The Bond of Simple Attraction



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Chapter One





May, 1962

He was looking forward to getting drunk.

He figured he deserved it; the last few months had been one long grind. Between trying to de-escalate what looked like a serious problem building in Southeast Asia and the constant shit storm from Congress about everything from weapons contracts to research rights, Howard Stark was ready to take the night off from all the responsibilities of CEO-hood and give the papers something to write about. Stark Industries was doing fine but the ongoing frustrations with R & D were making him ready to tear his hair out, Fury was being a royal pain in the ass and if he didn't let off some steam soon, Howard felt he might end up seriously hurting someone.

Which was why he was here this evening at the Mayflower banqueting room in his summer tux.

Howard looked around the cocktail party, taking in the crowd with a practiced eye. Old Money was easy to spot; they tended to congregate near the bar to rub elbows with each other. Even from this distance he would see the scions of society carefully making sure that they were within view but not accessible.

Around the edges were the New Money people, awkward but persistent, circling and shaking hands, making the effort to act as if they'd always been there. They might have, Howard thought, although he didn't care much. Neither Old or New Money interested him.

Money wasn't his motivation. It was nice to have of course, and useful in getting along in life, but making it for the sake of making it had never been his raison d'Ítre.

Howard looked towards the middle of the room, to the mingling crowd there and smirked to himself; this was the far more interesting element of the party. Here he spotted the Intellectuals, the Salesmen, the Government people and the Scientists, all sizing each other up and making connections in that casual way that had probably begun in the Stone Age with everyone around the fire pits. Chemists talked to special agents; geniuses talked to contractors; lobbyists talked to everybody.

This was also the group with the prettiest women, however, and Howard felt another urge stirring within him. It had been nearly a year and a half since breaking it off with Loni; she was better off with Stane anyway. No hard feelings on that count.

"Excuse me, but do you have a handkerchief?" a soft contralto at his left shoulder asked.

Howard glanced to the speaker and blinked. The girl there had a hand over her nose, but he could see the trickle of blood under the shield of her fingers, sliding down towards the pink of her lipstick.

He fished in a pocket even as he turned to face her. "Yes."

She was a Miss, that much was clear from her youth and bare left ring finger. Unlike the forest of bouffants and beehives the other women sported, this brunette had her hair down and in a simple side part, looking like Veronica Lake, or a young Katherine Hepburn.

It was a damned good look on her too, Howard noted. Her gray cocktail dress was modestly cut but showed off a fine figure; whoever she was, she had class.

"Thank you," she murmured, using his monogrammed linen to staunch her nose. "If you've got a business card I'll make sure to send you another one."

A low voice, with a hint of accent in it that he couldn't quite place. "That won't be necessary, Miss--?"

She replied something, but all he caught was her first name—Maria—and then one of the caterers came blundering through, moving gracelessly between them for a moment and blocking out the rest of her words. Howard plucked two glasses of champagne from the man's tray as he passed and handed one to the girl with a smile.

"Thanks," she replied huskily and pulled the handkerchief away long enough to take a deep sip. Howard noted that her nose was red but pert. She gave a sigh and dabbed again. "As I was saying, I'll make up the handkerchief to you as soon as I can."

Howard sensed this was going to be a point of honor with her so he turned the conversation away from it in amusement. "So what happened?"

Maria arched an eyebrow at him. Howard noted how lush her lips looked in the light of the chandeliers. "A colleague and I had a slight disagreement in the powder room," she sighed, "and given her seniority and general demeanor, I'm probably going to be clearing out my desk on Monday. Still, I've got two days before that happens, and this party tonight, so what the hell."

"Let me get this straight," Howard snickered. "You slugged someone before stepping out here? I'm intrigued."

And he was; Howard appreciated spirited women, and the girl's attitude interested him. Maria looked down for a moment, caught in a fleeting second of embarrassment before looking up again, her dark eyes bright. "She swung first, Mr. Handkerchief; I've got witnesses to that. I was going to quit anyway."

"I'm sure this clinches it," he agreed, draining his glass. "What do you do?"

He was sure Maria Whoever was part of some typing pool or secretarial set in one of the government offices here in D.C. Bright young things like this girl tended to flock to parties like this one in hopes of snaring someone to help them up the social and matrimonial ladders.

"Not enough," she told him quietly. "I'm stuck in an isolated system right now."

The comment struck a chord, and he looked more closely at her.

"Not true," Howard replied. "You're interacting with me. And I could get you making exchanges all night." It was a test; a chance to see if her words were coincidental or if she actually knew what she was talking about.

Maria smiled. "That would mean consequences, Mr. Handkerchief. Are you prepared to keep me supplied with an uninterrupted flow of energy all night?"

Howard suppressed an urge to laugh. Instead, he smiled back at her. "Toots, I'm absolutely radiant, trust me. We can start with something more to drink, and the name's Howard."

"Nice to meet someone who can talk thermodynamics, Howard," she replied. "I'll take a Manhattan, if it's not too much trouble."

"No trouble at all," he assured her and turned for the bar. It took a while to put the orders in through the crowd, but once they were done Howard carried them back, pleased to see that Maria was still there alongside a potted palm just inside the doorway. He handed her the cocktail with a little dip of his head.

"Thanks." She sipped it carefully then nodded with approval. "Good."

"A sure cure for a bloody nose," Howard agreed. "So . . . you know thermodynamics."

"Yep," Maria nodded. "And it isn't doing me a damned bit of good. What do you do?"

"A little of this, a little of that," Howard replied easily. It was true, in a casual sort of way.

Maria shot him a quelling look. "I should have known. You work for the Feds, right? FBI? CIA?"

"No," he assured her. That was true too; his connections went higher than that. "I'm in business for myself, actually, but I appreciate them as good customers."

Before either of them could say anything more, a ripple went through the crowd and people began craning to look towards the far end of the room where the musicians were warming up. Howard felt the vibe of anticipation and polished off his Manhattan before asking her, "Care to dance?"

"I've just had two drinks in less than an hour, but I'm still reasonably coordinated," Maria nodded. "I'd love to."

It took only a few minutes to lead her out to the floor amid the forty or so other couples congregating there. Howard found them a nice spot just to the left of the band, not quite in the shadows but close. He waited as she stepped into his arms, and when Maria did so, he felt a frisson of desire flare through his stomach.

She was small, and warm. He didn't know what her perfume was, but it mingled nicely with the scent of the whisky on her breath. Howard moved on automatic, grateful that he was capable of managing a simple foxtrot without too much trouble. The soft, sentimental rumble of Stardust kept them both moving, and Howard closed his eyes, letting the pleasure sink deep into his tired demeanor.

Damn, this felt right and good, this slow sway in the dark. The warmth and weight of someone in his arms seemed to melt his tension like wax.

"I like this," Maria told him in that husky voice of hers. "A lot."

"Me too," he agreed. They danced without speaking again through the rest of the song, and when it ended, he held her a moment longer, hoping the next tune would be as slow and sweet.

"Howard! I didn't know you were showing up tonight!" a voice bellowed from a few feet away.

Howard unsuccessfully fought a wince and glanced over Maria's shoulder at the beefy face of George Roberts. The other man was dancing with a woman that even in this dim light was clearly not Mrs. Roberts, not that it mattered.

"George," Howard managed, and tried to turn away from the intruder, but the band was slow in choosing another number. George began to push his way over, giving Maria a quick leer before focusing again on Howard.

"I want to talk to you about the Meyers deal, but you're harder to get a hold of than a nun's ass. What are your people doing, cutting in on my suppliers?" he called.

"Can't it wait until Monday?" Howard felt Maria begin pull away from him; he bent forward, whispering desperately to her, "I'll get rid of him."

"I don't think you will," she replied in a sad murmur, "and I should get going. Thanks for . . . well, everything, Howard. Card?"

Absently Howard fished one out of his inside pocket. "I do want to see you again, Miss Maria Isolated System."

By now George had nearly reached them. Howard gazed down at the woman in his arms just as she tipped her face up and ever so lightly brushed her lips against the corner of his mustache.

Warm. Soft. Memorable.

"I might like that," she assured him with a last smile and gracefully slipped away. He let his gaze follow her until Roberts snorted, breaking into his reverie.

"Hot little number there, but I'm sure you of all people can find another. Now about my suppliers, Stark—I'm not about to let you cut in on my territory . . ."

The rest of the night was a wash, and Howard only dimly remembered the cabbie helping him up the steps of the mansion at about three in the morning. Both Trevor and Mrs. Cabot were there to put him to bed, the latter clucking over him and promising to have the Tabasco and ginger ale on his nightstand by noon.

-oo00oo-

Maria checked her purse before stepping out from the brownstone, making sure she had enough to pay the cab fair and then some. The morning promised to be frosty as hell, and she didn't want to waste any time if she could help it.

By the time she made it to the elevators, Angie was there, looking slightly scared. The two women stepped into the car, not speaking until the doors slid shut and the car began to descend. "She's here already," Angie blurted. "Made a beeline to Kandt's office; what happened?"

"She grabbed my butt," Maria grumbled. "When I was powdering my nose, Angie—what was I supposed to do?"

The other girl gave a commiserating sigh. "You were supposed to do what the rest of us do, Carbonell; smile and scoot away and keep your mouth shut. Sweet Jesus, you know you're probably going to get—"

"I know," Maria sighed. "But I'll manage. I've got a couple of prospects lined up already, and Kandt will give me a good reference."

"Yeah," Angie agreed reluctantly. "He likes you. Shit, she is gonna be on a tear today though. I'm not looking forward to it."

The elevator opened and a wave of cool air-conditioning hit both of them. Maria shot her companion a reassuring smile. "I'll give you a call and let you know how it goes. And tell Goldie so she doesn't worry."

"Good luck," Angie murmured wryly, and they stepped out into a sterile lobby. Angie turned right, towards the glass fronted office door while Maria squared her shoulders and turned left, to the labs.

Doctor Kandt was in his office, guiltily tamping his pipe; when he saw who it was coming in the door he relaxed. "Maria. I suppose Bettina spoke to you?"

"No sir. The last time I saw Miss Frye was Friday, at the party," Maria admitted softly. After a pause, she asked, "Am I terminated?"

Doctor Kandt gave a weary sigh. "Maria . . . I don't want to let you go. This lab needs someone like you. You do excellent work, your notes are thorough and accurate, and you get along with everyone--"

"—Everyone but Miss Frye," Maria murmured. "Sir?"

He gave a reluctant nod. "She's threatened to file assault charges against you otherwise. I'm so sorry, Maria, but in a delicate situation like this, it's more expedient for the lab to let you go. We'll call it a termination for personal reasons, and I'll be more than happy to provide you with a letter of reference."

Maria said nothing as she chewed the inside of her cheek. Kandt toyed with his unlit pipe and added, "I'm sorry my dear, but Bettina Frye has seniority and leverage around here that even I can't match. God knows she's a cantankerous old dyke, but she's got connections and a lot of people owe her favors."

It didn't take long to clear out her things. Hubert the custodian brought her a few boxes from the basement, and Maria packed up her personal items swiftly, not glancing over at the supervisor's office where Bettina Frye sat chatting on the phone, smirking.

Doctor Kandt helped her carry her things down to the waiting cab; before she left he pressed a piece of paper in her hand.

It was a list of laboratories and companies complete with addresses and names. Kandt gave her a sad smile. "A few people who could use you. Private enterprises mostly, but reputable. I wish you luck, my dear."

He hugged her and over her objections, paid the cabbie. Maria fought the sting of tears and looked over the list to distract herself.

The name on the top made her smile; if Stark Industries was hiring, things were looking up. She made a mental note to hand-carry a resume there tomorrow, and settled back for the ride home.

Randi was there, draped over the sofa deep into a paperback when Maria came in, and she dropped the book to help with the boxes, clucking the entire time. "Damn it, Maria, it's not fair!"

"I used to think I only had to worry about the men making passes," Maria snorted good-naturedly. "Oh well, I'll find something soon. What's this?" she picked up the paperback and read the title. "Sex and the Single Girl? Miranda Costello, your mother would have a fit!"

"My mother's not here, thank God," Randi laughed. "You ought to read it too—pretty damned good advice in it."

"No thanks," Maria tossed the book back onto the sofa. "You can do the husband-hunting and I'll stick with chemistry. Where's the phone book?"

"Under the coffee table . . . where do you want your plants?"

"Just stick them on the porch for me will you? Thanks." Maria pulled out the phone book and flipped through the pages, neatly adding numbers next to the addresses that Kandt had given her. She could put in a few calls before lunch, and then see about smartening up her resume, and still have time to go shopping if she planned it right.

Randi came back in and scooped up her book. "That hankie's almost dry, by the way."

"Oh? Thanks," Maria nodded. "How does it look?"

"It could use some bleach. Who's H.S.?"

Maria rolled her eyes. "A guy nice enough to buy me a drink and dance with me on Friday. I'll have to get him a new one."

Randi picked up her book again. "Well if you're going shopping, we're out of toothpaste."

"I'll make some," Maria nodded, adding a stop at the chemical supply store. "Peppermint oil okay?"

"Yep. Thanks," Randi murmured, lost once again in Helen Gurley Brown's tome.

By Wednesday, Maria felt a bit better about her situation. She had interviews lined up with three of the companies from Kandt's list, she'd received her last check which had included all her accumulated bonuses, and she'd successfully managed to avoid her mother's invitation for the weekend.

"I just can't get away right now," she murmured into the phone. "I promised Randi I'd help her with her perm, and I may be coming down with something."

Both of those were untrue, but Maria felt only a slight twinge of guilt. Her mother was still trying to marry her off, and every weekend visit home these days consisted of dinners with male guests who had 'just unexpectedly dropped in.'

Her father found it vaguely amusing, but after two years of it, Maria was tired of her mother's increasingly desperate attempts. She shifted the receiver to her other ear and made a sour faced doodle on the page as her mother droned on in a disappointed tone. They said their goodbyes and Maria sighed in relief. She loved her parents, and was happy that they had a good life in the suburbs, but the constant push toward marriage annoyed her.

To take her mind off it, Maria fished out the business card and glanced at it. A general company one, no personal name on it, but the bold logo, tastefully embossed, made her blink in surprise and she smirked.

"Works at Stark's. That's serendipitous."

She'd planned on dropping off her resume there, and now the possibility of killing two birds with one stone put an upturn on the afternoon. She borrowed Randi's Rambler and made the trip.

The lobby for Stark Industries had a huge chandelier done in Moderne, lots of chrome, and a stylishly sleek woman behind the reception desk. She smiled professionally at Maria. "Welcome to Stark Industries. May I help you?"

"Yes, I have some paperwork to drop off for your Human Resources department," Maria replied, handing over the envelope.

The receptionist took it and nodded approvingly at the neatly typed label. "Yes Miss Carbonell, I'll make sure this gets into the right hands. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

Maria reached into her pocketbook. "Yes. This is a little awkward, but does someone with the first name of Howard work here?"

Now the receptionist gave her a peculiar look. "Yeeeeess," she replied dryly.

Maria fished out a neatly wrapped palm-sized box and smiled apologetically as she handed it over. "Oh good. Would you let him know that I couldn't get all the blood out, even with carbolic acid, so I hope this replacement will suffice? Please tell him I'm terribly sorry for the delay, too."

Gingerly the receptionist took the small package, eyeing it, and then Maria carefully. "All right."

"Thank you," Maria smiled, a little worried at the sudden reservation in the receptionist's expression. She closed her pocketbook, turned and made her way out the lobby, wondering how close the nearest Eddie Leonard's was.





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