These Broken Stars Page 3

My heart surges up into my throat, and I know I’m staring like an idiot, but I’m damned if I can remember how my legs work. I stare a beat too long, and her lips curve to a hint of a smile. But somehow, her smile doesn’t look as though it’s mocking me, and I get it together enough to start walking.

When she lets her glove fall to the ground, I’m the one who leans down to pick it up.

I don’t want to ask her if she’s all right—she’s too collected for that. So I put the glove down on the table, then find myself with no excuse to do anything other than look at her. Blue eyes. They go with the dress. Do lashes grow that long naturally? So many perfect faces, it’s hard to tell who’s been surgically altered and who hasn’t. But surely if she’d had work done, she’d have opted for a straight, classically beautiful nose. No, she looks real.

“Are you waiting for a drink?” My voice sounds mostly even.

“For my companions,” she says, lowering the deadly lashes before peering up at me through them. “Captain?” She tilts the word upward, as though she’s taking a stab at my rank.

“Major,” I say. She knows how to read my insignia; I just saw her name the ranks of the other officers. Her sort, the society girls, they all know how. It’s a game. I might not be society, but I still know a player when I see one. “Not sure that was smart of your companions, leaving you unattended. Now you’re stuck talking to me.”

Then she smiles, and it turns out she has dimples, and it’s all over. It’s not just the way she looks—although that would do it all on its own. It’s that, despite the way she looks, despite where I found her, this girl’s willing to go against the tide. She’s not another empty-headed puppet. It’s like finding another human after days of isolation.

“Is it going to cause an intergalactic incident if I keep you company until your friends get here?”

“Not at all.” She tilts her head a little to indicate the opposite side of the booth. The bench curves around in a semicircle from where she sits. “Though I feel I should warn you that you could be here for a while. My friends aren’t really known for their punctuality.”

I laugh, and I set down the book and my drink on the table beside her glove, sinking down to sit opposite her. She’s wearing one of those enormous skirts that are in fashion these days, and the fabric brushes against my legs as I settle. She doesn’t move away. “You should have seen me as a cadet,” I say, as though that wasn’t just a year ago. “Punctuality was pretty much the only thing we were known for. Never ask how or why, just get it done fast.”

“Then we have something in common,” she says. “We aren’t encouraged to ask why, either.” Neither of us asks why we’re sitting together. We’re smart.

“I can see at least half a dozen guys watching us. Am I making any deadly enemies? Or at least, any more than I already have?”

“Would it stop you from sitting here?” she asks, finally removing the second glove and setting it down on the table.

“Not necessarily,” I reply. “Handy thing to know, though. Plenty of dark hallways on this ship, if I’m going to have rivals waiting around corners.”

“Rivals?” she asks, lifting one brow. I know she’s playing a game with me, but I don’t know the rules, and she’s got all the cards. Still, the hell with it—I just can’t find it in me to care that I’m losing. I’ll surrender right now, if she likes.

“I suppose they might imagine themselves to be,” I say eventually. “Those gentlemen over there don’t look particularly impressed.” I nod to the group in frock coats and more top hats. At home we’re a simpler people, and you take your hat off when you come inside.

“Let’s make it worse,” she says promptly. “Read to me from your book, and I’ll look rapt. And you could order me a drink, if you like.”

I glance down at the book I plucked off the shelf. Mass Casualty: A History of Failed Campaigns. I slide it a little farther away, wincing inwardly. “Perhaps the drink. I’ve been away from your bright lights for a while, so I’m a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure talking about bloody death’s not the best way to charm a girl.”

“I’ll have to content myself with champagne, then.” She continues, as I raise a hand to signal one of the hover trays. “You say ‘bright lights’ with a hint of disdain, Major. I’m from those bright lights. Do you fault me for that?”

“I could fault you for nothing.” The words somehow bypass my brain entirely. Mutiny.

She drops her eyes for the compliment, still smiling. “You say you’ve been away from civilization, Major, but your flattery’s giving you away. It can’t have been all that long.”

“We’re very civilized out on the frontier,” I say, pretending offense. “Every so often we take a break from slogging through waist-high muck or dodging bullets and issue dance invitations. My old drill sergeant used to say that nothing teaches you the quickstep like the ground giving way beneath your feet.”

“I suppose so,” she agrees as a full tray comes humming toward us in response to my summons. She selects a glass of champagne and raises it in half a toast to me before she sips. “Can you tell me your name, or is it classified?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know.

I reach for the other glass and send the tray humming off into the crowd again. “Merendsen.” Even if it’s a pretense, it’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t raving about my astounding heroics or asking for a picture with me. “Tarver Merendsen.” She’s looking at me like she doesn’t recognize me from all the newspapers and holovids.

“Major Merendsen.” She tries it out, leaning on the m’s, then nods her approval. The name passes muster, at least for now.

“I’m heading back to the bright lights for my next posting. Which one of them is your home?”

“Corinth, of course,” she replies. The brightest light of all. Of course. “Though I spend more time on ships like this than planetside. I’m most at home here on the Icarus.”

“Even you must be impressed by the Icarus. She’s bigger than any city I’ve been to.”

“She’s the biggest,” my companion replies, dropping her eyes and toying with the stem of the champagne flute. Though she hides it well, there’s a flicker through her features. Talking about the ship must bore her. Maybe it’s the spaceliner equivalent of asking about the weather.

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