“Come on, Mary, it’s hot.”
“Hold still, Eric, or it’ll get hotter.” She held the paintbrush in her hand, studying the patina of colors. Gray for the uniform, black for his hair, and tawny for the glow of his skin, and then glanced at her beloved friend.
Friend. Had it been so long ago since the soldier boy who’d run off from his troop wandered onto her family’s farm? Since she ministered to his wounds and come under his spell.
Standing before her now, his musket in one hand, the other tucked into the jacket of his uniform, he struck an imposing figure against the backdrop of rolling farmland, its green hillside dotted by red barns and pastoral fences.
“Your daddy oughta be here by now. I’ll catch holy hell for standing here, especially in this uniform. You know that’s asking for trouble.”
“Aw, but it’s worth it. Someday this portrait will hang in a gallery.”
He put down his musket and headed her way. “Yes, I reckon you’d have your own gallery in the museum of art–paintings by Mary Claythorne.”
“Wait, you’re stepping out of it.”
“Stepping out of what?”
“The portraitâ€¦go back.” She pushed him away as he advanced in for a kiss and ended up kissing her hand instead. “And I will be a famous artist one day.”
“Lordy, Mary, it’s hot here, and when I’m with you,” he whispered, “I feel hotter still.”
This time he pulled her in and held her in a steam-filled embrace.
The ground felt weak beneath her feet as she composed herself and gathered her resolve to finish the portrait; it had taken weeks to work on. He’d be off soon and she needed this to keep her company until his return. Tears fell unannounced, and she brushed them away with the back of her free hand while the other steadied the canvas.
“Whoa, what’s wrong, girl?”
“I’m frightened ’tis all. Poppa told me I spend too much time with you.”
He held her again, moved a stray lock of her red hair off her forehead and caressed the side of her face beneath her straw bonnet. “Your poppa won’t have no say about us once we’re wed.”
“Reckon I got to do things proper. You’re a Yankee lady after all.”
She guffawed at that but was thrilled as he held her hands and his blue eyes shone bright with the love in his heart. On one knee he proposed. “Mary, will you marry me?”
Her mind recalled her earlier conversation with her father on the subject of Eric Toomey. “I’d a sooner see that rebel in the ground. You’d do better, girl, with the son of Henry Greene. At least his family ain’t responsible for your brother Will’s death in Gettysburg.”
“I won’t marry the minister’s son,” she’d argued. “Even if his father’s the county magistrate and got more money than us.”
“Girl, you’ll do as you’re told,” her father had shouted back and slapped her across the face, then locked her in a room. Only she’d had a secret key and means of escape.
“Mary, what’s wrong?” Eric’s voice broke her thoughts. “You haven’t backed down cause of your Pa?”
“No, of course not.” She pulled him toward her. “I don’t give a damn what Poppa says or thinks. This is my life, not his. Anyway, he’ll come round after we’re wed.”
“That’s the spirit, Mary,” Eric said and kissed her lips until she pulled away.
“Do you feel raindrops? There’s a horrific storm brewing, and I’ve got to get this painting inside. If only we’d more time.”
They rushed to the open barn. With her easel and paints Mary reached the barn first, bubbling with laughter as the rain soaked through her white cotton dress. Eric followed, empty musket in hand, and a grin broad enough to brighten even the grayest summer day. He put the musket and his cap by Mary’s painting, and held her, whispering of eternal love.
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