Chapter Ten
Word Count: 11,835

It was three days later when Scarlett saw Rhett next. She was sitting on the porch while Melanie and Pitty had gone to bring some fresh bandages and blankets to the hospital. Scarlett opted not to go, having had her fill of the dying and disease of the hospital earlier that day. It had been an unusually hot day for September and Scarlett had a glass of lemonade pressed against her forehead trying to cool off. Still dressed in the frock she had worn to the hospital, an older gray dress with the first four buttons unfastened leaving the upper portion of her chest exposed. It felt good in the slight breeze to have cooler air on her flesh.

She removed the glass from its place against her forehead, tilted her head back and closed her eyes. Taking advantage of the fact that it was dark enough that while someone standing on the street might be able to make her figure out on the porch that they would not be able to see how she sat she remained seated like this longer than she normally would have. She must have dozed off slightly because she was brought to attention by the sound of footsteps on the porch. Her eyes shot open and she knew her face was as crimson as a rose when she saw that it was Rhett standing before her. How long had she been like that, she wondered? And how long had he been standing there? "You should announce yourself, Rhett, rather than taking me by surprise like that."

Rhett smirked slightly as he glanced at Scarlett sitting before him his eyes immediately drawn to the little bit of exposed flesh. "My apologies, Miss O'Hara. I did not realize you were resting. It was a long day I take it? May I sit?" He sat in the chair next to hers when she indicated he could.

"You might want to take the opportunity to button up, Scarlett. That's all I need is for Miss Hamilton or Mrs. Wilkes to think I came here to take advantage of you when you were in the house alone." He grinned widely as she reached for her dress. "It's all right, Scarlett, I've certainly seen women display more than that. I won't tell anyone." He took the glass of lemonade that she had been holding so that she had both hands free to refasten the buttons.

Scarlett fastened the buttons quickly, her eyes never leaving Rhett's her cheeks burning even further at his comment about other women. "I know you wouldn't tell anyone." She collected herself, smoothing out the bodice and skirts of her dress. "You're looking well, Rhett. Although I don't know why I should be surprised, I don't think I've ever seen you look anything but. You certainly don't seem to be suffering any from the war."

"Well, now Scarlett, that's the first comment resembling a compliment I've gotten out of you in all the time I've known you. What's this is your heart softening? Have I managed to poke a hole in that armor you so ardently guard around your heart? I'd have to agree with you, though. One will not hear me complain about the effect the war has had on me. I have traveled all over the world, had myself a good time and made myself some money while I was at it." He sat back in the chair watching Scarlett in the little light the dusk allowed. "How is it you came to be here by yourself tonight? I'm surprised Miss Hamilton allowed it."

"Well, Prissy's inside of course. I stayed because I'm waiting for word from Tara. One of us tries to remain at home; during the day it's Pitty who stays. I received word from Mr. Tarleton when he was here last week that my mother was ill. He promised to send word for me when he returned to Clayton County. He claimed it was nothing serious, but I'm worried. Mother's never been sick a day in her life, Rhett."

She paused placing her hand on top Rhett's as a thought came to her. "Why she's the one the sick come to when they're in need of care. I can't tell you how many nights our dinner was delayed because Mother came in late and prayers needed to be said before dinner. How could one so good and strong take ill?"

She bit her lip, trying to fight back the tears that were forming in her eyes. It was the first time she allowed herself to think of the fact that her mother was indeed human and not immortal. Realizing her hand still rested on Rhett's she removed it slowly embarrassed that she had so freely touched him.

Rhett's eyes remained on his hand where Scarlett's had just lain. It was moments like this that he couldn't help but wonder if she had feelings for him. "You've known this for over a week and Miss Hamilton hasn't put you on the first train back to Jonesboro. I'm surprised at her. And more surprised at you, Scarlett, that you didn't mention anything about this to me the other day. Have Prissy pack your bags and I'll bring you to Tara tonight. Miss Hamilton and Mrs. Wilkes can survive without you for a few days while you reassure yourself your mother will be all right. I won't take no for an answer, Scarlett. I'll not have it on my conscious if something should happen to her that I did not act forcibly enough to get you to Tara."

Scarlett looked up at Rhett shocked when she realized that he wasn't joking. He couldn't be serious. "You would do that for me, Rhett? I don't know what I've done to deserve someone like you."

She went inside telling Prissy to pack her bags and returned to Rhett outdoors a few minutes later. She sat relieved, feeling like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Somehow she knew that Rhett would take care of everything. He always did.

"You really are full of surprises and make it difficult for me to know what to believe about you. You are kind to me, are always there to rescue me it seems, bring me gifts seemingly without expecting anything in return and yet I hear so many things about you here in town that speak to the contrary of the behavior you display towards me."

She looked at him curiously wondering if there was anything simple about him. He claimed not to be a gentleman, to not want to marry but yet he had never acted ungentlemanly toward her and appeared to be courting her as a beau interested in marriage would. She brushed a lock of hair from her face as she realized that unlike any beau she had ever had, he was always there for her. He might laugh at her, they might exchange words but somehow she knew that she could count on him.

"Well, Scarlett, in my experience it's better to judge for yourself rather than listen to others. Perhaps the people who speak ill of me have done little to warrant my proving them wrong. Perhaps I've not asked anything of you because I'm saving them all for one big request. Or perhaps it's simply the fact that I've never met anyone like me before and I feel that it is my duty to somehow bring what's buried within you out. I just hope I'm here the day that all my hard work pays off."

It was then that Prissy came to the door with Scarlett's bags. Rhett stood and took them from Prissy bringing them to his carriage and returning to Scarlett.

"You'd best get a wrap, it's liable to get cold and be sure and leave a note for Miss Hamilton." He smirked slightly knowing that she wouldn't have thought of this courtesy had he not mentioned it as he took his hat from the table. "I'll be waiting by the carriage."

Scarlett nodded absent mindedly as she watched him descend the porch steps, oddly finding comfort in Rhett's taking charge, and telling her what to do. She got a wrap from upstairs and scribbled a note to Pitty and Melly telling them where she was going and that she would return once she knew what was going on with her mother. Leaving the note with Prissy she shut the door behind her and made her way to Rhett's carriage. He stood upon seeing her walk toward him, helping her in her cheeks flushing once again at the contact between them. She adjusted her skirt and her wrap as Rhett got in alongside her.

"I'm afraid this may be an interesting trip, Athena is not used to being hitched up to a carriage so I apologize in advance for any discomfort the ride may cause." Hoping she would not inquire as to where Apollo was he started Athena on her way towards Tara. They rode in silence for most of the trip, Rhett sensing Scarlett's apprehension about what she might find when she returned to Tara and her desire to be left alone to her thoughts. Not knowing what was wrong with her mother Rhett could offer little help in soothing her worries. It was dark by the time they reached Rough and Ready Pass where Rhett stopped and let Athena rest. She had done well so far, surprisingly for her first time guiding a full carriage. Rhett looked over at Scarlett who had fallen asleep with her head resting on his shoulder. Not wanting to disturb her, he remained seated in the carriage while Athena rested. When he felt she had rested long enough he started her on her way again. It was a good thing he knew his way well enough for it was a dark night, there were clouds in the sky limiting his vision.

When they arrived at Tara, Rhett removed himself as gently as he could from the carriage so as not to disturb Scarlett while he tied up Athena. Taking Scarlett into his arms, he carried her up the porch stairs knocking on the door with his foot. Scarlett wasn't heavy by any means, but it was late and he had had to work pretty hard controlling Athena on the ride out here, his arms were sore.

Mammy opened the door, surprise evident on her face to see Scarlett. After being told everyone was asleep, Rhett asked Mammy to lead the way to Scarlett's room. He laughed lightly when he saw the look that came across her face. "Of course I ask that you come with us, Mammy. I wouldn't dare venture past the first floor without you. I just want to get her into her bed and unless you plan on carrying her yourself you'll have to lead the way."

She shook her head in displeasure, but led the way upstairs nonetheless. Rhett set Scarlett on her bed barely taking in his surroundings knowing that Mammy was watching him like a hawk. One false move on his part and Mammy could put an end to his calling on Scarlett for good, and though nothing was said they were both well aware of that fact.

He waited outside Scarlett's bedroom door while Mammy got her ready and into bed. "Join me downstairs, won't you please, Mammy, since you're the only one awake." Mammy followed him downstairs and joined him in the parlor. He asked about Mrs. O'Hara's condition and Mammy informed him that it was just a bad case of influenza. Pleased at the news Rhett inquired as to whether Mammy would see it in her heart to prepare the room for him upstairs he had slept in once before. It had been a long day; one ending in a trip he hadn't planned on taking with a horse that wasn't accustomed to a carriage being hitched to her. Realizing that Mammy didn't care for him, but that she would feel indebted to him for having brought Scarlett to Tara on such short notice, he made the request knowing that she would give in and allow him to stay.

He followed Mammy upstairs to the third floor, stopping on the second floor so she could get some sheets and a pillow for the bed. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He woke the next morning, dressed in the same suit he had on the night before for lack of any other clothes to dress in and went downstairs. He found Suellen and Carreen sitting at the table enjoying breakfast, both of them almost dropping their spoons when they saw him enter the kitchen.

Apparently, Mammy had neglected to inform them of his presence. "Good morning, ladies. I see that my presence comes as a bit of a surprise. I trust you weren't aware of your oldest sister's presence yet either." He sat at the table as one of the servants set a plate out for him, not showing any surprise at seeing him there. Of course, she wasn't Rhett thought, servants knew things before the head of the house sometimes. He sat with Scarlett's sisters listening to them talk of what had been happening at Tara since Scarlett left, instantly understanding why it was Scarlett tolerated Carreen more than Suellen.

Scarlett woke the next morning wondering briefly where she was and why it was Mammy's voice she heard coming from somewhere in the room instead of Prissy's. It all came back to her then. She opened her eyes and after being reassured by Mammy that her mother's illness was nothing to worry about let Mammy dress her for the day in a white cotton day dress with a dark green print and a matching sash tied around the waist. Mammy fastened her hair back with bows the same color and material as the sash. She thought of Rhett and the fact that she had to be sure to thank him when she next saw him for bringing her here. He was right she did need to be here. Not only for her mother, but something inside her was missing being so far from Tara for so long. Pa had told her once she got her strength from Tara, that it was in her blood. She was beginning to think he wasn't talking nonsense at all as she had thought he was at the time the statement was made.

She went to her mother's room, sitting with her for more than an hour before realizing how hungry she was. She had missed dinner the night before; her offer to bring her mother breakfast was rejected so she went downstairs somewhat out of sorts after seeing her mother that way. Throughout Scarlett's life her mother had never been lazy or remained in bed for very long in the mornings. In fact, she was up before some of the servants were sometimes.

To see her mother lying in bed after eight o'clock was something Scarlett had never seen. Mammy had assured her it was just a bad case of influenza, that she would recover in time but Scarlett couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't just wishful thinking. When she got to the bottom of the stairs she was startled to hear Rhett's voice coming from the kitchen. She didn't know why she hadn't expected him to be here this morning; it must have been quite late when they had gotten to Tara last night after all. Of course he would have been tired and she knew that despite Mammy thinking it was improper she would have put Rhett up for the night seeing as how he was the one responsible for bringing Scarlett home to Tara.

She took a moment to straighten out her dress wondering why Mammy hadn't dressed her in something more suitable for being around Rhett. She still had plenty of clothes at Tara; there should have been something better than what she wore. She bit her lip slightly, took a breath, and walked toward the kitchen and Rhett's voice. A smile crawled to her lips as he heard Rhett telling Suellen and Carreen a tale from his many adventures overseas the past months.

"Pirates indeed, Rhett. And you defeated them all by yourself I imagine. Stop filling my little sisters' heads with such tales portraying yourself as the gallant hero." A hint of mischief was evident in her eyes, being replaced by one of worry as she realized that she had addressed him so informally in front of her sisters. Surely, they would tell Pa and then Pa would question Scarlett about Rhett's intentions. What if he no longer called on her after that? Scarlett couldn't bear that thought, despite what she may have told Rhett she had grown rather fond of him and his visits over the past two years. How could she have been so careless?

Rhett stood when Scarlett entered the kitchen. "To the contrary, Miss O'Hara, I believe I've shown myself to be quite the hero a few times in your presence. Perhaps not defeating pirates, but I'm always gallant when rescuing fair maidens." He quipped with a smirk on his face as he noticed color creep to her cheeks. "I was just entertaining the younger two Miss O'Hara's with tales of foreign lands and people while I waited for you to venture downstairs. Now that you're here perhaps you'd accompany for a brief walk outside after you've eaten before I return to Atlanta." He retook his seat as Scarlett sat next to him at the table as Suellen and Carreen sat on the other side of the table across from him.

Scarlett didn't realize quite how hungry she was until the food was put before her and despite the fact that she was supposed to eat lightly in front of a man she didn't care this morning for such rules. Surely Rhett would understand not to mention with his having a sister he would know that ladies did indeed have appetites.

"Yes, I would love a walk this morning, Mr. Butler. I'm afraid it's been simply too long since I've been able to enjoy the fresh air here at Tara. Mother is resting, Mammy says she usually wakes up for a bit in the afternoons so as long as I'm back to the house by then I'll accompany you for the morning." She noticed his curious look at her addressing him as Mr. Butler and she looked at him pleadingly hoping he would not comment.

Understanding Scarlett's reasons for referring to him formally, Rhett said nothing and went on to tell Suellen and Carreen more stories of the people he encountered. He told them of his experiences with Ireland, all three of them were curious to hear about his tales of Ireland, wondering if it lived up in reality to what their father made it to be. Not one to dash the hopes of the three of them, or to do anything to lessen their opinion of their father and his homeland he built Ireland up as best he could.

It was a beautiful country; there was no denying that. But it was also a country with a lot of problems that were better left unspoken of. When Scarlett had finished eating and went to retrieve a parasol from her room, Rhett excused himself from the kitchen table and went to wait for Scarlett in the foyer. He smirked slightly as she came downstairs with a pink parasol. "This is a day to make note of in my memoirs. Scarlett O'Hara is not the picture of fashion and style. Really, Miss O'Hara, you couldn't do better than a pink parasol?" He knew, of course, while she more than likely had some things here at Tara, things such as coordinating parasols weren't something she had thought of when leaving Atlanta last night. For all he knew, the parasol she was using was that of her mother or sisters.

Scarlett got to the bottom step and laughed at his words. "You mean pink and green don't match? And here all these years I've been going around thinking they did." She batted her eyes with a giggle, her dimples flashing as she tilted her head up slightly to meet his gaze. She put her hand on his arm enjoying the surprised look on his face to her reaction to his comment. "Well, are we going to go for a walk or not?" Her smile widened as she tapped his arm lightly with the top of her parasol.

Rhett opened the door allowing Scarlett to pass through the doorway first with him closing the door behind him as he exited Tara. He placed his hand under her elbow as he helped her descend the porch steps and shifted his arm so that she could place her hand on his arm as they walked toward the spot at Tara they always seemed to end up.

"You never cease to amaze me, Scarlett. I take it you haven't informed your family as to how often you've seen me, or are you afraid that they'll think I've compromised you somehow if you address me as Rhett. Surely after over two years of having made my acquaintance you have the right to call me Rhett." He stopped, turning to look at her. "Or are you afraid, Scarlett? Afraid perhaps that if you reveal your informality toward me you might need to admit things to yourself and others about me?"

He looked at her intensely, his dark eyes looking deeply into her green ones looking for something there. Did she care for him? There were times he went away from their meetings with the feeling that she did care for him, and there were times that he honestly couldn't figure her out. She kept her heart guarded so closely that he wondered if he would ever make a dent in it. How many more times did he have to demonstrate he was there for her at the drop of a hat?

Scarlett gazed into his eyes, feeling as though she were lost in them for a moment. She couldn't figure out why he was looking at her like that, so she lowered her head slightly so that their eyes were no longer in contact. "Just what are you insinuating I might need to admit, Rhett? I'm not afraid to call you by your name, but under the circumstances with my mother ill I found it best not to give Suellen and Carreen something to gossip about. I just want my mother to get well without her having to worry about you. If she thought I was in Atlanta spending time with you, Rhett, she'd worry. Pa has always been on your side about things, ever since that night that you intervened with Mr. Whiting." Color crept to her cheeks as the memory came back to her. "But Mother has always carried doubts about you. Thinking because of your reputation, which of course she won't tell me anything about, you are somehow only spending time with me to compromise me. Pa and I have assured her that this isn't the case. I told her that while you've given me gifts, you've never even so much as asked for a kiss in return. Perhaps she doesn't believe me; perhaps she thinks that you're just saving it all up to request more than a kiss in return for all of your kindnesses. So no, Rhett, it has nothing to do with not wanting to admit anything, I just don't want my mother to worry and delay her recovery any." She placed one gloved hand on his forearm and peered up at him, her parasol giving the shade required. "Surely you can understand that. You speak bitterly of your father, but I've never once heard you utter an unkind word about your mother. So that tells me you're fond of her, and that you too would do nothing to cause her any problems."

Rhett placed his free hand on top of Scarlett's tiny gloved one that rested on his forearm, patting it gently. "Yes, of course, you're right. I still wish you'd do away with the Mr. Butler's altogether. But if you must here at Tara, I understand." They walked a few paces more in silence before stopping at the spot they normally walked to at Tara. "Tell me something, Scarlett. Since you spoke of my reputation. What is it you've heard about me? And why is it, assuming you've even heard only a hint of the gossip about me, you continue to let me call on you? No respectable woman would, aside from Mrs. Wilkes of course, but she would see kindness in a Union soldier given the right circumstances." He helped Scarlett take a seat on the ground, placing his jacket underneath her to prevent her dress from getting soiled. He took her slippers off, surprised she allowed him to do this, and set them at her side. He laughed slightly. "Now I see why you let me do that. You're wearing your stockings. I'm proud of you, Scarlett, and while I could I will not take the liberty of viewing your ankles. I'll save it for a more appropriate moment."

Scarlett let a small smile crawl to her lips. The feel of Rhett's hands on her feet was rather exhilarating she had to admit. "They are beautiful stockings, Rhett." She looked at him a moment, his hair slightly out of place, his shirt rumpled from being worn the day before yet he still exuded confidence and was too handsome for his own good. Even she had to admit that.

She almost avoided his question about his reputation and what she'd heard, but since he'd brought it up she figured it was acceptable to discuss. "As far as your reputation, Rhett. I really haven't heard much. Of course, whenever the men begin to talk about you or anything else, we women are shipped out of the room to sew and gossip amongst ourselves in another room. The only rumor that really has me perplexed is that people say you live with a woman. But by your actions and the things you've said, I don't know that I believe that." There, she had said it, and somehow she felt relieved.

Rhett laughed loudly as he let his fingers trace over Scarlett's slippers. "Is that what they say about me? It's not nearly as bad as I'd hoped. Well, if you want to be technical, Scarlett, I live with three women. I have rooms in houses in both New York and Charleston that I rent from women." He lifted his eyes slightly to meet hers before he continued. "As far as here in Atlanta, a friend of mine runs a saloon and when I'm in town I do stay there from time to time when I've had too much to drink or after a late night poker game. But whoever it is that is saying these things about me really should get their facts straight. I have never come to Atlanta without a room at the Atlanta Hotel not only being reserved but also being utilized during my stay. Now I certainly won't lie to you, Scarlett, and tell you that I have spent every night in my hotel room." He smiled widely. "So, it's not the idea that I see other women that has you disturbed, it's the fact that I might be living with one of them. Is that it?" He laughed as he saw her blush and avoid his gaze.

He moved his fingers from Scarlett's slippers to the back of her hand, his fingers lightly tracing over her hand and fingers. "I get talked about, Scarlett because, like you, I'm different then everyone else. You're young yet, but you'll learn as I have that life is too short to live by all the rules society has set forth for you to follow. I haven't talked to my father in over ten years, another aspect of my reputation I'm sure you've heard of. But tell me, Scarlett, am I doing anything wrong or improper sitting here with you now? I was doing no worse the day of the now famous buggy incident when the wheel from the carriage fell off and I got the girl home after dusk. Surely, I shouldn't have married some whiney schoolgirl because my carriage threw a wheel. Just as you won't marry just anyone, because you know that you couldn't conform to what the typical county beau would expect from you as his wife."

He watched her with interest as she made no effort to move her hand from under his fingers and she appeared to be listening to him. "You speak of adoration and admiration for your mother, but I think as much as you admire and adore her you realize - deep down within you at any rate, it may not have surfaced yet - that you could not lead her life. You could not bear your husband six children burying three of them before their first birthday. You could not quietly run a plantation, care for the sick and dying, darn socks and sew buttons on shirts, and run the house on top of it without expecting some sort of recognition in return. It's quite simply not you; you were made for better things. Even your father knows it. Who is it he goes to when he's had too much to drink and needs assistance? I'd wager it's you and not Mrs. O'Hara, because in you he has someone who is like him. In you he has someone who understands him. Young Carreen is your mother all over again, Savannah grace, charm and tranquility. A Robillard through and through she is. Young Suellen, I've not seen any of the ill behaviors you have spoken of, but I imagine she's more evenly mixed of O'Hara and Robillard. She probably has the temper and stubbornness yet still has the Robillard charm in her to set it off. You, on the other hand, while you have more charm than should be legally allowed, are no Robillard."

He raised his hand slightly, stopping her from arguing with him. "That was not meant as an insult. I saw that painting in the parlor, that was your grandmother, yes?" He continued as she nodded in the affirmative. "Have you ever noticed you resemble her? I suppose you haven't and no one would point it out to you either. I saw the way she was dressed, rather provocatively, showing some of her bosom no less. I imagine it's she that is within you from the Robillard lineage rather than your grandfather who bears the Robillard name. You are a strong woman, Scarlett O'Hara, probably stronger than you realize because you've yet to encounter anything in your short life to test your strength. But one day you will be tested and when people like Mrs. Wilkes, Miss Merriwether, and Miss Elsing are crying over what to do you will be the one who knows what to do. They will not like you for it; women never like women who are stronger than them for some reason. They feel it's unladylike or a poor reflection on your gender." He shrugged. "I personally find the other type of ladies boring and rather dull."

He paused and without another word, lifted her hand to his lips, kissing the top of it then turning it around so he could kiss the palm of her hand. His lips parted slightly as he kissed her hand. Lifting his lips from her hand as he looked into her eyes. "And you, Miss O'Hara, are not remotely boring or dull."

Scarlett was entranced by Rhett's words; he spoke as if he really meant the things he said. Did he really think those things about her? Or was this an attempt to get her to lower her guard so that he might request something improper. She thought about what he had said about her grandmother Robillard and realized that he might be right. Mammy had always maintained that she was different, always attributing it to her Pa. Scarlett wondered if between the blood of her Pa and her grandmother she was just doomed to be different than the other girls she knew. She was brought out of her thoughts when Rhett took her hand and began kissing it.

She was frozen for a moment unable to pull her hand away, unable to react at all. She stared at his lips on her hand unbelieving that she wasn't shouting at him to stop. Suddenly she felt as though she was going to pass out. Her breathing had accelerated; her heart was beating as quickly as a jackrabbit's. Mammy must have tied her corset too tight. She couldn't believe a mere kiss to her hand could create such sensations within her. Brent or Stu's kisses never made her feel like this, no one's had.

And then he stopped kissing her hand; the warmth of his lips replaced by the coolness of the air against the moistness on her hand where his lips had been. He was looking at her now, saying something but she couldn't hear him. Her head was spinning. She smiled slightly; hoping that would be a sufficient response to whatever it is he said. Oh dear, she thought, there certainly has to be something inappropriate in what he just did. Surely, nothing appropriate would cause feelings within me to stir as they had. And if mother found out, she wouldn't allow me to return to Atlanta. It wasn't so much that Atlanta held any attraction for her, but at least there were balls and parties for her to attend there. Parties and balls and barbecues had stopped in Clayton County quite a while ago.

Rhett smirked slightly as his eyes fell to her bosom and waist, seeing her chest rise and fall quickly. "Well, it appears you don't find me boring or dull either. That's good to know. Sometimes I wonder if the things that affect other girls have the same effects on you, I'm pleased to know that at least my kisses do." He released her hand from his and spoke quietly. He didn't really want to leave, but he knew he should. "I suppose I should be getting you back to the house and myself to Atlanta. People are going to wonder what happened to me and I fear if I stay in your presence much longer today that I will do something inappropriate that will make you believe those rumors about me after all." He winked slightly as he took her slippers in his hands and gently placed them on her feet.

Scarlett stared at him, still unsure whether she could speak. Why did he keep doing this to her? The other day he kissed her like she'd never been kissed before and then left as if nothing happened. And today he was doing the same thing. Was he toying with her? Was he seeing if she could be tempted to do more than kiss him? She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. She had so many questions running through her head that she didn't know where to even begin. She dropped her gaze from his eyes to his hands that were on the ground by her feet. They were so big and strong capable of doing many hateful things yet whenever he touched her it was always with a seemingly sincere tenderness as if he had taken it upon himself to be her protector.

She closed her eyes wondering what she was going on about. She was thinking about him as if she cared for him, almost as if she were in love with him. But she couldn't be in love with him. She loved Ashley and suddenly she realized that it had been quite some time since she'd thought of Ashley in that way.

Sure she thought of him because Melly talked about him all the time. But it was different; she couldn't place the difference. She had loved him for so long that she had never thought to imagine life without him in it or without her loving him. She dismissed her thoughts; of course she still loved Ashley. He was everything she wanted in a man, if only Melly wasn't in the way she'd have been married to him long ago.

She looked at Rhett again.

He was handsome and generous, was always willing to show her a good time and always seemed to know when she needed a good time. He was kind to her, never teasing her about the situations she got herself into even though she realized he had plenty of reason to tease her. She recalled him talking about how alike they were and she realized that he was more right than she had cared to admit at one time. She thought of her mother, Melanie, Mrs. Merriwether, and Mrs. Meade, Scarlett knew that no matter how hard she tried she could never be like them. She had tried to be like them, but even in her efforts to be like them she stood out.

She had a brain and wasn't afraid to use it, something most other women she knew lacked. While it was nice to read, she preferred to hear about real life. Rhett's stories that he told in the kitchen were far more enjoyable than fables she had been read as a child were because they were real, or at least he said they were real. She smiled at the thought of his stories, the pirates he had talked about. He had told her once that his grandfather was a pirate, she wondered if he had embellished on his excursion tales by including some of his grandfather's tales in with his own.

Rhett watched Scarlett intently; her facial expressions seemed to go through a wide variety of emotions in so short a time span. But when he saw her smile, it was a genuine smile. Whatever it was she was thinking about, it made her happy. "What has you smiling, Scarlett?"

Grateful for the sudden change in mood and topic, she returned her gaze to meet his eyes. "Oh, Rhett, I was thinking of the stories you were telling us at breakfast. You are such a good storyteller, you'll make a wonderful father one day."

Rhett laughed loudly. "And what makes you say that, Scarlett? Because I can tell a story well, hold someone's attention. Well, I don't think fatherhood is in the cards for me, my dear. Generally, one needs to marry in order to have children and that's one voyage I do not care to embark upon. Now if I could have the children without the wife I might be tempted. But so far I have yet to find a woman who is willing to bear me a child and then leave me and the child alone." He smiled, his head cocked slightly to the side as he watched the befuddled look on her face. "I have a little boy that I'm guardian to, he'll be three this Christmas and you're right he is highly entertained by my stories but I believe he's as close as I'll ever get to a child of my own. It's a shame really, for some reason children are fond of me though I have yet to figure out why. I certainly don't do anything to encourage their admiration."

"Because you're kind hearted and you're gentle, Rhett, and play the role of hero rather well. Who wouldn't be fond of you?" She looked away suddenly; embarrassed she had actually said that aloud. Oh dear, she thought; now he was going to think she was in love with him.

Rhett looked at her curiously. "I think you're delirious, Scarlett. This talk of these qualities you say I possess is surely someone else speaking. I've known you close to three years and until the last twenty-four hours failed to receive one compliment from you. It's almost too much for me to take in at one time. Perhaps I shall faint." He smiled and stood, offering her his hand. "We really should be getting back, as much as I'd like to hear you go on about these positive qualities I possess."

She stood, one hand taking his offered hand her parasol in her other hand. She placed her free hand on his arm as they began to walk back to Tara. She didn't know what to say, for what she had said was true. When Rhett wanted to, he could probably charm a snake. Who wouldn't be fond of him? She suddenly realized that the reason the people of Atlanta did not like Rhett was because he didn't want them to. For if he cared and wanted them to like him, they would. She knew that without a doubt.

She looked at him with a sidelong glance, wondering just why he didn't want to be liked. Realizing it was none of her business, she did not ask. He obviously had his reasons. Perhaps it was what they had talked about the other day; no one wanted to listen to his reasoning. They thought he was foolish and disrespecting the cause, when in actuality he was speaking of facts and truths that if any of his critics had ventured out of Atlanta further than Jonesboro or Macon they would know too. Yes, that must be the reason, she realized and she was proud of herself for having figured it out on her own.

They returned to the house walking in silence as both were seemingly engrossed in their own thoughts. Rhett escorted her up the porch steps and to the front door. He took her hand, kissing it politely above the wrist his lips barely grazing the skin but she felt the kiss nonetheless, the warmth of his breath on her wrist made her tingle. He then surprised her; he kissed her on the cheek. She blushed for fear someone might have seen.

"I will return in a few days time, Scarlett. Surely, that should give you enough time to spend with your mother and satisfy yourself that she will indeed survive. If when I get here you choose to stay longer, that's fine as well. I will stop by Miss Hamilton's and let her and Mrs. Wilkes know we did arrive at Tara safely. Is there anything from their house you need while you're here that I should bring sooner than my next visit?"

"No, I have everything I need here, Rhett. I didn't bring all of my belongings with me to Atlanta." She turned to go inside and turned back toward him, he had already begun to walk away. "Oh and Rhett?" She waited until he had turned around. "Thank you. For bringing me home, for our talk today. It's almost uncanny how you always seem to know exactly what I need." The last comment was said so softly that it was almost as if she had spoken to herself.

Rhett removed his hat once again and with a slight bow smiled. "It was my pleasure, Scarlett. There are plenty of women I could choose to spend my time with, ones who I could get away with far more than kissing their hand if I wanted to. Surely you realize by now if I didn't want to spend my time with you I wouldn't." He said no more. Instead, he turned and descended the steps, getting into his carriage already prepared for his departure by one of the servants and with a quick flick of the reins was off toward Atlanta.

He returned early enough that he stopped at Pittypat's house before doing anything else. He knew that she and Melanie would be worried about Scarlett and her mother's condition. His assurances that Mrs. O'Hara would more than likely be well within a few weeks made them both feel better and their spirits brightened even further when Rhett mentioned bringing Scarlett back to Atlanta before the week's end.

Melanie invited him to stay for dinner, which he accepted a bit surprised at the invitation. He wasn't quite sure why it was she was friendly to him, but every time he had seen her over the past few years she had been nothing but kind. They rarely spoke, but when they did she was always kind and soft-spoken. She reminded him a bit of his mother and how he imagined her to have been in her youth. He sensed sometimes that Scarlett got jealous of his fondness for Melanie, he had never hidden it and always showed an interest in everything she said whether it be talk of the weather or the latest letter from Ashley. There was certainly nothing romantic in his attentions towards her, and perhaps that was why she enjoyed his attentiveness.

At dinner when Melanie made mention of the fact that she hadn't heard from Ashley in over a month, a fact which wasn't overly disturbing in its own right because mail was slower than usual in getting to them these days. But he had been faithful about sending her letters weekly, if not more often. When Rhett offered to use his contacts to see what he could find out, Melanie was overjoyed and deeply impressed that someone who hardly knew her or her husband would call in favors for them.

This only went toward building Rhett up in Melanie's mind more than he had been to begin with. She really didn't know whether to believe he would really go out of his way for her, but despite what she'd heard about him she believed his word to be good and worth something. Surely, no man who could see how much she loved Ashley would play such a game with her. Of course there were, but Melanie couldn't bring herself to see those qualities in anyone least of all someone who Scarlett considered to be her friend. And in Melanie's eyes, if Scarlett cared for someone, then Melanie did too.

Rhett left the Hamilton home early in the evening and first stopped at his hotel penning letters to several of his contacts up north who might be able to get him the information he sought on Ashley Wilkes. Had it been for Scarlett, he would never have done it. But it was for Mrs. Wilkes who deserved to know whether her husband was alive or dead. He changed into a suit more suitable for a night at Belle's, stopping at the post office on his way and then made his way to Belle's. He ordered a drink and when asked if Belle was in was told she was in her office.

He approached her closed door and was about to knock when he heard Belle talking with someone. He was about to turn and leave when he heard his name mentioned by someone else from within the room, a man's voice. Rhett rolled his eyes, realizing that the man speaking must be the gentleman he saw with Belle the other day he decided it was best not to knock and returned to the bar to pick up his drink.

He spotted Lydia and asked her to ask Belle to come speak with him when she had a free moment. Lydia seemingly understanding why it was Rhett didn't want to disturb Belle in her office agreed and added with a smile. "If there's anything else I can help you with this evening, Mr. Butler, don't hesitate to ask." Rhett assured her he would and made his way to the back room and focused on the task at hand, getting dealt into a poker game.

It was over an hour later when Rhett observed Belle leaving her office accompanied by the same man Rhett had seen her with the other night. Rhett realized he didn't know the man's name and made a mental note to ask Belle when they next spoke. Rhett observed her discreetly, apparently she had appeased him regarding her relationship with Rhett because after Belle checked on her customers and her employees and a brief glance in Rhett's direction after speaking with Lydia she joined the man at his table. Rhett nodded slightly in response to her glance curious as to why Belle was wearing a dress with long sleeves. It hadn't turned that cool yet to warrant them and as he looked around at the girls that were working the floor that night he noticed none of them were either. He dismissed it, realizing he was noticing things most people wouldn't notice and turned his attentions to the card game at hand.

Lydia remained close by most of the evening, though he had not indicated to her or to anyone that he was seeking company after his game was over. But she was attentive and Rhett found in between hands that she was fairly well read. He realized this shouldn't have surprised him but he found himself impressed when she spoke of Christopher Marlowe.

Had she spoken of Shakespeare he wouldn't have been nearly as impressed, for Shakespeare was well known for his works. Marlowe on the other hand had penned very few works. And when the night came to a close, Rhett chose to spend time with Lydia but not to sleep with her. They went to her room where Rhett listened to her talk; she had plans to become an actress as it turned out which probably accounted for her knowledge of Marlowe. He listened to her, offered her what advice he had to provide. He really knew little about the theater, at least on how to go about becoming a part of one. Certainly, he'd been in attendance of many productions, but only as a spectator. He left when it was apparent she had grown tired, paid her for her time that evening and went downstairs.

He found Belle in her office with the door ajar, he knocked accompanied by "Miss Watling?" realizing that she might still be entertaining her gentleman friend. When she told him to come in, he pushed the door open all the way and was about to shut it when he recalled her request to leave it open the other night. He watched her in the dim light, she must have just been sitting he realized for the lamp wasn't turned up enough to work by. "Is everything all right, Belle? If I'm disturbing you, I'll go." He was puzzled. Never in the years he'd known her had he felt as if she was not happy to see him and this bothered him.

"Of course not, Rhett." The clinking of her earrings could be heard as she moved her head. She took out an extra glass and poured Rhett some scotch, handing him the drink over the desk without making an effort to get up. "I'm fine. I was just thinking is all, a girl's entitled to do that every now and again."

She smiled wryly. How she wished she could tell him that everything was far from all right. She didn't know how long she could keep up the charade, not just with Rhett but with everyone. She was certain her girls had heard her crying in her room the prior evening. It was so rare that Belle cried, but the need to do so was so overwhelming that she allowed the tears to come in the privacy and darkness of her suite.

Palmer had been inexplicably brutal last night. Somehow he had heard rumors of her relationship with Rhett and would not take the word of every girl in the place that he had asked independently and without Belle's knowledge, when they said that Rhett was no more than a good paying customer. He had gone on to question Belle about him and when she had run out of answers to give him; he had beaten her arms and back with his belt.

When he had finished beating her, he raped her and left with words that stung her worse than any physical abuse he put her through. He had called her a whore. She knew what she was, but it wasn't her fault she had ended up here. At least she was a madam now and no longer needed to sleep with men to keep a roof over her head. What was she supposed to have done? Stay in her father's house where she was forced to do things that no daughter should be made to do. Ironic, she realized.

She left and came to Atlanta only to meet Madam duBoise who took her in. At first, Madam duBoise had Belle tending the bar, she never suggested Belle get into the other aspect of her business, but when Belle realized that she could get paid for doing the things her father had made her do she made up her mind and hadn't looked back. Madam duBoise died over ten years ago, surprisingly leaving her business to Belle, which wasn't much. She wasn't much of a business owner and left Belle more trouble then good. Belle had managed to scrimp and save and hold on to a few of the girls who were working for Madam duBoise at the time of her death who were willing to live through some hard times for a while. They had nowhere else to go; those that had places to go had left.

Belle had half expected when she woke this morning to never see Palmer again. She called for Jaclyn, the one person Belle knew she could trust to keep her mouth shut, and had her tend to the welts and cuts on her back and arms. Jaclyn asked no questions, but Belle could tell by the look in her eyes that she knew and Belle couldn't bear to return her gaze. When finished, Belle clung to Jaclyn's wrist firmly and had made her promise not to tell Rhett. Jaclyn began to protest, realizing that Rhett would probably be the solution to Belle's problems but Belle was adamant.

Jaclyn knew there was more to this then she was aware of and hesitantly agreed, under the condition that if a beating as bad as the one she had just tended to occurred again she had the right to approach Rhett. Belle had agreed finally, realizing that Jaclyn was right. Belle didn't know if she could take anything worse than what he had done the night before.

Jaclyn helped her find a dress that covered the marks on her arms, something horribly conservative for Belle to wear for a day of work but it would have to do. She was shocked when Palmer had come in that evening. He had wanted to see her upstairs but she had refused stating that there had been some problems and she had to remain downstairs. They had a heated argument, but Belle knew that he would not lay a hand on her when anyone outside the door was liable to hear.

Belle finally convinced him, seemingly at any rate, that Rhett was no more than a long time customer who spent a lot of money when he visited Belle's so Belle expected her girls to treat him as such. She reminded Palmer that surely no one would pay for one, or more, of her girls if they could get the same services from her for no charge. This seemed to settle him down and they had returned to the bar to have their drink. He had become a permanent fixture at the bar over the past few months. They always had a drink together before he went home for the evening. Sometimes he would come back an hour later, through the back door and spend the night with her but more often than not, he went home and stayed there.

Belle was brought out of her thoughts realizing she had said nothing for a long time. "I'm sorry, Rhett. I'm afraid I'm just not feeling well tonight. You weren't here last night. I was surprised to say the least. We had a busy night." She glanced from her glass to him, meeting his gaze and dropping her eyes again.

"Well, actually, I stopped and saw that Scarlett girl I told you about. It turned out it was the same girl that is staying with Miss Hamilton. And you're right she is most annoying. Anyway, I stopped by before coming here just to say hello and she made mention of the fact that her mother had taken ill and that she hadn't heard anything other than that. She did not know what it was her mother had, how bad off she was. So, being the kind soul that I am, I told her to pack some things and I took her to her house in Clayton County. Her mammy reluctantly put me up for the night. I think I guilted her into it, playing up the fact that I risked losing my horse and my carriage if I were to have been caught by either army." He laughed heartily. "I spent the morning there, softening up her and her two younger sisters. So, I just returned late this afternoon."

He paused slightly, unsure if he should continue but then did anyway. "You know, it makes me homesick in a way, not for Charleston so much as for Dunmore Landing, our plantation. In the life I've chosen to lead, I don't get many opportunities to experience plantation life with someone's family anymore. So sharing breakfast with Scarlett and her sisters brought some memories back. Of course I've been to plantations since I left home, but not in the capacity I was today. Usually it's for a party or business dealing or something along those lines, nothing that allows me to leisurely sit at the kitchen table and tell stories. Ah well, no looking back. I've chosen this life, and I certainly can't complain. If I had been the son my father wanted me to be I most assuredly wouldn't have had any of the fun I've had, wouldn't have made the money I have and wouldn't have seen the people and places I've seen. So, I don't know that I'd trade it for anything. Certainly not to have been married all these years to a girl I barely knew because I kept her out a little later than I should have through no fault of my own." He lit a cigarette offering Belle one. "I'm sorry to hear you're not well. Are you ill or is it something else that ails thee tonight?" He once again took in the way she was dressed and wondered if maybe she was ill, which would give her reason to wear a dress with long sleeves he imagined.

"No, Rhett, just a bit under the weather I guess. There've been quite a few cases of influenza going around, I guess I should get checked out myself if I'm not better in a day or two." She hoped this would appease him, stop him from asking questions. She knew if Rhett suspected anything, anything at all that he would sniff around more determinedly than a bloodhound on a hunt until he found out the truth. She looked up at Rhett who seemed to buy her story. He'd more than likely be leaving again soon anyway, so she'd only have to keep the charade up for a short while. She could do it; she just had to be strong.

Rhett watched her closely not buying what she was shoveling. He recognized the determined look in her eye. Whatever it was, she wasn't going to break down and tell him. He had to admit it bothered him a bit, bothered him that there was something Belle didn't feel comfortable talking to him about. He decided not to pursue it, there was no sense pushing her. She was as stubborn as a mule when it came to changing her mind if she didn't want to and he knew it was best not to upset her. He pulled the cigarette out of his mouth looking at it briefly. "So tell me something, Miss Watling. Is your gentleman friend coming back tonight? What is his name anyway? He does, I assume, from time to time. I can't imagine him being that proper."

She stared at him in genuine disbelief hurt registering in her eyes. Good lord he was calling her a whore too. That is what he was implying wasn't it? She tried to keep her anger in check. "No, Palmer won't be back tonight. He is actually going out of town." She couldn't move her eyes from his wondering what he would say next.

He lowered his eyes focusing on the cigarette. "Well, I was thinking. While upstairs with Lydia, I was content with being read to and talking, but now I find myself not so content with that decision. I was thinking perhaps I could interest you in accompanying me back to my room for the night." He raised his eyes once again, realizing that her answer would tell him how serious she was about this man.

Belle flushed at his question. It had been so long since she'd allowed herself to think of Rhett in that fashion that she couldn't help the color that rose to her cheeks. "That would be very nice, Rhett. Let me lock up and then we can go." She locked up and walked out with him to the hotel, following him wordlessly to his room. They didn't need to say anything, she realized. They were two old friends seeking comfort in one another for their own reasons.

Rhett removed his suit jacket after closing the door behind them placing it over the back of one of the chairs in the room. He then crossed to where she stood by the bed and after putting his hands on her upper arms he kissed her. He was startled when she pulled away, inhaling sharply. He looked at her curiously as she stepped back out of his grasp. "What? What's wrong, Belle?"

She tried to stop the tears, biting her lip gently realizing that she must look a sight. The thought of her bruises and wounds hadn't entered her mind until Rhett had touched her. Of course, he had no idea, but his left hand and fingers rested right upon one of the welts from the night before. She could have stayed lost in his kiss forever, but the pain from his touch was too excruciating for her to respond. She opened her mouth to say something. To apologize, to tell him it wasn't him but she couldn't. She turned away from him, unable to stop the tears from coming. Why did she have to do this in front of Rhett? He had never seen her cry, he would think she was weak.

Genuinely confused, Rhett stepped up to her again gently taking hold of her arms with his hands sensing her flinch he hesitantly let go. Wanting to let her know he was there for her, he brushed aside her hair to kiss the back of her neck gently. "What's wrong, Belle?" He asked as he pulled away. He let her hair drop, then pulled it aside again swiftly his eyes widening. He felt as Belle attempted to pull away from him and stopped her. "What in the hell is this?" He quickly undid the buttons on her dress, opening it to reveal the wounds on her back. "Good God, Belle. Who did this to you?"

She turned to face him; her tear stained cheeks flushed. "Just stay out of it, Rhett. Please I beg of you. Just button my dress back up and I'll go home and forget this night ever happened. I shouldn't have come here with you anyway. If Palmer found out " She paused unable to continue, realizing what he would do to her if he found out.

"Is he the one that did this? And you still see him? Why on earth would you do a thing like that, Belle? Certainly you can't think so low of yourself that you think you deserve this." He took her into his arms, trying to be gentle. "It will be all right, Belle."

Sensing she just wanted to cry, he brought her with him to the bed. He lay down on the bed, bringing her to him her head resting against his chest as she lay on her side. He felt his shirt get damp from her tears while he gently ran his fingers through her hair. He had no idea what he was going to do. He needed to hear from her that she wanted his help.

Like Rosemary when he had tried to help her out of her situation, he knew that unless Belle wanted out there was nothing he could do. Aside from killing the man, but Rhett had come too far in his life to kill someone out of anger. Letting emotions get the best of you was a good way of getting yourself caught, imprisoned, and hanged or worse yet killed right away. "Can you tell me what's going on, Belle? Tell me what you want me to do?"

She sobbed, realizing how safe she felt with him. She wiped away her tears, leaning up slightly. "There's just too much to tell, Rhett. There's nothing for you to do. It's hopeless until he decides to leave me alone, there's nothing I can do." She looked at Rhett pleadingly. "He knows about my father, Rhett. He knows things you don't know. I found him a few years ago. Went to visit him, hoping to reconcile. Hoping that time away would have made him change his ways. But they hadn't. He was more miserable as an old man than he had been when I was younger. One night after he had passed out after drinking too much whiskey, I set his bed on fire and ran. Leaving him to die. I took the horse and did eventually get help, but only after I had watched from a distance to make sure the fire was pretty much out of control. No one would have dared venture in there to try and save him."

She lowered her eyes never having spoken of this aloud before. She suddenly felt ashamed and weak for what she had done. "Palmer saw me, Rhett. He saw me leave my house. He had been in the woods hunting near the house. He saw me leave the house well before the fire was visible. He knows I killed him. If I don't do whatever he wants me to, he's threatened to tell the police. He says he's left documents with people stating what he knows and if they don't hear from him by set dates they are to go to the authorities with those documents. He could be bluffing, but I can't take that risk, Rhett. They'd hang me. No lawyer could get me off, let alone the fact that not one would care to represent me." She sighed, resting her head against his chest again. She somehow felt so relieved that it was out in the open, and relieved it was Rhett who knew.

He continued running his fingers through her hair, trying to calm and soothe her. "So, he's blackmailing you for sex basically. He doesn't strike me as the type that needs to use blackmail to get a woman, but judging from your back I guess that I understand why. And the beatings, Belle, are they part of the blackmail too? Or was this the first time he's harmed you?"

"No, it's not the first time, Rhett. There have been countless others. This is by far the worst, though. And he didn't stop at just beating me either. He raped me, Rhett. He raped me and called me a whore." She cried some more, wiping away her tears quickly.

"I mean, I realize that's what I am, but he made it sound so dirty." She stared at his chest; she could tell from his breathing that he was mad. "Please, Rhett, just let me try and figure out my own way out of this. I just wish I knew whether or not those documents that he claims to have stored safely someplace were real, if they're not, if it's just his word then I'd be on my hands and knees begging you to help me. Why did I ever seek him out, Rhett? I should have just let it go, should have just considered him dead in my mind and gone on with my life." She closed her eyes, suddenly overwhelmingly tired.

"Just hold me, Rhett. Just make me feel safe the way you always do when I am with you." She looked up at him, her eyes heavy a slight smile crawling to her lips. "I hope your girl doesn't find out about this or you'll never be allowed back at her precious home. As much as that thought might appeal to me, her not wanting to see you again I mean it's obvious you're smitten with her and I couldn't stand to be the cause of your inability to see her again." She returned her head to his chest. "Good night, Rhett."

Rhett kissed the top of her head his fingers still going through her hair and gently touching the arm he had access to. He sat quietly realizing she was going to sleep thinking about what Belle had just said.

He didn't know if smitten was a word he would have chosen to describe his interest in Scarlett, but he most certainly was captivated with her. He shook his head realizing he had more important things to be thinking about rather than Scarlett. He needed to find out about the documents that Belle said this Palmer indicated he had placed somewhere. If he could find out that they did not exist, then at least Belle would know what she was up against.

He would talk to her more in the morning. Find out what information he could about this man and he would seek out the information for her. Presumably, the papers would be where he came from, not here in Atlanta where he knew no one. He couldn't remember the name of the town Belle was from. He sighed feeling suddenly guilty for having been gone for so long. He felt responsible in part for what happened to Belle and realized that had he not been gone this situation may have been avoided entirely. He drifted off to sleep with Belle clutching to him for security realizing that he couldn't leave again until he had brought Scarlett back to Atlanta.

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