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A Matter of Taste Chapter Twelve: Muscovado Custard Tarts

You look nice, Uncle Max! Mack declared admiringly as his uncle emerged from his room. Uncle Max was, as Da would say, all gussied up. His hair was combed neatly and his face freshly shaven. He wore a dark gray jacket over a vest in the same color, a crisp white shirt, and an equally somber tie. Beneath it all, Uncle Max wore a knee-length kilt in the blue-and-gold standard Balfour tartan, dark gray knee-socks, and sensible black shoes that were laced up rather than just slipped on. His sporran seemed to be made of the same leather as his shoes and was trimmed in silver. What impressed Mack the most, though, was the wee dagger sheathed in his uncles left sock. The little boy vowed that, when he grew up, he would dress just like his Da and uncle; they looked really smart and handsome when they wore their kilts and so, he supposed, would he. When Uncle Max swooped Mack up for a hug, the little boy noticed that his uncle wore a particularly manly sort of cologne certainly not the usual fragrance he wore which, in Macks opinion, smelled of oranges. Where are you going, Uncle Max? Pepper asked when it was her turn for a hug. Uncle Max smiled. Your Auntie Melaine and I are going to her cousins wedding, he informed them as they trotted alongside him to the living room. Really? the twins exclaimed, blue eyes widening in surprise. Yes, really, Uncle Max agreed. I even got her something nice to wear tonight. Mammy was on the phone when they came in, and she was laughing. Da was in the armchair next to where the phone was and he was laughing, too. Whats funny, Mam? Mack asked his mother. Oh She pointed to Da. Go ask your father, sweetheart. Im on the phone with Ninang Laine. Put the lass on speaker, Custard-cake, Da told Mammy. Let the wee uns hear for themselves. Whats funny, Ninang? Pepper piped up when Mammy put the phone on speakermode. I look silly! Ninang Melaine declared. Im not used to wearing this sort of thing. Heck, Im not used to couture anything!

Save for the food, Uncle Max chimed in with a faint smile. What do you mean you look silly? Pepper asked, screwing her face up in puzzlement. Well, I feel silly, Ninang Melaine replied. Plus, Mamita says I might outshine the bride. This announcement made Mammy and Da laugh much harder. I believe that was the general idea, Da remarked, casting a sly grin at Uncle Max. Hey, if youre ready, Ill be right down, Uncle Max said as he leaned on the back of Das armchair. I am, Ninang advised him in a rather resigned sort of voice. Well, as ready as Ill ever be. Ill head over then, Uncle Max said and got ready to leave. Can we go with you? Mack asked him in a hopeful tone. Nae, lad, Uncle Max replied, fondly ruffling his hair and speaking in the accent Mack rarely heard him use. Tis somethin for grown-ups, no for wee lads an lassies like ye. He grinned at Da and Mammy. Aye, an Im thinkin itll end up a pigs breakfast towards the end o the evenin. Whats a pigs breakfast? Mack asked, tugging at his uncles arm. Is it slop? Da laughed and came to pick him off the floor. Nae, son, he said. A pigs breakfast is a big ol mess when grown-ups go crazy an make a mess o things. Though, aye: ye can call the whole thing slop, I suppose. Can we go with you, Uncle Max? Pepper reiterated the request. Not to the wedding; I just want to see Ninangs dress. Da chuckled and put Mack down on the floor. He took both the twins by the hand and grinned at Mammy. Well be back in a bit, love, he said, kissing her. No problem, Mammy replied, smiling back as she put down the phone.

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Max decorously rang the bell by the door of Melaines flat. Behind him, Puck and the twins were cheerfully talking about their upcoming trip to Tokyo for the following week. Max was, alas, not prepared for the vision that hit him when the door opened.

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Melaine emerged from the flat looking every inch a young queen. She wore a Victorianinspired emerald-green satin jacket that seemed tailored to her curvaceous yet small-waisted figure with sleeves that were slightly puffed at the shoulders and tight to the wrist; her long, almost floor-length skirt was soft black velvet and seemed to whisper rather seductively as she moved. Her feet were in elegant emerald-green and Cuban-heeled velvet slip-ons. Her chestnut hair was piled elegantly on her head with a few well-placed tendrils framing her face which, even today, was almost completely devoid of make-up save for just a little blush on her cheeks and tint on her lips. A pair of tasteful yet understated diamond and emerald earrings adorned her ears with a matching choker at her throat and a bracelet on her left wrist in lieu of a watch. A drawstring evening bag in green Chinese silk sporting an Oriental motif dangled from her right wrist. She stood straight and her movements were confident yet delightfully feminine. Max gasped, teal eyes widening in shock when he saw her. Told you I looked silly, Melaine said ruefully. Mutely, Max shook his head, blushing to the very roots of his hair. You look like a princess, Ninang! Pepper declared with a delighted squeal as she rushed to hug her. Puck, however, held her back. Nae, lass, he said in a firm yet gentle tone. Dinna ye hug your Ninang; ye might muss her dress. Oh, its cool, pare, Melaine assured him, crouching to the twins height. She opened her arms to them. Come here, you, and give me a hug. The twins giggled and ran into her embrace. Both smacked loud kisses on her cheeks. Max couldnt help but think that Melaine would make a lovely mother when the time came. You dont look silly, he assured her as he gallantly kissed her hand, making her blush. Thanks, I think, she replied. I swear: you dont. He turned to Puck, a bemused smile on his face. What do you think, Puck? Puck grinned and bowed in a courtly fashion. Ye wouldnae be out o place at the Queens court, Lennie, he remarked sincerely. Playfully, Melaine curtsied. Then, she turned to lock the flat up and linked her arm with Maxs. Shall we go, milord? she asked him.

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Max drew a deep breath, ostensibly to steady himself after the shock. He would never admit, however, that he was actually breathing in the heady scent of Melaines perfume. It was a fragrance he found very familiar: a fresh green scent overlaid with roses and amber. Its Rive Gauche, isnt it? he asked her. Your perfume, I mean. It is, Melaine nodded. How could you tell? My mother uses the same perfume, he explained. But why does it smell so exciting on you? he thought. On Maman, it just smells comforting Well, Ill see you later, then, Max told Puck and the twins. Aye, Puck nodded, then he winked at Max. Have a good time, ye two. Max laughed as Melaine rolled her eyes in dismay. They waved to the others and headed for the elevator. You look very nice, Max, Melaine complimented him as soon as the doors closed. Thanks, he replied, inclining his head modestly. She raised an eyebrow at the kilt. Not to be intrusive, but Playfully, he flipped up the hem to reveal the hem of the boxers he wore under the kilt. No, Im not regulation under the kilt today, he laughed. Its bad enough were planning to make your cousin look like a dreadful she-berk, but Im not about to let you down by scandalizing your family! Melaine blushed and giggled at that, and Max couldnt help but think how delightfully feminine she was today quite different from her usual tough-girl stance. So, if you dont mind, tell me more about your family, Max asked her. Theres not much to tell, Melaine admitted as the chime dinged and the doors opened onto the parking lot. Its Mamitas side of the family, so its a rather Catalan sort: dead serious most of the time, but we party hard as soon as an opportunity comes for it. My abuelita my grandmother is the glue that holds us all together. And I take it that, if it werent for your grandmother, you and your family arent close to your relatives? Not really, Melaine corrected him. Were close to everyone well, everyone except my Tia Matilde and her family. She married her husband against her parents wishes. Thats kind of romantic, Max remarked absently as he led her to the car. Not when you realize that she married him for the money, Melaine grunted. Oh.

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Melaine stared in shock when Max steered her towards Pucks scarab-green Jaguar XK convertible. He didnt! she exclaimed in disbelief. Only the best for you, chef, Max replied, kissing her hand again.

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She stared at him as if looking for something in his eyes, some clue that would tell her that this was nothing but an elaborate prank meant to get her goat. But she saw nothing; for, in truth, there was nothing. Max Balfour, for all his cranky ways and surly temper, was a sincere young man and Melaine knew that from experience. While she knew hed grumble and grouse about her in front of anyone who would listen, she also knew that he would never let her come to harm nor would he let anyone slander her. I meant what I said in your kitchen this morning, he reminded her as he opened the passenger-side door for her. You said a lot of things, she mumbled nervously. I meant the part where I said I wanted us to be close. Oh. He smiled, and it was a rather shy sort of smile coming from a man who rarely smiled. I really meant it, he said, leaning close. Make what you will of it. Gulping, Melaine stepped into the car and waited till Max closed the door for her and got into the drivers seat. Um, let me know which account I ought to deposit to, she said shakily as he started the car. What? Max turned to her, surprised. What are you talking about? Uh, well, let me pay you back for For the outfit? Max sighed and shook his head. No, Lennie. Its a gift; honest, it is. But He held up his hand to silence her. I meant it, Melaine, he assured her, looking into her eyes. I just feel weird about it, she confessed, blushing.

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Dont, he asked her. Please dont, Lennie. They were both silent as Max maneuvered the car out of its parking slot and drove out of the building. Once they were on the road, Max told her to tell him where to go; he still hadnt memorized the local streets, after all. Just dont drive on the left and youll be fine, Melaine assured him, patting his elbow. They were silent again as they made their way to Manila. Then, Max suddenly said, Your brother told me something that explained why you always seemed to be in pain whenever the weather got too cold back in London. Melaine gasped, the color draining from her face. She shot Max a horrified look. What did Kuya tell you? she demanded. He said that you got hurt protecting your little brothers from your eldest brother, Max replied, keeping his eyes on the road and his voice level. Your big brother came home stoned one night and your parents were away. Your youngest brother caught him riffling through your mums jewelry box for stuff to steal and the big guy tried to throttle him; X said he would have succeeded if you hadnt heard the scuffle. Melaine closed her eyes, remembering that dreadful night so many years ago. I just turned seventeen, she replied in a dead, dull voice. It was summer and all of us were home. Kuya PJ was supposed to have graduated from college but we found out that he hadnt been in school since the first semester. He used his tuition money and allowances for drugs thanks to our cousin Rom, Tia Matildes eldest. When Papa found out, he went ballistic. He stopped Kuyas allowance and threatened to send him to a military reformatory one of our friends from church suggested. Kuya ran away one night and we thought wed never see him again till that night he came home looking for stuff to steal and sell for drugs. I dont know what got into me, but I was very angry. I was upset that my brother could be such an embarrassment to my parents, that he made us all so ashamed. So I got a knife from the kitchen and actually stabbed him in the arm to make him release Jink. Jink was barely twelve and he was small for his age, so I thought that what Kuya did was the act of a real bully and I hate bullies. I dropped the knife when Jink ran to me and we hurried out of the room. I took Jink back to the room he shared with Eric and told the boys to lock it up while I called the police. As soon as I was sure they were safe, I ran downstairs to call the cops.

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The next thing I knew, there was a sharp pain in my right shoulder. When I spun around, PJ was behind me with the knife in his hand and blood dripped off from it. I screamed as he drove the knife into me a second time, this time at the top of my shoulder. I was afraid he would kill me, but Kuya X ran into the house just in time and held PJ back. The maids came scampering out of where theyd hidden and helped me to my feet; one of them ran a few blocks away to where my parents were at a community meeting. We feared that PJ would break free of Kuya Xs grasp and that he would kill us all, but one of the maids was brave enough to grab Mamitas wooden meat mallet from the kitchen and she swung it at PJs face and knocked him out. She turned to Max and noted that his knuckles had gone white, seeing how he gripped the steering wheel so hard. His jaw was set grimly and his teal eyes were cold. Max Gently, she placed a hand on his elbow. I wish I knew you then, he grated. Then maybe you wouldnt have been hurt. Maybe Max, you would only have been twelve then, yourself; you and Jink are the same age, she reminded him but not unkindly. This comment made Max turn to her with a slightly hurt expression on his face. I keep forgetting that, he mumbled apologetically. Forget what? That Im five years younger than you. Melaine stared at him, confirming a suspicion that had nagged at the back of her head since they went to Binondo together. Her heart seemed to skip a beat; she smiled. Does it matter? she asked, her voice soft. Well Max turned away, kept his eyes on the road. But the blush spreading from his neck to his cheeks spoke volumes. Should it matter? Max sighed and shook his head. No, it shouldnt and it doesnt, he said quietly. Melaine turned away, biting her lower lip. She heard Max take a deep breath as they turned a corner. Then, he asked, Does it matter to you? She turned to him and mutely shook her head.

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Purita, how good to see you! And here we were afraid you werent coming! Pura respectfully kissed her mothers cheek, then embraced her. And miss a chance to see you, Mamita? she exclaimed. Doa Teresa Lucientes vda. de Fabregas smiled and squeezed her hands. And Pocholo! Doa Teresa embraced Pocholo warmly. How good to see you, as well. And where are my grandchildren? Eric and Jink are out parking the car, Mamita, Pocholo assured her. X and Nina are on their way with their niino. Teresa narrowed her eyes at them. And our Melisande? she demanded. Tell me my darling niina is coming; make my old heart happy just this once! As if on cue, there was a commotion at the main entrance of the church. Whats going on? Pura demanded of one of her nieces who came rushing in, all excited. Oh, Tia Purita! the girl exclaimed giddily. Lennies come and shes with this really cute boy! Teresa raised her eyebrows at this and shot her daughter a rather startled look. Whats this? she demanded. Pura and Pocholo smiled at each other, then laughed. Lennies friend from London, Mamita, Pura explained. Hes here on vacation, so he volunteered to escort her today. What a kind boy he must be! He is, Pura agreed and proceeded to tell her mother about how Max talked Melaine into going to the wedding. Then he went and lent her his credit card and told her to get something nice for this evening. Teresa beamed at this. He must think the world of our Melisande, she murmured, obviously impressed. So, he is English? Scots, Mamita, Pocholo chimed in. Do you remember Lennies friends Robin and Ginger? Si, el Conde y Condesa de Bailieston; I remember them. This boy with her, he is related to them?

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Robins cousin, Pocholo agreed. And I suppose the seorito is titled, as well? Of equal rank, Mamita: Maximilian Balfour is the current Conde de Thornton. Teresa clucked her tongue as the couple in question entered the cathedral. The young Conde de Thornton was but the same height as her granddaughter just a shade above fivefoot-five or six, thereabouts but his noble bearing spared him from being considered a runt. With aunts, uncles, and cousins hovering nearby, Melaine and her escort came to Teresas pew near the altar to pay their respects. Abuelita! Melaine declared joyously, embracing her grandmother. wonderful. Not as magnificent as you, niina, Teresa replied admiringly, looking her beautiful granddaughter over. Dios mio, you would not be out of place among the ladies with the Princesa de Asturias y Girona! That shade of green looks stunning on you, my dear. Ay, Abuelita Melaine slipped her free hand back into the grasp of her handsome escort. Mi amigo: Don Maximilian Balfour, Conde de Thornton y cucinero-primero de La Estrella de Inglaterra en Londres. Max, this is my grandmother: Mamitas mamma Teresa Fabregas. Cocinero-primero anterior, Lennie, the young man gently corrected Melaine with a slight smile. He bowed politely and graciously kissed Teresas hand. Seora, es un placer encontrarle. His Spanish was rather stilted, but good. The pleasure is mine, Teresa assured him with a grandmotherly smile. Former headchef? You have left the employ of Seor Ville-Valmont, as well? In not so many words, yes, young Maximilian replied, sheepishly. My doctor in London and your grandson Xavier told me to rest for a bit. Ah, then Melisande must bring you to my orchard in Tagaytay for a rest-cure, Teresa declared, throwing Melaine a look that said quite plainly Youd better take him; I shall be most cross with you if you dont! Theres plenty of time for that, Abuelita, Melaine assured her. Max is here for a year. Muy bien. Teresa linked arms with Melaine and excused herself for a moment. She pulled her granddaughter to a dark little corner out of earshot and clapped her hands most appreciatively. Hija, while it is bad manners to outshine the bride on her wedding day, I thoroughly approve of what youve done! Look at you: so beautiful! Such elegance; why, its as You look

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if youve turned back the clock nearly forty years! If your mamma and papa hadnt been with me when you arrived, Id have thought my Purita had gone back to her twenties! Melaine had the grace to blush. Gracias, Abuelita, she replied gratefully. But if Max hadnt talked me into Teresa silenced her with a finger to her lips. Say no more, she declared. Your mamma and papa told me all about it. He is a worthy young man, darling. Hes not my boyfriend, Abuelita. Eh? Dont fib, sweetheart. Teresa winked playfully. Your mouth says no, but your eyes scream yes. Dont con an old hand at the game, my child: I saw that exact same look that sparkle in your mammas eyes when your papa first came a-courting to our house in San Miguel so long ago. Melaine blushed and lowered her gaze. You might not approve that hes a bit younger than me, she murmured. How much younger? Five years; Jinks age, actually. Thirty? And youre 35? That is not bad, hija. Bad is that awful doctora who shacked up with that young doctor with the sex scandals: why, her querido is the same age as her children! Muy scandalosa! But you and the young conde, no. Teresa grinned. You have my approval as well as your parents, I would think. Melaine looked up, her face still pink but a smile on her lips. Affectionately, she embraced her grandmother. When they returned to the others, they found Pocholo and Pura quietly discussing food trends with young Maximilian and the other Valeriano boys who just arrived. Come work with me even for a day a week, Max, they heard Pocholo ask the young conde. Your input would be invaluable for the new line of dry cereals were currently

developing, and I must say I like your idea of a coffee-flavored cereal! Its not original, though, Maximilian said. There were bags of coffee-flavored barley puffs at one of Londons Japanese groceries. Still, it beats all sorts of granola any day, Eric chimed in. Its like a throwback to being a kid: flavored cereal with a caffeine buzz! Talking about business in church! Teresa exclaimed in mock-dismay. Gentlemen, I am disappointed in you!

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A thousand pardons, Mamita, Pocholo apologized, eyes twinkling mischievously. He rested a hand on young Maximilians shoulder. But Max here had a great suggestion for a new product. Thinking of going into the snacks business, Maximilian? Teresa asked him. Not really, seora, he admitted. Id rather do restaurant work. I think Ill go put up my own soon as the doctors give me an all-clear. Teresa smiled. She liked to see ambition in young men and this one had plenty of it! Presently, a short, dumpy-looking woman with a haughty expression came marching down the red carpeted aisle towards them. Melisande-Elaine! the woman bellowed in a voice that was a cross between a rusting saw on wood and a pen-full of squealing pigs. Haughtily, she planted her hands on her hips and glared imperiously at Melaine. How dare you come to Clotildes wedding looking like the Queen of Sheba? Well, if it isnt the runt of my litter, Teresa remarked acidly, preventing either Melaine or her mother from retaliating. She regarded the newcomer with a raised eyebrow. Matilde, I did not, to the best of my knowledge, raise you to holler inside a church like some common palenquera. Matilde drew back, abashed. M-Mamita! she stammered, taken off balance. Im sorry! I I didnt know you were already Shut up and go sit down, Matilde, Teresa commanded in a cold voice, folding her arms at her chest. Your niece can wear what she bloody likes and youll live with it. Besides, I cannot see whats wrong with what Melisande is wearing. Do you, Purita? Pura smirked, pleased to see the black sheep of the family that cause of so much heartbreak and horror taken down a peg. My daughters choices in fashion are modest and tasteful, Mamita, she replied, nodding in confident agreement. Which is more than I can say for that cerda negra you raised, Im afraid. Matilde reared up at that insult and would have shot back if her timid-looking husband hadnt hurried in and trotted her off to their pew up front. He murmured a fervent apology to Teresa and the others as he rushed his angry wife away. Teresa clucked her teeth disapprovingly, and then turned to Pura. Honestly, I always thought we wouldnt like Arevalo, she remarked. But now, I find I like him more than I do my own daughter!

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Pura patted her shoulder comfortingly. Arevalos always been a nice fellow even if Tilde married him for his money, she said. He deserved better than her, thats for sure, seeing how Tilde raised their kids to be real horrors. Indeed! Teresa shook her head and sighed. She motioned for Melaine and

Maximilian to sit with her in her pew. This was a given, seeing how Melaine was her favorite granddaughter, but Teresa also meant to show Matilde and her equally horrid daughter that she did not look kindly upon either of them.

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The wedding, alas, came off to an inauspicious start. It began with one Fabregas cousin declaring in stark horror: Dios mio! What the hell are you wearing, Clotilde? You look like an embotido wrapped in sinsal! Maryosep! an uncle thundered loudly enough for his voice to echo throughout the vastness of the cathedral. All that money and they didnt even to get the girl a proper dress! How indecent! a scandalized aunt hissed angrily. Strapless and her udders all but jumping out to say hello! The aunt crossed herself fervently to ward against the evil eye. Bastusin! Melaines cousin Clotilde, however, played deaf at the distressed even disgusted comments and sailed (or, more appropriately, lumbered) down the aisle on her beleaguered fathers arm in her skintight lace gown and gossamer veil (neither of which did anything positive for either her dark complexion or her blob of a figure). As far as she was concerned, there was nothing to ruin her big day. She had beaten her hated cousin to the altar and her bridegroom was rich. Melaine can just die of envy now, she thought maliciously as she came down the aisle. She cant find a But her internal gloating was cut short when she saw Melaine sitting to their Abuelitas right side. Melaine! As if that werent bad enough, she looked lovely enough to grace the cover of some high-end fashion magazine (a foreign one; not some locally-published rag). Worse still, there was a handsome very handsome young Scotsman in formal gray and tartan with her who carried himself like a member of the British Royal Family. And he was holding Melaines hand!

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Dad, whos that guy with Lennie? Clotilde demanded of her father. Oh, a former colleague of hers, her father replied. ` Just another cook, then, Clotilde remarked dismissively. Actually, hes a count. Clotildes piggish eyes widened in shock at that and then rolled into their sockets as she fainted.

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The best part of the ceremony, Jink opined, was when Manang Clo fainted like a hippopotamus in a tight corset. I prefer the part where she flubbed her vows, Eric chuckled as a waiter poured a glass of champagne for each of them at the table. You two are mean, X chided them as he took a sip of his champagne. He nearly spat it out, though, and angrily called the waiter back to the table. What the hell did you just pour for us? The waiter showed him the bottle. X and the others regarded it contemptuously. Cristal, Eric sneered. The choice of hip-hop thugs the world over. Why am I not surprised? All that money and not a particle of taste, Nina shuddered. What are the bride and groom drinking? Max asked, his expression carefully neutral. Veuve Clicquot, sir, the waiter replied. Really? What year? A 1976, sir. Sheepishly, the waiter crouched low and murmured that the bride and groom did not look like the type to drink the glorious wine. They look like beer folk, sir. Im sorry if Max and the Valeriano boys smirked at each other. We cant have them wasting such a precious wine, X declared stoutly. Indeed Max smiled at the waiter and nodded to him. We would appreciate it if you could help, ah, remedy the situation. He slipped a thousand-peso bill into the mans hand. The waiter grinned hugely, but waved away the money. No need for that, sir! he exclaimed eagerly. The brides mom has been meaner than Satan to all of us involved in the

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reception service and those fags she hired as wedding coordinators are even worse! Well be glad to help out. Good man, Max remarked as the waiter scurried away. You guys are terrible! Melaine declared sternly, but her eyes sparkled with fun. Hey, if it gets us better drinks, we have to be! Eric declared bluntly. Hey, hey, hey! a boozed up voice declared near them. Look whos here! Aw, fuck! Jink muttered. Havent they put Manong Rom in rehab already? You know Tia Tilde, Melaine grunted indecorously. Her baby boy can do no wrong. Hello, kids! Rom Arevalo lurched drunkenly into view. And look whos already three sheets to the wind, Melaine remarked coldly. Cmon, Lennie! To Maxs horror, the drunk man yanked Jink out of his chair and straddled it. He leered at Melaine. Be nice. You look so pretty tonight! What say we ditch this and go out for a good time, eh? Melaine looked disgusted by the sour odor of alcohol and worse on her cousins breath and would have scooted her chair away if the latter hadnt grabbed her arm. Give us a kiss now, pretty chick! Rom demanded roughly. Max leapt to his feet and pulled Melaine out of his grasp. Sit down, he commanded her in a tone that brooked no nonsense. Ill deal with this drunk-arsed bastard. The Valeriano siblings stared at him worriedly. Rom stood head and shoulders over Max and was built like a gorilla a very fat gorilla! An whos this? Rom demanded, glaring at Max with bloodshot eyes. Friend of Lennies and I dont care much for your pawing at her, Max snarled, teal eyes flashing with barely suppressed rage. Rom roared and lunged at Max. Max! the Valerianos shouted, all half-rising from their seats. But no one apparently counted on the fact that years of hauling around massive bovine or porcine carcasses had given the young man some serious muscles and upper body strength. Max skillfully ducked Roms ill-aimed punches and lobbed a single blow to his nose with a clenched fist. The sound of crunching bone crackled through the air, silencing the noisy party even as the glazed-eyed Rom slumped to the floor unconscious. My baby! Tia Matilde shrieked, running to her fallen sons side. Serves him right, X grunted, holding Max back from lobbing any more blows.

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Hes on some drug, Max muttered underbreath to him. You can smell it on his breath over the alcohol. Xavier! Matilde shrilled at X. Youre a doctor; do something! I dont think so, Tia, X replied dryly. He tried to paw at Lennie. Sick, a very pretty young woman declared when she came to stand next to Melaine. Contemptuously, she spat in the inert Roms face. Manang Tria! Melaine exclaimed in shock. He deserved it, the girl replied, delicately dabbing at her lips with a lace handkerchief. She put out her hand to Max. Nice going, kid. Weve wanted to do that to Rom for ages. Um, thanks, Max replied, reluctantly shaking hands. Our cousin Tria Fabregas-Finlay, Melaine introduced her. She writes the restaurant reviews for Conde Nast Traveler. You met her once, I think. Max nodded in recognition. Ah, the one who said that I ought to buy Vincent out and put my name up on the door, he said, grinning. You should, Tria nodded gravely. Hes a prick for taking all the credit. She jerked a thumb at Melaine. Take Laine with you; youd be a powerhouse. Max smiled and slipped an arm around Melaines waist. That was the plan, he said. He leaned close and murmured into her ear. You okay? Yeah, she replied, smiling gratefully. Why dont we all get together at my house one of these days? Tria invited them. She grinned. My husband and I still havent gotten over your insanely good chateaubriand avec foie gras. That sounds like fun, Max replied. What sayeth thou, Lennie? Sounds like a plan, she said with a smile.

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The police arrived, having been alerted by X that Rom was on drugs and sure enough there was a baggie of marijuana in one of his pockets while another pocket held a tiny bag filled with white pills. Matilde Arevalo and her husband followed the cops to the precinct; the former howled wildly about her sons innocence, while the latter prudently kept his mouth shut. Clotilde, on

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the other hand, was dead-drunk and snoring at the presidential table. Her new husband, alas, stared in horror and wondered how he got himself saddled with her. The party, nevertheless, carried on and the band the Arevalos hired was currently playing a sultry Argentine tango. Max offered his hand to Melaine, leading her to the dance floor. I like young Don Max, Teresa declared to her remaining children and their spouses. So do we, Pura assured her as they watched the two go through the intricate steps of the romantic tango en estilo milonguero: the one with the close embrace in the middle of a crowd. So, they arent really dating? the elegant old lady asked, an eyebrow raised. They are, Pura replied. They just want to talk about it that way well, not at the moment. He has a girlfriend? No, not anymore. I think hes broken up with her: she cheated. Ah. Publicly, as a matter of fact. Oh, my. Presently, a waiter arrived with a large tray of custard tarts and placed it in the middle of their table. Mamita! Pura exclaimed. You didnt! I didnt think Clotilde deserved my turron de yema, Teresa declared with a shrug, so I just made my brown sugar custard tarts. She wouldnt even enjoy them, anyway, Pura chuckled, pointing to where Clotildes husband was struggling to carry her hoggish person out of the ballroom. Shes too drunk. It was at that point that she remembered something. Custard is Maxs favorite dessert, by the way. He adored your turron de yema last time he was at la Casa. Did he? Teresa chuckled, obviously pleased. In that case, Id better pass the recipe on to Melisande, then.

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Muscovado Custard Tarts For the pate sucree: 2/3 cup salted trans-fat-free margarine 2-1/2 cups flour 2 tablespoons brown sugar 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1/2 cup iced water For the filling: 250mL all-purpose cream 350mL low-fat milk (not skimmed) scant 150 grams muscovado sugar or dark brown sugar 4 eggs 1 tablespoon vanilla extract Prepare the pastry by mixing the flour, sugar, and cinnamon. Cut in the margarine with two knives or a pastry blender; better yet, rub the margarine into the flour mixture with your fingers until it resembles medium-fine cornmeal. Add the iced water by tablespoons, mixing until all of it has been incorporated. Knead into a cohesive ball.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees / Gas Mark 6. Grease the cups of two medium muffin tins. Roll out half the pastry out onto a floured surface. Using a wide-mouthed drinking glass (floured at the rim), cut out circles and press these into the prepared muffin tins. Bake for about twelve to fifteen minutes. Remove from the tins and allow to cool before stacking. Set aside and prepare the rest of the pastry in the same manner.

Lower the oven temp to 350 degrees / Gas Mark 4.

In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs and the muscovado sugar; set aside. In a heavybottomed saucepan over medium heat, cook the cream, milk, and vanilla; bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 10 15 seconds. Carefully pour the vanilla milk mixture into the egg-sugar mix, whisking to blend them properly.

Arrange the prepared pastry shells on two non-stick lipped cookie sheets. Pour 2 tablespoons of the custard into the shells. Bake for 15 20 minutes or till the edges of the custard are set but the middles still have a bit of a wobble.

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Makes approximately 40 42 tarts.

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