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He wanted to go back with her, to her brother’s place. But Hughes had meetings to attend. He was the wealthiest man in the region, and with that came responsibilities. He intended that money grow. His boys and their families would need that money for their own lives someday.

That was the way he and his wife had wanted. Why they had come to the area to begin with. To build something.

But right now, his priority was Jude. Keeping her safe.

And that meant he had some things to do.

Including stopping off to talk with the TSP Sheriff. The TSP had formed up after the War. For a while there Hughes had considered joining. But he’d had other things to do out at the ranch. Like helping with the boys. He hadn’t taken being a father lightly. He’d wanted to be there for his kids every chance he could.

He was glad he hadn’t joined. Most TSP agents were as dirty as the uniforms they wore. Everyone knew that. They’d had a lot of trouble back in the early ‘70s, and had disbanded for a while in ‘73. A few years back, 1880 or so, a few of them angry at the new Rangers had come back to the area and reformed the TSP. It had grown since then.

Some had been dirty, others not. It was a guess what you’d get when you needed one.

The ones that wore the badge now seem decent enough. At least in his estimation. And it wouldn’t hurt to have the local law besides himself on the lookout for Wharton and his boys.

He’d be telling his brothers and nephews and every friend he had in Barrattville, too.

He completed his mission within half an hour. He wrangled a promise of support from the commander.

The generous donation he made to the man’s fundraiser would go a long way to getting him exactly what he wanted. Hughes wasn’t naïve.

He had one more stop to make. Barratt Hospital.

He stepped into the two-story building and what would be the waiting area.

His daughter-in-law was there, mumbling under her breath, as she measured for curtains. She was scowling when she looked up at him—looking like a redheaded version of her aunt at the moment.

“Mr. Barratt,” she mumbled.

“Honey, you can just call me Pap. If that’s too hard for you, you just call me Hughes. We’re family now. Don’t you forget it. Where’s that husband of yours?”

The girl just blinked at him, untrusting. She had the same eyes as her aunt, too.

“Your son is in the back. And he’s not my husband, he’s my captor. The only reason he married me at all is so I can work for cheap here. I’m not stupid.”

Hughes just laughed. Good to see the girl had some spirit after all. “I strongly doubt that’s the only reason he picked you, girly. Keep up the sass, honey. It’ll help you in the long run. Don’t let him get the upper hand too early, you hear me?”

“Oh, I don’t plan on him getting anything at all from me, Mr. Barratt. You can have my word as a Finley on that.”

*** 

Annie never said a word, not the entire trip back to the ranch. Jude sat next to her, one arm around her, as Mick drove the wagon home. 

Finally, after Mick and the rest headed back inside, Jude turned to her. “Annie? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you I have feelings for Justice Wharton’s son? After what happened? I’d never do that. Not to you, not to my sisters.” But the blue eyes the girl turned on Jude told the full story.

She was so young. There was no way these feelings were real for her. They just couldn’t be. Then again, who was Jude to say what ‘love’ really was for anyone other than herself? “I would have listened.”

Would she have? When it had first happened, the name Wharton had been all it had taken to send Jude in a rage—or a fit of absolute terror. To know one of her nieces had feelings for a Wharton? Well, she didn’t know what she would have thought, felt…

Annie just nodded. “What does it matter, now, anyway?”

“I don’t know. But feelings should always matter. Never be discounted.” That was true for Annie, too, Jude guessed. Maybe she was not quite fifteen, but Annie was still having some awfully powerful feelings. It was written all over the face that Jude liked to think looked a great deal like Annie’s father.

Like Jude herself, too. “Tell me about him. I just remember him as that skinny boy whose britches fell down at the church picnic four years ago.”

“I remember.” Annie sent her a poignant grin. “I gave him a button off my dress from the hem. I had a needle in my bag. I told him how to sew it up. I wasn’t about to do it for him. Not on his britches. He didn’t like a little girl helping.”

“They never do.”

“We… sat beside each other at the school. He’s Janie’s age. But we were doing the same work. Not because he’s not smart or anything like that. It’s just that his daddy wouldn’t let him come to school as often as he wanted. So he was behind. He’s really good at working the ranch. Probably could run one of his own someday. At least, that’s what he wants to do. Dreams about. It would be a small one, at first. With a house he wants to build with his own two hands. He just wants something of his own. Something of his. Not something his daddy made.”

And she heard the longing in the girl’s voice. The longing to be with the boy. To build that dream together. Oh, Annie…

Damn Justice Wharton for hurting her family in so many ways. He’d robbed Annie of the sweet flush of youthful love, too.

And his own son.

“I can understand that.”

“He loves to read books, Aunt Jude. And he wants to prove himself, I think. Prove he’s not like his daddy and the rest. But everything his daddy did… It ruined everything. For all of us. But especially him. He sent me a letter. Right before we left Louisiana. His daddy was keeping him from school. Making him do extra chores to make up for his brother’s loss. All the hands hate it out there, but Alex can’t do anything about it, and none of them can afford to leave, either. I just… What’s he doing here? If his daddy finds him, he’ll beat him again. Worse than before.”

“Again?” 

“Like he’s done before. He says… Alex told me that his daddy blames him for killing his momma when Alex was born. Said if it wasn’t for him, she’d still be here. So whenever he gets mad, he goes after Alex and just beats him. That’s another reason he’d miss school. His dad wouldn’t let him go with all the bruises. I’m glad he got away from him, but if he’s found here—his father and brothers will probably kill him! I don’t know what to do. I’ve loved him since I was twelve. He’s loved me, too. We… I’ve missed him so much. And I want to help him, but I can’t!”

She threw herself into Jude’s arms, sobbing.

Jude just held her and rocked and whispered empty reassurances until Jacob came out to see what was wrong with his daughter.

Poor girl. She bawled like her heart was breaking.

Jude knew it was.

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