The spring of 1866 came to Tara in rather gentle fashion, it approached a year since Rhett and Ashley had returned. The winter wheat and peanuts were harvested and the cotton and corn had been planted, and for all basic purposes the everyday tasks of the plantation ran smooth. Carreen took it upon herself to become a nun, much to the dismay of Scarlett who tried for weeks to talk her out of it before realizing her attempts were futile.
At Scarlett's prompting, Rhett bought Carreen's share of Tara rather than letting the girl give her share to the church. Rhett really had no interest in owning two-thirds of Tara, but Scarlett was right in that it was better off in their hands than in the hands of the Catholic Church. Romance seemed to blossom between Will and Suellen now that Carreen had finally made her decision, and Frank Kennedy's visits to Tara dwindled down to nothing when he realized there was someone more adamant in his pursuit of Suellen.
The servants quarters had been finished, ten homes altogether and while they weren't fancy they were fair accommodations. The furnishings that had been in Tara during and shortly after the war were used to provide the homes some furniture. Dilcey, Pork and their children, Manigo, Will, and Big Sam each had their own home with Mammy and Martha remaining at the main house. Things at Tara were a bit calmer now that everyone wasn't living under the same roof. Plans to hire two more field hands were in the works as soon as two reliable ones could be found.
It was mid-June and Rhett had come in for breakfast when Geraldine decided to take her first steps. She had been standing up by holding on to something for a little over a month, but had only braved taking a step or two within the past week or so. Martha had taken her out of her high chair, setting her on the floor and she was walking towards Rhett holding on to the rungs of the chair next to him when her attention was drawn to Scarlett who had just come into the room.
Seeming to forget the fact that she needed the help of the chair rungs, Geraldine let go and took a full three steps towards her mother before she seemed to realize what she had done and fell on the floor her bottom hitting with a gentle thump. Silence came first accompanied by a look of sheer amazement on the little girl's face and then came a cry, more from the fact that no one had been there to stop the fall then from her being hurt. Scarlett picked Geraldine up, but her tears would not stop. Scarlett looked at her daughter in dismay as the girl's tiny arms reached out for Rhett along with the sob filled callings for "dada". Scarlett handed the girl to Rhett, the hurt evident in her eyes and left the room in a flurry of rustling skirts.
After Geraldine had been calmed, Rhett went to find Scarlett. He found her outside sitting on the porch steps. He set Geraldine down on the porch by one of the dogs and sat next to Scarlett. He said nothing, knowing that he wouldn't have to when Scarlett was ready to tell him what was bothering her, she would.
He couldn't understand why it bothered her so much the way Geraldine took to him, especially considering how close she had been to her own father. Rhett did nothing in particular to encourage the girl, so it wasn't as if he was trying to divert the girl's attention away from Scarlett. Surely Scarlett understood that, but Rhett realized there were times that Scarlett's emotions failed to allow her to see what it was she understood.
Scarlett didn't want to acknowledge his presence and knew Rhett realized this as well. But his sitting next to her wordless did nothing to appease her anger at the moment. She sat and looked at the trees, which were rather still since there was no wind that afternoon. Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke trying to keep control of her voice. "I don't understand it. I realize I'm not the greatest mother in the world, but for her not to want to be comforted by me when she's crying. And she was walking towards me, wasn't she? I just don't understand it, Rhett. What on earth have I done wrong? Or what is it you do that is so right?"
Rhett shrugged slightly. "I have no idea really, Scarlett. I pay attention to her in a different way then you do I think. Even when you give her a bath you're more serious about it then I am. She likes to splash and have fun and be swung about. Who cares if my shirt gets wet or the floor gets wet? I'm of the opinion that we can replace the floor and my clothes will dry but she only gets to be a child and do these things once. Perhaps I coddle her too much, I don't know. I don't think I do. I imagine in a few years when she's more interested in bonnets, bows and even later still boys that I will feel much like you do now, somewhat replaceable. Those are things that while I enjoy buying for you and I know I will for her as well, I don't know the first thing about being a girl. And you, Scarlett, are all about being a girl. She will see this and you will fulfill a need that she has at that point. You're not doing anything wrong, my dear. And maybe you're around her too much, she takes it for granted so when she falls and I'm here she wants to take advantage of my soft spot and get some hugs from her daddy." He rested his hands on the porch floor, leaning back on them. "Besides need I remind you, Mrs. Butler, you were a daddy's girl, too? Maybe she just takes after her mother in more than just how she looks. And let's bear in mind this should be a happy day, Scarlett. Our daughter just took her first steps and she's not even a year old yet. That's a pretty big accomplishment."
Scarlett still refused to look at him, and showed no sign of hearing him until Geraldine crawled up behind them and tugged on Scarlett's bonnet. Scarlett looked over her shoulder at the girl who other than the eyes that were so obviously Rhett's looked just like her. As Geraldine pulled herself up using Rhett's back she reached for Scarlett's bonnet. "You want Mommy's bonnet, precious?"
She smiled at the girl genuinely as she untied the ribbon that held her bonnet in place, putting it on the girl's head she fastened it under her chin and laughed when she saw the look of joy that was on her daughter's face. Maybe Rhett was right, maybe she just sought him out because he wasn't around as much as Scarlett was and when he was there, she wanted her dad.
But she couldn't help but still feel a twinge of jealousy when she saw the looks the girl gave Rhett. As well as the looks he gave Geraldine. Sometimes Scarlett felt like she had to compete with her own daughter to get Rhett's attention. Scarlett smiled as the girl seemed happy now that she had Scarlett's bonnet upon her head and crawled back towards the dog. Scarlett once again watched the dog in disbelief at his gentleness towards their child.
She crawled up to him as he was giving himself a bath and promptly stopped when her little hands went to his nose. Talisman sniffed curiously at the new object on the girl's head and once certain that it was not threatening returned his attentions back to his grooming. Scarlett shook her head amused and turned her attentions back to Rhett. "He's still an ugly dog and he eats too much, but I will concede that I was wrong about having him around the baby."
Rhett looked at Geraldine and Talisman, one of their two Mastiffs and laughed at Scarlett. "You, Scarlett are admitting you were wrong about something? I don't believe it. You gave me such a hard time about bringing those dogs to the house I'm surprised."
"Well, Rhett, I had never seen a dog like that before and I'm no fool I can tell by looking at them they are going to be big dogs. Why, he's going to weigh more than you do when he's full grown. And Amulet isn't going to be much smaller either." She laughed lightly. "I'm such a fool for believing you that the female wouldn't be as big as the male. But they are good dogs, and Geraldine loves Talisman. I'd be willing to make a wager that he wouldn't let even you or me harm Geraldine."
"Of course he wouldn't, they're protective and who would dare approach the house with those two standing guard even now before their full grown? I sometimes think Amulet is the more protective of the two as far as the house goes." He shrugged as Amulet in response to hearing her name ambled towards her master. Rhett paused to scratch her head and in response Amulet laid her head to rest on Rhett's knees. "And who can resist such a face after all? And what was I to do? They were a wedding gift from a West Point friend of mine. I couldn't insult the man by sending the dogs back."
Scarlett hesitantly scratched Amulet's head. "I know, Rhett. It wasn't letting them in the house I had a problem with it was letting them sleep in our room I had a problem with."
"Well, only until they were housebroken, Scarlett. Where else were they going to sleep? I'm usually the first one up in the morning, so it made sense they slept with us. And I imagine next month when I leave for my trip and will be gone for a while that you will seek comfort in knowing that they're downstairs by the door." He laughed lightly, "I might even come home to find my spot in the bed has been taken over."
Scarlett raised her eyebrows in distaste. "Hardly. Well I hope you've given Manigo instructions on feeding them, because I won't have anything to do with feeding them while you're away. It's one thing to feed pigs and chickens, but to feed an animal who eats more than I do is unnerving."
Why did he have to mention his trip? She did not like the idea of his leaving, going to London no less. He would be gone for weeks; the fact that he assured her he would come home with at least one present did nothing to soothe her. She had so wanted to go, but he had said that Geraldine was not yet old enough to accompany them to London and too young yet to be left at Tara.
She had argued that they could hire a wet nurse in her absence, but even she knew that that wouldn't necessarily work. Some babies wouldn't nurse with anyone other than their mother. And at ten months old, Geraldine was quite knowledgeable of the difference between Scarlett's breast and that of Melanie, Mammy or any other female. Rhett laughed at times when Geraldine grew hungry and a woman other than Scarlett was holding her. The girl would root and grow irritable; not being satisfied whatsoever until she was set against Scarlett's breast. She never grew quite as despondent when it was Rhett or a male holding her. It was as if she sensed that it was a woman holding her and the fact that the woman holding her could not provide her the nourishment she sought.
"Yes, Manigo and Pork will be well trained on how to feed the beasts while I'm gone." He paused slightly, watching as Amulet bounded off to chase a bird that had flown across her line of vision. "I know you don't want me to go, Scarlett, but I have to. I do have business to attend to outside of Tara and now that everything is pretty well set for the summer and autumn as far as crops go I need to go. At least if you want to continue living in the style to which you're accustomed I have to go. Tara isn't going to provide you with new dresses whenever you see the need anymore and while I have savings I still need to earn money to add to those savings or there won't be any savings left. If you and Geraldine would like to come with me to Charleston and stay with my parents while I'm away, I'm sure that can be arranged. My father seems willing to accept you into his life at any rate."
Scarlett's eyes brightened. "Oh could we, Rhett? You don't think your parents would mind? It's been so long since I've been anywhere outside of Atlanta; I'd love to go. And I'm sure your mother would like to spend some time with Geraldine especially since she's sure to be walking by then." A trip to get away from Tara and to be in a new city, the idea held appeal for Scarlett. She only hoped Rhett was sincere in his invitation. She grew sad suddenly, realizing that her parents would never get to see Geraldine do these things. They never got to see their first grandchild.
"Well, the only way to find out is if I wire my mother and ask her. Why don't you pack up Geraldine a change of clothes and change yourself and we can go into town together and while I'm doing that you can do some shopping if you'd like. I've never gotten to show off my daughter in town before, I think it's about time I did. In fact, why don't you have Mammy pack you both some things for the night, we'll stay in town tonight."
Scarlett didn't need to be asked twice, she was in the house quickly to see that things were packed for her and Geraldine for the night and tomorrow while Rhett packed himself a bag. In a matter of little more than an hour, they had packed, Apollo had been hitched to the coach and they were on their way to Atlanta for the night.
When they arrived and had checked into the hotel for the night, Rhett took Geraldine with him to conduct his business so that Scarlett could have the afternoon to herself. He stopped at the post office to collect any mail they had. The Western Union office to send his mother a telegram about Scarlett and Geraldine visiting them for a few weeks at the end of August was next. Henry Hamilton's office to tend to some legal paperwork that he needed to see to before his trip was after that and finally a stop at the bank. Geraldine captured the attentions of everyone they met. The fact that Rhett was so devoted a father piqued the interests of those they met more than the girl herself did. It was obvious to those who saw them together that even if Scarlett might not have managed to do it completely, Geraldine Butler had Rhett wrapped around her finger.
Their last stop was at Frank Kennedy's store so that Rhett could purchase his daughter some licorice, a treat he thought she might enjoy tasting for the first time. Rhett was about to enter the store when the door opened and Belle exited, almost walking into Rhett. He reacted quickly, holding the door open and stepping out of the way allowing her to pass. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Watling." He said with as much a bow as holding Geraldine would allow. A slight smile crossed his lips as he continued. "You're looking quite well."
Belle didn't know what to say at first; the day she dreaded almost as much as running into he and Scarlett together was here. She stood face to face with Rhett and the evidence that he and Scarlett were truly husband and wife. "Why, Mr. Butler. What a surprise running into you here this afternoon. One would think after so much time away from Atlanta that you had mended your wild ways." Her lips were pursed as she spoke her eyes narrowing as she took in the child in Rhett's arms. She looked just like her mother, Belle realized. The eyes were Rhett's, there was no question about that, but everything else about the girl was the mother.
"Hardly, Mrs. Watling. Indeed, I don't think one such as myself could ever get all of the wildness taken out of them. Just perhaps replaced with something I'd rather focus my time and attention on. I'm finding fatherhood is much more rewarding than winning at a game of poker, and reaps me more rewards than the largest poker winnings ever could. Business is going well I assume." It was more than a simple statement, it was Rhett's way of letting Belle know that regardless of what his marital or parental status was that he was still there to help her should she need it.
"Yes, Mr. Butler, business is going quite well." This was too strange for Belle, to be standing on the street addressing Rhett as if they were nothing but casual acquaintances. She had to admit the little girl was quite the charmer, and she gave into her temptation to touch the girl placing her index finger in her tiny fist even though Geraldine was more interested in Belle's hair and earrings than her finger but seemed content with that for now. At the contact, memories of when Robert was so small came to her and she softened slightly. "She's adorable, Rhett. She's very much Mrs. Butler, though. What's her name?"
"Geraldine Eleanor, and yes she is every bit her mother. I don't think I'm ready to see her lose her temper when I'm the person it's directed at."
Scarlett had come out of Mrs. Lowe's shop and spotted Rhett standing on the sidewalk outside the Kennedy store. It wasn't until she was a bit closer to him that she realized that he was talking to that Belle woman and she had her hand on her daughter. She stopped at the store window she had just passed to collect herself. Now was not the time to get angry, not in front of that woman at any rate.
She glanced briefly at them, aware that neither of them had noticed her and she was glad of that. She took a deep breath, determined not to mess this up. If there was anyone Scarlett cared about thinking her marriage was strong it was this woman.
Smoothing out her skirts and adjusting her bonnet she turned and walked the rest of the way to Rhett's side determined to make her point abundantly clear. Sliding her hand through Rhett's free arm familiarly, her free hand holding onto her bonnet as the wind picked up she smiled overly affectionately at her husband.
Her eyes genuinely lit up at the smile her daughter gave her, though one looking at her would be hard pressed to say whether the look was for her husband or her daughter since he and Geraldine were together at that moment.
"Hello Rhett," she stated simply followed by a kiss on his cheek. She turned her attentions to Belle and nodded politely in her direction. "Mrs. Watling, how nice to see you again." No words could be further from the truth and she'd rather choke than say them out loud, but she knew she had to be the picture of the devoted wife for the next few minutes and give Rhett a piece of her mind later. She smiled; tightening her grip on Rhett's arm unconsciously as Geraldine grabbed for one of Belle's brightly colored curls. "Are you having a good time with your daddy, sweetheart? I'll bet he enjoys spoiling you as he does me."
Belle was surprised at Scarlett's greeting and took a moment to collect herself before she responded. Taking the time to analyze the woman whom stood before her, and there was no question she was now a woman. The first time Belle had seen her, Scarlett had been sixteen or so, and still had the wide-eyed innocence and carelessness of youth.
That was before the war and it was certainly obvious the war hadn't left any scars behind for her to bear, at least outwardly. And Belle certainly could have done without seeing her public displays of affection towards Rhett. "It's nice to see you, Mrs. Butler. You have a charming daughter, despite the fact she has her father's eyes." She couldn't let Scarlett forget that Belle had known Rhett long before Scarlett had been part of his life.
Rhett was surprised when Scarlett kissed him, though his face and eyes did not reflect that. He placed his free hand on the hand Scarlett placed on his elbow trying to reassure her somehow. He looked at her briefly trying to determine what was going on behind those green eyes of hers. For once, Scarlett was aptly masking her emotions and Rhett could only imagine what she was truly feeling.
He was impressed that Scarlett was the one who had addressed Belle first, expecting her to somehow pretend that Belle wasn't there. He cleared his throat at Belle's comment. "Yes, well, I wouldn't want the girl to look entirely like her mother because then God forbid I'd have to keep young men like me away from our doorstep. I'll be an old man by the time she reaches that age, I'm not quite sure I'll be able to ward them off successfully."
Scarlett threw her head back and laughed lightly at Rhett's comment, her laughter floating effortlessly from her mouth as she batted her eyes at Rhett coquettishly. "How you do go on, Rhett. You're not old at all. Why Pa didn't start making babies until he was years older than you are, so I don't think you're quite on your way to your grave yet. Maybe only part way there."
She met Rhett's questioning gaze and held it, smiling demurely at him. Inwardly she was seething at having to put on such a display. Outwardly, however, anyone seeing them would assume the couple was very much in love and at ease with one another as the look between them held and then was gone as Scarlett dropped her eyes.
Belle breathed deeply, trying to control her emotions. Why wasn't Rhett doing something to end this? He was standing there as if transfixed by the little vixen, and Belle had no doubt that that's exactly what Scarlett was. A minx who had snared Rhett and wasn't about to let him up for air so long as she had anything to do with it. She watched as his hand caressed hers and they looked at one another and their child as if she wasn't even there.
If Belle could just get Rhett alone once, for one night to make him remember what they'd had together she was sure he'd forget all about Scarlett. Surely the girl couldn't satisfy him in bed the way Belle had, no lady would. While Rhett didn't have any of the bizarre tastes some of her customers had, he certainly enjoyed things that went beyond what it took to make babies. And somehow she just couldn't picture a plantation belle like Scarlett O'Hara giving into his demands. After all, that's what kept Belle in business.
"Well, I should be getting back to work, I left Lydia in charge and if I leave her alone for too long I'm liable to come back and find she's been giving out liquor for free." She paused slightly, "It was a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Butler." She nodded her head politely, looking to Rhett. "Rhett." She began to walk away then turned to face them again; noticing that Scarlett was busy adjusting Rhett's cravat. "Oh, Rhett, I forgot to tell you that Mr. Sanders is in town this week. He has a big card game scheduled for tonight. I'm sure he'd love the opportunity to reclaim his losses."
Rhett laughed loudly as he hesitantly took his eyes from Scarlett and moved them to Belle. "Yes, I'm sure he would. We are in town for the evening, perhaps after my daughter is in bed I can stop in. It's been quite some time since I've played poker. You don't mind, do you Scarlett?"
He knew he was tipping the scales with that question, Scarlett's anger couldn't be too far from being set off to begin with. But he figured he'd take advantage of her apparently loving mood.
She glanced up at him with a slight smile, flattening out his cravat now that she had finished adjusting it. "Not at all, Rhett. If anyone deserves a night off it's you. Perhaps I could call on Ashley and Melanie while you go play cards." That should bring him back to reality, she thought. Mentioning Ashley always did. She flashed him a slight smile, her dimples flashing as her eyes danced at the challenge.
Rhett smiled slightly, knowing full well what Scarlett was trying to do but instead used her own attempt at riling him against her. In fact, the mention of Ashley's name gave him an idea of his own and his smiled widened. "Why, I wouldn't have thought of that, Scarlett. Indeed, I could drop you and Geraldine there after dinner and once I'm finished with the card game I could pick you up. I'm sure you and the Wilkes' have plenty to catch up on, it has been a few months since we've seen them. And they have their new house which I'm sure Melanie would be more than happy to show you."
Realizing Belle was still waiting for an answer and that there was little use arguing the point, she gave in. It would be nice to see Ashley, maybe Melanie would be busy with Beau and she could speak to him alone for a little while. If she timed it right, it would be when Rhett came home and he would catch them together. "That would be fine, Rhett." Scarlett looked from Rhett to Belle and smiled politely. "I think you can tell this Mr. Sanders that my husband will join him this evening after dinner."
Scarlett said the words 'my husband' so lightly with no noticeable emphasis, but it was just the lack of emphasis on those two words that made Belle take notice. She nodded, "I'll make sure he waits for you then, Rhett."
Belle turned around and walked away cursing herself for every allowing herself to fall in love with Rhett Butler. She should have known years ago that he would bring her nothing but heartache. She also cursed herself because her attempts to get Rhett into her bar had backfired on her. Not only would Scarlett know where he was, but also she would be waiting up for him to return. And Rhett had suggested such an arrangement. For the first time since he had told her he had married the girl, Belle realized fully that she had lost Rhett. She didn't think it was likely that he would be falling into her bed again anytime soon. She returned to the bar and busied herself in her office with payroll and bills.
Rhett watched Scarlett curiously, barely taking notice of Belle's departure. In front of Belle, she had been the model wife, attentive, flirtatious, affectionate but not overly so, and kind. Why did it have to be in front of Belle that she behaved that way? If she had behaved that way in front of anyone but Belle he would have believed that perhaps Scarlett loved him, that was certainly how she had behaved. "What are you up to, Scarlett?"
She looked up at him blankly, batting her eyes slightly in surprise at his question. "What am I up to, Rhett? I'm not the one talking on the street in broad daylight to that woman." She was surprised, no startled was more appropriate with the fierceness in which Rhett took hold of her elbow and guided her back to the hotel.
When they returned to the hotel and went up to their suite, Rhett closed the door and turned to Scarlett after setting Geraldine down. "Don't speak about something you don't understand, Scarlett. There's nothing wrong with my talking with Belle on the sidewalk. Anyone who would have passed by would have heard our conversation was pleasant and formal. Until you came upon the scene, she hadn't even addressed me by my Christian name."
"Oh, Rhett, you still don't know how most people work do you? They may not say anything to you or to me, but amongst themselves they'll talk about seeing you talking with that woman for weeks. And now you're going to her bar tonight. At least I'll get to do something fun while you're off gambling."
Rhett chuckled lightly. "Scarlett, that gambling that you seem to think so ill of is what I do best. And I might add that my winnings at said gambling have gone a long way to getting Tara back to what it once was." He paused slightly, letting this sink in. Obviously she didn't realize that his money hadn't just come from business.
"Don't you realize why I asked your permission so to speak? Of course I won't deny the interest in going is there, I haven't played poker in quite some time and I am rather good at it. But that's not the point. Obviously if I wanted to go, I'd go whether you approved or not. I'm not about to let anyone tell me I can't do something, not even you. Belle was hoping I'd say no in front of you and show up anyway, she was hoping for something to use against me or to think she had knowledge of something that you didn't. She's no fonder of you than you are of her, I can assure you. By my gaining your acceptance, she will put any thoughts of our marriage being penetrable aside. That is what you were going after with that little act of yours wasn't it? You want her to believe that we are hopelessly in love with one another? Well, I think I went one step further in helping your little charade along. She sees I consulted you, she sees that I wouldn't go behind your back, she sees that I'm a caring and devoted husband. I'm sure she walked away from us thinking we were a loving and devoted couple with a well loved little girl and the possibility, as you so boldly pointed out, of many more to come. Isn't that what you wanted?"
Scarlett stared at him for a moment not knowing what to say. He knew what she had been doing, and he had played along. But why? Maybe she was wrong, maybe he really didn't love Belle, but it still bothered her that they had a past. A past that Scarlett knew there was more to than Rhett had told her.
She lowered her eyes, and walked from him to look out the window. What he said was true, that is exactly what she wanted. She wanted Belle to think she posed no threat to Scarlett's marriage to Rhett. But in reality, Scarlett didn't know whether or not that was true. Though it stood to reason that if Rhett wanted to sleep with the woman he would not have put on the display he did. And she had to admit that it did not look as though she had stumbled across them having an intimate conversation, indeed had she not known who and what Belle was she would have thought they were just two people saying hello. She shook her head. "Yes, I suppose it is." Her voice was so soft it was almost as if the words were only meant to be heard by her.
"Well, then I can drop you at the Wilkes' if that's in fact where you want to spend your evening. I will go to Belle's for an hour or two to indulge in my love for gambling and leave to retrieve my wife and daughter. By doing this, you even further bring home your point to her. Don't you see that?"
He knew Belle well enough to know that it wasn't his playing cards she had in mind, or at least he could guess that wasn't her true intent. He wouldn't be surprised to find that Mr. Sanders wasn't in town at all. Belle was hoping to gain some sort of upper hand with Rhett, but Rhett would be damned if he would dishonor Scarlett or his marriage by being unfaithful. So long as she continued to share her bed with him, which would be the only reason he would deem worthy of his being unfaithful.
He fiddled with the wedding band he wore on his finger, a ring that for the past year he had never taken off. He hadn't worn it when he served in the army; having left it with his lawyer that if something should happen to him it would be returned to Scarlett. But since getting out of jail and returning to Tara, it had been a permanent fixture on his left hand. Even he was surprised, never picturing himself as the type to wear a ring. It was just a symbol after all; it didn't actually mean anything. How ironic, he realized that he was in a marriage filled with non-spoken and repressed feelings and he willingly wore the ring that was supposed to be a symbol of his wife's love for him.
"Yes, I see your point, Rhett. But that doesn't mean I have to like the idea of your being near that woman. I don't like it at all. Why what will people think if they see you there?" She had no idea what Belle's establishment looked like on the inside, but the pictures in her mind were horrendous enough. And the image of Rhett lying on that woman's bed was one of the first pictures she saw, and it was easy to put him there knowing what he looked like in bed. She flushed slightly at the thought more because it was so easy to picture him making love to her.
"Scarlett, so long as I stay downstairs and play poker no one will think anything other than I'm a man like countless other men in Atlanta who enjoy an evening of cards and whiskey." This was one of those times that he was overcome with the desire to take her into his arms and tell her exactly how he felt about her.
To tell her that he loved her and that he'd never do anything to make her look like a fool or that she was lax in performing her duties as a wife. To tell her that when she chose to she could still take his breath away five years after they'd met. But he knew these assurances would do little to ease her mind at the moment, and he was still as of yet unwilling to lay such weapons in her hands and provide her with any more of an arsenal than she already had. Instead, he laid down the idea that had crossed his mind earlier. "In fact, if it would ease your mind, I'll ask Mr. Wilkes to join me. He's a formidable poker player in his own right, and I doubt he'd turn me down even if it is just to be polite."
The idea of an evening alone with Melanie and Pitty struck a raw nerve with Scarlett, but Rhett knew just what to say to get to her. Of course Ashley would never allow Rhett to do anything dishonorable, and by Ashley going with Rhett Scarlett could be assured he did nothing other than play cards. "Well, that's up to Ashley and Melanie, Rhett. I can't speak for Melanie to know whether or not she would allow Ashley to go with you."
"Well, I would of course be a gentleman and not reveal to Mrs. Wilkes where exactly we were going, and I would count on your discretion as well, Scarlett. The things you can discuss openly vary greatly with that of most ladies of Atlanta. Why Miss Hamilton would need her smelling salts at the mere mention of Belle's name. Why don't you get yourself and Geraldine ready and we'll go to dinner, and then to the Wilkes'."
Dinner went by too quickly for Scarlett and they were suddenly knocking on the door to Ashley's house. Scarlett hadn't seen their house yet, it having just been completed about a month ago. She felt like she knew it though from Melanie's letters describing it. Scarlett had to admit at being slightly envious of Melanie, for getting Ashley and now a new house. As much as she loved Tara, it was her parent's house and as long as Suellen owned her share of it that would always be the case.
Rhett had fixed everything up nicely, but it wasn't her house. The rooms weren't furnished with things she had picked out, paintings she had chosen, rugs she had fallen in love with. She put aside these feelings as Melanie opened the door. Rhett had sent a note over earlier so that they weren't coming unannounced, but the fact that they were in Atlanta at all was surprise enough and Melanie voiced displeasure that they chose to stay at the hotel instead of with them or Aunt Pitty.
Ashley agreed to go with Rhett, agreeing that Melanie and Scarlett had spent little time together over the past nine months since Ashley and Melanie had moved from Tara. Ashley knew that Melanie missed Scarlett deeply and thought if he and Rhett were gone that the two would have time to talk about whatever it was women talked about when they were alone.
Belle's face lit up when she saw Rhett walk in the bar, until she saw that he had someone with him. Damn him, she thought, he won't even come in here alone anymore. She kept herself occupied behind the bar on this busy night, hoping that a chance to speak with Rhett alone would present itself. But after over two hours of poker, Rhett was ready to take his winnings and call it a night. Belle asked Lydia to tell Rhett she needed to speak with him a moment in her office and went to the office to wait for him. She poured herself a drink, drinking it down quickly as he opened the office door without knocking.
"How nice that you got the little woman's permission to come out tonight, Rhett."
Rhett leaned against the doorframe; his broad framed body taking up most of the space offered. "Now it's nothing like that, Belle. I don't need Scarlett's permission to do anything, but we came to Atlanta as a family to tend to some things for a trip we're taking next month and to have a nice evening away from Tara. I certainly wasn't going to leave her in our hotel room alone with our daughter while I came here and played cards. To be honest, I wasn't even sure if Mr. Sanders was here or if it was somehow a scheme you thought of to get me here."
"Well, if I had done that it's only because it seems as though you won't set foot in here otherwise. I miss you, Rhett; I miss being with you. So what if you're married, I see lots of married men come in here you certainly wouldn't be the first." She stood and walked towards him, but stopped as Rhett held out his hand.
"That's far enough, Belle. This isn't someone else we're talking about. This is me that we're talking about, and I didn't marry Scarlett to be unfaithful to her. If I wanted to do that I wouldn't have married her."
At least until she gives me a reason to be unfaithful.
"So don't count on my seeking comforts from you or anyone else other than my wife anytime soon."
"And what about that Mr. Wilkes that you brought with you tonight? You can't tell me that you don't know your precious wife is in love with the man." Hoping to draw blood with that comment she stared at him when she noticed his eyes gave no indication of what he was thinking. It's when his eyes grew unreadable that she grew nervous, one could never know what he was thinking. That was when he was most dangerous.
"I'll tell you the same thing I tell Scarlett when she makes comments about you, Belle. Don't talk about things you know nothing about. Scarlett and Ashley Wilkes have been friends for years, and I have no doubt that she is fond of him and that at one time she believed she was in love with him. But make no mistake about it, Belle, it's me she makes love to not him. It's my bed she sleeps in not his. It's my child she bore not his."
"How do you know it's yours?" She bit her lip hard, knowing that she had just crossed the line with him. She could see it in his eyes, in his face. The chiseled features were scowling at her, and his eyes could have burned holes right through her. It was one thing to question the father of her son, there was question there even she admitted that begrudgingly. But to bring up there being any question at all as to who had sired Geraldine was taking it too far, and she knew it. She had no reason to believe Scarlett had ever done anything like that, and from what she knew of Ashley Wilkes he was truly a noble gentleman.
"I'm not even going to dignify that question with a response. And please remember that is my wife you're talking about and as much as I care about you I will no more stand for you spreading rumors about her than I would anyone else. Good evening, Belle, I don't believe we have anything further to discuss."
"Do you love her, Rhett?"
He had turned to leave and stopped at her question. He looked over his shoulder at where Belle stood leaning against her desk. She looked so hopeful at what his response might be. He hated to disappoint her, but he knew he had no business feeding her thoughts.
There was no reason to say anything further. He walked from the office door and found Ashley waiting for him by the door, watching Rhett. Rhett was glad Ashley had watched should there be any question on Scarlett's behalf as to whether or not he had been alone with Belle or any of her girls. He had been in Ashley's view the entire time they talked.
Scarlett passed the few hours away bored out of her mind. The first hour or so was pleasant as Melanie showed her their new home. Beau and Geraldine got reacquainted while Melanie, Scarlett and Pitty enjoyed tea. They talked of the goings on at Tara and in the County as well as that going on in Atlanta and Rhett and Scarlett's upcoming trip to Charleston.
She was enjoying herself until Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether came to pay their respects to Scarlett. They had not been fond of Scarlett when she lived with Pitty years ago, and the feeling was quite mutual. She reiterated her tales of life at Tara, the story of her father's passing and Carreen's departure to a convent in Savannah.
She thought the night would never end until Rhett and Ashley returned to the house. Scarlett's eyes instantly brightened, she knew that both men were sober and this pleased her to no end. If it had been just Melanie and Pitty, she would have remained seated but with Mrs. Meade and Merriwether in the room she once again felt the need to put on an act for them. She put her teacup down before standing and walking to Rhett. She kissed him politely on the cheek and inquired about his evening.
The look she received from Ashley by her display did not go unnoticed, and oddly she realized she didn't mind that he had seen Scarlett kiss Rhett. She knew Ashley did not approve of her marriage to Rhett, but his opinion no longer carried as much weight with her as it once did. True Rhett was not a gentleman like Ashley or the Tarleton boys were, but he was a gentleman in his own right though he wanted people to believe otherwise.
They stayed for about an hour longer, Rhett charming Mrs. Meade and Mrs. Merriwether as only Rhett could do. After the two women left the Wilkes' home, Rhett and Scarlett made their excuses as well. Rhett thanking Ashley for the company that evening and apologized for the luck of the cards that evening.
Rhett and Scarlett talked little on their way back to the hotel, Rhett held the sleeping Geraldine in his arms until they got up to their room. Walking up the stairs to their room, Rhett couldn't help but recall a little over a year and a half ago he and Scarlett walking up these very same steps for a week after they were married. A week during which the child that lay sleeping in his arms was conceived, and a smile crossed his lips remembering that week almost as if it were yesterday.
He laid their daughter down for the night and watched as Scarlett disrobed, no longer caring or getting embarrassed when he watched her. He sometimes got the impression that she enjoyed it when he watched.
She stood before him in only her corset, stockings and shoes and whatever else he had been thinking quickly left his mind as he walked towards her and took her into his arms. She could be so desirable and Rhett believed she knew it full well and that made him enjoy it when she did these things all the more. He knew that Scarlett was a long way from ever asking him to make love to her, but in her own subtle ways she let him know when she was ready for bed but not for sleep.
He kissed her passionately, his lips claiming hers in a hard kiss. His tongue passed over her lips, begging for her to meet him as he brought her body against his. She didn't respond at first, but when he felt her bite his upper lip gently he knew that she was playing and allowed her to play. His lips fell to her neck and then to the tops of her breasts that the corset so aptly pushed up almost daring him to indulge in his desire to take them into his mouth. As he undid her corset and brought a breast fully into his mouth Scarlett and her body immediately responded. He picked her up and placed her on the bed, removing her shoes as his mouth kissed her legs following the stockings as they were pulled off.
His mouth returned to her thighs where he normally enjoyed remaining for a good deal of time but tonight he didn't have the chance. Scarlett pushed him away gently, but it was rebuff enough that he knew not to bother pursuing his desires further. He undressed quickly and wordlessly got into bed beside her. He had thought, no hoped, that she would be able to put out of her mind where he had spent his evening. At least he had been honest with her.
He could have lied about it; he could have allowed Belle to think she stood a chance with him. He could have done plenty of things, but he hadn't. He turned his head to look at her briefly, he wasn't angry but he wasn't pleased either. His eyes were hard to read in the dark and he was glad. There were so many things he wished he could say, and he was sure his eyes would betray him at that moment.
This was the first time Scarlett had ever denied him his rights as a husband, and while he understood the reasoning it didn't stop him from being hurt. He breathed deeply realizing he couldn't even picture what it had been like with Belle anymore, now when he thought of making love images of Scarlett and no other came to mind. He was sure she'd never believe him, so these things went unsaid. "What's wrong, Scarlett?" He asked softly.
Scarlett watched Rhett intently trying to see into his eyes to determine what he was thinking, but she could not. Aspects of him still remained a mystery to her and she didn't know how to find the key to these mysteries. Did she hold it? Did she have access to it? And if so, would he ever allow her access to his inner thoughts? She really didn't know.
Once plagued with thoughts of Ashley, dreams of Ashley, tormented by the thought that Ashley had a wife and shared his bed with someone who wasn't her Scarlett found pictures of Rhett now replaced pictures of Ashley. She had no doubt that she would not be nearly as happy with Ashley, or with anyone else for that matter. Rhett had proven he was a good husband and devoted father.
And as much as she didn't like admitting it, she had no reason to believe he had been unfaithful. And while she didn't want him to take this trip to London he was taking, she understood that running a plantation was not going to be a lucrative business nor was it the life Rhett had expected to lead two years ago. She had no idea what types of businesses Rhett was affiliated with, but she knew that he would always see to it that she was provided for. He certainly could not be accused of not working hard.
Her thoughts turned to her dreams, and once more she was curious as to why the dreams that plagued her for years stopped soon after Rhett came home to Tara. Was this a coincidence or was it something more? One thing she loved about him, she knew with him around she was always safe and would always be cared for. Little did Scarlett realize how close she had come with that thought in identifying her true feelings for Rhett, but she pushed aside thoughts of loving him as not being possible.
She was fond of him and she liked him, but she didn't believe what she felt for him was love. Or was it? If she had been wrong about loving Ashley could she be wrong about not loving Rhett? It was too confusing for her, and she didn't want to think about it now.
There was always tomorrow to think about such things, it had been a long day and she was tired. The encounter with Belle had taken more out of her than she realized, though she had to admit as a smile unknown to her crawled to her lips that she enjoyed being affectionate with Rhett.
They so rarely were seen in public together, that it felt good to somehow claim him as hers and especially in front of Belle. She knew that he would never give her his heart, she sometimes wondered if he had a heart to give though he had said he had been in love once. She held onto the belief that she was the one that he spoke of. She was determined to get him to admit his feelings for her, and believed she was going to start with the time she spent with his parents while he was in London.
"There's nothing wrong, Rhett. It's one thing knowing you've been with other women and another to know that little more than an hour ago you were in the same place as one of them. I'm afraid I can't just put that aside."
He turned to his side to face her, his finger gently tapping her upper lip. "Scarlett, I know I don't say things very often to try to reassure you of your place in my life, but let me speak now. Belle couldn't hold a candle to you, in or out of bed and I'm not saying that to be nice. If I didn't mean it I wouldn't say it. I've known you for five years and you can still turn my head when you want to, and it's not just your clothes either. You could do it standing before me in your all together. I know it's hard especially since you have a face to put with one of them, but there has been no other that I desired as I do you. No other that I wanted as my wife. No other that I took as my wife. No other that I dreaded being away from for a few months because I've grown used to having them by my side at night. And there's certainly no other I'd work as a field hand for." He kissed her gently. "Good night, Scarlett."
She stared at him, tears forming in her eyes not knowing how to respond. He hadn't said he loved her, but in a way she felt as though he had. So why wasn't she rejoicing? She'd waited for five years to be able to use that against him, but for some reason the novelty of that had lost its appeal. His words warmed her and did help to ease her worries.
At least if she believed him she knew that he wasn't lying next to her at night thinking of Belle. That would have driven her crazy. She kissed him back, a long kiss as her hand pressed against his chest. The warmth and softness of his lips drew her in; she was unable to pull away even had she wanted to. She felt his hands caress her breasts, stomach, legs and found herself giving in not only to his desires but her own. She felt him move on top of her, his lips pressing hard against hers as she felt him enter her.
She sighed softly, able to tell the difference in his lovemaking. She knew that this would not be slow and sensual, but more a sating of appetites for them both. She gasped slightly as Rhett's mouth closed around one of her peaks in unison with her desires being met.
She waited able to tell that he wasn't too far behind and brought her arms around his back when he had finished wanting nothing more than to hold him to her and never letting him go. She listened as his breathing returned to its normal rate and he slid to his side bringing her to rest against his chest. She laid her head in his arm, her hand resting on his chest as her hair fanned about them closing her eyes as she drifted to sleep. Her last thoughts were of how good it felt as Rhett lay there running his fingers through her hair. "Umm, relaxing," she said in response to his actions.
Rhett lay awake for a while longer, hearing when her breathing changed to signal she had fallen asleep. He rested his hand against her bare shoulder. Maybe he had been foolish in not admitting to her his feelings. If how she responded to him tonight was any indication, she wanted to hear these things. Had he been so careful about guarding his heart from her that in the process he had perhaps distanced her from him as a result? He knew that if he really tried he could get her to realize she loved him and perhaps to admit it.
He had every confidence it was he she loved, he had known it years ago even when she still had her stupid infatuation with Ashley in her head. But now that she had admitted to both him and herself that she wasn't in love with Ashley things were different.
He realized that he needed to woo her all over again, just as he would if he were to court her all over again. As soon as he came back from his trip to London, he would do just that. Geraldine would be old enough then that she should be getting close to being weaned from mother's milk, so that would give them more free time. He was determined now; he wanted her to kiss him every time like she had just done. He wanted everyone they saw to envy their relationship and to never again question the union between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. He wanted his daughter to grow up knowing what love meant in a marriage.
Perhaps it was time he opened his heart and started letting Scarlett in.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com