The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (3 page)

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Chapter Three

S
ophie bolted upright in bed. What was that awful racket?

Her hens’ hysterical squawking shattered the quiet. Her heart sank. At this time of night, it could only mean one thing—predator.

Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she shoved the quilt aside and sank her tired feet into her boots without bothering to lace them. In the bed opposite hers, only the top of Will’s head was visible above his blanket. Thankful his slumber hadn’t been disturbed, she made her way to the ladder in the inky darkness, rushed to light the lamp on the table below.

“Sophie?” Somehow her grandfather’s breathless voice reached her above the din.

“I’m here.” She wished he’d been able to sleep through this as easily as Will. He desperately needed his rest if he was going to recover. “I’m going outside to investigate.”

“Watch yourself, ya hear?”

A grim frown touched her mouth at his labored effort to speak. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.”

White cotton nightgown swishing around her ankles, she lifted her trusty Winchester from its place above the mantel and headed into the sticky night.

The barn loomed large in the semidarkness, the brittle structure and surrounding trees washed with weak moonlight. Adrenaline pumping, she rounded the corner of the cabin and stopped dead at the sight that greeted her. Her fingers went slack on the gun handle.

Her too-tall henhouse was no more. It had been tipped over and smashed into a hundred bits and pieces by an enormous black bear that was even now pawing one of her hens with the intent to devour it. Those who had managed to escape the beast’s jaws were running around in endless circles.

“What have you done to my chickens?” Outrage choked any fear she might have had. They
needed
those birds and the precious eggs they produced.

Hefting the rifle up, she found the trigger and aimed for the air directly above his head. She should kill him. Considering his size, the meat would likely sustain them for a month or more. Not to mention the hide sure would make a nice rug for the living room.

But she wouldn’t. Killing animals for food was a part of mountain life, and she had no issue with that—as long as the animal was a pig or chicken or fish. But bears, well, they fascinated her. Had ever since she was a little girl and she’d happened upon a mama and her three cubs fishing in a stream farther up in the mountains. The cubs had been so cute and playful, the mama tough yet tender and fiercely protective, that Sophie had hidden in the bushes and watched, barely breathing, until they’d moved on.

Focus, Sophie.
Anchoring the butt against her shoulder, she fired off a single shot.

A limp hen caught between his teeth, the bear lifted his head and shifted his opaque black eyes to her. Her lungs strained for air.
Don’t make me shoot you.
He took a step in her direction. Again, she aimed above his head. Fired a second time.

When the lumbering beast casually turned and disappeared into the forest, Sophie released the air in a relieved whoosh and lowered the gun, muscles as limp as soggy corn bread. She surveyed the damage, dreading the job that awaited her come daylight. Weariness settled deep in her bones. They couldn’t afford to purchase lumber for a new henhouse. How was she supposed to find time to chop down trees, strip and saw them into planks when so many other chores awaited her?

Anxiety nipped at her heels as she coaxed the addled hens into the barn for the night. What she really wanted to do was park herself at Granddad’s bedside until she was absolutely certain he was on the mend. A frisson of stark, cold despair worked its way through her body; the possibility of losing him looming like a menacing shadow. How sad that she simply couldn’t spare the time. Not if the animals were to be fed, the vegetable garden tended, the laundry mended and washed, and food placed on the table.

Feeling sorry for yourself won’t get you anywhere, Sophia Lorraine.

Traversing the tomblike yard, words of defeat slipped from her lips. “Lord Jesus, sometimes I just don’t know how I can go on like this.”

Sometimes she wondered what it might be like to have a strong man around to help shoulder the burdens. A partner. A helpmate. Someone like Nathan—strong and valiant and willing and able to meet any challenge. A man who could be both tough and tender. Sort of like that mama bear, she thought as she replaced the Winchester on its hooks.

But while her heart pined for him, in his eyes she was nothing more than an irritating brat. A down-on-her-luck neighbor he was forced to tolerate and occasionally rescue.

“Everything all right?” Tobias called.

Entering his room, she crossed to the narrow bed, straightened the quilts and took his hand between hers, tenderness welling in her chest at the feel of his feeble, knotted fingers.

“Everything’s fine. You should go back to sleep.”

“I worry about you.” His eyes gleamed in the darkness. “This farm is too much for one young girl to manage.”

She stroked his hand, determined to put his fears to rest. To ignore her own reservations. “I’m not a little girl anymore, you know,” she gently reminded him. “I may not look like much but I can work as hard as any man.”

“I’m not doubting your abilities, Sophie, but I want more for you and Will. I—” his chest expanded “—don’t want you to struggle—” and deflated “—alone. Maybe it’s time you settled down.”

Her brows shot up, stunned at this first mention of marriage. “Why would I want to get hitched? Besides, I’m not alone. I’ve got you.”

When he didn’t respond, she leaned down and kissed his wrinkled forehead, smoothed his wispy gray hair. “I think we’ll leave this conversation for when we’re both rested and thinking straight. Good night.”

“’Night.” He sighed.

Pausing to grip the doorframe, she turned back, compelled to speak words rarely spoken between them. Not because they didn’t care but because emotional expressions just wasn’t their way. “I love you, Granddad.”

“I love you, too.” Pride and affection thrummed in his voice.

Once again in her bed, with no one around to witness her emotional display, she allowed the tears to fall, slipping silently onto her pillow. Fear, cold and black and relentless, threatened to crush her. The what-ifs, the endless responsibilities, nearly overwhelmed her.

Having a man around full-time would help. But was a husband really the answer? Her father’s temper, his disdain for her mother and contempt for Sophie made her reluctant to hand over her life to just any man.

Their future was too important to gamble on.

* * *

Wiping the moisture from her forehead with her sleeve, Sophie tried once again to lift what used to be the henhouse’s right sidewall. It refused to budge. A gloved hand appeared out of nowhere and covered her own. She jerked back and in the process scraped her palm on the jagged wood.

“Nathan!” She stared as he heaved the wall up as if it weighed nothing, shoulders and biceps straining his white-and-blue pin-striped shirt, and lowered it out of the way onto the grass. “What are you doing here?”

Pink and purple fingers of dawn gradually chased away black sky, lightening the wide expanse above to a pale blue. He should be at home milking his cows, not standing here in front of her with his hair damp and his cheeks smooth and touchable from a recent shave, his beautiful eyes gazing at her with resolute intentions.

“I ran into Will downstream and he mentioned what happened.” His gaze swept the scattered feathers and eggshells, the bucket filled with carcasses and the splintered wood on the ground before zeroing in on her face. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” She shrugged off his concern. “I managed to scare him off with two shots.”

“You could’ve killed him.”

“You know how I feel about bears.”

Stepping over the mess, he stopped in front of her, his chest filling her vision as he took the hand she’d been clutching against her midsection in his. He gently unfurled her fingers and lifted her palm up for a better view. Her stupid heart actually fluttered. Wouldn’t he be amused if he knew how he affected her? Amused or horrified, one of the two.

His lips turned down. “This is a pretty bad scrape.” Pulling a red handkerchief from his pants’ pocket, he wound it around her palm and tucked the ends under. “Why aren’t you wearing gloves?”

She wouldn’t tell him that they were too far gone to provide any sort of protection and she didn’t have the means to buy a new pair. Better he think her foolish than pity her.

She slipped her hand from his grasp. “You’re right, I should have put them on.”

A flicker of understanding warned her that he suspected the truth, but he didn’t voice it. Instead he tugged off his own gloves and handed them to her.

“I can’t take yours.”

“Josh will be here soon. I have another pair in the wagon.” He began to pick up the broken boards and pitch them in a pile.

“Why is Josh coming?” She gingerly pushed her fingers into the large deerskin gloves, the lingering heat from his hands a caress against her skin.

“He’s bringing the lumber we need to rebuild your henhouse.”

“He’s
what?

Nathan tossed another board and arched a brow at her. “Now don’t get all huffy on me. We have plenty to spare.”

“You know I can’t pay you.”

“Don’t expect payment.” Shrugging, he turned his attention back to his task.

Torn, she fiddled with the end of her thick braid. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful—”

“Then just say ‘thank you’ and let us help you.” He was using his extra-patient voice, the one he used to coax her into seeing his side of things.

Frowning, she bent to gather crushed eggshells. For as long as she could remember, the O’Malleys had been there for her family, stepping in to help whenever they had a problem or a need to be met. And while she was extremely thankful for their generosity, it was difficult to always be on the receiving end.

As the jingle of harnesses spilled across the meadows, they both straightened and turned toward the lane. “There he is now.” Nathan dusted his hands on his pants and started forward to meet his brother.

Trailing behind him, she spotted Will perched on the seat beside Josh. As if sensing her unspoken question, Nathan tossed an explanation over his shoulder. “Will wanted to help load the wood. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“No, of course not.”

When the team halted, Will jumped down and joined Nathan at the back. Josh waved and smiled a greeting. “Hey, Sophie.”

“Morning, Josh.”

The eldest son of Sam and Mary O’Malley, Josh was a more laid-back, more outgoing version of Nathan. Only two years apart, they shared similar features. Both were tall, tanned and gorgeous. Josh’s hair was a touch lighter than Nathan’s, his eyes blue instead of silver and he sported a trim mustache and goatee that lent him a distinguished air.

He
never looked at her with disapproval. But then, she’d never yearned for Josh’s approval like she did Nathan’s.

“How’s Kate getting along?” she asked.

His smile widened, eyes shining with a deep contentment that made Sophie a little jealous. Okay, more than a little. What she wouldn’t give to inspire such emotions in Nathan!

“She’s feeling a lot better these days—as long as she steers clear of my brother.” He shot Nathan a teasing look, laughing when he scowled in response.

Suppressing a grimace, she gestured toward the wagon. “You’re a good neighbor.”

“And here I thought we were friends.” He winked.

“You know what I meant.” She smirked, following him to the rear of the wagon.

When they had finished unloading the lumber, Josh turned to her. “Sorry I can’t stay and help, but I’ve got to deliver a dining set before lunch.”

“I understand you’ve got a lot to do. It’s no problem.”

He hooked a thumb toward the cabin. “Before I go, I’d like to say hello to Tobias if he’s awake.”

“Yes, please do,” she said, smiling through her worry. “He’d like that.”

As Josh let himself in the cabin, Nathan and Will joined her beneath the wide-limbed oak tree. Even though the sun had a long way yet to climb, the air was thick with humidity and the promise of scorching heat.

“I don’t want beans again for supper,” her brother informed her, sweat glistening on his face, “so I’m going fishing. Will you fry up my catch?”

While they could use his help with the henhouse, beans for the third night in a row didn’t appeal to Sophie, either. Maybe fried fish would tempt Granddad to eat. “Sure thing.” She squelched the urge to smooth his hair. A few years ago, he wouldn’t have minded. Things were different now, though.

She watched as he ambled off to the barn to fetch his fishing pole.

“Are you ready to get started?” Nathan prompted.

She shifted her gaze to his face, shadowed by his Stetson’s black brim. “Not yet.”

“Uh-oh, I’ve seen that look before. What’s on your mind?”

“If you want to help me, you have to allow me to give you something in return.”

Something mysterious slipped through his eyes, something she’d never seen before—a mini-explosion of heat and want immediately contained, hidden from view as if it had never been. Her heart thudded in her hollowed-out chest. What—

“Sausages,” he blurted.

“Huh?”

His entire body stiff, he turned and walked away, jerking up the ends of four long planks and dragging them toward the spot where they would rebuild.

“Everyone knows you make the best-tasting sausages around. If you insist on paying me, I’ll take some of those.”

Sophie stayed where she was, not a little confused by his reaction to a simple statement. “Okay. Sausages it is. If you’re sure that’s what you want.”

He dropped the planks and shot her an enigmatic look. “I’m positive that’s all I want from you.”

She went to help him, certain she was missing something and feeling her mother’s absence more keenly than ever.

Chapter Four

T
hree hours later, Nathan hammered the last nail into place on the new roof. Despite his fatigue, the thin film of sweat coating his skin and the hunger pangs in his belly, satisfaction brought a smile to his face. He stepped back to admire his and Sophie’s handiwork.

This henhouse was shorter and wider than the original...and all but impossible to tip over. A small ladder led up to the hatch above the man-size door, allowing the chickens to come and go as they pleased during the day.

“What do you think, Soph?” He glanced over to where she was replacing her tools in the box.

She shot him a tired smile over her shoulder. “I think this one will outlast you and me both.” When she stretched out her hand to snag her hammer lying in the grass, he noticed her fingers shaking.

Chucking his own hammer on the ground, he crossed to the elm tree and the basket of food he’d put there. “Can you help me with something?”

Straightening, she flipped her golden braid behind her shoulder and joined him without a word, taking the ends of the red, white and blue pinwheel quilt he held out to her and helping him spread it on the ground.

“Now what?” She looked to him for direction.

“Have a seat.” He knelt on the quilt and withdrew the smoked ham and cheese sandwiches, jar of pickled beets and container of coleslaw.

Eyeing the bounty, she gestured behind her. “I should put my tools in the barn and go check on Granddad.”

“You checked on him fifteen minutes ago.” He lifted two mason jars full of sweet tea and propped them against the trunk. “How about you eat something first? I packed enough for both of us. Will, too. I’m sure he’ll come ’round when he’s hungry.”

She wavered.

Nathan produced a cloth-covered plate. “Aren’t you curious what’s under here?” he teased.

When Sophie sank down on the quilt, the hunger finally showing on her face, he couldn’t suppress a grin.

“Oatmeal cookies?” she asked hopefully.

“Nope.”

Tapping her chin, she mused, “Peach turnovers?”

“Uh-uh.”

She threw up her hands. “Tell me already.”

He lifted the white cloth to reveal thick slices of apple crumb cake.

“Mind if I have my dessert first?” She grinned mischievously and swiped a slice, humming with pleasure as she sank her teeth into the spicy-sweet cake.

Nathan couldn’t tear his gaze away. Her eyes were closed, and he noticed for the first time how her thick lashes lay like fans against her cheeks, how her neat brows arched with an intriguing, sassy tilt above her lids. A breeze stirred the wisps of hair framing her oval face.

She opened her eyes then, caught him staring and flushed. Shrugged self-consciously. “I forgot to eat breakfast.”

He pointed to where stray crumbs clung to her lips. “You, ah, have some, ah...”

Averting her gaze, she brushed them away. He turned his attention to his sandwich, his thoughts flitting around like lightning bugs trapped in a jar. Why all of a sudden was he noticing these things about her? Why was he acutely aware of her appearance when he hadn’t been before? Whatever had caused the change, he didn’t like it. Not one bit. Not only was this preoccupation inconvenient, it had the potential to embarrass them both.

Halfway through his meal, he put two and two together. If Sophie went too long between meals she got jittery and light-headed. And it had been right around suppertime when he had come upon her and that skunk.

He lowered his sandwich to his lap. “Sophie?”

“What?”

“The other day when the skunk had you cornered, why didn’t you tell me you were feeling puny?”

She swallowed her last bite of cake and looked at him in surprise. “You didn’t give me a chance.”

Of course he didn’t. He’d been livid. “I’m sorry.”

She hitched a shoulder. “I could’ve waited a little longer. Moved a little slower.”

“No.” He shook his head. “Your well-being comes first, no matter what.”

Remembering how he’d scolded her, he grimaced, regret tightening his stomach.

It was a pattern, he realized. Back when they were kids and she’d first insisted on tagging along with him and his brothers, he alone had seemed to mind her presence. Josh had treated her with the same teasing affection as he did their cousins, and Caleb, impressed with her adventurous spirit, had been thrilled to have her around. Not Nathan. More often than not, the two of them had been at odds. While he was cautious and tended to think before he acted, she was impetuous and spontaneous and didn’t always anticipate the consequences of her actions.

Which led to disagreements. And him lecturing her like an overbearing older brother.

She’s not a little girl anymore, O’Malley. She’s a mature young woman in charge of her own life and capable of making her own decisions. No doubt she doesn’t appreciate your know-it-all behavior.

Perhaps it was time to step back and give her some space. This friendship of theirs was morphing into something unrecognizable, with strange new facets he wasn’t quite comfortable with.

* * *

Sophie didn’t know what to say. Or think. Nathan was an intelligent man. Perceptive, too. A quality that served him well in dealing with his five female cousins. That he’d noticed her need just now—the shakes had set in with a vengeance right about the time she’d begun sorting her tools—and understood that her haste the other day had stemmed from the same issue didn’t surprise her.

Hasn’t he always watched out for you? Even when he was tempted to throttle you.

It was true. Nathan’s protective instincts were legendary. Not only had she heard the O’Malley girls complain about his overprotective ways, she herself had been on the receiving end of his lectures countless times—lengthy discourses about safety and the wisdom of taking proper precautions—and, she recalled with a shudder, his ire when he thought she’d acted recklessly. To give him credit, many times she
had
deserved his set-downs.

What she couldn’t figure out was why he was acting strangely today. There was a distracted air about him, a confounded light in his eyes that aroused her curiosity.

As she finished her sandwich, the salty ham and cheese between soft white bread chasing away her hunger pangs, he helped himself to the cake.

She dabbed her mouth with her napkin before broaching the subject that had been bothering her ever since she’d interrupted the conversation between him and her granddad last evening.

“What were you and Granddad talking about when I came into his room? The two of you looked awfully serious.”

Nathan’s bleak expression had troubled her long into the night.

Now he schooled his features into a careful blandness that scared her. If he was trying to avoid hurting her, then she was right to worry.

“Nothing special.” His fingers tightened on the jar balanced on his thigh. “I tried to tempt him with Ma’s cooking but he insisted he wasn’t hungry. He doesn’t seem to have much energy.”

An understatement. “Doc Owens has been tight-lipped, as usual, but I can tell by his manner that he’s concerned.”

“When is he supposed to come and check on him again?”

“In a couple of days, unless he gets worse and I need him before then....”
Please, Lord, don’t let that be the case.
“Are you sure that’s all you talked about? He didn’t say anything strange?”

Nathan lifted the jar to his mouth. “Like what?”

“Like asking you to marry me.”

He choked. Sputtered.
“Marry you?”
His brows shot to his hairline, and he jammed his thumb into his chest. “Me? And you?”

Humiliation burned in her cheeks. Shoving to her feet, she glared down at him with clenched fists. “Is the prospect of marrying me so distasteful, then? You think no man in this town would want me?”

“No! That’s not it!” He quickly stood, his eyes dark and searching. “You just shocked me is all. D-did Tobias suggest it to you?”

“No.”

The relief skittering across his face pierced her heart. Sent her confidence tumbling. Unable to look at him, she observed a ladybug clinging to a swaying stalk at her feet. “He did suggest I start thinking of settling down. That I need a man around to take care of me,” she scoffed. “Imagine!”

She’d been taking care of herself since she was eight. Why did Granddad think she needed help?

Weren’t you thinking the same thing just last night?
an unwelcome voice reminded.

“He’s your grandfather. Of course he wants to see you settled and happy.” Nathan looked particularly
un
settled, a line forming between his brows as he looked past her to the cabin.

“A husband can’t guarantee me that.” Her own mother’s misery was proof.

He shifted his gaze back to hers. “Tobias wants to make certain your future is taken care of.”

“You make it sound as if he’s not going to be around for it,” she accused.

“Sophie—” He moved to close the distance between them, but the sympathy wreathing his mouth sent her a step back, away from him.

“Don’t.” She held up a staying hand. She couldn’t handle his compassion right this moment, couldn’t bring herself to face what was happening to her grandfather. Not if she didn’t want the tears welling up to spill over. Losing control of her emotions in front of this man wasn’t something she was willing to do.

Will’s whistling saved her.

Nathan twisted around, silent as her brother approached with a proud smile, pail swinging from one hand and his pole in the other. “I caught four rainbow trout,” he told them, lifting the pail for them to inspect.

“Nice catch,” Nathan admitted, but his somber gaze was on Sophie.

“I’ll take those inside for you,” she quickly volunteered, taking the pail from his willing hand. Tilting her head to indicate the quilt spread out behind them, she said, “Nathan brought us lunch. Help yourself.”

Will’s eyes lit up. “Miss Mary’s the best cook around.” Setting his pole out of the way, he plopped down and began rifling through the basket.

Before Nathan could speak, she rushed ahead. “Thank you for everything today. I should go in and change. I have errands in town this afternoon.”

He nodded slowly. “I have chores waiting, too. I’ll keep Will company while he eats, then head out.”

“See you later, then?”

“Later.”

The promise in his deep baritone let her know not only would he be seeing her, but sooner or later they would finish this conversation.

* * *

The bell above the mercantile door jingled. Sophie didn’t look up from the two thread spools she was trying to choose between. Because her brother spent much of his time on his knees in the creek, it seemed like every other week there was another tear for her to mend.

Light footfalls and feminine giggles drifted closer. She frowned. Recognizing the voices, she peered over her shoulder and spotted April Littleton and her two closest friends, sisters Lila and Norma Jean Oglesby. The same age as Sophie, the trio was extremely popular with Gatlinburg’s single male population. And why shouldn’t they be? Besides being beautiful and stylish in their pastel dresses and beribboned curls, they were accomplished flirts, able to monopolize a man’s attention with very little effort.

Next to them, Sophie felt ordinary. Gauche.

April caught her staring. Brown eyes narrowing, she made no attempts to hide her disdain.

“Hello, Sophie.” Her nose pinched as if the air around her suddenly reeked.

An only child born to her parents late in life, April had been coddled and adored from the moment of her birth, and the results were a spoiled, self-absorbed young woman. Her parents weren’t well-off, just simple farm folk like many of the families in this mountain town, but they scrimped and saved to be able to outfit her as if she was a city debutante.

“Hi, Sophie.” Lila offered her a tentative smile. The older sister, Norma Jean, remained silent. Both were slender, blonde and blue-eyed with fair skin.

“Hello.” She quickly replaced one of the spools without making a conscious color choice. No reason to linger for what would prove to be an unpleasant encounter.

April’s jealousy fueled her dislike of Sophie. Not of her appearance, of course. April didn’t consider her competition. It was Sophie’s friendship with Nathan that she envied. Even if Lila hadn’t let that little nugget slip, it was obvious the dark beauty wanted him for herself, and it killed her that Sophie shared any sort of connection with him.

“We were discussing our outfits for the church social tomorrow night,” April said with mock innocence. “What are you going to wear, Sophie?”

Clutching the thread, she pivoted to face them. Shrugged as if she didn’t care. “I haven’t given it much thought.”

April raked her from head to toe and shot a knowing glance at Norma Jean. “Of course you haven’t.”

“Tell her about your new dress,” Lila encouraged her friend, her round face devoid of malice. Sophie sometimes wondered why Lila would waste her time with a girl like April. The seventeen-year-old appeared to have a good heart.

April’s eyes shone with confidence as she ran her hands over her glossy brown ringlets. “It’s buttercup-yellow...”

She went on to describe the dress in excruciating detail. Sophie tuned her out, biding her time until she could escape. She had no interest in scalloped hems and pearl buttons.

The mention of Nathan’s name snapped her out of her reverie.

“What was that about Nathan?”

“I’m making Nathan’s favorite for the social. Apple pie.”

Sophie bit her lip. That wasn’t his favorite—it was rhubarb.

“What are you bringing?” Norma Jean smirked. “Sausages?”

The girls’ laughter stirred her temper. For once, Sophie wanted to prove she was as capable as any other girl. “Actually, I’m baking a pie, too,” she blurted.

The laughter died off as all three stared at her in amazement.

A delicate wrinkle formed between Lila’s brows. “I didn’t know you baked.”

“Everyone knows she doesn’t,” Norma Jean muttered in a too-loud aside.

April, however, grinned in expectant pleasure. “Well, I, for one, am looking forward to tasting your pie. What kind is it?”

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