Chapter no 34

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

Evangeline spun around at the sound of Jacks’s voice. She wanted to say she was just hunting for bread and cider—and that she wasn’t disturbed at all to see Jacks’s name paired with Aurora’s—but the words would not come.

Jacks was standing in front of her, in just a pair of dark trousers that were scandalously low on his hips. Evangeline felt flustered at the sight of him without a shirt. The ridges of his abdomen were marble smooth. He was perfect— except for the reddened row of bite marks trailing down his neck to his shoulder.

“Did I do all of that?” With a flash of mortification, she remembered biting down on him, but she’d thought she’d only done it once.

“You really don’t recall?” Jacks cocked his head to the side, and she swore it was just so she could get a better view of where her teeth had marked his skin.

She wanted to say she had no memories of biting Jacks’s neck, no intense flashes of digging her teeth into his shoulder, but once more, the words refused to come.

“I’ll cover them up. If you give me my shirt back.” Jacks’s eyes glittered as he let his gaze drift lower, past the meager buttons of the top she wore and down to her very naked legs.

She’d been warm before, but now her skin was on fire. She didn’t really think he’d take the shirt, but she never knew with Jacks.

His mouth inched up playfully, and he took a deliberate step toward her. “Speaking of things we don’t remember, I do have a question about something.” He traced a line down her neck with his finger and took hold of the chain at her throat.

It felt like being tossed into a barrel of ice water. With all that had happened, she’d forgotten that she had the truth stone.

“Don’t!” she cried.

But Jacks’s fingers were faster. They plunged down her shirt and made her gasp as he pulled out the glowing gold rock.

“What do we have here, Little Fox?” His voice took on a mocking lilt. “Was this a gift from Luc?”

“No!” she said, and she might have laughed with relief that he didn’t know what it was and then again at the disturbed look on his face. “Are you jealous of Luc?”

“I thought we already covered that yesterday. I’m always jealous. And so are you,” he added with a smirk. His eyes cut past her then to the names on the wall she’d been looking at: Aurora + Jacks.

And she couldn’t deny it. The feeling wasn’t as strong as it had been in the presence of the youth stone, more of a prickle than a burn, but it was there. She shouldn’t have been jealous. Aurora Valor was dead, and from what Evangeline had gathered, the circumstances around it were tragic. But in every book she’d read, Aurora was always described as the most beautiful girl to ever live. Last night, Jacks might have told Evangeline that Aurora was a pest, but here Jacks’s and Aurora’s names were linked together.

“Were you in love with Aurora?” she asked.

“No. I didn’t even know this was here.” He actually frowned, and she felt a little better. Which, again, made her feel silly.

Even if he had loved Aurora, it shouldn’t have bothered her. But it seemed the delirious feelings of attraction that she’d experienced so strongly yesterday hadn’t completely vanished.

It could have just been that Jacks was still standing a little too close, in only a pair of trousers, while she wore nothing but his shirt—and the necklace, which he still had yet to let go of.

She probably should have told him what the rock really was. But he’d certainly put it in another iron box, and there were so many questions she wanted to ask him.

Although it probably would be best to wait until Jacks wasn’t gripping the stone. She wasn’t quite sure how the stone worked, but she remembered that when she’d asked Petra questions she didn’t want to answer, the rock had flared with heat and she’d been compelled to tell the truth. If the stone warmed now, Jacks might know it was magic and steal it away from her.

“I’m hungry,” she announced. Then she pried Jacks’s fingers from the stone and started toward the tavern.



The Hollow’s tavern was just as welcoming as the rest of the curious inn, with lots of wood and candles and one wall of windows that looked out on a lake, which appeared as if it were full of stars instead of water. It was all glitter and night-glimmer, and she was already wondering what it would look like in the day.

Evangeline hadn’t noticed the lake upon her arrival, but given the condition she’d been in, she imagined there were lots of things she hadn’t noticed.

Like the rest of the Hollow, the tavern was empty of people, but every table and seat at the bar was set with fresh meals. Evangeline could see the steam rising from the food as she and Jacks sat at a cozy nook in the corner, near a clever triangle window that looked out upon the starry lake.

Their meals matched the ones that the hands on the clock had pointed to. There were two earthenware bowls of meat and dumplings, with thick slices of bread, mugs of spiced cider with dollops of cream, and dishes of honey pie.

It all smelled amazing, like the best parts of home and the sweetest of memories. She knew there were questions she still needed to ask, but she couldn’t resist sipping the spicy cider and taking a bite of one perfect dumpling.

Jacks smiled at her, a rare curve of his lips that looked genuinely happy. “You like it?”

“Yes,” she moaned, and she couldn’t even be embarrassed. She hadn’t finished her first dumpling yet, and she already had a feeling she’d be stealing a bowl from one of the other tables.

“Did you make all of this?”

Jacks raised a concerned brow. “You think I cook?”

“No, I suppose not.” And it really didn’t make sense that he would have fixed all this food. “I’m just trying to figure out what this place is.” She took a bite of honey pie, and it tasted like a dream. “Why does everything feel so different here?”

“Long ago, before the fall of the Valors, an enchantment was placed on the Hollow to protect it from a threat. But magic often has unintended results. In the case of the Hollow, this enchantment didn’t just keep the Hollow safe from one threat, it protected it from all curses and kept it unchanged throughout time.”

“And that’s why the food is all laid out like this,” she said.

“Like clockwork,” he said wryly as his long fingers tore a piece of bread and tossed it into his mouth.

She didn’t think she’d ever seen him eat something that wasn’t an apple. In fact, since they’d arrived, she hadn’t even seen him eat one. It made her think again of what he’d just said about the Hollow being a place that was protected from all curses. She wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with Jacks’s apples, but it did make her wonder about something else. “Did you bring me here because I’d be protected from the curse that binds me to Apollo? Is that why the slashes stopped as soon as we arrived?”

Jacks nodded once. “I imagined the mirror curse would be put on pause if you were here. And I had hoped you’d heal faster. The magic of the Hollow is fueled by time—what feels like hours here is really days elsewhere—so people tend to heal quickly.”

“Why didn’t you just bring me here before, when you first learned about the curse on Apollo?”

Jacks tore at another piece of bread. “I don’t ever come here. The Hollow used to be my home.” His eyes turned a bleak shade of blue.

Evangeline felt the urge to say she was sorry, but she wasn’t sure what for. All she knew was that her heart had cracked when he’d said the word home.

What had happened to change things? How had he turned from a boy with a family and friends into a Fate? And why did he no longer want to come here? To her, the Hollow felt warm and wonderful, but it clearly didn’t to Jacks.

“When was the last time you were here?”

“Right after I became a Fate.” Jacks’s countenance shifted as soon as the words were out.

It was like watching a spell break apart.

The fire crackled, and the tavern grew hotter as Jacks’s entire body tensed. He dropped the bread, hardened his

jaw, narrowed his eyes on Evangeline, then slowly lowered his stormy gaze to the chain around her neck. And this time, he didn’t ask if it was a gift from Luc.

“I think you’ve been naughty, Little Fox.” He made a tsking sound with his tongue. “Where did you find the truth stone?”

“I took it from Glendora Slaughterwood’s grave.” The words were out before she could stop them.

And then, before she could ask him something in return, he fired another question. “And you didn’t think to tell me about it?”

He sounded hurt or angry; it was hard to tell.

She felt a stab of guilt, but not that guilty as she realized he was now using the power on her, forcing her lips to spill the words, “I did think about telling you, but I didn’t want you to take the stone away.”

His hand shot across the table and took hold of the rock in his fist. For a second, she thought he might pull it clean off.

“Don’t, please—” Her entire body tensed, and then another truth she didn’t mean to say slipped out. “I just want to understand you, Jacks.”

He looked at her as if she was making a mistake, features softening with something like pity, and then he ripped the stone from the chain.

“Jacks!” She scrambled to chase him as he left the tavern, but he was too fast and she was still slow from her injuries. She’d never catch up. There was also a part of her that didn’t want to catch up, not when he was upset like this.

But she couldn’t let him go. She wasn’t sure how close she had to be for the truth stone to work, but there was still a question she had to ask and an answer she needed

confirmed. She shouted at him as he left the tavern. “Why do you want to open the Valory Arch?”

A frustrated growl came from Jacks’s throat. His footsteps halted just past the door. Then, almost too low for her to hear: “I don’t want to open it at all.”

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