“AND this morning’s guest on your favorite breakfast TV program, ladies and gentlemen, is the successful and – dare I say it! – very eligible entrepreneur, Nic Gerrard!”
The ripple of excitement reached even behind the cameras, and the entire makeup department was peering from one or the other side of the studio. The host of the Morning Glory chat show crossed her legs, tugged at her inappropriately short skirt, and turned icy blue eyes to the man seated beside her on the comfortable armchairs.
“Welcome to ‘Morning Glory’, Mr. Gerrard – may I call you Nic? A meteoric rise to fame and fortune in the last two years, they say. You have masterminded the launch of not just one, but three or four very diverse ventures. All of which have been extremely successful! Most of our business commentators attribute this to a combination of astute decision making and great personal charm. Do you agree with this assessment?”
The man opposite her actually looked less than comfortable. He was laid back in the chair, but appeared almost too long for it, his legs crossed and folded to the side. He was young, in his early twenties, and eye-catchingly attractive. He didn’t have the classic movie star looks of the guest who’d preceded him, but there was something about his whole expression that oozed charisma – striking, midnight-blue eyes and a generous mouth that always seemed on the verge of laughter. His thick, chestnut brown hair flopped artlessly on his forehead, the studio lights catching the copper highlights in it, and he pushed it back occasionally in an affectionate gesture. He looked as approachable as the guy next door you’d always had a crush on, yet he also exuded a confidence and an assertiveness that obviously commanded respect in the commercial world. This morning, he was smartly dressed in a dark-colored designer suit, but there was something unusually stylish about the way the jacket clung to his broad shoulders; about the way the trousers rested just a little too low on his hips. He’d obviously had it altered for his particular preference and it looked superb. He wore no tie, just a crisp white silk shirt open to just below his throat, the skin beneath showing a warm, golden tan. At the interviewer’s question, he shifted himself to sit more upright, his feet planted firmly on the studio floor and clad in unexpected – yet very elegant – cowboy boots. A rather rueful grin spread over his handsome face.
One of the makeup girls sighed helplessly in the background.
“Come on, Amanda, if I listened to those commentators too often, I doubt I’d recognize myself in the mirror each morning! I’d say it’s just hard work, a couple of good ideas, and a hell of a lot of luck. Plenty of other guys in the same position.”
He had a pleasant, softly-accented West Coast voice, with a hint of self-deprecation in his words. The interviewer, Amanda Bradnam, simpered for the cameras, and her eyes ran quickly up and down his tall, athletic frame. She was no fool – she knew this guy was smarter than she’d ever be. He was being modest, and must know it, surely. She and her producer had fought for months to get him on the show; to try to find a slot that his busy schedule would allow.
“I’m not so sure about that!” she laughed, rather too brightly. “And, of course, our introduction referred to your eligibility – not only because you are, as far as we know, unattached, but also because this month is the launch on the stock market of your most famous company. The dating agency, Sparks. What gave you the interest in this business to start with? It’s an unusual one, isn’t it, compared to your other commercial work in electronics?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Nic shrugged. “But that’s only with hindsight.” Really, he found these interviews so damned embarrassing, but his Promotions team insisted he do them periodically. “Sparks was my first, you see. It wasn’t my idea initially, though. It was a friend’s venture, and he couldn’t keep it on, so I offered to buy it off him. I thought there was some mileage in it. I redesigned it, and re-launched as…”
“... Sparks, I know. And it’s gone from strength to amazing strength, in a cut-throat market of many such agencies, all competing for clients. What makes yours so different?”
Nic recovered enthusiasm, talking about his happiest acquisition. “I wasn’t impressed with the very broad, unimaginative questions that most agencies ask their clients, to try to establish a suitable profile for them. I had some guys develop a different template. I reckoned my clients would rather wait a little longer, and put in a little more work themselves, for the sake of one or two less suggestions – but ones which matched far more closely what they wanted.”
“And they seem to love it, wouldn’t you say?”
“Many do, yes. But they have to be honest with me. It’s critical to me that there are no lies; the whole thing hinges on it. There’s no point in a relationship based on lies right from the start, is there?”
Amanda caught his eyes on her, suddenly rather sharp. She tensed, but the camera didn’t pick up anything amiss. She rushed on. “So, you developed this new people matching system –”
“Not me,” he broke in, gently but firmly. “I’m no computer genius.”
“You rely a lot on your IT department?”
“I guess I have to. The whole principle is initially a database management issue, isn’t it? We gather what we can about the client, then it’s compared against the other clients on file. I’d be lost without the technical staff to do that, same as in most businesses. All credit must go to them. I just have the idea; they deliver it.”
“I think it’s a little more than that, Mr. Gerrard, isn’t it? Don’t you interview your potential clients personally?”
Nic raised an eyebrow. That hadn’t been on the pre-production list of questions. Where was she taking this interview? “Well, yes, I used to. In the early days, though now my timetable doesn’t really allow for it. But my managers have maintained that role, instead. The bulk of the matching work is done behind the scenes, but I still think there’s scope for some final assessment – a personal touch. That’s the one thing that can’t be programmed.”
“That’s very admirable,” murmured Amanda. Her producer was waving his arms behind the camera; there were only seconds left in the segment. “And I suspect that’s what makes you so very successful, compared to others. Just one last question, Nic, if I may –”
Here it comes, he thought to himself. He knew she’d been leading up to this for the last ten minutes.
“Anyone special in your life at the moment?”
“No, Amanda, not that I’d necessarily be broadcasting it on national TV if there were!” They both smiled – politely – at his gentle jibe. The makeup girl in the wings smoothed her hair, with more hope than expectation.
“We’ve seen you out on the town with many companions in the last year or so – many in number, many in type.” Amanda’s lip curled in a slight sneer. “Perhaps you might use your own agency, eh? To find that someone special?”
There was an awkward second of silence, and some nervous laughter from the crew. The man opposite her stared back steadily, and she shivered slightly. Nic Gerrard was in the public eye, and that included his social life. He had to know that, and well. He was fair game. But for a second, she panicked, wondering if she’d gone too far in the name of journalism and – if she admitted it – a rather personal interest.
And then Nic smiled. The smile was broad and attractive, and well recognized in the media – after all, it would be on Time Magazine’s cover again that very month. “You’re not the first to suggest that, Amanda.” His voice was smooth and totally controlled.
“And perhaps – one day – I will.”
NIC nodded to the doorman and took the lift up to his hotel suite. It had been a very long day. That tedious TV interview, then endless meetings with his accountants, ready for the stock market launch, and finally a very mediocre supper with an investment banker who gave the accountants a good run for their money in the Mind-Numbingly-Boring Stakes. Nic had executives to handle his businesses, sure, but he’d wanted to oversee this one personally. He had a very soft spot for Sparks.
But it had been a fuck of along day. He couldn’t help but think of how often he’d felt that way recently. Was he losing the taste for all this?
“Thanks, Charlie.” His assistant had arrived before him, to take his coat and jacket, and to offer him refreshments, but then Nic waved him away. “Take the night off, okay? I think I just want to bed down early. There’s nothing on the agenda for tonight, is there?”
Charlie Cohen, an alert and loyal young man, cleared his throat warningly. “There was one call, Nic, from Ms. Amanda Bradnam – the interviewer of this morning’s TV show?”
Nic winced. “One call?”
Charlie grimaced. “You guessed it, boss. More like ten.” His nose wrinkled with distaste.
Nic sighed. He caught the inquisitive glint in Charlie’s eye. “It’s just business between us.”
“You want to tell her that?” said Charlie, sharply. “I’d prefer not to deal with her calls at all.” He shook his head, irritated at losing his professional calm. The arrangements for this interview had been nothing but a thorn in his side, and much of that was due to Amanda’s attitude. Pushy, arrogant, disrespectful … and so obviously keen on a date with the famous Nic Gerrard. But Charlie reckoned he knew what appealed to Nic, and Amanda Bradnam most definitely did not. “She’s a pest. Annoying and cheap.”
Nic grinned, wearily. “Charlie, that’s harsh. She’s a journalist, is all. And if you really need to know the whole of it, we dated once, that’s all. Long time ago. We both decided to give it a miss. I doubt she even remembers.”
Charlie didn’t reply but his raised eyebrows spoke volumes.
Nic shrugged. “That’s how it was for me, believe me. I have no desire to resurrect it. Please make my apologies, you know –?”
“I know,” replied Charlie, and his smile grew warm again.
“Another night, maybe,” murmured Nic, with an almost automatic response. He remembered her shining, inquisitive eyes at the interview. Charlie wasn’t the only one who’d felt harassed. He felt a knot of tension in his throat, and a sudden idea of how a victim of stalking might feel – there’d been more calls than strictly necessary from Amanda about the damned interview, then she ‘bumped into’ him at a gallery opening last month, and they also met rather unexpectedly at the launch of that new designer cologne...
“Nic, are you all right?” Charlie was hovering, concerned. “I’ve rustled up a light Caesar salad for you, it’s all laid out in case you want a snack. And I poured you a drink, it’s beside the bed with a fresh bottle of water as well. Can I get you anything else?” He was shorter than Nic, with black hair and dark, hooded eyes. He was running to plumpness already, although he couldn’t have been more than a couple of years older. A good Jewish boy was how he always described himself, though he did it with an attractive, cynical smile – he ate what his glamorous, divorced Mother baked for him, saved a large proportion of his salary according to her instructions, and spent weekends meeting her choices of prospective Jewish brides. Then – he would add, laughing good-naturedly – he’d spend the following week avoiding the hapless girls’ return visits. He had a sympathetic understanding of the pressures that Nic was under; a man who was successful, sexually fascinating to many people, and almost constantly in the public eye. He’d been with Nic for over two years now and was devoted to him. In return, Nic had come to rely on Charlie for his invaluable organizational skills – and his ability to keep secrets when it mattered.
Charlie’s question tonight was very deliberate, and he put a hand on Nic’s arm. “Tell me how I can help.”
“Charlie, I’m fine…” But the murmur was half-hearted. Charlie felt the hesitation, and his response was to run his hand around to the other man’s chest. He slipped his fingers between the buttons of Nic’s shirt, and started to flip them open.
Nic sighed. “You don’t have to, Charlie…”
“I know. But I want to. You need to relax.” Charlie tugged the shirt out of the trousers, sliding it back off Nic’s shoulders. Gently, he pressed the other man back against the wall, his hand firm on the bare, browned chest. For a few minutes he massaged the knotted muscles of Nic’s neck and shoulders, trying to bring him some relief. His breath was soft and steady on Nic’s skin as he concentrated.
Then he sank to his knees in front of his employer, and slowly unzipped Nic’s pants.
“God, wait … I don’t know if I…” Nic groaned slightly, though from the way his hand rested on the crown of Charlie’s head, it was obvious that this wasn’t the first time Charlie had done this. Nor the first time Nic had let him.
“Relax, Nic. It’ll be good. It always is.”
“Charlie.” Nic was still protesting. “When I gave you your job description….”
Charlie laughed softly. “This is as a friend, Nic. This isn’t on company time: it’s for you. And me, too.”
Sighing, Nic leaned his head back against the wall, running tentative fingers through Charlie’s dark hair. Charlie reached inside Nic’s pants, his nimble hands smoothing across the silk boxers. Ones that he’d shopped for himself – Nic never had the time. He stroked the telltale bulge underneath, and felt Nic’s slight flinch as he nudged the waistband down to Nic’s hips. Eagerly, Charlie encouraged the half-erect cock out of the silk, nestling it in his palm. It was warm and smooth, the ruddy flesh bobbing out from the bed of crisp pubic curls. It was swelling gently, the tip easing out of its sheath, glistening with a bead of pre-come. Charlie sighed, gently. The boss needed looking after – Nic needed attention, he needed care. But Charlie needed to do this as well.
This was a win-win situation, wasn’t it?
Charlie pressed his thin, smiling lips to Nic’s hesitant cock and licked greedily across the tip. He murmured with pleasure as Nic shuddered: the flesh swelled even more, and pushed through his lips. His mouth widened, sliding down over the head, and he started to suck. He felt the thickness grow, the pressure of passion building up inside his mouth. It’d be quick tonight, he could tell.
Nic moaned, pressing down on Charlie’s head, rocking his hips to meet the suction. For a few blissful moments, his memories of the rest of the day eased away. All he could feel was the delight of Charlie’s mouth and his confident hand, cupping Nic’s balls inside the silk boxers. Nic’s eyes were half closed but he knew how this scene would look if he glanced down – the dark head bobbing at his groin, Charlie’s hand down inside his own pants, Charlie’s fiercely polished shoes creased at the toes as he crouched down awkwardly to blow Nic….
Nic shook his head with irritation; his attention was drifting. Just then, Charlie ran his tongue around the crown of his cock, and slipped his fingers back under Nic’s balls to stroke at the skin of his perineum. Nic sucked in a painfully excited breath. Damned guy knew exactly where to press, at just the right time…! Charlie started to rock backwards, increasing the pressure, running his tongue across the slit, savoring the seed that was starting to leak out. Nic was gasping now; every one of his nerves was straining, the blood rushing from elsewhere in his body to that one, magnificent, tortured point. He gripped at Charlie’s hair, his thighs tensed, and he cried out loudly. The rush of excited lust and his desire for relief took him over the edge to climax, and he thrust forward, spewing come into his young assistant’s mouth. His vision blurred; his skin flushed all over. In the background, he could hear Charlie chuckling.
Panting, his heart hammering against his ribcage, Nic flattened his hands against the wall to help keep himself upright.
Grinning, Charlie climbed up off his knees. He ran a hand across his mouth, scooping up a few loose strands of come. His eyes were dark with excitement.
“Charlie….” Nic could hear how hoarse his voice was. “You…?”
Charlie shook his head, ruefully. His face was very flushed. “Got to go – I’m due at Mother’s. Late already, actually. And you gave me the rest of the night off, remember?” he joked, but his eyes betrayed his hunger to stay a little longer. So did the thick swelling at his groin, his arousal tight inside his smart pants. But he was wise enough to know when to push for more – and when to leave with what he had.
He sighed. “A quiet night in, then, boss. I’ll see you in the morning, eight o’clock prompt!” He smiled at the other man’s dazed, rueful expression. “Sleep well, Nic.”
LATER on that evening, Nic sat propped up on his king-size bed, watching some sporting event on the giant wall-mounted TV screen. He had no idea what the score was, yet he didn’t feel inclined to turn it off and try to sleep. He’d picked only fitfully at the salad that Charlie had prepared, and he’d not touched his drink. His mind was elsewhere, and it wasn’t particularly content.
A quiet night in, Charlie had joked. But it always was, wasn’t it? It had been weeks since he’d been out anywhere for his own enjoyment, somewhere that hadn’t been planned as a PR duty, or a business related event. It was an even longer time since he’d dated anyone for any length of time, let alone someone he’d have called special. He didn’t count the somewhat astonishing yet pragmatic arrangement he had with Charlie, or the succession of young men and women who threw themselves at him on a regular basis, just because he’d been on TV that week or in a popular magazine. Yeah, he sometimes caught and enjoyed them – it was a mutually enjoyable, short term thing. A man needed to relax, after all, and he’d always had a more than healthy libido. He was pretty well off financially, he was in the public eye – he knew, cynically, the attraction that would hold for many. That was their problem, not his.
But it never gave him anything for keeps.
He gazed restlessly around the suite. He’d been here for some months now, after uprooting to the city so that he’d be nearer the center of the negotiations, but he hadn’t added many personal fittings or decoration. He knew he might be moving on again at any time. That was another symptom of his unusual and erratic lifestyle – he rarely stayed anywhere longer than six months, and it was always a hotel, a suite, a base; not a home.
But wasn’t all this what he’d always wanted? Success, money, fame! Everything that’d seemed so far away when he was a child. His mother had been a rebellious, free-spirited girl who was a persistent runaway all through her teens into early adulthood. All she wanted was to live by the sea and follow the surf – and surfers. When she fell pregnant, she was abandoned by the boyfriend she’d devoted herself to all that summer. His family had other plans for his professional future where a wife and baby weren’t featured, she’d told Nic, though with surprisingly little bitterness. She’d struggled without any help from her disapproving family to bring Nic up on her own. She couldn’t hold down much of a job; she’d continued to be rebellious and awkward in the face of authority. But she’d never been less than fiercely devoted to him. They’d lived in hovels and trailers and the spare rooms of transient friends until he’d scraped his way through a business college course. It wasn’t a particularly unique story – he knew that, he wasn’t looking for sympathy – but it was his, and had shaped the man he was today. He’d been fiercely protective of his Mom while at the same time fighting a growing resentment and desire to do better for himself.
Just after he left college and started looking for a job, she contracted cancer. Her family suddenly vanished from all contact, despite his initial calls, and so it ended up as the pair of them alone, same as it always had been. She died quickly and relatively painlessly – Nic knew he should be grateful for that, for her sake – but he’d been full of grief and shock for a long while. He often wondered if he’d have got himself back on track on his own, but he hadn’t needed to – he met another guy who’d graduated from his college, and that unexpected friendship changed his life again.
Greg was several years older than Nic, and so full of entrepreneurial ideas that they seemed to spill out from him. Nic went to work in a financial services company, bringing in a modest but steady salary, while Greg pursued innovative business venture after venture. Some worked – some didn’t. Nic smiled, remembering the older man’s irrepressible enthusiasm. Success didn’t seem to matter to Greg; the excitement was the thing that got him buzzed.
Most of Greg’s ideas started with a few bottles of beer, a twenty-four hour website search, and then the preparation of an impassioned, if not always robust, business plan. He asked Nic to move in with him, providing him with a sounding board and Nic with a home and an emotional base. Greg allowed Nic into his dreams, and Nic started to bring his own inspiration and developing maturity to the partnership. They had balanced each other out for a long while.
It had been damned frustrating too, of course! Greg was hard to handle; rarely consistent, easily distracted. For Nic, success had been important. It was inevitable that their desires drifted apart on the business side. When Greg lost interest in a small but promising online dating agency he’d started, Nic almost tripped over his own eagerness to get at it for his own sake. It had caught his imagination and he could finally see the chance to bring his own ideas to fruition. It’d be his escape – a dream come true. A chance for him to build his own life, and his own success!
Astonishingly hard work of course, turning a failing business around entirely, but he’d done it. He’d learned from Greg, both what to do and what not to do. He kept the overhead low and the working hours long, and spent his money on shrewd marketing and sound technological support. Plenty of people thought he was too young to deal with – plenty of people were proved wrong. He re-branded the business, followed up the contacts he’d pursued, and personally chased for clients. It had worked. The first few months were a nightmare of exhausting twenty-hour working days, nervousness and uncertainty, and the burning up of every penny he’d ever stashed away – then one of his friends came through with a promotional spot on local radio, which led to a session on an online chat room, which led to a month’s free banner space on an advertising site…. The registrations began to swell, and the agency became a business reality.
Nic didn’t stop there. As soon as Sparks started to build a reputation, he moved quickly out into the public arena to market it. And knowing no different, he did it all himself. Without consciously planning it that way, he was building the brand of Nic Gerrard, not just the business. He was his own best advertisement! Whatever the agonies he’d suffered in the early days with so many sleepless nights, sitting on Greg’s apartment floor surrounded by piles of spreadsheets and computer code reports, panicking about pitching to potential markets, sweating over funding proposals – despite all that, he started each day and every meeting as a bright, charismatic, eager young man, and people responded to that. The good looks didn’t hurt, either.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to know him – to know about him. Sparks had caught the imagination of the people, and so had its chief – and only – executive. Nic had been surrounded by marketing advisors, commercial proposals, and sponsorship deals. It had been the greatest change in his life since his Mom died – and he’d embraced it with enthusiasm. Occasionally, of course, his past life was touched on in interviews or articles, but he never encouraged it. If anything, it added to his reputation as someone who’d striven to rise above his early disadvantages. To Nic, it was just the way things had to be.
He’d enjoyed being an entrepreneur – he did it damned well. Soon, he’d started looking around at other opportunities. And from then on in, maybe because of his growing confidence, or some kind of snowball effect, everything he’d touched had turned to commercial gold.
He kicked listlessly at the sheets on the hotel bed. So what was up with him these days?
It had been so exhilarating at the beginning! Maybe he was getting a little sentimental, but he also knew it was true. The one thing he’d always shared with Greg was the buzz of excitement at the beginning of any project. Seeing its potential; learning as fast as possible about the industry; fighting off the cynicism at the beginning when investors and clients saw how untried he was. Proving them wrong! He’d not realized the extent of his business flair until then, and it was heady stuff, suddenly being in charge of people and profits. Nic couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that thrill. When had he last really enjoyed himself?
He reached for the remote and snapped off the TV. The apartment was cool and quiet around him. Being on his own was an advantage, in that he could concentrate solely on his business career, but it made for some lonely times, too. He glanced over at the telephone on the bedside table, but made no move toward it. Nic treasured his friends, but there were precious few of them around nowadays. Not close ones, anyway, who’d known him at the beginning – who liked him for himself, not just the public persona – and he had little private time to nurture new ones.
God, he thought ruefully. My own personal pity party.
Greg had baled out long before Sparks regained success, both from the business and from Nic’s life. Nic hadn’t seen him since, and rarely talked about him to anyone. The friendship had been something private and precious in his life, helping him build his confidence; helping him find his way. He missed Greg, often, but he’d honored the man’s decision to move on. Apparently there’d been some fantastic new opportunity in Australia that Greg had found – he’d pinned up pictures of beaches and surfboards all around the apartment, and talked endlessly about waves and leisure wear franchises and the freedom of a new life. And the guys. Plenty of guys. Greg had always had an eye for a cute body and made no secret of it, even when he was with Nic. His irrepressible excitement had made Nic smile, all through the upheaval, the packing, the hasty departure. It was difficult to do anything else, with Greg.
Nic still smiled whenever he thought of him, even though there hadn’t been more than a handful of postcards from him, over several years.
They’d been lovers, but only for a short while – Greg had never been a one-man guy – but that arrangement suited them both at the time. Nic had been much less experienced with relationships, having dated mainly women at college, but he wasn’t coy when he and Greg made their first moves on each other. He’d never considered attraction to be restricted by gender, and he gained confidence with Greg’s help in more ways than just commerce – Nic was a quick and enthusiastic learner in bed, too. He’d also been cool with Greg’s fickle ways, enjoying the time they had but not expecting more: he was proud of the fact they were still friends, even after Greg moved that part of their life on as well.
And he’d never for a minute considered holding Greg back. After all, his departure had opened the way for Nic instead. He’d rented Greg’s apartment for a few more months until he found somewhere of his own, and so he had plenty of time to concentrate on developing Sparks. He couldn’t keep it running entirely on his own for long, so as soon as he knew he was on to a potentially winning proposition, he found new premises and recruited his own modest team of staff – and to give the old program a ‘facelift’, he started looking for suitable programmers.
Well, just one in particular sprang to mind.
Nic shifted again on the bed. Funny he was thinking of that guy, now.
He couldn’t remember who’d recommended the systems engineer who re-wrote Sparks’s original program almost single-handedly. A young man, Nic’s age, and with a glowing resume that Nic had suspected at first had to be faked, it was so gushing. Then he met the man himself – quiet, fiercely determined and somewhat introverted – and Nic knew that deceit and fiction were equally unlikely for this man. He’d been a revelation – he’d grasped Nic’s ideas in minutes, had worked as hard as Nic himself to get it written, and taken on Nic’s passion to give the industry something more sophisticated than it had ever seen before.
And they’d had fun doing it, hadn’t they?
Ridiculously long days and nights; so many crumpled sheets of paper lining the floor that Nic had fallen over hidden folders and trash cans more than once; charts on the wall, stuck and re-stuck with old tape; sweeping lines in red marker pen as he sketched out on a whiteboard the pattern of a client’s profile he was looking for. And through it all, the tap-tapping of the engineer at his keyboard, his dark head bent over the keys. Nic couldn’t remember him ever going home before he did himself. They’d been good company for each other in a strange, diverse sort of way – Nic chatting continually, the engineer a silent, concentrated counterpoint. But the guy had made his mark, regardless – he’d make shrewd, quiet suggestions, just when Nic was at his most frustrated, suggestions that allowed them to branch out in directions that hadn’t been taken before. And then his fingers would fly faster – Nic remembered more than once the need to move half-empty cups of cold coffee out of the w