It was January first, the start of the New Year. A year that Scarlett felt certain would be different from all others that had preceded it.
She'd given Richard a raise when she promoted George and in a sudden burst of generosity, she'd given him New Year's Day off. She had it on good authority that since he'd unexpectedly come up in the world, he was going to propose marriage to his sweetheart.
George also had the day off. Doctor Meade and another doctor, a young man from Tennessee were consulting with the Ruddy's about Lizbeth. It looked as if she would have to go to a hospital in Tennessee for a time. The hospital had achieved much success with children just like Lizbeth. George was apprehensive about sending his child but Scarlett swayed him with the help of Doctor Meade.
The Ruddy's, poor but proud, had also been nervous about the cost but Scarlett alleviated his fears in that sector as well. She was paying Lizbeth's entire bill, whatever it was, in full. When George and Molly attempted to discuss a payment plan, Scarlett changed the subject. Successive attempts to discuss the debt were met with similar rebuffs.
So, with both clerks off for the day, Scarlett was once again behind the counter of the store. Thinking that they might have a pleasant time together, Scarlett brought the children along. Wade curled up in the chair next to the potbelly stove, a little notebook in his hand. Since their visit to Pitty's a few days after Christmas Day, Wade had taken to writing down everything he could remember having heard about his father from his late aunt. The previous evening he'd confided to his mother that he wanted to write a novel about his father and perhaps some of the boys from Clayton County who'd gone to war and never returned.
Then, never meeting her eyes, he asked if Uncle Rhett was ever coming home. She was as honest with him as she felt she could be with a child. She explained that if Uncle Rhett didn't come home in another month or two, she would ask Pitty if Wade and Ella might stay with her for a few days while their mother went to Charleston. Wade was careful of her feelings, telling her that so long as he and Ella had their mother and she had them, they would manage just fine.
She could see how much it hurt him to admit that Rhett might not return to them. For years, he had counted on Rhett for affection and parental interest. Even before they'd married, Rhett had been fond of Wade. That fondness had been returned in the form of hero worship. Wade once idolized Rhett, but now, Rhett's defection of not only herself but of Wade and Ella hurt him.
Turning her attention from Wade, Scarlett felt a little easier watching Ella.
Ella, not one to usually lose herself in quiet pursuits, was occupied with a small slate and a chunk of chalk Scarlett found for her. The other day, Scarlett and Ella played school in the playroom. She noticed that Ella took great pleasure in enacting the role of teacher. Scarlett still wasn't precisely sure if Ella's future choice of occupation would change now that the future was being reshaped, but regardless, the little girl had enjoyed not only the game, but also spending time with her mother.
That, in Scarlett's opinion, was what mattered most.
Closing the ledger book on the counter, Scarlett smiled warmly at Ella. "We should do something for lunch." Glancing over at her son, Scarlett smile widened. "Wade?" He did not reply. Lost in his notebook; lunch the furthest thing from his mind. "Your brother is ignoring me Ella."
Ella nodded, knowing that her mother's tone of voice meant she didn't take Wade's lack of response as an insult. "Mama, I want to do something."
"Go to lunch?" Scarlett suggested hopefully. Things were certainly changing. Lately, she'd found herself with an appetite again.
Ella shook her head. "No."
Bemused, Scarlett smiled. "What do you want to do then?"
Pointing to the ladder on its track behind the counter, Ella smiled winningly. "A ride."
"You've had one already," said Scarlett, trying to hide a smile.
Her tiny lips drew into a little frown. "One more?" Ella pleaded.
Scarlett held up one finger. "Just one." Going to the door, she tacked up a sign that said 'Please call again later.'
Scampering up the ladder, Ella held on tightly. "If this was my store, I'd do this all day," Ella declared.
Laughing, Scarlett moved the ladder down the shelves to the end of its tracks. "You'd get tired of it after a while," she observed.
"No I wouldn't," insisted Ella, "I'd never get tired of this, its too much fun."
Moving the ladder back in the other direction, Scarlett smiled up at her daughter. "Alright, you might not get tired, but I would. Then who'd push you?"
"Uncle Rhett would," answered Ella in a matter of factly tone of voice.
Scarlett's smile started to slip, but she managed to hold on to it. "I'm sure he would Ella."
"If you're tired, I could ask him to push me," Ella said grinning.
Her heart twisted in her chest. They were having fun, things were nice for a change, she didn't want to let her mind dwell on Rhett. "He'd have to be here though darling," she said finally.
"But he is here," replied Ella.
He was there. Ella was right; he was in the store, she could feel it. Deciding to trust both her daughter and her own instincts, she did not turn, but gave a casual, "Hello Rhett," over her shoulder.
"Hello Scarlett," he replied.
Scarlett turned, her heart pounding in her throat. "Rhett."
"Scarlett," he replied, bowing gracefully, before returning her greeting with a smile. It was the insouciant smile he'd worn that day at the barbeque. The same smile that had been on his face when he'd thought she was the one coming down the stairs on that awful Christmas Day she'd observed in the future. A smile that was always meant just for her.
He looked tired, still a little careworn. His black hair was wind tousled, a little longer than how he'd previously worn it. Some of the weight he'd gained after Bonnie's death was gone from his face. It was hard to deduce just how weight he must have lost since he still wore his overcoat but his face had lost that bloated, haggard look. He must be sleeping more and drinking less, she decided.
Her deep scrutiny must have amused him because the small smile turned into a grin. Warmth spread through her. When Rhett smiled, he still exuded the essence of a wild-hearted buccaneer who'd...thoughts about just what he might do embarrassed her more than a little.
"Did you have a good Christmas," she blurted out, flushing lightly at how loud her voice sounded in the quiet of the store.
Raising a brow, he allowed his eyes to wander up and down her figure until her flush grew into a full blush "Frankly, no. I did not have a good Christmas. I would not even go so far as to call it mediocre. My mother was kind enough to host me, but it was an awful day, one I hope never to repeat."
There was real sympathy in her emerald eyes. She'd seen him on Christmas Day. He was trying to be strong, playing off the misery he'd felt with a few glib comments. "I'm sorry to hear that," she said softly, her voice was warm and he took a step forward.
"Not half as sorry as I am to have lived it."
They exchanged a long look. They needed to talk but not in front of two impressionable children. "Wade," Scarlett asked, "would you mind going outside and asking Micah to take you and your sister home in the carriage?"
Wade gave his stepfather a stern look. "Do you want me to send it back for you?" There was a quiet, but firm emphasis placed on the word "you."
"Yes please." Wade glanced at Rhett, distrust still in his normally warm brown eyes. "Go on Wade," she said gently, "I promise, I'll be along in a little while."
Plucking Ella off the ladder, she kissed her daughter and then leaning over, she whispered to her son, "If I could handle a passel of Yankees, don't you think I can handle plain ol' Rhett." A giggle slipped from Wade's lips and feeling bold, he planted a quick kiss on her cheek. Once the children were in the carriage and one their way, Scarlett went back into the store, locking the door behind her.
"A remarkable change," commented Rhett lightly. "The children don't seem afraid of you anymore."
"Why should they be afraid of me, I'm their mother," replied Scarlett, wincing a little.
"Which, as I recall, was why they were afraid of you in the first place."
"I don't think they were afraid of me because I was their mother, I imagine they were afraid of me because I acted like a witch." She curled her fingers a little into a claw shape. "Although, I've always been lacking when it comes to the warts and cackling laugh."
"Something to work on."
"I think not. I've retired my wicked ways, broomstick and all."
"Wonders never cease."
She shrugged. Untying the apron around her waist, she occupied herself with hanging it up to give herself a moment to get her emotions under control. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, but maybe he wasn't ready for an outpouring of emotion yet. "Are you back for a visit, to keep down the gossip?" Scarlett asked nonchalantly.
His voice spoke softly in her ear. "No."
He had crossed the store on those damned feet of his. Only Rhett could walk so quickly and lightly. It made no sense; he was a large, physically imposing man. Surely, he should make some noise. A cat! That's what he reminded her of. But, did that make her the mouse?
"How do you do that," she asked, taking a small step back. A few cans shifted on the shelves behind her. She stuck her hands out to catch them, missing one. It hit the floor with a thud causing her to nearly jump out of her skin.
"How do I do what?" Rhett asked, as he bent to retrieve the can she'd missed.
"I've missed you," Scarlett said, fearful that if she didn't admit it, she might turn coward.
"I've missed you too," he said, putting the can down. Removing the cans from her arms, he piled them on the counter.
"Have you really?" Scarlett teased.
"What exactly did you miss," she asked, her voice taking on a flirtatious note.
His eyes burned with an inner fire "I've missed the way you chew your pencil when you're working on the ledgers but then complain that every pencil in your desk has teeth marks. Do you know that you do that?" She shook her head, beginning to smile. "I miss all the hundreds of silly, everyday things you do that I didn't even realize I would miss." He laughed, "God help me, look what you've reduced me to, a character out of an Bronte novel. At this rate, I'll be writing poems before I know it."
The thought of Rhett writing poems reduced her to giggles. "I'd like to read a poem written by you," she said with a grin.
"Don't hold your breath," he replied. When she only smiled, he admitted to her what he'd come to miss most of all over the years. "I've missed seeing you smile," he said, "not that I've made you smile often enough. Your lack of smiles, I take responsibility for that. I promised you that marriage would be fun..."
"Are you home for good," she cut in, needing to know.
Reaching out, he pinched her chin affectionately. "Always to the point, aren't you my dear? I had worked out an entire statement of my intentions during my train ride, it seems a shame to let it go to waste."
"Rhett..." Scarlett warned with a smile.
"I want to come home, if you'll have me."
"If I'll have you?" Scarlett asked, incredulously, "I don't want anyone but you."
Then, she was in his arms, laughing and crying at the same time. Later, neither she nor Rhett could not say for certain who made the first move. Perhaps it was better that way. If neither of them could say who bent first, then neither of them was at a disadvantage.
At last, the tears stopped and she was able to catch her breath "You missed Christmas day," she told him, leaning her head against his chest.
Resting his chin on the top of her head. "I know. I thought I could stay from you. I thought that if I stayed away long enough, I could eventually not need you anymore."
"You missed me though," she declared smugly, knowing it was true.
He laughed, hearing the note of pleasure in her voice. "I did. I missed you very much. You were all I thought about. No matter how hard I tried to push you from my mind, you were there. You, my darling, are a nearly impossible habit to break."
Curiosity flickered in her eyes. "Did you ever open my present?" It was important for her to know. After the way he'd casually dismissed it, had curiosity had gotten the better of him? She needed to know that he'd seen the gift she'd selected with such care.
"I did," he replied, his expression turning serious.
Yes, her heart sang triumphantly, he'd opened it after all. He came to her knowing that she wanted him. That she'd invited him to come back and resume his life with her.
"Most presents are usually pretty baubles or dust catchers, usually nothing anyone needs can be found in a box under a Christmas tree, don't you agree?" Her green eyes glinted wickedly remembering Rhett's comments when his mother had urged him to open his gift.
"Before I opened this particular present," he withdrew the small box from his coat pocket, "I would have been inclined to agree." He laid the box on the counter.
"When did you open it?"
"Yesterday." He pressed his fingertips to her lips. "Before you ask, I opened it, gave it a moments consideration, and then I told mother I was leaving. And here I am."
"A moments consideration? I thought it would be fairly obvious what it meant."
"When I stopped to consider how your mind works, it was obvious. Initially I was thinking it was something subtle, something that held a deeper meaning. Then I realized you are as subtle as a yardarm to the back of the head."
Her hands rested on her hips. "Why would you think I was being subtle? That's your problem Rhett Butler, you read too much into things."
His dark eyes twinkled merrily. "I thought you were being romantic, that it was the key to your heart."
She burst out laughing. "That's ridiculous, utterly and completely awful. Have you been reading romance novels?"
He caught her hand and placing it over his heart, he held it there. "I thought it might be a poetic, grand gesture."
She shook her head, snickering. "You're insane."
"Forgive me if it took me two guesses."
Playfully, she pulled her hand from his, pushing him away. "What else could a key to our front door mean other than I wanted you to come home and use it?"
"That was the conclusion I finally came to."
They shared a quiet moment, each at peace with the other. Once again, Scarlett rested her head against his chest, the continuous staccato of his heart comforting her. She could feel his hand running up and down her back in smooth, sweeping strokes.
"Are you home for good," she asked finally.
Tipping her chin up, he grinned. "Didn't you just ask me that?"
"I did. And I am going to ask you probably a hundred more times."
"Mrs. Butler...Scarlett," he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her palm with gentleness that seemed strangely amiss in such a powerfully built man. "Will you allow me to be informal? You will won't you, since we are such old friends?" He looked at her and his eyes stopped the laughter that had threatened to bubble from her lips. They were warm, full of tenderness; they were the eyes of a man in love. And he was in love, with her.
She was reminded of Melly's words to her, the last she would ever hear her speak, 'Be kind to Captain Butler, he loves you so.' She had been right, had known for years and years, perhaps even before Rhett himself had known. Certainly, she'd known long before Scarlett. Oh Melly, she thought, you were right. He does love me.
"I'm so glad you're here," she whispered, as involuntary tears began to stream down her cheeks. "I'm so glad you're home."
"So am I." He wiped the tears from her cheek with the ball of his thumb. "Don't cry, please sweetheart." Teasing her reminded her, "I didn't send you a present for Christmas, that's a serious offense."
The tears subsided. "It is, but I have a way you could make it up to me."
"A new fur, diamonds, what would you like?"
"This," she said, standing on tiptoe, she wrapped her arms around his neck. Her lips found his and she heard him say her name, once, softly, before he returned the kiss. His hands moved up her back, trying to hold her closer if it were at all possible Her hands gripped the lapels of his overcoat as the world swam out of focus. His mouth moved from her lips to her jaw, and then before she could speak, he was kissing her again until all she could do was give herself over the rush of emotion flowing though her.
His hands were in her hair; his fingers drawing the pins from her carefully pilled and coiled hair. When she heard them fall to the floor, she protested, drawing a gentle chuckle of laughter from him. He reminded her that they were at the store, surely, she stocked hairpins?
"The store," she murmured before pushing him away and looking toward the plate glass window she blushed furiously.
"What about it," he asked, pulling her toward him.
She nudged him, ducking her head when he tried to kiss her. "Great balls of fire, anyone could have seen us just now."
"Yes, imagine the scandal." He pursed his lips, and rolling his eyes to heaven, she suddenly saw India Wilkes before her. A mustached, tanned India, but the facial expression was perfect all the same. "Mrs. Meade, you'll never guess what I saw while downtown. That rapscallion Captain Butler was kissing a woman and you'll never guess who that woman was, it was," he paused dramatically, "his wife."
She chuckled, willing to acknowledge that when it came to them, a semi public display of affection was certainly not the most inflammatory thing they'd done. "I suppose everyone is going to gossip anyway when they realize you're home for good."
"That they will." Wrapping his arms around her slim waist, he brushed her hair away from her face. "But, I imagine they've been talking all along. How bad has it been, really," he asked.
"Bad," she answered honestly.
"I'm sorry I left you here to face it all on your own."
"It doesn't matter, not now."
"Who are you," he asked "and what have you done with my wife?"
"She's still here," Scarlett said with a mischievous smile, "but I think that you are in store for a few surprises."
"My dear, I don't doubt that."
It was hard to believe that Christmas was in less than two weeks. Running through the list before her, Scarlett noted that she still hadn't sent anything to the Aunts in Charleston. It was a shame that a generous bank draft, which her aunts would secretly welcome, would be seen as somewhat crude. Maybe gloves or some of their favorite sweets? Christmas shopping, Scarlett noted, was a great deal more difficult when you actually cared if the recipient of a gift really liked it.
Glancing up under lowered lids, she covertly watched as Mammy supervised four maids who were taking down the heavy, blood red drapes. She'd offered the drapes from her office to Mammy's church to use for Altar cloths or choir robes, really, whatever they liked. Where once she'd thought them wonderful, now she found them oppressive and grim. In the last year since Rhett's return, Scarlett valiantly tried to redecorate their home, but as time passed the impossibility of the project had left her dejected.
The house was a depressing, overdone, nightmare of a dwelling. It had taken some time, but she saw it clearly now. No amount of paint or new window dressings would banish the overwhelming feeling of being sealed alive in a vault. So, that left her with one solution with several sub-solutions. After the holidays ended, she wanted to either convince Rhett to tear the house down and build something new, or better yet, sell it to the first sucker who'd be willing to buy it.
"Miz Sca'let, dis hea is mitey genris of ya," beamed Mammy, knowing her lamb was watching them.
"I'm just glad someone will be able to put them to good use," said Scarlett, not bothering to pretend she wasn't watching.
"We dun Miz Sca'let, you wan' a tray boug't in?" Mammy asked. She was proud of her lamb. The way she'd changed was a near miracle. She was not Ellen O'Hara come again. There was too much of a spark in her eyes and too much laughter in her voice to be a copy of her mother. In actuality, Scarlett reminded her of a melding of the best qualities of Solange Robillard and Ellen O'Hara combined with that spark that was purely Scarlett.
Before she could decide on the tray, Rhett interrupted them. "Scarlett, do you have a minute," he asked, coming in before she could reply.
"For you," she said flirtatiously, "I have a lifetime." She waited to see how he would respond, but there was no sign that he'd noticed. He was preoccupied, clutching a small parcel and an envelope. Her tone became serious. "Mammy, don't bother about the tray, would you pull the door closed behind you please." When the door closed, she went to him, resting a hand on his arm, she asked, "What is it?"
"I've gotten a letter from Charleston."
"From who?" Seeing the distant look on his face, she clutched his arm tighter, "Not your mother..."
"No, she's fine. I have a letter from her as well."
"Then who sent you the letter and the package?"
"My father, it would seem." His lips twisted into a smirk. "He didn't speak to me after he banished me from his home, but yet, he managed to send me a letter from beyond the grave." He moved away from her, tossing the box on her desk. "And a gift of some sort." He gave a short bark of laughter. "A gift and it's not even my birthday." He dropped into on of the chairs in front of her desk. "I suppose it's an early Christmas gift."
"Your dead father wrote you a letter?" Mentally, she slapped herself. It came out sounding very flippant, but he didn't seem to notice.
"To be precise and accurate, I don't think he was dead when he wrote it," he smiled at her, "it's alright, I'm a little surprised myself."
"Where was this letter, has your mother had it since he died?"
"No. My parents stayed with friends of the family, the Brewtons, after they lost the townhouse. Scarlett, sit down, if you keep pacing we'll have to replace the carpets in here, again." Once she settled in behind his desk, he continued. "Sally Brewton's nephews were playing hide and go seek. One of them found this letter shoved into a cubby hole under a window seat."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense. What does it say?"
He shrugged elegantly. "I have no idea, I haven't opened it yet."
She exploded. "You just got a letter that's been hidden away for years and you haven't opened it yet!"
He smirked. "If you'd like, I haven't wrapped your Christmas gifts yet, would you rather I didn't? Save you the suspense?"
"Ha, ha," she wadded up a ball of paper and threw it at him.
Looking wounded, he asked, "What was that for?"
"It was for just because," she replied, looking prim and proper. Then her eyes sparkled devilishly, "The next one will be if you don't open it before I expire of curiosity."
"If you're dead, how you launch another projectile?"
"Never you mind, I'd find a way."
"I don't doubt that you would," tenting his fingers, he looked at her, real emotion straying into his expression. "To tell you the truth, the temptation to take a match to it is nearly overwhelming my own curiosity."
Scarlett smiled. "Would you like me to open it?"
"Would you like me to get you a match," she asked wryly.
Laughing, Rhett shook his head. "It is silly, isn't it? At my age, I still want to avoid one final dressing down from my father. I thought I left caring about what he thought behind me when I left his house. But it's hard to know that the man who was my father regarded me as an asp in Eden."
"In the last six months Rhett I've learned one man's silly can be another man's salvation." Smiling gently, she reached across the desk, squeezing his hand. "Open your letter, once you read it then its out in the open."
Silently he handed her the letter. She did not tease him further. Withdrawing a letter opener from the stand on her desk, she made a neat slit along the top of the envelope. Taking out two folded sheets, she looked at Rhett.
"Two pages, father must have had slightly more to say than you're a disappointment Rhett."
She picked up the top sheet. "This first page isn't a letter Rhett, it's just a list of names and dates and places."
He held out his hand. Skimming the page, his jaw clenched briefly. Only when he turned the page over did his expression soften.
"Who are those people Rhett?"
"Butlers. My antecedents." He looked up at her. "I told you that when the old man banished me from Charleston, he blotted my name from the family bible." He brushed a fingertip over a section of the page. "He recopied the page, front and back. He put me back Scarlett." His dark face was a canvas on which a thousand emotions were painted. "He blotted me out as one of them, as a Butler, then for some reason he put me back.
"Read the letter," she urged again, "maybe it's not what you think."
"I can't. You read it to me."
Clearing her throat, she began.
It seems that we will not see one another again on this side of the grave. Your mother has promised to send for you, but I know in my heart, take that smirk off your face young man; I do have a heart even if I never showed it to the world.
A choking laugh came from Rhett. Meeting her curious gaze, he laughed softly. "When I was small I thought my father had eyes in the back of his head."
"Keep reading, please."
You were born just after midnight. I remember standing on the piazza of the house on South Broad Street, waiting for you to make your entrance. You were late, my boy, even for your own birth. That makes me smile now, as does remembering the moment your dah, Elsie, came out and told me that I had a son. When I held you in my arms and you looked up at me, I knew I had never before nor would I ever again feel such a wave of compete and pure love
I thought you were the most perfect baby in the world, even if I didn't say so. Your mother thought that I was pleased only because she'd given me a boy. I didn't care that you were a boy. I cared that you were my child. My little boy. I loved you then just as I do now.
I wanted so much for you. I wanted too much for you, I see that now. I wanted to give you everything but each time you rejected a convention, every time you flaunted the rules of society; I took it as a personal affront. These conventions, these rules, they made up the scope of my life. I was worried that you would be unable to be a part of that world if you continued on the road you seemed determined to travel. I spent so much time worrying about the man you'd become that I neglected the boy you were.
When I drove you from my house, when I crossed your name from the family bible, when I prevented your mother and sister from seeing you; I did so because I was angry with you. I was angry because you rejected everything I had to offer you. The infant I'd held that night in my arms, I allowed my anger to blot him out. I was angry with you Rhett, but I never hated you.
I'm dying Rhett. Every breath, every day, it all becomes harder. But, because I am dying, I can at last face the truth. I was a fool. I broke the hearts of those I claimed to love best because of my expectations. I turned my back on my own son. I was proud and unwavering in my beliefs. I told myself that you were the villain in this. I told myself that you were the only one at fault. The fault was mine. If I hadn't pushed so hard, you wouldn't have pulled away from me the way you did. I should have known how to forgive you, to make you know that no matter what you do, you are my son and ...
"And what," he asked expectantly.
"He didn't finish the thought, he moved on to a new paragraph."
"What does it say?"
What can I give you Rhett? A father should leave his son something, but I have nothing left. The Landing, I know how you loved it. I loved it too. At least that was something we shared. I haven't seen it in two years. For all I know, all that's left is a blackened shell and some overgrown rice fields. The house on South Broad went for taxes. I am lying in a bed in someone else's house. I am about to die. Knowing that once I am gone, you will be able to help your mother and sister comforts me.
Still, there has to be something. You must have something from me; something from a father to his son. I racked my brains and then it came to me. I could give you back your place as a Butler. Some ink and anger could not erase you. It was a gesture born of anger and wounded pride.
I thought it might comfort you to look at this page and see that I want those who come after to know that Stephen Michael Butler had a first born son named Rhett. You will always be my son, even if you wish that wasn't so.
Neither of us wanted to be the one to bend. In the end, we each lost a chance. I wish I could say all of this to your face, but then I imagine I wouldn't have been able to. Easier to confess my wrongs to a sheet of paper than to my now grown son.
If you are the man I think you are, you'll understand how hard it is to admit you made mistakes. I suddenly find I can leave you one last thing. Advice. If you love someone Rhett, be willing to meet halfway before the chance to meet them at all disappears.
I love you, never doubt that,
"Rhett," she asked cautiously, "are you alright?"
His face was leached of color but something seemingly very near rage flickered in his eyes. "Of course I am alright, why shouldn't I be," he snapped.
She was perfectly still, watching him struggling with the revelations in his father's last letter. "He loved you Rhett, at least you know that now for certain."
"So he says." He shrugged. "I'll give him this, he was right on one count. I imagine that it was far easier to write a deathbed letter than it would have been to face me."
"Did your mother ask you to come and see him?"
"She did." He rubbed his temple brusquely, in what looked like an attempt to purge his father's last words from his brain. "I got the message the week after he died. I had other matters to attend to. I doubt I would have gone even if I'd gotten the message in time."
Scarlett's eyes fell on the box. "Are you going to open the package?"
Glancing at the box, his lips twisted into a smirk. "In for a penny, in for a pound. Do the honors my dear."
Her green eyes, still misty with tears from the contents of the letter, regarded him sympathetically. Her heart went out to him; the grief he felt was obviously intense. "Maybe you should be the one to open it."
"Why not, he muttered, taking the letter opener from Scarlett, "what else could he have sent me I wonder?"
Leaning forward, Scarlett couldn't see what was in the box. She could see the profound effect its contents had on Rhett. "What is it, what's in the box?"
He tilted the box to revel a set of cuff link, each set with a single, flawless ruby. When he moved the box slightly, the stones caught the light of the late afternoon sun streaming through the window behind her, sending brilliant flashes of light dancing across her dress. Staring into the heart of the stones, she thought she saw something more than her own reflection, but the moment passed in an instant. "They're magnificent, they were your father's?"
"They were my father's," he said, echoing her question and answering it in the affirmative. "And they were my mother's grandfather's and her father's. Grandfather Chevalier In Charleston, there is a tradition; the most recent bride leads the Grand March at Saint Cecelia's. She does so in her wedding dress. My grandfather gave his new son in law, my father, the cufflinks his own father had given him when he himself was married Father promised me that when I attended my first Saint Cecelia's ball as a married man, he'd give them to me."
She came around to his side of the desk. Resting her hands on his shoulders, she squeezed lightly. "How old were you when he promised you these?"
Lightly rubbing the pad of his thumb over one cufflink, he reached up with his other hand laying his hand over hers, he returned the squeeze. "Seven. Maybe eight."
"I'll bet you were a wonderfully mischievous little boy. And very handsome."
Kissing the back of her hand, he chuckled a little at her observation. "My dah wouldn't have agreed. She said I was the devil's own son." Looking down at the cufflinks, he exhaled slowly, his voice gaining a distant quality. "I can remember sitting on the bed in my father's room watching him prepare for Saint Cecelia's. He allowed me to fasten his cuff links and when I told him how I thought they looked like berries, he pinched my nose then pretended to warn me against eating them. I knew he was teasing me of course and then, he promised them to me. I think I'd forgotten that, until just a minute ago."
"It sounds as if you were close when you were little, did you miss him, after you left home?"
"I-sometimes. Now and again. I didn't often think about Charleston or anyone in it. Not if I could consciously help it. But, when I came back from California, I think I would have liked to been able to go and see him. To tell him about all the things I saw on my way out west. He used to read me stories about explorers and...he was right; neither of us was willing to bend." Then his shoulders tensed, under her hand. "Damn it!" Rhett exclaimed, coming to his feet. She watched as he moved away from her. He stopped in front of the windows, now devoid of their heavy velvet drapes.
"Darling, I wish I knew what to say."
"What is there to say? Rhett, your father was a pompous jackass and you were a reckless hell raiser who broke your father's heart? I thought he hated me, all these years I assumed he crossed me out of the family bible and never spared me another thought." His voice broke and she could hear the agony in his words. He turned to face her and his expression brought tears to his eyes. "He died Scarlett, thinking that I refused to bend, that I wouldn't come even when he dying."
"You didn't know," she pointed out rationally. "If you had gotten his letter, or heard from your mother in time, then you would have been able to decide. You lost the chance to say goodbye to your father and that hurts. It does. I know what that feels like to lose that chance; I lost that chance. Twice."
"I know you did. Did you feel cheated, not being able to say a proper good bye?"
"I don't know. When Pa died, I was expecting Ella. I was afraid the Yankees were going to take the mills and the store because of all the bother with Tony Fontaine. It seemed like the world was crashing down around me. I remember knowing that in June I'd have to hide in Pitty's house because of the baby so I thought, that's when I'll go home. I could spend the rest of my time at Tara, at peace. So, I kept putting off going home, even for a visit, until June. But then June came and Pa died. I wish I had left a month earlier, had that little time with him."
"In his letter, when he describes what he felt the first time he held me? Do you know what that could be, a verbatim description of what I felt the first time I held Bonnie." His jaw tightened, "If he felt half as much for me as I felt for her, how did it come to end like this?"
"There's no way to answer that," her eyes fell on the cufflinks, glittering benignly in their cotton fluff, then the words came out of her mouth before she could consider their origins, "Rhett, sometimes we are incapable of seeing the damage we inflict until it's too late to undo it."
His powerful muscles rippled beneath his coat as he turned to face her. He seemed to fill the whole room with his presence. "What did you just say?"
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. The expression she had just used, the Ghost who'd conducted her through Christmas Present, those were his words. He'd said them to her and when she declared she could not understand it's meaning, he'd told her it was not a message for her. "It's not a message for you my dear," he'd told her before kissing her forehead. His message, it would seem, was meant for her husband.
Her husband and the ghost, only now did she finally make the connection. The ghost who'd been so familiar to her, his familiarity did not come from previous association. It was a familiarity born from a family connection. He was Rhett's father, Stephen. "I said, sometime we are incapable of seeing the damage we inflict until it's too late to undo it."
"Why would you say that?"
"It seemed appropriate to the current conversation," she offered reluctantly.
"In these circumstances, more appropriate than you could know." Looking at her with a strange combination of suspicion and determination in his eyes, he said, "That turn of phrase you just used, about the damage we inflict, where did you hear it?"
"I-someone must have said it to me once."
"My mother, when she was here this summer? Maybe she used it in conversation?"
"I sure as hell know I've never used it. That was a favorite expression of my father's. One specific to him. It wasn't a quotation, it was original to my father."
Sitting on the sofa, Scarlett spoke softly, asking him to come and join her. When he reluctantly did so, she turned her body sideways so she could look him in the eye. "I need to tell you something, something that may sound fantastic. Completely unbelievable. But if you believe me, you'll see it's some beautiful. Something miraculous."
Sucking in a breath, feeling as if she'd just punched him in the gut; he rested a hand on her knee. "You're pregnant?"
She shook her head; her tear dropped shaped pearl earrings dancing. "No. No, I'm not pregnant." Her eyes were dark now, the same shade as emeralds. "I don't think I ever will be again. It's been nearly a year now, and nothing. Before, it always happened in such a short span of time. If it hasn't by now, I've started to doubt it ever will. I'm sorry Rhett."
"It doesn't matter." Touching her face, he leaned forward, kissing her lips softly. "Tell me, where did you hear what you said about damage, does it relate to what you just wanted to tell me?"
"It does." And so, she began her tale, recounting to him the fantastic events of the previous Christmas Eve. She tried to tell it in the most straightforward manner possible, but at times, she felt the whole thing sounded practiced, as if she'd previously rehearsed telling the story.
Several times, amusement flickered in his eyes and she caught him suppressing a smile. He didn't believe her; she could see it in his face. Just as she finished telling him about going into her old bedroom while clutching a poker, his self-control broke. He began to chuckle, then unable, to maintain his composure, he began to laugh.
"Go on and laugh," she invited scathingly, "but at least tell me this, what happened to the other ruby, the one set in a stick pin. It was one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever seen."
He was looked at her, the laughter dying on his lips. The supernatural was not something he'd given very much consideration to, not since he'd grown past of age of checking beneath the bed for ghouls. And Scarlett was one of the most unimaginative women he'd ever met. She believed in heaven and hell, but in the possibility that the dead could come back to interact with the living?
"It was your father. He looked like you, except his hair was a little longer, to his collar nearly. He took me to Charleston Rhett. I saw you on Christmas day. You told your mother you'd never go back to Atlanta. You told her that you weren't going to open my present because you didn't need it and that you wouldn't write to me because you didn't have anything to say."
"Mother told you that when she came."
"She didn't. I was there."
"You couldn't have been, it's not possible."
"You were sitting in a chair in front of the fire. You looked awful, so awful that I tried to touch you. I spoke to you, even though the ghost said you wouldn't hear me-"
"You spoke to me?" He went very still, his dark eyes searching hers, looking for the slightest indication that she was teasing. "What did you say?"
"I said that I loved you with all my heart, and I asked you to come back to me. You told your mother that I wouldn't forgive you for leaving me."
"With your whole heart."
"Not with all your heart, you whispered that you loved me with your whole heart."
Her heart seemed to shudder, skipping a beat. "Yes, that's what I said."
"Mother and I, we were arguing about my father, and then I felt something."
She leaned forward eagerly, "What did you feel."
There was acceptance in his eyes and she knew, no matter how outrageous the rest of her story was, he would believe her. "What did you feel Rhett?" Scarlett asked again.
"I felt you."
"So, I just want to be clear," Rhett said, forty-five minutes later, "in the course of one evening you saw my late father, both your late husbands..."
"And my grandmother Robillard."
"You interrupted, I was just getting to her."
She rested her palm on his chest, her brilliant green eyes dancing, "You believe me."
"Despite the fact that it all seems too fantastic for words, yes, I believe you. How could I not, the things you described, there's no other way you could know the things you've told me about." He laughed, "Do you know, I've wondered what wrought such a huge change in you. I thought perhaps it was a combination of my leaving and losing Mrs. Wilkes. But I'll admit it, divine intervention complete with spirits, that makes a hell of a lot more sense."
"I could have changed on my own," she declared with a raised brow.
"Not according to your story. Were it not for the spirits you would have died alone in this house and I would have spent the rest of my life mourning you. Did the spirits happen to mention whether or not I was still living with my mother?" There was laughter in his voice, "I'd hate like hell to think that I would spend the rest of my life living with at home with my mother."
"Surprisingly, your living arrangements never came up in the course of conversation."
"But I was still living in Charleston?"
"Yes, that's what you told Ella. At least, you told her that you went back to Charleston after..." Her eyes sparkled and she laughed softly.
"After I came to see you at the store," he said, considering her story.
"If you'd come to see me and found me berating George Ruddy or yelling at Richard, would you still have come in?"
"I don't know. The key to the house brought me to Atlanta, but what brought me into the store was the way you were playing with Ella. I saw her face while you pushed the ladder down the wall, she was happy to be with you. And then I saw Wade; he looked happy to be at the store. It was watching with them, you were all happy and I wanted that. I wanted to be a part of that happiness."
"And here you are."
"Here I am," he said, drawing her close, "and here I will stay." He kissed her slowly, exploring her as if it were the first time. The feel of her lips against his, the way she molded herself against him threading her fingers through his hair; he knew that this time, he was promising her forever.
So, that's my story. Yeah, the end was a total cheese fest. I felt dirty, but I have friends, they made demands, they put up with a lot of crap so I owed them.
You know, there's something awful in that I've just posted about 115 pages in a month and half and yet I've been working on FTE for almost three...four years? It has to be at least a year for This year's love.
People, I am a slacker. Wait a minute, FTE is like 700 pages, I take that back, I just need way more free time to write lol. Damn real life, always in my way.
That being said, I'm opening this one to a vote. I have some done for TYL, I have some done for the next FTE chapter. Which would you like to see updated next? The plus with TYL is it will be the last chapter.
Let me know.