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The Essence of You

CHAPTER ONE

London, 1680

Essence-of-You

The Essence of You

Hugh Bradstone, Viscount Heyworth, tried hard to stifle the yawn that threatened to give way, but it fast became a Herculean task. His best mate, Trent, discussed cards — again! By God, Hugh wondered, taking a sip of cognac, did he actually used to find this interesting? Trent’s voice droned on, like the steady hum of bees on a late summer afternoon, and Hugh felt his eyelids grow heavy as lead shutters.

He took another sip of cognac and forced himself to focus.

“Sorry, Trent. Come again?”

Luke Reynoldson, the Earl of Trent, rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Bloody hell, Heyworth, have you gone daft on me? The club’s biggest game ever finally starts tonight but you — and forgive me for saying this, mate — look as enthusiastic as a bloated toad.”

Hugh shrugged an elegantly tailored shoulder and glanced away. He didn’t disagree with his friend — on the contrary, he knew Trent was right — but damned if he could figure out why. Blast it all, they were discussing cards, something he used to savor like the taste of fine port. But of late everything that once seemed so enthralling gripped him instead in the fierce, unrelenting talons of ennui. He sighed and rose from the chair.

“See you then about eight.”

Reynoldson stood as well and raised a surprised eyebrow. “You’re going?”

The men left the parlor and made their way toward the door. “Why not?” Hugh replied. “I’ve little else to do. Although for now, I’m off to Deschamps.”

“The perfumery?” A knowing grin tugged at Trent’s lips. “That means only one thing. You need a gift to soothe the ruffled feathers of a mistress.”

Hugh laughed and gave him a clap on the back. “I leave that particular specialty in your expert hands, my friend. I am going there only to deliver this note.”

Luke glanced at the sheaf of paper in Hugh’s hands as an attendant butler placed his wrap about his shoulders. “Delivering a note? Whatever for? Have one of the pages do it.”

They walked down the stately marble steps of the Bradstone family estate toward Hugh’s awaiting carriage. Climbing aboard, Hugh quipped to his friend, “And deprive myself of something to do?”

He signaled for the driver to leave, not allowing Luke a chance to respond. But really, he thought, glancing out the window, what more could he say?

 

* * *

 

“Close your eyes and breathe very deeply. Think for a moment, then tell me what comes to your mind as you inhale the essential oils of the fragrance.” Madeleine Deschamps placed a drop of perfume on the lily white wrist of her wealthy client and once again directed the woman to close her eyes.

“Clear your mind and breathe.” She took hold of the woman’s wrist and placed it just beneath her nose.

The client, a formidable member of London’s peerage, generally gave orders rather than took them. But now she trembled before her talented perfumer like a child afraid of failing a test. She did as Madeleine instructed, deeply inhaling the custom-made scent before emitting a startled gasp of joy at the stunning complexity of the fragrance.

“It is fresh but spicy, like the forest,” she declared.

“Good,” Madeleine replied, pleased her client had picked out the earthy cardamom. “And what else?”

The woman inhaled again. “I smell . . . roses?”

“Roses, yes. From Morocco.”

“There is more,” the woman breathed. “Something clean and beautiful.”

“Bitter orange,” Madeleine confirmed. “It is the second of the fragrance’s heart notes.”

Again she placed her wrist beneath her nose but this time Madeleine’s client wrinkled her brows in distress.

“I cannot discern anything else,” she said, her voice laced with disappointment.

“Your sense of smell is fatigued.” Madeleine turned away from the counter where she had been standing with her client and retrieved a folded piece of wool she kept on a back shelf.

“Not to worry. Breathe in the wool, then wait a few moments before smelling your new fragrance. Believe me, you will be completely restored. When you smell the fragrance again, think not of the specific ingredients but of how they make you feel.”

As Madeleine waited while her client did as told, her eye caught movement in the back of the room. Near the entryway stood a man, apparently a customer, yet he made no effort to approach either Madeleine or her sister Collette, who spoke with patrons at the opposite end of the counter. Taller than most men and regally dressed, he carried with him an air of indifference, as if giving no more thought to his expensively tailored clothes than would a fox to its own luxurious pelt. His sea-green eyes flicked around the room, casting a watchful glance at a young girl standing several feet away where samples of essential oils were bottled. Yet as often as he appeared to check on the girl, his gaze invariably made its way back to settle upon Madeleine.

She excused herself from her client and stepped around the counter toward where the man stood. Why did he not step forward? Odd, but she felt almost unnerved from the acuteness of his look, a sensation she’d never before experienced.

“May I help you?” She stopped only when separated from him by a few feet, thinking her close proximity might cause him to look discreetly away. It did not.

“Madeleine Deschamps?” Her name slid like honey from his low, melodic voice.

“Who inquires?”

“I do.”

She was certain he was deliberately obtuse, yet a ghost of a smile brushed his lips as he teased. She decided to give him a dose of his own medicine.

“I see.” She nodded. “In that case I will check if Mademoiselle Deschamps is available.” She waited a moment, not moving or breaking contact with his gaze, then she smiled sweetly at him. “No. Apparently not. I am terribly sorry.”

The man laughed aloud, a look of surprise etched in the arresting features of his face. He inclined his head toward Madeleine and introduced himself.

“Hugh Bradstone, Viscount Heyworth,” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you — whoever you are.”

She could not help but return his contagious smile. “Madeleine Deschamps, as it turns out,” she confessed. “Proprietor, along with my sister, of Deschamps Parfumerie. Bienvenue, Lord Heyworth.”

“A pleasure,” the viscount murmured, taking Madeleine’s hand and whisking a kiss across the back of it.

His light touch, almost impossibly so, nonetheless provoked arousal, like a feather being drawn along her arm. Surprised, Madeleine pulled her hand away more quickly than she otherwise might have.

If Heyworth noticed her reaction he did not say and his expression turned serious. He lowered his voice so his next words were heard only by her.

“I have a note for you, Miss Deschamps,” he said, “but in the event you wish to reply at once I could wait until there are less clients in the store.”

His message caused an instant change in Madeleine’s demeanor as well and she narrowed her eyes with suspicion. “A note?” she asked. “From whom?”

“An acquaintance of mine. Ellen Tate.”

“The name is not familiar. And anyway, why would she ask you to deliver a note on her behalf?”

“I find it curious myself,” Hugh admitted, and Madeleine thought by the tone of surprise she detected in his voice he told the truth. “This morning I received a letter from Miss Tate who is, at present, living in Paris. Enclosed in the envelope was a second note addressed to you that she asked me to deliver. She states she is skeptical of the post delivering this letter because it is famously unreliable and her message to you is far too important. So she has entrusted it to me.”

Such an odd story. Madeleine could not decide whether to believe it or not.

“Perhaps while I wait for you,” Heyworth continued, inclining his head toward the young girl he’d been keeping an eye on, “you could assist my sister, Lady Jane. She is unaware of the letter I have for you but has accompanied me to your store because of her keen interest in acquiring one of your perfumes. She knows there are none finer in London.”

Despite years of hearing accolades for the stunning fragrances she and Collette created, Madeleine still appreciated compliments.

Merci, Lord Heyworth. Yet your praise confuses me.”

“Does it?”

“Indeed. I do not believe I have ever seen you in here before, and I remember all of my clients. So how would you know of my perfumes?”

“One does not need to have been in the store to know your reputation, mademoiselle. When a perfumer’s clients include his majesty, King Charles II, word gets around.”

She inclined her head. “I thank you again, Lord Heyworth. Allow me to finish with my other client and attend your sister. I shall return for the note.”

“And I shall be waiting.”

Madeleine walked back to the counter, knowing without seeing that Heyworth’s eyes continued to watch her. For the second time since meeting him her skin tingled, the magnetism of his gaze so strong as to be nearly tangible. Her unexpected reaction startled, but she did not altogether dislike it.

Shifting her attention back to her clients, Madeleine packaged up the fragrance she had created for the very wealthy Lady Chamberlain and then introduced herself to Jane Bradstone.

“Lady Jane?” As the young girl turned toward Madeleine with a broad, cheerful smile, Madeleine introduced herself. “I am Madeleine Deschamps. May I be of service to you?”

“What an astounding store you have, Miss Deschamps,” Jane replied, her beaming look dancing about the room in pure delight. “I have heard of your fragrances, of course, but this is my first time actually being here. My brother, Lord Heyworth,” she gestured toward the back of the room where the viscount remained standing, “thought you might be able to create something for me that would reflect my personal style and taste. Is that possible?”

“It is just what we do for all of our customers,” Madeleine replied. “Create perfumes unique for every person.” She turned toward a quiet corner of the store where two carved Venetian armchairs were tucked against a wall lined with sample after sample of essential oils. “Let us talk for awhile so I might know you a bit better. I cannot create something that reflects your personality if I do not know you, oui?”

“I imagine that’s true,” Jane agreed, settling down. As Madeleine took the seat opposite her, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that Heyworth’s watchful gaze never wavered.

“Let me guess,” she said to Jane, observing that at the other end of the store Collette had also noticed Hugh’s presence. He was a difficult person to miss. “You do not care for the scent of vanilla.”

Jane gasped, astonished at Madeleine’s intuition. “How could you have possibly known?”

“Vanilla is a beautiful scent but it is often chosen as a base note by those with a less adventurous spirit. Something which would never be said about you.”

Madeleine’s keen observation delighted Jane and the conversation continued in earnest as Madeleine learned more about Jane and had her sample a variety of oils, all the while mixing potential fragrance combinations in her mind as she considered what she would ultimately create for the girl. An hour flew by in what seemed like minutes and as the store’s closing time approached the crush of customers eventually thinned. Jane and Madeleine rose from their chairs and walked to where Hugh had remained standing.

“I trust you are now prepared to create Jane’s masterpiece?” he said as the women approached.

“Your sister is a young lady of great passion,” Madeleine replied. “I look forward to creating the bold fragrance she will soon call her own.”

Hugh raised an eyebrow as he peered down at his sister. “Jane? Passionate?”

“Indeed I am, brother,” Jane Bradstone crisply replied, as if daring her brother to contradict Madeleine’s statement.

“Most definitely,” Madeleine agreed, emphasizing the point. Heyworth’s astonished expression amusd her. He looked as if he’d just been informed his sister could fly.

“Shall we continue our discussion now?” she asked him. Collette, who had finished with her last customer, retreated to the back of the store to lock away the day’s take. Jane, meanwhile, informed Hugh she would await him just outside so she could enjoy a bit of air. Madeleine and Hugh were left alone.

She walked at once behind the counter to fetch her quill pen and a bottle of ink. Then, turning toward Heyworth but remaining behind the counter — keeping a barrier between them she wasn’t sure why she needed — Madeleine requested the letter.

Hugh handed it over without a word. The wax seal was intact. Madeleine broke it and scanned the short note. In the time it took her to read it, her mood changed from quiet curiosity to tense, simmering fury.

She looked up at Hugh, scrutinizing him for any sign that he knew the note’s message. He’d claimed it came from an acquaintance. But what kind of acquaintance would make such a request? The note writer, after all, demanded poison.

In the blink of an eye Madeleine’s mind raced back to Paris, and grandpère, and everything that had happened there, eventually causing her and Collette to leave behind their native city forever and flee for the safety and security of London. And now this. Poison! No, she would not do it. Never.

“Do you wish to reply?” Hugh asked, his words like a silk thread weaving its way into her dark thoughts and roping her back to the present.

“Yes,” she answered, not trusting herself to say anything more lest she begin railing at him. He claimed, after all, not to be involved.

With a quick snap she uncapped the bottle of ink and retrieved a piece of parchment paper. It took her just a matter of seconds to formulate her response for it consisted only of two words: absolument non.

She sanded the ink, sealed the note with wax, and handed the parchment to Hugh, still wondering about his role in all this. Is he truly just a messenger, unaware of the request, or is he the one who actually wants the poison?

“Thank you,” she managed at last to say.

“For . . . ?”

“For acting as messenger, I suppose. For ensuring I received the note.”

“A note that displeased you.”

Her suspicion shot to the sky. “You are aware of what the message says?”

“Of course not.” He paused, regarding her for a moment, and then added, “You saw it was sealed.”

“Anyone could have — ”

“The note was delivered to you as it arrived to me. With the original seal intact.”

She could not mistake the tightness of his lips, a likely indicator of his irritation. But he said nothing further.

“My apologies, my lord. I did not mean to suggest — ”

“You suggested very clearly what you meant, mademoiselle. But I can assure you, I know nothing of the note’s contents.”

“Then why do you think — ”

“Most people’s eyes do not flash fire when they read an agreeable note. Thus I took the liberty of assuming you are displeased.”

There was nothing more she could say. He certainly seemed to be claiming innocence.

“If you will excuse me, my Lord, I must join my sister and close the store.”

Bon soir, mademoiselle. I shall assure your reply is sent.”

“Thank you.”

She retrieved her keys from a small box beneath the counter and walked toward the door. Just before exiting, she turned back once more.

“It has been a . . . pleasure to meet you, my Lord.” She paused, then added in a softer voice. “Despite the note.”

“The pleasure is all mine, mademoiselle. Most assuredly.”

He flashed a smile at her and walked out, leaving her heart performing a slow, odd flip.

Several hours later, the store was closed and tidied. Beakers, droppers, bottles, waxes, unguents, and phials containing myriad essential oils were all put in their proper places until they were needed again the following day. Madeleine enjoyed this time of evening best. She and Collette had eaten supper and now sat in their favorite chairs in the apartment above the store, bathed in the amber candlelight glow of low-hanging lamps suspended on chains from the ceiling, talking over events of the day. But the relaxed time of night she so enjoyed with her sister was robbed from her this evening, invaded by memories of the note demanding poison and the breathtaking nobleman who had come to deliver it.

“What a handsome gentleman. So very strong and tall.”

Madeleine pushed her troubled thoughts aside and fixed her gaze on her sister.

“To whom do you refer?”

Collette smiled, the innocent, angelic smile Madeleine knew so well. The crowning touch to her sister’s delicate beauty. Madeleine’s fiery temper oftimes got the better of her, but Collette’s serene composure steered her back to reason.

“You know very well I refer to the man in the store this afternoon. The one you were talking to.”

“Was he handsome? I had not noticed.” Madeleine knew perfectly well her sister would see through the lie, but for reasons unknown she could not bring herself to admit she, too, had noticed Heyworth’s comely looks. How could she not have?

True to Collette’s nature she ignored the lie, but instead asked about the nature of Lord Heyworth’s visit.

“Did he not come in to purchase perfume? He sampled no oils.”

“He brought his sister, Lady Jane Bradstone. ’Twas she who wanted a fragrance made.”

“What a kind brother he is to escort his sister.”

Madeleine stayed silent, thinking upon what Collette had just said. Lord Heyworth — kind? What type of kind man has friends requesting poison? To be fair, he’d appeared genuinely concerned by Madeleine’s reaction at the same time claiming not to know what the note writer wanted. Is this kind man a devil in disguise, or truly an innocent to the message he bore? She could not but hope the truth was the latter, but for now she could do naught but wonder.

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