Tony groaned as he woke up. His head hurt. If hurt meant seconds from imminent implosion. “Jarvis, what time is it?”
There was no answer.
“Jarvis?” Sitting up, he clutched his head as the room started spinning. “Fuck! Where the hell am I?” He could smell sea air, so he must be close to home. Although, it didn’t smell quite like Malibu. Stronger, saltier. Maybe he was out in Long Beach somewhere. Didn’t matter, he’d find his car and a fresh bottle and head home. Or somewhere with more bottles.
Carefully, he peeled his hands away from his eyes, keeping them squinted nearly closed to ward off the light. Tony slowly eased them open, groaning from the shards of pain lancing into his brain. He needed to start timing his partying so he could wake up in the dark.
Once he had his eyes open and adjusted to the ungodly bright light, he looked around. The first thing he saw was the Weird Science movie poster on the wall. “What the hell?” He was in his old bedroom at his parent’s house on Long Island. How had he gotten here? “I don’t remember a plane.” Lately he didn’t remember a lot of things, but he should have remembered getting on a plane.
“Jarvis.” He waited for a moment. “Jarvis!” Wincing, he clutched his head. “Jarvis, answer me.”
“What the hell?” Sliding out of bed, he staggered to the desk and tapped the interface embedded in the surface. Nothing happened. Even if the power was out, the house had a generator which would have kept the computer system running. Someone had to have shut it down.
His brain was too foggy to go through all the details, but it all boiled down to him being the only person who could shut the system down. The question was why? He never shut the system down. Ever. “Jarvis, system command jaH!” He cringed. No more Klingon commands, there was no quiet way to say them.
Despite the startup command, Jarvis didn’t respond. Tony stared at the interface, genuinely confused. “Uh…” His bladder suddenly demanded his attention. “Piss first. Start Jarvis second.”
After addressing his bodily functions, washing his face, and rinsing the foul taste out of his mouth, Tony returned to the bedroom. He opened the closet door and found it empty. “Where are my clothes? Jarvis – damn.”
The dresser drawers were equally empty except for one which held several pairs of boxers and t-shirts. Otherwise, he had nothing to wear but the boxers and t-shirt he had on. This had to be somebody’s idea of a joke. “Rhodey, I’ll bet you did this.I’m going to kick your ass.”
Going downstairs, he peered into the living room. Rhodey wasn’t there. Tony caught the scent of bacon and his stomach rolled over. If Rhodey was in the kitchen, he wasn’t sure he could go in there after him.
“To hell with that.” He turned and headed toward the bar in the den. “A little hair of the dog to start the day.”
Running a hand over the dark cherry wood finish, Tony tugged firmly on one of the brass handles. The cabinet was older than he was and the doors tended to stick. It finally popped open and he reached inside to grab a bottle. His fingers didn’t find anything to grab. Leaning down he peered inside the cabinet. It was empty. For a moment, he thought he was hallucinating. “This is not funny! You’ve gone too far, Rhodey!”
“Rhodey isn’t here, Tony.”
He raised up and looked over the cabinet. Pepper was standing in the doorway. “Pepper. Where’s my booze?”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“I poured it down the drain.”
“What – you did what?” She couldn’t have poured his booze out. “I’ve got scotch that’s older than the both of us combined and you poured it out?”
“Yup.” She nodded. “All of it. Every bottle in the house. Poured it out.”
“Why would you do that?” It was murder of some kind. Staggering to the sofa, he collapsed. “Are you some kind of temperance nut?”
“I’m someone who wants you to get your act together.” Pepper sat down beside him. “You’re going to kill yourself. I can’t just sit by and watch that happen.”
“Why not? Who cares? Who really cares?”
“I do. Rhodey and Happy – there’s a lot of people who care about you.”
He shook his head and then clutched it as pain rocketed through his skull. “You just named them all. Nobody else gives a damn. They care about their damn stock prices, but don’t could give a rat’s ass less about me.”
“I made breakfast, come have something to eat. You’ll feel better.” Getting up she held out her hand to him.
“I don’t want to eat. Where are my clothes?”
“I sent them to the penthouse in New York.”
“What the hell kind of devious plan do you have going on here, Potts?”
“The kind that gets you back on your feet. Come on, let’s eat before the bacon gets cold.”
“Bacon is good even if it’s cold.” Getting to his feet, Tony followed her to the kitchen. “You know I can just drive into town when I want a drink.”
“No, you can’t.” Pepper smiled as she sat down at the table. “No cars.”
“You can’t be serious.” Stalking to the door that led to the garage, he jerked it open. The garage was empty. “Where are my cars?”
“In New York – the motorcycles and the bicycles, too.”
“You’re forgetting I’m an excellent sailor.” He slammed the garage door, immediately regretting it as the sound reminded him he had a hangover.
“I didn’t forget, Tony. The boats are on their way to New York.”
“What…” He sat down at the table. “What are you planning to do? Keep me prisoner here? Rape me?” He winked. “I’d have to fake that – you can’t rape a willing soul.”
“You’re not a prisoner.” She ignored the rape comment. It was hardly the first time he’d offered to be her willing victim.
“You’re right.” Tony grabbed a piece of bacon off the plate and wolfed it down. “I can walk into town or to the first house down the beach.” It was only five miles. Fuck.
“I’ve talked to your neighbors and they’re behind me one hundred percent. No one is going to give you any liquor or a ride out of here.” At least, she hoped they wouldn’t. She’d talked to some of the locals, the ones who’d been here forever and were loyal to the Starks and explained what she was going to try to do. They’d agreed to help with her plan. She’d also asked – begged – the store owner not to sell Tony any booze if he did make it into town, and the man had agreed. Hopefully, he’d stick to it.
“Tony, you’re going to be a father. You need to shape up. Not only that, but your strip tease was posted on Youtube and our stock has taken another dip. You’re still the public face of SI – and yes, know you hate hearing that – and you’re killing the company every time you get drunk and pull some crazy stunt.”
“I don’t care. I just don’t care anymore. Fuck the company, I hope it goes under.” Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he took a drink and grimaced. It wasn’t as good without the vodka.
“What would your mother and father say if they heard you say that?”
Setting the glass down, he stared into her eyes for a long moment. “That’s a low blow, Potts.”
“Well, it’s where you are right now and you’ve dragged me into the gutter with you.” Getting up, she walked out of the kitchen.
He ate another piece of bacon and a piece of toast before he got up to search the house. It was a large house and hours later, Tony had to admit defeat. Pepper had outsmarted him. There was no booze, clothes, or transportation. Worse, there was no internet.
The house was situated out on the end of a spit of land, with ocean on both sides, and a private road leading out to the main road into town. The nearest neighbor was five miles down the beach and then another six or seven into town. He was screwed.
Eventually, he ended up in his parents’ room. His father’s clothes were there, but he wasn’t about to put them on. Pepper knew that. This room hadn’t been touched, except to be cleaned, since his parents’ death. His mother’s favorite sweater hung on the back of the chair in front of her dressing table as if she might come in any moment and put it on. The tie and jacket his father had worn to work that day lay on the bed and Tony ran his fingers over the material.
There was a photo album on the nightstand and he picked it up. His mother had kept it there, looking at it often, and telling him stories about the pictures. It was filled with pictures of his parents during the time they were dating, his father looking like a square and his mother like a hippie with her long hair held back by a flowered headband.
He smiled at the picture they made. Proof that opposites attract. There were wedding photos and pictures of his mother all through her pregnancy with him. Then there were the photos of him. His life had been catalogued from birth. His mother was an amateur photographer and he had been her favorite subject.
What would his parents think of this latest mess he’d gotten himself into? Would they be disappointed? No doubt they would, but he’d still be able to turn to them for support. He’d be able to cry on his mother’s shoulder and get advice from his father on how to protect himself next time. If his parents were still alive, he’d probably never gotten into this mess to begin with.
Sighing, he set the album back exactly where it had been on the table and went downstairs looking for Pepper. She was sitting in a chair on the beach, reading what appeared to be a trashy romance novel.
“Hey there.” She laid the book down.
“Congratulations, Potts.” He plopped onto the chair next to her. “Take a bow, you’ve outsmarted me.”
“This isn’t a game, Tony. I’m trying to help you.”
“I know. Believe it or not I appreciate it.”
They sat in silence for a time, watching the ocean roll up onto the sand and back out again. It was comfortable, a feeling Tony hadn’t had in a long time. He’d forgotten how good it felt to sit with Pepper and not talk, just enjoy being close to her. Casually, he reached out and took her hand.
“Drinking isn’t any fun anymore.” He admitted. “Getting drunk doesn’t give me that warm, fuzzy feeling like it used to. I always liked how it blunted the edges, but it’s not doing it.” He took a deep breath and let it out. “I drink until I’m numb and sick – and I still hurt. It hurts, Pepper. I can’t even – the pain is so bad I can’t stand it. I let her do it to me again. How could I be so stupid?”
“You’re not stupid. You’re human.” She squeezed his hand.
“I’d be better off if I was a ‘bot.” He’d be DUMM-R. Or DUMM-ST.
“I seriously doubt that. Tony, no matter what happens, or what you decide to do, there’s going to be a baby born. From what I’ve learned about Sunset – this baby is yours. She wouldn’t take this big of a risk on someone else’s baby.”
“No, she’s got it all figured out.” He laughed bitterly. “She convinced me – convinced me to convince her – that condoms weren’t necessary. Stupid me, I thought I’d eventually get her to reconsider her decision to not have children. Guess I’m better at persuasion than I thought.”
“You’ve always been good at persuasion, Tony.” Pepper couldn’t resist teasing him. “How many women have you persuaded?”
“Too many – but not the right one.” He sighed. “Jesus, Pep, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“How about – “ She reached down to pick a book from the bag next to her chair. “You relax and read?”
Taking the book from her, he looked at the title. “Stephen King? You don’t think I’m suicidal enough?”
“It’s a fantasy novel, not horror. You’ll like it.”
“We’ll see.” He flipped open the cover. “What did you do to Jarvis, anyway?”
“I didn’t do anything to him. I just told him to cut communications with the house.”
“What if we need something?”
“We won’t. We have everything we need.” Smiling at him with far more confidence than she actually felt, Pepper pulled a bottle of water from her bag and handed him it to him.
They read until the sun began to set, then went inside for a simple dinner Pepper prepared. There was no computer, no internet, no television. Tony didn’t know how to function without a connection to the outside world. He paced back and forth through the living room until Pepper told him to sit down.
I’m going to kill you if you make one more trip across the room.” She pulled a deck of cards out of her bag and put them on the coffee table. “Gin Rummy, a penny a point.”
“What the hell kind of bag is that?” He sat down opposite her. “It’s like a freaking Bag of Holding.”
“You know I hate it when you talk D&D. You’re not that nerdy.” Shuffling the cards, she dealt them out efficiently.
“I am that nerdy, and it turns you on when I talk that way.” He rearranged his cards.
“You wish.” Pepper grabbed the quilt off the back of the sofa and wrapped herself up in it. “Aren’t you cold?”
“No, and it’s a good thing, because I seem to be all out of clothes.” Tony waved a hand to indicate his boxers and t-shirt.
“I adjusted the thermostat, but the furnace didn’t come on.”
“That’s because it’s turned off. It’s not winter yet. It’s not even fall. Toughen up, Potts.”
“It’s cold! There’s ocean on both sides of the house and there’s a breeze.”
“You California chicks are too thin blooded.”
“I’m not from California, which you might know if you ever read my resume or looked it up like you did Natalie’s.” She was still jealous of the way he’d all but drooled over the other woman. “I grew up in the Midwest and went to school there until I got my Masters at USC.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t care. You just thought it was funny that I threatened to spray you with mace.”
“Not mace, Pepper, pepper spray. Hence the nickname.” Tony laid down a run of cards.
“Which I hate.” Putting down her own run, she stuck her tongue out at him.
“Too bad. Hey – “ He looked up at her and frowned. “Did you say USC?”
“You know I got my MBA at UCLA? This is not good.”
“I can see you’re really full of that Bruins spirit. How many UCLA shirts do you have? One?”
“Point taken.” She took the hand and he tossed down his cards. “Crap. I’ll light the fire if we call this one a practice hand.”
Moving to the fireplace, Tony quickly had a fire started. It was chilly, not that he’d admit it to Pepper. He’d grown up here, but it’d been years since he’d spent any real time here – and he was wearing nothing more than a pair of boxers and a t-shirt. “This isn’t too bad, it only gets down into the low sixties at night. The house doesn’t have an air conditioner because the cross breeze keeps it cool during the day.”
“Keeps it pretty cool at night, too.” She snuggled deeper into the quilt.
“This is nothing. MIT’s in Boston – now there’s some cold weather. My boarding school in Virginia felt like the Bahamas comparatively. Not that I appreciated the warmer weather.”
“How old were you when you went to boarding school?”
“Eight.” Tony looked at the cards she’d dealt him and frowned. “Thanks for the handful of crap.”
“You’re welcome.” She grinned. “You hated it, the school, I mean.”
“I didn’t hate the school so much, it was for gifted children and I did really well academically. But – “ He shook his head. “I was lonely. Once dinner was over and we were on our own, I missed my parents. I just wanted to go home.”
“Your parents didn’t visit?”
“They did – Mom did. And I came home on long weekends and holidays. It’s not the same thing, though.” He looked up at her, curious. “Haven’t we talked about this before?”
“No, not really. You’ve mentioned being sent to boarding school a few times, but never really any details.”
“That’s because I hated it. MIT was a little better. Mom moved to a house just off campus, she wasn’t letting me go to college by myself as young as I was.” Tony laughed at the memory of his parents arguing over the move. “After a few days of being stubborn – and by stubborn I mean being alone – Dad moved too.”
“Your parents really loved each other, didn’t they?” The romantic tale of Howard and Maria Stark had inspired books, thousands of articles, and at least one TV movie, but Pepper knew first hand how a well oiled PR department could spin things.
“Yeah.” A smile softened his face. “They were always very affectionate, and – I would have been with them in the car that night, but they were kissing and acting all lovey-dovey. I remember knocking on their door – there was a rule about knocking on their door, by the way – and it took a minute for my mom to open it. Her hair was messed up and dad was sitting on the bed with a pillow on his lap. I guess he didn’t want me to know he had a boner. So I thought I’d let them go alone and enjoy some time together.”
He sighed. “And they never came home. I always wondered if I’d been with them if maybe – guess that’s stupid, I’d have died with them probably.”
“There’s no way to know, Tony. It’s one of those things you wonder about all your life, but there’s no way to know the answer.” Pepper was proud of the way Tony had stopped looking for a way out of his current situation and that he hadn’t talked about wanting a drink in hours. However, he hadn’t said a word about what do about his child.
“Do you think sending you to boarding school was a bad idea?” She asked as if it was just a stray thought.
“Uh, yeah .” He gave her a look that clearly said he couldn’t believe she’d even asked. “I already had tutors and I don’t think I learned any more there than I could have here – and I missed my mom.”
“And your father, too?”
“No – yeah. Okay, yeah.” He admitted. “I loved him. I don’t know if he loved me or not, he sure seemed happy to get rid of me.”
“Of course he loved you, Tony.” It made her sad that it was obvious to everyone but Tony that his father had loved him. So… you wouldn’t send your son – or daughter – off to boarding school?”
“You’d want to be sure they knew you loved them, right?”
“Pepper, I know where this is going.” Not looking up from his cards, he shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about it. We both know I’d be a lousy father.”
“I’m not going there. You won’t have to worry about it, anyway. You don’t have to be a father. You’ll just send money to take care of the kid. Sunset will raise it.”
He glared at Pepper. “I don’t believe in a parent not being involved in their child’s life. I can’t – I won’t just send checks and pretend I don’t have a kid. Or send them off to some boarding school because I’m afraid they’re smarter than I am!”
“Is that why your father sent you away?” She asked softly. This was dangerous ground. Tony had always carried around a bitterness towards his father, but at the same time worshiped him.
“I dunno. I think so. Jesus, you missed your calling, Pepper. You should have been a shrink.” Adding up his points, he tossed his cards down. “He started looking at me funny. Like I scared him. And sometimes, I’d explain an idea I had and he – “ Tony shrugged. “He didn’t get it. He’d look at me like I was… I dunno. Like I was a freak.”
“I’m absolutely sure he never thought you were a freak, Tony. Maybe he thought he was doing what was best for you. Sending you somewhere that you’d be challenged.”
“Maybe. I never got up the courage to ask him.” Scooping up the cards, Tony shuffled and dealt a new hand. “So now that you’ve gotten me to admit I can’t not be involved – any ideas on how I’m supposed to be involved?”
“That depends on what kind of mother you think Sunset will be, and if can you handle joint custody?”
“Oh my God...” Laying his cards aside, he rubbed his hands over his face. “You’re kidding me, right? We both know what kind of mother she’s going to be. Lousy. Horrible.”
Pepper had the same opinion, but she needed to hear what Tony thought. If he felt the same way she did, then she’d put the second part of her plan into action. She didn’t believe for one minute that Tony would be happy with joint custody of any kind. Not with someone like Sunset.
“She’s thinking she’s won the big one. This baby is the winning lottery ticket.” He laid back, stretching out on the floor and closing his eyes. “The kid is going to be another Barbara Hutton or Christina Onassis. Some rich kid raised by servants and shipped to boarding school in Europe – or wherever is farthest from their mother – and then let loose on the jet set when they’re eighteen to raise hell.”
“Like another Tony Stark?” Pepper teased.
“Hey, I’m not that bad.” He craned his neck to look up at her. “Am I?”
“Sometimes.” She nodded. “I think you get less bad press than Milan Hyatt does just because she’s a woman. There’s different standards.”
“I do work, too. I actually do things besides partying. She doesn’t do anything .”
“I can’t argue with that. When you’re not giving me headaches, you build amazing things.” Tony on a design tear was something to see. He’d filed so many patents that he probably had his own wing at the patent office. “What are we going to do?”
“I’d rather – “ He sat up. “I’d rather take on the responsibility myself rather than let – than watch Sunset ruin our child’s life. I can’t believe I’m saying this, Pepper.” Tony shook his head in disbelief. “I want full custody.”
“Good.” Pepper smiled, proud of him for facing up to the situation and taking responsibility. “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”
“But after what I’ve been doing lately, no court is going to give me custody of a baby.”
“Oh, please. First of all, you’re a kabillionaire and she’s a gold digging baby mama. That right there is enough to make a judge give you sole custody.” Pepper didn’t add that with his money they could buy a judge. She was keeping that to herself unless it turned out to be necessary. “But you’re right. You’ve got to dry out and shape up and – most importantly – get the press back on your side.”
“I can do that. I’ve done it before.” Tony picked up the cards and shuffled them again. “Easy peasy.”
“What we could do…” She took a deep breath and launched into her plan before she could talk herself out of it. “We could pretend to be a couple again. The press would eat up a story like that. Your broken heart healing by reuniting with your former girlfriend. Though I’m not really looking forward to being referred to as Pepperony again.”
“Are you serious?” Tony fumbled the cards and they scattered all over his lap and the floor. “You want to – to be with me – again?”
“Well, we’ll be pretending. At least, at first. I mean – “ Her face felt hot and Pepper knew she was blushing like a teenager. Damn it! “We can see where it goes from there.”
He nodded so hard his head hurt. “I’m good with that.”
“There’s plenty of dirt that can be spread about Sunset if we need to do it. Her relationship with you the first time – we kept that buried as much as possible while you were dating, but we can let it out. You were sixteen and she was an adult, she obviously took advantage of you. Plus her history of industrial espionage. Trust me, you will be the poor, innocent victim in all of this when I’m – I mean, when the public relations department is through.”
“You are a sneaky and conniving woman, Pepper Potts. Thank God you’re on my side.” He managed to collect the cards and shuffle them once more.
“You’re a lucky man.” She agreed, picking up her hand as he dealt the cards out.
“I feel lucky, sitting around in my shorts. And I am the victim, by the way.”
“Really? If you’d let her get in the tow truck and drive away, we wouldn’t be here now.”
“Well, if you’d given me another kiss and maybe come home with me like I asked, we wouldn’t be here, either.”
Anger flared up inside her, and Pepper threw her cards down. “So this is my fault?”
“I didn’t say that – exactly. What I meant was all you were doing was arguing with me about resigning as CEO and it was affecting our personal life – our dating life. You were giving me fewer and fewer kisses.” Her eyes had narrowed dangerously and Tony realized he’d stumbled into a part of relationship territory he knew nothing about. “We’d dated for six months and hadn’t even had sex yet! And you said we should take a break, remember?”
“Shut up, Tony.” She held up a hand. “You’re saying if we’d had sex, that you wouldn’t have started a relationship with her again?”
“Exactly. If I’d been blissfully happy, I wouldn’t have been lonely and angry and went home with her. It’s all your fault.” He smiled. “I’m glad we worked that out.”
“Me too.” Getting up, she picked up a pillow and walked around the coffee table. Tony started to get to his feet but she walloped him on the head with the pillow knocking him back on his butt.
“Hey!” He ducked as she swung at him again, scrambling to the sofa to grab a pillow to defend himself with. Pepper slammed her pillow into the back of his head before he could grab one. “Ouch!”
“My fault, huh?” She hit him again. “If I’d put out – we wouldn’t be in this mess – huh?”
She was definitely hitting him harder than she should have. Tony finally got his hands on a pillow and turned to face her. Just in time to get a face full of pillow. He stumbled back and landed on his ass on the sofa. “Okay, then, this is war, Potts, and I’m the guy who makes the weapons, remember?”
“Pillows aren’t bombs!” She stuck her tongue out at him. “I’m not afraid of you.”
They whacked each other, laughing and dodging around the living room until Pepper hit him hard enough for her pillow to burst open. There was a whoosh as some of the feathers fell into the fireplace. Burning feathers drifted everywhere.
“Oh, my God, Tony!” She stomped the mini fires out. “Don’t just stand there! Help me!”
“I’m barefoot!” He was laughing too hard to help her even if he’d had shoes on. “Where’s DUM-E and his fire extinguisher when I need him?”
Stomping out the last fluffy fireball, Pepper collapsed back on the sofa. “Only you could start a fire with a feather pillow.”
“Me?” He looked to the ceiling. “Do you see how she treats me? Everything is my fault.”
“Pick up your cards, Stark.” She picked up the cards she’d dropper earlier. “I’m going to kick your sexy butt one way or the other.”
Tony smirked. “So you noticed it’s sexy?”
Why did I say that out loud? “Just play. There’s a pair of shoes in new Chanel collection that I want, and you are going to pay for them.”
“Them’s fightin’ words, Potts.” He laid a run out on the table. “Go fish.”
Tony’s eyes began to droop after they’d played several hands. “I give up.” Yawning, he tossed his cards down. “I better quit before you own everything I have, including my shorts.”
“Five hundred dollars is hardly everything you have.” She rolled her eyes. “But it will buy my shoes. Or at least one of them.”
Standing up, he stretched and yawned again. “Where are you sleeping? In case I get the frights.”
“In the guestroom. And if you get the frights, I still carry pepper spray.”
“Just my luck.” He checked the front door to be sure it was locked. This part of Long Island was fairly peaceful, but old habits died hard.
Walking Pepper to her room, he leaned against the doorframe. “You sure you don’t want company?”
“Tony, now is not the time. You’re still hurting – I’m not going to be someone you use to make yourself feel better.”
“It wouldn’t be like that.” He said softly. “I swear.”
“Yes it would. You might not mean it, but it would.” Pepper stroked a hand over his face, trailing her fingers along his cheekbone and the line of his beard. “We still have a chance, Tony. I won’t risk it.”
Nodding, he turned his face into her hand and kissed her palm. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
In his room, Tony climbed into bed and pulled the covers up under his chin, listening to the sound of the ocean. He’d made it through the day without a drink. He couldn’t’ remember how long it’d been since he’d managed that. Too many.
He wasn’t an alcoholic – not yet – but he was getting there. For now, he was still able to put the bottle down, or leave it alone if he had to – but how much longer until he couldn’t? Until the bottle had him instead of the other way around? What kind of father would he be if he were falling down drunk all the time? Better if the kid had no father at all.
Rolling over, he punched the pillow into shape and closed his eyes.
Pepper opened her eyes the next morning and forgot where she was for a moment. The salt tang in the air and the sound of the ocean confused her until she remembered they were on Long Island. Getting up, she stretched. Two nights of sleeping next to the ocean had restored her depleted batteries. Maybe she should buy one of those machines that sounded like ocean waves.
She brushed her teeth and her hair and decided to skip the shower until later. Once it had warmed up enough, she planned to take a dip in the ocean and she could shower after that.
As Pepper walked past Tony’s door, she rapped her knuckles on it. “Up and at ‘em, lazy bones. I let you sleep in yesterday.”
There was no answer and she eased the door open, risking a peek inside. Tony often slept nude, and while she didn’t mind the view, she didn’t want to feed his ego at this point in their duct taped relationship. “Tony?”
The bed was empty. Her heart jumped up to her throat and she rushed into the room. She checked the bathroom – it was empty as well. “Oh, no – oh, no!” He’d bailed on her, the rat!
Running down the stairs, she jerked the front door open and ran down onto the beach. He’d had to have walked down the beach at the front of the house, it was the shortest distance into town. “You rotten, dirty, lying, no good – Tony! Tony!”
Pepper shrieked and whirled around. Tony was standing in the surf about fifty feet behind her, a bucket in his hand. “What are you doing?”
“Why are you yelling at me?” He backed away as she stormed up to him.
“Don’t you ever do that again!”
“What? Go clamming?” Confused, he dumped the clams out into the surf. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were opposed to clamming.”
“You scared the hell out of me!”
“I’m sorry?” Tony wasn’t sure what had scared Pepper, or why she was suddenly against clamming, but he was sure it must be his fault. He threw the bucket down. “I’m sorry. No clamming – just say no to clamming!”
“I thought you’d left.” She stopped, tears burning her eyes. “I thought last night was – that you’d left – ”
“Pepper, no.” It dawned on him that she’d thought he’d snuck off while she’d been sleeping. He pulled her into his arms. “I’m sorry. I should have left you a note. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
Pepper hugged him hard. “Don’t leave, Tony Please, you have to give this a chance..”
“I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” Rubbing his hands up and down her back, Tony held her to him. “I need you.”
She leaned back and wiped at her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually freak out like that.”
“I know. He lifted hem of his t-shirt and dried at her cheeks. “That’s my department. I freak out – you stay calm. We’re going to have problems if we switch roles.”
“True.” Smiling, she gave him another quick hug. “I’ll try to give you more warning next time.”
“Good.” He walked over to where his clamming bucket was floating in the surf. “‘Cos I’m a method actor, you know. I need time to get into character.”
“I’m always going to regret letting you spend time with Kirk Lazarus, aren’t I?” She held her hand out to him as he came back to her.
Taking it, he lifted it to his lips. “Probably.”
They walked down the beach, holding hands, and letting the water wash over their feet. Tony stopped from time to time and used his toes to search for clams, showing her how to find the hidden mollusks just below the sand and telling her how his mother had taught him how to do it when he was a kid.
“Pepper, it’s a good idea – a great idea – but we don’t have to pretend to be a couple. We can be a couple again.” He washed the sand off his hands before taking hers once again. “I’m sorry that I screwed up. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“I love you, Tony. But I can’t forgive and forget this easily. “I need some time.”
He nodded. “I understand, but don’t expect me to give up easily.”
“I’d be shocked if you did.” Pepper tried to imitate his toe digging technique but only turned up a rock.
“Come on, we’ll never get enough clams for lunch at this rate, slacker.”
“Slacker? You’re the one who dumped out a whole bucket of clams!”
“You were yelling at me! I thought you’d turned Greenpeace vegetarian on me or something!”
“I thought you’d snuck off!
“Yeah, you thought – “ Tony snapped his fingers as he remembered something she’d said. “You said I love you – I mean – you said you love me.”
“Temporary insanity.” She shook her head. “Doesn’t count.”
“You said it first, and you can’t take it back. No take backs!” He grinned. “I, on the other hand, will say it in some obscenely romantic way that befits my image so you have no doubt.”
“Please, you can worship me later.” He sidestepped in case she tried to hit him. “Take a memo. Be prepared.”
“Of course. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?” She bumped him with her hip as they walked down the beach.
“That’ll be all, Ms. Potts.” He swung an arm around her shoulders