These Broken Stars Page 6

“You remembered.” I find my smile, feeling it spread across my face like a sickly grimace, and turn my attention back to the major. “I think my friends will understand if I miss out on one evening.”

Behind the major, I see Anna’s face freeze, genuine fear flickering there. I wish I could tell her to wait, not to panic. But that would give me away.

His face shifts, the cautious smile widening as some of the tension drains. It’s a jolt to realize that he was nervous. That he really, truly, wanted to ask me. His eyes, the same shade of brown as his hair, are fixed on mine. God, if only he weren’t so handsome. It’s a lot easier with the older, fatter men.

“Are you busy now? Tonight?”

“You certainly don’t waste any time, do you?”

He grins, clasping his hands behind his back. “One of the things you learn fast in the service is to act now, think later.”

Such a change from the circles I travel in, the deliberate games and calculated slips of the tongue. Anna’s mouthing something at me, but I only catch the end of it. Something about now.

“Listen, Major—”

“Tarver,” he corrects me. “And you still have the advantage on me, Miss…?”

It takes me a few seconds to understand what he means. He’s watching me, brows lifted, expectant.

Then it hits me. He doesn’t know who I am.

For a long moment I just stare at him. I can’t remember the last time someone spoke to me who didn’t know who I was. In fact, I can’t think of any time at all. Surely when I was little, before I became the media’s darling? But that seems so far away from who I am now, like a movie seen in another lifetime.

I wish I could stop, let it sink in, even revel in this moment. Enjoy speaking to someone who doesn’t see me as Lilac LaRoux, heiress to the LaRoux Industries empire, richest girl in the galaxy. But I can’t stop. I can’t let this stupid, foolish soldier be seen with me a second time. Someone will say something to my father, and ignorant or not, Major Merendsen doesn’t deserve that.

I’ve done this before. So why do I have to hunt for the right words to bury him? “I must have given you the wrong impression last night,” I say airily, summoning my brightest, most amused smile. “I try so hard to be polite when I’m bored out of my skull, but I guess sometimes that backfires.”

There’s little reaction to be seen at first on Major Merendsen’s face, merely a subtle closing down of the amused eyes, a tightening of the firm mouth. Even so, there’s an irrational surge of anger toward him, for being so ignorant as to talk to me at all.

You smiled at him first, a tiny thought points out. And let him retrieve your glove, and bring you a drink, and sit with you. Beyond him I see Anna and Swann about to collapse with laughter, and my jaw starts to clench. The anger shifts.

End it now. Make him walk away. Before you break.

“Did you not understand me?” I toss my hair back over my shoulder. I can only hope that if my expression shows how much I’m hating myself right now, he reads it as disgust. “I suppose it’s to be expected that you’re a little slow. Given your…upbringing.”

He’s silent, his face utterly wooden. He just stares at me, as the seconds draw out. Then he takes a step back and bows. “I won’t take up any more of your time. If you’ll excuse me?”

“Of course, Major.” I don’t wait for him to leave but brush past him to rejoin Anna and Swann, sweeping them up with me in my momentum. I want nothing more than to look over my shoulder and see if Major Merendsen is still standing where I struck him down, if he’s storming away in anger, if he’s following, if he’s talking to the officer he came with. Because I can’t look, my imagination conjures a dozen possibilities—I expect at any moment to feel his hand on my elbow or see him out of the corner of my eye at the elevators away from the promenade deck.

“Oh, that was brilliant, Lil,” gasps Anna, still laughing. “Was he actually asking you to accompany him to the observation deck? To see the stars? God, how cliché!”

The faster-than-light vibrations, usually undetectable, are giving me a headache.

He didn’t know who I was. He wasn’t after my money; he wasn’t after my father’s business connections. He wasn’t after anything, except an evening with me.

Suddenly Anna’s hysterics are like sandpaper on my nerves. It doesn’t matter that her laughter helped drive the major away, that she saw me hesitate and understood, that she’s only doing her best to protect me from something unthinkable happening again. All that matters is that I had to slap that poor guy in the face, and now she’s laughing.

“If you’re jealous, get your tuxedo of the week to take you,” I snap.

Leaving her and Swann staring after me, I aim for the elevator. There’s a pair of techhead guys there already in their flashing, circuit-laden suits, waiting for the doors to close. When I sweep inside, one of them whispers to the other, and muttering something like an apology, they skitter out and leave me alone.

In the sound of the doors rushing closed, my mind conjures up the techhead’s words. It’s happened enough times that I don’t need to have heard him to know what he said.

Oh, spark it. That’s LaRoux’s daughter. They catch us in here with her and we’re dead, man.

I lean back against the synthetic wood paneling lining the interior of the elevator and fix my eyes on the symbol emblazoned on the elevator doors. The Greek letter lambda, for LaRoux Industries. My father’s company.

Lilac Rose LaRoux. Untouchable. Toxic.

I should’ve been named Ivy, or Foxglove, or Belladonna.

“You next saw her when the incident occurred?”

“That’s correct.”

“Did you try to figure out what was happening?”

“You’re not military, you don’t understand how we work. I’m not supposed to ask questions. I was just following orders.”

“What orders were those?”

“We have a duty to protect civilians.”

“So there wasn’t a specific order that drove your decision?”

“Now you’re nitpicking.”

“We’re being exact, Major. We’d appreciate it if you tried to do the same.”



THE AIR LEAVES MY LUNGS WITH A RUSH, pain shooting up my back as I slam down onto the practice mats. The other guy falls with me, and I realize I’ve still got a handful of his T-shirt. I suck in a quick breath as I shove my weight to one side, coming up to my knees in one movement so I’m looming over him, instead of the other way around.

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