These Broken Stars Page 31

The words come out before I can stop them, the compliment bypassing my better judgment entirely. But she smiles instead of brushing it off as condescension. It feels like the first hint of warmth all day, and suddenly I’m talking again. I want to keep her smiling.

“People come to our house to see things from the poems. Half the time the fence is broken and the shingles are falling off the roof, but my father puts the visitors to work helping him keep the cottage in one piece until my mother’s done working for the day. Then she comes downstairs to see them.”

She’s coming to life as I watch, laughing in her delight. “Oh, Tarver.”

It still feels strange to hear her say my first name. Not strange—thrilling. It’s as though I’m in an actual conversation for the first time in days.

She’s shaking her head. “I can’t believe it. Wait, no! The one about the tin soldier boy. Tell me that’s not you, I’ll die. I learned to recite it!”

I shake my head, leaning forward a little to look down at the photo she holds. “That was Alec.” And perhaps because I’m looking at the photo, I can smile when I say his name. I point to him. “That’s him there in the picture, with me on his shoulders.”

“He’s in the military too?” She leans down to get a good look at his face.

“He was,” I say, quieter. “He was killed in action.”

She looks up at me, eyes wide. “I’m so sorry.”

In this moment I know that this is what I wanted. This is what I wanted that night in the salon, and it’s what I’ve wanted every day since then.

She’s not looking at me and seeing a guy brought up on the wrong type of planet. She’s not seeing a soldier, or a war hero, or an uncultured lout who doesn’t understand how hard this is for her, or an idiot who knows nothing about the right kind of anything.

She just sees me.

“The two of you were becoming closer.”


“You confirm it?”

“You made a statement, I thought you already knew it was true.”

“Can you elaborate on how that came about?”

“I thought the purpose of this debrief was to discuss my impressions of the planet.”

“The purpose of the debriefing is for you to answer whatever questions we choose to ask you, Major. We’re asking about Miss LaRoux.”

“What was the question again?”

“Never mind. We can come back to it.”

“I’ll look forward to that.”



I KNOW A THOUSAND DIFFERENT SMILES, each with its own nuanced shade of meaning, but I don’t know how to reach the few feet away to touch this person next to me. I don’t know how to talk to him. Not when it’s real.

I settle for smiling at his stories, and spreading ointment from the first-aid kit on the rashes he’s getting from some of the plants. As dusk threatens, he heads out to check his snares. The second he leaves my side the world seems darker, bigger, and I brace for a new voice to slice the quiet. But instead there’s only the wind sighing through the tall grass and, in the distance, the sounds of Tarver moving across the plain.

I avert my eyes as he tends to the small, furred creatures he brings back, the fruits of his traps. I’m hungry enough that I’ll eat them, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch him gut them. He keeps up a steady stream of his stories as he works to distract me and cover the sounds, stories about his platoon, each more outrageous than the last. In the growing dark I can almost feel as though we are comfortable together, as though he enjoys my company rather than merely tolerating it—as though he’s volunteering these stories because he wants to make me laugh, not just keep me moving.

I watch as he builds the fire, paying attention for once. I should have been doing this from the start, in case he did leave me on my own—but now I don’t watch out of fear. Now I just want to know so I can help. He’s able to have only the tiniest of fires here due to the lack of fuel, nothing to help keep us warm tonight. But it’s enough to cook minuscule slivers of the meat, and for the first time since crashing on the planet my stomach feels as though it’s full of something real.

My eyes grow heavy as I huddle by the smoking remains of the fire. Tarver sits writing in that notebook of his by the last of the light, head bent low and close to the pages. The sun has set while we cooked, and what was a mildly unpleasant evening chill has turned into a piercing cold mitigated not at all by the tatters of my green dress. My cheer has plummeted with the temperature, and with his absence when he puts away his notebook and goes to deposit the remains of our dinner far enough away to avoid attracting visitors in the night. He doesn’t think the giant cats come out on the plains, but as he says, better safe than sorry.

I can’t help but wonder how many times over I would’ve died out here without Tarver keeping me alive.

When he returns I lift my head, but I’m too tired to try harder than that. Though I can feel the dynamic between us changing, I still don’t quite know how to talk to him. Wounded pride and bruised confidence keep me from saying what I wish I could say. I drop my head back onto my knees.

“Miss LaRoux.” Tarver crouches down beside me, a movement I know now so well I don’t need to see him to register it. “Lilac. It’s too cold out here on the plains. There’s not enough fuel to keep a fire going, and the wind is that much colder than in the forest.”

“No kidding.”

He laughs, and I realize I’ve borrowed his words. I sound like a soldier. I feel my cheeks beginning to heat. “If you insist,” he continues, watching me, “we can sleep back-to-back. But it’ll be warmer if you let me put an arm around you and tuck the blankets around us. I promise to think only the purest of thoughts.”

Surely he can see my face burning even in the darkness. I turn it away, letting the chilly wind cool my cheeks, as the rest of me shivers. “You don’t have to do that.”

“What’s that?”

“Pretend I’m—” I shrug, shake my head. I’m not angry with him, but there’s anger in my voice anyway. At my body’s betrayal, the way I can’t control my blush. How awkward he makes me feel, as though we’re partners in a dance where I don’t know the steps. Like I’m the ignorant one.

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