Author's Notes: I know it's been a terribly long time and I'm so sorry! I must have written a dozen pages worth of discarded nonsense over the past couple of years trying to get the second chapter before finally finding a way to get it the way I wanted. Hopefully it won't be so trying for chapter 3.
AN2: So many thank yous for everyone that has ever replied to this story - I'm always terrible about replying to feedback (I always feel so awkward accepting praise and I don't want to get involved in fights with flamers), but please know that I appreciate each and every comment and reread them to bring up my spirits on sad days. Thank you so much.
Finally: Particular praise should be issued to Stephanie G., without whom this story would be full of horrific comma usage and ridiculous tense shifting. Literally the best beta reader I've ever had.
A Winter Fever
Their arrival in Jonesboro was heralded only by a peg-legged man, idly chewing a length of straw from a small buckboard cart. Scarlett eyed Rhett as he scanned the town, taking in the pitiful changes that the war had wrought upon it. Gone were the pristine storefronts and neatly shingled homes – nearly all had been burned to the ground during the fighting, and in their places were meager shacks made from whatever wood could be salvaged or cut down from the neighboring forests.
He did not even register Will Benteen, as she had known he would not, but her heart warmed at the sight of Will's grizzled face. He could bring peace to her in much the way that Tara did – he represented strength, and loyalty, and love of the land; concepts which could quietly soothe even her most passionate furies. A younger Scarlett would have shuddered in horror at the mere presence of a poor, ill-educated Cracker within Tara's walls, but she had learned well the value of his calloused hands.
"Will," she said, flashing him a genuine smile. He met her with a respectful nod, before reaching for her small valise.
"All yours?" he asked, nodding at the parcels that the porter had piled at the edge of the platform. If he felt any surprise at the opulence, he did not show it. At Scarlett's nod, he began to move them onto the wagon.
"Will," Scarlett said again, reaching for his arm. "This is Rhett Butler. My – my new husband." Her tongue tripped over the words, unfamiliar and alien as they felt.
"Congratulations, Miz Scarlett," Will said calmly, before extending a hand to Rhett. "Mr. Butler."
Scarlett smiled fondly; nothing ever fazed Will. It was comforting. "Rhett, this is Will Benteen. He lives with us at Tara; he's part of the family now."
She watched closely as Rhett shook the man's hand, ready to fight like a cat at the first sign of contempt, but Rhett was on his best behavior, and she slowly relaxed as he began to help pack the buggy.
"How is Wade?" she asked quietly.
"Well," Will paused, chewing thoughtfully. "Mammy got a bowl of broth in him last night, and he et it well enough. Fever ain't broke, but it don't seem to be troublin' him so much. Slept a mite easier with a full belly."
"That's a mercy at least," Scarlett said, frowning thoughtfully. "We've brought more food, and good fabric, too, so everyone will be able to say that tomorrow."
"I reckon so."
Between the hands of the two men, the wagon was soon loaded down with supplies, and she climbed into the back, settling herself as comfortably as she could against a bolt of heavy flannel. Rhett said very little else during the trip through the County, though somewhere along the winding road, his arms wrapped around her and his chin rested gently against her thick knot of hair. He had hardly let her out of his arms since she woke that morning, but he was warm and solid, and it wasn't entirely unpleasant. She closed her eyes and leaned against him, enjoying the quiet beat of his heart as they drove steadily on toward her home.
"My dear," his voice rumbled softly in her ear, and she blinked. She looked up at him, and he was smiling at her in a way that she liked – the way that meant he was going to be pleasant and kind to her. "We're nearly there."
She smiled in a confused sort of way – why, Tara was miles away! – before she looked about her. She must have fallen asleep against his shoulder, for she could see the small copse that hid the road to Mimosa just behind them. She frowned and shifted away from him, peering into the fields. "But, oh! We're practically home. Rhett, why did you let me sleep?"
"You didn't exactly ask my permission," he said, but he was still smiling at her and there was no meanness in his voice.
He said something else, but his words were lost to her; her heart was pounding so that she could hear nothing else. In a moment they had cleared the forest, and the whitewashed walls appeared in view. She wondered if the day would ever come that she crested this hill without a cold knot of fear in the pit of her stomach…if she would ever come to have faith that her home was still standing on the other side.
She turned to Rhett, waiting for his reaction. She knew that the plantation at its height had never compared to the mansions of Charleston and now the kindest words to describe it were 'run down', but it was the home she loved, the home she had bled, cried and starved for.
His voice was warm when he spoke, and his eyes looked at her with pride. "The Yankees picked a poor foe in you," he said. "I think we may have won after all, if we'd brought a woman like you to the front lines." He lifted one of her work-roughened hands and pressed a soft kiss to the calloused flesh. "You've done well, my dear."
Scarlett felt a flush of pleasure. "Fiddle-dee-dee, Rhett, how you do run on," she tugged her hand free and instead looped it through his arm. Even through layers of new, store-bought clothes, she felt the warmth of him sinking into her skin, soothing her aching muscles and her fears. She rested her head lightly against his shoulder, closing her eyes and enjoyed the gentle rocking of the buggy until they reached the house.
He helped her from the seat, keeping his hand at her waist as they approached the steps. She glanced back at the carriage and was relieved to see Will making fast work removing the stacks of boxes and bolts of fabric from the buggy. She assumed that rest of the family was out in the fields, and she could hardly afford to have them wasting the day unloading packages when there were chores to be done.
The fact that struggling in the fields was no longer necessary was not one that she was prepared to face, no matter how close she had come to crying when she saw the sheer quantity of food that had been purchased for them.
The sound of the carriage must have roused the few allowed to remain indoors, because in a moment a wide black face had appeared, disapproval already apparent on her lips. "Who dat?" Mammy's eyes narrowed in suspicion of the man holding her mistress with such familiarity.
"Mammy, darling, don't be rude!" Scarlett chided sweetly.
The old woman's lower lip began to protrude, objections ready to spill forth. If Scarlett was being sweet no one was going to like the outcome.
"This is Captain Butler," Scarlett continued. "We were married yesterday in Atlanta."
Mammy's eyes went wide with shock, and she looked between them in dumb silence for a long moment. The required niceties overcame her outrage at the breech in decorum. "Well, bless you, then, Miss Scarlett."
Scarlett kept the smile pinned to her face, knowing full well that the former slave would have a mouthful of venom when they were alone, but Rhett, husband or not, was an outsider and appearances must be maintained.
Rhett grinned at her, his white teeth shining in the morning sun. "It's a pleasure to meet the woman who has been so very responsible for making my Scarlett the woman she is today."
Both women paused, feeling an insult hidden in the words but unable to quite pin it down.
"Captain Butler?" the soft voice of Melanie Wilkes instantly turned their eyes toward the door. She came around, eyes brightening. "Oh, it is you! I'm so very glad you made it back to Atlanta, I worried I may never get the chance to thank you for saving me and my little Beau."
"No gentleman could have resisted the fervent pleas of your dear, dedicated sister," he drawled, bowing lightly. "And knowing your plight, neither could I."
Melanie smiled. "You speak ill of yourself, Captain Butler, but you saved our lives that night. We wouldn't be here if not for you."
"And I've done nothing, I suppose?" Scarlett asked peevishly.
"Oh, darling, you know that isn't true! But we couldn't have even left Aunt Pitty's if it weren't for Captain Butler."
Scarlett said nothing, sure that if she opened her mouth then she would say something she would regret.
"But sir, glad as we all are to have you," to her credit, Melanie did not look at Scarlett as she spoke, though they both remembered the many times he had been mentioned as 'that skunk, Rhett Butler.' "What has brought you to Tara?"
"Well, Melly, I know that it's sudden," Scarlett began, delicately placing her left hand over her sister-in-law's. "But after I ran into Rhett in Atlanta and realized how I'd missed him, well," she glanced significantly at the small gold band sparkling on her finger. "We were married yesterday."
There was a pause, and then Melanie threw her small arms around Scarlett's neck. "Oh, my darling, I'm so happy I could cry!" She held the embrace for several long seconds before turning to Rhett, shyness once again turning her expression hesitant, though her dark eyes were lit with joy. "Welcome to our family, Captain Butler. I am so very glad."
Mammy snorted to herself, mumbling loudly about 'young missus what shame dey family' and 'men dat ain't gentlemen' as she retired into the house.
Rhett smiled and bowed again to Melanie. "I'm certain that the pleasure in joining your dear family is all mine, Mrs. Wilkes."
Scarlett reached for his arm and tugged him toward the door. "I hate to interrupt, Melly, but I simply must change, and I haven't seen Wade yet – I know Will said he'd been doing a bit better but I want a look."
"Oh, darling, of course," Melanie replied, walking with them into the house. She bit her lip and hesitated before continuing. "He's still very feverish, he kept down a bit of soup last night but this morning he seemed worse again." She flushed a bit, embarrassed and disapproving. "Your father gave him a bit of the corn whiskey he keeps about. It seemed to, ah, help a bit."
Scarlett stopped, alarm clear in her eyes. "Corn whiskey! Why, that rotgut could kill a horse, why ever did you let him?"
"Mammy agreed it would at least help him rest," Melanie explained anxiously. "He was exhausting himself crying."
"Well, I brought medicine from town," Scarlett said, a deep frown creasing her lovely brow. "And plenty of food – there's a tureen of chicken soup I had them make at the National, could you see to it that it gets heated for me? And there are some good fresh vegetables from the market in Atlanta he could do with, too. Have Mammy help you; and I'll be down soon to see to the unpacking."
Melanie agreed readily and hurried after Will and the packages that Mammy was certainly already organizing. Scarlett led Rhett up the stairs to the bedrooms, but she could glean no sense of his thoughts on the home she loved so dearly.
He said nothing, but she saw his eyes rake across her bedroom – she was all too aware of the lumps made by a rough straw tick, and just remembering the thinness of the worn quilt made her shiver in the cool room. She hated that he could see the stained, threadbare dresses hanging in her armoire, and raised her chin proudly. As sad as it was to see, it was only through the sweat of her brow that it had survived and by god, she was proud of it.
The click of the door closing behind her brought them both back to the present. He pulled her to him, holding her thin frame against his broad chest and encircling her with his arms. There was no hurry in him now, no blinding rush of passion that moved time too quickly. He kissed her slowly, his fingers sliding across her body as if needing to be certain that every inch of her was still with him. He moved behind her, slowly removing the pins that held the remainders of her once-smooth chignon in place. He swept her freed locks across her neck, and she shivered as his fingers brushed her skin. His lips followed, and she arched unconsciously into his embrace as he traced a path across her shoulder. Such behavior in daylight was terrible and shocking - she wasn't entirely sure it was any less shocking in the dark - but somehow he seemed to know exactly what would draw her out, ruining every attempt she made at being appropriately aloof.
She shook her head to clear it, objections on her lips. "Rhett, stop, please - not now. I want to check on Wade and the family, and it's not even dinnertime yet. It isn't decent."
He held her against him for another moment, and despite herself she enjoyed the feel of his warmth against her chilled skin. He pressed one last kiss to the soft skin of her neck and released her. She shivered briefly in cold of the room, but her spine straightened quickly and she gathered the pins he had so carelessly discarded, quickly twisting her hair back up into a somewhat rough bun. She pulled one of her old dresses from the cabinet, wrinkling her nose at it but knowing it was far more appropriate for the sickroom than her new traveling gown was. Rhett stopped her hand at the door before she could open it to summon Mammy. "I'll help you," he said.
She stared at him, the very suggestion leaving her in a state of shock. "Oh," she managed finally. She nodded, and stood beside the bed as he ran his fingers over the multitude of buttons securing the pretty velvet basque. She'd been forced to wear an additional ruffled chemise underneath it to fill the bodice, and she was embarrassed to realize that he would see it. Although she had always prided herself on her tiny waist, it had always been complimented by pleasant curves. Now the smallest pre-made gown carried by the dry goods store was too large, and she longed for the luxury of fat.
To his credit, he did not linger overlong at his task, and soon she was dressed in the cleanest of her worn calico dresses. He followed her through the house to the room that held her son, and watched her as she checked over the child. She forced a spoonful of the doctor's vile liquid down his throat; watching calmly as he sputtered but never taking her eyes from him until she was certain it had all been taken in, and followed by several large mouthfuls of the warm chicken soup Mammy had sent up with Prissy.
She instructed the flighty girl to be sure he ate the rest, but slowly, so as not to make him sick. "No sense in having it come right back up again," she said. She glanced at Rhett, catching his eyes and blushing. It was rare for anyone to see her in so domestic a role - even the family here had rarely witnessed tenderness in Scarlett's demeanor. He didn't tease her, and he moved to Wade's side and gently brushed the boy's hair from his eyes, his expression soft.
"Would you like to see the rest of Tara?" she asked, hesitating slightly.
He nodded. "Shouldn't I get to know my new home?" he replied. She smiled and nodded, taking his arm as they descended the back stairs.
Despite herself, she was excited to show him the grounds she had slaved over for so many months. She was proud of herself, and she'd had no one to see it in such a very long time. He made the appropriate noises as she pointed to the fields, explaining what they had done already and what she intended to do the coming months. That her plans would change now was unspoken, but they both knew that whatever came of their lives, she would never be putting her hands to soil again.
It was nice to have someone who listened to her ideas and gave some of his own. She could always count on Will to do what she needed, but he was no visionary, and Ashley…well, she hardly blamed him for being distant. He had no experience in it, after all, and had been bred to be a gentleman, not a farmer. She was surprised to find how quickly the time passed with Rhett at her side.
They saw none of the family in the fields, and Scarlett had nearly begun to worry that something was wrong when she heard the sound of an ax striking wood from within the nearby woods. A troubled grunt followed, and her heart sped up. Ashley.
She glanced at Rhett, but he bore no expression. She could not change their course now, not without causing suspicion, but was she ready to confront him? Was her heart locked so tightly that she could hide her love from eyes that knew all too well what to look for? She had no time to decide, and moments later he came into view.
The sight of him splitting rails shot pain through her heart. Her darling prince, who ought to have been lounging in the sun, reading incomprehensible poetry and drinking the sweetest wines, was reduced to this. She smothered it as quickly as she could, forcing her expression to one of bland disinterest, and rested her head against Rhett's shoulder.
He had heard them approach, and his eyes were dull and sad when they met hers. They held briefly, and then slid to the arm about her waist - an arm that suddenly felt like steel.
"Scarlett." Ashley nodded first to her then to Rhett. "Captain Butler. Melanie found me and informed me of the happy news; I hear there are felicitations to be offered."
"Yes, thank you." Rhett's voice was smooth as silk. "We are very happy."
"I was just showing Rhett about Tara," Scarlett said, attempting to fill the uncomfortable silence. "He's been to the county before, of course, but never here. Why the very first time we met was at Twelve Oaks." Damn, she thought, why would she bring up that, of all things?
She felt, rather than saw, the nasty smile that crept across Rhett's face. "Yes, my dear," he said. "I recall quite vividly. You struck me from the very first moment with your…passion for living."
Ashley blanched, and in that moment she saw that he knew Rhett had heard them so many years ago, and what exactly that meant. He murmured an apology and brushed past them toward the house.
She stared at Rhett for a long, silent moment before shaking her head. "Was that really necessary?" she asked, pursing her lips. "Now he'll never be comfortable around you."
"Good," he replied, pulling her tight against his side. He took her chin in his fingers and forced her eyes up to meet his. "I couldn't have the honorable Mr. Wilkes thinking he still held a claim on your heart, could I, my dear?"
Scarlett raised herself up to her toes and pressed her lips lightly against Rhett's. "That was then," she murmured. "This is now." She smiled coyly and pulled back, her fingers playing lightly over the silk of his cravat. "Though I rather like the look of jealousy on you, Captain Butler; it's very handsome."
"You are a heartless creature," he said, a small smile teasing at his lips. "But that's part of your charm."
"Now, don't be mean or I won't forgive you." She pouted at him. "Let's go back to the house, Rhett; it must be dinner time by now."
He tucked her hand into his elbow and led her out of the trees, but they made little progress toward the house. Waiting just beyond the thicket was Gerald, staring listlessly over the fields. He heard them coming and turned to them, but still seemed very far away.
"Pa," Scarlett called sweetly, glad for his distraction. "I'm home, darling. Oh, you remember Captain Butler, don't you?"
Gerald's eyes were wide and slightly glassy; he looked briefly to the swarthy man at her side, but his faint attention soon focused on Scarlett. "You have been missed, daughter," he said slowly.
"I was only gone for two days," Scarlett replied. "Didn't I tell you I'd be back as soon as I could?"
He nodded, and shook himself. "Yes," he said. He remembered his manners and a slightly confused smile appeared on his face as he held out his hand to Rhett, his tone of voice reminding Scarlett painfully of the days when they had hosted parties and welcomed guests from afar. "Captain Butler, 'tis good of you to pay us a visit."
"It's my pleasure," Rhett said, his voice pleasantly respectful. He stepped forward and took the proffered hand, shaking it firmly.
"Rhett isn't a visitor," Scarlett interrupted, smiling brightly. "He's come to stay." She stuck out her hand and showed the ring upon her left hand. "We were married yesterday, in Atlanta."
There was a pause as Gerald processed this information, and with an almost audible snap, he understood. The fog cleared from his eyes, and his naturally ruddy complexion darkened like Georgia clay after a rain. "Do you mean to tell me, Katie Scarlett O'Hara, that you've married a man who was too much of a coward and a brigand to ask your father's permission? You've married with not a blessed member of your family to witness it? What sort of scoundrel would make you feel such shame as to hide it from all your kith and kin?"
"Now, Pa," Scarlett said, her voice dripping with sweetness. "It's hardly like we were strangers before - after all, isn't his mother my Aunt Eulalie's best friend? Why, you met Rhett when he first started courting me and you liked him very well then, didn't you?"
There was no confusion in his expression as he scowled at her. "Liked him? The traitor who wouldn't even take up arms against the Yankees? A man who choked us with our own purse strings!" His voice echoed furiously down the lane. "A man who would marry a girl with nary a word to her father is no man to respect, Katie Scarlett!"
"Now, Pa, don't you think it's even a bit romantic? And he's been courting me in Atlanta for years, you know."
"And it's courting you're calling it now?" Gerald bellowed, eyes snapping blue fire. "A new widow being paraded about, reputation in shambles from his attentions?"
Rhett bowed his head, whether in deference to her father's ire or to hide the smile twitching at his lips, Scarlett could not quite decide which. "My sincerest apologies, Mr. O'Hara. I'm afraid that my deep regard for your daughter overwhelmed both propriety and my own common sense - after this cruel year apart, our reunion was too dear to delay marriage any further."
Scarlett stared at him in suspicion, unable to quite shake the feeling that they were being made fun of. He was too solemn, too respectful; it wasn't like him at all, and that usually meant he was laughing at her.
Her father frowned, clearly disturbed - though Scarlett doubted he had picked up on Rhett's amusement. "And that her father may not approve was no hindrance to you, I take it?"
"Not at all, sir," Rhett replied, his countenance carefully smooth. "As much as I respect you, I'm afraid I would not have taken no for an answer."
Scarlett smiled despite herself, pleased by his response. Gerald caught her expression and softened. "Well, puss," he said, chucking her under the chin. "I've misgivings, but your own life, so 'tis. If you're made happy, that's all a father could ask."
She blushed and stepped forward, throwing her arms around him. "Oh, Pa, you darling, thank you. I couldn't stand to have you angry with me."
He took the embrace with pleasure then shuffled about awkwardly when she took Rhett's arm again. "Let us back to the house, then, daughter. I'll need to break this to Mrs. O'Hara gently, you know. She'll not approve so easy as I have."
Scarlett's face fell, and she nodded. "Of course, Pa. You speak to Mother for me, I'm sure you can convince her."
Rhett glanced at her, but she just shook her head; he nodded. It really did not take any explanation, after all. They followed him the rest of the way back in silence.
It took very little time for Wade to recover. Whether through the gifts of Dr. Meade or the simple benefit of good food it was hard to say, but within just over a week he was well on his way to recovery, and the family began to breathe easy again, slowly settling into a new pattern that did not involve a desperate struggle to survive. Scarlett kept herself busy organizing their new finances, maintaining a careful tally of every dollar that was spent on her home and promising in her mind to pay every dime of it back once the plantation was at its former glory.
Rhett had taken it upon himself to visit Jonesboro and hire workers. Field hands would not be needed until the spring planting season, but there was little left of the former slave quarters in which to house them, and he didn't trust them to come from town every day. He purchased the needed lumber and promised a fair wage to any man who was willing to work hard. It took time to find the sort of men they wanted, and it was Will Benteen in the end that arranged it. He knew the right people in town, and they respected him. People didn't trust the silver-tongued Butler, but everyone knew that Will was a man of his word.
Scarlett was still unable to understand the idea that her struggle was ending - that her blistered fingers would heal and once again be the soft and delicate flesh of a lady. It was beyond imagining in the world she had grown so used to. She often found herself waking in the dead of night and sneaking to the kitchen, just to be sure that the food was still there, that she was not dreaming.
One such night, Scarlett stopped short of the kitchen. There was a candle burning in her mother's office, and Ashley sat in a worn old high-backed chair, engrossed in one of Ellen's books. It was late - she hadn't expected to see anyone - and she was suddenly keenly aware of her dishabille - a red velvet dressing gown over her thin nightdress and loose hair tumbling down her back. Only a few minutes earlier she had been in her husband's arms; the memory of Rhett's fingers gliding across her skin came to mind and she flushed, hoping he would not realize. "Forgive me," she said awkwardly. "I thought everyone was asleep." She was torn - embarrassed at her appearance, but treasuring the chance at a precious moment alone with him.
"No, I apologize," Ashley replied, setting aside the leather-bound volume. He took in her rumpled appearance and his expression tightened. "Scarlett," he said, his voice laced with some unknown suffering. "I planned to tell you tomorrow, but…Melly and I are leaving. We're moving to Atlanta to stay with her Aunt Pittypat. You don't need us here now, and I need to make my own way in the world."
"What!" Scarlett's eyes were wild and she approached him, heedless now of proprieties. "Not - not need you? Why, Ashley, you're - you know that you're the only thing in the world I do need. I can't - I can't be without you."
"Oh, Scarlett, you don't want me. I'm a coward and a cad - I knew what you were willing to do to take care of Wade but I let you go." He stopped her approach, holding her gently at arm's length. "Dear, I should have stopped you, found the money somehow - committed highway robbery if I could, but I didn't. I let you join yourself for life to a man like Butler. I'm ashamed of myself. No, you don't need me."
"No, I couldn't have let you - it was my task, how could I ask you to save me from it? All I want is your support, my darling, that's why you can't leave me. Don't you see I have the courage to face anything, so long as you love me?"
"My dear, how can I do that?" He neared her, and the warmth of his body thrilled her, even as his words sent chills through her heart. "You want me to stay and witness the hell of your marriage to that scoundrel? To know that you are forced to accept him as your husband because I failed you? No, darling, you ask too much of me."
"Oh, but you haven't failed me!" Her eyes were bright and shining in the candlelight. He suffered knowing that Rhett could have her - he grieved for the loss of her. Even if he never spoke the words, his pain alone told her what she had always believed. He loved her. She wanted now only to comfort him and see him happy again. "You mustn't torture yourself like this; why, Rhett isn't as terrible as you think he is, even if he isn't a gentleman. Oh! Darling, please don't look at me so."
"Scarlett, I've hidden from the new world for too long, and now it has come to find me. I've let you do the work of a man and taken shelter under your roof because I feared what was beyond it, but I cannot do that any longer. You are so much braver than I am, but I can't let you face the world in my stead for another day." He held up a hand against her protest, and he swallowed hard as tears began to fill her eyes. "I have made a decision. Allow me the dignity of this, at least." He gave her one last, sad look, and then he was gone.
She bit her trembling lip and swallowed against the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. How had everything gone so horribly wrong? Surely she could think of a way to make him stay - she would think of something, she had to. She would think about that tomorrow.
"No so terrible, my pet?" Rhett's silky voice was too calm, and she felt her heart jump as he entered the room, moving to lean casually against the heavy wood desk. "What kind words for the man you love. How fickle is woman!"
"Rhett." Scarlett hated the tremor in her voice. "I - I didn't -" she took a deep breath. "How dare you listen in on a private conversation?"
His eyes glittered in the dim candlelight, and his low voice was hard as steel. "What a brazen whore you are. Defiant to the last, even when caught and cornered, even shaking in fear, you're still full of fire."
"You haven't cornered me," she shot back. "And you'll never frighten me, Rhett Butler."
"Oh?" Quick as lightning, his hand was wrapped tightly about her arm, and he gestured grandly to the room and house beyond them. "Why, dearest wife of mine, perhaps you forget that as your husband, I own your property. All of your property. I am fully capable of having your father locked away in a madhouse, and I could sell this great white monstrosity to the lowest Yankee bidder if I chose to. You could be left without as much as the ground beneath your pretty little feet if the mood strikes. If I don't frighten you, then you're a fool."
"You wouldn't." She felt his fingers clench tighter and flinched. There was no hint of affection in his black gaze. "You would never. I'm your wife."
"My wife. Yes, you are that. Ill-behaved and poorly suited to the job though you may be." He held her away from him, glancing over her appraisingly. "If you cannot be trusted with your own fidelity, then I am apparently tasked with it myself. Tomorrow you will tell your beloved that you accept his decision to leave, and that he is, in fact, never again welcome beneath this roof, or any other that shelters your black heart. You will never be alone in his presence again. Your cheating little soul will never have another secret moment with the saintly Mr. Wilkes."
"Rhett." Scarlett was breathless with the horror of the future he presented. "You can't expect me to do that. Why, Melly's my sister, you can't ask me to -"
"No one is asking. If you do not obey me, I will reveal you both, destroy your lives and reputation. No one cares for adulteresses, Scarlett. I could wring your neck in front of the courthouse and the law would look the other way."
She raised her chin and jerked at the arm he held captive. "You may hold the power but don't think that you can break me, Rhett Butler. You can put as much distance between us as you like, lock me in a tower where I never see him again, but it won't matter because my heart is his. I will never love you."
His bland mask broke, and for the briefest moment she saw clearly the heat of fury glowing in his eyes. Her thin shoulders vanished under the span of his hands and he shook her fiercely. "Listen to me, Scarlett O'Hara. I don't give a damn if you love me, but you will not make a fool of me. And by god if that's why you've married me, know that I will kill you both before I see Ashley Wilkes' bastard raised under the Butler name."
"You would expect something like that," she spat, attempting to wrench herself free. "You can't even imagine that others aren't as dirty as you are, and that a love might be pure. You don't understand anything that isn't low and disgusting."
His face twisted into an ugly smile, and a cruel, bitter laugh escaped him. "What a pathetic idiot you are."
She jerked one hand free as if to slap him, but it was caught again and his lips crashed down over hers. There was none of the gentleness of their earlier passions, no tenderness and slow coaxing caresses. It was a demanding, controlling heat that left her light-headed and thrilled her to her toes. His mouth trailed across her throat, suckling and biting at the skin and any thought she may have had of protesting vanished.
Something had ignited within her, a primal need to show him that she would not be cowed by him. She responded to him with a fervor that equaled his own, and when their lips met again she was the aggressor, kissing him with all of the anger and resentment that had simmered through years of his mockery and cruelty. She wanted him to feel the heat of her hatred, know what she had felt after being abandoned at the side of the road like trash, and everything that the world had unleashed upon her since.
If her ferocity surprised him, it did not slow him. He crushed her slim form against him, bending her backwards over her mother's desk and eventually to the floor behind it. She realized then that he had, at some point, relieved her of her dressing gown - it laid in a velvet puddle on the floor beneath them - and that the hem of her thin nightdress had been inched steadily upward. She pushed at his shoulders, a whispered request that they remove to her bedroom went unheeded as his fingers slid higher, testing and teasing at her delicate folds. Her hips bucked to meet the stroke of his hand and she felt herself spreading for him as the nimble fingers were replaced by more solid flesh.
He sank into her, filling her so fully that she forgot that she was supposed to hate him - that just minutes earlier she had been ready to scratch his eyes out. She arched into him, willing him to take her further into the swirling madness that fogged her mind.
He froze above her. She frowned, startled by the cessation until she heard what he had - footsteps on the stairs.
"Scarlett?" a voice called softly. Horror filled her; and she looked up at Rhett - pleading wordlessly for a solution.
She heard Melanie reach the door and held her breath, hoping desperately that the shadow of the large desk was enough to keep them hidden in the dim candlelight.
There was a rustle of fabric, and the candle rose from the side table.
"There, my dear, I told you it was nothing." Ashley's voice came quietly, his tone warm and gentle. "She just left it burning when she went to bed."
Scarlett closed her eyes, humiliation and dread thick in her belly. Rhett took her chin in his hand, forcing her to look at him. His expression was dimmed by the faint light but she realized his intention. Slowly he began to move inside of her, and she had to swallow back a moan.
"It's unlike her," Melanie murmured, and the candle was lifted slightly. Rhett paused, the shadows shifted but did not reveal them, and he thrust into her again. It was slow, languorous torture, and she could do nothing about it.
"She's had a lot to think of today," Ashley said.
Behind the desk, Rhett slid his fingers across her breast, never breaking eye contact.
"As you have," Melanie replied.
"As have we all," Ashley corrected. Rhett's fingers tweaked a firm nipple, and Scarlett bit her tongue fiercely.
There was a puff of breath and the light was extinguished, then a soft clatter as the remainder of the candle was left on the table. The door closed softly behind them, leaving the room in complete darkness.
It was a matter of moments from then. His lips and hands roamed freely over her body and the force of his hips was going to leave bruises - but she didn't care. She went willingly with him to the edge, gasping his name as she reached the pinnacle and pleasure addled her mind. He let out a short, hard breath and rested his forehead against hers as his climax abated.
She felt him shudder over her, but he did not move from his position inside her. She felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her, overwhelmed and frightened by the reaction he had plied from her, and she wanted to escape, to hide from the potency of her feelings. She squirmed, and in response an arm pressed tightly over her belly. "This changes nothing," he whispered against her lips.
She felt herself go cold. He lifted himself from her body, and she heard rustling as he righted himself and retied his dressing gown. She shivered and took hold of the desk, using it to steady herself first as she stood and then as she felt about the floor for her robe, suddenly desperate for another layer over her skin. It was thrust into her hands and she was glad he could not see her face - she knew he would see wetness in her eyes and she could not stand the idea that he might spot weakness. She wrapped the warm fabric around her shoulders and, in a steadier voice than she would have thought herself capable of, bade him good night.