Simone’s head raged. Her, a delivery girl for this pompous planter! The mere thought of it forced her heart into overdrive; the desire to smash the painting over his egotistic head was near overwhelming.
True, he’d seen her art, and appreciated it for what it was. Yet he still had the gall to ask HER to deliver it! It was all she could do to keep from telling him to shove the painting up his, well, shapely derriere and take it himself!
She noticed its tight, carved form when he bent over to lift her box, the way the trousers curved in just the right places. Normally she stowed the paints in the music store across the pathway, but when she felt his eyes undressing her while she was in a compromising position, she couldn’t resist the all-to-good temptation.
Plus, she did some undressing of her own. He wasn’t too bad to look at, now she had spent part of the day checking him out. The trip to the market had been planned, hoping she might run into him again while shopping for lunch.
His appearance in the Square was a surprise, made more so with his purchase. Normally, she would have charged ten dollars for a painting, but for some reason, she wanted to test him – see if he was cheap, like most of the other men of his type.
He passed the first test, but failed the other. Instead of being a gentleman and looking away when she bent over, he took advantage. He was a pig. Just like all of the other men of his type. Perhaps a refined pig, one with good taste in art and women, but still pure grade swine.
He would pay.
“Rue St. Peters?” she said, after following him in silence for two blocks toward his home. They were at the intersection of Rue Chartes and Rue St. Ann, just up the road from all of the flop houses that lined Rue Bourbon. “Isn’t that a bit low for one such as yourself?”
He cocked his head. “What do you mean?” he said. “The neighborhood’s quite charming.”
She nodded. “I’m sure you see it that way, Monsieur,” she said. “Most of your type would. Perhaps living among the lower class makes you feel more powerful.”
He stopped and placed the box on the ground. “Now see here, Mademoiselle,” he said.
“Simone,” she replied, cutting him off.
“Simone,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “Whatever. I’ve resided in that house for over ten years. I’m as much a part of the neighborhood as any other person living here.”
He tapped his silver-capped cane on the ground, creating a rapping noise that echoed along the brick streets, turning the heads of a couple standing beneath a porch awning.
“And what is it to you where I live?” he said. “I can live any damned place I choose!”
She smiled, not the face lighting one she used when truly happy, but one saying she had him on the ropes. Feeling his anger build, she thought it best to tone it down a notch. Inside, she laughed. It was like playing with a child.
“Of course you can, Monsieur,” she said. “Forgive my insult.” She opened her arms, still holding the painting in one of her hands. “I was merely suggesting you appeared to be living beneath your means.”
“Humph,” he said. “As if you knew my means. Didn’t I just buy one of your paintings?” He shook his head and grunted.
“I’d think you’d be more appreciative.” He stopped, awareness suddenly filling his face.
“Wait a minute,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He pointed his cane at her. “You’re trying to get me angry, aren’t you? You’re mad because I asked you to deliver the painting yourself.”
Uh oh, she thought. Maybe not a baby after all. Perhaps he was a BIT smarter than she imagined. He’d figured out her game rather easily, and now it was time to create a new one or she’d be in trouble.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “That’s it.”
He leaned against the plastered wall of a row house and crossed his arms. Her eyes went to the box. “Well,” he said, shaking his head. “The game’s up. I’m not going any further with that shipping crate of yours until you fess up.”
Simone thought for a moment, taking time to quietly inspect his features. He appeared angry, yet at the same time playful. Was this part of a game as well? Who should she be in this charade they played: coy, innocent Simone, or worldly all-knowing Simone?
“You caught me, Monsieur,” she said, thrusting her hands into the air, but not before gently setting the artwork on the sidewalk, and leaning the painting against her leg. “Red handed, in the act; guilty as charged.” He rolled his eyes.
“What?” she said, frowning and lowering her arms. “You don’t believe me?”
“No,” he said. “I DO believe you. That’s the problem.” He laughed. “Here I was, trying to find a way to talk longer and in the process, insult you.” He shook his head. “What a world.”
Talk to me longer? She thought. It hadn’t occurred to her he might want to do such a thing. Something felt off with his statement, so she played it out further.
“You were being lazy,” she said, pointing her finger at his chest. “I thought you were a gentleman. Asking a woman to carry your painting for you?” she shook her head, allowing feigned anger to rise. “It’s sad to learn chivalry is dead.”
“What?” he said, confusion wrinkling his brow. “You asked if I wanted it delivered. I simply thought if you, uh, were the one who delivered it…” He paused, letting the sentence slip away as he looked into her eyes.
She shook her head slowly, tapping her foot. “You thought wrong, Monsieur,” she said. “Had you used your head for something other than a hat rack, you’d have realized asking a woman to do your grunt work was the wrong decision.”
There, she thought. That should put him in his place. He could have at least asked her to accompany him to see it hung, or to accompany the delivery boy to insure its safety.
Men never think, she said to herself. Not with the proper brain, anyway.
He ran his hand through his hair beneath his hat and frowned. “But,” he said. “I, uh, meant for… well, you see.” He stopped when she held up her hand.
“You’ve said enough,” she said. “Shall we make our way to your house? I’d like to eat dinner before sunrise.”
He nodded, bent down and lifted the crate, then motioned down the street. “Three more blocks and we’ll be there,” he muttered. “Allow me to carry your bag.”
She nodded, handing over the satchel in silence. “Once we get there,” he said. “I won’t trouble you any longer.”
She sighed. What an idiot. Now he’s pushing me away. Men had such an interesting way of playing games. Just because she was insulted, didn’t mean she wanted to stop playing. How had he built a business being so meek?
“Monsieur,” she said. “What do you do for a living when not insulting talented, beautiful artists?”
They turned down Rue Royal, passing by mixtures of commercial shops, houses and large residences. Here, wrought-iron, gated passageways led into courtyards and gardens hidden behind colorful, two storied walls.
“I deliver things,” he stated without looking back. She smiled, hearing the sarcasm in his words. He owned a shipping company, so of course he delivered things. Moving her hair back over her ear, she picked up the pace until she was walking beside him.
“Like paintings?” she said, giving him a sideways glance. He stopped, smirked, then laughed.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been known to ship a few of those, especially when a customer was moving their estate overseas.”
“Really?” she said, pretending as if she didn’t know who he was or what he did. “All by yourself?”
“I have a little help,” he said. A carriage rumbled past, horse hooves echoing off of the houses with every clip clop. The driver tipped his hat at the pair, which Tomas matched in return.
“That seems like a mighty chore,” she said. “With just a little help.”
She cocked her head, allowing the excitement in her stomach to grow. The rage in her head was gone, replaced by a buzzing just behind her eyes. “Are you a sea captain?”
He shook his head and turned. “No,” he said slowly. “But I do know how to pilot a vessel. My position dictates I stay behind, though I do love the sea.”
Huh, she thought. I’d never have guessed that. She glanced at his hands, once again noting the rough, yet delicate, thick length.
He cocked his head and leaned against a green stucco wall. “Why so interested?” he said. “A moment ago, you were tearing my head off, and now you’re curious about what I do.”
“Small talk,” she piped in. “I like to know my customers. Just in case they choose to become patrons.” She held up her hand. “I’m still upset at delivering your painting, though.”
“I see,” he said. “But not as angry as before.” He looked her up and down, then nodded. “I’m glad.”
“Oh really?” she said, not minding his eyes on her this time. “You should be. My anger knows no bounds.”
He pushed himself away from the stucco wall, then motioned toward the direction they had been walking. “Shall we?” She nodded.
“So if not a ship captain, then what?” she said, walking beside him again. She felt his warm presence radiating in an inviting way. “Warehouse manager, or shipping clerk, perhaps?”
“Why’s it important?” he said, pausing at the intersection of Rue Orleans to insure a carriage didn’t run them down as they crossed.
“Isn’t it enough knowing I find your work fascinating?”
She smiled, allowing the compliment to fill her being. He meant more, just didn’t say it. How hard should she push? “It’s not ‘that’ important,” she said, grasping for words. They were on the seven hundred block of Rue Royal, so her time was running short.
“I’m just curious.” She shrugged, spotting movement on a second floor balcony across the street. A gray-haired man sat in a rocking chair reading a book, smoke curling from a pipe clenched in his teeth.
“You seem to be well off,” she continued. “Perhaps even a planter by the clothes you wear.” She eyed him up and down to emphasize her point. “And your fiancé certainly seems like a belle.”
He sighed, gave her a sideways glance, then motioned her forward to cross the street. “My fiancé,” he stated. “I’m still shocked you knew about that.”
“I know many things,” she said. “It’s how a lovely woman like myself survives life as a street artist.” She caught his glance and noted he said nothing, only lifting his eyebrows as if impressed.
“Then you probably know I own and operate a shipping company,” he said, tossing the idea out casually. “And I now also own a plantation.”
She shrugged and smiled, yet said nothing. They turned up St. Peters then stopped about halfway up the block. Across from them rose a burnt-orange colored, two story house with green shutters hiding the windows.
Being a mix of French and Spanish influence, it was uniquely New Orleans. Gas lamps lined the wall between the windows, flickering in the fading light of late afternoon. Abutted next to the sidewalk, the house, like all others on the street, grew from the edge toward the sky.
“It’s a recent acquisition,” he said, pausing on the last word. His pointing finger led her gaze to the house across the street.
“We’re here,” he said. Looking both ways, he led her to a closed, black wrought-iron gate. An arched brick tunnel led through the building toward a garden peeking from beyond the gate.
“Lovely,” Simone said. “You’ve lived here for ten years?” She met his eyes, but only for a moment – just enough to feel the truth of his words.
“I have,” he said, his voice tinged with a hint of sadness. He turned his gaze upon his house. “I was born at the Willows, but this is home for me.”
“I see,” she said, scrambling for words. He appeared hesitant to walk beyond the passageway’s black gate, choosing instead to stare through the iron bars as if lost in memory. “It fits you.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “How do you mean?”
“It’s the way you gaze upon it,” she said. “Like seeing a dear friend you’ve always known.”
Like the way he looked at her.
He bobbed his head. “That makes sense, I suppose,” he said, then removed a key from his pocket, and inserted it into the inset lock. With a clicking twist, the latch opened and the gate swung inward, it’s iron screech of protest ringing off the bricks.
The dim, tunnel-like passageway gave way to a warm, open air garden. Expanding from the adjacent vine-covered, three story brick wall to her left, the oasis swept outward. Large, square paving stones sat within a carpet of green, forming a path from the tunnel to a small pond in the center. A willow tree draped over the water, offering a canopy of rustling green leaves as shade for a carved, wooden bench.
She turned, smiling at his almost sad face. The sun had settled behind New Orleans, yet still provided evening light into the rectangular courtyard. Its splashes of brilliance illuminated the red, yellows and purples of the garden’s flowers, while shimmering silver sparkles on the pond and casting long shadows into the lush, green corners.
She breathed in the fresh fantasy of honeysuckle and jasmine, their yellow and white blossoms intertwined among the leafy vines – striving for the freedom of a clear, blue sky. Using white, wooden lattices, they clambered the heights beside her, creating a living wall of wall of flowering green, – filling the air with aromatic dreaminess.
Nestled against red brick columns of the arched, open porch to her right, heart-red roses sang for attention, each planted in such a manner, as to demand attention. Matching the design of the entry tunnel, these arches formed two sides of the garden – balancing the mass of yellows and whites, with the individualism of the elegant roses.
The fourth side of the courtyard, opposite the tunnel, was solid red brick with three lion’s head fountains set within recessed arches. Matching the height and shape of the porch, the recesses rounded out the design, appearing as if they could one day be opened as well. The fountains spat water from their carved mouths into stone, half-circle basins, happily bubbling like an eager, forest brook. Set like walls, the sides of the basins rose high enough to act as benches, with blue-tiled sides and stone caps.
Above the fountains, three rectangular balconies curved out from the wall, matching the basins in shape, while using wrought iron railings to contain matching bistro sets. Shuttered windows flanked green wooden doors, shut tight to the mysteries that lay behind.
“It’s so beautiful,” she whispered, turning her head this way and that – taking in all of the elements of the oasis.
“Thank you,” he said, suddenly standing beside her. His tone breathed the words, and she shared the breath. They made their way to the pond, where a green, spotted frog hopped from one of the four lily pads – rippling the water with a soft, deep kerplunk.
“I tried to bring what I loved most about the Willows here,” he said. “Recreate it in a small way, so I could enjoy it on evenings such as this.”
“What a blessing, Tomas,” she said, smiling into the water. The darkness of the ponds depth reflected their shimmering image upon its surface, flowing together like one of her paintings. “I could paint this scene every day,” she purred, “and never capture all of its essence.”
“You’re welcome to do so,” he said, moving closer to her. She felt it, more than heard – his warmth splashing her body with energy. “Anytime you wish.”
She nodded. “I’d like that,” she whispered, though why, she wasn’t certain – it just came out.
The light danced in this garden in ways she’d never seen in Jackson Square. She looked skyward, trying to discern from where it came. It had to be bounce light, the manner in which the courtyard was framed by surrounding buildings. Light did funny things when it reflected, and the color of the bricks combined with the greenery of the garden made this light unique.
“This way,” he said, motioning toward the porch. “I’ll introduce you to Joe.”
“Who’s Joe?” she said, slipping from the trance and following Tomas as he walked toward the central archway opposite the lions head fountains. A green door could be seen beyond, flanked by framed windows and as welcoming as the garden.
“My housekeeper,” he said. “Though he manages my home more than keeps it.” Once beneath, he pointed toward a small table against the wall, just beside a pair of whitewashed rocking chairs.
“You can put your things there,” he said. “We’ll take the painting inside.”
Dropping the paint box and bag in the place he pointed, he reached for the doorknob.
“Excuse moi?’ Simone said. “We?”
The feelings of awe were gone, replaced by tension in her stomach and a constriction in her throat. “I said I would deliver your painting, and so I have.”
“It’s time that I bid you adieu, Monsieur Laiche.”
Tomas turned and cocked his head. “You don’t wish to meet Joe?” he said. “If you come to paint, he’ll need to let you in the gate.”
She breathed a breath, feeling a sense of being lured into something she did not wish to happen. However, she had agreed to paint in the garden. She sighed. Might as well see where this goes.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll meet Joe,” she said, lifting a finger. “But I’ll not stay for dinner.”
Damn! She thought. Why did I say that? The words had come without thought, as if on their own volition.
He chuckled, then turned the door latch. “I don’t recall inviting you,” he said. “Now you mention it, perhaps we can make room.”
He dipped his head inside. “JOE!” he called. “Could you come outside a moment, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Be right dere, Marse Tomas,” a deep, elderly voice called back. “I just put da po boys on for you an Marse Anton.”
Tomas smiled a boyish grin, the charm of it lifting her spirits. “He’s on his way.”
“So I heard,” she stated, trying not to sound interested, even though her heart raced with excitement. Isn’t this what she wanted? She’d followed the man into the Market of all things. Now he’d invited her to dinner. At his house, at HER silly suggestion.
Things were getting out of control, and she gathered her thoughts to make sure they no longer did. “It sounds like you already have plans for the evening, Monsieur,” she said. “Perhaps I’d best be on my way.”
A kinked grey-haired head poked out the door, then the entire man – wiping his hands on a dish towel as he stepped out onto the porch. Offering a bow, and then a grin, he looked to Tomas for the introduction
“Might I present Mademoiselle Simone,” he said, opening an arm wide as if sweeping her forward. “She’s an artist. Simone? This is Joe.”
“My, oh my,” Joe said, shaking his head – not hiding the fact his eyes were taking her all in. “What a pleasah, what a pleasah indeed.” He bobbed his head in a bow. “I’d shake ya hand, but I been choppin shrimp.”
She laughed, feeling the sincerity in his voice. “The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Joe,” she said.
“Jus’ Joe, Miss Simone,” he said. “I ain’t no one special. Joe’ll do just fine.”
She shook her head and smiled. “If you take care of this place, you’re more than special. I’ve never seen a garden like this in the entire city.”
Joe’s face lit up and he met Tomas’s eyes with a ‘where did you find her’ sort of look. The planter nodded in agreement and Joe turned back to Simone.
“Why thankya miss Simone!” he said. “I does my best wits what I got.” He pointed toward the door.
“You joinin us for dinner? Shore be nice ifn ya did.”
“I’m not sure Mademoiselle Bourgeois would approve,” she said, letting her shoulders slump. “Monsieur Laiche bought one of my paintings,” she added, glancing at Tomas as she did. “I helped him bring it here. As a gift.”
Tomas grimaced and frowned, yet Joe remained undaunted. “Don’t you be silly,” Joe said. “This house ain’t hers yet, Miss Simone. Ifn we wants comp-ny, we’ll ‘ave comp-ny.”
If it had been Tomas saying it, she would have said no. While she was intrigued by the man, he was still engaged to be married. However, the way Joe said it made her feel truly welcome as a guest. She looked to Tomas, whose grin looked a bit silly and shy.
“Very well, then,” she said, inspecting the richness deep within Tomas’s eyes. “I guess I’ll have to stay for dinner.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “Let me help ya wit ya things.” He lifted her easel, a rig as Tomas called.
“You say Mistah Tomas gone an bought one a yore paint-ins?” She nodded, lifting the wrapped canvas for him to see.
“Well I’ll be,” Joe said, gathering up the rest of her supplies, then waiting for her to enter the house. “In ya go, Miss Simone. I’ll be right behind.”
“You just tell ole Joe where to put em, then we’ll see about hangin that new paintin’.”