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The Stark Mansion Misadventure Series

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“Stark!”

The trumpets squeal. Howard turns efficiently on one heel, sipping his martini as he scans the dancers for an expectant face. Senator Harry Cain sticks out like a smashed thumb, his prideful, sweaty face and rumbled pocket square standing out just as badly as the rest of him against the smoothly moving crowd of dancers that occupy the gala’s small floor. Howard has little patience of politics on the best of his days and he keeps even less for those who practice loud and graceless policy. It’s not, to Howard, about the truth and morality of things, he’s far too impatient for such. He likes fast, smooth, sleek; Howard Stark cares about appearances and performances. Politics, to him, is hot air; cars that won’t fly.

“Senator,” Howard puts out a hand, holding his drink close to his chest. He’s met with a sloppy, sweaty grip and resists the urge to wipe his palm on his trouser leg. Politics is, after all, a game of perceptions.

The grey little man grins at him with the bliss of the drunk. “This is purely pleasure, Mr. Stark. Now, it’s not my business, but really, what’s a man of your status doin’ at such a society function without a girl on your arm? Or,” he leans in with an air of great conspiracy, “was she just not so smart to keep her eyes on you?”

“I answered my invitation for business reasons,” Howard answers, somewhat truthfully, “and I don’t mix business and pleasure. Not my style.” That part is an outright lie, but it improves his mood; nothing is quite so contagious as the hilarity of a drunk.

The band pitches and rumbles, brassy and pleasing. Howard listens to them instead of the wheezing senator, puzzling absently at how to miniaturize the recording and broadcasting technology. Howard imagines listening to something so vibrant and pleasing walking down the street in the rain, a happiness people can carry with them. The company board would have no interest - which had never stopped Howard before, it was his damned money - but the US government would only care if it could kill people. He hates the warhorse he’s been turned into, and tries sincerely to take nothing as seriously as the world seems to take him.

The senator wipes his streaming eyes, his laughter finally fading. “The man talks about style! Let me tell you something, Mr. Stark. I’ve got just the style I think you like. Dolly, honey?” He quarter-turns on his heel and scans the bobbing heads, calling out again. “Dolly? Where are you gone and gotten to?”

“Most of my…” Howard pauses, looking for a word that doesn’t make him feel slimy, “...colleagues won’t introduce me to their young female relatives.” He hides his smile behind the rim of his glass.

“And if my Dolly was anyone else’s, I’d agree with that practice. But let me tell you something, son -” the senator places a paternal hand on Howard’s shoulder and he fights the compulsory grimace of distaste “ - those pretty girls you run around with come a dime a dozen to a man like you, and everyone who belongs on page six knows it. It happens to all of us, though, that one gal who stops the clocks. Forget the short skirts,” he waves a dismissive hand, “you need a girl with a different kind of dynamite.” He taps his index finger to his greyed temple like it’s the Lost Library of Alexandria, a real trove. “Aha!” he whispers, looking past Howard.

The dancers part for a cascade of blonde curls, and from the points of her lashes to the pristine red edge of her lipstick, the only words Howard can find to describe her are hot and sharp. He thinks, distractedly, that Dolly is one hell of a name for a woman who carries herself like a knife.

“This is my Dolly,” Senator Cain continues, “and I think she’s got your number, Mr. Stark, but maybe I’m biased.” He laughs at himself, very pleased with the joke and that Dolly has, Howard willfully admits, caught his attentions.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark,” she says, giving him a gloved hand to kiss.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss…”

“Oh, please,” she excuses, “do call me Ida. My uncle’s the only one to get away with calling me Dolly.”

Howard smirks, the words falling from his lips without a thought. “Not a woman to be played with?”

“By no means,” she smiles at him with all her teeth. Howard, thrilled straight through, thinks again of knives and girls and how to handle both with care.

The senator excuses himself. “You kids have fun,” he calls over his shoulder, taking another champagne flute from a passing garcon.

“Were you men talking business?” Ida asks, and Howard can’t immediately tell if she’s serious or teasing. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

The words come back to Howard easily. “Ida, I never mix business and pleasure.”

She casts an obvious glance around the room; the society page faces and the politicians and the capitalist heirs and heiresses all mingling and plotting and posing in plain sight from where they stand. “Then what on earth are you doing here?”

“First, that implies the ludicrous thought that before your arrival I was enjoying myself.” Howard tips back the last of his now-warm martini, dabbing his lips and mustache with his handkerchief, and holds out his elbow to her. “Second, I’m leaving this instant. Come with me.”

“We just met.” It’s a perfunctory protest; Howard can tell she just wants to see his reaction.

“This place is a bore,” he leans in, speaking near her ear. “A girl like you deserves a much better time than this mess.”

“But I like the band.”

He pulls back enough to see the challenge in her eyes. “Then I’ll buy them for you, sweetheart, but I can’t possibly stand here a minute longer.”

Ida laughs and tucks her slender hand into the crook of his arm. They pause at the wardrobe while Ida collects her furs and Howard deigns to answer a single question nor pose for a single picture. As they make for the door, Howard turns his back to a chorus of page six reporters all calling his name.

“Hey, mista Stark,” Ida mimics the cry of the boys, “it seems like half of this mess was just waiting for you.” The air of the street frosts around their mouths and a blazing camera bulb catches Howard unawares. He think uncharitably that if Senator Cain wanted page six rumours for his niece’s social reputation, he’s gone and got her that and more. In the deeply cold February air Howard breathes deeply and folds his temper away, deciding not to spoil a perfectly good night. He pulls a gold cigarette case out, open, to Ida. She smiles at him, and Howard likes the way it softens her eyes. He lights one for her, and then his own. After a drag, he says, “My butler’s coming around with the car now.”

“How can you tell?” Smoke swirls on the night air in beautiful curlicues, and for a moment, Ida’s every bit the Dolly, perfect as a picture.

“Because,” he says, as a black Rolls comes to a tidy stop beside them, “I totally reconstructed the engine. It purrs like nothing else.”

As he leans past her to open her door, Ida whispers into his ear, her gloved palm cupping his shoulder. “Very impressive, Mr. Stark.” Ida and her pile of furs slide in first, and Howard follows.

“Enough with the Mr. Starks,” he complains, “my friends call me Howard.”

Her playful air of challenge pitches intimate in the small space. “And are we friends?”

“Sure we’re friends, Ida,” he says easily, talking around his cigarette before taking it lightly between two fingers and using its glowing tip to emphasize his point. “I’m about to invite you to my cabin in the Adirondacks for the weekend.”

“And you only invite your friends.”

“Of course,” he agrees. “So you see, it’s imperative you call me Howard, else the whole trip is off and the operation of entertaining you moot.”

“Well then, Howard,” she plays him, coquettish the turn of her chin. “ I look forward to being your very special friend.”