“This isn’t a barn,” Leo said, “it’s our family chapel. There’s the vicar, and that fellow with the large fists and the feral gaze is the bridegroom. And if I were you I wouldn’t delay his wedding, or you may not live to see another morning.”
“I’m not leaving until I get my elephant,” Fulloway thundered. “He draws in paying customers, and I need him for my business, and besides, he’s mine.”
“He’s here, Mr. Fulloway!” came a muffled shout from the other side of the wall, and Beatrix realized with alarm that Fulloway had sent someone into the barn to look for Ollie.
The air was rent with a frightened trumpet. Ollie fled the barn and came racing into the attached granary, desperately seeking refuge. Seeing Beatrix, he went to hide behind her, his entire body trembling. She backed up to him protectively, and glared at the man with the bull hook as he strode toward her. “You can’t have him, you butcher!” she shouted.
“You’re a thief!” Fulloway bellowed. “I’ll have you prosecuted!”
The entire barn erupted into a cacophony, everyone shouting, Gypsies crowding in from outside, while Ollie trumpeted and screamed. Even the vicar had raised his voice in the effort to be heard.
Merripen viewed the chaos in the granary with baffled fury.
“Quiet!” he thundered.
Everyone fell silent. Even the elephant.
“For the next ten minutes,” Merripen warned the entire gathering, “no one is to move, speak, or even breathe. All of this will be sorted out after noon. For now, any one of you who interrupts will find himself tossed headfirst into the nearest grain bin.”
Win slipped her arm through his, and they turned to face the vicar.
As Merripen stared at him expectantly, the vicar proceeded. “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?”
“I will.” Merripen’s voice was quiet but strong.
The vicar asked the same of Win.
“I will.” A flush of happiness rose in her cheeks.
And the vows continued. “For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish . . . with this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship . . .”
Finally, Merripen slid a simple gold band onto Win’s finger.
The vicar finished, “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
And in one impassioned, decidedly improper, highly romantic moment, Merripen bent to kiss his bride. Her lace-covered arms rose around his neck, and she clasped him tightly, their mutual joy radiating through the makeshift chapel.
Beatrix smiled and dabbed her eyes. Still standing behind her, Ollie waved the wedding veil briskly, the tail of it flapping against her side.
“Now,” Mr. Fulloway said, coming forward, “I’ll take my elephant.”
“No,” Beatrix cried, glancing desperately at her family. “They’ll kill him as they did his mother. Look at the wounds around his neck, and the—”
“Hush,” Merripen said, making a staying gesture with his hand. Keeping his gaze on Fulloway, Merripen paused as Win stood on her toes to whisper something in his ear. He smiled ruefully. “Anything you ask,” he murmured. Stepping forward, Merripen inserted himself between Fulloway and the elephant. “It seems that my wife—” He hesitated almost imperceptibly, seeming to savor the last two words,
“would like to have the elephant as a wedding present. Which means we’ll be negotiating for him.”
“I’m not open to bargaining,” Fulloway said. “He’s the only elephant I’ve got left, and—”
“You misunderstand,” Merripen interrupted quietly. “I’m not asking if we can negotiate, I’m informing you that we will.”
Fulloway’s complexion reddened behind snowy swaths of facial hair. “No one tells me what to do. Do you know who I am?” He turned to gesture sharply to the man with the bull hook.
But at that precise moment Cam grasped the man’s wrist, twisted sharply, and the bull hook clattered to the floor.
Behind Beatrix, Ollie flapped his ears and gave a rumbling chortle.
Fulloway found himself corralled between Leo and Merripen.
“Have you heard of the legislation passed three years ago, outlawing wanton and malicious cruelty to animals?” Leo asked. “No? Well, I know all about it, as I’ve had to sit through everlasting sessions of Parliament while they’ve brought up new amendments. And if you give us any further difficulty, you’ll find yourself so busy defending against prosecutions, you’ll have to close your bloody traveling show and—”
“All right,” Fulloway said, unnerved by Merripen’s threatening glare. “I’m willing to negotiate. But I want a fair price. This is no cut-rate elephant!”
Beatrix sighed in relief. Ollie came to stand beside her, and she stroked his ear comfortingly. “You’re not going back,” she murmured. “You’re safe now.”
Her sister Amelia approached them, gazing at Ollie in wonder. Carefully Amelia reached out and rubbed the elephant’s forehead, and smiled into his clear brown eyes. “What a well-behaved fellow,” she said. “I never suspected an elephant would comport himself so nicely at a wedding.”
“Amelia,” Beatrix said apologetically, “I know what I promised earlier, but—”
“Wait,” Amelia said, her voice gentle. “Before you say anything, Bea . . . Cam told me to let you follow your own path. And he was right. You don’t have to change yourself to suit someone else. You’re perfectly wonderful the way you are.” She smiled. “All I want is for you to be happy. And I don’t think you could be, if you weren’t free to follow your heart.”
Beatrix launched forward and hugged her sister. “I love you,” she said.
As they stood embracing, Ollie tried to wrap his trunk around them.
“We’re not keeping him,” Leo warned. “You’re going to find some kind of sanctuary or refuge for him, Beatrix.”
“Yes, of course. Some place with other elephants. He’ll want to live among his own kind.” Beaming, Beatrix led the elephant out of the granary. “But in the meantime . . . won’t the neighbors love it when I take Ollie out for a walk?”
Dressed in a white nightgown, her fair hair loose and flowing, Win entered the bedroom to find Kev waiting for her.
Their first night as husband and wife.
And although Kev, in all his dark handsomeness, was beloved and familiar to her, she felt a pleasant ripple of nervousness.
He stripped off his shirt, revealing a sleek, powerful torso, and tossed it aside.
His gaze smoldered as it passed over her slowly. Standing beside the bed, he extended a commanding hand, palm-up.
“Your slipper,” he said.
So he intended to adhere to the Romany tradition, Win thought, amused and perhaps the slightest bit annoyed. Her shoe would be placed on his side of the bed to show who was master. Very well. He could have his symbolic victory.
Although it would prove nothing.
Win removed a slipper and went to hand it to him.
In the process, however, she nearly tripped over something on the floor. She paused to glance down at it in mild surprise.
A large black man’s shoe had been placed on her side of the bed.
Understanding, Win glanced up at him with laughter in her gaze. “But who’ll be in charge?”
Taking her slipper, Kev set it ceremoniously on the floor, and reached for her.
“We’ll take turns,” he said, his hard arms closing around her, his warm breath caressing her lips just before he kissed her. “Me first.”
– The End –READ MORE >>