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He liked the feel of her warm little body in his arms. Hughes would admit that easily. What he didn’t like was the reason she was in his arms was because she couldn’t walk between the wagon and the house. “How often does this happen?”

“Rarely. Just whenever I do something I shouldn’t. Maybe once a month. The walk—last night… I fell on the steps when… you came and stole my nieces. When I heard my brother yell.”

He remembered one woman calling out. Falling down. But he hadn’t looked at her too closely. He should have. He might have changed everything right then, if he’d gotten a good look at this one. “I’m sorry. Will you ever fully recover?”

“I don’t know. The bullet hit close to my spine. When the pain comes, it hurts all the way up in to my neck. My head.”

“What does the doctor say?”

“What doctor? The butcher who sewed me up that day? He was drunk every time we saw him. And Wharton bruised him up good the week after he helped us. He took off after that. Jami gave the girls instructions, and they took care of the three of us. Even the night Jessi’s infection almost took her. We’d have all died had it not been for what Jami and I knew from working with my husband.”

His arms tightened around her. “He will not hurt you ever again, spitfire. I can swear to that.”

“For how long? Until you lose interest in getting me into your bed? You’re not the first man to try, you know. Even Wharton wasn’t. My husband hadn’t been in the grave seven months, my baby was less than a month old when the first one came around. To make me an offer, no ring included, as his wife probably would have objected.” Sarcasm was clear in her words. “I accept no man’s offer.”

“Not even an honorable one?” He didn’t know why he pressed it so soon. Just testing the waters, most likely.

“You proposing?” She tilted her head and looked at him, a challenge on her face.

“Maybe I am. So what’s your answer? Be advised, a Barratt man meets his woman, and he knows what he wants from her immediately. I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t serious. I mean to have you in my bed. My ring on your finger, in case you’re doubting that. Your young ones raised up in that empty old house of mine. Damned sons insist on moving out. Place needs children. Lots of them. I’d like to be a daddy to girls this time around.”

“I don’t want another husband.”

“Why not? You’re a young, beautiful woman. Plenty of life left in you.”

“Who can’t walk all half the time. Who has four young daughters to worry about. Nieces who need raising. When would I fit in time for a husband?”

“A husband can help you with those four of yours. At least one who can afford to. Like I can. Hell and damnation, woman, I’ve thought of nothing else since I had you beneath me in the barn. I’ve not felt that way about a female in fifteen years. And I’ve had plenty offer.”

“I’m sure you have.”

“Answer the question. You had any proposals? Or just offers?”

She was quiet for a moment. “I think you’re insane.”

He carried her up the steps and into the house his own grandfather had built all those years ago. “You got the room by the back door?”

“Yes.”

“I figured. It is the only one on this floor.”

“My brother insisted. Thought it might be easier for me that way.”

“He’s a good man.”

“He is. He and his wife raised me from the time I was eleven. We lost our parents in a fire.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You can sit me down by the fireplace. Jacob will get one going soon. I need to deal with my children. I’ve been away from them all day. And I don’t like that.”

“Don’t figure you would. But they’re fine for tonight, I’m sure.” He settled her gently in the rocker by the fire. “Does the cold make it worse?”

“Sometimes. And worry.”

“I’m sorry for my part in that, spitfire.”

She leaned back against the chair and closed her eyes as one of her nieces lit a lamp nearby for her. Hughes grabbed a blanket and covered her with it. She hummed. “Thank you. I just can’t figure you out. How can you go from being the enemy to being… in just one day? It makes little sense.”

She hadn’t opened her eyes again. What the girls had told him earlier sank in. When she was hurting, she just slept it away. “I’ll get a fire going.”

“Thank you.”

He wanted to take care of her. Provide for her all that he could. She’d spit and hiss at him when needed, but she was so achingly vulnerable. She needed a strong man—not just a brother—to take care of her. He was going to be that man. He got the fire going, then stood by her while she slept.

Until the feistier of her nieces shooed him away. “We’ll take care of her, Mr. Barratt. It’s time for you to go home. She needs to rest now.”

“Yes, ma’am. Young missy, you have any trouble keeping that boy of mine in line, you have my permission to box him upside the ears. Don’t let that preacher exterior full you. Mick can be a wild one when he wants to.”

“Somehow I don’t doubt that. Your son was kind today, especially to the children. Thank you for the help you provided. Of course, we wouldn’t have needed it if you hadn’t stolen my sisters away…”

He laughed. “Honey, had I known you’d have captured Mick’s attention so fast, or your aunt’s mine—or even that sister of yours and my Jackson—I would have scooped the three of you up last night as well. We’re Barratt men. And Barratt men know what the women they want almost the instant they see them. Get their hands on them for the first time. Something for you to keep in mind with that son of mine. Because I can guarantee you that if you’ve caught Mick’s attention, his intentions will be honorable from the very get go.”

She snorted delicately. “Sure they will. Because that’s the way men’s minds work. Good night, Mr. Barratt. My family… thanks you for dinner. Tell my kidnapped sisters they did a great wonderful job preparing it.”

He chuckled.

Spirit definitely ran in in the family.

His grandchildren would be real fireballs, and he couldn’t wait to enjoy them.

***

Mortification was the only way to describe how Jude felt when she stared at the man across the mercantile from her. She hadn’t known he was going to be there, but the way her day was going, it shouldn’t have surprised her.

It had been all of three days since the Barratt men had stolen her girls, changing everything forever. And since he had left them his two youngest sons instead.

Mick and Jackson were hard workers, and there was no chore they weren’t willing to do. She’d give them that. They were quiet, intelligent, well-read and as different from the men they’d left behind in their old place as night and day.

But that Mick, preacher though he was, was proving relentless with her Janie. Girl could barely turn around without him right there.

It was going to be difficult for her girl when Janie finally figured out what that man was all about. Jude knew, though. She’d seen hunger like that in a man’s eyes before.

Janie didn’t have a clue how he felt. Yet.

It was going to be difficult for her girl when Janie finally figured out what that man was all about.

Hughes Barratt looked up from where he stood near the counter. Those dark eyes of his latched onto her and he refused to look away. He was a fine, strong-looking, healthy man who had a commanding presence about him.

Nothing at all like that devil Wharton. He Wharton had been so much like a rat, it had shown in his outward countenance.

Jude raised her chin and met him eye for eye. Her hand tightened around her eldest daughter’s. She and Hannah walked deeper into the mercantile. It was the first time she’d ever been there; usually Jacob and Jessi did all the marketing.

Jessie would dress up like a boy, so as not to invite trouble, when she went to town with her father. But Jacob was working twice as hard now thanks to that darn Barratt man, even with those two sons of Barratt’s there to help.

It was a busy time for all of them. So that left her, Hannah, and Ally to get the flour and the lard and some cloth goods. While Janie handled the rest of the chores back at the house. And the younger kids.

“May I help you, ma’am?” the man behind the counter asked. He was about her age, and had the look of that Barratt man, too.

No doubt another one of his relations.

They seemed to be everywhere. She pulled in a deep breath.

She knew what Hughes Barratt was up to. Knew exactly what he was up to.

He straightened and waited. She didn’t say so much as a word to him. Instead, she gave a listing of what she needed.

“On whose account, ma’am? I’m Hollis, Hollis Barratt. This is my store. Mine and my brother there’s.”

She swallowed. There was curiosity in his eyes. The same interest that burned bright in his brother’s. It was in the way a man looked at a woman he had a hankering for.

She wasn’t a fool.

Jude wasn’t in the market for any man at all.

“On my brother’s account. Jacob Finley.”

“Hollis, meet Jude. She’ll be your new sister-in-law before the year month is out,” that Barratt man said in a drawl designed to taunt her.

Jude spun to face him, clutching her eldest’s hand in her own. Had he seriously said when she just thought he had? “You—you—you… Urgh.”

There were no words for how angry she was right now. None.

“Oh, will she now?” the merchant asked, an identical smirk on his two too handsome face, as well. “How do you know it’s not your sister-in-law she’ll end up being, Hughes? Maybe she’ll like me—or Warren or Archer—more?”

Jude spun to face him next. It was easier to face the brother than that damned Barratt man who’d caused them so much trouble.

“No doubt you’re just as arrogant as he is. Well, mark my words, I wouldn’t have either of you if you were wearing gold boots. A woman can make up her own mind about what man she wants.”

Her nemesis shifted again, straightening, puffing out his chest. It was a fine chest, broad and hard from years of hard work, no doubt. He’d lifted her like she weighed nothing at all. But just because he could lift her like he had the right to didn’t mean he had that right. 

Not unless she told him he did.

“Well, you just decide, little bird. Just make certain it’s made up in my direction.”

He tipped his hat to her, threw a piece of penny candy on the counter, then grabbed another, and handed it to Hannah. Her daughter took it with a shy smile, after a nod from Jude.

“Hollis, you put Jacob Finley’s accounts at the family prices. Seeing as how four of his daughters are my daughters-in-law now, and no doubt two more will be within the month. You see that Jude here is well taken care of. And see that she gets back to her wagon with no problem.”

His brother nodded as if Jude had no darned say in her own life.

And then Hughes Barratt turned to her.

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