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Jude Handley called herself six kinds of fool as she hiked over the road that led between her brother’s new place—she let out a wild hysterical laugh at that—and that man’s. That monster’s.

What kind of man showed up at a person’s home and dragged off four young women as wives for his sons, with no thought to those girls’ welfare at all?

A monster. That’s what kind. One who thought he owned the world because he owned a small part of Texas. He was no better than Justice Wharton over in their old home near the Louisiana border. She shuddered, thinking of what that bastard had intended for Jude.

Remembering what Wharton’s oldest two sons had done to her and Jessi and Jami. What the rest of his sons had done to her family, especially her oldest six nieces?

Finley Creek was the only choice their family had for safety. Their hope.

She knew why the girls had agreed to what that monster Barratt had demanded. Jude could name all eight reasons.

The four older girls had sacrificed their own futures to protect those of their four younger sisters and four cousins. Because they’d known what wealthy and powerful men were capable of out in this part of the world. Known how helpless their family actually was. Girls had no proper choice in this world.

Jude knew that every day.

Jacob had told her to leave it alone for a few weeks. To let the girls settle into their new lives. That what was done, was done, and they would all have to make the best of it for a little while. Until he figured out another answer.

Jude had seen the desolation in her brother’s eyes at the loss of his four eldest daughters.

Especially Jessi. Jessi, who helped her father with everything, who’d taken it upon her small self to learn to run the ranch as well as any son could have. Jessi and Emmy helped their father with all the hard work involved in running a small spread like Finley Creek. Now the two of them were just… gone.

Scooped up and carried away by young men who had probably never been told no for anything in their lives.

Jude shivered again as she remembered the terrifyingly hard face of the man who’d walked right up and yanked the hat off of Jessi’s head, exposing her red curls to everyone. Letting his father and brothers know that the boy they thought stood at Jacob’s side was in fact a remarkably beautiful young woman.

Jessi was, too.

How had he known? Jessi always wore her hair up and had been binding her breasts for two years now. She’d looked like a boy of only ten, and she did it on purpose. Jessi never wanted to draw the attention of a man again and did her best not to.

So how had that man the day before known? And why had he laughed? What had he said to her niece? He’d said something, all right.

It made her scared for Jessi most of all.

She got her first look at the Barratt spread and had to stop.

It put her brother’s small place to shame. Put Wharton’s to shame, even. The man had just about everything. Why was Barratt so damned greedy? Why couldn’t he leave their Finley Creek alone?

Finley Creek was just a little offshoot a good five hours by horse from the town of Barrattville, and more than an hour by horse from this place. Just a little unnamed river too far from Barrattville to be much good for the people there.

Yet Barratt wanted their small spread for himself. He wanted, he demanded, he got.

He’d taken her four nieces instead. As wives for his four sons. And the girls hadn’t had a say so at all.

They were just gone.

A dog barked and ran toward her. Jude fought not to turn and run. Large, barking dogs had always frightened her.

Were all of his hands out on the spread somewhere working? Where was he?

More importantly, where were Jessi, Jami, Emmy, and Izzy? Had their new husbands at least been kind to them?

Last night… had been their wedding nights. Unless that cruel beast had lied, and they’d just taken them for sport. But that didn’t explain why he’d left Ally, Janie and Annie behind—all three were old enough for some, at fourteen, seventeen, and eighteen.

Barratt and four of his sons had taken four of her brother’s daughters.

Hopefully, those men had been gentle. Kind. Hopefully, they’d really wanted wives and not something far worse.

Or had they gone at them like rutting animals?

Jude knew she had gotten lucky in her own man. Before he’d died three years ago, he’d treated her with unfailing love and respect. And kindness. Her Ethan had been an extremely gentle man. Even on their wedding night. They’d had six years and four children together before he’d gone, leaving her a widow with three living children at twenty-nine. After his and their infant son’s death, she’d taken her three daughters and moved in with her brother. Six months later she’d delivered her fourth baby girl, more terrified than she had ever been before.

Until Wharton.

Her brother had been recently widowed himself—the same influenza that had taken Ethan and her son David had taken Jude’s sister-in-law—and had eight daughters needing a woman’s hand.

Her girls had needed a father-figure; her nieces, someone to mother them.

They were family. And the Finley family pulled together.

Finley Creek—the spread her brother had purchased and renamed three months ago—was their new beginning. It had been darned near abandoned when they’d scraped the money together to buy it. But they were making it better. Jacob was talking about eventually building a few more rooms on, too.

They were settling in, could become happy here, again.

Or so she’d thought.

Until Barratt had shown up just as they were finishing dinner.

Sixteen men, all on horseback, riding in louder than a hurricane. All with guns, accusing her brother of land thievery. Fraud. Tampering with legal documents. All sorts of things Jacob couldn’t even hope to defend against.

Barratt and his sons had vowed they weren’t stopping until they got what they wanted. Oh, how she wished she’d been able to protect her nieces more than what she had.

Jessi had made her stay silent, after putting Jude’s four-year-old in her arms, reminding her of the children dependent on her.

Always Jessi doing the protecting. But who protected her niece?

Had the man who’d taken her hurt her? For all her spitfire ways, Jessi was remarkably tender inside. And so terribly frightened of what a husband would want from her in the bed at night. No matter that Jude had told her and all the older girls that it wasn’t like what those Wharton monsters had tired, not when with a man who cared for you.

But Jessi wasn’t with a man who cared for her now.

And that man who’d yanked her onto his horse was a man. A full-grown man who Jude had no doubt knew exactly what he wanted.

The dog kept her pinned in place for the longest time. Every time she’d move he’d counter, bark, then grin at her. He wasn’t letting her go anywhere.

And then he was there. That Barratt man himself. He looked even more frightening in the bright light of day. He had no hat on and she got her first really good look at him.

A real Samson of a man. Taller than most, harder than most, and more physically beautiful than most. Of course.

The devil was said to be a handsome beast. Better to house his dark soul.

He was an older version of his sons, with the same hard dark eyes and powerful body. Same arrogance. He smirked when he looked down at her. “Which girl are you, honey?”

“I’m not a girl. I’m a woman. I’m their aunt, and I’m here to see them. Right now. Where are Jessi and the others?”

He snorted, stepped down off the big brute of a horse he’d rode in on at the dog’s barking. “You a woman, you say? You look no older than they do. And your damned smaller.”

“I’m a woman full-grown and have four children to prove it. My nieces? They haven’t hurt them, have they?” Every possible outcome of what had happened tightened her stomach. Maybe the lawyer son of his had lied. Maybe the marriages weren’t legal. Maybe they’d just did what they done to ruin the girls. To get back at Jacob for buying the spread before they did. Such spite wouldn’t surprise her. “I need to see them.”

“Get in here.” He opened the screen door and stood there, after smacking the horse on the rump and sending it along with a hand that had appeared out of nowhere to serve him like the feudal lord he no doubt thought he was. Jude didn’t know what else to do; she walked into what she had to call the lion’s den. “Girls are still abed. It was their wedding night, after all. If you got four children, you know what that means.”

There was a spark of heat in his eyes when he looked at her. A heat she’d seen in a man’s eyes before.

Jude had to be very careful right now.

Jude’s cheeks flamed. “No need to be so crude, Mr. Barratt. You’ve got what you wanted from my family. In an entirely despicable way.”

Next Chapter…

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