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Sharon woke up the next morning with her heart pounding dully in her chest as the memories of the evening before came rushing back. She laid still in bed, her skin crawling with warmth from where his hands had explored her body as the strong scent of his skin intoxicated her. She remembered every kiss, every sound that emanated from his lips, every emotion that pumped through her veins... Releasing a soft sigh, she turned to the side disappointed to find the bed empty. She would have thought that the evening before was nothing but the workings of her imagination, but the dent on the mattress where he once laid told her otherwise. It was possible that his absence was as a result of his need to start the day early. He ran a farm after all; she imagined it was necessary for him to get things started before the break of dawn. Pushing aside her disappointment in his disappearance after what was certainly the most precious evening of her life, she simply crawled out of bed. The morning air was cold against her skin as she struggled to get dressed in the dimly lit room. Once she was finished, she turned and began making her way through the sleeping building, deciding to get started with breakfast if Nana Lois wasn't already on it. If she was, she would join in. The activity would hopefully help to distract her from the dull pain in her chest caused by Matthew's presumed abandonment. She had reached the foot of the stairs when the sound of harsh whispers began to drift to her. Pausing in her tracks, she contemplated going back up the stairs and sitting in bed until the day had fully broken, considering the tone of the conversation that was taking place in the living room; it became quite apparent to her that an argument was brewing very quickly and Sharon did not want to get caught in the midst of it. But just as the thought drifted through her mind, she recognized Matthew's voice, his anger carrying in every word. "How about you get right down to the point?!" Matthew half growled, nearly frightening Sharon. She had never heard him sound so upset before. Silence followed his words, the tension in the air so heavy, it made her heart pound. Someone heaved a breath. "I lied. I lied about your grandfather's Will." "Which part?" Matthew snarled. "The part about ensuring you get married-" There was a sharp scraping sound that made Sharon jolt in shock. "It was in a feeble attempt to get you to return home. I didn't think you'd go through with the ridiculous marriage! I did it for your own good, son. Look around you," the unfamiliar voice continued. "You have failed as a farmer. I didn't raise you to be a farmer, I raised you to take over the family's dairy factory. All your life, I have trained you..." "No, father!" Matthew yelled and Sharon feared he would awaken the entire house. "All my life, you have badgered, tormented, humiliated and controlled me, but you most certainly have not trained me!" He roared. "I left San Francisco and your control and nothing you do will make me go back. Hell, I would rather have a rock tied around my neck and be thrown into the deep blue sea than return to San Francisco! The moment you accept that, the better for all of us!" Sharon stood, shocked for several seconds as the implications of the stranger's words began to sink in; there had been no need for Matthew to get married to her in the first place. He had instead been lied to and deceived into acquiring a wife. Trembling slightly, Sharon took the last stair down until she was peeking into the living room. Matthew stood with his back to her, his attention fixed on an unfamiliar older man. From what she had gathered through the conversation and from the little she could make out given the dim light of the room, she knew he was Matthew's father. He sat there, his legs crossed as he observed Matthew for several seconds. Then, he continued: "I have." The fire in the hearth illuminated the sly smile on his face. She wondered how he could find it in himself to smile at a time like this, how it was that the man saw no ill in what he had done to his son, just like her own father saw no ill in the wrong he had done to her all her life. "Now sit down, Matthew." He said sternly. Matthew clenched his fists but did not move an inch. He heaved a breath, inching forward on the sofa. "I have accepted your decision to stay here, to make a name for yourself, and to build your farm. I have also decided to support you." "You have?" Matthew finally asked, skepticism lacing every word. "I have." He nodded. The tension in Matthew's features seemed to ease as he nodded to his father's words. "Good." Sharon saw him move and she immediately retreated behind the wall, turning to run back up the stairs lest she be caught eavesdropping, when his father's next words nearly caused her to fall forward. "But first, you must get a divorce.10 ~*~ Matthew stood, anger coursing through his veins with so much speed, he nearly passed out from it. Mentally, he cursed himself for coming down the stairs that morning to surprise Sharon with breakfast in bed. He was a fool for leaving her side but so much more than that, he was a fool for enduring this conversation with his father. "I cannot blame you for stooping low enough to marry the daughter of a dangerous, psychotic drunk man. It is my fault you're married to her in the first place and for that, I must apologize. Once you are divorced from her, I will pay all of your debts, down to the last dime." "You conniving bastard!" He swore, furious. "You will hand over what my grandfather left to me and you will get the hell out of my house, that's what you will do!" He said, fighting the urge to reach out and grab his father by the collar. "Your grandfather left you with nothing! I'm the sole beneficiary of his wealth. It is money that I do not need, money I'm willing to hand over to you once you have gotten rid of her." "She is my wife!" "Only because you needed the money. You don't love her, Matthew, it is simply impossible to think you moved on so quickly from Gretchen Riverside who is certainly a much better fit. I understand how desperate you must have been, I understand how much you needed the money," "You don't know me," Matthew breathed, the shock of his father's revelation rendering him speechless; his grandfather left him with nothing. He had left home and embarked on this journey to independence for nothing. He had gotten in thousands of dollars worth of debt for nothing. He had gotten married for nothing. It was all for nothing. "I know you need to pay your farmhands. I know you need to pay your debt or you'll lose your farm. I know you managed to find a woman desperate enough to marry you in such a short period of time because you thought you had a share in your grandfather's property. Tell me son, am I wrong?" He raised a brow. "I know you well enough Matthew, I know you well enough to know that you are not in love with that woman. You married her for the money and now I'm asking you to divorce her for the money." The feeling of defeat washed over Matthew, his shoulders sinking as a result. It was a feeling that left him bare and vulnerable, one that made him feel hopeless. And wasn't he indeed hopeless? Everything he had ever fought for proved to be futile —everything including his marriage. It was a painful thought, but it was the truth; he had married Sharon for his inheritance and she had married him to get away from Jenkins. Now that there was no inheritance to possess, and Jenkins was out of sight, he imagined it was still in her plan to get a divorce from him. Hadn't she made her desires for a divorce known more often than not? She only stayed this long because she thought she was helping him take possession of his inheritance. Perhaps it was time to set her free? The memory of the evening before suddenly washed over him, ridding his mind of thoughts of divorcing her. He felt every fiber of every second of that evening so strongly, his arms ached to hold her once more. Still, he didn't know how she felt —if she felt anything. He didn't even know how he felt. Nothing was clear to him anymore; nothing but the predicament he was suddenly in. Not only was he incapable of paying his farmhands, he was incapable of providing for a wife. "How can I trust you?" He heard himself say. "The moment you affirm to divorcing her, even before you sign the papers, I will pay off all your debts. And when you do divorce her, I'll give you the rest of the money." How can I trust you?” Sharon watched in horror as for the umpteenth time in her life, she was placed on the gambling table. She should be used to it by now; she told herself, tears streaming down her cheeks as she stumbled up the stairs and crawled back into bed. She should be used to being exchanged, to being tossed about like a worthless piece of furniture. Hadn't her own father given her up in exchange for his debt? Hadn't Jenkins, the drunken fool, done the exact same thing with her? Why was she foolish enough to believe Matthew wouldn't follow in the footsteps of every other man she had known in her life and give her up for the cancellation of his own debt? It would seem that every man she came across was knee deep in debt and she was the perfect remedy for their problem. But unlike her father and Jenkins, Matthew's betrayal felt worse. The pain that stabbed at her chest as the memory of him seated there with his father coursed through her mind. It only seemed to get worse until she was certain it would drive her insane —a feeling she hated; the dumb feeling of weakness, the one that made her feel like she was drowning in her grief. And Sharon knew she couldn't drown. She could neither drown for her father, nor for Jenkins. She especially could not drown for Matthew. Several hours passed before she wiped her tears, anger replacing her grief as she went down the stairs for breakfast. She straightened her shoulders, making sure to maintain eye contact with everyone on the table, especially Matthew's father. A part of her wanted him to know she had heard what he said about her, almost daring him to repeat it to her face. But nothing of the sort was said. Matthew kept his gaze on his plate through breakfast, and once that was done, he retreated outside. Not believing herself to be capable of sitting through breakfast with his vile family, she retreated as well, marching up the stairs to her room. She settled on the chair, choosing to distract herself with her unfinished embroidery. Leaving here would be best, she told herself, stabbing the fabric with the needle. She could never belong here, in this mess, with this cruel family. She was a fool to have gotten married to Matthew in the first place, and she was a bigger fool to have given in to her lust the evening before. Yet, she knew what she felt that evening was much more than lust. What was even worse was that she knew the cursed thing was now eating at her heart, threatening to destroy her from within. “Blondie,” Gasping, she turned to the side, shocked to find Matthew standing by the door. “I'm sorry, did I scare you?” Numb, she shook her head. She straightened, fully expecting him to announce his plans for a divorce. “I have your father tied up in the barn,” “What?!” Shocked, she stared at him. She was uncertain if she was shocked at his decision to tie her father up, or at the fact that he wasn't here to request for a divorce. “I'm sorry, but I didn't think I had a choice. He seemed to be in a bad shape yesterday. I couldn't send him home in good conscience knowing he was most likely going to harm himself and I couldn't bring him in here knowing he could harm you. I didn't have a choice.” The sincerity and concern in his voice made her heart do a small flip, temporary ridding her of the memory of the morning before. He stood there, appearing to genuinely care for her. She nodded. “You are right, you did the right thing.” Relief flooded his features as he began making his way to where she sat. Sharon felt her heartbeat quicken with every move he made until he was standing before her. A small frown creased her face, her lungs constricting as he leaned down before her. He kissed her lips, the warmth of his lips grazing hers for the briefest second as his hand settled on her cheek. Instinctively, she leaned forward as well, her anger dissipating as his lips settled on hers once more. She let out a soft breath, closing her eyes. “Would you like to have a word with your father before I have one of the farmhands escort him home?” He breathed, his thumb running back and forth her cheek. Sharon felt her body react to his closeness. Reaching up, she wrapped her arms around his neck and shook her head, expelling every thought of her father; she could barely stand to look at George Freelance knowing that nothing good could come out of their meeting. And Matthew? It would seem that he had decided to stay with her. He was here, wasn't he? Perhaps he had chosen her over his inheritance? Perhaps he had decided that he was in love with her? She touched his cheek, his eyes holding hers captive. This is where she wanted to be —in his arms— not with her father. As if reading her thoughts, he pulled her into his arm, his lips capturing hers once more as the fabric that had been in her lap fell to the ground. She felt his arm take possession of her waist, pulling her further against his firm chest as his lips trailed her neck to her collarbone. She threw her head back, basking in the exploration of his lips as her fingers curled around his shirt in a feeble attempt to keep her legs from giving out on her. He must have noticed her difficulty in standing because he suddenly lifted her up in his arms, her legs wrapping around his waist. “Blondie,” he murmured hungrily against her neck. Letting out a shaky breath, she tried to respond but could only manage a soft moan instead as his hand crept up her skirt, his fingers burying themselves in her bare thigh. “There's... Something...” He breathed, groaning as her hands dug into his hair. “I need to tell you,” he was saying just as she leaned to the side and began nibbling on his earlobe. His grip on her waist tightened. Turning around, he carried her to the bed and placed her on the soft surface. She leaned back, her eyes trailing every muscle in his chest as he lifted his shirt over his head and tossed it to the side. Her skin warmed at the sight of him in the daylight, everything in her desiring to be reconnected with him. Sitting upright, she began fighting to unbutton her dress. He sat before her then, his gaze holding hers as he leaned forward and took over the task from her. Her skin warmed some more just as she watched his eyes catch fire at the sight of her. “You wanted to tell me something?” She managed, breathless. “Yes, that,” He leaned forward as she settled on the bed, her back pressed to the soft pillow. “I love you, Blondie.” Sharon expelled a breath, his words shocking her and his lips reconnecting with hers once more, silencing her as their bodies became one. His lips grazed her neck, trailing slowly down to her shoulder as his arms curled around her waist, pulling her back against his firm chest. Releasing a sigh as the knife fell from her hands and into the bowl, Sharon closed her eyes, throwing her head back as he bit down gently on her flesh. “You should be working.” She protested weakly, her entire body collapsing against him as he clutched her waist. His lips trailed back up slowly, making it nearly impossible to breathe as he whispered in her ear, “I should.” She opened her mouth to probe him further but a low moan drifted from her lips instead as his hands began exploring her form. She instead turned to him, giving in to his seduction. His lips willingly welcomed hers, its warmth hungrily exploring her mouth until her mind was completely rid of the memory of where she was and what she had been doing before he snuck up on her. She threw caution to the wind, ignoring the likelihood of his family returning from their trip to town and finding them in such an immoral state. The look she imagined would be on Gretchen's face if she walked in to find them like this, only helped to spur Sharon on. She was consumed by Matthew's presence, her fingers clutching his waist as the sweetness of his kisses intoxicated her for several seconds. Then, his lips gently disconnected from hers, her eyelids flickering open in protest. A coy smile tugged on the edges of his perfect, mesmerizing lips as he stared back at her. “You didn't exactly seem pleased with having me here a few seconds ago.” He teased. She frowned slightly and tried to appear uninterested, even if she was fully certain that the color that stained her cheeks made it very clear to him that she was indeed beyond interested in him —in every single part of the man who stood before her. She would much rather be in his arms, getting lost in his kisses, than having to stand here and keep to her promise of helping Nana Lois with lunch. But beyond her physical attraction to him, Sharon knew she was falling for him as well. She knew because on the evening he confessed to loving her two weeks ago, she lost her heart. She could neither control nor tame it. Indeed, Matthew seemed to have taken the poor thing captive, forcing it to accelerate at the mere touch of his fingers, skip a beat at the mere brush of his gaze, swell every time she caught a glimpse of him, and most of all, her heart stopped every time he told her he loved her. She was losing herself and for the first time in her life, Sharon was not afraid to be lost —in his eyes, in his smile, in his kisses, in his arms. “I still think you should be working,” she managed to speak, her contrary desires quite evident in her voice. “Oh?” He leaned forward once more, his lips grazing her. Sighing in satisfaction, she returned his kiss. “Still want me gone, Blondie?” His warm breath tickled her lips. “Uh-huh,” she lied, unwilling to admit to her true desires as his finger played with a strand of her hair. “Alright,” he threw his hands in the air in surrender. “I'm here for a different reason.” “Really?” Nodding, he held out a hand to her. “If you'll come with me,” She shook her head. “I promised Nana I'll have these potatoes ready in time for lunch.” She frowned at the thought of displeasing Nana Lois; the only person who had been kind to her since her marriage to Matthew. She and Nana had managed to form a good relationship through the weeks that had passed, the older woman assuming some sort of motherly role in Sharon's life. And Sharon was in need of a mother. Since the passing of her mother and the escalation of her father's ill habit, she could not help but welcome Nana Lois's effort in caring for her. Nana and Matthew was truly the closest thing Sharon had to a family. “Trust me, Blondie, Nana will be pleased with my reason for distracting you for a few minutes.” She frowned, uncertain. “Where are you taking me?” “Outside,” he said, his hand still outstretched in anticipation. She folded her arms instead. “Why?” She eyed him suspiciously. “Please Blondie, it is a surprise.” “But I don't like surprises.” She shrugged. “You'll love this one.” “What if I don't?” Groaning, Matthew leaned down suddenly and without a word, slung her over his shoulder before proceeding to make his way out of the building through the front door, ignoring her playful protests. The sun beat down on her back as he carried her down the front stairs, laughter erupting from her lips as he leaned down and settled her on her feet once more. She planted her fists on her hips, a playful frown creasing her face. “What did you do that for?” “That's what you get for asking too many questions,” he grinned, motioning to something behind her. “Now turn around.” Excitement rushed through Sharon's veins but she managed to keep the frown plastered on her face as she rolled her eyes at him before turning around. A loud gasp drifted from her lips, her eyelids widening at the sight before her; a horse! Sharon stood motionless for several seconds, captivated by the large animal and the bright pink bow that was tied to its shiny raven mane. It had been the last thing she had been expecting when Matthew announced his surprise, and as she stood there with recognition forcing a smile to her lips, Sharon could not help but instantly fall in love with his gift. It was perfect, not only because she was certainly going to be needing a horse to move around the big farm conveniently, but also because the horse held some sentimental value. Perhaps Matthew hadn't thought his gift through beyond her need to move freely around the farm, but the horse was the exact one they had ridden to the lake side —their first date as a couple, a date that had ended with them consummating their marriage on the same night, which had also led to Matthew confessing his love for her. It had all begun with this horse. She stared at the horse, the animal symbolizing stability. It almost felt like Matthew's gift was assuring her that their marriage wasn't ending any time soon. It assured her of her position as his wife, perhaps even forever. Her limbs trembled with the thought; the thought of having something permanent, the thought of never being afraid of caring for something because in the end, it was bound to be lost. The loss of her mother and the inevitable loss of her father to his gambling ways had taught her that lesson. But somehow, the horse before her seemed to tell her otherwise. She must have stood motionless for several seconds when her eyes caught sight of a flash of light by the horse's neck. She frowned, stepping forward to make certain she was seeing correctly. The more she walked, the more the light became prominent until she saw the piece of gold mental stuck to the pink ribbon where the sun rays reflected off of it. Her frown deepened as she reached the horse and tugged on the ribbon until the metal fell into her palm. The air was immediately knocked out of her lungs, her eyelids growing several notches as she stared at the metal in her hands; a ring! “It belonged to my grandmother,” Matthew was saying but Sharon could barely turn to acknowledge him. “Grandfather handed it to me before he passed. He wanted me to give it to the woman I love.” She turned the ring over in her hand, barely able to breathe. “That woman is you, Sharon,” She clutched the ring, afraid it'll fall out of her trembling hands as she turned stiffly around to Matthew. “I think the ring comes before the wedding. I know we're married,” he whispered gently as he stepped forward, his fingers sweeping the wet liquid off of her cheek. “But we skipped the ring part,” taking her hand in his, he unclasped her hand, revealing the ring that sat in her palm. He took the ring, and taking a step back, went to his knees on the sand, “and the wedding part.” For the life of her, Sharon could not convince her lungs to accept oxygen, neither could she talk her heart out of pounding wildly against her chest as she stared at him. It was a wonder how she managed to maintain her footing. “Sharon —Blondie,” he grinned. “Freelance Steiner, will you not only have a wedding with me, but will you stay married to me?” Yes! She opened her mouth to speak but her lips felt numb. The part of her that could not believe this was happening to her found it impossible to speak. So she stood, trembling with excitement as she nodded furiously and watched as he slipped the ring into her finger. She was getting married, for real!

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