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Authors: Fiona McIntosh

The Perfumer's Secret

BOOK: The Perfumer's Secret
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Contents

About the Author

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

On the Scent of Perfume

Praise for Fiona McIntosh

Acknowledgements

Author's Note

Book Club Discussion Notes

About the author

Fiona McIntosh is an internationally bestselling author of novels for adults and children. She is a travel columnist and co-founded an award-winning travel magazine with her husband, which they ran for fifteen years before she became a full-time author. Fiona roams the world researching and drawing inspiration for her novels, and runs a series of highly respected fiction masterclasses. Although South Australia is home, she admits her best writing is done from the peace of Tasmania.

fionamcintosh.com

facebook.com/FionaMcIntoshAuthor

This book is dedicated to my photographer,
Anne Stropin. We lost Anne too soon – just as I signed
off the proofs of this novel. Like any gorgeous perfume,
she will linger long in my memory.

1

1 AUGUST 1914

I loathed the man I was to marry today.

A hand reached across and covered my wrist; it was hairless with blunt, well-kept fingernails.

‘Be still, Fleurette.’ I hadn’t realised how I was fidgeting. ‘Collect yourself,’ my brother continued. ‘Father would want you composed, representing the family so publicly.’ Henri tipped my chin through the veil which, though sheer, likely hid me enough to blur my expression of anguish.

Henri’s purposeful mention of our genial father demanded I obey. I was nothing if not dutiful. They say we all make choices in our lives, but I was born into a family who made nearly all of life’s choices for me. In their defence I had little to complain about. I was the precious daughter to be cherished and admired like treasure.

I had failed to comprehend until recently, however, that this was not simply a charming notion. I was indeed the family treasure and I could be exchanged like a coin, traded as human currency. I was as helpless as a glinting gold sovereign passed from one hand to another: a bargain made, a transaction secured.

And now with the deal done – and just the ritual required to confirm its existence to everyone else – my angst counted for naught. I made another attempt to take the legal position, my last bastion, the only aspect of this vile union I could attempt to hide behind. The war, it seemed, might be my ally.

‘Henri, in the eyes of the law, we shall be unmarried. Without that certificate from the mayor, the priest can’t legally wed us.’ I spoke the truth.

‘Don’t start that again, little sister. I can assure you that the mayor and his councillors have far more on their minds than a society wedding. I have personally pressed the point an hour ago and not even our name and its weight – or Aimery’s or my threats, I might add – can convince his assistant to interrupt the town’s war meetings. Besides, the mayor and his adjoint aren’t even in Grasse,’ he said, sounding exasperated because he knew I was aware of this last fact.

True. We were supposed to have had our civil ceremony yesterday but with France on a war footing, awaiting declaration, no town hall anywhere in the country would have been inclined to concern itself with legalising a marriage, not even one for an elite pair of families such as ours.

‘When is the mayor back?’

He lifted a shoulder helplessly. ‘Tomorrow, hopefully. The emergency meeting in Nice at the prefecture will likely close today when declaration of war is surely formalised.’

‘Can’t anyone else —’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It is unbefitting that a lower representative would wish to perform a marriage ceremony today with the nation in such flux – even if he were in a position to or permitted to.’ I wanted to leap in and press my point here but Henri was ready for me. ‘Now,’ he continued, cutting the air with a raised palm. ‘Enough. It has been hard enough to convince the priest to go ahead but if he has acquiesced, then I suspect you have no higher authority.’

‘I have my moral —’

‘Let it be, Fleurette,’ he sniped, brushing imaginary lint from his trousers. ‘We are toppling into war with Germany! These are hardly usual circumstances. Heaven will forgive you – it’s just a formality, and it’s not as though we won’t be having the civil ceremony.’

‘When?’

‘The mayor has sent word that he will do his best for us – let’s hope tomorrow.’ He was flushed pink with simmering anger and I watched him run a finger between his collar and neck, grimacing with displeasure at me. ‘Now, neither I nor the De Lasset family will ever forgive you if you get in the way of this important union. We can hardly cancel after months of preparation. This town needs this marriage. Plus our mobilisation orders will be through at any moment – let’s at least get the church wedding completed. The civil duties can be sorted quietly. I know it’s backwards –
I know
– but I need you to tolerate the discrepancy. If our church can, you can. Please think of everyone else . . . anyone else, in fact, instead of yourself for once.’

The rebuke hurt. I was not selfish but I was angry with our priest for bending the rules of our faith, the laws of our land, simply because the wealthiest families demanded it. No doubt Henri or my equally boorish husband-to-be had coerced the priest – the new window for the apse, perhaps?

‘Henri, I will be lying with a man who is not legally my husband,’ I bleated.

‘Not in the eyes of the law, no, but it shall be fixed. What are you hoping for? That we shall cancel because of a piece of paper?’ He glared at me. ‘Are you going to disappoint the entire town, all of its people gathered to celebrate what is arguably the most important marriage in recent times, perhaps ever, for Grasse? Two of its elite families, formally unified: it’s the dream, Fleurette. Don’t spoil this dream, this optimism, given that every able man here is about to march off to do his country’s duty.’

‘Exactly! How can we be sure of the legal paperwork being achieved without Aimery’s presence?’

I suspected he had no ready answer – this was my final flag, my last standing post. I was shocked that he was more than ready for me, though, with a voice filled with disdain.

‘The declaration will be chest-beating by Germany. We have to observe our mobilisation duties but I suspect we shall all be making our way back to our homes within a week, perhaps two at worst. It will be short-lived and Aimery will be home, but for now he wants to leave Grasse as a married man, potentially with an heir already seeded, and you are going to ensure you live up to everyone’s expectations. That’s your duty.’

I closed my eyes in revulsion. Now my body was being spoken about like a field, ready to be turned over and . . . oh, it was too ugly to contemplate.

There was no response to my brother’s tirade. I was struck mute; I opened my eyes to stare at my gloved hands and the small mound beneath the glove of my left hand, third finger. The glint of crimson winked at me. It was a half-carat ruby set between curves of old mine-cut and rose-cut diamonds. The result was a ring shaped like an eye . . . and it stared back at me from under the lace with accusation in that red eye. Aimery could not engage me for marriage with an heirloom ring; he had nothing of his mother’s and I suspected he would have ignored something of hers even if he had it to give. Instead, this had been designed at enormous expense in Paris, but without my involvement, of course. And so it reflected only Aimery . . . flamboyant, no doubt outrageously expensive, ostentatious in its bright colouring – demanding attention. The shape was odd and I already imbued it with a sinister sense that it would always spy on me. I hated it, but then everything about this marriage carried despair for me.

An odd pain enveloped me in the claustrophobic carriage, sharp and nauseating. It was the height of summer and the flowers in my hand and threaded through my hair might wilt; that was the reason given for us not travelling in an open landau. Churlishly, I decided the real reason was more likely Henri’s concern for his hair and the carefully applied pomade. The pain deepened; perhaps I was panicking, like the time I thought Felix had chopped his fingers off with a lavender scythe, or the morning of the June picnic when I fell from my horse and everyone’s voices were coming from too far away . . . or the day my mother died, which in itself was beyond my comprehension as an infant, yet as young as I was I recall my father’s body sagging like an empty sack of rose petals and not understanding why.

I was not prone to being flighty and in my defence those memories belonged to isolated, intensive events that I could conjure authentically. Today’s anxiety didn’t feel as though it would pass, or that someone would come along to make it feel better; today was the start of a new life I feared. The desire to shrink from it was sufficiently overwhelming that I felt as though I was trying to tear part of myself free . . . me and myself needed to separate in order to get through what duty now required of me.

I looked away from the stone dwellings of the town as we picked our way through the streets, drawing ever closer to the sound of the single cathedral bell chiming our imminent arrival. My gaze fixed on my hands in my lap, which were finally still. The fingers beneath the pearl-studded silken Chantilly lace were straight, unblemished by any hereditary disease like my father had suffered. I tried to pretend the internal ache was coming from their joints, pathetically I suppose, trying to commune with my dead father in a moment when I had never needed him more.

I privately wished Henri the pain of our father in his own fingers. Perhaps he sensed the curse pass between us as I remembered the physician’s description of Father’s arthritis. My recall of any event was so reliable I could watch the scene, hear the words accurately replay in my mind.

‘Your joints are building their spurs,’ Dr Bertrand had observed, puffing on a pipe as he bent to inspect my father’s hands, despite his host’s muttered protest. ‘They’re called Heberden’s nodes, if you prefer me to be precise,’ he said, frowning. Bluish smoke had escaped his lips and moved like a phantom, stealing around the room, scenting it with top notes of the whiskey I smelled in my father’s decanter and the dry leaves I threw on the campfire that my brother and I set the previous winter. I reached hard and could still conjure the taste of tea and a gentle hum of what I thought might be vanilla. Father would have waved a finger in appreciation at my observation.

Ah, those crooked hands; they had taught me everything from how to ride a horse to how to pluck a tiny, delicate flower at dawn without touching the fragile bloom, a necessary ability in our family business. The only skill I could think of in this tense moment in the carriage of misery with Henri was that the only talent my father’s hands had not physically taught me was gifted through his blood. I had known even then, as a beribboned child with a black kitten making a nest in my lap while Dr Bertrand mused over my father’s arthritic fingers, that my heightened sense of taste and smell was emerging in tandem with my twin brother’s equally strong talent.

Our elder brother Henri had known too that, once again, he was different to his siblings. And he could not cheerfully regard this talent we’d acquired as a blessing; even now it sat between us as an invisible presence, taunting him despite its silence. Henri had learned how to ignore it but never to disguise the impact it had on his constant desire to impress our father.

The Delacroix twins had ‘the Nose’. The divinely bestowed gift of olfactory superiority allowed us such a heightened sense of smell we could distinguish aromas beyond the average person. Thus our ability to develop complex fragrances with depth and skill made us gods of our industry. Except I had the misfortune, I suppose, to be born a woman. Had I arrived into any other family, I suspect my prowess would have lain dormant. As it was, only Felix was taken seriously as the upcoming perfumer of the family but I was permitted to contribute my thoughts as a sort of invisible consultant to Felix and my father. It was enough – it had to be, for I had no choice in this. However, more obvious than my passion to use my skills was that the inherent ability had bypassed the heir, and so Henri found creative ways to punish us for this fact. I realise now that most of the time even poor Henri wasn’t aware of just how deeply angry he was to lack this highly prized skill.

It was unusual for two such closely related family members to possess the flair that for most felt unattainable. Oh, indeed, recognising bouquets was a skill that could be acquired with a workmanlike diligence. No, what I’m referring to is a sixth sense. An inherent aptitude for deciphering dozens – no, scores – of elemental tastes and smells, even when jumbled together. As a youngster Henri’s wrath tried to trip us up; he’d blindfold us, demand we perform like circus animals. What he couldn’t realise was that denying us the sight of the source only heightened our proficiency. If he’d paid more attention, he would have recalled that whenever Father smelled a perfume, or even a single flower, he would close his eyes as if to be deliberately blindfolded from any visual cues.

I couldn’t touch this exquisite pain I was feeling in my fingers now. I couldn’t soothe it, or send it away. I had no idea from where it emanated: my departing soul, I thought, and I knew Felix would scoff at the dramatic notion.

I would give anything for my father’s gnarled hands to reach out and hold mine now; he would know what to say, would know how to quell the pain. He would cancel this pantomime and counsel all involved that he wished a happy rather than a dutiful marriage for his only daughter. He had never favoured Aimery for me, wouldn’t hear of it when it was first proffered several years back. In fact his horror had matched mine. I’d had a reliable ally until now; why hadn’t he stated in his will that I should marry whom I wanted and not have my marriage arranged? My mother, rest her soul, might not agree. She herself had been forced into a union of duty demanded of her aristocratic English family. Fortunately for Flora St John, the man on the other end of that bargain was Arnaud Delacroix. I doubted she could regret her family’s agreement, hammered out in Paris, as I understood it, between the two heads of the household, for it had been a wise and – luckily for her – a blessed one. Although no one could have known that, surely, at the time. The agreement would have been made purely on the suitability of his and her families’ combined financial clout. I wish I’d known my mother longer than two brief years and could ask her now how it had felt to be sold on.

I gathered from others in the household that she had been a golden-haired beauty with a milky complexion and pale eyes and was treated like a goddess by my father. She roamed my memory more as a line-up of senses. I could recreate her preferred fragrance simply by closing my mind and thinking on it: honeysuckle, jasmine and rose would linger in my thoughts. I could dimly recall the sound of her gentle voice; I could also latch on to a memory of her hugs and kisses, but her physical presence was not easy to conjure. She was like a ghost who drifted through our house in photographs or the portrait in my father’s salon; she was real only through her possessions – jewellery, clothes, her ivory comb and hairbrush – but I couldn’t miss her because I didn’t know her. We lost this fragile woman to complications from her pregnancy when we twins were just over two years old.

BOOK: The Perfumer's Secret
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