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The Secret of a Heart Note
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An evocative novel about a teen aroma expert who uses her extrasensitive sense of smell to mix perfumes that help others fall in love while protecting her own heart at all costs
Sometimes love is right under your nose. As one of only two aromateurs left on the planet, sixteen-year-old Mimosa knows what her future holds: a lifetime of weeding, mixing love elixirs, and matchmaking—all while remaining incurably alone. For Mim, the rules are clear: falling in love would render her nose useless, taking away her one great talent. Still, Mimosa doesn’t want to spend her life elbow-deep in soil and begonias. She dreams of a normal high school experience with friends, sports practices, debate club, and even a boyfriend. But when she accidentally gives an elixir to the wrong woman and has to rely on the lovesick woman’s son, the school soccer star, to help fix the situation, Mim quickly begins to realize that falling in love isn’t always a choice you can make.
At once hopeful, funny, and romantic, Stacey Lee’s The Secret of a Heart Note is a richly evocative coming-of-age story that gives a fresh perspective on falling in love and finding one’s place in the world.
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“BEWARE, YE AROMATEUR; LAY YOUR TRAPS OF LOVE,
BUT DO NOT YOURSELF GET CAUGHT.”
—Larkspur, Aromateur, 1698
MOST PEOPLE DON’T know that heartache smells like blueberries. It’s not the only scent, but it’s the main one, and if someone comes to us smelling like blueberry pie, Mother and I turn them away. The heartbroken need time to heal before we can work our magic.
According to Mother, today’s client does not smell like blueberries, which is why I’m in our workshop, crushing cinnamon for the client’s elixir—what the rest of the world calls a love potion—instead of doing my algebra homework. Under our new arrangement, I get to attend public high school instead of being homeschooled, as long as my duties as an aromateur don’t suffer. Unlike the mothers of most fifteen-year-old girls, mine doesn’t give a Turkish fig about homework.
The blue door of our workshop heaves open and Mother steps in, all five feet of her, looking like a blue fairy with her pixie cut, and her gardening uniform of denim shirt, jeans, and visor. She wears only blue, not because she’s sad, but because any other color distracts her nose. “Our three thirty just drove up. You ready?”
“Uh, sure.” Why wouldn’t I be ready?
With a sigh, she rolls her SPF sleeves down her skinny arms. “Mimosa, we talked about this. You do the secondaries for the men from now on.”
“Oh, right.” So today’s client is male. Mother always does the initial intake but wants me to handle the secondary sniffs for the men, since their scentprints are not as complex as the women’s. I don’t share that I haven’t read the client’s application yet. Juggling seven periods of classes and my work as an aromateur is proving trickier than I thought. If Mother knew I was falling behind, I could kiss high school good-bye, and I haven’t even made it to two months.
“Meet you in the courtyard in ten.” The door closes with a thud.
After a few more grinds with my mortar and pestle, cinnamon sings over all other scents in our perfumery. The only one the spicy aphrodisiac can’t muscle out is our crown jewel, the orchid Layla’s Sacrifice. As its bud unravels into three perfect petals, its marmalade scent becomes so strong, it drowns out everything else, even from behind its glass terrarium.
I drop my pulverized bark into a jar of ethanol, then shelve the tincture between cloves and cardamom on one of our apothecary shelves. Cardamom’s running low. I should do a complete inventory so Mother can plan her buying trip, but later. It’s already waited a month. It can sit tight for a little while longer.
Just outside the workshop lies a small courtyard shaded by a banana-sweet ylang-ylang tree and its buddy, an eggnog-scented nutmeg. Even plants that ordinarily wouldn’t grow in Northern California flourish in our garden, a three-acre parcel shaped like a painter’s palette. Our workshop sits where the thumbhole would be.
I plop down on one of our teakwood benches. The scent of our client tickles my nose, even before I see him. I close my eyes. It’s not a complete scentprint, more a slight change in the ambient notes that intensifies the closer he comes. The top notes whiz by first, grub lichen, caper, and pepita—an earthy, spice-filled scentprint that is oddly familiar.
My eyes pop open. Mr. Frederics, my algebra teacher?
I jump to my feet. Of the two million single eligible people who inhabit the Bay Area, population nearly seven and a half million, did it have to be him?
Mr. Frederics’s black and balding figure glides alongside Mother down the path that connects our house to the workshop. He’s wearing the same argyle cardigan he wore in class today, and his face is remarkably wrinkle-free like his pants, despite his fifty plus years.
By the time the pair step into the shade of the courtyard, I manage to stop gaping, though Mother can smell my shock. Her amber eyes become slits. She knows I didn’t read his application.
“Hi, Mr. Frederics,” I say brightly. “Won’t you sit down?”
“Hullo there.” His voice has a rich timbre that makes it hard to dislike him.
He settles down on one of the benches. Mother and I share the one opposite him. He squeezes his finger joints, one at a time, the same way he did last week when he explained factoring polynomials. “Now, Mimosa, I don’t want this to be awkward, so if you’re not okay with it, I’ll understand.”
“Not at all, Mr. Frederics,” Mother answers before I can. My toes curl against the leather soles of my sandals. “We are delighted to have you as a client. And let me reassure you, Mimosa will not be taking advantage of the situation. You know we adhere to the highest standard of conduct.”
I scowl. Rule One of our ancient code of ethics states that “an aromateur’s nose shall never be employed in the creation of elixirs for personal gain, but for the betterment of society,” meaning we don’t charge for our services. However, the rule is vague, leaving the aromateur to decide what personal gain means in gray areas.