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Her foot pounded against the wooden stairs, a frown creasing her face as anger boiled in her heart at the memory of that afternoon. Gretchen could barely fall asleep. Not only was her face still sore from Sharon's slap, her ego was sore as well. It was beyond infuriating to think that the peasant had the guts to raise a fist to her! She growled, clenching her fist. The filthy animal had attacked her, bruising her for nothing! Perhaps she should not be so surprised that Sharon could stoop so low? What had she been expecting from the low-life?! All day, she had waited for Matthew's return and she had even missed dinner, blatantly refusing to be in the same room with that monster. Hours into the evening with no sign of Matthew, Gretchen gave in to her hunger, deciding it was unwise to sit outside all day in anticipation of him. She had no doubt that everyone else had retired to bed and that she would have the kitchen all to herself. She would simply eat and if she was lucky, Matthew would return before she was finished, then she could inform him of the kind of woman he was married to. Rising from the stairs to her cramping legs, she smoothed her skirt before turning and making her way into the building and to the kitchen. Thankfully, as she glanced around, there were still some leftovers from dinner. She served herself a plate and plopped herself on the chair. “Are you okay, Gretchen?” Startled, Gretchen turned sharply around, shocked to find Grace standing by the entryway, her dark brown hair pulled into a messy bun as she held her night coat tightly around herself. Heaving a deep breath, Gretchen nodded; she didn't think it was appropriate to get Grace involved —at least not until Matthew was informed. She forced a smile to her lips. “I'm fine.” Crossing the room, Grace settled on a chair beside her, her eyes searching hers as a small frown dented her young face. “You can talk to me about anything.” She finally said. Gretchen stared into the eyes of the sixteen year old heiress of the Steiner estate, a wave of jealousy washing over her. Just a few months back, she herself had been an heiress. She had everything and she would never have been reduced to fighting with a peasant over a man. Never! All of a sudden, the realization of her shameful act washed over her; not only had she stooped low enough to come here, she had gotten into a fight with a woman she would have never been caught dead associating with in the past. And to think she was about to disgrace herself even further by reporting the problem to Matthew. She leaned back on her chair; perhaps she had been wrong to come here? Perhaps it was best to return to her family very early the next morning? She had already borne as much shame as she could possibly take. There was no point staying back. Indeed, there had been no point coming here in the first place. It was best to give Matthew the space he deserved to be happy, and while she did not like Sharon, she supposed she needed to be happy Matthew had found a way to fall in love again after she dumped him. It was her fault; if she hadn't turned down Matthew's proposal, he wouldn't be with another woman. The least she could do was preserve what was left of her dignity and let Matthew have the family he always wanted. “Does it concern Matthew and the woman he has chosen as a wife?” Grace spoke, dragging her back to the present. “I wouldn't worry about that.” She touched Gretchen's hand, a smile playing at the corners of her lips. “I think I know the reason Matthew married that nobody and it has nothing to do with love.” Jerking upright, Gretchen turned sharply to Grace, stunned. “What?” “He loves you, Gretchen, I can tell. I overheard Papa and Mama talking about it. Papa told Matthew that he needed to get married to gain access to his inheritance money.” She sighed, as if the thought alone sickened her. “A few days later, the news came that he was married.” “What are you saying, Grace?” She shook her head, unbelieving of the news she was hearing. Certainly, Grace did not know what she was saying! Matthew would never marry a woman for money; it just wasn't something he could do! But the kiss... Gretchen could almost still feel the warmth of his lips pressed to hers, his heart pounding wildly against her chest as she leaned further into him. The kiss had done many things to her, and one of the things it had done was reassure her of his feelings for her. “I'm saying that once Papa hands Matthew his inheritance, there will be no reason to stay married to Sharon.” A small smile immediately tugged on the corners of her lips as the implications of Grace's words began to sink in; Matthew loved her. Matthew married Sharon for his inheritance. Matthew would come back to Gretchen once the inheritance was him. There was hope for their relationship. She had done this; she had pushed Matthew into the arms of another woman. Now, she was going to get him back. The sound of the front door opening caused both ladies to turn toward the entry way. They waited a few minutes as the sound of someone's boots approaching, reached them, before Matthew appeared. “Matthew!” Grace rose from the chair and walked over to him, her arms outstretched for a hug. Matthew's face crumbled into a smile as he opened up his arms to his little sister. Once settled in his embrace, he planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Where did you go all day?” She pulled away, a frown on her face. “I had business to take care of.” His eyes settled on Gretchen. Nervous, Gretchen's gaze moved back to her plate. The excitement of knowing there was a chance they could still be together, made her awfully nervous. “Well, I better get my beauty sleep. I wouldn't want to wake up with those horrid sacks underneath my eyes.” Grace chirped, gaining Gretchen's attention once more. She tugged on Matthew's arms until he was leaning down once more for a kiss from his sister. He chuckled as she grabbed his neck and planted a loud kiss on his cheek. “Good night!” She yelled, turning sharply around and bouncing up the stairs. “Hello, Gretchen,” he offered a half smile, turning to her. Returning his smile, she watched as he settled beside her. “I'm sorry for earlier today.” He sighed, running his fingers through his hair and ruffling his curls. Shaking her head, she said, “No, I am the one who's sorry, Matthew.” He shook his head. “I guess I gave you the wrong impression. Gretchen,” he held her gaze. “I need for you to understand that the only thing that can exist between us is friendship. I'm married now.” I know. I also know that you need to stay married to get your inheritance. I also know that you love me, and not her and I'm sorry I wasn't there for you when you needed me. But I'm here, now, Matthew, I will always be here. She opened her mouth to speak — to express her heart to him— but as the words started to form on her lips, she decided against it. Matthew was a nobleman and certainly felt guilty about the kiss. If she expressed her love for him like that, it would only heighten his guilt and push him away. It was best to give him time to be rid of his guilt, while simultaneously working to remind him of all the things he loved about her —like her touch... Reaching out, she placed a hand on his hand that rested on the table. “My, Matthew, you do look hungry.” she said, her smile broadening as something flashed in his eyes in reaction to her touch. Shaking his head furiously, he withdrew his hand and rose to his feet. “Tired, not hungry. I should go to bed. Good night, Gretchen.” Rising to her feet as well, Gretchen maintained the smile on her face as she leaned forward, her lips brushing his cheek. “Good night, Matthew.” She whispered, leaning back. She watched as he stiffly turned around and made his way up the stairs. She would have him, sooner than later. Staggering up the stairs, Matthew regretted his decision to return to his room that evening knowing he would meet the door in the same state that he met it the evening before; locked. But he had had an exhausting day; first with the kiss he shared with Gretchen, then with the incidence in the tavern. He was tired and wasn't thinking straight and he certainly did not need Gretchen taking advantage of his weak state. Why was Gretchen even here? Matthew asked himself for the umpteenth time. Why did it suddenly seem like she was interested in him once again? He reached his bedroom door and turned the knob, shocked to find it unlocked. Holding the door still, guilt compelled him to turn around and walk back to the barn. But as quickly the thought entered his mind, he was reminded of Gretchen seated right there in the kitchen. There was no doubt in his mind that if he attempted to sleep in the barn tonight, Gretchen would see him and immediately guess something was off with his marriage, and Matthew could not afford to trust Gretchen with such an information. Not only did his coming into his inheritance depend on his false marriage, Sharon's dignity depended on it as well. It seemed unfair to expose her to such cruelty especially considering all that she had already been through with her father... ...all that she was going through with him. Matthew wasn't stupid enough to think Sharon had married him out of her own free will, neither was he delusional enough to think she was pleased with having to stay married to him. He had seen firsthand the type of father she had and had understood even more clearly the reason for her decision to get married to him, even if theirs was a less-than favorable marriage. He imagined he had robbed her of her chances of falling in love, of being courted properly, and of a dream marriage. It was his fault; the anger she held on to was his fault. He might have told himself he was doing the right thing when he presented the option of marriage to her, but the truth was, he had only been thinking of himself. After encountering her father a few hours ago, Matthew knew he was as guilty as the man for ruining Sharon's life. If he really wanted to help her, he should have offered her something else, maybe even a job? It was true that he didn't exactly have the resources to continue with his farm, but surely there could have been an option much more honorable and suitable than a forced marriage! Then there was the kiss with Gretchen, the cursed memory of the thing haunting him all day and the guilt threatening to drive him insane. Matthew could not help but think Sharon did not deserve to be disrespected in that way. She was married to him as a favor to him, and had stayed married to him —even agreeing to put up with the charade before his family— just so he could come into his inheritance. Sighing softly, he ran his fingers through his hair and shoving the guilt he felt aside, pushed the door wide open. The dimly lit room came into view, a still figure perched on the edge of the bed, staring back at him. Momentarily shocked to find her awake, Matthew paused. “Do you mind if I come in?” He managed, his fingers clawing around the doorknob. Slowly, she nodded. Stepping forward nervously, he silently closed the door behind him. “I will sleep on the floors of course.” He said, desiring to put her at ease. He understood that she probably wasn't pleased by his presence but he didn't have a choice. She rose to her feet then, her white night dress falling around her ankles. Shaking her head, she said, “It's a big bed, Matthew, I'll feel terrible if you have to sleep on the uncomfortable floors.” “You will?!” He blurted, confused. She nodded, her eyes falling to her hands that were clasped before her. “I didn't mean to lock you out last night, it's just... Well, it was an honest mistake.” “Oh,” he rubbed the back of his neck, unsure of how to respond. He had fallen asleep in anger, believing the worst of her; truly believing that her decision to lock him out —even after he had pleaded to be allowed to sleep in the same room with her until his family was gone— was a deliberate one. “I'm used to locking the doors, what with my father being a drunk and a gambler and having complete strangers show up on our doorstep to claim their loot,” Shame washed over Matthew in that second; shame for what he did with Gretchen, and shame for how he had been treating her. “When I realized what had happened, I stayed up half the morning thinking you'd return.” “You did?” He asking, knowing she did, even before she nodded solemnly, and raised her head up once more. “Sharon, I kissed Gretchen!” He blurted before he could stop himself. Matthew wasn't sure of what it was that prompted his confession —the guilt, or the shame. She stared at him, her expression impossible to read in the dim light. “I—” he began when she shook her head, silencing him. “I know.” Her words stabbed at his heart. Shifting from one foot to the other, he glanced down. “I also know you asked her to marry you once.” He thought he heard her choke on her words. Raising his head up once more, he watched her shoulders droop. Matthew opened his mouth to defend himself, to come up with something —anything— to ease the hurt he heard in her voice, but all he could say was: “That was a year ago, Sharon.” “But you're still in love with her.” He shook his head furiously. “I loved her, but not anymore. I asked her to marry me one year ago and she said no. I'm not sure why she refused, but I'm starting to think it was for the best.” “You are?” She watched him. He nodded. “It wasn't meant to be.” “Then you're not going to get married to her once our marriage is over?” Matthew felt a dull pain in his chest at the reminder of the impending end of their marriage, but he knew it was for the best; it was in her best interest. “I made a poor choice this morning. I disrespected you and our marriage —as unconventional as it is. I apologize. As for when our marriage will come to an end, I'm afraid that is up to you, Sharon. I already acted selfishly when I practically forced you to marry me so I could gain my inheritance. I do not want to force you to stay married. When you decide to leave, I will not be going back to Gretchen.” “You don't want me to go?” It was a small whisper, one he had to strain to hear. He shook his head. “No, but I can't ask you to stay when it's clear how unhappy you are staying here.” He thought he heard her murmur something in return, but he wasn't certain. “Besides, I have successfully eradicated the possibility of your father gambling with the roof over both your heads.” He chuckled at the memory. “What do you mean?!” “I met your father at the...” He shook his head, suddenly reminded of his shameful activity that evening. He wondered if she would find his whereabouts to be displeasing, or she would simply be pleased with his interference with her father's gambling. Clearing his throat, he decided to leave the details of the tavern out. “Your father was about to exchange your home for a few bottles of liquor.” “What?!” Horror laced her voice. “How could he?! My mother was buried on that land! And where will he live once he is thrown out?!” She clasped her hands over her mouth just as a broken sob escaped her lips. Hurrying over to her side, Matthew placed an arm around her shoulders, a soft gasp drifting from his lips as she turned sharply to the side, her arms curling around him. Burying her face in his chest, her soft sobs began to drift to him. His arms circled her in that second, pulling her further against himself. Her sobs tugged on the strings of his heart until he was leaning down and placing his cheek against her head, the overwhelming urge to protect her suddenly washing over him. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. He was sorry for everything; for the part he played in complicating her life further. She pulled away then, his arms suddenly feeling empty as a result. She rubbed her eyes, shaking her head. “It is not your fault.” “It is. I should not have forced you into this marriage.” “You didn't force me, Matthew,” settling on the bed, she heaved a breath. “I gave you no choice.” He settled beside her. “You did,” she turned to him, blue eyes drowning in sadness. “If you hadn't married me, I would have been stuck with Jenkins by now, or the highest bidder. My father had already run out of things to bet with. I was the only thing left; me and the house. I might even say you saved my life... Or what is left of it.” “Stay,” the words drifted from his lips before he had the time to think them through. “Stay with me.” He knew what he was asking of her and he knew he had no right to ask for it. But it didn't stop him from wanting it; from wanting her and their marriage. Her gaze searched his as if searching for the slightest sign of deception. Knowing full well that he did not deserve her trust, Matthew found himself hoping that she would give it to him nonetheless. “Why?” She finally asked. There were so many reasons Matthew wanted Sharon to stay married to him —so he could protect her from further abuse by her father or men like Jenkins, so he could give her the quality of life she never had, so he could be the support she never had. Indeed there were several reasons, but as he leaned forward, brushing his lips against hers for the slightest seconds, he could only think of one. Leaning back slightly, he watched her eyelids tear apart, his heart drumming dully in his chest as a result of the kiss they had just shared. “Because I want to be with you,” he said. She leaned forward, her hands settling on his cheeks as her lips settled on his once more. Groaning, he tore his lips apart, welcoming the warmth of her mouth into his. His hand settled on her neck, nudging her forward as he tilted his head to the side so that their kiss deepened. His eyelids flickered shut, his fingers burying himself in her hair, allowing it to cascade down her shoulders. He combed through it, his lips exploring hers in a way that caused warmth to quickly race through his skin. It was madness to even consider pulling away from her. Yet, it was exactly what he needed to do. He neither wanted to take advantage of her weakness, nor did he want her to feel obligated to give herself to him. Leaning back slightly, even if he ached to pull her into his arms and ultimately his bed, Matthew offered her a smile instead. “Your house is safe and so is your father. I took care of everything.” Wiping a stray tear off of her cheek, he could barely resist the urge to kiss her one last time that evening. “The floor is fine,” he murmured, planting a kiss on her forehead, “goodnight, Blondie.” He rose to his feet, grabbed a pillow from the bed and settled on the floor, knowing he couldn't share a bed with her lest he gave in to the feeling that was now consuming him. She couldn't forget. No matter how desperately Sharon tried to rid her mind of the memory of the warmth of Matthew's lips pressed against hers with his fingers caressing her scalp as her form collapsed into his, she couldn't. She could not forget the several emotions that raced through her body, leaving her gasping for more of his kisses, nor could she forget the wave of emptiness that washed over her the second he pulled away, ending their kiss. The kiss had been a week ago, and it had failed to repeat itself. But with every second that ticked by, its effect on her only seemed to get worse. She found that she was starting to desire Matthew's presence and miss him in his absence. It was impossible to keep her eyes off of him when they were in the same room, and it was especially impossible to rid her skin of the silly sensation of warmth when he looked at her or his skin brushed hers. What was wrong with her?! She sighed, leaning heavily against the sink as her eyes remained trained on Matthew who stood on the field having a conversation with one of the farmhands. The soft breeze tossed his hair back and forth, filling her with a barely deniable desire to want to run her fingers through the curly locks. His hands were buried in his pockets, but she could still picture them trailing her face, urging her forward until his tongue was buried deep in her mouth... "You know, it's rude to stare." Gasping, she jumped back, a loud clanking sound following her actions. She turned around sharply, her face catching fire at the sight of Nana Lois, who stood by the table, her eyes trained on Sharon. "I don't suppose you have those carrots chopped." Nana Lois raised a brow, motioning to the knife that had fallen from Sharon's hand to the floor. She had been so consumed by the sight of Matthew, she had forgotten the simple assignment the older housekeeper had given her; chop some vegetables. After volunteering to help Nana Lois with the chores that afternoon in an attempt to get her mind off of Matthew, Sharon was beginning to see the futility of her effort. "I—" She ran her hand over the back of her neck, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I got distracted." "Obviously," Nana Lois crossed the room and came to stand beside Sharon. Peering out of the kitchen window that Sharon had only a few minutes ago been using to spy on Matthew, she shrugged. "I can see why." Leaning down, Sharon took her time retrieving the knife from the floor; she hated for Nana Lois to see how utterly embarrassed she was. Straightening, she cleared her throat. "I'll just finish with these." "Are you sure? I would hate to interrupt your staring session." Her face caught fire. "I—" Nana Lois laughed then, most likely at the sight of the blushing bride. "It's a joke. I think it's lovely how attracted you are to Matthew, especially considering how rushed your marriage was." Turning her attention to the abandoned carrots, Sharon shrugged. "I suppose we get along fine, but attraction is such a strong word, Nana" "Get along? Well, that's a subtle way of putting it." "What do you mean?" She kept her attention on the carrots. "What I mean is I have eyes everywhere, literally." She giggled, heightening Sharon's embarrassment. "And I've seen how you two look at each other." "I believe these will do." Motioning to the chopped carrots, Sharon tried to shift the conversation in a different direction. Perhaps it was because she wasn't exactly comfortable with the way Nana watched her curiously, or perhaps it was the unfamiliar emotion she felt at the thought of having Matthew look at her the way Nana described. "Would you like me to help with something else?" "No, these are fine." "Alright," she said, nodding. "I should get back to finishing my second dress." "Oh? I was hoping for the company. Besides, the sooner we get lunch done, the better the possibility that I could help you with your dress. You know, I'm excellent with embroidery. Sit, will you?" She motioned to the table. Complying with her request, Sharon sat and watched as Nana Lois began cleaning some potatoes. "I never asked how you two met. I know Matthew was desperate to find a wife, but I was away visiting my grand baby when you two got married. I don't suppose a week had passed and I hadn't even heard of you before then." Sharon paused, unsure of how to respond to the older woman's enquiry. Did she dare speak of her unconventional meeting with Matthew, or their hurried marriage? Nana Lois sat patiently waiting, her attention stolen by the potatoes in the bowl. It appeared to Sharon that Nana Lois's question wasn't based on malice —like Gretchen's was— but was based on nothing more than sheer curiosity. Sighing, she said, "My father, George Freelance's disease is his stupid liquor and his insatiable desire for it. I'm ashamed to say that his desire has led him to doing a lot of foolish things, one of which was losing me in a bet." The knife fell from Nana's hands, landing in the bowl as her gaze immediately drifted to Sharon. Her eyelids grew several notches. "Goodness, child, I heard of you! Weren't you 'sposed to be married to that crook, Jenkins?! 'hole darn town was buzzing with the news!" Running her tongue over her bottom lip, Sharon let out a soft sigh. "Jenkins was seconds away from dragging me to the courthouse and forcing me to marry him when Matthew showed up." Nana's eyelids only seemed to grow several notches more. "Now it all makes sense why Matthew was willing to let the bastard go right after he was caught knee deep in Matthew's safe. I always wondered about that, now I'm just mad those three grown men tossed you about like a darn coin. I bet you didn't even get a say in any of this!" Anger flashed in her brown eyes. She shook her head. "It was nothing like that, Nana. Matthew offered me a choice." Nana Lois let out a loud sigh of relief. "Oh good, cause I was 'bout to give him a whopping." Laughter drifted from Sharon's lips then, just as Nana Lois gave her a small wink. "Matthew has always been a good man; his darn father just didn't give him much of a choice when it came to his inheritance. It isn't like him to go and do a thing like that; he would never marry for anything other than love." "And if it weren't for my father's poor choices, I wouldn't have to marry for anything other than love." She shrugged, glancing down. "You two have that in common, I suppose." "What?" She raised her head up once more. "Terrible fathers. Of course I can't be caught saying that about Mr. Steiner so if this ever gets out, I'm denying it." Laughing, Sharon nodded in agreement. "But it's not a hopeless case. There's always a chance you'll fall in love someday. As a matter of fact, I believe that's already even happening." Glancing down nervously, Sharon felt her face catch fire once more. "It's not what you think, Nana." "I'm sure it is! As a matter of fact, I do have one more thing I'll be needing you to do today.".

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