Rhett glared as he stood on the sidewalk outside Pittypat Hamilton's home. He had come to wish Scarlett a belated Christmas and present her with a gift. He had known Ashley Wilkes had come to Atlanta for Christmas on furlough from serving the South's beloved Cause, but he hadn't expected to witness such an obviously heartfelt exchange between Ashley and Scarlett. With Mrs. Wilkes under the very same roof.
Jealousy didn't even begin to describe what Rhett felt. Jealousy was an insane, erratic, nonsensical feeling. Every feeling Rhett felt just then, despite his not wanting to feel them, made perfect sense. He was furious that after all the attention he'd been paying to Scarlett, the conversations they'd shared, the walks they'd gone on together she still held a torch for this wimp of a man who hid behind the title Gentleman to avoid doing what a real man should do.
He carelessly tossed the cigarette onto the ground, crushing it beneath his boot. It had long since been put out and destroyed from anything resembling the paper wrapped tobacco it had once been when he stopped twisting the ball of his foot over it. He knew then what he had to do. Once and for all he would free Scarlett of the spell, or curse depending on how one viewed it, Ashley Wilkes had over her, enabling her to open her heart and mind to Rhett.
He was confident that Ashley could be reasoned with, man to man and that he would do as Rhett suggested for Scarlett's sake. There was little better than to call on a gentleman and claim a lady was in need of rescuing to get him to act. He just wasn't sure how much time it would take to reason with him. But little stopped Rhett Butler from getting what he wanted, not even his father could do it. And if Stephen Butler couldn't stop Rhett from accomplishing things, nothing could. Rhett had yet to encounter a more formidable opponent with a drive to stop Rhett than his own father.
Rhett turned around, taking Scarlett's gift with him as he left Miss Hamilton's house. He'd save it for another day, after Ashley Wilkes was out of the picture and Scarlett's attention was fully on him where it belonged.
Later that afternoon, Rhett watched as the train carrying Ashley Wilkes out of Atlanta for a good deal of time, satisfied that the man would be out of the picture for a short while. While thinking through his plan on confronting Ashley, Rhett decided to give himself, his own charm and other positive qualities, a chance to work with Scarlett before he went off half cocked and handed Ashley an ultimatum. His reasoning in this was simple, if Scarlett were to ever find out he'd done it she'd use it against him.
Chattanooga, Tennessee - February 1864
Not quite two months later Rhett found himself in Chattanooga based on information he'd paid handsomely for that indicated Ashley Wilkes was here. The Confederate soldiers weren't difficult to find and a young boy didn't mind taking a message to their camp for a few coins. Rhett to cover his back had another visitor give the note to the boy. Rhett told the younger man a convincing story that Rhett didn't want his brother to know it was him delivering the note since he had ended up marrying his brother's girl. The man bought it and seemed to understand Rhett's plight, and readily agreed to deal with obtaining a messenger for the note.
Rhett paced in the hotel room he had gotten to meet with Ashley. Hopefully, the conversation would be brief and go as he expected and he'd be back on a train by the end of the morning. He tried to go over in his mind exactly what he wanted to say to Ashley. The ink well, pen and linen stationery were already set out on his desk waiting for Ashley's use.
The knock at the door despite expecting it startled Rhett. He opened the door and could read the surprise clearly written in Ashley's face. "Mr. Wilkes, come in, please I won't keep you long."
"Mr. Butler," Ashley said cautiously, though he did step into the room.
"I apologize for the secrecy, but I wasn't sure if you'd have come if you knew it was me sending for you."
"I might not have, but I think I might have been curious enough to know what brought you all this way to seek me out."
"Well, Mr. Wilkes, since you mentioned it, Miss O'Hara is what brings me all this way to seek you out."
"What about Mrs. Hamilton?"
Rhett noted the correction and smirked slightly. Surely Ashley couldn't be simple minded enough to believe that Scarlett relished her association with the Hamilton name. "Quite simply, it's time for you to release her."
"Release her from what, Mr. Butler? I'm not sure that I like what you're suggesting."
"I'm sure you don't as I'm suggesting you're purposely leading her on."
"I am doing no such thing, Mr. Butler, and I don't know why exactly my friendship with Scarlett is any of your business."
"Whether you realize it or not, whether you're consciously doing it or not, Mr. Wilkes, you are in fact doing it. I witnessed your little scene at Miss Hamilton's home the day you left Atlanta on your furlough. If you can look me in the eye and tell me that you aren't using her childhood infatuation with you to your advantage then I might be willing to listen to you." He paused, a wide smile crept to his lips when Ashley failed to make any effort to look him in the eye. "As far as what concern it is of mine. I'll tell you I wish to call on Miss O'Hara. It's been almost three years since her husband has died, and I think it's time to court her. But I refuse to do it when I'm competing with a man who will never return her affections."
"Just what is it you want me to do, Mr. Butler? Though I'm not entirely sure I should do it and allow a man with your reputation and callous disregard for numerous women to court a dear friend of mine."
"You should do it regardless of who wants to court her, Mr. Wilkes. You as a man should tell her the truth and let her get on with her life. She deserves that."
"And she deserves a dishonorable man like you?"
"Mr. Wilkes, you're not listening to me. It shouldn't matter if it's me or someone you deem more respectable. But tell me, Mr. Wilkes, who are you to judge me? Is it better for a man to lead a woman on, toy with her, use her love for him to get her to do his bidding in such matters as protecting his own wife? Knowing she'd deny him nothing, of course. Me, on the other hand, I don't need to deny or acknowledge any claims you might make against me. Any woman I've been with, in any manner, can tell you that I never once lied to them. I never led them to believe I would marry them, court them, or make them my mistress. So, please tell me, who exactly is the lesser man here?" His words were harsh, but he wasn't done quite yet. "You're breaking her, Mr. Wilkes. Don't you see that? You're breaking her spirit by allowing her to continue to live in some sort of dream world. She's twenty years old; let her live her life as an adult untainted and uninfluenced by childish infatuation."
"I think you presume too much, Mr. Butler. I have done nothing to mislead Scarlett."
"Except for the fact you haven't told her the truth."
"What is it I'm supposed to say, Mr. Butler? I'm sorry, Scarlett dear, I know you've known me all of your life and dreamt of marrying me and still do, but I don't love you. I never have and never will?"
"Something to that extent yes. The irony is I think you do love her in your own way, but not as you love your wife. You love Scarlett as I love the women in my life, for the physical pleasure and release they bring me and nothing more."
"You don't need to be rude, Mr. Butler, nor do I need to hear about your exploits."
"I'm not talking about my exploits, Mr. Wilkes, merely making a point. And what's more, I think you like knowing she loves you. I think you like knowing she'll always be there at your beck and call like a dog, and just like a dog with the wrong kind of love Scarlett will turn cold, hard and mean. Is that what you want for her, Mr. Wilkes?"
"Of course not."
"Well, then if you just do as I ask, sit at that desk there and write Scarlett a polite but nonetheless convincing letter that while you admire her dedication to you you don't love her and don't want to put undo stress on your marriage or her relationship with Mrs. Wilkes."
"I won't do it, Mr. Butler. I won't hurt her that way."
Rhett reached behind him and removed the pistol he had in the waistband of his trousers, hidden from view until now by his suit coat. He cocked the pistol and pointed it at Ashley. "You'll do it unless you want to die dishonorably and if you have any doubt I can't arrange for your death to be a dishonorable one get it out of your head now. I'm not a nice man, Mr. Wilkes, and I'm not someone you want as an enemy. Now you can write the damned letter or you can die. Is your code of honor worth your life?"
Ashley looked defeated and bowed his head. "Mr. Butler, you win. I'll write the letter, though I'm not sure that it's going to get you what you want."
"It will, Mr. Wilkes, it will. You're the only thing standing in my way of getting it."
"She's not a whore you know," Ashley said as he sat at the desk and put pen to paper.
"I'm fully aware of what she is and isn't, Mr. Wilkes. I do appreciate your pointing it out to me. Though I have to wonder if you'd think twice about making her into the whore you just told me she's not."
"And you wouldn't?"
"Of course, I wouldn't. She's not the type of woman that deserves it, and I wouldn't do that to her son. Or my wife if I had one," he added pointedly.
There was no need to exchange any more words, neither man was feeling conversational just now. Ashley worked busily writing the letter and Rhett watched him attentively. When Ashley finished he gave it to Rhett to read. Rhett smiled and nodded his head.
"Now the envelope, please, Mr. Wilkes. The handwriting has to match. I'll worry about mailing it, thank you."
Rhett took the addressed envelope and placed the piece of linen stationery inside which he had folded while Ashley was addressing the envelope. He stuffed the envelope into his inner suit coat pocket and lifted the pistol once more at Ashley. He laughed menacingly as Ashley's eyes grew wide in fear and confusion. "I wonder what your dear wife will think when your last contact is to Scarlett and not her."
"You gave me your word, Mr. Butler."
"As I did, Mr. Wilkes, but one thing you have to remember, I am no gentleman, so my word on matters such as this isn't overly reliable." He cocked the gun once more, more than surprised that Ashley just sat there. Was the man so weak that he wasn't even going to try and defend himself? Or was he just so startled that he froze in place? He saw the wetness make its way onto his uniform breeches and realized he was frozen by fear. "Good bye, Mr. Wilkes," he said and fired the gun.
Rhett was a good shot from a long distance, this close there was no question he hit his target dead on. He recocked the gun and fired a second time, just to be sure the wound was a fatal one. He left the room, with Ashley's head lying on the desktop on top of the unused linen stationery, ink pen now on the floor beside him.
Rhett left casually, he knew by hurrying anywhere he would only draw attention to himself. There was nothing tying him to that room or to Ashley. The other man he had spoken to was just passing through Chattanooga as Rhett was, Rhett had made sure of it. By the time they found Ashley Wilkes, since Rhett had paid for the room for two full nights, both that man and Rhett Butler would be far from Chattanooga.
He stopped at the post office and mailed the letter to Scarlett before going to the depot to meet his train. By nightfall he was back in Atlanta and drinking whisky at Belle's. Why he came right back to Atlanta he wasn't sure. Of course when he thought further on it, he knew exactly why. It would be Rhett who would be there for the Hamilton household when word of Ashley came around and it would be Rhett there for Scarlett when Ashley's letter came more than likely after word of his death had come.
Did he feel guilty for making a woman a widow so cold heartedly and deliberately? There was a part of him that did, especially as to who that widow was. He liked Melanie Hamilton, but in truth she deserved a much better man than Ashley Wilkes. Not that Rhett knew just what kind of man she deserved, but someone who could be true to her inside and out at the very least. There was no room in his life for guilt, if he allowed guilt to play into his emotions he would still be a poor sailor doing manual labor aboard ships for servant's wages. He had certainly done more questionable actions than what he had done to Ashley Wilkes. In Rhett's mind, he actually did Ashley a favor and put him out of his self-inflicted misery.
Two days after Ashley's funeral, Rhett was woken suddenly by knocking at his suite door. He put on and belted his robe and answered the door.
"Mr. Butler, I'm sorry to disturb you," the bellhop said.
"It's no trouble, what can I do for you?"
"There's a lady downstairs who wishes to see you. She seems rather distraught and while I know you have women accompany you now and again to your room," the bellhop paused briefly, obviously searching for tactful words to use. "This one doesn't seem like the type of woman you'd bring to your room."
Rhett scowled slightly curious to know who it was. Mrs. Wilkes perhaps? He doubted it, but it could be, she had been more than distraught enough since news of Ashley's death. Rhett had stepped in amidst the confusion and sadness and helped Melanie and Scarlett plan Ashley's funeral. Never once did he betray he had something to do with Ashley's death.
He did think once during the events that had transpired recently and realized it would be rather ironic if through all of this he didn't end up getting Scarlett. But he was such a source of strength for her recently, the only one who knew her little secret and she could cry to without worrying about it being misunderstood. Hopefully with all that crying, she'd cry out her love for him, too, and not mourn him for the rest of her life.
"Show her to the smaller dining room, won't you? Ensure she has coffee or whatever she'd like, and let her know I'll be down as soon as I'm dressed." Rhett placed some coins in the palm of the bellhop's hand and closed the door.
A little less than thirty minutes later, Rhett entered the smaller dining room and was surprised yet not surprised to see an obviously very distraught Scarlett. The bellhop had actually understated her condition. "Scarlett," he called to her as he walked to the table.
"Oh Rhett," she mumbled into her handkerchief. It was obvious she had been crying, the vividness normally in her green eyes had been replaced with redness and swelling.
"What's wrong, Scarlett?"
"Read this, Rhett. This came in yesterday's mail and I didn't open it until breakfast this morning."
Rhett took the familiar looking envelope from Scarlett and pulled out the piece of linen stationery he recognized. He peered at Scarlett over the top of the paper gauging her reaction before he read it. Of course he'd read it before, but she didn't know that.
My dear Scarlett,
It is with heavy heart and much trepidation that I must write to you. Part of my service to our Cause is to come clean with some aspects of my life. One of the things I need to come clean with is you, Scarlett, and my feelings for you.
I never meant to mislead you. I never in a million years dreamt that you would actually take my attentiveness for courtship. I never believed you would deem me worthy, I know your father did not.
Scarlett, I do not love you, not in the way a man loves a woman at any rate. You will always hold a place in my heart as the girl I once climbed trees with and who grew bored with my incessant interest in books and music. And I will always love you as a friend, as a sister, and for the strong person I know you are. But it is not a romantic love.
I bid you please to bury these feelings you hold for me and go on with your life. Find someone worthy of your love, your passion, your spirit and bestow upon him the love you have been so eager to bestow upon me. I beg of you, for your reputation as well as my own and Melanie's, you must not harbor any thoughts of love for me or our ending up together any longer. I love Melanie, she is my wife, and the woman I hope will bear my children.
Please forgive me for the purposeful deception, I knew how you felt and used it to my benefit to get you to help me with Melanie while away from her. I call upon you as a friend, as my sister to continue looking after Melanie for me. She loves you as a sister, as I do.
Rhett refolded the letter and placed it back into the envelope, unsure of what to say. It was far better reading the second time around. Ashley had done a good job and had maintained some semblance of his gentleman's code of conduct.
"Oh Rhett, why did this have to come now?"
Realizing it was a rhetorical question, Rhett left it unanswered. "I'm sorry, Scarlett," he said smoothly, seemingly sincere.
"You tried to warn me, Rhett. You tried to warn me for years, but I never listened. I feel like such a fool."
"You're no fool, my pet, no fool at all." Rhett ordered some breakfast when the waiter came to see if they wanted anything. Scarlett had apparently already eaten and was drinking coffee.
"But look at it, Rhett. He used me. He toyed with me. He let me marry Charles!"
"Indeed he did, didn't he," Rhett said unable to hide the snide smile from his lips. She was beginning to see the light! Of course if she hadn't married Charles he and Scarlett wouldn't be sitting where they are today, conversing in such an intimate, confidante like manner. He hesitated to point that out to her, though, hesitant to give her any reason to see Ashley in a positive light.
"I'm not sure whether to be furious with him or myself. And he's dead so I can't even tell him how I feel."
"What about his request you continue to care for Mrs. Wilkes?"
"Well, of course I'll do that. I like it in Atlanta and I honestly don't want to go back to Tara, which would be my only alternative if I were to leave Aunt Pitty's house."
"Not necessarily, Scarlett."
"What do you mean?"
"You could live with me."
Scarlett's eyes widened in shock. "What did you just say to me, Rhett Butler?"
"I said that you could live with me, that would allow you to stay in Atlanta."
"And just how would I go about doing that, Rhett, and still hold my head high?"
Rhett paused as the waiter delivered his breakfast. "One thing I'll say about Atlanta, the food is getting worse every time I come here."
"You cannot just change the subject like that, Rhett."
"You could hold your head quite high if you were my wife, and have a smug grin on your face, too."
"You? Why would I want to marry you? Why would you want to marry me? You can't be serious."
"Of course I'm serious. I don't propose to women often, Scarlett, and I'm not nearly as experienced at it as I'm sure you are having been on the receiving end of numerous proposals yourself. I wouldn't have said it if I didn't mean it."
"But how would that help me with Melanie?"
"You'd be near her without living with her. Do you really want to continue sleeping in your late husband's room? Raising your son in that depressing house? He's going to turn out to be a bigger sissy than Charles and Ashley combined if you continue to raise him there."
Scarlett couldn't help but giggle, evidently her anger had passed. "You shouldn't say things like that."
"Can you deny it?"
She glanced down at the table and then back at Rhett, her dimples flashing. "No, of course not. I never thought about it, but you're right."
Perhaps he shouldn't have asked her to marry him right then and there, but she seemed so accepting of Ashley's letter and seemed genuinely angry at him rather than crying over a broken heart. It was a start at any rate, and if he waited for an appropriate time who was to say another beau wouldn't come along and with her heart open win her over leaving Rhett empty handed.
"So, are you going to say yes, Mrs. Hamilton?"
"You still won't get your wish, Rhett."
Rhett knew what she was referring to, so he didn't bother asking. With Ashley out of the picture, he believed he did stand a chance of having his wish of having Scarlett tell him she loved him come true.
"I'm not asking for that today, Scarlett."
"Then yes, I will marry you."
"Very well. I guess we owe Ashley something after all."
"No, we don't. Something tells me we might have been married sooner if it wasn't for Ashley."
"I've never asked you before now to marry me, Scarlett."
"No, but," she said, struggling for her words. How could she explain to him that over the years she kept getting confused by her feelings for Rhett? She was so set on Ashley and that she loved Ashley she couldn't see the obvious thing right in front of her, that it was Rhett she loved and that it was Rhett who would make her happy. "I think you might have if I hadn't been hung up on Ashley."
"Perhaps, my pet, perhaps."
"Yes, Scarlett," he said, glancing up at her as he used his fork to cut off a bite sized piece of his omelet.
"Thank you for not saying you told me so or any other snide and underhanded comments you could have made."
"That wouldn't have made a very good pre-wedding proposal, Scarlett, now would it have?"
"And thank you for putting up with me and my idiotic behavior."
"You've put up with mine, it seems to me I should put up with yours."
"I suppose that's true." Scarlett finished her coffee and stood from the table. "I have to go back to Melanie's, you'll call on me later to work out the details?"
"Sure, I'll see you this evening for dinner. We can tell everyone then." He stood from the table and kissed her on the cheek. "You've grown up, Scarlett. I don't know when it happened, but I see a woman standing before me and I like very much what I see."
Scarlett blushed slightly. "Thank you, Rhett. I'll see you for dinner." And with that she left the restaurant.
Rhett sat at the table once more and continued eating his breakfast. He would have to get the marriage done quickly so that she wouldn't in a week or two rethink her decision and decide that she wasn't mad at Ashley after all. He would nurse her resentment towards Ashley for all it was worth and hopefully as a result nurse her love for Rhett out of her.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com