Marie Balaco lived for days like this. She closed her eyes as a gentle, salty breeze swept past her face and lifted a few strands of her dark brown hair off her shoulders. The rays of the sun touched her face and the sound of the waves crashing onto a quiet beach filled her ears. She reclined against the seat of her twenty-first birthday gift. She smiled to herself as she silently thanked her sister. She wasn't sure how Giselle did it, but somehow she had convinced their parents to buy Marie a Jeep Wrangler. Growing up with a father who had a garage filled with Martins, Mustangs, Chevrolets and who knows whatever else sort of classic automobiles, as well as an elder sister who herself received a Cadillac for her twenty-first, it was safe to say the last thing Marie had expected was a Jeep. Marie had never had the experience of swooning until she had seen the massive black machine in their driveway with a massive pink bow on it. Truth be told, Marie had never been very interested in cars and she wasn't the type to get attached to material possessions, but she wasn't sure if she would ever be able to part from that Jeep.
She breathed out a breath of air, feeling her troubles just float away with the ocean breeze. She could stay here all day.
The buzzing of her alarm sounded from the passenger seat and Marie groaned.
But of course, she would not be allowed to. She opened her eyes and was tempted to press the snooze button. Five minutes wouldn't make such a big difference. So what if she were just a little late? A frown crossed her forehead. She let out a sigh and put the alarm off. She slumped back into her seat and, without really looking, turned the key in the ignition, causing the car to come to life. Marie huffed and placed her hands on the wheel firmly.
"Oh, the burden of being a Balaco," she mumbled sarcastically and maneuvered the beast of a vehicle out of the parked spaces that overlooked the ocean. Before she was even properly on the road, her phone rang. She glanced at it and smiled when she saw a slender, bright-eyed brunette smiling at her from the device. The road was fuller now than half an hour ago. The rush would begin soon but she was close enough to the university to be in time even if traffic became too heavy.
Marie waited until she reached a stop before swiping to answer her sister's call.
"Hey. This is a surprise. It's almost eight here," she informed Giselle.
"Yeah, well I thought of you so I decided to call. It's just passed ten here. I'm about to head into rehearsal."
"Oh, yeah, how's that going?" Marie asked. Her elder sister, Giselle, had to be the luckiest girl Marie knew. Being a Balaco meant two things; one, money was not an issue and two, you were somehow involved in the music industry. The Balaco University of the Arts was an establishment that went a few generations down in their family's history. It was an unspoken rule that all who had the last name were obligated to study something in music or some profession that have them work alongside the music industry. Being someone who excelled at mastering any instrument, Giselle never had a problem with this. She was talented and completely in love with music, possibly more so than she was with her fiancé, Prince Eric of Palanadia.
Yes, her sister was dating a prince. Not even just the prince, Eric was the first born, heir to the throne. During the two years that her sister had dated the prince, Marie had marveled at the ease of their relationship. There was such love between the two and they were always respectful of people around them, but small gestures like, the way Eric's eyes discreetly followed Giselle around a room or the way the electric glances they sneaked at each other at the dinner table or the way Giselle would automatically reach for Eric when she was startled or excited, made it clear to anyone that they were a match made for lasting. Anyone could see they had something beautiful from the moment they met.
Giselle had insisted on finishing her degree before they got married, which meant Eric would have to wait for at least two years before any plans of a wedding could officially be made, something he wasn't very happy about at first. Since they were an ocean apart the compromise was that Giselle move to the little island of Palanadia and continue her studies there. Being a Balaco made it easy for her to convince the dean to allow her to skype her lessons and she would fly back for exams.
"Ah, the conductor is such a pain." Giselle said. "He refuses to listen to any of my suggestions and keeps telling me I've got a lot to learn."
Marie could practically see her sister rolling her bright green eyes as she spoke. "Have you name-dropped yet?" She asked. Marie had come to realize that using her last name usually changed someone's opinion of her quickly. As soon as people heard the name Balaco, doors opened more easily.
"Do you think he cares? He's not bound nor influenced by the university. It's a good thing the man is brilliant, at least his arrogance can be supported by something."
"I thought he'd at least be lenient with you dating his future king."
Giselle scoffed then sighed. "He's being tough on me, but he's offered valuable pieces of advice and insight so I suppose I should be grateful. And I'm not involving Eric in this. I actually enjoy fighting my own battles for once. It's not often that someone challenges me. At home I had my last name to make my life easy, here I might just be their future queen..."
Marie's forehead wrinkled with concern when her sister's voice fell away. "Giselle?" She asked as she came to a red light. Traffic was picking up now.
"Ooh, that's going to take some getting used to." Giselle laughed nervously. "Forget it. You are still coming to see the show next month?"
Marie laughed. "Do you have any idea how much money I've already invested in that trip? There's no way I'm missing it!"
"And here I thought you might actually just miss me," Giselle said as Marie drove into campus.
"Oh, I miss you, but I do adore finding my Nutella in the same condition as I left it so... you know, Nutella kind of tips the scale a bit."
Giselle laughed. "Hold on." There was a shuffling and then the phone went suspiciously silent. Marie realized the light buzzing she hadn't noticed before had fallen away. Giselle was inside a building.
"Sorry, I just needed to get into the theater. Enough about me. How are you? How is Mrs. West?" She asked, her voice now in a whisper but still clear to hear.
"She is an absolute angel. It's such a joy to be around her, she's lived such a life!"
Giselle laughed. "She's lived in one place all her life. She's never even left the country."
"What does that have to do with anything? She's got so many stories of family and love and it's so nice just listening to her."
"Typical Marie." She heard the smile in her sister's voice. "Finding beauty in the ordinary. Send her my regards. I'm working on a piece and I'll email it to you by the end of next week so she'll have something new to listen to," Giselle said as Marie pulled into her parking space near the building of her first class. "That's great. She should love that," she said as she reached for her backpack.
"Look, I've got to go. Thanks for the call but I can't be late."
Marie groaned in response and Giselle groaned along with her. "Run before the whole campus knows you were late. I'll talk to you soon."
At this point, Marie had locked her doors and was half-jogging to her class, a difficult task with a backpack and a summer dress. She had to keep pressing her free hand down at different areas of her thighs to make sure nothing indecent showed. She suddenly remembered why she hardly wore dresses to campus. She nearly breathed a sigh of relief when she noticed the round stomached professor standing at the entrance of her class. She was on time.
"Good morning, prof," she said as she stepped past him. He checked his watch. "Well you made it today, Miss Balaco. I was starting to worry," he said. Marie forced a smile and walked inside. Out of everyone in the class, she was sure she was the only one he knew. Also the only one whose father would be informed if she were late.
"Yes, mom, I know." Marie resisted a groan as she carefully scanned the rows of scented oils in the little spa shop. "I just want you to understand that you're not just a regular student there. You're a Balaco -." Marie mouthed her last name with an eye roll as mother voiced it and clutched the phone tighter between her fingers.
"You should have been better prepared."
Marie felt the tension extend from her hand to her shoulders. She was getting sick of hearing that. Her mother's most recent lecture was inspired by Prof Tech's reaction to the piece Marie had played for him on the piano earlier, one he had composed himself. Being an old friend of her father, he offered to judge Marie's skill and progress on behalf of Mr. Balaco when he was not around. Her father was currently in Singapore, off on another tour. He was a famous conductor, composer, musical producer, and writer and Marie knew he had worked hard for everything he was doing. Edwin Balaco's talents ran deep in the musical arts and there was no doubt Giselle would follow in his footsteps, if she could, from the throne of Palanadia. Marie, however, didn't quite share their love as passionately. At this point, she was likely to become a critic. Based on all of which she has received thus far, she could consider herself an expert.
When she had decided on which course to apply for out of the list of courses the Balaco University offered, the only one that appealed to her was that of Musical Production and Engineering. Her father, who was speculative, insisted she should continue to practice her skills on the piano by having a tutor who could assist her and possibly - as she suspected her father hoped - inspire her to do something that involved in actually creating music. That was where Prof Tech came in but all he did was hand her sheets and sheets of music that she, despite her best efforts, couldn't manage to master the way he wanted her to.
"I know it's a lot of pressure, but your father really expects you to try."
"I am trying!" She had to stop herself from saying. Marie closed her eyes and let out a breath slowly. "Yes, I know, mom. I'll try harder. I'll practice the piece again when I go to play for Mrs. West."
"Good idea. Don't force it. I'm sure it will be easier if you're relaxed while practicing," her mother said. Andrea Balaco dabbled a bit in the arts as well, but before she had married she was the princess of their kingdom, Cashadin. Marie had never fully heard the story of how her parents had fallen in love but she knew her father had performed in the palace countless times and they royal family were as keen to see his musicals now as much as they were back when he and her mother began dating.
Add royalty and a name so popular that a university had been named after it and you got two daughters; one who was so talented one questioned if she was Mozart reincarnated into a much lovelier shell of a person, and another who was struggling to adhere to the standards set by her family name.
Marie sighed. "I hope so," she said quietly and opened her eyes as the bell of the store jingled, stealing some of her attention. She turned out of unconscious curiosity and the sight surprised her enough to cause her tense muscles to shift.
A man entered the store, his body a picture of male perfection, something she could see through the black, v-neck t-shirt he wore paired with dark jeans. His arms were just the right size to be considered muscular but not bulging with taught skin and thick veins that made it seem like he had a myostatin mutation, and his shirt did little to hide the lines of his abs.
Marie had never found herself strongly attracted to guys for their bodies, her history of boyfriends would be proof enough. She enjoyed the company of guys she could talk to until 2 am., someone who challenged her mentally rather than physically. She liked guys who could make her laugh. She valued personality and humor and wit above all else in men.
But that didn't mean she didn't have eyes in her head and estrogen pumping through her veins and whatever primal part of her was still active had to admit one thing; this guy was damn fine.
What caught her interest most about him was his eyes. From the distance she was standing, half-hidden by one of the displays and with him turned to face the girl behind the counter - who was now miraculously invigorated from the jaded state Marie had found her in - it was difficult to place the exact color, but she knew it was more striking than most.
"Marie, you do know that I'm proud of you, right?"
Marie looked away with a start, remembering she still held the phone to her ear. "Wha - Yes, mom. Of course," she lied and felt her jaw tighten again. She had little reassurances of how proud her parents actually were of her.
The bell jingled again and she turned to see the stranger walking out of the store in easy strides. She let out a breath, grateful for the little distraction he had provided. It calmed her nerves, even if it was just a little bit and only for a brief moment. She turned back to the rows of glass bottles in front of her and pulled out the one that had a dark purple ribbon tied to it.
"Okay. I love you, sweetheart," her mother said. Marie smiled despondently. "I love you too."