Hughes had to admit it, but he liked the looks of what Finley had started with the place. It was in better repair than it had been in years. Finley and his brood were good with their hands.
He wasn’t too keen on the idea of half dozen sheep he saw, but the guy wasn’t trying to run cattle on the place. All he had was a few milk cows and a calf. Chickens roamed the place, as well. Egg layers, to feed all those girls.
He bet the Finleys ate a lot of eggs.
Damn, there were little girls everywhere.
They were met at the front porch by two more full-grown girls that had the look of the others about them.
The bolder one stepped off the porch after sending her sister a look. The sister looked at the young ones behind her and ordered them all inside. She scooped up the youngest one, a mite about two who had the clear look of the rest of them about her. Hughes smiled.
He’d always wanted a daughter or two.
“What are you doing here, you kidnapping bastards?” the girl in front asked. The one holding the toddler gasped at her language. “Come for more?”
“Where’s your father, girly?” Oh, this one had some serious fire. Must have taken after the aunt.
“Tending fences. Jessi and Emmy usually do it, but they’re away for a day or two.” She was taller than her sisters by a few inches, and thin. Had the same honey brown hair and blue eyes as her aunt. The same fire.
“Which one are you?” Hughes asked. She was about seventeen, with the first real flush of woman on her. But she was a woman-grown, no doubt. Way he figured her and the one behind her would be married off sooner rather than later.
He ran through who he knew in town that would be looking. He had a good seven nephews older than her. He bet each one would come calling shortly. Once rumor of the girls’ existences got out there.
Plus, he had the two boys left to marry off. These two would suit his boys nicely…
Tie things up nice and neat. Hughes rather liked when things fell into place like that.
“Why do you care?” There was such anger, such hatred, such fear. How long had these girls been so terrified? And for what? Some man who couldn’t take no for an answer. It wasn’t right.
The toddler started crying, calling for her mama. The girl staring at him paled. Worried. For her aunt?
“I need to speak with your father. About your aunt.”
“Where is she? Did you hurt her? Is she ok?” the one holding the baby asked.
“I didn’t hurt her, but she’s unwell. The walk to our place was apparently too much for her. It’s a two-hour hike from here through the back path. Your sisters are tending to her now. When will your father be back?”
She raised her chin, but he could see her fear. “Not sure. We’re in charge right now.”
He did the math. Four girls with his boys, the two right in front of him, the toddler. There had to be five more girls in that house, three of which were the aunt’s. Eight girls, all practically defenseless if trouble came. “How old are you?”
“And your sister there behind you?” She was quieter, softer. But she watched him out of the same fear-filled eyes as the other.
“Ally’s eighteen. The baby’s two, if you need to know that as well.”
“The five inside.”
“Near fifteen, twelve, seven, five and four. What does it matter to you?”
“Can you shoot? Your sister? Any of the others?”
“Some of us can. Why? You expecting trouble out of us? I think you got what you wanted last night.” Strong, fiery, quick little girl, wasn’t she? She’d make a man one hell of a wife soon.
“I’m leaving two of my sons here with you.” Hughes said as the boys came over the hill with the hands they’d rounded up. The girls gasped and the quieter one almost whimpered. They were both shaking like a tornado had just blown through. “Don’t be afraid of them. They won’t hurt you. I’m going to go out and find your father. I have much to discuss with him. Put Jack and Mick to work however you need them. They’re here to help you… and to keep you safe in case that trouble your family was in back where you came from followed you here. They won’t hurt you; Mick’s even the preacher hereabouts. Most peace-loving man I know.” He motioned to the two men now beside him. “Jack and Mick, keep your eyes open at all times.”
“You can’t leave them here with us.” The taller girl looked at his sons and he got it. Same fear was in her eyes as was in her aunt’s. Her sisters’. Fear of men and what they would do to them. Could do. She’d said the other was Ally. That meant this one was Janie. This was the one those bastards had almost drowned—until they’d realized she was a woman. He could imagine what they’d done to her then.
No wonder she was so afraid.
“Listen to me, precious girl. And listen good. My boys will not hurt you or your sisters. McKinley here is the minister in this town. And Jackson’s a scientist. He studies flowers and seeds, for land’s sake. You’re safe. I promise you that.”
“Says the man who stole four of my sisters from our family just last night. Pardon us if we don’t believe you.”
Hughes nodded. “I understand. But that changes nothing. Mick and Jack are staying right here. To keep you safe from here on out.”
As long as he needed them to.
When she opened her eyes, she was in a place she definitely didn’t recognize. Jami leaned over her, placing a hot rag over her shoulder. “Jami, baby? What happened?”
“You don’t remember? You were yelling at that man and he carried you outside.” Izzy was there, too. And Emmy sat at the foot of the bed. “He brought you back in an hour later. An hour.”
She thought for a moment. The barn… a man on top of her. Strong and sure, but not hurting her. Why did that seem so odd? “He did?”
“Carried you right in,” Emmy said. “Yelling out orders like a king or something. I told them what happened. I had to, they kept demanding answers.”
“You did what you had to do, Emmaline,” Jami said. Jude was glad to see some of her niece’s spirit returning. Jami wouldn’t do well separated from her twin for too long, though. “Now we just make the best of our hand, don’t we?”
“Did any of them hurt any of you?” She looked at Jami first.
Her niece shook her head. “He told me I had until the end of the month to get used to the idea of him in my bed. That he was a patient man.”
“Three full weeks away?” Emmy asked, drily. “I get two days to get used to my own brute.”
Izzy blushed, surprising all of them. “I…”
“Is it a legal marriage now, Isabelle?” Jude asked. It would surprise her if Izzy had even put together in her head… what got put together between a man and a woman. Never had she seen a more naive girl than this one.
Not that that mattered—even if they tried to get the marriages annulled, they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. All the men had to do was say they’d been with their wives, didn’t they? No one would ever dare check otherwise. It just wasn’t done.
“I don’t think so. He kissed me. A lot. But he wasn’t mean about it. Not mean at all. He was real soft. Gentle. And he stopped when I asked him to. Then he just held me. He read to me, too. He has lots of books in his room.” Her confusion was right there in her words. Poor Izzy, she didn’t understand people at all. “Aunt Jude, is this for real? Do we have to stay here like this?”
Izzy was all of nineteen and so very naïve. Nowhere near ready for a man’s carnal appetites.
“I think you do, baby. You’re married to these men. All of you are. And it could be worse—they could be Whartons. I’m sorry. You all deserve men who love you. Not men who just wanted wives. I so wanted that kind of love for you.” Tears filled her eyes.
“We’ll make do, Aunt Jude. You don’t have to worry about us. We knew what we were saying yes to last night. And this way… this way Finley Creek is safe. No matter what we have to do to keep it that way,” Jami said, resolve in her tone. “Janie and Ally and all the others are safe now.”
“Where is that man? Their father?”
Izzy answered. “I listened at the door. He went to talk to Daddy. To tell him what happened to you. He took the minister and that other son of his with him.”
“Help me up, girls. I need to get dressed and back to Finley Creek. Need to be there when he talks to your father. I hate to leave you all here like this.”
“We’re full-grown, Aunt Jude,” Emmy said. “You worry about the young ones. They haven’t hurt us here. You got babies to take care of. We are old enough to be wives and have households of our own. It’s not the way we wanted, but we’re Finleys. We understand that things rarely are how we want them. We’ll adapt. Finleys always do.” The three girls said the last in unison. It was her brother’s favorite saying, after all. Words he’d raised them by.
She took another look at her girls. No bruises. No more tears. Izzy’s cheeks were still red as her twin questioned her about the kisses she’d shared with her new husband. He’d held her, kissed her, read to her. Izzy so loved her books.
He’d been gentle with her baby girl. Thank God.
He’d apparently been considerate and stopped when Izzy had asked him to.
Someone knocked on the door. All four women tensed. Jami answered the door quickly.
A tall man who looked just like his father stood there. “Jami, is your aunt awake yet? I’d like to speak with her, if possible.”
“She’s awake. And you’re not speaking with her alone. Unless she wants to.”
He smiled softly. It shocked Jude when he reached out and touched her niece’s red hair gently. Coaxingly. “I understand. The cook has started lunch and would probably like to meet you and your sisters. Discuss what foods you all three like. And Jessi. Hendrick went up to get my brother and your sister and bring her here to be with the rest of you.”
“Jessi’s coming?” Jami’s voice was so filled with hope.
“Sure is. She should be here by dinner time, I’d wager.”
“Thank heavens. I need to make sure she’s all right.”
“My brother isn’t a monster. He will not have hurt her. Any more than I hurt you.” He leaned closer, as if he was going to kiss her right there. “If you recall, Jami mine. You’re the only one who drew blood.”
“Jami, I’ll speak with him. Alone. Take your sisters on downstairs.”
Jude had a few questions for this son of Barratt. Namely, what they were planning to do with her family. If what Barratt had said was the truth, and they didn’t own Finley Creek, he could turn them out whenever he wanted. Regardless of what promises he’d made when they’d taken the girls.
She didn’t trust him at all.
After the girls were gone, she looked at the man. “You really a doctor?”
“I am. Just got back from New York. Went to medical school there. The name is Tucker. My twin is with Jessi. I’m the one building a hospital here.”
“Why did he take her away from the others?”
“Just wanted privacy. I was planning to take Jami to my own place soon. I’m building a house next to the hospital, for the two of us. I don’t want to be too far away from my patients.” Just like her Ethan. Grief struck her hard again. She’d always miss him. “Until we learned about what your family is hiding from. We’re keeping all the girls together at the main house until we find out more. If you’d like, I’ll take a look at you. See if I can help with the pain some.”
She wasn’t about to let some Barratt see the scars. “I’m fine. I can deal with it. You won’t hurt Jami, will you? She’s terrified of men.”
“Really? Couldn’t tell from the way she’s been barking orders since my father brought you back in.” He sounded almost proud of that. “She’s good at nursing, isn’t she?”
“She’s good at doctoring, and trusts her skills there. Nothing she won’t do for someone hurting.”
“She’ll make a good nurse for me, then.”
He’d work her niece to the bone, no doubt. Building a hospital. Well, under any other circumstances, Jami would have loved to be a part of that. “Nurse? If she’d been male, she’d be a darned fine doctor. Something for you to keep in mind. Please don’t hurt her. She’s got such a tender heart.”
“I don’t plan on hurting her at all.”
“So why did you rip her from her family?”
He sighed. “We were angry. I’ll admit that. Still are, but not at the girls. I need a wife. Someone to help me in the clinic I’m building. The house. And females are scarce around here. Don’t be surprised if you don’t have about a dozen men clamoring at your own skirts soon. It’s the way it works out here. Men jump quickly. Maybe it’s not fair or right, but it is the way it is.”
“So why Jami? Why did you pick her?” He’d picked her niece second, after his brother had gone right for Jessi and scooped her off her feet. As if he knew just who Jami was. Looking at him, she almost suspected that he had.
“The way she was trying to comfort her little sister. The sweetness even behind the fear. The big blue eyes. Went right through me. I won’t hurt her. I promise you that. No one will hurt her. No matter what we have to do.”
His hands were gentle as he carefully examined her arm and her back. She wouldn’t let him see the front. “The hack that got a hold of us after it happened wasn’t very good. But the good doctor in town wouldn’t help us. Even though Jami had been working for him for months and was practically engaged to his oldest boy. If she hadn’t been able to tell Emmy and the other girls what to watch for regarding infection in all of us, we would have died.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you. A doctor… a doctor is supposed to help those who need it. No matter what. Or who.”
He meant it, didn’t he? Just like her Ethan had. Maybe this Barratt, hard as nails though he looked, was a kind man at heart? Jude prayed that was true. For her Jami. “Take care of her, Dr. Barratt. She’s one of the sweetest of my girls. She doesn’t deserve to have her heart broken. She deserves a man who loves her.”
“You have my vow.”
After he left her, she leaned back against the pillows. Where was she, exactly? She thought of getting up, truly needed to, but her body would not cooperate. She needed to get home. Her children were waiting for their mother. She looked around the room again, and that’s when it sank in.
Jude had a sneaking feeling she was in his bed. And he’d put her there on purpose.