Chapter no 39

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

Evangeline woke up on a swallowed gasp that tasted like magic and cold. Her lips were on Jacks’s throat. She felt a burst of panic, until piece by piece last night came back.

Jacks had returned. He’d been wounded. He’d healed. Then he’d asked her to stay. He’d tugged her onto the bed. He’d held her close. And then he’d said, Let me pretend you’re mine.

She melted once more at the memory of how he’d said the word mine. It was only supposed to be for the night, but the pretending hadn’t stopped. Light was bleeding through the windows, showering them in sunshine as they lay together, legs and arms entwined. One of his cool hands wrapped protectively around her waist, and the other had made its way up her skirt, holding her to him as if touching were a form of breathing.

They had moved closer as they’d slept, as if drawn by some force that she suspected was simply each other.

The thought made her chest feel light and bubbly. Or maybe it was just the feel of waking up so close to Jacks. This was what she wanted more than any stones. She just wanted to stay here with Jacks and forget everything else.

But you are forgetting, she thought.

Something else was there. She could feel it, right beneath the surface of her bliss.

Ignore it, she thought.

But the more she tried to ignore it, the more she started to remember. The dream in the tavern. The Handsome Stranger, the darts. LaLa. The warning about Jacks, the warning about the mirth stone. It all came back in a horrible rush. He has the mirth stone and it’s clouding his judgment.

Evangeline closed her eyes and told herself it was just a dream. She didn’t want to think that last night Jacks had only wanted her because of the stone.

It couldn’t have been because of the stone. Jacks didn’t have the stone. She’d taken off his shirt last night, she’d seen his chest. He wasn’t wearing any stones. His judgment wasn’t clouded. He wasn’t lying in bed with her because of magic.

Unless the stone was in a trouser pocket?

Evangeline took a nervous breath. She still didn’t think he had it—she didn’t want him to have it, but it would be easy enough to make sure. One of her hands was on his back. All she had to do was slide it lower.…

Her fingers glided over his skin carefully. He was still cool to the touch and smooth and soft, and for a second, she almost forgot what she was doing. She could have easily traced her fingers up and down his spine or his back or the ridges of his stomach. But she let them drift toward his pants.

She bit her lip as her fingers slid lower and— Jacks made a soft sound.

Her heart skipped a beat. Her fingers had barely dipped into his pocket—painfully slowly, she let them slide lower. The material was soft and the pocket was …


He didn’t have the stone. She nearly cried in relief.

Until she realized … she shouldn’t be relieved. She should have wanted to find the mirth stone. It was the only stone still missing. Once she found the mirth stone, she could open the Valory Arch and break the Archer’s curse.

But she hadn’t really been thinking about the Archer’s curse or Apollo. And for as long as she’d been here, she hadn’t wanted to look for the mirth stone. She hadn’t wanted to leave. She’d felt too content, too happy. She hadn’t even felt guilt over killing Petra. She knew it was self-defense, but she should have felt something. She tried to feel sad, but even now, it wouldn’t come. There were other thoughts she’d pushed aside; she couldn’t even remember them now, but she knew they were there.

But was this because the mirth stone had clouded her judgment? Or had her attraction to Jacks clouded it?

Evangeline bit down on her lip as she slowly slid her hand out of Jacks’s pocket, and before she could rethink it, she untangled herself from him and stumbled out of the bed. It felt like a mistake as soon as she was free of his arms. She wanted to go back to him—to wrap herself up in him. The pull was stronger than ever.

With every step she took from the bed, she felt as if she was doing the wrong thing. But Evangeline wasn’t sure she could trust her feelings.

She forced herself to leave the room, to stumble back out into the hall.

The clock in the entry struck Toast and Tea.

The sound was as bright and light as the morning sun streaming in through the open tavern and casting light on the clock’s jeweled pendulums, and the little baby dragon that was trying to reach them—pawing at the glass, kissing it, petting it with his tiny paws, in hopes of getting to the jewels.

“Oh no, darling—” Evangeline went to scoop up the beast, but she found herself opening the glass and reaching for one of the jeweled pendulums instead. It was so pretty and—

She pulled her hand back and staggered away—she knew this feeling.

This wasn’t just a gem. She could feel the power pulsing through it, sweet and soft as a siren’s call. This jewel was the mirth stone.

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