Marguerite Bourgeois had been coming to the Willows since she was a little girl, and had been friends with Tomas since they were old enough to walk. She was the only daughter of Phillipe Bourgeois, who was master of Emerald Oaks – the largest and most profitable plantation along the Mississippi River.
It comprised nearly three hundred thousand acres of sugar cane, cotton and maize, as well as fields for commodity livestock and prized racehorses. Like the Willows, it was completely self-sufficient – feeding the household, as well as two hundred eighty-two slaves.
The family operated four plantations along the river, all bought when the original ownership failed. Phillipe snapped them up and gave them to his sons, thus increasing his own personal holdings and power. Only Marguerite was without property, being a woman and just coming of age to marry.
That was about to change.
As Tomas was being dressed by his valet, an elderly Negro named Zeek, his thoughts drifted to all of the times he’d spent with Marguerite. She’d been pleasant, lovely and overly flirtatious for most of the time he’d know her. However, with their age difference of ten years, he’d always felt like an older brother.
She had constantly demanded his attention, especially when other girls came to balls at the Willows. She forced most of them to abandon their pursuit by informing them she was going to marry Tomas, not them.
Not that he’d ever had a desire to marry back then. Most times, he had laughed off Marguerite’s attempts as a childhood crush, which invariably brought forth her famous Bourgeois temper.
Yet here he was now, being coerced toward the very girl he’d avoided, as if Fate had already made up its mind.
“The dark green or the lightah one, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked, holding up two coats for Tomas to inspect.
“This one,” Tomas said, pointing to a grass-green colored wool jacket. Cut high in the front with long, hammer-claw tails in the back, it reminded him of a grasshopper – especially the polished brass buttons up the front. “It’s Marguerite Bourgeois I’m supposed to impress, so I might as well look my best.”
“The lightah one?” Zeek said, scrunching his eyes, lifting his bushy, gray eyebrows into a wiggle.
“I don’t know about dat,” Zeek said. “Seein’ the color of Miss Marg’rite’s hair an’ all.”
He hung the grasshopper coat inside a walnut armoire, then offered Tomas the hunter green coat. “There ya go,” Zeek said, steeping aside so the pair could look in the mirror. Using an ebony backed brush, Zeek gave the jacket a swipe, swishing imaginary lint from the shoulders and sleeves.
“Mm, mm, mm,” Zeek said, shaking his head and smiling.
“Sleek as a prized racehawse. Miss Marg’rite’s gone pounce on you like a swamp cat!”
“That’s why I wanted the other one,” Tomas said, not feeling too pleased at his appearance. Oh, he looked fabulous, alright, fit for a night out on the town with the Governor.
“Miss Mammie say you gone live here once you married,” Zeek said as he brushed Tomas’s jacket again, before working down the back of the legs. Once finished, he kneeled and helped Tomas pull on his knee-high, black leather boots.
“Mhmm,” Zeek said. “Den we gone have a house full a chill-ren, just like when you a child.”
An image of little hoop-dressed Marguerites holding galas, demanding ponies and buying gowns filled Tomas’s vision, sending a shiver along his back.
“Them was the days, I tell ya,” Zeek said, using a tan cloth to shine Tomas’s boots. “You runnin’ round like ya owned the place. Mammy May chasin’ ya all over the yard an’ all.”
“Yup, this place needs more chill-ren alright,” Zeek said. He stood to admire his handy work. He was a free black, yet continued to live at the Willows doing what he’d always done – taking care of Tomas.
“Eh, too, Zeek?” Tomas said, placing his hands on his hips. He felt alone on an island, with no one caring to listen to what he had to say. “Not even my valet thinks this is wrong?”
“Pardon, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked. “What wrong with you gettin’ married?”
“What about marrying the one I want?”
“You got someone else in mind?”
Tomas paused to think. “I, uh,” he stammered. “Not at the moment. But that could all change. I just have to meet the right woman.”
“Is dat right?” Zeek said. Tomas nodded, grinning like a little boy with a handful of picayune candy.
“And when you gone do that?” Tomas shrugged.
“I don’t know,” he said, his grin grew brighter. “One day, I reckon.”
“You been lurkin’ round New Orleans for ten year, Marse Tomas. You ain’t found none yet.”
I know, Tomas said in his head. That’s the point. Outwardly, he simply shrugged.
“Miss Marg’rite’s been after you for years,” Zeek said. “What you got again her anyway?”
“Nothing,” Tomas said. “Well, not too much, really. She’s supposedly beautiful.”
“Oh she dat, alright,” Zeek said, walking around Tomas, eyeing the clothes. “She be round here several time since you done left.” Using a small pair of scissors, he snipped a loose thread from Tomas’s jacket.
“I bet she has,” Tomas said, imagining Marguerite as a blue heron stalking her prey.
“And dem hips,” Zeek said, whistling. “Woo-wee! If’n I was a youngah man, I’d nevah stop lookin.”
“Zeek!” Tomas said, shocked at his valet’s words. “You’re old enough to be her grandfather.”
“I ain’t dead, marse Tomas,” Zeek said, laughing. “Just old.” He stood up tall. “What mo you want? If it ain’t her, den who?”
Tomas shook his head. “I’m not certain. But when I see her, I’ll know.”
“Miss Mammie ain’t gonna like dat one bit,” Zeek said “She want you married into another plantation like it always be.”
“You know me,” Tomas said, looking in the mirror and fiddling with his bangs, pushing them back over the top of his head. He liked the way his hair fell across his shoulders, but hated it dangling in his eyes. “I’m not one to do what’s always been done.”
“I know dat’s right,” Zeek said.
Tomas chuckled, then reached for his hat. Three hung from a pronged, wooden coat tree next to his armoire. He chose the tan one. It matched his pantaloons, while the low crown and slightly curved brim highlighted his hair.
At that moment, a distant horn sounded, washing the house with its sharp, echoing call. It was the Creole Belle announcing its arrival at the Willows, delivering his future fiancé and her family to the dock along the levee.
Traveling by river boat was many times easier than riding a bumpy carriage along the mud-rutted river road. Therefore, most planters took one of the many passenger packets steaming up and down the Mississippi. The Creole Belle was just such a vessel.
Three decks rose above the river’s surface, held atop one another by white iron columns and railings. White steam puffed from a pair of gold crowned smokestacks, while a massive red paddlewheel pushed the boat from the rear.
Meals, music and gambling took place inside the main halls, with each devoted to serving Louisiana’s finest. Some people rode the Belle just for the adventure of it, while others used it to get from place to place. Planters were its main source of revenue, and whenever hailed from the levee, the boat would pull to shore.
Tomas glanced out the window, watching a pair of slave-led mules pull a wooden rail cart along iron tracks. One of the more unusual details found at the Willows, the tracks ran from the docks to the Big House, then continued onward to the sugar mill, four miles from the river. Mostly used to deliver supplies, it also provided comfort to arriving guests.
Seated in two rows of carriage seats, the Bourgeois family rode the distance from the river to the house. Their house servants followed behind with the baggage. In the distance, steam from the Belle rose over the willow trees in puffs of white, fluffy clouds as it churned upriver toward a new destination.
As the family stopped in the courtyard, Tomas sucked in a deep sigh. Thanking Zeek for his help, he made his way down the stairs and onto the main floor.
“You look fabulous, Tomas,” his mother said, smiling with pride as her son stepped into the long hallway foyer. Painted family portraits lined the walls, while a crystal chandelier hung near the double front doors. A map of Louisiana’s great river plantations held a prominent position, highlighting the power and prestige of the planters.
“Thank you for seeing the sensibility in all of this.”
“I see no sense at all,” he said, kissing his mother on her the offered cheek. “However, I’m also not about to be rude to the most influential family on the river.” He held back a smile as his mother lifted an eyebrow at his comments.
“Phillipe gives us a tremendous amount of business, mother. I’m forced to be grateful.”
“And Marguerite?” his mother said, grasping his offered arm so he could lead her through the pair of green double doors. Sunlight poured through the stained glass transom, dancing its colors across their faces as they passed through.
“You’ll be kind to her as well?” Tomas smirked.
“Mother,” he said. “I’m a gentleman. She’ll get nothing but my best behavior.”
“Very good,” his mother said, waiting to time their exit through the doors just as the family arrived at the base of the steps.
“You’ll see I’m right in the end,” she said. “Combining our resources with those of the Bourgeois will insure our legacy for decades to come.”
“Of course, mother,” he said, stepping through the doors and onto the covered porch. “That IS what’s most important.”
They stopped at the top of the landing just as Phillipe, Marguerite and his wife Celeste made their climb up the fourteen cypress wood steps. The man’s boots thumped heavy on the treads, as if each step might snap the wood in two.
“Ah,” Tomas said. “Here they are now.”
“May I present Monsieur Phillipe Bourgeois,” the footman said in near-elegant French, having accompanied the trio to the veranda. He held out his hand as if offering the red-faced planter to the Willows.
“Shut the hell up,” Phillipe panted, practically pushing the footman from the stairs. The servant bowed when Mammie nodded, and backed away.
“I can introduce myself,” Phillipe said. “Marguerite, get up here.” The young lady gathered her gown and hurried to stand beside her father – head dipped, eyes focused on Tomas.
Phillipe bowed, reaching for Mammie’s offered hand, He kissed the back of her knuckles. “Madame Laiche,” he said. “You look as delightful as ever.”
“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Mammie said, smiling like a goddess. “It’s such a pleasure having you and your lovely family at the Willows.” He nodded and smiled, though painful to watch. The walk up the stairs must had gotten to him, Tomas thought, noticing the mans flushed face.
She turned toward Marguerite. “Goodness me, is this beautiful, young Mademoiselle Marguerite?”
Marguerite curtsied, grasping her pink chiffon hoop dress by the edges and batting her eyes closed.
“Madam Laiche,” Marguerite said, her eyes finding Tomas once they fluttered open. “Merci for your compliment, but I am ever so close to nineteen.”
Mammie covered her mouth and looked at Phillipe for confirmation. The man rolled his eyes, using the moment to inspect Tomas from head to toe.
“Indeed you are,” Mammie said, turning back to the young lady after a moment.
“Tomas? Don’t you think Marguerite looks lovely this afternoon?”
He bowed with a flourish. “As magnificent as the sunset,” Tomas said, earning a blush from Marguerite. Fake or not, her eyes simmered like the heat of the sun, filling his chest with the warmth of interest. Marguerite extended her hand for Tomas to kiss, which he performed perfectly.
“Welcome to the Willows,” Tomas said, straightening and looking into her round, nut-brown eyes. “Our household is blessed to have you back in its presence.”
Marguerite was perfectly petite and barely taller than his mother. Dark burgundy hair flowed over her shoulders like a silk waterfall, cascading down the back to splash near her waist. Tomas remembered something she said when he’d asked why she wore her hair was so long.
“It’s my soul,” she had said. “The longer it gets, the more radiant I become.”
He could see that, now. It shone under the bright sunshine, accentuating her full lips and bright, brown eyes. How had he missed seeing this when he was younger? No longer a girl, she was now a blossoming woman.
“Yes,” Phillipe huffed, pulling his wife forward “Radiant. I know. Might I present the lady of the Emerald Oaks, Madame Celeste Bourgeois?”
Younger then Phillipe by at least ten years, Celeste appeared to be much older. Age didn’t grace her, though many felt it had more to do with the brutality of her husband. It was the stress of living with him that made her appear the way she did.
Still, she dressed in the finest clothes from Paris and looked every bit the Louisiana Matron. Tomas took her extended hand and kissed it, bowing as he did so.
“Madame Bourgeois,” Tomas said, seeing his mother smile from his manners.
“I see where Marguerite gets her beauty.” She curtsied, as was proper and smiled. “Welcome back to the Willows. I hope you enjoy your day.”
“Monsieur Laiche,” she said, fluttering her eyes. “Thank you for having our family for lunch. It is such a lovely place.”
“Quaint,” Phillipe said, interrupting the fineries. He bowed his head at Tomas, as was normal between two planters. Tomas noted its lack of enthusiasm.
“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Congratulations upon the position into which you have now been placed. I hope you do your father proud.”
“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Tomas said, dipping his head in return while deciding whether to match Philippe’s sarcasm with his own.
“Welcome to the Willows. It’s a shame my father isn’t here to welcome you, but I will do what I can to make you feel at home.”
“Excellent,” Phillipe said. “See that you do.” He pushed forward toward the door. “When do we eat?”
Tomas sighed, then smiled – recovering enough to regain his composure.
“Madame?” he said to Celeste, offering his arm. “Might I escort you into the parlor? I believe we have tea and pastry waiting.”
“That would be lovely, Monsieur,” Celeste said. She rested her hand upon Tomas’s forearm and allowed herself to be led inside. He did save a smile for Marguerite, which she accepted, returning it with a bright grin and batted eyelashes.
Mammie motioned Marguerite forward with a sweeping gesture of her hand. “That leaves just the two of us. Shall we? I hear the pastry are blackberry tarts.”