There was something different about him, Marie realized later when they sat on the edge of a boardwalk that stretched into part of the lake in the palace gardens. Now that it was well past one a.m., most couples and family members or friends had migrated from the ball room to the gardens where they settled down on the grass or on some of the stone benches to enjoy the moon and late night, early morning company. Giselle and Eric had a picnic blanket on the grass and their parents had gone home. Derek had given her his jacket and Marie had taken off her shoes and had her toes dipped in the water as they sat in the soft light provided by the moon and far off palace lights.
They had spoken for hours, something she didn’t ever want to have end. His voice was gentler and his eyes barely ever left hers. Being under his gaze made her feel liberated and warm. Even though he hadn’t said it, she wondered if this was what it felt like to be loved by someone. At best, she knew he adored her, and after the last couple months of wondering if he’d ever feel something more than just a simple attraction to her, she couldn’t help but be hopeful at the idea that more could still develop.
He told her about Cleo’s new guinea pig, her reaction to them telling her about her relation to him, how his grandmother was doing, while she filled him in on rehearsals with Giselle and her father’s reaction to finding out she didn’t want to pursue music as a career anymore. Their current topic was her visit through the lab with Emmet and how he had chickened out of talking to her even though he was there to say hi to Emmet while she was there.
Derek smirked. "I wanted to punch something after you left. That something just so happened to be Brad’s nose," he said, making her laugh. When she looked at him, her heart tripped over itself. He studied her with a small smile at his lips. That gaze. She would never quite get used to the way it felt to be looked at that way. Derek reached out and brushed a curl from her face, gracing her cheek with the tips of his fingers.
"How is it that someone as smart as you fell for someone like me?" He asked. She smiled.
"It’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever done," she agreed. His lip gave a tug then he dropped his arm.
"You know, I could get used to this," he said and leaned back on his elbows, his eyes never leaving hers.
He shrugged. "Having a beautiful, talented, smart girlfriend."
Her chest tightened and she lowered her eyes bashfully. Girlfriend. She liked the sound of that.
"So how about we make it official and I take you on a first date the day after tomorrow?" Derek asked, making her look at him again. "Why specifically that day?" she asked curiously. "Because I want to do it as soon as possible – although after all the money I spent on flowers, it’ll probably be just be breakfast for dinner and a movie at my flat –." Marie laughed again. "– and someone already beat me to booking you for tomorrow night," he said with a knowing smile. Her brows lowered over her eyes. She had nothing on tomorrow. Marie gave a decisive shake. "No, I –."
"You’ll find out soon," Derek said and straightened again. He dismissed any question she might have had by stealing a kiss. "Do you want me to take you home?" he asked. She glanced towards her sister, relieved to see that she and Eric were still there.
"Not yet," Marie said with a smile. He smiled back and scooped her into his arms. "Good," Derek whispered into her hair.
Marie woke up the same way she fell asleep; in the mystified in the aftermath of everything that had happened. Sleep didn’t come easily, or maybe at all, regardless of the fact that she had gotten into bed just before three. Out of habit, or possibly because she was a Balaco, she was up again before the sun came up.
Her brain still couldn’t comprehend the fact that she was now dating Derek West. The idea had played and danced and tormented her since the day he had met him, but now that it was actually a reality she couldn’t believe it.
Then there’s the matter of speaking to her father. The thought of that almost cancelled out the cheerfulness she felt. She showered extra-long that morning, mentally preparing herself for the arguments. The truth was out now and she knew her father loved her, he would understand once he realized she was serious, wouldn’t he? But then there was the matter of her studies. Rich as they were, Marie knew full well how expensive a degree was. What if he cut her off and refused to pay for her studies if she wasn’t enrolled at the Balaco University. Plus, she wasn’t even 100% sure which degree she wanted to take on. All she knew was that she wanted to study science and she wanted to work with animals. And maybe some agronomy. Possibly pharmacology . . .
Marie groaned inwardly. A fine case she was presenting to her father. She could only imagine what he thought. She was throwing away a family legacy. Being a Balaco already assured you of a comfortable position in the music industry just because of the connections you had. If you were actually talented, all the better.
Going into science . . . that was an entirely different playground. Ambiguous and bare, stripped of any family members or good friends. The name Balaco meant nothing but good gossip there. But she wanted it with a soreness. Never before in her life had she felt so sure of something. And she was willing to fight for just a chance.
When she finally dressed and had built up the nerve to exit her room, Marie heard cheerful chattering coming from the kitchen as she descended the large staircase. She stepped into the kitchen to find her family gathered around the kitchen island, even Molly was tucked peacefully in her mother’s arms.
"You’re up! Finally," Giselle said and stood up from her seat. Their parents stood on the other side and looked at Marie. Marie’s gaze slowly traveled over each member of her family. "What’s going on?" She asked carefully as she walked towards the kitchen island. Her mother slid a small pile of paper towards her. "We spoke about it and we think that these would be the top three local universities you could attend," she said. Marie’s stomach dropped as she stared at her parents. "What?" She asked. "They all have exceptional science or agricultural programs," Giselle said as Marie placed her fingers on the documents and pulled them closer. "We looked at some international universities, but after last night we didn’t think you would want to be too far away from home." Marie looked up to find her father giving her a knowing smile. Marie felt the top of her cheeks heat with embarrassment. She lowered her eyes to the papers in front of her. "Ducas University," she read with a tiny nod. She gave a choked laugh and lifted the packed stapled with a brochure. "This is what you spoke to Derek about last night," she said, remembering how he tried to casually tell her about the university and how he would have attended if he didn’t want to study as far from home as possible.
The second packet contained details of a university roughly a hundred kilometers away, and the last one contained the one Emmet was working at.
She looked at her family again, her cheeks burning and eyes tingling with tears at their warm smiles. She shook her head. "I don’t know what to say." Marie swallowed hard at the lump in her throat. "Thank you would be a good place to start," Giselle said teasingly. "Or you could say you’re joining your father for dinner tonight. I reserved a table for the two of us at a restaurant near the beach." Marie looked at him, her chest burning. "I think we should have a nice, long, honest talk," he said. Marie didn’t realize she had walked towards her father until she had her cheek against his chest and her arms tightly around his waist. He laughed and hugged his daughter. Mr. Balaco stroked her hair gently. "I hope you won’t be embarrassed accompanying an old sod like me," he said. Marie smiled and pressed her face into his shirt as the tears began to fall. She had a feeling this was Derek's idea as well. "Never," she said into the fabric. When she pulled away and wiped at the tears, Mr West held his other arm open to Giselle, who stepped into his embrace. "When did you two grow up? Just last week I left Giselle in the classroom for her first day of school and you were crying in my arms, begging to stay with her." Marie smiled and looked at her older sister. Their father kissed the top of both their heads, making Giselle laugh. "We’ll always be your little girl’s, daddy. No age or man is going to change that."
Later, Marie sat at the kitchen island with her parents, discussing her future in a way that made her want to pinch herself. This couldn’t be real. It was too good to be true.
"Personally, I like C.J.U. best," her father said, referring to Emmet’s university. "It’s nearby. It’s got a farm on site so you can take the pig when you tire of her."
"Daddy!" Marie called, aghast. She saw the smile in his eyes as he lifted his mug to take a sip of the coffee and relaxed with a laugh.
"I already spoke to the dean. He’d be happy to arrange a personal tour of their science department."
The surprises just kept on coming. "You’re not joking," she said after a few seconds. Edwin smiled. "He took a look at your final high school report and said you could even get a scholarship with those marks." Her father’s smile broadened. "Somehow I had forgotten how brilliant you are, Marie. I was blinded by what I wanted for you and never once thought that you’d want something different. I want you to be happy and do what you want to do. If it’s not music, I don’t care."
Tears were stinging the back of her eyes as she listened to her father. Giselle entered the kitchen with her eyebrows pulled close together. She pointed with her thumb over her shoulder.
"Uh, Marie, Derek’s in the foyer. He wants to speak to you."
Marie’s heart leapt at the sound of his name. Her spirits lowered. "Are you asking me or telling me?" She asked, taking in her sister’s expression. Giselle lifted her palms defensively.
"He looks horrible and I didn’t ask why," she said as an answer. Marie felt herself mimic her sister’s expression and slid out of her seat. She looked at her father and he gave a nod. "We’ll talk tonight, dear," he said.
"Derek?" Derek dropped his gaze from the ceiling when he heard Marie nearby. She gave him a quizzical glance as she walked towards him. Derek flinched. His heart skipped a beat . . . then another. She looked different than she had the night before. Her make-up was removed making her look younger than she was and more exposed. Her stunning dress was replaced by denim shorts and a loose fitting grey tee and her hair that was expertly curled had been pushed up into a lazy bun at the top of her head. All the jewellery had been removed and she was barefoot.
Yet, he still couldn’t help but think that she looked more beautiful than he had ever seen her before. He could hear his heart pound in his ears as she came closer. His fingers tingled with the desire to touch her, he didn’t care where, he just wanted to feel her skin. Derek clenched his hands into fists to stop himself, mortified to feel that they had a thin layer of sweat on the palms. Marie took the liberty of meeting him at the door. Her confusion melted to concern when she was close enough. Her eyes widened slightly and her hands came to his face. Derek was horrified when he felt the tremble ripple through him at her touch. "Are you okay? What’s happened?" She asked, studying him intently. He might have laughed if he weren’t so breathless. He knew he had to look horrible. Lack of sleep and near insanity might just do that to a man. Before he left his apartment he caught sight of what he looked like; slightly sunken eyes surrounded with pale grey skin, flushed cheeks, and uncombed hair. He only pulled on a pair of jeans and a plain grey t-shirt before heading out the door to see her.
Derek took a deep breath through his nose and looked into the green-blue of her eyes, finding his center. Derek smiled. So this was it. She was actually his. He placed his hands on her wrists as a wave of emotion pushed up his chest.
"Nothing, I’ve just had a rough night," he said. Marie’s features relaxed and she let out a quiet sigh. She shook her head. Marie’s hands slid from his jaw to his shoulders and he held onto her wrists still. "What on earth are you doing here? You look like you haven’t slept at all last night," she said. "Believe me, I’d much rather be with you than attempt to sleep," he said. Not that my body gives me a choice. Marie dropped her eyes shyly and gave a laugh. "Well my family and I are having breakfast in a few minutes. I don’t think they’d mind if you joined us." Her lips tugged at a smile. "You look like you could use some coffee," she added.
Derek chuckled dryly. He could use sleep more but the thought of trying to sleep, trying to figure out how to tell her nearly made him vomit. He had tossed and turned all night with no appetite and no peace in his mind until he had finally admitted it to himself.
"I love you, Marie," he blurted, not able to keep it in anymore.
Marie’s features softened into amazement, her mouth slowly opening as she stared at him. Derek let out a breath and smiled, feeling the pressure break inside him and a massive weight lift off of his shoulders.
"I. Love. You," he repeated slowly, holding her gaze and waiting to catch the moment she fully absorbed his words. "I couldn’t sleep – can’t sleep without you knowing," he said. Marie’s eyes glassed over and her lips lifted in a smile. She let out a breath. He lowered his mouth to hers.
"I love you," he repeated over and over again between kisses. Blissful and highly disoriented, Marie could hardly remember her own name much less stand on her own two feet when his mouth finally broke from hers completely. She heard herself whisper the words back and pressed her face into his chest as uncontrollable happiness burst inside of her. A laugh escaped her throat and she sniffed, realizing then only that she was near tears.
Marie lifted her head and looked at him. Her heart tripped over itself again. Derek gave a choked laugh and moved a stray hair from her cheek with his fingertip. "It sounds so much better coming from you," he said, smiling at her. "Marie . . ." He braided their fingers together and ran his thumb over hers. "If this isn’t love I’ll be damned if there’s anything else could drive me this crazy."
A violin broke through their laughter and they both turned at the sound. Marie felt her emotions battle between immense happiness and utter embarrassment. Giselle winked at her from behind her violin and her father joined in with his.
"Would it be okay if I danced with you right here in your foyer with your father orchestrating a romantic atmosphere for us? Because that sounds completely normal and appropriate."
Marie laughed again and looked at Derek as he said that. He smiled and pressed a kiss against her forehead.