“Tony! Tony! Over here!”
Swiveling in the direction of the voice, Tony flashed a peace sign and smiled for the picture he knew was coming. Sure enough, there was a flash – one of many – before he turned back to the press on the other side of the walk and gave them equal time.
At his side, Sunset seemed much less sure of herself as they walked the gauntlet from the limo to the restaurant. “Please don’t tell me they do this all the time.”
“Most of the time.” He smiled at her. “It depends on if I care if they know where I’m going to be. Right now, I want them to see us.”
“Are you sure?” She blinked at a particularly bright flash. “I feel like a lobster in the tank at a restaurant.”
“That’s not too far off the mark. They will devour you without warning.”
“Who’s the new girl? Hey, Tony!”
“Hey, Tony! Where’s Pepper?”
Beside him, he felt Sunset stiffen. Tony smiled at the reporter. “At this time of night? Probably putting her feet up and relaxing after a long day.”
“Did you dump her?”
“So the two of you are through?”
“Pepper and I are friends – as we always have been. She’s one my best friends in the world. She’s also the best CEO in the world and the only person I trust to run SI.”
“But you’re not dating anymore?”
Dumb asses. “Pepper and I were always two friends enjoying each other’s company.” Finally they were at the restaurant door and able to slip inside before the reporters asked anymore stupid questions.
“That was… not fun.” Sunset said as they were seated. “Why do they think they can just ask you anything they want about your life?”
He shrugged. “It’s part of being a public figure. They want to know everything. I could probably stand out there and list everything I’ve done today, including what I had for breakfast and what time I took a dump – and they’d write it all down.”
“I’ll never look at the Enquirer the same way again.”
“We can go out without all the hassle, it just takes a little misdirection.” He’d lived with the press snapping at his heels his entire life. They were just there. Like death and taxes. “Don’t let them scare you. They’re going to love you.”
“I don’t know about that.” She looked out the window. Even through the glazed glass, she could see the reporters lined up on the sidewalk. “They really like Pepper.”
“Hey, that’s not going to be a problem. They’re going to like you, too.” Tony captured her hand and lifted it to his lips. “Pepper and I are friends and that’s it. Sometimes, that’s just how it works out.”
“There’s a lot of people who – “ She looked up as someone approached the table.
Tony looked up as well and frowned when he saw who it was. Christine Everhart. He forced a smile. “Sorry, no, I don’t have any time. We’re in the middle of dinner.”
Ignoring him, Christine stopped and leaned against the table. “Tony, so good to see you. I’ll just take a moment of time before your appetizers arrive.”
The damn table would be empty. He picked up his Scotch and took a sip to mask the snarl he knew was going to come out otherwise.
“I guess Pepper couldn’t keep your attention very long, either. Did she have to do her own dry cleaning before she left? At least she’s not doing trash duty anymore, though, right?” Christine turned a vicious smile on Sunset. “Oh, I’m sorry, who’s your new girl?”
Caught with a mouthful of Scotch, he nearly choked trying to swallow it. Bitch!
“Sunset Bain.” Sunset smiled back, equally fake and vicious. “And I’m not new – Tony and I have known each other since college.”
“Really?” Interest flared in her eyes. Christine had thought she’d get nothing more than a snide comment or two, but it appeared she’d hit pay dirt. “Would that be at UCLA or MIT?”
“MIT. We were – “
“About to have dinner.” Tony finally found enough breath to speak. “And Ms. Everhart – what an ironic name considering she has no heart – was just leaving.”
The maître d had plowed his way through the restaurant to their table the moment one of the waiters had tipped him off that Mr. Stark was being accosted by a member of the press. “Mr. Stark, I hope you’re enjoying your evening with us.” He stepped between the table and Christine, neatly muscling her out of the way. “Miss, I believe your companion is waiting for you.”
Christine wasn’t willing to risk being barred from an excellent restaurant with prime celebrity encounters and let the man lead her away. “Good talking to you, Tony.”
“I’m assuming there’s a history there?” Sunset arched an eyebrow.
“Little bit.” He smiled the pained smile he used in these situations when he didn’t like to think about something he wished he hadn’t done.
“One night stand and she’s bitter about it?”
“You could say that. There was some interviewing, some sex – no promises were exchanged.”
“Typical night with Tony Stark, I assume.”
“Owch.” He put a hand over his heart. “You wound me. When have I ever been typical?”
Sunset laughed softly. “Never.”
“Tony, have you seen the article Vogue has online?”
“Pepper, I’m not interested in shoes.” Smoke curled up from the piece he was soldering and Tony wrinkled his nose.He loved building things but he hated the smell of melting solder. One did have to suffer for one’s art.
“Neither are they.”
Her sigh carried weight, even over the phone and Tony sat back, pushing the goggles up onto his forehead. “Jarvis?”
One of the screens changed from a view of the new McLaren P1 prototype to a site with a picture of Sunset that he recognized as being from the MIT yearbook, The Technique. “Oh, this can’t be good.” His own Senior portrait was next to hers. At seventeen, he looked all of twelve.
The headline was lurid, of course: Tech Thief From Tony Stark’s Past Steals His Heart From Pepper.
“Did you read – “
“Give me a minute, Pepper.” Tony quickly scanned the article. It was factual, he couldn’t sue over that. It was all there; the romance of the twenty-one year old co-ed with the sixteen year old boy genius, the break up and “coincidental” timing of the theft of SI’s newest drone prototypes, and Sunset’s subsequent blackballing in the engineering community. “Damn.”
“We knew this was coming, Tony. I just wish Everhart hadn’t gotten her hands on it first.” Pepper sighed again.
“I’m sorry, Pep.” He could hear her typing something, hopefully not her resignation.
“No, it’s okay. Actually…” The typing stopped and then started again in a furious burst that made him fear for her keyboard. “This is good. She’s got the facts out there so there’s nothing that we have to bring up in defense that can be seen as reactive or fabricated.”
“So… it’s not bad?” Women were so damned confusing. There had to be a translation algorithm somewhere.
“I had a statement prepared – I’m tweaking it a bit.”
“You had one prepared?” He shouldn’t be surprised at anything Pepper did anymore, and yet she was still pulling rabbits out of her hat to amaze him with. “Why? I mean, thanks, but you didn’t – “
“Tony, I’m still your friend, nothing’s changed.” She said softly. “And I knew the press would dig into Sunset’s background as soon as they realized the two of you were – were a couple.”
The pause and the stumble as she said it made his chest ache. “Thank you, Pepper. You could have just let the sharks at us.”
“I’m doing this for you, Tony.” Pepper saved the file and emailed it to Tony. Sunset would get both ends of the rope from me if she was drowning.
“Are you ready?” Tony turned to Sunset as the limo slowed.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Of course you do, we can turn the car around and go home. You want to? Happy would be glad to get out of the monkey suit.” Tony leaned forward and knocked on the glass separating them from the front seat.
“What’s up, boss?”
“We’ve decided on a night in.”
“No, Tony, it’s all right.” Sunset pulled him back. “Never mind, Happy.”
“You sure?” Tony asked. “We can hit a takeout joint on the way home.”
“I’m sure. We can’t hide forever.” She raised a hand to his cheek. “Besides, we told them the truth and I’m not hiding. Not anymore.”
He nodded, proud of her. The best way to handle the press was to hit ‘em head on. “We’re a beautiful – no, scratch that – we’re a fantastically beautiful couple, and they’re going to love us.”
SI’s publicists had put out a statement acknowledging the accusations made against Sunset were from over twenty years ago, pointing out the fact that she’d never been charged or arrested for allegedly participating in the theft of the drones. Quotes from “insiders” had quickly popped up on several online gossip sites vouching for Tony and Sunset having found each other again after long years and a horrible misunderstanding and were once again in love.
The car stopped and Tony turned to Sunset. “Am I good?”
“What?” She looked puzzled.
“Ah… “ That was what he’d always asked of Pepper before they got out of the car at an event. “Is my tie straight?”
“Oh, yes. You look great.” Smiling, Sunset ran a hand down the front of her dress. “Do I pass as well?”
“Oh, my, yes.” She’d given in and let him buy a dress for the occasion. He understood that she wanted to be independent, but you couldn’t wear off the rack to a Stark fundraiser. “Sure you don’t want to go back to my place? I’m really good at taking these off.”
The door opened and Tony slid out of the car, waving at the press and the fans lined up behind barricades. Giving Sunset his hand, he helped her out. Flashes lit the area up, cameras clicking and reporters yelling questions over each other.
“Ah, the usual madness.” Tony smiled and waved again, wrapping his other arm around Sunset’s waist.
“Tony! Hey, is your old girlfriend a thief?”
“She stole my heart.” He grinned and shrugged.
“Did she steal the prototypes?”
“What did your father think of Sunset?”
“Are you worried about security at Stark Industries?”
He looked offended. “Never. I designed the security system, remember?”
Tony answered the questions deftly, with snark and style as he always did. The press laughed and the questions began to change to tamer topics.
“Two dates in a row?”
“Are your carousing days over?”
“Are you in love, Tony?”
“Yes, I am. Are you?” That got him a laugh long enough to make it to the top of the steps and inside the theater.
Sunset let out an audible sigh and Tony leaned down to brush his lips across hers. “See there, we survived.”
“Are you, Tony?”
“Are I, what?” He tipped his head to one side quizzically.
This time, his smile was genuine. “Yes, I am. Are you?”
Pepper skimmed through the magazine article, ignoring the blatant ass kissing by the reporter on Sunset’s fashion style. “How does she look so amazing for under one hundred dollars?” She rolled her eyes. “She could wear paper bags and as long as she’s dating Tony everyone would love it.”
The public loved a star crossed love story almost as much as they loved a comeback story, and Tony and Sunset had both. Youthful mistakes and first love made for great press.The pictures of the couple walking through a throng of adoring fans and press made the back of Pepper’s neck burn and she had to fight the urge to use her pen to black out Sunset’s face.
You had your chance, Potts, and you blew it. Tossing the magazine aside, Pepper tried to focus on the paperwork in the file in front of her. For a “paperless” company, SI still generated plenty of paperwork.
After marking out a paragraph on the proposed length of time before access rights reverted to the original owner, she made notes in the margin and tossed the file onto her outbox. It didn’t do any good to own the land if they couldn’t use it. Picking up another file from her groaning inbox, Pepper flipped open the cover.
“More from R&D on that solar doo-dad of theirs.” Pepper’s assistant, Lisa Raczka, announced as she entered the office.
“I told them no.” She looked up from the file. “In triplicate.”
“You know tech geeks.” Lisa handed the file to Pepper. ”You probably need to tell them in Klingon or something.”
“I can do that.” She’d learned the language when she’d found out Tony was using it to keep secrets from her. Tony had been shocked to find a particularly raunchy party he thought he’d gotten away with planning had been cancelled. Relaying the message in Klingon had been the icing on the cake. She smiled at the memory.
“He looks happy.”
Pepper looked up sharply. Her assistant had picked up the magazine and was looking at the cover. “He does, and I’m very happy for him.”
“Bull.” Years of working for Pepper had given Lisa the confidence to speak her mind while they were in private. “You hate her just as much as I do.”
“I don’t hate her – “
“You do and you don’t trust her.”
“No.” Pepper admitted. “I know she’s up to something.”
“You’re not the only one. I think there’s a big shoe out there just waiting to drop.” She dropped the magazine in the wastebasket. “All this ‘I don’t need Tony to give me anything’ crap is just that. Crap.”
“I want to trust her. I do. But I just can’t.” Pepper confessed. “Maybe it’s because of what she did back when Tony was sixteen, or maybe it’s because her excuse was just a little too perfect – “
Lisa arched an eyebrow. “Maybe because you’re jealous?”
“That, too.” She sighed. Tony did look happy. And he was behaving for the first time since… ever. “I wish I could go back and fix everything, but it’s too late. And what right do I have to try and ruin something that’s good for him?”
“Please.” She shook her head. “Bain’s a predator. She’s going to spring her trap at some point. We just have to figure out what it is before she does it.”
“I hope so.” Pepper glanced at the magazine cover. Tony was smiling up at her from the bottom of the wastebasket. “I hope so.”
Five months had passed since Sunset had walked back into his life, and Tony was happier than he could remember being in years. Maybe ever. Unlike their romance in college, they weren’t keeping a low profile, and he didn’t have to worry about who would or wouldn’t approve of their relationship.
Loving an independent woman was not without its pitfalls. Sunset refused to let him buy her anything expensive, including a new car to replace her aging Honda. His limit on dinner when they ate out was fifty dollars, unless it was a charity event, and she’d refused to quit her job.
The gossip rags were disappointed the two of them weren’t out on the town every night, while at the same time having a field day with the idea that Tony Stark had finally been domesticated.
He grinned. If they only knew how true that was. Most nights he and Sunset ate in – she was a great cook and he was learning – and watched a movie or brainstormed new ideas for the arc reactor technology. Then they had fantastic sex. It was every geeky engineering student’s dream.
In the morning, she kissed him goodbye and went to her lab to work on her nano project, while he hit his workshop churning out new designs. He hadn’t set a pace like this since he’d come back from Afghanistan.
There were seemingly endless applications for the new element and the new arc reactor. They were clean, green, and were going to set off the energy revolution his father had dreamed of.
“I should change my name to Ward Cleaver.”
“What was that, sir?” Jarvis responded.
“You know, the old show with the normal husband and wife and their normal life and normal kids.” That sounded good. Normal. He could totally do normal.
“I’m aware of the program, sir. However, you don’t strike me as fitting the Ward Cleaver mold.”
“Whatever! Maybe Howard Cunningham? I’m good at being frisky.” Fighting his way through traffic on the 405, Tony hit his horn and swerved as a Hummer tried to cut him off. “Get back in your own lane!”
“The other driver can’t hear you, sir.” Jarvis reminded him.
“I know that, but it relieves tension.” He shot around the Hummer and into the clear space beyond. “Did Sunset say why she wanted me to meet her at the Hammer offices?”
“No, sir. Just that she wished for you to meet her there as soon as possible.”
“Maybe she’s finally worked the kinks out of the targeting systems.” The Hammer drones had a nasty habit of locking onto anything hot, including their own companions. Not something you wanted in combat.
“It’s possible, sir.”
“She’s told me about it, but won’t let me work on it. It’s frustrating as hell.” Sliding the Audi across two lanes, Tony barreled down the exit for Hammer Industries. “Never hook up with an independent woman, Jarvis. They’ll make you nuts.”
“I’ll do my best to restrain myself, sir.”
The name on the parking spot now read Virginia Potts, CEO. Which made parking there less fun, but easier on his eyes. He frowned at the Hammer logo on the glass doors as he walked up to them. “We’ve got to get Hammer’s name off this joint. That looks like a big dick.”
There was a young man in a suit sitting on the bench just outside the doors reading a report with a SI logo on the binder. He got up as Tony approached the doors. “Mr. Stark?”
He didn’t recognize the guy but there were a lot of new faces since the takeover – acquisition damn it! “You are…..?”
“I haven’t been here very long.” The man smiled. “Tony Stark?”
“Yeah. Are you with – “ Tony looked down as the man slapped something against his chest.
“You’ve been served.”
“What? What the hell?” He stepped back, letting the paper flutter to the ground. “How did you get in here?”
“Preparation.” The man was already hurrying away to a nearby car.
“Son of a – “ Tony glared at him, willing him to explode with his mind. It never worked, but one day…
Bending, he picked the paper up. It wouldn’t do any good to ignore it. He’d been served fair and square; he’d been served enough times to know how it worked. “So who’s suing me now? The FAA? The Malibu Homeowners Association? Microsoft?”
He unfolded the summons. “In the county of… blah blah… Anthony Edward Stark respondent.. blah blah… Sunset Bain petitioner… blah blah – what?” Blinking, he looked at the petitioner’s name again, certain he’d misread it. Sunset Bain. “Sunset’s suing me? That doesn’t make any sense. Sunset Bain… petition to determine paternity… financial responsibility… paternity?“
The paper fluttered to the ground again. Sunset was suing him. For child support.