Rhett is summoned home form Charleston to find Scarlett on the brink of death from a fall down the stairs. Cut me some slack if you hate it, lol, this was the first fan fic i EVER wrote.
Rhett sat somewhat stiffly and leaned his head back against the seat. He tried to collect his jumbled thoughts, but to no avail, for the click of the wheels on the tracks distracted him as the Pullman made its way to its destination. The only other sound that he could distinguish was the faint breathing of his precious daughter, Bonnie, as she lay asleep next to him on the seat, her mass of dark curls spread out over his lap. She reminded him so much of Scarlett.
Sighing heavily, he reached in the pocket of his pants and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was a telegram that had arrived at his mother's house that afternoon while he was sitting down to lunch with Bonnie, his mother, and his sister, Rosemary. At first he smirked at the notion that it was anything serious; Scarlett had probably just wired him for some money necessary for acquiring inventory for her store or another ghastly piece of furniture for their enormous mansion. However upon reading it, he felt his face blanche white and his hands start to tremble slightly. He turned to the three women at the table, who stared eagerly in question, and while putting on a calm smile so as not to disturb them, especially his little girl, he swiftly explained that he and Bonnie would be leaving on the next train. When further questioning followed his brief explanation, he told his mother and sister that he was needed at home, and did not wish to go into detail about the situation when he did not have the information himself.
And so here he found himself, reading the telegram again for what seemed like the hundredth time. It was marked urgent, and had come from Atlanta on the first wire from Melanie Wilkes. The message was vague, and the only thing Rhett could interpret from the short words was that something had happened at the Peachtree Street home that he shared with his wife and her children, and he was needed in Atlanta immediately. Upon seeing Melanie's name at the bottom, he knew it was a serious matter, but other than those discernable facts, he was left open to guess the cause for this urgency. Perhaps something happened to Wade or Ella, and he was needed back in Atlanta to tend to Scarlett's business practices. Or perhaps-and he swallowed hard as he tried to dismiss the thought-something had happened to Scarlett herself.
He admittedly hadn't been planning on returning to Atlanta any time soon, much rather preferring to dote on his child during their extended trip, and to prolong any repercussions that were left hanging heavily in the air of Scarlett's bedroom the day he decided to leave on his trip. Perhaps he would never return, and instead travel the world with his little girl by his side. That had only crossed his mind briefly, for he knew that some day he would return to that gloomy house, to the woman who resided inside, but he did not expect it to be right now, and under these mysterious circumstances.
Taking one last glimpse of the telegram, he refolded it and stuffed it back into his pocket. He looked down at the sleeping form next to him, and for a brief moment, found himself reminiscing of a time when he and Scarlett had been happy. How long ago was it? He didn't care to know. He softly kissed the tips of his fingers before placing them on the child's forehead so as not to wake her from her peaceful slumber before turning his own head to look out the window. There he fell asleep as the last rays of sunlight faded into the soft pinks of twilight above the tops of the trees while the train made its way through the still summer night from Charleston to Atlanta.
Dawn had just broken and the usually bustling streets of the city had not yet come to life, presenting a unique and, somewhat startling picture as Rhett disembarked the train at the depot, carrying a still very sleepy Bonnie in his arms. Her head rested against his shoulder, and he shifted her to one strong arm, while with the other he reached down to pick up his two bags and silently cursed himself for not having thought of arranging for Pork or one of the other servants to meet him at the depot with a carriage. There simply hadn't been enough time for him to think of a small detail like that when the curiosity and underlying feeling of worry about the impending situation weighed heavily on his mind.
As he trudged somewhat groggily through the quiet streets of Atlanta toward his house on Peachtree Street, he wished he could have something to drink, brandy, whisky, anything that might clear his mind from its heavy sense of tiredness. But he had nowhere to get one at this hour, and thought better of it when he remembered the presence of the little girl sleeping in his arms. No, he realized he would have to face whatever it was that had summoned him back to the dismal gloom that surrounded the house, and his heart, with a drowsy yet sober head.
As he rounded the corner onto Peachtree Street, Rhett stopped in the road and set his bags down briefly while he quietly summoned Bonnie out of her slumber. He hated to do it, for she looked so peaceful, a little angelic image, and his heart swelled with pride and love for the innocent child. He whispered soft words into her little ears, and she slowly raised her head off of his shoulder, yawning loudly before locking her sapphire gaze on his. Her eyes reminded him so much of Scarlett's, only blue instead of emerald green, yet they held the same fire and independence. She greeted him with a small "good morning, daddy" before kissing him on the cheek. Responding in kind, he smiled and set her down on the ground. He grabbed her small hand and looked ahead, walking with reserved determination and courage toward the house.
Suddenly Rhett was aware of the looming presence of his home, and he stopped yet again to glance up at the monstrosity that he detested. He looked down at Bonnie, and upon seeing her face light up with recognition of the home she knew, and watching her reach out a tiny chubby hand exclaiming "Mommy!" he inhaled sharply.
He had thought, when he was in Charleston, that he and Scarlett would indeed need to have a talk about the status of their marriage. He had even planned to have a speech ready, saying that he would be leaving again promptly after bringing Bonnie back. But now in the present, he realized that he had no such thing prepared, and would have to face his hot-tempered wife with only his spur of the moment barbs and sarcastic defenses. He gripped Bonnie's hand tighter as they made their way up the drive to face whatever it was that awaited him inside.
Once the pair had made their way up the front steps and stood in front of the large door, Rhett absentmindedly released Bonnie's small hand and raised his fist to knock, only stopping short to pull his hand away, furrowing his dark brow. How ironic, he thought, to even think of having to knock for admittance into his own home like some kind of stranger. But in that moment he did feel like a stranger. It seemed like it had been so long since he'd been here, and yet some how not long enough. It was as if time had eluded him and he vanished from the realities of his home life the morning that he and Bonnie had left.
The doorknob turned silently with ease, and the slight morning breeze pushed it open just a crack, but Rhett hesitated to step inside. If only he could prolong his stay in this otherworld that had appeared with the soft pastels of the dawn. His daze was broken when Bonnie stepped forward and with both hands pushed the door wide open, running inside and calling out to her Mammy, announcing her arrival. Rhett followed suit, stepping inside and setting down his bags. Bonnie had disappeared into the cavernous mouth of the large house, leaving her father standing in the foyer surrounded by a silence so heavy it shrouded over him like a thick fog. Suddenly his heart began to beat fast, and he recognized that he was afraid, though of what, he did not know. There seemed to be an iron grip that had clutched his heart, and his eyes darted around the empty room in search of someone or something to give him some answers.
As if out of nowhere, a figure at the top of the grand staircase caught his attention, and he focused his eyes on who he soon recognized as Melanie Wilkes. She moved wraith-like toward him and when she stopped in front of him, Rhett noticed her face was pale and her eyes were shining with relief and worry. She reached out her thin hand and placed it on his muscular arm. "Captain Butler, I'm so glad you made it this morning. You received my telegram, I see."
Noting the urgency and concern in her tone, Rhett looked down at her with an expectant gaze and replied, "Yes, I did, Mrs. Wilkes, and I would appreciate very much if you would please tell me what this is all about. Are the children all right? What is it?"
Melanie looked almost apologetic as she said, "Yes, Captain Butler, Wade and Ella are fine…"
"Here, what's the meaning of this?" asked Rhett, somewhat more harshly than he would have liked.
"Scarlett, she…had an accident." Melanie's voice quivered as she continued, "She fell down the stairs…"
Rhett's head was spinning. Melanie's words did not register, as his mind was tuned to this singular, horrific image. Without thought, Rhett choked out Scarlett's name and ran to the stairs. The front door hung open, gaping as if in awe. Melanie walked over and closed it with a shaky hand and a deep sigh.
Rhett was slightly out of breath when he reached the top of the stairs, and nearly collided with Mammy who was on her way out of Scarlett's bedroom. He ran his fingers through his dark hair when he saw Mammy's look of pity and sorrow, and his big body swayed slightly on his feet before he quickly opened the door to Scarlett's room. He quietly closed the door behind him, and kept his eyes focused on the floor; afraid of what he might see when he looked up. When he found the strength to face the unknown, he was so startled by what he saw that he gasped audibly.
There in the enormous bed lay his wife, the woman he had coveted and loved with all of his heart from a distance for so long. Her petite frame seemed to be swallowed by heavy wool blankets. She was as pale as a ghost, except for her face, which he could tell even at this distance, was severely flushed and glistening with fever. She lay as still as if she were an ivory statue, and the sudden irrational fear that she was dead swept over Rhett, until he noticed Doctor Meade dozing in one of the chairs next to the bed, obviously from exhaustion. Rhett cleared his throat and the doctor's head snapped to attention, eyes settling on Rhett, at first unable to recognize the younger man's frame in the dark shadow of the doorway. Doctor Meade approached Rhett swiftly, and asked him to step outside for a moment.
"I'm glad you're here, Captain Butler," the doctor said in a hushed tone, but Rhett could read on the old man's face that he was not very happy to see that he had just come home that instant.
"What has happened to Scarlett? Will she be alright?" the questions seemed to flow from his mouth at a non-stop pace before the doctor put a hand on his arm to silence him.
The doctor sighed heavily and raised his eyes to meet Rhett's. "Your wife is very, very ill. It appears that she took a rather bad tumble down the stairs yesterday morning. She has a few broken ribs and a very high fever…" he paused for a moment, unsure of how to deliver the rest of the details, but upon seeing the impatience and demand in Rhett's eyes he continued, "things are not looking good at this moment. There is a high chance that she may not make it at all."
Rhett steeled himself against Doctor Meade's words and shakily reached up to run his hand through his hair, trying to focus on some unknown spot on the crimson carpet beneath his feet. He felt detached from reality. Scarlett, dying? It had never seemed a possibility to him. He knew she had suffered through many hardships, but she always came out on top, eyes blazing with green fire, and features set in determination to push on.
Without looking up for fear of the truth he might read in Doctor Meade's eyes, he spoke in a low and shaky voice, "I understand. Is there any hope?"
"There's always hope, I like to believe. Captain Butler, there is something else I think you should know. Scarlett was with child, and she has miscarried. Were you aware of this situation?"
Rhett's hand reached out and seized the doctor's arm, almost physically shaking him. "What?" The remorse was clear in his startled voice now, and he began pacing back and forth like a tiger in a cage. Scarlett had been carrying his child and he was just finding out now. For a brief second an enraging though flickered through his mind. It was Ashley's. No, it was his and he knew it. Scarlett didn't want any more children anyway, but if she were happy about it, if she were happy about him being the father, oh how his heart would have burst with happiness and pride. But it was not to be.
Seeing the obvious shock and grief in Rhett's eyes, Doctor Meade tried to soften the blow with a gentle suggestion. "She was not too far along, two months at the most, and there is a chance that she may not have even been aware that she was pregnant in the first place. I'm sorry, Captain Butler. She may get better and she may not. I'll take my leave now, Mammy has been instructed to care for Scarlett during the night and make sure there are no disturbances. You may hear her scream or moan in her sleep, but do not be fooled or frightened, for it is delirium, and she is unaware. These next few days are critical if she is to pull through. I will come back to check on her in the morning." With those departing words and a soft nod in acknowledgement from Rhett, the doctor left, leaving Rhett standing alone yet again in the unbearable silence of the house.
That night, after Bonnie had been settled into bed, Rhett quietly approached Scarlett's room once again. Melanie and Mammy had been fluttering in and out of that room all evening, carrying fresh basins of water and damp sheets and cloths to attempt to help alleviate Scarlett's fever, and the door had been left cracked open. He noiselessly closed the door behind him and unsteadily made his way to the bed where Scarlett lay clothed in a warm nightgown and covered by heavy sheets and blankets. She hadn't stirred from the position he saw her in earlier. He shakily sat down in one of the plush chairs by her bed and reached over to the nightstand for a fresh cool towel to place on her sweating forehead. Even through the towel he could feel her skin was on fire, and he quickly recoiled his hand as if he had been burned.
She looked so fragile and pale, as if she were made of glass, and her breathing was so shallow that he had to look closely to see her chest rise and fall. His own chest felt tight and his heart heavy from holding in his emotions, and he knew he had to speak, even if she could not hear, or he would go mad. Her delicate ivory hand was cold and sweaty as he gently clasped it in his own, and with the other he reached out to stroke her cheek with his finger tips. "Scarlett," he whispered. Her face felt so hot, and he felt her body shivering slightly despite the blankets that had been wrapped around her. "It's me, Scarlett. Can you hear me? Please." He knew his words were floating out into the void of the black shadows that hid in the corners of the large room where they had retreated from the light of the single candle that burned by the bedside, but he continued with difficulty. "Scarlett, do you remember the long summer days during the war when you used to sit with me on the porch of your Aunt Pitty's house and I would amuse you with my stories and jokes? You had smiled, and my heart melted at the sound of your laughter as the sun faded over the horizon and the soft light illuminated your eyes. Do you remember when you lead the reel with me more times than was proper the night of the Atlanta bazaar? It was so long ago, a lifetime ago. But I had held you in my arms and it felt so right dancing with you that night, I never wanted to let you go.
"Scarlett, do you remember the day I first saw you? It was at Twelve Oaks and your eyes captured me from across the room. You disarmed me with your smile. You were so young and beautiful and naïve, and I wanted nothing more than to kiss your inviting red lips upon first glance. When we encountered each other in the library and you showed your impossible temper, I knew right then and there that even if you were in love with Ashley Wilkes, you were the only one for me. I know you are a survivor, Scarlett, you've been through worse things than this. Please, my baby, don't leave me. Bonnie and Wade and Ella, they need you so…If you only knew how much I loved you-how much I still love you." He choked on these last words as a tear slipped down his roughened cheek, and landed on the hand that he had pressed to his lips.
Hesitantly, he reached out and gently placed his hand on her flat stomach, as if by some chance he would feel the unborn child that had been there but two days ago. Scarlett moaned in her sleep and began to thrash her head back and forth, crying out inaudible words as tears slipped down her cheeks. Rhett was startled. He thought for an instant that he had hurt her, and was about to get up and call for Mammy when he remembered Doctor Meade's words that morning. Rhett closed his eyes tightly to block out the agonizing sounds that were coming from Scarlett's mouth. He pictured her, as she had been when he had been awakened many times during the night by similar sounds next to him in the bed-before he had been banished cruelly from her sanctuary. She had been having her usual nightmares, and he had always been able to sooth her back to sleep by taking her in his arms and whispering comforting words to her. He was afraid to move her now but still clasping her limp hand in his, he stroked her face lightly and spoke soothing words. For an instant in her delirium, Rhett had thought he had heard her call out his name, but that was impossible, for he knew she was in a deep sleep and was unaware that she was saying anything. Within a few minutes she had calmed down again, almost as if she could hear him. He kept whispering to her in hopes that perhaps she would remain restful, and after a while, he dozed off with his head on the bed and his hand still holding hers.
When he awoke a few hours later, he groggily looked around the dark room, momentarily unaware of his surroundings, but was quickly reminded when he saw Scarlett's form on the bed next to him. Her face illuminated by the moon light this time that was creeping through the crack in the closed draperies, and she looked like a ghost. The basin on the nightstand had new towels, and a new candle had been brought in as well. No doubt it was Mammy, thought Rhett. She always had one eye on her lamb, but he was slightly surprised that she had not awakened him and ordered him back to his own room. He yawned, and realized he had not changed his clothes since leaving Charleston the previous morning. Deciding he needed to get at least some proper sleep and think things over (not that he especially wanted to), he slowly got up from the chair. He placed a new washcloth on Scarlett's head before whispering softly in her ear that she would be all right and he just needed to get some sleep, and then leaned down and placed a soft kiss on her pale lips. What happened then was something he never could have expected.
Just as his lips left hers, the hand that he had been holding all this time weakly closed around his for just a moment, and then went limp again. No matter how tired he was in that moment, Rhett knew he had felt her hand move, as if she knew he was there and had been comforted by his loving words. He smiled and kissed her hand before setting it down and retreating to his own quarters across the hall. Before falling into an exhausted and restless sleep, Rhett did something he had not done since he was a small boy in Charleston: he silently prayed. He prayed for forgiveness for all of the evils that had sprung up between them, for the baby that had been lost, for the love that was hanging by a mere delicate thread, and for Scarlett's life to be spared. He secretly hoped that perhaps if God existed He would be kind enough to listen in this desperate dark hour, and grant his heart's desire, and then everything would be alright.
Rhett continued what had become his nightly ritual for nearly two weeks. He had no way of telling whether Scarlett was showing any progress, but at least she was still alive. She continued to display what Rhett started to refer to as her "night fits", and he would sit and comfort her each night, only slipping out of her room when switching watches with Mammy, whereupon he would allow himself the relief of a drink.
Melanie Wilkes had also been a great relief to Rhett during this time. Her loyalty and sisterly love for Scarlett made her a constant presence in the Butler mansion; always ready and willing to help in any way she could, whether it was playing with the children or taking a turn in watching Scarlett. Sometimes Rhett found himself wondering if she ever went home, and how Ashley must be reacting to the news of Scarlett's illness. Rhett scowled at the thought that the "honorable Mr. Wilkes" was sick with worry for his wife. But then again, he had to admit that Ashley had not stopped by once during the past two weeks to inquire about Scarlett's condition. Perhaps Melanie's information kept him from feeling the need to do so.
Rhett never liked to dwell on these thoughts for too long. He knew he had an upper hand on Ashley Wilkes, but he was tired of competing for Scarlett's affections when he knew Ashley harbored no real love for Scarlett that extended beyond friendship, and if he did, he would never act on it. Why couldn't Scarlett see this? She was too stubborn for her own good, and did not put up an easy fight. She's like me, Rhett thought, and that's why I can't stop trying to win her heart, though God knows I want to. That was why he had run off to Belle's immediately following their encounter the night of Ashley' party. He could not face her after what he had done, and that led to his extended trip to Charleston with Bonnie. He had missed Scarlett, to be sure, and secretly, he desperately hoped that she would follow him, or at least write, but she had not. It was as much as he expected. He sighed and leaned back in the enormous leather chair in Scarlett's office and lit a cigar, the smoke hanging about his head. What would they do when she woke up, if she woke up? He hadn't really had time to think about that. She would probably display indifference, her sharp green orbs boring into his soul with an accusatory look, blaming him for this mess. But he kept replaying the image in his mind, the feeling he had that first night he sat by her bedside and her hand had clutched his for that split second, and this gave him the strength to face whatever was to come.
After dinner with the children and settling Bonnie down in the nursery to play games with her older siblings, Rhett came to Scarlett's room, as he did every night. He lightly placed the back of his hand on her forehead to check for fever, and to his relief, it was not a hot as it had been for quite some time. Doctor Meade's visits to check on Scarlett had become fewer and fewer; he informed Rhett that Scarlett appeared to be getting better, her breathing was heavier, and her fever appeared to have gone down by quite a bit. This information greatly relieved Rhett, and it might have afforded him some more time to sleep at night, but he still kept his vigilant watch over her. Now it was not so much out of worry for her recovery, but to simply spend time with her.
After leaning down to kiss her forehead, he decided to step out the French doors that connected Scarlett's room to the balcony outside in attempt to relieve some of the stifling July heat that had settled within the house. He left the doors open to allow in the pleasant breeze from outside. He stepped out onto the stone balcony that overlooked Peachtree Street and leaned with his hands against the railing. Below him, he noticed the street was teeming with people outside enjoying the extended hours of daylight that summer brought with it. Carriages rattled along the dirt road and men and women strolled arm in arm down the wooden sidewalks, and Rhett smiled slightly as he pictured himself and Scarlett walking in the same fashion, enjoying each other's company in the still dusk. How she would have delighted being dressed in her fine gowns that he all too willingly bestowed upon her to make her happy. He turned his attention from the street to the sky above. The first of the evening stars shined bright in the descending darkness that was slowly overtaking the pinks, oranges and dark blues left behind by the sun. He took a deep breath of the soothing night air as the light breeze ruffled through his raven hair, and for a minute he felt tranquil.
Out of the stillness came a rather disquieting sound. Rhett spun around and swiftly crossed the floor to Scarlett's bedside, but instead of seeing her thrashing around beneath the sheets, she lay still, her green eyes staring up at his face. He just stood there, unable to move, and stared into the eyes that had captivated him for so long; unable to fathom that she had awakened. An agonizing cough from Scarlett prompted Rhett into action, and he grabbed a glass of water from the nightstand, holding it up to her pale lips while supporting her head with his other hand. She drank greedily, and when she had finished the entire content of the glass Rhett set it back on the table and turned his attention back to his wife, offering her a timid smile. Her eyes never left his, but where he could always detect her thoughts before, he saw only fatigue and pain now. His first instinct was to tell her how relieved he was to see that she was awake and wrap his arms around her; kiss away her pain. But common sense got the best of him, and he retreated into his reserved shell. He did not know how she felt about anything, if she even knew about the baby, though he had a sneaking suspicion that she did. Rhett dropped his eyes from hers and gently took her left hand in his right one, a sense of relief washing over him when she did not pull hers away. "Scarlett," he said in a low tone.
Scarlett's head was pounding, and his voice rang in her ears. She felt too sore to move a muscle, but she could not take her eyes off of him. She was relieved, albeit surprised that he was even here. How had he known to come? Scarlett figured it was probably Melanie that had wired him in Charleston with the news of her accident, but how Melanie knew where to find him, she had no idea. Nor did she especially want to think about it or anything else when it felt like a sledgehammer was being driven into her skull with the effort of thinking. She heard Rhett speak again, and was it concern she detected in his voice? Regret? The prospect of him caring even the slightest bit made her heart pound a little harder. He should be sorry for what happened, she thought. Then she suddenly realized that however angry she had been when he left that day, she had missed him and Bonnie to distraction. It was not his fault she had slipped on the freshly waxed steps that day.
"How are you feeling?" she heard him say.
Scarlett licked her dry lips and opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Her stomach hurt so badly, and she screwed up her face in pain when she attempted to move her body even an inch. "So sore…it hurts so badly, Rhett," she said hoarsely.
Scarlett realized that she was drenched in sweat from being under piles of blankets in this heat, and she weakly struggled to get her arms our from under the covers. Rhett, seeing this spoke quickly. "Don't try and move, my pet, you've got some bad injuries, and I don't want to see you fall back into sickness." He paused for a second and then softly pulled back the covers, allowing her body to breathe for the first time in two weeks. "Does that feel better, Scarlett?" She nodded her head and he replied "I know you must be sweltering under all of these blankets. You must be famished, I'll have Prissy bring you some hot soup and I'll call Mammy to fetch the doctor. Will you be alright for a few minutes?"
"Yes, thank you." She shivered now as the evening breeze drifted in through the still open doors to the balcony, and Rhett pulled the sheets back up to cover her as she drifted back to sleep. Rhett stood and looked down on her as her eyes closed, relief washing over his entire body, as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. Then he walked out of her bedroom and informed Mammy to call for Doctor Meade, Scarlett had woken up.
Rhett had decided to retreat to his own room the night that Scarlett woke up. It had been different when she was gravely ill, for she had no idea that he was there as far as he knew, and he had wanted to make sure that nothing happened to her during the night. Though Mammy surely would have told him if it did, he had felt during those two weeks that he needed reassurance that she was still with him, or the guilt of having not been there when she fell would have eaten him alive. Now he knew she was out of immediate danger and would most likely make a very promising recovery given plenty of rest and time.
Under the circumstances, Rhett had taken it upon himself to check up on the store and mill for Scarlett, checking and updating the ledgers, and overseeing progress. He knew Scarlett would have a raging fit if there was some problem with the revenue. He also knew that despite however much faith Scarlett put into her beloved Ashley to keep things in order and handle it on his own, Ashley was not as resourceful and independent as Scarlett had blindly hoped. Scarlett had no idea that of his performance of these services, and he wanted to keep it that way.
In the days since she had woken up, he had had little chance to be alone with her. Mammy or Melanie was always fussing over Scarlett, and when he did slip into her room to see her, it was usually after she had gone to sleep. The only communication they had been afforded were the polite smiles and courteous small talk that had passed over the heads of the children who had been escorted in to see their mother for brief periods of time during the day. He knew they would have to talk soon, and he knew not what he would say. He did not know how she would react to his being there or how she felt about losing the baby-if she even knew she had been carrying it in the first place, but most importantly, Rhett was afraid of what was to become of them as a couple. He loved her that much he knew, and it had been easier to tell her when she could not respond. Now that she was awake, it was quite a different story, and he did not know if he was ready to look into her eyes and tell her.
Unbeknownst to Rhett, Scarlett was also apprehensive of the day that would inevitably come when they would have to have a long overdue serious discussion. In fact, she dreaded it for fear of the stinging remarks Rhett would surely throw at her for some reason, or even worse, he would more than likely use the cold and distant attitude that she had become used to over the past few years. She had been surprised to see him there, and she admitted to herself that she felt happy and safe knowing his presence was in the house. In fact, she had observed that he had been around more in the days since she had woken up than he had been in a long time. Was he still going to Belle's? The thought sickened Scarlett, but for some reason, she suspected that he had been at home, and this brought a smile to her face.
She had missed him a great deal when he was in Charleston with Bonnie, and her spirits sunk just a little when she realized that it had been only because of her accident that he had returned. She sighed as she lay in bed and realized that if she had not become ill, she might never have seen Rhett again. She knew he did not love her, but if this was true, why had he bothered to come home at all, why should he care? It was just to bring Bonnie back, she thought. But yet he had been so kind to her that night when she woke up. Oh, it was all too confusing! She could never figure him out, and now she wondered if she ever would.
Scarlett ran her hands over the silken coverlet on her enormous bed as she laid her head back against the feather pillows that Mammy had fluffed this morning. She had a slight headache and her whole body was still sore. The last time Doctor Meade had been in to check on her she had been informed that she had two broken ribs, but if she continued to rest as she was supposed to and drink plenty of fluids along with eating as best she could, she would regain her strength. Scarlett had never been good at reading the hidden emotions in people's eyes, but on that day she could sense that the doctor was not telling her something. This thought irked her for quite some time, until she finally decided not to worry too much about it and she pushed it to the back of her mind for tomorrow.
Scarlett was slowly beginning to feel better as the long summer days passed by. Though she still felt weak and she experienced long sharp pains in her stomach, she was able to get up and move about her room with difficulty when she felt up to it. On one such day, after Mammy had brought her a mild breakfast and helped her change, Scarlett desperately felt the need for some fresh air after having been recycling the air trapped in the stifling room. She slowly sat up and cringed as she felt a dull pain shoot through her ribs. It wasn't so bad, she thought, as she turned to the right side of the bed. She put her bare feet on the warmed carpet of the floor and with the aid of the bed post, slowly raised herself to a standing position and walked to the large opened window.
It was noon and the sun was like a bright lamp in the sky, making the green grass on the well-manicured lawn below shimmer. She observed Wade and Ella out on the lawn, playing with Bonnie who was jumping up and down eagerly in anticipation of riding her pony while Pork supervised. It was quite a charming scene Scarlett had to admit, and she had been touched when the three children had come in to visit her when she had woken up. Now she closed her eyes and let the warm, fragrant air warm her senses and calm her mind.
This is how Rhett found her when he had come upstairs, and the sight of her nearly took his breath away. He stood quietly in the doorway to her room, almost afraid to breathe should he disturb the angelic scene before him. She was wearing a white dress that he had bought her before he left for Charleston. The Empire waist allowed the fabric to flow down her back like a train and the short sleeves accentuated her magnolia-white skin. The sunlight streaming in through the open window illuminated her hair and gave it a chestnut sheen as it cascaded down her back, and made her body glow through the delicate fabric. He stood there drinking her in for a moment before cautiously approaching her from behind. After walking a few steps, Rhett cleared his throat, and saw Scarlett jump and clutch the windowsill before turning around.
"God's nightgown, Rhett! You nearly scared me half to death!" Scarlett exclaimed.
Rhett chuckled lightly at her choice of words before speaking. "I'm so sorry to have startled you, my pet, but I could not resist admiring your beauty for a moment before breaking your reverie…You do look lovely, Scarlett, and that dress suits you very well." Scarlet just stared at him but couldn't help the light smile that crept onto her face in light of his comment on her physical form. She knew she was overly thin and pale from being confined to bed for so long, and she knew she was not fully recovered, but leave it to Rhett to comment about her beauty at a time like this.
Oh," she spoke quietly, "don't tease me now, Rhett."
"Alright, I'm sorry." His light smile lingered for a brief moment before his expression turned somber. "Perhaps, then, I shall say what I came up here to say. I think we need to talk if you're feeling up to it. There are certain things we need to discuss."
Scarlett swallowed hard. She had known this day would come and yet she still wanted to put it off, thinking that perhaps if they remained on friendly terms as they had been since her awakening, the inevitable discussion would fade into oblivion. Rhett could be such a gentleman when he wanted to, so kind and thoughtful. Yet those times seemed outnumbered by others of infuriating remarks and bad manners when they were alone in private. She gripped the windowsill and looked into his black eyes. It was times like these, when he was looking at her so softly, that she wanted nothing more than to be held in his strong arms while the rest of the world…except Ashley, of course, could cease to exist. It was almost as if he cared. From this nostalgic feeling came a sense of confusion, and then sorrow. She did not want Rhett to leave, as she believed he surely would, and she was not in the spirit for another famous argument. Suddenly a wave of fatigue washed over her entire being and she squeezed her eyes shut as she gripped the windowsill until her knuckles were as white as the dress she wore.
Rhett observed the thoughts playing across Scarlett's face with guarded wonder, but as soon as he noticed her hand gripping the windowsill in what seemed like exhaustion he quickly closed the gap between them with a couple long strides and gently put his arm around her petite waist. He slowly led her to one of the chairs by her bed and carefully set her down before taking his place in the adjacent chair, crossing his arms over his chest. He observed Scarlett as she sat, her head leaning tiredly against the back of the chair. Part of him wanted to pick her up and put her to bed and go to his room for a drink, but the overwhelming desire to know about the baby kept him where he sat and he finally spoke: "It's good to see you up and about again. I do believe you gave everyone quite a good scare. Mammy and Melanie were beside themselves with worry," and so was I, he wanted to add.
She turned her tired eyes to his face again, but could read nothing of what he was thinking. "I'm surprised you came back. Did Melanie write you? She must have, otherwise why would you be here?" Her words were somewhat more biting than she had intended and she thought she noticed his face fall just a bit.
Rhett sighed, but refused to let his emotions show. She was right, but he knew he would have come back one day. Leaning forward in his chair and resting his elbows on his knees, Rhett fought frustration. Why was it that they could never have a conversation without one of them turning on the other? She was right though. "Yes, Melanie wrote to me and informed me of your accident. But I came home because believe it or not my dear, I care for your well being and…"
Scarlett set flaming eyes upon his hardened face. Why did he have to be like this? "When did you discover that?" she quipped sarcastically.
"Damn it, Scarlett!" Rhett sighed as he leaned his forehead into his hands before returning his eyes to hers and running his hands tiredly through his hair. "I did not come here to fight. I came here to talk, and if you could ever have a normal conversation, things might be different between us."
"If I could ever have a normal conversation?" Her voice was rising in frustration and anger. How dare he blame her for their inability to see eye to eye! "Maybe if you were around more, we might actually be able to engage in normal conversation. But instead you insist on running to Belle's and coming home drunk every time something occurs between us! You were the one who packed your bags and took my child away from me without a single thought about how I felt! I had no way to contact you, you didn't even tell me where you were going. You used me that night like one of those women you seem keen on spending your time with, dismissing me-your wife-with a wave of your arm, as if I meant nothing to you!" She was yelling now, "You didn't even let me explain what happened that night, you just assumed that what the town gossips said was true. India and Archie know nothing! But you threw it in my face without listening to me while you drunkenly threatened me. So don't you dare try to tell me that I am incapable of having a conversation, Rhett Butler!" She was leaning forward in the chair now; her eyes alight with the green fire of her Irish temper.
Rhett sat up straight, his big hands gripping the arms of the chair. In this moment he wanted to take her by her delicate shoulders and shake the temper out of her. But he realized that it would do no good. He had not listened to her that night, his blind rage and jealousy for the honorable Ashley Wilkes always got in his way. Now was as good a time as any to find out what really happened that day at the mill between his spitfire of a wife and the man who she would not give up. Gritting his teeth and setting his jaw, he swallowed his pride for once and looked her in the eyes. How stubborn she is, my perfect match, he thought. "Alright, Scarlett, I'm willing to listen now if you'd care to tell me. Pray tell, Mrs. Butler, what exactly did happen between you and Ashley that made you defend yourself so arduously?"
Scarlett was still reeling from a few moments ago, and was now breathing heavily, exhausted from expending so much of the little energy that she had. So now he was willing to listen? Well, she might as well tell him the truth, it was up to him to decide to believe her or not. "Nothing happened. It's as I tried to tell you before, Rhett. It's true, I did go to visit Ashley that day," she said quietly, hanging her head and feeling suddenly shameful. She heard Rhett sigh in frustration but she did not look up.
"Continue, Scarlett," came his tired reply.
"He-he started talking about the old days, about how the county used to be, before the war. You know how I hate looking back, Rhett." Scarlett raised her head timidly, afraid to meet his onyx eyes, but when she did, she found him silently urging her to continue. "I told him not to look back, it only tears at your heart, but he would not listen. I got caught up in the memories of my childhood-I was so naïve, Rhett. I used to think that nothing could destroy the peace and security I found at Tara with my family, surrounded by nothing but privileges." She smiled lightly as she spoke again; "I even told the Tarleton twins the day before the bar-b-que at Twelve Oaks that there wasn't going to be any war. Anyway, that day at the mill, I got so caught up in the memory of what my life used to be that I lost control. I started crying, Rhett, and Ashley comforted me-but not in that way. He only hugged me and apologized for upsetting me. That's how India and Archie found us. It was nothing! Now that I think back on it, I remember I was surprised that I felt nothing more than friendship for him…" She looked at his face. She saw nothing indicating any feeling from him, and it made her want to cry. He didn't believe her.
Rhett watched her silently. He believed her-he could always tell when she was lying, but he did not know what to make of her words that she did not have any feelings beyond friendship for Ashley Wilkes. He knew better than to get his hopes up. Before he could say a word, she suddenly sucked in her breath and gasped, clutching her stomach as he watched her face contort with pain.
In an instant he was on his knees in front of her, his brow creased in worry. "Scarlett, what is it? What hurts?"
Despite her best efforts, she choked on the pain and tears sprung to her eyes, stinging as they brimmed over and rolled down her cheeks. "My stomach, Rhett, "she whispered meekly. "Doctor Meade told me I broke some ribs, but it's not that. I keep feeling pains in my stomach…it hurts so badly, Rhett."
Gently he took her in his arms, laying her head on his shoulder and closing his eyes. In that moment he realized that she did not know about the baby. He would have to tell her himself. He kissed the top of her head before slowly pulling away and holding her at arm's length. "Look at me, Scarlett," he urged gently. Her eyes met his expectantly, trustingly, and he took a deep breath as he prepared to tell her what he had no idea how she would react to. With difficulty he began, "Scarlett, there's something else that Dr. Meade discovered when you were sick. There was a baby…"
"What do you mean?" she asked, startled, as she choked down her tears.
"The doctor-he said that you had been with child. When you fell…he said you were no more than a couple of months along, so there was no way of telling whether you knew about it or not." Rhett slid his right hand down from her shoulder and lightly placed it on her hip and she watched his fingers as they gently glided across her stomach, causing a shiver to run down her spine. "It's gone, Scarlett."
Her breath caught in her throat and she faltered. Rhett's hand was under her chin now and he gently lifted it, forcing her to look into his eyes. When she did she found sorrow, remorse, regret even? But they were soft; the infinite black pools boring into her soul, searching for some kind of answer. She did not know what to say. The memory of the day she had banished him from her room flashed in front of her and the words she had spoken to him rang in her ears, drowning out all sound except that of her pounding heartbeat. She had wanted no more children, but this sudden information-a child, Rhett's child, conceived that night out of a drunken argument-this was too much to bear. Her inability to grapple with her mixed feelings frustrated her and suddenly she felt another pain, this time a dull one, but it was not her broken ribs or the pain in her stomach. It was a cold hand that had clasped her heart. The air locked in her chest and she let out a strangled sob, her body collapsing into Rhett's arms.
He held her and ran his hands down her back in a soothing manner, resting his left cheek against her head as he felt her body rack with sobs. His eyes grew moist. After a few minutes he composed himself and whispered in her ear: "There, there, hush now. I think you need to rest." She nodded, her head still resting on his shoulder as her tears continued to stream down her cheeks, leaving a puddle on his linen suit. Rhett delicately picked her up and laid her on the bed, pulling a light blanket over her body. "You get some rest now, Scarlett. If you're feeling up to it later, I'm sure Mammy would let you come down and join myself and the children for supper." He leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek as her eyes closed and her tears ceased, leaving shiny tracks down her pale cheeks.
Rhett needed some time to think. After a quick lunch with the children, he informed the servants that he would be back shortly and left instructions to make sure Scarlett's nap was not disturbed before grabbing his white Panama hat and walking out the door. He did not jump on his horse or ride in his carriage. Instead he chose to take advantage of the warm weather and walked down Peachtree Street into the heart of Atlanta that he had come to know so well. He did not know where he was going, only that he needed to think, and he lifted his head to face the blue sky as if willing something to help him sort out his thoughts.
He received plenty of courteous greetings from the town socialites that he had won over in the few years after Bonnie had been born, but he had no desire to chat, and so he merely tipped his hat in kind gesture and continued on. Scarlett's anguished face would not leave his mind. She hadn't known about the baby, but was she sorry she had lost it? Or was she glad it had failed to be carried to term? Her seeming sorrow had confused him. If she was not sorry about the loss then why had she looked at him so strangely, as if she might have been happy to have had another child despite her cold words that day she had turned him out of her bed? Rhett shook his head, unable to come to any conclusions. He would just have to wait and see how things played out, though the wait seemed never ending, and he was quickly growing weary of his constant battle for Scarlett's affections.
When he looked up, he was surprised to find himself in front of the Girl of the Period saloon, his favorite haunt. There was a surprising amount of noise coming through the swinging doors for this time of the day, but it sounded mighty inviting. Rhett bit his lip as if fighting the temptation to go inside. He had not been in to see Belle or even play a game of poker since he had returned to Atlanta. A nice glass of whiskey would not hurt, he thought, and he slowly trudged up the stairs and passed through the doors, leaving all of his troubles on the porch outside.
He headed straight for his usual table, sat down heavily and ordered a shot of whiskey from the bartender when he heard his name being called. He recognized the voice as only belonging to one woman, and his head snapped around in the direction of the call.
"Why Rhett Butler! I sure am surprised to see you here, we thought you had run out of town for good! And you didn't even say goodbye, shame on you!"
Rhett couldn't help but chuckle as he watched the bright head of red hair that belonged to Belle Watling make its way through the crowd of card players and drunken gamblers toward his table. "Hello, Belle. I only stopped in for a much needed drink."
Belle stood before him, watching him with her hands on her hips. "Alright, what's the problem this time, Rhett? Perhaps you'd like to come upstairs and tell me, you know you've never been able to hide anything from me."
Rhett looked up and nodded. It would feel good to lay his burdens on someone else's shoulders. Besides, he trusted Belle. For all of her shrewdness and un-lady like actions, she was kind, and would gladly listen. "Alright, Belle, you've got yourself a deal." He stood up and followed her up the stairs of the brothel to the room where he had come on retreat so many nights after past fights with his wife.
Once inside he sat down on the bed while Belle sat in the chair at her vanity table. "Spill it, Rhett. What is it, another fight with Scarlett? I swear, you two are like two pig-headed little children the way you quarrel with each other."
Rhett sighed and ran his hands through his hair. "We did have a fight, yes. But there's more. I came home after receiving a telegram in Charleston from Melanie Wilkes. It said that Scarlett was ill, so I came home on the next train with Bonnie. I had no idea what had happened, but it was worse than I'd feared. Scarlett-she…" Suddenly his hands began to tremble and his voice became hoarse. "She had fallen down the stairs. Doctor Meade said she might very likely die…"
Belle listened as he poured out the story that had weighed on his heart for so long. He told her of how he had sat by her bedside every night for two weeks, hoping that she would hear him and wake up. He told her of the instant that her hand had clasped his and how happy he had been, and how he had been the first to see her when she finally woke up. "God I love her so much, Belle."
"That much is obvious. I've known that for a long time, and don't think it pleasures me none to say it either. She doesn't deserve you, Rhett," she sighed.
"There is something else," Rhett said as he stared at the floor. "The doctor told me that Scarlett had been pregnant, that she lost the baby-"
"Are you sure it was yours?"
"I know it was mine. The night I last came here, I had taken Scarlett. I couldn't stand being in the same house with her and not being able to share my bed with her for so long while she chased Ashley Wilkes, dreamed of him, thought of him. I had hurt her like she had hurt me. I knew she had been faithful to me. Ashley Wilkes is too honorable to be unfaithful to Melanie." His voice was ashamed now as he went on but he knew he could tell Belle and she would listen. "I had been forceful-I wanted to make her love me. I told her I loved her, and she reacted with so much passion. But what did I do? I left as soon as I was finished and didn't return for two days. She wouldn't have cared anyway. That's the night it happened. She didn't know about it until I told her what the doctor had told me. She was in so much pain; I can still see her face. There was something in her eyes when I looked at her, sorrow, and she cried as I held her."
Belle stood up and moved over to the bed where Rhett sat. Rhett, the strong, resilient man, ardent lover and free spirit, was struggling to contain his emotions for a woman who had no idea how lucky she was to hold his heart in her hands. "Rhett," Belle said firmly as she comforted him.
"I don't know what she feels, Belle. I wanted to leave her after that night and never come back. I wanted to take Bonnie from her-I called her a bad mother. I didn't want Bonnie growing up in the shadow of Scarlett's bad reputation."
"Have you ever given her a chance to show her affections for Bonnie?" Belle asked.
"She doesn't like children. I don't think she ever wanted any-not my children anyhow."
"But you just told me that she seemed sorry about losing this baby."
Rhett sighed, "I don't know what to think. She's in my blood, Belle. No matter what I try to do to get away from her I always come back. Maybe I'm sorry I ever met her."
"You know that's not true. Rhett, I remember the first time you came here after I opened this place. I was glad to see you, I knew we would have a good time, but you had a distant look in your eyes, a look of love. And I remember your words as if it were yesterday. 'Belle,' you said, 'I think I've met my match.' You described Scarlett as a spoiled beauty with dark hair, white skin, and eyes the color of emeralds. You said her eyes are what caught your attention, and that after one glance you knew she would forever hold your heart."
A small smile crept onto Rhett's face. "Yes," he said. "I remember. She was beautiful. Her temper about knocked me back on my heels. She's just like me, I've told her that so many times, and yet she refuses to believe me. She says she loves Ashley, but she'd never understand his mind-she wouldn't want too. She's a business-woman, like you, Belle, but you have a heart."
"You love her, Rhett. Though just why you do, I have no idea. Go home now. Give her some time to think about the baby. You might be surprised that women can change their minds about feelings." She patted his back as he stood up. "Goodbye, Rhett."
"Goodbye, Belle," he replied and pinched her cheek playfully before putting is hat back on and closing the door behind him.
Scarlett had woken up from her nap when Mammy came in and announced that Melaine was here to pay Scarlett a visit. "Let her in, please, Mammy," Scarlett said with a yawn. She felt somewhat refreshed from her rest, but she was careful not to move too much for fear of her pain returning.
"Scarlett, my dear, I'm so glad you're feeling better," Melanie's soft voice filtered into the room as she walked towards the bed and kissed Scarlett on the cheek. "Captain Butler has been taking good care of you, I see."
Scarlett looked at her sister-in-law with slight confusion. "What do you mean, Melly?"
"Why Scarlett, he's been absolutely distraught over your condition."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Melly, I've only seen him but a few times. He only came home because you wrote to him. He's probably been with that Watling creature every night." Scarlett suddenly retracted her breath, ashamed to have let the secret of her strained marriage slip to Melanie.
Melanie only smiled though, to Scarlett's relief, and gently placed her hand on Scarlett's arm. "That's not true, darling, Captain Butler stayed by your side every night when you were sick. He insisted upon watching over you."
Scarlett was shocked. Rhett stayed home? Surely it wasn't possible. He didn't care about her, did he? He only cared about the baby that had been lost. Suddenly Scarlett remembered the baby and the same pain crept upon her heart. "Melly, I was going to have a baby"
"I know, Scarlett, and I was so distressed when the doctor told me. We thought it best not to tell you, darling, until you were feeling somewhat better. Oh, darling, it must have been so hard for you! I'm so sorry!" Tears were streaming down Melanie's face as her warm eyes looked into Scarlett's, making Scarlett shiver.
The cold feeling around her heart did not subside, but a new memory entered her mind. She remembered having a dream. It was so vivid now as if it had really happened. "I-I feel that somehow I sensed that it happened though I did not know it, Melly." Now it was Melanie's turn to look confused and she questioned Scarlett about what she meant. "I remember having a dream, Melly, when I could not wake up. In my dream Rhett was here, as if he had never gone to Charleston. We were happy. I was going to have a baby and I was glad. I was standing outside under a big Maple tree and Rhett was over on the lawn teaching Bonnie how to ride her pony. Wade was over there with them and Ella was sitting at my feet, playing with her dolls. I remember looking at Rhett, he was so handsome, Melly. He smiled at me from across the lawn and I waved.
"The next instant he was at my side, holding me. I was crying, screaming in pain, but I don't know why. Rhett was trying to get me to calm down but I couldn't. The next thing I know I'm sleeping, but I'm so sick, Melly. A thick fog had crept under the door and was surrounding me. I'm twisting and turning in the bed, and suddenly Rhett appeared as if out of thin air and he took hold of my hand. He was whispering something into my ear but I couldn't tell what it was. I only know I felt safe and I opened my eyes, but as soon as I did he vanished into the fog."
"Oh Scarlett. Darling you must not be troubled by your dream. It was an accident that you fell, and you had no way of knowing about the baby. You will get better, and there will be other babies," Melanie encouraged.
Scarlett took Melanie's hand in her own and looked at her. Melanie was her dear friend, the only person who stood up for her, and suddenly Scarlett felt the overwhelming need to tell her the truth about what happened the day of Ashley's party. "Melly, I want you to know that what India and Archie said about me and Ashley is untrue, I never-"
"Hush, Scarlett, I know nothing happened. Ashley hasn't said anything, but that's his way, and I trust you Scarlett, you are my dearest friend. I don't think anyone in this town is in their right mind to believe such a fabrication, my dear. It's preposterous, the whole notion."
Scarlett smiled uneasily, the feeling of guilt rising from the pit of her stomach. How could Melanie be so naïve as to not sense that something was going on between her and Ashley? Yes, Melanie thought of everyone but herself and the sense of trust that radiated from Melanie's smile enveloped her like a warm blanket. Then another thought occurred to her. Ashley had not told his wife anything; he had neither defended himself nor Scarlett. How dare he leave her to wallow in guilt while the rest of the town, including the only man who had stood by her side for so many years, excluded her! Suddenly Ashley's name tasted bitter on her tongue. He hadn't even been by to see her! The tears again rose to Scarlett's eyes and she turned her head away, not wanting Melanie to see.
"Oh I'm so sorry, my darling, I shouldn't have brought up everyone in this town. Look, now I've upset you. Oh dear," Melanie apologized.
"No, Melly, it's nothing, I'm sorry. Everything that has happened these past few weeks-I'm just not myself. If you don't mind, I think I'll lie back down until supper time."
"Of course, Scarlett, forgive me for staying so long. One more thing," Melanie said with a knowing smile. "Be kind to Captain Butler, dear. He loves you so." Scarlett's eyes widened as she watched Melanie close the door behind her softly, leaving Scarlett in the room alone.
Scarlett laid her head on the pillow and turned her head to look out the still open window. The sun was just beginning its descent and the light shining through the window cast a golden glow on the walls. She could not stop thinking of Melanie's departing words. Melanie was a fool, thought Scarlett, but she always seemed to know what to say. If what Melly said was true, and Rhett really did love her, then why was he so cold at times, as if he wanted nothing to do with her? This subject had plagued her since Rhett first started courting her all of those years ago. She had been so sure of his love at times, and then in the blink of an eye, that assurance had vanished and was replaced by a feeling of utter confusion. Oh I can't think about this now, I'll go crazy, she thought to herself.
And what about the baby? She had meant what she said that day to Rhett about not having any more children. Yet she had felt so alone when he had been gone. I wonder if I had known about the baby before the accident, would Rhett have come home? This question she voiced aloud. She knew the answer already. Of course he would have. Even if he did not care about her, she knew he adored children. Why just look at how he treats Wade and Ella, as if they were his own, and Bonnie, well, he's spoiled her up to her bouncing curls. But what if he thought the baby had been Ashley's? Then she remembered the sorrowful look in his eyes when he had told her that the child was not to be; the warmth of his embrace as he comforted her. As if on impulse she rested her hands on her stomach and suddenly she wished with all of her might that the baby was still alive.
Scarlett was so caught up in her thoughts that she did not hear her bedroom door open and the heavy footsteps come in. Startled, she sat up, wincing in pain, and she saw Mammy crossing the floor to her bed.
"Mistah Rhett's been askin' foh permission foh you to come downstairs and join him foh dinnah. Ah told him and Ah told him that you still sick and Ah says to him 'Mistah Rhett! Mah lamb ain't well enough to come down heah and eat when she's still weak as a newborn colt."
Scarlett laughed lightly. "Fiddle-dee-dee, Mammy! I feel well enough to come downstairs for a little while and eat dinner with my children and Captain Butler."
"No you ain't! Ah's told him you needs yoh rest until you's all better, and I ain't goin' to have you getting' sick on me again!" grunted Mammy in protest.
"Now, Mammy darling, I promise I won't stay up late. I'll only go down and eat dinner and then I'll be right back in bed so I can be fit as a fiddle!"
Mammy looked at Scarlett with narrowed eyes. Sitting on the bed was the woman who she had nursed and brought up since Scarlett was a newborn. "Alright. Miss Scahlett you's just as stubborn as you was when you was a little child."
Scarlett smiled in triumph. She knew she would usually get her way when it came to Mammy, she always had. "Thank you, Mammy. Now let's put on the dress because we're late already, and we don't want to keep everyone else waiting, do we?"
Mammy rummaged through Scarlett's wardrobe and pulled out her green velvet wrapper as Scarlett took a deep breath and slowly made her way to her dressing table and ran the brush through her long black hair. When Mammy had finished helping her dress, Scarlett slowly made her way downstairs, clutching the banister tightly, and went into the dining room.
As she entered the room, all chatter at the table stopped, and everyone's eyes fell on her, as if surprised that she had decided to come down. Rhett immediately stood up and pulled out the chair across from him for her to sit in. He took her hand and gently helped her get comfortable before raising her hand to his lips for a swift kiss and then returning to his own seat. Before either of them could say a word Bonnie, chose to speak first, "Mommy! Are you better now?"
Scarlett turned her full attention to her youngest daughter and smiled at seeing Bonnie's blue eyes light up. So much like Pa's, she thought with a remembering smile. "Yes, darling, Mommy is feeling a lot better now. How about you? Have you been good for your daddy and for Mammy?" The little girl nodded and continued to shovel food into her mouth. "Daddy took me and Ella and Wade to the park!" she said between bites.
Scarlett saw Rhett's smile form the corner of her eye as she turned to Wade and Ella. "Did he? That was kind of him to do. Wade, Ella, did you have fun at the park as well?"
Yes," said Wade timidly.
"Uncle Rhett let us feed the geese at the lake!" piped in Ella, her ginger curls bouncing around her face.
"Really? Well I hope you three weren't too much trouble for Uncle Rhett."
"Nonsense, Scarlett," spoke Rhett from across the table. "We had a good time. In fact, the children and I have been spending quite a lot of time at the park. It's quite nice in the summer time. Wade even learned to skip rocks on the lake, didn't you, son?"
Wade's face lit up at Rhett's mention of the name "son". He really was the only father that Wade knew, and Scarlett could see that Rhett's attention made him feel wanted. Yes, Rhett did have a way with children.
Rhett spoke again when he saw that Wade seemed too shy to tell his mother about his adventures. "He's a natural. Perhaps if you are feeling up to it you might care to join us for an outing tomorrow in the park, Scarlett?"
"That might be nice," she replied, looking down at her plate of barely touched food. She failed to notice the gleam that had crept into Rhett's eye as he watched her.
Scarlett watched from the shade of one of the large Georgia pines that lined the lawn leading down to the small lake in the park. Wade and Rhett were standing on the pebbly shore of the small lake; Rhett was dressed in a fine white linen suit and Panama hat to protect his already tan skin from becoming even darker in the July heat. Wade had the cuffs of his pants rolled up to his knees, bare foot, and the sun reflected off of his curly blonde hair. They looked like father and son, thought Scarlett with a small smile.
"Uncle Rhett, watch this one!" Wade threw the rock into the water as he and Rhett watched the flat stone skim the smooth surface of the glistening water, creating ripples that stretched and faded into one another.
"That was excellent, Wade! Try another…here. You would have made an excellent marksman during the war, Wade."
"Do you really think so, Uncle Rhett?"
Rhett's deep chuckle floated on the breeze. "General Sherman would have had to think twice about invading Atlanta!" He playfully ruffled the young boy's hair, enticing a good-natured laugh to escape Wade's mouth. This caused a twinge of unexpected jealousy to rise in Scarlett's chest. She had never been close to her son or any of her children come to think of it, and she remembered so many times during the war when she had scolded Wade for one reason or another, telling him to be "a little man". Now as she watched him with Rhett's obvious guidance she sensed that a fatherly figure was what Wade had needed all along, and Rhett certainly seemed to provide that.
Just as promised the evening before, the Butler family had loaded into Rhett's fine carriage just before noon. Scarlett had brought a shawl upon Rhett's insistence and she wore it loosely draped across her shoulders, the color matching the pale blue hue of her dress.
Upon reaching their destination Rhett had first lifted the children down from the carriage and the Scarlett, who cautiously took his outstretched hand before he brought it lightly to his lips, gazing up at her with his obsidian eyes. He then put his hands on her waist and carefully set her on the ground and offered her his arm, which she took and leaned against him slightly for support. This, of course, did not go unnoticed by Rhett who patted the delicate hand that was linked with his arm.
Bonnie ran to grab her father's free hand. "Daddy, why couldn't Mr. Butler come to the park with us?" she said in her childish voice, referring to the small Shetland pony that Rhett had given her and to whom she had lovingly bestowed the name Mr. Butler.
"Because, princess, I don't think Mr. Butler would like it at the park. He'd much rather have you ride him at home where he's comfortable. But I'm sure Ella would share her dolls with you, wouldn't you Ella?" he asked the older girl who was walking adjacent to her big brother a few steps in front of them.
"Yes, Uncle Rhett. Come on, Bonnie," Ella said as she reached out her hand for her little sister to take.
"You go with your sister, sweetheart. Mommy and I are going to take a walk. But first, give your best sweetheart a kiss." Rhett leaned down and puckered his lips for the little girl to kiss before letting her hand go and watching her little legs run in short little steps in order to catch up with her older siblings.
Scarlett watched as Rhett's warm laughter swept over her. He was never mocking with the children, especially Bonnie. He always talked to them like adults instead of the children they were. Why was she always the one to be mocked and talked to as if she were a child instead of an adult-his wife, no less. She sighed and let the warm summer air overtake her.
Rhett led her slowly along the gravel path that meandered through the park. Scarlett was grateful that they chose not to speak, instead preferring the welcome solitude that silence provided. The scent of camellias and cherry blossoms refreshingly brushed her nose. The flowers were in full bloom and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to change colors in anticipation of the chill of autumn. The blue sky that matched her dress was cloudless and the park was scattered with families taking advantage of the cool air before the notorious Georgia sun became too hot to handle. Scarlett felt much more refreshed from the outdoors than she had being cramped up in her bedroom for so long. Before long they found themselves standing under the patchy shade of a cherry tree in full blossom; the outstretched branches creating a peaceful and somewhat secluded canopy, as if it were made for just the two of them. Finally, as if lost in a daydream, Scarlett spoke quietly, more to herself than to Rhett: "It's beautiful here."
Rhett looked down on her, her face partially blocked from his view by the blue sunbonnet she had fastened under her chin. He placed his left hand lightly on top of hers that still gently clutched his arm unknowingly. "Yes," he said softly. "Despite all of the changes that have come upon all of us over these past few years, some things still retain their air of beauty." Scarlett looked up into his eyes, the mask that he had held in place for so long faded momentarily and she saw something in his eyes that she could never figure out. It was warmth that radiated from those black pools and enveloped her, causing her heart to beat faster. As if in slow motion he leaned down and lightly brushed his lips against hers, his close-clipped moustache tickling her lips. He pulled away and locked his gaze on hers and she could not escape that look even if she had wanted to. Rhett watched as her eyelids closed partially and focused on his lips. Taking it as a sign he kissed her again, deeper this time, and was glad when Scarlett did not pull away.
All of her thoughts seemed to float away on the breeze that gently rustled the branches of the cherry tree, making the soft pink pedals swirl around the two unknowing lovers as they stood rooted in place and time. On impulse she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him back, much as she had done the day he proposed to her in her Aunt Pitty's parlor forever ago. One thought remained though, and she heard Melanie's voice echo in her mind, "He loves you so," and she knew in that moment that it was true. Rhett loved her, though he never said it truthfully to her face. She knew it was true, and the thought made her shiver, causing Rhett to tighten his embrace. All of these years the truth about his feelings had vexed her, but now it was all clear and she reveled in it.
The incoherent voices of people passing by alerted them, and it was Rhett who pulled away first. A blush crept up on Scarlett's cheeks and she cast her eyes down to the ground at the disapproving glance from an older matron who had been walking by. "We should get back to the children," Scarlett mumbled, her breath still coming in short gasps from their heated embrace.
"Quite right, my dear. They've probably gotten themselves into some type of trouble by now," Rhett replied with a smirk. "Shall we?" He gently clasped her small gloved hand in his own and when she did not recoil hers they started walking back to where they had left the children to entertain themselves.
They spotted all three of the children down by the lake attempting to make a haphazard castle out of the little bit of sand and mud on the shore. As Rhett and Scarlett got closer, Scarlett's brow creased in disapproval and she let go of Rhett's hand. "Oh, Rhett, call Bonnie and Ella back here, they'll ruin their dresses! I'll not have them playing in the dirt like little heathens."
Rhett laughed in that deep rumble of his at the stern tone in Scarlett's voice. "Now, Scarlett, let them be. They're enjoying themselves and new dresses can be bought any time. And you of all people should know I spare no expense when it comes to keeping my girls dressed in the finest of the latest fashions." He leaned down and kissed Scarlett on the cheek lightly before walking toward the spot where the three children were playing, calling out the names of Ella and his beloved Bonnie.
Scarlett stood in place and crossed her arms over her chest irritably. Rhett was too care free with the children, she thought. He simply did not show enough discipline with them, especially Bonnie. Great balls of fire, just look at her new dress all dirty and ruined! She saw Bonnie run into Rhett's waiting arms and he picked the little girl up, swinging her around in the air while both father and daughter laughed. Rhett didn't even seem to notice the mud smears that Bonnie's dirty hands left on his clean suit. Yet as she observed the scene in front of her she could not help but let her mind wander back to when she was a child of the same age as Bonnie.
It was late in the spring of 1849. Scarlett O'Hara ran out the large door of her father's plantation as fast as her small legs would carry her; her little green dress flying in the wind created by her motion as she barely escaped he grasp of her Mammy. The glowing orb that was the Georgia sun was beginning its descent from its apex, gleaming off of the raven mane of the little girl's head as she ran down the red dirt road. There at the end of the path was her beloved father sitting astride one of his prized stallions. He was stout but proud, the able defender of his pride, his heart, his Tara, and with it, his family. He hopped down from his high seat and scooped Scarlett up as she jumped into his waiting arms and held her up in the air above his head.
"Well now, Puss! How is my favorite girl?" he questioned in his thick Irish brogue.
Scarlett clasped her little arms about her Gerald's neck and rubbed her nose against his in a gentle sign of affection. "Papa, where have you been? I've been waiting for you all morning! When can we go riding, Papa?"
Gerald O'Hara's golden laughter rippled through the balmy air, causing Scarlett to laugh as he replied, "Katie Scarlett O'Hara, 'tis not fitting of you to make such demands. What will your dear mother say if I took you out riding in your pretty frock and you came home all dirty? Why just look at you now, missy!" he exclaimed in a gently teasing tone as he shifted his oldest and dearest daughter into one arm, examining the hem of her mint dress with the other hand. The proud father clicked his tongue in mock disapproval as he exclaimed that the red earth of Tara had already settled into the fabric of Scarlett's dress and that Mammy would not appreciate being disobeyed as she had been.
"I won't tell Mammy," Scarlett explained in her childish voice. This caused a roar of laughter to burst from Gerald's mouth, and he lovingly kissed the top of her head.
"Ah, Puss, but aren't you the pretty one. Just like your mother, you are. You'll be the belle of the county when you're older; you mark my words! Your beauty will be as lasting as the land we live on, that I'm certain of."
Scarlett's face held a nostalgic smile as she remembered her dear father in all of his Irish glory. But just as soon as his blue eyes flashed before her, her mind formed a new picture…
The hired cab driver scurried past the pair as they exited the boutique and stepped onto the cobblestone streets that ran through the fabled French Quarter of the glorious city of New Orleans. Scarlett could not help the uncontrollable smile that adorned her face. Rhett had lavished her with gifts since arriving on the riverboat in the port of the city a few days prior. Gowns, shoes, jewelry; he had not hesitated to give her anything her heart desired and she took full advantage of his kindness.
That morning Rhett had awakened her at approximately 9 am, surprising her with an extravagant breakfast in bed that had been prepared by the hotel's finest chef on special request from Rhett himself. The previous night had been filled with dancing, and Scarlett had worn holes in her fancy slippers. They had danced reel after reel, waltz after waltz, and Rhett, as she knew from a previous situation, was ever graceful in his movements as he led her across the floor. His feet carried him as if he walked on air and Scarlett had always wondered just how such a thing was possible given his tall, muscular frame. But she did not care, and he did not tire until she did-which was very early in the morning.
The fragrant scent of fresh strawberries, pancakes and maple syrup, and a vast array of pastries drifted past her nose and she rolled over, her eyes still closed and laden with sleep. A few seconds later she received a velvety soft kiss on her cheek-Rhett's silken lips lingered on her smooth skin for a moment and she opened her eyes groggily.
"Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty," she heard Rhett purr.
Closing her eyes tightly to block out the bright daylight and then reopening them, she groaned. "Rhett, what on earth? Why are you waking me up at this hour, let me sleep," she tiredly begged.
"Not this morning, my dear. You said you wanted to go shopping and so being always true to my word, I shall take you shopping. But not unless you get out of bed right now," Rhett exclaimed in a teasing manner.
At the sound of the word "shopping", Scarlett's eyes flew open and she immediately sat up to be confronted by a deep chuckle of amusement from Rhett. "Oh, Rhett, this food looks delicious," she told him as she delved into the inviting meal. "I'm starving!"
Again Rhett laughed, "Slow down, Scarlett. For your information, I ordered this breakfast for the both of us, so I'd greatly appreciate if you left some for me! I'll need energy today as well if I'm to escort you around the city and spend my 'hard-earned' money." Scarlett gave Rhett a slightly annoyed look, but then smiled and continued eating.
When the pair had finished eating their breakfast on the large bed, Rhett set the tray on the nightstand and moved closer to Scarlett, taking her in his arms and nuzzling his face into her hair. Scarlett let out a light sigh as she felt his lips make contact with the skin of her neck and move over her throat and chin before making contact with her own lips. He kissed her passionately, almost possessively as if he wanted to remind her that now that they were married, she was his. His hands roamed down her back over her nightgown and then back up to tangle in her hair. Before he could get any farther than his heated kisses, Scarlett put her hands on his shoulders and pushed him away before quickly escaping his grasp and jumping out of bed. Rhett gave her a disappointed but lustful look.
"I thought you were going to take me shopping, Mr. Butler," she exclaimed. Rhett sat watching her from the unmade bed and sighed in slight frustration, shaking his head before getting off of the bed himself.
"Alright, if you insist," Rhett said as he sarcastically bowed.
Rhett did take her shopping as promised, and it had been a tiresome day. When they stepped outside on the street after exiting the last shop of the day, Scarlett felt exhilarated and slightly overwhelmed at all of the riches and fancy things she had seen. As she stared in awe at the streets that were just beginning to crawl with the exuberant night-life that came with the shadows of the diminishing sun, Rhett came up behind her and grasped her left hand, leaning down to whisper words in her ear that caused her cheeks to turn a crimson red and her green eyes to widen. She playfully hit Rhett on his arm when she heard him laughing at her reaction. "Rhett, hush up!" she hissed, "You shouldn't say such things in public."
"I'm sorry, Scarlett," he laughed, "I couldn't help it. But I don't think anyone HERE would even mind if I said it out loud." Before Scarlett could open her mouth Rhett fell to his knees in front of her, and grasping both of her hands in his he mockingly begged for her forgiveness for saying such a naughty thing.
"Get up off your knees, Rhett!" Scarlett told him in a lowered voice. "What are you doing?" She was glancing around in hopes that she would not find anyone staring at them, and was relieved when she saw no one giving them any extra attention. Rhett complied with a smile on his face and without warning, grabbed Scarlett around her waist and lifter her off the ground, spinning her around, all the while laughing blissfully. Scarlett gasped as her feet left the ground and was quite embarrassed, but when she looked into Rhett's dark face and saw the happiness written there she forgot she was mad and she found herself suddenly laughing along with him. She had been happy then.
Scarlett was so lost in her reverie that she did not notice Bonnie tugging on her skirts in effort to get her attention. She looked up to see Rhett towering over her with a concerned look on his face. "Scarlett, are you alright?" he asked.
Rhett's words echoed in her ears, and she blinked before shaking her head in effort to come fully back to the present. "What? Oh…y-yes, I'm fine. I'm sorry to have startled you all," she said, looking around at the group of expectant faces. "I don't know what came over me."
She observed the cautious look on Rhett's face as he nodded his head and placed his hand on the small of her back. "I think the children are ready to go home now, Scarlett." Scarlett nodded in silent agreement, and taking his offered arm, she allowed him to lead her back to the carriage while the children followed behind chattering about their adventures that day. She was ashamed of herself for allowing her mind to look back on the past, on things that could not be changed, and she silently vowed that she would not be so careless again.
As the days passed by, Scarlett progressively regained her strength, and despite the stifling heat that had settled upon Atlanta, she found herself moving about the house more and picking up on some of the tasks she had left unfinished when her accident occurred. She still experienced mild aches and pains on occasion but nothing like she had those first days after she woke up. Still, she was fearful of one of the rare pains in her stomach because though she desperately tried no to, she would think of the baby that had been lost. She had been careful not to bring up the subject and was relieved that Rhett had also chosen not to since that day in her bedroom when he had held her and disclosed the information for the first time. With the realization that she would have wanted it had she known before her fall, it greatly pained her to think about what could have been. But she would not think about that now.
A yawn escaped her lips as she sat down at her desk and picked up the pile of documents that she thought had been neglected after her accident. Leafing through them, she was surprised to see that all of the ledgers had been updated, and doing a quick skim of the figures, she discovered to her delight that the totals were correct. How on earth, she thought. Surely Ashley had not done all of this; the only books he was good at keeping were the volumes of nonsense in his library.
Scarlett stared confusedly at the papers for a few moments before a realization settled over her. Rhett had done this. He was the only person she knew who had a mind for business like she did. But why? Surely Rhett would have delighted in seeing Ashley struggle to keep up with the mill on his own without her assistance. Just then she heard a voice in her head, "he loves you," and she smiled. Ever since that day in the park when he had kissed he with so much passion, she had become more and more sure that her assumptions about his feelings were correct, and this discovery on her desk only served to confirm it. In her remembrance of that day in the park, Scarlett touched her lips lightly, as if she could still feel the warmth of Rhett's kiss. She was sure he loved her, as she had been before, but why wouldn't he just say it? He is the most difficult man to figure out, she lamented to herself. The only one who never succumbed to her Southern charms the way all of her other beaux had. Rhett was something else, and it infuriated her sometimes that he was such an enigma; she was never good at delving beneath the surface of people, and the effort to do so was so exhausting that she would just rather not try at all.
Her introspection was interrupted by a light knock on the door. Rhett didn't wait for her to answer before he opened it and walked into the office. He was dressed in his finest, as always, and Scarlett couldn't help but stare for a moment before finding her voice. "What is it, Rhett?"
"I thought you had wanted to go into town today, Scarlett. Or maybe you would rather prefer to stay home?"
Scarlett had been so caught up in her thoughts that she had completely forgotten that she had asked Rhett to take her to town that morning. "Oh, no, I still want to go, Rhett. I was just looking over the ledgers and files for the mill and store." Rhett nodded and Scarlett paused, collecting her thoughts before she spoke again, "Rhett, did…were you the one who kept everything in order with the store and the mill when I was sick?"
Rhett's face paled just a little bit as he looked down at his feet. He had not intended her to know about that, and now that she did she would surely make some hot tempered remark about how Ashley could have handled it himself. Rhett's head snapped up and his eyes locked on Scarlett's when he heard her say a quiet "thank you", and he was quite astonished when she placed her hand on his arm, letting it linger there for a moment, before standing on her tiptoes to give him alight kiss on the cheek and walking past him to retrieve her bonnet in the foyer.
The blazing sun beat down on the married couple as Rhett maneuvered the carriage through the heart of Atlanta. Even the breeze from the movement was arid, and it clung to their clothes with ferocious intensity. All around them the citizens of the city went about their business as if the heat had no effect on them whatsoever. They rode in silence for a good part of the way until Rhett chose to comment, "Well, my pet, this may very well be one of the hottest summers I can remember experiencing anywhere, and I've been to some pretty humid places. Look, I think even the horse is sweating." He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed the beads of sweat that had started to run down his tanned face despite the shade provided by his Panama hat. When he was finished he silently offered it to Scarlett who shook her head in a sign of no thank you.
"I can't imagine waking about in this heat today, Rhett," Scarlett responded. "I remember what it was like right after the war when I had to work outside picking cotton in the fields like a slave. It had been hot then, but I dare say it's even warmer today."
Rhett chuckled lightly, glancing over at his wife as she sat slightly slumped over on the seat next to him. "Well you're the one who wanted to make this trip, my pet, so it looks like we'll have to weather your poor judgement for the time being."
Scarlett clicked her tongue against her teeth in annoyance but remained silent. Would Rhett ever cease to tease her? The idea seemed unlikely, and truthfully she admitted he did keep her on her toes, but today the heat was getting to her, and her head began to pound lightly.
Rhett spoke again when he did not receive a retort form Scarlett at his light joke, "Well, Scarlett, where is it exactly that you would like to take you on this fine day?"
"Oh, the store, Rhett," she said without even thinking.
Rhett shot her an irritated look, but she did not notice his dismay until he spoke again. "I should have known," he quipped with venom in his voice.
"What are you getting at, Rhett?" Scarlett demanded. Her headache had gotten worse. Yes, she knew what he was hinting at. He assumed she only wanted to see Ashley. Well, she thought, that is partly true. She more so wanted to just check up on things for herself, and if Ashley happened to be there, which he most likely would, then she would deal with that when it happened. She truthfully did not know how she felt about Ashley anymore, and this bothered her somewhat. Oh course she would never tell Rhett that. She had been so sure she loved Ashley for so long. Ever since the day he had ridden up to the porch at Tara after returning from his Grand Tour and he had taken her breath away. One did not just forget a first love like that; Ashley still had her heart, didn't he? She couldn't think with this heat. She just wanted to go inside, look things over, and go home again to a cold glass of lemonade prepared specially by Mammy.
Rhett sensed Scarlett's discomfort and acted upon it. "I'm going to drop you off to do your 'business', and I will be back shortly." He helped her down from the carriage and as she started to walk into the store he stopped her with a biting remark: "Oh and Scarlett, try not to be too forceful with Mr. Wilkes. Neither his mind nor his heart will ever be where YOU want it to be."
Scarlett gave him an angry glance and stamped her foot on the ground in frustration, clenching her fists as he sarcastically tipped his hat and drove the carriage away. They had been civil to each other for two whole weeks now and all of the sudden he has to say something like that. She knew Rhett was jealous of Ashley, but why did he have to be so rude? She took a deep breath to calm herself, and then gritting her teeth, she turned and walked into the store.
As she stepped inside, she let her eyes wander, making sure everything appeared in order, and when she finally focused straight ahead she saw Ashley standing behind the counter, appearing to be reading something. She did not say anything, only observed and took in every detail of him. Her eyes roamed over his thin frame. He was still tall as she had remembered from her youth, but his stance and the slight gray tint in his golden hair suggested that something had changed.
Scarlett cleared her throat, unconsciously wringing her hands on the sides of her skirts. She failed to notice that her heart did not flutter when she saw him. Ashley looked up, startled. "Oh I'm sorry, I didn't hear-Scarlett? Is that you?"
What did he mean "is that you?" of course it was her! Why he's looking at me as if I'm Lazarus, back from the dead! Hiding her annoyance she put a cheerful smile on her face, making sure her dimples showed and her eyes glowed prettily. "Yes, Ashley, it's me. You seem surprised to see me."
Ashley shyly smiled but did not move toward her. "Well…yes, Scarlett. I was not expecting you. How are you feeling, dear? Melly told me about your fall and..." He stopped himself, afraid he had already said too much. "…and your loss. I'm so sorry."
The pain clutched her heart when he mentioned the baby and the smile fell from her face. She took a deep breath and bit her lip to keep the tears that had crept up on her eyes from falling. Once she had composed herself she shakily replied, "It's not your fault, Ashley. It was an accident, that's all." She did not want to talk about her accident, and did not need to be reminded about it, so she quickly changed the subject. "How have you been, Ashley? I see the store is still in good order."
"Well, you know I'm not any good at business, Scarlett. It must be pure luck that things seem to be going so nicely without your presence."
"Don't be silly, Ashley, you do a fine job on your own," she lied, batting her eyelashes. Rhett had taken care of all of the business angles of things, but she did not want to put Ashley in an awkward position.
"You look lovely, darling. It's nice to see you feeling better," Ashley complimented without meeting her eyes.
"I'm feeling much better." Scarlett made her way over to where he stood behind the counter and placed her hand on his arm, only to see him recoil at her touch. She tilted her head to the side, looking at him through narrowed green eyes. "Ashley what's the matter with you?"
"Scarlett, I…" came his worn reply. Was he afraid of her?
When he finally did look up, Scarlett was taken aback. It was as if he was looking right through her. His face seemed haggard, his eyes faded. Though they still held the dreamy look she remembered so well, Scarlett now realized exactly what it was she could never figure out about him before. Ashley was not the same man who had stolen her heart when she was fourteen. This man that stood before her, this pale man with the lost look in his eyes-this man was different. He was living in the past, hoping and dreaming for a life that he would never get back. Had he always been this way? A bombardment of images flashed in front of her. Ashley telling her he could not marry her, that they were too different; Ashley embracing Melanie on the driveway of Tara after the war; Gerald warning her that she would not be happy with Ashley; Rhett telling her she'd never understand his mind.
Scarlett studied him carefully for a few minutes. Her stomach was in knots but her heart felt nothing but pity for this shell of a man standing before her. "You'll never get it back, Ashley. Can't you see that the old life is gone? It went with Sherman as he marched to Savannah. These are new times, Ashley, and it's no use living in the past. I know it has been hard on you, but you're surely not the only one. We've all had to make readjustments for a new life, no matter how difficult times have been."
"Oh, Scarlett. How can you ever understand? That life was my dream, my world, my being. The only place where I could immerse myself in the things I love most; where I could live in the cozy comfort that wealth and Southern sensibility provided. And Melanie-she's the only one who understands, the only piece of that dream that didn't die in the face of reality," he lamented.
Scarlett let out a frustrated sigh, digging her nails into her palms. "That's what you meant when you told me that day at Twelve Oaks that you could not marry me, that you and Melly were alike. You love her, don't you?" The realization was not so much a blow to her heart as it should have been, but rather a confirmation of a feeling she had been recklessly trying to avoid admitting to herself.
"Yes, I love her, Scarlett." His voice was heavy with guilt and he turned his head to look out the window, the thick ray of sun lighting his face and creating a heavenly divider between them. But Scarlett felt the line physically in her heart.
"Why didn't you ever tell me, Ashley? You let me believe you loved me for years and years, and I've wasted so much time chasing you, time that I'm not even sure I'd want to get back even if I could."
He slowly turned to face her, the guilt playing across his face like the dancing sunlight that illuminated it. "I did love you, Scarlett, I still do, just not in the way you want to be loved," as he spoke he walked toward her and lightly placed his hand on her cheek. "Scarlett, you have always been so beautiful. No matter what has happened, neither age nor time have taken their toll on your lovely face. You've always had part of my heart, my darling, and you always will. You possess all of the qualities I wish I had but could never attain." Scarlett flinched under his touch and blinked furiously, trying desperately to stop the tears that had once again threatened fall.
"Forgive me, Ashley," she choked. She felt lost, but yet strangely numb, as if everything except the tears running down her cheeks had frozen in time, and the void of emptiness surrounded her like a veil. Her harbored love for Ashley that had built up over the years and the hope that he had loved her in return vanished in the blink of an eye and she was left with nothing. Shakily she pulled away from him, her eyes meeting his in a silent look of apology. They stood, silent for what seemed like forever, and the knot in Scarlett's stomach returned. He was the light that had helped her through the dark times over the years. The secret hope that he loved her had kept her going when everything else seemed impossible. And now-now she was losing something that had been so much a part of her, and yet had never really existed.
The passionate embrace in which she had held Ashley for all those years, since she was just a girl, had now vanished, and she realized that what she was clinging to was nothing more than a ghost. And yet that embrace had filled a void in her life, it was as if with those feelings, she had no need to bestow true passion on any other man. She had her marriages, but that was all very different. Now Scarlett felt naked, stripped of the protective feeling she had held for Ashley, and she knew there was something else she needed, something real.
She swallowed hard as she found her voice and hoarsely said, "I should go now. I'm sorry for the way I acted today. You needn't worry, it will never happen again." With one last look into Ashley's distant yet tormented eyes, she turned and walked out the door, wiping any remnants of the tears off of her face lest Rhett should see them when she got outside.
When she stepped out of the store she noticed Rhett was already waiting for her. He sat heavily in the seat, holding the reins while his elbows rested on his knees; his eyes fixed straight ahead. At the sound of her feet on the sidewalk, Rhett turned his head and let his eyes roam over her face. He observed that she was trying desperately to act as if nothing had happened in that store, but he knew better. Reaching out his hand for her to take, he helped her up into the carriage and drove away, leaving a larger part of Scarlett's past behind than he would ever know.
Scarlett remained silent and kept her eyes firm on the shining coat of the horse that was pulling their carriage. She just wanted to be alone and let her thoughts sort themselves out. But she was prevented from solitude by Rhett's drawl: "Well would you care to tell me what happened in the store, Scarlett? You seem pretty forlorn." He had meant it to be somewhat kind, but it did not come out as intended.
Scarlett did not meet his eyes, but continued to stare straight ahead. "I don't want to talk about it."
"So Ashley turned you down huh? Well, Scarlett, you can't say I didn't warn you," he said with malice in his voice.
Rhett's words punctured her heart like the blade of a sharp knife and she sucked in her breath. "What would you know about anything?" she hissed. "You have no idea what was in my mind! You'd never understand."
Rhett let out a seething breath and turned to face her, still grasping the reins of the horse tightly in his hands. "Oh but don't I, my pet? I know you love Ashley Wilkes, that you dream of him, that he occupies your thoughts without the intention of evacuating. I know you've pined over him for so long that you can't see that he does not love you in return, that he will never love you as you love him." He was breathing hard now, his face blank of all emotion except for his coal black eyes that were burning with rage and something else that she could not dissect, but he continued, "I know that every time you shared my bed you thought of him instead of me, every time I touched you …"
Scarlett could not stand his hateful words and her body shook with rage as the tears spilled down her ivory cheeks for the second time that day. Raising her left hand she swung and made contact with his cheek with all of the strength she had in her. The muffled sound of her hand hitting his flesh resonated sharply in the air and on impulse he put his hand on the red mark she had left on his face, turning to spit the taste of blood that had formed in his mouth off the side of the carriage. "Damn you, Rhett. You had no right to say such things," she whispered sadly.
Rhett faced her again and seeing her shaking with sobs he sighed before transferring the reins to one hand and instinctively placed his other hand on her back then taking out his handkerchief and thrusting it into her hands. "Here," he said heavily. "Take it, please." She complied and used it to wipe her face and blow her nose. How could he say things like that to her? The thought that he had said it out of jealous rage and pent up love did not cross her mind and she sat with her shoulders hunched for the rest of the trip home; the scorching sun beating down on her, and the sound of her heavy breathing drowning out all other noise.
Dinner that night was eaten in silence. Except for idle chatter between the parents and their small children, the communication barrier was thick. Scarlett could feel Rhett's dark eyes boring into her soul but she tried with all her might to resist returning the glance. Rhett was not sure he wanted her to make eye contact with him for fear of the hatred he would see written on her face. He knew he had said things that afternoon that shouldn't have been said, but when it came to Scarlett and her relations with Ashley Wilkes, he found it hard to control the words that had resonated deep in his heart. He was sorry for what he had said to her, but she was crying over the fact that Ashley did not love her, for Christ's sake! She'd never cry if I were in Ashley's place, he thought. She wouldn't have given it a second thought. Still, he remembered her sorrowful words when he had reminded her of the warning he had given her earlier: "You have no idea what was in my mind…" Rhett continued to stare at her, her ebony hair hiding her downcast face, and he was unable to read any emotions. What was in your mind, Scarlett O'Hara, he pondered to himself.
It was not long before supper came to an end and the children asked to be excused from the table. Scarlett wiped her mouth delicately with her napkin and putting her hands on the table, tiredly stood up. Under her lowered eye lids she noticed Rhett helping Bonnie clean up the mess she had left on the table before he stood up and acknowledged Prissy who had come to clear the plates and other dishes. Scarlett looked up when Prissy entered the room, but she kept her gaze fixed on Bonnie. The little girl was being stubborn about the fuss that her father was making over wiping her face free of chocolate streaks that had been left over from desert, but Scarlett observed that Rhett had a very high patience level. Scarlett was never a patient person, and was secretly grateful that Rhett had adoration for children and gladly took care of some of the motherly duties that were a nuisance and burden to her.
Bonnie adored her father, and the affection was always returned tenfold by Rhett. It was a bond that existed on a plain where Scarlett did not reside, and she had to admit she was jealous that she was not a part of that bond. At this sudden thought, Scarlett lightly rested her hand on her stomach. She had wanted the baby. It would have been her chance to do things right, and be loved unconditionally in return. At one time not so long ago, she would have wished Ashley was the father of her children, but it would never be so, and she no longer wanted it to be. This baby was dead, yes. She had acknowledged and for the most part, accepted this fact; but Bonnie was still alive. Bonnie Blue, Scarlett's baby, her youngest and favorite child, who was so much like she had been growing up at Tara. Yes, Bonnie was tangible, and suddenly Scarlett felt an uncontrollable urge to tell her daughter that she loved her.
Rhett had been watching Scarlett out of the corner of his eye, skeptical at the far off look on her face. To him, it seemed that she had been acting a bit strange for some time now. Her bright eyes seemed to fade at times, as if she were stuck with her head in the clouds that were slowly building up on the horizon. He knew she was not one who liked to look back on her past, but he could not dissect her deep look of contemplation, and this he thought somewhat disturbing because of the fact that he had always been able to read her like an open book.
Scarlett had made her way around to the other side of the table where Rhett stood near Bonnie, and without warning, bent over so that she was eye level with her daughter. Rhett watched in confusion as Scarlett took Bonnie's chocolate covered hands in hers and kissed the child's forehead delicately before whispering something in her ear that was meant for only for Bonnie to hear. Before Scarlett stood up, Bonnie wrapped her little arms around Scarlett's neck and gave her mother a sweet kiss on the lips. What on earth was Scarlett up to? Rhett was intrigued by the interaction between his wife and his daughter that seemed so out of place, and he watched Scarlett wordlessly walk out of the dining room without giving him a second glance.
Later that night after the children had gone to sleep Rhett sat quietly in the parlor. He chose one of the large chairs next to the open window on the far wall as his place of solitude. The only light came from an oil lamp on the small table under the window, and the warm night breeze fluttered the drapes inside, causing the flame to flicker and the shadows to dance across his dark face. He sat staring out into the abyss of darkness that had fallen over the city. Everything seemed so different once the sun had gone down-as if another world had emerged and taken over everything that was once colorful and alive. The brandy decanter in the liquor cabinet seemed to be calling him as if it were a person, and Rhett tried desperately to keep his mind and his hand from reaching for the bottle. He swiftly pulled out one of his fine cigars, sniffed it as if approving its quality, and struck a match on the bottom of his shoe before lighting the cigar and inhaling deeply. He closed his eyes for a moment in reflection, letting a nostalgic tide of memories wash over him like waves on the beaches in Charleston that he knew so well.
Rhett stood out on the deck of one of his schooners as it glided out of Galveston Harbor en route to Europe. The sky above was scattered with clouds but none that Rhett could discern were signaling a storm. He was on his way to England to exchange goods much as he had during the war, but his deeper purpose was to buy a ring for the woman he was engaged to marry. Scarlett Kennedy-formerly O'Hara of Clayton, Georgia was finally within his grasp. He had waited for her and watched with slight humor as she married two other men, only to be widowed on both occasions. She was no ordinary woman of her time; such women did not appeal to Rhett on any higher level. No, Scarlett was something different. Apart from her physical beauty, which Rhett could not deny though he had told her he had seen and engaged in other activities with more charming girls, she had an air of confidence and regality about her that was so unlike other women of the planter elite in the South.
Scarlett had been no easy catch, not that Rhett minded the challenge, though it had been somewhat frustrating. Rhett was aware of his charm and handsome features, and had used these natural gifts to get attention from many women, but Scarlett seemed to refuse to fall for anything. He had practically forced her to accept his proposal, but she had said yes, none the less. And so he had left her standing in the entry-way to Pittypat Hamilton's Peachtree Street residence, a vision shaded in black that had been burned into his mind ever since.
On his way across the choppy waters of the Atlantic, Rhett had dreamed about Scarlett many times, much as he had ever since catching his first glimpse of her on the double staircase of the Wilkes's plantation the day the war had started. Through his experiences, he had concluded that Scarlett was a very fickle woman, but at night when he dreamed of her all of the passion he suspected had been locked up inside of her due to Victorian society came to life. His dreams were sometimes vague, while other times it was as if she was there with him in the flesh and after these he would wake up clutching the pillow next to him, disappointed that it was not she in his arms. But no matter how clear or blurry his visions were when deep in the realms of slumber, it was always love and passion that Scarlett displayed toward him, a sign of his most intimate wishes being played out before his eyes.
On his many trips to the exotic cities in the Caribbean and Europe he often found himself thinking of her. An emerald necklace in a shop window in Nassau; white lace adorning a dress on display in Paris; a blue bonnet made of delicate satin that had been traded in London from the Orient. It was as if all of these riches were made exclusively for her, and he would obsessively picture her adorning them solely for him. As he stared out into the open sea that day with the soothing smell of sea breeze and salt washing over him, he was yet again reminded of Scarlett O'Hara. She was back in Atlanta waiting for him to return, and this knowledge caused his heart to thump wildly in his chest. She had told him she did not love him, that she would always love another man, and he had told her he did not love her either. That, of course, had been a lie. He wanted nothing more than to sweep her up in his arms and whisper in her ear that he would go to the ends of the earth for her. But he knew that if he revealed these feelings to her the little vixen would throw it all back in his face like the slap of a hand, and he would forever be tormented and destined to walk the earth alone for the rest of his days. So he used a different tactic to lure her into his trap: money.
The war between the Union and his betrothed Confederacy had changed the lives of many people, himself included. But there were some that seemed to be loaded down with an unexpected and very heavy burden. Scarlett was one of those. She was young, a spoiled child from the country where cotton was king, where women tended the household duties and men owned slaves to tend their crops for harvest on the plantations. Scarlett's father, Gerald, had built his fortune from the ground up, and had recalled his tale of fleeing the Emerald Isle in one drunken occasion with Rhett. Scarlett had been like all of the other girls brought up in the upper class society, where they had not to lift a finger to do anything.
Rhett knew Scarlett's world as she knew it had been torn to shreds when Sherman's army had invaded Georgia. She hadn't believed in the Cause any more than he had, but it had taken its toll on her in drastic ways, and he was able to observe this in time from an outsider's view both physically and emotionally. Scarlett had told him the stories of how her mother had sent the slaves to help dig ditches for the Georgian army in effort to make a last defense against the overpowering Union, how her sisters had contracted Typhoid fever, how the ravishing illness had taken her beloved mother, and how her father had lost his mind in a love sick fever of confusion and desolation. After her retelling of these stories, Rhett would often wish that he could somehow turn back time and whisk her away to a far off land where suffering did not exist.
Rhett had felt ashamed for leaving her on the road to Tara to fend for herself the night they had fled the city, but something in him had told him that as a Southerner, even though he had always been against the idiocy that was that war, he had to fight for his country. That was the last time he had seen the old Scarlett O'Hara. The woman who had come dressed in her mother's velvet portieres to visit him in the makeshift Yankee prison in Atlanta that day was someone different. Before him stood a hardened woman whose burdens had made her greedy. He had noticed her physical changes, she was thinner and her hands were blistered, her eyes faded; but he would never truly know the extent of what the war had done to her mind and spirit.
He knew that the money she had come to beg for was to save her plantation, but she had put on such a show that he was at first inclined to believe that she really did care for him, and perhaps had emotionally grown up. But he had discovered that he was wrong, and she was still the same child underneath her hardened shell. Not only was he disappointed at the real reasons for her show, but he was greatly saddened as well, because he knew that nothing he could do would be able to bring Scarlett total peace and completely transform her back into the care-free beauty who had stolen his heart so long ago. Time, he knew, was unchangeable.
Well then, if money was what she most desired, then it was money that she would have-provided by him of course. Now that she was engaged to be his wife, he was planning on providing for her anything her heart desired. Anything to make her happy. She had requested a big diamond ring, but he had something a little different in mind. A thin gold band with a large embedded diamond in the center surrounded by small cut emeralds that were embedded on either side of the larger stone. Rhett would have it specially made by a renowned jeweler in London upon his arrival, and he imagined Scarlett's reaction to seeing it when he returned. Yes, he thought as the sun poured over him and a warm smile formed on his lips, he would make her love him.
When Rhett came back to the present, the oil in the lamp was low and his cigar was nothing but a burned out stub. He took the cigar, tossed it in the spittoon near the window that was used at the many parties that Scarlett had thrown in their home when they had first moved in. With determined purpose he took three long strides to the liquor cabinet, quickly opened it and took out a decanter of brandy. He raised his eyebrows in alight amusement at the sight of liquid still contained within the glass, but then he remembered that Scarlett had not indulged in her habit of drinking on the quiet for some time.
He himself had not drank much since his return from Charleston, and he didn't plan on getting drunk tonight either. He just needed something to take his mind off of everything that had transpired between him and Scarlett since she had woken up-especially the events that had taken place earlier that day. He poured the amber liquid into one of the fine cut crystal glasses on the table and drained it in one gulp, allowing the warmth of the alcohol to flow through his veins. How foolish he had been to think that he could make Scarlett love him. She never did and she never would, he thought bitterly. He was in too deep now to just get up and leave and never look back-he would always come back. Running his free hand through his hair tiredly and setting his glass down with the other, he looked about the darkened room.
Everything was silent, and the blackness grasped at him as he stood in place. He desperately wished that he and Scarlett could throw all caution to the wind and say everything that was on their minds. That way there would be no secrets, no hidden agendas that would come back and haunt them because it would all be laid down for them to see. But she had gone straight to her room after dinner, and he had not seen her since. He was tired, physically from the overly humid weather outside and emotionally from the fight he had had with Scarlett, and what he really needed was the comfort of sleep. In the morning, after his mind was refreshed, he would find out what was on Scarlett's mind once and for all.
Rhett heavily trudged up the stairs, his light clothing clinging to him due to the humid night air. He started down the hall to his room, but the sight of Scarlett's bedroom door cracked open made him stop. She always kept her door closed and locked, a silly attempt to keep him out at night lest he should feel the urge to violate her personal space that she seemed so hell bent on coveting ever since the day she had turned him out for good. Damn Ashley Wilkes and his stupid honor for telling her such things, Rhett thought angrily. And damn Scarlett and her childish puppy love notions for listening to him. True, Rhett had other places to go for sexual fulfillment, but it was not the same as having Scarlett in his arms.
Out of curiosity, he walked toward her room, and quietly opened to door so as not to wake her. It took him a few seconds to adjust his eyes to the dark, but he noticed the faint beam of moonlight shining on the bed, and his heart began to beat faster when he saw that she was not there. She hadn't come downstairs; he would have heard her when he was in the parlor. Well then where was she? Rhett's head began to spin with worry and the slight effects of the alcohol, though the former was more prominent. Quickly he silently made his way down the hall and checked every room to see if Scarlett had wandered in. Wade and Ella were sleeping soundly in the nursery, but Scarlett was no where to be found.
He moved toward the dim yellow light that was coming out of his bedroom-the lamp that always stayed lit because his precious Bonnie was afraid of the dark was still burning. As Rhett peered into the room his heart stopped in his chest and his eyes widened in disbelief. There, reclining in a chair next to Bonnie's small bed sat Scarlett, eyes closed peacefully, holding her sleeping child in her arms. Rhett's first reaction was to wake Scarlett up and demand to know the meaning of her peculiar actions, but he could not force himself to move from the doorframe.
They looked so precious. Bonnie's small head was resting against Scarlett's chest, and her hands clutched her mother's nightgown. Scarlett was asleep as well, her head resting against the back of the plush chair, her feet were tucked under her white linen night gown, and her hands were resting on Bonnie's back.
Rhett leaned tiredly against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. He felt like he was a stranger watching a scene from a performance, an outsider looking through the window on someone else's life. To anyone else this charming scene of mother and daughter would seem perfectly normal, but to Rhett it was the exact opposite. Scarlett never cared about Bonnie, so why was she putting on this façade? Suddenly an image flashed before his eyes: Scarlett in the dining room that evening after supper, staring at Bonnie when she thought he wasn't looking. Her hand softly running over her stomach. Rhett sighed and leaned the side of his head against the wall, closing his eyes briefly before padding over to where the two forms slept.
He gently tried to maneuver Bonnie out of Scarlett's arms without waking her, and the child whimpered in her sleep at the movement, but did not awaken. Just as Rhett thought he had successfully moved Bonnie, he realized another problem: Bonnie's little hands were grasping the long strands of Scarlett's hair, and surely if he pulled her away too quickly, Scarlett would awaken screaming with pain.
Clumsily, he crouched down next to the arm of the chair and shifted Bonnie to one arm while with the other he awkwardly tried to pry her fingers from Scarlett's raven locks. After a couple of minutes of struggle, Rhett finally succeeded in freeing Bonnie from Scarlett's grasp, and carefully laid his daughter's head on his shoulder. He stood up and closed the gap between the chair and the bed but suddenly his foot slipped on something smooth and he gasped, nearly losing his balance. He regained his footing quickly, but the sudden jerk of his body caused Bonnie to be startled out of her sleep, and she jumped in his arms, her blue eyes confusedly staring at him. "Daddy?" she said in a sleepy voice.
Rhett smoothed Bonnie's hair and put his free hand up to his lips before pointing to Scarlett's still sleeping form in the large chair. "Shhhh, honey, it's alright. We don't want to wake up your mother," he whispered. "I'm going to tuck you back into bed you silly goose."
"I was sleeping, daddy. Mother read me a story." A tired yawn escaped her lips and her eyes drowsily closed again.
"I bet you enjoyed it didn't you, sweetheart?" Rhett smiled, but Bonnie only nodded her head groggily. "Alright, back to bed we go. Daddy will leave the light on so the bears stay away." He whispered goodnight to Bonnie as he laid her back in bed and then stood up to move on to his next task of moving Scarlett back to her own room. He let his eyes roam the room, focusing on the obscure shadows created by the lamp. In the orange glow, Scarlett's features were sharp, but yet she looked so vulnerable. He pictured Bonnie cradled in her lap again, and he thought of how young Scarlett still was.
He walked back over to the chair but stopped in his tracks to examine an object on the floor, the very thing that he had nearly slipped on just moments before. He bent down and picked up an old leather-bound storybook. It was a collection of selected fairytales from the Brothers Grimm, Bonnie's favorite bed time stories. He flipped the book over in his hands, examining the intricate gold leaf design around its borders, and upon further inquiry, he noticed a detail that had somehow slipped past his eyes on the countless number of times he had read it to Bonnie. On the inside of the back cover, written in ink from a quill pen, was a faded message that read: "Presented to our dearest daughter, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, on the day of her birth, March 18, 1845."
So this had been Scarlett's book, a present from Gerald and Ellen O'Hara to their first born daughter. Rhett had remembered that it had been sent from Tara as a present from Will and Suellen when Bonnie had been born. He inwardly smiled as he tried to picture what Scarlett had been like at Bonnie's age. A little terror, no doubt. He formed a vision in his mind of a pint sized Scarlett with her Indian straight black hair hanging past her waist and huge green eyes staring at him, and it comforted him to think that Scarlett had, at one time in her life, been at the age of innocence. Rhett shook his head and closed the book, setting it on the table next to Bonnie's bed, and turned his attention back to Scarlett. The child he had pictured before him had grown into a beautiful young woman, one he loved very much but could not tell her. He watched her for a few seconds more before gently sliding his left arm behind her shoulders and his right arm beneath her knees and carrying her back across the hallway to her own room. Her breathing was heavy, signaling a deep sleep, and he laid her softly on her bed before turning around and heading to his room to endure another long, hot, summer night alone.
Nature is a very peculiar thing. Often times it is emotional, its moods shifting on a broad scale from exuberant and joyful to sorrowful and angry. Much like the workings of the human heart, it is unpredictable and always holds an element of surprise, which is exactly what occurred in the city of Atlanta on that morning in late July.
The previous day was one of clear skies that provided no protection from the torrid sun. That night, the clouds that had been slowly forming off the coast of Georgia had crept inland like silent bandits in the night, and as the sun sluggishly began to climb over the horizon behind the gray wall, the sky had opened up to unleash a summer storm the likes of which had not been recorded in recent memory.
The torrential rains that poured down and mingled with the warm ground should have been welcoming, but the temperature had not dropped with the cloud cover. Instead, a ferocious humidity had settled over the city, creating columns of white steam that climbed like an Indian snake charmer's cobra from the red Georgia clay. The mist shrouded all of nature's creations in a silver veil, making everything seem softer, yet dark and mysterious.
A boisterous clap of thunder jarred Scarlett from her peaceful slumber in the early hours of the morning. She felt groggy and confused, rubbing her eyes to focus on her surroundings. The last thing she remembered from the previous night was reading the story of Hansel and Gretel to Bonnie before nodding off in a chair in Rhett's room. He must have brought me back here, she thought. She yawned and was just about to let her head fall back on the soft pillow when a bright flash of lightning lit up the room, followed by another thunderbolt, the loud sound of breaking glass, and a scream from across the hall. Her breath caught in her throat and her heart leapt in her chest. She hastily jumped out of bed and quickly walked to the door, throwing it open and rushing out into the hall.
"What happened, Rhett?" There was an urgent sense of fear in her voice, and Rhett, who was standing over by the broken window at the end of the hall, turned around to face her. He was soaked to the bone from the driving rain that was coming through the broken window and into the house. Sharp shards of glass were scattered about the floor at his feet, and he cursed aloud as he bent down and started picking up the mess. Another scream from Rhett's room caused both Rhett and Scarlett to turn their attention to Bonnie, who was huddled on her bed, her little hands covering her ears, and muffled sobs coming from her face that was buried in her pillow.
"Scarlett!" Rhett's commanding voice snapped her to attention, and she looked at him through confused eyes. "Are you listening? Go get Mammy and have her take Bonnie downstairs."
"But Rhett, what-"
"The lightning is bad, Scarlett, and it struck one of the tree branches outside, making it come through the window. I'm going to see what I can do about this…" Another loud clap of thunder came from right outside of the house, rattling the enormous oil paintings on the walls. Bonnie cried out again, this time for Rhett, who looked swiftly from his room to the broken window where the sheets of water were still pouring in. "Scarlett, go, now!" The urgency in his voice made her jump, and she turned to walk down the stairs to the servant's quarters, somewhat embarrassed that they would see her in her nightgown.
When Scarlett came back upstairs with a grumbling Mammy in tow, she was met by Rhett who was holding a scared and crying Bonnie in his arms. "Miss Bonnie, what is it, honey chile?" asked Mammy in a sympathetic voice.
Rhett handed Bonnie over to Mammy's large open arms and the little girl buried her face in Mammy's comforting shoulder. "She's scared of the thunder, Mammy," Rhett informed her. "Take her downstairs please, Mammy, and watch her while I clean this mess up. Tell Pork to find some paper to patch up the window." Wade and Ella had been woken up by the commotion and Rhett instructed them to go downstairs with Mammy as well.
Scarlett watched the scene unfold with sleepy eyes, and when she turned back to Rhett, she noticed he had dark circles under his own eyes. But she kept her gaze secured on his deep black pools, and for a split second she saw what looked like longing, and her heart lurched. But Rhett looked away quickly and in a low voice said, "Go back to bed, Scarlett, I'll take care of this mess."
"It's not too bad, is it, Rhett?" she asked in a child-like voice.
Rhett did not look at her but continued to pick up the scattered shards from the burgundy carpet, handling each one carefully so they would not cut his roughened skin. "No, it's nothing for you to worry about." Scarlett continued to stare at Rhett, but he kept his back toward her and she watched the large prisms of water fly into the hall, landing on his dark hair and sitting on his clothes. He was handsome, Scarlett acknowledged. His wet shirt was transparent and the patchy wetness allowed the contours of his hardened muscles show through. She imagined what it had been like all of those times in the past when he had taken her into his arms, enfolding her, molding her to his body in fiery embraces that had never failed to send her mind swirling into oblivion and her skin to tingle under his touch.
Another bright flash of lightning cracked like the sound of a whip and lit up the house in a bright light, followed by another crash of thunder that made Scarlett jump. But Rhett did not lose his composure, and Scarlett wanted nothing more than for him to take her in his arms and whisper soothing words in her ear to calm her quaking heart as he had done so many times before along the path that time had forgotten. Scarlett turned back in the direction of her own room and slowly walked inside, closing the door behind her. Little did she know that Rhett had been holding his breath and listening with a sharpened ear, and when he heard the soft click of the door knob, he closed his eyes tightly, letting out a sigh of semi-relief.
Later in the afternoon, after an uneventful rest, Scarlett opened the door and quietly stepped out into the hall. The rain had let up somewhat, but she feared it was only the first wave of a larger storm, and that the unbearable thunder would again come back to wreak havoc on the city. Though she still felt groggy, as one often does from sleeping in too late, the events of that morning had disrupted her peaceful slumber, and so she did not mind whiling half the day away in bed. Her back was facing the hall when she closed the door in front of her, and when she turned around she nearly jumped out of her skin, for she ran smack into Rhett who had just come out of his room. "God's nightgown, Rhett! You shouldn't sneak up on people like that." She glanced over at the window that had been broken earlier that morning, and noticed heavy paper covered a large piece of wood. That, she concluded, must have been placed there by Pork after she had gone back to bed.
Scarlett was distracted by Rhett, whose fingers were playing idly with her long strands of hair. "I didn't mean to sneak up on you, Scarlett," he said in a hushed voice. "I was only going to check up on the children. They've been downstairs since this morning, you know."
Scarlett looked at him confusedly. Was he only waking up just now too? Her eyes swiftly roamed over his body. He was dressed, while she was still in her nightgown, covered only by an orchid pink silk wrapper because no one had been there to help her dress, and she decided that for once in her life, wearing nightclothes all day would do no harm. When her eyes made contact with his, a sudden bout of self-consciousness swept over her, and she realized she looked far from glamorous. Though why she should care around Rhett, she did not know. He had seen her look much worse, she concluded, and yet for some reason she wished now that she had taken the time to ask Mammy or Prissy to come help her. Her hands then flew to her hair, patting it down where she thought there might be loose strands. Well, at least she had taken the time to do her hair when she woke up, and it was now fashioned with two large locks on either side of her head pulled back and fastened with hairpins, while the rest fell freely over her shoulders.
"What are you still doing up here?" she finally asked.
Rhett's white teeth showed under his moustache as he smiled lightly. "Would it be the scandal of the century if I told you that I just woke up as well, my pet?"
Scarlett narrowed her eyes when she noticed his apparent mirth. How was it that he could sleep in as late as she did, and still look as if he'd just come back from the tailor's? Well damn him anyway, she thought, and gave him a slightly annoyed glance before commenting, "I'm surprised at you, Rhett. You've always been an early riser. Why the sudden change?"
Rhett studied her face momentarily, noting faint lines of sleep at the corners of her deep green eyes. He had searched those infinite orbs many times, trying desperately to find something that he had concluded he would never see, but he did it time and time again out of hopes that the next glance would be different. There was something there, but it was not love, and he let out a sigh-it would never be love. "I couldn't sleep last night, and the storm this morning did not help much," he said cryptically.
"Why? I mean, why couldn't you sleep last night?" Scarlett inched closer to him, trying to read his face.
"I couldn't stop thinking. What does it matter?" Rhett quipped, the sarcasm shining clear in his eyes now.
Scarlett was not in the mood for his games, and she hadn't been for some time now. It seemed like her tolerance for Rhett's sardonic attitude had grown threadbare. While it had once been something that had made her contemplate his motives, it was now something she simply did not feel like she had the energy to combat. Then, as if on queue, the words flowed from her lips without warning: "Did you go out and get intoxicated again last night?"
Rhett grabbed her by the shoulders in an iron grip, and looked her firmly in the eyes. "You think you know me so well, don't you, Scarlett?" His voice still held sarcasm, but now it was laced with an afflicted undertone, and Scarlett knew she had wrongfully accused him. His eyes held hers captive for a few seconds longer, but that was all it took to see a montage of emotions finally revealed. In that moment she saw pain, frustration, anger, jealousy, everything that Rhett had held locked away in his heart for so long-she saw it there in his eyes. All of the sudden her heart ached with desperation and regret at having accused him of so many things over the years that she could never take back; things she was now forced to carry with her for the rest of her days because they had already sunk too deep into the tapestry of their hearts.
Rhett released her from his talon-like grip with a forceful push and turned to stalk back toward his room with a stride so full of purpose that Scarlett suddenly began to panic. Why was he going back to his room? Was he leaving her? Oh! I shouldn't have made him angry, she thought with alarm. "Rhett?" she called out to him, but he did not turn around. Scarlett scurried over to his side before he reached his bedroom door, and softly took his hand, making him pause. "Rhett where are you going?"
Rhett turned to face her, his eyes set like polished stones, and he simply shrugged his shoulders in response to her question. A shiver ran down Scarlett's spine at the prospect of facing the unknown. Why wouldn't he answer her? "Rh-" her breath caught in her throat, and she stuttered, "Rhett, won't you answer me?"
Rhett looked into Scarlett's wide eyes and bit his bottom lip in contemplation. Her hand had turned cold in his, as if she were afraid of something, and yet she still clung on. Finally Rhett spoke, and his words came out in a demanding tone: "What is this game you're playing, Scarlett?"
She was shocked at his tone, and flinched when his words registered in her brain. "What?"
"This," he demanded, sweeping his arm out in front of him. "You, acting like a model of innocence all of the sudden, acting the part of the loving mother to Bonnie, reprimanding me for my late night carousals when before you cared nothing about where I went or what I did just as long as it did not concern you!"
Scarlett's pulse was pounding in her ears, and she tried to focus on his tormented face, the face that for the first time she was able to read without having to analyze what she saw, and it frightened her and pained her at the same time. She shook her head back and forth, and the only word that would come out of her mouth was "No". Unshed tears assaulted the backs of her eyes with the force of a flood, stinging her to the core of her being as she realized what he meant. He was right, and had the right to demand an answer for her sudden change in affections. All of these years she had been too ignorant to notice that life was passing her by and that she did not take the time to gain interest in the lives of those surrounding her. The only thing she cared about was being the center of attention; she still wanted to be that, but now, somehow, things were different. She did love Bonnie, and she wasn't pretending to be innocent! Oh Rhett, she thought as her built up tears began to take uncharted courses down her cheeks like the Flint that ran idly through the golden hills at Tara, you don't know how worried I was when you didn't come home for two days after Ashley's party.
Rhett observed her trembling lower lip, her tearstained cheeks through different eyes: the eyes of a stranger. His heart was wounded in anguish at the sight of her, but he would not allow her to continue this charade. He had to do something, say something to convince himself that this was all a game, and that she really did not feel concerned for anything; for the transformation that had slowly been underway deep in the caverns of their hearts since before her fall had suddenly come to an accumulation on the surface of reality, and this knowledge was too much for Rhett to bear. "Scarlett," he pleaded. "For god's sake, stop it!"
Scarlett's voice was hoarse and she grasped his large hand in her own tighter, "Rhett, please stop!" She saw his anguished eyes fleetingly look away and then back as she continued in a barely audible whisper, "I do care."
Rhett's heart swelled nigh to bursting as her words hit his ears. She did care? It was not the exact phrase that he had longed to hear since first laying eyes on her, but it was enough to shake the foundation of the repressed feelings that lay layer upon layer at the bottom of his heart. The hand that was being clutched by hers suddenly flew to the small of her back, and the other one settled on the back of her neck. After only a moment's hesitation, he brought her to him, crushing her lips to his in the full force of pent up desire. She clung to him fiercely, as if he were the only solid thing floating in the gray sea of confusion and despair, and when he finally pulled away, he clasped her hand in his own and looked deep into her eyes, searching her soul in desperation for a sign that would let him know that it was alright to continue what they had started.
Whatever it was that he was looking for at that moment, Rhett must have found it, because with his hand still gripping hers, he signaled with his glance toward his bedroom. That look in Rhett's eyes was enough to send Scarlett's heartbeat through the roof, and when his hand tightened around hers her breathing became ragged and her body started to shake in nervous anticipation. But she followed him like a lost puppy trying to find its way back home, and he guided her into the room where she had only set foot a miniscule amount of times, closing the door quietly and locking it behind them. Her surroundings were foreign to her, and she held Rhett's hand tighter as the overbearing masculinity of the room washed over her, surrounded her, and yet in a strange way, comforted her. There were so many things that were brought forth into her field of vision that she had not noticed the night before when she had come in to read Bonnie a bed time story. What had once been a spare bedroom when they had first moved in had now been transformed into Rhett's sanctuary. She noticed the mahogany bedposts carved with intricate designs, the heavy draperies that hung on the large bay window adjacent to the bed, and the giant oil painting of her that he had had done when they first got married still held the dent from the force of the glass that Rhett had thrown against it in his moment of sudden rage.
They were standing by his still unmade bed when Rhett turned around to face her. He gently reached up and cupped her face in his hands, and when he felt her shaky hands rest on his waist he leaned down and placed a series of angel-soft kisses on her lips, moving along her jaw line to her ear. His hot breath was making her feel weak in the knees, and luckily his strong arms had snaked around her hips because if they hadn't, Scarlett was sure she would have fainted under his tender touch. Slowly he placed one hand on her shoulder and spun her around so that her pink clad back was facing him. Scarlett was bewildered when Rhett wrapped his arms around her from behind, brushing her long hair aside and placing a trail of hot kisses on her neck before resting his cheek against hers. She closed her eyes to the touch of his lips and the tickle of his moustache, and brought her right arm up, wrapping it around his neck and playing with his hair. Slowly but with expert hands he started unbuttoning her wrapper, leaving a fiery kiss on the top of her spine with each button that was unfastened, causing her breath to come in shorter gasps as her hand clutched his hair.
When he had finally finished, he slowly removed the wrapper and tossed it on the floor at the foot of the bed. When he returned a few second later, she did not see, but she knew that he had removed his shirt, because the warmth of his skin and the powerful muscles in his chest softly rubbed up against her back, and she could feel the body heat seeping through her nightgown. He turned her around again so that she was facing him, and she noticed the defined pectoral and abdominal muscles that had been shaped and hardened through some type of hard work, though she couldn't pinpoint exactly what that hard work was. This was so new to Scarlett, for she had never really seen him unclothed, even on the many times they had been together during their honeymoon. It was just like it had been with Charlie and Frank, there hadn't been very much intimacy, and Scarlett wanted to keep it that way, because with them, she had felt it her obligation as a wife to give in to such things, but it was not her obligation to contribute. Even with Rhett it had been like that. He always had been the one to initiate things, and she had never noticed that he could possibly be holding something back. He was always guarded, secretive even in his efforts in lovemaking.
Rhett pulled her out of her thoughts when his hand went to her hair and he brushed his fingers through it, bringing it up to his face and inhaling the perfumed scent of lilacs. It was a gesture reminiscent of the many times on their honeymoon when Scarlett had lay in his arms while he brushed her long hair across his face and wrapped it about his throat in the still blue of the moonlight. Rhett then took her hand in his once again and leaned in to kiss her cheek before removing his pants and sliding between the starched white sheets, holding them open as an invitation to Scarlett, who accepted hesitantly.
"I won't bite, you know," Rhett huskily whispered in her ear as he took her in his arms. Scarlett swallowed hard, trying to calm her nervousness. God, it had been so long since he had held her like this. She had forgotten the soothing effect that he could have on her in close proximity, when they were not fighting, when they were lost in the secret world that they were capable of creating for just the two of them, but yet they could never manage to retain. She unconsciously ran the tips of her fingers over the muscles on his arm, feeling his strength, and, looking into his eyes, willed him to make her forget the troubles that had been weighing on her mind for longer than she could remember. He complied with a sensual kiss that made her ache with desire. His satin lips engulfed her, burned her where they touched her skin, and she responded by wrapping her arms around him, letting her hands roam freely over his taut back and shoulders.
He urged her lips to part with his, and with their mouths still locked together, Rhett released his right hand from Scarlett's waist and reached down to push up the hem of her nightgown, caressing the smooth skin of her petite calves and slowly working his way up her leg with the tips of his fingers. The sensations that Rhett's expert hands were leaving on Scarlett's body were becoming too much for her, and she broke the kiss with a whimper, sitting up next to Rhett, who looked at her with a questioning glance. Scarlett, somewhat embarrassed, bit her lip and looked away, ashamed at wanting to reveal the real reason she had interrupted their heated embrace.
"Scarlett?" Rhett questioned with a hint of rejection coming through in his voice. His hand, still resting on the skin underneath her nightgown, tightened around her hip. "What's wrong?"
She sheepishly turned to face him in the dim light. "I-" she stuttered, unsure how to go on. His eyes were wide when she looked into them, and she continued with difficulty, "I-it's too hot in here."
Scarlett's comment caused Rhett to bellow with merry laughter, and he sat up, facing his wife. "Scarlett, Scarlett, I never would have thought I'd hear you say such a thing," he jibed, hinting at the double meaning of her words. Noticing the harsh blush that had crept up on her cheeks, Rhett leaned in and kissed her again before reaching his other hand under the fabric and freeing her from the restraints of her nightgown, tossing it carelessly on the floor. He pulled her body to his again and they continued to ravish each other's mouths with honey-sweet kisses, their hands frantically exploring each other's bodies as if for the first time, learning every contour, curve and angle and committing it to memory for ever more. Scarlett was lost in the oblivion of their budding passion as Rhett lowered her to he bed, and after searching her eyes in silent question, their bodies finally became one in a glorious union that bridged the gap of so many years of concealed desire.
They moved together at an unhurried pace, basking in the sensation of being so close to one another. With their eyes closed, they unknowingly thought of nothing but each other; both wishing that things had been this way a long time ago, and that they could make up for the time that had eluded them in the past. As they continued on their sensual ride to ecstasy's peak, kisses became more frantic, and words of rapture were whispered feverishly. Outside, the storm that had caused such a commotion earlier again took shape. The sky turned dark gray once more, unleashing more heavy rain, and the sound of the rolling thunder only matched the fervent cries of white-hot passion reverberating from behind the closed windows of the upper floor room of the colossal house.
Scarlett lay wrapped in Rhett's arms, staring out the window as the room lit up in a white flash of lightning. She was not afraid of the storm now as she had been earlier. His heavy breathing and the rise and fall of his chest against her bare back comforted her, and she wrapped his left arm around her tighter, burying her head into the spare pillow and inhaling his scent. She sighed lightly and felt Rhett kiss the back of her head. "What are you thinking about, Scarlett?" he whispered.
Scarlett became uneasy. She did not want to divulge her inner thoughts, she only wanted to lie in his arms and let everything else disappear. "Nothing," she mumbled into the pillow.
Rhett laced his fingers with hers and kissed her lightly on the cheek. "Scarlett, do you remember when you used to tell me whatever was on your mind? There was a time when we trusted each other."
"We never have completely trusted each other, Rhett."
"Yes," he sighed. "I suppose you're right. But I do believe that at one point in time you trusted me enough to tell me things that you never divulged in anyone else. And Scarlett," he whispered before trailing hot kisses along her bare shoulder, "you know I have never and would never reveal the deepest secrets of your heart. Most everyone in this town already knows your deepest secret anyhow," he laughed lightly. Scarlett scowled at his last words, but Rhett did not see it. "I vowed to carry your guilty secrets to my grave, Scarlett," he joked, but then he became serious, and he felt her become less tense in his arms, "you know I will, don't you?"
Scarlett took a deep breath, admitting defeat. "I suppose." Rhett did know things she had never told anyone else, and there was a time, before they were married, when she felt he was her only confidant, the only one who understood her. But that was so long ago. Was it possible, now, to get that back? Scarlett had never realized how much her friendly relationship with Rhett during the war had meant to her until it was gone. After Bonnie was born, she and Rhett had virtually gone their separate ways, only bound together through a child and the sharing of a last name. Despite immersing herself in work and her obsession over Ashley, Scarlett had felt a void of loneliness, and Rhett had become a shadow passing in and out of her life; always there but never really materializing, until the day she woke up from her accident. Now he was here, holding her in his arms, and for the first time she let his warm embrace and invigorating presence erase her fears.
"Rhett?" she finally asked, after a moment of comfortable silence.
"If I ask you something, will you promise to answer truthfully?"
Rhett hesitated for a moment before speaking. "How about I make you a deal, Scarlett. You ask me a question, and I promise to answer you truthfully. But in return, I get to ask you a question and you must answer truthfully as well, alright?"
Scarlett's stomach churned, but she turned around in his arms and faced him with determination. "Alright. What I wanted to know…that is-what I needed to ask was…" she swallowed hard, a shiver running down her spine like quicksilver. Rhett pulled her closer, sensing her discomfort, and running a soothing hand down her back, proclaimed in jest: "Come on, Scarlett. Out with it. I assure you, whatever it is can't be so bad that you'd be willing to let it gnaw away at your mind forever."
Scarlett closed her eyes briefly, already afraid of his answer before she even voiced the question. "Rhett, this morning, were you going to leave me?" There. She had thrown it up in the air, but as soon as the words left her lips she regretted it. Oh, why did she have to ruin such a rare and tender moment with a question like that? He didn't leave, he was here now. But she had to know.
"What?" Rhett asked curiously.
Scarlett's hand tightened around his shoulder. "This morning, after I accused you of being drunk…were you going to leave? Please, Rhett, tell me the truth."
Rhett turned his head and looked at the ceiling, willing his mind to form some sort of logical response. Still keeping his eyes fixed above him he answered: "I don't know, Scarlett."
"What do you mean?" she asked timidly. Rhett shifted under the sheets and faced her. Scarlett's eyes were wide and as green as an emerald feather in a peacock's plume.
"I meant just what I said. I don't know whether I was going to leave or not." He observed Scarlett's eyes narrow in confusion at his evasive answer, so he continued. "Scarlett, look at me, and try to understand. Had the same events that happened this morning taken place a few months ago, I can't say that I wouldn't have left. You and I, we treat each other like strangers living under the same roof. This is no way to live, Scarlett, especially when two people such as we are married to each other and share a child. There are only so many words that can be said and swept under the rug as if nothing happened, only so long a person can pretend that the hell that has been created within one's home disappears five minutes after an argument. That is how I felt this morning. I don't know whether I would have left or not, and that's the truth. But I didn't have time to formulate an answer before you ran over and stopped me. I don't know what this means," he gestured with his eyes at their current situation and took her hand in his, holding it up to his chest. "But I don't want to live a life of solitude when I know my wife sleeps in the room next to mine with her door locked as if she thinks I'm Lucifer himself. I can't do it; I won't do it anymore, Scarlett. Do you understand?"
Scanning her eyes he saw what looked like guilt seeping out from the depths of her soul. Rhett bent his head down and kissed her hand. "But I didn't leave, Scarlett. And look where we are now," he smiled before kissing her lightly on the lips. "There now, does that satisfy your curiosity?" Scarlett nodded in response. "Good. But now I'm afraid I must return the favor and inquire about a certain situation. Please don't lie to me, Scarlett." She nodded her head precariously to the warning of his raised eyebrows. "I'll get straight to the point. Do you still love Ashley Wilkes? God help me if you say yes."
Scarlett sighed heavily, her hand clutching his arm. How would she explain something that she didn't quite understand herself? "Rhett," she whispered. "It's so complicated to explain."
"Well you'd better start now."
"Ashley…Rhett I've known him since I was a child growing up on the country. I used to play with him and Tony and Alex Fontaine, Brent and Stu Tarleton, everyone. They were my friends, and I could climb trees and swim in the river just as good as they could…"
"Somehow it's hard for me to picture you climbing trees, Scarlett, but I don't doubt it," Rhett lightly teased.
"Well, I wasn't always so rigid and proper, though I did aspire to be. I wanted desperately to be like my mother. She was a great lady. She thought of everyone but herself. You know she died the day before I got to Tara during the war. I didn't even get to say goodbye," she choked, tears building up at the corners of her eyes.
Rhett saw Scarlett's wounded expression and his eyes softened. "Shhh. I know it was hard for you, but you made it through those times."
Scarlett sniffled and reached up to wipe her tears away before they threatened to fall, and then composed herself. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have brought that up. Anyway, I never thought of Ashley as anything more than a friend until the day he came back from his Grand Tour of Europe. I was fourteen, and I remember it as if it happened yesterday. I suppose in my mind, he was educated, handsome, and at the brink of becoming a man before my eyes. I saw him in a new light. I suppose the fact that I couldn't have him made me want him more. I know we were too different. He toyed with my emotions and led me along by a golden thread, leaving me dangling with his talk of honor. But I clung to him anyway, because in my mind I had painted a picture of him that I placed up in front of him so that I wouldn't see the real Ashley. Do you know what I mean?"
"All I know, Scarlett," he sighed, "is that Ashley has been on your mind since the day I met you, and it's been hell trying to compete when you hold him up on some divine pedestal."
"I know, Rhett, and I'm sorry. Please believe me when I tell you that I haven't thought of Ashley for some time."
"Scarlett, do you still love him? Do you still dream about him, think about him like you used to?" Rhett's eyes held a look of frustration, and Scarlett was suddenly overcome by a powerful feeling of guilt. Ashley did not love her. It was a façade that had finally fallen, and now she knew that never again would she dream of him when she slept at night. And all this time Rhett, her handsome, stalwart Rhett, loved her. He had been so tender with her when they had made love that morning, as if he were trying to convey his feelings through his actions, because words had proved insufficient. No, she did not think of Ashley anymore, and suddenly she knew the answer to Rhett's question.
After a few harrowing moments of silence, Scarlett whispered, "No…I don't love him. I'll never forget him, Rhett, please understand that. But I don't love him anymore."
Rhett visibly relaxed, and let his eyes roam over her face, searching for a sign of a hidden lie, but he found none.
"Well, are you happy now, does that meet your request?" she asked, smiling.
His eyes were alight and he smiled uncontrollably, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close, so that their bodies intertwined. "More than you'll ever know."
Scarlett giggled as her lips met his in a kiss of fiery passion, but she pulled away unexpectedly and looked into his eyes. "Rhett, I have one more thing I have been thinking about."
"What is it," he frowned.
"Well, it's nothing bad!" She gained a little more courage when she saw his smile return. "Rhett…do you love me?"
"Where do you get these questions!" he exclaimed, pulling her closer.
"Rhett!" she said in mock anger before playfully hitting him on the chest. "I'm serious. Do you love me? You once told me you did, is it, or was it true?"
Rhett sobered and sat up, pulling her into his lap. With the revelations that had been brought forth in the past hour, Rhett felt that he could reveal the truth, that he needed to reveal it, and if Scarlett threw it in his face like he had always imagined she would, then so be it. But he decided to throw all caution to the wind and take the biggest risk of his life. "I suppose you should know the truth, my pet. Yes," he whispered into her ear. "I do love you, and I have, if you must know, since the first day I saw you."
"But Rhett, why have you always acted so withdrawn and cruel around me?"
"Because, Scarlett, I'll admit I was afraid that you would have used this knowledge against me, and I couldn't live with that," Rhett confessed quietly.
"You're right. I probably would have."
Scarlett stroked his hair, letting her fingernails graze the back of his neck, and she leaned down to kiss him lightly. "No," she mumbled against his lips. "But I knew you did love me."
Rhett pulled back and looked at her, his eyebrows raised questioningly. "Oh you did, did you?"
She nodded her head affirmatively, he long hair tickling his skin where it danced along the arm that was holding her around her back. "Yes, I knew. I just wanted you to say it," she smiled.
"Oh really?" Rhett joked as he tickled her ribs, causing unabashed screams and laughter to filter throughout the room. "We'll see about that, you sneaky girl!" he sarcastically declared before his lips swooped down on hers and he again lowered her to the bed. But before they could get much further they were interrupted by a knock on the door. Rhett quickly placed his hand over Scarlett's mouth to cease her laughing.
"Yes?" he called.
"Uncle Rhett, are you still sleeping?" It was Wade. "It's near time for supper and Mammy sent me up here to see if you were coming down. Bonnie has been waiting for you all day to come and play with her."
Scarlett and Rhett looked at each other and Scarlett tried to suppress her giggles as she ducked lower under the covers. Rhett tried to compose himself. He cleared his throat and called out: "Um, yes, Wade, just a minute. We'll-I mean, I'll be down in a minute! Tell Mammy to have my plate set for me."
"Alright, Uncle Rhett," they heard Wade's voice say. "Oh Uncle Rhett, have you seen mother? She's not in her room and we haven't seen her all day." Obviously Wade suspected their extended estrangement, and it made Rhett cringe.
Rhett made a funny face at Scarlett and shook his head back and forth. "Should I tell him no?" he whispered as a knowing smile appeared on Scarlett's crimson lips and her eyes danced in amusement.
"No, son, I haven't seen her. But I'm sure she's around somewhere. Don't worry, she'll show up, I know it."
"Alright, uncle Rhett. We'll see you at dinner." Rhett listened as Wade's footsteps faded away down the hall before he spoke aloud.
"I'm amazed we've gone the whole day without food, especially you," he laughed.
"Oh," said Scarlett. "Well I suppose I'll have to blame you for taking my mind off of food!" Just then Scarlett's stomach growled loudly, and she laughed lightly. "Perfect timing."
But Rhett did not laugh. Instead his brows furrowed in concern and he gently placed his hands on her stomach. "I'm afraid I haven't been paying much attention to your health in the past few days, Scarlett, I apologize."
Scarlett tilted her head and looked at him. His eyes were downcast, but his face was marked with guilt and sorrow. "Oh Rhett," she breathed as she placed her hands on top of his. "I feel much better now, I promise. Please don't feel guilty about the baby, it was an accident."
"Scarlett did you want it?" he whispered as he met her eyes. "The baby I mean. I feel guilty because had I known about the baby before your accident, I want you to know that I would have come home." Rhett saw Scarlett cast her head down and her shoulders hunched in sadness. He took her chin in his hand, "Scarlett look at me." She complied hesitantly and he continued. "I want you to know that I would have come home no matter what, eventually, baby or no baby."
Scarlett was drenched with a sense of relief at his words. "You would?" He nodded in confirmation. "Rhett, the truth is I thought you would never come home. I didn't want you to leave in the first place, but I knew I had to let you go. I didn't even know that I was going to have a baby until you told me, but Rhett, I did want it. I missed you so when you and Bonnie were gone."
Suddenly his arms were around her again and he buried his face in her long hair, holding her as though he thought she'd disappear if he ever let go. When he pulled away Scarlett's eyes were moist with unshed tears and she stroked her face with the backs of his fingers. "Don't cry, please. Can't we look at this as a happy time? We both wanted the baby, Scarlett, but we cannot change the past. Only the future can be remedied, and I hope that now, considering what we've gotten ourselves into here, we can start over." It was more of an aspiration than a request, and Rhett's gentle voice blocked out the overwhelming sadness that had settled in the air like a rolling fog. Start over, was he serious? After all they'd been through, all of the pain and angry words, the confusion and the hatred, Rhett was willing to start over? Perhaps, Scarlett thought, this was a light at the end of the tunnel, a chance for her to be truly happy for the first time since the war started. "Well, how about it, Scarlett," he said breaking her train of thought. "Would you be willing to give us another chance? I want to show you the benefits of a happy marriage."
Without thinking, Scarlett nodded her head in agreement. "Yes, I think I'd like to have some fun being married," she smiled thankfully.
"Good, I'm glad you agree. And I'm sure you'll find that being on the same page about things and being kind to one another will be a very pleasant experience. Now come on," Rhett said as he stood up and took her by the hand, helping her out of the bed. "I know you're starving, let's go join the children for supper."
It was a few minutes before the couple was ready to face the rest of the household. Scarlett had watched Rhett change into his eveningwear, for the first time unashamedly admiring his chiseled features, and when he was done she helped him straighten his vest, a practice she was pleased to find she still remembered skillfully from her days at Tara making sure Gerald looked presentable for her mother. When she was finished she led him silently across the hall to her room where he picked out a fashionable green silk dress with a V neck, short sleeves, and a form-fitting bodice, and she quickly swept her hair up into a simple twist, fastening it with pins at the top of her head. "You look as elegant as ever, Scarlett. Shall we?" Rhett held out his arm for her to take, and as she accepted his invitation she looked up at him and smiled brightly.
"You know, Rhett, I think I'm going to like this being nice deal." Rhett chuckled lightly and bent down to kiss her cheek before opening the door and leading his wife out into the hall.
Since Rhett's confession of love for Scarlett, the Butler household was a much happier place. Gone was the overbearing sense of tension and held back anger. Instead it had been replaced by a peaceful sense of happiness that had not failed to be picked up by the household staff, including Mammy. Even the children sensed a change in their parent's mood toward one another, though they were too young to decipher it, but they accepted it without reservations. Ever since the day of the storm Rhett and Scarlett had come to know each other much more intimately and completely than ever before. Scarlett waited in secret anticipation for the stolen moments throughout the day when there was no one else around, and Rhett would pull her into a hidden corner for a passionate kiss. They would touch each other with delicate hands, whispering sweet nothings in the shadows that offered them security, oblivious to any innocent eyes that would sometimes catch them admiring each other in the still of the afternoon.
After putting Bonnie to bed at night and waiting for her to fall asleep, Rhett would quietly close the door to his room and silently cross the hallway into the adjacent bedroom, where Scarlett would knowingly be waiting with the door unlocked and the sheets turned down-a welcome invitation to a welcome visit. Sometimes they would simply stay up all night talking, and Rhett would admire Scarlett while holding her in his lap. They talked of nothing, but that was not important, for the sheer presence of one another was enough to replace unnecessary words.
Other times they would make passionate love until the soft pink light of dawn would creep into the room and Rhett would take his leave before Scarlett and the rest of the house woke up. At first Scarlett was confused and admittedly disappointed when she would wake up and find him gone because she would be overcome with a strange fear that it had all been a dream and that things were no better than they had been before her accident. But she would scramble out of bed and peer into Rhett's room where she saw him dressing for the day. When he sensed her presence he would turn around, observing her wide eyes, and smile, waking over and offering her a "good morning" and a tender kiss on the forehead, and he explained to Scarlett that he had only come back to his room because he did not want Bonnie to wake up and find him not there. "We need to extinguish her fear of the dark, Rhett, she's almost four years old," said Scarlett one morning. "Besides, I'm tired of waking up and not having you there. Now I have to get out of bed and walk all the way over here just to get my morning greetings."
"Alright, alright, Scarlett. If you insist," Rhett replied, rubbing his nose against hers softly and then kissing her lightly on the lips. "I promise we'll work on getting her to sleep without the light on so that I won't have to sneak back here in the ungodly early hours of the morning. It just seems like my little girl is growing up so fast. But now I finally have you to spoil, so I suppose that makes up for some of it."
Scarlett smiled at his words. She loved being spoiled, and Rhett certainly had never been one to refuse her of the material possessions she wanted. "Yes, and you know you're welcome to spoil me any time you please. But Rhett, Bonnie will have to grow up eventually whether you want her to or not. She's so spoiled, and I really do think that getting her to sleep without the light on will be a good step. I can't believe she'll be four years old soon. And Wade and Ella, it seems like not so long ago they were babies. I never really stopped to think how much of their lives I never really took part in. Where have the years gone?"
Rhett pulled her to him in a tight embrace and she rested her head against his chest, her arms going around his waist. "Scarlett, so much has happened in both our lives over the years. I remember when I was younger, traveling out to California in search of the next big adventure. I had sailed all the way around the Cape of Good Hope to get to the gold fields. Have you ever dreamed of visiting the Caribbean, Scarlett? It's beautiful in the summer. Perhaps one day you'd be willing to let me take you there or to Europe for a shopping trip in Paris. They call Paris the city of Love, Scarlett."
Scarlett missed the hint in his words. She did not know if she loved him, though she did know she grew closer to him every day, and now that their arguments had become less and less frequent, she knew she was happy. "Oh Rhett, that'd be just heavenly! But Rhett, why would you go to California and hunt for gold when you already had enough money to last you a lifetime?"
Rhett pulled back and held her at arm's length, giving her an annoyed look. "Why must you always be so concerned with money, Scarlett? Well, if you must know, and I'm sorry to disappoint you, I did not go for the prospect of getting rich. As you should already know, I was already wealthy courtesy of my inheritance from my family in Charleston, and the rest was made during the War. I have always been one for adventure, Scarlett, and that's what led me to California-pure forthright adventure. I like to think of many things in life as an adventure. It's the thrill of not knowing what's going to happen next, and what I can make out of it that draws me to try new things, and gold mining happened to be one of those new things. It was a grand adventure, Scarlett, and I have the scar to prove it!" he chuckled.
Scarlett swept her fingertips over the spot on his abdomen that she knew held the faded long scar of his youthful years. "This, you mean?" Rhett nodded. Scarlett had never really took notice of this visible reminder of a time gone by, but ever since they had become much closer she had picked up on new things that identified Rhett as uniquely himself. "I never knew what that was from. What happened to the other man? Were you bad hurt?"
Rhett laughed whole heartedly at her bombardment of questions and untucked his white shirt from his pants, lifting it up to survey the long, jagged scar that had been caused by a knife during a fight with another man over a disputed land mark for setting individual territories of mining property along the American River in the Sierra Nevada. "Hmmm. It doesn't hurt anymore, but I can guarantee you it did when it happened. I thought I was done for, but I refused to give up when I thought I was in the prime of my life, and over a section of river for panning gold none-the-less!" he joked. "Yes, it hurt, but that was long ago, and I'm much more careful to use the upper hand in fights of that sort now. As for the man who caused this calamity, well, he's dead."
Scarlett gasped with surprise at his revelation. "Did you kill him, Rhett?" she asked, eyes wide with curiosity.
"Yes. I had to for self defense, Scarlett. But don't you worry about it. It makes for a good bedtime story for Wade and Ella. They enjoy hearing tales of adventure. You'll never have to know what that's like to be in that situation though, thankfully, Scarlett."
She fleetingly looked away. She had never told him about shooting the Yankee deserter during the War; it had been pushed into the dark recesses of her mind, but it had newly surfaced. "Well…"
Rhett laughed incredulously. "Scarlett, are you trying to tell me you've killed a man? I wouldn't believe that in a million years. Not you, my sweet and precious wife." But he stopped laughing and his face paled when he met her eyes-eyes that held a look of suppressed fear and guilt. "Scarlett, are you serious? When? How?"
"During the war. When I was at Tara. Oh Rhett!" she cried as she flew into his waiting arms. "I was so frightened! A Yankee deserter, he rode up to the house when I was inside. Melly was upstairs in bed and my sisters and Pa and Mammy and Prissy-everyone was outside in the fields! I thought he was going to burn Tara down like they had Fairhill and the Macintosh place, Rhett he came right up to my face! He had my mother's jewelry box, it was one of the only things the Yankees hadn't taken before, Rhett, one of the only things I had to remember her by. I wouldn't let him take it, I wouldn't let him harm my family. I ran upstairs before he came inside and grabbed the pistol you gave me the night you left me to enlist, and I-" She was talking fast, her words coming out in a flow of confusion and fear, and Rhett had to kiss her on the forehead to get her to calm down.
"You shot him, Scarlett?"
She slowly nodded her head as a single tear ran down her ivory cheek. "I didn't know what else to do, Rhett. I was so scared of what he would have done to me if he got his hands on me. I was so scared!"
"Darling!' he cried as he crushed her to him, kissing her repeatedly on the top of her head. "Shhh. I'm glad you killed him, Scarlett. Because if you hadn't, and he had harmed you, I would have killed him myself. Hell, I would have done it myself for him just setting foot inside Tara. I'll never let anyone hurt you. I'm sorry for leaving you that night."
Scarlett stood in his arms, shaking at the unpleasant memory. She felt safe with Rhett, she always had, she realized. "Thank you, Rhett," she sniffled. "I'm glad you understand."
"No, Scarlett. I'm glad you shared that story with me. Now I know we have more in common than I ever thought, and I always told you we had a lot in common," he smiled and led her back to her room to get dressed for the day.
Even when they went out in public, the hawkeyed members of Atlanta's Old Guard, and even the new members of the Yankee Republican society noticed a visible change in the couple. When they strolled down the street in the cool breeze of the evenings they were seen arm in arm, sometimes holding hands and peering into each other's eyes as if there were no one else in the world, and for all Scarlett cared, the grumpy old patrons who were surely looking down upon them with disapproving eyes could all go to Hell. One evening they were walking past the Wilkes' residence where Beau was playing on the front porch with his toys. "Auntie Scarlett!" he called. Scarlett smiled in his direction and waved politely. Beau had never really talked to her. He had always been a shy boy, preferring to hide in the folds of his mother's skirts whenever other adults came to visit, and this new burst of outward confidence surprised her. "Hello Uncle Rhett!"
"Hello Beau!" Rhett called from the other side of the street. He and Scarlett stepped off the sidewalk, Scarlett pulling up her skirts so as not to get them dirty, and they crossed the street to the Wilkes' house. "Beau, what are you doing out here?" asked Scarlett.
"Just playing. Mother would love to see you, Auntie Scarlett. She's always wondering how you are doing. She's home now if you'd like to come inside."
Scarlett glanced up at Rhett for a sign of approval, and when he nodded his head in encouragement, she accepted Beau's invitation. "Yes, that would be lovely. Go tell your mother I'm calling on her." Beau smiled and ran inside, leaving his toys on the porch.
"You go inside and talk to Miss Melly, Scarlett. I'll meet you back at the house later," Rhett said.
"Oh but Rhett, aren't you going to come in?"
"I don't think so, Scarlett. I'm sure I'd make poor company in the midst of a conversation between you two ladies." He bent down and kissed her cheek, "I'll see you later, my pet." Scarlett watched him in slight confusion as he walked down Peachtree Street toward their house.
Just then she heard Melanie's voice behind her and she turned around to receive her friend. "Scarlett, darling! Oh, it's so good to see you, it's been so long!"
"Hello, Melly," replied Scarlett with a warm smile as she stepped into Melanie's outstretched arms and returned the hug. "How have you been?"
"Just fine, Scarlett. Won't you come inside? I do so want to catch up on all of the news."
Scarlett laughed shortly and followed behind into the house. "Melly, I should be the one wanting to catch up on all of the news!"
Melanie led Scarlett into the small parlor and invited her to sit down. Scarlett roamed over the room with her eyes, observing everything as if she hadn't been there in years. Indeed it felt like she hadn't been there in such a long time. As her eyes took in all of the objects, none of which she remembered having moved since last time, she fleetingly wondered if Ashley was there, and she silently hoped he was out for the evening. "Would you like some coffee or tea, darling?" asked Melanie in her kind voice.
"Yes, tea please," responded Scarlett.
Melanie returned shortly thereafter with two saucers and matching porcelain teacups filled to the brim with the steaming liquid and handed one to Scarlett who took it thankfully. "How are you doing, Scarlett? You look so much better, radiant even."
Scarlett finished sipping her tea and set the saucer down on the small table next to the sofa and looked over at Melanie. "I'm much better, Melly. You were right, Rhett has been taking good care of me. How is everything?"
"Oh, we're doing just fine, Scarlett. Wade is anxious for school to start in the fall. He gets so antsy cooped up here during the summer. Though he does stay busy with his father's books, he is eager to get back to learning. He's so much like Ashley."
Scarlett smiled slightly and nodded her head. She thought for a moment of the day when Beau had been born during the siege in Atlanta, and how she had held him in her arms and wished with all of her might he was hers, because he was Ashley's son. But that dream had died when she realized she no longer loved Ashley the way she once thought she did. Now, she realized, she had three children of her own, all resembling her in their own unique way, and a husband that she finally let love her. It had been a long road with more trials and tribulations than perhaps one ought to have to face in an entire lifetime, but she had overcame every one of them to get to this point. She knew things would never run smooth between her and Rhett, but at least she knew he loved her, and he had shown it every day since he told her; she knew she was happier now than she had ever been.
"Oh, Melly, why don't you let Beau spend the rest of the summer at Tara with Wade? He and Ella will be leaving in a couple of weeks for Jonesborough, and I'm sure Wade would love to have a playmate other than a bunch of girls."
Melanie smiled and put her hand on top of Scarlett's. "That might be a nice idea, Scarlett. I'll talk to Ashley and we'll ask Beau. What about Bonnie, Scarlett? Is she going to Tara as well to visit her cousins?"
"No, not this year. She doesn't like being away from Rhett for too long, so we've decided to take her with us."
"Oh, where are you going, dear?"
"Rhett asked me to go to Charleston with him for the rest of the summer. I haven't been to the coast since before the war, and Rhett's mother invited us to stay with her."
"Oh, you'll have a wonderful time, Scarlett! I'm so happy for you and Captain Butler. He loves you a great deal," Melanie exclaimed.
Scarlett smiled, and her heart started beating faster. "I know he does. Melly I'm glad you told me, otherwise I don't think I would have quite realized it."
Melanie stood from the chair and crossed the small distance between herself and her sister in law, pulling her into a sisterly embrace. "Scarlett, I'm so, so happy for you. I knew you loved Rhett all along, and he absolutely adores you."
Scarlet immediately pulled back, her eyes wide. Love him! What on earth was Melanie talking about? Oh Melanie, she thought. If you only knew who I really loved for so many years. Ashley was now nothing more than an illusion, but Rhett was real. Did she love Rhett? She had grappled with this question for as long as she had questioned whether he loved her, but never let it come to the forefront of her thoughts, for it made her uncomfortable. Scarlett looked into Melanie's kind, sparkling eyes and suddenly felt ashamed for ever chasing the man who her dearest friend loved so much. Melanie, always understanding, but so naïve; she wouldn't believe Scarlett even if she did tell her all about the stolen kisses, the vivid dreams and the wild hopes that someday he would be hers. No, Scarlett couldn't tell Melanie the truth, she never would. It no longer seemed to matter.
"Melly, I owe you so much. Thank you for all you've done for me in these past few months: writing Rhett to come home, looking after me and the children when I was sick. I'm deeply grateful." Scarlett meant what she said whole heartedly. If it weren't for Melly, she wouldn't be here now.
"Oh no, Scarlett! Darling think nothing of it, it's the least I can do. I'll never to be able to repay you for saving my life and my son's. Scarlett you're so brave. I wish I had half your courage," she said as she hugged Scarlett again, both women attempting to convey how grateful she was for the friendship of the other.
Suddenly Scarlett raised her head at the sound of heavy footsteps in the doorway, and she grew uneasy when she saw who it was. Ashley, dressed as he always did when at the store, was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, eyeing Scarlett with a discomforting look. She cast her eyes down, wishing he would take his eyes off of her. Melanie looked up as well and stood up to greet her husband with a polite kiss on the cheek. "Ashley, darling, look who has come to visit us!"
"Hello, Scarlett," Ashley greeted her in a soft voice, and Scarlett detected something in his tone that once she would have longed to hear: regret for the way things turned out between them. But she did not want to hear that now, not now when she had moved on. Suddenly she wished to leave.
"Ashley," she responded coolly.
"Scarlett was telling me how she is going to spend the rest of the summer in Charleston with Captain Butler. Isn't that wonderful, Ashley?"
Ashley's face became bland, his smile artificial. "Yes, how nice." His eyes were steely grey. Why wouldn't he stop looking at her like that? She needed to get away from this place. Turning to Melanie she laid her hand softly on the other woman's arm and gently said "I think I should be going now."
"So soon, dear?" Melly asked, confusedly.
"Yes, I'm sorry, Melly, I suddenly feel tired. I think I should go home," she coolly lied. She wasn't tired, she just wanted to go home to Rhett because she could not shake the oppressive, questioning feeling Ashley's gaze was leaving on her.
"Oh, of course, darling! How foolish of me! You're not completely well yet. Do forgive me."
"Thank you, Melly. I'll be fine." Scarlett kissed Melly lightly on the cheek. "I promise I'll write from Charleston," she said as she walked toward the doorway, silently willing Ashley to move. When he stepped out of her way courteously, she raised her eyes to meet his and then quickly lowered them again. "Excuse me."
"Let me walk you to the door, Scarlett," Ashley offered as he took her arm. Scarlett did not say anything. She couldn't just refuse his request with Melanie standing there watching them. When they had reached the front entryway, she looked over her shoulder and realized they were alone in the room. An uneasy feeling settled over her heart and she kept her eyes focused on the shinny brass handle on the door ahead of her. When she felt Ashley place his hand on her arm and turn her around to face him, she finally raised her eyes to meet his. She was indifferent, but she could see the hidden desire and regret in the depths of those eyes she had searched so many times in the past, desperately trying to will him to love her. "Scarlett," he whispered as he brought his hand up to graze her cheek. "Are you happy?"
"Yes, Ashley, I am," she said somewhat smoothly. Her hand went up to his on her cheek and it lingered on his for a split second, and suddenly a strange feeling came upon her. What would it be like to have one last kiss, one last taste of that old temptation before she forever sealed the door to her past? No, she fiercely told herself before she pulled his hand away from her face. His was not the hand she wanted touching her. "I am happy."
"Does he make you happy?" Ashley questioned with a hint of jealousy in his tone.
"He loves me," she declared defiantly.
Ashley grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing her to face him. "He doesn't deserve you, Scarlett…but what of you, do you love him?"
Again, the thought floated into Scarlett's mind like an autumn leaf on the breeze. But this time, she did not push it to the back of her head like she had earlier when Melanie blatantly assumed it was true. Rhett had been so kind, so gentle, so loving with her these past few weeks, and she had marveled in the knowledge that he cared for her and made her feel so good. When she was with Rhett, she knew now that she wanted to be no where else but with him. She formed a picture of him in her mind, one without the sarcasm, the biting remarks, the cold black eyes and the masked face. What she saw in her mind was a man deeply in love with her. His eyes alight with passion for her, his white smile, his swarthy pirate's face, his tall, muscular frame, his large hands, so rough from work, yet capable of such gentility. Everything that she used to hate, she now cherished. He told her every day of his true feelings, but he never pressured her or questioned her about her love for him, and for that she was grateful. Yes, now that she thought about it, about everything they had gone through on their own and together, she realized that Rhett was the only one who understood her mind, the only one who came back time and time again to offer a shoulder to cry on or to save her from sure defeat.
It was all clear in her mind now, and she took a deep breath as she prepared to admit something to Ashley that she had never even admitted to herself, and she thought it ironic that he of all people would be the first to hear this new discovery voiced from her lips. With a steadfastness she had not known in a long time, she looked him straight in the eye, the old fire that had dwindled for so long sparked again anew in her green eyes, and she spoke with more conviction than she had had even when she told Ashley she loved him that day at Twelve Oaks. "Yes, I love Rhett."
Ashley's eyes grew wide with shock and he watched speechless as she reached for the door handle and opened it, allowing a draft of hot air to rush into the small house. "Goodbye, Ashley," she said as she flew down the porch steps and into the warm golden evening, desperate to get home. Just as she reached the bottom of the steps she heard her name being called and she saw a figure coming around the corner, shrouded in dark shadow, but she recognized Rhett's voice at once and stopped to meet him at the end of the walkway. When he got to where she was standing he wrapped his arms around her waist and she clung to him as he lifted her off the ground, burying his face in her hair. "Rhett what are you doing here?" she asked.
"Why I came to escort my wife home for dinner. Have you seen her?" he joked, smiling, before setting her down on the ground.
Scarlett laughed and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. The soft light of the impending dusk bathed his features in shadow, but it reflected off his dancing eyes. "Rhett, you're joking! But I thought you went home."
"I got about half way down the street and decided that I'd have been a fool to let such a ravishing creature walk home alone in the dark. Besides, I think I enjoy your company," he explained cordially, and she smiled widely as he pulled her to him again.
Rhett glanced up over Scarlett's shoulder and caught a glimpse of Ashley's slender frame standing in the window, watching them carefully. He's jealous, Rhett said to himself. He did not think he would ever be on friendly terms with Ashley Wilkes, not as long as he had a breath in his body. But he was satisfied knowing that Scarlett now belonged to him, body, mind, and soul, and a sly but triumphant smile crept on his lips as he glared at the man who had once held his love's heart captive, and he silently dared Ashley to challenge him. Rhett stood holding Scarlett for several moments until he saw Ashley leave the window, then he leaned in and kissed her on the temple, closing his eyes to the softness of her skin on his lips and the warmth of her body so close to his.
It was a pleasant day when Scarlett, Rhett, and Bonnie stepped off the train and onto the bustling platform in Charleston. They sky was bright blue and a cool sea breeze floated through their hair. The day before they had seen Wade and Ella off to Jonesborough on the train. Rhett had stood back, holding Bonnie's hand as they watched Scarlett kiss both of her children on the cheek and tell them to please be good for Suellen and Will. "We'll see you in a few weeks!" she said, smiling. Then Rhett let go of Bonnie's hand so that she could say goodbye as well. Her dark curls bounced on her back as she ran into Wades waiting arms and the boy picked her up in a hug.
"Goodbye, Bonnie, I'll miss you," he said as he kissed her on the cheek.
"Come here, Bonnie," said Ella as Wade set the little girl down and she walked over to her older sister. "You take care of Mama and Uncle Rhett, okay?" Bonnie nodded in response and kissed Ella on the cheek.
"Bye bye," Bonnie waved as Rhett came up and took her small hand again. He also sent his greetings with a ruffle of Wade's hair and a kiss on the cheek for Ella, and the trio watched until the train was out of sight before they headed back to their house to finish preparing for their trip to Rhett's home town.
Now Scarlett held Bonnie and watched as Rhett paid the porter to help with their bags. The bright sun was glistening off of his raven hair, making him appear younger than he actually was. How handsome he was, and every time she observed him doing even the most mundane things her heart ached to speak her love for him. She had not voiced the actual words to Rhett yet, but she loved him in other ways-her mannerisms, her touch, her gaze. But she wanted the moment when she told him formally to be perfect, and she hoped that during some point on this trip they would be afforded some time alone.
When Rhett had finished collecting their luggage he walked back over to Scarlett, looking around as if trying to find someone-his mother no doubt. As if to confirm her thoughts, Rhett smiled and said "Have you seen your grandmother, Bonnie? I don't see her or Rosemary anywhere. They must not be here yet." At the mention of Rhett's mother and sister, Scarlett suddenly became somewhat self-conscious and nervous. She had never met Rhett's family, and she had no idea what they must think of her, especially since she did not accompany Rhett and Bonnie to Charleston when they were here last. Scarlett could just imagine the reactions of the women in the close circles that she knew his mother must belong to being a wealthy woman when Rhett returned home with a child and no wife on his arm. She imagined the people of Charleston to be as uptight and snooty as she felt about the residents of Savannah when she was last there, and if her dear mother had not been born and raised in one of the most prominent families in that city, she was sure she would not be able to set foot there again.
Before she had time to let her insecurities get the best of her she heard a woman's voice calling her husband's name. "Rhett!" Scarlett observed Rhett's face light up and she turned to see who it was. Making their way over toward the trio on the platform were two elegantly dressed women, one much younger than the other, and both bearing a similar resemblance to Rhett.
"Mamma!" exclaimed Rhett as they got closer, and he embraced the older woman. "How good it is to see you. And you, Rosemary, you seem to grow up more every time," he said as he pinched the cheek of his younger sister.
Scarlett stood silent, somewhat outside the group and watched as mother and sister consented and greeted Rhett. This gave her some time to observe and prepare to be on her best lady-like behavior. Both Eleanor and Rosemary appeared outwardly poised and beautiful in their expensive fashions, but Scarlett could detect a hidden frigidity about their countenances-no doubt due to the strict social expectations of the Charleston elite. Things here are so different from the county, Scarlett observed, different from Atlanta even. Yet, the eyes of the women seemed kind and soft as they embraced Rhett, and this helped quiet some of her nervousness. It was not until Bonnie squirmed in her mother's arms to be put down that Rhett finally turned his attention back to Scarlett, and he said very apologetically: "Oh, forgive me, my dear. Scarlett, this is my mother, Eleanor and my sister, Rosemary." And, taking her hand in his, he spoke to the two women, "This is my wife, Scarlett. And of course, you already know our daughter, Bonnie."
Scarlett daintily curtsied and flashed her dimples, receiving a warm welcome from her mother and sister-in-law. "I'm very pleased to meet you both, and I'm very sorry I could not accompany Rhett and Bonnie last time, but I was tied up with some things in Atlanta."
"Don't apologize, my dear. We're just glad you could make it this time. We've been anxious to meet you since hearing of Rhett's nuptials, and I must say Rhett's description of your beauty does not do you justice," exclaimed Eleanor with a prideful sweep of her dark eyes between her son and daughter-in-law. What a handsome couple they make, she thought. "I can certainly see where Bonnie gets her beauty!" she teased, causing all of them to laugh.
Rhett bent down and picked up Bonnie who had been tugging on his pant leg. "I don't know, Mamma," he chuckled and held Bonnie's face up to his, "you don't see any resemblance to me at all?"
"Oh hush, Rhett, you know you're too handsome for your own good," scolded Rosemary, causing Rhett to burst out in a new peal of laughter.
"Ah, but it all depends on Scarlett's opinion, and that varies from day to day," he smiled as he put his arm around Scarlett's waist and her face lit up in amusement.
"And what about you, precious, do you remember me and your auntie Rosemary?" Eleanor questioned Bonnie. The little girl shyly wrapped her arms around her father's neck and hid her face in his broad white-clad shoulder, only peeking her eyes out when Rhett gently prompted her to say hello to her grandmother.
"Hello," Bonnie responded in her child-like voice.
"Just darling," both mother and daughter exclaimed of little Bonnie. "Well, we must be going before we're the only ones left here!" Eleanor exclaimed, and the group made their way toward the awaiting carriage that would take them to the home on the Battery. Eleanor's subtle voice telling Scarlett she must attend the sewing circles with she and Rosemary that evening so she can be proudly introduced to the women of Charleston mingled with the clicks of the group's heels on the light colored wooden planks of the station walkway and faded away into the distance as they left the black leviathan of the steam engine behind.
The driver of the gilded white and gold open carriage meandered through the streets of Charleston while Scarlett, who was seated close to a beaming Rhett on the velvet seat, received a brief history lesson from Eleanor and Rosemary on each important building that they passed, and of course, a full report on the who's-who of the city as her wide green eyes took in the stately homes along the water's edge that seemed to be shrouded in their veils of everlasting time-unaffected by war and destruction in their gallant outer appearance.
The carriage rounded on to East Battery, and all of the sudden the large row of simple yet elegant multi-storied homes came into full view. They stopped in front of a white house with a cobblestone walk way, immaculately lined with azaleas and a pallet of multicolored roses that led to a low wrought iron fence and out onto the street. The footman hurried to collect the Butler's luggage and brought it into the house while Rhett stepped down from the carriage and helped the ladies out one at a time. Eleanor asked Bonnie to come with her, promising sweets and presents inside the house. Rhett encouraged her to go and received a wink from his mother as Bonnie ran to join her grandmother and aunt.
Scarlett stood by the carriage, attempting to arrange her white sunbonnet on her mass of black hair when Rhett turned around to face her; as far as they could see, they were alone on the surprisingly quiet street. "Here, let me help you," Rhett quietly suggested as he gently took her bonnet from her delicate hands and placed it on her head, tying the sash under her chin and tucking any loose strands of hair underneath. "Better?" he asked.
Scarlett nodded, her hands reaching for his as he brought his face close to hers, in a manner suggesting her would take a bold step and kiss her right there in public. She wouldn't have minded if he did kiss her, his closeness made her breath come faster and her hands tightened around his. But he did not kiss her. Instead he asked, "Are you nervous about being here, Scarlett? You've been so quiet since we got here."
Scarlett swallowed and raised her eyes to his. "Sort of. What if they don't like me, Rhett?"
"Why wouldn't they like you?" He brought his hand up and grazed her cheek, sending shivers down her spine.
"I-it's just that…well, last time you were here with Bonnie and I wasn't here, and-oh, Rhett, I can just imagine what your mother's friends will think when they see me."
Rhett laughed lightly, that half-grin of his creeping up on his face. "Since when did you care what anyone else thought of you?"
Scarlett's eyes wandered in contemplation. "Well, I don't know…"
"Besides," he interrupted, "who cares what all those fat old cats think. Didn't I tell you once that with enough courage you can do without a reputation?"
"And then you used it against me and told me I was ruining Bonnie's chances," she reminded him sorrowfully.
"Scarlett," he sighed regretfully. "I'm sorry for saying you were a bad mother. I just—you'll never know how it felt to live with you chasing another man. Bonnie, she was all that I had to love. I could spoil her as I so wanted to do to you."
"Do you still think I don't love Bonnie, or that I'm a bad mother, Rhett? It was so hard for me during the war to take care of Wade and everyone else, pretending to be strong so Wade wouldn't be any more scared than he already was. You don't know what it's like to one day be carefree and happy and then be thrust into motherhood and a loveless marriage in the blink of an eye. I know it was my fault, I told Charlie I'd marry him, but I can't change things, Rhett. I did the best I could to survive."
"I know you did, Scarlett, and no, I don't think you're a bad mother. Bonnie loves you very much. And Wade and Ella, they love you too, they just don't know how to show it just as you didn't know how to show them.
"Come on," he said before kissing her on the cheek and taking her hand, "this isn't the place to discuss such things. You'll have a good time here."
The Battery was bathed in a warm light as the sun glittered off the blue water in the harbor, greeting the couple that strolled at a leisurely pace, with no apparent destination, just taking in the peacefulness provided by the gentle lapping of the waves against the sea wall and the baritone sounds of the ship's horns out on the open ocean.
Since their arrival in the city by the sea, Scarlett and Rhett had barely had any time to enjoy each other's company alone. Scarlett had been whisked away as soon as she and Rhett had unpacked their belongings as well as Bonnie's to a series of tea parties that had been arranged especially for her upon announcement of the Butler's arrival. She was accompanied by Eleanor and Rosemary, while Rhett was left behind with Bonnie and the servants, and Rhett had kissed her goodbye and teasingly warned her to beware of his mother's friends, and to try not to have too much fun. In response she had smiled and rolled her eyes at him before leaving the house.
"Well how were the parties this afternoon, Scarlett?" Rhett asked as they stopped at a secluded spot along the path and he leaned against the railing, staring out at the shimmering golden glaze on the choppy water. The sail boats and schooners that had been out that day were beginning to come back in to the port and their massive sails cast elongated silhouettes against the brilliance of the fiery sky.
Scarlett stopped and moved to stand next to Rhett. "Oh, just as well as they could have been. Your mother's friends were very curious to know why you and Bonnie were here alone last time. I think that some do not like me very much. Though they smiled, their gazes were less than friendly, and I know, I've been in their position plenty," she said quietly. She thought the conversations at the social meetings boring and refined, but at least they were over with for one day.
She heard him inhale the salty sea air. "What did you tell them?"
"Just what I told your mother this morning: I had some business to take care of. I knew it didn't satisfy their curiosity but they didn't question any further."
"And you won't have to tell them the real reason, Scarlett. I hope you don't mind, but I wrote to Mother when you were still sick and explained things. She was very concerned for you," he said, turning his gaze to her profiled face, where, in the shadow, her eyes were unreadable.
She stood silent, staring at the lighthouse out on the promontory for what seemed like forever, though it could only have been a few seconds before she sighed and said, "Yes, I suppose I figured you would have done that." Her voice was so soft that it was nearly drowned out by the noises on the distant waters.
"Are you angry?" Rhett asked.
She hesitated with her response, as if thinking the matter over before finally saying, "No. Your mother is very sweet, Rhett, she reminds me of my own. It's just that I don't want anyone's pity."
"I hardly think what my mother is displaying is pity, Scarlett," Rhett said with slight annoyance in his tone.
She turned to him and he saw a slightly hurt look in her eyes at his biting voice. "I know that, Rhett…it's just, I don't know how to explain. Just…what does she really think of me?"
"She thinks whatever I think."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Scarlett asked, somewhat guarded because the statement was unexpected.
"I mean my mother and I are alike. She respects my decisions, whether she thinks I'm right or wrong, and she is good enough not to interfere with my personal life. She would love you like a daughter—does love you because you are my wife, Scarlett, and the mother of my child." He took her by the shoulders and turned her to face him, taking her right hand in his and rubbing his thumb across the back of it. "She usually sees eye to eye with me on personal matters of the heart, but, I think luckily for you, once she really gets to know you, she would not turn on you should you and I have a dispute like the one we had after that night." Then he suddenly laughed as if struck by a humorous memory that had long been forgotten. "You know now that I think of it, I'm surprised she didn't think ill of you when I came here with Bonnie last time, I thought for sure she would."
Scarlett's eyebrows came together and her mouth dropped open. Why did he think that was funny? She pursed her lips as he continued to laugh, and finally asked in a less than polite tone: "Well if you were so bent on running out on me then why didn't she just order you to stay here!"
Rhett's laughter abruptly cut off, and he grabbed a hold of her, setting her in place with an overpowering glare, making it seem to her as if he were a giant and she a meager child. "Because she knew I loved you, Scarlett," and his mouth swooped down on hers, causing her to moan with an unexpected rush of desire. He ripped his mouth from hers as if it took him a great effort, and he huskily whispered "She knew I'd always go back to you."
"Oh." Scarlett was so moved by his declaration of devotion to her, and she smiled, staring into his eyes longingly. Now seemed the perfect time to tell him of her feelings, of how much she loved him—how much she must have always loved him, for she knew when they got back to the house there was little chance that they would have another moment quite like this one tonight. She opened her mouth to speak, suddenly nervous, but pushed that feeling aside. "Rhett—"
Rhett's raised his eyebrows in answer.
"I feel…that is…" Her heart felt like it was going to burst right through her chest, and he looked at her questioningly. But just as soon as she opened her mouth again, determined to get the whole sentence out this time, their quiet moment was shattered by the loud sound of footsteps coming down the sidewalk.
"Rhett Butler, is that you?" Both Scarlett and Rhett turned around and found themselves in the presence of two young women, both quite beautiful dressed in their muslin dresses and summer hats with curls peeking out from underneath. "Oh I just knew it was you, Rhett! We're so glad you're back in town!"
Scarlett recognized the tall woman's voice as being the one who had interrupted her private moment with Rhett, and she raised a finely arched black eyebrow at the two women so obviously smitten with her husband.
"Good evening Miss Manson, Miss Hampton," he greeted the two ladies as he took each of their outstretched hands and bent his head over them without kissing them. But they both blushed profusely. "Rebecca, Anne, may I have the pleasure to introduce my wife, Scarlett." Both of the women acknowledged her simultaneously before turning their sparking eyes back to Rhett.
"How do you do?" Scarlett asked, putting on her most polite smile. But what she really wanted to do was tell them to go away and stop looking at her husband like hungry animals.
Rebecca Manson spoke again—she seemed to be the more assertive of the two, leaving her friend Anne Hampton to eye Rhett in silence. "Pleasure. Scarlett. That's not a very common name. You're from Georgia aren't you? At least that's what everyone has been saying."
"Yes. Katie is my first name but I usually go by my middle name." Scarlett reached for Rhett's hand that was dangling beside hers and he gave it a light squeeze for reassurance.
"I see," said Rebecca, smiling curtly, but Scarlett could sense her jealousy as the woman's eyes roamed quickly to her hand that was intertwined with Rhett's, focusing Scarlett's wedding ring gleaming in the fading light. 'They say your last name was O'Hara. There are not too many wealthy Irishmen here in Charleston."
Charleston society, Scarlett knew, was built on prominent old family lineages, and did not take lightly to new additions who married into the old families and were not members of these families themselves. Rhett interjected when he felt Scarlett dig her nails into the back of his hand in frustration. "Scarlett's father was a good man, a very lucky man. But perhaps you didn't know that her mother was Ellen Robillard of the Savannah Robillards."
Both of the women's eyes widened in surprise as they looked from Scarlett to Rhett whose white grin lit up his face. "Well, I see," said Rebecca, somewhat embarrassed for not hearing of these facts from the old gossips in town. Just then Anne Hampton, who had stood quietly hiding behind the outspokenness of her friend, sweetly asked if they would like to join her and Rebecca for a stroll down to the wharf.
"Thank you, ladies, but my wife and I were just about to head back. It's getting late and our daughter is probably wondering where we are. Perhaps another time."
Both of the women's faces fell at Rhett's rejection, and Scarlett inwardly smiled, stealing a glance at Rhett who returned it with full understanding. "We'll see you around, I'm sure," he added.
Rebecca and Anne could only nod their heads in disappointed agreement as they watched Rhett and Scarlett walk back up the street toward the Butler home.
When he was sure they were far enough out of sight of the two ladies, Rhett wrapped his arm around Scarlett's waist and leaned into whisper in her ear: "I never could stand those two."
"They seemed quite taken by you," Scarlett said quietly.
She heard Rhett chuckle softly and then he said, "I think both of their parents have tried to arrange for me to marry them at one point or another. Fortunately for me I had enough good sense in me to hope and wait for better things."
Scarlett raised her eyes to his, smiling slightly. "Well I didn't know I had so much competition," she teased, receiving a wink from Rhett.
"Ah, yes, but you clearly came out victorious, my pet. Lucky for you." She slapped his arm playfully in mock anger and he laughed. "But seriously, Scarlett, you needn't worry about them, and I'm sure you would have handled that situation as you handle all situations—with a flare of your Irish temper." He heard Scarlett click her tongue in annoyance, so he spoke again, changing the subject. "Now what was it you were going to say before we were interrupted?"
She looked straight ahead, her disappointment at the ruined moment again taking over. She couldn't tell him now; this was not how she wanted it to be. Another time, she thought with slight frustration. "Only that I'm glad to be here, darling."
Rhett smiled down at her and kissed the top of her head, breathing in her lilac scent. "I'm glad." Then, as an afterthought he added, "Scarlett how would you like to go to Dunmore for a couple of days? Just you and me. Mother, I'm sure, would be more than happy to care for Bonnie while we're gone."
The question surprised Scarlett. "Your plantation, Rhett?"
"Yes, I could take you there, it's not too far from the city, and I'd like to spend some time alone with you."
She thought about it for a moment and then nodded her head in agreement. "Yes, I think that would be nice. But are you sure you want to leave Bonnie here?"
"She seems content with the gifts my mother has lavished on her. Besides, it's only for a couple of days."
His nonchalant attitude about going to Dunmore surprised Scarlett immensely. He had never even consented to leaving Bonnie in the care of someone else if he could help it, let alone suggest it. "If you're sure, Rhett."
They were just coming up to the Butler residence where the flowers in full bloom blew their scent on the warm breeze and Rhett stopped to open the gate for his wife before resuming his spot next to her. "For once, I'm sure, Scarlett. We'll leave the day after tomorrow."
Rhett stood at the bow of the small river boat that was slowly chugging up the lazy waters of the Ashley River carrying them into the low country. The banks on both sides of the river were lined with reeds, swooping lawns and over growths of weeds where the rice plantations that had thrived during the war had once been filled with slaves toiling in water up to their knees under the hot South Carolina sun. This river had once been a thriving waterway during the glorious days of his forefathers who had built their grand plantations when they had settled here two centuries before. Now it was a sleepy region, a mystical land that time seemed to have forgotten, with many of the houses burnt down in Sherman's wake as he made his way to the sea, and the ruins abandoned for all of eternity, never to thrive again. It was strange to think that it had been less than a decade since the war ended and yet it felt and looked like a lifetime.
Rhett closed his eyes, momentarily allowing the smells and sounds to take him back to his youth when he would frequent these waters for fishing, swimming, and later managing his rice crop as they took it to Charleston. He hadn't visited Dunmore on his own since before the war, but he had kept in touch with his sister who informed him that there had been some damage done by fire to one wing of the house, yet the other was still livable. In fact, on announcing his and Scarlett's trip out to the plantation, Eleanor had been kind enough to send some of the servants in advance to stock the kitchen and prepare the space to be occupied once again.
Still, he could not help but try and picture what Dunmore looked like now. It was these thoughts that were interrupted by the feeling of a delicate hand on his back, and he turned to find Scarlett standing next to him. She looked lovely, he thought, in her white muslin dress sprinkled with small blue flowers and a bonnet to match. As he stared lovingly at her his heart swelled with pride almost to the point where he thought it might burst. It shocked him and pleased him at the same time to think how far she'd, no, he corrected himself, how far they'd come in terms of their relationship. What had started out as an overcharged manipulative arrangement with both parties seeking something extreme for their own personal benefit had slowly transformed into an intimate bond, where both of them could display their feelings without the fear of rejection and the hindrance of their pride.
Fate had certainly dealt them a strange hand, and he was content to take whatever he was given. He thanked his lucky stars for letting Scarlett love him—he was sure she must love him, for she had never been so kind and seemingly happy than when she was with him. Yet she had not spoken the phrase, and he was secretly on edge with anticipation of that moment—should it ever come. But he would not allow himself to give off the impression that he was eagerly waiting for her to say it. To tell the truth, he was somewhat nervous about how he would react to such a revelation. It was true he had waited since the day he first laid eyes on her, and even told her that someday all he really wanted was to hear her say 'I love you'. But hadn't that been part of the mystery, part of the challenge that had kept him chasing after her for so long? What if when she did say it, it didn't have quite the mystical appeal he pictured in his mind so many times when the veil of indifference and realization was lifted? What if…
No, he decided. It didn't matter, for he knew he was deeply in love with her, and a confirmation of her feelings would seal the deal of their long awaited commitment to each other. This was only one of the many things that he had been analyzing in his mind since the day he revealed his feelings for her.
He was grateful beyond belief that Scarlett had given up her infatuation for Ashley and instead turned to him, but even this did not come without a price, and the price that he and Scarlett had had to pay for happiness had knocked him to his knees in humbleness. A life that they had created together had been sacrificed for their love. Rhett had often dwelled on this point, sometimes trying to picture what the baby would have looked like. It was only after thorough analysis and a deep sense of sorrow and irony that he had concluded that if there was such a thing as fate or destiny, then perhaps this was meant to happen. If the baby had been born their relationship might not have changed at all, for wasn't it their revelations and consolation of each other during that time of need and sorrow that had brought them closer?
Perhaps, he thought with a heavy heart, he and Scarlett were not meant to have everything, and maybe that they were not meant to be completely happy in the sense that other people are meant to be truly happy. But just as long as they were simply happy it would exceed his wildest dreams, and maybe if they were lucky they would have another baby, and another chance at what they had missed the last time around.
Rhett's thoughts were abruptly ended again by the sound of Scarlett's voice next to him, and he quickly turned his attention to where her finger was pointing. "Rhett, look!"
Not too far away on the east bank of the river, a great blue heron that had been standing tall and proud among the stalks of reeds suddenly took flight, spreading its colossal wings and gracefully cutting through the air with a majesty that was only reserved for wonders of its kind. It swooped low in front of the boat as if giving a private show for the two spectators admiring it, and then plunged its large beak into the water and taking off again with a giant bass in its mouth and flying away into the distance.
"Simply stunning," Rhett commented, and then, pulling Scarlett closer to him, "I bet you don't see that kind of think at Tara, do you?"
Scarlett shook her head back and forth. "No, but then I'd never really paid attention to things like birds."
Rhett chuckled and ran his hand down her back. "You haven't changed so much."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I think you have grown up but yet inside you are still the feisty and ignorant Scarlett O'Hara that I fell in love with so many years ago, and I respect the new duality of your personality."
"Can I tell you a secret, Rhett?" Scarlett asked almost shyly.
"For the longest time, even when I thought I was in love with Ashley, all I really wanted was your respect." Rhett looked down at her as if he expected her to say something more, but he was disappointed when she changed the subject. "Rhett are we almost there?"
"Almost, my pet."
It was merely ten minutes later when the boat rounded a bend in the river and the weeping willows and cypress trees gave way to a vision that took Scarlett's breath away. There among the blossoming white magnolias and dripping moss stood an immense whitewashed mansion. Part of one wing had been burned and Scarlett could see the ashes as if they were still smoldering under the hot sun, but the rest still stood untouched with its massive white columns lining the main entrance, and a vast lawn running down to the river.
"Is that it, Rhett?" Scarlett asked admirably.
"Yes, Scarlett, that's it. Now calm down before you wear a hole in the deck of the boat from jumping up and down. I promise we'll have plenty of time for a full tour."
But Scarlett could not control her excitement. Why, it's bigger than Twelve Oaks, she lamented with wide eyes. "Oh Rhett, I can't wait!" she smiled blissfully, taking his hand in hers.
When they had made it up to the large front door of the house, Scarlett could not help but feel dwarfed against its massive size. She knew Rhett had a tremendous amount of money, but really, these sorts of houses were built for kings, she mused. But if that was true and Rhett was a king in his own empire, then she was rightfully his queen, and this thought made her smile.
Rhett produced a brass key from his pocket and stuck it in the lock, turning it slowly, and when it clicked, he took the key out and opened the door, revealing a darkened entryway, like a cavern in which one's vision was limited because of the blackness inside. Rhett led Scarlett inside and then let go of her hand, fumbling around in the dark for the oil lamp. "I know it's here somewhere", he grumbled. "Damn whoever Mother sent to clean up for not drawing the draperies." But then a match was struck, and in the red light Scarlett could make out a sardonic grin on Rhett's face as he lit the lamp on the table by the doorway.
"This way," he said as he led her into one of the large adjacent rooms and drew the drapes, letting a flood of light in. What a contrast it was to their home in Atlanta! The walls were cream colored, the furniture was ornate, and the carpet was white. It was so much lighter and happier, and Scarlett immediately recognized this difference in mood. Perhaps that was why Rhett hated their Atlanta house so much like he always told her.
She followed him from room to room and in no time at all the house was alight and warm, happily welcoming the couple as Rhett gave Scarlett the grand tour of the interior. "Now don't be surprised, Scarlett. We will have no servants here in these next few days so everything necessary will have to be done by you and me. I will willingly cook our meals and I'm sure I can help you dress in the morning," he winked and grinned wickedly.
"And me?" she asked.
"And you," he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her on the forehead, "You've never had to lift a finger in your life, well except one time, but never while you were married to me, and I don't suppose you'll start now." Scarlet tossed her head and batted her long lashes, giving off an air of arrogance that made Rhett smile. "There's the Scarlett I know so well. Well, my darling, what would you like to do now that we have three whole days to ourselves?"
Scarlett gave him a look of contemplation before answering in a mischievous voice, "I can think of lost of things I'd like to do…but I suppose I'll have to wait for later. Now I think I'd like for you to show me around this place."
Rhett was amused at her choice of words and shook his head slightly. He was still getting used to adjusting to Scarlett's new found attitude about things concerning their marital relations. Tonight he had a special surprise for her, and he hoped she would appreciate his sentiments, but he knew he had to wait until the time was more appropriate.
"As you wish," he smiled with a bow.
"When my father used to bring us out here when I was a child, I would often times explore those woods over there. My brother would follow me, but I managed to escape most times and find my own refuge."
Scarlett's hand was nestled in the crook of Rhett's arm as he led them down the secluded dirt path that wound through the foliage and down to the bank of the river. They had taken a good part of the day and explored the corners of the old fields, the massive rose garden, the old slave quarters, and Scarlett had taken mental notes on how with Rhett's consent they could perhaps revive the plantation into the center of production it had once been. But she didn't voice her opinions out loud; she suspected that Rhett would want to keep it as it was now—a memory. But this place was comforting to Scarlett, and when she breathed in the fresh air and felt the intimacy that lingered in the nooks and crannies where passing time had been unable to escape, she was momentarily reminded of Tara and how it was before the war. She let out a quiet sigh, and Rhett, sensing her change in mood, softly asked her if she would like to go back to the main house, and she agreed with a nod of her head.
"Are you feeling alright, Scarlett?"
"Yes, don't worry about me, Rhett. It's nothing."
Rhett looked down at her with slight concern. They had been having a pleasant walk outside and all of the sudden her mood turned somber. "Well then, perhaps you'll feel better after you've eaten something," he concluded aloud, leading her back up the path on which they had just come.
That night, after a surprisingly finely cooked meal prepared by Rhett that was accompanied by a bottle of the finest Madeira in the cellar, and enjoyed by candlelight, Rhett pushed back his cherry wood chair and walked over to where Scarlett sat. She looked up at him with surprised eyes as he made his way around the table, much like she had done the night after they had gone to the park and she had discovered he loved her for the first time. Only this time she did not feel uncomfortable, and it was obvious by the light in his eyes that he didn't either. As he approached, she unconsciously held out her small hand for him to take and he pulled her up from her chair, looking into her eyes, and she saw him searching them as he did so often, but now she knew what he was looking for.
"That was delicious, Rhett," Scarlett said softly with an appreciative smile. "I had no idea you could cook."
"Well that's because I don't think you would have trusted me enough to make a meal for you before, Scarlett. In fact I'm willing to bet you would have flat out refused it," he speculated, letting his hand glide down her arm.
"Maybe so," she teased, "but before there was someone else to do it. So now that it's just you and me, I suppose I'll have to put up with it."
Rhett was amused by her joking attitude, and decided to throw in a comment of his own. "Well, there're a lot of things you'll have to put up with while we're here, but I don't think the dining room is the place for it."
Her cheeks flushed a rosy hue and she smiled before standing on her tiptoes and kissing him sweetly on the lips, tasting the fine wine that still lingered there. Before she could pull back, his large hand was on the back of her head, and he held her face up to his, kissing her deeply.
Rhett was the first to break their heated embrace, and he held her at arm's length, letting his eyes roam over her body in a lustful manner. Scarlett thought he would kiss her again, but instead he dropped his hands to his sides, and suggested he would retire to the library for a drink and a cigar, and asked if she would like to join him.
Scarlett followed him into the large library down the hall from the dining room, and looking around, she decided that she had never seen so many books even in John Wilkes' library at Twelve Oaks. She walked over to one of the walls, scanning the leather-bound hardbacks with gold leafing as Rhett sat down in a leather high backed chair in one corner of the room and lit a cigar, a custom that he had seldom broken in his adult years.
"I didn't think you were so interested in literature, Scarlett," he commented, his voice floating out from the shadows.
Scarlett turned toward him, trying to distinguish his features through the cloud of fragrant smoke that obscured his face. "Oh. No. I mean—I don't think I've ever seen so many books," she spoke as she ran her index finger along the spines that rested at eye level. "Rhett, I didn't know you liked to read. I always associated books with…well, Ashley."
Rhett clenched his jaw at the mention of Ashley, but quickly dismissed it, determined not to resort back to his old grudging opinions. "Well, my dear, being well read is something I associate with worldly knowledge and the benefits of a fine education, and over the years I must say I've acquired a knack for it. These books here, however, I haven't looked at in years, as most of them belonged to my father and his father before him." He stubbed out his cigar and looked at his wife. "Would you like me to read something to you?"
"Would you do that, Rhett?"
"If you'd like. You pick the book and bring it here."
Scarlett scanned the shelves and came over to where he still sat a few minutes later, holding a thin book in her hands. He patted his knee as he often did when reading a story to Bonnie, and he pulled Scarlett into his lap, taking the book from her and opening it. "Poetry? Hmmm, this must be Rosemary's," he chuckled. It was a book of poems by a contemporary poet named Robert Browning. "How about this one? It's not too long, but are you sure you can sit through it?" Rhett teased. Scarlett nodded and rested her cheek against his as he began to read the prose as passionately as if he were the one who wrote it.
Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her-
Next time, herself!-not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass gleaned at the wave of her feather.
Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune-
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! She goes out as I enter.
Spend my whole day in the quest,-who cares?
But 'tis twilight, you see,-with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!
"Would you like to hear another one?"
"Maybe later," Scarlett whispered. Then, in an act of introspection that was so seldom lacking in her personality, she said, "Was that like me, Rhett?"
He gave her a confused look. "What?"
"The woman in the poem. He was constantly searching for her. But he never gave up because he knew one day he'd find her. Oh Rhett, I'm so sorry," she confessed.
"Sorry for what?" His heart began to pound in anticipation for the words he desperately hoped to hear.
Scarlett took a deep breath; the moment of her revelation had finally come. "I'm sorry I made you chase me for all those years. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize that…that I love you." She quickly cast her eyes down, afraid of something she couldn't point out. But he reached up and put his hand on her cheek, making her look at him, and she was so relived to see all of his happiness written on his face that she was unable to control her smile.
"Do you mean it?" He asked, giving her a guarded look.
"Yes," she said, her green eyes shining even in the dim light. "I love you, Rhett Butler. I think I always have."
"It's about time you came around," he whispered quite seriously before leaning in to caress her lips with his own. His smile lit up his face as his hand reached around to the back of her head, removing the ivory comb that had been a gift from the early days of their marriage, letting her hair flow freely down her back, and then proceeding to undo the buttons on the back of her dress as Scarlett took the hint and slowly unbuttoned his shirt. She did not know why she felt nervous—they had made love numerous times in the past few weeks—but perhaps it was because for the first time, she and Rhett were completely alone in this house, and they wouldn't have to hold anything back, if it was possible that they had before. Or maybe it was because this would be the first time they would make true love.
He got up from the chair and they slowly made their way through the house, clumsily discarding layers of clothing and carelessly throwing them on the floor. "Who will notice? We'll pick them up tomorrow," Rhett whispered as he nibbled on her ear, causing Scarlett to sigh blissfully, agreeing to throw all convention to the wind. When they reached the bottom of the grand staircase, Rhett kissed her again before sweeping her up in his arms and carrying her up the stairs.
Once in the master bedroom, Rhett set Scarlett on her feet, but quickly covered her eyes with his hands. "Rhett, what—"
"Shh," he silenced her with a kiss on the cheek. "I have a surprise for you."
"A surprise?" Scarlett could not hide the amusement in her voice.
Rhett looked around the room making sure everything was in order. The oil lamps were lit next to the bed, making the room glow in a soft yellow light, and he scanned the gift he had carefully picked out for Scarlett: a very expensive French silk nightgown that was suitable only for the more risqué and fabled of the secret lovers that frequented Paris. But he knew that his wife was always interested in the latest fashions, even if she told him it was unsuitable for him to speak of such things as women going without pantalets in France during the war.
He could quickly see that Scarlett was getting agitated at having to wait, and so having decided that everything was as it should be, he lowered his hands and told her to open her eyes. Scarlett's reaction was as much as Rhett had expected. She gasped at the sight on the bed before her and quickly went over to pick up the nightgown, holding it up to her body and surveying what she thought her appearance would be before turning to him, her green eyes wide and sparkling.
"Well how do you like it?" Rhett asked, still standing by the door and taking her in with adoring eyes.
"Oh, Rhett, it's beautiful! Where did you get it, and when?"
"I had it ordered in Paris a while back but it just arrived not too long ago. You like it then, I assume?" he chuckled.
"Like it? Oh Rhett I love it! But I didn't see anything come to the house in Atlanta."
"No, I had it delivered to my mother's house, and the servant's brought it here before we arrived."
Scarlett nodded, not really paying attention to his explanation. All she could think about was how pretty she'd look, and how Rhett would like it.
"Well aren't you going to try it on so we can see if it was the right choice?" Rhett teased, still leaning against the doorframe. Scarlett smiled seductively and slinked into the dressing room, giving Rhett time to discard his remaining clothing, and undo the bed sheets and climb inside, propping himself up against one of the plush feather pillows.
When Scarlett returned from the dressing room, she was met by a pleasing smile from Rhett, and she blushed, knowing he thought her beautiful. She quietly padded over to the bed, put out the lantern and climbed in, immediately cuddling up against Rhett despite the heat.
"It's so nice and quiet here," Scarlett mused as she wrapped her arms around his torso and kissed his chest. How she loved this closeness she now felt with her husband. She was sorry she never realized she loved him so many years ago; it certainly would have saved them much heartache and loneliness.
"It's perfect," he whispered before lifting her hand to his lips and leaving a trail warm kisses down her ivory skin. "I love you so much." Scarlett slowly sat up and wrapped her arms round his neck, kissing him with enough passion to make sure she conveyed the sincerity of her feelings, and he kissed her back as only true lovers do before the black oblivion of their passion took over once again.
Despite their sedated state that resulted from their lovemaking, Rhett found that he could not sleep. He lay there in the dark, staring up at the ceiling while Scarlett's tranquil breathing on the pillow next to him assured him that she was deep in the realms of slumber, but his mind was a jumble of thoughts. Scarlett had finally said the words he had so longed to hear, and inwardly he had felt complete euphoria. But would the past ever be put behind them? There were so many years of selfishness and cruelty lingering there. Were they prepared enough to give to one another the respect and gratitude that was expected with people who were truly in love?
Sending these thoughts to the back of his mind, he shifted his weight so he was lying on his side, facing Scarlett. Gently he reached out and ran his fingertips down her naked back and through her ebony hair. In her sleep she instinctively moved closer to him, mumbling something incoherent. He realized now that she had not had any of the nightmares that had plagued her sleep for so long. Could it be that he had been the cause of their alleviation? He smiled, this self realization giving his pride an extra boost, for he had told himself all along that her security would be found in his arms. "So this was what it was like to love and be loved in return", he whispered into the night. As he continued to stare at her, memorizing every detail of her serene face, he wondered if she felt the same way.
Though the softness of her skin under his fingers had a relaxing effect on him, sleep continued to linger somewhere out of his grasp. Lying in bed was not helping him any, so he decided that something else was needed to clear his mind, and suddenly he knew just the answer. Leaning over to place a kiss on Scarlett's brow, he quietly slipped out of bed and put on his dressing gown before lighting the lamp on the table next to the bed and stealthily making his way downstairs like a fleeting shadow in the darkness.
His study lit up in a soft amber light as he stepped over the threshold and crossed the room to his large desk. He sat down in the chair and opened the top cherry wood drawer and pulled out a slightly aged piece of parchment paper. The words did not immediately come to his mind, and he sat with his chin resting in his hands for a brief moment before picking up a pen and allowing his thoughts to flow onto the paper.
Once he had finished, he found his eyes drooping with sleep. The pen slipped from his fingers, clanging lightly on the wooden desktop, and he stood up and walked back up the stairs to his room, absentmindedly leaving the letter on the desk and the door to the study open.
The bright morning sun filtered through the opened draperies and into the spacious abode that was Rhett and Scarlett's bedroom, brightening Scarlett's spirits as she flitted around, trying to get ready for the adventures Rhett had in store for her at the Landing that day. Checking her appearance in the full length mirror on the far wall of the room, she decided she would look suitable when Rhett finally had time to help her finish dressing and she plopped down on the large bed to observe him standing at the vanity with a razor in his hand and a towel around his shirtless muscular shoulders. The sight of him made Scarlett shiver with happiness and she could not suppress the girlish giggle that escaped her lips as she watched him in the midst of his morning routine. Rhett heard her laughter and stopped mid stroke, meeting her green eyes in the gilt mirror.
His mouth formed into a smile that lit up his eyes. "What are you laughing at?"
"Not laughing," Scarlett giggled, "just admiring your handsome figure. You look quite nice with that shaving cream all over your face."
Rhett smirked in reply and once again started shaving. When he had finished he rinsed his face with the water in the washbasin next to him and used the towel to dry off before stalking over to Scarlett and pulling her up from the bed. Her hand rested on his smooth cheek and he asked if it met her approval.
"Yes," she smiled, batting her long eyelashes and cocking her head to one side. "Now help me with my dress," she said turning around so he could fasten the hooks and buttons on her back. When his expert hands had finished dressing her, she kissed him on the cheek and exclaimed that she would wait for him downstairs. He promised to come down shortly, after he had finished dressing himself.
When Scarlett had made it downstairs, she took the time to get accustomed to the furnishings and decorum of the enormous house. Scanning the hallway, she noticed a door standing ajar, and, knowing it would be a few minutes before Rhett came down to meet her, she let her curiosity get the best of her and walked over to the mysterious room. She lightly pushed the door open and stepped inside the study. The walls were hung with large oil paintings in gold frames of stately looking men and beautiful aristocratic women, undoubtedly the Butler patriarchs of yesteryear. In one corner by the large window stood a black grand piano, and on the other side of the room, a large desk that was strewn with papers, and the chair was pushed aside as if someone had just recently been sitting there.
Scarlett bit her lip and glanced over her shoulder to the door, making sure no one was watching before walking over to the desk, the small train of her dress swishing on the floor behind her. There were numerous papers stacked on the corners of the desk and Scarlett picked one up, blowing the dust off and examining it. It was a document recording the revenue and progress of the rice crop from the years before the war. Apparently no one had filed these papers or even put them away, and she noticed many of the other papers were of the same nature: old and slightly yellowed from sitting out for so long. But then she noticed something else. There was a slim handled black pen with ink still fresh on the tip that was lying on a crisp white piece of paper, and she recognized Rhett's flowing masculine script immediately.
She was afraid Rhett may not like her snooping around in his documents, but she noticed her name in the body of the letter, and, glancing over her shoulder again, quickly picked it up. Perhaps it was a love letter to her, she smiled. But as soon as she began reading her face paled and her hand began to tremble. It was not addressed to her at all, but rather someone she had forgotten some time ago, and though she desperately wanted to put it down, she could not stop reading.
"My dear Belle,
I know it has been some time since we have spoken, but there are more urgent matters that have kept me quite occupied. How is the business? I'm sure you're keeping yourself very active. Since we last saw each other Scarlett has recovered wonderfully from her accident and has warmed up to my 'charms' quite a bit. She is more beautiful now than ever.
The reason I am writing is to tell you that you were quite right in your wise suggestion that you gave me that day I came to visit. Scarlett has changed, for the better, and even the children have warmed up to her, especially little Bonnie, who loves her mother very much. Needless to say I am grateful for your kind advice and am very relieved that I did return home that day. You're a kind woman, Belle, and I will forever be in debt to you for what you did for me.
Rhett K. Butler"
Her vision was blurred by the angry tears that had sprung to her eyes as she reread the letter, hoping that it was all a dream. But the paper was tangible in her nimble fingers, and she brought a shaky hand up to her mouth to suppress a threatening sob. How could Rhett do this to her? For the love of God, she had trusted him! He told her that he hadn't been to Belle's since the night of Ashley's party and she had believed him. He had held her in her arms, had kissed her, had made love to her with unabashed passion, and all along he had been going to see that—that filthy woman on the side! He had told her he loved her with such sincerity and had promised to be only hers, and she had told him the same thing. A disgusted feeling started in the pit of her stomach and rose up to her throat, but she swallowed it back down as the tears flowed freely down her cheeks.
Her back was to the door and she didn't hear Rhett come in until he cleared his throat. She spun around and gave Rhett a piercing gaze, a hurtful gaze that made him confused as to what the cause was, until he saw the letter in her trembling hand. "Oh shit," he mumbled, clenching his fists and mentally berating himself for leaving that letter out on the desk. It was foolish of him to even think that Scarlett walking in to his study and seeing that was impossible. He hadn't even thought about it in the first place, he had been so tired, and now it was his careless mistake that had his beloved wife in tears.
He took a cautious step forward, holding his hand out to her. "Scarlett, it's not what you think."
His hand grazed her arm and she jumped back, as if his touch had burned her. "Get away from me!" she demanded hysterically. "How could you…you…you filthy bastard!"
"Scarlett, be reasonable! Please, let me explain," he said quietly, trying to calm his racing heart. He should have known this would be the inevitable consequence of such a mistake.
"No I will not be reasonable!" Her tears were pouring down her cheeks, and his heart broke at the sight of her lovely face as it contorted and she let out an anguished sob. "I trusted you, and you…you lied to me!"
"I didn't lie to you!" he yelled. "Please, Scarlett, let me explain!" He moved closer to her again, hoping that by acting calm, she would calm down herself. But her arm flew up to her face in a wild attempt to wipe her tears away, still they fell, and she backed away from him again, slapping his hand away. Yet he managed to catch her chin under his fingers and turned her face toward him. She looked into his sorrowful eyes, so full of love and compassion, and another strangled sob escaped her crimson lips. The letter dropped from her grasp and Rhett saw it fall as if in slow motion onto the hardwood floor, and then her anguished eyes darted away from his and she escaped his grasp, running out of the study and out the door of the house, her dress billowing behind her.
Rhett stood frozen in place, not knowing what to do, what to think even. He should never have written that letter. But he hadn't lied to Scarlett. He had not seen Belle in that way since before him and Bonnie had left for Charleston. Yet Scarlett thought he had. It was no use going to chase her now, he thought. She'd fend him off, and any advances would probably send her packing back to Charleston without him.
Shakily he bent down and picked up the crumpled letter, and, taking it over to the large fireplace, he struck a match and set it afire, watching until it smoldered and nothing was left but black ash. Then he walked back over to his desk and sat down heavily, running his hands over his face as if trying to wipe away excess tiredness. He wanted desperately to go after her and hold her in his strong arms, make her listen to him, tell her he loved her and only her forever. But he knew she would not listen. So he decided to wait. She'll come back, he told himself. Just give it some time.
Her vision was obscured by the tears that seemed unwilling to stop falling as Scarlett ran down the thick green lawn. Where she was going she did not know, she just felt she had to get away, anywhere where she wouldn't have to face the realities that had fallen upon her just minutes prior. Her legs grew tired and her stays cut into her ribs as her breathing increased. But she kept running, and suddenly she saw the river over the crest of the low hill, and there on the bank was a weeping willow, its long wisps of leaves creating a hidden refuge from the outside world. Slowly she walked over to it and cautiously parted the green veil and stepped inside, letting the leaves fall behind her with a quiet rustle, luring her into the comfort of this safe otherworld where she could be alone.
There was a small patch of rich green grass that lay like a blanket in between the great trunk of the tree and the silky waters of the river, and Scarlett walked up to the edge, peering down into the sun spotted water. She saw her reflection and the sight of her swollen red eyes, her tear stained cheeks, her wild hair and her heaving bosom frightened her. Startled at what she saw, she backed up until her back hit the smooth trunk of the tree, and she gratefully leaned her head back against it and closed her eyes.
She painfully went over the events of that morning in her mind. The smile that lit up his face when she had woken up and looked into his eyes, the way he kissed her good morning, the playful attitude he had as she watched him dress for the morning, the way his words caressed her heart as he said he loved her, the shock, hurt, love, pleading in his dark eyes when he saw her with that letter. That letter-he said it wasn't what she thought, but how could it be anything else? How could he have held her in his arms and told her he loved her and all the while be going to see Belle Watling? She didn't even stop to think that he had been home every night at a reasonable hour since he came home from Charleston to find her sick. The picture she had formed in her mind of her husband with that vile creature refused to leave her mind, and a fresh sob escaped her as the tears once again began to course down her cheeks. It had never hurt to love someone so much, and she loved Rhett.
She felt that her legs would give out any time and sliding her back down the trunk of the tree, she slumped down onto the inviting grass that seemed to her like a comforting eiderdown quilt next to the lazy water and let the exhaustion take over. She closed her eyes to the lulling sound of the long willow branches swaying back and forth in the slow current of the river, and she cried herself to sleep.
The sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky as Rhett paced back and forth in the entryway of the large house. He had been impatiently waiting for Scarlett to come home all day, and now worry had started to overtake him. Giving in to his resoluteness of staying inside, he had gone out and searched the massive rose garden from top to bottom, the abandoned slave quarters out back and any other places he could think of that she may have gone, but he had found her nowhere. He forced himself to keep thinking that she would come waltzing through the door at any minute with a forgiving smile lighting up her face. But the panic was rising in his heart now, and he cursed himself for letting her run off. Swiftly, on impulse, he opened the massive door and ran outside to the stables, where one of his prized black stallions stood as if waiting to lend its assistance. He mounted the gallant horse and set off on a search for his missing wife, hoping she had not wandered into the deep woods, for he knew that they spread across the land for miles and he feared that if she had gone there, he may never find her.
He combed the massive expanse of the Landing property, searching everywhere he could think of, calling out her name in case she might hear him. But he got no response, and every place he looked still turned up nothing. He kicked his heels into the steed's slick black coat and the horse sprang into a fast gallop as he came over the same hill that Scarlett had earlier, and when he saw the river a new panic set in. The river had a slow current, but he had heard many stories of people drowning in the deep waters. "Scarlett!" he desperately called over and over as he rode down the hill, and still there was no response. He would kill himself if anything happened to her.
There was a massive willow down by the bank of the river, and he watched for a moment, mesmerized by the swaying branches in the soft breeze. And, just as he was about to turn the horse back and ride to the next plantation for help he caught a glimpse of black and soft pink that was revealed like a guarded secret by the long drooping leaves. "Scarlett!' he called once again.
When he had reached the bottom of the hill, he jumped down from the horse and ran like a mad man, throwing open the canopy of leaves and stepping inside. "Good God!" he exclaimed aloud as he looked down. There at his feet lay a sleeping Scarlett, so still and pale with her face red from crying and her loose hair falling about her in disarray, and he noticed the dark pink sash of her dress in the water of the river as if it was trying to escape like the leaves that were still attached to the massive tree trunk.
At first he irrationally thought she was dead, but then as he whispered her name he heard her whimper softly and she tiredly opened her puffy eyes. Rhett immediately crouched down and brushed her hair out of her face and she pushed herself up from the ground, unwilling to meet his eyes and shivering from his tender touch and the cooling air of the soft evening.
"What are you doing here?" she asked in a voice without any feeling.
"I came looking for you," he answered.
"You needn't have bothered."
He reached out his hand and brushed her cheek and was relieved when she did not turn away. "I know you don't mean that, Scarlett," he whispered.
Scarlett slowly turned her head and met his eyes under her thick lowered lashes.
"Please," he continued, "let me explain." His voice was so soft and his eyes so radiant and pleading. He looked like a little boy, begging for his mother's forgiveness for breaking some valuable object. She felt a tremor in her heart as she stared into his loving eyes, and suddenly she felt ashamed for being so cruel. She sighed heavily and nodded her head in silent agreement.
Rhett let out a shaky pent up breath and sat down against the tree while Scarlett sat across from him, studying his face as he began to speak. "Scarlett, I—you must believe me that I have been faithful to you since Ashley's party. I know that hadn't been the case before, but Scarlett, things have been so different since your accident."
"Then explain the letter," she challenged, looking down at the grass beneath her hands and feeling the sharp tips of the green blades tickling her skin.
"Scarlett, look at me," he said in a quiet demand. When she did he spoke again: "I won't lie to you and say I have never been to Belle's since then, but it was only one time, and it wasn't like you think. We only talked." He continued again swiftly before Scarlett had the chance to interrupt. "It was the day you woke up. I was so relived that you had made it through, but I didn't know how to face you knowing that you almost died. I was…I was afraid of what would happen between us. So, I went to Belle's. Despite what you may think of her, she is and always has been a great confidant of mine." Taking two of his fingers he reached out and lifted Scarlett's chin so her emerald eyes looked directly into his. "Scarlett, she made me realize that you could change, that you might love me-that I loved you and that this was my chance to try and work things out. I think that if I hadn't talked to her, we may not be here now, and we would not love each other as we do. You do love me, don't you, Scarlett?"
She nodded her head, new tears springing to her eyes. He reached out for her and she moved into his arms, letting his familiar scent and his embrace wash over her and soothe her nerves. "I do love you, Rhett. So much," she whispered. "I'm sorry," she sniffled, "for saying those things to you this morning. I was so scared that everything had all been a lie."
"I can see how you would have thought that. It was my fault I left that letter out, but I felt I had to thank her for helping me," he said as he ran his fingers over her dark eyebrows and ruby lips. "Scarlett, you know it's you I love—you who I've always loved. Please believe me," he declared with emotion rippling through his deep voice. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and his hands went to her head, tangling in her dark hair as he brought her face to his in a loving kiss and then he moved his hands to her back, crushing her to him in a powerful embrace. "Am I forgiven?" he teasingly asked.
"Yes, you're forgiven," Scarlett whispered, and, getting up off his lap she stood and held her hands out for him to take. He feigned resistance as she tried to pull him to a standing position, and he laughed at her effort before standing himself and taking her hand. "Let's go home," he said as he parted the leaves that had secluded them in their own private universe.
The horse that Rhett had ridden was grazing on the lawn on top of the hill and so they walked back to the plantation. On the crest of the hill Rhett tugged on her hand and stopped walking. She complied, not really knowing why, but then she raised her eyes and her breath caught in her throat. In front of them stood Dunmore Landing; a massive silhouette against the vibrant sky. The harsh pinks, oranges, and purples splashed across the horizon, bathing everything in a golden glow.
Scarlett closed her eyes, trying to engrave this image in her mind forever. There was a sense of displacement about her as the warmth of the summer evening swept over them in a gentle embrace. The sounds of the wind blowing through the reeds by the river and the humming of the insects transformed in her mind into the far away notes of Dixie. It felt as if she had been here before, back before the war, before she knew the meaning of troubles and hardship. When she opened her eyes again, Rhett was still staring at the vision before them. He had a nostalgic expression about his face, as if he were remembering the way things used to be in a different time, a different world, and suddenly Scarlett wondered if he loved this place like she loved Tara. He squeezed her hand as if reading her mind and confirming the answer, and she leaned her head on his shoulder, all of their past troubles forgotten in the magic of this shared moment. They stood that way in the fading light until the sun was completely below the horizon, each assured that their love was something to be cherished like these fleeting moments when the world around them was trapped in between day and night, and in the magical dreamland of twilight, they knew they belonged that way, forever.