken the truth when she said she needed an exclusive. She was a good journalist, but not one of the best he’d met—what she really had going for her was a stubborn relentlessness in digging up gossip at every turn; to insinuate herself beside the media-worthy stars; to find out any story behind the headlines. She hadn’t made many friends along the way, but she didn’t seem to care about that. Her morning TV show was her big break, it had given her access to more of those stories… and now to Nic’s world.
“Look, I have a room here, in the hotel upstairs,” she breathed huskily. “There’s some more champagne, on ice, waiting for us. It’s your favorite brand, I know it is. Let me apologize properly.” She waved her key card in front of his face.
Good God. Nic sighed to himself. Didn’t she realize he had propositions like this most days of his working life? And it was usually with a hell of a lot more subtlety or originality. “No thanks,” he began. But she suddenly slumped forward on her stool, and he barely had time to catch her.
“Amanda? Are you okay? Christ, woman, how much have you drunk?” He could see the barman hovering, but he waved him away. “I have her, it’s okay. She’ll be fine.” He took her weight against his chest with some difficulty—she was completely collapsed. Her eyes were closed and her breath was wheezing.
There was nothing he could do except see her safely back to her room. He couldn’t let her lie here, embarrassed, abandoned. Even though she was obviously on something a little stronger than whatever was in that champagne glass. What the hell was she playing at?
With a grunt, he lifted the unconscious Amanda, scooped up her key card, and set off for the hotel elevator.
“Baby?” It was an hour later and Amanda’s hotel room was in semi darkness. “Nic? Baby? Are you there?”
Nic was curled in a chair by the window, checking his email and grabbing a few moments of snooze in between checks on Amanda. He hadn’t dared leave her alone after she passed out. Apart from not knowing why she’d fainted in the first place, he was worried she might throw up and choke. He’d called the hotel first aider as soon as he got her into her bed, but they seemed to think she was just the worse for the booze. They also assumed he was her date and would be looking after her, so he’d stayed.
“Amanda. How are you feeling now?”
“I’d be better if you were in bed with me.” Despite her sleepiness, she sounded as flirtatious as before. “Come on, honey. This was meant to be.”
Nic drew a deep breath and unfolded himself from the fucking uncomfortable chair. Not for the first time, he suspected she hadn’t been as far gone as she’d acted. But she’d taken enough drink and probably some recreational drugs to put her to sleep for a short while. And to give him a hell of a fright.
“Not gonna happen. You need to rest. I’ll… well, I’ll get Charlie to check on how you are tomorrow.”
“Nic, it’s not Charlie I want, and you know it.”
She pouted and pulled herself to sitting. The sheet fell down from her shoulders, showing the top of her naked breasts. She was an attractive woman, he knew that. But nothing stirred inside him in response.
“You said you’re not dating anyone,” she said. “We’re both free to do what we like. To do who we like. What’s the problem?”
It was a question Nic might have asked himself until very recently. After all, he was still being invited to wild parties, still getting lewd and titillating invitations from boys and girls of all ages and types. Nothing had changed in his social life up to now. Why didn’t he take what was so willingly being offered? Just for entertainment—for passing fun.
But he didn’t want that. He wasn’t sure when his attitude had started to change, but… it had. It had been a disturbing hour for him, sitting alone beside the sleeping woman. Apart from any worry about Amanda, it was also the first time in ages that no one from the office knew where he was. No one had called him, no one had spotted him in the hotel. His time had been wholly his own.
He’d spent most of it thinking over every word of his dinner with Aidan West. What he thought about Aidan… what Aidan apparently thought about him. How their casual dinner had compared to the luxurious events Nic usually attended: how his prickly, defensive companion compared with the usual simpering fans who followed Nic around.
It had shaken him to the core.
Not that Aidan hadn’t behaved disgracefully and, in Nic’s opinion, unfairly. But it had been a shocking glimpse into his lifestyle for Nic, from the outside.
Nic knew he hadn’t always been a playboy. He wasn’t a hypocrite: he’d taken advantage of plenty of fun and sex and company over the last few years. He was a natural extrovert, and he’d had some great times. But maybe he wasn’t quite the great party-goer and willing lover so many people thought him. In fact, he wondered how often that had actually been the truth.
A sad, clammy chill settled in the pit of his stomach. He watched Amanda push the sheet completely away, reaching to remove her underwear, which he’d left on when he put her to bed. He smelled the fragrance of the room freshener, mixing with her heavy perfume, and the sour tang of past alcohol. He knew the bed would be comfortable, the sheets fresh, the sex uninhibited.
And yet at the same time, every sense he had was dulled; every instinct was to be somewhere other than this bland, expenses-paid hotel room. The confusion and disappointment tightened his throat. Something like anguish rippled through him; he felt frighteningly close to nausea.
“Like I said.” He was already moving to the door. “Charlie will check on you tomorrow. Good night, Amanda.”
He knew he wanted to leave the hotel: knew something had to change in his life.
He just wasn’t sure what to do about it.
The virus checking was complete, and nothing had been found. Nic had received a curt e-mail from Aidan West after a mere 48 hours, offering a full report, including an extensive audit trail and reassessment of internal security at every level.
He summoned Aidan to the boss’s office instead.
Now Nic stared at the man standing in front of his desk, yet again refusing to sit down in a more comfortable seat. “Was there any trace at all?”
“None,” Aidan said bluntly. Nic looked at the way he held himself—tight and defensive. It was obvious that he really disliked being here. With him, Nic. Had Aidan always felt like that, or was it a recent development? Nic was sure he remembered a more tolerant time. He wanted to tell Aidan West to go to hell, and yet at the same time, he wanted to tell him to sit down while he fetched him whatever he wanted. He wanted to punch him, hard—and he also wanted to take that skillful, supple-fingered hand and press it inside his own shirt, up against his nipples….
Hell, he thought, more than a little shocked. Where did those thoughts come from? Wasn’t he meant to be reconsidering his hedonistic tendencies?
“Aidan,” he began carefully. However Aidan had behaved, Nic had been disturbed by the awkward end to their supper the other night. It surprised him how much. So, it was important to him that he cleared that up first. He didn’t know what Aidan thought about the whole thing, but to be honest, at the moment it was Nic’s problem, and the only way he knew to deal with these things was to get them out into the open. “When we were out together, the other evening? I’m sorry if I upset you. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“That’s okay,” said Aidan, in a tone that expressed the absolute opposite.
Nic bristled. There wasn’t much more he could do except apologize, was there? “Well, thanks for the update, you can go if you want.” But Nic heard his voice stumbling on, as if he didn’t want Aidan to leave at all. “When will you be erasing the data on the test system? Charlie keeps harassing me, he’s sure he’s going to end up with the date from hell. Though, hey, perhaps he’s actually looking forward to it.”
Aidan ignored his question, and the rather pathetic joke. But it seemed he wasn’t leaving the room, either. He was restless: his gaze skittered over Nic as if he didn’t want to be caught looking at his boss. Was that just because Nic had insulted him at dinner?
“There was one problem I found. In the system. I think we have a hacker.”
“A hacker? Shit. That’s even worse, isn’t it?” Nic was shocked it could happen, especially with Sparks’s inbuilt security. Surely it implied a high level of sophistication—but from someone not on his payroll. He realized how much store he’d placed in Aidan’s abilities, to prevent such a thing. And from the look on Aidan’s face, he was thinking the same way.
“It’s unforgivable, I know. Do you want my resignation?”
“What?” Nic couldn’t hold back his incredulous laughter. “What for? You’re the best I’ve got! If you go, who the hell’s going to sort it out?”
Aidan’s eyes widened. Yet again, Nic wondered if anyone had ever praised this guy, told him how talented he was. Maybe he, Nic, should have done so more often. Though he doubted Aidan would have accepted any interaction so personal. Fucking man was a whole expressway of eggshells to be stepped over.
And then Aidan blushed.
How cute that blush looked! And then Nic had to mentally slap himself again for such grossly inappropriate behavior at work. “Look. We keep this between us for the moment, no one else is to know, okay?” He waited for Aidan to nod in agreement. “So, what do you suggest we do? What damage have they done?”
Aidan frowned. “None, particularly. The access has been random, only occasional, but in unexpected areas relating to the programming itself.”
“It’s not one of the usual IT staff?”
“I will eliminate any legitimate work, of course. But there’s enough activity to be suspect. As far as I can see, though, there hasn’t been any malicious damage. Not even mining of the data. Or not yet, anyway.”
“Industrial espionage? One of our competitors?”
Aidan refused to be drawn. “I don’t know. But I’ll find out. I want to maintain the test system for the time being. It may be useful later on.”
“Do we need another firewall? Back up more regularly…?” Nic was clutching at the straws of his less than extensive programming knowledge, and they were slipping through his fingers like they’d been well and truly greased. What’s more, he had a humiliating feeling he was just trying to keep Aidan in the office, trying to prove his worth to him as an employer, to prove he could understand what was at stake.
It was, of course, useless. No one knew the system like Aidan West. And Aidan West had no need for anyone else to know the system like he did. Nic felt suddenly, hopelessly helpless. “Tell me what to do,” he said bluntly.
The look in Aidan’s eyes was determined. “There’s a lot more investigation to be done on it. I’m passing my current workload on to Keith and Lin, and telling them I have personal projects to work on instead. I’ll work on this breach full time until I’ve found out who it is and what they’re after.”
Nic wet his suddenly dry lips. “Do you think it’s someone in the company?”
Aidan got that look again, the one that implied other people lived on a completely different planet from him, and it was their loss. “I won’t know until I do the work.”
The follow up “will I?” was only implied, but screamed itself scornfully at Nic. Hey. He could take it, if it kept Aidan on the task, if it kept him protecting Sparks. “Thanks, Aidan, for your commitment to this.” Aidan still had that look. Nic wondered how often he was going to see it this year. At the moment, it was way too frequent for his liking.
But all he said was, “This is my system at risk here, and my reputation. I wouldn’t consider any other course.”
“And the gender flag,” Nic said carefully. “Have you had a chance to look at what would be involved? I’d hoped we could start work on the new version of Sparks after the stock market announcement, but that’s next week. I know it’s not necessarily a priority now—”
Aidan was already shaking his head. “It’s fine, I’m working on that as well, I ran a feasibility report over the weekend. It’s quite possible to include it as optional, it just dips into the database at an earlier stage. If and when you announce it publicly, Lin can easily handle the background programming. I’ll brief her and finish it off myself in the final pre-implementation stages. In fact, I’ve started running a prototype on the test database, it’s been useful for that as well.”
“I… right. Yes.” Nic felt wrung out after all this. But he had enough sense to realize when Aidan West was giving him hope—on several levels. “Thanks, Aidan. I said that before, right?”
“Yes. You did.” But Aidan’s expression softened, as if something in Nic’s tone alerted him to the stress his boss was under. “I understand how important it is to maintain the credibility and efficiency of Sparks, for all its users. We don’t want anyone knowing the program may have been compromised.”
“Christ, no.” Nic spoke earnestly, freely. “And that’s all I ever wanted, Aidan. The good of the company and our clients.”
Aidan started to reply then seemed to think better of what he’d been going to say. Instead, his voice was almost gentle as he said, “I have the same objective, Nic.”
For a long moment, they gazed at each other with shared understanding. The air was tight between them, as if electricity actually crackled there. Nic wanted to put his hand on Aidan’s shoulder in a gesture of solidarity—or maybe he wanted Aidan’s hand on him. It all felt so confusing.
Then Aidan spoke more brusquely, as if regretting his moment of weak humanity. “Will close of business Friday be okay for my more detailed update?”
“More than okay,” Nic replied, just as briskly. The brusqueness was apparently contagious. No bromantic gestures of any kind to see here. “Meanwhile, with this current problem, can we still use the system? Should we? We’ve had a great marketing response this month, more new clients than usual. It’s all good news with the launch coming up. But I don’t want any damn hacker getting too close a look.”
“I’ll find the problem, Nic, or seal it off. The business can continue as usual. It won’t affect the launch next week, I assure you.”
Nic gazed at the blank, harsh expression that Aidan did so well, and wondered what control it took to block out emotion like that. Or perhaps the bastard never felt it in the first place.
He despised himself for losing his own control, and even more so when he felt his mouth open and the conciliatory words come out, regardless. “We can have supper again, talk about it. Hey, things went a little awry last time, didn’t they? But I enjoyed the evening a lot. We should do it again.”
Aidan’s eyes narrowed, but then flattened out again to their usual, inscrutable depths. Nic remembered looking into them over the table the other night, the candle flame flickering its reflection in the pupils. He’d marveled at the hard vibrancy, the intelligence they showed. It was still there, but—by God—he no longer felt it was welcoming.
And Nic knew that the single word was the firmest ‘no’ he’d ever received. He’d lost any headway he’d gained with this man’s friendship, and he had no idea what to do to make it up.
Thursday night found Aidan hunched forward in his chair, in his apartment, surrounded by papers and data charts. The remains of a half-eaten pizza in its box lay on the couch and several empty water bottles on the table. He hated surrendering to takeout, but he’d forgotten to eat at a sensible time and had needed fuel, and quickly. Also, he still hadn’t remembered to put in new lamps in the apartment, so the light everywhere else was dim, the side lamp casting strange shadows on the walls behind him.
But inside him was the glow of real satisfaction. It had been a long day—if he’d taken a look, he would have seen the daylight outside slowly fading—but he was concentrating on what he did best: problem solving. He was damned if he’d let anyone hack into his system and remain hidden! However long it took him to track them down, he’d do it.
And what did it matter the schedule said this was his day off?
He was logged in remotely to the system at Sparks, reviewing the recent activity on the servers, and running a search program on any new or unusual IP addresses. Each one had to be checked: each one had equal potential to be a problem. There was a long list still remaining that he needed to cross-check against his data on legitimate users, but he would investigate them all.
He cast a careful eye over the test module, concurrently running with a version of Sparks’s program on another laptop. He’d been trying out options on it for the gender flag change, but now he wondered if this module might also help him in his quest for the hacker. Idly, he watched the data scrolling across the screen, the introductory details of all the people he and Nic had loaded. This wasn’t an area he was worried about, in either system; the basic search worked well. It was the odd activity in places deeper into Sparks’s programming that had disturbed him. Nic may have been right to suspect commercial competitors.
Dammit, though, in his gut he knew what the hacker wanted. They wanted access to the complex matrix that Aidan had programmed, that matched the requirements from the client against the other profiles held on the database—not only on a one to one basis, but with the sophisticated, unique set of weightings and balances that he and Nic had developed between them. It was Aidan’s greatest achievement to date, and one he was rightly proud of. Nic seemed to understand how to prioritize the critical elements of a relationship, but Aidan was the one who made it work on the data in a meaningful way. Anyone who saw the couplings that Sparks brought together might be surprised, but so many apparently incompatible pairs had found unexpected happiness that its unique approach couldn’t be denied.
Together, we make it work.
Aidan watched the scrolling list of data, the program rolling it all around in its mouth like a fine wine, and then spitting out the preliminary matches as each parameter clicked into place. There were several stages still to run through.
He saw his own name appear and roll out of sight. He saw Patti’s, he saw Charlie’s, he saw many others that he knew. He briefly toyed with the idea of manipulating Charlie’s to the nightmare match that the other man was dreading—just as a technical exercise, of course—but although it would be amusing, he knew such mischief wasn’t really his style.
Plus, he’d never do anything like that because of his perfect respect for this system. It had grown a life of its own as far as he was concerned, and sometimes he felt he was only the guardian, not the master.
He saw Nic Gerrard’s data spinning across.
He saw a hiccup, a re-sorting, a happy enough virtual click as the data slotted in with another’s.
No. No, that wasn’t right. What did he just see? He tried to call back the data, but it had already scrolled on. He knew the only way to check if what he thought he saw was true, was to progress to the end of the program and ask it to produce its branded ‘MatchMe’ report. The report that was so eagerly awaited by the real clients.
The romances and the marketing and the client management—that was Nic’s area of expertise. He had a whole damn team running that side of the company on his expert instructions. Aidan rarely took any notice of the final reports—it wasn’t what interested him.
And definitely not right now.
He groaned, and in an unusual fit of anger toward his precious laptop, he abruptly slammed down the lid.
Nic had the fright of his life when Aidan burst into his office late the next day. The rest of the staff had all gone, but Nic had stayed on to work. He needed quiet, but was realizing there were only so many times you could rework a launch speech, trying to adapt it between a vote of thanks, a reassurance for the financial press, and a marketing plug for the agency itself. At the last minute, he’d decided to keep news of the work on the gender flag out of his main speech—he’d inform the investors and the national press that exciting new modifications were being considered, but he’d announce more about it when the finer details were worked out. That would ensure extra attention for the launch in the press, and tease the market. Though, judging from his current mental exhaustion, he thought that maybe he’d been too ambitious, trying to launch both the public listing and a daring product innovation at the same time….
And here was the crowning glory, Mr. Aidan West. Nic sighed. What would the argument be this time? “Aidan, I wasn’t expecting—” But he never got a chance to finish his sentence.
“I think I can catch him out! He’s greedy for information, he’ll be sloppy under pressure, needing to get in and out of the system as quickly as possible. I can play on that.” Aidan’s eyes were alight with something like enthusiasm. Nic thought he might need to sit down again, from the culture shock.
“The hacker—hackers—I don’t know. Whatever, right?”
Nic had to grin. The excitement from the normally so controlled man was infectious. “Well done, Aidan.”
Aidan dismissively waved away the praise. “I just thought… well, that you’d want to know right away.” He suddenly looked bemused. As if he wasn’t sure why he’d said that.
“How did you know I’d be here—?”
“Checked the exit records,” Aidan interrupted. “You hadn’t left the building.”
“O…kay. Have you been working here all day?” Nic asked, surprised. He hadn’t seen Aidan around. Under the flush of eagerness, Aidan had the beginnings of dark shadows under his eyes.
“Huh? No, I’ve been at home. Mandatory vacation day. I’ve been running diagnostics.”
“Yes,” Nic murmured wryly. “Of course. On your day off. Like anyone else wouldn’t.”
Aidan didn’t hear him, or ignored it. “I wanted to try some parallel running that’s easier from here than through my laptop. I arrived a couple of hours ago. I’ve got a permanent, twenty-four hour pass to the building, don’t you remember? If it’s a problem…”
“No.” Nic shook his head. Aidan had more or less the same access as Nic did to the building. “It’s fine.”
Aidan frowned: paused for a moment. It was probably too much to ask, that he might wonder why Nic was working late as well. That he might see them as equally committed to the company’s success. Then Aidan shook his head impatiently.
That would be a no, then.
“Tell me more,” Nic encouraged gently.
“I’ve been checking access to the main system, but it will take me much longer than we want, with the launch about to go live. I had an idea to trap him, to direct him into the test system rather than the live one. There are decision points where I can break away, direct alternative programming into the new database, and then capture his trail. After all, the only user in there otherwise will be me.”
His eyes sparkled most unusually: it made Nic catch a breath. “You think he’ll fall for it? Follow that alternative path?”
Aidan dismissed that with a sharp nod. “It’ll perform the same way, and I’ll make it more attractive. Legitimate users will follow the usual steps, but someone accessing maliciously will notice a flag—declaring itself confidential—that apparently leads to the most critical mapping of Sparks’s matches. Which it doesn’t.”
“Of course it doesn’t. There’s not a single magic switch that says ‘push this for the answer’, Nic. It’s a series of very complex matrices.”
No label with ‘Match me’. Nic nodded, ignoring Aidan’s disbelieving tone. He was pretty sure it wasn’t personal.
“But I believe he’ll be fooled because that’s what he’s looking for. From the pattern of system access so far, I’d say the unusual entries have been aimless. He’s searching speculatively.”
“Fishing.” Nic agreed. “But he’ll realize it’s a trick…?”
“By then it’ll be too late, he’ll have exposed himself. He hasn’t the knowledge of Sparks and the skill that I have.”
Nic bit his lip to avoid smirking at Aidan’s totally un-self-conscious boast. It was probably true, after all. “You’ll be working on all this tomorrow?”
“No. Starting tonight. I don’t want to waste any more time.”
Nic nodded slowly. He wondered why Aidan had even bothered to come and tell him about it. “So. Why are you here? I mean, now?”
Aidan paused again. He glanced around the room as if surprised to find himself here. “Like I said. I came to tell you first. I mean… because you’re the boss.” His voice was halting. He sounded surprised at his own words, and wary as if they didn’t entirely convince him.
“Thank you.” Nic spoke carefully, afraid to spook the guy. “I appreciate that.”
Aidan just stared at him, the frown returning.
Nic bit back a sigh. “Tell me how I can help.”
For the first time, Aidan seemed to listen to what Nic Gerrard was saying. “Help? You?”
Nic winced. “I’m that bad, huh?”
Aidan flushed. “I don’t mean you’re useless, as I’m sure you know. Your portfolio includes many technology companies, and you personally have good overall understanding. But you’re not a working technician. This is my project, my objective, my—” He’d obviously been about to say ‘my baby’, but bit it back before letting that embarrassment out. “I don’t need help. The programming will take me a while to complete. And I’m still searching through all the activity on the main servers to identify anything that’s unauthorized. But I’ll keep working on it tonight. I don’t want to stop now.”
“So, I’ll stay with you.”
Aidan looked totally confused by now. Nic knew he couldn’t think of an objection fast enough. “Gerrard. Nic. I don’t think so—”
“That’s crap.” Nic smiled determinedly, moving out from behind his desk, scooping papers into his drawer as he cleared the surface. “I insist. As your employer.”
Aidan was shaking his head. Smile for me, whispered Nic’s inner voice. Smile for me, Aidan…. “Come on,” he wheedled. “Wouldn’t it help to have some company? To have someone to bounce ideas off, to write notes while you’re searching? Like we used to work together. Hell, don’t you need me to move your coffee cup away from disaster when those fingers get to warp speed?”
Yes! A triumphant thrill ran through him. Aidan had smiled at his pathetic joke—very slightly, but that was like a leap into the Grand Canyon from Aidan, wasn’t it?
“I guess so. It’s your time, after all.”
“Yes,” said Nic, softly. “It is.”