“Nic, have you seen the papers today? Have you been online yet?” Charlie’s voice was unusually somber. It was early morning and Nic had been alone in his office until Charlie stuck his head around the door. Elsewhere in the building, there was only a skeleton staff. Nic had allowed the rest of his employees a late start to the day, to recover from the launch party.
“Nope, not yet.” Nic stirred his coffee without looking at it, or Charlie. Usually, his first job was to check on his mail, and then social media. He liked to know what was going on in the world, as well as specific news items that affected his businesses, including Sparks. And especially after the launch yesterday. But it seemed he was still distracted from the night before. Well, in truth, the evening before. From the time with Aidan.
Nic had left the party around midnight, and—an unheard of event, to judge from people’s stunned faces—he left alone. This was despite a sizeable queue of eager fans hovering by the main exit, like beauty parade contestants. But one minute he was there, shaking hands, doing his duty albeit smiling too tightly, then he slipped away.
He’d asked Charlie to cover for him, which Charlie had done very smoothly and efficiently. It was easy to hint at a mysterious overseas video call as an excuse for Nic to leave abruptly, or critical reports to review for the morning’s stock market opening. But he’d also peered at Nic’s flushed face with concern and he’d obviously known something bad had happened. To his credit, he didn’t press Nic for details. Instead, he’d appreciated how desperately Nic wanted to get away, and helped facilitate it.
“Nic?” Now Charlie was apparently trying to drag his boss back into the cold light of the present, despite both of them suffering morning-after symptoms. “Are you listening? I must talk to you about this.” He dropped his tablet onto Nic’s desk, demanding his attention.
“Isn’t that why I have you, to precis it all for me?” Nic wasn’t usually vain, but he had grown rather used to the congratulatory stories in the press about him, the tone of affection that he’d always inspired. And the event had, as far as he could judge from his guests’ enjoyment, gone extremely well.
“This is something else. Read this!” Charlie ordered. And so Nic read.
It was front and center of every search engine list. Also in blog comments; in the financial press. He read that his company Sparks, so recently launched on to the stock market, was planning a wild and outrageous change to its world-renowned program, that would completely bypass the question of gender, and would match its clients with someone—no, anyone!—who met the criteria. Whatever their sex. Whatever their orientation.
He selected the commentary from one of the most widely-read sites and read on, in amazed shock, his gut churning.
‘It’s an astonishingly arrogant move, threatening a loss of dignity and a destruction of moral codes that is more in keeping with a Greek orgy than middle America. But what should we expect from the self-indulgent Mr. Gerrard? Whose own indiscriminate sexual behavior is a common enough tale in bars, halls, and—as is occasionally alleged—stalls throughout the state. We should expect that he wants to drag us all down with him, wants us all to join in his own, warped view of a free-loving Pleasure Palace.
‘But will he be allowed to get away with it?
‘Today, the shares in Sparks—launched only this week at a laughably bullish price—have plunged to mere cents.
‘The public will decide whether they want this vision of Love.
‘The public will decide if they want their sexual preferences dictated by an amoral playboy.
‘The public will decide with their feet.
‘Let’s see how many clients Mr. Gerrard has left by the end of this day’s trading!’
There was a deathly silence in Nic’s office. Outside in the main office the switchboard was buzzing with frenzied activity.
“The phones—” Nic said hoarsely, half rising from his chair.
“Patti’s on it,” Charlie assured him. “I sent her a text and she rushed in to cover. She’ll keep them at bay until the reception staff come on duty.”
“What kind of calls are coming in?” Nic had to know, even while he fought back nausea.
“Shocked,” Charlie said bluntly. “Many of them offering sympathy. And some… well, they’ve expressed anger and fear that their hard-won investments in the new company won’t be worth toilet tissue by the end of the month.”
Nic groaned and sank his head in his hands.
Charlie stepped quietly back, and closed the door on them both. “No need for anyone else to know your business.” He glared with hatred at the story Nic had scrolled through on the tablet. “It’s shameful, Nic. It’s borderline libel. Anyone with any respect for the way you’ve always conducted your business will recognize this for ugly, jealous, tabloid journalism.” His voice caught on what was almost a sob. “Fuck, how they can all turn, in just twenty-four hours. Hypocritical bastards, all of them!”
Nic forced words out through a very dry throat. “Who could have told them what I was planning? About the gender flag, I mean. There’s no way I would have sprung it on people, or forced clients to accept it against their will.”
“Everyone will know that—”
“But will they?” Nic’s voice had risen. “Now the plan is out, way too soon, and before I’ve worked on a proper marketing campaign. There were so few of us that knew about it at all. Me, Aidan, you, and maybe Patti. All people I can trust. I deliberately only hinted at it last night, in my speech—just a tease, to illustrate that there were great things planned for the future, that we’d not stand still, that the company would be worth everyone’s investment.”
“I know, Nic. We all do.”
But Nic barely heard him. “I was planning to announce the program enhancement in more detail, but more modestly, later in the month. And it was never going to be compulsory, of course not! Just an option for our clients. I knew that not everyone would welcome it….”
Charlie snorted. “Makes a better story, my dear, if they paint you as Satan himself, dressed in Armani, yet come to corrupt and disgust. Despite the fact that in their leisure hours, most of these very commentators lie, cheat, steal, and fuck everything and anything they can find with true abandon.”
“How can they think that of me?” Nic couldn’t believe how betrayed he felt. ‘…whose indiscriminate sexual behavior is a common enough tale in bars, halls, and—as is occasionally alleged—stalls throughout the state…” They made him sound like some kind of a corporate pimp. How could anyone believe he was such a threat? “I should talk to the press—”
“You should not!” Charlie snapped with spirit. “That’s the last damn thing you should do. It’s what they want, to provoke you, to force you onto the defense.”
“I won’t run away,” Nic said grimly.
Charlie’s expression softened. “I know you won’t. But no public response yet, not until this initial furor has died down, and you’ve talked it through with the PR department. Dammit, Nic, you’re entitled to make whatever changes you want to what is, after all, your own business.”
“No,” Nic shook his head. “It’s no longer only my business. Since we launched, it has a different accountability. And it has to answer to other masters than me. Ones that are more conservative. Ones that are far less indiscriminate.”
Charlie’s eyes widened. “You’ve never wanted anything but the best for Sparks—like you want the best for us all! You’d never consider anything that might threaten its mission, success, or its fucking share price, and they’d do well to remember that. No, you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone at the moment, let alone the piranhas of the press.”
Charlie’s well-groomed eyebrows rose high. “To be honest, this is probably the worst time to speak. Let the dust settle on the shit, Mother would say. And when I say shit, that includes all those media sharks—“Peanut Dick” Castle from the Times, Vulture Vince from the Network, and let’s not forget the delectable Ball-buster Bradnam….” He rattled off several more, and equally slanderous, nicknames of notorious commenters and journalists.
Despite himself, Nic had to smile. “Charlie, those names! I’ve never known you so vicious.”
“Dear man, Mother’s been calling them that for years. When you have money like she does, you mix almost daily with a selection of media celebrities. She knows them all too well, the best and the worst.”
Nic assumed Charlie was right. But, if so, what was he supposed to do right now? He felt he’d been hit by a baseball bat, then run over by a truck following in the batsman’s wake.
“Nic, honey. You’re just too accommodating, I’d say, to have let them get such a hold on you. You must do what you have to do. Your real friends will support you through this.”
“Through the complete collapse of Sparks?” Nic hated the sharp, anguished edge to his voice. “The effect of this on the market price—”
“Fuck the market price!” Charlie said briskly. His face twisted in sympathy. “Go home, Nic. Close the office up as well, or we’ll be besieged by media enquiries all day. Let me handle the PR, I can keep them guessing long enough to think this latest development is all planned. By which time, it’ll have sorted itself out, eh?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. He felt stunned. “I genuinely don’t know.”
The office had closed for the day, possibly the week. The staff had taken the enforced paid vacation with indecent enthusiasm. Only Charlie was still around by early evening, locking up the offices and preparing to pull up the drawbridge to Sparks until they found a way out of this mess. He’d rolled his sleeves up and fielded complaints, calls, and e-mail all day, until the inquisitors lost heart and went home to their bar rooms and beds. He was looking forward to his own, to be honest.
A light was on in the IT suite, and he looked in on it with some trepidation. “You’re still here, West? Everyone else has gone.”
Aidan West nodded, though he didn’t look up. “I’m close to finishing this. I don’t need any of the others.”
Charlie stood in the doorway a little longer, until Aidan couldn’t ignore his presence any longer. Slowly, Aidan turned his chair around to face Charlie.
“Do you think it was me?” he said bluntly. “Who told the media about the proposed program change?”
“You heard about it all?” Charlie didn’t see how the news could have missed anyone who worked at Sparks, but Aidan West had always been a lone wolf. Keeping his face blank, he walked toward Aidan’s desk. When Aidan continued looking up at him, he took pity on the guy. He shook his head, sighing. “I know you wouldn’t do that to Nic. Or to your precious program.”
“Yeah?” Aidan looked taken aback. It wasn’t surprising, Charlie thought: neither of them had ever much liked the other. “So who did? Do you know? How did they find out?”
Charlie didn’t answer directly: he didn’t entirely trust Aidan yet. “You’re trying to find a hacker, aren’t you?”
“I don’t think I can discuss—”
“Shut up, West,” Charlie said wearily. “I know virtually everything that goes on here, but that doesn’t mean I blab about it to the public, either. I know you and Nic have been working on a new version of Sparks. Could the hacker have leaked the news too early? To cause the maximum reputational damage to the company listing?”
Aidan’s eyes widened.
“I’m not saying that Nic wasn’t naïve in his plans,” Charlie continued warily. “Let’s face it, there’s a limited number of bodies out there who are as tolerant as he is of alternative relationships. But he’d have carried it off, given the time and the natural charm that he’s blessed with. This debacle is going to hinder that rather seriously.”
Aidan grimaced. “But I’ve only loaded the flag change to the test system so far—”
Charlie watched the realization dawn on Aidan’s face like the moon rising.
“I’ve been trying to lure the hacker into the test system,” Aidan said slowly. “He most likely accessed the changes there.”
“Maybe. We don’t know for certain, of course.” Charlie could see how the idea both shocked and horrified Aidan. Much as he thought Aidan West deserved to sort out his own mess, he was startled too. Perhaps he’d underestimated this thing that Nic and Aidan seemed to have going. Perhaps Aidan felt as strongly as Nic did, about Sparks—and about each other. “But whoever’s to blame, they want to humiliate Nic.”
“Then we must find that person. Stop them. I have a colleague in the UK I need to talk to, I’ve hit a temporary brick wall in my investigation, and I think her specialist knowledge can help.” Aidan shifted as if to stand, to rush off immediately on his quest. His eyes were dark, his frown fierce.
“Not tonight, Aidan,” Charlie said, gently but firmly. “It’s late. Nic has a meeting with his PR team in the morning, and they’ll find a way to limit the damage, at least for the moment. Tomorrow is a good enough time to discuss any of your system solutions.”
Aidan dropped back in his seat, though his hands were still balled into fists. He peered at Charlie more closely. “You said you know everything that goes on here.”
Charlie pulled over a chair and sat opposite Aidan. “So? Something else I can do for you?”
“The Rapport Trust… what’s that about?”
So. Aidan had found out about that. Charlie sucked in a sharp breath. “It’s not a secret. Just private.”
“But Nic’s involved?”
“Yeah, damn right he is.” Charlie laughed out loud. “Do you have any idea at all? Well, no, obviously that’s why you asked.” He leaned back, settling in for a gossip. His very favorite thing. “It was inspired by an idea Nic had with his friend Greg, many years ago. Greg’s moved on, so now Nic funds and motivates the whole damned thing on his own. Won’t allow much help from anywhere or anyone else, not even me.”
“What is it for?”
“You’ve read something in the files?” Charlie challenged him.
Aidan flushed, “Yes. But… I want you to explain.”
Well, well, well. Charlie was pleasantly surprised that Aidan wanted him for anything. “It’s for homeless kids. Nic wants to help them find a home, a job—whatever they need. It offers careful but practical help. If they’ve got to stay on the streets, he gets them hostels, food, helps get them clean of drugs or out of the clutches of pimps. He spends several nights each month helping out at various centers. By himself. No publicity, no protection. Shit, I spend most of that time secretly stalking him in a succession of anonymous rental cars, in case he comes to some harm—” Charlie saw the look of astonishment on Aidan’s face, stopped, and pretended to clear his throat.
“So it’s all for young people.”
“Yeah. Kids like Nic himself, Aidan. Orphans. Abandoned.”
“Nic?” Aidan’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know.”
Charlie shrugged. “He doesn’t like to talk about it. He’d say he’s nothing special, there are thousands with the same background. And he’s very good at projecting that self-confident image. But it’s strengthened his commitment to the Trust’s work.”
“Please?” Aidan said softly.
Charlie knew what he was asking. “Nic never knew his father, and his mother fell sick when he was still young. He made it to college through his own efforts. But his Mom got worse until they diagnosed cancer. They talked about him going to foster parents for a while, but he stayed home, nursing her through it. That’s all he’s ever told me. He doesn’t wallow in it.” He bit at his lip, wondering why the hell he was telling all this to West. “When she died, he just went to work, determined to make it on his own.”
“He’s never mentioned the Trust.”
“He doesn’t tell us much either, even though he calls us friends. He’s only told me enough to help him keep it running, to help him make the time for it. We’ve set up a damned good smokescreen for him over the last few years. Not because he’s ashamed of it, you understand? But he doesn’t see why the public needs to know everything about him. Dammit, they have every minute of him the rest of the time!” Charlie drew a calming breath. “He had a hard life as a kid. He needed an organization like the Trust for himself, I think, but nothing was ever forthcoming. So he wants to provide it for kids that come after him.”
Aidan looked bemused. “He’d have plenty of help from others if he advertised it, though.”
“You don’t get it at all, do you?” Charlie grimaced. “Nic doesn’t want anyone involved because of his public face, because of his success. He doesn’t need hangers-on. And so he has to do it on his own. He doesn’t trust anyone else to understand. To care.” To his horror, Charlie felt his voice tremble. “He has no one, West. That’s how he feels! He’s damned proud of what he’s done with Sparks and everything else, and he loves the life he has now. Who wouldn’t? None of us begrudge him that. But at heart he’s on his own.”
Aidan was silent now, and his eyes dropped away from Charlie’s gaze.
“He’s finding this damned hard, Aidan. The agency is being crucified, and so is he. I don’t think he can see where to go at the moment. He’s never had a setback like this since he started his own business.”
“You.” Aidan’s voice was very low. “You care for him.”
Charlie’s heart gave an extra beat. “Yes. And I’ll do what I can. Tomorrow I have plans to find plenty of success stories to offset the panic. But I don’t know if it’ll be enough to save us. To save him.”
He watched as Aidan impatiently bundled up his work, pushing papers into the lockable drawer of his desk. His voice was ragged. “I want to help him too.”
“I know you do,” Charlie said, and knew it to be true. He put out a hand to stop Aidan locking away his laptop as well. “And I have an idea how you can. Are you interested?”
“Of course.” Aidan looked cautious. “Where is Nic?’
“Home, I guess. I told him to go there. He didn’t ask me to take him.”
Aidan said nothing, just stared at Charlie. His eyes were dark. “You two are…?”
“For God’s sake.” Charlie stood up, tired of the whole thing. He had a job to do and a damned hard one at that. He needed to get started, not stand around justifying himself to Aidan West. “We aren’t anything except friends. Nic let me close for a while but that’s not what he wants any more. And that’s not because he’s not generous. The damned man doesn’t know how to say no! He’s a giver, is Nic. And I’ve encouraged that, rather to my shame.” And enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve ever had, came the regretful thought. “Are you going to help us or not?”
“What did you have in mind?”
Charlie smirked. “You know what you just said, about using your test system for developing the new version of Sparks? Give me five minutes of your time now, and I’ll tell you what I’m thinking of.”
“Good.” Aidan nodded then added grudgingly, “Charlie?”
“Listen. You’re fine by me.” Again, Charlie knew what Aidan meant by that hesitant, reluctant word. It was probably the nearest Charlie was ever gonna get to an apology—which he probably didn’t even need. They were on the same side, after all.
“And after we’ve spoken about your secret plan?”
Charlie looked into the dark eyes again, and this time he saw the longing there. “Then you can go to him, Aidan. I’ll even take you if you want.”
Charlie was at the door to his suite. Nic looked out through the peephole, and sighed. “Charlie, you told me to hide away here, as I remember it. And if you came for anything else, I thought I made myself clear—”
“You did, boss.” Charlie winced, glancing behind him. “But I’m here to escort another visitor. I thought you’d want him brought up personally. There are some dodgy characters outside the building, I suspect are journalists. They’re monopolizing the doorman’s attention at the moment. I decided to avoid them by calling a couple of Mother’s friends who are staying on the third floor, and could let me up the back stairs.”
Nic hadn’t rested, hadn’t slept. He hadn’t even changed out of his suit. He’d just dropped the jacket by the door and taken off his boots and socks. He’d unplugged the phone and TV, and turned off his cell. But still the voices in his head swirled around, and the simmering panic inside him threatened to swamp every new plan he considered. He opened the door, praying it wasn’t another crisis.
It was Aidan.
Nic didn’t think he’d ever been so surprised to see anyone in his life.
Charlie showed Aidan in, then beat a hasty retreat. Aidan took one look at Nic, then went to make coffee for them both, but Nic’s cup still sat untouched in front of him. He was slumped on the generous couch that was provided in the suite’s lounge, and Aidan sat opposite him in one of the equally luxurious armchairs. Neither of them had spoken for ten minutes.
The time had come, and Aidan knew it. Time for him to play his part. Nic had borne too much already on his own. “I’ve never seen you so upset. So unsure of things.”
Nic laughed, a brittle, ugly sound. “I’ve fucked up, haven’t I? Thought I was invincible, thought I could do exactly as I pleased. I think you accused me of a similar sin, not so long ago. You weren’t far wrong.”
“But you can do what you please,” Aidan said slowly. He knew how important it was that he trod carefully with Nic now, yet he felt horribly ill-equipped for the job. “You should. Because everything you do, you only do because you care. You understand people, Nic, you know what they want.”
“Not all of them—”
“No one knows that!” Aidan snapped. No, he scolded himself. Easy does it. “You’re not God, but you do know your business. This stupidity will settle, and the company will continue as it always has. With improvements and developments, like any business. Like people’s lives.”
“‘No.” Nic shook his head, his expression grim. “I was wrong. No one wants to move on. I think they want to stay unhappy, stay—”
“—in their categories?”
“Yeah.” Nic gave a tight little smile, a poor remembrance of his usual grin. “I expected too much, and they’ve slapped me back down. I was naïve—arrogant, too. And they’re right to do it! Can you imagine the practical effect of removing the cozy, familiar convention of opposite gender matching? Too many prestigious clients getting responses they don’t want! It would have been professional suicide, I guess. I think Charlie would have told me so, if he’d had the nerve.”
“No way,” Aidan said, a little too loudly. Nic raised a tired head to look at him. “You weren’t doing it for the publicity, for the prestige, were you? You were doing it for the people themselves. That’s how you described it to me that time in the bar—that’s what you made me believe. So the principle stands. You must do whatever helps someone find their soul mate.”
“God, Aidan.” Nic sighed. “I did once say you had a way with words, didn’t I? You just don’t use it often enough. Or perhaps you do. Didn’t you tell me to leave you alone the last time you saw me?” His smile was rueful now: he seemed to acknowledge the reality of Aidan there, in his apartment, for the first time. “What are you doing here, anyway? It’s not your problem. I know you’ll get a great job anywhere you like. Though my reference won’t do you much good now.”
Aidan frowned. “Enough of the self pity, Nic Gerrard.” God, didn’t he know how draining that was, himself? “I want to give you my support. I want to… be with you.” He saw the flash of confusion in Nic’s wide, tortured eyes. “Don’t give up. When I—we—find the hacker, the system will be tighter than ever. The shareholders will be begging you to keep Sparks in the forefront of the industry, to bring your flair and innovation to it. And the clients will be back. They just need time to rethink.” He swallowed hard. “That’s what I’ve had to do.”
He stood up and went to Nic, sitting beside him on the couch. He put out his hand and it nestled on the other man’s shoulder. It felt very comfortable there. Nic tensed up, but Aidan ignored the temptation to snatch it back. “Let me help you, if I can.”
Nic gave another short, harsh laugh. “I imagine that’s the last thing you want. You made that very clear.”
“No. No! Please….” The amazing plea was wrenched from Aidan, and Nic looked up again in surprise. “Don’t ignore me, Nic. I can’t ignore you! I’ve tried. And I can’t.” He tried to smile but he knew how pained it must look. “You think I’m a rude, arrogant bastard, don’t you? You think I like being awkward, I like being a pain in the ass. That I’ve been fucking you about just for the hell of it.”
Nic’s laugh was sad but gentler this time. “I’m not denying that.”
“It’s not the real truth. Well, perhaps I am a pain in the ass most of the time. Seems to come naturally. But it’s worse when… when I like someone. I can’t cope with it, you see. It’s easier to avoid it. Friends are a distraction. They’re a complication I can’t handle.”
Nic sighed. “Aidan, it’s okay—”
‘Look at you!” Aidan almost yelled, and Nic leapt back on his seat in shock. “Even now, you’re making allowances for me, you’re going to let me get away with it.”
“Shit, man, I’m not up to these games tonight.”
But Aidan ignored Nic’s groan and moved closer, turning to face him fully. Even though the mood was so grim, so gloomy, Aidan felt the tight heat of Nic’s thigh against him, and his body sang. “I owe you an explanation, Nic.”
“Damn you, I don’t want you to owe me anything!” Nic was fierce back at him.
“Okay.” Aidan held his hands up, placating Nic. “I want to tell you, then. I need to.” He ran his hand through his hair, which he suspected looked a horrible mess already. “But first, have you got something stronger to drink?”
Nic had never heard Aidan talk at length about anything but his work. But now the words spilled out, relentless in their honesty.
“There was a guy, when I was in college. A teacher, though not one on the permanent staff. A special tutor, brought in for the most able students.”
“Which included you, of course?”
Aidan didn’t acknowledge Nic’s gentle irony. “He was astonishingly intelligent,” he continued. “So sharp-witted, so sophisticated. Very exotic. Fascinating. We all admired him and wanted to be in his class.” He sat comfortably enough on the couch, nursing a scotch, but to Nic, he looked strung so tight he might break apart at any minute.
“There were a lot of you?”
“Just a few. He ran a group after hours for us. A kind of advanced computer club, though most of the kids just used the time to create and play games. Only I wanted to develop the programming skills. And he was a talented programmer—a very gifted teacher.”
Nic could see how Aidan struggled: he recognized the way Aidan hung desperately onto his control as he spoke about this man from his past. “But he was also…?”
“Also a very attractive, charismatic man.” Aidan looked back up at Nic. Now his eyes burned with a mixture of shame for the past. “I was eighteen, Nic, an adult. I’d known I was gay for many years.”
“You had an affair with him?”
Aidan gave a harsh laugh of his own. “That wasn’t exactly what they called it a few months later, when there was an official complaint from a parent and a full enquiry into his work. When they discovered that he’d fucked most of the boys in his club. And had been doing so for years, at each institution that hired him.”
Aidan’s jaw was clenched tight as he faced Nic. And still so bold, so confrontational, as if Nic would challenge him! “Understand this, Nic. I was young in age, but I’d never been young in my mind. I knew what I wanted, even then. And he knew that. I wanted him, and I was glad to have him teach me. To take me to bed, too. I would never have accused him of any abuse. We were adults together. It was never his fault entirely.”
Nic wondered how many times Aidan had repeated that justification, to himself, to others. “You’re too hard on yourself. He had a professional position, and a duty toward his students, whatever his personal desires. You were still only a teenager, Aidan. However mature…”
Aidan shook his head impatiently. “That was never the point. The worst thing was his… was the betrayal.” He was struggling again to speak.
“It’s difficult to explain, I know,” Nic encouraged him softly.
“Yes,” Aidan admitted. “It’s still vivid in my memories. But… if I’m honest about this, too, wasn’t it also a very long time ago?”
Nic took his hand. “Tell me anyway.”
“I didn’t realize what was really going on, all during the investigation. I didn’t know why he suddenly left the school—why the police called for him. God, I was devastated when I found out. They thought they were protecting me, keeping all the news from me, but all it did was frustrate me beyond belief. There I was, listening behind doors, reading the reports the police sent to my parents, when no one was looking. My mother’s horror was… it was shocking.”
Nic shifted on the couch, distressed at the tale. “Your parents wouldn’t have wanted you to be so hurt.”
Aidan growled in reply. “That’s the story they told others—that I was the victim, that I’d been taken advantage of. But it was more than that. Her horror wasn’t just for the teacher’s actions, Nic. My mother was no fool.” He stared at Nic, his eyes ablaze. “My parents effectively disowned me after that, even though they tried to pretend to everyone else that they’d put it all behind them, for my sake. But privately, they knew I’d wanted it to happen—they knew how I felt about him.” He shook his head again more vigorously, as if trying to clear his thoughts. “I was the source of their disgust.”
Nic couldn’t help his soft moan of distress. “That’s awful.”
“I left college early, moved away and got a job as soon as I could.” Aidan wasn’t really listening to Nic’s murmured support; instead he was obviously remembering that time, the shock and the grief of losing someone he’d idolized. “But… Nic. Shit. The pain wasn’t because I was young—it wasn’t the guilt of being secret lovers, or even the way it was over so abruptly, so sordidly. He never called me to explain or anything. I don’t know what happened with the prosecution, and I never saw or spoke to him again. But, you see, that was what I wanted, by then. I was disgusted with him, can you understand that? With his behavior. He betrayed me, but not as everyone imagined. I can’t find the right words….”
Nic gazed at Aidan, recognizing the misery and anger in the other man’s expression. With a jolt of shock, he guessed the truth.
“His promiscuity,” Nic breathed. “That’s what hurt you so much, right? Not that he seduced you, but that he seduced so many other students as well.” He couldn’t help but notice that Aidan had never mentioned the man’s name, had never credited him with that. Betrayed. That’s how Aidan had felt then—how he still felt, now. No wonder he’d been so angry at Nic’s lifestyle, his apparent carelessness with his lovers.
“Stupid of me, right?” Aidan’s voice was a sad whisper. “Of course, now I realize just how young I was. I was naïve—naïve, jealous and stupid.”
“No.” Nic gripped his hand more tightly. “Not stupid, not at all. Not for one minute.” He felt a deep, sympathetic pain for Aidan. All those years, all that baggage; and didn’t he know what that was like?
There was a long silence, though neither of them seemed to feel the need to break it. Aidan was lost to the remembered anguish: yet somehow, ruthless with his own truth, it didn’t feel as keen as before.
Nic sighed, running his hand over his head, tugging at his own tousled hair. “I’m not him, Aidan.”
Aidan nodded. “I know that. I also know that you’re not the man I originally thought you were.”
“Ahh, and can I take that as a good thing?” Nic teased lightly.
Aidan smiled. The confession had released some of his tension, in a way he couldn’t have anticipated. Now he couldn’t tear his gaze from the shine in Nic’s eyes. It was like hypnotism. Nic looked like he genuinely cared about what had happened to Aidan. How could he? It had nothing to do with Nic; he’d never known any of the people concerned.
Aidan felt strangely light-headed—he’d never told anyone about that time. No one had been allowed to mention it in the family. The anger and revulsion in his mother’s face had been brutally clear, and even though he sought out an adult life of his own from then on, he also decided that his feelings had to be restrained. Controlled. Or he would fall into even further shame and self-disgust.
Done a fine job of protecting himself with Nic Gerrard, hadn’t he?
Nic shifted on the seat beside him. “You want to talk some more?”
“No. That’s enough for now.”
“You want to eat? I can call for some supper. Are you hungry?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no’, then. A drink? Do you want another drink?”
Aidan thought he might laugh. Stranger things had happened to him recently. “Shut up, okay? This is difficult enough. What I want is you. I want to be close to you. Tell me if… if that’s not what you want too.”
“Damn you, Aidan West.” Nic snorted. “How much more obvious do I have to be? I’ve been trying to keep my hands off you ever since you quizzed me on the question of preferred sexual profile.”
“Nic…. I lied that day when I said I didn’t want to fuck you.”
Nic’s eyes seemed too wide to be normal. “So what? We all stretch the truth a little when it suits—”
He never finished the sentence. Aidan pushed him back on the couch and fell forward on top of him. He’d tasted a shocked Nic and an angry Nic. This time his mouth met a nervous one.
Aidan had surrendered to something that was dangerously close to being out of his control. But it was also frighteningly delicious, it consumed his whole being in sensory excitement. He couldn’t remember ever being so moved, so excited! He had Nic’s mouth back under his, his body under his hands—it was like his dreams, but so, so much less tortured. The kisses had forced Nic onto his back on the cushions, and Aidan fumbled up under his crumpled dress shirt, desperate to touch the tanned skin, to tease the nub of a nipple he could see under the thin fabric, to stroke and suckle the skin of Nic’s throat….
Christ, Nic had been thinking. When’s he going to touch me? He’d never needed the touch of another person as much as he did then.
And now it was happening!
He felt the same passivity he had the first time they kissed, and he opened his mouth, allowing Aidan’s attack. The kiss went on until Nic thought he might never get his mouth back, that his lips were bruised and numb, and he’d never eat ice cream again—but he didn’t resist. Not for a fucking second. He let Aidan push at him, and plunder his taste, and then Aidan ran his hands across Nic’s straining body—
Nic tried to control his panting. “I—I’m not sure I understand. You’re sure you want this?” Damn man near accused him of rape the last time they got heavy like this.
“A ‘yes’ uh-huh?” Nic groaned, allowing his shirt to be pulled up over his head.
“Yes, uh-huh. A very yes uh-huh….”
Nic felt like he was sinking, drowning in a strange, fearful emotion. He had to decide whether to let the tow take him or whether to fight it. Damn sure his body told him he wanted to be sucked into this, he wasn’t going to resist the best thing he’d felt for years! But if he didn’t fight it, he instinctively knew he might not be able to save anything of himself. He was weak tonight—he was weak for Aidan. Sink into this and he might become something else; someone else. Part of Aidan and his strong, anguished passion.
Aidan was murmuring into his neck, lapping his skin, biting at his ear. His fingers flipped one of Nic’s nipples, twisting the erect nub, making him moan aloud. It was all so very, very perfect.
“Let me be with you, Nic. I want to be part of your world.”
But Nic knew that the opposite would happen. That it would change his world, instead.
What should he do about that? Fight—or flight?
His heart was racing, his throat was dry. His lips ghosted instinctively against Aidan’s jaw, his fingers gripping the other man’s hair.
And he reached eagerly for him.