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Chapter no 25

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

Evangeline was not too proud to admit that she was easily dazzled. She liked pretty stories and pretty things, and this young man was far more than just pretty.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she couldn’t even feel embarrassed that she was breathless.

His voice was deep and his handsome face was touched with a smile that widened as he said, “It’s entirely my fault. I was hoping to bump into you, and I may have been a little too eager.”

He reached for her hand, and Evangeline felt a sudden thrill. He wore a ring! A shining, roughly cut black jewel. A powerful thing that looked as if it could have been enchanted.

She waited to feel a zing of magic from his ring as he took her fingers and brought them to his lips, but there was merely that gentle tingly feeling that came from being appraised by someone who found her attractive.

“I’m Merrick of House Redthorne,” he said. “I’m Evangeline.”

“And I’m Jacks,” Jacks said, appearing beside Evangeline, no longer wearing the smile he’d shared with the Darling girls. “How’s your new wife, Merrick?”

The young man blanched. “She passed last autumn.”

“How tragic.” Jacks’s voice was all false surprise. “Didn’t your previous wife pass the autumn just before that one?”

“She did. I’ve had quite bad luck,” Merrick bit out.

“Well, then it’s probably best you not pass it on to Evangeline.” Jacks grabbed her arm.

She started to object, but before she could finish, Merrick Redthorne was gone.

Evangeline glowered at Jacks.

“You’re welcome,” he said smugly.

“You didn’t have to scare him away. I wasn’t going to marry him.”

“Good, because if you did, you’d be dead next autumn.” He dropped her arm.

Evangeline gritted her teeth. Of course Jacks could flirt with girls, but she couldn’t even talk to a man. “I’m already married, Jacks. I was speaking to Merrick because he had a ring with a stone!”

“Everyone in here has a ring.” “You don’t.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, I am not everyone, Little Fox.” His eyes dropped to her lips, searing her mouth with one sharp look and instantly reminding her of what he could do with a single kiss.

Evangeline bit down on her lip, just to taunt him back.

Something primal flashed behind Jacks’s eyes—desire or anger, she couldn’t quite tell. All she knew was that her mouth felt swollen from the force of his gaze and the inescapable sense that he wished to be the one biting down on her lip instead.

And for a second, she wondered what that would be like. She imagined him taking her lips right there, in the middle of the party, tangling his fingers through her hair, holding her close while everyone watched.

She tried to shove the idea away, but it seemed she wasn’t fast enough.

Jacks’s mouth kicked up as if he knew what she’d been thinking, and then his gaze plunged lower, moving from her lips to her neck, until it rested on the swell of her breasts, where her heart was suddenly pounding.

Laughter trilled in the background and glasses clinked together, but it sounded much farther away than it should have. Evangeline could no longer feel the crushing warmth of all the guests; there was only Jacks. He watched her the way you weren’t supposed to watch someone when they knew that you were looking—bold and unabashed and utterly inappropriate.

“You’re looking a little hot, Little Fox. Perhaps you should step outside while I keep searching for the stones.” His eyes left hers and landed once again on the young woman with the moonlight hair, who was now surrounded by half a dozen young men who were practically salivating. “She looks a little magical. I think I’ll start with her.”

“She doesn’t have stones,” Evangeline said tightly. “What about—”

She tossed a look in the other direction, right as LaLa arrived on the arm of a young man who must have been Lord Robin Slaughterwood. He had wild red hair, two swords strapped to his waist, and a laugh that carried across the hall like celebratory music.

“We should greet Robin and LaLa.”

Jacks’s gaze immediately darkened. “We need to keep searching for the stones.”

“I know—that’s why we should say hello. Look at the way people respond to Robin. He could have the mirth stone.”

Evangeline didn’t actually see any stones on Robin—even his family ring appeared to be made of metal instead of gems—but his wide grin was infectious. As he and LaLa

worked through the crush, they left a trail of laughter. Within seconds, the party seemed more alive. Conversations grew louder, smiles notched wider, goblets practically leaped from serving platters into hands.

“It’s also the polite thing to do,” said Evangeline. Jacks sighed reluctantly.

Evangeline imagined that was as close to a yes as she’d receive. A moment later, they were queued to greet the happy couple.

LaLa, of course, embraced Evangeline immediately. “I knew that dress would be a dream on you. You look ravishing, my friend!”

“So do you,” Evangeline said.

LaLa was always radiant, and tonight was no exception. She wore a series of gold and pearled headbands that dripped even more pearls and gold into her long dark hair, making it look like ocean treasure. Her eyes were lined in gold as well. But her dress was oddly plain. LaLa had changed from her dazzling sequined gown into a sedate burgundy dress with long conservative sleeves that covered up the vibrant dragon fire tattooed on her arms.

Evangeline might have thought it had something to do with Robin—perhaps he didn’t approve of tattoos. But he didn’t seem to have a disapproving disposition, and he had a sword tattooed along his forearm. So that could not be it.

“This is my fiancé.” LaLa looked up at Robin adoringly, and he smiled down on her with all the gentle focus of someone very much in love. And it didn’t appear to have anything to do with a magical stone. Now that they were closer, she could see for sure that Robin wore no gems.

As he turned to Evangeline, his grin shifted from affectionate to delighted.

“Finally, the infamous Evangeline Fox! LaLa has told me the stories aren’t true, but I’ve loved hearing them.” Robin

wrapped her in a bear of a hug, briefly robbing Evangeline of breath, before he set her feet back on the ground. “You are very welcome to my home.”

“Thank you for inviting me, and congratulations on your engagement. I’m so very happy for both of you.”

“As am I,” Jacks drawled.

Robin turned to him. “I don’t believe we’ve had the honor of meeting?”

“This is Lord Jacks,” LaLa inserted.

“Lord Jacks,” Robin repeated, still smiling but looking vaguely perplexed. “Which House are you from?”

“I’m from a very old House.” Jacks took a sip from his goblet. “Everyone in my family died a long time ago.”

LaLa’s smile fell away. For a second, she looked as if she could have strangled Jacks with her small hands, but instead, she slipped an arm through Evangeline’s. “Shall we start the procession to the dining table? I don’t know about all of you, but I’m famished.”

This put a smile back on Robin’s face, but Evangeline felt unsettled as she and LaLa started toward a long table laid out with a lavish feast. There were cooked swans, stuffed goats’ heads, and what looked like a baked rooster riding atop a cooked pig.

Evangeline lost sight of Jacks in the procession, but she couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said. I’m from a very old House. Everyone in my family died a long time ago.

He could easily have been talking about the Valors. All of them were dead, but then so was everyone from House Merrywood.

It was tempting to ask LaLa about the comment, but her friend had looked so unsettled, Evangeline didn’t have the heart to bring it up. And it was probably better if, tonight, Evangeline focused on finding the missing stones, not Jacks’s past. Although she couldn’t shake the feeling that

Jacks’s mysterious past was the entire reason he wanted to open the Valory Arch.

 

 

During dinner, Evangeline found herself separated from Jacks.

He was at the other end of the table, seated next to the Darling sisters. He seemed to be in good humor again as he tossed an apple and winked at the tallest Darling girl who’d touched his cheek before. She giggled loudly.

Evangeline averted her gaze, determined to return to her search for the stones. But she couldn’t seem to focus on anything except the sound of the Darling girl’s giggling. It trilled down the table, so light and bright Evangeline swore it made the glassware chime. It also made something terrible twist inside of her. Something a lot like jealousy.

Or maybe it truly was jealousy, as much as Evangeline was loath to admit it.

She didn’t want to feel envious for Jacks’s attention. She didn’t want to wish that he would try to make her laugh, instead of constantly tormenting her. But the feeling was so powerful, so strong, so—

Evangeline suddenly remembered the last time she’d felt emotions this intense. It had been when the luck stone was present. Perhaps this meant another arch stone was near. She recalled then what Jacks had said when he’d warned her about the stones: People will kill to hold on to their youth. It could also bring about jealousy.

That was it! The youth stone must be close. Evangeline felt a wave of relief; she wasn’t actually jealous, she was just feeling the effects of the youth stone. This was probably what Jacks had been feeling, too, whenever he’d stepped in to prevent her from talking to other young men.

Evangeline’s eyes darted around the people sitting near her. On her right sat Almond Froggly, who focused on his mead and didn’t so much as twitch her way.

To her left, the seat was still empty. There was just a wooden placard for someone named Petra Youngblood.

“That would be me.” The young woman with the moonlight hair glided into the empty chair.

Evangeline stiffened.

She felt instantly guilty about it. She had no reason to dislike this Petra Youngblood. It was jealous and petty— undoubtedly another side effect of the youth stone. Doing her best to shove the feelings aside, Evangeline said, “It’s lovely to meet you. I’m Evangeline.”

“I think everyone here knows that,” Petra said with a conspiratorial wink.

She was friendlier than Evangeline would have imagined. As they chatted, it became easier to shove aside any lingering feelings of jealousy. In fact, after a few minutes, Evangeline was suddenly struck with a peculiarly familiar feeling that she and Petra had met before, or at the very least crossed paths prior to tonight.

“Were you at my wedding?”

“Oh no.” Petra laughed softly. “I’m a Youngblood.” “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that name.”

“Exactly,” Petra said wryly. “People like me, who aren’t from one of the Great Houses, don’t get invited to royal weddings in Valorfell. I’m lucky to have been asked here.”

“It didn’t really look that way to me, given how all the gentlemen seemed to respond to you.” Evangeline regretted the petty words as soon as they were out.

But Petra only widened her pretty smile. “It seems you’re not as naive as they say, after all. Although, perhaps you should pay a little more attention to the gentleman you came here with.” Petra’s eyes slowly swept around all the

lords and ladies at the table until she eventually paused at the far end where—

Jacks was gone. His seat was vacant; all that remained was an apple core left on his otherwise empty plate. The seat beside his was empty as well—the one where the tall Darling girl had been.

Evangeline felt her stomach drop. She hoped that Jacks hadn’t snuck off with this girl to do what Evangeline suddenly feared he might do.

But he wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t do that. He’d promised not to kill anyone.

Evangeline cast a nervous look about the hall.

Maybe he’d just taken the Darling girl to look at the trebuchet. Or—

“You might want to look toward the portrait door.” Petra slowly pointed a gloved finger toward a gilded frame that was slightly cracked away from the wall, revealing an entry behind it.

Evangeline quickly shoved up from the table.

“Wait—” The girl grabbed Evangeline’s wrist. For a second, she looked surprisingly concerned. “Just let them go, Princess. All you’re going to do is embarrass yourself.”

Other people were, indeed, looking her way, judging her over the rims of their goblets. Her pride warred with her to sit back down. There was a chance she was wrong about what Jacks had gone off to do. But she doubted that. If Jacks had covertly left with another girl, she didn’t imagine he was simply playing checkers. He was going to kiss her and kill her.

Evangeline left the table. Her stomach churned as she made her way to the edge of the boisterous dining hall and reached the gilded frame that had been pulled away from the wall.

The portrait inside the frame was of Glendora Slaughterwood, wearing an embroidered red gown covered in broken hearts and a smile that looked sad as she watched Evangeline slip through the secret door.

The corridor on the other side was spiderwebbed and dim, and it smelled of secret trysts, musky and more than a little smoky from the torches jutting out of the walls. Between the flames, she caught glimpses of words carved over and over into the stone. Glory in Death. Glory in Death. Glory in Death.

Evangeline hugged her arms to her chest. She wasn’t sure what this place was, but she didn’t like that even the walls seemed to be encouraging Jacks.

Jacks, she cried silently.

There was no response.

Jacks, she tried again. If you can hear me, I’m asking you to stop whatever you’re doing.

Nothing. Just the brush of her slippers against the aged stones.

And then—her ears caught the thrum of Jacks’s seductive voice, saying soft things in the dark. Her chest felt tight. She couldn’t determine what he said. But Evangeline knew the low cadence of his voice.

She sped around the corner, nearly ripping the slit of her skirt in her haste.

The torches gleamed brighter, and the smoke grew thicker, swirling around Jacks’s golden hair as he dipped his head toward the Darling girl. Her neck was arched and her eyes were closed.

Evangeline’s blood rushed to her ears as she watched Jacks trace the girl’s lower lip before—

“Stop!” she shouted.

The girl opened her eyes with a gasp.

Jacks was slower to move. He left his fingers on the girl’s open mouth as he took his time dragging his hooded eyes to Evangeline. “Your timing is terrible, Little Fox.”

I can’t believe you were going to kiss her! Evangeline

seethed silently.

Jacks lifted a cavalier shoulder and said in a silent voice only Evangeline could hear, The dinner was getting boring.

“You really do have terrible luck with boys, don’t you?” The Darling girl gave Evangeline an unconvincing frown— the kind that somehow looked like a smile, as if she loved the idea of Evangeline having horrid luck with boys.

For a second, it was tempting to turn away and leave this girl with Jacks to let her see who actually had wretched luck with boys, since she clearly had no idea who the boy she was about to kiss really was.

Evangeline instantly felt ashamed for even having the thought. Yet it still wasn’t easy to look the girl in the eye and say, “You need to go right now.”

“I think I’m comfortable where I am. You’re the one who doesn’t belong, Princess.” She snickered as her hand moved to Jacks’s chest and boldly undid one of his buttons.

Evangeline’s heart twisted again. She didn’t want to feel this. She didn’t want to feel anything for Jacks, and she especially didn’t want to be jealous of this girl he was about to kill. But jealousy wasn’t a reasonable emotion, all it saw was another girl being wanted and touched.

She told herself it was just the youth stone, but they were far from the party now, and this girl wasn’t wearing any gems. She’d had a tiara on earlier, but it had been discarded.

You should go, Jacks echoed in Evangeline’s thoughts. I’ll

clean this up when I’m done.

His eyes met hers, more black than blue in the torchlight and utterly unmoved as the Darling girl undid another

button.

How can you be so unfeeling? Evangeline thought.

Jacks stroked the Darling girl’s cheek, his eyes still on Evangeline. How can you keep mistaking me for someone who cares?

Go ahead, then. Evangeline crossed her arms over her chest. If he could be terrible, she could be stubborn. Let’s see if your kiss is really worth dying for.

The torch lamps flickered, and Jacks’s gaze darkened.

“What’s she still doing here?” the girl moaned. She reached for another one of Jacks’s buttons.

He grabbed the girl’s hands by the wrists and shoved her away.

“What are you doing?” she screeched.

Jacks sighed. “Go back to dinner, Giselle. Flirt with someone else until you find a nice husband.”

“But you said—”

“I lied,” he cut her off.

The girl’s face fell, cheeks bursting with pink, and Evangeline felt a brief surge of pity as Giselle quickly shuffled past, disappearing down the dim corridor and leaving Evangeline alone with Jacks.

“Happy now?” He took a threatening step toward her.

Evangeline resisted the urge to take a step back. She didn’t think she’d moved, but the cold wall was suddenly at her back, and Jacks was so close—and so much taller than she ever realized—she had to tilt her head to meet his heartless eyes. “You told me you wouldn’t kill anyone.”

“No,” he said. “You told me I wouldn’t kill anyone. I told

you that was a terrible plan.”

“But you didn’t need to kill her,” Evangeline argued.

“What do you know about what I need?” Jacks’s long fingers grazed the slit of her skirt.

She swallowed a gasp. The touch had to be an accident.

He flashed a dimple as his fingers moved under the fabric, stroking her bare thigh as he gently parted the slit in her skirt.

This definitely wasn’t an accident.

The tips of his fingers were soft, deceptively gentle, as they traveled higher and … higher. She told herself to pull away—this was Jacks and he was evil—his hand was definitely doing wicked things. But the racing of her heart didn’t feel like fear just then. The rush of her blood and the tingling of her skin felt good. He felt good.

His touch was clearly making her delusional.

Evangeline really needed to push him away. But she grabbed his shirt instead, fisting the fabric in her hands.

He smiled, only it wasn’t kind. It was like the wicked end of a fairytale, all sharp teeth that glinted under the torchlight. This was a mistake. A dangerous mistake. She reminded herself he’d just been touching another girl. But it was hard to care when he knew exactly how to touch her. How to make her feel like she was the one he’d wanted all this time.

His other hand slowly reached for her hip and hitched it up over his.

Her breath caught in her throat.

“Still think you know what I need?” He pressed in closer, lips nearly grazing her jaw and sending a shiver over her skin as he whispered, “I’m not a human, Evangeline. And I’m not your friend, or your husband, or your lover.”

“I never said you were,” she breathed.

“Then don’t try to make me act like it. It doesn’t end well.” The fingers under her skirt turned rough and something vicious flashed in his eyes. Enough to make her finally feel a spike of fear. “This doesn’t end well.” His fingers pressed harder.

Evangeline gasped, and at last she pushed him away. “There is no this—I’m married.”

Jacks ran his finger over the smirk playing on his lips. “You keep saying that, Little Fox, as if it’s something I should care about.”

A heartbeat later, he was gone.

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