And if they are gentle, loving and kind,
He finds where they live, and he makes up his mind
That when Christmas shall come in cold frosty December
To give them a call, he will surely remember;
And he's sure to have with him a bundle of toys
For the nice little girls and the good little boys.
- "Santa Claus and His Works," George P. Webster
December 24, 1870
"Santa?" Bonnie asked, clinging to the leg of Rhett's trousers.
"Not yet, darling," he answered, scooping her up in his arms and lifting her high above his head. The little girl squealed with delight. "Santa won't come until tonight."
"Can't you play with her somewhere else?" snapped Scarlett. "I can't focus on these figures with all that racket."
"Do you plan to work through Christmas, my dear?" Rhett inquired with a carefully bland tone, clasping Bonnie gently to his chest.
"It's not yet Christmas, and Ashley has gotten these accounts in an awful snarl-"
"The little gentleman still hasn't figured out his bookkeeping?"
Rhett watched incuriously as Scarlett briefly pressed her palm to her forehead, then hastily withdrew her hand with a sideways glance at him.
"Santa!" Bonnie cried, punctuating her demand with a small fist to Rhett's chest.
Rhett laughed and buried a kiss in his daughter's unruly curls. He caught Scarlett's eye over the child's head for a brief moment, then turned away.
"Not yet," he laughed. "You know you must be asleep before Santa will visit."
But Bonnie at not quite two years old was too young yet to understand waiting. "Santa!" had easily eclipsed "No!" as her favorite exclamation. "Santa, Daddy, Now!" she repeated, punctuated with her sharp little fists. Even Rhett, blindly enamored of his spirited daughter, felt his patience beginning to fray. His usual ways of dealing with Bonnie's demands - always, always by giving in to them - didn't work. He had offered her an early gift, a doll in a box nearly her own size, but instead of opening it she had hefted the box in her arms and sprinted off on short little legs calling for Santa. Rhett had laughed, amused, until she lost her grip on the box, dropping it at the top of the stairs and tumbling over it - and nearly down the long flight. If he hadn't tracked her diligently, if he hadn't been there to catch her-
Bonnie had been apparently unphased by the close call. She had screamed and cried and twisted violently in his arms, refusing to be comforted and still crying for her Santa. He had only been able to calm her by reading again the story that had started this whole obsession, "Santa and His Works." Rhett's well-meaning mother had sent the book as a gift, along with a slyly worded letter that communicated with a masterful delicacy her disappointment that she had yet to meet her youngest grandchild. Bonnie had been enchanted by the bright illustrations and taken instantly to the idea of the fat old gentleman who would bring her gifts. Somehow, the bearded stranger had surpassed even her father in only a matter of hours, though Rhett had never yet failed to provide her with anything she desired.
During their third pass through the book after the near-miss on the stairs, Bonnie finally fell asleep. Moving slowly, careful not to wake her, Rhett transferred the baby to her low bed and tucked her in. She would be able to nap in peace; the other children weren't in the nursery. Since Bonnie's birth, Wade and Ella had begun taking their toys to the ballroom that sat empty for longer and longer stretches. Rhett hesitated, smoothing the blankets over Bonnie's shoulders. He could climb the stairs to the spacious ballroom and join the older children. He could go downstairs and provoke his frustrating wife. That amusement had lost any compensating charms after Bonnie's birth. He picked up the Santa Claus book and flipped the pages idly, looking at the images of the fur-suited, fat old man with a full beard and balding head until an idea began to take hold.
Gently slipping the book under the blanket next to Bonnie, Rhett ran a hand over her curls and left the room. He went down the stairs, pausing at the bottom to glance toward the sitting room where he could see Scarlett, still bent over her secretary. He could see her lips moving as she trailed one slim finger down the open ledger. Ashley's snarl would keep her busy all day, and well into Christmas Eve, if Rhett or Mammy didn't harry her to the table for supper.
Rhett hitched his shoulder against the door frame and called to her.
"I'm going out, Mrs. Butler."
Scarlett didn't even look up, but dismissed him with a flutter from her pale hand.
Damn Christmas, and damn Rhett! Scarlett thought longingly of the brandy bottle hidden in her room, in the locked drawer that Mammy never questioned and Rhett-
"Daddy!" Her thoughts were interrupted by Bonnie's demanding shriek. A breath, and then - "Santa!" followed. The refrain was going to drive Scarlett mad if Rhett didn't find his way home soon. She pivoted, bouncing the girl on her hip though it was beginning to ache along with her arms. Bonnie was a sturdy thing, more robust than either Wade or Ella had been as a baby. She was also far more tenacious, and already her small jaw showed a remarkable resemblance to Gerald's when she wanted something.
"Daddy will be home soon," Scarlett said, more short than soothing. She had no idea if Rhett would be home soon, or at all. She wouldn't put it past him to stay out all night even on Christmas Eve. His efforts to insinuate himself back into Atlanta's polite society had not kept him away from Belle Watling's, and she knew it. She had met him more than once, late at night or - or very early in the morning, just coming home and smelling like liquor, rancid smoke, and sharp perfume. Gone were the comforting smells of warm tobacco, leather and horses, and whiskey, that had once hung about him. These new, bitter aromas made her recoil - and yet - sometimes, when his cravat had been loosened and his top buttons were already undone, she would catch a glimpse of his chest and remember that last night in New Orleans, and other nights that had followed…
"Santa!" Bonnie repeated. Oh, damn Rhett for that foolish story book!
"Do you want to play with Ella?" Scarlett asked, hoping to distract the child.
"No," Bonnie answered firmly. "Play Santa."
"You can't," Scarlett answered, more sharply than she had intended. She took a breath and tried again, pouring honey into her voice as had never failed to work on her beaux. "Darling, Santa won't bring your presents until you are sleeping tonight!"
"No," Bonnie refuted.
"Bonnie, only good little girls get presents. Won't you do as Mother asks? Ella would love to play with you," she nearly pleaded, with a slight twinge of guilt. Ella was not at all fond of playing with the demanding younger sister for whom sharing did not come easily. "Mother will play, too," she added impulsively, dazzled by the brief vision of a tranquil domestic scene to greet Rhett upon his return. It would be nice to show him he was wrong about her mothering skills. She could manage her children as well as he thought he could. She just hadn't had time before - and he had never let her prove it, monopolizing Bonnie as he had.
"Santa!" Bonnie answered, easing her opposition to anything but her expressly stated desires not one whit. I will burn that book, Scarlett thought violently. I will burn that book and dump the ashes over Rhett's head. I will-
"Daddy!" Bonnie shrieked directly in Scarlett's ear, suddenly twisting in her mother's arms. Struggling not to lose her grip on the little girl, Scarlett turned in the direction of her grasping hands.
Rhett entered the nursery with a long, confident stride and plucked their daughter right from Scarlett's arms in a proprietary manner that made her blood boil. Always he acted as if Bonnie was his, and his alone, apparently forgetting he wouldn't even have the child without Scarlett.
"So you're home," she said shortly.
"Happy to see me, my pet?" He distracted Bonnie with a small ribbon of bright blue satin.
"Surprised. It's not like you to be back so early, once you've gone out," she replied with pointed emphasis.
"It's Christmas Eve," Rhett smiled coldly.
"A time for miracles, I suppose."
"I won't hold my breath."
Scarlett felt the battleground shifting beneath her, threatening to tip her into uncertain territory. His face was bland as ever but there was an edge to his words that she couldn't decipher. She had avoided quarreling with Rhett for months. There were too many dangerous subjects, and somehow she sensed a trap behind even this innocuous exchange.
"I have to change for supper," Scarlett answered brusquely, not waiting for a reply before leaving the room and seeking sanctuary in her bedroom.
The lavish Christmas supper could have fed half the Old Guard. Scarlett always set an excessively generous table, as clear a sign as any that her memories of deprivation hadn't eased, but she outdid herself at Christmas. Tonight, it seemed more wasteful than ever, for none of the family manifested any show of appetite. Rhett was occupied with Bonnie, who was too busy keeping up her pleas and small bursts of temper asking for Santa; Scarlett was frosty and irritable by turns; and the atmosphere of incessant whining from Bonnie and the cold tension between Scarlett and Rhett weighed like stones in Wade's and Ella's small tummies.
Nonetheless, Rhett was cheerful as he swung Bonnie onto his shoulder for the short ride upstairs to the nursery. He almost whistled, confident that his plan would satisfy his daughter so well that they might even avoid one of the crying jags that of late had begun to spring up at bedtime. In the nursery, Rhett passed the child off to Prissy, and in short order all hell had broken loose.
Rhett was unphased by the chaos. Bonnie was screaming and mightily resisting Prissy's efforts to change her for bed. The violence of her outburst had utterly overset timid Ella; and sensitive Wade, try though he might to be a "little man" as Mother had so often admonished, was near to frustrated tears himself. Rhett simply kissed his daughter on the crown of her head and left the servants to restore order as best they might. As he walked down the hall toward his room, Scarlett appeared at his heels.
"This is all your fault! You spoil her. Wade and Ella won't be able to sleep at all tonight the way she's carrying on - and you know she won't stop. You give her everything she wants and you can't, this time, and look - listen! - to what you've caused."
"Where's your Christmas spirit, my pet?" Rhett asked with a smile, pinching her chin playfully. Scarlett stopped, open-mouthed, her fingers touching the hot little circle of skin where his hand had been. She shook away the shock of being touched by Rhett and found her voice again.
"Christmas spirit? What are you talking about? For Heaven's sake, Rhett - she gets this way because you spoil her! She makes a fuss and gets whatever she wants!"
"I do wonder where she gets that," Rhett said archly, crossing the threshold of his room. Scarlett paused a moment, hesitating in the doorway, but - as always with her - temper trumped all.
"You encourage her!" she snapped, entering his room with stiff shoulders. She hadn't been in this room since he had moved out of the marital chamber and made this bedroom his own. Taking no notice of her, Rhett began to untie his cravat.
"She needs discipline, Rhett! She…"
Scarlett trailed off. Rhett continued to ignore her, swiftly unbuttoning jacket and waistcoat and draping them one by one over a chair. He unbuttoned his trousers and added them to the pile of discarded clothing. A strangled sound behind him gave away Scarlett's continued presence, and at last he succumbed to the pull of indefatigable curiosity and glanced her way. Her sharp cheeks were bright red, her mouth hanging open as though still in mid-tirade.
Despite himself, Rhett felt something within him stir - feeling he had been trying to stifle for months - for over a year! He had spent many years burying his feelings for her, hiding them from her destructive nature, biding his time. This last year was different - like trying to bury a body that wouldn't stay dead. In an unguarded moment, it always threatened to surface again, this unwanted and unconfessed love. In a moment such as this, when her indifference and scorn were not in evidence, it was so tempting to believe that a true emotion was being offered.
But it would not do to forget that this was Scarlett, whose only true feelings revolved around the person of Ashley Wilkes.
"She?" Rhett questioned, his bland tone daring her to find the dropped thread of her tantrum. He reached for the drawers on the bed.
"What are you doing?"
Rhett shook out the red flannel.
"Doing?" he questioned with false ignorance, pulling on the drawers. They had been women's drawers, but she must have been a plump old matron. The waist was generous, but with his height the drawers ended somewhere below his knees and well short of his ankles.
Unexpectedly, Scarlett laughed aloud. "Really, Rhett, what are you doing? You look like a fool!"
"Just getting into the Christmas spirit," he said, pulling on tall black boots that hid the shortness of the drawers.
"You aren't making any sense," she scolded, but her voice lacked the hard edge she so often had. Rhett returned the favor, grinning at her without scorn or malice. "And you look-"
"Like a fool?" Rhett pulled a dark red smoking jacket on.
"Ridiculous," she countered softly, with a grin that showed her dimples.
Rhett turned away, looking for the hat, and heard the swish of Scarlett's skirts as she moved as well.
"Oh, Rhett, you are not."
"Hmm, my pet?" He bent before the mirror and pulled the funny fur hat on his head. He made a face. It certainly did not suit him. But, for Bonnie…
"For he never was known to drink brandy or wine," she read. "I can't say as you fit the role."
"You don't think so?" Rhett turned to show her the full effect of his outfit.
"Shouldn't you be fat?"
Rhett's mouth twisted in a lopsided grin. "Ah, you're right." Scarlett blushed and looked back down at the slim book. Rhett's interest stirred again, and he stepped towards her. With quick fingers, Scarlett shuffled through the pages of the story.
"You'd do better as the fox," she muttered. Rhett moved close enough that his chest pressed against the back of her shoulder as he leaned forward to read the page she held open.
In answer Scarlett stepped quickly away from him. Rhett took a breath and, averting his gaze, his eyes fell on the pillows at the head of the bed. He grabbed one and stuffed it up under his jacket.
"Well, my dear," he spoke as he adjusted the fit of his new belly, "that would be appropriate. I the fox...and you, the vixen."
"Don't be coarse," Scarlett complained.
"I believe I am almost ready to deliver presents to the good little girls and boys - I certainly don't see any of those in here."
"You just look like you're wearing a - a silly costume." Rhett quirked an eyebrow and watched with amusement as she flushed again. "I mean you look like yourself in funny clothes. Even Bonnie won't be fooled."
"How perceptive you are tonight. I almost forgot the finishing touch."
"Rhett, you don't really - oh, my God, Rhett." She was laughing again, with a delightful mirth that Rhett hadn't heard in months. In fact, if he was honest with himself, she hadn't laughed like that since they had returned from their honeymoon - or, perhaps, since they had moved into this monstrous house. There had been some humor, surely, that summer at the hotel. Yes, he thought, tying the strings of the white beard behind his head, it hadn't all gone so wrong until the house.
He did not push honesty so far as to examine his own culpability there.
"Tsk, tsk, my dear," he said, smiling through the itchy beard, "are you taking your Lord's name in vain?"
"Fiddle-dee-dee," she huffed. "You know you don't care about that."
Rhett lifted an eyebrow at her, but refrained from pointing out that she was supposed to care. Her scowl showed she understood him anyway. Reaching out a hand, he cupped her cheek and traced his thumb over the smooth skin. He hadn't really touched her - beyond a polite arm when they went in to supper, or to briefly hand her down from the carriage - since she had delivered her edict and severed their conjugal relationship. But somehow, this moment - this ridiculous moment, for she was right about his costume - had recalled a happier time. Their honeymoon, when he had dared to hope his gamble would pay off. He was certainly not being so foolish as to fall into that trap again. It was just - a certain nostalgia. Perhaps it was the Christmas spirit.
Scarlett's mouth went slack, her lips parting slightly. No longer frowning, she looked up at him almost dazedly, her seductively tilted eyes wide with a complicated mix of feeling. He saw surprise, bewilderment, and-
"How do I look now?" Rhett asked, pulling away. Whatever the cause, it was turning him fanciful, and costume notwithstanding, he would not be ridiculous.
Scarlett crossed her arms over her chest and backed away. "Like a fool."
"So much for the Christmas spirit," he sighed, and catching up his sack, went out of the room.
Despite herself, Scarlett followed him. He really did look like a fool, utterly ridiculous in this red get-up that didn't match, with the lumpy belly from the pillow and the fur hat that looked like an acorn. Where on earth had he found that in the space of an afternoon?
Trailing Rhett by a few paces, she could hear the excited squeals of the children when he entered the nursery. Her steps slowed. Suddenly she felt awkward and out of place, a feeling she tried to shake off with indignation - it was her home, after all! - the hot flare of which carried her through the door before it fled. They made a pretty picture - the happy little scene in the center of the room would have fit right in with the illustrations in that book from her mother-in-law. Rhett's silly costume was just right, and the children - from the ecstatic Bonnie, to the more shyly curious Ella and even Wade - were obviously delighted. Shouldn't Wade be too old for such folderol? Scarlett thought sourly. She crossed her arms over her chest again, but though her temper was feared by both the older children, none of the happy group noticed her on the fringes of the large room.
With no one throwing a spark to catch on the ready gunpowder of her temper, try as she might Scarlett couldn't fan herself into a proper rage at Rhett. He should be embarrassed - she would be embarrassed if any of her friends found out - no man should go to such lengths as this for any child! It was unmanly.
Yet it was hard watching him, even with that ridiculous fake belly, to find anything about Rhett unmanly. The pillow obscured his abdomen, but nothing disguised the strength of his chest and shoulders. The jacket didn't quite fit, or perhaps the extra stuffing underneath it was straining the fabric, because it pulled too tightly across the breadth of him. Scarlett retreated slowly until her back came up to the nursery wall. She squeezed her hands, digging her fingers into her upper arms. It had been a bad week for nightmares, for some reason - that was all. That was why she was remembering how it felt to be comforted by Rhett, to be held in his arms and sheltered against the wall of his chest when her dreams plagued her.
She certainly did not miss him. This distance between them, that clearly bothered him not a whit, was exactly what she had wanted. For that matter, it was not at all becoming to hover here in the nursery, not a part of Rhett's ruse or the children's happy cheer. Quickly and quietly, Scarlett left the room.
After he had emptied Santa Claus' bag and convinced the children it was time for sleep, Rhett closed the nursery door softly behind him. Bedtime had not been as difficult an endeavor as he had expected; even Bonnie had climbed into bed without tears or bribery, happy enough to sleep surrounded by her new toys. To his surprise, he found Scarlett at the top of the stairs. She had left the nursery quite some time ago, he had been well aware. Yet her pose, hands gripping the railing as tightly as they had her own arms earlier, seemed to indicate she hadn't made it very far.
Rhett went down one step before turning to see her face.
"Would you care to join me for a brandy, Scarlett?" he questioned in a soft voice. After a moment she blinked, the misty haze in her eyes cleared, and she turned her head slightly to look at him. Rhett met her gaze, keeping his own expression neutral. They eyed each other warily for a long breath, then she nodded. Rhett backed away and Scarlett stepped down, taking the arm he held out for her.
In the dining room, Rhett poured two glasses of brandy. Scarlett took hers, and her long swallow betrayed her acquired facility for drinking the unladylike liquor. He wondered what was bothering her so much that she forgot this was a habit she generally endeavored to hide.
"Rhett, won't you take off that ridiculous costume?" she questioned. Her voice was sharp, with no feminine wheedling to soften her blunt tongue.
Rhett grinned, though it was obscured by the false beard, and raised his own drink. The unruly white curls of the beard got in the way. They clung to his lips and dipped into the amber liquid in his glass. He tried to sip and drew in as much fake beard as he did brandy, leaving him sputtering.
Rhett wiped his mouth with a rough hand. That sound - that wasn't an echo, though he would not have been surprised to find the house cavernous enough to create one; no, once again, Scarlett was laughing. Quietly, this time, and trying to hide it behind her own glass of brandy. When she realized he was watching her, she hastily took another drink.
With more careful maneuvering, Rhett was able to drink without removing the beard. He wasn't sure why he didn't just tug it down or untie it.
No, damn him, he thought, staring down at the last droplets of amber liquid clinging to the bottom of his glass, it was because - despite her complaints - the costume clearly amused his wife. And it felt like a very, very long time since she had treated him with anything other than disinterest and contempt.
She was not offering him disdain at the moment. It seemed quite likely that the brandy had already made her tipsy. Her arm was a hair's breadth from his own. Every so often her sleeve would brush his as she swayed almost imperceptibly.
Rhett wiped liquor from his false beard and heard a quiet sigh.
"Oh, Rhett," Scarlett murmured, swaying towards him again. "Won't you take that off?"
"Don't you like my beard, my pet?" he questioned lightly. Without drawing attention to his action, he placed a gentle hand at her elbow to steady her.
Scarlett's delicate nose wrinkled as if she smelled something foul, and she shook her head.
"You look like a fool," she said, reaching up to tug at the curly white strands. "It doesn't suit you."
She was standing close now, and he could smell the brandy on her breath. It mingled with a faint scent of lemon. He still found the light, innocent choice surprising. Her tastes usually ran to ostentation in everything; but for nearly all the time he had known her this simple fragrance had been a constant. Her fingers tangled for a moment in the false curls of the beard. When she withdrew her hand, he followed, lowering his face to hers.
Rhett rubbed the coarse hair against her cheek. Scarlett squealed and shrank back from the scratchy caress, laughing as she cried his name.
"Rhett! Rhett, stop it," she said, pressing her fist against his shoulder.
"What's the matter, my dear? Does it bring back memories of your second husband? Surely I can wear a beard better than old Frank did," he scoffed.
"You - you shouldn't speak ill of the dead," Scarlett protested, but her voice was still breathy from laughing.
This was a pliant Scarlett, a woman he hadn't seen in over two years, not since before the birth of their daughter. Scarlett with the hard edges softened just a bit, a little more like the girl he had known during the war and less like the woman who had returned to him after, almost a stranger. Maybe it was just the brandy. She didn't usually drink it in his presence, though he was well aware of the bottle she had locked away in her bedroom.
Rhett lifted his head and looked down into her face. Her cheeks were flushed, highlighting the sparkle of her green eyes. They rivaled the holiday tree with all its candles aflame. Her lips were parted, laughter lingering in the upturned corners and drawing out her dimples. Her mouth was lush and full and made for kissing. He tried to remember that his kisses were distasteful to her, to remind himself that she would only think of another.
Then her eyes dropped to the ridiculous beard and she said his name, a quiet syllable that seemed to linger in the suddenly charged air between them.
"Perhaps we should compare," Rhett heard himself say.
"Wha-" she started to ask, and he stopped the unnecessary question with his mouth.
Her mouth was still slightly open and he pressed his advantage, drawing his tongue along her lower lip to taste her for the first time in years. Her fingers unfurled against his chest and he heard the sound of her glass hitting the carpet, muffled by the noise like roaring surf in his ears. Reason and self-preservation melted away as her hand opened over his heart.
Reality, however, was more stubborn. He tried to draw her to him and deepen the kiss, only to be reminded that he still had a damn pillow stuffed up his shirt. A loose strand of beard worked its way into his mouth and twined itself around his tongue - not as pleasing an invasion as he had hoped for. Adding insult to injury, Scarlett began to laugh again, though at least that became a splutter as the beard attacked her, too.
Rhett turned his head slightly, tickling her lips and cheek with the beard. Scarlett swatted at his face, pushing him away and trying to protest through her laughter. When her breath came close to panting, he relented, sure she was once again lacing her stays more tightly than necessary. Her vanity was reliably consistent. For a minute, he held her, not close enough and still closer than they'd been in months. Her back rested against his encircling arms and he could feel the heat of her through the layers of fabric between them. She peeked upwards through her thick black lashes, a glance too brief to be coy. What was she looking for?
More importantly, what had she seen? Had he let the mask slip? Rhett released her and took a half step back. His boot hit the glass on the floor.
"It's late," he said, as he crouched to retrieve it.
"You needn't worry." Rhett set the glass back on the silver tray with the decanter. "I won't bother you."
He heard her swift intake of breath, then the rustle of fabric. He adjusted the position of the empty glass by a few centimeters, then turned. Scarlett had gone.
Christmas Day, evening
As soon as the front door closed behind their guests, Scarlett conceded a hasty retreat back to the dubious safety of the dining room. To her relief, Rhett did not follow. She heard the children going up the stairs; it always amazed her that only three small creatures could sound as if the whole Yankee army had returned. Perhaps Rhett had gone with them.
Scarlett rested her head against the window, letting the glass cool her fevered skin. She watched Ashley hand his wife and son up into her borrowed carriage, then Aunt Pittypat, before climbing in after them and closing the door. At last the long day was over. She would just collect her thoughts for a few minutes, and then she could retreat to her bedroom. Mammy would help her undress once the children were settled, and when she was alone she would be able to pour herself a secret glass of brandy to help her sleep.
She had been gripped by an ever-worsening headache since the children had woken her too early that morning, the pain and pressure slowly increasing as if an unseen vice had been clamped against her temples. She had longed all day for retreat, but always it seemed that Rhett was watching her with a challenge in his black eyes that she did not fully understand but that her spirit nevertheless rushed to meet.
Scarlett rubbed the heavy velvet of the drapes between her fingers, her mind stumbling again into the paths that had kept her awake half the night.
Rhett had kissed her. He had teased her without any detectable rancor, which was almost as remarkable as the kiss. She no longer knew what to make of a Rhett who did not treat her with either cool indifference or jeering malice. What had he meant by any of it? Perhaps nothing at all and she was foolish to consider such things. Her stomach twisted as she remembered his words after Bonnie's birth, and all they had implied. "There are other beds, my dear!" Had she simply been conveniently at hand? But that didn't really make sense, either, for they had continued to live together since she had enacted her ill-considered banishment. Not intimately, of course, but if he had only looked to take advantage he could have done so any one of a hundred times.
Puzzling as Rhett's motives were, they were nowhere near as troubling as her own response. Her knotted insides shivered as she remembered the tender feeling of his lips against hers. Even with that ridiculous beard that had scratched her cheeks and chin, there was something about Rhett's kisses that the memory alone was enough to leave her feeling flushed and warm. Why that should be she did not know. The question discomfited her. It had always been so with Rhett, at least when he wasn't being insulting, and she was no closer to understanding than she had been when he had called on her during the war.
She had thought back then that it was almost like she was in love with him; but of course that wasn't true and had never been true. She loved Ashley, she had always loved Ashley; she always would love Ashley. And she knew Ashley loved her, for hadn't he all but said as much that day over a year ago, in the lumber office? The knowledge of Ashley's love sustained her when the consequences of her decision became too much to bear; the late nights awake and alone, listening for the sound of Rhett's footsteps on the wide stair.
Ashley! She didn't want to think about Ashley now, but she could not shake free of her thoughts. What a distant stranger he had seemed, as pale as memory and hardly more substantial. His kiss on her cheek had been cool as fresh water, and his touch stirred no current of emotion in her heart. She had clasped his hand too long, letting go only when she became aware of Rhett's hard eyes, willing her heart to beat and waiting for the feverish rush of feeling that had always accompanied Ashley's touch. It had not come, so she had embraced Melanie, and then Rhett had taken her arm with iron fingers that burned her through the satin sleeves of her dress.
"What luck, to find you alone."
Scarlett jumped at the unexpected sound of Rhett's voice, and the curtain rod groaned as she tugged at the fabric. Surprise spurred her heart to beat faster, and it fluttered rapid, feathery wings in her chest. How did such a large man move so quietly? His softly spoken words wrapped her in memories of a long ago night on Pittypat's porch, and the electricity of his lips against her skin under cover of darkness. Her heartbeat stuttered.
"Where are the children?" she asked, dismayed by her own breathlessness.
"In bed. Here," he said, jostling her arm. Scarlett looked down and accepted the proffered glass of brandy without demurring. Rhett clearly didn't care if she drank, and perhaps the liquor would soften the hard edges of confusion that were tearing at her. She drank deeply, too deeply; once again she was giving away the extent of her habit, but she didn't care.
"Bonnie thinks that Santa should make an encore appearance," Rhett said when she had lowered her glass. "What do you think, my dear?"
"You'll make a fool of yourself."
"Perhaps the good Santa Claus will grant your Christmas wishes and remove once and for all the impediment of Ashley Wilkes' honor."
His words chilled her. Scarlett stepped away from the window, away from Rhett. She didn't like to talk about Ashley with Rhett, and especially not now when she was so confused herself. Rhett had a habit of reading her too well, and she feared what he might decipher from thoughts and feelings she herself hadn't even begun to understand.
"Don't let's talk about him," she said, surprised by the bitterness in her voice.
Rhett noticed. His eyes gleamed in the gas light and, though he didn't move, somehow he seemed to perk up - if he were a cat, the fur on his back would be standing all on end, she thought. It was a look she hadn't seen in - oh, how long! That cat-at-a-mousehole concentration that provoked her so.
"Of course I have no love for Ashley Wilkes," Rhett said slowly, "but he does make for an interesting topic of conversation, don't you agree?"
Scarlett took a drink and refused to answer him. If Rhett wanted to play games, she would ignore him.
"An audience could hardly have failed to be entertained by the melodrama of our little show this evening."
She said nothing, hoping against wisdom that Rhett would lose interest..
"If you mean Ashley and me, we've never-" she cried, unable to stop the rushing words.
"Haven't you?" Rhett cut her off. Scarlett felt her face grow hot and with effort she held her tongue. Rhett laughed softly. "So you still make his life a merry hell."
A merry hell. He had said that to her before. She couldn't recall the circumstance yet the phrase rang the quiet bell of dim memories. That's how she had felt all day, smarting under Rhett's cold attitude since his abrupt rebuff the night before. Suddenly she wanted to cry. Everything was wrong. She felt as she had that awful day after Bonnie's birth, caught in an unforeseen snare of her own making, but unable to set matters right for she wasn't at all sure what had gone wrong or how the trap had been sprung.
In that stolen moment, Scarlett stared at him and saw his face change. The hard set of his jaw softened and faint lines wrinkled his forehead.
"Scarlett-" he began in an unfamiliar voice.
"I'm tired," she said, unable to bear whatever new insults he might wield. "I'm going to bed. Good night."
Blind to everything but the urge to flee, Scarlett thrust the glass out for Rhett to take. He reached for it and she gasped as he grabbed her wrist instead. One rough finger slipped past the hem of her sleeve. The touch sent a jolt of bittersweet longing from the warm circle where their skin pressed together, an electric current that flayed her shredded heart and set it beating wildly in an irregular rhythm. Raising his other hand, Rhett removed her glass from her numbed fingers and set it next to his own. The two glasses clinked against each other and the polished surface of the tray.
He should have let her leave. Taken the glass and released her wrist. Finished his own drink, giving her enough time to shut - and lock - herself safely behind her bedroom door, to retreat to that sanctuary from which he had been banished. When he grabbed her wrist his hand slid down the satin sleeve until the tips of his fingers brushed soft, exposed skin. He could feel the faint but irregular flutter of her pulse.
Coming down to find her in the dining room, Rhett had chosen his greeting from a sense of bitter and angry nostalgia. He remembered that night on the porch in the warm semi-darkness during the waning days of the siege. How far they had come since then; how little progress he had made. He was the one in hell; living with this woman every day and night and being farther from her than ever.
Or so he had thought. But this, too, was familiar from that night long ago. She was not indifferent to his touch. Plucking the glass from her hand he set it aside, then cupped her empty hand with his and lifted it palm up to his lips. He curled his thumb under the long sleeve and tugged it down, exposing the pale tracery of veins along her wrist. He pressed his mouth to the warm cup of her palm, the heel of her hand, her wrist, where he could feel the almost violent beat of her pulse beneath the cool skin.
He knew she wanted him. He had always known that, had gambled everything on being able to exploit that to build a marriage. Was it still possible? Her fingers curled against his cheek and he lifted his head to look at her. The pale gas light flickered in her green eyes with an opalescent shimmer.
No silly false beard obstructed his kiss. When his lips brushed hers there was nothing between them. He released her wrist and lowered both his hands to her waist, resting them above the flare of her bustle. Her hand lifted from his cheek and he tensed, but she did not push him away. The hand returned in a feathery caress, so light he could hardly feel it, her fingertips brushing the short hairs at the nape of his neck.
For a frozen moment they stood in a curious, tentative tableau, barely touching. His mouth lingered a hair's breadth from hers; their hands hovered but did not hold. He didn't know who moved first. Was it him, spurred on by a noise so soft he wasn't sure he heard it so much as felt it? Was it her, suddenly closing her hand on his neck, thrusting her fingers through his thick hair? It all seemed to happen at once - the tiny whimper, the clutching hands, his mouth slanting harshly over hers, insistent - and her response, her lips parting and her body lifting against his.
Rhett groaned as her arms came around his neck, holding him as he bent over her, arching her body backwards. He devoured her. His tongue slipped through the lips that parted for him so sweetly, tasting her with the relief of a dying man being offered a drink at an unexpected oasis. And Scarlett, who had so passively accepted his caresses in the past, dug her nails into his shoulders and brushed her tongue against his. His arms tightened around her until he could feel the outline of her hips even through her skirts, felt the soft and generous breasts pressing against his hard chest.
Overwhelmed by her response, Rhett's lips left hers and traced greedily along her jaw and down her exposed neck. Her bodice had a deep square neckline that exposed her upper chest, the indent of her collarbones, the swell of her breasts. He explored her skin, increasingly frustrated by the boundaries imposed by the tight ribbon-trimmed limits of the neckline. He returned to her mouth, kissing the corners then trailing his tongue along her lower lip until, in a forward act of desire so astonishing from his wife that it nearly knocked him over, she closed her mouth around him.
Rhett was lifting her off her feet, until only her toes touched the carpet. Her body burned, each place where they touched igniting small blazes that left her trembling as they swept through her. Now it was her turn to pull away, turning her head to one side to draw a deep, trembling breath that pressed the stiff bones of her corset into her ribs. "Stop, please. I feel faint," she confessed in a whisper and pressed her burning cheek against the cool folds of his cravat. Rhett's heart thudded beneath her ear and she relaxed just a little. So he was not unaffected.
An unfamiliar lassitude was draining her, and as urgent ardor subsided fatigue returned. Rubbing her cheek against Rhett's chest like a contented kitten, Scarlett yawned.
"Here I thought that was just a ruse so you could escape my irritating company."
Scarlett sighed. The moment - whatever it had been - was over. She straightened and stepped back as Rhett released her.
"You could be nicer," she said.
"I could be," Rhett agreed pleasantly. Scarlett peeked at him from under her lashes. Just what should she make of that statement, if anything? Was he even being serious? It was always so hard to tell with Rhett.
"Well, maybe you could try," she said pertly. "Good night," she added, softening the words just a little.
"Good night, my dear," Rhett answered.
Scarlett had just stepped over the threshold when he spoke again. She stopped at the sound of his voice.
"I could be nicer, Scarlett. If I had a reason to be."
Heat spreading across the back of her neck, Scarlett fled up the stairs.
The next morning, Scarlett was in her room alone listening impatiently for the sound of the front door closing to signal that Rhett had left for the day. While she had been dressing she could hear his voice from the nursery talking over the higher-pitched voices of the children, but the second floor had gone quiet shortly after Mammy had left Scarlett's room. After checking the position of her bonnet in the mirror, Scarlett had taken a position behind her own door so she would be sure not to miss her cue. Twisting her gloves in her hands, she held her breath as footsteps came lightly down the hall, stopped for a moment, and then went clearly down the polished wood stairs. Yanking on her gloves, Scarlett counted the seconds under her breath for as long as she could stand to wait.
She took the buggy so that she could drive herself. Since her marriage she had preferred to be driven in the large new carriage Rhett had purchased for her. The buggy was new, too, and quite a dashing little vehicle. Being so small it lacked the flashy grandeur of the carriage, but today Scarlett cared more for privacy than showing off. She was going to the lumber yard, and she didn't care for Rhett to know about it, if she could help it. He might guess, but she didn't think he would stoop to asking Hugh and certainly he wouldn't ask Ashley directly. With no driver to interrogate, she would be able to lie if necessary - but she must be careful. Rhett was too good at catching her in half-truths and concealments.
He may have decided to put on airs for the Old Guard, but he was still certainly no gentleman!
For the second night, Scarlett had lain awake for hours, her thoughts in a tumult of confusion. The problem of Rhett, she had decided, was beyond her. He was too unpredictable, almost vindictively perverse. One could never know if he was joking or sincere. She had no idea what his words or actions meant beneath their surface, and she did not care to delve into his mysteries.
But Ashley! His cool indifference cut her. Did he not love her anymore? Was that why his kiss had failed to thrill her? She touched her lips, engulfed for a moment by the sensual memory of Rhett's kisses, before forcibly shoving the unwelcome thoughts aside. She had to know, she had to reassure herself that he still loved her. At the lumber yard, they could be alone in the little office under the guise of going over his bookkeeping. She wouldn't bother with the books today, for his incapability would irritate and distract her. She would have to be careful, with Hugh Elsing and the team of drivers just outside in the yard, but she couldn't wait. There was no better opportunity to speak to Ashley, no greater measure of privacy.
Scarlett drove her horse with single-minded purpose, passing her rich new friends without even a nod in their direction. She usually derived much pleasure from their flattery and the opportunity to compare their equipages to her own, always to her own advantage; today she didn't even notice that Mamie Bart had a smartly lacquered new carriage. With her mind fixed on Ashley, there was no room for anyone else.
The yard was crowded with lumber and people, and despite her preoccupation Scarlett felt a familiar glow of pride at all she had accomplished. She gave Hugh a jaunty little wave, relieved that he would be kept occupied with customers, too busy to interrupt. Hugh smiled in return and Scarlett wanted to laugh. How easy this would be!
Ashley did not meet her at the door. He was sitting at the desk behind an open ledger. She said his name softly as she entered and his head came up with evident surprise.
"Why, Scarlett!" he greeted her, and her heart leapt. "What are you doing downtown so early?"
Scarlett entered, careful to catch the door behind her so that it would close as if by accident. She reached out, letting Ashley take both her hands in his. His grip was warm and gentle, with none of the force or fire of Rhett's touch. The very lack of impact stunned her a little. Her heart skipped a beat, then resumed its measured rhythm. Her pulse did not quicken. His touch did not spark her nerves to vibrant awareness.
"Oh, Ashley, I -" She had no excuse, no prepared subterfuge, but neither could she be honest with him. She was constrained by that promise made long ago in the cold orchard at Tara. Do you still love me? her heart cried, but she could not say the words. "I - it's such a lovely day, I just didn't want to shut myself in that dingy old store." Slipping her hands free, Scarlett crossed the room and raised on tiptoe to peek out one of the high small windows. "At least here the sun comes in," she finished, her fingers digging into the rough wood frame.
She wished she hadn't come at all. It was all so very wrong. She wanted - she wanted to be at home. She could take the ledgers and work with them in the sitting room. Rhett would find her when he came home...
"Have you come to look at the books then?" Ashley asked, with the perpetually unhappy tone he had when discussing business. She usually ignored it, for recognition brought an unwelcome sting of conscience. He hadn't wanted to take this job, and she had bullied him into it.
"Ashley," she said, coming down from her toes and turning abruptly, "are you happy?"
Ashley's eyes searched her with a piercing curiosity she did not understand. If he had been looking for something, he must not have found it, for the sharp look faded and his grey eyes took on a misty distance.
"Ah, Scarlett," he said quietly. "You do always take the most direct path, don't you? Whereas I must stumble reluctantly behind you. If you hadn't dragged me along with you, I would have fallen long ago."
What sort of nonsense was all that? She couldn't see that it had anything to do with what should have been a simple question. Was he happy? Did he hate her for - for dragging him along, as he said?
"That's not true," she lied stoutly, and insisted, "I've never done anything for you."
"I would not have minded falling. I'm not cut out for these times. I liked the old days better."
Ashley's words were a treacherous cliff edge suddenly cut before her feet. The vast landscape of the past lay beyond, dark and painful - nowhere she wanted to revisit. "Ashley, no-" she began. Don't look back, she wanted to tell him, but his gaze was misty again, the grey eyes turned to some inner landscape she could not reach-
No, she realized. With the heavy calm that wrapped about her, her thoughts were clear and for the first time she had an idea of what he was thinking. He was lost in the past, and his eyes were clouded with memories. A vertiginous imbalance swept her, the strange sensation of seeing Ashley from a great height at the same time as he stood so near her in the small office.
He was not out of reach, but she did not want to follow him there. "Don't look back Ashley," she said, almost pleaded.
"Do you remember the bridle path that ran-" he began, as if he had not heard her.
"No," Scarlett spoke sharply.
Ashley's eyes came back to her, but she knew he still didn't really see her. He was wandering those old paths through fragrant countryside in the strange twilight glow. Had he ever left? Scarlett knew that for her those trails had become a long a road, traversed with weary loads dragging at her so that only putting one foot in front of the other - only surviving - had become more important than anything else. But she had taken that road, and it was obvious to her now that Ashley had not. She may have dragged him, as he said, dragged him bodily along with her, but that was all. His heart and mind were not in the present and his eyes could not see the future.
"No, Ashley, I don't remember," she lied again. "It was a long time ago. And - and things are different now."
"Yes, they are."
The atmosphere in the little office felt close and uncomfortable after that, and Scarlett left as soon as she could come up with an excuse. She did not go to the store, but drove home with the same withdrawn blindness as before. Her mind and her heart were in a feverish confusion. "I won't think about it now," she told herself, snapping the reins. "I'll think about it later. I'll make sense of it all later."
Shutting herself in her bedroom, though, Scarlett couldn't help but think about it. She had never understood Ashley before, and her insight sat uncomfortably on her heart. She had relied upon him for so long, holding his love up before her as a light to guide her on. Yet he had never really been there at all. She had forged her own way. The vertigo returned and she collapsed onto a plush pink chair, her hands clutching at the slick wooden armrests. She felt as if she had walked out above a chasm without realizing it, and only now looked down and saw that there was nothing to support her.
The dizzy feeling passed and her fingers relaxed out of their claw-like hold. She slumped back in her chair. What had changed, after all? She still had the mill, and the store. She had lost nothing-nothing except Ashley. Scarlett took a breath and held it against the sharp pain she expected to follow this thought, until another dizzy spell tickled her consciousness with black fingers. There was no pain stabbing at her heart, only an emptiness spreading in her chest.
It didn't matter if Ashley still loved her or not. He was just like those old men on Melanie's porch, talking of nothing but old days and times long gone. He wasn't old! But his heart was stuck, the same as theirs. He would never move forward without someone else to carry him along, exactly as she had done. He was as useless as a child.
A small part of her flinched at such a traitorous thought about her beloved Ashley, but unsentimental practicality held sway. Ashley's dependence was simply fact; lately realized but no less true. She would not abandon him, for Melly's sake - why the thought of Melly would hold her back, Scarlett did not know, and she passed unthinkingly over the incongruous impulse - but she would never see him in the same way again.
The empty feeling expanded. Without Ashley's love, what was left for her? What else mattered?
Afternoon into evening
"God's nightgown!" Scarlett exclaimed, rising from the chair at the sound of Bonnie's voice. "She's never going to get over that dam-hello, precious!"
The bedroom door barely opened, just wide enough for the youngest Butler to squeeze through.
"Mother, Santa," Bonnie explained, or demanded, it was hard to tell - and with Bonnie, there was probably no difference.
The door swung wider to admit Mammy's considerably larger frame. "Miss Bonnie," she exclaimed, the force of her chastisement sapped by lack of air. Mammy must have had to move quickly to chase the little girl on her escape from the nursery. "You come with Mammy, chile, back to the nursery like a good little girl."
"It's all right, Mammy," Scarlett said, lowering herself to the floor and opening her arms. Bonnie came to hug her and Scarlett pressed a kiss to her tangled black hair. Mammy harrumphed.
"She s'posed to be napping with Miss Ella."
"No!" cried Bonnie, squirming in her mother's embrace. Scarlett laughed.
Mammy's mouth pulled down. "Miss Scarlett," she said with the clear indication Scarlett well recognized as a lecture being prepared. "She can't be gettin' out of bed an' runnin' around the whole house when she s'posed to be sleepin' all the time. It ain't-"
Scarlett was in no mood to be lectured by Mammy as if she were still a child herself. "Oh, Mammy, she can stay with me." After all, Santa or no Santa, it wasn't often that any of her children sought her out. She remembered Wade following her around with a story book, years ago, even before Ella had been born. And since then -?
"Now honey," said Mammy, changing tactics and tone. "She's still jus' a baby an' babies take naps, just let me bring her back to bed."
"She can stay," Scarlett said firmly, taking Bonnie to her vanity and sitting down with the little girl on her lap.
A grumbling Mammy lumbered out of the bedroom. Scarlett caught Bonnie's eyes in the mirror and, smiling, rocked her back and forth on her knees.
"Little Bonnie Blue has lost her sheep, and doesn't know where to find them," Scarlett said in a sing-song chant, but Bonnie was not interested in sheep or her mother's less-than-perfect variations on nursery rhymes.
"Santa!" she said again, smacking both her palms on the lace-covered vanity. Determined not to regret her decision to keep the little girl with her, Scarlett cast her eyes over the various baubles strewn across the table. Cosmetics, jewelry - nothing to make a suitable toy. Rhett had always let their daughter gum on his watch, but Scarlett was not about to offer any of her own things in its place.
Bonnie was squirming with a clear desire to be released. Barely holding on to the rotund toddler with one arm, Scarlett opened a drawer and rummaged through it until she found a bright blue hair ribbon. "Bonnie," she cooed, making the ribbon dance at her daughter's eye level. Bonnie grabbed for it and Scarlett laughed. "It is a pretty blue ribbon, isn't it. Here," she said, lifting one of Bonnie's hands so her arm was extended. She wrapped the ribbon around Bonnie's creased wrist and tied it in a bow. "Isn't that nice, baby?"
"Here's a pretty pair of babies," drawled a voice from the direction of the doorway.
Scarlett's arms tightened, but Bonnie only waved her beribboned arm at her father and did not immediately squirm to get down.
"You're home early, Scarlett," Rhett said, seeking her eyes above Bonnie's head. Scarlett looked down and adjusted the ribbon on Bonnie's wrist with a shrug.
"Santa!" added Bonnie, and arched her back in an attempt to slide from her mother's lap. In just a few strides, Rhett was there, scooping his daughter off Scarlett's knees. "Santa!" she repeated, smacking her palm on Rhett's shoulder.
"She slipped out of bed during her nap and came looking for Santa," Scarlett complained, watching as Rhett lifted Bonnie's arm and kissed her hand just above the blue ribbon. Bonnie endured this attention only briefly before struggling again to set her feet on the floor.
"Santa has gone back to the North Pole, Bonnie. Just like in the story, do you remember?"
"No!" Bonnie replied, continuing to squirm.
Rhett laughed. "Why don't we go look at all the new toys he brought you?" Bonnie nodded with her entire body. On their way out, Rhett paused in the doorway, set Bonnie on her feet, and pointed her towards the nursery.
"She'll lose interest soon," Rhett said, watching the hall. Scarlett turned back towards the vanity, seeking her husband from the corner of her eye and beneath her lashes. He seemed to fill the doorframe. In the weak light, he made a hazy shadow on the pink carpet, the edges of his body blurring into nothingness.
A thin, grey shadow. That's what Ashley was, Scarlett thought, reflecting on his appearance that afternoon. Even his hair had gone grey, she realized. Rhett was older - how much older, she had never bothered to learn - but he still looked almost the same as the first time she had seen him, that day at Twelve Oaks. Perhaps… With Rhett still focused on Bonnie, Scarlett risked studying him openly. Perhaps he had a few more lines around his eyes, and the lines bracketing his full lips were cut more deeply. He was still powerfully built, almost vibrating with strength, too large and muscular for gentility despite his recent pretensions.
Rhett turned suddenly. Shock made her blood run both hot and cold at the same time and she shivered, but did not look away, with a vague feeling that averting her gaze would be admitting guilt. Instead, Scarlett raised her chin and met his unreadable eyes.
"Santa could make an extra visit," he said. "I could get the costume out again...put that beard back on," he added with mischief in his dark eyes. The statement flustered her. He was teasing, but she wasn't sure what it meant. Was he reminding her of how she had disdained him for his silly outfit, or could he possibly be referring to that surprising kiss on Christmas Eve? Scarlett felt her cheeks heat as she thought of the last two nights and the strange companionate intimacy that had sprung up between them.
"Don't be ridiculous," she said, soft and without venom.
Bonnie's cry pricked the bubble that had enveloped them. Rhett looked away out into the hall again. The languid warmth that had been softening her bones turned cold and her body hardened, shoulders square. She would be cut off, alone, when Rhett left to seek their daughter. That's how it always was, Rhett and Bonnie in their world, the glow of which extended even to Wade and Ella - but never to her, Scarlett. A bitter taste of bile soured the back of her throat.
But Rhett did not leave immediately. He turned back to her and extended his arm. "Shall we see what Santa brought her?"
Scarlett accepted his escort with grace that concealed her inner turmoil. Her thoughts flew madly. Was this Rhett being nice, as she had asked? If he had, miraculously, taken her comment to heart, what did that mean? He had said, if I had a reason to be. What did he expect from her? Would she be willing to offer it? He had kissed her twice in two days, stirring memories deep within and muddying her ability to think, like silt and clay rising in the red Flint River. She didn't want to think about any of it - not now.
"See what Santa brought her," Scarlett said under her breath as they approached the nursery. "He brought her the contents of every toy store in Atlanta, and you know it!"
"She deserves to be spoiled," Rhett replied, and though his voice was light the words introduced something large and heavy into the air between them, and Scarlett felt the pressure of its weight on her chest and lungs. If he gave me one-half the attention he gives her, she thought - then what? The question of what she might do with that drew her thoughts back in a circle.
I'll think about that later, she told herself, and let Rhett lead her into the nursery.
After supper that night, Scarlett kissed the children good night and watched them traipse upstairs following Rhett like a piper, Bonnie in his arms. Scarlett hesitated at the stairs, unsure of herself. On a normal evening she would have followed, turning from the nursery to the refuge of her bedroom and waiting for Mammy to attend her after she had finished putting the children to bed. Mammy could be counted on to tell if Rhett had gone out after that. Mammy's disapproval cut her, and it was embarrassing to know her marital rift was known to the servants, but the value in knowing Rhett's whereabouts was greater. If Mammy reported his departure, Scarlett could go downstairs without fear of meeting Rhett and seek her solace in the brandy decanter. Perhaps she had time now, while the children were being put to bed, time to have a drink before Rhett came downstairs.
She poured herself a drink and sipped it slowly, resisting a nervous impulse to toss it back like a man. The glass gave her something to hold, something to do; Rhett didn't seem to care if she drank and it gave her a reason to be in the parlor. She didn't want him to think she was waiting for him. Somehow that would give him an advantage over her, rather like the whip she had always longed to hold over his head.
"Already drinking, my pet? Here I thought you preferred to keep your habit secret, though of course it -"
Scarlett spun away from the window. Her arm spasmed as she fought the urge to throw the glass at Rhett's black head. How dare he criticize her - he was a hypocrite, same as any man. It was fine for him to sink into his cups every night, but God forbid she enjoy the same privilege!
"You're one to talk," she snapped. "What do you care what I do in my own home? At least I don't go out and get drunk every night, in, in-" even in insensate temper, she stumbled over the bluntness of her instinct. It was too painful to voice, that her husband left her every night to get drunk in a whorehouse. And God knows what else. She shrank from these thoughts, knowing her own ultimatum lay at the root of Rhett's absence.
"My dear, I don't give a damn if you like your brandy. I've been meaning to tell you," Rhett said, as though making casual conversation; as though she hadn't come close to crossing the unspoken lines between them. "You don't have to hide it, Scarlett, sneaking a bottle into your room or creeping downstairs after I've gone out. Oh, yes, I know you do both. How do I know?" Rhett shrugged and picked up the decanter. "It wasn't hard to realize what was happening when my brandy started disappearing twice as fast as I was drinking it. As for the latter...perhaps I haven't always gone as far as you think. Here, have some more. You look pale."
Scarlett closed her mouth as Rhett added a generous amount of amber liquor to her near-empty glass. She did not know how to answer him without admitting the truth or telling a lie he was sure to see through and, being Rhett, sure to call her on. Neither option was acceptable to her pride.
She took a drink, and murmured her thanks as Rhett poured for himself then set the decanter back down. She felt awkward, alone with Rhett and the memory of her visit to the lumber yard that afternoon. Suppose Rhett should want to talk about Ashley again? She couldn't think why he would, but Rhett was unpredictable and wily. What if he knew where she had been, or guessed? He had an uncomfortable habit of knowing or guessing at things she would much prefer to keep hidden. She didn't want to talk about Ashley now - or ever.
Sipping steadily from her glass of brandy as her mind whirled, Scarlett was too mired in her own thoughts to realize that Rhett was watching her with speculative black eyes. She poured herself a third glass of brandy.
"Now that you know you can drink openly, is it your intention to drink me dry?" Guiltily, like a younger girl caught stealing from Aunt Pitty's swoon bottle, Scarlett set the decanter down with a noisy clatter. "Slow down," he laughed. "You don't want to be sick."
Scarlett felt her face heat. Rhett might know about her secret habit, but clearly he did not know exactly how much she could drink in a night. Three drinks might have been quite a lot - back when she was married to Frank. These days, or rather, nights, she was ashamed to think how many drinks it sometimes took to make the uncomfortable pressure in her heart ease enough to let her sleep. That pleasant feeling was slower to arrive, the warmth rolling in like the tide until it covered heartsickness, loneliness, and the lingering fear of poverty that all her and Rhett's money hadn't fully resolved. Even after several glasses of wine with supper, these drinks had yet to bring that warm lethargy to dull her senses. Now she felt unexpectedly giddy, almost like laughing at her own embarrassment.
Such things were as dangerous to think about in Rhett's presence as the memory of her encounter with Ashley. After a quick, bracing sip, she offered him her most charming smile, angling her cheek so he would see her dimple. "Fiddle dee dee," she laughed. "A little brandy can't make Gerald O'Hara's daughter sick."
Rhett's white teeth showed in a grin. "Must be the Irish in you, pet."
Scarlett tossed her head so her ear bobs danced in the light. Was she flirting with Rhett of all men? Flirtation had never charmed him. But she didn't care. The brandy had enervated her and she wanted to have fun. She was having fun, like she hadn't had with Rhett since their honeymoon.
Their honeymoon. Rhett had said that marriage could be fun, and in New Orleans they had had fun. And after - at the hotel - and - when had that stopped? It was before she had decided not to have any more children. The sign - she didn't want to think about that. Rhett had said I could be nicer. He was talking now, saying something about the Irish. If she listened to him, it would probably make her angry. The third glass of brandy was almost empty. She had drunk quite a lot, enough to forget that her marriage required delicate handling if she wanted to avoid an unproductive, one-sided quarrel, enough for her natural bluntness to surface.
"Rhett," she interrupted with unrestrained curiosity. "What did you mean when you said a - a reason to be nicer?"
It would have been nice, she thought, if Rhett was more like other men. She had never understood him - any more than she had understood anything of Ashley, until that afternoon. Rhett was still inscrutable, his bland face revealing nothing.
"I think you know, Scarlett," he answered in a pleasant voice that implied nothing but still brought a hot rush of blood back to her cheeks. Rhett could say that as if merely making polite conversation, but how could she answer? She had nothing to say, no way to proceed that wasn't too shameful - or too humbling to her pride. She fumbled her slick glass as she brought it to her lips for another drink. Empty. When had that happened?
"Here," Rhett said, and this time she could hear amusement if nothing else. He held out his own glass with a slick of brandy still coating the bottom - a sip, no more. Still, she took it, past caring how that might look to her blackguard husband.
Scarlett bolted the drink with one movement and relished the burn of it down her throat. Lowering the glass she stared at its shining crystal lip, at the hint of rouge where her lips had been, on the glass where Rhett's mouth had been, too.
Rhett took the empty glass from her. He was setting them back on the tray. The light bouncing off the crystal and silver radiated in her vision like stars. It made her a little bit dizzy.
"I haven't drank so much since our honeymoon," she said to Rhett's back. "Do you remember that, Rhett?"
The glasses clinked against each other and the tray. For a moment Scarlett felt sick to her stomach. What a stupid thing to admit, an even stupider question. How foolish she was-
"I do remember that, Mrs. Butler," Rhett answered, turning. Her stomach flipped and settled. "Do you?"
Scarlett giggled, too relieved to be insulted. He was teasing her, she could see the humor glinting in his dark eyes. His tone was playful and he smiled down at her without condescension. This, too, was reminiscent of their honeymoon and the long years of friendship that had preceded it. A friendship that had almost disappeared since their wedding now wrapped her again in its warmth, like slipping back into a comfortable pair of slippers that had been warming by the fire. It would be good to have Rhett's friendship back. She was lonely, cut off from old friends and growing increasingly bored and irritated with the new. She did not like to dwell on her loneliness. Unanalytical, wrestling with such a complex problem was beyond her, and it frustrated her in ways that her struggles with poverty at Tara had not.
Scarlett tossed her head so her earbobs would dance again and tilted a coy smile up at Rhett, pushing unpleasant thoughts away. Better to relish this moment, this long moment of days that had somehow begun with that ridiculous costume. A reason to be nicer. The brandy dilated her thoughts, peeling away the layers that normally shielded her from herself. Oh yes, she knew what he meant. He was referring to the bargain that she had broken, the bargain that was their marriage - his wealth and protection for her body. He had said he had tired of her - but then why had her decision changed everything between them?
Looking up at Rhett through her lashes, she could see again that strange waiting look he sometimes had, hadn't had in years, that she had caught on his face more than once in these last days. She had never liked to be kept out of anything, to know there were secrets she didn't possess.
"Why do you look at me like that?" she asked frankly, with a touch of bewilderment. She abandoned coquetry, lifting her head to look Rhett full in the face. "Don't laugh!" she commanded before he could begin. She crossed the few feet of distance between them and placed her open palm against his chest. Rhett looked down at the small white hand and raised his eyebrows. She withdrew the offending touch and took a step back.
"I'm not laughing," he said mildly.
"You did last time," she answered.
"In - New Orleans."
"New Orleans again," he mused. "Is something on your mind, Mrs. Butler?"
"Don't be coarse."
"Honest curiosity, my dear! The workings of the feminine mind can be such a mystery, even to such a seasoned old reprobate as myself."
"You are trying to distract me," Scarlett stated with uncomfortable perspicacity. Her limited curiosity was his best protection against the truth. For her to ask direct, even insightful questions, and not rise to his attempts to bait her temper, was a new and troubling occurrence. It was a rare occasion indeed when Scarlett managed to make him feel wrong-footed. He looked down at her, holding her gaze and watching every thought that shifted across her changeable face. Irritation, confusion, and an unfamiliar interest that tugged at his gut, at animal instinct, for certainly every higher function urged him to maintain his usual wall of caution. He appreciated the rare forthright moment for despite her lack of subtlety, she was rarely so direct when she wanted something. He had always answered honesty with honesty, but this question cut close to secrets he was not ready to share - secrets he was sure she was not ready to hold. She could unsheath her claws quickly, even unexpectedly for all he knew her so well.
"Not at all," Rhett said in a slow drawl. "I'm merely considering how to phrase my response in a way that you will understand. Hush," he commanded, wrapping his hands around her upper arms. "I don't intend to insult you. It is a simple statement of fact that your dense self-interest is difficult to penetrate. As I am a monster of selfishness myself, I do actually admire your priorities, such single-minded purity. Have you ever, I wonder, thought of anyone before yourself?"
"If you're just going to prattle on, I don't care," Scarlett answered coldly. "I don't have to stand here and be insulted by you."
"I said I am not insulting you. We are very much alike, you know. But perhaps I am still waiting to see if your better nature won't triumph."
"And I suppose yours has?"
"My dear girl, I did join the army."
Rhett grinned, a wide, wolfish smile. "Certainly some would say that was evidence of my having a better nature."
"You don't think that," Scarlett said, peering up at him with sharp eyes. Rhett slid his hands down her arms and cupped her elbows.
"You are very insightful tonight," he murmured, his hands exerting a gentle pressure to draw her closer.
"What is it you don't want me to know?" Scarlett asked, digging in her heels. Her eyes blazed as she went on without waiting for his reply. "I think you're in love with me."
Though his blood went cold, he did not release her. He had come too far to give the game away so easily.
"So alike, and yet so different," he said in a low voice. "For you do have some of the quaintest notions. How like a woman."
"That's why you look at me like that."
"My dear, we still have not established what "like that" is. And perhaps I have been wrong these many years about your lack of imagination after all."
"You are trying to make me mad. You're hoping I will throw something at your head and forget about this." Scarlett's voice held a note of triumph. She sounded like a child who had recently mastered their multiplication tables and could not resist running through them to anyone who would listen. Some key had turned within her, opening a door between them. But how far? She had been upset when he had raised the subject of Ashley the night before, and not in the usual way she had of defending her golden gentleman.
"I am waiting to see if you've grown up," Rhett said flatly. An honest, if incomplete, answer.
A delicate blush bloomed on Scarlett's cheeks. The color softened her, and she looked like a young girl again. She couldn't be very old - though she had never told him her age, he thought she must still be in her mid-twenties. When her eyes were cold and hard, as they most often were, she looked much older, and it was easy to forget her youth. Too easy. She had hardly been more than a child when they met. In many ways, she still was. A stubborn, selfish child with no care for who she might hurt so long as she got her way, he reminded himself. And not even the loving sweetness of Bonnie to soothe the sting left by her heedless claws.
"You mean - Ashley," Scarlett said in a whisper that took the bottom from his lungs. Three clarion moments of insight in one evening. If he were any older, he would have to call for the doctor. Her face was as scarlet as her namesake now. Her eyes focused on his cravat. He could see only glimpses of green through the bristly black lashes.
Her hands came up between them and plucked at the threads of his waistcoat. Such light, inconsequential touches; the nervous, fluttery moment of her hands like the unsettled sensation in his belly. Damn him for a fool. His mouth went down at the corner as his fingertips dug into the smooth silk casing Scarlett's arms.
"You have always deviled me over Ashley," she said.
"An impersonal curiosity-"
"Rhett, he - I-"
Rhett pinched her chin between his thumb and finger and forced her head up. "You've seen him again today," he said, keeping his voice and his face smooth, empty. Impersonal.
"Y-yes. I went to the lumber yard this morning."
"Not your usual habit. And then you came home, didn't you? You didn't go to the store. That's why you were here so early in the afternoon."
"Why is that, my pet?" Rhett released her face and arm. He lounged to the wide settee and adopted an elegant sprawl while he clipped and lit a cigar. Scarlett remained in place, watching him, her own expression far more revealing. Her turmoil was plain to see. Something was bothering her. Had Ashley finally dishonored himself? That would be unexpected, but not impossible. Lord knew he understood the temptation. Intimately.
"I don't please. What have you done?"
"I shouldn't have said anything."
"You have let the cat out of the bag already. It won't go back. Tell me what is on your mind."
"I said - I thought we might be friends again."
"Ashley hasn't been your friend?"
"I mean you and I. We used to be friends, Rhett."
That was a little unexpected. He paused to draw on his cigar. "I see. And you liked, ah, being friends with me?"
"If you are going to be so vile, I am going-"
"Scarlett." Scarlett paused in her flight from the room, but kept her back to him. The line of her shoulders was taut beneath her gown. "Yes, we were friends. So come, sit down, and let's talk as old friends."
Scarlett pressed herself against the arm of the settee, as far from him as possible, and arranged her skirts so that not a scallop or frill so much as brushed his shoe.
"Well, tell me all about it. So you went to the lumber yard and saw Ashley, and something about this has distressed you enough to bring it up with me."
"Oh, Rhett, he's - he's hopeless!"
"Oh, hush. I mean, he's just like the rest of them - like all those old people who can't talk about anything but the past, and think in the past, and live in the past!"
"And you didn't realize this before today?"
Scarlett shook her head slowly, and the curls that had been artfully pulled from her coiffure to trail down her neck slipped behind her shoulder, baring the long arc and slope of her skin. She was flushed down to her shoulders.
"Rhett, I think I - I made something up." Rhett's teeth closed on his cigar, biting back a comment about her lack of imagination. He was curious to see where she was going. "Like a handsome suit, and I made Ashley wear it. But it was never - it was never really him."
Scarlett hid her clenched fists in her skirts. Please, don't let him laugh at me. Let him understand. She could not voice the rest of her feelings, not to Rhett of all people, but he had always understood more than was comfortable or convenient. Now that naked understanding would work in her favor and she hoped for it.
She jumped at the touch of rough skin against her neck. Rhett's fingertips raised goosebumps as he reached for a loose curl, tugged it gently, and brought it forward to rest against her throat. The bristly black end brushed her collarbone.
"This is a interesting revelation." Was he mocking her? She cut a glance at him. She couldn't read him, couldn't tell what was in his thoughts, but his face was at least serious and not mocking. His eyes looked almost kind, if Rhett Butler could look kind. It could be indigestion. Rhett twisted his arm behind him to stub out his cigar, and the movement made his broad muscles bunch and shift beneath his exquisitely tailored jacket. She remembered New Orleans, the appreciative looks from other women, and how she had thought of the handsome picture they made together.
Scarlett breathed slowly, resisting the impulse to hold the air in her lungs as if the outward rush would disturb the scene. He would cut her now, and she wouldn't even see it coming. Just as he always did. He would remind her of that foolish day, the terrible decision that had sprung from the last time she met Ashley at the lumber yard alone, and he would laugh at her and insult her.
"So the little gentleman has lost his golden glow. Perhaps you are beginning to grow up after all, Scarlett."
He said her name as he never had before, caressing it like the tenderest endearment. The bold eyes that raked her were not so gentle. It was the familiar unclothing look that had been their introduction, curling her toes with the pleasure of his attention. Would he kiss her now? The possibility flustered her despite their recent kisses. Those had taken her by surprise, relieving her of the burden of anticipation. Now the backs of Rhett's fingers traced her collarbone and followed her neckline, giving her far too much time to think about what Rhett might do next, and whether or not she wanted him to do any of those things. And though it made her skin grow hot, her innate honesty compelled her to admit that she wanted him to kiss her. She had missed Rhett's kisses, and the comfort of his arms in the night, the mesmerizing glow of his cigar in the darkness. As to the rest - well - it was a small enough price to pay.
Scarlett lifted her head to meet Rhett's eyes. The hot leaping light in them seared her soul. She almost turned away but Rhett at last brought his mouth to hers. He palmed her breast, squeezing the fullness of the mound that rose above her corset. Without hesitation, Scarlett brought her arms around his neck and shoulders.
Rhett groaned into her mouth as he felt his wife drawing him into her embrace. With one hand he gripped the back of the settee. He pressed his palm down against the carved wood trim as he fought to maintain control. Her revelation was a minor one, the victory a battle - not the war. Scarlett still had her claws, careless weapons that would bleed him dry if he allowed his unguarded heart to rest in her grasp.
Still, he thought as he released his punishing grip on the furniture to wrap his arms around the soft and willing body of his wife instead, hauling her onto his lap, still - it seemed Santa Claus had brought him something for Christmas, too. Perhaps if he was nicer, as Scarlett had so innocently requested, he might make it onto the list of good little boys for next year.
A/N: A little Christmas gift for the holiday season. I started this story over a year ago, hit a creative roadblock, and Christmas came and went so I set it aside. I picked it back up in August and though it was still a struggle, I beat it into something close to an acceptable shape. A few references will be better understood if you Google the poem quoted at the beginning. It ends a little abruptly but I need to set it aside and get back to my never ending WIP. Perhaps I'll finally finish that one in 2018!