A/N – Dear reader, I've finished it at last. If you had told me when I started The Necklace that it would take me nearly six years to finish it, I would have, in the words of one of my favorite fanfics, told you to switch to softer drinks; the story was so clear in my head and I thought it would be a breeze. It turned out I could not have been more wrong. It was so much harder than I had envisioned and, for very long stretches, I thought I'd never finish it. That I did is in no small part due to the wonderful Bugsie, who I pestered about 1,374,179 times on just this one chapter; thank you for your beta magic as always.
And thank you, too, for sticking with The Necklace for such a long time. I hope you'll find this a fitting end to this story—and a fitting end to my time on this site too. This will be my last story. While I've tremendously enjoyed writing here, my enthusiasm for fanfiction is not what it used to be (probably not a surprise given the aforementioned six-year-block it took to complete this story). So thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who has read and supported my work over the years—it was truly a joy to write for you and I can't tell you how much your amazing feedback has meant to me. I'll miss you!
Cheery sunlight pricked through the rich plum hangings in Scarlett's bedroom but today, unlike other days, it did not succeed in stirring her from sleep. Rather it was the strange sensation of something heavy and serpentine and cool coiled about her throat that at last aroused her. She awoke with a start and found the necklace clasped about her neck. For a long moment she looked at it with incredulity, remembering senselessly her decree from the night before, remembering too how it and everything else had then given way before the warm cloud of nothingness that had overtaken her. "I expect it to be returned to me by tomorrow morning," she had said. Well, she had certainly gotten her wish.
She had, in essence, won. For at all, she had wanted the necklace back and Rhett had apparently acquiesced. But now in the confusing light of day, this state of affairs did not feel like victory. Instead a cold pit of confusion fluttered in her stomach at the thought of last night—their acrimonious fight, her unexpected disclosure about the baby, the queer light in Rhett's eyes as he had reached for her, and then finally the tender sway of his kisses drowning out everything else...
She blushed as she remembered the happenings that had followed that moment and then, feeling the cool linen of the bedsheet against her skin, she moved to collect her nightgown and wrapper from where they pooled unceremoniously on the floor. Her thoughts dove and swooped about wildly as she tried to push aside the last night and steady herself in the here and now. She needed to focus—yes, to focus and try to make sense of the odd present in which she found herself. Two things were at least plain. She had the necklace and Rhett had seemingly left her to her peace. She should be happy about that. But, no, she was not happy, could not be happy after such a bewildering, heady night as they had spent—and her heart beat with swift little jerks as she dressed.
Rhett was not there now and this somehow stung, especially given his lover-like gentleness of the night before. She had told him about the baby, she had unwittingly laid herself bare before him, and yet he had been so nice—so different, so penitent. And she had reveled in his touch as she never had before, not even during that wild night he had carried her up the stairs. For that night had been but a meeting of their flesh, a twinning of desire, and this had felt like something much more, something precious and rich. Last night in the soft moonlight she had felt certain that he cared for her, that he was sorry. But now it was morning and he was gone and the memory of his conduct last spring rose again poisonously, pulling her away from the land of pleasant reminiscence.
Suppose he had simply been trying to make a fool of her again. Suppose—oh suppose—it had all been one of his nasty jokes! She looked down at the necklace and suddenly its presence about her neck acquired a new and unflattering meaning. What if—what if he had taken her and used her and left her the necklace, as—as he would leave payment for any woman in Belle's house? Oh, then she had been a fool, a conceited fool to think that he had cared. She tried to remember why she had wanted him to care, but anger and insult now choked out all contemplation. And to think that she, Scarlett, had even considered telling him that she had missed him, recalling now those last hazy thoughts of hers before slumber last night. Well, thank goodness she hadn't told him! Now he would never, ever know and she could at least retain her dignity about the whole affair. She would be very cool to him when they next met and he would be none the wiser.
When they next met. When would they next meet? She remembered those long two days after Ashley's party last year, her frantic worry, the bitter fallout. Oh, suppose—oh hideous thought!—suppose Rhett had gone from her to Belle again, as he had done then. Her stomach lurched with revulsion and she tried with difficulty to steady her thoughts. "I won't think about it now," she decided. "No, I can't think about it."
A discreet knock on the door surprised her away from her thoughts. It had to be Mammy coming with her breakfast tray. She was consumed with the sudden desire to feign a headache and beg her off, but then thought better of it. Her nerves were jangled and she dreaded the scrutiny of Mammy's hawk-like old eyes, but long experience reminded her that delaying the old woman's suspicions only ever worsened matters. Best to face her now and pretend nothing was amiss and have it over with. She glanced down at her jeweled throat. Good Heavens, it would never do to have Mammy find her adorned in the necklace! How could she ever explain that?
"One moment, please," she called to the door and moved swiftly to her vanity. She went to unfasten the necklace, but the intricate clasp slipped from her fingers. She tried again. No luck. The necklace remained stubbornly affixed. Scarlett frowned. If she kept Mammy any longer, she'd certainly suspect that something was amiss. Well, perhaps she could play it off as if she had intended to wear the necklace all along. This new plan forming, she arranged herself gracefully on the ottoman before the vanity and picked up her silver hairbrush, holding it lightly to her hair. Surveying her reflection in the mirror, she pulled her features into composed lines and called airily over her shoulder, "Come in."
The door creaked open behind her, but Scarlett trained her gaze on the mirror, smiling back at her own reflection as she brushed her hair.
"Please just place the tray on the bed, Mammy," she requested, her voice smooth and unflustered. "I'll need you to lace me first." She paused and smiled prettily, touching the necklace about her throat. "I've decided to wear the navy organdie today and I—"
The next words died on her lips, hairbrush suspended midstroke, as behind her reflection came not the waddling form of Mammy, but the tall profile of Rhett. Before she could catch his eyes, he moved into a slight bow.
"Good morning," he said and her heart leaped impulsively. It took everything she had not to immediately turn around, so great was her surprise and relief at his presence. But, feigning casualness as best she could, she gently returned the hairbrush to the vanity top and turned to face her husband.
"Good morning," she said.
If the events of last night had moved him in any manner, he did not show it. His face was bland and he idly held his hat in hand. He was dressed in a dark brown checked suit with a matching waistcoat that Scarlett recognized as one of the sober-hued fashions he favored these days. His dark eyes moved appraisingly to her gleaming neckline but he made no mention of the necklace about her throat. She blushed, suddenly annoyed and embarrassed at her untoward appearance before his polished self. Tart words rushed to her tongue, but she held them back. After all, he was here and it was best not to rush into battle until she knew where matters stood with him. She waited for his reply.
"There is a shareholders' meeting at the bank this morning," said Rhett, motioning lazily with his hat. "My presence has been requested for it."
If she had been expecting a reply from him, this had not been it. For a moment his words rolled over her incongruously and then sharp sudden anger swept over her. Oh, she had been right all along—nothing had changed, he hadn't changed. No, he had the gall to stand there in front of her and pretend like nothing had happened between them, to glibly announce his departure as if it was of no import. Well, if that's how he wanted things, she could play her part just as well as he could.
Scarlett drew herself up coldly. "I see."
He looked down at her and a quizzical smile darted across his lips. "I sent word that urgent family matters prevented me from attending."
"Oh." she said, too surprised to add anything else.
"It's quite evident that we need to talk, Scarlett."
He spoke these words easily, smoothly as if such a discussion were a mere matter of course between them instead of what it was—an extraordinary departure from prior habits. With one light remark he was moving them past their old patterns of skirmish and retreat, past the cool courtesy of the last year, to a new and foreign land, and Scarlett now stood on its shores, uncertain, eager, questioning. She peered at him curiously, looking for some clue. His face still held its old inscrutability, but there was a strange soberness of purpose about him that somehow reassured her.
"Yes, of course," she answered, trying to equal his unruffled tone. She motioned towards the sitting area, feeling vaguely as if she was in an odd waking dream. Certainly, she had never envisioned that the morning would unfold like this. She had been prepared for mocking insults, for the sting of abandonment, but not for this. No, this was puzzling and improbable and she hardly knew what to think as she sat down across him.
He lounged carelessly in his seat. Though his eyes retained their blandness, his manner its lazy elegance, there was something different about him, something that she could not quite analyze. It was as if something was driving him this morning, some keen and potent force honing his concentration to a single fine point, despite his best efforts at nonchalance. He surveyed her quietly for a moment and then cleared his throat to speak.
"What I must say, I fear, will likely be as unexpected as it is belated. And that it is indeed both of those things—well, that is another indictment of my actions."
Scarlett stared at him blankly. What in Heaven's name was he talking about? What unexpected and belated things? How like Rhett to want to talk to her and then practically speak in tongues.
Reading the confusion on her face, he sighed softly and then continued. "I would like to apologize for my conduct the day—the day of your accident. Although one apology doesn't quite cover the multitude of my sins that day. No, there are any number of things for which I need to apologize. I knew, of course, that the child was mine, Scarlett. I should have never accused you otherwise. I only did because you seemed so-" He paused and his lips twisted in a wry smile, as if catching himself in old habits.
"It doesn't matter how you were. I knew the child was mine. And I wanted it, much as I know now that you wanted it too. Though God knows I gave you no indication of that then—no, instead I told you to cheer up and have a miscarriage." His voice grew rough with bitter remembrance. "Those words were unpardonable and they haunt me still. I should never have said them. Then you fell and it was all my fault—I knew it was my fault but I couldn't bring myself to go to you when you were sick. You see, I thought that you despised me and I was too proud to bear it. But I should have gone to you, Scarlett. And I should have apologized to you long before this late date. In short, my behavior was abhorrent and, though I have no right to ask it, I hope one day I might attain your forgiveness. Could you in time come to forgive me for the pain I caused you?"
He meant it. There was no doubt about it. Her mouth was dry as she assimilated this knowledge and she swallowed and looked into his eyes. In them was a humility that she had never seen before, humility tempered with self-accusation. He was actually apologizing; Rhett who never apologized for anything. He was committing the incredible. Once she would have longed to see his arrogance brought low like this. Once she would have rejoiced in his sincere contrition and held it like a whip over his head. But now these thoughts did not even occur to her, for his words had struck a chord hidden deep within her. She had been waiting for this, waiting for an apology without even knowing she had been waiting for one and it stole over her heart like a gentle cool hand. Yet comforting as it was, it could not fully dispel her sense of shocked astonishment at his disclosure. She could feel his eyes on her, awaiting her reply. But her throat felt strangely, suddenly coated with cotton and, when she spoke, she could only blush and stammer.
"Oh Rhett, it's all right. I could—that is, I do—what I mean is, I do—forgive you, that is. I hadn't meant to tell you about the baby like that myself."
At her response, he drew a swift breath, and she could see relief and gladness etched on every inch of his fine profile. For a brief moment she thought he might move to take her hand, but he did not and a curious pang of disappointment filled her. Instead he looked at her and in his eyes again was the same queer glint she had seen in them last night—a rich flickering flame that recalled his old watchfulness yet somehow superseded it, burning deeper and darker. He caught her gaze and held it in and she flushed in breathless confusion. There was a raw eagerness about his face that startled her, startled her even as it thrilled her and sent her pulse quickening. Her face reddened in blush and she hastily ducked her eyes, expecting him to speak. But he did not and the moment, heady at first, eventually lengthened into a tentative silence between them.
At long last he cleared his throat. She raised her gaze to him and his eyebrows were up and his dark eyes danced playfully. He glanced down at the gleaming necklace about her throat, as if pretending to notice it for the first time.
"What a charming necklace you are wearing this morning, Mrs. Butler. You must be planning to attend an elaborate soiree later?"
She laughed in spite of herself, thankful the awkward moment had passed.
"Oh, don't be a fool," she chided. She toyed idly with the bauble for a moment, then frowned delicately as the question came to her. "How did you manage to get it back from Bonnie?"
"Oh, that." He made an airy gesture. "It was exceedingly simple."
She furrowed her forehead. "Oh?"
He sighed in mock dismay, though his eyes continued to dance. "Alas, honesty forces me to admit the unpleasant truth—it was a rather complicated matter, though I won't bore with you with all the delicate negotiations involved. I might have employed any number of different tactics. Perhaps I woke Bonnie early this morning and tried to explain to her that the necklace was yours and you'd rather like it back. Or, when these claims of ownership failed to resonate, perhaps I then informed her—quite seriously, of course—that the necklace's magic power had instead transferred to her favorite doll and she now had no need for the bauble. Or, failing that, perhaps I employed a modest amount of bribes and incentives that eventually made the necklace worth relinquishing. Who knows?"
He paused and his mouth curved with jest. "Or perhaps in the end," he drawled, "I promised her the blue contents of your jewelry box."
"Oh!" she cried in surprise, before finishing a touch guiltily, "You know about that?"
"I do," he nodded. "Although I must commend your efforts, Scarlett—considering the valiant resistance I myself encountered, I can't say your plan was an altogether bad one. But now that I have gallantly retrieved the bauble for you, perhaps you'll at last enlighten me on why you wanted it back so badly?"
It was a fair question and yet she was at a loss as to how to answer. How could she explain what the necklace was to her? Even now she could not fully say, for emotion stronger than reason had swept her along her present course and her thoughts remained too jumbled to sort into pleasing clarity. No, she could only see that she had missed the necklace keenly, missed it almost as much as she loved it. Trying to analyze it now, she suddenly thought of New Orleans again, thought of the sweet redolent air and complacent joy of those days like a faraway dream. If she was honest with herself, the necklace did remind her of their honeymoon, that much was true, but she shrank from the very notion of such a disclosure. Despite the events of last night—or perhaps because of them—it somehow felt faintly indecent to mention and she fumbled instead for a noncommittal reply.
"It's my favorite necklace," she offered finally, rising her shoulders in a delicate shrug.
"I see," said Rhett and there was a deep note in his voice that made her look up quickly, fearful that he had somehow surmised her musings. Something flickered briefly in his eyes before they returned to blandness. "Then," he continued softly, "that being the case, I am sure you are most pleased to have it back."
"Yes," she replied hurriedly, suddenly discomfited under his gaze and the prospect of closer scrutiny. She hastened to change the subject. "Really, though, Rhett, something must be done about Bonnie. You spoil her so shamelessly—she is running wild."
It was only after she spoke that she realized that she had plunged unthinkingly into the dangerous territory of the night before—Bonnie and her conduct—and she cursed herself for her thoughtlessness. She did not especially want to pick up that particular gauntlet again—not when things were so unsettled between them—but it was too late now.
She steeled herself against the sudden flare of anger she knew she would find on Rhett's face—but, strangely, he did not look angry now. Instead he appraised her quietly for a moment, then raised his broad shoulders in a lazy negligent shrug.
"I do spoil her. You see, though, I can't help it. I have a bad habit of spoiling those I love."
He spoke in his familiar drawl, but there was a peculiar emphasis on his last sentence that made Scarlett rapidly suck in her breath. For it was as though a veil had been lifted from her eyes and before her shone now, so clearly, so brightly, the young days of their marriage. Rhett spiriting her away to New Orleans to play and to gorge and riot, Rhett lavishing her with all that she desired, including this dear precious necklace, Rhett building the glorious house she so wanted, Rhett enlivening her spirits with the endless dancing and parties she loved, Rhett who comforted her from her nightmares and promised she would always be safe while he was there—Rhett who had done all these things and more to ensure she was happy and secure, to soften the painful memories of hardship and deprivation and terror that haunted her.
Rhett loved her! Of course, he had not said so in some many words; they were ostensibly talking about Bonnie—but his meaning was plain. He loved her! At this realization a warm jolt of gladness swept her. He loved her and she was glad of it, though why this should be, she did not know. Time was moving too quickly for contemplation, spinning wildly like a top, and she could not wholly understand what it was she felt for him. She could feel his eyes on her, probing, eager, and she colored in blush, uncertain of how to respond. She did not know what she felt for him, but how to properly intimate that his declaration was not unwelcome?
"I…" she started, then stopped in confusion. Her blush deepened across her face, as her eyelids fluttered down involuntarily. "It's nice to be spoiled, Rhett, but do try to be a bit more sensible about it."
"Your advice is most admirable. I shall be certain to take it to heart." There was a soft, almost imperceptible, accent on his last word that made her pulse soar wildly, though his features did not deviate from their blank impenetrability. He leaned back easily, gracefully, in his seat.
"And while we are discussing the matter," he continued, "you will perhaps be surprised to learn that this situation with the necklace has impressed some unpleasant realities upon me. Loath though I am to admit it, there has been some truth in your and Mammy's admonishments. Bonnie is becoming unmanageable; I see that now. Perhaps she does need a firmer hand. Either way, the status quo is no longer appealing to me."
Scarlett took in his words in silence. On any other day, she would have simply thanked God that Rhett had seen reason concerning Bonnie. That in and of itself would have been miraculous enough to content her. But too much, spoken and unspoken, had already passed between them this morning and her mind flew about feverishly, trying to make sense of it all. What did he mean that the status quo was no longer appealing to him? Was it merely that Bonnie required firmer discipline? Or was it something more? Was he tired of the cold estrangement in which they had lived for so long? Surely that must be the case, if he loved her. But what if he was simply talking about Bonnie after all? Oh, why must he always speak in such confounding riddles! Today marked the first time she had ever been able to walk into his mind a bit, to see what lay beyond the veil of his oblique speech, but full understanding still eluded her. She wanted desperately to ask questions and demand answers, but, still unsure of the ground about her, she instead prepared an even reply.
"Yes, Bonnie is too headstrong these days. She can't go on like this."
"Then at last we are agreed on something." He smiled lightly. "Of course I'm not promising instantaneous results, Scarlett. I'm certain there will be any amount of trial and error involved but no doubt with time matters will improve considerably. And when they do—" there was a low ringing timbre to his voice now, "that will surely engender a more suitable arrangement for all of us."
His dark eyes flickered with the same queer rich glint she had seen in them earlier and she ducked her head in flurried excitement. There was an unmistakable implication behind his last words that made her heart beat thrillingly, even as crimson heat rushed to her face. "I'd like that," she said softly.
"And I as well," murmured Rhett. "But there is one last thing I must say, Scarlett—"
"Daddy!" came the high plaintive cry from the direction of the hall. "Daddy! Where is my new dress? You promised!"
Rhett sighed ruefully, his mouth quirking down. "I see Bonnie has returned to form." He rose and moved across the room, before glancing back at her. "I should tend to her."
"Of course," she nodded automatically and rose from her seat. This was not the denouement she had anticipated and an odd tinge of disappointment swept her.
She trailed after him as he moved to the door. He opened it and she hung back unconsciously, expecting him to turn and leave. But instead he paused in the doorway and, looking down to her, took her hand and raised it gently to his lips.
"Come," he said, smiling, "Let's go see about our daughter."
She smiled up at him—a bright happy smile that held in it something she herself was only starting to understand—and together they went into the hallway, the necklace glistening brilliantly about her throat.