Posts Tagged Louisiana

Beneath the Willows – Chapter 21

Simone’s head raged. Her, a delivery girl for this pompous planter! The mere thought of it forced her heart into overdrive; the desire to smash the painting over his egotistic head was near overwhelming.

True, he’d seen her art, and appreciated it for what it was. Yet he still had the gall to ask HER to deliver it! It was all she could do to keep from telling him to shove the painting up his, well, shapely derriere and take it himself!

She noticed its tight, carved form when he bent over to lift her box, the way the trousers curved in just the right places. Normally she stowed the paints in the music store across the pathway, but when she felt his eyes undressing her while she was in a compromising position, she couldn’t resist the all-to-good temptation.

Plus, she did some undressing of her own. He wasn’t too bad to look at, now she had spent part of the day checking him out. The trip to the market had been planned, hoping she might run into him again while shopping for lunch.

His appearance in the Square was a surprise, made more so with his purchase. Normally, she would have charged ten dollars for a painting, but for some reason, she wanted to test him – see if he was cheap, like most of the other men of his type.

He passed the first test, but failed the other. Instead of being a gentleman and looking away when she bent over, he took advantage. He was a pig. Just like all of the other men of his type. Perhaps a refined pig, one with good taste in art and women, but still pure grade swine.

He would pay.

“Rue St. Peters?” she said, after following him in silence for two blocks toward his home. They were at the intersection of Rue Chartes and Rue St. Ann, just up the road from all of the flop houses that lined Rue Bourbon. “Isn’t that a bit low for one such as yourself?”

He cocked his head. “What do you mean?” he said. “The neighborhood’s quite charming.”

She nodded. “I’m sure you see it that way, Monsieur,” she said. “Most of your type would. Perhaps living among the lower class makes you feel more powerful.”

He stopped and placed the box on the ground. “Now see here, Mademoiselle,” he said.

“Simone,” she replied, cutting him off.

“Simone,” he said, waving a dismissive hand. “Whatever. I’ve resided in that house for over ten years. I’m as much a part of the neighborhood as any other person living here.”

He tapped his silver-capped cane on the ground, creating a rapping noise that echoed along the brick streets, turning the heads of a couple standing beneath a porch awning.

“And what is it to you where I live?” he said. “I can live any damned place I choose!”

She smiled, not the face lighting one she used when truly happy, but one saying she had him on the ropes. Feeling his anger build, she thought it best to tone it down a notch. Inside, she laughed. It was like playing with a child.

“Of course you can, Monsieur,” she said. “Forgive my insult.” She opened her arms, still holding the painting in one of her hands. “I was merely suggesting you appeared to be living beneath your means.”

“That’s all.”

“Humph,” he said. “As if you knew my means. Didn’t I just buy one of your paintings?” He shook his head and grunted.

“I’d think you’d be more appreciative.” He stopped, awareness suddenly filling his face.

“Wait a minute,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He pointed his cane at her. “You’re trying to get me angry, aren’t you? You’re mad because I asked you to deliver the painting yourself.”

Uh oh, she thought. Maybe not a baby after all. Perhaps he was a BIT smarter than she imagined. He’d figured out her game rather easily, and now it was time to create a new one or she’d be in trouble.

“Yes!” he exclaimed. “That’s it.”

He leaned against the plastered wall of a row house and crossed his arms. Her eyes went to the box. “Well,” he said, shaking his head. “The game’s up. I’m not going any further with that shipping crate of yours until you fess up.”

Simone thought for a moment, taking time to quietly inspect his features. He appeared angry, yet at the same time playful. Was this part of a game as well? Who should she be in this charade they played: coy, innocent Simone, or worldly all-knowing Simone?

“You caught me, Monsieur,” she said, thrusting her hands into the air, but not before gently setting the artwork on the sidewalk, and leaning the painting against her leg. “Red handed, in the act; guilty as charged.” He rolled his eyes.

“What?” she said, frowning and lowering her arms. “You don’t believe me?”

“No,” he said. “I DO believe you. That’s the problem.” He laughed. “Here I was, trying to find a way to talk longer and in the process, insult you.” He shook his head. “What a world.”

Talk to me longer? She thought. It hadn’t occurred to her he might want to do such a thing. Something felt off with his statement, so she played it out further.

“You were being lazy,” she said, pointing her finger at his chest. “I thought you were a gentleman. Asking a woman to carry your painting for you?” she shook her head, allowing feigned anger to rise. “It’s sad to learn chivalry is dead.”

“What?” he said, confusion wrinkling his brow. “You asked if I wanted it delivered. I simply thought if you, uh, were the one who delivered it…” He paused, letting the sentence slip away as he looked into her eyes.

She shook her head slowly, tapping her foot. “You thought wrong, Monsieur,” she said. “Had you used your head for something other than a hat rack, you’d have realized asking a woman to do your grunt work was the wrong decision.”

There, she thought. That should put him in his place. He could have at least asked her to accompany him to see it hung, or to accompany the delivery boy to insure its safety.

Men never think, she said to herself. Not with the proper brain, anyway.

He ran his hand through his hair beneath his hat and frowned. “But,” he said. “I, uh, meant for… well, you see.” He stopped when she held up her hand.

“You’ve said enough,” she said. “Shall we make our way to your house? I’d like to eat dinner before sunrise.”

He nodded, bent down and lifted the crate, then motioned down the street. “Three more blocks and we’ll be there,” he muttered. “Allow me to carry your bag.”

She nodded, handing over the satchel in silence.  “Once we get there,” he said. “I won’t trouble you any longer.”

She sighed. What an idiot. Now he’s pushing me away. Men had such an interesting way of playing games. Just because she was insulted, didn’t mean she wanted to stop playing. How had he built a business being so meek?

“Monsieur,” she said. “What do you do for a living when not insulting talented, beautiful artists?”

They turned down Rue Royal, passing by mixtures of commercial shops, houses and large residences. Here, wrought-iron, gated passageways led into courtyards and gardens hidden behind colorful, two storied walls.

“I deliver things,” he stated without looking back. She smiled, hearing the sarcasm in his words. He owned a shipping company, so of course he delivered things. Moving her hair back over her ear, she picked up the pace until she was walking beside him.

“Like paintings?” she said, giving him a sideways glance. He stopped, smirked, then laughed.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been known to ship a few of those, especially when a customer was moving their estate overseas.”

“Really?” she said, pretending as if she didn’t know who he was or what he did. “All by yourself?”

“I have a little help,” he said. A carriage rumbled past, horse hooves echoing off of the houses with every clip clop. The driver tipped his hat at the pair, which Tomas matched in return.

“That seems like a mighty chore,” she said. “With just a little help.”

She cocked her head, allowing the excitement in her stomach to grow. The rage in her head was gone, replaced by a buzzing just behind her eyes. “Are you a sea captain?”

He shook his head and turned. “No,” he said slowly. “But I do know how to pilot a vessel. My position dictates I stay behind, though I do love the sea.”

Huh, she thought. I’d never have guessed that. She glanced at his hands, once again noting the rough, yet delicate, thick length.

He cocked his head and leaned against a green stucco wall. “Why so interested?” he said. “A moment ago, you were tearing my head off, and now you’re curious about what I do.”

“Small talk,” she piped in. “I like to know my customers. Just in case they choose to become patrons.” She held up her hand. “I’m still upset at delivering your painting, though.”

“I see,” he said. “But not as angry as before.” He looked her up and down, then nodded. “I’m glad.”

“Oh really?” she said, not minding his eyes on her this time. “You should be. My anger knows no bounds.”

He pushed himself away from the stucco wall, then motioned toward the direction they had been walking. “Shall we?” She nodded.

“So if not a ship captain, then what?” she said, walking beside him again. She felt his warm presence radiating in an inviting way. “Warehouse manager, or shipping clerk, perhaps?”

“Why’s it important?” he said, pausing at the intersection of Rue Orleans to insure a carriage didn’t run them down as they crossed.

“Isn’t it enough knowing I find your work fascinating?”

She smiled, allowing the compliment to fill her being. He meant more, just didn’t say it. How hard should she push? “It’s not ‘that’ important,” she said, grasping for words. They were on the seven hundred block of Rue Royal, so her time was running short.

“I’m just curious.” She shrugged, spotting movement on a second floor balcony across the street. A gray-haired man sat in a rocking chair reading a book, smoke curling from a pipe clenched in his teeth.

“You seem to be well off,” she continued. “Perhaps even a planter by the clothes you wear.” She eyed him up and down to emphasize her point. “And your fiancé certainly seems like a belle.”

He sighed, gave her a sideways glance, then motioned her forward to cross the street. “My fiancé,” he stated. “I’m still shocked you knew about that.”

“I know many things,” she said. “It’s how a lovely woman like myself survives life as a street artist.” She caught his glance and noted he said nothing, only lifting his eyebrows as if impressed.

“Then you probably know I own and operate a shipping company,” he said, tossing the idea out casually. “And I now also own a plantation.”

She shrugged and smiled, yet said nothing. They turned up St. Peters then stopped about halfway up the block. Across from them rose a burnt-orange colored, two story house with green shutters hiding the windows.

Being a mix of French and Spanish influence, it was uniquely New Orleans. Gas lamps lined the wall between the windows, flickering in the fading light of late afternoon. Abutted next to the sidewalk, the house, like all others on the street, grew from the edge toward the sky.

“It’s a recent acquisition,” he said, pausing on the last word. His pointing finger led her gaze to the house across the street.

“We’re here,” he said. Looking both ways, he led her to a closed, black wrought-iron gate. An arched brick tunnel led through the building toward a garden peeking from beyond the gate.

“Lovely,” Simone said. “You’ve lived here for ten years?” She met his eyes, but only for a moment – just enough to feel the truth of his words.

“I have,” he said, his voice tinged with a hint of sadness. He turned his gaze upon his house. “I was born at the Willows, but this is home for me.”

“I see,” she said, scrambling for words. He appeared hesitant to walk beyond the passageway’s black gate, choosing instead to stare through the iron bars as if lost in memory. “It fits you.”

He glanced over his shoulder at her. “How do you mean?”

“It’s the way you gaze upon it,” she said. “Like seeing a dear friend you’ve always known.”

Like the way he looked at her.

He bobbed his head. “That makes sense, I suppose,” he said, then removed a key from his pocket, and inserted it into the inset lock. With a clicking twist, the latch opened and the gate swung inward, it’s iron screech of protest ringing off the bricks.

The dim, tunnel-like passageway gave way to a warm, open air garden. Expanding from the adjacent vine-covered, three story brick wall to her left, the oasis swept outward. Large, square paving stones sat within a carpet of green, forming a path from the tunnel to a small pond in the center. A willow tree draped over the water, offering a canopy of rustling green leaves as shade for a carved, wooden bench.

She turned, smiling at his almost sad face. The sun had settled behind New Orleans, yet still provided evening light into the rectangular courtyard. Its splashes of brilliance illuminated the red, yellows and purples of the garden’s flowers, while shimmering silver sparkles on the pond and casting long shadows into the lush, green corners.

She breathed in the fresh fantasy of honeysuckle and jasmine, their yellow and white blossoms intertwined among the leafy vines – striving for the freedom of a clear, blue sky. Using white, wooden lattices, they clambered the heights beside her, creating a living wall of wall of flowering green, – filling the air with aromatic dreaminess.

Nestled against red brick columns of the arched, open porch to her right, heart-red roses sang for attention, each planted in such a manner, as to demand attention. Matching the design of the entry tunnel, these arches formed two sides of the garden – balancing the mass of yellows and whites, with the individualism of the elegant roses.

The fourth side of the courtyard, opposite the tunnel, was solid red brick with three lion’s head fountains set within recessed arches. Matching the height and shape of the porch, the recesses rounded out the design, appearing as if they could one day be opened as well. The fountains spat water from their carved mouths into stone, half-circle basins, happily bubbling like an eager, forest brook. Set like walls, the sides of the basins rose high enough to act as benches, with blue-tiled sides and stone caps.

Above the fountains, three rectangular balconies curved out from the wall, matching the basins in shape, while using wrought iron railings to contain matching bistro sets. Shuttered windows flanked green wooden doors, shut tight to the mysteries that lay behind.

“It’s so beautiful,” she whispered, turning her head this way and that – taking in all of the elements of the oasis.

“Thank you,” he said, suddenly standing beside her. His tone breathed the words, and she shared the breath. They made their way to the pond, where a green, spotted frog hopped from one of the four lily pads –  rippling the water with a soft, deep kerplunk.

“I tried to bring what I loved most about the Willows here,” he said. “Recreate it in a small way, so I could enjoy it on evenings such as this.”

“What a blessing, Tomas,” she said, smiling into the water. The darkness of the ponds depth reflected their shimmering image upon its surface, flowing together like one of her paintings. “I could paint this scene every day,” she purred, “and never capture all of its essence.”

“You’re welcome to do so,” he said, moving closer to her. She felt it, more than heard – his warmth splashing her body with energy. “Anytime you wish.”

She nodded. “I’d like that,” she whispered, though why, she wasn’t certain – it just came out.

The light danced in this garden in ways she’d never seen in Jackson Square. She looked skyward, trying to discern from where it came. It had to be bounce light, the manner in which the courtyard was framed by surrounding buildings. Light did funny things when it reflected, and the color of the bricks combined with the greenery of the garden made this light unique.

“This way,” he said, motioning toward the porch. “I’ll introduce you to Joe.”

“Who’s Joe?” she said, slipping from the trance and following Tomas as he walked toward the central archway opposite the lions head fountains. A green door could be seen beyond, flanked by framed windows and as welcoming as the garden.

“My housekeeper,” he said. “Though he manages my home more than keeps it.” Once beneath, he pointed toward a small table against the wall, just beside a pair of whitewashed rocking chairs.

“You can put your things there,” he said. “We’ll take the painting inside.”

Dropping the paint box and bag in the place he pointed, he reached for the doorknob.

“Excuse moi?’ Simone said. “We?”

The feelings of awe were gone, replaced by tension in her stomach and a constriction in her throat.  “I said I would deliver your painting, and so I have.”

“It’s time that I bid you adieu, Monsieur Laiche.”

Tomas turned and cocked his head. “You don’t wish to meet Joe?” he said. “If you come to paint, he’ll need to let you in the gate.”

She breathed a breath, feeling a sense of being lured into something she did not wish to happen. However, she had agreed to paint in the garden. She sighed. Might as well see where this goes.  

“Very well,” she said. “I’ll meet Joe,” she said, lifting a finger. “But I’ll not stay for dinner.”

Damn! She thought. Why did I say that? The words had come without thought, as if on their own volition.

He chuckled, then turned the door latch. “I don’t recall inviting you,” he said. “Now you mention it, perhaps we can make room.”

“Maybe.”

He dipped his head inside. “JOE!” he called. “Could you come outside a moment, there’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Be right dere, Marse Tomas,” a deep, elderly voice called back. “I just put da po boys on for you an Marse Anton.”

Tomas smiled a boyish grin, the charm of it lifting her spirits. “He’s on his way.”

“So I heard,” she stated, trying not to sound interested, even though her heart raced with excitement. Isn’t this what she wanted? She’d followed the man into the Market of all things. Now he’d invited her to dinner. At his house, at HER silly suggestion.

Things were getting out of control, and she gathered her thoughts to make sure they no longer did. “It sounds like you already have plans for the evening, Monsieur,” she said. “Perhaps I’d best be on my way.”

A kinked grey-haired head poked out the door, then the entire man – wiping his hands on a dish towel as he stepped out onto the porch. Offering a bow, and then a grin, he looked to Tomas for the introduction

“Might I present Mademoiselle Simone,” he said, opening an arm wide as if sweeping her forward. “She’s an artist. Simone? This is Joe.”

“My, oh my,” Joe said, shaking his head – not hiding the fact his eyes were taking her all in. “What a pleasah, what a pleasah indeed.” He bobbed his head in a bow. “I’d shake ya hand, but I been choppin shrimp.”

She laughed, feeling the sincerity in his voice. “The pleasure is mine, Monsieur Joe,” she said.

“Jus’ Joe, Miss Simone,” he said. “I ain’t no one special. Joe’ll do just fine.”

She shook her head and smiled. “If you take care of this place, you’re more than special. I’ve never seen a garden like this in the entire city.”

Joe’s face lit up and he met Tomas’s eyes with a ‘where did you find her’ sort of look. The planter nodded in agreement and Joe turned back to Simone.

“Why thankya miss Simone!” he said. “I does my best wits what I got.” He pointed toward the door.

“You joinin us for dinner? Shore be nice ifn ya did.”

“I’m not sure Mademoiselle Bourgeois would approve,” she said, letting her shoulders slump. “Monsieur Laiche bought one of my paintings,” she added, glancing at Tomas as she did. “I helped him bring it here. As a gift.”

Tomas grimaced and frowned, yet Joe remained undaunted. “Don’t you be silly,” Joe said. “This house ain’t hers yet, Miss Simone. Ifn we wants comp-ny, we’ll ‘ave comp-ny.”

If it had been Tomas saying it, she would have said no. While she was intrigued by the man, he was still engaged to be married. However, the way Joe said it made her feel truly welcome as a guest. She looked to Tomas, whose grin looked a bit silly and shy.

“Very well, then,” she said, inspecting the richness deep within Tomas’s eyes. “I guess I’ll have to stay for dinner.”

“Sounds good,” he said. “Let me help ya wit ya things.” He lifted her easel, a rig as Tomas called.

“You say Mistah Tomas gone an bought one a yore paint-ins?” She nodded, lifting the wrapped canvas for him to see.

“Well I’ll be,” Joe said, gathering up the rest of her supplies, then waiting for her to enter the house. “In ya go, Miss Simone. I’ll be right behind.”

“You just tell ole Joe where to put em, then we’ll see about hangin that new paintin’.”

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 20

“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.”

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 9

“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.

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