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Hughes’s mind was going as fast as it could, trying to figure a way out of this for all of them. The last thing they needed was bullets flying around the damned mercantile. And that was what it was going to come to as soon as some hot-headed idiot thought shooting the Barratts would get them out of trouble.

Hughes had four daughters-in-law right there in the path of any bullet, as well as Jude. Three of his sons and all three of his brothers. Not to mention Wharton’s youngest, who Hughes had made an unspoken promise to.

The door to the mercantile pushed in one more time.

A young girl walked in, quiet and unsure. “Daddy?”

“Annie!” Alexander said, going straight to her. He grabbed her arm and pulled her behind him. Same as Hughes’s boys had done with their wives.

Justice Wharton watched. “You been here long, boy?”

“No, sir. Just a few days. But this is where I’m staying. I’m going to make something of myself. Right here. And when she’s old enough, Annie has already agreed to marry me.”

Wharton swore. “I’ll have no Finley birthing my grandchildren.”

“You don’t get a say.” Alexander informed him. To Jude’s shock, he wrapped one hand around Ally’s wrist. He pulled her gently, put Annie’s hand in hers. “Ally, will you take Annie out of here? She… has nothing to do with my Pa or any of this. And neither do you.”

Ally and Annie were closest to the door. At Jacob’s nod, they were outside. Outside, and no doubt running to Ally’s new husband, who was out there somewhere.

No Wharton dared move to stop them. Not with the guns pointed the Whartons’ way.

“So how long are we going to just stand here, Pa?” one of the Wharton brothers asked. “I don’t want them to shoot us because of what they did to Clive.”

“What Clive did to us,” Jude said, hotly. “You want to see the scars? Maybe you want to see the scar where Emmy’s bone ripped through the skin when your broke her arm, too? Jedidiah Wharton, you’re no better than a filthy animal. You terrorized us. That was not right. And you all know it.”

“Jami, I want you to take Emmy and Jessi out of here,” Jacob said. “The rest of us… we’re going to talk this out the way we should have before.”

Jessi protested, as did Emmy. Like Jude knew they would. But they obeyed. Finally, it was just Jude and the men.

She studied each face quickly, seeing the difference between a Wharton and a Barratt or her brother. She knew what good men looked like.

Until her eyes landed on Alexander Wharton where he stood.

So young. So alone, even with his daddy right there. It wasn’t right what Wharton had done to her and her family, and it wasn’t right what he’d done to his own son, either.

“Alex, why don’t you go on outside. Check on Annie? She has to be afraid right now.” He was just a boy, really. Not a man at all. Far too young to see the monster his father was. He didn’t need to be here for this. The mother in her couldn’t help but want to protect.

“With all respect, ma’am. This is my father, and I should be here, too. But you… I think my family has done enough. You should get on outside. And home to your daughters.” He turned to one of his brothers. “And you… Jedidiah, shouldn’t you be at home taking care of your own girls? Instead of trying to clean up Clive’s mistake?”

Wharton cursed at his son, foul words that had Jude’s ears practically burning. “You are just a traitor, boy. No good. Should have killed you the day you killed your Mama. Would have saved me years of trouble. You ain’t fit to be a Wharton.”

“Then I won’t be a Wharton any longer!” Alexander seemed to grow two inches right in front of Jude as he straightened. He shifted, putting his body between Jude’s and his father’s somehow. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Hughes. And Jacob. “When Annie agrees to marry me, I’ll be changing my name to Finley.

“Like hell you will. And you’ll never marry that girl. I’ll kill you myself first. Or her.”

*** 

Hughes knew it had gone on long enough. “Harrison, you escort Wharton outside now. Your brothers can get the rest of his boys out of here, too. Wharton, you have one choice. Get out of Barrattville and don’t come back. Or… we’ll see that there’s nothing left of you—or your boys—to send back in a box to where you came from. I can make it happen. Half this town is a Barratt in some way or another. We don’t take our women being threatened lightly. I could shoot you right here, and still make it home in time for dinner, as long as I paid the undertaker to handle your body.”

He watched to make sure the man gathered up his boys and left town, just as fast as they came in. Then he turned to the woman.

He was about ready to turn her over his knee. She had no business stepping between him and Wharton. “Enough is enough, woman. Don’t you have the sense to stay behind me when there is a madman on the loose gunning for you?”

“What are you planning to do?” she asked. “Just swoop me up and carry me away?”

“That sounds like an excellent idea. Finley, that brief discussion we had? Consider it void. I’m taking your sister and going to keep her for eternity, instead of waiting. It is the only way I can be guaranteed she’ll stay out of too much trouble.”

“You…” Jude just stared at him.

Hughes had had enough. They needed to get her and the girls back to the ranch. Before Wharton found his way out there.

Because he knew that was exactly what was going to happen.

He’d gotten Wharton’s measure, all right.

The man didn’t just want Jude. He wanted Jude to hurt as much as humanly as possible.

And that meant going after the girls she loved so much.

Hughes scooped the woman up and carried her to Harrison’s wagon, ignoring all her protests. “Not a word out of you until we’re back at the ranch.”

***

She didn’t have a darned thing to say to that Barratt man. She had needed to be in town today. She just knew it. Needed to confront Wharton herself.

Let him know he would not keep scaring her, controlling her. Dominating her very existence.

No more.

And she’d needed to be there with Hughes, too. To see the two men side by side.

Hughes Barratt was nothing like Justice Wharton, even if he had trampled all over her girls’ rights that first night.

But this…

He scooped her right up and put her in the wagon as if he had the right to her.

Jude was too angry to say a single word.

He rode his horse next to her side of the wagon, his eyes scanning the horizon the entire way. She knew what he was looking for. He and his brothers had recruited ten more men to escort the wagons back to the ranch.

Jude felt like a fool. She hadn’t meant to endanger her nieces. But enough was enough. They had to end this somehow.

To find some sort of resolution. At least to see their ghosts in the light of day again.

So they wouldn’t build the Whartons up into stronger monsters with more power than those beasts really deserved.

Seeing the Whartons next to the Barratts had made that perfectly clear. They were just a bunch of losers who’d had a lot of power in a little town. Nothing important once they were outside the limits of Wharton Town.

Nothing important.

Just mean.

Nothing more than that.

She scurried off the wagon faster than she should have.

Hughes had her number, though.

She’d done exactly as he’d expected.

Hughes arms were waiting for her right there. “Oh, no you don’t.”

“Oh, yes, I do. You aren’t my brother or my husband, after all.”

“No. But I’m the man who has you in my arms right now.” Hughes carried her into his house, even over her own protests. “It was stupid of you to get between me and that bastard.”

“it’s my fight. See this to the end.”

“I’m not sure what happened today was the end, woman.” Hughes glared down at her as he carried her to the soft armchair nearest the hearth. He lowered her onto it gently. “I think you just stirred it up something more fierce than I can think about now. You… and the girls… you are not to step foot outside this house. I’m doubling the guards. That Wharton hasn’t given up yet. And he’ll be coming for you. Mark my words on that.”

“I didn’t mean to make things worse. I just can’t keep taking it, Hughes. I can’t. How can I live my life with him looking for me? I can’t go forward, can’t let my daughters build a life here, either. And my nieces, they can’t just spend their lives hiding out here forever. They deserve so much more. They deserve to be free.

Hughes couldn’t say anything in return. She was right, after all.

All he could do was sit there and hold her for as long as she’d let him.

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