“If you were a Dahlian, then you would know that passion cones must be baked with love and given freely. Mothers make them for their children, wives make them for their husbands, and young girls bake them for their lovers. It’s bad luck to sell them.”
She set the tray atop a stone block and used the tongs to transfer the cones to a small cloth-lined basket. He liked the way she moved, easy, graceful, gliding.
“That’s an old superstition.”
“Superstitions add texture to life.”
She picked up the basket and brought it to the table, and once again he stared, mesmerized by her curves and her bottomless eyes.
“How much?” he asked and wasn’t sure if he was asking how much she wanted for the cones or how much she would charge to let him have a go at her ripe body.
“Not for sale.” A little sly light danced in her dark eyes.
Cones or you, he wondered. Her eyes told him the answer: both.
He changed his tactics. “By the same tradition, it’s bad luck to turn away a guest from your table. Especially one who arrived in the middle of the meal.”
She laughed softly. “So you’re from Dahlia after all. I’ll make you a deal. I will share my cones. But I have no pink wine to go with them. If you…”
He simply jerked his hand and the sound of rapidly retreating steps announced Ven’s departure.
“A bit imperious of you,” she said, amused.
He pulled out a chair and sat at the table opposite her. “It’ll save us time.” He glanced at her reader. A Chronicle of the Reign of Charles IX. “Prosper Mérimée?”
He didn’t think anyone except him read the long forgotten old planet author. “Stories of a more savage time. When men were men and women were…”
“Hauntingly beautiful bronze statues of Venus who crushed them in their sleep?”
Celino frowned. She didn’t simply read the novel, she had read the short stories as well.
“I’m afraid I prefer Colomba to Carmen,” she said. “So if you want to discuss the opera, you’re out of luck.”
He viewed opera as a garish and vulgar spectacle.
Ven entered and placed a bottle of Dahlian Pink on the table. He had activated the icer on the side of the bottle and a delicate feathery frost painted the glass.
“We’ll need mugs,” she murmured. “Ascanio! Can I trouble you for a couple of mugs?”
Mugs. How…provincial. He hid a smile.
The proprietor scurried into the room, deposited two heavy clear mugs onto the table, and escaped.
Celino popped the cork and poured the wine. A lush pink splashed into the mug. She tasted it. Her eyes widened. “Cerise!”
“Had I known you would pay for the cones with luxury wine, I would’ve surrendered immediately.”
“Surrendered” conjured an image of her naked in the sheets. Surprising. It had been a long time since he reacted that way to a woman. And she wasn’t even beautiful. She seemed to have none of the refined elegance he usually sought.
Where did she come from? What was she doing here? Besides baking passion cones.
He pulled his combat knife from the sheath on his belt and offered it to her handle first. “I believe it’s customary to share the first cone.”
She took the knife without care, gripped it like a hammer, oblivious to the fact that her fingerprints registered on the handle, and chopped a cone in two. Whatever she was, knife artistry wasn’t in her talents. She cut like a cook.
She returned his knife and pushed half a cone toward him. “May you prosper.”
“And you as well.” His mouth automatically shaped the response to the old greeting.
She bit into her cone. Celino tasted his, waiting for the three-second diagnostic. No alarms blared in his implant. No poison. He bit a piece, savoring it this time. It tasted like heaven. Neither too sour, nor too sweet. Perfection. He ordered passion cones from time to time and the premier bakeries of New Delphi had nothing on this woman.
His teeth caught something solid. “Lemon rind?” he said in disbelief. To the best of his knowledge, only his mother put lemon rind into the cones.
“You found out my secret.” Her pink tongue darted out of her mouth to lick at a smudge of the filling off her bottom lip. He wondered if her mouth tasted of cones and pink wine.
“Would your men like some?”
“No,” he said.
“They’re on duty?”
He nodded and attacked the second cone.
He had eaten three before Marcus leaned over to him. The meeting with the land owners started in less than twenty minutes. Barely enough time to reach the conference hall within his hotel.
He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to sit with her in the sunny kitchen, drink pink wine, eat cones, and think of her in his bed.
“Ah. You have to run,” she guessed.
“Indeed.” He rose. “Thank you. The cones were divine.”
She handed him the basket. “Take them.”
She rose and pressed the basket into his hands. “You’re leaving the wine with me. It’s only fair.”
Outside the sunshine made him blink. He slipped the knife out and handed it to Romuld. “Find out who she is.”
Meli sat alone in the kitchen. She poured herself another mug. The wine was perfect, delicate, its bouquet leaving a symphony of complimenting flavors on her tongue.
A small part of her had hoped Celino would recognize her. But he didn’t. That was how little her existence meant. She was nothing but a forgotten speck in his past life.
Meli drank the wine.
It had started with a veil.
She vividly remembered it. It was a diaphanous indigo veil that hid the bottom part of her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. When her mother had slipped it onto her, adjusting the band to fit under the knot of her hair, Meli could still see her features in the mirror, but her face seemed broken in half. There was the tan half with her eyes and then there was the lower half under the veil that seemed to belong to someone else.
“Why?” she asked.
Mother sat on the bed. “You are betrothed. The veil lets everyone know that you’re off-limits.”
The enormity of it failed to penetrate. “But I’m only ten.”
Mother sighed. “I voted against it. I think it’s a critical error in judgment and I think it will come back to haunt us all. But I was outvoted by the family counsel.”
Even at ten, Meli knew that family counsel was law.