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Jude wasn’t fooling herself. She didn’t love him. Not yet. Not as little as they’d known each other. But she knew the truth—genuine love grew. It didn’t just hit you like a firestorm. That was just lust. Real love, real love, would grow. 

She wanted to give that a chance. If she wasn’t so frightened. 

“I need to speak to Jacob.” 

“I probably need to speak to him. Do this right. Ask permission, the way my boys should have.”

Jude just looked at him like he had lost his mind. The man was absolutely maddening. No doubt about that. And serious. “I am a thirty-two-year-old woman, Hughes Barratt. I make up my own mind. About men, or anything else I choose to. I don’t need my brother’s permission to be with a man. In any way.”

He scooped her into his arms, but he was gentle. So, so gentle. Jude doubted he’d ever do anything to physically hurt a woman, even though he was a good two inches and fifty pounds heavier than that bully Wharton.

She felt safe in his arms—and she had since the moment he’d lifted her out of her brother’s wagon that night and carried her into her home.

“I tell you what, you let me talk to your brother about courting you properly and I’ll give you a week to decide about when you want to marry me. But by next Sunday, you will have Barratt in your name. Or I’ll carry you off just like my boys did their girls. You remember that. Just carry you off and love you forever.”

And then he had her back on the hay and was kissing her in a way she hadn’t been kissed in far too long.

Before she knew it, Jude was overseeing the girls’ packing a few of their belongings into the wagon.

They were going to the Barratt Ranch. And she didn’t know how long they’d be staying.

She was going… right where he wanted her.

But that didn’t mean he’d won her. Not yet. Just… not yet.

She needed time to think.

When Jude made her way into the kitchen of Hughes’s place the next morning—well after he’d snuck into her room after all in the house were asleep—she was greeted by a sight she hadn’t expected to see. The botanist, of all things, was wrapped around her niece, Ally, right there in the middle of his daddy’s kitchen. 

As she watched, his hand snaked up into Ally’s light brown hair and started pulling the pins free. 

As if he’d done just that to her niece before. Or maybe Barratt men just had that confidence ingrained in their very soul. Ally’s fingers were on his shirt, going right for the newfangled snap fasteners.

As if she’d done that before, too. Well. Jude hadn’t expected that.

Jude cleared her throat. “Allison Finley!”

The two young lovers sprang apart. Guilt covered her niece’s face. “Aunt… Aunt Jude. I…”

Jude held up a hand. Who was she to judge? She’d just spent the last hour and a half being thoroughly kissed and loved—stopping just short of the full thing—in her very own borrowed bed. She hadn’t been protesting, either. Of course, she wasn’t an innocent girl, either. “Do you know his intentions? There are consequences to this kind of thing. You have to remember that. Do nothing you can’t live with in the morning.”

Ally’s cheeks flamed. She looked at the tall man next to her. He had the clear look of his daddy about him. There was fire in his eyes when he looked at her Ally. “Entirely honorable. I’d marry her right now if she’d just say yes.”

“How can you know if we want to spend the rest of our lives together already? You…you know nothing about me.” She sent a bewildered look at Jude. Jude just smiled and shook her head.

She’d asked Hughes that very question just a few hours ago. His ‘I just know it.’ hadn’t exactly been an answer.

“I know you make me hotter than any other woman has. I know that everything you say both fascinates me and drives me insane, lady. I want things from you I’ve never wanted from a woman, and I’ll be damned if I will not have them. And had I been there that night my brothers married, I would have carried you off, too, with just one look. In fact…” 

Right before Jude’s eyes, he scooped Ally off her feet and started toward the front of the house—bellowing for his brother.

Mick. The preacher. The botanist was yelling for his brother to get his ass down there to marry him off, too.

People came running to see what the commotion was about.

Ally wasn’t fighting him a lick, either.

In fact, if Jude wasn’t mistaken… there was a smile teasing at her niece’s lips. And Ally’s hands weren’t pushing the man away. Ally was holding on to him for dear life. As if she wanted him to carry her away, too.

 ***

Hughes was beyond proud of his boy Jackson. Jackson had seen a problem and he’d solved it. Just carried that girl right into the study and hadn’t let her out until she’d agreed to marry him. Jackson was his quietest boy, slow and contemplative. Nice to see he could move quick if he needed to. When the time was right.

He had himself a fifth daughter-in-law before breakfast. 

He couldn’t think of a better start to his day than that. 

Well, maybe he could. If little Jude hadn’t kicked him from her bed when her littlest woke. Said she didn’t want none of the children to catch him anywhere near her in her nightclothes. All he’d done was touch her a bit, hold her. Get them both riled up with wanting each other.

She was teasing him something fierce, but he’d have her. It was just a matter of time.

Just a matter of time until he got a sixth daughter-in-law, too. Though that might prove harder to come by, seeing as how Mick was the only preacher around these parts. 

Though he’d thought he’d heard Tom McGarath talking about his own son-in-law coming to visit soon from up in Kentucky. Boy was a protestant minister, Hughes thought. It was worth paying Tom a visit. See if he could get things squared up for Mick and his Janie, too, for when the girl finally changed her mind.

Though… Hughes studied the tallest of the girls for a moment. 

She was quietly resisting Mick with everything she had. And his boy was looking mighty frustrated.

Hughes had heard her tell her aunt rather smartly that she wasn’t about to tie herself body and soul to a man who thought there was nothing really wrong with carrying a woman off into the night and forcing a marriage on her. Thought there was nothing wrong with a preacher seeing nothing wrong with it most of all.

That as a spiritual leader among men, Mick had to be held to a higher standard than the rest.

He had to say though, Hughes admired her spirit. Of course, his Mick was exceptionally obstinate when it was needed, too.

The boy would have that girl, eventually. Mick was a Barratt, after all.

But… they’d probably have some seriously stubborn little ones of their own someday. Hughes was looking forward to it.

***

Two days. She’d been at his place for two days, watching for herself as her nieces settled in. Ally was having the easiest time of it—but she was the only one who had willingly chosen her man. Even if Jackson had been rather fast to get her wedded and bedded. Ally had a glow about her cheeks—a glow Jude remembered well from her own honeymoon all those years ago.

She’d always miss her late husband. Just as she suspected Hughes would always miss his sons’ mother. It was an inevitable part of life, grief.

That didn’t mean she had to spend her days alone.

There was a maddening man hellbent on making her his wife right there.

Hughes had run to town, taking two of his boys with him. His house wasn’t exactly stocked for fourteen extra mouths to feed—Jacob was traveling back and forth between the places, with some of Hughes’s hands to help him do what he had to do. People needed food.

It wasn’t ideal. But it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been.

She was rather enjoying it. Especially knowing they were safe here.

Unless Wharton showed up with an army of his own, Hughes and his men outnumbered anything Wharton could bring.

She didn’t like having Hughes away, though. It didn’t feel right.

She felt itchy. Like something bad was about to happen.

Jude had learned years ago when she had those kinds of feelings to pay attention.

Something was going to happen. She just knew it.

***

They came riding into town like they owned the place. A good ten men on some horseflesh that was decent. Not as good as that which Hughes owned, but decent enough to say their owners were well off. He saw them from the window of the store he owned with his brother.

Four of them dismounted, including the man at the front.

They barged into the mercantile looking cocky and bold. Hughes and his brother and Tom McGareth straightened. They’d all seen their fair share of time in the War Between the States twenty or so years ago. They’d seen men like this before.

His brother’s new clerk came out of the back room and stopped, paled. “Pa.”

The man a few years older than Hughes’s turned and cursed. “There you are, you little—”

The curses the man heaped on his own boy’s head just pissed Hughes off something fierce. From what little he’d seen of Alexander Wharton, he was a good kid.

Already talking to Hughes’s brother about taking the money he’d saved up through the years and buying himself a homestead in a few years. So he could support a family of his own. He made no secret he was in love with Annie Finley. The boy wanted that family with her. How the girl felt wasn’t as clear. She was damned young to even be considering it.

Jude was worried about her, but Hughes had a feeling things had a way of working themselves out.

McGareth’s son-in-law was moving to Texas, bringing McGareth’s daughter home where she belonged. She’d moved back to Kentucky when her mama took off, leaving Tom behind. The wife had said Texas wasn’t for her.

Well, now the girl wanted to be with her daddy for a while, and her husband was henpecked. Did whatever she wanted, McGareth said. Well, Hughes could understand that. Jude could henpeck him all she wanted—if she’d just get started at it.

Dealing with this sonofabitch would go along way in convincing her she could do just that. But Hughes wasn’t a fool; he wasn’t about to get cocky.

“You’d be Justice Wharton?” Hughes asked, straightening his spine. He fought looking toward the window. Jude and some of the girls were on their way to town today, to buy fabric and such to make the girls some new dresses. He’d stopped by to talk to his brother, see if the fabrics he’d requested had made it in yet.

He didn’t want her riding straight into this sonofabitch and those slovenly looking boys of his.

“Who would you be?”

“Hughes Barratt. I’m the man going to marry Jude Handley as soon as she says yes. I’m also the father-in-law to five of Finley’s daughters, soon to be to the sixth. So why don’t you tell me what I can help you with here in Barrattville.” Hughes glanced at the door as Tucker and Turner stepped inside. His boys stood a head taller than any of the ones who’d come with Wharton and looked fit and strong—and intimidating. “Hear you may have come all the way from near Louisiana searching for the Finleys.”

That was all it took. His boys understood what Hughes was saying.

Turner straightened, Tucker’s scowl deepened. They came to stand at Hughes’s shoulders.

Every man in the place was armed. Hughes knew Wharton hadn’t missed that. Not just Hughes and his boys—but his brother and Tom and Tom’s own boy who’d saw his daddy inside the store and stopped to talk.

“This is Justice Wharton? The bastard who left my wife bleeding in a damned alley?” Turner asked, fury in his tone. He always had been Hughes’s most passionate, impulsive son. Hughes put a hand on his shoulder to keep his boy contained. Hughes understood.

He’d seen the scars on his little firebird for himself.

“Well, well, so they got themselves some protectors,” Wharton said, snickering. “Isn’t that nice? Just who are you? I want to get the names right on your headstones.”

“Now, see, that’s just not going to happen,” a drawling voice said from behind Wharton. Hughes looked over the smaller man’s shoulder.

There were his two younger brothers, Warren and Archer. Warren had been the one to speak. Outside the door, Hughes could just see a crowd of Barrattville men—surrounding the five Whartons who’d remained outside.

Jacob Finley stepped into the mercantile.

There was fury on his face. Fury and pain.

The hell the man had gone through because of Wharton was something Hughes would never forget.

Wharton took one look at Finley and smirked again. Man was crazy or stupid.

Finley stepped closer.

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