It was nearly September 1863 when Rhett returned to Atlanta. The prior twenty months were spent between European ports where he bought silks and other fabrics, lace, bonnets, shoes, perfumes, wines, liqueurs, precious metals, jewels, filberts, pistachios, and other luxury items as well as basic staples. With him, he brought cotton, tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, rye, and whatever other goods the States wanted sold and/or traded.
A trip to South America was included as well for coffee, cashews, and Brazil nuts. He increased his fleet of boats to four from the one he began with in the early stages of the war. He worked diligently rarely sleeping, rarely remaining in a port longer then he had to to obtain goods and be on his way to the next port.
Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, Ipswich, Le Havre, Brest, Quiberon, San Sebastian, Lisbon, Cartagena, Barcelona, Monaco, Naples, Sparta, Athens, Istanbul, Izmir, Haifa, Alexandria, Algiers, Casablanca, Amsterdam, Brussels, Düsseldorf, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Paris, Montpellier, and Cordoba were among his stops. There were few countries he cared to venture into beyond ports, wanting to stay on the water as often as he could. France, Germany, The Netherlands and Belgium required his venturing inland if he were to obtain the quality goods he wanted at the best prices.
He returned to the States in early July, spending a good six weeks along the East Coast: Boston, Hartford, Newark, Atlantic City, Dover, Richmond, Norfolk, Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville and St. Augustine with Charleston being his final stop. In Charleston, he took the time to rent himself a room at a boarding house from Mrs. White, someone seemingly uncaring of his reputation. Of course, the six months rent cash up front probably helped to sway her as well. He also had a room at a house in New York. He didn't need one in Atlanta, he owned Belle's house, he would always have a room there whether it was Belle's or one of his own. He made his way by train to Augusta and Atlanta.
The time on the water and working on the ships had increased his physique, making him stronger, more muscular. He was tan with a bit of ruggedness to him; he was more confident and well-dressed. While he had always prided himself on his appearance, he spent his hard-earned money on better fitting, stylish clothing.
He had made himself a good amount of money over the past two years, enough that he no longer had to work quite as hard and a new wardrobe was something he would be the better for having. He knew he would still try to run the Union blockades, he always enjoyed meeting a challenge but there was no longer the need for him to be gone for months at a time.
He arrived in Atlanta a different person then when he last was there. His sarcasm, wit, intellect and uncanny ability to sense what people were thinking had sharpened, as had his appreciation for the finer things that life had to offer. He didn't waste his money on things he wasn't going to use. The two rooms that he rented were sparsely furnished a bed, desk, and dresser was really all he needed. It was the luxuries he allowed himself to indulge in like good cigars, liquor, and food, finely tailored clothing, expensive accessories, and extravagant gifts for ladies.
It was late when the train got into Atlanta, but being well rested he tipped a coachman and had his bags brought to the Atlanta Hotel. He had sent a telegram informing them of his arrival, so he knew a room would be waiting for him. Dressed in a pair of black trousers, a gray double-breasted jacket, and a gray ascot with a black hat he made his way to Belle's and was surprised to see her sitting at a table with one of the customers. This wasn't something she normally did, not even with Rhett.
A new barkeep was working that night, Rhett gathered she was new because she treated him rather rudely obviously having no idea who he was. Normally, he would have taken the time to soften her up, but didn't want to bother on this particular evening. He was more interested in Belle and whom she was talking to, she seemingly hadn't noticed he'd come in yet which was again unusual for her.
Tempted to ask the barkeep about the man Belle was with, he refrained finding some amusement in the fact she may be a bit startled to realize he was, in part, the man responsible for her having a roof over her head. He remained at the bar for a while longer, nursing his whiskey, when he finished it and had requested another he decided to make his way to the back room. He walked past the table where Belle sat, tipping his hat politely as he walked past and found a recently vacated seat at one of the tables. As he was dealt in, he saw Belle call one of the girls over to her table and talk to them. A few minutes later Jaclyn entered the room with a bottle of Bushmills for Rhett, which he promptly broke the seal of and poured a drink for himself telling Jaclyn not to stray too far that evening.
Being the ever-observant person that he was, Rhett noticed when Belle walked with the unknown man toward the doorway. A few minutes later, she came into view as she made her way toward Rhett, stopping to talk to customers along the way. Knowing her as well as he did, he knew that she was putting on airs of being happy. Outwardly, she appeared cheerful, but Rhett could tell by the way she carried herself that something was wrong.
He wondered if she would tell him and realized that she probably would not. He smiled at her as she arrived at his table. "Good evening, Miss Watling. You're looking fine tonight, as if I'd expect anything less out of you by now." He allowed his eyes to take her in; he told the truth she did look nice. Rhett took great pains in making sure that Belle and her girls had enough material for plenty of new dresses, he had bolts of material for her this trip as well.
Belle was more than shocked to see Rhett seemingly appear out of nowhere. The way he tipped his hat to her was so smug, and was so like him. She couldn't help but allow her attention to be diverted by him, despite the reaction she knew would be forthcoming from Palmer. She called Jaclyn over, telling her where to find Rhett's whiskey and returned her attention to Palmer. She hadn't told Palmer about Rhett, not that she would have known what to tell him anyway. As far as she knew, she was little more than a friend in Rhett's eyes, if he considered her at all that is.
She thought Palmer would never leave, almost as if he sensed there was somewhere else she would have rather been. She walked with him outside, glancing in Rhett's direction who was seemingly minding his own business. One thing she knew about Rhett, he was never minding his own business. He had this uncanny way of knowing things that he had no right to know, but it was because he could blend in so easily that sometimes one would forget he was there.
She stopped to talk to a couple of her regular customers, unable to take her eyes off Rhett. He had changed since she last saw him. It wasn't just outward appearances either. Sure, his hair was a bit longer than he normally wore it and he had a goatee to accompany his moustache. However, there was something else she couldn't put her finger on.
She smiled brightly at his greeting hoping for the first time in years that he would choose to request the company of someone other than her tonight. She didn't want to answer his questions today. Not to mention she wasn't ready for him to see the bruises that Palmer so carefully placed everywhere but on her face. He had done that once, bloodied her lip, but since then had never struck her face again. "You are too much, Mr. Butler, but thank you nonetheless for the kind words. Is Jaclyn treating you well tonight? I hope the men here aren't taking your money too willingly."
Rhett laughed heartily. "I'm afraid they're all too willing to do just that this evening. It seems my popularity hasn't increased any in my absence. And, yes, Jaclyn as always is doing her job very well." He noticed she seemed distracted, inattentive so he returned his attentions to the card game at hand letting her get back to whatever it was her mind was on. He hoped there was nothing wrong with the business, though he didn't think that was it. She had always come to him in the past when there had been problems and he had taken great pains before he left to ensure that the bar was well supplied and future orders placed that should have more than met her requirements. Thoughts of Belle were quickly forgotten, as the game he was involved in got more intense.
After he had finished playing cards he accompanied Jaclyn to her room for the rest of the evening. Returning downstairs later, he was more than a little surprised to see Belle sitting at the bar with a drink. Usually the nights he entertained one of her girls she tended to be somewhere else until he left. The barkeep that had been rude to him earlier was still working he observed as he walked in that direction. He approached Belle and set his hat on the bar. "Good evening again, Miss Watling. What a shame it is to see someone such as yourself drinking alone. Might an old friend share in one with you before he heads out for the night?" He smiled as he gestured for the barkeep. She stared at him disinterested as he ordered a drink for himself as well as one for Belle. When she returned with the drinks, Rhett laid money on the bar for both drinks.
Belle saw Rhett come downstairs and thought about going into her office and just shutting the door to avoid him tonight, but she decided against that. She got upset with herself for thinking that way; Rhett had always been a friend. He just had an odd way of showing it at times. She hadn't allowed thoughts of Rhett and the strange twist her life had taken in the past year or so since he had been gone, she tried to avoid thinking about it all unless she had to.
Seeing Rhett tonight made her think about it. Something inside her had changed the day she saw him leave the store in town with flowers. She knew they were for a girl, she wasn't overly bright, but she wasn't dumb. What she couldn't figure out, however, is who the girl was. She asked around discreetly over the past year and nobody had seen Rhett associate with anyone enough to warrant flowers. She knew that day that she had to move on and put all thoughts of him thinking of her as anything but his friend out of her mind forever.
He was almost the direct opposite of Rhett. For Rhett's darkness, he was blonde haired and blue eyed. He was tall and lean like Rhett, but unlike Rhett outwardly gave the impression of being kind and gentle. Rhett on the other hand gave the impression of being hard, roguish, and sinister yet was one of the most kind-hearted people Belle had ever met. He was always there to help her; even if his verbal response was one of sarcasm, his actions were always genuine and thoughtful.
When he had found out what her father used to do to her, had she known where he lived at the time she was sure Rhett would have gone off and killed him. She didn't know at the time that she had told Rhett about it where her father had lived, she knew now. She had sought him out once, and found him easily enough. He had only moved three towns over, enough to get away from the scandal. She had hoped he had changed and that she could have her father back. He was worse then he'd been right before she finally got the courage to leave. She shuddered at the memory of that night. Yes, Rhett had been a Godsend at a time when she needed to know that there was men out there you could count on that wouldn't hurt you.
Palmer had seemed so kind at first as well. She couldn't understand exactly why someone would be interested in her romantically given her profession, but he hadn't seemed to mind it. He called on her at the bar; his only request was that she stop seeing customers in that way. She had reached a point where it was no longer necessary for her to do so anyway so she agreed to his conditions.
It was nice to have someone want to be with her for her that she ignored the little signals he gave off that perhaps underneath it all he wasn't so nice. He lost his temper easily, got mean and nasty when he'd had too much to drink, and was rude to some of her girls if they didn't get his drink orders right. It must have been last Christmas when he first struck her. He accused her of having a customer the night before, which she hadn't. She admitted to having someone in her room, but it wasn't for business.
He had hit her so hard that she fell to the ground and hit her head on the corner of her nightstand, the cut from the fall requiring stitches. She had a bruise along the right side of her face for at least a week; her mouth was so sore it was difficult for her to eat. That was the first and last time he ever struck her face. Since then, he'd kept the blows to her body, arms, back, and legs. At first, she could tell when he was upset, but these days the silliest things set him off she never knew what it would be next. She knew if he knew about Rhett, anything about Rhett, that another beating would follow so she somehow had to let Rhett know without telling him anything was wrong. This was one time that Belle was glad Rhett liked to remain anonymous in his business dealings. All paperwork was in her name as far as the city of Atlanta knew only Rhett's attorney had the paperwork that referred to Rhett's involvement.
At first this had angered Belle, she had taken it to somehow mean Rhett was embarrassed about his involvement with her, but she later realized – and especially now – that it was just as much for her protection as his. People talked enough about his frequenting her establishment, a few people knew he had a key. If they knew he owned the place yet received no payments from Belle people would think she was a kept woman. Neither needed such rumors flying around about them. They had enough to deal with individually.
Belle smiled as she took her glass. She looked at Caytlin with a slight frown. She tried not to be hard on her girls, but there was no room for a barkeep to be rude and if this girl were rude to the likes of Rhett whom would she be nice to.
"Caytlin, honey, I'm afraid you really need to work on your presentation. Mr. Butler here is one of my best customers, he should never be treated with anything but respect and I don't want to ever hear that you act this rude to him or anyone else in my bar or you will be without a job."
Belle stood holding her glass and gestured for Rhett to follow her into her office. Her eyes grew wide when he went to shut the door and she snapped, "No, leave it open." She lowered her eyes embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Rhett, things have been a little crazy lately, I try and keep the door open so that I can see what's going on in the bar. There are so many new people in town some of them need to be taught a lesson or two in manners." She sat in the chair behind her desk, pulling out a bottle of scotch that she saved for her and Rhett on such occasions.
Rhett pulled a chair closer to the desk and sat eyeing Belle curiously. "So, tell me what's been going on. Not just here, though it appears business is booming. Maybe I should buy you a second house to run." He was joking, though the thought was one to be considered. Saloons were almost guaranteed to make money if you knew how to run the business, which Belle obviously did. He smiled smugly. "You are looking nice, Belle, but there's something different about you. In fact, you haven't even looked at me like I'm here yet. I haven't done something to make you mad at me already have I? I've only been in town a few hours."
She sighed with a slight smile. "No, Rhett, I can never stay mad at you anyway." She took a drink. "Rhett, I want an honest answer to something please. The last time you were in town, before you left for your trip overseas." She gulped looking down into her glass.
"I saw you leave a store with flowers and you rode out of town on Athena. I know it's none of my business and I know that you have no commitment to me. Are you seeing someone Rhett?" There she had asked him, it wasn't as difficult as she had thought it was going to be. The question remained, however, would he get mad at her for asking. Would he think it was none of her business? She had no idea what she would do if the answer were yes.
Rhett was startled; not only by her question but that she had seen him. He thought a moment, fiddling with the cuff on his trousers. "Belle, there's a girl, Scarlett O'Hara that I met a couple of years ago who lives about twenty miles from here, Clayton County. I've paid her a visit a few times, but I don't know that I would consider it seeing someone. The flowers you saw were for her." He relayed the story to her about Scarlett and the horse.
"She was ill and I told her I'd call on her to make sure she was well. I'm certainly not courting her, Belle, if that's what you're thinking. I'm not the courting type. After all, I'm sure her parents would take one look at me and my reputation and show me the door if I announced intentions other than friendship with the girl, but knowing this I can't seem to stay away from her."
He sighed slightly, that was the first time he had said those words aloud but they were the truth.
He couldn't stay away from her.
He had many opportunities abroad and had his choice of a bevy of beauties, and while he certainly hadn't abstained he had often found his mind wondering to Scarlett, Tara, and wondering how she and her family were surviving the war.
Belle rolled her eyes, she could always tell when Rhett was deep in thought, and this was one of those moments. She knew that she needn't wonder again about where her relationship with Rhett would go, at least not as long as this girl was a factor. While she knew she wasn't the only woman Rhett saw, he had never in all the years she'd known him mentioned one and certainly not by name.
The thought he might just be interested in her for the challenge entered her mind; it was certainly a possibility. Rhett shrank away from few challenges. Her eyes shot up as she replayed the name in her mind. "O'Hara you say? Why, I wonder if it's the same girl who's staying here in town with that annoying Pittypat Hamilton. I swear I heard that's what her name was, she's been causing quite a stir from what I understand."
She bit her lip, regretting having spoken the words before they had even left her lips. She realized, however, if she was going to pull her deception off on Rhett, she couldn't let him even think she might not be happy with Palmer. Therefore, by mentioning the O'Hara girl might be the one she'd heard about, perhaps he would believe her charade.
Rhett hid his surprise at the news that Scarlett might be in town rather well. "I would imagine, Belle, if she's creating quite a stir, then it is in fact the Miss O'Hara I'm speaking about. She has two sisters, but the one is too young and I imagine the other isn't near as attention grabbing as Scarlett. Miss Hamilton's house you say?"
He raised his eyebrows slightly thinking a call was in order to Miss Hamilton's house the following day as he made an effort at changing the subject. "So, since we seem to be on the subject of revealing truths. Who is the gentleman I saw you with earlier this evening?"
"Just a man I've been seeing a bit of lately, Rhett. He's from the town I grew up in and came to Atlanta about nine months ago or so. You know, it's been so long since I've spent time with anyone outside this saloon besides you of course that I almost didn't remember how to act when he first asked me to dinner."
She smiled slightly, thinking back to the day Palmer first came into the bar. How she wished she had pretended she had no idea who Palmer Taylor was but it was too late for that now. She poured herself a drink, offering one to Rhett pouring it without waiting for his response. "Rhett, I have one request of you, though. He doesn't know about you. I mean anything. He's a jealous fool, Rhett, really. I just don't want you running into him and running your mouth off about something. Not that you would, I realize you're very discreet about things but I just want to make it clear. I have no problem with him knowing you're an old friend. But friendship is it as far as he's concerned, and nothing at all to do with the business."
Rhett was unable to hide his surprise this time. "Well, I'm happy for you, Belle. What a coincidence, running into someone from your childhood. And of course all aspects of our relationship will be kept in strictest confidence, as if I would tell him anyway. But I believe I understand what you're saying. You just make sure he understands that you have someone who gives a damn about what happens to you, Belle. You understand? I know too many women in your position who fall for the first nice guy that comes along who treats them like a lady instead of a whore and they end up hurt or dead. Just make sure he understands you are not alone in the world, whether it's me or someone else you want to pin it on I don't care."
Belle nodded sincerely surprised at Rhett's outburst of emotion. She knew he cared about her, knew that she was his friend but she never took the time to realize that he truly did care for her. "Of course he knows that, Rhett. He's no fool." But the truth was, other than Rhett she was very much alone and Palmer knew it.
They enjoyed another drink or two together; Rhett telling Belle some of his stories from the time he was gone. He returned to his room later then he had meant to but glad he had taken the time to talk to Belle. The possibility of Scarlett being in Atlanta instead of Tara appealed to him. He could stop in to visit her whenever he wanted to without making it obvious that he was there to see her, something that her living twenty miles away made it difficult to accomplish convincingly.
He set out his suit for the following day as well as two neatly and simply wrapped boxes. One was wrapped in green with a silver ribbon; the second was a much smaller box wrapped in burgundy with a gray ribbon. He held the second box in his hand for a moment with a slight smile crawling to his lips as he realized Scarlett's reaction to this gift could prove to be the most interesting thing to happen between them yet. He bought the gift more as a joke, as something to shock her with.
He woke the next morning, taking breakfast in his room instead of eating downstairs in the restaurant. While arranging for his breakfast he took the liberty of sending someone to inquire as to which O'Hara was residing with Miss Hamilton. If it was indeed one of Scarlett's sisters, he had no reason to go there and would instead go to Tara. His breakfast tray was brought up accompanied by a note from the concierge indicating that one Scarlett O'Hara was residing with Pittypat Hamilton and Melanie Wilkes on Peachtree Street on the north end of town.
Rhett tipped the gentleman and sat to eat his breakfast while perusing the morning's paper. When finished, he dressed in a pair of black trousers, a hunter green jacket, and a black cravat. He took the presents for Scarlett and started to leave. As an after thought, he returned to one of his bags and pulled out one of the small boxes of chocolate covered truffles he'd brought back with him from Paris for just such an occasion.
He approached the Hamilton home and alighted his carriage. After securing the horses to a hitching post he made his way through the gate and up the sidewalk to the front door where he rang the bell. An elderly black man answered the door and after Rhett gave his name, Peter showed him to the parlor indicating he would get Miss O'Hara closing the parlor doors as he left the room. Rhett took the opportunity of being unobserved to take in his surroundings.
The home was obviously inhabited only by women, as was evident in the décor. He wondered how Scarlett came to be staying here, his thoughts interrupted by the sound of the parlor doors opening. Rhett turned with a smile. "Why Miss O'Hara, what a pleasure it was to learn I wouldn't have to travel so far out of my way to visit you. I trust you are well, you certainly look as pretty as last I saw you."
Scarlett had been in the sitting room with Pitty and Melanie working on a quilt for someone or another who was in need when Peter announced she had a visitor. Scarlett tried to refrain from pushing the quilt off her and jumping up in exhilaration at the news that someone was here to take her away from the tedious job of sewing. How she hated sewing, cause or no cause. She hated it and couldn't understand how Melanie could stand to sit there all day sewing away. Yet another thing that gave Scarlett cause to dislike Melanie.
She excused herself, assuring Aunt Pitty that she did not need to be chaperoned in the parlor. Dressed in a white muslin dress with light green flowers printed on it she stopped in front of the hallway mirror to make sure her hair looked all right. She stopped briefly in front of the parlor doors; pleased Peter had closed them and caught her breath before entering.
She smiled at Rhett, basking in his compliment. She wasn't the same sixteen-year-old girl that he had last seen and she hoped he noticed. "Why, Rhett, you do know how to flatter me. You've been away for quite some time, I am glad to see you made it back in one piece."
She looked at him for a moment; something was different about him. She couldn't quite put her finger on what it was, but this was not the same Rhett Butler standing before her that left her that day at Tara almost two years ago. And his goatee, it made him look even more devilish then he normally looked, as if he were trying to hide something by covering his face. She looked at him, her green eyes wide and curious. "Did you really travel to all those places you said you were going to go to, Rhett?" She sat on the couch, offering him the chair next to her as she adjusted her skirts.
"Yes, Scarlett, I really did. I went all over Europe and to Brazil. I've been back in the States for about two months but had stops to make up north as well as here in the south. In fact, I've brought you some presents, as well as one for Miss Hamilton. I figured it would help ease her conscience about someone with my reputation coming to see you." He presented her with the two boxes meant for her, setting the third on a table nearby. "Are you really glad to see I made it back, Scarlett? Or is it just out of boredom. I often wondered if thoughts of me crossed your mind in my absence."
Color crept slightly to her face at his statement. Truthfully, her thoughts had wandered to Rhett many times over the past months. She had missed his visits, their talks and of course his gifts. "Why, Rhett, you know better than to ask me such a question. Of course I wondered about you. I mean, I grew somewhat accustomed to your spontaneous visits to Tara, and I found myself every once in a while wondering if you were ever coming back."
She looked at the presents and then to him, and when he indicated he wanted her to open the burgundy package first she did. Undoing the gray ribbon she couldn't help but wonder what it was. Having been to all those foreign places, it could be anything. Upon opening the box and removing the tissue paper she pulled out two pair of silk stockings. She glanced up at Rhett, her cheeks coloring further at such an intimate gift.
She allowed her fingertips to trace the fabric lightly. "Did you really buy these for me?"
She looked from the stockings to him wondering briefly how many other women he might buy stockings for. It had been so long since she'd had anything new, the fact that she should have been insulted by such a gift never entered her mind. The stockings felt so smooth underneath her fingers, and they were new. Oh, what some of the women she knew would do if they knew she had new stockings, a luxury no one allowed oneself lately. She bit her lip slightly as she looked at Rhett the thought that she shouldn't accept them finally entering her mind. Obviously if he hadn't wanted her to have them he wouldn't have bought them.
Rhett laughed heartily, knowing full well what Scarlett was thinking. "Of course they're for you, Scarlett. Contrary to what you may think, there are certainly few women I go out of my way to buy gifts for. And trust me when I say you're in very good company. Aren't you going to open the other one? I bought it thinking you'd get upset at me over the stockings. So, maybe I better take it back and save it for another visit." He smirked slightly, his right eyebrow arching as he took in her shocked expression. "I'm teasing you, Scarlett. I can't bear the thought of a girl like you not having something new. I'm not cruel enough to take this one from you." He watched as she picked up the second box.
Scarlett couldn't believe he had brought her two presents. She unwrapped the second box anxiously; hoping her excitement wasn't overly apparent. Inside the box lay two silver hair combs, each having a single round emerald stone in the center. She smiled as she took them into her delicate hands. "Oh Rhett, they're beautiful. But really you are too generous. How can I accept them without people thinking badly of me?" She ran her fingers along the silver teeth; oh, they were obviously well made and expensive. Then again, she didn't believe Rhett was capable of buying anything inexpensive or poorly made, as was evident by the gifts he'd given her thus far and his impeccable taste in clothing. If her mother found out that she'd accepted such an expensive gift and the stockings she'd surely have her head.
"There you go. Who cares what people think of me for giving them to you? Is that it, Scarlett?" He laughed slightly. "It's all right, if I were concerned with what people thought of me I certainly wouldn't be sitting here in Miss Hamilton's parlor alone with you. I stopped worrying about my reputation long ago; you'd be surprised how refreshing it is. It was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders." He smiled lightly as he pulled a cigarette out of his case and lit it. "So, what brings you to Atlanta, Miss O'Hara? Don't tell me you're here out of kindness either, I know there's something more to it then that. The third gift by the way is for the other ladies of the house, some chocolate truffles from Paris. I knew if I came bearing gifts for you without some sort of temptation for the others I'd not be allowed back again."
"Oh well, Aunt Pitty is not chaperoned and wanted Melly with her, so I came too. Things are so boring at Tara and Mother thought it would do me good to be in the city for a while." Scarlett sighed slightly. "Of course Suellen can't stand the idea that I'm here and she's not, but she's always been jealous of me anyway."
She put the hair combs back into their box with the stockings. She looked up at him suddenly, sensing he was watching her; there was something in his eyes. They were always intense, that much she knew but this look was different. It was almost as though he was looking for something in her. She shuddered slightly as she put the cover on the box. "How long are you in town for, Rhett?"
"Well, that depends, my dear. On a few other things, you are one of them. Since you're here in town, perhaps you'd let me take you out for a right proper night of dinner and dancing, certainly much better then the one I gave you in Jonesboro. The restaurants are better here, not to mention your face looks much prettier without a big old bruise on it." He smiled as he thought back to that evening. She had genuinely thought he wouldn't want to be seen with her.
Scarlett couldn't help but laugh, though the thought was embarrassing. "Yes, I'm sure I must have looked a fright, and you truly were kind to take me out anyway. I'm sure the thought crossed your mind that being seen with me in such a state would ruin your reputation. I really did have a nice time, though." She lowered her eyes to the box again. "And really, Rhett, you don't have to bring me such expensive gifts. Most girls might get the wrong impression if you continue to bring them gifts."
"I'm sure most girls would, but then you're not most girls so I knew I wouldn't have to worry about that happening." He smirked slightly, one eyebrow rising in sync with the corner of his mouth. "My next trip will be up north, is there anything in particular you would like me to bring for you? A bonnet, slippers to go with the new stockings, perfume? You name it, my dear, and it shall be yours. I'm kind of taking it to heart, Scarlett, keeping you looking pretty. You're one of the few women I know of who not only needs to be kept pretty, but deserves to be, too." He stood suddenly. "Let's say you grab your parasol and we go for a walk. You can't tell me there's not someone standing with his or her ear pressed against the door right now. It's a nice day, and I'll be the envy of all Atlanta I'm sure walking with you on my arm." He smiled slightly, as he offered her assistance in standing from the couch.
Scarlett smiled at him, her eyes glimmering slightly. It had been quite some time since she'd gone for a walk with a beau who was as well dressed as Rhett was. The ones that were in Atlanta to court her were looking rather ragged these days. She took the box of truffles from the table and walked toward the parlor doors. "Yes, it is a nice day, isn't it? Let me tell Pittypat and Melly that I'm going outside and give them the chocolates. How smart you are Rhett? You really do know women. I'll be right back." She left without waiting for a response to her statement. She returned a few minutes later with a parasol that had seen better days and waited for Rhett near the parlor doors before walking to the front door.
When they had gotten outside, Scarlett took his arm with her free hand, the other hand holding the parasol above her head. It was a sunny and warm day, but not too hot. The streets and walkways were dry due to their having been no rain lately. Scarlett knew the looks they were receiving, she was fully aware of the fact Rhett wasn't well liked amongst Atlanta's folk, but she realized that she didn't care.
All she cared about is that she had by her side a handsome man who brought her gifts from all over the world for no apparent reason. He had maintained he never gave gifts without a reason, but so far he had not given any indication that his reasons were anything out of the ordinary.
She thought about the chocolates that Rhett had mentioned they had obviously either been for someone else or just something Rhett bought for such an occasion. He had no way of knowing she was staying in town with Pitty when he was in Europe. She pouted slightly, her mood shifting for a moment as she once again realized that she was not the only girl Rhett courted. She had no reason to be jealous, no reason to let it bother her that he saw other girls but she couldn't help but wonder what the other girls were like. Were they like her?
She had heard rumors since she'd been in town that Rhett lived with a woman while in Atlanta, but she had no way of knowing whether or not that was true. It seemed like there were more rumors about Rhett than known facts, and he was right in that the truffles went a long way toward Pitty letting Scarlett see Rhett without a chaperone. While living at Tara she wasn't privy to such gossip, but wherever she went in Atlanta it seemed people talked about him.
And while in one breath they praised his brave efforts to bring them goods that they needed and wanted, they ridiculed him in the next sentence because he seemingly didn't believe in the cause. "So what is it that brought you to Atlanta, Rhett? As much as I appreciate them I know you're not here to bring me some stockings and hair combs." She finally asked not sure if she wanted to hear the answer. Other than the couple times she'd been in town and run across him by accident at restaurants she had no idea what it was he did while here in Atlanta and she wasn't sure that she wanted to know. Surely if the rumors were true and he lived with another woman he wouldn't be so bold as to be seen with her on the streets of Atlanta.
Rhett smiled as he tipped his hat as they walked past a group of ladies who were chattering away. "How right you are, Scarlett, as charming as you can be it's not worth my time or energy to come to Atlanta simply to bring you gifts. Actually, I am here checking up on a couple of businesses I'm involved in to see if there's anything I will need to acquire on my next trip up north or overseas to ensure that Rhett Butler stays profitable. Though I have to admit the idea of actually getting to see those stockings on you did draw me here a bit faster than normal." He laughed, holding her hand on to his arm firmly but gently as he felt her begin to withdraw her hand.
Scarlett struggled to get out of his grasp, but realizing that he was too strong instead just stopped walking. "Rhett, how dare you say such a thing. Is that why you requested a walk, so that you could be rude to me in public thinking that I wouldn't slap you." She lowered her parasol slightly without thinking, a stern look on her face as she held her head up proudly. "I can assure you, Rhett Butler, you will never have the opportunity to see those stockings or any other stockings on me in your lifetime." Proud of herself, she lowered her chin slightly afraid of being watched and thought of as being too forward.
"Never is a word, Miss O'Hara, I've learned should be used sparingly because it always comes back to haunt you. I certainly wasn't suggesting right at this moment, but I'd be a liar if I didn't tell you I'm curious to know even what your ankles look like. And I assure you, my dear, one day I will see them." He smiled smugly, tipping his hat once again at passersby. "I've upset you, I can tell. Should I return you to Miss Hamilton's? Surely my company can't be less appealing to you then darning socks, baking bread or was it a quilt or bandages for the wounded you were tending to today. But if you want to return to that mundane existence, please don't let me keep you. I'm sure I can find another girl to walk with me; I am guessing there are quite a few girls your age in Atlanta lacking for male companionship. Though I doubt you're one of them." He smiled widely as he read Scarlett's eyes and in doing so her thoughts. He was well aware of the fact that she knew that he knew exactly what she was thinking and he could tell it did not make her happy.
Scarlett stopped short, not sure of what to say. He knew her so well, she hadn't realized how well until just that moment. Most women wouldn't mind at all sitting amidst Pitty, Melanie, Mrs. Merriwether, Mrs. Meade, and/or any of the other women who were there at any given moment and darn and sew and knead and bake, but Scarlett couldn't stand it.
She could scream out of boredom. There was hardly anything fun for her to do anymore, most of the men that were in town anymore were in town because they were injured soldiers and once they were well enough they returned to the front lines or ran away from their beloved cause having seen too much.
"Well, of course I'm happy to do those things, Rhett. But I do welcome a break every now and again. I don't know how some of those women can sit here day in and day out and do nothing but sew and bake and care for the sick or injured. It's enough to make me scream some days."
She lowered her eyes slightly. Truthfully, she had been happier to see Rhett than she'd been about anything lately; he was a welcome change from the monotony that came with the war. Of course, he was right about her beaux. Wherever Scarlett went there was never a lack of beaux for her to wrap around her fingers until she grew bored with them, but she never could stand the thought of sharing one of her beaux with anyone and that included Rhett. He was different she realized, he would see other women whether she was nice to him or not. This to her was the most perplexing thing of all, how was she to go about getting him to admit he was in love with her if he wasn't susceptible to whatever charm it was she had that appealed to most other men.
She was sure he loved her, so personal a gift as stockings would not be given to someone that was a mere acquaintance; she couldn't imagine even Rhett doing that. But he was so hard to read. His eyes told her everything, yet told her nothing at the same time. She was sure if she could figure out what his eyes said she could figure out his secret. She didn't know why she cared whether or not he loved her, but she did care that whatever the reason he was unwilling to tell her. "And the men you talk of, Rhett. Of course there are some for me to dance with, but most of them can't dance, smell bad or have a look in their eye that tells me even though they're with me they're not."
She blushed slightly realizing what she had said, hoping Rhett wouldn't find something in that statement to tease her with. Or even if he could that he would refrain. For some reason she was not in the mood for their usual barbs, and something inside her told her Rhett would know this and refrain.
"Yes, I understand what you mean, Scarlett." He stopped walking and turned to face her. "It's the look of a man who has seen death too many times. The look of someone who saw his brother, friend, or worse yet in this war his own father blown to bits in front of him. It's the look of a man who sees a girl like you, Scarlett, and is reminded of what it is he started fighting for but no longer sees the reason to fight. I'm sorry you have to see that look, Scarlett, but get used to it. You'll be seeing more and more of that look as the Union troops get further and further south pushing more and more soldiers toward Atlanta, thereby bringing more and more wounded here." He looked to the streets of Atlanta before them, returning his gaze to hers. "I'm sorry someone like you has to see this, Scarlett."
Scarlett looked at him, shocked. She had never really listened to his narratives before, but for some reason this one she had chosen to pay attention to and what he said rang true to her for some reason. "Why, Rhett. You talk as if you think we're going to lose the war." She raised her eyes, her green eyes gazing up at him fully no attempt at hiding them or at being coy. "Do you think the Yankees will win, Rhett?"
Rhett pondered a moment, looking at her trying to decide whether to be honest with her. Talking to the citizens of Atlanta as a whole was an entirely different story than telling a plantation belle that the world as she knew it was going to crumble around her. That the shambles that would remain in its place would make her wonder if the life she had once led had truly ever existed or been merely a dream.
"Yes, Scarlett, I think the Yankees will win." His voice was barely above a whisper as he spoke the words, unthinkingly taking her hands in his as he spoke. "The world as you know it will no longer exist in due time. There will be no Confederate flag; there will be no slaves, and the days of plantations like Tara thriving will be gone. There will of course be plantations like Tara that will survive and flourish, but only because those plantation owners have the money and wherewithal to afford free slaves and hired hands. I imagine your father will be one of the few to survive, because he has spirit and compassion and your mother to soften whatever roughness he may exhibit to the hired help." He added, realizing the full extent of what he had just said. He smiled slightly tightening his grasp around her hands slightly and then released them.
Scarlett dropped her hands to her sides hesitantly. She didn't want him to let go of her hands. Even though the words he spoke were hard for her to hear, she knew he spoke the truth or at least what he thought to be the truth, she wasn't angry with him and wanted the warmth and strength of his hands on hers. It was as if the strength of his hands coursed through her giving her further strength.
She was a strong person to begin with, she knew this for her father had told her many times she was the boy he had always wanted just in a girl's body. "I don't know what to say, Rhett. What you said sounds as if you've thought about it for quite some time, as if you really believe it." She paused, looking down ashamed of what she was about to say. Not that she was going to say it, but ashamed that she thought it to say it.
"And if you say that is how it will turn out, then I tend to believe you over all the others. Nobody around here travels and if they do, they certainly don't go to the places you travel to. I would imagine you would be one to listen to." She looked up at him, softness in her eyes. "Why don't they listen to you, Rhett? Why can a simple girl like me hear you and realize that the things you say ring true, but men who have gone to school and are doctors and lawyers cannot?"
"You're very perceptive, Scarlett, and I might add there is nothing simple about you. I will answer your question. Because, Scarlett, they don't want to believe it. I think some of them do believe it, or like you realize that I have traveled enough and have enough friends in various places to know what the situation is on both sides. I think most just don't want to admit it to themselves that by fighting this war they are bringing an end to the life they thinking they're fighting to save. It's a waste, Scarlett. When it's all said and done we're going to wonder what it is we fought for and why. Too many people have died, I'm sure you know plenty of young men who used to sit by you at barbecues and reel you around the dance floor who will no longer have the opportunity to sit by or dance with anyone again."
Rhett tried to hide his contempt, but found he could not and oddly did not feel uncomfortable for the passage that had just transpired between them. He truly believed that Scarlett did indeed understand him, and when he had said there was nothing simple about her he had been sincere. Indeed, she was far from being simple, because underneath the façade she put on to capture a man's heart lurked a person who he knew if given the opportunity could think and thrive on her own. He offered her his arm. "I should get you back to Miss Hamilton's or they will wonder what's become of you. Unless you had some place specific you wanted to walk to. I certainly don't want to ruin my chances of being allowed to call on you again so soon." He raised his eyebrow again, his eyes watching her with slight amusement.
Scarlett stared at him a moment before taking his arm. He drove her crazy with his little comments that could be taken so many ways. Comments that coming from most other people would be rude, but somehow the same comments coming from Rhett did not seem rude. "No, we wouldn't want that would we?" She smiled at him haphazardly, once again trying to figure out what it was he hid in his eyes. She said nothing as they returned to Pitty's, she excused herself to tell Pitty she had returned while Rhett went to wait for her in the parlor closing the doors behind him she noticed. Pitty and Melanie were both upstairs resting as it turned out, so Scarlett returned to the parlor with a twinkle in her eye. "It appears we're the only ones awake, aside from Uncle Peter and Prissy of course."
Rhett noticed the look in her eye and though he was tempted to comment said nothing. "Well, I should leave you to take your nap as well, Scarlett. I hadn't intended on keeping you for so long." He walked toward her and stopped when he was in front of her. "You better hide those stockings or I'll never be allowed back here, though you'll have to answer to how you came by them. You could always suggest you paid me for them, that you had asked me to procure you some fine silk stockings the last time I saw you. It's up to you."
He shrugged as he started to return to the couch area to retrieve his hat. Feeling Scarlett's eyes on him, he turned his head quickly enough that she was unable to look away. He stopped and returned to her, his strong arms encircling her tiny waist as he brought her to him. He looked at her when he heard her gasp and met her wide-eyed glance by bringing his mouth to hers for a demanding kiss. His lips pressed and probed against hers gently but there was no mistaking that this was not a friendly kiss. He felt her lips moist and warm against his respond briefly. He pulled away hesitantly, not wanting to push his luck looking at her as she stood before him with her eyes closed, her head tilted up in response to his kiss. "Open your eyes, Scarlett."
Scarlett gasped in surprise when Rhett took her into his arms. One minute he was walking away from her and the next minute he was pulling her to him, pressing her against his body. And then his mouth was on hers and for that moment she forgot that she shouldn't be standing in a room with the doors closed allowing a man to kiss her. What to do with her hands, she wondered. She pressed them against Rhett's chest, not able to think of anything else and she felt herself respond.
She felt weak in the knees, she was short of breath, and when he pulled away she was dizzy. She was going to faint, she thought. How embarrassing, to faint from a kiss. He'll think I've never been kissed before. But then he spoke and she opened her eyes, her mouth still recovering from the feel of his lips against hers. Unable to speak she looked up into his dark eyes, her green eyes unable to hide the effect his kiss had on her.
"I will call on you in a day or two, think about allowing me to see those ankles of yours will you?" He laughed lightly. "I'm kidding, Scarlett. There's no reason to get upset with me. I would hope I will be able to see the hair comb in use if nothing else." He released her from his grasp slowly and went to retrieve his hat. Returning to her side, he bowed slightly and kissed her hand politely above the wrist. "Good day, Scarlett."
Scarlett wanted to scream, yell; something to make sure her voice still worked. Hadn't he just kissed her? A kiss that for that moment made her forget she had ever been kissed before. Yet here he was leaving her without saying anything about what had just transpired. She stammered for something to say, uncomfortable with the fact that one kiss could leave her that way. "Of course I'll wear it, Rhett." She rolled her eyes at the silliness of the comment wanting to say something else, but then it was too late for he had already opened the parlor doors.
She followed him to the front door, the sound of her skirts rustling the only audible sound in the house at the moment. "Aren't you going to tell me what day, or are you going to keep me guessing?" She smiled slightly, an attempt to hide the affect he'd had on her.
"I'll keep you guessing, Scarlett. A girl like you needs to be kept on her toes." He replaced his hat on his head and turned to walk away, leaving her standing within the open door.
Scarlett closed the door behind her, leaning her back against it as she bit her lower lip slightly. What did he mean by that, she wondered? And then she wondered if he would try and kiss her again. Of course he would, but next time she would be prepared for it and could react better, maybe even stop him altogether. She couldn't have him thinking he could just kiss her whenever he pleased.
She brought her right hand up to her chest, resting it against her heart, which had quickened even at the thought of his kissing her again. Her thoughts drifted to Ashley briefly, Ashley's kisses had never had that sort of effect on her. Actually, no one's had. Rhett's kiss had left her breathless and light headed. Usually she was just bored when someone kissed her. She waved her hand in front of her face.
She couldn't think about that now. She'd think about it tomorrow, she needed to get those stockings put away.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com