In an unexpected turn of events, it didn't me take a whole year to get out the next chapter for this! I should credit your amazing reviews, Kinderby's insistence that I FIX THEM NOW, and all my other work that lends itself so well to procrastination. I should also credit iso, who was amazingly fast at reading this and didn't hold my Cutesy Cardboard Baby against me too much. Oh, and as a reviewer pointed out, this story will obviously not have 3 chapters as I optimistically announced when I first posted it. I think it will have one other chapter and an epilogue. We're getting there. I've again borrowed some dialogue from MM, but it's okay, because I made it a lot less sad this time around.
That dark afternoon in the parlor was followed by a few dull weeks, weaving their grayness loosely around Scarlett. Where once Ashley's luminous figure stood in her heart, now there was nothing, and the rest of her life stretched in front of her like an indifferent sea, unbracketed by any beacons. She would get through this eventually, she knew. She always had in the past. But then she had always been fighting for something concrete—money, security, Ashley's love—and now for the first time she was aimless. She felt much like she had during Rhett and Bonnie's absence, depression a dark presence crowing on her shoulder—except that there was no return to look forward to now, no birth to anticipate with something like joy.
She lacked the quality of mind that could turn old ruined love into pity and kindness, and so the mere thought of Ashley filled her with irritation now. In the harsh light of disenchantment, the realization had come to her that she had not only lost a lover in him, she had gained a burden. He would be helpless for the rest of his days, and she would have him like a stone around her neck for just as long. There was no way around it; not while he owned a share of her mills. And somehow that fact came to embody all her past foolishness and Ashley's weakness. He should have never allowed himself to cling to her skirts all these years, and she should have never taken him on, never prevented him from going up North. But now it was too late. The thought of buying back his interest in the mills had come to her, but she'd had to reject it out of hand. It rankled her that she should pay good money to get back something she had once bestowed on him as a gift. And, even if that hadn't been the case, she knew Ashley well enough to know that he would never accept that deal. He would sign over his share and resign on the spot, and then he and Melly would be destitute. She could not, in good conscience, allow that to happen.
The fact irritated her sharply, for not only that it meant she should have to swallow his financial losses forever, but it also impeded her own direct involvement with the mills. She had once rejoiced at the opportunity to see Ashley alone at least once every few weeks. Now she mourned the thought of visiting her own lumber office only ever so rarely. For while her love had threatened to become public knowledge the previous spring, its death was a secret known only to herself. Atlanta's eyes were still on her and, because of that, she couldn't spend her time at the mills in the foreseeable feature—leaving aside the overwhelming fatigue that engulfed her at the prospect of seeing Ashley again.
She didn't know what to say to him. She was certain now that he didn't love her, that he was just as mistaken about it as she'd been all these years. It was strange to think that she now understood something about Ashley that he himself did not, yet this did not extend to any strong interest in illuminating him. She bristled finely at the prospect of being his keeper in this, like in everything else. And, besides, what difference would it make if he knew? Both of their lives would continue just as before. That their delicate hidden workings might be altered with this knowledge she did not see, for she was entirely unimaginative about other people's inner lives and had lost any trace of interest in picturing Ashley's. She had spent years trying to decipher him and now that she'd received her answer, the question was no longer worth asking.
Without much enthusiasm, she resigned herself to taking care of the store and correcting the ledgers at home, where the children and Rhett sometimes joined her in the sitting room. They had all reached a strange new equilibrium together that had started the day after she had returned home to find Alexander sleeping in Rhett's arms. She'd woken up with a headache and stayed in her room until well after lunch, when Mammy came in to announce that Mister Rhett wanted to take young Alexander for a walk. Scarlett had nodded cheerlessly, for this was exactly as she'd envisioned it to be. Rhett had finally discovered his son and, being Rhett, would now want to have him all to himself. The forces were so unequal on that front that it was useless to even wage battle. That helpless torpor lasted for less than two hours. It was about to resolve itself into combativeness by the time Rhett, Bonnie and Alexander returned home from their walk—except that it was stopped in its tracks at the sight of Alex smiling at her and wiggling imperiously in Rhett's arms to be set free.
"Daddy, he wants you to put him down now!" Bonnie declared impatiently.
She hadn't enjoyed her walk at all. Used to having Rhett's undivided attention, she had spent most of her time advising her father of the baby's likely thoughts, which all included a strong desire to be left at home or at least be put back in the baby carriage Prissy was pushing behind them. Her aggravation had reached maximum levels at her Aunt Melly's, where she was unexpectedly sent to play in the nursery, while her father and the baby stayed with Aunt Melly in the parlor. She'd tried to convince Rhett to leave Alex in every bush up Peachtree Street on their way back.
"He was a little impatient to return," Rhett said quietly, leaning down to place Alexander in Scarlett's arms.
She felt something unfurl in her chest as the baby quieted instantly against her. Her entire life, she had wanted to be first in the hearts of those around her. Ashley was lost to her, Rhett and Bonnie would always be first with each other, Wade and Ella were afraid of her. But she had Alexander still and she would have him no matter what Rhett did. Over the following weeks, a pattern was established. Rhett would take Alexander for the occasional walk in the afternoon. She suspected he also spent time with the boy when she was at the store, though she had never again had the chance to verify that. And, most unexpected of all, the children and Rhett had started keeping her company in the sitting room when she was working on the ledgers. Wade would sit on the sofa with a book, while Rhett played with Alex and the girls on the floor. It was like the days after Bonnie was born, days whose polite distance had been more amiable, days that in retrospect seemed quite comfortable. And, though Rhett and the children rarely talked to her, she'd come to find their presence almost soothing.
One day, Scarlett returned from the store in the late afternoon and found Rhett and Alexander in the parlor. She stopped in the doorway, a little uncertain. She had not seen the two of them alone together after that momentous day of her visit to the lumber office. Alexander was sitting up against the back of the sofa, mesmerized by the pocket watch that Rhett was dangling in front of him and snatching away before his tiny fists could close around it.
"Hello. Is everything all right?" she said.
Father and son looked up at the same time and she almost took a step back. For a moment, the similarity in their features was striking, compounded by what seemed to her, for a split second, to be almost identical expressions at the sound of her voice. She blinked and it was gone. Rhett's face had smoothed itself to customary blandness.
"Oh yes," he said. "Alexander is keeping me company down here. The girls are taking their naps."
The baby gurgled and batted his arms towards Scarlett, seemingly determined to launch himself off the sofa. "Oh, all right," she said with a little laugh and sat down gingerly on the other side of him. Rhett flipped his watch closed and put it back in his pocket.
"The honorable Ashley was here earlier."
Scarlett, who'd been smiling and cooing at the baby, stopped abruptly.
"I would have thought you'd gone to the lumber office today," Rhett continued, "but he said you hadn't been there in weeks."
"I was busy at the store," she replied warily. "What did Ashley want anyway?"
"He wanted to know if I thought you would sell him your mill and the part interest you have in his. He would have discussed it with you earlier, but he couldn't find you."
"Sell?" she started in surprise. "Where on earth did Ashley get the money? You know they never have a cent. Why, he and Melanie spend money faster than he makes it!"
Rhett shrugged. "I always thought Miss Melly a frugal little person, but then I'm not as well informed about the intimate details of the Wilkes family as you seem to be."
That jab seemed in something of Rhett's old style and Scarlett set her jaw, almost reflexively. Yet she did not reply, for her mind was whirling with possibilities. She'd thought she would be saddled with Ashley for all eternity, but if he had money, then everything changed. It would be easier to set him adrift and have her mills back if he had some capital to his name. There had to be something he could do, some other business he could invest in…
"As to where he got the money," Rhett continued, "it seems it was sent him by someone he nursed through a case of smallpox at Rock Island. It renews my faith in human nature to know that gratitude still exists."
"Who was it? Anyone we know?" she asked distractedly, trying to save the small ribbons on her skirt from Alexander's grip. Her mind was still wrapping itself busily around this unexpected opportunity.
"The letter was unsigned and came from Washington. Ashley was at a loss to know who could have sent it. But then, one of Ashley's unselfish temperament goes about the world doing so many good deeds that you can't expect him to remember all of them."
Scarlett rolled her eyes in annoyance and impatience. "So you said he wants to buy me out?"
"Yes. But of course, I told him you wouldn't sell."
"Good," she nodded at him approvingly. "Of course I won't sell."
"I knew you wouldn't part with the mills. I told him that he knew as well as I did that you couldn't bear not to have your finger in everybody's pie, and if you sold out to him, then you wouldn't be able to tell him how to mind his own business."
He was goading her, she realized and was immediately irritated by the thought. He looked faintly bored, but she had the vague feeling that, underneath it, he was displeased. He must have wanted this, to antagonize her, and he thought he could now jockey her into selling. But she'd be damned if she lost her mills because of Rhett's perversity. Divine providence had sent this to her and there would never be a better opportunity to be rid of Ashley.
"You dared say that about me?" she said coldly.
"Why not? It's true, isn't it? I believe he heartily agreed with me but, of course, he was too much of a gentleman to come right out and say so."
"You both can go to—Halifax," she said testily, reflexively covering Alexander's ears. "I will not sell him anything. Those are my mills and he will run them into the ground in a month. How much money does he have anyway?"
Rhett hesitated almost imperceptibly. "He didn't say."
"It must be a sizeable sum if he wanted to buy me out," she mused aloud. "He's too honorable to offer less than they're worth."
"A model of gentlemanly conduct." Rhett's voice fairly crackled with sarcasm now, but she paid no attention, her mind busily running over options. Was there anything that Ashley was good at, anything that would allow him to stand on his own two feet?
"There must be something he could do with the money. Perhaps—he could open a bookstore?" she said uncertainly and Rhett's gaze flew sharply to her face. "The books he buys are so expensive. I swear the people selling them must be making a fortune! Ah, but then he and Melanie would just keep all of the books and never sell a thing..."
Not to mention that Ashley would never do behind the counter. He was just not born for that sort of thing. She sighed and bit her lip. There had to be something that was easy enough and dignified enough for him to do. What would he have done if he didn't have the mill? The idea came to her in a flash. It would mean asking Rhett for a favor, of course, and he could be so nasty. But there was nothing to be done. She cast him a look through her lashes. There was an unreadable expression on his face, one she didn't think she had seen before. Perhaps he would go for it. He was so polite lately, goading though he'd been about selling the mills. And he'd always been against Ashley working there. There were other, darker things lurking behind that last thought, but she pushed them aside before she lost her nerve.
"Maybe you could have them hire him at the bank?" she said with studied nonchalance. Rhett sat back in his seat.
"You want me to hire Ashley Wilkes?" He enunciated every word slowly.
"Not you, the bank," she said quickly. "They let you do anything you want there, don't they? He could work at the bank and put his money into stocks. And you know, before he—offered to help me with the mills, someone had offered him a job at a bank in New York. It would be perfect, even if he did have to work with numbers."
"My dear," he said quietly, "sharp tongues will find more fodder in this situation than merely Ashley Wilkes' ability with numbers—as worthy of public discussion as that is."
His meaning dawned on her and she clamped her mouth shut. He meant it would look as if he'd hired Ashley to get him away from the mills and her. It would look like he was a jealous husband. All the half-forgotten, never-discussed things she had pushed aside to ask him the question suddenly came rushing back and, to her misfortune, she felt herself blush to the roots of her hair under Rhett's gaze. She made a motion to get up from the sofa, but Rhett took pity on her.
"He could work for your Uncle Henry," he said, as if he hadn't noticed her discomfiture. His voice sounded almost kind.
"For Uncle Henry?"
"He always complains that he cannot find a half-literate clerk to help him with his paperwork."
"Yes, that could work. But, Rhett..." she hesitated and then decided she might as well tell him the truth, since he seemed inclined to be helpful. "Uncle Henry already spends most of his time helping orphans and widows. If you add Ashley to it, they'll go under in a month."
Rhett started to laugh softly, his shoulders shaking. "Listen, my dear. As remarkably entertaining as I currently find this conversation, your Uncle Henry is no fool. He used to invest before the war and, given the capital, could make a tidy return again, enough to support Miss Pittypat and the Wilkeses. Let Ashley give him the money and hang around as a clerk."
It was the perfect solution, she thought, and barely kept herself from clapping her hands in glee. Thank God for Rhett and his shrewd mind! She gave him a small approving smile and something flickered briefly in his eyes.
"Then that's that," she said. "But someone has to tell Uncle Henry. I don't think he would want to hear it from me. Maybe you could—?"
"Ashley will," Rhett said firmly. And then, after a beat of silence, he added, "I can talk to Ashley, if you prefer."
He was waiting for her answer with his old keen, cat-at-a-mouse-hole look. She wondered, quite irrelevantly, what he would look like if he ever caught that mouse and felt obscurely flustered.
"Yes, that would be good," she murmured, for she was none too eager to talk to Ashley herself, let alone with Rhett present. She could not see his face, for he suddenly reached to pick up a silver rattle that Alexander had thrown under a chair before her arrival, but she thought she'd caught a gleam of triumph in his eyes.