The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches)

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Wanted: A Husband

Sophie Tanner gave up hoping for Nathan O’Malley’s approval—and love—long ago. Getting married is the only way to protect her younger brother and keep her family’s Smoky Mountain farm. As much as she’d like Nathan to be the groom, he can’t seem to get past their friendship…or their differences.

Since they were children, Nathan has known Sophie was too impulsive, too headstrong. She’s forever rushing into situations without thinking them through, like this scheme to snare a husband in under a month. Nathan always thought he’d fall in love with someone like himself—sensible, cautious, levelheaded. Sophie is his polar opposite. So why can’t he picture anyone else at his side?

Smoky Mountain Matches: Dreams of home and family come true in the Smoky Mountains

“What do you think of Sophie’s new look, Nathan?”

Cheeks burning, Sophie couldn’t bring herself to look at him, watching instead his large hands near the chessboard, how they clenched and the knuckles went white.

“I would say she hasn’t changed all that much.”

“How can you say that?” said Nathan’s mother, who’d just entered the room and was setting a plate of cookies on the coffee table.

Sophie inwardly cringed. Of course. She’d known, hadn’t she, that a new dress wouldn’t alter the way Nathan viewed her.

“She hasn’t changed,” Nathan drawled softly in the gathering silence, “because she’s always been beautiful, inside and out.”

Startled, Sophie’s gaze shot to his face. Surely she hadn’t heard right? And yet there, in the softening of his mouth, the flicker of a smile, she witnessed appreciation and approval. A giddy sort of joy infused her insides, warming her from the inside out.

Indicating the board, where he had no legal moves left, he said, “Stalemate.”

She stared. Very rarely did they call a draw. The game’s outcome was clear, however. Neither one of them was a winner.

Books by Karen Kirst

Love Inspired Historical

*
The Reluctant Outlaw
*
The Bridal Swap
The Gift of Family
*“Smoky Mountain Christmas”
*
His Mountain Miss
*
The Husband Hunt

*Smoky Mountain Matches

KAREN KIRST

was born and raised in East Tennessee near the Great Smoky Mountains. A lifelong lover of books, it wasn’t until after college that she had the grand idea to write one herself. Now she divides her time between being a wife, homeschooling mom and romance writer. Her favorite pastimes are reading, visiting tearooms and watching romantic comedies.

THE HUSBAND HUNT

Karen Kirst

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

—Isaiah
55:8–9

For a beloved aunt, Linda McLemore, whose support and encouragement mean the world to me. Thanks for all the laughs and the prayers. I love you.

This dream would not be possible without my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

John 15:5: I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Chapter One

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

August 1881

S
he was trapped. Stuck high above the ground in her place of refuge—a sugar maple with a trunk too wide to get her arms around and century-deep roots—cornered by a skunk, of all things. The varmint had sauntered up and planted itself at the tree’s base and showed no intentions of leaving.

Gripping the branch above her head, Sophie leaned forward and commenced trying to reason with him. “Yoo-hoo! How about you move along? I’m sure there are tastier earthworms along the stream bank. You might even catch yourself a frog.”

His frantic digging continued. How long was she going to have to wait?

“You’re keeping me from my chores, you know.” She blew a stray hair out of her eyes. “Will and Granddad will be wanting their supper soon.” Beans, fried potatoes and corn bread
again.
Her specialty.

The snap of a twig brought her and the skunk’s head up simultaneously.

Her gaze landed on a face as familiar to her as her own, clashing with silver eyes that seemed to perpetually taunt or condemn her. She swallowed a sigh. She’d long ago given up hoping for approval from Nathan O’Malley.

“Hello, Nathan.”

One dusky eyebrow quirked. “I see you’ve made a new friend.”

She peered down. The animal’s focus had shifted to Nathan, and it was now stamping the ground in warning. “Yeah, well, my friend doesn’t seem to like you very much.”

He eyed the skunk with caution. Sunlight shifting through the trees glinted in his light brown hair, cut short so he wouldn’t have to fool with it, and bathed his classic features in golden light. Features that were branded into her brain. A straight, proud nose flanked by prominent cheekbones. Square jaw. The crease beside his full lips that flashed every time he smiled.

And who could forget those quicksilver eyes? They dominated her daydreams, hovered at the edge of her consciousness as she drifted off to sleep at night. It was downright irritating.

“I really need to get down,” she informed him, scooting closer to the trunk. That jittery feeling was back. If she didn’t eat soon, she chanced tumbling out of this tree in a dead faint. Wouldn’t that impress him.

“Could you try to lure him away?”

He tore his gaze from the irate skunk to stare up at her. “And how do you propose I do that?”

“I don’t know.” She cast around the forest floor for inspiration. When none came, she suggested, “If you move away, maybe he’ll follow. Toss a stick in the direction of the stream. Maybe he’ll get distracted and realize there’s more to eat there.”

“He’s not a dog.”

Frowning, he edged sideways. The skunk hissed. Followed.

“It’s working!” Sophie swung her body around and stretched her foot down to the knotted branch below.

“Sophie, stop,” Nathan ordered. “Wait until he’s gone.”

She chose to ignore his warning. Unfortunately, her boot slipped. Her grip on the trunk slackened. Scrambling for purchase, she whipped her head around in time to see Nathan surge forward as if to catch her.

The skunk reacted as expected. Tail aloft, he sprayed.

Sophie gasped. Nathan attempted to shield his face with his arms, to sidestep, but he was too slow. Because his focus was on rescuing
her.
Groaning, she shimmied down the trunk and hopped to the ground as the offended animal scampered in the opposite direction.

“Oh, Nathan, I’m so sorry!” She advanced toward him, only to halt in her tracks as noxious fumes assaulted her nose. He smelled like rotten eggs and garlic. Ugh. Wrinkling her nose, she covered the bottom half of her face with one hand. “Did it get in your eyes?”

His lids blinked open, revealing twin chips of forged steel. Uh-oh.

“No.”

Wearing a disgusted expression, he carefully wiped the moisture from his face with his shirtsleeves. He looked down and grimaced. “These were my most comfortable trousers.”

He didn’t have to say it. Those trousers were headed for the burn pile.

Pivoting on his heel, his long strides quickly ate up the distance to the stream. Sophie followed at a reasonable distance, making a point to breathe through her mouth. Oh, this was terrible. Worse than terrible. He would never forgive her.

On the bank, he tugged off his brown leather work boots, tossed them onto the grass and waded into the sluggish water. While the crystal-clear Smoky Mountain stream dissecting her property wasn’t deep enough for diving, it was deep enough to submerge oneself in, and that’s what he did. When he came up for air, he threaded his fingers through his hair to dislodge the moisture. His white shirt molded to thick, ropy shoulders, chiseled chest and flat stomach carved from countless hours milking cows, mucking out stalls and working the fields. A farmer’s physique.

She forced her too-interested gaze elsewhere, forced herself to remember.
Nathan is my neighbor. My childhood friend. He probably doesn’t even think of me as a girl.

And why would he when she didn’t have a clue how to act or dress like one?

Brushing bits of dirt from her earth-hued pants, she fiddled with her rolled-up sleeves and mentally shrugged. She may not dress all fancy like other girls her age, but at least her clothes were clean and pressed and, most importantly, comfortable. Farming was backbreaking, sweaty work. It didn’t make sense to wear frilly skirts and fine silk blouses that would only get ruined.

Still...she couldn’t help but wonder sometimes what it might be like to wear a dress, to have her hair done up in a sophisticated style. Would Nathan think her beautiful then?

Get your head out of the clouds, Soph.

“We’ve got canned tomatoes in the springhouse—” she pointed downstream “—I’ll go and get them. Surely that will get the smell out.”

“Forget it.” Not sparing a glance her direction, he sloshed up and onto the bank. “I’ll take a vinegar bath at home.”

Twisting her hands together, she took halting steps forward. She wanted to go closer, but she was standing downwind and the odor was overpowering. “How long are you going to be mad at me?”

Pausing in tugging his boots on, he shot her a hard glance and retorted, “For as long as it takes the smell to wear off.”

“But—”

“No.” He cut her off with a jerk of his hand. “Honestly, Sophie, when are you going to learn to curb your impulses? Think before you act? One of these days you’re going to land yourself in a real heap of trouble and I may not be around to help. Quite frankly, I’m getting kind of tired playing rescuer.”

* * *

Nathan reached his parents’ cabin and was climbing the back porch steps just as Caleb emerged. One whiff had his younger brother backing up and raising his arm to cover his nose.

“What happened to you?”

“Sophie Tanner happened, that’s what,” he muttered, still aggravated with the headstrong tomboy. If she’d only listened to him and stayed put a few more minutes, he wouldn’t smell like a rotten bucket of pig scraps. He unbuttoned his shirt. “Do me a favor. Grab the vinegar from the cabinet. And ask Pa if he’ll help you milk the cows. I doubt they’ll let me near them reeking of polecat.”

“What has Sophie done now?”

Explaining what happened as he undressed, he chucked his shirt, pants and socks into a heap to be burned later. Caleb’s resulting laughter didn’t bother Nathan. His brother laughed so rarely these days that he relished the sound of it, no matter that it was at his expense.

Clad in nothing but his knee-length cotton drawers, he prompted, “The sooner I get that vinegar, the better. Hurry up.”

“I wish I could’ve seen your expression when that ole polecat doused you. And Sophie...I imagine she was fit to be tied.” Brown eyes full of mirth, he was still chuckling and shaking his head as he disappeared inside.

Half sitting on the porch rail, Nathan recalled Sophie’s last expression all too clearly. Her eyes wide and beseeching, her face pale, even distraught, as he stomped off.

He pinched the bridge of his nose to dispel the blossoming ache behind his forehead.

You didn’t handle that very well, did you, O’Malley?

Caleb reappeared, a black handkerchief concealing the lower half of his face. The wicked scar near his eye lent him a sinister air.

“You look like a bank robber.”

“I won’t say what you look like.” Caleb held out the vinegar bottle. “Why the hangdog expression? Oh, wait. Let me guess. You gave Sophie a piece of your mind, and now you’re feeling guilty.”

Grabbing the bottle, Nathan pushed upright and descended the steps. The grass pricked the sensitive soles of his feet. “She’s too impulsive.”

Following a couple of paces behind, Caleb remarked, “She’s been that way since we were kids. Remember that time she took a flying leap off Flinthead Falls and nearly drowned?”

“Don’t remind me.” His stomach hardened into a tight knot just thinking about it. She’d been fourteen to his nineteen, a beautiful wild thing oblivious to danger, bursting with life and optimism that infused the air around her with sparkling energy. He’d rescued her as he’d done many times before. Lectured her, too. Now eighteen, she’d settled down since then, but he knew that untamable streak yet lingered, poised to make an appearance at any moment.

Caleb waited outside while Nathan retrieved the copper tub from the toolshed.

“And remember that time you and Danny Mabry were entrenched in a tug-of-war and Sophie distracted you? Hollered your name?” He chuckled. “You fell flat on your face in the mud.”

Nathan pursed his lips. Talk about being embarrassed. A girl he’d fancied had been watching that tug-of-war and his goal had been to impress her with his strength and skill. She’d taken one look at his mud-caked face and shared a hearty laugh with her friends. That was before he’d decided females were too much trouble to fool with.

Lifting the other end of the tub, Caleb helped him carry it to the porch.

“Oh, and do you remember—”

“I have the same memories as you, Caleb.” He cut him off, uninterested in rehashing all the scrapes and fixes Sophie Tanner had gotten herself—and him—into. “I just want to get this smell off.”

“Fine.” He helped maneuver the tub and straightened, yanking the handkerchief down around his neck, his uncharacteristic good humor gone. “Tell Pa I’m going to get a head start on the milking.”

Watching him stalk across the yard, Nathan regretted his abrupt words. The accident that had scarred Caleb and nearly killed his best friend almost two years ago had transformed the lighthearted prankster into a surly loner. He hardly recognized his own brother and it had nothing to do with his altered face.

Please, God, heal his hidden hurts. Help us to love him unconditionally and to be patient.
He missed the old Caleb. He wondered if he’d ever glimpse that man again.

* * *

Three days and several vinegar baths later, his family no longer cringed when he entered a room. Poor Kate hadn’t come around since that first day. His brother Josh’s wife was expecting their first child, and her delicate condition magnified her sense of smell, which meant simply breathing the air around him had made her nauseous.

They were seated around the table Thursday night enjoying Ma’s pecan pie when a soft knock sounded on the kitchen door. Pa went to answer it. When Nathan heard Sophie’s quiet voice, he gulped the remainder of his coffee and, excusing himself, went to greet her.

Hearing his approach, Pa bid her goodbye and returned to the table.

Sophie’s gaze collided with his, remorse churning in the blue depths. The final pieces of irritation dissolved and he wished he had gone to see her before this.

“Hey, Soph.” He gripped the smooth wooden door and rested his weight against it. “Ma made pecan pie for dessert. Care to join us?”

Not much of a cook herself, she usually took him up on such offers.

She hesitated, fingers toying with the end of her neatly woven braid, honey-blond hair gleaming like spun gold in the sunlight. Spun gold? Where had that fanciful thought come from? He was not a fanciful man. He was a sensible man. A practical man who dealt with day-to-day reality. He wasn’t a reader like Josh or his cousins, so his mind wasn’t filled with poetry and romance. Must be the effects of the skunk stench.

“No, thanks. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure.” Joining her on the porch, he pulled the door closed behind him and went to lean against the railing, arms folded over his chest.

Sophie faced him squarely, hands tucked in her pants’ pockets and shoulders back in a familiar stance that said she had something to prove. “I came to apologize for the other day.”

The apology didn’t come as a surprise. One thing about his neighbor—she was quick to own up to mistakes. “Forget about it.”

“I hope the smell didn’t disrupt things too much.”

Disrupt? As in having to steer clear of the barn while his brother and father assumed his share of the chores? As in having to take his meals on the front porch so as not to make everyone gag at the supper table?

“Nah, not really.” He smiled to erase her lingering regret.

Bending at the waist, she sniffed the air around him. Shot him a hopeful smile. “You smell fine to me. Does this mean we can be friends again?”

He gave her braid a playful tug. “We’ll always be friends. You know that.”

But his words didn’t have the desired effect. Her smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared, long lashes sweeping down. “I don’t expect you to rescue me, you know.”

Straightening, Nathan settled his hands on her shoulders. “Sophie, look at me.” When she lifted her face to his, he said, “I shouldn’t have said that. I was angry, and I spoke without thinking. You know you can always count on me, don’t you?”

She slowly nodded. He was struck by her diminutive stature, her slender build and the delicacy so often overlooked because of her tomboyish appearance and the air of capability she exuded that had carried her through the many hardships life had thrown her way. But now, gazing into her face, he was reminded that she was no longer the rough-and-tumble little imp trailing behind him and his brothers, insistent on joining in their fun.

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