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Leave it to small, crying females to make Hughes feel like the ogre the one girl had called him. He had to admit, when they’d hatched their plan on how to deal with Finley’s umbrage, the girls themselves hadn’t factored much into things at all. His boys needed wives, and he’d ensured they knew how to properly care for and provide for a wife.

And then he’d did his damnedest to provide those wives.

The rest was up to his boys. Of course, they weren’t boys now. Turner and Tucker were close to twenty-nine now. Harrison was a year behind, and Hendrick was about a year behind him. McKinley was close to twenty-six, Jackson had just turned twenty-five. The younger two boys hadn’t known what was going on until they’d showed up with the girls last night and insisted McKinley, his preacher son, perform the wedding service.

The girls had cooperated, but he knew they weren’t too happy yet.

That was up to his sons to fix.

Shocked the hell out of him when the boys agreed to the plan. But he supposed they had their reasons. And not just face-saving around Barrattville after the theft of that spread. He suspected they all had different wants from their wives right now.

Especially Turner. He’d been close enough to his eldest son to hear what Turner had said to the little redhead he’d spirited away. Turner had known the girl well enough to tell her he’d promised he’d get her somehow. That she was his now. Hughes understood what that meant.

His boy had gone hunting, and he’d found the little bird he’d wanted.

Hughes smiled. When a Barratt man found the woman that was his, he knew it. Nothing would keep him from getting her. He had high hopes for his eldest son’s marriage. As soon as the two figured things out between them. Hadn’t surprised him at all that Turner had hauled the girl up to his place the night before. He understood the fire burning in his son. It had been fifteen years since he’d felt that same fire for his own woman, bless her departed soul.

Turner wanted time with her without her being distracted by her three sisters.

The last of the girls came into the kitchen, looking faint and terrified. Hughes frowned. What had Tucker, his second son and a doctor, done to her to make her look like that? His son was glaring at the girl, his anger almost visible.

She took one look at her aunt and started crying, begging to go home. The aunt was bawling again, too.

Ogres. Bull shit. Not his boys. He jerked his head at his son. He wanted answers. Tucker followed him into the hall. “What the hell did you do to the girl?”

“Not a damned thing. Told her she could have a few weeks to get used to the idea of having a husband before I touched her that way. But that I would sleep beside her every night from here on out. Keep her safe. Then I kissed her. Girl went crazy on me. Think I scared her.” Tucker pointed to the scratches on his cheek. “I didn’t mean to, but she’s ready to bolt.”

“Take a gentle hand to break that one to saddle, then. Wonder if your brothers fared better?”

“What about the aunt? What’s she doing here?”

“Trekked over here on her own, I reckon. On foot, of all things. Finley doesn’t know. Seems to think we’re all monsters who hurt her girls.”

“She’s stirring up trouble. Making them think they’re going to go home. Best get her gone. I’m taking Jami down to my place after I feed her. I still need to do some work on the back of the house, but it’s best to start the way I mean for us to go on. Plenty for her to do up there already. Make it into a home. And I need to get my office and clinic set up.”

“Expect your brothers will feel the same. Then it’ll just be me and Mick and Jack in this house. Not sure how I feel about that.”

“Get you another wife, old man. Someone to keep you company when the nights get cold.”

Hughes snorted. “Few women my age running around this part, Tuck. And I’ll leave the young ones to you boys. Can’t stand all the sniveling.”

“Would think the benefits outweigh the sniveling. I’ll find out by month’s end. Sooner, if I have my way.”

“You will. You’re a Barratt, after all.”

“Yes, I am. Now, think you can get rid of the aunt before she gets my wife all riled up against me again?”

“I’ll take care of her.” He had other things he could do, but… he wanted to deal with the aunt. She was far more intriguing than cattle.

Hughes probably at least owed her an apology for grabbing her. He hadn’t realized his grip had been all that hard.

He’d never truly hurt a woman before in his life. He wasn’t about to start now.

She was in the kitchen still, telling those girls to keep faith. That their father was going to try to do his best to get them all home where they belonged. Anger sparked in him. His boys didn’t need her undermining anything they’d accomplished with their new wives the night before. “Girls, I’ll be taking your aunt home now. Say your goodbyes and turn your attentions toward your husbands, where it belongs. Time you trained the boys up right. Your aunt is just stirrin’ up trouble. As for you…”

He grabbed the woman’s left arm and turned her toward him smartly. He couldn’t help it, he wanted his hands on her.

She cried out again. He immediately let go as it settled in that she was injured there. He started to ask her what in the hell was going on, but one girl kicked him in the shin and yelled at him to leave her aunt alone.

Well, hell. Not exactly how he expected this morning to go. He hadn’t expected his daughters-in-law to be happy about their new lot, but women out here understood how it was. Men needed wives, and they snapped them up when they found them. Any woman would be lucky to be nabbed by a Barratt man.

Of course, the little woman next to him probably didn’t know that yet, seeing as how she wasn’t from around here. He’d just have to educate her.

Harrison grabbed the kicking girl and wrapped her tight in his arms. He lifted her off the floor and out of Hughes’s way. “Sorry, Dad. Forgot to warn you about my wife.”

“I am not your wife,” the blue-eyed blonde snapped. “None of us were truly willing. Doesn’t that count for something around here? Or are you that desperate for a woman? Can’t get any decent woman to look at you?”

Harrison swatted the girl on the behind and she yelled out indignantly.

Hughes felt a small bit of envy for his son. Girl was so spirited. Harrison was going to have his hands full with this one. But his son could handle himself just fine.

The aunt picked up the frying pan from the shelf and brandished it at Harrison. “Don’t you hit her, you stupid ox!”

Whoa. This was going to degenerate fast, the way this was going. Hughes grinned. So the aunt had a temper, too. It had fire in her eyes and color in her cheeks that made her look far too pretty for a man’s peace of mind.

Interesting. Any man she considered marrying would probably need to be warned about that. Still, pretty woman with spirit—guy would be a lucky bastard, all around, wouldn’t he?

He yanked the skillet out of her hand and tossed it to the floor with a clang. If she connected with one of his boys’ heads, it would do some damage.

She turned on him, her cheeks bright red and so very pretty. “You’re all bastards, every one of you! But especially you! They are just girls! And you took them from their family with no thought or care for them. Like what they want didn’t matter at all. You’ll rot for this.”

Hughes had heard enough. Heard the genuine pain and fear. But it was the tears that got to him the most. He went in low, avoiding her left side as much as he could. He scooped the aunt up over his shoulder, ignoring her shrieking and the girls’ yelling, and carried her out of his house.  

Little troublemaker. Someone was going to have to deal with her. Away from the girls. Before she got them all riled up again.

He didn’t put her down until he got her to the barn.

When he did, she erupted. Her claws went straight for his eyes. Damn it. He didn’t want to have to hurt her.

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