Disclaimer: Nothing recognizable belongs to me. I do not have a beta so forgive my mistakes.
AN: Since I re-read the book in February I found myself talking to my best friend about different themes and bringing it into different conversations. In May, we had a conversation about Scarlett's reaction to a younger man approaching her. It stuck with me and I wrote this. For once I did not do a ton of research so it's probably not era accurate but it's mostly written for fun. So, please enjoy something that amused me quite a bit, enough that I thought I might share with you all.
Scarlett ignored the voice. The very masculine voice. It was deep in the most pleasing way. But men were fools and she did not need the attentions of another one. God's Nightgown! She was practically elderly now that she was 30. And a pariah, the divorce had settled that. She was content with her lot in life. She minded the store, and lived above it. This was what all the fuss of her young life had resulted in, a relatively quiet life.
Wade had decided he was going to boarding school. He had hit a growth spurt and was taller than Scarlett, and felt that he ought to be more of man now. Scarlett was sure that a conversation with Henry Hamilton about Hamilton men and education had led to his decision, but she would never deny him anything. Aunt Eulalie and Pauline had requested Ella stay with them, because a Robillard girl required a suitable education as well. Atlanta's schools were far from satisfactory, and heaven forbid the Tarleton girls teach her children at the country schoolhouse. At the time, Scarlett was too tired to fight them on these issues. Melanie had only just died, Rhett disappeared into the fog, and the illness that overcame her came with a fury. Fever and hallucinations made it difficult to decipher what was real and what wasn't. Children going to school and leaving with relatives had really been the least of her worries.
"Pretty and unmarried, I can't believe my good fortune."
What a shame that ignoring the voice had not worked as a deterrent. She would have to face him and right when the book was actually getting interesting.
Two years of pariahdom made books her greatest source of entertainment. Oh wouldn't Melly be proud. Scarlett was sure a great many people found it endlessly amusing for less friendly reasons. There was no need to catch a husband anymore, she had enough money to look after herself and her family. And the business of making men love her had lost its charm, a broken heart had finally broken her spirit to some extent. Her heart had been breaking for years. The loss of her mother, her father, the first baby she'd ever truly wanted, Melly, the golden image of Ashley, and Rhett. Rhett who hadn't died but had willfully abandoned her. Not enough for her to retreat to the country but enough for the town to actually think she was halfway decent without the influences of Rhett Butler. Which had always been true, they just had not realized it.
Looking up from the book she took stock of who had been addressing her. She felt a giggle threaten to rise up. He was handsome to be sure. His hair was a dark blond, and his eyes a deep blue. He smiled in a pleasing way and his features were pleasant. Fifteen years ago, she would not have given a second thought to batting her eyelashes and swaying her skirts to get him to chase her. But she looked at him and realized that fifteen years ago he was likely just starting to become a man. She was older than him.
It was startling. Never had a younger man approached her. He was attractive which made this more curious, the Southern bachelor did not want for a woman to call his wife for very long. But, thinking back to his words, he wasn't Southern.
"William Hall," he said. He extended his hand and met her eyes.
"Scarlett O'Hara," she said. There. That would put an end to this. Everyone knew that name and knew to avoid her, even the newly arrived were promptly warned against keeping company with her.
"I know," he said. "I saw you the other day, coming from the post. I surmised that you had received a new book, likely the one in your hand now, and were eager to get home. Unfortunate that you ran into that older woman and the woman determined to remain an old maid who accompanies her everywhere. You were forced to dine with them. But it was the barely restrained anger dancing in your eyes that amused me."
Scarlett rolled her eyes. Another man who liked the temper, just because most women were better at keeping theirs. "That's how you know my name? Listening in on a private conversation?"
He smiled a small self-satisfactory smile. "Not quite, I had to ask around about you. No one was quite willing to discuss you. Fear, I believe, kept their tongues from wagging. I did manage to piece quite a bit together, I know all about your reputation. Or lack thereof, I suppose, but, fear not, I care little for what the South deems unladylike and unbecoming."
Scarlett stared at William. He reminded her of Rhett, younger Rhett who had not put up his guard and feared her affection. It was hard to not draw comparisons to the specter of her ex-husband. Rhett also had the upbringing of a Southern Gentlemen, as loathe as he was to admit it. They were Southerners, and William clearly wasn't. Rhett had also made inquiries about her all those years ago, when he would make his way to Atlanta and call on her. Of course, he had always made it clear that it was only friendly interest. How could she have ever been so naive. Apart from the fact that he denied being interested in her in anything beyond a carnal relationship, of course.
"Bravery, and stupidity," she said.
"That's what ails you," she said. "Unfortunately, both often lead to death."
She had stopped holding her tongue somewhere in the last year. Save for Pitty and Henry. The only people who willingly spoke to her. Ashley never called, and she never sought him out. That childhood fantasy had died the same day as everything else.
"Wit! You are intelligent aren't you," he said.
"A woman with a brain, heavens, better send for the doctor to remedy that," Scarlett said.
Scarlett smirked because it had been so long since anyone had found her amusing. Mostly the people found her acid tongue frightening and they all scurried away from her.
"Ah, finally, I have broken through your steely exterior."
Scarlett glared at him.
"And the walls have returned, reinforced, I believe," he said. His eyes danced with amusement. His eyes looked bluer somehow. "Then I should take my leave, but I will return tomorrow."
And he did. For two months he came to the store almost daily and verbally sparred with her. Some days she managed to remain the cold divorcee. But the moments when she couldn't quite stifle the emotions were what brought him back. He always seemed so pleased with himself, and she always resolved that would be the last time she was baited into a reaction. There had yet to be a last time.
She was in the back office when she heard the bell ring. John was away on a delivery and Paul was picking up inventory at the depot. She walked out to greet the customer, who would likely want to wait for John or Paul rather than talk to Scarlett directly.
It was not a customer that she met.
"Hello Scarlett, it appears that divorce suits you."
Scarlett wished that Paul and John were here. Even some addle-brained twit off the street would work. She just didn't want to be alone with Rhett.
"Hello Rhett," she said. She found she could not leave the doorway to her office. Her grip on the doorframe left her knuckles white, but thankfully they were out of his view. He looked very much the same, well not the same as when he left her. That had been a broken man. This was the Rhett who had called on her so often during the war but with grey at the temples and a few fine wrinkles. Dignified despite his years of hard labor mining and sailing and God knew what else he had left out of his history. "What can I do for you? I hardly believe that you need anything that the other stores in Atlanta, and beyond, aren't able to provide."
"Nowhere else in the world is there anyone quite like you, Scarlett O'Hara," Rhett said.
"I understood that was not something you found all that alluring anymore," she said. "So, I ask again, what are you doing here?"
"Can't an ex-husband simply be interested in the welfare of his ex-wife? I like to think that we could somehow be friends, like before."
"I think we both know that will never happen, broken pieces and all that," Scarlett said.
"I'd heard that you were quite the ray of sunshine these days, nice to see that I haven't been misinformed," Rhett said, the sarcasm not lost on either of them. He set about looking through the wares. Seemingly in want of something to do aside from stand in the entry.
Scarlett said nothing. Of course, he would be able to know about her without actually having to set foot in Atlanta. He did not want for friends. She had already asked him twice what brought him to her once again, yet he was determined to play before answering. She would wait. She had learned that sometimes patience was the best way to trap someone, they often started to ramble to fill the space.
"Would you believe me if I told you it was the esteemed Ashley Wilkes who wrote to me? Care of Belle Watling?"
Scarlett could not help but let her jaw drop. Ashley. Writing to Rhett. And knowing to go through Belle. Inconceivable. Yet, it did sound like something Ashley would do, the rat.
"Ah, that answers that," he said. His voice losing some of the teasing. "Still holding Ashley above all others."
"I haven't seen or spoken to Ashley Wilkes since Melly died," Scarlett said. She knew the hatred was bleeding through. It had come on strong since the night Melly died, Ashley was just a man who couldn't control his lust. All at once he was lowered to that of a mere mortal and fell further over time as she considered all of his past behavior.
Rhett looked at her then. He seemed surprised by her tone. He met her eyes then his mouth quirked up in amusement. "I would never have believed it if I hadn't witnessed it with my own eyes."
"Yes, yes, fall from grace and all that. Very amusing for you, I'm sure," Scarlett said. "But what I don't understand is what he thought was important enough to write to you."
"Mm," Rhett said as he sat on an armchair they had only just gotten in. "Apparently, he thought you might be leaving Atlanta and advised me to visit if I ever hoped to see you again."
Scarlett tilted her head. "Leave Atlanta? Where would I go? Back to Tara? I would drive Will to distraction and nowhere else has ever held any charm for me."
She realized she was talking to Rhett like an old friend again. The mystery of Ashley's correspondence seemed to have been enough to stay her anger. Vexing.
"Apparently, it's understood that you and a William Hall will be married soon," Rhett said.
Scarlett laughed. William. This was about William and the jealousy that Ashley and Rhett both carried. She was not theirs to covet any longer but they had been reluctant acquaintances for a considerable length of time now and somehow they'd both lost her, on the same night. It seemed they still shared some sort of bond as a result. It was patently ridiculous.
"I cannot decide if that is confirmation or denial," Rhett said.
Scarlett looked to him and saw how carefully he was watching her. Oh. He was a fool. He'd broken everything and as soon as someone else came to amuse her he inserted himself into the situation again. She schooled her features and said, "You're a fool, Rhett Butler. You and Ashley, both."
He made a noise of discontent and she said, "Don't bother trying to deny it. It's the reason you disliked him so much. You have many of the same ideals and inclinations, only you act on yours and he plays the gentleman."
"Brutal honesty, this is very new," Rhett said. The amusement was back.
"It keeps the weak hearted away," Scarlett said.
"Mr. Hall isn't weak, I take it," Rhett said.
"William is… William," she said. "He's a starry-eyed boy who fancies himself in love with the acid-tongued divorcee."
"Amusing isn't it? A younger man showing interest in me? I told him at the end of the first week that I'll never marry again. And he seems to have taken it as a challenge. I've never been proposed to so often."
"He makes you smile," Rhett said.
Scarlett realized she was smiling. She closed her eyes and regained control of her features. She opened her eyes to find Rhett was standing before her. Damn his ability to move without sound.
He looked down and studied her.
"He's done it, hasn't it?" Rhett said. "He's made you forget that you are meant to be a stately matron at this age. He lets you play again."
Scarlett could not meet his eyes. She would not let him examine this. This careful happiness she felt when William visited.
"Damn," he said.
She kept her eyes lowered.
"Ashley knows you, enough to know that Mr. Hall may actually succeed in his quest. And Mr. Wilkes must still feel the need to pay penance, otherwise, he would never have written to me. I don't know if this is better than finding out afterward."
He paced as he ranted. Scarlett glanced at the clock and knew that they would be interrupted soon. If not by John or Paul but by William himself. He often came by with lunch.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the bell rang to announce a new party.
"Scarlett, I have brought you the most delicious chicken in all of Atlanta," William said as he came through the door. He then took in the scene and said, "Well hello, who is this?"
"William, this is Rhett," Scarlett said. She had told him about her husbands one day, he'd been supremely curious but never pressed. She told him everything, with all of her true motives, and he was only amused, not at all put-off. It had been another test of his willingness to stay. He told her she had a brilliant tactical mind and the most practical woman he'd ever met. All said with a sense of awe, which had actually made Scarlett blush. William's ego had definitely been stroked that day.
"The Captain Butler!" William said. "Wonderful to meet you. You are a living legend. I've heard so much about you from the lads in town."
The emphasis on living legend was so clearly an insult Scarlett had to bite her cheek to keep from laughing.
"And Rhett, this is William Hall, he's an architect. He's working on the buildings down the way."
"You're English," Rhett said.
"A bit," William said. "My mum and I came to Savannah when I was a boy to stay with my uncle after my father died. And then I was in Boston for schooling."
"Ah," Rhett said.
Scarlett didn't dare look at Rhett. William was hard to pin down. He was intelligent and unabashed about sharing information, personal or not. As brutally honest as Scarlett, but without the acidity.
"Right, then," he said. "The chicken, Scarlett, before it turns and all my bragging is for naught."
Scarlett couldn't help herself. She giggled. The sound caught the attention of both men. Rhett frowned and William smiled. He handed her a plate and set about removing the meal from the picnic basket.
"I was fairly certain Scarlett didn't eat when I first started calling on her," William said. "Sorry looking thing, so I've been plying her with food. And I finally got the recipe for this chicken and borrowed a kitchen and just need her to admit it's the best chicken, then the argument can be put to rest."
Scarlett rolled her eyes. "There is no chicken better than the chicken at Tara, so don't think you've won."
"I'll win you over yet," he said as he put food and sides on her empty plate.
Scarlett was about to take the plate to the office, where they normally ate and discussed a great many things from the accounts, his projects, the latest book she read, and anything else they thought of at the time. It had been great fun to have a friend, even if she knew he would leave once he realized she was serious that she never intended to marry. She paused as she recalled that Rhett was still very much present and very much interested in this interaction. She didn't care what the town thought if William didn't care he was ruining his reputation. They ate in the office, door open. But with Rhett's eyes on her, it seemed rather intimate all of the sudden.
So she put the plate on the counter and stood. William looked at her then smiled again. He handed Rhett a plate. "I was planning on offering lunch to John or Paul but they seem to be out and probably eating elsewhere.
Rhett looked at the food and said, "You cooked this?"
"Curiosity breeds all manner of skill," William said. "I wondered if cooking was as difficult as people would have you believe. It wasn't. Just as it turned out that piano was a matter of practice and perseverance."
"He makes a divine chocolate cake," Scarlett said. "But that's baking, not cooking. Don't ever confuse the two."
William and Scarlett shared another knowing smile and Rhett rolled his eyes.
"So, Captain Butler, what brings you to Atlanta? I'd understood you had left Atlanta, to take care of your mother, or secret bastard, depending on who's doing the talking."
Scarlett looked startled. No one spoke to her about Rhett and she hadn't had any curiosity about what the town was saying about either of them. Self-preservation. But of course William would have inquired about Rhett as well, curiosity breeds skills and the ability to disarm people with knowledge. She knew William could be pleasant, she'd seen him charm Mrs. Merriweather. But she also knew he did not suffer insult. Once the older woman tried to warn him about associating with Scarlett he had changed completely, and told Mrs. Merriweather that she had better look to her own daughter before casting aspersions on others. Scarlett had no idea what that meant but it had caused Mrs. Merriweather to flush and leave abruptly. That was the one time she had allowed him to walk her back from the post. Now it seemed he hoped to rile Rhett into leaving.
Rhett's countenance was a rough parody of his usual calm demeanor. "I did leave Atlanta, however, my friends here thought a visit was due."
"Then perhaps you ought to leave us and see to your friends," William said.
Scarlett thought of male animals battling for dominance. This would not end particularly well if it continued. "William, you know Rhett and I have a history. He was only looking in on me."
"The time for that was two years ago when you were actually ailing," William said.
Scarlett sent him a sharp look. That was another story she had told him when he'd bothered her about being too thin. She had not regained her appetite after her lingering sickness. It had been dreadful, and she didn't like to think about it.
She recalled pleading with the doctor to ensure no one contact Rhett. She thought it was the fear in her eyes that made the old man agree to not write to Rhett. Dr. Meade seemed to have drawn some conclusion about Rhett, which Scarlett might have played up as it seemed to help her cause, and Dr. Meade settled for sending for Will and Sue from Tara. She also remembered parts of conversation once Will and Sue had arrived, some talk that her prognosis looked rather bleak. Scarlett had worn away to nothing and that meant her body wasn't prepared for an ongoing illness.
The look Rhett gave her let her know that he had no idea.
"I take it I missed a considerable illness. Though I'm sure I'm the last person you wanted to see."
"Oh yes, quite serious, I even planned my own funeral," Scarlett said. "Sue was unamused, she cried. Can you imagine my sister being upset that I was dying? She made me promise I would live until I was a hundred."
"I had no idea," Rhett said.
"Clearly," William said.
"I don't really remember much. Something about exhaustion and pneumonia, not that I really cared what it was once it was over. Apparently, it was quite bad, I even had hallucinations."
"I would wager Sue had never seen you sick before, at least not to that degree," Rhett said.
"Yes, now I have to live to be a hundred and visit Tara once a month. Imagine me at 100, I'll be fat and deaf and say all manner of inappropriate things," Scarlett said. Her eyes brimmed with merriment before becoming serious. "And Baby came with the aunts from Charleston. Sue sent a telegram to them that I was dying and they arrived very quickly."
"Your Aunts deigned to come to Atlanta, what an honor. I'm sure Wade and Ella were worried as well," Rhett said.
"Yes, they were moved to Pittypat's during that time. And no one was allowed to see me, save for my sisters. They were young and healthy enough to not get sick."
"I am sorry that I wasn't here," Rhett said.
William made a noise of disgruntlement and Scarlett sighed. She drew a breath and said, "I didn't want you here, so there is nothing to be sorry for."
Rhett looked positively aghast.
"And now Ms. O'Hara has made a complete recovery, save for the fact that she now believes she can say whatever she wants as she has bested death," William said. "I do believe you were going to see to your friends, now that you've heard about Scarlett's health."
Rhett had finally recovered and was openly scowling at William.
Before Rhett could come up with any sort of reply, John returned. He seemed to immediately sense the tension, but given that it was his actual job to mind the store and had just returned from the only errands that would require him to leave he was effectively trapped with them.
Scarlett ate her food. She would have to tell William the chicken was good, she would not admit that it was the best that she'd ever had. Though it likely was. Rhett did not do more than push the food around on his plate and William was only too happy to watch Scarlett for any sign of enjoyment. John set about sweeping on the far side of the store.
"I believe William is right, I should be going," Rhett said after a very tense minute.
"Right, I'm sure your friends will be so glad to see you,' Scarlett said. She worked hard to keep the smirk off her features. It would be quite amusing if Rhett actually left them and went to see Ashley. Afterall, he was the 'friend' who had suggested a visit to Atlanta. Or perhaps he would go to Belle. It mattered little to Scarlett what he did, as long as this was the only encounter they had in his visit.
He looked to her, and Scarlett glimpsed the broken man who had left her in the fog. A shiver ran down her spine, she didn't want to see that. They had broken each other, and it had been two years of purposefully pushing the memories from her mind that had finally made that night fade. But all too suddenly she was back in that moment.
William put a hand on her forearm, in a very familiar gesture. She looked to him, and his eyes were warm and so full of concern that Scarlett nearly threw herself into his arms. He was the light in the darkness, safety. Somehow he had become more than just an annoyance who occasionally amused her. It was in this moment that she realized just how much she trusted him and did not want him to ever leave her.
It was ironic. This outsider, who was from nowhere in particular, was so determined to make her care. He was bullheaded and so used to getting his way, it was in the way that he carried himself. She had been certain that he was nothing more than a needy child who wanted for attention. But, two months had changed that image. He was definitely not a child, he was very much a man. He had wanted to know her secrets and somehow he had managed to work them all from her lips willingly. His own story had become known to her as well, his moving and never quite belonging. They were similar, and there was comfort in that.
She realized she had been staring at him for longer than what was appropriate, and looked away. Rhett had been watching her. And now the earlier jealousy had returned, it was a fight between the jealousy and brokenness. The strangest combination of emotions Scarlett had ever witnessed. Especially odd considering Rhett had favored being aloof with her for all of their time together.
"Goodbye, Scarlett," he said.
"Goodbye, Rhett," she said.
His smile was wry as he turned to walk out the door.
William again touched her arm, and she looked up at him. "Let's get married."
"Of course," he said. He kissed her. And smiled as they broke apart. "I knew you'd break. I didn't know it would take seeing Captain Butler."
"I realized that you are the most important person in my life, and when you leave, I'll miss you more than anyone I've ever known," she said to his chest. She did not make eye contact. "You see me, as I am, and have never tried to change me. You came here every day and wormed your way into my previously believed to be non-existent heart."
"I've worn you down," William said. The smirk could be heard. "I'm happy you believe me. And I'd marry you today if I could."
AN2: There it is, I didn't originally intend to include Rhett, but he walked in and there was drama. As usual. I wrote most of this on a 3-hour long airplane ride back in May and tried to clean it up today. Clearly, I'm supposed to be working on another writing project but needed a distraction.
If you happen to follow my other story, Another Time, Another Place. Know that I am working on it in my spare time! So, at this rate, you'll get everything by Christmas. There are going to be 8 chapters and 28k words have been written, so yes, it's definitely a WIP.
Thanks for reading and for always being encouraging.