“Tony, I don’t want you to say anything. Okay? I’ll handle everything. Tony? Are you listening to me?”
Tony was staring at his hands. He was numb inside. What was happening? This had to be some kind of cruel joke. “Maybe if I called her again?”
“Tony, her number is disconnected.” Bertram Hindel, Tony’s lawyer, said gently. “You’ve tried it already. I think we can take that as a sign that she’s not going to talk to you directly.”
I don’t understand. “She said she didn’t want any children – I thought maybe I’d try and change her mind later. She was taking the pill. I saw them – every day and – “ He twisted his fingers together. “I didn’t need condoms.” I don’t understand.
Pepper met Bertram’s eyes over Tony’s bowed head. As smart as Tony was, as savvy a businessman and engineer as he was – he was out of his element when it came to personal relationships. Private tutors instead of public or even private school, college when he should have been in junior high – he’d never learned how to interact socially. Tony had kept himself isolated most of his life, letting only a few – very few – people into his world. “It’ll be okay, Tony. We’ll take care of everything.”
What had happened was out of his realm of experience. If this were a one night stand filing a paternity suit – as had happened in the past – he wouldn’t even have shown up for the meeting. His lawyers would be happy to bully the woman out of the room by reminding her that Mr. Stark always used a condom lubricated with spermicide and never ejaculated into a woman’s mouth or onto her body. He had always been very careful not to impregnate anyone or to give them the means to do it themselves.
In this instance, however, Tony had already admitted to not using a condom during sex for the last four to five months. His attorney found his hands tied by that admission. For whatever reason, Tony had decided to trust Sunset Bain when she’d told him she was taking birth control pills.
“Tell me again why you stopped using the condoms.” Bertram asked. “You’ve always been extremely careful in that regard. Did she mislead you?”
“She said she was on the pill. I saw her take them – every morning – first thing. She said she had wanted to get her tubes tied but there’s some rules the insurance companies have and she couldn’t.” Tony closed his eyes, remembering the conversation.
“Sorry, had to take my pill.” Sunset slid back into bed.
“I’ve got condoms.” Tony told her. “Plenty of them.”
“If you want to use them, that’s fine.” She nestled into his arms. “But I’m sticking with my pills – don’t want any kids”
“You don’t want kids?”
“No, not after everything I’ve seen.” She shook her head. “My life wasn’t something I wanted to bring kids into.”
“Come on, Sunset. Everybody wants kids, sooner or later.” He grinned down at her. “Even me.”
“You’d make a great dad.” Sunset smiled and stroked a finger along his beard. “But I don’t think I’d make a great mom.”
“Maybe it would depend on the dad.”
“Not for me. I tried to get my tubes tied a few years ago, but there’s this weird rule that the insurance companies have that a woman has to be at least twenty-one, and have had two kids to have the procedure done. On top of that, they won’t pay for the doctor or the hospital – just the procedure. That’s why most women have it done when they’re in the hospital having their second baby.”
“Who makes up these rules?” Stark Industries covered anything an employee needed done, so far as he knew. “That’s like the dark ages.”
“Hey, at one time insurance companies wouldn’t pay for the pill, either.” She shrugged. “I can’t afford it without insurance so I gave up and just stayed on the pill. Eventually, my clock will shut off.”
Tony was surprised at her attitude, they hadn’t discussed having children before, but then they’d both been young and in college. Children seemed a long way off at the time. Now, however, he was starting to think he was hearing his own clock ticking. He didn’t want to be past fifty like his father had been when he was born.
Confident that he could change her mind, given time, he snuggled up to her and nuzzled her neck. “I guess there’s no reason for me to use condoms then, if you’re on the pill.”
“We didn’t need them before, so why not?” Sunset slid her hand over his stomach. “Whatever you want to do, Tony, is fine by me.”
“She was living at your house. Is there any chance these pills are still there?” Bertram asked.
“I can ask Jarvis.” Pepper told him. Pulling out her phone, she tapped Jarvis’ icon. “Jarvis, can you see if the birth control pills Ms. Bain took every day are still at the house?”
“The prescription is normally on the bathroom sink in the master bath. However, it is not there now. I can review my recordings. Please understand this is a private area and I do not, as a rule, record in this room.”
“I understand.” That was one of the first things she’d established when she’d started working for Tony. No Big Brother in the bathroom.
“Since you requested that I monitor her activities, I do have some recordings.” Jarvis went over the hours of recordings from the previous months. “She put the prescription in a small bag along with her makeup when she left the house this morning.”
“Great. No way to tell if they were real or not.” Pepper frowned.
“I must inform you that I did not note a pattern that has just emerged in Ms. Bain’s behavior.”
“What? What pattern?”
“Over the last month, Ms. Bain has been removing articles of clothing and other personal items from the house and not returning them. One at a time, which did not seem unreasonable given that the clothing might need cleaned, or that the personal item might be needed outside the house.”
“I’m sure she didn’t intend for you to notice, Jarvis.” Pepper ended the call. “There goes any doubt that she had this planned.”
“The question is: why?” Bertram wasn’t often confused by people’s motives, but Sunset Bain had thrown him for a loop. “Tony’s obviously in love with her and would marry her in a heartbeat – why not just tell him she’s pregnant?”
“Maybe she’s scared?” Tony looked up, a trembling, hopeful smile on his face. “Maybe she thinks I’ll be mad at her? I can just tell her – “
“Tony – “ Pepper rubbed the back of his neck. “Then why would she get a lawyer and do this?”
“Because she’s – afraid – I don’t know – “ I don’t understand.
“She knows you better than that. You’re not the kind of man a woman is scared of.” She looked up as Sunset and her lawyers entered the meeting room. “Just be quiet.”
“Sunset!” Tony stood up. “Let’s talk about this – we can work this out. I’m not angry, it’s okay.”
“Mr. Stark, sit down.” Bertram put a hand on his shoulder and pushed Tony back into his seat. “Bertram Hindel, I’m Mr. Stark’s attorney. Any questions or discussions go through me. Is that clear?”
“Not a problem. I’m Ms. Bain’s attorney, Douglas Kuzak, and the same conditions apply for our side.”
Pepper linked her arm through Tony’s, partly to offer him comfort and partly to keep him in his seat. She couldn’t stop herself from glaring across the table at Sunset. The woman had on an outfit that made her look like an escapee from a Fundamentalist church, no makeup, and a frightened expression. How dare she paint herself as some innocent victim?
She could feel Tony shudder from time to time as the lawyers went over the papers, batting the charges back and forth. Bertram had no leg to stand on, with Tony admitting he’d hadn’t been using condoms, but he was doing his best.
“Your client misled Mr. Stark with her claim of taking birth control pills, when in fact, she was not.” Bertram stated.
In response, Kuzak pulled out a blue compact and slid it across the table. “Feel free to have it analyzed. You’ll find that my client’s prescription is up to date and has been purchased on a regular basis. She is under the care of a gynecologist, who prescribed these pills – pills that have been effective until now.”
“Through Ms. Bain’s numerous other sexual encounters?” Bertram ignored the compact. “How many other men has she been seeing at the same time as my client?”
“There are no other men. My client has resided at Mr. Stark’s Malibu home for the last four months. Given his sexual proclivities – he would know if there were other men involved.”
Pepper stifled a sigh. She wanted to strangle both attorneys. And Sunset. Tony was clutching her hand under the table, squeezing until her fingers hurt, but she wouldn’t tell him to let go for anything. He needed her. He was trembling, something she’d seen him do only rarely, and usually only after copious amounts of liquor.
“Birth control pills are not one hundred percent effective. Mr. Stark could have continued to use condoms but chose not to.” Kuzak leaned back in his seat. “Ms. Bain did not tell or ask him not to use them.”
“So she claims. Interesting that my client has not had sexual intercourse without using a condom since he was seventeen and now suddenly decides – supposedly all on his own – that they’re not necessary.”
“I have copies of the positive pregnancy test that was performed by my client’s gynecologist.” Kuzak tossed a folder on the table. “Along with her first visit to her obstetrician.”
“Neither of which provides proof of paternity.” Bertram ignored the folder just as he had the pills.
“My client resided in Mr. Stark’s house in Malibu – a virtual prisoner, I might add – for the last five months. That puts reasonable doubt on my side.”
“A prisoner?” Pepper gasped. “She was at work every day! How can she say – “
“Ms. Potts – “ Bertram waved a hand at her. “This is not a criminal trial, and reasonable doubt doesn’t apply. Even so, there are a great many witnesses that I can produce to refute your statement that Ms. Bain was a prisoner at my client’s home. Let’s not get into fantasy, Kuzak – just stick to the facts.”
“The facts are that your client is trying to evade his responsibilities.”
“Oh, please!” Tossing the folder back at Kuzak, Bertram scoffed. “Until he was hit with your flimsy lawsuit, he wasn’t aware Ms. Bain might even be pregnant. Considering she was living with him – or so she claims – you would think he would have noticed. I’m doubt this pregnancy is real.”
“I can assure you it’s very real. Mr. Stark forced Ms. Bain into the relationship by threatening to blackball her out of the industry the same as his father had done. This child is a result of that forced relationship.”
“That is such bull – “ Pepper started to say but Bertram waved a hand to silence her.
“Forced relationship? If so, the pictures of Ms. Bain smiling for the press at various functions and events over the last five months is some of the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Bertram shot back.
“This is crazy, Sunset, we don’t have to go through this – “ Tony interrupted. “Marry me and we’ll raise our baby together. You said I’d be a great father, remember?”
“Tony – “ Bertram put his hand on Tony’s arm.
Sunset spoke for the first time since she’d entered the room. “I don’t want to marry you. I don’t want anything to do with you.”
There was shocked silence for a few moments before her lawyer slid into the opening. “It’s my client’s belief that, given his past, Mr. Stark would not be a good father. She’s asking for financial support for the child and limited contact between herself and Mr. Stark.”
“I don’t think limited contact will be a problem.” Bertram snorted. “As for financial support, we have no proof that this so-called child even exists, let alone that it belongs to my client.”
“What do you want?” Tony asked.
“Tony – “ Bertram warned. “Let me handle this.”
“What do you want?” He repeated.
“Tony, please.” Pepper tugged on his arm. “Why don’t we go outside and get some air.”
“No. She thinks this is the lottery and she’s hit the jackpot.” Anger was beginning to replace the numbness. Anger that she had used him again. Anger at how fucking stupid he’d been to trust her again. “How much to go away? How much – to – to – get – “
Tony’s voice was breaking, and Pepper couldn’t stand to see him this way. “We want tests – right now.” She demanded.
“No.” Kuzak shook his head. “Tests at this stage of a pregnancy are invasive and could harm the child.”
“Jarvis can scan her and – “
“Absolutely not! That’s untested technology and I won’t have my client and her unborn child subjected to unknown side effects!”
“Pay for medical care and an allowance and that’s it. One word in the press and she doesn’t get a dime.” Pepper ordered Bertram. “Tony, let’s go.”
She tugged at Tony’s arm until he stood up. He started toward Sunset, but she pulled him the other way, leading him out the door. Outside, Happy was waiting in the lobby. “Happy, let’s go home.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He hurried to open the front doors and then down the steps to where the limo sat waiting to open the door.
Pepper pushed Tony inside the car and Happy slammed the door behind them. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Tony was fumbling at the bar, pulling out a bottle of scotch. He had the top twisted off and was swallowing in huge gulps even as she tried to pull it out of his hands. “Tony, no – this isn’t the way to handle this.”
He wrenched away from her, spilling the liquor down the front of his suit. “Why? Why is she doing this?”
“I don’t know.” She tried again to take the bottle as he tipped it up once more. This time she managed to pull it away, splashing scotch over the both of them. “Tony, I don’t know what to say – I don’t know what to tell you.”
“You tried to warn me.” He curled up on the seat, covering his face with his hands. “You said she was a snake. How could I be so stupid? I don’t understand – why did she do this? I don’t understand!”
That’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question. More likely a number with a lot more zeros behind it. She’d seen Sunset, watched her with Tony at the office, at events they’d attended –she’d acted like the perfect, devoted, loving girlfriend. How could it all have been an act? Was it possible for someone to want money that badly? It made no sense to her.
Pepper reached out and stroked Tony’s hair. If Sunset wanted money so much, why not marry Tony? As the wife of one of the richest – if not the richest – men in the world, Sunset would have had everything she ever wanted. Including a husband who obviously worshipped her. Tony would have laid the world at her feet if she’d asked for it.
Tony’s shoulders were shaking and Pepper realized he was crying. She pulled him to her, resting his head on her shoulder. “Shhhh… I’m here.” She wanted to tell him it would all be okay, but she’d never lied to him. Now wasn’t the time to start.