He found Finley up near the border between his place and Turner’s, fixing fence lines. The man worked with angry jerks that told the world his frustrations. Hughes had no doubt the man had already been to his place, checking out the lay of the land. And the guards he had everywhere.
“Finley.” He called the man’s name. He wasn’t stupid; Hughes had his gun at the ready. He hadn’t forgotten what he’d done to the man.
Hughes rarely made such rash decisions, but last night had been a big one.
Finley looked at him and cursed. “What the hell do you want now? My other daughters? My sister? My left leg? Where are my girls? Are they hurt?”
Hughes considered for a moment, then slid off his horse. Best meet Finley on the same level. “Your girls are just fine. One of them, Emmy, kicked me in the shin this morning. Her sister with the spectacles was already poking around my library before I even got up this morning. Looking for a book on sea monster legends her new husband had told her about. Might curious little thing she is. You and I need to talk.”
“About what? I think you got what you wanted.”
“Well, I’ll take you up on the offer of your sister, if you’re serious about that. She’s something else, that’s for sure.”
“Jude? What are you talking about?”
“She showed up at my place early this morning to check on the girls. She’s still there.”
Finley tensed. “Why? Did you hurt her?”
“Walk was too much for her, I think. Your Jami and the others are tending to her while she rests. I’ll bring her on home when she’s feeling up to it. Stopped by your place and left my two youngest boys there to help with the chores.”
“We don’t need your help.”
“The way I figure it, we took four sets of hands. My boys are strong enough for two men apiece, and I left four of my ranch hands to help guard, as well. They can help where needed. Girls told me what happened to your sister. What’s happened since then. I wanted to tell you that my family and I, we’re not like that.”
“So what was last night?” Finley had the look of his sister, especially round the eyes. But he was stronger and confident. He didn’t back down from Hughes’s stare. “My girls?”
“My brother-in-law sold you that land illegally. I was about ready to toss you all out. My son’s a lawyer, he said you have no legal standing. TSP commander agreed, as well. Then we got wind of your daughters and all those young ones out there, and our plans… changed. My boys are ready to settle down, Finley. They want children of their own, families. And women out here are scarce, in case you haven’t noticed. It was Turner’s idea, but the other three went along with it. I think Turner may have already known your girl, Jessi. And he wanted her.”
“So, he took. I take it you don’t have any daughters.”
“Not yet.” He might someday. If his next bride was willing.
“They become your world, from their first breath. You’ll do anything for them.”
“Same way with sons, Finley. My boys wanted wives. That’s all. Hell, we both know what would have happened if we’d have waited. Chances were good my boys would have come a calling sooner rather than later, anyway. They’d have had to wade through every other man who wanted your girls, though. And not all of them would have been honorable.”
“But at least then my girls would have had choices. Your boys just picked them out of the line like cattle at the market. What if they can’t be happy together? What if your boys made a mistake?”
“My boys know their own minds. And Barratts know how to treat their wives. I made sure my boys knew how I treated their mama.”
“So now what?”
“Now we figure out how to live with what happened. As for that trouble from before. I made a promise to one of your girls this morning, Finley. A promise my sons echoed. That son of a bitch and his offshoots won’t lay a finger on any of those girls again. And if he gets near your sister, I’ll flay the skin from his back myself. Would even look forward to it in a way.”
“Why? What’s it to you? You’ve got what you wanted. Broodmares for your sons. We need nothing else from you. Except the legal deed to Finley Creek.”
“Consider it done. On the provision that on your death, it reverts to the grandchildren we’ll share between us. I’ll have Harrison, he’s the lawyer and with your Emmy, draw up the paperwork. As for your sister… I’m going to come calling on her. You might as well know up front.”
“Like hell you will. I want you to stay as far away from the rest of my family as possible.”
“That ain’t going to happen. And your sister is already in my bed. Nothing that says I have to let her out of it, now is there?” Hughes just couldn’t resist the needling sometimes.
Finley swore. “She’s been through enough hell in the last three years.”
“I’m just messing with you. If she tells me no, she tells me no. But I’ll still try to change her mind. Something about all her fire. Makes a man want to protect her even when she’s spitting flames at him.” Hughes thought of the little firebird in his bed. “Tell me the truth, what are the chances that bastard’s coming for her?”
“Pretty damned high. They’re coming for all six of my older girls, Barratt. Maybe even the seventh, though she’s only fourteen. I know they are. And Wharton won’t stop until he has Jude. And she’s pretty much defenseless.”
“Then I’ll do my part to keep them safe. They’re my family now, too. Bring your family for dinner tonight. I think it might help the girls settle in better. Be less afraid if they know we had no intentions of keeping them from their family. All my sons’ places are within easy walking distance of this one. They’ll be able to be in each other’s aprons as much as they want for the rest of their lives. They’ll be happy with my boys. I know they will.”
“I hope you’re right. Because what’s done is done in the eyes of God.”
“Yes it is, but we got to keep them safe now. The both of us.” Hughes held out a hand to the other man. He half expected him to shove his fist in Hughes’s jaw for what he’d done. But Finley was a better man than he was.
She slept. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d drifted off after Jami had brought up a tray. She’d tried not to let the worries get to her, but it was hard not to. When she woke, Emmy and Jessi were sitting next to the bed, whispering. She hugged Jessi quickly. “Did he hurt you?”
“That arrogant ass of a man? He didn’t hurt me. But I’m not staying married to him. No matter what he says. Always telling me what to do… I told him the first time he didn’t have a right.”
Jessi’s face flamed. “I… I met him up at the creek one day last week. I was… washing the dust off and… he stood on the bank and watched me.”
“She was naked,” Emmy said around a grin. “And he kissed her. Really kissed her. All she had on was her bloomers.”
“Did he force himself on you?”
Jessi shook her head, sending red curls flying everywhere. Jessi and Jami had their mother’s red hair and their aunt’s wild curls. And their father’s big blue eyes. They were absolutely stunning, and unlike twins Emmy and Izzy, completely identical down to the last freckle. “No. But he insisted I give him a kiss before he’d give me back the reins to my horse. So I kissed him. And then he promised he’d get more from me and soon.”
“And he was the one behind last night, wasn’t he? That’s how he knew you weren’t a boy. Why he went right to you and didn’t even look at the others. Even Jami.” He’d been plotting to get to Jessi specifically. Because he’d wanted her. Not just any random female.
“Yes. He’s manipulative. And used to getting what he wants.”
“Where did he take you?”
“To his place. It’s up on the creek. It’s nearly finished. He’s been building it for a while.” A guilty look went over her face. “I’ve been watching, sometimes. It’s a beautiful place. It has a new house on it, too.”
So Jessi would have her own place in the land that she so obviously loved. With a husband who’d wanted her specifically and not just any random wife. She felt a little hope at the prospect of a happy future for this niece. A rancher for Jessi, a doctor for Jami. What about Emmy and Izzy?
“Girls, I need to get up. And dressed.” She wore only a man’s shirt. A big man’s shirt. And it smelled faintly like him. Like the bed did. “And get home to the rest of the girls.”
Emmy smiled and leaned closer. “Daddy’s coming. For dinner. The girls, too.”
“Barratt went to Finley Creek and talked to dad while you were out. You slept all day. Left two of his sons with Janie and Ally to help with the chores. They’re bringing the kids over for dinner. There is even a hiking path between the two places. Barratt said… he said we were all a part of his family now. And he wanted us to get to know each other. Izzy and Jami are helping the cook in the kitchen.”
“Just like that? Everything’s settled just like that?” Emmy and Jessi shared a look. Jude stared at them, knowing these two were straight-shooters and would tell her the truth. “Well?”
“They settled most everything,” Emmy said. “Except… I heard him… he told one of his sons that he wanted a pretty woman in his bed and since there was already one in it, he was going to keep her. Well, keep you.”
“Did he now?”
“Yes. I think that’s why he’s being so nice to dad, now. Because of you.”
“So if I’m nice to him, everything is nice between our families. I see.” And she did. He was no different than Wharton under his skin, was he?
A man wanting what a man wanted, and a woman had no proper choice in the matter.
Well, she would not make it easier on him.
He was not getting her.
She looked at her nieces. “I’m going to down there. Get me out of his bed. Right now.”