The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (6 page)

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God, help me. I can’t do this.

“You’ll be fine,” he rasped, “just fine. The Lord’s calling me home, Sophie.” He was quiet a long moment, his lids sliding shut. “I wanna see my Anne.”

Will stood solemnly staring down at him. Sophie held on to Tobias’s hand, her fingers stroking back and forth. The hushed voices in the other room filtered in but she couldn’t make out the conversation. Tobias’s jagged breathing sounded harsh in the stillness.

They remained that way for a long while. Half an hour, at least. Maybe longer. Sophie spent the time praying, her gaze trained on her granddad’s face, memorizing the beloved features. Without warning, his chest stopped rising. His fingers went slack.

“Granddad?” She rested her head on his chest, but there was no heartbeat. “No. No!”

Tears coursed unchecked down her face. She couldn’t breathe. The edge of her vision faded to black. Where was that heart-wrenching wailing coming from?

And then, suddenly, strong arms were lifting her up, cradling her. Murmuring softly, Nathan carried her away. She wasn’t aware of where he was taking her. Eyes shut, she buried her face in his chest and let the tears flow. There was no hiding from him now. And right this minute, it no longer mattered.

Her granddad was gone, and she was all alone in the world.

Chapter Eight

S
ophie gradually became aware of Nathan’s slowed footsteps, of him lowering them both onto a fallen log out of the direct sunlight. The stream was nearby. She couldn’t see it, but she heard the steady rush of water above her heart thwacking against her rib cage.

He held her securely, his arms looped around her waist and his chest solid and warm beneath her cheek.

“I’m sorry, Sophie,” he whispered, his lips brushing the curve of her ear. “So sorry.”

Sniffling, she lifted her head to gaze up at him, belatedly realizing her hands were still clasped behind his neck. She didn’t remove them because she was caught by the sorrow mirrored in his eyes like dense fog cloaking the forest floor.

Granddad had been fond of Nathan, and she knew Nathan had reciprocated the feelings. He was hurting, too.

When a fresh wave of grief washed over her, she didn’t try to mask her emotions. Here and now, in the shelter of his embrace, she felt free to be transparent. “What are Will and I going to do without him?” She sounded raw and broken. “We don’t have anyone left.”

His brows pulled together. Gently smoothing her hair away from her face, he wiped the moisture from her cheeks with a tenderness that stunned her. “You have me. And my parents. My entire family.” His gruff vow lent her an odd sense of comfort. “Whatever you need, we’ll be here for you.”

Watching Sophie’s expressive features, Nathan floundered at the hopelessness brimming in her sad eyes. A fierce swell of protectiveness coursed through him and, more than anything, he wished he could shield her from this hurt.

He smoothed the long golden hair tumbling down her back, his fingers threading through the silken strands. Once again, the smell of dandelions filled his senses, and he had the insane urge to bury his face in the mass. With her hair unbound, her cheeks dewy and eyelashes damp from tears, she was purity and beauty and enticing vulnerability.

This was Sophie Tanner without her barriers, open and accessible to him. A rare and precious gift...a moment he’d cherish for the rest of his days, despite the fact their futures lay down different paths.

She must’ve seen the shift in his expression, the clanging shut of an emotional doorway, for she stiffened in his arms. Her gaze skittering away, she released his neck and popped up, turning her back on him. “I’m sorry for getting your shirt all wet.”

Regret intertwined with relief. Had he so easily forgotten the decision he’d made to gain perspective where she was concerned?

He stood and dislodged the bits of dirt from his pant legs. “It’ll dry soon enough.”

“I should go back.” She straightened her spine and pivoted back. Sunlight sifted through the leaves to make patterns on her navy shirt and set her hair to shimmering like a golden halo. “Will needs me.”

“He’s with my parents right now. Are you sure you don’t want to stay here awhile longer?” He didn’t think seeing Tobias again so soon would help. Better to wait until Doc prepared him for burial.

Her lower lip trembled even as a tiny flame of resolve flickered in her eyes. “I have to be strong for him, Nathan. I remember how I felt after Ma died, and I don’t want him to worry about anything.”

The reappearance of the I-can-do-it-all-by-myself Sophie sparked irrational anger low in his gut. When she made to walk past him, he sidestepped to block her path.

“And what about you?” he blurted, hating that once again she was left to bear the weight of responsibility. “Who’s going to be strong for you?”

“Y-you’ve already offered to help,” she stammered, “but if you’ve changed your mind...”

“I’m not talking about the farm, Sophie.” He gentled his voice. “I’m asking who are you going to allow close enough to share your worries? Your fears? Your dreams? Who are
you
going to depend on?”

She looked as if he’d struck her. “Are you offering to be that person, Nathan?”

He froze. All the reasons why that would be an unwise choice, the risk such an undertaking would pose to their friendship, robbing him of coherent thought.

Her expression shuttered. “I didn’t think so.”

Pushing past him, she jogged along the bank. He watched her go, feeling like an unfeeling cad for upsetting her when all he’d really wanted was to lessen her pain.

* * *

The funeral passed in a blur. A sea of black-clad mourners shed quiet tears, conversed in hushed voices, faces drawn. Somehow Sophie made it through without breaking down as she was tempted to do, the entreaty “Help me, Lord Jesus” an unending refrain in her head. The knowledge that many of these people were praying for her and Will brought her a measure of peace. Still, the ache lodged in her chest refused to budge. Her gruff yet tenderhearted granddad was gone for good.

Try to keep it together a couple more hours, Sophia Lorraine.
The folks mingling outside her cabin, eating the bounty Mary and a number of neighbor ladies had supplied, wouldn’t stay forever.

Despite the crowd and their sincere sympathy, Sophie felt adrift. Alone. Not to mention strangely conspicuous in a frothy black concoction—Kate’s thoughtfulness knew no bounds—that Sophie was certain made her resemble a harried crow. While the bodice and waist fit okay, the skirt was three inches too short and her clunky work boots peeked out from beneath the lace-trimmed hem. She wasn’t sure if the furtive glances sent her way were on account of her loss or the unusual sight of her in a dress.

Pausing on the small square stoop, she searched for Will. Last night—their first without Granddad—had been rough. She’d held him as he’d cried himself to sleep long after his usual bedtime, soothing him when he woke calling for Granddad. She picked at the lacy wrist cuffs. How was he coping with all this?

Her gaze snagged on Nathan. Tall and dashing in an all-black suit that lent him city-flair, he stood with Josh and Kate, as well as barbershop owner Tom Leighton and Gatlinburg’s sheriff, Shane Timmons. He’d hovered nearby ever since yesterday afternoon—she hadn’t allowed herself to relive what had transpired between them—grim and withdrawn and looking like he’d lost his best friend.

Pauline was here, too, but it didn’t appear as if they were together. Not if her frequent, pining glances in his direction were anything to go by. She really was quite beautiful. Her sleek blond hair shined bright and golden beneath the black veiled hat angled on her head, her black shirtwaist and skirt making her appear even taller and more statuesque than usual. Kindness, pure and unadulterated, radiated from her being.

Pauline Johnson wouldn’t be caught dead arm wrestling with a bunch of rowdy men.

Sophie felt as if a dull knife had carved out her insides. This was the type of girl Nathan would admire, one he’d be willing to give up his bachelorhood for. One he deserved.

How long had Nathan harbored an interest in her? she wondered. Her midsection cramped. Was he— Had he decided to get married? And if so, how soon? How would she survive? It was one thing to accept he would never desire her, but to actually witness him pledging his life to another woman...to see them as husband and wife...starting a family...

Nathan shifted his weight and glanced her way, a ripple of regret crossing his face as his gaze intersected hers. Regret for what? Tobias? Their closeness yesterday? Their charged exchange?

The arrival of an unfamiliar carriage diverted her attention.

Nathan immediately separated himself from the group and strode over. “You expecting company?”

“No.”

Conversation fell away as the driver halted the team, jumped down and, swinging open the door, assisted a fashionable lady down the carriage steps.

A well-cut plum ensemble fit her top-heavy figure like a glove and atop her brown curls a riot of black feathers bounced and bobbed with every tilt of her head. An uglier headpiece Sophie had never witnessed. As the newcomer peered haughtily around, the cucumber-thin nose, high cheekbones and pursed mouth nudged Sophie’s memories and she gasped.

“Aunt Cordelia!”

“Your father’s sister?”

“I had no idea she was coming.” What had it been, four or five years since she’d visited?

Shaking herself out of her stupor, Sophie descended the steps and approached, aware that Nathan had stayed behind and foolishly wishing he had accompanied her. Cordelia was an intimidating woman. At least, she had seemed so to Sophie when she was younger.

Cordelia studied her with cool appraisal. “Sophia?”

“Hello, Aunt,” she greeted cautiously, noting the fine lines radiating from her pinched upper lip and the streaks of silver webbed through her dark hair. “I didn’t realize you were planning a visit. I’m afraid you’ve come—”
Too late.
Clearing her throat, she plunged ahead, “Granddad is gone. H-he passed away yesterday afternoon.”

Cordelia’s only response was a further compression of her lips, until they practically disappeared from her face. No surprise there. Sophie hadn’t expected an overt display of emotion. After all, Cordelia had left Gatlinburg shortly after her eighteenth birthday and hadn’t kept in close contact with her father or brother. Nor had she seemed to care about her orphaned niece and nephew. Sophie recalled her aunt’s visit shortly after her ma’s passing, how stern and forbidding she’d been, like a beady-eyed bat in her black mourning clothes. She hadn’t held Will even once.

Where Sophie’s pa had been all fiery temper, Cordelia was as cold as ice.

Twisting slightly, Cordelia addressed the driver awaiting her instructions beside the team. “Wait here for me. I won’t be long.” Returning her steel-blue gaze to Sophie, she stated, “You and I have some things to discuss. Shall we do it here in front of the entire town or in private?”

Things? What things? A sense of foreboding tightened her midsection. “We can go inside.”

Ignoring folks’ expressions of recognition, Cordelia swept across the yard with single-minded purpose. Sophie followed a few paces behind, shaking her head at Nathan’s uplifted brow asking, Do you want me to come with you?
Since she didn’t know what to expect, she’d rather he didn’t witness this.

Thankfully, the handful of people in the living room cleared out as they entered.

“Would you care for a cup of coffee?” Sophie’s quick retreat to the kitchen was hampered by her skirts. The stiff collar scratched the sensitive skin along her collarbone, and the bodice was given to twisting so that she was continually straightening it. What she wouldn’t give for her comfortable pants right about now.

“I’ve reached my quota for the day. We stopped for lunch at the little café on Main Street before coming here. Not a horrible place,” Cordelia allowed, lowering herself onto the worn sofa. Posture ramrod-straight, she let her sharp gaze roam over the cabin’s interior, no doubt finding it lacking.

Too bad, Sophie thought. It was
her
home, and she liked it just fine.

Sophie went to sit on the opposite end of the sofa, hands folded in her lap.

“How was your trip?” She attempted politeness.

“Incredibly long.” She sniffed. “Dusty and with enough bumps I no doubt will be covered in bruises by the morrow.”

“That bad, huh?”

Cordelia angled toward her. “Where is Will?”

The question threw her. “I—I’m not exactly sure. He’s probably with his friends down by the stream.”

One pencil-thin brow lifted. “You should keep better tabs on the boy, Sophia. He should not be allowed to roam freely and do whatever he likes.”

“He’s ten,” she said in defense. “Plenty old enough to be out of my sight.”

“That may be the case here in the wilds, but not in civilized society.”

The wilds where she herself grew up? Sophie bit off a retort.

“Will has a good head on his shoulders. I trust him not to make foolhardy decisions.”

“You will understand why such a reassurance coming from you does not impress me. Do you think I’m unaware of your impulsive, unladylike behavior, Sophia Lorraine Tanner?” Her nostrils flared in distaste. “I may not reside here, but Father kept me abreast of all your exploits.”

Her fingers curled into fists. Where was she going with this?

“Father wrote to me several weeks ago when he first became ill. He was concerned about your future. If something were to happen to him, he asked if I would be willing to do my duty by the two of you.”

Sophie stilled. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I’ve come to take you and Will back to Knoxville to live with me,” she stated with finality, as if they had no say in their future. She flicked a dismissive glance around. “From the looks of things, it shouldn’t take long to pack.”

“Will and I aren’t going anywhere.” Defiance laced with a tiny frisson of anxiety burned her throat. How dare she? “This is our home.”

Just then, the door banged open and thudded off the log wall behind it. She and Cordelia quickly rose to their feet.

“It wasn’t my fault, Sophie! Robbie pushed me first.” A rumpled, sopping wet Will skidded to a stop in front of her, his mouth falling open when he spied their aunt.

Nathan entered behind him, wearing an apologetic expression. “I tried to stop him from interrupting your chat, but he slipped past me.”

Why, oh why, did her brother have to pick today of all days to get into trouble? She braced her hands on her hips. “What happened?”

“We got into an argument. He said something bad about Pa.” Gaze downcast, he scuffed the floor with his shoe. “It made me really mad, so I said something about his pa. He pushed me.”

“They both ended up in the water.” Hands on his hips, the sides of his suit jacket dislodged to show off his impressive physique, Nathan let his gaze slide between the two women.

“See what happens when you allow a child too much freedom?” Cordelia huffed. “Perhaps I was wrong in leaving Father to raise you. Things will have to change once we’ve returned to the city.” She glared at Will. “Fighting will not be tolerated, young man. And you, Sophia, will learn to comport yourself like a lady. I daresay once we’ve smoothed out your rough edges, it won’t take us long to find you a suitable husband.”

Will tugged on Sophie’s sleeve. “What is she talking about?”

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