Pepper was surprised.
Then she was suspicious.
Then she was worried.
There were certain things about Tony Stark that were as predictable and reliable as the sunrise; his trademarks as it were: Espresso in the mornings; ten hour stretches in the workshop; his goatee.
All of them part of who he was; quirky or cute or irritating as they might be.
So as they sat together at Savoir Faire, waiting for lunch and planning the Stark Industries Christmas office party, Pepper braced herself for the bounty, ready to order the magnums of world-class champagne, the roast beef and pheasant under glass; the twenty-eight carat gold foil envelopes to be stuffed with generous bonus checks. She set herself to order live trees by the dozen, and book decorators and caterers and bands and live entertainment flown in from Vegas and Atlantic City and the recording studios of LA.
What she wasn’t ready for was his quiet, but firm order. “No mistletoe.”
Pepper thought she hadn’t heard right. “No . . . mistletoe?”
After all, this was Tony Stark, a man noted for his libido and conquests; a playboy in the truest sense of the word. A man who personified sensual entitlement.
“No. Hang bells or wreaths or ornaments, but no mistletoe, Potts. Got it?”
His gaze was sharp; impatient, and Pepper made a notation on her BlackBerry, startled but compliant. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, but there was something in his manner that held her back.
“Got it, Mr. Stark.”
He nodded and looked away, shoulders tight, and didn’t speak again until the lunch arrived and they both began to eat.
When the days began picking up speed, and the necessary meetings and plans began to follow suit, Pepper kept waiting to see if Tony had anything else he wanted changed about the party. She checked with him twice a day, and while he seemed pleased with all of the arrangements, he said nothing further about mistletoe, pro or con.
Finally she asked him as a soft afterthought on the afternoon of the twenty-second, a mere day before the party. Tony shot her a quick look when the question came out. “I was clear on that. No.”
“Yes sir,” Pepper murmured, not sure if she was relieved at the answer. She’d never been much of a party-goer, but the Stark parties had been legendary even before she came to work for Tony, and certainly there had been memorable ones since. Mistletoe had played a significant role in quite a few of them, and Pepper recalled those previous celebrations with a pang of envy as images of Tony himself under the sprig with starlets, supermodels and the trophy wives of other millionaires danced through her head.
She sighed and turned back to the order for chocolate truffles, wondering if Tony was all right. He seemed healthy enough, judging by his appetite and general appearance, but there were times when he seemed . . . melancholy. More than once she’d caught him staring at her, his gaze almost sad.
The party was held at the Mesa Hills Hilton, taking up the ballroom and most of the suites on the fourth floor; Pepper visited several times to inspect and confirm the arrangements, feeling pleased at how beautiful it was. The gold, green and red décor fit the season beautifully, along with the trees decorated in gift ornaments and the ice sculptures and gift bags at each place setting.
She was nearly late getting back to her own apartment to change; while she didn’t have a date for the event--it was after all a working night--Pepper did have a dress for it, along with a terrific pair of shoes. Basic black velvet was always appropriate for a formal function, and gold lame with delicate straps for footwear would be perfect, Pepper decided. She slipped into the dress, an impulse purchase from Devalera, and smoothed it down over her slim hips, feeling impish at how it hugged the few curves she had.
It was only when she went to slip on her shoes that Pepper realized that she was feeling a little . . . chilly. She checked her watch, and then turned to look in the mirror and gasped. Backless was one thing, she knew, but nothing should have had her quite this exposed!
The dress was low cut. Too low cut, since not only were the dimples at the base of her spine exposed, but also the first rounded divisions of her butt. Pepper whimpered, feeling frantic now. Happy would be pulling up at any moment to take her to the Hilton, and as she mentally ran through her closet, trying to think of a replacement, nothing came to mind. The dresses there were either too casual or waiting for the dry cleaners or damaged in some way . . .
Finally, Pepper opened her hall closet and fished around, finding a gold thread shawl. She draped it low on her shoulders, and checked her back view with a sense of relief; she might be able to keep up the coverage long enough to work a few safety pins in the ladies room later and fix the exposure.
And not a minute too late; the soft knock at the door gave her just enough time to grab her lame clutch and step out into the night, striving for a serenity that wasn’t quite there. However, Pepper kept her head high, and her shawl low.
The soft strains of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” floated through the main ballroom as the big band orchestra played, their music an undercurrent to the many conversations going on throughout the room. Guests drifted by, admiring the trees and decorations, plucking flutes of champagne and hot canapés from passing caterers. Tony Stark, tugged on the sleeves of his tux, looking around the room with a sense of pride.
He liked Christmas. He liked parties. But lately, he wasn’t sure he liked Christmas parties. The ones Tony could remember all seemed to have unsavory, unpleasant or embarrassing aspects to them—he’d gotten drunk at most of them; insulted people at most of them, and done things from exposing himself to starting food fights, to . . .
Better to concentrate on the future, Tony decided firmly. Start fresh; keep to the new, improved Tony Stark.
At least the unholy temptation of mistletoe was gone, he acknowledged to himself. Every year the dangling clusters of green leaves and white berries led him into encounters of the lewd kind; couplings that more often then not he’d ended up regretting later. It always started innocently enough with a few of the typing pool secretaries or gals from Acquisitions and ended up . . . Better not to go there, Tony decided with a small grimace.
He sighed, knowing that the other part of the anti-mistletoe edict was pretty straightforward: without it, Pepper wouldn’t be kissing anyone either. Given the number of Stark employees who admired and or lusted for his PA, it was simple, common, dog-in-the-manger sense to nip that nonsense in the bud.
Last year there’d been a close call with Rhodey zeroing in on Pepper, and it was only because Tony had deliberately toppled at chocolate fountain that the crisis had been averted. Sloppily, but averted nonetheless. Tony was determined not to resort to such antics to save his PA again; hence the ban.
He looked around, noting when Pepper stepped into the ballroom, looking so good that Tony felt himself wheeze a bit. Soft black velvet clinging to Pepper’s hips just the way he wanted to himself, and oh those shoes! For a brief, absolutely nasty moment he fantasized about those lovely sandaled feet up over his shoulders, and whimpered.
It was a damned curse to have imagination and lust in equal abundance, Tony griped, particularly where Pepper Potts was involved. The woman made every waking moment a walk on eggshells, and every sleeping moment a potential for wet sheets.
Not that she knew it, Tony sighed. He’d tried hard to keep their relationship the same half-professional, half-personal routine that it had been for ages. The teasing, the give and take, the moments of seriousness—all that was still there.
But he slipped up now and then, throwing out a comment that he knew would make Pepper back off, and generally kicked himself for it afterwards. Tony couldn’t help it though—some deep, desperate imperative within him needed to get the message to Pepper that he was serious.
Unfortunately, his brain and mouth seemed to disconnect under the strain of his lust-tainted love, with very, very awkward results at times.
He’d proposed to Pepper twice already; once when she was pulling cactus spines out of his ass, and again when they’d gotten caught in a downpour and her blouse had gone completely translucent, clinging to her gorgeous chest in the most spectacular way.
She hadn’t accepted either time, damn it, although Tony had meant every word of “Marry me, ohGodpleasemarry me, Potts!” in both situations.
In the first case Pepper had merely gone on tweezing his butt and chiding him about having dangerous plant life so close to the Jacuzzi, and in the second case she’d crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him until he took off his sodden jacket and had given it to her.
Tony counted it as a positive that she didn’t seem to hold his timing against him; at least she hadn’t refused outright. And now, in a setting that only the most granite-hearted could resist, he had the opportunity to tell her how he truly felt about her.
He was nervous, but gritted his teeth and bounced over to Pepper, working up a smile to cover it. She blinked a little and managed a smile of her own.
“Oh . . . we . . . match.”
Tony glanced down, realizing that his cummerbund and bow tie were gold lamé, and did indeed match Pepper’s dress, shawl and shoes. He took it as a good omen, and breathed a sigh of relief, looking her up and down.
She looked great.
Incredibly edible, in fact.
“Chalk it up to teamwork; common good taste--” Tony murmured, desperate not to let his thoughts show.
“—Out of the blue luck?” Pepper interjected, but she was smiling as she said it, and he gave a quick shrug of his shoulders.
“I prefer to believe we have an ultra secret psychic link.”
“Riiiiight,” she murmured. “That ultra secret psychic link that only works for matching outfits.”
“That’s the one,” Tony nodded. “Although we may need to strip down to undies to see if we completely match.”
“I think I’ll pass on that venture,” Pepper told him firmly, and glanced around the ballroom at the people there. A few were heading towards them, and Pepper stepped back to let them approach Tony.
“Henderson, from Resource Management, and his wife Danielle,” Pepper murmured.
Tony nodded and held out a hand distractedly, whispering, “Can we make them go away?”
“You could always ask him to dance,” Pepper replied in an undertone.
Tony winced. “He looks like he might take me up on it.”
Pepper bit back a laugh and discreetly stepped back, allowing the man and his wife to make the appropriate handshake and kissy greetings, everyone looking effusive for the moment. After some small talk and generous nodding on Tony’s part, he made an excuse and turned, catching Pepper’s eye as he did so.
“Let’s dance,” he demanded firmly, not brooking any disagreement. Pepper tried to protest, feeling a sense of panicky déjà vu as Tony’s fingers circled her wrist. He led her along; dragging her, really, but the only spot open was off on the far side of the dance floor, near a decorative alcove. Tony turned and took Pepper into his arms, one hand holding hers, the other resting lightly on her bare back.
Tony shivered, although he hid it better than she did. “So . . .” he began brightly, “There was something I wanted to say to you.”
“Yes?” Pepper murmured back, her posture stiff as she tried desperately to keep her shawl hanging low enough to cover the back forty. It wasn’t easy to dance and drape, she realized.
“You look great,” Tony blurted, “that’s not what I was going to say, but I wanted to get that in before I forgot. Really gorgeous.”
Pepper felt the heat rush up her face; she blinked and looked down, not able to meet the sweet intensity of Tony’s sincere gaze. That damned look of his could melt a glacier and despite her best attempts at coolness, Pepper was no ice queen. “Um, thank you.”
“You do that a lot,” Tony murmured. “Look great, that is. And it’s not just the clothes or hair and stuff. It’s the you part, which is why . . . . Potts, where the hell is the back of your dress?” he trailed off, eyes widening.
More heat along her face. Pepper felt she could barbeque a Porterhouse with her blush. “It’s . . . there, Mr. Stark. If you could just move your hand up!” came her quick, mortified hiss. “Please?”
“Hnnnngh?” Tony blinked, too stunned to react to her order for a second. He spun with her into the alcove, out of immediate sight, gaze shifting from alarm to ferocious intensity. “Good God Pepper, you’re not leaving a lot to the imagination back there! Oooooohdamn, there’s low-cut and then there’s like, Folies Bergère cut!”
“Tony!” Pepper spluttered, “It’s not as if I knew okay? I bought the dress and didn’t have a chance to try it on until tonight, and then there wasn’t any time to get something else, and I wasn’t going to stay tonight, so I could get home and not be embarrassed!”
“You’re blushing,” Tony observed. “Really pink. That looks good on you too.”
“Let me go.”
“Move your hand.”
“I . . . can’t do that either,” Tony confessed, blinking. “I’m . . .”
“Playing with my . . . pleasestopitreallytickles,” Pepper begged in a wheezy whisper, trying to pull away. The shawl snagged on Tony’s watch, and with a little struggling, Pepper ended up pressed firmly against her boss, biting back a bit of a whimper at the solid heat of him radiating through his tuxedo.
“This is bad,” Tony told her, his voice thick. “So very, very bad, Potts. See, I was going to give you this great big huge speech tonight, about things I’ve been thinking about and worrying about and ending with why I don’t want any mistletoe around and now all I can think about is how soft the top of your ass feels and how I’m going to need to button my coat up for camouflage . . .”
“Tony—!” Pepper hissed, embarrassed, tingly and quivering. “This is . . . we have to let go.”
“I tried; can’t,” Tony told her. “And to be honest, really don’t want to.”
“You have to, Mr. Stark,” Pepper snapped back. “I sort of . . . need that part of my anatomy.”
“Not as much as I do.”
By now the music had changed to Winter Wonderland, a slow and dreamy version, and Tony fought against the urge to grind Pepper, so to speak. He took in a deep breath even as he felt sweat form in his mustache. “Pepper, listen to me. I . . . am crazy about you. I am, and despite my reputation, and all the things that have happened in the past, I know that you know I am capable of having feelings, and that those feelings are real.”
She worked her mouth a little, but Tony shook his head. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a few interested glances from other dancers, but he shifted, turning his back to them, both to keep the conversation private, and to hide Pepper’s best asset.
“I didn’t want any mistletoe because the damned stuff always gets me into trouble. AND because frankly, I don’t want to see you get kissed because of it. Yes, I am possessive; yes I can be a little jealous at times, and I’m not going to deny that.”
“I’m . . . . I’m allowed to be under the mistletoe if I want,” Pepper objected. “You can ask a lot of me, but that’s not something you can regulate.” She could feel tension in his grip, and the added dimension of enthusiasm through his slacks. It was impressive, she had to admit to herself, even if she wasn’t going to . . . encourage it.
“I can control the situation, and have, to a certain degree,” Tony argued. “There isn’t any mistletoe here tonight.”
“No, there’s just us, tangled in my shawl which was supposed to be hiding the fault line of this dress.”
“And still is, mostly,” he told her. “Although the added barrier of my hand is helping.”
“Matter of opinion.”
“The only one that matters right now is mine, and I need you to remove your fingers,” Pepper insisted, feeling a little desperate now. Tony’s body felt too good up against hers, even with the layers of clothing, and her own body was starting to turn traitor.
“My watch,” Tony sighed, “Is snagged in your shawl. I could tug and rip until I was free, destroying your accessory and drawing a lot of unwanted attention in the process. Or, by moving delicately, we could manage to stand side by side for a while, then make a discreet escape out to the limo and unhook my Tour de l'Ile from your stopgap. Which sounds better to you?”
Pepper glared at him. “I hate it when you’re pretending to be logical and make sense, all because you know I don’t want to make a scene.”
“I know you so well—“ Tony sighed. “You’re gorgeous even when you’re mad at me, which I know happens a lot, especially at parties.”
Pepper deliberately closed her eyes again because Tony was getting sincere, and that was dangerous territory. She drew in a breath and gently turned out of his arms so that the two of them stood side by side, and she linked her arm through his, doing her best to hide her backside and his trapped hand at the same time.
“Smile,” Tony warned her in a sotto voice. Pepper had just enough presence of mind to do so when the party photographer snapped a picture of them. He nodded and moved off; Tony shot a sidelong glance at Pepper. “That one’s going to turn out interesting.”
“Gee, a shot of you goosing me while I cling to the shreds of my dignity? How could that be anything but Christmas card perfect?” came Pepper’s chide.
They worked their way around the edge of the party, smiling and nodding. Pepper waved one hand, Tony the other, both of them keeping their arms linked between them. It took time, but finally they made it out the lobby and onto the semi-circle drive of the hotel, into the coolness of the night as they waited for Happy to come around.
“You’re still fondling me,” Pepper half-growled as she shifted her weight.
“You still have a magnificent tushie,” Tony countered, not looking at all upset. “If I were the sort of boss who harassed my employees, I’d be patting, pinching and probably grabbing this backside regularly. As it is, this night is sort of a Christmas wish come true.”
“Not for me. Right now this is as close to total humiliation as I intend to get, Mr. Stark. We are going to get into the limo, you are going to re-MOVE your hand and unhook your watch from my shawl, and then I am going home to sulk and have some French Silk before writing tonight off and going to bed.”
“Bummer. I was going to suggest we go get you a new dress, frankly, because I owe you for a few holidays past, and I know that Maison Mariah is still open.”
“I don’t need a new dress. I just need one that . . .”
“Doesn’t have a moonroof,” Tony murmured saucily. Pepper tried hard to stay annoyed, but it was a funny line, and being this close to Tony had her feeling slightly giddy anyway.
“Is everything a joke to you?” Pepper asked softly, gently.
Tony turned to look at her in the half-light of the drive. “You won’t let me be serious. I keep trying, and you keep running away.”
Pepper drew in a sharp breath, wanting to deny it, but the sadness in Tony’s voice cut through her bluster and left her without words in the most painful sort of way. “Tony---”
“The car’s here,” he interrupted, gesturing with his chin. Tony leaned down and waved at Happy, indicating he didn’t need to get out and get the door, then he tugged it open himself. Pepper bit her lip and bent down, scooting into the interior of the limo, feeling Tony’s touch lighten a bit as he followed her in.
They settled in on the plush seating and Tony closed the door with a heavy ‘clunk’ but the overhead light didn’t go out. He looked up, where Pepper was staring.
A beribboned sprig of mistletoe hung from the dome light, still swaying. Tony blinked. Pepper looked alarmed.
“Not me,” Tony told her.
She shot a quick, annoyed glance towards the dark glass divider ahead of them. “Happy.”
“Didn’t get the memo I guess,” Tony murmured, reaching up to pull the offending twig down, but stopped when Pepper caught his wrist.
For a long second they looked at each other, the slow surge of something indefinable rising between them; an odd mingle of desire and embarrassment and fear swirling in the limited confines of the car.
“I won’t . . .” Tony breathed gently, “kiss you . . . .” He leaned closer, the very surface of his mouth skimming over Pepper’s lips ever so gently. She sat very still, eyes closing at the nearness of him, mouth slightly pursed as she mirrored his gesture, nuzzling his mouth and breathing in his aftershave along with his warm masculine scent.
He fought a shudder. “Oh but I want to so badly . . .”
“I know . . .” Pepper sighed in a slow confession, “because it would feel so very nice . . .” She let go of his wrist and slid her free hand along the side of Tony’s neck, fingertips caressing the edge of his goatee; Pepper’s touch made him groan very softly.
The car moved, and the acceleration caught them by surprise. Pepper lurched forward, her mouth landing on Tony’s. He caught her, his free hand coming to grip her upper arm, and the unexpected gift of her warm lips on his undid all his good intentions.
Tony kissed her, mouth opening to hers hungrily, desire welling up through him. He had just enough awareness to realize Pepper was kissing him back, a frantic little moan passing from her mouth to his and then there were no words to the warm wet dance of their kisses, which flowed and built in to sweet gasps.
It was the best damned car ride of his life.
Tony felt drunk; out of focus and overwhelmed by the heady intoxication of Pepper. She tasted sweet, and she could be playfully pushy with her tongue, teasing the roof of his mouth and circling his lips in a way that made him moan. The first time she nipped his bottom lip his already thick erection throbbed, and Tony thought he would die of pleasure.
“All I want,” he managed to rasp out, “is this. You.”
Pepper felt the same way, drifting dreamily in a whirl of giddy happiness that left her dazed and unable to remember things.
Like her name.
“Un-huh,” she agreed, since he was still kissing her, lips moving under her jaw line in a sweet little tickle that made her shiver. “Me too.”
“Oh good,” Tony moaned, and fished in his coat pocket, not exactly gracefully since he refused to look down or stop kissing Pepper. By luck over skill, he managed to get the small box out and find her hand, pressing it into her palm while nibbling her ear.
Pepper blinked, torn between kissing Tony or checking out the box. “W-what?”
“You. For, that is,” he managed.
She kissed him hard, then pulled away and fumbled with the box, managing to flip the lid up and look at the contents.
It was a flat charm of polished metal on a fine chain, neither glamorous not costly; Pepper thought it looked like something left over from Tony’s workshop. On it though, was an etched picture, crudely done, but an easily recognizable design of leaves and berries.
And under that, etched in Tony’s draftsman’s printing: Only you, Pepper.
She blinked against the rush of tears as she looked at the gift; at what it really, really was.
The richest man in the world had given her something he’d made himself. Something he’d worked on and thought about and offered to her. A man who could buy and sell entire diamond mines, and have custom jewelry made at a moment’s notice.
“Tony,” she managed in a broken voice, and words failed her, but when she looked up at him, eyes bright with tears, he was blinking hard, looking more vulnerable than she’d ever seen him in all their years together.
“Stupid, huh?” he managed, a weak smile uncertainly crossing his mouth. “I just . . . you. I see it, I get it. You, Pepper. I love you.”
She sniffed, and took the necklace out of the box, undoing the clasp and putting it around her neck. When Pepper looked up, she licked her lips and held Tony’s soulful gaze with her own, clear one.
“We’re going home, and now that I have this on, you can start kissing me under it, because I love you too, Tony.”
He blinked at that, and the shift of his expression from forlorn to sheer wonderment nearly made her laugh. Pepper caught his face in her hands, and she kissed him again, trying so very hard to convey everything she’d ever felt for him through her lips.
Tony pulled her closer, his own kiss a thing of joy, and when he surfaced reluctantly for a breath, he laughed, relief, love, desire flashing in his gaze. “God I love you Miss Potts. Want a Christmas goose?”
He proceeded to squeeze her ass with his trapped hand, and Pepper chose to kiss him again rather than swat him.
Which was another first in their relationship.