A Musket In My Hands (Civil War Romance #3)(6)

By: Sandra Merville Hart

“Don’t say anything to anger him.” Callie ladled soup into a bowl, gazing out the window at Pa.

“Hate it when he drinks.” Louisa, pouring water into glasses from a pitcher, stole a glance outside. “Maybe eating will sober him.”

Pa returned as she and Louisa sat on either side of the dining table. Sitting on the end, he began to eat.

She raised an eyebrow at Louisa. They both bowed their head for a silent blessing. “How long will you be gone, Pa?” Callie blew on a steaming spoonful of vegetable soup.

“Three weeks or better.” He tilted his head at her. “Gonna be a wedding when we get back.”

She blinked. Was Pa courting someone in town? “Who’s getting married?”

“You are.”

The casual announcement jolted her. “I’m not betrothed to anyone.”

“Happens that you are.” He shoveled in a dripping mouthful. “Worked it out today.”

She met Louisa’s wide-eyed gaze. Tread lightly. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Talked to Ezra Culpepper. You need a husband. He’s willing.” He kept his attention on his meal.

Louisa’s eyes widened as she drew a shaky breath.

Pa’s drunken state made this a bad time for a discussion, but if he expected a wedding when he returned, Callie couldn’t stay silent. Mr. Culpepper was at least thirty years her senior. The very thought of her … with him … “Please thank Mr. Culpepper for his kind offer, but I’ll be refusing.”

Pa slammed his fist on the table. “You don’t have a choice, little missy. You’ve a score of years now and no suitor in sight. I’m struggling to feed you. Them Yankees are to blame, not you. But it ain’t gonna make no difference. Why, your sister’s a year younger than you, and she’s betrothed. Picked her a good, solid Southern soldier. If you’d have done that, you wouldn’t need to marry Ezra.”

Callie’s mouth went dry. “We’re scraping by, Pa. With Louisa’s job and my vegetable garden—”

“Scraping by ain’t good enough. Ezra’s got land. Money put away where the Yanks won’t find it—some of it in gold. Food buried all around his property.” He gripped the table. “You’ll be taken care of, better than I can do.”

“I’ve been writing to Zach Pearson.” She fanned her face with her hand. “I’m not interested in Mr. Culpepper. He’s a nice man … I reckon … but I aim to marry Zach someday.”

“He didn’t ask you, did he?” His eyes narrowed.

She lowered her gaze to her soup, all appetite gone.

“I know he didn’t. You know why?” Sweat broke out on his forehead.

She shook her head.

“Because I asked him.”

Callie gasped. “You asked …?” Words died in her throat. Pa approached Zach on her behalf?

“Back in March when he and Nate were here on furlough.” He took a long gulp of water. “Nate proposed. Zach won’t marry until this war is decided—one way or the other. Said he had a bad feeling about what was coming and refused to leave you a widow.”

Callie’s heart shrank. Pa offered her hand in marriage without her knowledge … and Zach refused.

Louisa leaped to her feet. “You’re the reason Nate proposed to me? He told me he loved me.” Splotches of red tinged her cheeks.

“Likely he does. I just planted the thought like I was planting a row of beans.” He drank the last bit of water. “Where’s my whiskey?”

“It’s all gone.” Callie forced the words through stiff lips. Zach didn’t want to marry her. Heart pounding, she struggled to tamp down her despair at Zach’s refusal and her rising anger that Pa promised her hand without consulting her.

He thought a minute. “That’s why I moseyed into town.”

She rubbed shaking hands over her temples. This was a nightmare. That was the only explanation. She’d awaken and find it was all a bad dream.

Pa’s gaze slid away from Callie’s face. “Don’t take on so. A man’s willing to marry you. Everything will be all right.”

Her breath came in shallow gasps. Nothing would be all right ever again.