Jude & The Barratt 6

Hughes gave the woman an hour to sleep, figuring any more than that and he’d have her brother show up demanding answers. He tried shaking her awake.

She didn’t stir. He tried again. No response. He almost yelled at the fool woman.

Finally it sank in that something more was going on with her than he knew.

He scooped her into his arms as gently as he could. She was completely limp in his arms, and weighed less than a bag of feed. Too small, too thin. Was she ill? She was supposed to be an invalid, after all.

Hughes carried her into the house, yelling for his second son. Tucker was the damned doc in Barrattville. If the woman needed a doctor, Tucker was right there.

He was met at the door to the kitchen by the boys and their wives. “She won’t wake up.”

The redhead—quiet little waif that she had appeared at first—sprang into sudden action. “Emmy, hot water and rags. Mr. Barratt, she’s needs a bed, and quickly. I suspect she’s hurting again. She shouldn’t have walked all the way over here. She’s not strong enough. Izzy, come. Help me get her cleaned up. Why is there hay all over her?”

He was met by three pairs of accusing blue eyes. “We were just in the barn trying to work out some details.”

“I just bet you were.” The spirited blonde girl said. Emmy, wasn’t it? Emmy was with Harrison. Izzy and Hendrick. Jami and Tucker. That’s how it was. It was going to take him a while to remember which pretty girl was which. “You men all are alike.”

Hughes leveled a straight on look at the girl. “I tell you all this just one time. Me and my boys are nothing like those bastards who hurt your family before. And if they show up here, I’ll deal with them myself.”

The girls just stared at him solemnly. The two younger looked at the redhead for direction. She jerked her head toward the stairs and the quieter blonde started up them.

So Tucker’s little redhead had some spirit after all. That was good for his boy, then.

But Hughes had more pressing matters to attend to. Like the woman in his arms.

“She’ll be in my room.”

“Then let’s get her there. We know how to take care of her. We’ve been doing it for two years,” Emmy said.

**

He carried her to his own bed and sat her gently on the edge of it. He held her against him while the redhead quickly unbuttoned the back of the dress.

“We’ll care for her from here.” The redhead was firm. She wasn’t undressing her aunt with him in the room.

“Tucker’s a damned fine doc. He’ll fix her.”

The girls’ expressions were sad when they looked at him. Finally the quiet blonde spoke. “Nothing’s going to fix her. We just help her get through the best we can.”

She started pulling the pins from her aunt’s honeyed hair and even more curls fell down the woman’s back. She had thick, soft, beautiful hair. The girl picked the hay from the hair, then braided it quickly.

The redhead stepped in front of him. “Give her some privacy and some dignity, please?”

He didn’t want to leave her. His mind was made up, she was the woman he wanted.

And he didn’t like seeing her so vulnerable.

Hughes wanted answers.

**

The girl had Harrison stoking the fire in the stove and had two pots ready to boil. She moved efficiently, making herself right at home in the kitchen. Jack and Mick had finally joined them in the kitchen, after coming in from where they’d been riding the boundaries of the property between their place and Finley’s stolen one. They all sat quietly, watching the pretty girl in their midst.

Tucker joined them in the kitchen a few moments later. “They told me my services weren’t needed. That no damned Barratt was touching their aunt.”

“Stubborn lot of them.” Hughes said, loud enough for the girl to hear. She thinned her lips at him and straightened her spine. “Spirited.”

“Apparently.”

Hughes wrapped a hand around his daughter-in-law’s arm and pulled her to the table. “Sit. Tell us what happened to your aunt. Why you came here.”

She stared at him for a long time. Then she sneered. “Because we had nowhere else to go. If we stayed in War—where we came from…” She shivered.

Hughes sat down across from her. Her husband stepped up to her back. They all waited. Hughes looked at her. “She told me some in the barn. But not all of it. What happened to all of you?”

“Do you believe in demons and hell, Mr. Barratt? Because that’s the kind of men we were dealing with. The kind of place we were.” She shivered again and again. The depth of her fear shocked him. Mick hopped up and went into the parlor. He returned with a blanket his mother had knit years ago. He handed it to Harrison, who wrapped it around her shoulders.

“Tell us. So that we understand. Tell us why you had nowhere else to go.” Hughes gentled his tone, as he realized the girl was just as harmed by what had happened as her aunt. “How did your aunt get those scars?”

“There’s a man…a rancher where we came from. He owns most of the town and the land around it. He had eight sons and they were all meaner than the one before. He owned the supply store, the grocer, everything. The only business in town that wasn’t his, was the doctor. My uncle Ethan. Aunt Jude helped him with the patients, and he started training Jami when she was old enough to be a help. Jami is good at it, too. If she’d been a boy…but anyway. My mother and uncle both died from cholera. My aunt tried to keep the house, but the rancher managed to steal it out from her. She tried, but she had three babies to take care of and another on the way. So she moved in with us. We had a really small place on the edge of town. It was enough for us, barely. But we made do. My cousin was born, and we were doing ok. Until…” She stopped and looked toward the stairs.

“Until…” Harrison prompted. “Go on, Emmaline.”

“Until that monster decided my aunt had grieved my uncle long enough. When she turned him down, he turned vicious. Suddenly we couldn’t buy flour or anything else in town. Daddy had to go a few towns over to do it. He was gone one day, but we needed supplies. So Aunt Jude, Jessi and Jami, Izzy and I went to town. We split into two groups. Less likely to be accosted that way, we thought. I had one of the pistols just in case. Aunt Jude had the other. She took Jessi and Jami. They were going to the mercantile, and it was owned by the rancher’s brother.”

“What happened, little girl?” Hughes asked. Did the girl even realize she was crying? She was such a fiery little thing, to see her like this…It wasn’t right. Not at all.

“Two of his older sons were there. And they somehow managed to split Jami off. Got her outside before Jessi realized what was going on. When Jami screamed. They’d wanted her, you see. And knew if they got her outside Jessi would come running. Then they’d have both of them. Their daddy had told them they could do whatever they wanted to us, but Aunt Jude was his. Jami fought, and she fought hard. And that made Clive angrier and angrier. When Jessi got to her he’d cut Jami from shoulder to hip, cut through her dress and through her skin. Right there in the alley behind the mercantile. Izzy and I heard Jessi’s scream. And Jami’s.” She wiped her eyes with the cloth Harrison held out to her. His boy sank down in a chair next to hers and pulled her closer. “When…when Aunt Jude got there, Jami was bleeding badly and Jessi was trying to fight the other brother off. They were laughing. Aunt Jude tried to help. But they had guns, too. Clive pointed it at Jami and somehow…Jessi tried to cover Jami or Aunt Jude did, we don’t really know. We just know they were all trying to protect each other. The bullet went through Jessi and through Aunt Jude. Grazed Jami in the side.”

Hughes cursed. The girl flinched and he forced himself to calm down. “Go on, girl. Tell us the rest.”

“Jessi…Jessi got Aunt Jude’s gun. And she shot Clive right in the heart. There was so much screaming. Izzy and I—we got there, but no one was helping them. There was so much blood and everyone was just staring at them. At Clive. Even though they saw what happened. No one was helping because they were too scared to. Finally, someone did. The minister, I think. And the dentist. A doctor was traveling through and didn’t know how the town was. But he wasn’t a very good doctor.  They carried them inside the hotel across the street. Jami healed pretty quick. On her feet again in a few weeks. Jessi, too, I guess. Though she was down for a few months. But Aunt Jude…Clint, Clive’s brother had cut her pretty bad, too. Her arm was mangled. With the damage from the bullet…she feels horrible pain still. It took her months to recover. Sometimes when she’s hurting she just shuts down till she’s better. She probably hurt herself today.”

“So what happened after?” Harrison asked. “Anything done to them?”

“To them? Not a damned thing. And it just got worse after that. The rancher blamed Aunt Jude. Said if she’d just given him what he wanted, it wouldn’t have happened. His six older remaining sons were everywhere we went. Our cattle was stolen or slaughtered, our barn was burned. They caught Izzy and Janie and Ally feeding stock one morning and…they forced Izzy and Ally to watch while they held Janie under the water in the pond. Over and over again they forced her under. They finally stopped when Zebadiah realized Janie was a full-grown woman and her dress was soaking wet. And when I came running with the shotgun. The other brothers were just as bad. Throwing rocks at Aunt Jude’s two-year-old, following Jessi around the range, brandishing knives at Jami in the church just to scare her. Everywhere we went. We tried to get help, we did. But no one could challenge them. Or would.” She rubbed her arm over and over. “They broke my arm. Shot Janie’s mule out from under her. All sorts of things designed to scare us. To hurt us. Until…four months ago.”

“What happened?” Tucker asked.

“Dad had a friend in the bar one night. He showed up in the middle of the night and got Dad and Aunt Jude up. He was a bit sweet on Aunt Jude himself. He heard….the brothers were drawing straws, you see. To determine which of the six brothers got each of us girls first. Right there in front of everyone. They were going to come to our place and just take us. Kill our father. The six younger girls, even Aunt Jude’s baby. Just like that. And there was no one to stop them from doing it. We grabbed what we could carry and loaded the wagons. We left within an hour, with just our mules and a few cows, Izzy’s sheep and a few baby chicks. We had no choice. We stayed with another friend of my father’s for a few weeks. Until Daddy bought Finley Creek. Now we’re…here and trying to start all over again. And it’s just the same as it was then. Men taking what they want.”

Harrison shocked the hell out of Hughes when he scooped the little blonde up and shook her slightly. “No, it’s not the same. I promise you that. They’ll never hurt you again.” He pulled her to his chest and carried her out of the room and up the stairs. “You’re safe, Emmaline. I promise that.”

Girl was too busy crying to fight him.

Hughes looked at his four remaining sons, seeing the shock they all felt. “Four months? Plenty of long enough for that bastard to track them down if he wanted. To plan. Go nowhere without your weapons. Hendrick, head on up to your brother’s place. Give him a heads up that trouble may be coming. Might be best if he brought his girl back down here for a while.”

Hendrick nodded. “Done.”

“Mick, Jack, get your gear. We’re going over to Finley’s. Let him know his sister is here and those girls of his are safe. We took four sets of hands from him, he’s going to need some help for a day or two. I want those kids of his guarded until I can figure out what we’re going to do. Tucker, you keep an eye on the women here. Give our hands a heads up, let them know to keep their eyes opened for trouble.”

“Taking a personal interest in this?”

“Figured I may just as well take your advice and get me a pretty female in my bed to keep. Since there’s one in there now, I think I may just keep her. Did you get a look at the injuries?”

“Consistent with what her niece said. I don’t think she received the best care right after it happened. Damned lucky to be alive.” Tucker’s eyes burned with his own anger. “But it explains why I scared Jami so much when I kissed her.”

“And it explains why they complied with the weddings. They were afraid of what we would do to their family if they didn’t cooperate.” He said it loud enough for all of his sons to hear. “But the past is past, even if it’s just been a day. We never intended to hurt those girls.”

“And we’ll make sure that’s known,” Hendrick said as his wife came back down to grab the warm water. “I’ll get a message to Turner, get him and Jessi back down here. Take care of Izzy until I get back.”

**

Hughes had to admit it, but he liked the looks of what Finley had started with the place. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of half dozen sheep he saw, but the guy wasn’t trying to run cattle on the place. All he had was a few milk cows and a calf. Chickens roamed the place, as well.

And girls. Damn, there were little girls everywhere.

They were met at the front porch by two more full-grown girls that had the look of the others about them.

The bolder one stepped off the porch after sending her sister a look. The sister looked at the young ones behind her and ordered them all inside. She scooped up the youngest one, a mite about two or so who had the clear look of her mother about her and held her on her hip. Hughes smiled.

He’d always wanted a daughter or two.

“What are you doing here, you kidnapping bastards?” The girl in front asked. The one holding the toddler gasped. “Come for more?”

“Where’s your father, girly?”

“Out. Tending fences. Jessi and Emmy usually do it, but they’re away for a day or two.” She was taller than her sisters by a few inches, and thin. Had the same brown hair as her aunt. The same fire.

“Which one are you?” Hughes asked. She was about seventeen or so, with the first real flush of woman on her. But she was a woman-grown, no doubt. Way he figured her and the one behind her would be married off sooner rather than later.

“Why do you care?” There was such anger, such hatred, such fear. How long had these girls been so terrified? And for what? Some man who couldn’t take no for an answer. It wasn’t right.

The toddler started crying, calling for her mama. The girl staring at him paled. Worried. For her aunt?

“I need to speak with your father. About your aunt.”

“Where is she? Did you hurt her? Is she ok?” The one holding the baby asked.

I didn’t hurt her but she’s unwell. The walk to our place was apparently too much for her. Your sisters are tending to her now. When will your father be back?”

She raised her chin. “Not sure. We’re in charge right now.”

He did the math. Four girls with his boys, the two right in front of him, the toddler. There had to be five more girls in that house, three of which were the aunt’s. Eight girls, all practically defenseless if trouble came. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“And your sister there behind you?”

“Ally’s eighteen. The baby’s two, if you need to know that as well.”

“The five inside.”

“Fourteen, twelve, seven, five and four. What does it matter to you?”

“Can you shoot? Your sister? Any of the others?”

“Some of us can. Why? You expecting trouble out of us? I think you got what you wanted last night.”

Strong, fiery, quick little girl, wasn’t she? She’d make a man one hell of a wife soon.

“I’m leaving two of my sons here with you. I’m going to go out and find your father. I have much to discuss with him. Put Jack and Mick to work however you need them. They’re here to help you…and to keep you safe in case that trouble your family was in back where you came from followed you here.” He motioned to the two men beside him. “Jack and Mick, keep your eyes open at all times.”

“You can’t leave them here with us.” She looked at his sons and he got it. Same fear was in her eyes as was in her aunt’s. Her sisters’. Fear of men and what they would do to them. Could do. She’d said the other was Ally, hadn’t she? This was the one those bastards had almost drowned—until they’d realized she was a woman. He could imagine what they’d done then. No wonder she was so afraid.

“Listen to me, girl. And listen good. My boys will not hurt you or your sisters. McKinley here is the minister in this town. And Jackson’s a scientist. He studies flowers, for land’s sake. You’re safe. I promise you that.”

“Says the man who stole four of my sisters from our family just last night. Pardon us if we don’t believe you.”

Hughes nodded. “I understand. But that doesn’t change anything. Mick and Jack are staying right here.”

As long as he needed them to.

**

When she opened her eyes she was in a place she definitely didn’t recognize. Jami leaned over her, placing a hot rag over her shoulder. “Jami, baby? What happened?”

“You don’t remember? You were yelling at that man and he carried you outside.” Izzy was there, too. And Emmy sat at the foot of the bed. “He brought you back in an hour or more later.”

She thought for a moment. The barn…a man on top of her. Strong and sure, but not hurting her. Why did that seem so odd? “He did?”

“Carried you right in,” Emmy said. “Yelling out orders. I told them what happened. I had to, they kept demanding answers.”

“You did what you had to do, Emmaline Marie,” Jami said. Jude was glad to see some of her niece’s spunk returning. Jami wouldn’t do well separated from her twin for too long, though. “Now we just make the best of our hand, don’t we?”

“Did any of them hurt any of you?” She looked at Jami first.

Her niece shook her head. “He told me I had until the end of the month to get used to the idea of him in my bed.”

“Three full weeks away?” Emmy asked, drily. “I get two days to decide.”

Izzy blushed. “I…”

“Is it a legal marriage now, Isabelle?” Jude asked. Not that that mattered—even if they tried to get the marriages annulled, they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. All the men had to do was say they’d been with their wives, didn’t they?

“I don’t think so. But he did kiss me. A lot. But he wasn’t mean about it. And he stopped when I asked him to.” Her confusion was right there in her words. Poor Izzy, she didn’t understand people at all, did she? “Aunt Jude, is this for real? Do we have to stay here like this?”

Izzy was all of nineteen and so very naïve, wasn’t she?

“I think you do, baby. You’re married to these men. All of you are. And it could be worse—they could be Wartons. I’m sorry. You all deserve men who love you. Not men who just wanted wives. I so wanted that for you.” Tears filled her eyes.

“We’ll make do, Aunt Jude. You don’t have to worry about us. We knew what we were saying yes to last night. And this way…this way Finley Creek is safe. No matter what we have to do to keep it that way,” Jami said. “Janie and Ally and all of the others are safe now.”

“Where is that man?”

Izzy answered. “I listened at the door. He went to talk to Daddy. To tell him what happened to you. He took the minister and that other son of his with him.”

“Help me up, girls. I need to get dressed and back to Finley Creek. Need to be there when he talks to your father. I hate to leave you all here like this.”

“We’re full-grown, Aunt Jude,” Emmy said. “You worry about the young ones. You got babies to take care of. We are old enough to be wives and have households of our own. It’s not the way we wanted, but we’re Finleys. We understand that things rarely are. We’ll adapt. Finleys always do.” The three girls said the last in unison. It was her brother’s favorite saying, after all.

She took another look at her girls. No bruises. No more tears. Izzy’s cheeks were still red as her twin questioned her about the kisses she’d shared with her new husband.

Who’d apparently been courteous and considerate and stopped when Izzy had asked him to.

Someone knocked on the door. All four women tensed. Jami answered the door quickly.

A tall man who looked just like his father stood there. “Jami, is your aunt awake yet? I’d like to speak with her, if possible.”

“She’s awake. And you’re not speaking with her alone. Unless she wants to.”

He smiled softly. It shocked Jude when he reached out and touched her niece’s red hair gently. “I understand. Cook has started lunch and would probably like to meet you and your sisters. Discuss what kind of foods you all three like. And Jessi. Hendrick went up to get my brother and your sister and bring her here.”

“Jessi’s coming?” Jami’s voice was so filled with hope.

“Sure is. She should be here by dinner time, I’d wager.”

“Thank heavens. I need to make sure she’s all right.”

“My brother isn’t a monster. He will not have hurt her. Any more than I hurt you.” He leaned closer. “If you recall, Jami mine. You’re the one who drew blood.”

“Jami, I’ll speak with him. Alone. Take your sisters on downstairs.”

Jude had a few questions for this son of Barratt. Namely what they were planning to do with her family. If what Barratt had said was the truth, and they didn’t own Finley Creek, he could turn them out whenever he wanted. Regardless of what promises he’d made when they’d taken the girls.

She didn’t trust him at all.

After the girls were gone she looked at the man. “You really a doctor?”

“I am. The name is Tucker. My twin is with Jessi.”

“Why did he take her away from the others?”

“Wanted privacy. I was planning to take Jami over to my own place. Until we learned about what your family is hiding from. We’re keeping all the girls together at the main house until we find out more. If you’d like, I’ll take a look at you. See if I can help with the pain some.”

“I’m fine. I can deal with it. You won’t hurt Jami, will you? She’s terrified of men.”

“Really? Couldn’t tell from the way she’s been barking orders since my father brought you back in.”

“She’s good at doctoring, and trusts her skills there. Nothing she won’t do for someone hurting.”

“She’ll make a good nurse, then.”

“Nurse? If she’d been male, she’d be a damned fine doctor. Something for you to keep in mind. Please don’t hurt her. She’s got such a tender heart.”

“I don’t plan on hurting her at all.”

“So why did you rip her from her family?”

He sighed. “We were angry. I’ll admit that. Still are, but not at the girls. I need a wife. Someone to help me in the clinic I’m building. The house. And females are scarce around here. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have about a dozen men clamoring at your skirts soon. It’s the way it works out here. Men jump quickly.”

“So why Jami? Why did you pick her?” He’d picked her niece second, after his brother had gone right for Jessi and scooped her off her feet.

“The way she was trying to comfort her little sister. The sweetness even behind the fear. The big blue eyes. Went right through me. I won’t hurt her. I promise you that. No one will hurt her. No matter what we have to do.”

His hands were gentle as he carefully examined her arm and her back. She wouldn’t let him see the front. “The hack that got a hold of us after it happened wasn’t very good. But the good doctor in town wouldn’t help us. Even though Jami had been working for him for months, and was practically engaged to his oldest boy. If she hadn’t been able to tell Emmy and the other girls what to watch for regarding infection in all of us, we would have died.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you. A doctor…a doctor is supposed to help those who need it. No matter what.”

He meant it, didn’t he? Just like her Ethan had. Maybe this Barratt, hard as nails though he looked, was a kind man at heart? “Take care of her, Dr. Barratt. She’s one of the sweetest of my girls. She doesn’t deserve to have her heart broken. She deserves a man who loves her.”

After he left her, she leaned back against the pillows. Where was she, exactly? She thought of getting up, truly needed to, but her body would not cooperate. She needed to get home. Her children were waiting on their mother. She looked around the room again, and that’s when it sank in.

Jude had a sneaking feeling she was in his bed. And he’d put her there on purpose.

Hughes gave the woman an hour to sleep, figuring any more than that and he’d have her brother show up demanding answers. He tried shaking her awake.

She didn’t stir. He tried again. No response. He almost yelled at the fool woman.

Finally it sank in that something more was going on with her than he knew.

He scooped her into his arms as gently as he could. She was completely limp in his arms, and weighed less than a bag of feed. Too small, too thin. Was she ill? She was supposed to be an invalid, after all.

Hughes carried her into the house, yelling for his second son. Tucker was the damned doc in Barrattville. If the woman needed a doctor, Tucker was right there.

He was met at the door to the kitchen by the boys and their wives. “She won’t wake up.”

The redhead—quiet little waif that she had appeared at first—sprang into sudden action. “Emmy, hot water and rags. Mr. Barratt, she’s needs a bed, and quickly. I suspect she’s hurting again. She shouldn’t have walked all the way over here. She’s not strong enough. Izzy, come. Help me get her cleaned up. Why is there hay all over her?”

He was met by three pairs of accusing blue eyes. “We were just in the barn trying to work out some details.”

“I just bet you were.” The spirited blonde girl said. Emmy, wasn’t it? Emmy was with Harrison. Izzy and Hendrick. Jami and Tucker. That’s how it was. It was going to take him a while to remember which pretty girl was which. “You men all are alike.”

Hughes leveled a straight on look at the girl. “I tell you all this just one time. Me and my boys are nothing like those bastards who hurt your family before. And if they show up here, I’ll deal with them myself.”

The girls just stared at him solemnly. The two younger looked at the redhead for direction. She jerked her head toward the stairs and the quieter blonde started up them.

So Tucker’s little redhead had some spirit after all. That was good for his boy, then.

But Hughes had more pressing matters to attend to. Like the woman in his arms.

“She’ll be in my room.”

“Then let’s get her there. We know how to take care of her. We’ve been doing it for two years,” Emmy said.

**

He carried her to his own bed and sat her gently on the edge of it. He held her against him while the redhead quickly unbuttoned the back of the dress.

“We’ll care for her from here.” The redhead was firm. She wasn’t undressing her aunt with him in the room.

“Tucker’s a damned fine doc. He’ll fix her.”

The girls’ expressions were sad when they looked at him. Finally the quiet blonde spoke. “Nothing’s going to fix her. We just help her get through the best we can.”

She started pulling the pins from her aunt’s honeyed hair and even more curls fell down the woman’s back. She had thick, soft, beautiful hair. The girl picked the hay from the hair, then braided it quickly.

The redhead stepped in front of him. “Give her some privacy and some dignity, please?”

He didn’t want to leave her. His mind was made up, she was the woman he wanted.

And he didn’t like seeing her so vulnerable.

Hughes wanted answers.

**

The girl had Harrison stoking the fire in the stove and had two pots ready to boil. She moved efficiently, making herself right at home in the kitchen. Jack and Mick had finally joined them in the kitchen, after coming in from where they’d been riding the boundaries of the property between their place and Finley’s stolen one. They all sat quietly, watching the pretty girl in their midst.

Tucker joined them in the kitchen a few moments later. “They told me my services weren’t needed. That no damned Barratt was touching their aunt.”

“Stubborn lot of them.” Hughes said, loud enough for the girl to hear. She thinned her lips at him and straightened her spine. “Spirited.”

“Apparently.”

Hughes wrapped a hand around his daughter-in-law’s arm and pulled her to the table. “Sit. Tell us what happened to your aunt. Why you came here.”

She stared at him for a long time. Then she sneered. “Because we had nowhere else to go. If we stayed in War—where we came from…” She shivered.

Hughes sat down across from her. Her husband stepped up to her back. They all waited. Hughes looked at her. “She told me some in the barn. But not all of it. What happened to all of you?”

“Do you believe in demons and hell, Mr. Barratt? Because that’s the kind of men we were dealing with. The kind of place we were.” She shivered again and again. The depth of her fear shocked him. Mick hopped up and went into the parlor. He returned with a blanket his mother had knit years ago. He handed it to Harrison, who wrapped it around her shoulders.

“Tell us. So that we understand. Tell us why you had nowhere else to go.” Hughes gentled his tone, as he realized the girl was just as harmed by what had happened as her aunt. “How did your aunt get those scars?”

“There’s a man…a rancher where we came from. He owns most of the town and the land around it. He had eight sons and they were all meaner than the one before. He owned the supply store, the grocer, everything. The only business in town that wasn’t his, was the doctor. My uncle Ethan. Aunt Jude helped him with the patients, and he started training Jami when she was old enough to be a help. Jami is good at it, too. If she’d been a boy…but anyway. My mother and uncle both died from cholera. My aunt tried to keep the house, but the rancher managed to steal it out from her. She tried, but she had three babies to take care of and another on the way. So she moved in with us. We had a really small place on the edge of town. It was enough for us, barely. But we made do. My cousin was born, and we were doing ok. Until…” She stopped and looked toward the stairs.

“Until…” Harrison prompted. “Go on, Emmaline.”

“Until that monster decided my aunt had grieved my uncle long enough. When she turned him down, he turned vicious. Suddenly we couldn’t buy flour or anything else in town. Daddy had to go a few towns over to do it. He was gone one day, but we needed supplies. So Aunt Jude, Jessi and Jami, Izzy and I went to town. We split into two groups. Less likely to be accosted that way, we thought. I had one of the pistols just in case. Aunt Jude had the other. She took Jessi and Jami. They were going to the mercantile, and it was owned by the rancher’s brother.”

“What happened, little girl?” Hughes asked. Did the girl even realize she was crying? She was such a fiery little thing, to see her like this…It wasn’t right. Not at all.

“Two of his older sons were there. And they somehow managed to split Jami off. Got her outside before Jessi realized what was going on. When Jami screamed. They’d wanted her, you see. And knew if they got her outside Jessi would come running. Then they’d have both of them. Their daddy had told them they could do whatever they wanted to us, but Aunt Jude was his. Jami fought, and she fought hard. And that made Clive angrier and angrier. When Jessi got to her he’d cut Jami from shoulder to hip, cut through her dress and through her skin. Right there in the alley behind the mercantile. Izzy and I heard Jessi’s scream. And Jami’s.” She wiped her eyes with the cloth Harrison held out to her. His boy sank down in a chair next to hers and pulled her closer. “When…when Aunt Jude got there, Jami was bleeding badly and Jessi was trying to fight the other brother off. They were laughing. Aunt Jude tried to help. But they had guns, too. Clive pointed it at Jami and somehow…Jessi tried to cover Jami or Aunt Jude did, we don’t really know. We just know they were all trying to protect each other. The bullet went through Jessi and through Aunt Jude. Grazed Jami in the side.”

Hughes cursed. The girl flinched and he forced himself to calm down. “Go on, girl. Tell us the rest.”

“Jessi…Jessi got Aunt Jude’s gun. And she shot Clive right in the heart. There was so much screaming. Izzy and I—we got there, but no one was helping them. There was so much blood and everyone was just staring at them. At Clive. Even though they saw what happened. No one was helping because they were too scared to. Finally, someone did. The minister, I think. And the dentist. A doctor was traveling through and didn’t know how the town was. But he wasn’t a very good doctor.  They carried them inside the hotel across the street. Jami healed pretty quick. On her feet again in a few weeks. Jessi, too, I guess. Though she was down for a few months. But Aunt Jude…Clint, Clive’s brother had cut her pretty bad, too. Her arm was mangled. With the damage from the bullet…she feels horrible pain still. It took her months to recover. Sometimes when she’s hurting she just shuts down till she’s better. She probably hurt herself today.”

“So what happened after?” Harrison asked. “Anything done to them?”

“To them? Not a damned thing. And it just got worse after that. The rancher blamed Aunt Jude. Said if she’d just given him what he wanted, it wouldn’t have happened. His six older remaining sons were everywhere we went. Our cattle was stolen or slaughtered, our barn was burned. They caught Izzy and Janie and Ally feeding stock one morning and…they forced Izzy and Ally to watch while they held Janie under the water in the pond. Over and over again they forced her under. They finally stopped when Zebadiah realized Janie was a full-grown woman and her dress was soaking wet. And when I came running with the shotgun. The other brothers were just as bad. Throwing rocks at Aunt Jude’s two-year-old, following Jessi around the range, brandishing knives at Jami in the church just to scare her. Everywhere we went. We tried to get help, we did. But no one could challenge them. Or would.” She rubbed her arm over and over. “They broke my arm. Shot Janie’s mule out from under her. All sorts of things designed to scare us. To hurt us. Until…four months ago.”

“What happened?” Tucker asked.

“Dad had a friend in the bar one night. He showed up in the middle of the night and got Dad and Aunt Jude up. He was a bit sweet on Aunt Jude himself. He heard….the brothers were drawing straws, you see. To determine which of the six brothers got each of us girls first. Right there in front of everyone. They were going to come to our place and just take us. Kill our father. The six younger girls, even Aunt Jude’s baby. Just like that. And there was no one to stop them from doing it. We grabbed what we could carry and loaded the wagons. We left within an hour, with just our mules and a few cows, Izzy’s sheep and a few baby chicks. We had no choice. We stayed with another friend of my father’s for a few weeks. Until Daddy bought Finley Creek. Now we’re…here and trying to start all over again. And it’s just the same as it was then. Men taking what they want.”

Harrison shocked the hell out of Hughes when he scooped the little blonde up and shook her slightly. “No, it’s not the same. I promise you that. They’ll never hurt you again.” He pulled her to his chest and carried her out of the room and up the stairs. “You’re safe, Emmaline. I promise that.”

Girl was too busy crying to fight him.

Hughes looked at his four remaining sons, seeing the shock they all felt. “Four months? Plenty of long enough for that bastard to track them down if he wanted. To plan. Go nowhere without your weapons. Hendrick, head on up to your brother’s place. Give him a heads up that trouble may be coming. Might be best if he brought his girl back down here for a while.”

Hendrick nodded. “Done.”

“Mick, Jack, get your gear. We’re going over to Finley’s. Let him know his sister is here and those girls of his are safe. We took four sets of hands from him, he’s going to need some help for a day or two. I want those kids of his guarded until I can figure out what we’re going to do. Tucker, you keep an eye on the women here. Give our hands a heads up, let them know to keep their eyes opened for trouble.”

“Taking a personal interest in this?”

“Figured I may just as well take your advice and get me a pretty female in my bed to keep. Since there’s one in there now, I think I may just keep her. Did you get a look at the injuries?”

“Consistent with what her niece said. I don’t think she received the best care right after it happened. Damned lucky to be alive.” Tucker’s eyes burned with his own anger. “But it explains why I scared Jami so much when I kissed her.”

“And it explains why they complied with the weddings. They were afraid of what we would do to their family if they didn’t cooperate.” He said it loud enough for all of his sons to hear. “But the past is past, even if it’s just been a day. We never intended to hurt those girls.”

“And we’ll make sure that’s known,” Hendrick said as his wife came back down to grab the warm water. “I’ll get a message to Turner, get him and Jessi back down here. Take care of Izzy until I get back.”

**

Hughes had to admit it, but he liked the looks of what Finley had started with the place. He wasn’t too keen on the idea of half dozen sheep he saw, but the guy wasn’t trying to run cattle on the place. All he had was a few milk cows and a calf. Chickens roamed the place, as well.

And girls. Damn, there were little girls everywhere.

They were met at the front porch by two more full-grown girls that had the look of the others about them.

The bolder one stepped off the porch after sending her sister a look. The sister looked at the young ones behind her and ordered them all inside. She scooped up the youngest one, a mite about two or so who had the clear look of her mother about her and held her on her hip. Hughes smiled.

He’d always wanted a daughter or two.

“What are you doing here, you kidnapping bastards?” The girl in front asked. The one holding the toddler gasped. “Come for more?”

“Where’s your father, girly?”

“Out. Tending fences. Jessi and Emmy usually do it, but they’re away for a day or two.” She was taller than her sisters by a few inches, and thin. Had the same brown hair as her aunt. The same fire.

“Which one are you?” Hughes asked. She was about seventeen or so, with the first real flush of woman on her. But she was a woman-grown, no doubt. Way he figured her and the one behind her would be married off sooner rather than later.

“Why do you care?” There was such anger, such hatred, such fear. How long had these girls been so terrified? And for what? Some man who couldn’t take no for an answer. It wasn’t right.

The toddler started crying, calling for her mama. The girl staring at him paled. Worried. For her aunt?

“I need to speak with your father. About your aunt.”

“Where is she? Did you hurt her? Is she ok?” The one holding the baby asked.

I didn’t hurt her but she’s unwell. The walk to our place was apparently too much for her. Your sisters are tending to her now. When will your father be back?”

She raised her chin. “Not sure. We’re in charge right now.”

He did the math. Four girls with his boys, the two right in front of him, the toddler. There had to be five more girls in that house, three of which were the aunt’s. Eight girls, all practically defenseless if trouble came. “How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“And your sister there behind you?”

“Ally’s eighteen. The baby’s two, if you need to know that as well.”

“The five inside.”

“Fourteen, twelve, seven, five and four. What does it matter to you?”

“Can you shoot? Your sister? Any of the others?”

“Some of us can. Why? You expecting trouble out of us? I think you got what you wanted last night.”

Strong, fiery, quick little girl, wasn’t she? She’d make a man one hell of a wife soon.

“I’m leaving two of my sons here with you. I’m going to go out and find your father. I have much to discuss with him. Put Jack and Mick to work however you need them. They’re here to help you…and to keep you safe in case that trouble your family was in back where you came from followed you here.” He motioned to the two men beside him. “Jack and Mick, keep your eyes open at all times.”

“You can’t leave them here with us.” She looked at his sons and he got it. Same fear was in her eyes as was in her aunt’s. Her sisters’. Fear of men and what they would do to them. Could do. She’d said the other was Ally, hadn’t she? This was the one those bastards had almost drowned—until they’d realized she was a woman. He could imagine what they’d done then. No wonder she was so afraid.

“Listen to me, girl. And listen good. My boys will not hurt you or your sisters. McKinley here is the minister in this town. And Jackson’s a scientist. He studies flowers, for land’s sake. You’re safe. I promise you that.”

“Says the man who stole four of my sisters from our family just last night. Pardon us if we don’t believe you.”

Hughes nodded. “I understand. But that doesn’t change anything. Mick and Jack are staying right here.”

As long as he needed them to.

**

When she opened her eyes she was in a place she definitely didn’t recognize. Jami leaned over her, placing a hot rag over her shoulder. “Jami, baby? What happened?”

“You don’t remember? You were yelling at that man and he carried you outside.” Izzy was there, too. And Emmy sat at the foot of the bed. “He brought you back in an hour or more later.”

She thought for a moment. The barn…a man on top of her. Strong and sure, but not hurting her. Why did that seem so odd? “He did?”

“Carried you right in,” Emmy said. “Yelling out orders. I told them what happened. I had to, they kept demanding answers.”

“You did what you had to do, Emmaline Marie,” Jami said. Jude was glad to see some of her niece’s spunk returning. Jami wouldn’t do well separated from her twin for too long, though. “Now we just make the best of our hand, don’t we?”

“Did any of them hurt any of you?” She looked at Jami first.

Her niece shook her head. “He told me I had until the end of the month to get used to the idea of him in my bed.”

“Three full weeks away?” Emmy asked, drily. “I get two days to decide.”

Izzy blushed. “I…”

“Is it a legal marriage now, Isabelle?” Jude asked. Not that that mattered—even if they tried to get the marriages annulled, they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. All the men had to do was say they’d been with their wives, didn’t they?

“I don’t think so. But he did kiss me. A lot. But he wasn’t mean about it. And he stopped when I asked him to.” Her confusion was right there in her words. Poor Izzy, she didn’t understand people at all, did she? “Aunt Jude, is this for real? Do we have to stay here like this?”

Izzy was all of nineteen and so very naïve, wasn’t she?

“I think you do, baby. You’re married to these men. All of you are. And it could be worse—they could be Wartons. I’m sorry. You all deserve men who love you. Not men who just wanted wives. I so wanted that for you.” Tears filled her eyes.

“We’ll make do, Aunt Jude. You don’t have to worry about us. We knew what we were saying yes to last night. And this way…this way Finley Creek is safe. No matter what we have to do to keep it that way,” Jami said. “Janie and Ally and all of the others are safe now.”

“Where is that man?”

Izzy answered. “I listened at the door. He went to talk to Daddy. To tell him what happened to you. He took the minister and that other son of his with him.”

“Help me up, girls. I need to get dressed and back to Finley Creek. Need to be there when he talks to your father. I hate to leave you all here like this.”

“We’re full-grown, Aunt Jude,” Emmy said. “You worry about the young ones. You got babies to take care of. We are old enough to be wives and have households of our own. It’s not the way we wanted, but we’re Finleys. We understand that things rarely are. We’ll adapt. Finleys always do.” The three girls said the last in unison. It was her brother’s favorite saying, after all.

She took another look at her girls. No bruises. No more tears. Izzy’s cheeks were still red as her twin questioned her about the kisses she’d shared with her new husband.

Who’d apparently been courteous and considerate and stopped when Izzy had asked him to.

Someone knocked on the door. All four women tensed. Jami answered the door quickly.

A tall man who looked just like his father stood there. “Jami, is your aunt awake yet? I’d like to speak with her, if possible.”

“She’s awake. And you’re not speaking with her alone. Unless she wants to.”

He smiled softly. It shocked Jude when he reached out and touched her niece’s red hair gently. “I understand. Cook has started lunch and would probably like to meet you and your sisters. Discuss what kind of foods you all three like. And Jessi. Hendrick went up to get my brother and your sister and bring her here.”

“Jessi’s coming?” Jami’s voice was so filled with hope.

“Sure is. She should be here by dinner time, I’d wager.”

“Thank heavens. I need to make sure she’s all right.”

“My brother isn’t a monster. He will not have hurt her. Any more than I hurt you.” He leaned closer. “If you recall, Jami mine. You’re the one who drew blood.”

“Jami, I’ll speak with him. Alone. Take your sisters on downstairs.”

Jude had a few questions for this son of Barratt. Namely what they were planning to do with her family. If what Barratt had said was the truth, and they didn’t own Finley Creek, he could turn them out whenever he wanted. Regardless of what promises he’d made when they’d taken the girls.

She didn’t trust him at all.

After the girls were gone she looked at the man. “You really a doctor?”

“I am. The name is Tucker. My twin is with Jessi.”

“Why did he take her away from the others?”

“Wanted privacy. I was planning to take Jami over to my own place. Until we learned about what your family is hiding from. We’re keeping all the girls together at the main house until we find out more. If you’d like, I’ll take a look at you. See if I can help with the pain some.”

“I’m fine. I can deal with it. You won’t hurt Jami, will you? She’s terrified of men.”

“Really? Couldn’t tell from the way she’s been barking orders since my father brought you back in.”

“She’s good at doctoring, and trusts her skills there. Nothing she won’t do for someone hurting.”

“She’ll make a good nurse, then.”

“Nurse? If she’d been male, she’d be a damned fine doctor. Something for you to keep in mind. Please don’t hurt her. She’s got such a tender heart.”

“I don’t plan on hurting her at all.”

“So why did you rip her from her family?”

He sighed. “We were angry. I’ll admit that. Still are, but not at the girls. I need a wife. Someone to help me in the clinic I’m building. The house. And females are scarce around here. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have about a dozen men clamoring at your skirts soon. It’s the way it works out here. Men jump quickly.”

“So why Jami? Why did you pick her?” He’d picked her niece second, after his brother had gone right for Jessi and scooped her off her feet.

“The way she was trying to comfort her little sister. The sweetness even behind the fear. The big blue eyes. Went right through me. I won’t hurt her. I promise you that. No one will hurt her. No matter what we have to do.”

His hands were gentle as he carefully examined her arm and her back. She wouldn’t let him see the front. “The hack that got a hold of us after it happened wasn’t very good. But the good doctor in town wouldn’t help us. Even though Jami had been working for him for months, and was practically engaged to his oldest boy. If she hadn’t been able to tell Emmy and the other girls what to watch for regarding infection in all of us, we would have died.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you. A doctor…a doctor is supposed to help those who need it. No matter what.”

He meant it, didn’t he? Just like her Ethan had. Maybe this Barratt, hard as nails though he looked, was a kind man at heart? “Take care of her, Dr. Barratt. She’s one of the sweetest of my girls. She doesn’t deserve to have her heart broken. She deserves a man who loves her.”

After he left her, she leaned back against the pillows. Where was she, exactly? She thought of getting up, truly needed to, but her body would not cooperate. She needed to get home. Her children were waiting on their mother. She looked around the room again, and that’s when it sank in.

Jude had a sneaking feeling she was in his bed. And he’d put her there on purpose.

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