The walk back to the hotel was slow and tiresome for Scarlett. Despite Ben's request to produce a trap or horse, or even carry her, she was stubborn enough to refuse his suggestions. She would walk home with her pride intact.
The days heat played havoc on her patience, for she found its radiating heat mixed with her current situation irritating.
She leaned heavily against Ben, her right arm wrapped securely around his waist for support. She hobbled slowly with no show on her face of just how difficult this was for her. Ben didn't mind coming to her aid, in fact he began to feel as though relieved that he had been in the right time at the right place. One could only imagine Scarlett trying to get back by herself. He tried to think of others stopping to help and her turning down each one just to prove how she didn't need assistance and that she could do it by herself.
No words were spoken, just the comfortable silence that only two acquaintances share. They continued on, each content with their thoughts. As they trudged on her speed began to lessen. Scarlett unknowingly leaned on him for more and more support and Ben silently adjusted his body and speed to accommodate.
At one time in her life she wouldn't have cared what those passing by thought. She had done and said what she wanted without a care in the world with indifference to what the consequences were. That had come with a stiff penalty. Now that Mellie was gone, she had no one to stand behind her if she stumbled. She was so lonely and the once strong person she had become now was a shell of a woman. She had never realized just how much she had relied on Rhett or Mellie. Rhett who had supported her throughout her widow hood, helping her out of mourning, lifting her spirits in times of hardship, letting her dance when her heart had felt like she was lost. He had stuck around during the siege when he knew the costs and made sure she made it out safe when the Yankees were coming. Later when he drove her around town to make sure she was safe while she was pregnant with Ella. Or when he appeased her child like wants and built her house to her every want and spoiled her as no one had ever done. She began to reflect on more than just his eve ending presence in her life. She began to understand the utter love and patience she took for granted. Each stare each gaze he had; he kept guarded until the day she would return the same loving look back at him. It must have been hard for him and she wasn't sure she could have lasted as long as he did. She imagined the tables turned and if Rhett had loved another and it was her waiting for him to return her love. It pained her heart to think of Rhett loving someone else. Her heart squeezed thinking of him one day marrying another or seeing him with a baby.
Tears stung her eyes and her chest tightened suddenly as she pictured him with another little girl or perhaps a dark haired little boy with his handsome looks. He deserved to be happy. He had invested so much of his life to her, given up years waiting for some hope that she at least cared. It had never crossed her mind to think of others feelings first. She had willingly sacrificed her time at Tara during the war as a survival instinct. It was what she had to do. Picking cotton and doing the work around Tara was something that needed to be done. There was no one else. With her family and Mellie being sick she shouldered that burden with a heavy heart. She hated how callous she had become, so ruthless. She knew the change in her demeanor had come gradually. At the time she didn't care for she knew she could always find time later in life to be the grand lady her mother would have wanted. Now was as good a time as ever. She wanted to not just prove to the old guard and Rhett that she was a good person…she legitimately wanted to be. She felt as if she owed Mellie that …so much more than that. Oh if she could just redo things and make it up to her she would.
It was stupid to feel as though she had done something wrong. By all means he was just aiding her home. She thought that the rules of society had shifted some since the war and honestly to a degree they had. The society had at first accepted Rhett at the beginning of the war and they treated him as an honored member since he was so gallant in sacrificing for the needs of the confederacy. The woman had asked for advice on the latest fashion and he so dutifully obliged their curiosity. He was accepted to dinners and was allowed to call on her even when people in town deemed it scandalous. It wasn't till he gave his honest opinion, that they should not be fighting this war, did the people finally take a united stand. In despite of all the closed murmuring and talk behind closed door and sewing circles, the war had shifted its survivors. Shifted them in a way that they began to slowly accept change for there was little that they could do about it.
The war had shortened her imprisoning mourning thanks to Rhett. How cruel it really was. She had been permitted to dance at the ball and have beaus again while still in Atlanta after only a short time compared to what it could have been. She thought back to the way she would yearn for someone's attentions….any ones attention. She recalled that day looking out her window in Aunt Pitty's house. She remembered the strange feeling of the world passing by in slow motion as she watched the men take the decorations in preparation for the ball. She remembered feeling angry that her false widowhood has trapped her. Her heart had ached as she watched other women stroll casually down the street unknowing to them above them she felt a prisoner. It was as if the rules of society had condemned her. She had followed these rules knowing full well that her life was never going to be the same because that was what was expected and lady like. They had mocked Scarlett for working at the store because that was not a woman's place. Her husband was more than able to work in her place. It had seemed unfair that other women had sold their baked goods and were never scolded or scorned for taking the necessary actions to put food in their family's bellies. They laughed and mocked and had finally deemed both her and Rhett outcasts in the eyes of Atlanta. She would be willing to bet that her reputation wasn't unheard of even here.
Later in her marriage to Rhett when he had tried to salvage and redeem himself as an honorable man, it still felt terrible that both had had to pretend to be something in the eyes of anyone else. Why couldn't they have just accepted her for who she was and not try to make her fit into their mold. It had troubled her so much that the freedom she had felt as she pulled out of the station outweighed and any doubts she had on leaving. In as much as Atlanta had turned its back on two survivors, the two had turned their backs to Atlanta. They had both severed irreplaceable ties and had grown stronger because of it.
To be free of scrutiny was just plain wishful thinking. What she didn't figure into the equation was that in as much as there was a bustle of trade and bartering that took place and the daily life that was Savannah, society was still there. There were still people who were decidedly upheld in their decision that even though Sherman had reared his ugly head they were not going to change. They still had whispered conversations and gave sideward glances and spread gossip just as fast as any other town. She would just have to pretend despite the feeling of wanting to feel accepted that they would understand her current situation. She tried lowering her face, so no one would recognize.
The heat seemed unkind to her, pushing down on her with the force of cruel fingers. Never before had she wished for a mere breeze and had she been on the main street of Savannah, the river may have aided her.
"Scarlett do you realize how far we still have to walk? Are you certain it wouldn't be easier to just.."
"Ben I told you," she snapped at him, "I'm fine. We aren't that much further. If you have a prior engagement you need to be to then I am sure I will be fine. Don't feel as though you are obligated to help me."
Ben stopped abruptly, his eyes meeting hers with fierce frustration. "It's no good Scarlett, this charade, this need to pretend as though you can do it all by yourself." She looked away trying to pretend that that was indeed not the issue.
"I think we are doing just fine. Correct me if I am wrong, but the hotel is a just a few
more blocks," she teased while trying to lighten the mood, " Are you actually complaining about being in my arms? Most men would jump at the chance to be this close to me."
Her coy expression amused him, but he didn't want her to think she had caught him off guard. Yes he did enjoy their closeness, almost more than he was willing to admit. The fresh smell of lavender wafting off her had tantalized his senses since he'd first seen her today at the dress shop. The longer she leaned against him the more he become aware of her hand resting against his waist like a hot poker. This woman was inept at playing the belle of the county and he could recognize a professional at play. The trick was not to play into her hand. Let her believe she had the upper hand then turn it back at her when the time was right.
Ben kept silent for several moments, one eyebrow slightly rose as he stared into her eyes. His right hand dug into his jacket pocket and produced an antique pocket watch. After opening and reading the time he decidedly stated in a matter of fact tone. "In the last twenty minutes we have gone four blocks. The hotel is about ten more blocks to the west. Now I know you would rather walk than get help and I am sure we could make it, but I fear in this heat we both might melt. I for one have never quite understood the ladies fashion to have on so many layers. If I'm miserable then you my dear must be in hell."
He knew she was waiting for his response to his last comment and he wasn't quite ready to respond. "Imagine sitting under a tree in the cool shade with a tall glass of refreshing lemonade and the breeze gently blowing. If you would allow me to get a trap we would be doing just that in a matter of minutes."
She had been trying to ignore the heat but his words only drew attention to the sweat on her back and the muggy air, which wrapped around them heavily. She really just wanted to be off her feet as fast as possible. She could tell her ankle had begun to swell as the shoe was getting snugger and snugger. It wouldn't really matter if the whole town saw them in the trap together as the situation they were in right now would wag more tongues than anything.
She met his gaze with one of frustration "Fine, you are right," she sighed, shutting her eyes in defeat. "As much as I can walk, it would be nice to be in the shade," She opened her eyes slowly looking down at her dress unable to look him in the eyes when admitting defeat. "I'm afraid the summer sun is becoming unbearable. A drink sounds heavenly."
Ben stood amazed at the woman before him. He knew he couldn't say any snide or mocking comments or she would change her mind. She looked uncomfortable. The sweat beading on her forehead, her rosy cheeks all signs of her current condition. She looked like a wilted flower and he needed to act fast.
With little effort he swooped her up into his arms the surprise evident on her face. She began to protest but then thought better of it. Instead she repositioned the dress box into her lap.
"People are staring at us Ben. I don't think this is proper." He laughed shaking his head. "Scarlett you do realize that everything we do is scrutinized. The second you arrived here the old peahens were trying to figure out who you were and why you were here. They have nothing better to do then start gossip. We have certainly given them enough to go on. First we are seen at the train station and then later you throw Rhett into the mix. Both him and I are very well know here for our past which made you on day one an intriguing puzzle this town wants to solve. Then throw in the fact that him and I have a history that most people here are keenly aware of. I know you want your privacy Scarlett but the town already suspects things. Rhett is seen a lot with the children don't you think the curious towns folk already have their conclusions? You and I are seen around town I am sure they think we are courting."
"But we aren't." she quickly interjected. He smirked, lazily moving his eyes until they held hers. This was fun he thought. Seeing her feathers ruffled was definitely amusing. She blushed slightly, her cheeks even redder than before.
"That may be true Scarlett but one can seldom control the thoughts of others." He began his walk forward, adjusting her in his arms till she rested comfortably, her right arm around his neck. "You see, you and I for instance, are here together by chance. You twisted your ankle and needed help. It was innocent. Had it been some other woman here to aid you there would be no problem, you'd have the empathy of everyone. The second you bring a gentleman into the equation the "what ifs" and what is actually right, are blurred. They wouldn't see it for what it is. Suddenly it's scandalous that we are so close or your ankle showed on the way home and it isn't decent. Who knows maybe they will think that I am compromising you and expect your lover to come out and duel me to save your honor." She scowled knowing he was enjoying every minute of mocking her. "On the bright side a little gossip could be just what you need." She snapped her head quickly towards his.
"What on earth are you talking about?" She asked defensively. "I left Atlanta to get away from that and I certainly don't want to…"
"Relax…." He interjected. "What I mean is…. wouldn't it be good if word got around that you and I were courting. I mean it's an inevitable conclusion some will make. There is already one person in town that despises the fact that we are acquaintances. Wouldn't it be interesting to stir the coals a little?" He mocked playfully raising his eyebrows. "Remember the incident with the ice cream? Rhett's reaction that day proves he still has feelings for you. I know you feel the same for try as you might, you wear your feelings on your sleeve." She glared at him at a loss for words. Her mouth opening and then shutting, her eyes becoming two slits.
"Benjamin Kane you put me down this instant!" She struggled trying to move out of his arms but he only held her closer. He moved to the side lowering her down to sit on a moss covered stonewall. She gently lay the dress box beside her. Luckily for them, they were under a large clump of Dogwood trees. The shade instantly alleviated some of their discomfort. Scarlett crossed her arms as the anger swelled. He watched as her mouth became pinched and her posture stiffened. She stared not at him but past him gathering her thoughts.
She didn't know what she felt. She wasn't sure if it was just anger because he could see through her or if it was outrage that he would think that it was his business to meddle. Maybe it was relief that there was someone other than her children to comfort her and talk to. Maybe it was fear that he knew too much and fear that the city would cast her out even before they had met her. It was more than that much more. It was the fear of him seeing her for who she was and him hating her and leaving her like Rhett had.
"How dare you…." She began the emotion she triedso hard to control faltering and evident with each word. "I thought you of all people would understand what it felt like to have everything you love crumble around you. I thought I made it clear to you that I don't need your help. I am not some fallen woman that you can rescue to make your self feel good. I am not some good deed you can do to somehow clear your conscience when it comes to Rhett. Is that what is happening? Am I some project to somehow gain your friendship back with Rhett?"
He was taken back by her words momentarily. He had many motives most selfish most vengeful. But over the past few weeks they had begun to morph into one of unknown. Before him sat a woman who despite the world crumbling before her had held her head up high and was treading water upstream despite what life had thrown at her. For a brief moment he watched in instant of vulnerability he hadn't expected from her. She was too egotistical to admit she had been defeated. He had doubted she would ever ask for help. He thought about the moments leading up to the dissolve of his and Rhett's friendship. The pain in his eyes, the pleading in Rhett's eyes for the truth. He saw that same look in the small woman before him. He felt a twinge of guilt, a touch of sadness that he made her feel the way that she did. The answer was simple….yes….he wanted to hurt Rhett…he wanted Rhett to understand what it meant to loose the one thing you love most. He for once wanted Rhett to be jealous of him. He had spent too much of his time looking back and having regrets. What he hadn't bargained for was his attraction for Scarlett. It had never occurred to him that by hurting one he would hurt the other. Despite his original ingenious plan…..he really did want to help her, even if it meant risking his heart. He owed Rhett that much.
His face softened as he met her imploring face. "I am a scoundrel Scarlett. I am selfish and self centered and inconsiderate. I hurt those around me and I push those I love away. I suppose I could lie and say you are wrong, dance around the truth and hide it with a poker-faced lie. But, where would that get us? I have spent a good deal of my life looking back and not liking the man I was seeing or that I had become. I used to hate seeing my reflection because in it stared a man with such little honor and such little love that I was ashamed. I didn't like myself or the destruction I left in my path. I always felt as though I had to prove my worth through my actions. It became an obsession and it ate me alive. Perhaps one day when the right times comes I can explain all that I did to crush Rhett but for now I must say I am a coward to have you see me in such a light. I would hate to lose the starting of a friendship to which I so bitterly desire. Yes at first I saw an opportunity for revenge….and then I did a little research and saw just how long it took for come to where you two are now. I am not a man of many happy moments. My past is riddled with complication and sorrow. In the past few days I have felt more light hearted and happy than I can remember." Scarlett sat there in shock of the answer unfolding in front of her. She was unaccustomed to the truth or the blatant honesty his words held. He looked as though he was struggling with an inner turmoil. But his eyes never left hers. They didn't dart around in embarrassment or uncertainty. He wanted her to know he was serious.
"I'm not forcing anything on you, just making a suggestion that might prove successful given the delicate manner to which we unfold it. Just think about it I am not asking for an answer right now. I am just trying as a friend to make you happy. You want Rhett and despite how much I hate him and think he is a fool to have ever left you, I am willing to help you in anyway I can."
Ben watched as she closed her eyes, her lip trembling slightly her chest heaving he could feel her anger rising and like a cannon she exploded, her eyes almost pinning him to the ground. "How dare you suggest that you know what will make me happy. What goes on between Rhett and I is none of your business. I am not sure what you expect to get out of this little charade you are suggesting, but if you are a gentleman you'd know how brazen that sounded. Don't think that I do not appreciate all that you have done to help me. That is not the issue here. The issue is you meddling in something that doesn't involve you. I don't want to make Rhett jealous. I don't want to cause him any more pain than I have. I already ripped his heart out once. I deserve what he has done to me. I deserve to feel guilty for hurting so many people. I know you are just trying to help and that is sweet of you, but this is me telling you no." He moved to sit next to her angling his body towards her and lowing his voice. He placed one hand on her shoulder but she moved to the side out of his reach.
"That's bullshit Scarlett. A relationship involves two people it didn't have to end that way and you know it. Stop acting like this was all your fault. He is just as much to blame as you." She closed her mouth her eyebrows lifting. "I am sorry maybe I went too far and maybe I did cross a line. I really just wanted to help. My intentions were sincere I promise." She crossed her arms and turned away closing with it the door that she had opened to her emotions. She went back into that comfortable non-feeling realm. The realm where she could pretend all was ok. The realm in which she ran to when she needing numbing. It was easier to close off emotions then deal with them. She had had enough feeling for the day.
They were silent and Ben stared at her ramrod posture knowing things had changed between them. It mad him sad to think there must be much more to her pain and sorrow then he knew about. He sensed her reluctance to open up and when she had she had caught herself. He needed to give her space, let her re evaluate the situation. Maybe she would think clearer.
Ben stood up looking around at his surroundings. The best thing was to get her back to the hotel. He would also need to contact a doctor to assess the damage to her foot.
" I think it best if you stay here while I find a trap," He said in a concerned voice. She didn't move. It was as if she were a statue. In frustration he ran his fingers through his hair and sighed audibly. "I really am sorry." She still remained quiet. "I'll be right back." He turned and walked away in the direction she was facing.
Scarlett was faced to stare at his back as he walked away. Had she over reacted? Did he really want to just help? Oh why couldn't he just leave her alone? Why did his words rile her up? She was a mess an emotional mess. She knew that if she didn't share what was going on inside that she would explode. She loved Rhett. She loved him with her whole being, but he had also damaged her self worth by not wanting to see their relationship through. Ben hadn't been wrong when he said it wasn't just her fault. She had to stop blaming herself and move forward. Rhett was by no means perfect. She thought of him and Belle together and the months of his infidelity and it sickened her physically. It had been both their fault. She watched feeling ashamed as the one person who had a little understanding, who gave her a little hope walked away in another direction.