The Perfumer: Scent of Triumph
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Through determination and talent, she rises high from meager jobs in her quest for success as a perfumer and fashion designer to Hollywood elite. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, Scent of Triumph is one woman's story of courage, spirit, and resilience.
Release date: November 10, 2020
Publisher: Sunny Palms Press
Print pages: 383
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The Perfumer: Scent of Triumph
A rose, the symbol of love, the queen of the perfumer’s palette. How then, does the perfume of war intoxicate even the most reasonable of men?
–db (From the perfume journal of Danielle Bretancourt)
3 September, 1939
Danielle Bretancourt von Hoffman braced herself against the mahogany-paneled stateroom wall, striving for balance as she flung open a brass porthole, seeking a moment of respite she knew would never be. A damp, kelp-scented wind—a harbinger of the storm ahead—whistled through the cabin, assaulting her nose with its raw intensity, but the sting of salty spray did little to assuage the fear she had for her little boy.
Nicky was only six years old. Why, oh why did I agree to leave him behind? She had wanted to bring him, but her husband had disagreed, saying he was far too young for such an arduous journey. As a trained scientist, his arguments were always so logical, so sensible. Against her instinct, she had given in to Max. It was settled; in their absence her mother-in-law, Sofia, would care for Nicky on their old family estate in Poland.
Danielle kept her eyes focused on the horizon as the Newell-Grey Explorer slanted upward, slicing through the peak of a cresting wave. The ocean liner creaked and pitched as it heaved through the turbulent gray waters of the Atlantic on its voyage from New York to England. Silently, Danielle urged it onward, anxious to return home.
Her usually sturdy stomach churned in rhythm with the sea. Was it morning sickness, anxiety, or the ravaging motion of the sea? Probably all three, she decided. Just last week she’d been so wretchedly ill that she’d seen a doctor, who confirmed her pregnancy. The timing couldn’t be worse.
She blinked against the stiff breeze, her mind reeling. When they’d heard reports of the new agreement between Germany and Russia, they’d cut their business short to hurry home. Had it been just two days since they’d learned the devastating news that Nazi forces had invaded Poland?
Someone knocked sharply on the door. Gingerly crossing the room, Danielle opened the door to Jonathan Newell-Grey, heir apparent to the British shipping line that bore his family name. His tie hung from his collar and his sleeves were rolled up, exposing muscular forearms taut from years of sailing. A rumpled wool jacket hung over one shoulder.
Danielle and Max had met Jon on their outbound voyage to New York several weeks ago. They had become good friends, dining together regularly on the ship, and later in the city. Well-traveled and physically fit, Jon loved to explore and dine on fine food, and insisted on taking them to the best restaurants in New York, as well as little-known nooks that served authentic French and German fare, assuring Max and Danielle of a salve for their homesickness after their relocation. During their time in New York, Max worked tirelessly, tending to details for their pending cross-Atlantic move, so they both appreciated having a knowledgeable friend to call on for help.
With his gregarious yet gracious manner, Jon had helped them find a good neighborhood for their family, introduced them to his banker, and even explained some of the odd American colloquialisms they couldn’t understand, as they all laughed together over well-aged bottles of his favorite Bordeaux. They had all climbed the Empire State Building together, and one night they saw a play on Broadway, and even danced to Benny Goodman’s big band into the late evening hours. Jon also went to the World’s Fair with them, where their crystal perfume bottles were featured in a potential business partner’s display. Danielle and Max were both glad they’d met Jon, a man who embraced life with spirit and joie de vivre, and they looked forward to their new life in America far from the threat of Hitler’s forces.
But now, with news of the invasion, Max and Danielle’s guarded optimism for their future had turned to distress over their family’s safety.
“Bonjour,” she said, glad to see Jon. “Any news yet?”
“None.” He pushed a hand through his unruly chestnut hair, droplets of water spray glistening on his tanned face. “The captain has called a meeting at fifteen hundred hours for all passengers traveling on Polish and German passports.”
“But I still hold a French passport.”
“You’ll need to attend, Danielle.” His hoarse voice held the wind of the sea.
“Of course, but—” As another sharp pitch jerked through the ship, Jon caught her by the shoulders and kept her from falling. He moved intuitively with the ship’s motion, a testament to his years at sea.
“Steady now, lass,” Jon said, a small smile playing on his lips. He stared past her out the porthole, his dark eyes riveted on the ocean’s whitecapped expanse. Blackened, heavily laden clouds crossed the sun, casting angled shadows across his face.
Embarrassed, Danielle touched the wall for support. She recalled the strange sense of foreboding she’d had upon waking. She was blessed—or cursed—with an unusually keen prescience. Frowning, she asked, “Can the ship withstand this storm?”
“Sure, she’s a fine, seaworthy vessel, one of the finest in the world. This weather’s no match for her.” He turned back to her, his jaw set. His usual jovial nature had turned solemn. “Might even be rougher seas ahead, but we’ll make England by morning.”
Danielle nodded, but still, she knew. Anxiety coursed through her; something seemed terribly wrong. Her intuition came in quiet flashes of pure knowledge. She couldn’t force it, couldn’t direct it, and knew better than to discuss it with anyone, especially her husband. She was only twenty-six; Max was older, wiser, and told her that her insights were rubbish. Max wasn’t really insulting her; he had studied science at the university in Germany, and he simply didn’t believe anything that couldn’t be scientifically proven.
Jon touched her arm in a small, sympathetic movement. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Not unless you perform miracles.” Jon’s rough fingers were warm against her skin, and an ill-timed memory from a few days ago shot through her mind. Danielle loved to dance, and with Max’s encouragement, she and Jon had shared a dance while Max spoke to the captain at length after dinner. Danielle remembered Jon’s soft breath, his musky skin, his hair curling just above his collar. He’d been interested in all she had to say, from her little boy to her work at Parfums Bretancourt, her family’s perfumery in the south of France. But when she’d rested her head against his chest, it was his skin, his natural scent, which was utterly unique and intriguingly virile, that mesmerized her.
A third-generation perfumer, Danielle had an acute sense of smell. Her olfactory skills were paramount in the laboratory, but at times this acuity proved socially awkward. Jon’s scent still tingled in her nose, taunting her dreams, its musky animal appeal relentless in the recesses of her mind. His memory crept into her mind more than she knew it should. After all, she told herself firmly, I am a happily married woman.
Danielle forced the scene from her mind, took a step back out of modesty. She caught sight of herself in the mirror, her thick auburn hair in disarray, her lip rouge smeared. She smoothed her celadon-green silk day dress—one of her own designs her dressmaker had made—and drew her fingers across her pale skin. “I’ve been apprehensive about this trip from the beginning.”
“Have you heard anything else from your mother-in-law?”
“Not since we spoke in New York. And my mother’s last cable said they haven’t arrived.” When she and Max had heard the news, they called Max’s mother, Sofia, and told her to leave immediately with Nicky for Paris, where Danielle’s parents had a spacious apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement, a fine neighborhood in the heart of Paris. Sofia’s voice had sounded dreadful; they hadn’t realized she was so sick. What if she isn’t well enough to travel? Wincing with remorse, Danielle fought the panic that rose in her throat, fearful for her mother-in-law.
“They have to get out of Poland.” Jon touched her cheek.
Reflexively, she turned into the comfort of his hand, inhaling, her heart aching, his scent—at once both calming and unsettling—edged with the smell of the sea and a spiced wood blend she normally could have recognized in an instant. But now, Nicky was ever present in her mind. Danielle pressed her eyes closed and stifled a sob.
“Max is resourceful,” Jon said, trailing his hand along her face. “He’ll manage.”
But can he? she wondered. Max had planned everything, from organizing their move to New York, to returning to Poland to close their home. He’d arranged their immigration to the United States, and he was also trying to bring their most valued employees with them for the business. He’d made everything sound so sensible.
Max was German, born in Berlin to an aristocratic family. When Max was young, his mother had inherited her family’s estate and crystal and glass factory in Poland. Sofia and her husband, Karl, along with Karl’s orphaned nephew, Heinrich, moved into the castle, which had originally been built as a wedding gift in 1820 for Sofia’s ancestors. While the men set about rebuilding the factory and the business, Sofia tended to the home, a masterpiece of romantic English neo-Gothic style. After Max and Danielle married, Danielle had thrown her considerable energy into helping Sofia restore the grand salons and chambers, the arboretum, the gardens and ponds. And yet, Danielle missed her craft, retreating whenever she could to the perfumery organ—a curved workbench with rows that held essential oils and other perfumery materials—she had installed in their quarters, to conjure her aromatic artistry in solitude. Perfumery fed her soul; her urge to create could not be repressed.
The ship pitched again, sending the porthole door banging against the paneled wall. Shifting easily with the vessel’s sharp motions, Jon caught it, secured the latch.
He moved toward her, and she could almost sense the adrenaline surging through his muscular frame. Leaning closer, he lifted a strand of hair limp with sea mist from her forehead. “If I don’t see Max, you’ll tell him about the captain’s meeting?”
“We’ll be there.” She caught another whiff of his sea air–tinged skin, and this time a vivid sensory image flashed across her mind. A leather accord, patchouli, a heart of rose melding with the natural scent of his skin, warm, intriguing...then she recognized it—Spanish Leather. An English composition. Trumper. But the way he wore it was incredible; the parfum blended with his own natural aroma in such a fascinating manner. She was drawn in, aching to be swept farther into his scent, but she quickly retreated half a step. This is not the time.
His expression softened and he let her hair fall from his fingers as he studied her, his dark-browed, hazel-flecked eyes taking in every feature of her face.
Danielle stepped back, and Jon’s gaze trailed back to the sea, his eyes narrowed against the sun’s thinning rays, scanning the surface.
She matched his dark gaze. “Something unusual out there?”
“Might be German U-boats. Unterseeboots. The most treacherous of submarines. Bloody hell, they are. But don’t worry, Danielle, the Newell-Greys always look after their passengers.” He left, closing the door behind him.
U-boats? So it was possible. She touched a trembling finger to her lips. But that wasn’t the only thought that made her uncomfortable. Jon’s friendly, casual way with her increasingly struck a chord within her. Fortunately, Max was too much the aristocrat to make a fuss over nothing. And it is nothing, she thought. She loved her husband. But that scent...her mind whirred. Fresh, spicy, woodsy...I can re-create sea freshness, blend it with patchouli….
Abruptly, the ship lurched. Cutlery clattered across a rimmed burl wood table, her books tumbled against a wall. She braced herself through the crashing swell, one hand on the doorjamb, another shielding her womb. There were so many urgent matters at hand. Our son, our family, our home. She pulled her mind back to the present.
When the ship leveled, she spied on the floor a navy-blue cap she’d knitted for Nicky. He’d dropped it at the train station, and she’d forgotten to give it to Sofia. She cradled it in her hand and stroked it, missing him and the sound of his voice, then pressed the cap to her nose, drinking in his little boy smell that still clung to the woolen fibers. Redolent of milk and grass and straw and chocolates, it also called to mind sweet perspiration droplets glistening on his flushed cheeks. They often played tag in the estate’s lush, sprawling gardens, laughing and frolicking, feeding the migratory ducks that visited their ponds, or strolling beneath the protective leafy boughs of ancient, towering trees. She brushed away tears that spilled onto her cheeks.
She picked up her purse to put his cap inside, and then paused to look at the photograph of Nicky she carried. His eyes crinkled with laughter, he’d posed with his favorite stuffed toy, a red-striped monkey with black button eyes she’d sewn for him. Nicky was an adorable bundle of blond-headed energy. A streak of fear sliced through her. She stuffed the cap into her purse and snapped it shut.
The door opened and Max strode into the stateroom, his proud face ashen, his lean, angular body rigid with what Danielle knew was stress.
“Jon just left,” she said. “There’s a meeting—”
“I know, he is behind me,” Max said, clipping the words in his formal, German-accented English. He smacked his onyx pipe against his hand, releasing the sweet smoky scent of his favorite vanilla tobacco.
Jon appeared at the door. “Shall we go?”
The muscles in Max’s jaw tightened. He slipped his pipe into the pocket of his tailored wool jacket. “I need a drink first. You, Jon?”
“Not now, mate.”
Max moved past Danielle to the liquor cabinet, staggering slightly as the ship pitched. He brushed against her vanity and sent her red leather traveling case crashing to the floor.
Danielle gasped. Bottles smashed against one another inside as the case tumbled. The lid burst open, and scents of jasmine, rose, orange blossom, bergamot, berries, vanilla, cedar, and sandalwood exploded like brilliant fireworks.
“Oh, Max, my perfumes.” She gathered the hem of her silk dress and sank to her knees, heartsick. These were all the perfumes she had with her; she could hardly remember a day when she hadn’t worn one of her parfum creations. She knew Max hadn’t meant to destroy her precious potions, but now there was nothing she could do but gather the pieces. With two fingers, she fished a crystal shard and a carnelian cap from the jagged mess. “Max, would you hand me the wastebasket?”
“I, I didn’t mean to…” Looking worried, Max turned away and reached for the vodka, sighing in resignation. “Just leave it, Danielle. The cabin boy will see to it.”
Jon knelt beside her. “Did you make all these?”
“Yes, I did. And the case was Max’s wedding gift to me.”
“These are beautiful works of art, Danielle. Max told me you were once regarded as the child prodigy of perfumery.” He took a sharp piece from her. “Don’t hurt yourself, I’ll send someone to clean this up while you’re gone.”
She caught his eye and mouthed a silent thank-you, then rose and opened the porthole. A gust caught her long hair and slapped it across her face, stinging her flushed cheeks. Staring at the ocean, a quiet intuitive knowledge crept into her consciousness. It’s true, she thought, and spun around. “Jon said there might be U-boats out there.”
She watched Max pour a shot, then pause with his glass in midair, his intellectual mind whirring, weighing the probabilities. She knew her husband well; she saw his eyes flash with a moment of intensity, then clear into twin pools of lucid blue as he decided the odds were against it. “Impossible,” he said.
“Anything is possible.” Jon brushed broken crystal into the wastebasket and straightened.
Danielle thoughts reeled back over the morning. “Is that why we’ve been zigzagging?”
Jon shot a look at Max. “Smart one, your wife. Not just an artist, I see.” One side of his mouth tugged to a reassuring grin, shifting the deep cleft in his chin. “I’ll grant you that, Danielle, but it’s just a safety measure. U-boats aren’t a threat to passenger liners.”
Pressure built in her head. “Like the Lusitania?”
“A disaster like that couldn’t happen today,” Jon said, rubbing the indentation in his chin. “Every captain checks Lloyd’s Register. It’s clear that we’re a passenger ship. Even so, there are rules of war; an initial shot across the bow must be fired in warning. And England is not at war.”
“Not yet.” Max tossed the vodka down his throat and gave a wry, thin-lipped grin. “So is that why you have been holding court in the stern, Jon?”
“I confess, you’re on to me, old boy. But seriously, we’d have time to signal to a vessel that we’re not armed. Even a submarine must abide by these rules of war. Even the Nazis.”
Nazis. The word filled Danielle with dread. What the Nazis were doing to Jews in Germany was unconscionable. New laws required that yellow stars for identification be sewn onto clothing. Imagine. Jewish businesses were being destroyed, entire families beaten or killed. These were German citizens, many of whom had lived in Germany for generations. It didn’t matter how educated they were, whether they were young or old, wealthy or poor. A chill crept along her spine. “We’ve taken too long, Max. We have to get Nicky and your mother out now.”
“The Polish army is not yet defeated, my dear,” Max said quietly, pouring another shot. “Try to have patience.”
“How can you be so calm?” Her voice hitched in despair. Her father was from an old French family, long recognized in French society. Danielle’s mother was Jewish, so by German law Nicky was one-quarter Jewish. “You know what could happen to Nicky.”
“We’ve been over this. Nicky is just a child.” Max looked weary, the prominent veins in his high forehead throbbing as he spoke. “You were raised in your father’s faith, you are Catholic. Nicky was also baptized. How would the Nazis find out anything different?”
But she knew they had ways. She pressed her hand to her mouth, consumed with worry and guilt. Why did I agree to leave Nicky?
Max gulped his drink, and then glanced at Jon. “We should go now.” Max walked to the door. Without turning he paused, his voice thick. “I am sorry for your perfumes, Danielle. I am sorry for everything.”
Danielle sucked in her breath. Max only drank when he was frustrated, when he had no clear answers. And he seldom offers an apology. To him, it was a sign of defeat, a sign that his scientific mind, or measured actions, had betrayed him. Max took pride in providing financially for his family, their well-being was his constant concern, especially that of Nicky, his beloved son. Danielle was the heart of their marriage, and she always felt safe with him. Except today, she thought, fear gripping her body like a vine. Today is different.
Jon opened the door, held it for them. She snatched her purse and followed Max.
Passengers jostled past in the crowded corridor and Danielle could feel anxiety rising in the air like a heat wave, smell the sour perspiration—like coddled milk left in the sun—emanating from panicked, angry passengers. Ordinary perspiration smelled different when tainted with fear. “Rotten Krauts,” they heard people say. She saw Max stiffen against the verbal assaults.
When they came to the open-air promenade deck, Danielle glanced out over the sea, but she could see little in the gathering mist.
Jon followed her gaze. “We’ve got a heavy fog rolling in.”
The air held the ozone-scented promise of rain. “It’s so dim,” she said. “Jon, why aren’t the running lights on?”
“We’re blacked out for security.”
There’s more to it, she thought, her neck tightening with trepidation.
They arrived at the first-class lounge, where tense passengers crowded shoulder to shoulder. Jon excused himself to take his place near the front as the owner representative. A hush spread when the grim-faced captain approached the podium.
“Thank you for your attention,” the captain began. “Two days ago, Hitler’s Nazi Germany violated a European peace agreement. Now, on the wireless we have a reply from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.”
He nodded to a crew member. The loudspeakers crackled to life and a nervous murmur rippled across the room.
England was on the airwaves.
The radio announcer was speaking about Poland. “Blitzkrieg,” he called the German attack on the country.
“Lightning war,” Max translated, shaking his head. He flexed his jaw, and Danielle could see veins bulging from his temples as he sought to control unfamiliar emotions.
“Oh, no.” Danielle turned her face against Max’s chest, the tentacles of terror slithering into her brain. It has begun, she thought, and so horribly. She trembled. My poor Nicky, dear Sofia. Mon Dieu, what’s happening to them? How frightened they must be.
Max slid a finger under her chin and lifted her face to his, wiping tears from her eyes with an awkward gesture. “It’s my fault, I should have already relocated our family. I didn’t realize this would happen so quickly.”
The tortured guilt in his expression tore at her soul. He has failed. All his plans, all his actions, were to protect our family. She averted her eyes from his pain, trying to calm her breathing as people wailed around her.
The radio crackled again. “And now, Prime Minister Chamberlain.”
“This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.”
Chamberlain’s voice sounded burdened, yet resolute. “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.”
A collective gasp filled the room, and Danielle sank against Max for support. He wrapped his arms around her, murmuring in her ear. “We’ll find them, they’ll soon be safe.” But is he reassuring me or himself?
At the end of the broadcast, the captain stepped aside, and Jon strode to the podium. Jon’s baritone voice boomed over the murmuring tide. “Tomorrow, when we arrive, Newell-Grey agents will be available to assist and accommodate you. We shall keep you informed as we receive additional information.”
Danielle pressed a hand to her mouth. Who knew it would come to this? A sudden clamminess overtook her, and her nausea returned with unbridled force. Tearing herself from Max, she bolted through the crowd, bumping against other passengers as she raced to the outer deck. She reached the railing, leaned over, gulped for air. Her stomach convulsed in a dry heave as the wind whipped the celadon scarf from her neck.
“Danielle,” Max called, following her. Jon rushed after them.
I can’t stand this, she thought, anguish ripping through her as images of Nicky and Sofia filled her mind. Max and Jon reached her side, and the three of them stood gazing through the shifting fog into the bleak waters below as Danielle clung to the railing, one arm clutching her abdomen, pressing her fevered cheek against the cold metal railing for relief.
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