Chapter no 24

The Ballad of Never After (Once Upon a Broken Heart, 2)

Evangeline may have been unsure about a number of things, but she knew for certain that LaLa had given her the most magnificent dress for dinner.

The gown made Evangeline feel as if she were wearing a happily ever after. She’d curled her pink hair and piled it loosely atop her head, pinning it in place with jeweled flower-shaped clips, so as to better show off the gown’s daring neckline. The cut left her shoulders mostly bare, save for the delicate straps that plunged down into a flattering V-cut neckline formed of ethereal fabric that looked as if it had been wept by the stars. Chips of broken gems, shimmering in shades of pink and blue and violet, covered the bodice and then gently dispersed over the hips of a flowing skirt with a slit that went up to her thigh. It was bold, and it made her feel adventurous as she spun in front of the wardrobe mirror, twirling until the broken gems glittered to life.

“What exactly are you doing?” Jacks drawled.

The breath left her lungs, and the broken heart scar on her wrist caught fire. She hadn’t even heard him enter. Evangeline stopped mid-twirl, her skirts still swishing as she caught his dashing reflection in the mirror.

Her heart gave a silly jolt. She tried to stop it. But while Jacks was many terrible things, there was no denying that

he was also painfully handsome. It was the golden hair. In certain lights, it looked like real gold, shining over eyes that glittered more than human eyes ever could. So maybe it was the eyes as well. And perhaps she could blame a little on his lips. They were perfect, of course, and right now they were smiling with amusement.

“So, this is what you do when I’m not around?”

Evangeline felt the sudden urge to hide inside her wardrobe, but she tamped it down as she turned and met his gaze with a smile of her own. “You think about what I do when you’re not around?”

“Careful, Little Fox.” He took a step forward. “You sound rather excited by the idea.”

“I’m not, I assure you,” she said, wishing she didn’t sound so breathless. “I merely like the thought that I torment you as much as you torment me.”

Jacks flashed one of his dimples, making him look deceptively charming. “So you’re the one who thinks about what I do when you’re not around?”

“Only because I know you’re up to no good.”

“No good.” He laughed as he said the words. “I would hope you know by now that I’m up to far worse than just ‘no good.’” Jacks slid his arm through hers.

Her stomach tumbled. She would have pulled away, but she didn’t want to reveal how much he affected her. Although she had a feeling he already knew, or he wouldn’t have taken her arm and pulled her so close to his side.

“Remember,” she said instead, “no killing anyone here.”

Jacks gave her an impressive scowl. “Some of these people deserve to die, you know.”

“But it’s LaLa’s party,” she reminded him.

He looked as if he wanted to keep arguing. It was actually impressive the way he held on to his scowl as they went

down flight after flight of steps to the great dining hall of Slaughterwood Castle.

“Can you at least try to smile?” she asked. He flashed his teeth.

“That looks predatory.”

“I am predatory. So is everyone else here,” he whispered. At the door, knights in full armor greeted them by uncrossing a pair of lances, and once again, Evangeline felt

as if she were entering an old tale.

A small forest must have been killed to build this dining room. The arched ceilings were at least five stories high, and Evangeline immediately saw why.

There was a trebuchet just beyond the entry, massive and rather horrible. The dining hall had clearly been built around the enormous weapon—in fact, the whole manor might have been.

Jacks appeared unimpressed by the structure, barely sparing it a look as they stepped deeper into the hall.

Aside from the trebuchet, everything else was tasteful. The walls were covered in panels of aged stained glass that glittered under sprawling chandeliers shaped like branches of jeweled flowers. Then there were the actual flowers. Garlands of gold and white blooms had been strung from wall to wall, filling the air with their sweet perfume as some of the petals drifted down like snow, covering the shoulders of guests who had started pouring into the seemingly endless room.

LaLa had yet to arrive, but the hall was buzzing with gentlemen wearing embroidered doublets and ladies with tiaras in their hair, baubles in their ears, and sparkling gems at their wrists and throats. So many gems. Any one of them could have been a missing arch stone. But thus far, Evangeline didn’t feel any magic pulsing from the people

she brushed past. She’d have liked to talk to some of them, but they all made a point of not looking her way.

This party was not going at all how she’d imagined. In her head, she’d pictured an event infused with the magic of the mirth stone, full of joy and smiles. But it seemed the only smiles were for Jacks.

Passing guests nodded at him, remarked on the new brilliant color of his hair, or waved and said, “Good evening, Lord Jacks.”

There were no greetings for Evangeline. The servants carrying platters of meats and trays of heavy goblets were treated with more regard than she was.

“It’s because you’re not from a Great House,” Jacks said quietly. “You could be the queen and they still wouldn’t like you.”

“They all seem to like you,” she whispered.

Just then, a pair of girls drifted closer. One wet her lips before smiling at Jacks, and the other was even bolder. Evangeline watched her meet Jacks’s eyes before brazenly bringing a goblet of wine to her breasts and tracing the low cut of her dark plum gown with the rim.

“Are you controlling them?” Evangeline asked. “Don’t need to.” Jacks winked at the pair.

They giggled in response.

Evangeline decided she didn’t like the sound of giggling.

She pulled her arm free of Jacks’s. The room was feeling hot and stuffy and far from magical. “Maybe we should visit the veranda to look for the stones,” she said.

But Jacks was no longer paying attention to her.

His eyes were on the door where another young woman had just walked in. An extremely beautiful girl dressed in a tight, low-cut raven-black gown and long black gloves that contrasted with the moonlight-colored hair that spilled down her back in a long shimmering curtain.

“Do you know her?” Evangeline asked.

“She looks familiar,” Jacks said quietly, eyes still fixed on the young woman as she glided into the hall and took a pewter goblet of wine.

Evangeline had no reason to dislike this girl and her moonlight hair. Yet she felt something twist inside her as she watched Jacks’s eyes follow the young woman. She moved through the crowd toward a pair of well-dressed young men, who appeared more than happy to engage her in flirtations.

Thankfully, she wasn’t wearing a necklace or a bracelet that Evangeline could see. Though even if she had worn ropes of jewels around her throat, Evangeline would have put off talking to her.

She cast her eyes about the great firelit hall to continue her search. She mostly looked at the women and the rocks around their throats. But there were also quite a few men with gemmed buttons on their doublets and jeweled medallions around their necks. Some of the medallions even had impressions of shields, though unfortunately none of the shields had flames like the one on Evangeline’s sheet of clues.

Across the room, a young man smiled when he caught her spying.

He was handsome, and she didn’t look away. He wasn’t wearing a medallion, but he did have jewels on his silver doublet. They sparkled as he took a second goblet from a servant and held it out as an offering. Hello, he mouthed.

Evangeline cut a quick look at Jacks.

He was still distracted by the girl with the moonlight hair.

She took this as a chance to step away and cross the room toward the gentleman with the drink.

He wasn’t quite so young or attractive up close. But his sapphire buttons were very sparkly, and his voice was kind. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’m Almond Froggly.”

He held out the drink.

Jacks intercepted the wine before she could take it. “Go away, Almond. Evangeline isn’t going to marry you.”

Almond’s cheeks flushed red as beets, and without another word, he did as Jacks commanded.

“Jacks,” Evangeline hissed. “I was just talking to him to see if he had the stones.”

“He didn’t,” Jacks said. “Someone that boring couldn’t have magic. And he’s not from one of the Great Houses.”

“That doesn’t mean you can just control him.”

“No controlling, no killing. You’re taking all the fun out of this party, Little Fox.” Jacks drank from the goblet of wine in his hand. “Since we’re looking for magic stones, we need to talk to people who seem magical.”

He tipped his drink toward a trio of girls wearing glorious forest-green dresses and tiaras that sparkled like treasure. “They’re all from House Darling.”

They were beautiful as well. Clearly sisters, from the look of it. They were all graceful moves and serene smiles as they sipped their drinks and waved away servants with trays of meat pies and honeycomb-drenched cheeses.

Evangeline tried to remember what she’d read about House Darling as they approached and all three girls widened their smiles to genuine grins at the sight of Jacks.

“It’s so wonderful to see you, Lord Jacks.” The tallest of the sisters put her hand on his cheek, and Evangeline felt that horrible twist inside of her again.

Sense any magic? Jacks asked silently.

Evangeline shook her head. She hoped that would mean they would walk away. But although Jacks wasn’t usually nice to anyone, he was being polite to these sisters.

“Why have you not come to visit?” said the girl who’d touched his cheek. “And when did you change your hair?”

She reached up again to run her fingers through Jacks’s golden locks. Evangeline felt a surge of discomfort and took that moment to step away again. And—

She crashed into the chest of a tall young man with thick black hair, smooth bronze skin, and a smile that made her knees weak.

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