Every culture has its aphrodisiac foods. Sometimes the effect is based on magical similarity (bananas, asparagus, oysters, figs), and sometimes on other properties (hot chilis). One of the surprising entries on the list is celery, which Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV, popularized as an aid to love. Celery was “not a salad for bachelors,” and the root, served raw, was used as a cure for impotence.
The dress would have to do, Tabitha decided. No more dithering; she was nearly running late. She had obsessed for forty-five minutes over whether the sleeveless green jersey dress was formal enough for James Whelan’s book release dinner party.
Laura had invited her to the dinner her second week at the new job. “James is my long-suffering husband,” she explained. “He started out as a crime journalist, but now he’s a food writer, and this is his first book. If you come, you’ll be in for a treat, because he’s doing the cooking.”
“What’s the dress code?”
“Oh, nothing too fancy. One step up from the everyday.”
Now Tabitha wished she’d pressed Laura just a bit more about what to wear. Laura’s everyday work clothes were casual, and yet the address she gave seemed upscale, Columbia Street in Brooklyn. It was a waterfront property that looked out toward Manhattan. Tabitha’s luck with New York parties of the well-to-do had been mixed, at best. Sometimes everyone was in expensive “distressed” jeans, and sometimes they were in cocktail dresses and jewels. One never knew.
She negotiated the two flights of stairs to the top of the brownstone and knocked on the arched double doors. The right-hand door was opened by a tall, dark-haired man in his fifties. He was casually but elegantly dressed in navy trousers and a butter-yellow shirt with the sleeves rolled up. His collar was open. So far so good, she thought, as he said in a softly lilting accent, “You must be Tabitha! I’m so pleased you could come. Laura’s very fond of you.”
So this was James. Now Tabitha understood why Laura so often had that vaguely dreamy half-smile on her face. He was the kind of man whose entrance into a room caused women to glance at one another in shared appreciation. It wasn’t just his looks, though he was ruggedly handsome, with greenish eyes. He possessed a distinct sexual magnetism.
She shyly handed him the bottle of Tavel she’d chosen. She had no idea of the menu, but it was the end of summer, the weather was still warm, and that in itself, she hoped, would justify a good rosé.
His gaze dropped to the wine label. “Mmm, Tabitha, I like you already. And you’ve even taken the trouble to chill it… brilliant!” He hooked one arm around her waist and guided her into the apartment, which was long and narrow. At one end, glass doors opened onto a terrace with a stunning view of the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Much of the middle space was taken up by the kitchen and adjoining dining area, where the table had been set for eight. A few people were already standing about with drinks, and she spotted Ruth and Nigel. But James was leading her to one end of the kitchen, where a stockier man with keen blue eyes waited beside a cluster of bottles.
“Tabitha, this is my friend Porteous. He’s going to mix you a drink while I attend to my duties as cook. Now let me see.” James gave her a long considering look, his eyes taking in her emerald green dress with white heels and orange knit shrug. “Make her an Old Fashioned,” he instructed with a grin. “But use some of my good 12-year old Redbreast. She’s got to have an Irish whiskey.” He went around the corner to rummage in some cabinets, and the barman gave her a faint smile.
“Don’t let Whelan tell you what to drink. I can make anything you want.” Whereas James spoke with only a hint of an Atlantic Isles accent, this man had a definite Scots burr.
“Are you by any chance my new employer?” asked Tabitha.
“Oh, you must be Miss Hill,” he said, sounding chagrined. “Forgive me. I knew Laura had made a hire, but I didn’t recall the name at first.” They shook hands, and she marveled at how unpretentious he seemed, the man who owned all those ravishingly beautiful, rare, and exquisite books.
“Call me Tabitha. And I’d love the Old Fashioned. James must have a sixth sense for such things.”
He nodded, tossing a lump of sugar into a lowball glass and sprinkling it generously with bitters. “James is… sui generis.”
“May I say what a thrill it has been, Mr. Porteous, these past few weeks? Some of your books are so lovely that… well, I wept when I saw them.” She flushed, thinking this was probably too personal an admission, but he handed her the finished drink with an earnest look and said, “Galen. Call me Galen. I understand completely, you know. That’s why I bought them.” Then he added almost conspiratorially, “But the really odd thing is that no two people are affected that way by the same books. Later we’ll have a chat and you can tell me exactly which ones gave you the feeling.” His tone was intimate, and as their eyes met, she realized that Galen, in his own, subtler way, was as sexy as James. His glance moved past her, and she saw that Nigel, in a rather garish tie, was behind her, waiting for a drink. Mumbling her thanks, she moved off in Ruth’s direction.
“You look like you’ve been man-bombed,” said Ruth, correctly diagnosing her condition.
“My God. Heaven must be peopled with men like that,” said Tabitha, and then remembering James’ wicked grin, “Or maybe the other place. But wherever it is, I’d like to end up there.” Talking to James was like standing next to a halogen light bulb: He was focused, very bright, and very hot. Galen was more like a high-lumen fluorescent light: cool, far-reaching, and steady.
“Meh,” said Ruth noncommitally. “James is all about food and sex. Galen has no interests outside work except his book collection.”
“What’s not to like?” said Tabitha, genuinely puzzled by the comment. “Where’s Laura, by the way?”
“She’ll be here soon. She’s got her own place downstairs,” answered Ruth. Seeing Tabitha’s surprised expression, she said, “Yeah, that was how James convinced her to marry him. He was just like a male bower-bird, fixing it up to entice her in.”
At that moment, Laura backed in the door, carefully carrying a big tureen with a lid. “I’ve got it,” she called to James. “And it’s good. Even you couldn’t make a Shagger’s Soup this tasty.”
James looked up from his work in the kitchen, and his craggy face softened as he saw Laura. He went over to take the tureen from her hands. Tabitha heard him say, “Care to have a flutter on that, mon chou?”
Laura whispered something inaudible that made him laugh, and surrendered the soup tureen. She came over to greet Ruth and Tabitha.
“You’ve got a Karina dress! Aren’t they fabulous?” Belatedly, Tabitha noticed that Laura herself was wearing one, the Audrey style in a sophisticated snakeskin print of slate blue that became more vivid as the eye moved down the fluid skirt to the knee-length hem. Laura cleaned up well. Tonight her hair fell in rich brown waves about her shoulders, and she wore a bit of eye makeup.
“I wouldn’t mind working for Karina myself,” put in Ruth. She was an avid seamstress, and Karina was a company of dressmakers in Brooklyn, whose designs had a magical knack of flattering all body types.
“Where’s this famous book we’ve come to celebrate?” asked Tabitha.
“Right here,” said Laura, leading them over to a sideboard where a stack of coffee-table sized books sat waiting to be admired, along with a few cards of congratulation.
The cover illustration of James’ book was a striking picture of cut pomegranates on a tray beside a whole fruit. The glistening wine-colored seeds looked appetizing, and Tabitha could almost smell the aroma of their red juices. The title read, The Garden of Sensual Delights. Aphrodisiac Food and Drink For Every Season, by James Whelan.
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Longtime readers of mine know that James Whelan was my first fictional hero. He’s older now, a little grizzled, perhaps a bit thicker around the middle. But wherever he goes, there are women smiling broadly. It’s as though they’ve just tasted something delicious.
Karina is a real dressmaking company, to whom I am deeply devoted! Their models are of all body types, and they’re all beautiful.