Meli recalled the file. Celino chose to oversee a number of projects for Carvannas, including Raban, Inc. and Sunlight Development. He was active and ruthless, and his leadership brought his family to its prominence. He made the Carvanna millions. For all practical purposes, he was the Carvanna family. His death would plunge his clan into chaos and destroy the value of their stock.
Angel had managed to obtain Celino’s calendar for the next two weeks, at astronomical cost, no doubt. Celino scheduled an inspection of the new development to the south. That meant a flurry of meetings and formal dinner engagements, which, if the new Celino was anything like his younger self, he would loathe it with great passion. He was both too active and too smart. Time may have taught him patience with less agile minds, but it could hardly teach him how to escape boredom in their presence.
She had reviewed his recent development projects. Celino built beautiful places, full of sunlight and flowers, all of the modern technology seamlessly married with the provincial earthiness. Meli smiled. One could remove a man from the provinces, but one couldn’t take the provinces out of the man. He would strive to escape tedium of formality, which meant he would likely stay in his villa on the Terraces and lunch below, among the cafes.
Revenge was sometimes best served hot.
Celino strode down the tiled curve of the Red Terrace. Built into the side of a towering cliff, now honeycombed with metal and plastic-sheathed tunnels, the Terraces consisted of seven platforms, layered one under another, each about a mile long and two hundred yards at their widest. The platforms jutted in gentle curves from the former cliff, housing small shops and eateries. The bottom terrace sat roughly three thousand feet above the plain, while the Red Terrace, where he stood, was situated three levels above it. He wasn’t sure about the exact altitude, but the view was magnificent.
The residents of New Delphi were used to heights, but even Celino, as he stopped by the faux wooden rail, was momentarily overcome by the enormity of the landscape. Far below him a vast plain rolled into the distance and beyond it blue cliffs rose, made ethereal by the ocean of air.
Celino resumed his walk, aware of Marcus following like an unobtrusive shadow a few feet behind. Two of his men, Romuld and Ven, stalked behind Marcus.
The breeze brought a whiff of a shockingly familiar aroma. He stopped. He smelled crisp dough with a slight buttery taste and a tantalizing scent of roasted passion raspberry, the only variety of the old planet berry that grew in the southern provinces. The aroma swirled about him and instantly he was five years old, stealing the still warm cone of pastry from the dish and eating quietly under the table, thrilled at his own sneakiness.
“What is it?” Marcus asked softly.
“Passion cones.” Celino accelerated, heading toward the source of the scent, until he reached a small cafe with a red overhang. A sign proclaimed A Taste of Dahlia. He rarely entered unfamiliar places. Why risk an ambush?
Celino glanced past Marcus at Ven. “An order of passion cones.”
The bodyguard ducked into the shop.
Celino shrugged. Funny how the memory played tricks. He could practically taste the pastry from the scent alone.
Ven emerged from the cafe. Empty handed.
“The owner says the cones aren’t his to sell,” Ven said. “I told him to name the price, but he refused.”
Celino growled. He wanted the damn cones. He strode into the shop.
The cafe was small, barely more than a counter and six tables. The floor was faux wood, the furnishings vintage Dahlia: sturdy old furniture that would last another century. Only two of the tables were occupied. The patrons watched him like terrified rabbits.
Behind him Romuld activated the scanner that sat over his left eye. A sheet of green light swept over the tables and people sitting at them. Romuld said nothing. The place was clean.
An older man hurried to Celino’s side, nervously wiping his hands with a towel. “Sir?”
“Passion cones,” Celino said.
The older man twisted the towel in his hands. “You see, the business is a bit slow. It’s a weekday and off-season.”
The man stammered. “There is a woman. She rents one of my stoves once in a while, because I have the old iron ovens. The old province kind. She pays well. She was the one who made the passion cones. So I can’t sell them. I’ve asked.”
The trip down the memory lane suddenly became a challenge. “Then I will ask her myself.”
The man nodded and pointed to the back. “Through that door, sir.”
Celino crossed the floor and ducked through the low doorway. A spacious kitchen stretched before him, filled with the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked dough.
A woman sat at a large table, in a pool of golden light streaming from the window. She wore a sun dress the color of burgundy. Her hair was gathered into a thick dark braid that glinted with copper in the sunlight. In her hands was an electronic reader.
She looked up at him, her dark eyes like two bottomless pools on a face tanned to golden perfection. Celino stared.
The woman blinked against the green sweep of Romuld’s scanner and raised her eyebrows.
“I’m told you made the cones,” Celino said.
“Technically, I’m still making them.” Her voice was sensuous and confident, and completely unimpressed with his surliness. She checked her reader’s clock. “Thirty seconds left.”
“I’d like to purchase them.”
“Are you a Dahlian?”
“I don’t see how that can be of any consequence.”
She rose. She was shorter than he, maybe five four. The thin dress hugged her chest, outlining large, full breasts and a narrow waist. The wide cut of the skirt hid her hips, but judging by the rest of her, her butt was round and plump. She grasped a heat-resistant towel, forced open the stove door and pulled a tray of cones into the light. They looked perfect, golden crispy brown.
“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.