But there are others who will love you. Who want to help you. And I’m one of them.”
As Beatrix spoke, an inquiring trunk crept toward her hand and touched her palm gently. She curved her fingers against the warm, rough skin. After a moment, Ollie held his trunk up to her face, seeking the scent of her breath. “I’ll help you,” she whispered. “Trust me. But for now, please get up and do as he asks.”
The elephant reached for the apple, picked it up, and tucked it into his mouth.
Chewing slowly, he lurched to a sitting position, his bottom legs splayed in the manner of a young child.
“He’s doing it,” Thomas said in gratified wonder.
The man with the bull hook let out a bark of surprised laughter.
It seemed none of them dared to speak, watching as Ollie got up one leg at a time. He faced Beatrix, standing as close as possible to the fence to view her with clear, heavily-lashed brown eyes. His trunk reached over the fence, and Beatrix extended her arm. Carefully he wrapped his trunk around her arm up to the elbow, a sort of elephant handshake.
“That’s enough,” the man declared, reasserting his dominance over the situation. “If you want to view the elephant, you can pay tuppence and go through the entrance along with the other visitors.”
“Not a word of thanks?” Thomas asked indignantly. “If it weren’t for Miss Hathaway—”
“That’s perfectly all right,” Beatrix interrupted, gently disentangling her arm from the elephant, trying desperately to ignore his stare of mournful appeal. “We have to go now. Goodbye, Ollie.”
For now, she added silently, and forced herself to walk away.
A summer storm assailed Hampshire the night before Win and Merripen’s wedding, lashing Stony Cross with rain and high winds that damaged homes and brought down trees. Thankfully there were no reports of injury to any of the village residents, and the morning rose bright and clear.
Win awoke with the vague memory of Kev having left her some time after midnight, so as not to risk the bad luck of seeing his bride on the wedding morning. My superstitious Rom, she thought with a drowsy smile, curling her arms around the pillow he had used.
“Good morning, dear,” came Amelia’s cheerful voice.
“Good morning.” Win sat up and yawned. “It’s my wedding day! I thought it would never arrive.”
“Oh, it’s here,” Amelia said wryly, coming into the room. She was wearing a ruffled white dressing-robe and carrying a cup of tea. She gave the tea to Win and sat carefully on the edge of the mattress.
“Have you been up and about for long?” Win asked.
“Nearly a half-hour. And I have a great deal of news to report.”
Win’s fine brows lifted. “Are we having any of the bad luck that Kev was worried about?”
“To start with, Beatrix awoke with a head-cold, quite a snifter. I think she must have gone out to the barn during the storm to see if her owl was all right. She tracked in a cartload of mud and water, and the housekeeper is annoyed.”
“Poor Bea,” Win said in concern, lifting the tea cup to her lips.
“There’s more. The vicar sent a boy from the village this morning to tell us that a tree fell onto the room of the church and knocked part of it in. And the rain poured into the chancel and main sanctuary.”
“Oh no.” Win frowned. Perhaps Kev’s forebodings had been right, after all.
“Does that mean we’ll have to put the wedding off?”
“Were the bridegroom anyone other than Merripen, I would say yes. But he’s being stubborn. Cam and Leo are talking with him downstairs.”
They were both silent for a moment, listening intently.
“I don’t hear any shouting,” Win said.
“Merripen is being very calm, actually. But I think he’s covertly planning to murder someone. He told me to come help you dress—he says there will be a wedding.
“Very well.” Smiling, Win took another swallow of tea. “I know better than to doubt him.”
Having accompanied the errand boy to town, the Hathaways’ brother Leo assessed the damage to the church and spoke to the vicar. Immediately upon returning to Ramsay House, Leo went to confer with Cam and Kev. Leo was a tall, blue-eyed scoundrel, articulate under pressure, perpetually irreverent. He was also a master at bending rules and slipping around regulations. If there were any way to push the wedding through, Leo would find it.
“No chance of a ceremony inside the church,” he reported to Kev and Cam as they gathered in the main parlor. “It’s a sodding mess.”
“We’ll get married on the church steps, then,” Kev said.
“Impossible, I’m afraid.” Leo looked rueful. “According to the rubric of the church, it has to be inside a church or chapel that has been officially licensed. And neither the vicar nor the rector dare go against the laws. The consequences are so severe that they might receive three years’ suspension. When I asked where the nearest licensed chapel was, they looked in the records. As it happens, about fifty years ago our estate chapel was licensed for a family wedding, but it ran out since then.”
“Can we renew it?” Cam asked. “Today?”
“I asked that. The rector seemed to think it was an acceptable solution, and he agreed as long as Merripen and Win promised to privately solemnize the marriage at the church as soon as the roof is repaired.”
“But the marriage would be legal starting today?” Kev demanded.
“Yes, legal and registered, as long as it’s held before noon. The church won’t recognize a wedding if it’s held even one minute after twelve.”
“Good,” Kev said curtly. “We’ll marry this morning at the estate chapel. Pay the rector whatever he demands.”
“There’s only one problem with this plan,” Cam said. “We don’t have an estate chapel. At least, I’ve never seen one.”
Leo looked blank. “What the bloody hell happened to it?”
They both glanced at Kev, who had been in charge of the estate restoration for the past two years. He had taken down walls, razed small buildings, and made new additions to the original manor house.
“What did you do with the chapel, phral?” Cam asked apprehensively.
A scowl settled on Kev’s face. “No one was using it except some nesting birds.
So we turned it into a granary and attached it to the barn.” In the face of their silence, he said defensively, “It still counts.”
“You want to be married in a granary?” Leo asked incredulously. “Among bins of animal feed?”
“I want to be married anywhere,” Kev said. “The granary’s as good a place as any.”
Leo looked sardonic. “Someone may want to ask Win if she is willing to be married in a former chapel that now amounts to a shed attached to the barn.
Forbearing as my sister is, even she has standards.”
“I’m willing!” came Win’s voice from the stairs.
Cam smothered a grin.
Leo shook his head and spoke in his sister’s direction. “It’s a barn, Win.”
“If our Lord didn’t mind being born in a stable,” she replied cheerfully, “I certainly have no objection to being married in a barn.”
Briefly lifting his gaze heavenward, Leo muttered, “I’ll go take care of the renewal fee. I can hardly wait to see the vicar’s expression when I tell him we’ve turned the chapel into a granary. It doesn’t reflect well on this family’s piety, let me tell you.”
“You’re concerned about appearing pious?” Kev asked.
“Not yet. I’m still in the process of being led astray. But when I finally get around to repenting, I’ll have no damned chapel for it.”
“You can repent in our officially licensed granary,” Cam said, shrugging into his coat. He headed to the front door, opened it, and paused as the ebullient sound of guitars and Romany voices flowed inside.
Joining him at the door, Kev saw at least three dozen of their Romany relations clustered at the front of the house, dressed in colorful finery, singing and playing.
“They’re supposed to be traveling,” Kev said dazedly. “What are they doing here?”
Cam rubbed his forehead as if to push away an encroaching headache. “It looks like they’ve come to help us celebrate your wedding.”
“I don’t need that kind of help,” Kev said.
Leo came up behind them. “Well,” he remarked, “the good news is, there’s not much else than can go wrong now.”
Thanks to the hurried efforts of Amelia, Poppy, Beatrix and their companion Miss Marks, the granary was adorned with flowers and white ribbon, and rose petals were scattered generously over the wooden floor.
After a generous so-called “renewal fee,” the vicar offered no objections to performing the ceremony in the makeshift chapel. “As long as it’s done by twelve,” he told the family, “the marriage will be registered today.”
At precisely eleven-thirty, Kev waited with Cam at one end of the granary, which had been modified with large doors on both sides to allow for the easy transport of grain, implements and carts. Romantic guitar music floated in from outside, while an eclectic mixture of guests crowded into every inch of available space in the granary. A path was left clear for the bride.
Standing in the front of the granary with her family, Beatrix sneezed into a lace handkerchief. As she glanced at Merripen, she felt a surge of overwhelming happiness for him. He and Win had loved each other for so long, and had overcome so many seemingly impossible obstacles. How many people took marriage for granted, whereas for Merripen it was a reward for years of sacrifice.
Win entered the church on Leo’s arm, and proceeded through the granary. She was pristine and beautiful in a simple dress, silk whiter than moonlight, overlaid with lace gauze, her face partially concealed by a lace veil. Merripen watched her as if he’d found himself in some wondrous dream he didn’t want to wake from.
Carefully he lifted the veil and folded it back, and stared down into Win’s smiling face. The gaze they shared was intimate, trusting, ardent . . . it was devotion, Beatrix realized. The feeling between them seemed to cast a spell over the gathering.
“Dearly beloved,” the vicar began, “we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony . . .”
Beatrix couldn’t help but wish that the vicar would hurry. The hour of noon was fast approaching.
“. . . therefore is not an enterprise to be taken unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly . . .”
Feeling another sneeze come on, Beatrix hastily buried her nose in her handkerchief. It was one of those sneezes that couldn’t quite decide what it was going to do . . . it just hovered, tickling and stinging, until finally the feeling subsided.
Beatrix was relieved, because she certainly didn’t want to disrupt the ceremony with a loud sneeze.
And then she saw it . . . a long gray trunk emerging from an open transom space between the barn and the granary. Beatrix’s eyes widened. She couldn’t move a muscle, couldn’t say anything as the trunk delicately reached for Win’s veil and headpiece, and plucked it off her head.
A few gasps and yelps of surprise came from the crowd.
Lifting a hand to her head, Win shot a confused glance toward the transom.
Kev instinctively put a protective arm in front of her. Together they stared at Ollie, who watched them through the opening in the wall, waving the veil back and forth as if he were cheering them on.
Everyone fell silent, the group struggling as a whole to comprehend what their gazes were telling them.
Leo was the first to speak. “Beatrix,” he said calmly, “do you have something you’d like to tell us?”
“I’m so sorry,” Beatrix said, “but I can explain everything. You see, this poor animal was being terribly abused, and so I thought—”
“Beatrix,” Merripen interrupted, “I’m very interested to hear your explanation, but we only have a quarter-hour left. Could we—” He paused as Win turned her face into his shoulder and made a peculiar gasping sound. At first Beatrix thought her sister might have been crying, but as Merripen slid his fingers beneath Win’s chin and tilted her face upward, it became evident that she was choking on giggles. Merripen couldn’t hold back a grin. With an effort, he mastered himself and asked Beatrix mildly, “Could the explanation wait until after twelve?”
“Certainly,” she said, and motioned to Ollie to cease his veil-waving. He stopped and watched the ceremony attentively.
The vicar gave the elephant an apprehensive glance. “I’m not certain the church allows animals to attend weddings.”
“If there’s a fee for it,” Leo assured him, “we’ll settle up later. For now, let’s proceed.”
“Yes, my lord.” Clearing his throat, the vicar continued the ceremony with great dignity. Eventually he said, “Therefore, if any man can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter for ever hold his—”
“Stop at once!” came a booming, stentorian voice, and the entire congregation turned toward the back of the granary.
Beatrix’s stomach dropped as she recognized the man’s distinctive white moustache and goatee.
It was Mr. Fulloway, the owner of the traveling menagerie.
She didn’t dare glance at Ollie, but out of the periphery of her vision she saw his trunk withdraw stealthily into the barn.
“I’m here to retrieve stolen property,” Fulloway announced, his eyes narrowed to slits.
The man beside him carried a bull hook. He and Beatrix recognized each other at the same time. “That’s her, Mr. Fulloway,” he snapped. “The Hathaway girl I caught visiting Ollie in his pen yesterday. She’s the one who took him, I guarantee it!”
Leo stepped forward, suddenly looking every inch the aristocrat, his face hard, his eyes the icy blue of glaciers. “I am Lord Ramsay,” he said. “You’re trespassing on my estate. And in case you hadn’t noticed, you’re interrupting a wedding.”
Fulloway made a scoffing sound. “You can’t get married in a barn.”READ MORE >>