By Janine Rosche
“Better fix your petticoat, my dear Scarlett. Your jealousy is showing.”
Rhett’s voice had a distinct way of diving deep into Scarlett’s soul and shining a light on all she tried to hide. Although futile against the man whose tall, sturdy form stood at her back, Scarlett wrapped her arms around herself, keeping her eyes focused on the twirling bride and groom before her. “Why should I be jealous?”
“Only because you’ve had a crush on Mr. Ashley Wilkes since we were in middle school. Forever is a long time to hold your peace. It’s right kind of you to make that promise so he and Melanie can be happy.”
Scarlett straightened her spine. “What you call jealousy, I call heat stroke. Who in their right mind schedules an outdoor wedding in July in Georgia? And an antebellum theme in 2019? Melanie can take this bridesmaid dress and—”
“Now, now. That’s your best friend you’re talking about. Besides, you look ravishing in … what’s this material?” Between his fingers, Rhett rubbed the fabric wilting off her shoulder.
“Tulle. The eleventh plague of Egypt,” she said.
Rhett’s hearty laugh lifted the corner of Scarlett’s lips.
Across the dance floor, two other bridesmaids glowered at Scarlett. Not surprising. She wasn’t well-liked—never had been. As Momma used to say, her beauty could summon the song of angels, but her personality could curdle the finest cream to cottage cheese.
The voice of the DJ cut through the final notes of the Ed Sheeran ballad. “For this next song, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkes invite everyone to join them on the dance floor.”
The bridesmaids sniggered, then focused their eyes on Rhett. Again, not surprising. His handsomeness surpassed every man in the room, Mr. Wilkes included. But so did his arrogance.
“Dance with me, Scarlett.” Rhett’s cool breath teased her ear.
“I can’t. I promised Melanie’s brother a dance.”
A few yards away, the fresh-faced collegiate grinned.
“Him? He can’t handle you.” Rhett brushed past her arm, then pivoted to face her.
“And you can?”
“I think I can take a few turns around the dance floor without losing too much blood.” With his dark eyes piercing hers, he took her in his arms.
Keeping one hand behind his neck, she tugged on his collar, unbuttoned and loose, his tie and jacket long since cast off. “What if I don’t want to be seen dancing with a man of your reputation?”
“My reputation? I’m not the one taking on the whole county government.”
She scoffed, shaking her head. “Eminent domain, they said. They want to carve up my family’s land so they can pave another highway. But I have plans for Tara. They won’t take it from me.” Her breaths shortened as the air in the tent grew stifling.
Rhett took her hand off his collar, turning it palm up. His thumb grazed the callouses. “Every time I drive by, I see you working in the yard or tossing things in that dumpster. I’ve been wondering what secret you’ve been hiding.”
“Like I’d trust you.” She tried to pull her hand away, but he held tight.
“Look, I may have a … colorful past, but I’ve always been honest. You can trust me.” He pressed her hand to his heart. Together, they swayed to the rhythm of the song.
“My friend runs a ministry for domestic abuse survivors. She’s looking for a place for these women to recover, get a new start, learn a trade. A refuge of sorts.” Scarlett glanced around. “But as you can imagine, privacy and discretion are important for the women’s sake. How can I fight the county if I can’t tell them what my plans are for the property?”
Rhett’s brow pinched. His eyes roved her face, as if her freckles may hold the answer to her question. Still, the couple danced. After the chorus, his lips parted. “When they first planned the highway extension, they’d proposed two routes. I’ll entice the business owners on Route 5 to plead for the highway to come through their corridor instead.” He squeezed her hand. “Let me help you. You and I, we make a good team.”
“I don’t need your help. Why can’t I speak to the business owners myself?”
“Because they don’t like you.”
The day’s heat broiled beneath her skin. “How dare you—”
“But I like you. Very much. Have for quite some time.” His smirk returned. “There’s a heart beneath that stone-cold exterior of yours, isn’t there?”
“Now don’t you go shoutin’ about it.” She’d barely survived as it was. Compared to losing her beloved Daddy at just seven years old, Momma’s passing was a walk among the magnolia trees. Still, mean as she was, Momma had stood by Scarlett’s side until the cancer stole her away. Now, all she had left was herself, God, and that old, dilapidated estate. A perception of weakness was the last thing she needed.
“Let me do this for you. Then you can focus on helping those women and giving new life to your precious homestead. Tara will rise again.”
Tempting. “And what do you want in return? A man with your success doesn’t do anything for free.”
Rhett dipped his chin, his lips nearing hers. “One date. Let me show you what it feels like to have a man lavish affection on you. I promise I can make you forget about Mr. Wilkes and every other boy in town.”
A flush of warmth, beginning where his hand pressed against her back, flooded through her. It was entirely too hot for an outdoor wedding. She’d have to let Melanie know—after the honeymoon, of course. “Fine. It’s a deal. But if we’re being honest, I should tell you … I would’ve said yes to the date without your offer to help Tara.”
He arched his brow. “And I still would’ve helped if you’d said no to the date.”
Scarlet heaved in a breath. “Well, fiddle-dee-dee.”