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Jude let every bit of pent-up anger and fear and frustration loose on the man in front of her. It didn’t matter that she was at least a foot shorter or a hundred pounds lighter. What mattered was that he’d taken a part of her family away from her and they were scared and hurt.

Once her nieces had signed the marriage licenses, once those monsters had them in their marriage beds, there had been no hope for her girls to escape.

Those Barratts had just changed the girls’ futures with no real consideration for Jami, Jessi, Emmy or Izzy at all. Just like that monster near Louisiana. Just like his sons, who’d tried to hurt her and Jami and Jessi that day. Jude struck out at the man in front of her. Wanting to hurt him as much as she was hurting inside.

She hurt herself probably ten times more than she ever did him. She hadn’t had full use of her left arm since the knife had sliced through her skin that day, even moving it or pressure against it pained her considerably. Striking a rock wall certainly wasn’t helping her. He grunted once, then his arms were tight around her again, pinning her own to her sides.

He fell to the side, taking her to the hay with him. Jude reared her head back to scream. Not that it would do much good.

Just how vulnerable a position she had put herself in hit her like a two-ton ox right in the face.

She looked up at the man still holding her as fear rapidly replaced the fury.


Finally. Foolish woman had realized what position she’d put herself in, hadn’t she?

Hughes kept his arms tight around her, and his body over hers, pushing her into the soft, fresh hay behind her. He felt every inch of the beautiful woman beneath him, and his body was doing what a man’s body was meant to do. “Shh, spitfire. No one is going to hurt you again. No one’s going to hurt you ever again.”

She gasped and tried to buck him off her. All that did was push his hips into hers more fully.

She stilled. Wary blue eyes stared up at him, knowing. He smiled. This woman had had four children. She knew exactly how a man’s body worked.

“Get off of me.” She tried to free her arms, but he wouldn’t let her. “What are you going to do? Keep me here all day until I suffocate? My brother will find me soon. He’s going to come for his daughters as soon as he finds the law around here.”

Hughes laughed. He couldn’t help himself; he kissed the little termagant right on that cute little nose of hers. Her gasp sealed her fate. Had his mind turning to his son’s earlier words.

A woman in his own bed again.

It was making sense. Sounding like a good idea, now that he’d thought about it. He was just past forty-five, still plenty of life left in him. He wanted a woman again.

Hughes wanted this woman, to be exact.

He’d be kissing her a lot more places as soon as they worked out some details. “I am the law around these parts. Me, and the TSP, but I wouldn’t count on their help. I already ran our little problem by them in the saloon. They’re on my side. I would have kicked your brother out last night if my boys hadn’t wanted to negotiate for wives. Don’t you worry about them girls, spitfire. I swear to you, a Barratt man takes good care of his female. It’s a matter of family pride.”

Her lack of belief in what he said was right there on her face. “My girls don’t need a man to take care of them, they just want to be at home with their family. Living their own lives. And my brother bought Finley Creek fair and square.” She raised her chin. “I gave him all of my money to do it. Finley Creek is just as much mine and my children’s as it is Jacob’s and my nieces’. It’s my home. You would have thrown twelve young girls out into the cold just because you could? The devil has a firm hold on your soul, doesn’t he?”

“You’d better believe it.” He didn’t know why he’d said it. He certainly would not have thrown a family with so many children—even though the older girls were all full grown—out into the night. He was a better man than that. But he for damned sure wasn’t giving the Finleys back the money his brother-in-law had absconded with. That was their problem, and their punishment for being so foolish for trusting that asshole. “The deed in my brother-in-law’s name had been forged. I got the papers to prove it. If I took your brother—and you—to court, you’d never win. As it is, my boys got what—who—they wanted, your nieces got husbands who can provide for them, and who will not hurt them, your brother has four fewer mouths to feed. It works out well for all of us. Consider that ranch their dowry if you’d like.”

“So, we sold the girls to you for land? That’s archaic, barbaric!” She tried wiggling beneath him again. Hughes almost groaned at the feel of soft woman beneath him for the first time in a few years.

“Stay still, woman. Or we may end up working on your number five and my number seven here in my barn right now.”

She froze beneath him. Panic entered the blue eyes again. “Don’t.”

“I want to. I think we both know that. I wouldn’t mind taking this old dress right off you and getting better acquainted, if you were more willing. But I know you’re not. Tell me, what damage did you do to your arm?” He reached down between them and encircled her left wrist. He pulled her arm up carefully until the sleeve slid back. The muscle was withered, and a scar bisected her arm almost from wrist to armpit. It was a nasty injury, and he could see how the muscle pulled unnaturally. “I didn’t mean to hurt you inside. Tell me, how did this happen?”

“Some men just like you and your sons, that’s how it happened.” She practically spit it at him, then her expression turned so broken his breath caught. “They decided they wanted Jami, Jessi, and me. And they didn’t like it when we said no. But we fought, and we fought. And all three of us nearly died. Does that answer your questions? Jami can’t stand to be around strong men anymore. Any men other than her father, really. They terrify her. And Jessi refuses to dress like the female she is, and she’ll fight anyone who gets too close. Just so she doesn’t draw any man’s attention again. Blames herself, I think. They’re scared, so terribly, terribly scared. That’s why we came here. To get away. To stay safe. Because those men’s father and brothers wouldn’t leave us alone. And then your sons yanked them away from the only safety they really know. They’re trapped here and you’re just like those other men! Taking without asking. Damn you. Damn you all!” She bucked against him again as the tears welled and flowed freely.

Hughes didn’t know of a damned thing he could do but lie there in the hay and hold her until the grief and anguish stopped. He just kept telling her over and over that she would be just fine. That he’d make sure of it, no matter what he had to do.

He looked toward the barn entrance at the son standing there. Tucker nodded his understanding. They’d talk later. His son had a tough road to travel with that little redheaded waif of his. He hoped the boy realized that.

Hughes shifted until he could hold the woman in his arms more fully. He didn’t want to trap her arm between them. If he had his way, he’d find the sonofabitch that had hurt her and those girls and show him how justice worked in Barrattville.

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