***Part One***

Charleston, SC - May 1874

Rhett sat in his leather chair sipping a glass of brandy not paying attention as the amber liquid rolled over his tongue and down his throat. He stared at the letter in front of him on his desk, having started to read it once but deciding a drink was in order first.

He had thought at first that Scarlett had been devious and had his step-son address the envelope. She would know that Rhett would open it thinking it was from Wade himself only to find it was from Scarlett. But when he opened it the handwriting very obviously belonged to a boy, and he had dropped the letter on his desktop as if burned upon that realization. That was over two hours ago. Rhett did not consider himself a coward, yellow or afraid of anything, but he found himself afraid of just what Wade would say to him.

Surely even Scarlett would not stoop so low as to tug on Rhett's heartstrings regarding his step-children and have them aid her in yet another ploy to get him to return to Atlanta. He had been there almost two months ago and had been a dutiful husband on that visit, holding true to his promise to keep up appearances for Scarlett's sake. He understood her not wanting to get a divorce, but he had grown tired of her thinking up excuses in an attempt to make him stay.

They lived as virtual strangers in that atrocity of a house Scarlett had created six years ago now for them to live in. The door joining their bedrooms had remained locked from his side of the doors for the first time ever. They did not share meals together and Rhett avoided her at all costs, which perhaps was not fair to her. He had asked Mammy in confidence to make up a guest bedroom for him to stay in not wanting to stay anywhere near Scarlett. He was not sure he would be able to resist if she were to come onto him physically.

He looked out of his office window. He had returned to Charleston hoping to find some peace as well as make peace. He and his mother had been getting along, but he sensed she did not approve of his separation from Scarlett. Not that he had told her specifically they were separated, but it did not take a genius to figure out that the current arrangement screamed out separation.

He drummed on his desktop and noted the difference in sound. Some fingers hit the bare top of his cherry wood desk and some fingers hit Wade's letter cushioning the sound. Scarlett had not waffled over the past six months from her declaration that she no longer loved Ashley. Of course, that was not overly surprising to Rhett, he had known all along she had not loved Ashley. So his problem was not with that.

No, his problem was how did Rhett know that Scarlett had not replaced him with Ashley? He honestly did not know how to tell, he was too close and too emotionally involved to the situation. He loved her, damn it. If he knew for sure that her claims of loving him were heartfelt and genuine he might reconsider his decision to end their marriage. But he doubted he would ever know.

He thought over the years, thirteen of them, and tried to decipher if there was ever any evidence that she loved him. There were times he thought she did, he had thought for years that she did and that if he had gotten her over her infatuation with Ashley that they would be happy. But that never came or at least not until it was too late. By the time it had come too much water had passed under the bridge that allowed him to give his love to her so freely.

Not wanting to think about Scarlett anymore and what could have been, he decided now was the time to read Wade's letter. He took one last sip on his brandy before setting the glass down and picking up the letter.

Dear Rhett,

I hope you're not angry at me for writing and if you are please take it out on me not Mother. She doesn't even know I have your address but I begged Mammy to find it for me.

I know that something has happened between you and Mother to cause you to be gone so much. I've listened at her door enough when she's crying to know that it has something to do with Uncle Ashley. She acts all right when you're here, but when you leave she doesn't eat, she doesn't sleep, and she gets so angry all the time.

Yesterday, she spent the entire afternoon at the stable talking to God - I guess about you and Bonnie. I didn't get close enough to hear, but I know she misses you both a lot. I know there's no way Bonnie can come back, but is there any way you might be able to come back to Atlanta?

You are the only father I've ever known and even when I wasn't living with you you were always there and I've come to depend on you. Sometimes there are just things a boy needs to talk to a man about not his mother. And Uncle Ashley just isn't the same as you. You told me once that I was your son, but you're not acting like it right now. I've already lost one father I never thought I'd lose you, too.

Please think about coming home to us. I know you and Mother can make up. Ella and I both promise to do whatever we can to behave so that you and Mother can work things out.

Love,
Wade Hampton

Rhett set the letter down and reached for the bottle of whisky, pouring it right into the brandy snifter not caring if it was or was not the appropriate glass. He was glad there was no more to the letter, because he could not have taken much more of it.

Rhett had to give Wade credit; he knew just what to say and how to say it. If he was trying to make Rhett feel guilty and like a heel, he had done a damned fine job of it. He somehow suspected Wade's opening of the letter was true, that he was writing without Scarlett's knowledge. He would like to be able to believe she was behind this, that she had forced her son to write such a letter. Scarlett was a lot of things, but she wouldn't put her child through the emotional upheaval of writing such things. Not to mention her pitting Wade Hampton in the middle and having to choose sides between Rhett and Scarlett was out of character. Ten to one Rhett would win the contest and Scarlett knew this to be true as well as Rhett did for the very reason he stated in the letter, the boy wanted a father.

He could understand Wade's want for a father; Rhett had admittedly wanted one too. There had been many times throughout his life, both as a child and an adult, that he would have loved to have his father as a confidante. Lawyers were great for talking to and keeping things legal, even if it was slimly so, but sometimes it would have been nice to speak with the man responsible for making Rhett into what he was about things. He could not help but wonder just what might have happened with Scarlett if things between Rhett and his father had been different.

He stood from the desk and walked to the window. It was open, a light breeze was flowing through carrying with it a light early summer breeze and the fragrant smell of the Butler household's gardens. He paid no attention to these simple things he had grown to appreciate once more since returning to Charleston last winter. One thing with life with Scarlett had stopped him from doing was enjoying the little things, everything always had to be complicated and difficult. Not that it was always her doing they turned out that way he realized, he was to blame some of the time too. Of course his life had been complex and difficult before he had met Scarlett.

Why did Wade have to write him now? Rhett was just getting to the point where he doubted himself and his self-inflicted separation from his wife. From everything Rhett had heard from Atlanta Scarlett had been behaving herself. One of his contacts was Henry Hamilton so he was fairly assured his information was accurate. She and Ashley had not been alone together since Melanie's death. In fact, he had heard that other than to take Beau off his hands for a day or two, Scarlett rarely visited Ashley at his home.

What really frightened Rhett was that he would return and Scarlett would tell him it was a cruel joke. Even worse though would be after a month or two, or a year or two for that matter, that she discovered that she like Ashley never loved Rhett. He did not believe this was the case, but that did not mean Scarlett would not convince herself of it, just as she had convinced herself for years that Melanie was the only thing standing in the way of her happily ever after fairy tale ending with Ashley Wilkes.

He thought about talking to his mother, but he knew exactly what his mother would say. She would tell him to go to his wife, that it was his duty to try and make it work, that if Scarlett was willing to do some of the footwork it was up to Rhett to give her the chance to prove her sincerity. Unfortunately, Rhett was not sure how much more of Scarlett his heart could take. From the night of Ashley's birthday party three years ago he had been walking a tightrope where his heart was concerned. He was afraid he would topple over and there would be no safety net below to catch him when he fell.

There was another side to the coin as well. And that was simply he was not sure what he would do if he found out down the road that she really did love him and he had let her slip through his fingertips. It would be the ultimate justice perhaps, a final twist of the knife to his heart that he had worked so hard at hardening over the years. He had once upon a time thought he had done a fine job of hardening it, until he met Scarlett O'Hara that is.

And her children, Rhett could not help but think of them. Did they really think that his leaving had anything to do with them? He was surprised when he felt moisture in his eyes as this thought occurred to him. No, Wade and Ella were not Bonnie but he had never done anything to make them believe he loved them any less. Wade obviously remembered the conversation Rhett had had with him the day that Bonnie was born. Of course, he had left them when he left Scarlett. Rhett was the only father either child had ever known, and he hated it when they called him Uncle Rhett.

Wade had not indicated Scarlett was mistreating them, but he had indicated that she was not functioning as she should be. Did her children need to see her destroy herself and in the process destroy their fragile lives? Despite Wade's age, he was twelve now, he was still so fragile and afraid. Rhett had never been exactly sure what the boy was afraid of, but he realized as he actually began to cry for the first time in years without cause or reason to that he had made the boy's fears real by leaving them as he had.

And Ella was still a little girl at seven, one that Rhett could spoil as he had wanted to Scarlett and Bonnie. Perhaps that was the way Rhett could find out if Scarlett's declaration of love were sincere and life lasting, through her children. If she loved him as she claimed to surely she would not begrudge him showering them with the attention they deserved.

He could offer to adopt them and get rid of that stupid endearment of Uncle Rhett once and for all. Would she go for that, he wondered? If she really wanted him in her life one would think she would welcome that he was making his presence in the lives of her and her children permanent by taking them as his. Perhaps it was worth a try. It was either that or live miserably as he had been the months since he had left Atlanta.

He had enjoyed his time in Charleston, had enjoyed getting close to his mother again, but that was not what he ultimately craved. Strange how he never wanted to get married, never wanted to be tied down to one woman or one town but now that he was away from his wife he really had no desire to return to that way of life. He liked being married, he liked having a home to return to, and he liked having children in that home. His mother's house was nice, but it was always so quiet. Even when he had been a child it had been quiet, he had never been allowed to act as a child would.

The realization that his leaving was making Scarlett's children believe they had to act that way, as if even their footsteps being too loud across the floor could cause her to scold them made him come to his decision.

Two weeks later he found himself getting off a train in Atlanta. He had not informed anyone of his return, not even Scarlett. He knew when she saw the amount of luggage he brought with him on this trip that she would realize he was staying. It was all or nothing for Rhett. He could not have half of his belongings in Charleston and half in Atlanta or he would drive himself crazy and be tempted to flee every time he and Scarlett went for a round of verbal sparring.

He tried to convince himself that he had returned for the children, even if they were not his children by blood. He had been trying to convince himself of that for the past two weeks since receiving and reading Wade's letter. Somehow he knew that the Wade and Ella were his pride making up a reason to justify his returning to Scarlett.

Sooner than he would have liked he found himself pushing open and shutting again the waist high metal gate that separated their property line with the public sidewalk and stepped inside. He removed his hat, holding it at his side as he approached the front steps and door of his home. He would laugh if he walked through the front door and found Scarlett and Ashley in some type of compromising position. It would serve him right for pushing her away as he had.

He was struck by the almost death like quiet when he entered the house and he suddenly felt panicked that something horrible had happened and he had not been here. Where were the servants? Where was Mammy? Where were the children? Where was Scarlett?

He dropped his hat without thought at the foot of the stairs before quickly ascending them. He went first into Scarlett's suite, which was empty and caused the panicky feeling he had felt downstairs to grow by nightmarish proportions. He ascended the stairs to the third floor where the children rooms were and felt himself breath a sigh of relief when finally he heard noise.

He went in the direction of the noise; the children's play room, and opened the door. He was more than a little surprised at the scene before him. For a brief moment he believed he should have trusted his first instinct about Wade's letter and that it had been one of Scarlett's ploys. For here sat Scarlett, on the floor no less, in a day dress with Wade, Beau, and Ella sitting in front of her listening attentively as she read Grimm's Hansel and Gretel.

His doubts though were pushed to the back of his mind when he saw the look of genuine shock on Scarlett's face coupled with the look of fear in Wade Hampton's eyes that no twelve year old boy should have to feel. Ella was the first to get to him, her little arms went around his hips and she hugged him. She was dressed so prettily in a white gown with red trim along its hem and the end of its short sleeves. She had white ankle socks on and red patent leather shoes on that were the same color as the dress' trim. He saw the socks and shoes only as her skirts shifted when she walked.

"Don't you look pretty today, Ella."

"Thank you, Uncle Rhett. You look nice, too."

"Do I? Well, if anyone but you had said it I wouldn't have believed it," he winked. "But since it is you and I know you'd never fib about something like that I believe you. And I thank you," he winked again.

She giggled happily as Wade pushed up behind her, not so gently getting her out of his way. Rhett saw the confusion and apprehension in his eyes and on his face and closed his eyes briefly. He would not betray the boy's secret. "Are you too old to give me a hug, son? If so, I guess it's time for handshakes."

This seemed to please Wade and he extended his hand to Rhett, who took it and shook it. "You've been practicing. I hope you're not going around crushing the girls' hands around Atlanta."

"No, Uncle Rhett, of course not, I've practiced with Mother on how to take a lady's hand."

Rhett's eyes met Scarlett's briefly, but nonetheless intimately. "Well, son, if anyone can teach you how to treat a lady, it's your mother." He knew his choice of words would not be lost on Scarlett, but that it was exactly what Wade would need to hear.

Beau still sat on the floor, watching Rhett. This had to be a hard time for the boy. Ashley had not quite recovered from Melanie's death and if what Wade had said in his letter about Scarlett was true, Beau had been kind of shuffled around in the process. Rhett imagined Ashley's spinster sister was around to help with Beau, but knew Melanie would have preferred Scarlett see to the boy's upbringing than India Wilkes.

"How about you, Beau? Uncle Rhett's missed you too."

He smiled, displaying the fact he had lost a tooth or two. "Thank you, Uncle Rhett."

"Why, what's that space there in your mouth for?"

"I lost a tooth."

"You lost it?"

"Yes, Sir."

"And you weren't able to find it again?"

"No, Sir. A new one will grow in though."

"Really?"

Beau obviously knew he was teasing now. "Yes, Sir. I'll show you when it comes in."

"You do that," Rhett winked.

Scarlett had remained silent through all of this, though she was standing now and the book she was reading from was now on the floor at her feet.

"Mrs. Butler," he said giving her a hesitant, but sincere smile.

"Rhett," she said simply.

"Where is everyone? I come home to an empty house and silence. I was worried something had happened."

Scarlett opened her mouth to speak, but closed it. Rhett could almost hear her willing herself to hold her tongue. "I gave the servants the day off."

Rhett raised a brow curiously, he found Wade with his eyes and once again searched them for any clue, any hint that the boy had been in cahoots with Scarlett. "Why did you do that?"

And she blushed. She actually blushed at his question, which piqued Rhett's curiosity even more.

"Let's just say it was a well deserved day off and leave it at that."

"Should I leave you to your story telling?"

"No, actually, it's fine. I was about to take them down to see about something to eat."

"Well, why don't we take them somewhere then," he suggested. Now that he had had a few minutes while they were standing together in the same room Rhett could see that she was worn looking and tired. She had dark patches under her eyes and her cheeks did not have the hint of color in them that was normally there. Her hair was not as coiffed as it normally would be and while she was dressed nicely, the dress she wore was so plain. It certainly was not worn to draw attention to her. It was almost like she was trying to hide, to shrink into herself. Had he done that to her? He supposed it was not just him, but a combination of the events of her life since the War.

"Are you sure you'd like that?"

"Of course I would. I've missed my family. Why not show them off?"

Scarlett strode out of the room without saying another word. Rhett was not sure if she was upset or overwhelmed. He told the three children to keep themselves busy in the room for a while so he could talk to Scarlett.

He followed her downstairs and into her room, where she was laying face down on her bed. "I could take the children myself if you'd prefer it, but I think it would be good for you to get out, Scarlett."

"Why do you care," she said turning her head slightly so that her words were comprehendible.

"It's my first day back in Atlanta and I come home to find my wife has given every servant in the house the day off and she has three children to feed. I thought that I would spare you the grief of cooking for three children. And," he paused slightly. "I'd like to take my family to dinner. Is there a crime in that?"

"Is this for appearances sake, Rhett? I'm really not in the mood for making appearances this evening. I'm not sure I'd paint the picture you're trying to make of the beautiful family."

"No, it's not for appearances sake. I'll go there myself and bring the food back here if you'd prefer it. Or you could bring the children to Ashley's and I could take you to dinner alone."

She lifted her head from the pillow. So many emotions were displayed on her face and in her eyes at that moment. Surprise was there, along with curiosity and disbelief. There too was a glimmer of hope that she perhaps thought Rhett could not or would not choose to see. "You want to take me to dinner without the children?"

A knock at their front door interrupted their conversation. "Ah, that would be my luggage. Why don't you change while I supervise them bringing it in? You decide in the meantime if you want it to be with or without children, I assure you I don't mind either way, Scarlett."

She sat up on the bed, staring after him as his broad shouldered figure left her room. While there was nothing necessarily wrong with the dress she wore, it was very simple and not at all becoming on her. She had no idea that Rhett was to be returning to Atlanta any time soon let alone today or perhaps she would have dressed a little differently. It was just like him though, to come when she least expected it when she thought she looked perhaps the worst he had seen her since the miscarriage and give her reason to believe he might be here to actually try.

She had bathed that morning, so she did not need a bath. So all that she needed to do was brush her hair and put on a different dress. It did not take her overly long to accomplish both of these tasks.

Not quite thirty minutes later she opened the door that connected their suites having heard him in there. Yet another reason for her to believe he might actually be there to try. But when she saw the amount of luggage there was sitting in the room, she knew then without a doubt that Rhett had come home. Perhaps Charleston had not been all he had remembered it to be or perhaps he had just had a change of heart and wanted to be with Scarlett. She really did not care just then.

After her eyes had finished their quick assessment of the state of his room she smoothed down her skirt nervously and cleared her throat lightly. "Will this do?"

Rhett made no attempt to hide the appreciative look he gave her. Her face still looked worn and tired, but that would obviously take some time to fix. He noticed it only because of his feelings of guilt for being a large reason for her looking that way. But her gown, a deep gold with green accents that was bordering on being brazenly low cut was stunning on her. He could not help but whistle once, low and lewdly as she turned around modeling the entire gown. Even with the bustle in place she looked amazing, and Rhett knew that she knew it as well as he did.

Scarlett met his eyes when she had finished modeling the gown for him. She smiled genuinely, the fact was obvious because it was visible in her eyes. "I'll take that as a yes."

"Now I feel severely underdressed, something I'm not sure I've ever felt before in my life."

"Oh, Rhett, how you do go on. I've never seen you look anything other than handsome."

"So did you decide we were going with or without the children?"

"Well, I did sort of promise Ashley I'd keep Beau for the night. India has gone to the County. They're trying to rebuild Twelve Oaks, you know."

"Ah yes, I remember hearing about that. And India is in control of it?"

"Well, she'll be the one living there, so yes."

"Well," he said unbelieving he was actually about to say these words aloud. "Why not invite Ashley to join us then?"

"Rhett, he wouldn't. I mean, it's only been six months since Melanie died."

"Ah yes, propriety and society and their rules. All right, we'll take the children with us then. I've missed them, too, even Beau, so it's fine with me. I wouldn't have offered if I hadn't meant it."

"Too," she asked coquettishly.

"Yes, too, Scarlett." He cleared his throat lightly. "Now why isn't it I haven't seen you in that dress before?"

"I actually had it made right before Bonnie died, Rhett," she said and cut herself off. "I admittedly don't know that it's appropriate. It's not even been a year."

"Well, Scarlett, I think you've worn your share of black for a lifetime and as much as I loved and miss Bonnie, I don't think by wearing black for the rest of your life you'll do her memory any great service. She's not here to notice, and if she were looking down from heaven, I think she might find it incredibly dull and depressing to see her mother dressed in gray and black all the time."

"Do you mean that, Rhett? I always feel as if everyone's talking about me because of it."

"Don't let them worry you, Scarlett. I won't tell you what I foolishly told you years ago, not to worry about your reputation. But in your heart, and in my heart, we both know what Bonnie would and would not have wanted us to do. I'm sure Bonnie can see your whole life lain out before her and she'd want you to be as vivacious as you were the first day I met you. It was because of that day she ever came to be."

"I suppose you're right. Let me go get the children dressed and we can go."

"Well, I imagine they're old enough to get themselves dressed. So why don't you go tell them to change for dinner and then maybe you can come down here and help get me dressed."

Scarlett blushed slightly and turned from his room without saying another word, which prompted a hearty laugh from Rhett as she opened the door leading from her room to the hallway. She did not know what to make of this man who claimed to be her husband. He was flirting with her, complimenting her, admitting he had made mistakes, and talking with her as if he cared. She was not used to this Rhett. They had never had this in their marriage. Always their marriage had been filled with sarcasm, hurtful words, anger, deceit, and even dishonesty when it came right down to it.

Of course the dishonesty had been her fault. Now that she had time on her hands to think over the past she realized Rhett had loved her all along. She realized, too, even more clearly than the night Melanie died that she had loved Rhett all along. They had always been, as he so pointedly stated the night he left, at cross-purposes. So he was here evidently to give their marriage a second chance. While this made her feel good and relieved, because she knew if they both tried it could work. She realized, too, as she got to the head of the stairs leading from the second to the third floor that it could also end very disastrously.

Neither Rhett nor Scarlett was used to expressing their true feelings nor were they used to being vulnerable and raw to someone else. That was always when the sarcasm and hurtful words had been exchanged between them, Scarlett realized. It was when they were at their most vulnerable and perhaps at the cusp of revealing their true feelings to one another.

She told the children to get dressed for dinner and meet them in the parlor when they were finished and continued with her thoughts on the way back to Rhett's room. Was that why Rhett had left her so suddenly after their night of lovemaking after Ashley's birthday party? She had woken the following morning realizing that she should feel cheap and wanton for the things not only that they had done to one another but the things they had said to one another as well. And Scarlett had given as well as she had taken from Rhett, both the things and the words. She had known all along that Rhett had been holding back, but she never imagined that his letting go in their marriage bed would be when he was most vulnerable.

To think what might have been different between them if she had just flat out, boldly told him the next morning how much she had enjoyed it. She did not care that he had treated her very unlike a gentleman treated his lady wife, that he had treated her as a man treated a whore or a common woman. He had brought her to places and encouraged her to bring him to places neither had ever experienced before. Of course they had not because neither had done the act of lovemaking before with love involved. How stupid of her not to realize this.

She knocked lightly on Rhett's door and entered when he bid her to do so. She could not hide the look of disappointment on her face when she saw that he had already changed. "You didn't need my help after all, it seems," she said trying to keep her voice light. Tonight was no time to get into an argument over something petty.

He winked as he looked at her through the reflection in his mirror. "Maybe I just wanted to make sure we actually got the children fed. If it was just Ella I don't know that I'd be too worried, but with two growing boys on our hands, I'd be afraid if we dawdled at all they'd break down our door demanding their food that minute."

She shook her head slightly as she laughed. "I suppose you're right." She glanced around his room once more and could not help but ask him about his luggage. "Are you staying in Atlanta long this time?"

"I'm thinking about it, yes."

All right, so he was not going to jump in with both feet and declare he was staying for good. The fact that he was even thinking about it was definitely an improvement. "I'm glad," she said her eyes downcast so that she would not see if he was laughing at her.

He stepped towards her then, having finished placing his stickpin. He cupped her chin with his hand and tilted her head upward, his dark eyes piercing into hers. Ah, there was some emotion in them, some life, and some spunk. He kissed her lightly, he had not really planned on kissing her tonight, or anytime soon, but he had never kissed her either under the pretense of her loving him and he was curious to know if it might be different.

And good lord, but it was. She took the light kiss he bestowed upon her with friendly affection and coiled her arms around his neck drawing him closer, deeper into the kiss that he had started. She parted her lips and initiated the meeting of their tongues, which danced intimately for what to Rhett seemed like an eternity. He could feel the pounding of her heart through her dress against his chest, and he was quite sure she could feel his too.

He had no idea how long that kiss lasted, but it was the longest kiss he had ever experienced without it leading to something beyond kissing. They had certainly never kissed like this before now. He drew away, both sets of eyes revealing the smoldering hunger that they both knew could not be acted on at that moment. And both gave way to soft groans of disappointment when they heard footsteps descend the stairs reminding them once again that they had charges they had to see to the feeding, bathing and bedtime of.

"The sooner they eat, the sooner they go to bed, right," he asked huskily ashamed at how easily she had aroused him and made him forget that he was here for the children. He was here to give their marriage another chance, yes, but he had intended on going slow and seeing how she reacted to his wanting to be a father to her step-children. That seemed rather trite and unimportant right now. It could have just been stifled desire that had brought on such a kiss, six months actually longer since the physical aspect of their marriage had ceased to exist before he had left. Rhett was not altogether sure that was the case, though. Scarlett as far as Rhett knew had never allowed herself to succumb to desire.

"Not necessarily, but it's worth a try."

"No, no, there's no need to rush them. I haven't seen them either, Scarlett, and they need to get used to my being around again. So it's probably best we don't hole ourselves in our bedrooms right away."

"You're being a little presumptuous, aren't you?"

"Not really, I didn't necessarily say what we would be doing in our bedrooms or whether or not we'd even be doing it together," he smirked.

"And what's this about you haven't seen the children? You saw them when you've come here more than you saw me."

"Well, I had my reasons for that, Scarlett. I admittedly didn't think on them when I left that evening. Wade and Ella have lost one father already."

"I suppose you're right," she said her eyes softening slightly as he spoke. "You're really intending on staying?"

"I'm going to try, Scarlett. I'm going to try, but you have to be willing to meet me halfway. Or there's no sense in my even being here."

"Of course I'm willing to meet you halfway, Rhett. I'll do anything."

"Well, you won't have to do anything, my pet, I won't make you jump through hoops or anything. But the biggest thing has to be no more lies and no more deception. I can't bury my feelings and my heart anymore, Scarlett, or I won't have a heart left to give. Even to you."

"I know, Rhett, I do. And I think I've finally found mine, the real one. I realize we can't start over, but I'd like to at least try and start over? I mean, I don't want to start over and forget everything that's happened between us, because I think what has happened is important."

"Do you now?"

"I do. Oh Rhett, these past months have been miserable. The town was talking about me, about you, and about our marriage and whether or not it was over. They were waiting, counting the days after you'd leave from your visits and I'd rush to Ashley. I never did, of course. I avoided his house if India wasn't there as much as I despise her, and saw him at the mill only with other people present and then only to help him with the books."

"I know," he admitted as he walked to his bedroom door. "Let's go eat with the children, Scarlett. We have the rest of the evening to discuss these things. They're liable to tear the parlor apart if we don't get down there pretty quickly."

She laughed lightly and adjusted the pearl necklace she wore. "I forgot they were down there already. Let's go. I think they'll be happy you came home, my cooking is not exactly what they're used to."

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