Posts Tagged Southern Fiction

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 18

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

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

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

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

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

It has to be fake, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” she said. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do people do that here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe the gulls are the souls of children?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 15

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.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 14

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!”

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 13

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.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 12

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.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 11

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.

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Beneath the Willows – Chapter 10

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.”

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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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Beneath the Willows -Chapter 8

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.

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