Belle knew exactly who had appeared behind her. It wasn’t only the familiar tingling of Rumpelstiltskin’s magic that suddenly surrounded her, but also the stark paleness that swept over the face of her dance partner.
The man who’d claimed that her beauty left him breathless learned the true meaning of the word when faced with the Dark One. “I… I…”
“You were leaving?” came Rumpelstiltskin’s snide suggestion over her shoulder.
Neither man noticed the roll of her eyes.
Without another word - without even a glance in her direction to check that Belle agreed to being left behind, or an attempt to take her along - the man who had prided himself of his role in the battle against the Evil Queen fled as quickly as his legs allowed it.
High-pitched snickers followed him.
“Not exactly hero material, is he?” Rumpelstiltskin mused once the man was out of sight. There was a thread of fake disappointment in the words, but the gleeful tone let Belle know that her master was indeed amused. “I doubt I’ll find that one beating down my door, demanding your release.” He bent his head closer, practically speaking against her ear. “Double the fool, then.”
If the compliment had not been followed by another giggle, perhaps Belle would have confessed that she was relieved he had gotten rid of her dance partner without a fuss.
The man might be one of the captains in Snow White’s army, but his insistence to dazzle her with his accomplishments and his new prospects had driven Belle to bite the inside of her cheeks to stave off a yawn. Even worse, the man had not taken the hint when Belle had mentioned her wish for refreshments.
She had been on the verge of sending the captain away with unladylike insistence when he had suddenly frozen in horror.
But she would not thank Rumpelstiltskin.
His intervention would have been welcome if he’d meant to rescue her from unwanted company. However, Belle recognized the playful sing-song of his voice, and knew he would have interrupted her dance with the captain even if she’d been having a good time.
Would he have backed away if she had asked? Maybe, Belle thought. Rumpelstiltskin had long grown out of the habit of enjoying a joke at her expense unless she was laughing as well.
Her lack of response to his last jest made him huff, his breath brushing the rim of her ears. “Not even a smile? Hah! It really is as dull an affair as I predicted!”
Belle turned around to face him, one eyebrow raised in what she was trying to convince herself was annoyance. One glance at his grin dispelled that notion, as her lips seemed to pull themselves into an answering smile. “You came,” she whispered.
Rumpelstiltskin gave a theatrical shrug. “The wedding of the century, they say. The beautiful Snow White, at last married.”
“To someone she loves,” she added, then gave him a knowing look. “You made sure of that.”
His nose twitched and he scowled. “Hush, girl. You know nothing,” he scolded. “Next you’ll be claiming that I gave Leopold’s throne back to his daughter too!”
Belle eyed him for a long beat. Then, exaggerating the gesture, brought a hand to her chest and gave a soft gasp of mock surprise. “No! I would never be as silly as to believe such things, no matter what I’ve seen or heard in the last year.”
Rumpelstiltskin watched her carefully. “You grow in impertinence, my girl.”
She grinned. “Why, Rumple. That’s the loveliest compliment I’ve heard all night.”
A corner of his lips quirked up, and he made a point of watching her from her glass slippers to the gorgeous gold-threaded ribbon in her hair. Since every piece of clothing had been his choice, sent from the Dark Castle a few hours before the ceremony, Belle wasn’t surprised to see the satisfied approval in his expression. “Oh, but I doubt it,” he told her, still grinning. “Fools they might be, but not as blind as not to appreciate the look of you tonight.”
“And that’s all they see,” Belle retorted. “I’d rather be called impertinent than ‘a glorious star fallen from the sky’.”
Belle expected him to laugh at the ridiculous phrase, but instead his gaze softened for an instant. Then he was smirking again. “Well,” he said more brightly, “I’m sure he’d have called you both, if he knew you as long as I have!”
Belle blushed. “Thanks,” she said softly, and before Rumpelstiltskin could ruin the compliment, added, “I’m glad you came.”
Rumpelstiltskin stared at her, then stood to his full height and waved a hand in the air. “Of course I came. Isn’t this what polite people do when they’re invited to a special event? Not that I’d know… Not really drowning in invitations, you see.”
Belle only raised an eyebrow. A third of her trips outside the Dark Castle were a response to the several letters asking for Rumpelstiltskin’s presence. People were eager to gain his favor, and several believed that a banquet and adulation would do the trick. “Of course,” she said dryly. “We see so few of those.”
Rumpelstiltskin twittered. “Perchance there was some curiosity involved,” he admitted. “I find I must know what our happy couple will say when someone claims that the charming groom is as royal as Snow White. Such honest souls, the two of them.” He grinned, suddenly all games and mischief. “I’d be so disappointed if they don’t get the chance to prove their worth!”
Belle grabbed onto his arm. “Rumple.”
His eyes fixed on her hand. Then, slowly, ran up her arms to meet her gaze.
“Please don’t make trouble for David and Snow. Not tonight.”
He tilted his head, examining her. “You would protect them?”
“They’ve been good hosts.” When that didn’t move Rumpelstiltskin, Belle continued, “They could have made this last day very uncomfortable for me.”
Rumpelstiltskin glared above her head, presumably to a spot where the recently wedded couple was standing. “They know better.”
Belle’s grip on his arm tightened a little. “They didn’t even introduce me as the your representative,” Belle told him. “Do you know how long it’s been since I enjoyed a party without a line of people trying to befriend me in order to convince me to drop a good word with you?” Or throwing barely shaded insults her way. Not that she’d ever mention that to Rumpelstiltskin. “Please, Rumple. Don’t wreck this for me.”
Rumpelstiltskin stroked his chin. “I don’t see how you can escape their notice now, my dear. Everyone is staring at the beautiful girl deep in talk with the Dark One.”
Belle didn’t need to look around to see that he was right. Even if his features hadn’t betrayed his identity; Rumpelstiltskin’s splendid clothes, far grander than even the new king’s, would have singled him out. “You’re right,” she said, then took a deep breath, having long learned to take the awkward, uncomfortable moments and turn them into good memories, “so let’s give them a reason to stare?”
As she spoke, her hand slid from his arm to slip her fingers through his.
She clasped his hand before he could react and jump away.
“May I have this dance, kind sir?” she asked softly, raising their joined hands into position for the waltz playing in the background.
It took her stepping closer for him to catch up and wrap and arm around her.
“Isn’t this better than upsetting everybody?” Belle asked after a minute of being gently led toward the middle of the room.
Rumpelstiltskin’s grin showed all his teeth. “Oh yes. Most certainly!”
Belle almost smiled back, pleased, but something in his expression made her lean back a little and look around… To discover that most couples had cleared the area and formed a small crowd around the dance floor. Some were whispering, all were looking at them with wide eyes, and a few must have alerted the new king and queen of the Dark One’s presence, because Belle caught sight of the pair at the edge of the ballroom, staring as well.
Several men were already sidling toward David, the expression on their faces stating their belief that his first act as their monarch should be to rescue the poor girl from the Dark One’s claws.
“Uh oh,” Rumpelstiltskin whispered, all glee again. “Seems the party is over after all!”