The Outskirts of Town:
Stepping across the threshold of the tavern's door, Miles followed mere inches behind his daughter as she made her way into the dimly lit interior. The only light inside came from two wall sconces and a large fireplace that glowed faintly at them from back half of the building.
Miles stood there feeling unusually intimidated by their surroundings. It was a rare occasion that he'd ever step foot within a business such as this and the atmosphere felt particularly inhospitable to him. In contrast, he saw that Sharon seemed to be fairing quite well within those strange surroundings. She held her ground easily, as though she had every right in the world to be there. Her eyes easily scanned the room, completely in her element, it would seem.
The room felt almost cavernous, large and empty, except for the assortment of mismatched tables and chairs that adorned the room. Not surprisingly, there wasn't a single paying customer to be seen. The only person in the room was a gruff, elderly gentleman who stood behind a small counter on the far wall. He seemed to be eyeing them both with great disdain for even daring to darken his doorstep.
He was wiping out a small glass as he glared at them with an occasional blink or two of impatience. It was obvious he could care less if either of them might happen to hold some weight within the surrounding community. His manner suggested that he saw this tavern as his domain, in complete authority, regardless of who it was that stepped through his door. It was also obvious that he did not welcome their patronage in the least.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd come away from the door, Sir," the man told Miles, flicking a quick glance toward Sharon as he spoke. "Her kind makes my regulars uncomfortable."
Miles gasped at the man's gall, knowing his daughter's pregnant state was what the man was referring to. He was surprised to see Sharon merely raised her brows and step forward. She didn't appear affected by the man's apparent hostility in the least. He could see a fair amount of arrogance growing on her face as she approached the man, as though she had every right to do so.
Sharon refused to allow this man treat her as a parasite within this dank hole of a tavern. She was well aware that a woman so far along in pregnancy was completely an unwelcome sight in a place such as this, but months ago that would have been a different story altogether. Back then she would have been invited to stay with open arms, revered and honored to grace such a particularly retched little business so far on the edge of town.
Her eyes regarded the empty tables as she moved forward. "Such a pity that I am here to ruin the day for your many patrons then," she replied with a deep measure of sarcasm in her voice. As her insult met its mark, she was pleased to see the man's eyes lighting with fire. She doubted this place had seen a single customer all day long, dark and unkempt as it was. She saw him taken aback for her brazen words, her pleasure doubling because she knew he'd been expecting to see her wilt back toward her father, rather than standing her ground as so few women ever would have.
"Uh—" Straining to hold his daughter at bay without actually daring to touch her, Miles drew nervously closer to try and stem the rising tension in the room. He knew what a spitfire his daughter could be at home, but this was not the time for her to be speaking so boldly. He doubted she had any idea what a dangerous position she was putting herself in. While he had been unduly insulted as well, he was not going to let her wield her sharp tongue against this stranger so unwittingly.
Furious with them both, the man slapped the clean glass down on the counter, bending forward to halt them both from approaching any further. Staring directly at Sharon, completely disregarding anything that Miles might have had to say, his hand swiftly rose in the air. He pointed a rigid finger towards a half-wall that jutted out in the center of the room.
"Get your meeting over and done with," he told her, warning without words that she ought to make it a quick meeting, at that.
Sharon's eyes followed the trail of his finger, spying the area of the tavern to which he was referring. She was caught off guard for a moment, realizing there must be a table seated just out of view. Was Blake sitting there right now, she wondered with a frightful start.
Her anger with the barman was momentarily forgotten as her heart began pounding unevenly. The realization that she was standing so close to the prize made her feel unexpectedly nervous. She pursed her lips tightly though, refusing to let anyone witness just how uneasy she really felt. She had been waiting so long for this moment… So long!
Forcing herself to take a deep breath for strength, she turned to give the man at the counter a final scathing look before she spun around on her heels to walk in the direction where he'd been pointing. She took only three steps before she realized her father was on her tail, following uncomfortably close behind. She turned on him sharply, her hand rising against him dismissively, warning him to remain where he was and not interfere. She needed no further assistance from him right now and she was not going to hear any argument from him about it.
"I will be right there," she whispered quite sternly. "If I need you, I will call you."
Halted abruptly, Miles blinked several times in objection of the anger he saw brewing in her eyes. He had no idea how he managed to hold his tongue or steel himself in place, but when she swung back around to walk off, he did not follow.
He shook his head in a weary fashion instead, slowly turning away from the sight of her as he walked toward a table and sat down with an air of defeat written on his face. He knew a stronger man might have followed along behind her regardless of her objections, but he had long ago resigned himself to the fact that his daughter was simply a woman who couldn't be reasoned with no matter how foolish some of her decisions seemed. She acted without thought most of the time, following whatever whim caught her fancy when the moment suited her. That was how she'd gotten herself into this mess with Blake, ruining a relationship that might have been the best thing to ever walk into her sorry life.
When he had learned of the affair she'd had while betrothed to Blake, he'd done everything in his power to try and mend her broken fences—all without thanks or an ounce of gratitude. But then, when she'd announced she was pregnant, he'd been mortified. Simply mortified!
As her father, he'd felt compelled to try and help her attempt to reason with Stephen when Blake decided to terminate the marriage contract they'd both signed. But, even he had little true sympathy for his daughter at that point. It had been at her insistence that he'd helped her launch that pitiful lawsuit against Blake, but along with everyone in the courtroom that day, even he had his suspicions that Blake might not really be the father of her child. Much as he despised acknowledging it, right now he honestly thought of her as little more than a fool. It saddened him greatly though, because even after so many mistakes had been made, Sharon still didn't seem to have an ounce of common sense in her head—and he felt so disillusioned for it that he had the will to do nothing more than turn a blind eye to the lot of it. Come what may, he was nearly at the point of washing his hands of the whole mess completely.
Unaware of her father's brooding thoughts, Sharon slowly made her way to the divisional wall. She had only one person on her mind at that moment and he most certainly knew she was there by now. She had broadened her shoulders as best she could, hoping he would hear her footfalls approaching with determination and strength, not fear. She would have him know that she had not lost an ounce of strength in all these many months, in spite of the hardships she'd suffered.
The moment she rounded the corner, she immediately registered the heavily cloaked man who was sitting at a small table against the wall. He moved not a hairsbreadth as she stopped to look, finding herself growing breathless as she took in the sight of him. His back faced her imposingly, yet she could see the faintest traces of white hair peeking out from the sides of his hood. If there was one thing Blake would never be able to disguise, it was the incredibly beautiful white hair he possessed. She would know him anywhere for it.
Raising her head, she put on the bravest face she could muster, preparing to greet him without a hint of intimidation to show. She walked passed him with her chin held stiffly jutting out, barely allowing herself to acknowledge him as she took a seat in a chair opposite his at the table. She sat down as gracefully as possible in the rigid chair, seeing only the shadowed outline of his features before he finally raised a hand to pull the hood slightly back from his face.
Her jaw dropped uncontrollably when his face was brought forth in the dim light of the room. She was rendered speechless as her hands gripped the edge of the table for support. Although this man sported a hefty crop of white hair, the man sitting before her at the table was not Blake Ryder. In fact, she had no idea who he was at all!
Feeling slightly betrayed, her eyes narrowed and she would have stood up then and there. In fact, she had nearly made the attempt to rise when the wheels of her mind began to turn. It was immediate suspicion that caused her to remain where she was.
The man working at the front of the tavern had known she'd come here for this meeting. He'd directed her right to this very table, so this man had obviously been waiting to speak with her. She could only assume he had here come in Blake's place, and the question foremost in her mind was to know why Blake had failed to show. Why had he decided to send someone else to meet her?
Feeling unreasonably angry, she sat forward without pretense, regarding him sharply. "Was he too timid to show up himself? Did he find it easier to send someone else to pay me off, instead," she asked bitingly.
Sitting perfectly still, the man stared over at her with a measure of sympathy and compassion written on his face. After a moment of brief contemplation, he softly replied, "I have come here of my own free will. I summoned you here today, because I just couldn't sit idly by when I heard of your tragic story."
On edge, Sharon frowned to hear his words. What he said merely increased her anger, rather than soothing it. Blake hadn't been the one to write that letter? This man had? What game was he playing? She was in no condition to be out on the roads on such a cold day at the ridiculous musing of some stranger.
"Look," she gritted through her teeth. "I have no idea what game you think you are playing—"
"I assure you," he regarded with incredible patience. "I am playing no games. I am here because I feel a great injustice was done to you this year. I know that you were tossed aside like a piece of rubbish—and just look at the condition you are left in now, all alone…"
Sharon stilled at once in her seat. Her anger died away, as did the compulsion she'd had to call out to her father to have this man arrested. The bitterness she'd been feeling all year returned as sharply as ever, but her anger was no longer directed at the man before her. Still smarting from this latest disappointment with Blake, she felt compelled to hear what the man might have to say.
Seeing he had piqued her interest, he sat forward in a conspiring fashion, his voice lowering immeasurably as he spoke. "What would you say if I told you I had it within my power to make you the mother of the heir to the Ryder estate? I can think of no one who would deserve that honor more than you, Miss Crenshaw."
Hearing his words, her mind objected that anyone could wield that much power and authority over the Ryder family. "Unless you work for the court or are an acquaintance of his father, there is nothing you can do to make any of that happen."
"Do not doubt what I'm telling you," he insisted, completely assured of every word he'd spoken. "This past year there were a number of tragedies that took place and a lot of people—including one very close to me—were robbed of choice and freedom. I'm quite sure you could list yourself among one of the many casualties who fell despairingly into the gutter, simply because a single word of authority decided it should be so."
"I realize that must be so hard to believe," he continued on quickly, unfazed by her doubtful stare. "That anyone could possibly care to right the wrongs in your life, when even your own father was unable to help… I know how betrayed and hurt you must feel…"
Sharon opened her mouth to protest once again, but her mouth hung open without emanating a single sound. She was staring widely at this man, wondering who he was and where he'd sprung up from. How in the world could he know so much about her life? Searching the deepest recesses of her mind, she couldn't recall ever having seen him before.
"Who are you," was all she could manage to ask. Her mind was a jumble of thoughts and feelings, so many stirred up by the gentle words that he was speaking. He was right, on so many levels…
Lowering his head for a moment, attempting to maintain control of his features from within the shadows of his hood, he allowed her to believe he was contemplating an answer to her question. Let her hang by a thread for a moment, he thought to himself. Inside, he was merely formulating what words he might use to play on her sympathy next.
Clasping his hands together endearingly, he finally looked up with a long face of misery. "I am merely a man who lost everything this last year, including someone who meant the world to me. I am simply the person who feels there were a number of atrocities committed that should not go unpunished, especially when there are those of us who are still sitting here suffering, while they continue to live so unfairly in the lap of luxury."
His eyes beseeched her to hear his words and believe them, even as the inner workings of his mind were already off and running to find his next target. He didn't doubt for a second that he had already won over Sharon Crenshaw for his efforts, although he had yet to actually seal the deal with her, so he decided to up the ante.
There were so many things left to attend to today. The slightest bit of time lost could put a lot of plans in jeopardy. With so much groundwork already laid out, he knew he had so little time to spare—even for this woman, who was actually a huge key to the success of everything that had been planned out.
"I'm going to be rather blunt with you," he continued on in hushed tones. "At this very moment I can assure you that I have it within my power to make you the mother of the child who will most definitely be declared Blake Ryder's heir. And, I honestly believe with all my heart that you are a woman who deserves to see that happen. I know that you want it, Miss Crenshaw! The only thing I can do is sit back and hope you will accept my offer to help you get what it is that you really want… What you've wanted since the day Blake offered to make you his bride…"
Sharon continued to sit before the man in complete confusion. She had to admit that being declared the mother of Blake's child was a dream she had nearly given up on. Those dreams had been impossibly shattered since the day the courts had forced her to accept the small settlement Stephen had offered to write her and her unborn child off.
Why this man was suddenly stepping into the picture, offering to try and fix all that was a mystery, and she was almost afraid to even think about turning him down. She didn't know how he planned to make any of it happen, but if he really could, was she fool enough to get up and walk away from it? She had no idea about anything but the dead certainty she'd heard in his voice as he spoke. He sounded as though he knew something which she didn't—something that might suddenly shift the tables in her favor. Maybe Blake's new wife was sick… Maybe his father was on the verge of death…
"What is it you'll want for all of this help later on," she wondered out loud, unable to accept that he would go to such lengths to help her unless he'd return to want something more from her later on. No one in the world was that selfless.
"I don't want anything out of this," he hissed. "Nothing of monetary value, anyway."
"Yes, but you do want something," she realized with certainty.
Though his face remained passive on the outside, on the inside he felt an evil smile growing ever larger in size. "What I really want has absolutely nothing to do with you, Miss Crenshaw. What I want is something I'm going to get whether I have your help right now or not." Of that, he had no doubt at all. "I am going to get precisely what I want in a very short amount of time, and I'm going to be laughing all the while that I'm watching it unfold. What I really want to know at this moment is what you want? I want an answer and I want it now. Do you want all the wealth and heritage that your child could possess? Or do you want to get up, right now, to walk away with merely your father for support?"
The question hung thick in the air between them. But in the end, there really was only one answer she could give.
Looking at his form in the dim light of the room, she cast her eyes down at the table and admitted, "I want to see it publicly declared that I am the mother of Blake's child…"
Fifteen minutes later, Sharon found herself walking out of the tavern with her father in tow. Her mind was spinning as they headed for the coach. She had fully expected to hear a thousand questions firing off in her direction, yet from her father there came nothing but silence. It was a welcome thing though, however unexpected, because the deal she had just struck with the man in the tavern was one that she would never be able to speak about with anyone.
She had no idea if she wanted to laugh or cry… In truth, she almost felt like doing both. After an entire year of suffering silently, she had just been offered all the wealth she could ever desire in this lifetime—offered exactly what she'd asked for. Yet, it would come with no assurance of the one thing she had really wanted most. A guaranteed future with Blake Ryder…
She could still hope it might come to pass someday, but that day might not come for a very, very long time—if ever at all…
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To Be Continued...