The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (4 page)

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“Rhubarb.”

“Oh, how...interesting. I’ll look for it tomorrow night. Let’s go, girls. I want to find just the right color hair ribbon to match my dress.”

Sophie hesitated, watching as they gravitated toward the fabrics whispering feverishly together, before hurrying to the counter to pay for her purchase.

Outside, walking along Main Street, she was oblivious to the sun’s ruthless heat, the stench of horse manure and the nods of greeting aimed her way.

What had she gotten herself into?

She didn’t know how to bake! After her ma passed, Granddad had taught her the basics: how to fry bacon and eggs, how to make flapjacks and corn bread. Stews and soups. Roast chicken. And, of course, beans. That was the extent of her kitchen skills. Not once had she attempted to bake a cake, let alone a pie.

What had she been thinking? Despite her trepidation, she couldn’t back out. She refused to give April the satisfaction.

Determination lengthening her steps, she reached the cabin in less than the usual time. Sophie had found a collection of recipes in her ma’s cedar chest a while back. Surely there was something in there she could use.

As she cut across the yard, her gaze went to the new henhouse. She stopped short. There, strutting around in the dirt, were approximately five new chickens. Dark Brahmas, a hearty breed revered for their gentle disposition. She pushed the door open and entered the dark interior of the cabin.

“Will?” She set her small package on the table. “Granddad?”

“In here.”

“Hey, there.” Sinking gently down on the edge of Tobias’s bed, she held his hand. Propped against a mountain of pillows, his skin had a sallow cast. “Can I get you anything? Would you like for me to open the curtains? It’s a bit stuffy in here.” And dreary, she thought, compared to the bright summer day outside.

His dry, cracked lips shifted into a grimace as he shook his head.

“I noticed some unfamiliar chickens outside. Do you know anything about that?”

“Nathan,” he wheezed. “He brought us two dozen eggs, too.”

To replace the ones they’d lost. She squeezed her eyes tight, deeply touched by the gesture.

“You all right?”

She inhaled a fortifying breath and eased off the bed. “How does a cup of chamomile tea sound?”

“No need to trouble yourself—”

“It’s no trouble at all. I’ll make some for both of us. We’ll sit together and drink our tea and visit.” The endless farm demands could wait a little while longer.

In the kitchen, she filled the scuffed tin teakettle with water from the bucket and set it on the stovetop, then added kindling to the firebox. As she readied two mugs, her mind refused to budge from Nathan.

Why did he have to go out of his way to be thoughtful? It would make things easier if he were hateful. Or selfish. Maybe then she wouldn’t yearn for his high regard. Maybe then she wouldn’t entertain foolish, impossible dreams. Maybe, just maybe, she would see him as no one special, an ordinary guy who didn’t matter to her at all.

Chapter Five

A
t one end of the dairy barn lit by kerosene lamps hanging from post hooks, Nathan stood in front of the waist-high wooden shelves replacing lids on the crocks of milk he’d just filled. In the stalls stretching out behind him on either side of the center aisle, his cows were happily munching hay.

In the corner where they kept a bin of clean water, he washed and dried his hands, the familiar scents of cowhide, hay and fresh milk filling his lungs. Satisfaction pulsed through him. He relished his work, the straightforward nature of it and the solitude. He liked that he could plant a seed of corn and watch it grow tall, witness a calf enter this world and help it thrive. Farming was in his blood, passed down from his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. If he could do this for the rest of his life, he’d be a happy man. No need for a wife or kids. Well, kids might be nice. A wife he wasn’t so sure about.

Mentally rehashing that awful turn in his and Sophie’s conversation yesterday, he grimaced. He hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. It was just that the notion of a union between the two of them was so absurd as to be laughable. He and Sophie were like oil and water, dry forest and lightning. They just didn’t mix. Not romantically, anyway.

The barn door creaked and he turned, expecting to see his pa. But there, framed in the predawn darkness, stood Sophie, a cloth-covered bucket in her arms.

“Hey. Is everything all right?” Laying the cloth on the shelf, he went to her, hoping against hope this early morning visit and the shadows beneath her eyes didn’t mean what he thought it might.

One slender shoulder lifted. “I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I might as well bring over the sausages I promised you.”

Nathan exhaled. He accepted the bucket she held out, tucking it against his middle while he did a careful study of her. Aside from the troubled light in her eyes, she looked much the same as usual. Her long hair had been freshly brushed and plaited, the sleek, honeyed strands pulled back from her face, emphasizing her cheekbones and the gentle curve of her jaw.

“Thanks for these.” He cocked his head. “Walk with me to the springhouse?”

“Yeah.” Noticing the crocks, she walked over and slipped her hands around one. “How many are you storing?”

“Just two this time. I’m taking one to Ma and the rest will go to Clawson’s. That’s heavy,” he said when she started to lift it. “Why don’t you take the sausages and I’ll get the milk?”

Before Tobias got sick, a suggestion like that would’ve gotten him an earful. Sophie didn’t take kindly to insinuations that she was weak or incapable. The fact that she didn’t protest was proof of her preoccupation.

Using the moon’s light to guide them, they walked the dirt path to the stream and the stone springhouse that housed perishables. Trickling water intruded upon the hushed stillness of the fields and forest. Beside him, Sophie was silent.

I don’t know what to say to ease her anxiety, God. I don’t like seeing her like this. Please show me how to help her. How to reassure her.

Stooping beneath the low doorframe, he carefully placed the containers inside and pulled the door closed, letting the latch fall into place. When he straightened, he noticed her staring at the moonlight-kissed stones scattered in the streambed. Her lost expression tugged at his heart and made him want to wrap his arms around her and shelter her from heartache.

She’d been dealt too many blows in her life. If Tobias didn’t make it, would she break? The idea terrified him. Sophie was one of the strongest people he knew. He couldn’t imagine her any other way.

He stood close but didn’t hug her. Instead he reached out to graze the back of her hand and somehow found his fingers threading through hers. Her head came up, blue eyes flashing to his, dark and questioning. She didn’t pull away, though, and he decided it would be awkward to disengage now. Besides, her skin was cold, the bones fragile. Let his heat warm her.

Friends could hold hands and not have it mean anything, couldn’t they?

“What you did yesterday...” she said, her voice muted. “The henhouse, the chickens and eggs... It means a lot to me. To all of us. Thank you.”

“I did it because I wanted to, not because I felt I had to,” he pointed out. “I like helping you.”

As long as he was able, he’d eagerly meet any and all of the Tanners’ needs. Growing up, he’d witnessed his parents’ generosity toward others, giving selflessly of their time, energy and possessions. It was a lesson he’d taken to heart.

“I know.”

She surprised him by laying a hand against his chest. Her touch seared through the material, scorching his skin. His heart jerked.

“You’re a good man, Nathan. The best.” Then, as if deciding she’d said too much, she pulled free of his hold. “I should go.”

“Wait.” Sophie didn’t often dole out praise, so it meant a lot coming from her. He just couldn’t figure out why she’d sounded so resigned. So solemn. “Are you going to the social tonight?”

She grimaced. “I am. Mrs. Beecham cornered me last week and insisted on sitting with Granddad so that Will and I could go. There’s no arguing with that woman.”

“It’ll be good for you to get out and socialize.”

She looked dubious. “If you say so.”

“Think of all the delicious food you’ll have to choose from.”

Her mouth lifted in a pretty, albeit fleeting, smile. “Since I don’t dance, the food is the biggest draw for me, you know. And speaking of food, I have to get back before Granddad or Will wake to find me gone. They’ll be wanting their breakfast. I need to get to it.”

“See you later, then.”

Nodding, she gave a little wave and walked away, head bent and long braid bouncing against her back. He watched until the trees swallowed her up, thinking it might not be a bad idea to find himself a date for tonight. Nothing serious. Just harmless fun.

Because whatever it was sensitizing him to Sophie—loneliness, although he didn’t exactly
feel
lonely, the unrecognized need for female companionship, perhaps—had to be snuffed out before he did something stupid.

* * *

“You don’t expect me to eat a slice of that pie, do you?” Will bounced on his toes, eager to make his escape.

Sophie slid it onto the dessert table in between a towering stack cake and a buttermilk pie. “It doesn’t look half bad.” She eyed her creation critically.

While the crust wasn’t perfectly round and smooth, it did have an appealing golden hue like the other pies on the table. And the rhubarb filling had filled the cabin with a sweet, pleasant aroma. She’d followed her ma’s recipe carefully. Surely it would be edible. Maybe even good.

“I don’t understand why you decided to make one, anyway,” Will said doubtfully. “You don’t bake.”

She couldn’t understand it, either. Oh, yeah. April and her insults. And a desire to prove to those girls—and Nathan, too—that they were wrong about her. That she was more than just a rough-around-the-edges, act-before-she-thought-it-through tomboy.

“There’s a first time for everything,” she told him with false confidence.

“Hey, Will.” Redheaded, freckled Charlie Layton halted midstride and motioned him over. “We’re gettin’ ready to race. Want to join us?”

“Sure thing!” With a muttered farewell, he ran to join Charlie. The two friends jogged off in the direction of the trees edging the church property where a group of about twenty boys their age had gathered.

The social was already in full swing, many of the men clustered alongside the white clapboard church, no doubt comparing farming techniques or debating quicker, more improved trade routes with the larger towns of Maryville and Sevierville, while the women relaxed on quilts, chatting and laughing and tending to fussy infants. Children darted in and out of the mix, chasing each other in friendly games of tag. Courting couples strolled arm in arm in the distance, keen on a little privacy.

At six o’clock, the heat of the day lingered despite the puffed cotton clouds suspended in the cerulean sky. Not even a hint of a breeze stirred the air. Sophie’s neck was damp beneath her braid, and she pictured her ma’s honey-blond hair arranged in a sleek, efficient bun, a throwback to her childhood in a strict Knoxville orphanage. If Jeanine had lived, would she have taught Sophie how to arrange her hair the same way? She’d tried her hand at it, of course, but with disastrous results.

“Sophie?”

Kenny Thacker weaved through the tables to reach her.

“Hi, Kenny.” She smiled at the skinny, pleasant young man who, because of their last names and the teacher’s penchant for alphabetical seating, had occupied the seat beside her throughout school.

“The guys are arm wrestling out at the old stump.” He gestured behind the church. “They sent me to ask if you’re up to joining us.”

She really shouldn’t. However, she did get a kick out of showing up guys like her pa who thought girls were weaker and dumber than them.

“I think Preston wants a rematch. He can’t accept that he was beaten by a girl.” He grinned broadly.

Sophie debated. She sure wouldn’t mind besting that arrogant Preston Williams a second time.

“Well, I—”

“Oh, hey, Nathan.” Kenny nodded in greeting.

Turning her head, her wide gaze landed on her too-handsome-for-words neighbor. Wearing a charcoal-gray shirt that molded to his corded shoulders and broad chest, the deep color made his silver eyes glow and shorn hair gleam a richer brown. Black trousers emphasized his long, lean legs, and he wore a sharp-looking pair of black leather lace-up boots. Quiet confidence radiated from his stance, his square shoulders and straight spine, his determined jaw and the unspoken message in his expression that he could handle any challenge that came his way.

Nathan wasn’t the showy type. Nor was he a man who liked to be the center of attention. His appeal was his complete unawareness of his attractiveness, his obliviousness to the single young ladies’ admiring glances.

Sophie hadn’t heard his approach, but apparently he’d been there long enough to hear Kenny’s question because his cool gaze was watching her closely, waiting for her response.

What will it be?
his eyes seemed to challenge.
Will you do the proper thing, or will you give in to impulse and act the hoyden?

Because she knew that no matter what she did she could not ultimately win his approval, Sophie was tempted to do it simply to irk him.

“I’m ready now, Nathan.” Pauline Johnson approached with a goofy grin and a buoyant light in her eyes. The tall, curvaceous blonde, stunning in teal, sidled close to Nathan. “Oh, hello, Sophie. Kenny.”

Sophie opened her mouth but couldn’t find her voice. Her heart beat out a dull tattoo. They were clearly here together. On a date. When was the last time Nathan had squired a girl around? He wasn’t interested in pursuing a relationship. Wasn’t that what he always said whenever his brothers gave him a hard time about being single?

Seeing Pauline curl her hand around his forearm, Sophie felt physically ill.

“Just a minute.” He barely allowed the blonde a glance, still obviously intent on Sophie’s response to Kenny’s summons.

Sophie glanced once more at the pie. It mocked her now. The foolish piece of her heart that refused to listen to reason, that still clung to the hope that one day he’d see her as an accomplished and attractive young woman worthy of his regard, withered and died.

Jerking her chin up, she determined he would never guess how deeply he’d wounded her. “Hello, Pauline,” she said, forcing a brightness to her voice.
Please let it ring true.
“You’re looking lovely this evening.”

Her grin widened, cobalt eyes shining with humble gratitude. “You’re kind to say so.” She gestured over her shoulder to where the O’Malleys were gathering. “Will you be joining us?”

Us. As in Pauline and Nathan and his family.

“I’m afraid not.” Not now, anyway. Her throat thickened with despair.
Admit it, you’re jealous.
Ugh! The kicker was that she actually liked Pauline. The same age as Nathan, Pauline was not only beautiful but considerate, friendly, and one of the best sopranos in Gatlinburg. Folks loved it when she sang specials at church.

Smart, sensible and accomplished. Unlike Sophie, Pauline was perfect for Nathan.

The knowledge cut deep.

“I actually have other plans.” To Kenny, she said, “Tell Preston I accept his challenge.”

His eyes lit up. “Nice.”

“Sophie—”
Nathan growled.

Holding up a hand, she shot a pointed glance in Pauline’s direction. “You should tend to your guest. Enjoy the picnic, Pauline.”

Head high, she pivoted on her heel and called out to Kenny, “Wait up. I’ll walk with you.”

She left him standing there, bristling with disapproval. But she refused to let it sway her decision. Worrying about Nathan O’Malley’s opinion of her was a complete waste of time.

* * *

Nathan wanted nothing more than to go after her. The young lady at his side prevented that.
Probably just as well. You’re not Sophie Tanner’s keeper. Distance, remember?

“Nathan?”

Ripping his gaze from the duo’s retreating forms, he plastered a placating smile on his face. “Let’s go join my family, shall we? Or we can sit with yours, if you’d rather.”

It would spare him Josh and Kate’s curiosity. The happily wedded couple had recently started hinting it was time he think about settling down. And, since this was the first time in months—possibly years—he’d escorted a girl anywhere, they were right to have questions.

Maybe that’s why Sophie had seemed so shocked to see him with Pauline. Her face had gone as white as the clouds above—

“I’d prefer to visit with your family.” The pretty blonde beamed at him, fingers clutching his sleeve a little too possessively.
Just your imagination.

A long-time acquaintance, he’d chosen Pauline Johnson because she wasn’t the type of girl to read too much into a single outing. Nor was she so romantically minded she’d be miffed at his last-minute invitation.

Leading her past the long tables sagging beneath the weight of the food, he guided her to a prime spot on a gentle knoll beneath the protective branches of a sweet gum. Josh was propped up against the trunk, lazily observing the crowd. Keen interest sparked in his expression the moment he spotted them.

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