The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (8 page)

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“What happens if I don’t like your plan? What then?”

“Then we’ll come up with a new one. One you can live with.”

She sagged in her seat, clearly unconvinced.

“I’m going to make you some tea,” he said, going to the stove, “and then I’m going to go home and think this through.” Kettle aloft, he turned and looked at her, tempted to camp out on her doorstep. “Can I trust you to stay here?”

Slowly, begrudgingly, she nodded. “I’ll be here.”

“Good.”

He knew then he’d do just about anything to drive that stark fear from her eyes, to rekindle her inner flame, to make her smile again.

Chapter Ten

H
e’d failed her. All through the night, he’d tossed and turned, prayed and plotted and...nothing. Not one single good idea. No solid plan of action. Not even a hint of one. A situation that had him doubting himself and, if he were honest, just a little depressed. He was supposed to come through for her. He had the rescuer bit down pat, didn’t he?

That he’d failed in this, her most desperate time of need, troubled him deep down in his soul.

He wasn’t ready to wave the white flag of surrender, however. Hope yet lingered. What they needed was more time. Somehow he had to convince Cordelia to give them an extra day or two. Then he’d gather his family members and, together, they’d come up with an answer to Sophie’s problem.

His knock was quickly answered by Will, who didn’t grin or welcome him with his typical eagerness. “Hey, Nathan.”

“Hey.” Moving past him, he summoned a smile for the kid. “Catch any more crawdads recently?”

“Nope.”

Nathan sought out Sophie, who was standing by the kitchen table appearing much more collected this morning, her hair neat and smooth and a hint of color in her cheeks. Her expression, however, was somber as she watched her brother. Picking up a plate laden with glazed round cakes, she offered, “How about you join us for some tea cakes and milk, Will? Mrs. Greene brought them from the café.”

“Maybe later.” He frowned and grabbed his hat off the wall hook. “I’ll be in the barn for a while.”

After he’d gone, Sophie lowered the plate. Sighing, she extended her hand to the chair opposite. “Have a seat. Can I get you milk? Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.”

Lowering himself into the chair, he hooked his hat on the back and pushed a hand through his hair, watching as she filled the kettle and stoked the oven fire, her braid swinging side to side with each twist and turn. She really was a dainty thing. No doubt he could span her waist with his hands. She wasn’t skinny, though. Sturdy and well-made with feminine curves in all the right places.

Stop right there, O’Malley.

Forcing his gaze elsewhere, he wondered why he couldn’t be fascinated by Pauline’s appearance. Or some other acceptable young lady. Why was his mind turning traitor of late? Such a waste of energy.

Sophie Tanner was his polar opposite. If he was what was considered a rule-follower, then she was a rule-bender. He saw the world in black and white; she, a riotous rainbow of color. He preferred the sidelines and she naturally attracted attention wherever she went. While he tended to proceed with caution, she rushed headlong into situations without thinking them through.

It was enough to drive him mad.

By the time she placed two steaming mugs of rich-bodied coffee on the table, he had his thoughts back on track. Sophie smoothed a white cloth napkin in her lap and offered him first pick of the tea cakes. “I hope that studied frown means you’ve come up with a plan.”

He sipped the hot brew, wishing he didn’t have to disappoint her. “Not exactly.”

Her fingers worried the mug’s handle. “What does that mean?”

“We need more time.”

Storm clouds brewed in her eyes. “You don’t have a plan, do you?”

With deep regret, he shook his head. Her reaction was what he’d expected. A growing sense of despondency twisted her features. Her posture dipped.

“What am I going to do?” she whispered through colorless lips.

“We’ll think of something.”
Lord, let it be so.

“But what?” Pushing away from the table, she began to pace. “Cordelia doesn’t exactly strike me as the patient type. What if she refuses to wait?”

“We’ll involve the sheriff. She can’t kidnap your brother. These things take time.”

“She’s wealthy, Nathan. Wealth equals power. I don’t doubt she could take him anytime she likes and get away with it. Like she said, she holds all the cards. A lifetime of care is nothing compared to what she can give him.”

“Do you think she’s the type to forcibly remove him?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

The sorrow haunting her expression tore at him. “Come and sit down, Soph. Let’s figure this out together.”

Surprisingly, she sat without argument. Deflated. Defeated.

He pushed the plate toward her. “Eat. The sugar will do you good.”

Again, she did as he suggested, nibbling on the round cake, seemingly a million miles away.

“Let’s review the facts. Surely if we think this through and look at all the angles, we’ll come up with a solution. Two heads are better than one, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“Your aunt’s main concern is that Will isn’t getting the guidance she thinks he needs. How can we convince her otherwise?”

“Discipline. You forgot discipline.” Her eyes flashed defiantly.

“Okay. Guidance and discipline. Besides from a guardian, namely you, where would a ten-year-old boy get those things?”

“His schoolteacher?”

He nodded. “And the reverend.”

“We could ask them to speak with her.” She brightened, brushing crumbs from her lap. “They could assure her what a good kid he is.”

“Will that be enough?”

“There’s Mr. Moore, the mercantile owner. And your father.”

All good suggestions. Would their assurances sway Cordelia’s opinion?

“I think,” he said slowly, finger tracing the indentions in the wood, “that having a permanent male influence in his life would be the best way to reassure her that Will was receiving steady, hands-on supervision.”

He didn’t mind accepting the responsibility. He and Will already spent a lot of time together. Though it would mean a tighter schedule, he could fit in at least an hour a day with the boy. Or perhaps Will could spend afternoons at his place, helping out around the farm, learning from Nathan, a stand-in father figure.

The more he thought about it, the better it sounded. They’d both benefit. He relaxed against the chair back. At last, a solution.

* * *

“You’re brilliant!” Sophie suddenly exclaimed, an ecstatic smile chasing away her gloom like sunshine after a rainstorm.

His brows met over his nose. He hadn’t shared his conclusions with her. “I am?”

“Why did I ever doubt you?” Shoving upright, she bounded around the table and planted a kiss right on his cheek. “A husband is exactly what I need!”

“A
what?

She playfully batted his shoulder. “Don’t go acting all humble. You’re right, if I marry, she won’t have any objections to him staying with me. And even if she did pursue legal action, a judge would be far less likely to take Will away from two loving guardians. Oh, thank you, Nathan. I could kiss you right now!”

He absently rubbed his tingling cheek. “You already did.”

“Oh, right.” Soft pink color surged. She resumed her pacing, and he could practically see the wheels turning.

Her leap of logic left him reeling. Husband? For Sophie? That wasn’t what he’d meant at all. The thought of her as someone’s wife...well, he just couldn’t fathom it.

“Ah, Sophie—”

“I’m not exactly marriage material, though. The men around here see me as a pal. A buddy, not a potential wife.”

Sidetracked, bothered by this negative view of herself, he responded, “The only reason those men don’t have romantic inclinations toward you is because of the way you dress. If you were to fix yourself up and maybe wear a dress once in a while, I guarantee they’d have their eyes opened real fast.”

She chewed on her lower lip. “You really think so?” she murmured doubtfully.

He could’ve kicked himself.
You’re supposed to be discouraging her from this ridiculous notion of marriage, not stoking the fire.

“I don’t own any dresses, but your cousin Nicole is an excellent seamstress. Maybe she would agree to make some for me in exchange for my services. I could do her chores for a week or maybe she likes sausages?”

“Sophie, wait. I didn’t mean—”

“I know!” She halted midstride. “We’ll make a list of eligible bachelors. A list of decent, upstanding men whom I wouldn’t mind marrying and who might not be averse to marrying me.” Scanning the kitchen, she said, “Now where did I stash my pen and paper?” She snapped her fingers. “Right. Upstairs. I’ll be right back.”

Nathan’s tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Nonplussed, he watched her disappear up the ladder. How could an innocent suggestion blow up in his face? His plan was so much easier. A mentor for Will. And yet here she was making a list—an actual list—of potential husbands.

Typical Sophie. Seize on an idea and run with it without giving it proper consideration. Woe to the unsuspecting males in this town!

When she sat across from him and began her list, he braced his forearms on the edge of the table and clasped his hands. “You misunderstood me.”

His quiet yet forceful words brought her head up, forehead bunched in confusion.

“I wasn’t suggesting you marry. I was actually thinking of taking Will under my wing. You know, spend more time with him here and at my place, teaching him things.”

“Oh.” Her lips puckered. “I thought... My mistake.” Her gaze bounced around the room before finally zeroing in on him once more. Her chin came up. “A husband is a good idea, though. Better than your idea. Spending an extra hour or two with Will isn’t going to be enough.”

“That may be so, but are you certain this is the right choice? This is a life-long commitment you’re talking about. Marriage isn’t something to be taken lightly.”

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like I’m an irrational child.” Hurt flashed in her eyes. “I realize the seriousness of the situation. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be considering hitching myself to some random man. But after Granddad... Let’s just say I’m willing to do almost anything to keep my family intact.”

“I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret. This is big, Soph. Huge. One of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.” He didn’t want to cause her pain, but he had to make her see reason. “You don’t want to end up like your ma, do you?”

She jerked as if slapped. “I will never end up like her. You want to know why?” Slamming her palm flat on the table, she leaned forward, sapphire eyes smoldering. “I’m not afraid to stick up for myself. And for my loved ones. I would never, ever, allow any man to treat me like my pa did her.”

Sighing, he nodded. “I believe you.”
But will you be happy?

Frowning, not entirely satisfied, she returned to her list and began to tick off the candidates. A restless, unsettled feeling lodged in his chest. Every man she named was a man he knew, and it was strange to imagine Sophie with any one of them. He felt as if he was perched on the back of a bucking bull, moments away from being tossed to the ground and trampled.

“What about Tom Leighton?”

“My guess is he’s not ready,” he muttered. “He proposed to Megan last month, and she turned him down, remember?”

She didn’t look up. “Right.”

“I have to go.” He finished off his coffee, unwilling to help her with this wild scheme. While he may have inadvertently pointed her to this conclusion, he couldn’t sit there and assist in a husband hunt.

That got her attention. “Now?”

Scooting his chair back, he smashed his hat onto his head. “I have to get out to the cornfields.”

“Will you come back this afternoon? I’d feel better if you were here to help me explain this to Cordelia.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“I have a good feeling about this plan.” She smiled tentatively. “I know it isn’t exactly what you’d envisioned, but I’m confident it will work.”

Inexplicably cranky, he edged toward the door, eager for escape. “Right. I hope so.”

“I’ll be working on the list.” She waved a hand over the paper. “Hopefully, I’ll have it ready by the time you get back, and you can share your opinion on my choices.”

“Fine. Bye.”

Seizing the reins, he practically vaulted into the saddle, startling Chance. “Sorry about that, boy,” he murmured, patting the horse’s flank. “Let’s get out of here before I lose my mind.”

* * *

Looking refreshed and elegant in an ice-blue outfit, Cordelia sat stiffly in a rocking chair, hands curled around a matching reticule in her lap. She glanced from Sophie to Nathan, seated together on the sofa opposite. “You’re getting married?” she repeated. “I hadn’t realized the two of you were courting.”

Nathan stiffened. The grave expression he’d arrived with darkened into something forbidding.

“You misunderstand, Mrs. Jackson. Sophie and I are friends. We don’t see each other in a romantic light.”

Hearing him voice his feelings in such a final, offhanded manner was like a dagger plunging deep into Sophie’s heart. He didn’t want her. Would never consider putting his name on her list.

When Cordelia’s penetrating gaze rested on Sophie, she schooled her features. No one could know her secret.

“Who, then, are you planning to marry, young lady?”

Nathan answered for her. “There are many single, eligible men in this town. Sophie is considering her options.”

Turning her head, Sophie studied his granitelike profile. Was that a hint of censure in his voice? His silver gaze flashed to hers and then away, but not before she glimpsed...what? Disappointment? In her?

“Let me get this straight.” The grooves in Cordelia’s forehead deepened. “You aren’t currently being courted by anyone. Instead, you’re compiling a list of men you’d like to marry?”

“A husband hunt,” Nathan muttered with a slight shake of his head.

Sophie attempted to rein in her irritation. Whose side was he on, anyway?

Resisting the urge to toy with her braid, she pressed her hands together and addressed her aunt with what she hoped was calm assurance. “Will and I belong together. Here, in our home. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. If that means I must find myself a husband, so be it.”

Admiration flickered, but was quickly squelched. “I admit I don’t know quite what to make of your scheme.” Rising gracefully, crisp skirts rustling against the coffee table, Cordelia crossed to the window and stared out at the sun-washed yard.

Gaudy blue feathers spilling from her hat shivered over her forehead. What was she thinking? Did this place hold any good memories for her? Granddad had told Sophie that her pa, Lester, had taken pleasure in tormenting his younger sister.

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