Chapter no 43

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

Evangeline turned into a thousand pieces of panic. She kicked Apollo between the legs, but he was too heavy on top of her for her kicks to be effective. She was pinned to the bed by his body.

She tried to scream as his fingers crushed painfully against her windpipe.

Then he was choking, too—sputtering and coughing and losing his grip thanks to the mirror curse.

Evangeline could barely breathe, but as Apollo pulled away, she managed to grab the jar with the mirth stone and crawl out from under him.

Clumsily, she rolled off the bed. Everything was a blur. The dark room spun, candles flaring and smoking all at once. She was wheezing, stumbling on her legs. But somehow, she remembered the lever next to the bed.

She pulled on it with all her might. A cage immediately crashed down around Apollo. Bars clanked loudly into place, imprisoning him.

With a growl, he grabbed the bars. His face was feral, eyes still glowing red, but his words were a plea. “I’m sorry, Evangeline. I really don’t want to hurt you!”

“I know.” She staggered back. Into—


Veins pulsed in his neck; murder flared in his eyes as he glared at Apollo.

“Go,” he ordered Evangeline.

“You can’t hurt him,” she panted, and she tugged on Jacks’s shirt to get him to leave. “If you hurt him, it also hurts me. Remember?”

Jacks groaned something like, “Someday I will kill him.”

He put an arm around Evangeline.

“Get your hands off my wife!” Apollo cried.

Jacks pulled her closer and urged her toward the door.

Evangeline felt horribly torn. She couldn’t go back to Apollo—not when he was like this—but leaving with Jacks felt like a different sort of agony. He was always there to rescue her, and then he always left.

He was rough as he took her from the room, only pausing to slam the door behind them before he turned to her again. “What did he do to you?” Jacks’s jaw tensed when he saw

the blood staining her lips.

“I’m fine—I just—” I just need you to hold me. She wasn’t able to say it. She wasn’t even sure she projected the thought.

But then Jacks picked her up. She clung to him and buried her head in his shoulder.

He held her so tightly it hurt, but this pain she didn’t mind. She’d let him crush her, let him break her, just as long as he never let her go. This was what she wanted, and she refused to believe that he didn’t want it, too.

She could feel his heart pound against her chest as he carried her into the room next door to hers. It was a mess. There were apples and cores all over the desk. The sheets on the bed were thrashed. The fire was burning more than just logs. Clearly, she wasn’t the only one upset after they’d returned from the Hollow.

He kicked the door shut and brought her to the bed. “Little Fox, when I saw you, I thought—”

He broke off as he set her atop all the twisted sheets. Then he fisted her hair in his hand and tugged until she was looking up at him. His face had all the agony of a fallen star, broken and beautiful, with eyes so blue, the color of everything else looked dull.

Deliberately, his gaze fell to her lips.

Her breathing turned ragged, and she wished just once that he could kiss her.

He leaned closer and gently twisted her hair, angling her head as he brought their mouths incredibly close.

“You’re still bleeding.” He licked the center of her lips, soft and agonizingly slow. His tongue felt like heaven and hell. Like everything she wanted and all she couldn’t have. She had to stop herself from leaning closer, though she doubted Jacks would let her. She could feel his fingers against her scalp, holding her in place, keeping her lips just shy of his.

But maybe it was close enough. Maybe they didn’t have to touch. She could live like this as long as she could live with him.

Then he let her go. He dropped her hair and stepped away from the bed, making her skin go suddenly cold.

“What’s wrong?” she said. She could see him shutting down again, wiping the emotion from his face—the anger, the lust, the fear, the pain, the longing. It was just like the Hollow. This was what he’d done when she’d put the mirth stone in the pot. He’d shuttered all his feelings. He’d pretended everything had been because of the stone.

She’d suspected this was the case, but she hadn’t been certain until now.

“I have to go,” he said coldly.

“No—” She shoved up from the bed. This time, she wasn’t going to let him get away with shutting her out. “What are you so afraid of?”

A flicker of something like regret flashed in Jacks’s eyes. “What is it?” she pressed.

Jacks raked a hand through his hair. “Do you still want to know what the stones do when they’re together?”

“Yes,” she said. But suddenly, she felt nervous. This was the answer she’d been waiting for. The one she’d been begging for. All this time, she’d been dying to know what Jacks really wanted. For a while, she’d been afraid of it, because she didn’t want him to hurt anyone. But now from the way he looked at her, she suddenly feared the only person his answer would hurt was her.

Jacks crossed over to his desk and picked up a white apple. He tossed it as he said, “When the four stones are combined, a person has the power to return to any moment in their past. It can only be done once. Once the stones have been used for this purpose, they’ll never have the power to be used like this again.”

For a second, it didn’t sound so bad. Lots of people had moments they wanted to change. That day alone there were several things Evangeline would have done differently. “What moment do you want to go back to?”

Jacks looked at the apple in his hand as he answered. “I want to return to the moment I met Donatella.”

“The princess who stabbed you?” He nodded tightly.

For a second, Evangeline was speechless. Of all the answers, she did not expect this. She quickly flashed back to the night that she and Jacks had spent together in the crypt, when he’d finally told her the story of Princess Donatella—how he’d kissed her and it should have killed her, but instead, it made his heart beat. She should have

been his one true love, but Donatella chose another and stabbed Jacks in the heart.

“Why would you want to go back for her?”

Jacks worked his jaw. “She was supposed to be my one true love—I want another chance at that.”

“But this doesn’t make sense,” Evangeline said. “Why go to all this trouble for a girl who you don’t love?” Because Evangeline knew Jacks didn’t love Donatella. She might have believed it before, when she’d first heard the story, but Evangeline couldn’t fathom it now.

Jacks never talked about her, and on the rare occasions he did mention her, he didn’t sound as if he loved her.

“Is this just because you didn’t kill her? Or do you really want to be with her?”

Jacks’s nostrils flared. “This is a pointless argument.” He bit down hard on his apple. “And you won’t remember this anyway.”

Fresh panic gripped Evangeline. This was the second time he’d said that. The first time, in the Hollow, he’d made it sound as if he hadn’t really meant it, but now, Jacks’s voice was clear and hard.

“Why are you saying I won’t remember?” she asked. Although she feared she already knew. If Jacks went back in time, it wouldn’t just change his life, it would also alter Evangeline’s. That’s why he was saying she’d forget, because if Jacks created a new reality, none of this would happen. They would never even have this argument.

Everything that had occurred between Jacks and Evangeline since she’d come North had been a result of Jacks’s search for the arch stones. But if he managed to use them and rewrite his history, then he wouldn’t need to find them again—he wouldn’t need her.

Suddenly, Evangeline felt sick.

Jacks looked as if he didn’t care at all.

“If you go back in time, how much of my life will change?” she asked.

Jacks took another bite of his apple. “Your life won’t be entirely different. Time doesn’t wish to be changed—most things will reset themselves, unless someone actively fights to alter them. From what I’ve gathered, you’ll still find your way here—it just won’t be due to me. I imagine Chaos will accomplish bringing you here on his own. So, don’t worry, pet, you’ll still be a princess, and you’ll still have Apollo.”

“What about you? Will we ever meet?”

“No.” And if Jacks felt anything about it, the emotion didn’t show.

“Will you still remember me?”

“Yes,” he said with equal indifference. “But I’ll make sure our paths never cross.”

“But you just said my life wouldn’t change.”

“It won’t.” He took another bite of his apple. “You’ll find another way to stop Luc’s wedding. Poison, I imagine.”

“That wasn’t what I was talking about.” Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes. She couldn’t believe that Jacks didn’t care that she would forget him. That this moment and every other moment between them would be erased. That Chaos or Poison would simply replace him—that is, if his theory about her life staying mostly the same was correct. If he was wrong, there were so many other directions her life could take.

Although she wasn’t worried about that just then. All Evangeline cared about was that she was going to forget about him. Her breath was short, and her heart was pounding—she feared that at any moment it might just give out. And he was standing there eating an apple.

But she knew he felt something. She no longer believed anything that had happened between them in the Hollow was because of the mirth stone. The mirth stone didn’t

create bliss; all it had done was mend wounds and take away fear.

What was Jacks afraid of? What was his wound?

She was supposed to be my one true love—I want another chance at that. That’s what he’d said when Evangeline had asked why he wanted to go back to be with Donatella. He hadn’t said he loved her. He just wanted her because he believed she was his only chance at love. It really was because she was the one girl he hadn’t killed with his kiss.

“What if you’re wrong? What if Princess Donatella isn’t your only chance at love? You said that if I opened the Valory Arch, there was something inside that could cure the curse on Apollo. What if there’s something in there to help you, too? Maybe there’s a way that you can find another true love.”

Jacks ground his jaw and dropped his apple into the fire. “That’s not how it works.”

“Why won’t you at least try? Why is your only solution to go back in time for a girl who doesn’t love you?”

Jacks’s eyes turned into a storm.

Evangeline probably should have stopped there, but this was her last chance. If he went through with his terrible plan, she wouldn’t even know they’d ever met. Slowly, she walked toward where he stood and tilted her head to look up at him.

“If you really believe this is what you want, then you’re lying to yourself.”

“I’m not lying to myself,” Jacks snarled.

“Then tell me this is what you truly want. Swear you want this more than anything else and I’ll never mention it again.”

Jacks grabbed her by the shoulders and looked directly into her eyes. For a minute, he didn’t speak. He just looked

at her, at the remaining blood still on her lips and the dried tears staining her cheeks. “I swear this is what I really want.” He spoke each word like a vow. “I want to erase every moment you and I have spent together, every word you’ve said to me, and every time I’ve touched you, because if I don’t, I’ll kill you, just like I killed the Fox.”

Evangeline’s heart stopped.

She searched Jacks’s eyes, but all she saw was darkness, and all she felt was the press of his hands. He held on to her the way a person might grasp the edge of a cliff, knowing once they let go, there was no taking hold again.

And Evangeline could no longer avoid the truth she hadn’t wanted to see. Jacks was the Archer from The Ballad of the Archer and the Fox. That was the reason why he’d known so much about the Archer’s curse and why he’d been so insistent there was no way to break it, why he’d said he wasn’t friends with the Archer. He was the Archer.

Evangeline had feared it was true as soon as the Handsome Stranger had mentioned the first fox. But she’d dismissed it because she hadn’t wanted to be right. She hadn’t wanted that to be Jacks’s story—she wanted to be his story.

A tear slid down her cheek as she tried to imagine Jacks as the Archer, fighting not to hurt the girl he loved and failing. No wonder he was so damaged and cruel. No wonder he’d perfected the art of not caring.

“Sorry to break your fairytale, Little Fox, but ballads don’t end happily, and neither do the two of us.”

His hands dropped from her shoulders, and he started for the door.

“I’m not that fox!” Evangeline cried.

“You don’t understand.” He tossed a dark look over his shoulder. “Every girl is another fox. You want to know how

the story really ends? You want to know the part of the tale that everyone forgets?”

Evangeline told herself to shake her head. For so long, she’d wanted to know the end of this story, but now she wanted to forget it all. She wanted Jacks to simply be the Prince of Hearts again—the heartsick Fate looking for true love—rather than a fallen hero who’d found the love of his life and killed her.

“I thought you just told me how the story ended,” she said.

“I told you that I killed her, but I didn’t say how.” A dangerous intensity slipped into Jacks’s voice. “I didn’t tell you that I ran away, that I tried to leave her so I wouldn’t hurt her. I didn’t know if I really loved her, or if my feelings were all from the curse, because it wouldn’t let me stop thinking about her. But she had more faith in me than I did. She chased after me. She was convinced I really loved her and that I could fight the curse. And I did. I never laid a hand on her. I overcame the Archer’s curse. But it didn’t matter, because as soon as I kissed her, she died.” Jacks’s mouth twisted bitterly. “Since then, every girl I’ve kissed has died, except for one. And you are not that girl.”

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