Beneath the Willows – Chapter 17

“What took you so long?” Marguerite said. “I thought you’d never arrive.” She looked past him, as if expecting to see the reason. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed the back. She smiled, sighed and fluttered her long, dark eyelashes.

“I’ve hired Monsieur La Pointe to bargain our sugar prices at the Exchange,” he said.

“Oh,” Marguerite stated. “How delightful.” She turned, reaching for a bouquet of dark, red roses nestled within a wooden bucket near her feet.

“Do you like these, darling?” she said. She lifted them to her nose and sniffed.

Tomas sighed and nodded. “They’re lovely, dear,” he said. “In fact, why not buy the entire basket, and spread them around the house?”

Wooden buckets overflowed with stems of roses, peonies, daisies and other assorted flowers of the season. Small shelves held potted flowers, ready for planting, while other crates held green, glass vases ready for stems.

“Oh can we?” Marguerite said, clapping her hands. “They’re some of the best I’ve seen.”

“Mademoiselle is too kind,” Gullette said, walking up beside Marguerite. He clasped his hands in prayer and bowed. “It is you who make the roses beautiful, Mademoiselle Bourgeois.” He twirled his finger in the air.

“They would be simple flowers without your grace to make them bloom.”

Marguerite blushed, snapping her silk fan open.

“Monsieur!” she said, hiding her face behind the pink lace. “You’re embarrassing me in front of my betrothed.”

Tomas and Gullette laughed, both smiling and enjoying the French belle’s show. Tomas turned toward the flower vendor.

“Monsieur,” he said. “I’d better purchase the flowers my fiancé wishes, lest you whisk her away on the wings of eloquence.”

“Madame Gullette might object, Monsieur Laiche,” he said, tying five pairs of red rose stems into one bunch. He finished the knot with a bow of red ribbon.

“However,” Gullette said, offering the roses to Marguerite. “If Mademoiselle keeps growing in beauty, I might need to reconsider my position.”

Tomas wrapped his arm around Marguerite’s waist and pulled her tight against his side. Her warmth was noticeable. She giggled, glancing up at Tomas in surprise.

“If that were to occur, Monsieur,” Tomas said, his words suddenly thick with a French accent. “I would be forced to challenge you to a duel.” He sighed.

“I fear that one of our industries might become leaderless.”

Gullette nodded, his face becoming stern and serious. Marguerite gasped, fanning herself as her eyes bounced between the two men. Outside the stall, a group of women stopped. They stared at the scene, with two covering their mouths with their hands, while another soothed a crying baby inside it’s bassinette.

“Very true, Monsieur,” Gullette said. He opened his arms wide and smiled.

“With you lost, there would be no one to cultivate your fabulous sugar, or ship all of New Orleans’s goods.”

Tomas lifted his eyebrow. “Is that so?” Tomas said. Gullette nodded.

“I was considering the loss of New Orleans finest florist,” Tomas said. “What a tragedy that would be for our beloved belles.”

“Ah,” Gullette said, placing a finger against his lips and tapping. He glanced at Marguerite, whose eyes were wide; her mouth open. He winked. “Mademoiselle’s beauty demands that I take the risk.”

Tomas nodded thoughtfully, stroking his whiskerless chin.

“Monsieur Laiche,” Gullette continued. “It seems we are at an impasse.”

“Indeed,” Tomas said. “I see no other recourse.”

“Pistols or swords?” Tomas said, crossing his arms.

The people watching gasped, casting glances at one another with mutterings of the word duel. Two women giggled behind the gathered onlookers.

“Tomas!” Marguerite said, stepping between the two men. Tomas gently moved her aside. Gullette rubbed his mouth as he considered his choices.

“True gentlemen choose the blade,” Monsieur Gullette said. He stepped back, his right hand reaching to his left waist – drawing a pretend sword and spinning it with a flourish. With a salute, he kissed the imaginary hilt.

“Rapiers.”

Tomas sighed, his shoulders slumping and his face looked sad. “Alas, Monsieur Gullette,” Tomas said, reaching to his side and patting his waist. “It appears I have left my blade at the Willows.”

“Therefore,” Tomas continued. “I fear I must surrender the beautiful Marguerite to you, in order to honor the rules of engagement.” Tomas bowed in defeat.

Eyes widened in the crowd, as mutters ran amongst the gathered people. Even the baby stopped crying as the child’s mother held her to her breast.

Marguerite’s eyes flew between Tomas and Monsieur Gullette, darting back and forth as if trying to figure out what was happening. Before she could protest, Tomas pushed her toward the flower vendor’s arms.

“She is yours.”

Gullette sheathed his imaginary rapier and held up his hand to stop the exchange.

“Monsieur Laiche,” he said, matching Tomas’s sad eyes. “No, no, no. I cannot do this. Though honor and romance dictate otherwise, it is quite clear to me that Mademoiselle loves you.”

Marguerite’s face lifted into a smile, as some of the gathered crowd gasped in delight.

“Then what do you propose, Monsieur?” Tomas said, smiling at Marguerite and reaching his hand for hers. “Would five more bunches of roses satisfy your honor?”

“Monsieur!” Gullette exclaimed. “There is not enough roses in this world with which to purchase the beauty of Mademoiselle Bourgeois.”

“Monsieur Gullette,” she said coyly while fanning herself. “You flatter me.”

Gullette lifted a finger so that he might continue, as Marguerite fluttered her eyes and sighed with pleasure.

“However, Monsieur,” Gullette said, acknowledging Marguerite with a bow of his head.

“I will accept your offer under the condition you return to my shop next Sunday, and let me gaze upon the beauty that is the Mademoiselle Bourgeois.”

Tomas extended his hand to shake. “We have an agreement, sir,” Tomas said, shaking hands with the flower vendor. The crowd clapped, and some even cheered. Both men bowed, then applauded one another.

“Garcon!” Monsieur Gullette called out and clapped his hands twice. A small negro boy appeared, wearing an off-white cotton shirt, and brown ankle-length trousers supported by suspenders.

“Please deliver this bunch, as well as five others to the Laiche residence on Rue St. Peters.”

The boy nodded and took the bunch that Gullette had already created. “Yassah,” he said, taking the flowers from the vendor’s hand. “Right way.”

Monsieur Gullette plucked a peach-tone rose stem from a bucket near his counter. He offered it to Marguerite, and bowed.

“For the Mademoiselle,” he said. “For being such a good sport as two old friends played a silly game.”

“Thank you, Monsieur,” she said, smiling brightly as she accepted the rose stem. “You are such a romantic!” She looked up at Tomas. “My fiancé could learn a thing or two from you.”

Gullette laughed. “I think Monsieur Laiche does well enough, Mademoiselle.” He bowed. “But I thank you for your compliment.” He turned toward Tomas, who was watching the crowd disperse. Their little performances always captured attention, especially when the word duel was spoken. It wasn’t unheard of for three to be fought in one day; rarely, if ever at the market, though.

“Tomas,” the flower vendor said. “Shall we meet for dinner tonight, mon ami?” Tomas smiled.

“Of course, Anton,” he said, giving Marguerite a glance as if asking for permission. “Marguerite’s returning to Emerald Oaks later this afternoon, isn’t that correct, darling?”

She was inspecting a group of peonies, sniffing them and giggling with delight. “What was that, dear?” she said, turning to face her fiancé.

“You’re returning to Emerald Oaks tonight, correct?” She nodded.

“Yes, dear,” she said. “You knew that. But only after we have lunch. I’m famished, and if I don’t get something to eat, I fear I’ll dry up and blow away.”

“Of course, darling,” he said, returning his attention to Anton. “Tonight at my house. Will seven o’clock serve you?”

“Oui, Tomas,” Anton Gullette said. “I shall see you then. I have the most exciting gossip!”

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