Beneath the Willows – Chapter 18

Simone watched the exchange between the planter and the flower vendor with rapt fascination. Situating herself behind the group and somewhat out of sight, she listened while paying close attention to how his hateful fiancé acted during the performance.

Simone, of course, wasn’t fooled one bit about the seriousness of the duel. She’d met Monsieur Gullette before, and knew what a romantic he was. What shocked her, however, was that the man who had seen her art, was none other than the famously single beaux, Tomas Laiche.

Her time in New Orleans provided enough opportunities to have heard the name before. He owned a shipping company that moved vast amounts of the goods between Europe, the Caribbean and New Orleans – especially sugar from the various plantations.

She also figured he was a planter, though more by his style of dress than reputation. The fact that he saw her art had surprised her, while the look they shared filled her thoughts with spinning interest.

When the flower vender drew his imaginary sword, she smiled. When Tomas acquiesced, she was caught. The man had charm, charisma and honor – even in pretend.

It has to be fake, doesn’t it?

“I thought they would fight for certain,” a woman standing beside Simone said, her yellow gown accentuating strawberry blonde hair. Another woman chuckled, tossing her own set of blonde curls in mirth. Her dress was bright orange.

“Monsieur Laiche and Monsieur Gullette fight?” the orange-dressed woman said, shaking her head. “Maybe over who pays for drinks. They’re best friends.”

Best friends? Simone thought, listening to the two women discuss the pair’s friendship. An elite planter friends with a florist. Huh. Who would have thought it?

“You should have seen them last week,” the woman continued, reaching up to absently twirl the white ribbons holding her hair in a twisted bun. “They actually fought with their pretend swords.”

“Indeed?” the yellow-gowned woman replied. Her hair fell straight to her waist, laced with intertwined pink ribbons. “Who won?”

“Monsieur Laiche,” the other woman said. “Though Monsieur Gullette made him work for it. He even tossed a bucket of flowers!” The woman with the yellow dress gasped, covering her mouth.

“No!” she said. “Really?”

Simone couldn’t hold back any longer, as curiosity overwhelmed her silence. “They do this every weekend?” she said. “Pretend to duel?”

The bun-haired woman nodded, turning toward Simone. “Every Saturday, without fail.”

“Well,” she continued, rolling her eyes. “Not EVERY Saturday. Only when Monsieur Laiche has a woman with him.”

“When has he NOT had a woman with him, Anna?” yellow dress said with a wistful sigh. “He’s the most sought after beaux in New Orleans. Women practically throw themselves upon him.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard, Alice,” Anna said, lifting a lock of blonde hair from her eyes. She turned to Simone.

“I’ve heard that he doesn’t like women at all. He’s only seen with them to make his mother happy.” She waved a dismissive hand.

“Marguerite Bourgeois is arranged,” Anna said sadly to Simone.

“Arranged?” Simone said, finding a place to re-renter the conversation. How could that be?

In the flower stall, Gullette was having the flowers wrapped for delivery, while across the way, a vendor hawked potatoes in a loud, screeching voice, as if selling livestock at an auction house.

“Do people do that here?”

Both women inspected Simone, head to toe, suddenly realizing she might not be one of them. “Of course,” Alice said, turning back toward the flower stall. “Especially between the plantations. Something about keeping them in the family and all of that.”

Now that the action had wound down, the crowd broke up – leaving Simone suddenly exposed to the planter’s view. In fact, just as she thought of it, he turned in her direction. She stepped behind a white, plastered brick column.

“He owns a plantation, too?’ Simone whispered to the pair of ladies as if Tomas might hear. “I thought it was a shipping company.”

Anna shook her head. “No,” she said, giving Simone a curious look. “Since his father passed away, the Willows now belongs to him. Like I said, the most eligible beaux in New Orleans.”

“Why are you hiding behind that post?” Alice said. Anna looked around as if trying to discern from whom she was hiding. “Is someone looking for you?”

Simone glanced toward Tomas and noticed the pair were moving away – leaving their backs to Simone and the gossips. “No,” Simone said, smiling and stepping back into the hallway. “Just-“

“Aren’t you that artist from the square?” Anna said, noticing the paint smudges on Simone’s hand. She looked at Alice, who then nodded in agreement.

“She is indeed,” Alice said. She frowned. “Your art is so, so radical. Why do you paint like that?”

Simone smiled. “Why wouldn’t I?” she said. “If everyone painted the same, how would anyone have anything different?” The two gossips considered her words, frowning as they did.

“I suppose,” Anna said, drawing out the words. She smiled. “I do like the seagulls and the children. They always seem so happy in your paintings.”

“You’ve seen my work?” Simone said. Anna nodded, while Alice stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. “I paint the energy I see as I watch them play. Children and seagulls seem to be kindred spirits.” Simone shrugged.

“Maybe the gulls are the souls of children?”

The two women gasped, with Anna covering her mouth while Alice snapped her fan open.

“My word!” Alice said, fanning herself. “If the Archbishop heard you say that, he would douse you with holy water and have you say the Rosary one thousand times!”

Simone laughed, smiling to match her mirth. In the distance, Tomas and his fiancé rounded the corner and disappeared. Did he glance back? It certainly looked that way.

“I don’t attend Mass,” Simone said. “Nor do I attend any Church that believes in sin, or in a God who sends his creation into the fiery abyss of hell for eternity.” Simone waved a dismissive hand.

“It’s all rather ridiculous, if you ask me.”

Anna’s eyes rolled back in her head and she wobbled in place, forcing Alice to wrap her arm around her friend.

“Blasphemy!” Alice said. “Look what you’ve done to poor Anna. She’ll need a week to recover from your wicked words.”

Anna moaned while Alice supported her. A pair of gentlemen, lawyers by their attire, stopped and inquired into Anna’s well-being.

Simone decided it was time to leave, and with a smile, she left the pair of devout believers to their saviors. It was time to return to her painting, and with what she had learned about Tomas Laiche, her desire to know more raged inside her.

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