~ Rebecca L. Gillan
Jock slumped down in the pew and tried to ignore the hollow, gnawing ache in his belly. The fact that he was here, at the wedding of his paternal cousin Amelia’s maternal cousin Amanda, said worlds about how desperate he had been to get out of attending the moon-mating ceremony. It was not something that came to wolves naturally, dammit, and he wasn’t going to go along with it!
Of course, nor was he the alpha, which meant having to have a good reason not to be in town during the holidays so it didn’t look like he was disobeying when he didn’t show up on New Year’s Eve to be paired off.
The moon-mating ceremony was his alpha’s invention, an attempt to address the high number of unmated wolves in the pack. In real wolf packs, only the alpha pair mated to keep the population of the pack at sustainable levels. In a world that was hostile to shape shifters, larger were-packs also had adopted that practice, so they didn’t have packs too big to sustain or, most importantly, to hide. The alpha had decided that in this day and age of birth control and expanding social tolerance, mating lower wolves—but not allowing breeding privileges—was the answer to a different problem. Tail chasing.
Since when was chasing tail considered a problem, Jock wondered. So long as there was no unwanted sexual contact and no leaving of litters of pups everywhere, who cared if wolves humped willing partners when the urge struck? It was good, harmless, if not exactly clean, fun.
But no. The alpha wanted his wolves to settle down and pick mates. There weren’t enough females to go around if the mated pairs were strictly male-female, but the alpha hadn’t specified that. He said “non-breeding mating groups”, meaning however you want it, fine, but everyone had to be in a group of some kind. During the moon-mating—why not just say circle jerk since that was clearly all it was?—everyone had to pick a partner or three and they were stuck in that group until the next New Year’s Eve. Or, moon-mating ceremony, rather.
See? Not at all how werewolves work. Besides, he just wasn’t into that stuff. He liked one-on-one long term monogamous relationships. Instead of going to that stupid made-up ceremony, he’d called his cousin Amelia and begged her to invite him to her house for the holidays. She had a wedding to go to and no date, so she was fine with that. He’d get out of being matched up with someone he didn’t really want to sleep with and she wouldn’t have to go to a family wedding dateless. Or worse, alone.
So that’s why he was sitting here in the pew of a church in a town he’d never visited before in the company of a cousin he didn’t see very often waiting for a wedding to start. It was late, too. He checked his watch again and then tapped it. It was now almost three and the wedding was supposed to have started at two. He frowned and looked around. The church was decked out with swags of greenery, huge red bows, and creamy white candles. The whole thing gave off a festive yet reverent ambiance as befitting a Christmas Eve wedding.
Uh-oh, he thought when he spied a crowd of people spilling out of church vestibule. No one looked happy, least of all the bride, whose face was covered with a heavy white veil. Her shoulders were scrunched in, making it clear that she wasn’t in a good place, emotionally.
“Dearly beloved,” the priest said sonorously at the front of the church. “It would seem we have no groom for this joyful celebration. Unless someone else would like to take this fine young lady as his wife, we are going to have to cancel.”
Jock looked at the cringing young woman, whom he couldn't even see properly. He looked at his cousin Amelia. She was looking back at him, eyes just as wide and shocked as his. He looked back up at the girl and whispered to his cousin, “Is this for real? Did the priest actually offer her up like day-old bread to anyone who wants her?”
“Um,” Amelia said, chewing on her lip. “Amanda kind of agreed to an arranged marriage. Her father’s will stipulated that she couldn’t inherit unless she’s married by her twenty-fifth birthday.”
“When’s her birthday?” Jock asked.
He looked at Amelia. She shrugged and then said, “Her dad was a no-show for most of her life and then he died a few years ago. Her grandfather’s an ass and messed with the will since he was the executor of it. The family lawyers checked. It’s all legal and binding. She has to be married by the end of the day or…”
Jock looked at the cringing girl, stunned by how backward that was. Then he had a thought. Married wolves were exempt from the moon-mating ceremony…
Amanda was miserable. She had suspected this hair-brained idea wasn’t going to go as well has her mother had thought it would. Get a quickie marriage to satisfy her grandfather’s medieval stipulations. After a year, they’d get a divorce. Sounded simple. Then her grandfather got wind of the plan and said it had to be a real wedding, not a paperwork one. And that, of course, had freaked out her Pablo, who had agreed to a marriage-in-name-only. She was quite possibly the only woman in history to be stood up by her gay friend at their fake wedding. As if that wasn’t bad enough, then her maternal uncle, who was officiating the ceremony, solicited a new groom for her from her own wedding guests. Oh, just shoot me now, she thought.
“I’ll do it,” a deep voice said from somewhere in the middle of the packed pews. She tried to look, but the veil was too thick. All she could see were vague shapes, like ghosts in a fog bank. As she watched, a very large shape seemed to rise above the other moving shapes. Whoever he was, he was tall, Amanda thought. The crowd murmured and Uncle Charles cleared his throat.
“And you are?”
“I’m Amelia’s cousin Jock on her father’s side. Her dad and mine were brothers,” the deep voice replied calmly.
“Do you understand the circumstances involved?” Uncle Charles asked, sounding exactly like the stodgy old priest he was.
“Yeah—uh, yes, sir,” the unseen man said, now sounding a bit flustered. “Amelia explained it to me just now. Amanda has to be married by the end of the day or her sperm donor was going to deny her her rightful inheritance. I’m not married or planning to get married any time soon.” The hulking shape seemed to shrug as the crowd started tittering. Sperm donor, huh? She was going to have to remember that. It fit her father perfectly. He’d stuck around long enough to contribute to her DNA but that was about it.
She tried desperately to remember something, anything about Amelia’s cousin. She didn’t think she’d ever met him, though he was Amelia’s last living relative on her dad’s side. She and Amelia shared maternal bonds, so he wouldn’t have been around the family. Then she remembered Amelia commenting that her cousin had called up asking if she minded if he visited for the holidays. And so here he was, saving Amanda from her grandfather, if not from total embarrassment.
“You’ll do fine,” Mother said from Amanda’s left side. “Places everyone! Young man, go up to the front of the church. Do you have a ring? Oh wait. Of course you don’t—”
“Well,” he said, sounding very bashful. “I do have my great-grandmother’s wedding ring. My grandmother wore it on a chain around her neck and when she died, I started wearing it that way, too. Because it reminded me of her,” he finished lamely.
Amanda felt for him. Her family was very intimidating. Not in a bad way, of course, but they were more than a little batty. She didn’t have to actually see them to know they were probably staring at the poor guy, polite smiles on their faces and nodding as if crazy stuff like this happened every day and was totally unremarkable. Amanda had to admit that she was already starting to like him, sight unseen. But then again, Amelia was one part cousin and one part best friend. If she brought Jock to a family wedding, he had to be good people.
He mother grabbed her arm and steered her into place without warning. “Just keep calm, baby,” her mother said quietly in her ear. “It’ll all be over soon. You’ll have a husband to shut your grandfather up with and then you’ll have the casino fair and square.”
“Mamma?” she asked nervously. “What does my groom look like?”
“Don’t worry about that, baby,” her mother said dismissively. “He’s only going to be a paper groom.”
“But Mamma, I have to sleep with him!” she hissed.
“Think of it like a one night stand,” he mother muttered as she dragged Amanda into place at the center of the vestibule. The organ started playing Pachelbel’s Cannon in G Major and everyone turned to look at her. This was it, she thought. Time to go meet my future husband or friend with benefits or whatever he was going to end up being. Time to go thwart her grandfather’s plans.
For a woman who had been raised to be strong and independent, these last few weeks since learning of her grandfather's change to her father’s will had been hell. She had almost come to terms with being forced to marry, and only because she loved Pablo like a brother, when Dearest Grandfather found out that Pablo was gay. All she could think was that while Pablo had been fine with the idea of hood winking “the man”, he was not alright with the stipulation that he had to actually sleep with her. Publicly. As in medieval bedding rituals. They had to be witnessed doing the deed.
This wedding was turning out to be more gothic than medieval. Medieval people considered weddings to be little more than business transactions that resulted in babies. The bride and groom usually knew each other, and certainly would have met each other, before the wedding. No, marrying a cousin’s cousin sight unseen was straight out of an Elizabethan Goth novel, complete with the evil bastard of a grandfather. Amanda sighed, wishing she had not spent quite so many hours devouring Ann Radcliff’s gothic novels as a teen. It had clearly put a few crazy ideas into her head. Next thing she knew, she’d be looking at her mysterious groom, trying to figure out what deep, dark secrets he was hiding from her!
She looked up at his very large form, blurred by the heavy lace of her veil, and squinted. Nope, nothing out of the ordinary so far as she could tell. Uncle Charles cleared his throat meaningfully. Amanda jumped, realizing she had missed her cue.
“Do you promise to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do you part?” he repeated.
“I do,” she choked out, ignoring the odd thrill that ran up her spine at “’til death do you part.” That was silly. This was still only a temporary marriage, even if it was to her cousin’s cousin rather than to a guy she’d grown up with. It was more like a one night stand that would linger a bit.
“Do you have the ring?” Uncle Charles asked. Her groom fumbled a bit, finally pulling something small out of his pant pocket. At Uncle Charles’ urging, he slipped it onto her ring finger. Another thrill of something other-worldly ran down her spine as the thin gold ring, warm from his body heat, slid past her knuckle. She felt a little giddy when he lifted her hand and kissed it softly. She shivered when he folded her small hand into both of his much larger ones, a feeling of destiny settling heavy on her shoulders. She tried to ignore it, thinking it was a product of her earlier musing about gothic romance novels, but she couldn’t quite manage to set the feeling aside.
Finally, he lifted her veil and she got to see her groom for the first time. If she had to come up with one word to describe Jock Hancock, it would be “chiseled.” He hand a square rugged jaw, high sharp cheek bones, and piercing blue eyes. His brown hair was over-long and curling around his ears just a bit, clean but not overly tidy, the type of man who didn’t care much for what was fashionable. His tall frame looked hard with muscle from his huge shoulders to his trim waist to his mile long legs. Then he bent down to give her the traditional kiss and any thoughts of what he looked like fled.
Jock looked down at his bride and gulped. Oh, Sweet Luna, she was lovely! He reminded himself sternly that this was a quickie wedding of convenience. He didn’t get to keep her. Oh but her scent! It whispered to him of hearth and home and crisp winter snows laying heavy on a pine forest. She was dainty, coming not quite to his shoulder, with a waist so tiny he could circle it with his hands. When he lifted her veil and saw thick dark hair, light olive complexion and velvety chocolate almond-shaped eyes, he knew he was lost. This may only be a temporary thing for her, but his inner beast was howling that she was his. His one and only, his mate. ‘Til death would they part in truth, it sang.
He smiled at her and dropped down for a second kiss to keep himself from howling in pride out loud. There was a whole church filled with people who knew full well that he was a stranger who’d never set eyes on her before five minutes ago so he kept the kiss chaste and quick, though he did allow himself to breathe deeply of her enticing fragrance. He lifted his head back up and noticed how tense she seemed to be.
Aw, no. He couldn’t let his precious new mate be uncomfortable around him! So he grinned, stepped back and theatrically bowed over her hand, which he was still holding on to for dear life.
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Hancock. My name is Jock and I will be your husband for the duration of this marriage. If there is anything I can do for you, do not hesitate to let me know.” The sound of bawdy laughter filled the small church, but he didn’t care. He saw her sweet, bow-shaped lips quiver with repressed mirth. That was all that mattered to him, that Amanda was put at ease by his tomfoolery.
“Pleased to meet you, Jock,” she murmured shyly. He nodded his head back toward the crowded pews and winked.
“Shall we?” he asked. She nodded and blushed. Jock gave her his most encouraging good ol’ boy grin and turned, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm. He was pleased to see that his new mate was as susceptible to good ol’ boy charm as most women. He spent most of his time working the back country on the Pack’s ranch so that was about the only kind of charm he could claim to have. That and wolfish charm, but that usually only worked on female wolves. As good as she smelled, he could tell that Amanda was plain vanilla human. That was just fine by him.
He was startled into laughing when he saw what was waiting for them outside the church. He looked over at Amanda to find her chuckling, as well. Honestly, it was the only response most people would have come up with at the sight of a turkey-drawn sleigh. Or rather, a horse drawn sleigh with the horses decked out like turkeys.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “It was supposed to have been a joke for Pablo, the guy I was actually supposed to have married.”
“No problem,” Jock said gamely. “You drivin’ or am I?”
“You... know how to drive a sleigh?” she asked uncertainly. Jock laughed again.
“You could say that,” he replied. “I was born and raised on cattle ranches. The teams I usually drive pull hay wagons but I’m sure I can manage a little two-horse sleigh just fine.” He handed her up just as a pack of younger people spilled out of the church at a dead run. Jock noticed that Amelia was in the group and that each person was holding a red velvet bag and grinning maliciously. He met Amelia’s eye and shook his head. “Catch us if you can!” he hollered back at them and jumped into the driver’s seat as the cat-calling group began pelting them with handfuls of bird seed.
“Shouldn’t you be going faster than this to outrun them?” Amanda asked, laughing and shaking seed chaff out of her eyes.
“Where’s the fun in that?” he asked. “Besides, the horses were cooling their heels for a good long while. I don’t want to push them too hard.”
“Good point,” she replied.
I hope you liked it. If you'd like to read more (it's only about 11,000 words) you can get if here for free!
Don't forget to continue on the hop for a chance to win some really great prizes!