I'm delighted you accepted my invitation Rhett. It's been to long since we've seen you," said Sir John, as he shook out the match he'd just used to light his cigar.
"I won't say that I was initially reluctant, March isn't really the best of times to cross the Atlantic, but I had to get out of Charleston and frankly yours was the best offer I could have hoped to receive," Rhett replied leaning into the downy cushions of the chaise that was carrying them to their destination.
John's half sister, Lettie, nudged her brother. "Do you think Bertie's friend will be there?"
"Bertie?" asked Rhett.
"Prince Albert's new nickname, given to him by his new lady friend,"
said John evenly.
"I thought his grace wasn't enamored with the fairer sex?" queried Rhett.
"I hear she's very beautiful," interjected Lettie.
"She is, but Prince Albert's has never been what one would call a lady's man."
"John's met Bertie's friend, she's French and always wears black."
Rhett raised an eyebrow. John gave a half amused shrug as if to say younger sisters someone has to put up with them. "And what is she like, this French woman?"
John laughed. "She isn't French, that's simply where Prince Leo and the Princesses Alice and Helena met her. They apparently were so taken with the Lady they insisted she be the royal family's guest in London. She and Bertie met at Whitehall and from all reports have been inseparable ever since."
"Lady Evelyn told my that she'd heard from her mama that the Queen is most pleased, she'd been worried that the Prince would be a deviant," said Lettie innocently.
"Lettie, I know that you like Evelyn, but for God's sake don't take to repeating her empty prattle."
"But John she also told me that Bertie's never even touched the Princess Alexandra and they've been married nearly 12 years."
Rhett laughed, "The princess must be enchanting."
"Rhett," muttered John, "Don't encourage her."
"Oh don't mind John, he thinks I gossip entirely to much but I don't do this in public. I just talk like this to rill John and to pass the time. I've heard that Halverston House is exquisite but it's terribly far from Briarwood."
"It must be a bit of a scandal though. Your prince taking up with a foreigner after he's neglected his spouse for a little over a decade," Rhett surmised.
John nodded, "Not that he could marry the lady, but at the least now that he's showing an acute interest in a woman it's certainly putting many of the rumors of his perversions to rest."
"He means everyone's always said the Prince prefers muffin lads," translated Lettie.
"LETTIE," gasped John, That's incredibly vulgar."
"And more than likely true," Lettie shot back tartly, "Just because you treat me like a child doesn't mean I am one."
"I seriously doubt I'll ever be treating you like an adult if you can't learn to act like one."
Rhett held up on hand hoping to interrupt the argument that was about to spill over between the siblings. "So tell me more about this lady? Where did she come from before France and her assignation with the royal family."
"According to the stories I've heard which seem to be mostly the same the lady is in fact a widow,"
"Hence the black," supplied Rhett."
John nodded "Her late husband was a privateer but I suspect from the personal wealth she displays he may have been more likely a gentleman pirate. She speaks French beautifully, plays the piano..."
"The Princess Helena held a recital for her," interrupted Lettie, "Several girls from my school went, they said she was incredibly," Lettie paused for a moment searching for a word, "Passionate. They said that when she played Mr. Beethoven's Fur Elise those present wept."
"Except for her cavorting with a married man she sounds a paragon of femininity," Rhett commented satirically.
"It's not as it sounds, by all accounts they don't share a bed, she does act as his hostess but they don't share an attachment of the flesh."
"Is this what you're learning at that school," asked John, "I was assured that it was an institute of higher learning for gently bred young ladies."
"Gently bred John, not dead."
"Let her be John, better she knows a little of this wicked world than she enters it a babe enrobed in the veils of innocence."
"And if she were your responsibility?" asked John.
"I'd lock her in a closet till she turned thirty," laughed Rhett.
Lettie clapped her hands in delight, "Hush both of you, we're here."
As the carriage pulled to the wide marble steps Lettie squared her small shoulders waiting in anticipation for the footman to hand her down. She was determined to integrate herself with the lady and turn every single girl at her ladies academy pea green with envy.
John stepped down besides his sister smiling slightly. His sister never ceased to amuse him. She honestly kept him young.
Rhett followed the Morland's up the steps. Charleston had become a noose that he was pleased to leave behind. After the Anne fiasco anywhere was an improvement.
Before him John was straightening up after kissing their hostesses hand. He gave half an ear to John's introduction of the Lady Lettice Morland. He smiled at Lettie's eager voice instructing the lady to call her Lettie as all her friends did. It was the hostess's reply that caught his full attention.
"You must call me Scarlett, everyone does whether they are my friend or not."
"Madame, may I present to you a very good friend of mine, Mr. Rhett Butler."
Rhett stepped forward and took the proffered hand that Scarlett extended to him. He lifted her hand so that the back of it almost touched his lips. "A pleasure...? My apologies I don't believe I know your name."
Scarlett's face remained serene as she gave her name. "Madame Robiliard, Mr. Butler, you are American, no?"
"My accent gives me away, as does yours Madame," Rhett replied willing to go along with her game for the time being, "You are also American, Southern if I would venture a guess."
Scarlett clapped her hands as though delighted with his mastery of accents. "Quite so monsieur, from Georgia, but that was long ago. I do not believe I now a soul there now."
"Is that so?" replied Rhett, "How...unfortunate for the people of Georgia."
Scarlett nodded "You'll excuse me there are so many guests, I sometimes envy Mercury," she laughed "Oh but to have wings on my slippers, Sir John, Bertie wanted a word in the library when you'd arrived. I'll have your guests shown to their rooms."
Sir John bowed "Of course, Lettie excuse me."
Scarlett led John away without so much as a glance over her shoulder.
As the footman lead them upstairs Lettie gave Rhett an appraising glance "So how do you know Scarlett?"
"How do you mean," Rhett said guardedly.
"You obviously know her, and she knows you. The two of you spent nearly five minutes verbally sparing downstairs I'm just curious to what end."
"Ladies academies have come a long way in the last 20 years for you to deduce all that from a five minute conversation."
"She's very beautiful," remarked Lettie.
"She's not really a widow is she?"
Rhett laughed "That is the only thing I can assure you of, Madame is indeed a widow."
"Fascinating, remember what I said earlier about the prince," at this Lettie lowered her voice significantly, "they say he does not indulge in sins of the flesh, at least not with woman."
"What makes you think that matters to me," asked Rhett.
"From the way you looked at Madame I should think it matters a great deal Mr. Butler," Lettie smiled, she curtsied to him "Your servant Mr. Butler."
Lettie entered the room she was to occupy for the week. Rhett bowed from the waist before continuing to follow the footman to his own suit. What was Scarlett doing here, in England of all places? Her French both in word and accent was flawless he had to admit and if what Lettie said was true she was playing the piano once more. He did remember her being a fair player but she must have improved. But now she called herself Robiliard, her mother's maiden name as though she were attempting to conceal her identity. Of course as the companion to the future king of England he was surprised Scarlett wasn't flaunting her stasis.
The footman's voice broke Rhett from his contemplation of the earlier events. He entered his assigned room and though in his life had seen many beautiful rooms this one was certainly a masterpiece of both style and refinement.
The bed was a simple mahogany four-poster with an ivory coverlet with a random pattern picked out in rich royal blue silk embroidery floss. The rest of the furniture was simple in appearance but of the same rich woods. The wallpaper was a flocked ivory silk with a dulled sheen. He ventured into the sitting room as was pleased to find a small marble fireplace and a view of the landscaped back lawn leading into the parkland of the prince's country estate.
Hearing a noise in the bedroom Rhett went back to arrange the unpacking of his belongs with the valet only to find Scarlett sitting demurely in a wing chair by the window.
"I've dismissed the valet, but once we've finished I'll have someone come up to sort out your things. I know how you hate disarray."
Rhett seated himself on the settee across from her. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Please yourself, it's your room after all," she replied politely.
"What no French phrases bidding me to delight myself? You are a constant font of surprises Scarlett, tell me when we were together did you speak French so well?"
"I spoke it, but I do admit, not so well as I do now. Did you know I was here or is our reunion simply," she laughed mirthlessly "fate."
"No I didn't know you were here, I was in Wales to buy some horses from Sir John and he invited me here thinking I'd enjoy the hunting. Have you had any good hunting here Scarlett?"
"No," she answered shortly.
"May I make so bold as to ask why Mrs. Robiliard?"
"A fresh start Rhett, it's the only name I'm known by here and I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mind keeping my confidence."
"Madame, your secret is safe with me," he answered melodramatically.
"I've heard that before," replied Scarlett smiling slightly.
"How are you," Rhett asked simply.
Scarlett remained silent trying to compose either a polite or a true answer and was slightly dismayed to find that nether seemed to be forthcoming. "I'm assez," she answered finding the word in French.
"Enough?" he translated.
"It doesn't sound the same in English does it? I am neither happy, nor sad; I'm simply enough. I don't long for anything; I have friends and a sort of family. Helena and I am good friends and I have Bertie so it's enough."
"Where are Wade and Ella, are they here?"
"No, Wade is happily ensconced at Harvard planning his future in law, as he believes Charles would have wished him to. He wrote me only last month to tell me he wants to attend Oxford in two years time so I've been making plans to stay in England for the foreseeable future."
Scarlett's face became closed "You didn't get my letter?"
Rhett knew from her tone of voice what she was preparing to say before she even spoke. His mind flashed back to early last winter when he'd received a letter by way of Henry Hamilton from Scarlett, how he'd burned it without even reading it.
"She passed away Rhett," Scarlett's face lost all it's carefully schooled composure. "Last year in France, she had a cough and at first I thought it was just that. I took her to a doctor and he told me it was a simple childhood aliment and that it would pass. Within two weeks she was dead. She was gone and there wasn't a thing anyone could do. Oh Rhett," said Scarlett, the tears running down her face, "I wrote you, I even sent you a telegraph at your mothers but you didn't come. She kept asking for you and I promised her you'd come if she would just wait and finally one night she woke up and looked at me and she told me I'd lied to her, that you weren't coming, that you'd never come." Scarlett's voice broke and she could no longer continue. She sat there across from him crying without a sound.
Rhett closed his eyes for a moment trying to let her words sink in, Ella gone. The only other daughter he could even remotely claim in the world was gone to and he hadn't even said good-bye and now would never have the chance. Scarlett pain was evident in her tear blurred eyes. He knelt before her and took her hands in his.
"Don't Rhett, please there isn't anything you can say and it would only hurt to hear you try."
She looked down at him. "She's with them now."
Rhett didn't even have to ask whom she meant. "Yes I'm sure she is."
"This life, the one I've built here, don't ruin this for me, it's all that I have now and without it I would die."
His voice failing him he nodded.
"You have your wife and someday I'm sure you two will have children, but I've lost everyone I've ever loved except Wade and he blames me...for you, for bring Ella to France. He thinks if I'd stayed in Atlanta everything would have worked itself out. He's nearly a man and yet sometimes he's still such a little boy. I hope that in time he'll come here and perhaps we can forge some kind of relationship."
"I know about Anne, you needn't spare me. Rosemary sent me a short missive in Paris informing me of your nuptials, I assumed that's why you didn't come when I telegraphed..." she dwindled off.
"I never got the telegraph or saw the letter," that was after all partially true. Rosemary or Anne must have destroyed the telegraph and as for the letter, he'd never opened it so that wasn't exactly a lie, "I'm so sorry."
"Are you happy?"
"I like Charleston, it's suited me the last year and a half."
Scarlett laughed, "I hated Charleston, it's probably better that things didn't work out between us. I couldn't have stayed in Charleston, not even, I suspect out of love for you."
"Perhaps I could have made it more bearable."
"Well that's water under our burnt bridge now isn't it Rhett." Scarlett rose and he followed suit. "I am, in spite of everything glad to see you, but if you'll excuse me I have some things to attend to."
Rhett walked her to the door; he bowed and took her hand placing on it the kiss he'd denied it before. "A pleasure Mrs. Robiliard."
"Your servant, Mr. Butler." And with that she quietly pulled the door closed behind herself.