The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (5 page)

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Ma elbowed Pa in the ribs, nodding and smiling as if he’d given her a surprise gift. Great. He had a sinking suspicion this wasn’t going to be as fun as he’d imagined.

“Pauline, how nice to see you.” Ma gestured to an empty patchwork quilt next to theirs. “Have a seat.”

He waited until she was seated, her crisp skirts arranged around her, to lower himself a good twenty-four inches away. Not because he was afraid of his reaction to her—he’d established with immense relief that she didn’t affect him in any way, good or bad—but because he wanted no illusions to form in her mind or anyone else’s.

Her cloying perfume wafted from her sleek blond mane and tickled his nose. He sneezed.

“God bless you.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, inconveniently recalling Sophie’s natural, pleasing scent.

“How is your sister and her new husband getting along?” Mary asked. “Do they like living in Sevierville?”

Pauline’s mouth formed a moue. “Laura’s homesick. Ma wishes they’d move back here, especially before they start a family.” She relaxed back on her hands, extended so that her fingertips nearly grazed his thigh. Was that on purpose? He shifted slightly to the right.

A scowl curled his lips. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. After all, Sophie still dominated his thoughts and hadn’t that been the point of this exercise? Distraction?

Mary nodded. “I can understand. I feel so blessed Josh and Kate settled here. I’ll get to spend a lot of time doting on my first grandchild.”

The conversation turned to babies. Nathan tried to stay focused, he really did, but an irritating little voice demanded to be heard. What if Sophie got herself into a fix? Those guys could play rough sometimes. What if she got hurt?

A cloud of aggravation lodged in his chest, expanding until he couldn’t ignore it a second longer. He jumped to his feet, earning him the attention of everyone present. “I, ah, have to check on something. I’ll hurry back.”

His date’s look of confusion, his ma’s barely hidden consternation and Josh’s amusement stayed with him as he traversed the field. He was going to regret this. He just knew it.

Chapter Six

A
drenaline fueled by deep distress gave Sophie the upper edge. The sight of Nathan and Pauline looking cozy branded into her brain, she bested David Thomas. And John Beadle. And Preston Williams.

Granted, David was fifteen and spindly. And John was too much of a gentleman to put forth much effort into beating her. Cocky Preston, on the other hand, had been a true challenge. If not for her heated reaction to Nathan’s surprise date, she very well could’ve lost.

Grumbling his displeasure, Preston shoved his way through the spectators.

“Who’s next, fellas?” Sophie taunted, feeling dangerous. In this moment, she didn’t care one whit about being a lady or what anyone else thought of her. Nor did she heed the burning sensation in her forearm and biceps. She needed an outlet for the restless energy thrumming through her, the weighty disappointment clamping down on her lungs.

“Don’t you think you’ve proved your point?”

Nathan. Why was she surprised? The underlying steel in his cool voice warned her she was on shaky ground, but she wasn’t in the mood to heed it. Spinning, she clasped her hands behind her back and arched a challenging brow. “What point would that be?”

Boots planted wide, hands fisted at his sides, a muscle twitched in his rock-hard jaw. “Do you really wanna discuss this here?”

All around them, young men ceased their talking to stare.

“You started it.” She jutted her chin at a stubborn angle.

“And I’ll finish it.” His nostrils flared. “Just not in front of an audience.”

Snickers and whistles spread through the small gathering.

When he reached for her arm, she jerked away, feeling slightly panicked. What if he got her alone and her true feelings spilled out? She didn’t trust her mental muzzle right now. “Wait, don’t you wanna give it a go? Or are you afraid you might lose to a girl?”

Though his eyes glittered silver fire, his tone was gentle. “I wouldn’t want to ever hurt you, Sophie.”

She caught her breath.
You already have. You just don’t realize it.

“Later, guys.” Striding past him, she walked in the opposite direction of the crowd, stopping beside a grouping of young Bradford pears. “So tell me, what was so important you felt it necessary to abandon your date?”

Folding his arms across his substantial chest, he glared at her. “Would you believe I was actually worried about you?”

When he caught sight of her surprise, he laughed derisively. “I know. Silly, huh? After all, you know exactly what you’re doing, right? You can take care of yourself.”

“Of course. In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. I don’t need looking after, Nathan. I’m not one of your cousins, nor am I your little sister.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m quite aware of that fact.” He ran a frustrated hand through his short hair.

Nathan and sarcasm didn’t normally go hand in hand. What had him so steamed? This wasn’t the first time she’d engaged in behavior he deemed unfitting for a young lady.

Annoyance stiffened her shoulders. “Why do you have such a problem with me arm wrestling? Last I heard, it wasn’t illegal.”

His eyes narrowed. “Sophie—” Exasperation shifted quickly into resignation, and he gave a quick, hard shake of his head. “No. I told myself I wasn’t going to lecture you anymore. You’re an adult capable of making your own decisions.”

“That’s right, I am,” she huffed. “And just because you don’t happen to agree with my decisions doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”

“While I agree we have different opinions about things, you can’t argue the fact that you’re flaunting clear-cut societal rules. Look around you—” he waved an impatient hand “—do you see any other young women arm wrestling? Engaging in spitting contests or tug-of-war games?
Wrestling
with grown men?”

Sophie lowered her gaze to the grass beneath her boot soles. She’d done all he’d said and more at one time or another. Not only did she enjoy a little friendly competition, she felt more comfortable around the guys. They didn’t judge her based on her appearance. Nor did they expect her to discuss the latest fashions and recipes or know how to quilt and then make fun of her when she didn’t.

“You don’t understand. You never have.”

“There you are.” Josh rounded the tree closest to them, his astute gaze bouncing between them. “Nathan, Pauline is wondering what happened to her escort.”

His expression shuttered. “I’m coming.”

Kate appeared a couple of steps behind, stylish in a forest-green outfit that made her skin appear dewy fresh. Today, her chocolate-brown mane had been tamed in a simple twist. “Sophie, how are you?”

“Just swell.”

“Nathan let me sample one of your sausages at lunch,” she said, her smile encompassing the two of them, “and it hit the spot. Your recipe is delicious. I have to have it.”

“Only one?” Josh winked at his wife. “Are you sure about that?”

Her cheeks pinked. “Well, maybe two. Or three. I wasn’t able to eat much breakfast, so I had to make up for the lack.”

Of their own accord, Sophie’s eyes slid to Kate’s midsection. Was that a slight bump? The dark material made it difficult to tell. When the happy couple announced last month that they were expecting, Sophie had wondered for the first time what it might be like to have a baby of her own. The prospect simultaneously intrigued and frightened the daylights out of her.

“The bacon didn’t sit well with her,” Josh explained.

“Maybe the baby doesn’t like bacon,” Sophie ventured, then blushed furiously when Nathan returned his attention to her.
What an absurd thing to say. Muzzle, remember?

But Kate just laughed in delight and linked her arm through Sophie’s. “I think you may be right, dear Sophie. Why don’t you come sit with us? There’s ample space.”

“I wouldn’t want to intrude.” Just what she’d envisioned for today—observing Nathan’s courting efforts up close.

“Nonsense.” Kate waved off her resistance “You’re practically family.”

With a sinking stomach, Sophie allowed herself to be led to where the O’Malleys had gathered. As Pauline watched their approach, a tiny crease appeared between her fine brows. Of course, she had a right to wonder what had taken Nathan from her side. Her greeting smile held a hint of bravery, however, and she pulled him into the conversation with his parents with ease.

Sophie held back. Where to sit?

Kate pointed to Nathan’s blanket. “There’s space there, Sophie. We’ve loaded up extra plates of food, so help yourself.”

Reluctantly she lowered herself on his other side, as close to the edge as possible without actually sitting on the grass. Although he was concentrating on Pauline’s words, tension bracketed his mouth. Unlike all the times before when she’d joined the O’Malleys, she now felt like an intruder. An interloper. Oh, this was a nightmare! But she couldn’t very well be rude and abandon Kate after she’d gone out of her way to include her, could she?

Grabbing a plate without taking stock of its contents, she ate quickly, not really tasting any one flavor. It could have been liver and onions, for all she noticed. Conversation swirled around her. Nathan shot her a couple of furtive glances, but he didn’t speak directly to her. As if she wasn’t worth talking to. That hurt.

They were just finishing up their meal when a shadow fell across their legs. Sophie lifted her head and promptly dropped her fork.

April Littleton, looking sweetly feminine in the flowing yellow dress she’d described in the mercantile yesterday, bore a plate between her hands as if it held the Queen of England’s crown. The spiteful gleam in her eyes put Sophie on guard.

“Hello, Sophie.” Her smile smacked of gloating superiority. “Nathan.” She completely ignored Pauline.

“Hi, April.” Nathan set aside his empty plate. “How have you been?”

“I’ve been a busy woman of late, I must admit. I made this dress especially for tonight. What do you think?”

“I, ah...” Clearly not expecting such a question, he scrounged for an appropriate response. Shot Sophie a help-me look, which she ignored. What could she do but wait April out? “It’s very nice.”

April batted her lashes, cherry-red lips widening into a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing smile. “Why, you’re kind to say so. This isn’t all I’ve been busy making, though. This here is a special family recipe—my great-grandmother Bertha’s delicious cinnamon-apple pie. I heard apple was your favorite, so I brought you a slice.”

She extended the plate toward him, which he accepted with a slight nod.

“That’s thoughtful of you, April. Thank you.”

Of course he would be polite. He wouldn’t embarrass
her
by correcting her. It smarted that he had no such reservations when it came to Sophie.

She stared at the plate, feeling slightly queasy. The slice closest to her was the apple. But what was the other one? Was it too much to hope it wasn’t what she suspected it was?

She craned her neck to get a glimpse.

“I also brought you a piece of Sophie’s pie,” April tacked on with an innocent air. “I haven’t tried it yet, but I sure am eager to see what it tastes like, aren’t you?”

Chapter Seven

S
omething told him this already dismal outing was about to get worse. Much worse.

Beside him, Sophie fidgeted with nerves, tugging on the sleeves of her brown shirt, fiddling with the collar. And April’s too-cheerful demeanor rang false. By now, Pauline and his family were watching the exchange with interest.

Shooting Sophie a quizzical glance, he kept his voice low. “I didn’t realize you’d made a pie.”

“It was a spur-of-the-moment decision.”

One she regretted, judging by the way she was gnawing on her bottom lip, dread stalking her eyes. The pulse at the base of her slender throat jumped.

“What are you waiting for?” April’s silken voice prompted.

“Right.”

Dreading this almost as much as Sophie, he sank his fork into the fluffy layers of crust and soft apples and lifted it to his mouth. April hadn’t exaggerated. The blend of sweet fruit and spices melted on his tongue.

“I can understand why your family has held on to this recipe. It’s wonderful.”

Pauline leaned forward. “I like apple, too. I wish you’d brought me one, April.”

A flicker of annoyance dimmed her gloating pleasure, and she shot the blonde a look that suggested she get her own. “Now the rhubarb.”

Sophie inhaled sharply, but he didn’t look at her. Couldn’t.

Best to get this over with as quickly as possible. The pie didn’t look half bad, he mused as he forked a bite. Maybe Sophie would surprise them all.

Then again, maybe not.

The crust tasted doughy as if undercooked, and the rhubarb filling was so tart it made his jaw ache. He fought a grimace as he forced himself to chew quickly and swallow the offensive bite, blinking at the tears smarting his eyes.

“Drink,” he choked out.

Kate slapped her tea jar into his outstretched hand and he drank long and deep. He thanked her and she nodded, a line of concern between her brows.

“It doesn’t appear you enjoyed that very much.” Arms crossed, April wore a smug expression.

Without warning, Sophie leaned close and, snagging the fork from his hand, scooped up a piece for herself. He watched her chew once, her eyes growing big, lashes blinking furiously as she choked. Behind him, his ma made a commiserating sound.

“I don’t understand.” Sophie shook her head in consternation, her thick, shimmering braid sliding over her shoulder. “I followed Ma’s recipe very carefully. I did exactly what it said—”

When she clapped her hand over her mouth, he prompted, “What?”

“There was a smudge.” She spoke without removing her hand, muffling her words. “A water stain, actually, right where she’d written the amount of sugar. So I guessed.”

April’s lip curled. “Don’t you know baking is a science? You can’t guess at it or else you’ll have a disaster on your hands.” Whirling around in a swish of skirts, she marched in the direction of the dessert table, waving her hands to get the attention of those within hearing distance. “Do not eat Sophie Tanner’s rhubarb pie, folks! Not if you want to avoid a terrible stomachache.” Scanning the table, she located the pie and deposited it into the nearest waste bin. People stopped and stared. When Nathan caught the triumphant smirk she shot over her shoulder in their direction, his blood burned white-hot.

There was movement beside him, the air stirring and with it the familiar scent of Sophie—dandelions and sunshine and innocence. He pulled back from his anger long enough to see her hurrying away.

“I’ll go talk to her.” Kate started to get up.

“No, I’ll do it.” He waved her off before getting to his feet. “But first, I’m going to have a word with Miss Littleton.”

“Nathan, wait.” Josh pushed up from the tree and laid a hand on his shoulder. “What’s it going to look like if you go marching over there and yell at her? Look around, brother. Everyone’s watching. I think it would be best if you focus on Sophie right now.”

“She didn’t deserve to be humiliated like that,” he grumbled.

“No, she didn’t,” Josh agreed, questions swirling in his blue eyes as he studied him. “It’s not like you to lose it. What’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

At least, nothing he could confess. Josh was right. Of the three brothers, he was the calm, controlled one. The quiet one. Some would even say shy.

But for weeks now he’d been wrestling with confusing reactions to a girl he’d always viewed as a pal, an unexpected and unwelcome awareness of her that frustrated him to no end. And his ability to contain that frustration was becoming less and less sure.

Josh squeezed his shoulder. “Whatever it is, you know you can talk to me anytime.”

“I know.” Slowly, he unclenched his hands. Took a calming breath. “I’d better go find her.”

He took a single step, then remembered. With an inward wince, he turned back. “I’m sorry, Pauline, but I have to—”

With a tentative smile, she waved him on. “Go. Your friend needs you right now.”

“Thanks for being understanding.”

Feeling slightly guilty for neglecting his date, he started off in search of Sophie, wondering why his life had suddenly become messy. He didn’t do messy. He preferred things clear-cut. Straightforward. No surprises.

The problem was that Sophie was synonymous with unpredictability. She blurred his thinking. Knocked him off-kilter. He didn’t like that.

He used to be able to ignore it or to simply brush her off, but...they weren’t kids anymore. Things had changed without him wanting or expecting them to. And if he was going to reclaim any sense of normalcy, of balance, he was going to have to put some distance between them.

Right after he made certain she was okay.

* * *

He hadn’t gone far when he spotted her boots swinging from a limb.

Of course she’d be up in a tree. It was her favorite place to go when she craved space. Too bad he wasn’t going to give it to her. Not yet.

A fleeting glance was her only acknowledgment of his presence. Her features were tight as she stared straight ahead. No tears for Sophie.

Since they weren’t within eyesight of the church, he grabbed hold of a low-slung branch and proceeded to climb up, settling on a thick limb opposite her. How long had it been since he’d done this? Years?

“I’m not in the mood for a lecture, Nathan. If that’s why you’re here, you can just climb back down and leave me in peace.”

A green, leafy curtain blocked the outside world. His left boot wedged against the trunk and one hand balanced on the branch supporting him, he shook his head. “I’m not here to lecture you. I’m done with that.”

Disbelief skittered across her face. He didn’t blame her for doubting him. He’d made reprimanding her into a profession. “Besides, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

She frowned. “Didn’t I? My pride is the reason I was just humiliated in front of the entire town. I let April’s superior attitude get to me.” A fuzzy black-and-orange caterpillar crawled over her hand, and she touched a gentle finger to it. “I was trying to prove a point. I proved one, all right.”

Nathan hated the defeat in her voice. “It takes guts to try something new.”

She was silent a long time, her attention on the caterpillar in her cupped hands. Her legs slowed their swinging. “Do you remember when we used to play in the treetops? You, me and Caleb?”

“How could I forget?” They’d made up all sorts of adventures for themselves.

Her lips twisted in a wistful sort of smile. “I liked playing pirates most of all. Caleb was the big, bad pirate, I was the damsel in distress and you...” Her eyes speared his as her words trailed off.

“I was always the hero, swooping in to rescue you,” he finished for her, lost in her sapphire eyes full of memories and mystery.

“Yes.” Lowering her gaze, she released the caterpillar onto the branch to go on his merry way. “Sometimes I miss those days.”

Resisting the pull she had over him, he spoke gruffly. “Things change.
We’ve
changed. Don’t you think it’s time you stopped climbing trees, Sophie? Stop living in the past? Put our childhood behind us?”

For a split second he glimpsed the hurt his words—said and unsaid—inflicted. Then she jerked her chin up and glared at him.

“No, I don’t. I like climbing trees, and I don’t see any reason to stop. I’ll probably still be doing it when I’m old and gray. With any luck, you won’t be around to scold me.”

And with that, she hurried down and stormed off. Left him there feeling like an idiot.

* * *

Today was a new day.

Sitting in a church pew with his family listening to the reverend’s opening remarks, Nathan was confident he’d made the right decision. Lounging in that tree long after she’d gone, he’d determined that what he and Sophie needed was some space. As he’d reminded her last night, they weren’t kids anymore. Maybe that was their error—assuming things could stay the same. He feared if they continued in this manner, one of them—more than likely
him
—was bound to say or to do something so damaging, so incredibly hurtful, their friendship wouldn’t survive. He would hate that.

He had to be careful to make his distance seem natural, though. The very last thing he wanted was to hurt her. He would curtail his visits, and if she questioned him he could blame it on his heavy workload. She was busy, too. This would work.

No sooner had the thought firmed in his mind than the rear doors banged open. The reverend faltered, and the congregation turned as one to see who was behind the interruption. When he first saw her, disapproval pulsed through him. Not only was Sophie late, she’d made an entrance no one could ignore.

But then her panicked expression registered, and as she rushed to whisper in Doc’s ear, Nathan grabbed his Bible and, pushing to his feet, hurried down the aisle toward her, his decision forgotten, uncaring what anyone else thought.

Something was wrong with Tobias.

* * *

As much as Nathan’s immediate reaction of censure chafed, Sophie dismissed it. The disturbance couldn’t be helped. Granddad was fading fast, and she didn’t care if she had to interrupt the President of the United States himself if it meant getting help.

Gray hair flittering in the breeze, Doc ushered her outside and down the church steps. “Are you able to ride your horse or would you prefer to ride in my buggy?”

She knew she looked affright, her hair pulled back in a disheveled ponytail and her breathing coming in ragged puffs. “I’ll take my horse.”

With a curt nod, the middle-aged doctor settled his hat on his head and strode for his buggy parked near the church entrance.

“I’m coming with you.”

Sophie jumped at the sound of Nathan’s gravelly voice right behind her. She spun around, ready to tell him not to bother, only to falter at the disquiet darkening his silver eyes to gunmetal gray. He was offering her support. Something she desperately needed right now, even if she was irritated with him.

Admit it, you don’t want to be alone if this truly is the end.

She cleared her throat, barely holding the tears at bay. “Fine.”

Dropping his Stetson on his head, he strode to his horse and, securing his Bible in the saddlebag, mounted up. They rode hard and fast through town and along the country lane leading to her place, arriving right behind the doctor. Will, who’d stayed behind, burst through the door, his small face pinched with fright.

Sliding to the ground, she dropped the reins and grasped his shoulders. “Will?”

“I’m scared, sis,” he whispered, burrowing his face in her middle.

Her chest constricting, she wrapped her arms around his thin frame and held him close. The flimsy piece of string restraining her hair had broken free during the jolting ride and now her hair spilled over her shoulders, shielding her face. Good. Nathan wouldn’t be able to see how close she was to losing it, the grief and fear surely written across her features.

He stood very close to them, almost touching, the strength emanating from his tall frame surrounding them like a tangible force. When she lifted her head, she risked a glance his direction, afraid he’d see through all her flimsy defenses and realize she wasn’t as strong as she pretended to be. That she was, in fact, weak. Vulnerable. Fragile.

However, his eyes were closed and his lips moving. With a start, she realized he was praying. For her and Will and Granddad. While she knew Nathan’s faith was solid and very important to him, he was a private man. She’d heard him pray a handful of times over a meal but this was personal. This was him petitioning God for her sake.

Her heart swelled, her love for this man burrowing so deep that she suspected she’d never be able to uproot it.

Movement in the doorway caught her attention.

“He’s asking for you.”

The finality in Doc’s voice washed over her like a bucket of icy water and, despite the midmorning heat, goose bumps raced along her skin and she shuddered. With an arm around Will, she forced her feet to move, to lead them both inside.

Memories of another death slammed into her. It was as if she was eight again, fear and dread clawing in her chest as she walked into this very room to say goodbye to her ma. To place a kiss against her cool, colorless cheek. Granddad had been right there to hold her, to comfort her.

Why God? Why must I say goodbye? I’m not ready!

They hesitated in the entrance. Will trembled beneath her arm, and she hugged him closer, attempting to instill comfort with her touch.

Tobias’s eyes fluttered open and he lifted a finger. “Come...closer, children.”

Needing to be near him, Sophie eased down on the bed and took his withered hand in hers, clinging with as much pressure as she dared. Will stationed himself beside the bedside table, eyes huge in his face, hands clamped behind his back.

In the back of her mind, she registered Sam and Mary’s voices mingling with those of Doc Owens and Nathan’s in the living room.

“I love you both.” Tobias dragged his gaze from Will’s face to hers. His tired eyes exuded calm assurance. Acceptance. “And I’m proud of you.”

“I love you, too, Granddad,” Will murmured, sniffling.

Tears blurred her vision. Stroking his hand, she leaned down and kissed his sunken cheek. “You know how much I love you. How much I need you. Please, don’t leave us.” Her voice cracked.

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