The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (18 page)

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His gaze following her jerky movements, he held out his hand. “Want me to take your hat and coat? Mother’s taking a nap. Her arthritis always flares up with the rain. We can visit in here for a while, though.”

“No, thank you. I have to get back to Will.”

He dropped his hand, clearly disappointed.

Get it over with, Sophie. Either he’ll have you or he won’t.

“You are aware of my need to marry?”

Frank’s brows inched up at her bluntness. “I heard your aunt mention it, yes.” A calico cat emerged from the shadowed corner and wound its way between his boots, long tail curling around his calf. “Hey, Pumpkin,” he greeted softly, bending to pick it up and hold it against his chest. Stroking the sleek fur, he said, “I suppose you’ve come to tell me you’ve chosen Landon. I don’t blame you. I understand that our association will have to end, but I admit I’ll miss our conversations. If it weren’t for you, my banjo would still be in the cabinet collecting dust.”

So not all news got around. No doubt Landon wouldn’t want folks to know the real cause for his broken nose and had fabricated a story.

Reaching out to pet the purring cat, their fingers collided. “I’m not marrying Landon.”

“You’re not?” Confusion, then hope, swirled in the brown depths of his eyes. “I thought... Well, the assumption was—” He broke off with a grimace. “I’m glad you’re not marrying him. There’s something about him I don’t trust.”

“I feel the same way.”

Purpose stole over his features. Setting Pumpkin on the floor, he grasped Sophie’s hands, his pleasant face arranged in serious lines.

“Sophie, I know our friendship is still new, and I’m probably not who you envisioned for a husband, but would you consider marrying me? In the short time we’ve spent together, I’ve come to care for you. What do you say?”

“Yes.” Her acceptance whooshed out. Bittersweet tears glittered in her eyes.
At least you didn’t have to do the proposing,
she consoled herself.

“Yes?” he repeated incredulously. “You’ll marry me?”

Unable to speak, she nodded. With a blinding grin, Frank bussed her cheek. “Come on, let’s go tell Mother.” He tugged her toward the doors. “This is news worth waking her up for.”

Chapter Twenty

W
hether Bonnie Walters was irritated because of her abbreviated nap or because of Frank’s announcement, Sophie couldn’t tell. Brown curls askew, mouth pinched in annoyance, she perched stiffly on the edge of her straight-backed chair situated beside the fireplace.

“I was afraid of this.” She threw an accusing glare at her son. “Are you sure about her, Frankie?”

Seated next to Sophie on the ancient golden-hued sofa, his arm stretched out behind her, his jaw firmed. “I wouldn’t have asked her if I wasn’t certain, Mother.”

“Humph.” Bonnie’s brown gaze snapped to her. “If you plan to join this family, I expect you to act and dress like a young lady at all times. Hoydenish behavior will not be tolerated.”

Sophie squeezed her hands tightly together.
Father, help me to be polite to this woman, my future mother-in-law.
Too many decisions had been taken out of her hands. She wasn’t going to bend on this matter.

“With all due respect, Mrs. Walters, it’s my choice how I dress. While I intend to wear dresses for church and other outings, I will wear pants for everyday chores.”

“Frankie?” Her irate tone silently induced him to do something.

“Sophie is entirely capable of making her own decisions, Mother.” He flashed Sophie a shy smile. “She can wear whatever she wants.”

Her respect for him went up a notch. The fact that he’d stood up for her on this small issue gave her hope he’d do the same on more important ones.

“You and your brother will live here, of course,” Bonnie announced matter-of-factly. “I need Frankie. I can’t keep up the farm at my advanced age.”

Whoa. Live here? With Bonnie? She turned to Frank. “What about my place?”

He smoothed a hand over his jaw. “Is it important that you keep it? There’s always the option of selling it.”

“I don’t want to sell it. It’s been in my family for generations.”

He looked stumped. “I suppose we could bring the livestock over here. I’d need to build an addition to the barn, though.”

Sophie battled rising panic. Leave her childhood home? The memories, both faint and fresh, that bound her to her lost loved ones?

“What about my furniture? All our things?” This cabin had only two rooms. “Where will my brother sleep?”

“Don’t be materialistic, girl,” Bonnie chided. “What we can’t use, we can sell or donate.”

Removing his arm from the sofa back, Frank shifted uncomfortably. “Mother, do you think you can be a little less harsh? Sophie’s things are important to her.”

Getting to her feet, Bonnie threw her hands up. “Is this how it’s gonna be? Now that you’ve got yourself a bride, you’re gonna talk to me as if I’m a child? Boss me in my own home?”

With a sigh, Frank stood and went to her. “Mother, please...let’s not argue. I realize you’ve been given a shock, but we’re going to have to make some compromises. Sophie and Will are going to be family. This is a good thing.”

A marriage announcement wasn’t supposed to come as a shock, but a pleasant surprise. Sophie stared at a portrait of the mountains, heart heavy for Frank. He clearly loved his mother, difficult though she was, and did his utmost to please her. Trouble was, Bonnie wasn’t inclined to be appeased. Today or any other day.

What kind of life could they have here?

The older woman shrugged him off and, making a beeline for the stove, began banging pots around.

Frank motioned for Sophie to join him on the small covered porch. The rain was starting up again, this time a light drizzle.

“I’m sorry about that. Mother doesn’t like change.”

Strolling to the far railing, she peered out at the wet grass, watching as a greenish-brown frog hopped along the cabin’s foundation. “Are you sure us moving here is going to work, Frank? You never did say where Will would sleep. And my things...where will we put them?”

“We have time to figure it all out. I’ll build an extra shed if I have to.” He stopped beside her. “And don’t worry about Mother. It’ll just take some time for her to get used to the idea.”

She glanced at his somber, studious profile, the dark hair brushing his forehead, and wondered if she’d ever grow to love him. Would he ever grow to love her? Or would his mother’s negativity poison their relationship before it even had a chance?

At least you and Will will be together.

“My aunt is impatient to see me settled,” she said, forcing the words through wooden lips. “She would like for me to wed before she returns to Knoxville.”

“Oh? When is that?”

“Two weeks.”

“Oh.” He digested that information. “That moves things up a bit. I don’t need an elaborate ceremony, though. Do you?”

This wasn’t the wedding of her dreams, so... “No.”

“How about next Saturday?”

“Fine.”

If he noticed her lack of excitement, he didn’t comment. “We don’t have to sort all the details out yet. Plenty of time for that. I’ll go talk to the preacher right now.” He gave her an awkward hug. “In less than two weeks’ time, we’ll be husband and wife. How about that?”

“Yes.” She faltered, patting his back. “How about that?”

Her future yawned in front of her, as bleak and lonely as the gray, cloudy day pressing upon them.

* * *

Dawn chased the clouds from the sky Wednesday morning as the sun peeped over the mountain peaks, showering buttery rays onto the valley floor. At last, a clear day. Nathan had had enough of foul weather.

Because of his sizable deliveries, Caleb had agreed to ride along. He sat wordlessly on the bouncing seat, soberly taking in the passing scenery, scowl deepening the closer they got to town. Nathan knew his younger brother was getting antsy, that he yearned to retreat to the high country and his precious solitude.

If Sophie’s business with Frank had been successful, Caleb would soon get his wish. When she’d returned to her cabin Monday afternoon, she’d been close-lipped. He hadn’t had the nerve to force the issue.

He guided the team across the still-damp bridge leading into town. This early in the morning, Main Street was quiet, a couple of horses tied to hitching posts on either side and the boardwalks empty. At the last store, Nathan urged the team left, circling around to the back of the buildings so that he and Caleb could make use of the mercantile’s rear entrance.

Another wagon waited there. Nathan eased his team to a stop behind it, set the brake and climbed down, slimy mud squishing beneath his boots. He and Caleb had their arms full of crocks and were ascending the stairs when the mercantile’s wooden door swung open and out stepped a pretty, dark-haired girl whose clothing had obviously seen better days. Her gaze collided with Nathan’s, then careened to Caleb’s. Her nostrils flared in dislike.

“Good morning, Rebecca,” Nathan greeted with a friendly smile.
Please let her keep her peace, Lord. There’s no chance my brother will stick around for long if he can’t escape the past.

Rebecca and Caleb used to be friends. Before the accident that had left Adam, her former beau and Caleb’s best friend, in a wheelchair.

With a scowl that matched Caleb’s in ferocity, she nudged the sagging bill of her faded bonnet out of her eyes. “It was a good morning until
he
came along and ruined it.”

Behind him, Caleb’s hiss stirred the air. As they reached the landing, Rebecca scooted away as if to avoid sharing the same space, clutching an empty chicken cage to her chest. Despite her poor attitude and his plentiful flock, Nathan resolved to purchase a chicken or two of hers. With both parents recently deceased and a younger sister to care for, Rebecca Thurston needed all the assistance she could get.

Maybe he’d give the animals to Sophie.

Dismissing the thought, he toed open the door and held it ajar with his shoulder. But Caleb had stopped to address the girl.

“How’ve you been, Becca?” he asked quietly.

“Don’t pretend to care, Caleb O’Malley.” Glaring, she jerked her chin up and edged around him to the top stair. “I don’t buy it, and neither does anyone else in this town.”

Caleb’s jaw tightened, but he didn’t defend himself. He wouldn’t. Not when he placed the blame for what happened squarely upon himself. “H-have you heard from Adam?” He practically scraped the words out. “Do you know how he’s doing?”

She sucked in an audible breath. “That’s none of your business.”

When she turned to go, Caleb reached out and touched her sleeve. “Please, Becca,” he softly intoned, “I need to know.”

Head bent, her jaw worked. “I haven’t heard from him since he left town over a year ago.” Bitterness laced her words. “My letters went unanswered.”

Nathan’s heart went out to her. Adam’s decision to break off their engagement had spread like wildfire through the town, stunning everyone. Adam and Rebecca had been childhood sweethearts, and after his accident, she’d remained faithfully by his side. His leaving must have felt like a betrayal.

“I’m sorry.” Caleb’s face turned to stone.

“Right,” she huffed in disbelief. “Like I believe that. Why don’t you do the rest of us a favor and stay away?” Whirling, she hurried down to her wagon, threadbare skirts swirling an inch above the muddy ground.

“Don’t listen to her,” Nathan urged. “She’s just upset.”

Anguish, quickly extinguished, sparked in his brown eyes as he passed by. “I don’t wanna discuss it.”

“Not talking about it for two years hasn’t helped matters,” Nathan pointed out as the door thudded closed behind them.

No response. Typical. Like the rest of their family members, Caleb had inherited the O’Malley stubborn streak.

Passing the private quarters and the floor-to-ceiling shelves of supplies, they entered the store, pausing at the long counter where Emmett Moore assisted a customer.

The store owner stood at the scale weighing out sugar, curly hair sticking out in tufts. Nodding a greeting, he said, “Set those down on the counter, boys. David will be in shortly. The rest I’d like stored in the springhouse. The cheese, too. Ruthanne will get you the key.”

“I’ll get it,” Caleb offered, slipping away.

Wandering over to the jewelry case, Nathan’s gaze immediately homed in on the sparkling sapphire ring amid the brooches and earbobs. It was the same brilliant hue as Sophie’s eyes. The simple setting, a classic circular design in white gold, would suit her perfectly.

Somehow he doubted Frank was the type of man to buy a woman a ring like that. Pity.

The bell above the door jangled. April Littleton’s mother, Georgette, walked in with list in hand. Striding to the counter, her warm welcome did not include him. Apparently she held him personally responsible for Sophie’s “attack” on her dear daughter.

Her fingers clutched the paper, wrinkling it beyond repair. “I hear your little friend snagged herself a fiancé.” Her eyes flared with annoyance.

“Who’s engaged?” Emmett’s ears perked up.

Ruthanne zipped out of the office behind them, spectacles perched on the end of her nose. “Someone’s getting married?” She gazed expectantly at Georgette.

“Sophie Tanner, that’s who.” She sniffed.

Nathan gripped the counter’s edge, tuning out the resulting conversation.

She’d really done it. She’d gone and engaged herself to Frank.

The questions pelting Georgette sounded fuzzy to his ears, the words distorted.

A hand seized his elbow. “Come on, brother.” Caleb propelled him back the way they’d come. “Let’s go finish unloading.”

Out in the fresh air and sunlight, Caleb released him. “What’s with you, Nate?” He squinted at him. “I thought you were gonna pass out or something.”

He forced himself to focus on the here and now. “I’m fine.”

Descending the stairs, he hefted a crate of cheese from the wagon bed. Caleb went ahead to the springhouse, located beside the river at the base of a slight embankment, and bent to unlock it. Over his shoulder, he called, “It has something to do with Sophie, doesn’t it? I always wondered about you two. After all, they say where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there’s a ton of smoke, not to mention sparks, when you and she get together. Always has been.”

Nathan gritted his teeth. “Let’s just get this stuff put up and go home. I’ve got a list of chores a mile long waiting on me.”

Straightening, Caleb reached for the crate with a knowing smirk. “Now who doesn’t wanna talk about it?”

Ignoring him, Nathan trudged up the slippery incline. Not even the sun warming his back and drying out the earth was enough to cheer him. The image of that ring refused to let go.

They worked in silence until all the crocks were stored and the key returned to Ruthanne. When Caleb met him at the foot of the stairs, he crossed his arms and looked him straight in the eyes. “Once Sophie weds, am I free to leave?”

He’d known this was coming. He just hadn’t expected it so soon. “That’s your choice,” he snapped, brushing past him to climb into the wagon.

Heaving a sigh, Caleb walked around to his side and dropped down onto the seat. Swaying with the forward motion of the team, he tugged his hat brim low, a habit he’d formed after the accident. “If you still need me, I’ll stick around awhile longer.”

Pulling around the buildings, Nathan scanned the street and, seeing nothing, edged onto Main Street. Customers were beginning to fill the boardwalks. Spying Josh unlocking the furniture store, he lifted a hand in greeting.

“Having you around these past few weeks has been great. Not only is my workload lighter, but I can see the difference your continued presence has made in Ma and Pa.”

“Thanks for the guilt trip,” Caleb muttered, hands fisting on his thighs.

The horses’ hooves clattered over the bridge. Nathan shot him a sideways glance. “I’m not going to sugarcoat the facts, Caleb. You’re a part of this family, and we need you.”

Caleb kept his silence, turning his head to scan the forest on his side.

As much as they needed him, Nathan understood what drove him. Seeing Rebecca again couldn’t have been easy.

“Look, we can manage without you,” he conceded, relenting. “We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. But I’d like you to promise me something.”

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