The Husband Hunt (Smoky Mountain Matches) (9 page)

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“I believe the right male influence would do you both good,” she said at last. Pivoting, she clasped her gloved hands at her waist. “However, the pool of potential husbands here must surely be limited to lonely, uneducated farmers or widowers with babies who want you for a substitute mother. In Knoxville, you can have your pick of men who would set you up in high style. Lawyers. Doctors. Business owners. With a good education, Will could go far in life. Why won’t you at least consider it?”

Cordelia’s frank curiosity, the absence of dictatorial attitude, caught her by surprise. For the first time since her aunt’s arrival twenty-four hours ago, Sophie thought beyond her current predicament and wondered what was driving the other woman. Why would she bother with them? Was it simply to exercise her authority or something else altogether?

Twisting slightly in her seat, she met her aunt’s steady appraisal. “I do appreciate your willingness to aid us, Aunt, but this is the only home we’ve ever known. We don’t need prestigious schools or clothes or well-to-do friends to make us happy. Simple pleasures are enough for us. This is the life we want.”

“I think you’re being stubborn,” she retorted, staring down her nose. “And foolish.”

“I’m being honest.”

Nathan unfolded his tall frame, his tanned hands curved at his sides and his turbulent gaze trained on her as he addressed her aunt. “Sophie doesn’t have a shallow bone in her body. She knows what’s truly important in life, things like family and friendship and a personal relationship with God. I’ve never met a more hardworking, tenderhearted person. Tobias was very proud of the young woman she’s become. I know because he told me shortly before he died.”

Sophie’s breath caught in her chest, her heart melting like butter in a frying pan at the unexpected praise. She closed her eyes to ward off tears.
Oh, Granddad. I wish you were here. I wish I could hug you one more time. Tell you I love you.

Cordelia’s boots clicked against the floorboards.

Opening her eyes, Sophie saw the older woman motioning for Nathan to resume his seat. “Sit down, young man. There’s no need to get feisty.”

Her expression assessing, she studied them in a way that made Sophie uncomfortable. What was going on behind that eaglelike gaze?

When she had their attention once more, Cordelia said, “Have you given any thought to how long it will take to find a suitable husband? You should know I’m not willing to stay here indefinitely. We need a time limit. Three weeks should be plenty.”

“Three weeks?” Sophie gaped.

“That’s unreasonable.” Nathan ran a weary hand down his face.

“I’ll give you a month, no more. Though what I’m going to find to fill the time, I’ve no idea.” Cordelia hefted a sigh and rolled her eyes.

“One month.” She was expected to find a husband that quickly? Panic roiled through her stomach. What if none of the men on her list agreed to marry her?

“If you haven’t managed to snag a husband by then, Sophia Tanner, your brother will be returning to Knoxville with me. Do you understand?”

“Unfortunately, I understand quite clearly.”

She understood too well that she no longer had any control over her own life. A week ago, her biggest problems had been convincing Will to wear shoes outdoors and building a new henhouse. Now she was being forced to find a husband—not the husband she’d dared to let herself dream about but someone else altogether.

And while she could take another man’s name and pledge to honor him the rest of her life, how in the world was she going to convince her heart to stop loving Nathan?

Chapter Eleven

N
athan didn’t normally attend singles’ shindigs. Without parental supervision, the girls were bolder than usual—a situation that didn’t bother most guys in the slightest—and the games were silly. All too often the losers were expected to pay a forfeit. Something embarrassing such as reciting a poem or singing a solo. Not his style.

He wasn’t in the market for a wife, nor was he the type to enjoy a shallow flirtation, so why bother coming? He’d have more fun camped out on his front porch whittling or playing checkers with his pa.

And yet here he was, stationed beside the fireplace in his cousin Megan’s parlor sipping stout make-your-eyes-water lemonade and trying to avoid Amberly Catron’s flirtatious gaze.

The moment he’d stepped through the door, she’d rushed up and invited him to walk the gardens with her; an invitation he’d declined with as much finesse as he could muster. A romantic, moonlit stroll through isolated gardens with a girl who had obvious designs on him would not be in his best interest, he was certain.

He shifted his stance to glance at Sophie, taking perverse pleasure in the way her lips pursed after a sip of lemonade. It was only fair she suffer along with him. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.”

She leaned in close, bringing with her the fresh, appealing scent that put him in mind of spring meadows in full bloom. “I need your input on my list of choices because you know these men better than I do. I trust your judgment.”

Light from the chandelier candles above highlighted the golden streaks in her sleek blond hair. The memory of holding her in his arms resurfaced, reminding him of how wonderful it had felt to hold her. With her glorious hair framing her face, her delicate beauty had stunned him into speechlessness.

“After all—” her brow puckered “—I’ll have to live with the man for the rest of my life.”

Nathan tore his gaze from her to glare down at his boots.
Forget what happened. She was in need of comfort and you gave her that. You’re here to help her choose a husband.

Firming his resolve, he observed the game participants with her list in mind. Seated in front of a white sheet suspended from the ceiling, a man attempted to guess the identity of each person’s shadow as they passed behind it. Landon Greene.

“Take Landon off the list.” A hefty dose of charm and wit hid what Nathan knew to be a bullying, mean-spirited heart.

Sophie’s curious gaze fell on the arrogant blond. “Why? He’s well-liked. Funny. And from all accounts, a hard worker. His family’s farm is productive and the animals are well cared for.”

Reluctant to go into details, he speared her with a look. “I thought you said you trusted me.”

Her brows lifted. “I do, but—”

“I’m here to help you, aren’t I? How about Frank Walters?” He indicated the short, nondescript man trying to blend into the wallpaper. Although reserved, he was an intelligent, prudent man. And Nathan was confident he would treat Sophie well. If he was expected to play a part in this mad scheme, he would make certain she chose wisely.

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know.”

“You put him on the list, didn’t you?”

Running a finger inside the collar of her forest-green shirt, she hedged, “Now that I think about it, I can’t really picture myself with him. He’s nice and all, but he’s not exactly the type to inspire romantic notions.”

Romantic notions?
“Since when do you care about that?”

Sophie and romance didn’t belong in the same sentence. She wasn’t anything like his cousins, who fussed over their hair and clothes and sighed over popular romance heroes. His friend didn’t concern herself with such things.

She averted her face to set her unfinished lemonade on a side table. Slipping her hands into her pants’ pockets, she observed the room’s occupants.

“You know what I mean,” she remarked with studied carelessness. “There are some people you can see yourself with in a romantic relationship, while others simply don’t appeal to you in that way.”

“I suppose.”

She angled toward him. “Does Pauline appeal to you in that way?”

The question stumped him, as did the husky note of vulnerability in her voice. “Pauline and I are friends,” he grumbled with finality. He was not about to discuss this with her.

“Only friends? You don’t have more serious intentions?” Her sapphire orbs glittered with an odd light. “Because as far as I can tell, she’s perfect for you.”

Why such a statement should irk him, he had no idea. A dull throb set up behind his eyes. “We’re here to focus on your love life, not mine.”

The gathering erupted into high-pitched whistles and clapping. April emerged from behind the sheet looking like a cat with a bowl of cream. Landon, who must’ve finally guessed correctly, surged out of his seat and received a fair share of hearty claps on the back.

“What forfeit shall he pay?” someone demanded.

Wearing a smug smile, Landon raised his hands to curtail the suggestions. “Since I’m the one who made the right guess, I should name the forfeit.” Holding out his arm, he wiggled his eyebrows. “How about a stroll in the gardens, Miss Littleton?”

“I’d love to.” Eyelashes fluttering, she placed her hand on his arm and, together, the pair made their way to the exit amid suggestive laughter.

Nathan scowled. Surely Sophie didn’t think Landon romantic?

* * *

Sophie tracked Landon and April’s progress until they disappeared into the hallway, his blond-haired perfection set off by her dark hair and olive skin. They looked entirely too chummy for her peace of mind. Perhaps Nathan was right to ask—make that demand—that she remove the gentleman’s name from her list. There was a self-important air about him, a look in his gorgeous eyes that led her to believe he was very aware of his attributes and how he affected women.

Still, it annoyed her that Nathan refused to explain himself, instead expected her to follow his directions without question.

Spying his identical twin cousins, Jessica and Jane, in the arched doorway, she decided to let it slide for the time being.

Nearly sixteen, the girls were lovely in both appearance and manner, their auburn hair similar to oldest sister Juliana’s and blue eyes the same shape and hue as Megan’s, the second eldest. Sophie and the girls were somewhat close in age, and the twins had occupied the seats in front of her and Kenny at school. They’d been unfailingly kind to her. Since completing her final term a year ago this past spring, she’d missed visiting with them. Oh, she saw them at church every weekend and occasionally at Nathan’s place, but it wasn’t the same.

Jessica, the more outgoing and spontaneous of the two, spotted them and waved, her heart-shaped face radiating her excitement. She nudged her sister and nodded in their direction. Jane’s reaction was more reserved but no less sincere, her smile widening in genuine pleasure.

“The twins are here,” she told Nathan, who was staring into his drink as if it held the answers to all his problems.

His brows lowered. “Aren’t they a little young for this sort of thing?”

“Their birthday is in two weeks,” she pointed out. “Besides, it appears your aunt Alice approved or they wouldn’t have come.”

As they made their way across the polished wood floor, their upswept curls shone coppery in the candlelight. Jessica wore a scoop-necked, sea-blue shirtwaist with cap sleeves and dainty silk bows adorning the skirt’s hemline. Jane had chosen a more simple look—a holly-green, short-sleeved dress with a single row of pearl buttons on the bodice. The O’Malley girls were always dressed to impress due to middle sister Nicole’s talent with a needle and thread.

Sophie became ultra-aware of her appearance, feeling drab and unattractive in her black pants and unadorned button-down shirt, the unsophisticated style of her hair and her lack of polish. How could she hope to snag any man’s attention? Even if she was able to choose an acceptable candidate, what was the likelihood the man in question would be interested? Serious doubts wormed their way into her mind, doubts that she could pull this off, that she could keep Will with her.

She must have made some sort of noise, because Nathan’s warm fingers grazed her elbow. “Soph?” His intent gaze probed hers.

“I’m fine.” She drummed up a smile for her friends. “Hey, girls, I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Jessica gave her a quick hug. “We convinced Mama to let us come with Nicole.” She motioned over her shoulder to their raven-haired sister staring moodily around, elegant in all black and easily the most beautiful girl in attendance. Her sourpuss attitude marred her features, however.

Jane took Sophie’s hands in hers, expressive eyes brimming with compassion. “How are you holding up?”

Sophie fought the sorrow that reared up, the empty hole her granddad’s passing had created threatening to swallow her whole. “I’m okay.” That wasn’t the case, of course, but she wasn’t about to risk a meltdown here in front of everyone.

Nathan frowned.

She looked away, unable to bear his concern.

“Have you heard from Megan recently?” Sophie’s voice was thick as she sought to change the subject. “How are she and Lucian enjoying their wedding trip?”

“We received a letter just the other day,” Jane said, smiling gently, “and she wrote that they are enjoying their time in New Orleans so much that they are extending their stay another week.”

“I’m glad. It’s generous of them to allow us to use their house while they’re away.”

The stately yellow Victorian had belonged to Lucian Beaumont’s late grandfather, Charles Newman, who, along with Megan, had opened it up for the community’s use. Every Friday afternoon, Megan hosted story time for the local children. And once a month people met here for poetry night, musical recitals and plays. Fred and Madge Calhoun were in charge of the property until the couple returned home.

“Time for Blind Man’s Bluff.” Tanner Norton waved a bunch of white strips above his head. “Who’s in?”

“I thought only one person played the role of the blind man,” Jessica commented.

Sophie rolled her eyes. “Tanner is forever changing up the rules. Says it makes things more interesting.”

As he passed out the blindfolds, the twins voiced their interest. “Let’s play.”

While Sophie didn’t normally mind joining in the games—they were harmless fun—tonight she had an agenda. “I don’t think so.”

Jessica linked her arm through Sophie’s. “You have to play! This is our first time at a single’s party and we want to have fun.”

Oh, what harm could one game do? “All right.”

“Wonderful. Tanner, over here!” Extending her hand, Jessica caught his attention and snagged three strips, handing one to her sister and one to Sophie.

Jane looked at Nathan. “You’re playing, too, right?”

Leaning against the wall, arms folded across his chest, corded forearms visible beneath the rolled-up sleeves, he surveyed the proceedings with indifference. “No, thanks,” he drawled. “You girls go ahead. I’ll watch.”

“You aren’t intimidated by an innocent little game, are you?” Sophie couldn’t help prodding him, irritated when he refused to loosen up and try new things.

He turned those intense silver eyes on her and she felt their searing heat to the tips of her toes. Boy, was he in a mood tonight. A mood that had started, if she recalled correctly, the day she’d come up with the marriage idea. What she wouldn’t give to get inside that complicated brain of his to see for herself what he was thinking!

“Intimidated? No. Bored out of my mind is more like it.”

Tanner stood in the center of the room and made a slow circle. “Everyone split up and put on your blindfolds.”

The twins moved away to stand beside the refreshment table before putting theirs on. With a shrug, Sophie tied the cloth around her eyes. Folded into layers, the material completely masked her vision.

“You all know the drill,” Tanner said. “When you bump into someone, try to guess their identity. The first one to guess correctly gets to remove their blindfold. The other person must move on and continue playing. The last person left wearing their blindfold is the loser.

“Ready? Hold up. Nathan, I’m the only one who gets to be without a blindfold as I’m the overseer. You either play the game or leave the room.”

Quiet filled the space. Then Sophie felt the air stirring as he passed her, his spicy aftershave teasing her nose. His boots thudded on the hardwood floor as he left. Disappointment rattled through her. Why couldn’t he at least give it a try? He deserved a little fun now and then. A little laughter.

Tanner gave the signal to start and immediately the quiet gave way to muted laughter. Putting her hands out in front of her, she trudged along so that she wouldn’t trip and crash into someone or something.

The first person she encountered was definitely a female, one who smelled of vanilla and cinnamon and whose hair was coarse and straight. But who was it? As she moved around the room, she realized she was at a disadvantage because of her braided hair.

The chuckles and conversation increased in volume as more and more people unmasked. Sophie got the sinking feeling that she was the last one in the game. Then male hands curved around her upper arms and her mind went blank.

Unlike the other guys who’d guessed her identity, this one’s touch was confident and sure. She got a sense of his towering height, the muscular bulk of his torso blocking the light and the slow-burning heat his body emitted. Slowly, his hands moved upward, lightly skimming her shoulders until they encountered her neck. The slide of his work-roughened fingers against her sensitive skin discharged sparks along her nerve endings from shoulders to fingertips. Her ears tingled. Her stomach flip-flopped.

Only one man’s nearness had ever affected her this way.

She whipped off her mask without a word, forcing his hands to drop. “I thought you weren’t playing,” she accused.

The sight of Nathan in the blindfold, his lean face partially obscured and the muscle jumping in his square jaw screaming his discomfiture, squeezed her heart. He looked miserable. And...vulnerable. He really did hate to be the center of attention.

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