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  • Jacque Stevens

Wedding Belles (Wolf in Sheep's Clothing Chp. 5)

Howl carried me through the forest the next day. I held his clothes and the silver pendant so he could sprint in a more wolf-like form that made the trip so much faster. When we reached the last few pine and oak trees, I gave everything back to him. My heart beat faster as I caught a few stray voices on the summer breeze. We were really doing this. Howl was going to enter my village, and we were getting married. I didn’t know if I was more nervous or excited, but I had more than enough of both. Once he was dressed, he started the same back-and-forth dance he had done before.

I took his hand and pulled him down the road. I got him past the stray tables, wooden boards, and other discarded remnants of the wolf barricade Jean had built, and we reached a line of family shops and homes squeezed together. Howl stared up at the jutted white walls in their square timber frames as if they were towering giants, flinching whenever a window opened or a merchant yelled over the crowd.

The cloth merchant was the worst, unfurling a sheet of red fabric in front of us.

Stumbling, Howl sank one foot into an open gutter, and I had to coax him out again.

“I don’t like that color,” he said, squinting his eyes. “It hurts.”

“Hurts?” I glanced at the cloth again. “You couldn’t see red before?”

He shook his head. “Without the silver, when I’m human, I can see some red, but it was never that bright. Nothing looked like that before.”

Maybe it made sense for Howl to have been color blind along with the other traits he had gained from his wolf form. I wanted to be kind; this was all so new—he hadn’t been to this or any human village in years, but that also made me anxious. I didn’t want to stand around too long and get everyone staring. That would just make things worse. And it wasn’t like we could avoid the color. “I’m so sorry it hurts right now, sweetie, but lots of things are red,” I said. “Like your hair.”

That didn’t help. As he started walking again, he tugged at a few pieces of his hair like it had betrayed him. But he looked just fine to me.

More than fine. Howl was never ugly. Bulky, rugged, and a bit more angled, but not ugly.

And now that I had trimmed his hair and patched his clothes, my scruffy wolf looked like a proper gentleman. Not as pristine as a count but an honest farmer or hunter.

The kind of man anyone would expect me to marry.

The kind of man who drew a few curious glances from other village girls, though that didn’t help. The more people turned to look at him, the more I had to drag him. And then people looked more, the cycle building on itself. It was ridiculous. He was a grown man. Even without his wolf features, I was half his size, and if this kept up, we would never make it to talk to the priest.

I wouldn’t be able to drag him if he stopped walking altogether.

“Howl, come on,” I said. “No one has a gun.”

Howl shook his head and pointed. “That one does.”

I caught the shine of the metal in a bearded man’s hands and scowled, but I should have expected that. Things had mostly calmed down, but there were still plenty of men who walked the streets with guns since the count was displaced. With no proper sheriff, the villagers found ways to protect and police themselves. “Yes, but he’s not pointing it at you. He’s just . . . holding it.”

“Why is he holding it?”

“I don’t know. He just is. Men like guns.”

Howl thought about that. “I’m a man. Can I have a gun?”

“You can have one of mine if you want, but they’re not here.” I had one of my father’s guns still at the farmhouse and the gun I took from Jean at the castle. I didn’t need to carry a gun with Howl around. “And you’ll be able to change into a wolf again once we leave.”

Howl nodded. “We’ll leave after we talk to the priest. Where is he?”

“At the church.” I hoped he wasn’t too busy. I didn’t know how long I could keep this going. We were standing in the village square now, next to the well and the local inn, and the sight put me a bit on edge myself. “Just walk faster, and we’ll be done in a moment.”

Howl started to move again, but not fast enough. The door by the well opened.

Madame Dupuis stepped out. Her blond hair had gone more white in the last few months; her dress more crumpled. “Isabelle? I heard you might be back in town. How are you holding up?” The words seemed more of a challenge than actual sympathy. She would still be grieving her son’s disappearance. Plenty of girls cried over Jean’s antlers and trophies displayed at the inn, but they still would have noticed that I wasn’t one of them.

“Yes, madame. Thank you.” I wrung my hands under her suspicious gaze. “I’m managing . . .”

Howl took my hand and smiled, more determined to please me. “We’re getting married.”

“Oh?” Madame Dupuis’s eyebrow rose, and I could see her counting back the two months Jean had been gone. She was not happy, and there was no way to please her.

I pulled at Howl’s arm. “We should go.”

But dragging Howl away just got him frowning too. “You don’t want them to know we’re getting married? Even though I don’t look like a wolf?”

“People can know; she just might not like it. She wanted me to marry Jean.”

Howl’s eyes went wide. “Jean? But he’s not nice!”

“Yes,” I dropped my voice to a pointed whisper, “but she doesn’t know that.”

“You could tell her.” Howl was a bit quieter, but not at all appeased.

Of course he wasn’t. He thought mating in front of a whole pack was perfectly normal.

“She might not believe me.” It wasn’t like I didn’t think about telling the town about Jean, but I had nothing to prove what I said. Or at least, nothing but having Howl transform in front of everyone, and that couldn’t end well. This whole thing might have been a mistake from the start.

I only wanted to get married, not set the town back into the same rage that stirred all the old trouble in the first place. I thought of the guns, but really, I feared disapproving stares just as much. I had never wanted to raise my voice or stand apart from the crowd. If it weren’t for Howl, I would have happily stayed in my old farmhouse, raising sheep and reading books without causing a single stir in the village or anywhere else. And now, I wouldn’t say I regretted the path that had led me to the man I loved, but I didn’t want to have to explain my choices to anyone.

Not even Howl at the moment.

“I just . . .” My words fading, I simply pointed Howl toward the side road leading to the chapel. “Let’s get this done. Then we can go.”

#

We walked past the empty benches in the village chapel, and I knocked on the far door. The balding priest answered, peering out from his small office. His smile creased a few light wrinkles on his face. “Isabelle. What brings you here today?”

I bobbed my head in greeting. “I wish to be married, Father.”

“Really?” The priest peered past me to Howl. “Is this your intended?”

“Yes. Might we have the blessing of the church?”

He bowed his head. “It would be an honor, Isabelle. But I must know something of your young man.” The sleeves of his robes brushed a chair as he gestured for the two of us to come in.

Howl had gone shy again. He hid his face even though he didn’t need to. He was wearing the silver, but he scanned the book shelves and religious icons on the desk, searching the portraits of saints and Christ as a shepherd for pitchforks and rifles.

I pushed him forward. If we were going to do this, I wasn’t going to speak for him.

“Hello . . . Father.” Howl frowned back at me. “Do we both call him that? He’s not your father. Your father is dead.”

“He is dead.” It had been long enough that I could almost mimic Howl’s blunt tone. “This is the priest. I told you.” But maybe I didn’t tell him that priests often went by Father in the church. There was just so much Howl didn’t know, so much I took for granted, that it didn’t seem to matter how much I told him. There still were gaps. I was already doubting my decision to let Howl talk, but, after everything that happened on the street, I wanted to show my own resolve.

I refused to be embarrassed by the man I was going to marry.

Really, there was nothing to be embarrassed about if we just phrased things properly.

We sat down across from the priest, and I tried for some safer territory. “Howl is a hunter.” I nudged his knee. “We met in the woods near my farm. He’s a great hunter. Tell him about the deer you caught this morning.” Men bonded over things like hunting, right?

Howl paused. “I caught a deer. It was good until Belle cooked it. Then it tasted like ash.”

I scowled. It did not taste like ash. It just wasn’t raw for once! “You liked it.”

“I liked it better than when she made me eat berries.” He hunched his shoulders and scrunched his face like I had tried to poison him.

I grounded my teeth. The man I loved was such a child sometimes. And now the priest was glancing between the pair of us. I could only imagine what he was thinking.

“And you wish to marry Isabelle?” he asked.

“I want to mate,” Howl said, jerking back up eagerly. He could always change emotions on a moment’s notice. “I’m still learning the rest. Belle says it’s all right if I’m still learning. She’s smart and teaches me a lot. Like she was just teaching me about face bi—”

My face burned, and I flailed out my foot under the table.

He jumped, now looking completely crestfallen and betrayed. “You kicked me.”

All right, so maybe I was completely embarrassed by the man I wanted to marry. I refused to let him tell the holy father all the things I “taught” him, but I still loved him.

“Howl’s a really good man, Father. He’s just . . . He doesn’t leave the forest much.”

“I see,” the priest said. “Well, the good book says it’s better to marry than to burn. Paul was a plainspoken man. As was Edgar Berger. You found yourself a man like your father, and I can’t say anything bad about that.” The priest was being kind. Howl was on his own separate level of “plain-spokenness.” I fidgeted with my apron as the priest turned to his shelves of books and records. “And you don’t have a problem supporting Isabelle in raising your children in the church? If she teaches them from the scriptures?”

“A book?” Howl looked for confirmation and then nodded. “Belle likes telling me about books. She can tell the pups too.”

I smiled at the thought of Howl and me in the library and a few more pups crawling around.

Wait, pups? I blinked. It had taken me so long to notice that now the priest was raising his eyebrow at me too. Maybe I had been in the forest too long. I was embarrassed by the both of us.

Babies, Howl. Not pups.” I swiveled my head back to the priest. “Sorry. He really likes dogs.”

Howl couldn’t even let me have that one. “I don’t like dogs. I like wolves.”

The priest decided to ignore us again. “And have you been baptized?”

“I . . . I don’t know.”

It wasn’t very likely. The sprinkling done on infants and small children would have been the last thing on the count’s mind.

Nor the mind of the human mother who called Howl a beast and abandoned him.

The priest turned back to his shelves. “Have you always lived here, Howl? We might have a record. What is your father’s name? Your surname?”

“His name . . .” There it was. We were trapped. I couldn’t lie. Howl would never go along with it if I did. And if Howl’s mother was the legal countess, there was only one name he should have. “Well, it should be Molette De Moragies.”

I braced myself in the silence that followed.

The priest paused and looked back at Howl, studying him quietly. Then he nodded. “I see. You do look like him.” The priest looked back at me, more severely. “Isabelle, why didn’t you just say he was the old count’s son? That explains so much and would have made everything easier.”

“It would have?”

“Yes. I know it’s been a hard time for those with noble blood.” He turned to Howl. “You’ve had to stay out of the public eye, haven’t you? With all the uprisings? But you were a child when the count was displaced, and I don’t believe in holding men to the crimes of Adam or any of our fathers. You can count on my discretion. We’ll just put you down as Donadieu.”

Donadieu. One given to God. A name given to orphans with unknown parents.

I exhaled, long and slow. This was going to work better than I ever could have hoped for. The priest was helping us. He pulled out his quill to jot down Howl’s new name in one of the record books.

“Harold or Henri?” the priest asked.

Howl looked at me again.

I shrugged. “I like Henri, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll still call you Howl.”

He nodded. “Belle likes Henri.”

“Are you willing to be baptized and christened as Henri Donadieu?” the priest asked.

Howl fingered the pendant. “It’s a blessing? Like on the silver? Will it change me?”

His words cut me like a scythe through wheat. I hadn’t considered that. The silver worked because it had been blessed and dedicated to a saint. Baptism was another blessing, not just on the water, but on the person themself. Could it have a more powerful effect than the silver?

There was simply no way to know, and I found myself holding my breath. Should I try to stop him? My conscience, my very soul wouldn’t allow me to live with Howl anymore if he couldn’t do this, but was I asking too much?

There was a definite risk, and I couldn’t make this decision for him.

The priest laughed, quite oblivious to the problem he had presented. “Well, that is the idea. We all hope to change to something new, something better. But it won’t happen right away and only if we are truly open to it. Baptism is only one step down a very long path.” He took out the shallow bowl of holy water he used for blessing infants. “We could take care of that right now if you’d like.”

The room went still, blurring a little until I remembered to breathe.

Howl looked from the pendant, to the water, then to me. Tracing the path between us. “And that’s all I have to do to marry Belle?” Howl paused another moment and nodded. “All right.”


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