Sleeping with Tony Stark was nothing like sleeping with Edward Cullen. For the first, the cold did not come from her lover. Edward had been a being of ice. He’d had to wrap Bella up in all her blankets so she wouldn’t shiver (and she still did despite all his precautions), and despite whatever the warmth of Bella’s bedroom, she would be forced to cocoon herself as a precaution.
With Tony, the cold came from the cave itself. The rocks shimmered with cold and they only way to stay warm was to cuddle up under their flimsy blanket with her husband of a month. Bella could feel the heat radiating out of Tony, the only exception being the arc reactor that glowed from the center of his chest.
Bella began to look forward to the cold nights in their cave prison. The days were interminable. She would watch Tony with the help of Yinsen work on his “secret project,” or just contemplate the cave wall or even the steel door. The nights were when she came alive. Then there would be hushed words and soft exchanges and long looks.
She sighed just thinking of it.
The longer Bella stayed in the cave, the more she realized that no one was coming to rescue them. Their only hope was whatever project Tony was working on—which had incorporated the diamond earrings Edward had once given her. Tony said he was going to blast their way out. Bella just hoped he was making a gun that was big enough to do just that.
Then one day everything changed.
The door opened and the room was once again flooded with men with assault weapons. As she had been taught, Bella stood, facing the door, her hands behind her head and her eyes downcast. One of the men grabbed her arm forcefully and Bella jerked.
The leader began speaking and Bella looked at him fearfully.
“Your ransom has been paid,” Yinsen translated.
“My—ransom?” Bella breathed.
The terrorist was still speaking, and Yinsen was clearly paying more attention to him than to Bella.
Tony’s eyes were wide and a hint of fear was creeping into them.
“Wealthy man has paid,” Yinsen told them. “You’re to be a bride for his son.”
“What?” Bella whispered, her voice constricting. She tried to pull away from the man who was still holding her—and then all pandemonium broke loose.
Tony went wild. His hands dropped and he grabbed something off of the worktable and began—it wasn’t shooting exactly. Some sort of short-range missile seemed to go off in the enclosed space. Immediately, everyone was ducking as sparks sprayed off the missile, and Tony was rushing forward and grabbing Bella’s other arm and hurrying them out of the cave.
They never made it past the door.
Guns started firing and Bella hit the floor before she knew what was happening, Tony’s strong body covering her. She could feel the arc reactor pressed against her shoulder.
Everyone was screaming and Bella felt like she couldn’t breathe.
Then, as quickly as it had started, everything was quiet.
Tony’s loud breathing was in her ear and then he was shouting as someone hauled him off of her.
“No!” she cried as she tried to reach for him blindly. Someone was shoving her head into the cave floor. She was still on her stomach, flailing.
Bella could hear Tony screaming for her and then his cries were muffled.
Someone yanked her up off the cave floor and she looked wildly around. Tony had been shoved up against the cave wall, a gun pointed at his head. Yinsen’s body was riddled with bullets and his glasses were broken on the cave floor. His lifeless gaze was looking back at her and Bella felt like she couldn’t breathe.
She felt a gun pressed into her side, and the hand that had been holding her down was now pulling at her hair. “Out!” the man demanded, his voice thick with an accent.
Bella resisted, but he pulled her hair tighter, and she cried out in pain.
“Don’t take her!” Tony screamed, but she was hauled out of their prison cell.
She could hear as the door was closed behind her, a dull clang, but she was propelled forward into a series of tunnels she barely remembered from when she arrived. Bella realized after the third turn—or was it the fourth?—that she should have been memorizing the way so she could get back, but then she was shoved out into the sunlight of a cold, snowy evening.
Bella blinked into the darkness, seeing the moon for the first time in nearly two months, before she realized that they were not alone.
“Carlisle?” she asked as she recognized the patriarch of the Cullen Family. “Carlisle,” she begged as she took an abortive step forward before she was pulled back by her hair, “you have to let me go back.”
Carlisle Cullen looked just as handsome as he ever had, with pale marble skin and blond hair. He was alone—none of the other Cullens were with him—and he smiled sadly at her. “I’ve paid your ransom, Bella.” Then he said something short and crisp in Arabic and the man who was holding Bella by the hair let her go.
“You can’t pay my ransom,” she tried to explain as she rushed forward, her legs weak from disuse. “There are more of us.”
Carlisle looked kindly at her. “They’re none of my concern, Bella. I got you out. I have kept you safe like Edward would have wanted.”
“But—” she whispered in desperation.
“No more here,” he told her firmly. Accepting what looked to be her passport, Carlisle then took her by the arm and led her toward a jeep.
Bella shrank away from it, remembering her first trip across the sands.
“Do you want to die in Afghanistan?” Carlisle demanded, his voice kind but firm.
“Will have someone to pay his ransom,” Carlisle told her as he placed her in the passenger seat of the car. “The Ten Rings only take prisoners who can pay their way out.”
“You can pay—” she began hesitantly, uncertain of her position with the Cullen Family given how Edward had treated her.
Carlisle slid into the driver’s seat and turned to her. “I paid for you,” he told her. His glittering golden eyes looked into hers, as mesmerizing as they had ever been. “Let me fulfill Edward’s last wishes.”
Bella swallowed. “He died in Italy then.”
“Not quite,” he answered and started the jeep.
It started with a jerk and Bella turned and watched as the camp receded. It really was a pocket of caves in the mountains of Afghanistan, nothing special, well hidden. Carlisle was navigating his way back to wherever they were going with a compass.
There were no roads. There were no signs. There were just miles upon miles of sand. How would Bella ever find her way back there?
Carlisle was silent through the ride in the night and Bella fell into an agitated sleep somewhere along the way. She knew she dreamed because she remembered feeling uneasy, but all she could recall were shapes and emotions.
Bella woke up with her husband’s name on her lips, nothing more than a whisper.
If Carlisle heard her, he didn’t make any indication that he had.
Just before sunrise, they came to a tent in the middle of the desert at another outcropping of caves. Carlisle parked the car and got out, coming around to help Bella out of the jeep. She wanted to be difficult and stay where she was seated, but Bella wasn’t petty. She knew that Carlisle had essentially saved her life—
–even if she didn’t want it to be saved.
The tent was small but it had bottles of water and rations. Bella ate hungrily and was grateful for the water. They never had enough water in the cave where they were held. It was always in short supply. Bella never knew if that was because there was little water or if the terrorists wanted to keep them weak. Now, she supposed it didn’t really matter.
“You said Edward wasn’t dead,” she murmured when she finished her meal.
“No,” Carlisle told her. “He’s a member of the Volturi now. Aro spared his life even though he revealed himself.” He didn’t say anything else for a long moment and Bella pondered what it would mean for Edward to be part of the Royal Guard. “He knows,” Carlisle told her carefully, “that you’re alive and he was mistaken about your death.”
Bella glanced at him. “He didn’t seem to care about my life when he left me to die of hypothermia on a forest floor,” she muttered to herself. Of course, Carlisle could hear her, but he didn’t reply.
Bella went and sat on a sleeping bag that was in a corner of the tent, having been used to sitting on her sleeping pad in the cave for hours on end.
“I’m married,” she said after what must have been hours.
Carlisle looked up, not surprised. “The leader of the Ten Rings said. A simple annulment in America will take care of it.”
Bella ground her teeth together. “I don’t want to take care of it.” She glared at Carlisle from her side of the tent.
He looked at her in curiosity. “I thought it was arranged by the Ten Rings.”
“It was,” she agreed. “I still don’t want it annulled. It’s my husband we left behind.”
Carlisle studied her very carefully. “It was very difficult to get you out. It only took three or four days to trace you, but it took nearly two months of careful negotiations to get you out of there.”
“Perhaps you should have asked,” she shot back, suddenly tired of the conversation.
“Most people don’t want to live in a cave in Afghanistan.”
“Most people,” she told him, “don’t date one hundred year old vampires.” Bella was far from the normal American teenager. She proved that again and again. She stuck around a vampire who told her she was his own personal brand of heroin and she liked being married to a man who was more than twice her age.
Carlisle was looking at her pensively. “I’m sure—Tony, was it?—will get out and you can reunite. His family must be negotiating terms.”
“His people, you mean,” she sighed. “They’re taking long enough.” Bella looked at the tent wall and traced the canvas with her fingers. Her nails were dirty and chipped horribly. She hadn’t taken a shower in months. She must stink.
The first thing she was going to do when they got to wherever they were going was take a shower—then she was going to steal the jeep and head back into the desert and back to Tony.
She breathed out of her nose and wondered when she had gotten used to the dryness of the air.
“What happened to Alice?” Bella hadn’t realized she had spoken, it must have been hours later, nearly noon, the thought just tumbling from her lips.
“She’s waiting for us in Kabul,” Carlisle told her. “She’s there with Emmet as chaperone. It’s difficult for women here in Afghanistan.” His golden eyes looked even brighter in the sunlight. The tent prevented direct sunlight so his skin didn’t shimmer like diamonds, but there was still an ethereal glow about him. “No one is entirely certain what happened to you.”
Bella looked back at her fingernails and asked, “Alice didn’t see?”
“No,” Carlisle replied. “She was focused on Edward. We only knew you were in Afghanistan from chatter we picked up on the dark web.”
Bella glanced up sharply, her brow furrowed. She had no idea that the Cullens monitored the dark web. She then shrugged. “Does it really matter?” she asked, not willing to share her story. It was private. It belonged to her and Tony.
Tony—who was a day away in a cave. She had to get back to him. She had to find him. Maybe if she went to the military and told them where he was? Carlisle had the coordinates. Or, perhaps when she was interviewed as a recovered prisoner of war, she could tell them.
“Am I going to be officially processed? Or are you going to sneak me back into America and expect me to lie?”
Carlisle hesitated and anger suddenly boiled up in her.
“I demand to be taken to the American Embassy. I need to tell them where Tony is.”
“As you said Tony has people—”
“I demand to speak to the Embassy. I have vital information on terrorists active in the region. I’ll leave you out of it, just drop me off and I’ll do the rest. Did they give you my passport?”
Carlisle reached into his back pocket and produced what was clearly Bella’s passport.
“That will get me in,” she said, reaching for it and taking it between her dirty fingers. She flipped it open and saw her horrible passport picture and her name spelled out: Isabella Marie Swan. She was Isabella Stark now.
Tony called her “Bells” in the dark of the cave when there was no one to hear them.—and he was all alone now. Even Yinsen was gone, his body riddled with bullets. Although she didn’t believe in God, Bella whispered a prayer for her husband to stay strong and wait for her.
“I need the coordinates,” she murmured as she closed the passport. “Please, Carlisle.”
When he didn’t answer, she looked up at him sharply.
“You love Esme more than life, don’t you? You saved her life—”
“I stole her life—”
“To be with her,” Bella continued, unhindered. “She is your wife. Wouldn’t you travel the world to get her back if someone took her from you?”
She saw his gold eyes dim slightly.
“You didn’t steal her soul, Carlisle,” she whispered desperately. “You gave her eternity, an eternity with you.—I want just one lifetime with Tony.”
Their eyes held for the longest moment, neither looking away.
“I’ll give you the coordinates,” he told her simply.
She sighed in relief.
They didn’t speak again until the sun was setting. Bella had been counting her breaths in and out, a meditation technique, when Carlisle’s voice broke their silence.
“Edward thought you were his soulmate.”
“No, he didn’t,” she corrected. “He made sure I knew that before you left.” Bella didn’t bother to look over at him.
“Did it ever occur to you,” Carlisle asked carefully, “that he was lying to protect you?”
“Then he’s the best liar I’ve ever seen and I want nothing to do with someone who would lie to me like that,” she responded evenly, her eyes still closed. “It doesn’t matter now. I have Tony. I have a human life. I will grow old and die and not be a forever teenager.” She looked back, remembering her fears. How trivial they seemed now. She had been so worried when she had turned eighteen, a year older than Edward’s physical body. Now she was less than half her husband’s age and she had something quite different to worry about.
When the sun finally set, they took down the tent and got back into the jeep. They were still driving by use of the compass, and Bella could see nothing but the sand in their headlights and the moon overhead.
It had only been an hour’s ride—maybe two—when Carlisle stopped the jeep and pointed to lights over to their right. “That’s a settlement,” he told her, “military.”
She looked at it, squinting, before glancing over at Carlisle. “How can you be sure?”
Carlisle looked at her through the blankness. “I’m sure, Bella,” he promised her. He got out of the jeep and took out a backpack she had seen earlier and slipped several bottles of water inside. Bella slowly followed him and when she was given the bag, she slipped her passport inside.
“What are the coordinates?”
Carlisle sighed. “I can’t give you the exact coordinates, Bella.”
“Carlisle,” she warned. “He’s my husband.”
“Have you considered,” he asked her, cutting her off, “that this is captive bonding? You two are thrown in a cave together, married in a ceremony the United States will never recognize, and you bond to each other purely out of survival.”
“You’re a shrink now?” she questioned him, stunned.
He shrugged. “I may be doing a psychiatry residence at Johns Hopkins.”
“Lucky you,” she shot back. “You don’t care who you hurt. You just restart your life every ten years and get to begin again.”
Carlisle looked her over carefully. “I’ve lost a son over his love for you.”
“He left me,” she seethed back, feeling her heart clench in her throat. “You all left me and I never asked you to come back.”
The two stared at each other in the darkness, the only light coming from the still running jeep beside them, the headlights shining out into the blackness.
“Due west,” Carlisle told her, pointing out into the dark. “You can tell them that it’s practically due west.” He stared at her for another long moment, unblinking. “Be safe, Bella Swan. I doubt we’ll be seeing each other again.”
She bit her lip as she watched him get back in the jeep and then, just as quickly as he had been in her world, he was once again gone. It’s what the Cullens did best. They disappeared without a trace.
Bella turned toward the lights in the desert and pulled the backpack up onto her shoulders. She should be able to get there by morning, she thought, as she took her first of many sand-logged steps.
After what seemed like hours, the settlement seemed no closer, but Bella knew it was simply optics. She watched as the sun rose and she took out a bottle of water and drank a good portion of it before continuing her trek.
At first she didn’t see them. Her ears were rather dulled to the sound of sand shifting around her, but there was definitely shouting. Then there were two figures that seemed to be running toward her from the settlement and Bella jumped up and waved her hands, hoping they were shouting for her.
It turned out she had been dropped off outside of a British Air Base, and they immediately brought her to medical and treated her for dehydration and for mild burns she had sustained on her cheeks and hands while walking through the desert.
“My husband and I,” she told an officer after her first real meal in months, “were being held by the Ten Rings, due west from here,” she pointed to her right. She looked at her hand and realized she had no idea which way west was. “I lost my compass,” she apologized, lowering her hand. “My ransom was paid and they let me go—and I made it here, but he’s still being held captive.”
The officer looked at her and nodded. “Do you know who paid your ransom?”
Bella hesitated. “He wished to remain anonymous.”
“To you, or to us?” the officer asked carefully.
“I don’t know his name,” Bella answered honestly. Carlisle Cullen was certainly no longer Carlisle Cullen. With a new life would come a new identity. He could have any name under the sun. Carlisle might not have even been his name when he was human, just the name he had chosen for his life in Forks, Washington. “I don’t,” she promised. “He wouldn’t pay Tony’s ransom. I asked, but he wouldn’t.”
“American?” the officer asked. “British? Arab?”
She took a moment, thinking how much she was willing to say, before murmuring, “English. I think that’s how he knew where your base was and why he left me here when I made it clear I would not leave Afghanistan without Tony.”
“Possible military background, perhaps?” The officer’s eyes were terribly blue, and Bella looked into them, knowing that lying to him would be a mistake.
“I don’t know,” she decided on.
“Your husband, then, is he American like you?”
“Yes. Tony. Anthony Edward Stark. We were married here in Afghanistan.”
The officer looked up and shared a look with the Army surgeon, a Captain John Watson.
Bella looked between them carefully. “I understand he’s possibly famous? No one’s paid his ransom yet. We were waiting.” She looked down at her bandaged hands. “We’ve been waiting for months. We weren’t expecting for anyone to pay my ransom.”
“We’ll be informing the embassy,” the officer promised, “and relaying this information to them. Will you be on their missing list?”
“No,” she told him quickly, glancing over at Captain Watson who seemed slightly more approachable. “I was in Italy when I was taken from the streets and trafficked here.”
“For what purpose?”
“To,” she licked her lips, “to marry Tony. They’re forcing him to build a missile and I’m—I’m the leverage.” The officer looked up sharply. “Which is why it’s so surprising that they ransomed me. They can’t use anything against Tony any longer.” Frustrated, she admitted, “he gave me most of his portion of the food, he kept me warm, he made sure that no one pointed their guns at me, taking the brunt of their anger. As I said, I was the leverage. Tony considered me his responsibility.”
“Well,” Captain Watson said, “for two months in a cave, you have less vitamin deficiency than I would expect. Vitamin D deficiency, obviously, due to lack of sun, but you have been fed. Mr. Stark obviously kept you safe.”
The officer looked over the notes he had been taking. “I’ll get on the phone right now. You stay here, Miss Swan. We’ll assign you a bed if you stay here that long, but we’ll be transferring you back to the Americans as soon as we can. Captain Watson will take good care of you.”
She nodded and turned back to the doctor.
“You’re from England?” she asked eagerly and he laughed.
“And I’ll tell you all about it, Miss Swan,” he promised.
“Mrs. Stark,” she whispered.
“Mrs. Stark,” he corrected.
Bella only spent one night in the infirmity before getting transferred to base camp. She got to take a short but welcomed shower, although she wasn’t certain if she got all the grit out of her blonde hair. Part of her wanted to cut it all off because it was so disgusting, but the memory of Tony running his fingers through it, stopped her from seriously considering the idea.
There seemed to be some confusion about her transfer, but an American came after two days by helicopter. “I’m Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes,” he introduced himself.
“Rhodey,” she said with a smile. “Tony told me about you.”
He looked a little taken aback, but he took the chair next to her. “I’ve read your statement. You said you spent nearly two months in a cave as a prisoner with Tony Stark.”
“And the people who kept you were called the Ten Rings.”
“Yes. They spoke Arabic and Russian and Hungarian,” she told him, remembering what Yinsen had told her. “More languages than we could identify. Urdu, I think. There was another man with us who was a prisoner, who was an Afghani intellectual who could speak some of it, but they seemed to be made up of what was left over of other terrorist groups.”
“Who was the leader, Miss Swan?”
He closed his eyes and nodded. “Forgive me, Mrs. Stark. I read the account of your forced marriage. Who was the leader?”
“The man who spoke was large with a shaved head and a full black beard,” she told him. “No one ever said his name. He had a large booming voice. Whenever they wanted something, he would come and propose it in a language we didn’t speak, and then he would offer Tony his hand as if in a—” she shrugged “—you know, like when my dad buys groceries and he’s known the owner for years and they shake hands when Dad gets a discount.”
Rhodey looked at her carefully. “Like a gentleman’s agreement? An agreement of honor between two men?”
“Yes, exactly,” she said, seizing on the explanation. “Tony never believed the man’s promises, though.”
Rhodey nodded. “You wrote that they were due west from this camp in a series of caves in the mountains.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “That’s what—” she bit her lip when she almost said Carlisle.
“The man who ransomed you,” Rhodey put in for her, “said.”
“Yes. I refused to go with him. I tried to get him to ransom Tony but he said Tony wasn’t his problem.”
“But you were his problem?”
Bella bit her lip again and looked at Rhodey, unsure what she should say.
“Okay,” Rhodey agreed, opening up a folder and showing her aerial photographs of mountainous regions. “Tell me if any of these caves look familiar.”
It was the third photograph that Bella recognized.
Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes thanked her but left her there, saying that the Embassy would be in touch about getting her home to the United States, but she was still of military value.
Bella had days upon days to wait. A week went by and nothing happened. Then another week. Then, in the high heat of a Thursday, a caravan of jeeps arrived in the middle of the encampment, driven by American military personnel. Bella had come out of the infirmary where she was having a checkup as the sound of the caravan was loud and even Captain Watson had abandoned his post.
“I think they’re here for you,” Captain Watson told her, nudging her carefully with his shoulder. “The Americans would only send that many cars for a V.I.P.”
“I’m not a—”
But at that moment the doors were opening and someone was shouting, “Bells? Is she—Where is—Bells?”
Her breath caught in her throat as she recognized that voice. Immediately racing forward toward a mass of camouflage uniforms, she yelled, “Tony?” Then she saw him, wearing a suit, his arm in a sling, tie missing, and she ran into his arms. “Tony,” she cried as she grasped him close to her.
She could feel him breathing in the skin at the crook of her neck and she reveled in the sensation.
“I thought I had lost you to some wealthy sheikh,” he was sighing, his fingers running through her hair.
“No,” she promised. “I didn’t let him take me away. I made him leave me here—and I told them where to find you—”
“Well, they found me,” he said, a grin clear in his voice. “I blasted my way out and they found me,” and he swept her into a kiss right there in the middle of an encampment. It was warm and sandy. Bella’s hair was up in a high ponytail to keep it off of her neck and she was wearing military khaki pants and a tank top, nothing more than skin and bones, but nothing could have been more perfect. She was with Tony and Tony was safe and they were out of that horrible cave. She breathed him in and pulled him closer, careful of his arm in a sling, but promising that she would never let anyone take her away again. Never, never ever again.