Atlanta, Georgia - July 1875
Scarlett was going over some papers in the study while Rhett was seeing that Wade and Ella were tucked away in their beds. The past year had passed by so quickly for Scarlett and so differently than she had imagined things being at this time when Rhett was gone that it was hard for her to believe that they had just celebrated their anniversary.
Things were not one hundred percent between them, they had their share of disagreements and outright rows from time to time, but both she and Rhett had come to expect that from one another. What a difference admitting their feelings to one another had made, knowing that they both loved one another made all the arguments and bad times seem worth it. Neither believed at the next bump in the road they were going to run away or call it quits, they were both in this marriage for better or for worse, until death did they part.
Scarlett had never really been mindful of that part of the wedding vows when she married Charles or Frank, and she had not mourned either of them in the way she should have. She mourned the fact she was a widow, had to wear black and abstain from dancing and other fun things more than she did either husband's passing. She knew, though, that if something were to happen to Rhett she would mourn him properly. In fact, she had gotten to the point since Bonnie's death and then Melanie's and then with Rhett leaving her that she was not sure what she would do without him there for her anymore. At least when he had left she knew that he was out there somewhere, enjoying life and that made their separation almost bearable. Knowing he was dead would have been unbearable for Scarlett, even if they were not together any longer.
But now that he had opened her heart, made her realize that she would never have to worry about where her next meal would come from or work like a field hand to feed herself and her loved ones, Scarlett realized how hurtful she had been to everyone, not just Rhett. It had not been intentional in the least, Scarlett had just been out for survival others be damned.
She had started by making amends with both of her children. She worked hard at planting memories of both of their fathers, letting Wade Hampton take pride in both Charles and Rhett and Ella in both Frank and Rhett. Both children called him father now, if anyone in Atlanta questioned this no one said a word to the Butler's.
Rhett had spoken of adopting them; Scarlett was not sure until recently if that was the right thing to do. By taking away their last names and giving them Rhett's last name she felt that it was in a way taking away a part of their fathers, too. But for their anniversary, Scarlett had given him what he had asked for; he was now legally their father.
It seemed the least she could do for him. She knew he loved children and with Bonnie gone, the unborn babe lost when Scarlett fell down the stairs and with her lack of getting in the family way the past year it seemed the only way he was going to come by them. She was admittedly disappointed that she had not gotten with child yet, it certainly was not from a lack of trying on their part. She would have liked to have a child born from the love that they were both so willing to admit and demonstrate to one another now.
She was brought out of her thoughts by the ringing of their exterior bell, indicating someone was paying them a visit. She was curious as to who it was and decided to answer the door herself. She could not stop the lump that crept to her throat from her heart at the realization that at this hour it was not someone just coming by to be social. Do not let something bad have happened to anyone, she pleaded to God followed by her crossing herself.
She opened the door to reveal a young man perhaps fifteen, certainly not a child and yet not quite an adult either. She recognized him, but from where she was not sure. He was dressed neatly but not expensively. Perhaps he was a friend of Wade Hampton's, though why he would be calling at this time of night Scarlett had no idea.
"May I help you?"
He removed the cap he wore, holding it against his chest. He was visibly nervous, his dark hair had a bit of a cowlick to it which made him look a little younger than Scarlett had guessed him to be.
"I was looking for Rhett, Ma'am."
Her eyes widened as recognition set in and she felt herself grow dizzy and realized before she could do anything about it that she was going to faint. She heard from somewhere faintly, the voice sounded so distant like it was coming from somewhere far away, a man calling her name out. Despite the distance and the faintness of the voice she could sense panic in the one word he exclaimed.
Rhett dashed down the stairs as quickly as he could, but he did not make it in time to catch a fainting Scarlett as she started to fall. Luckily, William had reacted quickly enough and caught her in his arms, preventing her from injuring herself.
"What are you doing here," Rhett asked sharply as he took Scarlett into his arms and carried her into the parlor. He would have preferred taking her directly up to their room, but with William here that was not an option.
William shifted his weight from one foot to the other and then back again nervously. "Mother is sick and I felt I should send for you even though she told me not to."
"She's what," Rhett shouted not realizing how loud his voice had been until he saw William cringe slightly. "I'm sorry, son. What do you mean your mother's sick?"
"I," he paused collecting himself with obvious effort. "One of the girls telegrammed me at school and told me it would be best if I came home as soon as I could. I got home this morning, and she's real bad off."
Rhett pondered this for a moment, when exactly was the last time he had seen Belle? He grew upset with himself when he could not come up with an answer. He had been so focused on Scarlett and the children, making a family and a real home once and for all that he had not spent much time at her saloon upon returning to Atlanta.
One of the servants brought in the smelling salts and Rhett hesitantly passed them under her nose. He wanted to bring her around, but was not sure how wise it was to do so with William still in their home. But he could not leave without knowing she had come to and was all right. Lord help him, but he had the feeling the past year and all the good they had done together was about to come crashing down around him.
She came to with a start, her eyes opening wide as she sought out Rhett. She touched his face, caressing it with the palm of her hand. "I had the strangest dream, Rhett."
"What's that, my pet," he queried softly.
"I dreamt I had seen you as a young man. That you showed up at my doorstep, but the strangest thing was you asked to see yourself," she said clearly puzzled.
Rhett placed his hand over hers and lowered it slightly so that he could kiss the palm of her hand. "Scarlett," he whispered hoarsely his eyes bearing into hers to keep quiet for just now.
"What is it, Rhett? Has something happened?"
"You fainted, Scarlett."
"I did no such thing, Rhett Butler; I haven't fainted in all of my life."
"You did and probably for good reason."
"What reason could possibly be good enough for me to faint?"
"You weren't dreaming, Scarlett. A young man did come to our door looking for me. His name is William. He's here in the room with us."
Scarlett struggled to sit up, taking Rhett's assistance which he offered without hesitation. "But it was you in my dream, Rhett."
"Well, he does look an awful lot like me, Scarlett," he said gesturing with his head to William who stood by the parlor doors like an unwelcome guest.
Scarlett looked from Rhett to William and back again. "No," she shouted. "No, this cannot be possible."
"Belle's sick, Scarlett. I have to go. Sick enough that one of her girls told William to come home, something she would never have done if Belle wasn't real bad off. William was kept away from Atlanta for just this reason."
"You have a son," she exclaimed, her voice panicked and shrill.
The pain at having her find out about this detail of his past in such a manner was evident in his eyes for a brief moment before he looked down.
"And here I've been feeling awful about not giving you a child again. How dare you make me feel that way!"
"Wait a minute, Scarlett. I never said I wanted you to get with child again. I mean, sure I'd love another child, and I realize that we have been trying for one since I came back but that was only because we both wanted it."
Tears formed in her eyes and Rhett knew she was struggling to keep them from falling, but he saw them and his heart constricted tight in his chest.
"He's almost a man, Rhett. How could you possibly have kept him hidden from me for all of these years? Why you've had him since you met me."
"Yes," he admitted. "Yes, I have. He's sixteen. Scarlett, this isn't the time or the place to talk about this. I have to go see Belle."
"You have to what," she shouted again her voice shrill.
"Scarlett, she's sick enough that someone sent for him to come home and see her."
"You are not going to that woman's bedside, Rhett. You are not."
"Then come with me. If you don't trust me, come with me."
"I could never do that, Rhett, and you know it."
"Why not? You've nursing experience," he reasoned.
"You expect too much from me if you think I'd do that." She stood, using the sofa's arm for support until she was fully upright. "And you," she said turning to William. "You can get out of my house. You go tell your mother that I hope she rots in hell."
"Scarlett," Rhett shouted. He stood and placed his hands on her arms, turning her roughly to face him.
"I'll go now, Rhett," William said timidly. "But Mrs. Butler, Ma'am, my mother didn't send me here, I came because I fear she's dying and I just wanted Rhett to know. That's all. I didn't mean to cause any problems."
"Between you and your mother I have more problems than I know what to do with," she said but stopped from saying anything more when Rhett roughly tugged on her arms. "You stop manhandling me, Rhett Butler. Get your hands off of me. This is my house, you're my husband, and I'm not going to have that woman and whatever offspring of yours she bore come in here and ruin everything."
William turned to leave, Rhett unable to help but notice the pained look on William's face. This was the exact reason he had been kept out of Atlanta. "Scarlett," Rhett said through gritted teeth. "How dare you speak about Belle like that in front of him! Whether he's my child or not is irrelevant. You wouldn't stand idly by while someone insulted you or Melanie like that in front of someone."
"She's not someone, Rhett, she's a whore. She's your mistress. She's the woman whose bed you went to after you saw me all of those years. She's the woman whose house you were at when I struggled to bring Beau into this world. She prospered and continued to live high on the hog while I suffered because you helped her but you didn't help me. Not once did you help me."
Rhett took her into his arms, realizing she was on the verge of being hysterical. He took it as a good sign that she did not pull away from him and so he continued to hold her, to offer her whatever comfort he could. "Come now, Scarlett, I was there for you as best as I could be. I did, too, do things for you. I brought you gifts, I got you the mule and buggy that got all of you to Tara after Beau was born, I even saved Ashley's life."
"That wasn't for me."
"No, no it wasn't, but you would never have forgiven me if I had let him die and could have prevented it somehow."
"I know, Scarlett. This is a lot to work through. But I have to go see Belle. I meant it; if you don't trust me and want to accompany me there I won't stop you. But I haven't been with her in a very very long time. I've had no reason to be with her in the past year, you've been everything to me she could have ever been and more. You're my wife, she's not nor would she have ever stood a chance of being that."
"Do you mean that?"
"Of course I do. I would never have married her, Scarlett. I don't love Belle, and you know that."
"Yes, I do. I know that what you feel for her is what Ashley felt for me, nothing but an animalistic lust."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with animalistic lust, Scarlett."
"Stop it, Rhett. That's not what I meant, and you can't steer this conversation to our intimate life."
He placed a hand under her chin and tilted her head back so he could look into her beautiful emerald green eyes. "Let me go, Scarlett. Wait up for me if you want to, but I have to do this. Would I stop you from visiting Ashley if he were possibly dying?"
"No, I suppose you wouldn't."
"Belle's the closest thing I've had to a reliable friend, besides you she's been the one constant in my life for a number of years. If she needs me, I need to go to her. And William would not have risked coming here, would not have risked exposing himself if she didn't need me."
"I don't want you spending the night there, Rhett."
"If I feel it's necessary, can I send for you to join me?"
"What," she asked frowning, her eyebrows arching.
"Scarlett, if she's dying I'm not going to leave her because you've instilled a curfew on me."
"Well, no, I suppose that wouldn't be fair but that doesn't mean I like it at all. I thought I was through sharing you with her."
"You are, Scarlett, you are. I'm going to her as a friend, nothing more. Surely you know that."
"I suppose I do, but it makes me wonder what other things you've hidden from me. What other surprises are waiting to come out of lurkdom from the shadows of your past."
"And that's what they are, Scarlett, parts of my past. Did you even pay attention to what he called me? He called me Rhett not Father or Dad."
"No, I hadn't noticed."
"We'll talk about it when I get back, Scarlett. You're not going to pack my bags and throw them out or pack your bags and leave me while I'm gone are you?"
She shook her head ever so slightly in response to his questions.
"Very well, I hold you to your word, Scarlett. We've come so far this past year, I'm not going to let this ruin what we have obtained." He drew away from her, placing a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Have some tea and get some rest, I'll be back or I'll send for you."
"Very well, Rhett." And without another word, she watched as he left the room. She heard the front door close a few seconds later and knew that he was gone; he had left their home to go to Belle because she needed him. What if it was some sort of trick? What if it was some sick and demented way for Belle to make an attempt at unraveling what they had spent the last year binding so tightly, their love, their marriage and their family unit?
Despite the heat of the late July night, Scarlett shivered, rubbing her arms in an attempt to warm herself. It was not a physical chill that possessed her; it was cold brought on by fear - a fear of the unknown. She was tempted to skip the tea altogether and instead imbibe in some brandy, but she had over the past year lessened her reliance on the substance to where she no longer drank it other than with Rhett as an after dinner treat.
Her hand drifted almost in an affectionate caress over the crystal decanter's stopper. She felt the coolness of the delicately cut glass beneath the palm of her hand and for a moment almost gave into it, it was calling to her. The amber liquid that burned going down at first but once the burning sensation subsided left her feeling numb, which was what she wanted. Was it not?
To feel numb, to feel nothing, to escape from the reality that now included Rhett having a son ironically the very same day she had presented Rhett with the gift of giving her two children his name? She pulled the stopper from the bottle slowly and brought it to her nose, the smell of the brandy was invigorating. But then after a moment she felt revulsion. What was she doing? No, she was stronger than this, she would not become that person again, weak and dependent on an intangible substance to make her think she was stronger. "No," she shouted and ran from the room.
She fled through the kitchen and out the servants' entryway in a flurry to the stables where she hitched up her horse quickly and mounted it, sidesaddle be damned. She needed to feel the wind through her hair, to smell the air, to feel the warmth of the day against her skin, to see the evening sky's stars and to wrap all these very real and very rewarding sensations around her to escape the temptation that was that amber substance located in the parlor's decanter.
The sound of the horse's hooves beating against the ground cast everything from her mind but the freedom the animal represented. She did not need liquor. All she needed was this, the outdoors and a good horse to ride until her mind was clear and the strong desire to imbibe had lessened into a weak murmur. She thought she had put this want to rest long ago but obviously she had not. It was frightening yet humbling and invigorating at the same time.
Frightening because it would have been so easy to pour the drink and think on it later. Humbling because she was not above everyone else, she had problems like everyone and was tempted to take the easy way at solving a problem or at least numbing herself to it. Invigorating because she had not poured that drink, she had smelled the aroma and had stayed strong. Even with her emotions jumbled as they were she had stayed strong.
Story ©Susan Falk/APCKRFAN/PhantomRoses.com