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Authors: Cristina Caboni

The Secret Ways of Perfume

BOOK: The Secret Ways of Perfume
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An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Published by arrangement with Transworld Publishers, a division of The Random House Group Ltd.

Copyright © 2016 by Cristina Caboni.

English translation © 2016 by Ruth Clarke.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Caboni, Cristina, author.

Title: The secret ways of perfume / Cristina Caboni.

Other titles: Sentiero dei profumi. English

Description: New York : Berkley, 2016.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016020827 (print) | LCCN 2016028597 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101989760 (paperback) | ISBN 9781101989777 (ebook)

Subjects: LCSH: Orphans—Fiction. | Women—Fiction. | Betrayal—Fiction | Memory—Fiction. | Trust—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Contemporary Women. | FICTION / Romance / Contemporary.

Classification: LCC PQ4903.C276 S4613 2016 (print) | LCC PQ4903.C276 (ebook) | DDC 853/.914—dc23

LC record available at


Berkley trade paperback edition / July 2016

Cover photo: Eiffel Tower © Neirfy/Shutterstock.

Cover design by Rita Frangie.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgments in any future edition.


To all the women in my life,

my mother, my sisters,

my daughters, my friends.

This book is for

Happiness is nothing more than the scent of our soul.



movement. Sweet and fruity with a hint of spice, obtained from tropical trees.

The fragrance of trust and serenity.

Evokes the sweet pain of longing and hope.

, T

lose your eyes, little one.”

“Like this, Grandma?”

“Yes, Elena, like that. Now do what I taught you.”

In the semidarkness of the room, with her hands resting on the table, the little girl closes her eyes tight. Her slender fingers sweep across the surface and catch hold of the smooth edge in front of her. But it's not the essences in the jars covering the walls that she can smell. It's her grandmother's impatience. It's the scent of her own fear.


“I'm trying.”

The old lady purses her lips. The smell of her anger is bitter, like the last puff of smoke a piece of wood exudes before it turns to ash. In
a minute Grandma will hit her, and then she'll storm out. Elena knows she just has to hold out a little longer; just a little . . .

“Come on, concentrate! And close your eyes like I told you!”

The slap barely puts a hair out of place on Elena's head. It's not a real slap, but fake, just like everything else. Like the lies her grandmother tells, and the lies Elena tells her in return.

“So—tell me what it is.” Tired of waiting, Lucia Rossini waves a vial full of essences under the child's nose. But she's not looking for a simple answer from the girl. She wants something else—something Elena has no intention of giving her.

“Rosemary, thyme, verbena.”

Another slap.

Tears sting her eyes. But she doesn't give in, and to steel herself she starts to hum a little tune.

“No, no. You won't find the Perfect Perfume like that. Don't stay outside it. Go in—
for it! It's part of you—you have to feel what it's saying to you, you have to understand it, you have to love it. Try again, and this time try harder!”

But Elena doesn't love perfume anymore. She doesn't want to see the meadows along the riverbank where her mother took her when she was little, just outside the village. She doesn't want to hear the sound of the tender grass as it grows, or the water as it trickles by. She doesn't want to feel the frogs' eyes staring out at her from the reeds.

She squeezes her eyelids shut and grits her teeth, determined to block everything out. But in that darkness, a spark suddenly ignites.

“The rosemary is white.”

Her grandmother's eyes widen. “Yes,” she murmurs, her face lighting up with hope. “Why? Tell me all about it.”

Elena lets the feelings drift into her, filling her mind and her heart.

The rosemary is a color now. She can feel it on the tip of her tongue,
coursing under her skin, making her shiver. The bare white becomes red, then purple.

The girl's eyes narrow in fright.

“No, I don't want to! I don't want to!”

Frowning, her grandmother watches as she runs out of the room. Then, after a long sigh, she goes over to the window and opens the shutters. The tired evening light yawns its way into the laboratory that has belonged to the Rossini family for over three centuries.

Lucia takes a key from her apron pocket, reaches up and unlocks the wooden cupboard that spans the entire wall. As she opens the door, the gentle aroma of wild herbs emerges, followed by a fresh citrus perfume, blending into the scent of vanilla in the room.

Enveloped in this symphony of contrasting smells, the woman strokes the meticulously ordered volumes in front of her and then calmly selects one. She holds it against her chest for a moment. Then, sitting at the polished wood table, she opens it with care, running her fingers over the time-yellowed pages, as she has done countless times before, in search of the Perfect Perfume.

In that moment, it seems as if Lucia is looking for something else, too. But there's nothing in the neat handwriting that can help her explain to her granddaughter that perfume is not something you choose.

Perfume is the way. And following it means finding your own


lightness of heart. Intense, penetrating, ancestral.

The fragrance of perseverance and strength.

Drives away thoughts of our own mistakes. Lessens nostalgia for what might have been.


here was a dry smell rising up from the river Arno. The smell of moldy flour, nauseating like the disappointment churning her stomach.

Elena Rossini stood on the Ponte Vecchio and wrapped her arms around her chest. In front of her, the river trickled by, parched by a dry summer that had barely seen rain.

“There aren't even any stars,” she murmured to herself, staring up at the sky.

Yet from time to time a shaft of light illuminated the warm September evening and sparkled on the metallic surfaces of the “love locks”—lovers' padlocks that were clustered together on the bridge railing, like the thoughts jostling for space in her mind.

She stretched out her hand and touched one. For lovers, the objects
represented promises of eternal commitment. Matteo had chosen a big, sturdy padlock; he had fastened it in front of her and then thrown the key into the river. Elena could still remember the taste of the kiss he gave her afterward, right before he asked her to move in with him.

She froze.

Now he was her ex-boyfriend, ex-business partner, ex- so many things.

She wrapped her arms around her chest more tightly, staving off a shiver, and started walking, heading for Piazzale Michelangelo. But just before she set off, Elena cast one last glance at the string of romantic hopes. Matteo would soon be placing a new padlock there, she was willing to bet. A shiny gold one, if she knew her ex-boyfriend.

Matteo and Alessia—that was the name of the new chef, the woman who'd taken her place. The woman who, for a while, Elena had foolishly considered a friend. There was a time when they would giggle, huddled together, telling each other the things it seemed nobody else in the world could understand.

It was her own stupid fault, Elena told herself. She should have guessed there was something wrong, but Matteo had given nothing away—he'd never acted differently around Alessia. The thought filled her with anger. It wasn't fair. He'd given her no choice.

She picked up her pace, as though she wanted to leave the scene she'd witnessed that morning behind her. But it was no use; the images kept playing over and over in her mind, like a scene from a film on a loop.

•   •   •

Elena had gone
into the little restaurant she ran with Matteo. Normally, at that time of day, he'd be in the kitchen, sorting out the day's menu. But when she opened the door she was greeted by a sight that stopped her in her tracks. She had to grab hold of the doorframe as her knees gave way with the shock.

Alessia and Matteo sprang up, trying to cover themselves any way they could.

The three of them looked at one another, stunned, the silence broken only by the labored breathing of the two lovers.

Elena stood speechless, immobile, trying to comprehend exactly what she'd just witnessed. Then, slowly, her thoughts managed to push their way through the confusion in her mind.

“What on earth are you doing?” Elena shouted.

Later, she wished she'd said a lot more and done something completely different, regretting such a pointless question: the answer was glaringly obvious. If the blood hadn't drained entirely from her head, taking her sense of humor with it, Elena would have laughed at the grotesque scene in front of her. Instead, she just stood there, with her fists clenched and her heart beating furiously against her ribs—insulted, indignant, waiting for Matteo to explain himself.

But Matteo didn't even bother to deny it. There was no “Darling, it's not what it looks like.” Instead, he went on the attack.

“What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in Milan?” he snarled at her.

This reaction bewildered her—as if she were the one who needed to justify herself. She hadn't been feeling well so she'd come back. She hadn't let him know, though, because she hadn't thought it was necessary.

“How could you do something like this to me?”

The wrong phrase again.

Silence, embarrassment, helplessness and—finally—anger. Words had never been her forte, and in that moment they deserted her completely. So she turned her gaze from him to Alessia, as if
could explain the obvious. Elena wanted to hit her, stamp on her “friend” with all her might. Didn't she realize what she'd just done?

Elena had been going out with Matteo for over two years. They were supposed to get married one day. Not that he'd asked her in so many words—but weren't they living together? Hadn't Elena invested the best part of her savings in his damned restaurant?

And now, her dreams, her plans . . . gone. It was all over.

“There's no point getting upset. These things happen,” Matteo said.

These things happen?

That was the point her indignation reached its peak and, rather than falling to her knees, broken by the betrayal, she felt a fierce anger flow through her—and suddenly explode.

Seconds later, a pan was flying through the air straight toward the couple, who ran for cover behind the table. The clatter of metal hitting the floor marked the end of the whole affair.

Then Elena turned around and walked away from everything that, until just a few moments earlier, she had believed represented her future.

•   •   •

Nearby laughter tore
her from her thoughts, making way for a bittersweet reflection, a thought that was barely even a memory but gave her a stab of satisfaction nonetheless: her grandmother, Lucia, had never liked Matteo Ferrari.

Elena, on the other hand, had adored him from the very beginning. She'd spoiled him and supported him. Yes, she'd helped him the way she thought a good partner should. She had never compromised their relationship by seeing other men—pointless dates and one-night stands simply didn't interest her. Matteo was what she needed. He wanted a family; he liked children. And that was essential for her. It was, in the end, the reason she'd chosen him and done everything she could to keep him happy and fulfill his needs.

But he'd betrayed her anyway.

That was what stung the most. Her reward for making a commitment, for putting herself out there, had been more than disappointing: it had been a complete disaster.

•   •   •

There were so
many people out that night. The picturesque, historic center of Florence didn't go to sleep until dawn: the piazzas were full
of artists, students and tourists, stopping to chat under the streetlamps or in darker corners perfect for more intimate encounters.

Elena walked on, letting her memories drift away, immersing herself in the familiar smells of the Santa Croce district. She knew every little crack in those streets, every cobblestone smoothed by centuries of footsteps. The outlines of houses soothed her tired eyes. Shop signs glimmered in the dark. The area never seemed to change; Elena was surprised by the strange pleasure she took from seeing these places again.

A year, she thought. It was over a year since she'd been back to her grandmother's place. After Lucia's death, she hadn't set foot in the house again.

Yet for so long it had been her world. She'd been to junior school and then high school with the nuns in via della Colonna, just a stone's throw from the Rossini family home. She used to watch the other children playing from those same windows.

None of them had understood about perfume. They'd never even seen an alembic still, had no idea, for instance, that fat absorbed smells.
were just random words to them.

But they all had a mother and father.

At first, she'd ignored the other children. But then she found herself envying their cozy, conventional world, wanting to be part of it, wanting to be like them.

Her classmates' parents were always very nice to her: there were presents, invitations . . . She was never not included. But their smiles never reached their eyes. Their glances would flicker over her, as if she were a duty that had to be taken care of, a chore to be performed and forgotten.

And then she understood.

The bitter taste of shame had distanced her from even those friends who seemed not to mind the strange house she lived in, or the fact
that it was her grandmother who went to school concerts and parents' evenings. There were other orphaned children, of course. The point was, though, that Elena did actually have a mother.

Angrily, she pushed down that memory, which had lain dormant for years. Feeling sorry for herself . . . that was all she needed!

Swallowing back the bitterness, she picked up her pace again. She was almost there now. The high stone palazzo walls all around her felt welcoming and comforting. The air had turned cool, and the pavement gave off an acrid scent of humidity. Elena breathed it in, waiting for the moment it would meet the smell coming from the river. The smell of the past, the smell of loss.

She stopped in front of a huge door, put an old key into the lock and turned it. Closing her eyes for just a moment, she immediately felt better.

She was back.

Even though returning to her grandmother's house was the only sensible thing to do, the young woman couldn't ignore the deep sense of defeat. She'd left determined to change her life, and instead she was back here, in the house she'd left behind when she was so full of dreams for the future.

Elena almost ran up the stairs, trying not to look down the two dark corridors that led to what had once been the laboratory and Lucia Rossini's workshop. She went into the bathroom, took a quick shower, then changed the sheets and got into bed.

Lavender, bergamot and sage. Their perfume drifted through the whole house: it was penetrating, like the loneliness crushing her heart. A moment before she surrendered to exhaustion, she thought she felt a soft hand stroking her hair.

•   •   •

The following morning
she woke up early, as usual. She lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling. She'd left the shutters open, which
was why it was so bright. The floor and the bed were bathed in sunlight. But it was the perfume of the house that fought its way through her lethargy and wrapped itself around her.

She got up, because she didn't know what else to do. Downstairs, she took a seat in the same place she'd always sat since she was a little girl. After a moment she looked at the polished wood table and noticed just how big it was. She fidgeted awkwardly in her chair. There was a gloomy, oppressive silence.

“I could put the TV on,” she mumbled aloud. But her grandmother didn't have one; she'd always hated television. And Elena wasn't a huge fan either; she much preferred reading.

But all her books were still at Matteo's place.

An overwhelming pain stirred in the pit of her stomach. Her life had fallen apart . . . What on earth was she going to do?

She looked around, bewildered. Every single thing in the house was familiar to her, and she loved all those strange, old objects: the plates hanging on the wall, the glazed terra-cotta pots her grandmother kept pasta in, the furniture she'd so often had to polish, no matter how much she complained. She should have felt less lonely surrounded by these things, but instead she felt empty, so empty and alone.

She stood up and, with her head bowed, went straight back to her bedroom. She thought about calling her friend Monie and telling her everything. About that snake Matteo, and about Alessia. They made a fine couple. She bit back a swearword. Then, realizing she was alone and there was no one to shock, she rattled off a whole stream of profanities. She said them all, every single bad word she knew. She started quietly, then her voice grew stronger until she was shouting. She carried on yelling until she felt ridiculous, and only then did she stop.

A moment later, sitting on the bed, she dialed Monie's number, wiping away her tears as she did so. She mustn't cry—Monie would
be able to tell. Her friend had no time for crybabies, Elena reminded herself. She took a couple of deep breaths, counting the rings.

How long was it since she'd spoken to Monique? A month, maybe two? She'd been so busy managing the restaurant and coping with all Matteo's demands.


“Monie, is that you?”

, how are you? Do you know, I was just thinking about you! How's it going?”

Elena didn't answer—she couldn't. Clutching her mobile tight, she burst into tears.

BOOK: The Secret Ways of Perfume
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