Forever Wicked: Serena's Prince
Second Edition
Ayla Ruse
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2012 Ayla Ruse

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"Let go of me, you lecher!" Serena shouted. She tore away from Lord Bart Ducan, whom she'd dubbed Lord Grabby. This intolerable man was the latest in a string of losers her stepfather had introduced her to, apparently hoping she'd choose one to wed. She shifted back, but stopped when she spied a part of her gold and pearl necklace caught on the buttons of the lord's sleeve. "Don't move," she cried out, but he turned, and just that quickly, the slender strand snapped. She felt the tug, then the release as it fell from her neck.

"Your papa told me you'd be a hard one to bring to heel, but I didn't think he was serious." Lord Grabby tried to reach for her again. Furious, she kneed him in the crotch, and his resulting doubled-over stance and gasps for air elicited no sympathy from her.

"He's my stepfather, you excuse for a man," she spat, torn in her irritation between the two men. She should have known something was wrong when Lord Grabby led her out of the Great Hall and into one of the dark garden mazes. He hadn't paid one whit of attention to her the entire evening, but after coming from her stepfather's rooms, he'd headed straight her way. Okay, if she were honest, she knew something had transpired behind those doors that involved her, but she'd not expected to be accosted.

"Your stepfather, then," Lord Grabby wheezed. "He and I... came to an agreement that I would wed you."

She snorted. Her? Wed? The Enchanted Land hadn't bred a man who could live up to her standards. "That'll happen over my dead body," she promised.

Lord Grabby had his hands on his thighs, trying to stand, and Serena trembled in anger and disgust. She lifted a slipper-clad foot, set it against his hip, and shoved with all her might, making the man lose his balance to topple right into one of the sunken, mossy pools.

He sputtered and cursed, making her cheeks burn, but she'd had enough. Spying her necklace lying on the ground, she scooped it up, tugged a ripped sleeve back up to her shoulder, and stormed off, leaving him behind.

"Damn my stepfather," she fumed, slipping through a hidden arch and making her way to a secret part of the maze -- her own personal garden.

Since her last birthday, her stepfather had been hell-bent on marrying her off. A strong man, she'd admired him when her mother, God rest her soul, had married him when Serena had been ten. She'd thought she'd want a husband like him. Someone she could admire, look up to, respect. Instead, what did her stepfather offer? Some of the stupidest, rudest, most unbelievable men in the kingdom.

One time, the gardener came upon her when she was getting away from a potential suitor. She knew how to defend herself, and the gardener seemed to respect this, but he surprised her by building her a separate maze. "To have time to pull yourself back together," he'd explained in a delicious northern brogue.

As she now stomped through the twists and turns, she played back the words Lord Grabby had thrown her way and found herself getting mad all over again. "I need to be broken, my ass," she grumbled.

Reaching the middle of her maze, she crumpled on the garden bench, letting her frustration bleed out now that she was alone.

"It's not that I don't want to marry," she spoke to the evening air, "it's just that there is no one good enough to marry."

She wrapped the necklace into a ball and let it roll from hand to hand. She loved this piece of jewelry. Given to her at birth by a northern wizard, the precious strand of gold and pearl beads was one-of-a-kind. Beautiful, coveted, and only she knew it was bespelled.

When Lord Grabby's sleeve had torn the necklace, it broke the clasp, but she had no worries. As a child, she'd discovered that if she wound the strand into a ball, the necklace would soon fix itself.

She let the lumpy ball fall from hand to hand. A rustle in the grasses near the small pool startled her. Her fingers fumbled, and the ball tumbled out of her hands and rolled toward the pool's murky edge.

She scrambled for the necklace, her fingertips just brushing the edges of the beads. She'd always remember what happened next, in slow motion. The makeshift ball continued its roll and smoothly slipped into the dark pond with barely a splash...

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