The lily pad pond was quiet and still, as a warm, breezeless mid-May afternoon settled atop the Plantation. Not even the willow leaves rustled, so calm was the wind. Tomas draped his arm over the smooth, polished surface of the bench back. Built from a solitary cypress limb, it curved just in the middle, creating a comfortable, natural swale. He’d often wondered if it was a happy accident, or simply cut so the curve was properly centered.
The seat was a solid cross-cut plank of cypress, with its flame-shaped age rings clearly visible beneath the dark polish. His father made it himself when the house was first built, using the remains of various trees to assemble it. The intention had been for the front porch, but his mother refused – seeing its natural beauty better suited for the gardens.
Tomas trailed his fingers down the fan of wooden spokes supporting the back, feeling the smoothed over knots on the wood – places once covered with bark. His mother was correct: it belonged here by the pond, nestled perfectly beneath the willow tree’s leafy curtain of dangling fronds.
Four days had passed since his meeting with Phillipe, and he was no closer to a decision. His mother knew nothing of the situation, thinking instead that the wedding was still on and that the Willows would soon be hosting a ball for the engagement.
He’d hoped that sitting by the pond would bring clarity, that the dark water would give him what he sought. In storybooks, frogs croaked the answers, as if they were the magical voices of reason – filled with infinite knowledge. The greenish-black frog seated atop a lily pad had so far shown no such ability. Perhaps he was as confused as Tomas; or preferred flies instead of wisdom. Regardless, it held no answers.
“Tomas?” a soft voice said, accompanied by the swooshing rustle of willow leaves. He spun, sitting up with wide eyes toward a purple-gowned Marguerite.
“What are you doing here?” he said, hopping to his feet. He glanced past, seeing that Mammy Rose stood outside the grove with her back to the couple.
“Hello to you, too,” Marguerite said, crossing her arms. Sprigs of lavender wound through her chapeaux, rippling with lace down one side of her head – weaving into her shining, auburn hair.
“Forgive me,” he said, rushing forth to grasp her hand and lead her toward the bench. “I was startled.”
She extended her hand, knuckles up so he could kiss. Her eyes fluttered as he did. Scents of lavender, thick, soft and sensually delightful, swirled around her.
“You are forgiven, monsieur,” she said, then giggled. “Mammy May said I might find you here.”
“She would know,” Tomas said, helping her to the bench. He then sat next to her. “That woman’s always been able to find me, no matter where I hide.”
“She said exactly the same thing,” Marguerite said. She twisted on the bench, yet somehow kept her body straight.
“How are you?” she asked, cocking her head and smiling. Tomas matched her, gazing into her soft, bright brown eyes. “Father says you’re conflicted.”
Tomas snorted. “He said that?” She nodded, brushing a wrinkle away from her gown, glancing down to see it done properly.
“I’m not very well,” he said, shaking his head and gazing over the pond. The frog had moved, Tomas noticed. It now perched on a broken limb sticking from the water near the opposite shore. Any answers yet, monsieur frog?
“Your father made a tough choice near impossible.”
She smiled and placed her hand on his thigh, gathering his attention.
“Father can be blunt when making decisions,” she said. “It’s allowed Emerald Oaks to flourish in tough times.” She squeezed twice, and Tomas placed his hand atop hers, her cool skin mixing with his warmth.
“Blunt is a nice way of putting it, Marguerite,” Tomas said. “He informed me I could not, nor should not keep the Willows.” She nodded, twisting one finger to caress one of his.
“He told me the same thing,” she said, then sighed.
“Oh?” he said, narrowing his eyebrows at Marguerite. “I was under the impression this discussion was between him and I.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “Daddy always confides in me, especially when needing an additional opinion.” Tomas watched Marguerite carefully. He sounded damn sure of himself when talking to me. He looked toward the pond again, seeking the frog’s silent advice. It didn’t budge.
“So what did you offer?”
She caressed his thigh, rubbing back and forth beneath his hand. If his future hadn’t been on the line, he might have enjoyed it.
“Well,” she said. “I told him there should only be one requirement from you.”
“And that is?”
“Being named benefactor of your estate,” she stated, meeting his eyes straight on. Tomas pulled his hand away and sat up straight, considering her eyes and words.
Phillipe stated he’d have to sell him the Willows if he was to marry Marguerite. Now, this was all he wanted? Her to be named benefactor? Tomas stood and walked to the edge of the pond, his hands clasped behind his back.
Monsieur frog, he said to himself, seeing that the fat creature had moved to the shoreline. What do you think about that? The frog hopped once, in the direction of a stand of cattails. A heron slammed its beak into the frog, gobbling it up before it ever saw the dark gray, long legged bird.
“So he doesn’t want me to sell the Willows?” Tomas said. The heron took one step into the water and froze in place, continuing its hunt.
“He did,” she said. “But I convinced him otherwise.”
“Really?” he said, turning to face Marguerite. She twirled her bangs with one of her dainty fingers and nodded.
“Yes,” she said. “Surprised?” He frowned.
“No, actually, I’m not.” He bent over to pick a pecan from the soft, mossy soil. “You seem more capable than you put on.” She nodded.
“Indeed I am,” she said. He nodded and turned, tossing the nut at the heron. Sensing the projectile well before it arrived, the hunter launched into the air, crying out as it flew off toward the river. The pecan plopped harmlessly into the dark waters, sending small ripples cascading toward the shore.
He smiled, but having turned away from Marguerite, she didn’t see it. She was feisty, no doubt about it. And the fact she convinced her father otherwise, said something about her ability to manage. Maybe, just maybe this would work out.
Yes, he thought. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, nodding as he did so. It might as well be now.
Turning, he marched up to the seated belle and dropped to his knee – reaching for her hand and grasping it inside both of his.
“Marguerite Bourgeois,” he said, gazing into her shock-widened eyes. “Will you do me the honor of being my wife?”
“Why Tomas,” she said with gasping breath. Nodding quickly, her smile grew into an excited grin. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Is that a yes?” he said, lifting his eyebrows. She nodded quickly.
“Yes, Tomas,” she said. “Yes! I’ll marry you!”
She leapt into his arms, almost tumbling him backwards from his knees. Standing, he lifted her from the ground and spun – sending her legs flying around as she squealed with delight.
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, bursting through the dangling willow leaves. “Marse Tomas! Whatchoo do ta Mistis Marg’rite?”
Tomas stopped the spin, setting her down with a deep, happy sigh of pleasure and smiled at the negro maid. Leaning up, Marguerite pulled his mouth to hers, kissing him hard against his lips; right in front of Mammy Rose.
“Mistis!” she exclaimed. “You stop dat rite now, y’here?”
“Oh, Mammy!” Marguerite said once she finished her kiss. “Tomas just asked me to marry him!”
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said again. “You gone be married?”
Marguerite nodded. “I am,” she said, rushing to wrap her arms around the older woman. “And we’re going to live right here at the Willows!”
“Lawdy be!” Mammy Rose said, holding the girl and rocking her in her arms, closing her eyes as she did.
“My lil girl gone git married!”