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“Did I now?” Hughes Barratt inspected the little rabbit in front of him. She had the clear look of her nieces, but the hair was a honey brown. She was older than his gaggle of pretty little daughters-in-law, for sure. But she wasn’t much past thirty, he didn’t think. Finley’s widowed sister, then.

Hughes had made a point of learning exactly who was at that usurper’s place before he’d put his plan into action. Finley had had no business making that shady deal with Hughes’ brother-in-law. He’d stolen some prime ranch land right out from under Hughes and four of his sons. He wouldn’t take that lightly.

Had his brother-in-law been all that was left of Hughes’s wife, Hughes would have just arrested him and turned him over to be dealt with as the thief he was.

That property had been meant for his eldest son Turner and three of his other sons. Not some Northerner with twelve females and an invalid sister to take care of.

Twelve girls to take care of, plus this woman who didn’t look so invalid to him. He could almost feel sorry for the poor bastard. Way Hughes looked at it, he’d done Finley a favor taking four of the girls off his hands all in one swoop.

With the pretty looks of this little female—and she was definitely little, at slightly less than five feet, he guessed, maybe a hundred pounds on a good meal day—Finley would lose her and her four kids soon, too.

Woman like her, with that sweet face, soft looking mouth and all those curls, she wouldn’t stay unmarried around here for long. Even past the age of thirty.

In fact, that would be a draw for some men. They’d want a wife with some years behind her, so she would know exactly what she was getting herself into out here in Barrattville.

Hughes had two brothers himself who would be happy to take this female off her brother’s hands.

Another reason he’d moved quickly on Finley’s daughters.

Women were outnumbered around here eight to one.

If a man was in search of a wife, he had to act quick when he found one. Before she was snapped up right out from underneath his nose. Even by his own brothers.

Pretty little female in front of him, her days were numbered for sure. Of course, rumor had it she came with four young ones of her own. That could make a man think twice. Four extra mouths to feed would be quite a burden for most of the ranches around here. His excluded, of course.

“My nieces, Mr. Barratt? I wish to see them. Immediately.”

“They’ll be down in a bit. I had the cook prepare a nice breakfast for them. Well, at least the three that are still here.”

Three?” Her look of horror and fear insulted him. Hughes stepped closer, just to intimidate. Did she think his boys were monsters, then? They’d wanted wives. They wouldn’t harm those girls. Barratt men treated their wives like goddesses. Everyone in these parts knew that. “Who? Which one? Where is she?”

“Relax yourself. Turner took his little redheaded spitfire up to his own place, still dressed in those britches of hers. It’s where he lives, after all. I expect his brothers will do the same once they finish getting their places built.”

Jessi? Oh, dear heaven. She must be so frightened.” Tears were in the blue eyes that looked up at him then. Damn. Woman had some power in those eyes. “How do I get up there to her?”

“Now wait just a damned minute. You aren’t going to just go walking up there. It’s five miles north of here. Top edge of the property, by the creek. But there are rattlers and scorpions and all sorts of trouble. You’ll see your niece when my boy sees fit to let you.”

The tears she couldn’t hold back just pissed him off. They were tears of anger, too. Hughes wrapped his hands around her arms and yanked her to him.

He froze when she cried out… in pain.

***

Footsteps came running in to the kitchen as Mr. Barratt set her back down. Jude rubbed the arm that she could barely use and looked toward the back of the kitchen. A blonde with the same blue eyes Jude had inherited from her own mama was coming her way.

Thank heavens. “Izzy!”

“Aunt Jude!” Her third eldest niece ran to her. Jude wrapped her good arm around her. “I heard you yell. Did he hurt you? They’re all ogres here! Can we go home now?”

Oh, how she wished she could say yes. It was obvious that Izzy wasn’t happy. Her niece was happiest outside with her gardens and her animals than inside dealing with people. She was a quiet, sweet, loving young girl who hadn’t deserved to be carted away from her father over some stranger’s saddle. Izzy… Izzy needed routine, and quiet, and soft words. Crowds of people and sudden change were enough to send the girl into a flurry of fear.

A tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-twenties followed her into the kitchen. He watched her closely, like he was expecting trouble out of Izzy. Who’d not been a moment of trouble her entire life.

An ogre—like a creature in one of Izzy’s beloved books.

Dear Heavens, what had he done to her? Her niece still wore the dress she’d had on when the men had shown up. Her hair had been brushed and redressed. There were no marks on her that Jude could see.

But that meant little. He could have hurt her niece in so many other ways. “Where’re your sisters? Did he hurt you?”

“We heard you yell,” Izzy’s twin Emmaline came up behind her. The slightly younger, smaller twin glared at all the men surrounding them, including the one who’d come down the stairs behind her. “How did you get here? Does Dad know you’re here? What about the children? That other one took Jessi away.”

Jude brushed a hand over Emmy’s cheek. Her lips were swollen. As if she’d been thoroughly kissed just moments before. Fear coated Jude’s heart. But… there was still fire in Emmy’s eyes. Not broken pain. “I… I came to check on your girls.”

“Dad doesn’t know you left, then. Does he?”

Jude shook her head. No. Jacob didn’t. He’d have pitched a proper fit if he did. She’d waited and snuck away when she could. There was no way she could have just left her girls to their fates today. “I just… I had to see you girls for myself. Make sure… I know how frightened you all must have been.”

Are. She could still see how frightened they were. Jude just opened her arms.

Emmy and Izzy were in her arms again in an instant.

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