Unable to meet his eye, she found herself staring at his big, brawny hand, which rested on the table.
The minstrels, who had been playing softly while they ate, began to play a much louder, much livelier tune.
“Come. Dance with me.” Valten swiftly turned around, lifting his legs over the bench, and he grabbed her hand. She turnedaround too, pulling her skirt over the bench with her legs. Then he stood and pulled her up.
Gisela let him lead her to an empty space at one side of the Great Hall, away from the tables. The entire hall of people was watching them.
A terrifying thought overcame her. “Wait! Please.” Gisela pulled on his hand to get his attention.
He lowered his brows in question.
Her cheeks started to heat, but she had to tell him the truth. She couldn’t look like a fool in front of all these people. “I-I only know the country dances that the servants and farmers dance. I don’t know any others.” Now he would surely think her completely unsuitable and would forget about her.
His hard, masculine features softened even more. His eyelids lowered as he bent his head near hers. His lips were so close, his breath brushed her cheek when he spoke. “Don’t worry. I know those dances too.” Giving her that intense, almost-smile of his, he started dancing the reigen.
Gisela nearly laughed in relief, as she knew the dance well.
They danced, and though a whole crowd followed their every move, she felt as if she and Valten were the only two people in the world. The music carried them over the floor. She was mesmerized at being the object of this man’s attention — this very tall, very powerful tournament champion. He was looking at her. He was dancing with her. He was giving his almost-smile to her. It was an even headier feeling than racing Kaeleb over the countryside, his powerful legs pumping beneath her and the wind whipping her hair out behind her.
She felt free on Kaeleb’s back, free from her stepmother’s and stepsisters’ spite. Just as at this moment. They couldn’t hurt her now, not while she was dancing with Valten. She wished he would dance with her forever.
But she had a strange feeling that her stepmother would stillhaunt her somehow, as if she had some strange hold over her that wouldn’t be broken no matter what.
She pushed the unwelcome thought away as she gazed up at Valten’s chiseled face. He should have been frightening with the scars, the stitches over his eye, and the day’s growth of stubble darkening the lower half of his face.
But he wasn’t. At all.
When the dance was over, the musicians immediately began another lively tune, an estampie , and the two of them were joined by several guests, who linked hands with them and lifted them high, stamping in time to the music, shouting at regular intervals as they released hands to spin around, then clasped hands again to sway and stamp in their human, breathing circle of life.
Gisela had never felt so alive, so pretty, and so accepted.
Even when Rainhilda joined the dance, it didn’t dampen Gisela’s spirits, as Valten never seemed to look at her once. Even Irma and Contzel eventually joined a few dances as well. Every time Gisela glanced their way, Contzel was staring at her as if in amazement, and Irma looked at her with contempt to rival even Rainhilda.
Valten danced every song with her. She sighed inwardly with joy every time his hand held hers, or they brushed shoulders, or they stepped so near their faces were only inches apart. Valten never seemed to grow tired, and though Gisela still wished the night wouldn’t end, she was becoming so exhausted she was afraid she would stumble.
Standing and getting everyone’s attention, Duke Wilhelm called a halt to the festivities by thanking everyone for coming and dismissing the guests.
While his father was speaking, Valten took her by the arm and turned her to face him. His hands wrapped around her upper arms, holding her gently. “You are even more beautiful