Will Caramel Tart succeed in saving the world from nuclear war?
“It’s true,” Payasam Tart, the recently elected president of the International Tarts Society texted over an encrypted network to the other I.T.S. members, “that our next meeting was scheduled to occur in my country—the land of lingam and Kama Sutra. However, in view of the present crisis, as many members as possible should convene in the capital city of the country in peril. We will gather at the All Seasons Hotel on the first day in February. As you know, that time of year is called Candlemas or Imbolc, among other names. Our goal is to light a metaphorical candle in the darkness of the Deeply Divided States of Vespuccia.
“I’ve reserved a block of rooms at the hotel, so pack warm clothes, boots as well as shoes, and be sure to bring your thinking caps.”
“All right, Tarts,” Payasam said after the dozen Tarts who were able to attend the meeting settled themselves in the living room of Payasam’s suite. “First I’ll apprise you of the situation, then I’ll tell you what the Board”—she indicated Peach, Cherry, Chocolate, and Almond Tarts, sitting in the front row—“proposes to do about it.”
“As you all know—as indeed the entire world knows—the Deeply Divided States of Vespuccia have just elected Eric Tayshun as their president. As a private citizen, he was simply a sleaze, although a rich one; as president, he will be an utter disaster. He uses Squawker to conduct foreign policy,” Payasam said with a shudder, “and we fear that if he feels disrespected by foreign leaders, he’d declare war in a squawk. And he has access to the nuclear codes!
“It’s up to us to save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Therefore, this man must be distracted from the pursuit of war by the pursuit of sex. And—“ Payasam looked around, beaming, “we have just the candidate to distract him! Almond, could you ask her to join us in here? She’s in the bedroom.”
“Where she no doubt rules,” Cherry said with a smirk.
They all waited until Almond returned with the candidate. The other Tarts gasped at the sight of her.
She was beautiful, no doubt about that, the most beautiful Latina they’d ever seen. Long, dark brown, glossy hair framed a face with perfect features. Her eyes were were so dark a brown as to be almost black, her mouth full, red, and sensual. Of average height, she was as slim and graceful as a flamenco dancer.
“Tarts, I’d like to introduce Carmela Sandoval,” Payasam said. “Carmela, do have a seat on the other side of me. Ladies, starting with Cherry, please introduce yourselves and then we’ll explain our society to Carmela.”
She indicated the first member of the Board, who nodded.
“I’m Cherry Tart, and I serve the I.T.S. in—” she mentioned a small country known for its beaches and salubrious climate. “I’m lesbian, as is the president of my country. She and I get on very well indeed.” She grinned, showing white teeth in a tanned face. With her short, shining brown curls and athletic build, she looked like a tennis player.
“I’m Chocolate Tart,” the young woman next to Cherry Tart said. “I serve the I.T.S. in West Africa. I work in the foreign minister’s office.” Sleek and shining as a chocolate truffle, she seemed to promise love at first lick.
“I’m Almond Tart,” said the exquisite young Asian woman sitting next to Chocolate. Her silky black hair was drawn away from her face in a ponytail; black eyeliner accented the corners of her almond-shaped eyes. “Like Chocolate, I work in the office of the foreign minister of my country.”
“And I’m Peach Tart,” the young woman sitting next to Almond said. With her luxuriant strawberry blonde tresses, light brown eyes, and slender figure, she might easily have been mistaken for a film star. “If you decide to join us by accepting the mission, I’ll be your mentor.”
“Thank you, ladies.” Payasam turned to Carmela. “The International Tarts Society has one mission: to discourage the heads of government from declaring war. After experiencing the delights we have to offer, practically all such world leaders refrain from waging war because they know we would leave them instantly if they did. It really helps our cause that most politicians think with their penises rather than their brains.”
Carmela giggled. “So, really, the Tarts are the opposite of Vestal Virgins. Same goal but different means.”
“Exactly,” Almond said. “Or you might think of it as ‘Lysistrata’ with modifications.”
“Bear in mind,” Payasam went on, “that Tarts are not prostitutes. We don’t do ‘pay-as-you-go.’ During the day we work as assistants in our assigned statesman’s or leader’s office, performing routine office tasks. It’s only after office hours that the assistance becomes personal. Any questions so far?”
“Yes,” Carmela said. “What if the statesman or leader insists on giving presents of jewelry or cash or something?”
“Our policy is to discourage presents, if at all possible. We’re paid for the office work we do during the day. However, if the alternative is hurting their feelings, then yes, let them give jewelry and whatnot. Clever Tarts hold on to such presents and eventually convert them to cash. It’s not obligatory, but a donation to the I.T.S. rainy day fund is appreciated.
“Now, your prime minister, foreign minister, or president will be called ‘your beneficiary’ among ourselves. Let me further advise you that no woman under the age of twenty-one is permitted to join the I.T.S., nor is any woman older than thirty permitted to remain a member.”
“That seems rather sexist and ageist, if you don’t mind my saying so,” Carmela objected.
Payasam smiled. “We made this rule for several reasons. The most obvious is because of the kind of work we do: age does wither, and custom does stale our particular variety, despite what Shakespeare said. The second reason is that age thirty is still young enough to embark on a completely different career and possibly meet some lovers who aren’t raging egomaniacs.”
All the Tarts laughed, thinking of the egos they were obliged to massage, stroke, and otherwise titillate in the course of their careers.
“Now, Carmela, having heard about our society, what do you think? You’ve already been told about the mission, of course. Would you like to join us and quite possibly save the human race?”
Carmela sat very still, looking at Payasam, then at the others. “Yes, I would like to join.”
“The beneficiary who would be your assignment is the most powerful man in the world.”
“What is your motivation for taking on the mission, Carmela? This will be no easy task, you understand. You will make almost no friends or allies during this assignment. Most likely the women you’ll meet will be jealous of you and the men will dislike and distrust the power you may achieve over your beneficiary. Of course, you’ll have us for sympathy and support.”
Carmela took a deep breath. “My college sociology course required reading several books: Manzanar, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and The History of the Conquest of Mexico. After I finished reading each book—this was outside of class, of course—I threw up in the bathroom and then cried for hours. I did look a sight, believe me,” she said reminiscently. “I told myself that nothing like that was ever going to happen again if I could prevent it. This man, El Presidente, has already mocked and insulted my people. Both my parents emigrated from Mexico and have been citizens for years. He talks of building a wall to keep Mexicans out. He has to be stopped! If I can distract him, I will.”
All the Tarts clapped.
“All right,” Payasam said. “Now I have to ask you some very personal questions. You understand.”
Carmela shrugged. “Fire away.”
“You are not, I trust, a virgin.”
Carmela shook her head.
“Good. He doesn’t like them. You’ve never been pregnant nor given birth?”
“Good. He doesn’t like the bodies of women who are mothers. You’re twenty-two, five feet five inches tall, you weigh 118 pounds…”
“You can’t gain any weight during your assignment, you know. He doesn’t like any fat at all.”
Carmela sighed. “I can manage that. And before you ask, I do work out.”
“That’s good. Now, I ask you to think about this: he’s old. He’s overweight. He eats a lousy diet. He may even smell bad, although I’m betting he doesn’t, that would be too lower class. So he probably does shower every day. Although not unattractive when much younger, he’s now a caricature.”
“I can deal with it.”
“By the way,” Cherry said, “not to be discouraging or anything, but during your term of service you won’t be able to have any other lovers until you go on vacation. If you go on vacation.”
“How long is a term of service?”
“Only as long as your beneficiary’s term of service.”
“Or until they lose their election, get overthrown in a coup, or drop dead of a heart attack,” Peach said.
“No problem,” Carmela said. “Ah—when do I begin?”
Payasam smiled. “After we get you a job at The Mansion, and after you’ve completed courses in First Aid, CPR, and the Tarty Techniques for Sexual Satisfaction.”
It somehow seemed appropriate that the next day’s session took place in the bedroom of Payasam’s suite. Music streamed softly from a device next to the king-sized bed; the curtains were drawn and the only light came from bedside lamps. Jasmine and neroli, wafted by a diffuser, scented the room.
“Here’s the list of Tarty Techniques,” Payasam said, handing the sheet of paper to Carmela.
Silence prevailed as Carmela began reading it. “H’mm, Number Two, Snake Tongues, goes without saying,” she remarked. “Hey, Number Three is interesting— I pride myself on my blow jobs but I’ve never tried putting fizzy tablets in my mouth before doing one. Number Four—good heavens, I’ve been doing that since my vacation in Morocco. H’mm…” She went on reading.
The other Tarts watched her as her eyes traveled to the bottom of the page, at which point she gasped. “Yikes, Number Twenty-three! I’ve never done that, never even heard of it before!”
“Ah, yes,” Payasam said. “You can see why First Aid and CPR certificates are required for all members of our little society. It’s not common, but beneficiaries have been known to die of delight during Number Twenty-three.”
“Which is why,” Peach added, “you must never use Number Twenty-three without permission from Payasam or at least one other member of the Board.”
Carmela looked from one to another, eyes wide, lips parted. “Really? They actually die?”
“Not always,” Chocolate said in her precise, French-accented English. “It has occasionally happened with very old, overweight beneficiaries, the kind of person you will be tending. The beneficiaries who are younger and work out for an hour and a half every day before going to work occasionally bliss out, but not to eternity.”
“Good heavens,” Carmela said faintly. “What happens if they do pass away instead of passing out?”
“In that case, the Tart texts the emergency code to the president or a board member to trigger the emergency plan,” Peach said. “Now, Carmela, we have to discuss practicalities. Each Tart dedicates her mission to her culture’s Goddess of love and every act she performs constitutes an offering to Her. So, tell us—who is your matron Goddess?”
Carmela looked bewildered. “Matron Goddess? I don’t have one. As for my culture, the religion I was born into frowns on sex. That’s why I left it, naturally.”
“Understood,” Cherry said. “Well, as your culture is basically Latin, how do you feel about Venus? She’s a Roman Goddess, so she might suit you.”
“Um, bear with me for a moment,” Carmela said. “Why do I need to dedicate myself to a Goddess of love?”
Payasam smiled. “You’re beautiful and you look younger than you actually are, both of which are pluses as far this mission is concerned. However, although in the beginning you will have the asset of novelty, your intended beneficiary has the attention span of a ten-year-old boy. Nothing and no one keep his interest for very long. As soon as he feels he’s ‘conquered’ you, he’ll be off to the next potential conquest. We can’t let that happen.”
“Invoking your Goddess will infuse you with sexual power, conferring pheromones so powerful he won’t be able to resist you,” Cherry said. “That, plus the Tarty Techniques, which you must dole out little by little, will be enough to keep him hot and panting.”
“Like Scheherazade,” Carmela said. She smiled.
“Exactly,” Peach said. The other board members nodded agreement.
“Another personal question,” Payasam said, as if suddenly recalling something. “Are you bare down there, or do you have hair?”
Carmela blinked. “Hair. Why?”
“You might want to consider a getting a Brazilian,” Peach said. “Anything that makes you seem a little different is going to help your cause.”
“Okay,” Carmela said. She grimaced. “Hope it doesn’t hurt. Look—I’m not going to have to do anything perverted or porno, am I?”
“Certainly not,” Payasam said. “As I said before, we’re Tarts, not prostitutes. You won’t have do anything you don’t want to do.”
“And anyway,” Almond said, “you wouldn’t need to do anything weird even if you wanted to. The Tarty Techniques by themselves are more than enough to keep a man’s mind off war.”
“The I.T.S. will pay for the Brazilian, of course, along with the fees for the required courses. And now, sister Tarts—“ Payasam looked around, beaming—“We need to think of a name for our newest Tart!”
“Sweet as brown sugar,” Almond said, eyeing Carmela.
“Dulce de leche,” said Peach, who fancied her command of the Spanish language.
“Crème Caramel Tart?” suggested Cherry.
Carmela gasped. “That’s it! Carmela—‘Caramel’! I’m Caramel Tart!”
Everyone laughed, Cherry uncorked the champagne, and all the Tarts raised their glasses in a toast. “To Caramel Tart, our newest member!”
“And now,” Peach said, “while you’re taking courses in the morning, we’ve got to fake up a resume and security clearance for you so you can get a job at The Mansion. Fortunately, my beneficiary is an extremely powerful senator, so he can help with that. And we’ll get help with the security clearance from the Agency.”
“What agency?” Caramel asked.
“That agency,” Payasam said. “We are in bed with them, so to speak. They like sex just as much as anyone else.”
“We help them with their mission, they help us with ours,” Chocolate added.
Two weeks later Peach Tart knocked on the door of Caramel’s apartment. When Caramel opened the door, Peach said two words:
Prunella Parsons was having a bad—no, a really horrible—morning at The Mansion. Not only had Blackie Hart, her ex-boss and the current Mansion Chief Policy Strategist, told her sharply to do a better job of entertaining foreign dignitaries, but Dooby McManus, the Mansion Chief of Staff, had cut her budget.
It would be simply impossible to bring off the state dinners, not to mention the numerous minor functions she was expected to mastermind as the official Mansion hostess, on such a reduced budget. As the niece of the recently elected president of the DDSV she was serving as Mansion Social Secretary and hostess because Venetia, the wife of President Eric Tayshun, refused to leave the luxurious family-owned apartment building two hundred miles away. Her excuse was that Goldie, the couple’s teenaged daughter, could not be torn from her friends and fellow students at the expensive private academy where she’d just begun her freshman year of high school.
Not only did she have problems with Blackie Hart and Dooby McManus, but Prunella also had issues with the president himself. Although she was married to his nephew, Zebulon Parsons, who served as Special Adviser to the President, Eric Tayshun apparently saw nothing wrong with harboring incestuous longings for his female relatives. Whenever he hove into view he leered at Prunella, and when he wanted to emphasize a statement, he patted her derrière. Only yesterday, when he’d encountered her in the hallway, he’d kissed her on the lips. She knew the fact she was married meant nothing at all to him, but now she wondered uneasily if he had a thing about nieces. Rumors in the corridors of western history whispered that both Adolf Hitler and General Patton had had a thing about nieces, even going so far as to actually—no! She refused to go there, even in her mind.
Prunella shook herself impatiently. There was work to do, although she couldn’t help sighing when she thought of how simple her workdays had been before the election. Three months ago she’d been working for Blackie, who obliged her to spend her days thinking up ad copy for the campaign: “Save the nation/Vote Eric Tayshun!” “Keep the DDSV free/Vote for Eric T.!” and other such asinine slogans.
The Mansion intercom buzzed. “Yes?” she said.
“Ms. Parsons, an applicant is here to interview for the position of your assistant. It’s Miss Sandoval.”
“Send her in,” Prunella said. How tedious: now, instead of working on the state dinner slated for next month, she’d have to lose an hour talking to this applicant. On the other hand, perhaps the applicant would turn out to be the perfect person for the job. Heaven knew she needed help. She looked up as the door of her office clicked open and the receptionist ushered Miss Sandoval in.
Prunella stood up, came around her desk, and shook hands. Too pretty, she thought immediately, then checked herself. The applicant was evidently trying to tone down her appearance by wearing a prim brown tweed suit with a high-necked ecru blouse, and a severe hair style that pulled her dark tresses into a French twist. However, Prunella’s sharp eyes detected the lissom figure inside the suit, the luster of the luxuriant hair, the long-lashed eyes that even dark-rimmed glasses couldn’t disguise. She wore only enough makeup to conform to societal norms.
“Do sit down, Miss…Sandoval, is it?”
“Yes. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me this morning. I realize how busy you must be,” the applicant said. “Oh, in case you haven’t had a chance to review my resume, I have a copy here.” She pulled a sheet of paper out of her bag and handed it to Prunella.
“Think nothing of it. H’mm, I see you have a degree in world geography and you speak five languages, correct?”
“Yes, English, Spanish, French, Italian, and German.”
“That’s impressive,” Prunella said. And potentially very useful, she thought.
Aloud she said, “You graduated from a university in Germany. Why did you go to school in a foreign country?”
Miss Sandoval opened her eyes very wide and smiled. “It was free. That’s why I learned German. I hoped I’d be good enough to get into a college over there, and of course, attending that particular university really helped my major in geography and my minor in languages. I traveled extensively during vacations.”
“Impressive,” Prunella said again. Quickly she made up her mind. This applicant would do. With her background she’d be able to deal with almost anything, including excitable foreigners. “Miss Sandoval, I’d like to offer you the position, which, of course, is contingent on your reference check. I see you already have a security clearance.”
“Yes, that’s right. I’d really like to work for you, Mrs. Parsons. This is an exciting opportunity and I’d love to help lighten your workload.”
That settled it. The Latina background was a little awkward, considering the president’s attitude toward people of that ethnicity, but fortunately, he was unlikely to bump into Ms. Sandoval in the ordinary course of business.
In the weeks that followed, Prunella’s hopes were fulfilled. The first week, of course, was spent showing Carmela the routine of the office and how the communications system worked. Carmela learned quickly, came to work on time, and volunteered for even the most tedious tasks, such as filling out the Acceptances spreadsheet for the state dinner. By Friday afternoon Prunella was sharing her frustrations concerning the menu, the decorations, and the music for that occasion.
“President Tayshun has invited the president of Mexico to the Mansion. Of course they absolutely loathe—that is to say, they’re barely able to be polite to each other. But with the severe budget cuts, I don’t know what on earth to put on the menu for dinner!” Prunella raised her eyes to the ceiling. “The budget simply won’t run to the usual Mansion fare for a state dinner, and as for flowers, I have no idea what we’re going to do. We can’t even go out and pick them from the All-White Garden, considering it’s late February.”
Carmela considered for a few minutes. “I have an idea. What do you think of this? Why not honor the Aztec history of Mexico by using the ‘Three Sisters’ theme for the dinner? You know, base the menu on squash, corn, and beans. It would be a subtle compliment to the Mexican president, and dishes based on the Three Sisters would cost a lot less than filet mignon, truffles, and caviar.”
Prunella’s face lit up. “Brilliant! Will you do the research and give me suggestions for a menu? Then we can hammer it out with the Mansion executive chef and start thinking about decorations.”
“I’ll have it for you by Monday morning,” Carmela promised.
At the beginning of the next week Prunella ran her eyes over the menu Carmela handed her. “Okay, we begin with Corn Soup with Chipotle Sour Cream—there’s our soup. For fish, Lemon Garlic Shrimp Tostada, good. For the entrée, Chile-Rubbed Roast Turkey, Stuffed Peppers with Quinoa and Black Beans, and Cuernavaca-style Cucumber Salad, good. And two desserts, Pumpkin Cheesecake and Mexican Chocolate Torte. Why two, Carmela?”
“To give the impression of opulence,” Carmela said. “Also, it will make the guests feel spoiled, having two to choose from. And don’t forget, both chocolate and pumpkin are New World foods. The Aztecs definitely used them.”
“And they don’t look too expensive, either,” Prunella said, flipping through the sheaf of recipe printouts Carmela handed to her. “Oh, what a load off my mind! This will be a small dinner as state dinners go. We’ll have no more than fifty people in all, including the Mexicans and the president’s own staff.”
“Does the president like this kind of food?”
“Good heavens, no,” Prunella said. “He’ll eat the occasional taco salad, but basically he prefers hamburgers and fries. Well, he’ll like the cheesecake. His home town is famous for it.”
“This particular cheesecake has caramel sauce and rum-infused whipped cream with it,” Caramel said. She smiled as she thought of the pun on her new nickname.
“Sounds good, but leave the rum out of the whipped cream. He doesn’t do alcohol.”
For the next hour they discussed the wines and other drinks that would accompany each course and the Mexican-accented coffee that would end the meal.
“You’re a godsend, Carmela,” Prunella said. “Thank heavens you walked through my door! I think I might actually get some sleep tonight. Oh, who’s in the hallway? Why, I believe it’s—”
The president of the DDSV strolled through the door accompanied by several of his staff: Dooby McManus, a dapper little man who looked as if he’d just climbed out of a bandbox, Blackie Hart, who resembled a lumbering bear in an ill-fitting suit, and two agents from the Nervous Service. “Good morning, sweetie, how are ya?” he asked, bending over Prunella’s desk.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” Prunella said. “Sir, may I introduce my new assistant? This is Ms. Carmela Sandoval.”
The president turned his head to look at Carmela. “Pleased to meetcha. Now, Prunie, I need you to do me a favor.” He bent down to whisper into Prunella’s ear. “Can ya do that for me?”
“Why, certainly, Mr. President, I’ll take care of it right away.”
Dooby McManus fidgeted from his position near the doorway. “Not to rush you, Mr. President, but we’re due at a meeting of the Joint Chiefs in the Crisis Room in exactly two minutes!”
The president nodded. “Yeah, sure, I hear ya. Okay, guys, let’s march! ’Bye, Prunie, see ya later.”
The president and his entourage surged out of the room, leaving Prunella frustrated yet again.
“Carmela, the president just asked me to make sure that Zeb and I will be seated at his right hand so he doesn’t get bored during the dinner. So that means you will have to act as hostess in my place.”
Caramel was dismayed by the president’s offhand acknowledgment of her presence in Prunella’s office. El Presidente, as she thought of him, had barely looked at her. She resolved that in the two weeks remaining before the night of the dinner, she’d alter one thing about her appearance every day so by the day of the state dinner her new look wouldn’t come as such a shock.
On Thursday evenings, as often as their respective schedules allowed, Peach and Caramel had dinner together. This week it was to be at Caramel’s apartment; when Peach rang to confirm that she’d arrive at seven p.m., Caramel was surprised to hear that Peach was bringing a guest.
“A guest? Who? Can we talk freely in front of her?”
“Yes, she’s a high priestess, so she’s used to keeping her mouth shut about certain things. Don’t be alarmed.”
At seven Caramel opened the door to Peach and a woman who looked quite different from the people Caramel was used to seeing every day. She wore her hair in a braid on each side, a skirt that reached her ankles, and a black cloak with the hood thrown back. “Good evening! Do come in,” Caramel said as she held the door open.
“Caramel, this is Oakwyse, high priestess of Moon Sisters Coven,” Peach said. “Here you are,” she said, handing over a large brown paper bag, “we’ve brought dinner.”
They sat down at Caramel’s small table, and over an enchilada casserole that was both delicious and filling, discussed several matters of the utmost importance.
“First of all,” Caramel said, “he hardly looked at me because of the way I dress for the office, although I’ve thought of a way to handle that. Oh, I forgot to tell you how I solved the problem of the budget cuts in our department!”
They listened attentively as she told them about her ideas for the menu. “But why did the Mansion Chief of Staff cut the budget in the first place?” Oakwyse asked.
“Because El Presidente wants all the toilets in the Mansion to be gold-plated,” Caramel said. “He couldn’t take the money for it from anywhere else, so he chose our department.”
Peach snorted but Oakwyse simply stared.
“I’m to act as hostess that evening,” Caramel said. “In a way that’s good because naturally, I speak Spanish, and that’ll be a big help in welcoming the visitors. In another way it’s bad because I’ll be too busy to attract El Presidente’s attention.”
“You have to knock him out with the right dress, makeup, and hairstyle,” Peach said. “We’ll look through your wardrobe later. However, above all you need to listen to what Oakwyse wants to tell you about invoking Venus.”
After dinner Caramel watched as Peach and Oakwyse cleared everything off the dresser in her bedroom except the dresser scarf, and set up an altar to Venus. Oakwyse carefully placed a small statuette of Venus in the center, and set a peacock feather at one side. Peach brought out a bag of dried rose petals and shook a small amount into a little earthenware bowl in front of the statuette. The two of them walked back and forth, adding a goblet of water, a burner with a stick of incense, and a red candle to the altar.
Oakwyse explained: “We have the elements: Earth, as symbolized by the rose petals, Water in the goblet, Air symbolized by the incense, and Fire with the candle. Now I’ll cast the circle and call the Guardians.”
Caramel looked at the altar with raised eyebrows.
Oakwyse turned to her. “Look, we’re not asking you to convert from your present religion—“
“Which is none,” Caramel said.
“Understood. What we want is for you to have the protection and help of Venus in your mission.”
“Okay,” Caramel said, but remained unconvinced.
After Peach lit the candle and the incense, Oakwyse called the Quarters, then she and Peach clasped hands with Caramel so the three formed a small circle. After casting the circle and invoking Venus, Oakwyse said. “You must make an offering to the Goddess. What do you offer?”
Caramel raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know! What am I supposed to offer?”
Peach said, “Do you have anything of value you can part with? Something you really hold dear, like a ring, a scarf, even a little bit of champagne or expensive chocolate?”
Caramel thought for a minute, then went to the jewelry box on the dresser, removed a ring, and started to hand it to Peach.
“No, my dear,” Oakwyse said, “you must offer it to Her yourself. Place the ring in front of Her likeness.”
Caramel laid the ring before the statuette. The smoke from the incense was very pleasant; she was beginning to feel a little light-headed. Peach handed her a very small dark brown bottle.
“This is rose otto,” she said reverently. “It costs five hundred dollars for five milliliters. Please open the bottle, shake a drop on to the statuette, and rub it in.”
Caramel did so.
“And now, shake a drop onto your bosom and rub it into your skin.”
Caramel obeyed while Oakwyse asked Venus to protect, guide, and inspire Her daughter Caramel.
“You are now a disciple of Venus,” Oakwyse said. “Caramel, dear, if all this seems silly to you, try to imagine it’s going to work. Rose otto and ylang-ylang, which is the aroma you’re smelling from the incense, are powerful aphrodisiacs. Roses and myrtle are sacred to Venus, so try to keep a few fresh roses around.”
“That’ll be expensive,” Caramel said.
“I’ll speak to the other members of the board,” Peach said. “I’m sure they’ll agree to having a dozen roses delivered to your apartment each week. Remember, Venus really likes them, so keep one or two in a little vase on the altar, preferably right in front of Her.”
“Now we’ll thank the Quarters, thank the Goddess, and close the circle,” Oakwyse said.
Afterwards, Peach said, “Oakwyse and I are going to teach you a few simple sex spells to draw your beneficiary to you. Are you ready?”
An hour later Caramel, giggling helplessly, managed to say, “I can’t believe what you just told me! But I’ll try them.”
Peach looked pleased. “I’ve used some of those spells myself. Believe me, they work. Now let’s look through your closet and see what’s suitable for that state dinner. Let’s assemble it all tonight—shoes, jewelry, underwear, dress—and then we’ll decide on a hairstyle.”
It was ten o’clock when Caramel thanked her guests and said goodnight. When she fell asleep she dreamed of dancing stark naked in the Garden of Eden with a man who definitely was not El Presidente.
After her evening with Peach and Oakwyse Caramel kept her promise to herself to alter one thing about her appearance every day. The first was to leave off the black-rimmed glasses she’d been wearing during office hours. It was a whole day before Prunella, lifting red-rimmed eyes from her laptop, commented on it.
“Where are your glasses, Carmela? Why aren’t you wearing them any more?”
“I don’t need them now,” Caramel said, smiling widely. “My eye doctor wanted me to wear them for a few weeks because of a minor problem I had. I have to go back and see her in a week.”
Caramel put that in on the spur of the moment. It might be useful to pretend she had a doctor’s appointment when she wanted to leave early.
The next day she used more eye makeup and braided her hair before coiling it into a knot at the nape of her neck. By the time she’d started wearing open-necked blouses, shorter skirts, higher heels, actual lipstick as opposed to lip gloss, and changed her hairstyle from a coiled knot to a French braid to a ponytail, she looked completely different from when she’d been hired.
Blackie Hart, who dropped by to see Prunella at least once a day, at first paid no attention to Caramel but by the end of the two weeks, when he was obliged to speak to her, he looked at her with narrowed eyes.
“Carmela will be welcoming the guests tonight,” Prunella informed Hart. Carmela lowered her eyes, smiled demurely, then raised them again to meet Hart’s. He looked suspicious.
Wait till tonight, troglodyte, Caramel thought. She hated to see men with dirty, untrimmed hair, two-day stubble that even went down their necks, and ill-fitting clothes. She hoped she’d never get close enough to him to wonder whether he cleaned his teeth or not.
“See to it that you’re here two hours early, Miss Sandoval. You’ll need to check the placements and be on the alert for early arrivals.”
“Yes, sir,” Caramel said.
After the three of them finished their discussion, Prunella said, “Oh, by the way, leave your handbag at the Mansion security check-in when you come in tonight. We all have to comply with security regulations, you know.”
“Fine,” Caramel said, She realized she’d have to carry the important sex spell in one of the supports she planned to wear under her breasts. She wanted to keep her underwear to a minimum in case an opportunity to get close to El Presidente arose. A regular brassière would be too much like armor.
As hard as it would be to get El Presidente alone this evening, she hoped he’d be harder still.