“What a success, eh?” An attorney’s clerk laughed to his friends, passing by the drinks table for the second time in as many minutes. The large function room of the Plaza Hotel—the city’s finest—was full of guests and babbling conversation, so that only the occasional words sprang out.
“More champagne…?” a well-groomed waiter murmured.
“…I heard Gerrard is planning something in the adventure vacation market…” from a group of investment bankers.
“…Scorsese’s bringing him the script next week, you know who’s tipped to play him?…”
“…only black silk, no, I’m not kidding, that’s what they say he wears at night…”
“…forty two million, I know, the percentage would be ridiculous if we could get the business…”
“…they want his face on every jar of chocolate, they say it’s his favorite drink!”
Amanda Bradnam leaned back against the far wall, scowling as a crowd of journalists from a rival newspaper pushed past her to get closer to the front. Her photographer winced as another couple of over-eager youngsters trod on his feet again. “There’ll be no exclusives at this rate, the number of damned hacks around.” Her tone was venomous. “To say nothing of the blog and podcast vultures.”
Nic Gerrard was, indeed, the toast of the town, just as Charlie had predicted. The launch speech had flowed from his tongue with wit and passion, the audience had laughed, gasped and applauded at all the appropriate times. Cameras had flashed like miniature explosions; interviews had been begged and arranged with Charlie and his team. Champagne had flowed like a blessed, sparkling river for the guests.
And Sparks would be going from strength to strength.
Tonight was meant to be for relaxing, Nic knew. Funny how the whole event felt like so much hard work. But he wasn’t ungrateful: this was what he’d wanted all along. He took a few stolen moments in the corridor leading to the hotel’s kitchen, drawing aside when wait staff hurried past with more refreshments for the function room, or back to the kitchen with empty champagne bottles. If they looked over to ask if he needed help, he just smiled and waved them on. Increasingly nowadays, he found he needed occasional moments to himself to keep sane.
But his head was still full of plots and plans. Rather more important to him than pleasing all the hangers-on, he’d managed several encouraging conversations with the venture capitalists and the new institutional shareholders of Sparks. Best of all, he would still be involved in running the company.
Now he just needed to last out this overblown evening, and then he could go home and re-group his thoughts. Alone, of course, despite the best efforts of several minor celebrities, and including Amanda Bradnam.
He raised a silent toast to his original partner, and the share package that he’d set aside for Greg as a gift of both recognition and reward. He’d be glad to pass on the good fortune to the man who’d helped him get where he was today. Greg’s last known address was somewhere in the Australian outback, or so an unpunctuated message from a burner phone had said, a couple of months ago. But Nic would make sure his pal reaped the benefits as well.
Okay. Showtime again. With a hidden sigh, he returned to the crowd, working it the way he did best, smiling genially, nodding to the heads that turned his way every time he passed. He stopped briefly to chat or laugh, but, almost instinctively, his gaze continued to move on, searching for something in particular. Or someone.
And then he saw Aidan West.
He was here! Nic’s heart started racing, which was, of course, fucking ridiculous. After all, there were plenty of other staff members here, chatting happily with media influencers, enjoying the day’s celebrations and the success that their work had helped to achieve. Nic had invited everyone and anyone, there was no preferential treatment at Sparks.
But Aidan was here! Nic felt a stupid grin creep over his face, and he started to weave his way over to that side of the room. The tables in the center had been moved back after the meal, to allow people to mingle, but there was still an obstacle course of guests and wait staff and precariously balanced glasses of champagne. He could see Aidan pressed back against a wall, nursing a glass still three quarters full, and silently blanking a woman who was right up in his face, firing questions at him. Nic scowled when he saw it was Amanda. Damned woman never gave up! He struggled into a large group of PR agents, roaring with laughter and already too full of free alcohol, but he ignored their protests and cries of happy recognition alike, his gaze fixed on his target.
He was unusually forceful as he pushed his way through them.
Though he didn’t want anyone to know it, Aidan was watching Nic cross the room. In fact, anyone looking at him would see his scowl directed at the fucking annoying woman who kept nagging to know his job, how he knew Nic, did he know what the future plans were for Sparks… He’d switched off after ten seconds, anyway, but she didn’t budge. He was going to have to be brutally blunt. But at least the scowl allowed him to look from under his half-veiled lids at the man approaching.
Aidan had dragged on a dress shirt for the evening, one reasonably ironed, though he drew the line at a necktie. Dammit, he didn’t even own one! But when he saw Nic Gerrard in his beautifully cut suit, jacket swinging from his steady shoulders, and pants hugging tight to his hips, he realized how inferior he must look. And he understood with a hot, blinding clarity why people parted around Nic as he walked, why both women and men turned eyes to eat up the sight of him.
He could still hear the relentless voice in front of him.
“Mr.—North, was it? Don’t tease now, I reckon you do work closely with Nic. You’ve got that look.” She gave a small, drunken giggle. “I-spy with my little eye, Amanda spots an exclusive, right? I’m sure you have some more information on this new product development he was hinting at in his speech.” She leaned in, way too closely. “I can give you a taste of that fame he revels in all the time, a chance for your own fifteen minutes of glory, you’ll be all over the TV tomorrow, you know—”
Aidan faced her fully, with a look carefully judged to express exactly what he thought of being on her damn TV show. It appeared that pure, unfettered hostility was all that was needed to render her temporarily speechless. Aidan suspected that was a rare occurrence.
“Amanda!” Nic had arrived beside him now, flicking his sharp gaze between them, then glaring at the woman as if to challenge her in bothering him further. “What is it you need? Charlie has copied you in on the press release, I’m sure.”
“Nic.” She nodded petulantly. “My style is far more personal than regurgitating a press release. As you well know, sweetie.”
Aidan wondered what that gleam in her eyes might mean, but he definitely didn’t like it.
“You support the freedom of the media, don’t you?” Her gaze slid away from Nic and back to Aidan, her appraisal sly. “I have every right to talk to your official guests. I would have thought you’d welcome the publicity.”
Nic moved smoothly and swiftly, putting himself between her and Aidan, yet he still kept that public smile in place. “What I would actually welcome is a little time with my guy, okay? I’m sure you don’t want to be accused of harassing anyone tonight. Charlie—ah, yes, there he is—definitely has some introductions you might find more rewarding.”
He lifted a hand only slightly and Charlie was there, on duty as he probably had been all evening. He smiled insincerely at Amanda and offered to lead her away. Behind her back, he glared at Nic, who smiled back with an uncommon, sickly sweetness. Aidan didn’t like Charlie particularly, but he had some sympathy for the guy having to deal with guests like Amanda.
Charlie also looked at Aidan over Nic’s shoulder, and their eyes met briefly. Charlie was a little too pale tonight. And he looked away first.
Nic turned back to Aidan, scanning his outfit with a mixture of surprise and approval. “Glad you came.”
“Statement or question?”
Nic bit back a sigh, and for once, Aidan felt guilty at causing him more grief. The room was crammed with people, the noise level painfully high, the guests ludicrously boisterous. How did Nic stand these events?
“Statement, Aidan. I’m glad that you came. I suppose it’d be too much to ask if you’re enjoying yourself.”
“It’s not my sort of thing,” Aidan said grudgingly.
“Then I’m even more glad you bothered,” Nic said, very quietly.
Aidan realized how close Nic was—their arms were almost touching—but he couldn’t move back any further. It was of course his own fault for skulking away against a wall, in his usual antisocial manner. He met Nic’s eyes and saw the genuine welcome there. Wondered how Nic could be like that, when only a day or so ago Aidan had shouted at him to get lost. Had been appallingly rude, in fact. Not a wise move, with your employer. Or with a man you wanted to … well, that thought could make itself scarce.
“Why did you come?” Nic murmured. Even in the middle of this circus show, with music blaring overhead, raucous laughter and chat, and the nagging of media representatives—even with all that, it was as if they were the only two people there. Aidan could feel the heat from Nic’s slightly flushed face; smell his expensive cologne. It made his head swim.
He deposited his wine glass on a passing tray, no interest in finishing his drink. It had nothing to do with the fact his hand was shaking. “I came to see… to see if it was a success, of course. I wanted to check that you gave proper credit to the IT team.”
Nic smiled, obviously taking that as the transparent joke it was. Aidan wondered if Nic realized that he was leaning into him. He could hear Nic perfectly well, he didn’t need the man’s mouth so close to his left ear.
“And did you hear—or see—what you wanted?”
“Yes, I did see those things. And perhaps I also saw…” Aidan paused, tearing his gaze away from the moving lips beside him. “I also saw some of the stretching that you described. That you said you suffer.”
Nic’s eyes widened in surprise. His hand touched at Aidan’s sleeve, almost tentatively.
“The people here, Nic… the media, the lawyers, even the staff. All calling for you, all needing you. How do you stand it?” The cloying smell of perfumes, the heat, the demanding bodies—Aidan hated it, and knew he wouldn’t stay much longer. But he’d felt obliged to come, to see Nic, and to see how the man looked to him, after what he’d learned from the hidden files. Perhaps to talk to Nic about it.
Aidan was very confused, and he disliked the feeling intensely. He knew that something had changed his attitude toward Nic Gerrard, and his honesty insisted he took notice. But how could they connect at this kind of event? Nic seemed to be in his element, but Aidan now suspected a lot of it was pure performance art. He could hear people calling Nic’s name, and see Charlie waving impatiently from the other side of the room. There was a small podium set up at one end of the room and the lights above it had been brightened, as if they were expecting Nic to speak again. That hideous TV woman was staring at them from beside the function room bar, where she and Charlie had parted with apparently mutual relief.
When he glanced back at Nic, the man was staring at him with astonishment. “You remembered all that?”
“There’s nothing wrong with my faculties,” Aidan said too snappily.
Nic shrugged. “It’s what I’m used to, I suppose. I shouldn’t have whined like that to you in the bar, it’s not so bad….”
“Yes it is. You’re just on automatic pilot,” Aidan interrupted gruffly. Maybe Nic hadn’t seen the strain on his own face; the glaze in his eyes; the tension in his body. It was so much more obvious in this setting. As a small knot of people jostled against them, Nic was nudged up against Aidan again. Aidan’s whole body shivered. He knew it wasn’t anything to do with the air conditioning, which was barely up to the job in the room tonight. “Nic—”
But he didn’t get a chance to say more. A group of office staff he barely knew now clustered around the pair of them, wanting to draw Nic away with them. They took barely any notice of Aidan.
“Autographs, will you—?”
“Another champagne toast!”
“I want to be in the picture with him, can I? Can I?”
Nic’s look back over his shoulder at Aidan was almost pleading. “Wait…” he may have mouthed, though no one could have been expected to hear him clearly over the racket. And then he’d gone, with just the echo of the excited voices trailing behind him.
Aidan struggled with a selection of coats, all tightly packed on the rail in the main cloakroom and none of which seemed to be his. The door opened behind him and the noise from outside burst in, making him wince. It closed again, muting the sounds and dimming the light inside the room. He knew from a lingering smell of cologne who’d just joined him. He turned slowly to face Nic Gerrard.
“What is it—barely ten o’clock. You’re going so soon?” Nic’s expression was a mixture of annoyance and distress. “Why the hell are you leaving?”
Aidan looked behind his boss for Charlie, but there was no sign of the assistant. No sign of anyone, really; no one chasing the star of the whole show. Nic was still staring at him, and he reached out a hand and grasped Aidan’s arm.
Aidan felt panic rising up in him. A panic that fed his own anger and misery. “I’ve had enough of this cattle market. I’ve shown my face, shown that the whole damned thing isn’t totally automated. This isn’t my scene, it’s yours.”
Nic’s expression was bemused. “I thought you came to … I want you with me.”
The anger flared, burning inside him. “I’m not with you, Nic! There are hundreds of people with you, and at the same time, none at all. It’s a publicity launch, not a dinner party.” He slammed a hand against the rail, shaking its moorings. “Where the hell is my coat? Tell me!”
Nic leaned back from him, but Aidan could feel his eyes searching his face. “There’s a smaller room behind the reception, the overflow from the cloakroom. If you were late arriving, it probably went there.”
Aidan wheeled away from him and pushed his way out of the cloakroom, trying to calm his breathing. He found the small room off reception, the desk unmanned by this time, with the party in full swing. He banged the door open impatiently. This room was dark and much smaller, with only a small number of coats on hangers, but various bags and jackets piled haphazardly on a low couch against the back wall. Maybe the staff had been careless with these late arrivals, maybe someone had already been in and messed it all up. Whatever the reason, the clothing looked like a sleeping beast, half in shadow. Aidan couldn’t find the light switch and he paused to let his eyesight adapt.
He had to get out of here: shouldn’t have come in the first place! He felt awkward, he had no purpose, and no one actually needed him to be here. And the sight of Nic in amongst his adoring public was sticking in his throat—
And then Nic was there again behind him, following him in, hissing into his ear with an unusually sharp tone to his voice. Had he been drinking too much of his own champagne?
“Aidan! I’m not going to let you get away with running out on me yet again. You hear me?”
Nic gave him no time to argue, no time to draw back. He was the aggressor this time. He pushed Aidan farther into the room so that he stumbled, his legs banging hard up against the couch. Nic stepped in quickly after him, pulled the door closed at his back, and then they were alone in the dark together.
“Don’t be stupid, Nic, open the door. People will want their coats.”
“No. Not yet.” Nic growled. “They’re not all miserable, cowardly shits like you, leaving before things even got started. There’s plenty of champagne left to keep them occupied.”
“What the hell did you call me?” Aidan felt uncomfortable in the dark, but the anger was rising too. And, he had to admit, an unnerving degree of excitement.
Nic’s breath was hot and angry on his face. “I’m tired of trying to understand you, Aidan. Tired of feeling good around you, and then having you turn on me again. For a second out there, you seemed… I thought we were… Shit, I haven’t felt this messed up for years! I can’t even find the words to express myself. Pretty ironic, right? I can talk to a room of hundreds, but not face to face with you.” He caught Aidan’s arm again. “You may have little respect for me as a man, but you can’t say you don’t feel something for me! I thought we were getting close, close, but you were just jerking me around as always, you’ve got your own fucking agenda that no one else on this planet understands—”
“Don’t talk to me like that, you have no idea!” Aidan found himself gasping for breath. The walls seemed to be closing in on him, and the thick coats were deadening the sharp edge of his voice.
“And that kiss, that fucking kiss!” Nic’s voice was fierce in his ear, and Aidan had nowhere to go without risking a fall onto the couch. Nic had gripped both his arms now and Aidan could feel his strength, holding on as if he daren’t let Aidan go. “How can you do that, how can you kiss me like that and then never refer to it again? Didn’t you want it too?”
“No. I. Fucking. Didn’t.” Aidan ground out the lie, at the same time as his mouth reached instinctively and desperately for Nic’s. It was as if his body was moving without his sanction, as if instinct was finally kicking free of sense. He tugged his arms out of Nic’s hold and grabbed at the other man’s head, his hands clumsy in the dark. And he kissed him again, smothering the jagged, shocked words between them.
Nic moaned, the sound swallowed up in Aidan’s mouth. Aidan was dizzy with the shocked excitement, but he was ready for Nic this time. That first kiss had been as shocking to him as it was to Nic—he’d just reacted. This time he wanted to savor. He pushed his tongue into Nic’s eager mouth, thrusting through Nic’s lips, hungrily, desperately seeking contact. God, the taste of him! Nic pushed back, crushing his lips, groaning with equally fierce need. Again and again, they ground against each other, Aidan’s hands tangled into Nic’s hair, and Nic pulled so tightly against his chest.
Aidan staggered again, but this time he let himself fall back, down on to the couch. Nic fell forward on top of him, still clutching. Most of the coats tumbled out from under them, onto the floor, out of the way of their flailing limbs. Aidan ached to get closer, to feel Nic’s hands on his face, touching, kissing, tasting, feeling….
He clumsily slid one hand in between the buttons of Nic’s shirt. His fingertips touched the hot skin, felt Nic’s hammering heart. It was fabulous, the tight muscles under his fevered touch were a wet dream come true. Then Nic grabbed his hand, pulled it away from his shirt, and pushed it down between them. Their joined hands wriggled down Nic’s body, over his belly, Aidan’s wrist snagging on his belt, until Aidan’s palm cupped Nic’s groin.
His heart gave a goddammit actual leap. He’d never wanted anything as much in life as this! Through the cloth of Nic’s pants, Aidan gripped his cock—hard. Slowly, but greedily, he began to rub.
“You want it.” Nic’s groan was heartfelt. “God, you want me! I hoped, shit, I knew—” His voice broke on a gasp.
Aidan groaned and writhed under him, unable to deny or agree. He couldn’t—wouldn’t—break away! The taste of Nic’s mouth, as eager as his own, the smell of his skin, the rough creases of his pants under Aidan’s possession… it was all like a drug to him. Every thrust of Nic’s tongue made the pain in his groin all the more anguished, all the sweeter. It was frightening, how good Nic’s hands on his made him feel. He thought he should break away, drag this awesome abandonment back under his control—but he knew now the desire was stronger than that, stronger than anything he’d ever felt.
“I do,” he whispered brokenly. “I do want you.” He couldn’t deny it. Why the fuck would he? No, he wanted to grip Nic in return, he wanted to hold him, to caress him, to make him groan aloud like he was now, but louder, and around Aidan’s name.
Nic didn’t think he’d ever been so damned excited in his life! He was so sensitive he thought he’d come in his pants any second, but he’d be damned if he didn’t take Aidan with him when he did. He shifted awkwardly, banging a knee against the couch, and he trod on someone’s handbag, but he managed to wedge himself on top of Aidan.
Aidan was almost flat on his back on the small, lumpy couch. Nic could hear him panting, could glimpse the glisten of his saliva as he moistened his swollen lips. The room was so dark, Aidan’s face was in shadow, though his eyes glinted when he opened his eyes, when he glared at Nic.
The glare wasn’t intimidating any more. It made Nic’s cock thicken. And their mouths still ravaged each other, still searching for the smallest drop of flavor, the furthest corner to explore inside.
Nic took his weight on his right arm, and with the other, pulled Aidan’s head against his shoulder. He was no praying man, but in that minute he prayed damned hard for the strength to hold them both there, for just a little longer. He pulled his leg further up on to the couch, coaxing Aidan’s thighs apart, and he ground his erection against the other man’s groin. Slowly, firmly, he twisted his body, and—yes!—he could feel the answering throb in Aidan’s cock; hot and hard, even through the two sets of pants. Christ, he felt big and he felt good.
“Don’t,” Aidan groaned, but at the same time he clung to Nic. Nic thought he’d heard him say it a couple of times before, each time just before he kissed him again. And this time was no different; despite the word of protest, his hands gripped at Nic’s arms, pulling him closer.
“You are so fucking hot.” Nic’s voice was ragged. “Do you know that? I wanted you since I first saw you…” but Aidan grabbed more desperately, and Nic swallowed any more words. He leaned down heavily on top of Aidan, and then Aidan’s mouth latched hard on his neck, sucking at his skin, surely marking him for everyone to see. Nic yelped—Aidan was so damned confusing!—but the thrill shuddered through his whole body. Goosebumps ran all over his skin and his groin throbbed if it were on fire. He fumbled down at Aidan’s zipper, desperate to get them both free.
Aidan gripped his wrist, halting him. “No.”
This time it sounded genuine and Nic stilled.
“Don’t touch me… not in here.”
Nic thought he understood: his libido had flared beyond sense. But this room was too small, too public. How would it look if the CEO of Sparks was found naked in the cloakroom? To say nothing of Aidan’s embarrassment.
He started to straighten up but Aidan still held on. No way could Nic resist that hold. He let Aidan arch up against him, feeling the other man’s thick cock, swelling the front of his pants.
“Harder,” Aidan gasped. “Just… like this. Harder. Now!”
Such delicious friction, their cocks rubbing together. Nic could feel their hearts pounding as he pressed against Aidan again. He bit down on Aidan’s ear lobe, tasting the sweat on Aidan’s cheek.
Aidan gave a low, strangled chuckle: an amazing sound from him.
Climax was uncurling in Nic’s belly. It wouldn’t be denied much longer. “Man… I can’t hold it,” he muttered. “Oh God, Aidan!”
No, Nic groaned to himself, not so fast, not with him! But it was out of his control now, the agonizing ecstasy was rushing in from every point of his body, every nerve was straining, and it was all ending up at one single point, one throbbing, aching point, one point that was currently crushed against the thigh of the most sexy man he’d ever met, ever kissed, ever—ever—
With a moan and another gasp of Aidan’s name, Nic came, shaking, moaning, and hanging on to Aidan’s shirt like it could anchor him to the earth. He barely heard the answering cry from the man underneath him. But he felt Aidan’s shudder and the sudden, rippling warmth against his own over-sensitive cock, and he knew that—if not for the fact they were still completely, chastely, fully dressed—Aidan would just have come deliciously all over him.
They stretched out awkwardly on the couch, exhausted. Nic was still shocked; both of them were panting heavily. The stifled sounds of the party outside started to come back to his ears.
“Oh, shit.” Aidan’s voice was almost a sob.
Nic raised himself on one arm, moving his stiff, sticky legs with some difficulty, and looked straight into Aidan’s brown eyes. They glared pure, angry distress.
Fuck, would this man never relax? Nic tried to put his arms around him. “Aidan, what is it? It was fantastic. You were fantastic!”
“No!” Aidan jerked away, his voice a fierce hiss. “That wasn’t supposed to happen, I never wanted that, I can’t believe you just—”
“Now wait a goddamn minute,” Nic frowned, his head reeling. “I didn’t do anything you didn’t ask for, you were just as hot for it as I was. I didn’t see your dick complaining!”
He felt Aidan pause, still half under him.
“Yes,” Aidan said, very softly, very raggedly. “It was wrong of me to say that. I was a willing participant.”
Aidan’s gaze was downcast. Even in the dim light, Nic could see how flushed he was. His chest still rose and fell quickly, like he was still catching his breath. Yet his confession didn’t sound like an agreement: like he was any closer to Nic. It felt like a pained and embarrassed withdrawal. Yet Nic knew that Aidan had wanted satisfaction even more than he did. It wasn’t a question of Nic’s vanity. It was the naked truth.
And so Aidan’s rejection hurt even more.
“Move away. Please.” Aidan’s tone was cold. “We must get out of here.”
Nic scrambled up, fumbling with his twisted clothing. His boxers were soaked through with cum, he knew it’d probably be staining the inside of his pants as well. The dry cleaning would cost a fortune. Perhaps he wouldn’t bother, just keep them as a souvenir….
But he couldn’t joke, couldn’t enjoy what he’d just had. Not when Aidan was so obviously disturbed by it. He thought he could see a damp shine in Aidan’s eyes. Shit.
“Jesus, Aidan, I didn’t mean to humiliate you… to upset you. I thought you wanted…. Well. What we did.” To Nic, it had been a long time coming, but so spectacularly satisfying he just—well, he just wanted to do it again.
Didn’t seem like Aidan did though.
“You believe everyone wants a life like yours. To do what you do, be like you. Well, I am now, aren’t I? Just taking what satisfaction there is in the moment—just when I want.”
Nic flinched. “No, it’s not like that at all. Of course it’s not.”
“What is it, then?” Aidan looked wildly around the small room, his expression desperate. Looking anywhere, rather than at Nic. His voice was a hoarse whisper. “I can’t handle this.” He struggled off the couch, turning his body as far away from Nic’s as was humanly possible in such a limited space, fumbling with his own clothing. An umbrella rolled under his feet and he kicked it away with far more force than was warranted.
He shifted one last time, stared at Nic, opened his mouth as if to… what? Nic wondered with horror if Aidan was about to apologize. But at the last minute, he just shook his head with obvious misery.
“Just… leave. Leave me alone.”
Nic clutched the edge of the sink in one of the hotel restrooms, his head bent deeply over the bowl. He’d cleaned himself as best he could, and he knew he had to get back to the party, but he couldn’t shake the depression in his mind. He had never felt so confused. Or so lost.
He had no idea where Aidan had gone. They’d pushed past each other to get out of the cloakroom and Aidan had darted off to the restroom across the corridor. Nic hadn’t dared follow. He’d found another one, beside a quieter, private lounge.
His senses were still reeling, and not just from such a frantic, fantastic climax.
There was no avoiding it. He liked Aidan a lot. No—to follow his own creed of honesty—he liked him a hell of a lot. And he had no idea why, when Aidan made him so angry, and so obviously despised him in return. Despite those amazing, mind-fucking-blowing kisses, and the way he sucked at Nic’s neck, and played with his cock and made those growling sounds deep in the back of his throat when he came….
God, the man had been some kind of animal, back there in the cloakroom! Did he have no idea how to behave with a lover? Maybe not.
Is that what I think I am to him? Was that really what I’d call loving?
Nic shook his head, trying to clear the fog. And his growing unhappiness. He didn’t know what he’d call this mess of a relationship, or what he’d call himself—but he wanted to be called it by Aidan.
Was he going to be the best discovery that Nic had ever made in his life—or the worst mistake?