Howl stared out the still swinging door that told of the woman’s hasty retreat from the farmhouse. “Is she mad at us?” he asked.
I looked up from the couch. Sweat pressed my dark curls onto my face. I felt tired and stretched in ways that I never would have imagined even after transforming into a wolf, but I also felt accomplished. It really hadn’t been a monster at all.
I was on the couch, and there was no monster.
“No,” I said. “I just don’t think she was expecting three.” Or for me to growl and start shifting into my wolf form while I was contracting.
We might have just pushed the poor midwife into early retirement.
I tried to smile at that thought, or at anything, but I still had my own fears. There might not have been a monster, but the babies had come early—too early. The midwife said that wasn’t unusual for twins or other multiple births, but it seemed like she was being as ridiculously kind as the women who said my belly was “robust.” It wasn’t robust. It was large. And now I had three large babies in my arms, and I needed to smile.
Howl jerked his head in, then back out again. Long strands of his hair fell in his face as he bounced on the edge of the threshold in his barely bridled excitement. “There are three? We have a litter?”
With the three infants resting on my arms and stomach, I had no power to shift the blankets to give him a better view, but I inclined my head. “Come see.”
Howl rocked on his feet, still acting like there was some invisible barrier keeping him from entering as fully as he clearly wanted to. “Will you bite me?”
“Bite you?” I loved that boy, but he had been literally raised by wolves, and there were still a few moments where I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Mother always bit if the pack got too close to her pups after she whelped. For weeks and weeks.”
“Weeks? Even her mates?”
He nodded solemnly. It was only then I remembered that when I first came to live with Howl at the old castle, I never saw the one Howl called his mother. He told me it was because she didn’t want visitors. She had pups then, and complete isolation for whelping mothers must be common in wolf packs. The woman had merged with the first wolf spirit and would have followed all their practices.
And Howl, heir of her spirit, had all the same inclinations.
But I scowled, refusing to acknowledge the practice even after learning of it. Unlike the wolf enchantress, Howl had chosen a human mate and still took a human form. We walked between the worlds of men and wolves, and this was one area I was determined to have my own way.
I might wait a little longer before letting in the rest of the pack, but I wanted my husband.
“Howl, get in here and hold your children.” I had worked hard to get them for him. I wanted to be a mother, but I might have waited to have children if Howl hadn’t wanted them so badly. After all my efforts, I deserved to see him enjoy them.
He dashed forward, and I was quickly rewarded by his wide smile. “I love them. Will they love me?”
“Of course. Why don’t you try holding them?”
With a bit more encouragement, I got Howl to scoop up the nearest baby.
His thick muscles twitched as he held the child like something made of glass. The baby boy shifted around, startled by the movement, but, resting against Howl’s chest, he blinked his long lashes and closed his eyes again without alarm.
“He loves me!” Howl quickly declared, and he looked down at the other two babies. “And he loves me and . . .” He took in a sharp breath. “We have a girl?”
“She’s so beautiful,” Howl said. “Are we going to name them?”
“Yes. I’m just . . . I’m not sure yet.” Even though it was early, I had thought of a few names for a girl or a boy, but now that there were three . . . I would have to think some more.
Howl looked down at the boy in his arms. “But this one is Edgar.”
I smiled then, without effort. I had mentioned once that I might want to name a boy after my father, but I hadn’t expected Howl to remember. “You’re right,” I agreed, and looked at the other babies still resting near me. “And . . . Esmé? Etienne?”
He nodded eagerly. “Which one is Etienne?”
“The boy. It’s a boy’s name.”
“Oh. So, the girl is Esmé?”
“Is that all right?” If we were going to name one of our children after my father, it seemed only fair that our daughter should share her name with the wolf enchantress. It was a happy coincidence that they shared an initial and I could continue the pattern with Etienne.
I always liked to name the sheep and wolf litters within a theme, and it seemed our children would not be spared from the same fate.
Howl nodded and crawled onto the couch with me. “I love them. I love you. I love us together.” He rubbed his nose with mine before kissing me. His simple acceptance and joy loosened my anxiety and stilled some of my racing thoughts, as they always did.
If he smiled, then I could smile. Howl’s smile kept the monster at bay, and in his arms, I felt completely safe. In his arms, I could sleep.