She stood on the front step, sweating slightly in her dark green suit, listening to the doorbell echo inside the house. She couldn't believe she had made it this far.
The intercom spoke. "Ms. Potts?" said a smooth, slightly English-accented voice.
"I am Jarvis, the butler. I wait on Mr. Stark."
"Yes?" she said.
"I'm afraid he's not available for your appointment this morning. You will be contacted later today to reschedule."
"Really?" she squeaked. Damn, Gin, get it under control. "I'm very sorry to hear that," she said in a more dignified voice. "Is he all right? Not another accident?"
"No, miss. Nothing out of the ordinary."
"Good," she said, smiling a little. "I read about his crash in the Mojave. That must have been very scary for you."
"Yes . . ." the butler said, sounding puzzled. "It was a difficult period."
"I can imagine." She put her shoulders back and sighed. "All right. Well, thank you for your time." She turned to walk back to her car.
"Did you come a long way, Ms. Potts?" the voice asked.
She blinked. "Yes, I drove down from Palo Alto this morning." She could only afford one day off work, and hadn't wanted to spend the money on a motel.
"That is a long way." The voice paused again, and she had the feeling it saw every moment of that long, hot drive, the sun bursting over the mountains at dawn, the stickiness of the gas-station bathroom where she changed into her suit. "Would you like a glass of water?"
"I would, sir. Thank you."
The door clicked open. She pushed it tentatively, took one step inside, then another. There was no one behind the door.
"Mr. Jarvis?" she said.
"I am an artificial intelligence program, Ms. Potts," the voice replied.
"Oh." The foyer was two stories tall, as big around as her apartment, and utterly empty except for a bizarre silver . . . sculpture, she supposed, that stood in the middle of the space. I'm surprised Mr. Stark puts up with that, she thought, and then let herself have a moment of wonder: She was here, in his house, for a job interview. And even if the interview didn't happen today, she would be back.
"Where should I go for the water?" she asked.
"I'm having it readied for you, Ms. Potts," Jarvis said. "You may look around a little if you choose."
She had the strong suspicion that this was a test. An opening on the far side of the foyer gave a glimpse of a living room with a wide-paneled window, and if her sense of the house's geography was right, she should be able to see the sea. She moved toward it, her heels clicking on the white marble.
But as she reached the doorway, she stopped short. A man was sleeping on the spotless couch on one side of the living room. And not just any man: Anthony Stark, the genius billionaire playboy of the Western world, wearing tuxedo pants, a stained white t-shirt, and one sock, with a thin inch of whiskey still in the bottle next to him. He was curled up in the fetal position like a small child. He was also snoring.
She watched him sleep, considering. On the one hand, he was missing her job interview because he'd drank too much, and that was not the kind of behavior Virginia Potts had been raised to tolerate. Her skills might be better appreciated elsewhere. On the other, she had never been under no pretenses about what he was like, yet none of his pictures had showed him as defenseless as he was now. . . . The sight tugged at her heart. He would likely have a hell of a hangover when he woke up. Her skills might be best employed right here.
She stepped back into the foyer. "Sir? Jarvis?" she said softly.
"Yes, Ms. Potts?"
"Could you point me to the kitchen?"
A glass of ice water sat on the counter, ready for her, and amazingly enough for a notorious bachelor, the kitchen held the rest of the ingredients she needed. She blended them quickly, poured the green, gelatinous mixture into a glass with ice, and set the concoction on a tray. She added the ice water for her and another for him, a plate of saltines, and some apple slices for herself, then returned to the living room. It was 11:30 a.m.; she would give him half an hour more, she decided.
At 11:56, he snorted, coughed, and sat up abruptly—apparently instantly awake. He stared at her where she sat on the opposite couch, and she put the glossy pages she'd been reading down on her lap.
"Hello," he said.
"Good morning, Mr. Stark." She smiled.
"Is it really? Still morning?"
"Just barely," she said.
"I see." He blinked, then winced, presumably at the headache that was now racking his brain.
"You might try the green drink," she said kindly. "It's my grandfather's failproof Hangover Helper. But it tastes pretty disgusting, so you'll want to follow it up with water and the crackers."
"There," she said, pointing to the tray on the coffee table. He gave her another look, then plucked the glass from the tray and swallowed the contents down. His eyes bugged open. "Water," she said, and he gulped it and the crackers before coughing a few times. He blinked again and looked up at her.
"Yow," he said. "That worked."
"Yes, sir. The formula has been in the family for years."
"All right. We can't have spent the night together because I never date women who are useful, much less ones who read the Stark Industries corporate report." She looked down at the pages in her lap. "Who are you?"
"Virginia Potts, sir. I'm here for the executive assistant interview."
He stared at her again, then yelled, "JARVIS!"
"Yes sir?" the urbane voice intoned.
"I believe I specifically told you that I did not want to see any candidates under the age of fifty."
"And none over fifty if they were beautiful."
"Would you like to explain why this woman is in my house?"
"I liked her, sir."
"I like her too, Jarvis, but that doesn't explain why you disobeyed me. Again."
The air rang with a dignified silence. Mr. Stark ran a hand through his hair. "He's pouting. All right. I'm hungry. Are you hungry? Let's do this in the kitchen."
He led the way, and immediately began poking through cabinets and the refrigerator to set out eggs, onions, butter, ham, red and green peppers, cheddar, and some herbs.
"You cook," she said in surprise.
"Yeah, it's just chemistry, a little of this, a little of that, add heat and POW!" He set a pan on the burner to warm and cracked the eggs into a bowl. "What was in that green drink?"
"Horseradish, honey, ginger, green tea, yogurt, barbecue sauce, and my grandfather's secret ingredient."
"I'll never tell."
"Hmmm." He didn't say anything as he shredded the ham and cheese and expertly diced the peppers and onions, then whisked everything but the ham together in the bowl. She watched him, hardly believing that this was the Tony Stark she'd been studying for years, that she was here in his kitchen, that he cooked.
"Don't you usually have a cook? Or a housekeeper?" she ventured.
"A cleaning service comes in three or four times a week, but I try to keep things pretty quiet around here, so nope. You a vegetarian?"
"Good, I only need one pan." He set some butter sizzling, added the ham to the egg mixture, and poured it in the pan. He glared at the developing omelet as if his gaze alone might cook it, flipped it, cut it in half, and set the two halves on a plate. "Get us some more water and some forks, will you? There's juice in the fridge if you want it."
She refilled their glasses and set everything down on the breakfast bar.
"Okay." He sat down across from her. "Your resume?"
She pulled it out of her portfolio and laid it before him. He ate as he read, and she took the opportunity to snatch a few bites of her own (perfectly cooked) omelet. "Four years at Stanford, a degree in economics with a minor in literature, summa cum laude, the Marchand Prize. It looks like you're on your way to a brilliant career in finance or academia, Ms. Potts. What are you doing here?"
She lifted her chin. "I've been following your career for ten years now—"
"Since you were what, thirteen?"
"I'm an odd interest for a twelve-year-old girl."
"You had just done the arc reactor research at MIT."
And his parents had just died. She did not say, but he would learn later, that her own parents had been killed in a car crash just two weeks before his had passed away; and she had instantly felt a connection with him—the lonely boy genius who shared her pain. She had devoured every piece of press on him since, from the weighty Scientific American articles to the breathless National Enquirer reports, and attended his talks or speeches when she could, including a couple for which he didn't show up. She knew everything she could about what he did and who he was, and though her heart beat slightly faster under that intense brown stare, she felt exhilarated rather than intimidated to be meeting him at last.
"Arc reactors are maybe an even weirder interest for a twelve-year-old girl," he said.
"I've been following your career for ten years now," she plunged on, "and I think I can learn an enormous amount by working for you. In three years I want to go back to school and get my MBA. The Stark name and experience will get me into any school in the country, and in the meantime I'll be a terrific admin."
"Any practical assistant experience?"
"I was the second assistant for the dean of admissions four years running, plus winter breaks. I managed his schedule when the first assistant was gone, arranged meetings, answered e-mail, took phone calls from concerned or angry parents. . . ." She smiled. "Your nastiest stockholder has nothing on a mom whose son didn't get into Stanford. The dean is listed in my references—you can call him anytime."
"Where did you grow up?"
"Connecticut," she said.
She shrugged. "Sometimes."
"Where did you get the name Virginia?"
"I was named for my grandmother. My family calls me—" She reddened.
"Out with it."
"Pepper," she sighed. "And so did my friends at school."
"That suits you much better," he said, studying her. "You hate it?"
"I'm used to it."
"I'll call you that. Or Ms. Potts." He saw her eyes widen slightly and added, "But the interview isn't over just yet. The secret ingredient?"
"I won't tell."
"It's a condition of your hiring."
"It's a matter of family honor."
"Six-figure salary, I'll pay for your M.B.A., the chance to work for the handsomest, smartest, most charismatic man in the world . . ."
"Against my word as a Potts?" she said. "No contest."
They regarded each other over their omelets, both smiling slightly.
"There'll be lots of late nights working for me," he said abruptly. "Some dinners and cocktail parties in the evenings, one or two business trips a month—you'll need a current passport. The job is six days a week and on call for the seventh, though I might give you the weekend off if I go to Vegas or something. Clothing allowance, car, full benefits. You up for that?"
"Oh, yes," she said with certainty.
"You have a boyfriend?"
She shook her head.
"Good, then you won't be neglecting them." His expression turned serious. "There is one other thing. You heard my discussion with Jarvis about age and beauty."
"My last three assistants have been just out of college, just like you. They were all highly competent, really smart women, like you, and pretty damn beautiful—also like you. But then they all fell in love with me, their brains went out the window, I have to say I slept with them, and they generally became a drag on my time. I would really, really like to avoid that this time around. You think we can do that?"
"You're asking if I can resist your charms?" she said, smiling. "I'll do my best."
"Your word as a Potts?" he asked.
"My word as a Potts."
"Then you're hired," he said. "You can have the rest of the day off, or we can start now. Which do you prefer?"
"No time like the present."
"All right then. I'll give you a tour of the house and my workspace here. And Ms. Potts—"
She raised an eyebrow.
"By the time you're done working for me, I will know that secret ingredient."
"You can try, Mr. Stark," she said. "You can try."