Her Beauty Within was originally published by Still Moments Publishing. When they were absorbed into another company, I received my rights back with no strings attached. I then had it published by the now defunct Breathless Press. Getting it out there for publishing again is just not an option. It’s a short and sweet story that two great editors helped me make better–A. J. Nuest and Leona Bushman.
So, I present to you–in four parts during my NaNo blitz–the story for free.
Before you go on, here is the link(s) to previous chapters:
A gentle shake woke Adele from her slumber. She stretched and smiled until her eyes adjusted to her surroundings. She slumped, her fists balled under her chin.
“Time to start the day.” Jareth held out his hand.
“Hmph.” Adele turned away.
“May I ask what your name is?”
“None of your business. Leave me alone.” She gazed up at the sky. A few leaves fell from the branches, signaling the start of fall. By this time, she should have been comforted in Brant’s arms, aglow with their passionate love-making. Instead, she lived in a world of lackluster sprites whose idea of fun was to soak another sprite. How barbaric.
“We’ve got to gather bluebells for the pixie ceremonies today.” Jareth explained. He kneeled in front of her.
His mesmerizing eyes almost pulled her in, until she remembered what he was.
“I’m not a servant, so you can forget it.” She scooted on her rear and turned away from him.
“We’re not servants. Everyone has a purpose. One that Mother Oak designs for us.” He leaned toward her side, and she buried her head in her arms.
“Leave her, Jareth.” A female voice called. “Obviously she doesn’t know what it means to be one of us yet.”
Anger boiled inside Adele. She glanced up and narrowed her eyes at two female sprites. Baskets brimming with lacy, blue flowers hung from their arms. The same bright blossoms Adele had once used to adorn the hallways of her home.
“I’m not one of you, and I never will be!” She gathered herself up and stomped away from the grove. How dare they expect her to do manual labor! Wasn’t it horrid enough she was stuck in these hideous, brown clothes?
She climbed onto a pile of rocks to sulk. The rest of the sprites hummed a cheery tune while they plucked flowers for the numerous weddings in the higher branches. Their high-pitched singing reminded her of chiming pixie wings. When the full moon came out, her kind would dance throughout the night in celebration. A commune with Mother Oak, in thanks for their home, she’d miss now that she was stuck with the sprites.
The other fae bent down long, yellow flowers and removed pollen from the stamens. The contrast of the amber powder brought out the drabness of Adele’s dress. She picked a small fuchsia flower from a patch at her feet and tucked the flora into her waistband. She stood and twirled to show off the blossom.
“What are you doing?” One of the female sprites gaped at her.
“What does it look like I’m doing? Brown is such a hideous color.” Adele picked another flower and wove it into her hair.
“Only the pixies can wear those.”
“Pfft. I know that.” She sat back on the rock and braided her hair.
“So take it off before one of them sees you.”
Adele ignored the sprite and hummed a song to block out the chatter. A shadow crossed over her, and she looked up. Ilana, fairy dust shimmering black, fluttered her wings and hovered above the foliage. Adele couldn’t believe her luck! Finally, she would get rescued from this nightmare. Surely Ilana saved Brant for her by taking his arm. Adele opened her mouth to greet her friend only to suffer the sting of a smack across her cheek. Ilana tore away the flowers Adele had affixed to her plain dress.
“How dare you wear something not meant for the wingless?” Ilana’s voice seemed amplified. “If you weren’t already on the lower level, I’d banish you further. Instead, I compel you to deliver one thousand of these flowers to my room.”
Something inside Adele tingled, and she rose to her feet. To her horror, her body jerked into motion. First she gathered a basket, and then she set to the task of finding the purplish blossoms. Ilana snickered before flying away.
Adele tried to throw the basket to the ground and scream at her former friend, but the more she thought about it, the more white-knuckled her hands become around the wicker handle. The other sprites moved away from her as she bent to rip the flowers from their bed. Her tears fell, coating the delicate petals of her collection. What little light filtering through the leaves above waned, and still she plodded on.
Tired and dirty, Adele slipped into Ilana’s room. Jareth was the only reason she made the transition up through Mother Oak’s thick sap. Wrapped in his strong arms as they rode within the tree’s life blood, he shielded Adele so she wouldn’t emerge a gooey mess. He steadied her sagging body and whispered words of encouragement, but her mind buzzed with fatigue. She’d never worked so hard in all her life, especially for someone she once considered a friend.
In a bed covered with diaphanous spider-silk drapery, Ilana slept. Silently, Jareth directed Adele to the dressing table. She set the basket down and sighed at the ease of the weight on her body. She glanced up and caught her reflection in the gilded mirror of Ilana’s primping station. Her body was thin and frail, and her bright, blue eyes had turned a dark brown and all the beauty she’d preened over had vanished.
A slight tug on her arm tore her away from the horror. She limped along with Jareth, pausing at the bed.
“She was one of my best friends.”
Jareth, a hand on her lower back, prodded her to keep moving. “None of the pixies are our friends.”
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Because I don’t want to be like them.”
Outside, she eased into Jareth’s open arms. “Are they really that cruel?”
“I wish I had a true answer for you.” He hugged her close. “Our hearts beat the same and Mother Oak grants us a bonding the just like the pixies. I wish I understood why they act as if Mother Oak existed only for them.”
“I wish I did too.” She nuzzled into the warmth of his chest and sighed. “My name is Adele.”
“Pleased to greet you, Adele.” He stroked her hair.
“Pleased to greet you, Jareth.” She smiled. “Take me home, please. This tier is so ugly.”
Their bodies shimmered as the bark absorbed their essence and whisked them back to the lower levels. The uneasy tremors of gliding through the sap disappeared as she became one with the tree. The life pulse of Mother Oak beat within her, and for the first time in her life, Adele understood the majesty of her world.
Without the sprites guarding and protecting great Mother Oak, the community of pixies would not have a viable place to live. It struck her hard. How wrong she’d been to dismiss their worth.
They emerged at the bottom of the tree and Adele’s skin glowed for a brief moment. The sap slid off her body and was absorbed back into its master.
She gasped. “I did it.”
Jareth chuckled. “See? I told you it would come.”
Her cheeks flushed as Jareth took her hand and led her to the river’s edge. She stopped and jerked him back.
“Not so close! The fish will eat us!” She widened her eyes when a koi came to the surface. Its orange and creamy-white scales sparkled in the moonlight shining along the water.
“Eat us? No, they’re our friends. Watch.” He knelt down at the edge of the bank and extended his hand over the water. The fish bobbed to the surface. Jareth smoothed a hand over the head of the koi before feeding it a seed from a nearby stalk. “We let the pixies think the fish have razor-sharp teeth, so they believe sending us here is punishment. But it’s the most beautiful place in Mother Oak’s realm.”
“I thought you were mad for being down here.”
Jareth shrugged and tossed another seed to the fish. “I had an important task issued from the Council of Eight. I was on my way to delivering a package when I collided with a pixie. She banished me.”
Adele stiffened, remembering her incident with a fae during the Lor. Hot tears fell from her eyes, and she scrubbed them away with her palms. An ache grew in her chest like no other.
“I like the lower tier and all its beauty, but what I was doing up there… I’ll never get that back. According to our Old One’s vision, I was to find my mate in the upper levels.” Jareth sighed. “Now I’ve lost her.”
“Oh.” Adele shrank back. Jareth was here because of her. She would find another mate, but for sprites, they only had one chance. Jareth’s had been taken away because of her selfish actions.
“I’m so sorry, Jareth.” She turned and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. Her chest heaved and she crumbled to the ground, sobbing. All her beauty in the mirror meant little when she was nothing but a horrible, ugly pixie to the core. She curled up into a ball and cried herself to sleep amongst the tall fescue and a million points of light above.
* * *
A female sprite named Nimsy hummed softly as Adele stripped the pollen from a stamen and placed it in a glass jar at her feet. Most of her early attempts had powdered her face a bright pink. The coloration brought giggles to the rest of the group and Adele as well. They’d accepted her apologies for her harsh words without demanding anything in return. They took her at her worth. A pixie would have never given her such a chance.
The society of the wingless worked so much differently from the pixies. No distinction between families, the same natural brown clothing, and everyone pitched in with the daily tasks in the sprite community. Adele would have never lifted a finger to do anything remotely resembling manual labor above. She had servants, and in some cases, other pixies did things for her. Now the pollen saturated her hands and forearms while she harvested the colorful powder.
In her line of sight, Jareth peeked through a few blades of grass. Heat rushed her cheeks, and she looked away. Her hand slipped off a stamen, and it hit her squarely in the face. Adele flailed as her foot slipped on the moss, and she landed hard on the ground. Her leg struck the pollen-laden jar, and it teetered at the edge of a rock shelf. Nimsy grabbed the jar just before it spilled over the edge.
“Oh, thank you, Nimsy.” She smiled but it faded when she noticed the mess she’d become. “Oh, dear.” Adele wiped at the pink resin coating her clothes. If the pixies came down and saw her in anything but brown… She stilled at the thought. Ilana’s slap had left a stark reminder of the cruelty of her kind. But what rule said only pixies could bask in the rainbow colors the earth provided?
“Let me help you up, Adele.” Nimsy offered her hand. Adele took it, but instead of hoisting herself up, she dragged Nimsy down. While rolling around, she rubbed the pink pollen all over her new friend. Giggles bubbled from her throat as they came to rest in the spongy moss.
“Oh my goddess, Adele! We have to go and wash up—quick.” Nimsy stood and twirled about to see the extent of pink hue on her clothing.
“Leave it. You look great in that color.” Adele chuckled and spread out in the moss. “What happens to sprites that miss out on the chance to find their soul mate?”
“They are free to pick whomever they please out of those who are of similar fate. Though the mating will never be blessed in the eyes of Mother Oak, they may take comfort in each other.” Nimsy rubbed the pollen on her face and smiled. “Now we are sisters.”
“Indeed, we are.”
The buzzing of wings filled the air and Adele turned, a bright smile on her face. At the sight of Ilana’s ugly scowl, Adele placed her hands on her hips and grinned even wider.
Anger laced with arrogance creased Ilana’s brow. The dark-haired pixie embodied the ugliness Adele used to embrace. “How dare you waste pollen? You wingless don’t deserve such finery!”
“Oh blow it out your wings, pixie.” Adele laughed.
“What did you say to me, wingless?” Ilana’s wings sparkled red.
Adele stood, pulling Nimsy up behind her. “You heard me, you waste of a pixie. Does it hurt your pride to see us having a bit of fun while you have to act properly? Kiss my wingless behind.” Adele puckered her lips and smacked her bottom.
“You little…” Ilana swooped in and seized Adele by her hair.
Adele shrieked and kicked her legs in vain. She couldn’t match Ilana’s strength, especially while dangling in the air. The river’s rippling waters appeared in a rush.
“Enjoy being fish food, you stupid, wingless twit.” Ilana cackled.
The water rose to meet Adele as she splashed down. She plunged and clawed toward the surface only to sink farther into darkness. Something brushed her side, but with her energy fading, Adele couldn’t fight off whatever was assaulting her. Another bump hit her leg, and when she focused, the koi Jareth had fed swam around her. She reached for its back fin and grabbed hold. As the fish broke the surface, Adele gasped for air.
On the bank, several of the sprites had gathered, including Nimsy and Jareth. His beautiful chocolate-brown eyes brimmed with tears under his furrowed eyebrows, and the terror on his face made her heart skip a beat. Had he thought her life at an end when she disappeared into the watery depths? His mouth worked and his jaw clenched, but she lost sight of him as she grabbed for the many, reaching sprite hands. In a collective effort, they pulled her out of the water. She welcomed their hugs of joy and concern. A splash in the water drew her attention. She wiped away her tears and plucked a berry from a vine, tossed it into the air, and her savior jumped into the air. A chorus of fireflies set the koi’s shimmering scales ablaze. As he splashed back into the water, the droplets showered Adele. Her melodious laughter rang out into the night.
“Oh, Adele, I thought…oh.” Nimsy hugged her. “The way you stood up to that pixie. I was so afraid.”
“We might be worthless in their eyes, but Mother Oak would punish them if they truly harmed us.” Adele squeezed her friend, but her mind was on Jareth. He waited a few yards away, standing between the stalks of iridescent-green aster blossoms.
“How do you know that?”
Adele paused before answering. In the teachings she once thought were a bore, the elders had engrained into her that taking life in any way would upset the balance of their universe.
“Because,” she said. “Life is a precious gift. Only time can return us to the earth for rebirth.”
“I’m so glad you are here with us, Adele.” Nimsy hugged her close, planting a small kiss on Adele’s cheek.
Nimsy walked away with the others, the excitement over for the night. Adele glanced to the tall blossoms, but Jareth had disappeared. An ache started in her chest, and she ran toward where he last stood amongst the flowers. Weaving through the light-blue columbine, she slowed. He was gone.
A pair of arms wrapped around her waist, and she shrieked, thinking Ilana had tracked her progress and returned to inflict more punishment. Then the familiar scent of Jareth tickled her nose. She wiggled free and whirled around, crushing her lips to his, unable to stop the relief and desire building inside.
He dragged her to the ground, feverishly returning her kiss. Thrumming filled the space between them, and the pounding of his heart matched the fevered pace of her own. Every inch of her yearned for his touch, and she arched her back to close the space between them. A frenzied dance to remove each article of clothing began. They paused in heated moments to explore each other’s newly exposed skin.
If fate had sealed her to live as a sprite, she would not deny the chance to spend it with the one who offered her kindness when she deserved none. Her breath caught as he kissed the tender flesh along her collarbone. The air around them shimmered and glowed, their souls intertwining in an eternal ballet. Her body shuddered as Jareth completed the missing piece to her spirit. He moved within her, taking her to new heights. She tasted his lips, meeting his gentle strokes one by one.
The words to express her desire to be his forever were lost as Jareth’s cry of ecstasy joined hers. The pollen of the flower patch drifted in the air, sparkling in the light of their bliss before settling on their skin. Adele never wanted the joy of their union to diminish. Even without words, she knew she would be by his side for the rest of her existence.