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Note: If you missed last Monday’s episode (Chapter 21: Mon Studio) because of my double post, it’s here.

Blue Mediterraneo may be the most tempting perfume I’ve written about. According to Fragrantica, it smells like all the aromatic vegetation of the Italian coastline: myrtle (Aphrodite’s plant), Calabrian lemon and sweet orange, basil, rose, dark currant and warm cedar. Add a sea breeze, and you’ve the makings of a very romantic vacation…

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The Blue Grotto in Capri.

21. Blue Mediterraneo

Gina, the style consultant in Lloyd’s dress department, shook her head. “Dr. Gooden, may I make a suggestion?”

“Of course.” Cynthia always welcomed her advice. Gina had an uncanny knack for selecting clothes that fit her properly, and looked chic.

They were standing before a brown taffeta full-length skirt with a matching jacket heavily embroidered in gold and yellow. “This is too matronly a style for you,” said Gina. “Let me show you some younger looks.”

“But I’m almost forty-one,” said Cynthia. “And I’m too heavy. I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself. This gala is for work, and I have to be dignified.”

“Too heavy?” said Gina. “You still have curves, but you’ve gone down two dress sizes since the last time I saw you. I hardly recognized you when you came in.” She pointed to a gold lamé number on a mannequin. “This is based on the knife-pleated gold dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. You should try it on.”

Cynthia examined the dress. The neckline on fell in a deep, narrow V, well past the cleavage. “Too revealing,” she said, “and not my style. Too sexy.” She shuddered to think what Peter would say if he saw her in that.

Monroe

Marilyn’s va-va-voom dress from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Gina thought for a moment. “Okay. With your skin and hair, you could be a knockout in a pastel. How about this seafoam blue?” The sleeveless dress had a V-neck with ruching along the left side of the bodice that drew the eye upward. The neckline and bust were beaded with small, sparkling crystals. The skirt was slightly full, but the georgette fabric was delicate, and flowed straight down from the hips. True, her weight loss had been substantial enough to require the purchase of some new suits and jeans, but Cynthia couldn’t imagine showing herself to the rest of the world in this dress. Still, it was so pretty that she reluctantly allowed Gina to take it to the fitting room.

“Are you sure the light color won’t make me look fat?” she asked, as Gina was helping her step into the dress.

“See for yourself,” said Gina, smiling. Examining herself, Cynthia could hardly believe what she saw. The figure in the mirror was still fuller than her ideal, but the long dress had a slimming effect, while highlighting her cleavage. There was just enough coverage in front and back to be tasteful, and the color complemented her eyes and hair.

“Stand on your tip toes,” said Gina. “See? That gives you an even longer line. The shoe salon has some pumps that match this dress, or we can dye a pair for you.”

Still staring at the attractive woman in the mirror, she said, “I’ll take it.”

***

By April 1, the day of the “Aromas” gala, Cynthia was tired. She had worked nonstop on the exhibition for several weeks now, ensuring that every detail was up to standard. A few of the loans had failed to arrive on time, so adjustments and substitutions had to be made. The catalogue was in print and advance copies were laid out in the gallery for visitors to peruse. She was particularly happy with the Aphrodite room, where dwarf fruit trees gave the impression of a sacred grove, and myrrh burned on a reproduction incense stand amidst the real articles, while votive doves and wreaths of roses were grouped about the mocked-up “marble” altar.

In another room was a large reproduction of the famous perfume-factory fresco from the House of the Vetii in Pompeii, where tiny Cupids stirred fragrant pots and presented the final product to a lady perched on a red-cushioned stool.

perfumeshop

From the House of the Vetii in Pompeii.

Cynthia had managed to borrow from the Getty a precious fragment of a similar fresco, which showed a perfume shop and customer on a black background framed in bright red. Here too were displayed all the raw materials that Peter had helped her to assemble: frankincense and myrrh, rose petals, cinnamon, labdanum, ambergris, mastic, sweet rush roots, and honeylike styrax resin, along with herbs like anise, coriander, and marjoram. Many of these were in plexiglass cubes with little windows that visitors could slide back to sample the scent.

marjoram

sweet marjoram

The highlight in the Roman room was telinum, Julius Caesar’s perfume, which Peter had reconstructed based on Pliny’s recipe. To Cynthia’s nose, it smelled like maple leaves with violets, honey, and some herbal notes. For just a moment, she couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to warm some of that aromatic oil and rub it onto Peter’s bare shoulders, but she forced her mind back to the last-minute preparations for the gala.

The event was to be held in the atrium, the largest space in the museum, which was lined with tall potted trees and an assortment of sizable but less precious paintings from the Walker collection. She and Charles, the events coordinator, had hung a banner showing the Getty fresco fragment and the “Ancient Aromas” logo, but they opted to limit the other decoration to twinkling lights that hung from the trees and the high ceiling of the atrium, giving the illusion of a starry night. There would be a band, since the atrium had a central circular dance floor, and dessert would be served along with wine, beer and liquor.

Getty

The Getty fragment.

As she was about to leave work, satisfied with their preparations, Tina brought her the final version of the evening’s program, which included lists of donors. For this exhibition, there were five levels of sponsorship, ranging from “Rose Petal,” the least expensive, up through “Lily,” “Balsam,” “Frankincense,” and “Myrrh.” Looking over the lists, she was thrilled to see that the “Myrrh” category, which required a gift of $5,000-$10,000, was well populated. Some of the names were those she herself had recruited, and others were old faithfuls, but quite a few were new.

“Great job,” she told Tina. “You must have been pounding the pavement to find all these new donors. If you have pictures of them, I’ll make copies and study them, so I can recognize them this evening. I’d like to thank each one personally.”

“Oh, you can ask Peter Noel to point them out when the two of you arrive,” said Tina. “Much as I’d like to take credit, I have to say he’s done amazingly well. Apparently he let it be known that he’s created a fragrance just for this show called ‘Aphrodite’s Tears,’ and that only the Myrrh donors will be allowed to purchase it. It stirred up a lot of excitement! But I thought you knew.”

“No,” she said, “he didn’t tell me.” She was torn between delight in the show’s financial success, which might cement Barbara’s decision to recommend her as the next Director, and chagrin at the thought that she now owed Peter a serious debt of gratitude.

“By the way,” said Tina, “Leslie Favreau is coming this evening with a date, someone named Étienne Bordelon. All I could find out about him is that he’s a graduate student in Architecture at Parnell.” Word of Leslie’s role in the events that led to Peter’s gift extravaganza had filtered out, and Tina’s expression now changed to one of grim satisfaction. “I’ve seated them in Siberia.” She pointed to a table situated right next to the alcove containing the restrooms and water fountain.

“Thanks, Tina.” Cynthia smiled, but the thought of seeing Leslie again made her stomach churn. She wished she could stay home, listen to Bill Evans at the piano, and enjoy Ursula’s company with a glass of wine. But no. If she was ever to become Director of the Institute, she had face challenges head-on with confidence, and learn to relish the social jousting that was so much a part of the museum world. She was born to this world, after all. She was a Gooden.

***

Cynthia went home, ate dinner —she had refused Peter’s offer to take her to Maxime’s for dinner—meditated for a half-hour, showered, and then did her hair and makeup. For the hair, she chose a simple updo, and put her mother’s diamond comb in the back for some added sparkle. Finally, she donned the seafoam dress with its matching heels. The crystal beading on the dress caused her to decide against wearing a necklace. Always wear the least amount of jewelry you can, she heard her mother’s voice saying. One or two pieces of the highest quality. She searched through her jewelry box for some earrings, but nothing matched the dress except a pair of small, plain diamond studs, which she wore every day. It would be better to do without. She packed her little white beaded evening bag, and got out the white faux fur wrap she had bought to go with the dress.

Her heart began to beat hard as soon as she heard Peter’s knock. When she opened it, he stood framed in the door, in his black tie and dinner jacket. There was a white rosebud in his lapel. Her throat went dry, just as it had done on the day she first asked him to join the advisory board. “Hello Pussycat,” he said. “You look stunning.” He had one hand behind his back, and now he stepped in the door and presented her with a flat, square box. “Chocolates from Christopher Elbow,” he murmured in his most seductive voice. “I think you need fattening up.”

“Thanks, Peter, but I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m happy with myself. I’ll freeze these so they don’t get stale, and have one every now and then.” She took the chocolates and set them on the kitchen counter.

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Luscious bonbons by Christopher Elbow

“Oh, come on,” he coaxed. “There’s bananas foster, champagne, and fig with port wine. Don’t you want to try one? Their scents are very enticing. Just like yours.”

She rolled her eyes, and changed the subject. “I really have to thank you for all the donors you brought in,” she told him, trying not to sound stiff or ungrateful. “If you could point them out to me discreetly, I want to talk to each of them this evening.”

He held out his hand, and after a moment, she gave him hers, which he raised to his lips. “It will be my pleasure,” he said. His eyes had never left her, from the moment she opened the door, and now he said, “Pussycat, you lack earrings.”

“Yes. I decided to go with a minimal look. It’s more tasteful.”

“Perhaps, but to my eye, you’re missing something essential…” Hooking one big hand around her waist, he maneuvered her to the oval mirror that hung next to the entryway, and stood behind her. “Now then.” He pulled from his jacket pocket the aquamarine drop earrings she had sent back, and held them to her ears. “Aren’t these just the thing?”

“Peter, I can’t accept these.” They were a perfect match for the dress— she could see that.

“Just try them on,” he coaxed. “You can give them back to me after the gala.”

I can’t, she thought. Everyone who’s seen them will know they’re from him, and they’ll draw conclusions. She was about to refuse him again when he said, “You owe me a favor now, don’t you?”

“Peter!”

“Well,” he said, laughing, “This is what I want in return. If you wear them and do one other thing, I’ll consider it even.”

“What other thing?” she asked, highly suspicious.

“It’s the perfume. I want you to wear my perfume tonight,” he said, fitting a perfect teardrop jewel first to her right ear, and then her left.

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re an extortionist?”

“Yes, many times.” Now he drew from his pocket a tiny pomegranate-shaped glass bottle, the stopper held fast by a thin white satin ribbon. It was an aryballos, the type of container used by the Greeks and Romans to hold perfume. “I had this flask made just for you,” he said, and as he focused on untying it, she watched his little frown in the mirror. She was finding it increasingly difficult to remain angry at him.

He used a finger to dab a drop of cool liquid on each side of her neck, and another between her breasts, inhaling deeply. “There. Oh, chérie, I think it’s perfect. It’s an oriental style, like Shalimar or Opium, but lighter and more floral. A little labdanum, a touch of vanilla, a little rose, carnation, peach. Sweet… and spicy, like Philly Bill’s pickles.” Then he spoke in a quieter voice, as though to himself. “Now, how’s the drydown? Too overwhelming? I’ll check in a few minutes and we’ll see.”

The fragrance came to her nose, and she had to admit that she liked it. It was radically different from anything she had ever sampled in a department store. Although he said that he had designed the perfume to match her own scent, there was something distinctly Peter about it. It summoned a memory of unfolding a tiny notecard and recognizing that the handwriting was, umistakably, his. Marry me.

“Shall we go?” she said, and after pocketing the flask, he arranged her wrap about her shoulders.

Copyright 2014 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Pure romance. I adored writing this.