“Did I now?” Hughes Barratt took a closer look at the little rabbit in front of him. She had the clear look of her nieces, but the hair was a honey brown. She was older than his gaggle of pretty little daughters-in-law, for sure. But she wasn’t much past thirty. Finley’s widowed sister, then. He’d made a point of learning exactly who was at that usurper’s place before he’d put his plan into action. Finley had had no business making that shady deal with Hughes’ brother-in-law.
That property had been meant for his eldest son Turner. Not some Northerner with twelve females and an invalid sister to take care of.
Twelve, plus this woman who didn’t look so invalid to him. He could almost feel sorry for the poor bastard. Way Hughes looked at it, he’d done the man a favor taking four of the girls off his hands.
With the looks of this little female—and she was definitely little, at slightly less than five feet, he guessed, maybe a hundred pounds on a good meal day—Finley would be losing her and her four brats soon. Woman like her, with that sweet face, soft looking mouth and all those curls, she wouldn’t stay unmarried around here for long.
Another reason he’d moved quickly on Finley’s daughters.
Women were outnumbered around here eight to one.
If a man was in search of a wife, he had to act quick when he found one. Before she was snapped up right out from underneath his nose.
Pretty little female in front of him, her days were numbered for sure. ‘Course, rumor had it she came with four young’uns. That could make a man think twice. Four extra mouths to feed would be quite a lot for most of the ranches around here. His excluded, of course.
“My nieces, Mr. Barratt?”
“They’ll be down in a bit. I had the cook prepare a nice breakfast for them. Well, at least the three that are still here.”
“Three?” Her look of horror and fear insulted him. Hughes stepped closer, just to intimidate. Did she think his boys were monsters, then? They’d wanted wives. Barratt men treated their wives like goddesses. Everyone in these parts knew that. “Who? Which one? Where is she?”
“Relax yourself. Turner took his little redheaded spitfire up to his own place. It’s where he lives, after all. I expect his brothers will be doing the same once they finish getting their places built.”
“Jessi? Oh dear heaven. She must be so frightened.” Tears were in the blue eyes that looked up at him. “How do I get up there to her?”
“Now wait just a damned minute. You aren’t going to just go walking up there. Its five miles north of here. Top edge of the property, by the creek. But there are rattlers and scorpions and all sorts of trouble. You’ll see your niece when my boy sees fit to let you.”
The tears she couldn’t hold back just pissed him off. Hughes wrapped his hands around her arms and yanked her to him.
He froze when she cried out…in pain.
Footsteps came running in to the kitchen as Mr. Barratt set her back down. Jude rubbed the arm that she could barely use and looked toward the back of the kitchen.
Thank heavens. “Izzy!”
“Aunt Jude!” Her third eldest niece ran to her. Jude wrapped her good arm around her. “I heard you yell. Did he hurt you? They’re all ogres here! Can we go home now?”
Oh, how she wished she could say yes. It was obvious that Izzy wasn’t happy. Her niece was happiest outside with her gardens and her animals than inside dealing with people. She was a quiet, sweet, loving young girl who hadn’t deserved to be carted away from her father over some stranger’s saddle.
A tall man in his mid-twenties followed her into the kitchen. He watched her closely, like he was expecting trouble out of Izzy. Who’d not been a moment of trouble her entire life.
An ogre? Dear Heavens, what had he done to her? Her niece still wore the dress she’d had on when the men had shown up. Her hair had been brushed. There were no marks on her that Jude could see.
But that didn’t mean much. He could have hurt her niece in so many other ways. “Where’re your sisters? Did they hurt you?”
“We heard you yell,” Izzy’s twin Emmaline came up behind her. The slightly younger twin glared at all the men surrounding them, including the one who’d come down the stairs behind her. “How did you get here? Does Dad know you’re here? What about the children? That one took Jessi away.”
Jude brushed a hand over Emmy’s cheek. “I…I came to check on your girls.”
“Dad doesn’t know, then. Does he?”
Jude shook her head. “I just…I had to see you girls for myself. Make sure…I know how frightened you all must have been.”
Emmy and Izzy were in her arms again in an instant.