Stark Mansion, Malibu
Two days earlier
She put in the earphones and scrolled through the playlist on her MP3 player until she found the track she wanted to listen to. After setting it into looped repeat mode and adjusting the volume to drown out any other sounds, she stretched her legs again and set off down the driveway. At first, her pace was sedated, jogging just fast enough to warm up her muscles but, when the song’s pre-chorus started, she broke into full sprint. “Keep moving subject, matter around. Keep your eye on the prize and your feet on the ground.” Shinedown had always been her favorite band and she noticed that, with time, their songs were getting better and better. There was no music more perfect to listen to when she was working out.
Her high ponytail bounced with every step she made. She kept pushing her body to even greater effort, welcoming the pain in her muscles with a smile. If you don’t feel pain anymore, you’re the dead man, recruit. That had been what Sergeant Kowalski had told her squad during boot camp training. Actually, he had repeatedly yelled that motto at them every single day.
She only letup her workout when she reached the end of the driveway, mostly because she saw a postal truck stopping next to the mailbox. She jogged towards the driver’s door and took the cardboard envelope from the mailman, signing the receipt he was tending towards her. The letter was for Tony Stark and, judging by the sender’s name, it was most likely an invitation to some charity event. Everyone wanted to have the famous Iron Man attending their party. For her though, it was a security nightmare. She sighed and resumed her run, this time choosing the path that went along the cliff’s edge.
After entering the kitchen, she tossed the envelope on the counter and went straight to the fridge to take out a bottle of water mixed with some honey, lemon juice, potassium and magnesium powders, and some freshly squeezed orange juice. She had prepared it earlier this morning, adding some ice cube before storing it in the fridge. It probably was not too healthy to drink it ice-cold, but she did not care. She felt hot and she just wanted something cool to sip.
“J.A.R.V.I.S. is Tony already up?” she asked Stark’s A.I. after emptying the bottle and tossing it into the dishwasher.
“He did not leave the workshop since last night, Miss Carter.” British accent added something to J.A.R.V.I.S.’s overall behavior and refusal to call her by her given name.
She sighed, took the envelope, and went downstairs to Stark’s workshop. Being Tony’s bodyguard was not an easy task, She often felt she was less a bodyguard and more a babysitter to this eccentric billionaire. Sometimes she thought about injecting a GPS chip into him so she could track him easily.
Carter was an ex-fighter pilot. She had served a few tours both in Afghanistan and in Iraq before she had left the Air Force after being shot during a patrol flight over the Iraq in October of 2009. She had considered herself to be very lucky. She had managed to eject herself from her F/A-18E jet before it had crashed and then, she had been found by the US Army. It had been a sign for her to find another job.
She had lost her father when she had been only fifteen years old and his death had left an imprint on her. It had been a reason why she had joined the Air Force to serve her country. Her father had done the same, though he had not been a soldier but a secret agent working for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistic Division agency. She had learned about this when she had gone through his stuff months later after his funeral. Unfortunately, she had not been able to find much concerning this agency, not even information on their recruitment criteria, their policies, nothing. All she had known about them had come from her father’s files.
After she had left the Air Force, Carter had decided to go into private security business. She had been hired by one of the largest security companies in Los Angeles. She had protected many celebrities during her eight months of work there. The job had been rather easy and it had been mostly keeping the fans at the right distance from the person she was protecting.
In July of 2010 she was assigned to one of Hollywood’s actresses. Carter had been told that the actress had been getting emails from a stalker and that she had wanted a female bodyguard to accompany her everywhere, even into the bathroom. As it had turned out, there had been four stalkers working together and that had been why the police had not been able to identify them in time. They had decided to kidnap the actress, but they had not predicted that Carter had been something more than just a personal assistant like she had been pretending the whole time. Long story short, they all had ended up in the hospital with broken bones, concussions, cuts, and bruised bodies.
The story had made the news and a few days later Carter had been offered a new job by none other than Anthony Stark himself. She had taken quite some time to think about it. The unwanted fame that the actress had put on her had only convinced to work for Stark and she had accepted his job offer. It had not felt right to replace his personal bodyguard Happy Hogan, but Happy had moved to Europe with Pepper Potts, after this one had been promoted to the CEO of the European division of the Stark Industries. From what Carter had heard, Potts had not been able to truly handle everything that had pertained to the whole Iron Man situation. And the attack on the Stark Expo had been the last drop which had pushed Pepper to make some drastic changes in her life. She had opted for safer relationship with Happy, both professionally and romantically.
Stark had started to drink more after Potts left, apparently trying to overcome the fact that his feeling towards Pepper had not been reciprocated. It had left a lot of mess for Carter to clean up. She had managed to get his drinking more or less under control. J.A.R.V.I.S. had been a big help in accomplishing that, reminding Tony about important things, scolding him for drinking too much, and showing all the bad stuff that had been caused by alcohol intoxication.
After almost a year after taking care of the eccentric billionaire, Carter could say that she had managed to push Stark into much healthier lifestyle. It had been a very bumpy road through hell but he had seemed to be out of the woods and she had not had to worry so much about him anymore.
She found Tony sleeping at his desk, in front of a several monitors with renders of the newest Iron Man armor. He had the worse bed hair she had ever seen and was drooling a little bit on his hand. Carter stealthily moved to the coffee machine and started a new pot. When she poured some coffee into Stark’s favorite mug, she dropped the envelope hard on his desk, waking up her boss who seemed to be totally disoriented.
“Rise and shine, sleepyhead,” she said to him, placing the cup in front of him.
“What’s the time?” he mumbled, taking a sip on his coffee.
“It’s eight in the morning already.” Carter pointed at the envelope. “This came today. Don’t trash it before you open it like you usually do.”
“You already know that I don’t like getting things handed to me.”
“I didn’t hand it to you. I tossed it on your desk.”
“Smartass,” Tony muttered under his breath.
Carter just laughed at that. She got used to Stark’s antics after all those months of working for him.
“Just don’t fall asleep again. Gillian is coming in forty minutes and you are in a very dire need of a shower.”
Tony sat a bit straighter and rested his head in the palm of the right hand, looking at her as if he was assessing her with his still sleepy gaze.
“You know, we could shower together. Saving water and stuff, you know.”
She snorted in a very unladylike way. It was not that she did not find him attractive, but it would be highly unprofessional for her to fall for him even if she wanted it.
“Only in your dreams, Stark, only in your dreams.” With those words she walked out from the workshop leaving her boss to his own device.
Carter did not rush with her shower, letting the water to soothe her slightly aching muscles. One of the perks of her current job was that she did not have to be in hurry all the time. Yes, her schedule was pretty hectic; Stark loved to work at odd hours. He also had a tendency to suddenly go for a drive or even fly to another country without telling her. J.A.R.V.I.S. was truly a blessing for her, always knowing where his wayward creator was.
After her shower, she toweled and then put on black jeans paired with a red t-shirt. She blow-dried her hair just to the point when it was only damp and not dripping water, and then brushed them thoroughly. After that Carter left her room, walking barefoot to the kitchen. She was always starving after her morning run and today she craved baked tortilla pockets with stir-fried veggies, ham, and lots of cheese.
When she entered the kitchen, she stopped dead in her tracks seeing Stark frying something in the pan. There were two plates set on the breakfast table with two mugs and a pot with steaming coffee in the middle.
“What’s the reason for this celebration?” she asked while pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Your first year of working for me,” Tony replied, making sure Carter did not see what he was preparing.
“That’s a day after tomorrow, actually, the second of August. Today is July 31st.”
She tried to take a peak over his shoulder but he shooed her away before she could see anything. It was worth trying.
“I know, but we won’t have time then.”
Tony turned off the stove and took the pan to the table to unload two enormous grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, her favorite guilty pleasure food. It meant that he wanted something from her. It was more than obvious, though Stark pretended as if he had no clue that his plan was absolutely transparent.
“What do you mean by that?”
“There’s the charity gala in Caesar Palace in two days and we’re invited.” Tony sat on his chair, poured himself some coffee, and took a hungry bite of his sandwich. Carter wondered how long it had been since his last meal.
“What you mean is that you’re invited and I’ll have to keep your butt safe from women throwing themselves at you. You know, now that you’re single again.”
Carter took a careful bite of her own sandwich and almost moaned aloud at the taste of it. It was perfect, crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside with deliciously melted cheese, ham, pickles, and some of that sauce recipe which had been invented by Tony’s grandmother.
“What?” she asked Stark catching him staring at her in kind of weird manner. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Has anyone told you that you look sexy when you’re enjoying food?”
The question took her by surprise and if she had been taking a sip of the coffee, she would have spat it all over the table.
“Are you drunk already?!”
“I’m stone-cold sober, Carter.” He sounded offended by her accusation despite the fact that he was known for his drinking problems. “When you’re done with breakfast we’ll go shopping.”
“Don’t you have more than enough suits for that kind of galas?”
She licked her fingers clean doing it very slowly, not noticing that Stark shifted into his chair while gulping silently.
“It’s shopping for a dress for you.” He cleared his throat first.
Carter looked at him surprised and then spontaneously she started to laugh. Her boss kept getting funnier and funnier with every word he said.
“I do not wear dresses. Period.”
After stating her position on that matter, she ate the rest of her sandwich, sipping on her coffee while Stark glared at her.
“I need a date for that gala,” he finally spoke.
“You have a whole notebook full of women’s numbers, so just pick one, and make a call.”
“I don’t want any of them, I want you,” he said firmly and Carter felt a bit weird as if that short statement held much more meaning that it seemed to carry.
“First of all, you are my boss. Secondly, I’m your security detail, not your date. Thirdly, I’ve already said that I don’t wear dresses.”
Carter’s glare could melt a stone, but apparently it did not have that kind of effect on Stark because he was still smiling in that kind of cat-seeing-canary way.
“I am your boss and as my bodyguard you have to guard my body, so you have to be next to me. Plus, nobody would expect that a hot woman in a killer dress can actually kick some asses.”
“Over my very dead body.”
With that words said she stood up and left the kitchen, trying not to turn around to wipe out that smirk from his face. She took the grilled cheese sandwich with her.