Author's Note: Well, I did warn you that I've written for multiple fandoms. This was originally written in 2002 and published to a GWTW forum; this is its first appearance anywhere else. It starts off oddly and ends oddly, but I assure you that it is a one-shot. (Also odd are the breaks; I had to get creative to trick the system into letting me have them. Please to excuse the weirdness.) Nor would I call it exactly canonical, since both Scarlett and Rhett are behaving wildly OOC--that is, they're enjoying each other's company and showing it. Call it my version of a what-if, and my exploration of the things that Margaret Mitchell wouldn't show us (there is adult content here, though not very explicit; still, if you're too young for that sort of thing, then scram). And speaking of Ms. Mitchell, I'm not her--I'm not even her reincarnation, nor do I intend any infringement, nor any profit hereby. I'm just giving these two a shot at something other than the usual angst-fest. Enjoy!

A Brazen Combination

a work of fanfiction by Lynn Gregg (gypsymuse)

The ball and reception rooms of Atlanta's National Hotel, quite elegant at any time, had been transformed for the occasion into a veritable fantasia. Immense banks of costly hothouse flowers in lovely autumnal tones filled every corner, swagged from every fixture, adorned every table. Ribboned garlands (flowers and colourful leaves, entwined with evergreen boughs) were draped and woven among the arms of candelabrum, themselves polished to mirror sheen. Crystal decanters and their matching glassware glittered, their rare and expensive contents jewel-toned in the mellow light. The multi-branched gasoliers and matching twin-armed wall sconces glowed softly, their frosted glass globes freshly scrubbed and sparkling. Sideboards groaned beneath an almost embarrassing array of treats, surely the most food seen in one place in the entire town since before the War began: heaps of cunning little sandwiches, exotic breads and spreads and dips, shaved ham so whisper-thin you could almost read through it, fruits and vegetables, roast quail and duck and partridge swimming in rich gravies. And, entirely conspicuous in its front-and-center location, a cake so large, so ornate, so decadent as to seem more an insult than a dessert: a thumbing-of-the-nose in spun-sugar icing. Discreet servants sped noiselessly hither and thither, checking this, arranging that, making doubly certain that every last detail was just so for the impending arrival of the newlyweds.

The town was abuzz; had been abuzz, of course, ever since the shocking news of the engagement was announced, but with the arrival of the day itself the buzz had reached fever pitch. Any and all sorts of horrors were to be expected from such a pair of reprobates, but it would seem that in the eyes of Atlanta's respectable citizens, the actuality had exceeded even the imagining. Such a vulgar display, when decent people still struggled to put food on their tables and made do with old clothes made-over! But to not attend was simply unthinkable.

An elegant ivory phaeton drawn by a matched pair of spirited chestnut mares drew alongside the carriage block in front of the building, heralding the awaited arrival of the guests of honour. Tossing the reins to a quick-moving groom, Rhett Butler swung lightly down and stepped around to assist his new wife to alight. He was resplendent in black linen, with a blinding white stock and a jade watered-silk waistcoat of indescribable beauty. A beaming Scarlett, ravishing in a changeable silk frock that shifted through shades from moss to mauve as the light played across it, slipped her arm through his and gave him a swift, saucy grin. Together they swept past the liveried doorman, through the lobby and into the glittering reception hall. The sight that greeted her caused her to cry out "Oh!" and tighten her grip on his arm. Rhett gazed down at her fondly.

"Happy, Mrs Butler?" he inquired, and she laughed aloud in pure delight.

"I am, Mr Butler, I am! Oh, Rhett, it's so beautiful!"

"I'm glad you approve. I'd hate to think all this ostentation was for naught, although I fear we may have cut our own throats thereby. We'll have to work long and hard to come up with any activity to top this in scandal-worthiness. This could well be our swan song, my dear, so make the best of it."

Scarlett swatted at him playfully. "How you do run on. Why, this is the finest party Atlanta's seen in years. You can't possibly think everyone would've wanted to see us have a tacky wedding in old clothes and with no reception and ball afterward!"

"I do absolutely think so; that would have been the respectable thing to do. However, neither of us being even remotely respectable, I saw no reason why we shouldn't do the thing up properly. After all, you've got your hooks into me, and my money, well and truly. Why shouldn't you rub the town's collective nose in it?"

"Rhett!" She was scandalised. "You make me sound so--"

"Mercenary?" he helpfully supplied. "My darling, you said yourself that you were marrying me for my money. The leopardness needn't think she can change her spots so easily!"

"'Partly', is what I said, Rhett. 'Partly' for your money. But--you know, that wasn't the only reason. I mean, I do have money of my own now, you know. The store and the mills have done just fine, and there's the bit that Frank left me...I would've done just fine, thank you!"

"Indeed! Well, perhaps later, at a more opportune time, you may enumerate for me those other charms I possess which were partly responsible for your acquiesing to my modest proposal. Now I believe we must take the head of the line to receive our guests--that is how it's done, is it not? Forgive me, but this is my first wedding; I shall bow to your superior knowledge and experience in these matters."

His dark eyes danced with mischief. Grimacing, Scarlett swatted him again, a bit more forcefully this time, and led him over to where the reception line was to form.

After the guests had gorged themselves upon the delicacies provided (all the while denouncing the extravagance of the fete), the party moved from the reception hall into the lovely ballroom with its cut-glass chandeliers and gleaming parquetry floors. At the far end, upon a raised dais, musicians were tuning up their instruments, which ranged from violin to upright bass to a gilt harp taller than the serene lady to whom it belonged. People were filing in, taking up seats around the periphery of the dance floor, old friends settling in with cups of punch and gossip as savory as anything the banquet table had offered. Women bent heads together and spoke softly behind hands and fans, darting sly glances around the room. The men were more taciturn, but their eyes followed their hosts, pronouncing their judgment in silence.

Their hosts, however, were oblivious. Rhett had quite thoroughly monopolised Scarlett's attention the entire evening, keeping her so well occupied and so well entertained that she quite forgot to study Ashley's reactions to seeing her with another man. Had she done so, she would have been surprised, and confused, by the mix of emotions writ large upon that gentleman's face. His own wife, Melanie, had noticed, but attributed his discomfiture to concern for their dear Scarlett marrying a man with such a reputation as Captain Butler's. She knew Ashley would come around in time, of course, once he came to know Captain Butler as she did. It was to Melanie's credit that never once did it occur to her that her husband's motivations might be any less pure than her own.

When the orchestra struck up the first tune, people began to move in pairs onto the dance floor. Catching a glimpse of the tormented Mr Wilkes as he passed by, Rhett grinned maliciously and swept an exaggerated bow before Scarlett, who giggled and dipped a low curtsey in reply.

"May I have this dance, Mrs Butler?"

"You may."

"I have the strangest feeling of deja vu," Rhett remarked some time later, as he expertly guided them through the measured steps of a waltz. "You in my arms, a waltz playing, and all around us the shocked and disapproving stares of the Confederacy's would seem that history really does repeat."

"They're staring because you haven't let anyone else dance with me all night."

"And why should I? I've waited long enough to have you all to myself." Drawing closer, he bent his head to murmur suggestively into her ear. "And I'm looking forward to having you even more to myself, once these festivities are ended."

"Um," Scarlett grumbled, feeling her cheeks flame. She wriggled a bit in his arms, trying to put more distance between them. "Stop nibbling on me, Rhett, everyone's watching!"

She spoke nothing more or less than the truth, for they were indeed being watched, either covertly or blatantly, by every pair of eyes in the room. Some watched with approbation, some with trepidation, and more than a few with envy. Disapproval clouded some countenances, while a very few were twisted with what might have been hatred. Neither Scarlett nor Rhett had gone out of their way to win the approval of Atlanta's polite society during or after the War, and their joining forces did nothing to improve either of their chances for altering that status. Seperately, they might be endured; but the brazen combination of Scarlett and Rhett was too much to be borne.

"Let them look all they want," was Rhett's nonchalant response. "Rather flattering, don't you think? After all you did say you wanted everyone to be pea-green with envy. Looks like you've got your wish."

"I'm sure they're all talking about us." Scarlett tried, without success, to sound offended. Secretly, she was delighted. "They're all jealous because we're rich and successful and happy. That's why they don't like us. If we were poor and miserable and foolish like them, I'll bet they'd like us just fine."

"Why, Scarlett! You're becoming downright analytical! Yes, my dear, you're right--up to a point, at least. There's more to it than that, but I'd say you've accurately summed up a crucial part of the problem. Very few people are capable of looking charitably upon those whose fortunes exceed their own. It's galling to see the wicked flourish like the green bay tree while your own pious self goes a-begging."

"Fools," Scarlett reiterated, unconsciously drawing closer to her husband and resting her chin momentarily on his shoulder. "Why should we suffer and starve when we don't have to? Ugh." She lifted her head and looked up at him, defiance making her green eyes glitter. "They can go to Halifax, the lot of them. I don't care."

"Bravo! Then you won't mind if I hold you more closely--like so--and murmur suggestively into your ear until you blush and squirm--ah! Just as you're doing now! That will give them something else to talk about, from their pedestals of moral superiority; and of course, it will be fun for me, and I hope for you, too."


"Hmmm. Yes?"

"The music stopped who knows how long ago. Everybody's really staring at us now."


"Shocking," Mrs. Merriwether declared, chins quivering with the force of her disapproval. "As if this vulgar display of wealth were not enough! But to be forced to bear witness to such a performance--"

"Disgraceful," Mrs. Meade interjected, eager to pronounce her own judgment. "Just look at the way he's mauling her. I've never seen the like!"

"And she does nothing to curb him," Mrs. Merriwether added, scowling darkly in the direction of the dance floor. The two dark heads were inclined closely together, Rhett's big body curved possessively around his bride's. Scarlett looked flushed and flustered, albeit pleasantly so; her colour was high and her eyes sparkled. Their enjoyment of the evening, and of each other, was offensively apparent; neither of them made the slightest effort to contain their high spirits or to evince even the faintest veneer of propriety. He held her far too closely, and her busy little hands were wandering up and down his broad back in a most indecent manner. They scarcely acknowledged the presence of others, even when directly addressed, and the way they looked at each other was positively sinful. Scarlett was gazing at Captain Butler as if she could eat him up with a spoon; and the look on his swarthy piratical face left no doubt even to the most unworldly of just what was on his mind. "Her poor dear mother, God rest her soul, must be whirling in her grave even as we speak!" Exhausted by the effort of pronouncing sentence, she raised up her fan and plied it violently, causing the discreet ribbon fringes of her bodice to vibrate.

The orchestra wrapped up their current tune with a flourish; Rhett swung Scarlett up and around, causing her to burst into peals of merry laughter. A few of the observers (youthful, all of them, and some of them "new people") laughed and applauded at this point. When Rhett placed her back on her feet Scarlett, giddy with champagne and perhaps something else she was as yet unwilling to consider, missed her footing and stumbled over her trailing skirts. She pitched forward with a startled little yelp, clutching frantically at Rhett to keep from landing in an undignified heap on the floor. With the swift reflexes of a cat he leaned in and caught her round the waist, bringing her back upright; and as he did so, their eyes locked and held, and the charge between them was suddenly intense, electric and undeniable. Her lips parted, a small startled sound escaping them; his black head lowered, to Hell with anyone and everyone, he would kiss her here, and now. Those on the sidelines who watched held their breath, eager for scandal; they poked and pointed to direct the attention of those whose thoughts had strayed. The huddled dowagers were apoplectic with outrage. Ashley Wilkes, returning from the punchbowl at just the critical moment, looked as if he might be ill.

"This has gone far enough," hissed Mrs. Merriwether. Turning and striking with an agility unimaginable in a woman of her proportions, she caught the hapless Mr Wilkes by the arm and reeled him in. "Ashley Wilkes! You march right out there this instant and claim Scarlett for the next dance! Someone must put a halt to this nonsense, and obviously she forgets herself!"

Ashley went pale at the thought of trying to appropriate the new Mrs. Butler from her lawfully-wedded husband, but his fear of Mrs. Merriwether was greater. Inclining his head slightly, like a condemned man being fitted with his noose, Ashley stepped onto the dance floor and strode purposefully toward the Butlers, who were now quite literally wrapped up in each other. Behind him, Melanie moved in between the two enraged ladies, placing a placating hand on Mrs. Merriwether's arm which was shaken off as if it were a fly. Her dark eyes flashed, but Melanie held her tongue, her early training and innate dignity preventing her causing more of a scene than was already in the works.

The orchestra began again, another slow and dreamy tune (for hadn't Captain Butler paid them exhorbitantly to play just what he instructed?), and the floor was again awash in sweeping skirts and spoony couples. Ashley drew up alongside the Butlers and tapped Rhett politely on the shoulder, bowing to him and Scarlett in turn when they stopped to look at him.

"Captain Butler, might I persuade you to relinquish Mrs. Butler for a single dance?"

Rhett's gaze became inscrutable; it flicked from Ashley, to his wife and back again; then, apparently satisfied with something he'd seen, he released Scarlett's hand and stepped back, sweeping a bow of his own.

"I suppose I might at that, for old friendships' sake. Excuse me, my dear. I think perhaps I will ask your wife, Mr. Wilkes, if she will favour me." And with that he sauntered off, proud as a prince, arrogance and assurance in every line of his stance. Scarlett's eyes followed him; and when Ashley sought to draw her attention back to him, it was with no little irritation that she gave it to him.

"Do you remember how I used to have to fight my way through the bevy of your admirers, just to claim you for a waltz?" Ashley tried a light tone. It didn't entirely convince.

"Don't be ridiculous, Ashley, you know I always saved a dance for you."

"Apparently Rhett has filled your dance card in for you for tonight, Scarlett. Some of the ladies are quite shocked by your behaviour."

Scarlett, who'd been craning over his shoulder watching Rhett steer a furiously blushing Melly, snapped her attention back to his face. She felt an unfamiliar annoyance with him which left her quite unnerved. This was Ashley! She'd loved him for nearly a decade of her life--and yet, she felt a sudden urge to claw him. "Shocked? Bah! Rhett and I are married now. Why shouldn't we dance all night if it pleases us?"

"It's not just the dancing, darling, it's the way--well, the way he handles you. It is quite coarse and improper." He drew a deep breath and plunged on, heedless of the growing fire in her green eyes. "Oh, Scarlett, I've held my tongue since the day your engagement was announced, but I cannot be silent any longer. I fear that you've made a dreadful mistake in marrying Rhett Butler. Not only for the damage his character will do to your reputation, but, my dear, I fear that his very crudity will cheapen and coarsen you by association! You who are so very fine and good, for all your spirited ways--I tell you, Scarlett, it sickens me to think of you in his arms--"

"Then don't think!" Scarlett spat furiously, attempting with only minimal success to keep her voice low. "Ashley Wilkes, how dare you say such things to me! It's my business who I marry, and who I associate with, and I'll be damned if you'll tell me otherwise! Why--you gave up any right you had to say me nay the day you decided to marry Melly instead of me. It's--you're--oooohhhh..." She trailed off, now looking more stricken than angry. Scarlett stared at Ashley as though seeing him for the first time; which, perhaps, she was at last. "Ashley. You're jealous. You don't want me, but you don't want anyone else to have me either--at least, not Rhett. You didn't mind Charles or Frank much, but you can't stand Rhett. Why? Ashley, why?"

"You weren't in love with either of them," was Ashley's quiet response.

"No, I wasn't. I loved you, Ashley, all along."

"It's different, now, with Rhett; it always has been, and I've dreaded this day, because I knew that it would come."

"What do you mean, it's different now? Ashley--" she dropped her voice, fearful at last of being overheard. "Ashley, you know I still care for you. Don't you?"

But even as she spoke the words, she could hear how falsely they rang. The truth was that she had thought of Ashley less and less over the months of her engagement to Rhett, her mind occupied with the surprises he had in store for her. Now, in Ashley's arms, held close and with these fierce whispered confidences wrapping them together, Scarlett sought within herself for the panicky aching burn that should be there, that had nourished her for so long and through so much. She couldn't find it. It was as if it had never been, and in that moment she felt weightless, rudderless, completely alone and adrift. It was as terrifying, and exhilarating, as freefall.

"Yes, of course. We have been friends since we were children, Scarlett, and Melly and I love you as our sister and confidante. I hope that will not change." The mask was back in place, his grey eyes shuttered and remote. Whatever he had seen in her face had told him something she was herself only on the verge of understanding. A door had been closed; it would not be opened again.

"No, Ashley, that won't change," she said softly, and wondered why she felt nothing--nothing beyond a mild desire for the song to end and Ashley to go away so that she might dance with Rhett again. Ashley was so depressing. Why had it taken her so long to notice that?

And then Rhett and Melanie were alongside them, her look shy, his appraising. "Shall we exchange?" Rhett asked mockingly, looking a challenge at Ashley. Recognising defeat, Ashley surrendered Scarlett with a light kiss to her hand and took Melanie into his arms, steering her away. Scarlett stepped back into Rhett's embrace and wondered dimly how she had ever endured dancing with anyone else.

"That must have been quite a fascinating discussion, Scarlett, as engrossed as the two of you appeared. Whatever were you talking about so earnestly?"

"It was nothing," she said, looking him clearly in the eye, and knew it to be true. "It was absolutely nothing."


By the time the witching hour arrived, the party was all but over. The pillars of society had been the first to depart, of course, with frigid congratulations to the far-too-happy couple; Mrs. Merriwether led the brigade, followed closely by the Mrs. Elsing, Whiting, and Meade and their attendant spouses. The younger members of Atlanta's good families were next to depart, rather amusingly close on the heels of their elders, as they dared not risk the censure of those staunch doyennes of propriety. Last to straggle out were those invitees of the type delicately known as "the new people"--by which was meant the Johnny-come-latelies, the less Yankeefied of the Northern imports, the more genteel of carpetbaggers, scalawags and assorted speculators who viewed the Butlers not only as highly entertaining companions but their one shot at gaining entry into even the lower echelons of respectability. These lingered longest, surreptitiously helping themselves to last bits of hors d'ouevres, last glasses of champagne and punch, last glances around the elegantly decorated rooms. None of them could predict when next they would have entree to such opulence.

Scarlett watched the last of them leave with a definite mix of emotions. On the one hand, she was relieved; it had been a lengthy and exhausting day for her, and she was ready to get out of her too-tight stays and heavy skirts and into a comfortable wrapper. The frenetic activity was wearying, her feet tired from dancing, her head a little buzzy from champagne and fatigue. On the tables at the periphery of the dance floor, the candles sputtered and drowned themselves in puddles of their own wax; and now with the voices silenced and the orchestra packed and gone, the hiss of the gas jets came unnaturally loudly to her sensitised ears. All the events of the past twenty-four hours or so had jumbled themselves together in her mind, a kaleidoscopic whirl of colour, sound and sensation that ended with her standing in the foyer of the National Hotel, gazing through the open front doors into the empty street beyond. All of her guests had gone; behind her, the servants were beginning to clear away the party detritus; behind her, her new husband awaited.

Husband! And she'd sworn she would never marry again. Neither of her previous experiences of husbands and marriages had been exactly inspirational; her brief time with Charles had left no more than a fleeting impression upon her, along with the inconvenience of a child she'd never wanted. She could scarcely even remember how he'd looked, beyond a dim recollection of cow-like brown eyes so like those of the son he'd left behind. And as for Frank...well, she'd tried to be, at the very least, decent to him, even if she hadn't loved him. Her guilt over his death had diminished with time and rationalisation, allowing her the remembrance of how annoying his fussy, old-maidish ways had been. Neither of them had awakened within her the deep vein of passion that still slumbered, untouched and unimagined, and nothing in her early training had given her any reason to expect anything else. Such was woman's lot--marriage, and motherhood, whether you liked it or not. The alternative, spinsterhood, was just as bad if not worse. She might have gone on quite respectably as a widow even after Charles' death; it was only the thought of losing the only thing that meant anything in her life that had forced her to the unpleasant expedient of marrying Frank. As for marrying Rhett...she had yet to work that one through in her mind.

As she stood, leaning slightly against the doorjamb and feeling the cool evening breeze on her overheated skin, Scarlett considered her situation. Not only had she accepted Rhett Butler's absurd proposal, she had actually gone through with marrying him. The proof glittered up at her from the third finger of her left hand, a ring so gaudily ostentatious she was almost embarrassed to wear it. Rhett, perpetual bachelor, had taken leave of his senses and proposed marriage to her, twice-widowed woman with a yen for another man. And she had accepted, drunk on kisses and guilt, with no thought of what her acquiescence could mean. She was thinking about it now.

Charles was gone so quickly from her life that neither his brief presence nor his absence made much of an impact. And while her marriage to Frank had lasted longer, he had been so timid and tractable that she'd largely done as she'd pleased with little interference from him. Rhett, however, was another story. He was the perfect picture of health and so unlikely to depart this life anytime soon. Further, he was completely impossible to bully or bend to her whim. And, worst of all, she had a sneaking suspicion that Rhett would not be deterred from the exercise of his conjugal rights so easily as had been her previous mates. The thought made her blood run suddenly cold.

Behind her, purposeful footsteps echoed across the parquet floor, coming ever closer. Unconsciously, she tensed, forgetting that up until perhaps half an hour ago she'd been perfectly comfortable in Rhett's presence, had in fact been thoroughly enjoying herself. But that was then--on the dance floor, surrounded by people and light and music--and this was now, after the ball and before their life together was to begin in earnest. She was, inexplicably, terrified.

And then the footsteps stopped and warm hands settled themselves familiarly at the curve of her waist, making her start in surprise. Gently, Rhett turned her around to face him. He was smiling, and it was an odd smile, without mockery or malice. Her eyes met his briefly and dropped in confusion. What was happening to them?

"You're shivering," he said softly, drawing her back and letting the doors swing shut. "It's late. Shall we retire to our suite, my dear?"

Drawing a deep breath into lungs bereft of oxygen, Scarlett squared her shoulders and nodded. The hand she placed upon his offered arm barely shook at all.

Up the stairs. Up the stairs and down the hall, treading noiselessly on thick soft wool carpeting. Their suite--fittingly, the Bridal Suite, the largest and most luxurious to be had--was located on the topmost floor, far at the end of a lengthy corridor: exclusive, secluded, utterly private. The bellhop unlocked the door and pushed it open, handing the key to Rhett with a slight bow. Rhett pocketed the key and pressed a folded bill into the young man's hand, dismissing him with a pointed look. Taking the hint, the servant touched his cap and sauntered off down the hall, already thinking what he would do with the princely tip he'd just received. Rhett turned to Scarlett, grinning.

"I believe it's customary to carry the bride over the threshold," he said, "and far be it from me to defy custom." Stooping, he swept her easily into his arms and stepped through the doorway, pausing only momentarily to kick the door shut behind them. With long strides he crossed the sitting area, placed her gently on her feet, and without further preamble pulled her into a firm embrace. Lacking even the desire to resist, Scarlett went willingly, fitting her body closely to his and meeting his kiss eagerly. She did love Rhett's kisses; they were nothing at all like the kisses she'd gotten from Charles or Frank, or any of her County beaux. Not even the few stolen kisses she'd shared with Ashley had had quite this effect upon her, made her feel simultaneously hot and cold and shaky. The same dark magic that overcame her on the long-ago road home to Tara, that caused her to accept his proposal just hours after poor Frank's funeral, worked its spell upon her here, and some of her nervousness melted away. This was Rhett. She'd known him forever. And it was so pleasant in his arms.

In time he broke the kiss, pulling his head back to appraise her bemusedly. "Alone at last," he drawled, sliding his hands lightly down the length of her bare arms, causing her skin to prickle deliciously. "Do you realise, now, that I've got you? That short of death or divorce, you can't escape me?" He laughed, the ringing free laugh of a boy suddenly granted his heart's desire. Scarlett couldn't help but laugh too, albeit a bit hysterically. His close proximity, the feel of his body, the heat of him, the warm scent of his skin were having an almost intoxicating effect on her--and she was already far from sober. "Now that fun that I promised you begins."

His mouth swooped down and captured hers again, mustache tickling her upper lip, his tongue insinuating itself between her lips to find and duel with her own. She slid her arms round his neck, raising herself on tiptoe to better mold herself to him. His hands roamed over her shoulders and back, down to skim the curve of her waist, the swell of her hips and below; when his explorations were thwarted by the fullness of her elliptical crinoline and small wire bustle, he cursed good-naturedly and moved his hands northward once more, where they began to systematically unfasten the dozen hooks that closed her bodice. Scarlett, accustomed to her maid's attentions, ceased to wonder who would perform her toilette for her this night. It appeared that Rhett intended to claim that right for himself.

She felt the fine hairs at her nape prickle pleasurably at the brush of his hands over her upper back and shoulders. He took his sweet time about freeing her from her bodice, all the while teasing her mouth with languid kisses. When all the hooks were opened, he released her long enough to assist her in sliding it off and casting it onto a nearby chair. Turning her around, he went to work next on the wide waistband of her heavy trailing skirt. Two flat outer hooks, two flat inner hooks, followed by a procession of smaller hooks concealed cunningly in a ruched fold; he finished them off swiftly, then took hold of the mass of fabric in both hands and lifted it up, over and off. The skirt joined its companion bodice on the chair. Relieved at having a task to occupy her trembling hands, Scarlett untied the waist tape that held her bustle in place, cast it aside, then released the hooks holding her crinoline and let it drop to the floor around her feet. She stepped out of it, acutely conscious that she now faced Rhett in nothing but her underthings, the multiple layers of which felt dreadfully insubstantial beneath the weight of his burning gaze. Those black eyes raked her boldly up and down and she felt the heat rise in her cheeks, settle in the pit of her belly. Trepidation tinged with a curious anticipation swept through her like a flame.

Rhett slipped his arms around her again, reaching behind her to untie the laces of her corset. Expertly he worked the sides apart until the garment was loose enough for her to unhook the busk in front and remove it, leaving her now clad only in her fine batiste chemise, clocked silk stockings and embroidered satin slippers. Rhett, by contrast, was still fully dressed and looking positively smug. His hands were at her shoulders now, pushing the narrow straps down, his intention clear; and something within her at last stirred and rebelled. Crossing her arms over her chest Scarlett caught hold of his hands in hers, stilling their motion. Their eyes met, his questioning, hers mischievous. His slow answering smile did something odd to her breathing.

"Is there a problem, Mrs. Butler?" he queried, stepping back. Scarlett hugged herself, causing her breasts to swell enticingly, and nodded.

"Yes there is. I'm starting to feel quite underdressed, compared to you." Her pointed gaze took in his elegant figure, raking him head to toe every bit as boldly as he had done her. She could feel her cheeks burning and knew her mother would turn in her grave at the thought of her behaving in such a manner, but something goaded her on, something gaining in strength, irresistible. She felt wicked, daring, brazen even. She felt gloriously, dangerously alive.

"Are you indeed? And how might we best rectify that situation, Mrs. Butler? Shall I ring for your maid?"

"Oh, I think not," Scarlett said airily, advancing upon him. Rhett stood rooted to the spot, not daring even to breathe. For all her flirtatious ways, Scarlett had never once initiated any of the embraces or caresses they had shared over the years; her current behaviour was utterly out of character and utterly intoxicating. He dared neither move nor speak, lest he startle her out of her strange mood.

Scarlett ran her hands along the lapels of his black evening coat, pulling them wide and attempting with minimal success to push the garment off his broad shoulders. Obediently, Rhett shrugged out of the coat and flung it onto the chair already burdened with her clothing. Scarlett, pleased, turned her attentions to his beautiful waistcoat, taking her time with the buttons as he had done with the hooks of her bodice. Her hands moved on to his cravat as he removed the vest; unknotting it with the ease of years' practice keeping her father looking presentable, she slipped it from around his neck and let it slither through her fingers. That left only his immaculate linen shirt, exquisitely tailored trousers, and whatever he was or was not wearing beneath. She was not quite ready to think about that, so she concentrated on the shirt, slowly working each of the silver-backed pearl buttons loose as if she had all the time in the world for the task. Pulling the tails free of his trousers, she opened the shirt and looked upon the expanse of his broad tanned chest, admiring the taut musculature, the sprinkling of black hair, the intriguing scar winding whitely down into the mysterious regions below his belt. Her hands looked very small and very white in contrast as she reached tentatively for him, touching him with an experimental, hesitant air. She had never stroked Charles or Frank in this manner, never felt any desire to explore their bodies any more than she'd desired to explore their minds or hearts. What moved her now with Rhett was quite beyond her ken.

Scarlett's prior experiences of marital intimacy had been characterised by a singular lack of passion. She had, in fact, never appeared naked before either of her husbands, nor had they bared themselves before her; always, both Charlie and Frank had kept their nightshirts on, and her nightgown on her as well. The awkward, fumbling encounters had been accomplished with a minimum of contact, a few uninspired kisses and embarrassed gropings constituting the entirety of their preparation of her. Small wonder then that for Scarlett the conjugal act was a source of discomfort and humiliation, a thing to be borne in silence for the mercifully brief time it took. And while she had considered giving herself to Ashley on more than one occasion, she had never allowed herself to expect that it might be any more satisfying or pleasant than what she had elsewhere experienced. Like most other "good" women of her time and station, Scarlett had been raised with no expectation of sensual enjoyment in the marriage bed; rather, she was imprinted with the notion of the cross that she, as Woman, must bear in order to benefit from the compensatory joys of wife- and motherhood. The slaking of carnal appetites was for men, bad women, and heathens; a lady would never be so ill-bred.

But as she ran her hands wonderingly over her new husband's chest, feeling the warmth of his skin, the tightening of his nipples, Scarlett was feeling anything but ladylike. Her heart thudded erratically, racing for a few beats before skipping one or two; something had definitely happened to her breathing, and a most disturbing new sensation was nascent between her thighs. She felt swollen, heavy and ripe and hungry in an entirely unfamiliar way. Looking up at Rhett who stood placid beneath her hands, she wondered if it showed in her face. She felt herself to be absolutely luminous with it.

He drew her to him again, stilling her roaming hands between their two bodies, and even as the thrust of his tongue past her lips sent her senses reeling she could feel the thrust of something else, something hard and insistent burning through the insubstantial layers of cloth that so maddeningly hindered their joining. Involuntarily she pushed upward and outward with her hips, seeking to increase the delicious contact; and Rhett groaned into her mouth and pushed back hard, sliding his hands down to grasp her buttocks and lock her into place. A jolt surged through Scarlett's lower body, a queer melting throb that made her whimper with frustration and need. Muttering low and wordless near her ear, Rhett reached down and grasped the hem of her chemise, yanking it roughly over her head and baring her fully at last. As soon as her hands were free she was fumbling with the buttons of his trousers, faintly conscious that some madness had overtaken her but not caring, not thinking, only wanting, needing. Her skin burned where Rhett's hands and lips touched. She thought she could almost see glowing trails across his brown flesh where her own fingers led.

Scarlett succeeded in opening the last of the buttons and shoved the trousers down over his narrow hips, letting them fall as they would. For the first time in her life she gazed, avidly, at the tumescent ridge of a man's desire for her; and rather than feeling disgust or fear, she felt the answering ache in her own body at the sight of what she had caused. She had caused this, the force of feeling that made this strong man shiver at her touch, and the knowledge of her power at once dizzied and humbled her. Gone now was any wish she'd ever had of the ability to hurt or humble him; she wanted only to touch and be touched, to share and sate. Scarlett laughed aloud, a laugh of triumph and an invitation for him to share equally in the triumph--for if she had at last conquered Rhett Butler, it was also true that he had, finally, conquered her as well.

"Scarlett," he groaned, as one small hand brushed lightly along the firm length of him. He caught her face between his palms and looked searchingly at her, finding what he'd always hoped and feared to find at last written thereon. He kissed her once, softly, then took her hand and led her wordlessly over to the corner of the room where the large bed awaited. A fire had been laid before their arrival and now burned low; he paused long enough to toss another log onto the grate before moving to turn the bedchamber's gaslights low. Scarlett pushed aside the downy coverlet and slipped between the sheets, leaning back against the pillows and watching her new possession as he fiddled around preparing the chamber, and himself, for their joining. He brought a decanter and two small glasses over from the sideboard and placed them upon the bedside table, surveyed the room with one last glance, and at last--oh, at last!--shed his linen and came to her on the bed, naked and eager. Scarlett opened her arms and he went willingly, and they were lost.

Nothing in her previous marriages had in any way prepared her for this, none of her mother's reticent instructions nor the indirect whisperings of other young matrons. With only instinct, and a burgeoning imagination, to guide her, Scarlett was content to follow Rhett's lead. It seemed he'd acquired more than the normal number of hands, as they appeared to be everywhere at once, enflaming her until the entire surface of her skin flushed and heated. And when at last an inquiring finger slipped through the thicket of black curls and into the slick welcoming folds beyond, she arched up off the bed with a startled cry. Rhett soothed her with kisses but continued to explore her, feeling her grow more swollen and slick with every motion. When he looked into her face, he found round green eyes gazing at him in mixed amazement and terror, and it filled him with such a sudden rush of tenderness that he very nearly stopped his ministrations. But he could not stop, would not stop, would not allow her fear to overtake them. Nuzzling tenderly at her neck, he lightened his touch a bit, pulling back to just barely graze the hard oversensitised bud of her need. Her body arched up into his hand, muscles gone tense, her eyes squeezing shut.

"Oh, Rhett, stop," she groaned at last, feeling she could no longer endure the rippling spasms his hand was producing. "What are you doing to me? I can't--ooooh, I can't--"

"Sssshhh." He kissed her again. "You can. You will. Relax for me. Trust me, Scarlett. Trust me."

"It's too much. I don't--oh, God, Rhett..." Her hands were fisted in the sheets now, body straight and rigid on the mattress as he relentlessly worked his magic upon her. "I'm going to--" She had no idea what, but could feel it coming, building, something fierce and overwhelming as the tide. And when at last it broke and washed over her, melting and flooding inward and outward simultaneously from the molten core of her sex, she half-sobbed, half-screamed with the force of her release. And even as the spasms still racked her, Rhett rolled above her and, opening her gently with his hand, sheathed himself within her in one powerful stroke and began to move with her, rocking them both in rhythm with the waves of her climax. Scarcely had she come down from the first tempest than she was spiraling up and exploding yet again, this time taking Rhett with her. He gave a howl of utter triumph and buried himself to the hilt, filling her with heat and light. She cried out his name and clung to him fiercely, drowning, the waves cresting, pinpricks of light bursting behind her eyelids. And then, for a time, she knew no more.


(no, really; that's the end!)