Cries of gulls rang out over the café where Tomas and Marguerite settled in for their noon-time meal. Angry at being shooed away by the wait-staff, the whitish-grey birds wheeled and howled in dismay.
Scents of roasting meats, baked bread and flavorful spices floated on the breeze, while quiet conversation fluttered between tables where red-stripped umbrella’s provided shade for the lunching patrons.
“Darling,” Marguerite said. “Why did you pretend to duel to Monsieur Gullette?”
“Excuse moi?” Tomas said, pulling himself from thoughts of seagulls, children and the lift of an eyebrow.
“People were watching, Tomas. It was embarrassing and distasteful.”
“Distasteful? Anton and I are old friends. We’ve done that almost every Saturday since I’ve been in New Orleans.”
He casually ignored the part of being with other women, thinking it would be best not to rile her jealousy.
“He sells flowers, darling,” she said. “He’s not our type of people. We should be socializing with the other Planters. Not street vendors and the common bourgeois.”
Tomas almost laughed at the use of the word, which in fact was her family name.
“I have an idea!” she said, clapping her hands. “Why not go to the Planter’s Club? All of daddy’s friends do.” Tomas groaned.
“If I recall,” she continued. “Your father did as well. We could make new friends, meet new people; our sort of people, Tomas. Not vendors.”
The way she said the word, vendor, made it sound like a disease to be eradicated. Like the current round of yellow fever raging through the city, though he doubted burning tar pots would run off Anton and his shop.
Tomas sighed and looked away. In the corner across the courtyard, a couple shared a glass of wine together, leaning close across the table and giggling. He could almost see the energy between the two, as if strands of love flowed from one set of eyes to the other.
“They aren’t my type,” Tomas said, then smiled as the couple kissed across the wine. “All they ever discuss is sugar, cotton, business and…”
He paused, wondering if he should add mistresses to the sentence. That was the typical topic of the club: what woman a man had bedded that night, and how good the conquest.
“I don’t relate well to them.” Marguerite cocked her head in compassionate concern.
“Dear,” she said. “They’d love for you to be there. You have the confidence to hold your own with them. You run a successful company. And now, with the Willows in your name, you have more power than most.”
She nodded, her eyes glittering in the mid-day sun. “You deserve to be in that hall, building your greatness.”
Tomas smiled, nodding at his future wife. “Of course, you are correct, my love,” he said.
“Perhaps I’ll go there tonight once you depart for Emerald Oaks.” He was going to say more, but the waiter arrived to take their food request.
“Monsieur,” he said, offering the menu to Tomas. “Mademoiselle. Welcome to Bon Ami. Might I offer you some wine to begin your lunch?”
“That would be lovely,” Tomas said, handing the menu to Marguerite. “Bourdeaux, si veaux plais.”
“Right away, Monsieur,” the waiter said, dipping his head in a bow and scurrying away toward the back of the restaurant. Set within the courtyard, the café claimed the exterior brick walls of adjoining buildings as its own. Fountains bubbled water in the corners, while trees and ferns provided cooling shade for the umbrellas.
“Darling,” Marguerite said, handing the menu back. “Decide for me. I trust you.”
He never understood why men ordered for women, as if they weren’t intelligent enough to figure out what they wanted to eat. The few women he actually enjoyed being around knew exactly what they wanted, even though society felt they should not.
Except Marguerite. She believed herself incapable of choosing her meal. Or perhaps, that was simply the way she was. Did she enjoy being seen subservient? Perhaps she believed it.
As Tomas lifted the menu to read aloud the choices, a couple entered the café and were escorted toward a table in the corner, opposite from the young lovers Tomas was watching.
“Josephine!” Marguerite said, practically leaping from her chair. She waved her hand as she called out. “Josephine!”
Heads turned in the café at her outburst, as did the woman named Josephine. She clapped her hands, said something to her companion and scurried toward Marguerite.
“Marguerite!” she exclaimed as the two came together in a hug, kissing one another on each cheek as they did so. “It’s so good to see you! It’s been forever since we last met.”
She turned and smiled at Tomas, who stood to welcome the young woman. Her companion joined them once the table had been reached.
“Madame,” Tomas said, bowing in welcome. “It appears that you know one another?”
“We do indeed, darling,” Marguerite said. “We were both in school together. Josephine? Might I present my fiancé, Tomas Laiche.”
Josephine extended her hand for Tomas and curtsied.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Madame,” he said, kissing the back of her hand. “Any friend of Marguerite is a friend of mine.”
“And might I present my husband,” Josephine said, turning and smiling a sincere grin at the tall gentleman. “Frederic LaCour.”
Frederic bowed as he was introduced, which Tomas matched. They shook hands. “Tomas Laiche,” Tomas said, then pivoted toward Marguerite.
“And might I introduce my fiancé, Marguerite Bourgeois.” She performed the greeting with as much grace, if not more, than her friend Josephine – batting her eyes and playing shy as Frederic kissed the back of her hand.
“Would you care to join us?” Tomas said, motioning to their table. “We would be honored if you did so.”
Josephine and Frederic exchanged glances, while Marguerite did everything she could to hold back her excitement.
“The honor would be ours, Monsieur,” Frederic said. Capturing the waiter’s attention with a snap of his fingers, he motioned to let the man know they would be sharing a table.
Once the women were seated, the men took theirs – sitting side by side, so the women could discuss the latest gossip.
“Laiche?” Frederic said once the waiter had brought the wine. “Are you the same Laiche that owns the Two Oceans Trading Company?”
Tomas nodded “The very one,” he said. “I hope my reputation is a good one?”
Frederic nodded, sipping his wine as he leaned back in his chair. He wore a similar coat to Tomas, though not near as bright. One might say reserved, as the colors were muted.
Where Tomas wore a light green coat, Frederic’s was dark brown, bordering on black. They both wore tall, knee-high black leather boots, but Tomas’s pants were light tan to match the willow pattern of his shirt. Frederic’s shirt was white, as were his trousers.
“Indeed is it,” Frederic said. “One might call it sterling, if I might be so bold. I’ve always wondered what the mysterious captain of the largest trading company in the south might look like.”
Tomas took a sip of wine and chuckled. “And now you know,” he said. “Do I pass muster?”
Both men looked at the two women, who were giggling like they were back in school. The conversation was centered around Marguerite, and the sort of day she was having.
“You do, indeed,” Frederic said. “My friends and I occasionally discuss you at the Planter’s Hall.”
“You’re a planter?” Tomas asked, sipping his wine. He heard the words, ‘disgusting artist’ and smiled. Frederic nodded.
“My father is the planter. I’m an attorney here in New Orleans.”
Tomas nodded. “LaCour and Boudreaux?” Tomas said, cocking his head. If so, they were a formidable firm in New Orleans – handling every sort of defensible case they could get their hands on. The rumor was, that they had never lost.
Frederic tipped his glass. “I see that MY reputation proceeds me,” he said. “I hope it, too, is a good one?”
“From what I hear,” Tomas said, taking another sip of wine. His glass was near empty. “In fact, we once considered putting your firm on retainer. We ran into issues with the Port Authority on a trade deal we’d arranged with France.”
LaCour nodded. “I remember that,” he said. “Not needed in the end, if I recall. It worked out favorable for you, then?”
Tomas nodded. “Worked well for both parties. We got our deal, and the Port made enough coin to build a new wharf for the extra cargo.”
LaCour nodded and glanced toward the waiter. Lifting his empty glass, the man came hurrying over with the wine bottle – refilling both LaCour’s and Tomas’s.
“So tell me,” LaCour said after taking a sip of his wine. “How did Mademoiselle Bourgeois capture New Orleans’s most eligible beaux? Surely there is a story behind the pursuit?”
Tomas rubbed his eyes and shook his head, as all three sets of eyes turned toward his. “Oh do tell us, darling,” Marguerite said. “It’s such a delightful story.”
He sighed, then nodded. “Very well,” he said. “If you insist.” At least he would never have to be called most eligible beaux anymore.
“It all started beside a lily pad pond, just beneath the Willows.”