The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (10 page)

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Glancing around, she noticed everyone else had their blindfolds off. They were all staring. At them.

“Uh, Nathan, you can take it off now.”

He did. And then he noticed their audience. Dull red crept up his neck.

Tanner pointed. “Nathan’s the loser. What forfeit shall he pay, folks?”

Nathan stood stone-still, fingers curled into fists, waiting for the verdict like a man condemned.

Sophie hurt for her friend. She’d been wrong. This wasn’t his idea of fun. She didn’t mind the attention; she was used to it. But Nathan
despised
it.
Please don’t let it be a poem. Or worse, a song.

“A kiss!”

“Yeah, make him kiss Sophie!”

Horror filled her as Nathan jerked as if slapped. He kept his gaze glued to the floor, refusing to look at her.

“Good call,” Tanner agreed with a laugh. “You heard them, O’Malley. Get to it.”

Finally he lifted his head and looked at her. His eyes blazing an apology, his mouth pulled into a grimace as he stepped close. He looked ill.

No, no, no. This couldn’t be happening. As many times as she’d dreamed about this moment, she’d give anything if she could rewind time and insist on sitting this one out. Nathan didn’t want to kiss her. He
dreaded
it.

She stood immobile, afraid to blink, afraid to breathe as he dipped his head. What would it be like? His sculpted, generous mouth neared hers. The crowd faded to the edge of her vision, the furniture faded to black and it was just her and Nathan, breaths mingling, her heartbeat loud in her ears.

At the last second his mouth veered away and landed on her cheek. Warm and fleeting, like the brush of a butterfly’s wings. And then gone.

Someone gasped.

“I don’t blame him,” she heard an unidentified male mutter. “I wouldn’t wanna kiss a tomboy like her, either.”

You’re not gonna cry. You can’t. Not here, not now. Not in front of him. He can’t know....

She blinked rapidly. Struggled to drag air into her lungs. To remain upright. Humiliation rushed through her like a raging river, crashing over her again and again until she thought she might drown in it. All the taunts, the dismissive glances and the gossip couldn’t compare to what Nathan had just done.

Chapter Twelve

W
hat had he done?

The devastation darkening her eyes to storm-tossed blue kicked him in the sternum. He’d embarrassed her. Hurt her. All because he didn’t trust his ability to hold himself aloof.

Admit it, you’re scared you might actually
like
kissing Sophie. What then?

Amused titters pierced his self-recrimination. Anger pounded at his temples, anger at the insensitive clods who dared laugh and make unkind remarks in her presence and at himself for inciting their reactions in the first place.

So do something about it.

Soaking in Sophie’s pallor, the trembling of her lower lip and the moisture clinging to her eyelashes, he made the decision. There was only one way to make this right.

Reaching up, he framed her face with his hands. Hmm. He’d been up close and personal with her countless times—usually in the heat of an argument—but it had never occurred to him that her skin would have the texture of a rose petal.

Her gaze shot to his. Confusion furrowed her forehead. Her bee-stung lips parted in surprise, snagging his attention.

As the reality of what he was about to do sank in, his heart bucked in anticipation.

He tipped his head. Settled his mouth against hers. He felt a shudder course through her, vaguely registering when she gripped his waist for balance. The room spun. He felt dizzy and out of control, yet somehow grounded at the same time, Sophie acting as his magnet, preventing him from flying apart. Her softness, her sweet sigh of surrender awakened unfamiliar emotions. The need to protect her was nothing new, but there was something else here he didn’t recognize, something needy and wishful, something he was too much of a coward to analyze.

This is Sophie, remember? Too young and too headstrong. All wrong for you.

With great reluctance, he lifted his head and dropped his hands. For the first time in his life, he was grateful to be the center of attention. Because if not for their audience, he would have taken the embrace to a whole new level and that would have been a mistake. One of massive proportions.

He watched as Sophie touched her fingers to her mouth, wonder and longing mingling on her face. Then hot color surged in her cheeks. “I—I have to go.” Pivoting on her heel, she rushed from the room. The front door slammed. Conversation erupted....

Nathan stood rooted to the spot, attempting to process her reaction. The twins appeared in front of him, mirror images of wide-eyed concern.

Jessica touched his arm. “Nathan, what was that? You and Sophie looked—”

“Don’t say it,” he warned. He didn’t want to know. He could pretty well imagine, and it was as much of a shock to him as it must be to those who knew him. Knew
them.

“She seemed really upset.” Jane gave him a steady stare. “Aren’t you going to go after her?”

He jerked a nod. “Don’t be out too late, okay?”

Ignoring the stares as he passed by, he grabbed his hat from the entrance hallway table and let himself out, all the while scouring his brain for something to say that wouldn’t make him sound like an idiot. But what? “I’m sorry I was such a jerk?” or “That kiss knocked me for a loop. Can we try it again?”

He groaned. “You’re an adult, O’Malley,” he muttered to himself, “how about you act like one instead of a hormonal teen?”

Main Street was deserted at this time of night, the shops were closed and a single light was shining in the jail’s window. As he neared the Little Pigeon River, the balmy air stirred with the scent of churning water, the sound as familiar to his ears as his cows bawling or the hush of a scythe cutting through tall grass.

When his boot contacted with the wide wooden bridge spanning the river, a shadowed form poised near the railing turned. Smothered a gasp. A flash of pale hair as she took off divulged her identity.

“Sophie, wait!”

She wasn’t running from him, exactly, but going fast enough to spike his heart rate. He caught up to her in the lane. With endless forest on either side, it was impossible to make out her expression. Neither of them had thought to bring a lamp, but then, they knew these parts like the backs of their hands.

“Soph, stop.” He seized her wrist. “We need to talk.”

“What do you want?” The distress roughening her voice gave him pause.

“Look, I’m sorry about what happened back there. It wasn’t my intention to embarrass you.” Not being able to see her, to read her body language, frustrated him. She was a formless outline, as insubstantial as the shadows cloaking them.

She jerked out of his grasp. “What did you think would happen after that pity kiss?”

“What?”

“Don’t tell me you would’ve kissed Pauline Johnson on the cheek! Or April Littleton. Or any of those other girls!”

He closed his eyes. “I was trying to be a gentleman.”

“No, Nathan. You’re forgetting I saw your face right before—” The defeat in her voice had him imagining he could see the fight drain out of her. “You were rushing to my rescue yet again. That kiss was designed to silence the barbs. I’m just sorry doing your perceived duty was so abhorrent to you.”

Abhorrent, ha! If she only knew. “Hold on a second.” He moved in, his boots bumping hers. “Why does it matter so much
why
I kissed you?”

She inhaled sharply. “Y-you’re right, it doesn’t matter.” Her boots shuffled in the dirt, her braid whacking his chest as she turned to go. “This conversation is over.”

“We’re not finished here, Soph.”

“Oh, yes, we are.”

She stalked off. There was nothing he could do to stop her—short of physically restraining her—and while he was tempted, it would only make her madder and less inclined to talk. It went against the grain to leave things unresolved, but at this point he didn’t have a choice. Better to give her a chance to calm down.

Once they’d both regained proper perspective, they could put this event behind them and go back to the way things used to be.

* * *

Somehow Sophie summoned the wherewithal to smile and pretend all was right in her world in front of Sam and Mary O’Malley. While she waited for her brother to gather his things, she answered their questions about the party with surprising equanimity. If they noticed her fidgeting or her frequent glances out the window, they didn’t let on.

The older couple were dear, special people, including her in their family gatherings as if she were one of them, going out of their way to lend a hand whenever she had a need. Leaving them behind would rip a hole in her heart similar to the one her granddad’s passing had carved. It would hurt Will, too.

Which is why you have to put Nathan out of your mind and concentrate on finding yourself a husband.

She managed to hustle Will out of there before Nathan arrived, listening with half an ear during their walk home as he told her about his evening.

Only when absolutely certain he was asleep did she allow her composure to slip. Sinking onto the couch, she curled up on her side, yanked the quilt over her face and let the hot tears of self-recrimination fall.

You are a first-class fool, Sophia Lorraine. He will never want you for more than a friend. He will never love you.

The memory of his kiss taunted her. The anger he’d clearly felt at being forced into that position had melded into awful resolve, those unusual eyes of his glittering and hard as he bent his head to hers. So his careful handling of her had come as a complete shock. The gentleness in his hands, the soft pressure of his mouth... Sophie’s world had gone topsy-turvy and she’d had to grab on to him to keep from falling.

Oh, Father, how am I supposed to marry another man when Nathan possesses my heart?

Helplessness and frustration swamped her.
Why
are You allowing all this to happen, God? Why did You take Granddad away? Why aren’t You doing something to stop Cordelia? It’s in Your power to intervene.... Why don’t You?

She lay there until there were no more tears left to cry, until she was too spent and weak to get up and change into her nightclothes. Lids heavy, head aching, she closed her eyes and had nearly drifted off to sleep when a verse from
Proverbs
she’d memorized as a child came to mind.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.

Sophie understood that God was in control, and that He had a plan for her life. Sometimes, though, it was hard to trust. Hard not to try to take matters into her own hands. Hard to wait.

Help me, Father. I don’t know what to do or which way to turn.

Slipping into a fitful sleep, she tossed and turned until the wee hours of the morning before finally settling down. Persistent knocking some time later jolted her upright. Shoving her mussed hair out of her eyes, she gasped when she noticed midmorning sunlight streaming through the window.

Will sat calmly at the kitchen table, eating his breakfast.

Throwing off the covers, she demanded, “Why didn’t you wake me? And what are you eating?” She’d fixed his breakfast every morning since the day he was born. The boy didn’t know how to cook.

Sipping his milk, he held up a cinnamon roll. “Miss Mary sent these home with me last night.” His chin rose. “And I’m not a little kid anymore. I can get my own breakfast.”

She quickly folded the quilt into a neat square. “But the chores—”

“I already fed the chickens and gathered the eggs. I can help out around here, Sophie. Together, we can keep the farm going.”

This
from her ten-year-old brother? “I know you’re worried—”

Another rap on the door startled her. “Please don’t let that be Aunt Cordelia,” she muttered. Finding Sophie still abed at this hour and Will fending for himself would underscore Cordelia’s concern. Give her ammunition to use if this went to court.

“Just a minute!” she called, smoothing her hair and straightening her wrinkled shirt as best she could before opening the door.

“Nicole?” Nathan’s eighteen-year-old cousin rarely darkened her doorstep. Anxiety sharpened her voice. “Is something wrong?”

Assessing violet eyes scanned Sophie from head to toe, bow-shaped mouth pulling into a grimace at the sight of her disheveled state. “There’s no emergency, if that’s what you mean. I’m here to offer my services.”

Still groggy, Sophie was having trouble connecting her thoughts. “I, uh—” She moved aside. “Why don’t you come inside? I was about to fix myself some coffee. Would you like some?”

Giving a quick shake of her head, the movement setting her raven ringlets to quivering, Nicole entered the cabin. “No, thanks. I don’t drink coffee or tea. It stains your teeth.”

“Oh.” Come to think of it, Nicole’s teeth
were
white enough to blind a person. “How about some milk?”

“I’m not thirsty.” Her gaze landing on Will, she nodded uncertainly. “Good morning.”

“Mornin’, Miss Nicole,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Hopping up from the table, he told Sophie, “I’m going to muck out the stalls now.”

Sophie stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “What did I tell you about using your napkin? And I’ll clean out the stalls.”

Shrugging off her hand, he backed away, his features earnest. “I want to help.”

She slid a glance at their guest, who was busy inspecting the cabin. Now wasn’t the time to have this conversation.

“Okay.”

Grinning as if she’d given him a gift, he lifted his faded tan hat off the hook and slipped outside.

Sophie tossed kindling in the firebox and prodded the pile with a short poker, praying her brother wasn’t bound for disappointment. He cherished this place as much as she did, and if she couldn’t find a way for them to stay...

With the kettle on to boil, she went to join Nicole. “Please, have a seat.”

“I can’t stay long. I promised Ma I’d make this visit quick. Today is laundry day.” She sighed long-sufferingly.

Even dressed in casual clothes—a deep purple paisley skirt and coordinating blouse—she managed to look sophisticated. Maybe it was the elaborate hairstyle; some sort of fancy ponytail with shiny curls cascading down. More likely, it was the innate confidence oozing from her pores. Nicole was a natural beauty, and graceful to boot.

Sophie had been a little in awe of the other girl since childhood. It wasn’t that Nicole had ever been hateful or unkind—she hadn’t joined in with the other girls’ taunts—but she’d never gone out of her way to befriend Sophie, either. Seemed to her, Nicole held herself apart from everyone else.

“So what can I do for you?”

“Actually, it’s what
I
can do for
you.
You see, I overheard my cousins talking last night about your predicament. I can help you.”

“My predicament?”

Her black brows winged up. “Your plan to snag a husband?”

Sophie’s breath left her lungs in a whoosh. How could Nathan do that to her? It wasn’t his place to tell anyone. The last thing she wanted was for the whole town to know that poor Sophie Tanner was desperate for a husband.

“That’s not something I’d like to get out.”

Swinging her reticule from her wrist, she began to walk a circle around Sophie. “Oh, don’t worry. My lips are sealed.”

Sophie’s brows collided. What in the world? “Um, Nicole?”

Her gaze carefully scanning as she completed the circle, she frowned and tut-tutted
and sighed. “Let’s be frank, shall we? You’re going to need a complete overhaul. Luckily for you, I’m gifted in that area. I can supply you with a new wardrobe. Show you how to dress, how to style your hair.” Excitement lightened her eyes. “I have a nearly completed dress that I believe will fit you. I just need to take your measurements.”

Sophie watched, nonplussed, as Nicole pulled open her reticule and retrieved a cloth tape measure.

“I don’t understand. Why would you want to help me? I can’t possibly afford to pay you for your labor or the materials. Unless you want me to do chores for you?” Even if she agreed to this, how would she find the time?

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