Thanks so much to Stephanie for being a fantastic beta!
All characters belong to Margaret Mitchell's estate.
A Winter Fever
It was a cold, hard winter that saw the end of 1865. There was little wood for fires, and even less food to prepare with them. The citizens of northern Georgia were caught in a slow and agonizing struggle against starvation – each day fighting to stay the hand of death, and each night fearing that tomorrow would bring its shadow upon their doorstep.
The people there were proud and hardy by nature, but even they began to wane as the frozen months crept along, slowly sapping at their strength and emptying their coffers of the meager funds they had saved. It was a struggle to survive, and there would be many that would not see another spring.
The white columns of Tara had not gone untouched, but they had survived through that first, hard summer after the war. They thought, perhaps foolishly, that the end of the war meant the end of fear. True, there was no risk that men would come in the night to burn the whitewashed haven to cinders, but there were worse things. Homes could be rebuilt, fields could be plowed and money could be earned, but not even the iron will of Scarlett Hamilton could defend against the creeping specter of disease.
She had naively thought that she had only to worry about the slow restoration of her sisters' health. There had been extra portions of precious food for Carreen and Suellen and Melanie as the sickly women regained their strength, and she had believed that it would soon be over. Typhoid and the dangers of childbed had passed.
No one had expected that through the cracks of the house something worse would sneak upon them. When little Wade first took ill, his mother paid him little heed, beyond being sure to keep him from the existing invalids.
"The last thing I need is to have one of you catch cold and spend another month in bed!" said she, bitterly noting that their time out of bed was scarce enough as it was.
It took nearly three days for the residents of the house to realize that the clammy white pallor of Wade Hampton's skin was far more dangerous than a simple cold – that his fever, spiking ever higher, was blending sharply with a shortness of breath and cries of pain with every movement. After that awful night, Scarlett gave in to Melanie's pleas and went in search of Dr. Fontaine, a small basket of food the only price she was able to pay.
The Old Doctor accepted the call reluctantly, recognizing both the described symptoms and his complete inability to provide anything that might help – medicine was a thing long since vanished from the state of Georgia.
When he pronounced it pneumonia, even Ashley Wilkes went white. He had seen first-hand the thousands of soldiers who succumbed to the disease on the battlefield, and those had been strong, sturdy men with decades of good health behind them. A child, a weak, hungry child, against such a foe?
No one spoke the words, but the look in their eyes as they watched the sickroom said enough. They didn't even have enough food to give him strength, let alone money for medicine or time for nursing. Mammy sat by him by day watching for changes, while the others worked, and Scarlett held his small, shaking body through the night and prayed desperately for improvement.
She wished for her mother with a ferocity that would have shamed her at any other time. Ellen would have known what to do for the little boy, Scarlett knew that for certain. On the fifth day, when delirium had pulled her son far from the white-washed walls of Tara, she remembered exactly how much good prayer had ever done for her, and decided to make for Atlanta to find someone who did have the power to help her.
The response to this decision was varied. Melanie was convinced, as always, of certain success. She trusted her sister-in-law with a childlike naiveté that infuriated Scarlett, though it was Mammy's stubborn insistence that a chaperone be sent along that earned the full brunt of her sharp tongue. She would not be burdened with the simple-minded Prissy, and no one else could be spared from Tara – least of all Scarlett herself, but she did not have the time to worry about that.
She gathered their meager funds from the office and allowed herself a moment behind the great desk which had always symbolized to her mind all the strength of Tara. It was such because it had always contained the work of Ellen, and where Ellen worked the world could not shake. She closed her eyes and imagined briefly the soft sounds of swaying skirts, the scent of lemon verbena and gentle hands smoothing her troubles away.
Her eyes snapped open, the dream surrendered and moment lost. "Ashley," she said, aware once again of her duties. "Has Will brought the wagon around?"
"He's gone for it, he should be back in a moment," he replied. "Scarlett, you…you realize, dear, that Henry can't have much money?"
Her shoulder slumped, and she nodded. "I know," she said. "But I have to try. I'll - I'll do whatever I have to. I don't care anymore."
He opened his mouth, and for one shining moment she thought he would offer to accompany her, to help her and ease her burden – but he only sighed quietly and wished her well as he left the room. An ember of resentment, which had burned quietly since his return, flared abruptly. A word, a glance from him to show that he was proud of her strength, that he still cared as she did, would have braced her for whatever she may have to do, but he refused her even that small comfort. She might once have railed with anger and jealousy, but she felt nothing at this latest disappointment. She was numb to everything now.
The members of the household watched her go with trepidation, even the most hopeful among them suspecting the reality of their bitter situation and dreading the day that may come soon: when another little body might be buried in the red earth of the family plot.
Scarlett went first to Charles' Uncle Henry. He welcomed her, and the fact that the Hamiltons would have given every penny they had along with every crumb of food if it meant saving Wade might have comforted her had they possessed anything to give. Henry had struggled fiercely just to keep the taxes paid on her properties, and he had nothing more to give her, nor much advice to spare. He merely patted her hand, exhaustion in his eyes, and promised that he would look into it, that he would call in every favor to see if there was any medicine to be had in the Old Guard. He did not even attempt to promise food – he knew that there was none to be found among their connection.
He did warn her, quite kindly in his opinion, that her idea of trying the banks would be of no use. Her land in town was barely worth the taxes he had paid on it, and no one would offer her a mortgage on a plantation. She was without ideas – she could not think of another soul in town to ask, except for the old crows and Henry would have better luck than she would on that account.
She might have gone home to Pitty's and wept in frustration had she not, upon leaving Henry's offices, overheard a bit of fresh gossip. Rhett Butler had recently returned to Atlanta, and was holding court in the nicest suite at the National Hotel. Though his very name brought bile to her throat, she knew instantly that he would be her salvation. He had always cared for Wade in a way that baffled her, but more important than that came the memory of a night near the end of the siege when, just outside Miss Pitty's walls, he had told her that he wanted her. Had waited for her. It was the decision of a split second, and she refused to let herself think of the consequences.
Visiting the National in her current state should have horrified her – and a distant, disconnected part of her mind still moaned at the thought of being seen as she was – but vanity had no place in a struggle for survival. She stood at the desk with the command and dignity of a queen, and the man behind it could only direct her to a small private lounge, with a promise that he would send for his guest immediately.
It was only a few moments that she stood there alone, but it was enough to fortify her. She was determined and she would hold strong. She turned as the door opened, and she met the disbelieving eyes of Captain Rhett Butler.
She saw reflected in his expression nothing but her own homeliness – the way he blanched as he realized that the starved cat in front of him was someone whom he had once admired, the faint horror of what had become of her. If there was anything but disgust in his eyes in that first instant she was blind to it, and in a moment his face was as coolly disinterested as ever it had been.
"Hello, Rhett," she said, her voice as sharp and hard as a tack.
"Scarlett," he said. He took a long look at her, eyes raking over the protruding collarbone and thin, waif-like arms. "I didn't know you were in Atlanta," he added blithely, taking her hand and leading her to the heavily embroidered sofa by the window. The richness of it pained her, but like so many other things in her recent life, she buried the feeling. "How kind of you to visit!"
She wanted nothing more in the entire world at that moment than to strangle him with his own silk necktie. "I heard you were in town," she said simply, struggling fiercely to hide the hatred in her voice. There was a brief inhale as something in her was smothered and she smiled up at him. "I came to see you."
He cocked an eyebrow and smiled slightly. "I must admit that I'm rather surprised. I thought I would be hated forever. What brings you to Atlanta?"
"I came to see Aunt Pitty and Uncle Henry." The thought of small talk was agony to her, her muscles cried out to be running, fighting, fiercely defending that which was hers and in danger - but she remained on the settee, hands folded placidly over her lap.
"Ah yes, your dear aunt." There was something nasty hidden in the smoothness of his voice, and she waited for the cut that was sure to come. "I've been to visit her myself, and she told me all about your life at Tara."
Her brows drew together briefly, wondering what exactly had been told – after all, Pitty hadn't been told anything that might shock her, they'd been careful of that.
"It must be convenient, having your ardent lover under your roof and obligation."
'Oh,' she thought. 'Of course he means that. He would mention that.' She took a deep breath and bit her lip. "Ashley hasn't – wouldn't – it isn't like that anymore." Scarlett scrambled for words that would convince him, words that she could mean without betraying her secret. "He's changed since the war. He won't even try to help me!" There was a note of true anger and contempt in her voice, and she was surprised at herself. She shook her head and pushed away the frown that had briefly marred her pretty features. "Anyway, let's not talk about him. I came to see you, after all. Have you been well, Rhett?" she asked demurely. "I worried so, after you left us."
A cigar dangled idly in his fingers, and he raised an eyebrow to her. "Did you think that a bullet may have gotten me, my dear?"
"Well, you did go to war," she said, pointedly.
"And you would have been devastated if I didn't come home," he said, smiling faintly.
'Just that I didn't put the bullet there myself,' she thought viciously. "Of course!" She cast her eyes down to her fingers and clutched at her skirt, noting without emotion how the worn calico wrinkled from the warmth of her skin. "We've always been such good friends, Rhett. Even if you are a varmint, I hardly know what life would be like without you in it."
"It seems you've experienced that a great deal recently," he said. He set aside his cigar and leaned forward, taking one of her thin, cold hands and turning it over to inspect. "You've been working with these hands. Working in the fields, it looks like."
She hated him for seeing it, she hated that he recognized what it meant - as if her dress and manner of appearance had not already made it obvious how dire life at Tara was, for him to see her ruined hands! Again she suppressed her ire and nodded meekly. "It's so awful," she said, the misery in her voice now genuine. "We're all half-staved, there's nothing to eat there and so much work to do. I came to Atlanta to borrow a bit from Aunt Pitty, but Uncle Henry hardly has enough to keep a roof over her head and I can't afford a crumb of food at Atlanta prices, let alone any medicine. I'm not sure what I'll do now."
"Who needs medicine, honey?" His voice was so gentle, and he was so sweetly rubbing her rough fingers to bring warmth to them.
"Oh, Rhett." Her voice cracked and to her horror she felt a hot prickle behind her eyes. "Wade is so weak - he's like a kitten. I've tried to keep him strong by giving him as much of my shares as I can stand, but now he can't even keep it down. Dr. Fontaine says pneumonia and I -" she broke off with a sob and pulled her hands back to herself, horrified by the sudden onset of very real emotion. Exhaustion, hunger, and fear had made her weak and for a time she forgot her very purpose there.
His arms came around her then, and against his strong shoulder she allowed herself to release the pent-up tears. His voice murmured nonsense as he rubbed her back, and despite her best efforts found it soothing. When she pulled away he was holding a fine white handkerchief, his initials embroidered in red silk thread at the corner. "You've been strong for a long time, haven't you?" he asked, a note of pride in his voice.
She nodded weakly, taking the proffered linen and dabbing at her eyes. It was going better than she had planned, but now she was unsure of how to proceed. "I'm sorry to cry all over you, Rhett. I didn't mean to lay my troubles on you," she said, touching the spot of moisture her tears had left on his jacket and putting on a small, somewhat embarrassed smile. "I just came to see for myself that you were intact and then..."
She was not looking at him, so she did not see the brief, eager light that entered his eyes; she saw only the slight smirk that he offered when she raised her head. "Such concern for a man whom you despise, Scarlett!" He teased softly, taking one of her hands in his. "Can I take this visit to mean that I am forgiven for my crimes?"
"Hardly," she said, forcing a playful note into her voice as she said words that she still felt with such bitterness. "You really were awful, you know. Abandoning me there, helpless, when anything might have happened to me!"
"But nothing did happen to you. So, you see, my confidence in you was justified. I knew you'd get home safely and God help any Yankee who got in your way!"
She would not think of the Yankee deserter, buried beneath the scuppernong vines - no, no she would not think of that now. She would go mad if she thought about it now. "That may be," she said saucily. "But if you'd come along, then maybe -" she cut herself off. Along that path lay thoughts that she would not entertain - thoughts she could not entertain while keeping herself pleasant and pliable. "Anyway, that's not important. I'm just so glad to see you."
"Why, my dear, I'm almost conceited enough to think you care." There was a teasing note in his voice, but his grip on her hand tightened ever-so-slightly and he watched her closely as he spoke.
"Don't be silly, Rhett." She looked away, flushing faintly. That it was a flush of victory, and not modesty, he had no need to know. "You know how I care about you. You've always said we're cut from the same cloth and I...I've missed you." The lie came so easily to her lips that she nearly believed herself, for a moment. She hazarded a glance at his dark eyes and felt hope rise in her breast at the warmth in them. She bit her lip and looked swiftly down to her feet.
His hand closed over hers almost painfully as he spoke. "My God, Scarlett, you can't mean that you -"
She shut her eyes. He would kiss her now, she was sure of it. She remembered suddenly the passion and violence he had shown the night they left Atlanta, and she waited in half-fear of the feelings that he had stirred within her breast. The kiss did not come, and after a long moment she allowed her eyelashes to flutter open as she peeped a glance at him. His black head was bent over her hands and after a moment he lifted one, gently laying a kiss on the ugly red blister that had risen from a splash of boiling fat the day before. The tenderness of the gesture, coming as it did in the wake of such vivid memories, left her breathless. He laid her palm against his cheek, and the warm roughness of his skin felt like it burned. Triumph surged through her - any moment he would raise his head and it would be done. A declaration of love, or, dare she hope, a proposal? Oh, what she couldn't do for Tara then!
It seemed to take hours to end his reverie - what she wouldn't give to read his eyes as easily as he did hers! - but eventually he stood, pulling her with him gently. "Scarlett," he said, his voice very soft as he tilted her chin toward him. "Look at me."
She stubbornly kept her eyes downcast for just a moment longer - she needed time to order her thoughts. In her mind she paged through every pleasant encounter with Rhett Butler, every laugh they had shared and every warm, caring moment that had passed between them. She thought of the fondness she had always felt for him when he cared to be pleasing, and how he had risked his life to help them escape from Atlanta. She had those memories in her mind as she looked up him, and his breath caught.
This time as she tilted her face upward she did feel the press of his lips against hers - not the hard, insistent and driving kisses of the road to Rough and Ready, but something else, something soft and tender and more gentle than she would have thought a man of his size and strength could ever be. He held her against him as if she were precious, and she knew then, without a doubt, that he loved her – loved her despite the patched dress and emaciated body. It was a heady feeling, adrenaline surged through her veins with white hot pleasure. She wanted to laugh at him, to tell him how she despised him and break him the way the past year had broken her - but that would come later. The day would come when he regretted every cruel word he had ever thrown at her, but first she needed to secure her victory. Her arms crept around his neck, her fingertips sliding through his hair as she deepened the kiss. His response was immediate; his embrace pulling her flush against him and his lips suddenly moving faster, hotter, over her own. "Rhett," she sighed his name and tilted her face away. "Stop, please."
He paused, his breath warm against her neck. He pulled back only slightly, his eyes searching hers. "Should I brace myself for a slap?"
She bit her lip and tucked her chin down, hiding her face against the soft wool of his lapel. "No," she whispered.
"No?" There was a different question in his voice, one that sent a frisson of something unidentified –fear? excitement?- through her.
She felt his arm like steel around her waist, and for a brief, brief moment she thought of Ashley. Her glorious, golden-haired prince and those soft, sad eyes that had watched her leave Tara – oh, for an instant she felt like an adulteress, a traitor to the love she had so cherished – but despite herself she remembered the day he had returned from war. He had held Melanie as if he never wished to let her go, and that night Scarlett had fought her nightmares alone in her own bed, with neither love nor friendship to comfort her. How he had let her go alone – oh, he should have saved her from this! He let her go, when he knew her desperation, and he did not protect her. She hoped then with all her heart that Ashley did truly love her – so that this would pain him.
She tilted her head to meet his eyes, and a soft smile curved her lips. "I love you, Rhett."
His breath caught, and she felt his fingers dig in tightly at her waist. "Scarlett," he said softly, his eyes intent on hers. "I am not a man to toy with. Do not lie to me."
"I- I realized when we got to Tara," she said, trying to hide her fear. "I tried to be angry with you, but I just missed you so and I was so frightened that you'd be hurt. I thought the horrid things I said to you on the road would be the last memories you had of me and I hated myself." She forced herself to stop babbling – nerves were not convincing and she had to be convincing. All she had to do was make a man believe exactly what he wanted to, and she could do that, couldn't she? She smoothed herself internally and stepped out of his embrace. "I'm sorry," she said shortly, reaching for her reticule. "I forgot; you're not a marrying man. I shouldn't have said anything. You needn't worry, I won't repeat it."
"The hell you won't," he said fiercely. He gripped her shoulders and in a moment he was kissing her again. There was passion there that he had never shown her before, a demand that she could not help but acquiesce to and she wondered in the dimmest portion of her mind how she could have possibly thought to control such a man. "You'll repeat those words," he growled as his lips travelled down her throat. "Every day…for the rest of our lives."
"Our lives?" she asked breathlessly.
He released her, gentle once again. "My dear," he said, smiling. "I told you once that I had waited for you and that hasn't changed. Except that I will say that I have lost my patience – war will do that to a man."
Her stomach began to churn as she pondered her next movements. Could she – oh, could she marry him, even? Her heart cried out against this betrayal of her principles, the treachery against everything she had ever held dear. She knew without a doubt that her mother would turn over in her grave if she knew that Scarlett was thinking of accepting – plotting to entangle even! – a man who was not received by any decent family in the South.
Could she return to Tara as Mrs. Rhett Butler? Could she face her family, those who had heard her speak so ill of him? She remembered with a sudden flush of embarrassment the brief honeymoon she had shared with Charles. His awkward fumblings, the sharp pains and then – Wade. Rhett would not cower in an armchair while she avoided her wifely duties; nor would he calmly go to his death just a few convenient weeks after. She would have an entire lifetime of those humiliating encounters with no hope of reprieve.
"You are right though," he was saying. "I have never been a marrying man."
She was pulled rudely from her reverie and felt herself go cold at the thought that he might not want to marry her after all. "You – if you dare to suggest again that I –"
"I wouldn't dream of it, my dear Mrs. Hamilton," he said, half-mocking. "I have resigned myself to that most unfortunate of states. No, I intend to marry you, my dear, especially since you have now so kindly compromised yourself by staying so long in this room with me – I wouldn't want to face a duel with your great, bellowing Irishman of a father."
She thought of the weak, lost child whom she had left standing at the gates of Tara and for a moment she wanted to tell him, to have someone share her burdens, but she could not risk it yet. She wouldn't tell him that there was no one to object, no one even to ask for permission for her hand, save herself. Will Benteen would never say a word against her actions, no matter what his thoughts may be and everyone else…well, she couldn't think about that right now. She'd think about that when they got back to Tara. "Pa wouldn't do anything," she said quietly. "He – he isn't well. I don't want to talk about it, but…he won't do anything."
His expression softened again as a measure of understanding dawned upon him, and he brushed the pad of his thumb against her cheek. He kissed her again, gently, and took her arm, leading her firmly to the dining room of the National Hotel.
The rest of the day was a blur; she ate with a fervor that would have horrified Mammy and which should have left Rhett in tears of laughter – but his expression held no amusement, and he insisted that she have second helpings of the rich gravy and hot baked ham.
Before she could even think about what being his fiancée meant, she found herself in the courthouse, quickly signing away another name. The look he wore as he slid his ring onto her finger was one of pure fire; such that she was surprised when the metal did not melt, nor scorch her skin. She felt herself tremble nonetheless as his mustache tickled her lips in a kiss that was all too brief.
His hand did not leave her waist from the moment she said 'I do.' The heat of it sank into her, with neither corset nor chemise to dilute the sensation. She was sure that he felt her lack of proper undergarments and she squirmed internally that he should know of yet another aspect of their poverty. The carriage ride to the hotel was nerve-wracking, the pressure from his grip feeling tighter than any stays could have been.
When they arrived at the hotel he took her arm and moved them quickly through the lobby, and his - their, she corrected herself internally - room was still distant when he swept her into his arms, holding her bird-like frame close to his chest. He carried her effortlessly, and in a moment the door was slamming closed on the suite. He lowered her to her feet and she had only a moment to absorb the shocking luxury of the room - plush carpets! Clean bedding! - before his lips were on hers. These were not the slow, seductive kisses of that morning; these were passionate, and demanded that she respond in kind. By nature she could not resist rising to any challenge, and so she answered the provocation in his dark eyes with a fervor that surprised them both. She opened her mouth to his kiss, meeting his hot tongue with her own and fanning the flames that had risen within him. A small, Savannah-bred voice in the back of her mind began to lecture on the nature of a lady's marriage, and for a moment she faltered, but a whisper of her name on his breath brought her back to the present. His fingers began to work at her buttons with a familiar dexterity that would have left her trembling with jealous fury in any other instance, and in what seemed like only moments her basque was pushed from her shoulders as those nimble fingers began to draw patterns across her bare skin.
Though it would certainly horrify her later, she found herself echoing his ardor; her hands were pushing frantically at his jacket and, once that obstacle had been removed, at his necktie and the small ivory buttons that dotted the front of his starched white shirt. Her small fingers deftly pushed aside his cotton obstacles and ran lightly over his chest, charting the newly uncovered skin with a zeal that surprised her.
For an instant he smiled at her, amusement glittering in his eyes at the eagerness she displayed before him; but as her bare chest met his he found that his enjoyment of the moment was of an entirely different nature. He pulled her flush against him, and with one quick motion her dress was puddle at her feet. The suddenness of her nudity shocked her from the fog of passion, and she went rigid in his arms.
Rhett released her, momentarily stunned as she bolted from his embrace, pulling her fallen dress against her chest to provide some measure of modesty. She stared resolutely at the floor as he took a long look at her – focused gentlemanly on her face – and finally chuckled quietly. "My dear," he said. "You are the very picture of a Victorian moralist."
She frowned, but did not raise her eyes. "It isn't decent," she mumbled finally, clutching her dress tighter and backing toward the bed.
"Scarlett," he said, taking her hands firmly in his and forcing her to let the gown drop. "It is not indecent to enjoy the touch of your husband. I would think it would be indecent not to." Again there was laughter in his voice, though the look in his eyes as he took in her form was intense.
He stood then and removed what remained of his clothing. She closed her eyes and sat atop the coverlet, knowing what the remaining process would entail; now came the pain and discomfort she remembered. He climbed into the bed beside her, and she held her breath. After a long moment his voice whispered in her ear, firm and demanding as his breath raised goose bumps on her skin.
"Open your eyes, Scarlett," he said. "Look at me."
She thought of fighting him, resisting the further degradation of having to see him – but she complied nonetheless. He was leaning over her, and when she met his eyes she found the sharp lines of his face as unreadable as ever. He kissed her then, a long succession of kisses that were, in turns, as sweet and soft as butterfly wings and as hot and melting as the Georgia sun. She lost herself in them; slowly her tense muscles relaxed, and she became pliant beneath his caressing hands.
She gasped sharply as his hand stroked her breast, and perspiration began to break across her skin. She had not been prepared for this! Oh, she had suspected that bad women may enjoy such things, but for him to behave so with his wife? She wanted desperately to object, to deny him this debauchery as a proper lady ought – but how she craved for it to continue! She had never felt anything so undignified, and it appealed to the something earthy in her blood. She arched her back as his tongue traced across the path his fingers had so recently forged, and a sudden, gentle suckling forced a moan from her somewhere deep in her throat.
Rhett chuckled against her, and she found that she had reached for him; her fingers were threaded into the velvety strands of his hair and her nails scraping lightly against his scalp. His attentions switched to her other breast, and she whimpered softly at the brief cessation. He looked up from his new task and grinned at her before blowing softly over the dampened skin.
Scarlett tried to look away as he shifted closer, but he commanded again that she meet his gaze. "Rhett –" she started to speak, but he hushed her as his clever fingers moved from her waist to the tender flesh below. She cried out, arching against him at the new, dizzying sensations he was sending through her body. The shame that had roiled in her belly was slowly dissipating; the dim fear of God and damnation were drowned out by Rhett's heartbeat pounding close to her own and the white hot pleasure of his lips as they burned a trail across her skin.
She had thought, vaguely, that she could simply accept him, as a wife should – but he was not satisfied with acceptance. He drew her out with soft caresses and tender kisses, and then, as she grew comfortable with the sensations, demanded more. He was no longer simply touching her; he was controlling her, his movements in and around her were confident and sure, and he seemed to know without words how to send sparks across her flesh. She choked back a cry, and what emerged was instead a low moan of pleasure.
He responded with undisguised lust, and in a moment he was positioned above her. There was no fumbling and no awkwardness as he united them; she bit her lip, hard, but did not flinch as he sheathed himself in her. He remained still as she adjusted to the discomfort, and the kindness of it struck her sharply. His dark eyes held her mesmerized as slowly he began to move within her – gently at first, but reaching a rhythm quickly. Skin met skin over and again, and a feeling rose in her more intoxicating than any whiskey or wine.
Her breath came short, and the dizzying sweetness swirled to heights of pleasure she could not have imagined before him. A swirling heat seemed to tighten in her belly, and she called his name in a voice that she hardly knew as her own – a low, trembling voice, rough with desire. She broke under his ministrations, and she took him with her. He did not collapse upon her the way Charles had, knocking the breath from her body with his clumsiness; Rhett rolled away from her gently and then pulled her close again, tucking her small body against him and burying his face in her hair. She wondered, with slow, drowsy thoughts, when he had unpinned it.
She fell asleep with the warmth of Rhett's chest against her back, and the sound of his heartbeat steady and soothing in her ear.
The dim light of first dawn awoke her to a brief feeling of panic - at dawn there were chores to be done, and she had already slept too long if she could see it peeking through her window. It took several long moments to realize that she was not at Tara at all; she was in Atlanta, in the suite of rooms belonging to Rhett Butler. She was married now, the property of man for whom she had frequently felt nothing but hatred. She flushed at the memory of the previous night, and wondered at the gulf of difference between this experience and her vague memories of Charles.
She knew that she had trapped herself. She was now forever barred from even the comforting dreams of Ashley's arms - she could never let Rhett think for a moment that she still held her feelings for Ashley, Lord only knew what he would do if he felt himself deceived. There would never again be a hope for a future without the shadow of Melanie Hamilton hanging over their head, but at least now she could ensure his safety. With Rhett's money she would be able to save Tara and keep them all fed and clothed and protected from the harshness of the new world they had found themselves in. She hated to think that he would know how low she had fallen for them, but she had no choice now. There was no going back.
The idea that she would no longer have to struggle presented itself in an oddly detached way. To be free from the constant strain of fear, to sleep with a full belly beneath a warm blanket, it seemed to be too much. To get through a night without waking in a cold sweat with dreams of death and starvation at one's heels? She could no longer imagine being such a carefree person. She stared at the richly papered wall and tried to force her mind back to peace, to much-needed rest, but it evaded her, and slowly her mind began to focus on the body behind her, the arm at her waist, and the dark hand that even in sleep was gently cupping her breast. Scarlett felt herself flush from head to toe and gently adjusted her position to escape his grasp; the arms around her became like iron for an instant but they relaxed quickly, allowing her to move freely.
She let herself settle back into the embrace with a soft sigh, hoping at least for a few calm hours before he woke.
"Trouble sleeping, my dear?" His breath tickled her ear and she shivered slightly at the unfamiliar, sleep-induced hoarseness in his voice.
"No," she lied easily, glad of the darkness that hid her from his piercing gaze. There was a pause and then he was shifting beside her, propping himself up to see her face. He brushed the hair away from her face and made her meet his eyes.
"Scarlett," he said quietly. "I can't help you unless you're honest. Let me help you. Tell me what's wrong, honey."
The warmth of his gaze was unnerving, and she resented him for it. She had grown accustomed to being given the fear and respect that her sharp tongue afforded her, but Rhett had always treated her like a child to be coddled and teased. She would love to be coddled, given hugs and promises that her load would be lifted, but she could never trust that his response would be kind and teasing might break her.
"It's nothing, Rhett," she said. "I'm...worried about Wade." The fact that she had hardly thought of the boy from the moment she had secured nutrition for him did not make the statement inherently untrue.
"How maternal." His tone held no mockery, but she felt the implied disbelief nonetheless.
"You could never understand," she said, suddenly angry. "You've never starved."
"I spent eight months in the Confederate Army," he replied mildly. "I seem to recall a bit of hunger, my dear."
She pushed him away and climbed out of the bed, turning furiously. "You have no idea!" She began to pace in tight circles about the room. "I don't care how little they had; someone was giving it to you - stealing it from us and giving it to you. You weren't digging in the dirt with your bare hands and trying not to eat what you found because someone else needed it more." Her voice cracked but she carried on, quickly losing herself to hysteria. "It didn't matter how hungry I was, I had to give it all to them because they were old, or young, or sick! I came home and Mother was dead and Pa had gone mad and there was only me to keep everyone alive so don't tell me you understand!"
"Stop! By God, Scarlett, stop!" He was beside her somehow, and shaking her. She flew at him, her small fists pounded against him with helpless fury.
"I hate you for leaving us there! You left us to die, and I hope you burn in hell for it! I'll never forgive you as long as I live!"
He pulled her tight against his chest, pinning her arms between them; she struggled briefly before she collapsed with a sob.
"I'm so tired, Rhett. I can barely move, I'm so tired."
"I know," he murmured, the fight gone from both of them. "I'm here now, honey, and you won't have to struggle anymore."
She no longer had the energy for even the small, bitter laugh that wanted to escape her. She simply allowed him to sweep her into his arms and carry her back to the bed, tucking her in gently. It was difficult to resist the picture he painted; for the moment he was being kind, and she so dearly wanted kindness in her life. She turned her face into her pillow again, a dull comfort being found in the softness of the down wrapped about her person. No, she would not have to struggle for food and comfort ever again - but the knowledge that she had entered into a new war frightened her. She understood the fight for survival, she could pit herself against the world and keep her family alive, but a battle of wits against Rhett Butler was terrifying. She shivered as he pulled her close, and she wondered what would happen if he ever realized that she had tricked him.