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He was being an ass, and he knew it. Hughes bit back a laugh. There was such fire on her pretty cheeks. He couldn’t help himself. He raised one hand to her cheek and cupped her soft skin. “Doing okay today? You need any help here in town?”

She just blinked up at him, fuming. He could see it written in her pretty eyes. “I have a meeting at the bank in a few minutes. Should only take about an hour. After that, I’m free for the rest of the day. If you need a helping hand or strong back. Or just want to spend some time getting to know your fiancé. I can buy you and the little one something to eat at the new diner there.”

It wouldn’t surprise him at all if she stomped her foot. Or walloped him. She was just that mad.

Oh, being married to her was going to be fun until his dying day, Hughes would bet half the ranch on that.

“Leave me alone, you big cretin.”

“Women are outnumbered eight to one here, honey. Eight-to-one. Got to snag one when you can. Told you that before. A smart man stakes his claim. Fast.”

“I’m not a claim. I’m a woman; living, breathing, fully capable of making my own decisions about my life and my future. You can’t just… can’t just… swoop in and steal me before some other man does. Not like you did with the others. It isn’t right.”

He leaned down, coming closer to her ear. “I won’t lose you to no other fool out there. You have my word on that. And when a Barratt man gives his word, it’s as solid as those gold boots. I’ll take care of you, Jude. We’ll have a good marriage. One filled with fire and passion. And love. You can count on that.”

“I… You — ”

“See, I have you tongue-tied. You know it’ll be good between us. All you have to do is say yes.” He didn’t miss the way she shivered at his words.

She wanted him; she just wouldn’t admit it to herself yet. But she would.

“You are — ”

“About to be late. I got to head over to the bank. I’m investing some money into my boy’s hospital. He’s building it over near Main Barratt­­ Street. I’m right proud of it. After we grab something to eat at the diner, I’ll take you and your daughter over and show you what my boy has done. He should be around town somewhere, that redheaded wife of his with him. Last I saw this morning, they were discussing what type of curtains she wanted in the hospital. She was giving him a list of what types of bandages she thought would be best instead. Said curtains could wait, bandages were more important. Right smart girl you have helped raise. Why, she’s damned near as fine a doctor as my boy. They’ll do well together, the two of them. Just as well as you and I.”

She opened her mouth to say something, just as the door opened behind her.

She turned.

And right before his eyes, all the spirit and fire drained right out of her.

To be replaced by pure fear.

Hughes looked at the young man standing there.

***

Hughes looked at the young man standing there.

His little firebird was terrified. She shook against him. He didn’t stop to think; he just hooked his arm around her waist and scooped her off her feet. It was far too easy to do. “What’s got you so frightened?”

He followed her line of sight. That’s when he saw him. A tall boy, still in the first flush of youth. Just a kid. Standing in the door to the mercantile, an awkward look on his face.

The mere sight of him did this to Jude.

Hughes decided. He said his lady back down on the floor of the mercantile. He looked at his brother. Hollis would make sure she stayed safe. Hughes was going to have a talk with the young man. Get some answers.

He stalked over to the stranger. Hughes studied him in the clear light from the window. “Just who are you? What are you doing in my town?”

The boy swallowed, but he didn’t look away. He met Hughes’s eyes straight on. Hughes had to giving that—Hughes was a big man, strong and competent from years of hard work and being in charge.

This boy was younger than Hughes’s own sons by a good five to ten years.

“I’m here looking for the Finleys. I got a message for them.”

“Any message you have for Jacob Finley or any of his clan, it’ll go through me. You understand?” Hughes lowered his voice deliberately.

The boy didn’t flinch.

“I came to warn them, sir. My paw father and my brothers are looking for them. And they aim to make a lot of trouble. I just… what they did ain’t right. I need… is Annie doing ok?”

It took Hughes a minute, but then he remembered. Annie. Jacob Finley’s 14-year-old daughter. “Who’s asking?”

“Just… is she all right? I’ve been worried about her for months. I know… she has to be scared. She has to.”

“How old are you?”

“S-seventeen.”

“You friends with this girl?”

Now he saw the boy flinch. “I was at one time. Until all this happened with my father and brothers. My brothers had no right to do what they did. But you can’t tell them that. And they haven’t stopped looking for that family. I need to know that Annie and her family are safe before I do what I have to.”

There was a zealous fire in the boy’s dark eyes. One that had Hughes hesitating. “Just what are you planning to do?”

***

Jude tried to listen as Hughes interrogated the boy, but he’d led the boy into the smaller room off to the side where house goods were kept. She wasn’t just going to stand there and let a man she barely knew take care of her.

The man had no right to step in and take over her problems. Hers and Jacob’s.

Although if there was any man strong enough to take on Justice Wharton, she suspected it was Hughes Barrett. He certainly had the resources for that. Wharton only had about nine or ten men on his payroll at any one time.

She’d seen at least three times that at the Barratt Ranch.

That had her more than a little unsettled when she thought about it. Her nieces would be well guarded, at least.

She pulled her little one closer, not wanting her girl to be frightened.

That was something she and Jacob agreed on. They didn’t want the kids having to be frightened by things they didn’t understand.

Although Jude barely understood what was going on herself.

All she wanted to do was settle in with her brother and help him raise the girls. Have him help her raise hers.

They could count on each other. Always could.

She couldn’t count on Hughes Barratt for anything but making more trouble for her.

He’d already proved that.

The merchant moved closer to Jude’s side. He leaned down until he could speak near her ear. “I’m Hollis Barratt, ma’am. Pleased to meet you. Don’t worry about any trouble that might be following you. Hughes is good at taking care of trouble. Has a way about it.”

“I…doubt he’s seen the trouble that’s coming my way before.”

“Oh, I think he can handle it just fine. There ain’t much that Hughes can’t. One of the best men I know.”

Jude just nodded, though she didn’t believe it at all.

Of course, the instant those damned sons of his had forced marriages on her nieces—whether they’d those unions had been consummated yet or not—the girls had become Barratts.

From what Jacob had told her, there was a darned lot of Barratts in this county. Maybe, maybe that would be enough. Maybe with husbands of their own to protect them, Wharton would back off. He was nothing more than a bully, afraid when a more equal man challenged him. Wharton might just back down a bit.

Unless he Wharton wanted an outright war.

As much as Jude was angry at what Hughes Barratt’s boys had done to her girls, they didn’t seem the type that a smart man would go up against easily. Young, strong, healthy—they knew how to take charge. Most men, good men, protected their wives—she suspected the Barratts would doubly so.

They didn’t seem like evil men, not like the Whartons. Maybe just a bit misguided by that arrogant father of theirs.

 Maybe, maybe it would be enough. But as for her.… She looked at the merchant again and shot him a stubborn look. “No Barratt man’s going to fight my battles for me.”

She looked at her daughter. All of eight seven years old and so, so beautiful. “You stay right here until mama comes back for you. Do you understand me?” Her girls were well behaved girls. Her daughter would stay put. Jude turned and marched right out of the main antechamber of the store.

Where that Barratt had taken Justice Wharton’s youngest son.

It was her life that Barratt was trying to take over. And it was her the Whartons hated the most. If anyone was going to be asking questions, it was going to be Jude.

Hughes Barratt could just mind his own business.

She stomped outside the store, feeling more fire in her soul than had been there in a long, long time.

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