Weekends at the Lion’s Pride never failed to deliver on surprising encounters and experiences. Though small compared to the bustling capital city down the road, Goldshire’s location provided ample opportunities to temporarily host travelers either too poor to afford the higher prices of the city or too weary from their travels to reach their ultimate destination. People from all races and walks of life could be found on any given day in the Elwynn town, and the weekends only amplified that trait. Locals either avoided the inn on the noisier days or poked their heads in to amuse themselves through observation of or interaction with the variety of tourists wiling away their hours with food, drink, and music.
As the only single member of the Baur family still living full-time in the area, Arlebrand recently found himself visiting the inn more often than he typically cared to do. His mother Emma worried about him constantly. The eldest Baur son not yet having a spouse made no sense to his doting mother; he had, after all, always been the least gruff of the three siblings. His sister was too independent and self-centered to find a suitor, and Tonric cared more about work than people most days. Despite that career focus, even the gruff soldier had managed to find a lovely wife and give Emma a grandchild to adore. Her easygoing carpenter son, on the other hand, remained bafflingly unattached. Visiting the inn regularly was his way of convincing his mother he was actively on the hunt for a wife.
At least the lack of family to worry about had given him chance to get his shop up and running. He had clients all over the region—even some out in Lakeshire and Westfall. Business from Westfall had tapered off significantly, of course, thanks to the rebellions and famine plaguing the once-productive agricultural region. As Arlebrand lifted a mug of ale to savor a sip, he kept an eye on two potential clients who might still be able to afford new—or at least updated—furnishings for their farmhouse. They had not been hit as hard by the droughts and dust storms as their neighbors, thanks to growing heartier crops; they had kept their okra output steady, and they were learning to handle eggplants to add that to their homestead’s yield.
They were not due to speak until tomorrow morning about the possibility of work, but Arlebrand saw little harm in finding out more about his potential clients before their scheduled consultation. Learning what they liked, what they could afford, helped him present tailored options right away. It saved on wasted time and made the client feel like they could really trust in his judgment. Getting to drink and enjoy the bawdy tunes belted out by the resident bard and his drunk audience were not bad incentives either.
An unexpected bonus of his plan was learning the client—Tyrone Pickering—had brought along a young woman as his traveling partner; judging by the way they sat close to one another but not too close, Arlebrand figured the farmer wanted to keep a protective eye on her. That made him think she was a daughter or some other family member for whom he felt responsible. It was definitely not his wife; Maggie Pickering was well-known even in Goldshire for her steely hair and even steelier demeanor. This woman looked soft: waves of russet hair framing a round, freckled face home to big blue eyes surrounded by thick lashes he swore cast faint shadows on her cheeks when she looked down. She could not have been older than early twenties—making him about a decade her senior, but that did not stop him from admiring her gentle beauty. She looked like the type of woman his mother would be happy to welcome into the family—not that such things should matter to him, but the thought intruded anyway.
He should introduce himself. That would be the smart move, the less creepy move. Sneaking glances at the Pickering end of the one of the inn’s long tables all night would not earn him points with either the farmer or his traveling companion if they happened to spot him before the evening was up. The bearded man drew in a breath for a heavy sigh. He had never been good at approaching women—and especially not at flirting. Bards would never sing of his sexual escapades or look to him for inspiration on how to charm busty beauties. He might enjoy a bawdy song now and then, but his own approach to conversation favored direct and honest exchanges. No dancing around subjects or hidden meanings to his words; that had not earned him many admirers, despite the trope that women appreciated honesty in a potential partner.
Maybe it would work this time. He could always try. Frowning, Arlebrand looked down into his half-empty mug of ale and considered making a move. Maybe it would be smarter to just stick to the plan of learning more about the family. Getting a smile from the young beauty sitting next to the wiry farmer would not be the goal—more of a ‘nice to have’ than something to directly pursue. That sort of conversation he should be able to handle. Right? Right.
After taking another breath and big gulp of ale to steady his nerves, he stood from his seat on the long bench and started to make his way toward Pickering and his companion. Despite his resolve to keep the talk mainly focused on business, his gaze had a mind of its own and kept sliding away from the farmer to take in more details of the woman as he drew closer to their table. The tops of her shoulders, strategically exposed by her peasant blouse, fascinated him; the faint spray of freckles present there was a lighter version of the shy dusting bringing additional youth to her face. An inexplicable urge rose to run his finger between those marks, to trace patterns between the freckles and watch what her reaction would be to the brush of his rough fingertips.
People continued to move around him in the sea of tavern-goers, so they had not noticed his approach yet. Hard to do that with the constant shouts of waitresses and patrons alike creating too much noise to have a proper, personal conversation. If all went well, maybe he could convince her to go somewhere quiet—with Pickering’s permission, of course. He would be a gentleman about this, even if his thoughts were drifting into less and less polite territory.
Did that deliberately exposed skin indicate she was not as innocent as her soft features indicated? Would she gladly accept his offer for a quiet dinner, then press for more if all went well? The thought warmed him in ways he had not experienced in quite a while. Something about her felt pristine—untouched—and roughening that smooth skin held an appeal he could not explain—even to himself.
Still, he held back. With this better perspective, he started to wonder if his initial guess on her age was incorrect; the closer he got, the younger she seemed to become, and he prayed it was only an effect of the dancing candlelight from the wooden chandeliers overhead.
Only one way to find out. To close the final distance to the table promising the potential for more than a simple job, he shouldered his way past two unruly drunks bickering over who would be picking up the tab for the fourth pitcher they had just emptied. Just as he was about to open his mouth to greet Pickering and his companion, the sea of people parted to his left, and one of the many loud patrons of the bar smashed against his arm. Room-temperature liquid splashed across his cheek, beading in his beard, and created dark splotches on the red-and-black pattern of his long-sleeved shirt. Instinctively, he reached out to steady the person who had run into him, and words to check if they were okay formed in his mind.
They never found voice. “Watch where ye’re goin’, ye big brute,” snapped the slender woman before he could speak. “Tha’ was me fav’rite beer ye jus’ ruined.” The accent was unexpected; it did not sound like anything native to the area. That oddity almost distracted him from his anger over being berated for her mistake.
He met her angry gaze with a steady, disapproving look of his own. “You would still have your beer if you weren’t charging through the tavern like a mad bull,” he shot back. “Be more careful next time.”
That did not please her. Eyes the color of tropical seas grew stormy and dark as his retort sunk in. Tan, callused hands jerked up to shove against his shoulders. “Ye lookin’ to star’ a fight, bastard?” she taunted. “Think ye can get away with this ‘cuz I’m a woman?”
His gaze dropped to take in her face and lithe form, clothed in a cheap pair of trousers and a sleeveless top that exposed toned arms indicative of an active life spent outdoors. She looked to be in her late twenties with a build home to few curves; she was not entirely boyish, however, thanks to her decidedly feminine facial features. Sun-cracked lips made him almost feel bad enough to buy her another drink; they looked painful. Instead, he scoffed at her words. “You look more like a boy than a woman. I wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t told me.”
That earned him another, harder shove, and he rocked back slightly from the force. Small but strong, apparently. “Wouldn’t know a real woman if ye tripped over one—which ye just did. ‘Least ye can do is say sorry.”
“I’m sorry you can’t walk through a room without hurting yourself,” he replied instead. Normally, he was more polite to women than this, but she had started the fight, and he was not going to back down from it when he was not at fault. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have business to get to. Have a good evening.” His firm tone left no room for argument, and he made a move to get by her and continue on his way.
Again, he was interrupted, but this time by the curvy woman who had captivated him from several tables away. Up close, she was even more alluring, and the need to explore that beauty with his carpenter’s hands returned in force. Arlebrand stopped in his tracks and gawked at her in speechless admiration.
Her attention, however, was on the other woman he had tried to escape. “Are you okay?” she asked, her quiet, musical voice carrying even in the din that should have crushed it. “Do you need me to come help carry more drinks back to the table for Daddy?”
Pickering’s daughter then. Good to know. But then who was this other, aggressive woman? How did they know one another? His gaze moved from face to face, unsure of the best thing to do at this point. He could feel his hopes for both a date with the young woman and a business deal with her father slipping out of his hands. All because of the loud-mouth klutz who wanted to make her problems someone else’s. Desperately, he grasped for a way to smooth over the whole situation.
“Just a small accident,” he tried to explain to Pickering’s daughter. “We were both coming through the crowd at the same time and didn’t see one another. I can help cover the new drinks, Miss, if you’ll let me.”
Those summer-sky eyes now turned upon him, and he felt something in his stomach tighten. The other woman almost entirely slipped from his mind. He would endure as much childish violence as he had to if it meant more chances to be this close to her. “Oh, thank you. That’s very ki—”
“It was his damn fault, Lilah!” the blonde broke into the moment, ruining its simple pleasure. “Don’t go makin’ nice with jerks like this. They’ll walk all over ye if ye let ‘em.”
Anger hardened his jaw, but he forced it down, focused his thoughts on a better future. Lilah. What a perfect name. He put on an embarrassed smile. “Like I said, Miss: a misunderstanding. I’m sorry to you both. Let me make this right.”
Uncertainty clouded the sky as her gaze moved between them. After a moment more of hesitation, she offered him a small nod of acceptance and held out a hand. “That would be wonderful of you, sir. I’m Lilah Pickering, by the way. Pleased to meet you.”
He tried not to seem too eager as he took her smaller hand into his own and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Arlebrand Baur. I was on my way over to meet you and your father, actually. I wish we could’ve gotten that done without this mess,” he finished with a wry chuckle.
Away went the cloud of doubt, and the smile curving her lips was like basking in the warmth of the morning sun after a chill night. “Oh! I’ve heard lots of good things about you and your work, Mr. Baur,” she exclaimed. “Daddy brought me along to talk about what you can make for us. Mama put me in charge of decorating the house they’re building for me.”
“For her and the man she’s going to marry,” the other woman interrupted again. She almost sounded smug.
Such a simple sentence, but with such a profound effect. He whipped his head toward the irritating blonde, searching for some sign of deceit in her expression. Nothing. The smirk on her lips was a satisfied one, as if she could read his mind and knew exactly how much this bit of news affected him. “Oh. That—A wedding present then?” he stammered out, trying desperately to turn this conversation back to the safety of business. Attention turned back to Lilah, wanting her to deny the words but knowing it was a pointless hope.
“Yeah. Mama and Daddy want us to have a nice place not too far from them. They’re worried about me being on my own,” she confessed with a soft giggle that sent his thoughts back to places they should not be going, given what he had just learned. “We’re going to be married by the end of the month. It’s the season for love, right? Seemed like the perfect time!”
“Well. Um.” Careful. Do not ruin a good possibility now. “I’ll do what I can to make sure you’re taken care of, Miss Pickering,” he replied awkwardly. “Let’s start with those drinks. Go ahead and get back to your father, and I’ll bring them over shortly.”
“Yeah, Lilah,” the other woman added in her expected, unwanted manner, “the idiot and I’ll get it taken care of. Ye should relax. Be back in just a tick.” No argument from the engaged woman. She thanked them both, then glided back to the bench to rejoin her father at their chosen end of the table.
Arlebrand, despite being in the middle of a busy tavern where their little dust-up had not gone unnoticed, felt alone and trapped by the sharp-tongued blonde still staring at him as if she found his discomfort the funniest thing in the world. He cleared his throat and tried to push beyond the anger and irrational sense of betrayal he felt while looking at her frustrating grin. Her cheeks almost looked sunken, as if she had not eaten or slept well in weeks. He wanted to feel sorry for her; clearly her life was not an easy one. All he could summon, though, was deeper and deeper irritation.
“Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled before shouldering by her to move toward the bar. The first step toward escape from the lost hope of drinking deep of Lilah’s beauty. The blonde fell into step at his side, still chattering away—which he decided to completely ignore. A silent sigh lifted his chest. Just his luck to be stuck with the most disagreeable person in the entire town. Maybe someday he would get lucky enough to meet the right woman. For now, though, he would drown his loneliness in beer and hope tomorrow brought brighter opportunities. At least he could keep Lilah’s smile in his memories as he went to bed tonight. It was better than nothing.