Authors: Karen Kirst
The muted light of the summer evening washed her fair skin with a pink tinge of health, her cheeks and bee-stung lips the color of delicate rosebuds. The collared button-down shirt she had on was blue like the sky overhead. The bright hue made her eyes glow like the blue sapphire ring Emmett Clawson had taken in on trade a couple of weeks ago and that now occupied a premier spot in the jewelry case for everyone to admire.
With a start, he realized he was staring and Sophie was watching him with an uncharacteristic guardedness. He released her at once.
What’s gotten into you, O’Malley?
Clearing his clogged throat, he pivoted away to grip the railing, slowly and methodically cataloging the rows upon rows of cornstalks swaying in the breeze, the stately apple orchard marching along the fields in front of Josh and Kate’s cabin and the forested mountains ringing the valley.
Okay, so Sophie was all grown up now. So what? That didn’t mean he was free to think of her in terms other than neighbor and friend. Disaster lay down that path....
If, and that was a
if, he ever decided to marry, Sophia Lorraine Tanner would not be up for consideration. Not ever.
She was trouble, pure and simple. Too impulsive. Too headstrong. Too much. No, if he did decide to find himself a wife, he’d search for someone sensible, cautious and levelheaded. Someone like him.
ophie wrapped a hand around the wooden post for support and attempted to appear nonchalant about the effects of Nathan’s touch. His nearness. It wasn’t as if such touches were rare. They were friends, had been friends as far back as she could remember, and while her handsome neighbor had strict ideas about what constituted appropriate behavior, he was an affectionate man. Compassionate, too. Dependable and trustworthy.
Nathan was everything her wayward pa wasn’t. He would never dream of doing something as despicable as abandoning his pregnant wife and child for another woman.
“How’s Tobias?” he asked.
Sophie tracked a pair of dragonflies flitting on the wind, their iridescent wings a mix of blue and silvery green. The worry she’d battled since her granddad had taken ill three weeks ago eroded her peace of mind. “Still the same. Weak. The medicine Doc Owens gave him doesn’t seem to be helping the cough. I try to encourage him to eat, but he doesn’t have much of an appetite.”
“I’ll ask Ma to make him some of her chicken noodle soup.”
Feeling his gaze on her, she turned her head and found strength and a promise of support in the silver depths. “Surely he won’t be able to resist that.” Her attempt at a smile fell flat. “He won’t get well on my cooking alone.”
Her heart stuttered in her chest. What if he didn’t get better? What would she do without the only real father figure she’d ever had? Her grandfather had practically raised her and her little brother, Will, after her pa left and her ma passed away.
“I don’t like that look on your face,” he gently reproved. “Don’t let your mind go there. We’re all praying for Tobias’s recovery.” A grin transformed his serious face. “Besides, you know as well as I do what a tough old codger he is. Stubborn, too. Though not nearly as stubborn as his granddaughter.”
That earned him a punch in the arm. “If anyone is stubborn around here, it’s you, Nathan O’Malley.”
Chuckling, he rubbed his arm as if it had really hurt. “I won’t deny it.” Jerking his head, he said, “Come on, I’ll walk you home and look in on him. See if I can’t convince him to eat something.”
Following him down the worn steps and into the lush grass, she moved to walk beside him, keenly aware of his height, the restrained power in his hardened body and the self-assuredness with which he carried himself. He smelled of summer, of line-dried clothes and freshly cut hay. And maybe a little of pecans and corn syrup, which made her regret refusing a piece of Mary’s pie.
As they passed the dairy barn, she noticed the cows weren’t crowded around the entrance and all seemed quiet. “You already did the milking?”
“Supper was a tad late getting on the table, so I did it beforehand.”
“On my way here, I spotted Caleb heading for the high country.” She tossed him a sideways glance. “How long is he going to be gone this time?”
Shrugging, he blew out a breath. “I suppose that depends on how long it takes him to snag a bear.”
She dodged a fat bumblebee that zoomed into her path. “When are you going to stop coddling him, Nathan? He has a responsibility to you and the rest of your family.”
“In his mind, he is fulfilling his responsibilities. By stocking the smokehouse with all the meat he brings home, he’s helping to feed the family. Not to mention the trade value of the hides and furs.”
Passing into the dense forest where the air was sweet and cool, the lowering sun’s rays filtered through the towering oaks, maples and various other trees, casting sidelong lines of light that made odd patterns on their clothing.
“I understand the accident changed him...and not only on the outside.” It had been a painful thing to witness the almost night-and-day change in his personality nearly two years ago. She missed the fun-loving, mischievous Caleb and feared her childhood playmate was gone for good. “I just don’t think it’s fair that he goes off whenever he feels like it and leaves you behind to do all the work.”
“It’s frustrating. And sometimes I get resentful.” His gaze volleyed between the root-studded ground and her. “To be honest, I haven’t a clue how to talk to my own brother.”
The admission clearly hadn’t come easily. Nathan wasn’t a complainer. When Caleb had first started taking off for days at a time, Nathan had simply picked up the slack, milking all the cows himself twice a day, feeding and watering them, caring for the sick and expectant, mucking out their stalls, delivering the milk and cheese Mary made to the mercantile. And when he wasn’t doing all that, he was working in the alfalfa, hay and cornfields. His older brother had pitched in to help, but now with his furniture business taking off and Kate expecting for the first time, Josh had little time to spare.
“Why not tell him the truth? That you need him here?”
When his brow creased in contemplation, she reached out and touched the bare forearm exposed by his rolled-up sleeve. The smooth, fine hairs covering the sun-kissed skin tickled her fingertips. She snatched her hand away.
“What?” He threw her a questioning glance.
Clearing her throat, she said almost defensively, “Nothing. Look, I’m concerned about you, that’s all. You work too hard.”
“I can say the same about you.”
Their gazes met and clung. Sophie basked in the warmth of his rare and fleeting admiration. Then he grabbed her hand and tugged her sideways, saving her from smacking face-first into a tree. He chuckled low in his chest. Feeling foolish, she concentrated on the path beneath her heavy black boots.
In the branches far above their heads, birds twittered, hooted and warbled in a melodious tune that echoed through the understory. She loved this place, the vast forest both awe-inspiring and peaceful, expansive yet somehow intimate; a testament to God’s power and creativity. A gift of both beauty and practicality.
She loved her home. Had no itch like some people her age to venture out of these East Tennessee mountains and experience city life.
Imagine the gawking stares a tomboy like you would get in the city!
The folks of Gatlinburg knew her and accepted her for what and who she was: a simple farm girl just trying to survive, to keep the farm afloat, to be both mother and father to her brother and caretaker of her beloved granddad. She had no grand dreams for her own future, no big expectations. Better to take each day as it came.
The trees thinned, allowing more light to spill into the meadows as they neared her family’s property. Much smaller than the O’Malley farm, the Tanner spread consisted of a single-pen cabin in the midst of a small clearing, a cantilever barn whose top-heavy structure resembled a wooden mushroom, a very tall, very skinny chicken coop and a springhouse straddling the cold, rushing waters of the stream winding through the trees. A small garden beside the cabin provided just enough vegetables for the three of them. Compared to Nathan’s place, her farm looked worn around the edges, a bit forlorn, the buildings sagging and bare. Even if she had the resources to fix everything that needed attention, there wasn’t enough time in the day. Still, she loved this land that she poured so much of her heart and soul into.
“Hey, Nathan!” Crouched in the water, Will let the large rock he was looking under resettle in the silt and hurried up the bank. He snatched up his pail and crossed the grass in his bare feet, unmindful of his mud-splashed overalls.
“Hey, buddy.” Always patient with her ten-year-old brother, Nathan greeted him with a ready smile. “What you got there?”
“I caught five crawdads. Wanna see?” He held up the pail, enthusiasm shining in his blue eyes handed down from their mother, the same hue as her own. A streak of dirt was smeared across his forehead and flecks of it clung to his brown hair.
Nathan peered at the miniature lobsterlike creatures and made an approving grunt. “Looks like you got some big ones.”
“Will, where are your shoes?” Sophie frowned. “What happens if you step on a bee or cut your foot on a rock?”
He rolled his eyes. “I won’t.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You worry too much.” He laughed off her concern. “I’m going to see if I can catch some more. See ya, Nathan.”
The last year had wrought many changes in her brother and not all of them bad. He’d shot up two inches, his face had thinned out and he was
hungry. A bright kid in possession of a tender heart, his boyish enthusiasm had calmed and smiles had to be coaxed out of him. More and more it seemed as if he was pulling away from her in an effort to gain his independence. The brother she’d practically raised herself was growing up, and she didn’t know how she felt about that.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” she called to his retreating back.
Nathan angled toward her and lifted a sardonic eyebrow. “Prevention, huh? I wonder if you thought about that right before you plunged off the falls? Or when you befriended that stray wolf that everyone warned you was probably rabid? Oh, and what about the time Jimmy Newman dared you to cross the fallen log high above Abram’s Creek with your eyes closed?” He scowled. “Thought for sure my heart was going to give out that time.”
Sophie resisted the urge to squirm. Why couldn’t he conveniently forget her past shenanigans like a true gentleman? “If you’ll remember, I made it across just fine.” She brushed past him and headed for the cabin. “And that was a dog, not a wolf,” she corrected, tossing the words over her shoulder.
“And what about the falls?” His challenging tone stopped her.
She turned around. “What about it?”
He prowled toward her, residual anger churning in his stormy eyes, reminding her of that long-ago summer day and the frothy, forceful water that had sucked her under, stealing her breath until she’d thought her lungs might burst. And then strong arms had wrapped around her waist, pulling her to safety. How well she recalled him frantically calling her name. His hands cradling her with a tenderness she hadn’t known since she was a little girl, since before her mother died. How amazing...how sweetly wonderful it had felt to be held in his arms!
It was in that moment that she’d realized she was in love with Nathan O’Malley. And, as his concern had morphed into a familiar lecture, she had known he would never love her back.
His features were set in an obstinate expression. “You nearly died, Sophie.”
“That was four years ago. Why are you so angry all of a sudden?”
“I’m not angry, exactly.” He paused, a tiny crease between his brows as he mulled over his next words. “I just want you to take your own advice. Think before you act. Exercise caution.”
In other words, think like he did. Frustration over her own shortcomings and the futility of trying to please him sharpened her voice. “Is this about the skunk? Because I’m not sure what else you expect me to say—”
“No, it’s not that.” He dropped his hands to his sides. “Let’s just drop it, okay? I’m going inside.”
This time, it was he who brushed past her. Why did she suddenly feel as if she’d been dismissed?
* * *
The inside of the Tanners’ cabin looked much the same as it had when he was a young boy. Plain. Austere. The small glass windows were clean but bare. No pictures adorned the thick log walls. There was only one rug, faded and worn and situated close to the stone fireplace opposite the cast-iron stove. A simple square table with four chairs, a brown sofa that had obviously seen better days and two rocking chairs were the only furnishings. Tobias slept in the single bedroom beside the kitchen while Sophie and Will shared the loft space overhead.
What the place lacked was a feminine touch.
As he passed the fireplace, his gaze lit on a small tintype of Sophie and Will’s parents, Lester and Jeanine Tanner. He barely remembered Sophie’s mother. Not surprising considering he’d been thirteen when she died giving birth to Will. A quiet woman, she’d hovered in the background like a shadow as if to blend in. Perhaps to avoid attracting her husband’s attention?
Unfortunately, Nathan remembered Lester Tanner all too well. The man was hateful, lazy and in possession of an explosive temper that all the local kids feared and tried their best to avoid. The family was well rid of him.
He couldn’t help but wonder if Sophie might have turned out differently had she had a mother’s tender hand to guide her instead of being thrust into the role of caretaker at eight years old.
He tapped lightly on the door standing ajar. “Tobias?”
A breathy voice beckoned him in. He moved deeper into the shadows where a single kerosene lamp on the bedside table cast the elderly man’s face in sharp relief. Nathan sucked in a startled breath, alarmed at Tobias’s frailty and the changes wrought in the one week since he’d last seen his neighbor. Knowing Tobias wouldn’t appreciate his pity, he carefully schooled his features.
Easing into the straight-backed chair beside the bed, he folded his hands in his lap. “How are you today?”
“Not so good.” The cloudy blue eyes staring back at him were filled with resignation.
“I’m sorry to hear that. Your granddaughter tells me you don’t have much of an appetite. How about I bring some soup tomorrow?”
Bringing one gnarled hand up to cover a cough, the gray-headed man shook his head, panted to catch his breath. “I appreciate the offer, son, but not even Mary’s cooking sounds good these days.”
Nathan swallowed against sudden sorrow. He sensed Sophie’s grandfather had given up.
“I’m glad you’re here. Need to talk to you about Sophie and Will.” Sadness tugged at Tobias’s craggy face. “I’m worried more about my granddaughter than I am about the boy. Can I count on you to watch out for her after I’m gone? She may act tough but inside she’s as sensitive as her mother.” His chest rattled as he pulled in more air. “She needs someone to take care of her for a change.”
“My family and I will always be here for them. But you’re strong, sir. I have faith you can beat this.”
“No, son, I’m ready to meet my Lord and Savior face-to-face. And I long to see my sweet Anne and Jeanine again. It’s time.”
Throat working to contain the tide of emotion, Nathan surged to his feet and stepped over to the window. Beyond the warped glass, Sophie unpinned laundry from the line and placed it in the basket at her feet. The sight of her pensive expression made his heart weigh like a stone in his chest. Losing Tobias, the closest thing to a parent she’d ever known, would devastate her. How in the world was he supposed to help her deal with that?