The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (7 page)

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Nathan dropped his hands and scowled. “What’s going on, Sophie?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but Cordelia answered for her.

“Simple. Sophia and Will are moving to Knoxville.”

Chapter Nine

“I
won’t go!” Will backed toward the door, a trail of water in his wake. “You can’t make me!”

“Will—” Sophie reached out to him, but he dashed through the open door before she could utter another word. Aching for her brother, she rounded on the other woman. “How dare you waltz in here today of all days and upset him further? If you knew anything about raising children, you’d know not to dump news like that on an unsuspecting child.” She didn’t realize she was trembling until Nathan, standing behind her, settled comforting hands on her shoulders in silent support, lightly kneading her rigid muscles. “And let’s get something straight right here and now—this is our home. We have no intention of ever leaving it. You’ve wasted your time.”

A fine film of frost glossed Cordelia’s blue eyes. “I disagree.” She tilted her head at a condescending angle, the obnoxious black feathers bobbing above one brow. “This has given me an opportunity to see my father was right in contacting me. You’ve reached the age of maturity, which means I can’t force you to come with me. However, Will has many more formative years ahead of him, and it’s perfectly clear he needs discipline and guidance that you are either unwilling or unable to provide. Stay here if you wish, Sophia, but Will is coming with me.”

“He’s
my
brother!” Outrage pulsing through her veins, Sophie jammed a thumb against her chest. “I’ve been taking care of him since he was a baby. You can’t take him away from me.”

Cordelia didn’t flinch in the face of her outburst. “Think about it. What judge is going to award guardianship to you instead of me? I’m comfortably settled in a fine house with the funds to see to his every need. He’ll go to a well-appointed school with boys his own age where he’ll learn proper manners as well as how to curb the cursed Tanner wild streak.”

Sophie’s stomach dropped to her toes. Cordelia was right. No judge would ever choose her—an eighteen-year-old struggling to make ends meet—over someone like her aunt. Cordelia’s husband, Lawrence Jackson, had been a state representative and the two of them had been well-connected, well-liked fixtures in Knoxville society. Upon his death three years earlier, he’d left a small fortune to his wife.

Sophie couldn’t compete with that.

Behind her, Nathan shifted, bringing his enveloping heat closer. His chest brushed against her back. His fingers stopped their kneading, but he didn’t relinquish his hold on her. Sophie relished the sense of solidarity the connection gave her.

“Now is not the time for such a weighty discussion.” He leveled his words at her aunt. “We’re all attempting to deal with Tobias’s death. Emotions are running high, and we’re exhausted. I think it would be best if we postpone it until a later time.”

“Who are you?” Cordelia looked stunned he would interfere.

“I’m Nathan O’Malley, Sophie’s neighbor and good friend.” He leaned forward and extended one hand, which she reluctantly shook. “My family and I watch out for her and Will.”

The older woman studied him, apparently heeding the undercurrent of warning in his voice.

“Fine. Since Gatlinburg still doesn’t have a hotel to speak of, I’m going to let a room from the Lamberts. I will give you until tomorrow afternoon to think on what I’ve said, but I won’t postpone my return much longer than that, so be prepared to give me your decision. You can come with us or remain here alone. It’s up to you.”

The door snapped shut and, for a moment, neither spoke. Then Sophie spun in his arms, clutched at his shirtfront. “Nathan, what am I going to do?” She stared up at him, willing him to make this nightmare disappear. “I can’t lose him. I can’t.”

Losing Granddad had carved deep fissures in her lonely heart. Losing Will would break it clean in two. What kind of life could she have here without him?

He covered her hands with his own. “You’re not going to lose him.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Will belongs with you.” His noble features radiated a confidence she didn’t share. “Once everyone’s had a good rest and a chance to clear their heads, we’ll talk to her. I’m certain we can make her see reason.”

Panic spiraled upward. “And what if we can’t? What if—”

“Sophie.” He ducked down so that they were eye level, his gaze blazing into hers. “I’m not going to let her take Will, I promise.”

There was a rap on the door. Josh poked his head in. “Most everyone is heading home.”

Releasing her, Nathan swiveled to face his brother.

Josh walked in, nervously fingering his goatee, his gaze bouncing between them. “Is everything all right?”

“I don’t mind if you tell him,” she told Nathan, suddenly needing to find Will, to hold him tight. “I’m going to go talk to my brother.”

She was on the stoop when Nathan called out, “It will be okay, Soph.”

Glancing back over her shoulder at him, so grave with purpose, she nodded. But deep down, she wasn’t sure she believed him.

* * *

Sophie found Will perched on a flat rock, chin resting on his knees pulled up to his chest, staring morosely at the water coursing past. His damp hair spilled onto his forehead, nearly obscuring his eyes. So sad. And lonely. Her heart twisted with regret.

God, why is this happening? Why did You take Granddad? We needed him, Father. And now Aunt Cordelia is threatening to tear us apart.

Jumping up at her approach, he jutted his chin in a familiar display of stubbornness. “I won’t go with her. You can’t make me. I’ll run away if you try.” Beneath the defiance lurked a desperation that matched her own.

Run away? “Will, I don’t want you to go anywhere without me,” she exclaimed. “No matter what happens, you and I will be together. I promise you that.” A promise she would move heaven and earth to keep.

“But Aunt Cordelia said...” He faltered, clearly confused.

“We’ve agreed to table the discussion until later. She’s tired from traveling and we...well, we’ve had a rough few days.”

He dropped his arms to his sides. “I don’t want to leave my friends or the O’Malleys. You’re going to make sure we stay here, aren’t you?”

Staying together? Definitely. Staying
here?
She wasn’t so sure about that.

A seed of an idea sprouted in her mind.

“Sophie?”

She brushed the hair out of his eyes. “Leave everything to me, okay? You don’t have to worry about a thing.”

* * *

At the sight of his younger brother perched on a stool milking Bessie, Nathan stopped short and balanced a hand against the wooden stall post.

“When did you get home?”

Caleb hitched a shoulder without turning around or halting the rhythmic movement of his hands. “Not long ago. Where is everybody?”

“You’d know the answer to that if you stuck around any length of time,” he snapped, not in the mood to coddle him. Sophie’s problems weighed heavily on his mind. He’d waited around until everyone had left, thinking she’d return with Will. She hadn’t. And with suppertime fast approaching, he’d had to come home to tend his cows.

Caleb shot a dark look over his shoulder.

Nathan huffed a weary breath. “Tobias passed away yesterday afternoon. The funeral was today.”

Caleb’s hands stilled. Shifting slightly, he pulled his lips into a frown. “How is Sophie?”

Nathan pushed off the post. “Again, something you’d know if you’d been around.” Irate now, he stalked to the corner and washed his hands, filled a pail with clean water and settled himself in the stall opposite Caleb’s. After washing Star’s utters, he attempted to lose the tension cramping his back and shoulders. He didn’t want it transferring to the cow.

“Nathan?” Caleb growled.

“How do you think she’s doing? She just lost her grandfather.” And to add insult to injury, she was dealing with a tyrannical aunt bent on wreaking havoc.

“What’s gotten into you?” his brother demanded.

Jolting to his feet, he ignored the tipped stool and Star moving restlessly behind him. “I’m tired of shouldering your share of the weight around here. Of seeing Ma’s disappointment when you don’t show for yet another supper and Pa’s unease when you don’t come home for days on end. Josh and Kate are expecting a baby. You’re going to be an uncle for the first time.” He glared at Caleb, who was standing with boots braced apart in the straw, fists clenched and knuckles white. “What if something happened while you were gone and we had no way to reach you? How would you feel if you came home and discovered one of us had been hurt or worse?”

He blanched. “That’s why I stay away,” Caleb stormed. “To protect you all from my carelessness. To prevent any more accidents.”

Nathan stared. Accidents. He was referring to the accident that had scarred him and nearly cost his best friend his life. And the more recent one last fall. The wagon he’d been driving had overturned during a thunderstorm, and their ma had suffered a broken leg. Apparently he still blamed himself.

“You honestly think you can protect us, keep us safe, by keeping your distance? You’re not God, Caleb.”


I
did this.” He sneered, jabbing a finger to the jagged lines near his eye. “Because I was irresponsible and cocky. Adam almost died because of me.”

“But he didn’t. And you didn’t. Because God deemed it so. He’s the one who has the ultimate say in our lives.”

He shook his head, his shaggy black hair scraping his shirt collar. “You don’t get it.”

Crossing the center aisle into the stall, he stuck his face near Caleb’s. “No,
you
don’t get it. Sophie needs me right now, and I aim to be there for her. In order to do that, I need for you to stick around and help out around here. Got it?”

His younger brother’s heavy lids flared at this uncharacteristic display, the loss of control. “Fine. I’ll stick close to home until things settle down.”

It wasn’t exactly the response he’d been looking for, but it was enough. For now.

“Good.”

Shoving his hands through his hair, he returned to his stool and sat down hard.

Focus, O’Malley. Sophie and Will need you to be cool and levelheaded. Calm. Controlled. Acting rashly will not solve this mess.

He’d promised to make things right. Disappointing her was not an option.

* * *

As soon as the cows were milked, Nathan returned to Sophie’s to check on her. He couldn’t stop thinking about the moment Tobias died. Her gut-wrenching cries. The sorrow draining the light right out of her. He couldn’t forget how he hadn’t hesitated, hadn’t even blinked before going to her, taking her in his arms and comforting her and the overwhelming protectiveness he’d felt. Still felt.

It was what was propelling him back there.

Sophie and Will were alone in that cabin, surrounded by painful reminders and facing an uncertain future. He owed it to her—as her friend and neighbor—to help in any way possible.

Dismounting Chance, he let the reins drop to the ground. The cabin door stood slightly ajar, and through the opening he witnessed a blur of movement. He placed a flat palm on the wood and eased it back.

“Sophie?”

Looking harried, she whirled from her spot in the kitchen, her eyes a touch wild. Like a deer sensing a predator.

“Wh-what are you doing here?”

He took in the half-packed saddlebag open on the sofa and the dislodged dishes on the shelf above the stove. His gut clenched.

Removing his hat, he advanced into the room and lobbed it onto the scarred tabletop. Settling his hands on his hips, he surveyed her men’s apparel. The odd-fitting black dress had been exchanged for her usual attire—dark pants, dark shirt and boots.

“Going somewhere?”

Hand trembling, she smoothed errant wisps away from her face.

Crooking his finger, he gently lifted her chin so that she had to look him in the eyes. “Hey, you can be straight with me.”

She swallowed hard. “We’re leaving town.”

It was as he’d suspected. Frustrated with the situation and her utter lack of forethought, he let his hand fall to his side. “You’re running away.”

Her eyes pleaded with him to understand her point of view. “It’s the only option. I won’t let her take Will. And we’re not going to Knoxville. Neither of us would be happy living with her.”

He blew out a breath.
Be calm.
Remember her loss, the panic that’s clouding her thinking.
“Where will you go? Where will you live? It takes money to start over.”

And they both knew she didn’t have those kinds of resources.

Disquiet pulled her pale brows together. He pressed his case. “You don’t want to end up lost in these mountains without shelter or food or protection. That wouldn’t be doing what’s best for Will.”

She wrung her hands. “What do you expect me to do? Sit back and let her ruin our lives?”

“Of course not,” he soothed, that protective instinct surging to the surface, obscuring the dawning horror the idea of her and her brother traipsing unprotected through the countryside spawned. Taking her shoulders, he guided her to sit in one of the hard-backed chairs situated around the table and then set the water to boil.

He sat across from her. “What we need is a solid plan of action. A practical solution that will allow you to stay while satisfying your aunt at the same time.”

Doubt tugged her mouth into a frown. “Like what?”

He fisted his hands to prevent them from reaching over and covering hers, small and tight with tension. Gone was her usual confidence, the sparkle of determination in her big eyes. Tobias’s death and her aunt’s threats had stolen her inner fire. She appeared as fragile as fine china, easily breakable, with shadows beneath her eyes and her skin ashen.

“I don’t know yet,” he admitted. “But I’m certain if we take our time and examine the situation from all angles, we can come up with something foolproof.”

“Staying here is risky.”

“Riskier than running off?”

Although it didn’t seem possible, she went paler.

Leaning forward, he gave in to the urge to touch her, taking her hands in his and stroking the petal-soft skin with his thumbs. “Give me some time to come up with a plan. At least until tomorrow morning.”

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