“Why aren’t you listening to me?” He’s chasing after me now. “They’re coming to take her back, son! We can’t let that happen!”
I turn to face him. My movements are slow, deliberate. “What are you talking about? Take her back where?”
Castle doesn’t respond. Instead, his face goes slack. He stares, confused, in my direction.
“I have a thousand things to do,” I say, impatient now, “so if you would please make this quick and tell me what on earth you’re talking about—”
“He never told you, did he?”
“Who? Told me what?”
“Your father,” he says. “He never told you.” Castle runs a hand down the length of his face. He looks abruptly ancient, about to expire. “My God. He never told you.”
“What do you mean? What did he never tell me?”
“The truth,” he says. “About Ms Ferrars.”
I stare at him, my chest constricting in fear.
Castle shakes his head as he says, “He never told you where she really came from, did he? He never told you the truth about her parents.”
“Stop squirming, J.”
We’re in the glass elevator, making our way down to one of the main reception areas, and I can’t stop fidgeting.
My eyes are squeezed shut. I keep saying, “Oh my God, I am totally clueless, aren’t I? What am I doing? I don’t look professional at all—”
“You know what? Who cares what you’re wearing?” Kenji says. “It’s all in the attitude, anyway. It’s about how you carry yourself.”
I look up at him, feeling the height difference between us more acutely than ever. “But I’m so short.”
“Napoleon was short, too.”
“Napoleon was horrible,” I point out.
“Napoleon got shit done, didn’t he?”
Kenji nudges me with his elbow. “You might want to spit the gum out, though.”
“Kenji,” I say, only half hearing him, “I’ve just realized I’ve never met any foreign officials before.”
“I know, right? Me neither,” he says, mussing my hair. “But it’ll be okay. You just need to calm down. Anyway, you look cute. You’ll do great.”
I slap his hand away. “I may not know much about being a supreme commander yet, but I do know that I’m not supposed to be cute.”
Just then, the elevator dings open.
“Who says you can’t be cute and kick ass at the same time?” Kenji winks at me. “I do it every day.”
“Oh, man—you know what? Never mind,” is the first thing Kenji says to me.
He’s cringing, shooting me a sidelong glance as he says, “Maybe you really should work on your wardrobe?”
I might die of embarrassment.
Whoever this guy is, whatever his intentions are, Haider Ibrahim is dressed unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before. He looks like no one I’ve ever seen before.
He stands up as we enter the room—tall, very tall—and I’m instantly struck by the sight of him. He’s wearing a dark gray leather jacket over what I can only assume is meant to be a shirt, but is actually a series of tightly woven chains strung across his body. His skin is heavily tanned and half exposed, his upper body only barely concealed by his chain-link shirt. His closely tapered black pants disappear into shin-high combat boots, and his light brown eyes—a startling contrast to his brown skin—are rimmed in a flutter of thick black lashes.
I tug at my pink sweater and nervously swallow my gum.
“Hi,” I say, and begin to wave, but Kenji is kind enough to push down my hand. I clear my throat. “I’m Juliette.”
Haider steps forward cautiously, his eyes drawn together in what looks like confusion as he appraises my appearance. I feel uncomfortably self-conscious. Wildly underprepared. And I suddenly really need to use the bathroom.
“Hello,” he finally says, but it sounds more like a question.
“Can we help you?” I say.
“Oh.” I glance at Kenji, then at Haider. “Um, you don’t speak English?”
Haider raises a single eyebrow. “Do you only speak English?”
“Yes?” I say, feeling now more nervous than ever.
“That’s too bad.” He sighs. Looks around. “I’m here to see the supreme commander.” He has a rich, deep voice but speaks with a slight accent.
“Yep, hi, that’s me,” I say, and smile.
His eyes widen with ill-concealed confusion. “You are”—he frowns—“the supreme?”
“Mm-hm.” I paste on a brighter smile. Diplomacy, I tell myself. Diplomacy.
“But we were told that the new supreme was wild, lethal—terrifying—”
I nod. Feel my face warm. “Yes. That’s me. I’m Juliette Ferrars.”
Haider tilts his head, his eyes scanning my body. “But you’re so small.” And I’m still trying to figure out how to respond to that when he shakes his head and says, “I apologize, I meant to say—that you are so young. But then, also, very small.”
My smile is beginning to hurt.
“So it was you,” he says, still confused, “who killed Supreme Anderson?”
I nod. Shrug.
“I’m sorry,” Kenji interjects. “Did you have a reason for being here?”
Haider looks taken aback by the question. He glances at Kenji. “Who is this?”
“He’s my second-in-command,” I say. “And you should feel free to respond to him when he speaks to you.”
“Oh, I see,” Haider says, understanding in his eyes. He nods at Kenji. “A member of your Supreme Guard.”
“I don’t have a Supr—”
“That’s right,” Kenji says, throwing a swift shut up elbow in my ribs. “You’ll have to forgive me for being a little overprotective.” He smiles. “I’m sure you know how it is.”
“Yes, of course,” Haider says, looking sympathetic.
“Should we all sit down?” I say, gesturing to the couches across the room. We’re still standing in the entryway and it’s starting to get awkward.
“Certainly.” Haider offers me his arm in anticipation of the fifteen-foot journey to the couches, and I shoot Kenji a quick look of confusion.
The three of us settle into our seats; Kenji and I sit across from Haider. There’s a long, wooden coffee table between us, and Kenji presses the slim button underneath to call for a tea and coffee service.
Haider won’t stop staring at me. His gaze is neither flattering nor threatening—he looks genuinely confused—and I’m surprised to find that it’s this reaction I find most unsettling. If his eyes were angry or objectifying, I might better know how to react. Instead, he seems mild and pleasant, but—surprised. And I’m not sure what to do with it. Kenji was right—I wish more than ever that Warner were here; his ability to sense emotions would give me a clearer idea of how to respond.
I finally break the silence between us.
“It’s really very nice to meet you,” I say, hoping I sound kinder than I feel, “but I’d love to know what brings you here. You’ve come such a long way.”
Haider smiles then. The action adds a necessary warmth to his face that makes him look younger than he first appeared. “Curiosity,” he says simply.
I do my best to mask my anxiety.
It’s becoming more obvious by the moment that he was sent here to do some kind of reconnaissance for his father. Castle’s theory was right—the supreme commanders must be dying to know who I am. And I’m beginning to wonder if this is only the first of several visits I’ll soon receive from prying eyes.
Just then, the tea and coffee service arrives.
The ladies and gentlemen who work in Sector 45—here, and in the compounds—are peppier than ever these days. There’s an infusion of hope in our sector that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the continent, and the two older ladies who hurry into our room with the food cart are no exception to the effects of recent events. They flash big, bright smiles in my direction, and arrange the china with an exuberance that does not go unnoticed. I see Haider watching our interaction closely, examining the ladies’ faces and the comfortable way in which they move in my presence. I thank them for their work and Haider is visibly stunned. Eyebrows raised, he sits back in his seat, hands clasped in his lap like the perfect gentleman, silent as salt until the moment they leave.
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