Tony’s head was aching as he backed out of Hammer’s old parking spot and headed across the lot toward the gate. He’d go home, sweat a little in the sauna, swim a few laps, and be good as new.
Spotting a car with the hood up, he swung the Audi in that direction. It was too hot for someone to be sitting in a broken down car and getting his hands greasy would make him feel like he’d actually accomplished something today.
“Hey, need a little help?” He asked as he got out of the car. Which was a stupid question considering they had the hood of their car up, but what else did you say in this situation? Tony leaned down to look inside the car. “I can take a look at it, if you want.”
“No, it’s fine.” Sunset looked up at him, and then away. “I’ve called a tow truck.”
Well, this is just my fucking day, isn’t it? He should just get in the car and leave. Except it was at least ninety degrees and his mother would kick his ass for leaving a woman – even this one – stranded in the heat. “What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re an engineer and you can’t fix your own car?”
“If it was a bomb or a ‘bot – yeah, but it’s not.” She looked up at him again. “Just go away, Tony. The wrecker should be here in a few minutes.”
She’d been crying. Her eyes were red, and she was sniffling. Why he cared, he didn’t know and wanted to kick himself for it. “Crank it, let’s hear what it sounds like.” When she turned the key, Tony listened carefully. “Once more for me.” He nodded at the sound. “It’s your starter. No big deal to fix.”
“Does that mean cheap?”
“Cheap? Uh… I don’t know.” He pulled his phone out and pulled up his favorite parts supplier. Her car was old, seven or possibly eight years, he’d need to check the taillight markings to be sure. “Looks like fifty-nine dollars and some change. I don’t know what a mechanic will charge to put it in – I do my own work. It’s a half hour – maybe forty-five minutes tops.”
“Not too bad, then.” Sunset sighed. “I was thinking it was – never mind.”
Tony had no idea what it cost to get cars fixed or what someone did when their car needed major repairs. One of the perks at SI was employees had a shop on site for car repairs. He loved tinkering with cars and so did most of his engineers.
“Tony, what I said in there – I meant it – I’m sorry.”
He shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Forget it.”
As he got back into his car, he saw that Sunset had her hands over her face and her shoulders were shaking. I don’t care. I don’t care. Fuck her, where was she when I was crying? Slipping the car into drive, he started to pull away. Damn it! Why do I care? Tony slammed the car back into park, drawing a grind of protest from the transmission.
“Stop crying.” He told her as he walked back to her car. “Just fucking stop crying.”
“Go away!” She waved a hand at him. “Go away, Tony!”
“Oh, no, you don’t get to yell at me and be angry!” Pulling her car door open, he leaned down into the car. Twenty years after the fact, he was finally getting a chance to tell her off. “You fucked me over! You stole from me! You walked away and left me! You don’t get to tell me to go away! You don’t get to be angry!”
“I’m sorry! I was so stupid – “ Her breath hitched and she wiped at the tears rolling down her cheeks. “I was just so stupid, Tony – and ashamed – I couldn’t tell you – “
“Son of a – “ Tony blew out an exasperated breath. This wasn’t as good as any of the scenarios he’d imagined. “Please, just stop – I can’t deal with crying women, okay?”
“Just go away – “
“Listen, it’s too damn hot for this. Get in my car and – “ And what? What, Tony? Talk about old times and those wonderful memories before she ripped your heart out? “It’s cooler in my car. You can wait for the tow truck and then – we’ll just forget we even saw each other, all right?”
“I – I guess.” Sunset got out of her car, ignoring his outstretched hand. “He should be here in about ten minutes.”
“We can survive ten minutes.” He agreed.
Once inside his car, Tony cranked the AC full blast. He did not like sweating and the summer was dragging on with record temperatures. Unbuttoning the top button of his shirt, he tugged his tie to the side and angled one of the vents onto his throat. The Scotch probably wasn’t helping.
After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, Sunset cleared her throat. “Tony, I am sorry, and I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me.”
“Good, I’m so glad you understand.” He said sarcastically.
“I have an explanation. It – “
“Of course you do, the designs were worth millions.”
“That’s not what happened.” She shifted around in the passenger seat to look at Tony. He continued to stare out the windshield. “My boss showed me some designs and asked if they looked familiar. They did, they were similar to the ones you’d shown me on the SI servers. He told me that they’d been stolen and he could prove it if he could get one of the prototypes to examine.”
“You believed my father stole someone’s designs?” Tony turned in his seat to glare at her. “My father?”
“No! Of course not! He said that your father probably didn’t know that one of his designers had stolen the designs. It happens all the time, industrial espionage is a big problem, you know that. Apple and Samsung are in court now over design theft.”
I know, I know it happens.” Look what Hammer had done to his suit design. “But why didn’t you come to me? Why not ask me for help?”
“Oh, come on, Tony, ask you to see if someone in your father’s company stole something? You had them all on pedestals, you’d never have believed it for a second – let alone helped me to check.”
“You’re wrong.” He knew Sunset was right, but he wasn’t going to admit it. If she had told him this story, he’d have been outraged at the idea that someone in his father’s company would stoop to stealing someone else’s designs the same as he was now.
“I was in debt with my student loans and credit cards; nothing that I couldn’t have handled over time, but it was tough right out of school.” Sunset wiped at her eyes. Tony didn’t respond and she took that as a sign to continue.
“My boss said that they’d pay me a bonus for helping prove that the designs were stolen. They weren’t supposed to steal anything, just examine them – I didn’t know they were lying to me.”
“If you needed money, you could have asked me. I would have taken care of everything, you knew that.” There was a pleading tone to his voice that Tony hated but couldn’t hide.
Sunset shook her head. “No. You know I never asked you for money. I made my own way, remember?”
He did remember. Remembered her limiting him to how much he could spend on dinner, and giving back expensive gifts when he tried to give them to her.
“If all I wanted was money, I could have taken you up on your marriage proposal.” She smiled sadly.
That much was true. Tony had proposed several times, and she’d turned him down each time. “Then why? Why did you do it?”
“Because it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. The prototypes would be returned to the rightful owner. I wouldn’t have the loans hanging over me after I graduated and I could stop living on ramen and tuna. I wanted to make it on my own, Tony. I didn’t want anyone to say that I was after your money.”
A fresh tear rolled down Sunset’s cheek. “Only, they lied to me. I was too ashamed to tell you. So I left.”
“Why didn’t you tell the police?”
“Un-uh.” She shook her head. “I’d already used the money to pay off my loans, so I couldn’t give it back, and I didn’t want to go to jail. I was so scared they’d turn me in, but they didn’t. I guess I wasn’t important. So I took off. Your father had me blackballed, I couldn’t get a job anywhere in the industry. I finally got into an assembly position with Hammer, and when they found out I was an engineer, they promoted me. I’m finally working as an engineer, I stay quiet and I don’t tell anyone about my past. It’s just easier that way.”
“Why didn’t you come to me?” Reaching out, he laid his hand on hers.
“Tony, I was ashamed! How stupid was I to believe them? I was so fucking stupid! I couldn’t go to you and tell you that I’d betrayed you – your trust! I couldn’t stand the thought of you looking at me and hating me. It was better to just go.”
“Just go and break my heart? That was better?”
“You were so young, baby.” She squeezed his hand, lifted it to her lips. “I knew you’d be hurt, but you’d move on and find someone else. I didn’t deserve you even if you would have forgiven me.”
“Sunset – “ A honk interrupted him, making Tony jump in his seat. Turning, he saw a wrecker had pulled up beside them.
Sunset got out of the car and hurried over to the driver. Tony watched as the car was hooked up and lifted onto the bed of the truck. When she started to climb into the cab of the wrecker, he got out of the car and stopped her.
“Hey, come on, I’ll drive you home.”
“No, Tony, that’s okay. I appreciate you listening to me, but I can’t impose on you any longer.”
“Come on, look at the seat, it’s not very clean. You’ll get grease all over your clothes.”
Biting her lip, she peered in at the stained and dirty seat. “Okay, but only so I don’t end up with a cleaning bill.”
“Hey, I got other calls, lady.” The driver interrupted.
“How much?” She asked the driver.
“Don will put it on the bill.” The driver told her before pulling away.
“Who’s Don?” Tony asked Sunset as they got into his car.
“My mechanic. If you’ll just drop me off there, he’ll take me home, it’s not very far.” She sighed. “Or he may give me a loaner if he can’t get to it right away.”
“You’re pretty familiar with this Don.” Tony could have kicked himself for even asking. Why did he care who she was familiar with?
She smiled. “Perks of an older car, the minute they’re paid off they start breaking down. Don and his wife are great, and they don’t cheat people.”
After Tony guided the Audi toward the freeway, he asked Sunset how long she’d been at Hammer. It was a safe topic.
“About ten years now, I think. About the company, Tony, what’s going to happen? Are you shutting us down? Everybody’s worried they’re going to be out of work, and jobs are hard to come by in this economy.”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “That’s Pepper’s call. I think for now we’re shutting down production until the nuts and bolts of the acquisition is figured out.”
“Oh, no! We can’t afford that. A lot of my co-workers live paycheck to paycheck. They have car payments, mortgages, kids to feed. Tony, this will ruin them!”
He hadn’t considered that. He’d thought about the people who worked for Hammer but not to the extent of what might happen if they were shut down for a few weeks. “I’m sure Pepper has thought about that.” Hopefully.
“I hope so. A few weeks without a paycheck will cost some people their homes.”
Living as he did, without worrying about money, Tony hadn’t put much thought into what people did when they weren’t working. Hopefully, as he’d told Sunset, Pepper had. She had a much different background growing up than he’d had, from what little he’d heard about her childhood it involved being frugal. Pepper would take care of things, he was confident.
When they pulled up to the automotive shop, Sunset opened her car door and started to get out, then hesitated for a moment. “Thank you for the ride, and, Tony – “ She waited until he met her gaze. “Thank you for listening.”
He nodded. She got out of the car and closed the door. He sat there for several moments before putting the car in gear and driving away.
“I still can’t believe you left me there.”
“Pepper… please…” Tony let his head drop until his chin touched his chest. “I’ve said I’m sorry, I don’t know what else I can do.”
“You can not forget me anymore.” She stabbed her fork into her entree.
“I didn’t mean to forget you.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “I told Jarvis to have Happy come and get you – “
“Jarvis says you didn’t – “ She pulled her hand away.
“And that was because I had to take my phone out and tell him again, and I – “
“Forgot.” Pepper put the fork down. “Do you know how stupid I felt walking out there and not finding anyone to take me back to SI?”
“Happy came and got you as quick as he could.”
“After I called him!” Realizing her voice was carrying, she bit her lip and lowered her voice. “I shouldn’t have had to call him.”
“Weren’t you concerned that I didn’t feel good? Maybe I was sick and forgot?” It was a low blow, but he was tired of getting his ass chewed. No wonder he’d avoided relationships all these years.
“No, because Jarvis would have told me if you’d had an accident or were that ill.”
“Let’s talk about something else, because we’re not getting anywhere, and I’m through saying I’m sorry.” Tony backed up a step when her eyes narrowed. “I meant to say, what I should have said, obviously, is that I don’t like seeing you upset. Okay?”
“Okay.” Picking up her fork, she stabbed at her dinner once more.
“Pepper, I’m pretty sure the partridge is already dead.” His own dinner was largely ignored. They’d done nothing but bicker since he’d picked her up at her apartment. It was his own fault, but he didn’t want to tell her what really had him discombobulated this afternoon. “I stopped on the way out of the parking lot to help someone whose car was broken down. You know me and engines.”
“How much grease did you get – no – “ She shook her head. “That’s your PA’s worry. If you had one, which you don’t. We still need to find one. Oh, God, I’ll add that to the list.”
“Pepper, I’ll find a new assistant on my own. How hard can it be?” He’d stepped in it again, but he winked at her. “I cannot possibly replace you, so I’m not even trying.”
“True.” A smile lifted the corners of her lips. “But we’re still going to try. I can’t CEO two companies and keep you in line at the same time.”
Tony decided to sidestep that discussion. “I wanted to ask you something about the Hammer takeover. We’re shutting them down for awhile?”
“Acquisition.” She corrected. “And yes, we’re looking at a shutdown of at least one month if not two.”
“We can’t do that. There’s people who depend on their jobs to pay their bills. Mortgages, car payments, all kinds of things. We’re going to be hurting a lot of people if we shut it down.”
Pepper stared at him so long he wondered if he had something in his teeth. “Pepper?”
“Are you saying you’ve thought about the employees? Really?”
“Hey, that hurts. I’ve always worried about my employees. Stark Industries is one of the best places to work in the world because of how we treat our people, you know that.” He put a hand over his heart. “Ow.”
“These aren’t Stark employees.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at that. “Yes, they are. They are now, anyway, and we’re not getting off to a good start with them.”
She bit her lip to keep from smiling. This was a new side to him and she didn’t want to discourage him. “And what do you suggest, oh, wise one?”
“That we go ahead and pay them while Hammer is shut down.” Pepper was so hot when she was snarky. “It’s not their fault Hammer was a tool. Literally.”
“We’ll lose more money, have you thought about that?”
“Not us – Hammer – and Hammer’s going to pay everything anyway. Isn’t that your plan?”
“Yes.” Pepper hadn’t thought twice about milking Hammer Industries dry to cover the costs of the lawsuits, the Expo damage, and the lawsuits from the Expo damage. Once Congress had awarded SI their biggest rival, she’d nearly picked up a blowtorch and went to work dismantling Hammer on her own.
“Plus, there’s contracts that have to be fulfilled – a lot of them with the government and you don’t screw with Uncle Sam.” He snapped his fingers. “That reminds me, I want all the designs gone over before we turn out so much as a car stereo. I’ve seen Hammer tech in action – it’s not pretty.”
“The Ex-wife?” She giggled. Rhodey and Tony had told the story of the little rocket that couldn’t several times. “I wish Jarvis had recorded it.”
“He did, but it the camera was damaged. Sucks.” Even his skill couldn’t compensate for a shattered lens. “Get the designers and engineers to look the designs over, they’re not the ones who wanted corners cut. Hammer will lose more money, but that’s just too bad.”
“How is your dinner?”
Tony looked up to see maître d’, Jon Paul, at their table. “Tell that Limey he’s a hack. I’ve had better poached lobster at Long John Silvers.”
Pepper choked on her wine. “Tony!”
“And obviously, the lady’s wine tastes like vinegar.”
“I will tell Chef Ramsay immediately.” Nonplussed, the man nodded and wheeled around, heading for the kitchen.
“Tony, why do you do that?” Sighing, she took a bite of her sautéed foie gras. “If this were any more perfect, it’d feed itself to you.”
“Never let ‘em get complacent.” He rubbed absently at his chest.
“Nothing. It just itches a little around the arc reactor. The skin keeps peeling.” He rubbed at it again.
“I told you to go to a doctor.”
“No way. Doctors scare me.” He looked up as a large blonde man approached their table.
“What the fuck is the matter with your palate, you ignorant American.”
Rising from his chair, Tony let himself be wrapped in a back thumping masculine hug. “I was all for stopping at In-n-Out, but Pepper wanted something classier.”
“Why didn’t you, hell, you could’ve brought a burger for me.” Chef Ramsay leaned down and hugged Pepper. “Virginia, my darling, why ever do you put up with this donkey?”
“He’s so pathetic no one else will have him.” She shrugged.
“Truer words were never spoken.” He clapped Tony on the back again. “If you’re through bad mouthing my food, I’ll go back to the kitchen and make you something special for dessert. We just got in fresh mangoes and passion fruit – I was thinking of something with chocolate to bring them together, what do you think?”
“Oh, yes.” Pepper nodded enthusiastically. “Yes!”
“For you, my dear, anything.” He turned and headed back to the kitchen.
The other diners had watched with interest. Not only were they getting to see the elusive Tony Stark and Pepper Potts – newly dubbed Pepperony by the press – but Gordon Ramsay as well.
Tony ignored the excited murmuring of the other people in the restaurant. Pepper was happy and smiling again, and that meant everything was perfect in his world.
“Tony – no – “ Pepper put her hands on his chest and shoved him back into his own seat.
“Pep, come on. Just one more kiss.” Tony leaned back over her. “Just one.”
“No. You don’t know what ‘just one’ means.” She dodged his lips, regretting the movement as it exposed her throat and he took full advantage of it. “We’ve got early meetings tomorrow at Hammer, and I need sleep even if you don’t.”
Whatever he said was muffled against the side of her neck until she pulled his head back. “Come home with me, Pepper. I have a big, comfy bed. You can sleep there.”
“Yeah… no. We wouldn’t get any sleep at all.” She and Tony hadn’t had sex yet, though not for Tony’s lack of trying, and Pepper knew sleep wouldn’t be involved in sleeping together. “Not yet.”
“You’re killing me.” Sitting back, Tony reached down and adjusted his cock. It was aching and wasn’t likely to get relief any time soon. “Pepper, I’m all for taking things slow and not messing this up – but it’s been six months. I’ve never gone six months without sex – including the time I spent in the cave. My balls are ready to pack up and leave me.”
“I’m sorry, but – “ Pepper crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m just not ready. There’s so much going on, I’m exhausted and – and – I just can’t right now – I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m sorry – I’m pushing – habit.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “It’s okay, I’ll take care of myself. I’m pretty good at it. Fair warning though, I’ll be thinking of you.”
“Oh, gross – Tony!” Smiling despite herself, she shook her head at the image. “That’s just – oh, my God – “
Laughing, he put a finger under her chin and turned her face towards him. He planted one last kiss on her lips. “Sleep tight, Potts. Dream about me – I’ll be dreaming of you. Lots and lots of kinky things about you.”
“You’re such a pervert.” She got out of the car and walked to the door of her condo. “Be here at seven, Tony. Don’t make me sic Jarvis on you.”
Watching until she was safely inside, Tony started the car and pulled away from the curb. He’d wanted to walk her inside, strictly for her own safety, but Pepper had said she was safer if he didn’t. Damn, she knew him too well.
On the drive home, Tony began to feel guilty for not telling Pepper the whole truth. He’d told her part of the truth, he hadn’t felt good, and he had helped someone with their car. He’d just left out the important part, that it was Sunset Bain who’d been at the center of it all.
He was sure he’d told Pepper about Sunset at some point. Pretty sure anyway. If he hadn’t, well, it wasn’t like it was a secret. The press had had a field day when the drone theft and his involvement in it had come out. It had hit the fan in a spectacular way. Boy genius taken in by older woman who was after SI’s newest designs made for great headlines.
Tony’s last semester at MIT had been miserable. His friends, and the university, had done their best to shield him from the press, but they hadn’t been able to do anything to save his heart and his pride.
His pride could take the beating and recover. The pieces of his heart had been walled off and coated in metal, and never exposed again. And nobody got through Stark tech. Until Pepper. Somehow, his perky, long legged assistant had worked her way inside and made him want to do something more than drink himself into a stupor between bouts of design frenzy and manic sex.
“I should have told her.” He muttered.
“Do you require something, sir?” Jarvis answered.
“No. Yes. I don’t know.”
“That doesn’t provide me with much to go on.”
Tony laughed softly. “Me either. I’m confused, Jarvis.”
“Ah, business as usual, then, sir.”
“Did I really program that much snark into you?” He frowned. Barely waiting until for the gates to open at the end of his driveway, Tony sent the Audi barreling up the long drive.
“No, sir, but you did program sarcasm and the ability to learn. Snark was a natural progression.”
“Uh, huh. Remind me to take a look at your programming and just how much you’ve learned.”
Parking the Audi in its spot, Tony got out and began stripping out of his tie and jacket. “I want to see everything on Sunset Bain.”
He might have imagined it, but there seemed to be a millisecond lag before Jarvis answered. “Yes, sir.”
“Everybody is second guessing me these days.” Patting DUM-E and U as he walked past them, he settled himself on the stool in front of his work table.
Screens of info began popping up, and Tony discarded anything pre-MIT. He frowned, not seeing what he wanted. “Jarvis, where’s her student loan information? And her MIT transcript?”
“Those would be in secure databases. Would you like for me to get them, sir?”
“I wouldn’t have asked for everything, Jarvis, if I didn’t want everything.”
“Of course, sir. How silly of me to think you’d want to skip illegal activities.”
“If they can catch you, then you deserve to be locked up.” He peered at the loan information. “God, do they have to have this many forms? Where’s the payoff information?”
The information was immediately highlighted in red. “Hmm… Jarvis, what was the date of the drone prototype thefts from SI?”
“December twelfth, 1990.”
“So she paid off her student loans three days before that.”
“It would appear so, sir.”
Her MIT transcript was almost as good as his – upper three point eight range. Tony discarded it and searched through Sunset’s work history. Fired from Wayne Industries a week after the thefts, she’d worked a series of dead end jobs outside the industry until late 2000, when she was hired to work on the assembly line at Hammer Industries LA plant. In 2002, she was promoted to the engineering staff when HR discovered she had a degree from MIT.
“What about loans? Mortgages? Credit cards?”
“Ms. Bain rents her current residence. Her car loan was paid off in 2008. American Express, Capital One, and Discover card balances total less than three thousand dollars combined.”
“No other debt?”
“None that I can find, sir.”
“If you can’t find it, it doesn’t exist.” Tony was sheltered in a lot of ways, but even he knew that was an incredibly small amount of debt in today’s world. He’d heard stories of people who owed more than what their home was worth on one credit card alone.
“It looks like she was telling me the truth.” He wasn’t sure what to make of that. If Sunset had been in it for the money, she hadn’t gotten any. As she’d pointed out, if she’d wanted money, she could have married him and gotten plenty.
“What do you think, Jarvis?”
There was a miniscule small lag again before Jarvis answered. “I believe that what she told you was the truth as she saw it.”
“Wow.” Tony sat back, his eyes wide. “That was really… a load of bullshit. Did I program you for that, too?”
“I cannot say for certain what is and is not the truth in this situation. I can only judge by the evidence you have given me. I’m sorry, sir.”
“No, I’m the one who’s sorry.” He sighed. “Sometimes I expect you to have all my answers.”
“I do try, sir.”
“I know.” Tony looked up as DUM-E rolled over to him, crooning softly. “It’s okay DUM-E” He patted the ‘bot’s arm. Another one of his ‘children’ who’d exceeded their programming, DUM-E was very sensitive to his moods. “Daddy’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”
The next morning, Tony pulled up in front of Pepper’s condo at precisely seven. He frowned as he saw his limo parked in the driveway. The condo’s front door opened before he could knock on it. “Hey, Pep, good morning. Why’s Happy here?
“To drive us.” She gave him a peck on the lips when he leaned in for a kiss.
“I forget one time and you think I’ll forget again?” He was insulted. Okay, he wasn’t always Mr. Reliable, but he was here today and on time, and he’d said he was sorry.
“I just thought it’d be easier for us to talk if Happy was driving. Plus, I can get there without worrying about dying on the way.”
“Everybody drives that way, this is Los Angeles, the home of road rage. “What do you want to talk about… ah… I get it… ” Tony grinned and slid into the back seat next to her. “You want to make out on the way to the meeting. Naughty, naughty little CEO. Okay, I’ll be the copy repair man and you – ”
“No, Tony, I want to talk about you being CEO.” Pepper pushed him away when he tried to kiss her. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. I need a kiss, that little thing you did at the door back there – that was not a kiss. That was like something my Aunt Ethel would give me.”
“You don’t have an Aunt Ethel.” She pointed out.
“Let’s not split hairs. It wasn’t a kiss, and I want a kiss.”
“No.” It was hard saying no to Tony, but she’d hit the end of her rope, and the knot was unraveling. “We have got to talk about this.”
“No, we don’t.” He leaned back in the seat. “Happy, stop the car.”
The limo stopped immediately.
“We are talking about this. Happy, let’s go.”
The limo began moving once again.
“I am not taking the CEO job back, I’ve told you that. Get some help, get whoever you need. Happy, stop.”
The limo stopped again.
“I need you – “
“If that were true, we’d be in bed – “
“God, Tony! Stop thinking about sex for five minutes! Happy, go!” She glared at Tony. “I need you to help me with this company, I can’t do it alone!”
“Then don’t! Get someone to replace Stane! Get a dozen people to replace him, I don’t care! Happy, stop the car!”
The limo screeched to a halt and Happy turned around to glare at both of them. “Somebody make up their mind.”
“We’re going to Hammer Industries.”
“No, we’re not – “ Tony opened the door. “You are going. I don’t know where I’m going.”
“Tony – “ The door slammed in her face and Tony stalked off.
“He’ll cool down.” Happy told her.
“Before or after he dives into a vat of Scotch?” Pepper sighed. “Just – let’s go. I’ll deal with Tony later.”
Tony sat in his car for several minutes, fuming and letting his temper cool down. Either Pepper didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand that he wasn’t taking the CEO job back. He’d dig Stane up and jumpstart his dead ass to do the job first.
Running SI for the short time he’d had it all on his shoulders had crushed him. He hadn’t had a single good idea for anything the entire time – including how to save his own life when he’d realized he was dying of Palladium poisoning.
When he’d handed the CEO title and all its responsibilities over to Pepper, he’d felt liberated and the ideas began to flow once again. He was not a businessman, he was an engineer – a designer. He belonged in the lab not the boardroom.
If Pepper wanted to trot him out and have him show off his paces occasionally, that he could do. He could be the face of SI and charm the stockholders and whoever else needed charming. But he was not chaining himself to that big oak desk again. He might as well unplug the arc reactor and let the shrapnel finish him off.
After several minutes, Tony felt calmer and safe to drive. He’d go to the meetings today and smile pretty like she needed him to and get her to see – somehow – that he wasn’t backing down. Not this time.
Tony looked up as Pepper entered the living room. “Pepper, hey, just in time.”
“What’s all this?” She took in the candles on the table and the elegantly prepared plates of food.
“Dinner.” He smiled, and gestured at the food. “From that Asian fusion place you like.”
“Tony – “
“Sit down.” Reaching for her hands, he frowned. “What’s with the briefcase? Lose it.”
“I brought it so we could work.” She pulled it away from his grasp. “That’s why I told you I’d stop by after we left the meetings.”
“Yes, work.” She sighed. “We need to work out the issues with the Hammer board. I can’t keep heading both boards, I’m worn out. I’m not getting any sleep. I can’t keep up this up.”
“I keep saying get someone to help you.” Tony grabbed for the briefcase and managed to snag it this time. He tossed it onto one of the chairs. “Come on, relax. You need to relax.”
“I don’t have time to relax.” The food smelled great and Pepper found herself sinking down on the couch in spite of herself. “Tony, there’s so much to do.”
“And we’ll do it. Later.” He knelt at her feet and pulled her shoes off, tossing them aside. Massaging her feet, he kissed his way up her calf to her knee then to her thigh. Her hands stopped him just short of the hem of her skirt, fingers curling into his hair to lift his head up. “I’m just trying to help you relax.”
“Like I believe that.” She snorted.
“I’ve always found sex to be relaxing.” Getting up, he sat on the couch and leaned against her. “Sex releases endorphins.”
A laugh escaped her. “Why am I not surprised you’d know that?”
Tony grinned. “I know lots of things, Pep. Lots and lots of things.” He picked up a plate and speared a bite of crab with a fork. Lifting it to her lips, he smiled when Pepper accepted the it. She closed her eyes and made a mmming sound, and he shifted to ease the ache in his suddenly hardening cock.”
“I can – “ She accepted another bite. “I can feed myself, Tony.”
“I know, but you don’t have to.” Feeding Pepper was an erotic experience. Who knew? Her lips would part and her pink tongue would come out to lick them after each bite. “I’ll take care of you. You need to relax.”
“Stop.” She held up a hand after a few bites. “I need a drink.”
Sitting the plate down, he picked up a glass of wine. “I thought of that, as well. Jarvis assures me this is the perfect wine for this dish.”
When he tried to hold the glass to her lips, Pepper leaned back. “I can do this myself, Tony.”
He pouted when she took the glass. “I was having fun.”
“I’m not here to have fun.” She said sternly.
“And that’s a problem.”
When she set the glass on the table and sat back, Tony took advantage of the movement to lean in and kiss her. It had been over twenty-four hours since they’d kissed and he felt like he was starving.
The fingers of one hand threaded into her hair, pulling it loose from the stern bun it was in while his free hand moved to cup her face. His tongue traced along her lips, coaxing them to open for him. Pepper leaned back and he followed, letting his lips slide down along her throat, to the neckline of her blouse, then farther down until he found himself at the v of her thighs, and he nuzzled his face into the material searching for her scent.
“Tony!” Pepper pushed at his shoulders. “Please – “
“I’m getting there – “ Pressing a kiss on her mound through her clothing, he slid his hands up under her skirt and moved it out of his way. “You’ll feel so good when I’m done, Pepper, I promise.”
“No – Tony – get up.” She shoved harder, and he slid off of her onto the floor.
Landing hard on his knees, Tony winced. “What the hell?”
“I’ve told you I want to wait until things are more – settled.”
“And I respect that, I – “
“You respect it? Right.” Pepper smoothed her hair back out of her face. “Like you’re doing now? Trying to get my clothes off?”
“That’s not what I was doing.” Genuinely confused, Tony got up from the floor and sat beside her again. “Well, only partly off. Not completely off.”
“No – I mean, sort of – but no.” He reached out to touch her, and frowned when she pulled away. “Not sex, not the whole thing. I was just going to go down on you – “ When her face colored, he grinned. “Come on, Pepper, we’re adults. So far I’ve only gotten to taste you when I licked my fingers – I love the taste, by the way, and more would be good. A couple of mind blowing orgasms and you’ll sleep like a baby. You said you haven’t been sleeping.“
“Okay, we are not talking about this. I – I’m not a big fan of oral sex. I told you that.” Pepper picked up her glass, and gulped down a large drink trying to cool down. Despite her protests, Tony did excite her and she really wanted to say to hell with everything and let him fuck her brains out. It was what came afterwards that had her scared.“I came over here to work – not screw around.”
“Screw around?” That stung and Tony jerked his head back as if slapped. “I’m not ‘screwing around’ when it comes to you. I’m serious. You’ll be a hell of a lot more relaxed afterwards. And – “
“And?” She stood up. “And what next? What about you? You’re going to ‘go down’ on me – and what? Just ignore your hard-on? No, I know you, you’ll keep pushing.”
“I can take care of myself.” He’d probably need a quick, cold shower, but it’d hardly be the first time. “Pepper, I need – “
“Oh, my God, Tony! You need! You need!” She threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “You need! You need! You need! You always need!”
Tony eyed her warily. He’d seen her in many moods, but never this one. Pepper was angrier than he’d ever seen her.
“You’re selfish, Tony! All you care about is what you need!” Something burst inside of her. Her frustration with Tony and her job had reached the point where it had boiled over. “What about what other people need? What about what I need? Do you ever think about that?”
“I do think about what you need. I’ve tried to help with this.” Tony knew she wasn’t just talking about sex – or the waiting on it – this went beyond that. He just wasn’t sure exactly what she was talking about.
“No, no you haven’t. all you’ve done is think about yourself. You don’t want to do it anymore, and you don’t care what I want!” Pepper was so angry she was shaking. “You have never, ever put anyone before yourself – before your own needs!”
“That’s not true! I have done everything you wanted me to in this relationship!” Tony couldn’t believe the words ‘this relationship’ were leaving his mouth. This was the woman’s side of the conversation, wasn’t it? “You wanted to take it slow – and I’m on board with that – “
“Bullshit, Tony – you’ve fought me every step of the way!” Pepper began ticking instances off on her fingers. “On the way home from the Queen Gala – in the limo on the way to and from work so many times I can’t count – watching Titanic last week – “
“The ship sinks! Everybody dies! How is that romantic?” She rubbed her temples, her head was pounding. “You keep pushing – you want me to give in – “ And what happens in the morning? What if I wake up alone? Who’s going to escort me out?
“Pepper, I want to make love to you – how is that a bad thing?” He tried to take her hands, but she backed away.
“No, Tony. You want to have sex with me. You don’t know how to make love.”
That stung his ego. He was a skilled lover. No matter who he’d been with, no matter how superficial, or fleeting – even when he was paying for it – Tony did his best to satisfy whoever he was having sex with. “No? Oh, really? Did you ever see anyone leave here that wasn’t satisfied?” He flung at her. “Ever?”
“No. but I saw a lot of people leave here. A lot of them. And you were nowhere to be found. They were just notches on your belt.” She shook her head. “I won’t be one of them, Tony. I won’t.”
“Pepper, you won’t be! I care about you – I’m doing my best to not screw this up. You’re right, I don’t know what I’m doing – I need you to help me.”
“There’s that ‘you need’ again.”
Frustrated, he raked his fingers through his hair. “Pepper – I do need – it’s true in this case. You’ve had relationships before. I haven’t. I don’t know what to do – how to do it right.” He wasn’t going to mention the one with Sunset. Even with her recent confession changing his perspective on what they’d had – he couldn’t call it a success. “I don’t know what I’m doing – help me.”
“I’d rather just be your friend than – “ Pepper bit her lip. “Than – “
“Pepper – don’t say it – “ He could see her balanced on the edge of a decision. A bad one. “Please – “
“Maybe – maybe we need a break.” She blinked, trying to keep the tears at bay. “Just until we get this sorted out. I can’t deal with everything – I just can’t – “
“A break? Like a ten minute break? Or… like… a Rachel and Ross kind of break?”
Leave it to Tony to know the appropriate pop culture reference. “No. I mean – sort of yes – but no. l – let’s focus on the Hammer takeover – “ She groaned.
“Acquisition.” He said helpfully.
“Acquisition. And then we’ll sort out the CEO issue – Maybe we need a COO like Stane was – we’ve never – I didn’t replace him – that’s my fault.”
“No, no, it’s my fault – I was CEO long enough I should have done that – I just – “ He gestured helplessly. “I wanted to show I could do it all – only I can’t – couldn’t. But, Pepper, that doesn’t have anything to do with us.”
“No, it does – it does, Tony. It – “ Pepper bit her lip. She loved him, and it hurt to think of losing him – but it seemed as if he only wanted one thing from her. And she couldn’t – wouldn’t – be a one night stand. “It’s getting in the way. Let’s focus on the work relationship – and then we can focus on the personal relationship.” A tear escaped and trickled down her cheek. “Okay? Please, Tony?”
“Okay.” Anything to make the tears go away. “We’ll do that.” He wiped the tear away with his thumb and pulled her into his arms. She resisted for a moment before wrapping her arms around his shoulders. “It’ll all work out, it will, Pep.”
“I hope so, Tony.” Pulling away, she gathered her things and walked away.