A/N Here's the new chapter, I had to work this chapter for a while until I felt okay with it enough to post it, since this chapter is kinda important, so I hope you all enjoy… big developments in this one ; )
Rhett watched passively as Ashley and Melanie said their goodnights at the end of Ashley's first day home and headed up the stairs. He glanced over at Scarlett who watched with a sad, lost expression, disappearing out the back door as soon as the recently united couple were out of sight.
Expecting her to return in a moment or two he became worried as the time passed and decided to go after her. Walking out onto the back porch he looked around, surprised when she wasn't right outside the door. He was about to go back inside and see if she didn't sneak past him when he saw some movement out of the corner of his eye. When he looked closely he saw her under the big oak tree sitting facing away from the house on the swing he had made for Wade a few weeks prior.
Crossing the lawn, Rhett moved towards her, surprised when he heard her sniffling. This was only the second time he had seen her cry since he had come to Tara and a sizable part of him was angry that it was over her love for the ever honorable Ashley Wilkes.
"Do you really find the thought of your beloved Ashley and Miss Melly going to bed together that upsetting?" Rhett asked evenly, sitting down on the wide swing next to her, facing the opposite direction.
Scarlett let out a dry sob at his words, making one portion of Rhett feel bad for making her feel worse and another part of him angrier that she loved him so much that she got so upset over this.
Scarlett on the other hand knew he was mocking her and wanted to tell him to go to Halifax, but wanted to talk to somebody more. "No, that's not why I'm upset," she snapped at him. "Well maybe that's partly it, but only part."
"Pray explain Mrs. Hamilton," Rhett said sardonically.
"Rhett, don't you start with me, I'm not in the mood. Do you want to hear what I have to say or don't you?"
"I apologize Scarlett," he said honestly as he really did want to know what was bothering her. "Please continue."
"I talked to Ashley tonight…" she started trailing off for a moment.
Rhett knew that Ashley had pulled Scarlett aside after she returned from putting Wade to bed, a task that he did not fail to notice took three times as long as normal. Just as he also noticed that after the pair had returned from their sojourn in the office that Ashley looked mighty pleased with himself and Scarlett had been quiet and contemplative for the rest of the evening, not a usual state of being for the green eyed woman.
"He said he wanted to thank me for taking such good care of Melly and Beau for him," she continued slowly. "He told me that I am doing such a good job taking care of everyone and everything. He said that I am his brave little soldier. He told me that I am sweet and innocent and good and beautiful and strong and spirited and smart and all kinds of other things that I yearned to hear from him..."
Rhett tensed next to her but she was to deep in her own thoughts to notice. If Scarlett had cared to look she wouldn't have seen aloofness in his eyes, but a burning anger. Anger at Ashley for feeding into her infatuation and anger at her for believing it. He wanted to stand up and leave, he wanted to stop listening but he couldn't. Instead he just continued to listen as she continued to speak.
"...then do you know what he told me? He said, 'I know that I can count on you and that's why you are my precious Scarlett.' Then he gave me a kiss on the forehead and left the room. His Scarlett, his brave little soldier, his...like I belong to him...like I belong with him..."
Scarlett fell silent for a spell giving Rhett the opportunity to decide that he couldn't take it anymore, he didn't want to sit here listening to Scarlett musing about her secret love affair and he was going to tell her so when she spoke again.
"But I don't," she said so softly that he wasn't sure he heard correctly.
"What was that Scarlett?"
"I don't, I don't belong to him and I don't belong with him," she bit out, staring into the darkness.
Rhett was shocked by her revelation and all of his anger transformed into disbelief. "How do you figure that," he asked gently, wanting to delve deeper into her new self discoveries and insight, something so rare for her.
"To belong to someone implies that they love you and care about you, that they will care for you. And Ashley doesn't love me or care for me, I guess that he cares about me to a point, at least as much as that he cares if he is able to use me. Because that's what he did, he used me and my love for him to make me promise to care for his wife and child. How ridiculous is that?" she asked with a humorless laugh. "I never thought that I was that stupid. Which shows again that he doesn't love me, he doesn't even know me. I'm not smart or brave or sweet or innocent or beautiful at least not anymore, not with my dirty hair and callused hands and sun burnt face. I'm not brave, I'm so scared of what's going to happen to my family and my home. I'm not strong, I am so tired of it all. And I'm certainly not sweet or innocent, if he knew the things that I have done in my life, he would never say those kind things about me. I can't even be myself around him, I could never tell him the things that I can tell you Rhett. He knows Melly, he loves her, Melly belongs to him not me."
Taking her cheek in hand, he turned her face so that she was forced to look him in the eye, as much as she could in the dim moonlit night, as he responded to her statements.
"You are right about Ashley not knowing the real you Scarlett," he began seriously, not letting her turn away when she tried too, "but that doesn't mean that he is wrong about all of your characteristics. My pet, you are smart, you have managed to be resourceful enough to pull your family through these hard times. And you are brave and strong, because even if you are scared and tired you still face every day knowing that you will do whatever you have to do to survive. Being sweet and innocent are luxuries that not all of us have, you gave up your innocence so that you could do what you have to do so that others like Melly or even Wade can keep theirs, but you still are sweet and innocent in many but just different ways. And my dear Scarlett, you are certainly still beautiful, it takes a lot more than pink cheeks and callused hands to take your beauty away from you," with this he took her small hands in his own, turned it over and tenderly kissed each of the calluses she had earned honestly by caring for what she loved, Tara.
Rhett's kind words in which she sensed no trace of his usual mocking, were too much for Scarlett to take and she started sobbing in earnest as she closed the distance between them.
"Oh Rhett!" she sobbed into his broad chest, "I just want to belong to someone. I just want someone to take care of me for once. I'm tired of being in charge, I'm tired of being the one everyone looks to for answers. I don't belong to anyone, I now know that I never have and I don't think that I ever will. I just want to belong to someone who can protect me and can take me away from here. I just want to belong."
Rhett held her, rubbing her back gently as he rocked her back and forth comfortingly and made nondescript soothing noises in her ear. For a moment he wanted to tell her that if she had taken him up on his offer to be his mistress they would both be far away right now, but he quickly dismissed that thought, knowing that was the last thing he should say. Another part of him wanted to tell her that she could belong to someone if she would just let herself. He wanted to tell her that he wanted nothing more than to take care of her and protect her and take her away from here.
When he noticed that she had stopped sobbing he pulled away from her so that he could look at her face. As he gazed at her watery eyes, flushed cheeks and disheveled hair he thought that he had never seen her look more vulnerable or innocent, yes innocent, as she did at that moment.
He almost confessed his feeling for her right then and there, but his pride stopped him short before he could speak. Instead he took her face in his hands, wiping away the tears with his thumbs and then placed a single tender, sweet, chaste kiss on her lips before leaning his forehead on hers, still cradling her face softly and caressing her cheeks with his thumbs.
Neither of them moved for a long moment, Scarlett was too shocked to do anything as she clutched onto his shirt desperately, as if she might drown in the swirling depths of her confused emotions if she let go. She didn't understand what was going on between them in that intimate moment, all she knew was that she had never experienced a kiss so pure in her life. Every other kiss she had ever had in her life was taken, or even stolen from her, but this one was given, there was no doubt about that. She didn't know what that meant, but she did know that in this moment she felt safer and more at peace than she had in a long time. Her mind started to form some kind of answer to her questions, but just before it was fully formed to a point that she could grasp hold of it enough to understand it, Rhett pulled away, taking her answers with him.
"It's cold out here Scarlett, you shouldn't be out her without a shawl. Mammy would skin me alive and serve me for dinner if you got sick and she found out that you were out here with me and I didn't make you go inside," Rhett teased her kindly, his voice huskier than normal.
"Oh fiddle dee dee Rhett, I'm fine," she said with a sniffle.
Rhett just pulled a worn handkerchief out of his pocket, and held it up to her nose for her to blow, which she did obediently.
"Seriously though Scarlett, you have had a trying night and should get some sleep. Didn't you want to walk the fence line and do repairs tomorrow?"
She nodded and stood ready to go back inside, "But I was thinking of asking Ashley to do it tomorrow. I figure that even he can handle that since you already cut the rails."
"Yes, I suppose he could," Rhett responded, only half listening.
Scarlett started to walk back up towards the house then stopped and turned to see that Rhett was still sitting on the swing. "Are you coming?" she asked curiously.
"I'll be along in a moment, I'm just going to stay out here a bit longer," he reassured her as he fervently wished he hadn't run out of cigars.
Scarlett just nodded and continued on her way. As Rhett watched her disappear into the house he let out a sigh of relief. He couldn't believe he had come so close to telling her how he really felt. He couldn't believe how badly he wanted to tell her that their was nothing else that he wanted than to belong to somebody else too and that somebody was her.
A/N Soooo? What did you all think? A step in the right direction yes?