"What a damnably surprising turn of events," Rhett said again, for the hundredth time, Scarlett thought, in the two days he'd been at Tara. He simply couldn't stop shaking his head and exclaiming over it all. And, Scarlett thought, he really did look flabbergasted. He had abandoned his perpetual half-smirk for an incredulous—why, was that a smile?
Scarlett could not stop looking at him. He was as handsome as ever, but—but different. Decidedly so. The haggard look that had developed after Bonnie had died was gone. Rhett looked lean and brown from the sun, and his body was hard-muscled from weeks of riding. He looked like a man half his age, even with the silvery strands that dotted his black hair.
"I don't think I've ever come across anything that could surprise you," Scarlett mused, biting her lips to hide a smile of her own. "I began to think I never would, in this lifetime."
"Well, I'm happy to oblige you," said Rhett, his lips curling from underneath his black moustache. "Now you can die a happy woman."
"Yes—but not until we've got the wheat harvested," said Scarlett absently, and began to laugh as she realized what she'd said. She didn't intend to die for a good many years, wheat or no wheat. Her laughter was high and bright against the cool afternoon air, Rhett's bass rumbling along pleasantly. How strange that he should suddenly be here, part of the new life she had forged for herself. She had liked this life because she had thought he would have no part in it—and now he was here, and it surprised her how easily he fit into it all.
She saw Rhett's eyes looking eagerly out over her land—a thousand acres of her very own land, bought and cultivated by her own hand. The sturdy barns, and stables, the neat split-rail fences, the even rows of crops stretching out to the east in orderly lines. Her land—hers. She sniffed appreciatively, and felt Rhett's eyes settle on her proudly raised head.
"Look at this place," he murmured, more to himself than to her, but Scarlett could not help but make a teasing reply.
"Rhett Butler! You sound positively—Irish."
"I can't think what I've done to deserve that sort of slander," he drawled in his own sarcastic tone. She laughed, marveling over the fact that he could still be the same to her—and yet, so very changed.
Rhett had turned his gaze on her. He looked openly, and critically—but not, she thought, a hot blush firing her cheeks, not critically. She made herself sit stock still and receive his long look without flinching, but deep down in her heart she thanked whatever gods may be that her hair was still black and lustrous, her figure trim, her eyes unfaded. Thank God I am still beautiful—for him. It would have pained him to find me looking old and run down.
"You've been busy, Scarlett," he said finally, looking again out over the land, and down at the black-haired little girl he held in his arms. She blushed crimson over that. Already Melly had taken to 'Uncle Whett' like a duck to water. Her little body was sprawled in sleep, safe in his encircling arms. Wade had slept in those arms, once—and Ella, too. Strange, that it no longer hurt to think of those old days. No—not now that he was here. She could sift the good times from the bad, and dwell on the sweet memories, instead of the ones that hurt her. Because he had come back to her—he had finally come.
"I have been busy," Scarlett sighed, reaching out to tweak Melanie's curl. "And oh, Rhett—I've liked it."
"Yes. It puts me in mind of the time at Tara—the old Tara—after the war. I had to work so hard just to get by. I felt useful, then—and after that I couldn't ever go back to the old ways. I had to keep myself busy—and folks there didn't understand it."
"Do you miss it—Atlanta? Or Tara—the first Tara?"
"No," she said quickly, and then, "Well—not much. Sometimes I dream I'm home again—back East—and Mother and Pa are there, and all the darkies, and the Tarleton boys and the Wilkeses—things are the way they used to be. I wake up and I'm crying. But it's only the dream that gets to me. It's not home. Tara—the way I remember it—the way I want it to be—doesn't exist anymore. Yes—I miss it—but more than that, I miss the old days."
She spoke matter-of-factly, but her eyes grew large and dreamy. "I miss them for about five minutes after I get up—but then I go outside and I see all this." Scarlett waved her hands over the grassy prairie land, at the big sky, toward the purple Rockies in the west. "Sometimes I get all shivery thinking of all that I have—a home, and a thriving business, and good friends, and my girl—both my girls. My Ella and my baby."
They did not speak of Bonnie, but she was on both of their minds. Scarlett reached out and covered Rhett's hand with her own. His head snapped up, wary, but there was no guile or plotting in his eyes. The corner of his mouth quirked up in a smile.
"So Scarlett O'Hara has everything she wants," he said easily. "Do you not have any hopes for the future?"
"Oh, indeed I do," said Scarlett hastily. "I want to buy more land—another few hundred acres. Kin's a cowboy and he knows the cattle industry—and the army needs cattle, Rhett. I'd like to expand and di…di…diversify."
"Oh, Scarlett." Rhett shook his head ruefully. "Someone's been talking business to you."
She ignored him, her head still swimming with plans. "Kin will help me—he and Ella have decided to stay on permanently. And oh, Rhett, he's your son through and through. He's a sound head for business."
"That's the nicest compliment I've ever heard you give a fellow," said Rhett, his white teeth gleaming in his dark face. His voice took on a curious tone. "How did you know that Robert was my son?"
"I'm not stupid—and I was married to you for years and years," she said hotly, offended as if he'd insulted her intelligence. "I know your middle name. And besides, Kin" she stressed his name in a cautionary way, "couldn't look more like you if you'd spit him out of your own mouth."
Rhett threw back his head and laughed long and hard, so that Melanie jumped in his arms. "There, there, sweetheart," he said, patting her back until she settled again. "I suppose you're right, Scarlett. The laddie's handsome, that's true. "
"And…?" she flushed, trying to find the words to ask a particular question. Rhett lifted his eyebrows at her fluster.
"What is it you'd like to know, Scarlett? I can see the wheels turning under your cap of black hair. Ask away, before you burst from the strain of trying not to."
"How are things with you and Kin?" she asked bluntly. "He didn't seem too glad to see you when you rode up."
"No—there's a history between us. I don't think he'll ever be calling me 'dear Dad' but he shook my hand this morning and even managed to look me in the eyes without flinching."
"Because Ella asked him to," Scarlett said knowledgeably. "Kin would do anything for her."
Rhett was not about to let her get away with being the interrogator. "Speaking of sons, though, Scarlett—what about yours? Does Wade know you've come back from the dead?"
"You've always been the most exasperating man," she told him spiritedly. "Oh—Wade knows. I wrote him a few years ago and offered to bring him out here but he declined. I don't think Wade will ever be able to really forgive me for the way I acted for so long. I haven't been a mother at all to him—Melly mothered him, because I couldn't—or wouldn't—well. I think he'd prefer to keep on clinging to her memory instead of trying to patch things up with me. I don't mind much." She shrugged and tried to smile, but he could see a little hurt make its way across her face.
"And anyway—I've Ella," she said, and her eyes were very bright.
They looked over to where Ella was pinning wet clothes to the line to dry. The wind was blowing from the east, scattering clouds across the sky, flattening Ella's dress against her body enough to show the round hard swell of her belly under her apron.
"Why, she's going to have a baby!" cried Rhett, astonished, and Scarlett nodded, smiling.
"Yes—in the spring. They told me yesterday, but I knew it right away when she came here, though I don't think she knew it herself."
"Really? How could you tell?"
"Well…" Scarlett reddened, and Rhett laughed. ("Still playing the little southern belle, Scarlett?") "I have had four children of my own." She looked over at Melanie, and Rhett followed her gaze.
"You don't deserve her," he said, tightening his grasp on the sleeping child.
"I know," Scarlett answered. "But God is good."
They sat in companionable silence for a while.
"What about you?" Scarlett wondered, a little self-consciously, clasping her hands over her knees. "What are you going to do, Rhett? You're going to be a granddaddy in a few months' time. Will you go home—back to Atlanta, I mean? Or—have you thought about—well, about staying on, here?"
"I don't think I could go back to the civilized South—after this." He waved his hand to indicate the vast prairie, and the even vaster sky. "Maybe I'll buy a few hundred acres myself, Scarlett."
"And do what? Grow turnips?" They laughed, and she reached out to lay a tentative hand on his arm.
"You could stay here," she proposed, her eyes large and a little shy. "There's more than enough room. You could even build a home of your own, if you wanted."
"A bachelor pad." Rhett laughed quietly through his teeth.
"Yes," she said. "Or—I could clear out George's study for you. And," Scarlett squared her shoulders, "There's more than enough work to keep you busy—until the baby comes."
Rhett smiled at her, then, dazzlingly, and looked so amused that Scarlett felt a little indignant. "What?" she asked. "Have I got a fly on my nose? Or is my offer that ridiculous to you?"
"No," Rhett laughed. "Your nose is fine—and I suppose I'll take you up on your offer, ridiculous as it is. I was just thinking back, Scarlett, to the days after the war, when Ella Lorena was just a little baby. We were sitting on the porch at Miss Pittypat's looking out over Peachtree street—a little like the way we're sitting now, only Peachtree street is few thousand miles away, thanks to goodness. But you suggested that we might have mutual grandchildren one day. We laughed over it, then—but I suppose you were right after all. My dear, have you ever considered a career as a fortune teller—in addition to shopkeeper, mill-proprietress, ranch-hand…you are a woman of many talents, Scarlett—darling."
She smiled under his teasing. "I'd take up fortune-telling if it would bring in any money," she said, eyes suddenly agleam with possibilities. "I want to put a new roof on the stables—and fence in the south pasture—and buy more stock…"
"Hush," Rhett said, taking her hand and pressing his lips to it. "There's plenty of time for that tomorrow, Scarlett. Tonight let's leave all business aside—and enjoy being together. My dear—I'll say it plainly, though it will puff you up like a peacock, no doubt: I've missed you."
She didn't need to say she'd missed him too. Her eyes said it all.
Ella had finished with the clothes and went to join Kin in the paddocks where they watched the colts prancing, the light of sunset settling on their fiery coats as evening fell across the prairie. She took his hand and he settled his hands briefly against her belly, where their burgeoning child lay between them. Then he tickled her and she swatted at him, and laughing, hand in hand, they made their way up to the house, joining their parents on the porch.
The young people sat close together, Ella's head on Kin's shoulder, as they watched the sky light up with the remains of the day. Rhett's hand was still warm on Scarlett's own. The night was falling fast, now, another day lost to the too-swift procession of time. But no one on the porch mourned its loss. There were plenty of days to come for them—a gleaming strand of days, like pearls on a string. To be worked through, hoped for, cherished. They were not thinking of lost time but of tomorrow—that bright Tomorrow, and all their hopes for it. They would help to shape whatever days would come after this one—each according to his own talents, in his own way.
But for the moment, it was enough to be together.