So, for those who have asked, we are coming to the end of our time in Atlanta. I wouldn't be surprised if a certain Doctor has been busy in the absence of our favorite couple. Well, yes Alica, obviously I wouldn't be surprised since I am the author.
And away we go.
In the blue-black darkness of their hotel room, Scarlett stretched languidly in Rhett's embrace. Chuckling softly, she shifted lightly to better fit into the welcoming circle of his arms.
"Would you care to share the joke Mrs. Butler," asked Rhett, taking her hand in the semi darkness. Lightly running his index finger over her wedding ring for an instant, he then lifted her hand to his lips, kissing it gently.
"The joke is on me," replied Scarlett, amusement evident in her voice. "As I grow older, I am beginning to suspect that the joke has very often been on me."
"How do you mean sweetheart?"
"I mean that I never thought I would come to believe that taking life too seriously could be a bad thing." She smiled. "I remember on our honeymoon you told me that I'd forgotten how to play because life had been so hard for me for so long. I don't know, maybe half of the difficulties I've had have been because I've taken life too seriously."
"I believe it is to your infinite credit that you are finally learning how to take a joke," he said, kissing the top of her head. "Although, may I say, it took you long enough."
"Well, at least I am learning which is more than I can say for India. I would say that she doesn't find anything to be all that funny right now."
"Satisfy my curiosity, that is, if you're done crowing over your victory, General Hood. Would you tell me what you and India discussed when you were closeted together in the library?"
"Oh, but that would be tattling," she said, a small smirk shaping her lips. "I think it would be rude to disclose what we discussed behind closed doors. I am sure India is counting on me to be discreet. It would be rude to run around town squawking about it."
"I would never ask you to be deliberately rude," he teased, "but suppose you just squawk to me."
"I don't know…"
"Would a please help?"
She laughed softly. Turning over, she rested her head on his chest. "Well, you did say please, how could I refuse you?"
"Very easily, I think."
"When have I refused you anything?"
Feeling his laughter rumbling beneath her head, she colored prettily. "Recently I meant. In the past, I denied you things every now and again, but I always gave in…eventually."
"Your repeated capitulations have always been appreciated. I suppose you and India had quite a lot to talk about. I hope you were gentle."
"Bite your tongue; she should have been gentle with me. She was very cruel, so cruel she hurt my feelings." Hearing him chuckle again, she pinched his forearm lightly. "You hush up. She acted as though we planned to charge her and Ashley back rent. That she even suggested I would or that I would encourage Wade to do such a trhing, that hurt. Why, I very nearly cried."
"I admit it, I would have liked to have been concealed on a couch in the parlor for this particular Wilkes versus O'Hara interaction mêlée. I have to know, what happened?"
"Well, if you insist."
India slammed the library doors shut. Her thin lips drew back in a sneer when she saw Scarlett sitting on the settee in the middle of the room. The fury in her pale grey eyes, the sheer hatred glimmering in those eyes; if there was ever a doubt, there could no longer be any. India Wilkes hated Scarlett and the feeling was more than mutual.
Looking at India, it brought to Scarlett's mind the rabid raccoon her father once shot while they were out walking when Scarlett was a child. "India," she said coolly, "will you sit? I could ring for tea, if you'd like."
"Who do you think you are? Inviting me to sit and asking if I'd like tea in my own house? You are ridiculous. You turn back up and expect the world to fall at your feet. I was trying to rest and then Cookie came pounding on my door telling me that Miz," she deliberately pronounced it with the Z the negro maid had used, "Butler wants me to come down."
India's lips twisted into a bitter scowl. The Miz left a bad taste in her mouth. Miz denoted respect amongst the darkies and she knew it. With Aunt Pitty gone, the household was slowly turning to Scarlett as the de facto head of the family. It was obvious in the way the servants were behaving. Even the women of her social circle seemed open to giving Scarlett some respect. Her own brother and nephew would defer to Scarlett and she knew that too. The knowledge grated painfully.
India had once been the first lady of Twelve Oaks. When her brother married, India knew Melanie would become the lady of Twelve Oaks but she had been hoping to have a household of her own. She had expected that Melanie would one day be the matriarch of the Wilkes family, while she occupied the position of beloved wife to Stuart Tarleton.
Instead, she was left in a house that did not belong to her, or even to her brother. Her nephews owned the house in which she lived and it was in no small part due to Scarlett that the household had prospered. Such knowledge did not spur gratitude but rather abhorrence in India's breast.
Seeing amusement in Scarlett's dancing green eyes, India snapped. "I don't know what you want with me or why you think you have the right to demand I come and—"
"Oh India, stop it," said Scarlett. "Please, just stop. I really didn't want to call you, in fact, I can hardly stand to be in the same room as you."
"You can't stand being in the same room as me, how dar—"
Rubbing her temple with the palm of her hand, Scarlett interrupted her. "If you would be as kind as to just shut up, I'd appreciate it."
"How dare you tell me to shut up!"
"India Wilkes, I have wanted to tell you to shut your mouth for years. I marvel at the self-control I must possess. When we were small, you irritated me. Then we grew older and you put on this mantle of the matron of the plantation, the first lady of Twelve Oaks. It was honestly sickening. Cathleen and I used to laugh ourselves silly at the airs you'd put on greeting guests at parties."
India's normally wan face looked as though she had smeared it with rouge. Flaming, hectic color flared in pale cheeks that had seldom known the blush of passion but were all too familiar with those of indignation and ire. "My mother was dead, whom else was there to see to things but me?"
Her voice was high and shaking. Just as when they had been young, when she wished to speak down to someone she considered inferior, India spoke with affected articulation, over enunciating every word.
"Mother died, what was I to do," countered India, "let Honey take over things?" India's stiff-necked pride was all she could lay claim to in the world and claim it she did. "I noticed that when your mother died, you took over everything. You still run Tara, even though you haven't lived there in years. Your poor sister Sue, I pity her. I really do, having to put up with you and the way you need to have a finger in every pie."
"I do not," Scarlett retorted swiftly, her eyes glittering dangerously.
"You do so; you always have to shove your way into everything." India's thin lips twisted into a smirk. "And, if you were being truthful, which you never are, you'd admit that I irritated you because I was everything you were never going to be. I was my mother's daughter. I knew that, unlike you, my mother could have looked down from heaven and been proud of me."
Scarlett snorted, refusing to rise to India's bait. "That's laughable. I was young but I do remember your mother; she didn't seem the type to run all over the county slandering family members to whoever would listen nor did she strike me as someone who would have been proud of you for doing so."
"You forced me to drag Ashley into things," cried India, "I had no choice. I had to make Melly see what you were. She trusted you when I knew she shouldn't. I knew what you were; I was trying to save them both from you."
"And just what am I, India? If you are such an expert on all things Scarlett, tell me, what am I? Cat got your tongue? Well, I can tell you what you are. You are so narrow-minded; it is laughable. You cannot see past your own warped morals. Years of being alone have twisted you up inside."
"If I'm alone, whose fault is that? You—"
"Oh for the love of God India, so Stu preferred me over you, so what? I took Charlie from Honey but that didn't stop her from finding someone else and I took Frank from Sue but she doesn't go to bed alone at night. If you are alone, the only person to blame is yourself. What am I saying, who would want you anyway?"
It had been so long since she'd been able to really let herself go. The earlier scrap with India had barely satisfied her appetite for a good fight. Charleston was hard on Scarlett, keeping her temper bottled was never a strong suit. Now, the opportunity to rip into someone, she could not still her temper or hold her tongue. A worthy victim for her acid tongue had presented herself and Scarlett would not let her get away.
"Oh India, Stu has been in his grave for more than a decade, besides he would have never married you anyway. A pert, pretty expression settled on Scarlett's face. Her voice, when she at was sweet as syrup even if her words were poisonous. "He told me so. One afternoon, while he was begging me for a kiss, he told me you were nice enough to court, but not to marry. You did nothing to make a man's blood boil, I think that was the way he put it. Poor, plain India was what he meant though, a girl can tell."
A noise caught between a scream and a whimper escaped India's lips. "The only reason he left off courting me was because you threw yourself at him, you…you...you slut!" Her chest was heaving; beads of perspiration dotted her forehead as her temper rose.
Scarlett laughed; the sound was girlish and carefree. It was the laughter of a girl in the midst of her first love affair. To Scarlett, India's jealousy was extremely gratifying; it was very nearly a palatable thing, satisfying her in a way nothing else could.
"I hate you. He came back; he loved me. Nothing you say will change that. "
"Stu loved you. You really thought that? Did he tell you that after poor Charlie died, he came and told me that he still loved me and he was willing to marry me? I was pregnant by another man and he still wanted me. Do you hear me," she moved toward India, ignoring the brief protesting flare of pain in her hip, "even in widow's weeds with a baby on the way, Stuart Tarleton was still head over heels for me. He only started courting you because I refused him a second time." Her lashes lowered slightly, presenting the very picture of demure womanhood. "And then, if truth be told, a third time. It was what I believe is called a crushing let down. Poor Stu."
India's eyes were wide with shock and fury, her delicate nostrils flaring with anger. Her expression was naked, stripped of all pretenses at being a true southern lady. Scarlett's taunts had brought to the surface the essential India. Perhaps if India had ever known passion or a touch heavy with lust, she might have been a different woman, one less contained and repressed but even wild Stuart Tarleton had respected and admired the stiff and haughty way India had carried herself so he never attempted to take liberties with her.
"It's a shame," said India coldly, "that he didn't see you as you really were; a cold hearted, selfish, self-centered monster. How could he though, he was just a young man with a slut throwing herself at him. I admit it, I am curious; did you ever simply try throwing yourself at Ashley? He is a man, no matter how brilliant he is, he is only human, it might have worked. Moreover, what about Captain Butler? If you had chased after him with even a quarter as much of the determination you chased after Ashley with, he might have stayed instead of leaving you behind. Scarlett O'Hara, cast-off wife, who didn't see that coming. Well, not you I imagine."
"That's none of your business."
"I grant you, it is hard to throw yourself at a man when you don't share a room with him, I suppose that explains Captain Butler, What about poor Ashley? I can't believe you never thought to push yourself at him, was there really no interest? I saw you that day at the mill, was that your first attempt? It didn't seem to be working though; he was only holding you, not kissing you."
"Go to hell India."
"I'll see you there."
"I may send you there sooner than you were expected."
India was able to regain some control of her rampant anger. Enough control, at any rate, to resume baiting Scarlett. "It's ironic, throwing yourself at Melanie's husband and your own didn't seem to work. Neither wanted you. You are such a joke, Scarlett O'Hara. You called me an expert on you, well I am. I know that you only want a man when he doesn't give a damn for you."
"Don't you worry about me India. My husband is crazy about me…"
"Crazy because of you is more like it."
Scarlett ignored the interruption. "As for your brother…" Scarlett paused. Though she was angry with Ashley, she still wasn't about to give his sister ammunition. "We are none of your business."
"I know something else about you. You're here, playing at being the perfect mother, Ellen O'Hara come again. We both know what a lie that is. Captain Butler took his child away from you because he knew that you'd poison her. Melly had to be mother to Wade and Ellen because you wouldn't, you couldn't and really you shouldn't be a mother."
She grinned, her lips pulled tight against her teeth. "I bet that's what happened, your sudden transformation. Did Wade want Melly instead of you? Is that why you suddenly wanted to play perfect mother? You couldn't stand that your own son would have preferred it if you were dead over Melly? I'll tell you something else, I thought when Captain Butler left you, in the end, he preferred to see both of his children dead rather than raised by yo-"
Without thinking, Scarlett slapped India across the mouth. She did it before she could stop herself. Slapping India had been something she had once dreamed of doing but now that she'd done it, she regretted it. Aunt Pitty would not have approved of her family slapping each other in the room where she had been laid out only a short time ago.
Scarlett flinched slightly. India running about with a bruised cheek was not going to be very helpful in the campaign to reclaim her reputation. Best to try and smooth things over, thought Scarlett. "India, you did deserve that, even if I shouldn't have hit you, you deserved it. Take it as a warning; don't ever talk about Melly or any of my children ever again."
"You struck me," said India, holding her cheek, her eyes slightly glazed in dull wonder.
"I did," granted Scarlett grudgingly. "I didn't intend to, but you made me so angry. I did it without thinking."
"You told me this afternoon you were going to slap me and now you did." A small, hiccupping sob escaped India's lips. "No one has ever hit me, ever.
High time then, thought Scarlett. Aloud, she tried to offer another apology.
"I said I was—"
The sound of India's hand meeting Scarlett's cheek was slow to fade away in the silence that settled over the parlor.
"You bitch," Scarlett said softly, lifting one hand to her throbbing cheek.
"You deserved it, you hit me first," countered India.
"And I'm going to do it again," cried Scarlett, striking India a second time across the other cheek. Wracking her brain, she searched for an insult that would wound India. "Pa was right about you when he said you were so stuck up that you'd end up leading apes into hell. I'm glad I took Stu, I saved him from you."
Fury colored India's face, temporarily concealing the handprint that adorned her right cheek. "That's just the sort of rude thing one could expect from your trashy father," India yelped.
"Call him whatever you like but trashy or not, he was able to marry a Robillard. The same can't be said for you, now can it? You are nothing more than a bitter, unloved old maid. Stu told me you were too stuck up to even kiss him," taunted Scarlett, "you go around, giving yourself airs as if his widow. The love of your life, but you never even kissed him, you are the joke India Wilkes, not me."
"If you say another word about Stuart, I will strangle you," screamed India.
"Stuart begged me to marry me, he was on his KNEES," Scarlett shrieked. "He never even mentioned you when he was begging me to love him. He never gave a damn about you and you are fooling yourself if you thought he ever did."
India moved toward Scarlett, violent intent written on her now grey face. The creaking groan of the hinges of the library door gave her a moment's pause. The sound of the parlor door opening distracted them both. Ashley stood in the doorway, searching both their faces. The palm prints on their cheeks must have still been clearly visible because his eyes widened suddenly. "Scarlett? India? What is going on in here?"
"Shut the door," both women shouted.
Head turning like a pistol shot, India glared at Scarlett, "Don't you dare speak to my brother like that," screeched India.
"Make me," replied Scarlett grimly.
"Don't just stop there my pet, what happened next?"
"Ashley ran off like a coward and all that I can say is, in the defense of both of us, we were able to refrain from laying hands on each other a second time. We just stood there and continued to call each other every foul name we could think of for another twenty minutes or so. "
"You won that round, I assume."
She shrugged lightly. "You assume correctly."
"I would expect nothing less."
Hearing the laughter in his voice, she defended herself brusquely. "Well, I did own a lumber mill staffed by convicts. I might have picked up a swear word or two."
"I'll just bet you did," Rhett said, laughing softly. His lips brushed her ear unexpectedly. "You'll have to enlighten me sometime, with regards to your immense vocabulary," he murmured softly, his hand lightly resting on her shoulder. Only a thin piece of muslin rested between the warmth of his palm and her soft flesh. "Now tell me, how did you leave things with Miss Wilkes."
She was acutely aware of the warmth radiating from his body. Then, as if reading her mind, he slid his hand lower, his slightly roughened fingertips grazing the sensitive skin over her collarbone.
This man, intoxicating to her senses, was her husband. For the first time since she'd laid eyes on him, she was sure that he belonged to her, wholly and completely to her. If she had known that first afternoon at Twelve Oaks that one day, she would love him with every fiber of her being, would that have changed the course of her life. Her entire adult life had led her, step by step, to him. It would have been more expedient if she had only known that one day they would be husband and wife, that he would be hers just as she was his. Had she known, she might have run from him, as far and as fast as her feet could have carried her.
Her lips curved into a smile. And, knowing Rhett, in the end he would have chased her until he caught her.
"What are you thinking about Scarlett?"
What use was there in lying? "You."
"Me?" He questioned, his hand tipping her chin back, "No one else?"
"No one else."
Her answer pleased him. Though it was difficult to make out his expression in the darkness, she could feel it in the way he drew her closer. "Tell me the end of your story."
"I told India what we'd found out, that it was Wade's house all along and that it would be best if she found somewhere else to live."
"She couldn't have taken that well."
"I don't know how she took it. She just stood there, gaping at me like a fish in the market. I finally walked out and well, you know the rest from there."
Twisting a lock of her hair around his finger, Rhett's voice was gentle. "I understand why he did what he did but Henry has caused a mess."
Tugging her hair lightly, he waited until she looked up. Only when he was sure that he had her undivided attention did he speak. "Property shouldn't be split among too many heirs, it only causes hard feelings."
Biting her lip, Scarlett nodded. "I wish Pa had left a will settling things with Tara. He wanted me to have it and instead, well it is a mess, as you well know. I know it would break his heart if he knew that the church owned a part of his legacy." She flinched slightly before clarifying, "He was a good Catholic and he didn't mind giving to catholic charities, or really to anyone who had a need but…"
"It's not the same," concluded Rhett gently.
"No, it isn't the same at all. It is strangers having a say at Tara."
"I tried to speak with you about this before, but the mention of my untimely demise upset you. When we get back to Charleston, I want to settle my affairs, which is to say your affairs after I am gone. I own mother's house but as you might have guessed, I would like her to retain ownership."
She squirmed, uncomfortable with the topic. "I've had enough death; couldn't we leave this discussion for another time?"
"Death waits for no man Scarlett."
"That may be so, but can't Rhett Butler wait for another time?"
"I can wait until we get home, but when we do, I want to settle things once and for all. I was thinking, unless you object, I would like to leave the Landing to Wade."
He'd surprised her, rendering her temporarily speechless. "Rhett," she said, her voice hushed with surprise, "are you sure?"
"Am I sure that I want my son to have the Landing, to know that a good, loving, intelligent man will care for it when I'm gone? I can think of no one I'd rather."
"What if—what if things change one day?"
"You don't know that for certain?"
He sighed softly, his arms like iron bands around her body. He was holding her as though he thought she might escape his grasp. "Now I find it's my turn to ask you to drop a subject I don't wish to discus. I will honor your request, will you do the same?"
"Tell me, do you love me?" Scarlett asked suddenly.
His guard was up, "You know I do."
"I love you. Don't you get tired of hearing me say it?"
"No. Every time you tell me, it is like hearing it for the first time. I try to fix it in my mind, to hold on to it because I need you to love me. I think I've needed your love in a way that I've never needed anything else."
"Do you really care so much," he asked her.
His hands moved to her forearms, drawing her to his chest, he kissed the crown of her head. His words were soft when he spoke. "You and the children are everything Scarlett, and it scares me. I've tried to explain this to you and I feel as though you don't hear me. I walked away because when you finally said you loved me, I realized how vulnerable that made me. I loved Bonnie and then lost her. I would have loved—"
"If I lose you, there is nothing for me."
"I don't believe that," she said. Her love for him did not blind her. If she were to die, he would mourn and then, there would be someone else. Someone who would love him and perhaps her children. It was that thought, the idea of another woman taking her place that made her push him back slightly. Looking up, she was able to make out his face in the darkness. "You win."
"It's not about winning."
"Then why do I feel like you've beaten me.
A note, this story is at this point for Alica. I keep writing because she keeps reading. We are keeping each other sane and that is all that matters to me. For the people who recently reached out to tell me they don't like this story, don't bother leaving any further reviews. Honestly, if you've read this much and gotten this far in FTE only to advise me to stop writing, you've got way too much time on your hands. And really, who are you to tell me I should stop writing? My writing has sustained me in the darkest hours. When my child was in renal failure and all I could do was sit beside her and pray, I turned back to writing to keep from screaming. You think you have the right to advise me to turn away from my lifeline, from my sanity? Who are you to tell someone to give up their passion? You are nothing to me and your opinion is as worthless. This is the only time you are worthy of my notice, to say this, no one knows for certain why someone writes. To advise anyone to stop, you may be telling someone that you'd rather see them trapped in misery as opposed to finding some escape from agony and uncertainty.
My writing has sustained me in the darkest hours. When my child was in renal failure and all I could do was sit beside her and pray, I turned back to writing to keep from screaming. You think you have the right to advise me to turn away from my lifeline, from my sanity? Who are you to tell someone to give up their passion? You are nothing to me and your opinion is as worthless. This is the only time you are worthy of my notice, to say this, no one knows for certain why someone writes. To advise anyone to stop, you may be telling someone that you'd rather see them trapped in misery as opposed to finding some escape from agony and uncertainty.