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.”
“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.”