Chapter Two



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He couldn't believe he'd missed her by minutes. Howard stared at the little box on his desk, studying the handwritten note that lay on top of the freshly ironed handkerchief and read it again.

Dear Howard from the cocktail party at the Mayfield,

Thanks for the hankie, the shoulder, and the spirits. I guess there are a few gentlemen left in this town.

With gratitude,

Maria C. Carbonell

Now he had her name.

Patty the receptionist had handed him the package when he'd come back from an early meeting with the Dulles dedication team, smirking as she did so. "A young lady left this for you earlier, sir. She wanted me to tell you that she couldn't get the blood out of the old one."

"Patty, whatever you're thinking is wrong," he'd breezily told her, taking the package. "Tell me, was she about five six, hair like Lauren Bacall, husky voice?"

"On the nose," had come the reply. "Dropped off a resume as well."

"I'll take that too."

He picked the pages up and studied them, taking in the details listed with profession and personal interest. The girl had brains, that much was clear. Not many women chose organic chemistry as a major, let alone earned a degree in it from a place as prestigious as Johns Hopkins. Maria Carbonell was a member of the ACS, along with several other professional associations and had been working over at Kandt's labs. All in all, a gem, Howard thought with a sense of fascination. He flipped through the letters, and when his glance fell on her birth date, he winced.

Eighteen years . . . that would set some tongues wagging, he sighed. It wasn't insurmountable, but Howard wasn't sure he was ready to shift his reputation from playboy to dirty old man just yet.

He rubbed his mustache, debating on the best course of action, and finally leaned forward to tap the intercom on his desk. "Wanda?"

"Yes Mistah Stark?" came Wanda Franklin's southern drawl from the outer offices.

"Come in; I need to pick your brain."

The answer to this was a snort, but a few minutes later his secretary, a lanky African American in a nubbly pink sweater-set strode in, steno pad in hand. She settled herself in the small chair off the side of his desk. "Ready."

"I've got a girl here with a top-notch resume. We should hire her as soon as possible," Howard began. "She'd be a good fit with Shastri's team since he's been short-handed in organics."

"Umm hmmm," Wanda made a note. "So far so good. What's the problem?"

"First of all, I want to know why Kandt let her go. If she's as good at this paperwork makes out, it doesn't make any sense that he'd fire her. Get someone on it, discreetly."

"All right," Wanda agreed. She glanced over at her boss and waited, not quite smirking, but close to it.

Howard tried to avoid her gaze, but finally gave a sigh. "She's gorgeous, and she's damned near twenty years younger than I am, Wanda."

"And this is a problem because?" She was going to make him spell it out. Part of the reason Howard Stark liked Wanda Franklin was this no-nonsense aspect of her personality. Wanda had no tolerance for bullshit, and knew more about Howard Stark than most people.

"Because she's smart," Howard admitted. That confession made Wanda look more closely at him for a few minutes.

"Oh Lawd, this is personal, isn't it?"

"Met her on Friday at the Mayfair," Howard nodded. "Kid had no idea who I was then and may not know it yet."

Wanda's wide disbelieving eyes made him laugh, and he gave a shrug. Finally, she tapped her pencil against her lush lips and gave into the smirk she'd been holding back. "Boss, do you want to hire her or do you want to date her?"

"Is it too much to want both?"

Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose. "Yes, Mistah Stark."

"I know, I know," he sighed. "Tell you what—I'll take her to lunch and let her know who I am. If she's still interested in working for us, great. If not . . . we'll make sure she gets something decent."

"What if she wants the job but shoots you down?" Wanda asked with quiet bluntness.

Howard gave a reluctant shrug. "Then she shoots me down. I can take no for an answer."

"Since when?" Wanda hooted, tucking her pad into her skirt pocket. She rose up and moved closer to Howard, looming over him at his desk. "Look, Howard, I know you've been lonely since you and Miz Loni parted ways, but what makes you think this gal is right for you?"

"Science," he replied, simply.

Wanda cocked her head. "Don't say that if you don't mean it, boss."

He chuckled. "We've got work to do, Wanda; let's get to it."

He called later that day and reached a Miss Costello, who cheerily assured him that she'd pass his message on to Miss Carbonell, who was out at the moment. Howard took a moment to chat with the roommate, and managed to find out that Maria was fond of Italian food. On the strength of that, he had Wanda made a reservation for two at Pesci di Antonio for Friday.

It was the first time in years that he actually felt nervous, and on Thursday when Wanda told him that Miz Carbon-ell was holding on line one, he fumbled the receiver before managing to get it to his ear. "Hello?"

"Hi. My roommate said you'd called?" Her voice was as husky as he remembered, and Howard grinned.

"Yes. Got your package. Thank you."

"You're welcome. I do try to keep my word," she replied.

There was a little pause, and Howard found himself rushing to fill it. "Listen Maria, I saw your resume here, and I'd like to talk to you about it."

"You did? You do?"

"Yes," he continued, trying hard to sound nonchalant. "It's pretty impressive. I don't work in the HR department per se, but I can pretty much guarantee that they'll listen to my opinion."

"So . . . you'd be interviewing me?" she asked, her tone revealing a slight skepticism. He imagined her expression and it made him grin.

"Yes. One o'clock at Pesci di Antonio, over on Sixteenth and K. Consider it a working lunch," he told her, fighting back the urge to send his limo to pick her up.

"Are you sure this isn't just a scheme to get a date?" Maria murmured, but he could hear by the lightness in her tone that her accusation wasn't serious.

"You'll find I'm a big believer in expediency, Miss Carbonell. Saves a lot of time."

"All right then. One o'clock, Pesci di Antonio," she agreed before hanging up. From the way the restaurant name rolled off her tongue, Howard finally recognized her hint of accent.

Italian.

For the rest of the day he buzzed around the labs on the lower level, and before she left for the day, Wanda accused him of having canary feathers dangling from the corners of his mouth.

He didn't care. The chance to see Maria again seemed to be the first good thing to come along in a while. At home he gave Trevor instructions on what to lay out for Friday.

"Something nice, but not overwhelming," Howard sighed. "One step above my usual work suits, but one down from lunch with Jack and Jackie."

"You wish to make an impression on the young lady, but not intimidate her," Trevor nodded sagely. "May I suggest the summer weight grey flannel, sir, with the matching fedora and one of the blue Dunbar ties to finish the ensemble?"

"Sounds fine; it's in your hands," Howard ordered, and headed down to tinker in the basement workshop for a while. He rolled up his sleeves as he trotted the stairs, whistling, his mind already on the project laid out on the tables there.

Pesci di Antonio had an Old World ambience. The restaurant was two stories, with a balcony in the back. Howard was glad Wanda had specified a table there and arrived nearly fifteen minutes early. The air was hazy but warm; a typical muggy spring day in D.C. Howard fought the urge to order something to fortify his nerves and settled for an iced tea instead, feeling vaguely amused at himself.

He was too old to be nervous, he argued with himself. It was ridiculous. Either they clicked or they didn't; that was the honest beauty of chemistry in the first place. The interlude at the Mayfair had been enough to bring him here, but there was no guarantee that a second encounter would generate the same reaction either way.

Footsteps heading his way made Howard look up, and at that moment Maria Carbonell paused uncertainly, meeting his gaze from the doorway. He took in the sight of her in one glorious gaze.

She wore a simple linen suit of pale green accented with a sheer white scarf around her slim throat, and poised as she was, Howard couldn't help thinking of her as a shy doe looking nervously for predators. When her gaze met his, though, she relaxed enough to give a small smile.

He stood. Manners would have dictated it in any case, but he couldn't help himself, and he held out his hand. "Miss Carbonell."

"Mr. Stark," she replied firmly, her words full of wry acknowledgement.

Howard froze for a second.

"Figured it out, huh?" He took her fingers, which were warm and a little damp and squeezed them lightly before reluctantly letting them go.

"Around ten last night," she admitted, sitting at the table and setting her purse next to her chair. "Your photo was in the business section of the Star."

-oo00oo-

She didn't mention the panic that had set in at the realization; the sheer disbelief as Randi danced around the apartment, upsetting their cat, Doctor No.

"Howard Stark! I talked on the phone with Howard Stark!" Randi bragged. "Me! A junior stewardess, having conversations with millionaires!"

"Randi, stop! You have no idea how big an idiot I made of myself yesterday."  Maria blanched, still staring at the newspaper. "Oh God, no wonder the receptionist looked at me like I had two heads."

"Why?"

Maria told her.

Randi burst into giggles and scooped up Doctor No, who grudgingly gave in once she started scratching him under his fuzzy chin. "Oh boy, yeah, that was pretty ditzy. But he's having lunch with you, oh my God we need to get your wardrobe oomphed and do your nails!"

"Oomphed?"

"Trust me; I know what I'm doing."

Now here she was, fighting the nervous fidgets and trying to look composed. She hadn't gotten much sleep, but Maria was pragmatic enough to know that time would move forward whether she closed her eyes or not.

"I was planning on telling you," he admitted as he sat and leaned forward. "I just wasn't sure . . . how."

Maria studied his face and wondered if he'd gotten any sleep himself. Considering the slight strain around his eyes, she figured he'd been up half the night too.

"Mister Stark," she began, but he interrupted her.

"Howard. That's how we started and I think it's too late to go back."

Maria nodded, accepting that. "Howard . . . is this really about a job, or is this something else? Because I think you need to know that I'm not . . . I'm not the kind of woman that you . . ." she trailed off.

This was harder than she thought. Even though she'd rehearsed this speech several times with all sorts of cool and confident variations, it wasn't coming out right, not while the man across the table watched her with his big dark eyes and hint of a smile.

"Let me be clear; I do want you to come work for Stark Industries," he murmured. "Sam Shastri needs someone with exactly your background to round out his team right now. My company pays top dollar and we've got some pretty nice benefits including stock options and a retirement fund that can't be beat."

"I know," Maria nodded tightly. "Your company has a great reputation for taking care of their own. And I know a lot of your work is right on the cutting edge of all the major fields. What I don't know is what else you're expecting . . . from me."

She could feel her face heating up, and wished like hell that her complexion wasn't so prone to blushing. Maria didn't drop her gaze though; she'd learned to face facts head-on.

Across from her, Howard looked uncertain. "It's a damned good question. Tell me, who's going to win the Nobel prize in Chemistry next year?"

Blinking, Maria replied "Probably Zeigler; his work with polymers is big. Why?"

"Want to meet him?"

Maria laughed. "I don't speak German. I can read a little, but not enough to do more than order bratwurst."

"But if you had a choice between meeting, say, Cary Grant or Karl Zeigler?" Howard persisted in amusement.

"Zeigler, hands down."

He smiled at her, and Maria felt the full warmth and charm like a ray of sunlight.

"That's my girl. You," he lightly pointed a finger at her, "aren't like other women, and I mean that in the best way. Nine out of ten of my female employees would have wanted to meet Cary Grant. My housekeeper would have chosen him and she's in her sixties. No, you've got a brain and you're using it, Maria. That's what I'm expecting from you."

She relaxed, and shot him an arch look back. "Cary Grant's fine for what he does, I guess. I mean, I like his movies, but I wouldn't know what to say to him. Doctor Zeigler though . . ."

A waiter came over and looked expectantly at the two of them, breaking into the light conversation with a graceful nod of his head. "Signor, Signorina. Would you like to hear the specials of the day?"

Maria nodded, and listened to the boy rattle off the dishes, noting that Howard didn't even glance up. When the waiter finished, Maria gave him a quick smile. "The ravioli, por favore."

"Me too," Howard added. "And two glasses of your house red."

Once the waiter left, Maria took a moment to look around, appreciating the quiet of the balcony. "I've never been here before."

"I was here once, about two years ago," he told her quietly. "Four of us stopped in after some Smithsonian shindig. I remembered they had good veal."

"So why didn't you order that?" Maria wanted to know. As she watched him, he stroked his mustache, and she realized he did that to hide his smile.

"Because I was interested in what you would choose. You're Italian yourself, right?"

"Half," she corrected him. "My mother's family comes from Genova."

"And your father?"

"He's . . . from Flushing," Maria laughed softly. "You know, where you had--"

"—An Expo. Yes, I remember the place," he nodded, grinning. "Small world."






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