Jude called herself six kinds of fool as she hiked over the road that led between her brother’s new place—she let out a wild hysterical laugh at that—and that man’s. That monster’s.
What kind of man showed up at a person’s home and dragged off four young women as wives for his sons, with no thought to those girls’ welfare at all?
A monster. That’s what kind. One who thought he owned the world because he owned a small part of Texas. He was no better than Justice Watkins over in their old home near the Louisiana border. She shuddered thinking of what that bastard had intended for Jude.
Remembering what his oldest two sons had done to her and Jessi and Jami. What the rest of his sons had done to her family, especially her oldest six nieces?
Finley Creek was the only choice their family had for safety. Their hope.
She knew why the girls had agreed to what that monster Barratt had demanded. And she could name all eight reasons.
The four older girls had sacrificed their own futures to protect those of their sisters and cousins. Because they’d known what wealthy powerful men were capable of out in this part of the world. Known how helpless their family actually was.
Jacob had told her to leave it alone for a few weeks. To let the girls settle in to their new lives. That what was done, was done, and they would all have to make the best of it for a little while. Until he figured out another answer. But Jude had seen the desolation in her brother’s eyes at the loss of his four eldest daughters.
Especially Jessi. Jessi, who helped her father with everything, who’d taken it upon her small self to learn to run the ranch as well as any son could have. Jessi and Emmy helped their father with all the hard work involved in running a small spread like Finley Creek.
Jude shivered again as she remembered the terrifyingly hard face of the man who’d walked right up and yanked the hat off of Jessi’s head, exposing her red curls to everyone. Letting his father and brothers know that the boy they thought stood at Jacob’s side was in fact a remarkably beautiful young woman.
How had he known? Jessi always wore her hair up and had been binding her breasts for two years now. She’d looked like a boy of no more than ten, and she did it on purpose. Jessi never wanted to draw the attention of a man again, and did her best not to.
So how had that man the day before known? And why had he laughed? What had he said to her niece?
She got her first look at the Barratt spread and had to stop.
It put her brother’s small place to shame. Put Warton’s to shame, even. Why was Barratt so damned greedy? Why couldn’t he leave their Finley Creek alone?
A dog barked and ran toward her. Jude fought not to turn and run. Large, barking dogs had always frightened her.
Were all of his hands out on the spread somewhere working? Where was he?
More importantly where were Jessi, Jami, Emmy, and Izzy? Had their new husbands at least been kind to them? Or had they gone at them like rutting animals?
Jude knew she had gotten lucky in her own man. Before he’d died three years ago he’d treated her with unfailing love and respect. And kindness. Her Ethan had been an extremely gentle man. Even on their wedding night. They’d had six years and four children together before he’d gone, leaving her a widow at twenty-nine. After his death, she’d taken her three daughters and moved in with her brother. Six months later she’d delivered her fourth baby girl. Her brother been recently widowed himself—the same influenza that had taken Ethan had taken his wife—and had eight daughters needing a woman’s hand.
They were family. And the Finley family pulled together.
Finley Creek—the spread her brother had purchased and renamed three months ago—was their new beginning.
Until Barratt showed up just as they were finishing dinner.
Sixteen men, all on horseback. All with guns, accusing her brother of land thievery. And they weren’t stopping until they got what they wanted. Oh, how she wished she’d been able to protect her nieces more than what she had.
But Jessi had made her stay silent, after putting Jude’s four-year-old in her arms, reminding her of the children dependent on her.
Always Jessi doing the protecting. But who protected her niece?
Had the man who’d taken her hurt her? For all her spitfire ways, Jessi was remarkably tender inside. And so terribly frightened of what a husband would want from her. No matter that Jude had told her and all the older girls that it wasn’t like what those Warton monsters had tired, not when with a man who cared for you.
But Jessi wasn’t with a man who cared for her now.
And that man who’d yanked her onto his horse was a man. A full-grown man who she had no doubt knew exactly what he wanted.
The dog kept her pinned in place for the longest time.
And then he was there. He looked even more frightening in the bright light of day. He had no hat on and she got her first real good look at him.
He was an older version of his sons, with the same hard dark eyes and strong body. He smirked when he looked down at her. “Which girl are you?”
“I’m not a girl. I’m a woman. I’m their aunt, and I’m here to see them. Right now. Where are Jessi and the others?”
He snorted. “You a woman, you say? You look no older than they do.”
“I’m a woman full-grown and have four children to prove it. My nieces? They haven’t hurt them, have they?” Every possible outcome of what had happened tightened her stomach. Maybe the lawyer son of his had lied. Maybe the marriages weren’t legal. Maybe they’d just did what they done to ruin the girls. To get back at Jacob for buying the spread before they did. Such spite wouldn’t surprise her. “I need to see them.”
“Get in here.” He opened the screen door and stood there. Jude didn’t know what else to do; she walked into what she had to call the lion’s den. “Girls are still abed. It was their wedding night, after all. If you got four children you know what that means.”
Jude’s cheeks flamed. “No need to be so crude, Mr. Barratt. You’ve got what you wanted from my family. In a despicable way.”