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There were a damned lot of Finleys. Hughes held open the door while his sons Mick and Jack helped the Finleys out of their wagon. His eyes narrowed on how his boys treated the two older unmarried girls. Interesting.

He’d figured the girls would be snapped up pretty quick. Were his boys thinking the same thing? He suspected Mick and Jack were thinking the same thing—and were acting fast.

The spirited girl glared at Mick, but she allowed Mick to lower her from the wagon. She didn’t pull away from his hands, either. Jack had held the smallest girl, while her cousin climbed down. He passed the baby back to her, leaning down to whisper something to the young woman. Her cheeks turned pink.

The rest of the young ones and Finley himself filed by. Every one of the females stared at him like he was the ogre from a fairy tale.

He heard footsteps on the stairs leading into the kitchen behind him.

Hughes turned. There she was. Her cheeks were red with anger, and her hair was still down around her shoulders. She’d brushed it. With his brush? Her clothes had been cleaned from the straw, but they were still older. He had some of his wife’s old things in storage, but they would be far too big for this little firebrand. And out of style. He’d have to have the mercantile get in some new fabrics for her. All of his daughters-in-law would need new dresses soon, as well. He didn’t want just any old random dresses for his girls. No. Barratt wives would have the best.

It was a matter of pride.

The baby girl started babbling the instant she saw her mama. That had the fire going out of her Jude’s cheeks and her eyes softening and her hands going out toward her little one. “Becca.”

“Mama, Mama, Mama!”

She laughed and cuddled her daughter in her arms, careful of her left side. There were three more little ones rushing to her side, none of them bigger than a grasshopper. So small and vulnerable, weren’t they? And if he had his way, soon to be his responsibility. His daughters-in-law hugged their father, then their sisters.

There was a lot of chatter and reassurances flying everywhere. A lot of hugging and touching and love.

Hughes barely knew what to make of it. His boys were silent, but they watched their wives closely. Mick and Jack could barely look away from the other two girls.

So that was the way of it for them. Good. He’d like them all settled, and soon. Making those grandbabies he wanted.

He put his hand on the aunt’s shoulder. “Dinner will be ready soon. If you want to wash your girls up first.”

“Thank you.” Her tone was cool with him, and blue eyes studied his face.

“We’ll talk later, pretty little girl. I can promise you that.”

“We will.” Her daughter had her hands buried in her mother’s hair and was giggling. Beautiful. Sweet. A little family.

He’d missed the sound of young ones in his place. Grown sons just weren’t quite the same.

He wanted a wife of his own. He wanted her.


He’d put her chair right by his. And he’d done it on purpose. She’s thwarted whatever he was planning by putting Becca in one of the old high chairs he’d had fetched from the attic. Hannah, her four-year-old, occupied the one between Jami and Jessi. Everyone except the children were relatively quiet, attesting to the awkwardness of this meal.

No one truly wanted to be there. Except for him. He shot her a look of cunning satisfaction. Letting her know he wasn’t finished with her at all. That he was planning something.

She remembered how his body had felt over hers.

There had been no actual fear in her, not like that time Justice Wharton had cornered her. Held her still for his bruising, nasty kiss.

This man had only held her while she cried.

And Then he’d kissed the tip of her nose. Why had he done that?

The meal was finally, blessedly over, and she and Jacob could load the girls into the wagon.

Barratt insisted on his two sons accompanying them back home. Insisted the young men would camp out on the porch to keep the place guarded. He rode along with them, his horse right next to the wagon.

She had to admit the idea of two strong men — even if one was a minister and one a botanist, of all things — to help keep their family safe made her feel better.

Not that two young men could stop Justice Wharton and his sons. Their treachery knew no boundaries, after all.

Janie and Ally were tired, but they held up well. Helped with the younger girls when they could. The Barratt boys helped them get the younger girls off the wagon.

Then it was her turn. She knew better than to even try to climb down on her own. With what had happened at Barratt’s that morning, and the long wagon ride on the narrow wooden seat home, she would most likely fall flat on her face if she even tried. She already felt the telltale numbness in her left leg and arm.

But she didn’t want Barratt to see her that weak. Ever. But what choice did she have? She couldn’t stay in the wagon all night. She turned toward her brother. “Jacob, I’ll need help into the house.”

“Hurting?” Jacob asked, rubbing her shoulder gently. “We’ll get you inside, and I’ll get a warm fire going.”

“I’ll be ok by morning.” She would be, or she’d hide it. Too much work to be done for her to be lazing around. Without her four older nieces around, it was going to take some rearranging of things to get everything done. Those girls were hard workers, and she didn’t know if the rest of the girls could fill in the gap, when it came right down to it. Janie could help Jacob, but Ally… Ally already handled so much with the children as it was.

Strong arms reached up to get her out of the wagon, and she opened her eyes. Stared straight into his. Hughes Barratt himself was right there in front of her. “What are you doing?”

“Your brother is tending to the horses. I told him I’d help you down and into the house, and all.”

No. Surely Jacob wouldn’t have…

But then again, maybe Jacob had done it on purpose.

Maybe he’d thought Barratt’s offer of protection meant he’d take care of Jude, as wellMaybe when it was all said and done, Jacob approved of Barratt somehow? Before she could decide, Hannah started crying for her mama. “I… need to get inside. But I don’t think I can walk right now. Can you… can you…”

Oh, damn her meddling brother. He’d be getting an earful once they were all inside. After the Barratts of Barrattville were gone.


“Can you get me to my daughters, please?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

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