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Hughes summed up the young man within a few moments. He wasn’t a threat. But he was a precursor of one to come. It was best, in Hughes’s experience, to meet that kind of thing head on. “You give me your message, boy. I’ll take care of the Finleys.”

“My father… He’s not right in the head. He always preferred Clive over the rest of us because Clive was the oldest. Clive was dog mean. Angry. My dad is bound and determined to get to Mrs. Handley. Annie’s aunt is just a real nice lady my father got interested in. I hate to see her hurt even more because of my father and brothers. She and her husband and Annie’s parents were always real nice. Until…”

“Where is your father now?”

“Last I heard, he was searching north Louisiana. That’s where the townspeople said Mr. Finley had kin. But… Annie always said her daddy talked about coming to Texas someday. So I figured if I was running, I wouldn’t go anywhere near my kin. I wouldn’t want trouble finding them, either. I’d go someplace no one knew about. So I came this way. Been searching Texas ever since.”

Smart boy. Hughes just nodded.

“I just… Annie’s ok? Nothing bad’s happened to her? And all the rest of them?”

Annie again. That was what drove the boy. Hughes would lay good money on that. He This boy was gone over Finley’s seventh daughter. “Girls are all fine with their father. Older four are my daughters-in-law now. Well protected. I’m seeing to that.”

Relief was in his eyes. “Good. Because my father really wants to hurt them. Says they murdered Clive in cold blood. But it wasn’t like that. I was there, and I tried to stop it. Ran for the sheriff myself, but he wouldn’t do nothing.” The boy’s stomach growled while he talked. His cheeks flushed. “Clive shot them all first. It was just lucky that Annie’s sister got off a shot in time to stop him from shooting them all again.”

Hughes studied him again. Awful skinny and ragged to have a daddy with that as much money as his daughter-in-law had said. “How long you been out here on your own?”

He would have been beyond pissed if one of his boys was out on his own at seventeen, though Hughes and Hollis and Warren and Archer had all been younger when they’d had to face the world with just themselves to depend on.

They’d all done all right for themselves. But it had been a real struggle. A struggle he hadn’t wanted his own boys to face.

A father’s job was to make the world better, easier, for his children. Not worse.

“A while now. Let my dad a note telling was going out to make my way in the world. Build my empire, like he did. With my own two hands. Only, I will not hurt people to make it happen. I will not be like that. Be like them.

That’s when he saw it, the fire in the boy’s eyes. The passion. Hughes understood. “Get yourself back in the mercantile. We’ll talk to Jude Finley in there. And my brother’s looking for a store clerk. I own half the mercantile. You do an honest day’s work, you’ll get an honest day’s pay. You can sleep in the back barn until you can get yourself settled better. We’ll deliver your warning to Finley together.”

The boy’s spine straightened. “I don’t want to scare them. Annie, Ally, Janie, the others. I never had a problem with any of them.”

“Let’s get you inside. Talk to Hollis. We’ll take it from there.” This was not a turn he would have expected at all.

 ***

There they were. Hughes Barratt and Alexander Wharton. Talking about her life, as if either of them had that right. The Wharton boy was a good size boy. But Hughes, that damned Barratt man, dwarfed him. She studied Barratt man again, standing with her arms over her chest. He was strong and sure and carried a pistol at his waist.

 It wasn’t like before; she realized. Before, it had just been her brother, Jude, and all the girls. The townspeople were all so scared of Wharton, they’d had no help at all.

Now she had not only her brother to protect her and the girls, she had four strapping nephews-by-marriage. Ready to stand between the Whartons and their wives.

And if she could trust what he said, she had Hughes Barratt, too.

But he wasn’t about to get her in return. Not the way she knew the man wanted her.

“What are you doing with him?” She stepped right in the big man’s path. Forcing him to look right at her.

Alexander looked at her nervously, then nodded. Before she could think of anything to say to him, the boy rushed inside the store.

“He’s going to be working here. At the Mercantile. I own it with my brother. We’ve been needing someone since Mick took over the church. Boy will be sleeping in the barn and working in the store. Earning his keep.”

Jude shivered. The last thing the girls or Jude wanted was a Wharton in town. “And his family?”

“Let’s go see what he has to say. You can ask him questions yourself.”

Jude was going to do just that.

The boy was speaking to the Barratt man’s brother. He paused and just looked at her as her daughter ran to her side.

“What about your family?” Jude demanded. He was the youngest Wharton, she thought. But he was still so darned big. He looked like a full grown man standing there and not the boy she remembered.

“I don’t know. I took off the night Bob told him he thought y’all headed to north Louisiana, ma’am.”

“Bob Decker?”

“Yes. My father wanted to ask him some questions.”

Bob been a good friend of her brother’s during the war when they’d been only twenty-one.

He’d been the one to warn them the night they’d left their home and fled. Thank God for Bob.

“Yes, Mrs. Handley. I told him. I told him what I heard my brothers saying that afternoon. He said, he said you’d go to Louisiana. That’s what we were going to tell my pa.”

“Do your brothers know you talked to Bob?”

He shook his head. “No, ma’am. If they did, well, I probably wouldn’t be standing here in front of you today. They’d have beaten me to death.”

She nodded. He had a point there. If he was telling the truth. She wasn’t saying she trusted him. But there was something in his eyes.

Someone shouted behind her. She turned. Two Barratt men—with Ally, Janie, and Annie—had just walked inside the store. She did not know what they were doing there now.

Annie stopped walking right where she was. Stared. Tears ran down her cheeks. Jude’s breath caught at the look that passed between Annie and the Wharton boy.

“Annie!” Alexander took a step toward her shyest, quietest niece.

Alex!”

That’s when Jude understood.

There was a look in the boy’s eyes that told her everything she needed to know.

Annie had never said.

Of course, Annie never said much at all.

Annie kept all her secrets close to her chest.

Apparently, the family had missed the biggest secret of all.

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