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Dinner progressed in silence; a fact that Matthew was thankful for. He knew his family did not approve of Sharon, and to make things even more complicated than they already were, Gretchen's presence on his farm could ruin everything. How was he supposed to keep up the pretence of being in love with the woman he was married to, when the woman he was truly in love with was seated beside him? A small frown claimed his face as he focused his attention on his plate —why was Gretchen here? She had made it clear enough a year ago that she didn't want to marry him because he wasn't 'wealthy' enough. What did she want? The last thing he wanted to deal with was his highly manipulative family, as well his ex girlfriend. "So tell me Matt, how did you two meet?" Gretchen's question dragged Matthew back to the present. He raised his eyes up, uncertain of how to respond. He couldn't tell them that he had met Sharon through his drunken farmhand and that she had only married him because she didn't have a choice. He couldn't tell them that he and Sharon were not in love and that Sharon wanted nothing to do with him. So, he shrugged. "I do not believe this is the time, Gretchen," Matthew answered dryly. "But I'm sure it's a romantic story, isn't it?" "It's none of your business," Sharon's response caused Matthew to turn sharply to her, as well as caused Gretchen to gasp loudly. When Sharon raised her gaze, Matthew immediately knew she hadn't meant to say that aloud. Gretchen pouted. "It was just an innocent question, Sharon, I didn't mean to pry," she said, but Matthew knew very well that she indeed intended to pry. It was who Gretchen was and what she did; pry. And what was worse was that he knew if she dug deep enough, she would find out very quickly about the falsehood of his marriage. Sharon's gaze dropped back to her plate after that, and nothing else was said. Matthew heaved a sigh of relief when dinner ended with no further incidence and the people at the table dispersed; first Grace, then Gretchen and his mother, then Sharon, and soon enough, he was seated all alone at the dinner table. He buried his fingers in his hair and let out a nervous breath; what now? He knew he needed to endure his family's presence for a few more days, and await the arrival of his father, after which he would hopefully be handed his inheritance. Then, he could get rid of all the problems in his life; first his family and Gretchen, then his debt, and finally, Sharon. If she was willing, he would take her to the courthouse, divorce her, and give her some money; enough to live independently of her father. It was unfortunate that their marriage was obviously not going anywhere, but there was nothing else he could do. Rising to his feet, he made his way out of the building and to the barn. He checked the horses' water trough and refilled it, and after ensuring their stalls were locked, he made his way back into the silent building through the back door. Silently, he climbed the stairs and made his way to the room he had to share with Sharon until his family's departure. He didn't like the idea, but he didn't have a choice either. Reaching for the doorknob, he twisted it but the door remained stubbornly shut. He frowned. Perhaps Sharon forgot their discussion earlier? He would have believed so if he didn't already know Sharon; she locked him out on purpose. Of course she had agreed to his plans to keep up the pretence of being in love, only so that she could humiliate him before his family. Clenching his fists, he turned stiffly from the door and began making his way back down the stairs, furious; where was he supposed to sleep now? If he slept in a guest bedroom, someone could walk in on him and knowing how inquisitive Gretchen was, that 'someone' would most likely be her. If he slept in the living room, he ran the same risk. Why couldn't Sharon just be reasonable for once in her miserable life?! The more he thought of it, the more infuriated he became until he was storming out of the building and back to the stable. Knowing full well that he didn't have a choice, Matthew settled on a pile of hay and closed his eyes.2 ~*~ Sharon woke up with a start that evening, suddenly remembering Matthew's request to sleep in her room. Gasping, she hurried over to the door and reached for the knob with shaky fingers. True enough, the door stood stubbornly shut. She had been so physically and emotionally exhausted that evening, she had been relieved when dinner ended and had hurried over to her room. She certainly hadn't been thinking when she locked the door —she had done it out of habit— and had no idea when her tired body gave into its exhaustion and fell asleep. Where was Matthew? She unlocked the door and pulled it open, stepping out into the silent hallway; nothing. Groaning in frustration, Sharon could only imagine how annoyed Matthew would be, knowing she had locked him out. Would he think she did it on purpose? Certainly! She knew their poor relationship would act as solid proof that she had intentionally locked him out of the room. She went down the stairs and looked in the kitchen, before turning to the living room and still finding no sign of him. Perhaps he had decided to spend his evening in a guest room? It would make sense that he would choose to do that. Deciding to offer him an explanation the next morning, she made her way back up the stairs. She reached her room and settled on the bed, her gaze fixed on the door all evening, hoping that Matthew would make his way in through it. He didn't. Gretchen Riverside sat on a chair in the kitchen, her fingers twirling around a tea cup, her feet crossed under the table and her mind filled with images of but one man; Matthew. After Matthew left home a year ago, she had managed to convince herself that it was only a matter of time before he ran back to her — she had been painfully mistaken. Not only had he managed to settle down in an elaborate house, he had also gotten married; she frowned, her gaze fixed on the black, steaming liquid in her tea cup. What are you doing here, Gretchen? She didn't know. She had known of Matthew's marriage even before she agreed to this trip. The news had been like a slap to her massive ego, and like a fool, she had proposed to join his family on a trip to his farm. She hadn't been expecting to find a thriving farm, a beautiful home, and an even more beautiful wife. Still, it was exactly what she saw, and it left her reeling in jealousy. She swung her feet back and forth underneath the table as she pictured the look on his face the last time they had talked: "I do apologize, Matt, I just can't possibly picture a life with you. While you do have a lot of money to your name, I'm afraid it's just not enough." Matthew, on his knees with an engagement ring in his hands, had looked about ready to faint. She heaved a breath. It had been the worst decision of her life; she knew that now and she regretted it. Perhaps it was because her entire life had changed in the span of one year for not only did her father manage to get into a phony business scheme, but he was also being investigated and their entire estate had been confiscated. What was even worse, Lucas Greenfield, the man her family thought would have been a suitable match for her, had all but blatantly refused her hand in marriage once the news of her family's present situation got to him. Here she sat, heartbroken and with absolutely no money to her name. The only reason Matthew's family had no knowledge of her present predicament was because the case was still being investigated silently and Grace, Matthew's sister and the town's gossip, had been away in school in London for three years and had only returned to San Francisco a month ago. Soon enough, news of the dwindled fortune of the Riversides would hit the town's newspaper headlines and Gretchen and her entire family would become a laughing stock. In spite of it all, something in Gretchen believed there was hope. Perhaps it was that thing that brought her here; perhaps she had come to California in hopes that she could remind Matthew of the fact that it was her that he was in love with. That way, maybe she wouldn't have to lose out completely? "Up early?" Startled, her swinging foot lost its balance underneath the table causing her to lean backward on the chair, her weight pushing the chair back with her arms flaring in the air. She shut her eyes in anticipation of the fall but a force pushed her chair forward, saving the situation. "Are you okay?" She nodded. "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you approaching. I should have been paying attention." Matthew, on his knees, studied her for a few seconds, his gaze holding hers. "Everything alright, Gretchen?" "Of course!" She forced a smile to her lips. "Good morning to you, Matt." His features hardened and he rose to his feet. "'Morning, Gretchen." He walked over to the steaming kettle and poured himself a cup of coffee. Taking the seat on the far end of the table, away from her, she thought, he took a sip of his coffee. "Don't you want to know why I'm up so early, Matt?" She batted her eyelashes. He shrugged and placed the cup on the table. "I have to get going." He rose to his feet and made for the door. "Where..." The back door cracked open and the old black woman who took care of Matthew while he was younger, walked through it. Gretchen, although she knew the Steiners for many years, never bothered to know the name of their helps. "Good morning Matthew." She watched as Matthew smiled and gave the maid a kiss on the cheeks. "Good morning, Nana, glad you're back. You’re a little late, but I’m happy to see you." Matthew sounded genuinely relieved. "Gretchen?" The maid raised a brow, turning to Matthew in question. He sighed. "My family is here." "They are now, aren't they?" She turned back to Gretchen. "Well, it's good to see you after all this time, Gretchen." She placed the basket in her hands on the sink. "I should get breakfast started before everybody else wakes up." "And I should get going." "Wait!" Gretchen called, springing to her feet and nearly spilling the content of her cup all over herself. Matt and the maid turned to look at her. "I should come with you." She settled the cup on the table and straightened. "Why?" Matt frowned. She shrugged. I want to be near you. She offered a bright smile. "I could help." "With what exactly?" Matt looked at her with skepticism. "Um..." She didn't know the first thing about farm work. "I'm not sure." "Then I doubt you can be of any help." He said tersely. Gretchen watched him, seeing clearly the anger that dented his features. It was then, as she stared at him, that she realized he was still hurt by her rejection a year ago, and if he was hurt, then there was the possibility that he was still in love with her! "Of course I can," she made her way around the table to where he stood beside the maid. "Tell me where it is you're headed and I'll come with you." He opened his mouth to most likely argue, but Gretchen wasn't having any of it; she wasn't going to let him push her away. She raised a hand, silencing him. "I'm not going to take no for an answer, Matt, I believe you know how persistent I can be. As a matter of fact, I believe that's one of the things you love about me." She winked, tucking her hand in the crook of his arm. The frown on his face deepened. "I was going to town for some supplies." "Good!" she chirped. "Nobody is better at shopping than I am," she said as she began herding him toward the door. They stepped into the chilly morning, the dark sky overhead making it difficult to see the distance. Silence settled over them as they rode to town in the wagon. Turning to steal a glance at him, she noticed the muscle that worked in his jaw as his hands gripped tightly to the reins, leaving green veins racing in his arm muscles. "What has got you so tensed?" She tried and failed to break the icy silence that stood between them. He didn't even look like he had heard her. "Matthew?" She touched his arm. Startled, he jerked his arm, pulling abruptly at the reins and most likely frightening the horses because they suddenly veered off of the road. Horrified, Gretchen let out a loud gasp as he pulled the wagon to a halt "Gretchen, are you okay?" He touched her face, worry lines racing across his forehead. She nodded, tears filling her eyes and pouring down her face. Turning fully to face him, she wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned in close. "Oh, thank goodness you're okay, Matt! I'm sorry I scared you." "You have nothing to apologize for, Gretchen, I should have been paying attention." He sat stiffly in her arms. "You seem very upset." She tightened her hold around him, reveling in the feeling of being so close to him. He pulled away and stared at her, his eyes searching hers. "I have had a stressful couple of days." He answered simply before turning his attention back to the road again. It was a few more minutes before the town came into view. They stopped by the curb and Matthew helped her down the side of the wagon. "Are you sure you want to do this?" He frowned. "You can wait in the wagon if you wish." She shook her head. "No, I want to help." She also wanted him to see how helpful she could be by his side, and also to know that she regretted her actions a year ago and wanted to make things right. "Very well," She followed him into the shop, making sure to stand very closely by his side. After he exchanged pleasantries with the owner of the shop —a short, bulky man with a white apron tied around his waist— and gave him a list of some of the things he needed, the man nodded before turning inquisitive brown eyes to her. "And who might this lovely lady be? Don’t believe I’ve seen her around here. Is she your wife?" he held out his hand to her. "N-" Matthew began to protest, but Gretchen stepped forward and shook the elderly man's hand. "Why yes, I am. It's a pleasure to meet you." He turned to Matthew. "She's quite the looker. Mind telling me where I can find me one of these?" Giggling, Gretchen ignored Matthew's tense muscles underneath her fingers where she clung to his arm. "My, that's a pretty nice thing to say, mister but it seems to me that Matthew here is in a hurry to get back to his farm, so how about you get those supplies now, and we'll be on our way." "Of course," he turned from them. Gretchen turned back to Matthew and flashed him a smile. He turned sharply around, the smile on her face fading as he walked out through the doors, leaving her standing there alone.10 ~*~ "You are not upset with me, are you?" Gretchen called from her position beside him as they rode back to the farm that morning. Matthew was indeed furious. He was uncertain whether it was her announcement to Ben —the supply shop owner— that they were married, or the rapid pounding of his heart against his ribcage when she sat so closely to him, or when she held his hands, confirming his suspicion that he was still in love with her. Choosing to ignore her question, he urged the horse forward until they were driving into the farm. He brought the wagon to a halt before the building and jumped down the side. "Matthew!" Gretchen called, hurrying over to him as he made to go into the building. She held his hand, stopping him. Releasing a puff of air in exasperation, he turned to her. The tears glistened in her brown eyes tugged on the strings of his heart, frustrating him further. "I'm not in the mood for this, Gretchen," "But I said I'm sorry," Matthew wasn't certain whether it was the self pity in her eyes, or his quickening heartbeat that aided his anger, but he jerked his hand from her. "Are you?!" He half yelled. "Are you, Gretchen?! And what exactly are you sorry for? Breaking my heart, throwing my engagement in my face, turning away from me when I needed you the most, or showing up here most likely to manipulate my feelings and drag me back to exactly where you left me a year ago?!" Breathing was difficult. Matthew felt his rage pump through every vein in his body until his heart threatened to burst out of his chest. Gretchen's lips folded into a pout and he knew in that instance that she sought to manipulate him. It was why she was here; to manipulate her way back into his life. Why? She had already turned her back on him a year ago, what did she want? "Matthew," she stepped forward, tension filling his body as she approached. Placing a hand against the side of his face, he watched her lean forward until her warm breath was pouring over his skin, her lips only an inch from his. Common sense urged him to pull away from her, but for some reason, his legs held him prisoner as she closed the distance between them and captured his lips. A creaking sound drifted to Sharon, expelling the darkness that held her body bound to the bed. Turning over on her side, she was just in time to watch an older woman make her way into the room.+ She expelled a puff of air in surprise, springing to a sitting position as her hands held the covers to her chest. The woman, most likely as shocked as Sharon was, jumped back as well, the laundry basket in her hands emptying its content on the floor. “Goodness!” The woman gasped, clutching the collar of her blue dress. “Who are you?!” Sharon sat, tongue tied by the presence of the stranger in her room. “And is that my night dress?” Thick raven brows pulled together to form a frown. Glancing down sharply to look at the dress she was clad in, Sharon turned her attention back to the stranger. “Yo—your dress?” The woman bobbed her head. “Looks like my dress to me.” She raised her brow in question, her fists settling on her rounded hips. Realizing then who she was, Sharon's gaze settled on the white apron around her waist. “You must be Nana.” Sharon began after several seconds of silence. The woman's reference to the dress reminded her of what Matthew had said about the dress belonging to his housekeeper and the apron did more than enough to jolt Sharon's memory. “And you are?” She watched her suspiciously. “Sharon, Sharon Freelance.” “That doesn't answer my question, child.” “I—um— I'm,” Sharon mentally struggled for the right words, but the woman's disapproving gaze on her made it nearly impossible to come up with any. “Well?” Her brow rose a notch. “Matthew's wife.” She blurted for a lack of a better term. “His wife?!” Nana Lois half screeched. Nodding, Sharon scrambled out of the bed, still clutching the white sheets to herself. “Well, when did you two get married?” “While you were away,” Sharon stood nervously by the bed, hoping the woman would take what she wanted and just leave. There was something intimidating about Nana Lois; something that made Sharon feel like a child who was being scolded by her mother for doing something terribly wrong. “I see,” brown eyes ran down the length of her as Nana Lois began covering the distance between them. Tightening her hold on the sheets, Sharon watched her approach. “I should be mad at Matthew for getting married without having the decency to tell me, but I suppose he truly didn't have that much time left,” she said, pausing before Sharon, “seems to me like he also made a great choice. You're a pretty little thing and with just the right amount of care, you'll do just fine raising the young'uns.” Heat sprang to Sharon's cheek at Nana Lois' reference to children. It was true that as a wife, she was expected to bear children at some point, but her marriage to Matthew wasn't a conventional marriage. They had both gotten married because they needed each other to get what they wanted —for her, to get away from Jenkins, and Matthew, to get his inheritance. But Nana Lois did not know that, nor did she suspect anything to be amiss as she wrapped her arms around Sharon, pulling her into a warm embrace. STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Welcome to the family, Sharon.” She murmured, releasing her hold on her. “Thank you.” Sharon nodded her appreciation. “I guess I'll just grab the laundry and be on my merry way. I already started breakfast. Soon as you're ready, come right down, will you?” Moving out of Nana Lois's way so she could grab the sheets on the bed, Sharon nodded. “Of course. And if you need me to help with anythin—” “I could use some help with getting those back into the basket.” She motioned to the discarded pile on clothes by the door. “Sure.” Making her way over to the doorway, Sharon gathered the clothes back into the basket and placed the sheet she had been using as a shield against Nana Lois in there as well. Lifting the basket up, she held it before her chest. “All done,” “Great.” Nana Lois crossed the room carrying an arm full of sheets. Stuffing them in the basket, she relieved Sharon of it. “Hurry up and have breakfast,” she said, exiting the room. Heaving a nervous breath, Sharon closed the door and crossed the room. She perched on the edge of the bed, uncertain about going down the stairs for anything. Not only did she dread having to endure the presence of Matthew's family —especially Gretchen— she dreaded having to face Matthew. She wondered about his sleeping arrangements the night before, afraid he would think she had locked him out on purpose. She wondered if he would confront her for it, or if his family's presence would force him to ignore her terrible mistake. Rising to her feet, Sharon decided she would delay her breakfast. She would stay up in her room for as long as it would take for Matthew and his entire family to eat, and once she had worked up the nerves to go down the stairs, she would blame her tardiness to breakfast on her restlessness through the night. She walked over to the window, shoving the curtains aside to let the sunlight into the room. She made to turn around when the sight of the wagon coming to a halt before the building, drew her attention. Pausing, she stared down curiously at the wagon. It was nearly impossible to see its occupants from where she stood and for a second, she contemplated turning from the window, but just as quickly as the thought raced through her head, Matthew jumped down the side of the wagon. Clad in a white shirt and dark brown pants, Sharon's gaze followed Matthew as he made his way around the wagon. His hair, most likely ruffled by the breeze, gave him a rugged appearance that made him appear even more handsome than in the past. A smile settled on Sharon's face at the thought. It was true that their marriage was nothing but a lie, but Sharon couldn't help but think she had been fortunate to end up with one of the most handsome man in town —handsome and decent. And in Ferndale, there were not many of those. She wasn't certain she would ever admit to it out loud, but for the first time since she agreed to be his wife, Sharon thought that perhaps she might have made the right decision. Matthew Steiner was unlike any man she had ever met —he worked hard and made decent money. He hadn't been to the tavern since they got married and she hadn't smelled a whiff of liquor on him even for a second. If she was going to tell herself the truth, then she would admit that she didn't stand the chance of ever meeting a man that was better than Matthew.4 Perhaps she must give him a chance? Perhaps something sensible could come of their unusual union? She wasn't foolish enough to believe that they could ever fall in love, but companionship was indeed possible. And security? It was something she had never had; it was also something she truly believed Matthew could provide. Just as the thought began to settle in, broadening the smile on her face, Sharon watched Gretchen jump down the wagon, nearly tripping on her dress.3 The smile on her face died as she watched Gretchen hurriedly make her way to Matthew who was about to climb up the front porch. She grabbed his forearm, forcing him to a stop. Leaning forward, Sharon's body pressed against the window pane in a failed attempt to hear the conversation between the two. Unable to hear them, Sharon focused her attention on Gretchen's hand that was now moving seductively up Matthew's arm. Instinctively, her fingers curled around the curtains, threatening to pull them down as she watched Gretchen lean forward, closing the gap between their bodies. Matthew stood still, their lips only an inch apart. With her heartbeat slowing down for reasons beyond her, common sense urged Sharon to turn from the window and deprive herself of the scene that was certainly about to take place. But against common sense, Sharon stood frozen to the spot, mentally urging Matthew to pull away. Surely he knew he was a married man! Perhaps their vows meant nothing to either of them, but common sense and decency urged them both to respect those vows until they were legally broken.1 Still, Matthew did not pull away. He instead stood still as his lips and Gretchen’s connected, causing Sharon's heart to sink.

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