Rhett wasn't sure what he was expecting upon his return to Atlanta. Hearing that Scarlett was throwing a dinner party didn't come as a huge surprise. It was Christmastime after all, and it had been months since he'd set foot in Atlanta. She was a social creature who enjoyed putting her best foot forward whenever she could.
Pushing open the gate that led to the house on Peachtree Street that had been home to some of the best - and worst - moments of his life was like opening a section of his heart he'd carefully cordoned off the past year. It'd been months since he'd walked Atlanta's streets, longer since he'd set foot on his own property.
He wasn't sure he'd be able to tell anyone why he was here now. Maybe to finally come face to face with the inevitable. To see that not only had she moved on with Ashley Wilkes, but that he had taken Rhett's place. It would serve him right, some would say, for leaving Scarlett as he had. She was, even still in Rhett's eyes, a catch.
The wreath on the door caught his eye and was the first clue that things were different in the Butler household from the last time he'd been there. He'd never in their time together seen Scarlett display anything that wasn't perfect. Beyond perfection sometimes wasn't even up to her standards.
This wreath, however, looked almost as if it were haphazardly assembled with a careless abandon for what the finished product would look like. If he didn't know better, he'd question whether she'd fallen on hard times. Except the funds he'd set aside for her hadn't been touched. And he knew she wouldn't let herself starve again.
He paused in the doorway, someone looking at him might think he was having second thoughts. He wasn't really, he was just trying to prepare himself for Ashley seated at the head of the table, playing host to Scarlett's guests. Even still married to Rhett it wouldn't be unheard of for Scarlett to do such a thing. Standards dictated that a man hosted a party.
Not a servant was in sight when he closed the door. The house was quiet. He heard voices from the dining room, a few of them, but that was the only indication of life in the house to this point.
His hat in his hand, he made his way to the open doorway that led to the dining room and was more than surprised at the scene before him. Not only was the head of the table completely unoccupied, but the guest list wasn't at all what he expected.
Oh, he'd expected Ashley and Beau, of course. Though the fact that Wade, Ella, Beau, and Suellen's children were in the room with the adults was a surprise in its own right. But what he hadn't expected was Suellen and her husband, Ahsley's two sisters, and some of the old-guard who had made Scarlett's life - and his to some degree - a living hell over the years.
None of them were dressed in the finery of old, though they did their best to look presentable for dinner at the ornate Peachtree home. He noticed, however, that even Scarlett appeared to have dressed down for the evening.
Was he dreaming? Had he stepped off the train and fallen, hitting his head? He couldn't remember a time Scarlett didn't purposely rub it in the others' faces that she was doing well while they were failing.
The cut and style of her dress she wore was leaps and bounds above the others present, that much was obvious, but it wasn't flashy. In fact, even the table setting was rather tame in comparison to some of the more ostentatious china, silver, and crystal they owned.
Even only seeing her from the back, she looked happy for lack of a better word. He knew how she carried herself by now, the set of her shoulders was a good indication of her moods. She was relaxed here, comfortable.
He wasn't sure what he'd expected from her when he'd left Atlanta and their marriage behind. For her to fail? To come crawling back to him? To throw herself at him as she had done to Ashley time and time again over the years? Possibly, and he was shallow and vain enough to admit that without hesitation.
The fact that she hadn't spoke volumes. Maybe she'd finally grown up. Maybe she had been speaking the truth that night after all.
"I still don't understand why Rhett couldn't be here for Christmas, Scarlett," Suellen said, her voice sounding all too knowing. Rhett stepped out of view, eavesdropping was a familiar habit of his.
"He's busy earning a living, Suellen," Scarlett said. "He doesn't have the luxury I do of being able to stay put and do that."
"But it's Christmas. Surely your children deserve their father at Christmas. And it's not as if he doesn't have enough money."
"He'll make it up to them, Suellen," Ashley said simply. "Rhett's an honorable man and if he's not here there's a reason for it. The holidays brought Honey back to us, perhaps it's our fault Rhett isn't able to make it back. We got our deepest wish, to have our family together again. But at what cost?"
Rhett noticed Ashley wasn't seated anywhere near Scarlett, but instead at the other end of the table tucked between his two sisters. That Honey was back was interesting, and probably good for both Ashley and India Wilkes. Scarlett at least still had Tara to return to if she needed to, the Wilkes' had lost everything to the war. Even their father. There was a time it would have bothered him immensely to have Ashley defending him, but today he found it didn't bother him.
He hadn't really stopped to think about the children or what he was putting her through by being gone for months as he had been this time. The questions she was probably having to field. Well, he could just imagine what some of them were. Women could be so catty and there wasn't a one, even in this room, who wouldn't enjoy getting their claws into Scarlett just once.
It was unfair of Suellen to bring it up in front of Wade and Ella. They'd been through so much already. And there was guilt there in his own heart, realizing he was adding to it. It was so typical of the middle O'Hara sister, though.
"Scarlett, you must tell me the story behind the wreath on your door." Rhett recognized Mrs. Meade's voice very well. "I noticed it immediately."
"Ella made it as a surprise for me."
"She did, did she," Mrs. Meade replied. "How sweet."
"I thought it turned out very nice," Scarlett said. "She helped me hang it even."
So that explained the wreath. Rhett tried to remember in all their time together Scarlett showing an interest in anything the children had done, let alone displaying it for the city to see. Well, he just couldn't remember.
The way he saw it now, he had two choices. He could leave, never letting anyone know he was here. That would be the safest choice as far as his heart went.
He was starting to wonder, though, if that empty spot at the head of the table wasn't meant for him. If, maybe, it was inevitable he sat there and not Ashley Wilkes after all. Had he been too hasty in discounting her admission of love? He'd waited years to hear those words said to him by her. He'd thought at the time it was just another one of her games. Now he wasn't so sure.
His second choice was to swallow his pride, admit he might have been if not wrong too hasty in dismissing her, and go into the dining room to if nothing else give the illusion to the others that their family was complete.
Did he want it to be complete? Hearing Ella's giggles and Wade's laughter told him most definitely yes. It was a slippery slope. Going in there would be paving the way for her to cut out his heart once again, because he knew if he did this he couldn't close himself off this time. That had gotten them nowhere.
He took a deep breath and did what he felt was not just right but that he needed to do.
"I'm sorry I'm late," he said, stepping into the doorway. "I see everyone's here and you've started without me. I'm glad you didn't wait, my train from up north was delayed due to a snowstorm."
"Rhett," Scarlett said, turning to face him. She looked, for lack of a better word, lovely. He'd thought of her as many things over the years, but simply lovely just wasn't one of them. Her hair was done nicely, but it was her face that captured his attention. It was devoid of any enhancement but for a little lip paint, which merely brought out the natural color of her lips. Her smile, well, it lit up the room.
As did the smiles of Wade and Ella who ran to greet him. Ella threw her arms around him as high as she could reach. Wade was, perhaps understandably, a little more cautious eventually hugging him once Ella had pulled herself away.
"Merry Christmas, Wade Hampton," Rhett said, meeting the young man's gaze. He was no longer a boy.
"Merry Christmas, Rhett."
"Is there enough food left for me to join in? Or do you think I'm in trouble with your mother and will have to scrounge for scraps like a dog?"
"Oh Rhett, you know there's enough," Scarlett said. "Let me get you some."
"I'm sorry?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
"You didn't notice there were no servants?"
"I did notice it was a little quiet, yes."
"They have the next couple of days off."
"Scarlett did everything," Mrs. Merriweather offered.
"Well, I had help. Suellen, Honey, India, and even Ella."
Ella tugged on Rhett's suit coat. "I set the table," she whispered.
"That was very nice of you, Ella, thank you. And judging by what I can see so far, you did a wonderful job."
She beamed at him, as if his praise meant so much to her. Perhaps it did. He gathered her up into his arms. She was too big, really, but she went willingly.
"Let's go find Rhett a plate, shall we?"
"I can do it, Rhett," Scarlett offered.
"No, you stay and entertain our guests. It's my fault for planning my return too close to when you told me to be home."
He grazed her cheek with a kiss. "Home, Scarlett. I'd like to stay for a while if you'll have me," he whispered in her ear.
"I think that can be arranged," she whispered in return, clutching his arms with her hands. She held on so tightly he wondered if she was trying to assure herself this was real and not a dream.
He'd had a few dreams like this, too, over the past thirteen months. That alone should have told him that he could never walk away from her. He'd loved only one woman in his life, three counting Ella and Bonnie. There just was no turning off his heart once he'd given it away. Running away hadn't helped.
So, here he was. For better or for worse.
He just hoped the worse was behind them.