Inner Beauty

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"This is our chance!" my mum pleads.

I turn away, knowing if I meet her eyes, I won't be able to refuse.

"To be wealthy?" I snap.

"Oh, Belinda," she grasps my face between her hands, turning my head, "no, to survive."

I pull away, but my anger is already fading, because deep down I know she's right.

"You realise what you're asking me to do?"

"Yes," my mum says, "I'm asking you to be yourself."

*

That's why I find myself standing in a ballroom, a chandelier the size of our home hanging above me, surrounded by hundreds of girls, all with their own reasons to want to marry a prince...

love...fame...luxury...

I don't consider my own motivation to be any worse: money.

We've never had much, and soon we'll have none.

So here I am. My dress is simple - pale gold and off the shoulders. It has none of the frills or embellishments that adorn the other girls gowns, and on anyone else it might look plain, but I know it's simplicity will only highlight my own features.

That's the reason my Mum had burst into the house last week, clutching the flyer.

"The prince is looking for a bride!" she'd yelled barreling through the door, finding me elbow-deep in suds, scrubbing dishes.

"Stop that immediately! You can't have hands like a maid if you're marrying a prince!"

No amount of protestations on my part would counter my Mum's conviction that if the prince was looking for a bride, there was only one girl he could possibly choose- me.

My long, thick chestnut hair hangs in waves over my bare shoulders, my hazel eyes are wide, framed with long dark lashes, my complexion clear and creamy- a feat for someone with such a poor diet. I can't claim credit for any of it, I was simply born this way, and it's taken me most of my eighteen years to understand that people see my beauty as an achievement.

The prince steps forward onto the balcony, every head tilting up, mine included. He's rarely seen in public, and he is, I admit grudgingly to myself, very handsome, with long fair hair, a strong profile, and piercing blue eyes that appraise the crowded ballroom.

He's escorted down the sweeping staircase, and the music begins.

I ignore my instinct to slink against the wall, remembering the desperation in my Mum's voice. I have zero interest in being a princess, but I don't exactly have fond feelings about starving to death either, so I fake a smile and graciously accept invitations to dance, allowing myself to be swept along until I come face to face with the prince.

"Hello," he says pleasantly, cocking his head as though he isn't sure what to make of me spinning to a standstill in front of him.

"Your highness," I curtsey.

He holds out his arm and we begin to dance.

He places his hand at the small of my back and I'm surprised, when a slow tingling sensation spreads up my spine. I marvel at the way our bodies fit so well together, appreciating how he lets me set the pace.

Having been lead around the floor less than graciously by the other men, it's a pleasant change not to be spun and swung like a rag-doll.

We move slowly and I forget the sea of bodies around us, focussing only on the feel of the muscles in his arm beneath my hand, and the way he hums quietly along to the music.

The song ends and I reluctantly step away, dropping to another quick curtsey, but he reaches out grasping my hand.

"Come with me," he says.

Before I can register what's happening, one of his guards steps forward leading us both quickly up the grand staircase.

"Here," the prince says.

I follow him into the most beautiful room I've ever seen. Floor to ceiling books fill every wall, with ladders positioned at intervals to reach those at the top. The prince pushes open a set of double doors and light floods in. I stand in awe for a moment before following him out onto the stone balcony that gives a perfect view of the town, and in the distance- the slums, my home.

A small sigh escapes my lips.

"What's wrong?" the prince says.

I bite my lip, wondering if what I'm about to say could be classed as treason, and if by saying it I'll lose more than my chance at marriage.

I take a deep breath, the words rushing from me.

"I don't want to marry you," I blurt. "Or rather, it's not that I don't want to, you seem perfectly lovely..."

His lips quirk at the corners.

"...but I only came here at my Mum's request. I think it's only fair I'm honest with you."

"Your mother wants you to marry me?" the prince clarifies.

"Actually, she wishes I could marry for love," I say, "but our circumstances prevent it.  If I marry it must be for money, you see- we have none."

The prince looks solemn, "I'm sorry to hear it, but I'm curious, what's your stance?"

"Stance?" I say, puzzled.

"On marrying me?" he says simply.

Was that a proposal?!

I splutter.

"It's that horrifying to you?"

"No!" I say quickly, a flush creeping over my skin. "It's just that I'll know the only reason I'm marrying you is for wealth, and the only reason you're marrying me is for my beauty."

"Your beauty?" The prince repeats.

Evidently, he's unimpressed.

"Well...yes," I mumble, embarrassed.

The prince frowns.

"What if I told you I don't care if you marry me for my money- would you still consent to it?"

"Why would you want to?!" I'm aghast.

The prince shrugs, but his expression is serious.

"Perhaps because I've fallen in love with you."

What?!

My heart pounds against my chest.

"With my beauty, you mean."

He shakes his head, cupping my jaw in his hand.

"With you."

"Impossible," I say, but my voice is a whisper.

"And yet, true."

I allow myself to look into his eyes properly for the first time, losing myself in their brilliant blue, and it's then that I notice his pupils, fixed black dots, entirely unmoving as my eyes search his.

"You're-" I gasp.

"Blind," he confirms, lowering his mouth to press his lips against mine.

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