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eleasing her grip on the curtains, Sharon stepped back as they fell over the window, blocking the horrid view before her. Yet, the curtains failed to block the image from her mind.+ Staggering over to the bed, she resumed her position on the edge. She sat still for several minutes, the image of Gretchen and Matthew kissing, filling her mind until it was all she saw. Sharon told herself that the kiss changed nothing, but she knew quite well that it did; it changed everything. It changed her plans to stay here, married to Matthew. It changed her hope for security and companionship, and while she had hated to admit it, it changed her hope for love. It became very clear to her where Matthew's heart laid. Even more so, it became very clear to her how little she meant to him, his only purpose for marrying her being his intention to possess his inheritance and nothing more. While he had stood and demanded her body, he had only sought to use her, to defile her and toss her to the side in exchange for his inheritance and Gretchen. Matthew Steiner wasn't unlike any man she had ever met; he was exactly like every man she had ever met. Even more so, Matthew Steiner was worse for he wore the mask of a saint over his beastly heart.5 Sharon could not help but imagine what would have happened if she had given him the opportunity to consummate their marriage. She knew very well that even the consummation of their marriage would have been unable to stop him from tossing her aside once his aim was reached. Perhaps he would have even handed her over to the next gambler once he was done with her? Burying her face in her hands, Sharon fought the desire to cry. It would appear that her life was nothing but a game to the men she was unfortunately subject to. She was an object, a pawn! Angered by the thought, she scrubbed her sore eyes with her sleeves and rose to her feet —she would not sit here and cry. She would not sit here and cower from the rest of the world like one who had something to be ashamed of. Indeed, she had nothing to be ashamed of for it was Matthew who showed no respect for their marriage vows and it was Gretchen who participated in the shameful act. Sharon would not remain trapped in her room while the two were allowed to have a wonderful, warm breakfast!1 She slipped out of her nightdress and into a light pink dress. It was the same dress she had gotten married to Matthew in and one of two dresses that had made it to his house with her, the other being the grey one that she had been wearing when Jenkins kidnapped her on the night at the tavern. The pink dress was lovely and had belonged to her mother before she passed. Even now, wearing it with her hair pulled to a braided bun behind her head, Sharon could see the similarities she shared with her mother- the same light blue eyes, the same blonde hair. Her skin was slightly tanner than her mother's due to the hours she had to work in the sun, and she was slightly taller. It was no wonder that her father, when he got drunk, would mistake her for her mother. She turned from the mirror, and releasing a nervous breath, began making her way down the stairs to the kitchen. ~*~ Matthew had half the mind to skip breakfast altogether that morning, but he knew his mother would frown at his decision. He also knew he had no solid excuse for skipping breakfast, other than the fact that he was desperate to get away from Gretchen; to keep as much distance between them as was humanly possible, if only to get the memory of their kiss and the guilt that came along with it, off of his mind. He should not have kissed her —he scolded himself for the umpteenth time that morning. The kiss did nothing but remind him of all the things he loved about her and he hated himself for it. He hated himself because he knew he was married and also because he knew he could never be with Gretchen. Not only did she turn down his proposal, she turned away from him when he needed her the most. "I can't do this," he had whispered, pulling away from her and ending their kiss. "Why not?" Beautiful brown eyes stared back at him. Running his fingers through his hair, Matthew let out a breath. "I'm married." "To a woman you can't possibly love," Gretchen's words were true but they were certainly no justification for his actions. "You're in love with me, Matt, not her. I know it," she stepped forward, her hand settling on his chest. "I can see it." Matthew shook his head, refusing to let her words get to him. "Am I wrong?" "Gretchen," he breathed, fully aware of her hand that was still pressed to his chest. "There's nothing stopping us now, we can still be together." Unable to respond, Matthew had turned sharply around and hurriedly made his way into the building, desperate to get away from her. For he knew if he hadn't, she would have seen the effect her words had on him and would have used it against him, and he wasn't certain if he would have had the willpower to resist her. Gretchen was right; his marriage was not built on love, nor was there a possibility of love. Sharon was withholding everything from him and pushing him further away. As the thought of Sharon drifted through his mind, she appeared in the kitchen, dressed in the same dress she had worn the day they got married. Matthew vividly remembered that day. He especially remembered the look in her eyes when she told him he would never possess her heart. Crossing the room without a word to the people in it, Sharon took her place by his side. "Matt, would you mind so terribly, giving me a tour of your lovely property?" Gretchen called from her position on his left hand side. He shrugged, his gaze on his plate."I have to work." "But it'll be lovely. We could all go together." She whined. "Not me, I would absolutely hate to get sunburned." Grace sounded displeased. "And I'm not feeling perfectly well. I do believe I need a nap after the trip yesterday." His mother said. "Then I guess it's just you and me, Matthew." Gretchen sounded pleased by the idea of being alone with him. Matthew frowned, desiring anything but to be alone with her. "Don't you mean you and me?" Sharon spoke for the first time that morning. Surprised, Matthew turned to her; she sat beside him, her eyes fixed on Gretchen. "What?" Gretchen said, the edge in her voice hard to miss. "Matthew already said he needed to work, and Grace and Elle are uninterested in a tour of the property. That leaves the two of us." "Oh," Gretchen let out what sounded like a nervous laugh. "I don't suppose you're interested and I'm certain I can convince Matthew to come along with me." "Why wouldn't I be interested in a tour of my property?" Sharon raised a brow. "Yours?" Gretchen laughed, dismissing her statement with a wave of her hand. "We're married, aren't we? What's Matthew's is mine seeing as I'm his wife." Matthew thought she spat out the last word, but he couldn't be certain. Silence followed, Gretchen seemingly unable to respond. Sharon sat still, her eyes still fixed on Gretchen. "Very well," Gretchen finally said, and when Matthew turned to her, he thought he saw a fire in her eyes he hadn't seen before. "Let’s walk." "Let's." Sharon said, and a bitter taste immediately filled Matthew's mouth. 7The warm afternoon air moistened Sharon's skin, forcing her to tighten her hold on her scarf. It was a poor time to go on a walk and she was certainly in no mood for one, but Sharon could not decline this particular excursion. She had agreed to it for reasons ranging from her desperation to keep Gretchen as far away from Matthew, to her frustration at the knowledge that she could never truly separate the two. She remembered clearly the dull pain in her chest as she watched them kiss, and the stab of anger she had felt when she walked down to breakfast to find Gretchen perched on a seat beside Matthew. She had known then that they were meant for each other and the thought had done nothing but heighten her anger and desperation.+ Sharon did not dare admit to it out loud, but she could only attribute her feelings to jealousy. Perhaps the part of her that had been willing to concede to staying married to Matthew was the part that suddenly felt betrayed by his actions? She shook her head; she didn't know. Nothing made sense to her anymore and the more she walked —the angry sun beating down on their heads— the more convinced she was that agreeing to taking a walk at such a dreadful time of the day and with such a dreadful human being like Gretchen, had been a terrible mistake. Pausing in her tracks on the sandy paths, Sharon turned to Gretchen. "Perhaps we must do this another time? The weather is dreadful and I'm just not feeling well."1 "Oh?" Gretchen raised a brow in question. "You seemed fine this morning." "I was," "Then you're fine now. It's only been a few minutes and unless you're lying, I don't suppose much could have changed since this morning." "How dare you call me a liar?!" Sharon half screeched, angered by the woman before her. She truly did not believe herself capable of enduring Gretchen's presence for much longer. "I did no such thing!" Gretchen sounded indignation. "I simply pointed out the impossibility in the change of the status of your health given the short space of time that has passed. I beg your pardon, Sharon, but your unwillingness to show me around the property like you so willingly volunteered to do before everybody at breakfast this morning, comes as an unpleasant surprise to me. I don't suppose Matthew would be able to show me around now." Sharon rolled her eyes, exasperated. "Maybe you should take the walk yourself. You're gifted with two stable legs and are not in need of two extra legs, unless of course your plan is to have Matthew carry you around the property." "I suppose this has been about Matt all along." She watched her intently. "Perhaps you're threatened by my presence here?" "Perhaps you're delusional." Sharon spat, irritated. "Am I? Do not act like your volunteering to come on a walk with me was an act of kindness, Sharon, I know we all saw clearly who it was you were trying to keep me away from." "And do not act like you didn't just kiss my husband a few hours ago!" Suddenly, the urge to reach out and grab the atrocious woman by her ridiculously red hair washed over Sharon. Gretchen's lips fell open, her eyelids widening slightly with shock. Running her tongue over her bottom lip, she straightened. "Matt kissed me, alright? It is not my fault that he unable and unwilling to get over me!" Her words were like a slap to Sharon's face. Fighting to keep her emotions in check, Sharon said, "I will excuse myself right away." STORY CONTINUES BELOW Turning around stiffly, she began retracing her steps back to the building. She fought to keep her shoulders straight, the truth of Gretchen's words settling on them and cruelly fighting to weigh them down. She forced her legs forward even if they trembled slightly beneath her, and she kept her chin up, even if the shame she felt urged her to bow her head. Gretchen was right; Matthew was in love with her, not Sharon. She knew that, but having Gretchen throw it in her face proved too much for Sharon to bear. Perhaps it was the look in Gretchen's eyes; the look of triumph? Perhaps it was the implication of her words; the fact that not very long from now, the second Matthew comes into his inheritance, she would be forced to leave, to go back to a drunk gambling father, and a life of uncertainty? Uncertainty was the life fate had chosen for her. She understood that once she returned to her father, she would be forced to live in the fear of him losing her once more in a bet. Even turning eighteen and gaining her independence from her father did not guarantee her freedom for she knew he was likely to still place her on the table of cards and sell her to a scoundrel such as Jenkins. Jenkins was another slimy bastard Sharon knew she would be seeing the second her marriage to Matthew came to an end. Hadn't Jenkins already tried to force her to the courthouse after Matthew let her go the first time? She didn't put it past him to try again. She didn't put it past him to try to kidnap her! When she reentered the building, Sharon was exhausted. Knowing very well that her fatigue was more psychological than it was physical, she settled on a chair in the kitchen and released a breath she knew very well she had been holding since she watched Matthew and Gretchen kiss that morning. Seated on the kitchen chair, the image reappeared before her eyes, the dull pain in her chest reappearing with it. She must have been seated on the chair in the kitchen for nearly an hour, when the sound of the door opening drifted to her. Assuming it was Matthew and Gretchen back from their walk, Sharon considered sneaking up the stairs in an attempt to avoid them both. But she quickly dismissed the thought, knowing full well that she would barely make it up the first stair before being caught in her attempt and she hated for Gretchen to think she was running away from her —she hated for her to see the effect her words had on her. The footsteps drew near, light against the wooden floor. Knowing it belonged to a female, Sharon settled back against her seat, thinking it belonged to Nana Lois, Grace or Elle. It certainly wasn't Gretchen's, who was no doubt somewhere secluded engaging in lewd activities with Matthew. "There you are!" Stiffening at the voice behind her, Sharon slowly turned around to indeed find Gretchen standing by the doorway. "Have a clue where Matthew is?" She raised a brow in question and Sharon frowned, annoyed. "Why would I know where he is?" She scoffed, turning back to stare at her hands that sat folded on the table. "I mean, I know he mentioned having a few errands to run right after we kissed this morning..."6 Slamming her fist on the table, Sharon sprang to her feet. Anger raced through her veins with such speed, her limbs trembled with it as she turned to consider the woman who had followed her from the fields back into the house only to mock her. It seemed like more than enough of an insult to have witnessed their kiss, but having Gretchen rub it in her face proved to be more than Sharon could handle. "Really, Gretchen, I highly doubt you have to go about announcing your shameless act in public. I'm sure the entire town has had a taste of your venomous lips!" She said, trying and failing to keep her temper from erupting. "I can assure you, only Matthew has." The annoying smile maintained its position on her face as she walked over to where Sharon stood by the table. Leaning forward slightly so that her lips brushed against Sharon's earlobe, she whispered, "He loved it enough to ask me to marry him." Her eyes caught fire. Sharon felt the blood drain from her face, Gretchen’s words knocking the air out of her lungs. Stiffening, several questions raced through her mind in the span of two seconds —Matthew asked Gretchen to marry him?! Was that even possible? When did that happen? How did it happen?! She knew he loved Gretchen but knowing the extent at which he loved her proved nearly too much for her own distressed emotions. Still, she loathed herself for being surprised by the information for Matthew didn't marry her because he loved her; he married her because he had won a bet. He married her for his inheritance. He married her for his farm. There were many reasons Matthew Steiner brought her home with him, but love was not one of them. She knew the truth —she scolded her overactive emotions. She knew everything and she agreed to it. She was being silly for letting the truth weaken and hurt her. The slow pounding of her heart against her chest was silly. The warm liquid that slid down her cheeks was silly. "There, there, Sharon. I have no idea why Matthew married you but I'm pretty sure you are just a sport he is enjoying for the mean time. Perhaps it is due to my rejection, who knows?" She laughed triumphantly. "I will tell you one thing though," She leaned back, her smile broadening. "I'm here to claim what is mine." Without stopping to consider her actions, Sharon reached out suddenly, her hand connecting with Gretchen's face. She watched Gretchen's face turn red, the sound and impact of the slap reflecting the pain she felt in her heart. "You little witch!"2 Anticipating retaliation, Sharon's hand shot up with speed, her fingers clawing around Gretchen's wrist and holding it captive in mid air. "You, Gretchen, are the witch." She said slowly, her voice heavy in her own ears, "a bitter, sad, desperate, witch." Tightening her hold on Gretchen's wrist as she wrestled to free herself, Sharon held her gaze. "Matthew is and will never be yours. We are married and I plan on staying true to our vows. Trust me," she leaned forward until her lips were only inches from Gretchen's. "The next time I see your foul, venomous lips go three inches close to my husband's lips, I will cut your tongue out and feed it to you!"12 Releasing her hold on Gretchen, she turned sharply to leave the room. Anger blinded her, making it impossible to see the path before her until she was bumping into something at the entryway. Taking a step back, her eyes settled on Nana Lois. She stood there by the doorway, her lips sealed, yet, the twinkle in her eyes reassured Sharon of what it was she knew she needed to do; fight. She would fight for her home and the man who was now her husband.3 And hopefully, she thought, offering Nana Lois a curt nod before making her way past her— she was going to win. George Freelance staggered into his usual gambling hall with an empty bottle of whiskey in his hands. After ransacking his tiny cottage and finding nothing more than empty bottles of liquor, it became apparent to him that he could no longer go another second without some alcohol. And how could he? Not only was he penniless, he was alone. Every second that ticked by brought nothing but the painful reminder of the loss he had had to endure in that past few years —first it was the loss of his wife, then it was the loss of his daughter. He was desperate; desperate to be rid of the pain, even if the alcohol was only capable of making him numb to it for a few hours. He crossed the room, somehow managing to keep his blurry gaze on the shifty image of the floorboards beneath his dirty boots. Pulling out a stool by the bar, he settled on it. "George Freelance," The owner of the place, Jerry Franklin, greeted as he sat down. "A bottle of whiskey," he groaned, combing his hands through his sweaty hair. "'Soon as you pay up." Jerry said. "I will, soon as I can get my hands on that money." He lied, for there was not a dime to his name but Jerry didn't have to know that. George was desperate! If he didn't get some liquor tonight, he was certain he would lose his darn mind. "What money, George? Whole town knows you are broke as hell. What with losing your only daughter in a bet, you are left with nothing to your name." "Lies!" He cried, slamming his shaky fist on the table and hurting his knuckle. But the pain in his knuckles was nothing compared to emotional torture he was going through. He didn't need any more reminder of his predicament. For a second, Sharon drifted through George's mind and he shoved the thought aside. It was beyond him where she was at that point —if she was safe and how she fared— but he knew he couldn't dwell on the thought. He would instead do what he knew to do with pain and guilt; he would try to drown the bloody emotions with alcohol. "How so, George?" Jerry leaned forward, mockery visible in his inquisitive brown eyes. "I have my house." He said, desperate. "I own the house." At least he thought he did. He wasn't certain whether or not he already lost it in a wager, but as far as his shaky memory could recall, he had woken up in that run down shack only this morning. Jerry watched him, his brows furrowed by doubt. "Your house for a bottle of whiskey?" George nodded. Jerry sighed. "I'll tell you what, Freelance, while that does sound like a brilliant deal, I'm a much more honorable man than that. So, instead of one bottle of whiskey, I'll throw in a whole carton, just to make the deal worth your while. How's about that?" Jerry's offer was nothing compared to the worth of his house —George knew that much— but so much more than that, he knew he needed his liquor. He looked up at the conning eyes of Jerry Franklin, knowing full well that he was going to regret his decision later. But the thought of walking out of those doors with a whole carton of his favorite whiskey was not something George could walk away from. It could last him an entire week if he managed it well enough. Give or take, three days. It was worth the bet. And like the good Lord suggested, tomorrow was sure going to take care of itself. "Jerry Franklin..." He smiled, exposing his decaying teeth. "I believe you have yourself a deal." He reached out with dirty hands to shake the man's hand. "Wrong!" An angry voice boomed behind him.+ ~*~ Matthew glared into the eyes of George Freelance, his fingers balled into a fist. After leaving the farm, desperate to clear his mind, he had somehow found himself in the tavern. It was a shameful place to be and Matthew was not much of a drinker, but tonight, he needed the alcohol to clear his mind not only of Gretchen, but of the guilt that stabbed at his heart for what he did to Sharon. He had been seated by the bar, mentally scolding and kicking himself for his poor choice that evening, when George Freelance staggered into the tavern, pulling up a seat beside him and settling on it. At first, Matthew had paid little attention to the man, ignorant of who he was. Then, he heard it; Freelance. Turning sharply to the side to give the man a closer look, Matthew could barely see the resemblance between the drunken old man and Sharon. He sat beside him, bent over with desperate, wild eyes that carried black eye sacks underneath. Dirty silver hair sat atop his balding head as the pungent smell of liquor and dirt assaulted Matthew's nostrils. It was impossible; there was simply no way Sharon was related to this man, he thought. He knew she had mentioned her father being a drunk and a gambler, but Matthew could never have imagined him to be this bad. He was about to turn and leave the tavern when the bar owner's words drifted to him: "What money, George? Whole town knows you are broke as hell. What with losing your only daughter in a bet, you are left with nothing to your name." It was true then; this was Sharon's father. Matthew stared at him once more, suddenly feeling sorry for Sharon. He could barely imagine the torture she had endured living with a man like this; the shame, the pain, and the emotional trauma that came with simply being affiliated with a man like the man that was before him. What was even worse was the fact that the rumor had gone around town of Sharon being gambled away by her father. He could only imagine how she felt. Perhaps so much more than imagine, Matthew could almost empathize with Sharon? He too had a father he could barely rely on for anything; a father whose control he was desperate to come out from under. Matthew had been willing to do anything to gain his independence from a father who wasn't even half as bad as George Freelance. Suddenly, the shame and guilt for what he did with Gretchen, came rushing back. Sharon had never had a man in her life she could rely on, and Matthew had gone ahead to prove to be quite unreliable. He listened to the conversation, anger coursing through his veins as he heard George Freelance give his home up for next to nothing. He couldn't let it happen! For the life of him, Matthew could not sit by and let the idiot give his house up like that, not only because it was a stupid thing to do, but also because he knew it was the least he could do for Sharon. He knew as he sat there, that she would be devastated by the revelation of what her father had done. He didn't think it was possible to stop George Freelance from gambling his house away, but he thought he could help the situation. "Wrong!" He barked, just as the deceptive bar owner was about to shake George Freelance's hand. "Who are you?" The man George had made a deal with, eyed him up and down. "The owner of the house George Freelance is trying to gamble with." He kept a scowl on his face, hoping to appear not only genuine, but infuriated by the bet on his property, even if it wasn't his property. He didn't think George was a man that could be reasoned with for the desperation that shone in the man's gray eyes was more than enough indication that George could not be reasoned with, neither did he think the owner of the bar could be persuaded not to jump on the opportunity to rob the poor man of his property simply because it was the noble thing to do. Indeed, deception was the only way to stop both men. "Liar!" George frowned, confusion flashing in his eyes. "I have never met this man in my entire existence." He pointed a shaky finger at Matthew. Matthew maintained his resolve, turning instead to face the other man. "You will do well to ignore the ranting of a drunk," he said, watering the seed of doubt he had planted. "Step a foot on my property and I will have you arrested." The man raised his hands in surrender. "I had no idea. I should have known not to listen to this liar!" He turned angry eyes to George. "Don't. Let the whole community know that the land is mine. Whoever places a bet on it, does so at his own risk. George lives there as a result of my kindness, but heaven knows I will not hesitate to kick him out of there the next time he tries to gamble with my property." "Of course, I'll let everyone know." The man affirmed, nodding. George sat still, his confused gaze moving from one man to the other. "Good," Matthew rose to his feet, offering the man a curt nod, before turning around to walk away. He heard George's loud protest as he made his way to the door, a small smile curving his lips at the realization that George was being kicked out of the tavern.  

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