Even Rulon's recent exhortation couldn't make Marie raise her head to seek out Tom Morgan's eyes as the men folk trooped into the room.
"Make yourself comfortable, Rod," Mr. Morgan said. Marie heard Pa sit down, but Mr. Morgan remained on his feet. "Mrs. Morgan, our neighbor has a proposition," he said.
Marie wanted to flee. She bent forward to place the rattling cup and saucer on a table that was barely within her reach, as she didn't want to dump the tea onto the floor. Where was Tom? Had he accompanied the two men into the parlor? A hand clasped her shoulder and she jumped.
"Steady," came a whisper.
She tried, but couldn't achieve the task.
"You girls go sweep out the kitchen and wash up the dishes," Mr. Morgan continued.
Marie heard the footfalls as Louisa and Melissa scurried out of the room without a word.
"Rod Owen thinks it's time Tom took a wife."
Marie inhaled so violently that she squeaked, but the sound was masked by Mrs. Morgan blurting, "Oh my! That's a bit . . . sudden."
"I understand he's twenty years of age," Pa said. "It's high time he got hitched in double harness."
"He's proposing that Tom ask Miss Marie for her hand," Mr. Morgan said.
When Mrs. Morgan made no response, and no one else ventured to speak, Marie felt as though she could not breathe. The silence continued, except for inhalations. Exhalations. All but hers.
When she could not bear to hear the breathing of those in the room while she suffocated, Marie glanced up at last. Tom leaned against the wall, his arms folded, staring at her. His frown was an arrow to Marie's heart.
"He's only a boy," Mrs. Morgan said, at last.
"He's old enough," Ed Morgan answered. "What do you say to that, Thomas?"
"I ain't got a choice?" Tom asked in a clipped tone, glancing at Mr. Morgan.
Marie looked at the man, and seeing his pursed lips, looked back at Tom.
He turned a stony glare in her direction. "It appears to be decided," he said. Ice dripped from his voice. "We're to make a couple, Marie."
Marie's heart sank. He'd left off the customary "Miss," as though he spoke to an inferior soul. He won't love me, she thought, panic filling her chest. He'll never love me. She wanted to melt down into the horsehair seat cover. She wanted to scream, Rulon, take me home and hide me away.
Pa said, "Good. We'll make plans, then. How about . . ."
Marie shut her eyes and sucked in a burning lungful of air as others in the room took control of her future.
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Copyright 2012 Marsha Ward