Novel: Beneath the Willows

Hello Lovely Readers!!

As promised, I am honored and proud to present my first novel, “Beneath the Willows” for your reading enjoyment. It’s been revised to the point of presentation, yet has NOT been professionally edited. Therefore, if you find a typo, or misplaced word…. well, that’s the way it is. Comments are welcomed and encouraged, and please FOLLOW my blog, LIKE and Share with others through your social media outlets. Tales are meant to be shared, and I hope you find this one worthy of such an endeavor.

Beneath the Willows was inspired by an envelope, a family artifact left over from a passed down, now lost stamp collection I once had in my possession. The physical address simply states, “The Willows – Port Gibson, Mississippi.”

The Louisiana portion comes from my father’s side of the family, where a strong French connection with New Orleans continues from the 1700’s until this very day. Laiche` is my grandmothers maiden name, and while I’d always known it, I never realized the depth of the history until doing research with Ancestry.

Finally, while family names are used in this story, this is a work of complete fiction, and all references to said families are fantasy and not to be considered real. Where possible, I used historically accurate places and people not associated with the characters.

Madame Olympe, for instance, was a real shop keeper in New Orleans, selling hats (chapeaux) to the wealthy elite of the city.  I give credit for this information (and many of the historical references and dialect) to the book, “Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of my Girlhood: Ripley, Eliza Moore Chinn McHatton, 1832-1912.”

This work is protected by Copyright © 2016 by Stephen R. Gann. No portion of this story may be used without the expressed, written consent by myself, the author.

There are many people I wish to thank and express gratitude for helping to bring this story into our reality, so I’ll simply say THANK YOU to everyone all at once. You know who you are, and when this book is officially published, I’ll put your names in the credits.

This book is dedicated to my son, Carson. You dared me to walk the walk, do as I preached and write a book. Without your challenge, I would have never felt inspired to complete this novel. Thank you.

PS: The plantation photos, as well as the New Orleans photos were taken myself using a Samsung Galaxy phone. The plantation photo associated with the Willows is Houmas House, while the one associated with Emerald Oaks is Oak Alley – both incredible estates and worth a visit if you are ever in the vicinity. If at Oak Alley, have a mint julep beneath one of the great oaks. You’ll never forget it.

———————————-

Therefore, without further adieu, I present:

BENEATH THE WILLOWS  – A Historical Romance by Stephen R. Gann

CHAPTER ONE

Beside still, dark waters of a lily pad pond, Tomas Laiche hid beneath the Willows. It wasn’t exactly hiding, because everyone knew he was there; more like avoiding the situation into which he’d been tossed. His mother played an important part, pulling him from the freedom he relished running his New Orleans shipping company and back into the plantation life from which he’d fled.

His father was dead, supposedly from heart failure, but Tomas knew better. No one found floating in a backwater bayou died from something so benign. His family plantation was on the brink of bankruptcy, both from bad luck and bad decisions. This left his aging mother to manage the vast holdings alone.

And Tomas?

Well, he was about to tether his soul to a Louisiana sugar baron named Bourgeois. And while he might not be hiding, he damned sure was avoiding.

“Marse Tomas?” a woman called out from the direction of the Big House. Less than one hundred yards away, his mammy’s voice boomed as if she were right behind him.

“Damn that woman,” he muttered, leaning forward from the hand-made bench upon which he sat. Lovingly crafted by his father from the fallen boughs of an ancient cypress tree, it had always been his favorite thinking place since he was a child.

An equally ancient Willow tree draped its spindly limbs around Tomas and his bench like yellow-green hair from a wood sprite. Depending upon the season, the locks either sheltered the chair in cool, delightful shade, or highlighted it with colorful ribbons of leafy, free-spirited fronds.

“Marse Tomassss!”

He bent over and dug a moist, year-blackened pecan from the spongy soil beneath his feet. Rolling the nut in his hand, he tossed it toward the closest lily pad. It thumped and slid across the pads green surface, plopping into the water at the end of its journey.

The pond reflected truth, revealing the bench and Willow for what they were: a requirement of each, one defining the other; shared sentiments of both the bench and the Willow. Rarely clear enough to see into the depths, the pond waters soothed its visitors with soft ripples, croaking frogs and the occasional plopping splash of a hungry fish.

Azaleas, clematis, monkey grass and rushes enveloped the pond, holding it close like a protective mother. Three pecan trees draped their arching limbs over the water’s edge, dipping the trailing tips of Spanish moss into the darkened waters.

“Marse Tomas!” The voice was closer. “I knows you in there!”

Above it all was the song of the Cicada. An effervescent composition of buzzing – rising to a crescendo, then softening into silence. At times, the winds through the Willow branches was all that was heard, filling the pond with feelings of place and purpose. Then there would be silence, and all was quiet; only the shimmering of willow leaves – certainly not the bellowing of Mammies.

“I’m not coming out, May,” he said, calling back over his shoulder toward the approaching housekeeper.

“And I’m not hiding!” He pushed reddish brown bangs from the front of his eyes and tucked them under the brim of his gray, felt planters hat.

The willow branches rustled as May pushed her large body through, taking up position behind and to the side of Tomas. She crossed her arms across her white ruffled blouse and scowled.

“I ain’t never said you was.”

“Sure sounded like it,” Tomas said. He picked up another pecan lying at the toe of his black riding boots. He heaved the nut toward the farthest lily pad and missed – finding one of the dozen or so red-blossomed azaleas surrounding the pond. Two mockingbirds burst from the bush, crackling in protest as they sought shelter in a nearby tree.

“Them’s your words, not mine,” May said, watching the birds fly toward freedom.

Tomas shrugged and leaned back against the fan-shaped spokes of the cypress bench – feeling the hard, aged wood press against his spine. Nestled beneath the umbrella-like cascade of Willow fronds, the bench provided Tomas a perfect view of the oasis spread before him.

“Sides, Miss Mammie’s fit to be tied,” she said, shaking her head. Multi-colored beads dangling from her dark blue, turban-like tignon clicked together like rattling dice.

“You supposed to be dressed for Miss Marg’rite’s arrival.” She placed her hands on her hips, forcing her ankle-length blue skirt to billow outwards. Tomas grunted.

“Why you lurkin’ like some scared child? Ain’t like she gone bite-cha.”

“She might,” Tomas said, tossing another nut. The Pecan trees scattered around the plantation created a never ending supply for the squirrels, who deposited them in the grass beneath the bench.

“Besides,” he continued. “Who said I wanted to see Marguerite, anyway? Don’t I have a choice in the matter?”

He heard the beads rattle again, as the massive May shook her head. “Nope,” she stated. “You ain’t got no say atall, Marse Tomas. If Miss Mammie’s invited em, you gone be there.”

The rhythmic buzzing of Cicada’s filled the trees, urgently building, then fading into quiet. Tomas imagined the winged locusts descending upon May and carrying her off, perhaps dropping her into the nearby Mississippi River.

Faint hope in that happening, he thought. They’re probably scared of her, too. That made him laugh

He turned, scowling at the Negro housekeeper. She’d earned her freedom almost ten years ago, yet ever since he was a little boy, she’d ruled over him like HE was the slave and she the master. Well, mothered was more truthful. She treated Tomas like he was her own.

“May,” he said. “I’m twenty-nine-years old. One might think I could choose what I did with my life without being told.”

“What gaves you that idea?” She chuckled. “Since Marse Francois up an died, you ain’t got no choice.”

“You gotsta do whats good for tha Willows.”

Tomas sighed and looked toward an algae-stained marble statue across the small pond. Tucked between two blossoming azalea bushes, the stone boy held a tipped bucket streaming water into a marble, birdbath basin. Red petals from fallen blossoms floated in the water, bobbing over ripples formed by the tiny waterfall.

“I reckon,” he said, seeing his life trickle away like the bucket’s water. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

How does it refill? He ran his fingers through his reddish brown bangs, lifting his wide brimmed hat as he did. He’d come to the pond for as long as he could remember, and not once had he asked that question of the fountain.

“Now I don’t blames ya,” May said. “The Willows ain’t New Orleans.” She brightened.

“But miss Marg’rite? She’s a gorgeous girl. All the folks say so.”

“She’s a witch,” Tomas said, turning to toss his final pecan. He aimed for the farthest pad and missed, landing it next to a partially submerged turtle, who ducked and swam into the depths of the pond. “I’m sure she hasn’t changed since the last time.”

“I don’t know ‘bout dat” May said, shaking her head, eyes watching where the pecan landed. “But your momma’s right fond of her.” May nodded. “Says she’s a God-fearin woman.”

“I’m sure it’s the other way around,” Tomas said, muttering under his breath.

May frowned and crossed her arms. “Now I ain’t gone hear no more lip from you, Marse Tomas.”

“You get yourself up to tha house and get ready, you hear me?”

Tomas grinned, his eyes twinkling like he’d heard a joke that no one else had. He stood and wiped his hands on the bright, green pantaloons he wore tucked into knee-high, black leather boots.

“Yes’um, massah,” he said, dipping his head like one of the field hands cutting sugar cane. “I’za be a comin right now!”

“Don’t you be sassin’ me, Tomas Jacques Laiche!” May said, her scowl growing deeper along with her voice. He knew that tone well, and when he was younger, it’d been followed by a switch across his backside.

“Go on, now,” she said, pointing a thick, dark finger toward the house. “Get!”

Tomas scurried from the lily pad pond as if he’d been swatted, bursting through the branches and hustling toward the house. Looking over his shoulder, he slowed to a walk. Straightening his dark green, knee-length planter’s coat, he brushed away any leaves that might have clung on his escape.

With a final adjustment to his gray hat, he tucked his bangs beneath the brim, smiled, shook his shoulders and sauntered toward the house.

He was ready.

He’d walked the path to the Big House from the grove so often, he no longer saw the beauty that made up the manicured grounds of the Willows Plantation. Having grown up here, the beauty was now background scenery, nothing more.

He didn’t see the fourteen billowing Willow trees guarding the grassy carriage path flowing from the river to the mansion’s front stairway. Groundskeepers kept the streaming limbs over the path cut high, so as to create a leafy-green tunnel which whispered shimmering welcomes when breezes rustled through the dancing fronds.

He didn’t see the white, Greek Revival mansion rising from the lawn. Three stories were supported by thick, round columns standing atop the roman-arched, brick wall of the first floor. Rose vines clambered up wooden trellises placed between the arches, coloring the foundation in shades of pink and red.  A near perfect square, the house stood like a sparkling gem atop a field of floral green.

He didn’t see the four triangular dormers perched atop the gray slate roof, their green shuttered windows gazing toward the river – winking at riverboats steaming along the Mississippi’s tan, muddy waters.

Tomas noticed none of this these days.

What he did see, was his mother waiting at the top of the sweeping stairway. Her hands pressed firm against her slender waist, forcing her frilly, dark green hoop dress to swirl over the veranda like a French parasol.

A coachman in full green and white livery of the house waited at the base of the stairway, observing Tomas’s approach. Tomas stopped next to the Negro servant and glanced up at his glaring mother.

“How angry is she, Jim?” Tomas asked without looking at the servant. “Dare I venture upwards?”

“If you value your life you will, Marse Tomas,” Jim said, his eyes darting between Tomas and his mother. Tomas nodded, chuckling quietly before making the ascension.

“Glad it ain’t me,” Jim muttered.

Tomas stopped halfway and cocked his head at the comment. Smirking and shaking his head, he completed the climb to his glaring mother.

As Tomas arrived at the veranda, she tilted her head, eyes sweeping toward the distant levee.

“Good morning,” he said, bending down and kissing her on the now exposed cheek. “I hope the day finds you well?”

She pursed her lips and lifted her eyes to Tomas, though not until she offered a slight smile from her only son’s kiss.

“Finds me well?” she said, her tone saying the kiss did nothing to staunch her annoyance. “How well do you THINK I am, Tomas Jacques Laiche?!”

The second time his full name had been used. Was the entire household angry with him? He inspected the wooden decking of the veranda, noting two of the boards were beginning to lift.

“The entire Bourgeois family is coming for lunch,” she said. “Including that lovely daughter of theirs, and you go off to hide.”

Tomas grimaced, wincing at her biting tone. “I wasn’t hiding,” Tomas said, though not as powerfully as he would have liked.

He caught a glimpse of a doorman’s widened eyes. The man looked away when Tomas challenged his look.

“I had to think,” Tomas said, feeling as if he were twelve years old. Her looks were one thing, but the tone of her voice sunk him to childhood in an instant.

“Hopefully about your place at the Willows,” she said, her tone growing more intense; if that were possible. “You spend all of your time in New Orleans while the heart of what your father and I built is wilting away.” She sniffed, as the corners of her eyes filled with moisture.

“Ever since Francois passed, God rest his soul,” she said, crossing herself. “You’ve avoided me like I had the yellow fever.” Moisture turned to tears.

“Even when you DO come to visit, you hide away in some remote part of the property; thinking as you call it.”

Tomas met his mother’s eyes, feeling her anguish wash over him. A ploy to tug at my heart, he thought to himself. She was quite adept at it, and if she intended to make him feel guilty, it was working.

“Do you hate me that much, Tomas?”

Tears turned into all out sobs, and the French powders she used to color her face began running in drizzling streaks of black.

“Oh, mother,” Tomas said, pulling her dainty frame against his chest, her head resting just beneath his chin. Tomas wasn’t a massive man, standing just under five foot six inches. His mother, though, was much smaller at four foot eleven. She was like a child to him, though in stature only – especially now.

“It’s okay,” he said, patting the top of her head. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’ll be ready for their arrival.” She sniffed and nodded, glancing up with water-filled eyes.

“Thank you,” she sniffled. “I’m so glad. You’ve no idea how difficult it’s been with your father gone.” She sniffed three times, as if trying to stop the rain.

Pulling away, she gazed into his eyes as his hands rested atop her shoulders.

“The Willows is failing, Tomas,” Mammie said, sadness and sincerity filling her face. “I’m getting old, and with the two years of ruined crops, I can’t see it surviving much longer.” He nodded and sighed, cocking his head as she spoke.

“If we don’t keep up, we’ll lose everything we’ve worked so hard to build.”

“I know,” Tomas said.

“Do you?” She said, searching his eyes. “Do you, really?” Tomas looked toward the river, allowing the Willow trees to guide his view. “Your father and I built this plantation from cypress swamps more than thirty years ago.”

“This is our life’s work. You were born here, raised here.” She gently poked his chest, right atop his heart.

“You’re a part of the Willows, Tomas. It’s time you came home.”

“More and more companies are hiring us to ship their goods,” he said, gasping her hands in his as he turned to face her full on.

“We’re not just transporting our own sugar these days” he said. “We’re shipping cotton, timber, textiles. It’s 1853, and the South is blossoming.” He sighed and shook her head.

“We’re positioned to bloom with it, mother.”

“Riley Mac can run the Company,” she stated, shaking free from his grasp. For as far back as he could remember, his mother could change moods faster than a Gulf storm appeared from clear, blue skies.

“I need you here.”

He sighed again and shook his head. He loved the land, yet loved New Orleans more. The vibrancy of the growing city was like a cultural gumbo, filled with flavors, scents and tastes pouring into him like breath itself.

It was a delicate balance he walked, and if not for his father’s death, he’d not have come back to the plantation. For him, the Willows felt like the past, like chaining himself to an old, never-changing ideal. New Orleans was the ocean – open and free, even a little dangerous. It was dynamic.

“I’m here now,” Tomas said, turning his mother toward the door by placing a hand at her waist. “That will have to do.” She nodded.

“I suppose,” she said. She looked at him as they passed through the opened pair of green, cypress-wood doors and into the mansion’s foyer.

“Marguerite’s coming, so look your best for her, dear. She’s always adored you so.”

“Ah, so the truth of the matter comes out,” Tomas said, laughing. “Marry me off to Marguerite so I can be settled down, is that it?”

His mother gasped, as if she’d been caught in a monumental lie. She placed her hand over her heart.

“Why, Tomas!” she said, drawling the words like a young, Georgia Belle. “What-evah do you mean?” Laughing, Tomas kissed her cheek, then left to get changed.

CHAPTER TWO

Beneath the bright sun of a blue sky morning, Simone Plachette danced with two Creole girls in Jackson Square – laughing and twirling like a flock of gulls spinning toward tossed bread. Sunlight sparkled in her raven-black hair, as its shining ribbons splaying in time to the spin of her billowing, lavender skirt.

“Simone,” one of the girls said between giggles, grasping the woman’s hands as they spun in opposite directions. “You’re so much fun!”

“Oui!” another girl said. She took hold of Simone’s other hand and twirled, using Simone as the fulcrum. “I love when we dance!”

“Me, too,” Simone said, laughing. “I wish I were twelve, like you!”

The sisters’ parents watched from the steps of New Orleans famed, Lower Pontalba building. It was one of two newly constructed row houses bordering the formal gardens of the Square. Laughing along with the trio, the parents clapped when the imaginary music stopped. They smiled when the sisters hugged their twenty-six-year old playmate.

“Who wants to be in my next painting?” Simone said. Her eyes darted between each as she leaned down. She placed both hands on her knees, grinning at the girls face to face.

“ME!” one of the sisters said, throwing her hand up before the other could say a word. “I want to be! I want to be!”

“You win, Lucette,” Simone said, smiling at the sister who was first. She glanced at the girl who had not raised her hand as quickly. “Alise? I’ll paint you next time, oui?”

The girl nodded. “Oui, Simone!” she said. “Tomorrow?” Simone shrugged.

“Perhaps,” she said. “If I finish Lucette by tonight.”

“Do I get to keep the painting?” Lucette said, her wide, brown eyes eager with hope. Simone’s eyes drifted toward the parents and they nodded.

“You do indeed, Mademoiselle,” Simone said, motioning toward an easel placed beside the iron fence surrounding the Square. “Now, shall we begin?”

“Yes!” the girls said as one, jumping up and down like rabbits hopping in place. Simone brought her hands together in one, cracking clap.

“Good,” she said. “Let’s get started.”

Saturday morning brought hundreds of people into Jackson Square, especially on a mild, late spring day. Once an ignored military parade ground, it now thrived as a block-sized park. Black iron fencing enclosed stone-paved walkways, lush landscaping and even a small menagerie filled with exotic birds.

Opposite the river and across the gardens stood St. Louis Cathedral, with its trinity of tall, pointed gray spires forming the centerpiece of Catholicism in New Orleans. It, along with flanking buildings called the Cabildo and matching Presbytere, created a civic and religious backdrop to the formal gardens of Jackson Square.

Most people visited to enjoy the day, choosing to picnic, promenade or people watch. Some came after morning prayers, while others arrived early to take advantage of the vibrant markets filling the lands between Levee Street and the river.

Packed with fresh produce, exotic goods and vendors from around the world, the markets bustled with activity from sunrise to sunset. With available choices in a state of constant flux, they offered unique experiences found only within the French Quarter.

Ships covered the river behind the markets – either tied to the docks, anchored in the strong current or steaming up and down the thick, tan waters of the Mississippi River. Tall-mast sloops, steamships, paddle-driven riverboats – all plied the river delivering goods or people. At times, they were stacked so deep, that one might cross the river by walking deck to deck – never wetting a foot.

Even on Saturday, shipments continued. Slaves stacked bales of cotton into thick towers of white puffy cubes. Others unloaded hogsheads from mule-drawn wagons, each filled with anything from sugar to rum to sorghum syrup. Men sang, others yelled and foremen hollered instructions, filling the air with the human music of work. Neighing horses, stamping hooves and the jingle of tack; all contributed to the symphony of the docks.

Overhead, seagulls wheeled and cried, searching for food scraps either tossed or fallen onto the streets. Women with flowery, silk parasols strolled beside cane-toting lovers. They discussed news of the day, what might be best for breakfast, or anything in between. Street vendors unpacked carts, musicians prepared their instruments for mid-morning performances and artists put brush to canvas.

Simone’s easel sat on the lower corner of the Square, just outside the fence and across Rue St. Ann from the lower Pontalba Building. Across Levee Street from the market, her spot basked in shade given by low-hanging limbs of the live oaks, draping haphazardly over spear-tipped, wrought iron fencing.

“Simone,” Alise and Lucette’s mother said, having walked over after the girls joined her at her easel. Simone looked up with a smile, one that brightened moods with its dimple-forming radiance.

“Would you mind watching the girls while we go to Market?”

“Of course!” Simone said. She cast her gaze upon the sisters. “You don’t mind helping me, do you?”

“YAY!” Alise said. “Can I paint, too?” Simone nodded, lifting a small, stretched canvas from her nest of supplies leaning against the fence. She handed over a pair of brushes, as well as a palate for paints.

“Oui,” she said. “You shall learn to mix colors.” Alise clapped her hands and grinned at her mother.

“I’m going to be an artist, Ma-Ma!” The woman nodded at Simone.

“Tres bien, Alise,” her mother said, sharing a knowing look with her husband. Dressed for a Saturday stroll, the man tipped his tall, lavender top hat to Simone as the mother finalized instructions.

“Behave yourselves, mes cheris,” she said. “We shall return later this afternoon.”

“Oui, Ma-ma!” the girls said at once. “Bonsoir, Pa-pa!” Both parents nodded, then strolled arm in arm toward the market, leaving Simone with their daughters.

“Now, Lucette,” Simone said once the couple departed. “Sit still and we shall get started.”

“Oui, Simone,” she said, sitting on her stool.

“I want you to watch the seagulls as if you were one of them,” Simone said. Lifting her brush, she considered the little girl, then daubed the brush into a blue-green mixture of paint.

“What do I paint, Simone?” Alise said, inspecting a small, wooden palette, a knife and a tin of paints. Seated cross-legged against the fence, Alise had the supplies laid on the ground before her.

“Use the knife to daub paints onto the palette,” Simone said. “Choose red, the yellow and the cyan.”

Alise nodded, dipping the knife into the yellow. With a gleeful grin, she smeared the paint onto the palette.

Simone lost herself in the art, creating blocks of color that resembled nothing discernable. A couple stopped, spending moments inspecting Simone’s work. The woman, dressed in orange as if ready for a ball, grinned at the two girls.  Alise returned the smile, yet Lucette remained focused and perfectly still.

The beaux, however, didn’t appear interested in the painting at all. Instead, he stared down Simone’s open-topped smock, which revealed ample cleavage as Simone leaned forward.

Before she could say bonsoir, the woman noticed her beaux’s eyes and snatched him away by the arm – muttering about harlots as they walked away. By the look on the man’s face, Simone realized he was getting an ear full for his eye full.

“Ya no be temptin em like dat, Sea-moan-eh,” a husky-voiced woman said from behind.

“Dey may tink ya da devil, an cast ya out da city.”

Simone laughed, shaking her head while streaking a blue-green swath across her canvas. Alise giggled, yet continued mixing paints into colorful blobs. Lucette pretended to be a seagull.

“That’s the plan, Maria,” Simone said seductively. She narrowed her eyes. “Tempt them with my art, then steal their souls for eternity.”

An elderly woman passing by gasped, then scurried away – her fingers fiercely working a set of black rosary beads clutched in her gnarled, wrinkled hands.

Sister Maria, all three hundred plus pounds of her, leaped into the air and cackled, pointing a thick, bejeweled finger at the retreating lady. Multiple strands of gold and silver beads hanging around Maria’s neck clinked together, as if they, too, were laughing at the frightened woman.

“Ya put da fear in ‘er, Simon-eh!” Maria said, still chuckling. “Just as I be tellin ya.”

Simone brushed a streak of yellowish paint onto her canvas, pulling it down in a thick, feathery motion. Two other children, a girl and a boy, dashed across the street toward Simone and Maria, calling out, “Sister Maria!” “Sister Maria!”

“Just as you be telling me,” Simone said, replacing her brush with a thin, charcoal pencil. This she used to outline the area through which a river would flow.

“You’d think they’d have gotten used to me by now.”

“Dey don’t like seein what dey don’t undah-stand,” Maria said. “People be blind like dat.”

“What do you see?” Simone said, glancing over her shoulder at Maria. “What do you understand?” Maria cackled again, causing the children to cheer.

She plucked pieces of picayune candy from within the pocket of her ankle length, burgundy dress. A wide, black silken sash wound around her waist. Clasped tight with a golden buckle, it hid the candy’s location from the children.

“I know many tings,” Maria said, offering the candy to the children. “I see many tings.”

“I undah-stand many tings.”

She ruffled the hair of the boy and girl as they thanked her for the candy.

“It be takin more dan dis con-vah-sation for ya ta know what Maria know.”

Simone found it fascinating the way her friend talked. R’s became ah’s, and h’s didn’t seem to exist. They painted a lyrical language that tickled Simone’s heart with musical pleasure. Turning her name into three syllables was a delight, as if each was a separate word – with moan being her favorite.

She chose a color for the river, or rather a mixture of colors unique to Lucette. Something the children wouldn’t expect – a color matching the little girl’s spirit and essence.

Sparkling sea-foam green came to mind.

“But ya do see many tings, Simone-eh,” Maria continued. “Ya paint like da mojo be flowin true ya and on to da canvas.” She nodded, leaning closer to inspect.

“Ya see da girl as if she be da water and da gull at dee same time.”

Simone stopped, her brush lingering over the canvas without making a stroke. She turned. “You can see that in my painting?”

The woman nodded, her multi-colored tignon shaking its beads and bones in agreement. Covering her hair, the linen wrap spun around her head, spiraling upwards in swirls of burgundy and black.

Simone pursed her lips and smiled, completing her mark on the canvas.

“Lucette?” she said, turning the easel so the girl could view the work in progress. “What do YOU see so far?” The girl cocked her head in thought, placing a finger to her mouth.

“I see myself flying away to a new, magical land,” she said, her voice soft and quiet. So much so, that the chattering gulls flying overhead almost drowned her out.

“Some place beautiful, just beyond the water!” The children nodded.

“Really?” Simone asked.

Maria’s face went still as she stared at the little Creole girl. Lucette bobbed her head, almost laughing.

“Flying tickles!”

“I bet it does,” Simone said, twisting the easel back. She daubing paint onto her brush from the palette.

“I wish I knew how to fly.”

Morning turned toward noon, with warm, cooling breezes flowing in from the river. By the time the parents returned, Alise had mixed a colorful mess on her palate and Lucette was squirming like a trapped squirrel.

“LUCETTE?” their mother called out, standing inside the garden and beneath the oaks. She held a basket, while in the distance her husband was spreading a blanket atop the green lawn.

“ALISE! Time to go. Tell the lovely artist good day and come along!”

“Bonne journée, Simone,” Lucette said, gathering her skirts and standing. “Will you be here tomorrow painting my picture?”

“Oui,” Simone said, smiling. “I might even be finished!”

“Oh goody!” Lucette said. “Then I shall see you tomorrow! Au Revoir!”

“Au Revoir,” Simone replied. Maria said nothing, simply staring at the two girls who dashed toward the gate with pigtails bouncing.

Maria mumbled, opened a small, cloth bag and took a pinch of powder from within. Bringing it to her lips, she kissed it then tossed the powder into the air.

Simone watched, fascinated by the ritual. “A blessing?” she said, cocking her head. Maria smiled, though only in response.

“Soom-ting like dat,” she said quietly. “Ya coom by latah, Simon-eh. We be avin tea.” Simone smiled, her face lighting up like Lucette’s colorful form on the canvas.

“I would like that!”

“Den I see ya soon.”

“Au Revoir, Sister Maria!” the other children said, almost as one.

“Come, lit-luns,” she said, opening her arms wide. “Let Sister Maria be givin yas da hug.” The two children jumped into her arms, allowing themselves to be absorbed into her bosom.

“Dere ya be,” she said, rocking them back and forth. “I be keepin ya safe. Ya be okay dis night.”

Once she let them go, Maria waggled an amethyst-ringed finger at Simone. “No be late,” she said. “Da tea’ll go cold if ya be.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Simone said, smiling after the departing priestess. She returned to her painting.

Lucette the Gull.

That would be the title. A beautiful one, about soaring and flying free.

CHAPTER THREE

Marguerite Bourgeois had been coming to the Willows since she was a little girl, and had been friends with Tomas since they were old enough to walk. She was the only daughter of Phillipe Bourgeois, who was master of Emerald Oaks – the largest and most profitable plantation along the Mississippi River.

It comprised nearly three hundred thousand acres of sugar cane, cotton and maize, as well as fields for commodity livestock and prized racehorses. Like the Willows, it was completely self-sufficient – feeding the household, as well as two hundred eighty-two slaves.

The family operated four plantations along the river, all bought when the original ownership failed. Phillipe snapped them up and gave them to his sons, thus increasing his own personal holdings and power. Only Marguerite was without property, being a woman and just coming of age to marry.

That was about to change.

As Tomas was being dressed by his valet, an elderly Negro named Zeek, his thoughts drifted to all of the times he’d spent with Marguerite. She’d been pleasant, lovely and overly flirtatious for most of the time he’d know her. However, with their age difference of ten years, he’d always felt like an older brother.

She had constantly demanded his attention, especially when other girls came to balls at the Willows. She forced most of them to abandon their pursuit by informing them she was going to marry Tomas, not them.

Not that he’d ever had a desire to marry back then. Most times, he had laughed off Marguerite’s attempts as a childhood crush, which invariably brought forth her famous Bourgeois temper.

Yet here he was now, being coerced toward the very girl he’d avoided, as if Fate had already made up its mind.

“The dark green or the lightah one, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked, holding up two coats for Tomas to inspect.

“This one,” Tomas said, pointing to a grass-green colored wool jacket. Cut high in the front with long, hammer-claw tails in the back, it reminded him of a grasshopper – especially the polished brass buttons up the front. “It’s Marguerite Bourgeois I’m supposed to impress, so I might as well look my best.”

“The lightah one?” Zeek said, scrunching his eyes, lifting his bushy, gray eyebrows into a wiggle.

“I don’t know about dat,” Zeek said. “Seein’ the color of Miss Marg’rite’s hair an’ all.”

He hung the grasshopper coat inside a walnut armoire, then offered Tomas the hunter green coat.  “There ya go,” Zeek said, steeping aside so the pair could look in the mirror. Using an ebony backed brush, Zeek gave the jacket a swipe, swishing imaginary lint from the shoulders and sleeves.

“Mm, mm, mm,” Zeek said, shaking his head and smiling.

“Sleek as a prized racehawse. Miss Marg’rite’s gone pounce on you like a swamp cat!”

“That’s why I wanted the other one,” Tomas said, not feeling too pleased at his appearance. Oh, he looked fabulous, alright, fit for a night out on the town with the Governor.

“Miss Mammie say you gone live here once you married,” Zeek said as he brushed Tomas’s jacket again, before working down the back of the legs. Once finished, he kneeled and helped Tomas pull on his knee-high, black leather boots.

“Mhmm,” Zeek said. “Den we gone have a house full a chill-ren, just like when you a child.”

An image of little hoop-dressed Marguerites holding galas, demanding ponies and buying gowns filled Tomas’s vision, sending a shiver along his back.

“Them was the days, I tell ya,” Zeek said, using a tan cloth to shine Tomas’s boots. “You runnin’ round like ya owned the place. Mammy May chasin’ ya all over the yard an’ all.”

“Yup, this place needs more chill-ren alright,” Zeek said. He stood to admire his handy work. He was a free black, yet continued to live at the Willows doing what he’d always done – taking care of Tomas.

“Eh, too, Zeek?” Tomas said, placing his hands on his hips. He felt alone on an island, with no one caring to listen to what he had to say. “Not even my valet thinks this is wrong?”

“Pardon, Marse Tomas?” Zeek asked. “What wrong with you gettin’ married?”

“What about marrying the one I want?”

“You got someone else in mind?”

Tomas paused to think. “I, uh,” he stammered. “Not at the moment. But that could all change. I just have to meet the right woman.”

“Is dat right?” Zeek said. Tomas nodded, grinning like a little boy with a handful of picayune candy.

“And when you gone do that?” Tomas shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said, his grin grew brighter. “One day, I reckon.”

“You been lurkin’ round New Orleans for ten year, Marse Tomas. You ain’t found none yet.”

I know, Tomas said in his head. That’s the point. Outwardly, he simply shrugged.

“Miss Marg’rite’s been after you for years,” Zeek said. “What you got again her anyway?”

“Nothing,” Tomas said. “Well, not too much, really. She’s supposedly beautiful.”

“Oh she dat, alright,” Zeek said, walking around Tomas, eyeing the clothes. “She be round here several time since you done left.” Using a small pair of scissors, he snipped a loose thread from Tomas’s jacket.

“I bet she has,” Tomas said, imagining Marguerite as a blue heron stalking her prey.

“And dem hips,” Zeek said, whistling. “Woo-wee! If’n I was a youngah man, I’d nevah stop lookin.”

“Zeek!” Tomas said, shocked at his valet’s words. “You’re old enough to be her grandfather.”

“I ain’t dead, marse Tomas,” Zeek said, laughing. “Just old.” He stood up tall. “What mo you want? If it ain’t her, den who?”

Tomas shook his head. “I’m not certain. But when I see her, I’ll know.”

“Miss Mammie ain’t gonna like dat one bit,” Zeek said “She want you married into another plantation like it always be.”

“You know me,” Tomas said, looking in the mirror and fiddling with his bangs, pushing them back over the top of his head. He liked the way his hair fell across his shoulders, but hated it dangling in his eyes. “I’m not one to do what’s always been done.”

“I know dat’s right,” Zeek said.

Tomas chuckled, then reached for his hat. Three hung from a pronged, wooden coat tree next to his armoire. He chose the tan one. It matched his pantaloons, while the low crown and slightly curved brim highlighted his hair.

At that moment, a distant horn sounded, washing the house with its sharp, echoing call. It was the Creole Belle announcing its arrival at the Willows, delivering his future fiancé and her family to the dock along the levee.

Traveling by river boat was many times easier than riding a bumpy carriage along the mud-rutted river road. Therefore, most planters took one of the many passenger packets steaming up and down the Mississippi. The Creole Belle was just such a vessel.

Three decks rose above the river’s surface, held atop one another by white iron columns and railings. White steam puffed from a pair of gold crowned smokestacks, while a massive red paddlewheel pushed the boat from the rear.

Meals, music and gambling took place inside the main halls, with each devoted to serving Louisiana’s finest. Some people rode the Belle just for the adventure of it, while others used it to get from place to place. Planters were its main source of revenue, and whenever hailed from the levee, the boat would pull to shore.

Tomas glanced out the window, watching a pair of slave-led mules pull a wooden rail cart along iron tracks. One of the more unusual details found at the Willows, the tracks ran from the docks to the Big House, then continued onward to the sugar mill, four miles from the river. Mostly used to deliver supplies, it also provided comfort to arriving guests.

Seated in two rows of carriage seats, the Bourgeois family rode the distance from the river to the house. Their house servants followed behind with the baggage. In the distance, steam from the Belle rose over the willow trees in puffs of white, fluffy clouds as it churned upriver toward a new destination.

As the family stopped in the courtyard, Tomas sucked in a deep sigh. Thanking Zeek for his help, he made his way down the stairs and onto the main floor.

“You look fabulous, Tomas,” his mother said, smiling with pride as her son stepped into the long hallway foyer. Painted family portraits lined the walls, while a crystal chandelier hung near the double front doors. A map of Louisiana’s great river plantations held a prominent position, highlighting the power and prestige of the planters.

“Thank you for seeing the sensibility in all of this.”

“I see no sense at all,” he said, kissing his mother on her the offered cheek. “However, I’m also not about to be rude to the most influential family on the river.” He held back a smile as his mother lifted an eyebrow at his comments.

“Phillipe gives us a tremendous amount of business, mother. I’m forced to be grateful.”

“And Marguerite?” his mother said, grasping his offered arm so he could lead her through the pair of green double doors. Sunlight poured through the stained glass transom, dancing its colors across their faces as they passed through.

“You’ll be kind to her as well?” Tomas smirked.

“Mother,” he said. “I’m a gentleman. She’ll get nothing but my best behavior.”

“Very good,” his mother said, waiting to time their exit through the doors just as the family arrived at the base of the steps.

“You’ll see I’m right in the end,” she said. “Combining our resources with those of the Bourgeois will insure our legacy for decades to come.”

“Of course, mother,” he said, stepping through the doors and onto the covered porch. “That IS what’s most important.”

They stopped at the top of the landing just as Phillipe, Marguerite and his wife Celeste made their climb up the fourteen cypress wood steps. The man’s boots thumped heavy on the treads, as if each step might snap the wood in two.

“Ah,” Tomas said. “Here they are now.”

“May I present Monsieur Phillipe Bourgeois,” the footman said in near-elegant French, having accompanied the trio to the veranda. He held out his hand as if offering the red-faced planter to the Willows.

“Shut the hell up,” Phillipe panted, practically pushing the footman from the stairs. The servant bowed when Mammie nodded, and backed away.

“I can introduce myself,” Phillipe said. “Marguerite, get up here.” The young lady gathered her gown and hurried to stand beside her father – head dipped, eyes focused on Tomas.

Phillipe bowed, reaching for Mammie’s offered hand, He kissed the back of her knuckles. “Madame Laiche,” he said. “You look as delightful as ever.”

“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Mammie said, smiling like a goddess. “It’s such a pleasure having you and your lovely family at the Willows.” He nodded and smiled, though painful to watch. The walk up the stairs must had gotten to him, Tomas thought, noticing the mans flushed face.

She turned toward Marguerite. “Goodness me, is this beautiful, young Mademoiselle Marguerite?”

Marguerite curtsied, grasping her pink chiffon hoop dress by the edges and batting her eyes closed.

“Madam Laiche,” Marguerite said, her eyes finding Tomas once they fluttered open. “Merci for your compliment, but I am ever so close to nineteen.”

Mammie covered her mouth and looked at Phillipe for confirmation. The man rolled his eyes, using the moment to inspect Tomas from head to toe.

“Indeed you are,” Mammie said, turning back to the young lady after a moment.

“Tomas? Don’t you think Marguerite looks lovely this afternoon?”

He bowed with a flourish. “As magnificent as the sunset,” Tomas said, earning a blush from Marguerite. Fake or not, her eyes simmered like the heat of the sun, filling his chest with the warmth of interest. Marguerite extended her hand for Tomas to kiss, which he performed perfectly.

“Welcome to the Willows,” Tomas said, straightening and looking into her round, nut-brown eyes. “Our household is blessed to have you back in its presence.”

Marguerite was perfectly petite and barely taller than his mother. Dark burgundy hair flowed over her shoulders like a silk waterfall, cascading down the back to splash near her waist. Tomas remembered something she said when he’d asked why she wore her hair was so long.

“It’s my soul,” she had said. “The longer it gets, the more radiant I become.”

He could see that, now. It shone under the bright sunshine, accentuating her full lips and bright, brown eyes. How had he missed seeing this when he was younger? No longer a girl, she was now a blossoming woman.

“Yes,” Phillipe huffed, pulling his wife forward “Radiant. I know. Might I present the lady of the Emerald Oaks, Madame Celeste Bourgeois?”

Younger then Phillipe by at least ten years, Celeste appeared to be much older. Age didn’t grace her, though many felt it had more to do with the brutality of her husband. It was the stress of living with him that made her appear the way she did.

Still, she dressed in the finest clothes from Paris and looked every bit the Louisiana Matron. Tomas took her extended hand and kissed it, bowing as he did so.

“Madame Bourgeois,” Tomas said, seeing his mother smile from his manners.

“I see where Marguerite gets her beauty.” She curtsied, as was proper and smiled. “Welcome back to the Willows. I hope you enjoy your day.”

“Monsieur Laiche,” she said, fluttering her eyes. “Thank you for having our family for lunch. It is such a lovely place.”

“Quaint,” Phillipe said, interrupting the fineries. He bowed his head at Tomas, as was normal between two planters. Tomas noted its lack of enthusiasm.

“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Congratulations upon the position into which you have now been placed. I hope you do your father proud.”

“Monsieur Bourgeois,” Tomas said, dipping his head in return while deciding whether to match Philippe’s sarcasm with his own.

“Welcome to the Willows. It’s a shame my father isn’t here to welcome you, but I will do what I can to make you feel at home.”

“Excellent,” Phillipe said. “See that you do.” He pushed forward toward the door. “When do we eat?”

Tomas sighed, then smiled – recovering enough to regain his composure.

“Madame?” he said to Celeste, offering his arm. “Might I escort you into the parlor? I believe we have tea and pastry waiting.”

“That would be lovely, Monsieur,” Celeste said. She rested her hand upon Tomas’s forearm and allowed herself to be led inside. He did save a smile for Marguerite, which she accepted, returning it with a bright grin and batted eyelashes.

Mammie motioned Marguerite forward with a sweeping gesture of her hand. “That leaves just the two of us. Shall we? I hear the pastry are blackberry tarts.”

CHAPTER FOUR

“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said once everyone was inside of the house. The women had withdrawn into the parlor, where Mammie was entertaining Celeste and Marguerite with tea and pastry.

“Might I have a word?” he said.

“Of course, Monsieur, so long as you call me Tomas.” Phillipe nodded, as Tomas continued. “We’ve known one another long enough to drop the formality of title.”

“As you wish,” Phillipe said. He lifted an eyebrow. “Shall we?”

Tomas turned to one of the household staff, just as old as Zeek. “John, please inform mother that Phillipe and I will be in the library discussing business.”

The gray headed man nodded and walked into the parlor without a word.

“This way,” Tomas said, motioning Phillipe into the library. It was just across the foyer and opposite the parlor. Once inside, he slid the white, wooden door closed. “Brandy?”

“Of course,” Phillipe said with a nod. He turned toward a wall of books, scanning the mahogany shelves as if looking for a specific title. “Your father built a fine collection here,” he said, pulling a large, leather-bound tome from the shelf. “Homer, Plato. Impressive.”

“Yes,” Tomas said, pouring brandy from an Irish crystal decanter into two crystal glasses cut with an ivy motif. “Father loved to read. I admit to enjoying a good book myself, every now and then.” He offered one of the glasses to Phillipe, who then lifted in toast.

“To Francois,” Phillipe said. “May he rest in peace.” Tomas returned the toast. “To Father,” he said, then drank – watching Phillipe over the top of his glass.

“Let me get to the point, Tomas,” Phillipe said, throwing back his brandy in one, massive swallow. “By taking Marguerites hand in marriage, you’ll be tying yourself to the largest string of plantations in southern Louisiana.”

“Only through marriage,” Tomas said, sipping his brandy.

“Still,” Phillipe said, walking over to the decanter. Before Tomas could offer, he poured himself another drink. Tomas frowned at both the pouring, as well as the size of the pour.

“It will give you quite an advantage, especially for your trading company.”

“Perhaps,” Tomas said, shrugging, trying not to show too much interest in what Phillipe was saying. “I’ve not given it much thought, to be honest. I’m more concerned for Mother’s health and well-being at the moment.”

“Of course,” Phillipe said, sipping his brandy this time and waving a hand. “How is she these days?” A feint. It made Tomas smile. He’d never had the opportunity to haggle with Phillipe himself. Always the manager.

“Well enough, I suppose,” Tomas said. “With Father gone, her work load has dramatically increased.” He sighed, whether from the game or from reality, it felt the right thing to do.

“She wants you back here, running the Willows?” Phillipe said, watching Tomas with hawkish eyes. Laughter slipped under the door, causing both men to turn in the direction of the parlor.

“Sounds like they’re enjoying themselves,” Phillipe said. “Good. It gives us more time to get to know one another.” Tomas smiled and nodded once. His glass now empty, he refilled it, making sure to keep himself near the decanter.

“The Willows is important to Mother,” Tomas said. He motioned to an over-stuffed arm chair. “Have a seat.” Phillipe nodded, then sat. Tomas chose a rosewood, high-backed armchair with green, velvet upholstery.

“It’s why I’m back.”

“The Two Oceans is doing quite well,” Phillipe said. “I imagine it’s a difficult decision you’ll need to make regarding which will be your focus.”

“Indeed it is,” Tomas said, looking into his glass as if lost in memory. Let’s see where Phillipe is leaning. “One I’ve yet to make.” He looked up at Phillipe.

“You manage quite a few enterprises. Any thoughts on the matter?” Phillipe’s mouth lifted into a ‘slight’ smile.

“Well,” the older man said, nodding and looking into his glass. “Now that you mention it, I do have some ideas.” He leaned back in the chair, creating a creaking, complaining crack from the wood.

“The way I see it,” Phillipe said. “You have one of two choices: divest yourself of the Willows, or of the Two Oceans.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine you’d have success managing both.”

“Ah,” Tomas said, nodding as he took a sip of brandy. Matching one’s opponent was a trick of the trade. It created a physical impression of agreement. “Divest one. Interesting.”

“That’s a terribly difficult choice,” he said. “The Willows is home, the place I was born. Mother and Father bled on this land building it into what it is today.”

Phillipe nodded. “Very true,” he said. “Not many along the river can say that these days.”

“Whereas I had an instrumental hand in building the Two Oceans,” Tomas said, swirling his brandy in the glass – watching it spin. “Father may have started it, but I built it.”

He sighed, feeling tension build behind his temples. “It would be painful to give it up.”

Phillipe opened his arms, holding the almost empty glass in his right hand. “A tough choice,” he said. “Family or self? You can’t have both, it seems.”

Tomas stared at Phillipe, who seemed to be pleased with the direction of conversation. Tomas ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing it back several times. Let’s see what he’s after.  

“Family is thicker than blood,” Tomas said, repeating something he heard once along the wharf. “Perhaps I sell the company and move to the Willows.” He looked into his glass, yet watched Phillipe’s reaction over the rim.

“I’m sure I could get a good price for the Company, especially with New Orleans being named the fourth largest seaport in the world.”

“Madame Laiche would like that,” Phillipe stated just a bit too short. “And it IS your home.” He smiled and sipped his brandy. “Perhaps that makes the most sense.”

“However,” Tomas said. “She’s getting old, Phillipe. Life in the city might do her some good. Free her from the responsibility of taking care of so many people.”

“It would be difficult,” Phillipe said, leaning forward, his face suddenly serious. “Do you think she’d agree to such a thing?” Got you, Tomas thought. The man’s tone was too pleased. You want the Willows.

“It would take time,” Tomas said. “Perhaps a year or two.” He waved his hand. “After my marriage to Marguerite, of course.”

“She could assist with the transition,” Phillipe said eagerly. “Help smooth things over with Madame Laiche.” Tomas nodded.

“She’s good that way, my Marguerite. Handles politics almost as well as your mother.”

“Why, just the other day, she helped stop a near riot between Brody and the field hands.”

“Indeed?” Tomas said. Marguerite did something other than gossip? Phillipe nodded.

“That she did!” Phillipe said. “Marched herself up right between the drones and Brody, then held up both hands – stopping each side in their tracks.” He waved his glass in the air.

“Why would she do that?” Tomas said, cocking his head. Interesting.

“Come to find out,” Phillipe said. “Brody was holding back rations.”

“You don’t say,” Tomas said, nodding as he listened.

I do,” Phillipe said. “He was mad because one of the field niggers hid his daughter from him.” Phillipe laughed, then drank the last swallow of his brandy.

“Brody likes his meat dark, if you know what I mean,” Phillipe said. “So there was no way some nigger slave was going to stop him from getting his meal.”

“How did Marguerite settle the dispute?” Tomas said, reaching back to grab the decanter. He took Phillipe’s glass, filled it then filled his own.

“She made Brody promise to ask,” Phillipe said. “And if he didn’t, she would fire him and make him work the fields with the niggers!”

Tomas almost spit his brandy as his sipped. “She did what?”

Phillipe nodded. “She did indeed,” Phillipe said. “That’s my Marguerite. Feisty as one of my prize thoroughbreds. The niggers got their rations, Brody begged for his treat and the revolt was settled.”

“Impressive,” Tomas said. It was. He had no idea Marguerite was skilled in negotiations. Maybe she wasn’t that bad of a choice after all. Phillipe laughed as he drank, pausing to look into the glass as if remembering a joke.

“What is it?” Tomas asked. Phillipe shook his head.

“Nothing, really,” he said. He chuckled again

“Well,” he continued. “After she left, Brody came to me.”

“I see,” Tomas said.

“Let’s just say, I made certain Brody never had to beg for what he wanted. Ever again.” He looked up at Tomas and winked.

“Though you have to admit, she was good, wasn’t she?” He laughed.

“She was at that,” Tomas said slowly, swallowing his brandy hard. What a bastard.

“Now back to the Willows,” Phillipe said. “Have you considered a selling price? The quality of production, the location and the land you have here should bring top dollar.”

“Do you think so?” Tomas said. He took a drink, his mind still focused on the brutality of Phillipe. While he’d never seen the man mistreat his slaves, rumors claimed it was a daily occurrence. Now he had confirmation.

Phillipe nodded. “Of course,” he said. “Hell, I might even buy it myself.” Tomas froze mid thought, meeting Phillipe’s eyes as he considered what the man was saying.

“If I did that,” Phillipe continued. “Mammie wouldn’t have to leave. She could stay here, while you and Marguerite resided in the city.”

“That is,” Phillipe said. “If you marry Marguerite.” He shrugged. “What do you think, Tomas?”

“It’s an interesting idea,” Tomas said slowly, allowing his mind to process the thought. He scanned the library, taking in various details that he’d grown up with – details that would belong to Phillipe if he sold.

Wooden bookends, carved in the shape of baying hounds, held a row of classical, leather-bound literature. A hand-sized, white marble bust of Caesar – from Rome, his father once said, sat atop the mantle. The Irish decanters, a painting of two clipper ships and a drawing by James Audubon of three fox squirrels chasing one another beneath a Willow tree. That was his favorite.

“I must admit,” Tomas continued. “The notion of mother staying on the land she loves is enticing.” He took a drink. “Assuming I care to sell.”

“How could you not?” Phillipe replied. “Your company will collapse without you at its helm. Like you said, you built it from nothing.’ He shook his head. “There’s no way I’d ever sell that golden goose.”

“It’s quite profitable,” Tomas said. “I’ll give you that.” He cocked his head. “But what if I could run both? Why would I sell?”

Phillipe laughed. “What do you know about running a plantation, Tomas? Just because your father managed well, doesn’t mean you can.” He shook his head.

“You know shipping, my boy. Stick to that, it’s what you’re good at.” He smiled, taking another sip of his brandy.

“Leave the plantations to the planters.”

“I could always marry someone else,” Tomas said. “Connect myself to another legacy planter. Perhaps the Gaudet’s. They know sugar quite well.”

“Theophile Guadet?” Phillipe said, blurting out a snorting laugh. “That man’s an idiot of the highest order. The only reason he’s successful is because he has an intelligent manager.”

He waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, his daughter is the size of a barn and has the face of a horse.” Phillipe shrugged.

“But if that’s what you want, suit yourself, Tomas,” Phillipe continued. “It still doesn’t solve the issue of managing two different companies.”

On this, Phillipe was correct. He didn’t know a thing about running a plantation. The ten years he’d lived in New Orleans was spent building the Two Oceans Trading Company. He knew the price of sugar, how to sell at market and ship it overseas.

Growing sugarcane, harvesting it, dealing with slaves  – everything associated with plantation life was beyond his knowledge.

It was a serious dilemma, and Phillipe knew it. In fact, Tomas was certain the only reason he considered offering Marguerite to Tomas was to gain control of the Willows.

Tomas slammed back his brandy, more from anger at being beaten in the game, than from the choices he faced. Losing burned him in the stomach like cheap rotgut.

“No,” Tomas said. “Mademoiselle Gaudet is the kindest woman I know, but that doesn’t inspire me to marry her.”

“Your mother understands the issues,” Phillipe said. “It’s why we’re here.” Tomas narrowed his eyes.

“My mother,” he said. Phillipe nodded.

“By linking yourself to me,” Phillipe said. “You gain allies and strength. By pushing us away…” He let that question hang and shrugged.

“The Willows will be in good hands,” Phillipe said. “Your mother can stay here and you can come visit anytime you wish. This is the only way that both the Two Oceans, and the plantation remain strong.”

Phillipe opened his arms. “Not too difficult a decision, if you ask me.” Tomas opened his mouth to speak, but stopped – choosing to nod quietly instead. It made sense, Christ but it did.

A bell hanging from a red, silk sash near the fireplace jingled, filling the library with soft, church-like chimes.

“Lunch,” Tomas said. “Shall we join the ladies?”

Phillipe nodded, his cheeks significantly rosier than before. “Of course, my boy! I’m famished.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Luncheon finished, Tomas and Marguerite found themselves alone on the veranda, watched over by Marguerite’s nanny, who sat some distance away knitting.

“Thank you for inviting us for luncheon, Tomas,” Marguerite said as the pair looked out toward the river. Her warmth matched that of the day, radiating heat like the afternoon sun had set beside him. “It was delightful.”

Tomas bowed his head. “As were you,” he said, suddenly feeling the humidity. The temperature must have risen, he thought, tugging at his collar. It was near-stifling. “The, uh, conversation that is.”

She giggled, dipping her head and smiling. “I knew what you meant.”

“It’s been a long time since were last together,” Tomas said. He twisted toward her. “Maybe eleven years?” She bobbed her head, cheeks flushed pink.

“I was just a child, then.”

“We both were,” Tomas said, filling his nose with her rose-laced scent. It matches her hair. “It was Easter. We chased ducks.”

“You pushed me in the pond, you rascal,” she said, placing her hands on her hips. “I hated you so much for that, Tomas Laiche! That was my favorite dress, and you ruined it.”

His eyes widened. “I, uh,” he stammered. “I don’t remember that part.” She nodded, smirking.

“Uh huh,” she said. “Sure you don’t.” She sniffed, but from pretend tears. Her smile said otherwise.

“You said you were going to marry me,” Tomas said. “In front of the Gaudets.” He shrugged. “I had to defend myself.”

She tossed her hair. The thick, shining auburn curls sent rose-laced scent rising into the air and into Tomas’s breath. “Would that have been so bad, Monsieur Laiche?”

“It would have been then!” he exclaimed, head swirling with her intoxicating essence. “You were eight years old, for Christ’s sake.” He released a wistful, pleasurable sigh. His eyes took her fully in, feeling the sudden urge to moisten his lips.

“Perhaps not so bad now, however.”

“Perhaps?” she said sharply. Her eyes flashed. “Perhaps I don’t want that ‘so much now,’ Tomas.” She waved her hand to emphasize the point.

“Perhaps, I’ve found someone else, and simply came for the etouffee.”

Tomas laughed, shaking his head. He adjusted his hat, stuffing his bangs underneath, thus insuring a snugger fit. “I’m certain that’s it. May’s etouffee is renowned for its allure.”

“It pulls people from all over the parish.”

“Humph,” she snorted and crossed her arms. “I’m going for a walk.” Tossing her hair once more, she made sure it slid its silky threads across his face. Spinning away from his touch, Marguerite marched toward the steps.

Rose, Marguerite’s nanny, shook her head at Tomas then followed, keeping her distance as Tomas watched them go.

He sighed, smiled to himself and looked toward the river. He did catch her glance back as she descended, a twinkling cue to follow after she had reached a ‘fair’ distance away.

She was feisty, he gave her that. And passionate, too. He felt that with every look she gave. Was it from love, or from desire to be his wife? He wasn’t certain there. However, the entire time they’d known one another, she’d always stated she was going to marry him.

Perhaps she knew more than he did. There was a lot of that going around these days: a sense of perhapsness. His mouth curled into a wry smile. Is that even a word? He thought. Where does certainty play into all of this?

Not knowing the answers, he followed Marguerite from the veranda, but only after she was halfway to the Willow grove.
“You steppin’ into a wasps nest with that one, marse Tomas,” Jim said, meeting Tomas’s eyes once he reached the bottom of the steps.

“What do you mean?” Tomas said, cocking his head and stopping.

“Just sayin’. You watch yaself, hear?” Tomas nodded, not quite understanding what the coachman meant. He patted the man on the shoulder.

“I’ll be careful,” Tomas said. “I know what I’m doing.”

Jim looked up the stairs, then back to Tomas. “Uh,” he said. “That’s what got me worried. Thatun ain’t right for you, and you knows it.”

Tomas shrugged, glancing across the lawn toward the grove, where Marguerite was just slipping through the dangling, green willow fronds. His chest felt heavy, as if pulled toward the pond’s dark depths.

“I’m alright,” Tomas said, grinning his finest smile. “It’s all part of the game.” He took a deep breath. “I’d best see to her, lest she think I’m rude.” Jim shook his head.

“Do whatcha gots ta do, marse Tomas,” Joe said. “Just ‘member what I done tolt ya.”

Tomas patted the man on the shoulder. For as long as he could remember, Jim had been part of the household staff and a friend. For some reason, he’d felt like an uncle and Tomas never questioned the elderly man’s openness when it came to opinions.

“I won’t,” Tomas said. He walked across the grassy lawn toward the pond, where clusters of purple blossoms just peeked amidst the deep, green leaves of nearby crepe myrtles.

“Why Tomas,” Marguerite said, fanning herself with a white and pink silk fan as he pushed through the stands of willow branches. Her wide-brimmed bonnet matched her fan’s color, trailing a pink, beaded ribbon down the back and across her shoulder.

“Whatever brings you here?”

Rose stood just outside of the willow grove, and while able to hear everything the pair said, she was just enough out of sight to remain proper. How she managed to knit while standing was beyond Tomas, but there she was, clicking away with those wooden needles – trying her best to NOT pay attention.

“Brings me here?” he said with a smirk. “Last time I looked, this was MY home.” She fanned herself faster and scooted to the side of the bench. There was enough room for him to sit, if he chose.

“And my bench.”

Smiling, he walked to the edge of the pond and knelt, settling on his haunches. Lifting a half-buried pecan from the spongey soil, he heard a heavy, single-breath sigh come from Marguerite. That brought a sly smile to his face. He could play this game, too.

“Besides,” he said. “I like to come here and think.”

“Oh really?” Marguerite said, her voice sing song light. “Whatever do you think about?” He stood, looking for an open lily blossom to aim his pecan. What do I think about? That’s a good question. 

“Lots of things,” he said, launching the dark brown nut toward a distant flower. He missed, plopping the pecan into the waiting water – sending round droplets of water sliding across a grass-green lily pad.

“Life, the Willows, New Orleans…”

He turned toward Marguerite.

“That’s all?” She said, cocking her head. Her eyes bored into his like arrows. His heart leaped, racing into body-felt beats.

“You,” he said softly, reflecting the arrow back toward her as his breath thickened. The flushed red of her face said he hit his mark. Did he mean that? Hadn’t he called her a witch a few hours earlier? What changed?

Until today, he’d always seen her as a spoiled, eight-year-old, pig-tailed girl who incessantly annoyed him during plantation galas. Eleven years apart seemed like an ocean – vast, distant and no ship in sight. Back then, it was inconceivable for them to be together.

Now, the sea became a peach orchard, no distance at all and she was the perfect fruit – full, ripe and begging to be picked. All he need do was reach out, pluck and she would be his. Imagery faded as her alluring scent of roses overwhelmed his senses.

She fanned herself, hiding her smile behind its fluttering motion. “Why Tomas,” she said, glancing down, but not quite. “You’re making me blush.”

He breathed deep, allowing the life around the pond to fill his senses. The willow branches weaved in the breeze, swaying to and fro in rhythm. Pink and red Azaleas covering the shoreline. Soft, moist earth between her and himself – a promise of what would come should he choose her for his wife.

The cypress bench seemed made for her, its curving legs sprouting like roots rising from the ground. It was sensuous and seductive, just like her.

Jim’s words crept into his head as he glanced toward Mammy Rose. Her clicking needles sounded louder, and she carefully avoided his gaze through the draping limbs.

“You said it yourself on the veranda,” Tomas said, taking one step closer to Marguerite, his boots barely leaving a mark in the moist soil. “Would it be so bad?”

“My, aren’t you the forward one, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “Here we are, not having seen one another in eleven years, and you’re already talking about marriage.”

“Whatever happened to courtship?” She snapped her fan closed. “And I thought you were gentleman.”

He closed his eyes and nodded. Of course he was. What was he thinking? Must be the cicadas. They were louder, it seemed, buzzing in cadence to his heartbeat.

“My apologies,” he said. “Of course you are correct.” He turned toward the pond again, noting the number of lily pads were less this year. Maybe more in the summer.

“It’s just with my father gone, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of responsibility.” He bit his tongue and took a deep breath. “I’m not thinking straight.”

“It’s I who should apologize,” Marguerite said. “I should have realized the tragic death of your father would weigh heavy upon you.” She patted the bench, causing him to turn.

“Please,” she said. “Sit with me.” He nodded. “We might not have seen one another in eleven years, but I still feel the same.” He stared at her a moment, narrowing his eyes.

“You were eight, Marguerite,” Tomas said, sitting where she patted. “How could you still have the same feelings?”

“A girl knows,” she said. “Trust me. We know when we meet the man we’ll marry.”

Tomas chuckled. “Who’s being forward, now?” he said.

“It’s a woman’s right to be forward,” she said, twisting on the bench to see him better, though her hooped dress covered her entire half like a pink, chiffon blanket. “Especially when dealing with men.”

“Indeed?” Tomas said, as if insulted, though his breathing and heart rate said otherwise. She nodded.

“Tell me about your father,” she whispered, cutting him off before he could continue. “I only remember him from when I was younger.”

Tomas took a deep breath, as the depth of memory filled his soul. He searched Marguerite’s eyes for hints of purpose, then looked away.

“Heart failure, supposedly,” he said, watching a turtle pop its head above water. It amazed him how still those things could be. How do they stay in the same spot for so long? Why can’t I?

“He was found floating in St. Johns Bayou on the backside of New Orleans,” Tomas said. He shook his head, closing his eyes as the images came back.

“Alligators had gotten to the body, but there was enough left to identify him.”

Marguerite covered her mouth with her hand, and tears moistened the corners of her eyes. “Oh, Tomas,” she breathed. “I’m so sorry.”

He nodded, hearing her, but not really. He clasped his hands on his lap as he leaned toward the pond. Why did I stay away for so long?

“He was a good man,” he said. A blue heron landed on the edge of the pond, sending the turtle into its dark depths. “He treated me well, mother loved him. He even treated the darkies fair.” He chuckled.

“The entire household staff is free, as are mine in New Orleans.” He shook his head. “You won’t find much of that these days.”

“No,” Marguerite said. “No you won’t.”

“How else was he good?”

“He worked hard, built the Willows into what it is; he and my mother, that is.” He rubbed his hands together, noting how rough they were. “Hand in hand…” His eyes teared, and he sniffed, rubbing the outer corner of his eye. He turned to Marguerite.

“I don’t know what to do,” he said, holding back the building sobs of anguish. “When he was alive, he ran the Willows and left the trading company to me. Now that he’s gone…” he shook his head.

“I just don’t know.”

Before he knew it, her hand was in his – emphasizing his rough against her softness; cold pressed into heat.

“What DO you know, Tomas,” she whispered. Her lips lifted into a concerned, soft smile. Those eyes… her touch. If Rose wasn’t close, he would kiss her in that very moment – pulling her mouth to drink within those delicate lips. Instead, he licked his own, pretending as if they were hers.

The way she asked questions that made him think…

Could she be the one? Is it possible? Light, but she was beautiful. He breathed her in, closing his eyes as he did – imagining life with Marguerite as he clasped her hand tight, yet gentle. Her intertwined fingers caressed his, dancing together as they wove between the other.

Life at the Willows, children running around the grounds, chasing frogs and throwing pecans. Laughter on the veranda, smiles at the table. Passionate love under the nighttime canopy of stars and sleeping in a down-filled bed. Auburn hair tossed in such a way to make his heart sing.

It could work. It could.

You ‘membah what I be tellin ya, Jim’s voice said in the back of his head, breaking the trance as the coachman’s face replaced that of Marguerite. He pushed it away.

What does Jim know? He’s just a coachman. A former slave who knows nothing about tough decisions, nor whom he should marry.

He opened his eyes and met hers.

“I know I can’t make this decision alone,” he breathed, placing his other hand atop of hers, He felt her heart and his beat as one rhythm. Her chest rose and fell in time to his, building the desire to know more with every breath.

“And what decision is that?” she said softly, her eyes never leaving his. He swallowed. Dare I say it?

“Whether to sell the Willows,” he said, taking a deep breath. There. It was out to someone other than her father. “Or to stay here and sell the Company.”

She stiffened, yanking her hand from his. It was like a wall was thrown between them, so strong the withdrawal.

“Business?” she stated. “This entire conversation was about BUSINESS?” He shook his head violently.

“No!” he said. “No, it’s about, it’s about…”

“Christ, I don’t know. You asked me about my father, and then my mind went to what to do.” He stood, marching toward the pond’s edge, shaking his head and pursing his lips.

“Marguerite,” he said to the water, his back to the auburn haired belle on the bench. The heron remained on the opposite bank, silently staring into the dark water as it stood beside a stand of cattails. All the while, the rising and falling buzz of the cicada filled the trees with music.

“You have no idea how difficult things are,” he continued. “Up until now, I’ve been free. Free to run the Company as I chose, free to go where I wanted, when I wanted – even with whom.” He stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Now?” he said, shrugging. “I feel trapped. Locked into a decision I never wanted to make, and forced into servitude at the whims of others.”

“What others,” Marguerite said from beside him. Surprised, he looked down to see her concerned face shining up at his. They reached hands and clasped, her cool fingers mixing into the heat of his own. He yearned for their caress.

“Mother,” he said, smiling and turning back to see the heron. It’s free, at least.

“Father and his legacy. Riley Mac, my manager at the Two Oceans. The Willows.” Jim, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Mammy May. Hell, all of them. Everyone.

Marguerite followed his eyes and smiled, seeing the heron as if for the first time. “What do you want?” she said, lifting her eyes back toward his.

“What I can’t have,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“I don’t know anything about running a plantation, Marguerite,” he said, looking down at her. He fully turned to face her, yet still clasped her hand, feeling its soft, soothing warmth.

“How can I give this up?” He motioned with his other hand, as if waving at the heron. It didn’t budge, just took one step forward.

“I grew up here, Mother and Father built this place from a swamp. I love it here…” he shook his head, and looked into the sky. “Christ but I do.”

“Then stay,” Marguerite said. “Run the Willows and sell your Company.” She reached for his other hand, clasping them both and bringing them together. “I know how to manage plantations. I can help. Together, we can keep the Willows great.”

Her words and manner of speak filled his heart with hope. Together, she said. He wanted to say yes, his heart ached to say yes – he burned to say yes.

“Or,” she continued. “At the least let your manager run the Company while you get things in order here.” She tugged on their hands in excitement.

“Controlling both ends of the sugar trade isn’t such a bad idea, you know.”

He cocked his head. Not a bad idea at all, he thought. Riley Mac was an honest and respected man around New Orleans. An impressive feat, considering he was a free black in a white dominated world.

“Since when did you care about business?” he said, narrowing his eyes at Marguerite. She grinned, her sparkling eyes made his pulse race.

“Since when did you claim to know the thoughts of women?” she said. “In fact, your previous comments were around what you didn’t know.” She giggled, allowing him to lift her hands to his lips.

“Fortunately for you,” she said, smiling warmly as he kissed the back of her hand. “I’m here to bring clarity to those thoughts.”

“Yes,” he said, laughing and suddenly feeling free. “I can see I underestimated you.”

“You have no idea,” she said, pulling her hands away and smoothing her dress. She adjusted her bonnet, insuring the ribbon fell just so – drawing her fingers down its length.

“You know your father wants to buy the Willows, don’t you?” Tomas said, feeling that the time was proper to say such a thing. She dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand.

“Let me deal with Daddy,” she said. “I have him wrapped around my little finger.” She lifted her hand so the back was up. “You just make sure the Two Oceans remains in your hands.”

He nodded, losing himself in her words and eyes.

“Now, Monsieur Laiche,” she said. “If you would be so kind as to escort me back to the house?” She placed the back of her hand against her forehead, closing her eyes as she did.

“The humidity is making me faint, and if I were to remain much longer, I shall expire from exhaustion.”

He cocked his head, impressed with her change in demeanor and tone. Where once an astute business woman stood, now re-appeared a typical, charming Louisiana Belle.

“As you wish, Mademoiselle,” Tomas said, offering his arm to rest her hand upon. “The heat can be ever so horrid this time of year.” She smiled and he met hers with a wink.

“And when next I see you, Tomas,” she said, her voice quiet so Rose couldn’t hear. “I expect a proposal. A romantic one, with roses, music and jewels.”

He nearly burst out laughing, grinning brightly at her jest. Her tight-lipped frown pulled him up short.

“You’re serious,” he said, just before they exited the canopy of Willow fronds. She nodded once.

“I am,” she whispered. “And so are you. We were made for one another.” She patted his arm, and stared deep into his eyes.

“We’ve always known this. You feel it, and I feel it.” He nodded quietly.

“I’ve loved you since the day I laid eyes upon you, Tomas. Even as a child, I knew deep within my heart, we were meant for one another.”

She did. He felt it in her soft, sensual gaze. The warmth of her hand on his, as if it were part of him; merged together – natural.

He nodded slowly, his eyes melting into hers, matching her breath as if it were his own. Yes. He loved her too, it seemed – even when calling her a hag or pushing her in the pond. This was right.

“I’ll talk to your father,” he said. “Though he already suspects we’ll be together. He said as much in the library early today.”

“Of course he does,” she said, leading him from the secluded grove of the lily pad pond to where Mammy Rose waited, knitting.

“It’s fate.”

CHAPTER SIX

The sun had set on New Orleans by the time Simone arrived at Sister Maria’s ‘chapel’ as she called it. A shop off Rue Toulouse, it was an aged, brick building with flaking, green shuddered windows. To most, it looked more like a rubbish barn than a church.

Once inside, scented candles greeted Simone, filling her nose with the smells of exotic spice. Colorful parakeets twittered in cages lining the walls.

Passing from the foyer into the main room, four wooden chairs with animal hide seats surrounded a hand-tooled, rectangular table. Centered in the space, nine thick candles melted into its surface – lighting the room with flickering, yellow light and staining the top with thick, oily wax.

A heaviness hung in the space, heightened by blacked out windows and flickering shadows. Hollow masks, grinning animal skulls and stone carved idols peered from barely seen thick, wooden shelves.

“Simon-eh!” Maria called out as she entered the church. “I got da tea brewin in da back. Seet tight, I be dere in de mo-ment.”

“Okay,” Simone said, pulling a chair from the thick table and claiming a seat. She’d been here often enough to know where to take tea. Maria’s special readings required patrons arrange themselves in particular ways. Therefore, Simone knew exactly where to sit and why.

“Do ya be wantin’ a readin?” Maria asked, emerging from the back. She carried two cups on saucers, and a brown pottery teapot on a wooden tray.

“May-be we find dat man for ya.”

Simone took the tea cup and smiled, sniffing the aromatic flavor before drinking. Jasmine with a hint of spice; perhaps cinnamon. The scent tickled like a feathery touch across her tongue. Always something different, Sister Maria’s tea never failed to delight.

“Of course,” Simone said, taking a sip. “You know I never turn down the opportunity to learn whose heart I’ll wreck.”

“Doan chu be talkin’ dat way,” the priestess said, her chair creaking from the weight. “Ju bring da hoodoo upon ya wits talk like dat.” She sipped her tea.

“Ya best tink bout whatcha be wantin and who it be wits at all time.” Simone nodded.

Maria pulled a deck of cards from seemingly nowhere, stacking them next to a thick, mostly melted red candle whose wax had spread around its base like moss from an ancient tree.

She drew three cards and arranged them on the table directly across from Simone. Then, whispering soft unknown words, sprinkled dust across the tops – candlelight casting glittering glows on the cards themselves.

She flipped one, then another and then a third – each one coming with an “ahhh” from the large priestess.

“Dis be good, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Very good indeed!” Simone peered over the cards, inspecting each of the figures and shapes. After a year of watching, she’d never quite figured out what all of the little creatures on the cards meant to the Caribbean priestess.

Simone looked up. “How do you mean?”

“Da fates be smilin’ on yas,” Maria said. “Da man a ya dreams be coomin to ya life very soon. Very soon. By da next moon.” She smiled up at Simone.

“Whatcha tink bout dat?”

“Sounds good to me,” Simone said. “But who says I want the man of my dreams coming into my life? Maybe I’m happy with the way I am?”

“Dat be up to ju, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “I just be readin what da cards be sayin’.”

“Well,” Simone said, sipping her tea. “If I see him, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, why not see what the cards have to say about opening my art school.”

“Doan cha want ta meet ya soulmate?” Maria said. “We all ‘ave one out dere, Simon-eh. Dey only coom by once. When ya miss it, dey gone for-evah.”

“Why would I want that?” Simone said. “Men just tell women how to live their lives. If I want a man, I know where to find one. They only want sex, anyway.”

Maria laughed, her cackle slow and drawn out. “So ya be tinkin,” she said. “Maybe dis one want soom-tin more for yas?”

“I doubt it,” Simone said. “I feel what every one of them thinks when they walk by my easel.” She shrugged, smirking to match.

“There’s no doubt, Maria. It’s all about them and what they can take.” She took a sip of tea, staring at the table top as if seeing through it.

“I’m happy with where I am.”

Maria stared at Simone, watching her carefully. Finally, a smile crept over her face and she laughed. “I doan believe a word dat ju be sayin,” Maria said.

Simone waved her hand in the air and sighed, rolling her eyes. “What makes you the expert on what I’m thinking?”

Maria leaned close. “Cause I see, Simon-eh,” she said slowly. “I can feels da loove ya be wantin deep wits-in ya ‘eart.”

“Ya see it, yet deny da troots.”

Maria pointed to the spot on the table where Simone had been staring. “What dat ya be seein in dere?” Maria asked. “Ya look an see. What it be?”

Simone followed Maria’s finger and looked at the spot again. What had she seen? She inspected the table as if it were a mirror.

Memories, really. Past times in Paris where she’d given her heart and had it smashed. Men she’d loved, truly felt close to – ones she wanted to share her life with; an eternity with. Joy flooded her, fueling an energetic burn in her abdomen for finding that which was missing.

Dancing on the bridges over the Seine, hand in hand with one she loved – each sharing the other’s flow of life. Harmonious movement of being, neither dominating – both leading, sharing. That was love, the dance was passion and the creativity of it was life itself.

Moments in fields, in galleries, in forests; all filling her heart with warmth. Uplifting, the feelings carried her over heights and into misty spaces where only her and her lover lived. Pure connection, complete love – passion through partnership.

Maria’s softly spoken, “yes,” brought her back, Paris became the table and she sucked in her breath, breathing deeply as if she’d held it the entire time.

“It’s not real,” Simone whispered, pushing away the feelings as she returned to the moment. “It’s just a fairytale. Imaginary, like tales told to children.”

She lifted her tea and drank, staring straight into the opposite wall – listening to her inner voice saying the dream was a sham; all fake.

“No, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Dat no what ya tink.” She nodded, her smile becoming more entrancing. Simone turned and met her eyes.

“What be makin ya paint?”

“Why?” she said, cocking her head to the side.

“Because I love doing it, and I’m good at it and people like what I paint.” Maria shook her head slowly, tinkling the beads attached to her tignon.

“You share da ‘eart of yaself, Simon-eh,” Maria said. “Ya spills it across da canvas wits ya paint, mixin ya emotions and feelins into da pick-cha for all ta see.”

Maria pointed at the table, the exact spot that took Simone to Paris. “What ya saw dere, is where ya art lives.” Maria lifted her hand to her chest. “Where da ‘eart is.” She nodded, and Simone matched.

Simone clasped the deep purple pendant she wore around her neck, allowing Maria’s words to sink in as she considered what they meant. Was she hiding her heart inside of her art? Funny how Maria made them sound the same. Perhaps they WERE the same?

When she painted, she stepped into the space, allowing whatever feelings she felt at the time to guide her brush. Was she connecting into her heart? She’d never considered that. She thought it divine intervention, some sort of muse moving her hand. What if it was her soul instead?

She blinked, seeing Maria studying her. Simone giggled, like Lucette posing to be a seagull. Flying.

“Now ya see, Simon-eh,” Maria said, nodding. “Now ya open to da possibility.”

Simone shook herself. The way her chest tingled, it certainly felt possible. “I don’t know,” she said. “If my art is my heart, then why do men only see my body; take what they want without returning the gift?”

“Dey ain’t da ones ya be lookin for,” Maria said. “Da day one-a dem look atcha art, den ya know he be seein ya ‘eart as well.”

Simone shrugged. “Maybe,” she said. “But they turned out to be the same. They pretended to like it, yet in the end only wanted what they could own.” She sighed.

“My art was only a means to an end.”

“Den ask em what dey see when dey look,” Maria said. “Do dey see the rivah, or do dey see Loo-set-eh?”

Simone lifted her eyebrows and nodded. That made sense. If they only saw the color and brush strokes, they weren’t looking deep – only the surface. Maybe that was the key. If her heart was in the artwork, then a TRUE lover would see and reflect it back.

“Interesting,” Simone said, leaning back in her chair. She threw one arm over the back and twisted into a sideways, cross-legged casual manner.

“Speaking of Lucette,” Simone said. “I finished her painting. Would you like to see it?” Maria sighed, then shook her head, eyes lowered and sad.

“No, Simon-eh,” she said. “I be seen it already.”

“But I didn’t finish it before you left,” Simone said.

She looked toward the door, where she’d left her easel, paints and canvas. Lucette the Gull was wrapped in brown paper, protecting its surface from the elements. She used a certain type of pigment allowing for quick drying oils, making it easier to sell completed works on the street.

Maria’s expression didn’t change, the sadness remained and she stared straight at Simone.

“What is it?” Simone said. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I see dem all da time,” she stated quietly. “Maybe it time yas be goin. Make sure ya be givin dat paintin to da lit-lun.”

Simone nodded, slowly standing. “I will,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?” Maria nodded but said nothing more.

“Very well, Maria,” she said. “Bonsoir.”

“Bonsoir, Simon-eh,” Maria whispered. “Sleeps wits ya angels.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

With the Bourgeois family on the Riverboat to Emerald Oaks, the Willows returned to normal. Finery was replaced by every day clothes, and Tomas prepared to leave for New Orleans. While the plantation needed his hand, the Trading Company still had to operate as if nothing had changed.

Riley Mac might be a good manager, as Marguerite hinted, but the Two Oceans needed Tomas’s guidance. Without the firm hand of a Laiche at the helm, the Company would sink fast – especially with their busiest time of the year upon them.

Fate, Tomas said to himself as he descended the stairway to have breakfast with his mother. Marguerite said it was fate that brought them together, made them one – a couple. What a funny creature, fate. In a world where freedom was his normal choice, he now accepted fate in marrying Marguerite.

For some reason, though, it made him smile. One less issue to deal with. His mother would be happy, Marguerite would be happy and, perhaps, even Phillipe.

“Tomas!” his mother said from the end of the dining room table – shortened now that it was only two of them. The way she pounced when he walked through door made her seem like a waiting spider. “Good morning.”

Tomas kissed his mother’s slightly wrinkled cheek, though the French creams she used hid them well. No matter her age, he still saw her as if he were twelve.

“Bonjour,” he said, choosing a chair next to her instead of the opposite end. A servant poured chicory darkened coffee into a white china cup. Tomas nodded in thanks, then lifted it to his lips.

“I hope the morning finds you well?”

Mammie narrowed her eyes in curiosity as she studied Tomas. “It does indeed,” she said. “Though I think it finds you better.”

She lifted her tea cup and sipped, holding the white saucer underneath the cup. Tomas chuckled. “What makes you say that?” he said, reaching for a piece of fresh pineapple from the white china fruit platter between them.

“I understand you and Marguerite had quite a lengthy conversation in the garden,” Mammie said. “Anything of interest?”

“Mother,” Tomas said. “You could have at least waited until I had my breakfast.” She shrugged.

“At my age,” she said, “time is in short supply.” He chewed his fruit and waved a dismissive hand.

“Oh come off it,” he said. “You sound as if death has you in its grasp.”

“It might,” she said, setting her tea cup on the table. Sounds of clinking plates came from an adjacent room, as the servants prepared the main course. “You haven’t been around here long enough to know.”

Tomas heaved a deep, chest-filling sigh.

“Alright,” he said. “We did have a pleasant conversation.” How to say it? All night he’d practiced how he would tell his mother, and now, when the time came, it was more difficult than he imagined.

“I’m going to ask for Marguerite’s hand in marriage,” he stated, feeling the weight of the words in his chest: tight, thick and breathless.

Mammie gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “Oh, Tomas!” she exclaimed. “Are you serious?”

He nodded, as if it had been an everyday topic. “Yes, mother. Very.”

Tears poured from her eyes, blinking as if trying to stop the flood and failing. She threw her arms open. “Hug me!”

Tomas did, pulling her close as they both stood by the table. “I’m so happy for you,” she whispered into his chest. Her sobs of joy bouncing in rhythm to his heart.

She pulled away to look into his eyes. “Did you propose last night?” He shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I still need to talk to Phillipe before I do, but he’ll agree.” To what, was the real question. The man wanted the Willows, and Tomas suspected that his marriage to Marguerite wouldn’t make things easier.

“Well, then,” Mammie said. “We need to prepare an engagement announcement as soon as you ask Phillipe.” She leaned past Tomas as Mammy May walked into the room carrying a silver salver of spiced, link sausage and roasted, red potatoes.

“May?” Mammie said. “Did you hear the good news?”

“What news is that, Miss Mammie?” May said, placing the salver on the dark mahogany sideboard. His mother waited, looking to him to explain the news.

“I’m asking for Marguerite’s hand in marriage,” Tomas said, this time with more confidence.

“Well I’ll be!” May said. “That the best news I hear all day, Marse Tomas. When you gone do it?”

Tomas opened his mouth, but his mother beat him to the words. “He has to ask Phillipe first,” Mammie said. “And then, once he says yes, we’ll host an engagement party right here at the Willows!”

“Mmhmm,” May said, pursing her lips and grinning. “We gotsta have a party, Miss Mammie. I better get to tellin the staffs so they ready.”

“And I’ll make a list of invitations,” Mammie said, nodding and placing a finger to her lip. “We’ll need Jim to deliver them personally, of course,”

“You got that right, Miss Mammie,” May said. “Won’t be proper otherwise.”

Tomas watched the pair go back and forth on plans for HIS engagement party, listening to them talk as if he weren’t involved. Every time he raised a finger to say a word, one of the two cut him off.

“Mother,” he said, shaking his head when she didn’t respond. They were discussing food at the moment. “I’ll be in the library.”

“Tomas,” his mother said just before he left the dining room. “Be sure and catch the Creole as it passes. You don’t want to be late to Emerald Oaks.”

“Excuse me?” he said. “I have to be in New Orleans.”

“Right, dear,” Mammie said. “Stop in at the Bourgeois on your way in.” She tapped her lips with a finger. “And take Jim with you, as well. He’ll need to return with the date for the engagement.”

“But-“

“Hurry along, Tomas,” Mammie said. “We have a party to plan, and you have a question to ask of Monsieur Bourgeois.”

She turned to May just as the kitchen staff entered the room.

“Whats all tha ruckus?” one of the maids said, looking at May and then to Mammie. “I heard yellin.”

“Marse Tomas gettin’ married!”

The Willows exploded in squeals.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Tomas draped over the bow railing of the Creole Belle. He stared down into the plowing wake, as wind from the river washed his hair with breeze. Now that he’d accepted his fate to marry Marguerite, he was somewhat excited.

Making the initial decision seemed horrid, yet when he saw her walk up the steps of the Willows, desire drove his decision. No longer the bratty girl from several years past, she’d now grown into a beautiful woman – one he could see himself with forever.

Breathing deep, he allowed her image to fill his mind, feeling the river’s cool, moist air seep into his nose.

Forever.

What a powerful word. According to the Church, marriage was supposed to be that long, or at least until death did you part. It had been for his parents, so it must be truth. Sure, they’d had their difficulties. Yet somehow, they’d always managed to get beyond them – keeping the common goal of the Willows first and foremost in their minds.

Damn, he thought, looking into the brown, churned waters of the Mississippi. A lifetime of marriage. That’s frightening.

He’d never committed to anything other than his business, with competition being the motivation for his success. That, and building something like his parents had done with the Willows. The rest of his life was about freedom, and living how he chose.

“I suppose marriage is similar,” he said to the river. “Building something together, lasting.” Not the freedom part, though. Marriage tasted like slavery.

He imagined being married to his manager Riley Mac. Chuckling a giggle, he wondered how long that would last. The giant Caribbean WAS almost his spouse, considering how much time they spent together. The manager of the Two Oceans Trading Company was indispensable to Tomas, using his skills as the former captain of a privateer to insure that the Company ran as well as his ship.

Tomas smiled, watching a log float past with a seagull perched atop a broken stump of a branch. He remembered the first time he’d met Riley Mac. Striding down the gangplank of the Lady Thera with a red and yellow macaw atop his shoulder, he’d been grinning from ear to ear – his bald head glistening in the sun. Eight years ago, and their friendship had grown ever since.

Shirtless and covered in gold chains, the man certainly captured attention. The fact he offered his vessel to the Company astounded many along the docks, and the discovery of his managerial capabilities was an added bonus. Within two years of his arrival, Riley was second in command of the Company.

What if marriage was like that? He thought, imagining his commitment to Marguerite turning into a friendship similar to Riley Mac’s. He nodded to the passing seagull, noting its keen ability to weather the wake of the passing riverboat. It’d be perfect, wouldn’t it?

“Listen to me go on,” he said, shaking his head. Just up river, about fifteen minutes out, he could see the dock to Emerald Oaks on his right. “You’d think Riley was going to be my wife.”

He looked around, hoping none heard his comment. Horns blared, echoing off the trees across the river and bouncing through the skies above.

“Em-Ralllllllld Oo-ooooooaks!” the pilot sang from the bridge deck above, his deep baritone voice singing the words like only a Negro could.

Near the dock, a flight of ducks exploded from the marshy grasses of the riverbank, quacking their way into the cloudless, blue sky. Deckhands scrambled to the bow to work the gangplank’s wench, so when the riverboat was sufficiently close, it could be lowered to the dock and the boat secured.

Today, only one other person disembarked along with Tomas, and their horses were brought to the bow – eyes covered with burlap sacks.

“Em-Ralllllllld! Oo-ooooaks!” the pilot sang as the boat churned closer to the dock, its paddlewheel reversing to slow the turn.

The gangplank had a grappling hook that clamped against the dock, so when it dropped, the boat could be locked in place against the strong current of the river. The hands were already lowering the wide ramp, so when the time came, it could drop.

“Em-Ralllllld! Oo-ooooooooaks!” the pilot sang, this time louder and longer and deeper – holding the last word until…

Boom!

The plank fell, the latch secured against the dock and the riverboat stopped. The massive red wheel at the rear slowed to a churn, holding the boat in place just enough to maintain position.

Remarkable, Tomas said to himself as his horse was brought forward. Deckhands trotted to the dock and tied lines to large, wooden pilings. They pulled them taut, thus anchoring the vessel in place. No matter how often he traveled by riverboat, he loved docking.

“Where are you off to, Monsieur Laiche?” the other man disembarking with Tomas said, gathering his reigns. They led their horses down the gangplank and onto the cypress wood dock.

“Emerald Oaks,” Tomas said. “Yourself?”

“The same,” the man said, known among planters as ‘le vieux Champomier.’ “I need an accounting of Monsieur Bourgeois’s sugar production.”

He lifted a small, leather-bound book from the courier pouch slung over his shoulder.

“Since I have you here, Monsieur Laiche,” he said. “How is production at the Willows?” Tomas cocked his head.

“The floods hit you hard this spring. Will you be able to match last year’s yield?”

“Monsieur,” Tomas said, leading his horse from the ramp to the wooden pier. The Bourgeois family had built it parallel to the levee, thus making docking easier.

“I appreciate your zeal, but surely you know my father passed earlier this year.”

Champomier nodded but said nothing. Instead, he flipped pages in the little book. Licking the tip of his pencil, he made a notation.

“Of course,” he said. “My condolences. He was a good man, always accurate with his tallies.”

He looked up at Tomas, halting on the gravel path leading toward the plantation’s Big House. The river road crossed just in front, a muddy, rugged track that few other than couriers used. Across the rutted road, marched an allee of thick trunked, ancient Live Oaks which gave the plantation its name.

“Will you be staying on at the Willows,” Champomier asked, holding a small stub of a pencil ready. “Or will Madame Laiche step in for the late Francois?”

“That’s yet to be decided,” Tomas said patiently. “I’m on my way now to discuss options with Phillipe.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Tomas knew they were a mistake. Champomier could destroy the Willows with a flick of his pencil, so hinting at possibilities regarding sugar production was not a good idea.

The man’s yearbook on plantation sugar yields, as well as projections based upon previous years was second to none. Everyone, from planters, to bankers and the exchanges used his information as the key reference in setting prices and approving loans.

It also gave other planters the opportunity to see how well, or how poorly their neighbors were doing – especially since every planter was in the book. The man was relentless in his pursuit of information – dedicated to extreme accuracy and never failing in his recommendations. His written word was taken as Gospel, to which the Bishop of the local diocese would agree.

“Is everything well at the Willows, Monsieur Laiche?”

Tomas sighed, giving himself a moment to gain his bearings. Perhaps the truth? He’d find it out anyway, especially if they were both going to visit Phillipe.

“Well, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “I didn’t want to say anything just yet, but I’m planning to ask for Mademoiselle Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”

“Indeed?” Champomier said, smiling suddenly. “Congratulations are in order, then.” Tomas nodded, as did the older man.

“And will the Willows be a part of the exchange?”

Tomas chuckled. “I hope not,” he said. “But I’m certain, if Phillipe accepts me as his son in law, that I can use his expertise to help make a smooth transition into the planting community.”

“Ah,” the old man said, making a notation in his book. Tomas fought the urge to crane his neck to look, pursing his lips and smiling as hard as he could instead.

“Phillipe Bourgeois is one of the more successful producers along the river.”

Tomas nodded. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“His advice could prove advantageous to your success, Monsieur Laiche,” Champomier said. “Should he choose to share it, that is.”

“He’s already said as much,” Tomas said, recalling the conversation in the library. Maybe not completely accurate, but it was good enough from the old man in the moment.

“Well, then,” Champomier said, making another notation. “That will bode well for the Willows.” He smiled wanly.

“As we all know Monsieur, your time in New Orleans hasn’t exactly prepared you for taking over sugar production from your father.”

“Oh,” Tomas said. “I’m acutely aware, monsieur. You may trust me on that point.”

Champomier mounted his grey mare, and instead of trotting across the river road toward Emerald Oaks, he turned south – downriver.

“Since you’re offering proposal Monsieur,” he said. “I shall delay my discussion with monsieur Bourgeois until later this evening.”

“Very kind of you, Monsieur,” Tomas said, tipping his hat before mounting his own horse: a dark brown stallion named Bean. “I’m as nervous as a rabbit next to an alligator.”

“Wise,” Champomier said. “Phillipe Bourgeois isn’t an easy man to get along with.” He tipped his straw hat, clicked his mouth and eased his horse down the road.

“I shall visit the Willows in a few days, Monsieur,” he said. “Perhaps you will know more about your yields then.”

“We’ll have tea and pastry for you, Monsieur,” Tomas said. “Bonsoir.”

“Bonsoir,” Champomier said, then trotted down the road.

Tomas watched the man ride away until the bend in road and river took him out of sight. Heaving a large, heavy sigh, Tomas heeled the horse and trotted up the long allee of trees toward the mansion named Emerald Oaks.

CHAPTER NINE

“Tomas!” Phillipe said, offering his hand after Tomas climbed the curving steps to the veranda where the master of Emerald Oaks waited.

“It’s so good to see you, my friend.” Tomas shook hands. He offered his coat and hat to a servant waiting behind Phillipe. Before Tomas could thank the man, he’d turned – his eyes glued to the floor as he departed.

“And you as well, Phillipe,” Tomas said, allowing the man to lead him through a towering pair of white, double doors. Green and gold light sprayed across the foyer’s floor, pouring in from stained glass transom windows over the entry. He glanced up, noticing the same light playing in the dangling crystals of a massive, three-layer chandelier.

Everywhere Tomas looked, opulence, wealth and power stared back, challenging him to do better if he dared. In fact, it seemed as if two Willows might easily fit inside this one house.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been here,” Tomas said, glancing upwards. Clusters of emerald green and brown acorns were cast into the plaster crown molding. They ran the length and breadth of the entry foyer, laid as if real leafy branches had been used.

“We’ve made a few changes,” Phillipe said, following Tomas’s eyes. “Like the crown molding. Celeste demanded we honor the name of our lovely place.” Tomas nodded.

“We hired an Italian sculptor to create the casts,” Phillipe continued, pointing a thick finger toward a cast shield bearing a script letter, ‘B’. “Then had one of our best niggers install them.”

“I’ve never seen its equal,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “The work is exquisite.”

“Yes,” Phillipe said. “We think so as well.” He motioned toward the open room to their left. “Come into the library. I’ll have drinks and food brought.”

He snapped his finger and two slaves scurried forward, eyes cast downward as their bare feet flapped over the wooden floors. Young, Tomas thought. Sixteen, maybe?

Checkered red wraps wound around their heads, like the Creoles wore in the city, though not nearly as fine. The pattern matched the faded gray print of their simple, cotton dresses. Tomas figured they must be sisters.

“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” one of the girls said, the tallest of the pair.

“Brandy and shrimp in the library,” Phillipe said, his tone quiet and hard. He looked at Tomas. “Fruit?”

Tomas looked at the two girls, then nodded. “Pineapple would be nice,” he said. “Perhaps some melon, if you have it.”

“You heard Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said. “Bring it with the brandy and shrimp.” They bobbed their heads. “Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” the smaller one said, her voice quiet, with a hint of mouse-like squeak. “We get it now.”

“This way,” Phillipe said, leading Tomas through a carved pair of white double doors, and into a luxurious library. Opposite the doors and in the corner sat a black, baby grand piano. It accentuated floor to ceiling bookshelves towering twenty feet to a coffered ceiling.

A fireplace graced the long wall to Tomas’s right, brick with a marble mantle surround. It was so deep, he could crouch inside without bumping his head. Tufted and over stuffed wing backed chairs surrounded a round table, while a dark mahogany wood desk sat in front of a pair wall-sized windows. These were framed by emerald green drapes.

Before they could sit, the two serving girls returned. One carried a polished, silver salver covered in shrimp and melon, while the smaller girl carried a silver tray with brandy and two crystal glasses.

“Where’s the pineapple?” Phillipe said as they placed the platters on the table.

“Theys ain’t none left, Marse Bourgeois,” the younger girl said, wringing her hands while keeping her eyes down. Tomas saw the other sister step backwards. Phillipe’s sudden slap to the young girl’s face explained why.

Staggered, the girl grasped her face, crying out in pain. “I said, where’s the pineapple?!” Phillipe exclaimed, his face reddening as his raised hand prepared another blow.

“They’s ain’t none-“

His backhand cracked against her face, spinning and slamming her to the floor with a meaty thud of flesh against wood. Whimpering, she curled into a ball near the fireplace.

“Phillipe!” Tomas said, stepping forward. “That’s not needed.”

He rounded on Tomas, eyes bulging white in stark contrast to the puffed redness of his face.

“I’ll treat my niggers how I want, Laiche,” he bellowed, pointing a fat, thick finger at Tomas.

“This is my house, not yours.” Tomas nodded once, but didn’t back away, instead grimacing toward the quivering girl.

“Get her off that floor,” Phillipe said to the other girl, who quickly followed his order. She knelt beside her sister and lifted her by the arm. “Now, I want you to find Monsieur Laiche some pineapple, do you hear me?”

The older girl bobbed her head while clasping her sister underneath the shoulder. Blood smeared the young girls face, trickling down from a wicked gash on her cheek – opened by a green-stoned ring on Phillipe’s right hand.

“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” she said, backing out of the room while supporting her sister. “I gets it for ya.”

“Phillipe,” Tomas said. “I-“

He was halted by Phillipe’s raised hand.

“We will HAVE pineapple, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “We have it. I know we have it. They’re always hiding things from me, but they won’t this time.”

The large man took a deep breath. He rolled his shoulders as if tossing off a blanket, and turned toward Tomas – his face now calm and serene.

“They simply must learn who’s master,” Phillipe said. Lifting the ring to his mouth, he sucked it dry of the girl’s lingering blood.

“If I want something, I’ll have it.”

“Of course,” Tomas said, slowly releasing his breath. He’d heard Phillipe was brutal, but never witnessed it. If this was any hint, then life at Emerald Oaks must be a horrid experience.

“So,” Phillipe said, motioning to the chairs where the food and drink was placed. He filled the two cut crystal glasses with brandy from the decanter. “What brings you all the way out here?” He handed the glass to Tomas.

“Surely not the brandy?”

When I want something, I’ll have it. The words ran through Tomas’s head as he lifted the glass to toast his host. It’s as if nothing happened.

“No,” Tomas said, sipping the deep, dark drink. He caught his breath, gaining control of his breathing after the horrific excitement. “A more important issue, in fact.”

“Really?” Phillipe said. “Have a seat and tell me all about it.”

Tomas sat, his mind still focused on the scene he’d just witnessed, as well as the ominous words. Had they meant more? Or were they just the ravings of a brutal man?

“Well, Monsieur,” he said, placing his glass on the table. “I’m here to ask for Marguerite’s hand in marriage.”

Phillipe leaned back in his chair, grinning over the top of his brandy glass. He swirled the liquid while he watched, remaining quiet for a long moment.

“Go on,” Phillipe whispered, finally taking a sip. Not the gulps he’d had at the Willows, Tomas noticed. This brandy he savored.

“I think we’ll make a good match,” Tomas said. “I’m of the means to take care of her, offer her the life she deserves.”

“And where will this life be?”

Tomas nodded, expecting this part of the conversation. He knew exactly what Phillipe wanted. What he didn’t know, was whether Marguerite had talked to him yet.

“We discussed this during your visit,” Tomas said. “We’ll live at the Willows, and I’ll turn over operations of the Two Oceans to my manager, Riley Mac.”

“Indeed?” Phillipe said, leaning forward. “And what makes you think you can run a sugar plantation?” He twirled his hand in the air.

“It’ll just come to you?” He chuckled. “A huge mistake, and you know it.”

Tomas shrugged. “Marguerite suggested it,” Tomas said, inspecting his brandy. “She assured me she’d discuss it with you.”

“She did nothing of the sort,” Phillipe said. “The last thing I heard, you were selling the Willows to me, so your mother could remain in her home while you ran your company in New Orleans.”

Tomas nodded, leaning back in his chair. It creaked as if complaining. “True,” he said, speaking slowly. “I did mention those things when we last talked.” He took a drink.

“However,” Tomas said, continuing. “Marguerite and I think we can run the Willows ourselves.” He lifted a finger. “She has experience in the places I don’t.”

Phillipe rubbed his nose with a fat forefinger, then leaned back, matching Tomas’s posture. His chair moaned in agony from the man’s weight.

“Last season was the worst year on record for the Willows,” Phillipe said. “And now, you’ve had severe flooding and might just lose an entire crop.”

He has a point, Tomas thought to himself as he reached forward to pour himself another brandy. Instead, Phillipe snatched the decanter and smiled, offering to pour. Tomas nodded and allowed his glass to be filled.

Three bad crops in a row would put them under the bank, and the Company was already leveraged as far as possible. If this season failed, he might lose both ventures to bankruptcy.

Thanks, father, he said to himself as he leaned back in the chair and eyed Phillipe.

“Might,” Tomas replied. “It’s not certain.” Phillipe shrugged.

“Is it worth betting everything on?”

Is it? Tomas thought. What would happen if we failed?

“I’ll tell you what,” Phillipe said. “Here’s what I can offer.” He took a sip of his brandy, then settled back in his chair.

“You agree to sell me the Willows, and I’ll assume all of the debts.” He smiled. “AND, your mother can stay on at the house.”

A smile grew as he continued. “In fact, Madame Laiche will never need to know.” He opened his arms. “We’ll do the deal once you marry Marguerite, and you can live in New Orleans.”

“How do you mean?” Tomas asked, cocking his head.

“It’s simple, really,” Phillipe said. “I put a manager in place, someone like Brody for instance, and call him a wedding gift.” He twirled his wrist, keeping his drink steady in the other while he did so.

“We’ll say I’m doing it so you both can live in New Orleans, and run the company.” He drank.

“Your mother won’t have to know,” he said, continuing after the sip. He licked his lips dry of the brandy. “Neither will Marguerite. It’ll just be between you and I.”

“Are you serious?” Tomas said, staring at Phillipe as if he were deranged. “Of course they’d find out!” He shook his head. “Besides, you’d have complete control over the Willows, leaving my family with none.”

Phillipe shrugged and sipped his brandy while Tomas continued. “Sure, maybe now you say mother can stay, but what about after Marguerite and I are married?”

“I can’t do this,” Tomas said.

“You’ll lose everything if you don’t,” Phillipe said. “There’s nothing  you can do to save the Willows if the crops fail again.” He sipped his drink, nodding.

“And since you don’t know a thing about growing cane, nor manufacturing sugar, you’re all out of options.”

“Only I can save your family’s legacy,” Phillipe said. “And the way it happens is by marrying Marguerite, and accepting my terms.”

Tomas felt drowned, as if the room was filled with water through which he couldn’t see, nor breath. He’d come here to ask for Marguerite’s hand, finally accepting that it was a good thing to do. Now, he was being FORCED to sell the Willows.

Rubbing his forehead, he stood, turning to look out the window. He needed time to consider the possibilities. How could things have gone into the swamps so quickly? He shook his head.

“If my father could do it, so can I,” Tomas said, watching a pair of squirrels run across the lawn, then scamper up one of the large oak trees.

“Your father did it at a time when sugar was just beginning,” Phillipe said. “Now?” He shrugged. “Competition is too fierce, and the banks too stingy. You saw what happened to the Boudreaux’s.”

The Boudreaux family once owned one of the older plantations along the river. When they experienced a bad season, the bank foreclosed, kicked them from the property and promptly sold it to Phillipe Bourgeois.

Antille Bourgeois, Phillipe’s youngest son ran it now, while the Boudreaux family moved into the swamps with the Acadians. Is that where we’re headed, Tomas thought. The swamps?

Tomas took a drink, watching the squirrels spiral around a thick, draping limb of the live oak. Must be nice being a squirrel, he thought. Total freedom to do as they wanted.

“Tell you what, Tomas,” Phillipe said. “What if I draw up a contract stating your mother has complete control of the house?”

Tomas smirked, glancing to the side as he heard Phillipe walk his way. That might work, he thought. If it’s in writing, he can’t break it.

“Once she passes,” Phillipe continued. “God willing it’s a long time coming, then the entire property moves into my control.”

“We both get what we want from this deal, Tomas,” Phillipe said when Tomas remained quiet. “You get to stay in New Orleans, your mother gets to stay at the Willows and the plantation remains productively debt free.”

And you finally get your hands on the Willows.

“I need time,” Tomas said, turning to glare at Phillipe, who now joined him at the window. “This is too much to consider in one sitting.”

“Of course, Tomas. Of course,” Phillipe said. “Take all the time you need.” He patted Tomas on the back and led him toward the foyer. “So long as you only need a week.” He shrugged and smirked.

“Marguerite’s impatient. She might find another suiter by then.”

Highly doubtful, Tomas said to himself, wondering if she had any clue what was happening.

Tomas nodded. “A week.”

“Fair well, lad,” Phillipe called out as Tomas walked through the front doors onto the veranda. His horse was tied to a post at the base of the stairs, as if in anticipation of his departure.

“The Belle won’t be back around for a few hours,” Phillipe said. “Might I suggest you ride back to the Willows? Clear your mind while enjoying the lovely countryside.”

Tomas nodded, said nothing and descended the stairs – saving one last, painful look for the footman holding his horse. “Thank you,” he whispered. The man nodded, but said nothing.

Instead, the look was lifeless, matching the feeling inside Tomas’s chest. Tight. Cold. Dead.

CHAPTER TEN

Phillipe watched Tomas descend the stairs, smiling and sipping brandy from the window of his study. He saw Tomas mount his horse and ride down the allee of trees leading to the river road. He chuckled once Tomas was out of sight.

“Mabel!” he shouted, turning away from the window. “Bring your ass in here!” A negro girl scurried into the room, eyes downcast as she smoothed dingy white folds of her wrinkled cotton dress.

“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” she said. “What can I do?”

“Fetch Marguerite,” Phillipe said, opening an engraved wooden box situated on the outer edge of his cherry wood desk. He lifted a cigar from within, held it to his nose and sniffed its length. “I want a word with her.”

“Yassah, Marse Bourgeois,” Mabel said, turning to run – her feet scuffling across the wooden floor.

“And stop that running!” he said, using ornate, silver sheers to clip the end from the cigar. “You’re gonna break something, and then you’ll wish you’d walked.”

“Sorry, Marse Bourgeois,” she called back once in the hallway. “I’za be careful.”

Phillipe nodded, struck a match and lit the cigar – puffing clouds of smoke until it was fully lit. Tilting his head back as he sucked in the fumes, he blew a cloud toward the ceiling and sighed.

“Here she be, Marse Bourgeois,” Mabel said, standing behind as Marguerite strode into her father’s library.

“Daddy?” Marguerite said, looking around the room. “Is Tomas still here?” Phillipe nodded toward Mabel.

“Shut the door, Mabel,” he said. “And don’t show yourself unless I call, you hear me?” Mabel nodded and shut the pair of tall double doors, latches clicking into place as they thudded closed.

Marguerite crossed her arms and pursed her lips. They exchanged looks, then Phillipe puffed a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling and held his cigar in one hand.

“He left,” Phillipe said. “In a bit of a hurry, I might add.” He nodded. “He’s got plenty to consider before coming back again.”

“What did you do to him?” Marguerite said, narrowing her eyes as she tapped her foot.

“Do?” Phillipe said. “Nothing. I merely informed him of his options, as well as the requirements for marrying you.”

“You’ll allow him to ask?” Marguerite said.

Phillipe nodded. “I will,” he said. “But I need you to do something for me first.”

“What?”

“You’ll require him to list you as the benefactor to the entire Laiche estate,” Phillipe said. “That means the shipping company, the Willows – everything.”

Marguerite smiled. “Okay,” she said. “But won’t he do so anyway?” Phillipe shook his head, taking a final puff of his cigar before smashing its smoldering tip into a silver ashtray.

“Doubtful,” he said. “I sure as hell wouldn’t. However, this insures you have ownership, should something tragic happen.”

“What if he refuses?” Marguerite said. “Then what?”

Phillipe smiled, walking over to pat his daughter on the shoulder. “He won’t refuse. Tell him you convinced me this was the only way you’d marry him.”

She frowned. “Will this get me the Willows?” Phillipe pulled her into a tight hug.

“My dear,” he said, patting her back as she smiled against her father’s chest. “The Willows is already yours.” He looked out the window.

“It’s simply a matter of when and how.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Tomas trotted toward the Willows, deep in thought and disturbed by the brutal events he witnessed.  Everything Phillipe said made sense, for the most part. The plantation was in debt trouble, and another bad season could not be supported by the profits of the trading company.

Building the Two Seas had taken the majority of his income, so if one more season went bad, both enterprises would fail. It was a difficult decision, but if he followed logic, he’d sell to Phillipe and be done with it. However, after witnessing the scene a few hours earlier, what would happen to those working at the Willows once they were under Phillipe’s control?

Would Zeek be treated like the housemaid? May? Crystal? Images of them cowering in fear, being backhanded and beaten by Phillipe sent shivers through his body. He’d heard of the brutality many slaves faced, seen the whip cracked down at the docks, and vowed never to buy slaves to work for the Two Oceans.

Yet, with his father gone and the plantation under his control, he now faced the horrific truth of plantation life. He owned slaves, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Afternoon faded toward evening and Tomas had three miles to ride. Lengthening shadows created bandsa mix of light and dark across the rutted road, still puddled from the previous week’s rains, while distant echos of a riverboat’s whistle mingled with sounds of mourning doves roosting in the live oaks.

Eight small sugarcane plantations lay between Emerald Oaks and the next major residence. Small slices of land along the river, each one ten arpents wide along the river, then back almost four miles to uncleared cypress swamps. Tomas knew most of the owners, having dealt with them in New Orleans. However, unlike Emerald Oaks or the Willows, these were only fields where the cut cane went across the river to the St. James refinery.

Dozens of field hands, all standing in rows, plowed and hoed in sugarcane stubble in the field owned by Strahan & Company, while further back from the group stands of cane stood near four foot tall – ts leaves waving against a cool, northwest wind.

“Bonjour!” an overseer called out, waving his low crowned straw hat at Tomas. Sitting astride a near-white palomino, the bearded man towered over his charges. Three or four of the men craned their heads his way, but most remained focused on their – the oiled leather whip dangling the overseer’s saddle making certain of that.

Tomas tipped his hat in return. Saying nothing, he pulled his coat tight against the cold, crisp whispers of a white frost morning. If he retained the Willows and remained a planter, he’d need to know all of his neighbors – especially the overseers working adjacent plantations.

Moving on, he rode past another plantation, but the closest field to the road was fallow, typical for crop rotations. Most planted in threes: one ready for harvest, one for planting and one fallow. Once a field was harvested four times, it went fallow for a season to replenish the soil.

He could sell easy enough. Sure, it was his childhood home, but he was an adult now. His place was in New Orleans, where life was fast and furious, not stagnant like the Willows.

Yet, he thought as he led his mount around a deep puddle of muddy water. His mother would never leave. Losing the Willows would kill her, send her to an early grave along with his father. He couldn’t live with himself if that happened.

His horse neighed, tossing its head and snorting – jingling the tack. What had he planned? Keeping both? In that, Phillipe was correct: there was no way he could manage the Willows and the Two Oceans. Focusing on both would ruin both, while focusing on one would put an end to the other.

What about Marguerite? He thought, passing the gate of the Willow’s closest neighbor. Owned by a family originally from Mississippi, Welham Plantation was near the same size as the Willows – the difference being the Willows was wider, while Welham was deeper at almost five miles.

Tomas knew the family well, or had when he was younger. Clarence Whitehead was the planter, and his two sons, Jacob and Jared were near in age to Tomas. They’d been playmates of his when they were kids.

Unfortunately, Jared died of yellow fever, leaving Jacob the only heir to the plantation. He remembered Jake (as Tomas called him) talking constantly of traveling to Europe and seeing the great cathedrals of Paris. With his father aging and his brother dead, he had never gone, and now worked exclusively on the plantation. A recluse, if rumors were true; Tomas couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen Jake since those early days.

Tomas shook the memory off, sliding his gaze from the large, ancient oak trees dotting the front lawn of Welham and back to the road; back to the task at hand.

Marguerite said they could manage both, and thought it wise they did so. She would run the Willows, while he managed the Two Oceans. It seemed plausible at the time, yet where would they live? She loved the Willows, and wouldn’t want to leave the plantation.

Would she live in New Orleans? He shook his head, causing his horse to toss its own. No, he thought. She wouldn’t. So he’d have to live in two places, splitting time between New Orleans and the Willows. That wouldn’t be so bad, he’d certainly have his freedom. As possessive as she was, however, he doubted that would last very long.

He sighed, noticing the approaching pecan trees marking the property line of the Willows. Behind them would be a rutted, dirt road, following the trees like an arrow from the Mississippi river on his left, to the sugar mill three miles back on his right, where wisps of smoke from the refinery curled over the treetops.

It was a tough decision he would need to make, and prayed it took less than a week.

He could only hope.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Sunday morning in New Orleans was all about worship, especially in Jackson Square. Cathedral bells sang their song of glory, calling all to hear God’s word from the Archbishop himself. Church-goers, dressed in tails and gowns, gathered in the park to socialize before Mass – planning their afternoon luncheons once church was over.

Simone sang her own songs, ones of love, fun and frolic as she set up her easel for painting. She whistled tunes as if trying to outdo the Grackles perched in the overhanging oak trees. Often, her voice was lost, barely audible against the ratchet-like crackling of the black, iridescent birds. This morning however, the birds were silent, giving space for Simone’s voice to shine.

Most mass-goers ignored her, as if she were a statue in the park for pigeons to perch. Everyone knew Sunday was not for working, and even slaves had Sunday free on the plantations. Servants still had duties to perform, such as driving their masters into New Orleans or the local parish church. But for the most part, Sunday was a day for worship and rest.

So when couples passed her by, they refused her smiles and calls of, “Bonjour.” Instead, they commented about heathenism, moving on without so much a glance at the magic revealed on her easel.

Simone didn’t care. She was an artist, and for her, the window to God was through her soul. There wasn’t a higher form of ‘worship’ than creating something beautiful with brush, paint and canvas. That was true religion.

As she took her stool, daubing a long, wooden brush into a blob of greenish-blue paint, a couple approached from from the market across Levee. Dressed in their Sunday best, and holding the hands of two girls dressed in pink, their faces smiled with joyous kindness.

“Bonjour, Simone!” one of the girls cried, breaking free to run and give the artist a hug – pigtails flinging out behind her head. The roosting grackles in the branches above took flight, cackling their cracking calls as they burst from the limbs and flew into the sky.

“Bonjour, Lucette!” Simone said, hugging the girl while keeping the brush well away from her Sunday dress.

“Careful!” her mother said, still clinging to Alise’s hand. “She’s working, dear.” The girls’ father laughed, brushing his furry, black moustache with two fingers.

“It’s okay, Madame,” Simone said, letting the girl free after a few seconds of embrace. “Bonjour, Alise,” she said, smiling at Lucette’s near twin.

“Bonjour, Simone,” Alise replied. “Did you finish Lucette’s painting?”

Simone nodded. “I certainly did,” she said, leaning forward to smile at the family. Along Levee Street, a mule-drawn carriage pulled to the side of the avenue, just around the corner from Simone’s easel. They normally staged there in preparation for the after-Mass rush.

“Would you care to see it?”

“OUI!” Lucette said, clapping her hands together and bouncing in place. Her eyes sought those of her mother. “Ma-Ma, can we see it?”

“Of course, dear,” she said, smiling up at her husband. Simone didn’t know their names, simply recognized them as Lucette and Alise’s parents. French Creole, Simone figured. And the way they carried themselves reminded her of royalty. Certainly from France, maybe even Versailles.

The man nodded and leaned on his black, wooden cane. “By all means, Mademoiselle” he said in a deep voice, thick with accent. He tipped his lavender top hat and smiled. “I’m curious myself.”

Simone nodded, then turned – lifting the paper-wrapped painting from its place against the fence.

“Now,” she said. “Close your eyes, all of you, and I’ll unveil Lucette’s masterpiece.”

“YAY!” both girls said, squeezing their eyes closed. The parents did as well, giving Simone a nod and smile as they followed her instructions.

Carefully removing the paper, Simone replaced her just begun canvas with the painting titled, ‘Lucette the Gull.’

“C’est prêt,” Simone said, turning the easel around so the family could see. As she did, two passing couples paused to watch, observing quietly from behind Lucette’s family. The carriage mule just around the corner snorted, as if waiting to see the work for itself.

“Voila!” Simone said, throwing her hands out to welcome the painting into their family.

Silence.

Not even the gulls in the sky made noise as the family opened their eyes. Even the river breezes held their breath for the reveal; same with the observing visitors.

All remained still.

“Beautiful,” Lucette’s mother whispered, covering her mouth with her silk-gloved hand. The father nodded slowly, his eyes following the free-flowing form of girl into gull.

Lucette’s eyes filled with tears, as did Alise’s, who clasped her sister’s hand.

“That’s me,” Lucette said with reverence, stepping forward – her fingers outstretched toward the scene. “I’m a seagull!”

“Don’t touch it,” Lucette’s mother said, holding out her hand as if to stop the girl.

“It’s fine, Madame,” Simone said. “She can’t hurt it.”

“Besides, it’s for her.”

“What is the title, Mademoiselle?” her father asked, cocking his head while leaning on the cane. Around the corner, the mule snorted again, louder and with urgency.

“Lucette the Gull,” Simone replied. He nodded, returning his eyes to the painting.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” her mother said. “The way she seems to be gull and girl at the same time.” She met Simone’s eyes.

“Is this how you see our little girl, Mademoiselle?” she whispered.

“I paint from my heart,” Simone said, nodding as Lucette traced her fingers over the figure. “It just comes, and I capture the image I have in my mind.”

“Magnifique,” her mother said. “You are a master, Simone. Nothing I’ve seen in Paris compares to this.” Simone bowed, clasping her hands together as if in prayer.

“Merci, Madame,” she said. “You honor me, though I’m afraid not many would agree with you.”

“They do not know art, mademoiselle,” the father said. “The old ways are stuffy and dark.” He walked forward, placing a hand on Lucette’s shoulder, who was still tracing the painting with her finger.

“You capture light and form in such a mystical manner, mademoiselle,” he said, pointing and twirling his finger. “The way color merges with form to create a wispy image.” He shook his head.

“Magnifique, Simone. Magnifique!”

“How much do we owe you?” the mother said, standing beside her husband. She placed her hand along his back.

Simone considered how much she would charge, knowing they agreed to purchase the painting. Now it was time to sell, she knew the painting was priceless.

“It’s a gift for Lucette,” she said. “I cannot ask a price for this.”

“No, no, no,” the father said, shaking his head. “I cannot accept a gift from a master such as yourself.”

He reached into his jacket pocket, removing his wallet. “Would one hundred suffice?” Simone gasped. She’d never sold a painting for that price before. Ever.

“Monsieur!” she exclaimed. “That’s too much. I cannot accept such a lofty sum.”

“Non-sens,” he said, pushing the note toward her. “I am ashamed to say I cannot offer more at this time.”

She took the note without a word, fearing to do otherwise would insult the man who had now become her best paying customer.

“Merci beaucoup, monsieur,” she said, bowing her head. “I am humbled.”

“It is I that is humbled,” he said. “You have captured the spirit of our daughter in paint.” His wife smiled, nodding.

“No other artist has ever come close to what you have done on this street corner.”

“Simone,” the mother said, glancing up at her husband. “Would you consider painting Alise, as well as each of us?”

Simone stared at the woman a moment, then nodded. “I will,” she said, her words feeling thick and slow in her throat. The woman grinned an elegant smile. Royal blood for certain.

“Merci,” the woman said. “We would want to commission you for four: Alise, Alistar, myself and one with the entire family.”

Simone nodded, internally shaking her head at what was happening. No one had ever commissioned her before. And now, after doing a painting for free, she had gained a patron.

“Of course,” Alistar said. “We would pay you more.” Simone’s eyes widened. One hundred was a king’s sum. How could he want to pay more?

“Would two hundred per piece be fair to retain you on commission?”

Simone nodded. “It would, monsieur,” she said softly. She wanted to say more than enough, but with this amount, she wouldn’t have to sell another painting for at least a year. Metallic clops on stone accompanied another mule snort, briefly drawing her attention away from the family.

“Bien,” he said. “Then you may begin Alise after Mass today.”

“Really?” Alise said. “It’s my turn?”

Simone nodded, her attention returning to the family. “Oui, Mademoiselle. It is your turn.”

Lucette seemed to awaken from her trance, as she turned toward Simone and enveloped her slender waist in a tear-drenched hug.

“I love you,” she whispered, pressing tight into Simone’s stomach. Her eyes closed into the embrace. Warmth flooded Simone’s body and she sighed, pulling the tiny girl close.

“I love you, too,” she whispered. You awoke my soul, little one.

Bells rang, clanging together in the loud, inspiring music of the cathedral. A call to Mass, ringing through Jackson Square and echoing across the river beyond. The mule responded, as did the gulls over head – snorting and crying in cadence to the bell-song.

“I’m a GULL!” Lucette cried, yelling the words while jumping into the air – spinning past her parents. “Look at me! I’m a gull!”

Like a whirlwind, the little girl spun on her toes – hands held high, pigtails twirling. Like the painting, the color of the light seemed to merge with Lucette, mixing into a blur of child-like movement. Simone laughed, thinking she might actually take flight into the sky.

“WATCH OUT!” a deep bass of a voice called from around the corner, as snorts of the mule combined with cries of the gulls, clanging cathedral bells and a twirling, giggling Lucette.

Simone’s smile slowly fell into frown, as she watched the mule and carriage surge forward across St. Ann – right into the path of the laughing little Creole girl.

Slow motion; everyone slowed – Lucette oblivious to the danger. Details popped to life. The carriage driver. Sam was his name, dropping his café au lait as the reigns yanked from his hand.

Alistar and Lucette’s mother, stepping toward their daughter with outstretched hands – reaching for that which they could not grasp. Alise crying out her sister’s name, one syllable at a time.

Seagulls swirling overhead, their eager eyes focused on Lucette as if she were a morsel. The mule, wide-eyed behind leather blinders, crashing into the spinning, pink-dressed girl.

Sails from the masts of docked ships snapping in the river breeze. A grackle calling, and a baby crying. Details.

Time caught up, exploding into speed. Lucette never said a word, not even a painful cry as the mule trampled her to the brick paving, while the iron-shod carriage wheels finished the work.

Sam slid to a stop beside the still, bloodied form of Lucette, while the mule and carriage raced down Levee and out of sight. Screams from church goers witnessing the scene filled the Square, while the sounds of booted feet running toward the little creole girl grew closer.

Simone froze, pulling the wailing Alise tight to her chest, rocking her back and forth – whispering soothing words. Her parents were with Lucette and Sam, crying with one another as the Caribbean carriage driver sobbed his apology.

“I doan know what happen,” Sam said. “He just run off. He never run like dat. Oh, Christ, I be so sorry. He never run like dat!”

“LUCETTE!” her mother wailed. “LUCETTE!”

“Oh my darling girl,” Alistar said, cradling the lifeless form in his arms. Crimson stained his lavender coat, dripping blood onto his white pantaloons. His cane and top hat lay on the ground where he once leaned, a reminder of happier times just a moment ago.

Simone nuzzled Alice’s hair, squeezing the girl and crying. Her warmth of love now replaced with the ice cold horror of death. A crowd gathered as the local police arrived, holding others back as they gathered around Lucette’s broken, lifeless body.

Simone closed her eyes, looking toward the warm sunshine of the morning and searching for an unanswered why.

Lucette the Gull was gone, and the bells of St. Louis Cathedral rang just for her.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Simone slumped atop her stool, lost in the gray, dappled paving stones of her street corner. Alise, having long since returned to her parents, still wailed at the loss of her sister.

Lucette’s parents huddled with the Archbishop beneath the porch of the Lower Pantalba building, just across the street from Simone’s easel. News had quickly reached his ears, and he arrived with a retinue of priests and nuns – all to say prayer over the fallen girl and to console the parents.

With the crowds dispersed, Simone stared into nothingness. She had loved the little girl like her own, teaching her art while she painted in the Square. Lucette’s excitement had inspired her search for the art school’s location. Now that the girl was dead, all she could think of was that she had caused her tragic death.

A police officer dressed in black boots and a helmet-style hat approached, holding his flip pad at the ready.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, readying his pencil. “I understand the little girl was with you when she ran into the path of the carriage?”

Simone looked up, using her knuckle to wipe away tears from the corner of her misty eyes. “Pardon?” she said, blinking.

“You were painting her?” Simone shook her head.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “I was revealing a painting of her.” She pointed toward Lucette the Gull, still sitting on the easel.

“Her parents just purchased the painting, and Lucette was enjoying it.”

She shivered. “She was dancing. Twirling and spinning like she was the gull. The bells rang and then…” She sniffed, rubbing her eyes – now freely flowing with tears.

“The carriage came out of nowhere. Never stopped.” She closed her eyes. “And she was gone.”

The officer wrote notes in his book. “Did you see what caused the mule to bolt?” Simone shook her head.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “Maybe the church bells? They rang about the same time.” He nodded, making a notation.

“Do you paint here regularly?” Simone nodded. “Oui, monsieur,” she said. “Every day.” She pointed toward the metal placard mounted on the fence. A crow took flight, winging away from the oak tree just behind. “I have a permit.”

“I see,” he said, jotting something in his notepad. “And has this mule done this before, mademoiselle? Run when the bells rang?”

Simone blinked and looked toward the corner. Sam always tied his mule to a hitching post while they shared a café au lait. Had he ever bolted? The bells rang all the time, always on the hour – especially the call to Mass. Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening.

“No, monsieur,” she said. “He’s never done that since I’ve been here.”

“And how long is that miss…?”

“Simone,” she said. “Simone Plachette.”

“Ah,” he said, making the notation. “How long have you worked here?”

“Almost a year.”

“I see,” he said. “Might there be anything else that would explain why the mule did what it did? Was its driver negligent?”

“Sam?” she said. “Never. He’s one of the best carriage drivers in the city. That mule is one of the gentlest creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

The officer nodded. “It’s been put down, mademoiselle,” he stated.

“No!” she gasped, covering her mouth. “It was just scared.”

“It destroyed a cart in the market, mademoiselle,” he said. “It was a menace.” He snapped his booklet closed. “Final question. Why do you wear your hair loose? Shouldn’t you be wearing a tignon?” Simone wrinkled her face in confusion.

“Pardon?” she said, trying to understand why this was of importance. “I like my hair down.”

“It’s the law,” the officer said. “That is all for now, mademoiselle Plachette. If I have any additional questions, I will come around again.” He tapped the side of his helmet. “Don’t forget about your tignon, either.”

“Please know,” he continued as she nodded. “You might be called to testify in court. If so, you will receive a summons to appear.” He tore a small piece of paper from his pad and handed it to her.

“That is my name,” he said. “If something else comes to mind, you may contact me at the precinct.” He touched the bill of his helmet.

“Bonsoir, mademoiselle,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to witness such a horrid accident.”

“Merci, monsieur,” she whispered. He turned and walked toward Sam, who was being interviewed by another police officer.

“Witch!” an elderly voice hissed. Simone turned and confronted a hunched, wrinkled woman in a black mourning dress, with lace ruffles up to her chin. She wielded the cross from her rosary like a shield, forcing it toward Simone as it hung from her neck.

“Your devilry killed that little girl!”

Simone stared, tears forming in her eyes once more. It was the same woman Maria had scared off the day before.

“I did no such-“

“Vile Temptress!” the old woman stated, drawing the attention of four other people. “Mary, Mother of God cast this creature back into the depths of hell!”

“That’s enough, mother,” a man said, dressed like he’d just come from Mass. “She’s an artist, not the devil.” Simone smiled at the man, yet he kept his eyes on the old woman.

“Come with me, we’ll get you back to your home.” The woman hissed once more, thrusting the small, silver cross in Simone’s direction.

“Be gone, creature of darkness!” the old woman said, waving her rosary as her son led her away. Others walking by remained silent, yet their looks were those of agreement mixed with apathy; very little sympathy.

“Simone-eh,” Maria’s voice said. Simone lifted her head and turned toward Maria. “Dat no be ya fault.” Simone nodded, then reached for the large priestess – welcoming the woman’s enveloping hug.

“Dere ya be, child,” Maria whispered patting Simone’s back. “Dere ya be.” While it had been less than an hour since the accident, Simone finally let her emotions loose and cried completely for the loss of Lucette.

“You knew, didn’t you,” Simone said, sniffing back tears and daubing her eyes with a linen cloth. “It’s why you wanted me to give her the painting.”

Maria said nothing, instead patted Simone’s back while gazing toward the river.

“How?”

“I see tings,” Maria whispered. “I be tellin ya dis. My eyes, dey always see troots, especially when dey coom from da ‘eart.”

Simone sighed, leaning her head against Maria’s chest. “Like my art,” she said, earning another nod from the priestess.

“Now what do I do?” Simone said, pulling away and sitting up on her stool. Lucette’s parents were still with the priests, but the archbishop had left.

“Everyone I’ve ever cared about ends up dead.”

“Ya go on,” Maria said. “Dat be parta life, Simon-eh.” She motioned toward the painting, still turned for the reveal. “We all be movin on soom time. No one know when dat time be.”

“You do,” Simone said, glancing around to insure no one heard her words other than Maria. “You knew Lucette was going to die.”

“No,” she said. “I only knew dat ya must be givin da paintin to de lit-lun.” She shook her head, the dark blue, checkered tignon wrapped around Maria’s head rattling its beads. “I no see she be dead.”

“You had an idea, though,” Simone said. “I saw your sadness last night.” Maria shrugged.

“Maybe,” Maria said, pointing at the painting. “Ya saw it in dere, Simon-eh. Dat why ya be paintin what ya do.”

Simone followed Maria’s eyes, seeing the swirl of color that was the girl and gull mixed together as one as if for the first time. Had she seen Lucette’s death? Her stomach knotted, clenching her breath as well.

“What if my paintings are of people dying?”

“Doan be gone dere,” Maria said. “Dat no be da way.”

Simone couldn’t help it, she already had.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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!”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Sea gulls cried for bread scraps, circling and battling one another above a group of children gathered on the street corner where Simone worked. July sun danced among the oaks lining the park, casting shadows of light and dark across the laughing children’s faces – matching the mirth they shared with the eager gulls.

Simone took it all in, radiantly smiling as life on the square melded into the paint on her canvas. Ever since Lucette’s death two months earlier, children, water and sea gulls were ever-present themes – gently appearing in pastel-like mixtures of softly playing color.

She smiled more these days, as if the little creole girl was always beside her, watching with those bright rapt, brown eyes – insuring the work flowed from her heart. Death became life, and with it, Simone’s work flourished.

Maria was right. Art WAS her heart, freely expressed in tinted mixtures of oil and pigments – lovingly stroked onto stretched canvas with the caress of a lover’s touch.

People noticed, admiring her art more and more. While Lucette’s parents hadn’t moved forward with the commission, others purchased her paintings and improved her reputation. Groups often gathered just to observe, much like the couple standing beside her now, watching her paint.

“Bonjour,” Simone said, smiling. She tilted her eyes into a glittering radiance, as if this couple were the most amazing people on earth and she wanted to make sure they knew it through her smile.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” the man said, clasping the hand of his auburn-haired partner and staring at the painting. His eyes never strayed from the canvas as he said hello, instead looking deeper into what Simone was creating.

“Bonjour,” the woman clasping his hand said, watching her lover’s eyes and not really seeing Simone. The greeting was rote, as if required to say it because it was the proper thing to do.

Simone noticed her, but paid more attention to the man. She especially enjoyed the manner in which he leaned into her art, with his broad shoulders almost filling the space.

“What is it you see, Monsieur?” Simone said, sitting taller on her stool. He cocked his head, eyes narrowing as he looked. She followed his gaze.

“There’s an energy surrounding the gulls,” he said, twirling his finger in a spiral – tracing the birds just above the paint. “It spins, especially the way the color fades into the others.” He shook his head, then smiled.

“I can’t really explain it, but it’s so dynamic. And the children. Delightful!”

“Tomas,” the woman said, sounding bored with the entire conversation. She tugged at his arm. “I want to go to the market.”

The man nodded, his reddish blonde hair dancing across his brow. Dressed in greens and florals, he looked like a man of means, though surprisingly young. Maybe thirty, Simone thought? The felt hat was a nice touch. A shame his coat was knee length, as it hid the more interesting parts.

“Of course, Marguerite,” he said, patting her hand. “In a moment.” He still stared at the painting, and Simone’s eyes sparkled with interest as her breathing became heated.

“What is the title, mademoiselle?”

“Market Gulls, Monsieur,” Simone said, allowing her eyes to drift over his body. Not too tall, she thought, thick arms. He worked, that was clear. Soft fingers, strong hands. A writer, perhaps? No.

Nice legs, she thought, wishing he’d turn around. He must be a planter, especially with those bright, tight trousers. She frowned and sighed. It figured.

“Market Gulls,” the man said slowly, allowing the words to linger on his tongue, as if tasting. “Market Gulls. I like that.”

“Tomas,” his partner whined, her eyes focused across Levee street, toward the green-roofed building. “Can we go  now?” He sighed and nodded again, still looking into the painting.

“Oui,” he said, turning toward Marguerite. “Let’s be on-“

He met Simone’s eyes.

“…our way,” he said, slowly finishing his sentence with gaze fixed up on Simone’s. Her head spun in a rushing swirl of energy, and her heart skipping a beat with her sucked-in breath.

I know him, she thought, while her spinning head dulled her memory of when that might have been. Not wanting to miss the moment, her mouth blurted what her mind was thinking.

“Have we met, Monsieur?”

That got Marguerite’s attention. The Belle snapped her head around and looked into Tomas’s eyes, then into those of Simone. “Tomas Laiche!” Marguerite said. “We will be going. Now.”

He blinked, the trance broken and met his partner’s glare. “Ah, yes,” he stammered. “The market. Of course, my darling.” He took a deep breath, releasing the energy of the look with Simone.

“Thank you, Mademoiselle,” he said, dipping his head in a bow. “Your art is beautiful.”

Simone smiled, feeling the familiar heat of longing stir deep within her abdomen. Trailing fingers through her hair, she pushed the draping black strands from the front of her face and over her ear.

“My pleasure, Monsieur,” Simone said. “It will be finished by this evening, if you care to purchase it for your darling.”

Marguerite snorted and tugged. “It’s hideous,” she said, dismissing the thought with a wave of her hand. “Who wants a picture of sea gulls? We might as well have paintings of rats on the wall.” She tugged the planter’s hand.

“Let’s go, Tomas.”

Simone smiled, nodding at Marguerite. “Madame is wise,” she said as the pair took steps toward the market. Since Simone’s easel was set up at the corner of the Square and Levee, the market was only across the busy, carriage-filled street.

“What would you prefer for your walls if not gulls?”

“Flowers,” the rude Belle said from over her shoulder. “Painted by a real artist, not some second rate street vendor.”

“Marguerite!” the planter exclaimed, pulling his arm away from the feisty lady and glaring. “How rude.”

“Why would you say such things?”

They were well within earshot, so Simone heard the conversation. A pair of white open carriages rolled toward one another, the mules hooves clip-clopping on the reddish brown bricks of the road. This forced the couple to wait before crossing.

“She’s a tramp, Tomas,” the Belle said, blinking into his eyes as they waited. “She’s just trying to convince you to buy her terrible picture.”

The man shook his head as the woman wrapped her arm around his slender waist. She lay her head against his chest. Simone laughed quietly, watching the exchange unfold.

No matter what the rude woman thought of her art, he wasn’t just a pretty face. He’d seen her art as more than streaks of paint on a canvas. Curiosity tinted the desire racing through her, and in that moment, she had to learn more.

“Buy me some flowers?” the Belle said coyly, looking up and into his eyes. Simone imagined she batted her eyelashes like most of the plantation belles tended to do when coercing their beaux to do their bidding.

“Yellow ones. And red roses, too,” she said, her voice fading into the background noises of the busy docks behind the market.

“They’ll look so delightful on my nightstand in the morning, reminding me of you.” He chuckled and nodded, wrapped his arm around the woman.

“Certainly,” he said. “From monsieur Gullette’s stall. He has the best this time of year.” The woman placed her head against the side of his chest as they crossed the street, but the man named Tomas twisted just enough for Marguerite to not notice the look he gave Simone.

Simone lifted her eyebrow, a practice she’d perfected when attracting attention. Monsieur Gullette, she thought, recalling in her mind’s eye exactly where the man’s stall was within the market. I think I want some flowers.

He winked, recharging the tingling energy she felt when they first met eyes. Her head tingled, buzzing like a flight of hummingbirds gathering nectar – nestled behind her temples. The look was brief, yet powerful as the heat in her stomach swirled.

Simone now understood Sister Maria’s words. The man named Tomas had SEEN her art, igniting desires that she’d kept doused since Paris. She’d kept them hidden, pushed away out of reach. Lucette’s death had reopened her heart. Now a look, a smile and a wink from a dandy-dressed planter had set a spark that threatened to set it ablaze.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Tomas watched the artist just long enough to avoid Marguerite’s awareness. Her jealousy had him smiling on the inside. It was an emotion he knew all too well from his youth. She never allowed another girl close to him; it appeared now wouldn’t be any different.

The feelings he’d experienced when seeing the artist’s eyes, surprised him. Completely unexpected, it was as if he’d know her, seen her somewhere before and were old acquaintances. Like reconnecting with a long, lost friend now returned.

Hadn’t she asked if they’d met?

It wasn’t possible. He’d never seen her before on the Square, and certainly didn’t mingle within the artist culture. In fact, whenever he came to New Orleans, he spent more time on Canal St. and the docks, where his manager maintained the shipping office.

Where have I seen her, he thought, guiding his fiancé between groups of people gathered around the busy stalls. Monsieur Gullette’s flower cart was toward the end of the building.

She certainly seemed to know me.

The building was designed to keep shoppers and vendors dry on rainy days, or cool on hot days like this one. It was basically a long, wide warehouse roof held up by columns. A white cornice supported the green and white striped roof, while the round, plastered pillars were painted ox-blood red. Three interior alleys led market-goers past meats, produce, flowers and other assorted treasures from around the world.

He ignored the vendors trying to gain his attention, their insistent cries of ‘monsieur! Try this!’ washing past him. Instead, he looked beyond through the open walls of the market shed, toward the street corner where the artist worked.

There she is, spotting her from between a teetering stack of leather-bound tomes of a book seller. She was laughing along with a pair of Creole girls as she painted, using her brush to emphasize something the girls found silly.

It was her smile; unforgettable, especially the manner it lifted toward her eyes. It was if her entire face smiled, illuminating her eyes. And the way she lifted her eyebrow! Just thinking of it made his heart race. How could he not know her, yet feel like he had? Perhaps he just didn’t remember. He shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” Marguerite said, tilting her face toward his. She followed his glance toward the book seller.

“I was just wondering if he has books on flowers,” Tomas said, quickly gathering his thoughts – yanking them away from the captivating artist. Did she just look my way?

Marguerite nodded and lifted her finger. “Monsieur?” she said, grabbing the book vendor’s attention. “Do you have books on flowers?”

“Why of course, Mademoiselle,” he said, stepping away from his desk. He rummaged through a well-ordered group of leather books stacked precariously in one corner of his stall. Carefully arranged to allow customers to enter, the books created a three-sided wall – easy to see over, yet thickened by double layers of volumes and tomes.

“Would Mademoiselle prefer one on the growing of flowers,” he said, lifting a cracked leather volume from the stack. He reached for another. “Or perhaps one detailing the types of flowers? Maybe various varieties of roses?”

Marguerite placed a finger on her lower lip. “The one on roses,” she said, accepting the offered book. She glanced at Tomas. “Does that not make sense, darling? We’re buying roses, now we will know what types to buy!” She clapped her hands, then took the book.

“How delightful,” Tomas muttered, trying to hide his inattention with a grin.

“It’s a fine choice, Mademoiselle,” the book seller said, returning the other two volumes to their rightful place in the parapet of books.

Tomas nodded, watching the exchange, trying with all of his mental might not to look toward the artist’s stall across Levee.

“How much is that one, Monsieur?” Tomas asked absently.

“For you and your lovely lady, Monsieur,” he replied. “Ten dollars, and not a picayune more.” Marguerite smiled as Tomas took the book from her. He flipped through the pages, carefully noting the earmarks and tears.

Stepping into his role, it was time to perform the market dance. He loved this part, and thoughts of the captivating artist faded to the back of his mind – smoldering like embers from a bonfire.

“Two dollars, Monsieur,” Tomas said, snapping the cover closed and frowning. “It’s in sorry shape, hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.’ He shook his head. “Where did you find this? In a garbage bin?”

“Monsieur!” the book seller said, his face red with insult. “Two dollars? Why not rummage through a garbage bin yourself, you pompous planter!” Tomas snorted and rolled his eyes.

“That book is EASILY worth eight dollars. And that is a bargain!”

Marguerite sucked in her breath, covering her mouth with her hand. The idea made Tomas laugh inside, knowing Marguerite never bargained. She felt it better to accept the price than join in the battle of wits.

I wonder what the artist would think?

He ALMOST looked toward Jackson Square, but instead waved a dismissive hand and turned his back on the book seller. He liked this man immediately. He had charm, and wasn’t afraid to toss an insult toward a potential customer. Especially one who had money to spend.

“Bah!” Tomas said, turning back, yet not meeting the vendor’s eyes. Not yet. He lifted the book into the man’s face, though far enough away to not be too insulting. “For this piece of washing paper? Four dollars!”

“Six!” the vendor said, crossing his arms and scowling. Tomas opened the book again, glancing at the vendor from atop his eyes. It wasn’t a bad book, actually. Well-kept and in good condition. Six was fair, though he knew he could get the man to settle for five.

What’s her name?

“Done!” Tomas said, snapping the book closed and handing it to Marguerite. The vendor smiled victoriously, Marguerite clapped her hands in joy, and Tomas chuckled. He extended his hand to the vendor, who shook it vigorously.

“You made a good bargain, Monsieur,” the vendor said. “The Mademoiselle will be pleased with her purchase.”

The vendor wrapped the book in brown paper, tying it closed with a red ribbon – making a bow in the center for the pièce de résistance.

“For Mademoiselle,” he said, offering the giftwrapped book. “Monsieur Ardent La Pointe thanks you for your purchase. May it bring you pleasure for years to come!”

Marguerite squealed with delight, taking the book as if it were a golden treasure. “Thank you, Monsieur La Pointe,” she said, then handed the book to Tomas to carry. “And thank you, Tomas, for the lovely gift.”

Tomas nodded and cradled the book under his arm. “Anything for you, my darling,” he said. “Would you mind going ahead to find Monsieur Gullette? I’d like to have a word with Monsieur La Pointe after I settle the bill.”

“Of course,” Marguerite said, hooking her parasol on her arm. “Do not be long, dear. I’m about ready for lunch, and I simply cannot carry all of those flowers by myself.”

“We can hire someone if need be,” Tomas said. “I won’t be long.”

Once his fiancé had left, Tomas paid the vendor and struck up a conversation. He liked the man’s style, the casualness with which he performed the dance. He could use a man like him in the Planter’s Building, haggling the price of sugar and making deals for shipping.

“So how may I be of service, Monsieur…?”

“Laiche. Tomas J. Laiche. I own the Two Oceans Trading Company, as well as a plantation named, The Willows.” La Pointe nodded.

“I wish to inquire into your business, Monsieur La Pointe, and how happy you are dealing in books.”

“I’m quite happy selling books, Monsieur Laiche,” the vendor said, frowning just enough to show he was curious to the question. “Might you add some clarity to your inquiry?”

Tomas adjusted his hat, smoothed his bangs and glanced across Decatur toward the corner where the artist worked. He frowned when he noticed her gone, though her studio was still in place.

I wonder where she went, he thought. Lunch, perhaps? Maybe somewhere in the Market. He started to look down the aisle when the vendor cleared his voice.

“Monsieur Laiche?” he asked. “Why do you ask this question of me?”

“Pardon?” Tomas said, returning to the now and refitting his hat. “Excuse-moi, Monsieur La Pointe. My mind has been wandering this day, it seems.” The vendor smiled, yet said nothing – waiting for Tomas to answer completely.

“I’m interested in hiring a person of your particular skill to negotiate on my behalf within the Planter’s Building.”

“You require a bookseller for this job?” Monsieur La Pointe said, cocking his head in curiosity. “I fail to understand the connection.”

“No, no,” Tomas said. “Your bartering skills, Monsieur. I enjoyed the manner in which you played the game, as well as your disposition in playing.” The man nodded in understanding.

“I would like to hire you, Monsieur La Pointe,” Tomas continued. “If you are interested in selling and buying sugar, as well as negotiating shipping contracts.” Tomas cocked his head.

“Does this interest you, Monsieur?”

La Pointe crossed his arms and frowned. “What would I do with my books, Monsieur Laiche?” he said. “It has been my way of life for so long. I’m not certain I could do something else.”

Tomas rubbed his chin, nodded then got lost in the new dance. La Pointe would work for him. The only question remaining was how much it would cost.

And that was the fun part.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

“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!”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

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.”

CHAPTER TWENTY

“Au revoir, darling,” Marguerite said, waving from the carriage carrying her and her retinue of servants to the riverboat, Creole Belle. With afternoon settling toward evening, the last trip upriver departed within the hour.

“Dream of me every night,” she said, as the driver cracked the reigns, lurching the carriage into a rumbling motion forward. “Au revoir, my dear,” Tomas said, touching her fingers with his as they moved past. “I’ll see you in a week’s time at the Willows. Travel safe, mon amour!”

“I’ll dream of you, my love!” Marguerite continued, waving a pink silk scarf out the window. “Until we meet again!”

714 Rue St. Peters would be quiet, now that Marguerite and her servants were gone. Almost ghost like, he thought as he walked through the gate, and into the inner courtyard of Laiche House. Built by his father as a retreat from the plantation, Tomas called it home from the moment he took command of the Two Seas, some ten years back.

“Woo-ee!” Tomas’s servant said as he opened the red patio door, welcoming Tomas home. Named only Joe, the negro was one of two free blacks from the Willows who chose to work for Tomas at his New Orleans residence. The formal green garb of a Laiche footman made the elderly man look younger, while his jovial smile and pleasant disposition inspired true southern hospitality.

“Dat woman’s a whirlwind, Marse Tomas,” Joe said, holding the door as Tomas walked through. “She ain’t never settle down the entire time she here.”

Tomas nodded but said nothing – his mind focused on a mysterious artist that swirled around inside his head.

“I think Monsieur Gullette will be dropping by for dinner,” he said after a moment. “Best have some shrimp po boys prepared, maybe etouffee as well. Nothing too grand.”

“I’ll get on it right away, den.” He reached for Tomas’s coat, but Tomas shook his head.

“I’m going out for a bit of a walk,” Tomas said. “Too much excitement for one day. Fresh air will do me good.”

“Yassir,” Joe said. “Miss Marg’rite has a way of making a man crazy, dat for sure. What time you comin’ back?”

“By seven,” Tomas said, plopping his felt hat atop his head and lifting his cane – a silver-capped stick with an ebony wood shaft. “If Gullette arrives before me, please make him feel at home.”

“I’ll whoop him at backgammon by the time you get back,” Joe said, smiling and leading Tomas through the foyer, toward the front door opening onto Rue St. Peter. “He thinks he can beat ole Joe, but he ain’t never come close.”

“Maybe today?” Tomas said, nodding at Joe as he walked through the door.

“Ain’t likely,” Joe called out. “But ya never know!”

The walk from his residence to Jackson Square took close to twenty minutes, as various people he knew from the neighborhood stopped him to inquire into his health. It was a small community, with many of the houses along this street being second residences of the planters. While it was air he claimed he was interested in, what he really wanted was seeing the artist in the square. Her work was impressive, but he wasn’t seeking art. What intrigued him more were those eyes.

Looking into those dark eyes snapped something into place, as if finding a missing piece of a puzzle. He had to discover what the piece was, what it meant and why he was drawn to its fire.

As he walked past the mansard-roofed Presbetyre and looked down St. Ann toward the Market, he could just make out the corner where the artist was still painting. Gulls winged over her head, circling and dancing in and out of a gathered group of children.

Flutters tickled his chest, pulling him up short. What was that? Nerves? He shook his head. How could he be nervous going to see an artist he didn’t know?

There they were again, this time stronger. He WAS nervous. His breath came up short, while his heart raced like a runaway cart. This was crazy! He took a deep breath, then looked around. It felt like he had walked for miles. No, RAN and now just found his breath.

No one noticed, or even saw he was there. At this time of the afternoon, most people would be either heading home for dinner, or coming to the cathedral. Those coming for evening Mass were more interested in their souls than the cowardly owner of a shipping company, too scared to talk to a street artist.

How ridiculous!

Spinning his cane, he nodded then plodded forward as if walking along the soft, clinging muddy banks of the Mississippi. Why were his legs shaking? There was nothing to fear! She was an artist for Christ’s sake.

He forced them to work, and in year-long seconds, found himself standing with a group of children watching the raven-haired artist finish her painting.

Beautiful. Soft, gull-like forms spun in colorful circles over what appeared to be the Square, represented by fading grays and blues. It was like seeing life through fog-covered glasses, while feeling its energy at the same time. People moved, trees shaded – all represented by softened shapes that ‘almost’ resembled reality.

Sounds faded, and he fell into the picture. As if walking among the gulls, the scene washed through him, over him – filling him with a color-soaked, ‘love of life’ sort of energy which roared through his soul. It was –

“Monsieur?” a soft voice said. “Are you alright?” He blinked, shook his head and looked around. He was dizzy, as if he’d been shaken awake from a vivid dream.

“Excuse moi?” he said, breaking his gaze from the painting – joining the artist’s deep eyes.

“I asked if you were interested in purchasing the painting?” she said, smiling up from her stool. “You seemed lost.”

He nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, feeling the energy return to his head – buzzing and crackling throughout. “Lost. I did feel like I was…” He shook his head again.

“Never mind,” Tomas said. “Oui, Madame, I’m interested in purchasing the painting.”

Three of the children clapped, while another cheered out loud. “Yay for Simone!” the creole girl exclaimed. “Simone sold a painting!” She danced in place, bouncing with her hands held high.

Simone. So that was her name. It sounded… perfect.

“Excellent, Monsieur,” she said, her smile becoming brighter if that were possible. “Merci for your patronage. Shall I wrap it for your fiancé?”

He cocked his head, the dreaminess of the painting rushed from his thoughts with a crash. How did she know he was engaged? Very interesting. “My fiancé?” he said. Simone’s eyes went wide as she caught her words.

“Pardon me, Monsieur,” she said. “I made an assumption and meant no offense. I simply recall the lovely Mademoiselle you were with, and how delighted she might be with this painting for a gift.”

He laughed, throwing his head back as he did. “You clearly remember the scene wrong, Madame,” he said. “If I recall correctly, she compared your work to rats.”

Simone shrugged. “I must not have heard,” she said. “Perhaps it would best if I simply wrapped it, and left the rest for you.” Tomas nodded.

“And its Mademoiselle,” she added, moving splayed strands of black silken hair from her face, draping them over one ear. “Though I prefer Simone.”

Tomas dipped his head in a bow. “Simone,” he said, letting the name linger on his tongue as if tasting its flavor. “Lovely,” he muttered quietly. The way she cocked her head let him know she heard.

“Tomas Laiche,” he said. “Tomas will do.”

“I would not dare be so familiar, Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said. “Especially to a patron with whom I know nothing.”

“You know I appreciate your art, Ma… Simone,” he said. “Isn’t that familiar enough?” She shook her head.

“No, Monsieur,” she said. “It’s not, though I appreciate the fact you enjoy my work.” She took the painting from the easel, then lifted a large piece of brown paper that had been folded away in a satchel.

“The price is twenty dollars, Monsieur,” she said, watching his eyes. Tomas didn’t blink as he met hers. His knees still shook, and he prayed she didn’t notice.

“Bien sûr,” he said, lifting his wallet from within his jacket. “A fair price for such a marvelous piece.” She nodded as he handed over the note.

I wonder how many she sells, he thought, watching her carefully fold the note away into her own wallet. The way she treated it, made him think this was a rare occurrence.

“Shall I have it delivered to your home,” Simone said. “Or would you like to carry it yourself?”

“Delivered, s’il vous plaît,” he said. “Is that extra?” She shook her head.

“Included in the price, Monsieur,” she said, leaning toward one of the children and whispering in her ear. The girl giggled, then skipped off toward a shop in the bottom of the Pontalba building across St. Ann.

Tomas watched, trying to figure out a way to keep the conversation going. He’d been too fast in buying the painting, and now found himself quickly running out of excuses to talk to this amazing woman beyond the moment.

“You don’t deliver it yourself?” he said, saying the first thing that came to mind. ‘That was stupid’ was his next thought.

“Monsieur,” she said. “My delivery person is quite capable of the extreme care needed for a painting such as this.” She tied a brown strong around the wrapped painting. “It’s in good hands, I can assure you.”

Tomas noticed the remaining three children watched carefully, smiling as their wide-eyed glances bounced between the two adults as if watching street performers.

“What if it were to be damaged?” Tomas said, trying to calm his racing heart. It took his entire being to keep the pounding from wavering the tone of his voice.

“If it is,” she said. “Return to me, and I’ll make the necessary repairs.”

“But I don’t want a damaged painting,” he blurted. He smiled, taking a deep breath when he saw her frown.

“Simone,” he said, clearing his voice. “I would be ever so grateful if you were to deliver it in person. Perhaps, even assist in the hanging?”

Simone’s mouth snapped shut, creating a tight line; nothing resembling her smile. Was she shocked? He’d been too forward. Too much, too soon. Damn! The hanging part was even more stupid than the initial request.

“Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said, her voice calm and slow. “I am an artist, not a delivery boy. Certainly one of your slaves can hang the painting just as well as I, if not better.”

“Servants,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “They’re servants in my house.” Simone shrugged, yet her face remained stoic. “They’re not slaves.”

Simone stared at him, her eyes moving between each of his. What’s she thinking, he wondered, hearing his heart pound in his ears. Maybe it’s time to let the delivery boy take the painting.

“Perhaps-“ he said.

“Very well, Monsieur,” Simone stated. “I’ll deliver your painting myself.” She sighed and smirked. “It’s too late in the day to begin anew, anyway.”

Her words rocked him, and if he hadn’t been careful, he would have collapsed from shock.

“You, you will?” he said, then recovered. “Excellent.” He smiled, taking a breath. “It does my mind well knowing it’s being handled with the care it deserves.”

“Oui monsieur,” she said, searching his face. “I’m certain it does.” She bent over to begin packing her supplies, giving him time to breath, as well as a moment to see the rest of her.

As if feeling his eyes, she turned and smiled. “Is there anything else you require, Monsieur?” she said, batting her eyes in a belle-like manner. “Or do you wish to help with my packing?”

“Ah,” Tomas said, trying to come up with a gentlemanly answer to why he was staring her backside. Finding none, he nodded. “Sure, I’ll help. If you don’t mind the assistance?”

She nodded, standing and pointing at the wooden box containing her paints.

“You may take that, monsieur,” she said. “If it’s not too heavy. You don’t look the type for manual labor, so if it’s too much, I can manage myself.”

He frowned, smirked then nodded. “I can carry a box, thank you very much,” he said.

Bending over, he grabbed the handle and lifted, grunting from the weight. What does she have in there? An entire paint factory?

“Très bon,” she said. “I see I was mistaken.” She gathered the rest of her supplies, then placed them inside a worn, leather satchel. The easel folded up into a nice square, and with the straps on the back, turned into backpack – complete with storage for canvas, as well as a peg to hang her stool.

“That’s quite remarkable,” Tomas said, nodding with approval.

“It is,” she said. Turning to the three remaining children, she reached into her pocket and handed them each a piece of brown sugar nugget.

“Merci, Simone,” they said, stuffing the candy into their mouths. “We will see you tomorrow!” She grinned, ruffling one of the girl’s hair.

“I can hardly wait,” Simone said. “You’re my inspirations!”

“Yay!” they said, cheering, twirling and bouncing down the street toward their not so distant homes. Simone watched, laughing at their gaiety.

Tomas observed it all with intense fascination. She was more than beautiful, he noticed, now that he had a chance to see. Long, black hair that fell close to her waist – filled with lighter highlights that glistened in the evening sun. Lithe and delicate, she resembled a dancer more than an artist.

Her smile truly captivated him. Especially the way it lit when filled with joy – such as watching the children. It radiated, instilling him with the pleasure and happiness the children gave her. Just staring raced his heart, and he found himself catching his breath once more.

She sighed, then turned toward him, the smile fading into a more serious look, one sharing neither pleasure nor happiness.

“Shall we go, Monsieur Laiche?” she said. “The sooner I deliver your painting; the sooner I can be away for dinner.”

Tomas nodded toward the Cathedral. “This way,” he said. “714 Rue St. Peters. It’s not too far.”

Chapter Twenty One

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Selected Essays and Squibs by Joseph Suglia

The Web log of Dr. Joseph Suglia

Blissful Scribbles

Musings through the journey of writing my first novel

Frank Solanki

If you want to be a hero well just follow me

Natalie Breuer

Natalie. Writer. Photographer. Etc.

James Harrington's Blog of Geek and Writing

All Things Writing and Geek, in one neat little blog!

The Cougars Den

Major League fun since 1991. The official blog of the Kane County Cougars.

amandeepmittal.wordpress.com/

Reviews | Interviews | Giveaways | Recommendations | "I'm Mad About Books"

Writers In The Storm

A Blog On Writing

Daily (w)rite

A DAILY RITUAL OF WRITING

tonysbologna : Honest. Satirical. Observations.

Honest. Satirical. Observations.

Jenny Martin

Librarian, Writer, Beatle-maniac

The Book Review Directory

Over 150 Book Reviewer Bloggers Listed

Optimist Superheroes

Make Every Misadventure an Adventure

Gotta Find a Home

Conversations with Street People

Storyshucker

A blog full of humorous and poignant observations.

What I Write

The Adventures of an Erotica Author

Elan Mudrow

The Ridges of Intertextuallity

Problems With Infinity

Confessions of a Delusional Maniac

Libby Cole

Romance writer and reader

%d bloggers like this: