“Like they’re real?” Finally, he let that drop. “I got out ahead of the troops, but they’re on my ass. They camped just north of Sterling. If there’re no storms, they could be here as early as tomorrow. They’re goan to take you and your mother if you doan leave.”
“Why should I believe you? They might be riding in to save us. We’ve been waiting for this since the Flash.”
“They’re coming, Evie. I swear it.” He lifted a chain around his neck, pulling a jet-black rosary out from under his T-shirt. The beads glinted in the candlelight. The unusual cross was small but ornate. “And I swear to God that you will wish they’d never laid eyes on you.”
I almost . . . believed him. I vaguely noted that I’d seen that rosary before, then asked, “Did you tell my mom about this?” He nodded. “What did she say?”
He regarded his knuckles, running a finger over a scar. “That the decision to stay or leave was yours.”
What if I decided to leave once and for all? Away! Out into the world at last!
As ever, I tamped down that impulse, guilt suffusing me.
And why should it be my call anyway? I never thought I’d crave authority so dearly! “Even if your story is true, I can’t travel with her. She’s injured, and we’ve got one—malnourished—horse. How am I supposed to get her away from an army?”
“You could ask me for help. Or are you too proud?”
“I would do anything to keep her safe.” I met his gaze. “That big army will have medics, a surgeon even. One could be on his way directly to us this very minute. I’m not going to risk her life fleeing from the one person who could help her.”
“You’re not listening to me, Evie—”
“You’re not listening to me,” I bit out in a low, furious tone. “I said anything.”
Suddenly I understood what had driven my mom to do whatever it took to get me well last year. All I’d thought about was how horrific CLC had been for me. I hadn’t considered how agonizing it must have been for her to drop off her daughter there, leaving her behind.
“You can say anything—because you doan know what that means with these people.” He looked like he was about to argue more, but whatever he saw in my expression made him think better of it. He muttered, “Tête dure.” Hard head. “We’ll talk after dinner, yeah.”
“I brought gator meat. It’s goan to melt in your mouth.”
I fell silent. That would be the first meat we’d had since Allegra had hoofed a rare rattlesnake to death two months ago. Maybe if Mom got protein, it’d help her heal!
As if he could read my mind, he said, “Your mère could use a good meal.”
Game. Set. Match.
Then I remembered that the cellar looked like a Thanksgiving circular. Would he find all of my stores? I’d meant to pickle the rest, so they wouldn’t be so obvious.
“That’s right, Evie. I figure with all those fresh vegetables, we ought to have a stew.”
Shit! I jutted my chin, saying nothing. Would he tell Mom? Had he?
“And out in the barn, I found rows of crops. Real, live, honest-to-God crops. You want to explain that? I’ve been racking my brain, trying to figure out that puzzle all afternoon.”
“You broke into our barn?”
“After you locked the doors right in front of me?” He gave me that Cajun shrug. “You ought to know by now that if Evie Greene’s got something she doan want me to discover, I’m goan to come up with a way to.”
“Did you tell my mom about them?”
“I figured out that she didn’t know and kept my mouth shut.”
“It would only upset her.”
“Woan upset me. So tell me about these crops of yours. You paint them on your walls—do you coax them from fallow ground? Maybe you got other talents besides seeing the future?”
“Stop talking about that!”
“You tell anyone else about what’s in your barn?”
“Of course not!”
He met my gaze, his eyes dark and intense. “Doan you ever tell another, no. You can’t imagine what people would do for those crops. You hear me?”
Shivers slipped up my spine. “No one but you, that is?”
“I need to know how you got them plants to grow, Evangeline.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Silver bells and cockleshells.” Blood streams and freaky dreams and dizzy maids all in a row.
The corners of his lips curled. “You and your secrets. Ah, peekôn, just when I think I’ve solved one mystery about you, up comes another one. I will figure you out one day. En garde, cher. Consider yourself warned.”
“I can’t believe you just welcomed him into our home. Without even talking to me?” I demanded as I plaited Mom’s hair.
She wanted to “look presentable” for our first cooked dinner in ages, and for our first company since the Flash.
She’d entreated me to dress up as well, to be respectful of the effort Jackson alone was making—since he’d refused all her offers of my help.
I’d scoffed, until she finally said, “Dress up, Evie. Or go downstairs and insist on making yourself useful.”
An actual order from Mom? I’d chosen the lesser of two evils, dragging on one of the few nice outfits that still fit me, a Nanette Lepore wrap dress with complementing blocky heels. I even wore my diamond earrings and a coat of precious lip gloss.
With a pang, I’d donned the necklace Brand had given me the night before he died.
“How could I have talked to you about Jack?” Mom asked now. “You were knocked out.”
“And you didn’t suspect that he might have been the one to hurt me?”
“Honestly, Evie, his explanation made perfect sense—I’m surprised you haven’t shot yourself in the foot by now. Besides, I have a good feeling about him.”
“What did you tell him about me?” I finished her braid, smoothing a lock here and there.
“That you’re special. That you have a purpose in this world. And that you’ll need support in order to fulfill it.”
Not too bad of a reveal. What mother wouldn’t say that about her daughter? “Please don’t tell him any more about us, about our business. He’s not the nice boy you think he is. Not like Brandon was.”
I thought back to the last time I’d seen my first and only boyfriend, recalling his smile as he’d gone off to do battle for me, saving me from getting gaffled. I should’ve told him that I loved him—instead of “You’re the best.”
And it was because of the Cajun that I’d never gotten to speak to Brandon ever again.
“Don’t be so hard on Jack, honey. Everything’s different now. He even said he’s going to fix my car tonight. Imagine that.” She sighed. “Having a car.”
Early on, Mom and I had talked about going to North Carolina to find Gran. I’d asked her, “Do you really think she’s still alive?”
Mom had cried, “I have to.”
Three things had kept us here: the lack of a vehicle, our wait for order to be restored, and the ready sources of water.
The wells were getting low, and apparently, order wasn’t forthcoming. But a car might be. “Do you believe what Jackson said about the militia?”
She nodded. “If there are so few women survivors, and if those men truly think there will never be another government . . . Evie, people with no hope for the future can be very dangerous.” She paused, seeming to think of the exact right way to phrase her next words. “I know this is hard for you to understand, but things can get worse for us, for anyone who’s left.”
“But they’ll probably have a doctor who could fix you right up.”
She shook her head. “And they’ll marry you off to some old man. If you’re lucky.”
“You were trying to set me up with animal control!”
“Until Jack came along. He’s so considerate. Not to mention gorgeous! Did you get a load of his shoulders? And that rakish grin?”
I’d always thought of it as a smirk.
“He’s strong, resourceful, and intelligent. He can take care of you.”
And what about you? “If I have to marry some geezer to get you well”—to save your life—“then that’s my decision.”
“Forget it, Evie.”
“Why do you get to sacrifice for me, but I can’t do the same?”
“Because I’m your mother.”
“You think I wouldn’t do whatever it takes to get you medical attention?”
“That’s precisely what I’m afraid of.” She started coughing, which only steeled my resolve.
“Why don’t we see how you feel in the morning?” I said, wondering if her side could get any tighter, any darker over the night. “We can decide then.” I’d already decided.
I thought she’d argue more, but she let it go. “Regardless, we need Jack.” At my bug-eyed look, she added, “You could get him to stay with us, if you were nice to him.”
“I admit he’s handy. But everything in me says not to trust him.” He’d lied to me, stolen from me, played me for a fool.
“That’s a shame. Because I asked him to look out for you—if anything ever happened to me.”
I stilled. “You wouldn’t. You just met him!”
“Like I said, I have a good feeling about him. And he told me he’d consider it! He likes you, Evie. He wouldn’t have come back here to warn us if he didn’t. Now, promise me you’ll try to get along with him.” I opened my mouth to argue, but she began coughing worse than before.
I hurried to rub her back, saying, “Okay, okay, I promise I’ll try.” Once her fit subsided, I handed her a glass of water. “I’ll go see if he needs help.”
Her expression brightened, easing the strain on her pale face. “Thank you, honey.”
Still mentally grumbling, I headed down the shadowy staircase. At once, the voices grew louder. Oh, and now there was a new one among the chorus, a girl’s.
—Behold the Bringer of Doubt.—
“Ugh!” I snapped under my breath. “What does that mean? Leave me alone!”
“You talking to yourself?” Jackson said. He’d paused on his way upstairs with a folding card table—so Mom wouldn’t have to go down.
Which was . . . considerate of him.
He climbed to the step just below me and murmured in that deep voice, “Um, um, UM, Evangeline. You dress up all pretty for me?”
Strike considerate. “Hardly.” When he just stared at me, I narrowed my eyes. “How long were you standing down there?”
“Long enough to know you’re fixing to break that promise you just made. Now, be polite, honey.”
You wouldn’t know polite if it bit you in the ass. With a fake smile and cheery tone, I said, “Why Jackson, I can’t wait for dinner! I’ll go get the dishes!”
But he blocked me, resting the edge of the table on a stair. His eyes seemed to glow in the dim light, his expression intent.
He pressed one palm against the wall beside my head, leaning in close—just as he had all those months ago when he’d almost kissed me. When he’d stalled for Lionel.
I remembered how stupid I’d been that night. I remembered the excitement—and the attraction—I’d felt.
He’d been handsome then. Now he was gorgeous; was he even more devious?
“Damn, cher, you still smell like a blossom. Been so long since I’ve seen a flower that I’d nearly forgotten what they smelled like.” He took a lock of my hair, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. “You’re dressing up and using expensive perfume? Ole Jack senses a trap. Consider me snared.”
“What’s your racket? Why are you really here?”
“Maybe I’m not the bad guy you make me out to be.”
“Which is exactly what a bad guy would say.” I pushed past him, but he grabbed my arm.
“You listen to me, Evie. And let me tell you how this night’s goan to proceed.”
I gaped at his condescending tone. “How dare you—”
He talked over me. “We’re goan to have us a grand dinner, as nice as you can think to make it, with you being sweet as an ange. After we eat, you, me, and your mère are goan to make the veiller”—spend the evening visiting—“till she goes to sleep. Then you’re goan to give me an answer about tomorrow, and I’ll get to work. Because I am leaving here ahead of that militia. Comprends?”
“I . . . I . . .” My face started to throb. Oh, no, no. Not now! Not in front of his shrewd gaze.
Grueling pain shot through my head. The staircase and Jackson began to disappear. The more I fought the vision, the worse my head pounded.
I tried to stumble away, to get to privacy, but he caught my arm. “Evie? What’s the matter, you?”
Instead of the house, I saw blackened forest all around me. “Jackson,” I whispered, now clutching him desperately. “Please, don’t let it . . .” My legs gave way, and I was grasping at him, grasping—
But he was gone. Everything was gone.
I was outside on a freezing night, standing in a haze of smoke, with my eyes burning and my nose running. I could hear men screaming in terror all around me, but I couldn’t see why.
When explosions rocked the earth beneath my feet, panic set in, dread. I had loved ones out in the chaos, but couldn’t reach them, could do nothing to protect them.
Until she appeared. The girl with the bow.
Though I couldn’t make out her features, I watched her move through the smoke like a wraith. She was glorious, a goddess. She drew back her bowstring, taking aim—