The Perfect Perfume story excerpts

The Perfect Perfume and Other Tales front cover


London, 1850

Seven degrees above the horizon, she spotted it—a speck of diamond in the deepening twilight. A tiny dot of light that perchance was only a trick of vision, or a wayward dust mote.

But perhaps something more…

Miss Kate Danville’s heart raced at the prospect, but she forced herself to remain still. With a deep, steadying breath, she leaned forward and gently twisted the eyepiece of her telescope, careful not to bump the instrument. The pinprick of brightness lost focus, then sharpened.

She was not mistaken. Certainty flared through her, filling her with warmth.

The image blurred again, but this time due to her own triumphant tears. Kate sat back and brushed the foolish water from her eyes. She would show them all that her little hobby as Father called it—Mother used stronger words like unsuitable and distastefully unfeminine—was more than simply dabbling in the astronomical arts.

She, Miss Kate Danville, had discovered a comet!

Oh, she was not the first woman to do so—a handful of amateur astronomers had been the first to spot celestial objects, including her idol, Maria Mitchell, who received the Danish gold medal just two years prior.

Kate closed her eyes and imagined the King of Denmark presenting her with that accolade in front of an admiring crowd. Why, she might even get to meet the esteemed Ms. Mitchell, and perhaps be inducted into the Royal Society—

“Beg pardon, miss, but her ladyship sent me up to fetch you to make ready for the ball.” The maid’s reedy voice broke through Kate’s daydream, bringing her down from the stars with a thud.

She opened her eyes, and was once again simply Miss Kate Danville, perched on the top of Danville House with her telescope and her fancies in the sooty June dusk.

“I need a bit more time,” she told the maid. “Please tell my mother I must notate my new discovery.”

The maid gave her a skeptical look, but dropped a curtsy. “I shall, but you know Lady Danville won’t take kindly to that answer.”

“I am well aware of my mother’s expectations.” They included a proper marriage and Kate’s abandoning her inappropriate scientifical leanings.

But that disapproval would surely change once Kate’s Comet was officially recognized.

Time was of the essence, however. Kate bent again to her telescope to jot down the exact location of the bright speck in the sky. If someone else notified the Royal Astronomical Society first, she would be robbed of her discovery. That must not be allowed to happen.

“Kate!” Her mother’s sharp tones drifted up from the stairwell leading to the attic. “If you don’t come down this instant, I declare I will have your father take your telescope away.”

Lady Danville would never attempt to navigate the steep stairs—neither her wide skirts nor her temperament would allow the journey—but she was not averse to raising her voice. Or delivering threats.

“Coming,” Kate called.

She hastily scribbled a second set of notes, then tucked the precious piece of paper into her pocket. Time to face her mother, and yet another social tedium where the gentlemen asked her whether she liked roses, or droned on about their own accomplishments.

She blew out an unhappy breath. Lady Danville was determined to see Kate betrothed by the end of the summer, while Kate was equally determined to resist.

Although, upon further consideration, attending the ball that evening might be for the best. If Viscount Huffton or one of the other Royal Society astronomers were there, she could notify them of her discovery at once.


At breakfast two days later, Kate stared at the morning headline in the London Times. Shock stole her breath and held her motionless for a heartbeat.

“Viscount Huffton Discovers New Comet,” the paper declared.

No. That weasel had taken credit for her discovery!

“I won’t stand for it,” she gasped, leaping to her feet and nearly overturning the teapot. “I must pay a call upon Lord Wrottesley at once.”

Surely, as one of the founding members of the Royal Astronomical Society, he would aid her. She knew he was in London, for the odious Viscount Huffton had mentioned it at the ball. The ball where he had stolen the fruits of her labors. Her hands clenched into fists.

“Sit down,” her mother said, regarding her sternly over the white damask tablecloth. “What an unladylike outburst. And you have never been introduced to Lord Wrottesley. You cannot simply visit the man—what would he think of such improper behavior?”

Kate slowly sank back into her chair and used her napkin to mop up the spilled tea. “Please, mother. It’s important.”

Thank heavens she’d kept her original notes. She only prayed Lord Wrottesley would listen when she explained that she had spotted the comet first, then brought her findings to the viscount. Who was supposed to have reported it to the Royal Society, not claimed the discovery as his own, the worm.

Lady Danville raised her brows. “Is this matter important enough that you will consent to receive Lord Downing-Wilton tomorrow, should he pay you a visit?”

Oh, rot it. Kate should have known her mother would take every opportunity to foist a suitor upon her. She closed her eyes a moment, pushing back the scream of frustration bubbling in her throat. When she had mastered herself, she opened her eyes.

“Of course, mother. Only, we must see Lord Wrottesley today.”

“So you keep insisting.” Lady Danville regarded her a moment more. “It is most irregular. Perhaps you ought to admit Sir Wexfield into your circle, as well.”

“As you say.” Kate spoke the words through gritted teeth.

“And perhaps—”

“I shall go up and change now.” Kate tossed the tea-stained napkin upon the table. She had lost her appetite completely.

“Wear your dove walking dress with the violet trim,” her mother said. “If we are fortunate, Lord Wrottesley will be entertaining gentleman guests when we arrive.”

As it transpired, and to Kate’s great relief, Lord Wrottesley was at home, and he was alone. The butler ushered them into his cluttered study, where Kate presented her notes and explained the circumstances.

“Hmph.” Lord Wrottesley peered at the jotted numbers and angles, then shook his head. “That puppy Huffton needs to be taken down a peg. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Miss Danville.”

Kate slid forward to the edge of her chair. “Does this mean my claim will be upheld?”

Lady Danville, seated in the adjoining wingback, gave her a placid smile. “Patience, my dear. I’m certain Lord Wrottesley does not like to be rushed. He will do what is best.”


“Thank you, sir, for your time.” Lady Danville rose. “Certainly you have more pressing concerns than listening to my daughter complain.”

“Perhaps.” He folded Kate’s notes and tapped them against his hand. “I shall review the evidence and share it with the Royal Astronomical Society. Thank you for your visit, ladies.”

Before Kate could protest, her mother hauled her to the doorway. She dropped a quick curtsey to Lord Wrottesley, and then the butler shut the study door in her face.

Excerpt from THE VISIT

Mayfair, London, 1845

The hansom cab I’m riding in smells of old vomit and smoke, and I tug at my neck cloth, trying to breathe. A loose spring in the seat pokes into my thigh with every jolt of the wheels over the cobblestones, a painful jab that I nevertheless welcome. It distracts me from thoughts of what lie ahead.

My forehead is sweaty beneath my top hat, but my gloved hands are chilled. I work them into fists—shut, open, shut. Pewter clouds squat overhead, the air heavy with the threat of rain. I should have brought my umbrella instead of my walking stick, but I craved the heft of the stick in my hand.

Shoulders tight, I send a quick glance out the window. We are close. Too close.

“Stop here.” I rap the silver knob of my walking stick upon the cab’s roof.

The vehicle slows, the hollow clop of the horse’s hooves decelerating like a failing heartbeat.

The driver calls from above, “Are you certain, sir? The address you gave is still three blocks away.”

“Yes,” I say, though I am certain of nothing except the churning in my gut.

As soon as the cab stops, I fling the door open and step out. The driver scowls, but when I drop two shillings into his palm he seems satisfied.

The cab clatters away over the cobbles and I turn to face Ainsley Road. The odor of rotting vegetables clings to the back of my throat, and I breathe shallowly.

Pedestrians brush past me; ladies wearing hats bedecked with flowers and macabre stuffed birds, gentlemen laughing too loudly. I receive a few odd looks, and realize I’ve stood too long in this one place.

I must march onward.

Sometimes, after too much drink, my father tells tales of his days fighting against Napoleon. Their regiment was outnumbered, the casualties heavy, yet they continued advancing into the enemy’s musket fire, day after day walking straight toward death. Comrades fell to either side, yet he did not falter. Even with a bullet festering in his leg he bravely carried on.

One step. Another. It isn’t too bad, if I don’t think about my destination.

A passing gentleman blows out a cloud of cigar smoke, nearly choking me on the acrid fumes. A baby squalls in its perambulator, its screeches lacerating the air. I keep moving. My distorted reflection keeps pace in the shop windows like a doppelganger.


She had not meant for her concoction to explode.

Charlotte Barrington buried her nose in her sleeve and took a step back from the smoking vial on the laboratory table. A spark flew from the vial and singed a hole in her poplin skirt. Despite her goggles, her eyes burned.  Damnation.

She was missing some essential component. None of the normal stabilizers were effective—and she certainly could not have her perfume exploding.

Perhaps it was the pinch of golden dust she had added, advertised as Genuine Powdered Unicorn Horn. The small cobalt jar had cost more than she could afford—but she was desperate to find the unique ingredient that would secure her commission as Parfumier to the Queen.

Several perfume makers were vying for that title, to be bestowed during Victoria II’s upcoming Silver Jubilee celebration. It was Charlotte’s last chance to preserve her parents’ legacy, to prove that, despite all assertions to the contrary, she could carry on the name of Mlle Violetta, Parfumier Extraordinaire.

To do so she must take reckless chances.

Three days. That was all the time remaining until her appointment with the queen. Before then, Charlotte must discover the unique ingredient that would make her perfume not just a scent, but an event.

She had observed in the laboratory how some substances took on curious properties when viewed through restricted spectrums of light. Her goal was to formulate an elegantly refreshing perfume that, when combined with a dark glass filter, created a spectacular effect about the wearer. A silver glow, in honor of the queen’s twenty-fifth year of reign.

It was an ambitious, some might say impossible, endeavor.

At first, Charlotte had tried incorporating traces of precious metals into her perfumes: silver, platinum, white gold. While some of them created a faint opalescence, none of them reacted under lights, no matter the spectrum applied.

Saffron and exotic spices likewise proved invisible, as did all botanicals. She soon moved into experimenting with odd and rare ingredients: powdered peacock egg, ground malachite, distilled virgin’s tears, soot from burnt silk, persimmon seeds. Powdered unicorn horn.

None of those had been effective. But at least she had achieved a lovely explosion.

She rang for her maid. “Hetty, we are going out.”

In addition to Hetty, she would bring along one of the burlier footmen. Ben, perhaps. There was one last place she had not yet tried. Dante’s Diabolical Diversions, an unsavory shop at the edge of the Seven Dials district

“Shall I have the driver ready the carriage?” Hetty asked.

Charlotte tapped her lips with one finger. The squalid alley housing Dante’s was not a locale frequented by the upper gentry, and she wanted her visit there to go unnoticed. Not to mention that announcing the presence of wealth in the worst slum in London was hardly wise.

“No,” she said. “We do not wish to call attention to ourselves, and there’s no good place for the carriage to wait. We shall take the omnibus. Now, fetch my black cloak—the wool, not the satin-lined.”

Hetty brought the cloak, and her gloves and hat, and a gorgeously ruffled parasol that Charlotte left propped beside the door. An afternoon in the June sun would not damage her complexion beyond repair, especially if she wore her new top hat. She donned the hat, tucking up a stray curl of her dark hair, and surveyed herself in the hall mirror. Upon consideration, she removed the lavender-dyed ostrich feather from the hatband. It was entirely too remarkable.

Once outside the sheltering walls of Barrington House, the screeches and smells of London assaulted her senses. Charlotte wrinkled her nose as they went down the street. Rotting garbage mingled with horse manure, coal smoke, and the tang of sulfur. Some days she cursed the gift of her superior sense of smell.

Soon enough, though, her nose became numbed. She and Hetty, trailed by the reliable Ben, made their way past the summer-green of Hanover Square and over to Oxford Street.

“Hail a cab, mistress?” Ben inquired, nodding at one of the horse-drawn conveyances.

“No, we shall take the omnibus. Here it comes.”

The plume of steam was unmistakable, a white billow announcing the omnibus’s route. They might be no less conspicuous, but it would be easier to blend in with the crowd and slip off when they reached their destination.

The bus lurched to a halt as Ben flagged it down, the driver operating the levers and brake. Two dandies rose and offered Charlotte and Hetty their seats. Charlotte heard her maid muffle a laugh the gentlemen’s ostentatious clothing. The chartreuse stripes on one of the gentleman’s coats clashed horribly with his scarlet waistcoat, while the second fellow sported a bright orange necktie done up in a puffy, cascading bow. The Andrew, she believed the style was called, named after Victoria II’s eldest son.

The omnibus carried them out of Mayfair and into the streets that marked the beginning of Seven Dials. Charlotte tapped Hetty on the arm and caught Ben’s eye.

When the conveyance halted to admit a pair of laundresses, the three of them slipped off. Under cover of the plume of steam, Charlotte drew them back against the stained brick of a nearby building. Satisfied no one was following, she nodded to her companions, then led the way down a side street.

They darted across another well-trafficked street and fetched up at the mouth of an alley.

“Odhams Walk, mistress?” Ben peered dubiously into the dank recess.

“Indeed.” Charlotte kept her tone brisk, though the back of her neck prickled.

Perhaps it had been a mistake to come. Regardless, she must make the best of it. If the missing ingredient for her perfume was to be found, she could not let squeamishness stand in her way.

I hope you enjoyed these snippets of a few of the stories contained in The Perfect Perfume & Other Tales!