She’d cried herself to sleep. In his arms. Of course, it might have to do with the fact that he wouldn’t let her go, but Hughes refused to think of it that way. He suspected she’d been up all night, scared and worried for the girls. Reliving old nightmares. Guilt at his part—the largest part—in her suffering ate at him.
He didn’t regret getting wives for his sons. Maybe the manner of it. He’d been angry when he’d gotten back from tracking down his brother-in-law up in New York all these months. And he’d acted first. Maybe the smart thing would have been to talk to Finley and work something out. Trade that old ranch for the woman in his arms instead of the four girls?
No. He couldn’t see her agreeing to that.
The two of them could have come to an actual agreement, then let his boys court Finley’s girls, if they’d all been so inclined. It could have happened that way. They were the closest neighbors for miles. Proximity would have played a big hand in securing the girls for his sons. All they’d had to do was wait; it would have happened eventually if it was meant to.
Barratt men didn’t wait all that well.
Still, Hughes had been one to not look back in life. What was done, was done. Now they had to move forward. Build the life they had. One day at a time. He thought about carrying the aunt into the house and putting her in a nice soft bed somewhere—his, specifically. But then decided against it. He grabbed a saddle blanket from the rail and cover her with it. She turned on her right side and curled up, looking so damned soft and sweet he cursed quietly.
He had to be a dozen years older than the woman. Had six grown sons to her four young daughters. He had no business thinking what he was thinking when he looked at her. But he was thinking it, all right.
He was a Barratt man, after all. And they always knew what they wanted from a woman.
No matter what he was going to have to do, he’d have this woman under his roof before the month was out.
Wedded and bedded, and tucked in tight with him.
If he had his way, he’d have her in his bed long before that.
He leaned back on the hay next to her and she shifted closer, seeking his warmth. A honey-colored tress of hair fell over her cheek. He brushed it aside, then played with it for a long while as he planned.
Yep, he was going to keep her.
She was destined to be a Barratt woman, just like those nieces of hers.
She just didn’t know it yet.
Hughes gave the woman an hour to sleep, figuring any more than that, and he’d have her brother show up demanding answers. He tried shaking her awake.
She didn’t stir. He tried again. No response. He almost yelled at the fool woman.
Finally, it sank in that something more was going on with her than he knew.
He scooped her into his arms as gently as he could. She was completely limp in his arms and weighed less than a bag of feed. Too small, too thin. Was she ill?
She was supposed to be an invalid, after all. He needed answers to his questions.
Hughes carried her into the house, yelling for his second son. Tucker was the damned doc in Barrattville. If the woman needed a doctor, Tucker was right there.
He was met at the door to the kitchen by the boys and their wives. Tucker stepped forward. “Dad? What’s happened?”
“She won’t wake up.”
The redhead—quiet little waif that she had appeared at first—sprang into sudden action. Suddenly, it was like the girl was the one in charge of all of them. “Emmy, boiling water and rags. Mr. Barratt, she’s needs a bed, and quickly. I suspect she’s hurting again. She shouldn’t have walked all the way over here. She’s just not strong enough. Izzy, come. You can help me get her cleaned up. Why is there hay all over her?”
He was met by three pairs of accusing blue eyes. “We were just in the barn trying to work out some details.”
“I just bet you were,” the spirited blonde girl said. Emmy, wasn’t it? Emmy was with Harrison. Izzy and Hendrick. Jami and Tucker. That’s how it was. It was going to take him a while to remember which pretty girl was which—especially with two of them identical. “You men all are alike.”
Hughes leveled a straight on look at the girl. “I tell you all this just one time, honey. Me and my boys are nothing like those bastards who hurt your family before. And if they show up here, I’ll deal with them myself. With a pistol full of lead.”
The girls just stared at him solemnly. The two younger looked at the redhead for direction. She jerked her head toward the stairs and the quieter blonde started up them. So Tucker’s little redhead had some spirit after all. That was good for his boy, then.
Hughes had more pressing matters to attend to. Like the woman in his arms. He knew exactly where he was going to put her. “She’ll be in my room.”
“Then let’s get her there. We know how to take care of her. We’ve been doing it for two years,” Emmy said.
He carried her to his own bed and sat her gently on the edge. He held her against him while the redhead quickly unbuttoned the back of the dress.
“We’ll care for her from here.” The redhead was firm. She wasn’t undressing her aunt any more with him in the room.
“Tucker’s a damned fine doc. He’ll fix her.”
The girls’ expressions were sad when they looked at him. Finally, the quiet blonde spoke. “Nothing’s going to fix her. We just help her get through the best we can.”
She started pulling the pins from her aunt’s honeyed hair, and even more curls fell down the woman’s back. She had thick, soft, beautiful hair. The girl picked the hay from the hair, then braided it quickly.
The redhead stepped in front of him. “Give her some privacy and some dignity, please?”
He didn’t want to leave her. His mind was made up. She was the woman he wanted. And he didn’t like seeing her so vulnerable. He wanted to be the one taking care of her.
And Hughes wanted answers.