The only word for what followed was “hurried.” Everything was hurried.
The men with assault weapons moved around the small cave, looking at what appeared to be an engineering workshop. They were all speaking to one another in so many different languages that Bella could hardly keep track.
Bella had been pulled up against the wall by her—was he her husband now?
She looked him over and saw that he was definitely as American as she was. He was, however, about her father’s age or a little younger. His beard was all sculpted angles and his brown hair, overgrown from what must be a lengthy captivity, flopped into his intelligent brown eyes. His body was strong and clothed in a grimy white shirt and leather jacket that had obviously belonged to someone other than him, given that they were ill-fitting. He seemed to be wearing some type of amulet, though, because a disc in the middle of his chest, underneath his shirt, glowed a bright iridescent blue.
Her husband—if that’s what he was—hadn’t let go of her hand since he had taken it when she had first arrived.
“So, beautiful,” he murmured as he watched their captors poke and prod at what seemed to be a projectile of some sort. “They call you Isabella?”
“Yeah,” she murmured, not thinking to correct him, too distracted by the guns around her.
He didn’t take his eyes from the other men, but his head tilted toward her, his thumb stroking the palm of her hand. “Isabella,” he agreed. “I’m Tony.”
She licked her lips. “How long have you been here?” she asked him. “Where are we?”
“Afghanistan,” he told her. His eyes flitted for the barest of moments toward her and then returned to regarding the men. “You didn’t start out in Afghanistan, did you? You don’t look like a soldier.”
She shook her head, her greasy bleached hair sliding across her cheeks.
“You’re Mall of America,” he continued. “Nothing but a school kid.”
Her spine straightened, affronted at his words, and she shot an angry glance at him, only to see that a smile quirked Tony’s lips.
“No offense, kid,” he half-apologized, his thumb once again stroking the palm of her hand.
Silence fell over them for several long moments and Bella watched her husband as he watched the men with guns. Then, finally, when there seemed to be a lull in the commotion in their cave, she told him quietly, “They grabbed me off the streets of Italy.”
He hummed in the back of his throat, clearly thinking.
“What are you doing here?” she asked after another break of silence.
At this, Tony looked over at her and clearly took her in. “I don’t look familiar to you, do I?”
She squinted at him in the half-light of the cave, which had fluorescent lights in the ceiling. They cast equal amounts of light and shadows in the small space, and Bella knew she’d be able to hide herself away in a corner of darkness if she wanted to and forget everything that had happened to her in the past forty-eight hours. Glancing away from him in embarrassment, wondering exactly who he was, she asked, voice small, “Should I?”
He laughed, a bit self-deprecatingly, and reached up with his free hand to rub a finger across her cheekbone. “I suppose not, Mrs. Stark.”
Stark—that must be her name now. She was Isabella Stark when she had been born Bella Swan.
Tony quirked a smug smile at her as his brown eyes took in her face. “They want me to build them a missile. They said they’d set me free if I comply with their demands—”
She raised an eyebrow at him, “but they gave you a bride instead?”
“But they gave me a bride instead,” he agreed. “If I don’t do what they want, they can’t hurt me, I’m too valuable. But they can hurt you—” Tony looked at her apologetically.
Bella trembled a little at the thought, feeling slightly weak.
Tony squared his shoulders and half-trapped her against the wall, not so much to sequester her there but to shelter her. “I’m not going to let them hurt you,” he promised. “You’re my responsibility now, Isabella Stark.”
She startled. This was the second time he had given her his name—a claiming, a promise, a protection.
“Now,” he murmured, looking back out at the men with weapons, their captors, “don’t we get some sort of ceremony that we get to tell our grandkids about?”
The mundanity of it all caused Bella to laugh. The sound gurgled up in her throat and escaped through her teeth without her permission, but Tony smiled at the sound.
“Yinsen!” he called, and the little man in a suit who had translated for them before looked up. “Where’s our priest?”
The little man—Yinsen—blinked. “Imam,” he corrected, “this is Afghanistan, not New York.”
“Imam, then,” Tony said, winking at Bella. “They can’t give me a bride and not make it official.”
Yinsen seemed to hesitate before beginning to speak rapidly in a language Bella—once again—could not identify. The bald man he was speaking to laughed loudly and quickly answered him, Yinsen nodding. Then, a few moments later, he turned to Tony and Bella. “He’s on his way. Everyone’s stayed to bear witness.”
Tony nodded, and then said, to Bella, “A shame there are no other Americans to make it legal.”
She looked up at him in astonishment. “We don’t even know each other.”
He turned his gaze on her, fierce and brown, and his eyes seemed to burn into her. “You were my responsibility since you walked through that door and they proclaimed you my wife, Isabella Stark,” he told her firmly. “I may be a genius, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy, but I take responsibility for what’s mine.”
Something twisted in Bella’s stomach and she grimaced. “I don’t want to marry you—when I don’t even believe in marriage—if you’re only going to cheat on me.” She didn’t recognize her voice. It was shaking, weak, raspy. Bella sounded like the girl who had the wind kicked out of her when Edward left her on the forest floor.
Bella hadn’t realized that Tony was still holding her hand until he squeezed it, and he pulled her toward him and into an embrace. Her head with its greasy hair was tucked under his chin. Bella didn’t realize she had been holding her breath until she let it out as she settled against Tony’s chest. The disc he must be wearing around his neck shone out from beneath his shirt and was heavy and hard against her side as Tony held her firmly.
“None of that anymore,” he promised. “I told you, I take my responsibility very seriously.”
She breathed through herself, back in, then out, and settled into the moment.
After several long moments, she realized that Tony’s fingers were playing with a piece of her hair, as if he hadn’t even realized he was doing it.
“How old are you, Isabella?” he murmured into her ear.
She tried not to stiffen, but she must have because his fingers fell away from her hair. Bella pulled away and looked up at him with her big brown eyes, searching his gaze for clues.
“Tell me you’re at least eighteen,” Tony begged her. “I’ll have to marry you no matter what—but—” He seemed, for once, at a loss for words.
“I’m eighteen,” she cut in. “In October I turn nineteen.”
Tony let out a long breath and his face drained of a worry she hadn’t realized it was carrying. “I’m more than twice your age.”
Bella looked away from him, a little embarrassed, and her gaze fell on the men with the guns. “I don’t think these people care,” she told him honestly. “I think they wanted me young.” Her gaze crept over the guns they were holding, and she swallowed convulsively. “They seemed upset that I didn’t have blue eyes. They bleached my hair blonde.”
“Hmm,” Tony hummed. “Interesting.”
When she looked back at him, he was gazing out at the men with guns as well.
“You’re not a soldier,” she murmured sometime later.
He looked over at her and nodded. “No, I’m the CEO of a technology company. I was here selling weapons to the military. They ambushed my caravan.”
Bella looked at her husband for a moment. “Did they get lucky or did they know you were here?”
“They made a hostage video when I first woke up,” he admitted, grimacing. “I remember it rather distinctly. They were reading a list of demands—in Arabic, I think—and a newspaper was sitting on my lap.” He ran a hand through his hair, causing it to ruffle and rise on end. “It’s the stuff of nightmares.”
She nodded. “There was no ransom demand for me,” Bella told him, shrugging. “I told them Charlie—Dad,” she explained quickly, “would pay, but they didn’t care.—He,” she took a deep breath, “he doesn’t even know where I went.”
He looked over to her.
“No one knows I was in Italy. I just left a note saying I’d be back—and then this man just took me off the street and threw me in the trunk of a car.”
Tony squeezed her hand. “I’m not leaving without you now,” he promised her. “You’re a Stark, and a Stark does not get left in a place like this.”
She glanced at him. “You make it sound like being a Stark means something.”
He smiled over at her. “For once I actually wish a girl knew who I was.”
“Do they fawn all over you?” she teased him.
“I can’t keep them away,” he told her without a hint of pride.
“Sounds like my experience of high school. I can’t explain how it happened—”
“Am I marrying Miss Popularity?” Tony asked, pleased.
“No,” she told him honestly. “You’re marrying the shiny new toy that’s lost all its luster.” She paused, thinking. “I’m the quiet girl who reads too much.”
He nodded. “I can respect that. Still, I think you’d clean up well in Vera Wang or Gucci.”
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Am I supposed to know what that means?”
He chuckled at that. “Where are you from, Isabella Stark?”
She sighed, just thinking of home. “Recently, Forks—Washington,” she added. “It does nothing but rain there. That’s where Charlie—my dad—lives. My mom lives in Arizona—when she stands still to be in one place for long enough.”
“A child of divorce then?” Tony asked, no pity in his voice.
Bella shrugged. “Poor Renée,” she sighed. Tony looked over and she qualified, “my mom. She will have wanted a white wedding. Her last wedding to Phil she wore white jeans and a halter top, but I know she wanted a white wedding for me, the least girly girl there ever was.” She laughed a little. “I’m a prisoner in Afghanistan and I’m worried about my wedding dress.”
“It’s a coping mechanism,” Tony assured her, squeezing her hand. “Focus on our wedding. In a year we can renew our vows and have whatever wedding Renée wants.”
Then a thought occurred to Bella, and she looked over at her husband of less than an hour. “Have you ever been married, Tony?”
At this, he looked at her askance. “Never,” he promised her. “You’re wife number one and only.”
“No crazy ex to contend with?” she checked, eyes laughing. “I don’t mind.”
“No. The only woman in my life is my personal assistant, Pepper Potts. You’ll like her,” Tony told her with a shine in his dark eyes. “My life could not function without Pepper.”
She turned toward him and leaned her shoulder against the cave wall. “Who else is there?”
“Obadiah,” he told her, “my father’s best friend and my second-in-command. Dad’s been gone for years now. Then there’s Rhodey, my best friend, and Stark Industry’s Liaison to the American Air Force.”
“All work and no play,” she teased him. “Edward is my ex,” she told him, thinking of the flash of sparkles and grimacing. “He’s out of the picture. Jake is my best friend and a member of the local Quileute tribe. His father, Billy Black, is the Chief.” She bit her lip. “Then there are the kids in high school—but I’m going to graduate soon—if they let me since I’m going to be missing my last month of school.”
“High school drama,” he said playfully. “I missed that fortunately.”
She looked at him oddly but let it pass.
Tony gazed at her face for several long moments before rubbing his thumb along her cheekbone again. “They certainly found me a beautiful bride,” he murmured, as if he didn’t mean for anyone to hear his private thoughts.
Bella parted her lips to respond, but then there was a bang on the door, and everyone was suddenly agitated.
Bella and Tony both looked away from each other and their eyes turned toward the large steel door that separated their cave from—whatever lay outside. The rest of Afghanistan, Bella supposed. The entire world.
The door opened, creaking, and a man dressed in a white kaftan entered, an air of importance about him, and immediately Bella and Tony were being led forward toward him.
“Ah, the wedding ceremony,” Tony told her as they were brought forward.
“Not how I pictured it,” she agreed.
“I think, sweetheart,” he told her with a wry smile, “this is called eloping.”
What took place next was unlike anything Bella had ever experienced. Her hand was placed in Tony’s, there was a great deal of incense, and a piece of cloth—a tent, she later learned—was placed over her and Tony’s heads.
“Y’alla, y’alla,” the large one with a beard said at what Bella thought was the end of the ceremony.
Someone brought forward a typed piece of paper and handed it to the imam along with two American passports.
The imam fluttered through the passports, looking through them in interest, before settling on what was clearly the identification pages.
“Do you,” the imam began in heavily accented English, then he checked the top passport, “An—thoe—nee Ed—waahd.” There was more rustling and he came back to the sheet of paper, “take,” then the imam was flipping to Bella’s passport, “Isa—bell Mah—ree,” then back to the sheet of paper, “to be your lawful wedded wife?”
Tony looked at the man and just blinked, seemingly dazed. Then, with a sharp breath, he agreed, “I do.”
The imam looked at him for a long moment before he seemed to realize those were the only words required of Tony.
He went back to the sheet and took a rattling, deep breath. The process was repeated for Bella, the names awkward on the imam’s tongue, the vows only partially repeated. She wasn’t asked if she would have or hold Tony, for richer or for poorer until death parted them. But she dutifully said, “I do,” her voice sure and steady.
Tony squeezed her hand and smiled at her, and she thought of them less as prisoners and more as comrades experiencing hardship together.
“I now pronounce you,” the imam told them, reading off the typed piece of paper, “married under the laws of Afghanistan and the Taliban and under the laws of Islam, inshallah.” He looked up from the paper, clearly relieved. It was over.
He didn’t say that Tony could kiss her, so she was a little surprised when Tony reached forward and cupped her face and leaned down for the barest of kisses.
It was warm. That was the first sensation Bella was aware of. Tony’s lips were warm against hers despite the chill in the cave they were in. His lips were also soft. It had been months since Edward had last kissed her, but his kisses were always brief, cold, and hard as stone. Tony’s kiss was none of these things. And she was so surprised that she gasped into the kiss, opening herself up for Tony, who leaned into the kiss and supped briefly from her open lips before releasing her.
Bella hadn’t realized her eyes were closed until she opened them and saw Tony staring back at her, dark brown eyes soft and kind.
“Back to work!” a jovial voice roared out.
Bella startled at the words, but Tony’s hands held her fast even though he looked away from her.
It was several long moments—and yet too soon—when Tony drew away. He led her over to a made up bed on the floor and set her down. “You must be tired,” he murmured into her ear as the men with guns filed out. As the door closed, he pointed up toward what was obviously a video camera. “They’re always watching.”
“Watching what?” she asked, voice slightly breathy.
“The progress of their missile, of course,” he told her with a self-deprecating grin.
She looked at him in shock. “You can’t actually be building these—terrorists—weapons.”
He laughed a little. “Well, they think I am,” he answered with a shrug.
Tony left her sitting there and returned to what seemed to be a worktable and picked up what was clearly meant to be a welding mask. Bella’s eyes widened when he picked up a welding torch and began to actually weld—there—in a cave in Afghanistan. What would he be making if it wasn’t a weapon?
Bella must have drifted off to sleep, or at least into a light doze, because she was awakened to Tony shaking her shoulder lightly. She was lying on her side, her back to the worktable, and she turned onto her back and looked up at her husband of only a matter of hours.
He was just as scruffy yet good looking as he had been when they were married, though with that strange glowing disc pressing beneath his chest and shining that unearthly blue.
“What is that?” Bella asked, reaching for it but curling her fingers away so as not to actually touch the strange glowing light.
“A miniature arc reactor,” he told her with a grin. At her confused look she was undoubtedly giving him, he explained, “it’s what’s keeping me alive.”
He offered her a hand and helped her stand.
“Have you had it all your life?”
“No,” he told her. “I made it here. I was hooked up to a car battery before, courtesy of Yinsen,” he nodded to the small man in a suit who was sitting next to a fire and cooking what Bella would generously call stew. “I have shrapnel that’s too close to my heart.”
She quirked an eyebrow at Tony as she sat down next to the fire. “Are you telling me I’m married to the bionic man?”
At that Tony barked out a laugh. “I suppose I am,” he agreed.
Yinsen looked between the two of them hesitantly. “We only have the two bowls,” he said apologetically.
“Mrs. Stark and I can share,” Tony told him. Then, turning to Bella he asked, “when’s the last time you ate?”
“Forks, Washington,” she told him seriously. “Breakfast.”
His face turned grim. “You’ll be having my portion as well.”
“I don’t think I could eat that much,” she told him honestly.
“But you’ll try,” he prodded. “You’ve had an international flight, and then you were kidnapped off the streets of Italy and trafficked to Afghanistan. You must be weak as a baby bird. No wonder you slept the afternoon away.”
The soup was poured into two metal bowls, Tony’s receiving a larger amount, which was then handed to Bella with a rather crude spoon. Bella hesitantly poked at it and then tasted it. Stew was too kind of a word for what they were eating, but she hadn’t eaten in days, and Tony was right, she was as weak as a baby bird.
“I cook,” she said into the silence of eating before handing a half-full bowl to Tony. “Pretty well, I think. Charlie doesn’t complain.”
He looked pleasantly surprised but pushed the bowl back at her. “Have a bit more.”
Bella looked at him askance before having three more spoonfuls and then offering the bowl to him again silently.
He sighed but took it, eating the stew without complaint. He was surely used to it by now, Bella assumed. She hoped she never got used to it. It could barely be called food.
After dinner, they removed back to their respective beds, and Bella found that she had been sleeping on Tony’s mat. She lay on her side, looking out away from the worktable, and just let him make his own decision about whether he would lie down beside her or sleep on the cold floor instead.
He chose the first option.
“This okay?” he asked, as he snaked an arm around her middle. “It gets pretty cold in here at night.”
“I suppose deserts get cold at night,” she agreed, thinking of what she knew about the planet and geography, “and we’re in the mountains.”
“These are pretty poor accommodations for a wedding night,” he apologized into the back of her shoulder. “There should be champagne—roses—a proper bed—”
“We should have known each other for more than half an hour,” she agreed a little sadly. She scooted a little closer to his body heat. “What’s your usual type, Tony? Genius, billionaire, philanthropist, playboy.”
“Gorgeous,” he told her without hesitation, “disposable.” Then, after a moment, “single. I don’t like to deal with complications.”
“My father will threaten you with a shotgun,” she told him seriously, “and if you break my heart in any way, he’ll come after you with it.”
“A protective dad,” he mused, “I like that you have someone looking out for you.”
“Well,” she told him, looking over her shoulder, “he’s the police chief, so he’ll also find some way to arrest you, even if just to put you in jail overnight.”
He waggled his eyebrows at her. “I have a wife now who can bail me out.”
“Do you—” she swallowed, uncertain what answer she wanted him to give “—do you think the marriage will stand if we ever get back to the U.S.?” Her voice was smaller than she wanted it to be, and she could kick herself for how needy she sounded.
“If we want it to stand,” he promised, his hand coming forward and running through her hair, “then I will make damn sure my lawyers will make it stick. If you want to walk away, you have a friend for life, Isabella Stark. You’ll never want for anything.”
She sighed, thinking of Edward and his flashy BMW for a moment. “I don’t want your money, Tony.”
“You’d be the first woman who doesn’t.”
“Well,” she told him, “get used to it.”
They fell into silence for several long moments before Tony told her, “Yinsen doesn’t know what to make of you.”
“Why is he a prisoner?”
“Not sure,” Tony admitted. “Why do terrorists kidnap anyone?—He’s useful as a translator and an assistant. He was my only company until they brought you.”
“Who are these people? Are they Taliban?”
“They call themselves the Ten Rings. I’d never heard of them before I was taken hostage.” He sighed behind her and then pulled her just a little bit closer. “Are you warm enough, Bells?”
She laughed a little. “Charlie calls me that.”
He shifted slightly behind her. “Does that mean it’s off limits?”
“No,” she told him sincerely, “I like it.” She sighed. “I’m a little cold, actually.”
Tony fiddled with the blanket, pulling it up over their shoulders, and pulling her even closer to him. “Tangle our legs together. Body heat is the best source of warmth in these situations.”
“Are you trying to seduce me, Mr. Stark?” she asked with a laugh as they tangled their legs together.
He puffed air on the back of her neck. “Always, Mrs. Stark.”
That night Bella dreamed that something was sparkling in the tunnels of the caves. It was a myriad of diamonds, shaped like a man, and she was following it, trying to find her way out of the caves. No matter how quickly she walked, the sparkling was always a little too far ahead for her to catch up to it. When she finally walked out into the sands, only the moon shone in the darkness—“Isabella.”
She turned and she saw Edward, deadly and sparkling even though he was no longer in the sunlight.
“Isabella.” It was no longer Edward’s voice, but a voice she somehow recognized.
“Isabella!” She woke up screaming into her husband’s arms, sobbing.