Luncheon finished, Tomas and Marguerite found themselves alone on the veranda, watched over by Marguerite’s nanny, who sat some distance away knitting.
“Thank you for inviting us for luncheon, Tomas,” Marguerite said as the pair looked out toward the river. Her warmth matched that of the day, radiating heat like the afternoon sun had set beside him. “It was delightful.”
Tomas bowed his head. “As were you,” he said, suddenly feeling the humidity. The temperature must have risen, he thought, tugging at his collar. It was near-stifling. “The, uh, conversation that is.”
She giggled, dipping her head and smiling. “I knew what you meant.”
“It’s been a long time since were last together,” Tomas said. He twisted toward her. “Maybe eleven years?” She bobbed her head, cheeks flushed pink.
“I was just a child, then.”
“We both were,” Tomas said, filling his nose with her rose-laced scent. It matches her hair. “It was Easter. We chased ducks.”
“You pushed me in the pond, you rascal,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “I hated you so much for that, Tomas Laiche! That was my favorite dress, and you ruined it.”
His eyes widened. “I, uh,” he stammered. “I don’t remember that part.” She nodded, smirking.
“Uh huh,” she said. “Sure you don’t.” She sniffed, but from pretend tears. Her smile said otherwise.
“You said you were going to marry me,” Tomas said. “In front of the Gaudets.” He shrugged. “I had to defend myself.”
She tossed her hair. The thick, shining auburn curls sent rose-laced scent rising into the air and into Tomas’s breath. “Would that have been so bad, Monsieur Laiche?”
“It would have been then!” he exclaimed, head swirling with her intoxicating essence. “You were eight years old, for Christ’s sake.” He released a wistful, pleasurable sigh. His eyes took her fully in, feeling the sudden urge to moisten his lips.
“Perhaps not so bad now, however.”
“Perhaps?” she said sharply. Her eyes flashed. “Perhaps I don’t want that ‘so much now,’ Tomas.” She waved her hand to emphasize the point.
“Perhaps, I’ve found someone else, and simply came for the etouffee.”
Tomas laughed, shaking his head. He adjusted his hat, stuffing his bangs underneath, thus insuring a snugger fit. “I’m certain that’s it. May’s etouffee is renowned for its allure.”
“It pulls people from all over the parish.”
“Humph,” she snorted and crossed her arms. “I’m going for a walk.” Tossing her hair once more, she made sure it slid its silky threads across his face. Spinning away from his touch, Marguerite marched toward the steps.
Rose, Marguerite’s nanny, shook her head at Tomas then followed, keeping her distance as Tomas watched them go.
He sighed, smiled to himself and looked toward the river. He did catch her glance back as she descended, a twinkling cue to follow after she had reached a ‘fair’ distance away.
She was feisty, he gave her that. And passionate, too. He felt that with every look she gave. Was it from love, or from desire to be his wife? He wasn’t certain there. However, the entire time they’d known one another, she’d always stated she was going to marry him.
Perhaps she knew more than he did. There was a lot of that going around these days: a sense of perhapsness. His mouth curled into a wry smile. Is that even a word? He thought. Where does certainty play into all of this?
Not knowing the answers, he followed Marguerite from the veranda, but only after she was halfway to the Willow grove.
“You steppin’ into a wasps nest with that one, marse Tomas,” Jim said, meeting Tomas’s eyes once he reached the bottom of the steps.
“What do you mean?” Tomas said, cocking his head and stopping.
“Just sayin’. You watch yaself, hear?” Tomas nodded, not quite understanding what the coachman meant. He patted the man on the shoulder.
“I’ll be careful,” Tomas said. “I know what I’m doing.”
Jim looked up the stairs, then back to Tomas. “Uh,” he said. “That’s what got me worried. Thatun ain’t right for you, and you knows it.”
Tomas shrugged, glancing across the lawn toward the grove, where Marguerite was just slipping through the dangling, green willow fronds. His chest felt heavy, as if pulled toward the pond’s dark depths.
“I’m alright,” Tomas said, grinning his finest smile. “It’s all part of the game.” He took a deep breath. “I’d best see to her, lest she think I’m rude.” Jim shook his head.
“Do whatcha gots ta do, marse Tomas,” Joe said. “Just ‘member what I done tolt ya.”
Tomas patted the man on the shoulder. For as long as he could remember, Jim had been part of the household staff and a friend. For some reason, he’d felt like an uncle and Tomas never questioned the elderly man’s openness when it came to opinions.
“I won’t,” Tomas said. He walked across the grassy lawn toward the pond, where clusters of purple blossoms just peeked amidst the deep, green leaves of nearby crepe myrtles.
“Why Tomas,” Marguerite said, fanning herself with a white and pink silk fan as he pushed through the stands of willow branches. Her wide-brimmed bonnet matched her fan’s color, trailing a pink, beaded ribbon down the back and across her shoulder.
“Whatever brings you here?”
Rose stood just outside of the willow grove, and while able to hear everything the pair said, she was just enough out of sight to remain proper. How she managed to knit while standing was beyond Tomas, but there she was, clicking away with those wooden needles – trying her best to NOT pay attention.
“Brings me here?” he said with a smirk. “Last time I looked, this was MY home.” She fanned herself faster and scooted to the side of the bench. There was enough room for him to sit, if he chose.
“And my bench.”
Smiling, he walked to the edge of the pond and knelt, settling on his haunches. Lifting a half-buried pecan from the spongey soil, he heard a heavy, single-breath sigh come from Marguerite. That brought a sly smile to his face. He could play this game, too.
“Besides,” he said. “I like to come here and think.”
“Oh really?” Marguerite said, her voice sing song light. “Whatever do you think about?” He stood, looking for an open lily blossom to aim his pecan. What do I think about? That’s a good question.
“Lots of things,” he said, launching the dark brown nut toward a distant flower. He missed, plopping the pecan into the waiting water – sending round droplets of water sliding across a grass-green lily pad.
“Life, the Willows, New Orleans…”
He turned toward Marguerite.
“That’s all?” She said, cocking her head. Her eyes bored into his like arrows. His heart leaped, racing into body-felt beats.
“You,” he said softly, reflecting the arrow back toward her as his breath thickened. The flushed red of her face said he hit his mark. Did he mean that? Hadn’t he called her a witch a few hours earlier? What changed?
Until today, he’d always seen her as a spoiled, eight-year-old, pig-tailed girl who incessantly annoyed him during plantation galas. Eleven years apart seemed like an ocean – vast, distant and no ship in sight. Back then, it was inconceivable for them to be together.
Now, the sea became a peach orchard, no distance at all and she was the perfect fruit – full, ripe and begging to be picked. All he need do was reach out, pluck and she would be his. Imagery faded as her alluring scent of roses overwhelmed his senses.
She fanned herself, hiding her smile behind its fluttering motion. “Why Tomas,” she said, glancing down, but not quite. “You’re making me blush.”
He breathed deep, allowing the life around the pond to fill his senses. The willow branches weaved in the breeze, swaying to and fro in rhythm. Pink and red Azaleas covering the shoreline. Soft, moist earth between her and himself – a promise of what would come should he choose her for his wife.
The cypress bench seemed made for her, its curving legs sprouting like roots rising from the ground. It was sensuous and seductive, just like her.
Jim’s words crept into his head as he glanced toward Mammy Rose. Her clicking needles sounded louder, and she carefully avoided his gaze through the draping limbs.
“You said it yourself on the veranda,” Tomas said, taking one step closer to Marguerite, his boots barely leaving a mark in the moist soil. “Would it be so bad?”
“My, aren’t you the forward one, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “Here we are, not having seen one another in eleven years, and you’re already talking about marriage.”
“Whatever happened to courtship?” She snapped her fan closed. “And I thought you were gentleman.”
He closed his eyes and nodded. Of course he was. What was he thinking? Must be the cicadas. They were louder, it seemed, buzzing in cadence to his heartbeat.
“My apologies,” he said. “Of course you are correct.” He turned toward the pond again, noting the number of lily pads were less this year. Maybe more in the summer.
“It’s just with my father gone, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of responsibility.” He bit his tongue and took a deep breath. “I’m not thinking straight.”
“It’s I who should apologize,” Marguerite said. “I should have realized the tragic death of your father would weigh heavy upon you.” She patted the bench, causing him to turn.
“Please,” she said. “Sit with me.” He nodded. “We might not have seen one another in eleven years, but I still feel the same.” He stared at her a moment, narrowing his eyes.
“You were eight, Marguerite,” Tomas said, sitting where she patted. “How could you still have the same feelings?”
“A girl knows,” she said. “Trust me. We know when we meet the man we’ll marry.”
Tomas chuckled. “Who’s being forward, now?” he said.
“It’s a woman’s right to be forward,” she said, twisting on the bench to see him better, though her hooped dress covered her entire half like a pink, chiffon blanket. “Especially when dealing with men.”
“Indeed?” Tomas said, as if insulted, though his breathing and heart rate said otherwise. She nodded.
“Tell me about your father,” she whispered, cutting him off before he could continue. “I only remember him from when I was younger.”
Tomas took a deep breath, as the depth of memory filled his soul. He searched Marguerite’s eyes for hints of purpose, then looked away.
“Heart failure, supposedly,” he said, watching a turtle pop its head above water. It amazed him how still those things could be. How do they stay in the same spot for so long? Why can’t I?
“He was found floating in St. Johns Bayou on the backside of New Orleans,” Tomas said. He shook his head, closing his eyes as the images came back.
“Alligators had gotten to the body, but there was enough left to identify him.”
Marguerite covered her mouth with her hand, and tears moistened the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Tomas,” she breathed. “I’m so sorry.”
He nodded, hearing her, but not really. He clasped his hands on his lap as he leaned toward the pond. Why did I stay away for so long?
“He was a good man,” he said. A blue heron landed on the edge of the pond, sending the turtle into its dark depths. “He treated me well, mother loved him. He even treated the darkies fair.” He chuckled.
“The entire household staff is free, as are mine in New Orleans.” He shook his head. “You won’t find much of that these days.”
“No,” Marguerite said. “No you won’t.”
“How else was he good?”
“He worked hard, built the Willows into what it is; he and my mother, that is.” He rubbed his hands together, noting how rough they were. “Hand in hand…” His eyes teared, and he sniffed, rubbing the outer corner of his eye. He turned to Marguerite.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said, holding back the building sobs of anguish. “When he was alive, he ran the Willows and left the trading company to me. Now that he’s gone…” he shook his head.
“I just don’t know.”
Before he knew it, her hand was in his – emphasizing his rough against her softness; cold pressed into heat.
“What DO you know, Tomas,” she whispered. Her lips lifted into a concerned, soft smile. Those eyes… her touch. If Rose wasn’t close, he would kiss her in that very moment – pulling her mouth to drink within those delicate lips. Instead, he licked his own, pretending as if they were hers.
The way she asked questions that made him think…
Could she be the one? Is it possible? Light, but she was beautiful. He breathed her in, closing his eyes as he did – imagining life with Marguerite as he clasped her hand tight, yet gentle. Her intertwined fingers caressed his, dancing together as they wove between the other.
Life at the Willows, children running around the grounds, chasing frogs and throwing pecans. Laughter on the veranda, smiles at the table. Passionate love under the nighttime canopy of stars and sleeping in a down-filled bed. Auburn hair tossed in such a way to make his heart sing.
It could work. It could.
You ‘membah what I be tellin ya, Jim’s voice said in the back of his head, breaking the trance as the coachman’s face replaced that of Marguerite. He pushed it away.
What does Jim know? He’s just a coachman. A former slave who knows nothing about tough decisions, nor whom he should marry.
He opened his eyes and met hers.
“I know I can’t make this decision alone,” he breathed, placing his other hand atop of hers, He felt her heart and his beat as one rhythm. Her chest rose and fell in time to his, building the desire to know more with every breath.
“And what decision is that?” she said softly, her eyes never leaving his. He swallowed. Dare I say it?
“Whether to sell the Willows,” he said, taking a deep breath. There. It was out to someone other than her father. “Or to stay here and sell the Company.”
She stiffened, yanking her hand from his. It was like a wall was thrown between them, so strong the withdrawal.
“Business?” she stated. “This entire conversation was about BUSINESS?” He shook his head violently.
“No!” he said. “No, it’s about, it’s about…”
“Christ, I don’t know. You asked me about my father, and then my mind went to what to do.” He stood, marching toward the pond’s edge, shaking his head and pursing his lips.
“Marguerite,” he said to the water, his back to the auburn haired belle on the bench. The heron remained on the opposite bank, silently staring into the dark water as it stood beside a stand of cattails. All the while, the rising and falling buzz of the cicada filled the trees with music.
“You have no idea how difficult things are,” he continued. “Up until now, I’ve been free. Free to run the Company as I chose, free to go where I wanted, when I wanted – even with whom.” He stuck his hands in his pockets.
“Now?” he said, shrugging. “I feel trapped. Locked into a decision I never wanted to make, and forced into servitude at the whims of others.”
“What others,” Marguerite said from beside him. Surprised, he looked down to see her concerned face shining up at his. They reached hands and clasped, her cool fingers mixing into the heat of his own. He yearned for their caress.
“Mother,” he said, smiling and turning back to see the heron. It’s free, at least.
“Father and his legacy. Riley Mac, my manager at the Two Oceans. The Willows.” Jim, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Mammy May. Hell, all of them. Everyone.
Marguerite followed his eyes and smiled, seeing the heron as if for the first time. “What do you want?” she said, lifting her eyes back toward his.
“What I can’t have,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know anything about running a plantation, Marguerite,” he said, looking down at her. He fully turned to face her, yet still clasped her hand, feeling its soft, soothing warmth.
“How can I give this up?” He motioned with his other hand, as if waving at the heron. It didn’t budge, just took one step forward.
“I grew up here, Mother and Father built this place from a swamp. I love it here…” he shook his head, and looked into the sky. “Christ but I do.”
“Then stay,” Marguerite said. “Run the Willows and sell your Company.” She reached for his other hand, clasping them both and bringing them together. “I know how to manage plantations. I can help. Together, we can keep the Willows great.”
Her words and manner of speak filled his heart with hope. Together, she said. He wanted to say yes, his heart ached to say yes – he burned to say yes.
“Or,” she continued. “At the least let your manager run the Company while you get things in order here.” She tugged on their hands in excitement.
“Controlling both ends of the sugar trade isn’t such a bad idea, you know.”
He cocked his head. Not a bad idea at all, he thought. Riley Mac was an honest and respected man around New Orleans. An impressive feat, considering he was a free black in a white dominated world.
“Since when did you care about business?” he said, narrowing his eyes at Marguerite. She grinned, her sparkling eyes made his pulse race.
“Since when did you claim to know the thoughts of women?” she said. “In fact, your previous comments were around what you didn’t know.” She giggled, allowing him to lift her hands to his lips.
“Fortunately for you,” she said, smiling warmly as he kissed the back of her hand. “I’m here to bring clarity to those thoughts.”
“Yes,” he said, laughing and suddenly feeling free. “I can see I underestimated you.”
“You have no idea,” she said, pulling her hands away and smoothing her dress. She adjusted her bonnet, insuring the ribbon fell just so – drawing her fingers down its length.
“You know your father wants to buy the Willows, don’t you?” Tomas said, feeling that the time was proper to say such a thing. She dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.
“Let me deal with Daddy,” she said. “I have him wrapped around my little finger.” She lifted her hand so the back was up. “You just make sure the Two Oceans remains in your hands.”
He nodded, losing himself in her words and eyes.
“Now, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “If you would be so kind as to escort me back to the house?” She placed the back of her hand against her forehead, closing her eyes as she did.
“The humidity is making me faint, and if I were to remain much longer, I shall expire from exhaustion.”
He cocked his head, impressed with her change in demeanor and tone. Where once an astute business woman stood, now re-appeared a typical, charming Louisiana Belle.
“As you wish, Mademoiselle,” Tomas said, offering his arm to rest her hand upon. “The heat can be ever so horrid this time of year.” She smiled and he met hers with a wink.
“And when next I see you, Tomas,” she said, her voice quiet so Rose couldn’t hear. “I expect a proposal. A romantic one, with roses, music and jewels.”
He nearly burst out laughing, grinning brightly at her jest. Her tight-lipped frown pulled him up short.
“You’re serious,” he said, just before they exited the canopy of Willow fronds. She nodded once.
“I am,” she whispered. “And so are you. We were made for one another.” She patted his arm, and stared deep into his eyes.
“We’ve always known this. You feel it, and I feel it.” He nodded quietly.
“I’ve loved you since the day I laid eyes upon you, Tomas. Even as a child, I knew deep within my heart, we were meant for one another.”
She did. He felt it in her soft, sensual gaze. The warmth of her hand on his, as if it were part of him; merged together – natural.
He nodded slowly, his eyes melting into hers, matching her breath as if it were his own. Yes. He loved her too, it seemed – even when calling her a hag or pushing her in the pond. This was right.
“I’ll talk to your father,” he said. “Though he already suspects we’ll be together. He said as much in the library early today.”
“Of course he does,” she said, leading him from the secluded grove of the lily pad pond to where Mammy Rose waited, knitting.