And I realize as I glance over at Darien, who seems to come to the exact same conclusion at the exact same moment:

Princess Amara is very much dead, and if they wake General Sond, there will be no one left to save the Federation Prince.

* * *

AS WE LEAVE THE STAGE, I train my mouth to stay in a straight line. Amon slaps Vance Reigns on the back for a job well done with one hand and slides his phone into his back pocket with the other. I can’t help but give both of them a wary eye. I guess I could have predicted General Sond as the new villain. You know, if they hadn’t killed Amara at the end of the Starfield reboot. So now I’m beginning to wonder, will someone else be immune to General Sond’s conscriptions? Will that just eliminate the importance and agency of how Amara defeated him to begin with?

Princess Amara is supposed to be unique in that way—she can’t be swayed or conscripted. She can barely be told no, for starflame’s sake.

I don’t like this.

I follow the rest of the cast down the private hallway and into the green room, which is little more than a hotel meeting space with a few chairs and a measly buffet. Darien grabs a water bottle and offers it to me. “You okay?”

“Hmm?” I don’t realize I’m chewing on my thumbnail until it’s too late, and quickly pluck it out of my mouth. “Oh. Yeah.”

“Is she okay?” he adds in a quieter tone, and my breath hitches. He means Jess. So he knows—like yesterday, he knows.

“Listen, Jess was—”

He puts a finger to his lips and his eyes flick to a nearby volunteer. Right, people could overhear us. You’re being real smooth, Imogen.

I whisper, “She’s fine. Did you—did you know? About…” I motion toward the film star in his golden cloak as he and Amon come into the green room.

Darien lifts an eyebrow. “No. I mean, I assumed there’d be another villain besides the Nox King, but we were told it’d be a surprise.”

“I wish it was a different surprise. I hate that guy,” Calvin interjects, coming between Darien and me. He grabs a sandwich from the snack table. We’re all staring across the green room at Amon and Vance laughing it up, feeling like we’re the old toys in a playroom. “No one asked me to go onstage in costume.”

“Or me,” Darien adds, and his voice has a weird edge.

“Didn’t Vance beat you for best stud of the year or something?” Calvin asks, earning a glare from his co-star.

“Thanks for reminding me,” Darien deadpans.

Calvin shrugs and chomps into a tuna melt.

My stomach growls. Jess didn’t tell me a rule about not eating in public, but I’m pretty frakkin’ sure she’d chase me down and stuff me in a hundred sardine cans if I blew tuna breath on everyone. I’m so hungry even Pizza the Hut sounds delicious right now.

“Crap, act natural, here they come.” Darien quickly turns toward me as Amon and Vance saunter over. Darien gives me a half smile, but it’s a weird one. Like he’s encouraging me that I have this. Why wouldn’t I?

Amon and Vance join us, but I can tell it isn’t because they want to shoot the breeze. I shouldn’t be here, I realize, looking around to see if I can escape. Jess’s assistant finally dips into the Green Room, making a beeline for me, but security stops him and asks for his badge. He pushes up his glasses as he assesses my situation.

“Help,” I mouth.

His eyes dart to the real actors—and then he shrugs and mouths something that looks suspiciously like “Don’t do anything stupid.”

Thanks, buddy.

“Jess, did you hear me?”

My ears prick as I whirl back to Amon.

“I, um…no.”

Amon laughs. “You’re always a breath of fresh air, Jess. I hope everyone enjoyed the panel. As I said, the script leaking is real. But we’ve been told by the higher-ups to sandbag every question—”

Say it now. You didn’t have a chance to on the panel. Bring up the #SaveAmara initiative.

“Actually,” I interrupt, “wouldn’t it be a good time to talk about some of the fan movements, especially the Save Am—”

“Amon,” Darien interrupts, giving me a strange look. “You said you needed to talk to me about something?”

The director claps his hands. “Right! Jess, can you excuse us? Just put a pin in our conversation and I’ll be back later.” He takes Darien by the shoulder and steers him away.

The strained smile across my lips falters. Why did Darien interrupt me? Does he do that in real life? Just interrupt people?

I guess being a movie star has gone to his head.

Calvin also slinks off, back to the snack table, where he picks up another tuna melt.

So now I’m alone. In the green room. With Vance Reigns, like, ten feet away.

General Sond. It’s still so weird. I’m not sure whether I’m absolutely terrified of him or really digging the long white-blond hair. He looks like Orlando Bloom as Legolas, and my childhood Lord of the Rings trash self is low-key screaming right now.

Okay, maybe not low-key.

My moms say I don’t do anything low-key.

Vance approaches me, sipping a cup of water.

“Where did everyone go?” he asks in a surprising English accent. I did not realize he was English.

“To, ah…they went…”

Brain, you have failed me for the last time.

“I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Vance,” he says. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you earlier. It was just my cue, and you know how we Brits like our queues.”

I think he’s trying to make a joke about standing in lines, but all I can do is stare at him.

I thought being flabbergasted by Darien was the extent of my fangirling, but this is insanely different.

One, Vance is single (and straight, with the exception of Ron Swanson), which means my inner monologue can’t scream but his girlfriend/boyfriend/partner! Thus the unoccupied part of my brain is already marrying him and having his children and—

Two, being in the same room with him is like being next to the sun. He is face-meltingly hot. His shoulders and chest are broad, his torso tapers down to thin hips and sturdy legs. I mean, not that his legs wouldn’t be sturdy, but you know the kind of legs where you just know, under the molten-golden trousers, that he can basically smash watermelons between them? Yeah, that’s the kind of thighs I’m picturing, and I think my knees have gone numb and oh dear god he’s way too close. He clasps his hands behind his back in this unassuming, almost boyish way and gives me a smile that exudes warmth and honesty and long walks on the beach, causing the system-wide meltdown of Imogen Lovelace.

Mayday. I am in trouble.

He’s playing the villain?

“So,” he says languidly, almost in a purr, and that coupled with the English lilt of his voice makes me remember how much I love accents. His, specifically, the way it forms around his lips. “You’re the infamous Jessica Stone.”

What are words? Who am I?

I think my ovaries are exploding.

“I…ah…” I have absolutely nothing in my head. It’s a blank slate. His smile renders me absolutely and ridiculously incompetent.

I didn’t think I was this kind of girl. I’ve never been speechless before.

Lies! my emergency reboot program howls. All lies!

He goes on, oblivious to my distress. “I know we kind of got off on the wrong foot. I honestly didn’t want to interrupt you, but Amon thought it would serve the best dramatic effect. I want to get off on the right foot, so…do you have plans tonight?”

What are plans?

I am a puddle of human flesh who can’t even form words because his eyes are the prettiest shade of blue I have ever seen and his eyelashes are long and his eyebrows are well groomed and his face has just enough stubble to make his General Sond cosplay believable and terrifying and…

So hot.

“Plans?” I squeak.

He smiles, and my melted brain goes into overdrive, launching a thousand OTPs. Sond and Carmindor. Sond and Euci. Sond and the Nox King. Sond and Amara. Sond and Zorine.

Sond and me.

“I was thinking we could get dinner.” His laugh jerks me from my stupor.


Think, Monster!

But it’s no use. I am now made of idiocy, my brain launching ships that I shall go down with—

An arm loops under mine and pulls me to the side. Sweet cologne, a starchy suit jacket. Ethan, I realize. “Sorry, but we have plans,” he says.

Vance’s face falls slightly. “Oh, that’s a pity. Well, all right then. If you do end up free tonight, I’ll be watching reruns of Parks and Rec in my hotel room here at the Marriott if you need me.”

“I’m here at the Marriott!” I gasp. We have so much in common already!

“Good. Maybe I’ll see you there.” Then he leans in and murmurs in my ear so Ethan can’t hear, “And maybe we can talk about saving Amara. I’ll call you tonight.”

He knows about my initiative?

He will call me tonight?

Au contraire, he can call on me anytime he—

Imogen, breathe.

Before I can muster up the brain power to say anything, Ethan clears his throat. “It was a pleasure, Vance. Jess, we have to go.”