Chapter no 13

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

Evangeline couldn’t breathe.

The icy water hit hard as earth. She thrashed on instinct, but Jacks held her tightly. His arms were unyielding, dragging her up through the crushing waves. Salt water snaked up her nose, and the cold filled her veins. She was coughing and sputtering, barely able to suck down air as Jacks swam to shore with her in tow. He held her close and carried her from the ocean as if his life depended on it instead of hers.

“I will not let you die.” A single bead of water dripped

from Jacks’s lashes onto her lips. It was raindrop soft, but the look in his eyes held the force of a storm.

It should have been too dark to see his expression, but the crescent moon burned brighter with each second, lining the edges of Jacks’s cheekbones as he looked at her with too much intensity.

The crashing ocean felt suddenly quiet in contrast to her pounding heart, or maybe it was his heart.

Jacks’s chest was heaving, his clothes were soaked, his hair was a mess across his face—yet in that moment, Evangeline knew he would carry her through more than just freezing waters. He would pull her through fire if he had to, haul her from the clutches of war, from falling cities and

breaking worlds. And for one brittle heartbeat, Evangeline understood why so many girls had died from his lips. If Jacks hadn’t betrayed her, if he hadn’t set her up for murder, she might have been a little bewitched by him.

“Let me go.” She wriggled against the arms that held her, refusing to fall under his spell.

“I’m not kidnapping you,” Jacks grumbled. “The rocks on the shore will cut your feet, and I don’t think you want to be bleeding when we return to the vampires.”

“I don’t want to go back there,” she wheezed, still breathless from the water.

“No one ever wants to go back there. But Apollo will keep hunting you until you’re dead.”

She took another struggling breath. “If you really didn’t do this, can’t you use your powers to stop him?”

“No.” Jacks’s damp chest pressed against her as he trudged farther along the beach. “The curse only breaks when the Archer kills his prey. But…” Water dripped down from his golden hair as he hesitated. “Every curse has … a back door. If you open the Valory Arch, the spell on Apollo can be undone.”

Evangeline’s eyes narrowed. Jacks’s words were similar to what Chaos had told her, and yet … “This seems rather convenient.”

“Then you clearly misunderstand the situation.” Jacks’s voice turned heated. “The Valory Arch has remained locked for thousands of years because it is nearly impossible to unlock. If there was another way to break this curse on Apollo and ensure you didn’t die, I would do it. Because even if you agree to open the arch, it’s far more likely that Apollo will kill you first. The Archer’s curse won’t let him rest until you’re dead.”

Evangeline wanted to keep arguing. She hated to concede anything to Jacks. But it was also getting harder to

believe that Jacks would put her in this much danger, especially when she could still feel his heart beating just as furiously as hers.

Although if Jacks was telling the truth, if he hadn’t cursed Apollo this time, then someone else had.

The thought was sobering.

Evangeline remembered the last person who’d tried to kill her, before Apollo: Tiberius. As far as she knew, he was locked away in the Tower, and he had no idea his brother was alive. So she doubted he had done this. But perhaps someone else from the Protectorate had.

Evangeline didn’t know too much about the Protectorate

—they were a secret society that most considered a myth. She was only aware they existed because their primary goal was to ensure the Valory Arch never opened, which was why Tiberius had tried to kill her.

She didn’t know how many remaining members the Protectorate had. It was possible there were more out there who knew she was the key. Although if they really wanted her dead, all they would have had to do was kill Apollo after placing the mirror curse on him. It didn’t entirely make sense that they would do this. Unless someone else had placed the mirror curse, which also seemed unlikely.

“We need to question the guards who were watching Apollo.”

“Already done, while you were asleep,” Jacks replied. “They said there were no visitors other than you and me.”

“Could someone have erased their memories?” Evangeline’s first thought was Marisol, whom she knew was a witch. But Marisol didn’t know that Apollo was alive.

“I doubt any memories were erased,” said Jacks. “For all we know, this curse could have been cast before he was poisoned. There were a lot of jealous girls and thwarted parental hopes after that ball.”

“Is that what you think happened?” Evangeline looked up at him.

Water dripped from Jacks’s golden hair, catching the moonlight as it fell. Even after jumping from a cliff and falling into an ocean, he still looked like a ruthless fairytale— a fallen prince who refused to break.

“I don’t think it matters. Finding whoever did this is a waste of time because it won’t undo the curse. There is no cure that anyone knows of. The only way to save yourself and Apollo is to open the Valory Arch.”

Evangeline studied Jacks’s implacable face for another beat. As reluctant as she was to trust him, she could not believe that Jacks had done this.

“Did Chaos cast this curse?”

“No,” Jacks said. “Chaos wouldn’t do anything to put you in real danger. He wouldn’t risk losing another key.”

“Did you just say another key?”

Jacks’s perfect mouth turned darkly taunting. “Did you believe you were the only one?”

Evangeline didn’t answer. She had, in fact, believed that. “According to Chaos, the last key lived the longest,” Jacks

said. “She managed to retrieve one of the arch’s four missing stones before the Protectorate chopped off her head.”

Evangeline already felt cold and shaky from their midnight swim, but suddenly, she felt very mortal, as if she’d been transmuted from iron into a thin sheet of glass.

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